I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
Henry wanted me to help him get rid of a hand. It wasn’t just a hand. That’s what he said at first, but Henry never gives you the whole story right up front. It was a whole cellar full of parts. Kidneys. Hearts. Stuff I couldn’t even tell you what, floating in glass jars lined up on shelves like in a supermarket. “Attention shoppers, brains on sale in aisle three.”
I had been off the island and living on my own for a while. The island was a reform school for wayward youth. I had been on the island for 26 months, which is the longest they ever kept anybody there, and they were probably afraid I’d start losing it completely and then they’d never be able to say they reformed me and get money from those rich people who supported the place so they could feel good about believing that the world wasn’t a completely hopeless place.
The reason Henry called me is that he bought a house. Henry was a stoned-out junkie when he was first in line to take over his family’s dry-cleaning business. Only it wasn’t a dry-cleaning business. It was a business that made the stuff for dry-cleaning businesses. Nobody really thinks about these things, but Henry explained to me that if you want to run a dry-cleaning business, you pretty much have to buy whatever the hell it is that does the dry-cleaning from his family’s business, which he was now running since his old man finally dropped dead and Henry went into rehab.
Not that Henry is any kind of businessman, talking about the stock market and shit, even though he wears a suit everywhere he goes. He always wore a suit, even when he was scoring over in the Alphabet Jungle at 4:00 in the morning.
The reason Henry had all these parts of bodies in the basement was that the house he bought was owned by some lady who lived there for 90 years. Her whole family were doctors since the Civil War. I don’t know why they kept all those parts in the cellar, but Henry wanted to get rid of them. He couldn’t just throw them out because if they find a hand in the garbage, they have to try to sleuth out where it came from and Henry figured being an ex-junkie with parts of dead bodies in his basement wouldn’t look too good to the cops.
I asked Henry why he didn’t just keep the jars since they weren’t doing anybody any harm. He said it was because he wanted to put a pool table down there and it was too creepy shooting pool with kidneys and intestines looking at you. I didn’t buy the pool table story. He finally admitted that the real reason was that he had been trying to get a girlfriend since he went straight and most girls don’t like to think you’re some kind of axe murderer. I told him he didn’t have to let the girl go down to the basement. He could tell her there were rats down there. But he said thinking there were rats in the basement was almost as bad as a bunch of jars full of hands. Besides, she might want to shoot pool and then he’d be in the same spot. I said he didn’t have to tell her about the pool table. But he said he didn’t want to start a relationship with a lot of secrets.
So I went over to Henry’s house one afternoon after he came back from running his dry-cleaning supply empire. This kind of ghoulish stuff didn’t bother me. The island I was on had been a leper colony before someone got the bright idea to try to turn a bunch of criminally minded young tykes into the authors of their own lives and not simply the victims of unhappy circumstance, because there’s no limit to the tools we can bring to hand when we envision a future full of promise by chopping wood and freezing our asses off on a place without electricity or running water.
The only drawback was that the island was haunted. That’s why it had never turned into some kind of country club resort but wound up with a bunch of youthful offenders who spent every moment they weren’t jerking off trying to figure out how to get the hell off the place.
Most of the lepers that haunted the place hardly had faces, much less hands. So a few jars with guts in them didn’t do much for me. But now I had the problem of wondering who the parts belonged to. I mean they belonged to somebody once, right? And that somebody might sort of miss their livers and feet and whatnot. I know I would. I didn’t really want to stir things up, if that was the case. I saw plenty of weird stuff on that island and I was just as happy to leave it there.
Henry and I had been friends since the days before I learned that, try as you might, real happiness cannot be found beyond the bounds of your own backyard. I know The Wizard of Oz has the same message, but watching little Toto scamper down the Yellow Brick Road is not how I came to realize this. Backyard is a metaphor, of course, just like Kansas. If the yard behind some dustbowl farm in the middle of no place were the source of happiness, you can bet some fast-talking real estate developers would have scarfed it up and bottled it years ago.
Henry’s view was that happiness is part of a chemical equation involving the opiate receptors in the brain. I admit he has a point. Only that kind of happiness doesn’t last and involves a series of complicated dance steps with retail distributors and interested parties in the various regulatory agencies. If I enjoyed dancing that much, I’d get a job in the Stardust Ballroom.
