What would we see if we were behind your eyeballs, Cary?

A reader asks a pressing question of quite another sort altogether.

Published December 10, 2007 11:19AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

So I have this thing on my Web site where if you order two books or more you can ask a short question in the "special instructions" box and I send you a personal, handwritten answer with your order. It's sort of a little mail-art project, and I'm having fun with it. But this guy comes along and he asks an intriguing, irresistible question ... but he only buys one book.

So I figure, since he didn't strictly follow the rules, I can bend the rules too, and answer the question for publication. (I sent him a note anyway. It was such a good question.)

Dear Cary,

If an opportunity existed to take a turn in "Being Cary Tennis" (à la "Being John Malkovich"), what might one encounter behind your eyes and where would one ultimately be spit out?


Dear Amos,

If you were behind my eyeballs you would see what I see out here in the world, the pumpernickel and poppy-seed bagels, the blue recycling bin and the nonstick Calphalon pan in the sink, the screen strainer clogged with soggy noodles and rice, bits of green bell pepper and soaked, decaying things, the yellow pencil on the gray countertop, the spreading knives still encumbered with cream cheese and butter, the half-used paper towel crumpled there beside the blue-and-white plate, the black poppy seeds scattered like dots on the bread cutting board, the toaster oven that has no bell (you have to listen for the tiny click of its shutting-off switch, so when we make toast we remain very still and quiet).

Let me direct your attention to the mound of books on the coffee table here, "Irish Folk Tales," "Victorian Detective Stories," "Frost" by Thomas Bernhard, "Starting an Online Business for Dummies," "Parliamo Italiano! A Communicative Approach," the Langenscheit Pocket German Dictionary, the Oxford Duden German Dictionary, my wristwatch removed for the exertion of typing, my glasses case waiting for them to come off my nose and back inside, a box of Kleenex, the one Kleenex arising from the box rather like white smoke from a volcano, blown south by an unseen wind, and on the rug a map of Italy and the words, "Finally, in Italy temperature is reported in Centigrade degrees -- 32 F = 0 C."

That is what you would see if you were behind my eyeballs.

Ah, but if you were behind the projectionist of my dreams, the man who lives up there in that tiny room stacked with old film stock and unpaid invoices from the studios, well, you would have wondered, as I did, Who are these people I am supposed to meet out here at the docks among the sailboats, and why have I purchased seven large French noses, when I am only certain I can sell perhaps three or four large French noses on the Web site? Have I gone overboard again? Have I, like Jack in the Beanstalk story, again gone out with my mother's money to buy practical things and come back with large French noses? But the noses were on faces, were they not? How can I have bought these faces? And who is this friend who has been brought to me? Ah, I like her! She presses against me, and ...

If you lived behind my eyeballs, would you be privy to such dreams? I do not know. Perhaps you would only see the bagels.

But it is hard to stay out here in the world of the visible, isn't it? Even as we try to maintain this contact with the world, we are slipping back into the imagination, those vast rooms we walk through overhearing the conversations of the dead and the yet-unborn. As we do so we become privy to the raw workings of a mind observing itself, the randomness of thought, the scattered pieces of dreams, and if you will walk with me now, we can take a little tour of the interior of the castle, and we come to a large drawing room full of characters, some waking, some snoring, some in conversation with each other, some talking out loud to themselves. As we walk around we listen to them or interrupt and ask them, what are you doing? One of them is still working on the novel, waiting for me to come back so I can finish it up and he can go for the night, a night that has stretched on for many years now. There are characters abandoned like wax figures still standing as when I left them, in the kitchen or in the auto impound yard, or standing with a shovel at midnight in the forest, or barreling down the highway high on crystal meth.

Some have come with their families, others alone, some with their doctors, attendants pushing them, some on stretchers, some in their coffins -- for the dead, too, have their say here! And I walk among them with a clipboard, a busy, intent young man, with a slight stammer, taking their vitals, hearing them out, powerless to change the course of fate but lending a sympathetic ear. And with me is the bill collector, and Amos, the one who wrote asking for a tour, and I am saying to Amos, "See, this is what it's like. This is your tour. These are the characters who occupy my mind. You cannot talk to them. They cannot see you. You are standing behind the one-way mirror of my soul."

And why is this of interest, and does it help anything? What we notice is that only when asked to report what we are seeing do we pause to truly see: The book of Russian folk tales on the counter next to the commemorative Sunset magazine coffee cup, the tea towel or hand towel, the bag of coffee from Trader Joe's, the three baking apples in a bowl, the espresso maker and the paper towel dispenser, the pink radio Norma has had since 1985, the knives in the knife block, their handles sticking out as though it were a chest they had stabbed repeatedly for years, the red vegetable peeler that works better than the black vegetable peeler (I have tested the two together), the white Kitchen Aid mixer, the empty Tupperware containing brick-colored smears of yesterday's lunch, the "Cover and Bake" cookbook lying on the floor next to the chair in the next room, the window by that chair looking out on the encroaching trees vibrating in the storm, the sound of an airplane flying south along the shoreline, the barking of a dog, the growling of a dog's stomach, the hum of the chrome and black refrigerator, the slight tinnitus I seem to have that sounds like the background noise of creation, the green, hand-fired tiles of the wall above the kitchen sink, the sound of the wind in the chimney behind me, a jet from SFO high above, my own stomach growling, the little rustling sounds we make when we move; the sound of a paper removed from the table and dropped on the floor; the click of the keys as I type; the whisper of a finger run across the blanket that sits on my lap, my hiccuping, the sound in the mouth of swallowing, the sound my clasped hands make behind my head as I lean back and stare up at the ceiling wondering what next, what else is there, will I exhaust this inexhaustible supply of insignificant details ... the place in the ceiling where a light fixture should be, and again that gurgling in the stomach, again that hollow sound of wind in the chimney.

As a bonus, perhaps you would appreciate this as you peer out at the world with me:

I pause for lunch to eat a bowl of chili and watch a bit of the Marx Brothers movie "A Day at the Races" (I have been watching it in snippets; it improves my mood) and here comes the scene where Dr. Hackenbush (Groucho) is examining Stuffy (Harpo), with Tony (Chico) looking on:

"I haven't seen anything like this in years," says Dr. Hackenbush as he peers closely at Stuffy's head. "The last time I saw a head like that was in a bottle of formaldehyde."

"Told you he was sick," says Tony.

"That's all pure desiccation along there," says Hackenbush, examining Stuffy's neck. "He's got about a 15 percent metabolism, with an overactive thyroid and a glandular affectation of about 3 percent."

"That's bad, huh?"

"With a 1 percent mentality," continues Hackenbush. "He's what we designate as the, uh, crummy-moronic type. Hmmm. All in all, this is the most gruesome piece of blubber I've ever peered at."

"Hey Doc! Hey Doc!"


"You gotta the looking glass turned around! You're looking at yourself!"

And then Groucho dances around the room as only Groucho can.

Oh, I almost forgot: Where would I be spit out? I would be spit out onto Ocean Beach from one of those big storm-sewer pipes. Strewn around me on the beach would be those seven large French noses from last night's dream.

Book offer extended!

"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: There's still time to receive an autographed first edition! Plus: Buy two or more and get a special treat!

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