This Is Your Underlife by Patrick Cole
This Is Your Underlife
Going west to see her, Xmas in the airport, movement, crowds refusing to coagulate, the airport, living within the petri dish under the microscope. People walking waiting, going on mindless errands, to the news stand, the rest room, the bar, tiny journeys within their journeys, trying to kill time. Movement, dispersion, and here and there in the mix, soldiers. Soldiers, soldiers in desert fatigues, fatigued fatigues—washed out grey-green, sand-colored soldiers, almost invisible amongst us, almost ghosts. They sit among us, we notice them, buzzcut sand-colored ghosts, on their way home for Xmas, fading so fast in front of you you wondered if they would make it. Faded grey sand soldiers, indefinite vague back-of-mind reminders of the state of this world, of what’s going on, all the time. All tacitness. That’s the Overlife: tacitness.
And again, pain in my left arm, in my hand, is it real, I don’t know. Pain in my left side. Left arm, now fingers. Some kind of frostbite. Real? It could be a sign of H.E.D., it really could be. HED.
Nowadays, televisions in the airports. It’s okay now! the talking heads say, We can have television everywhere now, it’s okay. Large flat screens. People watching, the grey soldiers, sprinkled here and there amongst us, back from who-knows-where, to return to who-knows-where, nonexistent. Monitors of the existent, a government job. And now something not possible before: sitting in an airport, watching the news about the plane crash. A plane crashed on Tuesday. Frost-bound state. Charred wreckage in snow-filled field. A farmer’s empty, innocent land. In six months, sunflowers there. And now, the latest news: the airline flew family members, most from New England, to the crash site. With grief counselors. And that flight, with the family of the dead from the plane crash and the grief counselors, has crashed. All dead.
Now the all-day all-night media is like night-vision goggles. Showing us the creeping thing out there at all times stalking us. But not quite catching it in our sights.
What preparation is there for the Underlife? None that I have known. The flight crew for my flight arrives and jokes amongst themselves. I see they don’t want to die. It’s a kind of surprise, and a comfort. We board the flight, the lambs walk down the chute, and for a few moments, not the last, I am in third person. He was flying on that plane . . . He was late but the flight was delayed, he got on . . . He was flying out west, to see her, in the hospital . . .
This happens and repeats because I know the secret. This is the secret: You are not special. They tell you so much as children you believe it but it’s just to ball you up in some gummy padding so you roll through life as far as you can untouched maybe to the end with just a few punctures but you will be touched, you will find the gummy padding simply is not real enough, not as real as spiky reality. You are not special. You could go down on that flight. You could have a car crash. You could be a young victim of an old person’s disease. And all of these things and more could happen to: your mom, your dad, your brother, your sister, your daughter, your son. Oh yes. Are you superstitious? I am. I try to be. I wish I could be. But it’s no use. I know the secret. I’m sorry but that’s the news. It’s a secret. Blame those who keep it a secret. Not me.
I got here because of the alchemy of lobster meat placed within ravioli. It is wrong. I was in an Italian restaurant, with coworkers, phones face-up on the table, keeping the buzz from the Overlife coming in.
Overall, in my life, at that time, everything was fine. I complained. Because fine isn’t good enough—wait. There’s more to it than that. I think, I think, I think I was frustrated with the Overlife. I think I felt its bounds. Felt like The Prisoner. Number 6. I would never have asked for the Underlife if I had known—realized—remembered what it was, but the Overlife wasn’t cutting it, either. It wasn’t the whole story. So what’s worse, hell or the fake world built on top of hell, to pretend there is no hell?
Everything remained fine. I ordered the lobster ravioli. It was delicious, served in a huge white bowl, a creamy orange sauce. A dirty red wine. My phone rang. The sound made references to other features of the Overlife, sucking them into the restaurant, too. I sat back, answered. Received sibling news. Siblings: platoons on patrol in the Underlife. The news carried disease. Spread it. “I see. I see,” I said, rising, leaving my coworkers behind in the Overlife, laughing, stuffing. How I missed them, their world, already—how could I get back? But I knew it was impossible.
In the lobby, on the phone, details. Then hanging up. Then still in the lobby. Still Italian restaurant. Still surrounded by Overlife trappings. But Underlife seething through them all: Chef hats hung on wall. Bottles wrapped in wicker. Old movie poster, Sophia Bloody Loren. Gigantic wet breasts, harbingers of death.
God damn it! Lobster ravioli! You don’t put lobster in ravioli! Christ! Sick. I should have known.
Then strange, thoughts boomerang back to self. Self is boomerang-shaped. Almost can’t be thrown away. Comes back.
: How to return to the table. How to face the coworkers. How to behave appropriately. How to avoid sympathy. From coworkers wondering how to display appropriate sympathy. How to—how to—how to Be. So long without practice. When—childhood?
Then remember: tragedy. Throw boomerang again. It flies over horizon, burns up in beautiful sunset. Sadness sets in. Truth. The Underlife.
Boomerang returns. I don’t know how.
