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Winter 1999

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

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Nicholas Papandreou
According to my mother, I opened my eyes only seconds after I emerged from the womb. I think my insomnia can be traced to that event. I can imagine myself being wheeled around the trolley on my mother's stomach at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, staring at everything incomprehensibly through the fresh blueness of a baby's eyes. Already I was inhabiting the world with extravagant intensity.

At the age of two I'd developed a callus on my soft bald skull because I rocked on my knees and butted my head against the wall. A doctor told my mother the reason for my head-butting was that I didn't like to abandon the day, I didn't want to be put away from the adult world. Maybe there's more, he told her, but it was too early to tell. Leave that to the cognitive stage. By eight I developed the first signs of what another doctor called compulsive behavior, things like jabbing my index fingernails into the cuticle of my thumbs, pinching the skin in the middle my chest, lifting my shoulders, bloating my cheeks, clacking my teeth together, raising my eyebrows, opening my eyes wide, crossing and uncrossing my fingers, and stepping on cracks. I found special satisfaction in stepping in the place where the doorframe met the floor, where the vertical line crossed the horizontal.

Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge on Saturdays when my father took us for our weekly picnic caused me both excitement and a strange exhaustion: so many corners and edges, joints and joists, cracks, so many wires criss-crossing above our heads, so many imaginary lines where verticals met horizontals. This was overkill. Even I would not be able to do such a marvelous mess of edges justice. Defeated, I would invariably close my eyes until we reached the other side.

At ten, when we left California and moved to Greece so my father could enter Greek politics, I was not yet a confirmed insomniac but sleeplessness was a natural condition of my existence. It didn't occur to me that other people woke up refreshed, full of energy, ready for another day. But for all my sleeplessness, I always woke by dawn and with the first rays of sun, I hopped out of bed to embrace the new day and get the tics going. The doctor told my mother I suffered only from the normal symptoms of a hyperactive child and this would, in all likelihood, fade away as I grew older.

I grew jealous of people who said things like "I went out like a light!" When someone complained of not sleeping I showed deep compassion, but inwardly derived great satisfaction. Welcome to the club. Particularly annoying was the idea there were so many different kinds of sleep. Like slumber. That was a magical word for me. In it I could hear the word sleep and the word lumber, as in to move heavily. This thing called slumber sounded like the most wonderful of possible sleeps. I always attached a snore to a slumber. Would that I could tell someone that I conked out, that I caught forty winks in the car, that I got some shut-eye during a movie, dozed in the schoolroom, napped in the infirmary.

I observed my brothers' sleeping rites. Andy, the youngest, would get into bed and lay his head against the pillow. Maybe he'd turn sideways once, or move his legs, but after that, pure silence. At night my older brother, George, who at fourteen looked more like Jerry Lewis than the son of a Greek politician, would lie down across the base of my bed and recite his homework and then, while still reciting, would suddenly yawn, close his eyes, gently rest his head on the bed, and doze. Doze. This meant I could sort of talk to him and he would sort of answer.

"George, read me from that book again."

Adopting a stentorian voice, he would read me a passage from Homer, required in Greek grade school.

Patroclus, rising beside him, stabbed his right jawbone, ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard he hooked him by that spearhead over his chariot rail...

He rarely got further than three lines. By the next stanza the lesser god of sleep, Somnus, had carried him away, even as Patroclus continued to gore Thestor and gaff him off his chariot, flip him down face first, life breath blown away.

And this new habit which followed Greek language lessons, the siesta? That was a no-go. Whenever my grandmother forced me to lie down between the hours of three and five in the afternoon— that was what civilized Greeks did, she said— I was beside myself. My peculiar physical routines raged beneath the white sheets. Feet and arms didn't stop flailing. I clacked my teeth and noisily spurted air from the side of my mouth.

It was during those forced siestas that I perfected my compulsions. I catalogued them. If I discovered that one of them had disappeared, I would substitute another for it. I discovered I could create new routines through the repetition of any action ten times in a row. Something irresistible about looking at the ceiling and getting stuck with that motion for the next six months, something seductive about crossing your eyes the way your mother has told you not to, with the full knowledge that you'll be saddled with that habit and all its parental ramifications. I never ran out of new routines when the old ones died away. Here are some: purse your nostrils like a rabbit sniffing, stick out your lips like you're about to give someone a big cartoon-like puckery kiss, lift your eyebrows, fake a hard smile. Performed in concert, the full repertoire of sounds and motions was an appalling thing to behold.

