The Aleatory Abyss
The essay published here is also available in print in two formats: as a $10 paperback and a deluxe $30 hardcover edition. All proceeds go to The FANG Collective.
“It was very, for lack of a better word, safe. That genuine sense that no one would ever find you there.”
—Michael Townsend, in a 2007 interview with Dick Gordon for The Story, on the cinderblock room he and his partner Adriana Yoto furnished, and occasionally inhabited for four years, between the Providence Place Mall and the mall’s parking lot structure.
“Hey you there!”*
—A cop shouting at a passerby.
* Louis Althusser uses this to illustrate how self-consciousness is a form of ideology. A hypothetical cop shouts at a passerby, who, the moment she responds, implicates herself as the subject of the shout.
There is nobody in the lamp store tonight. I can’t google the snow because my phone is old and slow, but it’s obvious that people are staying home.
I browse the lamps alone. I stand beneath a yellow hanging globe. I turn my face to its light like it’s going to feed me.
The clerk comes over. “Everything is twenty-percent off,” he says. For the holidays.
We look at each other.
Very slowly, I cross the parking lot toward home. The rain has turned to ice, and because every surface is paved, it’s difficult to find anywhere to step that isn’t treacherous.
In sweatpants, I spoof my laptop’s MAC address. I watch YouTube. I google the weather. Yes, people tonight are staying home.
Spoofing temporarily changes my MAC address.
* A MAC (Media Access Controller) address is a number, unique to my computer, that identifies it on a network of other devices, each of which has its own, unique MAC address. Spoofing temporarily changes my MAC address, by randomly “borrowing” a different device’s address, so that my device appears to be some other device.
I spoof my MAC address* because I don’t want to pay Comcast. Spoofing lets me masquerade as a guest on Comcast’s network. I get one complimentary hour of browsing, but if I try to log in again with the same credentials, I’m prompted to pay—$2.95 for two hours. So I spoof my address again. Again and again and again. To the network, each time I’m a different, unique person. A “guest.”
A guest can stay only as long as the host wants. Nothing belongs to the guest; the guest is always aware that she is surrounded by someone else’s belongings.
A few years ago I was on my way home from a trip and waiting for a train out of downtown Portland. It was nighttime in December and I went into Whole Foods to eat a salad. I had a large backpack. In an area of tables and chairs and condiments, I set down my backpack at a table next to a man with a backpack and sleeping bag by his feet. He had a couple of devices plugged into electrical outlets. When he saw my backpack he opened up to me. I don’t know who he thought I was, but he told me that he had to come to Whole Foods now, buying a drink to justify his presence, in order to charge his phone—the city had started arresting homeless people for using the outlets on the sidewalks next to the trees. They charge you with theft, he said, a felony—stealing electricity.
I asked him about the outlets. He said the outlets are there so the city can plug in the holiday lights that decorate the trees. During the day, while the lights are off, the outlets are convenient for homeless people to charge their cell phones. He said his cell phone was his only connection to the world, and the city wanted to take that away.
Then I had to leave—a Whole Foods security guard was standing right behind me. Just standing, but with his silence pressing hard against mine.
For a long time I have aspired to be not a guest, but nobody. I have gone to lectures, museums, and meditation retreats, visited churches and the graves of the famous, read widely from all sorts of texts and subjected myself to all sorts of people, searching for the secret.
I don’t know why I am attracted to vanishing. I think I always have been.
In nursery school I discovered, in a corner of the sandbox, a nest of millipedes. They became my emissaries. I carried them in my fist. I had a small following of girls who were too disgusted to touch them but liked to watch me do it. I awed them without trying—the insects did not bother me at all. I liked the ticklish feeling of their bodies. They showed me that it was possible to be ugly yet dwell among civilized people for some time before being discovered by a child.
When I later heard about people who lived in shopping malls and parking structures, sometimes for years without being noticed, I knew that this was my future calling to me. I was meant to live in a crevice, like a bug. I was meant to go unnoticed in the midst of a crowd.
For a while I thought the secret might be in Descartes’ description of a floating eye—an eye that sees without the weight of a body. That, I thought, is the thing: to see, and only to see. Vision that would never be hungry, never need to sleep, never cry. Images would leave me as soon as they were seen; they wouldn’t accumulate in that psychic trashbin called a mind, forcing me to be somebody, if only the product of recollected light.
Now, though, something is shifting. I don’t think there’s a secret anymore.
After all the searching, I write in an untitled document in late December of 2016, I remain a projection of an unknown quantity of memories of varying accuracy of chance occurrences; a rearrangement of shimmers of another time moving through an abyss out of which will eventually emerge the whole of what might be called my life.
I title the document “2017.” Later I change it to “The Aleatory Abyss.”
No, I don’t think there’s a secret, but I’m still searching for something.
A white garment hangs from a clothesline. From the interstate, I see it flapping in the wind and rain, a flag of nakedness. Language seems broken, unable to hold even the barest meaning, but there is a stand of birch trees I like to see as I drive.
