American Purgatorio by John Haskell

BOMB 89 Fall 2004
089 Fall 2004 1024X1024

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19

When I say that desire breeds hope, what I mean is that desire contains within itself the seed of its possible attainment. As I sat on a wooden bench, waiting for Mike to finish fixing the car, I had the hope, but the problem with hope is its fragility, and because of this fragility, after a while my hope began to mutate into something else, something more substantial and secure. Where hope had been, now belief existed. The achievement of my desire became not only possible, but certain. I believed my connection with Anne had been real and would continue to be real, and while this was a kind of pride, it wasn’t necessarily bad. Without it, and without its attendant optimism, why would I think a high-mileage used car was anything other than a mass of sheet metal and rubber. I wanted to transcend its prosaic nature, and so I transformed the car from something prosaic into something transcendent, into a car that would find my wife. She would be like a beacon, and I would use the car to follow that beacon. And to mark my ownership of the car I took from my wallet a photograph of Anne, a shot of her in perfect focus, during a snowstorm, turning to the camera, the world behind her completely blurred. I borrowed some electrician’s tape and taped the photo to the middle of the dashboard. At first it fell off, but I added more tape and eventually got it to stick on a suitable surface just above the radio.

Since Mike’s job was to fix cars, he found a number of things that needed to be fixed. “I can fix anything,” he said, and he raised the car up on blocks in his small garage near the Gowanus Canal. He took off the wheels to show me, with a screwdriver, the brakes or the shoes of the brakes, which he said needed replacing. He snapped the belts, which looked perfectly fine to me, but he replaced them. He replaced the oil and the hoses—”You don’t want leakage,” he said—and because he was an old friend, he threw in some fresh brake fluid. And because the idea of replacing the old with the new was philosophically appealing, I approved the repairs. I paid Mike when he finished, and as I was just about to begin my journey, just about to drive away, as I opened the door and was about to wave to Mike and settle into the low vinyl seat, he mentioned something about a poker game.

Well, I wasn’t interested in games, and I said I wasn’t interested. “I think I’ll pass,” I said, and although I said it, I didn’t drive away. I got out of the car and waited until the players showed up, all of whom I knew. We shook hands, performed the requisite slaps on the back, and I explained to them that I was getting up early tomorrow, and that I had to call it a night. But I didn’t call it a night. I had the belief that I would find Anne, but I was beginning to think it might be a good idea to test that belief, to get a little confirmation.

The next thing I knew I was sitting at a round table covered in green felt, with Welters and Perper, Polizze and Mike, and Mike’s brother, known as Bones—all friends from Stuyvesant High School. Although I didn’t attend this particular high school I was part of their circle. And when the game began, for the first few hands, I got nothing. A few pairs, a few aces, but basically nothing. I folded quickly to keep my losses at a minimum. This went on for a while with some players winning, some losing, and all the cards seeming random and unrelated. Yet even when the hoped-for cards refused to materialize, my belief that they wouldmaterialize didn’t abandon me. Instead it hardened into a surety, or a faith, in which I lost sight of the fact that I was losing, a fact I didn’t want to believe. I was a winner, I thought. Born to win. And so I kept betting and kept losing, and anything is possible, I thought, and when the next hand of cards was dealt I ended up with three queens. I was sitting there, trying to look nonchalant, and I didn’t bet much, or press too hard, but I won the hand and with it the money. And I began to feel good, to feel that some luck was coming my way. I knew enough to know that luck, or intuition, or harmony, moves in waves, and I could feel that a wave was gathering for me. And I won again. I won the next hand, and the hand after that, and now it was easy. And this is how, fueled by the facts in front of me (the cards on the table), my confidence was reinforced by reality.

And when the game ended, or when it ended for me, I left my winnings on the table. When I stood up and walked to the door I was feeling in sync, not only with the cards, but with the world. I knew it didn’t always happen like this, but if a person pays attention, sometimes the underlying logic of the world is revealed, sometimes there’s a convergence of desire and actuality, and because it comes in waves, it’s possible to ride those waves. I said good-bye to my friends and walked outside. I walked from the round table into the cool, damp air, and standing there, I felt that convergence. The thing I’d been wanting to happen was finally happening. And sure, I recognized that it might not always be happening, but eventually it would. When it mattered, it would happen, and when it did, I would be paying attention. It didn’t matter about winning some stupid card game. Winning a game didn’t matter. What mattered was finding Anne.

