Black Tickets for Border Crossings
In Sweethearts, Jayne Anne Phillips discusses home and escape in two distinct sections, “Sweethearts,” dealing mainly with stories of home, and “Slaves,” dealing mainly with those who have escaped, who are lonely, who desire love. Black Tickets, Phillips’s first story collection for a major press, expands on these same themes and, in fact, uses over half of the material from Sweethearts in verbatim or modified form. Yet this time, Phillips, rather than dividing the book into two distinct sections on home and escape, mixes the two concepts throughout the text. In fact, the larger Black Tickets collection seems to stress the themes of escape and of loneliness over that of home. Of the first half of Sweethearts, dealing with first-person narrative accounts of home, only five of the fourteen appear verbatim in Black Tickets (two others appear as portions of longer stories). By contrast, eight of the ten pieces from “Slaves,” the second half of Sweethearts, dealing mainly with sexual desire and loneliness, appear unchanged in Black Tickets. The entire collection seems a meditation on loneliness and desire and, as the characters attempt to move beyond such things, sexual and moral depravity, the characters’ chosen modes of transcendence.
Reviewers have been quick to note such themes. “If she writes about love, or the absence of love,” writes Peter Prescott, for example, “she does so in a way that suggests nothing much can be expected from it. . . . Love is not romantic: it is something they [her characters] may have had once and then lost; it is an obligation, a vestigial link between child and parent; it is something they hadn’t known before they got involved with sex; it is above all the unfulfilled promise of redemption” (116). “Love,” Keith Cushman writes in his review, “is at best something that happened long ago” (93).
Phillips’s stories in the collection fall into two general categories. About half deal with “addicts, pushers, whores, strippers, psychotics, [and] abandoned children,” all of them “unable to make an authentic human connection, desperate for the oblivion of sexual and chemical highs” (Cummins 467-68). The other half typically involve, as Prescott puts it, “a woman in her middle 20s, temporarily parted from a lover, who returns home for a few days’ disheartening encounter with a widowed or divorced parent” (116). Despite the young woman’s expectation of security in this time of disheartenment, what she discovers is “that the parents are now just as adrift and emotionally needy as [she is]. Only memories of happier times remain, and the memories are not to be trusted” (Cushman 93). In either case, whether dealing with young women come home or persons on the margins of society, Phillips stresses loneliness and loss of love.
In her book Lonely in America, Suzanne Gordon defines loneliness as “the sense of deprivation that comes when certain expected human relationships are absent” (26). Of course, there is, as Gordon notes, a kind of existential loneliness that goes deeper than this, a loneliness “inherent in the human condition” (37). We are all, she writes, “inevitably alone because we are all separate from one another. We are born alone and we die alone. We are enclosed by our bodies in a unique space that can never be completely penetrated by another” (37-38).
In order to avoid such separateness, persons will often “attach themselves to anyone or any group” (Gordon 28). This attachment, in Phillips’s Black Tickets finds two forms—either a return to one’s childhood as in such stories as “Home,” “Souvenir,” and “Heavenly Animal” or a turn to the largely criminal underworld as in such stories as “Lechery,” “Black Tickets,” and “Gemcrack.” If a character chooses to return home after a length of time abroad, he or she inevitably finds it changed, and like a wanderer, “once the excitement of his home-coming has worn off, he feels himself an outsider” (Wood 150). This, in turn, makes the person grow “restless and [yearn] to go back to the bush again” (Wood 150). If a character joins with the criminal underworld, he or she finds “a measure of recognition, response, and security [and] the emotional satisfaction of belonging to a group” (Wood 99). Yet here too such characters come to view themselves as “outsiders,” and the “normal law-abiding” community, in turn, takes “the attitude that the criminal breaking the mores has deliberately and of his own free choice placed himself outside the pale. Consequently, on both sides of the relationship are attitudes of fear, distrust, enmity, and revenge” (Wood 98). In other words, the criminal, alienated from “average” people and society, finds himself or herself even more dependent on his or her criminal family—a family whose allegiance, as Margaret Wood points out, is often “based primarily on fear” rather than on true affection (98).
In addition to this drive toward others, there is also, especially in American society, a counterdrive toward independence and individuality. It is this conflict between these two drives that Phillips’s early work largely explores. “The very desire for relatedness and continuity,” Phyllis Lassner writes of Phillips’s characters, “produces rage at the failure to be recognized as individual and autonomous” (195). Ironically, however, in order to differentiate between the autonomous ego and the society, an individual must define him- or herself as something other than the society in which he or she lives, must define him- or herself as an outsider.
At the same time, it is the society and its view of the individual and, in turn, the individual’s view of that view, not some inherent ego, that determines what the individual’s identity as Other is. This identity requires a “consistent behavior,” an adherence to rules that forge a pattern, a system, or an order (Watts, Psychotherapy 22).
Yet as Watts notes, “ideas of the world and of oneself which are social conventions and institutions are not to be confused with reality” (Psychotherapy 9). It is this confusion of the socially constructed identity with reality, Watts claims, that most often “creates feelings of isolation, loneliness, and alienation” (Psychotherapy 9). In reality, “there are no outsiders in the universe of life. There are only people who live as though there were. They cling to the world that has been projected for them” (Jacobson 151). Nirvana, the Buddhist state of Awakening, then, is to be considered primarily as “a liberation from being taken in by social institutions” (Watts, Psychotherapy 52). When a person recognizes these institutions as the illusions that they are, Gardner Murphy notes, “individual self-awareness is abrogated and the individual melts into an awareness which is no longer anchored upon selfhood” (qtd. in Watts, Psychotherapy 18). Such an expertise, however, is both desired and dreaded by an individual, both terrifying and ecstatic.
One reason for this is that the dissolving of the individual necessarily entails a kind of death—the death of the independent ego. In his famous work Erotism, Georges Bataille ties this death to the “erotic.” Bataille also believes there are two contradicting drives within man: discontinuity versus continuity. He refers to these two drives by other names as well: life versus death, individual versus universal, peaceful versus violent, work versus passion, civilization versus nature, profane versus sacred. For Bataille, discontinuity is our individual state—the state in which we exist in society, while continuity is that state in which the ego melts away. Bataille places experiences of continuity within the erotic whether physical (sexual orgasm), emotional (feelings of love), or religious (a mystical tie to the universal). The transition from “normal” discontinuity to erotic continuity necessarily entails an act of violence, a “transgression,” the transgression from one body to another, one ego to another, and thus the breakdown, the interrogating, of independent spheres.
But as in Buddhism, it is society that sets up barriers to continuity, that defines egos and enforces their continued existence. It does this by setting up prohibitions to eliminate violence (Bataille 38), which we then internalize as our own when we accept separate identities. These prohibitions or taboos, as they are also called, order the world so that we can work in it (Bataille 41), so that we are not, as Camille Paglia notes “storm-tossed on the barbarous sea that is nature” (Sexual 1) and do not destroy each other.
Eroticism, in those few forays we make in “assenting to life up to the point of death” (Bataille 11), then “always entails breaking down established patterns . . . of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals” (Bataille 18). Many characters in Black Tickets do just this—reject the mainstream social order in favor of sexual delights and the criminal world. Others try to return home. In each case, the character seeks a connection, a continuity, a loss of loneliness extant within the ego. Yet the cost of such rejection often seems to be still more loneliness, still more despair. Whether via a return home, a sex act, a criminal act, or some combination thereof, Phillips’s characters in Black Tickets remain outsiders attempting to transcend (that is, transgress) the borders separating them from others.
The stories in this collection with narrators who attempt to connect via a return home include “Home,” “The Heavenly Animal,” and “Souvenir.” “Home,” the first long story of the collection, seems the prototype. Here, an unnamed twenty-three-year-old woman, after running out of the money she uses to wander around, returns home. Her mother is now divorced and has recently had a portion of a breast removed because of cancer. The story focuses around the daughter’s “sexually free” lifestyle versus her mom’s desire not to have sex. As with most of these stories, these opposing lifestyles come to represent the opposing drives toward continuity and discontinuity, and the daughter’s thrust into the home is, in fact, a means of transgressing the boundaries set up in a discontinuous society.
These boundaries manifest themselves with the first words of the story: “I’m afraid Walter Cronkite has had it, says Mom. Roger Mudd always does the news now—how would you like to have a name like that? Walter used to do conventions and a football game now and then. I mean he would sort of appear, on the sidelines. Didn’t he? But you never see him anymore. Lord. Something is going on” (BT 7). By referring to Cronkite by his first name here, Mom, as Constance Pierce brings out in her article on pop culture in contemporary literature, internalizes “a version of ‘the outside world’ by a wholehearted acceptance of its media emissaries” (668). In other words, the outside world implants itself into the inner world of home through television and media. Other references to the popular media entering the home abound. Mom receives Reader’s Digest; her daughter reads old classics and detective stories. Each of these gives the illusion that the characters have real connections with the world around them. But, of course, the connections are deceiving. At their heart is alienation. Walter Cronkite and Roger Mudd, “the very agents who convince us we are in the know and therefore, in the world are known to be infinitely distant from us, our ‘relations’ only a one-way-close-circuit effect” (Pierce 668). Such alienation, such distance, at the heart of this media-to-”real”-person relationship seems true of every connection in the story.
