Southern Pacific Review Editorial Services

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Firs Sawing against the Sky

by
Christopher K. Miller 
 

Although there is on record an incident of Alice's having had to be picked up by her parents and taken home from kindergarten for refusing to heed a school bus driver's cautions and then admonitions about sticking her head out the window, the first real indication of her troubled or artistic nature probably presented in Miss Block's library class. Miss Block, the school librarian, kept her library stocked with current and traditional reading materials appropriate to children aged six to sixteen and taught classes in library usage and appreciation during which regular classroom teachers ate lunch, graded papers, prepared lessons or just enjoyed a break. Because she'd never married, and so had none of her own, Miss Block loved children. She also loved books, and introducing children to them gave her enormous satisfaction.

Alice's teacher, Mrs. Edwards, smoked a cigarette in the peace and quiet of her empty classroom while her grade 4 students sat at six utility tables pushed together in the school library's northeast corner. Letters of the alphabet, each cut from an individual 8.5 by 11 inch sheet of colored construction paper and taped to the wall above a pair of windows overlooking the playground and teachers' parking lot, spelled out: A WORLD OF WORDS.

Miss Block's lesson that day dealt with wish fulfillment in literature. Nearly all popular literature has some element of wish fulfillment. Nowhere is this more manifest than in the classic children's fairytale. Before reading to the class excerpts from an English translation of Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve's 1740 classic, 'Beauty and the Beast,' which does, as every fairytale romance must, culminate in an attractive and deserving couple's living forever in bounteous wealth and privilege, Miss Block asked everyone to write down one wish. She'd stopped asking the children to write down what they thought 'If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride\If turnips were watches, I'd wear one at my side' meant after their interpretations exposed it and nursery rhymes in general for the cynical and often misogynistic old aphorisms that they are. 'Needles and pins\Needles and pins\When a man marries\His trouble begins'! So now she always began this lesson by asking everyone to make a wish. Children learn by doing.

'It is a gloomy and overcast October day,' she made sure to note in her report to Principal John, hoping perhaps that this meteorological detail would somehow temper or forgive Alice's wish. 'Beyond the playground, a gusting wind saws a row of firs back and forth against the sky,' she wrote in her beautifully legible longhand. 'Their tops, backlit by gray clouds, form a long serrated edge.' Then, on something of a roll, 'The morning's colors bleed down into culverts and sewers, washed away by a seemingly inconsolable rain.'

Principal John's office, like the rest of the school, smelled of an admixture of preadolescent foot odor and the mimeograph machine's ink solvents. Personally he liked Miss Block's descriptions and could see through his own east facing window exactly what she meant even though it would never have occurred to him to put it that way himself, but felt she was overreacting to Alice's wish, which to his mind was not so much an expressed intent or ideation as just a little girl's imagination exploring some of the darker recesses of the human psyche. He even said to Miss Block, 'A wish is not a goal; a wish is not a prayer; wishes are fantasies best kept at a distance.' Although he couldn't argue with the fact that about half the children had wished for pets such as ponies and cats, and the rest for equally easily attainable material things like guns and slot cars. Still, in his opinion, the student who'd wished for her mom to stop crying and her dad to stop yelling and breaking things while she was trying to sleep at night warranted more concern than Alice's wish. Principal John wished it was in his character to console Miss Block by putting his arms around her and holding her close, and perhaps combing his fingers through her short dun hair while she sobbed against his neck, and that even after her sobs had subsided into deep, slumberous breaths, she would continue to cleave to him tighter than ever.

No one ever failed or had to repeat library. Miss Block didn't believe in grading. 'Please don't tell the children,' she carefully printed atop a standard 3 by 5 inch index card that evening in her neat little apartment. Then, below, switching to her flowing cursive, 'I have no more words.' There was more, but it was smudged and illegible, probably written after she'd taken the bottle of aspirin with sherry, settled into her bath and cut her wrists.

In order to stanch gossip and rumor, a special assembly was called. Principal John, who understood in his own words life's epitaphic and loving nature, explained to the children that Miss Block had been so unhappy that she had decided not to keep living and that it was nobody's fault, not even Miss Block's. Sometimes very sad things just happen. Then he introduced Grief Counselor Gottlieb who would be there the rest of the week to talk to anyone who felt they needed help with being sad or just someone to be sad with. All anyone had to do was ask their parents, their teacher or Mrs. Monahan the School Secretary.

