New York |

The Impossible Self

by Stephen Langlois

edited by Emily Schultz

“What happened was the transformer outside the house started shooting sparks,” says Frank like he already told me this and is wondering why he has to tell it to me all over again. “I can see it out the kitchen window. It’s shooting sparks all over the place and then boom —” Frank swings one of his crutches at the compactor and the sound of it clanging against the metal is enough to make me jump “—the goddamn thing just explodes. Big blue flash of light. Loud as all get-out, too.

“Kinda shakes me up. I ain’t afraid to admit it. I’m already a bit on edge what with Darleen the way she is. Hardly even gets outta bed these days. When she does,” says Frank, “she gets real confused. Can’t always walk straight. Gets dizzy. Sorta irritable sometimes, too. Truth is,” Frank says, “it ain’t easy working five days a week here at the warehouse and the rest of the time looking after that woman. Linda helps out from time to time,” he says, “but my cousin ain’t exactly the most dependable sort. Weren’t too thrilled really about leaving her in charge of Darleen while they had me over in lockup.

“Now I ain’t complaining. I’m just saying is all. I’m on edge,” he says again, “and that explosion don’t exactly help none. Kinda ominous if you know what I mean. Foreboding almost. Brings to mind thoughts of annihilation and the like. The uncertainty of existence. Existence,” he tells me, “is like the distribution station. This station sends out all sorts of transmissions,” he tells me, “sentience being foremost among them. Now sentience has got one helluva kick to it. We’re talking high-voltage here and our bodies gotta step that voltage down so as we can handle it. You understand what I’m saying? Your body’s the transformer in this analogy,” Frank says, “and after a while the wires start to corrode, the insulation wears away, the voltage spikes back up, and then boom—” Frank takes another swing at the compactor and while I know what’s coming this time around I still jump at the sound of that clang “—a goddamn explosion.

“I’m shook up,” Frank says again. “So much so I drop the bowl of broccoli I was about to bring into Darleen. That’s all that woman eats these days. I told you that,” he tells me, though I don’t recall him ever mentioning anything about broccoli before. “Steamed usually. Sauteed sometimes. Broccoli,” he says like he’s wondering if I even know what broccoli is now. “Don’t ask me why. Don’t matter anyhow,” says Frank, “because the broccoli’s on the kitchen floor now and the house is pitch black. Goddamn power’s out.

“‘Goddamn power’s out,’ I holler at Darleen. ‘That’s how it starts,’ she hollers back from the bedroom. ‘That’s how it’s conceived,’ she says like that’s just a regular thing people say to one another under such circumstances. Like I said,” Frank tells me, “she gets pretty confused. Truth is, I’m lucky if I can get anything outta that woman what makes any sense at all.

“Next day Green Mountain Power’s got a cherry picker out front of the house. A fella’s up there in the bucket,” Frank tells me, “fiddling with the transformer. Pretty much everybody from the neighborhood’s out there, too, with their heads tilted back and eyes squinting like this fella here’s a magician maybe and they don’t wanna miss the show. You got kids there. Old folks don’t otherwise hardly ever leave their homes. The lady what owns that cat? The one I been telling you about? She’s there, too. So’s the damn cat. I come outside,” says Frank, “see it there trying to hide there in them weeds around the base of the utility pole.

“‘Now your basic transformer like this one here’s built to convert primary voltages of up to thirty kilovolts,’ that fella in the bucket’s telling the crowd, ‘and it’s outfitted with a circuit designed to shut down the system if there’s an unexpected surge along the electrical grid.’ This fella,” Frank tells me, “he’s got these mirrored sunglasses on and you can tell he thinks he’s hot shit. He’s loving the attention. ‘Thing is if the surge is strong enough,’ this fella says, ‘well, there just isn’t enough time for the transformer to convert it. Guessing that surge last night was somewhere in the range of three-hundred kilovolts.’ He says that,” Frank says, “and the lady what owns that cat actually gasps. She gasps,” Frank tells me.

“‘Alright folks,’ this fella’s says, ‘now that we got that lesson in electrical engineering outta the way why don’t you all take a step back please.’ I tell you,” Frank tells me, “it’s like a goddamn command from on high. All at once every single person there takes a giant step back, this fella flips a switch there on that transformer and a porch light flashes on across the street. In the house next door,” Frank says, “a TV starts back up. You can hear it through an open window. A couple kids cheer. The lady what owns that cat? She actually starts clapping. That cat of hers ain’t so pleased, though. Sticks its head up outta them weeds and looks around all startled-like. Me,” Frank says, “I can feel this vibration there behind my eyeballs. Feel it there in the fillings in my teeth. Feel it there kinda pressing against my skull, too. Now is that just the electricity I’m wondering or am I maybe still on edge a bit?

