Deposition of a Paperback Beating
by Blake Butler
It was around 5:00 PM on Tuesday, October 1, 1996 that I saw the old man and I have to say, I despised him right off the bat. I'd been out all afternoon, just walking around the city, browsing around in a shop here or there, and I guess I was more than your average sort of tired, not having slept the last three nights in a row even after two bottles of Nyquil before bed, a couple Sominex, some drinks. When I found him he was just standing there on the intersection of Eleventh and Thatch, waiting at the edge of the moderately heavy traffic so that he could cross from one corner to another, afraid to step out even when the green outline of the walking person blipped on and everyone else around him went on. I couldn't take it.
He had on a plaid shirt of raunchy blue and green that in no way made a match with the corduroy pants hanging on his waist. The pants were held up by a aqua-marine fanny-pack, the color of which matched exactly with his inch-thick eyeglasses and the tiny skull cap that sat on the peak of his head, not remotely hiding a bald spot that'd consumed his entire scalp save for a small wreath of white plumage.
I don't even know exactly what it was that made me do it. Something about the way he stood there, unable to operate, a wart on fashion's eye, made the back of my neck burn. I couldn't help but feel this wringing grip in my gut, like a fist had suddenly burrowed up there, grinding its knuckles into my organs. An urge washed over my body that told me to go sock him in the gut, to run him through like a linebacker. My initial reaction, however, was not to move. I froze mid-stride and stood there watching him wait, his eyes darting back and forth across the sea of cars like a hungry bird's.
Next thing I knew I was moving towards the man at full throttle, dodging bystanders and passersby on sheer animal instinct. I reacted to the bodies in my path before I even had a chance to register them visually; I was Herculean, Olympic, majestic even. I hurdled a toddler in red overalls that waddled out in front of me from nowhere (his mother not noticing a thing, her eyes fixed on a dress in a boutique window) leapfrogging over him so that my crotch swooshed past inches away from his skull.
As I continued on time seemed to slow down; I watched my body move in grotesque synchronicity with its surroundings, inching closer and closer to the old man, completely unaware of my approach.
Then, with about seven feet left between the two of us, I realized what was going to happen: I was going to beat this old man to death. Right here, in the middle of broad daylight, for no better reason than that I could, and that he had no ability to fend me off. As soon as I made this realization I knew that there was no stopping it, that our fates, the old man's and mine, were sealed beyond revision. I was a passenger in my biology, invariably willed into what future had been fused into my bones before my mother's water ever dripped out along her thighs.
At this moment, with our distance growing shorter minute by drawn-out minute, I had to make a decision. On my person I happened to be carrying two paperback books, a short collection of cartoons from the popular Family Circus series called Wanna Be Smiled At? and Nausea, a volume I'd only bought because the simplicity of the title appealed to me. I'd just come from a used book store where I picked up both items at the remarkable bargain of 99 cents apiece, just for something to thumb through while sitting on the toilet. Now one of them was going to become my weapon.
To use the Family Circus book for this beating, I thought, to inexplicably pummel an old man with an anthology of light-hearted American comics celebrating the oblivious wit of children, would go down in history as a definitive example of postmodern neurosis. But I didn't necessarily want my act, my destruction of a defenseless elderly gent, who'd probably done more for the community that I could even in ten-thousand lifetimes, to be plagued with those repercussions. So I decided that perhaps I should hit him with both of the books together, and not commit to the subconscious motivations that could be associated with either one; that would make a much more viable bludgeon anyhow.
By now a couple of bystanders had taken notice of my sprint along the street, and were glaring at me as if I'd grown antlers, or was covered in toothpaste, or something equally obscene. I ignored them and honed in on my target, focusing my distaste for him: for the way his shirt just barely toed the line of unkemptness, billowing out at the back of his pants as if carefully trying to untuck itself; the way his lips moved in subtle ripples, not from talking under his breath, but from the general discomfort of being forced together for so many years; the tiny fidget-like motion he exhibited again and again of his foot beginning a step into the street only to meet with hesitation and pull back, never so bold as to either defiantly step into traffic or to accept his grounded status on the sidewalk.
His every solitary subtle mannerism made me want to rip my skin off and forge a tent out of it. I couldn't stand that he existed, that he represented what I would become, what we would all become, as time wore us down from the young, bold bodies that we all begin with into something frail, perpetually frightened. To finish him off would be to do us all a favor, I decided. I'd be commended on the spot, sequestered for Prime Time interviews as his pudgy wrinkled corpse still clung to its last warmth at my feet. The idea became more than I realized at first. It wasn't just a personal act anymore, it was imperative.
I was almost on him then, a matter of roughly eighteen inches separating his back from my right arm. Over the course of the last few steps I'd drawn my fist back into a cocked position, like a pitcher winding up, with the coupled paperbacks in place of a baseball. I could envision what was coming: First I'd pummel him about the neck with a flurry of jabs, aiming for the jugular and other defined veins in his overly populated neck. From there I'd move briefly up to blind him with a few well-aimed whacks to the eyes and nose, hopefully filling his senses with a flush of blood and the need to sneeze, so that when I went down for the real strike- right at the fleshy area above his heart- he'd be rendered even more impotent than he already was. I had to act fast though; even in this sluggish momentum I knew I'd only have a short time before some nearby do-gooders would try to restrain me. Best to go for the soft spots immediately, before anyone had a chance to register what was happening, and hope that if nothing else, he'd have a cardiac arrest out of shock alone.
