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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Congratulations to Lucy Corin who was recently awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Art and Letters. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Lucy’s work, you can start with this story published in issue 33. After you’ve fallen in love with her clever prose, buy her story collection The Entire Predicament here.
First my arm moved in an arc, and then the bee burst and lay ruptured, opened, entirely unhuman on the kitchen floor, as if my body and my mind had nothing to do with me at all. Angela’s allergic. My wife too. But I know what I look like. Go ahead and do your worst when you put me in your imagination. I am a large and ugly man, but I do not deserve to kill anything.
Moments later, looking at the black body against the blackness of the dustpan, I saw it was not even a bee, but an ordinary housefly.
Meanwhile, my mouse epic raged.
“Live and let live,” I told Angela and my wife.
“Dog eat dog,” my wife said back.
We regarded the sounds in the walls. We agreed we had nothing against mice and sharing the wealth. But still, I could see there’d come a point. After a month the dog stopped tracking, and soon enough, if he lifted his head he did so as he would were it me, or Angela, or my wife skating the baseboards, burrowing through blankets, trailing pellets, leaving urine residue behind, and finally what it comes down to is that grossness overwhelms the overall adorableness of mice. I try to resist, but in the end I just won’t let them take over my stuff.
I know there are bears on a mountain in what—Montana? A bear is bigger than me. A moose is bigger than me. A moose gets mad but eats grass. This is what I considered at my desk at work, my office bulging light into the hall through its open door. Outside I knew sunlight smacked itself against the tower walls, still somehow leaving the windows gray. “Come on in here,” I could say to any of the people who worked up and down the hall, but I didn’t. “Take a look at this, see what you think,” I could say to Mike, who I did like to talk to, and then he’d come in with the whole bundle of his life experience strung through his weird body. “Pull up a chair, Mike,” I could say and run anything by him. Mike had a nodding chin and his own mousy affect.
Is this about germs and the smallest of life-forms?
Have I mentioned how huge I am?
I am a sort of opposite of life under microscopes. Life under microscopes is celestial, and I am the hairiest sort of American.
At home, my wife was focused not on me, not on mice. Mice were between us, one thing made of its duplicates. Also between us: sad air pulsing from her newspapers, humming from her monitor, springing from the television. Mice, and news of the world, and who would hold out longest within his or her perspective. My wife held out longest, even after one leaped from her boot, even after one galloped around the tub as she bathed and one trotted across her keyboard as she read. It was I who said, “Goddamn it, they could stay if they’d be civilized like all the other animals who live in this house!” Angela still wore diapers, which stretched my point a bit. She walked with a rattle in her fist, this thigh-high Godzilla, not quite a baby and possibly slow. Godzilla, I’m insinuating, was no Mr. Stephen J. Einstein. Darling blob of potential. What could she become? I pictured, with warmth, a fireman.
But a couple months later you really couldn’t cook using pans like that, and a family’s gotta eat, and they dragged stuffing from the couch, and a family wants a nice couch, so, okay, I decided to get rid of the mice, but I wanted to do it right, right with God. Well, if you’ve tumbled off that cliff, you know where it goes.
I went ahead and told Mike at work. “I’ve been through this very same thing,” he said in his nibbly way. I knew from the past that he was raised in the woods, played a lot of bow and arrow with his twin brother. Primarily homosexual. All around way closer to nature than me, as nature mostly came to me when I looked in the mirror and thought, What the fuck! They burn the fields at the edge of town every year and mice run into the complexes, so he had experience. Mike recounted, fingers in his lap, going to the store and picking glue traps, thinking, I can only imagine, that if you don’t actually kill the mice that’s the better way to go. “There are many available options,” he said. That little man spent the next week washing glue off mice, shampooing mice in his sink, rubbing them down with a terry cloth. “Remember I missed a meeting?” He had to get the last of the crap off the last of the mice from the weekend and drop it, smelling like apples, back in the smoldering field on the way to work. He got a flat tire out there. Came in with his knees smudged from the carbon on the ground.
God, that idiot Mike, he’s the nicest of anyone you ever heard of. Nice, nice, and with integrity. I gazed at my reflection in the sleeping monitor as he spoke, stars going by. I was so brown and far away.
So with this in mind, down I go to the local Saw This and stand at the rack, try to imagine myself as a hero, sacrificing one noble thing (sanctity of all life) for another, the one where I will do anything for my family. I studied the packages of mouse-poison pellets: cardboard cheese-shaped wedges on which were drawings of a mouse, flat on his back, tongue hanging out, feet in the air, Xs for eyes. Like mice are blind, I thought, sarcastically, as if someone, the world maybe, were watching me think. Like mice can’t see that picture. I thought of the rodents and bugs in commercials, their conversations about their fear of death. There must have been a seamlessness between me and the commercials to make me believe in mice this way.
What a variety of methods hung before me. I had been known to call our company hotline anonymously to discuss my ethical concerns. Also, when I pictured myself as a hero, do you know what it included? It included that long trip down the dark hall of my office and into the false light that bulged from my open door.
I chose no-kill traps, gray boxes with sliding lids, no larger than mice, but I pictured them in action, a small black hole in the night, and remembered that mice feel fine going into small holes. In the pet department the local shelter displayed puppies and cats, adoption forms, and bumper stickers. My orange basket swung from the crook of my crag of an elbow, and I felt effeminate, which naturally I rarely feel. In cartoons, the mouse lifts the hole from the stone wall of photographed ink so that the chasing monster smacks into it. I let the handle slide into my fist. Small plastic boxes jiggled in my basket. “Set them up with peanut butter in the bottom,” said Mike at work. “They can’t resist,” he said, and wiggled his fingers as in he can’t resist either.
