Tape 9, Pre-Escape
We found the laptop in Cressey’s round room. It was black, thin, light as wood, and belonged to Dr. Marcus, the man who came on to me once, the one who smokes dope in the eaves, the philologist or psychologist. I can’t get these “terms” straight in my head anymore, what with these drugs they feed us. The afternoon pills, especially. The cornstalk pills. I walk around ragged, demented, my mind gone flat, but there’s no linearity—they’ve taken all temporality. (“Time puts the anxious mind on its ear,” Cressey says, always mixing her metaphors. “The angst-ridden temporal lobe requires deliverance from temporality.”)
You and I, we met in the cornfields. It was autumn, everything red and fresh as blood. My memory is slipping but I’ll remember that, I think, the prisoners two fields away, all iron and eventide, and you, there, my little captain, your hands trembling out some kind of code I couldn’t yet read—
Scrap of Letter from Eurymedonicas, Counselor to the Chancellor
—has been determined in the fourth battery of physio-psychicemotional testing that the first son is of unsound mind. We request his immediate removal from the Academy, and recommend rehabilitation. Due to issues of security and socio-political embarrassment/sensitivity, the Chancellor requests subsequent silencing of the son’s name, identity, social and familial connections, et cetera, et cetera. The doctor has willingly complied with all requests, relinquishing all rights to the adolescent, and will thereby remain secondary court physician. The fun—
The Colony of Non Compos Mentis at Chalcis, currently enjoying the natural balance of its tenth season, aims to prevent irrational human despair through a combination of farm- Fand pharmacological therapy. For those qualified individuals, we provide an environment of “agrarian vacuum” in which, and through the oversight of Dr. Sarah Cressey, we strive to realign the individual’s overall imbalance by the patented process of De-Temporalization. Quite simply, we believe in the neo-Aristotelian possibility of joy—Eudaimonia, meaning a happiness that pervades the good life—and seek to divide sensation and thought, in an environment of non-time. (Or timeless timelessness, if you will.) We believe in the happy coexistence of the vegetative, the sensitive, and the rational soul(s), and through the denial of the poetic, artistic—
Interview with the Portraitist
I can’t say when, exactly. It was to be sent to New Zealand or Australia, that’s all I remember. Although I do remember her. She didn’t want to be painted. Something was obviously wrong—the husband hovered, I don’t know. The family commissioned it, his family. I can’t remember what sort of—beer or liquor, maybe. I can’t recall. Some sort of product that you’d know if you’d heard it. Or perhaps pharmaceuticals.
She had a rash. She said, I wrecked my skin—she was in a dress, off the shoulder. The husband wanted her arms, her neck. But she was covered in red. Very apologetic. I said, Honey, we’ll just paint it white.
Memory of James
In my mind I painted his name on my body. Cold and warm. Cobalt, iridium, neon.
Interview with the Portraitist, continued
I’m a realist but all the same. You know, I … that’s what I said, We’ll paint it white. We’ll paint it away. This isn’t a photograph. This isn’t reality. This isn’t photorealism. I felt I had humiliated her, like I’d captured her paralysis. Which is interesting, really, from an artist’s point of view.
Memory of Alma
I saw her in the snow one night. She stood bone still, confused and disturbed, but good-naturedly so. Her black hair stood on end. Glasses starting to fog up with the walk and the snow. Her hands twitched in the sleep-house light. She kept looking at me, smiling. As if I’d made her happy. As if this were a new, unexpected thing.
Upstate Newspaper Clipping
The dog, a male German shepherd, was found on the banks of the canal,
a yellow bandana around his neck, primitively stitched with the name Hi-digger
[sic] Dr. Cressey reported a stolen German shepherd last August 20—but
says the missing dog’s name was Jesus, not Hi-digger.
Tape 9, continued
—this was our language, we always had our own language, the real tongue, the tongue of the real. We’re accidental farmers. Heloise and Abelard. Sex and chamomile. Everything done by hand here, the old way. We were placed together on the Feldweg. We were both sweating in jumpsuits, and maybe bonded over our mutual predilection for la sueur, as you’d called it. You’d taken a French class at Amherst before you’d cracked up, been hauled out of your residence house, surrounded by a bushel of moldering Crispins your father had sent you from the Capitol. Put an apple in your hand and you’ll still recall the silent agony of that morning, the Norwegian pines, the mortifying blur of brick and grass and faces and jeans, how you were crazy and your stomach began grumbling all the same, forcing the connection of mind and body, still—forcing your being back into the physical, back into survival, desire, sensuality (how you wanted a chicken calzone extra sauce, coffee light on the half and half hold the sugar, a pint of ice cream)—and then Emily Dickinson’s house, the shutters winking empathically from her sloped, dandelion-infested lawn, and that queasy low November light, that general quality of decay, the smell of rot and mud and woodsmoke.
