5 • BLUEPRINTS
As I squeezed the book closed, I considered the likelihood that it had been written by the same author as the previous volume I had been reading before the meal that I suddenly decided to call lunch. I really had no idea what time of day it was. The young black woman that worked for the Art Institute of Chicago had been a recurring character in the two books. I turned the dusty hardback in my hands and looked at the spine. Saturday Nights in Hell.
I wasn’t really sure why I had returned to the library. I found it oddly comforting, in spite of the eerie architecture. It was one of the few rooms I had become familiar with aside from the kitchen. I uncrossed my legs and my knee cracked to remind me of my age. Thanks a lot. I reached over to the writing desk and downed the final sip of room-temperature coffee left in the bottom of my mug. When I stood up, my other knee cracked. Hooray for symmetry. I set the book down on the writing desk, exchanging it for the coffee mug, and walked out in to the hallway. I followed the stairs down to the kitchen and began washing the empty cup in the sink. I froze, mug and sponge in hand and faucet running, and looked up to the window over the sink. The curtains were drawn open and a faint light was pouring into the kitchen. How had I not noticed before?
The scene outside was a quiet morning in a residential neighborhood. The sun was still low in the sky, but it poured warm rays over my hands and face. It felt like wading into a hot bath. It made me feel awake. How long had it been since I had slept? The kitchen looked down over a wide street on a steep hill. I must have been on the second floor. The street was devoid of cars, but there was a steady stream of joggers and dog-walkers passing by with regular irregularity. I could hear a baby crying nearby. Across the street, a portly man in a wife-beater stepped out of his front door carrying two overfilled garbage bags and stuffed them into a large metal can. As he turned to walk back to his house, he revealed a strangely shaped bald spot. His gait was unsteady and he looked as if he would collapse at any moment. When he neared the door, it opened and a slim blonde woman shoved another brimming garbage bag in to the man’s arms. He stumbled backward a few steps and yelled some obscenity at her. She said nothing and slammed the door. He slowly spun around and limped back to the trashcan. Still frozen, I watched the unremarkable scene unfold from my kitchen window. I absorbed it all as if through the periphery of my sight, I saw everything, but focused on nothing. I looked down into the sink and saw the broken pieces of the dish I had smashed. I wasn’t dreaming. I shut the water off and set the cup and sponge down in the sink.
This was San Francisco. This was my kitchen. I reached in to my jacket pocket and pulled out the photograph. I wanted to gasp, but all the air rushed out of my body and thinned out around me. It felt like suffocating in deep space, not that I had any idea what that felt like. The photograph was no longer blank. One corner of the black film was dotted with white and grey specks. It was still obscure, but now it had substance. Now, it had meaning. What had changed? Was it the window? The scene outside? No. That was just the catalyst. It was the memory. I had remembered my townhouse in San Francisco. This place inflicted some kind of amnesia on me and pulling out memories was like trying to do long division with a railroad spike driven through your head. Eat your heart out Phineas Gage. I felt compelled to write down the memory for fear that it would again elude me. I pulled the piece of yellow legal pad paper and pencil from my pocket and hunched over the counter preparing to write. My mind went blank. The idea of expressing the memory in words seemed impossible. I closed my eyes and squeezed my face trying to provoke a moment of genius. It didn’t come. Simplicity was the key. I held the pencil firmly between my fingers. The round graphite rested on the yellow paper waiting for instructions. I wrote the first thing that came to mind, “San Francisco.” Sighing, I flipped the paper over. San Francisco would evoke memories of Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, Lombard Street and Fisherman’s Wharf. It wouldn’t remind me of my own past.
“Think,” I yelled at myself. Next to my sad interpretation of the Chinese character from the library, I wrote, “this is my kitchen.” I underlined the word “my” twice. Simplicity indeed. I set the paper down on the island countertop and pulled out one of the pennies from my right pocket. It gleamed in the sunlight from the window as I carefully placed it, Lincoln up, on the note.
I decided it was time to explore the house a little more extensively. At this point, I had only seen three rooms: the bedroom, the kitchen, and the library. Thinking of the plethora of doors I had passed in the upper hallway, it was obvious this house had a lot more to offer. More important was finding the door to the outside. I was sure I would fare better in San Francisco than in this strange house. After all, despite the identical kitchen, this was not my house. I didn’t belong here.
