CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
After long study, and with the help of a good fairy, Pinocchio succeeded at last in becoming a puppet, like his maker Geppetto.
Herman Godfrey lay, not yet breathing, in an empty sitting room, said Godmother Drosselmeier. Empty, that is, except for a grandfather clock and a tall cabinet with a bust of Nefertiti on top of it. The clock is against the wall to the left; the cabinet is opposite. Square in front is a big window without curtain or shades, facing south-east. Herman Godfrey is equidistant from these three features, in the very center of the wooden floor.
The sun crossed the sky. It is permissible to speak of the sun: It exists, it has been invented. Time has been invented, but only recently. It makes the clock run better. The sun moved like clockwork, tick tock, tick tock. If we could say: A solar flare licks space, and withdraws, then we might begin to escape the machinery, but it is already too late.
Herman Godfrey is a machine, a miniature bachelor, with subtle flesh tones, red enameled waistcoat, a wig of human hair. His heart beat in his tin chest, tick tock, tick tock. In the right-hand wall a doorway without a door leads to the kitchen, which has one small square window high above the sink. In the left hand wall, exactly opposite, a similar door leads to what may have been intended as a bedroom. There is a rug, a lamp, a table and chairs in this room. There is no bed. Opposite the window, a door leads to a narrow hall cluttered with coats and boots, at the end of which are two other doors, one leading to the bathroom, one out to the landing.
Preceded by a deafening clatter, the girls entered as a group, laughing and jostling. There are seven of them, or nine, or twelve. I always lose count, said Godmother Drosselmeier. They are in any case more like a swarm than a group of individuals.
If the genius girls had not yet invented time, it would be permissible to begin here: A solar flare licks space, and withdraws. Or here: The genius girls are gone, they have ascended and left him behind.
But it is morning, the sun has not yet entered the window, and seven heads huddle over a whatsis on the floor. (It might be twelve heads.) We see the neat, surgical parts in their hair, the beads and barrettes. The whatsis is a machine under construction. Its trim little boots kick once, kick again. You may have recognized Herman Godfrey, being born. Being invented! He is wide open and everyone’s hands are inside. With flashing tongs, paint-sponge, flim-flam and hex, they are working him up. Tight screws are screwed tighter. Prima Materia gets a spit-polish. Gobs of protoplasm dot the ceiling. The fairy godmothers bend over the cradle. Going around the circle, they give him: a stroke of genius, a stroke of luck, a touch of fever, a pang of guilt, a long stretch of the imagination, a dose of common sense, a dram of hope, a taste of his own medicine, the tickle of a premonition, a twinge of misgiving, a prick of conscience. The last one gives him the kiss of life. His lungs fill. Pneuma!
His eyes opened. Light sprang in, the color of aluminum. He looked up at a ring of demons, all nostrils and hair. The ends of the hair shivered on his tin, filling Herman Godfrey with tiny crepitations. Exasperating, tickling hair. Before that exasperation Herman Godfrey was a tin box. Now he is a personality, albeit one with a tiny flywheel—tick tock, tick tock. There is the possibility of flair, also of failure. “Where but in medias res does anything ever begin?” prattled Herman Godfrey, precocious. He was already teething. “Sleep, sleep,” crooned the genius girls, inventing the electric blanket, which he threw off with a moue of discontent the minute they stole from the room.
Time slid round like the cylinder in a well-oiled lock. In the kitchen they laughed into their coffee cups and then one of them rose and rinsed the filters; they were frugal and would reuse them. The girls, known as the Nefertiti posse, crowded back into the sitting room, an uncertain number of juveniles, dressed in sweaters and overalls. It was diverting to wonder if they would find Herman Godfrey snuggled up sleeping, dancing pirouettes sur la pointe, laughing provocatively or weeping inconsolably. In the clear but reticent light of dusk the anatomically exact-to-scale Herman Godfrey was startlingly disclosed. He lay like a dropped puppet on the floor, hamming it up, hoping for a little sympathy. The genius girls giggled. They dandled him for as long as they stayed interested, then rushed out of the room all together.
“I’m thirsty,” he called. The genius girls brought him a tiny silver cup and a saucer and he pretended to drink. When he crooked his baby finger, the new enamel cracked.
Herman Godfrey Meets the Nefertiti Bust
He was a neat figure, dressed in tin, with a funny sort of narrow cloak, that seemed to be made of wood. Observers might find him provocative and a little unsettling. His curly moustache might remind them of signatures, of debts and destinations. His feet were shod in dainty painted boots. His knees were ball-and-socket joints of hard plastic lubricated with silicon dust, his nipples were tiny red bulbs, easy to lose (until they lit up) in the painted ruffles of his old-fashioned shirt. At the push of a button and a knowing tug his hair went from butch to folderol, poet’s ringlets and curlicues, and the genius girls brushed and set it. Parts of him were made of absinthe, antimony, arsenic, bismuth, chromium, cuttle-bone, egg yolk, grout, gutta-percha, jute, latex, lead, manganese, molasses, nickel, paper, phosphorus, plaster of paris, tungsten, wax, wicker, and zinc. But most of him was tin: the sharp little feet with their unfiled edges, the head with its neatly welded planes, the curved door on its shoddy hinges which swung open to reveal—what a contrast of workmanship!—the perfectly formed genitals, soft and rubbery.
On first seeing Herman Godfrey clothed only in grace, the painted limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti emanated the “bloom.” The girls slipped away. They had a well-developed sense of privacy and were proud of this. They were always asking each other, “Do you want me here? Should I go?” and then rushing off en masse. But Herman Godfrey put them all at their ease. “I feel I can say or do anything in front of him,” they exclaim. And they go on to prove it.
