LIFE IN THE MARGINS
His students came to him with broken words and rotted teeth, oppressed by the bloodless facts school had jammed into their heads. Ever since his brother had broken through the ice and drowned, he had been fixated on saving things. He tucked baby birds back into their nests, nursed wounded squirrels, and shoveled snowy walks for his elderly neighbors. Now, he taught at the local community college, giving his intelligence away for pennies. He wanted to free his students from the shackles of poverty, to be one of the good guys.
He had designed all different kinds of assignments and class activities to empower them, engage them, ignite them, but they only wrote personal narratives about car accidents or grandparent’s deaths, all ending with clichés about the importance of living life to the fullest.
That was when he first saw her. She was a newly hired adjunct. He had happened to glance through window of the door to her classroom when he passed by. She was standing at the front of the class feeding bits of paper through a metal device that looked something like a small meat grinder. She was short, with soft, wide hips. He couldn’t hear what she was saying through the door. She appeared to be reading something on a bit of paper, feeding it through the device, and then reading it again when it came out the other side. Her nose hooked delicately, her eyes were large and round, and her face was full of light. That light was the reason he invited her to the walk the woodland fitness trail with him at lunchtime.
They left the plain brick building that could have doubled for a factory. It was a foggy day. The sun hovered above the fog, a dim orb, seemingly incapable of warmth, but yellow leaves speckled the ground like shards of sun.t had been a foggy winter day when his brother had drowned. They had been camping in the woods, and up since three a.m. making owl calls and listening to an owl reply. At last the owl swept out of the darkness and flew right over them. Just as she passed, they shined a flashlight into her face. The image was preserved in his mind like a slow motion video, her eyes amber spears under the black scowl of her brow, her mantle feathers two white lines spanning forever, her cream and brown stripped wing feathers blotting out the sky, stroking the night air in absolute silence. His brother turned and ran after the owl, onto the ice. That’s when his brother broke through. He knew he shouldn’t have followed his brother. He did everything he had been taught—searched for a branch, shimmied over the ice as close as he could without falling in—but by the time he got there, the hole was black and empty.
Today it was early fall. At the edge of the parking lot, he steered her onto a muddy path beneath trees that held onto half their leaves.
As they walked, side-stepping puddles, shuffling over slick matted leaves, he confessed to her the problems he faced with his students. She quietly cut through his chatter, telling him that his approach was relativist and eclectic. Big business had compromised education to reproduce itself, to subjugate the people. It was their duty to expose capitalism in order to free their students. Her voice fluttered like moth wings. Her skin was white and pure.
But shouldn’t they avoid being overtly political? he said, testing the ground of her argument.
Everything was political, she said.
But wasn’t the first step to freedom to get students excited about writing? His assignments allowed them to bring their own selves back into the classroom.
No, she explained. Assigning personal narratives encouraged them to think they had a self. There was no self.
No self? The idea flew out of the darkness at him. At first, he couldn’t decide whether to duck or to jump aboard. To be free of self, to be dizzyingly free.
He asked her how she could be so sure.
She pulled the shiny device out of her purse. It covered the entire flat of her hand. Up close it looked like a tiny typewriter without keys. Under the trees, he watched her feed the word “self” into one chute. It began to hum, all the cogs and gears whirring with silky precision. Out of the other chute came “corporatist construction designed to turn citizens into consumers.”
See? she said. It was a logic machine. She could feed it anything in the world, and it would spit out a clear set of principles that led directly to freedom. A ray of sun illuminated the velveteen on her upper lip. The fog had vanished, he suddenly realized. He inhaled the aroma of rotting leaves.
On that day so long ago, he had thought it was his fault. Fog signified transition. It had been telling him that the ice was melting, but he had failed to listen. Now he understood. The ice had been neither solid nor liquid. Indeterminacy had killed his brother. The certainty of ice would have saved him.
He leaned into to the whispery fibers of her voice. He savored the careful placement of her words, her amber eyes. Yellow leaves seemed to float off slick brown leaves beneath, warming his eyes.
At home, the next day, while he rinsed his soapy plates under hot water, he thought about her quiet fierceness. Her voice was nearly inaudible, but her ideas were loud, both attractive and repellant. He watched the birds on the feeder he had hung outside his kitchen window. The way the nuthatch walked upside down the feeder amused him, reminded him of her strangeness. Where others kept their head skyward and stumbled down backwards, she turned her head in the direction she was going, whichever way it led, for better or worse.
The device had its attractions, and he definitely wanted to be part of the solution. But just then, as the steam from the hot dishes rose and enveloped his face in warmth, he wondered if God might be the better answer to human suffering. Sometimes, he saw a plan in the spread of the tail feathers of a dead grouse at the side of the road. Other times he thought poetry was the solution. Through poetry he had transformed his brother’s death and the consequent coldness of his parents into mystery as beautiful as the ice-crackled Tetons, which he had hiked. He pulled an owl feather out of the vase he kept by the door. It was furred in a way other birds’ weren’t. That was how they flew so silently to seize their prey.
The next day, he baked a loaf of bread, tucked some of his poetry under his arm, and climbed the crooked stairs to her apartment. When she answered his knock, her face was pale, but her eyes glowed. Behind her, stacks of books towered all around the living room. He asked if she would like to read some of his poetry.
She didn’t have time. Poetry was indulgent. But he stood on her doorstep delicately resolute, his solidity filling up his wool sweater. She accepted his offering. He could come in, she said, if he wanted to learn more about her device.
