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In Bodyeighteen great ...
In Bodyeighteen great contemporary American writers explore the singular components of this extraordinary whole, in short literary observations and appreciations that range from the visceral to the whimsical to the sinful and metaphysical.
* * *
To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selections, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.
Darwin himself worried that the human eye would be the spoiler of evolutionary theory. Seventeen major parts in the standard textbook diagram—cornea, iris, assorted nerves, et cetera—each one integral to the working of the others. And, so far, science has yet to produce a definitive explanation for the way in which these components have come to develop. One day blind amoeba danced in a prehistoric soup, some hundred million days later, give or take, they knew light and varieties of dark, they knew the dazzle of color, they knew what it was to lie on the ground and watch galaxies spinning in the sky. There is nothing gradual in the case of the eye, the way I understand it, no fins morphing into legs, no gills snake-charming into lungs. There is no straight line between blindness and sight.
Witness my wife: Each morning she stands before the mirror in our bedroom preparing herself for work. She believes that I am still visionless with sleep, believes that she will wake me in a few minutes and we will adjourn to the kitchen for a cup of coffee before we say good-bye. But Iam not asleep at all. I can see everything. Her elegant legs and bare shoulders flushed from the shower. Her fragile neck made pale by a recent haircut. Her hands flicking from a makeup kit atop the dresser to her face. Her eyes peer mysteriously into themselves. She has blue eyes, my wife, flecked with green and gold. I want to say, My eyes are a secret, as are yours, beyond methodology and science. Even now, I cloak them in lowered lashes and pretend that I am dreaming.
The eyes can't be trusted. The ciliary muscle, for instance, is a band of tissue with no other purpose than to regulate the flattening and hardening of the lens. The lens, in turn, throws light on the retina, the retina contains the rods and cones and is connected to the optic nerve and so on, and, like a network of spies, not one of them can be explained except in terms of its compatriots. Demand evolution from your vitreous humor and it dissolves into gelatinous ooze. More than that, eyes are full of pranks and distortions, half-truths and outright lies. A woman in Mississippi glimpses Christ in the condensation on a convenience store refrigerator. A man in the desert spots shimmering trees and cool water where there is only sand. My wife wakes screaming in the middle of the night because the lovers in a painting have stepped out of the canvas and are standing beside our bed. Much to my surprise, as I jar awake and reach across to comfort her, I see what she is seeing—their arms linked in the half-light, matching pairs of pupil-less eyes—and I can't help but scream with her. I ditch the covers and paw the air. My wife gets a lamp going and we blink away our fear. Later, when she is asleep with her head on my chest, I remember how she looked in the nightmareless light, her eyes aglow with worry—her eyes, her eyes—pillow lines drawn like filigree on her cheeks.
The first time I really looked at my wife, slowed down and let my gaze linger a while, she was drinking from a water fountain, bent at the waist, water playing against her lips. She wore a suede jacket, I recall, and a white turtleneck and blue jeans. Her shoes were brown leather. Her hair was pushed behind her ear. I had seen her before, passed her in hallways and on sidewalks, spoken to her in class, but this time, as my eyes broke her into light and recast her as herself, she cocked her head and smiled, still drinking, her own eyes crinkling at the corners. She curled her fingers at me and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. That was no lie. She swears, these days, that she wasn't interested in me then. She was just being friendly, she says, she hardly remembers the day at all. But I was there, my heart racing, my brain wiped clean of conversation. I know what I saw.
Now and then, my wife jokes that she would like me to gaze more amorously into her eyes—in the practiced manner of romantic leads on television—before kissing her. But whenever I try it, whenever I make a conscious effort to summon all the things that I am feeling and project those feelings through my pupils, both of us dissolve with laughter over how ridiculous I look. My eyes bulge with love. Nose to nose, my eyes go crooked with desire.
