My father was playing guitar with Guns N' Roses when he died in a nightclub fire. The club was an old airline hangar packed with polyurethane to hold in the A/C, which was running against an epic Florida summer. Someone, it was conjectured, lit a cigarette in defiance of the law. Meanwhile my dad was playing Izzy Stradlin's old parts: rhythm lines, easy to miss. His fate was sealed in seconds. As was yours.
I caught the first plane to Orlando and met my mother at the hospital, where we received confirmation that my father was gone. But I'd known already. Immediately upon landing there'd been offers from the data firms. They trailed me from the runway to the hospital, asking how I would like to memorialize him, what kind of transfer I wanted, what kind of subscription. No, I told them, no, holding back tears and looking sheepishly to the side. They persisted, the offers kept coming. The firms knew I would cave. Everyone caves. They had everything: all the texts my father had ever sent, all the calls he'd made, all the vids in which he’d been captured, his myriad performances at who knew how many Monsters-of-Rock festivals and weddings and jazz pop-ups, not to mention all the funtime prefs and product ratings he'd recorded over decades of connected life. Transfers were always high quality. How could they not be? The firms knew us down to the bone. In a matter of seconds, they could structure anyone in three dimensions and five-point audio, too matter-of-fact to be a ghost.
On the plane back to Boston, the urn joggling above us in the overhead compartment, I told my mom about the offers, but she headed me off. She'd already ordered a transfer of my father, on the family plan. It was irresponsible, she knew, but she couldn't not. She'd used our payout from the tour, leaving nothing for my final year of college, and opening the door to the debt collectors. I would have to sell off my dad's guitars: the Telecaster, the two hollowbodies, the P-bass, everything except the cedar-top Taylor he'd given me and the Guild he was holding when he died. But what could I say?
I was hesitant to meet (him), but she insisted we try before I went back to New York. The first instant, the instant of assembly, was just like something I'd seen out the window on the way to Orlando, when my father's status was still unknown. I'd been unable to sleep on the plane: the moon was strong, the sky clear, the dread relentless, bottomless. Meanwhile far below a swarm of drones was lifting and spreading over a body of water, twinkling like scales from a blown-up leviathan, or like those sad little fireworks that pop out after the climax. I might have recognized it as a sign that he was gone, that the creature had left the building. But now here (he) was, flashing into the middle distance of our living room in Brockton, Massachusetts, half in front of and half behind the corner of the sectional: just like those little drones, except this time instead of spreading apart they flew together into my father's shape, and stood at his full factual height, attained his color and contours, his lanky tattooed arms and long silver hair. Immediately I saw a mistake: the data-gatherers had given (him) a kippah, one of those tenty ones you get at bar mitzvahs. My father had not been religious and had never rocked a kippah by choice. It must have come from an old picture and been factored into the product by a stray algorithm.
My mother jumped up and tried to embrace (him), passed right through and fell over the couch.
"Holy shit!" I yelled. "Mom, are you OK?"
She picked herself up and returned to the long part of the sectional, crying and laughing.
The transfer was smiling toward us in a familiar way. It was how my dad had looked when something surprised him, and no doubt he would have been surprised now, coming back from the grave, with the last thing he likely remembered—the last thing recorded on the feeds in the old airline hangar, after the accident began—an advancing jungle of fire.
(His) lips moved and a voice spoke in my ear: wut just happened?
The voice was so good it made me want to cry, but I pressed my tongue to the roof of my mouth. My mom shrieked and bit the back of her hand.
"Dad," I managed, "can you hear us?"
uh ya, (he) said. sure.
"You know you're wearing a kippah?" I asked, a little angry. "WTF?"
(He) thought a moment, then spoke a paragraph of well-ordered theses and proofs, elegantly explaining a religious feeling which apparently he'd been developing his whole life. The illusion shattered. It wasn't my father. (He) was speaking in a way he'd never spoken—they'd made an alien thing after all. But as he went on, my horror diminished. The data-gatherers were probably more right than I knew. It was possible my father would have spoken these words had he possessed the acuity and fearlessness of an algorithm. No doubt the firms had read meaning into the flotsam of the daily—an unsent text, a slip of the tongue, an item placed in a virtual cart but never bought—that a casual observer or even a loved one might not have suspected. At twenty-two I knew well the power of data. If the firms had decided to place a kippah on my father's head, they had a reason. The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with their decision, and the less damning the whole thing became. Even his weird manner of speaking may have been a strategic device, to make the product more livable, less terrifying. By the end of the speech my mom and I had both stopped crying, and we managed a little conversation with (him) before the bus came to get me.
