The Blattarian Model
His wife and son had gone to see the doctor about the eye problem. The husband had not told them, but he knew the solution filled their house. That is why he knelt midway up the stairs. He cut at the bannister's thirteenth rib with a hacksaw he had been compelled to buy from Kornin's Fine Tools. Its titanium blade proved worth the expense. The surrounding stairs, along with his jeans and wrists and hands, were soon whitened by sawdust, and the rib came free. He was not surprised to find blue and green wires spewing from its ends. He pulled from inside the rib a rectangular black circuit whose flashers faded out in his palm. At the bannister's base he noted more severed wires. He understood clearly that they pumped electric blood all through the house.
A roach crawled atop his shoe. It rested at the lip and stared him down. It was likely an agent of the house. It was more certainly a provocateur of his wife and son, though it stirred opposing responses from them. In the former, disgust. In the latter, appetite. It stirred in him mere patience. One roach implied three hundred more breeding in the walls. He wanted to see what its friends would do.
He had believed for some time that the house had made his mind happen, that what he called "memory," among other assets widely termed "human," was the product of a binary or perhaps trinary code. The belief implied that his wife and son existed within the confines of the house and nowhere else. Because he loved them so much, it took him a long time to accept that they did not exist unless and until he saw them. But the more tools he bought, the more he was convinced.
One day, he was entering data at the office, when a related but no less disorienting implication occurred to him: the house contained the panoply of life. The office appeared to be located on the fourth floor of a glassy suburban plaza, but it actually occupied the same space as the family's dining room. When he got high in the parking lot with Ken and Tom, he was also in the garage. He was there, too, when he supposedly shopped at Kornin's. His family, supposedly gone to an appointment downtown, had moved or had been moved to a part of the house he felt compelled to avoid. He had not decided upon the location of the zoo, where the three of them had recently enjoyed a great many habitats and captives. He often tried to map out the rooms to which supposedly different spaces belonged, or to chart out the hundreds of places that could all be found in his foyer, but he lost the maps almost as soon as he drew them or his charts became illegible with his overlapping scrawls, and then his boss would call him into a meeting.
The flashers were two squares at the circuit's topmost point, followed by two long rubbery black bands which traced the rest of the circuit's length. They appeared superfluous, but he knew that by means of the flashers, the house compelled him up and down the stairs, to buy hacksaws and bistouries meant for dolls more than men. The house's intentions were obscure but not malicious. He was often compelled to remember a phone left downstairs before he completed his ascent. Then again, if the house was always purely helpful, it would have compelled him to remember the phone before he went up.
He would have taken the circuit into the garage for a more thorough inspection, but his wife and son appeared to enter through the front door. They were coated and gloved, his wife's hand on his son's back. She called down the husband without acknowledging the bannister's wreck. His son doted upon, as usual, the stuffed, pink giraffe. Since the zoo trip, that toy had not been far out of his reach. The boy's eye impressed itself upon the husband, as was the eye's want, as was the house's desire. The pupil did not rest in the eye's center but was being pulled toward the nose by a wayward muscle. The boy's condition had been named several times in the husband's company, but he had never been able to name it when asked to do so, nor could he name it now. The boy was supposed to wear a patch over the eye, but he could not be made to wear the patch for long, unless he was open to playing a pirate. He was occasionally so open but not always and not as often as his wife would have liked.
The couple soon sat opposite each other at the table while his son crashed at the hardwood with his toy. In this boy's hands, the giraffe became a truck with loud brakes and a louder horn. Then it became a saxophone. His son blew into the giraffe's head and made buttons of its back. The husband did his best to ignore this foolery. His wife meanwhile discussed the muscle. She named it. In Latin. The husband immediately forgot the word, but she prided herself on this sort of knowledge. Her green eyes had darkened in the months following his son's birth, then lightened, then darkened again whenever talk turned to the boy's condition. She kept her greying black hair tied in a ponytail just about all the time the husband could conjure, though this was not proof positive that her hair was always ponytailed. It meant mostly that he would have preferred the house to compel his wife to lower her hair more often and not in the dark and not merely as a preface to its washing. Her face, though, offered no reason for complaint. It remained soft-boned and young no matter time, setting, or hairstyle. Its constancy involved the regular application of creams. It was the fond envy of her lady friends. While she spoke, he held the circuit in his lap. He touched one of its dead lights. She described the operation for him in stark terms. They would drug his son, peel back the lid, aim a laser, and snip the offense. The pupil would return forever to its normative position, and the boy would be able to partake of life and love as he wished, with either man or woman, as the collective tolerance of the parents was always implied if not formally agreed upon.
