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

By Ascher/Straus

It’s the middle of the night and he has no idea where he is.

The guy who calls himself Waldo Bunny is slumped way down in his seat with his mouth open, his right hand resting on the hard rubber runner and one foot thrust halfway across the aisle for passing morons to break their necks on. Waldo Bunny had said very little and that little bit didn’t make much sense. Called him Junior and apologized for the fact that Junior’s Mom hadn’t been able to drive west as planned. It was too long a story to go into, but Junior’s Mom Penny’d been in the hospital for a while. She was ok now, home recuperating and catching up on all those plot threads that unravel when you’re out of touch and his Dad was still overseas, way out on the Bakhmenev Peninsula, working on that huge, endlessly looping, interactive virtual reality park they’ve got out there that Junior must’ve seen on the news cause of all the billions they’ve wasted on it. They can fiddle all they want, but for his money it’s the adjustment to the human brain that’s always lagging behind technology …

So they had to send him to fetch Junior. And he fucked up, as usual. Had to ditch the van in a hay field at the Bungalow Ranch way out in the Snake River Valley, near Rigby, Idaho. Another long story. To his way of thinking it’d all worked out for the best, but he doubted if Junior’s Mom was gonna think so.

That made him laugh at himself and go on babbling a while longer. Then they ate from a picnic hamper Waldo Bunny had brought along: enormous, spicy sandwiches and sweet drinks so thick it was hard to suck them up. They settled into their seats and Waldo Bunny fell asleep at once, like someone who’s been on the road for days, the double dromedary hump of his Adam’s apple sliding up and down in his neck like a mechanical shuttle, eyelids flinching wildly from the terrible pictures his body’s casting up against the narrow screen of the skull.

Junior leans his head against the window and wonders how he came to be called “Junior.” Now things are one way, then they’re another, and you always miss the little gate they passed through. Now your name is Junior cause someone says so. Now you’re in one place, then you’re in another. Without remembering if you’ve done this before, you know that when it’s dark and the aisle lights are dimmed, ugly little towns will split open like black rocks that have nothing inside but one bluish path splashed with red. Long before there was the possibility of speeding up a loop of images to keep the eye from getting bored, there was the possibility of speeding through the world. An insatiable appetite for the next emptied image: where does it come from? The eye used to be content with sixteen images a second; now even sixty-four don’t satisfy its urge to gobble and each image evacuates meaning from the last. He’d like to ask Waldo Bunny how looking out the train window is different from looking at tv, but Waldo Bunny’s dreaming face has, if anything, grown stupider with sleep. He feels closer to the screaming thrust of particle jets forced into a straight line around every curve than he does to that face, dumb as it is long. “Wherever we are we’re alone and whenever we’re alone a planet is being born and unborn.” Drifts off staring at dark fields and darker trees that roll all the way up to the blind windows that hold them at a distance like binoculars without magnification.

He starts dreaming and forgetting the dream at the same time, as if the dream includes a corrosive virus that eats it up as it goes along.

In the dream he’s a child who’s no longer certain his family is his own. They look like the family he knows, but they’re acting strange, as if they were making a guest appearance on someone else’s program, the horrible jelly of each overly-defined personality leaking out into the thin atmosphere through its porous boundary.

Someone tells him that his new Dad is the murderer whose big, bearded head was just on tv. The body of the child they found on the mountain slope in the abandoned logging camp was buried there by his Dad — and now he’s hiding in the dark back bedroom and making animal noises. “How can my Dad be a murderer,” he says. “My Dad is an idiot!” He just has time to turn on the light when his Dad’s teeth are at his throat. Knows he can’t win. His Dad’s hatred is stronger and so are his hands. One of them is snarling and the other’s yowling like an animal when its flesh is the first to get bitten. Pain always comes as a surprise and braids the body in a sickening way with the latent reality of reality.

