To Acknowledge Distance
By Chris Wells
NDQ is proud to publish, in serial, Chris Wells’s novella, To Acknowledge Distance, which originally appeared in volume 84.3/4 (2018). This is part 1.
1. The Brink
We had been driving for ten hours over the same road. Not far from the bridge, my wife said she needed to pee, so I pulled over. As for me, I could go thirty-six hours without urinating. Exerting control over my bodily functions had been one of several disciplines I practiced to prepare for a match. You are not a tube, Ferdinand had once written to me. Is it not liberating to realize you are not a slave to your body? Not a tube, but also not anything or anyone, either. Or are we, if we create ourselves?
As she hid herself in some brush, I stood from my seat, put my head through the sunroof, and looked through binoculars down the road, hoping to see him approaching. The road had no intersections in sight from this location, nor any houses. Ferdinand and I had agreed to pull over three hundred yards from either side of this bridge, giving us each a quarter mile to meet in the middle of it. Matches were often held on bridges such as this, which added some adrenaline, but it is less dangerous than you think. The day was cold but clear, and the sun had begun to set. Ferdinand and I both preferred the night.
He was driving from somewhere far north. It was hard to tell how long his trip would take. I imagined the roads were not so easy to travel on this time of year, not to mention the unpredictable weather. I did not call him for an update. To do so seemed formal, civilized, anxious. Tara and I stayed nightly at a hotel tens of miles away, waiting patiently, watching. I drove up and down this road, over the bridge and back again, getting to know it intimately. Finally, Ferdinand called yesterday. He would be coming from the west around sunset, or just after sunset. I trusted him, as I knew he was a man of his word, although I expected him anytime this week, or next week. Meeting him was assured more as a finality than something mediate or interim. For years, I believed my destiny would entangle with Ferdinand, that we would meet, that it might be the last match I ever played. How it might be the last, how the match would end, I could not know. I had an idea, but I tried not to entertain it. We had invited no audience to see it, so the outcome might have been left to the forensics of a police department. There rarely was an audience nowadays, save a spouse or friend who would record a match on a banal camera phone. But Ferdinand had no wife, seemingly no close friends, and Tara did not record matches. She sat in the back seat all the way through, playing the game in her own way.
Ferdinand’s car was a Cadillac Series 70 Eldorado Brougham Oudes assemblage car. His uncle had owned it—it was legendary, still intact after nearly thirty years of play. It was a literal work of art, an assemblage of various vehicles, a moving sculpture of a machine. The driver’s door was painted red, the passenger’s door blue, the hood yellow—primary colors. The upholstery had been customized in the ’70s in a startling white. These cars were ultrarare. The artist, Henrik Oudes, only made thirty-three of them. This made it an anomaly, even madness, to use it in this sport. To play a car that must have been worth six figures, maybe seven—what was more reckless? People thought the same of Ferdinand’s uncle when he drove it. And how did he get it? Stolen, coerced from a collector perhaps. Or bought with gambling money—after all, his uncle was a better gambler than player. He would gamble on anything—roulette tables in Vegas, sporting events, other chicken matches. Why Oudes had done this particular car with primary colors, no one seemed to know, but I had my own theories. I believe the Dutch modernist painter Mondrian had limited himself to primary colors, black, and white as a theosophical expression of transcendence, purity, the rejection of the green generativity of nature. It would not surprise me if Ferdinand had been well-read in art history and even more well-read in esotericism. If I had to guess, he was a bit of a heterodox Catholic drawn to Hermetic traditions, maybe alchemy. But if he was a spiritual man, he also was a man of worldly taste and subtlety. As for him playing a Cadillac, this was not unusual, but given that they are luxury cars, someone new to our sport may ask: why put them in such danger? I believe Cadillacs and brinkmanship were at the height of their popularity well before the game became relegated to our self-obsessed subculture dedicated to the development of mental and physical skill, even—if you will forgive the term—perfection. Although it is a traditional brand to play, Ferdinand’s was not quite traditional, nor did it seem to suit him easily. Was not the luxurious nature of his Cadillac, in particular its curvaceous design, contradictory to the anti-natural biases of the primary colors decorating it? If anyone were to ask Ferdinand for his own opinions on this matter, I could only imagine him being silent or at least laconic, preferring to express himself in correspondence or pamphlets to the leagues. To my theory of the symbolic tensions inherent in his own vehicle, he may simply have said, “Exactly.” In those seven letters of agreement would not have been a joke, but an affirmation of the multiplicity of truths. After all, it is possible to hold apparently irreconcilable ideas in one mind, although one must train the mind for it. Life is paradox, and Ferdinand seemed not ashamed to embrace it, nor death. Remember that I am writing of Ferdinand as I imagined him, which had filled the many gaps in my failures to understand him. I had never met the man before, but I had corresponded with him, and I had heard many anecdotes—that an encounter with him was ineffable, horrific, utterly devastating. But the utter defeat my colleagues spoke of stemmed from a lack of preparation and careful study, so I believed. Where others saw only mystery or a form of madness, I discerned a method or inner logic. I was determined to bottom out his wisdom, to see how far down I could go.
