I can hear the mockingbirds that gather in trees near the window of my room. I don’t know that I particularly care for their cries, and I’m not sure if comprehension would improve this inclination. Every creature I’ve known, intimately or otherwise, owns about as much importance as any other no matter how big or small, so why should I care to hear the complaints of a whistling bird? Food, sex, shelter, joy, sadness, indifference. How many songs must be written, and in how many tongues?
I communicate to you from a dormitory for ancients, my current and final residence, under the assumption that this might be a peaceful retreat from the noisiest of god’s creatures. You’ll hear your share of complaints, this much is certain, but the occasional rage is dampened by corridors lined with slouching bags of flesh—men and women in oversized outfits. Slack-jawed with blotchy thin skin, their decaying clothes limply draped over them like circus tents, bones projecting like poles underneath, lips flapping like ragged entrances to a dark show. All day they sit listening to the hum of the lights above. These are my neighbors, my community in repose. They know who I am.
Although the accommodations are among the best to be found, my cohorts are not of a high caliber. Gone are the days of elegance in decline: widowed ladies in their cemented hairdos, fedora warmed fathers with cardigans smelling of cigars and salted meats, an inherent respect for the end of life. Instead, this home, once teeming with the richly-retired, now contains only the cantankerous, the religious, the awkward and misunderstood—appendages of families who do not know what to do with their life-resistant relatives.
Most of you have never seen such a place, nor will you ever, or at least not anytime soon. You would consider it an insane asylum, no doubt, as you cannot perceive why a person would choose this, why someone who can clearly afford medical assistance would instead elect to shuffle down the halls of drooling men and women, even embrace it! Consider this the first difference between you and I. Mark it with a one, if you like.
Were you to take a walk through my residence, you would see that each apartment houses another church and each tenant serves as its professor, making a wheelchair roll past the myriad open rooms like a trip to a spiritual buffet. Nothing has been adapted, no rules have been rewritten for the ageless; these prayers are to vengeful and unyielding gods, gods who ignore you just as you have ignored them in better times.
Me? I am a not religious, so I find the demonstrations to be merely theatrical. But I’m keen enough to realize that not everyone is of one mind; not everyone has the capacity to insulate themselves from possibility. Some must serve an unseen lord, otherwise the madness of their life-resistance would grip them in the night, and they would flee this place and run straight to their doctor to line up a new heart, a new liver, some good eyes, maybe a pair of healthy, pink lungs and a carton of unfiltered cigarettes. Religion saves them from such a departure. The fear of death guides them to death. Ironic, isn’t it?
If I indulge myself and apply some degree of rationality to creationism, I would first surrender to the fact that god is not out there. Even if you disagree with my lack of spirituality, you cannot dispute that if a creator exists, he turned off the lights and departed long ago, left us to find our own way with the materials of creation. I like to think that there are better planets out there in the universe. Planets that a god created with more refinement, with a subtly born of maturity, where the grand experiment evolved into a greater success, and the beings survive yet in a garden. However, if god is anything like us, I have little faith he has done better than what we have right here.
I am an uncomplicated man, someone who prefers blunt speech, data and fact, yet I feel I must show you something that will serve as an analogy for a large, mysterious portion of my story: my visions. Simply put, they are the orienting force of my life, and they have never been formally discussed by me before this report. Allow me to provide you with some context.
On the shelf in my home is a collection of magazines containing an old serial story published in the early part of the 20th century. In it a man travels to the moon. Of course this was a common catalyst for fiction and lore from times before memory. But this man goes to the moon in a capsule and trots around on the surface in a suit made of metal, tethered to his space ship by only a tube filled with earthly air.
We all know that humans did not set foot on the moon until the 1969 (just a few years before my birth), but this story chronicles the event in detail long before it happened. Certainly the particulars are off, but the story came first, just as idea always precedes endeavor. No scientist worth his or her title ever embarks on a terrific and expensive search for something without first considering what he or she is looking for. So cast aside your idea that art imitates life. Original art always leads. Be it in the fantasy of pure imagination or the collection of ordinary fragments of life: art is first, always, forever, and with little regard for outcome.
Art can do this, you see, because its allegiance is only to itself. I hear the voices already complaining that art is not alive and thus has no allegiance to pledge. Well, you all are welcome to your own interpretations; I thought I would offer you the correct one.
Even as I extend this essential chronology of idea and form to you, I must admit to one problem with it, one missing piece. Where do the ideas come from that inform the art? Does the mind transpose enough letters and numbers from our daily lives to re-create what has never been seen? Never imagined? Are our most outlandish notions merely anagrams of what already is?
