Picture a Bed
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As I moved to, out of habit, put the whole stack of mail directly into the recycling, my hand brushed against paper of a stock too good for the usual bills, or statements of benefit, or policy positions of candidates for local elections. They don’t spring for the heavyweight linens when they’re writing to let me know there’s still no interest being earned on my savings, or that the church’s food drive needs more donations. This envelope, though, was thick, and felt like cotton. The return address was unfamiliar: “Saint Augustine's Abbey.” I was intrigued, but I was also in the middle of unloading my groceries, so I set it on the kitchen table to examine it later.
I had shopped mindlessly, forgetting the recurring frustration of a fridge full of produce with no intended aim. Yet again, I found myself staring into its light, noticing the soy sauce that had dried, while dripping, from the door’s shelf down onto the glass ledge of salad greens and eggs, then further into the drawers meant to keep carrots crisp. Inspiration remained demure. I tried to mentally add up the swiss chard, the bulgarian feta, the long-opened jar of anchovies, the shelf-table lemon juice, the parsley, and the remaining half of the bottle of red wine, but no dinner came to mind. Thinking of the label of the as-yet-unopened letter, I decided to make a cheese soufflé, since the abbey is known for its beer and cheese. The meal would go well with the ale I'd just picked up, I decided.
When I finished eating, I meant to return to the table's pile, but I only made it a few steps before a memory of my boyhood at Catholic school decided to make my reacquaintance: the chanting of the psalms during mass, the hymns, the procession of the Eucharist to be shown in the tabernacle, the robes, the vestments, and the smell of incense. I loved the rituals, the pageantry, the beautiful prayers, but I hated going to confession. Whenever I could, I told the priest that I had already done my morning confession, and they always believed me. The priests and nuns thought I was devout and righteous, since I was a great student, always hunched over a book or a rosary, and they had no way of knowing that, for hours each day, I had been searching for an answer to a question even I couldn’t articulate, let alone atone for, if atonement was required. In a hundred years, those priests and nuns would be dead, I thought then, and no one would be the wiser of my real thoughts and feelings. All that is to say that Catholicism hadn’t really been my thing, then, and, anyway, I had since become involved with the Episcopalians, from whom one needed less privacy. But I suddenly felt like giving the Church a try for old time's sake, so I grabbed an old jacket from the back of my closet, shoved the postponed letter in its breast pocket, and went out the door.
On the way to the abbey, there was a heavy fog. The road's pavement was slick with a sheen of rain, though the sky had been dry all day. Just as I crossed the bridge, though, the air was suddenly clear and filled with the scent of smoke. By the time I arrived, the sun had hidden behind a black veil, and fire trucks were flooding the streets to fight the raging blaze. I dipped my fingers in the growing puddle as if it were an aspersorium, made a sign of the cross, knelt on the sidewalk, and then, feeling rather awkward, stood back up, looking for a less ridiculous reading position. A sign directed me to the garden, the only portion of the church not on fire, where I searched for a gate but found no entrance. I settled for folding my body onto the curb that jutted out from the forbidden garden's fence.
Inside the envelope, there was a rather disappointing invitation: “Dear guest, Please join us for dinner from the other side of the world.” The generic opening implied I had fallen for the whimsical and expensive campaign strategy of some NGO hoping for money. The next line brought me back, though, with its casual style: “By the way, please bring some food that you think is tasty on your continent. We’ll send the address once you confirm attendance.” The letter was signed, “Yours, the Innkeeper.” Though I was not in the habit of accepting invitations from the post, by this decade, the experience was novel enough that, using a pen I found in my pocket, I enthusiastically completed the enclosed card for RSVPs and checked "yes.” I then stood, making my way from the burning church back towards home, stopping only to deposit my reply in the mailbox. On my walk, I considered what food would best represent the continent of North America, and felt trapped: my options were to imply that my own dumb, limited upbringing represented a landmass of some 600 million, or to appropriate some other culture—almost any would come with better food—and try to pass it off as my family’s. I settled on honesty, deciding to prepare a tater tot casserole, something I hadn’t eaten, let alone made, for a good twenty years. It’s not that I especially like hotdish, but it was the most properly “regional” food that came to mind, and I figured everyone likes fried potatoes. Here, I was repressing some sense of pride I in fact felt in the food I grew up with (not for the food itself, necessarily, but for the simply truth that it was always there, that I was always fed, a state my parents spent the bulk of their waking hours ensuring), but I was also pleased to remember that I knew that “hotdish” meant “casserole” in Norwegian. I had made up my mind about the menu, and accepted that I, at least, would enjoy the food that I brought to the table, even if it failed to satisfy my mysterious host.
