CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
What sort of person was Peter Underwood? Was he a confused person? A desperate person? Did he give any thought to history, to politics, to the difficult problem of communication?
Then again—what does any of that matter? Right now, out beyond the sound of this halting beginning of mine, I can sense the real Peter Underwood—or something very much like the real Peter Underwood—whose entire existence transforms such questions into a pointless soup.
Like you, there was a time I didn’t know Peter Underwood. But by now just the mention of his name triggers an inherent excitement in my nerves. Pe-ter Un-der-wood. Isn’t that “t” sound, followed so quickly by that “d” sound, comparable to the sound of a chain dragging through a pile of bones? Isn’t the whole thing vibrating with the sound of approaching footsteps?
It’s a morbid enough name. And that’s appropriate, since Peter Underwood isn’t alive anymore. Although he’s not exactly dead either. How can I put it? Peter Underwood is gone—he no longer exists—and yet he couldn’t be more real. Even his name has influence, carrying all the hatreds and yearnings of the actual Peter Underwood inside its phonemes, even if only I can hear them. If only, I think to myself, if only I could portray Peter Underwood down to his last detail, describe him, elucidate him, illuminate him, and thereby imbue his name with all the dignity and sobriety a real person deserves, then maybe—maybe!—those five cursed syllables would leave me alone.
But words can’t really remedy things, can they? They’re more like small if necessary violations, aren’t they? Must I make a string of sausages of a real person? To bring Peter Underwood to life must I, in effect, kill him again?
Peter Underwood was real. I have indicated this so many times I’m afraid I’m over-indicating it. But I only repeat myself to make you trust me. He was made of flesh and blood, and also of many things that are technically not flesh or blood, things which any medical student knows exist in the bodies of actual, living persons.
Peter and I worked together—the real Peter, I mean. We were employed at Webcentric, in their offices on Brannan and Fifth Street, across from the train station, a little south of Market Street in the city of San Francisco. Although it is a warehouse for flowers now, back then the Webcentric offices contained, at the height of what people were just starting to call the Boom, quite a significant number of people. And Peter was beyond doubt, beyond question, one of them.
As far as I could make out, Peter’s job was to take the data tables I was generating and make graphs out of them. My own job, which was a little hazy even to me, was to make data tables out of the graphs I was receiving from other departments. Those graphs—what I will now call the “incoming graphs”—were assembled in upper-level parts of the office by upper-level employees, certainly not by Peter. After Peter turned my tables into graphs I’m not entirely sure what happened to them but eventually this activity of graphing and tabling was going to have, of course, a valuable purpose to it, even a result. The possible effects of that result were being passionately discussed in even more upper parts of our company but, in the meantime, we in the lower tables-and-graphs departments were asked to enjoy our compensation, meet frequently in teams, drink free sodas, and not skip to other companies doing similar work.
There wasn’t a lot I needed to know in my job, which was lucky. The one critical thing I had to ascertain was whether the person approaching my desk was coming to hand me a graph (to be turned into a table) or if on the contrary I was to provide a table for them (to be turned into a graph). I became quite skilled at this skill. For instance I learned to identify the various employees by the sound of their approaching footsteps. This not only gave me an extra instant to know what kind of individual I was dealing with, i.e. a graph-giver or a table-taker, but also allowed me a moment to present myself as a productive and busy being.
Those footsteps! Those feet! I promise you there has never been, in the history of feet, a more distinctive, clodlike, mushed-up sound than Peter Underwood placing his lowermost flippers onto a piece of carpet. For most people the heel will make one sound and the toe another, but Peter’s footstep was all of a piece. It was one continuous ooze of a sound, no click or snap to it whatsoever, just a wet, queer, hesitant collapse of a sound.
With any luck, my reader, Peter is truly forming for you now. If my plans are coming to fruition he should be materializing from the ground up. You have not only his name, his job, and his city, but even the sound of his footsteps. I hope your picture is already quite vivid because soon we will be running out of the verifiable elements of Peter Underwood’s personhood. In fact if someone had asked me, a few months after he died, what I remembered most about him (no one ever did, of course) I probably would have listed just those three things: his name, his job at Webcentric, and the weird way he had of putting down his feet. If you had further interrogated me I might have remembered, very faintly, some of the stories I had heard about the strange circumstances of his death, but I would have added that those were just rumors and innuendo.
