Headless World (Excerpt from a Novel-in-Progress)

By Ascher/Straus

Tammy’s sharing Junior’s broiled scrod and mashed potatoes and eating most of it because he’s having trouble swallowing. They’re watching tv together and she’s chattering happily, asking him questions that he can’t answer.

She wonders if watching tv brings up the same memories for him as for her. Sometimes the sound of the television gets her depressed. Sound of human conversation interrupted by laughter. Alternating rhythm of laughter and speech. Familiar theme songs. The shaded masses of music, voice and laughter, meant to be reassuring, for her = anxiety. Or depression. Or both. The real, sickening nub of childhood is the so-called nostalgia of our time in front of the set—the anxiety-depression of that bored absence from the self—the nostalgia-comedy of television life mixed up with your own childhood misery …. Does he have that too?

Junior doesn’t answer. He’s hovering above Waldo and Penny—looking out the window with them—unseen and behind them—hovering but having a little trouble holding still—with a view down into the dark outer world.

Scaffolds of lights are trained on a lumpy square of dark ground where police are digging with shovels. Something about the scene is agitating Junior’s Mom. She’s gripping Waldo’s shoulder with two hands and chewing on the sour cloth of his shirtsleeve. Waldo’s got his arm around her, but he’s also up on tippy-toe, trying to get a better look.

“Isn’t that Matt Dillon out there? Yup. I’m sure it is! Wait! Do I mean ‘Matt Dillon’? You know who I mean, don’t you, Penny?”

His Mom’s starting to break down. She’s sobbing and pounding with her bony fists on Waldo’s arm and chest.

“That’s a head, you idiot! That’s a human head they’re digging up! Don’t you see who it is?”

Out in the yard they’re unearthing a number of heads and bodies.

Feels himself receding from this place.

Back to the hospital, above the bed, then down into it, hiding under the covers.

There they are in the distance, covered with blood and screaming.

The image is held together by the dark room that couldn’t exist without its internally glowing square.

Dark world around its red dance and blue spasm.

From afar: the irregular, difficult breathing of light through blowing curtains across the way.

Far away from his Mom and Dad, deep into total darkness.

How many times can we remember who we were?

A fresh universe around us like a broken egg.

When he’s gone he wonders what happened back inside the little lighted window that long ago collapsed inside a twinkling pinpoint. Aside from the killers, he’s the only one who knows who murdered his Dad. But by tomorrow no one will remember who his Dad was.

The car stalls on a road through a birch forest high in the mountains. Air turns cold, snow begins to fall as fast as the rain that was falling down below. There are so many snowflakes striking so many leaves that the quiet sound of snow on leaves is the sound of the torrent that’s always rushing inside him.

His only thought in the cold interior of the car is that experience takes place outside just so it can get inside us again. We watch it from a distance—allow ourselves to watch it because it is at a distance—but we’re sensitive to the exterior screen as if it were a remote skin where a touch we can’t feel replays itself obsessively in the mind as a sinewy little hologram of the world.

The outside life is now the inside life—or is it the other way around?

Listening follows the path of seeing.

Tune it carefully. Snow makes a little ticking sound on one leaf. Multiplies laterally through the forest and in tiers of varying intensity. Multiplication of leaf sounds rushes toward him as if he himself were out there, able to disperse again and again in an infinite way. As if the universe were living for him while he listened.

He thought his sister Valeria was hidden at the summit, where stunted trees are pressed down under snow and the rutted, looping road follows the mountain’s knotted spine all the way to a fortress-like lodge, pylon and directional antenna visible to a cosmic distance. But the atmosphere is void, signals aren’t returning, and he knows what it feels like to be a starved little blue jay sitting on wires, branches, roof drains and aerials on and off for thirty-four hours, squawking every code it can think of with no reply.

This Dad’s teeth spread out across his lower lip, pointy and a little yellow. His curly brown hair’s getting wispy in the middle, but he compensates by letting it grow straight down the sides into a thick, reddish and bruiny beard. The wispy spot’s only visible when he takes off his denim blue-and-brown suede Mohawk Trail cap, so the stupid cap’s usually on. His eyes go cheerful and crinkly when he smiles, a little too much for Junior’s taste. With his spread-out teeth and weathered face, the smile gives him the look of someone who’s made kindness his profession. A yellow quilted vest and the sleeves of a green plaid shirt round off his perpetual look. Never without his narrow-ruled, three-subject notebook, he’s forever stealing a guilty minute to scribble something with a sort of shy compulsion, staring at a stranger or looking out a window as if he were an artist sketching.

