Jonathan Callahan

Notes from a Burning Underground (Part III)

Notes from a Burning Underground is a novella published in three parts.

Part I was originally published in Keyhole 11 and is available as PDF here.
Part II can be read at Used Furniture Review.


These are terrible times, I said.

But why shouldn’t they be? Of course these are terrible times! Every time is a terror. Time is a terrible thing. Look around us, I said, literally surveying the dusky lecture hall: Not a soul worth taking seriously, no one worthy of our close attention, let alone faith. How should we live? What a question! A joke! Nothing is worthy of us, and we know it—but what does this knowledge gain us at this stage? Nothing! I shouted, reverberations of my powerful voice’s powerfully asserted nil seeming to cascade from the ceiling with the flecks of peeling paint.
What, do you want to be like me? Of course you don’t want to be like me! I don’t blame you—I fondled the handle of my firearm concealed beneath my vest (I was also wearing a vest), chortling briefly—Though for equity’s sake, I should perhaps point out that I have no interest in being like you; my friends, I announced, This morning you are my hostages!

We waited in silence for some time before I went on:

Well, what do you think you want? You have no idea, none, save for the ideas all hideously presupplied: Now, for instance, you may yearn for a gambol over sun-dappled fields, your limbs loose, blood running free, you want out of this cavernous hall, out of your silly black cloaks, your annoying writing tablets, away from me . . .—you’re young, I assume you enjoy the feel of a slim naked body; perhaps one day it will be the sturdy give between legs of a large soft behind—preferences shift, my friends, you’ll see . . . but leaving such quibbles aside, I can guess what you want right now, what you’d like to have tomorrow . . . but what do you want to be?

I began now to pace, sweat pushed up buds on my brow, blossomed under my arms, a saline rivulet streamed down one cheek, I went on:

But look at me! I demanded, leaping down from the dais: I once dreamed of measureless fame: Do you believe it? And not only for my sake! I wanted to give to the people, I wanted to believe I had something to give—great things, generosity to a people so desperate they’d be unable to measure the vastness of their need until it was met by the sheer immensity of my gift! I wanted to give the people what they could only be given by me.

I paused. And in return? What would I ask? I’d require nothing, my gift is a gift, freely given. But wouldn’t you, given such a gift, overwhelmed with sheer gratitude, joy, feel compelled to return to me a portion of your only meaningful possession, the one thing you have always held back, your love?

Yes, I want what you want. You’re like me, we want the impossible . . . but let’s discuss it! No more smirking silence! Do we dare consider our quandary as something other than a joke we’ve grown sick of hearing told? We dare! I’m going to show you fear, my friends, I said, lifting my chin, retreating slowly to my station behind the rostrum. I patted the bulge in my pocket and grinned. It’s a gun, I whispered, throwing back my head and pumping my fist in the air, But don’t be afraid! I don’t want to hurt you, I don’t want to hurt anyone, I want what you want, the very same, though you don’t know it! Hurt’s opposite, I want union, communion, peace, I want . . . we should dance, I suggested, as a waltz in a minor key seemed to float from the indeterminate darkness above or around and I was half-aware that I stood in a thin cone of sourceless warm light. I bowed my head. But, listen, please listen, I urged, and went on:

Let us imagine, for a rather charitable moment, that you, too, my students, my friends, want what I want and you know that you want it. We want this impossibility, we want to take nothing, we want only to give—and be given—love. (There is no other word!) Well, in this case we’ll want to harm as little as possible, won’t we? If I want only love from you, surely it must be expected that I will refrain from compounding your pain. Do no harm! Give; ask nothing. A simple code! Go forth and do likewise! Class adjourned! . . . .

Except the instant I am resolved to actually live by this code I run into, oh, a few problems, don’t I?

If my only valid pursuit is to avoid harming anyone else, as I, too, would prefer not to be harmed, then the only right lies in eschewing of wrong, right action is perfect restraint, courage is a negative courage, negation, in deciding what I must not allow myself to do—for your sake! Courage eliminates the infliction of pain. Crosses off choices of action that violate my sole guiding tenet, the heart of my living doctrine—and, again, the position seems unassailable, doesn’t it? Sipping from a bottle of water, I rubbed the shaft of the pistol at my thigh.

But won’t I, once in a while, get hungry?

Won’t you?

Suppose we are hungry together. At the same table! Quick grace: Thanks, God, get this over with, okay: Let’s eat! And if our appetites happen to meet neatly in the middle, we break bread together, the perfect opportunity to live the love we crave and seek to give: Yes, join me over this loaf! Here’s my half, Brother, and here’s yours! Let us both have our portion and partake together: Delicious! The best bread I’ve had in—well I can’t even say how long! By god this is the greatest bread ever baked! Though quite filling, wouldn’t you say? Oh yes, stuffed, absolutely, couldn’t eat another bite, certainly not that last slice sitting there that neither of us has any desire to so much as look at, let alone touch, No, me neither! Let’s leave it for the poor! Yes, of course, we’ll leave it for the poor! Whose plight never ceases to give me great pangs of sorrow (but never pity! No one deserves to be pitied!) See you tomorrow morning, friend, Yes, absolutely, perhaps—just floating out the possibility, entirely up to you—but perhaps do this again with some morning, but with butter? Butter! Yes! Then it’s butter that we’ll have!

