Authority

by Ryan Wilson

When the notes started, I knew something was off.
The whole thing just felt so weird. I’m not the type,
You understand, who wanders around searching
For signs from some invisible world, reading
Clues into swallows’ migratory patterns
Or decoding the secret meanings hidden within
Cracks in the sidewalk. I’m not the kind who suffers
From visions or shamanic revelations,
And I don’t shout down people on the street
Or carry an apocalyptic sign
Or anything. I voted Democrat
And do my nine-to-five like everyone else,
Which is precisely why it doesn’t make sense.
Why me? I am in no way special, or even,
As my wife’s always saying, interesting.
The doctors can’t even hide their boredom from me
When they come in with their charts held to their chests
The way, in movies, you see old-timey preachers
Carrying Bibles. They say I’m fine, and try
To smother a sigh, and say to get some rest.
And that’s what’s wrong, really: that nothing’s wrong,
And yet I wake up every morning knowing
I’ll find another note, and something else
I don’t know how to fix.

The whole thing started When
JoAnn—that’s my wife—told me about The lamp in the back bedroom.
It didn’t work, She said, so naturally I went and changed
The bulb. Nothing. I checked the plug, and tried
Another outlet. Nothing. The thing was dead.
Of course, I’m not the handy type—a fact
Of which JoAnn constantly reminds me—so
I told her not to worry, that I’d take it

To someone who could fix it. Thing is, they couldn’t.
So off to Sears I go and buy another
And bring it home, and set it up, and: nothing.
I told her I’d take the damned thing back in the morning.
But when we got up, we were drinking our coffee
And kind of roaming through the house to open
The curtains up as usual, when we noticed
The note. A sticky-note, hand-written, black ink,
There on our new lamp’s patterned white shade.
What did it say? It said, LIAR. Can you believe that?

I’ll tell you now, we didn’t know what to think.
JoAnn, of course, assumed the thing meant me
(As if she never told a lie), and starts in on me
With questions. Do I have a girlfriend? Have I
Been sneaking drugs? Am I a compulsive gambler?
I told her that she knew as well as I did
I’m home with her every night, and eat with her
And go to bed with her and fall asleep
Watching Fallon with her. She gave me a look,
Like maybe I had figured out the trick
To being in two damned places at the same time,
Like I’m the type who just would have masterminded
Some magical scheme to wiggle out of the laws
Of physics in order to get away with something
Devious. I told her I hadn’t done anything
And she knew it. And then I kind of wondered
If maybe she had been living a secret life
But I knew better than to poke that dragon.
The question then was: who had left the note?
I surely didn’t know, and hated to think
What it would mean if JoAnn somehow knew.
She said she didn’t, and, well, I believed her.
So we said kids, and then intruders, turning
Our talk toward an analysis of how
Socio-economic pressures cause
Everyone in capitalist cultures
Problems, as those oppressed through poverty
Cannot be seen in isolation from
Those who oppress them, and the crimes committed
By the oppressed in desperation are,
Ultimately, only natural reactions,
Of opposite but equal force, to the hushed crimes
Committed by those who are their oppressors.
We didn’t know what else to say about it.
A mutual sigh. We let it go at that,
And then got dressed, and went about whatever
The business of the day was.

The new new lamp
Didn’t work either, and the next week, when
The electrician came, he didn’t see anything
Wrong in the wiring. We tried to shrug it off,
And we had almost forgotten about the note,
After about a month, when I got home
From work one evening and found JoAnn there sitting
Alone at the dining-room table in the dark.
No dinner smells, no plates laid out, no greeting.
I was afraid to ask. It was JoAnn,
I knew—I’ve known her ever since high school—
But there was something different about her,
A kind of quietness to her, a radiating
Silence that engulfed me and strangled the voice
Inside my throat, the way the statues of saints
In church, back when my mother made me go
To mass with her, would seem to radiate
A hush throughout the nave, so that it seemed
To require a great effort in the lungs to muster
A whisper, like trying to have a conversation
Under water. I was afraid to talk,
And she just sat there like a statue, and weirdly
She seemed to me in that darkness more lovely
Than she had been in years, not like these girls
In their bikinis on the magazines
But like those women that the old painters
Put down as nymphs or obscure goddesses
In such a way you almost believe the women were
Secretly immortal, and only the painter saw it.
Then, out of the subaqueous dark in that room,
A sound it took a second for me to realize
Was her voice came, and I was so surprised,
As if a mermaid or the mouth of a cave
Had just posed me a question, I had to ask her,
Whisperingly ask her, to repeat herself.
Another silence, long enough to crawl inside,
And then her voice again, asking, What is this?

