Awakened midnight nobody home. Alone against the music of the Angry Young. Kid outside screamed poems into a mike. Squat amp dragged behind him on a wagon. Surrounding friends clapped stomped cacophony. Launched his dithyrambs against The City.
Cannonades of sing-song bass.
Josh razed Jericho with song.
“Turn off the noise and tune in The Voice of The Nation.”
That ad from somewhere I remember. Subway maybe.
I turned on the stereo. Fight noise with noise. Lonely like I’ve never. Unbearable rip. Inside. Alone me in the midnight.
Tried to reach The Voice myself. Dialed, the line was jammed. WSOS after midnight. The Voice beseeched by the Sleepless of The Nation.
Cassette recorder/radio on my bookshelf. Little block of gizmo purchased student days to record the lectures of Great Men and listen to the music of my day. Provides Flamenco for the run, now. Listen to Flamenco when I run.
Stole fresh batteries from my room-mate, raised the volume. The Voice said to the Sleepless of The Nation: “Voices that command, command. I overwhelm you with my immanence if I’m not real who is? My words redeem you, you can’t penetrate my words I pump them into you like bullets you don’t hear them high frequency like dog whistles raise primordial spooks to haunt your creepy skulls do what I dream you to do, and THEN you will be loved. You harden in pockets of darkness like old gum, oh shadows, you are doubts articulated you are puppets.”
I said to the recorder: “Call me Plantman, the Indoor Horticultural Technician. I nurture gardens in the sky, bring water, fertilizer and impeccable grooming to The City’s indoor flora. The workers anticipate my coming. Cramped in stalls and cubicles at nose-pinching altitudes, hunched over keyboards, the workers turn from radioactive memoranda to witness photosynthesis.”
A caller identified himself as Brown, author of Wild Card. The Voice commanded him to speak.
Brown said: “My book is a mirror in which each reader sees his own story therefore each reader is writing while reading. I worked on it seven years.”
The Voice said: “Yeah, so?”
Brown said: “So I awoke one morning and found myself still unknown. . . writers trying to repossess lost time. . . type in darkness, thousands of them, tippety-tap-tap-tap…trying to define The Nation, it is beyond them, they are alone and frightened. . . .”
The Voice said: “I’m losing you, Brown. You’re fading.”
Brown said: “. . . the lights out there, bright lights must be humanized, my words will humanize the lights. . .the page is a dead land. . . still water. . . so many sentences secreted hourly, The Nation is immense. . . writers are jostled in the street, they must create space for themselves. . . they colonize the page with words. . . .”
The Voice said: “Brown Brown Brown is fading. . . fading. . .fading. . . Poof!”
The Voice said: “What heart pounds in the beer-gut of The Nation, waiting to be torn? I am Vesuvius I am the core, I am The Beast crouched clawing through the womb: I thrum I resonate I’m hemorrhaging! Bathe in my syllables I devastate you.”
I said to the recorder: “Plantman ascends towering mausoleums to make concrete bloom.”
I said to the recorder: “I’m practically a Folk Hero. Like Johnny Appleseed. Imagine those corporate hives if nothing grew. If all they saw or smelled was carpet and Formica, flashing screens. . . they’d go mad. Mad. Mad. Insane. Plantman keeps their plants alive. Their Pothos and Aboricolum; their corn plants, silver leafs, and Marginata; their Spathyfilum, spider plants and Ficus. My labors allow workers hundreds of feet above the earth to sit under the shade of a potted fig tree and discuss favorite colors or whisper secrets. Who knows what banality lurks in the hearts of men? The fig tree knows. . . .”
I said to the recorder, “Over two hundred horticultural technicians work for Topiary Techniques. Largest indoor landscaping outfit in The Nation. Clients range from small businesses to major corporations. There can be anywhere from five to five hundred plants at a site and the technician on whose route that site is situated is responsible for every damn one of them.
