Artwork by Daniel Kabakoff
Echoes, by Joseph Cox
I sense them. In a sudden mad burst, the words float on the edge of my awareness. If I look at them, they flee. But if I do not, they persevere – demanding reality, driving at my consciousness.
All is dark but the words that are there and not yet there.
I sense them, on the edge, cast in razor wire and silk, wood and wool. They wrap around each other, into a shape that defies beginning and end. I know they are there and I must capture what is before me.
A moment passes, the shapes enfold me.
And then, in a moment, they disappear.
I open my eyes and I’m back in my apartment.
All around me I see the words, enameled with strands of metal and glue and shattered glass. Some words are encased in cubes of semi-translucent plastic. Some dangle from the ceiling, and each one has a story and a vision.
Each one pummeled me, demanding that I give it life.
And I could do nothing else until I did it.
I see my life in this room. I see beauty. I see G-d.
And this poem…. this poem is no different.
I glance to my workbench. Materials are there, they are everywhere really. Scraps I’ve collected in case I might need them. But something is missing. I see a bit of metal in my mind, but not on the desk. It is gold colored, but not gold. A copper wire?
Yes, that’s it.
I rush towards the door.
I have no choice.
Until I capture the poem and give it life, it will chase me.
I must make it real.
The poems used to come rarely. When I was a little girl, I had seizures, that’s what my parents called them. But even then, I saw them as epiphanies. I would rush, as if commanded by some force, to make real what I had seen. My parents didn’t connect the two events. I produced art, strange art, powerful art. They couldn’t understand where it came from. I told them, but they didn’t believe the epiphanies. MRIs tried to catch me in the act; doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with me.
Eventually, they settled on a cocktail of anti-seizure and anti-psychotic drugs. They didn’t know which was more critical. I still felt the visions, but they were muted. They cried out for me to make them real. But I could not. Because I could not grasp them.
My parents were pleased, the doctors were pleased. A dose of anti-depressants was added to my daily quantity of pills. And then everybody seemed pleased, but I was not. The poems still called to me. Quietly. And I felt their distance like a loss. I mourned them as others celebrated their absence.
I knew my mission though. I poured myself into art at school. I overheard my parents’ pride in me. I had such skill, such promise. They understood, on some level, that my tortured mind was behind my talent. But they hoped I could thread my way between insanity and greatness.
I didn’t share their hope.
For me insanity and art were one and the same.
When I turned 18, I left home. I didn’t want the medications anymore. The age of asylums had passed. Eventually, I found myself in another city. And then in a city-run shelter and then a subsidized apartment. I tried to hold down a job. But when my seizures came, in all their glorious reality, I would lose whatever job I had.
I would just walk away, to give reality to my living dreams.
I am not working now but am driven by that force. I rush out of my apartment and down to the street. The sun bursts against my eyes. The sound of traffic from the four-lane thoroughfare outside my building assaults my ears. I stagger, but just for a moment. Then I lift my arm, cover my face against the sun, and begin my mad rush down the street. I ignore the noise of the road.
The neighborhood is not a good one, but the people know me. They know I have nothing worth stealing. And they know, from the crazy glint in my eye, that it would be dangerous to slow my progress. We are troubled, all of us. And yet we are more alive than most.
I run down the sidewalk, seeking a golden glint. to make the poem real and true.
Then I see it. My sight lasers in. An old computer monitor lies on the sidewalk, across the street. It has the wire I need.
It’s all I need to make the poem real.
I rush towards it.
Others might say that I saw the cars too late. But it would not be true. I saw them, but had no choice but to go.
My boss hands me a clipboard. It has a list of addresses, last occupants and new addresses for those people. The list is of city apartments recently vacated by their occupants. My job is to clean them. This isn’t a dainty job; there’s a lot more hauling than scrubbing.
Most of the spaces for new addresses simply have the word “unknown” filled in. The occupants have simply disappeared. But not all have. A few have found new homes. Somebody has filled in those addresses, although I don’t know why. It’s not like we do anything with the information. “Unknown” is not the only time our trail runs cold. Some days the word “deceased” marks the end of an occupant’s residential history.
