[He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things.]
Of Depression: The colors refracted off the hull, through the windshield and burned my skin; I conducted a rolling re-entry into the atmosphere; a child looked out the window, the Jersey night sky unperturbed by clouds; my resplendent disintegration appeared like the warning shot from a lone, idle warship in orbit.
Upon my return: I watched Gandhi with Ben Kingsley; I listened to Fiona Apple’s Tidal; I wrote nature poems and incomprehensible rants paragraphed into dense, comma-spliced prose; I wandered the bookstore’s memoir and self-help sections.
For your consideration: That these events occurred remains unquestioned; Depression, however, makes revisionism a tempting practice; I remember, yet I cannot; I try to see it my way, but—how much slant should the truth contain? Was I the antagonist or the anti-villain?
Current state of mind: I am neither cured nor sated; I am still ill, as unstable as I am curious; like destructive lovers, Depression and I body-rock atop a tenement rooftop, red paper lanterns aglow, unfurling clothes and misinterpreting motives.
[They keep tryin’ to tell me, all you want to do is use me.]
At the train station, Amber greeted me with bells on. Underneath a school-girl uniform, crotchless panties tinkled the chime of a lone brass bell. I spun her love atop my fingertip, dribbled between my knees and launched the fadeaway jumper.
Returning from dinner, she asked, “How come you don’t hold my hand anymore?”
I called her a bitch. The comparison of a lover to a female dog conjured a deeper truth. “You don’t respect me,” Amber said. While she spoke, I thought about someone else. Was it an ex? A starlet? I blinked and said, “That’s not true. That’s not true. That’s not true.”
I carved my personal space out of the den, which had its own full bathroom and entrance via the side porch. The coffee-colored couch was where I slept and I had the big TV. Hunched over my laptop, I smoked two packs without having to share my air. I dreamt of dreadlocks and shoulder-length perms. Hair gave way to faces, to names. Some from my past, some from television or movies or albums. I dreamt of writing the great American novel, of becoming a star, of meeting a star and after the first affair, saying, “You see, she’s a celebrity. A ten. I mean, you understand.”
I worked on my first novel, its second and last iteration. My characters seldom executed their wishes. I played with action figures. Fat, black, near-sighted dolls. Plastic, depressed doppelgängers.
Amber stood over me, wearing her favorite dress: long, turquoise, almost sheer against direct light. She knew. She locked herself in the bathroom. I was maudlin in my explanation. “It’s not what you think. If you let me explain…”
Behind a closed door, her cries bloomed from a whimper into something apocalyptic. It was the sound of an animal gutted from the inside out, the sound of a human bludgeoned by her own memory.
In the shower, a few things ran through my brain as the hot water pounded my scalp. All the half-truths I told myself reached critical, systemic failure. I bashed my head, over and again, onto the tiled wall. Jesus, help me, I said.
The early vestiges of baldness appeared and, at times, I turned away. Amber broke the mug; coffee drizzled down the wall. She said, “If you want to leave, go.” Streaks of scalp glistened through her hair. I didn’t want to leave. Like that.
“Mensah, I’ll kill myself if you go…”
I stayed up all night. Trash was piled in our bedroom: random take-out containers and paper plates. Plastic rustled over the shattered window. I saw a broken chicken bone on the floor, its marrow a cross-pollination of black and purple.
The sudden counterpoint from the moonless night: dragons and bare-breasted sirens blanketed the white walls, pewter lamps that reminded me of an operating room, a white guy worked a hummingbird’s needle, its wondrous speed controlled by a foot pedal, into a brunette’s arm, her head turned toward the window, eyes closed, bottom lip bit.
The artist unsheathed the tattoo gun and examined multiple needles before finding the right caliber. His purple latex gloves brought back the operating room. Name stenciled, then re-stenciled to match the length and width of my upper arm, I reclined in the chair.
The long-haired fellow asked me, “What does Mensah mean?”
The writer looks for any means to document a formative period. I wanted something less ornate than Elizabethan love letters, but more elegant than Times New Roman. The “M” required a small spiral, like a Q, before the more familiar arches appeared.
The endorphins seeped into the localized wound and, soon, the chemicals yanked together the undulations of pain and imagination. The re-crystallization of the real: the blood, the stabs, the lights, the big-titted women on the walls, the power rock music through weak speakers.
My therapist, miffed at my rejection of antidepressants, wanted me to do something fun. I wanted physical pain coagulated into a needle. The fantastic punctured, I said, “Third born son. It’s true, as far as my mother’s concerned.”
“Cool,” he said. “What language is it?”
“West African,” I said. I could’ve been more specific. Should have, perhaps. Afrocentric darlings long murdered, an aversion toward suits and Whole Foods is the best I can do.
“Must be your first,” he said.
I wasn’t so far gone to misconstrue my memory as reliable. I had to find a visual journalism. The white gauze bled black and red. “Make sure to let it breathe,” he said. “And no scratching. Let it scab, then let the scab fall off naturally.”
