Excerpts from The Searchers by Nick Bredie
1. Eating Human Flesh for Money
Each day I decide not to speak French. This amuses the French graduate student I’m fucking. She is unaware of the Lantronix XPort device, about the size of her thumb, which places any object or thing that produces data into a network. Once this was the role of the writer. But she is a heart-beat away from being a lazy, dirty hippy chick, and I’m happy in pre-dawn before the radio clicks on. When it does, the life the Department of Education imagines for me kicks in and is all pizza, clarinets and ten pm bedtimes. Eighth-grade again, but not South Africa—the Newports and the Robo-tripping. The first known citation of that idiom is December 22, 1990. Twenty-five days later, the dawn of victory nears as this great showdown begins. Following this, the word ‘pounded’ appears quite a bit, in conjunction with the phrase, ‘The American Response.’ That’s about the feeling, a little under a decade down the line.
I’m one self-satisfied cigarette; don’t mess with Texcetra. Texcetra is a fictional fashion magazine full of the quirks of small town life. For the first time in a decade, small towns in the United States have grown dramatically. This story is set in a small town. Small town stories contemplate small-mindedness. George Combe’s NOTES (Moral, Religious, Political, Economical, Educational, and Phrenological) on the UNITED STATES of AMERICA in three volumes would seem to substantiate this trope. Combe identifies the bulge about ten inches straight back from my forehead as a propensity towards form. George the Third of England had the same bulge. His nervous system was eaten alive by enzymes in his bloodstream attempting to become blood but never succeeding. Either that or Erysipelas, ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’; a well-known precursor to Necrotizing faciitis, ‘the flesh eating bug.’ I once got that on my knee. Cut myself in a muddy patch and cleaned it out with spit. Next day, it went all violet and yellow. The doctor used a three-inch needle to lance the infection and I spent the rest of the afternoon with sluggish pus running down my leg carried on by the steady blood flow. Did I mention my name is George?
Most people don’t believe in Jewish alcoholics; like they don’t believe Jews cannibalize Christian children or that zombies exist. The pastor of Sebokeng allegedly saw a zombie in zone 14. He described it as being ‘cut-tongued.’ Zone 14 was the first zone to get a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. I grew up forty miles north of Sebokeng, in Johannesburg, with a Jewish alcoholic father. But I’m an American; I go to work. I work everyday to defend our country. I’m the kind of guy who would go out and brain Hessians at Valley Forge every day. It’s the soldier not the poet who gives you the right to free speech. The radio is about to click on and I will go to the library where I work. When asked, my favorite novel is the São Paulo telephone directory. That’ll show those monkeys. I’m a librarian so the government can’t determine what I check out from the library. You know they keep track of that stuff. They have a formula devised by Nazi mathematicians which combines your social security number with the book’s ISBN. If the number is divisible by seven, the FBI pays you a visit. I try to forget the books I read in case I’m interrogated.
The French graduate student seems to associate this with the kundalini. She is concerned about premature awakening; that consciousness of my contradictions will cause the radio to click on in my head. I’m less concerned. I have a bourgeois fear of government. I’m a member of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (of Hartford, Wisconsin). JPFO breaks the vicious cycle of victimization with the sharp report of sulfur/charcoal/saltpeter. It is also the cover for the Mossad’s operations in the American West and Midwest. I am not a Mossad agent, mainly because I distrust government. I trust it enough to make steely eyes at other governments, keeping each other busy ‘til I slip out the side door of life, preferably without paying too much in tax. People complain the country is run either by tax-cutting zombies or tax-and-spend zombies. Everyone thinks they are thinking. There is comfort in the thought that the world is a puzzle. The French graduate student insists actions are really performed by the working of the three gunas; and I’m deluded by my ego sense into thinking, ‘I am the doer.’ She reads:
14:5. Sattva, rajas, and tamas—are the gunas originating due to interaction with prakriti. They firmly bind to the body the immortal indweller of it, O mighty-armed.
14:6. Of these gunas sattva, thanks to its unstained purity—light and healthy—attaches by attraction to happiness and by the bonds of relationships (with people alike to oneself) and by the bonds of knowledge (about unimportant in life), O sinless one.
14:7. Know that rajas—the field of passions—is the source of attachment to the earthly life and the thirst for it. This binds, O Kaunteya, the indweller of the body by attraction to action.
14:8. Tamas, born of ignorance, deludes the indwellers of the bodies binding them by negligence, carelessness, and laziness, O sinless one.
