Never again will I hear the crackling of a crossed signal, cutting a weather girl in half with a bolt of static and then resurrecting her in calcium-crisp color. From the Ionoscope and the Image Dissector a great lineage had been born, come to end, like them all, I know. The ghosts that once populated its cathode screen now simply black-outs or disintegrative pixels, the movement across channels no longer instantaneous; the spastic suction of the vacuum becomes a slow, padded glide, as if across linoleum. I sat in my underwear, drinking a can of Schlitz, scanning for signs of life after 12:30 E.S.T. They’d been dropping like flies all morning. I thought about the 70’s kodochromatic with its mustard gas aura, I thought about how I will never see that fuzzy holograph of flesh so well replicated again. It mattered not all those who had deserted me before; that I deserved. But this, this phantom friend whose body had been as real as mine—hard really to believe it was The End. I was lighting a cigarette, my eyes closed, and I heard it, I didn’t see it. I heard the explosion, and then saw only the entropic madness of the lost signal, screeching at me in some horrible death rattle. I clutched Prof.Higgins, my Honduran Iguana, and screamed too. We are overrun by endless divisions of binary integers. We are lost to the crystalline flatness of their empty political slogans. We now search for the epiphenomena, the second skin that hangs over analogue world, in vain. Only its essential features have been preserved and algorithmically condensed; the excess is banished to a spectral limbo between bandwidths. Channel 3 has a message, it says: “Goodbye!” It’s on for two minutes after 12:30, and then it too explodes and disappears into the static maw. I scan the channels one last time. Finally in the 60s I discover the Spanish Channel is still broadcasting. It is a telenovela, with the soft, waxen hue of a video-tape; that perfection of the analogue image. They are in a hospital. A woman is crying about her baby. Several people surround her; one of them is dressed like Zorro. I am not sure if the baby is hers and they are trying to steal it from her or if it’s the other way around. My iguana wriggles from my grasps and runs away. I crawl toward the television. I touch the screen. My hand is bleeding from rubbing Prof.Higgins too hard. The woman fakes left around Zorro, and looks back one last time. She tosses the baby to him and then jumps out the window.
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It took him an hour to walk home. It was a warm, foggy night, yet the sky was strangely clear, with a small flock of purple clouds moving westward. As Milo fumbled his keys outside the arboretum gate he detected some peripheral movement. He spun around, key readied to gouge out the assailant’s eyes. But there was no one behind him, only the HV/AC van which he had first noticed in the last week or so. He stared at it for long time but could see nothing through its tinted windows. Finally he turned back around and pretended to fumble with his keys again. Milo then did a quick double take and looked back at the van. The periscope had changed position.
For some reason he became filled with rage, an intense absolutely guttural ferocity which sent him catapulting toward the van screaming about privacy rights. The periscope suddenly retracted into the hood and the van reversed at about 6,000rpms, disappearing down the block. Milo spent the next few days attempting to catch the van by surprise, but it never returned.
A week later, he was readying himself for work when he gave his telescope a quick glance, as Venus was rising in the evening sky. Leaning out his back window to position the telescope, he noticed a bright reflective light catch its lens. Next to the carriage house Milo spied someone wearing what looked like a biohazard suit, with a silver oval helmet and a dark rectangular strip for vision; almost like a Russian cosmonaut. The person was about two hundred yards away, rolling a barrel very slowly into the bamboo thicket attached to the back of the property. Mr.Gesto’s truck was nowhere to be seen, and Milo did not have a phone. The cosmonaut soon vanished with the disintegration of light.
The next day his pills disappeared and Milo found the coaxial cable. He began to grow desperate, thinking he was suffering a nervous collapse. Though the television supposition was beginning to sound more plausible, Milo was still undecided. His behavior, such as the whole shitting in a bucket thing, seemed to suggest some mental imbalance, but the coaxial cable was no product of his imagination, so it was really a toss-up. Milo spent days tearing his apartment inside out, looking in every crevice and cranny imaginable, but there was no other sign of surveillance. To be safe, he started planning elaborate booby-traps to protect him while he was at work, and he even covered his walls in felt after reading on Wikipedia that infra-red couldn’t penetrate it.
Then he talked to Mr.Gesto and received confirmation that was someone indeed watching the house. In fact, he saw the cosmonaut again that same evening. Milo was in such a rush to catch him that he tripped over his bucket and slid right into a sharp corner of his desk, suffering a bad blow to his groin that made him double over onto the floor. And as he rolled about in his own filth, writhing in agony, he was now absolutely certain, more than anything he had ever been certain about, that someone, somewhere, was watching him, and that was all that mattered in matter anymore.
Milo then became consumed by a lingering, gangrenous dread that multiplied in surface-area and stench by the day. It got to the point where he would spend hours, eyes glazed, watching only Gems-TV. It was hypnotic and deliriously punishing, an endless stream of 18K tanzanite rings, Pink tourmaline lockets, pairs of mystic topaz googly-eye earrings. The prices would drop so dramatically; he would try and predict how low they would go, as the steady pulse of a Casio keyboard yawned in the background and a woman with a thick Chicago accent flailed her arms and squeezed her mouth into the pouty O of a sex doll at each reduction. And he would also sob, recalling his research for Mabel’s ring, whenever they showed a 2ct. VVS1 G with an ideal cut.
