Bewildering Stories

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The New Neighbors

by John Olson

The new neighbors are difficult. They pound on our door at night seeking welcome and pudding. We can only give them trinkets of glass and a little chloroform, for which they are deeply grateful and leave baskets of jute and asterisks in return.

Who are these people? We listen to them, learn to read their moods using a suite of remote-sensing instruments and a vial of African earth. Their sublimely irrelevant décor fills us with trepidation. Strange noises infiltrate the floor as they do whatever it is they do above us, shuffle about, or coordinate a universe of fossil conjunctions and centrifugal grommets.

The few suppositions we have drawn from telescope observations indicate knots of anguish tinctured with sodium hydroxide. In a continent of extremes, this sort of thing is to be expected, but their strange pallor and foghorns combine to produce a sense of privation that is difficult to fathom, especially if one considers the magnitude of their pantry, which is full of beans and toothpicks.

They sometimes welcome us in the hallway, bouncing laser beams off the surface of our clothing. For me, this has always been the very essence of perception, these interludes in the hallway, these interludes in time, that afford us transitory glimpses of one another during some of our most unguarded moments, when we are getting the mail, for instance, or poking our head out the door to see what the weather is like.

I have always wanted to see Elvis in person, and they seem to intuit this about me, but I know that it will never be possible, since Elvis is dead: dead from exhaustion, dead from the rigors of fame and pharmaceuticals, in the late 70s, when Disco was king. I believe this is why they once left a stack of albums at our door, Blue Hawaii, Kissin’ Cousins, Double Trouble, and Clambake.

There is a dailiness that is hard to convey to the outside world, but occasionally one is treated to certain insights in videos starring Ben Affleck or Dustin Hoffman that serve to unite us, that serve to create a sense of domesticity shared with other people however dissimilar their background and tastes. It is this, this daily uniformity I attempted to bring to our neighbors in the form of a photo album gangrenous from humidity, which I believe was central in motivating them to teach me the sounds of their alphabet, enunciations which swiveled and squirmed in my mouth like spasms of brackish colloquy.

After a solid week or so of remodeling they invited us up for a look. Vast, engineered canals extended from their kitchen into the living room. Planets sparkled on the ceiling. Nuclear-powered appliances hummed with resolute efficiency.

Have I mentioned the crows? Hundreds of crows hopped about on the chairs and tables. In some of the darker corners, eyes iridesced in exquisite chiaroscuro.

A laboratory full of ceramics and jars overwhelmed the senses with sprawling, penetrating odors. One of them opened a sleepy eye and emitted a low growl of contentment.

On one occasion I brought them a piece of Gorgonzola cheese. The one named Chabouk took a bite, then spit it out, and shook with fury. I apologized, but I did not know why the old fellow had reacted with such vehement anger. This strained our relations.

One night, it was necessary that I knock our bedroom ceiling with a broom. One of our new neighbors were fussing about in the kitchen and making a lot of weird noises. This strained our relations even further. I tried to make things better by bringing them a bowl of fudge the next day. This, too, garnered hostility, and the door was slammed in my face.

I returned home and stared out the window, baffled. Out there among the quiet stones I could see the day implicitly defined by parks and pleats of mist. Each passing day churned out some 80,000 images of various lifestyles and clothing. In a world where the clouds can sometimes go from silver to gold in an instant it’s important to understand the vicissitudes of existence. All it takes is a little blackjack now and then to remind us how vulnerable we are.

It’s hard to avoid people when they happen to live right above you. They would appear sometimes in the hallway gliding down to do their laundry, their strange, membranous wings pulsing in veins big as hawsers, a silvery sheen on their skin faintly glistening. One wondered, in fact, what they needed clothes for in the first place.

Their conversations, which were barely audible through the drinking glass I pressed to the ceiling, provided a fresh new understanding. They were, after all, just as baffled and burdened by the mysteries of existence as we were. Just as the male mandarin fish flares his fins to woo the smaller, egg-filled female, I could hear Chabouk utter things that impregnated the surrounding air with the hydraulics of inquiry, judgments challenged and examined in a dreamy world of unearthly acoustics. Bumping, trembling, sometimes hissing, I could hear their bodies flex and harden as they discussed traditions and attitudes with a view toward mollifying the wounds created by life’s thorns. Listening in on their world taught me a great thing. I learned that we are all laboring to build a continent of hope out of nothing but fog and soap.

Their words trembled with splendid colors as if they had ice in them, trampolines and facts. Shadows of heaven lashed by wind and rain.

Over the months we began to grow more intimate. The dazzling displays of wholehearted indifference now began to gurgle with renewed heat. Parrots and omelettes graced our conversation.

Sometimes I would see them return from a casual outing, bounce down the sidewalk on their blue hind legs exhibiting extremes of temperature in their eyes, fighting cold and loneliness with strips of tarpaulin and twists of licorice. Black scrawls etched by Martian dust devils danced on the hull of their ship. The intricate tattoos on their faces lampooned the irrepressible conviviality of pancakes.

I realized that kinship extends far beyond our immediate family, far beyond our species. We are all united by strings, scabs, and hormones. The quest for understanding laces the history of all sentient creatures. The pretty white blossoms of the bloodroot or the winged jewels biology offered us in the form of scarabs all imply a certain naked benevolence underlying all personality, even if it is the mere ejaculatory spasm of a zealous appendage.