Starts to explain to someone that there’s a strange aroma when the terror in flesh acquires the force of murder — for the victim and for the murderer — and someone else asks if it’s anything like the smell you get, which isn’t exactly the smell of fresh laundry, when you fall from a small height and bang your forehead on the sidewalk — a smell that resembles the shock to the senses you get when your series is cancelled and you step outside the building into cold bright air under a sky the color of mashed potatoes, wondering how you’re going to spend your winter and who exactly you’re supposed to be.

He wakes up with his forehead against the heated window’s magnetic field, a scribbled manuscript of dust dispersed against it that would take a lifetime (between eleven and seventy-eight-point-ninety-six years) to decipher, mouth drooling into his dirty shirtsleeve. Waldo Bunny is across the aisle playing cards, drinking white wine and eating pretzels with a short woman with a grieving bulldog’s face and featherduster hairdo.

“This is the way it works,” Waldo is saying. “We have no more control over our own visibility than we do over our invisibility (or is it the other way around?). Therefore we have no control over our own existence. To exist and to be visible are now one and the same thing. Think about it clearly. Where are we when we’re alone? Where are we really when we’re not visible? And our visibility and invisibility are decided by someone else. One day you’re cancelled and you’re not visible. And then suddenly you’re supposed to exist again. And sometimes you’re just not ready!”

“Complaining is the idiot’s freedom, Mr. Bunny,” the old woman says, taking a difficult sidelong bite out of a thick overbaked beer pretzel and dealing a hand of cards. “And listening to someone else’s complaining is like going down to the edge of any dirty street in the world and chewing on the world’s filthy paper that’s always floating there. And chewing on the world’s filthy paper is what makes us stupid.”

“A lot of people must be chewing on filthy paper then …”

For a second Waldo Bunny seems handsome and intelligent and Junior wonders who he really is. But as soon as it falls silent, the face eases back into its former hangdog uncertainty — seems aware of the elongated ugliness of its look and starts talking again for no other reason than to prove it can.

“Last time I visited my Mom down in Orlando,” he says, “she had a dog that’s supposed to look like my Dad, only I don’t remember my Dad at all — so the only thing I know about my Dad right now is that he looked like this dog my Mom’s got.”

Before they go to sleep Waldo warns Junior to be on his guard. Junior’s Gramma was supposed to join them on the train and this woman’s claiming to be her, but he’s afraid she’s an impostor. She knows certain facts about Junior, but some of her facts are off. Something long and sharp is shining in the darkness at the bottom of her flight bag. It might just be a set of knitting needles, but it might be something else.

Junior’s got his face flattened up against the glass, eyes shaded. Can just make out rows of mashed-down rv’s by a lake. In the distance, the red and blue lights of a tavern broadcasting to outer space like the giant screen tv that’s always on in the interior distance of someone else’s front parlor, living its life indifferent to the human head that’s watching it or not. Extra darkness gathers around the lights of the tavern and inside there’s an unused dance floor, shiny and aromatic. Groups of friends are eating and drinking with the usual combustible mix of happiness and unhappiness. Windows are open and the ones whose bodies have slipped out of their protective amnesia sense the river of air that feels unearthly.

Junior is bent over a table, trying to write on a crumpled sheet of paper that can’t be smoothed flat. He’s covering one red ear, unable to block out the irritating noise of the merriment around him — and his clotted ballpoint keeps sticking in the irregular grain of the table.

“‘What exists is absolute,’“ he writes slowly and pronounces each word in his mind, as if it has nothing to do with the word before it or the word after it. “‘Whatever has been brought into existence — no matter how synthetic or unwanted — joins the pre-existing reality of Nature on an absolutely equal footing. And the duplicated thing no less real than the original. The real world is full and total. We lie up against it and in some way feel its totality against our skin, even while something inward sinks away from it. Something inward is always sinking away. And our own particular velocity of sinking away from the fullness of the world is what we call the self.’“

