Abridged Abyss by Justin Taylor

BOMB 151 Spring 2020
151 Cover No Barcode

1.

How this slow apocalypse beguiles us by folding autumn into August.

Watching the cat decide whether to nap on my wife’s desk or mine.

Always err on the side of silence: it keeps silence on your side.

Walking in what passes for summer swelter in Portland, Oregon, turning from Sixtieth onto Harold Street when the line “O I’ve lied to you so many times I can no longer trust you” floats into my head. I know it’s not mine, but whose is it? David Berman’s, of course, but not from one of his albums; rather, it’s from a poem called “Now II.” This will all come to me a month from now, when I’m in Vermont and once again out taking a walk.

How many former lovers’ last names can you remember? How many of their middle names did you ever know?

Or the high holy names of baseball, from ages eight to thirteen. How when they launched the Marlins in ’93, Dad got tickets and I sat there not quite believing that the league could be anything other than fully fledged and imperturbable. What else in this world might turn out to be subject to revision? We wore teal hats, and I ate french fries cut into dolphin shapes, the mold on loan from the football team. It could look like a fish if you squinted. I was Ishmael in “Cetology” but wouldn’t know that for another twenty years.

Or being midway through my twelfth year and realizing that my parents knew how long I was spending in the shower—that the hot veil of water was not, in fact, a doorway into messianic time.

August sun stuttering through the jalousies of Olde Florida…

Every bedroom where I ever smoked a cigarette. Every parking lot or fire escape or stoop or moving car.

My walk takes me to the coffee shop across from the community center, where the barista tells me she’s had a rough week. “Jerry’s twenty-fifth,” she says, meaning Garcia, meaning death comma anniversary of. “Me and all my friends are just…” If it were earlier in said week I’d tell her to lighten up, it’s only been twenty-four years. Jerry died in ’95.

I guess I won’t say that I’ve been having a rough week too, on the dead rock star front, because two days before the anniversary of Garcia’s death, David Berman committed suicide, and I’m like a blackbird that has flown into a bay window and awoken in a flower box, dizzy in gardenia shade, trying to get un-stunned and back on the wing before the neighborhood cats come round. My last email to him was about something he’d mentioned in an interview: Susan Sontag’s “The Aesthetics of Silence.” I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t—on some level—still awaiting a response.

“and there is a new benzodiazepene called Distance,” he wrote in a poem called “Cassette County.” Both poems I’ve mentioned are from his book, Actual Air (Open City, 1999).

Berman was fifty-two when he died. I’m thirty-seven. If I make it to his twenty-fifth death anniversary, which will be the same week as Garcia’s forty-ninth, I’ll be sixty-two. The year will be 2044.

2.

My disjunction muscles have atrophied so it’s hard stop these thoughts from linking up even though I’d prefer to keep them separate, not a necklace or chain but rather the plastic toys we used to beg to buy for a quarter from vending machines only to lose or break them within five minutes. Army men and bouncy balls and that sticky hand that you threw at the wall and it got gross. The real prize was the colored eggs the toys came in, and which somehow always survived them. You could put anything in those things, anything that fit I mean, and that’s what I want this to be: a see-through machine full of colorful plastic eggs, where every fragment fits and is ready to be handed over, coin by coin by coin.

The community center has a basement skate rink that doubles as an archery range. My friend Ed showed me; his son went to summer camp there. I imagine all those arrows launched across that beige expanse, between the lamplit waxed floor and the lamps themselves, sailing toward the triple-stacked hay bales and the big tarp the color of an ancient baseball team.

And gone are the days when the quarterbacks were splayed across the brown billboards of Nestlé Crunch Bars already soft from the heat of the day when you unwrapped them in the cafeteria at 10:45 AM on a Wednesday, Highland Oaks Elementary School, North Miami Beach, Florida, 1988 let’s say, no later than ’91. And the day that Bradley F. got the one with Jim Kelly the week after Kelly’s Bills had whipped our Dolphins. The shame of eating it anyway, which I’m sure we did, and I’d love to ask him about this now, but how could I possibly do that? I don’t mean how to find him: that’s simple. It’s everything else that’s impossible.

And what is survival, finally, but the making of toast, eggs, and coffee while your wife takes a shower and you draft the next obituary in your head?

You can never un-say Kaddish, which is one reason why we say it, but it bears consideration that silence is also speech, therefore you can never un-say all the Kaddishes you leave unsaid.

