I wrote this last April. It's the first attempt at fiction that I've made in quite a few years, but it seems as though it probably can't hurt having it posted on here for the moment. Also, it's worth noting that it's a horror story, though not in a terribly traditional sense, so read at risk of potential disquiet. I wrote this when I was first beginning to grapple with many of the subjects that I've started exploring on this blog and felt a total lack of agency around my position in the world, and so it was almost necessary to play Devil's Advocate for a moment to see the limitations of that cynical perspective.
Additionally, no malice or disrespect is meant to any of the referenced real-world subjects, locations, or individuals referenced within.
I Sing The Body Geologic
J. Bryce Hidysmith - april 2016
A Christmas party. I saw him while he failed at seduction. The girl walked. He met my eyes. He was a hungry thing, the kind of man who could keep on ripping at you desperate long after he lost and it would be sensible to tap out. We got talking, clinking glasses and leaning on bannisters. His name was Jacob.
We spoke of work, both bankers. We did well for ourselves, living in apartments of the unsettled and eating out every night. We discovered we both grew up in the San Diego area. We had attended Brown. We talked about football teams and lovers, about karoshi and our half-absent fathers. We were both recently single and nearing thirty. We were practicing heterosexuals with a requisite period of adolescent homosexual experimentation. We had both attempted relocation to Europe: he to Antwerp, myself to London, and failed to stay. It was unclear where similarities ended and plausibility began.
I remembered then, in school, reading from Durkheim’s Suicide, and noticing that it was written in a time before the unification of Germany. In those days Saxony and Bavaria were counted as separate nations. Come unification, they would be lumped together. Perhaps it is a matter as simple as this: we came from a time when the individual was seen as the basic building block of the world. This seems farcical now; we’ve met enough others. It wasn’t as though we could tell single stories and have them come out the same; he was not my doppelgänger. Rather, at a certain level of abstraction, our individualities were indistinct. We’d be similar statistics.
Our conversation moved to a balcony, in streetlight and surrounded by potted succulents and permitted to smoke. We broached darker topics. Jacob confessed to me that he felt he never made anything. He thought a man should be judged by what he constructed. He wasn’t an artist, scientist, or theologian. He assumed that those trades were the only ones of honor and note, for they produced information that lived on after death. “Otherwise,” he told me, “you confined yourself to the worship and aggrandizement of the self.” He expressed a minor personal horror: he’d become a banker because he wouldn’t have to make anything. He found comfort in that fact.
The host blundered onto the balcony, spilling a martini and offering a barrage of bad investment tips to a companion. The conversation shifted from confessional to performative. We listened to the tips, then to aphorisms of virility, and then to invocations of mid-rank sports teams. Jacob appeared to be transfixed by politeness; I went inside and drank myself silly.
Jacob asked me to meet him a few days later. I realized that I’d not gone out to meet a new friend in some time. I’d become bogged down in connections professional or romantic. I responded with a yes, and dived into work for the next few days.
Round lunch, I received a second message. He suggested not a coffee shop or bar, but the natural history museum, beneath the reconstituted skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus. I was intrigued. The next few days until Saturday were uneventful. At noon I arrived at the museum, walked to the Tyrannosaurus, and saw him dressed casually, carrying an umbrella and smirking. “You got me thinking,” he began without saying hello, “and I thought it sensible to carry on the thought with you nearby.”
We walked the galleries. The moneymakers by the door were the planetarium and the dinosaurs. They shifted into a brief detour of American taxidermy, before moving into fossils of trilobites and ancient jawless fish, then samples of sedimentary rock. It was there that we stopped, before a massive fragment of limestone in an alcove. “This is what I want to be when I grow up,” he said, the smirk fast becoming a grin.
I asked him what he was getting on about. He replied: “Well, I think that you and I are the same kind of stone. If we think of the tides of humanity, moving to and fro, then there are flows and fronts of people. And I understand that, in the end, my whole identity is more than a bit superficial. I won’t erect monuments. I won’t write an epic. And with the exception of those works of stone and song, not a blessed thing remains of most cultures besides the inevitable mineralization of their bones. The living are but a facade upon the dead.”
We talked further, but it was a slow-speech; more of feeling than content. These were things that he told me, or that I told him. The question of which one of us was which is complex now. I will use the pronoun “I,” for simplicity’s sake from now on, but it is worth noting that this is where, in the narrative, that I began to calcify. Memory has taken on a different character, or rather, it increasingly lacks character altogether.
