“The Nixon-Reagan Line,” Stephen Meyer

I could start the story “at age twelve, they cut me from my brother.” I suppose it’s as good a start as any. It’s difficult to write; my arms are good for little outside laboriously navigating my world of ropes and pulleys and hammocks. Well actually, it’s not that I can’t write, per se, but I prefer my own methods. They’re less intrusive and more invisible. And I value my invisibility.

The spider-web that has overtaken our home allows me to move from the living room to the bathroom to the window by the powerlines et cetera. All a matter of using the correct harness and rotating the occasional pair of hand pedals. I can zip from wall to wall with my system of ropes and harnesses and hammocks and I can use my arms to dislodge knots. It’s not very hard because I don’t weigh very much because there hasn’t been very much of me to begin with. I don’t come with all the parts one should and on the inside I weigh even less. And the words I paint on everything weigh even less than that, but they do exist. I should explain that last part. My narrative can get in tangles just as my system of tethers/ropes are wont to do.

If I concentrate hard enough, I can make the words appear anywhere. Tiny, microscopic, so small you don’t even know they’re there. But I know. With my mind I can burn the words in; etch them into everything within my view from the hammock. Small words line my tethers, the sling where my body stays during the day. It’s my own little ability I’ve had ever since the separation. It’s not much and it’s all this mind is really good for because I was never that bright, but it’s the least I can do for this family. But still, that “I” gets in the way. My words might be light but that “I” “I” “I” is heavy and ugly and if I could, the “I” would be no more. But it has its place, for better or worse. I assure you, pay little heed to the “I.” It is there only out of necessity.

From my mind, printed along heirlooms and breakfasts are words that represent attempts at telling a story. The story of my family. A story in honor of my family printed everywhere in fragments that may or may not ever be found by future humans, God, or otherwise. Walk around the family home and walk around the view from our windows and you’ll find a beginning, middle, and end in thousands of drafts. Probably it’s out of order. Probably you may only see it if you squint your eyes, and maybe not even then. Probably you might step on it accidentally, not knowing it’s there. It’s just the nature of my tiny words.

But this story really isn’t about me. The storyteller must disappear so that those who one day find my atomic words will understand what really matters. My story will exist on cupboard doors and linoleum tiles. So I’ll begin again:

If you will—God, future humans, et cetera—at age twelve, they cut me from my brother. The operation was said to be very dangerous; survival was not guaranteed, to say the least. It was only with the help of a surgeon blessed with a calming, Hessian accent that our dear mother, with tears leaking precipitously behind papery eyelids, consented to our consent to being cut in two. There wouldn’t be much left of me whether or not the operation succeeded, but regardless of my own feelings, I felt I didn’t have much ground to object to the one thing my brother always wanted.

And I’m not bitter about it. Before the surgery, even while we became attuned to the dreary songs of doom and gloom sung by countless pediatricians, our separation always felt like some inevitable prophecy. It felt like something that would, and always would, happen. To us, it was a more urgent second coming, always in the graspable future. And the change would be just as rapturous. From one man there became two.

But I’m being too dramatic. Maybe I’m even being a liar. Our separation wasn’t “rapturous.” Many times in my twelve years of life before the operation—and also in Gordy’s life, presumably—it was felt that our situation was a permanent one. In a word, hopeless. And the most egregious lie of all, Gordy and I were hopelessly two different people. Any statement to the contrary is mere wishful thinking. What a terrible teller-of-truths-about-myself-and-my-family I am!

Then again, it’s hard to be sure if my editorializing doesn’t somewhat relate to the truth. It was years ago. It’s hard to remember. We were children then. Another lie.

For now, let’s stick to hard facts. In 1974, my brother and I were born simultaneously as Eustace (cursed both physically and nominally) and Gordon Anderson. Gordy was mostly himself. Eustace was somewhat less. I was rooted in his back; his budding spine made for a workable hammock. I was most of a head, emerged from betwixt his shoulder blades at an odd angle. I was two arms arranged somewhat haphazardly, and when he would lie back we formed an uneven coffee table, all legs and arms. I was also a rudimentary chest. A relatively nice torso that rebelled and rose from the cauldron of Gordy’s skin that swallowed most of my face. I was genitals, and least of all I was the stubs of legs that terminated inconsequentially before the thighs were even partly realized. In short, I was the monkey on my brother’s back. I looked behind wherever he went. Gordy was reasonably healthy, if not for a hunched physique.