Only what if we reach that last measly bit of loaf, just a single slice, and both of us could stand to eat a little more? —You go ahead really, I’ve been trying to fit into these pants for months—which, by the way, you can absolutely borrow if you ever need pants—aware that one of us will lose the last slice, one of us will have to have a little less than he’d like (leave aside the likelihood that either of us might have been hungry enough to eat the whole loaf himself) and since I’ve committed to a certain self-abnegating way of life, a noble generosity, since I just can’t bear to cause other folks pain, I naturally know it’s going to need to be me who leaves unsatisfied . . . but why does it have to be me? Will I always be hungry, then? Is this how I’ve chosen to live? But what are my choices:

Become a kind of peasant by choice, locked outside the world of motion and noise, not even looking in through the glass, since to look would be to covet and I want only not to want what my taking might deprive some other wanter of, cause him pain?

On the train, an epic trainride at rush hour, say, a packed passenger car, and I’m exhausted from work—assume I’m a man who does exhausting work—meanwhile a book I’d like to read, a rich unwieldy fat hardcover, practically impossible to balance in one hand while surfing the aging rail’s shuddering dips and crests—how obnoxious! when all I’d wanted to do was unwind . . . suddenly the young lady enjoying the seat directly before me snaps her briefcase shut, smoothes her skirt, prepares to disembark, rises, and a seat has opened up—a single one, the only gap in the humanity and I have the inside track, but: Please, Sir, I say to the unfriendly-looking chap eying it from beside me: take it. I prefer to stand. You sit down, catch up on your reading (sports page); I can occupy myself with careful character studies of our grizzled fellow-travelers, and if I grow bored there’s always a little studied self-pity.

How about the tennis court? I ought to let you take each match.

We’re vying for that one promotion? (I don’t need the money, but boy would it be nice!)—here, Friend, let me take my name out of the hat!

Oh, you love the woman who’s been spending her nights in my dreams, some of which, I’ll admit, have been, well, pushing the envelope of porn? Please: pursue! God grant you interesting stories to tell and grace in your time with her folks.

I can’t live like this, I roared, eructative spittle shooting from my lips. And why should I?

So it’s between us, is it? This loaf we’re meant to share? So it’s the whole loaf then? Let me explain something to you: I’m taking the whole fucking loaf—as well as every other loaf I can get my hands on! All loaves, by nature of their very loafness, are mine! I’m going to gather up loaves with ruthlessness, cunning, an eye peeled for possible loaves in all situations, no loaf will escape me, I’ll set aside a whole room of my house—in fact I’ll build a new house, a sprawling estate, one whole wing of which I will designate the Tower of Loaf, stuff it with loaf upon loaf that I’ve taken from every plate I was asked to share, glut myself with fresh bread, stale bread, rye, whole wheat, challah, ciabatta, pumpernickel—I hate pumpernickel, in fact I don’t even like bread, that most vapid repast—but I’m not letting you have the loaf that ought to be mine: not a crumb! You want this? Come and take it, I’ll protect what’s mine to the death, and if you don’t teach yourself to do the same I’m coming to ransack your cupboard, your refrigerator if you don’t have a cupboard or fridge, then your pantry, and also your living room—I like this painting, this TV, these rugs; nice sofa, I’ll take it, I’m eating everything in sight, Friend, look out your window: I’ve polished off the red Porsche you had parked out front, now step away from the window, I could go for some glass, ah, excellent, lovely crunch; however I’m still hungry, never full, not remotely, I’m here to eat everything in your house, including your children, your wife, including your actual house, hand it all over if you value your life . . . yes, if you want to go on believing that bread falls from the clouds then you can expect to lead quite a destitute life, a pretty poor life, not much of a “life” at all, Pal. . . .

I stepped back from the podium, raised a hand to stifle objections, though none appeared to be forthcoming.

But wait, you say: this isn’t life as it’s actually lived, this hyperbolic dichotomy I’ve enthusiastically hashed out. Does it really have to be either/or? Put the matter in such ridiculous terms and of course the whole thing will seem horrible, an absurd, hilarious horror; but life—real life—is messy, imprecise, you object, I suggested, though no one did so aloud: life is relentless, never resolves according to the narrow propositions we’ve laid out for it. . . . To describe, to map out, is to reduce. And any reduction can be manipulated to serve the manipulator’s needs.

