Harp & Altar
Joshua Cohen
from North Vain, Bluff

Evelyn Hampton

Lily Hoang

Peter Markus

Bryson Newhart

Robert Walser
translated by Mark Harman and Walter Arndt

Evelyn Hampton

While I am talking with him I am also walking, and I've lost track of where I am by the time our conversation pauses. Curtains get in the way, obstructing light as clutter obstructs movement. He is not someone I have ever been comfortable with—I can't recall his name—so I am more aware of my body while I'm walking and intonation while I'm talking than I am when with a familiar person, whose ways of judging me won't surprise me. It doesn't help that he's a back-patter and an arm-grabber, likes to touch while conversing. The wind, when it lifted and filled the curtains my mother hung in my bedroom, caused the curtains to take on the proportions of a body. When I am with him I take on his mood and bearing, which I don't generally do with anyone anymore, not since I was a child and an excellent mimic because shy and easily frightened. He tells me that we should see the exhibit he's so excited to see and has been talking about while we've been walking away from the building where I should have turned right, gone three blocks, and entered my apartment building. I like to eat meals alone and know I will be hungry at the exhibit because hunger, for me, is what happens when concentration lapses and becomes boredom. He will not yet be hungry because absorbed in his surroundings, so I will pretend not to be hungry.

I have finally arranged my apartment in a way that I like—sun on uncluttered surfaces, and blinds, no curtains. After I threw out all the things my mother had in storage, I bought the sort of table I've long admired but never purchased. Now I have the sort of table I admire, purchased from a furniture store near the printing shop where my father worked until his early death. The shop is still there, but it is owned by different people, not the two brothers who were identical in their rough treatment of me, so that they seemed to be the same person. I feared their language and mannerisms but not their bodies, whose names I could never remember, so I couldn't loathe them, because I might call one by the name of the one who was absent and thus not treating me in a way—patting my back, lifting me over his head, twirling me in circles and setting me down when I was dizzy—that made me nervous and uncertain. I rarely saw them together, so I came to think of them as one person. Of course I realized it was the wind and not really a person, but the likeness was uncanny, wind being an excellent mimic, in sound and movement, of human distress. Though I once pretended to be near-sighted, groping my way along blindly, I now wear glasses. The table is used, but the wood has been treated well, and its surface glows when sun fans across it through the blinds I keep open should something beautiful or unexpected happen outside my window, which looks out on the brick wall of the neighboring building—should the brick wall crumble, that I might see it.

The exhibit doesn't pertain to my interests, but I agree to go. Then I anticipate trying to find my way back to my building, where I look forward to eating a meal alone, facing the window and the brick wall beyond it, a meal that I purchased to celebrate something that is probably important to no one but me, so I don't mention it to the man after we agree to see the exhibit, and then our conversation pauses while we continue walking. I want him to part from me so that I can turn around and go back to my apartment. I liked the way my dresses belled out from my body when I was spun, but I hated having to stumble in circles, watched and laughed at, after. I'm too uncomfortable with him to mention that we've passed my turn, and I'm beginning to hope he doesn't ask me where I'm living. Telling him where I'm living would be like admitting that I've let him lead me away from my turn, that I’ve given him this power, and that now I will have to do more work to get where I am going than he will to get where he is going. I like to eat alone, though this can be difficult in practice. As a child I was often reminded that one cannot exist in a vacuum. Feeling my way along blindly, I wanted to find an unexpected doorway the size of my body. But then I realize I don't know where he's going, and I don't know where he lives.

Perhaps he was lost before we met on the street outside the market where I purchased the meal I anticipate eating alone, and he approached me because I am familiar, having a place in the structure of his memory. Like a body, only less reliably constant in proportion. The dampness had caused many of the boxes to become sodden, their contents mildewed, pages of books and letters and other handwritten documents illegible. Sorting through all of my mother's belongings took me weeks. Working alone in her dingy basement where light was scarce and dampness pervasive, I often became confused about where I was in the process, about which items I had decided to discard and about which I was uncertain. Stumbling, wanting badly to grab onto the first solid shape I came to for support. Clumsily, I shuffled together papers, photos and files, and as if a strong wind had blown across everything, any order that may have been there, and which may have told me something I didn't know about my mother, such as how she ordered her memories, was lost. I became lost easily as a child, losing myself in places I knew well, like the hallways of the elementary school building, when anything about the places—light, wall decorations, crowdedness—changed, and in conversations. For this reason and probably others, I resisted change as if it were death. But while one order was lost, a new one was created, one that might have told me more about myself, had I looked at it with discernment. Once I grabbed a man who I thought was my father and was roughly shaken off, as if being given a lesson.

