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Insomnia

After the fight with Mom that took place on the first of October 1999 and flamed during three days until Dad confessed that he did hate family vacations and it wasn’t just the fruit of Mom’s imagination as he had claimed earlier, he woke up at three o’clock in the morning and hasn’t been able to sleep ever since.

On the second year of his insomnia he rode his car right into a ditch and crawled out through the broken window into the mud and the dusk.

The police officer who found him thought he was dead, while he was simply trying to sleep.

The accident provoked a lilt in his step, but otherwise, he’s been well, only exhausted. He gave up work, too tired for a high-level management and too proud for a low-level one and started reading about monks who achieved control over time, and technology that allows the same thing.

Mom and the children are too busy to accompany the studies. Mom sells home-made cakes and the children distribute milk products to grant him his daydream and get him a racecar to ride so fast the days will become shorter and the nights will grow longer, a better opportunity for sleep.

As a matter of habit, nobody makes a peep at home, but if a spoon falls or a child runs around, Dad inquires, “What on earth is going on here?”

They don’t call him for dinner anymore. He takes his meals on his own when he’s hungry.

Since the time alone has made him lonesome, he shares his solitude on the Internet. Nobody else in the family knows who is awake in the world.

Every morning Mom asks him, “Are we less lonely yet?”

The Anatomy of a Heart Wood

And sanity is the decay at my core. Because it doesn’t work right, this brain, so Sissie chants nursery rhymes to help me concentrate, to help me forget.

“Concentration,” she says.

Dark pith first, then sapwood; then underbellies of Hackberry leaves, their red-stick spines holding together the paper bodies, stretching to every point, until his thick breathing pushes into my face, forces the licking of lips past pink.

Everything sometimes gets messed up, but I try to think about qualities of light, the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, then eat a little, don’t wake up. Fissures forming. Growth rings in the sapwood. Hieroglyphics lining the backsides of my eyeballs. Inside me something is broken in the bone marrow, and I try to put it back right, each of my limbs holding bird nests, feeling lumens push along my stickbones to find each point of entry. Jimson Weed, the devil’s trumpet, eats up consciousness, just like that, but the bugs keep eating the moon-flower because the nectar is so sweet, the flowers open and close and open.

“Knowing this difference is what separates bees from bugs from kids like you,” is what Sissie says.

Like me. Marginally raw sugarcane stick. Nightshade nebula crossing the half sky. Owlet scanning for field mice. Pandemonium in the midbrain vibrating with zeal.

Quailing into the knuckles of the belly, I hear notes push down into my roots, then move through cracks along my vertebrae questing for more than this terrible incandescence, the body slipping, the transparent yellow-jackets ripping up my flowered core.

Restraint. Sissie’s voice like rocks hitting soil under the bed where the man hides sometimes, and no one is here to tell him stop so he does this too: traces his middle finger along my chin, up the bone cheek to the corner of my eye, him too heavy on top of me, but I yield anyway, yes, and sing: Ring-a ring o’roses, a pocket full of posies. Tentative safety. Unconscious xenophobia, then a piece of safety. Vacant vestibule of my mouth can’t find: ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

“Where are you?” Sissie asks.

Xylem veins. Yowling into my own brain stem; yielding my paper parapet; untangling this skein of memory. Zero-sum: this place I am.

Dead/Alive Cats

It wasn’t the purpose or the function, but the style and that didn’t make sense to me. I counted style as a secondary objective. It was a matter of importance, but less importantly a matter of interest. Some days, he did nothing but write, and man, his work fucking howled. Other days he got carried away, pacing the living room while ranting about Schrödinger’s cat.

“Fucking dead-alive cats roaming the streets, meowing and unstoppable,” he was frenzied, “they are/aren’t there/gone. They won’t play or kill mice, because they don’t know where they are.”

According to him, the world would be overrun with dead-alive cats and we were all headed to that same fate. He had never been more sure of anything in his life. Superposition, he called it. I called it groovy and decided that it would be fulfilling to experience superposition. I checked the cupboards and found two bags containing Psychotria Veritas and Syrian Rue.

I heated up the stove and began to prepare for the weekend. Being interesting and having a purpose is always more important than the style in which you do it; style is only necessary to avoid being dull.

“If you’re dead/alive, do you care about getting hurt?” It seemed like a pressing question, which presumably made him think I was crazy. I stood in my kitchen, brewing a pot of that Amazonian tea, and by god that bastard was going to drink some. We would see whether the style overcomes the function, and whether or not you can be alive and dead at the same time.

That night we witnessed the collapse of the wave function, returned and were vacantly aware of the cats’ demise: their minds just could not handle it.

