Some people don’t know what needs to be done. Perhaps they can’t sense what needs to be done. Montaigne says that it is only through the senses that we know. Such people who don’t sense what needs to be done don’t do the thing that needs doing and avoid knowing about it. There are others who know what needs to be done, always know. They sense the needing, such as the dirty metal ring staining the wood floor that the base of the old pole lamp has made over time until one day, though previously unseen, the etching of metal on wood is visible. As if carved. Greasy, even. Though it’s not. It’s solid. If it were greasy, well. The viewer of this ring, reclining in a recliner some five feet away, gets up and repositions the old pole lamp so that it once again covers its own orbit. The viewer is just too tired to make a fuss; and besides, he rationalizes, who cares, I’m old, I’m busy, I’m young, I have better things to do. One who sees clearly could be deemed responsible for remedying the situation, the needing that something should be done to remove the dirty metal ring from the wood floor and prevent the base of the lamp from carving further scars on the living wood. After all, rust never dies, just goes deeper. Living wood, haven’t you heard the floorboards speak, the entire frame speak at night? But, and after imagining several possible solutions or not, probably not, the reclining one takes the nap he had started before interrupted by the unsightly circle eating into the pale oak floor.
Faced with such knowledge, other people know what needs to be done, imagine it, and do it. Their first attempts may fail. He thought he could simply spray a cleaning solvent on the floor to eliminate the grease. However, the stain is not grease. The second attempt is floor polish. He rubs it in well. But the stain does not disappear. Then he cuts out a circle of carpet pad from a nearby rug and places it under the lamp base. This he is sure will prevent the stain from spreading. However, he is in a hurry, his thoughts have already leapt beyond his perceptions, he takes no measurements of the carpet pad, just cuts out a jagged circle smaller than the diameter. When he places the scrappy pad under the lamp base it wobbles. He makes a mental note to do it again more carefully, with exact measurements. But he doesn’t. He forgets. Time passes. Seasons change. He moves to Portland
or Sweden to throw pots.
Another member of the family, or occupant of the household (whose precise roles shall remain unnamed for anonymity, to avoid stereotypic gender assumptions), notices the circle made by the lamp. Didn’t M buy that for $15, so long ago, at a flea market or garage sale in the last century, when such events offered the contents of a garage or grandmother’s castoffs collecting nothing but dust and spiders in an unventilated attic, or the recently acquired products of a journey to a country that produced tribal textiles, basketry, beadwork, etc. At the very least, the material remains of a marriage the former wife of which sits on a folding chair next to her youngest child who beckons other children his age to visit his collection of miniature action heroes. “Two for $5,” he says shyly, to the first looker.
This member of the family or the household endowed with historical memory unplugs their earphones, whips out their self-retracting tape measure, and measures the diameter of the stain. My Business is Circumference, they recall with a smile, and note the dimension. The next day they visit a hardware emporium. Such places, with names like Passed Time, Time on My Side, Kingfisher, Do It Best, Bricorama, carry everything one can imagine for home improvement, which, in a country of dreams, is practically self-improvement. They ask for a piece of felt cut to a specific size. A clerk behind the counter cheerfully inquires as to the “color of the felt.” “It doesn’t matter,” they—the person who knows what needs to be done—reply. “What sort of glue do you recommend for adhering felt to ah . . . .old metal?” The cheerful clerk senses hesitation, knows it through her senses of course. “Brass?” she offers. “Oh yes, that’s it, or it’s pot metal that looks like old brass.” The clerk leads the person who knows what needs to be done to the appropriate aisle of the store, embarks upon an explanation of glues, which stick to what and for how long, the price of each, and though the person who knows what needs to be done—this has become a bulky assignation we could acronym to TPWKWNTBD, which hasn’t a single vowel and seems impossible to pronounce, not unlike the Hebrew alphabet, which also relies strictly on consonants, so we’d better shorten it to TPW, perhaps a bit corporate, something one would notice on the side of a truck in traffic, akin to the menacing CVS or KGB or PMS—enjoys details and specifics, is tiring of glues, though finds the expertise and bright visage of the clerk suddenly enchanting.
