The Circus of the Body
by John Zackel
Does it mean, as I seem to be saying, that the subject is condemned to seeing himself emerge, in initio, only in the field of the Other? Could it be that? Well, it isn’t. Not at all—not at all—not at all.
As a young boy, Odilon Viellot believed that the inside of his body looked very much like a circus. It was this old memory of a supposition that Odilon shared in bed with his wife, Veronica. In the hollow of his skull, he said, a small clown car orbited his consciousness; in his arms, tiny painted elephants marched back and forth over the hill of his elbow; in his chest, acrobats performed dangerous leaps over the net of his intestines. Skin was merely a circus tent, and his heart, a sort of ringmaster.
Years of adult sense, education, and contrary scientific research notwithstanding, Odilon wondered aloud if he was but a thirty-three year old boy for whom jugglers caused headaches and snake handlers erections.
He told this to his wife but spoke to the dark light bulb at the center of the ceiling.
Veronica, who knew her husband delighted in remembering his boyhood, nodded at appropriate times, raised an eyebrow at others. She listened with the half ear given by those half asleep. When he was finished, she turned over, put her hands in between the knobs of her knees.
They slept ass to ass for comfort’s sake.
The next morning, Veronica Viellot, sitting on the crowded subway below the city, thought again of her husband’s childish dreams and tried picturing the inside of her own head. Passengers stepped on. Nothing came. Londoners rushed past like blood cells. Empty, empty, empty. She concentrated and focused and strained, until, at last, she felt defeated by the impossibility of completing her own autopsy. The sinking in her stomach was nothing like a falling tightrope walker. It was nothing like that at all.
It appeared silly for what it was; for the technology of it all, it looked like a young girl’s headband, forest green and plastic. Its surface had a dull sheen but was still shiny enough for the spotlights in the laboratory to reflect off the headband, an effect that caused an unfortunate halo to appear around the wearer’s head. The first test subject, Coolidge, a pygmy chimpanzee from the Congo, looked like a subject in a Renaissance church painting, solemn, pious even as it scratched its privates. A nearby janitor, a strict Catholic, intervened after seeing the chimp with a halo: it took all of Dr. Odilon Viellot’s lunch hour to convince him otherwise: “A trick of the light. Do you understand? Not a saint. A monkey.”
(In secret even Odilon thought the halo substantial, and he momentarily reconsidered the headband’s design. Perhaps a bicycle helmet design. A baseball cap. A top hat. An upside-down metal bowl. In the end—the end being a minute and a half of consideration—the device was so full of potential that he could not be stopped by aesthetics or tricks of the light, and so Odilon did nothing. The janitor grew bored and returned to work. Odilon bought a chocolate candy bar, which, much to his surprise, entirely sated his appetite. The monkey clapped its hands at nothing.)
What had started with electroencephalography quickly progressed into wireless neural mapping. When the design of the headband first entered Odilon Viellot’s brain a year ago, it did so like a long needle: he stopped making love to his wife, Veronica, and, still erect, ran to his office in the adjacent room. Pasty, hairy, soft cookie dough body, the naked Odilon sketched out a few equations on a yellow notepad, wrote the words “head-band” and “don’t forget” at the bottom of the page, underlined the words twice for effect. Already he was seeing this yellow page as if framed and hanging in a museum.
From the bedroom, Veronica called out. “Odie?”
“One moment one moment.”
“What the hell’s going on.”
“Are you masturbating out there?”
“Yes no sort of.”
He flipped to another sheet on the yellow legal pad and wrote so quickly he could barely keep up.
“Are we ready, Hermes?”
Herman, the bulky yeti-of-an-intern, lifted up his ruler of eyebrows. “Herman, not Hermes,” he corrected, his voice a soft mismatch to his appearance. He rubbed a drop of perspiration out of his eye. “Are you sure I’m wearing this right? It’s very tight.”
“Do not worry, Hermes.” Odilon moved behind the intern’s metal chair and peered down at the green headband on Herman’s head. “Try to clear your mind.”
