Conjunctions:24 Critical Mass

Inside and Outside: Pages From the Atlas
Berkeley, California U.S.A. (1992)

Outside the vast squares of yellow bookstore-light, the panhandlers, longhaired and greasy, held out their palms, asking for their dinners, and two started fighting, while inside people turned the pages of picture-books whose flowers smelled like meadows of fresh ink.

       I don’t want her around me! a panhandler shouted. I don’t need that fucking bitch! I hate that monster.

       Inside, everyone pretended that the shouting was silence. A man looked at a book and wanted to buy it, knowing how wonderful it would be to sit in his own house with a drink in his hand looking at this thirty-eight-color picture-book printed on paper as smooth as a virgin’s thigh while the sun kept coming in through the leaves—

       Outside, somebody screamed.

       The man bought the book and went out. He saw a man smashing a woman’s head against a window of the bookstore. The glass shattered, and as the woman’s livid and half-dead face shot into the yellow light he saw it become beautiful like the planet Saturn ringed by arrowheads of whirling glass that rainbowed her in their cruel prisms and clung to wholeness in that spinning second also ringed by her hair and spattering blood.

       The man ran back inside where the woman’s mouth lay peaceful. He opened his book and invited her in. Gently he raised her head and pillowed the book beneath. Spangles of blood struck the pages like a misty rain, becoming words which had never existed before. She began to bleed faster and faster. Her hair grew down between the words like grass, underscoring and embellishing them with fragrant flourishes. Her eyes and teeth became punctuation marks. Her skin became pages of bloodless purity. Her flesh kept company with the threads and glue; the plates of her skull broke neatly into cover-armor. Then there was nothing left of her above the raw red throat.

       He picked up the book, which spoke to him, saying: Now you have loved me, and I will love you forever. But where are my hands? Where are my feet and my breasts?

       I’m sorry, the man said. They’re outside.

       Bring them in, the book told him. Bring them through the window.

       Holding the book tight, the man ran out to obey her, but police had already coagulated from the night. When he tried to smash the corpse’s shoulders through the window, they led him into the squad car. He knew that they would take him inside.

       Where are my hands? the book wept.

       They took you away, the man whispered.

       The book began to bleed despondently.


Phnom Penh, Cambodia (1991)

Once when the thiodorazine wore off he found himself with a Bible because they’d taken away the other book to be kept forever in a long manila envelope labeled EVIDENCE. But the woman he’d helped and loved had finally found him. She whispered to him from the Bible telling him to ask them for an atlas, and when the psychiatrists agreed because that was a sign of healthy involvement with the world, he opened the atlas at random, and the wide heavy covers flipped down to anchor him in the new country which he would soon find; and he looked and read KAMPUCHEA. So he entered a dark-staired hallway without electricity in Phnom Penh, kids hopping barefoot everywhere, silhouettes in hallways, black crowds watching in the hallway, smells of sweat and body odor and death, fat girls peering out of a dark doorway, giggling. Three girls leaned out. Warily they smiled. The door opened on a sunny place where more fat girls peered out carefully. He stepped into the new part of the hall that the open door had made, the bright part, and they beckoned him in. People were watching. He stood there in the place between outside and inside, entering a nested memory of an openwalled restaurant not far away where he had sat, feeling neither inside nor outside, a Chinese movie shouting along on the TV, while boys rode past one and two to a bike; awnings swirled in the breeze. Then he came out of that memory and entered the open door. All the pretty girls sat on the floor or the rumpled bed, watching TV. The madam closed the door behind him and then he knew that he had truly been admitted to the inside. But he also knew that he could not stay. Sooner or later he’d have to rent one of the girls, or else they’d make him leave. And even if he did rent somebody, so that he could come inside her, eventually he’d finish or his money would be finished and then he’d have to go back into the black hall again, which was outside like the far side of Pluto.

       He closed the atlas. They gave him two more pills and checked beneath his tongue to make sure that he had swallowed. Soon he could feel himself going inside again.


Hong Kong, Territory of United Kingdom, Southeast Asia (1993)

The woman whispered, so he opened the atlas; and the harbor burned with bluish-gray fog, cool winds ruffling nothing on the blocky buildings across the water which were backdropped by camelsback hills the same color as the fog. He went among the tea-colored faces in round glasses, became present on the ferry across the gray-green sea. The happiness of going without map or guidebook, having no idea what he’d find, prevented him from recognizing the danger of the tall white buildings like punchcards on the horizon.