So there I was: in motion, paperbacks a-swinging, consumed by my moment of glory. I could feel the borders of my eyelids stretch, yearning for more radiance and intake, to clog my arteries with vision. The man had still barely moved a muscle from the position I'd first seen him in; he was paying absolutely no attention as my arm came swooping down at his back, the paperbacks throbbing in anticipation. It was too perfect, it was like ten-thousands birthdays and orgasms at once, like vomiting money, like eruption, like, like...
Okay. Focus. This is where it gets complicated.
Let me tell you. Then, it was like this: ______.
_____ is a problem, at least as far as me explaining exactly what happened next. _____ can only be defined in segments, in the order it was experienced. There was Image (that being what flashed inside my head); Vision (that being, like, sudden implanted revelations of impending futures); and Action (what I guess was REALLY happening).
The first Image came upon me out of nowhere, as if I'd been struck to the forehead with a pumpkin: I saw cellophane-wrapped packages of bright blue ground beef, arranged in rows on a neon supermarket aisle that seemed to continue on forever.
Next, and just as suddenly as the first Image, I had a Vision: The little boy I'd leapfrogged (and who on closer inspection greatly resembled the Family Circus character Jeffy) was being placed inside a small translucent refrigerator. Once there, he stood motionless, sealed in, waiting for nothing to happen.
Back in my body, I witnessed Action: The old man's precious hip-pack, struck loose by an errant blow to the waist, fell off into the street, and was skidded over by a passing Daihatsu, so that it upchucked its innards to the world: a tin of miniature band-aids, a half-eaten package of raisins and salted cashews, dental floss, a small ceramic monkey beating a snare drum.
Return to Image: The cellophane encasing the meat begins to inflate, bulging up from the meat and pressing against the packages on each side of it, growing like synthetic kernels of disgusting popcorn.
Action: I'm pummeling the back of the man's head so hard with my paperbacks that his gruesome saliva-lined dentures come popping out of his mouth, like a twenty-five cent novelty machine delivering a gumball, and fall open on the sidewalk beside us, ready to eat the sky.
Vision: Jeffy's refrigeration unit begins to fill with a thick, slow goop, colored pink like liquid cotton candy. Jeffy remains impassive.
Image: The packages have swelled so densely now that they consume the entire grocery aisle with their bloated space, the meat inside likewise expanding to fill the new volume. The plasticized air vibrates crisply, plump, like boiling rice; everything is energy.
Action: His sagging cheek skin bruised blue; paper cuts along his Adam's apple with the edges of the books; the spasm of silent weeping.
From here, either out of necessity or accidental collusion, the implanted images fuse with my prophetic vision to become Aspiration: I realize that Jeffy was not in fact enclosed in a clear refrigerator at all; instead he was transfixed inside the interlocking cellophane balloons, held there like an insect in amber, smothered but calm, expectant. On top of that, I realize that Jeffy isn't Jeffy at all: he's me.
Action: Having forgone the paperbacks in favor of fists, I shake the man, slapping him against the sidewalk by fistfuls of white hair. Numerous pairs of hands are on me now, struggling to pull me off, but I'm strong beyond their power; they have nothing.
This is my perpetual act.
Aspiration: The weight of the meat balloons on Jeffy's (my) body is so great now that he's (I'm) being compressed, his (my) face visible to me through a hole, smudged into disfigurement like he's (I'm) up against a window. He (I) still reveals no emotion, is infinitely placid. I realize now that this situation, this supermarket aisle existing somewhere in time, is about to reach critical mass.
Every motion has a purpose; explicit and implicit.
The man rolls over to reveal that his face looks like its been run through a blender. Seeing it, I wonder how I accomplished so much with just a meager pair of paperbacks. I also wonder why I hadn't noticed up until this point that the man looks remarkably like my father (me).
Man embodies himself to the public through action; to himself through rationale.
Aspiration: The pressure has swollen now to the edge of containment. With the explosion, aquamarine-tinted meat explodes over everything, obliterating the aisle, the supermarket, the strip mall in which it sits, the fuse box of streets and interstates surrounding, the city, the continent, the globe. Jeffy (I) too, of course, is (am) disseminated.
So ends the _____, and so ends my fragmentation.
I come out enmeshed in a sea of foreign arms, two wrapped up through my armpits so that my hands are strapped against my buttocks; five hands lock my head straight so that I can not turn it. Connected to these hands is a diorama of shocked faces, my audience, their nostrils agape, eyes likewise. Behind them I see another group of heads and arms helping the old man to his feet, collecting his belongings; someone's on a cell phone talking to the police.
I believe I've been misunderstood. These people can't realize the gravity of the situation; the overwhelming importance of the work they're interrupting. If only I could explain, they'd surely let me go and drop the man back into his position on the sidewalk. To leave this undone is idiotic, dangerous; surely they could see that.
Surely they'd know that I'm nowhere further than him or you or I.
Surely they'll agree that one can smell the presence of God before he reels you back in.
I'm confident that soon you'll all understand.