fiction…

I Would Prefer Not To

That night she made the mistake of turning on the TV when she returned to her hotel room. The screen seemed to be as wide as the bed, and the bed was a wide bed. She would curl up at its very edge when it came time to close her eyes, as though it were a frightening territory she was unwilling to explore. But she turned on the TV when she should have gone to sleep and she tuned into a late night movie about a young black man in South America who was employed in a photocopy store to attend to one of the photocopy machines. She felt vaguely uncomfortable that she described the man to herself as a young black man, and wondered whether if he had been white she would have described him as a young white man. The young man would copy images and text onto reams upon reams of paper, and every now and again as he copied he would read sentences, or even paragraphs, though sometimes only single phrases or words. These stayed with him. He would glean knowledge through his copying and almost knew by heart a sonnet from Shakespeare, which later in the movie he would copy out by hand for his new girlfriend. Tired, she did not watch the end of the movie, but turned out the lights instead.

When she woke the next morning she noticed for the first time the three framed pictures that were hung from her hotel room walls. One above the bed, one above the couch that was adjacent to the bed, and one beside the door of her room. She looked and what she saw was that all the pictures were repetitions, replicas, of the one identical print. The print depicted circles within circles rendered in dull water-colour. They were copies, and she had to look hard to be sure, as she could not at first believe it. The only thing to distinguish them – even the frames were the same – were their different locations in this one room. When she had first arrived she had asked to change rooms, as she could not bear being in a space where no window could be opened. A little air is all she needed, a simple request, not a white terry-towelling gown, nor a black labelled bottle of warm champagne. Besides which, the carpet smelt bad. Her first room had been furnished with an aluminium sliding door, and outside she could see that there was a narrow balcony, but in front of the sliding door there had been installed another layer of glass, framed in three segments, perfectly sealed, and now spider webs grew all over the handle of the old sliding door, which had not been opened since whenever. Fortunately the young hotel staff were obliging, and she was moved across the corridor where she could now open a similar sliding door just a few inches, as this second room had not been fully renovated. Outside the window was a busy road rushing toward her, and across the way a corrugated iron roof that redistributed the sunlight into the room as patches of glare.

Having slept at the very edge of the very wide bed of her new room she had not slept well. After breakfast she wandered to the workshop to meet the others. There she asked for directions to the nearest stationary supply store, and eventually, as verbal directions proved useless, she was given a scribbled mud map to follow. She read this map carefully, but first she went outside the makeshift gallery where the workshop participants had gathered for their instructions and turned in the wrong direction in order to see what was on the other side of the interior wall. She wanted to see what was on the outside. It was a banal, mostly empty carpark scene, and a surveillance camera. A boom gate, some white lines painted over the bitumen, and the external wall of the gallery coated in a nasty ochre and a dirty red. Through the mean clerestory windows, framed in lots of three, she could make out the suspended fluorescent lights of the interior.

Then she made her way across three city blocks, and it struck her again that this place felt like a quiet country town, no matter if it was a capital city. The streets were not yet busy, though cars were serenely circling like the fun-ride seats of a carousel around Light Park. At first she walked right by the supply store, as the map had located it on the incorrect corner, and she had been paying more attention to the map than to where she was actually walking. Back tracking she found the store and bought one piece of white chalk, and one piece of black charcoal, as well as other sundry items. The store attendant placed the writing styluses in a little white box so that they would not smudge the interior of her knapsack, and off she went again, taking a slightly different path back, winding through the almost treeless park. It was windy and a couple lay embracing on the grass by a monument to a surveyor and as she neared them a small branch fell from a tree and lightly grazed the man’s shoulder. He started up in surprise and stared at her. On her return she also saw the convener of the workshop deep in conversation in a café, her hair hanging on either side of her face like two screens as she bent over the table. And even though a window and a street separated them the sound of her three bangles knocking against each other could be dimly perceived.