“I was surprised and shocked, as was Henry Kissinger when he heard about it.”

My brother was making noises from the basement, getting ready for his interview. Not Gordy though. I mean my other brother, Wilson. It’s a shame I haven’t introduced him yet. This story is more about Wilson than it is about me. But here I am talk talk talking about impossible limbs. Well I assure you, the limbs are the most important thing you need to know about me. Little else matters. We can move on to the meat of the story.

“I was surprised and shocked…” he continued in a labored, smoky baritone.

Wilson emerged from downstairs, adjusting his tie in one hand before retrieving a slice of warm white bread from the toaster. My story exists on the springs of the toaster’s ejection ports; It is titled “The Early Years.” He chewed the bread while playing with his jowls in the bathroom mirror. He molded the face on his reflection like clay beneath his hands, raking fingers along his large and flat nose until they met in the center. As is if he was studying the surface of a sculpture.

“Knock em’ dead, knock em’ dead,” Wilson said to himself. “I’m not a crook!”

Wilson made of few passes around the room with his arms folded and his head crooked vulture-like between his shoulders. His footsteps caused systemic vibrations in the house that traveled along my web of supporting ropes. All the while he mumbled quotes, both major and minor, from the former president through puffed and pursed cheeks. I was situated in my system of pulleys and hammocks nearby Wilson’s circuit. I needed the system to stay intact and mobile. My vital organs were precarious; the liver was in a tight spot.

“That secretary thought she was dealing with some rube who didn’t even know about the Mason-Nixon. I’d like to see her face when the superintendent chooses me over those pigeon-faced education grads. Nobody can beat my Nixon!”

“Knock em’ dead, Wilson.” I lifted one hurdy-gurdy arm from my lounging-hammock to offer a sincere thumbs up. I wrote part of our story on the tip of my fingernail. My story exists there and on the belt loops of Wilson’s interview-pants.

He enclosed my feeble thumb in his hand before saying “wish me luck.” After he left, I saw him glide by the outside window on his commuter bicycle.

Wilson was a good person. When mother wasn’t around, and Gordy was flying planes from South America, Wilson was the one who devised the pulley-and-hammock system. He strung mother’s old house with cords and tarps so that I could get around and not die. He would hose me down, shouldering the water damage to keep my less-than-almost-a-body clean. I understand that I’m a kind of parasite, a sort of mucker-up of things. I understand that. What more could be asked of Wilson than to give a friendly grimace while I drew his blood. Ate his lipids.

This is all to say that Wilson was a good person, and deserves the spotlight more than myself, the parasite. Gordy also deserves the spotlight more than myself, the thirty-something limb kid. But Gordy is not a good person. But he is also not a bad person.

Let me explain. Gordy and I were separated via surgical operation, as I said earlier, at age 12. Sometime in January, my mother landed an appointment with the famous surgeon, Dr. Karl Altstadt, after he caught wind of her horrific twin boys. His curiosity was piqued. The same day mother talked options with Dr. Altstadt, Gordy watched the wheeled-in T.V. images of the Challenger disaster at school. I asked him if he could turn around and lift his shirt so that I could see the explosion. He shushed me and everybody pointed and laughed.

These were times when Gordy grew extra-resentful of me, which was understandable. In moments of frustration he would angle a mirror so that he could see my crooked face growing from his back, and ask, “Why couldn’t you be your own person? Eust-less.” Eust-less. The labored pun made it all the more hurtful. Through the course of a normal day, I would think of these moments and leak perfectly spherical tears, wetting the back of Gordy’s jury-rigged button-downs. More rotten meat on which the sometimes-resentment could fester.

But usually Gordy’s resentment of me was more passive. While we rarely saw each other, we were also too close, so to speak, for the active exercising of spite to be sustainable. When he was in a bad mood, and he felt tired of my presence in the night, he would roll over on his back and pretend to sleep while my nose and mouth were crushed against sweaty bedlinens. I struggled for air and pushed against him until his pseudo-sleeping spine described a parabola. He pretended not to notice until I passed out. Then in the morning we never spoke of it, and I came to learn that this was one small tribute I paid for my inconvenience. And I understood.

