A Brief Survey

It was late at night, and I decided to go out and do some shopping while the stores were all quiet.  I pulled into the empty parking lot of a department store.  Just inside the entrance there was a display of white, faceless mannequins surrounded by Greek columns and pediments.  A spotlight shone down on this display, and the walls around it were painted black, giving the impression that the display was suspended in empty space.  One of the mannequins had laurel leaves around her head, and she wore a long Grecian gown.  She indicated the way to the sales floor with the languishing pose of her arm, her palm upturned as though she were gathering cool running water.

The way that she indicated lead down a wide, dark corridor, mostly bare except for a few other faux Greek artifacts scattered here and there along the way.  In the dark I stumbled against one of these artifacts, a large free-standing vase carved with glyphs and symbols.  I knocked the thing over and I saw that I had chipped a piece off of the edge of it.  I was standing there holding the broken piece and looking for where it had broken from the vase when I heard a woman’s voice further down the corridor call out to me, “Oh, it’s fine.  Don’t worry about it.”

I looked up and saw three women standing around a little area that had been set up in the middle of the corridor.  There was a small rug laid down and on the rug there was an a leather armchair, an old grey TV with silver dials, and a camera set up on a tripod facing the armchair.  One of the women beckoned me with a wave of her hand, and when I came over, all three of them eased me into the chair, gently pushing down on my shoulders and holding me there.  The woman who had beckoned me over went and turned on the camera, and she spoke with her eye to the eyepiece of the camera, communicating with the image in the camera instead of talking directly to me.

The women told me thay they were taking a survey of some sort, and they said that I would get some coupons for the store if I gave them a few minutes of my time.  It sounded like a fine deal to me.  The woman behind the camera asked me a series of random questions as she continued to peer into the eyepiece.  The other two women continued to hold me in place with a hand on each shoulder.  They applied only the slightest hint of pressure, but I knew that they would hold me firm if I tried to resist or get up and get away.  I looked up at one and then the other from time to time.  They both stood with fixed smiles, stairing straight ahead.

When she was done, the woman behind the camera looked up from the eyepiece and thanked me warmly.  Then she went over and turned the dial on the TV with a sharp click.  I noted the deep red nail polish on her fingers and the brisk but precise clarity of her movements.  The glow of the TV slowly brightened.  The picture rolled a few times before settling into place.  And then I saw my own face staring back at me, wearing the same wool winter cap.  I noticed on the screen that my eyes were squinting strangely, and as the footage of the survey was played back to me, I watched as my eyes went in all sorts of different, random directions from one another, like two eyes that hadn’t been properly paired to work together.

Having never seen footage of myself talking, I had no idea that my eyes had developed this strange wandering habit.  I was alarmed and upset that this had been recorded.  I started to stir from the chair, but just as I had thought, the two hands on my shoulders held me firm.  The footage had already been recorded.  It was too late to take it back.  The woman who had asked the questions picked up the TV from its stand and she carried it over to a wall across the way where there was a bank of dozens of these TVs mounted in a grid.  She slid the TV with my face on it into the last remaining empty space in the grid.  Together these TVs formed a mosaic of faces with a variety of grotesque tics and unconscious idiosyncrasies.  I looked from face to face and took in the whole effect of them until I was lost in this sea of gesticulating heads, gone from the chair completely, just another face on the wall.

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Paying My Respects

My mother called me and asked me to come to a funeral.  This man that she knew had died, some friend of hers from church.  I remembered seeing him there when I was young, and I remembered noticing how much older he had gotten every time that I had seen him again and how he had served as a benchmark of the years, and that was all.  I reluctantly agreed to go.  I stood in my upstairs hallway and hands appeared to tie the black tie around my neck and to slip the black suit jacket over my shoulders, and finally someone led me down to the car waiting out in the driveway.  The streets were empty and the raindrops tapped against the wet pavement.

I slipped in through some back door of the funeral home, and I walked down a long dim corridor where someone was lighting tapers along the wall every few feet.  I heard organ music.  I found the room with the flowers around the casket and the mourners standing around in small groups, talking.  My mother was there with a few of my aunts.  I passed them with a nod and I went to look down at the man in the casket.  We both had on the same black suit and tie.  I looked at the man’s bald head and his little white scruff of a beard, and I recognized him once again.  I wanted to tell my mother and my aunts that I had seen the man just the day before.  We had passed in the woods at a spot where the path turned.  He had waved a hand at me and I had waved a hand at him, and that was it.  We had both went on without a word.  But now it turned out that he had died three days ago, and there had been two days preparing the service.  All the things that I could have asked him, if only I’d known him.    

Last Words

My wife and I were browsing around an abandoned warehouse filled with old typewriters.  There were windows high on the walls with grimy, yellowed panes of glass that softened the light that shone through.  There was a strong smell of stale oil in the air.  The typewriters were piled up everywhere, old manual typewriters, electric typewriters, big office typewriters, all sorts of types and brands.  Some were piled in heaps of gears and hammers.  Over on a shelf by the wall there was a bin filled with loose keys that had fallen off the different machines.  I slid the bin out a little ways with my finger and I gave the box a good shake.  There was every letter of the alphabet in there, in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Any of the typewriters were free to take, if I could find one that worked and was worth taking.  I came across a few typewriters that were sitting by themselves on tables and desktops scattered around the shop, as though someone had set them up there ready to be used.  Seeing if these typewriters still worked seemed more promising than trying to extract any of the broken machines from one of the piles.  They were at least still left at their posts, still maintaining the semblance of service. A few even had working desk lamps shining down on their carriages and chairs placed before them, ready to be occupied.

