Instructions for an installation was first published by Cardigan Press in 2003, in the collection ‘Normal service will resume’.
‘Here,’ he told me. ‘These are the taste buds for fear. These ones taste jasmine when it’s cold outside but the flowers think it’s warm. These ones are for the times while you wait for your friends to finish saying their goodbyes; the times you know the bus is coming but they just don’t care enough to wind up, to say “Hey, I’ve got to go. The bus is coming.” These ones taste oily grit under your fingernails when you’re looking in the bottom of your bag for 50 cents, but can only find 10. They taste what it’s like when the phone is there in front of you and all you have is the weight of 10 cents in your hand.’
He held the flesh up in front of me, forced his littlest finger under the sinew and pulled it upwards, tore the skin away from the fatty flesh beneath.
‘Here,’ he told me, and he pointed with the same little finger, held the skin away. ‘Here.’
I looked, and he let the skin loose. ‘Here. When you taste acrylic fibers under your fingers; when you rub your fingers along the seam of a car-seat cover and think about the skin of his inner arms – this is where you taste it. This is the taste of the veins of his arms, the taste of his sleeves rolled up; the taste of the sinews in his forearms and the softness in the crook of his elbows. It’s here.’
He’d pulled me up from the gutter that night on his way out. He’d taken my photo, then pulled me up from the gutter. ‘I’m on my way out,’ he’d said. ‘You should come with me.’
I was full of gin – no more tears left, but still the gin that had brought me here.
‘I have these things to do,’ I’d told him. ‘I have places to sit.’
He wasn’t interested. Later he said he’d seen my fingers picking through the wrappers in the gutter, seen my fingers sliding under the edges of my shoes, looking for an anchor, and he’d known. I couldn’t remember any of that, and even later still I realized he’d made the whole thing up.
‘You know what?’ he’d said. ‘Let’s go for a drive.’
I had felt the acrylic fibers of the car seat covers under my fingertips, but didn’t know the taste buds for them yet. His car had a tape player that worked. I didn’t know the tape he was listening to, but I used it as a soundtrack to watch the buildings go by; leant my head back and let them slide by beneath me, watched like a pigeon flying upside down. It was raining. The windscreen wipers were in time with the music. While I thought about something else – the way rain looks when you’re a pigeon flying upside down, drops flying up to meet you – they slid surreptitiously away from the music into a beat of their own, hung around outside the tempo like kids smoking at the bottom of the oval while the football team practiced, then slunk back in time again, blended back in with the crowd.
‘Why were you crying?’ he’d asked me.
I tapped my foot in time with the windscreen wiper, obstinately ignored his tape.
‘Do you not want to talk about it?’
‘I’m just drunk. I was just drunk.’
Foot tapping now in time with the music.
And I’d thought to tell him a story I’d dreamed about a girl in a car, crying.
‘Here’s why I was crying,’ I said to him. ‘Driving into town this morning, she and I, we took a hump in the road too fast, a hump and a dip; we left our stomachs behind at the top of the rise.
‘ I wanted to tell her it felt like my soul had been knocked loose, ejected out of my mouth. I felt that feeling like in dreams, like I’d caught the spin of the earth just right, just at the point where it would fling me loose of the ground and I’d be flying. But I wasn’t.’
He watched me. Waited. There wasn’t anything else to tell, so he asked, ‘And that’s why you were crying?’
‘Not really. I just wanted to tell you that story. It was about driving.’
He pressed fast forward on the tape player. His tape player had the ability to find the beginning of the next song. He didn’t have to jolt his way there by tiny increments. I liked that.
‘Do you want to hear another possible story about why I was crying?’
‘Is this one true?’
‘Not really. Does it matter? We’ve only just met.’
He was listening to the tape.
‘Is it far, where we’re driving?’
‘A little way. You might as well tell me the story.’
‘Would you mind having it told to you as if it was written down, like a chapter in a book? Or like a script?’
[A silvery bar. She’s speaking again.]
Her: ‘By the way, we’re not talking to one another.’
Him: ‘Sorry. I know it’s inconvenient with the three of us being here together, but, well…’
Her: ‘You don’t mind, do you? You’ll hardly notice after a while.’
Him: ‘We’ve found it quite peaceful in fact. The quiet. Quite peaceful.’
Her: ‘You understand, don’t you? We just can’t. Just can’t bear to speak to one another anymore. It’s just not possible. Sorry.’
Him: ‘We’re happy to talk to you, of course, though.’