Ever since childhood, I have been afflicted by the sudden spawning of ideas, or, as I refer to them, visions. As if balance needed its fare, it seems this abundance of insight enjoys its greatest success when I am in insulated from distractions. To put it in simpler terms, as I prefer, I think better when I’m alone, and my life has been spent primarily in a self-imposed exile from humanity. I have an instinctual need for isolation, and the visions only encourage this trajectory. Even my severe adolescent acne cannot be blamed entirely for my withdrawal from those around me. The visions are a gift and a prison, locking me into a focus that I still have trouble breaking and reducing my ability to form and maintain relationships.
When I was ten years old, my parents gave me a bicycle. Its chrome frame wrapped the mirrored world around itself, and the handlebars and tire rims glowed an unholy red. Even before taking it outside for an inaugural ride, I spent hours in our living room, twirling the pedals, pulling the finger-fitted brake lever, squishing the meaty tread of the red tires. This bicycle, this ‘Red Line’ dirt bike, was the prize I had sought for many months of extra chores around the house and neighborhood lawns mowed.
“You earned it, Charlie,” my father said, his eyes grazing the round of my shoulder. He maintained his boyish good looks into adulthood, but they were saddled to a small adult frame. He stood only a few inches taller than me at ten, and I would overtake him completely before my 13th birthday.
“Just be careful,” my mother joined, rubbing her hands on a towel. “I read that riding on dirt is difficult. Please stay on the sidewalk.”
My dad and I looked at her.
“Let the boy ride his bike where he wants to, Joyce.”
“For now. Stay on the sidewalk for now. Okay?” She threw her arms up and walked towards the house. My dad told me to get going and followed her in, no doubt to instruct her in the reckless manner of boys.
As I knelt in front of the bicycle I could see only my eyes in the center of the frame, my head warped clear out of sight. I noticed a spot of brown in the iris of my right eye, and it captured me. How did it get there? Could it be removed? Was it another portal of sight? I moved as closed to the bicycle as possible without losing this focal point.
Like a rush of wind through the cracked window of a speeding car, a new vision of the bicycle engulfed my mind. Instead of seeing myself jumping from dirt mound to mound, I saw the bicycle dissected and spread across the yard—each new, unused part isolated and indexed. So vivid was the spell, that within moments I had the wheels and seat off and set to work on the handlebars.
I scavenged in my dad’s toolbox for wrenches and pulled apart the neck and loosened the handbrake. The rest of the pedal assembly came apart swiftly and joined the other parts lying on the lawn. After removing the very last clip from the frame, the brake line came loose and I was finished.
I looked over the parts: my brand-new bike, deconstructed into its basic fabrications. I laid belly down in the grass, and propped my head up on my hands, so that I might survey the artifacts properly.
I closed my eyes and felt another idea beaming into my head, this one of me rebuilding the bicycle, but with both wheels side by side rather than front and back. The entire designed sketched itself in my mind, and, had I a blowtorch and time enough to build it, would have surely come to life.
“What the hell are you doing?!” my dad yelled from the garage door. My lapse reached its end, and I knew instantly from the sound of his voice that what I’d done was not typical, not expected. I should have been riding that bike all over town. I wanted to ride it all over town, but I was intercepted by a stronger idea.
“I can fix it, Dad.”
“Jesus Christ, Charlie!” he turned and walked back inside, slamming the door behind him. I could hear him yelling my mother’s name even after the door shut.
I accessed my vision of the bicycle and reversed the timeline like one might turn back a page in a book to remember a character’s name. There the bicycle existed in its original design, so I clasped on to this image and my hands worked quickly to match part to part. In very little time I managed to completely assemble the bicycle. I ran a cloth over the frame, buffing it to its former shine.
I rode the bike around the yard and up and down the sidewalk to make sure I had tightened everything properly.
Indeed, I had.
As I approached my house, I saw my dad in the garage, a beer in hand, his jaw down and askew from the top of his skull. I pedaled right up the driveway and clamped down on the finger-contoured handbrake, leaving a red skid mark on the ground.
“My God, Charlie,” he replied, setting his beer down on the workbench.
My mother opened the door and walked into the garage, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel as was her practice. She never passed a sink without washing her hands, and the sight of her drying her hands on a towel survives as one a handful of distinctions about her that I’ll never forget.
“Bill, I thought you said he ruined his bike.”
“I did. He did. He’s put it back together. It’s remarkable.”
My father looked at her, his bewildered expression melting into a wry smile.
“He took it apart and put it back together! Ha! Joyce, he had this thing completely in pieces!” He turned back towards me. “Charlie, tell your mother what you did.”
“Just like Dad said.”
Now my mother looked incredulous, but smiled through it and merely said, ‘okay.’
Within a year, I amassed a collection of tools to rival any reputable mechanic. My dad gave over his workbench to me, clearing off his many half-done projects, so I set up shop and began dismantling and rebuilding everything possible. He brought home barely functioning lawnmowers and other broken equipment from garage sales, and I would rebuild the engines for him with little to no instruction. After looking over basic diagrams of small engines, I would simply close my eyes and see the parts, see the whole, see the potential.
