Everything is real. The view outside the window. Those are really mountains. The books on the shelves were pressed in Toronto, New York, London, San Francisco. The gallon jug of water on the credenza is to help hydrate the first night – the Crossover – the slow and painless descent into the Numb you will feel for the remainder of your natural life.
Against the rules, I am brought through this world – as a tourist, as a vigilante, as a prisoner – to see and experience it firsthand. No one wonders. No one reads those books. There are CDs, tapes, records and the machines and speakers to play them, but the only sound in the air is that of footsteps. All the people here move slowly, deliberately, with purpose. The restaurant has servers that bring you food, just like Outside.
Interest is against the Rules.
Creativity is against the Rules.
Even the vehicles are real.
The resident rooms are mostly the same. When one arrives, they have a preprogrammed roommate. He will say that he is from a small village in Western China, on the banks of the Nu River, which is the Salween downstream in Burma, or whatever they call it these days. He will say that he trades stones and handmade ornaments for American baseball cards.
He is an American, caucasian. An overweight twelve-year-old from Indiana, Kansas, Southern Illinois with a corresponding accent. China is his story though, and he does not know that it is not true, and the newcomer never questions it. There is no reason for it to not be true, so it is (this is how They judge how fit one is to be released into ‘society’).
I spend my last coherent evening in this room thinking about the future I could have had. Who was I out there?
The first thing They seem to take away is the ability to feel strongly, passionately about anything. I was a poet. A photographer. I traveled to countries where I could not speak the language, just to find out what would happen when I tried to communicate. There was a girl out there. I was supposed to see her today – her name was Katie. We would have driven far into the mountains, or to South America, just for fun. We would have drunk bottles of Shiraz, or Sauvignon blanc, watched a film, laid in bed philosophizing between endless minutes of kissing, or comfortable silence, body worship. I think I loved her. And she will never know that, because I am in this place, and I do not need such things anymore.
The Indiana-China boy is rattling off his story. He is told to shut up, is ignored, and finally he goes to sleep. There is something in my head that is trying to crawl out -
…on the roof, as we tap our heels about -
and I am speaking aloud, to the walls. The sound flutters between them and is ugly. It bothers me only for a moment. I’m a bit tired. What was I saying? I was telling the Chinese boy something. Maybe not.
Lie down on the white cotton sheet bed. Close your eyes. Tomorrow, you’ll wake up and everything will be okay.
You won’t think about war, death, or love. You will feel, of course, happiness and productivity and accomplishment. Teamwork will make you stronger. We encourage the sharing of peaceful stories – stories of simple things. The pleasant breakfast you had in Cafeteria this morning. The fairness of yesterday’s match. A successful day at the Council Office.
I have been shown this world and it is a mistake. It is a crime against Human Nature to breathe this air – this manufactured, cloudcreating air – to feel this constant ease. Passion and wonder are enemies here. The gentleman with the subtle and charming British accent (forever implacable for he never says much at one time) will approach us. He will be carrying a syringe that will represent the end of our lives as we have known them. We will be a part of the Collective Unconscious. It is peaceful here.
We walk past the once-rowdy group of rugby players. They are calmly focused on their sewing machines. White cotton fabric, as far as the eye can see. There is no use for the farsighted here.
This woman I’m showing around is a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. I forget which. I’ve brought her here in hopes of her doing something about it, this criminal place. She seems excited. Her professional, forest green suit and maroon blouse ruffle loudly as she moves about to study the Focus of the residents here. Because I know about the British man and his needle, I tell her to be Calm. Act like a Robot. We are on a Battlefield.
I have not been assimilated yet.
The water in the fountains does not shimmer here. All light seems ambient, from elsewhere. Shadows do not follow anyone. There is little color. no one gets upset when I bump into them as I walk past, or even says Excuse Me, or I’m Sorry. They just go about their business, carrying dishes or whatever. Every room is interconnected. Everything is inside. There are no gardens, no trees. There are windows, and the views seem so real, I could jump out of one and land Splat on the concrete below. And that would be more productive than staying here, enduring the British man with the needle and the silence and the smiles with no source.
We are becoming conspicuous. There must be cameras lurking. They wouldn’t be so pompous to think that whatever their drug or hypnosis is would be so unfailingly effective the results could go unmonitored.
It occurs to me now, my second time in this place, under the cover of my pretend Apathy (for few have a ‘second’ time here), that bringing a shrink into an Experimental Reality may not have been the wisest choice. She is in Heaven. They would not assimilate her if we were caught – they would hire her.
I had brought her in hopes of her understanding the injustice, the prisonlike reality of this place. How everyone acted just the same. How illegal this has to be. Her appreciation and compassion for the fragile mind of human beings would jolt her into action. Her hourly rate would become something tangible, patients worthy of being explored beyond their childhoods of the last part of the twentieth century – the Drughaze Generation, she calls them. Us.
She would be the expert witness in the trial of Their Downfall. She would explain that these people, though seemingly complacent, are being held against their will. That these are Artists – painters, sculptors, writers, inventors of toys and worlds, poets, musicians, collectors, travelers, philosophers, glass blowers, dreamers, and storytellers – people for whom the world exists on a romantic, inspirational level. That their skills and passions and peculiar, aloof perspectives have been taken from them, suppressed, their cognitive awareness arid, transparent.
Playing with dull knives is never fun.
She would explain that while yes, the human brain is malleable, it is considered inhumane to mold one not belonging to you without explicit consent, on an expressed and individual basis. This is an entire society. Reinvented.