Absolutely right! I roared, swatting my water bottle aside, an arc exploding with a splatter on the invisible cement an instant next. But listen, you Sophists, you wily little fools: The point stands! The point stands! As a beam of light is supposed to consist of an endless stream of minute particles of sub-light (or has this actually been proven? I have never bothered to keep abreast of the so-called hard science), so your supposed “mess” —that last bastion of self-serving lies—may be reduced to its constituent bits: the relentless mess of human intercourse, the anarchic flow, is an infinite chain of intersecting wants. I want what you want. You want what I want. I want a portion of what you’d like to keep entirely to yourself. You want me out of this house I’d like to go on living in. Off my property, Asshole. No! Then it’s pistols, at dawn. Or we’ll bring our dispute before the Law (the civil courts). Well but this is mine! My houseboat. My husband. My investment portfolio. My golden lab. My insurance policy. My wife. My spot at the bar. My best friend. My career. My moment in the sun. My last slice of pie. My favorite student. My Corvette. My unique psychological case. My relationship with God. My collection of stamps. My cigarette. My back-alley deal. My side-interest in metaphysics. My treatise. My tenure. My publishing deal. My backyard. My passionate activism. My triumph. My name in lights. My butter. My bread (as we’ve already discussed). My song. My favorite book. My painful bereavement. My misunderstood son. My understanding. My fear. My hunger. My life.

But I want my taxes cut. I want a government subsidy. And I also want your wife. We’d both like to fill that open position, we’re both eminently qualified who gets it? I want my kid to kick the shit out of your kid next time your boy calls him “cat-cunt” . . . It’s I or you, you, me, us them . . . you disagree??

A hint of topaz light began to filter through the hall’s high fenestration. I let the last anapest come back to me in diminishing waves.

Now listen to me, I said. Listen to me, I repeated, my voice soaring to stentorian heights: Listen to me. There is a third path. I declined to include it until now, because unlike the other two paths, this one leads nowhere. Certainly the others won’t take you anywhere particularly deserving of the visit, but you will chase a trail of action, choices and consequences, and wind up on the other side. Not so with Path Three. Certainly, by some bit of deceptive parallax, it may afford its sojourner an authentic-seeming sense of movement: toward/away, to/from . . . well but enough with insipid analogies:

Here is your third way, Students, Friends (my voice rocketing out over the empty seats). You commit to the sacred principle: I intend to do no harm! you announce to yourself, a bit smugly, perhaps—but you’re essentially taking the tonsure here! You’re taking an oath before everyone: You’re going to do no harm—or, okay, let’s be realistic here, as little as possible; you commit yourself to live the right way, walk in the light—

meanwhile for the most part you do whatever you want to do. Or as much of it as you can get away with, resolving the tension between professed belief and actual behavior with your most well-honed skill, yes, man’s greatest miracle: your perfected capacity for self-deceit!

“Look, I’m not really hurting him, he didn’t really want that last bit of bread anyway. Truth be told, he’s the one who could stand to drop a pound or two. I’m helping him out here, it’s for his own good. Besides, this is one of the blander loaves either of us could remember having suffered through in some time. I’d actually go so far as to call it disgusting, an absolute insult to taste. Just to be one-hundred percent honest here, I’m actually doing him a favor, unbidden, taking this last loaf off of his hands. I’m the good guy here, he’ll thank me for it one day. Or he would, if he weren’t such a thankless fuck. If he knew how to think with anything other than his stomach, which he clearly does not, the poor fat little guy. Which is another reason I ought to have the last slice. Maybe one day he’ll learn. On the other hand, he may not: in which case it serves him right, frankly—there are way too many of these people in the world, every asshole out for himself, nobody willing to stop just once and think about the other guy. Is that too much to ask? The days of chivalry are over, my friends. When knights roamed the earth. I may well be the last person on the planet with what in more innocent times was termed a “conscience.” And he probably thinks I’m eating this last slice for myself! For the same reasons he’d have been eating it if I’d been the kind of man to give someone whatever he thinks he wants whenever he happens to want it—an enabler, is what that is, I’ve read the relevant literature, apparently exactly what he’s thinking, look at those spit-glistening lips: horrible, appalling. I’m not even enjoying this bread, incidentally. Somehow it’s gone staler yet, if you can believe it, sitting here on the plate all this time. Fish or cut bait, is how I like to think of it. Not that I necessarily fish, or think there’s anything wrong with thinking things through when the situation calls for it, but sometimes what’s needed is action, and even though this is one of the worst slices of bread I can ever remember suffering through on anyone’s behalf, bar none, we could have stood there dithering and passing the plate back and forth all night, someone needed to step up. Fact is, I was still hungry, and he said he wasn’t: god helps those who help themselves. I had to take him at his word—what’s a man good for if you can’t take him at his word?—so if he’s having second thoughts now it really isn’t my problem, especially since this isn’t exactly the world’s greatest bread, as I’ve already pointed out, and anyway I’m actually still hungry! The whole time we were splitting up the loaf he was keeping the larger slices for himself, incidentally, but what can you do in that sort of situation. I don’t make a big deal out of it when other people pull selfish stunts like that. No need to embarrass anybody, I’ve always felt like that’s the sort of thing that’s best left between a man and his god, so to speak. “God” of course here being shorthand for pretty much whatever it is that a man imagines himself beholden to. Far as I go: well, for me it’s tough, it’s honestly a struggle for a clear-eyed man like me, in the sense that in a godless cosmos it’s just that much tougher to act with any decency and generosity and respect for your fellow man. Sure, it’s easy for a son of god to sacrifice a little, spend a few years in the mud, zip back on up to the kingdom of heaven—but me, I’ve got nothing but my own courage and will to keep me from turning into a monster, which is why I think I’m not out of line in using the word “courage.” Sure, man: it’s fucking courageous for me to hold to my moral code when all around me the wicked are thriving, a thankless, exhausting kind of courage, but a decent man has to hold onto his decency, otherwise what else does he have to hold onto? Granting that we’re all human. You do what you can, you know?  To me, it’s all about how if you’re a good man you’re going to go on walking that righteous path, even if you go your whole life without getting what you deserve,” I roared, pounding my fist on the lectern, scattering my stacked notes, which I no longer needed anyway—

