Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 9

Harry and I went out back to burn some things. We each had a fistful of soldiers, the kind you stand up on their flat, plastic perches before you knock 'em down. I had the matches. Harry had model cement and a roll of caps. He knelt down and placed it upright on a top stone of the garden wall.

"Let's get a hammer," I said.


Harry dislodged a jagged rock, just small enough to hold, from the middle of the wall. He smashed it onto the caps with all his might. Bang! went the caps. Harry lifted the rock and we peered at the smoking remains with consternation. The top of the wall was darkened at the point of impact and crimson flakes of paper had peeled off the coil, but most of the caps were evidently intact.

"That sucked," I said.

"That was gay," said Harry.

"I wanna burn it."

I got down on one knee and took out a match. Surely fire itself would cause the thin bubbles of gunpowder to burst, gloriously, like fireworks; each explosion would intensify the next and build a beautiful inferno, flames creeping toward the eaves.

Harry grabbed at my arm. "You're not supposeta burn 'em! You're supposeta pop 'em!"

"Fuck off." I shoved Harry with my elbow and tremblingly struck my match. I held it under the half-charred roll, trying not to twitch my hand away in trepidation. It seemed to be taking a long time to light.

"It's not even gonna catch fire," said Harry. "There's not enough oxygen."

"Fuck you!"

"You're stupid!"

Just then the outermost band of caps sputtered aflame, the ink burning a pale green. I rocked back up on my feet and moved a step or two away.

Fizzzzzussh, went the first cap. Fizzzzzussh, went the second. Fizzzzzussh, fizzzzzussh, fizzzzzussh. The cap roll sat serenely on the wall, quietly aflame, watched over by a patch of marjoram.

"You're a wimp," asserted Harry.


"God fucking dammit," I hissed through my humiliation.

"Told you so! Retard!"

Harry walked up and absently drizzled the pitiable conflagration with cement. Fire flashed all over the stone and down the wall, and climbed back up the strands of glue nearly to his knuckles. Then he stepped on the caps with the heel of his shoe, putting out the fire just as whimsically as he had fed it. There remained a smoldering husk of charred paper with a coiled core of pristine, unfired caps.

"I have to go home," I said.

"We have to burn some soldiers," Harry said emphatically, as though it were incontestable that his statement would trump mine.

We set our soldiers down on adjacent stones and arranged them in slapdash formation, instinctively in opposition. We showered them with model airplane glue and set the scene ablaze. We stood and watched as the soldiers melted, perhaps imagining their screams. Unnerved by my earlier failure, I picked up one of mine. Its head and shoulders were on fire but its base was untouched and cool. Suddenly he buckled at the waist, dipping his rifle to his feet. His head melted onto the knuckle of my thumb. I threw down the soldier and yelped in pain, clutching my stricken hand against my abdomen. There was now a patch of military green plastic seared into my flesh.

"Are you OK?" asked Harry wearily.

"Yeah. I'm fine."

"Boys! Time for lunch!" Harry's mom yelled from the kitchen door.

We walked back in and sat at the kitchen table. My finger throbbed, half-numb, half-burning. Harry's mom poured us skim milk and I pressed the back of my thumb to the cold and dewy surface of the glass. She made us peanut butter and honey sandwiches with that bland and clumpy peanut butter from the health food store, with the separated oil. On frozen Pepperidge Farm whole wheat bread. They kept their bread in the freezer so that it would last for months. They never bothered to defrost it. Take it out of the freezer, make a damn sandwich and be done. I lifted it to my mouth and felt the slices cold and rubbery in my hands. I peered down at the top slice as it approached. A spongy, gray-brown expanse riddled with sparkling crystals of frost. I bit into it and felt a styrofoamy crunch; the bread bent unwillingly between my teeth. At least there was honey.

Friday, June 26, 2009

I sat in the office on 25th Street today with the window open half a foot, fan blowing; a beautiful summer day, urged on by the coming storm; suddenly, music burst out of the ground floor next door.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 8

The tanks emit a somber purr that rises to a growl when they maneuver. A dry pop when they fire. Then ascending, beeping tones as the missile, a point faint and fleeting as a shooting star, caroms in the maze. This is the sound of Japan.

When your tank gets hit it explodes with a staticky roar, a shaming noise, full of anger and reproach. Hchrrrrrrrrrr! Your tank is prone, humping the mouth of an L-shaped obstacle like a dog; you try to turn it around but the joystick won't respond. You know death is coming. Hchrrrrrrrrrr!

When your tank gets hit it vanishes and reappears, spinning, a little farther back, looking like an animated swastika.