3.

I’m getting accustomed to drinking less as I get older: there’s a sweetness to it, like letting a great dane rest his head in your lap, or watching a lover take a picture of the sunset from the deck of a departing ferry that has left you, by your own preference, on the pier. How the pylon shadows wobble on the waves as you make your way back to your truck.

And maybe you think of high school then, not the school itself of course, but something more like a sitcom of the era, starring you and all your friends and a couple of villains who deep down were your friends too, if for no other reason than their willingness to costar in your show.

Friday nights getting high behind the Wendy’s, the boys ordering two cheeseburgers apiece and the girls watching us scarf them down in four bites each. It must have been like watching a dog give birth. And the way we turned to them when we were finished. How we hoped for them to become as real in our hands as those wads of meat in our mouths.

And these are not my memories except, ya know, generationally

so don’t @ me.

The pale rectangle on our accent wall where the old owners had their gilt-framed diagram of all the ways to take meat from a cow.

How the indoor swimming pool at the New Hampshire resort had jungle murals illustrating every wall and when you wiped the steam from the window you could see God whipping curds of snow across the golf course while a cartoon lion surveilled the hot tub, half hidden behind a wide verdant frond.

The epsom salts dissolving in the bucket of vinegar, dish soap like hyssop—a craft cocktail I’m calling “Weed the driveway, Justin.”

Dull safaris across developmental pain veldts; eros of a sun-warmed nectarine…

And since the book came up earlier and will probably come up again, let me mention a scholarly breakthrough I had the other day, when I discovered that David Berman took the title of Actual Air from Faulkner’s novel If I Forget Thee Jerusalem (Random House, 1939), whose title is itself pinched from Psalm 137, and Faulkner’s publishers hated it so much they forced him to change it to The Wild Palms. The phrase “actual air” appears twice in the novel, both times in descriptions of landscape after the Great Mississippi Flood of ’27. For Faulkner, as for Berman, actuality is elemental. The “actual air” is contrasted with the “actual water” and there is mortal urgency in making the correct distinction between being and seeming, because with the storm passed but the flood yet unretreated, the world is reborn as a mirror. The sky is a river and the earth a sea of clouds.

4.

I read an article the other day (bear with me here) about smart ovens self-initiating at midnight: all those all-night roasts of nothing, the nonplussed ardor of the stifling kitchen when the family awakes.

Embracing that dubious pedagogy at the bottom of the large iced coffee, when the brain is scraped clean and capable of falling head over heels for a thought like, The sorriest fate of the avant-garde is rehabilitation or God of my fathers, forgive me, I have read so much Kierkegaard.

Or the idea that “youth is a form of senility,” which I got from the English translation of a Swiss boarding school novel written in Italian (Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline; New Directions, 1993) which may be all the more reason to give it some serious consideration.

The coffee shop in Pacific City when I was there last May, the one where only local farmers went. How each man took his personal mug from the shelf above the percolator and added his breakfast to a tab to be settled come the weekend. How I sat there quiet as Kafka, reading Canetti’s Kafka’s Other Trial (Schocken, 1974) and feasting on the farmers’ naked disdain for me—well that and an omelet stuffed with bay shrimp and mozzarella cheese, side of sausage, sourdough toast. The farmers were the kind of men who would, absent a woman’s intercession, wear coveralls to a wedding. Who can butcher the cow sans diagram. I’d say we had nothing in common, but there we all were bringing morning to Pacific City. I imagined them on their John Deeres, taking five in the uncut diamond light of three-thirty, alone in their respective fields of alfalfa or whatever. As I paid my bill at the counter I vanished from their lives, gone from the scope of their give-a-shit well before I walked out the door. But I carry them with me, and so memorialize them here.

5.

One time when I lived in Gainesville I ate mushrooms at midnight and walked around alone all night and ended up at the Hari Krishna house where for some reason I asked them if they’d give me breakfast and they said sure, if I’d help them prepare it, so I took off my shoes and they gave me rubber slippers and a dull knife and I peeled over-ripe fruit for an hour while some insane sermon played on the house P.A. I’ve written this scene into many manuscripts but haven’t found a story that can hold it, this dumb thing I did once that didn’t matter to my life at all but is nevertheless branded into me forever. I should pull up that page of text and just copy it here but I guess I won’t. I remember the Krishnas saying the words “fruit soup” and how happy they sounded saying it and how disgusting it was to hold all those bruised apples and plums and to slice into them gently as I could, paring the rot away. The white lines the Krishnas painted on their noses. As soon as I finished the work I put the knife down and left that place, ravenous—a Persephone that knew better—but mostly just relieved I hadn’t cut myself. Some part of me is forever stepping out of those rubber slippers. This memory is a letter of my secret name.