For people behind me, passing through a doorway meant waiting for me to push the side of my shoe into the part where the doorframe joined the floor. A missed crack in the stone, a missed kick against the door frame joint and I felt incomplete, unfinished. I overheard my older brother, George, telling a friend he wondered what it was like to be me. That my mind thought in a weird way and didn't let me sleep. That I had a perpetual motion face. He might last being me for three minutes, George said, but not longer. I was proud my older brother had even considered the possibility.

The family got used to me. The problem was I didn't get used to me.

Besides the routines, there were the sounds. I found joy in listening to and imitating sounds. I could easily imitate most animals, dog, chicken, horse, rooster, owl, the chick-chick of a cicada, the strangled baying of a donkey, the whoosh of wind, and the hiss of a crowd. My parents christened me Gerald McBoing-Boing, after a prize-winning nineteen-fifties cartoon character with a similar penchant who ultimately finds success in a job imitating sounds for radio shows. By accident I learned to make a sound that only dogs could hear. I was playing around with our dog Gilda, growling at her to see if she would bark back at me, when for no reason I closed my mouth and pushed up air from the base of my throat without opening my mouth. I didn't hear anything but apparently Gilda did. She flipped her ears back, looked at me, and whimpered. I tried this same thing on other dogs and received the same reaction: the ears flipped back, the animal barked or it retreated, tail between its legs. A coup of a sound. Whenever someone came over with his dog I could make it run away or bark without anybody being able to point an accusing finger at me.

The night of the Greek coup, in April of 1967, when soldiers and tanks arrived at our doorstep to snatch my father— his strident calls for social justice irked the powers-that-be— I stood on the balcony and imitated the siren of a police car, thinking that this might scare them away. It was a good imitation and I heard a soldier ask whether the cops were so dumb as to use sirens on a night like this. Using their rifle butts, they broke into the house, only to confront my American grandfather, Douglas Chant, hardware-store manager from Elmhurst, Illinois. A former marine with battle experience from the American invasion of Haiti, he happened to be staying with us that fateful night. Much to the first soldier's surprise, my grandfather twisted the rifle out of his hands, then stood back and aimed at his head. When the rest of them burst through the door, my grandfather stepped back and, holding his frame erect like the American Legionnaire he was, trained the single rifle from head to head. "Who wants it first?" he shouted in English. They lifted their rifles and pointed at him but for some reason didn't fire. My mother ordered my grandfather to drop his rifle, "for godsakes!" The clatter of the rifle falling to the floor probably saved his life, for just at that moment an officer pushed through, machine gun at the ready. Not just any officer. A fanatic. He would certainly have shot my grandfather on the spot, since he had no difficulty in dashing the bodyguard against the marble stairs, leaving spots of red on the steps; he had no problem ramming my sister's head against the door jam, leaving her unconscious. He had no qualms about putting a gun to my older brother's temple and threatening to blow his head off.

For me the officer possessed a fearful invincibility, able to command everything and anything around him. He had taken my father, a man who gave speeches to crowds big as four football fields. The officer seemed protected by a strange bubble, a zone of inviolable space. Step close to him and you were sucked into his clutches. I don't know who that officer was. He pierced something in me, he claimed a bit of me, owned something of my heart and eyes.

At the age of eleven, in addition to sleeplessness and the peculiar set of physical routines I needed to go through each day, I developed a deep foreboding about the future. The ancient Spartans I had learned about in grade school were replaced by the modern colonels. I was sure that something bad was going to happen to me.

One fine Christmas my father was released from prison and we fled to Canada, one of the few countries willing to take the heat of offering political asylum to a "left-winger." The home we moved into in Canada came with a lawn that had to be mowed. Plus all the grass-cutting accoutrements: a lawn mower, two scythes, a soft and a hard rake, chains for pulling out stumps, weed-killer, rotary tillers, and four cans each of HD-20 and HD-30 multi-season oil. Bags contained manure, fertilizer pellets, grass seed. Along the garage wall hung two pieces of headgear to protect you from mosquitoes, like a beekeeper's helmet.