Harry's parents were obsessed with health food and books and exercise and living right. The Atari in the living room was their only concession to the frivolous desires of children, a sacrifice to the gods of junk so that they may continue to compost their garbage and watch Masterpiece Theater.

Every night at dinner Harry's dad placed a ramekin of vitamin and herbal supplements beside everybody's place. Grape seed with its naturally occurring bioflavonoids, garlic to ward against infection and cholesterol, cod liver oil for essential fatty acids, elderberry for the immune system and a big, grainy multivitamin with minerals. The family took them ritually before eating, in place of grace. Harry went through the motions of placing the pills in his mouth and taking sips of water, but he tucked each one in turn inside his cheek until he could safely spit them out into his napkin.

"Why don't you swallow your pills?" I asked him.

"I don't know," he said.

A minute passed. Then Harry cast his joystick aside, mid-game.

"Check something out!" he said.

I followed him to his bedroom, where he pulled a shoebox out from under his bed and opened the lid. Inside were hundreds of pills: white ones, red ones, green ones, amber gels and two-tone capsules, some gummy and discolored.

"Why do you keep them?" I asked.

"I don't know."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I limped back from Las Vegas, the loveless city. It's a cold machine that churns beneath the desert floor, producing drinks in giant, purple plastic novelty glasses; misting the air with chlorine, elevating losers to their amphetaminated bedrooms.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

It's weirdly quiet on the western reaches of Manhattan, the weird places where the grid ends and the streets are forced to bend up or down, or end in cul-de-sacs. The patterns of commerce break down too; I suppose they're not good places for restaurants. Often there's a dreary outpost, an Italian restaurant that hasn't changed since 1973, out of place and out of time. And a laundry or two, and a deli that's lit like a living room and specializes in Pepperidge Farm cookies, displayed in glorious stacks in the window.

The end of Chambers Street at Rockefeller Park is like that, cloistered and serene. I sat on the wall between the sidewalk and the recessed lawn, watching the crowd assemble in front of the stage where Chuck Brown was going to play.

The stage mix soundman wandered from his station, cell phone to his ear, hustling his band to someone: Have you heard it yet? No? Can you make some time to hear it? You can check us out on MySpace, too. Me? I'm Eric.

A heavyset black woman walked by holding her charges, two retarded women, by the hand on either side: "No tugging!" she said.

Band members wandered in and out of their bus, parked on the street behind the stage. A few of them passed around a joint. Locals asked me who was playing, and when.

Everything was unbelievably good and peaceful.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I saw a woman absently sprinkling crumbs over her baby's face yesterday, like a fairy with a pinch of stardust, the baby in a stroller, the mother looking up and away.
I awoke to the clanking of bottles on the sidewalk, a merry rattle, a bum collecting bottles to return, perhaps.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 7

Mom would always barge in during the last or second-to-last show of the morning, "Fat Albert," "Space Academy," always at the most frustrating moment, after we were full but before we were sated. We dreaded her intrusions so much that we were unable to enjoy the last hour or so of television, instead pretending to pay attention as we seesawed from guilt to fear.

"C'mon kids. Out of the house."


"But Mom!"

"Up, up, up, up, up! Get some fresh air."

No one cared where their kids went or where they were back then. Everybody's door was always open, mothers high on coffee buzzing through the neighborhood like bees, children tromping through kitchens with their muddy feet, mothers stronger than dirt, filling up another bucket. Is it wet, Mr. Clean? You're soaking in it.

I rode my banana-seat bicycle down Harvard to Dartmouth and up to Harry's house. He was out front on his bike, jumping a little bump in the packed dirt where the yard met the street. He caught a little air and landed wobblingly, pedaling up to me and stopping with a squeal and a skid.

"Wanna play Atari?" I asked.

"Yup," he said.

We dumped our bikes in the driveway and went inside. Harry was my best friend. I hated him.
I awoke this morning to a flood of e-mails from the translation site, a user status notification gone haywire.

It's supposed to thunderstorm but the sun is out and I can hear a plane pass overhead.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Man Who Woke Up in the Third Person

He awoke on the morning of his fortieth birthday and knew right away that there was something wrong. He wondered where he was. Not where he was physically – he was lying in bed, surrounded by familiar walls – but where he was. His subjective faculties seemed to have evaporated – his self, his ego, whatever it is that made him the protagonist in the story of his life. It was as though he'd exited himself and was now dully observing the experiences of the thing that once was him.