It should also be noted that she had deliberately paused at several walls, choosing the quieter back streets for her ambiguous interventions, and she had inscribed on each of these walls the brief phrase: I would prefer not to. There was the residue of white chalk on her fingers, and she now kept the stick of it in her right pocket. When she arrived again in the workshop, which was to double as a makeshift gallery, she relocated one of the tables to the wall and arranged a white folding chair so that her back would be turned to the room and the others. This was part of a territorial gesture of excluding herself, of enacting the phrase she had inscribed, of placing her action to the side and in question. Still, she was cautious, and so as to create some life-line to the busy community that surrounded her she also arranged a black plastic chair, the kind that you would find in a school classroom, adjacent to the table, and with its back to the wall. This was offered as an invitation for the possibility of conversation. Above the desk, on the white wall, using her charcoal stylus, she wrote the phrase: I would prefer not to. She then ventured outside again, and on the exterior face of the same wall she wrote, yet again, this time in white chalk, the phrase: I would prefer not to. She made sure that the formulas inscribed on either side of the wall, inside and out, were placed in approximately the same location. Then she returned to her work seat at the writing table she had installed for herself.

Inside, on the table that had first collapsed when she had attempted to move it to the periphery of the room, and which had required three of them, all women in deep conversation, to put it back together again, she arranged two books, and one photocopied essay. That is to say she arranged three essays to which she would refer for her contribution to the workshop, each of which related to the phrase she had inscribed both on her return from the supply store, and on the interior and exterior of the wall against which she had pushed her appropriated desk. All she really needed was a small green screen to create her sanctuary, but the placement of what furniture was available would have to be enough given the time constraints and the circumstances. She also had her laptop open, a small, old case of watercolours (she had also purchased a water colour notebook just in case, but would not have time to use it); some fine, felt-tip black pens; a diary from her travels through the Czech Republic in the mid-1990’s, including the rest of the strange trajectory she had taken which had led her aimlessly back and forth from east to west to far east to west and back again; and finally a stack of catalogue cards that she had purchased years before at a flea market. They had come in a black box, and included catalogue card dividers with letters printed on the tabs to facilitate alphabetical ordering. She had decided that her intervention, or action, or performance, would be to sit here for the rest of the day and copy out quotes from the three essays she had gathered, upon which she would sometimes extrapolate.

What she will contribute is her performance as copyist, she decides, and she will copy out what appear to be significant portions of the three essays. This requires an act of selection, and she admits freely to herself that another copyist would be likely to make a slightly different selection. Although it would be helpful here to go into more detail about the three essays and what they had to say to her, as well as the details of her general thesis, I would not want to risk boring you with the particulars. Somehow such details seem inappropriate here. What can be said is that there is a key essay around which she claimed two other essays, written later, circled as though in deference. What each essay shares is the treatment of a phrase, or a formula, that is enunciated by a peculiar character who appears as though out of nowhere in a short story by Herman Melville. The phrase is: I would prefer not to, and the character’s name is Bartleby. As she explained to me, she has travelled to this workshop, as requested, with a ready-made item that she is prepared to work upon. This phrase then constitutes her material, or that is what she told me when I found her at my office door.

The convener of the workshop enters and begins to make her rounds of the participants, many of whom are back in the workshop and clearly busy with their contributions. When earlier in the day she had briefly explained to the convener that the one important thing she had brought with her was the phrase: I would prefer not to, the convener of the workshop had started in recognition and surprise and described a movie she had watched as an eleven year old. Her parents, as it turned out, had sent her off to bed before the movie ended, so she did not know what had become of the curious character, Bartleby, but she vividly remembered his refrain. The convener also vaguely recalls some moment of indiscretion wherein it appeared that Bartleby had been discovered by the attorney in flagrante delicto. He is wearing an under shirt and is present in the office on a Sunday, and scuttles behind his green screen when the attorney surprises him. This is the moment at which the hapless employer realises that Bartleby has moved into his chambers, and soon after Bartleby will also refuse to undertake his key chore of copying documents. Perhaps he has given up already. Certainly he no longer, if ever he did, agrees to run errands for ink and paper, or to the post office, or around the corner for lunch orders. He has also declined to check the copy of the other clerks by reading aloud, and so the phrase, his formula, his curious tick is enunciated in at least ten different occasions in Melville’s story. What’s more, the phrase, well, the word ‘prefer’, becomes infectious, and the other employees begin to enunciate it one after the other. As has been pointed out in the three essays that she reads, Bartleby neither refuses nor accepts, it is neither negation nor affirmation, but a vertiginous oscillation between positions. I would prefer not to. It is also as though there comes a moment when Bartleby and his formula become interchangeable, one cannot exist without the other, and the positions they each take up seem to cross-over into each other. It is a curious situation, she agrees, his reality appears to be defined now only in his capacity to politely decline, to simply suggest, to almost apologise: I would prefer not to.

