David Buuck & Juliana Spahr: The Side Effect

She had done what she usually did. Upon arrival at her office, she turned on all her machines, the lights and the computer and the recording devices and the printer, and then proceeded to go through the new stack of forms, along with the student papers, the administrative emails, the healthcare forms, the websites, blogs, status updates, voicemails, the photos and videos. As she did this she ran her left hand along her thighs, and then under her blouse, over her breasts and down her side, until she felt it. A brown-black tick, burrowed into her flesh.

She got up, carefully pulled it out with a set of tweezers, taking it to the toilet to flush it and then wash her hands. She then turned to the Internet for advice or augury that presented itself as advice. The Internet said that if the tick had only been attached a short amount of time, then one wouldn’t get sick, but the Internet also warned that one got sick when the tick vomited into the bloodstream, which is what the tick did when it first attached. The Internet said to get tested, but the Internet also warned of false negatives, of insurance companies denying coverage, of endless forms and requests and letters. The Internet also suggested various alternative remedies and treatments. It said ticks were full not only of anaplasmosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, and Lyme disease but also full of the militarized mycoplasma fermentans incognitus, the result of Nazi experiments that had been relocated after the war to an island off the coast of Lyme, Connecticut. It said that the infections could be spread not just by ticks but also by humans through breastmilk, and although it denied it could be spread by other fluids such as semen or vaginal secretions or saliva, it noted that if two mice of the same gender, one infected and one not, were put in a cage, then both mice ended up infected.

Meanwhile, she continued to work. She filled out forms, signed them, put them in the manila envelope and exchanged them for another manila envelope full of more forms. She graded papers and signed the add/drop forms. She checked her email and her email checked her. She logged into various social networks and got updated. She downloaded information for work and worked on the information. She sat down in front of her machines and tried to work on her new composition. All the while checking her side for any evidence of a bull’s-eye around the tick bite, as the Internet suggested she do.

She had her recording equipment spread out on her desk among the many piles and had several windows open on the computer screen. She had been trying to make a sound piece using found materials, a piece that might take all that she could know and feel about a military prison in another country and the bodies inside it, their movements and actions and sounds, and then somehow shape this into music, or protest, or she did not know what. Unlike her previous compositions, this project used sounds from the Internet that did not provide her with obvious notes or chords or melodies to represent what she was seeing and reading and feeling. She squirmed in her seat with a side-to-side motion while she focused on the search-engineered sounds and images the Internet delivered to her, trying to imagine the invisible sound waves emanating from each image’s back glow, each soldier’s frozen laugh, each detainee’s duct-tape-covered mouth.

Her compositions tended to be melodic and rich. She usually made music about things like crows, not just any crow but the last remaining ‘alalā, the Hawaiian crow that carried the souls of the dead to the underworld and that was now kept in a breeding cage because it was extinct in the wild. Or about a drop of water, a specific drop of water, such as a drop of water being fought over by multinational companies and an armed resistance movement in Cochabamba in 1990. She thought of music as a respite from representation, but she still tried to make her music feel like what she thought it felt like to think the thoughts she thought and feel the feelings she felt about the ‘alalā or that last drop of Cochabamban water. She might begin with a dense chord that she would let reverberate in phrygian or lydian or dorian or locrian or aeolian modes, whatever she felt best represented the ‘alalā or the drop of water in Cochabamba. She would then listen to the reverberations from each tone and from each chord and have some feelings that would lead her onward into the composition. The compositions were spare and lyrical. They were full of lament and loss.

But that day, she felt like the circuitry of all her machines and the various websites that she had been scanning, the ones that connected the anaplasmosis, the babesiosis, the ehrlichiosis, and the Lyme disease in ticks to the militarized mycoplasma fermentans incognitus, as well as the ones that showed chilling images of the torture to which the nation in which she currently lived was subjecting citizens of other nations, were all coursing through her blood, her nerve meridians, and her intestines, until she was quivering with some sweet sick feeling. And then a few hours later, she realized that a small nipple was growing out of her side, or perhaps just a nipple-like bruise where the tick had entered her. It was purple and brown and yellow-white. A red rash surrounded it. It was neither sore nor itchy. It was simply there, there where it had not been before, even though it had been only a few hours, not the two weeks that the Internet had promised it would take before the rash might appear. She emailed her friend, a friend with experience in alternative remedies and treatments and side effects, and received the name and contact information of a specialist. The specialist had a website full of information about the evils of the healthcare industry and various governmental agencies presented in an aesthetically pleasing design format that she found reassuring. She called the specialist’s office, made an appointment for the next afternoon, and returned to her work.

