Friday, 25 April 2014

...of disaffection

'This is the first time it's been impossible for him and me to talk to one another. The first time he's hidden anything from me...'
'He doesn't really know what it is, does he?'
'He only knows everything would go if you went.'
She picks the letter up slowly and opens the envelope.
'Stein, look at it with me.'
Side by side, almost indistinguishable from one another, they read:
'"Alissa knows",' reads Stein. '"But what does she know?"'
Quite calmly Alissa puts the letter back in the envelope and tears it up.
'I wrote it for you,' says Stein, 'before I knew you'd guessed.'
They go over, arms entwined, to the windows.
'Has she come back from the telephone?' asks Alissa.
'He isn't with her? Is he talking to someone? Look, Stein. Look for me.'
'No, no one. He never talks to anyone. You can hardly get a word out of him. He only speaks when he's spoken to. A whole part of him is dumb. He's sitting waiting.'
'We make love,' says Alissa. 'Every night we make love.'
'I know,' says Stein. 'You leave the window open and I see you.'
'He leaves it open for you. To see us.'
Alissa has put her childish lips on Stein's hard mouth. He speaks like that.
'Do you see us?' says Alissa.
'Yes. You don't say anything. Every night I wait. Silence clamps you to the bed. The light stays on and on. One morning they'll find you both melted into a shapeless lump like tar, and no one will understand. Except me.'

['destroy...', Duras, M.]

...of amphilogy

'Convalescing?' asks Alissa.
Elisabeth Alione screws up her eyes to look at the woman listening so intently.
'I'm here because of a confinement that went wrong. The baby was born dead. It was a little girl.'
She sits up straight, runs her hands through her hair, smiles painfully at Alissa.
'I take things to make me sleep. I sleep all the time.'
Alissa has sat up too.
'It must have been a great shock?'
'Yes. I couldn't sleep any more.'
She speaks more slowly:
'And it was a difficult pregnancy.'

                  'Here comes the lie,' says Max Thor.
                  'It's still a long way off.'
                  'Yes, she doesn't know about it yet.'

'A difficult pregnancy?' asks Alissa.
'Yes. Very.'
They are silent.
'And you still think about it a lot?'
The question made her start. Her cheeks are less pale than they were.
'I don't know...' She corrects herself. 'I mean I'm not supposed to, you see... And then I sleep a lot... I could have gone to stay with my parents in the South. But the doctor said I ought to be quite alone.'

                  'Capital destruction will come first through Alissa,' says Stein. 'Don't you agree?'
                  'Yes. And do you agree that isn't altogether safe?'
                  'Yes,' says Stein. 'Alissa isn't altogether safe.'

'Quite alone?' asks Alissa.
'For how long?'
'Three weeks. I came on July 2.'
A wave of deep silence passes over the hotel and garden. A tremor has gone through Elisabeth Alione.
'Was there someone there?' - she points - 'on the other side of the grounds?'
Alissa looks round.
'It could only be Stein, if it's anyone,' says Alissa.
'Perhaps you needed to get a grip on yourself, on your own, without anyone to help you,' says Alissa.
'Perhaps. I didn't ask any questions.'
She looks as if she were waiting. She stares at the garden intently.
'Soon they'll all be coming back,' she says.

                  'She looks at the void,' says Stein. 'That's the only thing she looks at. But she does it well.'
                  'That's right,' says Max Thor. 'It's the way she does it that...'

['destroy...', Duras, M.]

...of Sunday afternoons

My neighbours are silent. After the tart, Marlene serves them prunes and the woman is busy, gracefully laying stones in her spoon. The husband staring at ceiling, taps out a rhythm on the table. You might think that silence was their normal state and speech a fever that sometimes takes them.
"Where do you want me to get it?"
"Buy some."
I close the book. I'm going out for a walk.
It was almost three o'clock when I came out of the Brasserie vezelise; I felt the afternoon all through my heavy body. Not my afternoon, but theirs, the one a hundred thousand Bouvillois were going to live in common. At this same time, after the long and copious Sunday meal, they were getting up from the table, for them something had died. Sunday had spent its fleeting youth. You had to digest the chicken and the tart, get dressed to go out.
The bell of the Cine-Eldorado resounded in the clear air. This is a familiar Sunday noise, this ringing in broad daylight. More than a hundred people were lined up along the green wall. They were greedily awaiting the hour of soft shadows, of relaxation, abandon, the hour when the screen, glowing like a white stone under water, would speak and dream for them. Vain desire: something would stay, taut in them: they were too afraid someone would spoil their lovely Sunday. Soon, as every Sunday, they would be disappointed: the film would be ridiculous, their neighbour would be smoking a pipe and spitting between his knees or else Lucien would be disagreeable, he wouldn't have a decent word to say, or else, as if on purpose, just for today, for the one time they went to the movies their intercostal neuralgia would start up again. Soon, as on every Sunday, small, mute rages would grow in the darkened hall.

