Returning to Shady

Clock reads 5:55. Across the street from my apartment — indeed, visible out my window — an office tower with its street address printed in large lit signage upon its side:

500

W5TH

Time to visit Shady Blvd, thinks the Traveler. He pictures the current tenant, hopes they meet. Hope begins by returning to the site of the story. A friend recommends Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Traveler resolves to grab it. That and House of Leaves. For the Shady story, if it is to be made into a book, must be of that sort: the story of a house. Tenants of multiple eras in the home’s history interact with the home’s energies, repeat the home’s patterns: the time loops impressed there. Unless it isn’t a repetition. Time is like aletheia: an unfolding, a revealing. A process of disclosure. Let each one’s story be told.

Intermezzo

Others of us puzzle through, knowing sometimes rest is needed. The work is to rest — heat up some pasta, assemble a salad, read Matthew Ingram’s Retreat: How the Counterculture Invented Wellness, feel the heaviness of it weighing in the palm of one’s hand like a sentence, retreat from it into episodes of Adventure Time. Orange Juice sing “Rip it up and start again.” By that, they mean the past. I’m reminded of a line from Pharmako-AI where the book’s AI writes, “The past is mutable, and it can be remade in our image as we desire” (26). At which point I hear poet Joy Harjo adding, “At some point we have to understand that we do not need to carry a story that is unbearable. We can observe the story, which is mental; feel the story, which is physical; let the story go, which is emotional; then forgive the story, which is spiritual, after which we use the materials of it to build a house of knowledge” (Poet Warrior, p. 20). John Cale’s “Paris 1919” serenades me to where I think the implications of this are leading me. “You’re a ghost, la-la-la-la-la-la-la,” sings Cale. And reader, I feel it. This ghosting. It takes the royal promise of Adventure Time’s “Island Song (Come Along With Me)” to cheer me. Loneliness is hard.

Narrative Recap

Therapy allows for reflection, narrative recaps fitted to the hour of the therapeutic session. “What story do you wish to tell?” asks the Therapist. “A utopian one!” I attest, eyes gleaming. “A romance!” Afterwards, though, I sit around perplexed. “Why, then,” I ask myself in exasperation, “did I write it last summer as if it were a ghost story?” Here I am, now — ghosted. Why have I written a story that interpellates me as a bloody mother fucking asshole and former inhabitant of a haunted house? What was I thinking? Why were those the genres and tropes to which I was drawn? How instead might I proceed with my tale?

Gyres, Vortices

Adjusting to the work regime, hours clocked responding to emails, the subject muses upon what it means to be “COLLEGE RULED,” the phrase atop his notebook. One would rather dwell among gyres, vortices / brightly drawn in chalk. Gazing into one, I dream of fugitive study: texts read and discussed in the secret gatherings of an Undercommons. I read poems and hear them as they speak to me, their voices flitting about, “quick-winged / with women’s faces” (4), as in poet Alice Oswald’s Nobody. “It’s not all about you, Dad,” they say with a touch of vocal-fry (as do the rich college girls in Mike White’s HBO miniseries The White Lotus). “It’s time to recenter the narrative.”

The Hero’s Journey: A Revision

K. sends me Jessi Klein’s article, “Epiphany in the Baby-Food Aisle.” Klein writes from her experience as the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old — her child the same age as my daughter Frankie. Klein describes an epiphany of sorts that occurred recently as she listened to Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert talking on Oprah’s Super Soul podcast about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The gist of it is that Gilbert thinks we need to reconceive the hero’s journey. “It’s not the exclusive territory of men,” writes Klein, “and it does not have to involve faraway lands.”

Instead, she argues, we ought to reconceive the hero’s journey in terms of motherhood.

“The article is powerful. It makes me ‘feel all the feels,’” writes the Narrator afterwards, wincing a bit at his use of that phrase, though he means it sincerely. The article really does trigger in him a wide gamut of emotions.

“Parenting is hard,” he adds. “We doubt our capacities. We rise to the task as best we can.”

In that sense, motherhood is heroic — undoubtedly so, notes the part of me committed to truth. Why, then, do I respond defensively?

“What about Alice and her journey through Wonderland?” wonders the child in me. “Why, upon imagining women’s journeys, must we rush automatically to motherhood?”

“My positioning as a subject,” writes the Narrator, “bars me from believing fully Klein’s account of motherhood as a hero’s journey that rarely gets its due. My sense, instead, is that that narrative is nearly universally adored; it plays on repeat throughout the culture, always to loud applause, my applause included.”

“Why, then,” adds the Narrator, “is there within Klein’s narrative this insistence that the story is neglected and isn’t getting its due? Its image of itself as victim is reminiscent of Christianity once the latter becomes the state religion of the empire: its priesthood amply compensated, able to walk proudly amid the halls of power. Christianity, in other words, when it is no longer the religion of the persecuted few, but still happy to paint itself as such, as it subjects others to its evangelical zeal.”

“And besides,” he adds. “The hero’s journey is of questionable worth anyway. In order for persons to write themselves as heroes, others must be written as villains.”

“And I am not a villain,” he insists. “Nor is anyone else in my narrative. If mine is to be construed as a hero’s journey, then the genre would have to behave other than it usually does. The tale’s villain, if it is to require one, would have to be something other than a person — not an agent so much as a structural flaw immanent to the system. A source of inner conflict.”