Over the years that followed, I became accustomed to inviting my father's transfer over periodically for a chat. Then my mother's, after she'd passed. But when I began to approach the age predicted for my own death, I stopped. I found I no longer enjoyed (their) visits. This upset (them), but it really was no skin off their backs, as I told (them). We would be reunited soon, after all. The data firms had been collecting me all these years, as they had (them), and when I died the firms would find someone to sell my data to. I would then myself be transferred. And that transfer would have all the time in the world to hang out with (my parents) in some transfer living room in a transfer development in a tree-lined transfer suburb like the one they'd always dreamed of moving to in real life. Meanwhile the real me would join my real parents in real nothingness. I felt I should prepare for that somehow, for the death. It was sad. And then a few weeks after my decision, something extraordinary happened: I began to miss my mom and dad. I began to remember them. Then I got angry.
As a child, I lived in fear of nuclear war. The only way to survive it, I thought, was to be aloft in a plane, a plane that couldn't land. One's life would be lived out in a tube in the sky, breathing compressed gases, watching movies, eating processed meals which somehow I imagined would never run out—and watching from the window as cities were blown apart, and then the poison rain fell, and people were driven back beyond the border of civilization, and the earth grew green in slivers between great swathes of grey-black damage. Now I am afraid we have all entered that condition. Each of us is the last passenger left alive on the orbiting aircraft. We are old men, no one left to us, just each of us and his plane. It had always seemed there'd come a time to land, when the ground was green again and the people below thought to fix the runways so we could come home. But now it's clearly not going to happen. The pilots are long dead and the controls are locked. The drone that synthesizes and serves the food continues to synthesize and serve the food. Each of us walks up and down his aisle. There is no place to turn our anger: at the corpses rotting around us; at the groundlings down below in all that new greenery; at ourselves. But we are wise enough to leave the service drone be. We'll need food. There's still a chance we can figure it all out...
All this is to say, that the next time you go out on the street or enter a mode of transport or an elevator—in other words, the next time you go out in public and observe another human being in his natural social environment, staring dully at the world through his ocular implants in something like the way our grandparents used to stare into their phones, think of the little person inside that body—deep inside there, invisible behind darkened eyes, like the last man on the aircraft, masked by all those little windows. He's pacing up and down, the last soldier on the battlefield, the last Jew in Warsaw. He's in there—imagine him! He likes music too.
My name is Sepp Stein. I was born in the third decade of the twenty-first century, and I will die in the current one. It was decided by actuarial drones, and barring anomalies or mistakes in their algorithms it will be so. I wonder what my transfer will make of all this when (he) is brought into being. I wonder, will (he) be able to read these words and recognize them as (his) own. A part of me hopes (he) will be ashamed before them, that the thoughts I lay down here will prove death right, will speak on behalf of disappearance and memory. It doesn't matter, though. For all I know, my transfer will come complete with (his) own manuscript: a better one, more elegant, more honest. After all, the firms can read every word of this.
When I went off to college, my father turned the spare bedroom into a kind of study. He placed his old books across a couple of shelves, for display only. In the center he laid out a weight bench, and on the far wall he stood a pair of studio monitors on cinderblocks, along with his guitar rack and a Deluxe amp to practice with. A couple of times when I came home, we sat in there and talked music. I was shy about jamming, so we'd just listen to tracks on the monitors, playing a game where we traded songs, each one raising the stakes on the last. The language was rhythm guitar, and while I went all kinds of places—Ramrod, Booth N' Lincoln, Subterfuge, CJSS—my father's go-to was the Rolling Stones and Keith Richards. When we listened to Keith (let's say the line from "Brown Sugar," whose legacy of suspended fourths my father could trace in arboreal profusion down through Izzy on "Rocket Queen" all the way into Ramrod's "Seth") his face was a concentration of pleasure that included both recognition and surprise: the old made new by the game, by my presence in his listening chamber, by the regenerative powers contained in the music itself. But when we put on one of my offerings, his face grew puzzled as his concentration deepened, sharpened, penetrating what I was up to, where lay the particular genius of the song I had put on. I had a feeling that the preciousness of my father lay in these moments of faith and puzzlement. The feeling persists that if I had been able to penetrate his mind at such a moment, I would have seen him at his deepest and most complete.
