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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
has been published in Agni, Harvard Review, The
Review, The New Yorker, The Paris
Ploughshares, The Yale Review,