I remember 208I was eating lunch and reading something dull by Bazin when my father came into the kitchen and made himself a tomato juice beverage and said that as soon as I was finished he and my mother needed my help in their bedroom. My father had spent the morning at the commercial studio and was still all in white, with his wig with its rigid white parted hair, and hadn’t yet removed the television makeup that gave his real face an orange cast in daylight. I hurried up and finished and rinsed my dishes in the sink and proceeded down the hall to the master bedroom. My mother and father were both in there. The master bedroom’s valance curtains and the heavy lightproof curtain behind them were all slid back and the venetian blinds up, and the daylight was very bright in the room, the decor of which was white and blue and powder-blue.
My father was bent over my parents’ large bed, which was stripped of bedding all the way down to the mattress protector. He was bent over, pushing down on the bed’s mattress with the heels of his hands. The bed’s sheets and pillows and powder-blue coverlet were all in a pile on the carpet next to the bed. Then my father handed me his tumbler of tomato juice to hold for him and got all the way on top of the bed and knelt on it, pressing down vigorously on the mattress with his hands, putting all his weight into it. He bore down hard on one area of the mattress, then let up and pivoted slightly on his knees and bore down with equal vigor on a different area of the mattress. He did this all over the bed, sometimes actually walking around on the mattress on his knees to get at different areas of the mattress, then bearing down on them. I remember thinking the bearing-down action looked very much like emergency compression of a heart patient’s chest. I remember my father’s tomato juice had grains of pepperish material floating on the surface. My mother was standing at the bedroom window, smoking a long cigarette and looking at the lawn, which I had watered before I ate lunch. The uncovered window faced south. The room blazed with sunlight.
‘Eureka,’ my father said, pressing down several times on one particular spot.
I asked whether I could ask what was going on.
‘Goddamn bed squeaks,’ he said. He stayed on his knees over the one particular spot, bearing down on it repeatedly. There was now a squeaking sound from the mattress when he bore down on the spot. My father looked up and over at my mother next to the bedroom window. ‘Do you or do you not hear that?’ he said, bearing down and letting up. My mother tapped her long cigarette into a shallow ashtray she held in her other hand. She watched my father press down on the squeaking spot.
Sweat was running in dark orange lines down my father’s face from under his rigid white professional wig. My father served for two years as the Man from Glad, representing what was then the Glad Flaccid Plastic Receptacle Co. of Zanesville, Ohio, via a California-based advertising agency. The tunic, tight trousers, and boots the agency made him wear were also white.
My father pivoted on his knees and swung his body around and got off the mattress and put his hand at the small of his back and straightened up, continuing to look at the mattress.
‘This miserable cock-sucking bed your mother felt she needed to hang on to and bring with us out here for quote sentimental value has started squeaking,’ my father said. His saying ‘your mother’ indicated that he was addressing himself to me. He held his hand out for his tumbler of tomato juice without having to look at me. He stared darkly down at the bed. ‘It’s driving us fucking nuts.’
My mother balanced her cigarette in her shallow ashtray and laid the ashtray on the windowsill and bent over from the foot of the bed and bore down on the spot my father had isolated, and it squeaked again.
‘And at night this one spot here we’ve isolated and identified seems to spread and metastisate until the whole Goddamn bed’s replete with squeaks.’ He drank some of his tomato juice. ‘Areas that gibber and squeak,’ my father said, ‘until we both feel as if we’re being eaten by rats.’ He felt along the line of his jaw. ‘Boiling hordes of gibbering squeaking ravenous rapacious rats,’ he said, almost trembling with irritation.
I looked down at the mattress, at my mother’s hands, which tended to flake in dry climates. She carried a small bottle of moisturizing lotion at all times.
My father said, ‘And I have personally had it with the aggravation.’ He blotted his forehead on his white sleeve.
I reminded my father that he’d mentioned needing my help with something. At that age I was already taller than both my parents. My mother was taller than my father, even in his boots, but much of her height was in her legs. My father’s body was denser and more substantial.
My mother came around to my father’s side of the bed and picked the bedding up off the floor. She started folding the sheets very precisely, using both arms and her chin. She stacked the folded bedding neatly on top of her dresser, which I remember was white lacquer.
My father looked at me. ‘What we need to do here, Jim, is take the mattress and box spring off the bed frame under here,’ my father said, ‘and expose the frame.’ He took time out to explain that the bed’s bottom mattress was hard-framed and known uniformly as a box spring. I was looking at my sneakers and making my feet alternately pigeon-toed and then penguin-toed on the bedroom’s blue carpet. My father drank some of his tomato juice and looked down at the edge of the bed’s metal frame and felt along the outline of his jaw, where his commercial studio makeup ended abruptly at the turtleneck collar of his white commercial tunic.
‘The frame on this bed is old,’ he told me. ‘It’s probably older than you are. Right now I’m thinking the thing’s bolts have maybe started coming loose, and that’s what’s gibbering and squeaking at night.’ He finished his tomato juice and held the glass out for me to take and put somewhere. ‘So we want to move all this top crap out of the way, entirely’ — he gestured with one arm — ‘entirely out of the way, get it out of the room, and expose the frame, and see if we don’t maybe just need to tighten up the bolts.’