Simply put, the eye works like a camera. Light enters the pupil, is focused by the lens which forms an inverted image on the retina. No fossils bear prehistoric examples of the human eye, something rudimentary and flawed like the smoking box cameras in old Westerns. Variations of eyes are manifest in different species, of course: The bumblebee's faceted eyes, like peering through diamonds, or the dog who sees the world in degrees of black and white. Primitive amoeba possessed patches of photosensitive cells, but sensitivity to light is not the same as seeing any more than knowing the sun is in the sky is the same as witnessing light streaming down through the branches of the trees. Tracking an evolutionary path for the eye is akin to leaping zigzag across a river from stone to distant stone. All of which are part of the reason, I suppose, that the eye has maintained its metaphorical power for such a long time. The eye is baffling and elusive, the last line of defense for hard-core creationists and the first place my wife looks to know what's happening in my head and heart.
My wife and I play chess now and then on the coffee table in the living room, TV flicking mutely by the sliding door. I showed her how to play the game during our first year of dating and within a week she was beating me sometimes. She is an aggressive player, my wife. When she looks at the board, she sees various avenues of attack, whereas I see nothing but pitfalls. I hang back and wait for her to give me an opening. Her eyes intent, a finger playing back and forth across her lips. She is tenacious in our marriage, too. She loves like a fistfight, a blur of contact and emotion. She believes, with the certainty of a thousand poets, in the expressive power of the human eye. When she is angry, she searches my eyes for signs of contrition. When she is most in love, she scans my pupils for reciprocation as though there is some undiagrammed pipeline between my eyes and my heart. I want her to understand that my eyes are devious, overcautious little sneaks. Look at them now, stealing glimpses across a chessboard, running the length of her forearm, settling craftily on her lips, her brow, a bike-wreck scar on the bridge of her nose, then glancing away like schoolboys when she looks up from her move.
Regarding eyes, most scientists recommend context and restraint. There has been life on earth of one kind or another for millions of years, they say. It may seem unlikely that such a complicated piece of machinery as the eye could be derived from the membrane of a single-celled organism and the evidence, for the moment, may be partly theoretical but the evolution of the eye, they say, is less impossible than God. What it boils down to plainly is a question of belief. Where and with whom do you want to put your faith? When I was a boy, maybe nine or ten, I was convinced beyond a doubt that ghosts were real. I gave a speech on the afterlife in class, cited all sorts of dubious testimony, conveniently ignored documentation to the contrary. I stacked the deck in favor of my belief. But I'm still not wholly convinced that I was wrong. Faith dies hard and, sometimes, if you're lucky, it doesn't die at all. Now, nearly twenty years later, I want to believe that it is possible for a man to see a woman drinking from a water fountain and love her for the rest of his life. That such a fragile, intricate, perhaps miraculous, organ as the eye, all full of wiles and inconsistencies, has delivered unto me one indisputable truth: There is a woman drinking from a water fountain. Simple, no mirage, no tricks of light. There is the water and there are her lips. How could I not believe in her?
My wife and I have been married just over four months as this is being written, though we have been together most of four years. We live in a rental cottage on someone else's farm and in the evening we sit on the porch and play cards or chess and rehash our respective days. We can see mountains from our house and cattle and fireflies, none of which serves as proof of everlasting love. The enormity, the sheer weight of the promise we made to each other still strikes me sometimes, makes my hands shake and takes my breath away. Such a guarantee is as absurd as religion, as preposterous as evolution. I read somewhere that Darwin's wife, Emma, made doubtful margin notes in her husband's essay on natural selection because of the problems presented by the eye. Imagine the leap of faith she was called upon to make. I think of my own wife, inside now, talking to her mother on the phone, and I wonder how difficult it was for her to trust herself to someone like me, someone whose feelings are more quiet than she would like, someone who has a hard time shining love through ineloquent pupils. Then she turns the corner into my line of sight and my eyes work their magic, reversing her on my retinas, rods and cones sorting out the quality of light, which in this case is evening light, delicate and golden and edged with shadow. I can see her hands and pale skin and the way fabric moves against her legs. I can see her own eyes, usually so bold, going shy when she notices that I'm watching.
* * *
My mother believes she is a Mafioso's daughter. In her brain, she is the daughter of Frank Balistrieri, leader of the Milwaukee underworld in the 1970s. "A chief without any Indians," the feds tell me, and so they had to bring him down in the end using outside help. They recruited one of their own double agents from New York—an FBI agent who had infiltrated the Bonanno family. He came out and strong-armed Frank and told him the Bonannos wanted in on Frank's vending machine operation. The whole thing was phony anyway, and that's how the feds nailed Mr. Balistrieri from their listening post. I love it that my mother's "godfather" went to prison through subterfuge and an assumed identity. For in her delusions, my mother often changes her name and identity, as well. The undercover agent the feds called in from New York was awesome they said, just like the real thing, a guy called Joe Pistone. The Bonannos knew him as someone else—Donnie Brasco. Donnie Brasco ... Johnny Depp played him in the movie of the same name. Maybe you saw it.