Perhaps There Will Be Something Left

I want to explain why I missed the brunch on Tuesday. My green pants of sin were drying on the clothesline and Cuddles was not at the shoe house. Laisy Daisy and Weed were flying your very best underwear kite, the one that flew like a bubbling guppy, and it got caught in a tree while Gramps was carving another lawn flamingo. I took it away from him, but the dog found it. I wanted to take it surfing.

Nothing doing. That’s what Gramps said and you know what? He was right. When he finished it, that flamingo had curves like Susie Detweiler. So I guess I missed the brunch for no good reason and I’m a little steamed, but most sinners never even notice.

Betty the Doll was here for dinner on Sunday. She wore an old bonnet. She called it a beret, but I knew it was a bonnet. She wanted to show me her picture holes. She said they were brilliant wounds and someday they would make her famous. I don’t think so, but maybe I should study it.

What kind of person do you think a scientist needs to be? My teacher says we must not get the idea that scientists will soon run out of problems to solve. My teacher says things to get our attention, like an invention that solves one problem may create many new problems. Doesn’t that mean more and more scientists will be needed until there aren’t any normal people left? Klondike says I have an “elusive” mind. He’s still going to Alaska, but not yet. Alaska must be more elusive than my mind is.

I dropped some things today. Sure enough, they all hit the ground at the same time. My book says a scientist is just a human being like anyone else. I don’t think so.

But I don’t want you to be angry with me.

Maybe we could teach researchers to sing together.

Maybe you could save me some leftovers.

I’m sorry you’re sorry I couldn’t make it, but sing anyway, okay?

Previously Unavailable for Comment

1.
Before the insect entered the donkey’s ear, it bit the elderly caretaker and landed briefly on the child’s sweat-stained undershirt.

Beautiful, seductive and hungry, the insect seemed fearless.

Amidst several mysterious, yet predictable cycles, the insect, like many of the wealthy men of the fourteenth century, hunted for fulfillment in the blood and toil of the poor.

The several small pieces of copper discovered in the bitten donkey’s feces had nothing to do with the insect, but the poor old caretaker who owned the donkey did not want to believe this. There had to be some advantage in his misfortunes. The man’s children, who had discovered the copper, became known for making fine pottery textured with tiny seeds.

2.
Several centuries later, following a hint of interest from the new pope’s most successful imposter, the fourteenth century returned from the textbooks to learn the modern art of self-promotion. In this it was only modestly successful. Everyone believed what the fourteenth century said, but no one cared.

The imposter turned out to be the author of an entomological textbook with an inordinate fondness for copper jewelry.

3.
Following the war to end all wars, beautiful, seductive and hungry entomological obsessions began to influence modern peasants. The distant descendants of the caretaker’s children welcomed them, but inside the modern donkey’s ear, something was biting so gently it might have been a breeze from the future.

The fourteenth century, carrying a gratuitous selection of copper-colored apologies contained in several fine pieces of seed pottery, paused to reflect upon entry into the chapel and entered the swimming pool instead, unaware that a current membership was required.

Modern children continued to grow agitated. Not even the modern donkey’s ancient whisper could hold still. The problem, of course, continued to be fear, as it had been for centuries, but the aging children, who had appeared one at a time without their wigs, may have been the real imposters.

Early Psychology

Bruno’s father spits out parts of his stomach to show that he does not like his food.  Bruno’s father is covered with thick fur. Bruno’s mother weaves heavy blankets from Bruno’s father.

Bruno’s uncle is one of the workers. If they should raise their arms, their harnesses would fall off, but they never raise their arms. Bruno’s uncle is also a father, but his son is a manager. Sometimes when the factory is slow, Bruno’s cousin sees a worker who is going the wrong way. He aims at a spot near the man and when the stone strikes the ground, the man is frightened and runs back the other way.

No saddle is needed to ride Bruno’s father for his great quantity of thick fur is easy to hold on to. But sometimes Bruno’s father tells his creature jokes and gestures wildly like a bucking horse and Bruno trots along behind.

Some of the mothers gather at Bruno’s house to make children. They offer each other stories of the future achievements of the children they desire and believe if they speak with enough conviction, the children will arrive to fulfill their dreams. The mothers bake bread in the shape of newborns and it is said the most perfect loaf will start that child on the way as it is eaten. None of the mothers has a window or a chimney.

When Bruno’s father swears, he often disparages the hole in his bottom or the fertilizer, which issues from it. Sometimes Bruno’s mother makes Bruno’s father stop speaking of this. Bruno’s father refers to this as a time of drought.

As Bruno gets older, he carries many things on his back. This leads Bruno to notice that the things, which the river carries on its back, it often takes to its bed. Perhaps I can learn from this river, thinks Bruno.