There were days as a child when I attempted to dig holes to China. I’m not sure if the sector of the US where I lived was actually positioned properly against China, but we’d read the phrase in children’s book. My sister, myself, and our requisite neighborhood friends would stand around, swapping turns with a spade and drinking Coca-Cola in the back yard, until we reached the cold cement our yard was built over. That manmade strata sticks in my memory, the human pavement on top of soil or swamp or clay, whatever this city was built atop.
When my grandfather died, he was dressed in a suit with a clerical shirt, and laid in a coffin of steel and oak, the lid shut tight, before being lowered beneath the green grass. And all I could think was that he was trapped in there. It wasn’t some sort of New Age thing, I wasn’t ever that style of young professional. It was my economist’s brain. I wanted him to be used; what else was he for?
And there was a man named Baldassare Forestiere, a New Yorker of Sicilian extraction, who headed west to ply his trade as a citrus farmer. Yet his luck was poor, the plot of land he purchased contained a layer of hardpan, not unlike the pavement under my old backyard, that would so terribly interrupt the roots of his trees. But instead of giving up, he dug into the earth, buried himself, and built a network of tunnels and skylights, with trees growing up into the light in wells from six feet under.
A week after the limestone, we gathered a sedan full of Jacob’s college friends and drove to these underground gardens. We saw a life in the tunnels, looking at his bedroom, his bath. Forestiere’s life below looked comfortable. The docent was informative, but seemed to misinterpret the gravity of the situation.
Paper and canvas degrade. Music, no matter how much Marconi had hoped otherwise, fades faster. Figurative sculpture is eroded by acid rain. It was not as though we wanted to find a signal that could be understood: we are not artists, scientists or theologians. Instead we are selfish. We want a signal that must endure. We want something that will be buried under the erosion, the sediment its safe-keeping armor. We do not care about witnesses, only permanence.
We went on other trips as we increased our numbers, the La Brea Tar Pits, DeMille’s lost city of plaster Egypt, unexcavateable in frangibility. We were clear about the souls that we wanted: the same parameters of similarity that Jacob and I shared. We recorded their names, but we have now tactfully lost the record. Symbolic communication must be secondary to our own methods.
One pilgrimage sticks out: a random jaunt to LACMA where we found a sculpture that consisted of a great trench dug into the earth, a boulder suspended above it.
There was a man named Michael Heizer who made that boulder-thing, and who made other things too. He cut a right angle into the earth, called Double Negative, and then let that cut erode. Interesting, but not the most intriguing. It was his magnum opus that became central to our aspirations. He began City in 1972. It has been inaccessible in its desert home for the subsequent five-odd decades. He died, nine years ago, and construction continued after his death, according to his plan. The work consists of a series of complexes, formed of stone, earth, and concrete. Its design is all 45 degree angles and dark grandeur: ziggurats for the industrialist, minimal Technochitlan before burial under the Distrito Federal. Round ‘87, when the feds were proposing the Yucca Mountain nuclear dump, they suggested building a railroad line across City’s valley. Heizer considered burying it, as it would come into visual range. And all I could think, when I read that, was the introduction of City to the processes of the mineral world even as it left the sight of man. The thing cost roughly twenty-five million, and stretched over a mile in width. Its effects are comparable to those of true cities, when the organic has rotted and only stone and metal remain. It would still be there, a performance for the igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary.
Heizer has been dead for years, and his city remains unfinished. We hired a few investigators to dig dirt. The traditional combination of blackmail and bribery was enough to score us an in with the successors. We twelve are to be laid out in thirty-six feet of horizontal monolith. The concrete is to be unreinforced, and thus unlikely to rupture from rust. We are to commit to our decision with a combination of sodium thiopental and potassium chloride. We have forgone the saline and the pancuronium bromide of good Dr. Jack’s recipe for expedience’s sake. The concrete will be poured in the morning. This is a sacrifice to ourselves, not to the Smoking Mirror or posterity.
I am ahead of schedule. I look back, at the interstate, itself perhaps the greatest single interruption of the geologic. We will rest beneath a long tomorrow. I know I will be in good hands. I feel foolish for anthropomorphizing something far kinder, yet more indifferent.