Exactly two years after Peter’s death (that is to say one year ago today) my relationship to Peter’s memory changed completely. It was late January. I was in my bed having an especially satisfying dream. Suddenly I woke up, possessed by the feeling that something, some sound, had awoken me. I heard it again: a series of horrible, squishy, timorous footfalls coming up the staircase that led past the damaged fire extinguisher and up to my apartment. Although my wooden stairs were nothing like the plush flooring at Webcentric I could not mistake the sound. I had gone to sleep having consumed a lot of wine but when I heard the fifth-to-last step creak I sat straight up, instantly sober. My ears strained. My heart pounded. Silently I endured a tormenting itch on my left calf. At the same time my mind instinctually, as it has since my Webcentric days, tried to establish the weight of the approaching being. About 185, I guessed. I wrapped my embarrassing blue quilt yet more tightly around me.
“Please,” I whispered into the darkness, “do not let that noise be the noise of Peter Underwood ascending the stairs, opening the door, walking over the floor, or otherwise showing himself to be alive despite his death.”
These words, which I said quietly, with great comportment, faded as sounds always do. Grasping my jelly glass of water I took a nervous sip, forgetting to swallow. Then: Something caught my eye. I turned.
There he was! Peter Underwood!
There was no mistaking him. He stood in front of my closet mirror, etched in bluish lines, composed and sapless. He had been perfectly rebuilt, whether by my memory or by Hell itself I didn’t want to know. The shirt he wore was a cheap little thing with a half-collar, completely out of style. Whether he was, at that point, his name or something more than his name no longer mattered, as it ought never to matter to anyone in such a situation. I stared at him, petrified. My blood turned to frozen slush. I felt a slight swelling forming in my glands, the kind that usually augurs a sore throat.
My reader, have you already formed your picture of Peter’s ghost? Please, I beg you, make it even more riveting and ominous. His torso was the most substantial part of him yet even this was completely transparent. His limbs barely registered on my impressions. Description was the furthest thing from my mind, but in retrospect I would describe his limbs as resembling white handkerchiefs woven from clear silk. Mesmerized, I watched this phantom, this unsurpassed horror, as he leafed silently through a clothbound book. With a degree of envy I noticed that Peter’s ghost possessed posture superior to my own. At long last I swallowed.
Peter Underwood, I whispered. No answer. More loudly: “Peter Underwood?”
His visage or, if you insist, the spirit of his visage turned. He inclined his chin. Then, in the most frightening gesture my imagination could have invented, he looked at me and peered. Since I was only a few feet away the effect was chilling. In that instant I realized he was, from his own perspective, staring at me from an enormous distance—not so much a distance of space, as it were, but a distance of worlds.
Petrified, I somehow gathered my courage. By heroic internal efforts I found my voice.
“Ghost of Peter Underwood,” I said, “did you by chance notice there are twenty-two steps on my staircase?”
My question … God, how it still humiliates me! Not that you would have thought of some better thing to ask, but still: What a thing to say! I had no idea whether the spirit of Peter Underwood was a counter of steps and I honestly didn’t care. But speaking as I was from raw terror something must have escaped unfiltered out of my deeper recesses, some genuine part of my ingrained personality. Yes, I have pondered that utterance of mine long and hard, my tranquil reader. After much consideration I can say that I wanted, by asking that question on that particular topic, for Peter’s ghost to feel that I was interested in its observations. That is to say I sensed that such an approach might open him to casual conversation, perhaps giving him a solid and personal reason not to harm me. In so many words I wished to win him over. Today, in the cold light of day, I realize only too well what kind of verdict on my soul that really is. Clearly the deepest part of me, expertly buried under layers of socialized habits, is pervaded with the urge to pander.
Do you still not understand? My reader, think for a minute: Faced with a representative of the dead, looking into the eyes of the darkest enigma known to humankind, my instinct was not to query it on the subject of the afterlife, nor to challenge its authority here in the sphere of the living, nor even to scream and blubber like a child. Instead I tried flattery.
As soon as I spoke my question the light changed in my room. The image of Peter Underwood made an alarming gesture, as if it were clutching at something. For a moment it wavered in a dusty shaft of moonlight. He closed his book and was gone.
The first thing I did was to drink more jelly glasses of water than I had perhaps ever before drunken. Then, cautiously, I got out of bed, checked the closet, and determined that the specter was truly gone. Fifteen or sixteen times I walked around the bed energetically. Afraid? Yes, fear coursed through me, without question. But humiliation gradually began to outstrip the fear. “Did you by chance notice there are twenty-two steps on my staircase?” Especially galling, I found, was the phrase “by chance.”
Exhausted, half-mad, I swallowed twice more from my glass and went back to sleep.