There is one such entry today. A woman named “Anna Stokes.”
“She was hit by a car,” my boss volunteers.
I nod. I’d actually seen her die. I was taking a break just then, looking out the window of an apartment my crew had been cleaning. I’d seen the woman running madly down the sidewalk and then seeing something and a moment later she dashed into traffic. Psychotic woman. She probably hadn’t been taking her meds.
The whole neighborhood is psychotic.
When I’m done reviewing the list, I tuck the clipboard under my arm, gather my crew, and head out.
There are four of us. We have a truck and a chute for lower-level apartments. The job is simple. We get to crawl through the muck of the mentally disturbed and addicted dregs of society. And we get to throw out that muck; like we’re cleaning out the bottom of a hamster’s cage. Any society needs to dispose of its detritus.
Just like you would do when you clean a hamster’s cage, we isolate ourselves from our work. Depending on the apartment, we have a wide variety of safety equipment at our disposal, from full hazmat suits to simple needle-safe gloves. I tend to err on the side of caution. These people have (or had, case depending) a lot of issues.
The work isn’t awesome. But we’re City employees. We get paid union wages and union benefits in return for our efforts. I am curious sometimes though. Morbidly curious. Just how bad can an apartment get? What kind of situation does the whack job who runs into traffic leave behind?
I’m thinking about that when I choose our first job for the day. I decide that we’ll start with Anna Stokes.
When we get to her apartment, we open the door, slowly. Our masks in our hands and ready for our faces. We’re used to some pretty awful – and sometimes dangerous – odors. But there’s nothing. There’s no smell of rotting food or human waste. There’s just a slight odor of rust and maybe glue.
We let the masks fall to our sides and then pull the door open the rest of the way. As I look around the apartment, I see the paint is peeling and everything is in disrepair. But that’s expected. Something else though it strange. Very strange. A tangled mass of metal and glass and who knows what else that fills the space between the walls, the floor and the ceiling. You can barely walk through the junk this woman left behind.
As we look at it, we know that it will take all day to clean.
But… union wages and union benefits.
We’ll be okay.
We don gloves and set to work, bagging object after object in our extra thick plastic bags. I notice that some of the shapes contain something resembling letters, words and even sentences. They are laid out in screwed-up patterns, their media forced into some unnatural configuration.
The woman was clearly insane.
I pick up one of the objects. It is a small sphere. It fits in my hand. The outside is a roughly formed mirror, but not quite. I can just make out shapes within it. I stare at it and see there is a word in there, but I can’t tell what it is. I don’t know why, but I stick that little sphere in my own bag.
I’ll take it home.
Maybe I’ll show it to my dog.
It takes all day to finish the job. We leave the apartment empty and drive our truck full of reinforced plastic bags straight to the dump. And that’s all there is.
Another mess of a life disposed of. Everything gone.
Nothing worth saving. Probably not even that little sphere.
I get home, put the sphere on my little kitchen table, and do what I always do: Grab a beer and some leftovers. Watch a game. Pet the dog. And go to sleep.
But I don’t sleep well. The sphere is in my dreams. I’m looking at it, trying to see what is inside. But all I can see is myself. I turn it in my hands. I stare at it.
I try, somehow, to get through that strange outer skin.
But all I can see is myself.
I wake up suddenly, my body covered in sweat.
For a second, I don’t know where I am. And then I notice the clock. 3:05 AM.
I get out of bed and make my way to the kitchen. The sphere is there, sitting on the kitchen table. I pick it up, almost like I’m programmed to do exactly that. Somehow, it seems opaquer than it had the day before. I hold it up to the light, but I still can’t make out what lays on the inside.
Eventually, I go back to sleep. The sphere is still there, hiding its inner self from me.
I keep working, in the days and weeks that follow. But the sphere becomes an obsession. I need to know what it contains. It is an irrational drive, but I can’t seem to stop it. I consider destroying the outer shell, but the thought repulses me almost as soon as I conceive of it.
I spend my off hours turning the little object in my hands. Gradually, I realize just how beautifully it is constructed. It is not simply a glass ball, but a ball made of pieces of glass fused together to create something I know is entirely intentional. There is nothing sloppy about it.
