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The Plural of Chaos
by Debbie Finkelstein

When Lucy Frank grew up, she looked down and saw she had long, slender fingers like her mother. These fingers looked good doing anything–holding cigarettes, playing the piano, pinching people she disliked. Her mother had sex and social Darwinism on the brain. She believed that human beings leave their houses with a deep, subconscious desire to see someone in particular and choose their outings without entirely knowing why. When Lucy’s mother ran away to Germany and married a bartender there named Mickey, Lucy knew she must always be on guard against her own subconscious, and with her new solitude began her new life of arriving–at restaurants and bars and shops, always with a puckered look about her, trying to conceive of who it might be she wanted to meet among those dour faces so poised to fade away. She remembers them now only as blurred panoramas announcing the peripheral quality of her life, like a view from a parade float, baring only flecks of peach and white and brown. But Lucy Frank never met those people she’d been thinking about meeting because they’d never existed.

She lived on top of a plastics factory in Brooklyn with a guy named Gary, who happened to live there too and didn’t mind sharing the roof. Gary had a tent and some expensive sheepskins. He’d lived in the desert before he got committed. He looked like hell. Each glimpse of him assured Lucy of her own, comparatively blissful life.

"I want to show you something," he said the first day they met, when Lucy was fresh from the woods and wearing a sleeping bag she had made into a suit. Gary could break free from a straight-jacket in under a minute. He blushed as Lucy tied the jacket around him, binding himself to himself. They both knew the feeling of being very close to one’s own body; they’d been poor and homeless for quite some time. "Oh me," Lucy would say mockingly those times when she felt most lonely, most ridiculous, clutching herself in her arms, which she could wrap all the way around her back, fingers touching, as though raising a shell. When Gary grunted and groaned out of his restraints that first time for Lucy, she fancied him the incredible hulk, a gargantuan green Gary, busting from the straight jacket of America, and the image made her smile, and she had an idea.

"Keep this man off the streets and out of your houses! Your money can show Bellevue that you still care about the art of escape!" Lucy had a loud, self-assured voice, and she held her suitcase outstretched to the street crowd, her ear turned towards their charity plopping like raindrops on corrugated metal.

Lucy liked Gary all right, but she understood that he was not someone she was supposed to know. She had known hundreds like Gary. Thousands. And most of them were crazy. Most of them were dead.

Hi! Hi hi! Hi-ya! How are you?

I’m fine. And you?

She was careful about how much regret a person could take. She never let herself soak too long in her own disappointment. Better to think in platitudes, she thought. She enjoyed her platitudes. And she believed that strangers enjoyed her platitudes too.

How are you today, sir?

I’m fine. Thanks for asking.

You’re welcome, motherfucker! It was her favorite swear word so she yelled it–down the street, off the roof, under the bridge. It made strangers turn red and scurry away, like lobsters whose pincers have been tied.

When Lucy walked (and she was good at walking), she was sensitive to the personality of each crowd–the ethos, the inspiration behind the pedestrian momentum. She jogged with the type A groups, the Mr. Suit-and-Tie and Ms. Insensible Shoes. She despaired with the hopelessly lost, she grew frantic with the afternoon shoppers, and she whistled alongside those persons wandering thoughtfully without eyes, lost in the inefficiency of the mind.

And yet her favorite crowds were simply seizures of presence, meant to watch from the sidelines–Chinese peasants, city workers, buskers with beards, and short people wearing sandwich boards, all throwing themselves towards some unknowable destination that wouldn’t brake for cars or physics. Lucy Frank loved them desperately because she had no choice. She believed there were two types of people in the world: those who like to look and those who like to be looked at. She was gorged on it, drowsy, with nothing else to sustain her life, looking all day long because it was all she knew how to do, her heart so full with what it didn’t know.

***

It was in one of her favorite haunts, sprawled on a table, that she found the ad, circled in blue ink, waiting for her:

FREE Mobil Home Not a joke it’s FREE No Trick

Free 1960 Buddy Mobil Home 10x50 with newer

aluminum roof no leaks. Trailer in very good

condition for age. Great hunters or weekend cabin.

Located at 785 E. Arnold Lake Rd., Harrison, MI.

Come get it, it’s yours.

"Which way is Michigan?" Lucy asked Gary on the roof. He opened his eyes wide, revealing blood-shot, red-rimmed baby blues. She couldn’t help but draw back a little.

"Why?" said Gary suspiciously.

"Never mind," said Lucy.

"Thought you were a city girl now," said Gary as he chewed on a stick he’d plucked from the tree that scraped the roof.

"I’m staying in the city."

"Yeah, all right."

Before the roof, Lucy had rented, for six dollars a month in the woods, a waterless, heatless shack that looked like a grazing parallelogram. With needle and thread, she’d converted her sleeping bag into a full-body sleeping suit which had recently become her only outfit. It had a hole in the crotch. Wearing blankets was not uncommon behavior for Lucy. She was a closet materialist, dreaming of comforters and afghans and electric blankets caressing her in the night. The thought of warm, downy fabric touching her skin brought a lump to her throat that wouldn’t budge for fear of crying and dowsing her cheeks in ice. Once, when Gary got close enough to hear, he heard her mumbling, More material. I want muslin, terrycloth, I want velour by the motherfuckin’bolt.

