Thirty Messages by Lance Olsen

BOMB 30 Winter 1990
030 Winter 1989 90

I. The One You Weren’t Waiting For

Hi Gilby. I have seen the face of God.


II. Love Story

Cardie, great rump, a grand valentine when she stooped, sunflashed redgold hair, ebony eyes, small raised imperfection on her left shoulder, brown mole, jewel of the sea, lived in Sligo, Eire, worked in the pub just around the gray corner and over the cement bridge from Yeats’s poorly marked museumhouse. Wade, mouth too tiny for his face, baby jaw seemingly transplanted in place of his own, nose too large and peppered with pores, upper torso like a cockroach’s perched atop insectile legs, lived in Lexington, Kentucky, worked in Martin’s Dry Wall Office on Nicholasville Road. They never met.


III. Two Feet

Near the end of his life, Wittgenstein wrote secret notes to himself. He wanted to wake himself up in the midst of his dreaming. Why do I not satisfy myself that I have two feet when I want to get up from the chair? he asked himself on paper. There is no why. I simply don’t. This is how I act.


IV. Why is This How I Act?

Last night I was dreaming that I was sleeping. In my sleep I had a dream. It was springtime. I heard a rustling by the window in my bedroom. I opened my eyes. A dwarf was trying to scrabble in. I got out of bed and walked across the room and tried to push the dwarf back out the window. His face wasn’t a human face. His face was the face of a bat. He snapped at me with his tiny canines as I tried to push him out. The window was on the second floor. I knew he had flown there. His wings, when my left palm brushed them, felt like wet rubber. My right hand was on his forehead. He tilted his head back and bit my palm. He chewed through to bone. No blood came from the wound. I kept trying to push him out. Suddenly I woke from the dream into the sleep which in fact I was dreaming. I heard a rustling by the window in my bedroom. I opened my eyes. Guess what I saw trying to scrabble in?


V. Angels in Your Garden

Okay okay okay. Picture this. Two angels are walking through your garden at dawn. Fog suffused by peach sunlight. Flowers sweet as honey. Licorice scent. Apple. Ripe pear. The angels are walking arm-in-arm, faces white light, hands glowing mist, but in another dimension. I assert that they are there. How can you prove that they are not? If you look and do not see them, I tell you they are invisible. If you listen and do not hear them, I tell you they walk on air and do not breathe. Take a photograph of your garden, saffron incandescence, floppy green pancake leaves, bright crimson flowers like fist-sized hearts pulsing on stems, with no angels in it. Produce a tape-recording, highest quality, filled with the frequency of birds chirping in dense underbrush, of a distant plane gliding over a patchwork of houses and blue swimming pools and swings, perhaps even of your own embarrassed cough in the background, proving only your own existence. And I shall ask: How do I know the photograph has not been retouched? How do I know the tape has not been altered? How do I know that you did not miss the angels by a millisecond? How do I know that you did not miss the angels by a bissextile year? Go on. Take an x-ray. Set a trap. Hide with me behind a row of Queen Mother plums for one hour, for 24 hours, for a week, a month, a year, a decade, your whole life, waiting, listening, looking. Set a seismograph. Set two seismographs. Read Heidegger, Sartre, Husserl. But quick, Gilby: look behind you! They have been standing there quietly the whole time. As you turn they smile and flee. You can almost smell them. Can’t you?


VI. Meningitis

Near the end of his life, Wilde lay in a shabby Parisian hotel room. He had no money. He had no identity. He had registered under a false name so that he would bring no more embarrassment to his family and so that he could expire in peace. His doctor said he was dying of cerebral meningitis. His enemies said he was dying of syphilis. He had no friends. He awoke from a series of hallucinations, dwarfs with batfaces scrabbling through his window, opened his eyes, gazed around him, met those of his doctor, the only other person in the room, and articulated his last words. Either that wallpaper goes, Wilde said, or I do.


VII. Who is Interested in You?

You may not be interested in absurdity, but absurdity is interested in you. It’s from Barthelme. Old stuff.