[Nausea, Sartre, J-P.]

...of a molestation

Fifteen minutes passed. The Self-Taught Man had begun his whispering again. I didn't dare look at him any more, but I could well imagine his young and tender air and those heavy looks which weighed on him without his knowing it. Once I heard his laugh, a fluted, childish little laugh. It gripped my heart: it seemed as though the two kids were going to drown a cat. Then the whispers stopped suddenly. The silence seemed tragic to me: it was the end, the deathblow. I bowed my head over my newspaper and pretended to read; but I wasn't reading: I raised my eyes as high as I could, trying to catch what was happening in this silence across from me. By turning my head slightly, I could see something out of the corner of my eye: it was a hand, the small white hand which slid along the table a little while ago. Now it was resting on its back, relaxed, soft and sensual, it had the indolent nudity of a woman sunning herself after bathing. A brown hairy object approached it, hesitant. It was a thick finger, yellowed by tobacco; inside this hand it had all the grossness of a male sex organ. It stopped for an instant, rigid, pointing at the fragile palm, then suddenly, it timidly began to stroke it. I was not surprised, I was only furious at the Self-Taught Man; couldn't he hold himself back, the fool, didn't he realise the risk he was running? He still had a chance, a small chance: if he were to put both hands on the table, on either side of the book, if he stayed absolutely still, perhaps he might be able to escape his destiny this time. But I knew he was going to miss his chance: the finger passed slowly, humbly, over the inert flesh, barely grazing it, without daring to put any weight on it: you might have thought it was conscious of its ugliness. I raised my head brusquely, I couldn't stand this obstinate little back-and-forth movement any more: I tried to catch the Self-Taught Man's eye and I coughed loudly to warn him. But he closed his eyes, he was smiling. His other hand had disappeared under the table. The boys were not laughing any more, they had both turned pale. The brown-haired one pinched his lips, he was afraid, he looked as though what was happening had gone beyond his control. But he did not draw his hand away, he left it on the table, motionless, a little curled. His friend's mouth was open in a stupid, horrified look.

[Nausea, Sartre, J-P.]

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

...of a vignette

1 For several years it was inconceivable to buy one of those periodicals when a girl was behind the counter; but once, boldly, I tried it - I looked directly at her mascara and asked for a Penthouse, even though I preferred the less pretentious Oui or Club, saying it so softly however that she heard "Powerhouse" and cheerfully pointed out the candy bar until I repeated the name. Breaking all eye contact, she placed the document on the counter between us - it was back when they still showed nipples on their covers - and rang it up along with the small container of Woolite I was buying to divert attention: she was embarrassed and brisk and possibly faintly excited, and she slipped the magazine in a bag without asking whether I "needed" one or not. That afternoon I expanded her brief embarrassment into a helpful vignette in which I became a steady once-a-week buyer of men's magazines from her, always on Tuesday morning, until my very ding-dong entrance into the 7-Eleven was charged with trembly confusion for both of us, and I began finding little handwritten notes placed in the most wide-spread pages of the magazine when I got home that said, "Hi! - the Cashier," and "Last night I posed sort of like this in front of my mirror in my room - the Cashier," and "Sometimes I look at these pictures and think of you looking at them - the Cashier." Turnover is always a problem at those stores, and she had quit the next time I went in.

[The Mezzanine, Baker, N.]

...of toilet-humour

I was just on the point of relaxing into a state of urination when two things happened. Don Vanci swept into position two urinals over from me, and then, a moment later, Les Guster turned off his tap. In the sudden quiet you could hear a wide variety of sounds coming from the stalls: long, dejected, exhausted sighs; manipulations of toilet paper; newspapers folded and batted into place; and of course the utterly carefree noise of the main activity: mind-bogglingly pressurised spatterings followed by sudden urgent farts that sounded like air blown over the mouth of a beer bottle. 1 The problem for me, a familiar problem, was that in the relative silence Don Vanci would hear the exact moment I began to urinate. More important, the fact that I had not yet begun to urinate was known to him as well. I had been standing at the urinal when he walked into the bathroom - I should be fully in progress by now. What was my problem? Was I so timid that I was unable to take a simple piss two urinals down from another person? We stood there in the intermittent quiet, unforthcoming. Though we knew each other well, we said nothing. And then, just as I knew would happen, I heard Don Vanci begin to urinate forcefully.

