“To show the fly the way out of the bottle was the life’s hope of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but the truth is that human beings don’t want a way out of the bottle; we are captivated, enthralled by the interior of the bottle; its glassy sides caress and console us; its glassy sides are the perimeters of our experience and our aspiration; the bottle is our skin, our soul; we are accustomed to the visual distortions of the glass; we do not wish to see clearly, without the barrier of the glass; we could not breathe a fresher air; we could not survive outside the bottle.
“Or ever tell ourselves, in the glassy echoing language of the bottle, that this is so.”
—Joyce Carol Oates, I’ll Take You There (2003)
The man came to her office by way of court order; beyond that he was not a typical client. Working a region of far flung spaces and socio-economic diversity required her to be versatile: families, couples, children, all muddling through abuses and/or disorders of all sorts. “Human dysfunction. It’s great to be in a growth industry,” she would often say.
She knew the county attorney that prepared the man’s referral file, a job usually assigned to underlings. The file had a professional yet fascinated tone and a yellow sticky note with a smiley face saying “Break on through.”
The file told of a man roaming the small town streets in the early night of mid-spring, clad only in sturdy sandals and orange boxer shorts. “Pumpkin-orange dotted with black bats,” he later corrected. The man followed a basic pattern that disturbed several residents: come into a yard, disconnect the invariable garden hose, arrange the hose into a spiral around a central object—a lawn mower, a tricycle, a barbecue grill. Then with hands tracing invisible patterns over each tableau he would mumble for a moment or two and lope away to the next yard of ceremony. He gave no attention to anyone’s voice of concern or threat.
The man avoided two sheriff’s deputies easily enough by clambering over roofs and vaulting fences in rapid succession, vanishing until another citizen called from blocks away, standing perplexed with cell phone in hand beside another hose-spiral. A third deputy was called from bed to join the dragnet. The fire department arrived to provide flood lights. The whole posse gathered to discuss a capture strategy. Conference finished, they turned back to various official vehicles to see their quarry performing a shuffle-spin of slow motion ecstasy on the roof of the tallest fire truck—the orange boxer shorts atop his head like a pharaoh’s cap—painted in the psychedelic crisscross of a dozen emergency lights.
There was no resistance to the arrest, just a single question after the handcuffs were on, repeated with faraway eyes and solemn sincerity to every deputy, ambulance attendant, fireman, and jailer: “Are you a human being?”
“…they turned back to various official vehicles to see their quarry performing a shuffle-spin of slow motion ecstasy on the roof of the tallest fire truck…”
The man engineered his own plea bargain with the County Attorney using skill any lawyer would admire. The episode was explained as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder set off by the unfortunate and isolated use of marijuana that must have been treated with some other dastardly substance, a common practice among drug dealers out to hook America’s youth. The man knew this was only partly true. The pot had been a small gratuity from a known source, quite typical and untreated. His single puff was an ill-considered experiment after a long abstinence. The PTSD was a convenient label for something far more complex. Blood and drug tests showed him to be drug free as he knew they would, and the authorities are always happier with explanations that fit nicely in established boxes. Agreeing to see a counselor was the capper. He got off with a hundred dollar fee for the ambulance, fifty for the urine testing, and deferred prosecution for trespassing and public indecency if there were no other violations of the law within one year. And he had to pay the counselor for weekly visits over no less than three months.
From the first visit it was more his agenda than hers. She quickly knew the man was more “functional” than any other client and as much or more than anyone she knew in general. “I don’t remember a damn thing,” he admitted of his break on through episode. “Only the ecstasy, of being a gnat’s ass away from understanding Something. Something that dissolves into chaos and odd flashbulb images of what my body was actually doing while my mind was focused on the Other side.” Any mind-altering substance had the potential to launch him. “But I’m not an addictive personality, just an adventurous one; and I’ve decided there’s more potential for meaningful discovery on this side of reality.” After three required months he announced he would continue seeing her at half her usual rate, “Because you’re enjoying this and learning just as much as I am,” he said. “But you are a professional. Reckon that deserves something. Leave me a message if we’re done, otherwise I’ll see you next week.” Six months after that their weekly routine still continued. He called her Baba-Looey, who she learned on-line was a cartoon character, a side-kick that was influential but not in charge. He wanted her to call him Everett after a young artist who had disappeared forever in the canyon wilderness of the Colorado Plateau in the 1930’s. She compromised with just E.
