Undead Tree Stumps
I recently posted an article about Charles Ray’s Hinoki Tree at the Art Institute. It’s one of my favorite works and I was excited to have the chance to say something about it. Because the blog post was part of a larger series about narrative, I thought I’d also post a short story I wrote that features this Hinoki tree in the beginning, although most of the story is dedicated to Woody Allen employing a doppleganger to take over his life. You can read the art21 article by going here. The story is below.
An older gentleman, he came upon a fallen Redwood, collapsed and soundless in the yellow grass. The sun was hot; it stole the sound and smell from the air, except sometimes the man heard a buzzing fly land and when it landed everything was more silent than it had been before. The man studied the log, imagined its figure wearing away with rot, wood mites and termites and peculiar worms, until it wore down into dust — the shit of insects — and fed the dull earth.
Instead, the man took a cast of the tree: He hired a team of employees who gathered around its stupendous girth. They raised the dead log on pedestals — sweating, the whine of the chainsaw — cutting the trunk into eight, three-foot cross-sections. They took elaborate photographs of each of the tree’s parts. Like a murder scene, quadrants of the surrounding area were taped off. Surrounding tree trunks bore neon pink spray paint on their bases. Everything was documented. Everyone wore rubber gloves.
They took a cast of the trunk’s massive breadth, width, and length in sections, then sealed the tree with soap. They poured wax around its parts just before nightfall, and in the night the wax hardened and in the morning they cut the wax off in clean, re-sealable pieces. They sent those pieces to Japan in a very cool box.
In order to make this cast, they had to destroy the original material.
What came back: The tree — a new one, it resembled the original — came back without the wax, for the wax had been burned to make the new tree. This new trunk arrived in the same eight, three-foot cross-sections. Its parts made of wood, not Redwood but Hinoki. Its surface had been carved in a myriad of patterns, different borring strokes; the surface of the replica was carved to look like the surface of the original. This new wood blonder and clean looking, though with the same hollow core as its predecessor.
There was a note attached to the mid-section.
Someone was asked to translate: Once put together, this tree will last 400 years, before hitting a crisis of 100 years, during which it will crack. Thereafter it will last another 400 years before it begins to decompose.
Manhattan, New York, 2009: Mr. Allen finds himself sat in the corner window of a high-rise apartment — his own, (he can tell by the family photographs, framed and standing on the bookshelves, and the side table too). He recognizes the pattern on the carpet; it looks to be Persian with red and black interlaced geometries. He remembers the smell of the place — the smell is both familiar and difficult to perceive; it must be a smell belonging to him.
Soon-Yi sounds to be making coffee in the adjacent kitchen and he can hear the clattering of domestic objects as she opens and closes kitchen drawers, cabinets, the dish washer; he can hear utensils bump up against interior wooden walls. Mr. Allen conjures a flash of light pouncing on the landscape of things, sprung suddenly from the dark. He wonders if objects possess a sense of being.
On the television he sees himself. He watches himself turn several dead bolts on an apartment door. His movements are emphatic, neurotic and convincing. He watches himself fit a bar of steel under the knob of the door in the movie to further ensure his safety. In the movie, he hopes to impress Diane Keaton. She is on his side of the door inside of the apartment. He wants them both to feel safe.
In this story, Mr. Allen picks up the remote control and turns off the television. The apartment in the television makes a hissing sound as it disappears into the dark screen. Mr. Allen sees himself reflected in the glass of the television. He doesn’t quite recognize himself. He looks small in the overstuffed chair. He hears the music in this story — it occurs to him as a soundtrack might; if he were watching a movie of himself, the music would suit the mood of this instance. He bites his lip.
Of course there are more banal reasons for the music. In fact they forgot to turn it off when they left earlier that day and because he is an older man, he did not notice it when they returned. His hearing is not what it once was. He was also distracted by the sight of his hands. Anyway, he turned on the television without turning off the music. Still, he often feels as if he is acting in a movie. Often he imagines an audience watching him.
“It is as if I am in a dream,” he thinks. “My actions are not entirely my own but I am more or less comfortable.” He looks at his hands clasped in his lap and feels, for a moment, the texture of the corduroy underneath. Past his hands, legs, he looks at his feet in brown, waspy loafers. He isn’t wearing socks. For a moment he imagines his actors feel similarly self-conscious. It’s an existential awareness. It must happen all the time on a set when you’re asked to be natural. To believe you are something else, while feeling all the time that someone is watching you. He bites a hangnail on his pinky and it bleeds. Mr. Allen feels a little better and, going against his better judgment, makes a disquieting attempt to peer over the bounds of his imagined consciousness — into the dark, a mottled grey behind his eyes, either the color of his brain or simply the color of what he’ll never know —
Eyes glassy, he looks at You, still not seeing. “Talk to me, shout at me, so that I’ll wake up and know that I’m here with you and that certain things really are just dreams.” Of course, we know he is merely talking to himself. This is only a recitation. He is also quoting Fernando Pessoa. It’s a joke, in a way. He doesn’t expect You to get the reference, but it is comforting because he does not entirely believe that You are with him, like me, in his living room.