I no longer need these anyway! I announced, hurling the pages that remained in a crumpled wad toward the tiered seats’ first row.

Lies! I hollered.

Slaughter yourself before other men’s needs, bend your knee to an idea (and what a stupid idea!) of doing no harm, or dismiss this moral dithering for what it is: the province of weaklings and holy fools (who often share the same body, I have generally found) and get on with the only other conceivable business of the seventy-odd years you’ve been granted without anyone asking how you felt about the gift: which is to say, getting what you want. Since one thing we happen to be exceptionally good at, we sapiens, is wanting, we’re incredible wanters, you may have noticed: I myself have imagined fucking over forty percent of the students I’ve ever taught, and the number would easily swell to fifty if a portion of you were able to do anything else with your free time but eat, as just one example. . . .

No one spoke.

What you’re talking about still isn’t real life, you say, I said, casually passing the muzzle over various columns and rows, for the first time allowing real menace to creep into my tone. Let me tell you something about real life, I said: real life is life as it is lived by me. Or, I suppose in your case, you. Or her. And c. Real life is a singular, perpetually changing shape, modeled, perhaps on what you imagine you have accurately observed of other people’s real lives; but still, there is only one real life, and it happens to be yours. Or mine. None of you wants to catch yourself telling your lies. Naturally. You are always the lies’ first auditor. You inspect them, weigh them, certify their authenticity, before repackaging them and sending them off to those you are desperate to see similarly persuaded. What I’m saying is that each of you is a blend of Napoleon and Christ (Christ was a blend of Napoleon and Christ, a decidedly Napoleonic blend), when you can afford to be. Only of course you don’t know it. Some of us have more Napoleon than most. I submit the example of . . . but what use are examples?

My friends, I said, vaulting down from the dais: this is the last lecture I intend to deliver, here at this prestigious institute, or anywhere, an intention I have held for some time; knowing as much beforehand, I conceived of this as comprehensive in scope—necessarily scattershot, haphazard, at times willfully oblique, free-associative, you will perhaps call me mad, the word will come to you, perhaps you’ll make a note: he is mad—and yes, I am a torrent: write that down! I don’t see a single pen in motion, I have so much to teach you, I can show you how to live:

But this is bombast! Rodomontade! What can I possibly teach you? Nothing! You want to be taught? Go back to Truck!

I can’t teach you anything; or rather what I can teach I can teach only through counterexample. For instance, here is how not to be:


I had a brother, an Air Force Lieutenant. He was ordered to deploy. It was his turn to take part in our most recent deplorable war. He was . . . well I won’t stoop to such platitudinous nonsense as to call him a good man, but I will say his intentions . . . except I can’t speak to his intentions, don’t know what he wanted, I can say only that within the bounds he claims to have set for himself he acted with integrity and honor (ridiculous words); his actions were largely in concert with his professed beliefs, and how many men can you say that about in all the world? Tom—my brother’s name was “Tom,”—is an engineer, he builds things. What kind of things? I’m not sure—bridges, roads, walls, some sort of infrastructure, is what I’d assume; I’ve frankly never bothered to ask him, because I’ve never cared . . . a constructor, not a destroyer, and if there is a better man’s example with which to refute the claim for universal self-deception I’ve just sketched out for you, my craven students, I have yet to meet him.