One reason for this is the mother’s unwillingness to risk contact with anything that might lead to deeper connections with the outside world. She refuses her daughter’s offer of subscriptions to “mildly informative” magazines: “Ms., Rolling Stone, Scientific American” (BT 9). She refuses to read anything but “books in [her] field” (BT 8). She will not go out to the movies. When asked why, she says she does not want to “pay money to be upset or frightened” (BT 8). Rather, she prefers the happy music of musicals like The Sound of Music (BT 14), stories outside the misery of her own life, which make her happy.
In one sense, the mother has already communed, however unwillingly, with the outside world through her battle with cancer. The immune system works by recognizing and eliminating that which doesn’t belong, that which is foreign or aberrant, that which is not self. Cancer bypasses this immune system by breaching “every convention of cellular etiquette . . . sabotag[ing] internal checkpoints that normally arrest aberrant behavior” (Hall 76). Cancer invades the body by deception, breaking down the distinction between that which is self and that which is not self, that which is inside and that which is outside. Eventually, cancer brings death—obliterating this distinction completely. Through cancer, the mother has had to stare at continuity directly. Her self—her body—has begun its process of disintegration. Her desire to shut out the outside world is quite naturally an attempt to re-establish her discontinuous self.
This is not, of course, to say that she refuses any contact with the outside world. She does, after all, watch the evening news and even movies on television, either or both of which can elicit unpleasant emotions. But when she does watch television, she is on her own turf—the home—which offers a safety, a distance from danger, that she cannot receive in the outer world or even in her own body. The knowledge of the potential danger in the outer world, in fact, seems to cloud her view of every person she watches. She believes at the start that because Walter Cronkite is not doing the news as often, he must have cancer. Likewise, Hubert Humphrey’s aging body, which she sees on the news, becomes “a death mask”—he too has “cancer” (BT 15). By staying home, the mother locks out such cancers, such dangers.
Partly because the mother is so intent on re-establishing her individual self and partly because she knows the risk that love brings—both in terms of the anxiety created when such love is lost and in terms of the loss of self-control/self-definition that love itself brings—she ultimately finds distaste for her daughter’s “free sex” attitude. “It’s been years,” she tells her daughter at one point about having an orgasm, “and in the last years of the marriage I would have died if your father had touched me. But before, I know I felt something. That’s partly why I haven’t . . . since . . . what if I started wanting it again? Then it would be hell” (BT 23). It is also for this reason, this inability to face her own death, this loss of discontinuity, that the mother hates to look at youthful, sexual, female nudity such as her daughter’s. It reminds her of what she can no longer have, and it forecasts a continuity that is now too dangerous for her to desire, a continuity that her own body speaks even more directly.
The daughter’s return into the home becomes yet another example of the outside world invading the safety of the inside. The daughter has apparently been gone several years, traveling on the outside. Her return and two-month stay is a hesitant one. She is, after all, as she puts it, “twenty-three years old” (BT 8). And it is, not surprisingly, the daughter who tries to take the mother out to the movies, and when her mother refuses to leave the home, it is the daughter who tries to bring periodicals and reading in. It is the daughter who purchases and gives the mother The Sound of Music, happy as it is—yet still another outside possession. Ultimately, it is the daughter who brings in a man, something the mother seems to enjoy, “having someone in the house, a presence, a male” (BT 18), but also about whom the daughter can tell the mother has reservations. Like a cancer cell, the daughter’s “closeness” to the mother, both genetically and emotionally, allows her to continually do these things, to continually transgress the boundaries of the home with little actual defense of the mother’s part.
The narrator, unlike the mother, has not come so close to continuity, that is, to her actual death. As a result, the narrator’s own wish to transcend necessitates a bringing in of the “male”—a sexual act. The male “member” is the daughter’s invading mass. While the mother may fear starting to want sex again, the daughter, with her seemingly frequent sexual encounters, finds she does want it, finds that life is hell without it. Unlike the mother, whose tie to the continuous is spoken perennially through her deformed breast, the daughter’s continuity—even her mere human connection to others—remains temporal, hence, her continued sexual “need.” “To be aware of love,” as Clark Moustakas says, “in its real sense, is loneliness: . . . this awareness that love is now and yet passing, that one reaches out to hold the moment and suddenly it is gone, suddenly it is sealed in the past, in memories, to be recaptured in reminiscence” (143-44). The narrator demonstrates such “lost love,” such desire, throughout the story. On Saturdays, for example, she goes to the Veterans of Foreign Wars rummage sales, largely to look for possible “possessions of old friends” and, more specifically, old boyfriends (BT 12). Through such an experience, she is able to recall memories of past loves. This desire to reclaim her past loves manifests itself while the narrator’s mother takes a bath—”[h]ydrotherapy,” the narrator calls it. The narrator’s own therapy, it appears, is sex. “I’ll get a ride to the university a few hours away,” the narrator thinks, “and look up an old lover. I’m lucky. They always want to sleep with me. For old time’s sake” (BT 16). Sex as the solution for the narrator’s disconnection and discontinuity also manifests itself in the discussion the daughter has with her mother over Hubert Humphrey. While the mother claims he is dying of cancer—a tragedy—the narrator claims all he needs “is a good roll in the hay” (BT 15). Not surprisingly, one of the narrator’s past loves does show up, and interestingly, he is a Vietnam veteran. Her desire for him is apparent from the moment he calls. “Bring some Trojans,” she tells him. “I’m a hermit with no use for birth control. Daniel, you don’t know what it’s like here” (BT 18).
Yet the daughter’s desire for an experience of connection and continuity masks an actual inability on her part to reach such moments with any sustained power or meaning. For one, she has had no sustained relationships with men—just discontinuous episodes. These episodes, furthermore, have never yielded even a moment of orgasm for the daughter—the moment wherein, as Bataille notes, “fear of death and pain is transcended, [and] the sense of relative continuity between animals of the same species, always there in the background as a contradiction, though not a serious one, of apparent discontinuity, is suddenly heightened” (98-99). Like her mother, the daughter even expresses, at some points, a fear of death. Holding a towel to her nude mother’s body in the bathroom, for example, the daughter notices how fragile her mother is and is suddenly “horribly frightened” and lets herself out of the room (BT 17). These inabilities to face the death embodied in her mother, to reach orgasm with her men, or even to commit to a single man suggest ultimately that the daughter is not serious about continuity, that she, like her mother, prefers the safety of a discontinuous state.
Home, a place of rules and of taboos meant to block out death but also, in the process, love and continuity, is an appropriate place for both mother and daughter to run to for safety. The taboos manifested in the home find their expression in guilt, something the mother, as the “symbol” of home, fosters. “There’s nothing wrong with guilt,” she tells her daughter at one point. “If you are guilty, you should feel guilty” (BT 10). Despite protestations to the contrary, the daughter cannot overcome such guilt. Taboos become a part of the house itself. When first trying to have sex with her visiting beau, Daniel, for example, they both find “something is wrong,” and though they try, nothing happens. “This room,” the boyfriend says. “This house. I can’t breath in here” (BT 21). Finally, at the end of the story, when the daughter does manage to have sex and her mother finds out, she worries about confronting her mother. We see this in the way she attempts to hide her act—despite it already having been discovered—by stripping her bed and bundling the sheets. Even as she does so, she feels a “pressure in [her] chest” and she has “to clutch the sheets tight, tighter” (BT 24). Later, as she goes downstairs, she notes how “the fear comes.” “I hug myself,” she says, “press my hands against my arms to stop shaking” (BT 24).
By bringing sex into the house, she has transgressed the discontinuous boundaries that her mother’s home attempts to maintain. She has violated the taboo and finds herself now also taboo through her mother’s ignoring of her. Such a violation of the taboo “may be exorcised through acts of penance and ceremonies of purification” (Freud 34). This exorcism ends the story through the ritual of washing dishes. It is at this moment, as the daughter and mother “disappear in steam” that the only real connection in the story seems to occur, their disappearance into steam becoming a metaphor for the loss of the individual selves. This more personal communion is what orgasm was attempting to substitute for. Interestingly, this is the only point in the story where the mother and daughter must confront a taboo act together. The mother’s words, “I heard you, I heard it . . . [.] Here, in my own house. Please, how much can you expect me to take? I don’t know what to do about anything” (BT 25), both reimpose the boundary that the daughter has knocked over and force the two to face that boundary’s lack of realness. The mother’s line, “I don’t know what to do about anything,” shows what the home is supposed to defend against—the ultimate anarchy and lack of order in the outer world that the daughter has, through her act, fortunately or unfortunately, brought inside.
