Christopher Higgs

I know two things: John Gardner says stories are supposed to reveal truth, but at the same time, if Kurosawa's Rashomon taught me anything, the event of truth is actually impossible. [1] Consequently, I am less interested in stories and more interested in the perplexity of signifiers: those sticky solutions to truth that seem to surround us like malcontent phantoms. Spirits. Cobwebs. Pushing us to dislocate the signified. A tombstone to indicate the presence of a corpse. A white flag for surrender. A red octagon to indicate stop. The word stop to indicate a request to halt. We acknowledge in these signifiers the manifest reduction from concept to communication, the simplification, but then we neatly overlook the severity inherent in its limiting nature. To say, for instance, Mother is dead, and expect those words to mean what I intend. [2] To somehow enwomb her entire legacy, her existence, her mark on my life and every other life she ever encountered. To plot every vector. To sum up and solve every question. To totalize and trivialize the plurality of her multiple dialectics. To say in one measly signifier that nothing remains of her. She is dead. And that is all? [3] I cannot do it. And because I cannot, I must instead seek solace in myth. [4] Yes, her mortal body perished, seized-up and quit running as if driven minus fuel. Yes, she breathes and eats and sleeps no more. Yes, in a grave she is buried. But a body in repose signified by a tombstone does not define, is not the truth of, my Mother. [5]
     Take the archeology of that home we once inhabited. [6] By the lakeshore. Nightingales. Bird seed in the feeder and sleeping pigeons strewn across the lawn. A glimpse of summertime. Mother made visible by the morning light, at the clothesline hanging undershirts. A whistle from the train passing by. The faint static of television from the front room; my Father and brother arguing over politics. Green is the carpet. How unspecific. Red is the wall paper. But what specific shade, what tone, what color—temperature? White is the ceiling, spackled. Your idea is not like mine, no matter how I describe it; you don't know the signified, so you can only associate with my use of signifiers, we must face it. I'm sorry. Red to me is fainting. Green a lollipop. White a witch for Halloween. Through the smudged-up glass on the patio door, I see. Windows open. Breeze pushing the curtains out. The billow of Mother's cotton skirt. The faint déjà vu of remembering. [7]
      Soap in my mouth for saying the F word, age nine. The whole blue bar. Sitting on the toilet with the lid down. Scared to spit it out, even though I am alone. Slobber and tears everywhere. Mother in the kitchen, I can hear her. I know she has lit a cigarette, I can smell it. Father will come home and she will not tell him what I've done. It is our secret, like so many things. It has always been our secret. And it always will be.
      Born in 1953. The year President Truman announced that the U.S. had developed the hydrogen bomb. The year Stalin died. [8] The year the first color television sets went on sale, and the first TV Guide hit the newsstand. Her Father fought in the war, was one of the first infantrymen to enter Dachau. Her Mother lived in a hair salon, where she worked her entire life. They both died before I got a chance to meet them. Mother was an only child.
      Tan lines at her elbows. Summer of '78. A caterpillar-shaped scar on her right ankle. Fresh blueberries for breakfast. Johnny Cash on the phonograph in the living room. Father watching Jimmy Carter on television while Mother tries desperately not to cry. My brother in jail again. Cigarette smoke. Charbroiled steaks, and Mother eating alone on the front porch. Drinking from a plastic cup. [9] Watching her from my upstairs bedroom window. Wishing she hadn't sent me to my room.
      No more romantic comedies. No more sailing the boat around the lake. No more make sense grown up little kid abstract expressionism. I am six and thirty, I am ten. No more does yesterday matter than today. Tomorrow is nothing until it becomes today. No more phone calls on Saturdays, postcards from Yellowstone, packages with candies and cookies handmade, letters signed with hearts and her name. Never another cigarette. Never another hospital visit. Never another laugh at a joke or a slap across my face.
      Time, Mother said, hates humans. [10] Once, a war broke out between us and time; back and forth the power shifted, battle after battle. Many forces lifted. Brave, scrupulous soldiers with ethics and morals and handbags full of prisoners' severed ears. Little rat-faced smiles. Sick, selfish, rabid and hateful. No wonder Time won easily in the end. But how could there be an end? Time still fights with humans. Mother is gone but time still remains. [11] She told me as much at the age of eleven: we lost the war with time and now we age instead of time. But in the beginning, time aged just as we do. Time got old and died. Time had children. Time held funerals. Time wore black. In the beginning. But what is the beginning? Derrida says it's insignificant: there could be no beginning without consequential difference. The more effective question would be not what but why? Why glorify the beginning? Mother says the war is over.