That's how it is with my mother's brain. I pull a thread and I wind up with Johnny Depp, or Donnie Brasco, or Frank Balistrieri, a big hood in his own half-imaginary Sicilian soap opera. A man who died fifteen years ago, shortly after his release from prison, a man whom it can be justly said never did anybody any good and is wholly gone now. Except in my mother's brain, which has been turned into a lounge show, or underworld red velvet Mafia joint, in which he lolls about throwing lit cigarettes and demanding respect and her lifetime allegiance. It's ironic, really, that in a way this dead man gets from my mother what he could not acquire in the bad old times. Frank Balistrieri, like a mad scientist, has stolen my mother's brain. Though you could also say she gave it to him.
Balistrieri is Armageddon in my mother's brain. He is the destroyer, and then the creator of life, so pervasive that he has become the unseen presence shaping her life's loops and cul de sacs—her secret parentage, of course; her marriages, her commitments on and off for thirty years to mental wards. Even now, she sees his hand writ large in her affairs. "People keep an eye on me, Jacki," she'll say. "My car is bugged, but it's for a reason. My godfather wants to protect me." Occasionally, she will tell me she is planning to change her name to reflect her true identity, and I warn her that she has done this too often, and that I will tip off the FBI if she dares to try. I will say anything to keep her in line, but confess I am somewhat disappointed. Shouldn't I be the architect of her brain, if she is going to allow dominance by someone other than herself?. After all, I have written about her brain, documented it, done battle with it for all these years. I am her oldest child and confidant. When she left the hospital for what I hoped would be the final time, her brain had been treated by a new alchemy. I believed that the delusions amid which she drifted and rode would recede into the caverns from whence they had come. And so they largely have. We chop up her lithium pills on the sideboard along with the celery and the carrots, as if the pills were seeds used to provide the flavor of reality.
Except I cannot chop up this damn Balistrieri. He represents, I think, my mother's manic attraction to power, to the means to create and to extinguish life, to the fount of the delusions of grandeur. That is a phrase now drained of potency for me, suitable for posting over a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Potent Frank Balistrieri is a man whom lithium fails to knock out. He has always remained, the brain's uninvited guest, squiring her around and taking credit for loads of things he scarcely deserves—"Some men came into the office. I think they were just there to check up on me. One of them laid a sawed-off shotgun on my desk. After that, I got the bonus check to buy a new car!" To Balistrieri goes the wholly unwarranted credit, and I take it personally. I try to snub him, hoping that by suppressing all her conversation about his accomplishments he will have neither voice nor entrée into my mother's larger interaction with the world. Snub him? I garrote him, pour acid in his eyes, knife his heart. It's hopeless, impossible to do battle with a shadow. The truth is that some of the brain's tints and poses are over time its own indelible work of art. Balistrieri is figured in my mother's mind, carved and patterned there like the paintings in the Lascaux caves. Her secret father arms her with invincible powers, sets her step before the world.
Balistrieri, a man deceased, is in my mother's brain merely terminally ill. He has been terminally ill for over a decade now and I am beginning to imagine him like Vincent Price in his coffin, getting up but only for grand entrances. No wonder, I hiss to myself, she can't find him, he's dead. But not to her, for there are heirs. I learned only very recently that a decade or so ago my mother sought out Balistrieri's son. It turned out the poor man did a little time with his father in prison as well, but this man is today a jovial hotelier in a city I won't name. He has a boulevardier's personality by the sound of it. When I question him on the telephone he says, "Wow. You know, I think I met your mother. Little woman? Dark hair? Yes, she came to my office eight or nine years ago. Very attractive. She said she was my half-sister. What a story! I almost believed her, y'know, because my father—well, I won't get into that but you wanna talk about crazy! We went through all the dates and I just had to tell her they didn't add up, y'know. Say, it's really nice to talk to you!" I learned a few other things about his life. That he lives alone. On the weekends, he said, it's a "party of three ... me, the couch and the radio." I feel a family kinship with him. Obviously, he is not enjoying being Balistrieri's son nearly as much as my mother is enjoying being his daughter. "The stories I could tell you," he sighs.