Similar moments of connection and transcendence end both of the other two stories involving daughters returning home, “The Heavenly Animal” and “Souvenir.” In addition, both stories involve the same conflict between a wandering, sexually active daughter and a more conservative, dying, lonely parent. In “The Heavenly Animal,” the parent is a divorced father, a former road builder,1 who “never did have any friends” (BT 135) and who, when phoning Jancy, his daughter, but instead receiving her mother, immediately breaks the connection (BT 129). “Souvenir” uses a mother figure again, who is again dying of cancer and whose husband has been dead six years.
In both cases, the daughter is a young wanderer come home, seeking connection in the sexual ties she has made on the outside. Jancy in “The Heavenly Animal” is a twenty-five-year-old on her way to visit her boyfriend, Michael, with whom she is “upset,” by whom she is pregnant, and who she will not marry. Like the narrator in “Home,” Jancy is “afraid of this house [her mother’s], afraid of all the houses in this town” (BT 137). To her, they seem “silent and blank. They [seem] abandoned” (BT 137). Such fear causes her to reach out for others. In this case, she calls Michael, but in other cases, she travels, proclaims herself “abroad” (BT 142)—that is, without a home. “I won’t stay in one place,” she rebuffs her father, “out of fear I’ll get crippled if I move” (BT 131). Likewise, the daughter in “Souvenir” has traveled widely, including—it is hinted—to Venezuela. She has sex with men whose names she cannot remember (BT 181). And like the narrators in both “The Heavenly Animal” and “Home,” she has not had sex in a while—in this case, five weeks (BT 182).
Parents in both stories, furthermore, as in “Home,” lecture their daughters on their dangerous lifestyles and/or urge them to stay home. “If you’d stay in one place for a while you’d gain a little weight and look better,” the father tells Jancy in “The Heavenly Animal” (BT 143). “You need a family,” he tells her later. “No one will ever help you but your family” (BT 144). The mother in “Souvenir” lectures her daughter similarly: “Using birth control that’ll ruin your insides, moving from one place to another, I can’t defend your choices” (BT 182).
The mother’s comment here demonstrates again the way the outsider daughter transgresses taboos set up in the home and forces their re-evaluation. “I can’t even defend myself against you,” the mother in “Souvenir” says (BT 182), raising again the specter of daughter as “deceptively invading cancer.” The line here also suggests, perhaps, a secret yearning the mother has to be young again and free as the daughter is now—a yearning not absent from the mother in “Home” either. In “The Heavenly Animal,” the father’s overwhelming concern for the daughter’s car serves a similar role, masking not only his concern for his daughter but a secret yearning to be once again a “road builder,” a traveler.
Both stories, despite the seeming lack of connection within them, especially via real love from people outside the home, end, like “Home,” with a moment of transcendence, of continuity, between family members. Like all of Phillips’s work, both are tinged with the feel of impermanence. In “The Heavenly Animal,” this impermanent transcendence takes the form of a memory. Jancy, having finally crashed her car, feels, for a short moment, connected. Interestingly, the moment comes right after hitting and killing a deer, death—the bloody sacrifice of an animal—being a moment, as Bataille would note, of continuity akin to sex. The individual being the deer ceases to exist, and Jancy thereby faces her own discontinuity. Through her fear, she becomes one with the world, and the firm borders between her and the outside blur. “The earth and the asphalt were spongy,” the narrator notes, describing Jancy as she walks (BT 147). The vision of the deer’s feces then launches Jancy’s memory, specifically of a single moment with her family in the past. The tone, the attention to detail, is much like the frozen time of the prose poems in Sweethearts:
Once it was Christmas Day. They were driving from home, from the house her father had built in the country. A deer jumped the road in front of them, clearing the snow, the pavement, the fences of the fields, in two bounds. Beyond its arc the hills rumpled in snow. The narrow road wound through white meadow, across the creek, and on. Her father was driving. Her brothers had shining play pistols with leather holsters. Her mother wore clip-on earrings of tiny wreaths. They were all dressed in new clothes, and they moved down the road through the trees. (BT 147)
While the above image hints at a communion between family members, it also hints at a moment before loss, before both the family and the deer were “lost.” In this way, like the narrator in “Home,” Jancy to an extent reveals a hesitance to truly embrace total continuity. The frozen moment here then points to both a continued discontinuity through the making permanent of individual life and to a continuity through the communion of family members and the “whiting out” of the physical world in snow.
“Souvenir’s” moment of connection occurs as mother and daughter “float in air” on a Ferris wheel, communing with “the big sky,” as Kate, the daughter, calls it (BT 195). It is here that the two finally confront each other regarding the death they know is about to occur to the elder. The floating itself, as we shall see, especially in chapter 3, becomes a metaphor for the state of the world and of the transcendence wherein impermanence—the Ferris wheel ride will last only a few minutes—and instability—the wheel is movement—are accepted as the “real” world. It is in such a place that the mother and daughter lose sight of their discontinuous egos in favor of the continuous, of connection and unity. “She saw herself in her mother’s wide brown eyes,” the narrator ends the story, “and felt she was falling slowly into them” (BT 196).
Sex, the attempted means of transcendence for the daughters in each of these stories, is also an attempted means of connection, of continuity, for several characters in the collection who opt not to return home. Sex, and in some way, love act as the chief motivators in several stories, including “El Paso,” “The Patron,” and “Country.” All three of these involve characters who have either lost loves or wish to have them. All three involve characters who obsess over this desire for connection, a desire they cannot have without crossing some barrier, whether that be the passage of time or some physical or cultural barrier.
In “The Patron,” this desire and lack of fulfillment is twofold, as it proves to be in the other two stories. An old gay man lusts for his daytime male nurse named James; the male nurse, in turn, lusts after the women in old pornographic films. The old man cannot have what he wants because, like the parents in the “daughter returns home” stories, he is dying and can no longer travel around with the young gay dancers as he used to. The male nurse, just as Kate watches over her dying mother in “Souvenir,” supervises the dying man, but he looks for love, not with the old man, but in the outer world of “Harry’s Peek-A-Boo,” a world the patron cannot have anymore. Both, in essence, desire the past—either on film or in memory.
Obviously, one of the primary barriers the old gay man—the patron—must transcend is the moral/societal prejudice against homosexual love. Such prejudice manifests itself in the story through the old man and his friends being categorized as “Perv fairies” by such persons as Harry, the owner of Harry’s Peek-A-Boo (BT 165). Something is assumed to be deviant about same sex love, thus the placement of the old man and his boys in pornographic avant-garde films (BT 161). The movies are removed twice over from “normal” society, first by their classification as pornography rather than art and second by their classification as avant garde, which aims to violate accepted conventions and decorums through such things as the introduction of forbidden subjects.
Relegated to the margins of society by their taboo actions, the patron and his boys find a home for themselves in dance. Dance creates such a home not only through its emphasis on the “present-centered, pre-reflective” state discussed earlier in chapter 1 but also through its perceived value and role in society. In her book Dance, Sex, and Gender, Judith Lynne Hanna characterizes dance as a “low-status occupation not sequestered by the dominant male group” (120). Such low status, in turn, allows “women and gays, groups stigmatized in the United States in the sense of being subject to prejudice and discrimination, [to find an] escape from their social and economic constraints” (120). This escape, however, also entails a homecoming, a creation of a new, albeit “marginalized,” community. “The act of men dancing together,” Hanna goes on to write, “may create a sense of belonging and a return to basic human relations unimpeded by industrialism’s distortion of the natural rhythms of social life” (138). Dance also allows for the release of sexual urges—in this case, taboo urges—in a socially acceptable manner. This is because “[d]ance often has the excitement, release, and exhaustion characteristic of sexual climax,” to the extent that “orgasmic gratification may come from actual or empathic dance involvement” (Hanna 47).
In an odd twist, however, because Phillips sets the story within the marginalized gay world, gay love in the patron’s “home” is not only accepted but expected. The story reverses deviance so that the straight white male nurse, James, is now the “odd” one. The patron becomes the parent figure expecting conformity to the house rules. Family metaphors abound in the story. The patron’s lovers are called “his boys,” as if they are his sons (BT 160). “Maybe I’m his goddam son,” James even states at one point. “He cops an incestuous thrill as I gather his bones together, wrap him up, deposit him in his blue suede chair” (BT 160). James, in fact, believes the old man expects him to be gay. “It’s no secret,” James says at one point, “he thinks I’m one of them. He buys my clothes in the same places, wants me to take lessons with their [dancing] teachers” (BT 161).