To which the defense attorney would reply with a convoluted and rhetorical question about everyone is the place giving consent, knowing full well what the deal was (I will not entertain his vocabulary here). That every artist and musician, whose primary tool is their freedom, yes, every one of them signed on the dotted line. Imagination was too much for them. The art, the music, the words meant so much that they wanted them to just disappear. Vanish.
My expert witness, the shrink, would see though all of this immediately, and pointedly remark on the density of her inquisitor’s narrowminded perspective. Something about materialism and lassitude. She would walk away from the witness stand victorious. The Defense Council would hang their heads in shame, for they know of their loss. And we would have our Dalis back, our Hendrixes, our Vonneguts and Darrells and Smiths and Thompsons and Kafkas. Their deaths were well constructed. Fitting, even.
But they never happened.
I am playing the part, and acting it well. I am the Angel’s Advocate. This is my personal Railroad, my path to Enlightenment. I have made an awful mistake. Judgment has been compromised. So I keep her on her toes, as if there is violent and fiery danger around every corner. I try to keep her attention on the Ethics of the thing, so that her mind doesn’t wander to the wasteland of my own thoughts.
She is in Heaven.
For a few careless moments, I lose my own Focus. We are in a public Living Room, decorated with mass-produced still lifes that use just enough color to get the point across, and not a shade more. On a brightly lit glass shelf, there is a CD player. On another, books. Unread, but dustless.
It’s a bad habit of mine sometimes, to walk into a bookshop and dislocate the entire day, my fingers running softly along the spines of new and old, hard cover, soft cover, special editions, signed, unabridged, annotated, torn, vandalized, read, owned many times but never opened books that make those trademark, lovely soft cracking and tearing sounds when I flip through gilt-edged pages, as if it was an Encyclopedia Britannica – at least then there would be an excuse for it never having been read. But this is Leaves of Grass. On the Road. Huck Finn. Rousseau. Eggers. Shakespeare. This is Blasphemy, Cultural Ruin, the puzzle pieces to my joy and elation.
I’m always looking for the Poetry. Sometimes the section exists, other times I smirk at our absence. Underground Superiority: a façade for my disappointment. Those thin an numerous volumes by authors I’ve never heard of, will never see again. Poems, by ______. Tumbling Down the Stairway to Heaven, by ______. Sunsets: A Collection of Poetry, edited by ______. Through the Mirrored Woods: Poetry by ______ (1976-1993). These are typically the books one can pick up, read one or two haphazardly chosen pieces, and essentially know the rest. Poets tend to stick to their styles, especially in the same book. Consistency and all. Sometimes the style is rhythmic and inspiring and it is quickly realized that a gem of infinitely greater value than gold is spreading wide open for you to indulge in its intimate secrets. That you are holding beauty in your dry and cracked hands. Blood and scars and pen marks, nails cut too short. Ink is your connection.
Moving on to make sure they have the quintessential, my eyes scan the shelves and every emotion is registered and loved and every memory held onto for just a moment. Poe, Dickinson, Ginsberg, Hopkins (often a ghost), Neruda, Whitman. I might open one, flip to my favorites quickly because I know this edition and just so I can see the words in print instead of just in my mind’s eye: Here the Frailest Leaves of Me on 109, Spelt From Sibyl’s Leaves on 86, Lost in the Forest on 132.
I’ll roam the shelves for hours, following only my instincts, smiling at old affairs, remembering the job I was fired from for reading The Savage Detectives, the missed phone call about my grandfather’s death because Hand was talking to the lady in the airport about World War II and I couldn’t peel away for the chiming bells, a marathon romp inspired solely by one unerotic but lascivious sounding passage from Up in the Gallery, the exploration of every available intoxicating substance available in a meager attempt to keep up with Raoul Duke and his attorney. These are the chronicles of my life, and I visit them often. Twain, Thoreau, Hesse, cummings: my childhood friends – Tilbury Town the community I was raised in. Valentine’s 1945 in Dresden my awful family vacation.
I pick up one of the shelved books and flip through the pages – back to front (I’m lefthanded). I read a paragraph, and am lost. My Plight of Freeing Passion has been absorbed by this dangerous book. The shriveler is looking at a couple sitting at a table, studying them. I know this moment will be the end of my life.
I tapdance to the CD player, and intently place whatever CD I first pick up in the slot. The volume is up. I run over to the forestclad scholar, tell her to get the hell out of here. It’s over. Tell the story. Write the song.
She’ll be caught and offered a signing bonus. She’ll probably up the Ativan dose for Pablo. Zoloft for Hunter. I tell her to please give me Cyanide. Quizzical look. I’m done. She’s frightened. Panicked. She runs in her heels for the wide and shadowy stairway. It leads to the real world, one with epic mountains and irritating mosquitoes and grizzly-sounding Aussie poets and homicidal whiskey. One where there is freedom to rhyme in everyday conversation and paint masterworks with tomato sauce. To run your fingers over a flesh and blood sculpture and then go create one from clay. To play and laugh and dream and swear and gamble your favorite hibiscus shirt away. That, over there, is the Stairway to Heaven, and the notes within it may well be the Portal to Aural Expression, or even Divinity itself, but Jimmy Page is in here, insuring the soilent green is fit for human consumption.
Here comes the man with the British accent and the needle. He says something to the tank of a man walking with him.
The accent. He’s from Leeds.