14:9. Sattva attaches to bliss, rajas attaches to actions, tamas, verily, destroys wisdom and attaches to carelessness.
14:10. Sometimes the guna sattva overcomes rajas and tamas; when rajas prevails—then sattva and tamas are defeated; sometimes tamas dominates defeating rajas and sattva.
It’s one of those days that haven’t yet begun. The careless headlines may read: ‘Frank Zappa’s “The Roxy and Elsewhere” has been discovered to contain a secret code that predicts how the Antichrist will rise to power using profits from “Slinky” and “Zima.”’ A possible solution to the puzzle? Zima’s tagline was ‘Zomething different.” Bars full of sweater-wearing yuppies drinking Zima, blank-staring. This is 1992. The taste is flat, metallic gin and tonic. The taste of victory. Here is the scene in the Hall/Van de Castle System of Quantitative Dream Content Analysis:
CHAR: 2ISA (some yuppie-style skirts); 1MPT (Macaulay Culkin); 2MOA (Some Gulf-War veterans)
AGGRESSION: 2MOA 6>1MPT (The vets coerce Macaulay Culkin); D 1>2MOA (I resent the vets); 2MOA 7>1MPT (The vets consume Macaulay Culkin)
FRIENDLYNESS: D3>2ISA (I buy the skirts a round); D3>2ISA (I buy the skirts another round); D3>2ISA (I buy the skirts another round); D4>2FSA (I pick one of the skirts off the ground); 2MOA 3>D (The vets offer me some Macaulay Culkin)
SEXUALITY: D1>2FSA (I’m day-dreaming about the skirts)
FAL/SUC: SU 2MOA (GF) (The vets manage to force Macaulay Caulkin to dismember himself into edible portions); SU D (FL) (I manage to buy drinks for the skirts); FL 2ISA (the skirts cannot drink); FL D (M) (I fail to “buy drinks” for the skirts)
M/GF: GF, 2MOA (Macaulay Culkin is tender as a veal cutlet and is nicely complemented by a cold Zima); M4, D (Skirts are inanimate objects)
OBJECT: AE (the bar); FO (Zima); BH, BE, BT, BA, BS (various parts of Macaulay Caulkin); CL (skirts)
The moral of the story is Gulf War Syndrome + Zima = Zombification. ‘
This story, before the radio clicks on, takes place in Bayport, Texas. Bayport was the home of Velsicol Chemical Corporation’s Phosvel organophosphate nerve toxin manufacturing plant in 1977. The plant now produces Cutty Sark Scotch Whiskey. I enjoy the airbrushed dreams I have after a few Cutty Sarks. In them I stumble on a witch’s dervish. One of the witches is wearing a yuppie mini-skirt and looks suspiciously like my first black girlfriend in Johannesburg. I met her outside a black library and tried to convince her to check out a book on voodoo for me. It was only available in black libraries. She thought I was making the inverse Mandingo move. I was a serious researcher, and told her as much. She said she could teach me more about voodoo than any book if I would just followed her around back of the library. I’m about to agree when it’s suddenly clear that all this is just the French graduate student practicing Kathakali. Kathakali dramatizes the victory of truth over falsehood. It is impossibly abstract. Work is impossibly abstract. The radio will click on and I will undergo a set of prescribed actions which result in a numerical increase of one number associated with another number associated with another number written on a plastic card. Modern numerals originated in the Sulva Sutras as a notation for altar construction. The French graduate student assures me there is no proscription for human sacrifice in the Vedic texts. They were too smart for that socially disruptive nonsense. Better to keep everyone busy accumulating on an abstract scale. The limitations of an empire depend solely on the speed at which it can distribute prestige goods. Still, Human flesh might be the ultimate prestige good.
7. The Rhinoceros Cannot Be Conceived of Unseen, like Petrarch’s Laura
Every girl is born a unicorn. Every girl is born a unicorn until one day she realizes she’s a horse. Some lucky girls realize they are narwhals. They tend to end up dead. The rest sincerely believe for some time that they have the power to heal. Thomas Browne points out that the same people who bought unicorn horn to heal convulsions and falling sickness also drank mercury water and died of it. There is something insidious about the urge to heal. All men are the Fisher King. Women fall into three types: the Gawain, the Percival, and the Galahad. The Galahad is the simplest. She is pure. Probably imagines every guy she fucks is ‘the one.’ Probably ends up fucking a lot of exes in the eternal hope that they are ‘the one’ and will realize it this time around. In this sense, she is perfect, can make no mistakes. It’s always the missionary position for her.