It is January, 2017. Fake news, alternative facts, dark mornings. I have a job teaching English composition for the quarter at a community college in a rural county in the state of Washington. This is a county that voted for Donald Trump. I did not vote for Donald Trump. I did not believe Donald Trump could be elected, and then he was, and now I am no more credulous than I was: I still do not believe that Donald Trump could be elected.
There’s something I keep tensed in my neck. The muscles behind me hurt my hair. My spine has a shrill noise in it. My jaw tightens behind my eyes. There’s mist in the air this morning; I feel incapable of mornings. In my car I hollow a hole toward the horizon.
How will I teach anyone, in eleven weeks, how to write? I keep driving at the question and finding no answers. That I feel unqualified to be doing what I am doing didn’t deter anyone from hiring me, and this worries me.
The sun is a sunken glow rising from the horizon. I have a friend who lives in the horizon. Mark. He lives there in his shirt and pants, wearing a backpack. All he does all day long is walk and walk. Sometimes he stops to charge his phone. He plugs it into a church and waits, eating an apple. When the phone is full he starts walking again. He started walking in October. His goal is to get to the other side of something. He has to do it alone. Sometimes he passes people, and people in their cars pass him. They don’t walk with him, though.
I think of calling him and telling him about my worries. I want him to tell me it’ll be alright, that when the time comes, I’ll know what to do. Platitudes.
On the radio they are saying, “Now our disbelief is our home.” I am never quite sure anymore who is talking. The blinds of a window move as I drive by. There’s a square of darkness like Halloween chocolate. I see a face, but it’s far away. It doesn’t seem to belong to anybody.
I suggest to my students that calling something “unknown” is another way of saying there’s no consensus regarding its origin.
A student asks how many degrees I have.
A student tells me he will leave early.
A student emails a document I can’t open.
A student forgets. A different student remembers, but at the wrong time.
“I don’t know,” I say in response to a question I haven’t clearly heard.
From the looks I get, it’s clear I was supposed to have known.
My job at the college is not going particularly well. There is a desperation for accreditation, for official approval, along with a resentment for those with the power to bestow or deny the very thing that is desired. The main industry in town is automotive. There are gas stations; there are tire and muffler shops; there are many places to have oil changed.
This is the big city for many of my students, who drive to school from towns without traffic lights. Some of them attend the college’s automotive program. They will become mechanics, is their plan. They do not want to write and resent me for asking them to. They look at me as though I am bad.
During my office hours, I watch a video of Prince dancing with James Brown and try to accept the limits of my own capabilities.
“On a scale of one to ten,” a student asks, “how difficult would you say this class is going to be?”
A rash appears on my right hand. Two fingers go numb and blister.
Driving home, I call a close friend. She is finishing a residency in psychiatry. She lives in Pittsburgh. I call her because she is my friend and also because she is trained in diagnosing psychosis. “I’m having trouble,” I tell her through the microphone as I accelerate at 70 miles per hour to pass a truck out of which white feathers fly like commas, “feeling like anything is real, you know?”
“I know,” she says. “I disassociate all the time too.”
Redemption used to come from “the heavens,” but psychology, her discipline, killed those. I ask her to write me a prescription for Wellbutrin.
Hobbies: Making slow progress toward figures in dreams. Driving. Pantomiming an ongoing scream.
But one night, I realize that this sense of unreality is in fact not a disassociation from reality but a livid association with unreality.
How can I be with something that is not real?
I don’t sleep.
In the morning, the birch trees have the look of having just arrived inside their own lines. They might still smear. Driving by them, I want to be them. I would do my best to seem far away and inspire longing.
I try to picture the marrow of my bones while I drive because a general practitioner once told me that doing this helped him fall asleep. At the very least it might calm me. It might ease the shrillness in my spine.
The classroom smells like propane. Every morning. I try not to breathe deeply. I feign. I say things. The marrow of my bones eludes me. As long as I’m talking, I can’t see what’s inside me.
A sparrow hovers above a branch of an irrelevant shrub. I watch it in the window. My students do not see because they are looking at me. The lesson has to do with clarity.
Close your eyes, I tell them. It’s only then, while they are blinded, that I can see what I need.
Driving home, I stop at Party City. I walk up and down the aisles of themed celebration supplies, uncertain why I have come. I have no occasion to celebrate, yet I have a feeling there is something here I will need. I touch packages of balloons, packages of umbrella-shaped toothpicks. Piñatas. Individually-wrapped napkins. Silver plastic tiaras. Tiny cowboy hats with elastic straps. A pang of longing approaches my mind, then veers into the aisle with crepe paper and bunting.
I leave feeling like the store has been haunted by my unfulfillable want.
Later, my boyfriend and I drive to the Zen center. It is 5:30 and the sun has gone behind the horizon. We sit in a dim room for an hour staring at a wall. Our backs are to the other people in the room, who are staring at other walls.
We all walk slowly in a procession around the room. Then my boyfriend and I drive back to our apartment. We eat black-bean-and-avocado tacos and talk about the wall Trump promised to build between the United States and Mexico.