Before that, months before, Underlife symptoms. Waking in the night suddenly, heart alight, eyes on high. LIGHTS! Face down. Puny heart spasms, minnow in a tin can, against the mattress. Waking suddenly, suddenly thinking Is this a panic attack? Is this how they are? What is happening? Is that who I am now, someone with panic attacks? Pills, therapy? No. I don’t want it. Is this one? How did it start? Who decided it? Heart still flinching, unrelenting. How long? Do something? Call somebody? Make it to phone? Found on floor there? Painful? HED?
After the flight, at her house, three cats wondering and a wondering dog. Filth.
Oh how I would miss the airport. The antiseptic space, white floors, white walls, endless high ceiling. So empty, bare. Not the cluttered lying Overlife. The distant Polar Station of it, the waiting room for the Underlife. The transitway between the Lifes. If only one could live there, stay there. Beautiful limbo. Precious purgatory, where you can stay high all day just by breathing the air. And smile, and never have to risk anything by sleeping, and never dream.
Cats, dogs. The whole house a-wondering. Where? When? Everything but why. Lucky bastards. No place to sleep. No clean sheets. The toilet backs up, fresh cut grass appears in it. Mysteriously. A spider in the bathtub. He runs. Fast. Wonders.
After the flight, Xmas approaching, tests scheduled, worry organized. Phone siblings. Review again the diagnosis. Okay. We’ll have to wait to get more news. Next steps. What the options are. Most possibilities are bad. Some less so. “We just need some luck here,” we tell each other, we think, we repeat to ourselves. “The test results, some luck then, and we can deal with it.” “We just need a little luck.” Come on now. Just a little.
My rental car doesn’t lie to me. It is bright white, has that newcar smell. It is too much of a lie not to be self-conscious. I know, and it knows. It is knowing. We drive. “I could break down,” it says calmly on the way anywhere. “Despite the newcar smell. The sheen. The guarantee. Really. At any time.” I already know! I say. But it has a one-track mind. “I could break down at any time. Really. Despite the newcar smell, the sheen, the promise, the agency, the logo, the uniforms, the nationwide advertisements, the smiles, the calling you Mister Lum, Mister Lum, Mister Lum. Really, Mr. Lum, the car says, humming, it’s not like all those novels and movies, et cetera. (It keeps talking so I just keep driving angrily.) It’s not that there’s rot at the core of everything. Oh no, it’s not rot itself, it’s the active principle of rotting. Pulling things apart. It’s not too hard, actually, the goo holding together the things of the Overlife is terribly weak. It’s the best you all could do, I know, but it’s no match. There are tougher things . . . ”
My name isn’t even Lum.
The phone rings. It rings in one room first and then in the other. I hear it coming down the hall. When it gets here, I answer it and find that it’s people from the Overlife looking for her. She owes them money. A lot of money. The Overlife takes itself seriously, that’s how it works. We all have to believe in it, like money. But it’s not serious. I hang up. Bye, I say. They squawk insistence. Bye.
And then it’s time to go to the hospital. At the hospital, big white spaces:
Everyone is friendly, efficient. Computerized. Patients float around the halls on beds on wheels. There is small talk between patients and orderlies, dim echoes of the Overlife. I’m thinking I should have my heart attack here. But there’s no time.
At the hospital, a discussion about luck, the good luck we needed, how it turns out we didn’t get it. We got bad results, unexpectedly worse results. Now fewer, harsher options. Why no good luck? Because it was possible. There will be surgery. Then they will see, then they will know. Then they will decide. It could be anything. We just need a little luck. Again. But now we really need it. The difference is too great now. A little luck. It seems so distant now, vague, wispy, as graspable as fog.
Surgery. A removal. Not sure how much yet, have to have a look inside. These guys go in there, to that operating room, they come out, they could tell you anything. Anything. The sky’s the limit, the only thing holding them back is their imagination. They could find a black hole in there, in that cavity, a 17th century plague cemetary, a shipwreck, a failed spaceship reentry. That’s what they’ll say: “It went just fine. We did find a failed spaceship reentry in there, burning up in the atmosphere. I’m afraid it’s a catastrophic failure. Seven dead. We’re going to have to keep an eye on that.”
You know, when bad news is bad enough, it tells you that that very bad news is very possible. The worst news is possible. You could lose your whole family in a fire. You could. Overlife Fire and Insurance Company will not come to the rescue. They sold you a bill of goods.
All day at the hospital. Returning to the tunnel-like apartment, I turn up the music in my rental car to drown its voice out. Pull back into the housing development. The neighbor across the street with his garage door always open, peering out. Suspicious. Afraid of me. Afraid of what I mean. The tunnel-like apartment: dark windows, dirty walls. Bad sinkwater. Fur. Stacks of dust. Pointless collections everywhere. Somethings. Amazing what cats and dogs will live with. In. Empty green fishtank, too, burbling. Murk. No fish. No fish. Then: sudden off-white eels. Disgusting. They slide the way you need to slide to sneak out of hell. Disappear in water shadows. Came out for something, took something, left. Tomorrow, again.
Dirty dishes in the sink. Dirty sink. Dirty carpet on dirty floor. Spaces for crawling things. They must have heard about it, come. Good places for them available.
Ten things plugged into the same outlet. Old loose-wired garage sale lamps, chargers of rusted batteries, all the machines the TV watches for television. Any moment now: a shock, a fire. An unpayable electrician’s bill. A power outage. Darkness. Nothing here to do until daylight.