For Milo could no longer articulate, put thoughts together, remember what he had learnt or done; it was all a haze, an electric cloud that hounded him as he paced in amplifying feedback loops of panic and nausea, ideating various suicide scenarios but still plagued by the horror that he could not escape, neither in life nor in death, whatever this monstrous thing was, this thing that should not be here but could not not be here. And as the days wore on, and he simply masturbated and drank and wrote nothing, he became resigned to this end.
Yet suicide itself is a tricky thing. He didn’t want to jump, too much splatter and intestines and he most certainly didn’t like the idea of his intestines being exposed. A gun also displeased him, as it involved the splattering of brains, another thing he didn’t want just hanging out all over the place. And if he did it in the apartment, he would decompose before someone found him. It’s the ultimate humiliation, death, what a pathetic stinking mass of putrescence one becomes, for all the world to see; to be dressed up like some puppet and displayed, without any power or say in the matter; it was horrifying, disgusting, and Milo could not stand it. He wanted to throw himself to sharks or die of exposure on some Antarctic tundra where he would never be found.
And so he found himself doing Clov’s two step shuffle in and out of the fall-out shelter, lying on his couch and wallowing in regret, watching a sapphire charm bracelet w/18k white gold band spin in a halo of cathode rays. He would conjure cinematic visions of a white wrap-around porch, upon which a young child sits, watching Milo split logs as he tosses a stick to their husky named Searchlight. A shock of golden trees recedes into the electrocardiographic zigzag of a mountain range, put in relief by the halcyon sky of autumn at dusk, the whole image like a giant replica of Charlie Brown’s t-shirt. And he would carry the logs into their kitchen and start a fire on the old stovepipe. Mabel would put the baby to sleep and join him, Milo wrapping his arms around her waist as they knead dough, their hands interlocking and moving in a viscous cadence, in some Reynolds Number of amorous locomotion, and it would be like that scene in Ghost, except without the whole inter-dimensional sex thing.
Milo had been with Mabel over four years. He had just come back to the city after the last of a long a streak of institutionalizations. Having been first sent to a rehab at the impressionable age of eighteen probably did him more harm than good, after a fellow patient, recounting his abuse history during an art therapy workshop, explained how one synthesized Killer B. Killer B was a delicately proportioned mixture of Buprenorphine, Bumblebee Stingers, Baking Soda, and Benzphetamine (an anti-obesity drug which causes intense hallucinations). It was in some ways a seasonal drug, due to the need for bumblebees, whose juices would be extracted with a syringe and then heated to 550f with about 1000mg equal parts buprenorphine and benzphetamine, before finally adding the 2400mg of baking soda in four-hour increments over four days; ‘fermentation’ as the lingo went. It was then smoked in its gel form, best in a glass rose stem as one would crack-cocaine.
Milo soon left the rehab with some fellow patients and lived in a squat house with a group of ‘friends’ who raised the bees and attempted to breed more potent hybrids with their South American cousins. Conversations in junkie circles became increasingly oriented toward the proper breeding and keeping of bumblebees, the taxonomic differences between bumblebees, recollecting various times when you were doing Killer B with bumblebees nearby, etc. All this Killer B business of course attracted the attention of various government agencies, worried about everything from crime spikes to some ecological disaster from a new invasive species. Soon enough it was the hippest drug of choice in rehab, as the alpha pack of these institutions was decided by degrees of suffering and degradation. Not long after came the memoirs and celebrity sponsors until finally some Johnny-come-lately called Dirty Brown, a concoction it seems of dung beetle pincers and black tar heroin, usurped its throne and installed itself as the chic affliction of the late Aughts.
Mabel helped him break this regressive cycle. They met in the throes of their twenty-something indecision and malaise. Soon enough they became each other’s anesthetic to false expectations of conquering the world. She was a beautiful and fiery woman, not to be fucked with, raven hair and eyes which could only be described as planetary blue. The first few years were that sort of dueling musical chairs of who was going to screw who first until they realized that neither of them had given much thought to the matter in a long time and they were actually getting on rather well. They moved to the country to go school, and led a quiet little life as hermits, curled on each other’s laps reading fireside, the cat asleep on the rug, soft rain a percussive staccato on the skylights above.
But Milo’s doctoral thesis idea fell apart during the first year of his program after someone pointed out that it had already been the subject of a 2005 documentary called the Century of the Self. It was like, literally the same story arc, subject matter, and theoretical constructions. He began to grow bitter, as Mabel finished her degree and he, having quit, did nothing; years starting to whittle away as he drove about the neighboring fields in their lawn mower, loaded with bourbon and shooting haphazardly at buzzards with a rusty 36 gauge. He turned antisocial and inward, wanting only the solitude of his quiet struggles, the little vicious homunculi that swarmed about his mind.
He began visiting a prostitute who allowed him to enact his predilections at $100+/hr. Milo had an erotic fixation involving the transmogrification of people into base and disgusting animals. The ideal vessel of its expression had been a Miss Piggy puppet he had had since a mere tot. By middle school he was masturbating himself with the puppet, imagining he had captured and transformed his seventh grade crush Becky into his muppet sex slave. Eventually it crystallized into a fantasy of a digestively-capable puppet, a large pig puppet, alive enough to evacuate all those nasty intestinal rudiments which had become so embarrassing since the invention of plumbing. Yet he had no desire to enact such grotesqueries with his lovers, as their willingness to participate would negate the whole point anyway. Milo also believed himself uniquely afflicted by this fantasy and felt, with some melodramatic fatalism, that telling anyone would just lead to disaster. At least the anonymity of the prostitute allowed him some medium of release; though she was willing, it was a cold, paid, pseudo-willingness.