For three days, Counselor Gottlieb met with students, individually and in small groups. Most were not so much sad as perplexed. Many had never had anyone they'd known and interacted with on a regular basis die and so had never felt that sort of emptiness, but it was the notion that a person could choose to stop living that was most foreign. For some, it was clearly an epiphany.

Alice never expressed an interest in meeting with Counselor Gottlieb, who had read Miss Block's report. So at the end of the week, it was Counselor Gottlieb who, in his capacity for grief, proactively summoned Alice. They met in the same corner of the library in which Miss Block had delivered her final (or second final) lesson. Someone had taken down her WORLD OF WORDS letters but left behind small squares of tape sticking to the plaster. Counselor Gottlieb had the largest ears Alice had ever seen on a human. They made it hard to be sad. Plus he had such a narrow face it was hard to look him in the eyes. All during his asking her how she felt about what Miss Block had done and if she herself ever had those sorts of thoughts or feelings, all Alice could think about was Counselor Gottlieb jumping off a high rooftop and then gliding to the ground in lazy circles, like the paper airplanes boys sometimes made and threw in the classroom when Mrs. Edwards wasn't paying attention.

'Are you sad for Miss Block?' he asked.

Alice thought before answering, 'No. I think I'm sad for everyone but her. That's funny isn't it? If everyone died then no one would have anything to be sad about.'

'It's called a paradox,' said Counselor Gottlieb. 'But not everyone is sad. Not all the time.'

'I am,' said Alice, watching his ears grow pink and turgid. 'At least I try to be,' she qualified, thinking that, right then, Counselor Gottlieb looked like a dying tulip from which all but two petals had fallen.

'Don't you want to live, Alice?'

Again she thought. 'No, but I don't want to want to either.'

Then, as Counselor Gottlieb spoke of the possibilities for conformity and happiness, his ears returned to their normal flaccid state, and Alice, gazing out over the playground and parking lot, realized that the only thing keeping her from doing what Miss Block had done was wondering why everyone didn't. Fir cones littered the asphalt along the far chain link fence. Though she still didn't understand paradoxes, Alice sensed one was keeping her alive. That without mystery there cannot be life. She had to stand on her chair to hug Counselor Gottlieb and thank him and promise into his large accommodating ear to let someone know if she ever needed to talk again, though she knew she never would.

Alice's mystery further exposed itself in grade 8 when she grew breasts and began to menstruate. Like all of us, she'd made things like ceramic ashtrays and noodle cards all throughout grade school for special holidays and to show our parents how much they're loved. For example, in grade 7, the year the firs beyond the playground fence browned and died, instead of a pinecone wreath or birdhouse, she used a single-edged razorblade she'd borrowed from her home's upstairs bathroom vanity and some fishing weights from her dad's tackle box to construct a fully functional guillotine mousetrap theoretically capable of decapitating a mouse and presented it to her mom, who was terrified of mice, for Mother's Day. Then, in grade 9, though dismantled by her Art Teacher, Mister Humphries, and so not displayed in the school gymnasium on Parents Night as a proud example of the sort of talent the school's art program trained and nurtured, her 'Life Without Feeling' exhibit consisting only of her little brother's 12 ½” deluxe kit Erector Set's small electric motor thrusting a vibrating dildo into a latex vagina (both acquired at an adult novelty shop) garnered by far the most comment and attention in the classroom, and further prognosticated her flair for the contraction of art and engineering in thought provoking interactive displays as demonstrated a few years later in her high school science project, originally entitled 'Nature's Bargain.'

Basically, it was just the sturdy cardboard box that her family's new 26 inch Zenith Color TV had come in, a large stainless steel bowl of crushed ice that she replenished from the school cafeteria's kitchen freezer, Coach Thompson's stopwatch, and one very tame bunny. Like all great art, it was primarily a learning experience for the artist. Biology Teacher Mr. Richards, inundated with proposals to compare the nutritional components of competing brands of canned vegetables, the persistence of different popular hair coloring products on different types of hair, the efficacy of various commercially advertised laundry detergents in both recommended and lower than recommended amounts, the impact of television versus reading on problem solving skills, the longevity of goldfish with versus without food/air/light/friends and so forth, had been impressed, even intrigued, by Alice's proposal to compare the effects of pleasurable stimuli on subjects' pain thresholds or tolerances as measured by voluntary Cold Pressor Test (CPT) exposure times. The concept seemed not only engaging and challenging, but remarkably simple and relevant. He felt she had a good shot at State.

