STATE OF THE ART
Last night I went to the grocery store for ice cream. I was standing in the aisle letting a fellow make his choice before me. I didn’t want to crowd him and so went down to the pints section, even though I knew I was planning to get a quart. He was tall, probably in his late forties, wearing a black duster jacket. Had a mustache, looked rugged, a bit strange, basket full of life’s basic shopping needs—which he was doing, here at the dumpy supermarket at midnight. Finally I came over, because I was sick of waiting.
“Should I really get ice cream? It depends on how much vodka there is,” he says, half to himself.
I force a little chuckle.
“It seems to be on sale, but you need to buy ten items,” he continues.
“Oh, no!” I blurt out, trying to reassure him. “I asked. You can buy just one and get the discount.”
“Oh. Yeah?” he asks me.
“Yeah,” I confidently respond. “I already asked,” I add for official support, suddenly wondering why I feel the need to support the economical shopping of strangers.
He nods looking down at the giant, white freezers.
“What are you going to get?” He pauses briefly and then adds half-earnestly, “If you get ice cream, don’t get the low fat.” His voice is like a disgruntled cartoon character.
I try to chuckle again.
We stare and stare at the rows of ice cream. How much time passes? Feels like ages.
“This one would be great with chocolate syrup,” he announces.
“Yeah,” I agree, disguising my awkwardness at the impromptu late night, supermarket conversation. “And bananas,” I add.
He grimaces, “No, I don’t know. Only if they’re…not organic.”
I force another chuckle.
Ah, yes, that’s him. That’s what he said. That’s what he thinks. The ever rebellious spirit of the disenchanted.
Finally, he chooses.
I’m going to wait it out a while, I need privacy.
He gets vanilla with chocolate swirl.
“Nice selection,” I tell him. I don’t know why I’ve said that.
“But what will it go with?” He asks, beginning to walk away. “White or red?”
“Ah… good question….” I am really getting invested, looking for the right answer, knowing it requires some serious sarcasm. I don’t know what to say. “Perhaps both…”
But he deliberately cuts me off, “Beer.” Said in a quick, low grunt.
I chuckle again, for his sake, I guess. For mine, I guess. I don’t know.
And again, there he is. I admire his absurdly immature spirit of rebellion. I’m in it with him, or at least I’m trying to be.
I try to think of something witty before he disappears. I need to impress him. I’m one too.
“Guinness!” I call out. Maybe that was too much. What, are we buddies? Is he going to invite me over now? What the hell am I doing anyway?
How do we get away with it? I feel defeated. I feel embarrassed. I feel that the joke is not funny, because there is a misunderstanding at the outset. Our claim to know something about ourselves is amiss. “White or red?” Strange is the culture where this concern can be so real and valid that it can become ironic. But it is immediately flattened; it is colloquial speech that has unknowingly turned metaphorical. Or is it a metonym?
“White or red?” I take my time selecting after he’s walked away. When I’m ready, I head towards the check out, but, seeing him there still, I linger. I’m done with our chat. I can be friendly. I can be available. But when it’s over, I’m done. I’m done.
He’s moving ever so slowly. I begin to realize that, perhaps like me, this trip at midnight to the store is more than just a midnight trip. It’s part of his make-up. It’s part of what makes his day worth going through with, one after another. He wants to savor it. He’s intense yet aloof, deliberately slow, yet calculated and piercing. I wonder what the checkout person thinks of him. They must see a lot of characters this time of night. I wonder if they’ve got me pegged too.
I pretend to be interested in candy so that I can watch the checkout with one eye.
Finally, he’s finished. He walks away but not towards the door to exit, and I’m getting exasperated. He lingers, turns around and puts a cigarette in his mouth before finally walking out, slowly, slowly, turning right once outside.
It’s my chance, so I go to buy my ice cream. I’m cautious. Finally with confidence, I check out and leave, having forgotten the encounter. When I walk outside, I hear over my shoulder a comment. I know it’s him. And for a moment, I think, “Don’t look back. I can pretend that that wasn’t directed at me. That wasn’t for me.” I can get away without awkwardly having to interact with him again. He won’t be offended, because I didn’t even see him there. There’s no reason for him to suspect that I’m aware it is he who is sitting there smoking. But then I say to myself, “Why? How about going ahead? How about changing that? How about continuing to enact what you were enacting in the ice cream aisle? Having courage. Being human, being available, being open to all of it.” So I turn around.
“What did you decide on?” He asks again, with my full attention.
“Oh, I got both. Couldn’t decide. Reese’s Peanut Butter and Heath Toffee.”