Errands to run. The Underlife is open 24 hrs. I have to replace the floodlights by the front door. The sockets are some kind of faded black plastic that only looks like metal. Plastic rots. Lights swing down, screws stripped, bulbs burnt out. Bulbs are mobbed by cobwebs. What are cobwebs? Where is the spider? Why do they leave? I have been warned of Black Widows. I unscrew the bulbs with paper towels. Squeaking. A neighbor’s light goes on yellow, I look, it goes off. I get in my rental car. We drive to the stores, do the business of our lives, the necessaries, at night, like bugs, like frightened animals. I drive with my rental car to the gigantic hardware warehouse. It is backstage at the universe. All the pieces are there. For all the pieces breaking, falling apart, wearing out. One part smells like lumber. The rest smells like metal. Like concrete. An aproned helper arrives in my aisle. I ask him random questions about floodlights, their sizes, wattages. He knows the answers, as if he knows about how every one of the millions of pieces on the sky-high shelves fits into something else. He is blasé about his wisdom. It doesn’t do him any good. There is still the warehouse, and the Underlife.
Before this, I remember, in the car, driving, thinking, how I despised my boss. She knew I hated her. She got pregnant and then had a miscarriage and then went on a leave of absence.
I ran into her on the street some time after her miscarriage—it wasn’t coincidence, it was near the office, she was coming to meet an old coworker for lunch. We spoke. I wanted to do something for her. To be understanding. To comfort her in some way. Not just express my condolences, but truly help. I had no idea how. I’m not Gandhi. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I wanted to hug her, really soak up some pain, then make her smile. I wanted to pull an Overlife quarter out of her ear—“What’s that in your ear? Why, look! How many more have you got in there?” I wanted to be special, magical for her.
Instead I didn’t even say I was sorry. It was so hard. She didn’t give an inch. Didn’t let on at all that she wanted to hear it. Though I knew she did. She was hard, cold, acting up to her old ways at work. I was far from brave enough to penetrate the shield to soothe her feelings—I would have struggled to reach out for those feelings had they been completely unguarded. It was deeply awkward. We stumbled over small talk. No smiles, no jokes, like the reading of a court transcript, the trial of a murder. I wore a look of pain, at least, hoping she would read my true desires in it. She gave no sign that she had. Eventually I walked away. She walked away.
She was in the Underlife, and I didn’t understand.
I have to go to the bank, so I go to the supermarket. Bank in the supermarket. The sign reassures, woman smiling: We can have banks in the supermarket now. I try to get money out. The ATM fails in the way that modern machines fail: blandly. No steam, no fire, no screeching gears, no smell of burning grease. Just stopping. Just not working. I will use credit. I need food, too. At the apartment there are no clean plates, there are cobwebs everywhere, even in the kitchen. The fridge is packed. Jars of pickled things, green juice. Cans and jars crammed into the door space, tilting between each other, leaning out over the edge of the railing. On the shelves, wrapped plates and plastic trays and paper boxes heaped on top of each other. The fridge is like an overcrowded cemetary. Everything past expiration. It’s a shanty town, lean-tos and wood palette-box homes. It’s the third world of refrigeration. Desperate, smelly. Dying, alive.
Aisling in the brightly lit supermarket, I haunt the Overlife. Smiling products. There is Xmas music. I walk the aisle to the up-down beat of sleigh bells, like Native American shaman’s bells, preaching, extolling, conjuring. There are televisions at check out. The Overlife. Televisions now everywhere, it’s not just distraction: it’s the attempt to make the Overlife all pervading. Good luck. Checkers say, Merry Xmas. Good luck.
I rattle my cart across the parking lot, each bump stirs the metal bars, sounding like repeated electric shocks. Car clears its throat when it sees me coming. “Re breaking down . . .” We drive.
Driving. And I’ve been wobbly lately. Well, this last year. Year and a half. Two. Turn my head, I sometimes get dizzy. I try not to turn my head. The sidewalk undulates sometimes. Legs not so confident. Spongy on the earth. Maybe it’s too dangerous to drive. But I have to. I’ve got things to do. Such as, insist that I am normal. Heart, spine, everything seems to be abandoning their posts. Slowly unwinding, the pieces and bits floating off on other errands. Why not? What’s keeping them here, with me? Me? When? How? I just am. And that’s not enough.
I could die. HED. Or have a stroke. End up a vegetable. The panic attacks me, preparing the ground for the attack of the heart. Even humble dreams will have to be ruled out now. Decent job, decent mate, a kid. I will get laid off, because it can happen. I’ll need too much time off to deal with these crises. I won’t be able to work as hard due to my new condition. Travel for work will be out. Not as robust, I will be overtaken by the fitter, the normal. There’s no one who will really go to bat for me. Everyone is watching out for their own selves. I will not be able to attract love, to live some dream of a life. And I would introduce so much sadness into the lives of those around me. All of it could happen. There’s nothing you can do. That disease could be coming. What kind of life is it when you turn from focusing on dreams to focusing on coping? I will end up a bum, drinking box wine until the brain doesn’t work right anymore and I don’t have to face it. I have seen these bums, seen through their ragged faces the people they used to be. Their lives are all about possibility.
