This Is the World, by PENN W. S.
- ISBN: 9780870135613 | 0870135619
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 11/1/2000
I work at the post office, main branch, Sacramento. Worked, rather, since I was caught last week, and today--but no! I want to tell you about the letters. They're the ones to blame, I think, for my being here. And it looks like I'll be here or somewhere like it a long time.
I hate this city. Sacramento is called--by natives and immigrants alike--the "armpit of the West." I don't know what that makes L.A., but about Sacramento, they're right. It draws dogs, drunks, and demons to it like iron filings, to poke through the rubble of urban renewal, to wander through the park surrounding the capitol by day, or to hover shapeless in alleys and dark corners by night. But I don't hate them anymore. I hate the stupidity of the people, of the system that lets a cretin get a job for better pay than me, and then neither the cretins nor the system will leave you alone....
I sorted mail for the northern San Joaquin Valley--Saint Joke, I called it, because the other is Mexican. All the mail with "95" as the first two numbers of the zip code comes into Sacramento and then is resorted for the surrounding towns--Winters, Davis, Folsom, whatever. I used to deliver mail until someone took a shot at me in the MacArthur district, where they don't like lighter-skinned people much, not even mailmen, since all they bring are bills, junk mail, late unemployment checks, and at rare times a personal letter from the world outside. But that shot scared me, coming out of nowhere and ricocheting off the dirt of an empty lot. One shot. It never happened again, but it was enough to make me happy when my transfer to the mailroom came through. I no longer had to weave down the sidewalk, alert and changing the length of my stride like they taught me in the marines, looking into dark faces which stared at me, blank, but not indifferent. Faces I wanted to tell, "I understand, I'm on your side," framed by ears that would not have heard.
At first, I was pretty good at it, sorting. After all, I wanted with all my life to be there, and I could spot, read, and sort the third and fourth numbers faster than anyone. I even got to work the second shift, and had as a result moments of privacy, which I used to think things through, to make plans, while mechanically doing my job. Why I got bored, I don't know, but about six months ago I began to take an interest in the letters and cards I was sorting, starting to imagine the things they contained, the people they were from, and the people they were to.
The first one that caught my eye was only a postcard. It read (I remember them all), "Dear Walt, got your letter a week ago, and you're right" (about what, I wondered then, conscious that I was pausing in my routine). "Your suspicion that my prolonged silence means something, is right. It's happening all over again--a lot like before--and I can tell from my loss of humor and my difficulty in writing to my friends, because I don't understand why it's happening. And this time it is the same twingy feeling, but different, mostly because it's happened before, as you know all too well, and this time I can see it coming a long way off. Forgive the terse card. I'll write when I can. My best to Melissa--tell her the work being done here doesn't compare to hers. Neither do the workers. Best, C." What was it? I wondered. It was like a code, and although I understand it now, the privacy of it made me angry, or was I afraid? Presumably, Walt, and indirectly Melissa, understood what it meant.
I dropped the card on the floor and kicked it out of the way until I had time to pick it up and reread it. I noted the return address before I dropped it in the right bag. That was Friday. I remember because the next night Karen remarked that I seemed distracted, as if I wasn't with her, or even at her party, which was celebrating the summer solstice (in California, anything can be celebrated). At the same time I thought it was because I was at her party, with her friends and not my usual ones, and I hadn't felt like going in the first place, but had said yes because my steady date, Allyn, was out of town. Now that I think about it, though, I know that my mind was still occupied with that card, and so, when Karen said "You were a big help" to me after her friends had gone home, I didn't stay around to fight it out with her, but suggested thai silo not invite me again. She never did, by the way.
(I find it odd that only Allyn has been to visit me since last week when they came and got me. The rest of my friends--and I had a lot of them, believe me--have let her carry their concern for them. It was she who noticed the tree which is planted outside my window, and it seemed to bother her. You can see the trunk of it, since where I am is sunk halfway into the ground. The feet of people move past the window between me and the tree fairly often, and once in a while a dog stops to sniff at it. I am learning a lot about people from their shoes: they tell you as much as a postcard, anyway.)
The second card from C. was larger. One of those twenty-two-cent ones. I had begun to worry by then that I would miss the next one: I hadn't realized how much, until it was in my hand. I nearly froze.