I wasn’t sure where to put my father’s empty glass, which had juice residue and grains of pepper along the inside’s sides. I poked at the mattress and box spring a little bit with my foot. ‘Are you sure it isn’t just the mattress?’ I said. The bed’s frame’s bolts struck me as a rather exotic first-order explanation for the squeaking.
My father gestured broadly. ‘Synchronicity surrounds me. Concord,’ he said. ‘Because that’s what your mother thinks it is, also.’ My mother was using both hands to take the blue pillowcases off all five of their pillows, again using her chin as a clamp. The pillows were all the overplump polyester fiberfill kind, because of my father’s allergies.
‘Great minds think alike,’ my father said.
Neither of my parents had any interest in hard science, though a great uncle had accidentally electrocuted himself with a field series generator he was seeking to patent.
My mother stacked the pillows on top of the neatly folded bedding on her dresser. She had to get up on her tiptoes to put the folded pillowcases on top of the pillows. I had started to move to help her, but I couldn’t decide where to put the empty tomato juice glass.
‘But you just want to hope it isn’t the mattress,’ father said. ‘Or the box spring.’
My mother sat down on the foot of the bed and got out another long cigarette and lit it. She carried a little leatherette snap-case for both her cigarettes and her lighter.
My father said, ‘Because a new frame, even if we can’t get the bolts squared away on this one and I have to go get a new one. A new frame. It wouldn’t be too bad, see. Even top-shelf bed frames aren’t that expensive. But new mattresses are outrageously expensive.’ He looked at my mother. ‘And I mean fucking outrageous.’ He looked down at the back of my mother’s head. ‘And we bought a new box spring for this sad excuse for a bed not five years ago.’ He was looking down at the back of my mother’s head as if he wanted to confirm that she was listening. My mother had crossed her legs and was looking with a certain concentration either at or out the master bedroom window. Our home’s whole subdivision was spread along a severe hillside, which meant that the view from my parents’ bedroom on the first floor was of just sky and sun and a foreshortened declivity of lawn. The lawn sloped at an average angle of 55° and had to be mowed horizontally. None of the subdivision’s lawns had trees yet. ‘Of course that was during a seldom-discussed point in time when your mother had to assume the burden of assuming responsibility for finances in the household,’ my father said. He was now perspiring very heavily, but still had his white professional toupee on, and still looked at my mother.
My father acted, throughout our time in California, as both symbol and spokesman for the Glad F.P.R. Co.’s Individual Sandwich Bag Division. He was the first of two actors to portray the Man from Glad. He was inserted several times a month in a mock-up of a car interior, where he would be filmed in a tight trans-windshield shot receiving an emergency radio summons to some household that was having a portable-food-storage problem. He was then inserted opposite an actress in a generic kitchen-interior set, where he would explain how a particular species of Glad Sandwich Bag was precisely what the doctor ordered for the particular portable-food-storage problem at issue. In his vaguely medical uniform of all white, he carried an air of authority and great evident conviction, and earned what I always gathered was an impressive salary, for those times, and received, for the first time in his career, fan mail, some of which bordered on the disturbing, and which he sometimes liked to read out loud at night in the living room, loudly and dramatically, sitting up with a nightcap and fan mail long after my mother and I had gone to bed.
I asked whether I could excuse myself for a moment to take my father’s empty tomato juice glass out to the kitchen sink. I was worried that the residue along the inside sides of the tumbler would harden into the kind of precipitate that would be hard to wash off.
‘For Christ’s sake Jim just put the thing down,’ my father said.
I put the tumbler down on the bedroom carpet over next to the base of my mother’s dresser, pressing down to create a kind of circular receptacle for it in the carpet. My mother stood up and went back over by the bedroom window with her ashtray. We could tell she was getting out of our way.
My father cracked his knuckles and studied the path between the bed and the bedroom door.
I said I understood my part here to be to help my father move the mattress and box spring off the suspect bed frame and well out of the way. My father cracked his knuckles and replied that I was becoming almost frighteningly quick and perceptive. He went around between the foot of the bed and my mother at the window. He said, ‘I want to let’s just stack it all out in the hall, to get it the hell out of here and give us some room to maneuver.’
‘Right,’ I said.
My father and I were now on opposite sides of my parents’ bed. My father rubbed his hands together and bent and worked his hands between the mattress and box spring and began to lift the mattress up from his side of the bed. When his side of the mattress had risen to the height of his shoulders, he somehow inverted his hands and began pushing his side up rather than lifting it. The top of his wig disappeared behind the rising mattress, and his side rose in an arc to almost the height of the white ceiling, exceeded 90°, toppled over, and began to fall over down toward me. The mattress’s overall movement was like the crest of a breaking wave, I remember. I spread my arms and took the impact of the mattress with my chest and face, supporting the angled mattress with my chest, outspread arms, and face. All I could see was an extreme close-up of the woodland floral pattern of the mattress protector.
The mattress, a Simmons Beauty Rest whose tag said that it could not by law be removed, now formed the hypotenuse of a right dihedral triangle whose legs were myself and the bed’s box spring. I remember visualizing and considering this triangle. My legs were trembling under the mattress’s canted weight. My father exhorted me to hold and support the mattress. The respectively sharp plastic and meaty human smells of the mattress and protector were very distinct because my nose was mashed up against them.
