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The Garden

Joe’s Place

by Omar Zahzah


A. Joe had it all figured out: as the energy cycles of the ages shiveringly converged towards the undisputable End of Days, there was only one way to read the invisible lettering that riddled the accumulated heft of extant environs—as literally as possible.

Metaphor was moribund, analogy atrophied; nothing could be concealed, or compared to anything besides itself, for the world’s flora, fauna and exotica had become so weighted by their secrets that they would, in a manner of speaking, peel back, revealing all, almost as a pupating flower (almost, but not quite, given the embargo on figurative strata of expression and analysis). A. Joe—there was stipulation that the A. stood for “Average,” but this mystery was never clarified; Joe required neophytes, or Frequenters of the Place, to actually call him by the first initial and monosyllabic name, maintaining that the jarring feel of the unconventional appellation would “stir” Frequenters from rote respect for authority greased by lexical commonplace—claimed to have reduced the Story of Everything to a single Word.

The Word?

Privilege.

Check it: history—hissstory—was the hisss of stories of the Unprivileged being crushed by, and at times fighting back against, the Privileged. But no matter how hard Privilege repressed, everything bounded in a certain direction, no turning back or roundabout. And the End, with all the scarlet, vengeful tenor suitable to a healthy Apocalypse, would see the Privileged come crashing down, so many flaccid Humpty Dumptys falling egg-head-first into the Oblivion of a righteous inferno eagerly lapping its roaring chops. Marx had seen it, in a way, but though the class struggle bit had been appropriately literal, that Hegelian dialectic was like a fungus of abstraction, gradually depriving the sufficiently prophetic components of the ideology of any fresh air until they flatlined. Hegel himself had seen it, too, especially in the insight that history’s course is irreversible, but he’d applied it to basically everything and so nothing at all. Freud had seen it, but was essentially a heretic to A. Joe because he founded an entire school about “adjustment” through overcoming conditions inspired by leftover resentment against Big Daddy Privilege. Only cops cope, A. Joe sang.

Despite Joe’s moratorium against nuance, Christ exerted a strangely doubled role in his “musings” (he would not refer to them as Teachings, feeling the term was antithetical to his undeniable humility, a quality that all Frequenters chipperly confirmed any time they were asked about the issue). On the one hand, his miracles had been guaranteed by the Privilege of heritage. However, through his dealings and ultimate sacrifice, Christ represented the ultimate embodiment of one who had sufficiently checked his privilege.

What would Christ do? A. Joe would ask as a prelude to a vicious rebuke against a Frequenter, feel like shit. It was rumored that a former Frequenter of Joe’s Place—he would not refer to it as a school, feeling it an elitist jab against all who did not have the Privilege of schooling—had asked Joe why there were only Western, and male forerunners in his musings, to which Joe had famously replied that he hadn’t had the Privilege of studying very much in his early life besides the yellowed anthology, A Survey of Significant Thought, Second Edition, which was now resigned to decorative obsolescence behind a glass case propped up by a silver dais, a mnemonic aesthetic reminder that books were henceforth irrelevant to all the Frequenters of Joe’s Place. Instead, reading material consisted entirely of online screeds of those whom Joe identified as the Unprivileged, directly uploaded to a site known as Flitter, which prioritized heavily truncated and immediate snippets of self-expression. Besides a few architectural aberrations—the somewhat gaudy preservation of the anthology; a rather intricate logo for the Place that depicted an A (the most Privileged letter of the alphabet) becoming a Z (the most Unprivileged; some rumored that the “Z” might also stand for whatever Joe used for a last name, which could have been Zebedee, Zebulon, Zeitgeist, Zounds, but in any case Joe never clarified) with an open Eye in place of the A’s typical unfilled triangle (once, Joe had been asked if the Eye represented the deepened insight of himself and, by extension, the Frequenters of the Place, to which he grew ferocious with indignation and barked, “The literal privilege of seeing. Have you learned NOTHING?”) that perched atop the Place’s Front Door and the left arm-braces of the Frequenters’ otherwise unremarkably black liveries; the many computers—the Place was Simple.

Five rooms: a Basement that no one but Joe was permitted to enter, the No-Dream Room (where the Frequenters retired at the same time and slept for three hours a night to looped recordings of Joe’s beratements blaring from speakers at all four corners), the recreational Broke Room, where Frequenters could pass the time playing a computer game that made the process of willingly transferring their savings to Joe’s bank account even more enjoyable because it was comprised of levels that grew increasingly difficult with ever-more evil bosses (Protectors of Privilege) that needed to be defeated, the Maintenance Room, where Frequenters were allowed just enough of the elevatingly tasteless grub and water that the Place provided to keep them going while disabusing them of any taste for luxury, and the Shame Room. This is where Frequenters spent most of their time, and when they weren’t tearfully confessing all of their accomplishments for Joe to mock in front of the rest of the group, it was where they sat, eyes running into the deadened blue of lighted screens, reading Flitter updates.

Everything’s so HEAVY. Why why why, one entry went, This is all YOUR fault, went another, give me a world of my own.

Do you see, Joe would seethe as they read, do you see? Tremble in repentance at what you have done. Their suffering is on your hands.