A long time ago, and present in my mind with the mice, was a shot in a movie we were watching, me and my wife, a movie about the future, back before anything had happened to us. The hero, this guy in this fix, looks on the computer at a picture of a cornucopian street market filled with beggars and shoppers. The shot shows him swooping the view around, and looking close-up at parts of the picture. Whoosh, whoosh, the baskets of flowers, the glossy bins of fruit and fish, an old man’s hand grasping, a ragged girl’s rags ragged, the windows in the background kaleidoscopic with reflections. Then, in the corner, is someone’s sleek white arm with something along it, peculiar, which he zooms in on. It’s shiny and metallic, the barrel of a gun held by someone outside the frame, and he zooms in until he’s filling the screen with the grayscale sheen—this is the key motion, this rhythmic going into depth—and reflected in the barrel is the convex face of a woman in sunglasses (a spy!), so he zooms in on her with this infinite mechanical perception possible only in this land of the future, because back in Antonioni it was photography, not video, making this same move, so the image grew increasingly close and increasingly particulate at once, both more and less visible, because to see anything up close meant you had to have been there for previous, more distant shots in order for this new image to make sense, because meaning came from perspective, it came from context and from history, otherwise up close all you had was an abstract shape or pattern—well, at least that’s how it was in the days of photography.
But here in the future, reflected in one lens of the lady spy’s sunglasses, is a shiny wall, so he zooms in and it’s a whole city reflected in there, a crystal palace of towers bursting with light. This city of light is divine, you can tell by the way it fills the screen uniformly, making time seem to hover, here in this clarity, as the hero’s vision continues to move—forward, closer—pushing and then expanding, from one clarity to the next, into depth with perpetual vision. Now the reach is limitless, and the scene stops only when he finds what he’s looking for.
Sunk in the dark in the movies, a midnight show, back before Angela even twinkled in our four moviegoing eyes, which, if you looked at them, held the movie in them, I looked at my wife, who was not even my wife yet, just someone I wanted to fuck, and I could see that nothing at all was happening to her as she watched except maybe she was worried about the guy’s problems, whatever they were. She could just have it: that pure uncluttered connection. But for me, it was like I was watching the shape of everything, because I could see now that everything had infinity going on within it, which I sort of knew already, but here, infinity was suddenly this thing I could move into when I had never thought about doing that before.
I didn’t do it. I didn’t move into infinity. Not back then. I mean, how do you do that? I mean, it was only a date. But I could see it. I could see it happening.
I got home with the traps and my wife was watching TV in the dark in the bedroom and eating a popsicle, something I actually don’t find sexy, and I knew she was going to drip. I took Angela to the kitchen and sat her on the counter. I could hear talking heads and explosions. I took the peanut butter out of the fridge and let her try to unscrew the cap while I tore the box traps out of their packaging. Just as she was about to cry because she likes peanut butter so much, I opened the jar for her and let her have some on a spoon. Then I scooped some more out with another spoon, and it was cold, and the stiff natural kind, so I rolled it into a ball and dropped it into the little plastic box. Angela showed no interest but I still felt like a hillbilly loading a gun. I felt dumb in my muscles. I stood there in front of Angela so she wouldn’t topple from the counter while she ate her peanut butter, watching her moony eyes as they wandered the kitchen within the world of what she was tasting, and then I lifted her down, took both our spoons, and washed them. I wanted the mice to go straight for the traps as soon as possible and not get sidetracked. Angela sat on the floor. I put traps along the countertops and in the cabinets and set their dainty lids.
I don’t think there’s a single political thing that my wife and I disagree about. The difference is that my wife, at least then, liked to know the specifics. Every new instance of brutality astonished her; every unveiling of corruption took her breath. I knew her to pace through the night.
Far away, in the kitchen, I thought about how Angela had come from me, but only in this totally counterintuitive way, via my wife. My wife, who looked at images of people and saw reflections of herself.
Come closer, I kept trying to say. Come over here so I can see you.
I could feel myself negotiating whether or not to feel this other person’s unhappiness. So what if you feel it? It’s still there, but now it’s spreading.
We are all unhappy enough.
Then I looked at Angela and it felt obvious: here she is, as if I am made of her. Here she is, obviously, and miraculous.
Took a week, but we caught one. I put Angela and the dog into the car and we drove with the plastic box to the edge of town. My wife stayed home. She said she’d prefer not to come as she was fine with the mice, being, naturally, a generous and compassionate person.
“You mean unsanitary,” I said.
“I mean fuck off,” she said and went back to stuffing herself with news.
I unloaded everyone. We were all really excited: Angela was moving up and down at her knees and saying, “Huh, huh, huh,” wearing a bunchy pink sweater, and when I lifted the lid, the mouse sprung into the air with all its limbs loose and flailing, its fingers spread like a cat pouncing on life itself. The dog lunged on his leash and the mouse bounce-bounce-bounced into the black and gold field. Clouds puffed around the superblue sky. I laughed. I looked at Angela, thinking we were sharing this moment of freedom, but she peered at the ground as if this one piece of ash was exciting in a way that the others were not. It doesn’t matter, I thought. She feels it in the air.
But in the evening I did the bills at the dining table and one ran across my foot. I could see it through the glass top, looking exactly like the one I’d released. I realized I’d sort of imagined only one, maybe two. Mice are so identical, appearing on one and then another side of the room as if by magic, moving through walls. All that damage. Now they could be filling the walls and if I slit one with a machete they’d spill out like organs, or like corn from a sack. This could make the species more impressive, or less.
My wife had been taking a long bath with the paper. She came out in my robe and stood behind me. She put a wet candle from her bath on the table near the bills. I could feel her presence changing the air.
