Instrumentality

by Paul Hansom

I see things as they really are, without secrets, sly duplicities, undisguised by propriety and the belief that when one speaks, one speaks in code. I see the yawning nothing behind it all.

And I resolve myself to silence.

Deeper.

Quieter.

Until I am the mossy hush of a well, a single drop of water falling every thousand years.

I will become chilled peace.

This is the simple truth of my condition, and of all conditions. Sixty years ago, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, the host of fleeing Frankfurters, stood exactly here dreaming of American salvation, Nazi destruction, smiling in the rain of Thousand Bomber Raids, the sun sinking into dry Topanga Canyon. Proof they were not mad.

Now the sun sinks the same.

I have swam ten lengths in the pool and sit in a garden chair watching the dull summer party.

What is going on?

I take a breath and flick the tireless ant off my leg, feel the sun warming my skin.

I have smiled all the smiles I know, have grinned every grin, frowned and nodded and listened until I am a well-rehearsed mask. I have said everything in the world, smart things, stupid things, profound things, hateful phrases, loving phrases, words that mean nothing yet pass for culture in this banal circulation.

Listen.

On the balcony, an exclusive chatting circle makes a fuss about the plastic cups, insist on using the stem-ware for their middling Chilean Merlot. And when Angela, the host, relents, they strike up a spirited drone over the merits of lingerie outlets: Barney’s or Sak’s?

I leave my chair, clamber down, around and over the house-stilts, avoid the

hair-filled coyote dung, weave into a child’s playpen, buried in the flowering bushes. I find a swing rusted like an ancient statue, test the chains, and take a ride.

Angela follows me down, hidden behind alcohol.

She appears eager, earnest, her moon face matching my up-swing back-swing, chasing me with questions of casual sex, morality, the possibility of experiencing real pleasure.

“Tell me who,” I ask, my feet in the sky.

“You know,” she says.

“If I knew I wouldn’t ask,” swishing back behind her.

“You should know,” she says.

“I don’t know.”

“I can’t say,” she laughs.

And so on, until I’m lost in her evasions, and she is frustrated but still unwilling to clarify who she is really talking about.

“Just give me some words.” I stop the swing in a puff of dust. “Any words,” I say.

“Guilt and vulnerability,” she replies.

I twist the chains into a knot and let myself go in a spin. I say dizzy things, telling her none of it makes a difference, that she shouldn’t moralize because it has no place within modernity. “It doesn’t matter, Angela. You hurt only yourself,” I say. “You introduce pain where it’s inappropriate.”

“Oh wow,” she says.

Oh wow I think, forming my mouth around the words in silence.

“We’re two adults talking like teens,” I say. “Which isn’t necessarily bad.” I begin to swing again.

“You’re a guru,” she insists, trying to flatter me, to keep me asking questions about her.

I keep swinging and listen to her leave.

“Goooooooooo–rooooooooooooooooo.”

And I laugh.

***

In the kitchen I fix a char-scabbed hamburger and drink yellow beer.

A small, desperate crowd gathers around a man busily separating seeds and stems from his marijuana. He efficiently scoops it up with a credit card, neatly transferring it to a rolling paper without losing a shred. Within seconds he has produced a tight, perfect joint, that passes from mouth to mouth. They smoke, then smile at each other.

People leave their chairs, go nowhere in particular, roam the house. Other people fill the empty chairs and look at the group greedily smoking and chuckling.

A dog named Theodor sits down next to me, I pat his head. He moves his mouth with wet jowl sounds, placing his cool nose in my palm. I pick up a rubber ham-chop and throw it for him. He lunges, grabs it, and it lets out a piercing squeak. Theodor runs away.

I see a book on Edward Hopper, decide not to open it because it demands to be opened. The book is too insistent on its alienation, a weak reflection of the real thing.

“Angela, why don’t you play the piano?”

“God,” she says. “That’s so old fashioned. We should invite my Grandmother.”

She laughs for someone else’s benefit. I look over my shoulder but there is only us.

“It might be nice,” I offer.

“I can only play TV tunes,” she says.

“Which?”

“Not the full versions. Just snatches, you know?”

“Which?”

“I can’t play,” she says and leaves the room.

“That needn’t matter,” I call after her.

On the balcony, someone bangs the green chimes repeatedly, laughing to himself, re-performing a joke about accidentally banging the chimes over and over.

