The following is another writing exercise from the book Now Write! edited by Sherry Ellis. The prompt is form Robert Olen Butler, the author of Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, Tabloid Dreams, Mr. Spaceman, and Severance. I’ve actually spoken to him on the phone before, and exchanged emails, regarding a blurb for a book by Andrew Lam that I was promoting once. Really nice guy. The prompt is divided into seven sections, each to be read and written only when you get to it. The premise starts with waking up in a room in your home that is not your bedroom, and it is not morning. The prompt proceeds to have you sense the room around you from a place of anxiety, and then goes on to have you describe objects, desires and memories using the senses in order to dive into a deep place. I may have strayed a little from the prompt, but I went deep.
I’ll outrun it if I just. What. What. Oh a dream.
How did I end up? Need to vacuum more often. Rug was a good deal though. Not jute, what do they call it? Some colorful, vaguely ethnic rug of woven jersey material. Matches the rest of the living room. Pulsing plums, reds, mustard yellow, burgundy. Single stripes of sage and of brown for accent. What kind of brown is that? Monkey turd brown. Ha, no. What. Now the monkeys are hissing at me. Okay, okay, sienna. Raw. Tobacco even. But even that makes my chest clench.
Sigh. Where’s—am I alone? Everything’s the same but…different. Bookshelves are lonely, black and cold. Coffee table is the same bulky rectangular wooden coffee table that I painted red and which remained tacky to the touch I mean not the tacky as in style, though, well, who knows. It’s the same friendly table only now the friendliness is gone. Cold shoulder. Has something against me, I swear. Like if I sit up too fast it’ll catch me the only way it can, with one of its blunted edges or corners. Oh did I do that, sorry so sorry I’m just a coffee table anyway, couldn’t be me, the television did it.
I squint up at the TV, rub my head. Sore. The TV is trying to tell me something. No, not the people on it—they’re just trying to sell some kind of juicer. No, the TV. It’s. Well. I don’t know, really. God my head feels like it’s been split open by an ox. Ax.
Conductor. That’s it. The TV is—here I look at the windows. Garish bright tall windows. At night you always think they can see in through the lacey curtains, because lord knows we can see out at the section eight neighbors next door who use the ambulance as their chauffeur to the doctor’s office every evening. But here, now, the windows are in cahoots with the TV. The curtains flutter toward it coquettishly. Which are the strings and which are the—and what song are they playing? Berlioz, most likely. I don’t know, or Mahler. Something classical. Something like a slow tourniquet.
Wait. If this is an orchestra. Pile of clothes still needing to be folded on the armchair—I can’t do anything right. I would have folded them. I’m afflicted. They’re the string section. The clothes are dirty still. They need to be washed. That’s it, that’s why. Again and again. Something got in those clothes. Something insidious. They don’t talk. It’s the same pile as always. Wool socks, cotton underwear, cotton tees, linen short-sleeve shirt. But the way the TV and the windows are playing and I can see little germs floating around in the air I just know they’re. Infected.
On the side table a plate. Some beurre blanc, some scrap of vegetal matter—so good for you, yet how quickly it putrefies!—and bone. I look at the bone. It’s just a bone. The bone is the only friendly thing in this room. The bone means me no harm. It’s just a rib. Kin. It knows. It struggles, too.
I sit up.
It’s the bone. It’s not healthy. It’s trying to tell me something. I slide my tongue against the roof of my mouth, I feel all the ridges—I have more ridges now than I did—last night? This morning? What time is it? And I realize there are no clocks in this room. The thought alarms me. There are no clocks in this room. There are no clocks. No way to tell time, what part of the day it is. The light through the windows was bright a moment ago, but given the weather it was probably just a cloud passing. The cloud is back. The room has darkened. The bone is still light.
I can’t quite stand yet, so I pivot onto my knees and crawl over a few feet to the end table. Push around as if I were blind. The arm of the sofa, caramel leather. The purple fuzzy throw pillows—thrown. The velvet-corduroy fabric just collects dirt and grease. The plate—bone china—rattles when I disturb it. Grab. The bone. A rib. Cartoonlike in its simplicity. White and beige, picked clean. Blackened ends. My mouth, dry, is now filling with saliva. With hickory smoke. Sticky sweet barbecue sauce, all molasses brown sugar and paprika with a hint of Worcestershire. And the bitter grit of charred flesh, the squeak of defiant tendon. This bone has more in common with me than I thought. I cradle the bone. I swear I must be still dreaming, I must be because this bone is my talisman, protecting me from something dull-faced, vacant and sinister in this room.
I remember cannonballs. Off the floating platform into the lake. Running start, not too far too fast you know from experience, or you’ll slip and crack your head on the edge like Simon Schwartz. Tuck your legs as you launch, don’t forget to wrap your arms around and clasp, that’s what makes the cannonball effective, not many know this, but I do.
The lake is not salty—why would it be?—but this is still surprising every time. I come up for a gasp of air and a gigantic grin on my face, treading like a dog while everyone else is splashing and diving and playing around the platform. The beach seems a mile away, but it’s probably only thirty feet. Thirty feet away, hence swimming lessons, and don’t let your feet dangle too low or they catch a drift of the cold water from beneath. Or worse, the tips of the seaweed. But this is a happy challenge and I am strong and a great swimmer and so just like that I go, stroke, stroke, remember to kick, body straight, one arm windmilling after the other, turn head to left for air.
