Pillar of Salt
August 11, 2018 § Leave a comment
—Pillar of salt.
If he turns around, she will turn into a pillar of salt.
No, that isn’t it. She will disappear.
Or will he disappear?
Or will they both?
What has put this thought in his head?
A detail from something he once heard, but he can’t remember how it goes. It is hard to keep straight what you were told at church as a kid from what you learned at school. It is hard to keep anything straight anymore—but damn, she is doing it again! Julia is lagging behind him, she has let him go ahead, in the mall, by himself!
It is Tuesday, they went out to eat. Lisa, their daughter, fifteen, who hasn’t yet fleshed out into their expectations, is off somewhere for the night with other girls in the neighborhood about whom they have no opinion. They only see friends on weekends, and have no plans for the one coming up. Julia didn’t want to stay at the restaurant for a few more drinks. Walker didn’t want to go to a movie. Neither wanted to go home. They settled on the mall.
What else is there to do?
Walker asks himself.
But Walker does not like malls. The massive columns painted in pastel colors, the quiet expanse of concrete floating over walls of glass, a gushing fountain, the sedative music he can barely hear—it is all irritating. And there is something pointless and vaguely illicit in going out in the middle of the week, the pointlessness multiplied into something else, large and disturbing, by the low, complex murmur of the voice of shoppers that settles over him like a heavy fog. The mall is crowded, two tiers full. People Walker does not know and does not want to know, who assault him at every step. They look on edge, predatory. Consumers consuming. Watchers, gawkers gawking, watching. Walker is getting edgy himself.
And Julia is somewhere behind him in all this noise, taking, he is sure, short, mincing steps.
—Pillar of salt.
Not that she is delicate, though he feels she sometimes affects this manner for her purposes. Or slow. When they first got together, at the university, they would go for long hikes in the Berkeley Hills. Then she marched at a brisk, vigorous pace, competing for the lead, and he’d let her go by, liked to watch her as she passed, Julia, being Julia, moving ahead. Love with Julia was sudden and frank, a postulate, not a posture, not a pose.
But after they had been married for a while, when they were out in public places, she began to slow down and let him keep walking until he left her some distance behind—until he realized he had left her behind. Then he had to stop and wait for her to catch up, or she stopped and stood waiting, and he had to go back until they were together again. It was her way of letting him know that he walked too fast, that he had stretched the invisible tether of their relationship.
Was being headstrong.
Or some such offense. She never explained. There was only that look on her face, at once a shrinking from injury, a flash of wordless anger, a look gone too soon for him to ask, leaving him guessing what was wrong. Walker did not expect miracles when he got married, but he thought when you took this step you might at least be able to put some of the nonsense in life aside.
—Pillar of salt.
Yet now it is just something she does, a gesture become habit, whose meaning has faded with repetition, with years of married life. Her eyes, not quite gray or green, opened so her irises are rimmed with white, stare through you without recognition, and the look has blurred into an expression too indistinct for Walker to describe.
—Not pillar of salt. Disappear.
Walker may be given to moments of abstraction, when he is absorbed in the progress of some thought and loses track of where he is, but he sees nothing in this behavior that should disturb her.
Worse, that she has to stage a demonstration to make a point. Matters important enough for gesture should find language, words that are succinct and clear. If you have something on your mind, you should say it, not let it fester. It is the unsaid that leads to fights, to harm.
Even worse, to act this way but forget why—which she seems to have done, which is something she does, forget things, she forgets things all the time—and not be aware she still does it, letting him go ahead, leaving him exposed before strangers, before strangers at a mall, keeping him in the eye of judgment, as if putting him on trial for all to see, as if he were an abuser of women, some callous male supreme, and even if it is only judgment past, maybe judgment gone and judgment only he remembers, it still is judgment, and the judgment of memory is a judgment from which there is no escape—
This is careless!
But what Walker most dislikes is making mountains out of molehills.
A mall is just a mall. It is part of the American landscape. It is the fruit of free enterprise. Julia is his wife, and he loves her. They have been married nearly twenty years. Walker, Walker thinks, is Walker. He is a middle manager in a Silicon Valley firm that makes computers, who has never claimed to be anything more or less than what he is. It should be enough, Walker believes, to be who you are. Sometimes it is all you can do.
So Walker reflects: The last few years have not been easy for her, and lately she has seemed adrift. Her career plans are up in the air; Lisa’s at high school, out of the house more often than in. Even Julia’s school—she went back to get a graduate degree—has proven to be a wash. And from the way she stares in the bathroom mirror, she probably thinks her looks have started to go as well. Slogging through your forties must be harder on women than men.
And Walker realizes: Julia is not devious, she is not hysterical. It is not a big deal, what she does, not worth argument. And once together, they start over; their marriage, their life goes on. Besides, if you had to account for everything you said and did—
Turn around. Go back to her.
—Pillar of salt.
Still the sense something will happen to her if he turns around. A foreboding. Not that Walker heeds those voices that sometimes pop into your head with special insistence, as if they could determine the course of your life. All kinds of things run around inside the brain. Yet there are things we hear that stay with, might change us, if we could only sort them out.
