Actually, this phrase astonished me: unfortunately I cannot remember it exactly, but it was something like: “There is a man cut in two by the window”…
In the mirror the room could only be made out behind an impasto of salt, sedimented there after months or even years of groaner activity. The groaners are the ones who sound like cavepeople when they lift or press those black pads, also layered with an alkaline accretion, together with their thighs as they try to make out the thumb-sized faces on the Netflix app on their phones. They tend to do groaner things like slap their sweat-soaked towels over their shoulders and shake their wet heads from side to side after a set, flinging droplets in broad arcs into high-velocity contact with the mirrors, which covered the wall opposite the stationary bikes, on which I could be found huffing for forty-five minutes every couple of days while trying to avoid being groaned at, or on, or in the vicinity of. I was one of the huffers: those who see going to the gym as a necessary evil, who pray to god that their thing, their one thing that they do at the gym, is available to them for the thirty minutes to an hour which they plan to spend there, who mount their spinners or treadmills or ellipticals and look down at their feet or at the soft spot just in front off their noses as they puff away the minutes until they can escape into the crisp evening, who smell the odor of exertion in the air and can only remember that one time, in grade school, when the kid they had never liked had told them that when you smell something you must be tasting it as well, and who then begin to suspect the sour flavor of agar sprouting cultures on the white centers of their tongues.
The bike I was on had two cup holders, one of which I used to hold up my phone, which would show me how much time was left in my ride before I could get out of there, and which allowed me to skip back to the same timestamp of the podcast I was listening to, over and over again, as I kept distracting myself by staring at the groaner who was staring at the woman doing yoga right across from me, on the grimy blue mats beneath the mirrors. The system in New York City is under particular duress. What was so particular about it? I couldn’t find out because my attention slipped each time I heard it. The man had no shame, was staring at her ass while sipping his muscle milk, the white residue settling in the corner of his mouth and on his chin. She noticed, of course. She always noticed; but that was where the mats were. It was one of those gyms that charged you $39.99 per month without any pretensions, like when you buy an old sedan from a used car lot whose newest models are fifteen years old, resembling more a factory than anything else, each machine beeping and flashing its green and red alarm-clock letters, with three or four TVs hanging from the ceiling and playing the news, of all things, just to give people some respite from trying to decide which of the many possible dystopian eventualities they were currently experiencing. She was a huffer, too, just trying to get in and out.
The problem was that it was my birthday. No, the problem was that the air conditioning was out, and the heat was almost as oppressive as the stench, and that the left pedal was screwed in too tightly, and would catch for a moment at the top of every rotation, and that this man would still not move from his unsubtle weight-lifting spot behind the yoga woman, and that I believed he was nursing a quarter chub beneath his basketball shorts, and that the system in New York City was, apparently, under particular duress, but from what I didn’t know, and that it was my birthday. I rewound another ten seconds because I was distracted by what seemed to be an orchestrated round of coughing that was sweeping the factory floor, but again I lost track as I began to consider the millions of winged bacteria and flying phages that were, at any given moment, dropping their calling cards into dozens of people’s mouths. With the next shunt of the pedal I unclipped my cycling shoes—procured back when I thought I’d treat California like an Alsatian wine route—grabbed my things, and made my way to the door as one makes one’s way to the incandescent surface of a pool, without wiping down my seat.
Outside, someone was having a barbecue, though where exactly they were running a grill in that vast parking lot was unclear and impossible to determine at that time of evening. What they don’t tell you about California is that most people live within walking distance of a parking lot, or a warehouse lit by sodium lamps, or a hole in the earth that was once to be a new retail outlet, and then an apartment complex built mostly with wood, which is still legal to do, before becoming a bureaucratic hot potato getting colder by the year. They don’t tell you that if you can see the Santa Cruz mountains from your house, you’ll have to edit out of your mind’s eye the faux-brutalist units housing a dentist, an acupuncturist, and a doggy daycare that together block the lower half of the view. No doubt, the mountains are there. And as you walk over to the Target for some more soap and catch a glimpse of a sky like strawberry milk coming over the other side of the ridge, you take a deep breath and smile and tell yourself, it’s there. California is there.
