Fiction - The Wormwood Collective, Summer 2001

Tarot: A Passive Aggressive Handbook
a short story by Alan Clinton

1. The Fool

If you want to play the fool in the most anthropological manner, so the singers never call you back, using an Airstream on the final legs of Paris, simply make your way to the forensic palace just before heading out of town, and drop the poem about a fading airplane into a mailbox whose name is written in blood, the price for making it bottomless, and whose sides are lined with ticks who have all read John Donne. And you have no choice because though the leather facades have all been returned, the new ones are somber and transparent as well. The fool always has two faces, which can make him the darling of crossroads press conferences, angering the town that tears him in half like each poem ever written, and even if you never wrote back to your double in Vermont and concerted your efforts into watching the water make its decisions, this city bridges outwards as well, and all the residents, if you overhear them muttering, tell how ďJannus is landingĒ and ďCharon is our darling.Ē So because ghosts are more pungent than strangers, drop the poem off and understand there is no literary postmaster.

2. The World

The World, which was ostensibly so reasonable, can surprise us in the strangest places. Yesterday, thinking I had escaped my fellow evaluators, I began sleepwalking where only the US mail once possessed hegemony, only momentarily, where now a simmering if illusory anarchy reigns. In truth, I was kidnapped, and though the world was much too naked to conceal anything, I know I was enthralled by some kind of weapon, escorted to a church parking lot to be lectured on hurricanes. It seems they actually come from the Clergy In America, and are conjured by passages from Joyce and the molecular structures of tumors, which explains, according to the Worldís servant Louise Erdrich, not only why John Wayne died of colonial cells, but why hurricanes have always filled me with the desire to endanger myself with mimetic dance.

But this lesson was only the first move in Marcel Duchampís endless chess retirement. Stuffed in a trunk and taken to the lawless mountains, I was required to sleepclimb even though I had no history, except the once I chased the finger weaver, an army ranger who loosened all the plants the mountains offered for handholds. There were two giants in this world, each grabbing my blind hands and reminding me to ask the dolls what they think. One made me stare at a cup of coffee for hours and consider the many lives lost to digital identity theft. Another surprised me by making an entire day of psychiatric appointments disappear. Then they left me alone to tremble oh Poor Tomís a cold. They mocked me in the middle of the night with distant cries, a beautiful, lost geometry.

3. Judgment

Blind in the night, I keep hoping that one of the cries will fall like a halo of silence above me, turning the world into the word, as if I were a zoetrope version of the apostle Paul. Thatís what originally gave these cards wing, right, to fall in such a way as to make each step and turn seem like an escape from pain that never quite materialized, never quite made me feel any fear besides not taking the next step? The cards lack texture, weight, the ability to raise the dead, crash a window out of the sleepwalking world, write letters of recommendation for one another, understand mechanization and nostalgia, grant a fanatical restraint to love, balance September or find lost October; they are not sharp enough to cut my frozen clothes away. I choose to live here, I think, hoping that someone will come to investigate me.

4. The Sun

In our bicycle fables, substitute for garish priests, we find many needle eyes to tightrope, but never quite crash. That brilliant orange fiddler over there is the sunset, not us. Tuesday I was hiding out, as you prepared tortures that would be worth telling about. Catalyst, Iím always amazed how your scar tissue becomes more and more beautiful, like plastic being peeled away from the haunted hollow windows we can pick and crush in blackberry season. There, just by looking at the torn nerve endings of the clouds, I cut someoneís fingers two hours away. The orange briars are growing out everywhere each new night. They wonít send us where I left the insects to make love with a window, but on Tuesday I followed the thorns up a stairway, and believe me: they blew the roof off an entire building. So I sat there on the top floor, listening to painful cries issue from holes in the broken teeth. They were virtuosos on the piano, the horn, and the caterpillaróin utter discord. That doesnít prevent me from falling asleep in the excuses of stardust.

5. The Moon

I could sense crabs forming on the moon, ready to drop from the sky when it grew fully pregnant with them. I would find one, especially chosen by the atmosphere, sleeping under my window. After cutting it open and adding wings, I could sneak in through your mailbox once again, surprise you in the bathtub. The singing of my flight would mesmerize you into lucidity, explaining the movements within a Beardsley drawing, the very words inside the books he used as props. Instead, you refused to move until your cat swatted me away, but I had pierced it with crystals that gave me the secrets of your nipples and the labyrinths they led to.