Sometimes the Nefertiti bust was on the wardrobe or the grandfather clock, sometimes under the lamp in the other room; sometimes she acted as a door-stop, since she was heavy, though small, and durable, though battered. The Nefertiti bust was invented a long time before Herman was. Maybe she wasn’t invented at all, maybe she had always been there. But hadn’t the genius girls invented “always”? How confusing!
Herman Godfrey envied the genius girls their easy grasp of the purpose of things, the stylish and off-hand way they invented what they needed to get by and lots of other things too, just out of girlish exuberance. A few deft movements and new things suddenly were: princess phones, macadam, the Northwest passage, vermicelli, A-line skirts and A-frame houses, Black Watch plaid, tribadism, and lawn swans. “What are we going to do with all this stuff?” he whined, angling for answers, but they just prodded him away with their tennis shoes, jellies, platform sandals, army boots and went on inventing Constantinople. Herman Godfrey was always being surprised. Now the world’s finished, he’d think, and I’m the one who witnessed it! We’ve adorned and bedecked it, everything’s in its place and there’s no more room!—but then there turned out to be room, after all, for Iron Maidens, Susan B. Anthony dollars, the Elvis stamp, and athlete’s foot. Just when he was about to say, “Job well done, but if I might suggest,” they came out with party nuts, interlocking rubber playground mats, and drag king shows. They were always a step ahead.
The cloud was small. It looked almost sarcastic. Nobody mentioned it. After a while it went away. It just dispersed into the room.
Herman Godfrey: Tossed Off?
He came to realize they had invented him in the course of other things, without thinking anything of it. He was just tossed off along the way, a little confection a chef might prestidigitate out of a bit of leftover puff-pastry and feed to the bus-boy. He even got the impression he’d been left half-finished for a day or two, while they decided if they wanted to make a motion picture projector instead, or an electric toothbrush. He wanted to run away sometimes, but he was afraid he’d fall off the edge of the earth into the part they hadn’t got to yet. So Herman Godfrey stayed home and made blue paper roses, heaps of them, twining them into garlands, horseshoes, dollar signs, and other famous flower arrangements he presented to the genius girls. When they tossed his garlands on the growing pile in the corner, he threw himself on the floor and sulked until the genius girls tickled his ribs with a lug wrench. He got up and started another garland. It was the best he could do. He wasn’t a genius girl.
A Little Household Elf Is Busy Busy Busy
Wind-up he went, clicking and clacking, scoring the varnish, pecking at crumbs, pinching up dust bunnies. The light-lacquered floor. Herman Godfrey keeps that girl scout kitchen clean as clockwork though as he says, “I wish they’d invent a dishwasher while they’re at it,” tying a tufty terry apron with two bow-tied symmetrical duck appliques around his trim waist, thrusting his metal chest to the sink—clang!—drawing on elbow-length white rubber gloves with pink finger-tips over his now already somewhat rusty and sharp little digits, and often applying a folded paper towel to his slick prow because “rust knows no nos,” or “water is tin’s waster,” proverbs he made up himself but wouldn’t dare repeat except to Nefertiti bust, his pink fingers never dropping a beat or a plate: a virtuoso of house-cleaning, perfumier of the three household scents: eu de bleach, de lemon, de pine, hexing germs with a sprinkle of sparkling powder flecked with blue. He’s the home’s happy-doctor.
Sometimes he comforted himself with stories of a wonderland where everything had already been invented, even what the genius girls hadn’t thought of yet. Everything that existed would be lined up in long, poorly lit cases along corridors too narrow to permit a step back. What couldn’t be preserved would be represented by a facsimile of cunningly molded glass or plaster. Everything would be labelled. Herman Godfrey would be happy to wander there for days. His cheeks would be red with an enthusiasm no less genuine for being composed of cochineal and gum. He’d stump up and down, his boots nicking the linoleum, and in time he would discern the system underlying the displays, the genealogies and taxonomies, and where he fit in. “Nefertiti bust, fly with me,” said Herman Godfrey, looking up at her from far, far below, because today she was atop the refrigerator. Nefertiti bust puffed out another cloud of powder and the edges of the room were briefly obscured. When the air cleared, the genius girls were there. Herman Godfrey wept, stretched his little hands high, imploring them. There they stood like gods at the top of a system of perspective he didn’t understand, legs apart, stern. One could imagine a phantom cavalry pawing underneath them.
The Importance of Being Herman Godfrey
“What keeps happening,” said Herman Godfrey, “is I feel insecure about my failure to match certain images, whether I admire those images or not. Matching seems to be more important than what I match. Imperfectly, I match the bachelor on which I’m based. So I aspire to be a better bachelor, whatever this may entail.” Herman Godfrey had a tin tie tacked to his neck. His Adam’s apple was sketched in by an inexpert hand. Curiously delicate, Herman Godfrey believed he liked foreign cigars, though he lacked lungs to try them. Curiously delicate, Herman Godfrey, a mezzosoprano, used too much vibrato on the high notes, to cover up a slight uncertainty of pitch. Herman Godfrey liked to be urged to “give us a song.” Herman Godfrey prepared tableaux for the accidental onlooker, arranging his limbs in fetching postures, and was good with flower symbolism. A bit of a beau brummel, he combed his flaxen hair, gay coils flouncing down about his knees (his annular joints, so neat and so clean, so deserving of love).