But there was no barbecue outside, not only because this was a parking lot, but also because it smelled like woodsmoke, not meat. As I walked toward my car, I scrolled through the headlines, skipping through the disproportionate noise about New York—which, granted, was always disproportionate—to find something more local. Public radio would have it. People in California listen to a lot of public radio, or else they listen to a lot of podcasts, or music. In any case, their intake of curated sounds is much higher than it would be out east, because what else is there to do in one’s car? If you get your public radio through an app, it’s possible to listen for so long that you run through the local and national programming and are defaulted to the WWV continuous time signal broadcast, out in Fort Collins, CO, which feels a bit like accidentally tapping into the lonely satellite link between a late-shift control room operator and a man who lives on the moon in secret, serving his country. The station transmits audible ticks every second to allow you to synchronize your clock, if you still do that kind of thing, and speaks to you as if from a sunken time: National Institute of Standards and Technology time: this is Radio Station WWV, Fort Collins, Colorado, broadcasting on internationally allocated standard carrier frequencies of two-point-five, five, ten, fifteen megahertz, providing time of day, standard time interval, and other related information. Inquiries regarding these transmissions may be directed to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Radio Station WWV, 2000 East County Road 58, Fort Collins, Colorado, 80524.
I thought about making an inquiry regarding the transmissions, when I realized that the smell of burnt wood had now made its way into the car and through the ventilation system, and I forgot all about contacting Fort Collins, though somewhere in my mind I still wanted to know whether it was ever an active fort, and if so for what purpose. I listened to the ticking during the drive home, imagining myself somewhere in space, tethered to the mothership.
To get into the apartment you had to turn three handles, one at the outer gate, one at the parking lot gate, and then your own door handle, and so as usual I went straight to the sink and scrubbed my hands raw, which gave me plenty of time to organize in my mind everything that I needed to look up. Sitting down, now, I pulled up a new tab and checked to see what phages were, because though I could imagine them entering my aerobic system I had no idea where I had learned their concept. Then I started to type, “the system in New York City” before remembering that I had forgotten to figure out what that smell was, which was coming through my bedroom window, now, but which I didn’t feel it ultimately made sense to keep out, because my apartment had no air conditioning and I needed some way to let the breeze in. I wasn’t an idiot. I looked up, “fire in California,” and confirmed that there was in fact a blaze the size of San Francisco clawing its way up the other side of the Santa Cruz mountains, which protected us from the sea.
Maybe I was coming down with something, and should go to the hospital. I had heard somewhere that it was bad to be outside when there was a fire growing that was close enough to smell, and there I was, tucked into the sheets with the window above my head open about eight inches, inviting the outdoors and its odours into bed with me. Have you ever seen the outer edges of a chimney, covered in soot deposits black as a nightmare? Could that happen to your throat, to the rim of your lips? I thought about looking it up, but then, as if they had been plugged, my ears tuned into the soft sounds of the radio anchor delivering the news from my nightstand, which reminded me that I was meant to calm down and drift off. I kept the news running all night, just barely audible, to help me get to sleep, always hoping that I wouldn’t start awake at four in the morning plunged into the blue, incessant ticking from Colorado. I stared at the faint green numerals of my clock, wondering when daylight saving time started, or ended. In either case, ticking or no, if I could get to sleep my birthday would be over by the time I opened my eyes.
Except the next day I would be driving up to San Francisco precisely to celebrate my birthday, which felt a bit like when, guided by your experience in the world and your firm-footing with its facts, the consanguinity of most people’s thoughts and ideas, you believe something to be one way only to find out that it is in fact another. Entopic graphomania sounds like a disease you might never get in real life, but would be liable to hear uttered dozens of times in hospital soaps and thrillers about viral outbreaks. But really it’s a way of making art, developed by a couple of bonafide Romanian surrealists, in which you locate the impurities—the creases, tears, smudges—on a blank sheet of paper, mark them with a pen or pencil, and then connect them with straight or curved lines, producing an abstract picture. The technique was believed by its inventors to be a form of surautomatism, which brought one closer to Breton’s ideal than Breton himself ever got.
But it was unconvincing. Fires: those are convincing. Nature is healing, we like to say, except when there are forest fires not forty miles away. Then we talk about controlled burn policies and forest management. The thing that makes sense about fires is that they’ll happen either way, or they won’t, just like rain will either happen or it won’t. And really we’ll have no say in the matter of the lengths of our showers or the volume of water in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which, if I dared expose my eyes to the glow of my screen, I could determine down to the cubic foot. The blue light from screens is bad for your eyes, supposedly, and so people will try to sell you blue-light-filtered lenses for your glasses at a markup, which I bought two years ago, or will tell you to use the night shift on your phone and laptop at night, or at all times of day. Humans and the environment aren’t unlinked, but it takes an effort of surrealist dimensions to draw the lines, to incite “belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations,” as the manifesto says.