My father came around to my side of the bed, and together we pushed the mattress back up until it stood up at 90° again. We edged carefully apart and each took one end of the upright mattress and began jockeying it off the bed and out the bedroom door into the uncarpeted hallway.
This was a King-Size Simmons Beauty Rest mattress. It was massive but had very little structural integrity. It kept curving and curling and wobbling. My father exhorted both me and the mattress. It was flaccid and floppy as we tried to jockey it. My father had an especially hard time with his half of the mattress’s upright weight because of an old competitive-tennis injury.
While we were jockeying it on its side off the bed, part of the mattress on my father’s end slipped and flopped over and down onto a pair of steel reading lamps, adjustable cubes of brushed steel attached by toggle bolts to the white wall over the head of the bed. The lamps took a solid hit from the mattress, and one cube was rotated all the way around on its toggle so that its open side and bulb now pointed at the ceiling. The joint and toggle made a painful squeaking sound as the cube was wrenched around upward. This was also when I became aware that even the reading lamps were on in the daylit room, because a faint square of direct lamplight, its four sides rendered slightly concave by the distortion of projection, appeared on the white ceiling above the skewed cube. But the lamps didn’t fall off. They remained attached to the wall.
‘God damn it to hell,’ my father said as he regained control of his end of the mattress.
My father also said, ‘Fucking son of a…’ when the mattress’s thickness made it difficult for him to squeeze through the doorway still holding his end.
In time we were able to get my parents’ giant mattress out in the narrow hallway that ran between the master bedroom and the kitchen. I could hear another terrible squeak from the bedroom as my mother tried to realign the reading lamp whose cube had been inverted. Drops of sweat were falling from my father’s face onto his side of the mattress, darkening part of the protector’s fabric. My father and I tried to lean the mattress at a slight supporting angle against one wall of the hallway, but because the floor of the hallway was uncarpeted and didn’t provide sufficient resistance, the mattress wouldn’t stay upright. Its bottom edge slid out from the wall all the way across the width of the hallway until it met the baseboard of the opposite wall, and the upright mattress’s top edge slid down the wall until the whole mattress sagged at an extremely concave slumped angle, a dry section of the woodland floral mattress protector stretched drum-tight over the slumped crease and the springs possibly damaged by the deforming concavity.
My father looked at the canted concave mattress sagging across the width of the hall and moved one end of it a little with the toe of his boot and looked at me and said, ‘Fuck it.’
My bow tie was rumpled and at an angle.
My father had to walk unsteadily across the mattress in his white boots to get back to my side of the mattress and the bedroom behind me. On his way across he stopped and felt speculatively at his jaw, his boots sunk deep in woodland floral cotton. He said ‘Fuck it’ again, and I remember not being clear about what he was referring to. Then my father turned and started unsteadily back the way he had come across the mattress, one hand against the wall for support. He instructed me to wait right there in the hallway for one moment while he darted into the kitchen at the other end of the hall on a very brief errand. His steadying hand left four faint smeared prints on the wall’s white paint.
My parents’ bed’s box spring, though also King-Size and heavy, had just below its synthetic covering a wooden frame that gave the box spring structural integrity, and it didn’t flop or alter its shape, and after another bit of difficulty for my father — who was too thick through the middle, even with the professional girdle beneath his Glad costume — after another bit of difficulty for my father squeezing with his end of the box spring through the bedroom doorway, we were able to get it into the hall and lean it vertically at something just over 70° against the wall, where it stayed upright with no problem.
‘That’s the way she wants doing, Jim,’ my father said, clapping me on the back in exactly the ebullient way that had prompted me to have my mother buy an elastic athletic cranial strap for my glasses. I had told my mother I needed the strap for tennis purposes, and she had not asked any questions.
My father’s hand was still on my back as we returned to the master bedroom. ‘Right, then!’ my father said. His mood was now elevated. There was a brief second of confusion at the doorway as each of us tried to step back to let the other through first.
There was now nothing but the suspect frame left where the bed had been. There was something exoskeletal and frail-looking about the bed frame, a plain low-ratio rectangle of black steel. At each corner of the rectangle was a caster. The casters’ wheels had sunk into the pile carpet under the weight of the bed and my parents and were almost completely submerged in the carpet’s fibers. Each of the frame’s sides had a narrow steel shelf welded at 90° to its interior’s base, so that a single rectangular narrow shelf perpendicular to the frame’s rectangle ran all around the frame’s interior. This shelf was obviously there to support the bed’s occupants and King-Size box spring and mattress.
My father seemed frozen in place. I cannot remember what my mother was doing. There seemed to be a long silent interval of my father looking closely at the exposed frame. The interval had the silence and stillness of dusty rooms immersed in sunlight. I briefly imagined every piece of furniture in the bedroom covered with sheets and the room unoccupied for years as the sun rose and crossed and fell outside the window, the room’s daylight becoming staler and staler. I could hear two power lawnmowers of slightly different pitch from somewhere down our subdivision’s street. The direct light through the master bedroom’s window swam with rotating columns of raised dust. I remember it seemed the ideal moment for a sneeze.
Dust lay thick on the frame and even hung from the frame’s interior support-shelf in little gray beards. It was impossible to see any bolts anywhere on the frame.