What had become of I? He dimly remembered being I the night before, just as he'd been since he was born, or at least been able to remember. He was pretty sure it wasn't he who'd brushed his teeth and gone to bed; it was I. I this, I that. The way it's meant to be. But this morning, I was gone. He lifted his right arm and gazed at his hand. This is his hand, he thought, helplessly. He's holding up his hand and looking at it. It was incontestably his hand, not my hand. He's starting to freak out a little, he thought. How could he have lost his self? Where did it go? How could he get it back? As he pondered these weighty questions, he realized with some concern that he didn't care that much. He didn't care enough. He cared about as much as he would if this were happening to someone else. Which, it seemed to him, it was.

He watched himself get out of bed, make coffee, perform his usual routine. He called in sick to work. His boss, Mike, answered.

"Hi Mike. It's Chris."

"What's up, Chris?"

"He won't be able to come in to work today."

"He? Who's he? You?"

"Yes. Him."

There was a pause.

"OK. Are you OK?"

"He hopes so. He just needs a day off, he guesses."

"Why are you referring to yourself in the third person? Are you fucking with me?"

"He has to, Mike. He's sorry." Chris cleared his throat, knowing the odd effect his words must be having but incapable of using any others. "The first person seems to be gone."

Another pause.

"He's serious," Chris continued. "He's sorry. He's not kidding."

"OK, Chris. Just try to get some rest or something."

"Thanks, he says," he said. "He'll see you later."

"Bye!" said Mike with a puzzled laugh.

Now Chris dialed his psychiatrist's office. The receptionist, Sonia, picked up.

"Sonia, it's Chris Mitchell. He has an emergency."

"Who are you?"

"Chris. He's Chris."

"Why are you seeing 'he'? Who's he?"

"He is him, Sonia." Chris was sweating now, lost in the depths of his confounding malady. He always did sweat a lot, he thought.

"Wait a minute. Tell me who you are."

"Chris. Mitchell."

"OK. And who has the emergency?"

"Chris Mitchell."

"Uh, OK. OK, Chris. What is the emergency?"

"He thinks he's stuck in the third person. He thinks that's what happened."

"Is that why he – you – keep saying 'he'"?


Sonia made an appointment for him later that afternoon. That meant a few hours of this strange new truth to endure alone. Well, not exactly to endure. To watch himself endure.

He decided he should lie back down. He decided he should lie back down.

What was he going to do about this? What did it mean? he thought, staring at the ceiling, with the faint yet vexing water stain in the far right corner. He's thinking about the water stain again, he thought. In fact, he's thinking about the fact that he's thinking about the water stain. The more he thought, the more he realized that he could, in fact, not "think" about anything. He could only think about thinking, he could only observe or experience anything from degrees away. One degree if he was lucky. He felt like he was three or four steps removed from what was happening now, what was happening now, what was happening now, what was happening now. Like he was reading a book about someone watching a TV show about someone watching the movie of his life. That's how far away he was from him. He was the actor in the movie, not mehe was the person who used to be me. Now I was spiraling away through layers of reality, with no sign of any end.

He began to feel nauseous. Somehow, he managed to drift off to sleep.

When he awoke he felt much better. In fact, he felt something glowing within him and radiating out his limbs. Was he cured? He thought about it. He thought about whether or not he was cured, he thought, and realized he was not. And yet, he felt whole in a sense that was both unfamiliar and undeniable. He thought he might have located I again, but not where it was supposed to be. He watched himself check the clock. It was time to go.

Driving in his car, he felt a dawning kinship with the occupants of every other car and the people on the street. He identified more with them, he realized, than with the strange and lonesome ghost whose eyes he saw them through. He parked in the medical center lot and went inside.

"Hi Chris," Sonia said.

"Hi," Chris replied. "How am I?"

Sonia smiled. "You're just fine!"

"No, no, not him. Me. How am I?"

Sonia stared blankly at him. He was convinced, more than he had ever been of anything in the world, that he was her. More specifically, that the deepest part of himself now rested within her.

"Have a seat, Chris. Doctor Manning will see you soon," Sonia finally said.

"Thank me."

When Chris entered the doctor's office, he had exactly the same feeling about him that he'd had about Sonia. This was not Doctor Manning. This was him.

"What's been going on, Chris?" the doctor asked.

"He's me. And he's me, too!" Chris said, pointing towards the door in the direction of Sonia's desk.

"Slow down. Who's 'he'?"

Chris pointed to himself.

"And who are you?"

Chris immediately pointed to the doctor, and then back at the door, and then out the window in various directions, indicating his profound conviction that he was everyone out there.

"Chris, you're suffering from a very rare disorder called subjectivity fugue. I'm going to write you a prescription."

The doctor clicked his ballpoint pen and scribbled on his pad. He handed the slip to Chris.

"Take one of these pills tonight and you'll be yourself tomorrow morning."

"I'm an amazing doctor," Chris blurted.