I bandaged his wrists. He had sawed at them in front of me.
Your coloring is so beautiful. Green metallic with a bit of blood. My husband put me here because I’d fallen. And now the world’s fallen apart. We don’t even know how bad it is out there, do we?
Would you lie on top of me? I need to feel your weight.
They closed the picture show. (The drive-in four fields over, two miles outside the gates, past the Starlite Motel.) Alma had found the keys and blindfolded James, the only way to steal him out of the Compound without provoking his temporal angst. The drive-in owner, a man with too-soft cheeks and dog eyes, was given to nostalgia and conjunctions. They had seen Bonnie and Clyde, Harold and Maude, Roger & Me, not all at once. The popcorn was often stale, and heavy on the salt. They would sit in the grass and clutch each other, the screen catching moths, listening to crickets and images and distant fireworks, the screams of passing trucks. James would never try the popcorn.
He didn’t care much for corn after working in the fields, yes, but never ate at the movies. It was something he didn’t do. He ate plenty in the privacy of his room at the Compound, boxes of hard pretzels, blocks of cheddar, liters of Pepsi smuggled from the convenience store down the road. He was fairly thin, for such a clandestine snacker.
Closed it for good?
For the season.
We’ll go next spring.
James, I’m dying.
I know, so am I.
No, I’m dying. Here.
In these fields.
Why aren’t we on market duty? That’s what I’d like to know.
No. It. It, it, it. It’s not working. Here. This. Whatever they’re doing.
I’ll get us on market duty. I’ll talk to Marcus.
It’s beyond that.
You always do this. Everything I suggest, it won’t work for you. I’m trying to help but you don’t seem to want help, that’s the thing—
They can’t help. They can’t help either one of us. They can’t do anything. They’re crazier than we are. They take money from families who we all proved to be problematic for, socially embarrassing. We’re sustaining Cressey’s enterprise. We pay for her research. We, us. She tells us if we’re well, unwell—and do you think she wants us to get well? She feeds us pills and propaganda about the “perilousness of temporality,” and we feed her. We’ve lost control of our being. As soon as we broke down and were driven through those gates, we lost all control.
The agrarian vacuum.
Therapist’s Video 17, Undated
I was thrown into this world, into my own vulgar mortality. The slow falling—in this way I can link the vicissitudes of the universal pain of human existence, to the particularity of my own suffering. This is the possibility. My only fear is that the mind will change its stubborn view a quarter way down, even two feet down. The end of time and being. There’s no changing of the mind midway. But still, I suppose, there’s the certainty of quiet. Rock and ground and quiet. The grounding.
Narrator, 21st Century
They had seen Dr. Thom Cutter at Wegmans. They’d been sent to get asafetida for Persian night, a tube of muscle relaxant for Dr. Marcus. Cutter was speaking at the university in town, Cutter, expert on spiritual dryness, the “sere spirit,” and its neurobiological connections to synaptic failure. Cressey openly renounced Cutter, and used his picture as a target for the NCM dartboard. So Alma and James were thrilled to see him at the market. They’d hidden behind a castellated structure of snack foods, replete with battlements of Triscuits and Fritos, and had watched as Cutter, in an electric blue Nike golf shirt and creased khakis, shuffled (for he was pigeon-toed, and obviously mentally distracted) to the refrigerator cases for a six-pack of St. Pauli Girl, and then stopped in the Candy-Cracker-Cookie aisle, his finger hyper-extended to his bottom lip, debating between mini and regular size Stoned Wheat Thins, curried or bacon-flavored chocolate bars.
“How can he labor over chocolate,” Alma had asked me, “in times like these?”
After Alma’s drive-in warning, James had run away briefly to the capital, but made it only as far as Union Station. Cressey had contacted the physician and they’d located James through the chips in the soles of his NCM pleather shoes. The physician put James back on the train, and had pushed a series of pills and reading materials into his hands and arms in lieu of an embrace—Golf Digest, Alprazolam, The National Review, Escitalopram. The automatic carriage door caught James’s slightness in its rubber-lipped electric grasp, whereupon interior James screamed and began to tug at his hair. It was at this particular moment in time and in the universe that he spotted the old New Yorker on the center gangway, its cover missing, a man’s footprint tar-stamped on the masthead, the remaining pages kinked and water-crisped.
This is where and how he found Thom Cutter.
Written in Script on the Back of a Menu
Overwhelming gray, your eyes gray, your mind gray, your skin gray, you are covered in ash, you sink into ash, I rise from you, I leave ash, lightless gray, this gray light
Interview with the Portraitist, continued
I believe that art is death. As a painter I record the death of a moment. Art is created in time. It records time. It is its own death. Time is necessary. Mortality is necessary. Mortality is meaning. Life, life is meaningless. Death is meaning.