Cristal, Darlenny, David, Ezmeralda, Sterling, Yvette—I think of my students whose families are from Mexico. I think of their names, faces, and silences in class. Questions I would like to ask each about their life:
- What do you like to look at?
- Whose voices do you hear at home?
- Which silences are because I’ve forgotten you?
Then, after washing the dishes, each of us inside a life adjacent to and occasionally overlapping others, we proceed farther into the night.
I watch Mark’s videos. Day 63. Day 64. Day 65.
Day 78. Day 79.
They are how I know time is passing. I rely on his recordings for whatever it is I can’t find inside my own life.
I tell him in an email that I feel guilty driving a car. “Don’t ever feel guilty,” he responds. He keeps walking. He walks by a mall. He walks by an old jail museum. He walks by bathtubs. He records what he sees—in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio. In Ohio, calcium chloride—road salt—cuts the soles of his feet. He gets on a bus and goes to Florida. He keeps walking. He makes records of garbage, old signs with most of the letters missing, stuff nobody else sees.
I think of all the garbage between us, the discards lying between our bodies. It’s a bond, a means of communication, the way love can be.
I buy something to eat. The plastic I throw away clings to me. I wipe it on my knee and it falls by my feet. Its helplessness reminds me of people.
The fog comes from the sea. It rises every morning and rolls down the hills, filling the valley of the interstate.
A shape is slumped on the shoulder. Passing it at speed, I look for a body. I don’t see any limbs, but I sense there are limbs to be seen. I have to discern them. Doing this is my responsibility: because my students look at me as though I am bad, I feel responsible for bad things. Discarded, unwanted, filthy piles of clothing by the highway are my parts or leavings, things I have possibly excreted.
My boyfriend tells me about a game of Dungeons & Dragons he played in which he, a giant lizard, began devouring blond-headed children.
I go into the bedroom. I place myself inside of a pile.
Within the pile’s safe folds, I google the news. Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson has been sent 1,000 questions by senators on the Foreign Relations Committee that must be answered before his nomination.[*] Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for education secretary, has suggested that it should be up to individual states whether guns are allowed in schools, adding that grizzly bears are a danger. Steven Mnuchin, who is nominated to be the secretary of the Treasury, has failed to disclose real estate worth $95 million as part of asset disclosure documents given to the Senate Finance Committee.[*] Tom Price, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services, buys $15,000 of stock in Zimmer Biomet, a medical device maker, just before introducing a bill that would directly benefit the company, then claims he didn’t know about the transaction.[*]
I google “people who secretly live in malls.” Across the street from my apartment is the Capital Mall, a “lifestyle shopping center.” On its website, the mall claims to be “the cornerstone of the community.”
The place where I am living is the kind of place about which I would think, were I passing through it on my way to the place where I live, I would never live there.
I am both passing through a place where I would never live, and living in the place where I would never live. I tell myself that living where I think I cannot live is a disguise.
“In most people there is a dull sort of shame,” I read in The Door, a novel by Madga Szabó.
Shame is part of my disguise. The part that covers my eyes.
To fall asleep, I cover my head with a heavy blanket. I can’t sleep unless my head is completely covered.
On the weekend I buy a purple Calvin Klein blazer and a sheer Forever 21 shirt from the Goodwill. I read about Michael Townsend and Adriana Yoto, a couple who lived, on-and-off for four years, in an abandoned cement storage area between Providence Place and the mall’s parking lot structure. They moved dressers, couches, a giant wardrobe into their secret room, an opening nobody remembered, or cared, or noticed, was there. They rigged up electricity and were installing plumbing and hardwood floors when their bunker was discovered by mall security. Michael was arrested, released, banned from entering the mall again.
On Monday I act carefree, happy. I wear a rust-colored jacket and brown leather work boots and a brown wool hat. Some part of where my students are from might belong to me, I imagine—a yard, a horse, riding lessons, fishing, hunting. Like a ghost inhabiting a body, I want them to believe somebody is standing before them.
“You must have a purpose,” I tell my students, “and you must learn to make it clear.” They regard me with deep, hereditary suspicion.
In my office I visit Capital Mall’s website. In the right corner there is a dark banner with information about the current condition of an entity referred to as “it.” Currently the banner reads,
hello, it is
and overcast clouds
Yesterday, it was mist.
Day 82. “For the first time I felt like I was beginning to understand what I’d need to become if I was truly going to conquer the environmental and climate injustices currently facing humanity,” Mark writes.[*]
Standing at the edge of the mall’s parking lot, I feel I am standing on an ocean beach. My feet are on a meridian of grass littered with objects people have discarded, or that the wind has snatched from hands, or children have flung from windows. This is where vanished things persist. I pick one up—it is the plastic wrapper of what was once something called a “Jack’s Strip,” a seasoned stick of meat. I want to drop it but keep carrying it, and the longer I do, the more it feels like a treasure—a little calcareous shell life once inhabited and might, it seems, inhabit again. I carry it with me into the mall, where I have come as a kind of pirate. When I need a reliable internet connection, I pilfer the mall’s. Carrying my Jack’s Strip wrapper I make my way to the food court, where, at a counter by a wall painted with the words “Recharging Station,” I set up my office.
