XIV — This man lived once in a fairly clean house
So this man lived once in a fairly clean house, up along a good road. A good neighborhood. This was the man I told you about. He works in a store. He limps. He forgets how he got that limp. He had come to the area some years before, looking for a house to rent. The freshness struck him. The fresh painted boards. The cut grass. Really short and uniform cut like a barber. The house was a private rent and the sign in the window told him he could afford to live there. It was a small house but it fitted perfectly in this neighborhood. Children played in the wide wide dusty road and their parents assumed they were always somewhere close by. They usually were. None of them went missing. No one came looking to take away the children and no one living on the street had that particular interest. And it was a big neighborhood. Many blocks. Many types of skin. There was other crime. Burglaries. Beatings. A murder once in a blue moon but that was usually a husband hitting his wife too hard. A spill out from the bar ending in a knife fight. Premeditated? Hard to say. People think about those things in their private times and that may make it premeditation. It’s a thin line. Fact apart from that is despite what the media would have believe, life is not all abduction and worship. That’s reserved for certain places, times. Takes a great deal of effort for any neighborhood to go down that path and for enough people to get on board to keep it alive. Takes a powerful deal of effort and bribery and threats and elocutionary force and the paraphernalia and the right kind of weather.
On this street there was not that kind of weather. It rained and it shined. But it never just rained a grey smudged out monotone hue. There was no Sunday Confession. There was no need for religion. The denominations had come plying their trade, set up chapels. Churches. They stayed for a while. Eventually it fell on deaf ears. Or rather: it fell on ears that didn’t need to listen. Keep on moving. The city limits are that way. But the neighborhood was just like a piece of denim. Denim, as in the material. When you own a pair of jeans from new, they start off as blue. All blue of whatever description. You own them long enough and the blue begins to give way to white. The blue denim is always built on a matrix of white cotton. The blue wears away with the years and the white reveals itself in all the places where the hardest work has been done. In that neighborhood, wherever there was hard work, wherever there was distress and abrasion of the spirit and the potential for the grey amnesia, the white appeared. That was it. It was there all the time lying under everything else. No one wondered why. No need to. A stylistic choice, perhaps, but the white always came through. Some books have the author’s surname and Christian name. Some have just the surname. The latter is supposed to lend weight to the fact. What? You don’t know who this author is? You don’t know their Christian name? That’s your ignorance showing. But the denim still has white below it.
The man, still young, moved in to the clean house. He lived up to that house. There was no demand anywhere from any quarter to live it a certain way or to keep it a certain color. It just happened like that. He cut the grass like a barber. He lined up the trash cans. He wore the face of one man but it actually wasn’t him. It couldn’t have been. It must have been someone else completely mistaken for him. On the surface, it all fitted perfectly. It sounded like him. He played the tunes in the same way. They were authentic. But the picture on the surface must have been wrong, an ill fit. He was the different color in an otherwise white fabric. And people had come a long way in five thousand or so years. Five thousand years ago, man could interpret out what the stars were saying and drag a stone five hundred miles and perfectly align it with the rising yellow sun without even a compass and today there are lines and arrows to tell you which way to shit. But still the man kept his house freshly painted. For a while. Skip forwards some couple of years and the house is a mound of fly blown cartons and viscous black liquid appearing under the no longer lined up side by side bins.
The question: is this a before and after state of affairs? Is it a slow and insidious evolution? Is there an intervening event? What else came onto the scene? The whole neighborhood was creeping into the same viscous space. The borders became first unkempt and then tangled. The brier appeared. The cracks in the roads and pavements got wider and flaked off bits of cement for the children to kick around. Earlier, when a strong wind blew up and down the avenues and knocked over boxes and bins the people would chase the scraps of paper and milk cartons up and down the street. Now, the milk cartons stayed where the wind left them and they slowly blended in with the weeds. Fading down to meet the beige vegetation, which never quite made it to green. It came to a point where the symmetry between man and nature, what was taken for nature, got so blurred that the people couldn’t look any more. They’d just hurry along, trying to attend in their heads to anything other than the brambles reaching out to them across the pavements; their own trapped debris and rags beckoning as flags and way markers pointing back to a different space. The white paint developed a grey sheen over the boards, on the road signs. At some point the paint began to shrink and then it began to flake. The exposed wood soaked up the water and the paint curled around the edges, slipping away in the wind. But the people couldn’t tell. It was like some eternal recurrence. They’d look at the weathered boards and the roof-felt shrunk back from the eaves, flapping around, and they’d try hard to remember when that had happened. What was it like yesterday? It wasn’t like that! Chain link fences turned orange. The grass grew up and through the links and weighted down the fences and pulled them away from the steel posts. The people tried hard to remember who had cut the grass? Who had trimmed the trees? Was it them? Did they have a man come round once a month and do it for them? They couldn’t remember. They couldn’t remember when they had sat and smiled at the children, watched them play on the lawns. The girls playing with their dolls and setting up shops. Selling sweets. The boys. Chasing around, hiding behind the trees and laughing. They hurried along now past scrap heap gardens and accepted the drunken father throwing a can at a small boy crying in front of the broken go-cart. They accepted the snarling black dog. They accepted the black viscous ooze. Somewhere between then and now, between the clipped lawn and the Yellow of his fingers, nothing had happened and yet it was all different. No-one and no one thing were responsible.
