The house of the Memory God is filled with junk in piles. It started innocently enough, the way a blizzard starts: a flake here, a flake there.
Anna Valdez, Laptop With Landscape, 2014. Oil on canvas, 32 x 30 inches.
© Anna Valdez
The Sunset God
The house of the Sunset God is empty. Someone has swept it broom clean, as it says in rental agreements. Though not perfectly. There is a stipple of dust along one wall at the baseboard, drawn with blue evening pencil. The house of the Sunset God is empty, there are no shadows left. They have been packed in the right containers along with everything else. The Sunset God works with professionals, and the departure wasn’t done in a hurry. There’s nothing left to finger: no notebooks open to the spot where the black scratch stopped, no child’s cup or plate, no fork. Just surfaces, an insanity of them, twisting this way and that, hungry for contact. A pencil rattles in an empty drawer, booming hexagonal as it rolls. The Sunset God has packed himself up and departed, leaving nothing but advice: Draw a line under everything, in memory blue. Sum up! Imitate the Sunset God, his infinite subtlety, his legacy, the way everything changes, imperceptibly, to darkness.
The Doorknob God
The Doorknob God walks down the hallway of his life touching everything. Not just doorknobs, though G_d knows there are enough of those. Walls, side tables, lamps, sconces, molding. Everything an institutional gray-green, anonymous. The molding has a lovely hand. Not a real hand, silly. Hand is what tailors call the feel of the cloth. The Doorknob God feels the hand in everything, reaching out to tap, touch, finger, suggest, remind, insist, nudge, pinch. The Doorknob God is caught. He must keep moving. He comes to things he’s seen before, though they look different now. Why is that? A different light? A different time of day? There are no windows. A hotel corridor undergoing eternal renovation, every room numbered, key-carded, exact. Perhaps the difference is that he touched them on his previous circuit. The Doorknob God is a toucher, not a counter, a cleaner, or a checker. He has no illness. Instead, he has Time, flowing through his veins like the perfect drug, simultaneously stimulant and depressant, moving him down the gray-green carpet, the signature of his feet worn in, signing deeper with each round, the doors beginning with 1 and ending with 365, the peepholes into which he must not look on pain of disappearance.
The God of Anxiety
The God of Anxiety has long since been turned out of his own home. He is long and white; his skin has an odd texture, as if he’s come up from a long time underground. Most people don’t see him, but they feel him like cool moisture in the air and turn away. When they get home and take off their coats, they feel clammy, as if something has brushed up against them without their knowing. Later on, they get in bed and pull the covers up, trying to read, but the words blur and run, sentences spill over their boundaries. They begin thinking of something that happened a long time ago in school, something they wish hadn’t happened. If only they hadn’t said that one thing, they think. But that wasn’t really where it started. It started long before that, with something in the family that got turned inside out and projected onto the big screen of the world. Yes, something happened. And before each thing, another and another, until the first light is crawling through the bedroom blinds while the thread of thought is still being pulled. And you don’t want to go to work. You just lie there, watching each hurt, each matched retaliation, unwinding deeper into darkness.