I had to wait a full week for further instructions, but once they came, I realized the other end of the world was, in this case, merely across town. This was a rather rude awakening from fantasies of a private jet to a space station, a middle-of-the-night ferry across the Atlantic, a series of trains, boats, and helicopters transporting me to God-knows-where. Recognizing the place as I approached, I assumed that my friend Alan was pursuing some new whim, and felt only a bit of disappointment that I was not, after all, attending a secret international gathering—at least the trick didn’t require the purchase of a last-minute flight to Shanghai or Melbourne, as I had imagined with such certainty in the intervening week that I had requested an increase to my line of credit.
The charming host met me at the door with a big smile and offered to show me my room “for the weekend”—though I had no intention of staying that long. As usual, Alan’s apartment was oddly small but very clean. I thanked him for the invitation and offered him my hat. As we walked up the stairs, I noticed that Alan’s shoes were new. He had purchased some Italian hand-made leather flats, which were bright red. He didn’t seem to notice my staring. Gesturing towards the uncharacteristic loafers, I told him I wouldn’t risk wearing them tonight, given the rain. “Not to worry!” he said, waving his arms, as if swirling the imagined downpour into a rainbow that would wrap its tail snugly around my head. “Don’t worry,” he repeated, “It is all handled.”
Of course, I suspected that Alan was fucking with me: we'd known each other for years, and he was acting as if we were strangers. As much I dreaded playing the fool, though, I also didn't want to give him the satisfaction of expressing surprise. I followed him up the stairs, two at a time. As I stood there, shaking slightly, I realized that we were alone. “The others are all asleep,” he said, and took off his hat and flipped on the light. I thought he was joking, as new illumination revealed that there were at least twenty other people in the study, sitting up and staring. As I tried and failed to catch their eyes, or to exchange a wave, I accepted that they showed few other signs of consciousness. One visibly sleeping baby did smile. But moments later, everyone was on their feet, filling glasses, shaking hands, acting as though they had just walked through the same door as I had.
The room was lit by fire. A table, groaning under the weight of food, drink, and odd decorative items, had been placed just inside the door for the guests to drop off their dishes on arrival. I was steered toward a chair towards the back, and Alan was on the sofa before me, leaning and waving an empty glass. The chair was low and wooden, and in any other situation I would've found it uncomfortable, but now it served as the best shield I could've hoped for against the wall of faces. I started feeling queasy as people pressed me for introductions: their names, where I had been, if this was my first time here. I made it through by cracking jokes, but there were some awkward beats, and I found myself in a corner, uncertain whether to make eye contact.
An older gentleman in a blue blazer, one of two who had not spoken to anyone since my arrival, walked toward me. To break the silence, I began to recite Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”:
“‘Glory be to God for dappled things / For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow,’” I started, but I couldn’t make the third line heard over the man’s interruption. He seemed to treat this not as a pre-existing text, to be recited by heart, but as one we’d have to write collaboratively.
“For roses at the beckoning violet’s cost / For corn, with purple-blossomed cobs,” he offered, looking sad when I began to furiously shake my head.
“No, no,” I clarified, “There’s no purple in this poem at all! After the cow, it’s . . .”
But his voice was louder and more stubborn than mine. He tried again: “For rose-moles all in stippled avenues of the brain.” He nodded while he spoke, as if agreeing with some invisible party.
“That’s closer!” I tried to stay friendly, but the butchering of Hopkins felt sacrilegious. “It’s ‘stipple upon trout that swim’—fish, rather than cerebral roads.”
He was unfazed: “for cheeks of wheat-colour, / for lips of rose-red, / and a dignified air.”
I gave in, relieved to at least have a temporary purpose. In this manner, we rewrote the poem, each supplying alternate lines:
by Gerard Manley Hopkins and the man in a blue blazer
Glory be to God for dappled things -
For skies of azure and fruit of gold and leaves of green;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
For love-me-love-my-dog eyes;
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
and yields harvest and harvest. He's planted, I sowed.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
with difficulty in profusion.
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
Quick, quick; sweet, sweet; dim, dim; strong, strong; high,
As he countered with “amen,” I realized he was holding a plate piled high with my own casserole; liberated from his maddeningly false recitation, he returned to forking the individual tots into his mouth. I looked up, finally beginning to take in the room, and saw that only I had gone for the motley potluck plate, following my nibbles of peking duck with samples of Oaxacan chocolate, washing down onigiri with halo-halo, dipping vegan momos into a bolognese sauce. The others appeared to have received more specific instructions, having chosen just one dish to consume for the evening, and I worried that I looked ill-bred. Above me, the room hummed with conversation, but I heard little. Everyone’s speech sounded like a song you hear only faintly from down the hall.
The voice of a woman to my right began to break through the din, and I could hear she was speaking in Japanese with a French accent. Her plate held a single, giant crepe, criss-crossed with strips of bacon, a fried egg where one might expect a bow on this porcine present. “Excuse me,” I muttered, then repeated louder, interrupting her conversation, “but I notice I’m the only one sampling the full spread. Is there some rule? Do you know anything about this party?”