“Are you trying to be romantic?” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe. Sort of. I’m going to bed.” I shifted my bulk so I could look at her, trying to gauge her tone. I could see the atrocities she’d consumed shining behind her eyes, as if she’d been hollow before. She had not been hollow. I remembered.
But even in the times I remembered, she might have been sad.
Next when I checked the traps and a lid had closed, it was raining out and I was on my way to work. I shook the trap to be sure there was something in there but I wasn’t sure. I put the trap on the counter and it didn’t move. Then suddenly it moved, tilting and rattling. I put the trap in my coat pocket and kissed Angela where she sat in her mother’s arms. At our feet the dog swept his tail across the floor. I said, “Honey, I don’t have time to take him out if I’m going to stop at the field and release this mouse.”
“Okay,” said my wife, and I could tell it actually was okay, although it could just as well have not been okay, so I left. The moment warmed me a little. Good dog. I felt a little rise of hopefulness. But then it was cold out, and the rain hurt. The field looked like a Beckett play. I felt like a giant. I mean I could really feel my enormity, shoulders holding the coat wide, how imposing my hat looked on my head, how moodily my eyes squinted and scanned. My nostrils felt cavernous, pulling in the air and giving it the shape of my body. Densely black crows pecked in the field and lay against the gray sky like holes. I took the trap from my pocket and opened it, but nothing leaped out. I tipped the box and a tiny mouse fell from it and landed in the cinders, very young, with just enough soft brown hair that it was clumped and wet from sweat or urine, shivering, pink limbs and tiny blind face, curled like my thumb. I don’t know, what was I going to do? I looked at my boot, the boot of a man who knows how to weld, which I did for fun once a long time ago with an artist friend. I rushed to the car and pulled out of there like a coward.
What happened with Mike’s arrow is one day he shot his brother in the back. The boys were six. Their parents didn’t believe in toys. Nature was their toys.
I read a book where all that happens is a woman kills a cockroach, a translated book, from some place where cockroach might have a nicer name. You go through space and history in the woman’s mind while she considers killing it. She’s a maid. I kept reading, but I didn’t like it. I say this because mice had taken over, implying everything, including the feeling of being in one room with my wife in another room and I’m not sure if she hates me, or just everything but I’m nearby. I felt haunted by her and she wasn’t even dead, just across the wall from me. I felt this a lot, and especially in the kitchen, especially if Angela was already in bed so it was just me and my wife awake in the house, usually me in the kitchen, producing the assertive clinks and patters of home, calling to her with the dishes and the turning of water on and off, the dull percussion of drawers, all this SOS.
I felt something else too, a feeling like I was evolving. But evolution’s such a funny thing, as if it has a direction. It really only has the direction you’re looking in.
In the bright kitchen, when I closed my eyes, I saw the box traps encircling me from the darkness inside the gleaming cabinets. In the light I imagined the dark, and within the dark, dark holes where mice might go. With my eyes closed, I imagined my wife in her den. What made me go in? I knew the dog lay at her feet and I felt so alone once my daughter was asleep.
“Honey,” I said. She was sucking on a strawberry licorice whip in the shadows. Most of the computer was filled with text, but the corner of the screen held a photo that I did not want to actively take in. I stood behind her, above the blur of her hairline, the soft curling hairs that didn’t make it into her ponytail. I said, “I wish you’d stop eating that stuff.”
“Reading, babe. We call it ‘citizenship.’”
“Honey,” I said. I put my hand on her shoulder, which twitched. I tried to leave it there for her to relax into, but the shoulder didn’t relax. Under my hand her muscle was a separate animal in her body and something rose in my gut as I stared at it. My hand on her shoulder, her shoulder refusing my hand. In my mind I pushed back on what rose.
“I’m a citizen,” I said. I said, “We call it ‘the working man.’” I could see the side of her face shift but I couldn’t tell how.
“The Man, maybe,” she said. Still, I could not read her tone. I reached with all my capacity and I just couldn’t tell if she hated me or if she believed we were amused at the same thing. I wanted us to laugh at me together. I wanted, perhaps, also, to laugh at politics.
I mean war.
And then I didn’t want to be the sort of person my wife laughed at.
I had to muster something in order to move forward in the conversation.
It was so hard to push the moment forward. I am so huge, and it was so hard to make anything move.
“It’s just that it’s hurting you,” I said.
“Not like it’s hurting them.”
I could feel her mind swoop behind her and see through me. She exhaled sharply and then clicked her mouse (her mouse! I almost retched from humiliation at this connection) and then boom! the image filled the screen: a bombed open-air market, bodies, babies, blood, rust, burst animals and fruit, a soldier with his rifle slung over his shoulder, holding an arm in one hand and a chunk of bloody hair in the other, probably from a person I could see part of, caught under the rubble, who the soldier might have harmed, or might have been trying to rescue. The soldier looked blank, paralyzed, lost in this gory plenty. I saw all this in an assault, as if she’d bludgeoned me in my sleep, and I had to pull back with my mind, assert the flat haze of the photo’s history, its multiple reproductions, and register the texture of its transference from medium to medium, reiterate how far it had traveled and how that movement had coated it in layers to help separate me from it, life and death to camera to newspaper to Internet, all that travel, resting now under the skin of her laptop.
I tilted her chair back into me so I could look down on her face.
There was her face, which I know.
I let myself relax into this perspective. I let myself enjoy it in a way that tickled the edge of cruelty.
She let her head drop back into my stomach. She took the licorice from her mouth and laid it on her desk next to her pencil. She let me look at her.
I know what I believe. I knew what needed to happen. “Get a cat,” Mike said next day at work, as if that’s a mature thing to do is get another living being to do your dirty work. Anyway, Angela’s allergic. I went back to the Saw This. I looked at the guys and the lesbians loading lumber onto a truck in the rain. I went in through hardware and to the garden center. I bought those old-fashioned smacky spring traps. I bought like ten.