When she too performs this refrain, without actually announcing it, but instead by copying it out onto a surface so that it risks becoming something like graffiti, a mark made where it does not belong, she somehow suspects that the voice she enunciates will not be heard in the same way. And as dutiful copyist she has repeatedly inscribed the phrase at moments along the trajectory of her walk through just a small section of the city, so bringing this city into some relation of ambivalence with the inside she now occupies with the others involved in the workshop.

Much like the attorney’s office on Wall Street, New York, the workshop has little by way of a view. Not even a white wall on one side and a blackened brick wall on the other upon which to dumbly gaze. It is as sparse as the so-called Tombs of Melville’s tale, though not at all reminiscent of a heavy Egyptian architecture. Here a leap of imagination would be required, or else, if you squinted your eyes just so you might get the feeling for the transposition that I’m trying to create here. Like the grassed courtyard of the Tombs, the prison house to which Bartleby is finally relocated as his phrase has perplexed one and all, effectively rendering him homeless, even stateless, so the workshop lends those gathered only small indications of the sky, and that is all. Bartleby no longer has any possessions, or else, all he has is his formula. Perhaps it is rather that his formula now possesses him.

When she first arrived at my office door in the department of B., she arrived unannounced, and without any references, but demanded my advice and wished to secure our relationship as some sort of pact. If I were to try and describe her, well, there are few distinguishing details that come to mind, she was little of anything, neither tall nor short, neither dark nor light, and her gaze always seemed to look across me, as though I were not quite there. I made enquiries, and requested further administrative assistance, which can be quite challenging in my place of work, but I told her she should lodge a formal application. As I already had quite a number of researchers with me I doubted that my quota would allow for another candidate. Later in the week I was told that she had left her application in triplicate, as required, with the front office. When I went to collect it I was sent first to one room then another, and finally hunted her application down on the floor below, where it had been misplaced and nearly lost beneath a pile of complaints. It was to be expected I suppose, what else did I think I would find, but that uncanny, unnerving phrase saying nothing much, neither accepting nor declining. Then just yesterday a small package was delivered with all the notes from the workshop she had attended. On account of its delicacy I removed my bangles before opening the final envelope, which included polaroid photographs, some further sundry photocopies, some notes from the three essays. I could see beneath the slightly out of focus images she had taken of each of the pictures that hung in her hotel room the smudged places where she had removed the phrase before her departure, and I whispered something to myself that I dare not repeat here for fear of a similar erasure.

 

Jigsaw Puzzle Creatures

The package was discovered outside the front gate when the rubbish was being removed to the big green bin with the number eight painted on it in white house paint. Fortunately no passer-by had taken advantage of the fact that the gate more or less sits on the pavement, as does the house itself, for the package could have been easily lifted and taken away. It was raining and no one rang on the doorbell, and no one would have necessarily been at home anyway. Except that they were, because it was that kind of Friday. They were upstairs in the study, but they heard nothing. The package was safe, despite the rain. Later in the day large puddles formed as they always do when it rains a little in these parts. It is quite by chance that the package was discovered when it was. It was double wrapped in those ubiquitous green, yet poisonously dyed shopping bags that aim at the reduction of the disaster of plastic. As the gate was unlocked and the package was retrieved, two thoughts sprung between the green double-bagged bag, inside of which was a brown paper bag, and the one who retrieved this package. The two thoughts were: First, this was another tentative gesture from the estranged father and grandfather who sometimes left gifts from a distance for his grandchildren. Second, this was the neighbour kindly leaving loaves of bread having visited a favourite baker in the next suburb, which would be very curious as the baker had just been visited and a loaf of bread had just that morning been left with this neighbour. So, perhaps it was an act of reciprocity? Or maybe they hadn’t needed the bread after all and they were returning it? Either way, in this house, brown paper bags seem to mean freshly baked bread recently purchased. Finally, curiosity opened the package, at which moment an exclamation was heard, an excited, even ebullient ah ha! After all, what better thing than a package anonymously delivered at the front gate. But the package was addressed to the little ones, meaning that the grown up ones should really wait until the little ones were home from kindergarten. In any case, the objects inside the brown paper bag were given a once over. This is what was found at a cursory glance: A disposable plastic blue camera; two boxes full of jigsaw puzzle pieces (you could see the contents by peeking through the gaps in the cardboard, custom-made boxes, which had been hand-stitched together); two envelopes, one corresponding to each puzzle box; a return postage paid padded A2 envelope on which the author’s name was finally revealed; and also the envelope which had been stuck to the exterior of the brown paper bag, which identified by name the two young recipients. Two boys, Felix and Florian, neither of whom were going to have a chance with those puzzles, but this would not get in their way of having fun.

