Back to Zero
Britt Haraway writes stories, some of which have appeared in the South Dakota Review, Natural Bridge, Moon City Review, Great Weather for Media, New Madrid, and BorderSenses. His poetry has also appeared in BorderSenses. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and is the fiction editor for RiverSedge Magazine.
After a couple years together, I was surprised that Janet was still so interested in counting the freckles on my chest. She took off my glasses and smoothed my eyebrows down. I’d always wanted to grow those big Oppenheimer brows that reach out like insects. They probably gave him some extra information. I bet he knew when it would rain before the rest of us did.
“You need to pluck more,” she said. She got some tweezers from her bag and inspected.
“I want to look wise.” She yanked a group. “Ouch. I don’t like to do things that hurt, Janet.”
“Sure you do.” We’d just been biting each other’s thighs, finding that edge just before you say quit. “You do everything half-ass.” She took three more. Like a lot just out of college, Janet had put on the wall a poster of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue. I thought people should put Oppenheimer up there, that physics ain’t about fun, that there is a moment of fear when we look at the reality we shape and say, the horror, I am become death.
I sucked in through clenched teeth. Janet was good with the tweezers and had this physical confidence. She took care of people going into and out of heart surgery. Was there in the room handing things to the doctor and suctioning things when they drained the blood to work on the heart. The key was to keep them cold enough, induce this hibernation. A doctor in Chicago, Daniel Hale Williams, did one of the first successful heart sew ups. He was one of the few black doctors who’d managed to get the right surgical training and a place to work. He fixed a guy who was stabbed in the heart. The guy all bleeding, Williams must have been willing to try anything, and two months later the knife guy was just walking around like the rest of us.
Janet was around those kinds of emergencies and quick thinking. Whenever she told stories about her job, I would think about Janet and my parents and grown-up people and how I was glad there were capable people in this world. I was starting to choose who would be my family. My real family had done such a crappy job of it that I’d only kept a brother around, and now there was Janet too and Guy. It would be a meritocracy, very hard to enter like heaven and the needle eye. When I told my friends I’d divorced my family, I made it sound humorous, like some Goodfellas scene, “No, you see. Here’s how it’s going to be. I divorce you. You got that, clown.”
I would sometimes convince myself that Janet would stick in the family. So even though my eyebrows were hurting, I said, “The world needs people like you, J.”
“You usually forget that I am a force of good in your life,” she said and kissed me between the eyes. She had on nice-smelling lotion. “I feel like we can be loud this morning.” My roommate Guy did not come home after his show last night. He had probably hooked up with some girl who liked his singing and his carefully torn jeans.
Janet took out a small pair of scissors and opened and closed them in a threatening way. “Nose hair.”
I shimmied out of bed. She walked towards me on her knees and clipped the air. She had on a long blue sleep shirt that accentuated the curve of her hips—once I had measured its angle in relation to her navel for my last paper in college: “The Geometry of Attraction.”
I threw a blanket over her and tucked the edges up under her so she couldn’t move and stayed there with her. When the laughter died out, we just lay there for a few minutes and she said that my feet were cold.
# # #
After Janet left, I drove to work late, the weird commute through a tough section of Memphis. No one cared when I got there as long as it was before the meetings. I had been doing figures at the chemical plant for three years now, seeing Janet during that time. They’d put all the factory-type polluters on Florida Street near the poorest neighborhoods. You’d think there’d be a palm tree here or there, a nod to vacation, but it was just a string of warehouses, then small houses without air- conditioning, the people out in the yard under the trees sitting on plastic furniture. When I first would drive past them, I’d wave to them like my dad used to do when we were out on the country roads where we lived. Here, no one waved back. I didn’t even live there. But I’d have these flashes that I should. I’d pass the community center and think: I should volunteer one day and give math classes. Make it fun. Show the calculations that happen in the beats of pop music, or the geometry in Jordan’s triangle offense. I never actually stopped though.
