FragLit

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Haunting Memories

Fall 2009 :: Current Issue

2009 :: Issue 5/Fall :: Haunting Memories

Untitled: Portrait of a Homeless Art History Student

Andrew T. McCarter

(The following selections consist of the first 20 fragments from the unpublished manuscript.)

1. Newspaper Photograph

You are looking at yourself.
A photo of yourself published in a newspaper clipping dated January 30, 1990.
The headline reads Missing Student.
It has been 15 years since you disappeared.

You were an “A” student who disappeared during finals week without taking your exams.
Says the article.
You look at this grainy image of your face.
Your eyes follow the concentration of ink dots, densely clustered to form your eyes.

15 years since you disappeared.

15 years your memory has been sculpting, painting, collaging, performing—creating these portraits and tableaux.

2. Triptych on Hinged Wood Panels

You hold your mother’s high hand, the hand which guides you, which allows you to hang your head in boredom and fix your eyes on the momentary ground before you as you walk, light-headed, light-hearted, as though on water, on the concrete stream of street flowing back toward home. You walk, entranced by the flow of the gray street beneath your green sneakers.

On this misleadingly clear March day, when the clouds are static and highly defined, and surrounded by a speculating sun, you lift your head, invent your game. You learn that as you hold your mother’s hand you can walk with eyes closed, and so do, but for only so long as you can stand it, until they open of their own accord, suddenly, randomly fixing your vision on the first person you see.

And you watch that person, without even a blink, until he or she has vanished into a little shop, has turned a corner, has slipped out of frame, or has shrunk to nothing in the distance behind you.

3. Comic Strip in Three Panels

You walk past a man sleeping in the gutter of your street.

You pretend that you have to tie your shoe, fall back from your family, with whom you are walking. You bend down on one knee, reach for your laces, make a mad dash to the street curb, where you lie in the gutter, out of curiosity.

For that fraction of a moment, you watch the variety of legs scissor past you from opposing directions.

4. Still Life with Possibility, pencil on paper

You are a white, American male, only son of an upper-middle class, white, American male and female.

Your father realizes the American Dream. He is a bank teller in high school. Your birth certificate states that he is Chief Clerk at 23. Then, manager, vice president, president. Of a bank. In retirement, he starts a bank on Miami beach.

You are born in New York City.

You are 1, 2, 3, 4, and you play.

You are 5, 6, 7, 8, and you go to school.

You learn about the American Dream in school. You can become anything you want to become, you and your classmates are told, and you are encouraged to begin your campaign for the Presidency of the United States.

Anything is possible.

For you, this is true.

Because of your father’s success, yours is more sorting process than struggle.

The sorting process of possibilities begins early and simply: police officer, fire fighter, or cowboy?

You are in middle school now, and you are asked which classes you like best: math, science, social studies, history, English, art, music?

In high school, you scan the list of majors offered in university catalogues.

Possibility pumps through your bloodstream. You spend days in the library, reading books on every subject that could possibly interest you, dreaming of your future.

You read about the life of a Tibetan yogin. You could parachute into the Himalayas. You fear heights. You could do it just that once, perhaps.

Too little American.

You read about parapsychology, clear the library desk of books. You place your pencil on the desk and try to move it with your mind. You are distracted by your teethmarks in the pencil.

Too much Dream.

The number of possibilities becomes increasingly unwieldy.

Time is running out, there are deadlines, you are reminded. You have to take the proper admissions tests, submit the proper applications. You must select your destiny and line up your steps for success. Sort faster, increase your processing speed, don’t read so much, become more efficient, practical.

You calculate your chances of winning the lottery based on the number of tickets you can buy with your college savings.

Too unlikely.

You are assured that the number of possibilities is finite.

Possibility electrifies your nervous system. You spend days in the library, inputting data, scanning for your own obituary printed on one of those pages.

5. Amiel, drops of water on a framed pane of glass

You skip school to spend days reading in the public library.

What you love about skipping school is the liberating feeling of not being where you are supposed to be, of being where no one, not even death, would look for you.

One rainy day, you sit before a colossal second-floor window, a book in your lap.

You try to piece together that quote from Amiel’s Journal about people being like raindrops landing on, trickling down, and subsequently running off a window, each drop quickly replaced by another.

You watch the current of black umbrellas coursing down the street.

They are propped up by people, people who likely believe in a god.

You realize that you too hold such a subconscious assumption.

Are you a theist?