She laughed, waving away the people to whom she’d just been speaking to give me her full attention. “Yes,” she said, “It's a party of death. You're the last to arrive.” She eyed me more thoroughly. “There may be a space near a window.” Turning to the people that waited with her, she said, "Excuse us, please." They bowed and moved away to let her take me by the arm and guide me to a table against the far wall, near the window. “Picture a bed,” she prompted, “and then put the bed you’ve pictured in a room.”
I followed the instruction silently, imagining wide curtains of maple, draped over square windows. The bed in my mind was very big, and in the center of it was a silver white polar bear, laying down, almost too exhausted to sleep.
The woman responded to these thoughts as if I had spoken them clearly, and aloud. She offered me feedback: “Your room isn't a very interesting place, but the next room is much more exciting: it is made of ice. Walk into it. In the bed, the snow has turned to rain and the pillow is a cloud. A girl in a pink dress is curled up, looking very cold. The girl watches as a handsome prince in blue jeans and a silk shirt steps out of his airplane. He's hot and the girl fans to keep him cool and brings him tea. ‘What's your name?’ she asks him. ‘My name is John, your name?’ John smiles at this. ‘My name is also John!’ Then they laugh and drive away in his pickup truck.”
This was doing nothing to help me understand the party. I tried asking her to explain the game, but she was busy laughing. She gave me an enormous wink, and said, with a twinkle in her eye, “Don't think about it… just do! Let’s party, baby!”
Hardly a useful instruction, but I was grateful for any direction. I joined a man who was feasting on a tray of lox at the table, and repeated her prompt: “Picture a bed, and then put the bed you’ve pictured in a room.”
I lost my vision, briefly, as the room around me was replaced by the one in the man’s mind. The room wasn’t that big, and the bed was, again, made of snow. The night had turned into day, and one of the walls had started to melt. “Sometimes winter arrives early, doesn't it?” I heard him think. “The girl's name was John, and she lived and worked in town all year. You like to climb up here, and you like to pretend you’re a giant, don't know why that is.”
I thanked him for his thinking and sent him on his way, after the fashion in which I had just been trained: “Your room isn’t very interesting, but the next rooms, those are very exciting: one is made of glass, and another is made of sugar. It’s warm. Someone has put a big pot of tea on the stove. And someone else has put a kettle on the burner. Snow is melting on the floor. That room is nice. You can see out of the windows to the lake. The ice on the lake is sparkling.” The man smiled, and repeated the exercise with a beautiful stranger who had been, to this point, hiding under the table.
“Picture a bed,” he encouraged them, “and then put the bed you’ve pictured in a room.”
At first I was surprised when their imagination filled my view again, presuming only the one who asked the question would experience this brief telepathy. I had to admire my commitment to order, noticing how quickly I had acclimated myself to a situation which, admittedly, was unlikely to reveal itself as following a set of predictable rules. I tried to roll with it. Theirs was a very small room, again, and there was barely any space for the twin-sized bed. The snow from outside was, as usual, melting on the floor. The walls were white and very cold. The bed was made of wet leaves.
Remaining nestled under the cherry legs, they whispered to Alan, who heard from across the long hall, “Picture a bed, and then put the bed you’ve pictured in a room.”
Alan’s bed stood out from the others: it was in a painting by a famous Italian—I don't remember his name—set off into the upper right corner, with a saint dying in it, I think. A picture of a room, a vase, a white cup and saucer, a spoon standing up in the cup, a yellow curtain on the window framing a tree in blossom. A blue bucket. What else? A yellow round ball. Something else. Red velvet curtains on the door. They had little lead-to-the-floor windows like in churches, two on either side. And you could see, opposite, a big tree in blossom, while all the rest of it within was of the same grey. It was a big room, with a green military-looking jacket, a dress. A man's dress. A long skirt and a long jacket. And high up on one of the walls was a large painting of sailing ships. This room was in one of the turrets off the second floor. There was a great parlor in the other turret. The library was in the front of the house, just behind the big curved staircase that goes, up, up, up. “Picture what we did in Chicago,” I heard him think. “We went to a ball, a hop.”
Alan, now, shouted to the convened party: “Picture a bed, and then put the bed you’ve pictured in a room.”
All around me, I heard my companions’ elaborations. Now add a machine. Can a machine be comfortable? I don't know, said I-don't-know-who. And I don't mean to be a spoilsport, but I've got to tell you what comes next. You are going to have to have a green dining room. And in the green dining room there are green chairs and a long green table. Hanging on the wall is a huge basket with poppies in it. It will also have, down at the end by the hallway, some of those Roma pictures on enameled frames. And the bathroom, since it is on a second floor, has a stairway to the first floor. There's a green stairway and at the top of it you will find a bathroom and a toilet. Can we have a TV? No. Picture a bed, red curtains on the wall. A big mirror. A candle on the dresser. That's all. Let's try it. Picture a bed in which a boy is saying, "No!" Don’t forget the boy. Picture a girl saying "Yes!" A great big wonderful tomorrow opens up, like the curtains in the morning.