At home was a note. My wife had taken Angela and the dog on errands. First I cleaned the kitchen, keeping an eye over the breakfast bar and through the dining room window for them to come home. My cleaning was exhaustive and exhausting, but there I stood, heavy in the sparkling white room, and still they hadn’t come. Then I sat on the linoleum and set the traps. I put three of them under the sink, where I thought mice were getting in near the pipes. I put peanut butter on some, cheese rind on some, and pushed them into place with chopsticks. Then I waited. I stretched out on the clean floor on my back. It felt nice. It felt cool. I could see some of my nose, past that some of my belly, and past that, if I lifted my head, my furry toes. I let my head fall to the side and looked down the slope of my arm to my fist. I was a clod of dirt. Where the fuck were they? I thought. Evolve like what?
I woke when the door banged open, and as if I weren’t there I heard the panting dog trotting to his bowl, the rhythmic clanging of his tags against it, the huge noise of water, toenails, wet breath moving his mouth flaps. Angela made her babbling noises and my wife—I could hear her putting stuff on the dining table and pulling out a chair—made happy little noises back at Angela. If you don’t talk to her in actual words she’ll never talk back! I wanted to say but then I felt overwhelmed with the happiness I heard in their voices. I moved my eyes around and everything I could see was white or shiny. From this perspective, on the floor behind the countertop, their voices and the whiteness were singular, synthetic, and filled everything. I supposed, perhaps blithely, that I felt like the mouse and mice I’d been imagining.
Angela toddled around the counter and into the kitchen, hands and face sticky and pink, wearing a head kerchief with tiny apple trees on it and a pacifier on a string around her neck. She did a little rocky dance when she saw me, and burbled. Then she went over to the dog and splashed with him in the bowl. The dog sat and they did a funny negotiation over the water with their eyes. I saw the feelings move across her features in shades of light like fast weather. Used to be, as I understand it, people thought of feelings not so much as things that come from people as things that circulate the earth, and people get caught in them, pass them along, or travel along within them. All these feelings that could have come from anywhere and there they were, on Angela’s face. I listened to my wife’s noises a little more and then, finally, I heaved myself to a squat, and I don’t know why
. . . well, I do . . . but I coiled myself up and I sprang into the air and spread my body as wide as possible and yelled, “Surprise!” My wife dropped a grocery bag and laughed while a dozen rosy fruits slid around her feet. “You monster!” she said, and because I left my arms open she strolled into the kitchen and then into them. She put her hands on the back of my head and lay her eyes on mine.
I said, “It’s just that I caught you being happy.”
She grinned and winked at me.
“Let me show you something,” she said. She scooted back to the dining room and returned with a damp flyer. It had a drawing of a bloody fist on it. “These people,” she said, beaming, “are not sissies. I went to my first meeting today. I’m in a swoon.” Then she whispered, “We’re underground,” and almost trembled.
“What do these people do?” I said. “March?”
“We’re huge,” she said. “And yet invisible!” She scooped up Angela, carried her to the sink, and began to wipe her hands and face with a sponge. “We’re one made of many.”
“Like what, a march?” I said.
“You just murder your mousies, mister,” she said with a wiggle.
Oh, honey, I thought. “Like what?” I said. “A cult?”
She put Angela back on the floor and came over. She hopped into my arms and I held her with her legs around my waist. Angela came over and put her arms around my leg. I could hear her sucking on her pacifier. The dog came over. He sat at my other leg and dripped water onto my foot. We stayed there for a while in a clump.
I thought I heard a trap spring in the night. I moved through the house in the dark. I felt so hungry. In the kitchen, in the stove light, I went through the cabinets checking the traps, but part of me was scanning for food. I know it’s not so much that I’m hungry when I do this as that I want something and I know there’s food in the house. I could see well enough to see that none of the traps were sprung, or maybe I just knew by my sense of the shadows as my eyes processed them. I did not want to turn on more light and blind myself. I was, in fact, a little afraid to turn on the lights because of having seen, when I was a child, a mouse with his head crushed in a trap, a mouse spotted brown and white like my long-escaped hamster. My father had placed the body on the kitchen table and explained several things to me about nature while we sat across from each other and looked at it. Weather cycles, he explained. Food chains. He loomed there like the future, like me, projected on a large screen. My father, speaking the truth he believed, as if translucent.
I opened the refrigerator and stood spotlit in the cool light, filling the frame with my silhouette. One thing I know from the past: if the blood and guts are from someone you love, there is nothing disgusting about them. I know this from a car wreck. I know that if a person’s insides are hanging from her body and you love her, you just want to lift them and nestle them back where they belong. Say she’s your sister, as she was my sister. If her blood is everywhere you just want to gather the blood into your arms and keep it from leaving. You love the blood because it is her, and you cannot bear that the blood is merging with dirt and grass. When I look at images of people from war with their bodies scattered, I can’t tell you what is going on.
I don’t know what it means or doesn’t mean if I don’t look.
I don’t care if we are all connected. I want what’s mine.
I didn’t have to worry. In the morning the food from the traps was gone. I replaced the food, reset the traps. A week later, one and then its twin mouse skittered, furniture to furniture, sleek and fat. I began to despair. The kitchen was as if I’d never cleaned it, the air heavy with mouse. I went to work with my teeth gritted and a throat of lumps, knowing the mess I’d find on my return. At work, the office hall stretched and I felt lost even though there were no turns. Meanwhile, my wife became happier and happier. Her grin grew sly. Time slipped. She wore tighter jeans and clingy undershirts. She looked lean and more muscular, and this I did find sexy, yet entirely unapproachable, like a movie star, like she was teasing me. The dog was mostly asleep from so much action in my absence. He’d sometimes come to me with a look like, “Save me.”
