[ToC]

 

2 STORIES

Ethan Feuer

 

 

First, when we turn twenty-seven, or thereabouts, we begin cutting holes in our sleep. Not big, gaping holes like we have in our round-the-house clothes from years of washing them with coins left in our pockets, just waking up cross-eyed and slowly, not remembering our dreams.
     These early gaps in unconsciousness are shaped eccentrically, and sometimes we find them exciting for this, put our heads up into them and look around inside, laugh at one another gaily in the dark, prod our regions of tenderness (ribs, clavicle, navel), or make love in the time between whenever this is and morning, like the hours are some tent over our heads.
     These are good days.
     Our neighbor cutting the grass begins to make us sad also. It is not due to his halting way of pushing the mower, though his movements, stiff and lopsided, fill us with premonitions of our loss and diminution, and he sometimes wanders our block house-to-house like a victim of some terrible theft, but no: it is the splendid fescue and bluegrass that filled his property, points grown fine as eyelashes, cropped now to blunt-tipped nothings, and their ejecta (evidence you might call it) wicking into damp boules of rotting green on the roadside even now, producing the smell that attracts us and our neighbors to the scene, has us remark to one another without irony on the advent of spring.
     Nothing attracts people of our description (age, town, subdivision; inertial tendencies, stubborn happiness in the star of our careers) like green things cut down.
     We conceive a daughter, and at work you begin to work negatively. At home, so do I. You design parks for a living, and where you had once been (so to speak) filled with park, overflowing, practically, with notions of park: #57 unwashed gravels and grading schema, root ball installation instructions, handrail welds, ingenious maps of subsurface drainage, now you become measured and pragmatic. The standing afternoon meeting is moved to the morning, and you begin to question your team as to what this park is trying to be exactly, and if maybe it wouldn't be better to work in the opposite way, that is, to subtract everything that is not park until the thing before you is the only possible definition of parkness.
     When you mock up designs in model form, you no longer use glue and basswood, or clay; you work in foam, paring away unwanted corners with a taut hot wire. On your computer, a footbridge is fashioned by subtracting a cylinder from a rectangular prism. A hill is made by shearing away the shape of the digital skyline from the digital earth.
     We begin to clip our fingernails more often.
     That night when you tell me all this, in the middle of the night, of course, when we have arrived at a hole in our sleep, I laugh out loud and startle the baby, our picture of health and beauty (but not yet patience) who we like to nestle between us at night, to watch unconsciousness pass through her like a needle through cloth; but because she is still ours and helpless yet, we can't envy or begrudge her even the least thing, not even sleep.
     She cries as I tell you that I have started to use words (for my articles, research, stories, you know) in just the way you describe: assembling great blocks of them in place and peeling back connotations until I have nothing left but a single ineluctable principle. Sometimes, I tell you, soothing our daughter, I remove too much too readily and all I am left with is an odd stump of a thing I don't even recognize, a half- or quarter-thought that won't bear my weight. A three-legged table, a hairline fracture of the ankle. These are my thoughts lately.
     Mine too, you say, We must be getting old.
     Nonsense, I say, at our daughter's eighth birthday party. She saddens me by cutting her cake with a knife. I miss when she used to spread it all over her face and lick her palms. We barely sleep at all now. We live in our holes, more or less. When we talk to your brother or my brother or your friend or mine on the phone we don't say what we did, we say what we didn't. I didn't get the vacation, promotion, prescription, illness, the vote. I didn't have time, I didn't sleep enough, I didn't need to be there. I miss when our daughter used to get splinters on the swingset (the injection of a positive volume into a positive volume, I might aside, a boolean union) and come in crying to me, when she did not know how to count above twenty. I miss her leaping onto my shoulders from the kitchen table, the sofa arm, the patio, anywhere high. But that's how it is when your daughter is off to college. You miss the little things.
     You ask me about the thing I am writing now.
     Right now? I say. My hands are grown stiff from all this writing.
     Yes, you say.
     Well, it's the same thing as always, I suppose. Things that happened to us, how we felt about them. I am trying to simplify.
     Such a nice word.
     To remove everything that isn't essential.
     As if we were young, you say, Everything is essential.
     I say, Our brains have already made the decision to forget more things that happened to us than we will experience in the rest of our life. Think about that.
     That's fucked, you say.
     That's why I'm trying to stick to essentials, I say.
     Our favorite thing now is to remove tarnish from silverware, clean the gutters, hang up on our daughter after a really average Sunday afternoon conversation.
     Our favorite thing now is to wipe the heels of our hands across fogged-up mirrors after we bathe. We joy in purging occlusion, exposing familiarity. We come so close to producing new things in this way.
     Sometimes now it upsets us a little to lie awake in the quiet hours between sleep and morning. We ache for time to pass more quickly. At least we have each other, we say. But the birds don't start singing til five or five-thirty; we have spent most of our nighttime topics of laughter, our tenderest places have all been priorly pioneered.
     It's not a lack of creativity, it's an absence of desire. People spend their whole lives looking for what we have in the dark, we say.
     My favorite thing now is to write in the dark, where I can't see the pen. This way, no one (viz. you) can even tell the difference between when I lose spatial awareness of the pen (produce forms that aren't letters), and when I simply give up for awhile to draw looping shapes that I know mean nothing but which I hope will appear in the light of day as sincere attempts.
     The park you were working on back then is long since completed. You have made others, but this one is nearby, and it was the first. It was built according to specifications, more or less, but with something so large and complex, there is always a lot of digression from the design, no matter how precisely formulated. Almost every time we go there, it seems, you remark upon some new flaw or idiosyncrasy: erosion of the gravel pathways, thinning of the overstory, emptied planter beds, misalignments of paver to bench, bench to post, post to river.
     Our favorite thing now is to find typos in magazines.
     We reach the place where the river path turns away into the dense, silvery woods, and you do it again: What is that, you say, pointing to a cylindrical cavity in the earth beside the path. You approach it, peer down inside. The mouth is rimmed with rust. You can't figure out what it is, and I can see that this baits you terribly. I offer to climb down inside and see, but you say no, let's go together.
     Still, I climb down into the ground first, and in helping you down, grasp you about the ribs as I used to do. Strangely, although it was our curiosity with the pit that brought us down here, now that we are subterranean, all we care to do is look up at the sky. It is a brilliant circle, framed by the oculus of our hatchway, crisp at the edges like some starched shirt, paper animal, sleight of hand. The space is tight against our elbows; we feel one another's breaths. We crane our stiff necks, unable to muster interest in anything but the blue, the gentle movements of leaves. We grin until our cheeks ring.
     We found a secret, you say.
     Will you write about this? you say.
     Did you design this? I say. Are you fooling with me?
     No.
     Well, will you always put one of these in every park from now on? I say. A secret, just for us?
     No, you say, smiling.
     Will you write about this? you say again.
     The sky is enormous, constricted, shatters me with color.
     I will remove everything else, I say.
     There will be nothing but this.

