Lady in Satin

Lady in Satin by Tierney Malone. Mixed medium on board, 60″X72″, 2013.
























Tierney’s playlist

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            Spring in Santa Barbara is just like summer, winter and fall. In bed, I peer out the window and wait for sleep to come, but it doesn’t at this hour; sunrise is too imminent and my body, if anything, is only good at complying with celestial movements, and little else. I wonder if Linda is awake. She lives on her own, in a granny flat facing my kitchen, and on most mornings I’m lucky if she emerges by noon. In this sense she is a bad companion, if you can call her that.

            Studies show: disabled people have just as high self-esteem as everyone else.

            My problem is this: why?

            My first thought—hypothesis, if you will—is that paralysis makes it awfully hard to kill yourself. I’m paralyzed from the chest down, but still have limited use of my hands and fingers, which means I get a joystick and not some voice-activated device to achieve life’s most important moments, like when to take a shit. Or rather, remove the catheter to the bag that stores said shit, and dispose. Theoretically, I could fasten a jumper cable around my neck, but the real problem is where to secure the other end. For that I would require another human, and therein lies the problem; I am stuck living, after all. The able-bodied—they must face the perpetual existential question of devising their own exit strategy.

            My second thought is that paralysis makes real sex difficult and exotic sex imperative. Real sex is messy and wet and usually ends with unintended consequences. Exotic sex is clean and barren; wetness is optional.

            “Mr. Hamilton,” Luck calls to me, emerging in the door frame. “Sir.”

            “You’re early,” I tell him.

            “You’re awake,” he says.

            “How’s the weather out there?” I ask.

            “Same as the other 364 days of the year,” he says, looking out my window. “You’re not missing out on much.”

            “Where’s Linda?” I ask.

            “I’m not her caregiver, Jim.”

            “She doesn’t need a caregiver.”

            “She is probably sleeping still.”

            Luck doesn’t understand true love because he is 31 and has little to lose. He is dating a 12-year old Asian chick (not really, I hope, but with Asians you can never tell, or be too careful) who alternates between Mandarin and Spanglish when they fuck, like she is speaking in tongues. As of this moment, she is probably sprawled naked on his twin mattress in the garage, butt akimbo, where he (and now she) spends most nights. Sleeping, like Linda.

            Studies show: snakes have terrible vision. Instead, they rely on infra-red radiation. Honeybees use magnetic fields of the earth to see. Linda uses Google Maps and still gets lost, so perhaps when God decided to hand out the senses he did not hand them out equally. The scientific term for this is getting shafted. For this reason we need help.

            “I’m out,” I say to Luck.

            I wheel out of my complex and go to Linda’s door. She has no doorbell and no knocker either—the granny flat is technically on my property, after all—so I just tap the keyhole. She opens after a good long while.

            “I thought I heard you,” I say. “Were you saying something?”

            Stringy blond strands decorate her skull like fine cotton candy, freshly spun, then matted.

            “I think I heard something too,” she tells me.

            “What’d it sound like to you?”

            “The radio through someone else’s car window,” she says. “Anything going on out there?”

            “It’s quiet,” I say. “Come out and see for yourself?”

            “I think I’ll take a nap,” she answers. If you want to figure out what is wrong with Linda, here is your first clue: it’s 10 in the morning.


*  *  *


            Linda doesn’t understand some things. Among them include the look in her eyes when I ended her life. If she saw her own face when the accident happened, she would understand why I puncture her days with my watchful gaze and nonrandom visits. Making amends—isn’t that the first step to recovery?


*  *  *


            Studies show: memory is OJ from a can. Reconstituted from concentrate, to be exact. If memory feels like an attic, it must be a fantastical one where sleds morph into cows and shit comes flying out when you least expect it and some things just can never be found. The day I killed Linda was a Friday, but could’ve been a Thursday or Monday. I didn’t go to work based on the circumstantial evidence (if I did, it would’ve made a fool-proof alibi, no?). Previous data suggests that I must have been drinking the night before, and probably the morning of, because any drunk will tell you that retox is the best alternative to detox, which never works anyway. I parked my van and leaned into the passenger seat to sleep off that annoying gap between consciousness and more consciousness. I woke to a ringing sensation reverberating in my toes. By then it was too late anyway.