I just had elective surgery, I said to myself. I took care in peeling the first piece of tape away, taking with it a few strands of arm hair stuck to its adhesive. Two strips removed, I listened to the white noise, the hiss of stretched skin until the wound gave way, a reluctant release. The site was moist and swollen. I marveled at the script, the precision akin to a tattoo artist’s rock-steady hand.
I rubbed the stubble on my face, studied the curvature of the cursive font on her college degrees mounted to the wall, and rolled her question around in my mind. “I never heard of it.”
“Dysthymia,” Dr. Elizabeth said. “A lower, more persistent form of Depression. Think of it as, if untreated, your baseline is here,” she said with her hand by her knee.
“When it should be up here,” she continued, moving her arm up toward her head. She leaned forward. “Has this happened before?”
I popped the cassette into the deck. The album was released with five different covers. One was a photo of a black girl chased by police in riot gear. Her face was a polished onyx; eyes wide and mouth agape: Emmett Till’s face, maybe. She was out of breath; the photo-freeze caught her toward the end of a dead sprint.
The usual cold attached to a New Jersey night in January. I sat parked in a vacant lot, across from a greenhouse. I started smoking again, or for the first time. Inside the blue-turned-gray interior of a hatchback, I looked toward the greenhouse.
[The anticipation arose as time froze, I stared off the stage with my eyes closed, and dove into the deep cosmos.]
“Yes,” I said. “When I was sixteen, I think. I remember holding my father’s pistol, then switching to a kitchen knife.”
The recognition was silent and absolute. Denim pants waterlogged at the cuffs, he ambled from the clouds, head down, hands in pockets. A humanoid draped in a hood, his breath rose like English fog. I stepped outside; disjointed hip-hop bellowed from the car door left ajar.
“What stopped you?” Dr. Elizabeth asked.
I realized I hadn’t thought about him in so long. The irony of repair: normalcy reclaimed its reign, sutured wounds closed and, with the pain dissipated, the scar went unnoticed. Still, his outline was a stalking afterthought. We finally crossed paths and passed head-nods amid an amicable divergence.
[I just fell all apart inside because I hadn’t heard that voice in such a long time. I turned around. Hi.]
The storefront window showcased copies of a book for an upcoming author signing. Most of the signings droned on and I leaned over the sales counter, hand-on-chin, as a new novelist or poet spoke to a room of four. Still, the authors were eager to speak, to sign and answer the paltry questions about writing processes and politics. I envied those dream merchants. They wrote books, I sold them.
At the time, I entered my Octavia Butler phase. When asked for a recommendation, I held Lilith’s Brood out to a gaggle of girls, different shades of brown and a few years younger than me. The leader guffawed like a cartoon dog. “Oh, you like those pro-black books,” she said to me.
As I rung up her copy of Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, I didn’t know what she meant, independent of the truth inside my nerve endings.
A young girl, no older than ten, entered the store. I walked up and asked, “Can I help you?”
“I need a poetry book,” the girl said. Her narrow eyes stared into me. “I have an assignment due on Monday.”
“Ah,” I said. “Well who’s your favorite poet?”
The glaze in her eyes, the blank stare, was as if I asked her to recite Pi. I thought she’d at least say Maya Angelou. She asked, “What do you recommend?”
I handed the girl a copy of Cotton Candy On A Rainy Day by Nikki Giovanni. She held the violet book, the poet’s picture on the front cover. She broke its slim spine and began to scope out the introduction as we walked back to the register.
Closing time and the drudgery was easy. The store’s front gate was half-lowered. Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” warbled from the ceiling. My co-workers traded college war stories: exams and papers and post-graduation plans. I handed the girl her change and followed her to the store’s entrance. “Watch your head,” I said.
[granting problems coming
are no less painful
than those out of our hands
i never really do worry
about the atomic destruction
of the universe]
Produced by Depression. All Memory Mixing by The Anti-Villain & Depression. All Lyrics Written by The Anti-Villain. Story Recorded at 3rd Son Studios, Millville, NJ.
Cast (in order of appearance)
[Vladimir Nabokov, “Signs and Symbols” The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Vintage, 1997) 600]
The Anti-Villain – The author
[Bill Withers, Use Me, Sussex, Los Angeles, 1972.]
Amber Rose Masterson – ???
The Tattoo Artist – Himself
Dr. Elizabeth – My former therapist at the Pastoral Institute, Columbus, GA
[The Roots, Act Too: Love of My Life, Geffen, New York City, 1999.]
The Humanoid – John Giunta (RIP)
[James Yancey, Hi. Stones Throw, Los Angeles, 2006. Contains sample from the recording Maybe by The Three Degrees, Roulette, 1970.]
[Nikki Giovanni “Forced Retirement” Cotton Candy On A Rainy Day (New York: Morrow 1978) 26]