American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman

BOMB 93 Fall 2005
093 Fall 2005 1024X1024

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


Life is unfair. Some people are sick, and others are well.

—President John F. Kennedy, 1962

Woe to him whose beliefs play fast and loose with the order which realities follow in his experiencethey will lead him nowhere or else make false connexions.
—William James

 The food here is bad, but every day there is something I can eat and even like, and there’s a bathtub, which I don’t have at home, so I can have a bath here every day before dinner, which is at 7:30 PM, and usually unsatisfying, but I can’t wait for dinner because it’s the official end to my day, and there will be other people around with whom I can talk who also didn’t get done what they were supposed to do. I’m often distracted from the things I must do, which I feel compelled or expected to accomplish, and the others make similar assumptions, as well as different ones, and they also distract me, but I hope to discover what might help me or that I need to know, as well as what I don’t need to know, for instance, about the other residents in the community. A tarot card-reader, whose predictions I would ordinarily dismiss, since I believe only the past can be read, though it is also unknowable, but who struck me as unusually astute, predicted that I would meet an obstacle or person who would forever change my life. My cards were powerful, he said, which I heard with incredulity, though, as he spoke, it occurred to me that it didn’t matter what I believed of his philosophy, since the notion had already taken hold, one that might come to my aid, a placebo, or one I wanted to accept, since belief is important, everything, and also nothing much, an attachment like a skein of froth. About the prediction, I told no one, and my life did change, but not in the way the card-reader foresaw.

Sometimes I have a chance to have a bath before dinner. I eagerly undress and fill the old-fashioned, footed bathtub with very hot water, pour bath oil under the faucet, three capfuls which is supposed to invigorate your body, moisturize your skin, and soothe your mind, and though this never happens, my mind is never soothed, I still liberally pour in bath oil that claims to soothe the mind and help the skin. My skin is dry during the winter and also during the summer, it is dry the year long, I have very sensitive skin, which is what the Polish woman who gives me a facial every two months tells me, repeating each time I have a facial, Your skin is very sensitive, probably because we don’t have much else to talk about. We don’t have much in common, but I hear stories about her life and know she was once married, and that she now goes on dates with men and on trips and outings with girlfriends.

One day while I was having a facial in the salon, a dignified word for the cramped, dingy space, the doorbell rang and she answered it. She is the only one working there, except on weekends, when the owner, an attractive woman who takes good care of herself and has two children and a husband, works, too. The woman who gives me facials doesn’t have a husband and children but would like to. She is also attractive and takes good care of herself, and works five days a week. At the door was the man she was just telling me about, who was pursuing her and asking her for dates, which she declined, putting him off evasively. He entered the cramped space.

When the Polish woman, known professionally as a cosmetician and beautician, had finished cleaning my pores and moisturizing my sensitive skin, he was still there, waiting, crudely handsome and glowering, sitting on an ugly plastic-covered chair near the table with out-of-date beauty magazines. I glanced at him, someone I knew slightly, but didn’t remember how, which is often the case, many faces are unbearably familiar and indistinct, so it was embarrassing, because he was waiting for her, and I shouldn’t have seen him in this setting, when she didn’t want to date him or maybe ever get married or perhaps couldn’t, because she took care of her mother, or she’s too picky or because she doesn’t really like men. Probably I should have warned her that he was not a good man, it was easy to see, because why else would he surprise her, coming unannounced and perhaps unwanted to her place of work, where she was supposed to be safe from such incidents, but I didn’t, because people, women especially, like to hear they have sensitive skin or that they are sensitive. It supposedly distinguishes them from animals who are not sensitive in the way that human beings apply the word. An animal’s skin is usually not sensitive, though I have a friend whose cat has sensitive skin; it often has sores at its mouth and is allergic to many kinds of food, and my cat, the one I put to sleep because it stalked me, had dry skin and dandruff. Animals and some men are predatory, though female cats make better hunters. People are strange about their animals. I like animals, especially cats and dogs, birds, too, and I am often disturbed about the fate of animals, though I eat meat, fish, and fowl, and don’t appreciate the audible disdain or silent criticism of some vegetarians, like the woman who told me that her dogs had one time encircled a cat and would have hurt it, maybe killed it, if she hadn’t intervened. Two dogs nearly killed one of the kittens our family cat gave birth to, nearly tore it in two, but my mother rescued it and carried it to the vet, where it was sewn up and lived. My mother loved our family cat, then she gave it away after it decapitated and ate my bird, and neither of us, her two children, was able to forget the terrible fate of our cat, certainly not I, even now that my mother’s brain is damaged. No one brings it up, no one mentions it, though when my mother talks about the family cat now and how much she loved her, how special the cat was, I avert my eyes, I look down, I have to, because otherwise I might shout, You killed the cat.

