[Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000]
Jan Levine Thal
Each day one considers the evidence, laying it out methodically with the
carefully honed skills absorbed from Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle
and -- let's be honest -- from Kinsey Millhone and Warshawski. The pieces
are right there next to the New York Times crossword puzzle, which
one can still complete despite the all-too-routine lapses that lead to hilarious
misspellings. The full forensic report lurks menacingly, thumbtacked onto
the bulletin board of victim photos, neatly bagged and tagged together with
the fingerprints, the ancient Japanese sword, the cigar ash, and the mangled
tiara. Roughly stubbing out your hand-rolled cigarette, you lose all reason,
dragging your exhausted muscular limbs over the blood-soaked floor, burying
your craggy face in the heaving breasts of the princess. A wrong move means
Forget that silly Mickey Spillane digression. One easily becomes distracted
because the inevitable outcome is distasteful and without lasting significance.
And yet, tediously, this evidence points to an open-and-shut case.
An overwhelming sense of post sometimes overtakes one-post mortem, post
modern, post colonial, post menopausal, post useful, post attractive, post
loveable, post office. One is reminded of the letters. Take a break here
for a moment and look through the detritus on the desk. Do you like this
desk? One sits here day in and day out, often seven days a week at this
ugly steel monument to a forgotten purpose. It is too small, fatally smudged
and piled with shrouds of paper -- and yet it is often the full extent of
one's world, packed with imitations of human contact: a computer, a printer,
a telephone, a fax, a scanner, a pencil sharpener and a little island of
"free" space for the unruly manuscripts perched precariously upon
one another, constructing a house that should be of cards. This little cubbyhole
is creepily like the office in Kurosawa's Ikiru -- the one about
a civil servant who loses his sense of decorum, defies his assigned place
as a faceless sexless middled-aged man, and in defense of the defenseless
takes up actions that seem crazy to his colleagues.
One begins to panic in search of the mindless faceless sexless illusive
correspondence that helps the company attack the defenseless, its active
contributions to the general fund of undesired mail-those rejection letters
that arrive at someone's doorstep in fine company with bills and barely
personalized invitations to give, give, give, to make up for the mean-spiritedness
of the government of, by, and for the people. Takashi Shimura can throw
over his job with no thought to the future but he is a prince.
Trust Kurosawa to create an epiphany where most people experience burnout.
In Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress the beautiful young princess
pretends to be mute to escape from her evil enemies. Yes, yes, it's the
film that inspired George Lucas' Star Wars; don't get sidetracked.
Wordlessness would be a terrible life sentence. Of course, you could still
write unless someone broke your fingers or you got crippling arthritis or
you were uneducated to begin with. But the princess was mute not because
of such misfortunes, but because she had no social skills. The very royal
need no social skills. They have their own language: they command. Unfortunately
her royal family is overthrown and she has to run away across the war-torn
Japanese countryside teeming with Samurai and bandits. Among these ordinary
citizens her haughty tones are clear evidence of her identity. The only
way the three bad men can rescue her is to convince her to divest herself
of designer clothes but this is the movies you know and she can't be naked
or ordinary so they cloak her in graceful rags and keep her from communicating
with anyone, for her own good. Now, there's a film begging for feminist
Where was I? Oh the letters. Yes, yes, I mailed them. I'm almost positive
I mailed them already this morning when I went to get the paper.
What? Oh, right, the evidence. You're impatient, aren't you? If I were Courtney
Love you'd think this was all so fascinating, you'd be glued to every little
shake of the well-designed messy curls, every tell-tale streak in the imperfect
makeup. Courtney's romantic Charles-like royal widowhood, her post-addiction
slinky slimness, that wrinkle-free face with those seemingly guileless eyes,
her sultry promise of sex to all men and women, would be enough. The words
could be meaningless. She could be mute, ripe with promise and meaning and
What? It's not coffee, no. I don't drink coffee anymore or smoke cigarettes
or drink bourbon. Those were things I loved but like all of my loves they
left me for my own good.