***

Mr. Kurtz is right — never fight human impulse because that is all you are. Always be native. Self control avoids recognizing what you achieve by being that person. You are like you to achieve a purpose — understand that purpose, and you recognize the limits of that performance.

I suggest this to a friend.

“You’re such a romantic,” he says.

“Be reasonable. I just want you all dead. If I could erase you all, I wouldn’t have to worry about who I was because. . . there would be no audience. Don’t you see that?”

He pauses in thought, calmly weighing my proposition, his eyes unfocused, glassy.

Suddenly I am in the bathroom looking at my chlorinated hair, the skin peeling off my nose, a ring-rack in the shape of penitent hands. I see my mirrored face, hear the phrase “my face” echo behind it, and stare at the familiar image, framed.

Mr. Kurtz. . . .

I tear out a nose hair and return to the party.

“Why am I romantic?” I ask the friend.

He sighs, takes a long bubbly gulp of beer, setting the bottle down calmly.

“Because,” he says, “you can’t have an effective solution on your own. Not on an individual basis. You need to look at the mass.”

“But I don’t have the mass. I have me. That’s it. I have my individual wiring which happens to be stretched out across the mass.”

He nods at my point and brings his finger tips together like the ring rack.

“We are more alike than unlike,” he says. “Your needs happen to be the same as other people’s, as mine. And all we have to do is make that clear.”

“To?”

“Everybody.”

“And then. . .?” I ask.

“And then we’ll know what it is we want, where our interests lie. Then we can be alive, rather than always pretending to be alive.”

“But where do we start?”

“I don’t know,” he says.

***

I drive home listening to the radio-shiver on the AM frequency, numb. The empty road enters my car, passes through me, leaving me alone in the immense night of the Twentieth Century.

I fully understand what he said, but I know my own words carry a truth too obvious to acknowledge. I might be afraid of myself.

I stare up at a massive billboard stretched across the street, announcing the arrival of a new retail kid on the block. A baby sprawls on the sixty foot space, happily

pre-programmed, fully integrated into the coming culture.

What would it be like to avoid seduction into preordained fantasy?

What would my own needs look like?

Home, on my sofa, I reach out to the centerfold. Her body is arched at an angle putting her anus, vagina, and mouth on the same level. Oiled, shockingly lit, she is reduced to a cipher, a neat sum of her holes.

She is a woman only by implication.

I dial the number at the bottom of the page and give my credit card details.

“Hello,” I say.

“Hiiiiiiii,” she croons.

“I saw your picture and I thought I’d ask if you’re really committed to what you are becoming.”

There is a short pause and she says “Uhhh. . . .”

“That’s not a trick question. Why do you do what you do? What are you about?”

Her pause is longer and she hangs up.

Of course.

I understand this, tune my radio to the station of historical emotions, listen to the endless fascination and preoccupation with sex, and the dogged fear of loneliness. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, all these songs pit romantic insistence against catastrophic, primitive urges, neatly packaged into three minutes.

But I know how this logic works itself out. I know the ending.

The very fact I am alive long after the actual, physical recording itself, means I am the living embodiment of its implied assumption.

I am an icon of this triumphant culture, living proof of the death of myself.

 

THIS

has defeated Fascism, outspent Communism, and is now simply, perhaps even beautifully, the most powerful cultural system that will ever exist.

History has stopped in my living room because it no longer matters.

I listen to another song, think about life before rock and roll, know that was sixty years ago, though I live it and experience it as a perpetual now:

The Ford Motor Company provides an assembly-line understanding of the world, from the production of completed cars and trucks every fifteen seconds, to the smooth-rolling smoke-stack crematoria of Eastern Europe. Fired by nods at efficiency, cost-effectiveness, belief, opinion, the common good, expert solutions to pressing problems, the simplification of life through the suffocation by luxury — then is now. Seconds later in my mind two atom bombs explode in the race to end a war so the next one can begin. We destroy the Japanese to make them in our image.

These things happen in a world as real as this one — only now they are quaint morality tales for the ways we don’t want to live.

It makes perfect sense, but I’m saddened by the limits of my analysis.

My bones sag into the sofa, into the cheap fabric cover. I suck in air, puff out air, listen for the steady pull of blood in my delivery system. I am the most sophisticated organism on the planet. I resolve myself.

To silence.

 —
Paul Hansom’s fiction has appeared in venues like New Letters, Chicago Quarterly, Storyscape Journal, and the Southern California Anthology, among many others. He has an MFA from USC, and lives in Ithaca
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