I prolong the swim even past where it’s shallow enough to stand up, then at the last moment push myself up with my arms planted in the silty sand. I run up the narrow beach toward the grassy area where my family is congregated around a picnic table and grill.
The sun. I shiver as I shake myself dry, wet dog that I am. Goosebumps give rise but are quickly met by a challenger: the mighty Sun. The sun feels good. They say the sun bathes, and I can see that. Well, now anyway. Back then all I can think is how mindlessly jolly I feel. I’m grinning, laughing at no one in particular. I’ve found the beach towel I’ve left for myself carefully at the edge of the grass and I wrap myself in it, but then instinctively let it fall to my waist so my back and shoulders can catch some more Sun. It’s the best I’ve ever felt, and I the feeling is all the more sublime because I don’t even know I’m feeling great. I just am. I’m ten, and I want to feel that sun again on my back through the shivery droplets. Right now. Forever and ever.
I look up at the grass and there’s everyone, you know, everyone—Mom, Dad, sister, cousins, everyone—serving themselves potato salad. I see my dad, who looks cool in those aviator sunglasses as he sits on that lounge chair, his white freckled belly a beacon as he reads his science fiction book. So I guess he’s not joining in, but hey, more barbecue ribs for me! I run.
I draw patterns, letters with my finger on that white belly. It’s huge. Forgive me for saying it. But back then it wasn’t a question of good or bad or self-conscious. It was just him. It was my pillow. He’d lay in bed in his tidy-whiteys propped up with many down pillows reading to me from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. We only made it through the first four books, but they were serious books. Adult books. Thick mass market paperbacks with lifelike illustrations that I would stare up at as he read. My head would go up and down with each inhale, jerky and unstable, then sink into what I imagined was a waterbed, or the pillow-equivalent of a waterbed, as he read and the air went out.
Barbecued babyback ribs and science fiction, the finer things in life. Here I was drawing doodles with my dirty fingernail, connecting the constellations of moles and freckles on his belly. There were a lot more on his back though, but investigating them usually meant having to scratch his back, which meant scratching the ugly corduroy moles and raised freckles. So the belly was a fine warm place to be. Hari Seldon was on another planet, predicting the end of the galactic empire and secretly collecting the world’s knowledge, protecting it on a distant earth from the barbarians, trying to foreshorten the coming dark ages.
The round white belly would rise and fall while Hari Seldon in his wheelchair set up the first Foundation. After his death and a series of prophesied Seldon Crises, a Second Foundation was discovered, more secret, more remote, at Star’s End, Terminus, the last planet in the galaxy. My dad’s belly still rose and fell like clockwork. He introduced chaos and uncertainty. The Mule appeared, a half-human jester with a strange musical instrument. Seldon never predicted him. He was an aberration. He wreaked havoc in time and order and politics and predictions, I forget how, with a gleeful malevolence that was frightening. The warm rise and fall of my dad’s belly kept me moored to this planet as my imagination ventured out to explore others. This was how I liked to learn.
I still have the books. The Foundation series. The first four books anyway. I bought them again, at used bookstores, paperbacks, pocket-sized, thick as a wedge and well-thumbed. I bought them years ago, but haven’t gone back to them yet. I do so now. I pull the first one off the shelf across from me.
I purse my lips at the menacing room and lift myself up onto the sofa. My head is reeling and I rub my temples, commanding it to stop but it doesn’t. So I proceed to sink back into the sofa until I am more laying than sitting. The huge caramel sofa cushions covered in soft leather make me feel small. I peel off my t-shirt and toss it across the room. It was starting to smell bad anyway. I unbuckle my belt, unbutton and wriggle out of my jeans, which were feeling heavy and burdensome anyway. I wear a pair of boxer briefs but can easily pretend they are both tidy and whitey.
I look down my chest, which is hairy. Thar she blows: my big white belly. I poke my finger inside the bellybutton. Just checking the temp. It tickles a bit when my finger hits the back. Button it is, though, and I have just activated something deep.
I lift the book up, thumb through the front matter, the blurbs and accolades and entreaties to buy any of the other five hundred books by Isaac Asimov, and I find page one.
I look over at the quiet, attentive bone. Good. Now where were we?
The bone is a good listener, but I know its not real. It is so friendly in its pasty whiteness, so cute with it’s two black polka dot ends. But ask questions it does not. Trace constellations it does not. It is a leftover rib from last night’s dinner, after all. I should test it though. After all, a true scientist. It’s silly. Ridiculous. And yet somehow necessary to test. If this bone is really just a bone and not, you know, something more, then it will not trace constellations or imagine distant worlds when I.
I place the rib on my belly.
It balances well. Really, it just sits there. I look at for a while, trying to discern it. It’s just a rib. I have last night’s dinner on my belly. Not in but on. Well, in AND on. Do I think the bone is a good listener? Not really. I disdain it. It doesn’t listen. It’s a bone. It’s just a bone. I start to read—are you listening?—and I get no response. As I read, I fall into a rhythm. Five hundred books. At one time I wanted to read them all. Was Asimov a hack? He had rhythm, and he had soul. Was there music to his prose? Maybe, maybe. The ethereal chime of distant planets. The whirs and hums of machines. Occasional tympanis. I am feeling more alive as I read. The room corrects itself, softens, fades, becomes just a living room again. I look down at my sole audience member.
It rises and falls but does not speak.