—Pillar of salt.
Or perhaps something will happen to him. But it’s a myth, he’s sure of this, probably a Greek myth. A story about metamorphosis, where people change into plants or animals or things.
Which Greek turns back?
Who changes into a pillar of salt?
Not that Walker is superstitious, either. He doesn’t believe that Greeks actually turned into plants or animals or pillars of salt, anymore than he believes anything will actually happen to anyone if he turns around. His beliefs do not have to be confirmed by mysterious events.
—Pillar of salt.
Or is it a Roman myth?
Or a story from the Bible?
And neither do angels hover over Walker’s head, beckoning with songs of bliss, nor demons torment him, trying to drag him down below. We only have each other to look at, ourselves to figure out. He has long since learned to come to terms with the strain religion puts on belief, the props of guilt placed there to give someone else the upper hand.
Still, he doesn’t pretend you can understand everything that goes on inside the head, that all can be explained by reason. He knows that the light of reason also casts shadows. And there has to be something within us and between us, or life would be a hopeless mess. Yet even Protestantism, back in Walnut Creek, was the aspirin pitch of admen, trying not to scare their suburban flocks away. And who else is there to listen to now? Those fundamentalists who have started to run for office, the bogeymen of faith? Or New Age flakes? Or pop psychologists and self-help philosophers, whose advice lasts as long as the sales of their books?
—Pillar of salt.
What’s a myth?
It is something that is not true. But there must be reasons myths have hung around—
Or will something happen to her if he doesn’t turn around?
Or to him?
Is it something he should try to prevent?
What does he believe can happen in the world?
And there must be reasons why it’s hard to get myths right. But Walker is getting confused. It has been a long time since he went to church, was in school.
Keep walking, Walker tells himself. You are not a bad person, he thinks.
Yet all these people at the mall—it is impossible to move forward, much less think straight. He treads on the heels of the slow and aimless while the impetuous shove from behind. Mothers plow through with baby carriages; small children trip on his feet. Everywhere the flow is broken by more people, people going the wrong way, people struck by the urge to go to stores on the other side.
And this mall has gone downhill. One anchor, I. Magnin’s, has pulled out; its windows remain vacant. No more the angular and nervous, yet aloof, yet sublime mannequins in shimmering gold and silver gowns. Macy’s, across the way, is struggling. Sears holds down the fort behind him. Woolworth’s looms ahead. Between them, the little stores that come and go, suing for a piece of your heart, a corner of your wallet:
Plastic furniture and greeting cards.
Sports shoes and software and gourmet cookies.
Jewelry for fingers, necks, wrists, and toes, for pierced ears, lips, noses, and bellies.
This is supposed to be an upscale neighborhood.
Mall arts and crafts, little booths in the walkway, disrupting the flow even more:
Driftwood sculpture and chrome license plate holders.
Stuffed animals in primary hues; exotic animals inlaid in stained wood.
Computer generated pictures, scattered colors, from which a three-dimensional image is supposed to emerge.
A mall, Walker thinks, is a substitute for something else.
A toy store—an arsenal of plastic, fantastic weapons; two aisles for girls, a pink and purple haze.
T-shirts and posters—pictures of sports, movie, and rock stars poised and frozen in a moment of climax; printed slogans that scream at you with their brass, their wit.
Frederick’s of Hollywood—a host of impassive seraphim with frosted hair and glassy stares, steely legs and high, hard breasts, wearing lacy see-through teddies and camisoles trimmed with fluff, and garter belts and mesh stockings, and sheer bras and panties red and black.
Signs of some language Walker does not wish to know. He keeps his arms close to his sides, balancing his composure, his sense of who he is. It is the way he feels every morning when he gets on I-280 to go to work.
A video game arcade—phosphorous monsters, aliens, thugs, and Nazis, and a welter of kids waiting to get at them; the sounds of hands slapping buttons, of shouts of anguish and ecstasy, of mass electronic slaughter.
Perhaps it is he who will disappear.
Or he will turn into a pillar of salt.
Sale signs everywhere. Stores going out of business. Stores reworking their facades with neon lights and fake stone, with classical columns that support nothing—postmodern glitz. Stores boarded up and painted with sentimental pictures of parks and old-time villages, but without indication of what is coming soon. Most of the stores he remembers when they first moved to Menlo Park—real antiques, a bookstore that sold books, a men’s store with clothes he could wear—are gone, and the ones that have replaced them are cheaper:
Budget rugs, Dollar Daze.
Or more gimmicky:
Party gags and novelties.
Gadgets impossibly complex and small.
More singular, more desperate in their appeal:
A store that sells only trolls.
As if the invisible hand has lost its grip.
California has taken several hits the last few years. Defense cuts, the exodus of high-tech, the perennial budget botch in Sacramento. But the Valley has always been overpriced and overgrown. It was only a matter of time. Pundits blame the lean years for their problems, when they should look back to when times were flush. Yet more than this, or less, or not this at all, because he does not think economics fully explains the decline, that what he sees at the mall can be located on the cycle of slumps and booms.