The God of Lines
The God of Lines disappears into his work. Worships Saul Steinberg. His favorite paper is gridded like a French schoolgirl’s notebook. Havin’ it both ways, he calls it. He’s a wag, the God of Lines. His boat: J class, America’s Cup. His favorite time of day: any time the horizon is visible. His suit: Armani Classico, the one with the black label. His horse: Man o’War. His bet: over and under. His shoes: two-tone oxfords, like the pair the Babe wore the day he nailed Lazzeri’s cleats to the clubhouse floor. Lazzeri dumped a bucket of ice water on his head. The Babe just kept right on walkin’ in his two-tone oxfords. His drink: anything with a swizzle stick—but hold the umbrellas. Starting: right where he finishes, every time. His favorite place: the equator. Says he just feels comfortable there. The last time he went to the track? He’s there right now as a matter of fact, underlining entries in Racing Form, using a code only he understands. The only thing he won’t bet on: whether the sun will come up tomorrow. Depressin’, he says, puttin’ on the accent of a toff from the Nineteen Thirties. And the place where parallel lines intersect? Shhh, follow me…
The Memory God
The Memory God lives in a part of the city you find only by chance. You can never find it when you want it. But if you give up and wander, then sometimes, only sometimes, you’re there. The Memory God comes home after a long day (all his days are long), takes off his overcoat, and flings it on a pile in the corner where it must wait until he picks it out again the next morning. His hair, what’s left of it, is bristly, standing up around the great dome where everything is stored. The house of the Memory God is filled with junk in piles. It started innocently enough, the way a blizzard starts: a flake here, a flake there, dropping silent through the evening air. Then it got deeper, piling up until it was serious business. The Memory God’s house is like that place up in Harlem where the two brothers lived (remind me of their names again), their world mapped by paths growing finer and finer until things crashed in around them and they rotted, losing first their outline, then their form, finally their substance. Cause of death: forgetting. Or being forgotten, I can’t remember which. The Memory God decides to create systems. Finally, everything will make sense. Anything that’s in a pile belongs in that pile and in no other, for ever and ever. The problem is, the systems don’t work. In theory, they’re wonderful. In practice, there’s too much of it. No system can hold it, even the most ingenious, the most flexible, the most German. They are the play of a child compared to the depth, the texture, the variety of the mess in the Memory God’s house. He has come to believe, grudgingly, against his will, that each thing is unique. Each thing is unique! Can you imagine what that means? It means no system is possible; each thing must be apprehended as it is: infinite. In the end, the brothers in Harlem (their names again?) lived on despair, having exhausted oranges, peaches, and oatmeal. After a night of dreams resembling a triptych by Francis Bacon, the Memory God leaves his house for a walk, trying to forget the mess inside, humming an old song about buttoning up your overcoat when the wind blows free. And taking good care of yourself. Away from his hoard, the Memory God is free. And he will have no trouble finding his house in the evening. But you will, you always will. You will find it only by chance and then it will be as if you are there for the very first time.
The God of Sex
The God of Sex lies on his woman like a snake, undulating slowly as he deposits. Stretched out above her, he feels the power roll up in him, surging from tail to triangular green head. When he is finished, he leaves a stinging wetness: lacerations, seeds with tiny hooks buried in the cuts. As he rolls off, spent, he realizes he has been used again. The unborn are always making use of those who are already born. But the God of Sex is as old as the universe. He knows tomorrow is another story. He lies there panting, summoning the energy to begin again: to do, to undo, to do, to undo…
The God of Melancholy
The God of Melancholy is never seen, is sensed in things. A long empty street, shadows of houses on the sidewalk, popular songs from decades past whispering in their angles. The God of Melancholy has a fascination with money. He piles it up, rarely spends it. There is something so deeply sad about money, he thinks. The masculine beauty of banknotes with the profile of Apollo, cigarettes. Someone said the pleasure of smoking comes from the fact that when you smoke you control death, mastering it a puff at a time. I am the master of death each time the smoke drifts into me and out again. Dust on windowsills in the low-angled winter light of late afternoon. Blazing dust, golden dust, changing, as the moon rises, to silver, a wisp, elusive. The smell of brick after spring rain before anyone has come outside again. The barking of a puppy, forlorn, inside a house down the street. Dirt piled against a wall, footprints in the mud. A last raindrop falling into water, the sound of it clear and ringing. Everywhere we turn, something is leaving and leaving us behind. When we reach out to grasp it we feel again the presence of this god, without whom no household could ever call itself complete.
The God of Madness
The God of Madness fails to recognize the rooms of his own house. He wanders into the bathroom thinking it’s the kitchen. I cooked a meal here once, he thinks, but that was long ago and it seems to have become something else. There is an odd smell in the air, as of regret, or remembrance, or even lilacs. The floor is an organized perversity, black and white, extending to forever, expanding and contracting. Everything is alive, he thinks, everything breathes. Expansion and contraction is all there is. Indivisible, from Beginning to End. He looks out the window. The cars flow down the street, moving forward to touch their neighbors and back again, while still remaining parked. It is an odd spring, this, unlike the others. The trees speak to one another in Greek. The layers of me peel off like old clothes, which I set aside, planning to donate them to charity, if charity will have them. The less I have, the more I am. I am learning every day, removing and removing until I reach the glowing center, of stillness and silence. By then I am fully metabolized and flowing, draining to the city underneath the street, frightened by my too-adult face in the mirror, the emptiness behind it filled with shelves.