And she needed this mobile home. It had her name on it–the ad had been there for her, in the exact spot where she waited for things to happen. A mobile home goes wherever you want it to. She would never have to live in the country again. Lord knows she couldn’t. The trees and streams and bucolic space were worth nothing to her. She might as well be dead living among nature: there were no people there, no crowds, and her poverty shown unambiguously, the sorrow and useless pain of it, like a blow to the headwith a delicate vase. No, she would take this house and move it to New York. She would throw parties. She would meet people.

"Lucy, how long have we known each other?" said Gary.

Lucy looked at her bare wrist in the dark. "A week?"

"‘Bout right," he said. "And you’re still wearing a sleeping bag. Spring is upon us like a lamb, my dear."

"I am not your dear."

"Okay."

Photo: Grant Safrenak

 

Lucy settled in for the night, a good twenty feet from Gary, who was eating a series of small sticks. Tomorrow she would set off for her home, her lost home, now found. "Oh, me," she said, prone on her tarp, hugging herself in the darkness. Life really was okay, she thought, looking at the stars. Things can still happen. Things can still add up. How long had it been since she thought so?

"I went crazy in ‘77," Gary said for no good reason, in a wistful voice. "It was a night like this. I was with a woman then, too–"

"You are not with me–"

"And I was holding her in my arms, and she passed out and I was completely sober. I looked into her face and realized I loved her more than my own life."

"Shut up!" Lucy turned on her side and covered her ears, but she could still hear him through her fingers.

"Suddenly, in her sleeping face, I also saw the words of Buckminster Fuller rise from her nose, curl out of her nostrils like smoke, and I could feel them, taste them, smell them as though they were perfume. Stable form of collapse, he said. This was my relationship with this woman, this stable form of collapse, and it described my entire life, the whole fucking universe–"

"Fuck you!"

"What is the plural of chaos? I wanted to know. She OD’ed in my arms. What is the plural of chaos? Chaoses? Chaoi? Can there be more than one? And yet that’s what it felt like, this dead woman in my lap, as though someone had drawn a circle around her, head to foot, conveying her into the multiple chaoses that surround our bodies at every moment."

Lucy hated when people talked seriously about abstractions. If she couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist. And yet, for all her literal mindedness, she wasn’t very practical. She pulled the soft vinyl over her face and hummed to block out the sound of Gary’s high-pitched nasally voice. Never assume that quiet people are normal or well-adjusted, she thought. You will always be wrong.

"Since then, I haven’t fantasized. I have nothing to fantasize about," he continued without being heard, like a prayer in an elevated place, to no one and nothing but the empty space.

* * *

"Where does Pennsylvania end and the rest of the country begin?" Lucy asked the only pedestrian on a dirt road in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. She could still make people laugh. Even the Amish.

"I’m afraid you’re not going to get anywhere fast around here," he said shyly. He was older, probably married, and not given to speaking with women he was not married to. Transgression colored his face.

"But how the hell did I get here?" she asked him, groaning at the sight of the cornfields, burning yellow in the distance, the dogs promenading the cows, and he, the only Amish man she’d ever known, already walking away. She could have at least stumbled upon the Mennonites. They’ll talk to you as long as they don’t have to look at you.

It had been four days and Lucy was still in Pennsylvania. Her sleeping bag was giving her a rash and the bastards who’d picked her up in Philadelphia had dropped her smack in the middle of Amish country. Motherfuckers!

"Oh, me," she said to herself, toe-etching a square in the dirt. "Soon every road will be my home."

Lucy Frank knew that mobile homes were a product of the American Dream. They were conceived in the belief that if Americans don’t like where they are, they should be able to leave as conveniently and as hassle-free as possible. Mobile homes offer peripatetic Americans the opportunity to chase their dreams while still maintaining the stuff they need to feel comfortable, to feel American. The difficult truth is that mobile homes are not easy to transport. They work on the same principle as above-ground pools. When moved, they’re heavy and uncouth, and they leave a wet shadow on the ground, a mark of ecological harassment.

Lucy had to get out of her sleeping bag. Eventually she came across a barn and an Amish woman’s drying laundry stretched over a log in the backyard. Of course. The outfit consisted of a long, black dress and stockings. It must’ve been years since Lucy had worn a dress, and she put it on with strange exhilaration. It had a high collar that scratched and a head piece. She looked like a voluptuous ninja.

