Forkhead Box

What interests me most is that Schaumann, the state executioner, bred mice. In his spare time. Sirens, ozone, exhaust are words I could use to entice you into thinking yourself interested in the scene at Sing Sing where Schaumann, of whom you’ll hear quite a bit more, was dispatching this or that killer on a day let’s say in spring. Did you know that he lived in an undecorated house? As a rule, he was inclined toward plainness. An absence of adornment in his clothing, decorations, speech, wife, car, habits, comestibles. He could have lived thus even if employed as a dog catcher or chiropodist. Ostentation was invisible to him. Or he preferred not to see it. Tasteful or un, he found anything done for no reason than to excite the senses to be in poor form. He had never thought otherwise. Perhaps a transcription error in the old zygotic alphabet. A likelihood that would not have been unfamiliar to him, breeding his mice. Here a one with a longer tail, there a one who wouldn’t take food. Schaumann eschewed even condiments. Nor would he wear charms or trinkets. He had lost his wedding ring on his honeymoon. While swimming. Sucked away by the salt he would not have added to his beef stew. Leading his wife to joke that Schaumann was now married to the sea. A joke, for those with an ear for such things. Schaumann had no guile. His children found it easy to deceive him. His children found him simple. Given his profession, however, I am tempted to see something defensive in his meticulous triviality. Ostentation would draw attention. If attention were paid to Schaumann, the attender might learn what Schaumann did for a living.

So he was ashamed of it?


Sources differ.


His children found him simple. I think they were mistaken. And, anyway, they will not read this story. I won’t encourage them to do so, and I’ll ask that you not bring it to their attention. And did you know that when Schaumann left his house to drive to the state prison to execute someone, he changed his licence plates halfway? I’m sure this wasn’t illegal. I’m sure he had received some sort of dispensation from the state. I’m sure the state made allowances for the privacy of its employees engaged in such sensitive work. And that was how Schaumann lived his private life: one man in town, walking to the store, going to church; another during his grim bivouac in the piney woods, spinning and unspinning his licence plate screws, changing his clothes, a legal criminal: killer, breeder of mice, husband, father. Don’t tell me there aren’t such men in our state.


He didn’t wear a hood. He owned a hood, but it wasn’t required that he wear it. Hood ownership was purely ceremonial; the hood was passed down to the next executioner when its previous bearer retired. A symbol of office. Not that Schaumann’s superiors would have begrudged him its use. It was, however, left at home. Even when Schaumann would have preferred to walk hooded to the chair. It lived in his bureau, the hood. I mean his armoire. I mean his dresser. It was folded in with his underwear, the hood. Schaumann’s wife knew it was there: she had folded it, as she had the underwear amid or amidst which it resided. She knew about Schaumann’s job, though he was, as a rule, taciturn. She probably knew about the mice as well, in her basement. In fact, it may be a simpler thing to keep one’s employment as state executioner secret than to bring mice secretly into one’s unadorned home. Especially with two children. The squeaking, the rattling of those filament-thin cage bars, the little corpses, the smell. Why keep secrets in any case? The same as a painting or poem, it would not occur to Schaumann that a deceit was worth the making. He covered his tracks without covering his coverings. He covered his tracks with water, not with leaves. And though Schaumann’s wife didn’t know it, it’s no secret that I took her husband’s name from a novel I’m fond of. I’m sure she wouldn’t have minded, had she known, so long as she didn’t have to read the novel. Her name, however, is still open to conjecture. I go back and forth on this question. What is gained, or not, by naming. In deference to Schaumann, I too am trying to adopt a style of meticulous plainness.