My father blotted sweat and wet makeup from his forehead with the back of his sleeve, which was now dark orange with makeup. ‘Jesus will you look at that mess,’ he said. He looked at my mother. ‘Jesus.’
The carpeting in my parents’ bedroom was deep-pile and a darker blue than the pale blue of the rest of the bedroom’s color scheme. I remember the carpet as more a royal blue, with a saturation level somewhere between moderate and strong. The rectangular expanse of royal blue carpet that had been hidden under the bed was itself carpeted with a thick layer of clotted dust. The rectangle of dust was gray-white and thick and unevenly layered, and the only evidence of the room’s carpet below was a faint sick bluish cast to the dust-layer. It looked as if dust had not drifted under the bed and settled on the carpet inside the frame but rather had somehow taken root and grown on it, upon it, the way a mold will take root and gradually cover an expanse of spoiled food. The layer of dust itself looked a little like spoiled food, bad cottage cheese. It was nauseous. Some of the dust-layer’s uneven topography was caused by certain lost- and litter-type objects that had found their way under the bed — a flyswatter, a roughly Variety-sized magazine, some bottletops, three wadded Kleenex, and what was probably a sock — and gotten covered and textured in dust.
There was also a faint odor, sour and fungal, like the smell of an overused bathmat.
‘Jesus, there’s even a smell,’ my father said. He made a show of inhaling through his nose and screwing up his face. ‘There’s even a fucking smell.’ He blotted his forehead and felt his jaw and looked hard at my mother. His mood was no longer elevated. My father’s mood surrounded him like a field and affected any room he occupied, like an odor or a certain cast to the light.
‘When was the last time this got cleaned under here?’ my father asked my mother.
My mother didn’t say anything. She looked at my father as he moved the steel frame around a little with his boot, which raised even more dust into the window’s sunlight. The bed frame seemed very lightweight, moving back and forth noiselessly on its casters’ submerged wheels. My father often moved lightweight objects absently around with his foot, rather the way other men doodle or examine their cuticles. Rugs, magazines, telephone and electrical cords, his own removed shoe. It was one of my father’s ways of musing or gathering his thoughts or trying to control his mood.
‘Under what presidential administration was this room last deep-cleaned, I’m standing here prompted to fucking muse out loud,’ my father said.
I looked at my mother to see whether she was going to say anything in reply.
I said to my father, ‘You know, since we’re discussing squeaking beds, my bed squeaks, too.’
My father was trying to squat down to see whether he could locate any bolts on the frame, saying something to himself under his breath. He put his hands on the frame for balance and almost fell forward when the frame rolled under his weight.
‘But I don’t think I even really noticed it until we began to discuss it,’ I said. I looked at my mother. ‘I don’t think it bothers me,’ I said. ‘Actually, I think I kind of like it. I think I’ve gradually gotten so used to it that it’s become almost comforting. At this juncture,’ I said.
My mother looked at me.
‘I’m not complaining about it,’ I said. ‘The discussion just made me think of it.’
‘Oh, we hear your bed, don’t you worry,’ my father said. He was still trying to squat, which drew his corset and the hem of his tunic up and allowed the top of his bottom’s crack to appear above the the waist of his white pants. He shifted slightly to point up at the master bedroom’s ceiling. ‘You so much as turn over in bed up there? We hear it down here.’ He took one steel side of the rectangle and shook the frame vigorously, sending up a shroud of dust. The bed frame seemed to weigh next to nothing under his hands. My mother made a mustache of her finger to hold back a sneeze.
He shook the frame again. ‘But it doesn’t aggravate us the way this rodential son of a whore right here does.’
I remarked that I didn’t think I’d ever once heard their bed squeak before, from upstairs. My father twisted his head around to try to look up at me as I stood there behind him. But I said I’d definitely heard and could confirm the presence of a squeak when he’d pressed on the mattress, and could verify that the squeak was no one’s imagination.
My father held a hand up to signal me to please stop talking. He remained in a squat, rocking slightly on the balls of his feet, using the rolling frame to keep his balance. The flesh of the top of his bottom and crack-area protruded over the waist of his pants. There were also deep red folds in the back of his neck, below the blunt cut of the wig, because he was looking up and over at my mother, who was resting her tailbone on the sill of the window, still holding her shallow ashtray.
‘Maybe you’d like to go get the vacuum,’ he said. My mother put the ashtray down on the sill and exited the master bedroom, passing between me and the dresser piled with bedding. ‘If you can… if you can remember where it is!’ my father called after her.
I could hear my mother trying to get past the King-Size mattress sagging diagonally across the hall.
My father was rocking more violently on the balls of his feet, and now the rocking had the sort of rolling, side-to-side quality of a ship in high seas. He came very close to losing his balance as he leaned to his right to get a handkerchief from his hip pocket and began using it to reach out and flick dust off something at one corner of the bed frame. After a moment he pointed down next to a caster.
‘Bolt,’ he said, pointing at the side of a caster. ‘Right there’s a bolt.’ I leaned in over him. Drops of my father’s perspiration made small dark coins in the dust of the frame. There was nothing but smooth lightweight black steel surface where he was pointing, but just to the left of where he was pointing I could see what might have been a bolt, a little stalactite of clotted dust hanging from some slight protrusion. My father’s hands were broad and his fingers blunt. Another possible bolt lay several inches to the right of where he pointed. His finger trembled badly, and I believe the trembling might have been from the muscular strain on his bad knees, trying to hold so much new weight in a squat for an extended period. I heard the telephone ring twice. There had been an extended silence, with my father pointing at neither protrusion and me trying to lean in over him.