But then there would be the point that came afterward, the slackening and the deflation and warped reentrance of the world resolving into a jaundiced strip of light upon an empty mask. And this other creature, now repulsive, laughing at his sad sniveling little sack of meat, his hand trembling and still clenched about the withered member, tiny opaque drops of the germinal stew hardening, this stew of shit and blood from whence he once had recombinated and in a violent contortion emerged—here they were, ebbing to and fro in a random walk of memories, a flock of vultures circling in the pale rakish light of a winter afternoon.
Milo then would go home to Mabel, and lay with her on the couch, and feel not a flinch of remorse for his actions; only the empty drain of that comes after such indulgences, the amnesia and compartmentalization and cotton-mouthed aftertaste of how terribly foolish and absurd the whole thing was.
On the day Milo died he had tried to phone out from work, but only had one quarter and didn’t hang up in time to for the answering machine cut-off. He needed to use payphones because he stopped paying his phone bill. A green charity had been withdrawing from a bank account he had forgotten to close and by the end of the fiscal year Milo owed nearly five hundred dollars in compounded overdraft fees, which he could ill afford on his $60 per diem salary. He had only signed up for the charity out of guilt, accosted at a lonely red light by a chubby young woman wearing a particularly garish orange keffiyeh. Now his penance had cost him tenfold and he was too paranoid to answer his phone. He had already ceased returning the calls of various friends, relatives, former lovers, etc., so it was not as if he had use for the thing anymore.
Milo returned home, planning to masturbate in his closet and then get really high and watch some Gems TV. But he could not find his Miss Piggy mask. And it was always on his bed; always.
“You bastards!” He shrieked, shaking his fist in a Hitlerian manner and ranting for a while about contemporary society’s voyeuristic sickness. Finally Milo swallowed a few Percocets and lay down on his bed, wondering what they had done with the mask. And then it came to him. He would kill himself—today. It was an absolute necessity, and no appeal to reason could persuade the bloodthirsty tribunal of his mind. He would spite the bastards, and they would ensure his body was found before it rotted.
And as he lay there in bed, regarding the raw afternoon sunlight refract through a murky Gatorade bottle that contained his piss, he felt OK. Mabel, his parents, the many fragments of his life reduced to photos in an old shoebox which he could no longer find the courage to open—all these things became so very trivial. Not superficial, rather the most profound and beautiful triviality he could imagine, like the absurd possibility of him lying there, on something one called a bed, the detritus of stellar fusions and organic excretions alike, regarding the sublime wonder that was his own urine.
It was all played out now—a pantomime of a farce of a tragedy, as his memory directed a repetitious future, oscillating between crystallography and catalysis. The smell of spring, its adrenal fever mixing with the sickly sweet scent of Killer B, down in the overgrown wastelands by the refineries, the warm breeze and the feeling of invincibility and destiny, the wheels in the sky, gears pushing a celestial machine, those panoramas wherein the camera is located bird’s eye, spinning, and joins together all life’s indiscernible, subterranean events into an ideal congruence, a contraction of the world to a singular node of long soft hair, of burnt bumblebees, of freshly cut grass and honey suckle…
Milo researched how to tie a noose on Wikipedia, but was delayed at Home Depot buying the rope and missed the sunset in the process. He decided to do it during the threshold point of dawn, in the embryonic glow of the still buried sun. He ate a great deal of pills and sat in a chair sipping scotch, listening to various nostalgic songs and growing indifferent to the whole affair.
At around 5 a.m. he stood up and ambled over to his telescope, repositioning it at the window facing the street. Through the bare, arthritic limbs of the trees he saw a fuzzy white blob which soon resolved into the HV/AC van. They had returned. It was time.
Milo picked up his desk chair and slung the rope over his shoulder. He then realized he had given no thought as to how he would hang himself—there were no overhead light fixtures or rafters in his apartment. Milo then remembered that he bought an iron gym pull-up bar a while back. The contraption was still in the box, so he sat down and drunkenly began to fumble with various bolts and levers, becoming increasingly frantic as dawn’s approach grew imminent.
Suddenly, he heard the most horrendous, guttural shriek imaginable, an absolutely inhuman banshee-like squeal. Two more screams followed in quick succession, and then nothing. Milo peered out his back window and saw the faint glimmer a reflective suit vanishing behind the carriage house. And through his foggy and impaired state the brilliant light of epiphany shone—this was it—this was the climax, this was what the evil bastards had been setting up from the start—the great test of his character, come down to this moment—or was it? Was it? Of course, it had to be, what else?
Milo grabbed his biggest steak knife and sprinted down the stairs and across the lawn, his robe flying open like a cape, his hair wild, brandishing the knife high above his head and hollering as he kicked open the door. But inside it was empty; just an abandoned dusty room. There was an awful stench, like vinegar and sulphur, which made it so difficult to breathe Milo had to cover his mouth with his shirt. And then he detected a thin sliver of light in the far corner—a door leading to the basement.