I found myself much of the time having to scrape up the white crystals my neighbors left after evaporating. They would sometimes boil, freeze, or poof into vapor if amused by a joke or angered by a dead battery. Chabouk would sometimes burst into a shower of tiny stars at the slightest mention of a Scandinavian smorgasbord. He was curiously aroused by the idea of a smorgasbord. He thought it had something to do with baptising jackknives.

Perfume and cordovan defy common wisdom. This is the way of all sentient behavior. It fusses over things like stationery, sends out birthday cards and wedding invitations, regenerates its life on paper where it assumes the chromatic aberrations of a novel or poem. A metaphor might be forever etched into jade, old men climbing a mountain in China to discover the meaning of existence and finding a jukebox whose titles include some early songs from the British invasion of the ’60s.

Chabouk’s favorite song was called “She’s Not There,” by the Zombies. He said he found it druidical, solitary, and savage, not unlike a swimming pool perched on bedsprings. I told him it reminded me of the warm disposition of velour, roiling ash and rings of steam.

Chabouk had a way of opening his heart I found particularly ingratiating. that I mean he could do it literally: reach into his chest cavity and bring out his heart to show us its hidden channels and shorelines. A barely palpable, wild and delicate aroma emanated from the organ. It seemed to epitomize the very syntax of life as it throbbed rhythmically in his hand before he reinserted it into his body.

Facts have a way of both revealing and obscuring a reality. Human perspective tends to center on water, on fluidity in general, but Chabouk had a way of seeing the world that telescoped into surprising details. Things like old wheel rims, or the smell of mocha on a certain winter afternoon, or the way an usher will sometimes probe his way with a flashlight in a theatre embodied certain truths that exceeded even the most sophisticated mathematics used to explain compound interest, or how populations develop and interact.

There is something starkly alien about an empty apartment. It was on a Thursday that I went to call on Chabouk. My wife and I had been kept awake by the mating calls of frogs. Foam-nest frogs, water lily frogs, and banded rubber frogs. Snoring puddle frogs and tremolo sand frogs. To this was added the cacophony of birds. Thousands of birds. Goldenrumped tinker barbets, Burchell’s coucals, Klass’s cuckoos, spotted dikkops, purple-crested louries, and tambourine doves. I could identify these sounds since I had once been a Miami hairdresser. The shampoos we used tended to draw wildlife, rhinos and rogue dishevelments seeking mirrors and conformity. It was high time I had a discussion with Chabouk about his family’s nocturnal activities, and the 200 or so Greco-Roman mummies left in the laundry room.

I knocked at the door for a considerable length of time. I knew someone was home because I could hear subatomic particles continually being created and annihilated. On my 712th knock, I discovered the door was unlocked. I twisted the knob and the door opened. I walked into a completely empty apartment. Empty, that is, save for the gravel pit, ceremonial maces, and dozens of little painted ceramic dogs.

Three months later a postcard appeared in our mailbox. It was from Madagascar. The picture on the front featured the Betsimisaraka Music Band. All it said on the back was “Another jarring turn in the data,” and was signed Chabouk.

What data? I could not stop thinking about the Persian army at the battle of Marathon, a call to prayer from a nearby mosque, great sails against the sky, this newfound confidence in the possibilities of being mortal, the high-pitched pulsating song of cicadas.

There is always something that flows or flees, that escapes binary organizations, the resonance apparatus, and the overcoding machine: things that are attributed to a “change in values,” or the micropolitics of a condominium building. Ever attend a condo meeting? It is there we learn the true nature of pitch. The value of a feeling is sometimes determined by syncopation.

They say an elevator fattens on generalities. What else can you say in an elevator? You’re either going up or going down. It is you who chooses which floor to visit, but the cables and pulleys remain the same. Sometimes moving to a new domain brings into contact with ourselves. That it is to say, our forgotten, neglected selves. As if the spectacular backdrop of our lives were not the tropical scenes we had imagined but a large body of water propelled by cello through a room painted off-white with an accent wall in pale green.

Opinions are the tools of conversation. If I’m looking at a full moon, a new moon, or just a sliver, is everyone around the world seeing the same phase I am? Does the Statue of Liberty wear shoes? When do wildebeests migrate through the Serengeti?

Ancient Greeks thought our eyes acted as lanterns, sending out rays that made objects visible when struck. One tends to value any kind of statement for what one can take from it as a link, or photoelectric cell.

Such a way of speaking will have, of course, an immediate impact on those with whom we share a common space, and it will either be one of respect and sympathy, or a questioning of the kind of data they present to us, and we present to them. If they disturb us during dinner with their constant pounding, pounding that they promised would not occur, because their floorboards would dovetail together gently, requiring only glue, then it is up to us to decide whether this was a ruse to trick us into compliance, or a sop intended to absorb our editorializing, and render it neutral by their seeming indifference.

It was a happy thought to build the Hudson river railroad right along the shore. We live on the edge of a deep, deep pointlessness, which is to say nothing original, nothing effortful or fresh, but said simply to fill a space, a space left empty by exhumation, memories dug out of the head, and committed to paper. All it takes is a fresh new set of eyes to set everything in motion again.

Meanwhile, a new set of neighbors have moved in with a new set of annoyances to battle, or transcend: enigmatic rites, colossal collisions, steam blasts, drifting plates, aggressive copulation, bounding impala, laundry left in the washing machine. Pride, retribution, regret. The stuff of existence. The grammar of proximity, savage and acrobatic in its critical mass.

Copyright © 2005 by John Olson

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