There were other things inside the several envelopes, such as polaroid photographs and diagrams and sewing pins to hold things together, and these items will be elucidated in time. One item of particular interest and use, as it could be incorporated into the mother’s current Birds of Paradise Project, was the list of endangered Australian flora and fauna. The idea of hybrid Australian animals had come to mind some two or so years before on a trip to the promontory. Bush fire season had set in with spot fires about the place, and when the wind blew in the wrong direction the sky would be strewn with lurid oranges and violent purples as the sun set. Horse flies and the stink of sheep and sometimes air that was so thick they were obliged to stay indoors and play games. In the evenings, and sometimes also around dawn they would hear a strange bird call, lasting up to forty minutes, composed of series of high pitched sounds that incrementally increased in pitch with each enunciation until the secretive bird would fall silent again, as though out of breath. One afternoon when the air was particularly bad they composed Christmas postcards at the kitchen table depicting animals escaping Christmas fires. The animals were made-over imaginary, composed of mismatching heads and torsos, and tails that did not fit. And as they escaped across the white space of the postcard they left behind them in the far upper left corner a Christmas star, blazing brightly. The German grandparents, being rather devout, did not really get it when their Christmas postcard arrived in the mail in the small town of B. They were concerned about the way the animals were racing away at such great speeds. That year nearly everyone received a home-made hybrid-animals-escaping-from-bushland-fires Christmas card. This was before the really bad one swept through. The year of the terrible fires they had already been in Berlin a week before they heard about it on the news, as each day the death toll noted another individual or family lost. They wanted to weep for those they did not know, but they were so far away and it was snowing. Outside in the early winter dark Prenzlauer Berg families were dragging small children around on the backs of timber sleds making patterns of grey lines, cutting a complex tracery of passageways through the soft white snow beneath which the footpaths and roads had entirely disappeared. How could you imagine the oppressive heat and fires and unnecessary deaths in this leaden sky heavy with snow weather?

When the little ones, the boys, returned home, and it was raining more than ever, they were exited with the wetness of their rain gear and the splashing and fuss and the bluestone street and its slipperiness, and the puddles. It was some ten minutes or so before the package was noticed by the older one, who already has an eye for these things and has grown accustomed to the idea of packages with presents from all kinds of friends and relatives, or even simply packages with single and multiple books, arriving at the door. Suffice to say he immediately wanted to play once he realised that this package partially belonged to him. They had to wait and eat dinner first. And so the large brown paper bag that had left behind its two outer green carapaces waited quietly on the sideboard.

The frenetic time between dinner and bed-time turned out to be not the most suitable moment for complicated jigsaw puzzle misadventures. The little one swept the pieces from the table, as the older one tried to collect them together. As soon as an advance was made, and a strategy formulated, again the pieces would be swept to the ground, and so they were finally packed away. The jigsaw puzzle pieces were returned to their sewn together boxes alongside the polaroid pictures that were peeked at in advance of completing the puzzles, and the sewing pins, and further images and explanations, and disposable plastic blue camera. All of it was packed away. Particularly poignant were the polaroid photographs and their lack of focus. News had reached them the week before that the last place in the world that still made polaroid film was finally closing, and so this old technology would be made defunct, and all those once loved polaroid cameras that could still be found in flea markets and dusty hock shops would now wait eternally unrequited, the sensitive film upon which they once bore witness to the banal and the wonderful now non-existent. A lament was in order.

The letter that went with the two boxes of jigsaw puzzle pieces explained what to do, and that all the items had to be returned in the return postage paid padded bag, except for the list of endangered Australian flora and fauna, which could be kept. There was one minor concern, and that was that the date the package was due to be returned had already passed. The 22nd of September had been stipulated, even though the package had only just arrived on Friday the 25th. Another strange thing that made at least one of those gathered tremble slightly: it appeared that the roll of film in the disposable plastic blue camera had already been advanced to the 24th and final shot. For a moment there was the terrible suspicion that the package had arrived earlier in the week, or even last week, and that someone had indeed taken it while passing by, completed all the instructions, including documenting their work with the use of the camera, and then returned the package quietly to the front door with all the photographs used up, awaiting the unexpected in the event of the film being processed. That would explain the strange question of the anomalous date. But no, this could not be so. The camera had been sealed in plastic and the kitchen scissors had been used to open it, so some other mishap must have occurred. The plastic blue disposable camera had been included in the package so that the process of constructing the jigsaw puzzles could be documented. The instructions explained: 12 shots per jigsaw puzzle, making 24 shots. It would probably not be long before Kodac and other such factories also closed their doors on that kind of film. The sadness of inevitable technological redundancies, built in obsolescence, the extinction of old species, against which strives the joy of the novel and the avarice of the new.