Yes, you're getting warmer. No those aren't antidepressants or cyanide.
One may, in fact, be melodramatic without being cruel. Cruelty is the culture
of your generation, not mine. Antidepressants don't work for everyone, anyway.
That's another little clue, but never mind. Mental illness is boring, mentally
ill people are self-centered and repetitive, and most important-they aren't
you. You have control. You have discipline. You have no scary surprises
lurking in your genetic code. You have no chemistry that could go awry.
In your family there is no dysfunction. No one ever left you. Your life
makes perfect sense and you are proud of your contributions to humanity.
You've experienced no traumas and if you do, you will have the fortitude
to respond to them with gracious equanimity. You won't fight the other prisoners
for crusts of moldy bread. You will escape into the underground where you
will fight valiantly for freedom or at the very worst you will glide into
the gas chambers cloaked in dignified prayer. Nothing can faze you.
Congratulations! The other contestants won a trip to see the Crown Jewels
in the Tower of London but you now have your very own house of cards in
your very own royal language.
The pieces of evidence you want, the end of this scintillating little moment,
are just ordinary household items. Any time now, the duck will come down
and give you a cigar for figuring it out. You can enjoy cigars, even though
they aren't good for you. They are the hip edge of hip, or they were. Maybe
they're passé now and we're on to something else. Whatever it is,
it isn't food. Don't eat-eating is good for you but you are maybe more phobic
about fat than about insanity. You, who embraces bisexuality, celebrates
diversity unless someone wants your job, dabbles in hard drugs or at least
thinks they're cool, accepts the things you can't change and searches for
wisdom, you are a Royal without the bloodline. Your body is your palace.
The ordinary are beneath notice and quite frankly dangerous.
The pills? Yes, they are it. Those big ones are psyllium husks to help guard
against colon cancer. The humongous one is a multivitamin to fill in the
blanks of careless nutrition. The little brown ones are estrogen so one
can save one's bones and be lubricated enough for sex. The empty vial is
for ginko bilboa. One forgets to get it refilled.
Yes, Dick Tracy, these seemingly innocent items prove that the end is in
sight. Unfortunately, thanks to medical science it could be 30 years from
now. More years than you have lived. Long enough for one to watch you go
through this. Three decades to go, three generations of being invisible
and wearing dull, shapeless clothing. One's memories -- so unintriguing
-- fail to jibe with the received wisdom, the agreed-upon interpretations.
Has one's memory actually failed, or is the History Channel version just
wrong? Or have there been so many overlays of right and wrong, of experience
and fantasy, of fiction and theory that even scratching off the layers is
useless, a haphazard creation of gobbledegook, a raging against the inevitable
night, a sound and fury signifying nothing? One's own participation in whatever
happened is neither a recipe for success nor even a reliable full-fledged
warning against the path to failure. OK, you're right. A few will mouth
meaningless pleasantries because their mothers taught them manners, offering
overly solicitous inquiries without an ounce of interest fueling them-the
emotional equivalent of yelling at a deaf person while waiting for someone
to bring you a drink.
Where is the pleasure, you might ask. Where are the rich rewards of wisdom
gathered? Shut up. Not one word about that fucking purple poem. And yet
one precariously jiggles between memory lost and wisdom gained-a state of
tightropeness that is perhaps not evident.
No, don't take the evidence with you now. You will need it soon enough.
When Sean Connery was this age, his career was just getting into full gear.
When P.D. James was this age, she hadn't published her first novel. When
Mozart and Jane Austen were this age, they were dead, along with Courtney's
husband. Princess Leia is no doubt scarfing down estrogen as we speak. So
one wonders exactly what the evidence proves.
But, surely, the guilty are still at large.
Jan Levine Thal lives in Madison and New York City, depending on her state
of mind. Once married to WORT-FM
in Madison, she is happily divorced from radio and pursuing other creative
outlets including acting, writing, and reconsidering the Second Manifesto
of the Surrealists.
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