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A Love Letter to Voyeuristic, Imaginative Acts

600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways (Part One: A Phone Call)

Essay by

3:30 p.m., Saturday.
Call this number. ###-###-####
Enter this access code. #####
Be alone.
In a quiet room.
With good reception

It’s 3:21 and I’m driving home from Pease Mountain, hoping for a spot to park with solid reception. It’s Vermont. It’s winter. The heat blasts, rattling like a gashed speaker box of hell. The price for a piece of warmth, careening around tight country curves in search of the ever-elusive four-bar standard of service.

By the time it’s 3:29, I’m near enough to the town hall, so I pull into the parking lot and turn the pickup truck to face the mountains. The night before a foot of snow had fallen, so with the truck in four-wheel drive, the axles groan in a U-turn. Wheels rub against the newly packed snow sounding like velvet pushed in the opposing direction. Directly in front of the hood is a lonely bus stop, forever unoccupied. To my right: a soccer field, two nets gaping wide in the pillowed field. Welcome, nobody. A single footpath, smooth, parallel, certain, connects the lot to the forest on the other side. Cross-country skier, likely.

Everywhere the impact of humans.

Call this number. ###-###-####
Enter this access code. #####

It’s 25 degrees and the truck’s engine purrs with a steady tenacity—a self-confident conviction reserved for machines or computer programmers. Enviable to say the least.

Be alone.
In a quiet room.

So long, engine. Shuttered to silence. I wait for the inevitable January chill to seep in. Suddenly, I’m in New Orleans, recalling how the wet cold enters your bones like an unwelcome ghost, sipping all your blood tea while nesting in your knee joint as she kicks up her heels, laughing...

With good reception.

I’m connected to a meeting waiting room. Was there music?

I zip my wool jacket up. Bury my mouth in fleece. Then, click.
A voice welcomes me.

“Say hello.”

I think that’s how it starts.
Like nearly all beginnings, that’s how it starts.
Before the surgical, unrelenting pursuit of possibilities, there’s hello.
Before the oncoming fracture, diversification of potential routes, there’s hello.
Before the widening and narrowing of outcomes, lives lived, enamored encounters, perceived triumphs, bargained losses, there’s hello.

“This will feel like a conversation, but it won’t be one.”

A mechanical voice leads us. A person? A program? Her intonations unmask a data-text input base. (Really, it’s all design. Her clunkiness is charming and an amplified lo-fi construction. All edges. To remind us, perhaps, that we are the human ones and, also, maybe to suggest that neither of us, person or programmed moderator, can ever be seamlessly ironed out.)

It’s a three-way. I have been paired, anonymously, to another ticket-holder. It could be anyone. Anywhere.1

Footnote 1. Renderings of spheres overlaying a backdrop of stars in space. Two blocks of text border the edges of the photo.

Footnote 1. Image by Aly Perry.

We are prompted with a negotiation: between us we must choose to become Person A or Person B. He, male-voiced, swiftly claims the moniker of B.

“All we have are our voices…”

... is a tenet we will hear repeated.

Right now, Person B and I are on the precipice. We stand across a great divide. We know nothing of one another. We know less about what will happen. What we do know is that we have been made reliant on the other.

What responsibility do I have, I ask myself, to make a record of this experience? On one hand, I don’t give a damn. On the other, the collection of lost things grows ever denser. Retrieving or recounting, with a “level of diligence-in-detail” is what separates the players from the dreamers. This, according to an ancient mentor of mine now residing on some distant shore. That diligence is what generates a kind of capital—for the writer, storyteller, artist, con artist, grandparent, lover, administrator, curator, climber.

It verifies: this encounter carries meaning.
It carries: this account produces value.
It produces: staying power, a diet beyond canned beans, a cultural network both real and imagined, as in, a brand.

Everyone is for sale.

Even B.
Even me.

What I might do instead is recount the effect of the piece so that we might know the shape of it rather than make a currency of its exact physiological makeup. Such is the search for dark matter, in which coordinate mapping of the space around the thing, unseen, reveals the presence of a fugitive inhabitant. Performance is a fugitive. Unseeable, actually, except via its residue, aftermath, trail of being-ness, after-image. You know it by the space created from its exit.2

Footnote 2.The outline of a person filled with a galaxy of stars is embraced by two hands also composed of a galaxy of stars. Text borders the image.

Footnote 2. Image by Aly Perry.

B and I step in.
The veil between worlds is actually rather thin. And by thin, I don’t mean fragile.