I stopped in front of the stairwell exchanging equal looks with “up” and “down.” Something in me wrenched at the thought of going deeper into the bowels of the house. For whatever reason, “up” imbued me a sense of progress. I climbed back up the stairs to the main hallway. It seemed the best place to start. I decided randomly to check the doors at the other end of the hallway. I walked past opportunities in different shades and grains of wood. Some adorned with geometric patterns in the veneer, some with decorative doorknobs, and some that looked as plain as if they had been cut directly out of a tree and gone straight to work as a door. Painted, unpainted, finished, unfinished, brass knob, steel knob, all of them had keyholes and opened inward, except the bedroom I had awakened in. Many doors to let someone in and one door to let someone out. Maybe I was just putting too much thought in to it. It could just have easily been a mistake made by an incompetent contractor. I finally reached the other end of the hallway after what seemed like a Herculean journey. The hallway ended in another stairwell, this one also led both up and down. I tried the last door on the left first. I turned the knob and pushed, but it wouldn’t budge. It was locked. Next, I tried the door on the right. It yielded the same results. Rather than trying every door in the hallway systematically, I opted to try the next floor up.
The stairwell rose to a landing and swung back around, leading up again. It went up several more levels from what I could see. I entered another long hallway lined with doors. This hallway was different. All of the doors were on the left. The wall on the right was completely bare. No doors, no windows, no paintings or decorations; nothing at all. Only dark red paint dimly lit by budget hotel wall lamps. The doors along the left were identical to each other. They were all made of the same light-colored wood and were perfectly flat and devoid of design. The knobs were the kind of steel levers you might find in an office building. All in all, the hallway had no character at all. It looked like the interior of a government building, but not the charming old city halls or architecturally stimulating courthouses. It was the kind of government building where actual work was done, boring work. I walked past a dozen or so doors and chose the one that seemed to be at the midpoint of the hallway. The lever swung down gracefully under the weight of my hand and clicked. I pushed it open easily and stepped in to the room.
The room was bright and large. I instinctively shielded my eyes from the brilliant light that poured down from above. It took some time for my pupils to adjust. In the meantime, I looked down at the floor, which was made of perfectly white, perfectly square tiles. My eyes were ready for another go. I pulled my hand away from my face and looked ahead. Still half-squinting, I made out a large structure in the center of room and started walking toward it. The room was absolutely blinding. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all white. The whitest white I had ever seen. It was hard to open my eyes completely. The ceiling was high and cluttered with rows of fluorescent tubes that flooded the room with a pale explosion of illumination. As I neared the large structure in the center of the room, my eyes adjusted fully to the extreme conditions and I was able to focus them. The structure was a gigantic cog clock that rose out of an enormous square hole in the floor. The face of the clock was round and at least 10 feet in diameter. Behind the face, huge iron gears hung motionlessly among a myriad of cogs, drive shafts, axels, and other unidentifiable mechanical components. Some of the cogs were bigger than the face of the clock itself and descended halfway in to the hole below. I tried to imagine the sounds that such huge gears would produce if the clock was operating. Squeaking, grinding, whirring, clanking, scraping, clicking, hissing, and creaking noises that would paint a unique landscape of sound, both chaotic and rhythmic. I longed to hear it. I looked up to the face of the clock and then back at the mechanisms behind it. With a double take, I snapped my attention back to the large black hands, which were stopped dead at exactly 7:55.
I wasn’t sure what was more surprising, the coincidence or the fact that I was surprised? I should have expected it. I looked down at my wristwatch. It, too, was still stopped at 7:55. It seemed to me that the cog clock was the key to answering this strange temporal riddle. The massive gears and other mechanics that descended in to the floor were likely driven by some other power source. Or, perhaps, they were the source for driving something else. For all I knew, they could’ve been connected to the center of the Earth itself, propelling our planetary revolutions. At this point, anything was possible. Sherlock Holmes once said, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It was sound logic. The problem, however, was that in this house very few things seemed to follow the course of rational thought.