Then, still squatting on the balls of his feet, my father placed both hands on the side of the frame and leaned out over the side into the rectangle of dust inside the frame and had what at first sounded like a bad coughing fit. His hunched back and rising bottom kept me from watching him. I remember deciding that the reason the frame was not rolling under his hands’ pressure was that my father had so much of his weight on it, and that maybe my father’s nervous system’s response to heavy dust was a cough-signal instead of a sneeze-signal. It was the wet sound of material hitting the dust inside the rectangle, plus the rising odor, that signified to me that, rather than coughing, my father had been taken ill. The spasms involved made his back rise and fall and his bottom tremble under his white commercial slacks. It was not too uncommon for my father to be taken ill shortly after coming home from work to relax, but now he seemed to have been taken really ill. To give him some privacy, I went around the frame to the side of the frame closest to the window where there was direct light and less odor and examined another of the frame’s casters. My father was whispering to himself in brief expletive phrases between the spasms of his illness. I squatted easily and rubbed dust from a small area of the frame and wiped the dust on the carpet by my feet. There was a small carriage-head bolt on either side of the plating that attached the caster to the bed frame. I knelt and felt one of the bolts. Its round smooth head made it impossible either to tighten or loosen. Putting my cheek to the carpet and examining the bottom of the little horizontal shelf welded to the frame’s side, I observed that the bolt seemed threaded tightly and completely through its hole, and I decided it was doubtful that any of the casters’ platings’ bolts were producing the sounds that reminded my father of rodents.
Just at this time, I remember, there was a loud cracking sound and my area of the frame jumped violently as my father’s illness caused him to faint and he lost his balance and pitched forward and lay prone and asleep over his side of the bed frame, which as I rolled away from the frame and rose to my knees I saw was either broken or very badly bent. My father lay face-down in the mixture of the rectangle’s thick dust and the material he’d brought up from his upset stomach. The dust his collapse raised was very thick, and as the new dust rose and spread it attenuated the master bedroom’s daylight as decisively as if a cloud had moved over the sun in the window. My father’s professional wig had detached and lay scalp-up in the mixture of dust and stomach material. The stomach material appeared to be mostly gastric blood until I recalled the tomato juice my father had been drinking. He lay face-down, with his bottom high in the air, over the side of the bed frame, which his weight had broken in half. This was how I accounted for the loud cracking sound.
I stood out of the way of the dust and the window’s dusty light, feeling along the line of my jaw and examining my prone father from a distance. I remember that his breathing was regular and wet, and that the dust mixture bubbled somewhat. It was then that it occurred to me that when I’d been supporting the bed’s raised mattress with my chest and face preparatory to its removal from the room, the dihedral triangle I’d imagined the mattress forming with the box spring and my body had not in fact even been a closed figure: the box spring and the floor I had stood on did not constitute a continuous plane.
Then I could hear my mother trying to get the heavy canister vacuum cleaner past the angled Simmons Beauty Rest in the hall, and I went to help her. My father’s legs were stretched out across the clean blue carpet between his side of the frame and my mother’s white dresser. His feet’s boots were at a pigeon-toed angle, and his bottom’s crack all the way down to the anus itself was now visible because the force of his fall had pulled his white slacks down even farther. I stepped carefully between his legs.
‘Excuse me,’ I said.
I was able to help my mother by telling her to detach the vacuum cleaner’s attachments and hand them one at a time to me over the width of the slumped mattress, where I held them. The vacuum cleaner was manufactured by Regina, and its canister, which contained the engine, bag, and evacuating fan, was very heavy. I reassembled the vacuum and held it while my mother made her way back across the mattress, then handed the vacuum cleaner back to her, flattening myself against the wall to let her pass by on her way into the master bedroom.
‘Thanks,’ my mother said as she passed.
I stood there by the slumped mattress for several moments of a silence so complete that I could hear the street’s lawnmowers all the way out in the hall, then heard the sound of my mother pulling out the vacuum cleaner’s retractable cord and plugging it into the same bedside outlet the steel reading lamps were attached to.
I made my way over the angled mattress and quickly down the hall, made a sharp right at the entrance to the kitchen, crossed the foyer to the staircase, and ran up to my room, taking several stairs at a time, hurrying to get some distance between myself and the vacuum cleaner, because the sound of vacuuming has always frightened me in the same irrational way it seemed a bed’s squeak frightened my father.
I ran upstairs and pivoted left at the upstairs landing and went into my room. In my room was my bed. It was narrow, a twin bed, with a head-board of wood and frame and slats of wood. I didn’t know where it had come from, originally. The frame held the narrow box spring and mattress much higher off the floor than my parents’ bed. It was an old-fashioned bed, so high off the floor that you had to put one knee up on the mattress and clamber up into it, or else jump.