As I couldn’t sleep, I considered that the fire might go on a while, and that it might prevent me from exercising outdoors, which I didn’t do anyway, but of which I now felt wrongfully deprived. And how would I manage to pull off the conference I had been meant to be organizing? Several panels peopled by several distinguished literary critics were meant to be held on the terrace outdoors, but that seemed ill-advised now, given the chimney and the soot and all that. I wondered how long it would take for an ambulance to arrive if, say, one of the septua- or octo-genarians were to collapse from difficulties breathing. So we would move everything inside, into the adjoining room. But then, we’d have to move the catering somewhere else. And what if, because of the fire or some other disaster, the catering company laid off its employees? I supposed we could get pizza at the last minute, but then what about the employees—what would they do, how would they explain it to their families? That wouldn’t be a bother to the critics, at least.
If you opened your laptop, as I was fighting the urge to do, and put on one of those hospital soaps, and you heard one of the characters say the words exquisite corpse, you might reasonably think that they were talking about a dead body that one of them had recently seen, or seen to, or else that the show, well into the fallen years of its late seasons, had wiped out its writing room and hired some go-getters to turn the series around, who wasted no time exploring the moral imbroglios of necrophilia. You’d be surprised to find out that, from similar complications in the writing room, an altogether different tack had been decided upon, namely that the chief resident would develop an artistic sensibility and pursue his own line of surrealistic creations, known as exquisite corpses, which are collaborative projects in which four or five artists, using a sheet of paper folded four or five times accordingly, each draw a portion of a figure or an image on their fold only, without looking at the other folds, and do so at their own complete creative discretion. At the end, the sheet is unfolded and smoothed out, and a chimera never before seen or conjured emerges from the provenance of a collective unconscious.
Such a writing decision is unlikely, but it’s what came to mind as I considered which panels I might move indoors, and which I might leave outside—for I was now entertaining a compromise. I would have prefered to keep the panel on surrealism, the one that I was responsible for organizing, indoors, but I didn’t want to be seen as nepotistic, which I knew was not technically the right word for the situation I feared, but which nonetheless felt most appropriate.
The next day, driving up the 101, I thought about how I’d much rather be on the 280, which ran through greener, more dramatic country, dotted with cows and reservoirs like spilled ink. But that would also have brought me closer to the fires which, by the time I had woken up that morning, under-rested and still in the grips of a dream in which I had killed off the entire male-descended line of my ancestry, had grown to the size of two San Franciscos, and whose pillars of smoke one could see like the fingers of a broad hand about to flatten the hills into oblivion. So I took the freeway that passed through warehouse and parking lot and hole-in-the-earth country, and wondered about the system in New York City and how it compared to the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defence Highways, and about where, exactly, one could find the defense highways, and where those went.
With my left hand on the wheel I grabbed my phone with the right and began searching for the unfinished podcast while casting my gaze up to the road and back down again, in time to the Colorado ticker in my head. I found it after some searching and rewound another thirty seconds to remind myself of the lead up to the point being made about the system in New York, and by the time that I heard the phrase uttered again I was sufficiently primed to learn about the particular duress that it was under, when the car in front of me lurched into a screeching brake and, heart in my mouth, I was forced to do the same.
The cause of the slowdown was no doubt whatever commotion was going on along the shoulder of the freeway, a few yards ahead. The creeping cars, which were just a moment ago in the utmost hurry to their destinations, had slowed in unison like the tide to see what was going on. I was relieved to know that there was some reason for the traffic, as there sometimes wasn’t, because sometimes a car miles ahead just slows down rather abruptly and, seeing his brake lights, the car behind him does the same, though not at the same instant, for a second needs to pass for the driver in the second car to notice the brake lights and decide to hit them himself, and this phenomenon continues retrovirally all the way down, creating a miles-long knot in the road in which people are stopping for no reason at all, and that really frustrated me.
So I was gratified to have some visual confirmation here, even though I shook my head at how mindless these sheep were, how compelled they felt to join the crowd and take a gander just because everyone else was doing it. And I forgot that I had thought that, the moment I reached the scene at the side of the road, and saw a white sedan completely without its engine section, streaked with blood along its doors, and a dead body draped out of the shattered driver’s side window like a wet rag. Several men in uniform were surrounding the vehicle, and one policeman with a notebook was moving his arms and torso as if to mime the lifeless figure, trying to figure out the physics of what had happened.
After four or five seconds I had passed the scene and I took a call from my girlfriend, who asked me what I’d like to eat for dinner. She said it could be anywhere I wanted, given that we were celebrating my birthday, and I specified that I’d like to go somewhere where I wasn’t likely to choke on anything.
We ate pizza from a wood-fired oven and talked about what it was like when we used to live in New York.
“The system there is under particular duress,” I said.
“Oh?” she said.
“Yes. Doesn’t sound too good.”
“It’s a good thing we left, then,” she said.
“It was already a good thing. We left because we were unhappy, because there was no access to nature, and we got sick all the time from the subway, and the door to the building where I worked was adjacent to the back of a luxury grocery store that dumped all of its trash out on the curb and caused the whole street to reek of rotten fish, especially when the sun was out.”