“Good choice.” And then, “Now all you need is…”
And his voice trailed off for me in a mix of nonsensical words.
To cover up my embarrassment of having not understood, I laugh and say, “Yeah. Have a great night!” And begin walking toward my car.
He calls back, “You too!”
And at that moment, the sounds form into words in my head, and I realize what he had said: “Now all you need is a couple of black-and-white Marx Brothers’ films.”
I start laughing, completely overcome, stumbling, looking back. And I yell, “Yeah, you’re right!” Yeah, didn’t yell it loud enough. Yelled it more to myself.
I had been having trouble with the car door key lately. It’s rusting up. I’d picked up this trick of jiggling the key as I shimmy it into place. In this instance, it needs no shimmying for some reason, and I just look like a nervous weirdo quickly jamming the key in my car door, expecting the need to shimmy. Is he watching? Does he think I’m afraid? Perhaps nuts? Perhaps something?
But I’m still laughing. “Yeah, the Marx Brothers,” I say to myself.
All weekend, in fact, all of the last four years has been about the Marx Brothers. In my job application letter, in the description of my “interdisciplinary” teaching techniques and interests I claim to “teach the poetry of Stein alongside the works of Man Ray, Stieglitz and the Marx Brothers.” I had sent out however many of those applications this very weekend. I had to tinker with each one for each job. Sometimes it was how I “teach the poetry of Stein alongside the works of Man Ray, Wyndham Lewis and the Marx Brothers.” Other times these university search committees are informed that I “teach the poetry of Loy and Williams alongside the works of Picasso, Stieglitz and the Marx Brothers.” Always the Marx Brothers.
I have never taught the Marx Brothers. I have never seen a Marx Brothers’ film the whole way through.
My ex, “the Oxford boy,” before his breakdown, used always to refer to a particular instance in the life of Groucho Marx. How that fascinated me—this Oxford-educated, self-proclaimed country bumpkin from a small, unassuming English village, and his ability to fuse the high and low, casually, convincingly. This Groucho Marx reference came up repeatedly, almost nearly as much as something being “Dickensian” did, though I was a bit skeptical of that one. I can still hear both his mother and father referring to just about everything in any given conversation as “Dickensian,” even if, as his father sometimes demonstrated in rebuking his mother, it was not at all Dickensian!
They were artists in the true sense of the term. He worked in his studio all day, constructing pieces resembling everyday furniture covered in philosophical insights for Belgian and Spanish collectors and installations at the Tate. She chewed nicotine gum and listened to the radio all day back at the cottage, several little English roads away. He’d come home at the dinner hour like clockwork. She made a fabulous meal; he washed up. They retired to the cozy drawing room of their 18th century cottage he’d bought for a steal back in the 70s, repairing its collapsing crossbeam himself with a massive metal rod through the entire length of the roof. They drank diluted white wine, chain-smoked, and talked philosophy until 3AM.
They extolled social critiques, criticisms of contemporary culture and disdain for families who displayed affection.
His father refers to the Marx Brothers in his work on Deleuze, in journals and books and the covering of the non-furniture. He is a brilliant man who knows he is brilliant but makes sure to disguise it under well-worn clothes, old glasses and unruly curly hair. He will drop a reference to good old Groucho in relation quite possibly to Hegel while the family eats their roasted parsnips or clotted cream with fruit, or while, at the family vegetable allotment, he’ll explain the wonders of starlings, how they have genetically small, almost undeveloped feet because they never land, they never need to land, they never want to land. They migrate tens of thousands of miles their lives long. Without landing.
Do humans land? I wonder.
And here I am tonight making an ice cream run while, exceptionally, preparing to start my course teaching Marxism tomorrow, after all, and Althusser: we are constituted as individuals by the many different calls from the world around us. We believe the very presence and being and identity of ourselves, our embodiment of belief and truth and value based on the multiplicity of forces out there that call out to us.
Yes, you. You have been summoned, and in your acknowledgment of the summoning you are constituted as the individual, as the subject of an interpellation, that you always already consider yourself.
Hey, there, Groucho!
I didn’t recognize the call.
Katy Masuga writes fiction and nonfiction, disrupting lines of distinction. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Washington, Seattle and a Joint-Ph.D. in Literary Theory and Criticism. Her publications include two monographs on Henry Miller, a collection of semi-autobiographical stories on memory, family and serendipity, and a dozen critical essays on such topics as Beckett and Wittgenstein, vegetarianism in Frankenstein, the history of Shakespeare and Company in Paris and altered books in contemporary art. Her influences include Sebald, Woolf and Black Elk. She teaches comparative literature, with a focus on modernism and the intersections between literature, film and the visual arts.