A friendly but decisive jerk of his Dad’s chin tells Junior to slide into the window-side of the booth. Dad slides in after him and, facing Dad, Junior’s little sister, one he’s never seen before and who Dad calls “honey” so often it must be her name.

Junior looks out the window. A couple of crappy centuries are crowded into the view.

While it’s true that through every window we look through, distance is an odd paste carved against the glass and it’s also true that in every town we gaze out through the narrow band of wood-fired pizza tavern windows and see ancient, resurrected factories, weary mini-malls and boarded donut shops, governors’ mansions and courthouses that are now antique shops or restaurants, here and there an inexplicable stairway, a shabby rooftop patio or picnic table and umbrella set out festively in the midst of a tract of rusted auto bodies—here, at the base of a lofty mountain where sixteen looping miles of road plunge from a region of true earthly unearthliness to a terminal of life at its most human and most exhausted, the falsely receding horizon line of distance reconstitutes itself toward the center of town as a virtual billboard of discarded sites and time zones.

Junior turns to ask his Dad if these are the factories that once-upon-a-time were paper factories and later were revived as television factories, the ones where they manufactured the famous Nipkow disk and then after that the components of the iconoscope, and after that one of the early, failed digital television systems, but his Dad is scribbling, lifting his cap to scratch his head and talking to himself.

He looks up at Junior as if he’s really stymied by the insoluble difficulty of the problem he’s set himself.

“What does a window resemble?” he asks good-naturedly. “Is what we see through a window the same as being outside the window and looking around? And if not, why not? When we see life through a window, is it life any longer? If it doesn’t resemble life, does it resemble a film? a painting? television? What do we really mean when we talk about ‘virtual reality’? For the mind, is there any other kind? Is the view through a window virtual reality or something else? And where exactly does the reality of the mind reside? What exactly is a thought? What substance is a thought made of? Is there such a thing as a physics of thinking?”

He’s put his cap back on and he’s shaking his head, shuffling through the pages of his drawing tablet as if marveling at the stuff that’s come oozing out of his pen.

Gives the waitress a friendly greeting. Overly friendly as far as Junior’s concerned. “My Dad’s full of shit,” he might think if he weren’t already beginning to like this Dad. If this Dad weren’t friendly, Junior never would have met him and never would have had him as a Dad. Remembers the moment of meeting: looking out a train window when there was nothing to see; looking in order not to talk to anyone. And then a pleasant voice asking, “How’re you doing, hombre?” Turned to see the pleasant, bearded face of one more guy in cap, plaid shirt and jeans.

Because there’s a possibility of happiness, Junior begins to feel depressed. It’s the familiar depression that begins with the knowledge that your parents aren’t going to let you get what you want because it costs too much and that ends in the dark lake where you have a memory of having drowned.

But this Dad says festively, “Bring my son a pizza! And make it a big one! One with everything! Put on sausage and peppers and pepperoni and extra cheese and extra sauce and onions and garlic!”

“And meatballs and anchovies?” Junior says tentatively.

“And meatballs and anchovies!” his Dad echoes and everyone laughs.

Cheese ravioli with marinara sauce for little Honey and a salad for his Dad.

Now Junior is happy, but this happiness feels like an even deeper sadness.

The pretty young waitress, whose eyes are as overbright as an anchorwoman’s at the odd instant of feeling her own thrilling emission of electrons, wants to know what they’ll have to drink. She cheerfully recites the long list of possible sodas, Junior takes an age to settle on root beer, his Dad says beer for him and milk for Honey and then Junior remembers something from another lifetime and changes his drink to a root beer float. Honey has an inspiration too and wants fried mozzarella sticks.

“Fried mozzarella sticks for everyone!”

For once it feels natural to find himself among the distant, laughing ones instead of feeling a depressing kinship with the ones bent over the burgers that seem to have arrived in their plates already eaten, like clots of space disposal falling from a thousand miles up into the ketchup.