I sigh back. I vow never to tell my mother of junior B's conversation. She has shown me "the Don's" cuff links and told me how he loved her as a daughter, how she keeps his memory alive by lighting candles. One of these days, she says, she is going to write her own book. Sure, I say, you just go right ahead. I imagine a strenuously purple tome. A year or so ago, she started telling guests at my sister's dinner gathering all about her Mafia father. "He knows everything I do," she said. "He's having me watched." I have told her not to speak of the Don if possible. Listen, I say, don't you know that under the strict codes of omerta you are obligated to silence? I know, Jacki, she says, what do you think I am, stupid? Of course I want her to keep silent, but only because I want her to show the world that she is a smashing testimony to overcoming mental illness. And except for that damn Balistrieri, she is. When we go on the Oprah Winfrey show, I am sandwiched between my mother and Oprah on national television. The effect is to say the least profoundly disorienting. My mother is much more composed than I who live in the afterglow of her life's delusions. Listen, I have instructed my mother—don't you dare bring him up on Oprah. Don't you say a word. Do you think I'm some kind of idiot? she replies.
"So," says Oprah, an icon like the Delphic oracle, "what does a nervous breakdown feel like?" She is dressed in flowing red garments, glowing monitors her sacred fires and the chorus, of course, all about us. "Feel" is a long drawn-out word.
I hold my breath. My mother's voice is steady.
"Confusion," says my mother, and the audience murmurs approval. "But I think I was always confused about my identity." My stomach tightens. My mother looks serious.
Oprah smiles and moves on, and once again, the searchlights have missed that Sicilian figure skulking under the walls of the labyrinth.
The truth is that compared to the other uninvited guests in my mother's brain over past years, the powerful Mafioso is a sufficiently benign presence. He's more or less a big pussycat rather than a blood-drenched henchman. But I do mind the way he has vanquished my grandmother and her husband. Last Christmas in Wisconsin, when I arrived home on Christmas Eve my mother had on a bright green blazer, quilted red vest and ruffly white blouse. She wore a brooch of small bells that had belonged to my grandmother—or as my mother refers now to that ragged-voiced denizen of her imagination, "Mabel, the woman who took care of me." The bells on Mabel's brooch jingle as my mother spins a green, red and white blur before my eyes.
"Hi there!" I say, half-dead. My plane has grounded in Chicago and I've driven with total strangers to Wisconsin. Everyone's waiting. "Look at those colors," I say, amused. "The Christmas elf!"
"These aren't Christmas colors," my mother protests. "These are the colors of the Italian flag!" Later I examine the cookbook next to the table. Under the recipe for Mexican chili, my mother has crossed out Mexican and written Italian. We have an all-Italian meal. Everything we eat is either red or white or green—lime Jell-O, mashed potatoes, rich tomato chili. An edible fantasy and presiding over the table—I must beg your indulgence to believe me—my mother, who with the sculpting of a beautiful age has indeed come to look Sicilian. In a life buoyed and resonant with her secrets, her high cheekbones and dark eyes and hair are clear and sharp. The night is a confection warmed up in Italy.
And the more my brain unwillingly complies with this altered reality, the more the voice of my grandmother caterwauls in the recesses of the bungalow where my mother lives. The bungalow once belonged to my grandmother, Mabel, but has been renovated to a chicness that would baffle the old fishwife. We sit at the Christmas table, and my grandmother's words bawl at the back of my brain. "She dassn't think I'm good enough for her. You wanna beer? Here's my Frederick's of Hollywood book, would you hide it under the bed for me? Wouldja bring me my cigs? Get the fan, we'll blow the smoke outside and hide it from your ma. You wanna ice cream? I could take you to the drive-in. I got muskrat soup. You don't like it, I got turtle. Fresh-caught." My mother interrupts my reverie and raises a glass of eggnog. "Here's to poor old Mabel," she says. "She had no choice but to take me in. They needed the money and there were threats. She had to hide me in that awful alley basement apartment, of course. Anyway, someday I will tell about the cover-up."