Like most whites, I’d grown up out east. They tried to set up the interstate so that people would never need to come into this neighborhood in between downtown and out east. It towered over the neighborhood, as if on stilts, like it didn’t want to sink into an icky bog.
They’d built the overpass closest to work too short. Moving vans and delivery trucks were always slamming into it. I saw one wedged under there on the way to work one day, and I looked it up online. Someone had posted a funny YouTube about it. Footage of about thirty trucks running into it. I didn’t want to laugh at first, but then it just kept happening and I’d watched it carefully even though I knew what was coming. And I watched with Janet. And then with Guy. And then at work sometimes when I got bored, although I should have been planning to build a house with Janet to keep up with this timetable she had in her mind. Even though we were only twenty-five, she wanted to build out in Eads, where there was still plenty of land.
I’d tried to personalize my section of work, using the Photoshop at the office to do my own posters, not unlike the ones I saw Guy make for his shows. Oppenheimer saying, “I need physics more than friends,” his arm around a cropped image of Marilyn Monroe. We needed a presentation of particle flow in 3D models. I added psychedelic colors Guy would have liked and the slides were looking like a Jefferson Airplane poster. That’s when Janet called.
She was ready for me to commit to buying some land just off I-40. Her schedule was usually three 12-hour shifts in a week and then four days off, so I would get the calls on the days off.
“Four Oaks in the back.”
“The back of what?” I asked. In the particle flow model the particles were coupling in the conditions I was simulating. Coupling naturally flowing to areas of closest need. Clustering. The birth of little families. It was natural for Janet and me to have this whole house thing. It would be space for me to build the new family.
“The house silly,” she said. “The back porch. There are three sweet gums too. Think of the falls we’ll have. The whippoorwills in the spring.”
“I’ll swing by after work, babe. But listen, I am swamped here.” She apologized, since I was saying it gruffly. I was annoyed that my fall and all my future falls were being planned for me, a fine life. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe slowly. I read somewhere that people breathed too much. In my head, all I could see was my parents, who should have divorced about ten years before they did. When you start the simulation with screams and shaking walls and wake up to see the little doorjamb to your mother’s bedroom torn away, the unpainted inner wood out and new looking, when you start the model there, it never seems to advance much.
I opened my eyes, feeling a calmer breathing pattern. The colors on the graph were starting to snap visually, and I was half-wishing that it were an actual creation I was doing, an art project, rather than a part of a presentation. I spent the rest of the day finishing it out.
After work instead of driving out to Eads, I went to the city park near the zoo and watched people play Frisbee and caught up on episodes with HBO GO on my phone. I could hear a monkey in the distance, a gibbon. I used to like to go watch them. Once when my parents took me to the zoo, they started arguing in the snake house and my mother walked off and my father muttered after her, following but refusing to walk faster in order to catch up. I managed to slip back into a darker corner by the bats, seeing them whizzing by, my shirt purple in the black light. I saw my parents circle the exhibits a few times, calling my name. It felt powerful to see them at the same purpose, but when they left the house, thinking I’d gone outside, I really did feel lost.
This chapter of my life was supposed to be self-authored but I still wasn’t sure where I was. I didn’t even want to need physics the way Oppenheimer did. Janet was ready for a family, a kind of good individual square of the world, which made sense for her, but I felt like I had nothing to add there. Guy needed music.
This chapter playing keep up with two people, Janet and Guy. Guy the dude everyone loved who managed to lovingly break all the rules. Guy who never settled. He had not forgotten what being young could be, such constant motion, that somehow a person could just keep moving forward without ever running out and resting.
I finally drove home but Janet had not showed up yet, so my whole fictional outing was a joke. Guy was in the house we rented with a digital 16-track on the piano bench, the levels going up and down on the screen. He kicked at a chair close to the machine. “I need you on back-up,” he said.
“I’ve got that LOFT problem, remember,” I said. He’d always say that about other musicians—lack of fucking talent.