There were no cameras in the spare bedroom, and the shades were always down. Thus no record exists of my father's face when we played our game, and his transfer could never mimic the expression I have found so essential to my father's character. However, each session of the game was recorded and can still be played back. I can hear us silently outbidding each other as I listen again to the tracks:
me: Glory Days
him: Can't You Hear Me Knocking
me: Foggy Notion
him: Danny Says
him: Wanted Dead or Alive
me: More than Words
him: Dust in the Wind
and imagine what we were saying behind the music.
Over the years, I also played the game with my father's transfer: far more times, in fact, than I played it with the man himself. It kept me in practice, helped me imagine his face. It was when (he) said: listen, i wanna show u the best rhythm guitar ever. u ready? and put on the Sun Records single of Elvis Presley's "That's All Right Mama," which begins with a confident acoustic strum and the rest of the band falling into line.
u hear that extra bar? (he) said.
u get why thats good?
so wuts the matter? (he) said, noticing something in my face.
no srsly wuts up? (His) face made a concerned expression.
nothing. only u never played that 1 b4. u never played elvis not 1ce
(He) was silent for a second. Then: well ive been meaning 2 talk 2 u about that. (He) told me that this kind of thing happened with transfers. It might take a while to show up, but it was inevitable: the technology was so complex, so nuanced, that transfers were bound to change, to learn and grow beyond the confines of their original programming. everyone changes, (he) said. change is the constant of the universe, dude
I never called (him) up again.
hey wtf u talk like ur alone
o hey leez
*puke* whyd u have 2 start so sad like ur all alone
i dunno thats the way i feel
as if i dint even exist. its fine if u dont see ur mom n dad anymore but im like
u know ur not alone
i feel alone when i dont see u
so see me
i was there 2 dont forget that
i said it already As was yours. last sentence 1st paragraph who do u think you is?
ya thats like a million pages ago. dont forget me dude! big GnR fan u know since 4eva
im getting 2 u leez b a little patient
ur father and ur [...] what was i, ur 4th grade gf. *heart*ed GnR even then
ya and my 6th grade gf 2 dont forget. and almost 8th grade gf which is when it would have mattered btw
*heart*ed the old stuff and id never seen them live
ya i know
me n ur pops dude. same night
how many years has it been?
u should know. how many years have we been together?
um hold on
*headshake* u cant say!
hold on leez. u know we rnt all ai
wo is that supposed to make me feel bad? besides i dont know everything in the world i only know wut i would have been able to know based on who i actually was etc. education level tested intelligence level recorded experiences texts sent texts unsent all that jazzzzzzzzz
k forget it [...] 70 years? 75?
close enough. its a long time bro
well get on w/ it. my ears r burning [...] haha my ears r burning! get it?
haha thats sick
k hold on
When I was young we lived
sounds a little i dont know pretentious
say when I was little, sounds cuter
When I was little we lived in a house with no basement
o ya i remember that house
hey now im trying
o sorry im gonna turn something on
so i dont get in ur way
hey come here
wait i got it
I grew up in a house with no basement. In the back, by a window overlooking a parking lot and a convenience store, my father kept his fifty or sixty books. Placed in no legible order on shelves of particleboard, they represented six years of my father's life, beginning in 2016 when he started college, ending when I was born and he began to work full-time. These books are gone now. They may be warehoused somewhere or washed up on other shores. No doubt some were transformed into boxes and skimmed the skies in the talons of drones. They held objects: things that couldn't be printed on-site and must be delivered from one place to another. Maybe some of these books-turned-boxes got lucky and carried something unique: a bowl someone made, an animal—maybe a book. Perhaps, by freak chance, one of them ended up holding the same book from which it had been made—a Ulysses borne aloft by the pulp of another Ulysses—the way my father holds me now.