I have never been able to figure out my mother's disdain for her mother, when Mabel would cheerfully have walked on hot coals for her daughter. It is true that Mabel was uncouth and foulmouthed where my mother had pretensions to much better, but then, we all have our failings, and Mabel's floury hands, rockety gray hair and green-glass eyeshades call out to me much more lustily than Balistrieri's gangsterism. My mother cannot hear her mother's voice any longer, but my sister, who has inherited some of my mother's alchemy, claims she can hear it and more.
"I saw her, Jack," she says. "She was sitting right out here on the porch. I could see the condensation on the porch windows, the deer leg with its thermometer. `Mabes,' I says, `do you come here often?' `No', she says, `this is a kind of a meeting place'. `You must be happy', I says, `with all your brothers and sisters and your husband Ray in heaven.' `Oh, I am,' she says, `I am.'"
I blink. From my sister Kate's account, Mabel seems happier in the afterlife and more at rest than the constantly strutting Frank Balistrieri, who seems to have a lot of unfinished business on earth. My mother keeps him busy, I guess, as her protector.
She's so good at the delusion of being Frank Balistrieri's daughter that I am beginning to live in that Sicilian borogove her brain has sown. I have a notebook. It's a family tree drawn by my mother in one of her more manic eras. An elaborate vine twists over manila pages, like frost on a pane, and at the head of the snaking leaves is Balistrieri's name. The story she writes spells out the tale of Balistrieri's secret liaison with Mabel's sister Martha, her "real" mother.
If this had been known in 1930 it would have shocked society!!!! it says, in a big, hyperventilating and yet girlish hand.
She has cooked up for Martha a kind of glamorous café society profile, though I believe Martha tied flies in a sporting goods factory up north for a living. Somehow though, mysteriously, she did get a little money. Hence my mother's affinity. Pasted in the book my mother has included a photo of herself on a pony ride, age about ten, and she has changed her name beneath the photo to Balistrieri. She writes that she is the daughter of Shame and Confusion. And as I turn the pages, there are the pictures of these incarnations, her real parents, Ray and Mabel, holding my mother as a baby between them. They are wearing old-fashioned swimsuits, and Ray peers down adoringly, muscles as hard as the dock loader he in fact is. My mother has reconfigured history, redesigned it with a romantic, Sicilian twist. Her creation is the brain's work of art.
My mother never stops to think, cannot stop to think, that if she were truly a Mafioso's daughter then I would be a Mafioso's granddaughter. That would cancel out my grandfather, a man I never knew. The brawny fighter, Ray, who at age fifty believed he could deter a barroom bandit. A fatal bullet became his final benediction. Like my mother, he must have believed in the principle of invincibility. This belief is as mysterious to me as any gift of inspiration. My grandfather's brain must have borne a picture of himself as a man who could stop time. And his death did in fact cleave time for my mother, dividing her life through the decades, until Frank Balistrieri mossed over that memory too, pushing up through the barroom floorboards where my grandfather used to lay. It all happened so long before I was born, and my mother is so insistent, and the rays of that Sicilian sun beat down on my own brain so mercilessly that I find myself calling my elderly aunt, Ray's former sister-in-law, and saying ...
"Could it be true?" I am incredulous with myself for even making this phone call, but all these voices clamor and racket in my own head, in my own life, in a busy afternoon. The Italian Mafia.
"Of course not," says my aunt. Then she backpedals to "Well, I don't think so."
And that is the state of mind I am more or less in on the day I receive a letter from the real Frank Balistrieri's daughter.