Like the homebound daughter of “Home” and “The Heavenly Animal,” James find this environment too confining and seeks escape. When invited to spend the night one evening, for example, James flies “through the hallway, down the banistered stairs past frozen lions, through double doors carved with gods and snakes, and the stoic knockers shaped in cold brass crows” (BT 164). Where he goes is Harry’s Peek-A-Boo, his usual hangout, where he enjoys watching 1940s and 1950s heterosexual pornographic movies. Such films, of course, at least as the narrator describes them, are hardly hardcore. In fact, part of what James admits to liking about them is their seeming lack of overt sexual “deviance”: “And they [the women stripping] were so modestly teasing, smiling their serious smiles. So innocent you can’t think of them that way” (BT 162). What occurs, therefore, in this story, is an odd juxtaposition of “home” and “escape,” “inside” and “outside.” What is usually taboo is now expected; what is seemingly innocent becomes deviant and strange.
The claustrophobia of the patron’s house and the freedom and escape to Harry’s takes on the language of hot and cold. Cold obviously serves as a metaphor for the “coldness,” the lack of passion, extant within the patron’s house for the narrator. References to cold abound within the house and as pertaining to the old man. “His stone house is cool,” the narrator tells us at one point, “the street a muffled hum” (BT 167), this in the midst of summer. The connotation is that the home lacks “life.” This coldness, this lack of life, the narrator parallels with descriptions of the old man: “The old man is always cool, pale as a root” (BT 168).
The street and Harry’s Peek-A-Boo, in comparison, are places of heat, passion, and action. “In summer,” the narrator notes, “the store is hot” (BT 168). This heat transfers to the film that James watches, both metaphorically in terms of his passion, his obsession for them, and literally. These two levels meet when Harry gives James some new “old” films. What follows is a description of a girl taking her clothes off on a beach as she runs into the ocean. But as the scene continues “the ocean starts to burn” (BT 165). Harry’s comment that the “[d]amn films get hot in the machine” (BT 165) plays off both this literal and the usual metaphorical level for heat.
The narrator also notes that “[i]n summer the street gets hot. Heat wavers from its surfaces and the Krishnas dance, jerking thin skirts dark in sweated patches. Jingling angle bells. Leathery feet, thud, calluses, so deep tiny worms lay eggs in their cracks” (BT 167). These active dancers contrast to the old man, who interestingly, has fallen and broken his ankles and who is, thereby, as the narrator notes, “like a Chinese girl with bound feet; a girl of good family whose feet are the feet of a baby” (BT 168). In order to escape into the more active and hot streets, the narrator not only runs away but actually “sins” against his adopted gay family by stealing from his “old man,” overcharging him for drugs, and contemplating pawning his jewels. It is this literal transgression that allows him to have money to spend at Harry’s Peek-A-Boo and thus to move outside the bounds of the old man’s home.
Despite the seeming freedom that James finds at the Peek-A-Boo, however, he is still bound to a passion that cannot be filled. This lack of ability to transcend want on James’s part parallels the old man’s inability to fill his desires. The reason that James eventually fails to find transcendence outside the home is because the innocence embodied in the films he watches is always past tense. The narrator, in fact, begins the first description of the films in the past tense: “1940’s and 1950’s. Kinks were subtle and women were always alone; climbing ladders and bending over long finned cars. How beautiful they were, breasts the size of oranges, powdered brows” (BT 161). This past tense gives way to the present as a specific woman is described: “There’s the blond whose cheeks look bruised with rouge, kneeling beside a bathtub and scrubbing it out with a long brush” (BT 162). What is occurring here is something akin to the prose poems of Phillips’s Sweethearts—a past is preserved forever in the present via a “recording,” whether via film or words.
But like the photograph, film is “both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. . . . The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked [then] feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance” (Sontag 16). What this means is that the pseudo-presence of such women entails both a relief—though temporary—of James’s loneliness and an extension of that loneliness. As Susan Sontag puts it, “using a camera is not a very good way of getting at someone sexually. Between photographer and subject, there has to be a distance” and, as she goes on to note, detachment (13). Indeed, James’s use of pornography seems precisely geared toward such ambivalence because he prefers those subjects who are intended to arouse one sexually yet who are simultaneously “innocent.”
This inability to connect also finds expression in the person of the old man. His age and frailty bind him to walkers, nurses, and beds. As a result, he cannot use his feet to dance with his boys and thereby participate in their community. Yet this participation has, in fact, always been limited because he never was a dancer (BT 161). Thus his participation, his connection, to the gay community is, in some ways—though, of course, his literal sexual participation is hinted at throughout via references to his former lovers and shared pornographic film roles—limited to the same kind of voyeuristic detachment in which James participates. Indeed, many passages recount how the old man watches his dancers, much as James watches women on film.
James’s unwillingness to give into the old man’s desires further enhances this inability of the old man to connect. In the same way that James watches over the old man’s health with a detachment that allows him to steal from the old man, run away when he cannot stand being around the old man anymore, and finally, merely perform his job in hopes that the old man will “die and leave [him] something, anything” (BT 160), the old man, though not detached in his desire for James, has to settle for watching James “mother” him by lighting his cigarettes, washing him, and moving him around. The old man’s few moves toward James are relegated to speech—”How are you James?” (BT 160); “James . . . take care . . . James, have you plans for the evening” (BT 164)—and are met with James’s flight and subsequent absence.
Despite this disconnection, James’s introduction into a gay “home” amounts to a transgression of the discontinuous barriers between the heterosexual world and the homosexual world. Phillips sets up this mixture of the two worlds from the start, not with necessarily homosexual and heterosexual images, but with a mix of high and low aspects of society, of the religious and spiritual with the profane and mundane. “I head for the bathroom,” the narrator says near the start, “I might grab the chamber pot under his chair and carry its sloshing contents in my flight. I might sprout wings, nearly run up the dark hall holding a squat chalice engraved with angels. His tilted bathroom smells of churches” (BT 159). Here the church meets the bathroom. Not surprisingly, many of the scenes following involve bathrooms, from the 1940s and 1950s pornographic film in which a woman scrubs her tub in the nude to the ending wherein the narrator carries the old man to the bathroom to do his “business.” The bathroom becomes a place for the erotic, as in the pornographic film, as well as for defecation. Both suggest a transgression of the body’s boundaries, working upon the body’s orifices, its entry and exit zones, its places of connection between the inner and outer. In addition, the bathroom itself is usually taboo, a place not discussed. It certainly is not the place for “high” literature. But here, the bathroom becomes a sacred temple because it binds us to nature and to death and to our continuous “Oversoul.” We are all no more than “feces” spit/split up by the earth, waiting to be redeposited, to become undifferentiated feces again.
The bathroom is also the place where the strongest connection of the story seems to be made. As usual, the connection comes at the end. The old man finally gives James something meaningful—a gold locust pin—this in the midst of one of the old man’s coughing spasms. James, not wishing to watch the old man’s disease take hold, not wishing to get so near to death, just as he cannot get near a real woman nor anything more than extrasoft pornography, thinks of fleeing as he usually does. This time, however, he does not. As a result, he is “drawn to him [the old man], closer” until his ear is at the old man’s lips. What he smells is death—”a rotted weight,” “drying of an ancient herb”—but what he hears is love. “Love, my love,” the old man whispers. “Don’t leave me” (BT 169). The old man and the nurse finally connect for a moment, as in both death and love, and in the continuous world of the erotic.
“El Paso” and “Country” use the bath and/or bathroom as a mode of sexual connection as well. In fact, “Country” uses this connection to end its story, although the bathroom here is replaced by a bathtub in the kitchen wherein the two lovers bathe and essentially lose their discontinuous identities in each other: “Seeming we are in the water for hours. . . . She dried me with her hands in bed, her mouth on my eyes. . . . We had each other slow, looking at ourselves. . . . Our black faces rubbed her shoulders gray. And it gets confused, she, her face on me, silent, oh god easing into her we’re in the dark” (BT 241). In “El Paso,” though the moment is not as elegantly described, nor seemingly assigned as much importance, the two lovers do shower together, then “wet the sheets, [sleep] in their damp” (BT 87). In both cases, the wetness implies a sexual communion and a moment of connection between the two lovers.
Like “The Patron,” both “El Paso” and “Country” attempt to bring two worlds together through such acts. In “Country,” the two worlds are black and white, as in a black woman and a white man. In “El Paso,” the two worlds are Hispanic and white, as in an Hispanic woman—though her mother tries to deny this heritage—and a white man. And both stories, like “The Patron,” also involve forms of detachment, of watching. In these two stories, however, the watcher becomes a third person, a witness. In “Country,” the narrator watches his friend Billy get involved with the black woman. In “El Paso,” a character known simply as “Watching” witnesses the relation between Rita and Dude. In both cases, the watchers, like the old man and James in “The Patron,” attempt to establish a connection between themselves and the loved object, that is, the loved woman.