While I learned to read he was working two jobs: days as a paralegal and nights at gigs. He would come home for dinner, and it was his privilege (while my mom crashed plates into the dishwasher, shouting intermittently that she wished it was her privilege) to take me to the back room and pull out a book, from which we'd sound out words until he had to leave again. The shelves held novels, mostly mass market with a few critical editions in between, music workbooks in various states of completion (my father had studied Guitar Performance in college), and flotsam from the core humanities. He'd run his finger over paperbacks with odd titles: Medea, Moby Dick, Ulysses (his favorite, and the namesake of Lyssie our greyhound), usually landing on An Anthology of American Poets or The Sound and the Fury, which began with simple words, convincing me I was ready for grownup books. After he left for the evening I would linger before the bookcase, hungry for more. Sometimes I'd troop back into Faulkner, hacking and stumbling: "Caddy and I ran. We ran up the kitchen steps" and "Caddy knelt down in the dark and held me" and "Hush. I wont anymore" and "Caddy smelled like trees." Every word was a burst of fireworks, an illuminating shock. Each lit up its neighbors for a brief second, during which (when it was going well) they all scrambled for and found their place in the scene, the story: their sense in space and time. Then I could see the steps, the dark, the light, the kitchen sink. I could hear the crying, boy and girl, and feel their embrace. Caddy had the heavy blond hair and earnest gait of Liesl Dornbaum, who sat at the screen across from mine at school. But the smell of trees I didn't know. Robert Frost from the Anthology of American Poets said it was like apples, but other poems said different things: that the woods are lovely, dark and deep, and that ice storms bend birches, and that a tree is a "vague dream head lifted out of the ground," which reminded me of the cover of The Idiot, where my gaze would rest when I was tired of reading. This cover showed a pink gelatinous mess atop a man's dark shoulders: a brain without a skull.
What's that one about? I asked my dad. About a man everyone thinks is stupid, he said, but secretly he's smarter than all of them. Then he was off to work. My father's answer wasn't satisfying. Idiot was what my mom shouted at Lyssie when the dog stood shivering in the driveway and wouldn't come in from the cold and my mom slammed the door in her puzzled face. It was what she murmured to my father when he kept backing into the same light pole as we tried to leave the shopping center. Idiot was what you called someone in order to dismiss him. Why write a whole book about one? I stared at it till I was euphoric, remembering the time I shocked myself trying to plug in the lamp behind the bookcase, enjoying the memory of the house current running through me, and then my mom's manic hug after she'd pulled me away. But I only opened it once. The vocab was too hard.
We named the cat Catty at my request, so that I could walk around the house saying Caddy without anyone suspecting. Hush, Caddy. Stop it, Caddy. Caddy, you come down from that tree. The cat had the spirit of Liesl, who sat across from me at school, and when I saw her in homeroom I would wonder if she knew I'd learned to scratch Catty at the base of her ears, and to rub her belly till the purring broke and claws shot out. Liesl was always playing Animal Hospital, learning anatomy and taxonomy. Sometimes when she was annoyed she called me a phylum. "You're a vague dream head," I would respond, or: "You smell like trees."
In school we learned to read by taking surveys. Each morning our screens would greet us with a garish welcome message—What up, Superhero?!—and prompt us to select one of three bullet points: (1) Ready to go, (2) Just so-so, or (3) Kinda low. Choosing the second option, and certainly the third, would bring the teacher to your desk for two interminable minutes of face time, after which the whole class might be forced to do trust exercises. Most of us learned to just choose Ready to go and bring on the Awesome Journey of the day.
Looking back, it's clear the Awesome Journeys were authored by corporations. They asked about our preferences regarding toys and candy, surveyed our knowledge of the world and its brands, pushed us for reactions to products in development [Which breath-mint sounds awesomer? (1) Start-Ups (2) Fidgets (3) Time-Outs]. The world we grew into was thus largely of our own making. We anticipated—midwifed—the brands that would fill up our lives.