Her: ‘Oh yes, quite happy. Things are fine with you.’
Him: ‘Oh God, yes. We adore you.’
Her: ‘And why wouldn’t we? It’s so great to be out with you. Thanks so much for coming. We haven’t seen you in ages.’
Him: ‘It has been ages. We can’t let that happen again. Now, what will you have?’ [Trying to catch the waiter’s eye.] ‘Excuse me? ‘Scuse me? Yes please. I’m having a Citron and tonic, thanks; oh and one for her. That’s OK, isn’t it? A Citron?’
Her: ‘I’ll have one too, thanks.’
I bend over the bar, resting on my elbows, and sip at the lip of my glass, break the meniscus. I don’t like to use the straw. There’s a filthy beige half-moon on the glass from my lipstick. These people are making me bad tempered.
Me: ‘I’m going to the bathroom.’
They’re not listening.
As I turn the corner into the narrow corridor I look over my shoulder, watch them kiss with their hands in each others’ hair.
Someone’s left the window in the bathroom open, so I climb out. I’ll come back tomorrow for my coat.
Where are we going? I didn’t ask out loud. I was getting sober now, and being sober was making me scared. Where are we going?
He pulled into my driveway.
‘This is my driveway.’
‘I know. This is the closest place to park. You know, to go to your house.’
‘Thank you for taking me for a drive.’ I looked at my feet, felt around the edge of my shoe, ran my finger under the edges of my shoe and back out again. ‘I feel better now.’
‘You were doing that before,’ he said. ‘When you were sitting, before. I saw your fingers picking through the wrappers in the gutter, and I saw your fingers sliding under the edges of your shoes. You seemed as though you were looking for an anchor. I thought; that is, I knew…’
I watched his face. He looked at his fingers in his lap while he talked, looked at my fingers in my shoe, looked at my face while he thought I looked away. He spoke into his lap, though, to his fingers, when he said, ‘We’re here now. This is where we’re going.’
Looked me in the eye.
‘Do you want,’ I asked, because he looked as if this was the thing I would say now, ‘to come in?’
He got out of the car and shut the door behind him. I took my finger out of my shoe and followed him up the stairs.
As I closed the front door behind us and turned around, he placed his hand on the wall beside my head and stared at me. ‘There are things I have to show you.’ His hair fell over his eyes, and he pushed it aside with his other hand. His fingers were long and there was blood under his nails. ‘Where’s the bathroom?’
I took him there. When I turned to go to the kitchen, to put the kettle on, he said, ‘No. You have to be here too.’
In his pocket, in a tin box made for mints, or maybe tobacco, he had a tongue. ‘Here,’ he said, and he started to show me. ‘These are the taste buds for fear.’
Later: lying on the sloping ground of my back yard, a small, sharp rock in the small of my back and acacia twigs in my hair. Lying under stars he held my hand.
‘The stars make me queasy.’
He turned his head on its side to look at me.
‘No, not queasy. They make me feel – oh, what are the words for it? – dirty. They make me feel dirty. Like there’s grease on my face, little bumps, a rash of tiny pimples, and I want to go wash, I want my face to squeak from the cleanness and all the bumps to be gone. I want the sky to be smooth.’
‘You don’t like stars?’
‘I don’t care for them. They make my face itch.’
I let go of his hand to pull the twig from my hair. I flung it ineffectively at the fence, and reached for his hand again, which was gone.
He’d sat up, and was cleaning the blood from under his fingernails, staring at the whorls of his fingerprints.
‘Have you seen the skin of fingerprints when you strip it from off the fingers?’
‘No. Does it grow back?’
‘It doesn’t grow back. Fingerprints and toeprints, they don’t grow back. Ears; fingerprints; toeprints: unique. And you take them away and they’re gone, and you can’t get them back. Do you want to see my place?’
I put my hands behind my head and closed my eyes to block out the stars.
‘Tell me why you’re like this,’ he said.