She wasn’t sure what she wanted this new composition to sound like, what she wanted it to do. But she knew what she didn’t want. She didn’t want it to be easy to dance to or to be something to march to or to simply be parsed out in recognizable phrygian or lydian or dorian or locrian or aeolian modes. She didn’t want it to reference endangered birds or privatized drops of water or other things that just made you feel sad. She didn’t want it to be spare and lyrical or melodic and rich. She wanted it to be not easy to listen to but also not so hard to listen to that you’d just want to shut it off or want to just read the liner notes and nod your head to the explanations therein, nodding as if to a beat, thinking the right proper political thoughts in the head but not the messy ugly things that stir in the belly or resonate in the inner cavities of a right proper North American body faced with the implications.

So she sat and listened, surfing and watching and clicking and thinking and collecting and downloading and storing, all the while worrying that the tick bite might be throbbing a little too much. She watched testimonies at various government hearings, listening to the cadence and lilt of each voice as much as to the details and the evasive language, the tortured syntax required to reduce what had been done by all of us to the fault of a few. She played several videos simultaneously and from within the din of the white noise and static she isolated and sampled the voice of a lone female protestor interrupting the proceedings by screaming burn it! burn it! burn it! from the back of one of the hearing rooms, before being escorted out by three men, her head forward and down, her spine straight and aligned, her right arm pulled back, her left arm protecting the baby that she was carrying in a sling that hung from her neck. All the while she wondered how a digital sample cut and pasted into a sound piece might somehow capture all that she was now seeing, thinking, feeling, all its implications for her art, her desire for some right action in the world outside her computer, her recording and mixing machines, her office, her own isolated life.

She knew that it would be easy enough to find an audio sample of a jail-cell door being slammed shut, but she wanted the sound of the actual jail-cell door there in the photos on her screen. She found several samples of prison guards shouting, of keys in metal locks, of military-issue mops being sloshed around inside half-filled buckets, but she wanted to hear the actual guards in the actual photos, their voices, their keys, their broom handles. She knew that, regardless of the source, the sounds would be indistinguishable to the computer, just bits of data to be processed, and she knew the sounds would likewise be indistinguishable to the ear, just free-floating, invisible sound waves to be deciphered, but it still mattered to her somehow.

All day long as she worked she felt the tick bite nipple-bruise pulsing with heat in her side. She would pull her cold, cold hands off the keyboard and rub them together to increase her circulation and then run the fingers of one of her hands over the nipple-bruise on her side as she squirmed in her seat, trying to focus. Something was changing inside her, something she could not name, as if the tick bite were taking on a life of its own, a pulsing, but whether it was pulsing just the usual things that are in the vomit of a tick, the anaplasmosis, the babesiosis, the ehrlichiosis, and the Lyme disease, or whether it was also pulsing the militarized mycoplasma fermentans incognitus and the alliances between Nazi and U.S. military germ warfare technologies, or whatever biological contagions might mutate as a result of the shame and anger and rage she felt as a citizen artist, she could not say.

The next morning she woke up feverish and weak, but she still drove to the specialist’s office. The specialist’s name was Laura. She was healthy and fit, her eyes creased reassuringly when she smiled, and she had an easy manner. She had an interest in healing and in using a light touch and alternative methods to stimulate the body to cleanse all that the environment deposits or stirs up within.

She showed Laura the nipple-like bruise with its bull’s-eye pattern and Laura fingered it gently. Laura then had her clench one hand into a fist and hold it out in the air while she did some applied kinesiology, pressing down on her arm to test her resistance, all the while whispering questions, seemingly more to the tick bite than to her. “You smell,” Laura eventually said. “Thin layers of sweat across the skin. Sweet and metallic.” She then had her lie down while she held a series of slides above her head, projecting each through a magnifying lens in order to read the immune system. Each slide was a photograph of a different kind of tick-borne disease, Laura explained, as she put down the lens and then held a tiny speaker over her belly and broadcast the amplified sound of the various parasites of the kind the tick had released in her, which sounded like the sounds trapped within the dead spaces of her composition, sounds she’d been unable to isolate or remove from the master mix.