Channeling a connection through the piece of plastic where I type these words, occasionally touching an edge of my Jack’s Strip wrapper as if to see if it has a pulse, I feel there is magic all around in the garbage world I inhabit. Maybe I am what’s preparing to fill the wrapper with life again.
Something among my devices clicks. The gestures of objects are assuming greater and greater importance, or maybe just autonomy.
hello, it is
and light snow and mist
Mist, I am finding, is a common condition of it.
I read about Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest, the impossibility of a blind trust. “President Trump can’t un-know he owns Trump Tower,” says Sherri Dillon, one of Trump’s lawyers, during a press conference in which Trump gestures at a large stack of tan file folders that appear to be either empty or to contain blank pages—documents that are supposedly part of the process of turning over his businesses to his children.
“New worlds and new orders themselves arise out of chance encounters between pre-existing material elements,” I read. I read that “by examining a political order not from the perspective of its necessity but with an awareness of its contingency, this philosopher may be able think the possibility of its transformation.”[* (on aleatory materialism)]
I rearrange the office in our apartment. I want edges to touch edges they’ve never touched before. I want things to overlap that have never had contact. I place the rocking-horse bank my father gave me when I was a baby next to the coconut oil lotion. I place a tiny memory card on the frame of a drawing. I put a silver ring depicting a leaping cat into the belly of a babushka. When I sleep, I dream, and in my dream I place a yellow ball next to a child.
In the morning I wear the purple blazer and speak through the silences of students. In the afternoon I buy a coffee from Starbucks. In the evening I watch Mark touching pebbles with his feet. He eats canned beans he buys at a gas station. He says he’s going to stop eating gas station cashews because they taste like they’re covered in oil from a machine.
I read, “Political realities arise by chance. Social realities arise by chance. Material realities arise by chance.” In the dark I wonder what has become of the garbage I’ve generated this day. Will it, by chance, recombine into something new? Not just another Starbucks cup, but a transformative element of the changing conditions of it?
A survey from the Department of Health wants to know, “Are you more appalled or less appalled now than you were at the same time last year?”
At the mall, I watch the woman wearing a studded belt pick a set of bangles out of a child’s mouth. The studs spell PINK. The child’s pink hands grab for merchandise that hasn’t been paid for. The woman says, “No, no,” slapping the child’s hands.
I watch a man spill an amber liquid on the seat where his body was just a moment ago sitting. Now the hamburger in his mouth is swallowed; now the mouth is cursing, turning toward me but not because I’m here or anybody. Maybe he is performing a rite for forgetting—soon he abandons the very seat where the amber liquid pools.
I watch a young girl in Claire’s prepare to have her ears pierced. She sits on a high stool while her mother, holding a phone, captures a video. On the screen of her mother’s phone the girl has an expression like she is about to receive a terrifying message from a version of herself.
A security guard begins to follow me. I see his reflection behind mine in the glass walls separating us from the products. By Claire’s he stops and for a minute we both watch the girl whose ears are about to be studded. The piercing chair is positioned in the store’s front window to attract our attention. Other people pause, stop to watch. I feel like we are about to see an athlete perform a contortion, or a surgery botched, or a chef reveal an airy soufflé. The piercing gun fires and the girl’s eyes shut like she has just sneezed. Around me the crowd disperses.
I walk on. A corridor not for commerce opens to my left; I turn down it. Finding a drinking fountain I bend to it. Beside me, my security guard bends more deeply, to access the height of a child.
We walk around the mall together, an undeclared couple. I think of buying a Wetzel’s Pretzel and handing it to him, but I don’t. Maybe I look suspicious because I am not buying anything, and/or because every few feet I stop to write something on an index card I then slide into an inner pocket. I am indexing the experience I am having with him, and though I wouldn’t mind sharing with him what I am doing, I know that to do so would violate the obvious, whose code of conduct it is his job to uphold.
The “Code of Conduct” is posted at several of the exits/entrances. Most people seem not to notice the two-by-two feet piece of plastic with words printed on it saying, in effect: “You do not belong here.”
This is private property. The corridor by which I access the water fountain does not belong to me; the water I drink does not belong to me; the lights illuminating the EXIT sign, the door through which I pass, the threshold across which I step, these do not belong to me.
I am free, the Department of Health informs me, to return my survey without affixing postage.
At the Barnes and Noble I read a passage from Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt:
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true…The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
The book costs seventeen dollars. I consider stealing it, then put it back and buy a coffee.
In my car, I adjust the radio so it plays the static that starts fifteen miles outside of the city. This is how I imagine a sonic map of the country: circles of clarity surrounding the cities where lyrics can be discerned, static engulfing everywhere else.
I pass the Great Wolf Lodge. It is a casino, hotel, and water park combined by one large sign dubiously promising great fun for the entire family. Near the vast parking lot is a spiral waterslide. With rainbow-colored lights writhing along its toroidal body, it looks like the reptilian spawn of Panic and Psychosis.
I feel protective of it. I long to guard its absurdity. It reminds me of the Jack’s Strip wrapper. In its hideous surroundings it is trying to persist. It is trying to live. Maybe one day, by chance, it will have what it needs to breathe.