Milo gagged as he descended the stairs, and upon arrival vomited. Animal masks and barrels of some noxious acidic liquid lined the walls. In the middle of the room was a large, rectangular pit filled with the same yellow-green liquid. Inside, half-submerged, was what appeared to be the body of a young woman. Her skin was almost entirely scalded off, and it took him a long time to realize that strapped upon her slumped head was his Miss Piggy mask. Milo recoiled— it was all so disturbingly real—the scene was the exact incarnation of his fantasy…
For years Milo had never even given a thought to Mabel’s locked chest, until that one restless night he opened it, while she was away, in some sudden compulsion that came from without. He soon found himself sifting through a giant stack of letters and journals and photographs, full of past lovers, cities he had never been to, people he would never meet. His own name rarely showed up, and only in the most innocuous of ways: “Milo dropped me off at work,” “Milo away for the weekend,” etc.
And then, buried at the bottom, he found it. An entry that looked like it had been written left-handed as if for a therapeutic exercise. It was a long, anxious account of her fixation on dressing rooms, specifically her urge to get-off in them, and preferably with cameras. She would lay the article of clothing down, straddle the bench, and then bring herself to climax. It was the only way it worked, and she was becoming more obsessed with time, going in between classes, finding excuses to go shopping five, six times a week. She eventually caught the eye of a security guard leaving a dressing room, and he gave her a knowing look that made her go right back in and do it again. Now she always went to Bloomingdales to put on a show for him.
The blow to his ego was incomparable. It was like he had been living with a total stranger who regarded him as the same. And it was in that moment of greatest distance from her, of greatest unrecognition, that he suddenly loved her more than anything he had ever loved, and he knew her like he knew himself. The next day he paced about for hours, in anticipation of what he would say, and when she finally came home he just laid it all out there—the prostitute visits and miss piggy and his many doubts and sins and how he was going through the same thing as her, and that it was OK, and never would they feel closer and love more unconditionally now that all veils had fallen away.
But Mabel had just stared at him for a long time, quietly crying.
“You’ve ruined it,” she finally said, shaking her head. “We were fine. I didn’t want to know that. Why would I want to know that? And why would I want to tell you that?
“Because,” Milo said, rushing up and grabbing her by the shoulders. “Because, we’ve spent our entire lives, entire fucking lives carrying all this bullshit around and thinking no one would ever understand and blah blah, but here we are! Don’t you see?” Milo pleaded, lifting up her chin and looking hard into her eyes.
Mabel turned away.
“I finally did it,” he continued. “For the first time I was really honest with someone. For so long I thought I would never be able to tell anyone about anything I’ve done, that I would always live fucking over everyone and—”
“I don’t I want to be honest!” Mabel screamed. “Don’t you understand? Love is not about honesty— it’s a fucking lie, that’s the point! It makes you indifferent about the actual truth of the matter!”
Mabel bowed her head and drew in a deep breath.
“I needed my secrets. They were mine, and only mine, you asshole.”
And then sitting down she whispered,
“I…I can’t even look at you. I can’t even look at myself…”
“I don’t understand,” Milo mumbled, as a nauseous feeling of irreparability suddenly washed over him…
Milo took a hesitant step toward the pit, waving his hands haphazardly in front of him, his eyes burning and steam obscuring his vision.
Suddenly, he heard the door open.
“Oh Thank God,” Milo exhaled, and running back toward the stairs and fixing his hair.
But no camera crew, no R.T.V. host, no close relatives or old lovers greeted him from the top. There, in the cosmonaut suit, stood Mr.Gesto.
Milo stumbled backward and fell, and for a long time neither of them moved; they just stared at each other, without even blinking. Finally Mr.Gesto took a slow and deliberate step.
And Milo remembered a long time ago, when in the haze of a manic binge he had come to in the wastelands by the refinery, and the air was perfect, a mixture of fresh dough and kerosene. A thousand points of light converged and diverged in parabolas of storage tanks, synthetic constellations in a safety orange sky. And the sky was darkening, or maybe brightening, with one bloody gash low on the horizon. Where he had come from Milo did not know, nor did he know where he would go next. He was alone, in an uncharted estuary of time, and he had lost all sense of coordinate, or even the sense of what ‘coordinate’ was.
And Milo could not tell if it was going to be dark for a long time to come, or if the sun was struggling to emerge from that infinitesimal fracture in the sky.
Of you I posses
ten volumes of your voice
the jubilee edition of your body
the so-called Leipzig edition of 1998
a few exquisite bindings
of your skin
with barbed bracelet circling the spine
beyond that, prolific meaningful glances
and a personal drama
that’s been playing for years
Moreover I own
annotations, reviews and hermeneutics
on laughter, tears and excesses
Finally still a couple of poems
that, after having exploded in my heart
showered down on our small disorderly home
like the ashes of Gomorrah
so that finally
after years of agony
to end in the dust bin
trans. Silvia Cernea
— IN MEMORIAM, D.F.W.
The day Milo decided he was in a television show was also the day he died. It was unfortunate the two had to coincide so cruelly, given his long, almost sisyphean pre-occupation with achieving some semblance of recognition or fame.
The conclusion had emerged over course of several weeks, as bizarre little lapses kept accumulating. His missing bottle of Klonopin, for instance—he initially surmised its disappearance was due to the benzoid tendency to hide important possessions inside ovens or between mattresses and then not remember doing so later. But as the search became prolonged and increasingly frantic it came to him. This, he realized, would, from the perspective of a TV audience, be quite the farce—what with the crawling about on all fours and combing the carpet for one that might have perhaps dropped long ago and issuing guttural sobs that could only be described as the gargled squeal of a dying animal, yes—that’s what comedy’s all about.