When I was eleven years old my father lost his job. We lived in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. There was dust everywhere. The dust was red. My mother had given birth to us squatting in dust, given birth to me and my five sisters, and sometimes there had been no one there to help her. When there was no one there to help her, the little girls she had fell in the dust and spent their first few minutes caked in red. She wiped them off with paper towels, and later dogs would eat the trash. My father worked in a canning factory. The factory canned mushrooms in butter sauce, and mushrooms in herbed butter sauce. When I was eight, they started canning low-fat mushrooms, which were in a yellow sauce that was mostly water and cornstarch and salt. When I was eleven, my father was laid off. He was good at his job, but people didn’t like the canned mushrooms anymore. They wanted frozen meals. None of us understood that. No one we knew had anywhere to keep a frozen meal. Not frozen, anyway. So he came home and sat in a chair – we had one chair, which my mother held onto the leg of while she was squatting and giving birth – and told us we wouldn’t be eating canned mushrooms anymore, and after that he didn’t talk much about anything. My mother was good with babies, so she went to work at the studio where they painted pictures of big eyed children for greeting cards and motel rooms and such. She cleaned the brushes with paper towels. The ladies who worked there, the painters, talked among themselves at lunch time, in the lunch room, about how much easier their work would be if the children were taxidermied. They’d say this at least once a day, and every time one of them said it, the others would laugh. My mother would have to laugh too, because she was the woman who cleaned the brushes. She told us that some of the children were sweet. But they all scared her. She tried not to stare at them, but she was so unsettled by their giant eyes. My sisters and I would pretend to have giant eyes; we’d play at being models for the card people. There wasn’t much to do at our house, so that was what we’d play. One day my father told us we wouldn’t be able to go to school anymore, that we would have to get jobs too, because my mother was old and tired and he didn’t want her to be scared by the children anymore. He was worried she would grow weak from fear. We didn’t leave school right away, but we tried to find jobs so that we could. Unfortunately, in our town there were only two places to work: the painting studio and the canning factory. Neither of them would give us a job. My sisters and I felt very bad. My father sat all day looking at the dusty floor; my mother had begun laughing at home with the same laugh she used in the lunch room at work. We were a burden to them. If it wasn’t for us, our mother could leave her job and they could both go, leave, go somewhere else – just take the bike and go, him on the pedals, she with her legs hung over the handlebars. The bike had a basket with flowers on the front. There wouldn’t be room for the chair, but perhaps they could leave it behind. So that day when we got home from school my sisters and I borrowed a rope from a friend of ours who had a dog, and we tied it to a rafter in our house. We had to ask dad to move over a bit on the chair so we could use the edge of it to stand on, and he was OK with that. After my first sister hanged herself, he asked what we were doing, but we told him it was a game, and he said OK and looked at the floor some more. It was hard, standing on the chair and untying my sister, lifting her down, then tying the noose again so my next sister could have her go. It was hard, but we were pretty used to difficult stuff. We’d all had our fair share of fixing the bike when it broke, for example. So there was just me and one other sister left to go when my dad said, OK, that’s enough. This is a stupid game. He actually got up and picked up the chair and went outside; took the chair outside. He said, I want to sit out here in the sun now, I’m tired of that game. I’m tired of it. Just stop. So we had to stop. Later dad died and mum took my sister and me here. We didn’t have to ride the bike because she had a friend in town who drove us most of the way.
When I woke up I was lying in bed and he was drawing my outline on the sheet with a thick pen. Piled beside the bed, on the floor, were drawings on acetate, drawings of the stories I’d told him, drawings of my stomach and my lungs, my duodenum and the bones of my foot.
‘Is there a photo for that one?’ he asked.
‘Sort of. Can I move?’
I got him the picture of my mum beside the ping-pong table, and he added it to the pile.
‘Don’t get back in bed. I need that sheet. Do you want to go take a bath or something? I’ll finish up in here. Do you want me to put a clean sheet on the bed?’
He was making notes. I took my towel from the back of the door and started running a bath. He kept writing, so I went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of whiskey. Bits of bread crust, grains of rice stuck to the soles of my feet: in the bathroom I set my glass down and sat on the edge of the bath to wipe them off. When I put my feet in the hot, foamy water they hurt, and I couldn’t tell if the water was too hot or my feet too cold. I got undressed anyway, switched off the light and got in.
Instructions for an installation
Electric carving knife
Stories and sketches of stories
A floor lamp with a high wattage bulb
Freeze the subject, then slice laterally from head to toe: each slice should be no thicker than half an inch. Check for translucency – if light cannot pass through the slice, trim it. Press each slice between two pieces of Perspex and hang in a line from the ceiling of a room: if you are standing in front of the first slice, the slices behind should be hidden from view. Keep the room at 10 degrees centigrade below freezing. If necessary, provide coats. In the bottom left corner of each piece of Perspex, affix the relevant photo. In the bottom right, affix the relevant story or sketch of story. On the front panel, affix a photo of the subject in the present day: a story should not be necessary. Place the floor lamp behind the back panel. Switch it on.