Last year Ferdinand—due to what seemed like clairvoyance—had driven not his ultrarare Cadillac but a 1993 Mazda. This match ended in an unusual way, what the leagues call a “full tie,” and it was nearly deadly. A collision occurred, with no swerve from either side. Ferdinand’s opponent, my friend Randy, was determined to beat him or tie him in death. Randy had even gotten a divorce to prepare for his match. It felt irresponsible to leave a wife behind, and he was sure to bequeath in his will and testament all his worldly possessions to his only child, a daughter, to assuage the guilt of his pending confrontation. Randy came away from the accident miraculously unscathed, but of course single and estranged from his family. Ferdinand had come away with deep lesions in his abdomen and an injury to his left eye. I heard he was sliced through the abdominal wall, revealing his labyrinthine intestines to the few others who witnessed the match. The Secret Medical Fraternity of Brinkmen airlifted him to the nearest hospital where he was admitted under a pseudonym under the pretext of an accident of some kind. He had recently recovered, but the eye could not be saved. I heard he wore a patch, giving him the look of a pirate, intimidating opponents who were mentally weaker. He must have known the patch would do nothing for me. He knew my reputation. That was why he called me.
But as a prelude to his call, he played some other forms of psychological games, or at least that is what I took them to be. He had sent in the mail a book of children’s maze puzzles, entitled simply Maze Book. Someone—presumably Ferdinand, although the piece was unsigned—had solved one of the mazes and dog-eared the page. The solution of the maze was a zigzag pattern and the line had been drawn in pencil and decorated as a crude, childish figure of a snake. Inside the body of the snake one word was repeatedly written:
Obviously, this one word was intended to sow fear in me. By depicting an animal that evokes anxiety and revulsion, Ferdinand had intended to make me lose my nerve, consider swerving, thereby securing his victory. The second object I received in the mail was a music box. It was well-worn, perhaps an antique from the early twentieth century. One panel of the box depicted a carousel, another a dancing couple. This device played an unsettling but ethereal tune. The tine of the comb at the fourth degree was defective, either accidentally chipped or intentionally shortened, sharpening the interval between the first and fourth degrees to a tritone. The panel with the dancing couple had been altered, most likely recently, with an acrylic painting of the word perichoresis in white, black, blue, yellow, red—again, the primary colors. Perichoresis was a term that puzzled me, but it seemed to fit with the theme of turning. The horses, as the vehicles of the carousel, were not traveling, and could never travel, in a straight line, doomed to a circle of endless repetition, just as the dancers, statically frozen in their depiction on the panel, could never stop turning. The third object was a boomerang, with the words “It will never but always return to you” inscribed in white grease pencil. The last item Ferdinand sent I can only describe as probably a long letter. I have never opened this nine-by-twelve brown envelope and so I only guess at its contents. I left it unopened at the hotel, not wanting to be unduly influenced by what masterful methods he would arouse the deepest existential anxiety in me.
Everyone who matched Ferdinand gave up the game shortly afterwards. Randy said that once you matched Ferdinand, there was nothing more to do—not just with the game but with one’s life. Randy, alienated from ex-wife and child, felt desperate and aimless after the match, as if he had flipped the scoreboard of a pinball machine but had no other game to play. What was it all for? He looked up at the stars in my company and in all seriousness asked me, Do you think these stars are listening to us? Even if they could, why would they bother?
“I’m getting cold—are we just gonna keep waiting?” Tara asked.
“Might as well.”
“He’s probably not coming. He’s just playing head games with you now. Maybe we should head back. Or go home. I’m worried about Star. You don’t need to do this, Charles. You’re grown up now—what do you have to prove?”