“This is a Neil Young thing.” He lit a cigarette. I hadn’t yet convinced him to smoke outside. “Whatever you got will do.”
We recorded for a while. Although I got bored, it was nice in the end. To have a product. To see the volume levels go up and down—thirty seconds of history, digitized as it was. I was still impressed that you could email someone a song, that all these matters of significance were objectless. I understood the algorithm of it. But sometimes I still feel impressed, like an old man saying, “you can do what?”
The section got a thumbs up from him when it was finished, and feeling like we had earned it, we poured our beer in a glass like real adults. He’d found a case of T.J. Fridays’ glasses at a vintage shop from when it was a cool place where Big Star and Billy Joel used to hang out. He’d been shopping at their record section too. He’d also found an old 78 of Big Boy Crudup doing “That’s All Right Mama.”
“I wonder how many millions Elvis made on this guy’s song.”
“That’s Memphis for you. Our school has the top-notch drama program, and the one down the street doesn’t have air-conditioning. I read this Crudup guy had to go back to farming instead of music.”
“All this equipment you have and the good reviews. I just wish guys like him would have had more press and stuff.”
“The Sullivan show would’ve been nice, but he would’ve had to sing to that stupid dog. No, the only thing this guy needed to make it big, was to be white.”
My glass was halfway to my mouth and I stopped. It was such a simple true statement. I never thought much about privilege, the thousand moments like this where one life is easier than another one, where obstacles are got around, a person just keeps their push going down one hill and up the other. I had the sudden fear that it had made me stupid and that if the choices in your life were too easy, then you can’t understand them and you’re just eating up space that another person might be enjoying.
# # #
When Janet came over later that night, she asked me if I wanted to move in to her place instead of waiting for us to plan and build our own place, and I said I’d think about it, and that didn’t go over well. The conversation had started off fine. We’d been remembering how much fun it had been when we sanded and painted some of her old furniture. There’d been a mouse that came out in the middle of it, darting across the floor like a shadow or the light from a passing car. She lived out east in this aluminum can townhouse in Germantown. So all of a sudden it was just this memory of the mouse, and then I was supposed to live with her right away.
She lay on the floor with all the pillows and blankets. The mattress was oddly flat with just the sheet: the white line looked like a close horizon.
She hadn’t spoken to me since she had made the pallet. She pressed mute on the TV, and I sat up. Round 2.
She moved bits of dust from the floor together. She cut her eyes to me. “Chicken shit.”
“Maybe I don’t deserve you,” I said.
“You deserve your ‘maybes,’” she said. “You can write to me in ten years and report what your ballsy ‘maybe’ got you.”
There was rustling and voices in the hallway, and I heard Guy talking to his latest girlfriend. I said, “He’ll want us to say hello to this new girl.”
“You cannot allow yourself to be in this moment. Don’t you feel anything for me?”
She was about to start with the self-pity, a tactic that always had me helpless. “Janet, there’s something I ought to tell you about New Year’s.”
“Another hall of fame moment,” she said.
We had gotten in a real tangle that night. I went to Guy’s big show in LA, and we stayed at my brother Don’s. Don dealt with our family by moving seventeen hundred miles away. My brother got Guy the show, but only six people showed up, all Don’s friends, each friend coupled up, except a girl named Julia who sat next to me and thought I was clever.
Janet kept calling all night, angrier each time that I wasn’t with her. During the last call, she said, “You’re not even here, so shut the fuck up; I’m going to find someone who is.” I’d been trying to tell her that New Year’s was a false idea. That given the way the earth rotates it was only a way to sell champagne. After she hung up, I took it for clear that it was over, and spent the night making out in various places with Julia, including her apartment.
Janet started thudding her head against my wall through the propped-up pillow. Not hard but enough to create a pulse.
“I’m no saint, Janet,” I said.
“Big News,” she said and thumped the edge of her glass.
“I slept with another woman.”