            They say a story expands each time you tell it[1], like a pregnant universe still ballooning from the original Bang, but mine contracts like a late-term abortion gone awry, sporadically, with great force and misplaced devastation.

            The police report says the van was in neutral, no parking brake either. Maybe I left it that way; maybe the liquor impaired my sleep-induced paralysis and I changed the gears while dreaming. Either way, my vehicle slid forward and proceeded to ski down Cliff Drive towards the Pacific Ocean, gathering speed past Elings Park and the Mesa, miraculously remaining in the right lane the entire time. At least that’s what the traffic cameras show.

            What happens next is hearsay, given that neither of the two people involved profess any recollection of the event. A woman, 45, is standing at the corner of Cliff and Veronica Springs. She is about to cross. The walk man flicks from red to a muted yellow. She takes a big step down towards the pavement. And then we meet.

            When I awake I am full of static, a proverbial shitstorm so to speak. My fingers are asleep, my legs transformed into silicone. I can’t grip the door I am hugging. I need to pee, but the release doesn’t come. I can’t tell if I’ve shat on myself.

            The woman, she is about to be lifted on a gurney by two paramedics. She is shaking her head violently. She does not want to be there, does not want to go where she is headed to next. Perhaps God likes to give you a heads up before he sends you to the cross, like with Jesus at Gethsemane. Did it help then?

            “Sweetheart,” I hear myself call out through the glass I am still trapped behind. “Please. Get on the fucking bed.” She looks at me with a recognition that will follow me all the remaining days of my life. We don’t know each other yet, but we will, soon enough. She complies anyway, although she was right. She should’ve never gotten on the gurney.


[1] By “they” I really mean my fictional friends from Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea.


*  *  *


            My ex-wife arrives with her books. She is a mind-fucking aficionado, so much so that she gets called to teach Introduction to Psychology to impressionable young minds semi-annually. When the doctors aren’t there, she tells me the latest scientific findings that promise to change my life, or at least my outlook. Studies on fluid compensation, self-affirmation, localization of brain functions, neuron resiliency, catastrophic breakdown. She tells me the story of the colorblind cyborg whose brain now sees in sound. She shows me his TED talk. This was supposed to be uplifting, but instead, I can’t get over how awkward this man’s head looks with his color detecting antennae, how awful his clothes look, and how often he must get laid (not often, until the TED talk at least). The talk’s ending is helpful though: “Become a cyborg,” he tells me. “You will not be alone.” I think of the woman.

            When I ask the doctors about her, they say words like “slow” and “irrevocable” and “recovery” and “we’ll see.” This is code for we dont know, which they are not allowed to say. My ex tells me the human brain is the single most complex thing in the known universe, and the one we know the least about.

            “What about black holes?” I ask.

            “Figured them out in the nineties,” she tells me. “Get with the program. But the brain? That’s something else.”

            I can tell she is right because she says this right in front of the doctor, and he doesn’t say anything, just looks for his pen, which is in his pocket, where it always is.

            No one shows up to claim the woman, and the lady didn’t even carry a wallet.  The nurses casually mention the word homeless before I start referring to her as my Linda. Technically that is not a lie. You break it; you take it. Isn’t that what we were always told?

            The doctors and nurses start referring to her as Linda too. To convince them that she is mine, I scream at her when she wakes up and she can’t say where she lives, or her next of kin, or what she did on her fifth birthday. I soothe her, tell her stories about how we supposedly met and our barren past without children. I say it over the shrill staccato of her vital monitors so everyone can hear. I tell her she used to be a lawyer. “What kind?” she asks.

            “The kind that saves people,” I say.

            With me, it’s what you’d expect—an unsuccessful stint in physical therapy where I get to confirm what I already knew. Yep, Im paralyzed! Free parking for life. My therapist calls me a rockstar because of my indefatigable attitude. I take her home with me and she gets wet over not needing a morning after pill. Perhaps there are perks other than parking that I may have undersold.