“If you were going to worry about the cat, you shouldn’t have come. Or maybe we should have brought Star along. We could have hidden her in the hotel, put a litter box in the bathroom and holed her up there. I mean, do I ever ask you to come?” She said she always came out of concern, which was meant to convince me this was not the way her husband should live—or die. I had also considered divorce, but I was too attached to the “till death us do part” clause of our marriage vows. A vow is a vow, and marriage is but another sport—the ultimate endurance sport of bearing the presence of another person. Anyway, I think Tara did not really want me to stop. She had grown up with the game. It was her father and brother who introduced me to it. It was her way of testing me, playing a mental form of chicken, hoping I would swerve. Perhaps she was conflicted. So was I. That’s the thing about being a brinkman. You have to be comfortable with life’s ambiguities, not to mention the ambiguities of all that is opposed to life: death, destruction, senselessness. I was beyond merely human, or that’s what I had to prove—that I could face the same threats Ferdinand faced match after match. I wanted to prove I could welcome death and pain as if these were nothing at all. But whenever I put this into words, it sounded silly to me, and as I write these words it still does.
A snake through a maze. As I waited for Ferdinand, the symbolism started to impose itself into my consciousness against my own will. A snake turns. Its skin also turns into new skin. Christ is a symbol of this, for to be “in Christ” is to be “a new person.” The Buddhists have their metaphors as well, I think—the dying of the false self, the ego, the manifestation of an enlightened nature. The symbolism of death and rebirth is perhaps an esoteric undercurrent in all religions, resonating with those who would seek, and be open to, a deeper source of guidance. But guidance is always to some destination. To where? Ourselves. Some psychologists, philosophers, theologians, and mystics have asserted we are on a quest. Yes, they have often used the pronoun we, but most people are not awake enough to begin the quest, or to even know it is necessary. If I lived conventionally, I would already be as dead as the masses—just another working stiff. What might this symbolism mean coming to me from Ferdinand? A new beginning—for a loser? Or is the symbolism itself, with its irresistible pull, supposed to distract and confound me?
Speaking of the masses, chicken has never been a conventional, respectable game to them. For example, Bertrand Russell compared the nuclear arms race to chicken in this passage from his book Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare:
Since the nuclear stalemate became apparent, the Governments of East and West have adopted the policy which Mr. Dulles calls ‘brinkmanship’. This is a policy adapted from a sport which, I am told, is practiced by some youthful degenerates. This sport is called ‘Chicken!’. It is played by choosing a long straight road with a white line down the middle and starting two very fast cars towards each other from opposite ends. Each car is expected to keep the wheels of one side on the white line. As they approach each other, mutual destruction becomes more and more imminent. If one of them swerves from the white line before the other, the other, as he passes, shouts ‘Chicken!’
Russell was obviously a man who meant well. He was also obviously a man who had no direct experience of the game. I do not know if Dulles had been acquainted with our more sober variation, but I believe he was, given his use of the term “brinkmanship,” which has since entered the common lexicon and taken on other nuances.1
Russell “is told” that the sport is played by “youthful degenerates,” but he does not go into any detail, other than describing a white line, which has never been a requirement of a brinkmanship match—neither a visible line nor, if one were used, a white one. But the chicken symbolism is nonetheless important. To be called a chicken is a challenge to one’s honor and one’s courage. All true brinkmen have been called to rise above the masses, above being subject to manipulation, exploitation, and eventual slaughter by the aggressive tedium of everydayness. A chicken is mortal, ordinary, weak, controlled and predictable, but we brinkmen have each been called to become, at least in a metaphorical sense, immortal.
Because Dr. Russell was ignorant of our leagues of skillful (and for the most part, hardly young) players, he was typical in his disdain for our sport. Many do not understand or value the discipline needed to excel at it, either before or after Ferdinand’s innovations. Chicken used to be a game of adeptness, insight, intuition, vehicular control in which one must hurtle to the brink of fatality, then turn away. Where that line is, that point of no return, depends on each player, each car. You had to know yourself, your vehicle, your opponent. Essentially, the game used to test players on two factors: how much skill do you have, and how much courage? Techniques, many of them the closely guarded secrets of each player or family of players, were developed to speed as close as possible to the brink. In the 1980s and 1990s “swerve-ties” became almost as common for well-matched vehicles and drivers as a tie in the game of tic-tac-toe. Ferdinand’s reforms were sorely needed, but everyone questioned whether they were bringing about the death of the game in another way.