“What if I become a monkey?”
The room was shadowed except for the spotlight on the chaired intern and, about twenty feet directly across from him, a spotlight on a short cage. In between the metal bars of the cage, Coolidge the pygmy chimpanzee used its big toe to scratch its opposite foot. The chimp’s eyelids drooped like sagging Venetian blinds. It yawned like a father in the afternoon.
“I’m wearing the receiver, right?”
“Yes, yes, yes.” Odilon, hunched over a nearby computer, hit the PRINT key. The printout was twelve pages long: each page was all ones and zeroes in black ink. He quickly scanned it. “I think we’re ready,” said Odilon. “I think. The chimpanzee is fully sedated.”
“I’m not sedated. Can I get sedated?”
“Don’t be such a worry-baby,” said Odilon. He approached the chaired intern once again, took a deep breath, then tapped the top-center of the man’s headband, tapped it twice, with his index finger, a double tap of casual impatience, testing a piano key, flicking a cigarette. Immediately the green headband on the intern’s head started blinking with an internal light; it started humming a baritone. “Here goes everything,” he said.
Across the room, the chimpanzee’s headband started flickering in synchronization, its halo flashing on and off like a saint in limbo: almost immediately after the flickering started, the chimpanzee collapsed in a pile of mammalian hair and whimpered. The spotlight above Herman and the spotlight above Coolidge blinked out.
Everything went pitch black.
Arriving home three hours earlier than normal, Odilon crept up the stairs to surprise his wife. He tiptoed toward the bathroom at the end of the upstairs hall and, the door wide open, saw his wife, Veronica, wrapped in a towel, staring at the fogged-up bathroom mirror. She looked sadder than he remembered. “Look at you,” he heard her say to her reflection.
“Look at yourself,” said her reflection.
The house was too quiet and too spacious and even his sock-feet walking across the carpet seemed to annoy the silence. He cleared his throat.
She turned as if expecting him. As if he wasn’t real.
“There you are,” she said.
“Hello, bunny,” he said. He was still in the hallway.
She glanced back at her reflection. “I think I look sick.”
“You look like a million glittering protons.” Her hair was wet and bunched together in superstrands. He felt a surge of bliss and bit his tongue to calm down. “We had our first test today.”
“The headband. You know.”
“Is Herman OK?”
“Who? Oh, he’s fine. Listen: the headbands worked perfectly. For thirty minutes the chimp’s consciousness was transmitted into the intern’s head. The chimp just slept. We have it all on tape. The only problem and it wasn’t really a problem-problem was that the intern took off his clothes at one point and spoke in a mix of grunts and broken English. But electroencephalography be damned, because my headband worked! Perfectly.” Odilon moved into the bathroom and felt some water under his socks. He stood behind her in the mirror. The condensation was evaporating on the glass. Her towel was bright pink. “And I had a call from Colonel Ainsworth today, high up in the military. He wants to give me a contract, about using it to interrogate. A contract. Bunny, this it!”
She took a pause which seemed to lower the ceiling. Odilon could hear his own breathing; he sounded like an animal on a respirator.
“I called a lawyer today,” she said.
“Come again.” He was in the bottom of a well, speaking up. “What now.”
“I’m moving out Friday.”
“I thought we were done with that.” He took a step back. “I thought since…with the headband, you know? I’ll have more money and we won’t have to fight about that and we can move and it was supposed to be better. I’m not being crazy here we did have that conversation, didn’t we? I’m not being crazy here.”
She tilted her head. “You never understood it.”
“Sure I did. Sure I do. I know what it was about. Don’t think I don’t know what it was about.”
“I need to get dressed.”
Veronica slipped past him and left the bathroom. She walked toward the bedroom and gently closed the door behind her.
Odilon watched her wet footprints materialize on the carpet; he tried to think of something to say that wasn’t spiteful or prickish. Droplets of water that had briefly run down her skin. Now on the carpet. Footprints. Water marks. Say something. Say something.
