He was a head taller than I, but he had arrived, midlife, at a way of scheming himself downward as he walked, of wreaking onto his considerable body a succession of indentations, curtailments, so that whatever memory of him the townspeople might, if pressed, recuperate later on in the light of their houses would be that of an incompletely statured, sideswept man of unfixable purpose. He was not my father (my father had remained unheard of); but because I never addressed him by name (I instead tutoyered him left and right), observers understandably conformed the two of us to their familiar, cleanly notion of father and son.
He would tolerate no footwear under his roof. It was an issue, a policy, of hygiene. He held to a conviction about the unmanageable filthiness of shoes — that once you suffered contact with the bottom of one, you sank to the level of everything the shoe had ever been brought down upon. The piss slopped onto lavatory floors and then tracked everywhere by dint of the retentive sole of a publicly worn slipper was his standard weary example. And then the house would have the entire clientele of the lavatory circulating throughout it: the house would be thrown wide open again.
The man designed promising clothes.
I adolesced diplomatically by his side. I put in long days in the wide, thorough rooms. My heart performed. I fetched whatever the man pointed to. He had a rapid, nominating hand.
I was his head of hair. He would lay claim to the tacky mass of it — redisperse it, superintend it differently, complicate it with ribbons and barrettes, adjust the lights in it, provoke it to fresh successes. I would allow him to have his full say where I was just nerveless, slippery lengths.
In turn, he sought control of the cooking. He plotted our meals with a dismal rigor, mobilizing faded cuts of ham, even paler partings, sectionings, of fruit, jeopardizations of it, along the narrow extent of countertop. (An article of food should present itself as something else, he demanded, arranging lesioned vegetables on a tray for the headboard. “To cool the backs of the knees,” he said. Or: “For where your feet will one day have to go.”) The days I locked myself in my room, I could count on a raggedness of beef, in sheets, to be slid into thick wallets of bread and then be remitted, relinquished, on the mat outside the door I kneeled behind.
For I had already flung myself into the books that were expected to cause me the most trouble: our sickliest histories. I loitered in them: I stooped on the sentences, bestrode the tensed, buckling words, squatted there until the spread of events became mine alone.
The man knew, too. “What will you use for money?” was how he couched his knowledge.
Our life continued in this train for months. With my ear against the door, I could make out, when I wanted to, the fussing snitter of a scissors or the motory commotions of the sewing machine or, less often, the cantillation, intimate and menial, of the man’s telephone voice. (There was a backer he was required to call.) I noticed that a woman from time to time passed by my window: we began to exchange waves. Nothing serious or signific at first — but, before long, a greeterly incontinence took hold of the two of us: our arms shivered away from our sides: even our wristfalls became communicational, summative. The first time I climbed all the way out, she guided me to where she said she slept: an ulterior milieu of lotions, spot cash, pedestaled cake savers ajar with the surrounding town. My hands lent themselves to her pink, winking undernesses. (She had the prevailing anatomy.) We made plans to meet again halfway between us. She named some eligible district.
A less penalized course of retrospection, however, would find me having already found that there was a living to be made by furnishing grounds for others in the town to regard me consanguineously: to knock on a door and be shown to a seat and then, by polite, solacing intervals, be drawn out as the furthermost yet of kin. I thus fingered their ashtrays, left informing redolences on their sofas and chairs. I wore a welcome hole in their lives. For once, mothers would have been perfectly in the right to talk in secret twos and threes. But how wrong could they have been to keep counting their children on the sly every hour on the hour? When at last the time came to eat, we confronted a speckiness in shallow bowls. Afterward, I would be alternately detested and regaled — the butt of every confidence. I remember setting enough nights aside to compose a hat: an extremely curtained and commemorative number that was later to be accorded all that ill-intentioned popularity.
The strings one neglectedly — neglectingly — pulls!
For it was on the strength of this hat alone, the boxed mock-up of it, that I advanced to another man: this one importunate, futureless, adept. We mostly had to travel.
His house and his “finds” (I am free to quote merely from the will) in time demised to me. I had to be driven out for a look at the place. What I could make out had a loose, unmastered aspect in the supplementary light I had been reminded to bring along.
After the auction: prompt, forgivable descents into marriage.
Delora: she must have lived her life in advance of the actual events, because her stomach would accept nothing further. (But she had advantages of height, of moisture.)
Grete: mornings, after shaking out our sheets, she claimed to see “blue minerals” all over the floor. (These she is said to still be sweeping.)
Liann: a whiled-away, vanishing girl. (She had come up through the ranks of her sisters.)
I hope I was impossible.
I hope I told last every one of them the same thing — that under no circumstances should the body ever have to depict itself.
More in keeping, then, with the nature of this anniversary confession are my chances, much later in life, of having had a boy looking in on me after work. (The work was the boy’s alone.)
Then the boy fell sick.
The doctor squeezed his, the doctor’s, face shut while he, the doctor, spoke terribly of English.
Both of them gave me their money so it would not have to go for food.
- “I Am Not a Camera,” interview with Michael Kimball, The Faster Times (3 Sep. 2009)