s t o r y 

j o e l  a g e e



n an unseasonably warm night shortly before Christmas 1966, I took a large dose of LSD. It was late, around two o’clock in the morning. Susan went off to sleep, and told me to wake her if I needed help. A strong wind was rattling the windows and whirling rain and garbage through the streets. I turned off the lights, lit several candles, took off my clothes, sat down on a large Turkish cushion. Near me on the rug stood a bowl with fruit and a glass of water. After a while my hands started to look strange, a familiar sign that the acid had taken. Unsuspected ranges of blue, rose, and green played over my arms and legs. The whole room with its soft dancing lights was steeped in a sort of visual perfume – tactile, too, as I discovered when I dipped my fingers in the water and touched them to an apple and a plum. A splatter of rain against the window passed through me like an exquisite wingbeat. The more I immersed myself in sensation, the more beautiful and the more subtly articulated it became. What better setting for the rest of this trip than under the blanket with Susan? But on the way to the bedroom, I saw my reflection in a tall mirror, and stopped. It looked like one of those ithyphallic representations of a pharaoh, made of brass or gold. At the same time, the dance of light and shadows gave his skin a shifting, transparent quality, like the wind-ruffled surface of a clear pool of water. On closer inspection, I saw that the body had breasts, full and round, like ripe fruit, and the golden phallus was replaced by a triangular grove of dark pubic hair. Then the breasts were annulled by thick curls on a broad, heroically muscled chest. The arms, too, were powerful and adorned with metal bracelets. A peculiarly vaginal wound opened up in the chest, which was hairless now, with a web of blue veins beneath the skin, blood flowed down the belly and onto the legs, the body turned a dull greenish gray, the skin cracked and split, worms swarmed in and out of the putrefying innards, a new, pink, adolescent body blossomed out of the corpse, whether a girl’s or a boy’s wasn’t clear, ballooned into obesity, shrank and shriveled into a withered, hollow-chested old man with a long, pendant scrotum. I knew that what I was seeing was the reflection of my thoughts, but that was no comfort, because my thoughts were no longer mine. Two rooms away, Susan was sleeping. I started walking in her direction. The dining room was almost unrecognizable, much too long, the distant door to the bedroom was tiny. Asleep on the floor, twitching, our sick little dog lay in my path, a breathing monument of reproach. He had some kind of spastic nerve disease which, according to the veterinarian, was incurable. Why had I not taken him to another vet? Because I didn’t care enough. Because I wanted pleasure and was always banishing pain from my thoughts. Because I would court pleasure as long as the rack and the scalding oil were out of my sight. A flash of lightning lit up the apartment. I needed help, fast. Far off to my left, on a couch, in the glow of a wall lamp, lay the Bible. I stepped around the twitching dog, walked the three endless steps to the couch, picked up the black book, sat down, opened the book to a column of red words which was at the same time a tall building the color of blood, with empty spaces in place of windows, but of course I knew it was not a building, this was the Bible and these were the words of God which, once read, would be words of salvation. Inside each word were letters and clusters of letters all pulsing their own unpronounceable meanings – stn thh es gpr – fierce little strongholds for the eye and against the ear, and that felt extremely uncomfortable. Then a burst of thunder decided the issue, and the opening phrase stood before me: “Seest thou these great buildings . . .” which I assumed meant the house of words on the page, and I thought: How wonderful, this must be God the Father’s house with its many mansions, and it looked to me like some sort of hotel where a soul could find shelter from the storm, and maybe a hospital, too, where a sick dog could be healed. To enter it you had to read with faith in your heart and fight off any temptation to join the revolt of the parts against the whole. So I read: “There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down . . .”, and as I read, there was a knocking against the windows, which I knew was the wind, but it was also the unnamable trying to barge in, and the house of stone and the house of words were the same thing threatened with ruin, and the words on the page and the sounds in the room and outside had the same awful meaning. There was a thumping sound, for instance, which I recognized as the beating of my heart, but it was also a cosmic drumbeat portending some unimaginable climax. Nothing was more important now than to keep the building intact by reading each word in its divinely intended sequence, but a nasty