In my memory it seems as if the world was born through my eyes. Everything affected me, and I remember almost everything, in pieces, a network of strands that I can pluck, and set to vibrate. I tie my younger self to these strands like a marionette. They are his vocal chords. They spread through my thoughts like the branches of my father’s house.
Parla, burratino. Speak, puppet.
My father revered the gradual. The warp of weak woods under the plane of moisture and pressure. The calcination of trees. Oceans awling at shorelines, seeding deserts. Disintegrated stone bedding the newest streams. The climb of vine-veins up an aging hand. The ghost of time. His parents’ house in Seaside Heights overlooked the Atlantic, and the ocean felt like a drawn breath.
He worked like a river. Constant, slow, a concentrated ball of desire, he dreamed of organisms not yet real, muscles of steel, toes of wood, electricity brain. He made Voodoo dolls - ginseng old men, cardboard toy soldiers with brown velvet grape heads, floral gnomes, stone businessmen with woven-grass laptops - to sell in his father’s boardwalk toy store.
They never sold. Confused parents dragged their gaping kids away from their window displays, opting instead for the rocking horses and plush bananas next door.
But underneath the boardwalk, someone took notice. The garbage pickers and the strung-out partyers trickled in during the late hours. Fishing crumpled tens from their pockets they bought the idols, sun-squinted, red eyes making fleeting contact with his own, red from lack of sleep. He expanded his materials. Some nights he’d sneak into alleyways off of the boardwalk and saw off pieces of the wooden benches. He took Dunkin’ Donuts cups and six packs from garbage cans. He went deep into detritus. His work became more stylized, clunky, awkward amalgamations of found materials. They smoked cigarette butts he picked straight off of the sand, or held the tentacles of dead, washed up jellyfish like whips.
Then the Boardwalk waiters, the dough-flippers, janitors, bartenders, they all came. He started his own late-night branch - a little stand underneath the Ferris wheel, open from midnight to dawn. Underneath the neon night turning above they bought his wooden and paper Buddhas, brought them to the secret places in their houses. Their basements and corner cupboards became ad hoc shrines.
Joel Carico was one of the most serious devotees. He stood out in the rain, in sleek shore snow, on dog-hot days with the moon beating down on his unprotected forehead, his mouth sucked in tight like he was sucking a lemon. He didn’t know how to talk to my father: tense and distanced, he approached the stand from an angle, a circling a wild animal, smiling nervously. He “um”ed and “uh”ed and nodded when it was his turn in line. Quickly my father slapped the newest figure into his outstretched hands. Here his mumbling slowed, his body wrenched into an inaudible gasp. He searched through his pockets for a ten. It invariably came out wet and salty, scraggly with grease and sweat and ocean water.
My father took and asked for the next costumer. He was a drug dealer, as much of a supplier as the other hoodied vendors who stood by dark corners among the sprawled out bodies of trash bags. An addiction was created.
This is how he grew up, in the piercing light of neon, the thick odor of deep-fried twinkies wrestling with briny sea air. He sealed himself in his father’s dark workshop for years, making beautiful, awful things. Until he met my mother. Then they fashioned me, in their hearts, at night and in the daylight.
I was drowned in a dream. In my dream I couldn’t sleep. The glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling mirrored exactly the real stars outside. My father entered, a hunched silhouette, and said, “I want to show you something.” I got out of bed in my moon-patterned pajamas and followed him through his house, a wooden mansion on a remote, uninhabited hill. It is the shape of a tree on its side, or of a drawing of a tree. My room is made of black mahogany. The house was designed by my father, but mine is the only room his hands actually touched. He let my mother see him working - my mother, and no one else.
The grant money was endless. Hundreds of artist/engineers and government-approved interns sculpted; a skyscraper’s worth of pistons pounded stone; cranes leveled the sky into intersecting planes, steel sextants peaked above the rolling California hills.
His energy was endless. He knew the boundaries of this unreality so perfectly that to direct its creation was to place each part where it already existed. Those three years he spent under a tarp, coming out to eat, to piss, to watch the stars expand outward, and to oversee the growing network of cranes balancing minutely detailed arcs of wood, each manufactured to match his perfectly calculated specifications. So from the vantage point at the entrance to his self-made monastery, the sky was full of wooden caves. Sometimes it seemed to him that he was building a titanic staircase that would extend into the sun.
