November: and just back from a trip home to Louisville, where I met my cousin B—, come to visit my mother, out of the blue, on her birthday – 93! We had been close, B— and I, when we were children, in fact until we were teenagers: nearly the same age, their house one block over from ours. Thirty years had passed, maybe more, however, since we’d last spoken.
Of course, I knew of her troubles, and her appearance that morning did nothing to suggest that they were in any way behind her. Haggard, wary, voice like a burned out match — a tremor visible in one hand when she withdrew if from her cardigan’s pocket to salve her lips with Tiger Balm. Her beautiful hands deeply veined, nails chewed to the quick.
As the visit wore on, she seemed to lose the thread of our conversation, picking at a slice of peach pie: uncomfortable longueurs, followed by prosecutorial accounts of “the nuns’” various treacheries, or so-and-so’s playground slights. As things unwound, imagining she was at her breaking point, I suggested we get outdoors for a bit — take a walk to the nearby shopping center that had been our second home in elementary school.
A breezy day, the Midwest fall air magical as it only can be magical to a transplanted Floridian, the trees beginning to turn, our pace brisk — I was convinced our excursion had been just the thing. She seemed calmer, as if the day’s beauty and the physical discharge of energy had combined to ease her anxieties.
Suddenly, by the lot at the end of Eleanor, That’s him. A slight nod, stage left – there. A middle-aged man, balding, in a white undershirt, plaid shorts, leaning on a flat-edged shovel before an evidently newly poured driveway scraped clean of concrete debris, admiring a task well-done.
Before I could inquire further, B— had grasped my sweatshirt sleeve, guiding us around this innocuous-seeming figure, across the open field, until he was well out of eye and ear shot. Only then did the story spill out.
Angelo, his name, a manager at a Goodwill where she had worked one summer in the 80s, sorting donations in the back room (B— unable to track or fathom the workings of the cash register). Not a house-proud suburbanite, far from it, instead a drug dealer – lord or kingpin, the term of the day she might have echoed. In any case a powerful presence in that adumbral world who had transformed, according to B—, the loading platform behind the store into his base of operations. (Shades of Walter White.) It had been her misfortune to come upon one of his minion’s transactions; a fellow employee who promptly reported this to Angelo. In due course, the latter appeared in the store, enraged, assuring her in as they say in no uncertain terms that he would kill her if she “talked” — impossible to imagine this scene without its cinematic profanity and sneering close-ups — and with a fist full of her auburn hair paraded her past the dented appliances and cheap curios to the door, much to the amusement of her colleagues who per B—were “in on everything.”
What to say, how to react? Questions I needn’t have bothered forming, as I should have known. She was just getting started. A quarter of a century, and still “they” wouldn’t leave her alone. A Scientologist-ian tale that grew more fantastic as it unraveled over coffee at Starbucks, including a cast of surveillers in slow-moving pick-up trucks who charted her every move and photographed her through her apartment windows, notes left in paperbacks at the branch library, murmured threats in the grocery check-out line and mocking messages enciphered in the arrangement of certain discarded soda bottles, the positioning of flowers at roadside shrines…
Until, at last, she had talked herself out.
Exhausted, we found our way back to my mother’s house by an alternate route, and in short order she departed as abruptly as she had arrived. After an hour or two, Mom none the wiser, needless to say, I did the same.
Back again at the friend’s second house/studio I borrow occasionally when I am in town, I sat for a long while in its large studio with its dual-monitored MacPro and expensive cameras and sophisticated printers, its arrays of plasticine envelopes and German lenses; surrounded by the hundreds, thousands, of photographs and works-in-progress he had amassed over the years, all the impedimenta of his obsession, in other words. And those of his friends, as well – sepia photographs of Victorian corpses standing by means of their scaffolds of wires, false eyes painted on closed eyelids; Southwestern diablos. Here a shelf of Fellini-esque Shriners caricatured and catalogued in pen-and-ink, a wall devoted to the primitive iconographies of murdered children splashed with their gruesome narratives.
I know: we each of us has his or her predilections – origins unknown, contingent, mostly, I suspect, or lost to memory. Nor am I any exception: The broad topography of Poetry, capital P, true, but also its less-frequented neighborhoods of obscure adepts of Voudou liturgies, vanished movements paralyzed in amber-paged manifestoes, the haunted barns of Pulci and Boiardo. Hadn’t I, as well, made a life from these curiosities? As my friend the photographer had and, yes, B—?
The distinction, you might be thinking, between the madman and the artist… but, really, do we need to trot out those frayed truisms again: Hegel, Foucault, Freud, et al.? Those ontological chinwags? How trivial, beside the point, all that had seemed, anyway, that afternoon. As if ours – poets, artists — were not in the end merely abridged obsessions, their contracts ever- negotiable: infernos or paradises we may enter and exit at our pleasure. Innumerable the exemplars of this bogus, literary-theatrical insanity, the cultural trope of it, privileged and available for perusal by our and others’ un-mad selves, instantly sample-able and salable (a laughable assertion, but you know what I mean) that inhabit out cultural landscape, of course, less dishonest, less shameful only by degree: Girl, Interrupted or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the reprehensible Dali, glimpsed even in the great Mary Ruefle’s poem “Last on Earth”:
I do not have much experience of madness (once
a sister ran naked down the hall) but I have tasted
the water and it is clear and fresh, there is nothing
unpleasant about it.
Whereas for B—, an existential proposition. Forever alone, exiled to an exquisite and terrifying forest of sign and symbol – pathless and starless, all-and-everywhere, without exit. To endure every moment the crushing weight of meaning: insupportable. What did Gass say? Wonder everywhere. Then, also for B— Horror, too, and relentless, useless fear.
Such were my thoughts, vaguely transcribed, in that studio’s silent pandemonium, when as night fell, I heard the sound of childish laughter outside the window beside me. 100, 99, 98… And recalled the words of Baudrillard – not verbatim then, but looked up the following morning:
One of life’s primal situations; the game of hide and seek. Oh, the delicious thrill of hiding while the others come looking for you, the delicious terror of being discovered, but what panic when, after a long search, the others abandon you! You mustn’t hide too well. You mustn’t be too good at the game. The player must never be bigger than the game itself.
Her fate, yes, to be abandoned, condemned to a state of perpetual panic. To have hidden (or rather to have been hidden) too well. Bigger than the game. To emerge every minute from her hidey-hole into a world empty of everything but herself, hour upon hour, day upon day, year after year. Empty…no, not quite. For if “the others” had fled, they had left behind their sinister representatives, scrawled their names in the language of flowers and trash.
Then, below that passage, this one:
We [–you, Dear B—] are not… in danger of lacking meaning; quite the contrary, we are gorged with meaning and it is killing us…