6.

Soft spot for any song where the singer is joined by a bunch of backup singers on the last refrain, like he’s convinced them to come to the party and now they’re here.

If we abolish all the high schools like we’ve always dreamed of doing, on what toothpaste-colored walls will our foolish children circle their A’s in perfect rage?

The flamingo-pink thorns of a rosebush nosing through chainlink as gray as the gravel side-roads somehow still prolific in this modern urban core.

Skinhead in red suspenders catches me toggling into hi-res mode to capture every pixel in the lavender bush sprung up out of the kill shot in the abandoned mattress, a child-size mattress, SE Gladstone & Sixty-eighth.

Spare a prayer for the driveway weeds crisped by my vinegar gun.

The week I spent with Grandpa Jack while he was at the rehab place, how I kept the Grateful Dead bluetoothed into the rented Altima and they played “Looks Like Rain” while the windshield soured with confirmation.

And this too is the story of Florida, and of my life, but not the only story and not only mine.

Imagine Bobby looking out the tour bus window at the golden cornfields of Nebraska or Oklahoma, wherever Pershing Municipal Auditorium is or was, those golden ’73 tours (Dick’s Picks 28; Grateful Dead Records, 2003), and Bobby would have been—Christ—twenty-six years old then. Which means Jerry was thirty-one.

How Grandpa Jack’s roommate said, “My grandson’s a writer like you, well, one of them is,” and I said, “Oh, what’s his name?” and he said, “I don’t remember, I can’t remember,” and said it again and wept and later tried to get me to eat the other half of his bagel.

How when a hurricane rolls through they say it looks like a bomb went off, and when a bomb goes off they say it looks like a hurricane rolled through.

You age into and then out of every idea of what it would mean to have or to want control.

7.

In a small town in central Vermont, Kate crosses the river bridge, thinking about a poem or her and her husband’s plan to move to Pensacola when he retires from the army. “We’ve been married fifteen years,” she said the other day, “and at war the entire time.”

Crab apples browning, radio static of the river, improbable preponderance of Andrew Yang yard signs.

How the riverbed wakes up when the tide drops and the blue heron lands on the same rock at the same time every day, bringing us dusk like you’d gift a bauble to a child: a plastic egg from a vending machine or a hermit crab’s discarded shell.

I love the dark sunflowers they make out here, their blood-brown faces like phones in night mode.

Took a photo of a building because it said Senators South on its face in dull silver letters and I thought that name sounded like a lost track from Pavement’s Slanted & Enchanted (Matador Records, 1992). The next building over said Senators North, but that doesn’t sound like anything. Or it doesn’t to me.

One week in Vermont and my preliminary conclusion is that white guy dreadlocks are an STD

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Still I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t getting psyched for karaoke night at the pizza pub with the big etched-metal Steal Your Face on the wall, because it feels like a place where anything could happen but it probably won’t.

Here comes Kate back across the bridge, changed into running gear; Genevieve’s with her.

So much of the world is you show up somewhere, hang around awhile, notice the birds and try to learn everybody’s name.

8.

When I left that coffee shop back in Portland, I had David Berman on my mind and Jerry Garcia on my headphones and I saw a bored four-year-old watching YouTube cartoons on his mom’s phone while she was laid out on a tattoo shop table getting touch-ups on her back-piece. Phoenix, I thought, though it could have been an eagle having a big mood. Why I carried this east with me and am sharing it here I may never know, but I see it plain as the apple on my desk or those Pacific City farmers or this cork board to which I’ve tacked my favorite Coleridge poem, the one that ends,

Old Friends burn dim, like lamps in noisome air,
Love them for what they are, nor love them less
Because to thee they are not what they were.

and I wish he hadn’t used the italics, but still, there’s a novel somewhere in these lines and I’d like to write it. I mean when I’m done burning my daylight doing this.

When we made our descent into Burlington I briefly thought we were landing in Atlanta again. Are those new hills? I wondered, genuinely curious.