      Ice cream cones, just she and I. Father at the courthouse dealing with my brother. Rain. Thunder. Lightning. I am twenty. On the couch, watching A Streetcar Named Desire. Thinking Mother more beautiful than both Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski. How panic, in a voice, is never pretty. How Brando was nothing like me.
      Vogue magazine comes in the mail. [12] Mother disappears to the attic. My brother ties me to his motorcycle with a jump rope, and threatens to drag me across the street. I fondle a handful of pebbles I collected on the lakeshore, and consider hurling them at him. Then a fire truck goes squealing past, and he flinches at the sound of their sirens.
      Mother. Once, to gain father's affection. In order to get. Because she wanted. Although he never allowed. By slight of hand. See? I fail when attempting to impose unanimity upon the divergent, continuity upon the disjointed, or compatibility with the incongruent. [13] Story just gets in the way. Heart-lumps on holidays. Paper machines made by imaginary dactyls. No signifier does justice linguistically [14] nor helps to alleviate the metonymic urge to devastate this elegy. When I wake up, forget it, there is no destiny. [15] I wish this were easier. I wish I could make this make more sense.
      Follow her from preschool to elementary school to middle school to high school to college. [16] All the games she played, the knees she skinned, the ribs she bruised, the boyfriends from playgrounds to backseats. All the men with broken noses that she slept with before Father. All the pot smoke and LSD. The time she ran a corvette off a cliff and blew a barn to smithereens, escaping narrowly. Skirts and shoes and socks to match, from frilly to scratched, from thrift stores to boutiques. Having money, losing money. Love letters never sent. Phone calls never made. Wishes never given to falling stars.
      I want to draw the curve of her nose, but all my pencils are broken. I want to spray-paint her eyeliner meticulously. For if and when and never. The soft skin under her chin. The elbow wrinkles. The thick purple veins like vines under the surface of her skin on both legs. The fingernails chewed to stumps. Front tooth chipped and silver fillings visible when laughing. Eyes brown rings like the trunk of a tree. Voice the victim of cigarettes by the billions. Hair never not dyed blonde. Roots never not showing. This whole complex lexicon, an entire language of visuals now gone. [17]
      Plunging the toilet, half past eight, dinner going cold downstairs. Me, not Mother—she is away at her quilting bee. Father in the front room cleaning his pistols. Listening to Led Zeppelin IV on the phonograph. By lamplight. My brother playing his clarinet in the backyard. Three men without a woman.
      Two days before my brother went away for good, but what is good? With what is it synonymous? [18] Why not say instead: two days before my brother went away for bad, which is the more appropriate correlative for the situation. Bad is what he went away for, not good. Rotten, to be precise. But either way, two days before his final incarceration, my brother broke a birdhouse to pieces with a hammer. I watched him do it. Mother watched him do it. Neither of us said anything.
      1983. A brittle kind of foreshadow. [19] President Reagan calls the Soviet Union "an evil empire," and also declares that this is "The Year of the Bible." Gandhi wins the Oscar for Best Picture, and M*A*S*H ends after 11 years and 251 episodes. Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space. Pope John Paul II visits his would-be assassin in prison to forgive him. Mother stops eating and quits her job saving animals.
      Father at the horse track, looking very concerned. My book bag overflowing with all kinds of wet rubbish my classmates stuffed in it while on the school bus. Mother carefully studying the program, circling her choices for the upcoming races. Them betting. [20] Me watching Mother, not the horses. The ugly, pretty crowd. The scent of beer and cotton candy. No brother. Just me.
      The crash of a symphony. 1963. Mother is ten years old. Dressed in her Sunday clothes. The Russian Overture. Sitting in the balcony next to her Father and Mother, both with their eyes closed. Sleeping?