His suspicions were further justified by the discovery of a tiny hole in the ceiling of his bathroom, just wide enough for a pill bottle, but instead of the pills he pulled out a coaxial cable for what looked like one of those little snake cameras. After this discovery he became unable to go to the bathroom in his bathroom, opting for a bucket by the bed which he would once a day empty into the toilet. He would do so under the cover of his comforter so that no one could even see his shit let alone watch him do it. Five days and a lingering odor later he realized that if they were in fact filming his bathroom they were probably filming the rest of his apartment and hence his shitting in a bucket had just aggravated the whole bathroom thing and blew it up into an actual quirk they would want to put on the show.
There had been a reality show which involved a carefully orchestrated collusion of all those dear to the subject, in which everything, from spouses’ implied infidelities, occupational termination, faking the death of a close relative, etc., would push said subject to the brink of nervous collapse before finally revealing the joke and sending them to convalesce all-inclusive on some pearly white cay. But Milo had thought the show was put on hiatus after that murder-suicide in season three. Perhaps they had re-tooled the premise to be more subtle, surreal, insidious; the slow attrition of possessions, the strange cosmonaut with the oil drum that appears in the smoky shroud of twilight, the HV/AC Van with the periscope always parked near the entrance of the arboretum.
And then his own landlord, Mr.Gesto, confirmed his suspicions when he asked Milo in rare moment of face to face if he had noticed a van parked by the entrance frequently, or anyone poking about the property. Milo told him about the periscope van but refrained from mentioning the cosmonaut. Mr.Gesto nodded, looking back toward the street and grimacing. Then he just grunted and walked on, as he was juggling several boxes of trash bags and what looked like a portable torch.
Now one could have easily dismissed Milo’s claims, if only on the grounds that he had withdrawn so far into his own head he could no longer distinguish extensive terms and their relations as anything but the effective product of his own existence, an existence that was of course irresistibly star-kissed and destined for great recognition. And though he was of somewhat abnormal intelligence, it was nothing prodigal—the sort of intelligence which can recognize and rejoice in the genius of prodigality but only in so far as it acknowledges its own failure to achieve likewise. Neither was his charisma—which surely lent him a certain electric charm in eloquence and gesticulation—of any sort of Ciceronian quality. His appeal was mostly due to a dark handsomeness in his hair and eyes which off-set his more puckish and puerile cheeks and jowl. Milo feared his face would become less endearing and creepier with age, like one of those progeriatric children always glad-handed by talk-show hosts. He would hyperventilate and pace about and imagine time slackening and extending in a broken straight line beyond him as his face congealed into a leathery mask and became swollen and putrescent before finally emptying of meat. This anxiety contributed to the inability to see a dentist even after he cracked his back molar biting into a corn muffin of all things. It was now definitely decayed and hollowed out and probably contributing to his halitosis and gum bleeding and was most likely infecting his jaw and the more he avoided the problem the more time he of course spent fretting over it to the point where he now had recurring nightmares of his teeth falling out or becoming soft marshmallowish knobs that reduced his phonemic inventory to shrill vowel phonations and Xhosan clucking.
Milo had moved back to his home city after he broke up with Mabel, finding a cheap place on the top floor of a Victorian slated for rehabilitation. It was a fairly extensive property on a small arboretum within the city, quite the ideal arrangement; he was completely isolated, yet only ten minutes away from the subway.
He worked in the inventory department for large book chain. One of his main tasks involved the ‘redemption’ of unsold copies of mass-market paperbacks. Every month he collected, following a designated corporate list, a thousand or so books whose covers he would rip off and send to the publisher for a percentile refund. The books themselves were then boxed and thrown into a dumpster. Milo once requested to take home the unused copies, but his manager launched into a lengthy explanation concerning the ‘tricky grey area’ that was the publisher’s legal protection of books meant to be discarded. The absurdity of the whole process soon created a justification for Milo to return late at night and crawl, commando style, through the little swatch of shrubbery lining the back of the parking lot in order to save a few boxes from oblivion. Soon he was collecting books he wanted and marking them in special boxes for later dumpster retrieval, and it got to the point where he was throwing away hardbacks and giant etymological dictionaries and even once the complete gold-leafed edition of In Search of Lost Time. His growing excesses lead of course to a growing paranoia, and he surmised he would have to quit before the next annual store-inventory.
Milo also felt pangs of guilt, which he liked to whisk away with a diatribe about corporate greed or something. But he wasn’t really fooling himself, and he felt bad, getting away with it, though he did nothing to stop doing it, just as he felt bad about spending most his time sleeping in a secret hide-out under the stairs and masturbating on the toilet whenever a certain part-time clerk was working. Milo even signed up for the dreaded Sunday morning shift to spend more time near her. He would watch her from the little nook underneath the stairs. This plan was eventually foiled by a whole clutch of spiders that descended upon him one morning, causing him to burst from the hide-out shrieking soprano and tearing at his hair.
He just could not bring himself to ask her out. This was not due to lack of confidence, but rather to the embarrassment of dating someone whom the others had deemed unattractive during their conversations on the hotness quotient of co-workers. And he understood; she could not have been more than five feet tall, pear shaped and especially bottom-heavy, almost double the proportion of her top half. And she had that granola priestess thing going, lots of shawls and beads, with frizzled curly hair like a mop, extremely pale complexion, almost translucent, very soft-spoken, all smiles, seemingly tolerant of everyone and everything. She bore herself with that certain belief in one’s own spiritual depth; quite foreign to Milo’s sensibilities.