I didn’t want to think about probability. The probability, if I thought about it, of finding Anne before she got to Lexington was not that great. And yet I believed it could be done, knew, in fact, that it could and would be done. The worn-out map was an outline, and I would follow that outline to get close to her, and once I was close, then the world would tell me what to do. I would follow the dictates of the world, first by paying attention to the signs, and then by following them. Which signs? I would know them. How to interpret them? I would learn. The world was interconnected, so that in following the signs, and living under the sway of these signs, I would be following Anne’s trail. To understand the world, I had to be part of the world, and I was determined to go into the world and, like Bach or Mozart or Charlie Parker, let the world play through me. I would read the world and communicate with the world and be directed by the world. And let the world tell me what to do.

That night, instead of sleeping, I loaded the car with the objects of my life. You wouldn’t call it packing because it was a little too random for that. My goal was to travel light, and mainly I brought along things that reminded me of Anne. Most of it I knew I didn’t need, but I packed these things, which included a cardboard box of paperback books, photos in an envelope, a sleeping bag, a laptop computer, a potted cactus, binoculars, clothes, cassettes for the car, and my father’s mandolin. I packed all of these things, along with my notebook, into the trunk and the backseat of the small car, and I knew I was probably leaving behind something important, but nothing that I really needed. It was late and raining when I locked both locks of the blue front door, got in the car, and drove away.

Before I drove away I sat in the car looking up through the rain-spotted window to my house, lit by the streetlight. I said good-bye to the place I’d painted and plastered and lived in. Then I turned, away from the house to the street, and beyond that to the city, and beyond that to something else.

I knew what I was doing.

My life was dependent on how well I paid attention, and so, as I drove through the nighttime city, I didn’t mind the stoplights or the honking or the rutted road, because they were a part of the world. I was driving along on the elevated expressway, with the buildings of the city below me, listening to a Spanish language cassette tape that either Mike or the nurse had left, a tape which, when it worked, acted as a white-noise background for thinking. El gusto es mioel gusto es mio. I was thinking about Anne, and also thinking that a journey of a thousand miles begins at this exact moment, and the next thing I thought was that something was wrong.

As I said, it was raining, and as I was changing lanes I noticed that something was wrong with the steering. There was a lag time. I would turn the wheel, and then later, not too much but a little bit later, the car itself would turn. This led to overcompensating, which led to swerving, and because this was a problem I pulled off the highway, drove down the off-ramp onto a boulevard and into a gas station where I parked under the bright fluorescent lights. I opened the hood, checked the few things I knew to check, and found that I was low on power steering fluid.

When I walked into the office of the gas station—it was an old-style gas station with fan belts and air filters hanging on the wall—the first thing I saw were two chairs stacked in the middle of the room with a red coffee can sitting on the seat of one chair catching drops of water falling from a leak in the ceiling. There was a young man, a kid really, behind the counter and I said to the kid, “Excuse me, do you have any power steering fluid?” But the kid didn’t hear me. Or if he did, he didn’t respond. He was wearing a pair of headphones. “Power steering fluid,” I said, waving my hands so the kid would notice me, but I seemed to be in a different world. The kid could see me and hear me, but I seemed to exist as if in a television set. I kept saying, “I need some power steering fluid,” telling the kid and waving at him but the kid didn’t respond. Then, at a certain point, he took off the headphones, came around from behind the counter, took the coffee can, which was just about full, and put in its place an empty Styrofoam cup. And then he went through a door into some sort of back room area.

Well, the first drop of water that hit the Styrofoam cup knocked it off the chair, and of course the water began dripping onto the chair and ultimately onto the floor, and I could see what was happening. The drops were beginning to form a pool beneath the chair. So I reached down, picked up the white cup and held it, catching the drops of water as they fell. I was standing there, holding this cup, waiting for the kid to come back, and I saw the headphones sitting on the counter. I reached over, picked them up one-handed, and slipped them over my ears.

