The Feelers

Albert Goldbarth

His plays scourge our society.
A two-hour monologue literally flattened me by the end, and in fact
did bring on a fever, so that I had to lie down, while
others showed him out of my apartment.

                                            —from a confidential letter
of recommendation


A brick is floating around the room
as slowly and as proudly
as a show horse in the rodeo ring,
and then ——————————
it crashes into the window    Jesus    everybody
ducking flying shards. They look at the mess
with a quiet awe (it’s not their only creepy misadventure
with a levitating object)—the mother, the father,
the boy and the girl, and this one time
two wild-eyed, incredulous,
shit-frightened dinner guests. They absolutely
slather the brick with their stares
and unasked questions: yes, but the brick
in its lei of powdery glass isn’t giving
up any secrets.

     • •

In another place: that flat stone
(where the corn gets ground) is hurtling through
the grass-woven front of the hut.
Another: the smashing of seven (seeming very heavy, ceremonial)
goblets—one at a time: deliberately—from an attic
where no goblets are stored; this happens
for three consecutive nights.
Another: “Every time we left the house
we were pelted by gravel. Toren suffered
open cuts on one occasion; and a weather vane
got knocked to the ground by the force of it. But
no one could ever see where the gravel originated,
it just appeared. And no one could see,
not even in the clearest of day,
who threw it.”

     • •

The people who study these phenomena
[polter, “knocker,” “rattler”] have determined
that almost always a child is present in the afflicted household,
normally an adolescent (sometimes it’s a child on the cusp
of adolescence) and it’ s typically a girl,
the one most “sensitive,” the peeled nerve.
And this isn’t a house where an ax is surreptitiously
hidden under a bed, or an inner
bulimial fire eats a person from her gutside out
. . . nobody here is weird that way, nobody
here is anything other than neighborly and filial.
Except sometimes they come home to discover
the living room covered in fecal smears.

     • •

And the father was fat with a sexual hunger.
The mother was fat with an old, old hurt.
The brother was fat with the need to be cruel
to anything handy—a bird, a limping newspaper boy.
And the girl . . . the daughter, sister . . . she
was the wick. The fatness entered her,
it mixed with her own hormone-fat,
|and she burned . . . she burned, for all of them.
What units do we measure this by?
A gust of gravel. A grinding stone.
Seven exploding goblets.


In one novel of the “alternate Earth” variety,
every business, government office, and private
residence of the wealthy has its “feeler”: a specialist
designated the weeper, the giddy gibberer,
brooder, fumer, dreamer, hoarder of perceived slights
in his social sphere, so that all of its other inhabitants
can stay free of what’ s thought to be,
in that world, a debility. “He’ s someone,”
as we used to say in an English Department I worked at
(this, in reference to a secretary named Dan), “who could think
of the impact craters cankering the moon,
and feel guilt.” Whatever hurt might play its way
through our community and then depart . . . 
would still remain for days in his saliva;
in the lush, irrupted lining of his mouth;
in a rash that lingered on his hands
—if milking an encore.

     • •

When a month of what Tina and Andi considered standard
wicked banter found him heaving one morning
in sobs on the neck of a student who’ d simply come in
for a change-of-grade form . . . Dan was fired
immediately, no one-week-notice or “medical leave.”
And now who’d be the easy butt of Phelps’s sawtooth wit?
(Who’s Phelps?—the brother from section 1, the childhood
torturer of kittens: but grown up to be a bitter associate prof.)
Now who would serve as his own special low-wage whipping boy?
Not Dan. Nor did we remember him much: by April
he was only a half-used tube of shingles ointment
someone found behind the Xerox toner.
you see the difference? On that other Earth
he’d have his private office, and be honored
for the difficult specifics of his service.
Yes, and maybe in that other world, because of this
the rest of us could go about our business with a pride
in the depth and the quality of those feelings
which he admitted for us.

     • •

Often in tribal societies that’s all
the shaman, the “healer” of the culture, really does: he feels
richly (or say “neurotically” if you want to),
anther, barometer, fuse. Sometimes,
along with a tea from the leaves of the shield-bark tree
\and a little chanting, nothing else is needed
for the general ongoing health of a people.
Maybe we should have corporate feelers;
federal; local; domestic. It would only
give official recognition to the fact
that in a group—or in a duo, even;
in a marriage, even—someone’s stomach
will record a more emphatic graph of any day’s events,
in an open, ulcerous line on the wall there.
In a flare of hives. The red web in the eyes.
Someone’s asleep—and someone else is up
at the window, watching the few cars left
at 3 a.m. as they rush to somewhere, carrying
bodies of moonlight on their fenders.


And someone is Gemma Galgani,
whose “stigmata began as red marks; then
a fissure would open slowly beneath the skin,
until finally the skin tore open, revealing
the cavity filled with congealed and flowing blood.
This happened every Friday, and the hole
would be healed by Sunday.” There are affidavits,
“independent testimony,” the works. Some
show their flesh raised in the size and shape of the nails
hammered through Him; some display a ridge
like a ring on the appropriate finger: “a bride of Christ.”
In the eight hundred years since the death of Saint Francis,
“some five hundred cases are documented, of individuals
clearly and repeatedly exhibiting the definitive signs.”
Often, the world is too much for them: Anjelica Azzari
was pained by ordinary daylight and by ordinary sounds,
and “her face was never washed clean of the blood
she wept: she could not bear the touch of a cloth and water.”

     • •

But wounds of the Crucifixion are only one choice
on the psychosoma menu. What if every small
embarrassment created a blush that lingered
for days in the shape of its cause?
If every flush across the chest of orgasmic completion
were worn there like a crimson-stippled scarf?
That isn’t likely, no; but crank it up
a notch on the human drama machine, and then
indeed we do have the eleven-year-old “peasant girl”
Eléonore Zugun, of Romania, who in 1923
“began suffering bite-like marks spontaneously appearing
over her face and neck, from no external agency
discernible even during her observation in London
under controlled conditions.” Or the “unnamed man”
in London in the 1950s who, when he’d relive
“a traumatic episode from his past, when he had been
tied with ropes,” would soon show, “under the gaze
of his doctors, the unmistakable indentations
of tightly bound rope on his arms.”

     • •

Now this is the part where you
enter the poem. You heard me:

you. Are you the one asleep?
Or are you the one at the window?

—watching the traffic, counting the stars,
repeating the sores and injustices,

and then staring down at the pulse-point
where your blood is a whisper inside of your wrist:

stigmata waiting to happen.


Some years ago, Nigel Kneale
wrote a TV play called
The Stone Tape in which far-distant
events of an extreme nature literally imprinted themselves into
stones—rather like records on modern tape.

                                            —from the letters column
of the
Fortean Times

I share that with you because of the afternoon
the office door stormed open, there was a nightmare
scuffle of scream and gunfire, and then:
a number of flesh wounds spurting gore.
The expert for the defense said Dan
was “a victim of hyper-aesthesia, and other forms
of over-receptivity”—so, when he was fired,
“it darkened his mind.” (Did anyone believe this
should exonerate attempted murder?) And while two stalwart
graduate students wrestled him pinned to the floor
and tore the weapon from his rashy hands
—two women, each, I swear, weighing under
a hundred pounds—our big-talk, cock-walk bully Phelps
was cowering under a back room desk (and also,
according to next day’s rumor, whimpering
and soiling his pants). So:
which man was the “most sensitive”?

I can’t make a slippery judgment like that.
Ask centuries of water,
of wind, of uric acid, ask Nigel Kneale:
even stone is impressionable.

Work that appears on the KR web site is from The
Kenyon Review
and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

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