A little later they’re dipping fried mozzarella sticks into spicy marinara sauce and the waitress slips in next to Honey just before his Dad starts telling parts of the same story he told on the train—about the peculiar path he followed from Beaver City to Provo to Los Angeles to San Francisco to Philadelphia to Wyndmore, Pennsylvania, to Fort Wayne to Nyack to North Adams—all to try and track down an old buddy from the signal corps who was in the salvage business—and how that didn’t work out and he ended up in Wellfleet, stranded and alone, but not at all unhappy—because when you’re alone in a strange town you’re not yourself and we only know we’re alive when we’re not ourselves. He ended up getting married there and living peacefully on the Cape for years, until the day his wife and child disappeared. Two years later she returned without the child, claiming that they’d been abducted by aliens. The way she looked it might have been true, but the child never turned up. He couldn’t stay there and started travelling again until he found his way here.

The waitress, who’s been listening to the peaceful smoothness of his coagulated tenor so raptly she could easily become Junior’s new Mom, suddenly seems to realize how long she’s been sitting and gets up to get their food.

The steaming plates are delivered, but his Dad isn’t paying attention. He’s listening to a conversation in the booth behind him and feverishly taking notes.

The little house is cozy and warm. The wood-burning stove in the basement sends up abundant heat that’s peculiarly friendly. Not quite aromatic, but with the feeling that a woodsmoke aroma is being translated into properties pleasing to the skin, radiating up through a system of floor grilles installed in every room for that purpose. Junior’s never lived in such a cozy house. Even the tiny glowing coal of sadness he feels deep in his Dad, sadness about what he has no idea, adds to the sense of coziness.

Junior’s doing the dishes, the sink right below a broad, three-part window that looks out at a dark evergreen forest. Honey is asleep and Dad’s at his old slope-faced school desk, writing a mile-a-minute in his drawing tablet. Junior loves when his Dad gets so carried away by something he’s written that he has to share it, like now, when he calls out, “This is weird! I don’t know where this came from!”, and Junior turns off the water to listen.

“‘It’s wonderful to be free of the feeling of being on display, but the price of this freedom is being outside everything—outside the bright, unnatural light of society—like a settler on one of the space stations no longer visited by any private vehicle or public ferry.

“‘Someone talks about the light we carry with us from childhood and likewise the darkness. With this one a luminous glow as if dipped in some phosphorescent substance, with that one a dark stain visible as a dismal atmosphere, like a November day when it can’t quite rain.

“‘This glow or this stain is bound to find corresponding zones—here on Earth and throughout the universe—harmonic vibrations—so that there are moments when we feel a deep chord being struck.’

“‘A bit too much of this glow can turn you into an electronic pickup tube—and this hungry radiance is what we call fame. A bit too little: well that’s nothing but the tarnished netherworld of the everyday.’“

Junior wants to know if that’s where they are. Are they outside the light of society? Is there a place outside the light of society? Wouldn’t that be the same as finding a place outside time? And even a moron sometimes feels that wherever there’s human life there’s time: that time is a problem introduced into the universe with every birth. So, if time is a human problem, how can we get away from it? And the same with the light of society.

His Dad’s not listening. He’s following his own line of thought and says that when he began writing in his tired hours after work all he really wanted was to turn out a decent mystery. But he couldn’t control what he wrote and these are the strange things that have always filled his sketchbooks. He’s shaking his head and smiling.

Junior calls his Dad over to listen to the sound he’s been hearing on and off for an hour or more.

They listen intently together, waiting for the faint hoo-hoo-hooing in the woods.

The longer they listen, the longer the intervals. More silence, fainter and fainter cries, to the point where hearing it is the same as remembering it.

Dad says that now the owl has retreated deep into the woods and soon they’re not going to hear it at all. But Junior argues that what they’re hearing is a creature that carries darkness and invisibility with it—the voice darkness, invisibility and distance would have if they had a voice—and therefore the more distant the creature sounds, the nearer it is.

Well, his Dad says, the only way Junior’s going to find out is to go out alone. Go out alone, because if the truth is going to approach it always approaches one alone, never two together.

He gives Junior a sack of stale bread to scatter for the eternal foraging of the crows and returns to his writing.

There he is, alone at the edge of the forest.

From a distance (if his Dad is, in fact, keeping an eye on him from the kitchen window) he’s a small figure in a white t-shirt and jeans—long, mowed field of grass behind him in a rippling plane, tall weeds and wild underbrush before him like the surging basin of an ocean he’s about to wade into.