But perhaps in those bad mood nights he really didn’t notice me. Maybe his passive-aggression was reflexive. A kind of safety-valve so that he could maintain some semblance of sanity while living the life of the major conjoined twin. Perhaps he didn’t realize. When we were younger, Gordy would stand naked in the tub while I clung stubbornly behind his back, as always, and mother would pour a plastic measuring cup of warm, sudsy water over our heads. The water would rain circular over Gordy’s head, but my nose was hopelessly angled upward so as to catch the acidic liquid like a bucket. It etch. It choked. But for whatever reason, I said nothing. Mother didn’t notice. She filled another cup-full and poured again.

But it’s important to note that Gordy’s resentment was only sometimes. When father was still around, and he was in his more lubricated and caterwaul-y type moods, he’d order his horrific children to human-coffee-table over a bottle of Brandenburg Lite. Let me explain, the human-coffee-table was a sort of circus act are father made us perform where Gordy laid on his back with legs angled ninety-degrees while my arms supported him. By pumping our legs/arms we created a mobile flat service on which Gordy could deliver cold bottles of sudsy fluid balanced on his navel. We detested these performances—Father was more of a bad person than Gordy—but our shared oppression made us feel like brothers.

It was difficult for us to exchange the standard looks and signs of comradery, even love, that people are wont to exchange. Mirrors are rarely available in a convenient arrangement. But we communicated by blood, or blood pressure, to be more precise. Subtle changes in the inflation of lungs. The secretion of gall. The movement of hormones, the beating of hearts. Circulation. These things meant many things. Anger, hostility, apathy, and in the human-coffee-table moments, more often than not the precise opening and closing of arteries meant fellowship, even love.

And when he loved himself, when he rubbed himself on the edge of our mattress, the blood would leave his chest and fill his crotch, and that was a kind of gift too. The absence of blood by my misshapen head meant a rare moment of pure silence. A music coming from inside me would spring up and fill my skull, and I would be asleep by the time Gordy got up to wash his hands. These were the gifts that he gave me.

Recently I’ve remembered these moments, and leaked perfectly spherical tears that dampen my precious hammock. There is silence now, too, but no music. There are only the sounds of Wilson in-between jobs and the screeching of the hammock-and-pulley system.

But I’m probably taking it too far. Soon after the Butcher’s operation, the body language became rusty and awkward. I’m probably making too much of it. I must be careful. I must be careful of wishful thinking.

Regardless, these moments of perhaps-love were welcome, and nice, and more or less what I was worth. That’s why it was sad to see Gordy go, the several times that he did.

I’m talking too much of myself again, but I feel I should take a moment to make some notes on the circumstances of the operation, which consequently involves me no more than quarter-part.

When we entered middle school, Gordy was growing more and more determined to get separated. School was hard, for the both of us but especially him. He was dumb. As dumb as I was. Eust-less. The custom shirts that made my seeing and breathing possible were cumbersome and more than unflattering. Gordy walked through halls, clattering lockers, sending metallic twangs pulsing through corridors like a school yard Quasimodo. A Quasimodo doubly cursed with a Quartermodo monkey-perpetually-on-his-back. Our classmates rendered tales about us with likewise inventiveness and detail.

Naturally, he wanted his freedom like any adolescent. My freedom was of a different kind, but I didn’t object when he made his desires heard to all who would listen. There were, of course, stories about us strewn across different publications, both local and national; tales of horrific children were a more novel commodity in the United States. Eventually we caught the attention of the aforementioned Dr. Altstadt. What we didn’t know about him then was that he was also a kind of butcher.

Let me explain. Altstadt grew up in the western half of a divided Germany under the birth name Josef Heidegger (no relation). Even as a young man he was noted for his spectacular skill-with-a-scalpel and his visceral knowledge of human anatomy. Pioneering young Josef also felt that more could be learned of the body in life than in death. The story went on as stories are wont to do. There were disappearances, disappearances linked to kidnappings, people discovered still breathing with parts missing. Newspapers ran stories on the murders and dismemberments referring to a sinister figure known as Die Frankfurter Fleischer…but I digress.