One can, in fact, read “Country” as a meditation on watching, on the attempt to cross over from watching to action. Though the story begins with the account of a sexual act—”We went down there because she was easy. . . . Sixteen, she was sixteen, moving on you, rolling flat and hard against you like some aging waitress” (BT 231)—it quickly backtracks to the first time that the narrator’s friend Billy sees the black girl: “He looked at her, thinking, half-breed and sexual tales. She knew it, seeing him look as men look” (BT 233). Watching then passes on to the other characters. Billy watches the girl’s father in his truck (BT 233). The children watch their grandmother circle the floor, crazy, chanting to herself (BT 234). The narrator watches the grandmother, too, seeing the old woman’s and the black girl’s faces together (BT 234).
Eventually, both Billy and the narrator become involved with the girl sexually. Yet as the narrator will recount, this, too, to him, seems like watching, seems still somewhat detached. “I felt like I’d never slept with her,” he says the first time he sees her alone after Billy moves away, “like both of us, Billy and me, had really only watched her” (BT 237). This watching continues as the narrator recounts the different forms of light in which he has seen her: early daylight in the yard (BT 237) or the dim lights of a pool hall (BT 238). In each case, there remains always the object and the subject, the watcher and the one watched. As a result of this, the narrator and the girl fail to transgress the boundaries of their individual selves until they meet at the end of the story. What makes possible the “confusion” of their bodies and their selves on the bed following their bath is the lack of distance created by the tactile rather than the visual. It is this sexual meeting between two persons that allows the transcending of individual identities.
This tactility actually occurs in one other place besides the beginning and the end of the story. It is when the narrator gets into a fight with the girl’s incestuous father. What makes this scene interesting is that the fight is transformed, not into a battle between the outside white person attempting to destroy the incest extant in this black family, but rather into its own sexual act in which the outside white becomes a part of the black family and thus part of its incest. “I thought for the first time that he must have been with her,” the narrator says, “not now, but long before, and more than once. . . . We [the father and I] rolled in the yard and I felt her in his arms in that Detroit room” (BT 236-37). Here, the narrator actually becomes his black lover being raped by her dad, thus shifting his identity into an entirely other body.
The attempt to cross over from detached watching to continuous action and the tactility of sex is also a major theme of “El Paso.” Just as early portions of “Country” stress the narrator’s watching, early portions of this story emphasize Dude’s watching of Rita and, through this, his desire to obtain her through the sexual act. This emphasis starts with the first mention of Rita: “I stumble blind into a table and voices, Spanish curses, stop and start. I look up and Rita, she’s standing there not three feet away, having ripped the curtains off one window; she’s screaming in her voice that goes throaty and harsh, and the light pours in all over her. Hot yellow gravy of light, her black eyes, and the red skirt tight, blouse loose old lace ripped at the shoulder. I wanted to roll my hand in her; I could feel her wet against my legs” (BT 78). In this brief moment, Dude goes from unable to see, to sight of and desire for Rita, to the feeling of her against his legs.
The story further emphasizes watching by the fact that Rita is a stripper. As such, she is unattainable—an object differing from the self, “a movie magazine none of em could touch,” as Bimp, the club owner, describes his blonde stripper (BT 88). Yet like a photograph, the stripper simultaneously embodies the unattainable, the separate, and “signifies male desire” (Copeland 145). As such, as Bataille puts it, “The naked woman is near the moment of fusion, her nakedness heralds it. But although she symbolizes the contrary, the negation of the object, she herself is still an object” (131). What this means is that the “first stirrings” of the “final aim of eroticism . . . fusion, all barriers gone” are “characterized by the presence of a desirable object” (Bataille 129-30). In this way, watching itself becomes an erotic act, the eye “an organ which both keeps the objects at a distance (outside) and ‘eats’ them inside” (Falk 13).
In Zen, according to Alan Watts, “the eyes and the ears, the nose and the skin, all become avenues of erotic communion, not just with other people, but with the whole realm of nature” (Psychotherapy 86). This process is known as “Total” or “Pure Awareness,” an act wherein one sees “the world as it is concretely, undivided by categories and abstractions” (Watts Way 155). What this means, of course, is that “there is no longer the dualism of the knower and the known” (Way 52). What one sees is what one is; there is not someone seeing and something seen—there is only “seeing” or “watching.”
This “watching” finds its most precise expression in the character of the watcher in “El Paso,” whose sections are labeled, not in noun subject/object form, but as “Watching”—an act, a state of being. Throughout the story, the watcher acts as a constant presence and, thereby, a “judge of the whole damn game,” as Bimp puts it (BT 86). Unlike the other characters who seem to take an active role in the incidents, the watcher, until the end of the story, acts chiefly as a witness. Dude makes love to Rita. The blond dances with her. Bimp pays her. The watcher merely watches her, watches them all. He, indeed, seems as distant and unattached as a judge. Even his name is never revealed. Bimp refers to him once as “one of them hunched-up watchers” and once as “the watcher”; but otherwise, the watcher is known only by his section headings. The use of “watcher” on Bimp’s part reveals his tie to normal Western-style watching, but the watcher’s section headings suggest that the watcher has moved beyond the subject/verb concepts of the West.2
Yet the end of the story reveals Dude’s obsession for Rita—”dedicated,” the watcher notes, “like a single eye to his own loving” (BT 82)—to be the watcher’s obsession as well. Unlike Dude, however, who after losing physical relations with Rita, in order to deal with the loss, in order to reobtain the feeling of continuity, turns to destruction and self-destruction for survival via his new profession of racing junk cars, the watcher is able to establish continuity through the mere act of watching. This is not to say he doesn’t feel the effect of the loss of the physical presence of Rita. Rather, he goes as “far north as [he can] get” to obtain a snow that will cool and clean “a dirt heat [he keeps] feeling for months” (BT 95). But what the watcher has still is a sketch that Rita painted, “a picture of trains dark slashed on tracks, and behind them the sky opens up like a hole” (BT 95).
This picture allows the watcher to re-establish a connection to Rita. Earlier in the story, Rita notes what the picture represents: “Them stars are just holes in the sky after all. And while I’m sleeping in that hot bed everything I ever thought of having falls into em” (BT 84). Through the stars in the picture, the watcher carries “everything [he] ever thought of having” (BT 84), including Rita. The holes she falls into are both her absence, her burial and loss, as well as, via her containment in the sketch, her presence. In this way, the watcher continues to be able to “see,” to “watch” her, to carry her perennially with him, a continual presence in her absence. It is this watching that takes over near the story’s end: “I’m seeing her in summer by the stove in their room, sweat clouding her hair and her lips pursed with cheap wine; she smoothing her cotton skirt and throwing back her hair to bend over the burner with a cigarette, frowning as the blue flame jets up fast. On the street under my window she is walking early in the day, tight black skirt ripped in the slit that moves on her leg” (BT 94-95).
If erotic communion, whether via sex or watching, is the means of transcendence for characters in “El Paso,” “Country,” and “The Patron,” stories like “Black Tickets,” “Lechery,” and “Gemcrack” make clear the sexual act’s connection to transgression by taking the erotic act into criminal society. Bataille notes this connection in Erotism when he writes: “Violence is what the world of work excludes with its taboos; in my field of enquiry this implies at the same time sexual reproduction and death” (42). As a result, the excitement of sex is dependent on “disorder and rule-breaking”; through sex, particularly illicit sex, love becomes “a greater force than that of law” (Bataille 112). In all three of these stories, “Black Tickets,” “Lechery,” and “Gemcrack,” sex highs, love, and connection are dependent not only on the crossover from one person to another but also on transgressing the criminal codes created by society.
“Black Tickets,” the title story of the collection, is, in fact, largely a meditation on rule breaking. The narrator makes this explicit at the tale’s end: “At first, all the girls wore dresses. There was a checkered flag of separation and the race was nothing on a board laid out with paper money and plastic hotels for Park Place. . . . The rules were written down and smeared in a fruity juice on all our faces” (BT 65). These rules find expression in two basic places in the story: one’s childhood home and prison. Prison, the place from which the narrator speaks, is the embodiment of how society confines those who refuse to live by its rules. It both defines the “outsider” and forces him to live by a set of rules imposed by “normal” society. These rules find expression in the poker games of guards—games are dependent on rules; games are what the narrator remembers from his childhood. Prison is also confinement separate from society and, most importantly, from the one he loves. The narrator, thus, finds himself sitting close to the bricks of the wall of his cell “like some newborn rattish creature longing for the nearest suckle” (BT 57).