Hoping to Curry Favor
Hoping to curry favor, Herman Godfrey said, adapting a quote from an old encyclopedia, “Nothing seems impossible to an age in which we can talk into a box and make the box talk back to us. Nothing seems impossible to girls who can thrust their hands into space and bring back power, who can tap a message into the air and bid it go where they will.” The genius girls ignored this remark. They were thrusting their hands into space and bringing back power. They were inventing.
N + 7
Trying another tack, Herman Godfrey said, “Notoriety seems impossible to an agent provocateur: We can talk to a bozo and make the bozo talk back to us. Notoriety seems impossible to given names who can thrust their hanky into space and bring back pragmatics, who can tap a mestizo into Aladdin and bid it go where they will.” (Reaction? None.)
Some More Inventions
The genius girls had invented many things: honor, kindness, cruelty, cruets, the speed-boat, the Middle Ages, pencils, the orchid, the shaggy dog story, canapés, Massachusetts, gingerbread moldings, suet, philology, tuxedo rentals, toe socks, and traffic cones. Along with many less useful things they invented hide and seek, vapor trails, gravestones, grappling hooks, and the way sunlight sometimes breaks sideways from under a storm cloud in late afternoon and turns the buildings an unlikely yellow against the blue-grey sky. And scissors.
Herman Godfrey made sure to congratulate the girls on their new inventions, and let slip a “we” from time to time, building great edifices of hopeful conjecture on the rare occasions when this error of person went uncorrected.
Herman Godfrey was working on his own invention, which was secret, and in secret he clacked his metal palms together—what a clamor—and in secret he pried and fiddled. He was trying to invent “growing up.”
Herman Godfrey began making blowsy old paper roses, rotting roses, roses with the leaves fallen off, rose hips. He began making paper rose buds. And paper stems.
“You turn everything into a story,” admonished the genius girls.
The genius girls, the Nefertiti gang, walk down the street in a pack, pressed close together: smooth denim rump, fringed scarf, fake-fur sleeve. They are a jostle of attributes. They tend to describe abstract concepts as if they were physical objects and argue about how they should be painted. You never see any of the girls whole and separate. You might expect that one of them is secretly different and it is that one we will hover over, finger and admire. Not so! The girls are all different, true, but they are different in the same way. One has a stubborn jaw, one collects glass animals, one has thick, bristling eyebrows, one knows the word metonymy but has it mixed up with metaphor, etc. They’re a herd. If you count, there is always one leg too many: There is a feeling of surplus about them, because they are always spinning out extensions. They invent things, with their inventing tools flashing. They are making the din of creation, dipping into their swinging fun-fur bags or retro lunch-boxes for silicone, hydrogen, diagrams of molecular structure, screwdrivers and butterfly fasteners.
The genius girls stamp their large boots on the manhole covers, which they have just invented. They have no natural enemies. Herman Godfrey thinks: Ah! Maybe I’m here to thin the herd, pick off the weaker members. But there are no weaker members. They might invent one, but that isn’t likely; they have so much else to finish first: mud, springboks, green faux-alligator hat-boxes. And the naming of these things takes almost as much time as the making, sometimes more, and then there’s the period of chasing around the house with a broom, putting the new thing in its place, lots of fun as long as no one gets hurt, Herman Godfrey is always the one stepped on. The girls don’t seem to worry, they just tap the dents straight in the evenings by the lamp with a mallet swathed in a chamois cloth to keep it from scratching, and these are the times he loves most, yawning and stretching on their firm thighs, his virility wagging on its internal spring. He looks up hopefully at the serious faces, the knit brows, which never, however, show any signs of a more personal interest, or of any interesting self-consciousness under his gaze; there goes the tongue, semaphoring concentration, the squint, the clear wand of spittle sucked noisily back in, just in time.
Names, a Little Slippery
The named things had a tendency to slither around under their names and even switch places, so that Herman Godfrey never knew just what the genius girls were talking about, and even “Nefertiti bust,” which seemed straightforward enough, sometimes meant the pool of standing water in the molded porcelain form and other times seemed to stand for a piece of shoddy statuary with a garish paint-job. So “bow to the Nefertiti Bust,” a command to which he once responded with alacrity, when he was a baby and his moustache was still shiny, now stopped him cold. He just dithered, his stubby metal boots skittering in place, showing by his twitching, pinging, striking of Egyptian attitudes, jack-knifing, gunning the motor, that he was generally ready to genuflect in whatever direction, and sniffing around like a dog on an uncertain scent, but herky-jerk, because of the ratchet in his rubber-neck. “I should fix that,” said one of the girls, “maybe a reverse floating bobbin, a fan belt, a boolean buckle,” and went off mumbling to herself.
He Loved to See Their
He loved to see their glowing faces bent over their work, their small deft hands passing through arcane configurations with the greatest of ease, their wet, agile tongues creeping further and further out of their mouths. In their concentration the girls would mutter to themselves, and Herman Godfrey would lever himself closer in a series of tuck and extend, tuck and extend, charting a careful course across the floor, hoping to overhear their secrets, the knit one purl one of the universe itself, but it was no use; when they heard the cartilaginous ball-joint squeaking in his right knee or, looking up with pretty distraction, caught the enamel shine in his eye, they would clamp their mouths shut, tucking their work into the crevice between bolster and arm, and catch him up. “Look who I caught prowling,” they’d say, and plump him down on the red faux-patent-leather ottoman (crazed with cracks, its shine peeling up in neat squares of dandruff) which wheezed out its exasperation, and there he would have to stay, because his surreptitiously probing feet, creak, creak, did not reach the floor.
When they spoke, there was a generalized humming, like the sound of a swarm—of course, that is what they were—from which (from time to time) an entire utterance would emerge, as if borne up by the density of a neutral element.