To Ferdinand, chicken had to become a sport directly touching upon one’s ultimate concern. It was physical, fully embodied, yet esoteric, mystical. It developed and celebrated certain possibilities inherent, though normally latent, in mankind—or at least some of us, those called to the game, the competition of which could serve as a goad toward self-transcendence. Ferdinand wanted to remind us that if this were a game of checkers or battleship, then losing the game may put one in a bad mood, but winning chicken is dangerous, potentially fatal—something ultimate is always at stake.2
And those of us who took the sport as seriously as he did, who refused to use it for diversionary or entertainment purposes, could reap enormous, though largely interior, benefits. In his pamphlets and correspondence, he never provided a static or authoritative list of these benefits, but two constants seemed to be love and courage. Love? It is also ludic in the best sense, is it not? To consider it as desport is no blasphemy. With war and, perhaps, hatred, love is inextricably tangled. If God created this world and God is love, then love is much bigger than our tawdry sentimentalities.
Ferdinand was a true radical in the sense that he was attempting to revitalize chicken from its roots as a form of duel. Chicken began merely as a way to preserve one’s honor. Perhaps contrary to other forms of duel, death or injury of your opponent was not desired. To be called “chicken” simply required action to prove the assertion true or false. “He called me chicken!” is the defense offered in Rebel Without a Cause for participating in the so-called “chickie run,” an early variation involving a literal brink (cliff). The original dueling form started as a method of discovering the truth of the matter—a sort of trial. One of the contestants will turn away first, thereby proven to be more cowardly than the other, and thus “chicken.” But if neither of them turn away—the “full tie”—then at least both players would die with honor, would they not? And is dying to preserve one’s honor not to be preferred to living in dishonor ever afterwards? When one dies in honor, that honor becomes a trophy secured forever. There may have been a great deal of savagery in these origins, but in this respect it is no different from any other sport. Contrary to popular belief, war is not the origin of sport; war itself is the world’s most vicious sport. Sport is the origin of both war and the games of children. It is also the origin of love—the passionate Eros that drives people together, something still experienced as an act of conquering as well as cherishing the beloved as one’s possession. As this metaphor borrows directly from war, not sport per se, it is seen to be essentially violent. But to love another is a challenge into which one’s whole being is thrust, or perhaps one thrusts upon oneself. It is often excruciating, hence the “arrows” of Eros. To get another to love one in return, through one’s own action, is it not a type of victory?3
Ferdinand’s reforms made him the first and only member of a new school. To match Ferdinand meant to be briefly admitted into his school and summarily expelled for failure. This new school’s methods from the outside appeared as all courage, all honor, or all insanity. His most famous writing was his professorial article in an underground league publication called “Brinkmanship and the Significance of the Wound.” As Ferdinand theorized, the game could no longer be a mere form of the duel, nor a game of skill, but a method of confronting one’s own mortality. A player had to come to grips with his inalienable vulnerability, his dread of pain, his lack of control over his own fate. The idea was not to turn; one must never turn; one must develop the courage to go past the brink while continuing onward at full speed. He did not divulge this interpretation of the game to anyone at first, but the more matches he played, the more evident it was that he really was playing a different game. I have seen videotapes of some of Ferdinand’s matches, many of which were mind-blowing in their recklessness. Yet his mannerisms before and after each match showed extraordinary composure. He was apparently lacking in pride or arrogance. He did not show any desire to assert himself in company. He had a deep inner confidence, but he was humble, even monkish.
Over the years, I had become obsessed with Ferdinand. Although I longed for the comforts of the old game, I knew that he had taken the game itself beyond the brink. I wanted to defeat Ferdinand, but to meet him with the same strategy that he used would result in pain, destruction, and likely death, and as our match approached, I wondered if this was something I really wanted to face. What would I be when they pulled me from the wreckage? Would I be a fool after all, and a dead, bloody, broken fool at that? Would my own labyrinthine intestines spill out onto the road, and would whoever found me be disgusted at the soft tissue destined to rot, to become common dust again? Or would I survive the wreck with minor injuries to my body but find my soul, like Randy’s, mortally wounded? Either I could have played the game against Ferdinand using his own strategies or I could have found my own way to play. I had to transcend him who had seemingly transcended himself.
Ferdinand’s many pamphlets, articles, and published and personal correspondence revealed that his training was an almost entirely psychological curriculum of severe meditative exercises. The enormous strength of mind he developed enabled him to destabilize the weaker-minded. Paradoxically, he trained himself for resignation to his opponents—putting his own life entirely in their hands. For most of the last five years, I had worked to become as much like Ferdinand as possible, knowing that, unless someone else defeated him, we would eventually match. I had become fearless in my resignation, and I began to win every match with my opponents. In my training I began with deep relaxation, then guided imagery on homemade cassette tapes or CDs leading to high lucid dreaming. In the exercises I would see a car (usually a Cadillac Eldorado) coming toward me at sixty, seventy, even one hundred mph. And it worked. I would no longer panic in the face of any danger. I wouldn’t even sweat.