After Milo heard she had given her two week’s notice, he became desperate, attempting to orchestrate chance encounters in cafés, bars, and even at the park by the river where she sometimes went for a run. He once waited down there all evening, until he finally fell asleep on a bench and woke up sometime in the early morning. And he sat by the water until well after dawn, lost in the current’s hypnotic and incessant gyrations, the water so black and oily he could not even see his own shadow.
Milo finally asked the clerk out on her last day under the guise of farewell drink. They met at one of those contrived dive bars churned out from the CBGB algorithm. A constant loop of post-punk was playing way too loud and the well bourbon cost twelve bucks a double. It was overcrowded, with a lot bike couriers and urban farmers and snakeskin-booted hipsters. The dress was an eclectic pastiche of several bygone epochs and betrayed its disjunctive homogeneity.
Milo shuddered and downed his drink in one gulp. After a few more they began to open up, recounting their various life-lessons and trying times that made them who they are today and whatnot. She told him about her conversion to Wicca after a bad relationship ended in restraining orders and mace, and her life goal of becoming an English teacher. She had just passed the Praxis, which was why she was leaving the bookstore. He told her about the break-up with Mabel, and his prolonged writer’s block that was driving him mad.
“You know you should come to my poetry circle”, the clerk suggested. “It would be good for you to write something about Mabel.”
“Oh I have. But I don’t really want to show it.”
“But that’s what I meant—you need to express yourself. And with others. I mean, I think if you shared something with the group, it’d be good for you.”
“I don’t know,” Milo winced. “I think the last thing I need is a forum to jack-off about my own manufactured problems.”
“No, they’re real,” she said softly. “But we have to look past these things. You know, focus on the positive.”
She reached out and touched his hand and looked directly at him, raising her eyebrows in a bambi-ish supplication for him to cheer up.
“It’s going to be OK. You just gotta let it out.”
She squeezed his hand. It was warm and sweaty and somehow conveyed voluptuousness, and he felt a sudden surge of arousal and shame.
“I don’t know,” he said, letting go of her hand and finishing his drink. “This whole celebration of ‘personal expression’ seems suspect to me… Working at the bookstore, seeing what gets sold, it’s the same confessional bulimia everywhere, all our sordid secret lives, like I care about some trust-funder Less than Zero that got himself all strung out, cry me a fucking river. As if, in the face of all the horror in the world, we have convinced ourselves that our problems of narcissistic discomfort and struggle for ‘personal fulfillment’ somehow outweigh our own spoiled grace of not having to starve. And this cottage industry of personal memoirs—like every writer was groomed at Iowa to write personal essays on what it meant to be a writer writing personal essays in all its profound and breathless wonder, like Hallmark pilfering an Emerson stanza and having fuzzy pink bear sing it—that shit, well, I just can’t stand that anymore, all this VALS methodology, aspirational branding, blah blah blah…It’s all Edward Bernay’s fucking fault…”
“That’s terribly cynical,” she huffed. “We have to find our own voice to write; that’s what it’s all about. What would inspire you without that?”
“I completely agree! Sure, being a child of the children of the sixties, I used to think myself special—just like everybody else. I too had dreamed of the some bohemia which would arise spontaneously around me and together we would somehow remain resilient against the boundary spanners and cool-hunters and all the other vampires lurking in the warehouses and bars of whatever neighborhood was prolo enough to be hip that year, but come on! What a marketing scam… Are you going to finish that?” Milo pointed at her drink.
“No…” she said, wrinkling her brow in a worrywart manner that seemed to be her calling card. He took the glass and shook it, stirring the straw about absent-mindedly.
“Mojito.” Milo said, relishing the words in a slurred Spanish. The clerk sighed.
“So what was I saying? Oh yes—I mean, as the years went by, and I kept fucking up my life, it seemed more and more like what I thought I was going to do one day, was rapidly closing in on me, everyday, until it seemed like that one day was almost gone, or maybe had already passed. And I used to tell myself I needed the filth and the solitude and the fucking up—suffering for the Capital A, the mad free-fall and then phoenix-like ascent into the immortal pantheon and whatnot. As if writing were an immaculate conception of great names, and not this ass-fuck, this chopping block for a lost history of the nameless failures—no one who has contemplated suicide would ever say that is why they did it, did because they were ‘too pure for the world’. You do it because you think yourself a pathetic wretch, and you hate even more the narcissism of wallowing in your own pitiful shit that comes with believing oneself a weak, pathetic wretch, and you hate most of all the hyper-awareness combined the total paralytic inability to act that arises from thinking oneself too weak, too base, too vile for existence, while still acknowledging that this belief is itself the fucking apex of masturbatory solipsism!”
Milo was now shouting. He slammed his hand down on the table harder than he expected and knocked a candle off. In his panicked haste he grabbed the wrong end and burnt his palm.
“Fucking Son of Bitch!” Milo screamed, involuntarily flinging the candle at a Stooges poster. All of the sudden the room was silent, due either to survival concerns or the appearance of sacrilege. It does not take much to rattle hipsters; some people had already fled the building and covered it up like they were getting a smoke.