“Technician’s mission keep the flora on his route alive and young. When a plant dies or becomes unsightly, the client is entitled to a replacement. The technician must fill out a form in triplicate and hand-deliver it to the Dispatcher, who must sign it and send it to the Men-In-The-Nursery, who release the replacement to the Delivery Men, who place the new plant on a Topiary Techniques delivery truck and ferry it to its new home. All this costs time and money, ’cause the company supplies replacements gratis. Every client is entitled to unlimited replacements so long as:
“a) the moribund plant was originally purchased from Topiary
“b) the Topiary Techniques Maintenance Staff — we the technicians— are retained for weekly visits to the site.
“The client corporation is entitled to have healthy green life always on its premises and nary an old brown leaf or jaundiced stem.”
Threw on a pair of jeans, shut off the stereo; clipped the radio/recorder to my belt, went up to the roof. Paced under the idiot moon. Shocked-faced moon, eyes wide, mouth wanting. Voyeur moon can’t get enough. More drama more sex more murder more violence man to man or machine to man killing, killing. Libidinous Moon gets off like a prison guard. Watch us kill and be killed. Panopticon moon knows all, sees all. Who’s sleeping who’s awake. Who’s bad good naughty nice. Be dastardly exciting, be his thrills. Man in the moon. The Man is in the moon. The Man owns the moon, like everything else.
Not a moon pleaser, I, though not Moon-Man-Mad like many I’ve known. Piss off, Mr. Moon Man, Mr. Man in the moon. How much? How much did You pay for the moon? Or did You just take it, like You take everything else, by force?
Stacks and stacks of lighted windows teased with possibilities. Sky irrelevant; stars lacked wattage. Out in The City the core, where life is. Out there the center of the world. City’s Sleepless awake by choice. Night their milieu. Imagine: rooms of bodies cosmeticized by colored lights and artificial fog, secret corridors of beauty, pleasure, music. Places people gather to be better than themselves. Better than human, more than.
“Ten million lives in The City and I’m not living any one of them,” I said to the machine.
Coming home the subway packed I feared sticking people with the nozzle of my bucket protruding like the barrel of a gun. Old man lugged his life into the car. Frail old man. Accent indiscernible. Dolls and imitation cell phones hawked from a wet shopping bag.
“Ring ring. Phone three dollar. Wee wee. Pee-pee two dollar.”
He squeezed the buttocks of the Pee-pee, a boy figurine with knickers rolled to its knees. Water jetted from its stubby shlong. Accidents happen: the Pee-pee over-shot its mark, soaking the tie and tabloid of a stranger. Stranger struck the vendor. Air-borne Pee-pee knocked hot coffee from a woman’s hand.
She kicked the vendor’s bag. Stranger pummeled the old man to the floor. Ripped shopping bag bled dolls and phones. Passengers stomped on them like eggs. The vendor pressed a phone to each gray cheek, as if to call for help, and wept.
Was this a job for Plantman? Avenge the poor fool, who was probably senile, and peddling without a license? No. Plantman’s energies reserved solely for the maintenance of flora.
Looked up and beyond the wretched scene, above the newspapers and sunglasses and wet heads, to an advertisement for a cologne called “EARN.” Wedding party in the park. Entire scene tattooed to a curvaceous bottle of cologne. Caption read, “EARN the moment. Forever.”
“My copy,” I said aloud, plucking tension-strings of overwrought riders, bunch of nervous wrecks (me too, I suppose if not for the booze). “I wrote that line. That’s my work.”
Before I gave my life to Life, I was a copy-writer for The Advertising Company (and before that, a Salesman, in yet another life. . . ).
Often during “work-life,” traveling my route, I turn from the panicked masses and observe advertisements on the sides of passing buses, on billboards, in rows of magazines that form accidental colorful collages in smoke-shops and kiosks. The advertisements feature models in scenarios of work, courtship, celebration, the pursuit of death in powerful machines. But really they’re doing nothing, the models, but looking beautiful, and still, and firmly planted at the center of the world.