1 The absence of stealth or shame that men, colleagues of mine, displayed about their misfortunes in the toilet stall had been an unexpected surprise of business life. I admired their forthrightness, in a way; and perhaps in fifteen years I too would be spending twenty-minute stretches in similar corporate stalls, making sounds that I had once believed were made only by people in the extremity of the flu or by bums beyond caring in urban library bathrooms. But for now, I used the stalls as little as possible, never really at ease reading the sports section left there by an earlier occupant, not happy about the pre-warmed seat. One time,  while I was locked behind a stall, I did unintentionally interrupt the conversation between a member of senior management and an important visitor with a loud curt fart like the rap of a bongo drum. The two paused momentarily; and then recovered without dropping a stitch - "Oh, she is a very, very capable young woman, I'm quite clear on that." "She is a sponge, a sponge, she soaks up information everywhere se goes." "She really is. And she's tough, that's the thing. She's got armour." "She's a major asset to us." Etc. Unfortunately, the grotesque intrusion of my fart struck me as funny, and I sat on the toilet containing my laughter with the back of my palate - this pressure of containment forced a further, smaller fart. Silently I pounded my knee, squinting and maroon-coloured from suppressed hysteria.

[The Mezzanine, Baker, N.]

...of invention

Let me mention another fairly important development in the history of the straw. I recently noticed, and remembered dimly half noticing for several years before then, that the paper wrapper, which once had slipped so easily down the plastic straw and bunched itself into a compressed concertina which you could use to perform traditional bar and dorm tricks with, now does not slip at all. It hugs the straw's surface so closely that even though the straw itself is stiffer than the earlier paper straw, the plastic sometimes buckles under the force you end up using in trying to push the wrapper down the old habitual way. A whole evolved method for unwrapping straws - one-handed, very like rapping a cigarette on a table to ensure that the tobacco was firmly settled into the tube - now no longer works, and we must pinch off the tip of the wrapper and tear our way two-handedly all the way down the seam as if we were opening a piece of junk mail. But I have faith that this mistake too will be corrected; and we may someday even be nostalgic about the period of several years when straws were difficult to unwrap. It is impossible to foresee the things that go wrong in these small innovations, and it takes time for them to be understood as evils and acted upon. Similarly, there are often unexpected plusses to some minor new development. What sugar-packet manufacturer could have known that people would take to flapping the packet back and forth to centrifuge its contents to the bottom, so that they could handily tear off the top? The nakedness of a simple novelty in pre-portioned packaging has been surrounded and softened and made sense of by gesticulative adaptation (possibly inspired by the extinguishing oscillation of a match after the lighting of a cigarette); convenience has given rise to ballet; and the sound of those flapping sugar packets in the early morning, fluttering over from nearby booths, is not one I would willingly forgo, even though I take my coffee unsweetened. Nobody could have predicted that maintenance men would polish escalator handrails standing still, or that students would discover that you can flip pats of pre-portioned butter so they stick to the wall, or that tradesman would discover that they could conveniently store pencils behind their ears, or later that they would gradually stop storing pencils behind their ears, or that windshield wipers could serve as handy places to leave advertising flyers. An unpretentious technical invention - the straw, the sugar packet, the pencil, the windshield wiper - has been ornamented by a mute folklore of behavioural inventions, unregistered, unpainted, adopted and fine-tuned without comment or thought.

[The Mezzanine, Baker, N.]

