Mercerism
By: Peggy Nelson | Categories: Fiction

The thermostat was 72 and climbing when I started to shiver. I wedged myself next to the radiator but it didn’t do any good, so I burrowed under the covers with my hat on and dragged a winter coat on top for good measure. Mom appeared and insisted I get up, of course; until I showed her my fingernails, already as blue as the ocean. Mom knew there was no such thing as a cold fever. But she couldn’t argue with the color of evidence, so she contented herself with a baleful look and went stomping downstairs. Someone was getting away with something, somewhere. Someone always was.

After that I don’t remember, it could have been a day, it could have been a week. I was just cold — cold, and I drifted off into a featureless tundra, not-quite-dreaming of a coat of thick white fur.

We had gone to the beach that one time, all crammed in the car, a rectangular ochre sedan. We played the Alphabet Game on the way, and I remember Dad opening the windows when we got near enough, so we could smell the ocean. The water was bone-chilling but we splashed around until we got numb enough to dive under, and rode the tiny waves in just barely above the gravel, over and over. When our fingernails turned blue Mom hauled us out of there, and fed us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with a little sand for good measure.

That’s when I captured the kite. It was drifting along about 30 feet off the ground trailing a string, ownerless. I trotted after it, pretending to chase it. We were all laughing. Then the wind shifted, and the kite and I immediately became serious. We took off down the beach at top speed, Mom and Dad yelling at me to leave it alone, my brothers relieved that I would be the one getting in trouble again, not them. It was futile but I ran anyway, not willing to give up until the very end. My lungs hurt. They were right, I should stop. I kept running. And then, at the rock jetty, it — hesitated. It sagged, I jumped, and it was mine. I waltzed back in triumph. Dad helped me wind the string around a piece of driftwood, and we flew it the rest of the afternoon. Not even my brothers could contest my prize; everyone had seen me catch it, fair and square.

We never went back. For a long time I would visit the kite, out in the shed, and hope; and then one day it was gone. Mom said she was “getting rid of a lot of clutter around here.”

When I woke up my eyes had darkened from blue to green, and I could hear everything. Read minds I mean. It sounds shocking but it wasn’t; thoughts are soft, like air or rain. A constant murmur. People think more quietly than they speak, that’s for sure! I heard them well before I actually woke up, and thought I was either dreaming or they were actual voices, fading in and out. Luckily by this time I was 14 and knew better than to say anything. It would be open season, me “trying to act special,” again. None of us were special. I knew that.

I started to do very well in school. I would simply listen to my smarter classmates, who thought about answers all day, and write them down. Not all of them of course, I didn’t try for valedictorian, that would have raised all sorts of suspicions. I included a few wrong answers every time. Of course they thought I was cheating, the assistant principal called Mom, and I had to hear all about right and wrong, at top volume, for the umpteenth time. They kept moving my desk and once even made me stay after, but thoughts travel a long way, and besides, I had always had a good memory. Eventually they stopped bugging me about it and decided that I had just “come into my own;” nobody liked it, but there it was.

In due course I got a full scholarship to one of those big eastern universities, and had my bag packed the day the fat envelope came in the mail. Mom didn’t like it, not at all, but what could she do? She’d never argue with money. By her measure, by many measures, this meant I was special, and that was that. She didn’t speak to me for the rest of the summer, almost. The night before I got on the bus to head east, though, she walked by my room. She didn’t come in, just stood in the doorway. And then, she thought — a shape. It wasn’t language, there were no words, but I heard an impossible mixture of exasperation, fear, regret, and — was it love? Then she was gone. I heard her door slam, and she didn’t come down the next morning to see me off.

At school of course I majored in computer science, it was easy and I really didn’t like to work that hard. The problem sets and programs were logical, as were the thoughts of my fellow nerds. I started to abstract over their thoughts — not only could I hear them thinking about the lines of code, cranking through character by character, I began to discern larger patterns. Stepping back a little from the content, I could see the overall function emerge out of their process; it would inevitably be the correct solution. I wasn’t a genius. I just became more observant, in my way. But I always made sure to include a few bugs. I was my mother’s daughter, and I was careful. I maintained a straight B-plus average all six years.

It took six years because of the shapes. I became obsessed with the shapes. They weren’t thoughts, they weren’t words, but I could hear them, and feel them. What did they mean? How were they made? Maybe — was that what love was? I had a few boyfriends to try to find out. But I made them nervous, I could tell, and they drifted away. They didn’t like how I listened. And when I looked them in the eye, they never looked back.

