Janice by David Capps
Janice’s bag seemed heavy, not that I would pick it up: a black trash bag sunk in the corner of her otherwise sparse apartment, spilling over with the contents of her life. Don’t touch it, she said like she was speaking to a child. A college student, in many ways I was still a child. She didn’t remember that she’d shown me a lot already: photos of her estranged kids, a mix tape she’d made from her days as a fitness instructor at the Y, newspaper clippings, some baby clothes, a small statue of a white horse. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the contents of seagulls’ stomachs: mixed plastics, cigarette butts, shards of driftwood, fishing line; it was like that, the same sort of diversity, disarray, the impossibility I projected onto her of organizing life into a single coherent whole. A coherence mirrored in the environment, how I imagined my neatly stacked bookshelf reflected a scholarly mind. She was a ‘townie’. I was a budding scholar, of course. The shelf had its order, just as the pages within a book had theirs, and the lines on a page, and finally that sublime set of correspondences between the author’s intent and their words which comes close enough to unity to annihilate all the local disorders, the chaos of the world’s exposed gut. It’s possible that I was reading too much Leibniz then, absorbing into myself whatever I thought were his views. In Leibniz’ Monadology there was a perfect structure. Everything that existed was composed of monads, indivisible spiritual bits that corresponded to appetites on the low end of the spectrum and rationality at the high end, dominating the spiritual landscape like a sparkling jewel. My universe was a kind of matrix of these points: each person was a windowless mirror reflecting every other without ever any genuine interaction. There couldn’t have been a more tempting or a more fragile theory than that.
I used to imagine bringing her a giant pinecone every day, so that eventually the bag would fill up, overflow onto the carpet. There would be the soft needles of the forest floor, the smell of conifer in her bed, plumes whose pine resin between the blankets would consume her sweat-stained mattress, given enough time become the ancient forest whose vines would climb up the rickety fire escape out on the roof of the building overgrown with ivy; you could see from a distance the birdhouses in windows, the ground floor buckling, Janice’s apartment shot through with massive roots, mycelial layers between rotted studs. As the storm began to gather I would call down to her as she clawed her way through the garbage bag to join me. Then lightning would strike and it would be like in my dream, all the concrete would shatter into pieces and there would be no more regret. She did smile the time I brought her back a gigantic pinecone from the State Park. I believe it made it into the garbage bag. Perhaps she reminded me of my own grandmother in Michigan. Janice had the same spontaneity of spirit as my grandmother, who had begun to show signs of dementia after my grandfather’s passing.
We first met on a winter afternoon; I was walking to campus when I saw this old lady romping and reeling in the snow, hurling snowballs at the brick exterior of an apartment building. She was more spirited than some older folks I knew in the small town that was Kirksville, Missouri. Plus she had electric eyes, and a shock of white hair that made it seem as if she had electrocuted herself. Perhaps she’d shown the same spontaneity I’d years later reject if I suspected it to be drug-induced and occurring on the New Haven green. But you can’t compare these things. Like when I asked her what her biggest regret was and she said it was that she didn’t have enough sex; I didn’t then think: “so you’re that kind of person, a hedonist”. I didn’t think anything at all, since I was simply taking in experiences at the time (that was my one imperative: Experience) although probably if the question had been raised I would have categorized Janice that way. The beer, the track marks on her arms, the bursts of laughter, the memories of flings all pointed towards ‘pleasure’ as a fundamental good. I would have been wrong since any viable hedonism requires some distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures.
Probably I’m not the first person to fantasize about being struck by lightning. Not that I would want to be killed, or suffer the nerve damage or recurring burning sensation, but to be gifted the Lichtenberg Figures aka ‘keraunographic mark’ aka ‘lightning flower’ or ‘lightning tree’ formed by the transmission of static electricity through blood vessels just under the skin, a bodily record of an event so unmistakable that I think it must be called a ‘memory’ in the old and now antiquated sense of the term, which is not ‘constructive’ within some narrow range of rewards to which its mental map applies, sensitive to saliences, etc. but is marked by truth, visited by nature’s inspiration, free of the pollution of human intent. Isn’t it Pliny The Elder who says that only a human being can survive being struck by lightning?