Time, time, time.
“I don’t know, I don’t know . . .” I’d shake my head.
“You will, you will . . .” she’d sing-song back.
I refused to picture what she might mean.
What is it exactly that you do all day, I phrased to myself and did not ask aloud, now that you are not depressed? Most wives with little kids, they’re running around with laundry and toys, to-do lists dangling from their pockets, their hair all over the place, the dog dragging dirty diapers around the house—who wants a wife like this? not me!—the baby sticking its fingers in the sockets, the phone ringing, the garbage disposal shooting sludge, the tub overflowing, the baby tumbling down the stairs or getting peas stuck up its nose, the dog hauling in a dead rabbit and digging up the rosebushes, the TV loud with the picture flipping in ribbons, electronic robots muttering the alphabet, the baby slipping on magazines . . . But they’d become so happy—angry sometimes, usually at this one guy in the group who my wife thought was a pussy, and when she’d say his name and look at Angela the two of them wrinkled their noses and stuck out their tongues—but happy. They had in-jokes, the two of them. And they were developing a language. Not English. It was part baby talk and part something else that sounded sophisticated and ancient. They were always home when I came in, and the house looked just as it used to—messy—but now they spoke in their secret language until Angela fell asleep with a great collapse from a busy and important day.
Once, I cornered Angela by the dog’s water bowl, squatted as close to her level as possible, and looked at her, searching for our connection. Had there ever been a connection? I tried to remember. “Come on, give your old dad a try!” I said. “Come on, I’m a clever bastard!” But she looked at me as if she actually understood my words and I was weird for even asking. Honestly, though, I could’ve been projecting refusal onto a face more blank than I knew how to recognize. She zipped her lips and issued no peep. She tugged at the hem of her jumper. She moved her head a little, as if she were testing her neck out. She laughed and sunk her fist into the water bowl.
The dog licked drops from the linoleum.
Something secret happens between blood and grass, something underground.
Once, after dinner, my wife looked up from their syllabic exchange and caught me staring at them from the kitchen.
“Tell me,” she said, half-shadowed, lording over the table with a pair of wooden salad spoons, wearing a bandanna like a TV gangster, “what exactly is it that you do all day?”
Even at eight in the morning artificial light bulged from the open offices and darkness pooled in the recesses made by the closed ones, the offices like nubs on an ancient insect that can glow or not glow. I walked as if on a conveyor belt and nodded as I passed Jeff, then Benny, then Elsabeth, at their desks. The hall was so long. Mike’s office, staggered across from mine, remained dark. I unlocked my door and looked at the window. The building was situated such that even on a clear bright day, as this day was humming up to be, the windows remained a weakly illuminated and purblind gray. Outside were walls from the building next door, but something about the angles made this impossible to see from inside. Our windows teetered as if between elemental phases, like clouds pressed into shape. We were alchemists, like everyone in the whole economy. We were trying to turn our spittle into gold. Every day I looked at my hand and dared it to move over the phone to call the hotline about my ethical concerns. I pretended to dare myself because I thought it’d be funny. I didn’t call, because by then I knew it was not funny. It was not spittle. It was not ours. I knew better than that. I knew what it was we made gold from.
I heard Mike coming down the hall. I could tell by the way he scurried. He said, “Hi, Jeff! Hi, Benny! Oh, Elsabeth, I like the hat!” and bounced along the walls with his briefcase, which I knew very well enough to imagine. His keys jangled against his door as he unlocked it and then I could hear him pouring himself tea from his thermos, which made an empty metal sound. He said, from behind the walls, “Good morning!” to me. I wanted to call him over and run the home situation by him, but I worried that I had the power to get my wife in trouble, which made me feel powerless; it was humiliating to have a secret and not to know what the secret was, to be forced into complicity because she knows I have always pictured myself doing anything for my family. She seemed to taunt me with her understanding, and then I said, in my mind, to soldiers chest-deep in tanks like bathtubs: “Look at my wife and I’ll blow your fucking heads off.” I thought about searching the computer for some ideas, but then I thought about being surveilled.
This got me pretty deep into midmorning and on my way toward lunch. I sat at my desk. I looked at the window. I tap-tapped along, as if my fingers were not mine, and my mind floated about the room like a piece of weather. I considered Mike. I tried to think of something about Mike that I admired that would explain my consistent desire for his counsel. I didn’t know much about him, but the thought of him cheered me. He drove a tin can of a Honda hatchback. He lived by himself in an apartment. I realized I was afraid to tell him how I was beginning to feel about the mice, how I wanted them dead, dead, dead. I thought this might be why I wanted, rather, to tell him about how much I wanted to fuck my wife. I thought about his homosexuality and imagined I could get really graphic and specific about my desires and he’d just understand in this way that someone else would jump in with what he wanted to do to my wife. I could picture Mike nodding more and more kindly the more I let loose with my ideas. I looked at the window and my mind hovered in the spaces between the series of walls surrounding Mike and me. I shifted the focus of my eyes and saw the whole hulk of me in the window, dense in the glazed-over glass, craggy as a bare mountain, my mouth limp and bulbous, my eyes drooping and protruding, my teeth pressing against my jowls. No one this ugly should get to do anything.
Throughout the day the gray of the window darkened and my image within it evolved and devolved, by which I mean shifted. By the time the office closed it was dark outside. I stopped at the bank and took out some money. I think I thought, What if my wife is running low on cash and I can just supply it, snap of the fingers? At home they were watching the television in the bedroom, all three of them, all shadowy on the coverlet of blue roses. The dog lifted his head and thumped his tail when I looked in. My wife lay on her stomach, propped on her elbows, her hands full of colorful wrappers and her mouth full of something sticky and sweet. She looked over at me and said, “Mmm?”
