Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Roman Empire

Geographically, the left is almost identical to the right, except that there are paint chips in the flowerbeds, and, on the whole, life on the left seems slightly less civilized than next door. My home is a work in progress. Or maybe the word is regress. If you think of Rome in the 4th century—increasingly Christian, increasingly crumbly—you get the idea.

The brown fa├žade of our duplex has 8 windows on the first floor, divided by 2 doors: 4 for my grandparents and 4 for us. Above that, on the second floor, 4 more windows face the street: 2 for my room and 2 my grandfather’s. Below the cicadas in the tree branches, you can hear his air conditioner hum.

A slightly recessed peak crowns our house. It is not so much a garret as a newspaper hat on a madman. 2 blind eyes stare blankly at the sky. In lieu of a corpus callosum, a layer of lath and plaster divides the attic into two compartments: the conscious and subconscious mind. Each contains relics. Mine also contains aliens—silver invisibilities—gigantic garbage cans with serrated steel teeth. If you step on their feet, their mouths open up. They eat anything—including babies. If you listen very carefully, you can hear them crunching Christmas ornaments at night.

The residence of the soul remains a mystery. I have a feeling it lives in the walls we share—in the hot and cold whispers of air mixing in the conduits of our separate furnaces—our separate lives—in the grilles and grates through which we communicate—if it exists anywhere at all.

So much for my body and soul. The rule here is bilateral symmetry, as it is with most living things on planet Earth. The external line of division between the 2 dwellings is represented by a walkway, disfigured by the stumps of 2 melted crayons—a red and yellow cross—an orange nail in the middle—marking for future generations where my first experiments in light and color were performed.

Stepping over an abandoned magnifying glass and a gold and green box of Crayolas—still open, 2 crayons still missing—we walk with a man (a boy, really, from my present perspective) across the lawn. On the left, around the corner, I point out the gas and electric meter—a sort of octopus with numbers for eyes. When he squats to read our rates of consumption, I watch his t-shirt rise from his teal trousers, revealing a milky slit of skin: an arrow of peach fuzz points down to a new magnetic pole on my compass—one I have never quite noticed before.

When he is finished reading the figures, I ask him if he would take like to take a look at my furnace, too. He smiles. He says, no. He says that he only measures people’s electricity and gas. We have oil heat, he explains, leading me to a greasy fixture a little further along the foundation of the house. I will have to wait for the oilman and his pink hose, it seems. I thank him for coming by and we shake hands. I must have looked disappointed, because he turns around on the driveway and he waves goodbye with his clipboard.

Depressed by his departure—my brother is off having surgery, so I only have my shadow for company—I pick up a twig to sharpen and plant myself on the cold patio. I sit down rather hard and perhaps the faint impression my fanny made on the concrete is still visible. All I know for sure is that we have no chairs over here today. We have no picnic table. Worse, have no garden. Our decrepit garage takes up too much room. Only children grow here, apparently.

My bewildered brother celebrates his first birthday in this very spot in 1971, enthroned on the aluminum and vinyl highchair I have never quite outgrown. I do not remember being invited to his party, although I am sure that I was. It would have been foolish to hire a babysitter to sit with me in the house when everyone else was outside having such a disgusting blast: flinging cake, wallowing in ice cream and pouring out Pepsi. My birthday is scheduled for the following month—September—when I will turn 2—so I am not the star on this occasion. That is probably why I did not preserve the invitation.

I am sure that somebody took a picture of Kyle, which is why I recall the event today. For his sake, I hope the album containing it hasn’t been lost. If it has, these few paragraphs will have to suffice for a snapshot. In a way, I suppose I am like those imaginary aliens in the attic, with one important difference: I am not imaginary. If you step on my foot, even accidentally, I can assure you, I will scream. I might even bite you. It all depends on how big you are and how hungry I am for a spanking.

But if you lock me in a padded cell—a comfortable place like my apartment—if you let me lie down and close my eyes, I can block out the howling maniac in my head. I can hear a chorus singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ If you put a piece of paper on my face, I will blow it off, swing my feet off the bed, pick it up, and use whatever crayons I have stashed under my mattress to draw you a picture. I will begin with a pointed party hat decorated with tiny dancing zebras, rhinoceri, leopards, lions, apes, giraffes and other savage beasts—creatures of the Coliseum—all blowing frilly noisemakers.

My mother beams behind the new Emperor, adjusting his dunce cap for posterity. There is frosting on his face and a fine line of elastic running down his right ear. A drop of vanilla dimples his chin. I see an extinguished candle, too—white with turquoise edges—shaped like the number 1 in the foreground.

I have seen that number somewhere before: maybe in another picture, at another party, sprouting up from the remains of another birthday cake like some lonely column—left over from the temple of Castor and Pollux—in the Forum.

The marble rubble of my Imperium.

I snap the twig.

Back when I commanded the love and allegiance of home.

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