He bred mice in his spare time, in his basement, which was spare. And though under-furnished was decorated like a ship’s wheelhouse. I’m serious. It even had a working wheel. Working in that it spun. More squeaking. Imagine that. Installed before a painted landscape, continuous on every wall. And though he did not look at them, Schaumann’s square, flat seas were calm and Mediterranean. A working guard rail was set into the plaster. Working in that one could grip it. Imagine that. All of this was a holdover from the previous owner, who must have had good reasons to spend his money in this way. No one would accuse Schaumann of being capable of such eccentricity. But then, his character likewise forbade spending his own money or making a spectacle of his home to have such eccentricity removed. And before you get any crazy ideas, neither was it in Schaumann’s character to stand on deck and pick out some figure in the indifferently daubed middle distance and blobbed with what one might suppose in a charitable moment was meant to be a muslin frock or robe by whichever rural housepainter had been commissioned to produce this panoramic travesty, and wring some downy aesthetic satisfaction out of its artlessness; to wonder about that tanned splotch, to think profound things indicative of his own artless conception of himself as a man, a killer, a breeder of mice, a husband or father, with regard to the figure’s static solitude, forever observing the motionless ship drifting by. To feel anything for or about this forgotten digit in a bad painting on the walls of a room about six feet underground on the unexceptional side of the world. No, believe me, none of that for Schaumann. He hardly even – hardly ever – noticed his cubic sea, its two-stroke gulls, its laboured clouds, its peeling Etna. He was, as far as representation, like a cat, our Schaumann. Flat birds, you know, squawk not. Painted seas smell only of mildew and plaster. I don’t mean Schaumann was unimaginative: just uninvested. Mimesis, even when accomplished, photoreal, was lost on him. Schaumann went down to his basement not to brood but to breed.


And, while we’re setting out some rules, neither did Schaumann see any correlation between his playing vengeful god with his prisoners at the death house and fertility god with his mice in their cages. Because Schaumann didn’t feel the least bit empowered – a word he wouldn’t have used, or probably known – by his quotidian killings or propagations. Nor was he numb to the unappetising nature of his work, an unthinking processor of the condemned. It was like this: Schaumann had assistants who helped with the clean-up, and their chatter annoyed him. They had been selected for their solemnity, and yet, ‘behind the scenes’, they talked and talked. They had not been raised right. Did this mean that their colleagues assigned to the general prison population talked even more than they? Schaumann considered himself lucky, then, to have been plucked from regular duty to work here in the sanctum while, out there, it was still the era of men who were, like himself, unforthcoming. He had found such men congenial company. Together unconversing. Strength in silence. Days bygone, or perhaps vanished, or perhaps present but misty in Schaumann’s middle distance as he came back from the cafeteria, his awkward shuffle the only movement there in the centre of the centre, the inside of the inside, where they keep the real if dreary secrets of Sing Sing. Oh, I don’t know: the panopticon, the spirit jars, the fetish bracelets, the guillotine; the different sizes of death chair, with or without cushioned armrests, pillows, claw feet, intaglio images of Itztli, Ghede, Yama; the shrine to the Rosenbergs, piled with skulls and bowls of rice and mustard greens, the scent of the couple’s smoulder reproduced by costly parfumeurs and pumped continually into the corridor by interns. All of which Schaumann passed without remark, breathing symphonically through his one unclogged nostril, carrying his timecard, wondering how many pups from the latest litter on board his basement might survive till summer.


Would Schaumann’s two popinjays have been considered apprentices? Did they nurse hopes of succeeding him and being handed the hood in turn?


But Schaumann insisted on doing all the paperwork himself. His work signature distinct from his home signature. Left leaning or right, more or less legible, more or less ambitious stroke structures. Though each of these mountain ranges in aid of the same Germanic name. Schaumann only wanted to divert attention elsewhere, not dissemble. If someone had asked him what he did for a living, a stranger, though he rarely met any that weren’t dead an hour later, Schaumann would have been evasive, but he wouldn’t have lied. If cornered. And if you kept at him.


So is it awful? Are they violent?


I’m never alone with them, usually they don’t have much fight left by the time I see them.


Are they scared of you?


Not me, exactly.


So exactly what?