The device gleamed in the center of the books. It was larger, now, the size of a toaster. While her cat threaded himself between their legs, she fed his poetry into the device page after page. It spat out “bourgeoisie leisure pastime made possible only by the accrual of profit off the sweat of the worker’s back.” Shame washed warmly through him. All this time, without knowing it he had been an accidental oppressor.
After that, he began to assign his students difficult reading about class and economics. He broke the reading into digestible bits and tenderly fed them into their mouths. His students, in turn, wanted to please him, so they showed up at his office with their tangled mash-ups of Marx and Engels. And even though they sat uncomprehendingly in the yellow lamplight beside his neat desk, it made him feel stronger, more like the hero he had wanted to become. More like her.
In contrast, her students began to resist her. Of course they would, she told him as they stood in the hall. Their minds were caught in the corporatist machine. All change was inherently violent. Her lips neatly edged words he could barely hear. He leaned closer. Her moth-wing voice collected in the velvet coils of his inner ear.
When all her students dropped her course, she was sent home without pay. That was okay. It eliminated the biggest contradiction of her life. After all, how could she attack capitalism, yet suck from the capitalist teat?
Concerned, he dropped by.
Saving the world was an important task, she said when she opened the door, as if they were in the middle of a conversation. Her skin was thin, her fingers dry and whispery as paper.
Dust bunnies rolled between the books towering at her back. Her cat rushed at him, meowing loudly, head-butting his shins. People were being oppressed everywhere, she said. People were dying.
You should get out more, he said. She fell down the stairs and broke her ankle.
He moved in to take care of her. It was a good thing, too, because she was running out of money, and he had a job, even though it was compromising.
Eating was beginning to become a problem. How could she, in good conscience, feed money into the system? The mere act of buying an egg was so fraught with contradictions that she could barely do it. He took over the shopping and cooking.
At night over the following months, they crawled together on their hands and knees through the tangled sentences of difficult books, like African workers in a diamond mine with cans tied around their necks, picking up fragments left behind by the other workers.
Afterwards, they sat around the device and fed it things, warmed by its whirr. In went the word “baby;” out came “gender and class.” In went “marriage;” out came “social construction to disguise economic oppression.” She leaned close, looking at him over her handsome nose. She didn’t want to be part of a “unit” even though she loved him, she said. “Desire”? They fed that into the device and it seized up. They spent hours digging the ripped, ink-soaked bits out of its tiny metal teeth.
When he was with her, he sometimes relived that fatal night. But this time, the owl swooped, her talons came forward, her wings cupped backwards to brake, her feathers dangled down, jangling like the fringe of a cowboy’s jacket. She clutched his brother up and bore him to the sky.
One day when he came home from work, she eagerly waved him over to the device. Look, she said, it had grown another chute. This one took objects. She fed his hiking boot into it; out came “Mass produced object made possible by child labor in China.” Where was the cat, he asked? She didn’t meet his eye, but crumpled a piece of paper and stuffed it between the couch cushions.
Time passed. At school, he became his mission. Meanwhile, she was finding more and more foods unprincipled. Her round hips jutted. Her skin grayed like dishwater, and her eyes floated pale as mold. She rarely left the couch, but she continued to read. Sometimes, against the light, he had trouble seeing her, but he sharpened his eyesight. He concocted complex stews to accommodate her ever-growing restrictions. He grew heavy from eating her uneaten portions, as if by eating, he could feed her.
His former friends climbed the crooked stairs to their door to ask him to come out and have some fun. He refused.
From his second floor window, he watched them getting into their cars in the snowy street below. When did it get to be winter?
He fed “fun” into the device. It said simply, “No.”
Every once in a while, when the leftovers had grown such strange mold that he was afraid to open the jars, he snuck them into the garbage instead of recycling. At other times, when he was reading, words floated off the page and began turning themselves into poetry, but he pinched them between his fingers and severed their hard little shells with his fingernails to make sure they were dead.
No more contradictions. Everything was either/or. Nothing was and. And allowed for contradictions to coexist.
Still, the fact that he was losing her inch-by-inch was impossible to avoid. He had to get her to eat, somehow, no matter how much food violated the machine’s dictums. He decided to make a loaf of bread so good that she wouldn’t be able to resist it. He folded three different kinds of flours into it with milk and honey and butter. He pressed it and patted it until it was soft and elastic as a baby’s bottom. The fragrance that rose from the oven as it baked could have made the saints cry for all their passed-over desires. He pulled it from the oven, cut a thick slice and buttered it lavishly.
But when he rounded the corner of her study, she was gone.
He set the bread down and looked around. She could not have left by the stairs. The window was open a crack, but it was too far above the ground for anyone to jump. A warm breeze blew across an open book on her desk. The tree outside her window was in full leaf. When did it get to be spring? His old bird feeder hung empty and open like a broken jaw. The slice of bread grew cold as he stared in silence at her large desk, the rows of books, the device, now the size of a washing machine.
The tree called to him. A million tiny suns bounced off its glossy green leaves. For just a second, he thought, he could lay the weight of his brother down. He could place a foot onto each of those lemony saucers and descend to the ground where the worms tunneled mindlessly, never knowing the names of the things they ate.
He glanced back at her desk, and that’s when he saw it: a single contact lens, shriveled and misshapen as a translucent corn flake, stuck hard to the margin of a page, resisting even the impulse of the wind. He could go after her into the book, or into the machine, or he could fly.
He perched there, caught between worlds, his heart thrumming.