The girls! They were too loud, their voices battered his wax-paper ear drums, sending white lines of strain across them. They would turn and guffaw inexplicably; their shouts sent his gears spinning. They had large, humorous faces, soft noses of indefinite shape, lips of impossible delicacy or coarse and large, flaring around braces. Their hands were quick, their legs strong, their elbows dangerous and chapped.
A New Kind of Thing
Because they were ambitious and easily bored, the genius girls decided to invent something tricky: a thing not invented by them. Ensued: much caboodleology, tinker-toiling, and several failed prototypes (hybrids: part pelican, part bread-knife, part Heideggerian existentialism—or part shag rug, part lepidopterological classification system, part police dog) which they greeted with shouts of amusement, and displayed along the molding. When they succeeded, they took an immediate dislike to it, and folded it into a napkin because they were afraid to touch it, but Herman Godfrey begged it off them before they could drop it in the garbage, and they allowed him to keep it.
Part of it was opaque, and part of it was sandy, and part of it dribbled, and part looked like a Gauguin and part of it didn’t match the rest of it and part of it was fake and part was unctuous and part of it was missing. He liked it, partly because he could see himself reflected in part of it. When he brought it out and fondled it was the only time he felt superior to the genius girls.
Machines to which Herman Godfrey is related: the parking meter, the rotisserie, the revolving door, the gumball, pinball, and slot machines, the toaster, the lawnmower, the ball-point pen, the bicycle, the can opener, the egg beater, the electric pencil sharpener.
He reads in an old encyclopedia: “The old penny-in-the-slot devices have many cousins. You may buy from a slot-machine a nickel’s worth of phonograph or radio music, 50 cents worth of gasoline for your car, or a shoe shine. One machine makes and sells you a delectable pancake while you wait. To demonstrate the amazing possibilities of automatic devices, they have often been attached to man-shaped dummies made of metal or wood.” He runs to the Nefertiti bust for comfort.
“Your brethren will stand in museums,” said she. “Your woolly hair will stand in rats above the cracked and visible scalp. Stiff hands will beat a tattoo on a silent drum. The monkey will grin and shake his head: No, no, no, no, that was not it at all. The doors will open, the dancers will twirl across the hall, welded together. A gypsy woman’s hands will jerk and swing across a table laid with the same cards every time.” Herman Godfrey screamed. The Kratzenstein device successfully reproduced the vowels a, e, i, o, and u by expelling air from bellows into tubes of different shapes. Herman Godfrey did too. It sounded like crying.
Oh, his colossal kopfschmerzen. Perhaps he bears too big a burden; why does the little man think so hard, thumbing through his dictionary, the cut glass pinky ring catching the light, the words on the page showing direly through?
Machines to which he is related: Pinocchio, Howdy Doody, Tik Tok of Oz.
Acquiring a Body
Herman Godfrey doesn’t call this a body. It’s a metallic place-holder at best. He’s scarcely more than a hole with a warning sign erected over it. He feels contingent and makeshift. Comical, yes, he’d be the first to admit it, despite his mincing ways. Like those wagging carnival clowns, tick tock, with their gaping mouths, or the cut-outs with holes for faces, the swell and his moll, the fat lady and the skeleton—a joke, with a bitter deficiency behind it. Sure, laugh, he knows it’s funny.
Herman Godfrey made a list of rules for bodies. Among these: They are inadequate. Small portions must be trimmed off periodically. They bend certain directions and not others. They may be decorated. They are wet. Parts of them are secret.
He would have loved some sagging pile crusting over inside him, or some horny accumulation he had to pare away. He secreted rotting things about his person: limp tomatoes, translucent and melting, bunches of deflated grapes. He decorated himself with carrion; he sewed spinach gone black and slimy into gloves and leggings, filched nameless scuzzy hanks from the kitchen drain and used them as rats among his curls. He encouraged rust, his only almost biological atrophy, and scratches, flakes, dings. “Metal fatigue, metal fatigue,” he mumbled, doing the same thing over and over. Smiling, smiling, smiling.
If I Only Had a Heart
“How can I feel pain without a heart?” he queried in a false baritone, then jumped to his feet and trilled like a cricket: He had an idea. He surreptitiously snipped a hole in his chest and stuck a chicken heart on a ledge he found there. The heart was a bluish knot, still frozen from the inside of the frozen bird, and maybe it wasn’t the heart at all but some other knob of dark meat, anyway it rotted and slid off its perch, splashing his insides with stinking gunk.
What Are Little Boys Made Of
“What are little boys made of?” said Nefertiti bust. “A biscuit of charcoal, a smear of mucus, a bucket of salt water and a bone to hang it on. Pomegranate juice, pork rinds, an abridged dictionary. Cogs and flywheels, Herman Godfrey!”
I Want Blood Said Herman Godfrey
“I want eyebrows,” said Herman Godfrey. “I want toenails. I want sweat, saliva, and blood.” So the genius girls filled a beaker with cherry Cool-Aid and pomegranate juice and one drop of real blood from the index finger of each, and invented the funnel and funnelled in the “blood” through his ear, which must have had nothingon the inside to match the realistic pinna, because the blood splashed and gurgled over and through cogs, paddles, stirrups and bobbins, stopping a few for good, and pooled in the pit of his stomach and his hollow butt, where he could hear it sloshing. Before long a line of tiny red beads formed along the seams in his hips and groin and grew larger, the size of pomegranate seeds. “You’ll have to wear a maxi-pad,” said the genius girls, and swooped down on him with nappy things of all descriptions, booties, bonnets, tea-towels, bibs, since they didn’t know what a maxi-pad was yet, and in the end they cut two holes in a woolly hat, and used that, so the pompon hung down between his legs and grew damp and forlorn.