Severance

“If the texts that students and I have been studying this semester are best referred to as ‘portal fantasies,’” thinks the part of me that persists here in the future, “then that, too, is the term to use in discussing the new AppleTV+ television series Severance. Characters in the show pass quite literally through one or more doors between worlds, living two separate lives.”

The show’s title refers to an imagined corporate procedure of the near-future that severs personhood. Those who volunteer to undergo this procedure emerge from it transformed into split subjects, each with its own distinct stream of memory.

As unlikely as this dystopian premise may seem, we can’t fully distance ourselves from it as viewers, given our severed personhood here “IRL,” or “AFK,” as the kids are fond of saying. “Others may not be quite as manifold as me,” admits the Narrator. “But each of us is Janus-faced. Each of us houses both a waking and a dreaming self, with each incapable of full memory of the other.”

And as the show advances, of course, we learn through a kind of detective work that the severance procedure isn’t in fact what it seems. The work-self (or “innie”) battles the home-self (or “outie”) — as do Superego and Id here at home.

The Narrator, the Traveler, the Gay Wizard, and the Ghost

Our cast can be imagined as three parts of a single psyche, plus one.

The first three—imaginable, perhaps, in relation to categories like present, future, and past—nevertheless share time in a single home, like users sharing computing time on a mainframe.

Who, though, is the Ghost? The alleged “plus one.” Not quite mind-at-large, certainly. The whole person? The unifying soul? An author-function self-fashioned into being via hyperstition? That which presides in each?

***

“It might be helpful,” quips the Narrator, “to map these characters onto a Greimas square.”

“But my preference,” he adds, “is to do as Iris DeMent suggests, and let the mystery be.”

Newport Beach in Hindsight

“Here I am again, in this next memory,” says the Narrator. “On the beach. Only this time, it’s a new one: Newport Beach, site of my brother’s bachelor party. Imagine me in dialogue, in a sense, with the one who was there.”

Spacetime shifts here as the character reenters the memory.

***

“Well, what’ll it be?” wonders the Traveler. “If spacetime is reducible to a game of multidimensional correspondence chess, then what’s our next move?”

Rising in the sky above him there at the beach house, the new moon in Leo provides the Traveler a chance to ask questions. He communes with the moon, engaging it in silent dialogue, and sets his intentions for the months ahead.

A ghostly third figure joins him in the course of the evening. It shimmers into being like a hazy wonder there amid the rocks and the waves, and in so doing, intervenes in the Traveler’s thoughts. “Let us be careful what we wish for,” warns the Ghost, “as this is a powerful, wish-granting lunar cycle.”

***

“Warning taken, it was with great care that I made that wish,” interjects the Narrator from the future. “And in retrospect, I regret nothing.”

“Come sunrise, in fact,” remembers the Narrator, “and a commune of sorts assembled itself down near the shore. Members set out mats and, posing silently amid squawking seabirds, practiced yoga on the beach as I wrote.”

The MacGuffin

In due time, though, word circles back, arriving home again to the house on Shady. D. reflects upon the street name. “You know, when you said that,” he confides, “I remembered that L. lived there. Shady Blvd. She rented an apartment there during her first months in town, before she purchased her home.”

“Wow, how weird,” I reply, unable at first to contain my bewilderment. For L. is one of our colleagues. Could she, too, have been privy to the home’s mysteries? Sensing already in this discovery some hint of the unheimlich, I resolve then and there to investigate.

“I’ll have to ask her about it,” I tell him.

And ask I do.

L. and I meet that very evening, in fact, at a brewery. What I learn from her, however, dispels rather abruptly what I’d been led to believe by D.

“No, I never lived in that house. I never lived on Shady,” she replies when I press her about it. “But I suspect I know who does.”

Lunch at the Village Tavern

Colleagues and I sit atop stools at the bar at Village Tavern, the three of us eating lunch and warming to each other’s company toward the end of summer. Talk turns to the icebreaker-like theme of “horror movies we watched at far too young an age”: Poltergeist for me, for instance, at the age of five; The Shining, at a slightly older age, for D., who teaches a course on ghosts; and Scanners for I., a documentarian and professor of journalism.

Inspired, perhaps, by the example of Poltergeist, I sketch for them afterwards the story of “The House on Shady Blvd,” feeling as I do so like the Traveler from H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine. His was a similar tale, told with great verve over the course of two dinner parties.

“You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted,” begins the Traveler.

“Is not that rather a large thing to expect us to begin upon?” asks a skeptic with red hair.

My eyes twinkling, my face well-tanned from my time in the sun, I expound this admittedly odd and recondite matter of mine in as plausible a manner as I can muster. Contingency pauses me, however, midway in my telling. Sensing through the cloth of my pocket the buzz of my phone against my hip, I beg pardon of my companions, step outdoors for a moment, and take a call from the office of my oral surgeon. ‘Tis the “pre-interview,” says the woman on the other end, for my upcoming wisdom-tooth extraction. Call complete, I return to my companions, whereupon I compare the event jokingly to the one that prompted Philip K. Dick’s weird VALIS experience in the 1970s.

Mood thus lightened, the conversation leaps to life, undergoes a shift in quality, becomes a full, robust, multi-directional exchange.