How I Live Is My Masterpiece


Calvin, having recently received notification that his long poem, "How I Live Is My Masterpiece," would be published in the New Yorker, went out for a walk across 5th Avenue to feel the snow on his face and more generally life itself, when he started seeing a swarm of black dots filling his field of vision in the middle of which there appeared a light a little too white and rapidly expanding against the swarm. The poem began like

I am quitting my night job
of tapping words together to make heat
because the bodies on the train today
made me warmer than the mind is wide;
wider than the sky, sure, but not warmer
than blood, so let's go for a swim--
who's with me?

and ended with a rapid succession of imagery, including:

...of lightposts, broken arms, the watches we left behind, the wallets lost, and every argument and mending gone up to heaven on waves broadcast in every language to the black space beyond heaven...

which he liked. Calvin knew that he never could have gotten this one in, not right off the bat, not even close. But the other publications were opening doors and those doors in turn opened even more doors, so it was more like running through a house and turning on every light, only to find that the neighbors were doing the same in response, and their neighbors, house after house until all the globe was illuminated.

Years ago, when getting his eyes checked, Calvin was told by Dr. Harrison to watch out if he ever happened to see a myriad of dark spots swarming through his vision. Dr. Harrison was a good man; like most doctors he believed in benevolent deception, such as when he deftly and without explicit consent inserted contact lenses in Calvin's eyes after Calvin hit an internal wall he was unable to push past by actually touching his own eyeballs, badly as he wanted contacts and tired as he was of the fuzzy border of the world always peaking in beyond his glasses. None of this went through his mind, however, as he fell into the snow, which it turned out felt cold and painful on his cheeks. What Dr. Harrison was warning him about was the possibility of retinal break, given that Calvin's FBN1 gene was mutated, like his father's, and that the resulting condition known as Marfan's Syndrome left him at higher risk for a tear in the retina, which experience is accompanied subjectively by rapid onset of photopsia. Dr. Harrison's own son suffered a retinal break at an early age, after years of what Dr. Harrison sadly realized only later was obsessive-compulsive disorder, in this case the behavior being a compulsive darting of the eyes every night before the boy could fall asleep, afraid as he was of a murderer or thief or after watching Fire in the Sky, an alien's strange face suddenly pressing itself against his un-curtained windows. The memory of that night in particular, and his son's horrible insistence that his photopsia was in fact the light of the UFO coming to get him and "take him through the walls," as the boy put it -- over and over again, wailing actually, "They're coming out of the walls! They're coming out of the walls!" -- was why Calvin was warned at all, and why Dr. Harrison, deceptive or not, was a good doctor who did not see himself exempt from the physical failures that paraded before him daily.

The odd thing is that what did go through Calvin's head as he thrashed about in the snow were the nearly same images that came as if from outside himself not quite exactly three years ago, on the famous night that Calvin first pulled over to the side of the road and went running through the woods and which lead to everything else -- the poems, Lauren, and everything that he didn't know yet was coming. It was the same sense that the earth was in danger, and scenes of trees burning, and children's hands sticky from chemical burns; but now this time there was also a satellite exploding silently in space, and the face of a man who looked perhaps Korean laughing in a way that left Calvin more disturbed than did any other image or foreign sensation. It was all in the poem, one way or another. Was it unforgivable that he caught himself thinking, well, at least I'll get another poem out of this?


Several hours earlier, Dr. Harrison sat down with a new patient, a walk-in actually, but anyway his last patient had cancelled and because he was not a man who went home early when someone was waiting, Dr. Harrison had Sheila prepare the file and send him in.

"You live in the neighborhood?" he asked.

"I just moved here."

"Great, great... Hm. It looks like you wrote here under current medical conditions -- am I getting this right -- anophthalmia...?"

"Yes, that's right." Dr. Harrison stopped and looked at the patient.


The man looked back at him, blinking.

"That's what I'm told."

"Mind if I take a look?"

In the waiting room Sheila thought she heard a sound like a tree snapping, but then again the radio was on, and though it was low it nonetheless filled the room with waves of various frequencies including those which when translated sounded like

ah ah ah
I got you I can't let you go

to Shelia's ears and brain.


At home Dr. Harrison's basement is filled with stacks of cassette tapes. Above ground, there is a long narrow hall with slices of sunlight and paintings on the wall which runs past the bedroom where he and his wife sleep and up the stairs beside which hangs a painting made for him by Mark Rothko, who always wanted to say things simply even as he felt his pictures impaired by vulgar eyes and cruel powerless people who would extend their affliction to the world. Here is Dr. Harrison's studio. Here is the wide canvas of yesterday's work. Here is the sun coming through the skylight, which is cloudy, and here are the paints spilled on the floor. Calvin might say, ah, those accidents are your masterpiece! Stare at the sun and close your eyes -- whose art is that? But in the cabinets that stand in the corner of the room are more tapes, and transcripts, some typed on a typewriter and then the later ones printed, of words from people all over the world who heard about what Dr. Harrison does and sought him out so that they at the very least would not feel so alone. Of course they really wanted answers.

Before Rothko died, he promised that if he chose to commit suicide, everyone would know it. But no one was sure afterwards, when he was found on the ground with cuts in his arms and his glasses off. It was this last thing that threw off some people; he was severely myopic; how could he have killed himself if he couldn't even see?

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