The white room and the clock seemed to exert some kind of influence on me. My mind sharpened under the oppressive brightness of the room. It eradicated my peripheral vision. My eyes focused on one thing at a time and my mind followed. Extraneous thoughts were cut away like fat from a flank of beef. I was afraid the butcher would cut away too much and I would lose more of myself. A piece of meat was a good analogy for how I felt wandering this house and trying to make sense of the things in it. I was helpless, hapless, and probably hopeless; like a cow on its way to the slaughterhouse.
I sat down Indian-style in front of the face of the large clock. I decided to exploit these newfound powers of concentration. I started slow. I started with something simple.
“First things first. What’s my name,” I said out loud to myself. My voice bounced around the room and took its sweet time coming back to me. I hadn’t heard my own voice in some time and it sounded foreign to me.
My head swirled and churned like a cement truck. It was preparing to pour fresh memories, like wet cement, down the chute and fill the potholes in my mind. I was patient. The first names to sludge out were those from my most recent experiences. Edward Hopper. Jonathon Reese. Clifford Hart. Some of them were names I had merely read from the spines of books in the library. The cement truck lurched forward, moving on to fill in older fissures. Joe Hicks. Tresa. Matthew. Sarah Purcell. I had to go back further. I had to fill in older holes. Or did I? My own name wasn’t necessarily something that I had learned prior to all others. It was impossible to remember the precise moment at which I had realized that my name was mine and identified me as me and no one else. How had I learned it? Obviously, my parents had used it since the day of my birth. Constant reinforcement of the association between the name and myself had emblazoned the concept on my brain permanently. Perhaps, trying to locate my name among older memories was an exercise in futility. After all, it was something of which I was constantly aware.
In college, my Eastern Philosophy professor had posed a question to the class on the first day of the semester. He asked, pointing to the table on which he was sitting, “can you tell me what this is without defining it by its name, material components, function, or location?” The class was silent. No one was able to provide an answer. I remember racking my own brain trying desperately to be the first to solve the paradox, but I couldn’t get my head around the idea. He was trying to explain the ambiguity of the concept of Tao, but I realize now that he was just mentally preparing us to separate ourselves from labels. He wanted us to understand that we were not defined by our names or jobs or abilities or traits; we simply were. It was something that I was trying to do yet again, but in reverse. This time, I was intentionally trying to define myself by my name. I closed my eyes and focused on pouring the cement faster. I was running out of potholes and names; old roommates, school friends, co-workers, relatives, girlfriends, people I hated. Hell, I even remembered the name of my mailman. My name, however, remained in the mixer, churning and mingling with other thoughts. It was waiting to fill in the right gap in my memory and make me whole again.
I was beginning to feel abandoned. I pulled my knees up to my chest and folded my arms across them with an exaggerated sigh. The contents of my pockets came loose and six pennies tumbled out on to the white tile floor with a loud metallic clatter. It rang around the room and echoed endlessly as one of the pennies was forced into a spin. The room was so empty and silent that the sound of the loose change spilling on to the floor was likely to shatter the very walls as if they were made of glass. The spinning penny finally gave in to the weight of gravity, the walls remained perfectly intact, and the room fell silent once again. My thirsty ears devoured the sound and replayed it again and again in my head. I was instantly 10 years old again, dropping a solitary penny into a black cast iron piggybank. There was a word written on the side of the metal pig in big white letters. The letters were slightly raised and looked intentionally childish.
“Charlie,” I said aloud. The shape of the word felt strange in my mouth and, unlike the sound of the pennies, the sound of it dissipated almost immediately in to the sterile air of the room.
“Charlie,” I repeated. It didn’t satisfy me they way I had expected. It felt amorphous and hollow in my mouth. My Eastern Philosophy professor was right, my name identified me about as aptly as the letters “s,” “e,” and “a” described the depth and beauty of the ocean; which was to say, not at all.
“Charles,” I uttered hesitantly. Even in formality, the name retained the same ambiguity. Oh well. It was worth a shot.
I stood up with an involuntary grunt and smoothed out the wrinkles in my pants. I bent over and scooped up the pennies in my hand. The pleasant sound they made as they came to rest in the bottom of my pocket seemed to remind me more of myself than my name did. If Prince could refer to himself with an arbitrary symbol, why couldn’t I replace my name with the sound of loose change? I briefly imagined my life as a noise. It seemed to be fraught with complications. After all, it didn’t work out so well for Prince either. Like it or not I was Charlie, at least until I could find a more believable alternative.