I was disappointed. With all the extra space, the card was pretty matter-of-fact, with only one or two allusions to "it's going on." The rest was the weather and thanks for writing (it was to Melissa, as I recall). I almost didn't send it on because, after all my excitement, I felt cheated by C. (when I began to call him "Chris," I don't remember), as if he had promised me something that he hadn't delivered. But it was not the end. No, this card promised a letter within the month, and so I sent it on and was patient and waited.
(The public defender has just been in. He seemed relieved when he asked me how I wanted to plead and I said, "Guilty, of course." He laughed when I added, "How guilty, though, I don't know." He, the public defender, is a misshapen little man--a dwarf or a midget. I never could decide which was which. He wheels about in one of those fancy electric wheelchairs, and thus is afraid of anything but level ground. His body looks like it's been hung for years by a hook through the left shoulder, and so he even sits tilted. I felt sorry for him. And I was happy that I seemed to cheer him up.
Allyn wasn't nearly as much fun. "Why did you do it?" she asked. I said nothing. What could I say? Allyn works for one of the state offices here, and she is very regular and decent. She doesn't even mind going to work on sunny fall days. How could I expect her to understand?
"A mistress, I could have understood," she complained. I'll bet. "But all this time, it was only someone else's letters. Strangers." I started to protest, and then let it go.
"Letters," she said in disgust. I asked her to wear her black skirt with something yellow and red, if she came again. She was confused, but I think she will do it.
If you lie on my cot, you can see the branches, set off by the sky. They seem far away.)
I waited and waited for the promised letter, which did not come within the month. Had the card said within a month and not the month? It made a difference, but one which was initially so small that I hadn't paid close attention--my memory is otherwise excellent. But the anxiety of being caught reading mail, I suppose, had caused me to overlook the importance of one tiny word. It was then that I hit upon my idea to borrow the letters and make copies, before sending them on to Walt and Melissa.
The letter came, and it was as if someone knew I was doing this, because the letter was turned around in the bundle, facing the wrong way, so that the first words I saw were on the back of the envelope. "The stamp, somehow, seems appropriate." I recognized the handwriting immediately, and I could feel my own pulse as I turned over the envelope. The stamp was a recent issue, of General Washington praying on one knee at Valley Forge. Another mystery, perhaps solved inside the letter. I looked around (were they watching me, even then?), conscious that I was staring. Nobody seemed to be paying attention, and before it was too late I tucked the letter into my hip pocket beneath my sweater, and prayed it didn't show.
All day the letter pressed against my hip, making me conscious of it, bulging out the pocket with its bulk as if to accuse me. I tried not to act differently on the way home, and I carried off the usual how-are-you's with the bus driver, but the derelict who sat across from me seemed to know I'd done something wrong, staring at me as if I exuded an odor he recognized, finally asking me could I spare fifty cents for a man down on his luck, and grinning when I gave him a dollar--one of those grins which shows only the incisors. I jumped off the bus two blocks before my stop. I could feel him watching me as I walked into the foyer of an apartment building and waited until the bus was out of sight.
I sneaked up to my room quietly (I live, or lived--I keep forgetting--in one of those boardinghouses run by one of those nice old couples who have been caught in the exhalation of the city as it overgrows their neighborhood, who can no longer afford the taxes on the property they were once happy to own, but can't afford to move away, and who hope they will die before the city comes around to tell them they must retreat in front of progress). Drawing the drapes, I put a kettle on my portable burner while I showered, and then I sat before it, carefully steaming the envelope open, impatient, but forcing myself to do a good job before opening it.
"Dear Walt [it read],
"Why is it that people will not leave you alone? I know what you'll say, so I don't even know if I'm asking a real question. You'll laugh when I tell you that I seem to have been cast into the role of a supreme egoist, because I haven't the time to waste. One woman accused me of not caring for people because she told me she was depressed and I said something like `We all get depressed, don't we.' Jesus, they think that to burden you with their stupid problems is friendship. Another guy called me a bastard because I had a small showing of my stuff downtown--I think he thought my showing accused him of something? Tarantulas all....