If regret and hope were antonyms, their logical structure should mirror each other. You prepare for the slight stumble when climbing to the summit of a cathedral, the residue of moldy air your lungs at one particular step will expel; the smallness of the houses clustered so closely together that they make you pretend the city is a hamlet; that you call yourself by a different name and bask in the symmetry between being viewed from below and looking upon from above: such is part of the fullness of anticipation. Yet when you envision yourself in the future, looking back upon some personal failing—that you never married, perhaps, or didn’t have children, or didn’t finish In Search of Lost Time which lies forever open on your bookshelf, you don’t then imagine yourself regretting not having had the courage to cast your social net more widely, to have broken off a stagnant relationship, or devoted an hour before you slept each night to finishing what you would eventually leave unfinished. Regret seems directed at the single event with a hazy aura dancing around it, or like a cloud whose droplets are not pictured as ‘conditions to be met’ or requirements for some goal to be accomplished. They are accidental side-effects, ephemera of some event over which you have no control and, paradoxically, has already occurred. You become like the killer wasp that invades a honeycomb and is heat-smothered by gyrating worker bees who join in, one by one collecting around the stinger’s intent, at the center of a meleé of bodies heaped on bodies rising and steaming before you which leaves only an empty husk in its hive, so we are stifled to death by the swarming prospects of our fevered dreams.
Once I woke up in my room after she had burst in the door and immediately straddled on top of me. It was nothing like the sort of violence I had brushed up against before, like the time my friend Jimmy and I were surrounded in the parking lot of Leisure World by a bunch of guys who were irate at Jimmy for wearing a pink tank top to the bowling alley; nor was it like the time my friend Phil got cold-clocked by a frat guy for staying on too long at his party. Looking back, those were about the brusque enforcement of gender norms, social identities, none of which I had the categories to express. And it was a far cry from the sort of violence that requires the perpetrator to alienate their own humanity. I guess all it had was a feeling of violence. I had to politely tell her not to do that again. I’ve always been the sort of person who enjoys sleep, be it on the floor in the middle of the afternoon, or wherever. What beats a commune with lord Hypnos? Surely not waking life. For this my grandmother is partly to blame, having over-indulged me in daydreaming as a child. How the days would pass at my grandparents’ house, playing Tinkerbell while my brother was Peter Pan and we flew to Never-never Land on a ‘magic carpet’ that in reality was a dingy floor mat by the stove. Such is the downside of not taking myself seriously. Perhaps I have a certain admiration for people who don’t act their age; after all, seriousness ages you. ‘Oh, so Janice is a surrogate grandmother?’ No. But much as I barely knew her, and circumstances had not allowed my appreciation for my grandmother to deepen, I may have had some unconscious drive to precipitate the burdens of a friendship.
Lucan said, “May it be sudden, whatever you plan for us; may man’s mind be blind to the future. Let him hope on in his fears.” Sometimes you scatter like repetitious moons through clouds, thoughts reduced to one cogent star receding with the long flood of night. A body turning between sheets, you cross over into that sublime recklessness where in your own reflection you see your grandmother mirroring your movements, her white hair pulled back, fleeing after the jade peacock which holds it together. If only your own green eyes were so unknowing they could fly opal-like into that disintegrating garden of curls, and time in indecisive strands chase down what is consumed in the clawing clarity of cause and effect.
You find yourself at her bedside in a room of motionless: a desk, lamp, glass, letter-opener, old theatre program on the nightstand, your morbid identity staked to the glimmers of a personal history—things which come to settle in attic space, in nests of unhappy relatives, cast on the lawn amid items of a bloated yard sale—does that greatest of all monads create such types of things that organize the world, now taken from her even as she slaps her knee laughing at a joke she no longer understands? What becomes of this gesture, slapping a knee? She looks at you, then the spoon then you, you persist in this mimicry, this welt spinning, this hungerless signing. There is no greeting. A look from her wipes the language off your face. You move closer to wipe the drippings from her chin. Each of you is a windowless widow. “That way’s the door” she seems to want to say. The corners of her mouth speak otherwise, hover over signs of signs, breakages of age, timings of long dam-like looks, as when she was bedridden covered with poison ivy, silent to her family living in the sweltering boxcar of their first home, unwelcoming of her children’s kisses.