What a burden it is to think that you might get ill, and that this would affect your family. Upset them. You, then, a source of sadness. That’s not the role you want. You want to be a source of joy. That’s what you said you would do as a child. You forgot that for a long time. But it’s still there, inside. “Be a source of joy to people. Those you love. And hey, to others – why not?” Oh, Oh, Oh, I was going to do it, I swear, once I got my shit straight. Once I got my life square, had some success, built up some Overlife credit, some Overlife esteem, so I could be pleasant. Then I was going to do it for sure.
Here in the Underlife, I’m falling apart, my life, my body, and she is falling apart, and the rest of the family, the friends, are prey. The Overlife momentum wore off, we ran out of gas, pulled over onto the shoulder, in the Underlife.
On the strip-mall avenue, six lanes, an accident on the other side. Stopped behind a big brown truck. Ambulance, someone up on a stretcher, broken nuggets of glass everywhere. One car is, amazingly, upside-down. Everyone slows to look, rubber necking. I know what they want. They are looking for the news. The message. It might be here, in an accident, a mess, a thing breaking through into society, since the structure of society itself is unable to provide it. When a hole is blown in society, you look inside because the answer might be in there. Because it’s not in society. Civilization: we emphasize control, but we know the true answers are not in control, but in wilderness.
The rubber neckers look, thinking they are seeing a breach. But they are mistaken. The breach is all around them. All the time. Civilization has not stamped out wilderness with control. Far from it. Wilderness is everywhere, all the time. But it’s not wilderness as in nature. It’s Underness. All around you. This is the breach.
Pull in to the apartment block. I pass the neighbor’s open garage, he peers out of the gloom. Eel in murky tank. Down the way, a confrontation going on outside another house, yelling. They recognize her car, don’t recognize me. They stop their confronting and stare at me. I pull into the garage. They are out there, leaning around to see me get out of the car. I seem to be something else to be angry about. They don’t like not knowing. They will invent stories, maybe call the cops. They know anything could be happening. The engine is off. I am about to get out when the car says gravely “I am going to break down. I am sure of it. I will break down. Soon.”
Inside I unload the stuff. The animals circulate. The cats’ names, I don’t remember them. She’s not here to remind me. So: white cat, orange cat and black cat. Black cat has a hideous scar on his hip, steel rod in there, I can see it bulging, got hit by a car, walks with an awkward hitch, like his front half was sewed onto the back half of another cat. He doesn’t seem to mind, doesn’t seem to notice, doesn’t seem to remember. He’s calm. Relaxed in his wonky meanderings around the place. Cut his head off, he’d only blink at you, slowly, from the floor. Orange cat is perpetually confused, looks left and right for reasons at every turn, at every unexpected sound; to him, all sounds are unexpected, everything unexplained, unexplainable, indescribably new. As if all this furniture wasn’t here yesterday. And neither was I. White cat was a street cat, never recovered, shell-shock victim, PTSD, permanently scared, buries himself in her bedroom all day, all night, only emerges from the darkness there to eat, to slink to the bowl in the kitchen, slowly, warily, at odd times, when the others aren’t around, afraid for no reason after years and years in the same apartment with the same animals. A sudden movement by me, just turning my head, and he dashes back to the bedroom, hungry. Stays four hours more. Waits. Fears. A true Underlife cat. The others, not from the street, are more sheltered. Overlifers. Less prepared.
The dog, I can’t remember his name either, dumb as a brick, made so by overindulgence, no sense. Understands only complete sweet-toned acceptance. Baffled by pain. By anything other than love. Completely unfit for the world.
This, my company. They are victims of this, too. It is tempting to see them as its guardians, its symbols, its makers. But it’s all much bigger than that. It contains everything. There is no need for symbols, for signs, for hints, when the Underlife is everything. We are all just inhabitants. Calm, confused, frightened, or dumb.
The phone rings. I hear it coming down the hall. It’s the debt collectors again, threatening. I tell them she can’t come to the phone right now, she’s in the Underlife. What? I repeat that she, and I, for that matter, are in the Underlife. The debt collectors are, for once, silent. There’s nothing they can do. They quickly say they’re sorry and hang up. Afraid for themselves. No one wants their faith in the Overlife shaken. They will go stuff themselves with Overlife now.
Taking out the garbage, exiting through the open garage, stray cats gathering for stray food, wondering where it is, she’s not there to leave it. Cats and more cats. Cats, oblivious cats, eating bad energy, gorging, popping out of the pores of the world like needs.
Inside I hear the phone coming down the hall. It’s the siblings. They say they want to fly out here now, to help. I tell them not to. I fear for their flight. Things are happening now. Joining together. It’s the Underlife now. And another tragedy I can’t take.
She going, I dying. Sisters, brothers, fathers, others now available for fate. Any message can come. There is only the next news. Only the question of when. It’s not a question, though. We live as if it is now. Then now, then now, then now.
When they all go, who will be my audience? For whom will I do what I will do? Then, why?
It’s the Underlife for all of us, where not only our health fails us, but our dreams fail us, even our most humble dreams. You will have to give them up. And you know it. Once you get to the Underlife.