But the smart fathers know that water runs downhill and if you could cut straight through a river with a huge knife, you would find another river. This could be very difficult to convey to the sons.

Bruno sleeps downhill from his father. He hungers for a father’s comfort. He has never been a river. He has no knife.

By staying home when his father goes out, Bruno is learning from his mother to make children.  Bruno’s fur is almost ready for blankets. By milking his mother’s dreams for knowledge, Bruno may discover how to navigate his life without a huge knife. Perhaps he could teach this to his father because if you cut straight through a son with a huge knife, you would not find another son. This could be very difficult to convey to a jealous father.

If Bruno is truly grown up now, he could father his own mistakes.

Redecorating the study

With a seventy-nine cent lighter I burn the bookcase. I burn the addition and subtraction of books. I burn the forty-five million dust particles. I start the spark that blackens the edges that reddens the centers that fuels the fingers up the shelves.

As soon as the flames reach the second shelf‹the shelf on which her music box rests‹they are ivy climbing the creaky sides, engirdling misshapen shelves of dusty book jackets, sprouting wildflowers in all directions. I open the window, remove the air conditioner, and hurl the bookcase, books, ivy, flowers, dust, and her music box down to the pavement sixty-eight feet below. Everything explodes. Several million bees, keen for the scent of ivy flowers, pour into the room through the open window. They carry everything back into my study: wood splinters, ivy tangles, loose pages, several million of particles of dust and pollen, and her music box, perfectly intact.

Now I’m knee-deep in buff-tailed bumblebees. Stumbling over the Queen, I tumble into debris. Her music box falls open. The revolving cylinder turns the pins that strike the steel-combed teeth that make the music that aches my temples. The buff-tailed bumblebees plunge into the box, carrying arms of ivy, shards of wood, pages of books, and pods of ivy flowers.

La Vita Nuova

We were really going this time. Dan’s F-350 was packed with U-Haul boxes of clothes, plates, taken-apart Wal-Mart furniture, a stereo with only the left speaker, with my dead gecko’s Rubbermaid.

Dan came up with the flat-screen. He put it in the back and climbed inside.

“I can’t leave Hog Hammer,” he said.

“Yes you can.”

“I can’t.”

“There’s not room.”

He opened the door with a loud creak and slammed it shut.

I sat there. After a while I imagined the chinaberry trees I couldn’t see, how they climbed the low hills and stopped, how beyond them was the bland gray lake, the empty farm roads. Then I pictured what San Antonio was going to be like. They have the River Walk and there’s Joe’s Crab Shack and Fuddrucker’s. There’re people and noises everywhere.

I thought of the girls at the store. It’s all right, I guess, not telling them. They knew. They said, “You’re always looking past everything.”
I lowered the mirror and checked my lipstick. There was just a faint darkness now. It had been like walking through fire. Standing at the self-checkout with my eye like that. You talk about humiliation.

Before long I saw Dan coming up the hill; I saw the groping beam of his flashlight.

“Where’s Hog Hammer gonna sit?” I said.

He held the dog close to him. “He’ll fit in my lap.”

“Dan, he’s too big.”

“He’ll fit in my lap.”

“Goddamn it.”

“Shut up.”

“Dan.”

“Shut up.”

Then we heard someone coming through the dark. Dan flashed his light. It was Mom. She was wearing her housedress and she didn’t have shoes on.

“Don’t leave,” Mom said. “Don’t leave.”

“Miss Elsham–” Dan said.

“Don’t leave,” Mom said.

“Miss Elsham–” Dan said.

“Tell him not to talk to me,” Mom said.

“Don’t talk to her,” I said.

“Don’t leave,” Mom said.

When she started unpacking things, I got out and helped her. But Dan looked off into the blackness. He lit a cigarette. After a while Mom and I listened to the soft thud of his boots, to the jingling of Hog Hammer’s collar. Then it was us just us and the crickets.

Fruit Survey

I erase the sixth message he left. Then the seventh starts and his proud voice opens like a full blown sail. “I was born 942 days before you. Isn’t that—”

Michael comes from good, hardworking people. His mother sits on the board of a kidney consortium and his father, though dead, was a radiologist. Because of their donations the performing arts center downtown would have been named for them but they declined it.

His mother wanted to make sure I was all right and we went out to lunch after a few months of dating. Mrs. Vaughn wasn’t so stern at first. She wore a festive outfit, an aqua blue blouse with platinum sequins at the neck. She looked just as Michael described her—a long nose, kind but guarded eyes and a very erect posture like she sat atop a horse.

She didn’t bring up my son Travis until we started eating. “How often does he ask after his father?” she said clinically.

“Probably a few times a week.”

“Probably?”

“Travis’ father is close to not being involved at all.”

“Close?”