“You have something living inside you,” Laura said. “And there’s no cure. I cannot fix you,” she said, “it cannot be cut out of you. And you will be sharing it with others for the rest of your life.”

Laura smiled softly, reassuringly, and handed her an ice pack for her tick-bite nipple. “Don’t worry,” she said, “what’s in you is not you. But the militarized mycoplasma fermentans incognitus is in your spirochetes and it will always adapt and mutate, will always be one step ahead of you.”

The next day, per the specialist’s instructions for lowering her fever, she drove to the local ice rink, parked her car and went inside, paid the attendant, a man whose nametag identified him as Mel, then walked out onto the ice with her yoga mat and lay down on the cold, cold ice. She lay on her back and felt the cold ice beneath her and did thirty sit-ups. She took several deep breaths, trying to breathe into the felt-sense of the tick-bite nipple growing on her side, throbbing with heat, and then she tried to relax her neck into the cold ice and breathe into a felt-sense of her hometown, cold and lonesome in the winter, while doing another thirty sit-ups. Then she breathed into the felt-sense of how the militarized mycoplasma fermentans incognitus interacted with the anaplasmosis, the babesiosis, the ehrlichiosis, and the Lyme disease inside her and, as she did this, she pressed her feet firmly into the yoga mat and did another thirty sit-ups. Then she breathed into a felt-sense of screaming burn it, burn it, burn it, while doing yet another thirty sit-ups on the cold, cold ice. She repeated this remedy until her thinking and her breathing seemed to fuse into a bodily-felt sensation, a cool, blue mist that also was warming, fluid, expansive.

That afternoon, she was back at her office, grading papers, filling out forms, going to meetings, answering emails, turning in expense accounts and travel reimbursement forms, notating student compositions, reading a colleague’s report on admissions and matriculation trends, signing off on a new department initiative, reading and commenting on student dissertation chapters, writing various recommendation letters, reading announcements of upcoming concerts and performances, stopping occasionally to record some sound coming from her machines or to toggle the joystick and adjust the levels, all the while pressing the icepack against her tick-bite nipple and breathing into a felt-sense of hot anger, shame, and frustration.

As she continued to struggle with her piece, she became increasingly hot and a little weak. The fever was high enough to make her feel slightly confused as she went about her day. It made her feel things she had not felt before. She didn’t like finding herself tapping her foot as she graded papers or nodding her head as she signed forms in triplicate, but it seemed impossible for her to do otherwise. The fever did not incapacitate her. It seemed to energize her. She wanted to write beyond her aloneness, to make music of and for a shared anger, of and for some larger we, for how we feel violence coming at us from every side and threatening to infect us. But she did not know how to get the composition to itch in the hot blood of the ear-meat and rut in the lower chakras, to make in her or anyone a pulse to action, one that could be assembled into song if song were to be stinging, one that might skip a beat and jolt the heart in heat and fury and then stutter-strut in some unquiet riot, so that she might allow herself to nod her head after all, head banging in fuck-all dread-lust, fist raised and slam dancing till all the prisons burned down. None of this seemed possible, but that was what she wanted as a possibility.

In that imaginary and symbolic raised fist, she envisioned a hand clenching a brown-black baton, and then she wanted that too, wanted the sound of a baton being brought down in rage and smashing through her samplers and her drum machines, or the sound of a prison guard’s baton slamming against the metal bars of a cell, or the sound of the baton being brought down on a body, the sound of the dense plastic of the straight-stick meeting the flesh and bone, a sound somewhere between cracking and thudding. As she fingered her tick bite nipple-bruise with her left hand, she clicked with her right to an online video showing a group of soldiers beating a hooded man with their sticks. As she watched the video she zoomed in, focusing on the welts and wounds on the shirtless body, target-shaped bruises and raised bumps dissolving into dark washes of pixels the closer she zoomed. She began to nod her head to the disjointed up-and-down motion of each prison guard’s arm, zooming in and out until the batons became drumsticks and her head banged against the desk, making a sound somewhere in between thudding and cracking. She turned the sound down on the video and then pressed the record button on the sampler and began to pound her head against the mic in time to the blows in the video, as the stacks of papers and files jostled and fell to the floor. With each crack and each thud she felt herself wanting more, harder and louder, until it began to feel like it was she who was in control of the rising and falling batons on the screen.