I used to hang out with Henry down by the river. We’d give ourselves a dose and watch the trash and oil slicks floating out to sea after we’d surface from the depths of inner experience, as Henry called our little ten-dollar junkets. The piers were all burnt out and unused back then, so we’d generally have a stretch of waterfront to ourselves. Most of the pier’s boards were smashed or missing, so you’d have to climb along the beams to get a good perch out over the water. It took some navigating with all the spikes and nails sticking out, but we were young and nimble. The cops never bothered us out there. It was probably too much trouble. If we fell in and were swept away with the tide, it would just mean two less low-lifes they’d have to bother with.
That’s when I first met Nicky. I was waiting on the end of the pier one afternoon when I saw Henry climbing out with a girl. We used to talk about girls all the time, but talk was mostly all it was, since most of our spare time was spent in the acquisition and consumption of inspired chemistry. But here came Henry with an actual live one in tow.
I watched her as she approached. She was really thin. It was summer and she was wearing black jeans and a tee shirt. She was keeping her eyes on the rotting beams and the water rushing by below as she and Henry made their way out.
She had black hair and pale skin, like she didn’t get outside too much. She had a gangly way of walking as she climbed along the beams, being so skinny and all, and it was pretty to watch. She was still too far away for me to get a good look at her face, but I could tell she was pretty in that haunting way some thin people have.
Henry introduced Nicky and said she lived in his neighborhood. We all shared that same source of supply and Henry had bumped into Nicky at the dealer’s on his way to meet me. She didn’t say much that afternoon. We let Henry do most of the talking. The thing you have to realize is that there’s usually a reason behind why someone would want to sit on the end of a broken-down pier and stare at the water through a chemically induced haze. I had my reasons. Henry had his. And no doubt Nicky had hers. Those kinds of reasons don’t generally add up to cheerful conversation.
That doesn’t mean Nicky was all sorrows. In fact, she had a really great laugh, deep and no-holds barred. Kind of sexy and raspy, like someone who’d smoked a million cigarettes and drank a quart of whiskey every night. She didn’t, but she sounded like it. The only thing is, she didn’t laugh all that much back then.
We all three started hanging out together. Henry and I had some half-baked idea that one of us might get something going with Nicky, but it never amounted to anything. Mainly we’d hang around Henry’s dump of an apartment and watch quiz shows. That had its special moments. But one day we got the notion that it might be fun to go horseback riding in the middle of the night. We figured we’d go at night since Nicky didn’t like to spend too much time in the sun. Only there was no place you could rent horses in the middle of the night, so we figured we’d just borrow them.
We didn’t know any more about horses than you can get from watching those old John Wayne movies. We got started on the whole idea when we were trying figure out why they called our most compelling chemical import “horse.” “H” is about as far as we made it, but that got Nicky talking about how much she loved horses and how she used to ride them when she was a kid out in some town where they had trees and shit like that. I have to admit that the idea of that big animal between her legs was part of the incentive, particularly after she told us how she used to get off while she rubbed herself against the saddle. I always knew there was more to girls and horses than that Black Beauty crap they’d like you to believe. Neither of us had gotten anywhere with Nicky up to that point so why not try the horse technique? At least we had incentive.
Getting the horses wasn’t that hard. They have these stables out by the beach. The guys working in the stables were all rummies who slept like the dead. Henry knew this because he had a cousin who used to hang around the racetrack for some reason having to do with the jockeys and stable boys. At least that’s what Henry said. You never know with Henry if he’s just exercising his imagination or not.
So one night we traveled out there. We snuck in and opened the stalls easily enough. The horses seemed ready to go and clopped right out into the dinky corral outside the stable. Since we didn’t think to grab saddles or reins or anything, there wasn’t much of a way to control the horses once we let them out. Even if we did have all that stuff, it wouldn’t have made any difference since we didn’t know the first thing about horses and all Nicky really knew was about getting off on them. They didn’t have any horses on the island where I was being reformed. Just sheep and pigs and little shit like that. Nothing you could ride without looking like an idiot. Which reminds me about the pig and what some of the horny guys I was stuck with there would do for entertainment. I think the pig actually liked it, although I steered clear of the pigpen. I preferred the five-fingered solution over crawling around in the barnyard. I guess it comes down to a matter of taste.