My mother slept in a makeshift nursery, fully aware of his insane need, loving him and hating him for it. She wandered the forest that was her new home, nauseous with nicotine cravings. On one day so bright that the wisp clouds veiling the sun melted into mist, she stumbled into a clearing where two powerful California Oaks, wide and tall, with blackish-brown bark, had grown so close together that they’d become attached halfway up their trunks. Their branches wrestled for space twenty feet above. Stuck between those two trees was a rock the shape and texture of a gigantic avocado, pinched at the bottom end. Inexorably the trees had warped around the rock like a window, or a ribcage.
She hadn’t been Catholic for ten years, but she knew what this was. So our home was christened St. Christopher’s Head. She came back to visit the head often, until I was born, when her last exhausted love hardened like spent sap, and scabbed off.
She was pregnant with me. On bad days she’d sit on the brown rocks near St. Christopher’s head with her eyes closed, humming automatic melodies that haunted her like dreadful crickets, chirping in the underbrush of her mind. These beautiful, strange, ecstatic ghosts of songs wove out continuously from her earworm-eaten body. Sometimes she’d lay her head in my father’s lap, and they’d talk about how much they missed the Shore, how they wanted to live, what I’d look like, how hard I was kicking inside of her, and suddenly she’d just be singing, and they’d close their eyes and listen, the two of them equally in awe of the undead and the newly alive.
When they slept together they slept in the old greenhouse. It had been used by a farmer before his land was seized by the government. They rested their heads on a bed of bluebells, translating the future into dreams. She dreamed of me and of the family she loved a thousand times more with distance. He dreamed of the house, each branch so clear in his head, every texture so real he could feel the bark patterns, their grooves; and he had nightmares of the outside world, as terrible as it is, how much worse it might get. He’d wake up, his body slick with sweat, back throbbing, arm dead numb, and my mother wide awake, eyes wide, holding his hand.
When the days got shorter and the crude outline of my father’s tree began to form from the wooden caves and metal cranes, he lost track of her for a long time. The lowering sun had more to say to her than he did. He built a cradle for me and waited.
Winter came and he had built three cradles, each evolving from the last, each more complex and ornate, more savage and complete. Cool winds drenched the hills, and the evenings were the temperature of the bottoms of cold feet sticking out of their red wool blanket they threw down impatiently at the top of the hill; where they slept that very first night on the West Coast, and she pretzeled her legs around his leg when she couldn’t get comfortable, and that shock of her soles roused him and aroused him under the blanket under the fulminating tops of oaks, and the slope rose past them so they couldn’t see the horizon. They lay slipshod, two rough textures softly fitting, until everything went softly dark together, the firing oaks faded into the same nothing, and the deep black ripped at them and tore them into separate dreams.
But this is my dream. I am following my father as he stumbles through his hallways, back bent and twisted, hallways twisted, they snake out in front of us, turn, and curve away from sight, tunnels winding down a dark, silent mountain. Light shivers in through occasional windows and rests in splotches on the rich wood. We pass wooden doors: yellow pinewood slatted doors; purple-black walnut doors, the grain in groups of deep, long, scratch-mark rivulets; Australian cypress doors, knotted and ringed like a contour map. Their doorknobs reflect and distort our faces, which grow as we near them, and recede as we leave , and slip away as the hallway turns once again.
This is the Tree House completed: a house of shadows.
As he leads me past a window in the slanted light I see that he is in his workshop, spraying the seedlings. The greenhouse is lit by the warm lights hanging from the ceiling like potted plants. Beyond it, our house winds down around the hill, into the foggy dark. I stop to watch my father work. When I wake up I am in my bed and my father is in his workshop, spraying the plants. I can see him through the window in my room. I remember that I dreamed this and for a moment don’t know if I’m asleep or not. I pinch myself, a gesture remembered from TV, and nothing happens.
I walk up to the window and the world outside opens slowly wider, the moon is like a crazy eye, the grass is like a neon sign, and my mother is in the garden, smoking, and watching the tulips droop. I can only just make out the rise of her neck and the curl of her lips by the light of the fragile cinder. I touch the cold glass and my fears come back. I run out the door where my dream father entered into the red sinuous hallway and into the bathroom. I lock myself in, turn on the shower, and undress. Even through the loud, powerful shower I think I can hear my father’s buzz saw. The blue and grey tiles make patterns like mermaids seen through a wine glass. I stay in the shower for an hour and a half. My skin becomes red from the heat. I look at my hands and turn slowly in place. The constant noise and the heat make me forget to wash my body. Instead I drift into a hallway in my mind, a white hallway, and at the end there is a flashing green light. I wake up with the mermaids singing to me, the water still running.