I had, of course, like a fool, started flipping
All the light-switches when she reached her hand out.
The note, she said, had been taped up inside
The fuse-box in the basement. You know, LIAR.
We knew there was no point before we tried
The electrician, but we tried, a bunch of companies.
The last one rewired the whole house: still nothing.
Our friends told us to move, and we hoped to,
But the real estate agents said there was no use
In listing the house, especially since, by this time
It wasn’t just the lights. JoAnn had opened
The dishwasher when it wouldn’t run one night
And found a note. And then the kitchen sink
One morning, a yellow sticky on the faucet.
We put in several calls to the Sheriff’s Department
And got some deputies to stay on watch
Outside the house, but nothing seemed to help.
Our cars stopped running, little notes stuck on
The steering wheels. Then our computers at work.
Neither of our bosses felt too good about it,
And they were surprisingly kind, but we understood
When they said they didn’t have much choice about
Letting us go. It was around that time
We did move to a smaller place, an apartment,
And started seeing doctors. But nothing was wrong
With us, they said, and when the process began
Repeating at the apartment—the lights, the water,
And always the notes—we started to accept
That this is just the way life sometimes goes.
After all, the local farmers had a drought
To deal with, no doubt due to global warming,
And cows were falling dead out in the fields
From some new bug, dozens a day they said,
And the town’s factories were constantly
Closing down, leaving people worse off than ourselves,
So even with the dual housing payments
And our savings leaking like the damned Titanic,
We started to adapt, and everything
Might have kept going on like that and been
Ok, except this thought that I kept having.
I couldn’t sleep because this thought nagged at me,
Like a dog scratching at the door to be let in
Or a baby in another room, crying all night—
The thought that, since I hadn’t done a thing
That could have brought about such consequences,
JoAnn must know more than she’d said about it.
There was no other rational explanation:
She must know something, must have done something.

I knew enough about being a good husband
Not to ask her about it.
Put her on the spot
And she just gets upset, and I don’t blame her:
I don’t like being interrogated either.
At first I just spent a lot of time in the dark
Living-room, drinking whisky with store-bought water
And thinking through what I knew as the facts of the matter.
The whisky had no effect (there’d been a note),
But it seemed part of the Sherlock role I was playing,
So I’d drink whisky until time for bed,
And then, when she was asleep, I’d tiptoe out
And delicately explore what was inside her bag
With no real notion of what I was looking for,
But a sense that there simply had to be something to find.
There wasn’t. Nothing in her closets, either,
Or hidden in her clothes, or in her shoes,
Or our increasingly useless furniture,
Or even stuffed in the hardened pillows and blankets.
I did, however, in a few places, find
Some balled up bits of paper that, when unfolded,
Revealed that same handwriting, the same LIAR.

The night it struck me that she might have hidden
The necessary clue not in her things
But in a place a bit less conspicuous,
That it only made sense she wouldn’t be so stupid
As to hide the crucial clue where anyone
Might happen on it, I started thinking outside
The box, as people say. So, trying to be
Scientific and clear-eyed about the whole thing,
I concluded that the only reasonable explanation
Was that somehow something was hidden somewhere deep

Inside her. Well, far be it for me to suggest
Therapy or exploratory surgery,
And then deal with the fight, the tears, and all,
(Not that I’m one of those whack-jobs who think
Women are over-emotional or something—
There’s no place in society for that type,
Or anyone who would deny the fact
That we are all the same), so for a week
Things went on more or less the way they had,
While I kept thinking how to get the thing
That she had hidden inside of her out.
And then one night, we went to bed as usual,
(Jimmy had Kim Kardashian on that night)
And when dawn’s blue light seeped in through the blinds
And woke me up, I saw JoAnn was gone.
I ran my hand along the warm emptiness
Where she had been until I felt the paper
And heard its rustling sound, like wind in the trees.

A few days later, a cop called, said they’d found
Some body-parts down in the rushes there
Along the river, and they thought it was
JoAnn. By this point, I’d decided that
I couldn’t trust the cops. I played along,
And said, Yes, it must be, and cried for them,
But I knew better. See, it couldn’t be
JoAnn they found because she’d never left,
Not really anyway. When I would stand
In front of the bathroom mirror in the mornings,
Brushing my teeth, or maybe combing my hair,
I’d be sort of distracted, and then there
Behind me she’d be smiling, with a note
Held in her hand up underneath her chin,
In front of her throat. A kind of joke, I guess.
And then, all day, I’ll hear her teasing me,
Or griping, in the room next to whichever
Room I’m in, and sometimes, in the night,
When I wake up and turn over, I’ll open
My eyes and there she is, propped on her elbow,
Smiling at me and holding one of those notes
In her fingertips, her nails a deep red color
That seems almost to radiate in the dark,

Her body posed there in her negligee
In a way that I can only call seductive.
Of course, I couldn’t say exactly why
She’s doing what she’s doing, but I’m sure
She has good reason, so I don’t much worry
About it. I just focus on my work:
Nine to five, every day, and often long
Into the night, working on this secret book
I started around the time I lost my job.
The cops still call sometimes, or they’ll drop by,
And ask about whatever new thing’s broken—
The Mr. Coffee, the blender, the trash compactor,
Most of my tools, including the saw and the drill
JoAnn gave me for Christmas some years back—
And I will sit, and listen to them talk,
And nod, certain that their insinuations
Signal a weak-brained inefficiency
If not outright complicity in the crime
Whose repetitions have marked these days and years,
But I nod, and smile politely, while I work on
The book inside my head, making my notes.
The book’s a history of religious doubt,
A kind of paean to the brave free-thinkers
And philosophical authorities
Who liberated civilization from
Despots and the Dark Ages. It’s almost finished,
But I’m scared that I’ll die before the end,
So these days I write almost all the time.