He never wrote his memoirs. All his predecessors did. But he had missed killing the Rosenbergs. By just a few years. Can you imagine the sense of professional loss? Schaumann was, at best, occupying the iron age of executioners. The heroes and immortals of the discipline were no more. Really, his profession was itself in danger of extinction. Not the practice but the profession. Courts martial and the like, they don’t require executioners. It wouldn’t be long before Schaumanns were obsolete. So what did he have to brag about? His figure?


I can tell you he was never unfaithful to his wife. Who, in the end, was named Tina, short for Kristina. But Schaumann wasn’t much fun to be around. Isn’t that also a sort of bad faith? He tried his best with his family, that was obvious; I mean he laboured obviously to do his best. It was important to him that people should recognise that he was doing his best. When a poet or was it a painter with connections to the so-called New York School opened a small bistro in Schaumann’s town, Schaumann wanted everyone to see him take his wife there for dinner. They walked down Main Street and lingered where there might be witnesses. The owner of the restaurant spoke to Herr and Frau Schaumann of a region in Italy where the natives cooked using unwashed basil. They refused to wash it, these aboriginal Italians. They’d pick the leaves and then brush them with twigs. That’s all. And so into the sauce. ‘Such is their reverence for the leaf,’ said the owner. ‘Holy God,’ (cap’d, direct address) thought Schaumann, or perhaps he muttered it. If Schaumann did ‘have a book in him’ after all, it would be the sort of book where people don’t say but mutter (if not murmur). I hope that doesn’t sound condescending. I don’t mean to be, neither toward Schaumann nor the poet turned restaurateur. So don’t you look at me that way.


What was it that poet, (or was
it a painter? just back from
Italy muttered or murmured about
revering his basil?
‘Reverence is a twig, water
somehow too familiar.
So don’t you look at me that way.’


Schaumann bred mice in his spare time, I am told. He was good at it. He experimented, tried to produce litters of only one colour, bearing a certain pattern of spots, possessed of a particular nose or eye width. Which is to say that he found mice malleable, as a medium. In time taking special orders from labs from around the state. A little money on the side. Promptly reinvested in his mice. Cages expanding to sheds, additions, new buildings, a veritable farm. And after Schaumann’s death, his legacy: glow-inthe-dark mice, monster mice, mice even Schaumann’s skilled hands could not have produced: mutated mice, mice of the future. Do you know what a knockout mouse is? It’s a mouse whose DNA has been altered to remove or disable a specific gene. For example, the FOXP2 gene, mutations of which supposedly affect language or vocalisation. And yes, Schaumann executed many of his failures, whether out of shame or simply to protect his sovereign gene pool. He bought his son or daughter a snake so as to better dispose of the evidence, as he had no assistants attending him in these offduty executions. But he didn’t brag about his mice, though they were his great success in life: not even in a murmur, not even to the lanky galoot from the city, who would have listened, who would have been eager to take in such nourishing specificity, but who Schaumann recognised as a threat to his (Schaumann’s) anonymity. This epicene, glasses-wearing transplant. Wanting to fit in, like Schaumann, but unlike Schaumann talking too much and too strangely to be anything but an anomaly. Even when using simple words, our urbanite couldn’t use them right. And I’m not saying he preferred words that weren’t simple. I’m not saying he was an intellectual. But he was from a different milieu, that’s indisputable. He’d travelled. He’d eaten gritty basil somewhere on a different continent. He’d published poetry in magazines Schaumann wouldn’t have heard of, and/or exhibited at galleries Schaumann wouldn’t have considered worth a visit. Schaumann would have said, had he been forced to acknowledge such products, ‘You don’t need talent to do what that guy does.’ But, you know, he didn’t consider himself talented, the restaurateur. If you’d asked him at a cocktail party, both of you attending out of obligation, whether he considered himself a talented man, he would have said that his only genius was in being able to locate the word ‘orgasm’ on even the most tightly kerned page of type, almost before his forebrain had taken in ink, page, paper grain; before his mind from its filing cabinets had selected ‘read’ as the verb, ‘book’ the noun, ‘toadstool’ the odour at hand. To which boast you would reply with amusement or embarrassment, wondering whether the trains were still running. Or I guess you’d know best how you would reply.