"Thank you Chris."

"He'll see me next week."

"That's right," the doctor smiled. "We'll see each other next week."

Chris got the prescription filled on the way home, watching in a daze as he took his insurance card, as he handed him the package with the pills inside. He was the surly teenager on the sidewalk outside, he was the old lady walking her dog, he was each half of a bickering couple getting out of his car. He was every human being, doing everything they do, feeling everything they feel, suffering, lusting, hoping and despairing. His consciousness stretched out around the world and penetrated every single person everywhere.

When he got home, he slammed the door shut, trembling. He knew he had to take the pill. He knew he knew he had to take the pill. But did he want to? Did he want to? If he were him, would he want to? What did he want him to do? Did it matter, really? Clearly, it didn't. What benefit might there be to reentering this shell, this deteriorating soul trap with its petty comforts and its woes? Was it not better to observe it from afar, through billions of other eyes? Did he care? What did he want?

He sat on his couch and thought about it all a little more. Thought about thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking about it. He watched himself noticing the blinking light on the answering machine and getting up to play the message.

"Chris, it's Mom. Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Chris, happy birthday to you! Haven't heard from you in a while, how have you been? Things are good here, Dad's getting better. The azaleas are in bloom. Give us a call. We love you."

For the merest fraction of a second he was jolted back into himself, into a realization that he might yet be himself, that it was not impossible nor undesirable for him to clamber back into this vessel and to continue to meander down its senseless path. He opened the pill bottle, quickly so he would not have time to interfere with himself, don't think, don't think, don't think, don't think, and he was a bit surprised to see himself pop one in his mouth and swallow hard.

I woke up early the following morning. I was looking through my eyes. I was turning my head, I was making a fist. I was thinking about my job. I was remembering my childhood. I was hungry. I had a hollow feeling in my chest. I was sad. I was aware that I had given something up, something enormous, something priceless. But I was me.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Untitled Story

This is an untitled story about nothing, set in the void. No one's in it. Nothing happened before, nothing happened now, and nothing happened ever after.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Poser

He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk for no reason, peering up a building down the street. It was as though he'd remembered something but that thing was nothing. He rested his left arm over his abdomen and placed his other elbow on the back of his wrist so that he could perch his chin on his knuckles in the manner of The Thinker. He stood this way for several minutes, abstracted, perceiving the stream of pedestrians eddy around him and thoughts empty from his mind.

A young Japanese woman, giggling, stopped and furtively took his picture. He didn't protest, nor turn to her and smile back. In fact, he felt bound to remain still; the conical beam of her lens's field seemed to have a paralyzing power. Other people took interest in this odd scene: A chubby, middle-aged man took a picture of his own. Seeing this, another man took a picture. Then another. And then another woman did, with her cell phone camera. Through it all, he stood resolutely immobile. He would only permit himself darting, peripheral glances at his photographers; he thought they might be smiling, but it was hard to tell. Was this a joke?

A small crowd had gathered now, some taking pictures, others peering over shoulders with prurient curiosity. He stood at the center of it all. The indisputable object. No one had ever seen him like he was now seen. He liked it. Yet it alarmed him to realize that if he didn't move, this might never end. Finally, he raised both arms and faced the semicircle, a gesture signifying the completion of a performance and acknowledging the spectators' role. Someone began to clap. And then a few more. Soon the entire group was applauding with such enthusiasm that he felt he had to give a little bow. He strode deliberately forward, mind and heart pulsing, and the people parted for him, creating two neat rows through which he might regally proceed, and finally he was born back to the callous crowd, anonymous, coming to a crosswalk just like anybody else.

The experience left him aglow, like he'd taken a drug. He walked home ten feet off the ground. The following morning, he went back downtown and found a bench in a plaza between some office buildings. He experimented tentatively with several postures, positioning his limbs at certain angles, unaccustomed to being so conscious of his body. He finally arrived at a simple pose, cross-legged, hands gripping the bench seat on either side and eyes pointed directly forward. An unruly troop of schoolchildren passed by, led by their weary teacher. A homeless man fiddled with the contents of a trash can. Men and women strode by in business clothes, heads down, purposeful, unhappy.

Then he saw a couple stop at two o'clock. The man pointed his way and spoke to the woman, who ducked her head to listen as she peered toward the bench. Then the man took a picture. Passersby traced his camera's gaze to its target. Some kept walking. Others stopped. And as they stopped, more did. Soon there formed a gallery, astir with exclamations and gestures.

"That's him!"

"That's the posing guy!"

"That's him from yesterday!"

"That's the poser!"