VIII. Neutrinos in Your Garden

And what about them? Particles emitted during the decay of neutrons and mesons? Two neutrinos are spinning through your garden at dawn. Fog suffused by peach sunlight. Flowers sweet as honey. Licorice scent. Apple. Ripe pear. You assert that they are there. How can I prove that they are not? I can’t see them, I say. Can’t hear them. Therefore they don’t exist, not at all, not for a minute. They exist, you say. Show me, I say. I can’t, you say. Weigh them for me, I say. They have zero mass, you say. Display their electrical magic, I say. They are electrically neutral, you say. Measure them, I say. They do not react with measuring apparatus, you say. Dah! I say, then how do you know they exist? For without them, you say, without these colorless, weightless, electrically neutral invisible carriers of momentum, energy and spin, the universe would fly apart in some dazzling anarchic spray. But quick, quick, Gilby: look behind you! No. No. Forget it. They have fled again. But that fragrance, sweet as honey. You smell it? That is not from the flowers. Not at all. Not one bit.


IX. Who is Interested in You?

We all are, Gilby. So why don’t you return our messages? We love you, Gilby. We care about you. We respect you as an individual. We know you’re hiding from us. But why? What have we done to you? What haven’t we done to you?


X. Two Hands

No one ever taught me that my hands don’t disappear when I am not paying attention to them, Wittgenstein told himself on paper.


XI. What’s My Line?

There is a great conspiracy around me. Every person in the world who in some way touches my life has been paid to act his or her part. Disprove it. Go ahead. Try. Well, you say, just ask them. But whatever they say is a portion of script, whether they affirm or deny it, to which I am not privy. Sneak up on them when they are not looking, you say, hide in a closet, crawl under a bed, wait for them to speak when you are not around. But that is simply part of the same script which says that I am hiding in the closet or under the bed, waiting for them to speak while pretending that I’m not around. Ockham’s razor, then. Principle of parsimony. Plurality is not to be assumed without necessity. But but but but but: that’s just my point! It’s more parsimonious to assume that everyone in the universe is working off a script I don’t have access to than it is to assume that every man, woman, and child is running willy-nilly and topsy-turvy through a multidimensional pluriverse, scriptless. The principle of parsimony simply supports my proposition. So what now? The angels are laughing, white light issuing from their mouths like frozen breath.


XII. Theatre

Near the beginning of his life, Stoppard sat sunk like a gremlin in his seat watching Roz and Guil’s opening night. He was in the back row of the London theatre. His elbows were up near his ears. His legs were stretched before him. On stage several characters spoke about being on stage. Death followed by eternity, Rosencrantz said, or perhaps Guildenstern, the worst of both worlds. Tom, Stoppard’s friend sitting next to him leaned over and whispered, puzzled by what was going on down there, what’s this damn thing about? It’s about to make me rich, Stoppard said.


XIII. The One You Weren’t Waiting For

Hi Gilby. My mistake. It wasn’t the face of God at all.


XIV. Paw

Late autumn afternoon the color of a rabbit’s neck. Leaves crackling under foot. You trail through a web of black aspens. Abruptly the terrain opens upon a pearl pond. White sun. Chill in moist air. You circle the pond once, twice, kneel down and touch your fingertips to its cold surface. After several minutes you stand and search for the path that will lead you on. As you are about to enter the woods again, something at shoulder level catches your eye. Hanging in a thorny bush nearby is the leg of a small animal. Raccoon perhaps. Perhaps possum. It is miraculous. Four inches long, maybe five. Cocked at elbow. Silver charcoal fur. A tiny paw with precise digits like those of your grandmother, forefinger pointing skyward, sharp milky nails. Torn off cleanly at the shoulder, like a drumstick, fresh raw flesh and muscle and glistening joint exhibited. You look around for the rest of the carcass but you cannot locate it. No sign of struggle either. No sign of trap. No fur on the beige and umber ground for a hundred yards in any direction. The curled leaves at the base of the bush remain untouched. What voodoo must have happened here? Where is the paw pointing, relaxed? What sort of ascension could this have been? What sort of wonder would you have seen had you broken through to that pond just half an hour earlier?


XV. Telephone Call to New York

Does my telephone call to New York strengthen my conviction that the earth exists? Wittgenstein asked himself on paper.