The authorities caught wind of Josef’s identity, and he fled the BRD and arrived in America under the new name, Karl Altstadt. He gained national prominence as a surgeon, and eventually set his eyes on the case of Gordy and Eustace in 1986. The surgery went well enough. Altstadt was plenty competent, good bedside manner, et cetera. Gordy recovered on a hospital bed while my partial body was slung in a prototype version of the hammock system. We both watched Reagan on the recovery room T.V. announce the danger of new drugs.

One side note, the fame Altstadt accrued after the surgery also led to the rediscovery of his past identity, and his ultimate demise some years later. He was arrested and returned to a unified Germany and tried as Josef Heidegger, later being sentenced to life in prison. When the family heard about this later, we thought it a mild curiosity.

The scars he left us were reasonable, considering. Gordy’s back was now a sunken valley ridged by perpetually inflamed tissue. It was a bed of cauliflower. My jigsaw torso could still fit neatly inside.

After the operation, Gordy seemed more outwardly nice to me. Perhaps he felt guilty of the way he treated me, or for stripping me of my enslaved mobility. He had no cause to be guilty, though. In the years following our separation, he helped out Wilson and mother, while she was still around, in hosing me down, in dressing me. He helped Wilson construct some later editions of the hammock-and-pulley system in the family home. Those early post-partum years were perhaps our best.

But while Gordy grew kinder, he also grew distant. He put on a good face for the rest of us, but as his struggle through high school grew closer and closer to an end, he found it less and less appealing to stick around. He secretly couldn’t stand being in the house of the human-coffee-table.

Gordy was too dumb for college. He wanted to join the Army but his bad back disqualified him. After the operation, he found himself growing lighter and lighter without my extra weight. Sometimes he seemed to float about the house, knocking his head against lintels and trimmers. Naturally, he decided he wanted to fly planes.

In a few years, Gordy became a licensed pilot, and from that moment on we rarely saw him. It was our family’s first push toward normalcy. Gordy leaving the house.

He started the belated labor of collecting a life. He got a job showering pesticides on soybean crop in the west. He met a girl from Peru who was studying agriculture at a community college. Her name was Sabina. They fell in love. That love grew into a passionate flame. She would talk about coup d’états from her homeland, and he was free to take interest in something outside of himself for the first time in his life. At first he was hesitant. Insecure. In the night he was afraid of removing his shirt, but she didn’t care. She felt the contours of the cauliflower field that was his back, scanning it tenderly with her fingers. Sabina sat naked behind him and rubbed herself against the ridges of scar tissue. He held her warm legs in his arms while her feet played with his penis. An exact copy my own. The same in every way. Despite the freedom his separation granted, it was only during nights like these that Gordy felt something like himself.

Maybe.

“Goddamnit!”

The blasphemy came from outside. I saw the aftermath of Wilson having crashed his bicycle outside the window. He was back from his interview too soon.

He hurried inside. “Think…think…‘tear down this wall!’ ‘Evil empire.’ The Red Scare. Hollywood. These are concepts. I have to make a good impression for these jerk-bags!”

Poor Wilson. He’s so stressed these days. And here I’ve said more about myself than I have about him, the true hero of our family. The stringer of rope. The mender of pulleys and hammocks! I’ll remedy that.

Wilson was two years my senior. He liked history, Abbasid architecture, and women who liked those things. As I’ve said, he’s my primary sentinel. A real stand-up guy. He went to college and graduated with a degree in history, with a particular emphasis on Islamic civilizations in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. He always wanted to be a professor, and started writing an academic text on Granada up to but not including the Reconquista, but all that fell though. Now a man in his late thirties, he was trying to teach social studies at a local public school.

Wilson looked in the bathroom mirror. “I am the Gipper. I am the Gipper. Mr. Gorbachev.” He started massaging his face again. With my mind I printed a few microscopic words from our story on the back of his shirt; a kind of good luck charm.