The ghost did not return. For a full year I have not seen it. But in the days that followed I had plentiful time to remember and recall that terrible evening. Over the next few weeks I began to rack my memory for details of Peter Underwood, for as I said earlier I had all but forgotten him until that vivid night. Perhaps to hide from my humiliating question I set myself the task of learning who this formerly living person had been in all his actuality, in all his honesty, in all his reality, and in all his totality. I wanted to find out where poor Peter had come from. I wanted to discover illuminating facts about his family and upbringing, what he had looked like, what he had formerly cared about, and exactly how he had died.
Some of these items were easy to come by. For example a photograph from my Webcentric days instantly reminded me that Peter Underwood had been in the possession of an extremely smooth head. I remembered seeing his head in the morning, gleaming in the sun that came through the skylight above our cubicles. In both the photograph and in my reawakened memory his head had the quality of a smooth, curving surface such as a bowl of glass or, again, a bald head.
Other facts about Peter Underwood took longer to unearth. For instance it took weeks to learn that that smooth head had once lived with its body in a disheveled apartment in the Tenderloin district. When the head thrust itself out its apartment window it had been able to look down four stories to a small, trash-filled square the size of a double mattress. When the head turned upward it had been able to see a piece of sky of the same proportion.
In such a location, in such a pattern, Peter Underwood lived his less-than-famous existence. He balanced his checkbook, watched a reality show in the evening, and slept under an afghan blanket. Facts and more facts.
In a sense the more details I learned or remembered about Peter Underwood the less I knew about him. I had given the name “Peter Underwood” to a certain pattern, a pattern I was restlessly pursuing with all my energy, yet no matter what I did it grew only in its most superficial elements: a street, a bus stop, a view of the water as The Pattern rode to work. I envisioned The Pattern at the 7 Flavors Coffee quietly drinking his coffee, looking off at nothing. I saw The Pattern seated at a desk at Webcentric, his finger gently clicking the mouse. I imagined the eggplant-colored tile just visible from The Pattern’s bed, through The Pattern’s bedroom door. And I pictured the moonlight on The Pattern’s sink as if it were the moonlight on my own sink.
All these pieces of a puzzle, large and small—they all fit together. They all added up. But to what? Surely not to a person. At most to a name. What I had assembled, evidently, was a laundry list. An intricate, variegated laundry list to be sure, but still a laundry list.
Over time it became increasingly difficult to uncover new facts about Peter Underwood. The details began to dry up, then gradually ground to a halt. My dear reader, do you think that everyone is noticed and recalled in this world? Do you think your own specifics would make for an infinite project for some future biographer? Do you think: at least my parents, at least my sister, at least a few friends and lovers? Probably you imagine that someone, some person, must have known Peter Underwood better than I got to know him from my few months of detective work, but judge for yourself. I sought out friends, family, ex-teachers, ex-girlfriends, and ex-landlords. They all remembered him, or thought they remembered him. They all suffered or pretended to suffer heartrending grief over his tragic death. Yet almost none of them could give me a single detail that I hadn’t learned in the first few days of my research. Some had no details whatsoever, just some superficial thing or other they had half-noticed: he was bald, he went to high school at Western Ridge, he was a Gemini, he had once built a kite out of some old manila folders at Webcentric (how many times did I endure that miserable story about the kite!). I visited everyone I could think of, even casual acquaintances, often pretending I was his long-lost brother. This turned out to be an absurdly easy ruse to keep up since I normally ended up telling them far more about Peter than they could tell me. After dozens of conversations of this sort it became starkly apparent that Peter had left only the thinnest possible impression on people living here in our material world. Other people had adjusted to him, certainly. They had noticed that he was there, absolutely. But that was about all you could say. In the morning Peter Underwood put on his shirt, his coat, and finally his tie. When ties were suddenly not being worn he went directly from the shirt to the coat. Free sodas arrived at the company and Peter Underwood was discovered to be drinking free sodas. Some discussion went around regarding the superior and Peter Underwood announced himself in substantial agreement.
A strange thing happened to me over those months. A terrifying thing, in its way. I found, bit by bit, that the very tedium and emptiness of Peter Underwood’s life led me to think not less about him but more. I became fixated on Peter, riveted on my memory of him, until my obsession began to press upon the most personal aspects of my life. As remarkable as it seems, I said to myself, this Peter Underwood once lived, breathed, and felt his own consciousness. Meanwhile I myself awoke, slept, ate, and faced the difficult truth that nothing in the world made me any more remarkable than Peter Underwood. When I looked at it dispassionately, I had to admit that one day the memory of my own life was going to reduce to the same dull logistical details and depthless observations that were now the only signs Peter had ever lived.
