That’s it. The rest is history. And history is never as interesting as what your imagination can give you. History is what you get when the projector gets stuck.
It turns out that art, like everything else, is what some people do for a living. Art, what passes for it, is a commodity. It is just one more thing to pay for, lug home with you, borrow, or steal—hurtar para dar por Dios, as it says in the dictionary.
If I could rouse any interest, I would start a support group for people committed to art. I would circulate a petition, start an internal movement to bust people out of the art hospital. I would get a witness to say that I were healthy enough to live on my own, to make a decent living. What is stopping me is thinking that I am bound to the commitment I made to art as a child.
One way to make something real is in solitary confinement. Some people walk with God and honor their commitments. Those people may live anywhere on Earth except in the limelight.
Lock-up, I queried. Where is lock-up?
I would not have asked where lock-up is had I known it would seem forensic.
The first thing you find out in lock-up is that God exists. In other situations you could just dismiss this information. In lock-up that is impossible. The second thing you find out is that God is everywhere, even in you. Your job as an artist is to come up with a reasonable gift to present to God.
Most people who go into the art hospital never get out. They just get moved to more comfortable quarters. Some of them, the invalids and life-long convalescents, live on the deluxe wing. The worst thing is knowing that deep down I want to stay. I would show no sign of resistance if they offered me a room with a view. “Put the trophies over there,” I would tell my students from my comfortable bed.
For about one month out of solitary I would have appreciators. There would be no question about it—I had served both God and man. After that, if I managed to do anything more, they would give me students. It is very strange, these students. They come from miles around to be put in the hospital with you. Most of them are starving and craven. Usually it is because they had a parent or step-parent who belonged in one hospital or another themselves but who managed to hold on by sheer will power to the world outside. Then values changed, and these offspring lost the wherewithal to define their own existence. There are millions and millions of them, and their numbers are growing. There will never be enough beds.
The easiest wholesale solution is for everyone to drink their gift to death. That way is the most popular, but it is not the only possibility.
If people were willing to open their minds a bit, they could find constructive uses for creative energy. They could leave the hospital, even for day trips, and no one would blame them for changing their minds. They could write to their congressmen. They could volunteer at shelters for the homeless; better yet, they could go on the road with Jimmy Carter and build habitats for humanity. They could sing in the church choir. They could grow a garden. They could raise their own children. We do not need as much art as we are making. There are many other things we need more.
Some people, women especially, go the sex route. They devote their ingenuity to making themselves as sexy as movie stars. Artists can never be worshipped as mindlessly as movie stars, but some of them come pretty close. Other artists, the men especially, sleep around or mulch up their brains on fame.
The very lucky few get shipped back to solitary confinement. Most of these do not know they are lucky, chosen. They think they are being punished for bad reviews. They think bad reviews cheat. They think good reviews tell the truth.
There is no need to worry about art. Art in its ideal forms stays safe. Real art resists being the object of attention. It directs your gaze, and it swings in you forever.
Of the inmates with windows, every year, one or two of them, the purest at heart, beg to be let back into the cell. They are afraid they will jump. That would be going beyond the call of duty, something no one might say. They say that they have learned their lesson, and they promise all the real powers-that-be that they will work harder this time. They sign statements to that effect and they apologize to their loved ones for the emotional and financial turmoil they have caused and will continue to cause until death. (In some of them, the very exemplary, this bad behavior will be held up as customary, even as tax-exempt.) They say goodbye to them and vow never to look outside themselves for companionship or diversion again. Of course, it does not last. Pretty soon someone or something better comes along.
They all have one thing in common. They discovered their gift in the first place because they needed a friend, so they made one up. They kept on making things up until they had a world. Now that they have real friends, and sex, you would think they could just let it rest, but they can’t. They still have something to prove, so they put their name on the waiting list to perform their very own, original talent shows in the seasick cafeteria.
Most of the shows are the same, except in detail. It is rare indeed when someone gets the wind whipping through your grapevine. These days most anything is acceptable as an offering—a stick of wood, a drum roll, a shitty conversation ya had with a friend. The ones who feel ashamed of their limitations almost quit.
It was better in the days before promotion, when having a gift meant something in Latin. In God, a token to His allness in your smallness. A simple nest egg.
“It’s like hungering for a year of cigs. A year of cigs, a yard full of cigs. Stick ’em in my face. Burn me out. kill me with their emotional therapy.
“I stay sleeping to avoid wanting to smoke. Dread Baron was wrong in saying volition seems gone from the world. There is plenty of the kind that heads toward death. Early death, early retirement, takes care of each emotion until it kills you at 50.
“I don’t want to smoke. How can I convince myself? I say it, but I know that my body will become a pear for three years, not fat per se, but newly formed. Gelatinous, new ridges. From not pounding my heart so hard just watching TV. I can take walks, I can fix my bike, I can join a swim pool, yoga day. Can type better, if I try. My fingers are sleepy. I am sleepy, too, from no speed-er-up. No coffee, no cigs, want to fall down sleeping all the time.
