by Mark Stricker
This is a story about Pittsburgh. And reading. And writing. And erasure.
I was supposed to create a “portrait of myself as a reader.”
As with any portrait, its likeness only made me more aware of the limits of representation.
The past self seen in the photo, or the essay, or even the mirror (given the lag of light-speed), lies there like a sloughed-off skin, and is merely a record of where we have been, the distance we have traveled, willingly or not.
To speak of the past in the present tense is the freedom of the living.
I am standing on the sidewalk waiting for the 54C.
I am reading an essay:
Shafts of sunlight, backyards, lakes, the black helix of a phone-cord, a solid wooden desk, the wooly muzzle of a collie.
The bus doors engulf me; I sit, turn the page.
I get off at 19th street and walk ten blocks home.
The husband and the dog and the woman are reunited in the bathroom where she has been crying, and where she has said to herself in the mirror, “It’s a good thing none of this has happened”… the sentence breaks off mid-thought.
Someone has ripped out the final page.
I sit motionless in the rocking chair.
I rub Christopher’s whiskery face and he slides his wet gray gums against my knuckle.
It is Wednesday.
The fluorescent lights hum above my head.
Emily has loaned me her book.
Instead of waiting, I stand in the hallway and read it immediately.
I am disappointed by the closure.
We read and we are read.
Allyson unzips the black leather case.
Inside: a small machine, needles.
She pricks her fingertip and a red dot of blood appears from beneath the surface.
The blood goes onto a strip of plastic.
The plastic goes into the machine.
The machine reads the blood.
If the number is too high or too low, she must revise the story her blood tells.
Allyson moves away.
I am alone.
Reading is painful.
Writing is worse.
She once wrote:
Whatever we do with all our keys,
awful tricks of the heart,
whatever becomes of them,
we swear them our ghosts.
The walls in the Hall of Botany are the color of the sound of water.
In one corner, a diorama: the edge of a house juts into a brick patio.
Rosemary, shallots, lemon basil, rose germanium, and tarragon line the windowsill.
When you stand looking at the herb garden, the Destroying Angel lurks behind you:
Death is certain if you eat this, the most deadly of our poisonous fungi, which causes ninety percent of all mushroom poison deaths.
What is this desire to put the beautiful and the dangerous behind glass?
As if to name possesses.
I am netted from a tumultuous sea of dream.
I get out of bed.
I do the morning things one does alone in a big house.
I put on my coat, step off the front stoop.
Overnight an ice storm turned everything into glass.
Surfaces whistle light.
I stand perfectly still, but slide slowly, slowly, down the sidewalk to the intersection.
Later I write:
The streets are slick with an ambiguous precipitation I am hesitant to name.
All I can do is describe this place, peopling it with abstractions
fashioning fabulous escapes clacking hopes together like dumb rocks
as if to speak slackens constrictions. I call it sleet, this sluice of ice,
and proceed down the slippery slope working a subtle magic
berserk for an afternoon or more of comfort because the job
my brain makes my skin do is boring. All this talk of fine lines,
separations, fractions, broken not like a dish dropped
or a stopped clock, but a clock between seconds. I want to show you
borders as one shared edge, the map of the body broken into
what cannot be held forever: breath and blood,
the flooded landscape smooth, unbroken.
Think about a song you carry with you: the one you return to in times of sorrow or joy.
Hum its refrain and feel its vibrations in your throat.
You will never be able to communicate, to anyone, exactly how that feels.
Jo Ann sits in the front and faces our class.
She answers our questions.
I cannot think of anything to ask her.
She talks about knowing when a piece of writing is working:
When something isn’t right, it’s like those spaces on the car radio dial when you can hear two stations bleeding together.
When something is right, it is the clear voice of a single channel.
The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream.
There are squirrels living in the spare bedroom upstairs…. The collie fell down the basement stairs…. Chris Goertz is sitting near the door and takes the first bullet in the back of the head.
The crisis is inevitable.
And so is the rest of life.
Jo Ann has to remember; she has no choice.
The reader will remember, too.
You have no choice.
The collie does not die in the essay, but her death is inevitable.
Jo Ann prepares us for this.
Yet, we are unprepared.
Like the story broken before its conclusion.
Like the mind racing across the white spaces between words.
Like the blinking of our eyes, darkness accumulating unnoticed.
Until all at once:
About the author
Mark Stricker is a writer & publisher who lives in Hamden, CT.
Mark, this is just beautiful. A piece of this is about Allyson moving to Connecticut while you remained in Pittsburgh. I remember that period of time well and experienced a similar emptiness in her absence. I felt Pittsburgh, and grad school, and the buses in my bones when I read this. Thank you.
Wow, Mark! This story is incredible! It was a joy to read and I wouldn’t want to follow it!!!!!