The Map of the System of Human Knowledge (An Excerpt)

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History / Natural / Uses of Nature / Arts, Crafts, Manufactures / Working & Uses of Stone, Plaster, Slate, etc / Practical Architecture

Soon after they move into the house, Bill begins finding nails on the floor. At first they’re tiny, and infrequent, so he places them in his toolbox with a mind to search for where they came from later. In no time though, he’s finding larger nails, and screws, scattered under doorways and beneath window frames. It’s as though, he thinks, they’re being shaken out. Perhaps there’s some sort of high-frequency noise around, something outside of human hearing but capable of vibrating nails from walls? It’s strange. That, and his daughter’s crying most of the night now. She was always quiet in the apartment. And his wife has been having terrible episodes of sickness where she’s unable to keep anything down … “I’m afraid of what it might be doing to my milk,” she tells Bill. “What might?” “Being sick like this all the time.” Bill spends his evenings looking for the holes the screws have worked themselves loose from, and replacing them. His wife moans and tries to quiet the baby. A month in, the molding begins to strip itself from the walls. After two months, the floorboards start to come up. His wife leaves with their daughter. Repairmen shake their heads, refuse to enter the front door. Tiny holes begin appearing everywhere. Bill scours the uneven floorboards looking for things to plug up the holes. His wife calls him every night, but each time she does, less and less of her makes it through over the line.

 

 

Philosophy / Science of God / Science of Good and Evil Spirits / Divination

Your daughter wakes you up to tell you that there’s something terrible in the vacuum cleaner. “What’s going on?” says your wife, not really awake. “Monsters in the dark,” you say. “In the vacuum cleaner,” your daughter says. She can hear them in there, all the way from her bed. They’re trapped, whatever they are, and it’s not altogether clear whether she’s scared that they might get out, or that they might suffocate. The night-light has gone dead in the hall. You replace the bulb. This, your daughter points out, has nothing to do with whatever’s in the vacuum cleaner. You sit her down on a stool in the kitchen, and tell her you’re going to make her some warm milk, but there’s no milk, so you pour her a glass of juice instead. She’s nearly frantic, she can’t keep still on the stool. She stares at the glass of orange juice the way she might if you’d just set a beef tongue in front of her. “Okay,” you say, “you win.” You and your daughter, hand in hand, approach the closet where you keep the vacuum. “Inside it,” she says. “Inside the bag?” you ask. She nods. You detach the bag, and hold the opening up for your daughter’s inspection. “Nothing, right?” you ask. But she can’t tell, she can’t see down in it, underneath all the dirt. “Can you still hear them?” you ask, feeling a little silly. “No,” she moans, in a way that makes it clear that not hearing them is now worse than hearing them. And so you take the keys from the hook by the door, and carefully, so as not to stir up the dust, tear a slit down the middle of the bag. You part the flaps and gently begin to sift through the dirt, the buttons, the coins, the hair, all the pieces of your family that have been pulled up and away, so you thought, forever. From time to time you hold up little tufts of hair or dust for her to inspect. She examines these solemnly, pulling each apart, looking carefully through every constituent bit as though worried she might otherwise miss something vital. We learn, from the eighth book of the Mesopotamian Barutu, or Art of the Diviner, that if the sacrificial animal has been purified and yet, when it is cut open, any living thing is found within, this is a powerful omen, and no good thing can come of it. The past circles continuously back to the present. See, in the dust: something begins to stir.

 

 

Philosophy / Science of Man / Logic / Art of Remembering / Supplement to Memory / Writing / Alphabet / Arts of Writing, Printing, Reading, Deciphering

I’ve been receiving letters—unsigned, no return address, but with handwriting that looks suspiciously familiar. In fact, it looks like my own. Though it’s been years since I’ve written anyone a letter.

I look through the yellow pages for a handwriting expert. There’s one just up in Bucktown, but when I call, I discover that his rates are outrageous. “What do you know about outrageous?” he counters. “Maybe you paid to go to Professional Handwriting Expert school? Maybe you have Professional Handwriting Expert school loans hanging over your sorry head? No?” I admit that I do not. “Look, you sound like an alright guy, and your situation is intriguing, I’ll admit it. How about you describe the handwriting to me, right here over the phone, and I tell you what I can, reduced rates.” I describe the handwriting as well as I’m able: the jumpy, open-backed b; the serpentine g, coiled around the neck of its guideline; the quick slash of an r, more hyphen than letter, as if words like thinker and waver were anxious to find some connection, however ungrammatical, with the words to follow. “Of course I can’t say with any exactitude, but that sounds like your handwriting, sure enough.”