Because while Walker does believe in free enterprise, he doesn’t think anyone has stopped to consider what it can and cannot do, just as he believes in high-tech but does not buy his company’s hype that computers will revolutionize our lives. What matters is what computers process, and will what they process now become better in the future, or even different, or will it just be more of the same, processed faster?
This was here the last time. Some enterprising émigré has capitalized on the fall of the Soviets. On the shelves, cloisonné boxes, chess sets, and gilt icons. Hanging in the window, hockey jerseys and army uniforms with red stars. On the ledge, rows of those nested dolls, opened and arranged in descending order. Identical peasant girls, large to small, with the same painted cheeks, the same folk smile. Then another set: Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Khrushchev, Stalin, down to a tiny Lenin—
Nasty business, Walker thinks, what he hears is happening in Russia, in the new republics whose names he has not yet learned. He wonders what those Marxists back at Berkeley think now.
Four years of protests, the burn of egos among palm trees and littered streets—he should have gone to Stanford, or maybe gone East, where he might have belonged, instead. He screwed around for a while because Berkeley was a good place to screw around. Then he turned ascetic when everyone got ascetic, which proved only to be another form of self-indulgence. Then it was time to get serious, but he couldn’t find anything in class to get serious about. Marx, Freud; class oppression, psychic repression—life was one big squeeze. He majored in electrical engineering because the logic of chips gave him some room. And at least there was a kind of music in what ran through the gates of NAND, AND, OR, and NOR; the rest was post-structuralist noise.
Whatever post-structuralism is.
With graduation, the need for pragmatism, a job market that supported little else. Grad school, then, and the trek to the Valley. If you can’t make a good choice, don’t make a dumb one. He wouldn’t do himself or anyone else any good by going broke. But he still tries to keep some sense of culture, some sense of something, which has survived deconstruction by Berkeley profs, that violence of sardonic minds. Because there has to more to our existence than that mechanism which negotiates the distance between our money and our desire. He has seen what has happened to some guys at the office, who can’t even sluice their salaries to women on the side but pour it directly into the pockets of their shrinks.
—Pillar of salt.
We have all lost touch with the Greeks.
Or the Romans.
Or the Christians or the Jews.
It doesn’t matter who turned around or what really happened. It doesn’t matter what is really happening now. To get bogged down in details, to focus on the literal, is to miss some larger point. Long ago, someone actually turned around somewhere, someone saw an actual pillar of salt, was reminded of something that happened, made a connection, told a story, and the story caught on and stayed. It meant something to someone then, it has meant something to us through the ages, and it must mean something to Walker now.
What matters is the point the story tells.
Or maybe someone turned around and saw someone disappear, not really, but in a sense. But then that wouldn’t be metamorphosis.
Or maybe someone turned around, saw a pillar of salt, and disappeared himself, in a sense. But that doesn’t make any sense at all.
Or maybe someone didn’t turn around and something happened to him or to someone else.
Whoever it was who saw whatever, whatever it was that happened to him or to someone else, whoever it was who made the story up, Walker decides, he must have been a married man.
What is a pillar of salt, anyway?
What comes after post-structuralism?
Little boutiques and huge discount outlets up and down the hall. What the world has revealed to Walker is that most stores at a mall sell clothes.
Clothes in colors that run a ragged spectrum from stark white and black to earthy to fleshy to fluorescents, or colors that do not look like colors, off the scale,
Clothes cut tight cut baggy cut short cut long, the cuts hiding, suggesting, revealing, boasting but not defining what they might dress,
Clothes with pockets that tell us they are pockets, clothes that see no need for their use; clothes with padded shoulders, the statement of a pointed shrug; clothes with lapels that taunt the concept of lapels, lapels thin, evanescent, lapels stately fat,
Plain clothes in natural fibers, affectedly austere; clothes embellished with obvious pleats and stitching, showy sequins and brass studs; brand name clothes branded with the logos of their brands; sports clothes sporting odd prints and loud plaids, abstract patterns chaotic and campy, Fiftyish fatuousness revived and reveled in,
Clothes for all occasions, a whole vocabulary of clothes, the cuts, the prints, the colors combined in so many different variations, phrasing each a different stance, a way of appearing, a way of being, a place to be,
Or flaunting, flirting with some stance, casual, slack in their acceptance of, or flouting, emphatically slack in their offhand rejection of yet still determined by the same need, the same itch,
Or flaunting, flirting, rejecting as if there were a need, a place, a way,
More slack now than ever, Walker thinks, more offhand, more off, more distant from, thus more desperately casual in the lock it has on them, their claim, the pretense of that which they cannot or will not embrace in the eternal ephemerality of their stance: the assertion of identity apart from yet premised by the argument of a gathering, of an order, of a plan, a plan posited, discounted, and displaced by mannequins who wear the clothes in perfect fits.
Clothes for all occasions in a place where there are no occasions.
As goes the mall, so go the people. They look excited, scattered, lost. And what looks only crisp in the windows looks shoddy on the people, because they have them on, the shoppers, the clothes with the logos and slogans and designs, and they have washed the newness out of them, and what looks distinctive and almost possible on the mannequins looks cheap and improbable on the people as the clothes yield to the vagaries of the spirit, of the flesh, the bulging, the withering, the varying stages of decline from fitness, from resolve. It is like looking at distorted images in a hall of mirrors at a carnival of bad taste.