      Stop. Berrigan Avenue. The night my brother disappeared. Father driving circles around the neighborhood, shouting out the window Come home! Come home! Mother holding my hand on the sidewalk. Blood splattered everywhere. The street went quiet. Listening. The sound of flowerbeds crumpling in the moonlight. Wilting. Gone from their passion. But now is not the moment of his disappearing. There is an interval of unexplainable emptiness, not for lack of suitable articulation but rather that moment of quantum fluctuation when objects not being observed skip out on our plane of existence only to pop sub-atomically into another dimension momentarily. You see? Maybe our entire life is actually experienced in that imperceptible interval. And if so, if no one is observing us, then telling a story, any story, must by nature be a lie. [21] Maybe what we think is eighty years is less than a blink of the eye. Time did win the war, after all. And we cannot deny that even though there are things we know we know, and things we know we don't know, there are also those things that we don't even know we don't know. [22] Uncertainty is all we can count on. Mother is here and then she is gone. The sound of a lifetime in one fraction of a millisecond. Pop. Like a balloon.
      All gone with trumpets. To a dream. To a fantasy. To the opposite of reality. Each of us in a hammock: my Mother, Father, and brother. No one speaks. No one argues, no one lies, no one hates. The sun warms the lake, which sloshes on the shore. I close my eyes. Miles Davis.
      Maybe my brother had nothing to do with it: maybe Mother died of sadness. [23] 2003. Maybe Father made her feel more alone than if she were single. His company, over the years, may well have turned into a habit, the opposite of passion. She said I love you and he the same. [24] They played the game, performed the functions they were programmed to complete. I can only ever underestimate. Took part, each, like victims to history. The same for me and my brother. Brutish as animals. Plagued with opposable thumbs.
      A tattoo of circus sideshow acts. Jugglers. Gymnasts. Knife throwing, fire swallowing, hairy women and big breasted men. Strong ones and little ones. Bears through hoops and elephants crying. Motorcycles in metal cages looping in gyroscopic motion. Mother holding a bag of popcorn and Father scolding my brother for groping the ticket taker. Peanuts crunching under our feet.
      Law enforcement at the front door. Father speaking to them in a hushed tone. Mother pacing the kitchen with a lit cigarette in each hand. The curtains pulled back, showing faces in the front window. [25] I stay at the top of the stairs where I can see Mother's breakdown as well as Father's back in the doorway. I can hear his exchange. Then the police officer steps into our house and another one follows and then another. Five of them total. As they spread out and search our house, one of them comes up the steps and tries to talk all cutesy to me, in that faux-friend way that adults sometimes do to children. Asks me if I've seen my brother. Do I know where he's hiding? Do I know how to get in contact with him?
      No, I was not a pallbearer. In fact, I did nothing with Mother's requiem. And Father never noticed when I slipped away from the service. Me in my black suit carrying Mother's last pack of cigarettes and her favorite green lighter. Out to the lake for a swim. [26]
      Mother on the couch in the front room. I am eight years old, rolling my G.I. Joes in her hair like curlers. She works her giant needles on a bright blue quilt spread out across her lap. From the phonograph, Bob Dylan plays. Mother hums along quietly. A cigarette burns in the clover-shaped ashtray on the floor by her feet. I unroll the little men from her hair and roll them back up again.
      For nine months, Mother and I were one person. But unlike Salvador Dali, I don't remember being in the womb. Father tells me she quit smoking for most of those months. My brother says she didn't.
I remember hating her, but for what I do not recall specifically. Age eleven. I remember cursing her and wishing I was never born. At dinner one evening I asked what it meant to have an abortion.
      My brother is guilty. No, innocent. No, guilty. He did it; he didn't do it. [27] He somewhat inadvertently, accidentally did it, wanted to do it, could never do it, premeditated it, did it on the spur of the moment without forethought; no, he wasn't even near the scene of the crime; he was late, he was early, he was angry, he was high, he was sad and drunk and sick. It doesn't matter what happened or if it even really happened in the first place. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. Mother is gone regardless. The interesting thing is not the reality of the event, but the immense unreality of it.