My brother wants to do good, my brother loves his fellow women and men; my brother would suffer much on another’s behalf; my brother is stoic where I am weak—(who do you think gave our mother the quiet support she never asked for but needed in the evenings of the months following our father’s slow death? Me??) He is tireless where I am tirelessly committed to bitter protest, the aggrieved cavil, the sour kvetch, the relentless jeremiad: For instance, my brother (my twin) rises well before dawn four days of the week to lead a small battery (or is it a company? a platoon? have I ever bothered to straighten this sort of ambiguity out?) through an unpleasant regimen of strengthening exercises, cardiovascular conditioning, ludicrous Air Force-authorized calisthenics from what I understand, yet he is never discouraged by the understandable lack of enthusiasm among enlisted folk for the grueling unpleasantness he urges them to soldier through not by gruff exhortation alone but by tenacious example: here he is, look, grinningly sprinting out the last lap of another three-mile, hoo-ahing and puffing, a leader of men. I, on the other hand, sleep for as many hours as I can. I have always tailored my semesterly schedules so as to afford myself ample time in the mornings to reacclimate to the task of being alive, nursing the dwindling effects of the last night’s diverse dissipations, intoxications (toxicity! oh, I’ve always been a true enthusiast, a devoted self-polluter: have I described my private binges—alcohol, of course, but also barbiturates, diverse hallucinogens, not to mention strong amphetamines to propel me through the duties associated with my chosen profession—the virtuosic lecture; the heap of terrible student papers—but also just for kicks, MMDA, cocaine? Have I mentioned these, students? Who cares?) and in general declined to teach any course scheduled to meet before noon. This is the first lecture I have ever given before dawn, it will also be the last. And what did I say to this brother of mine, this chisel-chinned young hero with whom I once shared our mother’s womb, then, growing up, a bunk bed (whose loft I always claimed), with what parting words did I leave him on the morning before the evening he was destined to embark for six months in a foreign land, cleaning up the destruction engendered by other men in turn following their own orders to execute a war set in motion by hands too enormous and strong for we peons to so much as glimpse, let alone resist? How did I send this good man off?

—For nearly an hour I declaimed on the gross immorality of our presence in the region, decried the absurd pandering to corporate forces that had led to immeasurable slaughter, carnage, devastation, wreckage he (an engineer!) was being sent abroad to help rebuild. I outlined for him the mechanisms by which soldiers like him were deceived, were pawns in the gnarled hands of hideous men, ogres executing monstrous visions too awful and large for deceived fools (I called him a fool, Class, I sobbed, absently stroking the pistol’s stiff trigger) like him to perceive . . . Oh, I was indignant, I was outraged, I told him I was ashamed of my country, on the morning before he was set to deploy, I told him any thinking man could look at the entirety of our actions in this conflict and see only error, an entire policy to deplore, that any man who took part whatsoever was a monster himself, evil . . . I cut him off when he tried to protest (so lucid! so calm!) that my outrage was too sweeping, theoretical, possibly valid in the abstract, yes, but failing to take into account the genuine integrity, commitment to decency, willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the faceless denizens of countries they’d never set foot in before being ordered to go, solely out of a desire to make things better, do a little good—But what “good” can you possibly do to counterbalance the sheer evil of our entire operation, Tom? I shouted, clenching my fists and theatrically massaging my face. Any “good” you happen to do will be a drop of clear water in the muck, the fathomless muck (these were precisely my words! Monster!) that our entire abominable action in this supposed war has been.

Who told you that? I roared, when he attempted to persuade me that we were acting on behalf of a citizenry that would, thanks to us, be more free? Bromides! self-placating nonsense, I shouted, you’ve let yourself be taken in . . . blanket deception, for god’s sake, do you see how completely you’ve been fooled. They’ve made you their fool, I concluded, leaving him to reflect on the chair beside the piano. This was Easter Sunday . . . We didn’t speak again before the evening he deployed . . . and our conversations over the next month via electronic mail were limited to his description of a grade school his team had both designed and begun the first stages of constructing before the morning I received the news in a tersely-worded email from my mother that Tom’s convoy had been ambushed and shrapnel from the I.E.D. had pierced the left side of his skull, leaving him on the instant dead of course. . . .

—And do you know what really bothered me about the entire sequence of events, my humble studentry, I asked, looking out at the empty desk chairs ascending in tiers, as I leapt back to my post and began pounding the rostrum with my pistol’s butt, splintering the wood, Want to know what I found most upsetting of all that particular morning, as I read through that note in my typical pre-lunchtime daze? Want to know what really got my goat?

I’ll tell you, you, I sneered, leaping onto a steel railing at the edge of the lecture pit, though you don’t deserve to be told: On the morning I received the news, via our mother’s stricken sparse prose, the poor obliterated woman, on that very morning, I had swung my legs from the king-sized satin-sheeted bed I’d purchased at the start of that semester—my last for a very long time!—the gargantuan bed I’d purchased with the idea of bringing a sleek undergraduate or two to bed with me at the first chance, and set my feet down on a patch of sun-toasted parquet and more or less hopped to undertake my morning ablutions, and as it were spring in my step, students, because that very morning I had concluded, decisively! I was ready! sworn to myself that there’d be no more dithering, this was the morning of my death.

