September 1, 2011
HILOBROW is proud to present the twelfth installment of Karinne Keithley Syers’s novella and song cycle Linda, a hollow-earth retirement adventure with illustrations by Rascal Jace Smith. New installments appear every Thursday.
The story so far: After a brief pause for some line dancing, our heroine Linda is finally ready to begin her envisioned retirement plan: to go across the country redeeming her senior discount. The world is dust covered and she is the only one abroad.
There is so much I don’t know about Linda, and I find myself reluctant to intrude by retrospect. If I concentrate on her image in the van on the way to the airport from where she and Al will leave to go into the hills to the singing, legs extended under denim jumper on her own bench seat, blonde to whitening hair catching October light, I can only feel an old well of unfulfilled imagination in the way she holds her cellphone right up to her mouth like a walkie talkie to her son whom she envisions standing somewhere all vital and complicated and responsive, and not sitting in a restaurant ignoring the ringer or letting the machine screen the call as she says: once again, please call. Once again, please call. Once again, please call. Her triplicate request she tries to pass of as joke but it is clear to me and I guess to Al that this brazen mothertone is a front. We hear the disappointment as it cuts through the pretended lightness, and undertow no amount of declaration about new beginnings can counter. Al is telling me how shape-note singing works but I can tell he’s also thinking about how much he dislikes Linda and when she will be done burying her father so she can leave his hostel and return to her I’m guessing small ranch-style bungalow in Nashville. When my own children are grown, will I leave such voicemails? Will I cause young women to panic that no amount of love can prevent me from becoming an annoyance? She is younger than my own parents but I imagine her children are older than me, or at least that they grew homes and families and chose stable lives earlier than I did, and so are functionally older, and occupy a place in the world that is legibly adult. But maybe we are after all the same age and it is alright to envision the light of 1979 on their faces and their cereal bowls and kitchen tables and their velour striped shirts and metal lunchboxes that Linda has filled with bologna sandwiches and carrot slices and hard boiled eggs and brownies. I do hope they call.
This morning I woke up at dawn, thinking about Linda and of a week I spent biking on my own around Ireland after I had been to Dublin for my nephew’s baptism and agreed to renounce the devil and raise him Catholic if ever the task should fall to me, although I don’t believe in the devil or in god or really in anything but the goodness of trees and in the sufficiency of sudden flights of blackbirds and the lastingness of loving given the intention to lasting. I woke up thinking about Ireland and Linda because that trip was, I imagine, something like the actualization of whim that Linda craves. We so rarely take up the invitation to freedom which, even if it lands us having significantly miscalculated the difference between 40 miles on flat roads and 40 miles on ungraded country roads on routes plotted without benefit of topographical maps and so accidentally passing at dusk through mountain passes inhospitably named things like Doon in environments turned from generally misty to fully raining, is an invitation to live without any of the tertiary obligations of habit, launched and afloat in the world as strangers. I think Linda would like the feeling of traveling that I managed to sustain for many years, although I don’t think she would like specifically to travel the way I travel, endlessly driving or riding or walking with very few stops at attractions unless you count as an attraction overheard conversation at the end of the bar where you have found a room for the night and sausages and beer for dinner. I think Linda would find my way of traveling impoverished compared to her imagined grand tour, would find it scarce in opportunities for souvenir photographs like say Linda tossing coins in the fountains of Trevi or Linda walking barefoot and covered head through the Hagia Sofia or Linda in front of Mount Rushmore framed in such a way that her face “looks presidential” (always her criterion for voting), a better photograph even than the one of Linda supporting the leaning tower of Pisa from its foreground, better because she like any other American could have become president too. But I know Linda would like the feeling I get when I am wandering, and so when I imagine Linda, even though I have entangled her in some kind of bad world and even attributed to her an intentionally unheroic and devastating action and am cultivating an ambiguous moral code for her retirement years, I like to envision this interlude time when she goes through the dusty world made dust by her own hand, and simply enjoys herself in the style of a happy retiree, feels free, like she just graduated from high school, like she could do anything at all.
From where she left the globe as it touched down (or emerged?) in Missouri, she takes Al’s van and drives up the 44 through St. Louis and then the 70 and the 57 and drives to Chicago along the lakefront where she stops to throw bread to birds, then continues onto South Michigan and pulls up directly in front of the grand entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago, because once her niece sent her a postcard from this museum and told her she would like it. No one is abroad in the land but Linda, but she is proud of her good citizenship, comet-calling aside, and she leaves the exact price of a senior admission on the kiosk, takes a metal badge for her lapel, and ascends the broad stairs. Everything is meticulously clean, the museum having been closed for the night already when the dust began, and not having been opened since. The place is so murky in my memory but I know would like Linda to see the hall of armor, where interactions of metal plates map out and amplify the constellations of jointedness in both human and horse bodies. I remember this room with an anatomist’s wonder: hollow knights suspended on poles standing for horses, next to hollow but full footed samurais. She finds it fascinating. Pauses to consider. Pauses to enjoy her pause. Registers the pleasure of a cultural occasion, feels cultured, wide, secure. Thinks yes, I am at a museum, doing cultured things in my retirement as I always imagined I would. Yes.
