Entries: February 2005

Bedtime Story

Of my parents I remember precious little, and the memories I do hold are frustratingly elusive. The very act of reminiscing would seem to change my memories over time, and I find myself doubtful of details that I was once sure about. The trick, I’ve found, is to keep these memories far enough away to avoid tampering, but close enough to consciousness to keep from forgetting them completely. I take satisfaction in trusting that they’re there. That’s what I’ve told myself.

The cell I grew up in is but a memory now, but one that’s not likely to fade. For, while the details of my formative world are no longer what they once were, I can remember with great clarity how my cell’s stone walls would sweat on Spring nights. And on windy days, how the chill air would low as it wound its way down the wood plank steps of the cellar.

Were I asked why it was that I came to be locked away in a cell I would have to confess ignorance. Emotionally my adolescence was a tricky period for me, but not for the reasons one might suspect. I didn’t know any better, you see, and so had no context with which to understand my situation. No, the feelings I remember were limited to the most immediate aspect of my confinement: I missed my toys. Of course, now I reminisce and can make out only a small collection of colored objects, so how important could they have been at last? Still, the vision is iconic and tugs at me as I summon it.

My family’s new home—for we’d moved in only recently—was a spacious farm house in a secluded country dale. I was young, and not a particularly curious child, most often occupied by solitary play. A favorite pastime was to watch the dust motes dance in the sun coming through the porch window. I would lose myself in it.

I was quite young when my parents escorted me to the place I would come to know as my room. In truth I’d never been to this room before, but that wasn’t unusual in itself. I had no fear of the unknown, nor an interest in it, and my father took advantage of that on this day. The memory of my father sitting me on his lap has grown diaphanous, but though I’ve lost his words, I do recall a calmness to his voice. When he departed, and I was left alone, I simply waited to see what would happen next.

I remember Klem with fondness still. My parents had retained this kindly man to see to my physical needs, as they did not plan on visiting me during my stay. I was resigned to this fact, and coped through a rather complex system of emotional artifice. Trickery, as I said.

I survived by tapping into an immense reserve of calm within myself. Or perhaps it was laziness. One can only cry so long, because when there is only crying it loses its meaning. Or maybe I survived because of Klem.

Even at my young age, I sensed in Klem the safety of sincerity, and found with him an easy companionship—albeit one that never passed through the steel bars of my cell. He was my patient servant, it’s true, but he was also much more. A friend, a teacher, a confidante. Klem was always kind to me, and was quick to share a joke. And though he would not speak of my parents—becoming silent at my questions—he never misrepresented himself.

But now that I think on it, there was perhaps a single reference that Klem made to mother: in a song that he sometimes sang to me before bed… though it may only have been a generic reference. His song:

The stars have come out and the moon is above
so lay your head down on the soft pillow, love.
The time’s come to shut your tired eyes now, my dear,
to seek out sleep’s warmth and let go of the fear…
the fear of the thing that can smell where you are;
its pupils dilate - you’ll not get very far
before the cold fingers brush by your pink cheek;
the warmth at your neck, its breath starts to reek.

The silent scream,
the waking dream -
you can’t run away it knows where you’ll go…
so mother lied
there’s no place to hide
and as the grip tightens, and as the eyes glow…

One night brings you death, a dance, a game.
This thing and your mother are one and the same.
Oh, hold back the tears, your last light has grown wan;
and shortly you’ll be still as mother looks on.
My voice, now it changes, it comes in thin rasps.
Around your small heart dark destiny clasps.
You see, I don’t care if you’re good or you’re bad -
to me you’re just meat, now it’s time, my lad

A stab from below,
and dark shadows grow;
Can’t imagine how unfair it must seem…
The rend and the rip
make consciousness slip…
For now this is real—

The sheets are all wet, but they’ll protect you yet
from the flies, shut your eyes, that’s all that you get.

Klem’s warm disposition was infectious, which never failed to ease my mood during particularly troubled spells. His attentions were unflagging, and he showed a true concern for my outlook. When I was solemn or otherwise unresponsive, his kind gestures never failed to draw me out. The napkins of my meal trays would be folded into animals, and over the course of a few years I’d collected a veritable origami bestiary.

