I was once asked if I’d ever seen a wild horse, like a horse in the wild. I wasn’t sure I knew the answer and don’t remember what I said. I suppose I probably had—have—seen one, but my point would be I felt somehow inadequate to the question, and that I’d likely at least once seen some unowned horse out there seemed beside the point, totally didn’t matter. There would’ve been more to the exchange, but none of it feels salient.
Let me begin again: The guy asking about the horse looked like a cowboy but I guessed it was a costume, or at least I was sure I wouldn’t know the difference. We shared a craps table on the ground floor of an enormous glass pyramid while I was supposed to be on a panel at a conference for scholars of contemporary art being held in a lower level of a replica of New York City. I wore a white suit I bought at a thrift store as a joke, but I didn’t feel I was joking now. I had notecards and drugs in my pocket and because I felt handsome I felt I could act recklessly. It was a bad idea, the suit, and when it clearly registered as such I was even more resolved to wear it.
For a few weeks a cough lingered and then the week of the conference I began to bleed a little through the coughing. It had been intermittent, disruptive enough only to arouse a loose intention to look into it, but this, at the craps table on the ground floor of the enormous glass pyramid, was the first time it got bad in public. It came on suddenly and within moments of feeling a tickle in my sternum I was trying to drop my head below the table to shield the other players (cowboy included) while keeping balance enough not to fall off my stool, which within seconds I did. I swam around under the table, blood rushing to my head, picking up spilled notecards and a small bag of pills. Even with this accomplished and the game paused on my account, it felt safer to stay close to the earth for an interval and get my breath regular. The light was doing something unstable and I wanted to wait it out. I found one last card face up against a confusing weave of color, and silently repeated its words: “In the common Chinese grammatical construction one reads a painting.” This was my talk, as it would’ve begun, had I been giving it and not here instead, making a scene on the casino floor and paying inordinate attention to the baroque pattern of the carpet. I’d chosen craps because I thought I had a basic read on the odds and still lost $200 within the hour (the dealer twice more paused between bets to check on me) and sometime later was helped to my feet by a man in a mesh veteran’s hat (by then the cowboy had bailed). “You’re alright, Sport,” the vet said and I repeated I was alright.
I didn’t know if it was true, the Chinese thing, or at least I couldn’t speak to the accuracy of the translation, even though my talk depended on the logic holding. My final semester I wrote a paper on Cy Twombly and Franz Kline for a seminar on 20th century painters. The paper tried to understand Twombly and Kline’s work as undertaking a kind of writing, as opposed to whatever the usual painterly modes were. I’d read literally none of the existing scholarship but my professor, Carlos, thought it showed promise and wanted to work on it together and eventually try to publish. We met periodically on his back porch to go over edits and share a high-end vaporizer. Eventually I lost track of what I’d meant the paper to do and lagged on revision but Carlos pulled connections and got me on panel and now I was at a conference where I was, as far as I knew, the only attendee without institutional affiliation. I hadn’t done anything official in the three years since graduating except sub in the public school system insofar as making a low rent bill required. As it concerns my paper, it wasn’t so much good as merely ambitious, its argument indeterminate enough not to be obviously wrong.
I’d gone to a single panel the day before and thumbed through my phone and felt dead. Marie wasn’t taking my calls. I spent the afternoon paring the paper back to a series of axioms and brief quotations I thought I could speak between extemporaneously. I’d driven to the edge of the city, to a state park named for the color of its rock formations, and edited under a picnic awning within the main parking loop. On the way out I bought a bathing suit at a suburban Target thinking I might use the pool at my hotel but returned it on the drive back. In the park I drew my marker though the adornment and digression. The proportions tilted toward the black. It occurred to me to say something about the outcroppings of rock, globular and red, but the genre couldn’t accommodate the physical world, not unless it was previously represented, somehow intervened on or bothered by someone called an artist. The park was nearly empty. The pavement rippled in a heat effect for which I never learned the name. The late sun dipped below the awning and like an instinct I held the page up to block the light and the light cut through everything not struck with Sharpie.