“What about sub drugs from a shrink? Mood-altering chemicals from a shrink? Pain is pain. Emotional pain is emotional pain. They teach that emotional pain is physical pain, culture pain is science pain, but they cannot test for the absence of these synaptic conclusions. I will say, if you can test me and find something missing, then you can supplement me for the missing thing, but don’t play chemical guess work in my body.
“He resists less because drugs are his favorite response to all life’s situations. The only thing not drug is sex, and he approaches sex as a drug, to cure pain. Uses sex to end love pain. Love to end sex pain.
“My throat is sore, but the soreness is from not smoking. Going back would not help and would make me feel resigned to risk death at 50 from early laziness. Also, there would be a lost sense of free will. All my oratories would be about the inevitability of all life.
“Rye Character’s stories would have been different had he gotten off the cigs. They say booze kills, but much more often, cigs kill. Cigs are not okay, not mild, not non-reactive. They smooth every emotion, tame every flare up. Cigs are quick like crack must be quick. I can’t imagine that there would be a lot of difference, except with crack cops would be involved. Say crack gives you a buzz. Cigs give you a buzz, too, but you don’t know that after a while. Then you need another one.
“Cigs kill. Reports say that cigs kill more people than anything in the U.S. Not booze. Booze hardly kills, even drunk driving, compared to cigs. Cigs cost the public in hospital bills, years on end, trying to stomp out the avoidable disease. Maybe cigs are bad because of other chemicals. Then take them out. Smoke Lucky’s or Camels or American Spirits. I loved to smoke. I loved to smoke. Where will be the next love? Where will be the courage to face life not smoking?
“Every cig you light you know you’re killing yourself. Early. Not that you wouldn’t die but that you are hastening death. In these writers, they’re dying twenty years sooner than other people. They write about sadness. Every one thinks their sadness is universal, but it’s the sadness of a tobacco addict, a self-killer. Not family, not friends, not cancer, not wisdom stop them from offing themselves every twenty minutes. Addicts.
“Got my cereal box here for munching. Got my list of to do.
. . .
“Maybe I just want to smoke more this minute because I am writing and drinking coffee and it’s a test. It’s hardest the first day giving up an old practice. The first day was nearly impossible. Not undoable but nearly so. I wanted to smoke or die. But after I had passed the addiction period, it was my mind telling me. They say if you can hold out, if you can stick with it and ignore the damn memories of loving your little white lover man sticks, then the desire becomes less and less. You get over it. You try. That is all I know how to say.
“It would not be acceptable to go back and suck down a pack of Camels because I would still want to smoke when I had done that. I want to smoke now though I don’t smoke, and I’d want to smoke then, if I did smoke. The wanting to is constant whether I do it or don’t. Not smoking is harder for a while, then, they say, the urges begin to decline. You begin to fit into a life without smoking.
“Give myself a break. Twenty-year habit begun as a child. I am bound to feel more pressure. There is no memory like my memory of liberation through cigs. Good memories of independence and liberation and being smarter than parents in smoking. The other self, the other person, the bad self, the sexy self, the sinner self, the not wanting to be all good all the time because it was so hard to be perfect, the rebelling by smoking and sex (which I never really chose then but was proud of, as if accomplished).
“My mother must have been very angry to see me get away from her grasp that way. Don’t smoke! Alarm. Don’t smoke! Who is smoking for? It is for rebelling. Who has me locked up now? Cigs, that’s who. Cigs. Don’t do it. The devil dog is cigarettes.
“Devil Dog, God as my witness, Devil Cigarette Humper, Go Exactly to Hell!
“It was cigs I loved, not life. That’s true. Cigs, not life. Cigs were the little punctuations in each day I needed to feel alive, to feel life was worth something. Cigs. Cigs are life? Are cigs life for addicts? What is life for the non-addict, me? For me, life is life, I suppose. What is life to be life to someone? What is life to be life to someone?”
My sister is stuck in a physical passion. She describes it as an aura that lasts longer than the time it takes to watch a film, but after a real film, the credits roll, the illusion breaks, and the color of life seeps back in, one reminder at a time, until one is who one is again, even when the film is about sick passion.
The man Juni calls Bing hurts her feelings compulsively then screws her so completely that her wish to talk about it is drummed from her forever--forever, that is, until the next time. We come to her rescue (by now it is less often than she would like), but we cannot rescue her; no one can. She turns on us, on him, on everyone. I have seen her snap at a bank teller, and my sister is hardly ever rude. That, too, must be part of the high or demon or whatever it is that costs the pretty penny. "How would you know?" she says. "You're not a guy."
As a sinner who has bowed devoutly to four years of psychotherapy myself, I see what she is up to, and I care, to a point. To care any more than I do would keep it my problem.
Bing is just a trucker. That is what I tell our mother. I say, "Mom, all it is is, Juni has a thing for men with guts," but our mother did not raise her daughters to have "things" for anything, let alone for men "with guts." She raised them to help those who need help, not to ask for help, and to live in married certitude with men without guts.