I knew all along she would tell me that Michael was unfit to be a father figure—no matter how well they got along—and she did. I didn’t feel she said this to criticize my choice in men but rather to etch out another role for Michael, something where he wouldn’t be the centerpiece but a building block.

My rage swelled after she paid the check when I was in the bathroom. She stood gathering her coat, “I have to go Karen.” I couldn’t wait to get home and vomit the food before squealing to Michael that I would never see her again, even if things developed she would never be welcome at my house, never speak to my child.

I’ve told friends Michael is just wound up with love. A tight slingshot. He has his own way of being romantic, trafficking in a world where gifts and surprises reign. A blissful existence his mother supports. When he opens a brown bag to present pomegranates and Asian pears my heart stands up. The knife we use he bought in Sweden when he lived with a distant uncle for a summer, trying to decide what to do with his life. “Did you look at that coursebook for the fall?” I ask.

“Cut the pear on a slant,” he reminds me. Already he is an old man who hears what he wants to. He rubs his hands together and blows kisses from the sink where he does the dishes from the breakfast I made Travis.

“He’s old enough to go to the haunted house, right babe? I was thinking Friday. Do you want to come too?”

My stomach on fire, I ask him to wait a sec and go to the bathroom and sit on the toilet with my pants on. I can hate people but that never makes what they feel all wrong. Mrs. Vaughn appealed to a peculiar vision of happiness I can’t shake. Two people—two souls. No doubts or restitutions. If it’s a man I’m to love than he must upend me. Kindness is special but I genuflect to understanding. Regardless the children stay. I will tell him after Halloween. Michael, I’ve thought so long about this. And it has everything to do with me.

The inside of a ripe Asian pear is harder than a regular pear so it can sit in your mouth longer, sweating its juices down your throat before the rest falls.

Giving In

Owen’s nursing a tiny cup of espresso. He’s added brown sugar, five bags full. But he doesn’t drink. It’s the grainy darkness he’s hooked on, the bittersweet fragrance.

He met a woman named Sophie when he was young. She never wanted children or a life.

“I hate feeding,” she told him. “Children need feeding.”

“I’ll feed them,” Owen said, but she just laughed.

“So what’s the point of us?” Owen pleaded.

“Silly,” said Sophie, “the point is not giving in. Not doing the worst thing.”

The worst thing was breeding.

It was Sophie who kept him honest, kept him strong, kept him from walking through doors he didn’t believe in. Sometimes he felt so desperate to be happy, instinct could drag him anywhere it wanted. But Sophie was too beautiful to lose over a small matter of genes being passed on. Immortality for atheists.

Immortality. Owen wonders as he fiddles with his coffee, stirring it again with a tiny spoon. Odd that he’s still wondering about this. He heard about a boy, a two year old, who remembered having a past life as a pilot. Remembered impossible details. His parents, devout Christians, were easily, too easily persuaded. Owen grimaces. A brief unbearable pity fills his chest, he’s not certain if for them or for himself.

It’s becoming less and less possible for him to separate fiction from reality, to register facts. Everything is a tangle: perceptions, memories, hopes, illusions, fears. Most of all, fears.

It’s midsummer. Hot. The breeze smells of drying grass and rotting fruit, and just a whiff of something more disturbing. Melting animal matter. Pigeons flutter beside his table like large gray moths drawn to the fires of decay.

Would any of it have been different if Sophie had stayed? Nothing changes, Sophie liked to say. Sure the first time–breathing, drinking, eating, loving–feels like a burst of creation, feels like freedom. After that, the pattern becomes clear. You realize you can sleepwalk through your life. Your awake, alert presence isn’t required.

Incorruptible as gold, lovely Sophie. Made her plans in secret and carried through. Or maybe it was an accident, after all. A misstep in the darkness, in the rain.

Owen scrubs at his eyes with a napkin, then crumples it and pushes it into a pocket. Too personal to leave for the waiter.

A woman strolls by carrying a newborn. Fresh pink limbs. Blood swiftly flowing, bright and clean. Comfortable upside down. Arms and legs stretched out like a frog. The woman’s face transformed, transfigured with love.

He glances at his watch. Ellen’s on time. He sees her unfolding herself from an ancient Fiat.

The first time they were together, she took her clothes off. Every single thing. Her flesh was blurry, soft, like pictures made from sand that have lost their edges.

“I’m forty,” she said humbly.

Owen startled himself by thinking, not too late.

He didn’t strip naked, not completely. He left his underwear on till the last moment.

She stared at his tattoos.

“Spiders and roses,” she grinned. “That reminds me of the things my children paint.”

Owen raised an eyebrow.

“Old maid teacher,” she said.

Maybe we get what we wish for, Owen thinks, but not in the way we plan it or imagine.

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