Whatever it is, the woman who made it put both heart and skill into its reality.
As the weeks pass, I begin to understand that the thing is precious. Even magical.
And that I have it for a reason.
One day, I’m cleaning out the apartment of a man who overdosed on Fentanyl when I see his diary. I pick it up in my gloved hands. And I open it. I see the man’s pain pouring out of the pages.
I take it.
I take his diary and put it in my bag. I don’t know why. I never used to save anything.
When I get home, I open the diary. I read it from cover to cover. I learn what drove the man to drugs long before the drugs drove him to death. I spend hours reading his story.
When I finally close the little book and look up at the sphere, it has changed.
Just a bit of it has somehow clarified.
I can make out a single letter inside. It is a ‘T’.
I feel a sudden regret that I destroyed all the other objects in Anna Stokes’ apartment. I realize now what treasure I’d stuffed into those thick plastic bags, never to be seen again.
That night, I dream of the sphere again. It is the same dream. But it doesn’t torture me in the same way.
The next day, the next job, I steal a trinket from a woman’s house. It is a knot of metal, worried into shape by the unceasing hands of a meth addict. And then I steal again. And again.
My apartment begins to fill with the leftovers of tragic lives. I mail some of it away, to the addresses listed on the job sheet. But most of it has no place to go. And so, I keep it.
With those little objects I see, somehow, into the lives of those who have gone.
Strangest of all, the sphere begins to open to me. After months pass, I find myself able to see past my own distorted image.
There is a word inside, written in stone so finely carved that it looks like bone.
The word is ‘TRUTH.’
I keep collecting the leftovers of lives lost. Eventually, they outgrow my apartment. I rent another space and it becomes a gallery of sorts. I invite others to visit; to learn about the lives of those who struggled.
The gallery grows. Others bring what they have collected. And soon it is a museum. Volunteers begin to care for it and all that it contains. It lives on the charity of others.
I still clean for the City. But it has become far more than a good union job with good union benefits.
It has become a sacred calling.
Much of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is about the creation of a society-wide consciousness. Like Pinocchio, the nation as a whole seems to come to life. Even as it does so, it remains an amalgamation of individuals. Ideally, this is our reality. We are individuals, with our own lives. But we are also a part of a far greater life – a life beyond our own.
Much as we might try, we can’t consciously control our impact on our societies. We can’t choose what others take from our lives and make a part of their own. Anna Stokes created many things, but only one survived. And she could not choose which one that was. It simply had to catch the fancy of a City employed cleaner.
Despite this limit, the echo of that creation reverberated far beyond her. The small part of her voice was taken up by the cleaner and amplified far more than it could ever have been within the confines of her own little world.
A little more than three months have passed since my mother’s death. One of her last actions was to make me responsible for her intellectual property, for her writing. Even as I seek to share them, I know the library I am responsible for is only a small fraction of what she had to give. Of all her decades of study and thought and knowledge, only a tiny snippet will survive. It will survive in her students or it will survive in those who read one of her books. It will survive not because she wanted it to, but because those who heard or read her words were affected by them.
Once we speak. we can no longer control how our words are used.
It might seem terribly sad, and on an individual level, it is. So much is lost. But like Anna Stokes’ work, her work – and my work, and your work – can all have a life beyond our own.
Near the very end of the Book of Devarim, there is a poem. It is almost impossible for us to penetrate its meaning. When we read it, we often see our own reflections in it. But the poem is described as a witness against us. It stands, like that sphere, testifying to who we can be.
It testifies to truth by reminding us of our failures, and of what we choose not to see.
Beyond the details lies a more general reality. Like the cleaner in the story, we have to let the Torah penetrate us. We must let it disturb us. We must allow it to drive us to see possibilities we would otherwise ignore.
Because, in the final rendering of things, it is only when we open our eyes to a truth beyond us that we can see past our own reflections. Only then can we be part of the Torah’s reality.
Only then can our people truly come to life.
Echoes is part of a collection of short stories for Devarim written by Joseph Cox. The complete collection is available at Joseph Cox’s Amazon Author page (https://www.amazon.com/Joseph-J.-Cox/e/B00G4EW5RC).