Angela sat nestled in the curve of her mother’s waist, sucking on a carrot, and light changed her skin in flashes and waves. The light moving across my baby’s face . . . what can I say? It horrified me. I thought I could see a talking head superimposed on hers. I wanted to pull her from it as from polluted waters. I resisted and resisted abducting my daughter from my bedroom. I could see the light turning her into someone, ruining her. My body filled the doorway with fat, and hair, and muscles. My wife looked at me, still chewing, and her face and eyes said, “What? Bug off.” So I shoved myself from the doorway and went to take out the garbage. I took the canister out from under the kitchen sink, thinking how kitchen sink means more than everything, i.e., something impossible, and then, when I lifted the bag, this is what I found amid the commentary and explosions: the sudden stench of a mouse that had died under the liner, and stuck to the mouse a maggot so white and fleshy I could see within it the black seed of a developing fly.
The next day I bought a cardboard wedge of poison granules and placed it near the sink pipes so they’d land beside it upon entry. I put a safety lock on the cabinet and within two days the house was littered with radioactive-looking mouse pellets. Two weeks later saw an influx of large slow-moving flies that I knew came from inside the walls and inside the bodies of the mice that had died, growling flies that I thought could rupture and a squirming new mouse would leap out. One by one I swatted them with a newspaper. By afternoon the president’s pixilated face was obliterated by the deaths of insects. How dare you, I thought to the president, come into my house and make my wife crazy. Indeed, how efficiently I am able to swat flies. How within my nature it has always been. The paint on the kitchen walls was slightly discolored in spots from where I’d sprayed disinfectant. Angela followed me around as I completed all this. She was intrigued, or she was oblivious. I swept the bodies into the dustpan and flung them into the garden. I sang, “Fly, fly away!” but Angela didn’t crack a smile. I said something about fertilizer, about natural cycles of life, and she remained unamused. She was wearing a t-shirt that said “Let Freedom Rain,” with a picture of a gingham puppy, leash dangling, peeing on a fire hydrant and holding an umbrella. I stared at the t-shirt but it remained both silly and incoherent. I began, again, to clean the house.
And my wife was—what? Brimming, as if I could unzip her and it would all spill out. What would it be? Cells in the shape of her, the many from the one. Now as she read books of histories and revolutionaries, and moved through the dark house and the Internet with a swooping grace I knew only from certain shots in movies, she did so with a large spiral-bound notebook that I never saw unless she was writing in it. She remained not unfriendly and she remained remote. She offered little jokes about mice, my desire to “get them” and my recent success, having “got them good.” One night, while Angela and the dog slept, I stood at the counter polishing silverware and looking out the window over the sink to the moon. My wife came in and took a glass from the cabinet. When I saw what she was after I rinsed my hands and took the water pitcher from the fridge. I met her in the center of the room and poured it for her. I stood with the pitcher and watched the water move in waves as she drank it. I admired the perfect communion of the water, the glass, and the force of her mouth. The kitchen smelled of faraway spaghetti. Under that, the only animal scent came from the dog’s bowls. The romance of domesticity swept into me, I put my arm around her waist, and we embraced with our symbolic vessels hovering in the air behind our heads. We moved a little. My wife has sleek reddish hair and I put my nose into it. I thought about cells multiplying, and my body filling with myself. I thought about men who go to Alaska and shoot sheep—sheep that are so wild they’re as dangerous as bears. Those people think they’re facing themselves but I think they’re not, they’re just being assholes. I’ve seen a photo of a man with a gleaming white ram sunk into his arms and reclined like a woman on a fainting couch, eyes open and behaving in death as it never, in any possible contortion, would have behaved in life, which is precisely what makes the man feel what he is feeling, which is satisfied, and right, perhaps even with God. It’s so ugly. I know it’s natural, but still. “I just really want to fuck my wife,” I said into her ear as sweetly as any words can come from a mouth like this.
“I know you do, honey,” she said. I backed her toward the counter for a step before what she meant sunk in and we released our embrace. I put the pitcher in the refrigerator and paused to let its air push into me. Then I closed the door, leaned on the hulking white thing, and listened to the scraps of paper struggling under their magnets in the breeze that came from the window and the ceiling fan.
I would never get anything right.
I could feel my teeth in my mouth. “I think you should tell me what you do all day with my daughter and my dog,” I said.
She crossed her arms over her chest and let her head fall to the side, thinking.
“Balance,” she said.
She extracted a rubber band from the pocket of her jeans and worked to pull her hair back with it. Don’t touch that hair, I thought. It flowed from her. I wanted to say, Mine.
I said, “You need to be more specific.”
“Entropy,” she said with the band in her teeth. “The opposite of you.” Heat expanded in my body, idiotically, like a campfire marshmallow. She looked at me in a way that you could say she considered me from afar. With her head tilted, her eyes precise, the tone of her gaze forthright, I watched her take in all my available dimension.
She said, “You big, sweet, hairy baby.”
I moved toward her knowing that my face was shifting, in the static half-light, from moonlit to monstrous. “I deserve to know—,” I said. She rolled her eyes, let the band snap into place, and disappeared into the darkness of the house. “What are you going to do?” I called after her. “Are you going to blow something up? What? Are you going to blow yourself up?” When I heard nothing back, I called: “You know what? I dare you! You know what? You should just come on over to my office. You should just come on in and blow us both up!” Then I plunged in after her.