That is what I did. For the first time since I had become taller than my parents, I took several running strides in from the doorway, past my shelves’ collection of prisms and lenses and tennis trophies and my scale-model magneto, past my bookcase, the wall’s still-posters from Powell’s Peeping Tom and the closet door and my bedside’s high-intensity standing lamp, and jumped, doing a full swan dive up onto my bed. I landed with my weight on my chest with my arms and legs out from my body on the indigo comforter on my bed, squashing my tie and bending my glasses’ temples slightly. I was trying to make my bed produce a loud squeak, which in the case of my bed I knew was caused by any lateral friction between the wooden slats and the frame’s interior’s shelf-like slat-support.
But in the course of the leap and the dive, my overlong arm hit the heavy iron pole of the high-intensity standing lamp that stood next to the bed. The lamp teetered violently and began to fall over sideways, away from the bed. It fell with a kind of majestic slowness, resembling a felled tree. As the lamp fell, its heavy iron pole struck the brass knob on the door to my closet, shearing the knob off completely. The round knob and half its interior hex bolt fell off and hit my room’s wooden floor with a loud noise and began then to roll around in a remarkable way, the sheared end of the hex bolt stationary and the round knob, rolling on its circumference, circling it in a spherical orbit, describing two perfectly circular motions on two distinct axes, a non-Euclidian figure on a planar surface, i.e., a cycloid on a sphere:
The closest conventional analogue I could derive for this figure was a cycloid, L’Hôpital’s solution to Bernoulli’s famous Brachistochrone Problem, the curve traced by a fixed point on the circumference of a circle rolling along a continuous plane. But since here, on the bedroom’s floor, a circle was rolling around what was itself the circumference of a circle, the cycloid’s standard parametric equations were no longer apposite, those equations’ trigonometric expressions here becoming themselves first-order differential equations.
Because of the lack of resistance or friction against the bare floor, the knob rolled this way for a long time as I watched over the edge of the comforter and mattress, holding my glasses in place, completely distracted from the minor-D shriek of the vacuum below. It occurred to me that the movement of the amputated knob perfectly schematized what it would look like for someone to try to turn somersaults with one hand nailed to the floor. This was how I first became interested in the possibilities of annulation.
The night after the chilly and sort of awkward joint Interdependence Day picnic for Enfield’s Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, Somerville’s Phoenix House, and Dorchester’s grim New Choice juvenile rehab, Ennet House staffer Johnette Foltz took Ken Erdedy and Kate Gompert along with her to this one NA Beginners’ Discussion Meeting where the focus was always marijuana: how every addict at the meeting had gotten in terrible addictive trouble with it right from the first duBois, or else how they’d been strung out on harder drugs and had tried switching to grass to get off the original drugs and but then had gotten in even terribler trouble with grass than they’d been in with the original hard stuff. This was supposedly the only NA meeting in metro Boston explicitly devoted to marijuana. Johnette Foltz said she wanted Erdedy and Gompert to see how completely nonunique and unalone they were in terms of the Substance that had brought them both down.
There were about maybe two dozen beginning recovering addicts there in the anechoic vestry of an upscale church in what Erdedy figured had to be either west Belmont or east Waltham. The chairs were arranged in NA’s traditional huge circle, with no tables to sit at and everybody balancing ashtrays on their knees and accidentally kicking over their cups of coffee. Everybody who raised their hand to share concurred on the insidious ways marijuana had ravaged their bodies, minds, and spirits: marijuana destroys slowly but thoroughly was the consensus. Ken Erdedy’s joggling foot knocked over his coffee not once but twice as the NAs took turns concurring on the hideous psychic fallout they’d all endured both in active marijuana-dependency and then in marijuana-detox: the social isolation, anxious lassitude, and the hyperself-consciousness that then reinforced the withdrawal and anxiety — the increasing emotional abstraction, poverty of affect, and then total emotional catalepsy — the obsessive analyzing, finally the paralytic stasis that results from the obsessive analysis of all possible implications of both getting up from the couch and not getting up from the couch — and then the endless symptomatic gauntlet of Withdrawal from delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol: i.e. pot-detox: the loss of appetite, the mania and insomnia, the chronic fatigue and nightmares, the impotence and cessation of menses and lactation, the circadian arrhythmia, the sudden sauna-type sweats and mental confusion and fine-motor tremors, the particularly nasty excess production of saliva — several beginners still holding institutional drool-cups just under their chins — the generalized anxiety and foreboding and dread, and the shame of feeling like neither M.D.s nor the hard-drug NAs themselves showed much empathy or compassion for the ‘addict’ brought down by what was supposed to be nature’s humblest buzz, the benignest Substance around.
Ken Erdedy noticed that nobody came right out and used the terms melancholy or anhedonia or depression, much less clinical depression; but this worst of symptoms, this logarithm of all suffering, seemed, though unmentioned, to hang fog-like just over the room’s heads, to drift between the peristyle columns and over the decorative astrolabes and candles on long prickets and medieval knockoffs and framed Knights of Columbus charters, a gassy plasm so dreaded no beginner could bear to look up and name it. Kate Gompert kept staring at the floor and making a revolver of her fore-finger and thumb and shooting herself in the temple and then blowing pretend-cordite off the barrel’s tip until Johnette Foltz whispered to her to knock it off.
