But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
Yesterday morning when I left Michael’s house, I headed towards 7-11 because I got a craving for one of those small cold bottles of Concord grape juice. It was early, like 6:30, and the air was fresh and warm but still damp, before the sun had burned it dry.
Today, I retrace my steps, except that it’s late, closer to 10:00.
Around here, by the University, every street has a back alley. If I were to map the area, Albuquerque would have a whole mini-city, a shadow grid of roads, some dirt, some paved, that run behind houses, laundromats, ice cream stores, parking lots. Maybe these alleys are for the telephone poles, because that’s where most of them are, the long wires a resting spot for blackbirds. As I walk, I take an alley, then a street, then another alley, zig-zagging through the grid in the direction of wherever I’m going.
This morning I take the alleyway behind Michael’s house, a dirt road that begins with a cottonwood tree and travels behind houses with chain link fences and clotheslines and barking dogs. I pass by a yard in which someone has thrown out an African sculpture. Only after I get close, I realize it is just a dog bone. About this time yesterday I switched my course and stepped over a low chain into a public parking area.
I do the same now. There is no one around. I crunch the gravel until it stops at the sidewalk. Yesterday at this spot I passed by my philosophy professor from last semester. He paused before me, sipping his coffee from a stained paper cup, spilling a little onto the sidewalk.
“It’s hot,” he said. I guess he meant his coffee.
He’s tall but was slouched over, probably to hide from the sun. I find him very sexy for some reason, though he wears blue suits with the sleeves too short and eats greasy food. He moved here from New York over a year ago and he still wears thick sunglasses—he isn’t used to the light.
“It’s blinding, so early even, how can you stand it? You don’t even squint,” he said, “and you’re so fair.”
“Hummmm,” I said. I never know exactly what to say to him. I don’t like sunglasses.
“You should wear a hat. Cancer, you know.”
He is the kind of man who makes me think that everything he says has a double meaning, but I can never think of what that might be.
When it turned out that I did not, so to speak, see eye to eye with my photography teacher, I took a few philosophy classes. But I never could place the meaning in philosophy either. I just sat in class and imagined the philosophers instead: Descartes paused under the windows of Paris, donned in a trench coat and top hat; the image is black and white, my view is from above, and other trench coats, other top hats, confuse me so that I lose Descartes in the crowd.
And I saw Kant leave his house at the exact same minute every day, year after year. I saw this very clearly: his gold and white faced watch, the second hand reaching the 12. Kant reaching for his coat.
Yesterday I happened to have my camera because it was in my backpack from the night before, and I happened to be heading towards the Burger King parking lot because the alley that runs parallel to Central Avenue was recently blocked off by a fence. I hate that it seems so accidental, so hit-or-miss. More things are like that than I care to think about.
Anyway, there he was. I could already hear sirens, so someone knew something before me. It wasn’t so obvious what was going on, in my mind, or maybe I’m just slow. It was a man rolling in fire, not saying anything, not moaning or screaming, just rolling and jerking the newspapers around him. He was alive and on fire, and I pulled out my camera, not thinking of him, not thinking anything except, I need this photo. Then, as I clicked away, he stopped moving. He died. The police sirens were already in the air, the fire engines were whirling their lights and their crazy calls and then I noticed the manager of Burger King was standing like I was, holding on to the take-out intercom, about ten feet away.
Once the man on fire stopped moving I regained my senses and ran over. Someone else already stood beside me, a policeman, swatting the man with a coat. Then he was talking on his crackly radio. I heard words, then static, more words. Three empty bottles of cheap liquor were lined up against the wall, blackened and cracked from the heat, and the man’s canvas coat had burned badly. His pants were some kind of polyester blend and they had melted as much as burned, clinging darkly to him, except where parts of his skin showed through, raw and pink. It seemed pretty obvious that he had buried himself under newspapers, poured the liquor over the papers and set them on fire. That’s what the police said to each other, crazy drunkard, to anyone around who would listen. I wasn’t listening. I was looking into the man’s wide open eyes.
I started taking pictures as close to him as I dared, from five inches away, his flesh like sour mushy fruit, his face in the best shape of all of him, black and melted only over one ear, smelling like old rancid sex and melted plastic and burned hair.
The Burger King manager was laughing a bit.
“Disgusting,” he was saying, “he passed out last week, at the salad bar, and I had to call the cops. Remember?” He pointed to one of them, “I called you.”