What Wilson picked up in the application process was that hiring was based almost solely on the applicant’s ability to pull off a quality Nixon impression. In this way, the teacher was to educate the next generation through humor. Nixon was considered the standard for this kind of performance. The school system called it the Mason-Nixon line. The pun wasn’t perfect; its justification stemmed from the minor concept that the Civil War was also important. Applicants should know of such things.

But as Wilson was now explaining, there was a new development. He found the waiting room filled with young college grads explicating the national tragedy of the Challenger explosion. They were all enacting their Reagans. Not their Nixons. Wilson later found out the standard had been adjusted since Reagan passed into national memory. The standard became the Mason-Nixon-Reagan Line, then just the Mason-Nixon-Reagan, and finally the Nixon-Reagan, for brevity’s sake.

“It’s insane!” he said. “I saw some guy in the waiting room stand up and signal for everyone to watch while he forced his body to vomit up a near endless supply of jellybeans. There were raspberry, and grape. Even lemon! I don’t know how I’m supposed to compete with that. They must teach it in college now. It’s not fair!”

Wilson eventually decided he was ready after some duress, and he picked up his bike and returned from whence he came to meet his uncertain fate. I looked out the front window at his departure and with my mind I wrote our story on the handlebars. Some more words wrapped around the spokes. Wilson pedaled out of sight.

Poor Wilson. I hated to see him so perturbed. He was a good person who didn’t deserve to wallow in failure. He was not born a flea. He was not destined for a life of pulleys and hammocks.

I saw that he tossed a crumpled-up piece of paper at the bathroom mirror before he left. I used the zips and pulleys and swung myself over to grab it.

 

It read:

 

Dealing with our enemies:

–The waitress at the luncheonette

–The man who expelled the jelly beans

–Superintendent Wagner

–Juan Alvarado

–Anonymous Iowa corn farmer

 

This was the story he had written.

Poor Wilson. I was unsure if he had the strength to adapt. The interview came at an inopportune time for him, for reasons I’ve neglected mentioning. A week prior to now, we learned of Gordy’s horrific accident.

With Sabina, Gordy felt more comfortable in his own skin, but at the same time he started taking more risks. One night, Sabina, making small talk, mentioned the proliferation of cocaine in her home country. One thing led to another, and eventually Gordy was tempted by the promises of money and the odd freedom of a secret life. At some point in the early 2000s he began smuggling cocaine from South America to Canada via biplane. It was going well enough for a while, but eventually he learned that the freedom of adulthood also meant dealing with events for which there is no cause or precedent.

One night on a routine delivery, he ran into turbulence flying over the Great Plains. He lost control of his craft and crash-landed inconspicuously in the middle of an Iowa corn field. A passionate flame surrounded him. Fuel mixed with the white powder of his shipment that was now scattered everywhere. In his concussed state, he couldn’t even piece together that the seat of the cockpit was now a nest of twisted metal. One especially long shard had pierced through his left buttock straight through the other end, narrowly avoiding his genitals. The same as mine in every way. I felt a small relief when I heard they were intact.

Gordy soon fell unconscious. He would have died then and there, if not for a miraculous congregation of insects. You won’t believe it, but I assure you, unlike everything else I’ve said, I’m certain the following events happened exactly as I will explain.

As Gordy was preparing to die, a swarm of ants emerged from a destroyed colony nearby. They marched like mute soldiers. One by one they visited the mounds of cocaine leaking from the wrecked plane and started collecting granules of powder in their laborious jaws. One by one the ants hauled their cargo in single-file towards Gordy’s limp body. The white reflected off the roaring flicker of the crash-site. It looked as if the drug moved invisibly, autonomously toward its courier. One by one the ants climbed his body, over his legs, around the shard that skewered him, across a battered chest, before finally stopping at his chin. And at last, the ants, one by one as always, entered one nostril and exited the other with their luggage mysteriously missing.

This went on for some time, countless ants made the journey through Gordy’s sinus to make their delivery. One nostril marked the point of arrival, the other was the point of exodus. And through the miraculous ants, Gordy would be saved, for a time.

He experienced an amphetamine rush powerful enough to wake him from his stupor and force him to seek help. His blood bent and boiled. I wonder what it said then? If his blood spoke, could it still be understood? Regardless, he felt no pain. He hobbled his way through the corn field, swatting at stalks of corn and leaving streaks of blood behind him. The flames grew and grew and built a tower of smoke over the wreckage. But Gordy only knew forward motion.