A lake nearby permits its heat to rise, a thin white mist. It reminds me of the skin I would lift off the milk that had been in the microwave, for hot chocolate. Eerily and intangibly thick, the mist flows into the parking lot of the college. The college flows into the present tense, where something called “learning” is being attempted.
Nearly all of my students are white. Most of the people I see in the city where I live and the town where I teach are white. I am white. We are the white people. We teach each other, we look at each other, we move among each other at the mall, crowds of us flowing through crowds of us like milk pouring through milk.
One of my students is from Togo. He has six symmetrical scars on his face, three on the rose of each cheek. He speaks gently. He is fluent in three languages. But there is a great deal I do not know about his life. Why is he attending a community college in rural Washington? At the mall, bodies that are not white are present, but with the appearance of being immiscible in the colloidal whiteness.
I ask my students to write about the first time they felt a particular emotion. Most look at me as though I am a broken refrigerator. The student from Togo looks at me, at everyone, as though we are friends.
I am an adjunct. Masking tape holds my name to the door of the office I share with someone who is never there when I am.
Sweating in my down puffy jacket as I move from the food court to something a sign calls “The Promenade,” I see my security guard buying a frosted cinnamon roll. A white slash of frosting appears on the crotch of his blue uniform slacks. Two segments of synthetic blue fabric now appear in stark juxtaposition. Leg slash leg. He does not appear to notice, or to care. “The Promenade” turns out to be a corridor terminating at the entrance to JCPenney.
I try on clothes I don’t buy, don’t wish I could afford to. Each identity entails different dramas. I read about a Tumblr clique of girls who shoplift. They love it—you can have greed without the guilt of giving your money to “the man.”
“But I thought the thing is is that we’re all the man now,” a man whose name I can’t recall said in a graduate course I took on visual rhetoric.
I go into the mall without my wallet, the same way I’d go into a friend’s house or a surgery. I leave without anything more tangible than what I entered with, though I leave feeling heavy.
The heaviness is the man, I tell myself.
Once there was a man named Zhuangzi, and he didn’t know anything. He didn’t know what was real, he didn’t know what was dream. He thought: Butterflies. Butterflies came and flew around his head, and he decided he was a philosopher.
From then on he recognized no distinction: between himself who dreams of butterflies, and butterflies who dream of Zhuangzi.
Some say he was happy. Some say he was sad. As for Zhuangzi, after he became a philosopher he never said what he was, because he was never certain.
Mark sleeps behind churches, in fields where he thinks he won’t be bothering anybody, on concrete slabs. One night a cop wakes him. The cop shines a light in his face. Alright, you can stay, the cop tells him. But by sunrise I want you gone.
By sunrise he’s gone.
Hours after the sun rises where he is, I’m driving, watching it rise. It looks like bad dye, something that if you eat it will give you tumors. But to look at, it’s lovely.
There’s a certain house I look for every morning. It sits between exits 99 and 92, about ten miles before the Great Wolf Lodge. Every morning I look for its bright windows because I need to see them. I need to wonder who’s inside. I need to think about their life, what they might be eating, whether they’re drinking coffee or tea. Or maybe they’re not eating; maybe they like to be hungry in the morning like I do.
Morning after morning of doing this, I am starting to assemble a life for myself inside that house. I am the one I see inside. I am safe and warm. Sometimes I stand at the window, looking out. I see the interstate, swallow coffee, and feel a great relief that I am not outside. I am not out there on the road.
Do they put cream in their coffee? Do I?
It’s not fair to do this to someone else’s life—overwrite it with mine. But I do it anyway, without really meaning to. It’s a way to escape. I look for the windows and then I place myself inside my imagined life.
But the house is not bright every morning. This morning not one light is on.
“The thing that would drive me from the space was a dissatisfaction with the things around me,” Michael Townsend says about the time he spent living in the Providence Place mall.
After a few days or weeks, he says, he would feel an overwhelming need to leave his hidden bunker. Simply, he would tire of looking at his own belongings. Living at the mall, he was constantly exposed to glimpses not of himself, but of who he might be—a person who owns coordinated furniture sets and matching dishes, whose clothing does not have holes, whose hygiene is impeccably neat. Around the mall hung banners picturing happy consumers. “Defining You,” they said. Michael would get restless and have to go search for that other, better Michael.
Pulling out of the college parking lot onto Main Street, I notice for the first time a sign advertising the legal services of Buzzard O’Rourke. I see one of my students going into KFC. The glare on the interstate. The glare of everything inside me.
There’s a pressure on the left side of my skull. I try not to focus on anything. By late afternoon I am unable to make basic decisions, such as what to eat. I install an app on my phone that can roll a die and randomize a list of numbers. I begin assigning numbers to different areas of my life. The kitchen is one. The living room is two. The bedroom is three. The hallway is four. The bathroom is five. The office is six.
The yogurt is one, the almond butter is two, the banana is three, the kale is four, the eggs are five, the cashews are six.