You Always Ask
“You always ask for the wrong things,” said the bust of Nefertiti. Herman Godfrey didn’t answer. He turned his back. The solemn pompon swung. “You are an apparatus,” said the bust. “I mean it kindly. You must learn to use the talents of an apparatus. You will be good at division: You will cut an apple so cleanly it will not know it is cut and will never brown. You will be good at cataloguing crabs and crabapples. You will copy-catalog every invention and nickname the animals, you will also praise. You will be good at moving things from one place to another. Like a jukebox you will only play songs you know but like a jack-in-the-box you will somehow surprise even those who are expecting it and you will also have qualities common to bicycles, which turn and turn and are amiable and may be found leaning ready against a fence. You will—”
Herman Godfrey in Pain
Herman Godfrey screamed. A kazoo note, but with the accents of agony in it. His dry hair curled tighter. Tears squirted from concealed pumps at the corners of his eyes, a clumsy shock effect like a flower ring, wetting the too eager onlooker, who is bending close to see if the sheen of enamel bears any resemblance to that of human feeling. His eyes are painted baubles, his lashes slivered tin. The onlooker might admire while there the thin piping of weld-metal that demarcates the handsome nose on either side, and peek inside the open mouth to the dot of light on the raw metal inside back of his skull, the onlooker’s own reflection. But Herman Godfrey is asking for help. You draw back, chagrined, nobody said this was an audience participation kind of thing, and besides your face is wet. Stunts like this is why one doesn’t often invite Godmother Drosselmeier, said Godmother Drosselmeier. “What a foolish girl I am getting scared for no reason and even imagining that a lifeless doll can make faces,” said one of the genius girls.
A Speech from Herman Godfrey
“I dream,” said Herman Godfrey, twirling, his uplifted palms soft and imploring, “I dream, despite my hard tick tock, my syntactical arcana, of a moment in which theatricality will not bear the onus of the lie, in which reality is not the pseudonym of lowered expectations, I mean when things seem to be displayed in their original colors, magnified in a crystalline medium, which is bedizenment enough, a sort of sequin of visibility, a plume of unadornment, I yearn for the moment when reality performs itself, when prima facie is prima donna, when the world makes a rare appearance.”
Ignoring him a genius girl spun a globe with an athletic flick of the wrist and watched it until it stopped turning.
He thought, What do they want of me? What can I tell them they don’t know? If they split my chest with a hacksaw, so my cogs and bolts patter into a pan in the thick lymph of motor oil, what can they read in my guts but what they themselves wrote there?
“Why do we not confess?” said the genius girls. “It’s what we wanted, that the doll would one day answer back. But when it does, after all our ventriloquism, it is hard to tell its voice from our own. That’s the abyss that yawns under love, the abyss that creates love, maybe, like a shadow that casts a solid object. The object commissions from us such invention, such a flurry of propositions that we can’t tell in the end if there’s anything we love besides the stories we’ve told about it. If the doll spoke in its real voice, more of a sudden shortage of silence than a noise, would we recognize it? Would we hear?”
A Girl at Heart
“What am I? Not a man, for while I’m certainly not a woman, no one is, not even Nefertiti bust, though maybe she would be, if she were all there, maybe I could be, if I were all here, but I’m not a man either, as soon call me a marigold, a hummingbird, or a lunar landing module, but in private, I like to think I am part girl, in the sense that—”
“Don’t mumble, Herman,” the genius girls say, biting their hair-clips while they wrestle their hair into coils, then flop down around the lamp over another invention.
He Goes on a Little
“The girls have their fingers in everything, they fire the pollen out of flowers, they trigger the love-gush of the oyster and turn the tide, they drive derricks, kick electrons on their way, and slip between split hairs, and they could sign their names to my diary—if I had a diary; if they had names.”
Herman Godfrey, on Looking for Something Real
“If only I could settle on one thing, if I were sure the light was a steady wind of photons, and not a slather of blond enamel, if I were sure the earth did turn under that light (let’s leave aside for now the suspicious resemblance to a rotisserie) and that it is the authentic sun that heats my bonnet, till the staples strain to hold me together, and then as the earth slides smoothly away from the light, that it is the true-blue dark and cold that causes the pop, rattle and groan of metal settling and the wind that rises at dusk, as regular as a mechanical waltz, little figures whirring, stopping, wobbling, turning, clasping, whirring, tick tock, no, that’s not what I meant to say—”
“You’re rambling, Herman,” chorus the genius girls.
“If I could turn around startled by some chirrup not emitted by me or the mechanical mites that live on me or the smaller mites that live on the mites that live on me, etc., to see something uninvented skitter uninvited out of a chink, blink, and wedge itself back in, that might be enough. Maybe it would leave something sticking out, a chitinous wing-tip, a thorned twelfth leg, to show me dumbly it’s still there. I’d send it a valentine!“
The “bloom” had become a near-constant emanation, visible to all as a fog hanging in the air, not a mist, but a fine powder, which had to be brushed off teeth, emptied out of pockets, and swept in tiny heaps off windowsills. The Nefertiti bust refused to engage in any sort of philosophical or personal discussion with Herman Godfrey about the implications of the bloom but he took it as a personal triumph, a confirmation—of what, he could not say, but it gave him hope that the unspecified yearnings that stirred his imagination would one day become specified, then realized in some concrete form with a beautiful name, perhaps “ogive arch,” perhaps “sump pump.”
The bloom may happen to anyone, but the genius girls have not experienced it, not yet.
The girls collect the powder in a toy car, to indicate that Nefertiti is on a symbolic journey.
