Whatever Happens by Jacek Gulla

BOMB 9 Spring 1984
009 Spring Summer 1984
Komar and Melamid 001

Komar and Melamid, Blind Man’s Buff, 1982-1983, oil on canvas, 72 x 47”. Photo by James Dee, Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Inc., New York.

Curiosity’s risks. Have a spark of it in your mind and instantly Manhattan turns into a puzzle, an enormous knot of light, noise, traffic and wind, chance and impossibility, hysteria and economics, of which you are hopelessly the middle point. It grows and complicates itself continually, it teases you, charms you, terrifies you and dances with you until the spark is gone, extinguished by fear, exhausted with efforts, drained by its own insatiability. Persistence in pursuing solutions only provokes cruelty on the part of the riddle. Teenage beauties wear dry rose bush branches along the line of their decolletages, the thorns punishing their flesh for every abrupt step or turn of the body. You approach them by the way of falling petals but there is no strength, no consistence in your hold, and when you think you made it this time, the answer, innocent and frail, trembles within its monstrous enclosure; the whole world, save the stars, dissolves into biting bits and vicious pieces. The myriad swarms and buzzes all around you, to take eventually the form of a subsequent trap.

Stairways, stairways, stairways, narrow and shady hallways, empty subway cars, doors left slightly open, rooms of all shapes and decor—dreary shooting galleries one floor above funeral chapels, stuffed with ghostly bleeding humans, but also the ambassadorial suits uptown, where distinguished widows chat about art, wars, and international intrigues to their silly pets.

Welcome, please come in, nice to see you.

Too often you start the day with a question, Where am, I, you see too many weddings, too often you help people move, or you sit in the park and read your stars in the yesterday’s Post. At 1:00 PM you translate for your friend at the tow away parking lot, talking there to a hyper Spaniard who wears a T-shirt signed Catastrophe across his chest. At 2:00 you try on sunglasses at the Vision Center, and at 3:00 you stumble over some of your old belongings; a suitcase or a typewriter you must have left at this or that of your past addresses, now eats sunlight on the street. It means something, you wish you don’t have to figure what but the answer—this time this is a multi-headed dragon of intolerable interpretations whose heads are called Paranoia, Fear, Self Hate, Depression, etc.—haunts you without mercy.

SAVE YOUR SKIN Lauren Hutton cries in your way from a beauty aid advertisement. FLY THE PEOPLE’S EXPRESS yells a stranger with a smile of your uncle. Two or three drinks help you carry on casually, and in turn the crowds of people carry you on the tide of ecstatic rhythms. Sirens, whistles, bells, horns, madmen shouting, visionaries shouting, transistor radios blasting, distant firecrackers exploding, fast-walking feet restrained and released by the changing lights. Why Not you answer and you take off into a venture through the evening with one round gentle fellow in sunglasses, his friend Jessie from England and the shadow painter from California who splashes black paint on the walls of this island. It’s Star Wars time! It’s Be Me Ba’ time! It’s Miller Time, with Georgia On My Mind sailing out of a jukebox in one bar where the counter is roofed and with its amusement lights running along the circular edges resembles a merry-go-round brought to a halt some 50 or 60 years earlier, when its present clients were still a bunch of dreamy kids.

Curiosity’s precious. To the old sins who hope to receive absolution. To the old dreams who spread wide their rugged wings. Old bodies believe your curiosity could return to them if not the youth then, at least, the sense of being novel. The curious attitude strengthens the tongue of the drunkard and illuminates his memory. Living memories hold contents the present day would prefer to do without. Curiosity opens minds and out creep dragons and dinosaurs and godzillas; old pains, wounds, unanswered desires, terrible engagements, nightmares dwelling beneath reason and insanity. All this happens within the moving eerie galaxy of neon signs, lit matches, burning cigarettes, shooting alarm-light, pointing guns and flying glass. Nothing darkens with the night. The streets become frenetic rivers of lumini, you drift, and sooner or later the currents dispose of you in some foreign corner of the city.

It’s well past midnight. Your curiosity’s below zero, where it turns into pure resentment of itself. All day long driven by it you have forgotten yourself and now you are in troubles. Too late to call on anyone. Nowhere to go, with few bars and luncheonettes and stations as an alternative for the rest of the night. Even if by the powers of your imagination you could visualize yourself in company of people you admire or desire most, you wouldn’t deceive your body. You need sleep. One old European folk tune lingers sadly on your lips: Go Down, Go Down O Sun, My Feet Hurt, Hurt From Walking Around …

There’s one room so large on Manhattan, it seems it could take in and lose within itself, without a trace, the whole population of the island. The thick, motionless air in there feels like a substance consisting of timid gestures, withheld breaths, sighs, sobs, and muffled whispers. The door that leads into this room stands open all night long, inviting the flow of fresher air. You step into this darkness and there, once your eyes regain seeing, you look for a vacant layer. You see beds, many beds. They are located in the maze between old mirrors, dressers, cartons, rows of plastic wrapped coats and suits, amidst closets, chest drawers and windows that were brought in from the street and smeared with black or grey paint. It’s so hot, so stuffy inside that most of the sleepers sleep naked or are only barely clothed. Their bodies have the sad, victimized aspect, as if the hully-bully of the Coney Island, having gone mad, threw them off its immense amusement apparatus.

You find the bed and you lay down. Voices of many radios reach you through the walls, coming from near and far away, and you feel you hear all the stations on our planet and also the music of the Space simultaneously. Everything that makes our planet bleed and sing inspires you to hope for the best. You envision the world run by one central computer. All the nations feed in the information about their needs and potentials, the machine comes up with the most objective economical answers and the international committee of experts chooses the best ones from all the possible solutions. The language of this computer doesn’t have terms like war, rebellion, aggression, etc. The ships cross the seas carrying wheat and coal instead of missiles. People busy themselves reinventing life in harmony with life, you dream.