You leave your dreams behind in the Overlife. You can never reach them again. They float high away like helium balloons. There was some space around us, true personal space, warm and heated, which connected us to our dreams, our dreams of a future, our dreams of who we are. And that space is cut away here, and the dreams cut loose from us, and they drift up and away. What happens to them? Do they pop when the air gets thin, or touch down in some other destination? We only know they drift out of sight, become too small to see, too distant to place.
All events are charged with the living fact of the Underlife, no events are calm, casual, relaxed, easy. All errands no matter how mundane, rifled through with raw emotion, the pain of the situation, the Underlife. Here, there is a living constant reminder. Nothing is forgotten or put off, nothing delayed, this is real living, every second, with the truth, with the inevitable. You can’t whistle past the graveyard—the one great trick of the one-trick pony Overlife. The Overlife goal. No. Not here. There is no way past the graveyard, there is no whistling. The supermarket, the bank, the hospital, the wireless phone, the kitchen, the dog, the car in the garage, the neighbor in his garage, all are tombstones.
In the Underlife, there is no stopping and smelling the roses. There are no bite-sized pieces of joy. Everything, the roses, the bites, the joy, is submerged, sepiatone, pisstone. Good things are skinned, halved, scuffed down, only remind you of good things, are not any longer good things themselves. A good taste in the mouth is only a reminder of a good taste, from before, in the Overlife. Two-dimensional now, here. The rest of it lost. So easily shed.
I turn on the distraction machine. It is clear that the Overlife is increasingly desperate to provide escape, relying on more and more buffoonish politicians, pundits, men-in-the-street. They don’t fool me. I know what is going on. They yell to keep you focused, to keep you from popping the illusion. Celebrities, increasing in number, with increasingly ridiculous outbursts, accidents, addictions, arrests. Give me a break, Overlife. It all couldn’t be more obvious.
I turn on the news knowing that any news is possible. Things fall apart. Gravity pulling. Only one force, this gravity. Nothing to keep things together. Things just lean. The playing card houses you built as a child. Thin tabletop Stonehenge. Flying buttresses of hope. One thing falls and the secret is out with a whoosh sufficient to down all other dreams. That’s it, the force of the secret being let out, not the secret itself.
And things will start and if they can start why should they not? Why should they stop? Why should other things withstand? No reason. It’s not even destruction, it’s just a lack of why. The one thing we can’t generate. Store. Reinforce the world with. Because it’s nothing.
Watch the news. Cancer is spreading. Light plane crash. It was just a small plane, only four people died, not like a big carrier, so it’s just a light plane crash, plane crash light. Then, some gang killings ringing in the new year. The news readers present it like these are outstanding events, out of line with the great project, with the Overlife. If everyone realized the truth about the Underlife, there would be no news service. It just wouldn’t be any fun.
I want to go back to work at the office with its warmth and desks and coffee machines and phony ritualized stress. But even if I get back, I can’t get back. It won’t be fun anymore, or easy anymore.
Boomerang thoughts: I’ve got to get out of here, run. Run. How I miss the airport. Only one drawback to the airport, it’s stationary. I want to get away. I can be retrieved from the airport. Maybe one day there will be a magic airport which itself will fly and that way you will be in the happy airport and yet moving away away away and what’s more you will never have to worry about missing your flight.
Time to sleep. The only place is in the living room. It’s a futon, common in American households now that trade with the East has opened up and Japan has ended its long isolation. I break it open. The gigantic dumb dog jumps onto the futon, lies down, starts languidly chew-gnawing at a paw. He looks shocked when I angrily shoo him off. He remains skittish around me, as if I am wildly unpredictable, dangerous. That’s what civilization is like.
I find a sheet and a sofa pillow and shut off the lights and lie down. Black cat hops up unsteadily onto the futon. Comes near, throws his body down into a small black pool, his head above it like a turret, facing me. He looks at me. I pet him. He’s indifferent. I pet him some more. It doesn’t grow on him. Nothing does. He just absorbs. This is the kind of cat that would smoke cigarettes if he could. If he heard about it.
Black cats, witches. Forever, we tried to put a remove between the Underlife and us. To place the Underlife away from us. To coalesce it around symbols, then roll the symbols into another place. What may have started out as subtle but frank admissions that the Underlife is here, admitted with black cats, witches, ghosts and goblins, turned into a game of avoidance. Too easily dismissed. But it can’t be ignored.
On the futon, lights out, pet hair in the air, I wonder if something will bite me. The bed itches. The pets with their sticky butts probably on it while I was out. So tired. Glorious sleep. But fear of waking. How will I get through tomorrow, not crack? The pressure: knowing that if your mind slips, even a little, your body will too. The heart attacks. But the body prods the mind. Gurgles, worries, suggests, hints. Flashes electric hurts in strange places. The mind lights up with worry. Somatopsychic illnesses.