The perfect day to die! The sun shone like a fat woman’s face, I had written my mother the obligatory purple note, apologizing less for the course of action I’d chosen than for having been born at all; the usual maudlin list of things one says when trying to console the individuals one is expected if not to love then to feel for with a certain tenderness (and I did feel a pang), I strove to apply myself at the time still considerable powers of rhetoric to the task of persuading her to see the good in my gracious taking leave, and so on and so forth. . . .

But far more critically for a man of such extraordinary physical ineptitude I had furthermore elaborated a practical scheme, I wasn’t merely going to hang myself, I was going to hang myself from a particular ceiling beam—I knew the very beam!—the sturdiness of which I’d already ascertained the last time I’d felt the urge to end things but lacked for practical thoroughness. I am a man plagued with abstraction, it’s the concrete I crave! Too many notions, not enough fact, too many whims, nothing executed, but this time I was secure, I had tested the science of things, I was prepared to complete the one concrete action my life had been building toward since its unimportant inception, I had the means—as I’m sure you are aware, my young friends, the means are everything, you’re nothing without the means—do you know, for example, I once sat through ten torturous minutes grinding my teeth (literally: an awful habit; these teeth you see flashing are at least a third of them fakes) while a certain young fool, a student of mine, poured out for me his most cherished ambitions: he wanted to write great works, to join the literary pantheon—his words, not mine!—he dreamed of great accomplishment in the arts-and-letters sphere, only recently had he come to understand or see this vision of a glorious future self. In fact his calling had come to him very late (he was wearing a hideous brown beret with white pinstripes at which I irresistibly gaped); in fact it was only this semester, the poor boy confided in me, while enrolled in my survey of the American novel after 1980 (a course I’d originally conceived of as a sort of exquisitely masochistic joke, a penance for the preposterous quantity of scotch I’d permitted myself over the previous months, but which I found myself quite enjoying, against my will; I liked the books, the pages, the sentences themselves, do you know the man behind my very favorite took his own life not long thereafter? Hypocritically, this made me very sad), during our distended reading of a one-thousand seventy-eight page incandescence of a novel, which I rather relished assigning as a sort of infinite absurdity, leveling the witless undergraduates with a blistering per-diem page-count, the class already beleaguered by this point . . . but during one of my lectures, which this misguidedly ambitious student accurately recalled as both “brilliant” and “penetrating,”—they were invariably both brilliant and penetrating, of course—my eyes had danced with excitement as I unpacked the soaring passage climaxing at the novel’s numerical center, the virtuosity of my pacing disquisition outstripped only by the linguistic fireworks to which my dazzling show was merely the necessarily impassioned response. I smiled politely at the boy’s blandishments, attempting to deflect the deserved praise, gently teasing out a few choice specific recollections of that memorable performance; but he had not come merely to flatter me; abruptly he came to his confession’s crux: as I’d rhapsodized, lifted up the glorious text and our modest assembly of young literati communed (these continue to be the boy’s own phrasings), he’d understood that this was what he needed to do with his life: Think of it (he began to wax lyrical) nothing man does outlives its moment, and we in our sojourn through time, which, too, is just a string of dissatisfactions, each one too brief to inhabit, yes I grasp, press my fingers to the strings but I’ll never touch the sound, and so on, his focus wandering off into middle distance—but Art is a portal man punches through time, he said, he’d understood when he saw the tears on my face as I whispered the passage’s soaring last sentence that day, this student saw that I had been touched, a union had been forged, a submerged part of me had invisibly merged with the essence of another, two souls swirling for an instant outside of the confines of bodies decaying toward death, and c., and he’d seen the beauty, this boy confessed, as the light had come streaming through the windows at the instant, the very instant my voice had broken and I’d had to stifle a tender sob (he admitted this image was perhaps a hindsight-appended embellishment or flourish), he’d seen the radiance suffuse me, and he’d understood that he too had to generate that light, to be its source for someone else, he wanted to give away the light. . . . He wanted me to help him, so that one day he might give away the light, wanted me to point him toward the path he should take, knowing that he would have to find his own way of course, but still, might I not give him a nudge, knowledgeable as I was, Professor? he concluded, nervously meeting my distracted gaze. . . . But the poor boy couldn’t put to paper a single coherent sentence! Couldn’t complete a single thought! The practical is everything, Students! What good was his desire to create literary art when he didn't have the slightest facility with words? He’d be lucky to pass my class, if the papers he’d submitted to this point were in any way predictive. Couldn’t execute a three-page explication. You think I’m being cruel, you think I’m overstating the case at the poor boy’s expense—but in truth the whole transaction struck me as extraordinarily sad—I, too, am an impractical man . . . What was cruel, I suppose, was my inability to dissuade him, my failure to provide him with the discouragement he needed, instead compiling for him a slapdash “list of essential books,” or something comparably inane, I don’t know what happened to him—probably he lives with his mother—but what good are ideas without some tether to structure, to solid matter, observable action, concrete? . . .
And so as I’d begun to say, that morning, the very morning of my brother’s death, I’d finally settled on particulars. I’d worked out the means. Even going so far as to master the rudiments of rigging: the loop, the crude pulley system, the tightening and securing of the noose’s knot on a mannequin I’d stolen from a local boutique for a successful test-run: and I was ready that morning to demolish the cowardice that had stood between me and this one thing—the only thing!—I’d wanted for years and years. I was going to get away—But that morning I was informed of my brother’s death! I was outraged, morbidly upset! Did I mourn my brother’s passing? Absolutely: he’d ruined my plans! It seemed too cruel even for me to subject my mother to further suffering that morning, though, in light of the parade of indignities I was subsequently to subject her to it might have been for the best.