It’s not like there are any big secrets, not really. We want to pretend we’re so complicated, but people generally say what they mean, and when they don’t, it’s pretty easy to tell. We don’t need to get inside when it’s written all over us. Thinking turns out to use fewer words than speech, and many fewer than writing. It seems to be a shorthand, as if we know what we mean by that. Babies are the best. They are exactly the same, inside and out. Their crying doesn’t mean I’m hungry or I’m bored. It means: Aaaahhhhhhhh!!! Ha ha ha. I like them.

After school I drifted, somewhat less than my peers, and eventually did the obvious thing and got a programming job at one of the big-name places, with huge corrals of programmers all beavering away at the world’s most boring problems. I wasn’t much good at the job because no one was ever working on exactly the same problems as me, but I was very good at the politics, surviving downsizing, outsourcing, reorg-ing, and any number of turf wars and coups. I could hear them thinking of course, and I knew who to butter up. Eventually they moved me from programming to HR; I just told people, gently, what they already knew. Once they heard it outside of their heads, they made the decisions we wanted them to.

But mostly I was concerned with the shapes. My fourth-and-a-half to fifth-and-a-half year in college I devoted myself to poetry. Not writing it, reading it. I let myself get solid A’s in comp lit, while I watched for any sign of the shapes. Some of the poets seemed to — if not actually read minds like me, then at least sense what this formal-yet-inarticulate other language was. There were patterns, there were frequencies. But the best ones were, in important ways, inconsistent. I can’t say exactly why that is, but maybe there’s something more for the mind to hook onto, when it isn’t just one smooth gel-like surface. But also — it seemed like you could take pieces of the shapes, recombine, resend — is there a sense in which languages are alive? The shapes were not alive, but you could cultivate and manage them almost as if they were. Shapes, I decided, were a telepathic Esperanto: universal, manufactured, with a tantalizing simplicity just out of reach.

It was while I was working in HR that I became an artist, incongruous as that sounds. Shape sculpture happens in the exchange, otherwise they’re just balloon animals and ultimately as uninteresting. I experimented with one or two of the employees, receiving a small inchoate shape or two, and sending back a piece of it, reformed. It worked but I stopped it immediately, I didn’t want to do art in the office, it only confused them. I started going out more. I went to places where there were a lot of shapes, airports, parks, even nice days. I studied the forms and intervened, changing a curve here, a concavity there. A few times I caused terrible arguments, but mistakes happen in the pursuit of any worthy goal.

I got to the point where I was ready. And then the question, the question of my life: ready for what? As far as I knew I was the only one of me. People could perhaps sense what I was doing, some of them, but not as such, and they entirely missed the details, the craft. Where could I perform? In front of whom? And how?

I certainly wasn’t going to make a career out of hanging around street corners and other people’s family gatherings, busking shapes that no one else could hear. For what — a vague sense of unease? A sudden unprovoked laugh? No. I had no audience, and there was no other. Ready for nothing. I stopped going out. What was the point? I stayed in and idly surfed the web. There wasn’t much of interest, but at least it was there. I was often very, very cold. Thoughts murmured with a deadly evenness. Time passed.

And then, I heard something. Very faint, very small, but it was — a shape! A shape had reached me here! What had happened, of course, was the social web. Its potential pool of empathy had become bigger and more formalized, and shapes were starting to migrate online. It was a virtual reality, and one of vast limitation. But it was — almost — enough. My audience, my public, had come at last to me.

In case you’re wondering, I can’t hear thoughts online at all. And the shapes are vanishingly difficult to discern. But they are there. The messages carry them on their silvery backs, through electricity and light and silicon, resulting in perfected, ghostly forms. I gather them in, chiseling and reshaping, although that makes the work sound much more tangible than it is. I hear them, I think at them. Then I push them back online, to flow and repost and sound like a bell, and dissipate into a burst of pixels, just like in real life. You have seen my work. You have heard it. You may claim it for your own, and you would not be entirely wrong in that. But don’t think it’s just a feature of the system. It has never belonged to the system. It’s the product of art, my art, with the inconsistent oscillation of the special and the ordinary that my mother always knew was exactly the case, for each of us. For all.

I imagine it will take years, probably, before I see the real results of my work. Which begs the question, what results? What is my goal? Why do it? . . . I don’t know. Why does the heart lift with a kite escaping along the beach? Lift with both its heedless, abandoned flight, and the trailing invitation to capture? We don’t know why, but it does.

You may think I have made this up. And I have. And yet, the shapes are there, and they speak for themselves.


[Still of The Great Bell, from Andrei Rublev, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966: watch a clip]

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Peggy Nelson is Arts Editor at HiLobrow, covering art, art-makers, and the virtual life; she was also HiLobrow's first Artist in Residence. She is a new media artist whose work involves fractured narratives in film, augmented reality, Twitter, and even objects on occasion. Follow her on Twitter at @otolythe.