My favorite item was the Gravely walking tractor, a monster of a lawn mower, with a huge blade protruding in the front of the machine and self-propelled tires. You walked behind it and it took itself. You didn't have to push. As soon as I figured out how to run it, I was eager to try it out.

Each day after school I worked the yard. In front of the voracious blades, creatures hitherto living in comfort tried to escape certain death and mutilation; frogs, snakes, and anything else that crawled and cared to listen to the crashing sounds of my unswerving Spartan soldier raced for safety. The frogs I had nothing against and when I saw one spring into the air-whole or with a leg missing-I immediately lifted the front of the Gravely high to give the amphibian the opportunity to escape its fate. Still, this reprieve was not enough. Weeks later, laying down sod to fill in the bald patches of grass that the August sun had damaged, I came across many victims of my lawn-mower, in the form of half-legged frogs, pieces of a snake, and, once, the strange-looking mangled body of a praying mantis, its fluted face looking like a Mycenean sculpture. I also found what looked like a squirrel's foot and hoped that my lawn mower was not responsible. Perhaps it was Brutus, the neighborhood dog, well-known for sniffing out and eating groundhogs.

I learned to use the scythe and perfected short golflike swings. I learned to use the clippers to trim the hedges, both the small plier-sized ones and the large ones with blades long as a twelve-inch ruler. I proceeded deeper and deeper into the thigh-high weeds that grew in front of the bit of forest that pushed into our property, making a small path by stepping down deliberately on the growth, and swung at the weeds around me.

Within a month, something resembling a much larger lawn than our family had ever imagined appeared. I had pushed back the wilderness and turned our acres into a trim piece of real estate. Grass thick as a putting green's now grew along the steep slope of hill where no one had bothered to cut for years.

Busy with the business of taking on the Greek dictators— teach-ins, sit-ins, fund-raisers, Congressional hearings, writing newsletters and other radical "literature"— my father was rarely at home. Besides, he wasn't into landscape architecture, aesthetics, the smells and sight of things. Most of his satisfaction came from using the currency of his mind, logic. But I knew from the way he paused and looked at me when he came home and found me hard at work that he approved. Once at dinner he told a guest that I was responsible for keeping the lawn in shape. We went on to discuss property rights and why there were so few fences separating people's land in Canada. The legacy of Anglo-Saxon deeds, the sprawling nature of capital accumulation in former British colonies, and the absence of feudalism were some of the reasons. He complimented me on my diligence and said this kind of work had never been part of his childhood. He had books, political activity, and then more books.

If politics was his life, cutting the lawn became mine. I never tired of it. This activity partly displaced my bodily and facial routines. I had to spend some part of the day trimming, tucking, fixing, clipping, organizing, and re-ordering the landscape. I tested different mowing techniques. Sometimes I would cut the lawn by going back and forth, forming parallel lines. Other times I would begin in wide circles and spiral inwards, getting closer and closer to the center until I reached that final small tuft of uncut grass, and then I pushed the lawnmower over it with a satisfying snift of sound. Doing away with that last piece of unruly grass was something so incredibly satisfying, the sound of the grass being nipped up, the slight slowing down in the engine's speed as the blades yielded, only a little, to the thick tuft, and then the spurt of green mulch as the engine re-established its high roar. As good as stepping in cracks. Better. And the smell of freshly cut grass was like a bowl of aroma beneath my nose. I liked to test the Gravely's sheer power. The Gravely had no gods. With one highly accelerated engine, and with me moving at a very slow pace, I could tear the grass to shreds, even the thickest parts that grew right over the leaking sewer tank.

The foreboding future happened to me on a bright dewy Saturday morning. The night before it had rained, and the grass that morning was soaking. Wet grass was difficult to cut-you weren't supposed to touch it, and it usually caused the lawn mower to choke up. But I wanted to finish the job, rain or no rain, dew or no dew. If there was anything on which I could blame what happened next, it would be on this urge. Luckily, instead of the Gravely I brought out our small handdrawn lawn mower.

