“Hot Pants!” says James Brown. Let there
be howitzers, and let ‘em shoot candy.
The teaching year has begun with more rain than Adventureland. After the first day’s rocket-fueled high, the magnolia-treed horizon has filled with zombies—professors and students have twisted glaze-faced and melancholy. The zipper in our faces has snapped shut. Clouds are frozen in the suffocating sky. The early weeks are filled with lists of rotating names, drop-add-drops. The shiny rooms are filled with heavy-lidded eyes that turn to whatever shape passes outside—beyond whatever is here. Here: I live in the hottest and most uninsured state in the US. Our motto is friendship. So it seems like we cling to our lizard-brain things.
There is the fervor and pride of football here, American football—James Wright’s dark celebration in seeing our “sons grow suicidally beautiful / At the beginning of October, /And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” And instead of the NCAA record for losing streak (as my undergraduate college held), I teach at a university who fields one of the top teams in the country. In early September, there is remembrance. A quietude for those lost on 9/11 and those booted in sand who have more pressing things confronting them—sucking gunshot wounds, PTSD, and amputations—than our cyclonic arguments about whether or not we are winning or losing.
And always, as the days spin on here, in this America—which, according to WTF comedian Marc Maron has an economy “fueled by a feeling of low-self esteem, fear and feeling incomplete,”—instead of bearing down and doing the hard work of thinking we feed the monster of our guilt and shame. Sexually transmitted infections are lurking in the hallways. There’s a newer, must have version of our tumor-causing celly. So we must consume and pile it up and stuff it in and fill to the brim—even though somewhere deep in our fancy new wind-breakers we know that our pits are bottomless.
So it is time for me to rejoice in just one of the guilts that ache me.
The summer before 8th grade, I moved to a small town in central Iowa. A green ocean of corn surrounded me. The air smelled of dirt and evolution and hog lots. The first day of middle school—I was alone. I had no friends. I was not a part of any of the quick-drying-pubescent cliques. But over the years, I’d gotten used to moving—and knew that being a jester was the quickest way for me to be welcomed. I was good at being funny. I liked being a jackass. Each of my childhood moves had become a different gig, a new stage to massage my parlor tricks. I loved being a foul-mouthed clown, smart-alecky and talking shit. There was, and is, for me, a certain dignity in it. It was a reframing of pride. For the most part, I don’t find all of that rabble-rousing particularly shameful. There’s a fine, laser-edged line between muckraking and being a bastard.
But a few weekends ago, my wife and I watched the first 3 episodes of the first season of Breaking Bad, a television series on AMC. The protagonist is a straight-laced high-school science teacher. At home, he has a pregnant wife and a handicapped high-school aged boy. They live in Albuquerque. Money is tight. One of the hubcaps on his car is missing. His students drive nicer cars than him, but he’s kind and generous and cares about the machinations of the world. Walter (the protagonist) coughs. Walter finds out that he’s got terminal lung cancer. Walter, practical science-man that he is (he met Skyler, his wife, while sciencing at Los Alamos), sees that the bills are piling up, the credit card is maxed, and decides not to tell anyone about his condition. Laden with the dread of leaving his struggling family destitute, he finds himself in the desert in a Winnebago cooking crystal meth.
It wasn’t the first time I’d thought of Mr. B—in fact, since graduating from high school and leaving that small Iowa town, I’d remembered him often and fondly. But after watching Breaking Bad, for the first time, Mr. B began lumbering into my dreams.
Mr. B is always lording over me when I see him. His cheeks are cherry red. Beads of sweat dot his hairline. He pushes his glasses back up his shiny nose slowly, dramatically. He clears his throat as he approaches. When he stops, his mountainous belly rests on my desk.
I stare into his gut as he disembowels me. Mr. B wears a finely woven, pink button-down shirt, short-sleeved.
“Are we not listening again today? Oh, Mr. Lemon.”
When he turns, he pulls up his droopy Dockers. I look around, smiling at all of my friends.
“Mr. Lemon!” The day I can’t stop thinking about begins the same way. His belly slides into view. I look up while he froths. His beard is grey-flecked. An egg-shaped spot of water on his pink shirt. I stare at the pearlescent buttons.
“Mr. Lemon, are we listening—”
And as the tirade shovels out and down on top of me, I glance up at Mr. B. His temple pulses. I look down. There’s a cartoon-drawing of a large penis on my desk. And then, I extend my index finger just as slowly as Mr. B pushes his glasses up his nose and poke him in the belly and cackle, “HEEEEEEEEHEEEEEEEEEE!” mimicking the squealing voice of the Pillsbury Dough Boy.
On March 24, 2007, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Slavoj Zizek called “Knight of the Living Dead.” “Are we aware what lies at the end of the road opened up by the normalization of torture?” Zizek asks, before describing the “grudging admiration,” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed earned from his American guards by the two and a half-minute waterboardings he withstood before speaking. Zizek states that enemy combatants, on average, confessed to “anything and everything,” in less than 15 seconds.
Though years ago, I would have done it—it would be legendarily ungracious of me to allow any fusing of Mohammed and Mr. B. In many ways, Zizek would be a more fitting Mr. B doppelganger. In my mind’s eye, Mr. B has stepped through the mists of memory in a number of amalgamations—almost any combination of lumberjack geniuses—huge, bearded men who’s historical villainy (just to me) has alchemized into a grudging gratitude and eventually respect.
Instead of the stitching together of Mr. B and Mohammed, read Phillip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, an amazing description of the horrors that took place in his Stanford Prison Experiment and his observations about Abu Ghraib.
Beyond the usual two eyes in our human skulls, there is another orb, deep in our visceral recesses. The lids are stretched away from the viscous marble by tiny metal hooks. The flesh twitches, trying to close, to lose the metal grasp that keeps the eye forever open. It’s Sisyphean, how the skin fails to protect. Above, the eye, an eye-dropper. A pearl of liquid falls from the dropper into the eye. There’s a heaving in the body that’s houses the eye, a shudder. The face that holds the dropper has two eyes, sharp as knife-tips. For five years, the acid drops, burning the eye.
At no point is it clear which eyes are yours, which what you see.
Which what I see.
I’m fairly certain Mr. B is retired now, swirling a whiskey at the Elk’s Club in that small town in central Iowa. He hiccups atomic numbers and the electron valences. And often, I am there too. I sit at a table down from his spot at the bar. He mumbles through his now fully gray beard. Equations. Avogadro’s Number. I still do not hear the entirety of his words, but over the La Patère Rose song that keeps playing in my head, each time he burps a bit of knowledge at me I retort. I murmur lame ass apologies. Peanuts crack open in his fleshy hands. The shell bits look like stone shards in his beard, as if he were an etching of a down and out, or maybe just retired Greek myth. He tosses the nut into his mouth with his left hand. Then slowly, with the arc of a football sailing toward the uprights—over and over—Mr. B tosses one half of the peanut shell toward my gaping American mouth.