Is it the stores that reflect the people’s longing, or the people the stores’? A moot point—the machine is on and running and all there is to do now is wait and see where it will end, the appeal, the looking, the pitch, the buying, the reflection of reflections to exhaustion.
Mirrors upon mirrors.
Do his neighbors no longer shop here, have invasions from tract housing in San Jose come to fill the void? But when the rich dress down and anyone can buy imitations, how can you tell people apart?
Not money, this is not what bothers him. The car, the big house, the lawn he could do without. Not the loss of class lines, because Walker is not a bigot, not a toady for Republican crass. But the lack of some vital distinction.
Not the people, because Walker does not hate people, but there are times when you see too many of them all at once, and there is something about having large numbers together in public places—at a mall—that brings the worst out. You can see it in their faces as they mill through glass and concrete, their expectant but hollow stares, a gaze that touches meanness.
Not a way of being, but a reason for being together. A reason, Walker thinks, and some structure that might contain it.
—Pillar of salt.
Not disappear. In the story he’s trying to recall, someone turns around and someone turns into a pillar of salt. And even though it’s a myth and didn’t happen and couldn’t happen, it doesn’t have to happen to mean something.
—The cities of the plain.
What were their names? But not Greek. It is from the Bible, Genesis if he remembers right, and now he wishes his parents had dragged him to church more often, and that he had paid more attention when they did.
—In the beginning . . .
It’s a story about man’s fall from grace. The cities have gone to pot; the outcry against the sinners is great. God is displeased, so Abraham—
Abraham. Venerable, upright Abraham. This is the one. It is Abraham who turns around, and—
But Walker is not a prude. There is much he can take or leave. Nor does he believe people are wicked. Civilization has progressed beyond such simple views black and white. And we don’t need some transcendental paternal to tell us all how to behave. Still, the world has turned soft and weird, and when we lose our sense of direction, someone pays the price.
Teenagers are the worst.
A group of them have just elbowed their way around him—
Alone, put to task, they are whiny and timid. In a pack, turned loose, they are rude and loud. Before the displays in store windows, however, they are quiet and amazed.
Is that his daughter?
But he only sees their backs as they disappear into the crowd, shouting fuck.
—Sodom and Gomorrah.
So God sends two angels disguised as strangers to take a look around. Then the men of Sodom come and knock, wanting to know the strangers—
Knock on Abraham’s door?
Then what? When does Abraham turn around?
Who turns into a pillar of salt?
Where does Walker fit in?
Has Lisa been known?
Because Walker knows what wanting to know in the Bible means.
And what is Abraham’s wife’s name?
Because Julia is still behind him, thinking god knows what or worse, not thinking, making what comes next more difficult, because now there’s the problem of how to turn around and join her. Should he go back, nonchalant, as if nothing has happened? But something has happened, he has been walking by himself all this time, has already made the turn at the glaring lights of Woolworth’s and is going back the other way. A gap has been created between them that has become too large to dismiss and is growing larger. Has she wandered off into one of the stores without telling him, because she can do that, too, because she likes to shop, leaving it to him to search for her in this junkyard of American life?
Turn around. Go back.
Don’t turn around. Don’t go back.
Because it has become one of those idle moments when the backwash of your life returns, swirling. You have to find some way to come to an understanding—or pull away before you’re sucked into a vortex of doubt that can stay with you for days.
But how do you assess a marriage, weigh the fights against the closeness, the eventual settling down against the trade-off of affection? Or make sense of the gray periods about which nothing can be said, of those large feelings that have reified into little things lifeless and opaque?
No thought of divorce. The topic has not come up in years. For both their first and only marriage. This has to be worth something. There was a time when he didn’t think they would make it, the charged silences, the dinner arguments that turned into week long battles, the truces broken in bed. But Walker did not enter marriage with illusions.
Yet how do you know when you’re giving in or giving up, compromising or being compromised? How can you even know yourself in marriage? Because it is difficult to see your own heart in the heat of anger, even in the warmth of love. Because the few times he put his foot down, he was brutal, not the Walker he thought he knew—
Back down, give in, give up—be a modern husband. The issues are never that important.
Turn around. Go back and find her.
Yet her suspicions—
And her criticism—
And her complaints—
But any virtue, on a bad day, can bleed into a vice, and self-assertion turn to self-righteousness. Julia is Julia. He cannot expect her to be someone else. Marriage is learning to live with what first caused you to fall in love—
Up ahead, some commotion, a dozen stores down—
And learning when to put love aside.
Before the fountain, next to deserted I. Magnin’s, a disturbance, and the people spread out like ants in broken ranks—
His love for Julia, who is somewhere behind him, Julia who probably isn’t thinking about anything at all.
It was Silicon Valley, he once thought, the Valley and the pressure of her work. His job is still secure, his company has stayed afloat. But after an initial spurt, her firm, a peripherals start-up, was on the ropes, and her department, PR, was always the first they wanted to sub out. And the high-tech egos, the exaggerated sense of purpose. The artificial sense of time, an urgency measured in microseconds that consumes the daylight hours yet ignores the advance of seasons and years. The euphoria from the feeling of boundless growth that keeps you from seeing how fickle the industry really is.