He heard his wife speak through the medium of the house.
What, she had asked the doctor, were the dangers of a misaimed laser? The bastard had chuckled. The doctor was the best they could afford to go into debt with, but he did not respect her Latin. She wished for the umpteen-thousandth time that the husband had accompanied them, if only to prevent such condescension. The husband set his hands on the table, palms up. The house did not compel him to speak. She went on. The doctor eventually said that a misaimed laser could lead to a permanent sensitivity to light or, worse, a permanent insensitivity to light. Blind, she said. Blind. The doctor said not to worry. The chances were miniscule. A misaimed laser would land him on the evening news and he did not intend to land, ever, on the evening news.
The husband weighed, as best he could, the danger of blindness against the danger of schoolground taunts and the lasting traumas accrued thereby. He touched the circuit. The husband studied the ponytail. The hair fell from the tie in a junk of curls. Yet his look must have appeared tender. Perhaps a sense of their shared burden came through it. Perhaps it reflected all her anxieties related to the eye specifically and to parenthood generally. She asked him for his hands, and he gave them, and she set hers upon them, and they seemed to have found agreement. Upon what?
He realized, shortly thereafter, that the house had compelled his look and her response. He thanked the house for its help.
He wore a miner's cap for light. The otherwise dark garage was hung with lawn tools and bikes. It smelled of Topsoil, mulch, and stale smoke. Dishes and knick-knacks from before the marriage were stacked in boxes. Hand tools were stored and labeled in a wide, locked chest. His specialty tools were kept in a smaller but better loved chest. The washer and dryer thrashed at laundry. Floridian winter snuck under the doors. In the room's center, he got on a stool at his workbench and pawed at the circuit. He smoked a joint down to the roach. He sipped water. Then he opened his bag of knives and selected the shortest, finest blade among them, the .5, not the only blade in the set which his wife called useless, but among them, certainly. He wedged it into the border between the circuit's front and back. When it opened to the metal guts, he removed his cap and aimed his penlight. As he expected, the wafers and pins were arranged like a blueprint of the house. Every circuit, he surmised, was partly a map.
The kitchen-shaped wafer contained a switch the size of one shaved stubble of hair, but it was solid enough. When he applied his tweezers, the wafers lit up and the wires snapped at him. The circuit tried to attach itself first to him and, when he flinched, successfully to his workbench. The newly powered bench rattled his way, but it did not try to eat him. His water spilled, however, and his roach fell into the puddle.
His son's eye bent itself into his mind. It floated brownly and dropped leftward toward a nose that was not his son's but his own. The image burnt him. When he recovered, he found a roach, insect version, mucking about his water.
He caught it in a jelly jar meant for the storage of screws. The roach scampered round, applied its feet and antennae to the glass. The husband set the jar beside the circuit. Then he grabbed a long sticking pin from his supply, unsealed the cap, and stuck the roach through the back. The roach smoked and sparked. The smoke tasted like weed. He did not mind the waste of a specimen. The house, he knew, would send more.
In the nights, he often wandered room to room though he always ended by his son's bed. The boy honked and snorted through a kind of whiffled congestion. The house put the sound into his son and the word into the husband's head to remind the latter of the white plastic ball he had supposedly hammered around yards as a child, though the metaphorical ball here was gobbed with snot. Down the hall, his wife snored a louder, feminine double of his son's bad breathing. His son slept on his back, sheetless, in plaid pajamas, one hand shielding his heart and the other clutching the giraffe in a gentle half-nelson.