I am Angela, she says, Mr. Balistrieri's daughter, and I have heard that your mother believes she is my father's daughter. She has my sympathy. I am married to a man who used to be in the group Sha Na Na. Like your mother, he is manic-depressive, and I think we should meet and you might like to tell my story. Her letter falls into my hand on an afternoon like a pistol shot, and reality, whatever that may be, crashes from underneath me, a glass of amber spilling to the tavern floorboards. The writer says she lives in California, that she has been under great duress, and like my mother's writings, there is a tone in the daughter's letter that suggests that only I can save her. She says her brothers are cheating her out of the family money, that she has been through hell with her family, that she needs help. I do begin to dream of saving her, of untangling her inventory of chaos and smoothing out her delusions. I will meet her, I decide, descendants all of the big Mr. B, and then, astonishingly, I lose the letter and cannot find her again, and I wonder if I have dreamt it all. She retreats into fantasy. What a poor and puny and flickering thing is my brain—compared to hers and especially to my mother's. I cannot keep any lineage alive. I have no country. I have to invent myself, without maternity, where the winds of imagination rage so much stronger than my own.
The delusions of the brain are my territory; I specialize in them now. I am as drawn to them as to the descriptions of ancient Troy; they are a book of fairy tales I never tire of opening. When I talk to the family members of other people who have been ill, been schizophrenic or manic or heard voices, I am most eager for the stories of the magic or deception. Most of us curse ourselves secretly, believing we are so much less than what we in fact are. Whereas delusional people believe they are so much more.
"And I went into my father's room on the ward," says a friend, "and he announced to me that he was Jesus Christ. And what was more, he wanted me to bow down and wash and anoint his feet with oil!"
"Ah," says another, "all I had to do was serve Thanksgiving dinner to my brother, King Walla Walla Something-or-other."
The New York Times writes, The suspect, thought to be mentally ill, emerged from the church where he is accused of killing the nuns, holding a trumpet and a bag of silverware.
I clip it for my own scrapbook, fax the article to my mother. "Poor man," clucks my mother when she gets it, for I will use any cautionary tale if I think it will keep her watchful, obediently taking her lithium. And then I feel guilty, for I know there is no more harm in my mother on medication than in most of us. But I have seen the fire in her eyes. I know the ancient, primeval voices that gathered that fire. I eye the lithium pills she lays out, like Jack's beans, and look at my mother as if by taking these, she can climb to another kingdom, where it's sane. She swallows them, and defeats me.
"Got to go to work!" she smiles. "We're doing some very important work for the president! It's a secret! The Mafia's in on it, too. You know we wouldn't have this contract if it weren't for you-know-who!"
"Call me later," I say, barely looking up. I have decided this is one I can live with. Once, a woman asked my mother what her favorite early memory of my sisters and me was. She smiled. "Oh," she said, to a group of twenty people or so, "that would probably be—let's see—once I was driving these kids to Florida. The sun got brighter and brighter and brighter. Their voices got louder. The sun was so strong in my eyes, my head hurt so much, I said, `These kids are so noisy and troublesome they're giving me a brain tumor!'" My sisters and I look at each other. It can only happen here, in this realm, in these caves, on this land.
And that is why I am going to take my mother to Italy next spring, to Sicily, to look for Frank's family. Frank Balistrieri makes her happy. His voice has never been so loud that it has given her a brain tumor. The dead man lives on in her like a lord, bestowing grace, secret power, imagined connection. I might as well make my peace, since he is, after all is said and done, crowned king of our family of the fantastic, the taproot of her brain.
|EYES Michael Knight||1|
|THE BRAIN Jacki Lyden||7|
|HAIR Veronica Chambers||19|
|SOME PRAISE FOR A LITTLE RIGHT-SIDED ANARCHY (That Is Also|
|Tribute to the Lobe Girls) Thylias Moss||29|
|THE NOSE Francine Prose||45|
|DIVINE TEETH Lynda Barry||55|
|SKIN Esmeralda Santiago||61|
|SCAR TISSUE Natalie Kusz||73|
|BREASTS Leah Hager Cohen||79|
|HANDS Mona Simpson||93|
|CAN'T YOU HEAR MY HEART BEAT? Sharon Sloan Fiffer||99|
|THE FRUIT OF THY WOMBS Thomas Lynch||109|
|BELLY, DANCING, BELLY, ACHING, BELLY, BEASTS Jane Smiley||127|
|THE RESURRECTIONIST Richard McCann||135|
|A NOTE ON THE DINK Ron Carlson||149|
|THE KNEE BONE IS CONNECTED Chris Offutt||165|
|WHAT ANCHORS US Kyoko Mori||175|
|THE BLESSINGS OF THE BUTT Rosario Ferré||191|
|ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS||199|