...of exclusion

The student's union had decided to punish me for my lack of involvement. The Party and the university has approved the recommendation: I was ordered to spend four months as an assistant lecturer in a new agricultural settlement.
It was a long journey, and on the train I shared a compartment with three other men. They were all graduates of economic-planning institutes, eagerly looking forward to their new life, when they were to manage virgin land projects.
The settlement consisted of several collective farms and two experimental breeding stations, linked by a recently completed road. It was managed by a single Party cell. The workers spent six days in the field, using the most modern machines; Sundays were devoted to classroom lectures on social and political subjects.
I realised I would not be accepted. I was eyed with suspicion and was often asked the name of the authority for which I was investigating or spying. My lectures were attended since the schedule required it, but the workers listened to me with hostile politeness or studied disinterest: my requests for questions were met with stony silence. I knew there was no point to what I was doing; it was merely a question of spending the remainder of the four months in the settlement and doing what was required. I hadn't made any friends, and there seemed to be nobody I could consider a companion. In the end I devoted my spare time to studying for my examinations and preparing a report on the lecture series.

[Steps, Kosinski, J.]

...of a sanctum

An elderly man approached and went into one of the lavatories. Moments later he left; we listened to the whispers of the exhausted waterfall. 'But there is one thing you have to do if you intend to sit inside for any length of time,' my friend said. He removed a wad of cotton from his pocket. In it was a small flask of cleaning fluid. 'There are all sorts of markings in there,' he explained, 'messages and slogans scrawled on the walls of the toilets. Many of them clearly the work of counter-revolutionaries. The temples are, apparently, the only place that they can safely discharge their resentment against the regime, against the collective farms, the purge trials and foreign policies, and even against the cult of our omnipotent leader. You see,' my friend continued, 'I have to be prepared for anyone who accuses me of having scribbled these heresies while sitting in here for a more than normal period. So I begin by wiping off every word on the walls. Then, if I'm asked by a policeman or a detective why I spend so much time in the lavatory, I have a valid and innocent answer. After all, a philosopher once wrote, "Gods and temples are not easily set up; to establish them rightfully is the work of a mighty intellect." All of these erasures are a small price to pay for possessing a temple of one's own, don't you think?'
In spite of his fears and apprehensions he faithfully attended all the meetings and seminars. I remember one occasion when the professor asked him to comment upon a political doctrine recently implemented by the Party. He rose, pale and sweating, yet trying to look composed and impersonal; he answered that certain aspects of the doctrine seemed to mirror perfectly the many oppressive aspects of the total state, and for this reason it lacked all humanity. Silence fell. Without comment, the professor gestured for him to sit down. There was a commotion among the students: several Party members got up and noisily left the room. We knew he was doomed.
We continued our studies together until the end of the semester, and then I lost contact with the Philosopher. He had been removed from the university for his antisocial behaviour. One of the university officials told me afterwards that the man was no longer alive. He almost sneered as he recounted the sordid circumstances of his suicide in a lavatory. I was silent.

[Steps, Kosinski, J.]

...of rape

The men assaulted her, their trousers tangled around their ankles, their jackets thrown over nearby bushes. They took turns. Those still waiting turned their flashlights on her writhing body. Then they began to act in concert, several of them bending over her at once, gripping and kneading her flesh, locking her head between their thighs. She no longer screamed; I heard only her broken gasps and occasional sobs. Then she vomited and was silent.
When the men had done, they released me and ran off. They were snickering to each other and calling out obscenities, as their voices died away among the trees and the dark walks and alleys. At last I was able to pull myself to my feet, aware that my only injuries were a spinning head and pain in breathing. I went over to my friend and picked up the remnants of her clothes. I helped her to a bench near the stream. She fell back shivering, her body hot and sour. She moved her hands over her body, her fingers tracing the scratches and bruises which had been inflicted on her. I struck a match and caught a glimpse of her haggard face, the dark bruises on her chest, the streaks of blood on her thighs and hips.
We made our way slowly along the bank of the stream until we reached the open ground and the park exit. We turned into a dimly lit road. A policeman cycling past stopped just ahead of us. My friend whispered urgently to me to say nothing, and clutching her torn dress, she jumped off the path into the shadows. The policeman informed us that the park closed at dusk and that we were committing an offence by remaining there.

[Steps, Kosinski, J.]

...of mime

In the morning I spent the last of my money on a cup of coffee. After strolling up the winding streets behind the port, I walked through the scrubby fields to the nearest village. The villagers sat in the shade, covertly watching me. Hungry and thirsty, I returned to the beach again, walking beneath a blazing sun. I had nothing to barter for food or money: no watch, no fountain-pen, no cuff-links, no camera, no wallet. At noon, when the sun stood high and the villagers sheltered in their cottages, I went to the police station. I found the island's solitary policeman dozing by the telephone. I woke him, but he seemed reluctant to understand even my simplest gesture. I pointed to his phone, pulling out my empty pockets; I made signs and drew pictures, even miming thirst and hunger. All this had no effect: the policeman showed neither interest nor understanding, and the phone remained locked. It was the only one on the island; the guidebook I had read had even bothered to note the fact.