Trying To Start Something?
Herman Godfrey was attempting to vacate the present in favor of the future, so he was like the decorated stern of a boat. “Poop!” they shouted, hurled confetti; while they were circulating, he was a liner. “No, you can’t wind up history, we’ve hidden the key,” they chimed, and knit him seven scarves. (Or twelve.) “Pretend we’re the seven dwarves,” they said, gripping him by his ears. “Now listen, you must try to understand.” His ears, made of finest duckskin.
“And I’m Snow White?”
“Wrong! It’s not that simple,” they said. “There is also the stepmother and the mirror.”
“And the prince?”
“I knew he would say that,” they agreed, and left.
He Keeps Trying
“When does the plot thicken?” he kept asking, counting his fingers, which were fewer than the names of God, or the fevers of February, but more than the usual number. “When do I grow up? I should like to marry some day.” Suddenly the genius girls were back.
“What do you know about the fevers of February?” they shrieked, their hair rustling like torn paper. “Nefertiti is bodyless and that makes her real! We imagine her body and fit our own into its contours and that’s how we know ourselves!” And they invented a tight teak box to hold his hips in, a time frame. But Herman Godfrey thought he knew something about storytelling, how small goes to large, and like to unlikely, about the kith and the kin, the twixt and the twin. He got into playing with words and built a primitive narrative device, shot out the lock and got away. Jogging, he felt his paint flake. But the time line wrapped around his neck and towed him back.
Herman Godfrey to the Nefertiti bust: “I love you, you make me feel there is something possible besides—tick tock—the ceaseless recycling of the same old thing.” The bust continued to gaze out the window, where the outlines of a spacious boulevard visible through her cloudy exhalations of “bloom” suggested that the genius girls had extended their property by a street scene rather reminiscent of Proust’s Paris. Herman Godfrey, when the mist cleared, observed that her nostrils did not lead anywhere, and though he had no proprietory interest in her nostrils this disturbed him, reminding him that he (like Adam?) had no belly-button. Herman Godfrey says, “Shall I define ’lay figure’? 1. a jointed model of the human body, used by artists 2. A person of little intrinsic importance, a nonentity; a character, in fiction, who lacks any semblance of reality.”
Herman Godfrey: “And my thoughts, are they metal too? Or rubber, talc, taffeta? I think they’re tin ornaments, strung on a ribbon behind my eyes. They swing and clatter. I hear them. Thank the tinker, thinker. Mind is a little machine: I think, and ball bearings spill through a rubber funnel into a souvenir ashtray of Somerville, Ma. It tips; twelve Q-tips dip in synch into twelve bottles of nail polish and dab colors on my vocabulary. A supposition shuttles between my ears, dangling from a hook in a belt of hooks. It drops down a chute and lands on my tongue, tasting of fresh paint. Why, I’m a mechanical marvel. What greasemonkey-shines! You could saw a coin-slot in my chest with a coping saw and stand me on the wharf with a placard, VIEWS 25c.”
A Mean Pinball
Herman Godfrey lay in the laps of the genius girls. They knew just where to touch him to make a brace of tiny bells chime inside his waistcoat, they pulled a hidden string and he spit out a sonnet on a stiff card. They probed between his twin tin nates for the tiny eyelet of his anus. His nipples glowed and feebly sounded, beep beep, beep beep. The genius girls dropped a marble in his mouth and pumped his arm (the ball bounced off the paddle clear to the uvula—ding, his eyes lit up) swung and dipped him (it rolled down a grumbling chute) jogged his memory (flipped off the paddle) boxed his ears (bonus) and tickled his conscience (ding dong, tick tock, beep beep, whoops). The marble dropped out the little hole. Was caught, and passed around amidst hurrahs.
Something’s Going to Happen to His Innocence
His anatomy rapped nobly at the hatch. “Let’s look,” they called to one another, and flipped open the latch with spangled fingernails. Jack-in-the-box! A fist closed on the gadget. Herman Godfrey bleats, his tin eyelids click shut, his snipped tin fringes (gobbed with mascara) flutter, his nostrils flare on their tiny hinges. The genius girls suddenly seemed as small as hornets (and sublimely unconcerned) or as large (and spiteful) as planets. They all drew nearer and there were clear signs of danger but no news of what kind. Herman Godfrey kicked his stacked heels on the patella he was closest to and waited.
I Think It’s Really Going to Happen (Though a Little Hard to Make Out)
“Let’s philosophize!” chorused the genius girls, stripping to flimsy undies of lavender pink yellow and apple green with glints argent (all cotton, silk or a synthetic fabric that would flare up and cook down to a black gum lump in seconds if held to a flame) and the big girl thighs came churning closer, affording glimpses of furred chalets and fuzzy dells, downy towns and hairy ingles—such was the confusion of scale that one moment he thought he saw innocent alpine meadows and desert peridot mining operations, a cottage industry here, a potato crop there, and the next moment the bitter slits of aphids or the prehensile cloaca of those ill-tempered dust mites whose petulant pipings he’d often overheard on lonely nights, pressing his ear to the moldings. Then that invention between his legs attained an aperture of some kind, and Herman Godfrey was plied, played, pinched, rasped, ratcheted, bent and beveled until he conked out, while Nefertiti bust puffed a constant approbative cloud of powder over all, clogging the genius girls’ lungs, so they hacked up wads of bloody scum, which they spit out of the gymnastic center of activity to the floor around.