That evening I drove out into the desert, 50 miles in the direction of Carson City, and turned around. I kept a two-gallon water jug on the passenger seat and when darkness fell I realized my headlights were out and felt around the floorboards for the headlamp I kept on hand in case this happened again. My four-cylinder car didn’t weigh enough not to be dragged by the cross-currents that swept over the plain. I tried to anticipate the degree of drift and allow for it, dividing the margins between the passing lane and the ribbed shoulder on a variable scale according to my reading of the wind. With the lamp on I practiced riffing on Twombly and Kline and painting as a kind of writing.
My lights had been on the fritz for awhile and my friend J, half-joking, lent me the high-beam backpacking headlamp as backup. It was advertised as able to cut through a hundred feet of fog, a capacity that in the desert we never needed, unless, that is, you were using it to drive a busted car at night. It more or less worked, or the least the lamp’s power wasn’t a problem, but I never washed the car and so water spots lit up across the windshield and shot glare into my eyes. I drove through the unlit desert back to Vegas, the whole time driving as though into full, unsinking sun.
I found a mechanic open late and drank a Coke out front while waiting for a wire to be replaced and then slept a solid 11 hours in a down-market hotel room. After a final round of cutting over a continental breakfast the paper was barely two pages, mostly propositions, which I copied out onto notecards.
J had given me some unmarked codeine product for the cough. It was hard to get a read on the dosage and effect. I took two pills an hour before my panel was meant to begin and thought to try the stop at the craps table on the way to wherever Ballroom Annex 3 was and from there the day never really came back together.
After the coughing fit and the cowboy and the mesh-hatted vet, I wandered the casino floor, dizzy and ebullient, looking for a bank of elevators. It seemed light was spilling in an indeterminate direction. I felt a fundamental distinction blurring, one for which my vision was only a weak metaphor. There was rumor of a party on an upper level of the hotel, in the lux suite of a collector whose business at the conference wasn’t clear. A tree in a planter shot up through the mezzanine, punching out a spire in the first few floors. I wanted to know its name, its variety. It occurs only now to wonder whether the tree was real.
At the party—if that was the word—a half-dozen people stood around a mini kitchen and talked about a tenure-review ordeal and I did cocaine for (by my count) the third time in my life. I’d gone into the bathroom with a high-strung grad student and took a bump off his forefinger and he wanted to recap drama on a panel about art and global capital and I asked to be left alone. With the grad student gone I stood up and took in my face in the mirror, then rested my weight against the sink, maybe exhausted. It occurred to me to bed down in the bathtub if the variables became unmanageable. I cupped water in my hands and brought my hands to my face and looked at myself in the mirror a second time, as though in affirmation. Then I threw up on the floor.
The panel the grad student was excited about was called “Art as World,” which I think meant to apply philosophical conceptions of “worlds” to the art world. Or it was only a pun. There was some kind of nastiness between participants during the time allotted for questions. The matter related to the “problems” a sculpture was supposed to have had. The grad student seemed pleased something had happened, even if sculptures didn’t have problems, not of the kind I was prepared to recognize.
So I was spun out in this palatial bathroom, renouncing ambition, considering whatever inference error a “world” is when I felt a wave of nausea and coughed maybe twice and to my amazement threw up before reaching the toilet. The vomit was sudden and involuntary, mostly barren of food. It seemed to rise up through my body without me, a spasm in the stomach lifting like a wave that broke my mouth open. Which is to say this co-occurrence of cough and vomit took me as its object, its site. A slurry of bile and blood spread across the tile.
I attended to my breathing but saw how the attention could make me nervous. My heart beat fast and I remembered the coke but felt the relation tangential. My throat burned, as though scoured and rubbed dry. I worried the blood would get on my shirt. It was the wrong outfit in which to sick on oneself. In the next months the coughing came to take on a familiar pattern: a tickle under the chest and then the forcing of something quick from the stomach up through the throat. Always when the coughing came on I felt I was waiting for something to happen, something for which my body knew to prepare, for which the coughing was announcement, but there was never anything else.