I was worried that when I left the room, I would leave my name there as well. I had to trade a part of myself for it. Nothing was free and without my name, that’s exactly what I would become, nothing. I extracted a penny and set it face up on the white tile in front of the giant clock. Payment had been made and my name was mine again. I pulled the pencil out of my pocket and patted the front of my jacket for something on which to write. The only thing I found was the nearly blank ultrasound picture. I flipped it over and wrote, “Charlie.” I had to trace the word several times to impress it on the glossy photograph paper. As I flipped the photograph over to return it to my pocket, I noticed that another corner had been filled in with the formless white and grey specks, adding just a little more to the ambiguous image. I knew what the picture would reveal, but still I wanted to see it in all of its grand obscurity. I needed to see it.
Out of a strange and newly formed habit, I inspected the interior doorknob before turning it. My examination was not fruitless. The knob was steel, like the exterior one, but it was oval-shaped and adorned with another symbol. I wanted to copy this one down as well, but for fear of confusing myself later, I decided that writing it down next to my name on the back of the ultrasound photo was a bad idea. I would have to return to this room with a proper scrap of paper. The symbol was similar to the others, but the doorknob in which it was etched was much less ornate. The symbol was essentially unaccompanied. It looked lonely on the steel oval all by itself. It was a solitary island in a shining sea of hygienic silver metal. I turned it and the door glided open. As I stepped out of the room, I stopped mid-stride and narrowed my eyes. On the floor under my extended legs, on the threshold of the door, there was a small representation of a flower. It was painted in white and had two petals. The form was so perfectly geometric and the color so even, it looked as if it had been printed rather than painted. The two petals were bell-shaped and pointed at the ends. The center of the flower was a precise circle. The image was not shaded or detailed. It was a merely the symbol of a flower, not a representation of one. The outline of the image was etched in thick black. Despite the limitations of my botanical knowledge, I doubted the existence of a flower with two petals. The very idea of it seemed evolutionarily inept. The bell shape of the petals reminded me of a lotus, but I was certain there was no such thing as a lotus blossom with only two petals. The design and placement of the image seemed purposeful and somehow important. Being printed exactly on the threshold of the doorway, it made a very clear division between the world inside this room and the world outside. What the distinction was and why it was important remained hidden from me. I would have to copy the flower symbol down on paper as well. At this rate, I would be adding a book of my own to the library downstairs. Although, a book filled with strange symbols and foreign characters would make little sense to anyone, least of all its author.
Since there was no need to rush, I decided to make a stop in my kitchen for some coffee and a small snack before retrieving more paper from the library. I closed the door behind me and headed farther down the hallway in the opposite direction from which I had come. I suspected that the stairwell that rose from the kitchen connected to this hall on the other end. The blandness of the hallway’s perfectly matched doors and burgundy walls was oppressive and I was gripped by a discomfort reminiscent of walking through hospital corridors. I sped up slightly and finally my eyes met with a stairwell that both descended and ascended by right angles. I felt as though I was beginning to gain some familiarity with the house. I was drawing a map in my head like some sea-faring cartographer. I was braving undiscovered lands. I was a pioneer. Although, to be honest, my courage was somewhat marred by the comfort of a fully stocked kitchen and a plethora of reading material.
I hopped off the last step and walked through the dining area to the kitchen. The bag of coffee grounds was still sitting open on the counter next to the coffee machine. I took hold of the pot and rinsed it out with hot water in the sink. Though not nearly as dramatic as before, I ran through the sequence again, pouring the water, scooping the coffee grounds, and pushing the button. I leaned against the island as I waited for the coffee and contemplated snack options. I glanced over at the piece of paper and penny I had left on the countertop, only to find that the penny was missing. I spun my whole body around, looking around the kitchen frantically. The piece of paper remained, but underneath where I had written “this is my kitchen” there was something new, something I know I did not write. I picked it up and held it close to my face. A sudden chill ran through my body and caused a physical spasm in my neck. I read it over and over again.
“No it’s not.”
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