The God of Reconciliation
The God of Reconciliation has been out all night, is worse for wear. It’s always like this, the coming home. He’s promised himself, so many times, he’ll never do it again. He knows there are programs. Even for gods, there are programs. Infinite-step programs. The God of Reconciliation has decided to enter one, sworn he will never again come home tattered, wet, ripped, forlorn, filled with self-loathing. Yet deep down he knows his nature cannot be changed by any program, even one with an infinite number of steps. Until the end of time he will be sitting in a basement, coffee mug in one hand, cigarette in the other, under neon lights clicking like moths, thinking about the highs, the lightness, the sureness, how bright the colors are, how beautiful the women are when he is there. Knowing, as he sits on a folding chair in a basement stuffed with farts, that everyone else is thinking the same thing. It’s not for the God of Reconciliation. He’ll stick to what he is. Tattered as that might be, at least it’s genuine. He’ll find his way home on shaky legs, pants wet down the front. At the bus stop he’ll prop himself up. He’ll flag a taxi, find he lacks the fare. He’ll dial a number, let it ring regardless of the hour, knowing no one will pick up. He’ll see a city bus, outlined in black, rolling through the quiet streets, and let it pass. He’ll take his time, the God of Reconcilation, knowing he must reach his bed at just the right moment, fall into that crevice fully clothed, a mountain climber roped to every living soul on this planet, bringing them together in one soft brief moment of yes before sleep erases everything again.
The Needle God
The Needle God sets out daily from his neatly packed house, a place of tasks finished and done. He roams the streets, approaches strangers one by one, handing each of them a tiny folded paper. Not many refuse. The Needle God seems benign, his town not big enough for hostility. His neighbors bend over to unfold messages written in a minute hand, with the letters leaning forward. The writing is the color of venous blood, the blue of return journeys, each note an invitation drawing strangers together. He never invites them to his home. The destination is different every time, often a trolley ride away in a different neighborhood. The guests accept, drawn by the stranger’s calm, precision, uprightness. Through him they think they see their better selves. Off they go, to a nondescript working-class bar, a union hall, a threadbare church. The pastor at the lectern is startled to see his black-and-white linoleum covered by strange feet. The people meet, discover each is holding a tiny invite in a spidery blue hand. At last they’re where they’re meant to be, in the company of those whose lives they’re meant to be bound up with. By the time they are joined, the Needle God has slipped away and disappeared, returning to his home, unfound, catalytic, himself.
The God of Ironing Board
The God of Ironing Board has a passion for neatness. He sees a world divided into things clean and unclean. His doctor says: You have an illness. The God of Ironing Board knows he has no illness. He has a passion: that the world be different and better than itself. The God of Ironing Board knows more than any doctor. He has seen the world before the Beginning and after the End, and he is on the side of rebirth, of order, of cleanliness and health. He walks the streets faultlessly pressed. His suit is in three pieces, brilliant seersucker, his tan brogues bespoke, furled umbrella in the crook of his arm, poking its tip into hidden places. For the God of Ironing Board, everything is always in the balance. The future is not ordained. A soul is not a given, it must be made. Soulmaking is the work of a lifetime. Death is a choice. The universe may run up or down, depending on the choices made in the Here and the Now. The God of Ironing Board is a presence, encouraging us to choose the running up to order, rebirth, not the running down, to chaos. But like any god, he has no infinite power. Instead, he has influence: a wisp, a scent, an inclination to one direction, evanescent, strong. Every day he walks the world beautifully pressed to spread his message of liberation. But now a dot of mud the size of a Liberty dime has landed on the tip of his handmade brogue, soiling the perforated toecap, and he must home to change and safety.