XVI. Brains

It has simply been a coincidence that every person whose skull has been opened has had a brain in it. In fact, every person whose skull has not been opened has had light-spitting diamonds, bloodred rubies, beatific emeralds within his or her head. Prove me wrong. Go ahead. Prove me wrong. Try. Open up the head of someone you claim has jewelry in it, and find another intricate brain within it, you say. But that, I say, would simply underscore my thesis; since that person’s skull would have been opened, of course chances are you would find a brain in it. That does not dispute my assertion that finding that brain is mere coincidence. Ditto with an X-ray, thermogram, CATscan. The next person whose head you crack might have a skull filled with honey-scented blossoms, violets and camellias, mayflowers and monkhoods, snowberries and zinnias. The next person whose head you crack might have a skull filled with miniature yapping dogs, beagles and bloodhounds, harriers and huskies, pugs and poodles. With bluebottles and butterfish, geckos and newts, sidewinders and willets. Pewits, terns, and finches.


XVII. Love Story

Julius Marx, great curmudgeon, stoagie and a bushy mustache with some small black eyes stuck on it, thinning hair, caustic stare, ebony glasses, Groucho by trade, hunched by nature, lived in California. Tom Eliot, Missourian, Anglo accent seemingly transplanted in place of his own, nose too large and peppered with pores, upper torso like a cockroach’s perched atop insectile legs, lived in London. After years of delightful, witty, shinning correspondence, they finally met for dinner one evening. They had nothing to say to one another. They even failed at small talk. Julius made polite excuses and left early.


XVIII. A Short Story

He ravaged her.


XIX. Why is This How I Act?

Last night I was dreaming that I was sleeping. In my sleep I had a dream. I was flying at terrific velocity among redbrick tenements. I was naked. I was obese. My arms were extended. My legs formed a V behind me. My mouth was open. Hundreds of clotheslines were strung between the buildings. On these clotheslines were thousands of brilliantly colored sheets, towels, socks, underwear, stockings, blouses, jeans, sneakers, and so forth. Somehow I couldn’t pull up. I couldn’t attain any kind of altitude. I kept jetting into the colorful clothes on the clotheslines, getting all tangled up, whizzing on. Bras got caught in my mouth. Cutoffs blinded me. Pillow cases wrapped around my head. I couldn’t scream, of course.


XX. What Do You Want Us To Do?

We understand that you are a very private person, Gilby. We understand that you need your space. We understand that you probably stand by your answering machine and listen to our messages as we speak them. You’re probably listening to me right now. Iantha and Ada and Leah and I have talked about this and we agree that this is okay with us. We respect this. But we can’t understand why you never return our calls. Did we miss something? Did we overlook some detail? Were we unconsciously cruel to you? Were we unconsciously kind? If so, we apologize sincerely, straight from the heart. We never meant to hurt you, Gilby. We never meant to help you. Just tell us what you want us to do. Tell us to jump. Tell us to sit. Tell us to love each other harder.


XXI. Love Story

Hi Gilby. I’m pregnant. You’re the father.


XXII. Motor Cars

It is quite sure that motor cars don’t grow out of the earth, Wittgenstein told himself on paper. His soul expanded like the universe just after the big bang. He was pleased with himself. He was very pleased. He smiled, the man who invented the sewing machine in his teens, the man who followed the films of Betty Hutton and Carmen Miranda with a gentle and inexorable passion, the man who died of cancer while reading Black Beauty at his doctor’s house. Here was something he could be sure of. Here was the brief bulb of certainty. In celebration he walked outside, a blue Sunday afternoon, calculated the height of the maple in front of his house by pacing off from the trunk the base of a right triangle, wheeling around and sighting along his walking stick. Several weeks later he died. When he articulated his last words, they came out like this: Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.


XXIII. Bumhole

You’re a bumhole, Gilby. You’re a ninnyhammer. You’re a cluck, a gowk, a gaby, a fud, a defective. You’re a looby, a bufflehead, a dunderpate, a clot. You’re a shit, a louse, a fart, a bastard, a pig, a rat, a pill, a swag, and a bindlestiff. A worm, Gilby. You’re a goddamn worm.


