Instructions From the Stands
by Ian Randall Wilson
W. Answers the Phone
Always polite, he’s there by the third ring. He thinks it shows a lack of upbringing to allow a longer delay. People try to sell him stocks, bonds, property somewhere out there. He listens and declines. How do they get his number?
Sometimes a computer calls and expects him to respond to its recorded message. Wait for the tone. He hangs up and the computer calls back. Some regard this as progress.
For years he believed he should make himself available, then recently he unlisted his phone. This measure doesn’t help; they still find him.
“I answer the phone quickly,” he says, “because that was how I was brought up, but I don’t stay on for long. Others may be calling.”
On His Work Habits
He is able to type steadily for several hours at a time without needing a break. Others don’t have this ability but he does, a blessing or a curse, he cannot say. He thinks the words and they appear on the screen. Man and machine are synchronous. The computer has made him faster, too, because he has none of the earthly constraints of the physical action of keys striking paper and their hard return.
He’s extremely organized and has kept every rejection he’s ever received catalogued in files by date. He has a precise way of removing the folders from the file cabinets, inserting new information and returning them to their places. He concerned with spacing between files and feels that they should be able to “breathe”.
He regrets the telephone and its intrusion. Often he thinks of unplugging before he begins his work but then he would lose his link to the outside. That one time his mother would call with news of a death and he would not be available to console her. He expects the phone to ring while he works and he is most often not disappointed. Bond salesman cold-calling him for money he doesn’t have, solicitations for his vote, polling organizations who insist on obtaining his thoughts. All of this gets in the way of the work. Sometimes it’s a wonder anything is written.
If he has one fault it is in his posture. Like many tall men, he has a tendency to slouch not only when he stands but when he sits. This is why, after several hours in front of the keyboard, he needs to do a series of neck exercises to relieve pressure. Chiropractic has been helpful though some he knows refer to it as “voodoo.”
“I spend my time with words,” he says, “they’re all good words, it’s a matter of finding the right place for them, calling them forward at the right time. That’s the game.”
“I turned to collage early, to get away from writing at all about my mother.” But collage was ultimately not satisfying. “One has trouble telling stories in the form. We produce constellations of images that fail to cohere, blocks of texts in unrecognizable patterns. The lyric says too little and the narrative says too much. Perhaps a point in-between.” Of course he has worked with the screenplay but it is not a writer’s medium. “More like a blueprint,” he says, “for an increasingly expensive home. A committee of buyers who have ideas on the color of the trim and the type of siding.” It’s impossible to satisfy everyone — “as most of the movies being made prove.” But he never gives up. “The adage about the tortoise is my operative maxim. I may not get there fast or as soon as everyone else or even before everyone has already arrived and departed once more, but I will get there.”
Likes and Dislikes
Cats, French fries, pizza, vanilla ice cream, various shades of gray.
Manual labor, doing dishes, taking out the trash, cleaning the litter boxes, people smoking cigarettes, women in red dresses even if they wear nothing underneath.
On His Memories of Childhood
“I don’t know if I had a happy childhood, I can’t remember much of anything before I was ten. This is not the result of alcohol-induced blackouts or some physical impairment because of a blow to the head. I just can’t remember.
“Some members of the psychological community, particularly those concerned with sexual abuse in the family, believe that I’m suppressing terrible memories in order to maintain my equilibrium. According to the literature. One therapist suggested that I was an alien, and when I arrived on the planet I inhabited the body of a ten year old male. Others can’t account for my lack of memory any better than I. ‘Psychology is an inexact science,’ I’ve been told, joining a host of other ‘inexact sciences’ including economics and weather forecasting.
“One or two incidents do come to mind but nothing with any kind of continuity. While I can dependably narrate my activities over the last ten years, offer them with continuity and few gaps in their chronological progression, from the early years of my life all I can remember is kicking a ball which struck a teacher in the face; she collapsed. I remember the neighborhood dogs jumping on me when I tried to go to school. They were being friendly but I didn’t understand it then. I perceived it as a threat. I dreaded going outside, dreaded walking to school. I’ve had a lifetime aversion to animals, especially dogs, ever since.”
Another Important Incident (As Told by His Brother)
“Once, when the family dog was sick, after being sick for a long time something happened. Our mother was the one who had to clean up after the animal, a poodle, a miniature, as I remember. Of course, we’re going back quite a few years here, and I’m younger than W. is, but that’s my recollection, a white poodle. Maybe she should have been tougher on all of us but when she became tired of cleaning up after all of us, maintaining a house for a husband that worked a great deal, feeding and clothing seven children each day of the week virtually without respite — because as I also recollect my parents were not in a position to take vacations — it was the poodle whom she singled out.
“W. was the oldest of all of us and my mother directed him to put the dog on the leash. The three of them went out to the car and that’s the last I saw of him. The dog I mean, if there was any confusion.
“As I understand it, my mother drove with them to an animal shelter. She told W. to walk inside and pretend he found the dog on the sidewalk, dragging a leash. Now again I wasn’t there to actually witness this so I’m relying on the story I heard later. But I don’t think that he would lie about something like this because it had effects that continue to this day. I remember distinctly — it’s coming back more clearly — that our dog was a little white poodle who thought he was a German shepherd. What I mean by this characterization is that the dog was not timid like many poodles are, didn’t shake and tremble around strangers. He had very curly fur and he was friendly, open. He had a wet nose. I remember that.
“In any event, W. stood at the intake desk of the animal shelter and the poodle jumped up on W.’s legs, wagging its tail, barking. This was one happy dog. W. told them he found the dog outside. The woman said, You seem to have found a friend. No, W. told her, I don’t have any friends.”