On occasion, I would make something different from the parts, something new: an engine for a go-kart, a dangerous fan, a moving sculpture. My dad would smile and set his hands on my shoulders.
“It’s good, but let’s stick to rebuilding these as they should be, okay?”
And so I’d take apart my re-creations and rebuild the motors exactly as the manufacturers intended. My father would then open the garage and sell the rebuilt machines to the neighborhood—not for a profit, really, but merely to clear the space and afford the cost of new tools and other busted machines.
He continued to bring home broken things, and I continued to fix them, eventually forcing my parents to park their vehicles in the driveway. My mother accepted my activity, but not with the same enthusiasm as my father. Perhaps she saw something else inside me, something missing. It’s not untrue that we were not an affectionate family, that we needed little save our own occupations. It seems as if we lived as three islands off the coast, each with our own economy, our own need to maintain independence, and when I think back, I cannot recall a time when we ever hugged or kissed except when protocol dictated.
I never questioned this lack in our family. It simply was. But now as I consider my own demeanor, I cannot help but connect my family’s detachment with my inability to maintain relationships throughout my life. Was I the cause, or the effect? All that is left of this original family is me, so I cannot ask such a question to anyone but myself, and when I do, no answer comes, only an irritating sense of emptiness. What once was my shelter, my protection from the world, my only experience with trust and safety—it is gone and will never return.
Near my twelfth birthday, whatever small shred of affection survived in my family was eradicated, and any questions I retain about the origins of my family’s disparate nature only pertain to life before the incident occurred. After this point I must accept all blame, for the actions were my own, and no matter how many professionals sat in front of me, no amount of insight could really uncover the true nature of my psychology.
I found a stray yet familiar cat breathing heavily in the bushes of a neighbor’s house a few doors down. I could tell by its nappy fur and wretched body that it was lost, hungry, maybe sick. I tried to coax it out, but the cat would not comply, so I shook the bushes until it lurched out and careened along the side of the house. I ran after it, for no other reason than to see where it was headed.
The cat trapped itself in between two houses where the fences joined and prevented any egress. I anticipated the feline would simply climb the fence and disappear, but every time it tried to scale the wood planks, it fell back to the ground, favoring its front right paw. After several attempts, the cat cowered between the grass and fence, and stared at me. I stared back, and a vision opened up to me.
Moments later I walked briskly towards my house, the cat tucked into my backpack with only its ragged head exposed through the zipper. No fight ensued when I trapped the stray. I believe the creature no longer had the will.
I set about my work in the garage with the same acuity I had hitherto known only with machines and bicycles. Saws and clamps replaced wrenches and screwdrivers, and although my intention was not to destroy the cat, it certainly did not survive. I lacked the technique required to properly sedate the creature before surgery, so I had to suffocate the poor beast prior to manipulating its parts.
I poked, prodded, removed, and set aside every identifiable piece of the cat. Blood flowed over most of the workbench and dripped onto the concrete floor of the garage. My sneakers squeaked and slid around in the gore, but I continued until I had the severed the last tendon with a box cutter.
That’s when I awoke to the tableau. Fur, blood, bone, organs, all separated and organized on the workbench. I held my face above the scene, intoxicated by the taxonomy, and stared into the cat’s dull eyes. Life dissected trumped any machine, with it’s breakable parts and rusty metals. Life could heal, life could gather and create fuel. Life could be re-created.
I ran into the house and yelled for my mother. She called back from upstairs.
“What is it?”
“I need some needle and thread. Do we have any?”
“Yes, it’s in the hall closet, in the sewing box. What are you doing?”
“Stitching!” I yelled up the staircase.
I could hear my mother coming down the hall upstairs, her footsteps vibrating the ceiling over me as she went. I threw open the hall closet and dug around for the box. I found it and dragged it out to the garage.
I rushed to the garage and set to work. The blood and innards had grown tacky by now, so my effort was more akin to re-stuffing an old mattress than re-animating life. Fur stuck to my hands, making it very difficult to sew. Coupled with my lack of surgical skill, I had to fold the skin awkwardly to apply stitches, making the animal look like one of those frightened cats from Halloween.
I heard a scream from inside of the house, breaking my concentration and inviting a fresh vision into my mind, one of the past hour, of the cakey blood that covered me to my elbows, that stuck my feet to the ground, of the bloody footprints I cast in the hallway of our house, the handprints I left all over the hall closet in my pursuit of needle and thread.
My mother had come downstairs, walked right into a horror show, and was thinking that her only son might be hurt or worse. I jabbed the needle into the cat so as not to lose my place and opened the door into the house.
“Mom! I’m here. Everything’s okay. I’m fine.”