After that, my parents gave away my dog, because they said they couldn’t take care of her, but I didn’t believe them. I should have saved my dog, who was devoted and good, and never hurt anyone, except maybe a plumber. When I left home at 18, thrown out by my parents, which had consequences for the future I didn’t consider then, a plumber came to the apartment where I stayed for a time with friends to fix the toilet, when only I was there, and because my dog was nervous and scared, protecting me in a strange, new place, she bit the plumber on his calf. He couldn’t be reassured she wasn’t rabid. The next day a policeman came to the door and served a summons, legally compelling me to bring my dog to the ASPCA, to a division called BITES, where my dog had to be examined, the smallest dog in an ugly office, obviously not rabid, terrified of the bigger, growling dogs near her, and it was after that I gave my dog back to my parents, because I couldn’t take care of her. She couldn’t live in an apartment, having been raised in a house with a lawn in a neighborhood where she was able every morning to go for walks around town with her best friend, Pepe, a standard black poodle, one of the two dogs who had mauled and nearly killed the kitten, but that was long ago and forgiven because the kitten lived and Pepe was such a good friend to our dog, even though he once bit her on the genitals and she had to go to the dog and cat hospital.

When Pepe came to take her for a walk around town the next morning and she wasn’t there, he refused to leave the house until my mother opened the door and let him search for her, and only then, after he’d gone upstairs and downstairs and into the basement, only then, when he didn’t find her, did Pepe go home. I gave my dog to my parents for safekeeping, until I could take care of her, because in the winter, when there’s snow on the ground, my dog couldn’t go for a walk on a leash since the City salts the sidewalks with minerals that hurt dogs’ paws, and walking, she whimpered and yelped, and I had to carry her to a place where she could be set down to piss and shit, and after she did, I would have to carry her again. I gave her to my parents, then my parents gave her away, had her killed, though they insisted someone adopted her, after they lied about her age—she was eight, but looked younger, my father contended—so she was adopted under false pretenses, and neither of us children ever believed the story, that she had been adopted, that she had not been killed, but there was nothing to do, it was too late, she was gone.

I’d been asleep, absorbed in myself, not thinking about the animal I professed to love, and when I was told that two dogs had encircled a cat I’d never seen, and that if a human being had not intervened the cat could’ve been torn apart and killed, rather than expressing concern that the dogs must be controlled, because they might do it again, the owner of the dogs talked about a cat who had successfully defended itself against her occasionally vicious dogs, and, from a safe place, hit them with its paw. A house cat shouldn’t have to know how to defend itself against predatory dogs, but people defend the bad actions of their animals, themselves, or their children rather than face the unsavory conclusion that there is something wrong with the animal, their children, themselves, with the world, and their job is to acknowledge it, even to rid the world of it, certainly not to pretend that it isn’t there, that everything is all right, that they and their animals are good, because they didn’t mean it, and can’t help themselves. Instead they do nothing, accepting the brutality of animals, themselves, other people, and the world, since they believe it has nothing to do with them, they want to think it has nothing to do with them. A slap in the face is not a slap in the face when it comes from them, because they didn’t mean it, because they had sad childhoods, their parents gave away their dogs and cats, their parents gave them away and didn’t love them.