Your breasts were miles long, as I had fully expected, but their iron construction was unforeseen. ďI keep forgetting you are not a fireman,Ē you trembled, ďand that cold winds do not keep you from seething. Nor do you soak yourself under pretense of feeding sex organs to the fish. There is a devil who buries us, and your only hope is to allow the moon to seep inside your nipples and reverberate off these miles of shimmering walls, for these shells that drop by chance are worthless. Otherwise, you only fight lost battles for your brotherís misnomers.Ē Strangely enough, this advice did not seem completely foreign. I think I had started on this project years ago, even going so far as to place my card into the iron providerís slot to request materials. But, anything I place inside a machine is immediately lost, just as your labyrinth was lost in the the awkward snow, just as I was immediately lost in your starving body.

6. The Star

Tierney, who when he whispers is a dead giveaway for the devil, sometimes fades out in a blush but comes back with the most beautiful drawings of you moving across a dance floor with string coming out of your abdomen, trapping everyone who doesnít know how to reassemble horses. Each time Iím forced to wonder how I get caught up in all thisówhich one of my scabs covered a mys en abymeósinging to you when even my inmost noms de plume are not exotic. I think they chose me because my voice doesnít project into the microphone, so when the band is finished and all the animals are peeled from my skin, everyoneís left with the sense of having heard a voice but remembering none of the words. Even though I canít jimmy our stars apart anymore, it doesnít keep me awake for the Geiger counting, and the only joy I have anymore is in planning a famous escapeóthe one act I canít perform.

7. Tower

Few people realize how easily the tower is turned inside out into a giant whose entrails are better than most suburbs (standing across from the brilliant ocean) where boys and girls wander with the cure. So bring your illnesses here, the blue stitches of your parents, the lost portraits, days that should be night, lizard bites, cauldrons along your hairline, a nest of spiders in your armpit. Three fish wander in a pocket of vapor, sucking life through the giantís arm until it tumbles down endless stairs without a sound. I canít even remember when I didnít irritate the coral until it rose in towers toward the surface of my skin.

8. The Black Magician

I built a city from photographs you had tripwired, biting a knife, pretending to play an instrument, surprised by the desert. I deliberately sent coyotes out to wander confused, longing for the sturdy rest of rusted out cars. I once searched for devices that would quickly move uphill but as my limbs grew more and more webbed, as I missed more and more dwindling birthday parties and our lips failed to drift together into the past, I realized that the only thing I was good at was placing labyrinths in the path of migratory animals such as yourself. I lured them in with signs promising a glimpse of their birthplace, and when they finally dropped in mysterious exhaustion, all blood tests negative, I tormented them with the following message: ďI bet you thought these thin stones held childrenís drawings, but they are the work of cobras. When I first saw them under the hanging rock, I had taken shelter from the suburban rainstorm. There were, however, children all over the floor with pads and crayons. They played along with the paintings while cigarette ads aimed at children howled outside, fingers moving as if they drifted through a canal. I was suddenly glad we were trapped inside, and I hope that all your days are like that one was for meóa constellation of youth and maturity. Do you feel anything?Ē That is usually enough to make their depleted limbs rise up from the slime, curse me once more, and turn on the Geiger counters. But all they encounter are more slivery monoliths, the bloody outlines of the butterfly priest, tear shadows in the naked world of frames, perverse sexual judgments, baby sun crutches that pierce the lion, something besides the moon feeding these cities the snakes in your glass, violins stacked to open up the sky, a telescope made of poisonous thorns.

9. Temperance

How odd that I would get such similar advice in one day. One told me it didnít matter what instruments I brought to the experiment, as long as I wove a dangerous and obscure legend around each one. The second stylist told me my vision was fine, but that I should join her in searching out our old enemies to statistically determine if karma worked in noisy environments. Both told me what I didnít want to hear, that I should go into the desert and lie down face first, until someone came along and built a small fire on my back. Instead, you threw keys at my window for hours. Some of them made me skip meals, deliver messages about the painkillers you left behind in dark lakes, and fall asleep in the middle of nowhereórather minor events really. But what about stolen Michelle, or the broken apartment with the untrained animals Iím supposed to use for gift delivery? Iíve been having dreams about department stores breaking apart like insecure wharfs, then drifting around more clandestinely, whispering to purchase restraints, and youíve been listening. The last two days youíve bought necklaces that look like blood, which filter everything you need to say to me. A screen door opens, letting in strangers, echoes, the official names of all previous days, ocean views that only a hotel could afford. I was drifting in the armed forces, selling my body for a story I could tell twenty years later. And I think that despite these precautions, all the relevant dreams will have been torn from the DSM I took with me on a deserted isle, while the circus will inevitably be held in the mall parking lot this year.