XXIV. What’s My Line?

I’m sorry. I take it all back. Forgive me. I just don’t know what to say anymore. I can change, you know I don’t have any big theory about the stability of the self over time. You want me to change, I’ll change. I can add several inches to my height. I can probably take a couple of inches off. I can certainly lose weight. Losing weight has never been a problem for me. Or put it on. I can do that. That’s a cinch. I can dye my hair. I stand and look at myself in the mirror and I ask myself: How does Gilby see me? How would Gilby like to see me? I tighten my belt. I stick a pillow under my shirt. I use that styling mousse that turns my hair orange and makes me look startled. I can brush my teeth more often. I guess that goes without saying. And floss as you see fit. I can be less of a success or more of a success in my life. But you already know that. I can aspire to greater things, watch more TV or less, read cyberpunk, criticize Elle, use the word postmodern more in my discourse to refer to objects such as ski jackets, staplers, coffee mugs, bottles, a certain variety of angel, paintings that employ naked figures and broken plates in a cryptic and arbitrary fashion, the general sense I have lately that I am made of pieces, cuisine that employs a purplish element, novels that employ shopping lists and recipes, music that makes it easy for you to fall asleep, Spam, Gumby and Pokey posters, geometric glass paperweights, particular politicians, various unnatural sexual preferences, hats that no one would wear, the general sense I have lately that I am made of pieces, the alligator I saw swimming at me across a muddy river when I was in the Everglades, sports that involve


XXV. On Certainty

This isn’t working so well, is it?


XXVI. Two Feet

Okay okay okay. True story. Yellow day. Graveyard. Blanching grass. Faceless crowd. Funeral for Charles Olson, the man who stuffed food in his pockets at dinner parties, the man who once ate an oil rag, the man who wrote a study of American musical comedies. Allen Ginsberg is chanting kaddish even though he isn’t sure of the pronunciation. Everyone is very spiritual. Everyone is very solemn. Only Ginsberg, not looking what he’s doing, accidentally trips on the pedal that lowers the alcoholic bear’s coffin into the grave. An unstoppable mechanical hum follows. Ginsberg stops chanting. Looks down at his feet. Looks up, nonplussed. The coffin has not been aligned perfectly before its descent. It jams cockeyed half in, half out, of the grave. The funeral stops. Henceforth Ginsberg vehemently denies that such an event ever actually took place. In what sense is he right?


XXVII. Ten Question Marks

What is your favorite color? Who do you like to read these days? What’s your new girlfriend like? Did you inherit a submarine? What is the relationship between space and time when considered in terms of a Hegelian dialectic? Do you still like pistachio ice cream? Will you ever acknowledge my existence again? Seen any good films lately? Catch the latest Academy Awards? What do you think about the latest incident in the Middle East? Did you want Cher to win?


XXVIII. Feeling Redundant Feeling Redundant

I’m going to leave you alone now, Gilby. I’m beginning to feel redundant. I’m beginning to feel like a human tautology. I hate that.


XXIX. The One You Were Waiting For

Okay okay okay. I’m not going to leave you alone. But almost. A little more every day. Until one day you’ll rewind your answering machine and hit play and listen to a string of disembodied voices, some miraculous string of speaking DNA, and the one voice you will not hear, the one voice you will never hear again, will be mine.


XXX. Sunday Afternoon

We must remember certain things, Gilby. I just called to tell you that. We must preserve the dark blue squash ball in flight, the rise of the racket, the pure exhilaration of the white arm poised in readiness. Yours? Mine? We must preserve the fragrance of apples, licorice, ripe pears, our nightmares, our serious talk under the full maple that evening, the way you reached out and touched me with your fingertips just below my eye. We must preserve the magic of that Sunday afternoon in spring at the precise second the redgold sunlight flashed in your hair and my heart went weak and a robin darted into my consciousness and I thought if there is a perfect moment, if there is a breath-catching instant, if there is a second we all live for, then this is it. This is here. This is with us. How wrong could I have been?

A critic and fiction writer, Lance Olsen’s novel Live From Earth will be out next fall from Available Press. He teaches Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at the University of Kentucky.

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BOMB 30, Winter 1990

Featuring interviews with Mary Gaitskill, Carroll Dunham, Richard Price, Eduardo Machado, Sarah Charlesworth, Jane Campion, Fay Weldon, Anish Kapoor, Atom Egoyan with Arsinée Khanjian, Katell le Bourhis, and Jonathan Lasker.

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030 Winter 1989 90