“Ugh.” She held her head still and breathed deep. “Slime.” She rearranged the pillows against the wall, and I wondered whether she’d throw the glass at me. She let out some nervous laughs.
“You’re laughing?” I asked.
“I’ve been trying to find the right time for us to move on. Failure. Years of waiting.”
“I would never call it that.”
“What do you know? You are small. Micro. Micro Machine.” She got up. Her shirt had a few spills on it, but she still looked nice. She had a red scarf on, untied around her neck and when she passed me, it brushed my leg.
She grabbed a video from the shelf and held it out. She gave the fakest smile. She turned and put the video in and said, “Now I can hate you. Whenever I remember something good, your slime will drive it away.” She sat on the floor and pushed play. It was a pornographic movie she got me once when she went to travel nurse in Wales. She was over there for eight weeks and said I could use the tape. She turned the volume up as loud as it would go. I put my hands over my ears.
She raised her glass and smiled. “Don’t miss your favorite part, Charlie.” There were two girls sunbathing on patio furniture. A neighbor was hiding but not very well. They invited him over.
“Do you want me to drive you home?” I asked, still plugging my ears.
She held up her wine as if she’d just won a race. “Later. It’s still snowing.” She pointed out the window like a bored stewardess.
“Quiet. She’s about to remove her panties.”
I got up and looked out the window. Orange halos surrounded the streetlights, and the snow looked like flecks of copper floating down slowly—like a camera trick in a movie. I knew that in a vacuum everything fell at the same speed, but it was hard to believe in a place with no air.
From the hallway, I heard Guy saying something.
“Will you mute it?” I asked.
From beyond the door, Guy said, “Um, Charlie. Will you turn your movie down?”
I looked at Janet, and she shook her head. I said, “No, Guy. Not right now.”
# # #
It stopped snowing around 3:00 a.m. and I took Janet home. The streets were slick, so I kept it in the low gears. Traffic had made two strips through the ice, which made the road look long and enduring. An equal sign that would never stop.
“Thanks for driving slow,” she said. She used to complain that when we argued in the car, I drove dangerously on purpose.
“I’m not mad at you. It’s all me,” I said. I slid left against the ice, then straightened up when I hit the worn strip.
“That makes sense.” She cupped her hand around her mouth and nose. “Does my breath stink?”
“A little.” I leaned over and opened the glove box. “There’s a mint in there.”
She offered me one and when she gave it to me I grabbed her hand. She held my hand for a moment. I got the feeling that if either one of us wanted, we could’ve pulled it together still. If I were more sorry, I could turn things on again like after a power outage. And if she kept staring up and still held on to my hand, I would let it go on still. She wiggled her hand free and put a mint in her mouth.
A streetlight at her corner turned red and I went through it. She turned on the radio and kept switching it from love songs. She left it on a Bob Dylan song about political change.
“I can put on that band you like,” I said.
“Quiet.” I pulled into her drive and pulled the emergency brake. She had her head against the seat, her eyes closed. She opened the door and cold air came in and blew her hair.
# # #
I got back home around 4 a.m. and Guy was still up recording some piano. He had the top of the piano opened with the mic sticking in as if eager. I tapped him on the shoulder, and he took off the earphones and pushed stop.
“It’s through, Janet and I.” I sat on the organ bench making chords that didn’t sound.
“Damn.” he said. “I wasn’t sure what that movie meant.”
The center C note was missing. Guy said it made chords sound pleasantly off.
“Do you want to get drunk?” he asked.
“Not that. I don’t want to go to sleep though.”
He got up and a dust ball under the piano swirled. From the window, he said, “We can play in the snow.” I said okay even though it seemed like a rude thing to do.
Outside, Guy took running starts and slid on the street trying to keep his balance.
“Try it,” he said.
I tried and fell hard on my hip. “This sucks.”
“Follow me,” he said.