Now isnít that a plate full of question marks?

10. The Reaper

Birds sail towards me like torpedoes. Itís not good that I place these cards over your image when you lick knives the way you do. There are no frames left for the volcano. Each moment is a serpent, the only beast I could ever address. Since there are nothing but fragments in my blood, Iíll hope for a random meeting with my psychologist and his familyóitís a Thanksgiving invite Iíve always wanted, where his emaciated daughter will have plenty of leftovers. The robins were not impressive but for a moment, your fingers were the silver blades of the yucca that powers the hospital. The hospital just called but canít call me away from the levels of retreat. I once could feel the world drift just by sitting still with a book but blood kept coming to play with me, telling me to lie still with my eyes closed, only then could I hear the whispering of blood as I abandoned you.

11. Hanging

So youíre more worried about my shadows? Theyíre waiting on a corner somewhere below Brooklyn mausoleum parks, slowly drifting into the street like an optometristís trick. One is vomiting unsolicited confessions, the other keeps turning its blank eyes to imprisoned lakes. My retina turns them upside down, sends them to a mirror that turns them on their feet again. My shadows cost approximately 200 dollars and are made of lizard skin, black teeth, and dying make-up. I find them in a desert hotel, and know I need new ones when they begin to drift away from warming me, into the frozen mountains, no longer able to read my fortune in a properly cramped environment. So youíre more worried about my shadows; well, I want to dance as the new barbarian. My shadows linger far too long in the cold. My shadows are gridlocked.

12. Enchantress

Lover and Breeder of Chinatownís distractions that are sold to place near graves we canít identify, hold the jaws of the city open for me. Make sure my frozen body makes it inside the rental car. Send periodic shocks of static to make sure Iím not falling asleep or catching pneumonia from sound effects. Call me early and send my swine to their doom. Show me 800 wonders in the shortening day. Youíre the one who taught me to be helpless, to wait by the river for icy stars to come. I reckon driving through the mountains is like watching a movie from the insides. Help me tear the lilies from Portugal. These are modest improvements.

13. The Wheel

I try everything to get the wheel started at a different rate, driving out of your arms at 5 am or hiding out in bed until 2 pm. But it seems immune to spontaneity and furthermore, the wheel is so small that I canít make out its minutes or even its hoursóone of those nonrepresentational timepieces of the digital age. I have comforting dreams that the weather is too unpredictable to go outside, or conversely, that there is always a window someone can see through. Dressed in a 300 dollar jacket and tie, dragging a suitcase on wheels like itís my first day on the Supreme Court of the Ecological Homeless, I plunge into Central Park at full speed only to be spit out an hour later at the same place I began. I didnít see the sheep grazing or the black squirrels flying on tiny cigarettes, just false cholesterol and a feeling that I should increase the milligrams of whatever medicines Iíve been taking. Itís 4:30 pm and I have thirty minutes left to dodge subway pits because I vowed I wouldnít let the city swallow me until darkness had swallowed the city, with or without a conspiracy of purple rocket trails. Uptown, my brother is in the fabritory he travels the minimum forty-five minutes to each day. He tries to vary this, sometimes going at noon, sometimes at six in the morning, but either way he spends the requisite twelve hours there, and the commute is approximately the same. He says thereís no way to know the long term effects of the drugs weíre taking these days, whether they create a brain thatís too soft to withstand even minimal blows in their absence, not to mention spinning in the anti-gravity vice of capitalism. They have a guillotine at work where heís probably decapitated thousands of rats by now, and though he would rightfully deny this, I think he knows that with each drop of the blade a break in the wheel might occur. But he never knows until he takes the head and smears it along the miles of canvas heís spotted throughout the city. Somewhere, thereís a square the leaches havenít found, where the ratís blood wonít be immediately sucked away. But to be fair, my strings are always false, and though my instructions unravel these river monsters, you have to sleep for hours and hours for a dream to have a chance of coming true.