E sat across from her in a simple tank top and a sweat-stained straw cowboy hat, sunglasses dangled from his neck. It was her habit to wait until he started on whatever path of thought came into play. Prompts were never necessary.
“I had a serious flirtation with murdering Lil’ Dog a few days back.”
She knew, as did everyone in town, his habit of walking for miles with the smallish grey- and black-speckled cattle dog close by, a coiled leather leash in hand.
“For a good reason I hope?”
“Are there good reasons to murder?”
“That’s another issue entirely; let’s stay with your reason.” She had to remind herself how he tended to focus on the essence of any question and never assume its implied intent.
“Lil’ Dog starts to close the gap and that young jack starts this thin hiccupping scream as it runs. Like, "Yeeeee yeeeee yeeeee!”
“We were in the desert east a town. Mr. Barlow don’t mind if we cross his fences now that I give him some yessur’s and nossur’s and occasionally fill a bag with any trash we come onto. Dern, it’s so green from all the rain lately. More near fuckin’ Ireland than Chihuahua desert. Some a them yucca stalks are bent to the ground they’re so heavy with flowers.”
There was never any telling what dialects he might use or mix together: southern white-trash most often, also ghetto gangsta, east coast wise-guy, stoned surfer, floriated college professor, cold-neutral rationalist, and often enough his true affable suburban-bred anywhere voice. At first she thought this was a way to obfuscate, but his thoughts were always genuine and spontaneous. The dialects just added nuance, like characters in a play.
“We was poking along. Lil’ Dog off the leash. She’s been getting better and better at minding voice commands. I was ogling this hawk soaring way up, else I woulda been on her quicker. But anyway, this jack rabbit, couldn’t a been more’n a month old, jumps up and she’s two strides off its ass quick as a shot. They go winding back and forth through the brush, all loop dee doo’s and roundabouts.”
E’s hands paint a description in the air as he talks.
“Lil’ Dog starts to close the gap and that young jack starts this thin hiccupping scream as it runs. Like, ‘Yeeeee yeeeee yeeeee!'” She feels a little shiver down her spine at his imitation of the terrified rabbit.
“Now this whole time I’m running full tilt. Hollering for her to stop, over and over. I damn near caught her once when they looped back but she was dead set on that rabbit and got by.
” ’Course I didn’t realize until after,” She hears his voice slow and deepen, watches his face become solemn. “It was that hollering. STOP! GAWDAMN-YOU! STOP!” She flinches, startled by his sudden passionate bellow. “Anyhow, I called up the beast,” He taps a closed fist on his chest. “Like I hadn’t in a long time.” He pauses.
“Lil’ Dog catches that rabbit and its scream becomes one long screech before dying. But I’m on her quick and she knows right off, the biggest critter on the block is ready to kill. Soon as I grab her she lets go of the rabbit and it runs off.” He pauses again. “And it should have been over. Bad dog! And a swat on the ass for good measure.
“But I pinned that bitch with one hand and started choking with the other. Her eyes all rolled back. Something inside me wanted to laugh and that’s when I realized it was the beast. Just like the old days. That howling rage that always makes you win. ‘Cause even if you’re losing you’ll still have the power to gouge out an eyeball.’
“Anyways, I saw it right away and jumped back from Lil’ Dog with my hands in the air like she was on fire. She skulked around a bit but she wasn’t hurt. Thought I might vomit but that passed pretty quick. And you know what? I think I might a learned something new about the beast this time.”
“What do you think you learned?” She asks, keeping her voice impassive.
“The beast. I used to believe it was a tool or more like a sword maybe, to deal with those breaking the law or at least rules of decent behavior. But that ain’t it. That’s just an excuse. It’s about defiance.”
“In the old days when I’d catch some fucker, if they gave me a reason I was more’n happy to give ‘em a righteous smack. And if they really wanted to fight.” His grin chills her. “Umm-boy dee-lish, a sanctioned feast.
“I pretty much avoided fights as a kid. As an adult, away from the job I was the picture of peaceful. But, I remember when I played soccer in my teens if my team was losing towards the end of the game and there was no chance to win I’d ditch the rules and start doling out blatant punishment. Even got me thrown out a few times.
“The beast. I used to believe it was a tool or more like a sword maybe, to deal with those breaking the law or at least rules of decent behavior. But that ain’t it. That’s just an excuse. It’s about defiance. Specifically, anything that defies my will.” He gives her another grin, sad this time.