Guy and I went to the corner, removed a plastic dumpster lid, and slid down the hill in front of our house for a while. The final run bettered them all. We jumped on the lid at the same time and really sailed, bumping up and down, the slush crunching under the lid. We went through the stop sign that time, and I wondered if the momentum might keep. A slope drifted us right, and we smashed into a red Honda and the alarm sounded.
I was on the ground laughing, and Guy was standing up looking at me.
“Are you all right?” He bent and nudged my shoulder.
“All right he says.” The cold from the street drifted down my neck, the ice in sharp grooves against my knuckles.
“That laugh is really scary,” he said trying to help me up.
“You’d never guess it’d get this cold.”
# # #
Guy was not there when I came home from work the next day. I sat on his bed and wondered if he had washed his sheets since he and Gina had been together. The mattress was, predictably, on the floor, and his gaudy flyers and art were stapled to the walls. I tried to imagine what his girlfriends thought of him, why they thought this room was so special.
I scooted over to the 16-track at the end of the bed and turned it on. They must lie there in bed. He’d put on a song he made and say, “The girl in this song is you.” She’d put her head against his armpit and trace the design on his t-shirt, one he’d printed himself; she would dream, as if he had hypnotized her, of a world where songs saved communities and she knew the shaman.
In fact, she would be a lot like Janet, but he’d find some confident way to go about it and never promise too much. And in the end, his girlfriends would leave and were never heard from again, and he never added up the things he lost.
Even I sometimes felt that around him—like everything was possible. He had all these things, gifts, I could never have. For me, there would always be fear and guilt, and a bunch of regret.
On the 16-track there was a button that read “BTZ.” That was where I had gone with Janet, back to zero. The concept of zero had changed math forever. The Europeans didn’t have it at first. It was the Babylonians that first listed the zeros. Sifr. Now I needed the number that is not anything to program electrolysis for caustic sodas. And yet, if I were not there to make the program, there would be someone else and there would still be paper and paper mills.
I scrolled through his songs. He’d been working on them for most of the year: oboes, clarinets, a bass sax, trumpets, a viola, me in the background banging a cast-iron skillet, violins, two cellos, a Moog, an elementary class singing verses, washboards, saws, a triangle, the sound of tires on gravel. I scrolled down to my favorite song and pushed play.
He had gotten the Memphis Horns to play on the song. My brother Don secured them some movie work that paid good money. We convinced them that they owed us, so they came to the house one night. And it was such a surprise—Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, tenor sax and trumpet, a white guy and a black guy. Such a rare thing in Memphis. And they filled the song with this whole loud attitude, nasty and soulful.
I went to turn down the sax some—the sax was a kind of bully, a showoff of the worst kind in the wrong mouth, masturbatory—and I accidentally pushed delete. It asked me if I was sure. The question was blinking and I felt a sudden urgency. I got up and shut his door. I lay down on my stomach, stared down and pushed “yes.”
I took out the saw too, which always distracted me, then the viola, the ugly cousin of the stringed instruments. The elementary class had to go—far too much treble. The sound of tires on gravel was nice in itself, but wasn’t it just an overproduction, predictably odd? Washboards—gone. Sure, it was great to get back to the roots—bluegrass is one of America’s purest forms. But to abandon subtlety? To feature it for a whole measure, like a badge that says, “See, mountain music is not obsolete.” What do any of us do to deserve these things at all? I went through stripping song after song. But there was still too much. I erased everything.
I felt like I had finished a fistfight. It wasn’t all guilt. It was like the first action I had done in a long time. I couldn’t quit pacing his room. I started cleaning. I separated his laundry. Then I went to the washer and did a load for him. It was thrilling to think of what he’d say, to imagine the intensity of the future argument.
Then I thought of him leaving the house for good, without saying goodbye. I took a cup of coffee from that morning and poured it on the machine, but it kept working. I brewed some more and dumped the whole pot on the board until it fried.