            When I’m not in physical therapy I google amnesia. Retrograde, anterograde, episodic. I watch YouTube videos about Clive, the man with a seven-second memory whose only recollection is of his wife, Deborah. She is the sole person he recognizes. He makes out with her madly whenever she visits. I briefly start to feel better before I find out from Wikipedia that after 20 years of being married to a man who can’t remember the beginning of a sentence he has just said, Deborah leaves him. The good news? He doesn’t remember.

            Then there’s Art, the 79-year-old who can’t remember a single event from his life after a stroke interrupts his basketball game. And Wendy, the USC student who fell off her bunk bed and forgot everything, then fell off her bunk bed again and got it all back. There’s Guy Pierce in Memento and Jim Carey in Eternal Sunshine. The endings are all the same though: without memory, you are no longer you. You are free to be nothing and anything at all. I consider Linda, my Linda. Who will she be?


*  *  *


            When the discharge arrives, even I am a little surprised that the nurses let me take Linda home. Perhaps it is because Santa Barbara lacks a Skid Row, and the bleeding heart liberals all have their homes already occupied by Syrian refugees. There is no place for middle-aged White women with no last name and even the homeless shelters require ID these days. Or maybe they believe me, that Linda is mine. Truth, after all, is more devastating than fiction, try as we might.

            Linda moves herself right into the granny flat without me asking. “This is nice,” she says, ignoring the larger house with its midcentury touches and water-wise hardscaping.

            “You used to stay here on long weekends when you’d visit me,” I tell her.


            “We used to smoke on the bed and read magazines all weekend,” I say. Perhaps this is not the best idea.

            “What were we like?”

            I draw a blank. “We were stuck with each other,” I reply, smiling.

            She rolls her head to one side, as if touched by a soft thought. “It’s okay,” she says at last.


*  *  *


            We crash land into a routine that is thin and deep. We become Jim and Linda. Our names sound so melodic next to each other that it drowns out everything else—goals, recovery, people. Of course there are the usual tantrums. I will flirt until the day I die. Linda screams at me when she catches one of my female caregivers giving me a sponge bath in my jet tub. She demands to know whether I’ve ever had a vasectomy and where the other baby mamas be at. I tell her it doesn’t work anymore anyway. This calms her down a bit.

            “You mean you can’t get a boner if you tried?” she asks.

            “Not if mankind depended on it,” I tell her. This makes her smile, which I find only vaguely concerning at the time.  


*  *  *


            The next night we are back to reading magazines in bed. US Weekly is her favorite (mine too).

            “Get me the present,” she tells me.

            “What present?” I say.

            “I want to get out,” she says.

            I wait. Perhaps it is her meds talking.

            “Do that for me,” she says.

            “Do what?”

            “Get me out.”

            “What are you saying? Where?”

            “Do it,” she says. “You owe me a present.”


*  *  *


            Studies show: There is no present! Neuroscience tells us that every moment is either gone or not yet come. The brain—yours, at least—glues the last few seconds of the immediate past together and gives it to you as the present, which indeed it is, a present. A present known as now. If Linda wants to get out, I have to give her a present first.


*  *  *


            When morning comes, I decide to go back to work. Luck looks at me suspiciously when I break the news.

            “Just set it up,” I tell him.

            Luck turns on my MacBook. I check my webmail first. 3,427 messages.

            “Good luck with that,” I say out loud, to no one in particular. Email is like a neuron firing or a tree falling in the forest. If there is no one to catch it, it was never there.

            There are two levels of encryption I have to get through, company policy. I work for the secretive avant-garde arm of the DoD (Department of Defense) whose name I dare not say, for the same reasons the Jews used to never refer to God as God but rather, Yahweh or YHWH or G_d.

            OK, so the DoD is not G_d (the similarities in number of letters and shared consonants are striking though, no?), but the DoD doesn’t know that.

            When I’m not on paid leave or disability, I model neurons. To understand what that means, you’ll have to know two things.

            One: the neocortex of a rat lives on a silicone mat at the Georgia Institute of Technology. When it fires, the electricity it generates moves a robot arm with a pencil at the end. We call it “Artbot.” You can buy its art in Soho.