Henry wanted me to help him up on the horse, but we couldn’t figure out how to get it to stand still. There was nothing to hold onto, really. Henry grabbed the mane while I tried to push him up, but the horse knew what was up and kept walking off. I think those horses had seen it all. It was probably fun for them to watch us falling on our asses in the horseshit.
We kept at it for a while since we still had some incentive but it was starting to wear thin. We went back to Henry grabbing the mane and me pushing him up as we ran alongside the moving horse. Somehow he finally got on. The horse had seen this before, too, and just kind of sat down and rolled over before we knew what was happening. I didn’t know horses could roll over, but this one did. Henry managed to jump off before getting squashed into the horseshit. Nicky was just laughing. Henry had enough of this John Wayne routine and opened the gate to get out. Only the horses were wise to this, too, and charged through the gate as soon as Henry opened it. They started snorting and whinnying and running all over the place. This got all the other horses in the place worked up and they started making a racket so finally even the drunken horse guys woke up and started yelling.
In the meantime, Henry had grabbed some rope and wanted to lasso one of the horses that was running around, even though the stable guys were going to figure out what was going on any minute. Maybe he was still trying to look like a cowboy for Nicky. I told him we better get going and give up our horse-rustling idea. Henry was swinging his lasso around and got it stuck on a light pole. I thought he was going to get electrocuted for sure. The horses were running for the beach and I decided we should do the same.
After the horse adventure, we more or less gave up the idea of trying to make it with Nicky. It’s okay. I learned you can’t screw everybody, no matter how horny you might be. Some things are just out of your control.
Now I was about to go down Henry’s stairs to deal with his body-part collection, although I was still worried about the consequences. Henry said he hadn’t noticed anything unusual the times he went down there, but Henry also wanted to get rid of the stuff, so he might not exactly be telling the whole story.
I couldn’t figure out how they sold him the place to begin with without clearing it out butt guess stuff like that happens. He had already showed me all the old medical equipment they left behind that made it look like Dr. Frankenstein used to live there and they didn’t clear any of that out, so why should they bother with some old jars of guts?
I still wasn’t sure how we were going to get rid of the stuff. Just hauling it off somewhere and dumping it was too risky, even for me. If you throw it in the ocean, it always washes up on some beach where kids are making a sand castle. If you bury it in the woods, some dopey hunter and
his dog are going to dig it up.
So I went down the stairs to Henry’s basement, trying to come up with a plan for getting rid of the stuff. I thought about selling the jars someplace to get rid of them. I know lots of people go for that stuff even though they don’t like to admit it up front. There weren’t any actual heads or anything. That was something I’m sure you could really sell if nobody asked too many questions. And people buying heads generally wouldn’t. But we couldn’t exactly advertise, so I had to come up with something else. I even thought of feeding it to Henry’s mangy old dog, but the stuff was floating in some chemicals for about a hundred years, so it would probably kill the dog right off the bat and I didn’t want to do that.
I turned on the light and there they were. All these jars, lined up just like Henry said. Brains. Hearts. Livers. Kidneys. Hands. Feet. Even eyes. Floating in jars of all sizes. I mean, what kind of maniacs were these doctors?
I had seen some weird sights when I was on that leper island and it didn’t bother me that much back then, but this was giving me a bad feeling. All these poor people all chopped up and left floating so some doctor family could do whatever the hell it was they did with them. I don’t really believe in that for-the-good-of-science bullshit. They were just trying to get rich like everybody else, only instead of dry-cleaning supplies, they were doing it poking around with other peoples’ guts.
I got this crazy idea that maybe we could put them all back together and make a couple of whole people out of them. To do what, I don’t know. Then I saw the kid. A little baby floating in a jar. That was too much.
I didn’t really want any more ghosts in my life after I left the island. Those sad leper ghosts were hard to take, all lonely and looking for love. They spent their lives trapped out there and all they wanted was just to be loved like everybody else. The search didn’t seem to let up just because they were dead.