The most beautiful thing imaginable is to do nothing. Bliss of stasis. Stop time directly where you stand. Center of the world. A horticultural technician is always doing. To foster growth is to provoke decay. Always a struggle against replacement.
I said: “Plantman was underground, preparing to ascend. Trains roared past like dragons.”
Caller identified himself as “Light-Catcher,” said: “For years I traveled The Nation. I photographed everything. Great men and events as well as the desultory dramas of common lives. The cities and their artifacts, the young who are young no longer, everything that fades I captured. Now I am old and confined to my studio, my walls plastered with images of The Nation, every square-foot dense with faces and machines. It occurs to me: The Light-Catcher did not record The Nation, he created it. The Nation was conceived in my camera and born out of my darkroom like Athena from her daddy’s brow.”
The Voice said: “Nonsense. You didn’t create Me. You don’t even know what The Voice looks like. I could be anyone, even you.”
Light-Catcher said: “But I have seen The Nation, it is here. In my apartment. Studio. Whatever.”
The Voice said: “Listen to me: once I had a bellyache I had a bellyache I dreamed The Nation. Go to sleep, Light-Snatcher—”
“Whatever. Go to sleep! You are not well.”
Mouthing an imaginary coil harp, I sang the Plantman theme song to the stars:
“Boing boing a-boing boing boing boing
Boing, boing a-boing boing boing boing
Plantman has his scissors and bucket,
Plantman waters all that’s green,
Folks say Plantman ‘don’t-give-a-fuck-it,’
Cause after five he’s never seen.
Boing boing a-boing boing boing boing
Boing boing a-boing boing boing boing.”
Uncle Joe, whom I planned to visit Sunday, lived in The City Home for Adults. They let the old people out into the park twice a day, morning and late afternoon. The old people are guarded from the general population. When I visit I get close enough to study the intricate etchings on their faces—Death’s Rococo graffiti—and to listen. The old people are vague, obsessed with their own mismanaged lives.
They offer fragments about jobs blown, lovers lost, festering emotional wounds. They speak of objects. Things they’d touched. People caressed who no longer exist. The old people are ghost radios. They spook me. The guards flash me nasty looks for venturing so close, even to my Uncle Joe. They have their hands full, keeping teenage boys from beating the old people to death. Children play in the park. Their mothers prevent them from bothering the old people and god forbid contracting Time. Senescence contagion.
The Voice said, “Oh hollow notions you are beer cans you are filter-less I reify you.”
I said to the recorder: “In a canvass bag marked with the emblem of Topiary Techniques, Plantman carries the tools of his trade: one four-gallon watering can, (commonly referred to as a ‘bucket.’); one pair stainless steel scissors for trimming and shaping; one feather-duster for brushing dust motes, skin particles, nail-clippings and other impurities from the leaves; fertilizer; insecticide; and various other necessities.
“Plantman has enemies: mealy bug, spider mite, scales, and all manner of insects and diseases that attack the vegetation of The City. He doesn’t hesitate to poison. With his enemies he is ruthless. The potted, green ‘Citizens’ worship him as God-Man.”
A caller identified herself as “The Missing Girl.”
She said: “You know who I am. Years ago my face graced the covers of The Nation’s magazines. I was the Missing Girl, poster child for The Nation’s lost children. Had I been abducted? Killed? You never knew. I’ve been around. But never where I was supposed to be. I’m married now; my husband is a pilot in The War; he drops bombs on The Nation’s enemies, many of whom happen to be children, missing now and never to be found, but I forgive him. Not long ago, before they sent him off to fight The Enemy, I traveled with my husband to the Museum of Ghosts.
“There was an exhibit titled, ‘Before She Was Missed.’ They’d transplanted my old room like London Bridge, moved all my possessions from the old house to this museum in the middle of The Nation. They put on a skit for the visitors with a teenage actress playing the young me. A ten-minute domestic drama of no account really, but interesting in its implications. My parents, older but vital still, played themselves.