My wife started to get impatient as she followed me through the warehouse.  She saw nothing but heaps of old junk.  She said that I’d never find a typewriter that worked, and she couldn’t see the point in trying to find one, anyway.  They were all old and outdated and obsolete.  I came across one that had a stack of blank paper laid out beside it.  It was a little blue typewriter, and it looked just like the one I used to own, except that it had an actual return key, rather than that long metal lever on the carriage.  I told my wife to just give me a second, and I fed the paper in with that soft satisfying click of the wheel.  It jumped to life with a hiccup when I flipped the power switch.  The loose desktop rattled slightly from the warm hum of the machine as it waited for me to tap the first key.

I slid into the chair.  I sat for a moment, looking at the broken parts that had been crammed onto a shelf behind the desk beyond the glow of the desk lamp.  I looked at the ashtray beside the typewriter and the burned out stub of a cigarette left still poised and forgotten on its edge.  I felt like I had to choose the first words I typed carefully.  I felt like the health and fate of this machine depended on what I typed.  It would be a summons from the outside world, a message recalling it to life.  This was a negotiation.  I had to convince the typewriter that it still had work to do, that there were still words out there worth shedding ink for.

I don’t remember exactly what I typed.  I remember the click of the keys and the sharp snap of the hammers against the paper.  But I hadn’t gotten more than five words out before I looked up and noticed that they had all run together on the page, a long smudge of consonants and vowels all hitched to one another in a single incomprehensible word, saying nothing.  I jiggled the space bar.  It felt loose under my fingers, and nothing happened when I pressed it.  I felt the hum of the machine begin to fade away.  The bulb in the desk lamp flickered.  I tapped randomly at the keys, but the typewriter was gone.  My wife just shrugged and shook her head.

An Empty Gallery

I met an old man who could draw.  He was tall and cadaverous, and he always wore the same shabby brown suit and hat.  He looked as though he slept in the suit and it had worn to the contours of his frame to the point that it no longer wrinkled.  His hand was long and frail and it would tend to shake until he made a fist to steady it, and his eyes were milky and dim, but he could still weave together a picture in minutes like he was conjuring the image out of the air.  It was amazing to watch him work, and I got the idea for the two of us to open a shop together.  We rented out a space for the store, and I displayed some of his work in the front window on a couple of small easels with spotlights shining down on them.

I tried to find some angle, some specific type of drawing or merchandise that would become our stock and trade.  I wanted to have some part in this.  If the old man’s gift was lightning in a bottle, I wanted to at least be the one that designed the bottle.  I thought, for instance, of having the walls on either side of the store lined with racks of hand crafted greeting cards.  I would concoct the sentiments and the old man would draw the illustrations, and we would be in the greeting card business.  But it never worked out that way.  We never settled on anything definite.  I never knew what kind of store we had.  The two of us would just stand there in the middle of the empty shop, the stone walls and the floor all completely bare, and we would wait for people to come in out of the rain.

And people would come.  The pictures out front would catch their eye and they would wander in, looking all around.  They all wanted something different.  They put forward their requests uncertainly, not sure if such a thing could be done, or if it could be done right, or if it could be done by us.  One woman wanted a simple family portrait of herself and her children, her hands resting on their shoulders.  Another man wanted the face of his late wife drawn from memory.  That is, he wanted his memory somehow conveyed to the old man’s hand.  People wanted landscapes that they had seen in their mind, or moments they had long since lost.  The old man’s supplies would materialize upon request, his pens and his pencils, and with broad curving strokes he would indelibly etch their vision onto the paper.  I stood by with the customers and watched him work, and I never got tired of it.  Afterwards, when the old man was packing his tools away in a small wooden case, the customers would always dab their eyes with a tissue and they would press the tissue into my hands as a token of gratitude and as payment for our services.  I took the tissues and locked them away in the cash box in the back room of the shop, but I knew they weren’t for me or for anything I’d done.  

Penumbra

We found a shadow hiding in the corner of our back yard.  It had come there weak and injured.  My daughter and I first noticed it because it didn’t belong to any of the other objects there in the yard, and we could see that it was out of place.  The shape of it flinched as we approached, and we could tell that it was scared.  I tried to coax it out.  I spoke gently and beckoned it with my palm turned up and my fingers trying to draw it forward.  But it just rattled about in the tall weeds and it refused to come out.

Late in the evening, we brought it out some food.  Being a shadow, we had to bring it the shadows of food, and this was no easy thing to arrange.  I laid the meal out on the dining room table in the dark.  Then I placed a flashbulb at one end of the table.  I popped the flash, and the tableaux of the bottle of wine and the block of the cheese and the plate of fish were all briefly illuminated, the memory of the sight lingering far longer than the sight itself.  The shadows of the wine, the fish, and the cheese had all been cast onto a tray that had been placed behind them, and I lifted the tray up in the dark and carried it carefully from the room.

We had to wait till evening to feed the shadow, because the other shadows were longer and deeper then, and it could blend in with them and creep out a little from its hiding place.  It was a starlit night, and I crossed the yard shading the tray with my hand, trying not to let any of the starlight disturb the shadows of the food on the tray.  My daughter tagged along beside me.  She wanted to see the shadow come out to feed.  I think she wanted to pet it or tickle it behind the ears.  But I told her that she had to stay back.  The shadow was wild and scared.  We didn’t know where it had come from or what it would do.

As we approached the corner of the yard, I realized that I had no idea if the shadow was still there.  The shadow made no noises of it own, and there would be no sounds if it bumped against the other shadows and the other things in the dark.  I had a flashlight with me, but that would do nothing but chase the shadow away, and I didn’t want to hurt it or scare it.  So, I just placed the tray on the ground and backed away.  I whispered to my daughter and told her that we would come back in the morning and see if the shadows were gone.