I close my eyes, and when I open them it is very dark. I know I could wake up blind. The mysterious functioning of the eyes could simply stop. How many times does your heart beat every minute? 60? 70? That’s like this: beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat beat You think it wants to keep on going like that, into your old age? Why? It’s tired. It has never gotten a break, not for one second, even while you sleep. Yeah—you’re damn right you’re starting to feel it now, inside your chest. It’s gonna blow. This whole ragtag conglomeration of miracles which keeps your body up and going, flowing through crazy circuitry, carrying nutrients, osmosing them into starving cells, the unknown brain making billions of calculations every instant to keep you moving along the sidewalk, planning each next step, on the lookout for falling debris, the endless electric signalling from your nerves motivating each movement—all exists besides you, and one short in one minor miracle and the whole show goes up in smoke. You collapse. Undone. Half dead. Dead.
I start sliding into sleep. Maybe here, under the sofa, they’ll find the black boxes from my life. They’ll see what I was doing in the last moments, what I thought was happening, how I reacted, the mistakes I made, the fruitless things I did correctly. And my last words like all last words will be technical, mechanical, following procedures, dug from the hippocampal emergency manual. They’ll be something like “Trying number 2,” or “If we can get an update on that,” or “Switch to automatic.” Then silence. Dead.
My dream, the slug-creature, black double-breasted jacket, pale green skin, looking at me, chewing lethargically, blinking slowly. Bats hover around his large round eyes. Something peeled up from the subconscious, like something putrid from the back of the fridge, something plungered up from the clogged bathroom sink, greasy brown worms unalive.
The next day, search out something clean to eat off in the kitchen, give up. Drive to hospital. Listen to the classic radio. Some Overlife songs tie into the Underlife. Driving, singing Nights in White Satin at the top of my lungs. On the strip-mall avenue, no signs of yesterday’s accident. The mess is all cleaned up, but the mess is still here.
Driving, I see other people experiencing the Underlife. People drive by me and I see their faces and I can see they are in the Underlife. But we cannot commiserate, share. They are too shell-shocked, and so am I.
I pull up to a traffic light and there, waiting at the red light in the lane next to mine, a woman in the Underlife. I turn my head, it makes me feel a little dizzy, but I defy it anyway, I steal glances at her and she doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. And we sit there and sit there. She staring off into space. In the Underlife. Me knowing it. After a long while the light changes, and we drive on, on to the next red light. Wait.
I am full of nervous energy but tired. Did not sleep well. Interrupted by panic, by the slug dream, by HED symptoms. That’s the difference between the Overlife and the Underlife. The Overlife sleeps.
The dreaded HED. I’m sure of it. Got to try to keep it together for a while, just a little while longer, keep it from culminating.
All day at the hospital. I start to feel hungry, it’s embarrassing, as if I don’t understand where I am, in the Underlife, but I want to eat. It suggests refuge. I go to the hospital cafeteria. I like the long halls of the hospital because they are like nothing. In the cafeteria I eat and eat and eat and have a large coffee. I fear the caffeine will make my heart pound but I reckon if I’m going to pop I should do it now in the hospital. I burn the roof of my mouth with the coffee. It feels smooth, sensitive, awkward. What if the cells don’t replace? Why should they?
Things can start falling apart and never stop. There is no reason for them to stop. It’s not entropy, it’s that there’s nothing stopping them. Why not break into pieces? Your car, wife, house, arm, hair, dog, mom, mailbox, floodlight socket. Why not?
Some kind of faith keeps the rickety world stuck together, but it’s not our faith. It’s something else’s, which we can’t control, or bolster. And it falters, and the secret of fallibility, of there-is-no-difference-anyway, is let out. Things experiment with their own destruction. Why not? Word spreads: It’s okay to cease to exist. To die, to bend, to break.
Late in the afternoon the cousins drive up, they get lost, arrive very late, can’t stay long. They describe in detail how they got lost, where they went, so well it’s a wonder they consider it being lost. “And then we got onto Holt, turned off too soon, and the next thing we knew we were on Bryce, now that’s way off base. So we turned to head north, away from the mountains, crossed Holt again and ended up on Green, near the tracks, completely lost. We nearly gave up then, until we came to the Chinese place where Linda got sick that time. Never forget that. Turned right, found Columbus, heading towards the shopping center, didn’t know what was going on.” They bring a plant, which is dying. It’s the thought that counts, she says later about her plant. I have begun to wonder, though, how much thoughts count. The cousins leave, worried about finding their way back. “If we can find our way back onto 65, turn hard right after the underpass after the Shell station, follow Cottonwood until it turns by the airport, then left on Alameda, we’ll be all right. Otherwise, we’re screwed.”
When they leave I walk them out. The next day is surgery. “We just need some good news, we just need some luck,” they say. “We just need for this one thing to turn out okay. Just a good turn there, that’s all we need. If we just, if, if . . . ”
I agree. But If is crossing train tracks at night with its back turned and a high wind in its ears. Why should If respond to you? It is suddenly anesthetized. Doesn’t respond. Like when your computer froze up, for no reason. Just stopped working. Worked before, then stopped. Why not?
Inevitability is only a gust blown through the world. What’s behind it, when it passes, when it’s gone? Nothing.
I leave the hospital in the dark, exhausted. After four or five blocks, a car coming towards me, flashing its lights at me, honking. It frightens me. Are they crazy? Is this an attack? They slow down and when they are right next to me a scream erupts from them, RRRRRAAHHHHH! Straight out of the soul gutter prison. They turn left into a parking lot behind me. I can only think to escape. Then the scream is replayed in my mind, becomes comprehensible: LIGHTS! These demons were trying to help me.