14. The Hermit

No one would suspect the janitor of stealing from the basement of a building made of gray sand where everyone is busily lying down to pray for the ocean of ash to bury them because otherwise the sand will congeal into white letters that are only good to dive from. The sand gathers into the buildingís black sky to rain suicide notes which fertilize the gray land where the famous graywood trees tower above the city. No one would suspect the janitor of rummaging amongst the cave drawings, angry radios, and empty lanterns in the freezer underneath the gray hospital that hovers so solidly above, because only those responsible for keeping the bacteria out even know the museum exists. And only you, the heroine of these Arcana, could wake me up from the petty thefts whenever you see the hound that can escort me above ground into the darkness. Just place the fetus we could never carry inside the lantern, you say. Thatís the glow of the suburbs, where you can walk for miles between the hours of three and five, never sensing a single movement. But if you focus your eyes and follow the lanternís tricks, the invisible cords that hold the trees in place, the hills together, will come into view as if they were connected to a giant circus tent. Look at the nails coming out from the wood, before the landslide, and look through these brief holes in the wall surrounding the fumes where the rapes once occurred and now are studied. Your life is draining from each pore.

15. Justice

Letís say you could drive to Atlanta and, expecting an act of violence, encounter something completely different. Naked ghosts walk the street tearing at chicken bones. You can stop almost anywhere, hand the keys over, and they will drive the car completely out of your life. Itís the best way to lose a friend and sample what itís like to be deadóthe long sleeps, the drifting about without anyoneís knowledge. Now walk along the train tracks until the ground itself leaves your feet, and how little food we need to eat. A chicken bone makes the world so brilliant, we can do nothing but decide which storm looks good around our necks. It nourished me in a time when I had no movies to see but morning glories and dream interpreters to decapitate with a mirror and a lighthouse. I needed my time in Atlanta to make sure the gun wasnít loaded with sand.

16. The Chariot

Sleepwalking is stranger than you think, barely leaving you time to masturbate while riding a chariot across the ocean. All the others seem so happy on the bottom, searching for their presence. The food you were eating was removed from the room because it burned someoneís skin, and there were people who never made it to the bottom, but no one remembers their names. To simulate this death, I can only lie down with the television on. The words bend around my darkening and form plots that can make the Krebs cycle a mesmerizing Egyptian merry-go-round. Thereís so much oxygen when you cut your skin, the blood turning black is your desire to be evil, to turn into a coagulated sleep. Remember the last time I found you at the end of the year, so unwilling to be photographed? But you were good for getting away from the tongueless seizures, and you claim to be able to read my body language even when I am barely moving.

17. The Lovers

Youíre a butterfly made of uranium, flitting heavy on my various limbs, breaking up and carrying parts of me with you. You werenít supposed to be my lover but as fragments of us move down the street like reusable transparencies, I hear my enemies gather behind me to discuss forms of reproduction Iíd never imagined, and I realize that though you are often looking at slides of religious ecstasy, you are also the ingťnue who continually reinvents tragedy. And my wife, in her silence, is afraid I might kill myself. She has sent out fifty love letters this fall and hasnít received one request for a dossier, script, or ghost card. Can you imagine how that must feel? Itís not the silence we must fear but the echoes, the electronic bonds of love between cold objects. Itís enough to make us, when we look at the beautiful ashtrays, do no more than speculate on the value of copper wiring, or follow the flashlightís map through replicas of the underworld. This is a lengthy exposure, and weíre going to have to wait it out as the magicianís dog calls in the waves that bear the empty rooms where Iím allowed to eat and hint at my health problems. This is more cumulative than it sounds, a trick elevator that only goes down.