Despair is one, horror is two, apathy is three, disinterest is four, nostalgia is five, numbness is six.
I keep rolling threes. Bedroom, banana, apathy.
Casinos, for as long as I can remember, have attracted me. I do not know why, except that I am also drawn along the same horizon toward abandoned buildings and cemeteries and vast shopping malls. Places of vanishing and becoming. Places that seem like they might be harboring a vast, forgotten area now filled with mildew, or an orange fungus.
In these places I have the sense, probably instilled by playground equipment with chambers opening from crawlspaces leading to further crawlspaces leading to spiraling slides, that I will be able to hide, or find something I have lost. What have I lost? In these places I think I will be able to remember.
Exiting the mall I immediately enter the parking lot. Home, a low complex of apartments, lies across a distance I have trouble gauging with any part of my body because parking lots are not built on the scale of bodies but of machines with internal combustion engines. It might be a mile, it might be ten meters. It’s like climbing a gray wall that at its end either becomes another, identical gray wall or the sky. I can’t tell.
The garbage that accumulates around the edges of the parking lot is something holy. It is one holy thing that has blown apart into fragments. Pieces of lost speech, bygone language. I think of Avelokitsvara, the deity who, upon hearing the cries of sentient beings, burst into thousands of pieces, then wandered the earth collecting them.
I imagine that every time I click “submit” on a website and nothing happens, a small piece of garbage is generated and dropped on a mall parking lot.
I find a single metal “I,” its surface corroded. Cigarette boxes and butts. Water bottles. Broken glass. Wrappers. Shards. Single gloves. Tokens bearing savings of forty cents, ten percent, a dollar. Where these many separate things once attached to each other, where the single, holy thing once grasped and held itself, is the place where we are now, this world. Our minds are the thumbprints of its grasping, the part its grasping left behind.
I want to be able to hold all the garbage.
Hallway, eggs, numbness.
The student from Togo always sits in the back corner, the corner farthest from authority, me, and while I teach the day before Trump is inaugurated, it’s where I long to be.
The night before Trump is inaugurated, I imagine a lake in the darkness outside. Ever so gently the night carries the echoes of a dog barking on the other side of something. I feel I am being held by a small light. Forty years ago that mall was all trees, the woman at the Zen center tells me. I know it’s hard to imagine…
Games of chance let us leave decisions to objects. I might fetishize a scrap of paper on which a few words are written. I might have my own lucky dice, like a regular D&D player. I might look the wrong way at a cop; I might not. Being white, I get away with having eyes.
Shopping is aleatory—it’s by chance that I come across the red fur jacket at the Goodwill. It’s by chance that my life becomes a life in which a red fur jacket is worn on a rainy January morning in a classroom where the A/V system isn’t working and students are waiting for me to proceed with something I can’t even imagine. I tell them we’re going to do a scavenger hunt, and that the thing we’re looking for will be the bridge between us…
They can tell that I’m trailing off, mentally. They can tell that long pauses have inserted themselves like darkness between my thoughts, that between my thoughts there’s a night and that the night refuses to move, it’s the eve of something and the dog is still barking and the small light has been taken away.
Roll a die. Your friend dies.
The day after Trump is inaugurated, Mark is killed. He’s struck by a car while walking barefoot on Highway 90 in Walton County, Florida.
His walk was a protest against climate change. He was a poet. He was protesting capitalism. What a ridiculous notion, yet he did it. In the videos he posted on YouTube, he’s shouting at cars, at gas stations, at garbage by the road. Sometimes at people, too. “Your ignorance is killing people!”
They ask him if he believes in Jesus; he starts telling them he is Jesus.
It’s an SUV that kills him. Criminal charges are being brought against the driver. The police investigation is ongoing. Suddenly your life is flung into the second person like a plastic water bottle out a car window. You can hear the heavy sound it makes on the ground. From all the way across the country, you can hear the heavy sound.
For a while Mark drinks from bottles of water he picks up from the road. He harvests garbage. He eats only plants. Sometimes twenty bananas a day. He sleeps in motels, then starts sleeping on the ground, often by churches. Sometimes he’s told he has to leave, he can’t sleep there. Sometimes he’s not noticed at all.
The day before he dies, he writes, “The language of this world has maybe died and been replaced with another hole that can only say things its own thoughts already believe.”[*]
Standing in front of your students, you cry. They are embarrassed. It’s like you’ve taken off your clothes. They can see your holes.
You put on sweatpants and jog by the mall. A shopping cart in a ditch is surrounded by plastic water bottles. You count up to 37 and then stop counting.
Let’s sweep aside the end of the world, you think, the notion there will be only one. There will be many. There already have been.
When the SUV hit him his body blew apart into a million pieces of garbage. That’s my friend, down there in fragments. I’ll wander for the rest of my days. I’ll collect him. He has become they. He became too many to live. He had to split apart, break open.
“Someone should clean this shit up.” People say that. But “Someone” is always someone real. People don’t think of that. Try to feel what they feels.
People can’t change, but he believed they have to. We. We believe he believed we have to, or they have to, because we can’t, but he believed. For him, we was never they. We always included his own feet.