The burned man’s eyes were wide open, an unremarkable sky blue, rolled back a little, though not as much as you’d think. But in his eyes, after a moment, I saw a man in a trap. He was still in a trap the moment he died. It was terrifying, and the more I photographed his eyes the more I saw what was there. A little blue fire of life, still fighting. A conscious man fighting for his life.
I yelled to the policeman. I think I yelled, “Hey.”
I pointed, and he didn’t see it or maybe he did, because he bent down and closed the man’s eyes.
I know that the look in someone’s eyes is a topic of conversation for young girls. The kind of thing, in fact, that young girls say to each other, like, did you see him look at me that way. Or something stupid like that.
But still, I used to believe I could tell everything about a person with one glance into their eyes. I could evaluate their intelligence, honesty, immaturity, ability to be evil.
Then someone told me you could tell everything you need to know about a person by the sound of their voice, and I started listening, and in each voice I could hear the spirit speaking from beneath the words and breath, another life force, darting out, diving away.
And then in bars, easy enough, without the eyes to look at, I could see it in the walk. There is such a thing as an intelligent walk. There is a way a child can reach the sun just walking on the curb of a sidewalk.
But the older I got, the more the meaning of the looks blended and became veiled. The intelligence became arrogance, the life force became ego, the deadness became pain, the pain became evil.
So it all ended one day, my intuition, my ability to sum up someone’s life force with a glance at their eyes or their walk into a room. It ended a long time ago, and I came to just accept everyone without really thinking about it, without caring one way or the other.
I think of this change in myself as a useful and necessary adjustment; I am now objective. And I have photographed, in the effort to follow my mother, just what I see. When I remember my mother, Elena, I remember the sound of her camera, clicking slow and melodious even at 250th of a second. Elena would have covered the homeless situation or the balloon fiesta, the local bluegrass concerts or the traffic accidents, the football games or the airplanes all lined up during an air strike, all with equal fervor, as though something important were going on whereas I just go through the motions, because not much matters to me, because I know not much is important, and that news is only of passing interest, until there’s a war, until people are throwing themselves up against an electric fence because they cannot conceive of living another day, or until you capture exactly what something really is, maybe the soul of a thing. Though by definition I suppose that’s impossible.
When the cop bent over to close down the fire blue eyes of the burned man, the thin, tiny weaves of clear polyester in the cop’s blue suit shone out at me in the sun, and I smelled his cologne, an Aramis, animal type smell.
I walked directly to the darkroom, rolled the film onto the round metal spools and developed it, stood around agitating it and then waiting for it to dry. Then I printed mostly the close-ups, the ones of the burned man’s eyes, and walked them over to the school paper.
When I handed them to him, the editor whistled, low. He especially liked the full-body on fire shots. But I told him, use the eyes.
“What’s the story?” he asked.
“Homeless man pours liquor over his newspaper cave and sets it on fire.”
“I’ll get on it,” he said.
I first started thinking about facts because it seems like I’ll never get to the truth any other way.
I’ve always told everyone: my mother died in Africa in 1975. Her name was Elena Monroe. And what I know about Africa in 1975 was that the price of ivory was about 49 dollars a kilo, although five years before, in 1970, it was only seven dollars a kilo and by 1980 in Japan the price would be 400 dollars a kilo. Ivory was irresistible, better than gold. At least 70,000 elephants a year were killed, more than 80 percent shot by poachers.
I happen to own several tiny carved ivory elephants, and an ivory bracelet. My stepfather, Dr. Sam Fraizer, bought them for me in Bamako, where we were living at the time. Sam probably didn’t know about the elephants; he was doing follow-up research on the smallpox vaccinations he had advocated and performed a few years before.
It was Sam who gave my mother her first camera, so that she could help with photographing his “clients,” he called them, though really they were just smallpox or polio victims who he sought out for his research.
Sometime in that year my mother got fed up and left Sam, traveled with me up the river to Timbuktu, since that seemed fashionable, and met Forester Ecco, who took us to his house in Kenya.
About two weeks ago I received a letter from Forester Ecco addressed to Elena Monroe. It has always been a great burden to me that my name is the same as hers. I find a mother who could name her daughter after herself somehow inexcusably narcissistic. His letter arrived in my mailbox along with a Have You Seen Me? postcard with photos of missing children and a blue envelope with discount coupons. Forester wrote that he is going to sell his land in Kenya so the government can build a landing strip.