The grass was wet. I slipped. Nothing so tragic in that. I landed on my back. My hands went up into the air for balance and I pulled the lawn mower in my direction. Over my foot. I heard the spinning blade whine, whiz, and whirr and suddenly— thunk!— the Procrustean propeller chortled red and I felt a searing emptiness and saw frayed jagged bone protrude from the end of my left foot, the torn flesh hanging from it.

"Mom!" I shouted in a strangely high-pitched voice that penetrated all the way into the office where she was preparing a newsletter against Pinochet. "Mom!" My mother ran out of the house and when she saw my mangled foot shouted for my sister. "Sophia! Sophia! Quick! Look for his toes in the grass!"

In the car, holding my foot, not looking at it, I repeated inanely, "The poor frogs! The poor frogs!"

My mother drove the Volvo so fast she nearly hit a truck. She swerved away from it and rode the shoulder; the tires spat gravel until she regained the asphalt. Suddenly, another person jumped out from inside of me, a person capable of observing the situation from above. This other person saw a boy holding his injured foot and crying. He saw a mother driving like a maniac and, in a calm, steady voice, he told her not to drive so fast. He also told her that as soon as they reached the hospital she should call his sister and order her to call off the search for lost "parts." That was too much to ask of anybody. And no, they can't be glued back on, the boy said. Those were spinning blades that turned everything to mulch, not a knife with a single clean stroke. He saw the boy leaning on his mother and limping into the Newmarket hospital. Only when he saw the horrified reactions of the other people sitting in the waiting room did he return to his body.

I felt excruciating pain and a strange emptiness. An explosion of bright yellow color landed me in the arms of an orderly.

I woke up in the emergency room. The doctors had anaesthetized me only from the waist down. A surgeon wearing a mask over his mouth slid a small saw back and forth over my foot. Its metal teeth grated and the quiver of the blade reached up into my chest. I could feel it the way you feel a bass guitar pound in your chest. I held a magazine to my face and refused to watch, but I couldn't resist a brief glimpse. From peeled-back flesh I saw a gleaming white banana of bone.

And then I was lying down, my foot up in the air, all bandaged up. The doctors said I was lucky the lawnmower hadn't taken more. Two toes, part of the foot. I thought that was a strange thing to say, that I was lucky. It was their way of comforting me, I decided, until I spent the night with two other emergency patients who were sleeping in the same room with me. They had survived head-on car collisions. Every single bone in their bodies was broken. One of them laughed when I told him about my accident, then he coughed up blood and the nurse gave him a shot. I started to consider myself lucky.

It took a while to recuperate. Wheelchairs, crutches, and then special walking instructions. Embarrassment at my limp. At the age of fourteen I learned to walk again. I tripped and fell a lot. I could barely run.

I refused to look directly at the damage. Except for that glimpse on the operating table, I hadn't really looked at my foot. There were times when it seemed I had practically no choice, that the object of my fear would come into viewing range— like in the shower or when I put on my socks each morning, or when I changed in the gym— but those were the times that I closed my eyes or turned my head away, and so I succeeded in receiving only quick, hurried glimpses. My foot looked sort of like a triangle. That scared me.

My sense of foreboding about the future got worse. I told myself that the accident happened so that my charred remains would be more easily identifiable in the aftermath of a great war.

While I recuperated, people bought me books. Three books on underwater archaeology, two books on the feeding habits of sharks. I couldn't help but compare shark-teeth to the blades of a lawn mower. Later, when kids in the shower or at a pool would ask me what happened, I told them a shark did it and they shrieked with delighted fright. George, who loved history, bought me a massive volume on World War Two.