How the baby in the row in front of me was very quiet and the cat in the row behind me cried the whole time—eerie human-sounding cries—and how the mother of the baby told me, as we deplaned, that she had been so relieved her baby was the quiet one, but she felt badly for that other baby’s mother. The look that must have flashed across my face when she said that; the look that flashed across hers when I shared what I knew.

The beauty and desolation of late aughts Low records: a beauty like granite or January or the sea at night.

Ghost spiders big as Buicks splayed across the pavement of the open-steelwork bridge.

On each side of said bridge a yellow trapezoid with a warning: NARROW BRIDGE.

9.

And when David Berman wrote “we could be crossing this abridged abyss” in his song “What Is Not But Could Be If,” (Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea; Drag City, 2008) he knew that the second word would hog the listener’s attention. But the qualifier is crucial because the abridgment is where life occurs, is what it is. Our lives are the burst of noise that truncates the silences that surround them—us—which is what makes living precious but also why it makes sense that certain souls are beckoned to read the complete text, that unexpurgated edition called eternity: they are scholars of sorrow and cannot abide delay. When Berman coined the phrase “abridged abyss” he was almost certainly thinking of Nachman of Breslov (1772–1810) and punning on the bridge in the Rabbi’s famous adage: “The world is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is to not be overwhelmed by fear.” And Berman may have been thinking of this too when, on his last record (Purple Mountains; Drag City, 2019) he sang of “fear so strong it leaves you gasping,” a line he’d been holding onto for nearly a decade by the time he recorded it. It appears in the middle of a long unpublished poem, or perhaps the notes toward an unfinished poem, that he shared at a reading at the Alachua County Library in Gainesville, Florida in 2011. I know that library well but was years gone from Gainesville by then. Someone tweeted a link to the video a few days after he died. What I like about the phrase “abridged abyss”—and what I suspect that he liked about it—is the repetition of the ab, and i sounds. To speak these words is to watch waves break, or a pair of songbirds—let’s say blackbirds—taking wing. He had chosen that same duplicated soft a sound a decade earlier, when titling Actual Air.

The double alef is a double opening, a door within a door or a world created twice, just as in Genesis, and just as the complete lyric, properly quoted, is “We could be crossing this abridged abyss into beginning.”

Italics mine.

10.

Standing at the intersection of Railroad Street and Creamery Road with no choice to make because—contra Faulkner—sometimes the past really is dead, really is past.

Heaven hears your silence just as loudly as you hear Heaven’s.

The day Jerry Garcia died, Bob Weir was playing a solo show with his side band. He opened the set alone, played the Beatles’ “Blackbird” on acoustic guitar. This has never been officially released so I’ve only heard it as a bootleg, a cassette tape I lost track of a long, long time ago. You can hear him crying, but he makes himself finish the song.

At the hilltop college, where I was walking earlier, ironwork sculptures of pain pills the size of canoes are scattered across the rolling lawns like God knocked them off his bedside table.

Listening to Low again, this time to Secret Name (Kranky Records, 1999). Gonna walk about five miles total, which is to say back through downtown, where dishwater pigeons exchange their secret handshakes on the roof of the Masonic building and it’s my turn to be a small shape transacting itself across the bridge.

Earlier I stumbled upon the municipal field by the elementary school where the town hosts its jam band socials in a deconsecrated revival tent. And at the field’s far muddy edge, past the tent and the pergola and the monkey bars, there stands a grove of sunflowers taller than my father, their dinner plate faces cast down, as though succumbing beneath the weight of all the brightness and the long recessional for another beleaguered year.

I prefer the field at first light, when I can pay the quiet the same heartfelt half-attention that my wife would pay me if I were trying to piece together the plot of a dream by describing it to her. The white canvas stirs in the breeze and the blue rows of plastic chairs are empty. Fog drowning the mountains, whiff of skunk in wet air, and it’s like morning itself is an empty tent, or an apartment for rent.

I decide to sign the lease on the breaking day.

Justin Taylor is the author of the memoir Riding with the Ghost, forthcoming from Random House in July. His previous books are the story collections Flings and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Sewanee Review.

from HEX by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
Hex, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, Viking Press
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Originally published in

BOMB 151, Spring 2020

This issue features interviews with Chitra Ganesh, Tania Cypriano, Charles Atlas, Netta Yerushalmy, Vi Khi Nao, Amani Al-Thuwaini, Andrea Hasler, and Bruce Boone, as well as fiction from Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Justin Taylor, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, and Lee Relvas, and poetry from Shuzo Takiguchi and Bruce Boone.

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