There was an interview going on with Itzhak Perlman, a noted violinist, punctuated with examples of him playing the violin. He was saying that he’d been playing since he was a baby and that the music was a vehicle for him, and I thought, This man was lucky. He didn’t have to ask, What am I going to do? or, How should I do it? And even if he did, he had his music, which was his key, opening the door, not just to the world we know, but to parts of that world which are unknown. Once Itzhak Perlman became one with the music, once he and the world became the same thing, he could then change the world. And the only thing is, once he became the world, there was nothing to change.

And then the kid came back. He put the empty coffee can on the chair and took the cup from my hand. I put the headphones back on the counter, and the kid went around to the other side, put the headphones onto his ears, pulled out a bottle of power-steering fluid and set it on the worn linoleum. “That’s great,” I said. “How did you know?” but the kid didn’t respond. “How did you know?” I was asking, but the kid was just looking back, his eyes open but that’s about it.

So I took the bottle out to the car.

Somehow the kid had understood what needed to happen, and it happened. And I thought that partially I’d made it happen. Somehow by my actions, by the way I held the Styrofoam cup, or the fact that I held the Styrofoam cup, I’d changed the world. I was feeling slightly euphoric. And this euphoria gave me a feeling of confidence or control—even superiority—over events in the world. It’s possible that I was interpreting the world to suit my needs, and if I was, I didn’t care. The world doesn’t care how we see what happens, or if we see what happens. But it’s all happening, and I was happening just as much.

I was standing at the gas pump, happy to be pumping gas, and it was all very normal, very mundane, and I stood there, next to this fading red coupe, one hand on the gas nozzle, one hand on my hip, I looked around.

I remembered Anne.

I remembered that she was driving when we pulled off the highway. Gas is cheaper in New Jersey, so we’d made it a custom to stop at that particular gas station on the Palisades Parkway. Although the memory was more like a dream, I remembered pulling into the line for gas, volunteering to get us something to eat while she waited in the car. When we drove we always liked to have a bite to eat, so I opened the door, I remembered that, put my feet on the hard cement, and as I’m getting out, another car, a gray car or silver car, moving rapidly, drives up alongside, about an arm’s length from my open door, and only at the last moment does it veer away. I turn and I see the car (a luxury car) cutting to an open gas pump in the front of the line. As I walk past the car to the store I look in and I see a man driving and a woman in the front seat. I walk to the convenience store, buy the protein bar and the peanuts and the drink, so I have my hands full when I walk out, and she’s gone. Anne and the car. Both gone. And the first thing I think, not think, but the first thing I do is curse. First curse, then pray. I hate waiting, and as I wait I’m thinking of what I’m going to say to her. Something about how could she leave me in a stinking, noxious, unbearable gas station. Not that I hated the gas station. I hated being left alone.

I poured in the power-steering fluid and finished pumping gas. From the vantage of the pump I could see, in the distance, the clouds, illuminated by the lights of the city, and the rain that was still falling. If I relaxed my concentration I could see the individual drops reflecting the light as they fell, and although the world had gone quiet, it was quiet in a way that was not completely peaceful. I should say that what was not completely peaceful was inside me. What was inside me was the fear of invisibility. I was trying to keep that fear, and the turbulence of my reaction to it, at bay. I knew, whatever it was, I could battle and beat it, and so I closed my mind. I wanted to preserve an illusion of who I was and so, although I didn’t completely fill the tank, I started driving, out of New York City, and hopefully, out of the past.


—John Haskell is the author of a short-story collection, I Am Not Jackson Pollock (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), and the forthcoming novel American Purgatorio (FSG, January 2005), from which the story included here is excerpted. His work has appeared in Granta, the Paris Review, Conjunctions and Ploughshares, and he is a contributor to the radio show The Next Big Thing. He lives in Brooklyn.

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BOMB 89, Fall 2004

Featuring interviews with Rodney Graham, Pierre Huyghe and Doug Aitken, Jerome Charyn and Frederic Tuten, Ben Marcus and Courtney Eldridge, Kaffe Matthews and Antony Huberman, Jonathan Caouette, Laura Linney and Romulus Linney, and David Levi Strauss and Hakim Bey. 

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