How many idiots have I heard recite the formulation without understanding what they say? It is the thought of suicide that provides comfort, of course it is:

You stand behind the podium, alone, at the head of a classroom filled with young “students”—the majority of whom are primarily intent on discovering the ruse by which they will trick you into rewarding them with an inflated evaluation they decline to do any actual work to earn, and these you lay aside or perhaps attempt to seduce a few of the more exceptionally pretty and stupid among which; but you stupidly persist in imagining a handful, a small selection of “students” who might actually want to hear what you are stubbornly desperate to communicate to them, against hope, only even if these creatures exist and can be supposed to care, as you wish they would care, which of course, very few ever have, and you see their faces reflecting real cognitive strain undertaken in their uncomfortable seats as they trace the contours of your maniacal need, trying to understand, you perceive that of course they will not. Everything I know, or if I cannot know, everything I have managed to persuade myself of, everything I feel, everything within me or that I am sealed within must first be crudely approximated, given the closest available semblance, ordered, sifted, reduced—even these ludicrously overstuffed packets of syntax delivered in your professor and narrator’s decidedly maximilistic rhetorical mode enact at every step a hideous reduction, an unbearable refinement toward simplicity . . . and maybe what is most difficult to bear is your knowledge that the fluidity, the molten motion and noise pounding away in the cavernous parts of you under the terra firma of mere words must be pushed up through these thin fissures between you and me, the meanings we jointly claim but never really share, that the more hubristic and un-self-knowing among us record and catalogue in pitiful places like novels, tracts, memoirs, poems, squeeze up from below in a trickle requiring preposterous effort, oxidized on the moment of escape, ceding immediately their glow, and even after a real inferno, a cataclysm of fire, even after this last desperate eruption, under the volcano lies unimagined the infinite burning sea, burning . . .

Even if you wanted to leap from the summit and immolate yourself in a moment of absolute me, the part of me that is fire and pain—and none of you has ever really wanted to—you couldn’t anymore than I could enter you . . . tiny portals . . . needle’s eyes, camels . . . burning . . .  But worst of all is this: I don’t want to know you! I have no desire to know you! What do I care about you? What you dream. How you love—why should these things matter to me any more than my obsessions and disappointments—culled from a smattering of experiences driven by circumstances I had no say in constructing—the artifacts of what I’ve come to think of as me, as my essence, as me! me, essentially, should matter to you? . . . Only I want to matter to you! I must! I want you to weep for me, I want you to immerse yourself in me, and I don’t even know you! In lucid moments I have to wonder whether you're not quietly burning to communicate you to me. Only I dismiss out of hand the premise of an equally infinite sea within you. If it’s there I’m unintrigued. I have no interest in knowing you. No interest in whatever you happen to think I should know about you. What you believe you have suffered. I frankly find it difficult to accept that your notion of anguish would register as a twinge of discomfort with me, let alone pain. Because I’m convinced that only I have known pain. Real pain, that is. Oh yes: if you’d known pain like mine, you’d quit pitying yourself on the spot, you’d be ashamed, you’d drop to your knees and thank Heaven or Fate for the blessings it has inscrutably bestowed on you that you’ve not only lacked the grace to appreciate in the past but actually considered afflictions. You’d seek to atone for this. Some penance might be in order. Stern self-flagellation. Go out into the world and give a little back, make yourself bleed some as restitution for all the times you let yourself believe you were withstanding pain. . . . Oh, I have my doubts about you, Friend. As you have your doubts about me, no doubt.

I looked down at the braided ends of the rope slung loosely around my waist and counted to thirteen.