As was his custom at meetings, Ken Erdedy said nothing and observed everybody else very closely, cracking his knuckles and joggling his foot. Since an NA ‘Beginner’ is technically anybody with under a year clean, there were varying degrees of denial and distress and general cluelessness in this plush upscale vestry. The meeting had the usual broad demographic cross-section, but the bulk of these grass-ravaged people looked to him urban and tough and busted-up and dressed without any color-sense at all, people you could easily imagine smacking their kid in a supermarket or lurking with a homemade sap in the dark of a downtown alley. Same as AA. Motley disrespectability was like the room norm, along with glazed eyes and excess spittle. A couple of the beginners still had the milky plastic I.D. bracelets from psych wards they’d forgotten to cut off, or else hadn’t yet gotten up the drive to do it.
Unlike Boston AA, Boston NA has no mid-meeting raffle-break and goes for just an hour. At the close of this Monday Beginners’ Meeting everybody got up and held hands in a circle and recited the NA-Conference-Approved ‘Just For Today,’ then they all recited the Our Father, not exactly in unison. Kate Gompert later swore she distinctly heard the tattered older man beside her say ‘And lead us not into Penn Station’ during the Our Father.
Then, just as in AA, the NA meeting closed with everybody shouting to the air in front of them to Keep Coming Back because It Works.
But then, kind of horrifically, everyone in the room started milling around wildly and hugging each other. It was like somebody’d thrown a switch. There wasn’t even very much conversation. It was just hugging, as far as Erdedy could see. Rampant, indiscriminate hugging, where the point seemed to be to hug as many people as possible regardless of whether you’d ever seen them before in your life. People went from person to person, arms out and leaning in. Big people stooped and short people got up on tiptoe. Jowls ground into other jowls. Both genders hugged both genders. And the male-to-male hugs were straight embraces, hugs minus the vigorous little thumps on the back that Erdedy’d always seen as somehow requisite for male-to-male hugs. Johnette Foltz was almost a blur. She went from person to person. She was racking up serious numbers of hugs. Kate Gompert had her usual lipless expression of morose distaste, but even she gave and got some hugs. But Erdedy — who’d never particularly liked hugging — moved way back from the throng, over up next to the NA-Conference-Approved-Literature table, and stood there by himself with his hands in his pockets, pretending to study the coffee urn with great interest.
But then a tall heavy Afro-American fellow with a gold incisor and perfect vertical cylinder of Afro-American hairstyle peeled away from a sort of group-hug nearby, he’d spotted Erdedy, and the fellow came over and established himself right in front of Erdedy, spreading the arms of his fatigue jacket for a hug, stooping slightly and leaning in toward Erdedy’s personal trunk-region.
Erdedy raised his hands in a benign No Thanks and backed up further so that his bottom was squashed up against the edge of the Conference-Approved-Literature table.
‘Thanks, but I don’t particularly like to hug,’ he said.
The fellow had to sort of pull up out of his pre-hug lean, and stood there awkwardly frozen, with his big arms still out, which Erdedy could see must have been awkward and embarrassing for the fellow. Erdedy found himself trying to calculate just what remote sub-Asian locale would be the maximum possible number of km. away from this exact spot and moment as the fellow just stood there, his arms out and the smile draining from his face.
‘Say what?’ the fellow said.
Erdedy proffered a hand. ‘Ken E., Ennet House, Enfield. How do you do. You are?’
The fellow slowly let his arms down but just looked at Erdedy’s proffered hand. A single styptic blink. ‘Roy Tony,’ he said.
‘Roy, how do you do.’
‘What it is,’ Roy said. The big fellow now had his handshake-hand behind his neck and was pretending to feel the back of his neck, which Erdedy didn’t know was a blatant dis.
‘Well Roy, if I may call you Roy, or Mr. Tony, if you prefer, unless it’s a compound first name, hyphenated, “Roy-Tony” and then a last name, but well with respect to this hugging thing, Roy, it’s nothing personal, rest assured.’
Erdedy’s best helpless smile and an apologetic shrug of the GoreTex anorak. ‘I’m afraid I just don’t particularly like to hug. Just not a hugger. Never have been. It was something of a joke among my fam—’
Now the ominous finger-pointing of street-aggression, this Roy fellow pointing first at Erdedy’s chest and then at his own: ‘So man what you say you saying I’m a hugger? You saying you think I go around like to hug?’
Both Erdedy’s hands were now up palms-out and waggling in a like bonhommic gesture of heading off all possible misunderstanding: ‘No but see the whole point is that I wouldn’t presume to call you either a hugger or a nonhugger because I don’t know you. I only meant to say it’s nothing personal having to do with you as an individual, and I’d be more than happy to shake hands, even one of those intricate multiple-handed ethnic handshakes if you’ll bear with my inexperience with that sort of handshake, but I’m simply uncomfortable with the whole idea of hugging.’
By the time Johnette Foltz could break away and get over to them, the fellow had Erdedy by his anorak’s insulated lapels and was leaning him way back over the edge of the Literature table so that Erdedy’s waterproof lodge boots were off the ground, and the fellow’s face was right up in Erdedy’s face in a show of naked aggression:
‘You think I fucking like to go around hug on folks? You think any of us like this shit? We fucking do what they tell us. They tell us Hugs Not Drugs in here. We done motherfucking surrendered our wills in here,’ Roy said. ‘You little faggot,’ Roy added. He wedged his hand between them to point at himself, which meant he was now holding Erdedy off the ground with just one hand, which fact was not lost on Erdedy’s nervous system. ‘I done had to give four hugs my first night here and then I gone ran in the fucking can and fucking puked. Puked,’ he said. ‘Not comfortable? Who the fuck are you? Don’t even try and tell me I’m coming over feeling comfortable about trying to hug on your James-River-Traders-wearing-Calvin-Klein-aftershave-smelling-goofy-ass motherfucking ass.’