It’s what is so maddening about transcendence. We’ve become accustomed to spotting it, stepping toward it, and finding it impenetrable. The outside, where we reside, keeps hardening from the construction of some encroaching algorithm.

Yet we persist in the pursuit of some kind of loving to step into.3

Footnote 3. An image of a door that opens up and allows a green galaxy of starts to pour through it. The door is on a wall of coding.

Footnote 3. Image by Aly Perry.

This is what 600 Highwaymen is doing.
Opening portals, I mean.

I keep remembering things I haven’t been busy remembering.

Suddenly, I am transported to the west coast, twenty years ago. Incinerating Christmas trees in the annual beach bonfire. My teenage toes split the January sand. Eyes hook on a standalone stranger from the rival school. We sit on a driftwood makeshift bench. Others find spots for impulsive roll-arounds. Us? We talk over bottleneck beers with bottlenecked throats, all caught with bubbles. (It’s one way to welcome a new year.) Was being beside him on a bench more erotic, or less so, than the brave (inadequate) sexual pursuits peppering the landscape around us? I wouldn’t have been able to tell you at the time. I doubt I even knew the word erotic at that age.

What I know right now in this pickup truck is my right knee aches with barometric reading.

“Have you had surgery?”

Yes.

Right eardrum. Left knee. (I don’t clarify either.)
At this point in the interaction, the data input is precise. Economical.
Brevity rules. That is, at least, the perception. B and I play along.
Yes. No. No. Yes.

“Do you have siblings?”
“Have you been to Dubai?”
“Have you been to France?”
“What is the name of someone you remember from primary school?”

Later, when the illusion of closeness from quick-stitch questions has soldered us together, B will hear me say, “I’ll never forget the birth of my daughter.”

He might wonder, but he will never know that it did not require surgery.4

Footnote 4. The outline of two hands are cupped on top of the inmate of a super nova, as if the ads were holding it. Text borders the image.

Footnote 4. Image by Aly Perry.

What is connected will be something we are all left to wonder.

This is what 600 Highwaymen is doing.
Pulling threads through our invisible territories.

B won’t know that it was an unmedicated childbirth and that I had been non-verbal for twenty-four hours while in labor. Are details the actual drivers of value? I’m not so certain.

After all, the exhilarating fog of childbirth was what, assuredly, transported me to the long-standing shores of a lineage marked by women’s carrying, bearing, surviving. Suddenly integral to my spiritual understanding: familial love has long behaved as the pivotal component on which violence and beauty hinge. Why we fight wars. Why we defend honor. Why we believe one another at all. Why we might die so that another might live. And now I knew the legacy. Really knew. It was an apple. Newton’s. Eve’s. Mine. Ours.

B will also learn (and I can’t believe I divulged this to a stranger, but then again, it’s a common story), that I’ll never forget, at nineteen, finding out I was pregnant. He might wonder if the child then is my child now. (The answer: no.) Then is not with me now. (Is she?)

He does know: I was born in 1984.

Based on a description of a childhood photo, I’ll place him around 1976.

Is it knowledge we are after?

Fragments are powerful. More powerful, perhaps, than the completion of a story. I imagine stories, exhausted until the end. They feel like entrails, strewn. And the body all hollowed out. Better to leave the skin intact, with keyholes. It might just keep the story alive.5

Footnote 5. Image of a rendering of mountain ranges with a star shining brightly at the center. Text is on both sides of the star.

Footnote 5. Image by Aly Perry.

This is what 600 Highwaymen is doing.
Cutting the story up to take a story out.

“One day we will laugh about this.
One day we will tell a story about this.”

From what I can tell, “this” is A Thousand Ways itself. And our experience of the performance. What we divulged and the nature of our exchange.

“This” is the moment we universally find ourselves in, right now. Isolated. Together in a gathering of global fragmentation. Looking out for telephone wires. Some signal to verify we still hold meaning in the world.

“One day we will laugh about this.
One day we will tell a story about this.”

Midway through A Thousand Ways, B and I are asked to step into a dramatic narrative guided by the voice. On some level, this is an inevitable evolution of intimacy. Our fast-tracked relationship, fueled by dopamine-induced intrigue, is akin to the ledge one finds oneself when activating a romantic partnership. Within this threshold, lovers euphorically render all desired futures possible. An improved version of our own personal dramatic arc is within reach. There is nothing left for B and me to do but say yes and enter the world together. Why engage in any daring act be it love or otherwise? Because one day we will tell a story about this.

Act 1
We drive down a lone desert highway. Listening to music. Protected. Protected in velocity.

