map Image Wasteland

by Rachel Nagelberg

Published in Issue No. 161 ~ October, 2010

And it is just as her face becomes enlarged in the frame of the screen that I like to pause the video and recline back on the futon’s firm padding, my back arched just right with my legs spread just slightly apart, the soles of my feet gently grazing the hardwood paneling, my fingertips gripping the cushion on either side of me, my heart already moving upward towards my throat.

I m a g e W a s t e l a n d

A charley horse shoots up my left leg, and it enters. The panic is coming. Cameras both large and compact bulge out from faces like extraneous, mutant limbs. Click click click. The passengers face outward on both sides of the observation car, the massive force of their bodies thrusting their weight in and in and in.

Zoom. Blue-grays against dark and bright dense greens. Focus. White water rapids slithering through the foot of burnt sienna mountains. Flash.

I am squeezed into the corner of one of the car’s six booths, my friend and travel-companion, James, in a similar position across from me, looking not so pleased at his happenstance booth-mates: one hefty and squareish junior bowling instructor from Idaho wearing a tie-dyed rainbow T-shirt displaying the Hulk bursting through a wall of bowling pins beneath the words ultimate strike in boldface and block typeset. Perched next to him is his significant other, also hefty and squareish (but with a more bulbous nose), wearing a hot pink V-neck T-Shirt, and also from Idaho. In private, James and I refer to them as ‘The Hulk’ and ‘The She-Hulk,’ two names born yesterday evening after three eight ounce bottles of bottom-shelf white wine each.

I am here.

The Amtrak’s designated Observation Car has larger glass windows than does the coach seating, extending all the way up and around as a glass dome roof. A series of dark blue booths align both sides of the car’s eastern half, while the western half houses rows of both single and love seats (also dark blue), all compacted and directed away from the center, facing the receding flight of landscape. The passengers occupying the single seats usually secure their spots in the early A.M. right before breakfast, my favorite being the very thin man with the steroidal mustache in a four-piece pinstripe suit (whose mouth’s existence I have yet to visibly verify). Second runner up: the beefy frat boy dressed in neon orange gym shorts, a backwards baseball cap, and a choker necklace, who seems to be consistently wrapped up in a “No, I miss you, gorgeous” cell phone conversation. Along with us in the booth area gather the majority of the couples, elderly, and families with small children, while the unaccounted stay hibernating in their designated seats (which don’t even count those in their sleep-cars who rarely surface between their room-service meals and Tylenol PM, but when they do, appear drowsy and otherworldly, as if having just experienced a nightmare which they have yet to fully wake up from).

James and I have taken to occupying one of the six booths for most of the days and evenings, the itinerary being: at around 0700 hours my back and my sleep-chair get in a pretty terrifying brawl, in which case the back gives in and leads me to the booth, where I and the landscape have a nice intimate, swollen-eyed contemplation. At around 1000 hours James scuttles in with his droopy-eyed, dark complexion and our diminishing bag of nonperishable groceries, which we spread out on the table and pick and choose – granola bars, slices of bread, almond butter, apples, carrots, cookies, mixed nuts – and for the next hour or so watch passengers pass by us to get to the dining car (which is at the very front of the train), gradually awakening from their less than satisfactory slumbers, their hair matted and slick, framing puffy eyes and flushed skin. More people start to arrive around 1100 and 1200 hours, which is when we take out our books and our computers, eat snacks intermittently and take five-minute breathers outside at rest stops (which also usually entails me keeping watch while James scurries behind a building to smoke a quick bowl) until around 1800 hours when we start to get really antsy, so I give him the lookand he gives me the look, and we walk single file down to the snack car and buy our bottled glasses of wine, which allow us to partially escape for a little while. And before I know it it’s around 2000 hours and I’m slurring behind three empty bottles and he’s leading us to our seats, whispering in my ear that if I don’t shut up I’m going to get us kicked off the train, which wouldn’t be the worst thing, but considering that I’m moving across country, and that mostly everything I own is packed in boxes underneath us, it wouldn’t be the best idea. And I look up and smile at him and love him for being here to help, but at the same time wish that I were making this trip alone.