At the laboratory, the military interrogator, almost as short as Odilon, stood up so wooden straight that he seemed to be the tallest in the room. His first or last name was Craig. Craig was shaved bald and wore camouflaged fatigues that hid nothing in the white workroom.
Craig gripped Odilon’s hand. “I’ve heard so much about you, Dr. Viellot. Colonel Ainsworth recommended I come to test out your device.”
“Ok, well. Ok. I thought Ainsworth himself was coming here.”
“The Colonel sends his regrets.”
“Have you brought somebody to test it on? I mean my headband works perfectly, of course, of course, but you need a consciousness to be sent, you know.”
Craig nodded like his neck was lifting weights. “We have a prisoner coming in.”
Looking around, Odilon spotted a number of tools that could be used as weapons. “How dangerous?”
“About a four out of ten.”
“So on the scale is one murderous psycho-killer and is ten safe puppy, or is ten—”
The lab doors opened. Two fatigue-sporting men brought in a handcuffed prisoner in a bright orange jumpsuit.
The prisoner had a burlap bag over his/her head.
“You don’t need to know its name, Doctor. Just that this is an evil person.” Craig motioned with his hands, directing the guards to bring the prisoner over to the nearest chair. The prisoner sat, bag still on head. Across from the prisoner was an empty chair. “Let’s get started.”
Odilon handed Craig two seemingly identical green headbands. “The first one is the transmitter. The second is for you.”
Without waiting further instructions Craig put his headband on his baldness. “How do I look?” he asked.
“Like a million glittering protons,” said Odilon without thinking, and felt sick.
Craig ignored it. He approached the prisoner’s chair and placed the other headband overtop the burlap bagged head.
“Shouldn’t you?” asked Odilon.
“Take off the bag first? No.”
The prisoner squirmed a little in the chair, but didn’t seem to fight. Tufts of the burlap bag stuck out on either side of the headband. The bag looked more like a pillowcase or a sagging bag of dog food.
Odilon cleared his throat. “Tap your own headband. Tap it twice softly somewhere near the center. I’ll tap him. Her. It. The prisoner.”
Craig took a seat across from the prisoner. He sat up straight. “If this works, Doctor, you’ll be a national hero.”
“Whatever.” Odilon tapped the prisoner’s headband twice. “Here it comes, Craig. Here comes someone else.”
Thursday evening, a night before she left. His house felt more frigid than normal; he could almost see his breath. Dark matter filled his torso with nothingness and a sucking void. He moved as if the air had been taken from him.
The walls were littered with sketches, ideas for other inventions, notes to himself about thermodynamics, human psychology, brain waves. Most scraps of paper were taped up hastily. Obviously torn from newspapers, notebooks, magazines, each ripped-edge seemed more important than anything else in the world, himself included. He felt like a snowman made of stressflakes.
Finally the inventor went up to his bedroom, where he would not be sleeping, and looked in at his wife, taking up the bed.
An orange glimmer from an outside street lamp carried in the room and fell across her face and throat, the soft waves of her hair, and Odilon in all his imagination could not have created such a picture.
He stood in the doorway, holding two green, plastic-looking headbands, and thought about what to do next.
As soon as the prisoner’s consciousness was sent to Craig, Craig began weeping: in that moment of headband transference, Craig lived the prisoner’s entire life, thought every thought the prisoner had considered, thought every thought the prisoner couldn’t articulate, had an imagined future as every human being does, died an imaginary death and attended his imagined funeral. Craig saw Craig capturing the prisoner, saw himself through the prisoner’s eyes and realized his own ugliness. Finally, it was when Craig saw the prisoner see Craig see the prisoner that Craig lost himself, and tipped over in his seat. Odilon rushed over to him, threw off the bald man’s headband, but it was too late: Craig was both Craig and the prisoner. His mind, unable to settle on a decision, gave up, and not knowing what else to do, Odilon had Craig transported to a nearby psych ward for study. If nothing else, he thought coldly, Craig’s insanity might prove useful for science.