Prison also reminds the narrator of home: “Women and stomachs. Here we go nowhere. My cell door is identical to the rest of my wall-with-a-view, and to think my old man broke his ass to put a picture window in his suburban clap-trap house. Bungalow, my mother called it” (BT 55). Home, for the narrator, is a place for “a preschool obedience course graduate” (BT 55). It is a place where true communion, true connection, with another cannot happen. As a result, as the narrator recounts, his mother settles for watching a neighbor woman “have her jollies” with the grocery delivery boys (BT 55).
The narrator, by contrast, has connected, has really connected, with another, has crossed the criminal and sexual boundaries necessary to find the continuous self. He has done this largely through his lover, Jamaica Delilah. Jamaica Delilah, through her very name and through many of her predilections, represents several boundary crossings for the narrator, some on the mere level of destroying culturally defined stereotypes and others on the level of destroying discontinuity. One of these boundary crossings finds expression at the very end of the story. “The morning before I never saw you again,” the narrator recounts just after the explaining the rules of childhood, “I opened my eyes and your shorn hair was all over my naked front. You had cut it to a jagged bowl around dawn, standing over me with scissors and scattering the pieces” (BT 65). This shearing of hair represents Jamaica’s predilection for acting and being a boy. Girls may wear dresses, as the narrator recounts. They may even usually have long hair. But Jamaica prefers boy’s hair and boy’s clothes. She wears “boy’s shirts, like the ones I [the narrator] wore to school when I was thirteen, button-downs with long tails and cuffed sleeves. Or those knit ones, red and green, open-necked, with the tiny alligator sewn on the chest. Golfer’s shirts” (BT 52). She wears “boy’s briefs, thick white cotton” (BT 52). At one point, she buys “a boy’s cap, an old woolen one with a snap brim and gold silk lining,” tucks her hair inside it, and pretends to be a turn-of-the-century male (BT 62). As a child even, she is a boy for her mother, wearing her braids up in hats (BT 62).
Not only does Jamaica tear down gender boundaries, but she, like the love interest in “Country,” represents yet another case of cross-racial relationships—partly suggested through her Caribbean name. Though we do not know if the narrator is necessarily white—an upper-middle-class, probably white, upbringing is hinted at in the short account of his parents’ idyllic home and marriage—we do know Jamaica is black and from the West Indies. The apartment and theater wherein most of the story takes place, further, contain three other characters—all from different racial groups. Raymond is “a nice Jewish boy” with access to the drugs that the narrator sells on the streets and in the theater; Neinmann is the German immigrant who owns the theater; finally, a Filipino runs the theater’s projection. In this way, races, often separated from one another by cultural boundaries—though such boundaries are often imposed not by the government but by cultures themselves—find a single focus point around which they work. Raymond and the narrator live with Jamaica; the Filipino works with her; she “works for” Neinmann. And she, through her sexuality, moves all of them “around like little girls” the way her mother used to pimp her and her sisters (BT 63).
Finally, Jamaica represents the sexuality which allows the narrator to transcend, to get “inside and forg[e]t the rules” (BT 56), to move past his discontinuous self. Her last name, Delilah, becomes an obvious reference to the “delight” that men feel with her and, more explicitly, to Samson’s Delilah, the Biblical Philistine who seduced her husband and, in turn, sold him out. The narrator even suspects at times that it is Delilah who has sold him out to the police.
Whether she did or not, what is important is that for the narrator, Jamaica Delilah is “the only train that could push him past a raunchy perfection” (BT 59), who can give him “one more chance to crash through” (BT 59). What she allows him to do is to both escape the rules created by society and find a home—within her—through which he can feel connected to another. She is his “black ticket”—the black woman who allows him through the ticket gate into the Obelisk theatre. Her role as “ticket” finds expression most explicitly near the story’s start when she draws tickets on her knees and thighs, literally transforming herself into a “chain of inked-on tickets” (BT 53). What she allows entry into is the Obelisk, in this case, a theater. But the name itself suggests something more transcendent, something akin to the structure the word Obelisk stands for: “a four-sided, usually monolithic pillar, tapering as it rises and terminating in a pyramid” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate). Such a structure points to the heavens of the universe and of God; and it is also, of course, a phallus, a kind of giant maypole.
Sexual communion with Jamaica Delilah is, in a sense, the equivalent of entering the Obelisk and, thereby, the Universal, of extinguishing the dualism of separate beings. Her body is the black ticket—black in color, black in its tie to the indefinable state brought with sexual highs. Not surprisingly, the sexual communion, most often, and most descriptively, takes place in the bathtub again, as in “Country” and “The Patron,” bringing together the low and the high, earthy dirtiness and its counterpart purifying or cleansing. The bathtub both begins and end this tale, and as in “Country,” it is a place where the difference between two persons blurs. The narrator, for example, finds himself totally dependent on his lover for movement and breath. “You run the tub full of water,” he says, “before I’m too gone and walk me there in the fluid drunk on your skin to breathe” (BT 64). Finally, near the end, they unite. Her body becomes “a string of paper cutout dolls with joined hands who join hands around [him]” (BT 64). The ink on her legs clouds the water and passes onto his body. When she touches his flesh, he “slide[s] out of it” (BT 65), out of his body, and finds himself propped up by her.
The main characters, at certain points, however, connect this sexual transcendence to the illegal drugs that they both take and sell throughout the story. In this way, they link sexual communion to criminal activity.3 Not only do they sell amyl, Jamaica and the narrator take it during sex to “promote orgasmic endings” (BT 58). When Jamaica, at one point, “feel[s] that grand connection coming on,” she “quick twist[s] off the cap to inhale [and] the room goes out in a blue staccato and [she’s] hammered to the finish by [her]self in a storm and a roller coaster” (BT 58). Soon after, the narrator himself picks up “that shoe box of delicates, amyl nitrite in old Faberge, Coty, and Arpege bottles, and [throws] it against the wall. The smell [comes] up around [them], liquefying air; for six blank seconds [he feels her] under [him] again” (58). Likewise, near the story’s end, it is pills that prevent the narrator from moving, even breathing, on his own without his lover’s help as they “make it” in the bathtub.
“Lechery,” like “Black Tickets,” involves drug taking as well. In this case, two drug-taking and probably drug-selling pimps adopt a twelve-year-old orphan. Kitty, the orphan’s surrogate mother, is addicted to cocaine and cheap speed at the tale’s end. The narrator sells pills along with pornographic pictures to little boys. But in both “Lechery” and “Gemcrack,” the two other tales that revolve around crime and sex, the connection between the crime and the sex is more than a mere coupling of the “criminal” act with sex. Transgression becomes more than rule breaking in general; it becomes a particular type of rule breaking—the destruction of innocence. In “Gemcrack,” this takes the form of “cracking gems,” as the narrator would put it, of killing young women. In “Lechery,” the destruction of innocence takes the form of the defloration of virginity.
“Lechery,” in fact, centers around losses of virginity: first the narrator’s and then the narrator’s attempts to destroy the virginity of others. Such loss is, as Camille Paglia puts it, “always in some sense a violation of sanctity, an invasion of her [or in the case of this story, his] integrity and identity. Defloration is destruction” (Sexual 24). Assuming this to be so, attempts by the narrator and others to destroy virginity are also attempts to destroy discontinuous identities.
The fifteen-year-old narrator’s attempts to do such dominate the first half of the narrative. Over and over again, she describes the “innocence” of the boys she seduces. She likes to “get them before they get pimples” (BT 34). She wants the ones who “don’t understand their soft little cocks all stiff when they wake in daylight” (BT 34), the ones scared of “shaved girls” (BT 36). What this gives her ultimately is control. “I do things they’ve never seen,” she says. “I could let them touch but no” (BT 36). Instead, she directs the sexual act that is to occur: “I arrange their hands and feet, keep them here forever. . . . I pull him across my legs and open his shirt. Push his pants down to just above his knees so his thin legs and smooth cock are exposed. . . . In a moment he will roll his eyes and come, I’ll gently force my coated fingers into his mouth. I’ll take off my shirt and rub my slick palms around my breasts until the nipples stand up hard and frothy. I force his mouth to them” (BT 36). Throughout, the boys remain “girlish as faggots,” not unlike herself in a younger state.