I sat on the toilet and fingered the notecards, now disordered. I thought: The blood splatter is like language become material, like language unmoored, pure sense phenomena, referencing nothing. I recalled the multiple senses of the word character. I was mouthing the words to my talk but was talking about the blood. It splayed across the tile like a calligraphic mark: full-bodied, the color deeply saturated. You wouldn’t really say it was red, even if inarguably it was. I couldn’t explain the effect—as though it were the hundredth and only perfect attempt at a kind of incidental gesture faintly conjuring a foreign alphabet. Incidental but obviously implicated in human meaning, like a letter or word come loose, entered into the world of objects, coughed onto high-end flooring, spreading like an emblem without origin or end. That such a mark was “easy,” “random,” or “aimless” didn’t count against it. If its creation was instantaneous it implied an instant for which one’s whole life was preparation, an effortlessness earned by long apprenticeship. My paper somewhere used the phrase “second innocence.” I wasn’t remembering my talking points right.
You could say things were like other things but I worried it was a sand game. I mean you followed a loop that left you holding sand. That was a dumb figure too. My point would be: Why attach description to what isn’t hidden? Why trade the near fact in favor of its alleged likeness? “There’s no there there,” Carlos once said of a painting or maybe a painter he didn’t like. But he was pointing to an image projected at the front of the classroom. He was pointing to where “there” was, or I guess where it wasn’t.
I was on my knees mopping up the mess with wadded toilet paper and wondering about the essential distinction between vomiting and a deep cough other than what each (if anything) expelled from the body. I thought: At least by vomiting I’ve become a content producer, no longer in intellectual service to some primary act. I thought: My vomiting is the iconic speech of the body in history, its reference stable across culture and era. I thought: The human animal is the only which vomits in a symbolic language. I felt awful but I think I was laughing.
I decided not to say much because it was an ethic. Interpretation indicted mainly myself. It could be left alone. What’s clear speaks for itself. Or what’s clear doesn’t speak. You open your mouth and the thread begins to shear. Whatever. The world doesn’t tell you what it’s for. The real life doesn’t reduce, not to words or images, not to category or grid, not ever. I sat on a couch, steadying myself, saying nothing. My body was an incongruous, multiple sensation. Someone made gin and tonics in the sink. The business about the tenure thing somehow hadn’t been exhausted.
The TV was tuned to a menu channel that ran on a kind of loop. I watched a three-minute feature on a Thai restaurant play for the fifth time. Someone asked me if I was aware I was at a party and I said the question felt dishonest. Eventually people left to go to sleep or to a club somewhere. Later a young woman, a niece (it turned out) of the collector, showed up with a friend. They’d come from a show. Both were pretty but only the friend wanted to talk. She was selling some story about being accepted by a modeling agency and for the sake of ease I was willing to believe it. I told her story about two people after which she, feeling clever, asked which character I was. I told her I was the landscape and weather. In the window a neon palm buzzed against the night.
I woke up on the couch and mistook a full glass of flat champagne for water. The TV was tuned to morning news on mute. The place was a mess but empty of people except for a couple asleep on the king bed. An edge of natural light bled into the glare, at the dark distances of the new city. I rode a glass elevator to the ground floor. An old woman was in there, clutching a walker with cut tennis balls on the ends of its legs. The sun was coming up. The sky looked like it was on fire. She was sucking hard on a respirator and I worried she would try to talk to me. A plastic souvenir cup had been emptied in the corner, maybe hers. It was a kind of adult slushee at lot of people seemed to have. She squeezed the grips of the walker almost rhythmically, as though to assure herself the equipment was still there, still load-bearing. I felt a vague sympathy with her uncertain circadian predicament. Either she was up crazy early or had gone clear through the night. She looked like my Grandma, the one we buried in her Cleveland Browns sweatpants, but fuck if I was gonna pick up the cup.
I pushed through the revolving doors and out into the day, already blazing with heat, and tried to remember where my car was. It took 15 minutes to figure out how to cross a massive freeway on foot. In a few weeks we’d get word that Luke was dead and I kept coughing and J considered quitting his job to walk across the desert and things remained beyond rapprochement with Marie but I’m getting ahead of myself. There are days so bright you don’t think in them.