He Performs, Dutifully, Despite Damages
Someone flicked a switch he’d thought was a rivet on his otherwise unblemished hip and he woke up, bucked and piked, battering the rumps up-turned to him, and he who had been parsifal-chaste discovered that the long inactive engine kick-started in him had changed his purpose though no one had consulted him or thought to offer an education. A genius girl got on her chapped thick knees before him and two more propped him up behind and he hammered at the pink torus before him. A squeak started up in his hip-hinge. One of his arms got bent in and the sharp angle blazed a shining stripe across his rib cage.
But Is Cast Aside
Was ever puppet so abused? His hair tumbled out of the curlers, which detached themselves and bounced lightly, pinkly out of the fray. The Venetian blinds rattled up and down of their own accord, so the light dimmed and brightened, dimmed and brightened on the knot of struggling limbs. One big pink-and-white heel shook and kicked and knocked Herman Godfrey out of his niche and he tumbled clanging across the floor. No one came for him. The rich slick on his apparatus cooled and dried to a thin rubbery skin. The great-rumped girls crawled over one another, some languorously delving, some banging boisterously together, alternating hoots of breathless laughter and silent incandescent labor. The whole was a sort of organism. “Maybe they are inventing something,” said Herman Godfrey to Nefertiti bust. He could see her out of the corner of his eye from where he lay with his cheek pressed to the floor. Nefertiti bust fluted a note and pretended not to hear and for the first time he wondered if she even loved him at all.
Melancholy Meditations Ensue
“I want to be a real boy,” he whimpered to himself. Rolling on his back, then bending at the waist with a crack that made the flesh-heap across the room start like one body, Herman Godfrey sat up, banged his knees with a tiny fist to loosen them, stood and went to the window. A new city had appeared across the river. The river was also new. The pollen in the air made everything hazy and grey. Bricks, tiny and specific. Ridged blue-green roofs. Blackened overpasses. He could not fog the window and write dreamily in the mist so he brushed off some pollen from the sill and blew it at the window, where it clung.
“Have I been invented for melancholy, and to be unlike all other creatures that walk beside me, and to marvel at all new-minted things, yet have no gift for invention? What for?”
The genius girls were doing philosophy, and though they sweated and exclaimed, they did not seem to need his help. Herman Godfrey began to file his nails until they were razor-sharp (but let’s not fear, he is as mild as a minnow, and means no one any harm). Of the many lids, drawers, doors, locks on his small body, most are now shut. He slumps in a brown study, let us not disturb him, let us fasten the last door—careful, it’s slippery—and bundle his bewildered humanity back into its coffer.
But now something new is happening. One genius girl after another scampered off and came back with strap-ons strapped on, fat ones, skinny ones, slim little slimy ones. Some were rubber and some were glass and some were stitched leather stuffed with straw, but the last one was made of burnished brass. A sort of flange projected from it. A funny thing to put into a body. The girl who wore it dropped to her knees and planted her hands on either side of him. He turned his head to one side and saw the dark dimples over her knuckles. She lifted his legs and propped them on her shoulders. A rubber band snapped in the chrome cylinder of his thigh, a pinging sound. Brass rang on tin. Her big knees were planted on either side of him. One hand held her up, the other guided the gleaming shaft. He recognized it, then, as a key. Oh key, thick-shafted, smooth-barrelled, your flange a sturdy wedge like an axe head! Her face reddened, chin ducked with effort into the softer neck. She drove the key home, and with a roll of the hips that bespoke some experience, she twisted as she drove.
Time Slid Round
Something seemed to be wrong, so he lay still. She pressed a little deeper. There was a click in the pit of his stomach. A cylinder rolled in its oiled brass casing, pins dropped, gears meshed, a rabbit thrust its ears into a pot of glue. Click. Release. Her hips rolled and turned. He saw the downy brown hairs stand up on the tender bulge below the navel. The skin was darker there. Where it stretched over her hipbone it was white with red and blue sigils.
He looked down at himself. Between his tin teats his chest cracked. (Cold air spilled over the rotting heart.) His halves sprung apart a millimeter, vibrating. The doors labored, then swung smoothly up and out, like the pages of a book. As if drawn out in the same movement by the sinking doors, a wet pink ballerina rose arms first and slightly atilt from the gash in his chest, like a cuckoo from a cuckoo clock. Her tiny stage rose into view and stopped and, as the music began, the carnation girl began to twirl, wobbling a bit, spinning off a rosette of red drops from her tutu. (Cool-Aid? Pomegranate juice?)
The genius girls caught up the little thing, dainty as a dragonfly, and set it on the floor. It spun on one hard pointy foot that scored the floor like a stylus, making a high angry sound, then slowed, shuddering. The circle of wet around it got closer and closer to the little foot.
“Dry her off,” snapped Herman Godfrey. “Why, she’s just a baby.” The genius girls squeezed her in paper towels until no more red bled through the white. Herman Godfrey sat up. “Give her to me, let me hold her,” he said. The genius girls handed her over. He tucked her under his chin.
“We gotta go now,” chimed the genius girls. They blasted through the ceiling in a shower of plaster. As they rose they flattened into fresco and went pastel colors, there was the spangle of gold leaf about their shoulders and a dizzying lack of perspective to the whole scene, their ornate wings beat schematically and without regard for aerodynamics, their fattish legs looked like a fanciful assortment of root vegetables. They rose in a flutter of drapes, the kitchen curtains to be exact, which were pink-pranked and coated with plastic for quick wipe-down. The vacationing genius girls had bundled up souvenirs in the drapes, many of them invented for the occasion: the snow globe, the miniature camera with thumbnail-sized jewel-toned scenes, never quite in frame, the 3D postcard with action (open-shut eyes, on-off panties), the elongated, flattened penny stamped with a slogan: MUSÉE MÉCANIQUE. The fun-loving girls were wearing their travelling dildos so one might be excused for thinking the winking, waving, ascending seraphim was male, or as male as it was anything else. And as they retreated, gathering up their skirts and symbols, one might be excused, again, for thinking they were one complicated being, with almost as many eyes as a fly, hence all-seeing, as many biceps as a construction crew, hence all-constructing, as many, you get the picture: all-smelling, all-tasting, all-knowing.