I pull into the housing development, past the neighbor’s open garage, and there he is, and he flags me down. I pull up, roll down the window. He is big, bald, seems angry. “How is she?” he demands. I tell him everything I know. He nods at each detail. Then he says, “It’s tough.” I agree, nodding my head. Then he says, “Yeah, my wife died of the same thing.” I don’t say anything. “Horrible,” he says. Just that isolated word. I sit there. “Horrible,” he repeats.
I go into the house. It’s a disaster. Nervous energy pervades my body, pervades the dingy rooms. Fight or flee. Vacuum clogged with grainy dog hairs. Orange cat has caught a mouse which entered the house, came up through the stove. Orange cat walks holding the dead thing in his mouth, confused, baffled by what he’s done. Why? What now? What good is it? He leaves it on the futon. I dispose of it with a toss out the back door, hear it land in the leaves, now the sliding door won’t slide. No apparent reason. I manage to slam it shut, the walls shudder, cats run, magazines slop over in their piles, don’t stop. I’ve put some energy into the system now, it runs a course. I wait and watch it. It’s the House of Usher. You run out of it into the World of Usher.
I suffer because I believe in life. I really believe it. I believe it. I believe it.
I sit, drink smiling beer, turn on the TV, watch vision. Start falling asleep, knowing sleep is a slickened slide into tomorrow. And tomorrow is a day of reckoning, another day of reckoning. And look how everything sits here as it was. Being here still is just a threat to fall apart later. Everything is on the edge of loss. House, heart, job, parent, cat. Dream. Mobility. Comfort.
My chest hurts me. Is this what “short of breath” means? What is pain? Where was it, exactly? There? Now it’s over here. It plays hide and seek. Peek-a-boo. Goes where my mind’s eye is not. Is it real? I don’t fit the profile. But in the Underlife, the odds are always even. Everyone, of every age, build, genetic make-up, sex, ethnicity and nationality is a potential victim at all times. Any disease, for anybody, at any time. Any accident. Any fate at all. There are no macroeconomics. You roll a die, get a six. Roll it again, the odds are the same: one in six. For you, for everyone. One in six. One in six. The Underlife: Where Probability Means It.
Life—it’s all I know. I know that’s pathetic. But it’s true. There was nothing else to do all this time but glue things on to my life, accrete, agglomerate, stick. Me a city signboard laden with layers of torn poster advertisements. Now they fall away as I try to catch the pieces, whipped by the wind. And as they go, blown away, I see many of them for the first time in a long time. And I recognize them, a dog from childhood, a motorcycle ride, a golf course walk at sunset—and marvel at their leaving. When they are all stripped away there will be nothing left to go on. And the pieces, too, will be stripped of their pieces, and so on. It all just feels very sad. Nothing tells me it shouldn’t. It’s what I’ve done with life, and I’m just not prepared to be undone. To give me up. The only thing which gives me confidence—it may just be resignation (sweet resignation)—is the inexorableness.
I start to fall asleep, crawl upon the futon, black cat joins me, stares at me, I pet him, he stares at me, green eyes. The eel tank gurgles. Almost asleep, already below dreaming, tomorrow licking its chops. Sleep, and to the hospital. Very early morning, predawn surgery. Halfway there, still dark, empty neighborhood streets, cop pulls me over. Tells me I was driving with my lights out. I tell him what I’m doing, where I’m going, what’s going on. Look, I only work the Overlife, his expression says. Nothing I can do about things elsewhere. “Lights,” he says, and walks away. I get to the hospital and pull in, it is alive and awake in the night, white windows, like the heart of the world. Discomfiting. I pass the dead ambulances parked to the side.
The waiting room is an existential shanty-town. Groups of people here and there, in tight groups. Out the front door, a covered walkway where Underlifers wash up like lost dollar bills blown by unknown circular winds into the blind corners of grubby parking lots. On the walkway they talk on their cell phones in hushed tones. Relaying news. Here, finally, the sculpture of the world: People asking why.
Waiting room—The suddenness of eventual death.
Many here still orange cat-wondering How will I ever regain my Overlife? Why is this happening to me? Everyone so incredibly well prepared. For the Overlife.
Movement, people walking waiting, going on mindless errands, to the news stand, the rest room, trying to kill time, and here and there in the mix, hospital workers, hospice workers, Underlife attendants. Semidamned, semidoomed, before the rest. Hell for beginners. How to.
They wear blue to keep things cheery. But here blue looks down at itself wearing blue and says, “I’m not fooled.”
The sun is coming up. We just need a little luck. The sun, up. Just wait to have the youthful heart attack until after you leave, after you get this thing done.
The giftshop in the hospital is just a nook off the waiting room, spilling out into the hall and waiting area with its flowers and helium balloons and stuffed animals, bursting with pastels. I peruse the stuffed animals. A woman is buying her daughter a baby blue koala bear. I examine an identical one. The tag says MADE IN THE UNDERLIFE. The koala is in the form of a permanent hug. As if gripping a tree, with head turned away. The little girl takes it and it hugs her immediately. It’ll hug anything. Little girl? Fine by me. She walks away with it, the two of them hugging, the bear looking away from her, at others, at me, looking.
