Six Essays from Self-Erasing Portrait by Joe Hall

Nonfiction: Joe Hall

Smoker’s Lounge

Take the inscrutable diners and staff behind the plate glass of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” Take the plate glass and bury it deep in the street-like incandescent night of a factory. Replace the counters with folding tables. Make everyone older. Give each one a newspaper and a cigarette to pull on then smudge the air with the exhalation.

I washed my face in the same locker room, changed my shirt, drank the same coffee a vending machine squirted out, got paid the same or less. But the smoker’s lounge was the deepest room. I took my lunch at seven p.m. outside that room. The threshold I couldn’t cross. From prison, Oscar Wilde wrote “Behind sorrow there is only sorrow” as in, that is the truest one can be. It was easy to joke with some guys so I did, but never knew what they were thinking. When I blew my nose, the napkins speckled black and there was a whole room of men and women, mostly older, doing us one better, inviting into themselves a more fundamental, because optional, ravaging.

Six years later, I’d try to stand against a wall right but she told me it wasn’t right. This was rehab. I’d try to squat down right and sit but she told me it wasn’t right. There were flamingoes on the walls, their pink S like necks models of postural health. I’d sit in a small chair and watch an instructional video about various methods of bending to lift. And, unlike the high school version of myself, did not feel sad for the actors in the video and their Midwest in the early Nineties hairstyles. I’d rate the level of pain on a scale from one to ten for three different kinds of doctors and my therapist. I made sure my numbers established the beats for a hopeful narrative. I’d come back and show her how I could stand against a wall. Show her with my feet flat on the floor, my knees not far apart, how deep I could squat. She took me to another room and dragged out from underneath a table a milk crate with two twenty pound dumb bells in it.

“Lift this up,” she said. “Carry it across the room.”

I looked at the crate, the flat colors of the weights in it. My life would not leave me.

“Tell me how you feel” she said, after I carried the crate across the bright, little room.

Could you pick me out, in the waiting room, just before the anesthesia? Do you see me at Walgreens waiting for a prescription?

You wake up after the injection. Someone holds your elbow. You touch the wall and try to remember who is bringing you home. You are driving two hours through twilight to a methadone clinic. You try to rise out of yourself for so long. You don’t know how to come back.


After, “Let me see your hands.”

After in front of the blue screen I flexed with both hands a thick piece of tubing.

After the funereal lunch at Zatinya. After Kerry lost, Bush won—in enough eyes anyway. After the six or seven day weeks running up, getting off the last train at Wheaton, having to step over someone passed out in the doorway of the Dunkin Donuts by the station to the amusement of the heavenly transvestite sitting by a window. After the twelve hour stretches shuttling through images in a production suite on Canal Street looking for the following televisual representations:

1. A fish kill republican candidate Pete Coors’ beer company was responsible for.

2. A 2000s gray SUV a state republican candidate purchased with state funds.

3. A large Pac-Man maze sans Pac-Man to send the face of a state republican candidate through, chomping tax dollars.

4. Several classrooms full of happy children of a racial diversity calibrated to the real diversity of the commercial’s media market divided by the actual value the target audience placed upon diversity.

5. Several classrooms full of blond children raising their hands in yellow sunlight on wood grained, American flag everything.

After this, the banks and corridors of model faces, fast clicking, efflorescent stream, overnighting tapes to stations. After all I did was make coffee, buy office supplies, and cartons of Diet Coke. After all I did was take notes. After I showed up at the interview desperate because I hadn’t been paid at my previous job because the boss died and I’d just moved to DC after two months of light industrial work. After midnight, clocking out. After the thousands of books shuttled on the drill press track.

“Let me see your hands,” she said. This was some video document for a union case, some safety liability thing involving plastic tubing. This is what she did after the elections.

Uneven cuticles, diagonal scar across the pad of the left thumb, oval scar above the nail of the index finger, slight unevenness of the nails, a few white stars where the nail of a pinky or ring finger had been mashed but not too much.

“These are good hands,” she said. They look like working hands but not by much. She got behind the camera, and I stood in front of the blue screen gripping a piece of tubing. The camera rolled. My hands flexed the tubing. They flew away. Flattened and stacked one on another like a deck of cards. The camera rolled. A dealer smeared in a crescent across the felt. I knew I wouldn’t work an industrial job again. I knew I wouldn’t be on my feet fifty hours a week. I was just a dude who had.

That was one of the last jobs I did for her. I also cleaned her house. I was supposed to pick up a motorcycle for her in New Jersey but didn’t have the right kind of license. When I heard she got the Hillary contract in ’08 I was happy for her. It was too bad, though, that she ended up attached to another loser. On the other hand, it made her rich.