       Not only this outsider, whose education in boundaries had been so abundant, but also the other inhabitants of Hong Kong, that abstraction as readily graspable as a parallelogram, often a strange woman’s voice calling to them from across the water, the voice of a woman neither inside nor outside, who therefore called from loneliness, wanting to be loved so that her hands at least could live with her brain and skull; but to most others her pathetic aspect, which did require something of them, made them prefer not to recognize her: of course it was also that they were completely inside, so that they had little use for somebody who was neither one nor the other. Better not to acknowledge any ghost. Of course he was compelled to, because he already had. It is not as easy to get rid of consequences as first principles. He heard her desperate whisperings as he got off the ferry and approached the bank walled with sparkling transparent cubicles in which people paced or pressed or sat downgazing at computer mysteries; in the lower levels, where the public was permitted to come, embankments of metal and marble gleamed like sunlight, while the uniformed ones swarmed safely behind. Below this was a glass floor of many rectangular panes, joined by silvery rods; beneath this the gloomy silhouettes of the lowest walkers passed at obscure diagonals, all at the same pace.

       He descended the slow escalator that brought the red uniforms and red displays into broader angles like an airplane approaching the runway, falling from the ceiling, which was a Ptolemaic crystalline sphere.

       To cross the street you took an escalator above the statued men at the bank, crossed a marble bridge of potted plants whose leaves gleamed almost as coldly as the black shoes of the officials who marched so soundlessly, followed the V’s of darker marble like caramelized sugar on a pudding dessert, turned left at the stained glass window, and then you could look down at the red and silver taxis, the blue and tan double-decker buses, the gray cars and white cars—all very clean, of course—sliding below you along the immaculate street. Then you came to a glass door which let you outside. You followed a walled path, which traversed a steep hill bulging with ferns, lilies, gingko trees and tall palms whose tea-colored darknesses strained toward the glowing fog and were undone by the weight of their own success, their umbrellalike spreadings and droopings from the resolute stalk were a falling back of darkness into darkness. This was the Battery path: a pavement of roots, like the muscles in athletes’ shoulders. This was a city of clean paths telling him which way to go.

       Waitresses paced inside the glass house with the waterfall outside, and it was just the same as the birds in the aviary. The waterfall, the skyscrapers, the marble tables of the restaurant, were all so incongruous. On the ledge above the waterfall a statue of a boy stood with his arm upraised, and then the camera finished flashing and the statue moved once more.

       In the twilight, the swarms in suits and uniforms hurried along the edges of black buildings whose tiles were as slick and shiny as new cakes of soap, each building with a different brand name glowing from it like a pulsing wound. So many crowds! The city’s metonym was this tank of shrimp thrashing white legs at each other, bulging their eyes out and straining to fly in the water like beta-test helicopters. He was the soft red carp breathing with difficulty between two reddish companions, its eye bulging and rotating with almost the same intensity as the white spots on the shrimp’s scratching legs. But who were these other fishes like slabs of ring fungus swishing their fins lethargically in the murky water, straining and crowding? So many! He’d never know them ... Behind the counter of the next window, uniformed men weighed out so many different barks and leaves and colored roots and dried sea creatures on white paper. People sat at stools before them, as if by a soda fountain. The men weighed out abalone shell for livercures and dyes, terrapin shells for lung complaints and renal bleeding, sea horses for impotence, hawksbill turtle shells for epilepsy, oyster shells for acid stomach, geckos to quench thirst and increase virility, centipedes to stop hemorrhages, tiger shins for arthritis, stag penises for a cold uterus, fossil bones for insomnia and amnesia, sulphur for virility, cinnamon for diarrhea, eucommia bark for hypertension, castor beans for cutaneous ulcer, red beans for headache. A jewelry window said: 61% OFF. He saw gold chains and crosses on squares of white paper. The next window was crammed with twenty-three-carat gold sunglasses round and oval and square, even a pair that folded down the nose, and a pair not much bigger than a fountain pen; it would barely cover one’s pupils. He passed another long narrow jewelry shop at whose red velvet tables the clerks sat punching calculators, drinking Cokes and wearing golden spectacles as fierce as new-cut diamonds. The flow of red characters on yellow awnings bored into his eyes with the same brightness as the golden objects for sale in the windows. A crowd of dark-uniformed policemen stood straight, their black walkie-talkies and holsters and nightsticks hanging correctly down; they walked with their hands behind their backs.

       Eastward, where the streets became grayer and narrower, there was a stand of aquariums in the street, the goldfish and the other deep blue ones he didn’t know slowly fanning their tails within glass worlds like the spirits in the bottles in the liquor store whose walls formed part of the thoroughfare, or the banana-clusters which hung over the apples in the fruit stand, beset by swaying red lights. The signs were carved and painted now, not lighted. Sometimes they halfway or entirely spanned the narrow alleyways like stilt roots and flying buttresses. Windows and gratings and balconies clutched each other across spaces of narrow darkness.