Act 2
The car breaks down. We get out. The guiding voice, she is there, too. In a white T-shirt, she claims. She is small, she claims. B and I hold her hand and walk. Maybe there is a town. Somewhere.

Act 3
Night falls. Forward momentum ceases. Stars build.6

Footnote 6. Images of the outline of two adults helping a toddler walk dow an long road. They are filled with stars, and the sky is also full of stars. We see trees as if through night vision goggles. Text overlays the night sky.

Footnote 6. Image by Aly Perry.

When I teach Modern Times, I ask students how Chaplin’s final tableau supports his critique of American capitalism while simultaneously shoring up an American Dream bootstrap mythology. We say in class, “There is no wrong answer.” And in class, this holds true. As a practice in life, it’s a questionable philosophy. Walking out into a desert, without enough water might not be the wrong idea, but it certainly falls into the category of ill-conceived, or, calamity.7

Footnote 7. An image of a mountain range in gray, with renderings of spheres. Text is inside the sphere renderings.

Footnote 7. Image by Aly Perry.

“Who will build a fire?”

I volunteer. I will.
I make a fire every day. B can’t change a flat. And he’s expressed that he is unreliable in emergency situations.

“B, tell us what you know about stars.”

It’s a kind of time travel, he says.
The fire dies down.
Stars also, I realize now, embody at least two of the adjectives I used to describe myself as a child to B: Solitary. Combustible. Why, in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, do we find it acceptable to hitch a wagon to such things?

“A, hum a song.”

I press my lips closed and sing to B and our child as she drifts asleep.
The first song that came to mind? “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
I haven’t sung it in years.
There was a time I sang it nearly every day.
In it, a grown child follows the funeral parade of her mother. “A better home awaits,” she sings, “in the sky, Lord, in the sky.”

“One day we will laugh about this.
One day we will tell a story about this.”

Here we are accounting for one another, under a canopy of constellations. The voice beckons each of us to turn off the lights in our respective rooms. The promise? Full immersion. B, like a diligent participant, has done so, plunging himself into the abyss. On the other end of this phone call, daylight floods into my pickup truck. I close my eyes, inviting darkness. I can’t see my breath anymore, but I know it exists, in sinewy hot vapors against the cold.8

Footnote 8. Image of hand passing a condolence card to the hand of a child. Text in the bottom right corner of the image.

Footnote 8. Image by Aly Perry.

I’m mapping now this faceless stranger into an outline.
That outline is colored in by what I’ve known in the world. Namely, any dark-haired, dark-eyed Brooklynite whose ancestors he pictures praying, but who now, in his apartment with bare wooden floors (no carpets at all!), paces in echo, prayer-less, having lost the positive outlook he had as a child and who once, in a hand-me-down sweater, sat atop his father’s knee. You know the type.

If someone has no carpets, where do the lost things go and hide?

B divulges: he’ll never forget seeing his friend’s body in a coffin.
I remember my childhood friend, Sam. I was in love with him. I was seven. But more, I remember his mother, weeping her full-grief contagion down the aisle at his funeral.

I imagine B, made stone by some war. Staring down into this new form his friend has taken. Maybe B is crying. Maybe B has hardened up. After all, B has answered affirmatively to the question of military service. This, after I had admitted I’ve never held a gun. And also, that I may or may not have saved someone’s life.

My acting students would be concerned with what to do with their hands. If this was them on stage, I mean. “Whatever do your hands do, anyway?” They ask.

“Give away your thoughts,” I tell them. “Save a life,” I tell them.9

Footnote 9. Children hold hands in a circle over the sun.  Text on the right hand side of the image.

Footnote 9. Image by Aly Perry.

“Put your hand on your face.”

All we have to do is survive the night.

Encounters offer a brush with.
Brush with Death. With Radiance. Alternate lives.
Mary Oliver’s words keep echoing in my head, “The world is full of radiant suggestion.”

“We will never know it all.”

What we have so far? An outline.

Could.
Might.
Wonder.

The gaping specter of my faceless stranger outlined by names, places, things, still a shimmery, elusive noun: B.

“Invite the other person into your space.
Where are they sitting?
Describe it to them.”

I say, “Hi, you.”
Then, I say, “You are sitting scrunched in the seat of a frozen pickup truck, rolling a Nalgene water bottle back and forth between your palms.”

B turns to face me, jammed in the back. The windows, at this point, have wholeheartedly fogged. It’s 25 degrees out there. Mountain weather hovers along the ridgeline, gently traversing over the silhouettes of old-growth, like a tired human wiping her brow over the kitchen sink with the back of her hand.