“I’m really sorry,” Milo whispered, ducking his head down and turning back to the clerk. “I…I didn’t mean to just go off like that…I’m not having the best of times right now.”
“It’s OK. It was an accident,” the clerk said sullenly.
A large bald man with hands like baseball mitts suddenly appeared and grabbed Milo by the shoulder.
“Okay, let’s go.”
“Wait wait,” Milo stuttered, “it was a complete accident!”
The bouncer shrugged his shoulders.
“Sorry, the bartender flagged you. C’mon.”
“Are you fucking serious?” Milo whined, and then awkwardly stayed seated, scanning the room. Everyone was holding their breath and glaring him. Finally he stood up.
“Well, you want to get out of here?” Milo asked the clerk.
“Yes,” She mumbled, jumping out of her seat and grabbing her pocketbook.
They mulled about outside, Milo shuffling his feet and sighing a lot, the clerk staring off and looking ready to go home.
“Sometimes I think I have PHD,” Milo finally said.
“What’s that?” She asked distractedly.
“PHD? ‘Psychosomatic Histrionic Disorder’—It’s a psychological disorder caused by one’s own psychosomatic belief in having a psychological disorder, and the unshakable, constant anxiety with diagnosing said disorder, though nothing actually seems to fit the symptoms. See, something’s always awry—it’s not quite this or only partially that, and on and on ad infinitum. One would think that the awareness of this disease would lead to its being ontologically negated. Yet therein lies the catch, right? Because acknowledgement of having PHD means acknowledgement of having an actual psychological disease, but that’s exactly what PHD’s premise denies—having an actual psycho-neurological problem, and so you have a psychological disease even though it isn’t one.”
“Did you make that up?”
“Uh…yeah. Of course.”
“You’re funny,” she said shaking her head. “And crazy…”
They both laughed, and a gentle homeostasis returned. The clerk, driving him mad with lust and disgust, touched his hand once more.
“It’s going to be OK; these anxieties fade with time. You’re still so young, what-25?”
“I’m about to turn twenty-seven.”
“Okay, twenty-seven. Look, this is just a passing thing that one learns to deal with with age, like I have, in processing all sorts of feelings of inadequacy toward my sister. I mean, she’s always undermining my achievements. Last thanksgiving, she laughed at my poem of gratitude to Demeter and the Harvest Moon, and in front of my whole family! I was so distraught I had to have several emergency sessions with my ashram.
Milo was tempted to ask her why she had an ashram if she was Wiccan, but instead he looked into her eyes with all the earnest conviction of someone who will say anything for a fuck, and told her, hey, he would never laugh at her poem. In fact, nothing would soothe him more right now, he said, than to hear her own personal expression of the ineffable beauty of the universe and trees and nature and stuff.
And so he found himself in her little eggshell condo, listening to a poem that seemed to be about an erotic encounter between herself and the ocean, sipping sake and biting his lip at the way her sweat pants hugged thick stout thighs, converging and then parting at the pelvis and drawing a creased V around her nascent cameltoe.
When she finished her ocean poem he sprung up and proclaimed it a masterpiece, and that he was now full of passion because of it, and he grasped her hand and kissed it and thanked her, and then, leaning down and delicately whisking a frizzled tuft of her hair to the side, he gave her the Harlequin Heartthrob stare of burning desire. But instead of the expected embrace she withdrew and shook her head. He had too much baggage, and she was trying to learn to be alone, and take care of herself first and repair her credit and finally have the courage to get a listed address and visit Drake in prison to rub it in his stupid face.
Milo stared at her dumbfounded for minute, and then leaned in even closer, whispered, it’s okay—he had wanted her since he first saw her, etc. But she shook her head again and asked if he wanted to hear another poem.
He threw up his arms in a grandiose declaration of chagrin, and then launched into a diatribe concerning mixed signals, such as the of touching hands and the inviting back to condos to listen to soft-core marine poetry and that she surely would never have a chance to be with someone as gorgeous as he. He was yelling now and realizing how drunk he was and already regretting his words but continuing to rant anyway, and then he tripped over her cat as he was heading to the door and knocked over that Klimt print which hangs in everyone’s foyer. And she just stared at him lying on the floor, shaking her head.
There was a stop sign in the scrub desert outside my town. I used to like to go there, because it was outside my town. But there was no road, and I never understood who put it there. Maybe at some point in time there was a road (or rather two, which intersected at this stop sign), but only unincorporated badlands surrounded it. Nothing human for miles, save this stop sign. And a new one too—not one of those old blackwhite throwbacks which would lead you to conclude a road had been there, and just vanished in the corrosion of desert time.
How many stop signs actually exist in the world? Are there as many stop signs as there are people? Probably not. Maybe, perhaps, in certain areas. It would be nice to think there was one stop sign for every person, even if there were more people than stop signs. Their unequal quantities would somehow link one to one, along that inexhaustible diagonal that would never halt, and for every person there would be a stop sign.
But what made the stop sign appear? Where did it come from? Some say Michigan 1915, but that can’t be right. Stop signs carried the bubonic plague to Europe, most likely syphilis too. There is good evidence stop signs were behind that drama at marker 10 Appian Way, where a fateful shiv set in motion something which would crush us all. Even at Mnajdra slight traces of aluminum were found in the altars, and some primitive retroreflective pigment that correlated with the stop sign’s astonishing ability to see at night.