Alice, who suspected the firs had been murdered and not died of broken hearts as rumor had it long before tree surgeons discovered the copper nails embedded in their trunks and was one of only three to read about the vandalism and never once ask themselves in whose character it would be to perform such an act, invited those milling about the crowded gymnasium examining the various student projects and displays to sit across from her at her table and take part in her study. 'How Pleasure and Pain Compete' read her new banner after Mr. Richards had insisted that 'Nature's Bargain,' though perhaps more evocative, was just too artsy for the venue.

The following instructions had to be read, understood, agreed to and signed by every volunteer test subject:

 

<b>1. Remove any gloves, watches, rings or bracelets.</b>

<b>2. Roll up the sleeves of or remove any long sleeved garments so cuffs do not get damp.</b>

<b>3. Stick your left hand in the hole in the box and then place your right hand in the ice so that it is completely covered.</b>

<b>4. Enjoy any pleasant or curious sensations provided inside the box for as long as you can reasonably stand to keep your other hand in the ice.</b>

<b>5. Your endurance will be timed and recorded.</b>

<b>6. You are asked to commit to two test sessions separated by no less than 15 minutes.</b>

<b>7. Thank you for participating.</b>

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Alice, believing it was in the best interests of both art and science that she be as detached from the experiment as possible, stayed mostly hidden behind her large TV box where it soon became clear that the rabbit was not a reliable pleasure inducer. The first volunteer had to abort the test to sneeze and blow her nose, claiming seasonally exacerbated allergies to both cat and rabbit dander. Several expressed apprehension about being clawed or bitten. A boy with an admitted squirrel phobia exhibited such outright terror that he temporarily forgot about the ice and yielded an exceptional CPT exposure time (inspiring in Alice an idea for another project). But everyone seemed to like having their hand held and gently stroked or petted. Before long a line had formed at her table. A lanky lad with fiery orange hair and a mild acne condition left his unattended presentation graphically portraying the results of chemical strip urinalyses of frozen versus pasteurized citrus juice brands drinkers' urine to take his place at the back of Alice's line. Other exhibitors as well began to abandon their projects to stand in her queue, which soon grew long enough for first-time subjects to simply go back to the end of after they'd succumbed to the ice, and wait for their second test. Alice alternated caressing subjects' hands with providing no stimulus between first and second trials so that any acquired tolerances or sensitivities to the ice would be cancelled out as contaminating factors. But no matter which order she did it in, people seemed willing to suffer more when she held their hands. Though not a lot more. Not that significantly more. So she began to lightly tickle and graze with her fingertips along the undersides of people's forearms. Boys especially seemed to like this, and, as CPT times increased and word spread, her line grew longer still. Lightly massaging and fondling the well developed bicep of a basketball player who had thrust his arm as far as it would go into her box, she noticed his knuckles grazing against her chest, which gave her an idea for a further refinement to her project so that even after the next boy was told by those behind him that his hand was turning blue, it wasn't until she'd pried his thumb and forefinger off her right nipple that he ceded to the cold. As CPT tolerances further increased and boys began to re-volunteer as subjects, her line of now almost exclusively young men grew conspicuously long. Money was seen changing hands. A shoving match broke out after someone butted in, and then, farther back, an actual fight where punches were exchanged. And still her popularity increased.

Teenage boys can be notoriously indiscreet. Many, quite literally, could not believe their good fortune (and near frostbitten fingers) and needed some sort of confirmation or validation from their peers. The croaking or screeching quality their voices take on as they enter puberty can be heard above significant ambient background noise and across considerable distances. A few excitedly claimed to have touched inside her underwear when she stood to stretch her legs. Alice did not make it to State. She did not even make it to the second day of competition. Though she did get asked out on a lot of dates, all of which she declined, being of a withdrawn nature. And though her experiment had been rejected by science's gatekeepers, she and many appreciative fans still considered it a resounding success and accomplishment, and felt that she had found her forte.