 

 

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RANGE

To choose one sock from each of infinitely many pairs of socks requires the Axiom of Choice, but for shoes the Axiom is not needed. —Bertrand Russell

East of town is the mountain, the top of which is too white to look at. The top is too white to look at is how it is always said around town by the folks who were born here and plan to die here, but the phrase and the girlfriend never did get along. Are we saying, she would say, that the snow is too bright, or that the mountain and the sky are too alike, or that the peak of the mountain gets lost in the clouds? The top is too white to look at, they would say. The boyfriend didn't like when she pinned the townspeople to the walls and demanded explanations of their mountain. Zermelo, he would say, because that was her name, please stop. He doesn't love the town, but he got to hate the girlfriend. Zermelo. After a stretch like this she went east up those hills some folks call beneath but which she always insisted were more properly before it, the mountain; she went up and good riddance, but now he's told she's come back with a real son-of-a story.

Seth says she came back down the Dawn Face with a cowboy hat on her head like it's mid-July and she's some Texas Ranger, but the snow drifts are seven feet deep. The sun will be out for all of five hours today. Short days kill the boyfriend. He's sorry if he ever took that out on her, even if she never helped. It's the sort of town with a luncheon after Sunday services where everyone can discuss everyone else's business. So if a someone's other half is back in town, even if they're neither of them active members of the community, even if the snow, etc, someone will come knocking to shoot the bull. And this is Seth, who comes to his door underdressed and shivering as his way of saying, May I come in? So he lets him in and the first words he says are: "Hey, has anybody told you that Zermelo is back in town? She came back down the Dawn Face late last night." Seth is warming his hands over the electric range. He's got frost in his mustache. "She always liked hiking in the pitch black," says the boyfriend. "It was her way of showing nature who's boss." Don't you want to come? Zermelo would say. I've got the trails memorized. I never fell so far.