A feeling grew in me; more, a conviction. I began to need my pursuit of the “real” Peter Underwood more than I needed anything in my own pitiful life. I felt profoundly that all my merely individual effort should henceforth be aimed at answering one burning question, which I phrased to myself this way: “How can I understand Peter Underwood as precisely that living person he was, containing precisely whatever it is living people contain, over and above the lists of graduation dates, physical qualities, favorite songs, tax brackets, abilities necessary to the assembly of manila-folder kites, and what have you?”
Once you ask this question, my well-disposed reader—once it gets inside you—I believe you are not very far from madness. How can the mind, as both the object and platform of life, hope to wrap itself around another of life’s most elaborate creations? Simply put: It cannot. And the effects of trying are both swift and merciless. My health began to decline dramatically. I developed a worrisome tic in my left eye. Yet despite these eventualities I remained addicted to my pursuit, which I now thought of as a discipline. Every person in my life was transformed into little more than the means by which I might find out some small bit, some shred or hint, that related to Peter’s inner workings. I observed my own relationships with others strictly for clues about general human behavior and then, rushing home, I would use my new insights to reason backwards about Peter and his interior experience.
Without question my research into Peter Underwood was the cause, either directly or indirectly, by which I lost my job, my friends, and my studio apartment at the top of those twenty-two steps (please don’t remind me!). Yet even then I couldn’t stop myself, for Peter gave direction and order to my life, focusing my days even if he ruined my nights. What else could I use? What method would allow me to understand just a millimeter more? I struggled for hours to remember some passing phrase Peter had uttered, some dull movie he had once told me he had seen, or some brand of off-blue shirt he had regularly worn to work. With each particular thing I remembered or thought I remembered a pleasure suffused me, one that I needed desperately in order to continue my labors.
Then: the signs of true madness. I began to suspect, though without any proof to speak of, that Peter Underwood had foreseen that someone like myself might one day root through his past with exactly my level of obsession. To my fevered mind the signs were everywhere: in coincidences, in mysterious notes, in the password on his computer. For by then I had obtained Peter’s old disc drive, purchased from the Webcentric going-out-of-business sale. I kept it under his old desk in his old apartment in the Tenderloin which, by a series of deceptions, I had contrived to rent on a month-to-month basis. With great fastidiousness I went about recreating every detail of his furnishings. Then, one fateful evening, I discovered his private journal carefully hidden under the floorboards of his former hallway.
Yes, the ironies were rich. Some richer than others, but all quite rich. Nor was any of it lost on me. As I read Peter’s journal I realized that, quite likely, I had become far more interested in the life of Peter Underwood than Peter Underwood had ever been himself. Certainly I was far more interested in his life than I was in my own. Impossible as it seemed, I had somehow become a distant version of Peter’s thoughts, helplessly trying to observe and understand him. Or perhaps I had become some immortal part of his conscience, now pointlessly protesting the crimes he had committed in life. Except, in the case of Peter, his only crime was to be so boringly, skull-crushingly, depressingly moral.
I would submit that over the last month or so I have become more like Peter Underwood than Peter Underwood was like Peter Underwood. By now I can pick out just about any moment in his day, say around noon, and recreate it with such singularity, modesty, and perfection that I feel he would smile to recognize himself. In fact I smile myself.
Naturally I had nearly forgotten, during my labors, the whole reason I had plunged myself into the project in the first place. What about his ghost? Did I think it would sit idly by while I made the memory of Peter Underwood into my personal compulsion and plaything? Certainly Peter Underwood was dead, but “Peter Underwood” had shown himself to be still roaming the earth. A living thing, even a dead/living thing, must never be toyed with or reduced to a cheap persona, at least not without the most frightening of consequences. It was only a matter of time, I realized, before Peter’s ghost returned. Nor would it be pleased with me.
As you may have already guessed, my ever-patient reader, I’m writing this one year to the day after I first saw Peter’s ghost. It is almost midnight, just as it was then. Once again it is late January. My ears strain. My left calf itches. Out my window (which once was Peter’s window) an orange streetlight illuminates a dark-green puddle that has collected on the asphalt.
And so! Now you know where I am. Now you know what I’m doing. You know the city and neighborhood I’m in, and you know the broad outlines of my story. So let me ask you: How much thinner is the veil between you and me? Allow me to assert that it has not thinned at all! But that chill I just felt? That sound? How much thinner did you say? I say it is not any thinner! And now? Not any thinner!