"Did I ever tell you about the time I had a tarantula crawl across my chest, when I was a boy? Cured me of tree-climbing. Some friends of my adoptive parents had a citrus grove out towards the desert, south of L.A. I'd climbed shirtless into the "Y" of a low tree--I can't remember what kind of tree--and was sitting there, arms out, holding on to branches on either side of me, looking at the way the flat sky gave the trees relief. I felt something tickly moving down my right arm, and when I turned to look there was this monstrous hairy brown thing with unending legs, crawling across my arm toward my heart. I did the right thing: I froze. I even stopped breathing. Have you ever considered how slowly a tarantula moves? I dove out of the tree as soon as it was beyond my hand, stumbled off a few steps, and collapsed, crying, without sound, without tears. It makes me nervous, now. But that tarantula made me very silent out of fear and hatred for the ugly thing which had tormented me without knowing it was tormenting me. It's that silence I paint out of, now.
"What's that got to do with anything? Nothing; or maybe everything, since it's the kind of feeling I had when I had to leave Davis, and I'm beginning to have it again. I am trying to control it. We'll see. Keep in touch. Write words when you can. Back to work. Best always, C."
I had just finished copying the letter, having read it over a couple of times, when Allyn called to find out why I was late. I'd forgotten I'd promised to come over after work. "I'm sick," I groaned. I didn't dare tell her the truth.
"Do you want me to come there?"
"I think I'll be okay. And you know it bothers the Pasadas" (my landlords). Fortunately, this was the truth, as Allyn knew. Although the Pasadas made exceptions in certain circumstances.
"You will make the party Saturday night?"
I'd forgotten about that, too. Shit. "As long as I'm well," I said, trying to sound convincing. She didn't trust my voice; neither did I. She said she loved me, and I should go right to bed. I agreed, and returned to my letter. First, though, I pulled the venetian blinds so the light slanted up and not down toward the street (Allyn wasn't the nosy or suspicious type, but you couldn't be sure), and lit the hurricane lamp the Pasadas provided every room for use in case of a black- or brownout (they are Latin Catholics, and definitely dislike the dark), turning the wick as far down as possible, so the ceiling wouldn't smudge.
I recopied the letter, practicing the handwriting and etching the words into my memory, since I had always intended to destroy the copies. Why didn't I? If you need to ask, well ... let me put it this way, Why should I have?
(I am putting in just as much detail as I think necessary. I have an idea to read this at my trial, not to defend myself, but to explain as much as possible. I want them to understand as much as they can.)
Several other letters came, all short, cryptic, unimportant.
(Allyn, black skirt with rust-colored piping, yellow blouse: "Is that why you borrowed my car?"
I said nothing. My face must have looked hopeful, though. Was she beginning to understand for herself?
"Let me get it straight. You took these letters, copied them, even corrected them, adding things to them, before mailing them on? Then on weekends, you borrowed my car to go visit some friends?" I smiled. "And what you did was drive out to Davis and watch the house the letters were delivered to?"
I had to get to know them, too, didn't I? It would've been like writing to an empty space, a vacuum, if I hadn't.
"Which letters were the originals. The ones they found in your room, or...."
I said nothing. Did it matter? The ones which arrived were obviously the right ones. Was it so difficult for them to understand that? I asked Allyn to find out what kind of tree that was, outside my window.
"You don't seem to realize!" she yelled.)
Let's see. I'm getting confused. Time means so little in here, and people keep interrupting. This one comes to mind:
"Well, it's happened. I feel a certain kind of relief over it all--it's happened, it's over, and I don't need to keep constant watch on it. But I want you to know I did try. I really did. Last year, when I arrived here, the first thing I did was tell everyone that I was dull, with the hope that they would not invite me to their parties (they call them that, but the word is questionable--more like interrogations, social trials). Now that I look back, I realize that they could not believe me--not because it wasn't true--but because for them to accept that I was dull meant that they had to change their perspective on themselves, ask themselves if they weren't dull, too. (And we know what perspective can do, right?) Why else would a self-confessed dullard not wish to be invited to their parties?
"So, the Director of Visual and Performing Arts had his party--the invitations are more like a warrant, they don't ask for an RSVP. Jenny went with me (even though I begged her to stay home, which, after last year's party, was what she wanted). We went with our only friend here--a terribly decent fellow, born with a Guggenheim in his mouth (he deserves one, damned good lithographer).