These last words strike Junior and disturb him. He repeats them to himself, looking out toward the train that’s passing slowly in an arc that doubles around on itself in the distance. And as he’s murmuring to himself “our own particular velocity of sinking …” and feeling in his body what it means to sink down below everything you know as reality, he wakes up and finds the lights turned off with the exception of two or three individual high-intensity reading lights. Here and there an exhausted face, a lifeless arm, a patch of lightweight blanket can’t quite absorb the wobbly blue-green image cast there by the seat-back television monitors, the way the still water of a motel swimming pool sometimes feels the reflection a flowering tree has dropped down into it without enough weight to reach bottom and doesn’t know what to do with it. Waldo Bunny’s coiled up so tight Junior can’t see his head. His black boots, black jeans and dark jacket turn the blue-red light of the television an oily purple. On the small screen a woman’s face is barely visible through a blizzard of colored particles. Lips are moving, but the words are hard to make out through the boiling crackle of galactic broadcasting. Takes a minute to adjust the simplified controls.

“The world, clear and open on every side, is dense enough to press in on the sinking blob and give it shape.

“Another way: the world, no matter how stuffed with garbage, always appears clear and open to the crowded self.

“The pressure on the sensitive boundary of the blob is the push of an invisible river the hemmed-in self experiences in a melancholy way as time. Stationary movement of the body through what medium even while sitting propped up against pillows, legs stretched out, reading or writing. Body — even while sitting, getting nowhere but older — moves like wind passed from one tree to the other around the edge of a lake. And with the absence of pressure? The self leaks out into space, dizzy as someone stumbling out of a movie theater into the bright distance of an afternoon. We’ve grown comfortable at the weird intersection of abstraction and intimacy: what once was farthest away and most alien is now our childhood playmate. It isn’t only looking that brings distance as close as the shake we’ve just sucked up through two thick straws …”

Junior’s face is close to the recessed television panel. The woman’s face is beautiful, the voice as familiar as the lullaby sung to you every night by the one who stroked your hair, if not at home, then in a hospital by a kindly nurse. Face and voice are so familiar, so moving, it seems to him that someone he’s loved and lost must be kneeling on the seat behind the clouded panel of glass, face close to his. Stands up to peer over the top of the seat, bumps into the long tip of one of Waldo Bunny’s boots and wakes him up. Head pops up, hand goes inside his jacket for a weapon. Eyes seem to be suffering from the stroke of reverse genius that comes from wasting life’s one brilliant idea on the wrong thing. Sees that everything’s quiet and coils up again while Junior sinks down and stares miserably at the fresh image on the screen, where the molecules of his sister have become mixed up with the pixels of a young actress magnetically attractive season after season, from childhood to alluring near-womanhood, looking at you with sympathy beyond her years. Along your darkest curve, as if she were searching for you as well.

Hours later he wakes up again. The seat next to him is empty and he has a good view of his so-called Gramma. She’s rummaging through her deep flight bag, making loud noises. Rummaging and rummaging through a crisp and crinkly plastic bag and, inside the crinkly plastic bag, other crisp and crinkly plastic bags. Hand goes in, paws around, comes out empty, goes back in, paws and paws and paws, pushes stuff around, pulls stuff out, looks at stuff with real curiosity as if it’s someone else’s, paws it, turns it over, unwraps and rewraps it, stuffs it back in, paws again for something else, makes a big show of packing it all up again before she waddles noisily down the aisle toward the exit door, bumping the heads and jostling the dangling legs of sleepers on either side.

As soon as she’s gone, he falls asleep. He’s in a wheelchair, being wheeled quickly down the slick floor of a hospital corridor. Corridor shines darkly in front of him, and he assumes that the figure invisible behind him is the kindly nurse with the round face and silky skin, the one who’s always treated him like her grandson.

Figure behind him gives the wheels a hard forward spin.

Glides forward like a canoe moving in even thrusts across a dark lake.

What lake is this — and in what country? Head back, reclining in the canoe as if someone else were paddling, a helpless passenger with the naked length of his throat exposed, he sees that the sky is nothing but a reflection of the lake below him, except with the faintly glowing possibility of little cellophane-wrapped images blowing across it like candy wrappers across a school yard.

