As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
A life of rational planning, a happy life that owes nothing to luck, is necessarily independent of others; so it’s a life without love, without deep company. There are careers devoted to indiscernible causes, to mere thinking or interminable prayer. They are not ours. There are hermits who prefer their seaside caves, armies made of forgotten mercenaries, astronomers who see only stars. But for us one motion of individual want sends trembles around a circle of dependents, until the whole helpless ring knocks and shakes like a tray of wine glasses in an unsteady waiter’s hands. Any music they might make is random, involuntary and brief one can’t be still unless they all are, and they never are. How unbearable.
It’s true I’m a singular creature, a mooncalf, a monster if you will, equally knocked about and knocking. I have been and I’ve known as much for as long as I can remember, and I remember everything. Still, I don’t know why: maybe my mother had a scare while she was carrying me, or some cold spirit or spirochete wended its way into my company during the first days of my term, or some gene jumped from its proper place. Something happened, something moved or went astray and marked me as I lay there bathing blindly. I don’t know: I have no myth or miracle to sustain me or help me understand, so I sustain myself with these idle dreams and inventions, and wonder if the weather will end. It hasn’t ended yet.
My name is Wilson. Once when I was young I knew a pair of fierce young girls, was taken by one for love and by the other for rage, and we rattled the glasses until they broke. That’s my story. I will pursue it now like a boy chasing an errant firefly with open hands on a dark summer lawn.
On my seventeenth birthday I left my home in Lincoln, Nebraska, and went out for a walk into the world. It was a clear day, a Friday late in March. The sky was a deep and noble blue, the sun was invisibly bright, and the air was warming, though the shifting breeze still harbored traces of winter’s bitterness. As birds chirruped outside my window I threw some clothes, a toothbrush, and a book into a large duffel bag, and then I closed up my house, locked it carefully, crossed the brown lawn beneath the still-bare trees, and without a last look back started down the muddy road. I was heading south toward the summer and whatever waited for me there; it had been years since I’d been able to tell a day when I wondered about it from a day.
There was a spring in my step as I passed the end of the city, and for a few hours I walked along the shoulder of Highway 80, heading east past the city limits, past the intersection where it met the road north, past the final mile of strip malls, gas stations, motels and convenience stores. Soon there was nothing to watch but the fence posts and farmhouses, so I began to sing a song of my own invention:
Snakes are quick and crows are bold
Rain is wet and snow is cold
Coal is black and gold is gold
I’ll be young until I’m old
Over and over again I sang my little verselet, with the mood changing according to the slow entrances of opportuning noise; as I went by a herd of mooing cows it became a chorale, then it rocked with the rattle of chains on a passing truck, and as an airplane passed slowly overhead the drone added a meditative touch. This last tone lingered for a few minutes after the plane had disappeared, leaving me content and happily humming, and when a fat man in a beat-up station wagon took it upon himself to pull his car to the side of the road and ask me if I needed a lift, I thanked him and said No. He tipped his cap back on his forehead and without a word started off again, leaving me to myself.
As I went on my mind wandered, from the home I’d left behind to the world I hoped I would find ahead, and most of the day had disappeared beneath my feet before my thoughts were interrupted: I looked up from the ground as I rounded a long bend and saw a line of trucks parked out in a field by the side of the road, with their cargo spilled out onto the grass: it was a carnival under construction. In the fading light of day the multicolored lights and bright paint seemed like futile stuff, no match for the amber afternoon. A Ferris wheel already rode above the grass, with its dark spokes spinning in place; next to it was a spider-armed contraption holding motionless cars; then a jerry-built street lined with painted booths, and a series of commission carts standing by the side, waiting for night and the folks who would make their way out in the darkness, their pockets filled with jangling coins. As I passed I could hear faint candy-colored music coming from the far end, but I kept walking; I was afraid some barker might spot me slouching across the state and come out to the highway to sign me up.
I wouldn’t have stopped, no matter what he offered: I was looking for some concoction of pleasure and peace, a bottle full of unstable combinations, sealed like a pharmacist’s healing syrup to prevent the fragile base from evaporating. My song went
What’s yours is yours, what’s mine is mine
And l don’t mind dying—
I don’t mind.