Just outside the bathroom, I lean, naked, against a stained-glass window. Water drips from my body onto the glass and the drops assume the color they have dripped onto. Through the water-spattered glass I see my father in his workshop, spraying the plants, broken up in the leafpattern, and in the sunpattern of the stained glass. I can see his bushy beard and the light sheens like razors off his glasses. He turns and finds me. His mouth moves, Duncan. I want to go back into the shower, hide in the roar of the water. Duncan, he smiles his maniac smile. I back away from the smooth stained glass and duck around the corner into the bust room. Rows of faces, staring up and past me, keeping watch over the forest through the window, others discarded and scattered upon the floor, some tilted or uneven on top of pedestals, others stacked in corners like skulls. Einstein, Edison, Gertrude Stein, Ptolemy…
When I hear my father’s shuffling footsteps coming towards me I open a door and run outside into the tulip garden. Far away, on the top of the curve of the hill, my mother sits in a lawn chair smoking. She turns her head towards me without moving her body, like an ostrich, and then turns back, saying something, to me or to herself. I start crawling through the grass towards her. Birds sing in the trees and on the curved wooden birdfeeders. Butterflies fly all over me. Everything is so bright and fresh in the early morning, and the grass smells clean with pesticide. When I am closer I can see the stub of cigarette in her hand, ember singeing her knuckles. She says “We are not playing hide and seek. You can get up.” I do, but when my father walks outside I hide in the bushes.
“Where is he?” says my father.
“Why?” my mother says.
My father rubs his aching neck, turns and walks back inside.
“Piece of shit,” she mutters.
My father stops. He looks over his shoulder at me and smiles. Walks around a corner, disappears.
He finds me in a dark hallway four years earlier. He takes my arm gently and leads me to a grey door with old wooden slats. Dark spots pepper the door like singe marks. My father turns the knob, his knuckles hills, the tendons are rivers, meeting at the forest of black hair that encircles his arm. I am grabbing at my shirt with my own hand as he opens the door, I am wrenching it around my fist and up, and I am met by a room of stuffed animals bursting out of desks, bookcases, piled up and speaking with one collective voice:
I am I am I am I am...
I am afraid of this room and drawn in by it. The walls are cherry tree, full of twisting knots jutting into the space. My father in the doorway observes me with wide eyes. I move towards one stuffed bear, the leader, and reach out my fingers, which are just beginning to belong to me. He is warm and I run my fingers through his curly belly hair.
I feel my father’s breath blowing softly through the gaps in my hair and I grasp the bear with both hands.
“Do you like it here?” my dad asks.
I shake my head.
“You can have any one of these animals,” he says. “Do you like that one?”
Yes, I say.
“How about this one?” My father stumbles over a root to the far wall and steadies himself against a sandpaper-smoothed branchlet. He picks up a floppy giraffe with long, jointed legs, oversized feet, and antlers that make him look like a Martian. “This one is my favorite. He used to be mine. I called him Andrew. Look what I made him able to do.”
He puts the giraffe on the ground, and gives it a big push. The jointed legs lock and pull the animal forward, then release, and he is walking towards me.
“This was my first one,” my father says. “Both wood and wires…it came to me like a, like a bolt from the blue…” his glazed pupils flicker to the sides.
“Hiya, Hope!” says a computerized voice from inside the giraffe.
“Ha!” says my father.
I drop the teddy bear and run out of the room.
I follow one artery through to its end: branching capillaries, mottled storage rooms filled to the ceiling with half-shaped wood, broken chairs, paints, canvasses. One room has been cleared out except for a carpet, a black upright piano, low stool, lamp, and leather couch. At night my mother comes out of the garden and the sun and plays Chopin. The melody grasps at the bass, the bass falls down and down again. Her hands are long and thin, the hands of a croupier. I hide under the leather couch and pretend I am in a space capsule. I hold my breath and study the dust patterns. The carpet is rough and stringy and feels like dog hair. I run my last finger over a brown spot and minuscule flecks of sticky black attach themselves to my hand. Little grooves run through the carpet, pleated with stitching. The big black surface of the couch is cool against the top of my head, intricate with shading from the soft lamp. Outside the spaceship my mother’s shadow zigzags the carpet. I trace the shadow of her hand with mine. Deep, musty odor. Every so often a cricket chirps. I am climbing a ladder to the moon. I am in a warm cocoon, floating in the darkness of space, like the baby in the movie my father watches over and over again. I am in the grey room of the station, and I am checking the air vents. They are secure. Ok, it’s time. We man our stations and light the fluorescent bulbs, and my shadow flickers against the far wall. Using the Dial Pulse telephone I call Houston. It’s time, I say. It’s time? They say. Yes. Of course. It happens. There are explosions. My father walks in and says “It’s time.” I get up. “That’s beautiful,” he says to my mother. She smiles and whispers “Shh.”