Narrator, Early 20th Century
It wasn’t a hatred of things, of self—that had worn away, like she herself had been worn away with the great sadness of the world. It was the sort of unbearable love of everyone and everything. Of the world she loved so much. Of the life she loved so much. Of him she loved so much. She’d told him, “If my love had a shape it would be round. A color, water over stone. I course with you. I brace you. I wear myself into you. You give shape to my being.” The excess of love strangled her, peeled her skin, embalmed her in lemon. She couldn’t breathe. She walked raw through the streets, love shot aimless from hair and flesh. There was no peering over the edges of death, only a flat placement of self along the horizon. She looked around. Life ahead and behind, plangent and naked in its obstinacy. Time dragged its nettles over her forearms, leaving her stung and restless. This is god’s lesson. I can’t judge another soul, no less.
Narrator, 19th Century
The day was unusually close, the sky glossed with clouds. We’d anchored the boat and had wandered up the bright green face of a steep knap, sweat runneling our brows, the sun folding back into the earth, the dog scuttering and yelping at my side. The inn sat at the very peak, a pretty brick square with oddly elaborate windows full of decorative traceries that glinted seductively in the now-orange light.
Alma followed the curvets of the ribbed glass with her fingers, turned to me from a kind of private Elysium. She looked feverish and pale, in spite of the day’s sun and the vigorous walk. An attendant appeared in the arched doorway, led us into a fuggy vestibule redolent of ash, rotting sunflowers, the day’s bread. With barely a word, he took us two flights upstairs, and delivered us to a plain room at the end of the landing. He lit a fire in the grate, closed the bed-curtains, and placed a wool blanket on the mattress. A pewter bowl of apples sat on a side table, along with a pot of tea, as if we had been expected.
Items recovered on boat, MacGregor 26M:
Jumpsuits, 2 pr.
Bars of soap, stamped NCM
Pearl, large black
Magazine, no cover
Prescription pill bottles, empty__________________
Mittens, 2 pr., wool
Box of matches
Wool sweaters, two
Map of NYS canal system
Narrator, Late 20th Century
She was superstitious and took sleeping pills, liked fried rice with pineapple, and had recently broken the cork off a special bottle of bourbon. They drank bourbon in the summer, and this weekend was no different. It was the weekend the sweet pea finally bloomed, two months late; the weekend a four-leaf clover had slipped belatedly from the pages of a forgotten book.
Directions to Non Compos Mentis
We are located between the towns of Deposit and Beggar. Your eyes will begin to burn as you get nearer. There will be a stand of too-thin boys, a red Contentos Dumpster, an ornamental palomino with cement hooves, an iron bridge painted hospital blue, naive signs for garlic, honey, rhubarb, eggs. The cows on the hill, their spots will start to spell messages. Avert your eyes.
Instead, admire the fullness of the hydrangeas in the graveyard. How odd to see such flowering in September. You’ll see the Microbial Analytic Testing Lab on your left, the bruised highway on your right. Don’t stop at the Skyliner Restaurant. It’s razed, the parking lot full of weeds, two rusted pipes stuck from the gravel.
NO SHOULDER ¼ of a MILE
Extract, Non Compos Mentis Constitution
“Self-expression,” in general, will be frowned upon as it encourages isolation and exacerbation of ego. We firmly believe that the ego is at the core of mania, madness, anxiety. All projects and recreations at Non Compos Mentis will thus be practical and cooperative; at NCM, we will foster large and small group expression. The hammering of silver in fivesomes, the knitting of baby sweaters in foursomes, the pressing of enamel buttons in threesomes. At NCM, such wholesome activities will operate as healthy, fruitful outlets for the disturbed individual’s creativity.
EMERGENCY CELLULAR—911—LIMITED COVERAGE
I miss the farm.
You’re having another break, Alma.
What’s the point?
Alma, wake up.
Where are we?
We’re alive. Wake up.
Where is Cressey?
She’s gone. She’s behind. We’re here now.
This is real?
Yes. This is real. Come back. Wake up.
I don’t want any more pills.
There are no more pills.
There were only two records, Nashville Skyline and Heart of Gold, which was a certain kind of hell; two books stolen from unlocked houses—I’m starved for words, James—the Bible, Anna Karenina—
I am so sick of llama wool. Of llama-wool mittens. I have fingers. I want to be able to use them. I can’t work in these. I’d like a pair of manufactured leather gloves. I’d like to just walk into a mall—remember those?—get a free sample of tea, a cinnamon bun, buy a pair of leather gloves.
Red. Imagine red.
Cressey would not approve.
Calfskin’s not cool. Calfskin’s barbaric.
(The birches shed their bark.)