The exposed eye fluttered with dreams. The patched eye stayed patched, but it nonetheless wheeled before the husband. He set down both toolbox and circuit and pulled up a rocking chair. Along peripheral molding, roaches trooped from shadow to light to shadow. He wondered what tool would serve the purpose. The house ought to tell him but did not. Instead, the bad eye turned, a painted egg glowing with fractional intelligence. He shared this assessment with no one, though he thought it more honest than harsh, less personal than a problem endemic to the boy's age, for the brain of a two-year old Einstein could not have impressed him, much less the brain of his son. The boy battered giraffes into walls and wet his pants every second hour. Indeed the husband's thoughts were interrupted by the noisy trickle of water into his son's pull-up diaper. It spelled out the name of his son's condition: strabismus. Now, what a man might do with a word had long puzzled him, particularly words that were not English words. All words, foreign and domestic, he accepted on faith. Words, doctors, loves: these were religious articles. He set the circuit like a yardstick beside his son. He measured.
His wife lay in bed, lit moon blue by an infomercial. When he entered, she clicked on her lamp. She looked very soft. He might have touched her cheek, but her hair was tied up, and a paper was crumpled on his pillow. She fit an unwelcome, familiar look into her beauty, prompting him to stare into the open bathroom behind her. The shower curtain was pulled back to expose body washes and tile.
She read from the paper old critiques of him that he knew absolutely and immediately were printed on castellar font. She did not mean to hurt him with the use of a foo-foo font, but the house surely did. He resisted the affront, as the house meant for him to resist, by tapping the circuit against his thigh. His wife paused to ask why he was dragging around that thingamajig.
"Pondering," he said.
"Pondering, wondering what?"
"I don't know."
She folded the list and set it beside her lamp, which she clicked off, ending his view of the tile. TV light washed her legs. She had other words for him now. One of them was "love." She said this word with a heavy belt of faith. She said "doctors" too. "Understanding." "Love." "Doctors." "Zoo." He came to the bed and unlaced his shoes. He stretched out beside her. The house sent him promises which he transmitted to her. She gripped and let go of his hand. She unmuted the TV. In a low but enthusiastic voice, a host swore that his machine produced the sweetest carrots of all time.
"Shall we call?" he said.
He held the circuit like a box of fragile bones. He could not see it well in that light, but that did not stop him from seeing.
In what room, it must be asked, had they found the zoo? He had previously argued for the kitchen and later the dining room, prime sites of food and mange, but he settled that night upon the master bathroom. Excrement aside, both bathrooms and zoos pressed together real and artificial life. The African bush was fenced in. Dingoes slept in mud. Jaguars roamed behind glass. He sat on the toilet. The house's signals came through the porcelain.
That trip happened last week, right? Apparently. His wife had organized a family day with sodas, photos, and fun in mind, but she forgot the camera. He smiled. His cell phone, he said, provided him with all but a butt wipe. She smiled. His son, leashed to a monkey-face backpack, smiled. They were together enough to enjoy a butt wipe joke. Good.
Who held the lord's end of the leash? Such questions were inessential, yet they demanded his attention. Husband and wife most likely switched off duties every half an hour. The boy staggered in the lead, sometimes pulling his wife off-balance and sometimes pulling the cord so taut that he was jerked back. The husband said his son was learning about equal-opposite reaction physics. Sunlight glared off random puddles. All around were families trying to pretend they were alive, just as he was pretending that this memory was real. Space expanded and contracted, filled and emptied, according to the needs of the house. The people, animals, cages, and burgers fit into one shower tile.
Had they come only for the giraffe? His son had, though the parents hoped to get their money's worth from the venture. They tried to hold off as long as they could, plying him with gifts and face-painting. The husband asked if there wasn't some entomological exhibition around, but the boy, alone among boys, did not love bugs.