In fact, when I use the noun man to speak about this alien presence in Schaumann’s small-town redoubt, it may seem as though I am employing precisely the same noun I would use – had I likewise postponed giving Schaumann a name – to speak about our plainspoken executioner. And yet, with regard to the poet-chef, the word man in fact has an idiomatic meaning that I’m not sure I can communicate to you – you who are not from around here. But this person, so to speak, would in any case have found Schaumann captivating, had he (the chef) been privy to the things Schaumann would not share. He would have looked at Schaumann as a case study, perhaps to the point of giving offence; perhaps he would have thought – reviewing Schaumann’s future, which was printed in Palatino on the reticent man’s cheeks and chin – that the details of Schaumann’s life might make a great poem, or painting, or meal. Perhaps questo grande fabbro would even have suggested that Schaumann was something of an artist himself, which is, probably, condescending; I mean, placing an otherwise indigestible personage into a comfortable context the better to dismiss him. But, in the chef’s defence – let us call him Quakatz, to cut down on the pronouns – Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Quakatz, if you must know – in Chef Quakatz’s defence, Schaumann did produce, did have an audience. It’s just that Schaumann’s readers, so called, and critics too, were unable to submit their reviews to the prison board the following morning, for the simple reason (you’re way ahead of me) that they were by that time on slabs, smelling of fuse box. What a painting or omelette Quakatz could have made out of that!


Schaumann’s mice liked him at least as much as his prisoners did. At least the ones resigned enough to their forthcoming departures to take a moment to appreciate their dispatcher’s decorum, his benevolence, his dignity, his melancholy as he led them on his two sinister feet to the uncomplaining hot seat; why, some of these hard men even felt sorry for Schaumann. Everyone in the execution party, walking down that long hallway (I am employing my extensive knowledge of cliché), must have felt sorry for one another. For one another, I stress, not for themselves. Schaumann devoured self-pity. Like an algae-eating fish. He consumed and converted into compassion what the condemned could not help but produce as they saw their last of this glorious world: the drywall, the drop ceilings, the orangeade light in tubes, the flocculent spiral of discolouration on the tiling by the killing chair itself; gosh it’s hard to leave all this behind! See, Schaumann knew how to give his charges – no pun intended – a proper send-off. And then the bloody remains in a handkerchief into the trash. Until he went down to the pet store in the next town and bought that snake for his son. (Do you mind my not looking up the species?) The snake as an intermediary was cleaner, Schaumann thought, than just putting the corpses directly into the bin; the opossum problem was solved just about overnight: no more overturned garbage cans. Offal is offal, yes, whole or first abstracted by snake intestine, but no carrion-loving mammal would dare come near the smell of carnivorous reptile.


Sorry, didn’t I say that Schaumann didn’t equate his mice and his prisoners? But you know I can’t be trusted. I come from a broken home.


The cages, the habitats, the mouse scent filled the good ship Schaumann, which despite his supposed disinterest he would have been embarrassed to show Quakatz – Quakatz the tangle, the mélange! – and only with great diffidence his wife Tina and two children, who went unnamed most of their lives. And polishing the fittings on the electric chair, oiling its great big switch (don’t tell me there wasn’t a great big switch), Schaumann thought of what sort of creature the union of reptilian Quakatz with his Tina might have produced. What sort of son or daughter would have resulted.


What crimes would it commit. How long before it landed before Schaumann the executioner and recognised this man who could have been its sire, but would instead escort it from its welter of sublunary dissatisfactions – oh, matinee stubs, record-club circulars, septic fingers, amber ashtrays, dust-mops and corkscrews and orgasms. An executioner predisposed by his own two parents to attaining a high level of expertise in the arts both of dispatching murderers and husbanding rodents.