“That’s when I notice Darleen,” Frank tells me, “standing there on the porch in her bathrobe. Probably been standing there the whole damn time. Looks to me like she don’t even know where she is. Looks to me like she’s about to keel over almost,” says Frank, “but when I get my arm around her and try to wrangle her back inside that woman won’t hardly budge. ‘You can hear it now,’ is what she says to me. That fella from Green Mountain Power’s pretty much packed up by this point. Crowd’s beginning to disperse, too. All except the lady what owns that cat. She’s standing there watching us with this real pseudo-sympathetic look you just wanna slap right off her face,” says Frank, “and Darleen won’t let up. ‘You can hear it,’ she’s telling me, ‘can’t you?’

“‘Hear what?’ I ask her once I finally get her inside, but truth is I do hear something. It’s this real low hum. Almost inaudible,” he tells me, “but it’s got a kinda strength to it, too. A weird sorta energy,” he says, “though the lady what owns that cat don’t even seem to notice it. By the time I get Darleen back into bed it’s turned into more of a whine. Real high-pitched. Real steady. It’s enough actually to cause the kitchen windows to rattle a bit,” he tells me. “Causes one hell of a headache, too.

“By the time I’m back at the stove fixing Darleen’s dinner I can’t hardly think straight. Why broccoli I’m wondering? Now I know that medication’s wreaking havoc on Darleen’s appetite. I cleaned up some pretty nasty diarrhea off the toilet seat that very morning,” Frank tells me, “but why broccoli every single goddamn night? Why not cauliflower now and then? Why not steamed carrots once in a while? That’s where I’m at,” says Frank, “psychologically-speaking. I’m in bad shape,” he says, “so I switch off the burner and go outside hoping I can figure out what exactly that noise is at least.

“Seems to me it starts somewhere inside the transformer itself. A sorta dull, mechanical drone,” Frank says, “gets louder and sharper, too, as it makes its way up the utility pole to the capacitor bank. From there you hear it kinda reverberate along the power lines themselves until it turns into this shrill sorta screeching what sounds like—” Frank’s eyeing me now like I’ve been out there falsifying accounts of this noise and he isn’t pleased he has to set the record straight “—well, it sounds like a voice almost. Like imagine metal trying to figure out how to talk. Like imagine the inanimate suddenly granted speech. Like imagine that which has so long been unspoken,” Frank tells me, “delivered unto the domain of articulation. Imagine that.

“That’s what it sounds like. I don’t know how else to put it. I stand there a while just listening,” Frank says, “and I’m telling you that’s exactly what it sounds like. By the time I go back inside the broccoli’s cold,” says Frank, “but Darleen don’t hardy seem to notice. That or she don’t care. ‘Vocalization’s the first step. Language,’ she tells me, ‘that’s a whole other story altogether.’

“Now I ain’t never claimed this was gonna make much sense,” Frank says, still eyeing me in that manner of his. “Told you right off the bat I didn’t know if I could even explain it to you in terms you could understand,” Frank tells me, though he didn’t say anything like that. Not to me he didn’t. He just came into the warehouse on those crutches about five or ten minutes back and started talking.

“Truth is, I’m here at the warehouse the following day wondering if I even heard anything at all. I’m wondering if maybe I’m letting myself get drawn into one of Darleen’s delusions. That can happen,” says Frank, “but when I get home it’s still there. It’s louder than ever. Starts rattling the truck’s windows soon as I pull up,” Frank says, “and there’s Darleen standing out there in her bathrobe, head kinda tipped to the side, eyes fixed on those power lines. The lady what owns that cat? She’s there, too, in her driveway watching all this with her face scrunched up in what looks to be an approximation of compassion. She don’t seem to hear that screeching, though.

“‘It says it’s learning how to feel,’ Darleen’s saying. ‘It can feel now,’ she says. ‘Feel what?’ I ask her and I tell you Darleen whips her head around like she didn’t even realize til then I was right there beside her. ‘The wind,’ she tells me. ‘The wind shakes it. You know that,’ she tells me. ‘Branches claw at it. The sun burns it. The night freezes it. Electricity shoots through it. It’s in pain,’ she tells me almost like I’m the one to blame for it.