B, on the other hand, offers me a more pleasurable seat. A recliner, with a bright Peruvian pillow, curled into the crook of a bookshelf.
I imagine my fingers reaching out to play the musical spines of books.
Shhhh bup bup bup, they say.

This is what 600 Highwaymen is doing.
Joining us in a meeting of the minds.

We are on the desert floor, witnessing the blanket of stars.
We are visiting each other’s private residence—apartment, home, vehicle, heart, memory.
It’s an invitation. An invitation to imagine together. Then:

“Say goodbye.”

For the first time in recent memory, I feel the gravity of farewell the way it was as a youth: so permanent. So heartrending. Such agony. Farewell felt certain. I will never see this person again.

“But first, say what you will remember.”

Piece.
By piece.
I assemble your image.
Number of pieces: unknown.
Present pieces: twenty.
The rest: dotted lines.
Others: brushes of color.
Clock: ticking.

“We are almost out of time.”10

Footnote 10. Image of a door that with a hand extending out of it. The hand is open and birds are flying out of the hand. Text is at the bottom of the image.

Footnote 10. Image by Aly Perry.

There’s the scent of someone’s childhood tree perch.
So much unknown.
Inferred.
Potential.
Unreachable.

“We are out of time.”

Assembly, without attainment.
Material, without accruement.
Exchange, without cost-benefit analysis.

A thousand ways in which we again become familiar with not knowing as a source of curiosity, not just fear. Or dread.

This is what 600 Highwaymen is doing.
Arousing imaginative acts, in partnership.

You will never bring this stranger home.
Erotics, ever-present.

This is what 600 Highwaymen is doing.
Creating transformative public intimacy.

The vehicle to do this?
Theatre.
Not a subscription service.

3:30 p.m., Saturday.
Call this number. ###-###-####
Enter this access code. #####
Be alone.
In a quiet room.
With good reception.

Come in.
Assemble.
Be alive together, here.
Imagine together, here.
Maybe this is a confessional.
Maybe this is a game.
An encounter.
An exchange.

“This will not be a conversation.”

Do you feel yourself lifting from Earth?
We are here.
Fragmented, all.
Gaping chambers in limbo.

“One day we will tell a story about this.
Now, say goodbye.”

 


 

1. Every location in the universe has its own observable universe, a spherical map centered on the observer that may or may not overlap with others. The tickets at this particular performance were free. This alone breaks open the potential for radical exchange between a much broader range of experience, economic agency, with maybe even a promise to circumnavigate the tyranny of filter bubbles.

2. Consider the open doorway as your lover steps out, exiting the relationship. Or, consider the visitation by a recently deceased family member... typically in the evening when the day yawns open a gateway to the otherworld via accidental exhaustion of the elements. Silhouettes, shadows, shorelines: we live in persistent liminality.

3. [No text.]

4. It wasn’t time to divulge that I’ll never forget the birth of my daughter because, while I love my daughter, I hadn’t wanted to become a parent. The immediate and full integration of loyalty surprised me. It was the first time I felt love, if I’m honest.

5. According to Carl Sagan, “Explorations required skepticism and imagination both. Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere. Skepticism enables us to distinguish fancy from fact, to test our speculations.”

6. I’ve already given the voice the face of my actual child. Ask any mother to place her hand in a hand belonging to a small body, and she will already have formed an emotional bond with this imagined child. A mother makes children from everything. Reluctant mothers, too.

7. A worn synapse has me stepping into unknown futures with a partner who looks a lot like my college boyfriend, who was also Jewish. B is Jewish. Dangerous and sun-scorched, we cut through the landscape, à la Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or, even, the final picture of Chaplin’s Modern Times in which The Tramp and The Gamin walk hand in hand toward uncertainty on a road leading to towering hills. It’s hopeful, but will they have enough to drink, I wonder?

8. I hear a tenet of my religious upbringing ringing between my ears: Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. That’s one thing I know about stars, in daylight anyway. Now it sounds like some soft postcard platitude or a clumsily delivered encouragement at a funeral.

9. How to answer, honestly, the question, “Have you saved someone’s life?” It’s relative, I’d redirected. I’ve witnessed too many friends, spiritually displaced, set in a holding pattern of despair. It’s as if their feet don’t tread the same earth, their eyes blur the fine details away. A body displaced. You wouldn’t leave a friend like that. You might even spend the night and hold them until morning.

10. I hear my mother, from my childhood, explain to me the current health of her dear friend wracked with cancer: Not long for this world, she says, rolling up the driver’s side window.

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