Next she added sections of “Cum on Feel the Noize” and “Girls, Girls, Girls,” arena rock anthems that the military police would pump full volume into the cell blocks late at night to keep the detainees sleep-deprived, the same songs that she had listened to over and over years ago while working graveyard shift at a bail bonds office across the street from the county jailhouse in her hometown. She remembered how in order to stay awake all night she’d played the songs so many times that she would have to open her bright yellow Walkman and untwist the magnetic tape inside the cassette, wondering at how such music could be reduced to such crinkly material, a wonderment that somehow connected to her being here today, in her office chair, a composer with responsibilities and a day job and student loan debt and even, at moments, a desire to know what it would be like to fuck someone in the back seat of an American-made car before he or she left for overseas military service, heavy metal pulsing from the speakers and the sound of metal keys jangling from the ignition as the car rocked back and forth.

Then she thought she might compose the piece with the sounds around her instead, the sounds that, if she listened closely enough, were also the sounds of what she was seeing on the screen, that were related somehow, even if they sounded very different to the computer or the ear. The actual sounds of her being here now in her office, in her life, her side pulsing hot where the tick bite had swollen into a bruised nipple, the sounds of the connectivity with and distance from what she saw and heard on the screen. So not just the sound of machine-gun fire, percussive and violent, but the sounds of cars and trucks that passed by her all day and night, the gas-fueled cars and trucks that she thought of as connected to the sound of machine-gun fire, just as she sometimes thought of her hand as some kind of flesh-gun using her joystick to direct a remote-controlled drone over the oil refineries in Basra. And not just the sound of bombs dropping from the sky onto roads or bridges or checkpoints or airfields or weapons facilities or villages or wedding celebrations, screeching and whistling and then deep and booming, but also the sound of the whirring fan inside her computer that kept the hard drive and the circuit boards from overheating, the computer that gave her access to these sounds that she would listen to but not use, sounds that were and were not hers, sounds that were inside her ears and brain and body cavities whether she sampled them or not.

And so she continued working like this for many more days and through it all the tick bite continued to throb. Each day she would grab the sampler’s joystick and point and click and drag and drop, all the while gazing at the screen, its pulsing pixels charting levels and durations in the mix, thinking about how the things that were in there, the pain and the labor and the keys in the locks and the mops in the buckets, could become so abstracted, how a body’s sounds could be reduced to data matrices and information flows and unmoored sounds and colors and vague signals and sensations on her screen and in her brain, in her bloodstream and her guts, in her well-fed, white, and fleshy body.

Eventually, she went back to see the specialist. She said to Laura, “Why do you think I’m so miserable? My compositions are full of responsibilities, bad history, the stink of shit and gasoline on my hands. I’m burning up but not burning it down. I can’t think, I can’t compose, I can’t write. Not only am I not in control of my thoughts, they’re not even my thoughts.”

Laura smiled patiently as she ran her through the remedies, reminding her to breathe deeply into her body and find the felt-sense of impasse and contagion, of cool light and inner sonority.

“Like cures like,” she said, as she squeezed a dropperful of some strange liquid beneath her tongue. “You have to get out of your head, explore how your body finds its remedy. Let your tick bite quiver and cast its spells,” she said. “Finger your knobs and buttons lightly, and then squeeze until all expresses all.”