Now here was this poor little kid, who never even had a life, but just wound up in a jar on some doctor’s shelf. What was I supposed to do? Just throw him out someplace? Sure, why not? Isn’t that what happens every day anyway? I mean if he was some important person’s kid, you can bet he wouldn’t be sitting in a jar right now. But he was just the kid of some poor lady who probably got stiffed by some guy and couldn’t afford to take care of herself or her kid, even if he lived. Maybe she died, too, and they figured what the hell, let’s stick her kid in a jar so we can took at him when we feel like it. We’re doctors. Nobody’s going to tell us what to do.
I was looking at the poor kid when I heard Henry rummaging around at the top of the stairs. I yelled up at him to find out what the racket was about. He said he wanted to come down to tidy up. He was dragging this giant vacuum cleaner with him, about half the size of a refrigerator. All
the pipes and attachments were clanking along behind him as he made his way down the stairs. He was in his suit as usual and his tie was a little crooked, also as usual, like some ex-junkie version of Henry Kissinger, who Henry kind of resembled.
Henry got the vacuum to the bottom of the stairs. I told him there was a kid in one of those jars. He said he sort of suspected it, but hadn’t wanted to look around too closely until now. He agreed with me that doctors must think they can do whatever the hell they feel like, after I made my speech to him about it.
We were still at the perfectly obvious problem of what to do with the parts of all these people. Life is not easy, you know? That’s when I got the idea of the last time life was not so easy. On that freaking island. Why not bring the parts to the cemetery and bury them there? Henry said
what if somebody dug them up and figured out where they came from. I asked who he thought was going to go digging around in a leper graveyard besides us. Nobody on that island would bother digging a damn thing they didn’t have to. I told him the place was covered with poison ivy anyway and we could just spread it back over the spot after we finished digging. I told him he could even pay a little visit to the pig, since he didn’t seem to be making much headway in the girlfriend
department. Henry reminded me that he was Jewish and that flirting with a pig probably wasn’t kosher. I had to admit I hadn’t considered the religious aspects of the situation.
All we had to do was to get up there, get a hold of a boat, ride all the way out to the island, sneak onto to it so the jerks who ran the place didn’t catch us, dig a hole, bury the parts, cover it with poison ivy and sneak off. Bypassing the pig would save us a lot of time. Of course we had to recruit Nicky, since this was going to be our idea of fun for the week.
Henry got his dry-cleaning office to make the travel arrangements, once I’d hatched the plan. I’m not going to bore you with all the little details. Except maybe the part about how Henry got seasick on the way over. I told him he shouldn’t have eaten all those shrimp cocktails before we took off. But I had been over there before and knew eating anything was a bad idea. Nicky took it fine, like she takes everything. No problem. She was hoping we’d see some whales.
We had all the parts wrapped op in plastic bags. We packed them in three of those coolers people carry to the beach. It was kind of gross at first, but for some reason I could handle it. Henry actually seemed fascinated once we got started. I took the kid separately. Like as if anybody else ever cared about him. We drove the boat to the side of the island away from where the main house was. I knew that nobody wandered over to the graveyard side, especially at dinnertime, except people like me, who are few and far enough between, if you ask me.
Of course we forgot to bring a shovel. It’s always something like that. I knew I could snatch one from the barn, although it meant losing time. It was bound to get dark soon and I wasn’t sure how Henry and Nicky would take it if some ghost of a leper came walking up from behind a tree.
What I wasn’t expecting was horses. They didn’t have them there when I was around. But there they were. Three of them in a corral next to the barn. Great, I thought. Maybe we could finally impress Nicky with our manly horseback skills here on this romantic paradise island.
I’d learned from the last time we tried to borrow horses that you need to lasso them before they get out. No problem. I found some rope hanging in the barn. I even got it around the first horse’s neck. These horses probably hadn’t seen it all the way the other ones did. I thought about
bringing the other two, but then I had to get the shovel, so I figured one horse was enough. I left the other two there so they could keep each other company and not make such a racket.
The horse followed me like I was walking a dog. We got back up to the leper graveyard. I never thought I was going to see that place again after I left the island, but it goes to show that life is just stuffed with surprises. Never mind that it was my idea to go back there. I get plenty of ideas, like everybody else, but how many of them actually turn out the way you think?