      Do not forget that what you see is really upside-down. Do not let yourself be easily fooled into thinking that you are experiencing what others want you to believe is reality. Light through the cornea, through the pupil, through the lens, to the retina where the optic nerve receives the impulse and sends it to the cerebral cortex where your brain is tricked into believing up is down and down is grounded. I say North, but really I mean South. I say top when the bottom is really what I'm describing. We are never right-side up to each other. We are never what we really are. [28] How could we be? But even so, Mother is a crisp photograph, complete in composition, lovely both upside-down and right-side up, both living and deceased, both hateful and wicked and cruel. [29] Forget the physics of optics, the convex experience. Forget the misery and splendor of reality; don't waste your time trying to figure things out. Nothing ever adds up. Does it? Seriously? Isn't logic the worst way to reason? Memories do not need eyes to turn them around, and myth is more powerful than the arbitrary laws of science. Only experience. Only sensation. Only questions, never answers. For science, like story, is that poor signifier people fall back on when they need, desperately, to make sense of something nonsensical and don't know what else to do. When in fact, logic is as useless as currency, as flat as Kansas, and as childish as a prank phone call. Right? Isn't logic why we are trapped in this labyrinth of inadequate signifiers to begin with? Why we struggle? Why we fight? Why we deconstruct these scenes and sentences in search like underpaid detectives for little nuggets of fleeting meaning? Ultimately, Mother is a word and nothing more. [30]
      Mère, Mutter, Moeder, Madre, Mãe. How to say. Goodbye to a skin-wrapped skeleton? Next year a wedding, a disaster, a painting: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? The birth of my first child, that little person who will never know her grandmother. My divorce, my sickness, my hospitalization. My daughter hating me and never speaking to me again. The remarriage of my ex-wife, my daughter's high school graduation. All the secrets I never told anyone. The casket I am buried in.
      Now here is love minus logic, Mother's signature meals: Coleslaw, mangoes, and fried chicken. Asparagus wrapped in bacon, dipped in caramelized brown sugar. Banana peppers, provolone, and sautéed mushrooms. Prosciutto and melon. Crepes with honey butter and cinnamon. Fresh peach nectar in frosted mugs with little umbrellas for decoration. Clumpy mashed potatoes. Barbequed ribs and grilled pineapples, with red peppers and corn on the cob. Fried rice with eggplant. [31]
      Me, hiding in a rack of women's clothing. Age seven. At first, just playing. Mother searching for me all through Sears. Then the call over store intercom beckoning me to the entrance. Me, not moving, upset that Mother gave up her search. I wanted her to find me. I needed her to find me. I didn't care what my punishment would be. I moved not. Knowing Mother was worried, maybe even crying, thinking someone had kidnapped me. Then suddenly, my eyes welled up and my sight went blurry. [32]
      Organ donor. But where is her body going? [33] Streamlined to a middle school classroom for unskilled dissection? Eaten by a cannibalistic lab attendant? Sold into a traveling exhibit? Cross section of her lungs as example. Warning. Do not smoke. Or maybe her eyes will replace the dead ones in someone else. Her tongue will replace the victim of torture. Ears to a car crash survivor. Lips to a vain seventeen-year-old. Yes, on every street I walk, in every public building, I see parts of Mother attached to other people. She is the chin of our waitress. The nose of the gas station employee. The feet of a mistress. The shoulders of a morning after.
      Not so much the scent of tobacco. More the cornucopia of perfumes and air fresheners and candles she used to mask it. Vanilla bean mixed with cherry blossom mixed with Pall Malls. A heavy scent that resonates in the back of the throat. Like sour milk, or cupcakes and sulfur.
      Mother's favorite book. The one she read and reread over and over and over again. In fact, I don't know if she ever read another book in her entire life. Just the one.
And when asked, she would never speak of it, never share her thoughts on it, never say anything more than yes, it is truly a magnificent work, remarkable in every way; but then she refused to remark further. Maybe that simple action is the most telling signifier of all. She carried a book in her handbag the entire time I was growing up, flipped through the pages at every one of my baseball practices, my brother's band recitals, and at every one of Father's company picnics, but never spoke a word about it to anyone. What more is there to say? The only things I truly believe in are those things which can't be named.
      Mother's potentialities. [34] Paralyzed I will always be, unable to make signifiers suffice. You and I share this handicap, reader. Neither of us can ever really say what we mean, no matter how well we craft our stories, no matter how clever our fictive dreams. [35] Because by nature signifiers make hard things way too easy, and truth is never what it claims to be. To be. The opposite of Mother.