Taking Care of the Music
At a crowded party, he goes behind the music system when a record gets stuck and the DJ is no where to be seen. His hand is on the tone-arm about to move it out of the groove. The DJ, a small man in a T-shirt that reads “Party on Mars”, politely asks W. to return to the other side, the side of the music system where everyone else is dancing. “You let one of them back here to change the music, they’ll all be back here,” the DJ says.
Described by His Writing Partner
“He’s got the bleep, I tell you that. But he hates the high concept. That makes for difficult potential sellage. We’re in a universe of appearances. That’s why I’m the front man — and the hammer — and he works the backroom. He’s someone you can take home to mom, twice, after that she asks if you can do better. Course, if we do get the three-pix option, Mom’ll be doing the baking and the laundry. He’ll get camera-worthy very fast.”
“What could mother do? She had a lot of children and we weren’t great at cleaning up. I don’t hate her for it. I think it was a mistake on her part. We should have been given an opportunity to do more for the dog. I love my mother. I feel close to her. Everyone makes mistakes.”
On Other Careers W. Might Have Chosen
Not the Church or any of its variants, though his mother makes the infrequent claim that W. had thoughts of the rabbinate.
Other brothers are doctors, musicians. Neither the operating theater nor the stage have held much allure for him. In any case, W. hates blood, its copper smirk on the gums, its thickness on the flesh. He uses an electric razor to minimize corollary damage.
What could have been? A question he thinks about on a day when no one takes his new ideas, when the words resist him as they come down the page. Something with computers, maybe, he has a intuitive comprehension of how they run. He is comfortable with that sort of machine.
It’s people that give him problems.
“I always felt mine wasn’t around. Again, the many children and all the work he had to do to support us. I don’t think that was fair of me. He coached my little games. He came to my wrestling matches. He made it a point of coming to wrestling matches even the away ones at night when it required some travel and maps to find these high schools that were not easily found if you didn’t live in the community. I’d come out into the gym with the rest of the team and he’d be there — sitting by my mother. He was affectionate in public. Other father’s shook hands, he hugged me, kissed my cheek, which many of my friends found surprising. But he wasn’t one of those fathers who yelled instructions from the stands. He applauded along with everyone else. When I won, if I won, he clasped both hands together and raised them in front of his face. His victory gesture to me.”
A song comes on during those intermissions from writing when he allows himself a soy-based snack and the run of the radio. It may be a tape, the radio, but no more records, though.
The song contains all the memories he would have had if he could remember anything before his tenth birthday. He can’t say how he knows this but he does.
He has to go outside to escape recollection but sound waves carry. Even through walls.
Later, he can’t identify the song that triggered so much dust. He will go to sleep trying to summon up the melody and the words. The best he can do is an indistinct bass line that might belong to anyone.
On the Person Who Has Most Influenced Him
“Some will be surprised to discover it is Chiang Kai- Shek. Any man who could walk the length of China at his age deserves my undying admiration. Faced with an untenable position, he found hidden resources. Taiwan is the product of his sole creation. Think of how often we have seen the words ‘Made in Taiwan.’ They permeate so many aspects of our lives. Only the xenophobic mortician industry has managed to block their entry. You’ll never see a casket with those words inside.”
W. Puzzled by the Cats
The cats are particularly vocal in the early morning. There are two of them and this is a new development. They believe that by standing over him and meowing he will get up and get them food. They are unaffected by the fact that dry feed is always available. They are unwilling to eat whatever he has put out for them at midnight when he retires. They insist on food from a new can.
W. frowns at them through sleep-riven eyes. He is not really awake nor thinking clearly. He bats at them gently when they paw his face. He turns over and puts the pillow on his head but if there is a gap in the sheets where bare flesh can be found they will find it. Sometimes they extend their claws and he carries their scratches for several days.
Friends comment on the scratches but W. says nothing. He considers it the burden of tending to pets, a responsibility he shrugged off at a younger age with disastrous consequence.
When he rouses himself from his blue unconscious bed, the animals follow. They beat him through the door and are downstairs before he has made it halfway down the flight. They press at his ankles while he sets out bowls.
Later, their meowing will resume.
My old image, the yawning man (Barthelme)
W. is walking, with that familiar slouch of his upper torso, to the market or the dry cleaners. The shop signs are all of a proscribed size and color and typeface, a singular observation that W. makes at this moment though he has walked this route dozen of times before. W. is engaged, engaged by the window displays, engaged by the shreds of paper that lie in the gutter, engaged by the symmetry of the cars that line the street, engaged by the body movement and hand positions of couples that walk toward him and are walking in front of him. He searches for meaning in the pattern of their steps, in the cadence of their shoes on the pavement. His pace is slow and silent so that rather than overtake, he is the overtaken. He stays carefully to the right to allow others to pass without having to ask him to move or without having to step into the street or brush when they do go by. Where do they get their clothing? How do they define love?
“In Los Angeles, knowledge is usually gained in stores. At the cash register people tell you things.”
The gaze of the security guard.
The well-dressed man in his summer ensemble looking through the clothing racks.
“Why is that man staring?”
Sometimes W. experiences confusion in discerning who is real and who is a mannequin. The well-dressed man in the summer ensemble looking through the clothing racks hasn’t moved in the last ten minutes. His limbs seem frozen.
“Why is that man still staring?”
W. Saved from a Car Wreck
W. is in the car. The airbags have deployed in front and on the sides, the white plastic ripples over his lap like a butcher’s apron. He is bleeding from the head, the car twisted up around a tree. I engage the jaws of life, forcing the metal out and back. His right hand comes up and waves as the metal opens, shrieking as if to protest. I am able to cut the door from its hinges, disengage his belt, pull him, carefully, from the car’s collapsed cage.
We have him on the gurney, now, attending to his wounds.
“I am . . .” he says, before the siren carries off his words.