Henry started laughing when he saw me with the horse. I started right away joking with Nicky about how this was her big chance to get off, right here with the horse of her dreams. Even though I was enjoying the light-hearted moment, I figured I’d better start digging before the spooks showed up. I gave the rope to Henry, since I knew I could dig a lot faster than him. I had spent all my time on that island chopping wood and attending to personal matters, so I was pretty strong. Henry spent all his time ordering dry cleaning supplies and reading about the Civil War.
Oh, look, I know this whole thing seems unbelievable, right? I mean who buys a house full of dead peoples’ parts and carries them all the way to some whacked out island to bury them in a lepers’ graveyard? Well, I’ll tell you. You can go up there yourself if you want. It’s called
Penakeese Island. I spelled it differently only because the way they spell it, you’d say “pen a kiss” instead of “pen a keys,” the way we called it. Some maps call it Gosnold, but that’s not right. Gosnold is the English guy who discovered it. The place was haunted even back then, which is why it ended up as a leper colony. Gosnold sailed back to England and told his pal William Shakespeare about it. And Shakespeare wrote a play called The Tempest that takes place on a creepy, haunted island just like this one. The graveyard is on top of the hill. The hole is covered over with poison ivy, so you better wear gloves if you think you’re going to go digging around. It’s in the corner of the graveyard nearest to the cliff. That’s where I used to think about jumping off sometimes when I thought I was never going to get off that goddamned place. Who wouldn’t?
While I was digging, Henry was trying to get up on the horse. You already know what a horse expert he is. Only this time, if he fell it would be into poison ivy or lepers’ gravestones or even over the cliff.
Somehow he managed it. Don’t ask me how. He must have watched some more John Wayne movies, because he used the rope to make some kind of reins. And off he went, galloping down the rabbit trail through the poison ivy.
I kept digging, but I was looking at Nicky while I was doing it. The last time I was there I would have given anything to have a girl there with me. Now here was Nicky, who I was already in love with, and here I was back on that island with all those thoughts and feelings coming back again.
I figured what the hell, so I told her I loved her. That I always loved her, and that I thought she was great. A really great person. I started to say all kinds of dopey things. Like if she wanted the moon, I’d go up and snatch it for her, and if she wanted me to jump off the cliff right then and there I’d do it, too. If she just wanted to be friends and hang out, great. It didn’t matter. I told her about how I felt when I was on the island before and I was as lonely as one of those poor, sad lepers who’d never been loved. I said how sad life is, like it was for that poor little kid who was never even born, who we were going to bury there. I kept digging while I was talking because I didn’t really know what else to do.
Nicky was just kind of looking at me, like she’d never seen me before or I was talking Chinese. That’s because she was seeing a ghost. It’s like that the first time. It kind of leaves you speechless. I couldn’t see it, but I’d been there enough to know she could. I just kept quietly digging.
Nicky was crying. I know how she felt. The world really is a sad place sometimes and when you see it, if you’re still even a little bit human, it can make you cry. It was probably the ghost of that little kid. I was going to just lay him in the hole, but that didn’t seem right. So I took off my jacket and I wrapped him in it. I mean, it was the least I could do, the way the big shot doctors had treated the poor little guy. Nicky just nodded, as if to say it was right. I knelt down and pushed the dirt in. What else could I do?
We were both crying now, while I dug another hole for the rest of the parts. I guess the ghosts must have started showing up by the hundreds, from the look on Nicky’s face. She didn’t say a thing. She just kept crying, like she was crying for the whole human race. My heart was breaking. I wanted to marry her, so we could try just once in the history of the world to get it right.
I put all the poor peoples’ parts in the hole and covered them. Then I went over to Nicky. We just held on to each other like we were going to fall off the earth. It was already getting dark and the stars were coming out. Henry came stumbling up, all covered with dirt and scratches. I told him we were going hone. It was about time.
—Mark Magill divides his time between New York City and the Catskill Mountains, where he keeps bees and is an active member of the North Branch Volunteer Fire Department. His most recent book is Why Is the Buddha Smiling? (Fair Winds, 2003).
Originally published in
Featuring interviews Edward Dimendberg and Allan Sekula, Luc Tuymans and Kerry James Marshall, Nell McClister and Paul Chan, Sue de Beer and Nancy A. Barton, Heather McHugh, Susan Wheeler, Miranda July and Rachel Kushner, William Wegman and George Steel, Tony Conrad and Jay Sanders, and Carolyn Cantor.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.