In the distance, between rooftops, you see the believer as a funambulist working with a net named God.

Since the tightrope is a thread of the very fabric of the safety net, once the net disappears, as it suddenly has for you, the tightrope disappears with it.

You now find yourself wandering, stumbling through that miraculous part of the sky which touches the earth.

Are you an agnostic?

It’s true, as agnostics say, that even atheists claim a certain gnosis, knowledge; as you see it, however, atheists have a leg up on theists: How in good conscience believe in something when there’s evidence of nothing—that long, still corpse laid at our feet?

Are you an atheist?

More so than any other option on the menu, you suppose.

6. Dissections, a live performance

You select your course of study from the university catalogue menu of options.

Select Degree: Bachelor of Science.
Select Major: Biology.
Select Concentration: Genetics.

In high school you dissect earthworm, frog, and cat.

You remove the cat from its transparent plastic bag. The cat has rigor mortis.

You hold up the cat from under its midriff, like a toy airplane.

It looks like a flying Super-cat.

You peel off the cat’s face and look through one of its eyeholes.

Your score of 780 out of the possible 800 on the High School Biology Achievement Test is owed to the fact that a fair portion of it was devoted to the female reproductive system, a subject about which you have limitless curiosity.

At the university, you cut a little window into a chicken egg with a scalpel. Suspended inside the slime, the black dot of an eye, the rosy heart doing what hearts do.

You doodle circles and curves in advanced calculus.

After calculus, you read philosophy and flirt with women in the library.

You make a mental note of the resemblance between the hemispheres of the human brain and human buttocks.

7. Slide Show #1

Drosophila Melanogaster, the common fruit fly, is used to introduce biology students to the fundamentals of genetics; they are small, manageable, and reproduce rapidly.

You are commended on the deftness with which you press them between slides for microscopic analysis.

You peer into the microscope with one eye.

How like peering into a microscope is the gesture of a flirtatious wink, you think.

You recite to yourself The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock while you work.

You read it with both eyes open.

You memorize it with both eyes closed.

Dare Drosophila eat a peach?

Drosophila dares.

The Sex Song of J. Alfred Fruitfly.

8. The Last Supper, wall mural in egg tempera

You ponder the limits of the scientific method, its lack of romance.

At table, you have before you fetal pig in formaldehyde.

You yearn for the illumination of a candle-light dinner.

You reconsider the menu.

Beef, chicken, or fish—science, business, or liberal arts?

The waiter arrives.

You go a la carte—to a class in art.

9. Slide Show #2

The lights go out, and class begins.

You view projector slides of fine art in the otherwise unlit classroom.

You contemplate the similarities and differences between viewing these slides and your microscopic slides.

You prefer this dim classroom to the fluorescently lit science lab.

When you close one eye in this low light, it is to wink at nature’s most sublime creation—women.

10. Philosophy in the Bedroom

Your college life consists of two things, you realize: books and women.

Lyotard, Cioran, Heidegger . . .

Marina, Karen, Heidi . . .

Heidi Heidegger.

You flirt with women as voraciously and randomly as you read books.

The more you flirt with women in the university library, the more you see the campus itself as a library of women.

11. Beds, a gallery installation

You discover the beds beneath the women, how each bed has its own personality.

You consider compiling a descriptive list of beds: the most intimate detail—the lathe of the legs, the feel of the mattress—remembered and recorded; an inventory of the beds of friends, lovers, relatives, and all those beds you have been able to call your own, including your crib.

You mentally enter an otherwise white and empty gallery of beds, each bed with its owner’s particular lasting impressions, each, in their own way, in disarray.

Indeed, the conception of a bed or series of beds, however firm or flexible, wide or narrow, would provide a fine foundation on which to build our conception of its owner; the bed as object or concept figures profoundly not only in our daily lives but also in our deaths as we conceive of them.

Twin bed vacant but for the rhomboids of sunlight cast in through the bedroom window and the pillow with the hollow left by the head, the fitted white sheet a rippled desert—white bedsheet rippled by the body risen like a sudden gust of wind across an expanse of sand.

12. The Pyramids

You watch her approach from down the street, watch her pass and turn left around the sharp granite edge of a corner building—a bank.

In ancient Egypt the royal funeral processions followed a corridor which turned left at a precise right angle.

The turning of this corner was the ritualistic symbol of the disappearance of the dead into the invisible beyond.