My father gave me an old hardback copy of Marx's collected works, including the Communist Manifesto. It was in this last book that I found unexpected solace-a way to explain the things that had happened. Marx described capitalism as a force of destruction and construction. He wrote of societies in constant battle and flux; he described how the poor were uprooted and how they gathered around the cities and formed into a proletariat; he praised capitalism's great projects-mills and factories, bridges and canals, railroads and highways, and I imagined that were he still alive he would have praised the Empire State Building and the Canadian National Exhibition. In Marx's dazzling world, all flux and flow, I sensed my own agitation, I felt my own nervousness, my ceaseless energy and sleeplessness. My perpetual-motion face was a small part of the larger force driving everything around us. For Marx, the cycle of destruction and creation never stopped, never paused— like me, it never slept. Interest accumulated day and night; dead labor lived in the machines worked by living labor. The inexorable logic of capitalism could not be held back. Not only physical objects but relationships and whole societies disintegrated under the tremendous forces unleashed by unfettered competition. Capitalism required that soldiers knock down doors at night, as in Pinochet's Chile or Papadopoulos' Greece. It required the running over of frogs. And of feet. Even the life-giving force itself, capitalism, would melt in the heat of its own incandescent energies. All that was solid melted into air. In my own being struggled unknown forces, an intimate dialectic. An incandescent heat kept me awake at nights as I wondered what would emerge from the once shimmering but now damaged chrysalis of my life.

In a growing Canada, opportunities for proletarian activity abounded. Now, more than ever, I needed to inhabit that world of outdoor activity, of relentless, all-absorbing physical productiveness. The outdoors was the terrain on which I had chosen to take the world's pulse. In the spring, when I could walk again, I applied for work with a construction company. The throbbing pain in my foot couldn't stop me. New roads were being built as Toronto expanded northward. Housing developments were going up. King City and vicinity were suddenly filled with the sounds of men at work, men wearing hard-hats, tool belts, and steel-toe boots. Men on the move. I wanted to join them.

The foreman of one of the construction teams, Jay McDuff, was a big man who smoked Cuban cigars, wore army pants, and stomped around giving orders and shouting obscenities. I told him I would work as hard as I could but that I refused to use chain saws or anything that spun, yawed, whipped around, I refused to come near anything that cut, sliced, crunched, churned, chortled, swirled, rotated, or vibrated. If he wanted evidence for my position, I could show him. He said it wasn't necessary. He looked me up and down like an officer inspecting his soldier for flaws. "I'd say you're worth two dollars an hour," he said finally. "Take it or leave it." That was half the going rate.

I was assigned to carry things like bags, pails, shovels, picks, and ripsaws made of tungsten steel and cross-cut saws made of nickel and tubular frame saws used for felling and lopping and heavy chain saws that I could barely lift. I waded into swamps wearing waist-high rubber boots and strapped chains across dead tree trunks so John Deere tractors could tear them loose and drag them into the fires. I kept the fires alive by burning old tires. My clothes and hair smelled of burning rubber. From the ground I directed knuckleboom loaders and grapple skidders. I learned new sounds: the clank of the bulldozer, the deep rumble of the earthmovers, the scrape of the grader over a hidden boulder, the snort of the feller buncher slicing trees like toothpicks, and the awful shriek of the de-limber tearing branches off a tree. I spent long days rolling carpet after carpet of sod across the desolate, flat earth cleared for quick-build developments. The team chopped down acres of trees, uprooted bushes, rerouted streams, overturned nests. Insects and animals scurried out of our path and snakes slithered away. We were part of capitalism's orgies.

When my foot hurt too much, I would hide behind a bush or a tree or walk some distance, sit on the soft forest floor, and take off my boot. And there, in the relative peace of the deep forest, I would close my eyes and massage my foot without taking off the sock. I still hadn't looked at my foot and I never touched the raw area.

Once a chain saw jumped out of a man's hand and fell to the ground, spinning. No one dared get close to it. While I watched it from a safe distance, my foot began to throb wildly. With a strong limp, I skipped and hopped far into the forest, where I tore off my boot. I massaged for a long time. I heard a strange sound. I realized that I was imitating the whine of the chain saw. Then, still massaging, I recalled the sound of the lawn mower, the thortle thortle thunk! as it ran over my foot. I tried to suppress my desire to mimic even this terrible noise but the instinct was too strong. This sound too came out of my mouth. When I returned to work, the shriek of delimbers and the wood chips flying through the air were too much for me. I left early.