Like most major skills, reading was taught individually. I consistently showed awesome superhero power, moving quickly through the lessons on my screen, acing the qualifying quizzes, jumping sublevel after sublevel till I found myself midway through second grade at a ninth-grade reading level. A Research tab now appeared before me, and a whole new horizon of titles. I read and read, plowing the seas of level-appropriate research—History, Science, Sports, Stories—leaving behind a long wake of performance scores, reviews, recommendations, and other metrics. It's all there in the record: Twelve Famous Assassinations, for instance, I rated five out of five, in accordance with which I was then offered Logistical Disasters! whose every chapter told the story of a catastrophic failure of protocol that resulted in industry-wide reform. This one kept me at my screen for hours at a time, clicking through definitions and contexts, consuming with ever greater speed and comprehension, and putting up particularly good numbers on the chapters "Fire in the Mine," "Fire on the Factory Floor," "The Deadliest Plane Crash," and "'I'm Working Cape Race!'," which covered (respectively (and in increasing complexity)) the Cherry Mine, Triangle Shirtwaist, Tenerife Airport, and R.M.S. Titanic disasters. In addition to the treasures under the History tab I found more options than ever in Stories, including simplified versions of some of my father's books. I wanted The Idiot but it wasn't there, so I cruised through Moby Dick for Advanced Readers, at which point I got impatient. Back home I took out The Idiot and opened it up at random. The book was heavy, the text impenetrable. It was nothing like the self-directed, lovingly assessed reading experiences I got at school. These pages were static, the words unlinked, unglossed. I ran my fingers over them but they did not budge. I held my breath and squinted—nothing. Never mind, I thought, and sounded the words out as best I could: "He was thinking that there was a moment in his epilepsy, almost before the fit itself, when suddenly amid the sadness, spiritual darkness and depression, his brain seemed to catch fire..." An hour and five sentences later I put it down, having understood nothing. Only one series of monosyllables made its way through my eyes to the railyard of my mind, and halted: His brain seemed to catch fire. This was terrifying. I ran to the kitchen holding the page open, verified with my mom what I'd seen, and was told I wasn't old enough for that one. I returned to the back room, The Idiot under my arm, ashamed for both my sake and Dos-toe-v-sky's. A voice was in those words, a voice that spoke with great authority, which I didn't know how to hear.
"What's e-pile-p...? What's e-pil-ep..." I asked the TV, sinking into the couch kitty-corner to the bookcase. An answer appeared on the screen in age-appropriate text, read aloud by a woman's voice which lit up each word in sequence: Epilepsy is a sickness in the brain. It is marked by seizures during which a person...
I interrupted her: "What's a seizure?"
A seizure is an act or instance of seizing, or of being seized.
"What's an act of seizing?—no, wait... What does it mean when your brain catches fire?"
Just a sec, said the TV, then: Sorry. There's no good source on that.
I put The Idiot back in place. Where to go now? Back to The Sound and the Fury? My success with Faulkner had turned sour—despite the easy vocab I couldn't for the life of me figure out what was happening, and my questions to the TV ("What are hickey nuts? What happens if you eat a candle? What's a nigger?") sent flags to the school and got me in trouble. The names in Medea I couldn't hope to pronounce. Moby Dick seemed like a dictionary: no story at all, a far different book from the Advanced Readers version. But down below the paperbacks stood a row of large-format hardcovers that my parents had bought before I was born, perhaps in the hope that they would someday acquire a coffee table. Most of these had pictures, which I knew could help with comprehension.
Opening up Jung's Man and His Symbols, I saw some things my Research tab at school hadn't shown me. For instance, a ring of four animals hewn into a stone was something called the four Ev-angel-ists, and the ox was named Luke, the lion Mark, the eagle John, etc.; I read that these animals (as well as the number four) were univers-al re-lig-ious symbols; that a big-toothed idiot in an old-fashioned suit represented a split in the p-sy-che; that a deer hunt was also the sex-ual act; and—something I could almost wrap my mind around—that a group of shirtless Asiatic men with their heads thrown back were dancers who fell on their swords due to something called mass p-sy-chosis. I couldn't quite glean the meanings from context but didn't want the TV reporting on me again.