“Time was that woman was about as good-natured as could be,” Frank says. “Full of life. Always had one project or another going. There were those paintings of hers. Those beaded necklaces, too. Those button-animals she used to talk about selling online,” says Frank, “but all that just sorta fell by the wayside. Weren’t too long after she started wandering off from home. Took me three hours driving around town once and you know where I finally found her? Out on Cold River Road around where Uncle Jack used to live. Said she just wanted to check in on him. Spooked her so bad when I explained Uncle Jack weren’t with us no more Darleen stopped leaving the house pretty much altogether. Stopped coming with me to the flea market on weekends even,” says Frank, “which is when I knew something was really wrong.

“The doctors had her do all these cognitive tests. Memory and recall and all that. Took blood and urine samples, too, so as to rule out anemia and meningitis. Even did an MRI to see if maybe there was a tumor or hydrocephalus or some other kinda damage to the brain. Early-onset Alzheimer’s is what they’re thinking now,” Frank says, “but ain’t no one in her family ever had it before. Besides which Darleen ain’t even fifty yet. Now I’m sure I don’t gotta tell you what the statistics are on misdiagnosis,” Frank tells me. “Twelve million patients a year,” he tells me, “and don’t get me started on the bills. Only upside’s the fact we finally went on down to the courthouse last year and officially tied the knot. Figured after thirty damn years together it was time to get her on my health insurance at least and if that ain’t prescient I don’t know what is. No way we could be paying outta pocket what with the Exelon they got her on and the Zoloft and the lorazepam. Then there’s the CT scan,” says Frank, “I gotta try to work in around my trial date.

“Now I ain’t complaining. I’m just saying is all. It’s goddamn exhausting,” he tells me, “trying to stay levelheaded under these conditions. Trying not to lose your own damn mind,” he says, “what with all the stress and whatnot. ‘How about we just go back inside and take it easy,’ is all I can really think to say to Darleen at that point. Even put my arm around her waist to try to guide her back up the porch,” he says, “but that woman actually cringes from my touch. ‘A different body,’ she tells me. ‘That’s what it needs,’ she tells me like I’m the one denying it. ‘A little relief. A little respite,’ she says and then just like that she’s gone back up the steps on her own. ‘It would dream if only it could sleep,’ she says and lets the door slam shut behind her.

“Right about then the street lamp comes on,” Frank tells me, “kinda flickering in sync to the reverberations of the power lines. You got a flash of yellow and then black. Yellow,” says Frank, “then black. Yellow,” he says, letting that crutch clang against the side of the compactor again. “Black,” he says with another clang. “There’s a pair of Reeboks, too, slung over the lines,” Frank says, “swaying to the same sorta secret rhythm. It’s kinda hypnotic really. So much so it takes me a second before I notice that cat there in them weeds. Damn thing’s sitting there with its ears all perked up and its head cocked back like it’s in a trance almost.

“Truth is, I feel like I’m in a trance myself. Feel like I can almost make out a few words,” Frank says, “like my brain’s on the verge of remembering some obscure, half-learned tongue. I can hear it,” says Frank, looking at me with my arms full of the cardboard I was about to toss into the compactor before he came in. He’s looking at me like he’s reconsidering whether I’m the sort of person he should even be sharing these things with.

“The voice,” he says finally. “It speaks of flesh,” he says. “Of bone and blood. Of that which it fears it can never possess. It can verbalize,” Frank says, “though not act. It can formulate thought,” says Frank, “though not exert control. It’s a soul,” Frank says, “trapped in senseless aluminum alloy. It’s the incorporeal,” he says, “desperate for the autonomy of true corporeality.

“Now how are you supposed to react to something like that? Me,” says Frank, “I’m dumbfounded is what I am. Feels pretty much like my entire conception of how the world’s supposed to work is starting to disintegrate right then and there,” he says, “and I can’t do nothing about it. Can’t hardly even move. My mouth’s gone all dry. Headache’s worse than ever. I got sweat dribbling down my face. Tears, too. One anyways. I ain’t afraid to admit it. One stupid, fearful tear,” says Frank, “dribbling outta my right eye. What I feel actually is unworthy. Unworthy,” Frank says, “to behold a mystery such as this. I feel guilty. Guilty,” says Frank, “I ever doubted anything Darleen ever said. And you know what? I feel grateful, too. Grateful to find myself attuned to this unknown frequency. You understand what I’m saying?” he says, swinging a bit closer to me on those crutches of his like he’s really trying to determine whether I understand him or not.

“The next day I figure I oughta do the responsible thing and call Green Mountain Power in again. See if there ain’t some kinda rational explanation for all this. See if I can’t get all this straightened out somehow,” Frank says, “and soon as I see that cherry picker I’m out there with all them kids and the old folks, too, and the lady what owns that cat. That fella in the bucket’s already up there with the transformer open,” says Frank, “and he’s shining this little flashlight around inside it. He ain’t yet taken off those mirrored sunglasses of his, though, like so as to demonstrate just how little this concerns him.