Moving through the house, quickly, quickly, I brushed against wallpaper and caught my robe on a sconce, glided down a hall, and then scraped my feet on something like legos. At first I tried to listen for where she could be, but the rush of organic heat in my head was so loud that I couldn’t hear past myself. My flesh thumped furniture and I kept my elbow trailing along chair rails until they ended and I flailed in a chasm. I swiped walls for switches and gave up. I moved in gushes and spasms. I heaved along and I heaved inside. I felt the press of my toenails. I pushed forward and forward—as if I were moving down one long passageway, scaling boulders and leaping craters, as if I had traveled for miles, for days. When I stopped to listen to my breath in the dark, the carpet hummed under my feet—I could feel its wormy shapes on my soles—and my arms reached like zombie arms, and my face, it seemed to me, in the darkness, had let itself loose; I couldn’t imagine what I could be wearing, only my lumpen body like a formation of lava left to millennia of stasis: crude, elemental, both alien and utterly of my core. I waited, panting, listening to the muscles in my face come into focus, and by the time I spied what looked like a light in the distance I knew tears were forming in my dumb eyes and traveling along my slack cheeks. I pushed one foot forward and then another, moving myself like a dead bear or an armoire, and finally I stood again in the kitchen with the disappointing moon tippy behind the perforated skin of our window screen. I looked blankly at the screen, at a loss as to what could possibly be out there.
I’d run and run, but I couldn’t catch her.
I could feel her, though, filling the walls of the house.
In the dark, in the kitchen, I breathed for an amount of suspended time.
After a while, my wife hovered in my mind, illuminated in darkness like a dessert in the dramatic display cabinet of a very self-important restaurant where I remember being taken, as a child, to eat.
What would she say if she said something?
She said, “I’m trying to protect you.” I suspected she was full of shit, but I couldn’t tell. I said she could not possibly be doing any such thing, because what she was doing was killing me. She said, “I am protecting you in a small way, because, trust me, you don’t want to know. And I’m protecting you in a big way too, because I am doing the right thing, and you are part of the world.”
I wanted to shake her, to move her physically, as if that would move her mind. I tried to remember what she had been before she allowed the world to take over our house and I wanted to strangle her, as if I could squeeze something real from her throat and her lips, because even in my mind she continued to give me nothing. But then all I did, even in my mind, was put on an insolent voice and say, “Angela’s part of the world!” and then Angela appeared, so that my wife could pick her up, spin with her in the spotlight, cuddle her, and say, “She is!”
Angela, imaginary, opened her mouth to speak and nothing came out except bubbles. I couldn’t think of anything to say. So I didn’t say anything.
In madness there is conviction, a direct and mechanical thing that comes from visions. I had witnessed this in literature even if, as yet, I had not been acquainted with the phenomenon in my literal life. It hurt a lot to picture all this, and I was so confused, but then I pushed it to a considered distance. From this distance I thought about it—my wife, her perspective, the life in her arms, the certainty of madness, the impossible things she might actually do—turning it into a cookie and then into a flat stone in my mind, then turning the stone over as if in my hand, looking at it with eyes of glass. I thought, Dear God, the problem is I think she’s right.
When the room ticked into dawn I rinsed my face in the sink, dried it with a dish towel, and pulled my shoes onto my feet. Something had happened between night and daylight, something physical, from science, the way that at the far edge of the big bang theory the universe returns. In this way, microcosmically, I’d changed direction. I’d sucked every aspect of myself from the rooms of the house I lived in and back into the cave of my body. This allowed me to do what I did next, which is that I took my wallet and my phone and I left.
I did the very thing I would never think possible.
It’s just what I did. I went out there. To look. As a camera would look.
Out there, morning air glittered with sprinkler water. I squinted at my neighbor’s basketball net, a giant insect with one compound eye. Mailbox after mailbox wasn’t breathing. Then I watched my feet walk. I filled my frame of vision with my shoes and the slope of the curb. I followed the curb, which could have been moving in any direction but as usual was moving forward, as I was moving forward through the world, not flinching when a car passed blowing tingly particles. I followed the curb forward through morning.
When I reached the burned field at the edge of town, I lifted my eyes and moved them across its speckled pattern of golds, taupes, grays, blacks. With a tilt of my head I could shift the whole acreage from two to three dimensions and then back. The act relaxed me. I entered the stubby field with easy strides. Grasshoppers leaped in an automatic rhythm. I saw hares, and I saw mice. Mice smell of old straw, and old straw smells of mice, and the field smelled of burned straw, burned mice, fire and mice, I was able to think without laughing. That day, though, no crows; someone must have lifted the negative spaces they’d made and tossed them away, so that I walked through the simple space of the air that had been behind them.
In the center of the field I turned myself around. All directions appeared equal. Then I took out my phone and called Mike. Nothing happened on the phone except it was as if he already knew what I was doing, which is a lot to happen, because it’s inexplicable. I think I thought something like, Oh, this must be what they mean by magic. But I was a camera, so I let it go. “You bet,” he said. “I’m on my way.” I continued across the field. My shoes crunched and animals sprung around me in arcs. I fell into a rhythm that included all my senses and then, as I approached the cement on the other side, Mike’s triangular silver car pulled up.
Take me home, Mike, I could say. Take me home because this is not within my nature. But I got into the car. Even though it was so small, I slipped right in.
In the car Mike wore a sympathetic frowny face that I believed entirely. He was all surface, honest through and through. He handed me a styrofoam cup of high-quality coffee. “I thought you might need this,” he said. “And this!” Then he handed me my passport, also magic, and I slid it into my back pocket. I watched the field in the rearview mirror and for some time it filled my vision and didn’t move, until slowly the road appeared above it and then filled the screen. Soon the view in the mirror and the view through the windshield were very much the same. Mike started humming, trying, I realized, to soothe me. I thought of the burned field back when it was just a field, and then I thought of the woods the fields were before they were fields. I thought of the woods Mike grew up in, where, as a child, with an arrow, he’d shot his brother. I noticed that I didn’t know if the brother had lived.