Erdedy observed one of the Afro-American women who was looking on clap her hands and shout ‘Talk about it!’
‘And now you go and disrespect me in front of my whole clean and sober set just when I gone risk sharing my vulnerability and discomfort with you?’
Johnette Foltz was sort of pawing at the back of Roy Tony’s fatigue jacket, shuddering mentally at how the report of an Ennet House resident assaulted at an NA meeting she’d personally brought him to would look written up in the Staff Log.
‘Now,’ Roy said, extracting his free hand and pointing to the vestry floor with a stabbing gesture, ‘now,’ he said, ‘you gone risk vulnerability and discomfort and hug my ass or do I gone fucking rip your head off and shit down your neck?’
Johnette Foltz had hold of the Roy fellow’s coat now with both hands and was trying to pull the fellow off, Keds scrabbling for purchase on the smooth parquet, saying ‘Yo Roy T. man, easy there Dude, Man, Esse, Bro, Posse, Crew, Homes, Jim, Brother, he’s just new is all’; but by this time Erdedy had both arms around the guy’s neck and was hugging him with such vigor Kate Gompert later told Joelle van Dyne it looked like Erdedy was trying to climb him.
‘We’ve lost a couple already,’ Steeply admitted. ‘During the testing. Not just volunteers. Some idiot intern in Data Analysis yielded to temptation and wanted to see what all the fuss was for and got hold of Flatto’s I/O lab’s clearance card and went in and viewed.’
‘From among the many Read-Only copies of your stock of the Entertainment.’
‘No great tragic loss in itself — lose some idiot-child intern. C’est la guerre. The real loss was that his supervisor tried to go in after him and pull him out. Our head of Data Analysis himself.’
‘Hoyne, Henri or pronounce “Henry,” middle initial of F., with the wife, with his adult diabetes he controls.’
‘Did control. Twenty-year man, Hank. Damn good man. He was a friend. He’s in four-point restraints now. Nourishment through a tube. No desire or even basic survival-type will for anything other than more viewing.’
‘I tried to visit.’
‘With your sleeveless skirt and different breasts.’
‘I couldn’t even stand to be in the same room, see him like that. Begging for just even a few seconds — a trailer, a snatch of soundtrack, anything. His eyes wobbling around like some drug-addicted newborn. Break your fucking heart. In the next bed, restrained, the idiot intern: this was the sort of undisciplined selfish child you like to talk about, Rémy. But Hank Hoyne was no child. I watched this man put down all sugar and treats when he first got diagnosed. Just put them down and walked away. Not even a whimper or backward glance.’
‘A will of steel.’
‘An American adult of exemplary self-control and discretion.’
‘The samizdat is not to be played crazily about with, so. We too have lost persons. It is serious.’
The legs of the constellation of Perseus were amputated by the earth’s horizon. Perseus, he wore the hat of a jongleur or pantalone. Hercules’ head, this head was square. It was not long to dawn also because at 32° N Pollux and Castor became visible. They were over Marathe’s left shoulder, as if giants were looking over his shoulder, one of Castor’s legs inbent in a feminine manner.
‘But do you ever consider?’ Steeply lit another cigarette.
‘Fantasize, you are meaning.’
‘If it’s that consuming. If it somehow addresses desires that total,’ Steeply said. ‘Not even sure I can imagine what desires that total and utter even are.’ Up and down upon the toes. Turning above the waist only to look back at Marathe. ‘You ever think of what it’d be like, speculate?’
‘Us, we think of what ends the Entertainment may serve. We find its efficacy tempting. You and we are tempted in different ways.’ Marathe could identify no other Southwest U.S.A. constellations except the Big Dipper, which at this latitude appeared attached to the Great Bear to form something resembling the ‘Big Bucket’ or the ‘Great Cradle.’ The chair gave small squeaks when he shifted his weight upon it.
Steeply said ‘Well I can’t say I’ve been tempted in the strictest sense of tempted.’
‘Perhaps we are meaning different things by this.’
‘Frankly, when I think of it I’m as much terrified as I am intrigued. Hank Hoyne is an empty shell. The iron will, the analytic savvy. His love of a fine cigar. All gone. His world’s as if it has collapsed into one small bright point. Inner world. Lost to us. You look in his eyes and there’s nothing you can recognize in them. Poor Miriam.’ Steeply kneaded a bare shoulder. ‘Willis, on the I/O night-shift, came up with a phrase for their eyes. “Empty of intent.” This appeared in a memo.’
Marathe pretended to sniff. ‘The temptation of the passive Reward of terminal p, this all seems complex to me. Terror seems part of the temptation for you. Us of Québec’s cause, we have never felt this temptation for the Entertainment, or knowing. But we respect its power. Thus, we do not fool crazily about.’
It was not that the sky was lightening so much as that the stars’ light had paled. There became a sullenness about their light. Now, also, strange-looking U.S.A. insects whirred actively past from time to time, moving jaggedly and making Marathe think of many windblown sparks.