I'm not sure why I waited until after my mother's death to purchase the table. I remember I felt certain that he was my father—the proportions were right—but rightness is a matter of conviction, which is often based on misunderstanding or at least near-sighted apprehension. As I walked to the furniture store to choose the table, I felt that today is the day, and now I will do it, buy the thing I've long wanted but deny myself because I feel my stay here is temporary, of insubstantial time. The doorway was the fantasy of a child, but I still look for it when I am lost or lonely, and sometimes I misapprehend a structure or shadow and for a moment believe that I have found it, that I will enter, that I will become something different. A curtain shifting before closed windows. My mother preferred curtains, but when arranging my apartment I have chosen blinds because I never liked curtains. As a child I felt they were concealing bodies in their folds, the bodies of judgmental people who would follow me without retreat until I was old, and who one day would carry me away like wind carries away leaves of paper. Finally my father would pick me up and carry me away from discomfort. A conversation in which I'm ill at ease and lost finally pauses.

Finding the doorway made to fit only my body, I would enter and thereby escape the present situation. In a situation over which I have no control, I try to fit my preferences to those of others, and so will always be in many ways a child who is often lost and hungry. He likes to talk about his work, now I remember this about him. The exhibit will include something by him, he says, and though he is critical of some of the work that will appear near his, overall, he says, he thinks it will be a good show, well-organized, a good opportunity to network. I didn’t like being the center of their attention and wished to hide behind a curtain. I feel the food I've purchased for my anticipated solitary meal losing heat, and this loss seems to come from my body. The exhibit, he begins his every sentence, the exhibit is . . . . If not a child, then a receptacle for others' thoughts and emotions.

Frustrated, I threw away all of the damp boxes. It has begun to rain, and I fear the food I've purchased will be soggy by the time I finally find my way to my apartment. One box contained a ceramic sculpture I made as a child of my head. My mother kept it though it was not good, showed no talent, and made my face look too large and irregular where in life it isn't. Perhaps she enjoyed that about it, how exaggeration of the familiar can cause pleasant discomfort, such as laughter. I threw it out with the rest of her things, and afterward felt light, as if some weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I don’t remember much about my childhood besides moments of discomfort.

I would get up to close the window and find it was closed and locked tight as a vacuum. The trails of ink along the walls of our house came from my father's hands between his arrival home from work and when he went to the sink in the basement, a pause mediated by distance and usually silence. He didn't operate the printing machines, the machines were operated by men whose faces were always red and thrown back in laughter at jokes my mother called off-color. The machines were loud, with many tubes and wires, and many dials and buttons, none of which, when I examined them, were clearly labeled. So I came to think of them as one person. Sometimes my father would have to touch them, and his hands would be stained. My mother and father were rarely in the same room together, even while sleeping. I'm not sure I ever saw them touch one another on purpose. Our walls were off-white and absorbent, showing paths my father's hands had taken, which distressed my mother because the ink was so apparent, and what would it say about us, and so on.

She kept saying that one day she would paint the walls a deep crimson or purple, perhaps aubergine. My mother was a librarian and had stories about the words and stains she would find in margins of returned books. She said she found an odd note, written in looping handwriting, in a book about a condition that causes those afflicted to read and write letters and words backwards. If I can claim that a sense of direction is like the ability to read, then I will say that I have written my path through this city in a way that I cannot now decipher. Or perhaps it is a problem of memory. Once I entered the door, I would not be able to pass back through it. Partial entry was not permitted. No backpedaling. After I threw away all my mother's belongings, I considered that because she was a librarian, she had likely put them in a specific order, possibly one that would be unique and telling.

I have certain preferences pertaining to ink: I don't like it to smear or run or bleed through the paper. Finally the pause is interrupted when he asks me to write my telephone number on a small card he hands me so that he can call me about going to the exhibit. It is his calling card, and I see that his address is the building we're standing outside of, the doorway large and overarching. My understanding of such doorways is that they're meant to be intimidating, suggesting the smallness of the one entering compared with the largesse of the overall structure. I am both relieved and aggravated that he has not invited me in, and as I'm writing my phone number, the rain causes the ink to run though we're standing beneath an awning—the rain is running off my hand and onto the letters I'm writing—the ink being the kind that bleeds and runs away. My handwriting is often difficult to decipher, and sometimes I make it difficult on purpose, to hide or obstruct the information contained there. You cannot always be alone, aren't you lonely, and other questions asked of me by my mother. She didn't want the walls to look like a bruise, she eventually decided, so she didn't paint them.