Which was what I had been afraid of. Only, under what circumstances had I written these letters? For what reasons? A childish desire to perplex? Or was there something so desperately important that I had attempted to communicate it to myself in this ridiculous way? And why, God, couldn’t I come out and say what it was, and spare myself this anguish? I spend hours walking back and forth over the river on the State Street bridge, ignoring other pedestrians, reading whatever snatches of the text catch my eye. Dearest, (each of the letters begins “Dearest”) when will you have your eye looked at? That growth on your leg? That tooth that may or may not be rotted through? I am determined one moment to scatter the letters into the water below, only to turn away the next moment and collapse, my back to the railing, crushing the letters to my cheek, feeling their creases against my face, smelling them.

How wonderful I must have once been!

 

 

Philosophy / Science of Man / Ethics / General / General Science of Good and Evil. Of Duties in General. Of Virtue. Of the Necessity of Being Virtuous, etc.

I fell asleep on the couch again last night. When I woke up several hours later, someone had turned off the lamp on the table near my head. It terrified me, to think that someone had gotten so close to my head without my noticing. What if it had been a home intruder? I began to search the house for signs of a home intruder. There were no signs in the den, in the hallway, or in the kitchen. In the dining room however someone sat at the table, writing a note. He wore a black hood with holes for his eyes and mouth. He was slightly tubby. His lips were pursed, as though in thought. I was so terrified I couldn’t even run. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Writing you a note,” the man said. “I was planning on stealing your wallet and your wife’s jewelry and perhaps ravishing your wife, but when I came into the den and saw you lying on the couch, well, you looked so peaceful, like an angel. The light played across your features in a way I’m sure I’ll never forget. I was writing you a note to tell you I’d decided not to rob you or ravish your wife, because of that one moment of beauty I experienced, looking at your face in the lamplight.” “But how did you get in here?” He sighed. “Your wife passed me on the street earlier today and told me she was going to leave the dining-room window open tonight. She told me your address, and she said she hoped I murdered both of you in your sleep.” This distressed me a good deal. I said, “I was hoping it was my wife who’d turned off the lamp near my head. I was hoping it had been a small gesture of kindness on her part. We haven’t talked in days.” “No, it was me,” said the intruder. He picked up the note he’d been writing and studied it. “Well, I don’t suppose I need to leave this,” he said. “I don’t suppose you do,” I said, shaking my head sadly. The intruder opened the dining room window and started to climb out. “I think your wife might be really depressed,” he said, then ran off into the night.

 

 

Philosophy / Science of Man / Ethics / Particular / Science of the Laws of Jurisprudence

We gave our daughter a set of Illustrated Children’s Great Books, which are these comic-strip versions of books by Earnest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Homer, etc. The idea is that she can read these now, so that she can grow up to be cultured without having to read so much literature later. I remember having to read all that literature, piles of it, and all I can say is that I’m glad society has progressed to the point of the Illustrated Children’s Great Books. Our daughter’s current favorite is the Children’s Macbeth. She toddles from room to room with the Children’s Macbeth in one hand, and her doll (blond, missing a leg) in the other. She’s getting pretty damn well cultured, at least as far as Macbeth goes. A few days ago she stared at me and my wife and said, “Out out, damned spot.” I told her that was very nice, that it was a quotation and therefore an acceptable circumstance to use the word damned, a word which she, our daughter, should be careful not to use in other circumstances. I asked her what else she’d learned. “Out out damned spot,” she said. “Out out damned spot.” Something about her tone gave me the creeps. “I don’t like the way she keeps repeating that, staring at us as though pronouncing a judgment,” I told my wife. “Jeffrey, don’t be absurd,” my wife said. “Children have to repeat things. It’s how they learn. There’s no judgment. Children don’t judge. That’s one of the things that makes them marvelous and innocent, as compared to adults.” This was all true, I suppose. But it doesn’t make it any easier for me to get to sleep at night. Beyond the walls of our house the forest rises up against me.

 

 

Philosophy / Science of Nature / Particular Physics / Botany

Hannah was showing me her garden. She showed me the cabbage and the carrots and the fresh squash, which hung off the vine like fat little children. “I’m desperately in love with you,” I said. “That’s fine, but that’s not why we’re here.” “It’s why I’m here.” “Would you like to lie down among the cabbages with me and caress my naked breasts?” “More than anything.” “Well, I wouldn’t. So get a hold of yourself.” Just then a man walked towards us, pulling up vegetables and stuffing them into his mouth. His eyes had a wild and thoughtful look. His appearance in the garden was so surprising that I yelped. He put his hand to my cheek and walked on. “Who was that?” “Oh, that’s just a lost soul,” Hannah said. “There’s nothing that can be done about them, so you might as well enjoy them.” “It was as though he understood at a glance every one of my mistakes, my sins, my worst moments of shame.” “He did,” Hannah said, “but if it makes you feel any better, he doesn’t much care.”