Such actions may seem strange, yet within the logic and world of the narrative, they make sense. Such defloration is the only means this character has ever really learned to achieve connection. The connection when she is with her boys is a weak one, a one-sided loss of discontinuity, for while the girl brings discontinuity to the boys whose virginity she destroys, she herself remains an ego, an “I” in seeming control of both herself and her victims. The most she can receive of continuity this way, except perhaps during the very height of the sexual act if she ever actually reaches such height, is as a third person, a watcher. But it is the only way she knows to connect, a way better suited to her when she is the victim—which she has been numerous times. As a younger orphan child, she received little conventional family love: she moved from home to home and received well-meaning but obviously inappropriate and, therefore, impersonal cards at holidays. The only “caring” parents she has known are Wumpy and Kitty, both of whom use her for sexual delights and monetary needs. When she first meets them, for example, Wumpy and Kitty take her to a motel, then strip both themselves and her. As Wumpy has sex with Kitty, Kitty “makes love” to the narrator: “She pulled me down She said Honey Honey. In the bottom of something dark I rocked and rocked. His big arms put me there until he lifted me. Lifted me held my hips in the air and I felt her mouth on my legs, I felt bigger and bigger. The ceiling spun around like the lights at Children’s Center spun in the dark halls when I woke up at night. Then a tight muscular flash, I curled up and hugged myself” (BT 38-39). At the story’s end, the narrator hints that such sexual acts with Kitty persist: “Kitty hugs me, My Baby. She wants me to do what she wants. . . . We move around on the checkerboard floor” (BT 43). Mothering, hereby, becomes sexual, an act of defloration, of destroying the child’s discontinuous self.
The narrator transfers this concept to her relations with boys—mothering them by destroying their innocence. Sex is the only way she knows how to show love, hence, her desire to touch Wumpy, to squeeze him hard (BT 43). Wumpy, unlike Kitty, however, does not receive satisfaction from direct sexual relations with “his” little girl. As a result, when the narrator “take[s] off [her] shirt he hits [her]” (BT 43). Instead, Wumpy prefers to watch as “his” girl has sex with other men (BT 39), again, placing connection within the realm of what the authority figure exacts.
The narrator’s child friend Natalie furthers this confusion of sex with familial love. Natalie, a fellow orphan, likes to play house with her friends, but the game, as she knows it, is hardly the tame “babysitting and working” game in which most children participate. Rather, it takes on obvious sexual tones. “I’m a house,” she says. “I’m a giant house. Crawl through my legs Its the door” (BT 42). Soon after, she grabs the narrator and “stroke[s her] throat, point[s] her pink tongue in [the narrator’s] ear and hiss[es].” Then, “[s]he pretend[s] her voice [is] a man.” “I love you,” she says. “You’re mine Eat your food.” And the narrator licks “her hand all over, up and down between her fingers” (BT 42). The narrator’s desire to re-establish connection with Natalie takes on the form, therefore, of explicit wet dreams: “Natalie on top of me Natalie pressing down. Her watery eyes say nothing. She sighs with pleasure and her hot urine boils all around us” (BT 40).
Ultimately, the narrator identifies sex not only as the means of re-establishing connections with family and friends but as what she needs just as she needs money and food. The narrator forges a connection between sex and food and money throughout the story. Sex becomes the equivalent to eating in several passages, including the passage about the house game discussed before. Another example occurs when she has sex with other men for Wumpy. Her choking and gagging during such incidents, she says, are like “salt exploding in [her] throat” (BT 39). This salt taste relates to a similar experience with Natalie, wherein the narrator eats a box of it. Here the sexual language is obvious: “Salt comes in my mouth so fast, fills me up but I can’t quit pouring it” (BT 40).
Sex also reminds the narrator of making money and, in fact, is a way of doing so. First, she sells pornographic pictures and sexual favors to young boys (BT 33). Second, Wumpy sells her to make money (BT 39). Third, the narrator remembers an incident in which a man rapes Natalie, an incident made possible by the creation of “coins” on a shed floor with a hammer (BT 42). As a result of this conflagration, the narrator confuses the three—sex, money, and food—as similar necessities from the very start of the story: “Though I have no money I must give myself what I need. Yes I know which lovers to call when the police have caught me peddling pictures, the store detectives twisting my wrists pull stockings out of my sleeves. And the butchers pummel the small of my back to dislodge their wrapped hocks” (BT 33). Sex becomes, as a result, the very means by which society survives and functions. It serves as the heart of family, of food, of economics, and most important, of authority. To escape the authority of home via sex with another becomes problematic in this story. At best, the narrator can impose such authority on others.
The narrator of “Gemcrack” imposes his own authority as well. Again, he does this through destroying a form of innocence. Near the tale’s start, the narrator proclaims his work: “I crack these gems and expose their light in the dark Saturdays, the nights” (BT 254). This role, the narrator sees as akin to religion, proclaiming that he has been led “astray into the paths of right thoughts” (BT 254) and that each victim is a “sacrifice” (BT 255). What he does is, with an unspecified frequency, shoot a woman so that she “lays down like she’s home” (BT 253). This, he believes, is an act of love, and “[l]ove,” as he says, “is the outlaw’s duty” (BT 253).
In Erotism, Bataille proclaims that “the desire to kill relates to the taboo on murder in just the same way as does the desire for sexual activity to the complex of prohibitions limiting it” (72). What this means is that the process of deflowering a virgin or even participating in sexual activity is not unlike the killing of another person. Indeed, as Bataille brings out, “The lover strips the beloved of her identity no less than the blood-stained priest his human or animal victim” (90). This is because sacrifice is yet another means of attaining transcendence or continuity. Indeed, for Bataille, sex is a type of sacrifice. Continuity is gained in sex by both the victim and the violator through their merging of selves. Continuity via ritual sacrifice, on the other hand, is something in which the whole community participates and learns from. Bataille puts it this way: “[The] sacramental element is the revelation of continuity through the death of a discontinuous being to those who watch it as a solemn rite. A violent death disrupts the creature’s discontinuity: what remains, what the tense onlookers experience in the succeeding silence, is the continuity of all existence with which the victim is now one” (82). This onlooking makes possible continuity through the contemplation of death that it brings to the watchers. The communal ritualization of sacrifice furthers this contemplation by making all in the society participants in the sacrificial act.
Taking Bataille as our theoretical apparatus, the narrator’s psychopathic urges begin to make some sense. He expresses his “love” for others through literal violence. This love sends his victims “home” by forcing them to connect with Universal being and escape from the dualities created by everyday society. In turn, those who watch the “sacrifice” of his victim, largely through newspapers that report stories of his bloodshed, receive a glimpse of continuity. Indeed, at one point, the narrator proclaims: “I know which readers follow the stories. Their faces are looking for secrets. I’m pushing them” (BT 260). These “secrets,” the narrator claims to already know, having gained them through his role as executioner. Like the person who reaches Satori, the narrator goes on to say, “light comes in one quick flash to the seeker” (BT 260). The difference here is that the narrator’s acts are not part of an actual communal ritual—they are, rather, single, discontinuous acts on his part. Hence, while he gains illumination, the community gains only “glimpses”—a participation distanced by newspaper reportage rather than a participation that is first-hand witnessing and contemplation.
Such murderous transcendence on the narrator’s part, as David Edelstein notes in his article on Phillips’s short stories, means that Black Tickets ends with the “dark side of transcendence” (111). This dark side, however, has been apparent throughout the collection. This is partly because “the mechanism that can save you from being swallowed by your milieu can also drive you mad” (Edelstein 111). Indeed, madness is a trope throughout Black Tickets, including the crazy grandmother in “Country” and the, at one point, asylumed narrator of “Lechery.” It is “1934” and “Gemcrack,” however, which give us the clearest cases of transcendence gone to its furthest, maddest, and most destructive extremes.
“Gemcrack’s” narrator, without a doubt, is no less delusional. This delusion takes the form of an uncle whose “sounds are in [the narrator’s] head like a voice in a radio” (BT 261). It is this uncle, the narrator claims, who “whispers and points,” who tells him “what to do in his voice that whines and excites” (BT 259). The narrator finds the uncle in “everyone’s mouth . . . inside the hippie across the hall with the moon poster tacked to his door, inside the black girls [he] see[s] in the elevator” (BT 258). What this means is that, outside of killing, the narrator is actually in contact with no one but his uncle, and an imaginary uncle at that. The transcendent acts meant to connect the narrator to the universe become a means of disconnection from everyday society. What “Gemcrack” hints at is a world where the old moral standards and taboos have finally, for the narrator, fallen by the wayside. Taboo practices, as a result, as Alphonso Lingis writes in discussion of postmodern sexuality, are “interpreted no longer in the register of fault and sin, excess and transgression, but according to the axes of the normal and the pathological” (69). The narrator’s apparent pathology is quite natural here. His rejection of everyday society’s version of reality means that he is, indeed, an outsider. Phillips’s use of first person in this story, however, means that it is difficult to assess her actual attitude toward this pathology.