“Was it as bad as all that?”
“I think so. Anyway, given the state of the system there, it’s good that we’re out here.”
We ate our food and, as she told me about her work, I thought about how great my life was just then, how stable our relationship, how beautiful it was in California, how I got to be one of those people who, when it rained, says, “it’ll be good for the snowcaps and the reservoirs.” If the fires would only subside, there would be no impurities.
On the way back to her place the sodium lamps were out along a full block of Page, and as we couldn’t see two feet in front of us I tripped over what I thought was a backpack someone had left out on the curb, but which was really a homeless person trying to sleep. He let out a yelp and started shouting, cussing us out. We ran until the lights resumed, and as we did I wondered whether I had been a coward just then, or an asshole. Later, as we were falling asleep to the news, I braved the shot to my optic nerve and looked up the homeless population of San Francisco. Outside, an electric-powered bus rolled by.
On the way back down, I took the 101 again. It was meant to be a clear day, but the sky was overcast. A seven-day forecast is wrong about twenty percent of the time. But the news said that it wasn’t cloud cover, but smoke and ash. An area five times the size of San Francisco was on fire, and the burn had started to come over the mountains. San Mateo, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara counties were being warned to prepare for evacuation. I considered turning around, riding out my tank as far as Mendocino, as I set my climate control to recirculate air already in the car.
It was sometime after 10 am. I was in one of the left lanes when my chest started tightening. A little bit, at first, but then a tingling began to spread from its center, as if I had sprung a leak. A deep sense that something was terribly wrong was setting in. My groin began to contract, my breathing accelerated. What was happening? I couldn’t be in the left lane if I fainted; I would die. I pulled into the lane immediately to my right, then the one after that. I was numb all over, the contraction of what felt like my vital organs was relentless. In the corner of my windshield, I could see a rope of orange light draped over the hills, leaving a black wake in its enclosure. After maneuvering behind a truck, I managed to get all the way to the right and within sight of a small turn-out along the shoulder. I put on my flashers and came to a stop. The car was in park but I was somehow unable to turn it off and get my key from the slot. It gave after a few tries and I ambled out onto the shoulder to stand and catch my breath. The traffic shot past me in a scream. My body held itself in a vise, my head completely cold, and I felt my vision beginning to fry around the edges. My phone, my phone. I opened the door again to grab it. Then, back outside the car, resting on the hood as I tried to breathe. I’m having a stroke, I thought. Or a heart attack. The hood must be burning hot, but it only feels warm. Is that a problem? Maybe I shouldn’t lean on it. A stiffening in my muscles, shaking in my hands. This is it. 911. All of our operators are busy, please stay on the line. Busy, what a fucking joke. What a goddamn disaster. My hands constricted into claws, I thought immediately of cerebral palsy. I ambled over to the side of the car nearest the road and began waving my claw at the traffic. Hep! I yelled into the roaring lanes, Hep, please! Hep me! My jaw locked open, would not let me form my words. No one stopped. Why? I knew then that I would die on the side of the road. I just need someone to know, just need them to come and find me, even if I’ve fallen and the lights had gone out. I don’t want to die, I thought, as my palm bent in on itself and my jaw tightened and my eyes bulged and pulsed in the rhythm of my terror.
Finally, someone on the line. Please hep me! I shouted. Southbound or northbound, sir? Sou’bound! Sou’bound! I’m having a stwoke! What exit are you at sir? I looked around, I thought it was exit 411. OK she said, and patched me through to the ambulance driver. The numbness seemed to be fading. Thank you, I said. Thank you, I think it’s passing. Are you OK if I hang up sir, or do you want me to stay on the line? Please stay, I said. Please, I’m only 25. Please stay. I think it’s coming back, I said. Oh god, oh god it’s coming back. I can’t… I can’t breathe. I’m going to sit down. OK she said, and I muted her and opened the radio app and held the speaker of my phone to my ear. We have breaking news about the moon today, the anchor said, and just as she said it I saw the ambulance and felt the rim of the front tire searing the back of my shirt. It pulled into the turn out as I watched from the ground, waving my claw from the elbow. The EMT jumped out and approached me with an outstretched hand. I’m having a stwoke! I groaned, and the light around me went gray. He came toward me with the stretcher and tried to tell me something about a panic attack. But I couldn’t hear him over the ticking in my ear which had eclipsed the story of the moon. Fifteen megaherz, I thought, as we plunged into a new, slower medium. Ten, five, two-point-five. I’m having a stroke… I tried to say, but I was silenced by the mountains. Only the great soot fingers loomed like crumbling skyscrapers, groaning, blotting out the sun.