But now he’s not so sure, because Walker went through the same pressures, yet he learned how to cope. He left hardware design and worked his way into management before the abstract juices ran dry and kids fresh out of school pushed him out. There he learned how to make himself essential without being obtrusive, how to weigh ambition against the risks. When they brought in the fast-food king to run the show, he kept low and weathered the storm.
You need perspective to keep your head in this business, and perspective, he thinks, is what Julia lacks, Julia who is or is not behind him, who has faded from his life—
Someone’s shouting, people have turned to watch—
Lisa was a long, sober debate: their careers, their time, their marriage. When Julia got pregnant—had they really decided?—her stomach seemed to grow not with daughter but their swollen misgivings. A difficult labor, she came weeks late, and then there wasn’t the time or energy to fight. But instantly, magically Julia changed into a mother, a woman he didn’t know was there—
Too much a mother. But the bawling baby turned into a sweet kid. And they didn’t argue about how to raise her; on matters of discipline, Julia and he agreed. And when Lisa turned six they both had to join forces against education in California, the crap going on in the schools.
Be a husband, be a father. There are worse things in life to do. Because Walker used to look on those years with fondness—
By the fountain, hands flying, shirts flapping—
Now he wonders why.
It is two boys horsing around—
He wonders why he hasn’t wondered why before.
Because when it seemed they had most made a life together, even after her company had been saved by merger, Julia said she wasn’t going anywhere in her life. She then enrolled at some school in Palo Alto he had never heard of to get an advanced degree.
Again their marriage was upset—the strain of night classes, the tension of deadlines both from work and school. Her all-nighters, the nights alone, the weekends he had to take Lisa out while Julia pounded away at her papers in manic fits. She made herself crazy studying craziness. It must have been the pressure women had started putting on themselves.
Mumbo jumbo, psychology. DSM-III-R, the manual of insanity at her side, she could only talk about disorders couched in terminology as freakish and fuzzy as the behavior it was supposed to describe. Friends who came to the house sane and healthy transformed, after they left, into figures of limping disease.
What is the point?
She didn’t even tell him when she quit work to go to school full-time. She only said, a week after giving notice, that at the rate she was going, she’d be too old to do anything with her degree if and when she got it. Julia, who is Julia, who had to be Julia, so he helped foot the bill and retrenched, waiting for this phase to pass—
The shouting is louder, a crowd has gathered—
Soft stuff, psychology. Once, for no reason, she hauled him to a marriage counselor, who only bored them both with sappy platitudes. For the experience, she said. A waste, anyway, because they—because Julia decided what they would say before each session.
What is the point?
But a master’s was not enough. She said you had to have a doctorate if you wanted a decent job. So then the dissertation, then the internship, then the boards, more years of this possession—
The crowd has formed a circle, thickening towards the stores. The people are silent, their faces illumined, moved by what they see—
The possession of Julia, with whom he once hiked in the Berkeley Hills, who is somewhere behind him, Julia who is Julia but who is not Julia, who has become someone else, because in his mind he sees her face, feels the blank stare burning through the people between them into the back of his head, Julia who has left it to him to go back and close the gap, has left him with the burden of their marriage, because she must not care, but he does, he cares about her, he cares about their marriage, and there is so much more that he cares about that he will never be able to explain but all he can hear now is the boys’ shouting and it’s getting harder to think—
What is the point?
—The purpose of therapy is know yourself, to uncover the traumas of the past that bind the way you now behave.
She once said.
Why glorify the mess of your childhood, why saddle the present with the past?
—To adapt, to make adjustments.
Adjust to what? Adapt how? Better to blow off steam by slamming the ball around at the courts than worry yourself with old wounds and work yourself up to a froth. What is the point?
—To lead a normal life!
Behind, above the people, water from the fountain shoots up and drops in careless play, looking as if it is falling on their heads. Macy’s mannequins, sheltered, calmly look down on the scene, hands in pockets. On their faces, the contempt that lures. Or laid-back, hands open in half gesture, they look up and beyond the people, blithely amused—
Then the age of analysis. When she found work, she took on a new demeanor, detached, distant, and cool. An intense composure, focused yet evasive: the therapist. Talk at the table got hard, night talk even harder. He was never saying what he thought he was saying, and even the same old marital quarrels somehow got maneuvered around fights into a no man’s land in which there was only the smell of war.
And then they didn’t talk.
Things in the house began to shift and waver with analysis, undergoing a continual transformation back into themselves. The Mission chairs and Navaho rugs and modern art prints turned into Mission chairs and Navaho rugs and modern art prints with new clarity that shed no light.
The crowd shifts, he sees again the hands, the shirts. The boys are not horsing around but fighting—
—Pillar of salt.
And the people keep coming, swarming towards the circle, pressing closer behind him, he is stuck—
—Sodom and Gomorrah.
And they keep flailing away, the kids, in the frenzied, artless combat of adolescents, exposed to each other’s blows without any attempt at defense, a flurry of arms and legs and violent faces, their flapping, floppy oversized plaid shirts—
—The wrath of God.