I love my animals. People love their animals, the way they love their own farts and everything else attached to them that is close to them yet not them. Because they are not their animals or their farts, they love them. Eskimos have a saying, Every man loves the smell of his own farts, which most people wouldn’t admit. I know a man who was kicked out of a fast-food restaurant because he farted. I was once in a restaurant when an obese boy farted, the smell was overpowering, and a friend and I had to move to a different part of the restaurant, but the boy appeared satisfied, because he loved the smell of his fart. Everyone loves their own farts, which could get them kicked out of restaurants or humiliated in public settings, where people try to act not like animals but sensitively, if it serves their purposes, but no one is sensitive enough about other people. They are sensitive about themselves, their animals, their feelings and beliefs, and other people can go to hell with their dogs, their farts, and their feelings.

 

At breakfast, I noticed the expressions on two women’s faces, women in their late twenties who looked unhappy, something had not gone well for them, was not going well for them in that moment or in their dreams or in last night’s telephone call, but I didn’t say anything to them, though I believed I should show concern. I walked past them and ordered two fried eggs over medium, which I like, though when I was a child I would’ve gagged on, before the kitchen closed, otherwise I wouldn’t have eaten until lunch. Lunches are rarely good, they are often the worst meal of the day, and sometimes there is very little anyone can eat, but I didn’t want to be hungry later, waiting for dinner, alone, thinking about the dog I hadn’t saved, who loved carrots, seeing her guileless face before me, her tail wagging happily, as she ran up the driveway which had an oil slick on it, a leak from my father’s gray Buick, of which he was proud, the dog unaware that one day she would be given away by the people who loved her. I’ve never had another dog. I’ve had cats, and one especially I cherished, in Amsterdam, all of whose kittens but one died in a week from an infestation of fleas, which occurred frequently during Amsterdam summers, but of which I’d had no experience and no one spoke, never warning me of the inevitable and severe consequences for newborn kittens, for whose deaths I take responsibility. They lay in a drawer in my desk as their lifeblood was drained away, sucked by fleas, whose own life may be valuable to some, but I now have a young cat, technically a kitten, rescued from the streets by animal lovers, who resembles the sole survivor of that doomed litter. My young cat had distemper but he survived, because a veterinarian believed it was worth dosing him with strong, expensive antibiotics, while warning me soberly that the kitten had only a 50/50 chance of survival, but when I visited my cat during the four-day ordeal in which his life hung in the balance, I was chastised by the veterinarian’s receptionist, because, upon hearing my kitten cry, I ran to the room from which the cries emerged, a room no bigger than a closet, and messy, and the receptionist became angry, suspecting that I might steal her bag and coat, which were also in the room with my lonely, sick cat. Though the vet saved my cat’s life, I have never returned.

My cat plays, purrs, bites, and goes for people’s hands. He is a little wild and may become vicious when he’s older, or he may calm down, but I don’t want to have to put him to sleep, to kill him, if he turns vicious and attacks someone. When I am no longer here, eating breakfast with other people whose complexions and facial expressions signal a distress I don’t want to deal with, wondering how much I should get involved with them and their problems, I won’t have people come to my apartment and meet my young cat. I don’t like their coming, anyway, I don’t like people seeing or saying things about what I have around me, on my walls or on my shelves; it is no business of theirs how I live or what I put on a table or my desk, a wooden board with a plate of half-inch-thick glass over it, a reasonable desk in an unexceptional apartment, in which I live with a young cat, and for some years with a man, but not now, and the cat may or may not become vicious, which is a problem for the future.