The next day she drove again to the downtown ice rink, went inside, paid Mel, and then walked with her yoga mat to lie down on the cold, cold ice. She lay on her back and felt the ice beneath her and began her remedy of thirty sit-ups. She took several deep breaths, breathing into her felt-sense of pregnant prison guards with batons in their fists and weaponized tick-infected breastmilk and then tried to relax her neck into the cold ice and breathe into her felt-sense of warm bass tones vibrating her subwoofers, flowing through her and melting the ice. She would press her tail into the cold ice and think of the numbers that made her feel tense, statistics and symptoms and secret military deals that would turn up in both her composition and her vaginal discharge, or the amplified sounds coming from the bacteria in the insects in the machines in her office, or if she’d had her period since the tick bite. She repeated this remedy until her trying and her breathing and her thinking began once more to converge into a bodily-felt sensation, a crisp pink flare that was also cool, aerated, propulsive, the shaking and vibrations in her throat and spine producing some strange voice not her own that whispered, “rage and spit, rage and spit.” The ice rink had the felt-sense of anger and shame but also of release and achievement. The ice rink was something inside her that was and was not her. And the ice rink felt good. But the ice rink was also stasis and acceptance, not action. The ice rink was no remedy.

The next day, she was back in her office chair, her head throbbing in the sick light of the computer screen, which was bookmarked to a webpage on remedy testing. Her desk was strewn with various forms, sheet music, essays, letters of recommendation, draft liner notes, interdepartmental memos, healthcare reimbursement forms, photocopied articles concerning illicit and covert military operations conducted in North Africa, and a color photograph she had downloaded from the Internet.

The woman in the photo was from her hometown. The woman in the photo had gotten out just like she had, but instead of leaving for college as she had, the woman in the photo had left for the army, for the job. She tried to make eye contact with the woman through the surface of the photograph, tried to mirror the half-smile, half-smirk with her own mouth. Rubbing the spot on her body where the tick had left its target, she closed her eyes and imagined the woman back home instead, in a high school yearbook photo, thumbs up at a pep rally or outside the metal shop with the long-haired boys, faint wisps of teenage mustaches on their upper lips, a Mötley Crüe T-shirt hanging limply off the skinnier one’s frame, wires leading from his ears to a bright yellow Walkman gripped in his hand, or hanging at the lake in cutoffs, an unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of her half-smiling, half-smirking mouth.

She wanted the sound of that high school yearbook photo in her piece. She wanted the sound of whatever it sounded like to leave one’s hometown and go wherever one goes to end up across the globe and in different photos with a gun and a cigarette and a job to do. The sound of becoming a Specialist First Class. The sound of following orders. The sound of the click of the camera and the sound of the smell of the yearbook pages when you crack it open one last time in the concrete parking lot outside the school before leaving for good.

She wanted the sound of this woman’s pregnancy, too, invisible there in the photo yet there all the same. She wanted the sound of the zipper on the body bag in the photo, the sound of the zipper as she pulled it down, releasing the heat and the scent of the bruised body within, and the sound of the corpse as it jostled the ice cubes put inside the bag to keep it cold. She wanted to put the words of the woman’s later testimony in her own mouth, to speak them into a bottle of ice-cold water and then keep the now frozen words in a freezer powered by electricity garnered from the burning of coal mined from the mountains where she and the woman both grew up, mountains and mines memorialized in a book by Muriel Rukeyser that she used to read in bed with an old lover, years ago, in the cold, cold winter, in a small apartment kept warm by an old leaky oil heater.

But above all, she wanted the sound of that thumbs-up. She wanted to hear it in the mix. She wanted the song to quiver with the blood pulse that courses from one’s heart up the chest and then through the shoulder and down the arm, through the wrist and meat of the hand and then up the thumb to beat at its very tip. She wanted that upturned thumb in her composition, wanted to insert it into the whole, wanted it to be there wiggling and thrusting and pushing and waving and sticking in the brain-meat and then to hold the thumb there as if poised to press down on a lighter-flint, ready to flare up and salute the whole goddamn show, the pep rally, the arena rock anthem, the flag ceremony, and then to set it all aflame, to burn it all down, leaving only the sound of photographs melting into glitter and ash.