It wasn’t sympathy. There wasn’t ever a real acknowledgment of my imprisonment. Rather, it was a genuine thoughtfulness, and that impressed me. Often times we would speak for hours on all manner of philosophical matters. Of course, we could speak on anything except the circumstances that found me in the cell, as I said. And when I was older Klem would bring me books—so many books! I devoured them without satiation, often completing four and five a night. I would always leave them in a neat stack by the bars when I had finished. Sometimes I got the impression that he admired me. Why this might have been I was never able to determine.

I guess I was around eleven when I first met Cort. The precise details have left me however, due to the corrosive effects of loss. Because after Cort began bringing my food I never saw Klem again.

For years I had woken to the sounds of Klem’s shuffled footsteps, his kind smile, a plate of food resting on a stack of new books. And I had matured under his watchful eye. But my capacity for grief had also deepened. I never saw that my friendship with Klem was in conflict with my possible goals. If I had thought that way I might have gone mad. Mine was a friendship forged within the context of my world as I understood it, and yet it was only when Klem disappeared that I felt any sense of betrayal.

The dread I felt was of a world unbalanced. My cell was my life, and I knew it intimately. But the other half of my world was the one represented by Klem. Without him there were many things that seemed suddenly called into question. And because the circumstances of this change were unknown to me, I often found my imagination getting the best of me. I would sometimes feel the sting of betrayal, and run through intense scenarios where I had wounded Klem mortally. But other times I would just weep at his loss, and I would call out to him, my cheekbones pressed against the cold bars.

It was hard to get any information out of Cort, particularly since he wouldn’t even meet my eyes. I’m not sure he could have had he wanted to, so curved was his spine. He was a dull little troll of a man, with unkempt hair, and hands like gray slabs. In fact he didn’t look long for the world, but he managed to stumble down the steps for a good many years. In addition to being silent about my parents (of course I tried to persuade him to talk), Cort would mention nothing of Klem. My frustration at this became like an itch at the back of my skull, and my feelings for my withered servant were black for a long while.

In time Cort seemed to draw out of his—what was it? Guilt?—and would engage me in limited discussions. It was never anything more than small talk, and I learned to glean as much from his few words as possible. Serving me was his duty, was how he felt about it, though I never detected any sense of pride in the man. He was efficient and slow, cordial and dependable. But he gave me nothing.

Of course I could no longer look forward to the books. Even after I accepted the departure of Klem, I missed the escapes and epiphanies of the books he’d brought. I still had the four books Klem had brought me on his last visit (for I’d come to think of Klem’s times with me as visits rather than as the requirement of indentured servitude). And I read them until I could recite them. And sometimes I would recite them to dull Cort as he served me. It was mean-spirited. He couldn’t understand me, but would stay on as long as I engaged him. Duty again. I shouldn’t have taken it out on him, I know, but as I said, those times were emotionally tricky for me. My friend had taught me in his departure, as my parents never had, that there was a darkness within myself.

It’s hard to recall exactly what I learned when Cort stopped coming. It’s not so much that I missed the man, but rather that his replacement was more a creature than a man. I never learned this person’s name at all, for I never heard him speak. The rasping breaths, captured in the concavity of my cell, sounded at first like scuffled footsteps, but as his figure descended before me I knew that that repugnant sound would soon be as familiar to me as my own cell.

I came to think of my third servant as “Sir,” as truncated from “servant.” His patchy hair was knotted, and it covered his face almost completely. This was a blessing though, as his face seemed not to have healed correctly after some unimaginably fierce—and still pungent—skin malady. But if I found his appearance repellant, he seemed to hold me in similar regard. He would approach my cell with apparent trepidation, and the food tray would shake in his palsied hands as he leaned forward to drop it on the ground by the bars. He would then back away and watch my by the steps as he pet his hands compulsively.

I tried many times to engage him in conversation, but he never so much as nodded in response. The one time I worked up the nerve to grab at his wrist, he flew back with amazing speed, and I didn’t see him again for five days, during which I often cried for Klem. I didn’t try to grab Sir again after that. In any situation in life it’s important to identify which things are yours to change, and which belong to the world. This is a belief that was core to my ability to retain any measure of peace, especially as I grew older. This philosophy begins in oneself, of course, and reaches outward from there. If you know yourself, and trust yourself, then you have a basis for understanding against which you can evaluate the world around you. But when I was around seventeen I began to think about escape.