The weather shifted incongruously all day before a thick dusk dampened the effect. I thought night was coming on and an hour later the clouds broke and a gold afterlight filtered down over cow pasture as though from the floodlamps of some heaven long discredited. It was the kind of word I’d meant to swear off but apparently I couldn’t stick it. On the drive I stopped at a stand selling jewelry and dried meat on the reservation and bought a turquoise ring I would’ve given Marie had we still been talking, a gesture as though for no one, adjacent fields of spent chaff and blasted shale. Women with folding tables set up on a bridge where a dam bisected the river and lined blankets on the railing and though the river was dry the canyon cut deep in the land and the sun threw light in ribbons on strip-mined cliffs the plateau ran up against. I’d lost the suit jacket somewhere along the way and my shirt smelled and a few times I felt maybe I could throw up again but in the open air it wasn’t so bad.
Back on the road I took the last of the codeine, pushed a tape into the cassette deck, and watched the dusk grow permanent over the high desert. A band of pink light dimmed over a ridge to the west and already a dome of stars shone through in pockets of cloudless sky.
Marie committed lectures from her grad program to cassette and left a few tapes in my car and then we stopped talking. The tapes sat on the sun-cracked dash some six months, now warped and half-melted. This one was labeled Lives of American Poets/Morris/Mon-Wed. The audio was mostly her Prof droning on and sometimes Marie talked into the thing after class or interrupted with a grocery list and once with the contact info of an auto insurer. But in fact the content on the tapes was of secondary interest. The sound was wildly unstable, in patches truly fucked. Often it degraded perceptibly in real time, as you listened. J wanted to convince me the words for these effects were wow and flutter but who knows. I mean when the tape wobbles or loses slack and a syllable is dropped or stretched into drone or the Professor’s voice gets pulled suddenly taut and something he’s saying about Whitman or whoever is weirdly fuzzed or zipped over. I wasn’t concerned with night and death and the sea and whatever else poets were always talking about. The shit was arguably dull, niche gossip about the great dead, but the sonic experience was crazy, infinitely various.
I worried I could listen too much, that even once might be enough to fuck the tape beyond use. One had already snapped in the deck and it took minutes to free the sprung film from the teeth of the machine. Even with minimal investment in the subject matter the stakes of listening were instantly high. You acquired whatever information at the cost of ruining its source, its material form, making it forever inaccessible to others, to future versions of yourself. The experience asked you what you were worth, how confident you were that the content of the tapes was meant for you, or at least that you were sufficient to be its sole recipient, and in effect you answered by listening on or stopping the tape, deferring inevitable ruin, assigning an as yet unapprehended knowledge to the future.
I let the spool run until the tape snapped and the reel began spilling out onto the console and then switched over to the radio. By the end it had ground down to drone. The sound was like undirected light, like light on the wane, a thin hum under the blotter of ghost syllables, the words like sound—but then, when weren’t they?
I was listening because it was too late to matter. Now Marie did PR for a distributor of beauty products headquartered in an enormous office park outside El Paso. You do the math. With the ring gleaming on the dash I drove the eight hours back to Tucson. I’d lost time to an immense breakfast in Las Vegas and a long nap in a pullout off the highway. There was an outside chance of working the next day. I pulled the busted tape from the deck and licked the inside of the ziplock for residue but there was none. No matter—I was high enough for my purposes, which were merely to sing along with the radio (badly) and try not to sketch out about the dark.
When I got back the Wendy’s sign was blown out in places, its words now uncertain. The girl’s pigtails lent a patina of glow over the blanked-out letters. Despite the illegibility nothing essential felt lost. J left messages on my phone. Someone had thrown prescription opioids over the wall in a paper bag marked “lunch” and for half the day the psych facility he worked at was in panic. We sat in plastic chairs dragged up from the pool and I let him talk. Everything in the city felt dead, churning over in the machine of the imagination, boundless, somehow fake. I couldn’t explain that—and I wouldn’t. JMW Turner said atmosphere was his style, and elsewhere that indistinctness was his error. Oscar Wilde, dying, said “either the drapes go or I do.” (These were the sum total of my notes from the conference.) You could say what you meant and not know what you’d said. Maybe life was inexhaustible, somehow complete in every moment. I wasn’t sure that was any consolation.