Through one final miracle, Gordy happened upon the lonely cottage of the farm’s tenant. To him it seemed a glowing sanctuary in the darkness. He found the back door and frantically berated its front with numbed palms. The only action he knew now was his hand slamming against the thin grating of the door.

After some time he heard a stirring inside. There was someone who could save him, he thought. He would be saved! Hallelujah! And before his mind could remember the concept of gratitude, there was an ignition of powder inside the cottage, followed by a gun shot, followed by an explosion through the door, followed by half of Gordy’s face being blown clean off. He dropped dead then and there. The sounds from inside leaked through the hole left by the shot. The farmer had been listening to gospel music on the radio. The notes of a man singing “There’s power in the blood” serenaded my brother’s corpse.

Life goes on for us, though. In the aftermath, Wilson sunk deep into the idiosyncrasies of his Nixon. He worked to perfect his rendition both emotionally and physically. His fingers were strong; they made the famous airplane double-V so effortlessly. He spoke with menace. His gait lent a perfect verisimilitude. At the same time he kept to his duty as keeper of pulleys and hammocks. He continued to water me over the tarp like a dutiful steward of potted plants.

Like his siblings, Wilson’s identity was tied to his flesh. He too was forced to play these awkward games of limbs. It was painful. It was demeaning. And there were no lungs to tell him that he was loved. Poor Wilson.

His performance proved insufficient; there were new impressions he had to get used to. Ones for which there are no cause or precedent. I imagine him riding his bicycle now. Perhaps he too will lose control in turbulence. An impatient commuter. The glare of the sun. Perhaps he will be resuscitated by his own miracle-of-the-ants only to be killed by mundane reaction. Maybe he’ll make it to the office of the Superintendent, and find turbulence there instead. Then he will return home to find me, the less-than-twin, old limb kid, waiting in his hammock, and he will work on a new impression for a different job.

And I will tell stories. I’m not very good at it. To honor Gordy’s death, I meant to tell a story of our family. But I have failed. I have missed things. I have embellished details. I have invented. Perhaps Gordy crashed in a field of sunflowers, rather than corn. A nice poetic contrast between the “sun” of the flowers and the darkness of his fateful night. Maybe the standard was called the Reagan-Nixon, not the Nixon-Reagan. There isn’t much I can be sure of. It’s hard for me to understand much outside of my mismatched and ill-conceived collection of face-arms-torso. I am bound to the network of ropes and pulleys. Infinitesimal words paint every surface of our home in a thick record of my failure. Oh, the cruel reality of a thirty-something limb kid!

Though perhaps I’m being too dramatic. I remember having likes and dislikes. I like Wilson, I liked Gordy, I am certain of these thing. I liked the silhouettes of girls I could make out through the fabric of Gordy’s shirt while he sat in class. I like lifting the hammock higher and higher so that I can see birds perched on telephone wires. I can look outside now and with my eyes I see the figure of a passenger jet flying overhead. The words of my story exist on the blades of its turbine engine.

Watch as I move to-and-fro from room to room! I look out the window onto the compact street corners. Wilson will come crashing home on his bicycle, and I shall prepare the tarps for dinner and an evening shower. There’s no avoiding it. No matter how hard I try it’ll never be the story of our family. I’d like to tell the story of our mother too but it never comes out right! All things considered she was a nice lady. No, it’ll always be me telling the story of our family. The “I” is heavy and immovable; its serifs printed on the stock-photo frames of our house are oppressive. Maybe if I was Gordy in his airplane-days, I could look down from the sky and see everything as it is in its entirety and tell future-humans/God the truth.

But I can try again. I have nothing better to do. My mind will write the words where no one expects them. On the underside of seat-cushions. Branded in kernels of steamed corn. And Wilson and I will eats the words, and digest. And we will wonder how we got to where we are. And in the morning we will go about our separate business.


Stephen Meyer is an English undergraduate at the University of Maryland.  He engages himself with the long project of cataloging dismemberment.

 

 

Advertisements