Steve Plunkett

Formerly of Plunkett Tool & Die, now of The Purdue Rare Isotope Measurement Laboratory (PRIME Lab), Steve is standing at the long, treed top of a hill. He is wearing knobby boots and a faded camouflage t-shirt. One foot is turned out more than the other, his gut popped out over his belt.

He points west: “That’s what you’re looking for.” I see tree trunks, every dozen feet. “The elm,” he says. I see a loose cluster of trees. “With its bark off.” My vision swims and I catch it—leafless, a few long shingles of bark peeled away, long swatches of bare trunk: a dead elm.

We walk toward it, looking around the elm’s ankles. We poke around in the leaf mold, that wet fire smell, a humid decay restarted in a warm early April. We reach the elm and then retreat from it in a loose, slow spiral, each in our separate convolution, painstakingly inspecting the woods’ floor.

Steve says something. His eyes are small and alert behind the wire frames of his glasses. His mouth a wry, tight crease, his lower jaw jabbed out. “Well,” he says.

I scan the ground around him: the jigsaw of overlapping leaves, the green tips of spring onions. I look up at Steve. He grins and points. I see them. I crouch down and look closer. They are flesh colored, close to the dun leaf mulch—but with the creamy brightness of something just born into the world.

“There’s them dog peckers.” 

They are conical, curving out of the soil, and swell at their tips. But those tips are also fluted, delicately hive-like.

I open my pocket knife, slide the blade through the base of the hollow stem of both morels. I take off my hat and cradle the morels in the basket.

Steve doesn’t want one. He kicks leaves over the stems. He is also pleased we beat my landlord to the spot.

Secretary III

If I were to stand on the other side of my desk, where a visitor would stand, I could see through a control room full of 1970s style banks of electronics with metallic knobs and needles hovering over yellowy-lit meters and into a warehouse like room where I could see a neon cage with radiation hazard signs on it and the tail end of a large red tank. This is a particle accelerator. Sometimes, like a car backfiring, it accidentally generates bolts of electricity that reverberate within the tank and shake like thunder both floors of the lab.

At Purdue University in the Department of Physics my title is Secretary III, which means secretary. My desk doubles as the reception counter for a sub-basemented experimental physics laboratory, and this thunder is what is exceptional about my job. My day is a secretary’s day: reproducing, filing, and transmitting data; facilitating travel for the scientists, engineers, and the machinists; faintly lubricating the social machinery of the office with things like a candy dish. Because of the candy dish engineers stop engineering and chemists stop synthesizing, leave their sub-labs and kibitz with me.

There is an electrician who never comes to the candy bowl. He keeps his clothes in a file cabinet, sleeps in his office, and showers at the campus gym. His skin is always red and flaky. He is a terrible wreck of a human being, definitive proof of which his coworkers point to being his own admission of never having had sex.

I work in a haze. Something is broken in my back and in my neck and this causes problems in my hands and legs. The day starts and I hum away at my station. An incoherent ache comes to focus itself in my lower back and shoulders. As I type or collate the pain is mirrored in my toe or knee and pinky or chest. As the day progresses—maybe now I am putting mail into little mail cubby holes—these points of discomfort, finished delineating themselves, begin to radiate outward, drawing lines between each other.

It is a relief and difficult to kibitz in pain. It is difficult to enjoy the little housekeeping tasks of a secretary when being folded up at a desk in a posture that causes pain. At lunch I put a mat down in an empty office and turn the lights off. Whatever is broken in me relaxes a little bit.

Linda, a secretary who works upstairs, had several sheets of drywall fall and crush her legs in a garage. She takes lithium to keep from falling off. A physicist, Susan, had, in the lab, late in the day after everyone had left, a cabinet fall on her. The carelessness of others. Steve, the machinist, drags one leg a little.

They don’t complain, but, dear reader, this pain is new to me. I do not understand why it is happening. It is hard to appreciate the thunder in the tank. It seem less extraordinary And like the pain, I don’t understand how the particle accelerator works or why it throws off bolts of electricity. It just does its thing, splitting and counting the smallest fragments of existence into less so it can count them all.

Plant Store

It was the previous lack of money—the fact that we almost never got tipped, even in August searing, maneuvering one hundred pounds of statuary in the trunk of a Lexus with its hazards on 14th Street while Mr. Lexus hovered behind us, tinkling. It was white lights strung over the lot and down the street, the astringent smell of evergreen and chainsaw gasoline, our scarves loose, hats pitched to let out the heat our bodies built standing trees up and down for the row house occupants of the U Street corridor of Washington, DC. I could ignore the pain in my shoulder from the cracked vertebrae in my neck, because every time we battened down a tree on the roof of a car with two long lengths of twine and Eduardo would yank on the forward facing trunk of the pine to demonstrate it was secure, the owner would peel off a five or ten. 