She sat back from the screen and, with her right hand, she turned on the microphone and hit record, then guided the mouse to open up her Facebook account, proceeding to click-like everything she could find, watching as the thumbs-up would appear after each mechanical click. She click-liked the Military Displays & Patriotic Music by the Bel Air Community Chorus Facebook page and she click-liked the StopIslamofascism Facebook page. She click-liked the NEA Jazz Masters page and she click-liked the National Flag Month page. She click-liked the Tipper Sticker page and she click-liked the US Army Mothers page. She click-liked the GetLoFi page and she click-liked the Improvised Explosive Device page. She click-liked National Youth Orchestra of Iraq and she click-liked the Bagram Air Base page. She click-liked the Kid Rock page and she click-liked the American Military Academy page.

She clicked and waited for the thumbs-up icon, clicked and watched, then onto the next page, the next click, the next thumbs-up. She moved the mouse with her right hand until the arrow hit its target and then she squeezed and pressed and heard the click, and she liked this. All the clicks sounded the same but they also sounded different somehow. Either way, she liked them all.

She saved the recording and dumped the file into the master, lining up the click-track with the other samples to provide a kind of nervous subchatter, like the sound of masticating insects burrowing their pincers into her flesh, or the sound of the Internet itself, tiny circuits toggling on and off, endless variations of signals feeding her the millions of pixels necessary to bring the ice-cold images to her screen. She slowly released the mouse, her sweaty hand cramped and twisted inward like a claw, the thumb jutting out like the tick-bite nipple on her side. She downloaded the sound file onto her thumb drive and then threw it into her bag, along with a stack of student papers, the employee healthcare rules and restrictions guidebook, three departmental course proposals, a collection of essays on appropriation, and then, her palms sweaty and her mouth thirsty and hot and her teeth grinding out sublingual rhythms, she headed home.

That night, she tried to sit down and write a description of her composition. She wanted to be able to stop writing in her liner notes pithy statements about the relationship between her music and endangered species or natural resources or imperialism. She wanted to write about it in a way to somehow make the right political action flare up inside, coming out of the music to fuel the supercharged struggle-force that would give forth the impulse and strength to flip over a dozen police cars and then start a crazy dance party in the emptied parking spaces. She wanted to explain all this, to explain how all this could be inside something that might otherwise just sound like jumbled noise. But it kept coming out wrong.

She remembered Laura saying, don’t listen to your mind, listen to your meat. So, lying in her bed and sweating from fever, she plugged the thumb drive into her laptop and then connected the laptop to her stereo and hit play, and as she closed her eyes and listened she tried to visualize the still reverberating clicks and pixelated thumbs moving down the inside of her body. She breathed deeply, into the felt-sense of all that was brewing inside her, the bacterial frenzy, the humming and the feed, a pulsing for art and an impulse to action. What she thought had been stray samples buried in the mix, pulp prosodies choking on the standard operating procedures, she now realized were guttural sounds bubbling up from deep inside her, coalescing into deep fevered whispers that seemed to be both inside and outside her, spitting out stuttered spasms of slammed jail-cell doors, shouting prison guards, keys in locks, military-issue mops sloshing in the slop buckets.

Then she heard, emanating from her throat chakra, a voice saying, “I contain a strange liquid in me. I see bodies rolling in shit, thin layers of sweat across the skin in whatever genders we are, the muscles around my esophagus beginning to move. Still, I’m scared to follow my desires in this sick society, even though it only takes four or five to make a band, instrumental or not. If I’m constantly terrorized by the images on the screen and starved by the law, I cannot rock and I cannot cum.” And then, from her sacral chakra, a deep resonant chamber seemed to fill with gas and, in a slow release that ran through the entirety of her digestive tract, the voice continued, saying, “We are anti-dharma in heat, caking your intestines with slow-cooking resin, waiting to be scraped, harvested, and smoked in the pipe your friend brought back from Kabul, or else we ask you to send in the living cultures and use the enema runoff to feed your food, the moist and pulpy garden soil pulling toxins from the roots of all that might yet simmer and stew in the soup.” And then the voice moved down to her root chakra, where she heard the electronic buzz of her computer and the fluorescent office lights cross fading into her interior body-static to make a white noise that crystallized into a feverish fine mist, one that crackled like the sound of interrogation videos being systematically destroyed, the magnetic tape twisted and yanked from its plastic casing by pairs of pale nail-bitten hands. Resonating inside her she could now hear the tracks popping and repeating out of sync, as if multiple record players were skipping inside an emptied-out military gymnasium, and she could hear amidst the anxious gurgling a faint moaning, a female voice whimpering and gasping, “zip up and shut up, sit up and spit up, zip up and shut up, sit up and spit up,” whether in distress or pleasure she could not tell, but there nonetheless.