Not Abraham. Abraham is the one who tries to stay God’s hand, who cuts this deal with Him: if fifty righteous men can be found among the sinners, the cities of the plain will be spared.
Because why should the good be taken with the bad?
Not Abraham but Lot. Lot is who he’s been trying to remember. Abraham cuts the deal, then God sends two Angels disguised as strangers, who find only Lot, modest Lot, who takes them into his home. Then the men of Sodom, young and old, come banging on Lot’s door, wanting to know the strangers. The last straw. It is time to clear the slate. The angels strike the men of Sodom with blindness and tell Lot to take his family and flee, Lot who is not exemplary but merely good. For this he walks alone.
Does Lot’s wife have a name?
Because it is not Lot, but his wife who turns around. All Lot does is stay the course. It is Lot’s wife who has to linger. There is something she has to see. And it is Lot’s wife who turns into—
It’s a myth. More than a story, but less than some miraculous event. It couldn’t happen then and can’t happen now, but it refers to something that could happen and happens all the time. Because myths touch something deep inside all of us that escapes the eyes of shrinks—this is what he learned at school. Myths give shape to inner turmoil, substance to what else might lie beyond. The plot of our lives, the course of the stuff our hearts pump through our heads find connection with a Word:
He is not insensitive.
He has nothing to be ashamed of, nothing for which he should be greatly blamed. He has made the best decisions he can, and given the chance, if he had his life to do all over, he would make different, not better choices.
He does not exploit the vanity of people, nor squander his time and money in mindless consumption.
He worked hard to reach his position in the firm but did not break toes along the way. He helps manage the manufacture of computers, which, in the right hands, could do marvelous things.
He has been a dutiful father. His daughter has not dropped out of school, is not pregnant, and does not smoke crack.
He has abided his wife’s whims and moods, has been faithful to her during the times his faith was stretched. At least he has given their marriage a good shot.
And he does not walk too fast. Because when there are no good choices, the best plan is to make a decision and move on, go directly from point A to point B without haste but without hesitation, before the world drags you down into its decay.
But now he can’t see the boys or even the people. There is only a blur of faces, the mass of paunches and elbows and hands against him, the stench of sweat, stale clothes, and cheap perfume, their rank collected breath—
What is he supposed to do now, what does she expect him to do, go back and apologize? Should he slouch back with his tail between his legs, contrite and worried, overcome?
Because she does know what she is doing. A ruse, her weary look. The absent-minded way she lingers behind is a guise, a way of showing his supposed abuses have reached a new level, beyond injury, which now can only be patiently endured—
A strong hand, purple with grotesque tattoo, grabs his arm and pushes him aside—
A bearded lout in a Ferrari T-shirt going for the front row!
Adjust to what? To a society that cannot adjust itself? Adjust to feebs with nothing better to do than watch a couple of brats tear each other apart?
Or should he go back a raving madman?
Because he realizes that this face of worn tolerance is the face of the therapist gone bad, and that the face of the therapist is the same old face he has always known, a platform to stage her old complaints.
Psychology—Psyche. Who is she?
She must be a manipulating woman.
Because what is the motive for studying motives?
Who has to be what for whom?
Why else study psychology but to put him in his place?
And once at breakfast she flatly stated, regarding nothing, merely for his information is how she put it, that he had a passive-aggressive personality.
Water shoots from the fountain, and falls and cracks and spits—
Yet last week, after all the trouble she had gone through, after all the trouble she had caused them at home, after she finally passed the state boards, after she got hired on at the clinic where she did her internship, a solid outfit with a healthy clientele, after only one year of work there, after he had finally resigned himself not to Julia Thompson but Julia Guerrant, Licensed Psychologist, Ph.D.—
Last week she quit again.
Julia the careless, Julia of mincing step. She now talks about going back into PR. The degree in psychology should help, she says.
The floor shakes—
The ceiling falls—
Fire and brimstone rain destruction on the people of the Valley—
—Don’t look back.
Is what the angels say.
Keep walking, Walker thinks. Put these people, this mall, this world behind you. Put her behind you. Not divorce, because that would be avoidance, an indecision, a concession to failure. It has not become necessary yet. But for now, let her be the one who turns and looks, the one who turns into a pillar of salt. Because if she has to look on sick people with her sick, clinical eyes only to decide to pander to their disease, then let her shrivel with her self-absorption and self-indulgence, with her sterile analysis, her bitterness, and her defeat.
Damn borderline bitch!
The image of the body of Walker’s wife starts to dry and harden, to turn into a slender saline post—
And take the goddamn mall with you!
But the shouting stops—
A break in the crowd—
It is not two boys, but a boy and a girl who are fighting, and he sees she is more a woman than a girl because her shirt is ripped open, and they no longer fight because the man who pushed him aside has the boy clenched against his chest.
Walker’s heart bolts, but it only shoots a blank.
Walker, Walker realizes, has made a large mistake.