The military contract was terminated. A military tribunal would later declare that the headband was too valuable to allow for public use but too dangerous in its increase of real empathy. It would be taken to a storage facility, along with all of Odilon’s notes, and kept secret for an indeterminate future.
Yet standing in the doorway to his bedroom, Odilon Viellot thought none of this, for his wife was sleeping in his bed for the last night of their life together, and time would undoubtedly be so cruel as to progress from moment to moment until his wife would undoubtedly awaken, pack her final things, and leave, forever. He felt this loss in his chest, like a bullet ricocheting inside a hollow room, like someone had taken a melon baler and stolen-scooped his soul. The headbands in his hand clinked together like wine glasses. Again he looked at them: the green surfaces attracted the nearest light as if to say, “Be an optimist, Odilon. Try it out.”
But he considered the ethical implications of placing a transmitter headband on his sleeping wife. To an extent, it would be a violation of her consciousness, a mental rape, almost, and this threat of psychic violence greatly disturbed him. Was he capable of such a thing? Probably. To know his wife, to really and truly know her, something nobody in the history of the world had accomplished, to close the infinite separation between one person and another. Why was she leaving? What had he done that was so abhorrent? Did she love him? Did she know that he loved her? Was there a chance for him to fix it?
Odilon took a deep breath and walked over to his wife’s resting form, and he fought every urge to kiss her, to stroke her hair, to smell the side of her face. He put the receiver headband on his own head. He stared at the transmitter, the other headband, and it seemed to speak.
It would fit on her head, fit nicely, as if she wanted to wear the headband, a style choice. He’d tap each headband in their centers, watch them glow, and then blink. And then he’d receive his wife for the first time in their marriage.
He would see her fears of depression, of failure, of living an unhappy life with Odilon; he would see hopes of abstract sunsets and unnamable celebrations. Perhaps he would see only images, each flashing over another, without explanation and without logic. He would see an oak tree, its dried wrinkled bark; a light switch; a plastic bag of candy corn; her favorite book cover, a hardcover edition of Kafka on the Shore; a nun shuffling down a forest path; an overcast sky and the first drop (smell) of rain. He’d see her childhood cat, Rugrat, the velvet of her fur; an oxidized penny; smudged ink of a piece of notebook paper; a sponge hanging half-off the kitchen counter, dripping water on the floor. He’d see her see him, on their first date, at the circus; his overeager eyes and his despicable fashion sense; the sight of an elephant; a blur of primary colors; people in a crowd, looking as if they were a single person repeated over and over again; the red tent overtop them; the wind ripple through that tent; the chocolate brown dirt in the middle ring. He’d see his own hands trembling, then fisting to hide it; he’d see the stubble on his face and the empty space above his head, because he’d see how short he really is.
He’d see her in the house, by herself, at all hours; he’d see the sad looks in the mirror; the phone being answered with excitement, as if it might be somebody who listens, who wants to hear; he’d see her look at her wrists; he’d see a hairbrush full of clogged hair; nylons hanging over the shower rail; he’d see her purposefully tilting the paintings hanging in the house just to reflect her mood; he’d see the bottom of the bedroom door from inside the bedroom, that angry hallway light that meant Odilon had come home in the middle of the night, again, that he hadn’t bothered to call her or let her know, to let her know he still loved her, which wasn’t much to ask. He’d see himself see her look at her reflection, and he’d see her reflection, too; the desperation in the eyes; the drops of water from the shower; the fogged up mirror and Odilon standing behind her; he’d see his own desperation; his own fascination with himself; his notes left on counters, C U LATER and WHO KNOWS WHEN I’LL B BACK; the sloppiness of his writing; the indifference of his prose. Perhaps he’d even see him leaning over her sleeping body; the foolishness of what appeared to be a blinking headband atop his head; and he would see himself cry, because he wouldn’t know what else to do; he would see his own violation of the woman he supposedly loved.
Intimacy, a tightrope walker crossing a chasm of infinite space. Odilon stared at the transmitter still in his hand. He stared until he decided what to do next.