But now the man threw his cartons on the floor. He stacked magazines on the edge of the bottom stair and when the stack was so high he stacked some on the next stair. And then the magazines got papers mixed in with them. Letters. Cuttings. Flattened out cigarette cartons and they stretched all up to the top of the landing and down the opposite stair edge and the man walked in between a path of artifacts. The paper caused him anxiety. He couldn’t throw it away because throwing it away meant he may by mistake throw away the one piece of information he needed. The key to it all. And it spread from room to room. There was never a plan. Like the neighborhood, it just was. He never ever noticed until those occasions when he’d find that a piece of paper had blown into the middle of the ever narrowing path to the bedrooms. And he’d stop and move it to one side and for a moment he almost remembered what it had been like before. But then he’d carry on up the stairs and the fly screen door would bend a little more. Outside, the children were no longer safe. There was a day when the man was just going in the front door of house. A sunny day and warm.
The car engine strained in the distance. The sound was far off, but close enough for the man to pick up on it. To attend to it at some unconscious level. It slowed him down. Made him fumble around for something. He had no idea what. The car engine got louder. Some sirens came into the scene. A soft wailing. Two or three. Arguing to see who took the lead. The man, now fully attentive, turned round to look up the road. He gripped the plastic food bag in his left hand and the tan car slewed to halt right there roaring tires smoking and burning in front of his house with the dust and pebbles taking up all kinds of directions. He didn’t know what to think about that. He didn’t have a reference for it.
Now see what you think about this: a man up along a road sat in a tan colored car. Down the road and further on up the road many police cars scream in clouds of dust. The man sees these police. Maybe there’s still a way out of this? Maybe I can find redemption. The man thinks it. Those police waving their twelve-gauges at me. I got me a twelve-gauge. I got me a small child on the back seat here. He winds down the window and fires off a lazy shot upwards. Makes those police all lie in the dirt and get down tight behind those doors. Those police start talkin’ at him through bull-horns but he can’t make sense of what they’re saying.
The small child is crying and the man turns round to look at his son but he can’t take it all in. It’s going too quick for him. It’s gone in a flash and he can’t remember how they got to that point. A police detective is calling out: it’s gonna be okay. We know what happened. The man in the car feels a wave of disappointment. Looks again at his small dark-haired boy on the backseat of the car. Points the twelve-gauge at him just to see what it feels like. Pulls back the hammer on that old gun. The child carries on crying so the man grits his teeth. Then he turns back to look through the side window and he looks up to see a man stood on the porch of wooden house looking back at him. The driver steps out of the car and looks over the tan roof and the man stood on the porch doesn’t move.
Over the cacophony of horns and engines and shouts and a million police ordering him, bargaining with him, threatening him; the driver calls out to the man stood on the porch. I’m a Salesman, he says. And as he speaks them, the words seem to take him by surprise. You don’t see it coming. You can’t. You’re too preoccupied with something else. It’s a myth that you reach this moment of peace and then just let go. You are, at best, distracted, and never one-hundred percent engaged with what is going on.
I’m a Salesman, the man had shouted. It isn’t my natural line of work. I just fell into it. The man on the porch had a plastic bag in his hand. He wore beige colored pants. A white shirt, but all of that got lost as he watched the Salesman. He ran on parallel tracks for a while and it was some time before the streams came together. But even then he had to fashion them and work them and smooth them and make them fit. What he saw couldn’t easily be captured, if at all. It wasn’t just that, though. The structures were already in place and so when the Salesman called out to him, it was all ready to go. He sat down on the rust red sofa and switched on the TV with its old thermo-set plastic dials that gave off that peculiar smell when they got too hot. The screen rounded off at the corners and so the picture never had any edges. The man knelt down. One track replayed what the Salesman did, on a loop. Round and round. It was always there. It interfered with the other channels. He knelt down and clicked the deep brown dial round and round. He came across an old film that may have been black and white but, given that the set was itself black and white, he couldn’t tell. A giant crab with human eyes and unarticulated mouth was speaking in a deep echoed voice to the lead hero. A woman/girl of indeterminate age with dark hair and an average face clung to the hero’s arm, and frantically unclipped and dropped the scuba gear she was wearing. The man knelt in front of the screen and tried to focus on the ribs and muscles of the hero as he too discarded his scuba gear. He opened up the connectors in his mind and viewed the scene some years before on that movie set. He squinted up his eyes to get a better view of the director shouting cut and the hero standing up and saying something to someone and the way that his ribs and skin and muscle carried on about their business. He penciled in the guy holding the microphone boom, wearing a green bomber jacket with a button missing off the left pocket flap, the lady holding some pages of script and a recently deceased brother foremost in her thoughts, the cars pulling up on the other side of the film lot, the busy road just the other side of the studio gates now rolling open on slightly rusting wheels, mountains running up from the desert beyond the city. People hiking in the mountains. But the man could not convince himself that there ever was an actor/hero some decades before on a movie set. He couldn’t stop it for long enough. He couldn’t freeze the scene and be there. He was unsure that anything had ever happened. He thought about stabbing himself in the heart just to find out if it would all stop or all carry on. If the films were just an illusion and he had no evidence that the people in them existed beyond that illusion, then what could be trusted?
In recent times, films and TV series always included a self-conscious comment from the actors, the crew. The explosion from a different angle with the shot including all the extras and safety guys and girls stood watching. But this wasn’t real either. The producers had cottoned on to the feeling of uneasiness and tried to compensate by bringing a reality back into the frame. It wasn’t. It was just another layer. The man watched the crab crawl up the beach on rails or hidden wheels. There was no fucking redeeming narrative that the man kneeling in front of the TV set and banging his fist on the floor could read. He rocked slightly. He was trying to make sense of this crab film and yet he was being hailed by the Salesman. See what you think about this! See what you fucking think about this.