He guesses it wasn't that she was so bad or he was so bad per se, only more that their relationship had been dropped on its head as a child and never recovered. It would saunter back and forth between sites of its damages and joys in irretrievable loops. They kept breaking up and getting together and breaking up and getting together until no one in the town could even remember which it currently was or how many times it had been the other. She had originally picked him up in front of the Kroger on Old County 89. It was a rundown crab shack of a building, cinder block ugly and vile silicate taupe, with several neon letters defunct so that only the lemniscate figure of the k and o and g together still lit up. It was raining and he was waiting for the bus when she pulled over, rolled down her window, and told him a very funny joke involving multiple male waiters that he could never quite remember after on his own. It was less than a mile to like her. In this way, in her flawless memory at least, he guesses he's missed her.

They wouldn't call a man without a head a man; it's a corpse. You can't have a loaf without heels. What is that? It's a metonymy of bread. Maybe future toast. But it gets confusing. (Gets?) Half of figure eight isn't four, it's an S—but two S's aren't eight, they're Nazis. You see what I'm saying? (He wouldn't.) It's not a full picture, and each look up there (she points) should be an act of interpretation. It's not even the figure of a mountain, it's they figure it's a mountain. These are all things she would say. "She's a bundle of nerves, that one." That was his mom's "two cents for the record."

Now she wouldn't hit him, or even put him down exactly, but she always had to be the smartest person in the room. He liked that when she did it to the right person, but she could never control it. She would take him to a bar with her friends and make a comment about Zorn's lemma ("the film, not the lemma"), or the cardinality of so-and-so infinities with other kinds of infinities, and then ask if he hadn't done his thesis on that. (Sarcasm.) Then she would mess his hair. Or when he brought her to things with his friends, she wouldn't have anything much to say, like they all bored her half-dead. At parties they threw together, which nobody much attended, she would stand alone in the corner by the bookshelf, resting a tumbler up by the biography of any tortured genius, and pointedly brush its spine with a finger with each retrieval of her drink.

From time to time she would abandon the direct approach and try to sidle up on the townspeople's indifference. Do you think that the hills are part of the mountain, that all of it is a part of a range? she would ask them, seeming innocuous. Do you know what an axiom is? she would ask. It's a premise of inquiry. It's choosing to believe something so that you can make an expedition. Their shrugs would send her into secret furors. Back at the house, the boyfriend would try to suggest their equivocations meant something—a yes, a no. He tried to play the townspeople's side for her sake. But this too made her angry. That's just you talking, she would say. That's why we're the only people we can talk to in this town. Maybe you should just leave the mountain alone, he would say. They don't like to talk about it. What bothers me isn't their reliance on axiom, she would continue unhearing, it's how agnostic their axiom is. 'The top is too white to look at, but did you hear so-and-so's back on the bottle?' Their unwillingness to speculate on anything vital. He can hear her say this and he finds himself smiling. Her logic comes back to him bone-sharp and nostalgic, like a phantom limb. This thought fills him with guilt and doubt. Truthfully he can't remember whose idea it was for her to leave.

Seth explains that Zermelo told a story to the clerk at the trading post this very morning that so frightened the clerk that she rushed outside without even a jacket on to check that the sun was still in the sky and the town still in the valley. In the time she was outside, the clerk did not observe the valley to move. The story of the frightening story reminds the boyfriend of something, like he has heard it before. Perhaps Zermelo has torn down the mountainside with such a story before and he has simply forgotten. He has such a terrible memory. He thinks of the slightly paranoid joke they tell in the town: that on the other sides of the mountain, too white to see the top, might be other towns not unlike their own. Zermelo didn't like this joke very much. The first time she heard it, she stole a nervous glance at the mountain out the nearest window. Later, she was angry with him for noticing her discomfort. At the very least, he misses this strange tic of hers. Her tender fear of unlikely possibilities. Seth leaves later in the morning after the boyfriend promises to fill him in on "everything"—whatever that means.