This thought, like fire, was one I immediately knew held the potential for destruction. But as wary as I was, the thought would not be stifled once it glowed. The thought of leaving had always been somewhere inside me, of course, as much a part of me as my own hands. The only thing more dominant was an intrinsic sense self preservation, and it was only when I stopped caring about myself that I was willing to think the unthinkable.

There was no lock to pick: the bars ran from floor to ceiling. There were no bricks or grout to loosen: my cell was of a piece, and harder than anything within it. And so with my thoughts of escape came a sense of helpless desperation. And loneliness. Memories came back to me that I hadn’t thought of for many years. My toys. My parents carrying me. The house on the meadow.

I tried to appeal to Sir, but he was as unresponsive to my pleas as he was to anything else I might try.

Anything, that is, but my single lunge. I wondered how Klem or Cort would have reacted if I had tried to grab their sleeves. Klem would have laughed and grabbed me back. Cort would have cuffed me and glowered for the next day or so. Sir wouldn’t even give me the satisfaction of anger, however. I would never touch him, or feel an emotion directed at me. He was impassive. He provided for my physical nourishment, but no more.

As foggy as some of my memories are, I remember the day of the apple very clearly. When I awoke, the apple was still rolling across the floor, and it came to a stop a few feet from my cell bars as I blinked my bleary eyes. What was it I was feeling now? Some nascent instinct told me that another age had passed. But what was this? An apple in the middle of the floor to tempt me?

I tried to reach it through the bars, but it was inches away from my fingers. And then something occurred to me, and I stood at the front corner of my cell and peered around at the stairwell. There, just around the lip of the opening, as if reaching for my cell, was a single hand, white and still. So Sir had died on his way to serve me. I wasn’t sure about this at first, but after a few days it became apparent that I had eaten my last meal.

The smell of that apple taunted me, and my mind began to play tricks on me as the days passed. I watched the apple’s bruises darken and sink in, and imagined I was being watched by Sir. “Here’s my sleeve,” he said. “Let’s see if you can grab it now.” I cried and told him I was sorry. I called for Cort when I forgot Klem’s name, and then felt guilty, as if I’d betrayed my only friend. Or had he been my friend? He’d only talked about the things he felt comfortable talking about. Never my parents, whom I couldn’t remember at this point anyway.

I was in my cell for—was it weeks?—and scraped my tongue raw as I lapped the beads of water from the cell walls. I can’t imagine how I sustained myself for as long as I did. At the time my thoughts had become focused only on understanding how things had come to this. My survival was bound to it: the desire for an answer kept hopelessness at bay. At the same time, I may never have wondered with such acuity if not for my present circumstances, so was this not a opportunity? Change itself is the primary source of our ability to compare and contrast, to extrapolate and imagine. Servant one, servant two, servant three. Something as simple as a fallen apple was enough to spur my imagination. And the inevitability of my failure to understand was the only thing that made it possible for me to want to do just that. Mind games.

In the end I would never have escaped my cell if I hadn’t fainted. As the days had worn on I’d become gaunt, and the darkness of my cell had become menacing to me. I’d taken to supporting myself against the bars as I screamed for Sir, screamed my voice to a whisper, and then dreamed of screaming when my voice had given out entirely. When I was finally overcome, by hyperventilation, or simply from lack of hope, I literally fell through the bars to my waist.

When I awoke my head was resting on the apple, and my nose was full pungent mush. I ate it without chewing, and only when the apple was gone did I struggle to pull myself free of the bars. Free of the cell, I sat for a moment, huddled in the middle of the cellar floor. I felt more vulnerable now than I had in the cell. Already I had more to lose. In that confined space was everything that was familiar to me. Not only the things that were mine, but my perspective of the world. Away from that nothing made sense. At the same time, looking in now, even the cell seemed foreign to me.

I considered my escape once more. It was the ultimate act of passivity that had seen me out of my cell. Deprivation, in the end, had provided me the key. And that was a fair trade in my estimation. Nothing for something.

I rose to my feet, and, stepping over the corpse, made my way up the wooden steps.