Females can become pregnant within twenty-four hours of giving birth, and female pups within five to eight weeks after being born. Schaumann purchased; he culled; he coddled his mice. His human daughter and human son, uncoddled, unresponsive, themselves achieved sexual maturity and took great pains to demonstrate their achievement to coevals and parents both. But they weren’t developed enough characters to move away from this burlesque. They went to school locally, they bred with local stock and produced variations so slight from the generations that had preceded them that no researcher could have been seduced into mapping their tiny triumphs. While Quakatz refrained from breeding. Employed a baker and flourished according to his newer, lower, upstate standards. Kept a diary. Fell in love with and then dismissed said baker. No poem came of this loss. Sad loaves, buns, scones undithyrambed. The baker was solaced soon in the arms of once-divorced Mme Schaumann – she perhaps unworthy of his genius, but no less so than Quakatz’s predawn kitchen, now so undistinguished, where even the weevils had once been elegised.


Did time pass? Every night the restaurateur praying to the Pleiades, Schaumann to the forkhead box. An older Quakatz drove to Albany once to take part in demonstrations demanding the abolishment of capital punishment. Taking food right out of his own mouth, had he known. What with Tina and therefore Schaumann and therefore the death-house payroll office being some of his best customers. Tina and Schaumann ate chez Quakatz once a week. A useless expense, now that no one commented that Schaumann was a good husband to so treat his spouse. But Tina would insist. On Friday nights, perhaps. Along with other couples of retirement age, or nearly, they were regulars. Though Schaumann himself would never retire. If he retired, he might be called upon to say what from. So he would continue pulling that lever so long as his arm would behave as habit and the penal code dictated, without flourish or tremor. And I would say Mr and Mrs Schaumann’s Friday night ritual was intended to hark or hearken back to the early days of their adolescent pair-bond, but Schaumann and Tina had never dated; they were always married, were born old, and their house contained only a basement. Don’t weep for the mice: they have it pretty easy. Short lives, little joy, but lives entire.


Are they scared of you? Schaumann’s daughter had asked when she’d gotten her one tour of her father’s terraria. And he’d answered: Not me exactly. And she told this to the reporters who found her at the beginning of the next millennium, still living with her baker, having moved not three hundred yards from her childhood home, now almost entirely given over to mouse breeding – fluorescent mice caged near mice who could not even squeak, because of their mangled FOXP2s.


What took you so long? she asked them, when they knocked. Because all the other state executioners had long since been found, interviewed, sifted, published, annotated, celebrated. Not Schaumann, who had left so meagre a midden by which he might be located by scholars. And Mrs Baker’s bemused testimony made the front page of the local paper, if only rating a peculiar ’graph in the Lifestyle section of the city rag, downstate, where women were women and men were idioms, which made mention of the excellent if coarse pesto being made in the tiny but ominous town’s bistro. Ancient Quakatz, long a subscriber, cudgelled his old diaries for some mention of Schaumann the state executioner. Had he fed such a man so regularly and never noted his qualities? It seemed Schaumann was buried not ten minutes from where vacationers now enjoyed gourmet meals priced as though it were still a year when the grease-smoke of fried murderers might have served as a chance condiment for their veal chops. Quakatz visited the grave. Communed with the simple stele. Thought of taking up photography.


The funeral? Unostentatious. The son and his snake, the daughter and her baker, Tina and her names, all in attendance. The two death-row assistants wondering how to ask the widow for their hood back. A very small crowd of retired co-workers from the old days, from the prison – not chatting, not chattering, not gossiping, barely speaking. But calling: Move over, Schaumann. We’re coming in after you. Make room.


From the grave, muffled, an explanation: ‘I am trying to adopt a style of scrupulous plainness!’


is the author of Rose Alley (Counterpath Press, 2009). He is Senior Editor at Dalkey Archive Press at its United States office in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois


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