To better understand Phillips’s stance on this dark side of transcendence, we must go to “1934,” another story that deals with the normal versus the pathological, but this time from the point of view of one of the “normal.” In this story, J. T., the husband of Lacey and father of the narrator, has gone crazy after the loss of his mill business to the Great Depression. The situation in the real world is bleak, yet J. T. remains happy by never leaving his joyful past. Each morning after breakfast he goes to his office, “dressed in his old spats and a bow tie. He ha[s] all his account books up there, boxes of them, and he notate[s] every page” (BT 109). Such insistence that the past is still present allows him to stay connected both to the past and the peoples in it. We see this most clearly on his walk with his daughter, Francie, who he calls “Frank” and thinks is a boy. As they proceed, he “tip[s] his hat to all the women. . . . [He] fairly swagger[s] with happiness, and everyone on the street [speaks] to him. They nod and shake hands eagerly, the men anxious to talk. At the dry goods store, he ask[s] Mrs. Carvey about her children” (BT 115). Mrs. Carvey, whose husband is dead and whose son, Bill, has long since left her, likes to talk with J. T. as if her son is still nine years old to assuage her loneliness. Cy, the pharmacist, likewise seems to enjoy talking with J. T., giving Francie free sodas so “J. T. would stay and talk to him” and pretending, for J. T.’s sake, that it is Sunday and the paper has not arrived (BT 115). Later, J. T. stops to discuss the stock market with the men outside the pharmacy. Though they are “painfully aware the market . . . crashed in ‘29,” they seem very please to indulge J. T.’s fantasy that the market will “stand firm,” and they let him win any arguments on finance (BT 116).
While J. T. remains connected to the past and, thus, transcends the separation from people created by the passage of time, he becomes disconnected to persons and events in the present. This disconnection, the story suggests, comes at great cost to the people around him. The narrator proclaims at one point, for example, “I don’t know if I love my father. He doesn’t even know I’m a girl. Sometimes I hate him” (BT 114). Lacey, J. T.’s wife concurs, “I know, Francie, sometimes I do too” (BT 114). By the story’s end, J. T. has destroyed the car that is to keep the family financially afloat after a barn burns down. This action shows J. T.’s ultimate disconnection from his family, and in turn, the family has no choice but to “have him put away” (BT 122). J. T.’s mad transcendence, therefore, becomes not a mode of connection but of disconnection from society. Like the people of the criminal underworld, J. T. becomes an outsider, but here the story’s tone is clearly a sad one. J. T. is completely locked in the past, happy, but singly so. Continuity, Phillips suggests, is not without its human costs.
The losses and gains of continuity are further explored in “Snow,” another story dealing with a pathology of sorts. While the diseases of “Gemcrack” and “1934” are psychological in nature, the diseases of “Snow” are physical. Despite this, again, disease acts as a force separating characters from the “normal” world. In this case, the “disease” is blindness. What is interesting about this motif of blindness is its double implication. It both cuts off from the world and ties things together. The way it cuts off from the world is evident from the start of the story: “The school opened iron gates to show its clowns and jugglers. Crowds came to watch the mutes, the senseless ones” (BT 207). The idea conveyed here is one of carnival or circus (clowns; jugglers) and of freaks (mutes; senseless ones)—the abnormal. The iron gates, in most cases, separate such peoples from the community surrounding these “abnormals.” Soon after this, we find that Molly’s blind dad is a teacher at the “School for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind” (BT 208), again, setting the “freaks” apart from the “normal” schools around them. This separation is further extended by Laura, Molly’s mother, who uses the blindness as a means to block out the past and even a moment of continuity in that past. After an accident involving a man, Laura, and her mother, Laura not only fails to remember the past for many years, she goes blind. “Her blindness,” a doctor explains, “is to some extent hysterical . . . thrown free, the car . . . her mother crawled out burning, he said. We think Laura was, he said, Conscious” (BT 220). Here, Laura, in order to maintain her human sanity, in order to maintain her tie to the “normal” discontinuous world, after the “sacrifice” of her mother, has to sacrifice a different tie to that world—her sight.
But blindness also becomes a metaphor for continuity, a world without separate entities, a world in which nothing is “by itself,” where everything blurs into one another. Neither the father, Randall, nor the son, Callie, are totally blind. Instead, they see such things as the “glimmered blur of bodies running” (BT 211). This lack of distinction between separate objects is particularly evident in the case of Callie, who doesn’t receive glasses until some years after birth. In this way, Callie remains tied to a world without dualism or borders, without the concept of separate entities. “Things were different before he went to the white room,” the narrator notes, “a face sat on top of a face and blurred where they came together. . . . Nothing was ever by itself because everything faded its edges into something else” (BT 221). Callie’s reception of glasses means that, like a child born into the world, he has entered the discontinuousness of living objects and, thus, the existential loneliness of existence: “Callie was lonely when he saw that his mother had only one face. She had seemed to be all around him. Her arms legs hips breast hands hair had been in his sight a milky atmosphere. Now he saw that everyone was separate” (BT 221-22). Sight also allows Callie to see words, to read, and thus to conceive in the dualistic mode that words insist on. But the introduction of sight also allows Callie to connect to the real world. While he loses the feeling of the interconnectedness of all things, he gains an appreciation for all he sees. This appreciation finds its greatest expression in Callie’s love for the movies that allow him, in essence, to “see in the dark.” But these movies eventually lead to Callie’s death—a brain hemorrhage caused by eye strain. Ultimately, Callie’s awareness of discontinuous life descends into the continuity of death.
We are left, thereby, with a story that through the sacrifice of Callie, connects not only characters but readers together. We experience this connection at the story’s end, as Molly, following her brother’s hemorrhage, rides on a carousel in the park. Molly’s separateness, at this point, from her blind family is clear: “Every time Molly came around, his [her father’s] face was looking where she was. Her hands wouldn’t move. She was crying with no sound and finally the music stopped. Her father sat on the bench in the rain with his head tilted, looking with his luminous eyes” (BT 224). Yet even within his separateness, we as readers, through our emotional tie to the story, connect to the characters. As a result, what we experience is what I would argue is the ultimate transgression for Phillips (not Bataille), the passage of fiction (in the form of narrative) into reality (in the form of feeling). Through this emotional tie to the story, Phillips brings those outside characters into our own inside being and, thus, breaks down the borders separating the characters from us.
What Phillips finally suggests, therefore, with Black Tickets, is not just that people try to transcend the borders separating them from others. Certainly, her characters do this, but Phillips’s attitude, unlike Bataille’s, regarding the modes often used remains ambivalent. Free sex and crime are not ultimately touted as necessarily desirable actions for readers, nor for the characters. Nor is a return home. Either option could lead to sad and disastrous results. Instead, what Black Tickets suggests is an artistic aesthetic. It is the writer who is to transgress, the writer who is to bring the outsider into literature and, thus, into our hearts and into communion with society. Indeed, certain of her subjects and characters, themselves, have been labeled “taboo,” or more precisely, “nonliterary,” by various critics. Mary Peterson, for example, in her review, proclaims that she likes “‘Gemcrack’ the least of the stories—not because it fails in technique (it doesn’t), or in language (the writing is feverish, obsessive), but because something recoils at putting poetry in [the mind and voice of a mass murderer]. There’s something obscene to it” (77). Similarly, Joseph Epstein, in his review, proclaims that those stories “that deal with the subject of drugs—as does the title story—are the least successful” because “using drugs is perhaps the one literature-proof subject in the world—that is, . . . interesting literature can[not] be made of it” (109). In both cases, these critics label Phillips’s subject matter as obscene and/or as outside the proper realm of art.
Such arguments, especially the one proclaiming that poetry in the mouth of the psychotic is obscene, are similar to certain arguments against pornography which “are structured into a sequence of distinctions which again and repeatedly defines pornography as the excluded Other: the aesthetic versus the erotic (and sensual), erotic art and literature versus pornography” (Falk 190). The basic arguments as to what is not obscene run along three particular lines, according to Pasi Falk (191). First, the distance between the object of art and the audience must be maintained. Second, the object must be contemplated in harmony with virtue and good taste. And third, there must be no desire for a realizing act with the object. Much of Phillips’s work in Black Tickets violates the first two of these. Her subjects, at least according to Peterson and Epstein, are not in “good taste,” or in this case, literary taste. More important, Phillips aims to destroy the distance between the object (the text) and the reader.
“Art,” Phillips proclaims in an interview with Mickey Pearlman, “is what is going to move us beyond . . . ourselves” (160). The artist is to aid in this move beyond the self. He or she does this by making us feel. As such, Phillips idealizes writers like Stephen Crane, who she says serve as “brother[s] to all transgressors, to outsiders, to lost souls” (Introduction ix), and who, thereby, bring such lost souls into literature and into mainstream society, allowing all to identify with them and breaking down the arbitrary barriers that place such persons on the outside in the first place. Poetry, or in this case, the short story, therefore, for Phillips, leads to a place similar to eroticism—to the blending of separate objects, to the eternity of the moment, and to a kind of transcendent connection between discontinuous beings.
A thesis by Jon Morgan Davies