            Two: there are 300 million stars in the Milky Way and our budget deficit is somewhere in the ballpark of 4.2 trillion dollars. If you think that’s a lot, consider this: there are 500 trillion connections between the neurons in your brain, 500 trillion on and off switches made of meat and light.

            The secret is what turns protein into experience. That’s what I was hired for.

            Last week I got a memo that K.S.’ implant was a success. A lifelong epileptic, K.S. used to show up to my classes jittery and mean. In the habit of turning in work three weeks late and answering questions two slides after they were posed, K.S. was not the most spectacular student. Still, like that woman comic who got cancer and then got her own Netflix special over it, K.S. turned her characteristic darting speech into a notable stand-up routine on nights she wasn’t doing homework (every night). She affectionately referred to her daytime seizures as episodes.

            “Catching up on lost episodes?” I’d ask, when she would disappear for a week. “A whole season of them,” she’d reply. When the seizures stole over the nights and installed a permanent tremor in her voice, she decided that was it.

            She only got the implant because her application for physician-assisted suicide was denied.

            “You’re not terminal,” her doctor said, disappointed as well—she would’ve been his first case.

            “I will abso-fucking-lutely do it myself,” she replied.

            He asked if she has heard of marijuana. This made her laugh so hard she forgot to kill herself, which was good, because we were in need of volunteers.

            When K.S. mentioned missing a midterm for a neurologist’s appointment, I casually asked what it was for.

            “Lobe resection,” she said.

            “You want to go grab a sandwich?” was my reply. “We could talk about the future,” I said. She looked skeptical but took me up on it. And now she is Subject 1a.

            When I open up the flash drive her files are waiting for me. In theory, implants can do anything. Grow you new limbs, cure schizophrenia and everyday depression, make you into a great lover or poet or Darth Vader. The problem is, implanting a computer chip in someone’s brain also opens you up to high-level hacking and mind control and most likely the apocalypse. The DoD is sensitive about this stuff, worries that the Annie Jacobsens of the world saw too many zombie movies. Nevermind that the zombie problem was what got us into this territory—when Francis Crick, the guy who discovered DNA, declared that the only thing that differentiated humans from zombies—consciousness, namely—was a lost cause that was subjectively impossible to define and objectively impossible to measure, every artificial intelligence junkie took up their arms and joined the brain prosthesis movement. If we’ve crossed the membrane from sacred minds to electrified three-pound pieces of meat between our ears, there is nothing stopping us from ourselves.

            I follow the black and neon fMRI images, marvel at the hand-soldered chip sitting in K.S.’ prefrontal cortex. The most sophisticated computer in the world, stuck between folds of unworthy beef. “Linda,” I say.

            “She’s not here,” Luck reminds me.

            “Understood,” I say back. “Get my boss on the phone. I think we have ourselves another volunteer.”


*  *  *


            “What a surprise,” Wilder says, when he picks up. “It’s been a while.”

            “I’m a paraplegic,” I tell him, by way of explanation.

            “Still a drunk though?” he asks.

            “Separation of work and life,” I remind him.

            He makes no comeback. “I found ourselves a Subject 1b,” I say.




            “I call her Linda. Her exact identity has yet to be—” I trail off. “Verified.”

            “What the fuck does that mean,” Wilder says.

            “She’s a human,” I tell him. “With a brain. A jacked one at that.”

            “What more can the DoD hope for?” Wilder asks.


            “What does she have?”

            “Total retrograde amnesia following a traumatic brain injury.”

            “Anterograde too?”

            “It’s hard to say,” I answer. “She’s fuzzy.”  

            “Can she remember the beginning of a sentence long enough to provide consent?”


            “It sounds like we have our prime candidate.”


*  *  *


            Linda is standing by her window—my window—eyes suspended on no one thing in particular. She is wearing pink velour lounge pants and a matching sweatshirt that reminds me of college.

            “I can predict the future,” she says, smiling.

            “How so?” I ask.

            “I knew you’d come for me.”

            “Want to be a cyborg?” I can’t tell if it’s a plea or an offering.

            She regards me silently. Perhaps this was not the present she was expecting.

