by Christopher Landrum
“Careful, Scowl, I don’t want you going over there,” said Adler. “Why not?” “Because he’s a writer, and if you’re not careful, he’ll trap a little girl like you in one of his stories. So just obey me and leave him alone.”
Sitting here in the dark at the kitchen table between the hum of the refrigerator and the plying of crickets I think of the untouchable porch that sat across the street from my childhood home.
In old age, sometimes sleep just stops, no point in chasing it. You might as well read Tolstoy or eat an entire bowl of tomatoes like I just did––after all I grew them myself, and nobody else wants them. There was one week when I ate nothing but eggplant. It grew so big and black in the backyard that the neighborhood cats were afraid to come near it and I was almost afraid to bend over and grab it and lift it. Bending over is a big deal. My body injures easily. These days my glasses are so heavy and thick they bruise my nose after reading just one chapter. Tonight I sit here knowing the tomatoes are now a well-preserved paste coursing through me, a paste that will outlast the intestines rotting all around them. Soon I will be black as eggplant, rotting in this very night in which I am but momentarily awake.
But I was not afraid of the eggplant then, and I am not afraid of the tomatoes now. In old age, fearless women abide aplenty. Women like me. Nipple-less and eighty-three. I was born in 1912. And the only man I know now is the memory of my father.
Father was a lawyer. The idea that all the cases and statutes of the law can be read together as some grand story sounds like a childish cliché—but what I wonder these nights is, can a story somehow be law? I doubt it. I can’t imagine such a story. I could never be a grand advocate like daddy Adler was, someone who defended soul against skin in a small southern town. I was a child then and I am again a child now. And for children, all laws look like rules; “regulations of an omnipotent regal,” echo daddy’s austere intonations. Some say the law is but a stone wall, an endless stretch of rocks piled whose cracks in between leak water, light, and snakes. Others say the law is a drought––and that the drought doesn’t just say there is no water—the law means and confirms the actual absence of life’s liquid. The law pictures the dry aquafer for us (they say).
Scowl knew the dead have things to say. She also knew the living go on singing. “But because I cannot say or sing,” answered Scowl, “I want to write about the law.” “Why?” asked Adler, “You’re not a lawyer or a defendant or a witness or a judge? How can law possibly be something worthwhile for you to write about?” “Oh daddy, you mean, how can I write about law when I’m separated, segregated, ignorant of interaction and encounter with it because I remained a good girl all my life? Yes, I am a child before the law and think of law childishly. I am not an all-seeing eagle like you. When I look at the law I must resort to trope and rely on myth to make my case. I cannot be so empirical and analytic like you.” “But,” asked Adler, “do you know any stories about droughts? Or stone walls? Where did you get these ideas, these ill images?” “Why from the wardrobe of my imagination, daddy, where else?”
They still call me Scowl, but my name is Bennet. But these days Scowl seems to me to be a kind of fairy tale name. Second childhood necessitates a second set of fairy tales for older folk. We old folk need tales, not games. Old age is not some chess match with death like you see in the movies, or, if it is, it’s a chess match between body and soul, where death is merely the umpire, the onlooker, the spectator who watches both those who diddle with the pretty pieces and those who can see the whole game going on in their head without ever lifting a finger.
In old age, cancer is a dragon, doctors are anything but wizards, yet hospitals are very much dungeons, while Waiting is a terrible troll who won’t stop staring at me. First childhood celebrates independence day; second childhood depends on payday. It is once upon a time versus once again comes the time.
“There are lots of lumps in the chest,” says the doctor, “… and when the procedure is done, I will reattach your nipples.” “Nope, doc.” “Nope?” “Nope, I’m done with ’em. Let all of life be now dry teats and dry tomatoes. No more ketchup. No more buttermilk.”
Here in second childhood, where the seconds chime, I turn to Tolstoy. He helps me recall how doctors cross examine the bodies of patients like lawyers do our minds. We are always on trial, always before the judge. Someone is always sizing us up. And yet Tolstoy feels like he’s my friend from Russia. Is it taboo to sing in the night that the “friend from Russia” lurking about in Kafka’s The Judgement is none other than Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich? Too taboo? I don’t care. At eighty-three I am absolved of all crimes by my insomnia. Amid it, death blames me for living, for chewing and sucking too many tomatoes out of the bowl––here from the ceramic bowl molded by my now dead daughter Jane where I eat and argue according to the law. And here in the night the law and I are in one accord.
But I shall rise victorious, and subdue
My vanquisher, spoiled of his vaunted spoil.
Christopher A. Landrum has written nonfiction pieces for the Fortnightly Review (UK), The Berlin Review of Books, and various central Texas newspapers. “The Age of Insomnia” is his first piece of published fiction. He lives in Austin, Texas and writes about what he reads at Bookbread.com.