From this point on, your life makes no sense. It meant what it had to. But that meaning is gone.
He vanished into the garbage. Into the detritus that collects next to the parking lot of Red Robin. Beyond Red Robin is Forever 21. Then Total Wine, REI. Everything you can see at night from your bedroom window. It’s all here, surrounded by the wrecked world.
If something starts to assemble itself in the wreckage, become its home.
My students no longer look up when I enter the room. I am just more room.
The morning is uncompromisingly gray. It’s Donald Trump’s first day in the Oval Office. I carry my Jack’s Strip wrapper in a bag. The bag feels unusually heavy.
The damning evidence in the hands of Russian hackers, it has transpired, is a tape of Donald Trump in a hotel room in Russia with prostitutes he hired to urinate on a bed where, supposedly, Obama once slept. The source of the evidence is still in question. Everything is as yet unsubstantiated.
Believe something. Don’t believe anything. If you’re confused, it’s working.
“Know the trends and fashion through our valuable news,” says the mall’s website.
hello, it is
and overcast clouds
I remind my students that their essays must have a thesis statement.
In a dream, a child tells me that texts are vectors through which she moves. She changes directions by changing texts. Then she tries to give me something. Then I dream that my car is on fire. Then I wake up with blood on half my face. It seems to be coming from a perfectly circular welt on my left temple.
I imagine the colors of the aleatory abyss—washed-out eyes and writhing lights and that yellow we no longer see because it was a byproduct of analog TV. I try to remember Hannah Arendt’s name.
I drive to the college, stand in front of students. Devices are held where I am supposed to be unable to see them. I play along. It’s easier this way. The college does not provide me with health insurance. I am allowed no more than three “sick days” per quarter.
A pain on the side of my face. Traffic where emptiness is expected.
Whose emptiness is it? Whose state? The pain constellates. A network spreads across my head. Everything is doubled and heavy. I know that what I am having is a migraine. I know that the engine behind me is revving. An ideology of fate has been replaced by an ideology of “I need to be somewhere right now.” The heavens, the sky, airspace, no-fly zone. At home I lie on my rented carpet. It smells like a plastic mask in Party City.
Later, eating beans, the pain still constituting half my face, I remind myself that I hold a terminal degree in what I am doing. Should I “consider myself lucky”? How is that performed?
From the bedroom I can see the glowing signs of Red Robin, Total Wine, and REI. They minister a darkness that belongs more to the floodlights than the sky.
I get into the middle of a pile. This used to be where I would stream his videos. Now that he’s dead, it no longer seems like streaming, and they no longer seem like videos. They seem like his eyes; they seem like his memories.
The day after the headache, there is no mist. I see the yellow lines clearly. I see the white lines, too. I see cracks in the interstate. I see the dead leaves of trees. I see the trees. I see them for him, because he can’t see.
He used to wear glasses. Now he doesn’t have eyes. He doesn’t have teeth. He doesn’t have knees.
Blue tarp on the shoulder of the left lane. He would sleep beneath a blue tarp. Now he doesn’t need to sleep.
Dead squirrel on the interstate. He didn’t eat animals. He died on the road like an animal. Now he doesn’t need to eat.
Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle. Plastic water bottle.
Now he’s not thirsty.
The news lines up the facts: He was thirty-three, a poet from Rhode Island. He worked in a library.
Nobody knows why.
I take off my glasses. My face looks at me in a mirror. I walk down a hall. A square of light arrives by my left eye. I open it.
My students do not ask where I am from. Could it be my disguise is working? It’s fine to start a sentence with “because,” I tell them. Or, and this seems more likely, they simply don’t care. Which I’ll still claim as a kind of victory—I appear to be so plainly obvious that I do not have a history. I am like a mailbox, a tree, the campus itself.
I speak somewhere without seeing. Somewhere else, I buy a bag of nuts. In my office, I don’t open it. I watch the wall. I look up from my desk. What the information contains is meaningless.
I walk down another hall. I remember my glasses. I speak about Joan Didion.
In 1967, when Joan Didion felt she could not make sense of reality anymore, she went to Haight Street and learned about social upheaval. There is no Haight Street anymore. Of course there is a street named Haight in San Francisco, but the city is rich now, from the Internet. So where do you go?
To my students the answer is obvious. You go to the Internet, Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter, and you don’t cite your sources.
I walk down another hall.
The news asks, “Should rumors be news?” I suggest to my students that to be successful, all propaganda has to do is make you uncertain what to believe. It need not convert you to a new set of beliefs, I tell them, or tear down any foundations, or construct any new edifices.
I remember Hannah Arendt’s name. I write the word “edifice” on the whiteboard and underline it three times as if registering the return of a chronic condition. Forty minutes until class ends. I don’t know what else to do.
Everyone, I tell them, is invited to leave.
By the mall, a new Starbucks is being built less than 100 yards from another Starbucks. During their shift the construction workers go to the old Starbucks to buy coffee. The site of the new Starbucks, which is not yet open for business, is littered with Starbucks cups, sleeves, and plastic lids. Is this garbage a form of propaganda? The sight of it leaves me a little less certain about how to be, what to believe, about the world and my role in it.