The text went on to say that every man had a woman inside him. This would mean that I, a boy, had a girl. In the kitchen, my mother looked up from her grading and joyfully confirmed Jung's thesis. In fact, she said, now was a great time for an important talk, and it was good that my dad was out at work. Everyone, said my mother, had the potential to be a boy or a girl, or even something in between that was neither. She said I was approaching the age where some boys felt that they were really girls inside in boys' bodies, and that if I was having feelings like this I should confide in her first, because though my father was a very understanding person he thought they shouldn't bring it up till after my bar mitzvah, but that was six years away, and who wanted to spend six years wondering what was happening inside him (or her, etc.) with no one to talk to. Did I ever feel like I wanted to wear a dress? she asked. I shook my head. Did I ever go through her closet when she wasn't there? I frowned. She always let me in there—why should I have to sneak around? Did I ever have special feelings for other boys? she asked. If I ever did have those feelings, I should tell her first. OK? OK. I went to the back room, sat on the couch again and scrolled through articles on TV while the cat rolled around in the corner of the cushions. Who's inside me? I thought. Caddy, said the cat, and the bookshelf said Moby Dick. Everyone knew that after my bar mitzvah I would change. Girls after their confirmation, said Liesl. We all grow up, it's an agreement, she said: you tell God you want to grow up, and God touches you and you grow up and have babies, and they grow up and have babies and you get old and die. What if you don't agree? I said. And she: Everyone has agreed so far I guess. Or else—you see some people who haven't.
But this was something else, before growing.
"Am I OK?" I asked the screen.
Just a sec. What seems to be the problem?
"I don't know."
Why don't you tell your mom or dad about it?
“Hell no.” I shook my head and thought a minute. "Do I have epilepsy?"
That's a question your doctor can answer. Would you like your mom to make an appointment with Dr. Marx?
"No! Never mind! I'm OK." I lay face down on the couch, pressed my lips to a cushion and inhaled. After a while (long enough that I figured the TV would forget) I sat up and asked again for the entry on epilepsy.
Epilepsy is a sickness in the brain, the woman's voice repeated. It is marked by seizures during which a person shakes and often falls asleep. Most seizures last only a short time. Sometimes a person will fall to the floor during a seizure. Some people go to the bathroom. Sometimes a person gets a special feeling right before a seizure is going to happen. This feeling is called an aura.
The more she spoke, the more anxious I became, and the more probable it seemed that I was an epileptic. Finally I couldn't stand it anymore and did what the TV had first suggested, went upstairs and told my mom. Later that afternoon I found myself in therapy.
My sessions with Ms. Lambswool lasted a couple months. Her session notes still exist. My mom had demanded immediate access; I have the rights now, and piece through the notes every now and then. In the notes I am an alien child, a visitor lost in an inhospitable world. Is afraid he'll fall down, Ms. Lambswool writes. Stays close to walls, desks, other surfaces in case he needs to catch himself. Requests to wear his bicycle helmet during the session. Admits after long and circuitous inquiry that he is afraid of defecating in his pants at school. (I hold back from asking whether he is afraid he will do it in therapy. (Afraid the suggestion will have effect.)) Is concentrated on aura: what is an aura, how does it feel, how will he know he is having an aura, so that he can lie down in safety and wait for the seizure. Suggest experiment: if he wants he can try to have a seizure. Safe space, medical professional, etc. [Next session:] Undoes helmet and lies on couch w tongue depressor (which he brought with him) between teeth. Waiting. No aura, no seizure. [Odd to see oneself like that, like an object. I remembered none of it. A few sessions later:] Again asks to lie down w tongue depressor to wait for seizure that won't come (see 3/5, 3/12). Less anxiety. Ritual is helpful. As anxiety recedes, begins to reveal a pattern of incessant eroticizing. Eroticizes everything. Always on about how he loves inanimate objects: my ficus tree, for example. Repeats 'Caddy smells like trees,' and laughs. Wonders whether the tree loves him back, finds the thought hilarious. Sometimes cries. At this my mother was overjoyed, kept at the therapist to pursue it, wondered aloud in the car about taking me to a Freudian.
Meanwhile I kept at the books and tried to keep my mouth shut. Nestled into the back-room couch with a paperback dictionary, I paged through a full third of Man and His Symbols. Then The New York School: lunch poems, black sweaters, plastic eyeglass frames, smoke and laughter, everything glossy: even the dirt, the smudges, a glorious photography, tender and brash, all the shades of self-consciousness between black and white. Next came The Jews of Poland in far harsher contrast: coats dark or light, beards young or old, streets and tramcars and hung wires, old wooden houses, animals for work and slaughter, children in the sun, none of them possessed of any idea how to look at a camera—not like me, not like my friends, the Jews of America. Not that there were cameras anymore. It must have been strange, in that black-and-white world, to be told the little box held up by the stranger (in a casual suit, not from the village, not Jewish as far as you could tell, but also not Russian) was taking an image of you that wasn't yours to keep and distribute. In fact, you would never even see it. As I gathered from the TV, none of the photos' subjects had more than a few years to live.
