Exquisite Corpse - Issue 4
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by Miriam Seidel

It's this moment again: thrown awake, sprung from another tangled mess that doesn't deserve to be a dream. Mouth dry, the room thick with early-morning quiet. Eyes open or shut, makes no difference--the dark is the same, inside or out.
      I could turn on the light, do something useful. Work on the end of the dissertation, say. But that's dead in the water. Lost in the early-morning mist, yellow foam slapping at the bow. No more teasing out linguistic parallels in Twain's descriptions of women and African Americans, with emphasis on his Missouri writings. These blind hours when the pills wear off, I've been passing time with a later Twain, the old man obsessively working on the tortured fragments that never became stories or novels. No, those babies never saw the light of day. His daughter, his beloved Susy, had just died, feverish and alone, and him away on a lecture tour to pay off debts from his disastrous scheme to get really, really rich: the typesetting machine that was ahead of its time, or maybe not, depending on whose story you listen to. Kaplan says that after Twain got the news of Susy's death, the old man played billiards till he dropped. But finally, monster of writing that he was, he started working again.
      I see him there in his study, scratching at the loose pages. Bathrobe loose on his shoulders, cigar gripped in his mouth, forgotten and cold. Or he's propped up in bed, papers spilling around his knees. I figured out why he's working so hard: can't let himself feel anything. As he writes, the character who is his ghostly stand-in, his literary stunt-double, is struck down by terrible events. In each story the worst, most dreaded thing occurs. The loss of all his possessions. His entire former life, vanished in some strange twist. The death of his children. But then, the children aren't dead, they're somehow alive, like in a dream when something changes while you're watching. From what's too painful to behold, into something else. Too close for comfort. Like that time last week, I was standing in line at the cafeteria. I see Jerry a few trays ahead of me. He's got his wallet out, fingering through it for a bill. His pale neck curves down, his glasses slanting on his nose. His jaw moving slightly like it did when he was thinking about money. My heart drops, my throat fills with sweetness. It can't be him, I know, but I surrender to his being there, and it stays with me like a struck gong for hours afterward. It's not till later that the pain comes back, snaking through me.

      Close call, all right. Don't like this version? Try another. That's the way it works in the long unfinished story that Twain never named, the one they call "The Great Dark." His double-du-jour, Henry, is trapped in a dream--travelling with his family on a ship sailing endlessly across a lightless ocean, which is really a drop of water on a microscope slide. The ocean around them filled with marauding sea-monster microbes, huge slimy, hairy, dumb sluglike things that just want to ram the ship and eat its passengers. One of the microbe-monsters eats the captain's son right off the deck. The kid gone, swallowed.
      But later on, Henry remembers it differently. The boy was only hurt, not eaten. And then (by now he's starting to believe he's always been on this ship) his own children disappear, victims of another sea-creature. His wife swoons, her hair turns white. Then--o melodrama, o anticlimax--the children are found. They were only hiding! On this ship, events can be erased, revised. Henry is the captain of events. He just can't get off the ship, can't change that one awful thing. Like I'm stuck here in the dark, waiting for the grayness before morning. I lie, my body heavy, on the half-empty bed. But inside I'm twisting, spinning across the dark road with my sleeping Jerry, the car gliding in graceful arcs unconnected with my steering. They called it black ice, you can't see it, it's too thin to shine. Said there was nothing I could have done differently. Inside my head, however, many different stories play out: we leave the party an hour earlier, I take the bypass instead of the highway, I find the strength to move crumpled metal. Only a few of them end with me screaming and him not waking up, the car horn blaring and blood in many places.
      So I keep going back to Mark in his study. I know it's really Sam there in his robe, with his uncombed hair, scowling under his coffee-stained mustache. Mark's a figment. It's Sam whose daughter died, with him not there to tell her he loved her. Sam who screwed up his business. But Mark works things over; he's the captain, the Superintendent of Dreams--that's his name for the mysterious ship's passenger who drops in on Henry, claiming he is making everything happen. In the preface, DeVoto says that Mark crossed out Dreams, changed him to Superintendent of Realities. That's Mark: setting realities in motion, playing them against each other. Mark at the helm, taking the measure of the dark water. Steering through Sam's bad dream.       
      I keep going back to him, wanting somehow to rescue him from his nightmare. I know he did finally bail out of that story--left it unfinished, and then started another and another, none ended. The bitterness lingered; he moved into a sour old age, still thinking of himself and other humans as victims of blind marauding microbes, ignorance, fate. And the searing guilt never left--he'd never jump that ship. I imagine talking to him. Couldn't I offer some balm from our more enlightened time? Now we know you don't hold on to guilt, you go into therapy and work through it. We know the world is complex and interconnected, that all things giant and microscopic take part in the big picture. That whole nineteenth-century thing, microbe versus mammal, caveman versus mastodon, has been superseded, ecologized into a kinder, gentler worldview. If I could say these things to him, he would find comfort in them, wouldn't he?
      But then I remember where I am. How can I offer comfort? Like Henry, gripping the railing of the heaving deck, stung by spray from the microbe-sea, his memories sliding overboard, I'm spinning out past solid things. I used to know what was real. The kitchen table, the half-finished cup of coffee on the table, the scribbled list of things to do. Jerry bending his neck down as he checks for the keys in his pocket, pulling on his jacket as he goes out the door. He forgot to say goodbye again. Library. Dry cleaner, J. pants. Pay phone bill.
      Jerry and me in bed together. I curve around him, put my hand on his chest. He rests one thumb between the pages of his book, hammocks it between his blanketed knees. Lifts off his glasses, his eyes darkening as I tell him how I thought I saw him at work today, but it wasn't him. He laughs his almost-silent laugh, his mouth in a long, puckered smile. We kiss. Now I see us from above. Bathed in the end-table light, the golden light of remembrance, the two of us grow smaller, receding in a credit-rolling long shot.
      Slipping away. I can't rescue anyone, I see that with a clarity so cold I shiver. Jerry hovers out at the horizon, locked in embrace with my former self. He is there, and also here with me. Mark or Sam or Henry, whoever he is, is on the Ocean of Dreams. And he's in the middle of his unbearable life. Some things you can't change, but you play and replay them in endless recombinations. Each one adds to the picture, and none has better claim to call itself real. I lie here, thoughts hurtling past, their red rear lights streaking off down the highway. That wafer-thin ice that plucked us from the ground, picked us up and careened us, shattering the car, my beloved, my life--that story's wrong, it's time for a rewrite. This ending, the one I seem to be living with, will recede into dream. It will be the thing that never came to pass. The close call, where we come to rest in the soft snow on the road's welcoming shoulder, will be the new ending. I am the guardian of the red rear lights, queen of the black ice, Superintendent of the Realities. Others, helpless and unknowing, will slide and slip across my keening surface with abandon, learning the hard lesson of perfect fluidity.

Miriam Seidel recently had a monologue, "The Big Picture," performed at InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia - her take on the Y2K bug. The monologue will be performed this summer in Chicago at a new play festival. She is also working on a novel, and an opera about Nikola Tesla, with composer Jon Gibson. Miriam is interested in obsessions and obsessives, and also writes about the arts for Art in America, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other journals.



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