 

 

Philosophy / Science of Nature / Particular Physics / Natural Magic

There was a time, before the world had hardened and set, when I could casually brush a plate off the tabletop and watch it hang suspended in the air. My father and I would make this into a game—I would push plates off the table, and he would pluck them out of the air and set them back. On the best days he would grow enormous and shove plate after plate into his mouth, chewing, eyes closed with delight. Then, gesturing like a gameshow hostess, he’d open the cabinets above the sink to show the plates, gleaming and whole, in perfect stacks. My mother accused him of being a child, sometimes playfully, more often when they were fighting, when she would scream insult after insult at him, and he, wordlessly, would stalk through the house pulling pictures off the walls and shattering their frames. “The secret to childhood is this,” he told me once, after one of their fights. “Anything can be made whole, so long as it is first destroyed completely.” We were in the car, driving God-knew-where. In the middle of the fight, he had taken me and said the two of us were spending a night on the town. My mother didn’t even pause to hear what he’d said, but kept screaming even as we were going out the door. “Your mother and I weren’t always like this. If you’d seen us when we were first together, you wouldn’t even recognize us. In fact, in the earliest pictures the two of us are indistinguishable.” He laughed, and smacked the steering wheel with his hand. “This one time, a few years back, your mother got so angry she took out all of the old pictures, planning to cut me out of them with an exact-o blade, only to discover (as she later told me) that she couldn’t tell where she stopped and I began.” “Where are we going?” I asked. We were in a part of town I didn’t recognize now. Men wore coats, even though it wasn’t cold, and slept in the bus stop shelters, or stood waiting at stoplights with bundles as large as themselves on their backs. “I’m going to introduce you to a friend of mine. We’re going to spend the night with her.” I didn’t question this. My father’s mistress was named May, and she was fatter than my mother, and didn’t wear make-up. She gathered me between her breasts when my father introduced us, and said she’d been waiting to meet me for some time. “I used to have a little boy just your age,” she told me. Then she held my hands, and started to cry, and told me that I could cry too, if I wanted. I began to cry. I had no idea what was happening. “Praise Jesus,” May said. “Everything’s been put right.”

 

 

Poetry / Profane / Narrative

A paragraph in which the hero is about to be brought to trial. The country all of this is taking place in is unclear; it seems, from the details we’ve gotten so far, to be a cross between nineteenth century Russia and a twentieth century banana republic: references to chained dogs, tea, tattered prisoners’ uniforms, unmarked cells. Bleak, and also there’s snow. It’s a Tuesday. The hero squints off into the distance. He considers his defense, though he knows the trial is rigged.

In the next paragraph, he is standing before the executioner. We start. We look back, to the paragraph before, to see if there was any indication that such a change might occur.

The next page is blank.

The following page explains, in minute detail, what transpired on the page before: the hero kneeled before the block, the axe began to fall, and there followed a long description of the axe itself, every nick along its surface, every glint where it caught the light in its passage through the air towards the hero’s neck; furthermore, we learn, the page recounted the history of the axe, giving the origin of the wood used in the handle, the forge that made the blade … This description of what was (once?) on the blank page takes up another entire page.

The page after that criticizes the previous description for being superfluous, and offers up a list of twelve ways one could imply what had transpired on a blank page without actually describing it point-for-point.

The page after that contains instructions for how to make a chair.

The page after that is a chair.

We sit, disgusted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Taylor Liberato

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About Author

James Tadd Adcox’s work has appeared in TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, PANK, Barrelhouse, Mid-American Review, and Another Chicago Magazine, among other places. He lives in Chicago.

1 Comment

  1. Lale Davidson on

    I loved the humor, irony, and surreality. At first I skipped the headings because they seemed dry, but halfway through I went back and read them and began to enjoy their humor as well. Not sure what it all means, but feel I would if I spent more time studying it. It feels intuitively right and more coherent than similar fragmented pieces I’ve written. There is certainly a theme of things falling apart, houses, marriages, dreams. But there is a certain celebration and acceptance of the incomplete state of things. Love the ending…it builds to a certain climax. Certainly I have sat disgusted after incomprehensible experimental fiction and poetry. But this last piece speaks of perfectionism pursued to the point of complete block… and I love the humor that the axe never falls. I will read this again later to get more out of it. Thanks for writing it and sending it out. And thanks, Atticus, for publishing it.

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