Because I was unable to carry the table to my apartment, a man at the furniture store strapped it to the bed of his truck and drove both me and the table the twelve or so blocks to my apartment. With furniture, it's just the surface you have to be careful of, but with people, unless it's a dead person's body, in which case it's more like furniture, there are all these invisible little things that can set them off, the little things related to bigger things, the big things like filters or warped glasses through which people perceive themselves and their surroundings. This, though not exactly, is what the man told me as we were driving, and while I thought the comparison between furniture and people was simple, I understood what he meant, that a person’s past experience alters how she perceives her present surroundings, whereas the experience of furniture is recorded primarily on its surface. Along the way, the man got lost while telling me about how much he enjoyed the job at the furniture shop after working for so many years as a driver, first of a limo, then of a hearse. I did consider and fear when choosing it that its structure was compromised in ways that would only be apparent later, when I wasn’t expecting it, though this has not happened yet as far as I am aware.

As I am writing my phone number and watching the just-inked numbers blur, he calls the work of another sculptor superficial, which is a word I don't like, because who's to say that what's below a surface is not another surface, that one is better than another? I liked to trace the ink marks on the off-white walls with my finger the way I liked to trace my parents' signatures, mimicking the loops and folds of their thoughts as they were writing, as if what's written is any indication of what the writer was thinking. When I knew him best was when I was in school, studying painting, and he was an assistant professor who let it be known that painting, while often subtle, is inferior to sculpture because it lacks a dimension, but I never knew him well, and didn't want to. This seemed like such a simple criticism, yet one he held to with conviction, and it became part of his reputation, which surrounded him like a vacuum. Other words that are similar to simple, and which I know I've used, perhaps unfairly: facile, surface, superficial.

Finally we part, he going into his building, me turning in a circle before setting out in a direction. Realizing that I was being watched and possibly mocked, I would press my skirt down though the feeling of baring my legs was alluring. I look into doorways for the comfort of seeing someone in the midst of entering or exiting, the door opening, the air of inside and outside exchanging, a mouth slightly open as if awaiting an answer or arriving at the beginning or end of a sentence, and I suppose I do this because I would like to be where they are, in their thoughts for a moment. I tipped the man and thanked him for moving my table, which I could not have done alone, and he said something that concluded what he'd started to say earlier but left hanging—pink faded gum in the corner of his mouth—while he negotiated parking in a too-small space by pulling forward and backward, over and over, pivoting the steering wheel about his palm, motions that make me think of the tortuous movement—false starts, circling, and backpedaling—that goes on in me while I negotiate difficult conversations, and often while I'm writing, which is like having a conversation with one's memory.

People want to give you directions, said the man helping me with my table, They want you to listen to their problems and do for them what they can't do for themselves, which is different for everyone, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, you might be able to do something I can't, but I can do something your neighbor can't, so power among people is constantly shifting, and I can't understand how any one person ever gets to a place of importance, though ignorance is rampant, and—

I make my way back to my apartment by asking for directions at every corner, a practice I would probably not like in another person, but now that I am lost and in need of direction so that I can go to my apartment and eat the meal that by now is cold and probably hardened where it isn't soggy, I forget about what I dislike in other people, so I feel like a stranger to myself. The bag of food has become heavy because sodden with rain water, but probably most of the heaviness comes from fatigue in my muscles. I can't now remember all of what the man said while he drove me and my table to my apartment, or how he said it, but it was something about nobody being alone, or all of us having to work together, the sort of thing I would not say aloud because I fear it would sound facile, though sometimes I think it and say it to myself, as if I'm trying to persuade a multitude that traces circles in dirt with its toes while it listens.

The doorway to my building is stuck open, as it always is, by a doorjamb fashioned out of a folded and faded cigarette box. Inside my apartment, I strip off my sodden clothing. My style of clothing might be called makeshift. Same with my style of decorating, except for the table, a concession to a growing sense that I am stuck corporeally—I don't believe in a soul or afterlife or the supernatural—moving in one direction, my past decisions providing unseen momentum that will eventually carry me away from everything familiar. The curtains that billowed across my closed window were likely moved by the air vent in the ceiling above them, or some other reasonable explanation. The next thing I do is I take containers of food out of the bag that is now falling apart, disintegrating in strips and pieces, and I set the containers out on the table, seeing that the mark the clerk made on each container as to its contents has bled and faded, thinking of my mother, who was very difficult to get along with in old age because she thought I was someone else, a person she called by different names, sometimes the name of someone she loathed, sometimes my name, which marks me as someone. On an uncluttered surface, I set out my meal. I do all of this while naked.