Her father called her Emily or Emmy, never Zermelo. It was the two of them on the phone sometimes. Pacing outside the diner, for example. The boyfriend didn't hear a ton, but he heard enough to know that her father wanted her to come home. It was strange to think of Zermelo as being out there with the boyfriend, under the shadow of some distant range, and father wanting Emily to come home. She had admitted to him once that Zermelo wasn't her birth name, he remembers that now. He had laughed and offered that names were just something other people agreed to call you. Hey now, she told him, you're sounding like me. A little later, they were broken up again.

He drinks coffee and watches television in the hour after Seth leaves. He imagines he can feel her now, out in the town with her story like a seizure aura. The local news is interviewing a professor from the nearby university about his new book. The man looks like an undiscovered species of root vegetable. "I am interrogating the implications of reciprocating currents," he says, "or the theory that an initial wave within a closed system may propagate indefinitely." "Like weather?" says the newswoman, checking the clock. "Maybe," says the professor, retreating into his beard, trying hard to look inscrutable. Zermelo's memory made the man look stupid. She would never back a statement with a broody maybe. Then they cut to commercial and he's thinking of her, freeze-framed in the laundromat on Reed Street, silhouetted by rows and rows of identical glass-faced machines, sharp chin cut by circulating unsorted colors, formica countertops, and magazines with all their faces ripped off. In that memory she looks beautiful. She is just back from the mountain, he realizes, all her clothes dirty. She is about to tell him a story, she is folding a shirt. This has happened before, she says. I tell it to you, you tell it to me. But it's new every time. And maybe we fight, but we make it new. I want to know, he tells her. I'm ready. But after that he can't quite remember. Only looks out the window and thinks: I'm sick of this quiet, I'm ready to see her. The arguments they had are always hazy and indistinct, and the good stuff is crystal clear. That has to mean something.

He has not forgotten either the pleasure of waking up touching someone's hip in the morning. In the sheets of thick snow that coat the town, everything seems eroded. He feels a little sorry. Depressions sit in the skin of the street, smothered footprints and tire treads. Everything appears as something else: firewood to pillows with wet black edges, gravestones and hydrants to toadstools with great white hats, slung tablecloths on the roots of trees. His sounds are muffled and thick on the way. He is looking for that silhouette from the laundromat, perhaps to apologize (he has not convinced himself completely), if not sincerely then functionally, or to ask if she wants to go to the diner, to again explain pedantically what everything means to him and bowl over strangers' objections to her wild theories. If she will tell him her story that frightened the clerk and remind him of whatever it was that they were fighting about before, if she wants to.

He reaches the town square, a sad little courtyard paved in slate (invisible) with a small fountain, an industrial dumpster in temporary storage, and two rows of empty racks used by the florist in better weather, snowed over and chained to a lamppost. The square has two arched entries, east and west, through a low building that defines its four sides. The building has a projecting eave, the underside of which creates a covered walkway encircling the square. The eave is strained and thick. The building houses variously the florist, trading post, hardware store, town hall, post office, and a tourist-facing chocolatier, closed until spring. The girlfriend sits on the snowy slate with her feet planted and knees bent double, smoking a cigarette. The red dot of ember seems to possess the entire scene. Above the line of the eaves, superimposed on the page of sky, sits the mountain like a cropped white fulcrum.

*

It isn't possible to see what they're talking about, now they are talking. The boyfriend can be seen to approach the girlfriend; his recitation of her name can be read on his lips: Zermelo. The girlfriend looks up at his voice, but her expression is clouded by the snow, suddenly dense. They are risen now, talking, two figures near together, but their voices are dampened to white. When he reaches out as if to touch her, she retreats. An exchange of some kind occurs, a story, something vital. It's a silent movie. For a moment, there are an endless number of ways it could be. The boyfriend turns on his heel and runs from the square.