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It is Los Angeles, 1997, and before the gathered crowd I find my attention consumed by a single thought. In my mind the vision is clear: my hand reaching out and touching Steven Spielberg’s head. What troubles me most about the thought is that I’m currently standing just a few feet from the man himself. Clearly this is as close as I might hope to come to touching Spielberg’s head, which makes the temptation—as irrational as it may be—all the more seductive.

The alternative? The knowledge that I once had the opportunity to touch Steven Spielberg’s head, but didn’t. I work for a small technology company, and we’ve affiliated ourselves with Spielberg’s Starbright Foundation to demonstrate how our product can engage sick children as they participate in virtual communities. During the program’s commencement ceremony I find myself, along with the rest of my team, standing in an impromptu receiving line around the dais, and there is Spielberg working his way down the line.

The desire to touch Spielberg’s head is new. In fact, even now the thought is laced with lightning bolt warnings of conscience. “You mustn’t do it,” my mind tells me. “You mustn’t even think it!” Because the thought, I cannot deny, grows more delicious by the second. The very wrongness of it adds zest.

And yet how can something so wrong be so very easy to do? Shouldn’t verboten acts be extraordinarily difficult to accomplish? Otherwise, a simple change in the direction of the winds of impulse may be enough to turn a passing thought into a dark deed. Yet there he is, Spielberg, growing closer with each moment. Now I can see the pores in his nose, he is so close.

The crux of the problem is that people’s heads are restricted zones among strangers, such that even something as innocent as a touch would be viewed as a violation, and socially unredeemable. Meanwhile, here we are about to shake hands.

He’s now standing one person away, and I’m in a state of self-arrest, my enthusiasm momentarily bridled, yet wild still. Perhaps I can release some of the pent up energy by making a sudden confession to him right here. But even my telling him about this would probably not serve to establish any kind of healthy bond between us. “Hi, Steven. Um, I don’t want you to be alarmed, but I was just thinking about touching your head.” Then I would put my hands up in innocence to show him I meant no harm. “I won’t do it though, so don’t worry.”

Oh, there’s no way I could undo that. The time it would take to win his trust wouldn’t even be worth the effort, and he would quickly move on to the next line member, and I would be left forever branded: weirdo.

But I consider the thought anyway: What if I said that, and couldn’t retract it, and was forced to just power through? How would I manage that?

I imagine grabbing Spielberg in a bear hug, and his bodyguards tear toward me from across the stage. “Don’t do it,” I say. “Don’t do it!” And they pause, just long enough, their eyes darting over the dais to better gauge the most effective way to tear my arms from their sockets.

Spielberg, surprisingly docile, says, “You’re not going to do something silly?”

I laugh. “I know this seems rash, or crazy even.” Tactical error—I shouldn’t have used that word. It’s almost impossible to recover once you’ve uttered it, like shrieking, “I’ve got a bomb,” as you sprint through the airport. “Scratch that,” I say. “What I mean to say is that I see what you’re thinking. I mean—no, that sounds crazy too, and it’s not what I meant. I mean I know how this seems to you. So just know that I wouldn’t do this unless I had a plan. I know what I’m doing, and what I must do. I have it all worked out, and by the end of this you’ll realize that I’m harmless, and a friend, really.” I will bring us all the way back around to polite civility if I have to threaten everyone in the auditorium to do it.

Thus is my mind tormented, and I’m horrified by the thoughts I’ve conjured, the inescapable, unrelenting doom of the scenario. So why do I put myself through this? Because I am fascinated—absolutely obsessed—by the thin membrane between those brief moments in time that pass unnoticed and absolute mayhem. It doesn’t take much to go from one to the other, so why is it so difficult to bring order back from chaos? Because chaos is where it’s all headed, baby, that’s why. And, this in mind, it is clear that I should not be in charge of my actions, because that moment-to-moment choice to color within the lines is too great a responsibility.

By the time the director’s eyes finally flick up to mine in greeting—he’s a short guy it turns out—my face is a mask of trauma. Fortunately he takes this for stage fright, touches my arm as he shakes my hand, and leans in. “Don’t worry,” he says, “they’re all thinking of the children.”

I’m quite sure the audience is thinking about the children, but thanks only to the strength of my will.

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