I sit, stand, ask. The surgeon will be with you shortly. Don’t go anywhere. I sit. The little girl with the stuffed koala is across from me, showing her father the bear. She turns so the bear looks at him. He looks at his little girl, wants to say something about the koala, but he doesn’t seem to know what to say. He’s suffering, so he can’t think very well. He tries to smile. Smiling takes about 12 muscles. He uses maybe 3. The girl black cats him. Uses 0 muscles. Koala: 0.
The surgeon is coming. We just need a little luck. The whole ragtag conglomeration of miracles keeping life on earth going approaches with him: how we are just the right distance from the sun—5 percent closer and no life possible—and the sun is just the right size, and the planet made up of just the right elements, with a moon of just the right size to stabilize us—but one miracle overexerts itself one day, wobbles, hesitates, or goes so far as to burn out, and it all blows up. Miracles, by definition, are fragile—otherwise they would be the commonplaces. There are lots of angels dancing on the head of the pin. They just don’t realize how small the head of that pin really is, and how one could fall, wipe out, and take all the others down with him. But we need them there, and we need them to keep dancing. We just need a little luck.
The surgeon comes to me. He’s a busy man, he has no time. He starts speaking, telling me how it went. But he’s speaking Indo-European, the base language underlying all European languages, which came from the East millennia ago. I almost recognize bits of it, we still have something in common, something dim, which flickers like torchlight on a deep cave wall. Something drawn there. Squinting I can’t, quite, make, it, out. He makes a few more squonks and holds out his hand. I shake it. He leaves. It was all over 3000 years before Christ.
I get a translation. Here’s what happened, they say. And this is the way the world fails: no steam, no fire, no screeching gears, no smell of burning grease. Just stopping. Just not working. And the question is: Why not? What—hope was going to prevent something bad from happening? Or just wanting was? Just not deserving? Being an innocent family? Some merit accumulated and stored in some invisible place? Forget about it. Once bad news starts coming in, there’s nothing to stop it from flowing. Why should it stop? Even if it increasingly offends our sense of fairness, of justness? It just is. Everything is horribly blameless.
Again: it’s not payback, it’s not anything as banal as hell, not directed at you, it’s not personal. It’s just how things are in this place. Like this.
There, she’s come apart, and there’s nothing to stop it. No promise broken, no deed. Just wattle-and-daub bodies in a heavy rain.
The sky is naked. The streets are naked. The cars, the buildings, lawns, grass blades, garbage, naked. You are naked. The next person you think of, naked. Your home, shelter, is naked. Everything here is out in the open, exposed. A drive to the drug store is a tour of the bare. Nothing here can interfere. Things just are, as they are, collectively isolated. They just behave as they behave. All with individual rules, the properties of their materials, but under the umbrella rule of this entire place: Anything can happen.
And how puny things are when stripped of our dreams. Reality, the word even looks, even sounds like a fishbone skeleton.
My arm hurts, my thoughts boomerang. It’s all about me, the suffering I will have to endure, the forms I will have to maintain in front of others. Remember what you are going through, I hear in my head. That will be your guide. Remember, suffer it, live it, or you’ll never live it down. I shake it off, sick of my head workings. Some last vestige of Overlife instinct. I’m sick of it, so sick of it, the lie. Civilization itself was built as a counter to the Underlife. Civilization is just the outward manifestation of the Overlife. In it we hide, rats living in the subway tubes, in the Underlife. There you have it: the inevitable phoniness of society, of civilization. By definition—Underlife creatures in the Overlife they created.
Most religion is just Overlifing. And art, too.
Life is a secret.
The world is Alzheimer’s.
The Underlife. You ever read anything about this? Ever hear anything about this before? Yeah. Me neither.
This world sleeps. Dreams on its own cultures. Eats its pillows. Walks on mile-long stilts, lives in helium cities attached to the ground by ropes. Loves, achieves for fear of weeping a thing it has never allowed itself to imagine. Even buries its dead in stone-age rocket ships. Has never touched dirt. Arts, arts arts its way up its own butt. Peeks out the navel, twists it shut. Bakes cathedral cakes. Chunnels to the moon. Gods itself to near-oblivion, high. All in all, keeps the secret. So long now, I don’t think it can be worded. Or taught at all. Jesus just brushed it with his elbow, woke with a red spider bite.
Irony only exists in the Overlife. In the Underlife, things just are. It’s not entropy, it’s not a tendency. It just is. Being is undoing. Being is, well, un-becoming. All is end, end, end, shorn of ending
A nurse is sent to me. Something about my posture is alarming. She looks me over, asks me what’s wrong.
I tell her everything.
“You have HED,” the nurse says.
“Yes,” I groan, doubled over.
“HED, H.E.D., or Head Exploding Disease. It’s where your head just suddenly explodes.”
“I know what it is,” I grunt.
“You have the risk factors, perhaps a genetic predisposition.”
“You have to be very careful. You have to understand.” She calls for a doctor.
I sit up. She sees my face.
“Don’t grieve,” she says. “It can bring on a full HED attack.”
I brace for it.
“And don’t brace for it, either.”
© Patrick Cole
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