My father and I walk through dark side-paths until we come to the glass hallway that forms a bridge between his workshop and the rest of the house. There is only a transparent film between us and the bright blue sky, the warm damp earth. My father opens a door and we are plunged into the house again.
The workshop is dry and cool, perfectly spherical, flooded with overhead lights. Sawdust hangs in the air. Pieces of half-worked and raw wood lean sloppily against every surface. The room is windowless.
A ghost orchid is on a potter’s wheel in the center of the room. Its papery petals are like a man drinking from a fountain. The orchid’s stem is twisted into corkscrew ringlets.
“The wheel turns. Very slowly. Watch,” says my father.
I watch and nothing happens, and as I watch I think Why do you show me these things, and my doubt and my loneliness mount and suddenly I notice the flower isn’t where it used to be.
“See,” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Do you feel anything?” He asks.
I do. A fuzzy sensation in my nerves. Something I can’t yet grasp. A beautiful waiting. The watching of a process unfolding so slowly it seems to mean everything and nothing. A movement towards infinity.
The house was always my father’s; was my father. I found my childhood inside its branchings, sparked my senses inside its trap doors, dead ends, rooms leading to more and more rooms, smaller and smaller compartments. I rested on its concave walls, crawled through corridors that flared and squeezed and darkened and lightened with the grain of the wood, and I lied down in silently waning squares of light, looked out of the windows and into a world beyond that felt painted, unreal, and unbelievably distant. Curves existed where no light ever got through, as if they trapped darkness. Gusts of wind could rack the house, its groans shuddering everywhere, its gigantic mass wanting to rest from the tension of supporting itself.
The front door was scarred and sharply patterned and made of white wood. I always imagined it to be the teeth of some gigantic creature, and the entrance hallway its gullet, bending upwards with the mountain.
Checkered rows of dark and light ran through the whole house. Different woods fractured the light in different ways, and windows of all sizes let the sun in in intervals. The light, like that from the projector, danced on and off me, glanced off my arms, my face, as I followed tunnels to new rooms. Some I found once, and the next day it was like they were gone.
When I was six I wandered through my parent’s empty bedroom and found a doorknob sticking out of the west wall. I pulled it and a section of the wall folded towards me, and I found myself staring into a home theater. Speakers dominated the ceiling, sixteen of them in a ring, facing inwards and pointing down. The projector screen flapped from an invisible wind and a white spaceship turned very slowly in space, burning bright in the air, undulating with the folds and the breeze. Alien music, a shining sky of noise, wrapped us in warm sound. It vibrated the walls with its slow modulations. My father was there, in the dark, standing on a red seat.
“Come here,” he said.
I walked inside and approached him.
“Go in front,” he said. “I want you to stand in front of the screen.”
I walked into the light, and the images flowed onto me. The white ship glided over my cherry red shirt. My father and I stood in awe and the projector light surrounded me and I felt as though lifted, as though slowly ascending off of the floor.
“How like but far from this world,” he said.
Once I found myself in a circular grey clearing, the oaken walls far apart, rough and ringed. In the center a mass of wires broke through the floor, ran in an arc to a wall and disappeared behind it. They wrapped around each other like veins.
I held out a trembling hand. I touched it and felt the tremor passing through it. I grasped it and power hummed in my thin wisp fingers. I sensed it permeating the entire room, everything vibrating like a huge generator. The empty room alive, needing its whole expanse, a ventricle. Greedily I put out my other hand, held it against my whole body, wanting to be connected to it. My body shaked.
When I found the room I’d go around the corner, trying to find where the wires went, but each time I’d find myself back in the toy room, The stuffed animals askance and staring, and I felt that each was connected somehow to the power, each a leaf pulsing with the rhythm of the house.
When I was older and my father was gone I lost all track of the room. Sometimes I still doubt its existence, despite knowing that it was needed, despite finding out what it was needed for.
I was living among ghosts, and my father was the king of the dead.