Her foot is swollen but the pain is in the lamp. She says of a pot broken in a hundred pieces at her feet I’m trying to find an art. Her face belies such silly-talk, scarred from scolding. Her daughter is “the old lady who has come to take me away.” You wish you could have asked her: does it make a difference where pain is, whether pain moves, or resides in some distant cause? You also kicked through a door once when your brother locked you in the closet and there was a pair of cowboy boots. No shame in it. Sometimes arteries open and out fly hundreds of moths bent on taking advantage of the lord’s house. You agree the mice that slipped silently under the barn door carrying their white horse, their Christ, their crystalline monads in the free fall of predication.
Lucan is right: may death come suddenly, at the urges of memory, as snakes having ceased writhing form a statue with which you end. May someone never arrive whose face you do not recognize except through your skin’s galvanized lightning, whomever this never person is may take down the plastic star and pack it away with the rest. You whoever you are fall short of Who who falls short of who she was. That person. Janice of the same suddenness of spirit to escape from your house and walk through fields until darkness itself went walking in search of lost memory, whose suddenness replaces what we call memory with continuous moments of attention, which like the direction of light from the windows of others depend greatly upon the weight of your steps.
There are just memories now, vague impressions, not anything so dense and inexplicable as nostalgia or regret. The waves roll gently onto the sand, and the docks by the sound, deserted in winter, extend like fingertips that hope to caress the horizon. Salt-white hair. Smudged red lipstick. Footsy in the diner, her magically thinking we were on a date. The subway car rattling in her lungs. A lingering sense of propriety. My friends’ laughter at what we’re not. The apartment littered with sheet music and cans of Bud Light. Sea foam and the stomach’s black lining. Memory’s ghost throwing snowballs against a brick façade. Wonder at what the ocean can absorb.
“Years later I went back and visited her and she didn’t recognize me at first, and then she did after I explained myself, and then I never saw her again.” I suppose I could say that, or suggest it to you, or somehow imply it. This could also be some story I conclude by saying we had sex, or perhaps one of those heartfelt hugs you always remember because it marked a certain time in life after which you changed. But none of that would be true. It’s like this: the past exists, the present, and the future, equal parts of a road spread out, with broken cars abandoned in the forest long after the road is yielded back, posh new cars streaming on ahead shifting with their driver’s fanatical smile, then pumping the brakes to turn again along that tiny winding side street that led back to Missouri and down into the Ozarks and back to Michigan for your grandmother’s funeral, and then to the turtledoves necking on a park bench in New Haven where the leaning towers of sketches seem to fall for eternity, obliterated by the opioids in their systems calling them to Never-never Land, stunned by the lights from the giant Christmas tree on the green, the symbol of friendship and love and togetherness and everything that she may have felt, explaining in her fall-down drunkenness how as a single mom she taught her youngest boy to ‘hold it’ while using the toilet in her first apartment which was just as cramped as this one and we laughed together with brisk winter wind dawning through the open window. What after that I can’t say. Is it only because we live and forget the bulk of it? Is it because we don’t live and fabricate what possibly remains?
In a dream my mother is emptying out her house of various objects, some of which we are loading onto a truck to be sold, others we are holding onto. We are sorting through them, and I am attempting to find a particular antique child’s sled, with a flat wood base and copper handles that have a greenish patina. The odd thing is that this same sled occurred in my previous dream, where it lay for sale on a long table amid a number of other antiques in the downstairs of a building that was simultaneously an art gallery and a psychiatric ward where I was staying. The price tag on the scratched out label read ‘regret’. Scratched out, meaning illegible, meaning abstract, meaning not particular, meaning: not salient to memory, meaning useless to the organism’s cognitive economy, to be discarded unless for some unknown reason we ourselves take an active role in maintaining it, layering and layering around that spark which had originally drawn us to it.
Somewhere back in Kirksville, Janice tells me her father was a “dozerman,” and glittering with snow she draws her frail arm back.
David Capps is a philosophy professor and poet who lives in New Haven, CT. He is the author of three chapbooks: Poems from the First Voyage (The Nasiona Press, 2019), A Non-Grecian Non-Urn (Yavanika Press, 2019), and Colossi (Kelsay Books, 2020)