But I know it’s not facts in particular that interest me. Say for example, facts about elephants. Even subtle facts, like how they turn on the faucets at the zoos, or how they get bored and love to paint, or how they mourn their dead, seem in fact to have an anticipation and dread of death, how a male bull in the wild walks easily 150 miles a day and will get painful and crippling arthritis if not allowed to walk a great deal.
Or even more technical facts, like the elephant penis averages four feet long and weighs 60 pounds. But really, it’s the complexity problem—too many interrelated parts combined with a randomness—that interests me.
Like the way we take on the characteristics of someone close to us who died.
Our body keeping them alive.
When development cuts off one portion of habitat from another portion, it’s called a fault line, or fault zone, so that even as the elephant habitat is shrinking in terms of its absolute size, it’s living space is being fragmented, so that migratory patterns are cut off, and interference is constant.
My lover Michael says there are fault zones all over New York. On one block, you’re as safe as you’ll ever be, turn the corner and walk one block, and you’re in a mini-war zone. Which is for some reason how my memory works, I’ll be going along, chatting to someone about something innocuous, until they say one phrase, create a kind of unexpected fault zone in my mind, which is what Michael did to me when he said, when he started to say, I don’t know why … his hand on my back, his voice holding me up. And not even knowing what he was going to say, it works so quickly.
Because in 1975 the Rolling Stones released their 23rd album, Metamorphosis. It is an album that sounds like it should have been released in the mid-’60s—it’s a rough album with short songs on it. But Forester listened to it as loud as his huge speakers could take it, and even where I stood at the edge of his yard in Kenya, just past where I was permitted to play, watching the horizon, the zebra and wildebeest and very occasionally a group of elephants, silhouetted in the dusk, their trunks like ribbons, waving to one another across a darkening purple sky, I could hear the drums and the occasional rise of Mick’s voice, specifically Mick singing a Stevie Wonder song called, “I Don’t Know Why I Love You,” which seems to me a question Michael might legitimately ask himself concerning me, considering how neurotic I can be, and it’s a question I ask myself concerning him, while I lie naked in bed with him, holding back, as he says on those nights, trying to not feel, trying to forget that I want him, want life, want to live.
During Forester’s parties I would leave the house, go out to the edge of the yard, watch the wild hogs and listen to certain songs in private. Because when the singer or piano or guitar is speaking to you, it’s better to listen alone, so that their voice is not lost in the wilderness of other’s minds. Away from people but still able to hear the music, I stood near the barbed wire, just a little less than a football field away, and I could still hear the faint thrust of a guitar, and a voice full with a huge range of emotions, calling out to the emptiness around me.
Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks hit the charts in March of 1975 but I didn’t hear the album until I was 13. Years after my mother had disappeared I was living with my father and his new wife and her kids, and he traveled a lot and I spent all of my time in my room, listening to Blood on the Tracks, over and over, in love with the man who wrote it, wanting for myself anyone who would feel so much emotion about me, yet all the while understanding that part of him was blind to who his lover really was.
It was the mood of that album, with all of its pathos and romance and sarcasm, that clued me into who my mother was. There is in that album a woman whose force is dominant and mysterious, but she herself cannot and does not speak. For one thing, speaking wouldn’t be worth it, as though it’s all too complicated for language, and for another, the guy would just turn it around and use whatever was said for his own purposes, use her to forward and fuel his own emotions.
Michael would ask me what in the hell music has to do with anything. In which case I might be bold enough to say that music in general is a tracking device, in that it acts as the emotional bloodline that shows us where we were, and maybe, where we are going. The ’60s rebellion, the ’70s idealism, the ’80s plentitude, the ’90s soul-searching, all revealed in popular music. At any rate I often dream that I am tracking something, following footprints, and here and there is the blood, sometimes still wet, which makes me think that whatever it is I’m tracking might still be alive.
But I might also tell Michael that there is always in my dreams, strange and inexplicable terms, like the word murder whispered in the midst of laughter and the sound of footsteps.
I have retraced yesterday’s pathway exactly, and am now standing behind Burger King, where the homeless man died. The cement is streaked with black. There are several plastic and a few wilted flowers. There is a car idling behind me, a woman’s voice ordering fries and a Coke. There is a stack of school papers with the photo I took, the closeup of his eyes, with the headline, “Homeless Man Takes Own Life.” The article is mostly about what we can do to help the homeless, numbers to call, various soup kitchens which need volunteers. I take one paper. The sun is hot, bleaching everything white.