"Anyway, the Director. He's an insidious, hairy man--one of those throwbacks in appearance. After my first year here, I knew he was basically harmless; his real ability to poison has--I'm tempted to say evolved, but that's not accurate--homogenized right out of him. He would remind you, too, of a tarantula, all appendage and no body to speak of.
"I can hear Jenny crying in bed; it's obviously upset her. I ramble, anyway. I'll mail this tomorrow, and write the rest soon. Give my love to Melissa and anyone else you think appropriate. Affectionately, C."
Each time I copied the letter, I felt ... what? Disturbed, I guess. Not cheated, although the letter seemed less than complete, and I wanted to fill in things. I could not have gone on copying, anyway, because it tired me. I blew out the lamp and tried to sleep, but I couldn't for the things which crawled around my sheets, the almost silent spinning which was going on in the dark corners. I got dressed and went out.
It was the middle of the night, and Sacramento had gone to bed, for the most part. I walked familiar neighborhoods at first, looking for a friend who was still awake; I didn't have a friend whom I could awaken in the middle of the night, and especially not one I could tell what was happening to me. One I could trust. Not Allyn, that was for sure.
The sick, the trod upon, the poor--they seem to stay up later. I began to pass groups of three, four, sitting on steps and porches, watching nothing quietly. Did they know something I didn't, something I hadn't even suspected until then? I liked the darkness: I'd never known this before. But I'd never walked this late before, either. The darkness was something anyone could keep to himself.
A gang of kids passed me, across the street. "Hey," one called out. I thought of running. A solitary man to my left rocked forward like he was nodding with his whole body, and I realized the kid was greeting him. I wasn't alien there; it was like I was invisible....
(My attorney has just left. He brought me a "CARE" package--cookies, sausage, cheese, cigarettes, soap. His mother had made it up for me. I don't smoke, but I was grateful anyway. I offered him some sausage, but he waved it away with the prosthesis which is his left arm, grinning. "Do you know a Karen Johnson?" he asked.
He grinned and nodded, his legs swinging slightly from the edge of his chain I was beginning to like him. His odd humor, and his deformity, appealed to me. We got along.
"Why?" I asked.
"She's going to testify."
"She's going to testify," I repeated. "She doesn't need to try to help me."
"No, no. No, no, no, no, no," he said. "For the prosecution." His mouth stretched the syllables of the word out, relishing each one. "Now." He became serious. "Do you want to plead insanity? With what she's gonna say, it would be easy. Allyn, too."
Allyn, too? I thought.
"She's for us. But it doesn't matter. She wants to tell the court that you were definitely not yourself, for the last several months."
I was silent. He watched me for a long time, as I felt the realization begin to crawl up my spine. I'd never been more myself. But they were going to deny that, weren't they? Bury me with details, circumstances. "I can't," I said wearily.
"Well," he said. "Your choice. You can always change your mind, you know." He pointed at the cookies with his prosthesis, and I gave him one. "Tell me something," he munched. "The inspector found a postcard in your room that said C. was fine, had cut out drinking--a lot of things like that. The inspector also found the phony cancel stamp you made. Pretty good job, by the way. Who wrote that card?"
"Why didn't you mail it on?"
"I thought I had." That isn't true. I hadn't mailed it because something was wrong with it, my language wasn't right, or else there was something missing--I wasn't sure which--but it gave me that tickly feeling, and I was afraid. I watched my attorney pack up the papers he had in the little case attached to the right side of his electric wheelchair, and whirl to go out.
"Let me know if you'd rather spend some years in Napa instead of Folsom," he said as he left. "Save the state some money....")
It is, literally, the dead of winter outside. The oak tree (or so Allyn has said, oak) seems close, the only thing that seems close. Everything else seems far away. I was going to ask Allyn to find out his new address from Walt, but I doubted she'd do it. Ah, the last letter, the one they caught me with, I must put that down. I owe it to Chris to do that, at least. Otherwise, they will fill in their own details and bury him with me.
"I am, in some ways, an asshole. I know it. But I cannot control it; I'm not sure I want to control it any longer. Still....