I begin picking up the Starbucks garbage littering the Starbucks construction site. I leave it in a conical pile by a mournful huddle of traffic cones encircling a shallow depression in which a single traffic cone lies on its side, as if finally resting after a long journey.
In graduate school I knew a couple of poets who put a great emphasis on place. They thought it was important to make a big deal out of where you were living, the ways your setting influenced you, the ways you became the place or resisted it. I was fascinated by these ideas because I have never been able to feel like I am part of where I am living. I have always felt separate, like a visitor at a park or zoo. But also, I don’t know where I am visiting from. I am searching for that, too.
I wonder if a person can be from an experience rather than a place. I feel like I might be from the experience of walking alone on a narrow road through a forest, or from waking up before everybody else and feeling like the only person alive, or from listening in the dark to ripe apples falling off a tree and landing on dry grass, which I once did all night.
Japanese poets thought that how you react to a landscape reveals who you are. I learn this at the Zen center. When I am walking outside, I am watching myself carefully. What do I think of those trees? What do I think of how those hedges have been pruned? What do I think of that piece of plastic garbage? What do I think of how the neighbor has arranged these plastic lawn ornaments? I am watching to see who I will turn out to be. I never turn out to be anybody, particularly, and to be honest, this makes me glad.
At the Recharging Station in the food court, I read the posts Mark wrote under my name on a literary blog, HTMLGIANT, where I was a contributor during the time when Mark and I were in the same graduate writing program. I’d given him my login credentials so he could post, too, though the posts would have my by-line. We both thought it would be funny. He posted as me seven times.
Surrounded by the white noise of the food court, I feel the proximity of the aleatory abyss—the washed out eyes, the lights, the writhing nothingness out of which the objects and events of my life are drawn. The chance of our being in the same place at the same time, of our lives overlapping at all. When a new post by Mark would appear, seemingly written by me, I would feel, briefly, a kind of invisibility, or negligibility—as if my identity had become separate from me and was having its own emotions.
On May 21, 2011, Mark posted: “Once, I got romantic in a Shaws grocery store and bought a bottle of pamplemousse rose flavored perrier water and then climbed a mountain of snow until I found some craters on the top. I played in these snow holes until packets of taco bell hot sauce fell out of my pocket. Before the mountain of snow melted I drank the rest of the bottle of pamplemousse.”
Over Christmas of 2010 I took care of Mark’s cat, Jim. When Mark got back to town, he stopped by to pick up Jim, bringing several bottles of grapefruit Perrier with him. How had he known that two years earlier, while biking in the French alps, I had consumed this beverage obsessively? Had I written about it somewhere? Had we?
I can’t sleep. I spoof my MAC address. Another disguise. The terminal tells me my MAC address is from something called Diatronics. It’s either I am stealing from Comcast or Comcast is stealing from me. The attraction of the fact that the world is wrong. A duality in which I do and do not believe.
I watch the trailer for season six of Girls. A rash spreads across my thighs. Bathroom, cashews, horror. The sex tape rumor has been forgotten. Obama has commuted Chelsea Manning’s sentence. Now there are concerns that 32 million Americans will be without health insurance. Trump stands against a scintillating gold curtain and shields his eyes, the spotlights are so bright in front of an audience of diplomats.
I spoof my address again. What he says is ephemeral—everything changes, is remanded or contradicted within days—but images of him haunt me. There is one video on YouTube—he is leaving the offices of the New York Times and being booed in the lobby by the paper’s employees, and for a few moments the camera captures him from behind. What I see in those moments are the stooped shoulders of an old, vulnerable man who is puzzled by what is happening to him and who is unable to acknowledge the larger narrative in which he is being cast in a far lesser role than he is able to imagine.
In other words, I see a human being, and this disturbs me.
I take out the garbage. I look in the dumpster. Three ceramic planters. A wet particle board bookshelf. Cereal, colorful, swollen rings of it, spilling out of a plastic bag.
I go to the food court. I walk by Starbucks. A student sends me a link to a video she thinks I should see. I get tired of making decisions, so I go to bed at six in the evening. I wake up at four in the dark. I pass the waterslide before the sun rises. Lights spin around. I sense a shudder in the engine. There’s nothing left to think about the clothes scattered in the breakdown lane.
In the empty English department offices I photocopy a handout on comma splices and dangling modifiers. A brownie by the copy machine looks green. There are windows but somehow enough light never gets in.
A message arrives requesting more information. I swallow a vitamin.
My colleagues arrive and take up their positions. Yesterday’s coffee is microwaved. A dialog box appears saying my computer is low on memory. “This weather is really unusual,” someone says again about rain.
“Maybe,” is all I say to my students, but what I want to say is this: Find the space inside the structure that’s been forgotten—by the architects, by the contractors, by the security patrol—and make that your home. Be absorbed by it. Furnish it with things you buy from the ones you’re hiding from. Or better, furnish it with things you find. Furnish your secrets with garbage.
- The Aleatory Abyss - June 27, 2017