The girl kneels in the center of the circle with white expression, fending off aid with one hand, gathering her shirt in the other. The boy, his head on the Ferrari emblem, sags in the man’s flexed arms, docile beneath the coils of an immaculately trimmed beard springing from a stern and stoic face.
A trickle of blood leaks from the girl’s ear.
Blood flows freely from the boy’s nose onto a pattern of rippling muscles and sinuous tattoos.
Blood burns in Walker’s head, then drains.
Hitting women is not something men are supposed to do.
And they probably shouldn’t keep on walking while their wives are turning into pillars of salt.
Perhaps, then, this is not the myth that applies to him.
Or perhaps he is not as merely good as he thought.
Or perhaps he does not live in a world of myth. Because no mythic angels have visited Walker. The closest he has come are the Jehovah’s Witness and his son who came to his door one Sunday in stiff white shirts and black ties, who inquired about his faith. Walker, incensed by this invasion, told them solicitors were not allowed.
At any rate, it is mythic God who destroys the cities of the plain. It’s unlikely, however, He would raze a mall for being tacky.
The world is what it is.
But keep walking, Walker, Walker thinks.
Because Walker, not feeling mythic anymore, is too ashamed to turn around.
And point B is no longer in sight.
No one looks at him.
Massive columns painted in pastel colors rise from the ashes. Behind, the tempered voices of security guards, a whimper of youth, the sound of gushing water. Here and there, the stillness of indoor trees.
A smoldering conscience—
cools and contracts to form a span of concrete floating on walls of glass.
No one looks at anyone.
But resurrected, they have returned, the dawdlers, the shovers, the mothers with baby carriages, the small children who trip over his feet, and they walk and watch as they walked and watched before, without plan or apparent purpose. They look, if they are looking, with acid eyes at merchandise, which, in the dim ventral cavity of the first floor, glows with unearthly glitter. Or they look at the sharply mannered faces of mannequins loosely grouped in the windows, who, ever blithe, look down, or look away from each other, or look above the heads of the people with casual, crafty disdain, over at mannequins on the other side.
The mannequins on the other side also look down, or away, or up to the second level, where there are more people who look at the stores, if they are looking, at more mannequins who do not look at them but also look off or down or still upward, through the vast open space of the hall, to a latticework of steel girders, to skylights above. Hovering over them all, like unsought grace, a soothing music he can barely hear.
He makes the turn at Sears—
Before he knows it, the bright lights of Woolworth’s—
Now behind him once more, once more the vastness of the mall. Walker looks up again, following the delicate tracery of gazes that do not intersect, up past the cantilevered walkways of the second level, across the space, past steel lace, through glass to a dark sky where fluttering spirits soar to fleeing horizons. Then he looks back down at the faces of the people, and they have changed. Not meanness. This is not what he sees, but wistfulness, inverted. Not guile in the mannequins, but chasteness, disguised and finely tuned. They all have the face of innocence, the people and their sculpted likenesses, of innocence transfigured, which, even turned, is still innocence, in whose wash he is gently absolved.
Then he sees what he has always seen but never noticed before, that not only do most stores sell clothes, but sell clothes for women. So many variations on the theme of women, so many mannequin legs and lips and poses and infinitely subtle curves, so many visions of women, so many ways to wrap and shape the body that eludes the covering—it is where the figure is missed, how well it is missed, that the feminine tenor is revealed. And it is in the bodies of the abstract mannequins—lithe yet featureless plastic hulls, or headless, armless torsos, or just tubing with a cranial circle and a few dorsal bends on which cloth loosely hangs—that the possibilities are most elusive, most alive.
But the real women who model lingerie in the full length, soft color photographs at Victoria’s Secret are subtly pretty, and seriously sensuous—
Then Julia will disappear.
She was dead asleep when he woke this morning, curled and buried in the sheets, and still asleep when he left for work, even though she had an interview with a software firm in San Jose.
—No one’s hiring.
She said at the restaurant.
Another dinner of civil conversation, avoided eyes, a duet of knives and forks. Her guard was up, her face stiff and formal—the professional face—but she looked distracted.
Is she seeing someone else?
Not distracted, but beset, on her face a webbing etched in lines around her eyes, a worrying of the years, a creasing as if from fear.
It is the look that appears in the bathroom mirror at night, when she takes off her face to go to bed.
It was the way Julia the psychologist looked when she got back from the clinic—another day with the beasts of Silicon Valley, obsessives and neurotics and narcissists, their minds fouled by money and chips, who came to her and forced her with their complaints.
He is supposed to turn around.
—Go back and find her.
He is supposed to go back and find her.
—Take her home.
He is supposed to take her home.
Treeless hills, in summer brown and dry—
And as Walker turns and works his way back through the crowd, composing himself in memory and song, feeling the stir of myth once more, a pillar of salt dissolves and changes to quickness, into a living image of—
Bare hills, back in Berkeley, back in school, now in spring, now fully green, lush from winter rain, the greenness sensual and transcendent, like a woman’s presence, surging yet measured by the soft contours beneath a fluid sky, and he did not mind letting her go ahead when they went hiking, because he would watch her walk in her determined pace, follow the pulse of her calves rise through her thighs to the willful yet cadent bump of the seat of his desire, rise through the slender resolution of a strapless back to impatient shoulders held high, their blades pedaling the rhythm of imagined breasts, and still rise to a head that did not bob yet was fast with the shake of auburn hair, with the breath of her intent, the intent of Julia, emerging yet hidden in the direction of her eyes, he followed the motion of Julia moving through Julia into Julia, a motion separate yet confluent with the motion of the hills, with the motion of his passion for Julia, herself—
And Walker keeps searching among the faces of the people, this memory playing on the strings of his heart, and he hears returned soft music and low voices, a murmur of innocence more melodic, less confused.