trick was built into the message: several lines down from the top I was warned not to “go down into the house neither enter therein,” an instruction that should have been posted on the roof. But before I could turn back again, I was unequivocally told not to do that and not to “take up my garment” either, no doubt meaning the clothes I had dropped in the living room. How good on such a night to be in the house of God. But the next sentence chilled me: “Woe to them that are with child and to them that give suck in those days” – Susan! – and there was a flash of light followed by a tremendous crash, and that shock blew away the subtle membrane that sets apart the everyday self from the deathless soul and the domestic cave from the roofless, bottomless universe. But my heart was still locked in, pounding the walls like a desperate prisoner. Nothing was what it was any longer, the masks had fallen, the dog was all the sickness and suffering of life, and I had been put naked into the world to take care of it and had made such a sorry mess of it through the aeons, and now I had swallowed a poison concealed in a sugar cube that was setting free a horrific power that had lain encoded in words from the beginning of time, the same power that had created the world and was now tearing it back into chaos. I shut the book, as if to clamp shut the mouth of God, but the message continued in the steady scratching of the dog’s claws, the fiendish whistling and howling outside. Why, when I still had the chance, hadn’t I taken my stand with the letters against the text? Their revolt might have made other meanings, other outcomes possible. Now it was said and done, irrevocable, written in blood, and it was my fault, because my nerves and cells were the conduits by which the world was not only perceived but sustained, and I had swallowed a poison which no human body was meant to absorb and which was now racing through the most sacred and secret halls of the temple like an invading army, trampling the statuary, burning the scriptures, and it wasn’t my body only that was going down in thunder and ruin, it was the world. There was a shout on the street, a metallic clang. A police car passed by with a wailing siren. And then a new element appeared in the text, a hard bang on the door, and another one, and a rustling, swishing sound in the hallway, and a third, brutal bang -- and this, too, was my doing, though I didn’t know how I had done it or whose dread arrival those knocks were portending. I didn’t answer, or even dare to move. I thought of calling Susan for help. She was asleep. Asleep! How was this possible? How could the same divine power (mine!?) crush the world in one hand and cradle it in another? And how could I dare disturb the grace that protected her? Let her at least be saved . . .
         I was lying prostrate against the back of the couch, with my arms stretched out right and left on the pillows in the position of the crucified. The mind, racing in circles, and seeing itself trapped and exposed on all sides, cowered, and waited, voiceless, for the final judgment. The dog whimpered in his sleep, bared his fangs, let out a growling sniff. Then our white cat came in from the bedroom, stopped at the sight of me, fixed me with his malachite eyes, or was it my eyes that had caught his, was I reeling him in telepathically, for he was walking toward me now, leaped up on the couch, put the cool weight of a paw on my leg, stepped onto my groin, my belly, my chest, and lowered himself down on my stomach, purring, and still steadily gazing into my eyes. Impossible to approximate, now, in the dim light of memory and with words, the strangeness of that stare. It was not to be read, that was one essential ingredient. It was not an element in the mad text of destruction. Nor was it blank. It came from a different world altogether, a world untouched by symbols and signs, and because that world perceived me, I knew that I existed in it, and that in it all was well. The gaze was not mute, it spoke plainly in the pure language of being – as all creatures and things do, as indeed thunder and lightning do, so that, if we could hear and perceive the good news that streams in upon us perpetually from all directions, if we were not forever distracted by the lure and the menace of the non-existent, we would not be in need of salvation; but here the eternal message was being delivered to my address, with perfect detachment and at the same time with something like magisterial command, as if to say: this is for you, and I will not be refused. Calmly, the animal outgazed my terror. I, too, became calm. Outside, the storm abated and gave way to a steady strong rain that clattered on the tin window-sill. For a long time, I listened to the rumbling swell and subsidence of the cat’s pleasure. He was flexing his front paws in rhythmic alternation, sinking the tips of his claws into my chest.



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