# # #
A month later, when I was finally able to show myself in his house, Guy said he had never believed the coffee was an accident. The guy at the repair shop told him. But Guy was not as mad as I thought he’d be. In fact, he was so calm that I asked him how he did it.
“One, I had it all saved on my computer. Two, you’ll buy me a new machine. But, I think you might be right. Not about deleting it all—that was a real dick move. The songs could be simpler. Think of it: Hendrix & the Experience, Cream, Nirvana, or even the quartet. You can do it all in three or four pieces. Plus, I’ve got to admit. It was fun to see you squirm to cover it up. How is the new place?”
“Different. I can hear the overpass by work. The one I showed you on YouTube. I spray-painted it. BRIDGE TOO SHORT. I don’t think it helped. Sometimes, I’m in the house and I hear this crash.”
“Are you having a breakdown?” he asked.
“I’m getting things organized. I became flabby. In my brain. I am tutoring two kids in math. I thought there would be like twenty who signed up. Just two kids from Florida Street. All bright-eyed.”
“Going to be the great white father then?”
“No. But they help me understand math again.”
“Did you really think you could get rid of my music that easy?”
“I’m not a good dude, Guy. Not like I always thought. I had to blow everything up.” It had all come so naturally, like all the pathways in my body had said I should do it, sent the bolt of protein onto the synaptic cleft and opened up the axons, and it just flowed.
Guy wanted to have some dinner together and was frying steak and veggies in a wok. He was pretty proud of the wok and cleaned it and rubbed it with light oil even before he sat down for us to eat. I wandered over to the piano looking at the things there, thinking one day I’d miss this whole time in my life. This whole stupid self I’d become. I called to Guy in the kitchen that I was going to a movie. He was surprised but just waved.
I went to the newly redone outdoor mall on the Square hoping to see the new Japanese action film where the fighters seem to fly, bouncing on the tops of bamboo trees. I needed a little magic. If you think about fixed patterns too much you wonder how we get anywhere new anyway. And so, it is important to stick your tongue out at these facts, and so maybe Janet was right that Einstein was the right poster.
I was early so I walked to the side of the theater. They’d redone the Shell Auditorium next door. It’d been where Elvis first played. And Johnny Cash, who must have been up there all confident with his big mouth and voice and ability to read a crowd. The backdrop was glowing with the recessed lighting and round like the mouth of a clam, the performer as the pearl in the middle. We sometimes think the spotlight should be for us. At least I had.
I walked back to go in the movie and saw Janet in line with a guy. He was short and had a goatee. They were standing just to the side of the line; he pointed at the marquee in the middle. I thought of turning back; she hadn’t seen me.
“Janet,” I said and waved as I approached the line.
She paused, looked at her friend. I walked up and stood next to her.
“Going to a movie, Charlie?” she said.
“The Japanese one.”
Her friend put out his hand and I shook it and introduced myself. Her friend said, “Jeferey with one ‘F.’ That’s the one we got too. I think it is Chinese though.”
I nodded. “Oh. Right. Of course.”
I held my ticket like it was a permission slip and told them ‘bye. They came right behind me. In the candy line, I offered to buy them chocolate. To her friend, I said, “She likes the Goobers, Jeff. Then mixing it in with the popcorn.” I did not give him time to respond and said, “Crazy, right? But it’s really good. You’ll be surprised, really. Salt. Chocolate. The soft and the crunch. The salt and sweet.”
Janet started to pull him back from me in line. “Thanks, Charlie. We are good. Enjoy the show.”
She walked away with him, but I didn’t think I could follow them into the movie. I wondered how she’d moved on like that. And suddenly I felt very proud of her. And I wondered at just how well we all do. Find people who need the same things we do. Someone who, if they do dislike one of your favorite things, does so in an interesting way. Someone who accepts the realities of a moment. Even with everyone’s shit. We have that bit of asymmetry, a bit of tilt built right in there. And yet here we are, moving in, making babies, stringing together new bits of future.