“What do you reckon Baba-Looey? All us knights. All us cops and soldiers for one nation under God, thinking we can put the sword back in its scabbard and walk away clean. You reckon we just the bloody fists of self-righteousness run amok?”
She settles back in her chair. “I don’t think any one of us can decide the motives for any number of what finally breaks down to individual choices, even those just ‘following orders’.” She provides air quotes. “All we can do is help willing individuals to look at themselves. With professional or personal support, feedback, understanding. Isn’t that what you want to do?” She holds up one hand. “Granted you dig deeper without any help from me than any client I’ve ever had. And you’ve just cracked a pretty tough nut that’s for sure.” He smiles and nods.
“I appreciate that.” He is silent a moment. “What I do costs a lot by any common measure. A career abandoned. Refusing to pay health insurance extortion money or stuff a 401K to stave off a personal apocalypse.” He grins. “A court ordered therapist when all I was after was a little buzz to compliment Dark Side of the Moon on the headphones.”
She spreads her arms and grins back. “What will be, will be.”
“You’re quoting Doris Day?”
“Among others that have said practically the same thing,” she answers.
“Yeah, well Nietzsche said, ‘When you gaze for long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you.’ And ‘One must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.’”
They are silent for a moment. “So where does that leave us?” she asks.
He takes a long breath. “I think every crazy upright monkey one of us is pilloried to a harsh survival-based reality, knowing all the while we are dying by degrees.” She recognizes his switch to the rationalist persona.
“Instead we retreat into just purposes or mere distractions, like war and violence in all its forms, like a minister preaching a path of righteousness to tens of thousands while privately paying for butt-sex and crystal meth….”
“Joyce Carol Oates compares human consciousness to a fly in a bottle, a bottle that can never truly be recognized. So whether it’s pilloried to a post of harsh reality or a fly in a bottle, the question was ‘What is any one of us willing to do in order to look at our Selves?’ And I believe the answer is very damn little that will do anything to make anyone begin to suspect the involuntary nature of who and what they think themselves to be. Everything we perceive is filtered through the overwhelming need to shore up who and what we believe our Selves to be of our own free will. Objective assessment? Open minded dialog? Bah! We don’t ever walk a mile in anybody else’s shoes. At best we put momentary galoshes over shoes we’ve always worn and never ever intend to remove.
“This equation is global: Jew and Palestinian, Liberal and Conservative, Christian & Muslim. No one in opposition, be it within themselves, be it individual to individual, or neighbors to nations, these opposites do not strive for equal treatment and understanding however much we convince ourselves otherwise. Instead we retreat into just purposes or mere distractions, like war and violence in all its forms, like a minister preaching a path of righteousness to tens of thousands while privately paying for butt-sex and crystal meth, like one more sleep-walking mall rat cell-phoning in their vote for the next American Idol, or something as simple as collecting decorative spoons from across the world.” He folds his hands across his lap with a neutral face.
“Ouch!” She says. “Too grim for me even if it’s valid.”
“Take the blue pill.”
“Never mind.” He waves a hand in dismissal.
“What about you?” She asks. “Are you in the bottle too? Or is that you over there.” She points to a fly buzzing by the window. They both allow a chuckle.
“Don’t get me wrong,” He says. “I figure most everybody is doing the best they can, evolving as much their personal gene pool and fate allows. I believe true malicious evil is rare. Mostly I think each of us doing what’s required to keep from taking a running gainer off the nearest cliff. That alone explains a lot of my cynical soliloquy on human nature.
“Me? Hell yes, I’m trapped in a bottle. But I creep up the sides searching for that little gap in the lid where the air is rare and exotic. I suck in as much as I can stand before I’m overcome and crash to the bottom. Then I start crawling back up again. One day I’m busting out. Could be I’ll spot Jim Morrison’s hot air balloon and stick out my thumb. Could be I’ll struggle just to end up nowhere and nothing more than a high protein package for a colony of worms. Maybe me, Jim, and the worms will all come out winners. Don’t make much difference; I can see the glassy sides now even when I don’t want to. Nothing to do but climb.”
He stretches and sighs. “Gotta leave early today. Starting a new job in the kitchen at the Horned Toad Café.”
“What happened to desk-clerking at the hotel?”
“Dirty dishes don’t bitch at you. And most everybody in the kitchen speaks Spanish. So, I’ll pick up a second language.”
She nods her head and wonders what will happen this week.