The next day, the apartment on Hillegass, Julia, rising from his bed, moving, yet not moving away from him but with him, before him, before the career that lay ahead of him that held only the logic of tedium and tension, a wasting of his years, Julia rising from his sheets, standing, facing the window, rising in the morning light, as if born there, as if stepping from a shell, but born not virginal but whole, embraced by his old T-shirt, on her luminous and filled, facing him, looking at him, Walker looking back, thinking there is this, if nothing else, but more than anything else there is this, Walker who told himself then what he remembers now, that if he couldn’t be anything in life there will always be—
Not Lot, but Orpheus—
Orpheus the poet, Orpheus the musician, who can charm beasts, stones, and trees. Orpheus the hero and lover, who conquers the world with song. This is the story he’s been trying to remember. It was the pillar of salt that tripped him up. It’s stories like that which screw us all up. Because there’s more to life, Walker thinks, than being good or bad.
Orpheus who turns and finds—
But where is she?
Something is not right.
Walker slows yet keeps walking through the crowd, seeing not Julia but glass and concrete, and people and dummies and things. Not people, but a mob, and their faces have changed once more. They turn on him and glare, like the spirits of the damned, brushing, bumping against him, scratching him with their eyes. He no longer hears music but Muzak and the noise of their looks, the sounds of pure boredom, of menace and revenge.
—Don’t look back.
Innocence is the illusion.
—The ascent from hell.
There’s more: Eurydice, after wed to Orpheus, has to flee the lust of another man, and running, steps on a snake and dies. So Orpheus goes down to the underworld and sings to savage Hades, who lets him return her to the living, to his life—on one condition:
Don’t look back until she is in the light of the sun.
So Orpheus leads Eurydice from darkness with the sound of his lyre, but Orpheus turns around a moment too soon. Eurydice, only following him, turns into nothing, and Orpheus must enter the light alone.
But what does Orpheus do wrong?
Is he impatient? Does he love too much?
Or too little?
What has he, Walker, done wrong?
What is the light, and where is it?
How do you know when you’ve seen it?
When are you supposed to turn around in life?
But there she is—
On the escalator, past the fountain, Julia weightlessly descending—
Now at the landing—
And she turns and comes his way, but does not see him—
Go to her.
And Walker picks up his pace.
She is still as ever an attractive woman, who walks with an easy, flat-footed step—
yet walks with strength and poise. With her step, the verdant flow of her dress, a dress of forest green that she wears well, but which he does not recognize even though this evening he watched her put it on. Her face appears and disappears in the crowd, quiet and certain among the moil of stares. And she still hasn’t seen him, and still he goes to her, still not letting her out of his sight, in case she might yet still disappear—
Then Walker stops, not knowing why.
—Myths often run in cycles.
—In a sense they never end. What is solved in one is undone in the next; the cycle begins again.
His humanities instructor, an old, aloof, gray-witted prof, back at Berkeley, back in school.
There is still more, he recalls: After Lot flees Sodom and Gomorrah and is safe in the hills, his daughters get him drunk at night and sleep with him in turn. This way two races of men are born. He heard this not at First Pres in Walnut Creek, but in Western Civ 101.
What is that supposed to mean?
—Some cultures try to separate love from duty, some try to put the two together. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what they are doing. It’s easy to get the two mixed up.
And wifeless, desolate Orpheus is ripped limb from limb by crazed Thracian women, following the word of a jealous, murderous god.
—The significance of myths is as much defined by what escapes them as what they manage to contain.
A joker, that prof, an ass—
But Julia still hasn’t seen him.
—We thought we got rid of them, but the desire for myths lives on. What we replaced them with still are myths, but myths turned inside out and displaced.
Yet still she comes, still closer—
Then Macy’s mannequins stare at him, and unseen faces gather and circle around him, closing in. Then he notices the fountain, then looks down. On the dirty white linoleum floor, by his feet, a spot of blood. He realizes where he stands.
But here she is, almost close enough to touch—
And now she sees him—
Rimmed with white—
Nor in them are Walker’s contained.
Where has she been? What has she been doing? Or thinking about, or of whom? Walker cannot tell. But now he remembers something else she does that happened early in their marriage and still occurs: the only time he ever sees her let her guard down is when he turns a corner at the house and suddenly comes upon her, and she is frankly startled, as if by a stranger.
Her face undergoes vague transformations, a hard beauty turning into harder beauty, without settling on any expression. There is movement in her hair, a writhing, as if from separate, living things.
Snakes, Walker thinks, now feeling a stiffening inside, and fabulous petrifaction.
Yet another myth—