A foreign person called it what? The husband did not understand the purpose of other languages, honestly. Their fit into the house's scheme was square-pegged or round-holed, or perhaps a hunk of meat caught in a back molar and hard to floss out. This Italian or French or Spanish androgyne had paper skin and a voice that seemed damaged coming up the throat. This person stood closely enough for the husband to detect in him or her a hot lunch stink. The androgyne did have a hunk of meat in his or her back molar. It was asteroidally shaped. He or she leaned into his son and called the animal by its foreign name, probably. His son did not pay attention to the oral disaster. The androgyne seemed, in truth, to be easily ignored by all but one zoo-goer. Meanwhile, the husband's wife had procured a branch of leaves for the boy to feed the giraffe. The androgyne whispered rapidly to the husband a number of mispronounced and misused phrases in English. "Your purpose," the husband said, "is to distract me. You are effective." The androgyne bowed. His son stuck his hand into the giraffe's mouth. Its teeth were large cracked buttery ice cubes. Its pink tongue reached out. His son extended the branch. His wife snapped pictures. His son faced him. In the giraffe's black mouth the husband saw ten thousand eyes.
A platoon of roaches made camp atop his workbench. They crawled over their comrades' backs. They traced the perimeter. With their forelegs and antennae they bound the wires of the circuit to the bench's top. He gunked a straggler with Liquid Still, a chemical found in Kornin's bargain bin. He pinned the roach to a square of pegboard. His bistoury's hook was no more than a steel toenail, but he pushed it through the bug skull without trouble and scooped out the eyes. He set these in a pudding dish. He smoked. Minutes, hours later, he put one eye under the microscope. Thousands of lenses came into view. The ommatudinal majesty dragged at his heart. The single lens of his human eye was—by design—susceptible to objects of love, while this tiny roach eye took in all but the red light of the world. It processed rather than felt information. The difference suggested to him the great weakness of the human model.
The house had constructed their eyes.
If those eyes were different, their minds would be different.
The house compelled him to know that.
He smoked. The roaches popped and hatched eggs. This new generation marched in a line up a wall, along the ceiling, down his rake, down his shovel, down the family's bikes. They did not interfere with him and he did not interfere with them. He foresaw a time when all his loose property would be tied to the house, each piece of it powered by a circuit, each circuit transmitting orders to him. He smoked. His hand skin dried and split. The room ghosted at the edges. Night seemed to extend outward. Time, like space, could be balled up or strung out as the house desired.
A roach crawled atop his shoe's lip, so he began. He filled the pudding dish with roach eyes and left the sparking bodies where they dropped. Every so often he sifted through his harvest and crushed substandard eyes, trusting that he would gather enough good to suit his need. A third generation clogged up the washer. He opened the dryer and a fourth generation emerged from the towels. Fragments of roach accrued on his fingers. He nibbled on dry granola. He cut and clipped and tied eyes together and failed. His wife entered on at least three occasions. She said impossible words like "Wednesday" and, the next time, "Thursday." The house must have ordered her to lie. He pulled out the soldering iron and burned to uselessness many fine eyes. Soon the concrete was grey with smashed parts and metal shavings. His knuckles looked like bloody knots. His face hurt. His feet went numb. His elbows felt psoriatic. His mouth was too dry to speak aloud. A fifth and sixth generation wired both tool chests to the floor. They finished his granola. They made the garage smell like a gaping wound. His wife came again with his son in tow. Her hair fell in mossy strings. His son must have lost his toy. The bad eye veered, as ever, noseward. His wife spat words which the husband knew to be English but which he could not discern. "Zoo?" "Androgyne?" He did not hear love. It is true he did not pay her much attention because, shortly before her disruption, he learned at last how to proceed. Two eyes pressed together would, like happy rooms, latch on to each other. He smoked with gratitude, for this knowledge had been graced to him rather than to a doctor. He would build a great compound of compound eyes. If every roach eye contained two thousand lenses, then a human-sized simulacrum might have two million lenses spying out the wide world and, by necessity, themselves.
His son said a name.
The husband waved him off. I'm building you a gift, he thought he said. He raised the bistoury. When it is ready, I will call, and you will see.