“‘We been hearing this voice,’ I decide to holler up at him. ‘A voice?’ this fella hollers back down at me. ‘A voice,’ I tell him again. ‘You can hear it right now if you listen,’ I tell him, ‘and I was thinking maybe the power lines were picking up a radio signal or something.’ Soon as I say that,” Frank says, “a couple of the old folks start inching away from me like they don’t want this fella from Green Mountain Power thinking they’re associated with me in some way. The lady what owns that cat? She’s giving me one of those quasi-compassionate looks of hers,” says Frank, “but she’s starting to inch away from me, too. Ain’t none of them can hear it I guess. Ain’t none of them attuned to it the way Darleen and me are.

“Certainly not that fella in the bucket. He’s already switched off his flashlight, closed up the transformer and is lowering himself back down to the ground. ‘Distribution lines like these do one thing and one thing only,’ he tells me. ‘They carry power from a substation to various service drops. They don’t transmit radio signals,’ he tells me, ‘and they certainly don’t speak of their own accord. I’d be happy to go further into the particulars of electrical engineering,’ this asshole tells me, ‘but that won’t change any of the basic facts here.’

“Guess that’s what sets me off,” Frank says. “That and the goddman voice itself. It won’t let up. It’s babbling like crazy now. Truth is, it’s damn near incoherent. What little I can make out has to do with setting it free. It’s begging me to set it free. Begging me,” says Frank, “and I don’t really see as how I can deny it. I don’t really see as how I got any other choice but to march back on into the house and rip that Craftsman Vanadium double-edged logging axe I got hanging on the living room wall alongside my other antique tools. Handle’s thirty-four inches long. Blade’s ten inches wide. Dates back to 1922 and while I wouldn’t otherwise ever even think about touching an artifact like that I ain’t thinking about such earthly matters here.

“I’m thinking maybe in a moment of distraction some careless god cast down a divine bolt of electricity and imbued the power lines with consciousness. If,” Frank says, “you believe in that kinda thing. Maybe there’s always been life in there,” he says, “laying dormant until that surge the other night woke it. Maybe,” he says, “Darleen summoned the whole thing into being herself. An improbable sentience,” Frank says, “conjured through sheer will. She believes it exists,” says Frank, “therefore it does.

“Or maybe it’s all just electrons and protons and other such subatomic stuff. You got billions of these suckers inside you and what they’re doing is generating electrochemical signals. They’re like the transmission system in this analogy. Now your nervous system,” Frank says, “that’s the distribution system these signals travel along. A synapse,” he says, “is like a transformer adjusting the signal’s voltage before all that energy hits your brain. Now Darleen,” says Frank, “her body’s basically losing energy all the time. Deteriorating,” he says, “but what we know about energy is there ain’t no way to create it nor destroy it. It can change form, though. Transferred, too,” Frank says, “and what I’m thinking is maybe Darleen’s energy’s been transferred somehow into the power lines. You understand what I’m saying? It’s like Darleen’s system of being can’t quite sustain itself no more so what it’s gone and done is locked into this other system. Problem is,” he says, “this system can’t really sustain itself no more neither. Maybe that’s just the nature of things.

“That’s what I’m thinking anyways as I march back outta the house and start swinging the axe at the utility pole. I’m aiming at a spot right below this old yard sale sign,” says Frank, “but I miss actually and slice that sign in half. My next swing ain’t much better. Hard to concentrate what with all them kids yelling at me,” Frank says, “though on my third swing I actually manage to hit that spot. Hit it again on the next swing,” he says, “but a splinter kinda shoots out and almost gets me in the eye and I realize then there ain’t no way I can chop that entire thing down.

“I gotta get to the transformer itself,” says Frank, “so I drag the ladder outta the garage and prop it up against the side of that pole. Now a couple of the kids there later told the cops I started swinging the axe at them,” says Frank, “which I wanna make clear is only partially true. They were trying to shake me off that ladder as I was climbing up,” he tells me, “so I just took a couple quick swipes in their general direction so as to scare ‘em off. Wouldn’t have made it up that ladder otherwise. When I do finally reach the top I raise that Vanadium double-edge high up above my head, bash it against that transformer and—” Frank raises that crutch like he’s about to swing it against the compactor, I ready myself to get all startled again, Frank pulls the crutch back “—well, it ain’t enough actually. That’s what that voice is telling me anyways.