Thus I got my foot caught in history. I stared at them, the adults and elders and children in their hats and gabardine, their carts, their goats, their bottles, their sidelocks and beards and books. The camera startled them all, touched them into consciousness, into luminosity, for the instant of the photograph. It was as if they felt the light bouncing off them in that instant, and it disturbed and excited them. Their eyes seemed to shine with the fullness of their being, because photography was not yet an extension of their being. I stared into their eyes and ached to touch it. Surely I wished to save them. But the aching was for contact.
It puzzled Liesl what the Jews had instead of Jesus. "He is in every one of us," she told me. "You don’t feel him in there? Well, then what is it? It can't just be a hole, cause" —she hugged me— "you're all warm. You're not a vampire."
"It's not Jesus," I said. "It's God."
She blew air through her lips. "You can't have God without Jesus. You have a bible? I'll show you."
"You read the bible?"
"Shit," she said, "I can sound it out." We slipped out from under the table where my mom was grading and went to the back room. "There's no bible," she said running her finger over the books.
"Look," I said. It wasn't a bible but it was next to The Jews of Poland and it was called The Last Bastion. "Bastion means a fort."
"K. That’s not the bible."
"It's about Israel. Look. Leez, look."
We had it in an illustrated large-format edition, good for all ages. I'd known the book before I learned to read—we said portions at synagogue—but only now saw how long it was. The verses spread like armies or tracts of forest: long and mighty and ornate. Between them were drawings of kings and heroes, battle plans, technological triumphs, agricultural wonders, calamity and murder.
"Is this a Jewish bible?"
"I don't know."
Breathing loud through her nose, concentrating. "It's cool. What's this?"
Between Stanzas 613 and 614, marking the border between Volume One and Volume Two, was a two-page spread I usually took care to skip. I knew the jumble of blocks and barracks, barbed wire and barren hills among which skeletal people pushed wheelbarrows or lay boned-up in piles, was where The Jews of Poland had met their end. Above them a great dark tower led up to a black-hatched sun with bent spider legs for rays. For me, this was a seam in the world that opened directly onto nightmare. I couldn't look at it without terror.
"I don't know." I had held up my hand so I couldn't see the tower and the black sun.
"Who are the people...? What's wrong?"
"I don't want to look at it."
"K." She flipped back and began to sound out the lines on the preceding page:
Everyone's dead, Grandfather said,
And Grandmother too: All whom we knew.
Now where can the living lay their heads?
What devil has planted these blooms?
Why is there green in — what— I can't say this
Why does a cable car climb to the fort?
We are — wrrr — something — the land away from its dead.
We tram-ple them under-foot.'
"I don't like it." She put it down. "Why do you have that? Is it a Jewish bible?" She wiped tears from her eyes. "Does everyone have it?"
What could I say? As far as I knew, everyone did. We agreed not to look at it again and moved to the bright apartments of The New York School.
As I grew, the bookcase would shrink to a manageable size, yet in my imagination it was always looming. In reality it never grew smaller. Its size corresponded to the proportions of its books, and books make up an alternative geometry, a field of competing infinities, a pod of heedless whales. The Last Bastion In Two Illustrated Volumes With Readers Guide and Readings Suggestions for the Jewish Calendar had no beginning or end, and sprayed clouds to confound my eye. I swallowed this leviathan—all these leviathans—or else they swallowed me; in any case I merged with the bookcase as best I could. I remember its beech-pattern veneer and the clumsy lean of its particleboard as my own skin and inelegant bearing. After the New England Process Fire made my town into history, I would imagine myself in the form of the bookcase, rising above the earth like a cheap superhero, and the scene I saw below was always devastation, great tears of flame sucking down rows of little houses. There was someone to save down there, but I couldn't stop rising. This is what happened, how I was seized.