Then for a long time among stretches of crops and road, wearing a dress two sizes too small, Lucy walked without crowds, without chaos. All was silent and still as the sun slipped by, and she nearly fell asleep walking, her own body a wheel barrow. The ad for the mobile home was still on the rooftop in Brooklyn, but that didn’t matter; she’d immediately committed the address to memory. "Harrison, Michigan," she said aloud, to keep herself awake. "Michigan Harrison." It sounded like a man’s name. She pictured a burly carpenter, bulging forearms, a red face. "Hello, Michigan," she would say in her forward way. "What a state you’re in!"

* * *

Crossing into Ohio, Lucy got the hiccups. Nobody knows where hiccups come from, a fact which disturbed Lucy each time they came on, bringing to attention her lack of control over her subconscious, or whatever it was that made hiccups. Each time she got them, she remembered the man who’d had hiccups for 23 years and then killed himself, and she always speculated the same with hers, Maybe this is it. Maybe this time they’re here to stay.

Ohio was a blur, and as soon as she crossed the state line into Michigan, her hiccups were gone.

"What state’s round on the ends and high in the middle?" her mother had said years ago.

"Uh, Ohio," replied Lucy, unimpressed.

It came from her childhood, this notion of home.

East Arnold Lake Road. Harrison, Michigan.

Lucy Frank was thirty-one years old.

A motorist dropped her within seven miles of her destination, and she walked the rest. She was exhausted and yet jumpy, a rucksack full with a filthy sleeping bag slung over her shoulder.

What a mule I am, she thought.

Harrison was a town-sized hunting community, with a lake and a library and even a YMCA. Walking down Arnold Lake Road was like walking through an English garden. She couldn’t see more than a few yards ahead, and at each bend a ramshackle old house would burst forth into view and then quickly disappear in a game of residential white trash peek-a-boo.

785 East Arnold Lake Road, Harrison, Michigan rose from the ground before her as geysers surge from the earth, a palace of aluminum and plywood in light green, with a few scraggly bushes in front and a TV antennae on top. Dusk played with the windows, giving them the illusion of flickering, shrouding the mobile home in a silver glimmer.

"It’s so beautiful," said Lucy aloud. "So very perfect for me. So so perfect for me." She almost dropped to her knees, but when she pictured herself doing so, she resisted, sprinted up to the house with its flickering windows and flung open the unlocked door with a might she didn’t know she had left.

"It’s you!" she gasped.

"It is me, isn’t it? I suppose I’m disappointed too," said Gary, perched on the floor with a can of beans and a television.

"How–?" She wanted to cry.

Gary stood, pushed his big knuckles into his back pocket and withdrew the ad Lucy had supplied for him

"Read the big print," said Gary, pointing at the ad with his index finger, which was missing a joint. "It says, ‘Come get it, it’s yours.’ Land of the free. Home of the brave. I have as much right to this house as anyone."

"You wouldn’t dare."

"Would too. Nice dress, by the way. It’s good to see you out of that godawful sleeping bag, even if you look like you should be churning butter."

"How did you get here so quickly?" Lucy asked, faltering for her words. She leaned against the wall in the kitchen and slid until her butt hit the floor.

Gary winked. "I got wings." He was completely serious.

If Lucy had never felt the terrible, depraved burden of an entire lifetime spent in stalemate, she certainly did now. And Gary’s nonchalance with the whole situation only made it worse. She realized she wanted him to care that she had never had a friend, or a house, or a job, or a dog, or a garden, or a cup of spiced tea, but he didn’t care, and he never would, because he was, quite openly and unabashedly, insane.

"You left the ad on the roof for me on purpose," he said, his lower lip tucked over his upper lip like an ape.

"Did not!" Lucy shrieked.

"Look at you, you trust yourself so much, you think you’ve never given anyone the opportunity to pull one over on you, and look where you are, missy!" He still had the ad and was waving it around before him, mock gracefully, with his pinkies extended. Lucy jumped to her feet in one quick motion and dove for the ad like a bull at a red cape, throwing herself entirely at him, and screaming.

It would have been a fight to the death, because Gary simply lay there, letting Lucy clobber him with her fists and spit. She even picked up the little television set and held it high, ready to slam it down on Gary’s face, when she heard again what he’d said: "You left the ad for me on purpose." He was repeating it over and over, like a parent talking to a child, in a voice meant to pacify with its frailty.

Could she have left it knowingly?

Lucy Frank crawled from Gary and sat with her legs crossed, her head laid in her lap. She had always believed that bravery and strength are in what you don’t do, what you give up in lieu of something that might or might not be, while no one knows how nearly you cracked. Lucy felt a tiny spasm in her chest and realized she had the hiccups again, and she twisted her hair around her slender fingers slowly, meditatively, looking around the small kitchen and living room. So this is Michigan. She opened her eyes wide and shut them. She didn’t care.

Gary was smacking his jaws. He’d fallen asleep under attack. Then snoring commenced and the wind whistled through his nose. Lucy could close her eyes but she could not close her ears. This? She thought. This? She felt herself growing tired under his cacophonic sleep noises. This, she thought finally. At a certain point in our lives we are ready to listen to what we were never ready to listen to before. And Lucy Frank fell asleep.


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