“Mike, am I ugly?” I asked. “And if so, what kind?”
“No kind of ugly I know,” said Mike, which I believed, and which changed nothing.
At the airport we were surrounded by buses, an off-duty ambulance, and a limousine, and when we stopped, I tried the door but the handle didn’t work, so Mike got out and went around. I almost panicked, as if he might just abandon me in that crappy car, but then his gentle face appeared in the center of my window, he popped the door open, and out I sprung. It’s true that I’d always held Mike in a mysteriously high esteem, but only then did I notice exactly how much tinier he is than me. I felt an urge to stroke his head, but instead I hugged him and felt his tiny arms around me. I felt him for a bit, something like an animal, something like a man, something like a spirit, and then he zoomed away.
I traveled along the airport hallways, riding the conveyor belt, watching the travel posters go by: Wyoming, New Orleans, Hawaii, Alaska. I hopped off and let the Alaska poster mesmerize me a little with its blue and white on white on white, its cute and brutal polar bear. Then I joined a heap of people waiting for sliding doors to open and took the tram to international. I did all this mindlessly. I bought my ticket, which had me fly to Los Angeles, where I ate some airport food, and from Los Angeles I flew direct to Moscow.
From within the pointy airplane I pushed through the world. I had my own row, but people swelled around their seats and surrounded me with a blur of uncountable languages. Below, continents approached, and with my mind I zoomed in on them, and could see people galloping, frantic, driven from the house, and among them, the bodies of those who’d been poisoned. I knew what would happen if I were down there with them in their markets brimming with souvenirs. I’d kick them away from myself. I’d drop radioactive pellets into their cups of tin. Look at those people at the bottom of that barrel, snuggled in the dirt of the earth.
The plane was dark, Moscow was invisible, and then it appeared, grew bigger, and filled the screen. Over the years, my images of Russia had failed to remove the big heads of men from everywhere. I was a little surprised I didn’t see them, great banners puffed with wind. I saw a river, a lot of buildings with shiny blue roofs, and I saw the airport. I continued to banish myself. I ate airport food, bought more tickets, exchanged my money. Then I flew to Khabarovsk. I waited three days for weather, then flew to Yakutsk. I waited for a helicopter and then took the helicopter to a group of brown wooden shacks that made up a town with a name I have forgotten. There I bought boots, a hat, and a huge coat of reindeer fur. There was nothing in the wooden shack for me to look into at myself. Didn’t matter. I know what I looked like.
I hired a guy to drive me on his reindeer sled into the wilderness of ice, of mountains, of sky, and a refracting sun of white. I sat behind his furry brown head, and he sat behind a furry white tail. This, I thought, is where lost explorers are lost. This is where men freeze timelessly.
After a day we came across a Yukat longrider on a white pony. My reindeer man talked to the longrider. They laughed, perhaps at me. They knew I was a fool, but they might not have known my cruelty. I gave the two of them the rest of my money, as well as my wallet, my passport, and my phone. The reindeer man drove away, and the longrider let me ride behind him on his fluffy white pony. I loved the reindeer, and I loved the pony. When I saw my first mirage, I poked the longrider and he stopped the pony so I could get off. The snow came around my knees, like Angela. I watched the man and the animal fade into the snow, and even as they retreated I felt I was traveling, moving closer and deeper into the world made up of all its eyes and minds, to a place from which I might be able to see something, and then I watched the trails fill until all directions unified.
This happened some time ago.
The land was like the moon—not the dull and cratered gray moon, but the glowing glazed one we see from our perspective. I remember thinking I had come to face myself, and this is what I faced, this image created by distance. I tried to look around, turning, facing myself in the snow.
I no longer felt like a monster. I felt a little inorganic, and a little divine. I felt the way I’d tried to imagine such unfeeling things might feel.
What I felt like was a lens.
What I am, I thought, is a point of view.
I felt lighter and lighter, and more and more like snow. Here, the world was so close to me that it had become entirely particulate, nothing but white. For a while I got colder and colder in the diffused light, then less and less cold. I could not resist. But after a time, there I remained, the sun forever visible, its broad disk skirting the horizon, in this land of perpetual light. And what is not possible in a place of perpetual light, blinding and infinite? In the seat of frost and desolation the future roils with possibility, and in a land of possibility nothing is irrevocable. The enormity of landscape can elevate a tiny human from all littleness of feeling, and it can make insignificance feel beautiful, like a freedom.
When I got back to my home, like magic, and gazed up at my front door, wondering if it would explode, picturing my dog’s funny nose, my baby’s sweet freckles, the rusted color of my wife’s immaculate eyelashes, I tried to remember:
What goes here in this lit land, in this space of white?
Some form of enormity that is open to beauty.
If only I can remember. If only I can fill my body with it always. The whiteness of the whale and the mind of winter, madness, blindness, silence, and invisibility, all here, and glowing adoration, omniscience, the intricacy of attachment, the welling of love—everything—and shining castles that repeat above themselves . . .
I know what I am. Before the lusty glimmers of the eyes of lovers and rapists we might be anything, but quicker than a quark we turn out to be filled with nothing but ourselves. I know what I’m made of. Here, within the history of the banished and the searching, I could think of our family of cells—my cells, her cells, the baby’s cells, the cells of the dog, the cells of mice, and then of anyone—all round, bouncy, blank, and identical, just as they ought to appear in a person’s imagination. If only I could keep this space of white I would know what to do, because I could do anything. If only I can keep this space of white while I move through the world, then everything will be good, and true, and right.
Lucy Corin is the author of the short story collection The Entire Predicament and the novel Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls. Her stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Ploughshares, Tin House Magazine, New Stories From the South: The Year’s Best among others.