by Keenan Walsh

Above my writing desk I had a line from Le temps retrouvé: “The beauty of images is situated in front of things, that of ideas behind them. So that the first sort of beauty ceases to astonish us as soon as we have reached the things themselves, but the second is something that we understand only when we have passed beyond them.” I’d copied the quote from the old English translation, but then later replaced it with the French (“La beauté des images est logée à l’arrière des choses, celle des idées à l’avant…”) because I realized that the direction had been reversed in translation: the beauty of images lives behind things, that of ideas in front of them. We advance upon the world at its back, and only see things face-to-face by turning as they recede from view. Plus, the cognate suggested a further possible meaning: logée, lodged: not just situated, but stuck. I wanted to believe that, by writing about my receding past, I was seeking the world itself, and that loss—the loss of my mother when I was a child—was not something to be lamented, but cherished, requisite as it was for the most thorough encounter with life’s beauty, its truth or essence, which it was now my obligation to dislodge, to free, by turning, looking back, remembering.

Unfortunately I wasn’t up to the task. As I wrote, nothing would budge. Avoidance sometimes disguises itself as obsession. Every detail struck me as crucial and fixed, and I seemed to lose my judgment. Trivial points of scene (she stood from the chair) seemed as causally important as occurrence (she died) or decision (he let her die). Images fell upon images. The precise way that moss hung from cypress trees like unbraided hair, the over-brittle texture of ramen noodles, the achy creaking of our floorboards, the mildewed hue of my bedroom window, … : all of it, without hierarchy, seemed intrinsically linked to my mother’s death, or my father’s decision. I was convinced from having passed through them all once before that some perfect logic united them, but I was too afraid shape anything in order to discover what that logic might be. I was writing a list, not a novel. Constellations reveal the cultures that trace them: location, imagination, belief, fear, hope, self-conception. I refused to impose an image of my own onto the stars, lest I myself emerge in what it saw.

At first, when I began to realize what I’d done—poured undifferentiated recollection onto a page—I wondered, in a brief moment of cheap careerist ambition, if the cumulative flatness of it all, the lack of any narrative substance, the very failure of it, might become the point. Plenty of similar books had recently sold well. But in that impulse I felt very of my generation in a way that sickened me: somehow, I’d become a spectator and mere recipient of my own life, the very life I’d ostensibly wanted, by writing, to most fully inhabit. I tried to revise, but monotony was somewhere in its DNA like an illness and couldn’t be expelled. I wanted to burn it—print, delete, reduce to ash with uncharacteristic resolve—but instead, every morning after writing, I deleted the file only to restore it from the cloud an hour later.

In all of this now, as I write, I see my mother: illness, abandonment, ash, the wish to restore from a cloud. She’s in everything I touch. I can look back on her life but not on her absence, which follows at my side and refuses to recede.

This lasted for a year until, late in the summer before my father died, just before fall classes started, I noticed a pain in my left hand. I brushed it off at first as one of the fleeting and mysterious aches that began around my thirtieth birthday. But then it wouldn’t go away, and in fact seemed to get worse every morning. Like an idiot, I tried to force it out with aggressive stretches, gripping exercises, frigid ice followed by near-scalding bowls of water. But eventually it grew so painful that not only could I not use the computer, but even getting my arm through a shirtsleeve brought me to tears. I had no choice but to visit the hospital.

After a few questions, the doctor said I had tendonitis from typing with poor posture.

“That’s not right,” I said. He asked why. “I sit up straight when I write, and I do this when I finish.” I tried to show him an aggressive forearm stretch which I only rarely did, but I winced and had to stop.

Again, he said that I had tendonitis from computer use, likely caused by poor posture.

I disagreed.

With no emotion whatsoever, he said, “Okay, then let’s do an x-ray.”


“If you think it’s not a repetitive stress injury, it must be some other sort of injury. We should make sure you haven’t broken anything.”

“How could I have broken something?”

He sighed, and then said offhandedly, “Maybe you fell and don’t remember.”

I should confess here that although I’d quit drinking some years before, I had as of late been experimenting with moderation. The experiment was: Can I do it? The hypothesis justifying my experiment was: Yes. My better angels said no, but I drank them quiet.

It was entirely possible, in other words, that I’d fallen without remembering.

“How much would an x-ray cost?”

“We can ask our billing rep, I don’t have those figures.” He saw my face and sympathetically added, “It’s not cheap.”

“If it’s true,” I said, “that I’ve broken something, and I decide to not get an x-ray and just tough it out, what’s the worst that could happen?”

“I don’t do hypotheticals.”

This I admired.

“Do you want the x-ray?” he asked.

“Your call…”

In the end the x-ray showed that I’d broken nothing, so I was diagnosed with tendonitis from typing with poor posture. He prescribed ibuprofen, which was cheaper to buy over the counter anyway. The whole ordeal, once I received the bill a week later, cost around three months’ rent. I wondered if on top of it I should buy a dictation software, but to pay the hospital I had to take an extra job, which graciously robbed me of my time, so that I was able to simply abandon my novel without ever having to feel that I’d made a decision one way or the other.


Keenan Walsh is a writer, translator, and educator in New York City. He is a graduate of Bennington College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a President’s Fellow, and is currently a psychoanalytic candidate at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction, 91st Meridian, Brazenhead Review, and elsewhere.


    Commenting on

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

‘You’re so sour-tempered, Gergana’ asserted baba Zoya and kept knitting. ‘As if a lemon wedge is stuck to your tongue.’I kept my mouth shut, didn’t want to argue with her. That’s not why I was there.‘Have you seen Boyan?’
The gulp of winter air fills my lungs with chills, then retreats with a sigh. It clears off old visions and carries them away. The visions vanish, soaring high, where they belong. They were here only for an instant - for comfort, hope or advice.
11 August 1999“I hate her.”I stood in my room, gritting my teeth so hard I was in danger of breaking a molar. Of course she wouldn’t come.
There is a pedestrian tunnel beneath Fourteenth Street, connecting the subway trains at Sixth Avenue with those at Seventh.
So will things be different, do you think, for us now? She asked this from the bathtub. Her voice was surprising because it was so light.
When my aunt Fani called me in Chicago from Bulgaria to tell me she had found her brother, my father, dead, lying back across his bed with his right hand over the heart, she chose the inferential mood to relay the news. Баща ти си е отишъл.
A young man, with an apron, stained from a just filleted fresh fish, storms out of the back entrance of a small restaurant to a crossing of Stamboliyski boulevard, sits in front and lights a cigarette.
1 I remember her bloody, drained, and happy, her thighs trembling from exertion, spread open to the sides. And I'm holding a piece of living flesh in my hands and trembling with fear.
"Can I get you anything else, Bear Boy?" inquired the waiter of the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall café with an ill-contained smirk. 
The white Renault parked in front of the House of the Communist Party. The chauffeur rolled down the window to have a smoke. Dimcho took a few moments sitting quietly in the back seat.