In time the houses thinned out, and as evening began to fall I came upon an abandoned farmhouse. I couldn’t tell how long it had been since a farmer had lived there and cared for the place, but it must have been a while: the house had been reduced to tatters by the weather, shutters hung slantwise from the face by single screws, and all that was left of the roof were strips of fading tar paper. On the ground by the side door there was a small pile of bricks that had once been a chimney. In places I caught glimpses of the horizon through missing slats in the walls, as if the house was a half-solved puzzle—Complete the Picture, or Find the Hidden Face—in a Sunday supplement. It seemed an inviting place to spend the night, so I walked up to the front fence and hied myself over it and into the mud in the yard.
I’d just started towards the doorway when—lo!—a group of pigs came trotting around from behind a backyard shed, big, black creatures with plug eyes and brutish snouts. They drove one another back and forth across the ground as they came towards me on their piggy-sharp feet. Ha! I yelled, and they broke into a seesaw gallop and abruptly turned away, kicking up clods of mud as they collided, and giving out with grunts and alarmed squeals. Their voices became dimmer as they disappeared around a corner, and then at last it was quiet again. There was no door to the house at all, and I found more pigs inside, lying lazily in the rooms; one turned her face up to look at me, snuffled loudly, and then dropped her head again and went back to sleep. I could hear the heavy scuffling of hooves on distant floorboards and feel the lingering heat from their hides; I could smell the deep odor of mud, of shit, and sweet hay. There was a cast-iron stove lying on its side in the living room, and the door to the kitchen had been pulled off its hinges and propped against a wall. I made my way to the hallway and started upstairs, stepping carefully over the missing boards. On the second floor I found a landing, two or three decrepit rooms, and a second flight of stairs disappearing up into a dark attic, above which, through two separate holes in the roof, I could see the sky, already faded and softened like well-washed cloth.
I put my pack down in one corner of the master bedroom and sat beside it with my back propped against a wall.
It was growing dark out; there was a mighty grey on the plains, and the air was suddenly flushed. From the open window I could see clouds gathering in the sky, grey-green with rain and electricity: it was as if my room was the housing inside some giant, archaic experimental apparatus, and I was the quivering element. I lay myself down in a corner, pulled my shoes off, put my pack under my neck with the sharp corner of my book pressed into my shoulder, and listened to the cars passing from time to time on the road outside. Shush … the sky thickened, a few fat drops fell at the head of night’s advancing column, and then a full parade of rain began, to celebrate my first day of independence.
That night I dreamed about a man with arms that were wings. When I saw him his hair was burned and his skin blackened from some punishing fire that escaped his belief, as if he would always wonder what he’d done wrong. I was lying on my back and he came down to me suddenly, wrapped in a cloud of luminous mist amid which sheets of fire snapped in the wind, as if he were a refugee running from some imaginary, superlunar war. I was afraid he was going to speak, afraid of whatever blessing or brief he might bring, but he was empty-handed and silent. He looked at me, pecked once at my hip, and then bent his head down until it rested on his bird-like breast. Then he hid his face under the feathers, not out of shame, but as if to prevent me from recognizing him. I was so transfixed by the sight that I couldn’t move; nor did he stir again; and the dream went on in a kind of stasis, as if some mechanism were stuck, until finally it began to fade, the figure slowly dissolving into a smear of grey and black. At the end the light flickered, until at last it was dark. I slept on another hour or two without any companion but the cold.
When I woke up it was morning and the room was bright with sunshine, and smelled of charred hair. There were ashes scattered across the floor; my back was stiff. In the opposite corner my visitor slept, with his arms folded over his chest and his body curled in on itself under a blue army jacket. I lay there, drowsy and half-awake for a few minutes, and watched him as he dreamed, thinking maybe it was me. I had my leg cramped beneath me, and I slowly stretched it out, too tired to rise. He turned over and briefly shook himself. Shuffle, edit. In time he opened his eyes and turned his small head towards me until I could see his face; it was expressionless, sallow and worn, and the flesh of his features hung from its bones so that his thin mouth dangled open. I could hear his short, fast breaths escaping. He was a grotesque, with his tiny, yellow eyes, dull hair, and his body bent and damaged.