The next morning she called in sick to work and drove directly to the specialist’s office. Laura smiled a sad yet patient smile and asked her to lie down on the table while she held a Lucite block over her third-eye chakra, placing various small glass bottles on it, each containing a diluted remedy, while whispering a poem through the block, seemingly more to the remedies than to her:

Make me well, I said,—And the delighted touch.

You put dead sweet hand on my dead brain.

The window cleared and the night-street stood black.

As soon as I left your house others besieged me

forcing my motion, saying, Make me well.

Took sickness into the immense street,

but nothing was thriving I saw blank light the crazy

blink of torture the lack and there is no

personal sickness strong to intrude there.

Returned. Stood at the window. Make me well.

Putting away her Lucite block and her remedies, Laura said, “As I said before, I cannot cure you. No one can cure you. You can’t cure you. I can modulate your fever, but what is there inside you will still come; it’s growing inside you, it’s the you that’s not you that’s coming. And you can let it suck the life out of you or you can find in it fuel for action. Make the song-sound of your body and its yearning,” she said, “for art and for health, and lead us in feverish symphonies consisting of the application and abrupt removal of duct tape from the mouth and the agitation of the bruises caused by renegade acupuncture treatments, and then rub it all vigorously with a back-and-forth motion and go out moving through the world with a tenfold increase in interest in it, because everything that happens to you and by you, here in your body and out there in the world, all that everything is in you now, and all that everything should be in your song.”

Laura paused, took a deep breath and exhaled. “I will explain this to you with a story,” she said. “Try to understand this. This is not an allegory. You go every day to the ice rink for your sit-ups, but after you leave there is a free skate period that’s open to the public. You might barely notice Mel, the man who takes your ticket, but during the free skate Mel must smooth the ice every couple of hours. He will open two swinging side panels on the south end of the ice rink, mount a Zamboni and guide it out to do his rounds. The skaters are forced to exit the rink as he does this, and they go to visit the concession stand or restrooms or just stand and watch him. He drives in a clockwise motion of slightly overlapping ovals, taking care to guide the motion of the machine like a skater rather than drive it like a car. It takes him between six and seven minutes to do the eight full passes around the ice. While he glides along, the DJ always blasts “Ice, Ice, Baby” and sometimes the younger skaters who are watching cheer and wave at him as he slowly passes by them on his lumbering machine.

“His shift has its own rhythms, like anything else. After the ice is resurfaced, he returns to his perch at the door, selling tickets and directing visitors to the skate rental desk or the restrooms. He works in isolation, usually reading, no one to talk with, no union meetings or drinks with the co-workers after work. He is paid minimum wage and has no health insurance, no pension. He mostly lives paycheck to paycheck. When the kids enter or leave the rink, passing him at his desk, they often call him Zamboni Man and sometimes they might sing a line or two from the song, his song. He nods halfheartedly and returns to his book, thinking ahead to when his wife will pick him up on her way home from work, the last of the day’s sunlight filtering through the kitchen windows as they sit at the table in the shared weary silence of love after work.

“But right now, as I am talking to you, the machine is sputtering and smoking, the engine kicking and choking. He has to stop, dismount, walk around on the ice in his street shoes, and open the hood. He reaches in and his hands are immediately coated with oozing hot, black oil. The rear main bearing has been pounded out from excessive endplay. The main bearing, the one closest to the flywheel, has worn out, worn out in two directions, one parallel to the crankshaft and the other perpendicular. The perpendicular force has worn the main-bearing bore so that the crankshaft has begun to wobble, which in turn has distorted the neoprene oil seal at the bearing bore, and the oil is now pouring through it and onto his worn leather work gloves. He pulls his hands out and stands there, breathing heavily, looking at his gloves as the oil pools and drips down onto the cold, cold ice.”

Excerpted and reprinted from An Army of Lovers by Juliana Spahr and David Buuck, with permission from City Lights. An Army of Lovers was one of Lemon Hound’s best reads of 2013.