Then there is the Gawain. Asks the right questions half the time or half right questions all the time. She is irascible, her notion of healing is knocking a guy from out of the thrall. Over cereal the next morning. Then there is me, the Percival. The fool in the woods. The, if I had only asked the one question at the beginning of this whole mess I’d be sipping mint juleps out of the Holy Grail right now. If I had only asked, what would Sir Thomas Browne do? in such a stereotypical situation. Orals time: only four can continue to doctoral work. Three are shoo-ins—Dickinson dude; Anglo-Saxon chick; and Henry James queer. That leaves me and Ms. Carolina ‘I’m a Marxist hippie with a hot crotch for Victoriana’ Carothers. Rabon’s on the committee. He had mentioned his ‘open marriage.’ Paraded it around obvious as the Grail parade. I just kept my mouth shut as he invited me over to his apartment to ‘discuss’ the legacy of Jesse Weston and Francis Yates: the evolution of Renaissance occultism out of chivalric legend. Discuss over an $11 magnum of Montepulciano. After a few glasses it all began to sound a little ‘Order of the Solar Temple.’ Rabon’s pet project is Grailology, but he considers the otherwise unrelated conspiracies surrounding the Knights Templar to be his preview as well. And he throws in a little Giordano Bruno as well for a survey of pan-Gnosticism.
Gnosticism is a very subtle and corrupting force, like cheap Italian wine. It goes great with everything or nothing at all. I have a sterling-silver open double flower pendant I was wearing that night for just that reason. Goes great with anything or nothing at all. I could tell it caught his eye when he started talking about the Rosicrucians. I don’t know how I feel about all this stuff. I mean, I guess I’m with Sir Thomas Browne when he says, ‘Thus I think at first a great part of philosophy was witchcraft; which, being afterward derived to one another, proved but philosophy, and was indeed no more but the honest effects of nature.’ But experience tells me otherwise. Everyone, myself included, is happy to make the transition between ‘seeking the truth’ and ‘the truth is out there.’ I liked The X-Files. Sure, not all episodes were up to standard, but when it was good it was really good. One needs those kinds of mysteries: government secrets whose only evil is their secrecy, rural communities terrorized by vampires instead of tornadoes, things that can be solved in an hour. You could solve a six-pack in an hour if you played the X-Files drinking game along to the show. Actually, our ‘discussion’ that night could be modeled into a drinking game, with each incident provoking specific consumption, or vice versa:
Rabon utters a wry witticism / Either he or I smile / Numbers or numerology are mentioned in connection to Dante or the troubadour poets of Languedoc / Reference is made to a degree, and what institution issued that degree / I call him Joshua / He calls me Elizabeth / He bites his nails / He bemoans the lost kinkiness of chivalric love / A phone call is casually ignored; blamed on telemarketers / An ashtray appears / I offer a free-associative explanation of connections between alchemy, anti-Papism and national language / I perform an autopsy on my own argument / Either he or I reference Foucault / He happens to know considerable amounts about ‘The School of Night,’ Sir Walter Raleigh’s cabal of literati-cum-secret agents which included Christopher Marlowe and George Chapman. All are involved in alchemy, anti-Papism, national language, and military technology / I blank out on an important point and lose the argument’s thread / I get lost on my way to the bathroom after staring at his family photos / He shouts directions at me / I blame my confusion on circumstance, architectural design, poor lighting / Returning I spill red wine on his white oxford shirt which I think was buttoned to the collar when I came in but is now definitely undone to the second button and he excuses himself and returns in an identical white oxford shirt undone to the second button.
I somehow remember a detail about ‘The School of Night’ which confirms particular suspicions about alchemy and national language / Rabon accuses me of being ‘kidnapped’ by Deconstruction / My hand is on his leg, only in a gesture of reassurance / I accept a cigarette though I quit in high school / I ask about his wife / He recounts his thesis on the Tristan myth as the prolonging of the male orgasm, and goes on to assert that the history of Western narrative is the prolonging of the male orgasm / I’ll have to sleep on that one / We discuss a newsworthy event involving medical malpractice, a serial killer, or inexplicable temporary mass amnesia / I call him Josh / He calls me Beth / He’s kicked off his shoes / I’m helping myself to cigarettes / I realize we’re drinking whiskey now / I outline my thesis proposal bullet points from memory / I reorder my bullet points mentally realizing one is a spent cartridge but I can’t recall which one / We agree we want pick-up trucks / There’s a question about academia’s ultimate validity as a life pursuit / Either of us mentions an ex / Either of us discusses the cabals which control advancement in academia
One Big Gulp:
We kiss / Either or both of our minds go blank for a moment.