The God of Kitchen Drawer
The God of Kitchen Drawer is small and tidy. He and his wife sleep spoon fashion in monogrammed pajamas with green and white stripes. Verticals make them look taller—even to themselves. The god and his wife live on similar schedules, hold the same views, go in and out at the same time from their house on a street where all the houses look like theirs. They have no children, and their friends are in agreement. At evening, when the lamps are lit, the God of Kitchen Drawer and his wife stroll arm in arm through the streets, looking in the windows at families performing their nightly rituals. They are not sad when they do this, nor are they envious. They are merely interested in the chaos of others. They have no reason for envy. They have each other, and they fit.
The God of Wooden Spoon
The God of Wooden Spoon answers to no one, but has an answer for everything. He has a degree in aeronautical engineering from MIT. He didn’t get it because he had a practical use for it, but simply to have mastered the subject. He was interested in propellers, how air flows around them, the turbulence they create and live within. Propellors are of his tribe, though they are inanimate and he is not, being all spirit all the time. The God of Wooden Spoon walks down Mass Ave. in sunlight, full of himself, knowing MIT is the best in the world, that he has secrets even from them. He keeps a low profile, mingling with Indian students, Koreans, Chinese. After getting his degree, having no need for an income, he retires to the country and builds a house, very snug, everything in its place. He has a way of making things come alive that is unusual, even for a god. He sees the chair in the tree, the bowl in the log. He sees these things then brings them out, one by one, from where they are hiding in the grain. He places them around his house in circles spreading out across the Pennsylvania countryside, not far from General Eisenhower, from where the Union was torn apart and reassembled. It is the right place. The wood sends messages all the livelong day, and he is content.
The Oven God
The Oven God is voraciously fat. Nothing he eats is ever enough. He sits on a hot dusty street in the angle of a wall, shadow covering him part of the day. His belly is large and greasy, a showplace. Around his neck, a scrap of rag with which he wipes his bald head. The Oven God is fond of ghee. Actually, he doesn’t need to beg. He has enough for a house. But he begs anyway. In the Oven God is a hunger so deep nothing he owns could ever satisfy it. So he waits for strangers to come and fill the hollow place within. People give scraps of thread, crumbs of food, tiny birds. The birds are brightly colored. They die of longing before the Oven God can bring himself to eat them. He buries them in boxes carefully inscribed with names and dates. The date he received the bird. The day it passed over into other hands. On the edge of the hot city, where the unruly plain begins, stands the house of the Oven God, filled with tiny cardboard boxes not yet labeled, waiting for the next story to begin.
The Wifebeater God
The Wifebeater God doesn’t beat his wife. He’s the god of a shirt called the wifebeater. Brando in Streetcar. Working-class underwear for men, turned at some moment of fashion history into outerwear for women. The Wifebeater God sits home unshaven, beer cans piling, saucers filled with butts. Sometimes when he goes out, he wears a shirt that says: I forgot to get married. He thinks people will laugh. They don’t. They turn aside, thinking: Who would marry him? Pity is what they feel. He doesn’t want to know that. Who would? Would you? Around him in the air are wiggly lines drawn by a manic cartoonist. His eyes are dark and shiny. When you seem him coming, you don’t want to start a conversation with him. Or let him start one with you. The Wifebeater God is the hero of his own lifestyle. All the stuff piling up—it’s good, reassuring. So what if it smells? There ain’t no life without smells. One reason the stuff piles up is that he decided to fire his housekeeper a couple of months ago. Just like that. Didn’t need her. Fuck women, the Wifebeater God thinks. Not literally. It’s a metaphor. Like Travis Bickle, when he says he’s waiting for a real rain, to wash away the scum on the streets. The cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter, somebody said. The smaller the person, the bigger the metaphor, says I, right here from within this white ventrilo-box.
John Benditt had a distinguished career as a science journalist. He was an editor at Scientific American and Science before serving as editor-in-chief of Technology Review. He has written poetry, prose poems, and fiction. His debut novel, The Boatmaker, is forthcoming from Tin House Books in February 2015.