by Michael Tyrell
1. A Brighter, Superior Box
Handle with Care. Care of. Car-Rt Sort. Return to sender. He learned those terms when he was a kid, getting the mail from his parent’s box. The mailbox was knocked down repeatedly by boys in cars who rode around with baseball bats. Each time, his parents replaced it with something brighter and superior. No matter how dignified or indomitable the box, boys knocked it down, and mail still came for the previous tenant. His parents never moved. They stayed in that cottage throwing that woman’s mail out, buying new mailboxes, refusing to let these setbacks change their plans.
2. Grand Prize Winner
For the twentieth or thirtieth time, he’s turned in the paperwork with the postal service. The latest request hasn’t been honored yet, and no mail has reached him here. If he’d won a fortune and the authorities in charge of fortunes tried to contact him with a congratulatory telegram, he would have no way of knowing it.
The mail should come to a studio apartment in Long Island City. His friend who rents the apartment is in Bangkok for the entire month with her boyfriend. She wanted to move to New Mexico but settled for Long Island City, which is a version of the desert. Phone-order mattress warehouses, billboards for expensive vehicles, an elevated freeway he can hear and see every waking moment. All his hand-me-down furniture is here, donated from his old places. He thinks that hand-me-down makes it sound somewhat invaded, but sexy. Less sterile than given.
4. The Earplugs Make the Man
Two cats, one vicious, one rambunctious, both functionally infertile, use the furniture as Territory: they hide under it, claw the fabrics, mark table-legs with chin-rubs, claim surprisingly hard desktops for periods of sleep that seem more like narcolepsy than napping. Territory is not property. He knows the difference by now. He thinks giving up everything means he can have even more places in his future, he can keep changing the view, reading the books on other people’s shelves. That’s territory. People have described him as territorial. He likes to invade, but shrinks back from being invaded. Also he’s been called cold. He should come from that place in Canada, not a province, not a place-name, not an oxymoron place-name, like Long Island City. Northwest Territory: arctic tundra, uninhabitable. He only feels warm for the wrong reasons. He thinks they’re the right reasons: two arms around him, why should he pretend to feel something when he’s paid for his own past insincerity? Supermarket aisles pour out their aspartame love songs. He wears ear plugs sometimes to ward off these infectious tunes, even when he is in love.
5. After Watching Certain Documentaries on the Manson Family
Like a crime-scene technician, he requires too much proof. Such a call for evidence rules out people saying things like the following: Look at Him, He Loves Love, Doesn’t He Just Love to Be in Love?
6. Customs and Immigration
His body is a kind of property. For example, his mother told him when he was little how other people might try to touch his private parts. When they were children and fought all the time, his cousin told him to get lost. Get off my property. The cousin’s hand was at his crotch whenever he said it.
7. The Gift of Clean Sheets
Though he has little right, he wants to say and do the same thing when his predecessor, the former housesitter, his other friend, drops by with the sheets she’s washed. Why wash the sheets? It’s considerate, but why bother? Is she covering something up? Did she bring someone here? She would have told him. He thinks she should have used her opportunity to bring someone here: she lives with her parents, something he could never handle. In his own way he’s just as homeless, but not as familial.
He goes to make the bed, picks up the clean sheets, but the friend says, No, Wait. She insists that there is a specific way to make it and she must help him. The skirt must adorn the bottom frame, the fitted sheet must be folded around the mattress just so. She was a virgin until she was twenty-five. She doesn’t know how he envies that fact. He wishes he could go back again to not knowing how to kiss, how to produce the overhyped conclusions. The borders become so obvious again, whenever it’s over and it’s time for numbers and pleasantries, when all the secrets of the other have to be sussed out. He holds back from orgasm so often with this other or that other, to keep the sweet, sweet arrangement going as long as possible.
9. No Laser Surgery Necessary
Used to carrying unwieldy things from his all his apartment-hopping, he lifts the bulky mattress off the bed. It’s stained with ink, not blood or semen or piss. Pens used to explode in his pockets in grade school: a bid for attention by means of self-humiliation. If you won’t mark me, I’ll mark myself. Now they explode on the bed when he leaves them there uncapped when writing something he hopes will be published or at least read by someone else. Posturepedic tattoos. His body has no such insignia: is it property or territory? Does he really know the difference?
10. The Mission
The friend gets to work on the skirt. It has a tear from her washer. She ripped it the way the infertile cats rip something they love, the way his writing hand suffers more cuts than any part of his body. Washing and dropping off the sheets was just a pretext. She loves this place, wants it for herself though she refused to stay the whole night when she was sitting. She hates him for being here, hates her family for barricading her future. There, finally the fitted sheet is on, the skirt is wrapped so the rip faces the wall, it’s his bed made Her Way but he doesn’t care.