            “Don’t worry,” I tell her. “You will not be alone.”


*  *  *


            Wilder lets me program whatever I want on Linda’s implant; give her any hard drive I’d like. The problem with memory is that it’s not just any old app; it’s the ultimate killer app that makes other apps possible—knowing what to feel, how to reason, whether you’re going to order gazpacho or chicken tortilla—everything runs on memory. The only question is, whose database of memories do I give Linda?

            My first strategy is to create them myself. To this end I watch 628 YouTube videos, grainy home footage of babies and cats and attempted macaroons and makeup tutorials and skateboarding accidents. It doesn’t take long to decide that collective consciousness, at least in its current state, makes for a very uninteresting person. Unless I want to be amused to death, I must come up with something better.

            Great autobiographies come next; I could give Linda a God complex. There are only two on my shelf. One of them is Decision Points, whose most memorable episode was when a 30-something George W. Bush asks an attractive 50-year-old woman during the middle of her birthday dinner, “How’s the sex at 50?” To which she retorts, two decades later on his 50th, “So, George, how is it?” Seems like her long game was longer than his; perhaps she should’ve been president. I would have to do better for Linda.

            The best I could come up with?

            To give her mine.

            (I didn’t think this through, of course).


*  *  *


            Two months of continuous downloading before my memory backup is complete. Now I can afford my own memory loss without worry about lapses. To be safe I upload an extra copy onto the Cloud, just in case something happens.


*  *  *


            When I knock on Linda’s hospital room door she is awake, bald and blinking, her skull tattooed with the threads from the incision. “My Linda,” I say.

            “Liar,” she replies.

            “Correct,” I say. “No one knows your real name.”

            She smiles. “You could’ve just told me everything, you know.”

            I say nothing.

            “I might’ve forgiven you anyway,” she says.

            “Liar,” I reply.

            “You’re not me,” she reminds me. “I’m just you, that’s all.”

            “So now you understand—” I ask, hoping.

            “—Nothing,” she says.


*  *  *


            She won’t visit, that much I know. There is nothing left of me that she wants; she already has everything she needs. She has so little to take from her flat—a few magazines, her velours, a succulent. She knocks on my door for the first time on her way out.

            “Do one thing for me before you leave?” I ask.

            “Yes,” she says.

            I hand her one end of a jumper cable. “Secure this somewhere, will you?”

            She contemplates the door—it might jam; the light fixture—too flimsy; finally, she double knots it around the rod in the closet. When she hands back to me the loose end she begins to understand.

            “You’ve decided,” she says.

            “Depends,” I say.

            She leaves without asking, on what?




About the Illustrator

Tierney was born in Los Angeles, but has long called Houston his home. He is a modern-day storyteller who creates works on paper and mixed media constructions. He uses the canon of African-American history and pop culture to help him create contemporary tales about life. By invoking colorful and emotionally charged figures from jazz, sports and literature, Tierney makes powerful and sensitive works that are both visually beautiful and politically provocative.

Tierney has exhibited his art widely throughout Texas and the U.S., including numerous solo exhibitions. His works are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Kansas City Jazz Museum, Kansas City, Missouri; Goldman Sachs, New York, New York; and the Federal Reserve Bank, Houston, Texas. He is the recipient of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant, a CACHH Visual Artist Grant, and a Kimbrough Visual Artist Grant.

Tierney has collaborated with noted jazz musicians; commissioned to create the jacket cover for jazz musician Don Byron’s 1999 CD, “Romance of the Unseen” on the Blue Note label and jazz pianist Randy Weston for a 2003 performance at the Miller Outdoor Theater. In 2008 he completed two major commissions; a limited edition print celebrating Da Camera of Houston’s 20th Anniversary and an outdoor mural entitled “Southern Sounds” for the Coleman Art Center in York, Alabama. Music and the creators of music are major influences in his work. It was in November 2009 that Tierney presented a solo exhibition in Houston, Texas, “Third Ward My Harlem.”



About the Author

Christine teaches at the University of La Verne. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, Gargoyle, Hypertext, Flapperhouse, Straylight, and the Blue Earth Review.