Were you a fly on the wall playing this game that evening, the next morning you would have had to tote out a magnum of cheap Italian wine, another bottle which was probably expensive since it was sitting around, as only pricy wine does around drinkers, and most of a bottle of Jameson’s Irish whiskey. That’s six glasses of wine and four good-sized whiskeys a person, or in the vicinity of twelve ‘drinks’ in highway police parlance. The consumption time was four or so hours and I weighed between 125 and 130 pounds last time I bothered with a bathroom scale. This put me at a Blood Alcohol Content of approximately 0.344. At this stage, the FDA uses the medical term ‘stupor,’ but I’m more inclined to believe I was in the medical state of confusion.
See, I remember everything. I knew a lot of girls who suffered from Wernicke’s encephalopathy or at least claim they did as they walked into the dormitory suite on a clear cold morning. Couldn’t remember why they weren’t in their own beds, but could remember the term for alcohol-induced short-term memory loss from their psych midterm earlier that day, a class they were taking because they wanted to go into advertising. But I’ve always remembered everything. Unlike most people condemned to remember everything, I’ve never cursed my memory. Memory of a stupor is an odd, cinematic thing. As Dante says, the pens of Ovid and Lucan fall silent before it. Time and space, normally fluid, are subject to the whims of a distracted projectionist at an old hand-crank projector. Moments slow to a crawl and then, as if the projectionist overcompensates for gazing at the obliviously necking couples in the theater, speed up to a jerky blur. Grinding away, the projectionist of reality misses the cigarette burn and runs the reel to the end without preparing the next one. The silvered vinyl goes momentarily blank. Not dark, just blank.
I was taking off my sweater. The projection resumes. There’s something shiny on my sweater. On closer examination it is a silver earring with red lacquer inlay. How pretty. I realize it is my earring. But none of my silver earrings have red inlay. Viscous red inlay that is now on my fingertips. I touch my earlobe and it is sticky too, and swollen. Rabon’s face is in full focus and foreshortened, with a concerned look. Leaning in. I think I’m going to say something comforting like I feel nothing but I’m kissing him. With my eyes open. My serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor must have bottomed out because I’m dreaming with my eyes open. Sir Thomas Browne is in the corner of the room, but he looks like Obi-Wan Kenobi. I have become a mermaid and have developed a belly button which attracts earthworms. Browne is telling me that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t have a belly button, he had a cinematic eye. He declares with Alec Guinness’s soft certainty, the open eye beholds in sleep no more then that which is closed. He asks if I wouldn’t like to try on the ring of Gyges but I can’t see myself to confirm that I’m not invisible already. It’s often pointed out that 99.5% of the universe is invisible to us, but if that is true, are we really in any position to frame the debate? Browne responds, use the Force Luke as my mind pans to the image of the photon torpedoes slipping into the exhaust port of the Death Star.
Did I say that out loud? Damn the torpedoes. That was three years ago. By now everyone knows. I’m a nice girl. I don’t want to replace the wife. Just like VHS didn’t want to replace Betamax. I just have a higher availability than she does. I shouldn’t be taking a nap now. I should be back in my study carrel. Each carrel has a tag on it saying ‘This carrel has an assigned user. Please yield space.’ and then the carrel number. Mine is 22. Someone has whited-out the last part of my tag so it just reads ‘This carrel has an ass.’ Everybody knows. They stare, like cats. They stare till I run home to two tall glasses of Stoli and orange juice.
It’s one in the afternoon; stagnant. I don’t get any air through the blinds. I should have brought some work home. I can’t concentrate. I keep poking holes in this piece of paper. Five of them, in a quincunx pattern; then I hold them up to the slanting light. The five ports of knowledge, as Browne says. Five little cameras obscuras. Ones that might show me the answers before I know the questions. That’s what I want. I was one of those kids who would start a maze at the end. Smug satisfaction at amazing friends with mazes dominated by one confident line. It’s not that I didn’t want to start them from the beginning. They just involved too many questions. Too many dead ends. Too messy, too imperfect, nothing like my life. My life is going according to plan. Part of that plan is a professor’s job with paid vacation, nice benefits and a captive audience. Part of that plan is a quick nap till the heat passes.
Bredie's novel The Searchers is currently seeking a publisher.