*

The girlfriend opens the door. The constable has both hands in his armpits. Two weeks have scarcely seen her leave the house, so she's a little tongue-tied. "Come in," she says. "Let me take your hat." Constable sits. Girlfriend sits. Her hat and his hat are on the wall. She asks if he would like some tea. "No," he says. He says some people in town are saying her boyfriend's gone missing and asks her if it's true. "No," she says, "he's not missing." "Well no one has seen him for some time. Somebody said you two had a fight." They talk in this vein, he repeating accusations various and she denials until it actually happens, almost by chance: she thinks of him. Years ago. He is in front of the television in sweats as she steps into the mudroom. It's warm indoors and smells like orange beef and he smiles to see her. She has just come back from an afternoon in the town of trying to corner the mountain. She is angry. Do you think that the hills are part of the mountain? she had asked them. That they are all part of a single range? But they didn't answer. I've been thinking, he says, about us. Would you ever want to get—but she interrupts him. I don't want to live here anymore, she tells him. With people who don't want to know. He rises, tries to hold her; she moves away. Maybe a shrug means they agree, he says, but they're nervous. Maybe a shrug is just somewhere to start. After all, a range is a range whether we can see the tops of the peaks or not. You're wrong, she shouts at him, suddenly loud. There is something ringing in the memory, the sound after a loud sound. If just beyond the cloudline the mountain continues to rise for ten miles, she tells him, and every mountain after that is ten miles high, then that's the range, and all this we can see isn't anything. Her voice is so loud it almost erupts over the threshold of memory. It's nothing! she shouts. Well, he might have suggested under her voice, there's only one way we'll find out. But if he says this, he says it into his knees on the sofa. She realizes he is crying, years ago. I don't like it when you shout, he tells her. It feels like you're shouting at me. I'm sorry, she says, and moves to be next to him, I'm sorry, I'm not. But neither of them really believes her. They entered a steep decline after that, she remembers, broken again. Their lows are inevitably too low to weather. Does she really even believe in relationships at all? And that constable—she can't think for his noise, on and on in the background, his voice like a flea in her ear: she was seen such and so and that means the other thing. And she turns to him. And she says to the constable, she says, "See, this is what I don't like about this town. You're all so wackadoo zen for your mountain—we don't have to look at it, we know it's all white and no top so why even talk about it—but you lot gossip like there's no tomorrow. My neighbors will have more to say than I do. So we fight. We're taking a break. That's all. The usual. Constable, in all honesty, I can't believe that you think anything other than he's gone up the mountain, and I don't see how any of my personal arguments, stories, theories, or thoughts will change that or, really, are any of your damn business. And that's all I've got to say on the matter."

He strings out the dead air between them and says, "Well." He moves to tip his hat, but since his hat is on the wall the gesture becomes a strange caress of his own face. He returns his hand to his lap. He repeats "Well" and says that since the boyfriend's gone missing she'll have to expect she'll be asked about it. "Did you ask him when I was gone?" she asks. He says he supposes so. "And what did he say?" About what you did. "Right. And how many times has this happened?" she says. He says he couldn't say exactly. "Exactly," she says, "You couldn't say." There is another silence like the first silence after she gave him her mind. The constable is heavy and causes the chair to suffer. She has the immediate feeling that the chair is going to explode. Maybe it does. "Well what exactly is the deal between you two, then?" he says. "I don't know," she says. "You figure it out."

She goes for a run through the town. A fog from the hills has settled down into the valley. It grays grass and makes signposts switch places. It packs her lungs. She crosses her loop at the square, makes an eight. She likes to look the clerk in the eye. The thing she likes about eights more than rings is the crisis, the cross. Every loop, however many loops maps exactly one intersection. She's trying to learn to expect things, but she never will learn. Not everything maps, but she tries. The boyfriend eventually comes back west down the hills after the mountain, the top of which is too white to look at, and he brings a story. The mountain stays where it is. Mapped ranges stay where they are. The story's beginning is always the same: east of the town. She could wait for the end, but she doesn't. She interrupts, leaps into the middle. It's where they're together. It's frustrating and it's new, always. And for a moment, it could be anything.

 

 

 

 

 

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Continuity of Holes: This story plays with the concept of booleans, specifically as they apply to 3D modeling, where unions or subtractions of volumes create new composite forms. In gestation of a life or an idea, I thought, we begin similarly: with a pristine form that only becomes unique and precious as we puncture, truncate, and otherwise desecrate it.

Range: Range is an attempt at giving fictional form to the Axiom of Choice, which axiom (very) loosely put might read: even in the absence of a determining factor or rule, it is possible to make a choice.The axiom was controversial for a long time in mathematics, although it is now generally accepted.