Or: arm wrestling, he crushed me. As if his hand, wrist, forearm and shoulder were united in a simple, indefatigable piece of hydraulic machinery. He told us about his horse in Ecuador. I was hammered and did not comprehend much beyond a rubbery back beat and the smoky gestures of Hanoke, Eduardo, and a cashier whose name I can’t remember except she worked for an Italian weapons corporation during the week. He pointed at the picture menu to the wide, square plate of orange and yellow things—corn, cheese, shrimp—waiting for approval.

I asked, “What is it?”

“Everything.” The gaps appeared between his teeth.

We each had a ball of cash in our pockets. Money soft like the pages of a prayer book with a rubber band for a cover. It is the holidays—you turn it over, leaf by leaf, until it is gone.


Where is the call to action? Where’s the rage that should end this story? Or the pathetic picture of a fully ground down Rebecca or Eduardo or Hanoke or one of the longer tenured guys at the press I talked to just once, the kind of guy who blinks like he’s got Vaseline smeared over his eyes. Telling me he stays on because he can’t imagine what else to do and I wasn’t about to tell him. Wouldn’t it be great if instead of some guy in navy blue mechanic’s overalls fading into the dusk of the factory’s interior, I could show you him aging through time, the hours in boots on the concrete bending and lifting sliding the discs of his spine out of joint, pain emerging in him like a plant through soil, jagging in his thumb, his knee and foot, like fissures in the ice of a pond? Bad medical advice, steroid injections, prescriptions of vicodin and cyclobenzaprine increasing in milligrams, discs fused, the one nerve so distressed he will barely lift that leg, and every day is reduced to enduring until the cessation of pain, the end of the day, oblivion. There’s an Oscar Wilde quote I wanted to write here. It’s about sorrow, but I’ve already used it too many times. I would like to say this: there is a game where before you play this game, it generates a new world. It generates data for the burning core of the world and the frozen seas of its extreme outer limits. It generates data for each layer of loam, schist, granite, olivine, and the veins of other minerals which cut across these. It generates rain and streams, rivers, waterfalls, oceans and lakes, underground aquifers. It generates data for each swatch of grass, each shrub, tree, and clump of bamboo. It generates data for each groundhog and bird, fish in the stream, whales in the ocean. Each stalking tiger and pack of wild horses. It generates data for the limbs and eyes and ears, each digit, each internal organ, the size, shape, and coloration of each creature relative to its species. It does the same for people. There is data for character and disposition. People make houses and sewers and it is in the data. They harvest the plants and strike down the animals and convert them to other things which the game remembers and tracks through time, place, possession. The people decorate the headboards of their beds, manufacture instruments, carve statues in the likenesses of the things and people they have encountered, the gods algorithms have determined they believe in. The people produce volumes of the history of themselves and it is in that date. Years roll by, the game keeping track of everything, the births and deaths, the broken instruments and burned beds and flooded libraries. This is all before you play the game, before you are placed in this world, a small blinking cursor of light that can only know the tiniest fraction of what the great engines of algorithms have made real to you through their parsing. All that can be known a variable, a variable given the face of the known. The engine reshaping the world for maximum efficiency of the engine. In this game you cannot fly. You cannot escape this world, but you can dig down so deep you connect that world to what ends it. And I still think the best times of my life were when my body was streaming with sweat and I drank cool water. Or when it was possible to exhaust myself, before the pain from all the pinched nerves in my neck were not a distraction past which I could not exhaust myself. And I laid down in bed and thought about the world. And I felt my thoughts could hold it all, in the shade of some room.

Joe Hall is a teacher, poet, and critic pursuing a PhD in Literature at SUNY Buffalo. He is researching water, property, and commons in trans-Atlantic Restoration literature. His secondary research interest is  Palestinian literature. He is the author of The Devotional Poems and Pigafetta Is My Wife (Black Ocean,  2013 and 2010). With Chad Hardy, he co-authored The Container Store Vols I & II (SpringGun, 2012). With Cheryl Quimba, he co-authored May I Softly Walk (Poetry Crush, 2014). With Ryan Kaveh Sheldon and Angela Veronica Wong, he runs Hostile Books. In 2015, The Journal of Post Colonial Studies published his article on figures of water and waste in Palestinian literature.

Image: Wikipédia

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