       A girl in pink, with scarlet lips, was leaning against the ice cream freezer in the liquor store talking with her friend, and when her mouth shaped itself into O’s the crimson seemed to rise like smoke-rings to join the red signs and suddenly the man was lighting a cigarette, and the fire at its end seemed to have come from her mouth. She touched his hand. Across the street, a man was searching through a pile of apples, and when he found one that seemed redder than the rest and held it up, the watcher looked at the girl and saw that her mouth had just made an O again. Enchanted, he came closer, until he could hear her speak waterfalls that peacock-tailed so brightly down the wall of the Stock Exchange, losing themselves in the hill of potted yellow flowers which bordered the long, long escalator. (Underneath were the hundreds of white gambling booths.) Her ruby syllables rolled him away, so that floundering past a marble lobby (evidently of a seafood restaurant in whose immaculate tanks swam crowds of giant silver carp), he could peer but briefly into a small store to see the round table and the two girls slowly slicing a mound of ginseng. He fell through a red bubble of her delicious spit, tumbled into the market of dried fish whose broad gray mummies lashed together resembled palm fronds, was carried through the restaurant whose two men in black tuxedos were just lighting the final torch around the golden border of a red sign that contained something incomprehensible to him; and like the men in suits and ties on holiday riding escalators up the hills of Ocean Park he swam volitionlessly past the two ladies whose store contained nothing but dried white shark fins, each behind its own pane of glass like some strange sea-trophy; that was when he realized that he was in the sea.

       A man unhooked a bundle of dried fish from the awning pole of his shining store, covered the boxes of nuts with burlap, returned to unhook the bale of dried eels, then the hanging light bulb, then stepped outside and pulled down a rusty wall of darkness over everything.

       Next door a stern man was still sitting behind his desk, emperor of rolls and scrolls of marbled cloth, and the man stared out the window, he gaped his gristly jaws and gulped, which proved him to be a fish.

       The people whose ahs and ows twisted in the guts of the night now drowned the scarlet-lipped girl’s speech entirely, so in hopes of finding other luminescence he ascended a steep hill of meat and lighted produce stands whose pears and potatoes shone like lanterns (their bok choy greener than darkness, their cats mewing like tweaked piano wire). Strings of lights transected the heavens to encourage the ones struggling up that coagulation of night, carrying those purchased brilliancies away darkened in plastic bags.

       The Sinew Co. was now being closed, but inside the shopping malls, people were still peering and pointing, the women especially wistfully touching the glass of Rainbow Leatherware Co. and Rolie Collection.

       The ferry buildings were like space stations, with their lights and roundness and dockings; but they did not whirl, only rose and fell, and a reflection of the sea rose and fell in their televisionlike windows. Beyond the Star terminal rose a golden bowtie of neon, tall and absurd, crowned by a white trapezoid and a blue spire. Forgetting the scarlet-lipped girl, he let himself be caught by the blue neon-light on black water.

       The thin old man with the white star on his chest stood holding the gangplank railing in a gloved hand, watching something too proud for others, who came running, the blackhaired girls with arms folded over their breasts, the skinny boys jutting out their chins, the ladies in glasses happy not to have missed the ferry, the married couples (wives on their husbands’ arms). Then the whistle blew, the ferryman braced his foot against the bulkhead and strained at the rope, winching the gangplank up against the door. He stood watching Kowloon come closer (another ferry passing the black water, a vast illuminated casket). He remembered the Japanese restaurant where the indigo-pigtailed waitresses stood in corners with their hands behind their backs, white bows tied behind their short black skirts, and they wished him happy New Year and grew into the New Year like those tropical trees tasseled as if by strings of lime-colored beads. But he himself was coming outside his life again as steadily as the Kowloon ferry bearing through the cold and fishy night. The ferryman stood still, squinting at a newspaper, his pinkish-orange face worn down almost to a skull by rain and fog and wind. He stood without support, swaying easily with the lurching deck. The horn sounded three times; the water began to burn evilly with the red and blue neon reflections of Tsim Sha Tsui, and he locked his newspaper away to again pull on his plastic gloves. He stood by the gangplank, patiently watching the greenish-gray window-lights and orange-gray wall-lights come closer. Then he gripped the rope, unhooked the chain and let the pulley go. The crowd went out calmly, lighted faces going steadily into darkness.

William T. Vollmann’s books include Rising Up and Rising Down (McSweeney’s) and Europe Central (Viking).