Should we seek first the time of geology, when the stop sign was formed by sloppy magmic copulations, whose emissions extruded upward, thrusting toward the surface and into our dumbass primate hands? What is it that made us give ourselves to the stop sign? That made stop signs something that we listen to, that we obey so unconsciously we need not think about it. It says STOP. When it says STOP, you stop, and if you don’t stop something bad will happen to you. And it’s good that something bad will happen to you, because if you don’t stop you might do something bad to someone else, which is worse than something bad happening to you, most of the time.
It was only recently that the stop sign came out of hiding. For this we must thank the vast empire-building of AASHO, whose great manifesto The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices ensured the standardization and streamlining of the stop sign, and thus its general assimilation into mainstream society. Before then, a stop sign could be anything; it could even be nothing. It was horrible; the stragglers prowling about the fields late at night, howling, tearing at their clothes. That was in the time we do not name, the time of the Crossing-Guard Syndicate.
This answers nothing.
When I think about stop signs, I think, how many species of stop sign exist? Of course they have various languages, shapes, etc. But the stop sign is always red. This is due to an atavistic reflex, when we were all still eaten by the Spider Goddess and excreted through her menstruations. But exterior morphology is not important. I was trying to cry all night. What is important is the stop sign’s specification. Some are tolerant, inclusive, ALL-WAY STOP. Some are willing to try new things, like the 3-WAY STOP, which are surprisingly tricky to navigate, and you need a lot finesse not to be overwhelmed by their lopsided waltz. And some are prejudiced, telling you that though you must stop, OPPOSING TRAFFIC DOES NOT.
Then there are those janus-faced bastards, who say if you are going straight you must stop, but if you’re taking a right hand turn, no—it’s OK, you don’t need to stop. So when you approach them you hesitate, and you say, ‘what, well, OK, I guess I’m taking a right turn, but I just don’t feel comfortable with this,’ and then you slow down, in that horribly indecisive jerky manner, and it throws off the whole rhythm of your drive, everything is ruined by that RIGHT TURN DOES NOT STOP, and you feel like an electric shock of pavlovian revulsion because you didn’t stop. Which is good. If you cannot feel that, please contact your primary care physician immediately. Because a RIGHT TURN DOES NOT STOP is not a stop sign. It’s a yield sign. The yield sign; the shadow of stop signs, its confidence man, or chimera. A bizarro world stop sign, a world where we need only coast, there are no switching stations; drifting about, accelerating and decelerating without end, hesitation and frenzy, no digital friend here, always the fuzzy analog of the middle.
If not for the stop sign, this would have been our world, just a ribosomal soup of horizontal yields, just cold stellar dust never dense enough to cohere, never able to take off vertically and vertebrately. The stop sign would never have existed, if not for that primordial stop sign which made it possible, which of course doesn’t make any sense but what do you expect? What is that you expected from me? I could give you nothing. I was talking to you about stop signs. That’s it. Stop trying to make this into something that it’s not.
In Israel, to be clever, the stop sign is simply a hand, palm facing out, which is ironic due to its close resemblance with the Heil! salute. Sometimes a traffic light pretends to be a stop sign, but this happens mostly in rural areas at night, and they’ve been stepping up police action on this problem. On rare occasions we are treated to a feeling of communal warmth, after a light is broken and a homeostasis sets in amongst motorists, a slow exchange of turns, a great procession of cooperative agents, all playing the part of someone stopping at a stop sign that is not there.
Stop signs unattached to the ground unnerve me, especially those on school buses. They remind me of the guillotine, and how I don’t want to go back to that time, when a stop sign was a hatchet, when a hatchet was a law. But the lowest stop signs are surely those in parking lots, because you always miss them, and they don’t make sense—they’re spaced every five meters apart, phantom brigades that plague you when no one is there, late at night, lying in the backseat of the Skylark, a fluorescent scythe of light drawing itself gently across your neck. And you get so angry, because we don’t have faith in ourselves to stop for others, even in a parking lot.
We need those stop signs. Especially at night, when the world is dead and you’re driving alone through an endless latticework of junctures, receding into some yawning Hadean contraction. And you have no one to stop for.
What happens then, when you have no one to stop for, and you’re waiting at that stop sign, like I did that night, a long time ago?
Trying to feel something. For what I did to you there. That night. Why I can’t.
I don’t understand. What I did to you.
I don’t really know what’s in there.
We’re not willing yet to let you go, but dirty glasses cast shadows like a dank cloud across
his lean and pink cheeks it’s for the best he says with lips like a fish and his hands, neat
and trimmed like a woman’s or lawyer’s if you take a little time off. Maybe you go home.
Looking at your file I see while attending our university and here he makes eye contact to say
you more than attended but gave your fluids to the place. Then he says why: your mother
and several other relatives passed away. Now the storm: it sounds as though your town the hurricane
did toss. The subject changes after mass pastoral apologies. Many troubled students reference you so
it’s not that you don’t have friends among your classmates or administrators. Pictures of his happy
kids and fat happy wife grin from desk, wall, a homemade lampshade. Each blank joyless
face insulating him. We asked you to come in and talk to us, but you continued through and your grades
have dropped considerably. I tell him I didn’t want his help and that to make what happened there
mean something, to make Kimily go back, to turn as my old man shriveled even more I needed
redemption. Effervescent office soft-chaired and pillowed per some course he must’ve took waits
for response. Well, George, maybe you’d be better off back home. Then honest: You’re scholarship ran dry.