He also showed me the forest. I remember:
A haze of evergreen trees between me and a steel-grey sky, blotched like watercolors, smoothed by a freak snowstorm. Their furry arms. The snoring of my father’s crescent saw as he wraps it around a trunk and gently rocks the tree down. “Oomph,” it thumps. Our snow angels indented in the white next to me, outlines blurring from the new snow. I watch the blurring happen, and wait, so swaddled in wool I can hardly move. I am on the slope of a hill, and behind me, looming above me, outside my vision, is the house. I am amazed at how important everything is, how the house is only one room in an even bigger house. Further into the forest the trees begin to obscure each other until they become an abstract collection of limbs and green-white patches.
My father moves on to a second tree. Tucking the jeans bottoms back into his boots, he sets the smiling saw against bark. He heaves the saw back and forth and the teeth sink in.
Other people’s houses, small, quiet, lonely in their regimented lines, sit stylized below us, obscured by trees and snow and distance. Nearby the road to town winds its way toward a point too far to see, terminating among the people living in those caves of mystery. I am five, and can only imagine beautiful monsters among the hedges and little family gardens, gnome-people, my imagination splicing the mythology of my own mind with pictures of strange family life in children’s books, completely alien to anything I know.
For my father the people down there didn’t exist, and the myths were in the trees. No, not myths. He never saw the forest as anything but what it was, no “living earth” theories in his head, only the fact of the tree and the fact of him. The forest was a series of observations: the rough, flaky texture of ash bark; the peeling brown continents of the eucalyptus tree; the vascular patterns of hardwoods; how, if the light is positioned just so, leafless tree branches seem to spiral out in ever-larger circles, like luminous spiderwebs; this – the awakening of one’s consciousness through tender science; the Making-Holy of the thing itself by allowing it to be itself – was his beauty.
My father’s saw stops. The valley oak he is felling is ringed now, its fragile insides pierced around its whole trunk, the xylem and phloem precisely snipped. The tree, cut off from its root supply of water and nutrients, will die a slow death by starvation. Without a single push, it will enervate and fall. Another slow process, like the twisting orchid stem, but this one an inside disintegration, molecule by molecule drying up and becoming un-tree, a stranger in what used to be its body. And then that point, that discrete moment when a certain molecule dies and there is no more tree; and the living cells suddenly become the strangers, disunified and with no reason to be living. Do they immediately shut down, then? Do they stage a rebellion? Do they live undercover, hidden lives in a tyranny of death, fighting against the terminology that labels them a “dead tree?” And what about when my father puts his hammer and his knives to it, does the underground live on? In his toys, the walking giraffe, the Pinocchios and the Pierrots, does there exist still the ghost of a tree? Every brown fleck of particleboard is a ship in a turgid fleet, flowing rapidly towards warp and decay.
And when do these trees, acting as molecules themselves, become a forest? How many trees can be standing before the tree loses its determinacy and before it becomes a part of organism, because the forest is alive and it is breathing. I am five and the forest speaks to me, breathing, it breathes its ice-breath on me, its silence is its way of talking, its words are branches and its syllables are leaves; it means too much, it means everything. A syllable is a house for a sound, a sound is a wave traveling through the air, a wave a combination of an infinite amount of frequencies, vibrations per second. And when does a vibration, an invisible tremble, become a wave? How much trembling is required? What is the moment and the precise amount of energy required to create a sound?
In the world billions of waves push air in all directions at all times, a spiderweb of probabilities surrounding us. Every one of them means something. Every color is a code and every atom is a work of art.
What I would have said if I knew how was:
There is something inside of me that wants to be in the gnome landscape of others’ homes. To punch a hole through the canvas and find a portal to that fake place. Dad, take me and leave me to grow into one of the far-away. Carve a pair of wooden binoculars from the heart of a Magnifying Tree and observe how, as I become a man – or a tree, whichever it is I’m growing into – I’ll become a slightly larger dot next to the planesdwelling orchards and California vineyards. I deserve the Tuscany of childhood, not the noose and giant oak tree, the slow death on Saint Christopher’s Head Mountain.
What I do say, that night, as the tree lies curing in the workshop and my father hunches over a bowl of cereal, gasping, is:
“Does it hurt?”
“Does what hurt?” He sputters.
“When you cut the tree.”
“No,” he said. “Trees don’t feel.” He leaned in close to me. Milk was trapped in his bushy beard and light radiated from his glasses. “But what I do – I make people feel the tree.”