As soon as he seemed to be awake enough to hear me I greeted him, but he didn’t answer, didn’t even nod or shake his head; still, his eyes moved from my face to the corners of the room, and then back again, and he put one small finger up to the side of his beak, bent over, and abruptly blew out the contents on the floor beside his bed. Then he got up and began to dress. I watched him as he hid his long, thin limbs underneath a flannel shirt with a tear in the sleeve and then pulled on a filthy wool overcoat, which he buttoned all the way up with cold, fumbling fingers.
He had no hat.
I got up and splashed some water on my face from a puddle under a leak in the roof, and then began gathering my things into the bag. By the time I’d finished he was standing shyly in his corner of the room beside a hole in the floorboards, beneath which I could see the fat black hillocks of the pigs as they rooted into the corners of the living room below. I motioned to him and he raised his eyebrows, but he didn’t move, so I approached him and reached my hand out slowly. He offered his forearm to me like a blind man, and I felt the fragile bones beneath his clothing as my fingers closed around it; and then in soft slow motion I drew him out of the room and into the hallway, and we made our way to the head of the stairs. Together we paused while I shook the last sleep from my eyes, and then, while he leaned lightly on my arm, I guided him slowly down the steps with me, each one in turn, as if, like a cat caught in a tree, he’d scrambled up and couldn’t get to the ground again without my help.
We stood together on the ground before the house, blinking in the clear blue light, with the morning horizon ahead of us and the night horizon behind, while the sky opened mechanically overhead like the slow ocular roof of an observatory. It was too early in the morning for there to be any traffic, so we crossed the yard, climbed carefully over the fence, and began down the road on foot, my paces outmeasuring his by half. After a mile or so had passed I stopped to look back at the house for one last time, perched there on the barren crest of the globe like the poorhouse in a cautionary fable. When I turned back again I found my companion staring at me with black pupils set in a yellowish cast. He quickly averted his eyes when my gaze met his. I’m not one to be looked at, he said.
I’m not either, I replied, and we set off again. As we walked I explained myself. I told him that I was a doctor’s son, and that I’d left what home I’d had a year or two after my father died. I told him about my pursuit. I said I was prepared to ride as far south as Mexico. The country, I said, was open below me like a stadium from the stands.
He nodded each time I paused, but when I told him I’d dreamed about him the night before he immediately stopped, turned to me wide-eyed, and said No! so forcefully that I shut my mouth. We passed a few long minutes in a silence broken only by the cold, quiet grinding of the gravel beneath our feet. A car.
Today is Saturday? he asked.
That makes it a fucking month, he said, and kicked a dun-colored stone out onto the blacktop. That seemed to be all he could come up with for the moment, so I waited. A yellow tractor went past, leaving behind parallel chevron-shaped mud tracks on the road, a small plume of black exhaust in the blue air, and a slowly Dopplering rumble in between. I could feel him gathering himself, drawing in the particles of his confidence and molding them into an invisible substance within him, and when the mass was reached he stopped again and cleared his throat with a rattle. Have you got any money? he said while he stared at the rubber marks where a car had skidded off the road. I reached into my pocket for a coin, but I thought better of it when I caught the look on his face, and instead I fetched my wallet out of my jacket, plucked out a bill, and turned it over to him. He treated the note as if it might be made of flash paper, holding it between his fingertips and watching it for a moment to see if it would disappear in a burst of pale green, spendthrift light. When he was satisfied that it was immutable he folded it carefully and tucked it into the breast pocket of his shirt.
He began to walk again, but I stopped him by putting my hand on his chest and asked him his name. Well … he paused and cocked his head. Jones, he said, then he shrugged.
Jones, I said. All right. He looked out across the field at the horizon. Are you leaving?
I guess I am, he said, as he reached out and took my hand in his. It was dead cold and dry. Then he leaned forward, tugged my arm until I stood above him and my face passed a shadow over his, reached up on his toes, and kissed my mouth … . I could feel the sun on my neck and his heart beating against my chest, smell his dirty breath, see his white eyelids lowered an inch from mine. It was a long moment before he released me from his grasp, and when he did he turned and started out into the field by the side of the road. I stood on the shoulder and watched him for a while as he walked out into the long grass, tilting from side to side on his paces, until he dwindled into a dark point and then disappeared. I could taste the salt and smell of his mouth all morning.
Jim Lewis writes frequently about the arts for Artforum, Parkette, Harper’s Bazaar, and other publications. Sister, his first novel, is being published this month from Graywolf.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.