I feel uneasy here. Like I’m telegraphing something evil.
(The sky sneers back at them, a long lip of oyster pink. He takes a picture from the pocket of his jumpsuit, the Caves of Lascaux, and gives it to her.)
Where did you get this?
This is where Thom Cutter lives in the summer. I want to go here.
People used to live in caves behind the stone. I’d like to live behind a—
There aren’t any waterfalls in the Dordogne.
(She gives the picture back to him.)
I’ve been here. Napoleon stitched two provinces together, gave them a single number and a new name, built bridges over the river to connect them, called it the Dordogne. There were hardly any bridges before that, just boats.
I’d like to live on a boat.
Cutter lives here in the summer?
Where is he during the winter?
We have to get to Toronto. We can’t walk. There are no cars.
We can’t leave, Alma.
We’ll take a boat.
A boat. Do you know how—
Do you sail?
I did once. How will we get a boat?
I have a little bag of jewels.
Enough for a boat?
I think so. I swallowed a baggie of diamonds in a McDonald’s restroom. I thought they might come in handy.
I don’t know, Alma. This is—
The seasons will take off again soon. We’ll need to leave before the first snow. Before the canals freeze.
The locks will be difficult. But with two people—
I don’t know about this. I don’t know about this at all.
You can take the dog, James.
21st Century Narrator, continued
Alma, do you hear me? James shook her, pulled her face to his neck. The boat lapped through the moon-water, stars fell and pocked the sky.
Yes—of course it’s raining.
There’s a man along the river.
We’re on a canal, Alma. There’s no man. (He felt her slipping away into the blue-black and hated her for it, hated her for her weakness, hated her for abandoning him to the task of single-handing the boat.)
I didn’t mean to fall apart.
Goddamn it, Alma. (All great love is above pity. All creators are hard.) Wake up. (He’d created this softness in her.) Wake up. (God is dead; God has died of his pity for man.) Wake up. (She was a soft woman now, curled like a mollusk on the deck, a soft woman who once swallowed diamonds.) Wake up. (Thus speaks all great love: it overcomes even forgiveness and pity.) Wake up. (She wasn’t crying. She was dead still except for the jerking wrists. Remote, gone.) Wake up. (One should hold fast to one’s heart; for if one lets it go, how soon one loses one’s head!) Wake up.
(Where was Thom Cutter? Where was Cressey and her pills—but nothing worked, Alma was right, nothing worked beyond eight weeks, they knew this, everyone knew this, but all the same they’d kept them numbed out, permanently hazed, managed with substances still unsubstantiated, enframed in the non-frame of de-temporalization, whatever that was, it wasn’t “timelessness,” it was the removal of history, the attempt to remove their constant awareness of death, of their own mortality which is what drove them all nuts in the first place. He was a terminal case, he knew. She was situational—this was why he needed to get her to Cutter, away from NCM, himself. She’d collected the slubbed-off remnants of his terminality, had allowed them to turn her soul. She’d become as weak as him, meek—he was doing the best he could for her. He’d known he would kill her, but in the intermediacy of her delicacy she cleaved to him. He’d engendered this, this frail victim Alma. He hated her and loved her—he hated what he’d done, hated that he couldn’t be strong enough for her, he hated that she loved him as she did, he hated her frailty, as it was his own, staring out of her, hollow-eyed, hungry, back at himself. She had become him, blank as light, white as halogen, the hair finer, almost golden—they finished each other’s thoughts, turned each other’s bodies like pages, shared the same dense, dense heart. …) I don’t know who I am without you, Alma. It frightens me.
(The answer wasn’t to push them into the mud of the mundane and earthly, the secular, the areligious, the group the group the group, the non-divinity of the group … the answer wasn’t to deprive them of the textural, private suffering of art, of the responsibility for their private, individual, human struggle—this was their being! The very essence of being!—by having them drag through the fields, churn butter, shear sheep … by making them forget they were alive, forget that they were complicit in history, placed in the chaos of the universe at a particular and uncontrollable moment, and that that was IT and no more: the vulgar body and the dark particular mind, dog-paddling through the vicissitudes of the collective human experience.)
Penultimate Letter (Lyrical), Dated August 20—
—I remember you in dreams, you dreaming—smiling in some sort of syrupy, close-eyed happiness—the anxiety of the day of reality hushed out in a sort of meerschaum—the lullaby of my adoration cold-skinning nightmare, my eyes on your quiet mind. In sleep you called out to me, our hands knotted in night under down, your long and furious breath, tight with love and to hear you speak the dream tongue, to call me your angel, this was life, as if someone had handed it to me and said, this is life, here, take it, your blood casting light in the black bed, your pulse slow-kicking into my soles, the rhythmic stitch of your body, sewing me into sleep, this is meaning—