[1] "How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress." —Niels Bohr (quoted in The Quantum Dice by Ponomarev & Kurchatov)

[2] "Death is a displaced name for a linguistic predicament." —Paul de Man, (The Rhetoric of Romanticism)

[3] "There is nothing more banal than death." —Maurice Blanchot quoting Nietzsche (The Space of Literature)

[4] "When the meaning is too full for myth to be able to invade it, myth goes around it, and carries it away Bodily." —Roland Barthes (Mythologies)

[5] "It is in love, in hate, in anger, in fear, in joy, in indignation, in admiration, in hope, in despair, that man and the world reveal themselves in their truth." —Jean-Paul Sartre (Literature & Existentialism)

[6] "Our soul is an abode. And by remembering "houses" and "rooms," we learn to "abide" within ourselves. Now everything becomes clear, the house images move in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them." —Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Space)

[7] "Say memory, and almost everyone thinks of the past. But most of our memories are really about the future." —Diane Ackerman (An Alchemy of Mind)

[8] Prokofiev died on the same day.

[9] Gauguin once tried to kill himself with arsenic, but vomited before he could get to paradise.

[10] "In daily life we divide time into three parts: past, present, and future. The grammatical structure of language revolves around this fundamental distinction. Reality is associated with the present moment. The past we think of having slipped out of existence, whereas the future is even more shadowy, its details still unformed. In this simple picture, the "now" of our conscious awareness glides steadily onward, transforming events that were once in the unformed future into the concrete but fleeting reality of the present, and thence relegating them to the fixed past." —Paul Davies ("That Mysterious Flow")

[11] "Physicists prefer to think of time as laid out in its entirety—a timescape, analogous to a landscape—with all past and future events located there together...Completely absent from this description of nature is anything that singles out a privileged special moment as the present or any process that would systematically turn future events into the present, then past, events. In short, the time of the physicist does not pass or flow." —Paul Davies ("That Mysterious Flow")

[12] August 1984 / Cover Model: Isabella Rossellini / Photographer: Richard Avedon

[13] Especially when I am reconstituting Yehudi Menuhin's famous quote regarding music.

[14] "Communication is only one function of language, and by no means an essential one." —Noam Chomsky (Language and Mind)

[15] "In sleep we reach into our Selves / like hands taking food from ovens. / Our Selves eat our Selves to save our Selves." —Al Zolynas, ("Sleep Poem")

[16] "The female world, bounded as it is, contains, as does any world, rich layers of meaning. It is not simply that a woman must stay within this world but that signification itself is kept away from it." —Susan Griffin ("Red Shoes")

[17] "Language of the enemy: heavy lightness, house insurance, serious vanity, safe-deposit box, feather of lead, sandwich man, bright smoke, second-guess, sick health, shell game, still-waking sleep, forgiveness." —Sherman Alexie ("Captivity")

[18] "One of the gestures of deconstruction is to not naturalize what isn't natural, to not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions or society is natural." —Jacques Derrida (from the documentary Derrida, Dir. Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering Kofman)

[19] The year Tennessee Williams choked on a bottle cap and died in his hotel room. Also the year Karen Carpenter passed away.

[20] "Without risk there is no faith, and the greater the risk the greater the faith." —Søren Kierkegaard ("Truth is Subjectivity" from Concluding Unscientific Postscript)

[21] "Writing has nothing to do with signifying. It has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come." —Deleuze and Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus)

[22] "I meet someone from Mars and he asks me "How many toes have human beings got?" —I say "Ten. I'll show you," and take my shoes off. Suppose he was surprised that I knew with such certainty, although I hadn't looked at my toes—ought I to say: "We humans know how many toes we have whether we can see them or not?" —Ludwig Wittgenstein (On Certainty)

[23] Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and Sylvia Plath all killed themselves over sadness—by train, by poison, by oven.

[24] "Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you' is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them." —Jeanette Winterson (Written on the Body)

[25] "A curtain, a curtain which is fastened discloses mourning, this does not mean sparrows or elocution or even a whole preparation, it means that there are ears and very often much more altogether." —Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons)

[26] "SWIMMING, unrestricted inscription or eulogy delivered at a grave site; by extension, a statement, usually with long, arcing movements of the arms and legs, commemorating the dead." —Ben Marcus (The Age of Wire and String)

[27] "Despair was swirling its great lovely calla lilies in the sky / And in the handbag was my dream that flask of salts" —André Breton (Mad Love)

[28] "The spectator is a dying animal." —Jim Morrison (The Lords and The New Creatures)

[29] "The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.... In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif." —Henri Cartier-Bresson (from The Impassioned Eye, a collection of video interviews)

[30] "My doubts stand in a circle around every word, I see them before I see the word, but what then! I do not see the word at all, I invent it. Of course, that wouldn't be the greatest misfortune, only I ought to be able to invent words capable of blowing the odor off corpses in a direction other than straight into mine and the reader's face." —Franz Kafka (Diaries 1910–1913)

[31] "The dead are our children and we must coax them to eat." —Beverly Dahlen ("The Opening of the Mouth")

[32] "The past is like a tapeworm, constantly growing, which I carry curled up inside me." —Italo Calvino (If on a winter's night a traveler)

[33] "Maybe when you get to oblivion / the car lights sweeping the motel room walls, / you'll never know who you are again / or what you've done or what's been done to you." —Dean Young ("Ghost Gash")

[34] "Against Freud, who says the character is made up of the succession of acts of mourning carried out by the subject, Schnitzler: the effect of a personality is the way in which all the potentialities of a character shine out from beneath the manifestations of [her] real and contingent life." —Jean Baudrillard (Cool Memories II)

[35] "for life's not a paragraph / And death i think is no parenthesis" —e.e. cummings ("since feeling is first")



Written under the influence of poststructural philosophy and the prose of David Markson, in reaction against the pressure and gravity of that colossal tyrant called "story convention" who constantly slaps my metaphorical wrists and tells me not to exercise my potential.