Beyond rippling plane and surging ocean, a soaring lattice of green clouds and dark verticals—an oddly flaming light embedded exactly in the spaces where darkness will be most fathomless.

As darkness flows into the ragged evergreen lattice, a second light appears, harsh and silvery as the escaping electrons of an unassigned tv channel.

It’s the strange moment before nightfall, with all its rising earth fragrance and biting insects.

He finds it pleasurable to heave chunks of stale bread, left-over donuts and half-eaten blueberry muffins up high and wait for the distant thud at the foot of the evergreens, imagining the forest animals that will sneak out to nibble them at night, when everyone’s asleep.

Silvery leaves are beginning to turn their dark face toward him. Once the wind turns them over they can’t turn back, like the darkness that’s turned over above you and that you don’t have the strength to turn again.

Because he’s listening, he hears something.

The unknown species of bird that gives off its little unmusical cry when night starts blowing through the forest.

The sound of wind in trees that may also be the sound of a solitary car travelling down a wet highway.

A woman’s voice, calling “Daaa-viiddd” from far away, carries all the way to the forest’s edge. Makes him turn and turning brings a house into view that isn’t his Dad’s warm and cozy one. Seems to him that he’s looking out across the road that bisects the valley at the house high up on the wooded slope that mirrors their cleared one—where the blue light of an old tv set is always blowing on and off like a candle in the orange glow of one of the bedroom windows. Bedroom window of a little girl who never wants to go to sleep. Wants to keep watching forever. Calls out to her Mom & Dad in the livingroom that she’s not sleeping yet and her voice blows across the grass and the valley like a puffy seed cloud on an uprooted green stem.

Junior loses track of time following the path of wind that comes around the corner of the house, passing off into the trees to his right. Listens to wind in trees with his right ear only. Sound of wind in trees, even with one ear, describes a universe. One blended sound until ear does its fine tuning. Path of wind in each tree is different. Sound of wind in one tree not the same as sound of wind in another. Listen long enough and you can tell tree from tree by the particular swirling path or violent shaking path of wind through branches—and then the individual tree sounds group together and add up in clusters—and these groups of clustered individually different wind-in-tree sounds are also distinctly different from one another—and all this surrounds you in a swirling, massive way at this dark hour.

He walks away from the forest toward the house, but having his back to the dark forest makes him turn again and again to face it. Turning, he inhales the startling aroma and coldness of the earth-and-root wind sweeping down toward him through the surging basin of grass, a living chance to smell what a corpse smells for the split second it’s alive. Drawing close to the house, he sees a beautiful turquoise-and-sandstone coverlet lit up through a bedroom window.

His Dad’s not in the kitchen, watching over him from the lighted window that isn’t as wide as it used to be and isn’t divided into three parts. He goes from room to room. His Dad’s not in the house and neither is his little sister. But there is a lot of blood in one of the bedrooms, a strange red already turning black where the pillows make a hump under the beautiful turquoise-and-sandstone coverlet. The television is on and when its blue light washes against the walls their terrible pink turns an even more terrible orange.

Ascher/Straus’s recent writing is another step in a long history of creating narratives outside traditional boundaries, beginning with a set of narratives in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s called “Space Novels” that turned public spaces into novels.

Their two volumes with Green Integer (ABC Street and Hank Forest’s Party, 2014), though traditionally published, are once again meant to model an alternate basis for fiction, an outward-looking autobiography/novel/philosophical journal, the narrator’s meditation on the passing world narrated in mini-narratives. They’re also exploring the resonance between the two traditionally published novel/journal volumes and a long, related, ongoing narrative called Monica’s Chronicle on their website www.ascher-straus.com.

Ascher/Straus’s writing history also includes two novels and a novel-like volume of related stories (The Menaced Assassin, The Other Planet and Red Moon/Red Lake), alternative narratives in many forms published in journals, a novella (Letter to An Unknown Woman) and a long narrative/visual text, Discovery of the World, published by Hugh Fox’s Ghost Dance.

McPherson will be publishing an eBook version of The Other Planet. With all that, they see the novel-in-progress, Headless World, (excerpted here for the second time), as a departure from every other fiction they’ve written, even from whatever seems to resemble it most.

To update the progress of Headless World: it’s nearing completion.