Men like her dead husband, our dead lawyer father, who folded over his desk at ten of one evening. What husband? I used to say in the days before his death, before my own therapy, where I was reminded that every situation in life is of my own making. He left behind a wife, six daughters—all of us named after trees or shrubs—and an ungodly insurance policy. No one carries that much insurance.
Bing's father died standing up doing shift work. I should say, he fell over. Bing was twenty-one. I tell our mother that that is not why.
Juni's counselor, salesperson for higher powers who serve addictive personalities here on earth, has told us that only twelve steps and fifteen thousand dollars can save Juni: Juni is a co-sex addict.
When Juni is not threatening extreme unction to hotline volunteers (she calls hotlines in other cities when the hotline number in our city is busy), she tells us that Bing is the smartest man she has ever known—witness his survival as a teenager at a juvenile detention center and his finesse on the Interstate Highway System. Leave it to me to imagine what they do on it when Juni is with him and not barely at her job for the state.
Our youngest sister, Jade, wants to know what the deal is; although she wouldn't say it to me, she wants to be, as her sister is, in love. Jade is seventeen. As far as I know Jade is still a virgin, although I think that Mr. Biebel molested her when she was nine. She can't remember, but she hates her stomach and thighs. I believe that Mr. Biebel had a crack at all of us, except for maybe Holly, the third born. None of us really remembers what happened, but we all have improper relations with food. Holly has never had one disordered thought about food in all her life, and she never fell in love so badly that she failed to graduate from college, or, like me, to leave it. As a nutritionist, I hope to ban Biebels from the refrigerator, at least from refrigerators in Milwaukee, but it leaves me feeling marooned after French philosophy, where I first learned to play a field.
In her belief that Juni is lucky, Jade eases the horrors our mother suffers at night, not because Juni is stuck in a physical passion, but because the whole family and whole groups of strangers know what Juni is doing for sex. Juni does not have sex, I tell Jade. Juni is sex.
Lately, Juni is thin. Her breasts are small. She may not obviously resemble a man, but it saves everyone the trouble of self-differentiation. It bothers me that no one in her support group has even mentioned it. They mention humiliating moments, but apparently not the humiliating belief that one does not have the right to eat. Bing certainly does not suffer that humiliation. He eats her, like a hamburger or a donut. "I'm not thin, Laurel," she says. "I'm not even normal size. Look at these!" she cries, clutching at the flimsy sides of her hips and legs.
She needs exercise, but if I say it, she will feel condemned. She will worry that she doesn't fuck right. It will be like a man upping the ante all over again from the cover of a women's magazine.
Sometimes I think that if Juni knew women in more wholesome circumstances than in their own decrepitude that she would be all right. All she has in the way of women are support groups and her family. And what is family, really?
She has the prayer that Jesus brought her, but, as she told her group, she does not pray while Bing is fucking her. She prays later, to his sleeping corpse, when it's over, and she's done, first to us, then to him, then alone.
Our mother, Geraldine—as she likes to remind us—is hip. She goes catalog shopping, not because she couldn't spend whole days in ceremony in department stores if she wanted to nor because she wouldn't do that if her lifestyle depended on it, but because cranberry-ale cardigans and pewter-puff pullovers communicate her optimism. She hopes that by her example her daughters will stop wearing only black. Her friends call her Geri, a name with a tweeter to it, a flip, as if Geri were someone who couldn't help but be her own person (men's names on women always serve that way), but our mother is Mom first and Mrs. Reeve Baumgaard second, even though Mr. Baumgaard has been dead for almost twelve years.
Since Juni met Bing, she wears torn blue jeans and men's white v-necks, and because she is as thin as a boy, people say she looks great in them. She wears what she finds on Bing's floor, where he lives with his father's half-brother, or she gives up afternoons tugging through racks at the Salvation Army.
Jade and I like the real thing: We go real shopping with Mom's credit card. Jade is in high school and doesn't have a job, and my stipend as a research assistant barely covers my efficiency apartment and the food I buy, which is expensive—raw nuts and seeds, yogurt farmed in small batches, organic apricot juice. Jade and I both wear size 12, which I sense has been a deep disappointment to Mr. Biebel—all the more reason to buy the most flattering, extravagant clothing we can find. Sometimes we shop sales; other times we just grab the car keys and head for Rome. We buy the new fall line before it hits the racks. We buy make-up, too, especially lipstick, my favorite way to kiss off a Biebel, but I admit, it's a little compulsive.
The middle three—Holly, Heather, and Lily (her real name is Lilac)—are all married and living elsewhere—Holly in Denver, Heather in Coon Rapids, and Lily in Waco. We mainly see them at Christmas, when we all tend to wear what our mother has bought us.
Bing is 34, and like a lot of men just over thirty, he bloats on beer. If Juni were not a co-sex addict, she would be a co-alcoholic. His work gives him a good ass and good legs—all that climbing in and climbing out, loading and unloading. I can see the attraction on that level, and that is the level we are talking about. Since as a family we are opposed to Bing, it would be hypocritical to ask Juni what sort of torso he has. Bing is too polite or too self-conscious to take off his shirt in our presence, so we don't know how strong or hairy he is there. We are just left wondering.