The real flowers wilt and I smell a faint sweetness. The intercom behind me is too loud. Underneath the bushes to my right, in the landscaping of the drive-thru, I see a glint in the rocks. It is a micro Bic, brand new, white. I turn the knob to start the little flame. I wonder how hard it is to do that drunk.
I walk across Central to the paper, talk to the editor for a while, tell him I like his story, even though there really was no story, and hand him over the Bic, tell him to think about that.
On my way home, I stop in a drugstore for a small, cold grape juice and stand in the sun and drink it in front of a used bookstore. It’s a ratty place I’ve never even been in, with racks of old, sun-faded books and magazines.
When Descartes turned into that crowd, his top hat mixing with all the other top hats—Descartes himself was doubting the existence of everyone else on earth. As an experiment. To get to the few things he couldn’t doubt.
I find I can’t doubt the existence of everyone else on earth but in fact doubt only my own existence.
I do not exist.
But Dylan exists. There is a photograph of him, on the cover of a Rolling Stone magazine in the rack. I have seen his face change. I have seen it become what it is. It will be terrible when he dies. He was never blind, ever. It was Elena. It was me.
With Sam, we went to China right before we went to Africa. In Red China we saw hospitals with dirt floors and no anesthesia. They don’t need anesthesia, Sam would say, they have acupuncture. And at a small party, demonstrating both hypnosis and acupuncture simultaneously, Sam inserted a seven-inch long needle through my mother’s hand: in through her palm, out between the two middle bones on the back of her hand.
I am thinking of Elena and her hand because she was willing to let go in that way, to allow Sam to hypnotize her, to allow herself to feel no pain, and lately I have realized that I’m not willing to go so far with anyone, that I do hold back, as Michael says.
To let go is to pour liquor all over your newspaper cave and set it on fire. Or to record Blood on the Tracks.
To hold back is to stall, waiting to find out what the facts are.
I cross out of the alleyway and onto my sidewalk and see Michael sitting on the hood of my car. Michael is often sitting there waiting for me, content to do things like that, sit around with nothing to read or do or even look at.
But then I see a woman too. She is leaning on my car, her back is to him, for the most part, but she turns to look at him, saying something, a paper held out in front of her.
Then I know who it is and I hate her more than I’ve ever hated her in the past. I want to get the fuck out of here. But I am in full view, though neither of them have seen me yet. I look behind me—there is a short cinder block wall in one neighbor’s yard, a few trees—if I just walk backward maybe I could hide.
“Oh, hi, honey!” She is waving at me now, her arm moving in an exaggerated arc, as though I can’t see her, as though I’m very far away.
I am going to die. I am going to die.
I walk over.
Elena is standing there, holding the student paper. “Homeless Man Murdered,” it could have said, depending on whose Bic I found.
“I love this photo,” she says. “Yeah,” I say, looking at Michael. He is a stone statue, not moving on my car.
“It’s wonderful,” she continues.
“So how are you?” she asks, shading her face from the sun with her hand.
The light blazing and it still isn’t bright enough. I don’t say anything.
“You taking care of yourself?”
I’ve been meaning to tell Michael a few things for a long time. Like how Elena didn’t actually die, I just thought she did. Or maybe even wished she did, since it would have made everything easier.
“I’m fine. Listen,” I tell her, “Michael and I … we have something to talk about.”
“And who am I to get in your way? I’m sure you see Michael here quite a bit, and you never see your poor old mom. Let’s have lunch.”
Elena lives on Silver Avenue, not far from here, and we talk on the phone plenty.
“Actually,” I say, pulling on Michael’s arm, “it’s really important and urgent that I speak with Michael. But I’ll come and see you soon.”
Michael resists me, not budging.
“Why don’t we all go to lunch?” he asks.
“Because I really do have to talk to you,” I say.
“So, Elena tells me a lot about Africa,” he says to my mother.
“Oh, really?” she says, “That was a long time ago.”
“Yeah, but you’d think it was yesterday,” he says, sliding off the hood of my Honda, not looking at me.
I’m hoping he won’t tell her about the letter Forester wrote to her which came to me. Last week. Two weeks ago.
What is the compulsion to maintain one’s decorum? My mind is turning over on itself, yelling at Michael, I’m not a liar, I’m not. You don’t understand.
But instead we are all walking down the sunny street towards El Patio, the closest and cheapest restaurant.