18. The Hierophant

My power lines draw the lightning in spirals, and there are many languages that require energy. Some come asking for fish, while others merely desire my presence in the dead rooms, an animal they canít touch. But you brought me to the parking lot where the rainbow nativities burn their own shelter in a highbrow depression. You taught me that mouths can be pried open from behind, no matter what migraines or unforgivable children may result. The Hierophant is not supposed to care if we can make a tent of these dissections, he only troubles over the microscopic coherence of those who dissect cellulose. Enter the unnumbered Fool, who makes me dissolve in the shadows as I walk down the street. I didnít shout loud enough, and I signed autographs for my enemies. Now Iím a white muscle covered in fur, wriggling on the sidewalk in pain. People think Iím beautiful, a subject fit for Wurlitzers, an animal to touch and caress as they proceed to the real estate ballet. Theyíve obviously never seen a burning bush, and canít begin to understand the price it pays for their loaded oceans.

19. The Emperor

The Emperor commands the birds to plummet away from the sails, into the heavens, because we want to be falling at every moment, headless babies in cloud clothes. Castles are as often abandoned before completion as after strange centuries. Look at the wires that sway even in the silence, cages the birds have fallen from. I had an idea to track the lost wings, the leaden weights, tear the shreds of a storm into lines of poetry, into a bird cage. But that is not what I really want. Iíve always wanted to fall with the cards, spinning from an arthritic magicianís hands like an unpredictable Satan. The only emperor is the emperor of this pleasure, the winged cards of this underground where the islands are gated in moments.

20. The Empress

The empress hasnít been holding up her end of the bargain either, and is always losing the lights of the city. No sooner does she slam a box of tools or photos than they begin to fall away into the beautiful, undrinkable ocean. She doesnít know that while she is off attaching her bruise-bitten flesh to reflective mirrors, I have broken into her house, have taught the animals to run off to the circus. She has two turntables I set them dancing on. One produces the jungle music of pain first reported by the India Rubber Company and the other muffles with a mixture of lubricants, Valium, and hollow iron. Why donít you go out and watch them leave, she says, when theyíve already begun to bleed. Are you getting sleepy from this? she asks. I would only pass out from the pain of watching you turn them into searchlights. I was probably all wrong to go skirting the shore for so long, hoping the concrete railing would suddenly open up. Most likely a cold hotel ceiling would begin to waver, or the side of a hill open up into an underground pool. I would walk inside, drown because oil paintings are never really dry, peel away the outer layers and begin rerouting the maps, or get back to writing the cures. They would do something like tell you the lights glow in the lips of your hair, behind your ears, send the chemistry professor wandering amongst the cameras of nighttime. There is one at the top of the hill trying to take in the ants like Renoir but when I get to the funnel eye, watch for the death sequence Iíve sketched out.

21. The High Priestess

What a shock it is to learn your clothing is made from someoneís intestines, to find out youíre a virgin. After every violation the lizards (30,000 on the black market) come and sew me back together while Iím sleeping, only in more places so that with each injury I become a bit more paralyzed. So I look to you in envy, knowing how easily you channel Kafka when someone enters the house (no matter how valuable) and steals from your newborn. The lizards enter and eat all the celluloid wiring my house, converting it into the dead threads of time. The trees come undone, and if you want me to watch your empty house, prop me in the doorway surrounded by triggers; I donít know which Iíll be able to operate, which will not be reminiscent of past apartments. I had my closet converted to a door so that if I crawled in Iíd fall out the other side. And hence the center of town feels like a god hurtling backwards, an hour commute from my bed to the front door.

22. The Magician

And yet, the magician has made an art of waiting in these situations, tied so tightly his eyes bulge, tied by his own arms, by arches and flames, by the subway schedule, tied by his own hunger yet he can still think. He eats no flesh but his own, takes no medication for the pain of being tied up. He prays to no god, and when he has the urge he wraps his tongue in the celluloid wires, right at the base. He is tied around the neck by the ring of a woman who broke his heart. He has been tied up so long that time is meaningless, the days blur together into waves and particles. There are large areas of his soul that do not breathe, long rivers he slept through entirely. His is a denial that few people could imagine, one that will most likely lead to his death or disappearance. Yet he seems to have an audience of some kind, he is waiting for something, is it for the strings to be so tight his tongues and eye and bad leg and worse leg suddenly explode in all directions trailing homeless blue roses? If so, there is no need to forgive him, for he is no longer his own personality and no longer a will of his own, he is no longer human nor a ďcaseĒ to be hopeless or on the verge of completion. And as he had nothing but a perverse desire to create a gospel of nothingness, there was no reason for him to stay long on this earth. Does this explosion mean he was freer now than he was? I do not know. 


© 2000 Alan Clinton

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