Everyone who had a camera or a camera on their phone took pictures. Someone even ran behind the bench to pose with the poser. And again he remained still. People took pictures from either side and from behind him, too. Some came close and, kneeling on the cement, took theirs from two or three feet away. New arrivals, merely curious at first, were quickly indoctrinated as spectators to the picture-taking and then as picture-takers too. The crowd grew bigger than it had the day before, and he waited for perhaps an hour before getting up to face the crowd and again indicate the end with raised arms and a bow.

Every day he found somewhere new to pose: the train station, the shopping mall, the courthouse steps, beside a sculpture in the park. He'd vary his posture, too, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, sometimes lying down. Resting his hands on his hips. Gazing skyward. Burying his face in his hands. The crowds that gathered to photograph him grew larger, and the sessions longer. He became a phenomenon, a legend, all the more sensational for his singularity. He was the Poser. He was the one. No one else was him.

He was intoxicated by the attention at first, and now felt nourished by it, sustained. He'd never really known who he was, but now there could be no doubt. There was perhaps less doubt about who he was than about anyone else in the world. Major newspapers and magazines ran articles about the "Poser craze." Television crews appeared at his sessions. Academics and pundits speculated about his significance, viewing him variously as a symptom of dehumanizing modern life, a response to the bankruptcy of new media culture, a cipher upon which we seek to project our hopes and fears, a scapegoat, a Messiah. Reporters hounded him for interviews but he refused, believing that he only truly existed when he was still and quiet and the cameras were watching; everything else was nothing.

Every morning a crowd waited at his door and accompanied him everywhere, enthralled, awaiting the moment when he'd stop, stretch and shake his limbs, then configure his body into the position of the day. Tourists came from all around the world. He recognized devotees among the throng, sad-eyed men and women who took his picture every single day. He received every imaginable kind of fan mail: extravagantly erotic invitations from women; death threats; the desperate, semi-articulate pleas of the lost. There were copycats in operation throughout the city and elsewhere. But everybody knew there was only one of him.

Gradually, the fulfillment he drew from posing began to ebb. He felt trapped, put upon. Whereas at first he was in focus, now he was a target. So many people felt so many different things about him that he knew himself less and less. There came a point when he could hardly recognize this so-called self. When he posed, the burden of identity mounted with each click. Who was he now? And now? How about now? He'd crossed the sacred line between trying and pretending and now he was the worst kind of fraud: an impersonator of himself.

Eventually he realized, much as he had on that very first day, that this all had to come to an end somehow. So one day, he stayed home. An hour or so after he customarily left, the pounding and the shouts began.

"Come out!"

"Come out, Poser!"

"Pose for us!"

The crowd began a chant, tinged in equal measure with longing and reproach: Po-ser! Po-ser! Po-ser! Po-ser!

After two days and two nights, there was silence outside his door. He stepped out. The landing was littered with trash and debris but there was no one in sight. He walked down his street in peace. He entered the corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes, some milk. A woman stood in the aisle. When she saw him she gasped and dropped a bottle of iced tea onto the floor, shattering it in shards and amber splatter. She did not look down.

"You're... you're the Poser," she stammered.

"I, well... I was," he said.

She tilted her head and looked for a moment like she was about to cry.

"Pose for me," she pleaded.

"I don't do that anymore," he said.

A man came around the corner behind her.

"Pose for us, Poser!" he demanded, waving a camera.

"I will not," he said.

The man, too, seemed on the verge of tears.

"How dare you give us something and take it away?" he howled.

Soon everyone in the store had gathered around him and he had to force his way to the door. The crowd followed him out the store. More joined on the street, swarming around him, barking at him, cameras at the ready, awaiting the slightest moment of immobility. He forced his way forward, waving his arms and shaking his head, trying to ignore the clamor. No one touched him – it had always been taboo to touch the Poser – but they circled as close as they could, backing up when he stepped toward them, moving in just as he stepped away.

"Stop moving! Stop moving!" they commanded. But he continued, blinded on all sides, knowing not where we was going. What mattered was to move.

As the curious procession traced its devious path through town, disagreements flared. Some took pity on him and began to advocate leaving him be. A debate began over the nature of his new and steadfast motion: Some said he'd transcended stillness. He'd never pose again because he'd reached the end of posing and come out, flailing, on the other side. This contingent began to refer to him as The Man Who Keeps On Moving. It became as important to these people that he remain in motion as it was to the others that he stop. The orthodox insisted that he was and always would be the Poser and that a poser must pose; not only is it in his nature, it's his moral duty. A fight broke out. Flying fists, staccato shouts. Twilight came and the diamonds of broken glass beneath his feet indicated that they were somewhere on the dilapidated edge of town.

All he wanted to do was get back home.