Everything is a problem in some way, I can’t think of anything that’s not a problem from the past for the future, and I often worry, frowning to myself, unaware that I’m frowning, my lips turning down involuntarily, which I’ve been told to stop doing since I was a child, because it creates the impression that I’m sullen and also etches fine lines around my mouth, but I can’t. My father worried about the future, which presumably he could imagine, but I can’t, just as I can’t imagine lines like tributaries running from the river of my mouth the way they do from my mother’s, who was angry, who’d abandoned her girlish hopes of marrying a violinist named Sidney, and who often speaks of him now that my father is dead, wondering where Sidney is, and also wondering where my father is, if he is outside, waiting for her in the car that he loved. She might have seen the future in us, if we’d been someone else’s children. By the time I knew my brother, he was 13, so he and my parents were the future that lived with and preceded me, it lay before me and also excluded me, so I didn’t consider it, not when I was a small child, since it was already in their lives. I didn’t mature fantasizing its arrival, and even knowing that I won’t be here to witness another future and be dedicated to it, or of it, that I exist as one version of the future I hadn’t fantasized, I’m only vaguely intrigued by its promise. The tenacity of the past makes me melancholy, though people like to say the past was a simpler time, but there is no simpler time, there are only simple people, and even they are not simple, but so exhaustively undermined as to be plain. Memory can be consumptive, a sickness, whose effects are wily and subversive, worthy of flight or fight, and tenacious unwritten histories leave tremulous marks on bodies in action, at rest, but not their final rest, and under siege. My body is encased in sensitive, dry skin. Skin is an organ, and the body’s largest one, protecting the body under coats of many colors. The story of Joseph is one of two Bible stories I remember, because it was about fabric and colors, both of which my father mentioned, since he was in the textile business, and it was also about rivalry, which my parents never mentioned, though I wasn’t aware of reticence then.

My mother has beautiful skin, which she protected regularly but not slavishly. Human beings need to be protected, to enjoy being protected, especially when they are young, because they have a long period of dependency, and in some it is interminable. The past that can’t be recovered or changed has already shaped and damaged the present, and how I arrange a chair, where I set it, in what relation to my reasonable desk, or what kind of couch I have that also won’t protect me won’t tell people what they need to know about me, to protect them from me, though people spend endless amounts of time thinking about their furniture and what it says about them, and how they will appear to themselves and others. No one need come to my apartment to see how I’ve arranged the furniture, to learn about my problems from the way I’ve placed objects, to learn what damage I’ve done and might do in the future, in which they will also live, unless someone murders them, they kill themselves, or they die of natural causes before their supposed time.

My father enjoyed himself, especially when he was playing cards with his friends, or dancing and swimming, and he was also charming when he didn’t glower, like the man who waited for the woman who gives me facials. I need a facial. I’ve been away from home for a long time, and my skin is very dry, but I don’t put cream on it at night. I can’t bring myself to apply cream at night, when no one would see me, though it would be good to do in my bedroom where it’s very quiet, where not a sound can be heard except the heat rising in the pipes or the toilet flushing. But I’m the one who makes noise, who flushes the toilet most often, going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, because I can’t sleep, I’m afraid to dream, to surrender, and I have to piss frequently, which is a sign of age in a woman, and maybe a man, but I know less about men. My father never told me if he had to piss frequently as he grew older, though I watched him piss when I was four-years-old, fascinated by the stream of hot yellow-white urine that shot from his penis. But when years later, I told a friend about his urinating in front of me, she contended, her lips tight with horror, that I’d been abused, a word like “environment” whose use is pervasive and compromises my individuality, about which I have less and less choice. My father had generously allowed his curious daughter the opportunity to see how a man pisses, when she wanted to know, because she was curious, I am still curious, and interested in the world and in penises, especially her father’s; and when another person would instantly think that a girl had been abused by seeing her father’s penis as he pissed, though that is what she wanted to see, I thought to myself, but did not say, the time we live in is a problem. My fearful father was not afraid of my seeing his penis, but he stopped letting me when I was a little older, which was too bad, because I never had the chance to ask him how frequently he had to piss when he grew older, or before he died, since asking other men wouldn’t be the same, because it was my father I wondered about, though I could’ve asked my brother, who disappeared from my life, who may be living on the streets of Cincinnati or Mexico City, but it wouldn’t be the same.

My mother is very old, incontinent, and she doesn’t remember that she had my dog and cat killed, though she often mentions the story she wrote about the family cat she loved but later had killed. It is laden with lovingly embroidered details about the antics of our remarkable cat, though she doesn’t remember what I was like as a child, even before she had brain damage, except to say that I was fast at everything, that I rushed. I’m still rushing, because there’s a lot to accomplish before death, which defeats accomplishment, and my mother often wants to know what I’m doing and why I’m away, not with her, though when I’m with her, she doesn’t talk to me but watches television, with ardent attention. She doesn’t know me, I don’t know her, and each time she asks why I’m leaving or where I’m going, I tell her, but then she forgets. I tell her again and again, and then she says she misses and loves me, which she never said when I was young and she wasn’t incontinent.