Linda then moves to the room containing Joseph Cornell’s boxes, the sacred heart of the Art Institute, a room full of things she never even realized were a category of art but now can’t imagine her life without. Her breath actually catches in her throat as she leans in to see for the first time pinned butterflies behind frosted glass, Medici princes multiplying in blue eternities, marbles she thought she’d lost, swans labeled “crepuscular swans.” The word crepuscular she tries to remember, thinks at first it is a word for fleshy and then thinks, papery, and then remembers: occurring at dusk. She wonders if these boxes are better than the armor, and goes back to the armor room to look, then returns to the boxes, and then again to the armor. Some are enclosures of the mind and some of the body. She does not feel the need to choose. She spends the afternoon this way.
While she is looking at the armor I silently add another box to the collection: Untitled (Twilight Machine). The box is divided into four sections by whitewashed wooden walls. In the first quadrant, a small diorama of a forest shows ivy-covered groves and a clearing with a delicate smoke tree made of the single strands of saffron-colored embroidery floss, strung across a carved base more delicate and diminutive than even an emperor’s finest bonsai might have been. Several figures of the same elegant woman dressed in a green cotton dress befitting a young belle out of Knoxville let’s say around 1952 can be seen. One stands looking at the tree. Another ducks to step under a low branch in the woods, another lies on the ground with her arm shielding her eyes from the sun, and still another, who wears a nurse’s apron over her dress and a crisp white hat, bends to the ground near a stream listening with a stethoscope to earth, a look of both grace and concern on her face. Within the trunk of the tiny carved tree can be seen a window, stained and leaded glass but hinged and pushed open, and another figure can be seen inside singing, face gloriously lifted to the sky. In the next quadrant the scene has been stripped of everything but the trunk of the tree and the singer, but on a track descending from the top of the box is a stellar object, a luminous marble arrested on the slope. The marble is veined with actual light, which falls on the singer’s face in a strange splendor. The third quadrant shows a cross section of the earth as the comet, which has now reached the ground, plunges into it, and burrows like any small burrowing animal a pathway down into the earth, cutting curlicues and arabesques through roots and sediment until it lands in an underground lake. The lake, represented by silk, is a small wave machine with bellows underneath, and when Linda pulls on a small chain protruding from the underside of the box, she activates the bellows and up the several tunnels are pushed clouds of fine grey chalky dust. With each impulse, the ground glows white light veins. In the final quadrant we see the same scene as the first, but this time at a much smaller scale, so the wider world around the forest can be seen. A plume of dust, represented by a hanging mobile of small glass chambers filled with the same grey chalky powder, erupts from the ground and spreads across the entire visible surface. Everything is covered. A single figure in an unchalked green cotton dress can be seen walking down a very small road.
In the gift shop, a set of copper trowels catches her eye. They are associated with an exhibit on sculptural gardening. Again she leaves the money on the counter, subtracting 10 percent for her senior discount. She takes the trowels out to Al’s van.
The water on the lake is pure water. Linda sits on the dust shore and wonders how the dust stops just here. I tell Linda, I wanted you to see the Great Lakes, I wanted you to see them as they were. I think she appreciates this. She cannot hear it, but underground there is a group of people digging. Below the sewer system and the power lines. They have headquartered themselves in the abandoned rooms and tunnels of the old pneumatic post, and are enlarging the airshafts to accommodate bodies. Sometimes one of them will find an old postal vessel, its contents undelivered, at first by accident and then by abandonment. One of these diggers finds a canister. Lets call her Ada. Unlike the usual glass it is some kind of galvanized metal. She digs herself a seat in the wall and pauses to open it. This takes some doing. Inside she finds a set of printer’s proofs for a inventor’s magazine. There are ideas for portable folding boats and trap doors with built-in auto-spring ladders. There are sketches of pumps and a long piece on the power potential of waterfalls. There is a design for a hand-pumped pressurized percolator and folding stove. Night-vision helmets adapted from Jules Verne, with small radiant bulbs producing some kind of chemical reaction illuminate sketched-in chambers and cellars. The back pages are devoted to a long piece, and although it’s unclear to Ada whether this is a story, a report, or a proposal, she decides to read it. A card falls out of the stack. “We Live Inside,” it reads. “Come visit.”
And now, listen to the song in the Linda song cycle, “Warrior Bones,” with an appearance without permission, by another KK.
Karinne and HiLobrow thank this project’s Kickstarter backers.
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