When I first started making this record the sun was out. It was early afternoon. Convulsed with the sudden belief that Peter would return tonight I climbed into my bed (formerly Peter’s bed) and began writing. My jelly glass is back on the table. My blue quilt is once again wrapped around me. I know, as well as anyone can know anything, that Underwood is on his way. Am I to forever be found scrawling a lyrical note as my killer comes up the stairs? Will I at least be allowed to pen some last words that contain some honest depth and resonance instead of all this twaddle? It is all I can do, at this point, to keep from italicizing each and every sentence. I know that Peter Underwood nears. I know! How? Because I was born to be his victim, born to be drawn to him, both logically and illogically, in freedom and in destiny. He comes closer, he endlessly nears, exactly because I flee.
The park rose directly into the air, like a tower of shadows. Out of that gloom emerged Peter Underwood, ascending the steep path. It was his last night on this bittersweet earth. Clutching fruitlessly at the nonexistent flapping plastic strings that should have held his raincoat to his head, Peter climbed the cement steps. Footsteps resounded through his hearing. Someone, he sensed, continued to consider him, to probe at him, in an almost criminal violation of his privacy. Below him the lights of the city appeared as little more than elongated letters, casting an orange glow through the industrial district. They spelled a word both human and unreadable.
“I can’t wait any longer! I don’t want to stay inside this absurd, plodding, over-constructed life!” Speaking these words, the dying Peter Underwood fell to his knees, splashing a bit, crying, cursing. For the first time in his terrifically structured life he fell to pieces. Only then, at that oddly tilted intersection of paths, did Peter, or a semblance of Peter, achieve the proper conditions for death-in-life. In the middle of leaving our plane, he remembered his raincoat. He cursed, in particular, the sadistic co-workers who had stolen it from him and spent most of the office party trying it on, doing their Peter Underwood impersonations. Shivering, wet, trying to face death squarely, a petty resentment yet clung to Peter Underwood, and the result was this: In the last seconds of his life he became, for the first time, a full human being. Falling into a dark-green puddle, his tongue cold in his mouth, Peter cried out for his revenge. And just as the joke that was his life seemed to end, freed at last from its banality, things managed to grow even worse. The substance of Peter’s being passed beyond what anyone in their right mind would consider our kind’s natural limit, becoming something that—to my mind anyway— no just creator could have allowed into this universe.
Suddenly Peter’s bloodless hands sprang back to life. One of them reached up to itch his cheek, or anyway the cheek of something. The living-but-dead Peter Underwood, his eyes burning in fury, his footsteps landing densely and murkily on the ground, rose from his puddle in his new form. He turned toward the city. And: He remembered.
My reader! My reader! What is happening? Is it only a fiction? I too have fallen on that wet ground! I too have cried out in pitiable desperation, terrified that I would die with a heart full of peevish and unflattering anger! You are intelligent, my faithful and now somewhat tired reader, and so you have already guessed that I enjoyed taunting Peter Underwood behind his back. It may not even surprise you to learn that I was at the party when Peter first wore his new raincoat. Yes, of course it was me who took it off the bed while he was in the bathroom. Of course it was me who put it on and proceeded to mimic his stupid footsteps, his dumb little graphs, his crappy round head, and his ridiculous attempts at sounding urgent and excited!
Peter Underwood! I know you will soon be reading this! I know I deserve to be dead more than you do! Up to now you’ve only played with me, but soon your clammy fingers will settle on my person, touching me literally, ripping past the veil that wraps my mind in confusion and befuddlement, and I …
FROM THE JOURNAL OF PETER UNDERWOOD:
November 9: I have saved up over three hundred dollars toward my new raincoat. I’m convinced that Smartee’s will grant the full discount despite my being technically late.
November 11: Saw the editor S. again. We bickered over an aesthetic question, then over a moral one. Met S.’s friend R. as well. R.’s mother had significant success acting on stage in N.Y., so naturally R. wished to follow in those footsteps.
November 16: Rain continues, into the evening. A certain Richard Hammond took my measurements for the coat and has mailed them off (London). Expect confirmation in five days, with four weeks shipping.
November 22: Today that bothersome group at the office placed my book in the microwave. They said it was only a joke but one of them was holding back a smirk even as he apologized.
November 27: A tenant in my building has been denied permission to have a small bird in a cage. On the other hand everyone has cats, but since everyone knows cats are forbidden, no one asks permission.
December 6: Thus far no sign of the raincoat. Office party set for the 22nd.
December 19: A package at the post office, possibly my raincoat. I feel strangely nervous, as if a curtain is about to open.
Brent Cunningham is a writer, publisher, and visual artist living in Oakland, California. He has published two books of poetry, Bird & Forest (Ugly Duckling Presse) and Journey to the Sun (Atelos). He is currently the operations director at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley and has been working on a novel since at least the Clinton administration.