“‘Sometimes I feel her presence,’ my mother sobbed. ‘She touches me but I can’t see her.’
“‘Objects disappear and reappear suddenly, without explanation,’ added my father. ‘Trinkets that were the favorites of our little girl.’
“They recognized me in the audience but said nothing. Kept their cool. Times are hard in The Nation, and The Missing Girl Exhibit appeared to be the most lucrative in the museum.
“Before we left, I walked onto the set, opened the drawer to my old night-table and took out a pack of cherry life-savers I’d purchased in another life. I gave one to my husband and took one for myself. It tasted like virginity and dust. This is my body, I said as I popped it into his mouth, and this is my blood. We sipped the sugary grape drink the museum offered as refreshment.”
The Voice said: “So what are you telling me, sister? You’re telling me that you are the Missing Girl?”
The Alleged Missing Girl faltered.
“Well, I am Missing. Or was. For a, for quite a while. Missing a long time.”
“No, Honey, you weren’t missing,” said The Voice. “In order to be missing, one must be missed. You, girlfriend, were merely lost.”
The Voice said, “Oh Orphan of The Nation: your parents, erstwhile consumers, were consumed. Monsters leaped out of the television and ate them. Nnnnnnext!”
I said to the recorder: “The Ad Agency is a labyrinth shaped not unlike a brain. Convolutions of cerebrum. Hundreds upon hundreds of upholstered 6 by 8 foot partitions; maze of cubicles where artists, copywriters, and concept men work day and night to define the products of The Nation.
“Only one plant at the Ad Agency is the property of Topiary Techniques; the rest are cacti. The bucket grows heavy as Plantman trudges from cubicle to cubicle only to find gaunt ad-men laboring beside the squat, spiked dessert plants to whom Plantman is indifferent.
“Tacked to the partitions are advertisements dating back over a century. The clothes and artifacts change with the decades, but the youth and beauty of the models remain constant: sylphs and dandies posed like glyphs on Pharaoh’s tomb.
“Plantman recalls his earliest experiences with Desire. He hums jingles long forgotten, craves snack foods, toiletries and baubles of his youth. This is temptation.
“The plant he seeks is the Tree of Life, for which, according to the memo in his pocket, there can be no replacement. Plantman is certain to find it at the center of the maze.”
The Voice said: “Listen to my echo machine: Ha!”
“Ha,” spawned digital generations. “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha hahahahahahahahahahah.”
The Voice was daring us to rise from our mattresses and pull our plugs.
The secretary in the Real Estate office was alone and beautiful, as I recall. She’d been smoking hashish, the office reeked.
“Just you and me, today, Plantman. The Bossman go bye-bye,” she laughed. “Bye-bye,
I hesitated. I was afraid.
In the Fashion House a designer mourned the spathyphilum on her desk.
“She’s sick today. She’s suppurating. I didn’t know plants oozed like that. What does it mean?” she asked.
“Jeepers. I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You’re paid to know. She’s slouching like a junkie. Make her stop!”
I wished I were dead.
The Voice said: “You are sick and weary, you are filthy! Even the Night steals from your bed, she cuckolds you.”
Monday, rather than attain the center, I will wear alien clothes. I will carry my bucket into elevators and ascend to space stations where ivy grows and workers toil parallel to clouds. Plantman, as much as any advertisement for eternal being, is a vital illusion.
The Voice said: “You are clay dolls animated by my fictions. I release you I abandon you bereft of my spirit you are vacuums. Inhale, exhale; gather yourselves and go. For Dawn comes even to The Sleepless.”
Communication Breakdown Pain. Cannot know. Cannot do. Cannot relate. Cannot define. Cannot place. Cannot nowhere. Cannot no one. Cannot nothing. Cannot true. Cannot be. Cannot Cannot Cannot Say