I blame the homeless man. His fault that I took the photo, his fault that Elena came to see me. If I had not taken the photo, if I had helped him instead, he would be alive and Elena would have no excuse to show up unannounced and then I wouldn’t have to admit, could have told Michael in my own way. About my lie.
Elena and Michael talk about her memories of Africa. She tells her own lies.
I think about Michael this morning before I left his house. We had woken early, tangled in damp sheets, the early sun shining over our bodies, around our legs, dark at the edges, yellow in the air, gold on our bodies. His arms rippled, his eyes were gold. He pushed inside of me. We were still partly asleep, breathing the sun, each other’s breath. And then he was asleep again or I would have told him about how I watched the man burn instead of helping. I would have asked him why I did that.
Michael has not looked at me once, as they talk. I’m shaking because Elena is making everything sound different than it was. She has a way of doing that. Glossing over the truth.
“Elena?” she is saying.
“What do you think?”
I think maybe now I will scream and throw my plate to the flagstone patio. We are eating outside, under the slated shade of a portico. That will show her what socially acceptable is. She’s big on that.
She excuses herself from the table to go to the rest room.
Michael is finally looking at me like he wants to say something but can’t decide what to say. He leans towards me.
“I wonder now,” he says, “what has been going on in your mind all this time that I didn’t see. I’d like to tear away at your flesh to see what’s underneath there, where your soul is. But I doubt you have one.”
“Here,” I say, holding out the underside of my arm as he leans away. “Look. I do. I do have one.”
“You don’t. You lied.”
“It was on my mind to tell you for a long time, but I believe it myself, it seems true to me.”
“You lied, or you’re crazy. My mother and father both died, you know that, and it is not something to be joked with and it is not something you imagine for your own selfish amusement.”
He is standing up now, which I didn’t think he would do. He is pulling his shirt away from his body, airing his chest. He wears white business shirts, untucked, and boots and jeans, almost always.
“But I didn’t mean to lie. I didn’t even really know you when I told you about her. That was a long time ago,” I say.
He is pursing his lips together, moving his mouth in a way that means he’s stalling, about to explode or become indifferent, and still standing there, he drops his wrinkled money on the table from up high, so that it floats down, landing on his plate, on a wet spot by his glass.
He is about to walk away.
I know a lot about Michael. I know the exact but ineffable gold brown shade of his eyes. I know his lemon salt smell and the low grain of his voice and the small moles and patterns of his hairs and wrinkles and the shape and feel of his rather rough mouth and his bony strong hands and his feet. I know the way he can wrap a room around himself with one slow curve of his hips when he dances and I know what will drive him to throw his fist through a door. I usually know how to make him laugh and I know how he argues for his ideas and how he travels and how his mind works in everyday life. I’ve spent all night talking to him as the moon crossed the sky until finally the stars lightened and the sun glowed over the mountains staining everything with long colors. I know these things from talking to him but I also know it from being quiet and letting things happen. There is a lot I don’t know and maybe there is a lot I’ll never know and maybe it is stuff that I could have never known or is just unknowable. There are unknowns, black boxes everywhere. It doesn’t take long to figure someone out enough to start pushing their buttons, to get them to do this or that or feel this or that. But the variables could always change. Isn’t it possible that one day, for no discernible reason, Kant does not feel like leaving his house on time? And he acts on impulse. That’s possible.
I did not know that Michael would consider a little lie to be such a serious betrayal. Why didn’t I know about Michael and his principles if I know so much? Why didn’t I know that his mind was not the kind that leaps around between worlds?
“I didn’t want you to—” I say, “I wanted you to know—that I understood, about your parents.”
“You don’t understand.”
“But I do—” Elena has arrived.
“Where are you off to?” she asks him.
He nods at her, shakes her hand, “Nice to meet you. I’ve gotta be somewhere.”
His shirt flutters out, away from his body, like an elephant ear, and back down, and he is gone.
I will run after him, explain everything. The complexity problem.
Elena is talking but the Elena I know is still missing. And now so is Michael.
I tilt my chair and take up my water, throw my head back and swallow. I lean and balance on the two back legs of my chair and feel as though I have chosen to fall into the huge spaces beneath the street, the darkened roach filled underground and beyond. I fall forward in my chair, and drop to a stop. I have to get the fuck out of here. Clear and round, the glass is steady against my grip; and I hold it, release it and hold it again.
—Lindsay Ahl is finishing up her novel, the world is a woman.
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.