All of a sudden there’s a rumor downstairs. Evidently you are not the last arrival. Slowly, numerous feet climb the stairs. Two elderly women and one man, each carrying a couple of heavily loaded plastic garbage bags on their shoulders, walk into the room and head across the darkness with the precision and clumsiness of elephants returning to their birthplace. At this moment the whole incredible outfit of this room starts to shake and tremble; the glass tingles, the aged wood creaks, spoons, forks and knifes ring in the deep drawers, the floor grinds, the sleepers cough, utter curses and turn around on the mattresses, all waiting for the silence to return. Momentarily this melodious noise sounds sweet and dear to you; it hints at the completeness, uniqueness, fragility of each single human existence. The silence returns when the bags are gotten rid of, when the bodies are undressed and in beds. Soon enough the room indulges in other voices. The sleepers talk back to their dreams. Swim. Fuck. Stay. Wait. No no mother no. You understand only the simplest words. The language here is made of the Polish, Turkish, Latin, Greek, Yiddish, Spanish, Czech and German, and these tongues are linked by an occasional phrase in English. I was drunk. Money. Many Money. The sleeping lips cry quietly, laugh, pray, bid farewell to the places and people loved most, plead for mercy, quiver with pain, hope to be forgiven and remembered well.

As if in response a window emerges glowing high above the sleepers, mounted in the center of the ceiling. This is daybreak. The daylight pours in and descends upon the floor; glasses, bottles, shoes, toothbrush materialize with a sharp detail. At the outermost edge of the visible reality you notice a large round clock. It’s hanging on the wall above the open door. It shows 8:30. It doesn’t work. You close your eyes, count out one hundred, and look at the clock again. Time’s at a standstill. The arms don’t move, indeed, but the clock doesn’t seem quite dead. Somehow it resembles a Moon that gave up its revolving motion in exchange for fertility of its rocky surface.

One after another the sleepers awake, get up and

with soap and towel grope towards the exit. You hear the water running and then you see them clean and refreshed. They put their clothes on with the help of small flashlights. Their suits are baggy, colorless, thick, and tired. Someone brings water, someone else opens the fridge. The smells of burning fat, sour pickles, sausage, and cheese rise up with the smoke as they prepare the breakfast on makeshift hot plates. They consume the meal with the air of resignation. They have trouble having their bodily engines ignited. Eventually, they succeed and they depart. Many of them are gone for the day or even for a week, others return into the room within several minutes, bitter and broke with rejection. Nothing less than a quart of vodka will help them out of the gloom. They search pockets for money and manage to collect the necessary amount. The bottle organizes the situation when it arrives on the table. By the time its contents are emptied, the men take to the adventurous tasks. Gimme that chair here says one. He jumps on the chair and reaches toward the immobile clock. Let’s fix it he decides.

This lures you out of bed. You approach the table. No questions are being asked. All brothers here declares one dwarfy smiling sailor from Uruguay. The man on the chair wrestles with the hinges that attach the clock to the wall. When the clock is set face down on the table the whole gathering sighs with impatience. The lid’s covered with grease and dirt, and bears no traces of any former break-ins. When it dashes off into the air the breathless faces lean over the exposed clockwork. Someone lifts the lamp over the table and the light hits the depths of the wrecked mechanism, scaring out of there a whole population of cockroaches, bugs, and worms. The creatures run for life. Some make it to the edge of the table, some don’t. Palms of the watching men smash them and from up close they seem monumental, resembling the giants that inhabited the Earth before Mankind. Crushed and bleeding, but not dead instantly, with pathos they struggle for every step forward. The tiny legs grab the bread crumbs and burnt matches. They scratch on the wooden surface, they rise, collapse, and rise again. Their helplessness gets all the giggles, jeers, and sneers. The fellow who opened the lid takes a good breath in and blows air right inside the clock, stirring up the dust and chasing out the last cohort of insects. The lucky ones who escape the smashing palms drop from the edge of the table onto the floor, and zigzag out of sight amidst the thunderous kicking and stampede of the booted feet.

Go. Go out. The day’s bright and breezy. Visit the priest if you have time, in Mount Sinai. The sun fell him in the park last Sunday. The same two dudes who robbed him of 80 bucks in May brought him here and called in the ambulance. Seeing white robes the priest got back his senses and pleaded to be left alone. I don’t want to die with my legs missing. He dreaded amputation. His legs indeed looked dead. The ambulance people would take his word, claiming the barely breathing priest had his human right to refuse help, and they had to be argued with; there are human rights and there are also human responsibilities, isn’t it so? Now the priest surely would like to see some familiar face smiling, go, see him today.

Also, and definitively you must see this one art piece, this structure built with all kinds of water pipes. It stands ten feet tall on the roof of the old school. Turn the knob on and the water shoots out of a whole galaxy of holes that dot the structure. The sunlight turns it into a tower of rainbows, and in the night it looks like a birth nest of stars. See it, you have to.

And remember this, your friend’s sister’s on her way back from Rio to Des Moines, be at the Grand Central at 1:30 PM.

Go, the choice is yours. Whatever you do, whatever happens, be sure of this one thing: shortly before daybreak two elderly women and one man will walk again through the darkness of this room. They will carry huge black plastic bags, and their steps will rock the whole interior. The wood will creak and the glass panes will jingle in the loosened frames.

Jacek Gulla is a poet and short story writer who lives and works in New York City.

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Originally published in

BOMB 9, Spring 1984

Nicolas Echevarria, Pam Yates, art by James Nares and Tom Otterness, writing by Daisy Zamora, Kathy Acker, Glenn O’Brien, and more.

Read the issue
009 Spring Summer 1984