The first opera singer ever recorded was past her prime when the recording took place. By then an old woman in her career, her voice sucked up the aria like burning paper. Upon listening to the record, people of then recalled how remarkable she’d been before, as a young woman. “The best,” they told their children, smitten with nostalgia.
Those children, when grown, repeated the rumor to respective children, and everyone, ever since, has believed the first opera singer recorded to be the best singer there ever was, for their memories make her so and there is no evidence to the contrary.
Mr. Allen doesn’t think the young people are any good in his movies. Terrible actors. They don’t understand. They try too much to be like him; they aren’t like him enough. They don’t listen to his direction. They impersonate rather than become. Scarlet. Jason. Christina Ricci.
He crosses one leg over the other, relishing contempt. Doughy and plump and taut. Ripe. Budding.
The aroma of coffee wafts into the living room.
The dream is one of paradise. In the dream men and women live forever, a glistening surface projected by the whirring of gears and oil and machinations run by invisible, grease-stained hands. This is the beauty of Hollywood. You can live forever there, and be beautiful too.
Mr. Allen has a hand on his temple. His eyes are closed and therefore he does not see the gray day so much as he feels it — or, discovers the feeling of it. He can picture it in his mind. The leaves are turning in the park below, across the street; he knows they are. For a moment he imagines that the changing leaves are expressed in the loose interior cutlery Soon-Yi keeps banging around. He thinks of the sun as something that pounces.
And then he concentrates on the music in the room:
It’s coming from a computer on the desk but it sounds like an old phonograph. Concentrating on static, the fuzz and pop as bad as any radio station, he imagines the music is broadcast from the past.
He presses his fingers into his eyes, pinching the lids together almost, feeling a dull pressure in the back of his head. In the darkness behind his eyes; trying desperately to imagine what she might have sounded like — this singer — when she was young.
In a record, he believes, there is the promise of eternity.
Someone said LA was like a Dream Factory. He said working in the Dream Factory was pretty tiring; he was pretty tired of making dreams. He complained about the silt he was always breathing — dream silt. He hoped one day to unionize the workers.
Thinking about him now — that man, now dead — Mr. Allen sighed. The funeral was last week. Thinking about that man, Mr. Allen thinks he might remake Metropolis. Where Lang put the wealthy in their Edenic roof above the factory, Allen would place celebrities. The most famous It-boy, the youth with the latest allure would chase younger, famous women over a red carpet, around the fountain they would go, between the peacock’s legs, laughing like children. Beneath them, Mr. Allen would cast the rest of the world.
In a club in Brooklyn with Soon-Yi: Mr. Allen has come to the conclusion that Soon-Yi’s friends, boys mostly, hide their sexuality from him. He is conscious of the shadows in the basement bar- room—no windows, barely any light. Drums clatter and clash and bang as Mr. Allen is jostled occasionally by flanking, shiny strangers.
“One time in Romania I went to a bar. We drank in bars that used to be dungeons. They used to torture people in those bars. No, I’m serious, you could still see the burn marks on the sides of the brick where they used to keep lit torches while they tortured people.” Soon-Yi can’t hear him and she smiles in a dreamy way watching the young boys on stage, watching the people at the club, hiding her mouth behind her hand, hiding her mouth from her friends across the room. Mr. Allen feels the shadows like a blanket. “I’ve been feeling so odd lately. I can’t explain. I don’t feel myself,” he says. “I must be getting sick. You can have my whole fortune.” Stuttering. “Did you hear? They finally arrested Polanski.” But Soon-Yi does not hear because she’s dancing also, jostling up and down against the others in the room and Mr. Allen feels like an old man wearing socks.
When Charles Darwin’s turtle, Harriet, died in 2006, they discovered her organs had not aged at all. It was believed that, barring disease or accident, turtles could live forever for evidence of time was not apparent on any of her interior organs.
In Hollywood there is a single mother selling serums of Harriet’s DNA on e-bay. It was manufactured abroad. Black market. It has not been tested. Some of her clients include: Ashley Olsen, Elizabeth Taylor, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Miley Cyrus etc.
The next band gets on stage, just after Mr. Allen looks at his watch, notes the time and wonders what time he might be able to go home —
Soon-Yi talks to some of her male friends at the bar.
Mr. Allen looks around at everyone in the room and shakes his head. He turns to face the stage again.
The keyboardist looks exactly like him. Only younger. And shorter. Should the keyboardist step off the stage, he might stand a head shorter than Mr. Allen. Everything else about the young man is spot on. He hears Soon-Yi giggling across the room. He imagines her covering her mouth.