You consider this turn and the turn of the young woman on the street related.

13. Portrait of a Painting as a Window

In art history class you are taught that art is a window to other cultures, to other eras.

You look at these windows, through them.

You imagine the histories of the cultures that produced them, the people of those cultures—their ideas, the routines and rituals of their daily lives.

You squeeze into a time machine constructed of slabs of flaking murals and rocky chunks of cave paintings, oil painting canvases sewn together serving as a roll-top roof.

You sit, looking for the controls.

14. Private Studies

You are intrigued by the private studies of artists:

George Grosz’s series of sketches of mice snapped in mousetraps;

Egon Schiele’s series of self-portraits masturbating;

Bruno Schulz’s Book of Idolatry, its procession of hybrid, man-beast, hydrocephalic dwarves, obsequiously on hands and knees, kissing the feet of statuesque women.

15. Vanitas, Vanitas, Vanitas

Books
Bubbles
Candle, guttering
Cards
Clock, hourglass
Crystal glasses
Dice
Flowers, cut
Fruit crawling with insects
Fruit rind
Globe
Gold goblets
Jewels
Mirror
Musical instruments
Pipe
Pottery, broken
Scales
Skull
Smoke
Weapons, armor

Skull on the table facing the mirror.

Odalisque using a skull as an armrest.

All are in the catalogue of vanitas painting iconography that you peruse.

The vanitas painting, hung in our living rooms to remind us of the brevity of life, of our own mortality.

Your initial shock at seeing books depicted in vanitas paintings, right alongside jewels, skulls, and rotting fruit. The vanity, too, of the pursuit of knowledge.

The catalogue reads like a dictionary of nouns.

Comprehensive.

16. “Life is short; art is long.”

But life is getting longer.

And art shorter.

17. In Defense of a Thesis

Attending the obligatory lecture:

An Analysis of Lemon Tree Root Fossils Discovered in Ancient Pompeii.

Your urge to escape such suffocation is Vesuvian.

18. Fitzcarraldo, the beginning of a film by Werner Herzog

You attend a free university showing of the movie Fitzcarraldo.

The main character, Fitzcarraldo, played by Klaus Kinski, works toward fulfilling his dream of building an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

In one memorable scene, Fitz is floating serenely along a quiet tributary of the Amazon in a steamboat that he has purchased for the voyage. As it steams upriver, it looks like a two-layer birthday cake with white icing floating past the dark green and lush vegetation of the jungle. Suddenly, from the depths of the jungle rises the sound of native drumbeats. In response, Fitz climbs to the top of the boat with a phonograph and plays a Caruso opera recording.

The surreal beauty of steamboat in the foreground, the jungle in the background; Caruso in the foreground, native drums in the background.

That night you dream that you are running around the university campus, dressed in fatigues and carrying a heavy shoulder pack, and sweating profusely under the hot sun. At every intersection, you see Klaus Kinski sunning himself in a beach chair. He is dressed in shorts, a white shirt, and sunglasses, his blond hair rivaling the sun.

You wake more tired than when you went to sleep.

Only by chance was the wild-eyed, wild-haired Kinski cast as Fitzcarraldo; the original casting had been Mick Jagger (yes, of the Rolling Stones), who abandoned the film for reasons you can’t remember.

A performance by Mick Jagger would never have inspired such a dream.

19. Portrait of a Window as a Painting

Curious about the day’s weather, you look toward your bedroom window.

It is a very still day outside, classically airless, like that of a painting by Poussin.

You stagger to the window, rest your hand on the frame.

The frame is thick, gilt, ornately carved.

A claustrophobic shortness of breath grips you; you realize that the window is in fact a painting.

20. Untitled #1, instructions for a performance art piece

Step 1: Buy a used green duffle-bag from the army surplus shop in town.

Step 2: Stuff it with clothes, put on your coat, pull the duffle over your shoulder.

Step 3: Look at your room, warm, lived in.

Step 4: Now look toward the window and back your way out the door.

Step 5: Walk down Main Street, stop to withdraw $300 from the ATM.

Step 6: Continue to the bus station.

Step 7: Flirt with the girl behind the ticket counter.

After she smiles, pauses warmly, and asks you where you would like to go, reply,

“Surprise me.”

“Well, how far do you want to go?”

“I have $35 for a one-way.”

“Albany?”

“It’s November. Maybe someplace more southern, a little warmer.”

“Cincinnati?”

“Cincinnati.”

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