This incidentally being perhaps at the heart of what I’m dying to communicate to you here, I uttered calmly, clasping my fists behind my robe. The absolute crux. I’d enjoy your supposed tribulations, oh yes, your hardships, struggles: your “hurt,” would constitute the best days of my life. Horror—this is a word you are forbidden to speak. I forbid it in all cases save my own—I want to stress what pure horror everything has been for me, essentially, my whole life a single swelling horror, an unrelenting descent through terraced levels of hell too steeped in horror for you to imagine, always down, into deeper horror that you are even less able to imagine.

I’ll do anything to show you what it’s like to be the real me, the essential me, the true me, even ignore the terrible suspicion I frantically suppress—that my own melodrama has its horrible counterpart within each one of you . . . I’ll even lie if it means showing you an ounce more of truth. Even fabricate whole personal histories laden with melodrama, hyperbole, heaped with lugubrious anecdotes. I’ll hold the whole imagined lot of you hostage in a lecture hall of my invention because I am desperate to accomplish the impossible, I’m dying to make you see, my Students, and the suppressed revelation that among you there must be a handful of hurting souls equally desperate to communicate to me a distress signal from deep within himself that I’m utterly uninterested in straining my eyes to see — this is horror, no? The end of the game. We’re all hollering with equal desperation, it’s an asylum in here, madness, here we are shouting our high-decibel instructions: listen to me, see me, hear me,demanding what’s ours, insisting that everyone else give freely the one thing none of us has the slightest capacity or inclination to give. . . .

A violet light began to creep into the vacant lecture hall; I drew my cowl down low around my face, waved my weapon distractedly, and began to pace the stage.

I’m pacing this stage, I said—shouting myself hoarse, beseeching you, Students, Reader, Brother, to love meLove me, even though I have no  interest in loving you. The notion that you might need my love as badly as I need yours generally doesn’t occur to me, and when it does it doesn’t interest me. That you might be just as indifferent to the case as applied to me, as I am in applying it to you—do you understand? I shouted, pounding my fist on what was left of the lectern, kicking it over, leaping high and stomping on the shattered wood that gave with an easy, tender crunch:

I’m trying to tell you something, I shouted, echoes of my voice rumbling minotaurishly through the labyrinth of rafters, sickly sodium lights and exposed pipes, rust, as I bellowed and shrieked, as my pen flew across the page, there’s a single reason you do the things you do, a reason, beneath the stupid nonreasons you accept on the infrequent occasions you allow yourself to contemplate reasons: You’re looking for something, and it isn’t what you think you’re looking for:

I fired several warning shots into the air, chunks of cheap ceiling-tile and shattered glass sleet falling as tendrils of gunsmoke rose and dissolved. The reverberations sounded for a moment, I drew my hood down further, so that my face was masked in shadow. I stood behind the piano improbably situated beside the dais, I mashed keys with both fists, I leapt up onto the flat glossy black surface, cloak swirling about me like a cape—

I’m a professor of the humanity!

I screamed,

I’m a professor of the humanity,

pressing so hard that the tip of my pen bent beneath the pressure, I fired the gun straight down between my feet, into the heart of the piano, strings snapping and flying up with chips of black wood, lacerating my face—

The meek and the feeble are blessed, I breathed, squatting down in the rubble as drops of blood came dribbling from the line of my jaw, —not despite our weakness but because of it. That I am a failure as a man, that I am weak, that I am desperate is all that has allowed me to see that I’m looking for something hopelessly hidden from sight. The weak will inherit the earth: In our weakness we are closer to god.

The room’s edges seemed to pulse—and I looked out at the terraces of stacked stadium seats with the chipped garish orange paint and a futile torrent was flowing out of me, This is water I whispered, . . . it didn’t matter that the lecture hall or wherever I was was as empty as I’d known it would be. Or if not it didn’t matter that the students were watching me with stricken eyes, or that my mother’s forehead is pinched and furrowed as she demonstratively ponders the switchbacks of my frantic dialectic . . . that even the ghost of my father has lifted up on his elbows on the hospital cot they’ve thoughtfully rolled in here to hear me speak, to hear me plead—to repent, to concede: my need to show you is your need to show me. We just . . . want . . . to make each other see. . . Tom’s automatic rifle is strapped across his shoulder, our name stitched to the fabric over his heart—is it too late to try to tell you simply that . . . you are loved? I lay the pistol down at his feet and stare a minute at the empty hall, the basement, the little writing desk, where I hunched over one awful evening, overwhelmed, having locked myself away with a clutch of pens and a stack of pages I proposed to fill with nonsense that might amount to more than the sum of its senseless parts, to fill it with the detritus of me, the stack of notes I knew would never escape itself, never touch another soul, whether the foretelling scratched out in the last scribbled line was fulfilled or not, as I dropped the pen and lit a match after several shaky tries, touched it to the little pyre, the pages now crackling in darkness, disintegrating, translating reflections of the fire that burned in my heart and still burns, is burning forever, into actual fire, as I stepped back from the flickering light to watch it burn.