Because of its literality, Flitter, Joe explained (he never wrote anything down himself), was the final, perfect manifestation of the Word. It was the most exalted culmination of human expression mingled with the divine telos. All forms break down, Joe intoned, sagely, this is their ultimate fate. The most sinuous frame shrinks to a brittle skeleton. Then less. Do you think the fat and warmth of wordy novels, five minute plus articles will ever re-replace Flitter’s innards and intestines? Don’t hurt your heads with it… watch me scan these guts for the gore of divinity.

A metaphor?

Shush, Joe snapped, pay attention.

Where did they come from, these Frequenters, Before the Place? Before was never broached, a contraband world locked away in the vault of steeled necessity and fortitude, but it wouldn’t be hard to sketch a loose list all the same: the most high-end restaurants, cafés, therapist’s offices, wherever it was that individuals unfeelingly passed on obscene amounts of money, hoping that the transaction, after years of failure, would somehow, this time, work to restore the feeling out of the reach of whose province it typically only interred them farther and farther below. All, had they ever spoken of it to one another, would have occasioned their tenure at the Place to have begun at the exact same moment: the discovery of an alluringly bare-bones flyer that read,

alphabet-2051722_1920
FEEL BAD?

YOU SHOULD.

COME TO JOE’S PLACE.

CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE ONCE AND FOR ALL.

letters-632044_1920

Only a phone number was provided. Many of the Frequenters were older, and if not parents themselves, were at least involved with youth in some way through their professions, so something about that phrase preceding the final four words of the advertisement, before merely the cause of waves of dismissal, frustrated eye rolls and irritated scoffs, now seemed to burrow right into the gray suns of their hearts like a glow-worm. If they had collectively compared the prelude to their arrivals, all would have described this as the beginning of their Illumination.

Beyond his own words and ample exposure to Flitter feeds, A. Joe also brought the Unprivileged, in the Flesh, to the Place. And when the Unprivileged came, they came impossibly young, angrily baby-faced, proffering the dregs of life’s ravishment in warm, brightly colored costumes, purringly luxe autos, roiling in the slow evaporation of 1st class hangovers, and with thousands upon millions of Flitter Followers to their names. Remember, A. Joe cautioned the recovering Privileged Frequenters, you are Unworthy.

And they knew it to be True.

There was never direct reference among the Followers to a Before for Joe. But besides some hushed whispers about a past career as a government-level physicist fired for unethical experimentation that were ultimately dismissed as rumors (how could such a past square with the presence of the exalted Anthology?), general wisdom, peculiar for how little it needs direct articulation to form a general picture, filled in the following details: a childhood of humble stock, most likely a farmer; trained himself in his spare time in electronics and subsisted on entry-level engineering jobs (given that he’d had the gift of Genius but not the Privilege of a College Education that more advanced positions often demand), after which there was a marriage to a wealthy heiress with whom Joe fathered two children before absconding with a housekeeper and a good deal of his wife’s family fortune. His moral clarity had ultimately prevented him from making any sort of amends or gestures of reparation to his former family because, as went the wisdom of the Place, his family had the Privilege of Wealth. Only the Privileged need to apologize, atone, and display ample penitence for their undeserved advantages through suffering, while the Unprivileged merely need carry about the great work of mitigating their suffering by any means necessary.

Still, as they tend to do, even among the most dutiful, rumors persisted, growing ever more saturated. And their wordless chatter eventually gave way to something beyond superfluous biographical strata: a final plot on the sequence of time passed in the Place, an End to cinch the seemingly perpetual Present.

It went something like this.

A trip to the Basement, the Frequenters’ first. Confronting an impossibly gargantuan glass cylindrical contraption with a ladder that spanned so high its topmost point was indiscernible. A voice that seemed to boom from everywhere, and nowhere in particular except from somehow above, a voice usually stern, disciplinary, now warm, inviting.

A. Joe?

Come, the voice calls, climb up, climb high.

A days-long climb (where do these details come from?).

A womb-like tube that awaits at the top.

Come in, the same voice says, now a gentle whisper in an eager ear. A push? A willful leap through the tube? It doesn’t matter: both end in a cushioned landing at the bottom. The same point at which the whole journey began, and also the exact opposite: for now the occupant looks out at the world from behind the cylinder’s glass.

Some would say that this was the device A. Joe had been fired for testing in his rumored past as a discredited physicist, but a Frequenter knows better than to heed such nonsense.

Especially when the story gets to the part about the switch being flipped; about the hisss of currents that rip through the cylinder, growing stronger and stronger, distending and ballooning the inhabitant bodies to the point of grotesque impossibility. In any case, these rumors stipulate, the device was a failure; intended to break down matter to total non-existence, it had never quite managed to master unmaking. Some particle trace always remained, embarrassingly solid in tenacity.

A lone figure waits for the final hum of the currents to fizzle out, then steps over to the cylinder. This figure, the story holds, traces his fingers along the stains spattering the inside of the glass. Reminiscing upon the ceded Privilege of Life.

Dreaming of something less than the ceaseless gore of divinity.

Omar Zahzah is a writer, poet and organizer whose creative and political writings have appeared in various publications including Narrative magazine and the New York Times.
Several of Omar's poems were featured in the anthology, Beside the City of Angels: An Anthology of Long Beach Poetry.
Omar holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA.

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