 

There is an assortment of tables in the dining room of the main or big house where I have breakfast, along with the others, strangers to me and each other, if they are able to wake up, without effort or by having set their alarm clock, as I have, to be in time for breakfast, often the best or only edible meal of the day. Many arrive bedraggled by sleep, talkative, or muted, and some arrive hungry, even starving, with a zest for the day ahead that overwhelms, stymies, or exhausts me, and everyone usually can find something they like to eat, if they are on time and the kitchen is still open. Sometimes there is a table for vegetarians, if their number is great and the head cook has become aggrieved by the volume or multitude of demands, including that of commingling us. But it is only at dinner that the vegetarians, when their number has swelled, are seated separately; smokers and nonsmokers had been regularly segregated, but now the smoker is simply banished, forced to smoke out of doors in the cold or heat or in a lobby that is perpetually foul-smelling so that the smokers also don’t want to be in it. There are many more kinds of separations that are not as significant as those of religion, race, ethnicity, class, and these newer, odder discriminations may subtly cover more profound insensitivities, like flounces on a bad design. In all there are nine tables, unless there is a problem, and our number varies, while rumors circulate like the residents.

Residents such as myself float from one to another, avoiding specific individuals, choosing a chair at the last minute, but others take the same position, table, and chair each meal, and if that seat is snagged by another, a new resident or a mischievous older resident, there are consequences. Some residents don’t appear at breakfast, for instance, Gardner, or the Count, who is obsessed with time and antique timepieces; he never appears, as he sleeps during the day and wakes only for dinner, which serves as his breakfast. When I, nearly late this morning, rushed past the two young women into the kitchen, I didn’t fail to notice that they were ensconced by themselves at a distant table near a window; that the young, clever, married man was at a table alone, reading the newspaper, which was his habit, because he doesn’t want to speak to anyone during the first meal of his day, and no one dared speak to him, and that the rest of the group was settled around a third table and in various stages of eating. Everyone could have eggs for breakfast. But some wouldn’t, since they refuse to eat what could become alive, an egg might become a chicken, but they could also, on different mornings, have a choice of oatmeal, fresh and canned fruit salad, dry cereal, pancakes, French toast, crepes, or whole wheat, rye, and white toast with marmalade or grape jelly. There was coffee, with and without caffeine, tea, herbal and black, water, and orange juice, and, depending upon who was in charge of the kitchen, sometimes it was freshly squeezed juice, which was a treat residents appreciated, took for granted, or didn’t seem to notice, like the young married man, whose morning face was hidden behind a newspaper, and who, though often grumpy, liked all of the meals, adored his wife and his mother, and his occupation and obsession, ornithology. He writes prolifically about birds native to South and North America, and, while here, hopes to compile a comprehensive glossary of the local birds, particularly avid to discover rare ones, as he did in Mexico when he spotted the hard-to-see Pauraque, whose feathers and coloring match the gr ound to disguise it. His cheerful appetite sets him apart from many of the others, while his grumpiness, which may come from missing his home, since he receives many telephone calls from his wife and makes many to his mother, also distinguishes him. I’m not sure what I miss, I often think I miss nothing, that there is nothing to miss, and yet I’m aware that I do, since I am often missing to myself.

—Lynne Tillman’s most recent book, This Is Not It, is a collection of short stories inspired by 22 contemporary artists. She has recently finished her fifth novel, American Genius, A Comedy, to be published by Soft Skull Press in fall 2006.

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Originally published in

BOMB 93, Fall 2005

Featuring interviews with Arturo Herrera and Josiah McElheny, Jennifer Bartlett and Elizabeth Murray, Lincoln Perry, Anthony Downey and Yinka Shonibare, Eliot Weinberger and Forrest Gander, Lionel Shriver, Noah Baumbach and Jonathan Lethem, George Lewis and Jeff Parker, and David Rabe and Evangeline Morphos. 

Read the issue
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