Five Essays, by Josh Russell
Bone & Ants
My dog got ahold of a chicken bone covered in fire ants. This is a metaphor for pornography. This a metaphor for the time in high school when I read my girlfriend’s sister’s diary and was sure, though her thirteen-year-old sister’s prose was so purple it was hard to translate into a coherent confession, that my girlfriend had a fling while on a family vacation. This is a metaphor for teenaged sexual desire. This is a metaphor for AIDS as depicted in late-1980s health center pamphlets and posters I saw while an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. This is a metaphor for the will to power. This is a metaphor for the retrospective guilt I felt decades after I stole a few coins from the wicker Sunday school collection plate in the basement of the Baptist church my Marxist parents cleaned every Monday as part of the $75 rent they paid for the foursquare on Mulberry Street in Normal when I was in fourth grade. This is a metaphor for five of the seven deadly sins. This is a metaphor for the time when I was fifteen years old and I was caught shoplifting a paint marker from a drugstore in Wheaton Plaza and it took my dad a long time to come and collect me because he felt it necessary first to shower and put on a tie, and a metaphor for the time my daughter was four years old and stole gum from a drugstore, proudly showed it to her mommy in the parking lot, and had to go back inside and confess her crime. This is a metaphor for Ronald Reagan. This is a metaphor for the Internet. This is a metaphor for free market capitalism. This is a metaphor for populism and fascism. This is a metaphor for consciousness.
Borges writes, All men, in the vertiginous instant of coitus, are the same man. All men who speak a line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare. Shakespeare can cause pleasure I agree is akin to vertigo, as can coitus, as can one byproduct of coitus — my kid — whose diapers I changed when she was a baby, and whose hair I’ve washed for a decade. Any squeamishness I ever had about my body disappeared when I was allowed access to the bodies of others. There was blood in my stool for a month so my doctor sent me for a colonoscopy and it turned out I had cancer. Six weeks later a surgeon used a robot to remove from the body in which I’ve lived with few complaints for forty-seven years ten inches of my colon and a tumor. The topography of my asshole has been altered. I do pelvic floor exercises in order to relearn how to hold my shit. Could be worse, could be dead. Instead I walk my daughter to school in the morning and drive her to dance class in the afternoon and read to her at bedtime and laugh with her and alone I read Shakespeare and Borges and I feel the bed and then the world fall away when my beloved presses me down into twisted sheets.
The USA’s too new for Baedeker’s legends of cathedrals built atop mosques built atop temples. The closest we come are TV shows and movies about what happens when a subdivision or 7-Eleven is built over a Native American burial ground. In Denver, I tried to find daguerreotypes in antique stores and was told no one in Colorado circa 1840 was allowed the vanity of having her portrait made. Even our oldest cities are all surface, our visions of their evolutions just visions of our aging selves we see flashing in their shop windows and puddles. The city of the last night with one lover and the city of the first night with another, the city of leaving in what feels like defeat and the city of returning in what feels like triumph, the city of madness and the city of sanity: it’s a single city. On the verso of an old postcard a message written in a fin de siècle hand fades to sepia while the recto shows a landscape unchanged.
For Charles Simic
From the coffee shop window I watch as across the street a campus cop proudly unrolls twin targets to show a buddy how he’s clustered his shots and perforated the bright blue chests of two featureless paper criminals, and I think, If only he’d patterned those bullet holes into a pretty pair of Valentine’s hearts.
Cleaning up last night after everyone else was asleep, I found under a library book on the kitchen counter the torn drawing. On one scrap, the crotch of a woman, triangle of scribbles, on another, the crotch of a man, disproportionately large penis hanging beside single ovaloid testicle. I pieced the picture together. The nudes stood side by side, nothing drawn below their thighs or above their innocent bellybuttons — or were they supine, perhaps postcoital? My daughter’s nine. What boy passed her this? She’d ripped it up but not thrown it away. I tried to remember how old I’d been when first I’d seen some kid’s penciled version of sex, probably nine, maybe ten — and it hadn’t been this chaste. I decided to talk to my daughter about the drawing in the morning. It would be a serious conversation. I went to bed feeling uneasy about entering a time in my life in which I would have to think about sex in a new way — and it occurred to me, just before I fell asleep, my disquiet was perhaps in part nostalgia for the moment in my childhood when because of a dirty picture a time in my life had begun in which I had to think about sex in a new way. At the breakfast table I said, I found a drawing of a woman and a man, and instead of looking embarrassed, my daughter looked amused, and my wife said, I drew that. She wanted to know what a naked man looks like, so I drew that.
Josh Russell has published three novels and received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Bread Loaf. His very short prose appeared recently in Epoch, New World Writing, DIAGRAM, and the New York Times Room for Debate. He’s the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Georgia State University.