11. Georgia O’Keeffe Stayed Up All Night to Sew a Lining in Alfred Stieglitz’s Coffin
Their argument over making the bed outlasts the actual making.
12. Bonnie & Clyde, If They Went Nowhere
They sit at the table and smoke cigarettes from the Bible Belt, where they’re cheaper. He perceives in her advice that she thinks him incapable of the simplest things. He is an aphasiac who has to be told how to turn a key, how to lock a window. She’s “trying to be helpful.” She helps so much she won’t leave though it’s late at night. The desert-neighborhood has a way of blurring the sensible hours from the fugitive ones.
Why doesn’t he say, Leave, already? Why does he apologize for how late is? Why is this such a requirement? On the other hand, why is staying up when everyone else is asleep so shameful? She doesn’t leave immediately.
14. In this Year of History, Watergate
They find some memories that make them laugh. Remember the guy who rock-climbed down the building? They talk about the other friend, the one in Thailand. All three were born the year of Nixon’s resignation. Funny, they say, no one born our year has gotten married, who we know of. Even that makes them laugh, sort of.
15. A View from the Curb
Finally she does get up from the table. He walks her down to her car. He loves her despite her advice, or because of it. He loves that, before she pulls from the curb, she must see he is entirely capable of inserting the key in the door. This is no cheap metaphor: they’ve never slept together, sexually or otherwise. This is about proving himself separate, alert, indefatigably self-sufficient. He hates those words, their pretensions, as soon as he fits them to his description. And proving them gets him nowhere but back inside, where the expressway lives up to its reputation: major artery. Perhaps desert is too strong a word to describe where he is.
16. Prayer to St. Someone
A few hours of television, dated sitcoms and ads for those who have lost all mobility. Such a condition terrifies him: having to ride on a motorized cart, please let it never happen to him. This he prays to whatever being his agnosticism will accommodate. He thinks about people in fugue states who drift away from their families, from every weight and anchor they’ve known. They start lives. New lives? Maybe they’re not really so new after all. Somewhere inside one of the brain’s lobes the details endure. Patterns repeat. It’s not all hopeless or stultifying, as long as there’s something to be added. He thinks about files he’s deleted on computers. He lost his senior thesis due to a virus, but a computer programmer recovered it. Deletion stopped being such a persuasive or frightening thing after that.
17. Wet Dream
He’s never had one. He lies down on his stomach so that his head, limbs and penis touch the sheet, which smells of nothing at all, and the tattooed mattress, the contents of the mattress which he heard described on a television program once as a fascinating, awful combination of dead skin and microbial organisms. Still it’s all owned and contained and occupied. He closes his eyes and moves forward into the mattress until the sheet is wet, and he has to turn over.
18. Pledge of Allegiance
He’d rather think about random things than the future, or get going with the dreams he has when he sleeps. Lately they’ve been annoying typical, all about missing the exam at school. The teachers he liked never show up. The teachers who do show up haven’t changed much, personality-wise. Superior, condescending, and intent only on keeping the herd in check, they notice him only when he falls out of line.
19. Sometimes the Phone
Sometimes the phone rings late at night, when he’s sleeping. Who’s trying to track him down? Is it an automated telemarketer, is it a person dialing a wrong number? Is it the woman from the sex directory who told him she would phone-fuck him until he lost his voice?
20. Premonitions of Power
They look at him as if he were a slide of glass, as if he were just a speck, a specimen. Onion skin that has to be stained, an amoeba skidding along in its ignorant, unlikely dimension. They looked at him the same way, back in school. Maybe that’s why they were so smug, when they were real people and not just the brain’s stock footage: they knew he would dream about them, because everyone dreams about school.
21. Subconscious Revenge on the Teachers
Some of them have grown extra fingers, wear smashed eyeglasses, or say things that make no sense.
He will never have 22 rooms all at once.
23. Because the Monks Were the First to See the Microscopic World
The teachers visit him no matter where he escapes; they’ll kill or cure, slit open the mattress and drag him over to the microscope to see where his old skin ends up. Those little oblong shapes he sees are called cells.
Michael Tyrell has been published in Agni, Harvard Review, The
New England Review, The New Yorker, The Paris
Review, Ploughshares, The Yale Review, and other
Archived at http://lit.konundrum.com/prose/tyrell_rooms.htm