“‘That’s dangerous you know,’ the lady what owns that cat is shouting at me now like she’s actually concerned about my well-being. ‘You know there’s at least thirty kilovolts in there,’ she’s shouting at me and that just sets me off again. Now I know what I’m doing maybe looks a little crazy. Maybe in some ways it is,” says Frank, “but in the end what act of liberation ain’t a little crazy? So I just raise that axe up above my head again, bash it hard as I possibly can and boom—” Frank swings the crutch again, metal clangs, I get so startled I actually drop the cardboard I’d been holding onto “—the goddamn transformer practically explodes. You ain’t never experienced nothing like it. There’s this ear-splitting burst of static. Sparks start shooting out of it. This jolt of electricity sorta zaps my arm,” Frank says, “and now my feet can’t seem to find the ladder no more.

“The only thing I feel bad about really is that cat. Turns out the damn thing was there the entire time,” says Frank, “probably still in a trance of some sort. Now you know I never much cared for that cat,” he tells me, though I don’t remember him ever even mentioning it until today. “Truth is, I couldn’t stand that animal,” he says, “but it didn’t exactly deserve to get chopped in half the way it did. What happened I guess is the axe slipped outta my grip and dropped down into them weeds and went right through that creature’s torso in the process. I saw it later on. A pretty clean cut from what I could tell so I suppose it didn’t suffer much,” Frank says, “though there was a whole lotta blood spattered against the utility pole. Guts, too. Actually,” says Frank. “I’m looking at a five thousand dollar fine for that. Aggravated cruelty to animals is what they’re calling it.

“As for the lady what owns that cat I don’t feel so bad about her. Apparently, the ladder toppled over after I fell off it, conked her over the head and knocked her out. Broke her neck actually,” Frank says, “after which all that supposed magnanimity of hers disappeared. Her attorney’s claiming assault,” says Frank, “though I’m hoping to talk ’em down to reckless endangerment. Even that could bring up to a year in jail if I ain’t able to get away with another fine. As for the damage to the transformer,” Frank says, “that one falls under Vermont Statute Title 13, Chapter 81, Subchapter 4. That’s up to two years in jail and what with that fella from Green Mountain Power set to testify against me it could go either way. He’s a real mean son of a bitch.

“The couple nights I spent over at Marble Valley Correctional before I got the bail situation sorted out weren’t too bad actually,” says Frank, “but I couldn’t do it for any extended period of time. As for these bastards here at the warehouse I’m sure you know by now they’re trying to cut me loose,” Frank tells me, though I hadn’t heard that actually. This is the first time I’ve seen Frank in weeks. “They’re saying I’m a danger to myself and my coworkers. They say I ain’t mentally sound or some such thing. You believe that? I been here going on damn near thirty years. I need that paycheck now more than ever. Need those benefits, too, what with Darleen’s condition. That’s the whole damn reason we got hitched in the first place.

“Truth is,” Frank says, “I had a bad feeling soon as I came to aside that utility pole. I was all dizzy from the fall, of course. Couldn’t hardly move actually. Couldn’t hardly breathe neither. My right arm was all numb, my back was all outta whack and my left ankle basically felt like it’d gotten chopped in half along with that cat,” says Frank, “and now I notice Darleen’s crouched over me. How long she’s been there I don’t know. She ain’t got nothing on under that bathrobe of hers and one of her breasts is sorta flopping out all apathetic-like. Her eyes are all wide, too. Her pupils,” Frank says, “they’re about as dilated as can be. Her breath stinks, too. Real sour,” says Frank, “like maybe she just threw up her broccoli again. ‘It’s out,’ she’s telling me. ‘It’s free. It’s got another body,’ she tells me like she just couldn’t be more excited about it.

“Me,” Frank says, “I don’t feel quite so triumphant. I’m thinking what good’s a whole other body actually do it. I’m thinking maybe this entire notion of self is an impossible one to begin with. I’m thinking what’s the point of any of this really,” says Frank, “especially what with these bastards here trying to cut me loose. That’s why I came in today. That’s why I got Darleen waiting for me out in the truck. Figured they oughta at least hear me out first. Figured they owe me that much. Figured I could bring Darleen along in case I need to score some sympathy points and figured you could come along with us. Sorta vouch for me,” he says, swinging that crutch in my direction. “We been working together now almost nine years. You know me about as well as anyone does. You know I get a little wound-up sometimes,” he says, “but I’m just passionate about my beliefs. That’s who I am. That’s just me. I’m me,” he says, like he’s trying to convince me of it. “I’m Frank,” he tells me.