The Genuine Alacrity of Things by Evelyn Hampton

BOMB 147 Spring 2019
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He knows where a man’s heart is on display—during business hours one day he saw it. After, he walked home slowly, and because I still love him, I take some interest in his pace. Was he thinking about the man, a saint? Was he thinking at all about the person who removed the saint’s heart and placed it in preservative chemicals? 

I am certain the saint’s heart is smaller than he had been expecting, though he had not been expecting a heart at all. He often goes into cemeteries; a cathedral is like a single grave, lavishly maintained. And here is the heart, in a case, with a plaque narrating the life of the saint.

He reads, “What is the secret of beauty? Not appearances, or that which passes, but a heart totally centered on God.”

Later he eats macaroni without cheese because cheese represents cruelty. Macaroni is the shape of nobody’s actual elbow. After he eats, he reads Classical Latin. For as long as I have known him, he has been searching for evidence that reality is not real.

Through the walls of his room he can hear a woman’s voice. The building’s walls are thin; she is talking about her liver, her concern that it has nearly stopped working. Or perhaps she said lover? A man’s voice begins talking over the woman’s; now he understands what neither is saying. He returns to his Latin.

There is so much raw evidence, but all it points to is itself, is the problem, he thinks. Nevertheless, he feels great happiness in these moments when he is sitting in a chair by a lamp, reading an exhausted language; great, almost unbearable happiness, as if he was made to be reading this language, in this chair, by this lamp.

Late in the night he hears the rocking of the neighbors’ bed against his wall.

I know how he looks when he is sleeping. He looks like he has just learned a verb.

His search is daily and ongoing, a part of him now the way bodily routines are, flushing and brushing and swallowing enough water. He does not want to be released from the tedium he has worked so hard to call a life. The tedium might be hiding something. The tedium might be alive.

Tedium, from taedere: be weary of.

He walks in the park where raccoons have recently been a problem. Around him in this northern city people are speaking French, and since he is always trying to interpret the world, he listens with an intensity that has become dull because it is so accustomed. To other people he often looks sleepy, wistful, as if inseparable from dreams.

An owl lands on the railing of the balcony outside his room one morning and seems about to speak. He stands on the balcony wearing only his boxers and waits. The owl waits with him for a while, then flies back to the trees. And he understands that perhaps he was the one who was expected to speak.

Does he think of me in moments when he passes over a threshold, for instance as he steps back through the balcony door into the apartment, his pale winter legs like two hands of an old clock, measuring spaces between dark hours? Do the spaces among branches touched by the owl’s wings know something? Do they hold a code that listens?

In his notes about love and lovers, Roland Barthes wrote, “I am the one who waits,” supposing himself to be in an abject, therefore feminine, position. But I think my position—as one who watches this man as if I am made to do just this, the way he is, perhaps, made to read and delight in an exhausted language—is not abject but simply watchful, even owl-like. Perhaps I am the one who sits in the dark spaces among trees, who once alighted on the railing of a balcony and waited for him to speak. I am often waiting for him to speak. But I cannot say honestly that I just as often listen.

Night. As he reads he feels the owl might still be there, on the balcony or just beyond it, watching, but that above all he must not look for it. In the book, written thousands of years ago by a Roman senator, he looks for evidence that someone else has seen an edge, a glimmer, of the thing bricked over by the word reality.

Experimental evidence suggests space-time is not smooth and continuous but bumpy, grainy, divided, he has read, the way a screen is pixelated. He reads in order to enlarge things enough to see the many minute areas of illumination. And I suppose it bothers me that he feels compelled to do this—to scrutinize, to doubt, to believe without evidence that evidence is a fabrication. What we call reality, he believes, is being streamed to us from far in our future; we are being streamed to ourselves from far in our future.

I identify with that owl. I also want him to know that I am real. Or: I want him to want me to be real. But I am convinced he wants nothing to be real.

What is the use of a verb in a dead language? Yet language, to itself, is never dead—its verbs go on animating it long after mouths have forgotten how to pronounce its sounds.

This word: always. The same problem it brings to love it brings to reality.

Mornings he enjoys staying in bed, prolonging the moment when he has to choose to be either fully awake or fully asleep. Since I once shared mornings with him, I know that his joy comes from persisting in neither state indefinitely.

This morning he is going to walk to the caves, he decides. The decision moves him out of bed, into the kitchen, where it feeds him tea and cereal, then moves him through the tasks that are done every day in the same way, because the body is an organism that maintains itself by repeating itself.

It helps to have the assistance of a decision in moving the body through its routine.

His body, slim and elegant, is made more elegant by my watching it.

He picks up the book by the Roman senator and reads several passages. He thinks of the writer, all those hundreds of years ago, as echoing a sound through a landscape, with its deformities and valleys and ruins, distorted and opaque, back to him, the reader, who, in the distant future, discovers in the sound evidence, either sufficient or insufficient, for the moment he now inhabits.

“The book is a collaborative act of imagining a room in which the reader might become the writer, and visa versa,” he writes in a margin.

Once he is out the door, repetition blends itself into the particular aspects of this place: the city’s predilection for concrete buildings, the bulky winter coats standing and walking and bending alongside the bodies inhabiting them. The sounds of bells every quarter hour, the echoes of the sounds of bells, these shaped by the matter of the buildings. Repetition is everywhere buried beneath the genuine alacrity of things. Everything is unique though he has seen so much of it before; originality has nothing to do with whether he has seen it before.

He climbs a hill. The energy an object accumulates as it is raised to a greater height has a corollary in light, luminescence. He considers writing this down but has neither paper nor pen. I have paper and pen; I write it down.

If his heart had a plaque, what would it say? Perhaps: The secret of beauty has nothing to do with a heart or God. There is no secret of beauty.

Visitors must pay to enter the caves; he is a visitor; he pays.

A long time ago, sand was dragged out of these openings and poured into the concrete shapes of the city, giving back to the landscape the color of its own, genuine ground.

He skips the tour. He stands in a dim passageway between two dimmer chambers. He is waiting for the dimness to be a sound, perhaps of water trickling through walls.

In one of the chambers a child begins to sing. He understands the feeling of her song but not the words. Her voice is amplified by the size of the chamber and travels past him, along in the passageway, flowing and gliding, opening onto the contours of the walls. He determines to follow it.

He emerges in the café for visitors. Two birds sing in a cage beside the cash register. He knows they are finches, not canaries, though a small sign labels them such.

He orders coffee and drinks it at a table facing a window. Outside is a dense forest that undulates as one solid thing in wind that seems to be getting stronger. The cathedral is gone. The city is gone. He has no idea where he is, or what he will do next. That I know only increases the distance between us.

Some of the lines on repetition in this story are informed by Jos Charles’s “On Repetition and Opacity.”

Evelyn Hampton is the author of two short story collections. The most recent, Famous Children and Famished Adults, was published by Fiction Collective 2 in February 2019.

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BOMB 147, Spring 2019

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