They both blurt out nearly simultaneously a similar thought: Why don’t you/I bring in the lamp! TPW knows by now that the lamp is brass but wants to 1) get the job done right? 2) see the cheerful clerk again? Who knows and who cares about this part! TPW rushes home, etc. The lamp is brass of course, and so TPW returns to the hardware emporium to purchase both the perfectly cut circle of felt and the appropriate glue. Whatever happens next is collateral, and though may well be the story that begins the rest of two lives—that has nothing or everything to do with the simple observation which began this rumination. We can establish, however, a “bond” between TPW and the job they set out to accomplish. We’re done now.
One transgression against the self may beget another. This is evident in persons on strict diets who take a second piece of cake then a third, deceiving only themselves. She threw the book into the recycle, she said, for its own good. Of course I’m against censorship, she insisted, but this piece of shit was remaindered and anyway, it was a galley proof. The late author was a famous experimentalist but these narratives were the awful mean-spirited dregs of his late life, good for nothing but the dump. He said nasty things about the physiognomy of old people. He reviled the few friends he had left. However, the guilt of throwing away a book nagged at her. It burns me, she said, that the book was even published. She had no such guilt about another book on gems and precious stones which arrived in her mailbox without her having ordered it. It was nothing she was interested in, so she put it in the bathroom where it sat for years, along with 501 Slovokian Verbs, until she finally dumped both into the recycle.
When she was a child, her father taught her never to desecrate books, never to write in them, fold their pages down, break their spines—all of which she began to do once in the world on her own. First it began with pencil—checking off certain passages, even underlining them. Then as the prohibition gradually lessened in her she took up the pen and would bracket sections. In the 1950s, during the “Red Scare,” her mother, not a recipient of the same training, found a box of “Communist” books in the garage just after they’d moved into a new house. She ripped them apart and put them into the incinerator, only to be severely chastised by her husband who came from a long line of Torah scholars most of whom had died in the Holocaust. A book is a holy thing, her sad father muttered, watching the bonfire. It was the first time she ever heard him use the word holy, as he was not just a secularist but given his history, he had no use for god.
When she initially began to read what she eventually trashed, this writer had high hopes for the book and thought it might give her ideas. But the only idea that she had was to get rid of it. First she tried to leave it in a restaurant, but the waitress came running after her. Then she tried to find a trash receptacle and there was none in sight. The one thought in her mind was that no one else would or should read this book because they might get the idea that its lack of merit was ‘experimental.’ Au contraire, it was lousy writing. After all, she told me, we know good writing from bad, don’t we? The back cover said that the author worked on it until his death but she joked that it must have killed him when he finished the last word. Crossing the street against a red light with the book in her hand, she said, nearly killed her.
She was determined to rid herself of this book not just because it repulsed her. Ultimately, she felt that it tarnished the reputation of an otherwise interesting writer, and if she could, she would buy up all the copies of this now-out-of-print abomination and throw them into the recycle too.
And yet, she confided, if it was so easy to throw away something an artist had put himself into, might it not start a habit? Might she not get rid of the dreadful painting that depicted a scene out of Things Fall Apart, a black man hanging, which a student gave her in lieu of a final paper? Or the imposing portrait of an artichoke fifty times the size of the real thing as a wedding present that arrived in the mail fully framed? Would such actions precipitate a clean up of all the books and artworks and odds and ends that no longer held meaning for her, even offended her sensibility? Would she accelerate her desire to rid the world of bad writing? Would she actively seek out other books like the vigilante “book ripper” of Herne Bay, England, who targets books in a store whose proceeds go to charity, books out of sight of the cash register, particularly in the true crime section, who rips their pages in half and puts them back on the shelves? Was destroying what one deemed a bad text the gateway to further moral lapses? A future of dangerous infidelities to one’s soul? After all, it had to start somewhere.
Gloria Frym lives in Berkeley. Her most recent book is The True Patriot, a collection of proses, from Spuyten Duyvil. She is the author of short story collections, Distance No Object (City Lights Books) and How I Learned (Coffee House Press), as well as many volumes of poetry. She is professor in the Graduate Writing Program and the Writing & Literature Program at California College of the Arts.