Herman Godfrey was left to his own devices on the floor, letting the plaster dust settle on and around him, sure sign of morose humors according to Burton, until the articulations of tin and rubber that made up the imperfect body of him were visibly powdered as with sugar. The doors of his chest hung open, the ballerina’s empty platform stuck out between them. The deserted apartment with its cold planar floor stretched out geometrically in all directions in loveless demonstration of its emptiness, no, worse, of its having been disinhabited, like disinfected. The trapezoidal floor was dark brown with a blue-purple sheen from the windows. He brought out the thing-not-invented-by-them and rubbed it disconsolately.
Herman Godfrey became aware of a tiny scritching sound at one corner under the window, not really a sound at all, more like two silences scratching together. Though he had never seen a mouse he thought it was a mouse, and as he thought this he imagined the mouse in front of him, as big as a zeppelin, and he could see its insides through the walls, and it was all red inside, red was like a kind of spell of life, and it dripped and bubbled and there was a turning and pumping and conveying in there and a rendering into sludge and extruding and discarding and it was hot with activity in there, a boom town of mousiness, and all alive-o.
Which he was not. He wanted to give it a dollar.
But it wasn’t a huge geodesic mouse but something small, hard and glinting that came tottering out of the shadows. First the black and white head rose into the light and then the whole body, sliding its shadow ahead of it. It was a wind-up penguin. The demon, letting off a perfunctory smell of fish, hit a snag and began stepping in place. Its feet, two capital D’s with overgrown serifs turned back to back, solemnly traded places, bracketing each other. Its deliberate movements, its reserve and dignity moved Herman Godfrey and he wanted to give it a gardenia. But he didn’t have one.
“And what is your wish?” said the penguin, in a sweet, sonorous voice, with only a hint of spring steel in it, only a purr of the growl of gears. (Far outside the earth’s orbit, a solar flare licks space. The genius girls applaud.)
“I wish to be a thing.”
“No, not one of a kind of thing, but my own thing.”
“Very well,” said the demon, and set to work. It added and added and subtracted and added, but Herman Godfrey was not satisfied. There were always parts of him that resembled other things or, if the demon had succeeded in eliminating those, then the conglomerate was hopelessly suggestive in its general outlines.
The penguin brought in advisers: a chattering skull with jittering ball-in-a-dome eyes, a suitcase with feet, a rabbit beating a tiny drum. Each had a key sticking from the side, which winked as it turned. Herman Godfrey averted his eyes. The apparitions spoke. They all said the same thing: “Wind-up. And up!”
Making the Best of It
The keys stopped turning. The advisors fell silent. Herman Godfrey was quiet for a long time. When he spoke it was slowly that he spoke: “Any part would do to start on. A cog. A lug nut. At first I thought my foot or my finger might be a beginning, but they presented such complications I humbled myself further. A speck of rust: was that too arrogant? Yes. At each regress I found out I was still ahead of myself: go back, go back. Such layers of semblance, cling-wrap thin. Peeling it off was fascinating and repulsive. I hoped each new unveiling would be the final one, that I would be at stop, naked, the thing in all simplicity, and it would be obvious, unblushing, with no table manners. But then it turns out that precisely that look of bold candor is the most cynical dissembling. And it becomes necessary to simplify again. A cog is a lot. But I hope if I look at it long enough, with enough humility, it will appear—if only for an instant—as something completely unfamiliar, barbaric, full of indifferent bliss. Then I think it will all come naturally, cog will cleave to cog, drive-shafts lock and turn. Then, it will no longer matter to me what I am. Let me be a bit of scrap metal stamped into the mud, so long as I don’t recognize myself. Let me forget my name, let me be that absence stiff with possibilities which, now and then, spits out a world.”
The tall clock whirred louder and louder but did not strike.
He looked up. Nefertiti bust was on top of the grandfather clock. For a second as measured by the big gold second hand he thought he saw a shadowy bulk beneath the bust. Coattails hanging down like wings, muffling the chimes. Long legs straddling the clock face. “Godmother Drosselmeier, Godmother Drosselmeier,” he cried out, “What are you doing up there? Come down and stop frightening me so!”
His chest doors were clanging against his arms. The empty stage was projecting from the cavity, wobbling on its extended scaffold. He attempted to push it back in, but it resisted more energetically the farther in it went, until it got away from him and sprang out to its full extension with a squawk of forced hinges.
He got up and went to the clock. Tick tock. He shook it. The chains sung out inside, the chimes rang without rhythm, the pendulum banged against the wooden chest like something trying to get out. Nefertiti bust tumbled from the top of the clock.
She bounced and came to a stop. A chip had been knocked off her nose. He took her in his lap and stroked her forehead, a sharp corner on his palm scoring her paint, making white powdery streaks in it. She didn’t say anything. After a minute, he set her on the stage in his chest and pushed experimentally. The stage glided smoothly inwards. The doors swung up in synchrony, beautifully. She slid inside. The doors snicked shut.
He picked up his little girl. “But what will I tell my ballerina baby?”
From the vicinity of his heart, Nefertiti bust spoke up. “Tell her she is a genius girl,” she said.
And she was, said Godmother Drosselmeier.