After high school, Alice was accepted into a reputable co-ed college where she studied Engineering but filled her electives with Fine Arts courses. To help with her tuition and dorm living expenses, and thereby soften the financial burden that her higher education placed on her parents, Alice started a tuck-in service. Most of her customers were young men living away from home for the first time and whose bravado and drinking failed to alleviate or even mask some very real separation anxiety and homesickness. So for four dollars Alice would tuck them in at night and read them fairytales. She even brought props and wore the costumes of her heroines. For instance, when she read Snow White, she'd wear a simple old wedding dress she'd found at a thrift store and bring a plastic apple. For Rapunzel she had a wig of long blonde hair. As Cinderella she wore rags and smudged her cheeks with ashes from her roommate's ashtray. Belle always wore finery and carried a red silk rose. Alice never went as herself. Group discounts were negotiable. Needless to say, her fairytales' happy endings were sometimes insufficient. And so additional happiness also became negotiable, and instead of an attractive and deserving couple's living forever in bounteous wealth and privilege, Alice's fairytales often ended in something more ephemeral and sordid.

By her second year of college Alice came to realize that her tuck-in service was just a regurgitation of her high school science project. She began to work on a better way of not only addressing the problem of supporting herself in her studies so that she might find someone educated and ambitious to marry and have children with but also to help solve the mystery of why anyone bothers.

Like all good colleges, hers had a theater in which drama clubs presented plays, professors and visiting academicians delivered lectures, authors offered selected readings of their works, and musicians performed recitals. Really, anyone with a theater venue could apply to the Arts Faculty Committee. Committee Chairperson Professor Miller, inundated with requests from poets, folksingers and evangelical types for theater slots, found Alice's proposed 'The Magic of Life' show both refreshing and intriguing. With Halloween just around the corner, a magic show seemed perfect. He decided to usurp the scheduled reading of a young romantic poet whose latest heartbreak was bound to permeate her verse; verse which, given what he'd heard, could only get better over time in any case.

Alice booked no fairytales beyond the night of her performance. Her advertisement in the school paper and on handbills placed around the campus wherever student propaganda and want-ads graced bulletin boards or trees stated simply that her 'Magic of Life' exhibition would commence in the Art Theater at 8:30 PM Thursday, Oct. 28. People were invited to drop in anytime after that, and to participate and stay as long as they wished.

Seating was not reserved. On the night of her performance, those entering the dark theater saw on stage only the shadowy outline of a rectangular dais or rostrum. There was great expectation and much anticipation. But by 9 PM still the only light in the theater came from EXIT signs' red letterings, small incandescent bulbs illuminating row numbers at the bottoms of aisle seats, and the glowing tips of cigarettes that pulsed like fireflies wherever smokers inhaled.

At 9:15 PM Alice screamed. An older couple thinking the show cancelled or just some Pop Art ruse or test of audience acceptance and credulity, and so in the process of leaving, retook their seats. As eyes adjusted, people could see that the raised platform at center stage was in fact just a long table upon which sat a simple wooden box such as might constitute a child's coffin. They could not yet make out Alice's shins and bare feet or her head and bare shoulders protruding from either end of the box, or the enormous two-man saw lying on the stage beside the table. At 9:31 PM Alice screamed again, and then twice more before 10:00 PM by which time most who were going to leave had left, some in a huff at having wasted so much of their evening sitting in a dim, smoky theater with nothing more than a girl's occasional screams for amusement. Ironically, in expressing their dissatisfaction and irritation to any outsiders who would listen, many who had not known about Alice's performance or, for whatever reason, had decided not to attend it, changed their plans and minds and went to see what all the negative publicity was about. And so as Alice continued to scream at irregular intervals, the audience continued to grow, until by 11:00 PM it had attained a kind of critical mass, become somehow self sustaining, self validating or self assuring. Attendance had become a reason unto itself. For even though no individual could see why they personally would want to sit in a dark and increasingly stuffy theater listening to tortured screams, the fact that so many others were willing to seemed to suggest not only some mysterious compelling reason to remain but acted as a kind of deterrent against leaving in that such abnegation implied a large number of people had suffered and would continue to suffer pointlessly. And while some still managed to overcome their guilt and faith and depart, even more arrived.