“I have a proposition for you,” Mr. Allen says after the show. There are candles on the bar casting an irregular but welcome light. “I would like to hire you. Assume my life.” They sit at the bar. His doppelganger drinks a whiskey Mr. Allen has bought. Soon-Yi must be outside because he can’t see her. “I’ll pay you very well.” Mr. Allen’s hands dance around for emphasis. He finds himself regularly touching the young man, occasionally going so far as to pinch his shoulders now and again, testing the fellow’s firmness. The sensation is exhilarating and Mr. Allen wonders, abstractly, if he was himself the same density once.
“Why should I do that?” the young man asks. He looks amused. He wears a plaid cowboy shirt with opalescent, buttons — snaps. Tight black jeans and Converse. Sideburns and Buddy Holly glasses. He smokes. His hands are smaller than Mr. Allen’s.
“Only, you’d have to cut down your sideburns.” Mr. Allen says, worried suddenly, brow knit. He studies the youth, looking for other discrepancies. “And maybe get just a slightly different haircut. I understand the times are different, but at least during the transition period, you’ll need to adopt a little more of my style.” With a sudden clarity of thought, Mr. Allen smiles, relieved. “Oh! I know. You’ll have to go away for a while. I’ll send out a press release. I’ll say I’m going abroad. You go abroad too. We can meet in another part of the world, somewhere no one will know who we are — a desert island. Then I can teach you how to be me. Then you can come back to America. It’s very simple, really. When you — or should I say, I,” he smiles and winks, “come back, no one will ever know the difference. We’ll spread rumors of a plastic surgeon, or a faith healer. It doesn’t really matter. As long as you continue my work, it doesn’t really matter.” The young man shakes his head. He seems not to understand. “This has to be good.” Mr. Allen continues. “I’ll pay you an exorbitant amount of money—where do you work? Retail?”
“Record store.” “Right. Good. Well. Now you’re rich. Did you think it would be this easy?”
In the car on the way home: Mr. Allen does not mention the young man. Neither does he ask Soon-Yi about her evening. Instead they sit side-by-side, watching the traffic lights bloom and pass before them. Soon-Yi drives. Mr. Allen coughs.
“Are you OK? We’re almost home.” Soon-Yi says. “We’ll be home soon and I can make you some tea.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m in a story, that’s all,” Mr. Allen says. “My whole life is a story.”
“Do you want some ice cream too? I think we still have some ice cream. When we get home we can watch one of your movies.”
When the car pulls up to their building, the garage door slides up and they drive down, below the street. When they stop, Soon-Yi turns the car off and flips the visor down to look at her face. She presses the skin of her cheeks with her first two fingers and sighs. Mr. Allen opens his door and turns away from her. The car makes an electronic dinging sound as he places his feet squarely on the concrete ground; the keys are still in the ignition. He sits, studying his reflection in the window. When Soon-Yi switches off the lights, the car goes quiet. He can’t see himself anymore. The parking garage is dark again and Mr. Allen feels older and damp.
Despite the chill of his hands, he is nevertheless happy to think of the forthcoming liminal space before his own retirement. He imagines it like a montage with a triumphant, Vaudevillian music. There would be jump cuts between scenes of his young protégé learning about Mr. Allen’s ticks, weaknesses and old injuries. Where and how to stoop, how to sign his name, lessons on how to conduct business meetings. Mr. Allen could give the young man a stack of screenplays not yet released — his “Salinger Pile.” They should do this on a beach in a remote part of Mexico…or better on an island like Malta? Maybe even Ibiza — they might make a film after Orson Welles, only to be released after his protégé’s death: The Truth About Woody Allen.
In the end: He went to bed and fell asleep while Soon-Yi watched her favorite show on television about Basketball Wives.
In the end: They placed the Hinoki tree in a room they’d built around it. During construction the piece remained in a crate. Once an employee dropped a steel I-beam on top of the crate. Thankfully nothing happened to tree trunk inside. It remains now, on a linoleum floor in the new wing of an old museum.
In the end: Mr. Allen had a dream he would not remember where he and his younger self traipsed around Paris and Saint-Tropez playing tag with a camera. The interviewee became the interviewer, each time asking, “Are you happy?” There was no script. Everyone becomes an actor. Everyone speaks of work, “After six you try to become another man,” says one who leaves the car factory for his mother’s house, wrestles a small, leafless tree in the backyard, eats supper, reads a book, goes to sleep, wakes up, lights a cigarette, drinks coffee his mother brings him in bed, stretches, returns to work in the car factory…
“I believe in the possibility of fulfillment,” says another. “I want a job that doesn’t scare me.” “We’re 20 so we’re dispensable.” “You had an onion in your hand. You put it in mine. I fainted.” Vive les vacances.
A woman poses in a boat, breasts and hips akimbo. She has blonde hair and a squashed face that radiates warmth. The tourists like to take her picture as a souvenir. “A pity about the people, but why hold it against St. Tropez? There are lots of stars here and they draw the producers. They all hope to meet producers.”
In the dream, Woody Allen walks into a bar. He sees a young man in whom he sees himself.
Afterwards there were two days of emptiness. And then things fell into place. People became real again.
This story was originally published in a collection of like-minded celebrity tales called Psycho Dream Factory.