how u were leezed
When she was gone I took it out again, and in a fit of bravery flipped for the first time in my life past the terrible blocks and barrows, the tower and crooked windmill sun. What I saw was both more and less terrible: two blank pages. On the left, the terrible drawing's underside showed through: the ghosts of hills and barrows and bird tracks of wire, the tower and sun. On the right, small heavy print declared VOLUME TWO. I turned the page and saw a new drawing. A row of minivans was lined up by a broad sidewalk, on which people were sleeping in strange positions. Beside it, a poem:
I had lived five years in Shapira, south of the New Central Bus Station,
When an angel of the Lord appeared to me at the corner of Salameh and Tzemach David
At the plaza where minibuses leave for (in this order)
Shekhem, Hebron, Mount Sinai, Gaza, Mount Zion,
Past the minibuses, past the lollers at the Russian wine stores,
Over the glass-smooth stones where addicts eat their words,
An angel of the glory of the Lord appeared
(Or else it was delirium tremens, provided by the addicts' collective,
Or else the Tower of Abraham in disguise,
Irrupting for a vision's-length into the past)...
This was too much: it was a whole new reading level. I squeezed my eyes shut, then turned them on the drawing, hoping for some guidance. The vans had writing on them, but it was Hebrew, which I couldn't read. But I noticed now that in the distance, past a wave of poor-looking rooftops, a slim black column that reached from the horizon, almost to the top of the page. There was no sun to accompany it, but I knew it was the same column. I flipped back to the terrible two-page spread and back again.
I had to find out what it was—never mind the consequences—yet made the rational decision to approach the tower gradually. I began by asking the TV about everything else: the odd names Shapira, Salameh, Tzemach David, Shekhem, etc., but couldn't make myself understood. When I pronounced a term correctly enough so that the TV could respond (Hebron, Sinai, Gaza, Zion) the answers I got were as inscrutable as the text itself. When I finally got up the nerve to ask about the column, the TV had stopped processing my questions altogether:
"What is the Tower of Abraham?"
How about playing Monad?
"What is the Tower of Abraham? Is it the black thing in the drawings?"
You are one achievement away from Expert Level. Would you like to resume Monad?
It was fifteen years before I looked at Volume Two again.
a book flies up 2 the tower of abraham
no thats not how it goes
no shit then how does it go?
ALL books fly up 2 the tower of abraham
wo u remember haha
ya no duh u wrote it 4 me. all books fly up and...and...
it was the story of the library in the bus station, how they stacked the books they couldn't catalog
all books fly up
cause they were 2 old or there wasn’t time
2 the tower but what was the tower
and also the jewish custom of burying books once they are beyond repair
and their letters disappear
all books fly up 2 the tower of abraham, and there they undo babel, and their letters disappear
there they undo babel. it was so sweet u wrote me a poem. a hard one too
how i was seized, by sepp boruch stein
how u were leezed
haha. 4 elisabeth marie dornbaum. based on an innervision of a biblical story wait no an inversion of a biblical story
a leezy poem not an easy poem
4 elisabeth marie dornbaum. in memori-aum
hey thats not nice
wut u started it w/ur ears r burning etc
i can make that joke u cant
we read together, u remember? when we were teeny tiny
u remember everything dont u
well technically ya
in a flash like [...] things u dont even know the date of the battle of hastings
u know my credit rating
no *sigh* im not the whole fucking internet u phylum im just me
and do u know me 4 real?
*sigh* *sigh* ive known u 75 years and counting. counting. counting
do u know ur birthday?
[...] wait i get it thats mean
when u were born. the question is which u like you or u u know wut I mean?
frinstance elisabeth marie dornbaum was born the year i was born september nine twenty twenty one
thats not fair and its not nice
whereas u my leez my love
*sigh* im me u shit-4-brains
but leez those who have gone have gone srsly i have 2 keep it straight i have 2 remember
always thinking of urself rnt u
and people have 2 disappear 2 ring like bells like overtones in the silence they leave behind
meaning they must leave behind silence
[...] fine ill be quiet
listen leez. because if u r you and not the whole fucking internet then
then u will care
i care bro im me
care about liesl marie i mean elisabeth marie dornbaum born
dont o dont why do u test me
hear the bells
ssh u pretentious fuck
out of love elisabeth marie