Just two weeks before, three similar disposable cameras had been purchased when all other technology had failed, as it does, as it will do, as they drove without connection cables, or without battery recharging devices, or having forgotten digital cameras, through the dying ecology of the Coorong, and then after a night in Beachport, through the prehistoric volcanic landscape, the Stony Rises, around Camperdown, Victoria. There they bore witness to roads that undulated with the millennia old heaving flows of fiery hot lava now seemingly frozen in place. Volcanos so ancient that instead of appearing explosively conical they were rounded and humped with geological age. So three of the travellers used disposable cameras, which they bought along the way at the general store in Milicent in order to map the wondrous progress of their affective mapping tour. The mother of the two little ones has yet to process her film. She returned home from the road trip to her very own basalt or bluestone, narrow cobbled lavatic street in wonder that the remains of volcanic explosions that had occurred in inland Victoria millennia ago now paved her daily way.

After the first unsuccessful attempt at Jigsaw Puzzle A, and once the problem with the plastic blue disposable camera had been discovered (there was still the suspicion that one of them had accidentally wound the film too far by mistake), the large brown paper bag with all its goodies was placed to the side for the duration of the weekend. On the Sunday evening, once the little ones were in bed, the father returned with a new disposable camera, which he had purchased at Kmart. Now, if the instructions inside the first envelope were to be followed, at least in principle, that left only Monday, Tuesday and part of Wednesday, by which time the package should really be returned inside the postage paid padded package. Five days had been allowed for the experiment, and if the anomaly with the dates was ignored, then they could simply proceed according to that principle. Unless five days was five working days, which might mean that the weekend did not have to be counted? In any case, the brown paper bag sat there on the sideboard beneath the reading lamp waiting until the little ones and grown ups decided what to do with its contents.

On Tuesday evening, the night before the five days would be up, if you counted the five days as extending between Friday lunchtime and Wednesday lunchtime, that is, if the weekend was to be included in the count, the brown paper package continued to sit where it had been placed on Friday evening, after the little ones’ bedtime stories had been read, beneath an old reading lamp that was habitually left on. Somehow, probably due to mischievous little hands, both boxes had been removed from the bag by Tuesday evening, and now they lay side by side like friends, each with their lids partially open as though to speak. They lay beneath the incandescent non-efficient energy glow of the reading lamp, as though spot lit on a stage in anticipation of action. No doubt if you listened carefully you would hear the restlessness of jigsaw puzzle pieces within.

On Wednesday morning the four year old did something he rarely does, he ventured down stairs first. Normally he waits for the grown ups, otherwise he comes to snuggle in bed, pressing his cold feet against their warm backs, where he either half falls asleep again or begins to whisper for breakfast. That morning, when he returned up the stairs he left in his wake, along the white wall of the stairwell streaks of blackened little child finger prints tracing lovely long dark lines without looking. He hopped back into bed with the grown-ups who then awoke to see all the white cotton sheets smudged in patches and spots of darkness, as though the child had been fingering charcoal. The mother went downstairs first to discover the source of the tenebrous stuff and found that the contents of jigsaw puzzle packages A and B had been slowly smouldering beneath the intensity of the lamp that had been carelessly left on for far too long, but which had since lost its internal filament thereby extinguishing its light. She sifted her finger slowly around inside the boxes of jigsaw puzzle remains, and found two small pieces, one in each box, that were still intact. Impressed on these last remaining jigsaw puzzle pieces, while the rest of the interior of the boxes had almost been reduced to charcoal dust, was the clenched talons of a Sooty Owl (Tyto tenebricosa) in box A, and the beak and partial skull of an Eastern Ground Parrot (Pezoporous wallicus wallicus) in box B, both of whom had just managed to survive the near fire.

 

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