[Steps, Kosinski, J.]

Saturday, 5 April 2014

...of a long drive

'Speaking of which, what do you think of when you masturbate?'
Neither had said a word for the first half hour. They were doing the mindless monochrome drive up to Region HQ in Joliet again. In one of the fleet's Gremlins, seized as part of a jeopardy assessment against an AMC dealership five quarters past.
'Look, I think we can presume you masturbate. Something like 98 percent of all men masturbate. It's documented. Most of the other 2 percent are impaired in some way. We can forgo the denials. I masturbate; you masturbate. It happens. We all do it and we all know we all do it and yet no one ever discusses it. It's an incredibly boring drive, there's nothing to do, we're stuck in this embarrassing car - let's push the envelope. Let's discuss it.'
'What envelope?'
'Just what do you think of? Think about it. It's a very interior time. It's one of life's only occasions of real self-sufficiency. It requires nothing outside you. It's bringing yourself pleasure with nothing but your own mind's thoughts. Those thoughts reveal a lot about you: what you dream of when you yourself choose and control what you dream.'
'You asked me. I'm telling you.'
'That's it? Tits?'
'What do you want me to say?'
'Just tits? In isolation from anybody? Just abstract tits?'
'All right. Fuck off.'
'You mean just floating there, two tits, in empty space? Or nestled in your hands, or what? Is it always the same tits?'
'This is me learning a lesson. You ask a question like that and I go what the hell and I answer it and you run a DIF-3 on the answer.'

[The Pale King, Wallace, D. F.]

...of a taxman

From the Peoria Journal Star,
Monday, Novemeber 17, 1980, p. C-2

Supervisors at the IRS's regional complex in Lake James township are trying to determine why no one noticed that one of their employees had been sitting dead at his desk for four days before anyone asked if he was feeling all right.
Frederick Blumquist, 53, who had been employed as a tax return examiner with the agency for over thirty years, suffered a heart attack in the open-plan office he shared with twenty-five coworkers at the agency's Regional Examination Centre on Self-Storage Parkway. He quietly passed away last Tuesday at his desk, but nobody noticed until late Saturday evening when an office cleaner asked how the examiner could still be working in an office with all the lights off.
Mr. Blumquist's supervisor, Scott Thomas, said, 'Frederick was always the first guy in each morning and the last to leave at night. He was very focused and diligent, so no one found it unusual that he was in the same position all that time and didn't say anything. He was always absorbed in his work, and kept to himself.'
A postmortem examination by the Tazewell County Coroner's Office yesterday revealed that Blumquist had been dead for four days after suffering from a coronary. Ironically, according to Thomas, Blumquist was part of a special task force of IRS agents examining the tax affairs of medical partnerships in the area when he died.

[The Pale King, Wallace, D. F.]

...of malaise

But nor did he ever open up and tell her straight out he did not love her. This may be his lie by omission. This may be the frozen resistance - were he to look straight at her and tell her he didn't, she would keep the appointment and go. He knew this. Something in him, though, some terrible weakness or lack of values, would not tell her. It felt like a muscle he just did not have. He didn't know why, he could not do it or even pray to do it. She believed he was good, serious in his values. Part of him seemed willing to more or less just about lie to someone with that kind of faith and trust and what did that make him? How could such a type of individual even pray? What it really felt like was a taste of the reality of what might be meant by hell. Lane Dean had never believed in hell as a lake of fire or a loving God consigning folks to a burning lake of fire - he knew in his heart this was not true. What he believed in was a living God of compassion and love and the possibility of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through whom this love was enacted in human time. But sitting here beside this girl as unknown to him now as outer space, waiting for whatever she might say to unfreeze him, now he felt like he could see the edge or outline of what a real vision of hell might be. It was of two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent. There would be battle but no victor. Or never a battle - the armies would stay like that, motionless, looking across at each other and seeing therein something so different and alien from themselves that they could not understand, they could not hear each other's speech as even words or read anything from what their faces looked like, frozen like that, opposed and uncomprehending, for all human time. Two hearted, a hypocrite to yourself either way.

[The Pale King, Wallace, D. F.]