Hand goes to his throat, where he feels a small but painful injury. Now they’re racing desperately toward the operating room, where a tube will be inserted through the tiny flap.

The false grandmother and all her things are gone and Waldo Bunny is returning from the windy space between two cars. He’s combing out his disheveled hair, his cheeks are flushed, and he’s drying his hands on his jeans.

Drops down into the seat next to Junior and tells him that he’s going to tell him a story, even though he always gets things mixed up and has to replay them again to get them straight.

“I don’t think you were called ‘Junior’ when they abandoned you at the age of twelve. Your Mom had been ill. She’d been in the hospital somewhere in Lee County, I think, for months and months, where the guy in the bed next to her looked an awful lot like Johnny Carson. Why they were in Lee County I don’t know. I never knew that part of the story. But it didn’t work out. Your Mom and Dad went into some sort of oblivion. They had hard times and your Mom became ill.

“Every person who’s had hard times assumes he knows the story of every other person’s hard times and anyone who hasn’t had hard times doesn’t have a clue about anything. Does that mean that every person’s story is unknowable? Each person knows only his/her own story and no one else can (wants to?) understand it. The story that gets told is the story that’s possible to tell. Every story is nothing but an account of what can be told, not what occurred. We can only tell what can be told and we can only know what we already know and that’s why the world is such a dumb place. Everyone’s got their life reduced to a story they know how to tell and everyone’s always telling their own little story to someone trying to tell their own little story and if you listen sometimes you can’t fall asleep because of all the little wheels that are flying into each other and gnashing their gears.

“We only know our own little plot summary and, as time goes by, we don’t even know that.

“If I were you what I’d be thinking about is this: ‘Why did my parents abandon me?’ Was it because they never should have had you in the first place? Everyone’s life has a certain consistency to it, no matter what kind of mess it looks like. It has a shape — you can feel when something doesn’t fit in — and when you came along you may have been one of those things that didn’t fit. The family may already have had its program going and you might have been this little alien character, this intruder, and no amount of fiddling could make it right. Or it sometimes happens that when we arrive we can tell that we don’t belong. Can feel that we’ve arrived in a unit that’s already complete and wonder what we’re doing there and why we were sent.”

After a while Junior and Waldo fall asleep, yet Junior has the feeling that somewhere, on another frequency or in a little cellophane-wrapped image broadcast long ago and drifting between the galaxies, his story is still being told.

Junior shoots the two stubborn bolts and stares at himself in the dirty bathroom mirror. His eyes have a look he recognizes and hates. Seems to him there was a time when he was beginning not to recognize himself and that he was happy then and that, in general, the times we’re unrecognizable to ourselves are extremely pleasant and therefore unstable.

The light outside the city is gold, as it is everywhere. A golden light bristles in the brown rushes in the golden/brown waterways that bisect the layered plane of the past. Everywhere brown water washes a layered, purple rock and brown and purple surround the pale green twilight of the golf courses.

A level evening landscape of yellow lights and highways flows through the mind, which feels cleared by fire and ready for a fresh idea to get something going.

As the crust of detail is shorn away, laying bare the abstraction that makes it possible to live in the world, and the eye sees nothing but the external dome with its diagram of pathways between sites that are really functions, we succumb to the feeling of changing the world by speeding through it.

If we remember a lake and see it in sunlight — see others swimming, hear their voices, remember long and pleasant conversations on the shore — and then it becomes dark, is everything forgotten?

Dangle a foot in the water and lose it?

The meaning is clear, yet escapes him as always, flying away 625 times a second from the object it was attached to. (“Each object is a launcher that fires its own meaning as far away from itself as possible.”)

He settles deeper into sleep and the dream begins to have its own dream that’s fastened to the curve, bending and bending into view where he can see how it’s pulling him along, like the marked date in next week’s tv listings that makes the future happen.

Sheila Ascher and Dennis Straus 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 told 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.

With all that, they see their novel-in-progress (excerpted here for the first time) as a departure from every other fiction they’ve written, even from whatever seems to resemble it most.