But though the chain saw now reminded me of the lawn mower, work went on and I went with it. I was now part of the community of people who worked outdoors, who wiped sweat from their brows, spat, shook their heads, and did everything just the way they knew how. Who talked hardware talk. "Well, see, you've got your three-incher and your four-incher. This here is your flanking span and this here is your endspan." There were also the immigrants who could barely speak English: Natale, Zentile, Krucniak, and Paspalj. With glee I learned their words. "Atsawright! Sunupapitch!" They'd say "saw and peh" for salt and pepper and "take a left tourn" and "make-a-the-right" and "thanksagod." A couple draft-dodgers from the States who wore headbands of the American flag and toked up before starting work each morning had an incredible economy with words. When McDuff ordered us around they said, "Shit, man." When lunch break came they said, "Shit, man," and when the day was over it was also "Shit, man."

After a couple years of strenuous full- and part-time work in construction— during which period I had fully succeeded in not once staring directly at my foot— I outgrew my previous self. Quantity had metamorphosed into quality; the dialectics of life outdoors were evident. My shoulders were broader, the muscles on my back were braided like vines, and my arms were strong. Now I hulked around the school in construction boots and hockey sweatshirts and could clean the carburetor of a Dodge Charger or repair a damaged electrical coil. I was no longer a gawky adolescent. You wouldn't find much remaining evidence of the skinny, tic-infested boy who once exploded into facial and other contortions under the austere gaze of a fourteen-year-old girl with golden ribbons in her hair, or while giving a ninth-grade competition speech in the school auditorium about the ills of capitalism.

Some obsessive motions still remained, but these were relatively innocuous routines, like pinching the skin in the middle of my chest or twitching my shoulders as if I were wearing a tight jacket. Occasionally I jumped on a crack in the street or banged my shoe against the edge of a doorframe, sometimes to the rhythm of a song playing in my head. Different set of feet now, but the same urge.

Two years had gone by and I still didn't know exactly what my foot looked like. My compulsions served me well on that score. I automatically turned my head away and closed my eyes whenever my bare foot was about to come into view. I always slipped on my sock without touching, and pretended, as much as possible, that I was perfectly normal.

One night as I lay beneath the covers —shifting and kicking my feet, resting my face now on the right cheek and now on the left, putting the pillow under my head or over it, letting one arm dangle off the edge of the bed or tucking both under my pelvis, taking deep breaths to tire myself out— something took hold of me, a sudden excitement, an overwhelming urge to do something I'd been putting off for too long. I got up, smuggled a flashlight beneath the covers, and, forming a tent with my head, shone the light on my foot. There it was. Instead of the first two toes, all that was left was a foreshortened stub of bone which had been sliced to the right, like a wedge. The dorsum of the foot was wider and flatter. I leaned close and without touching counted twenty-eight stitches. But there was some good news. The remaining three toes were no longer the flat digits they had once been. They arched like claws, taking up the slack of their missing brothers, striving, I told myself, for a more solid grip on this earth. They were doing the best they could. I hopped out of the bed and switched on the light. I wanted to test these new toes. I dropped a sock on the floor and the claw-like digits picked them up easily. I lifted underwear, pants, a towel, and even a shoe-by the shoelace. I couldn't lift that much weight with my good foot. I lay on top of my bed, crossed one leg over the other, put my hands behind my head as if I were reading a book on the beach, and stared at my foot. Ending as it did in a middle toe, the foot now formed a triangle.

When I woke up that morning I found myself lying in exactly the same position, my hands comfortably behind my head, one foot still crossed over the other, that wedge of a foot still on the horizon. When I stood up I was fully refreshed, with enough energy to walk all the way to British Columbia and back, for a grand total, I estimated, of four thousand, three hundred and thirty seven miles and four hundred and eighty-nine feet.

As it stands, a couple of these compulsive routines remain. But with these I've made my peace. These are now my friends. They've lived what I've lived. Maybe they'll make it with me all the way to the finish line. Maybe even past it. Perhaps the last thing my body will do when it is laid down for its final metamorphosis will be to twitch its shoulders once, or bloat its cheeks. If one of Brutus's offspring is loitering outside the room, it might bark and flip back its ears as I send one last high-frequency sound into the world of the living. Then I will fold my private traveling circus of routines, dreams, and sounds back into myself, succumb to the mother of all sleeps, and finally melt into air.

Nicholas Papandreou has written two books, one of which (A Crowded Heart) was a nominee for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award. He lives in Greece.


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