"There I was at the Director's party, yelling at the one person who had been kind to me. Going on about nothing--nothing he could do anything about, anyway--one word leaping up out of my heart after another. He kept saying, Okay, okay, until he found a way to escape through the milling people and not come back. I stood there feeling foolish, as people tried to ignore me. Walt, I was overcome by an utter loneliness such as I have never felt before (except once, as a child), as if I were the central figure in one of those paintings by Munch where all the detail surrounding the figure has been obliterated.
"It was not drunkenness. They could see that; could have excused my outburst, if it had been that. What was it then? Arrogance? I don't think so. Passion? No; well, yes, but of a certain kind they did not know. Fear? Maybe. Maybe. In front of me, a short brunette sat on her heels and laughed and laughed. Behind me, Jenny sat stiffly on the couch, and I think only I could see the tear that slid off the flare of her nose. Both were nervous. I was powerless, could not calm either of them, for each had, in her own way, taken on all the pains that huddled in groups around the room, like small circles trying to overlap each other in the water. I was tired. And I do not believe in pain....
"That was it: tiredness. Tired of being powerless. For what power I had was endowed (and not human), given me by those who held on to it and portioned it out, making me silent with fear and hatred. On the walls, every wall, were Haida prints crowded together, the frames bumping against each other in pretentious disarray, their subtle colors massed together in a common cry for attention. A pale yellow is no longer pale when it joins forces with reds. The delicate black outlines become insidious, dominant where they shouldn't be. It was my eyes that made me drunk, caused me to behave like that. And in my drunken sight it seemed all of us were human shells with the souls of tarantulas, and each time I uttered a word it came out brown and hairy.
"I found Jenny, later, outside in the snow, sitting against a tree in the full moon's yellow light, crying. Not for herself or for me, but for the people still left inside. I stood there, alone and helpless, sheepish and mute, beginning to see that it had begun a long long time ago.
"I am not sorry.
"As I write that, I can feel something has changed, something irrevocable, yet something unknown as yet. Like the threads of one cable suspending a bridge, something has worn through and snapped, and I find myself alone in an odd way. There are only five, maybe six, people I care about in this world (why, Walt, are we scattered all over the globe?). Really care about. The rest are only as real as ... as the pile of red bricks my neighbor has stacked outside my studio window. Bricks that I know are there, but can't see because it is dark and the light over my desk (one of those lamps which looks like a praying mantis with a glowing head) holds me here, prevents me from seeing past the dim reflection of myself, duplicated in the storm window.
"(A day later). The Director made an appointment with me for tomorrow. You see? They move slowly, but not that slowly. I will go, of course. I know what it is he wants to say, and I know what it means. One last time I must let him run his hairy fingers across my heart. But this time, I am not afraid, though silent and still.
"Funny. My power is to make it easy for him by not breathing.
"Next time I write, it will be from somewhere else. Where? I don't know. Jenny has an idea that we should go to New Mexico and buy an Abiquiu , and live and work. At least the tarantulas there are real. How we would live, I don't know, but work is all that matters now (besides Jenny), work and silence.
"Until whenever, she sends her love, as do I. Love, C."
There. Tonight I will correct this copy, and practice it for tomorrow. Tomorrow, I must go before them, let them look at me, ask me questions I cannot answer, decide my guilt. I wonder if they will understand that these were not someone else's letters. Perhaps not. Perhaps the judge will want to ask why I did it, and I can read what I have written.
I have begun to like it here. The routine is like any other, but I don't have to see anyone, except my attorney, and even he can be kept out.
The oak stands against the winter, budless. It stands there like a dancer, arms arcing up, the fingers nearly touching high above the trunk. Its roots go far beneath the ground as if the earth has risen like dough around it and me, half sunk in the ground myself, and I can see the beginnings of a crack in the wall where the roots have tried to enter my cell. Yet, if I move on my cot, the image of the tree against the white moon shifts, and if I rock my head, I can make the still dancer dance.
As I look out the window and wonder how guilty I am, and of what, really, I can see against the faraway sky the dark lines which tell me that what they call my crime is delicate and dark and can only be judged--truly judged in detail--against a yellow New Mexico moon.
Copyright © 2000 William S. Penn. All rights reserved.