At midnight the stage and house lights came on. Alice, whose voice had begun to take on a hoarse or squawking quality, screamed her longest and loudest yet while the audience rubbed its eyes as though children woken from bad dreams. Murmurs of speculation and conjecture waxed into arguments over whether the show was over or about to begin. On the floor beside the table, the saw's rounded blade shone like a fallen crescent moon. Alice screamed again. None of her tuck-in clientele in attendance had ever seen her out of costume. Some speculated she'd dressed as Lady Godiva. For though Lady Godiva is a historical and not a fairytale character, time tends to blur such distinctions. A girl in an unseasonably warm black and red checkered wool jacket whose great-grandfather had regaled her as a child with trivia and lore from his years as a lumberjack in the redwood forests of California and British Columbia reported to her date, a science major with ambitions for medical school, that the two-man saw appeared to be of the nine-foot crescent-taper-ground crosscut variety, identifiable by its broad heavy blade and thick concentric teeth. Definitely a professional lumberman's tool. Climbing up onto the stage for a closer inspection, she was able to further report that it appeared to have been recently sharpened and lubricated, probably with kerosene. A segmented or dotted red line had been painted around the circumference of the box midway between Alice's neck and knees.

A boy with more bravado than his peers took the stage next. 'It's a trick!' he announced before cutting his thumb on the saw. 'There's two of them in there!' He tickled Alice's bare feet.

Alice kicked and screamed.

'See?'

More took the stage. Someone tested the weight of the saw by lifting one end and pronounced it 'pretty heavy.'

Two strapping lads in white t-shirts, each with a pack of cigarettes rolled into one sleeve, lifted the saw by its long wooden handles to rest the blade's teeth on Alice's dotted line. 'So are we supposed to cut you in half now or what?'

Alice wiggled her toes and screamed.

'Okay then. You got it.'

'A nine-foot pitsaw is not a toy,' pronounced the girl with lumberjacking in her blood. 'They take a lot of training and practice to master. Plus you have to be in pretty good shape.'

Endeavoring to prove her wrong or, even better, themselves lumberjacking savants, the two t-shirted boys spent so much energy pushing and pulling against each other that before they'd even scratched the beginnings of a kerf in the box's top they were panting and soaked in sweat. When they laid down the saw to smoke and rest, two others took over. Then two others. The saw's handles were more than long enough to accommodate multiple pairs of hands, but when others tried to help the two sawing, the saw's teeth slipped from any cut that might have begun to form.

'That saw wasn't designed for planed spruce,' said the girl in the lumber jacket. 'It was made for cross-cutting whole large trees. See how the teeth keep getting stuck in the soft wood. It's too heavy and sharp. You need to use less force and more coordination.' Metronomically she began to clap her hands. 'Heave… heave… heave,' she chanted. But it was no use.

Alice's scream seemed born more of frustration than terror.

'Here, let us have a turn,' asked a young couple in unison who'd randomly sat beside one another and just spent the last four hours talking, during which time they'd explored common ground in everything from their love of The Drifters' music to their profound hope that Eisenhower's VP Richard M. Nixon would lose to John F. Kennedy in the upcoming election, and frank amazement that a guy as shifty as 'Dick' would be running in the first place. She'd grabbed his arm when Alice first screamed. They'd been holding hands ever since. And though neither looked quite like what the other had imagined in the dark, now it didn't matter. They took their positions on the saw. Only instead of trying to push and pull on her handle, the young woman in love gently lifted and steadied the blade, and let her partner's thrusts guide its arc and tempo. At last a real kerf began to form.

Of course there were those present who were apprehensive about seeing someone even appear to be cut in two. A few whispered cautionary rebukes among themselves. But, just as there are people who are, for example, apprehensive about dropping bombs on other countries' apparently innocent civilians, they deferred, as those of inaction always will, to those of action.

A fat boy tried to shoulder his way in. 'Hey, give someone else a try.'

But the young man in love, even though he was huffing and puffing, was having none of that. Guided and encouraged by his partner, he continued to push and pull in long, deep, rhythmic strokes.

'See, fake blood and everything!' observed the boy with bravado.

'Euuuu!' cried the audience, clapping appreciatively as the saw bit into the table and the sides of the box separated and Alice stopped her kicking and screaming act to stare unblinkingly up past firs and clouds into a place that at last held no mystery.
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<td>His fiction has appeared in <em>The Barcelona Review</em>, <em>Confrontation Magazine</em>, <em>COSMOS</em> and many other print and web based, genre and literary magazines and anthologies. His proudest writing achievements include an angry, personal rejection from Glimmer Train, losing a Chizine competition’s 3rd place tie-breaker under the auspices of Peter Straub, and  having once been banned from a professional writer’s workshop for posting “porn.”</td>
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