A turning point in my regimen happened about two years ago. Our league allowed for unevenly matched vehicles, “vehicle” loosely defined as any means of moving the human body, including the legs. I had read an account of a match with Ferdinand in one of the league’s journals. His opponent was playing a large Ford F-350, its back loaded with bricks. As Ferdinand approached the truck, the truck slowed down, as though in preparation for a swerve, and indeed it came: the man in the truck swerved, even though he had the undeniable advantage and would have certainly survived with minimal injury. So I went a step further in my training: I began visualizing a train instead of a car. No train can swerve, derailing itself—it can only attempt to brake. The engineer would do anything not to kill a madman, just as Ferdinand’s opponent willingly lost in the face of Ferdinand’s lunacy. Why? Empathy, of course, in most cases. Pity, or societal conditioning, or fear of repercussions at the very least.
Of course, in real life there is often too much momentum to stop the train in time. The engineer may also be a psychopath. As one can imagine, chicken does pose an attraction for psychopaths. Even Ferdinand could have been one, masquerading as a mystic, but with no conscience or real remorse—or even regard for his own life. Perhaps he was a victim of extreme self-contempt, and this was his prolonged suicide attempt. Perhaps he just wanted to take someone with him.
What used to be the ultimate penalty for unskilled or unfortunate playing was now placed squarely in the center, the axis around which the game revolved. Yet a collision does not guarantee death, either. Even Ferdinand had survived one. Nor does it guarantee serious injury. If both players took Ferdinand’s strategy of resignation, then chicken would become no longer a game of skill but of chance. But the game could transcend even chance to become a game of a fuller sort of resignation than Ferdinand, I had hoped, could ever have anticipated.
The night before our match, I had dreamed about Ferdinand. He told me that when Christ died, he was not wearing a loincloth. To preserve the modesty of the Lord—and perhaps to downplay his Jewishness—artists added coverings in their depictions of the Crucifixion. But this was a mistake. We needed to know the Lord was fully human and fully divine in a single hypostasis. And we needed to know he fully shared everyone’s sufferings, even those of our fellow humans who are objects of our contempt.
I countered Ferdinand: To remove the loincloth would be disrespectful, blasphemous, and obscene, would it not?
Ferdinand replied: At least he was barefoot. All ancient warriors and priests were, as baring the feet is a sign of both strength and humility. But he took off his shoes for what? Spikes, by the look of it.
I woke up, then laughed about this dream.
At last, hours after sunset, through the binoculars I saw the headlights of Ferdinand’s Cadillac pull off to the side of the road. Tara looked uncomfortable and pale. I thought I heard vomit pooling in the back of her throat, which she swallowed back down her esophagus as she buckled herself in.
“I’m ready,” she said. “I think.”
“Good. I know I am.” I took off my shoes and socks, got out of the car and stood barefoot on the road.
“Are you forfeiting?” I could not tell if her tone was hopeful or a little contemptuous.
“Just taking off my shoes.” I tried to smile, then began walking toward the bridge. “All the great warriors and priests of the past worked barefoot.” My eyes looked up and followed the belt of Orion to Aldebaran in a nearly straight line, a reminder of my training for this moment. But who was the hunter and who was the bull?
He had shut his engine off but left the headlights on. I wondered if I were winning. It was when I got to the bridge that I saw Ferdinand approaching me from the other side, naked, not even wearing the patch over the void of his eye socket. When we arrived within inches of one another, he opened his arms and smiled warmly. I saw the large, discolored scars all over his abdomen, chest, arms. We embraced, and I began to weep, knowing he had beaten me.
1Because of the earlier term “brink of war,” a false but popular etymology has traced the term to discussions about war specifically. But the leagues have been using the term “brinkmen” since at least 1952, with “brinkmanship” being first recorded in one of our publications dating from September of 1953.
2For example, in Rebel Without a Cause, Buzz beats Jim in a variation of chicken but loses his life in the process. In actual league chicken matches, mistakes of the type Buzz makes, while ridiculous, are not unheard of, especially in matches between less experienced players.
3I may return to this topic later, i.e., love’s origin in sport, to explicate completely to myself and to the reader how brinkmanship relates to the sport of marriage and other ascetic practices. For now, it suffices to say that “God is sport” is even more true than “God is love.”
C. R. E. (Chris) Wells is an artist who lives in central Ohio. His debut novel, White Kitty, was published by Flaming Giblet Press in 2009. He shares visual art and poetry regularly on his blog at faintpress.tumblr.com.