The film furrows and chafes, its black and white lines zigzagging along the color image, light and dark grays forming up and down its quivering surface.

My dad asks her a question and she answers it. He zooms in on her face and shoulders. She is there in the spotlight. My grandmother has one of those kinds of lips that curve up on one side when she talks. This is something that I do remember. She smiles and tilts her head a degree or two and says something to the camera and blinks. She does not turn away.

In the midst of dozens of hot and breathing bodies, I am aware of each movement, each hiccup, each flash. I consider charley horses a definite pre-panic symptom, as I do increased heart rate, hot extremities, and the times when I become aware of my own nose and swear I can feel it on my face. Post-panic symptoms include but do not stop with migraines, nausea, fatigue, and sometimes a feeling that I like to describe as “a glass-and-a-half tipsy.”

The Hulk wears hearing aids in both ears and is shouting across the booth to the man squished up next to me about what he’s learning in his current evening photography class. Spread out on our table are dozens of close-up photos of the moon (apparently his current interest), a massive Ziploc bag of M&M trail mix, and what looks like a very expensive digital camera. Also a plethora of detachable zoom lenses.

He is saying, “The world outside around us is in 3D,” as he points. His voice is sharp and high,his cadence all tongue.

The She-Hulk smiles wide and nods, snapping a few photos with her own state-of-the-art camera, which I have yet to see removed once from the area around her neck.

“Not 2D, not 1D,” he instructs, “but 3D.”

I exchange glances with my now intimate booth-mate, who looks like what I would picture as a retired metal-head in his late 30s, in hopes of some sort of brain-fart acknowledgement – except that to my surprise he gives me a raised-eyebrow look that suggests The Hulk is actually saying something smart, and how lucky are we to be sitting not only so close to one another in the middle of the scenic part, but to also be sitting across from this really interesting and entertaining person. He nudges me with his elbow and winks.

I imagine that the look on my face is as unpleasant as I feel. James is looking at me like, what is it? What is wrong with you? And so I widen my eyes and signal to Metal-Head and then make a punching fist motion at my leg to indicate the pain of the cramp, which only confuses him even more.

A pre-recorded voice says: You are in Granby.

This is a scenic experience, I keep telling myself. This is a visual documentation of my journey to the other side.

The green light means the camcorder is recording, the red light means it’s paused. Once the subject eyes the green light, a different gaze invades the face’s tendons and skin, bubbles in the blood.

My dad asks her a question. There is so much static. In the background, my mother’s friends with preschoolers of their own gather in our old tiny apartment in Philadelphia for my third birthday; they shovel bagels and lox into their mouths, chattering about something that involves menopause and Big Bird, the cream cheese coating their teeth and gums as they smile and suck their fingers dry.

My grandmother’s lip rises up to the left and she stares wide into the lens. She smiles and tilts her head a degree or two and says something to the camera and blinks. My thumb hits pause on the remote control.

The Hulk and She-Hulk are entertaining Metal-head with a lens show-and-tell, first presenting him with a specific lens, and then an image of the moon taken with that specific lens. They are discussing what its differences are, and how you can tell only if you are trained with a certain type of eye that the Hulk keeps calling “the piv-oh-tull eye.”

Leaning against the window, I doodle on a napkin two pudgy stick figures with antennas standing on a dotted circle that I label moon. I draw an arrow over to another circle that I decorate with random blotches and label earth, and then pass it over to James, who is engaged in what appears to be a very intense crossword puzzle. Interrupted, he ponders it for a moment without looking up, and begins adding something to the picture.

I smile awkwardly, and rustle in my seat. The Hulk presents Metal-head with his camera as he demonstrates the way to hold a top notch Digital SLR. “Grip the right hand end of the camera, but gently,” he tells him, as he places his hand into the correct position. “And let your index finger rest right here above the shutter release-”

The She-Hulk smiles wide, her flushed chest rising up and down with delight as The Hulk releases his gigantic camera into Metal-head’s pale pink fingers.

“Yes, there, you got it,” the Hulk says, cracking his knuckles, “and now curl your other fingers around the front of the camera, like this, and balance the other side with your left hand.”

I watch the She-Hulk screw an industrial-sized lens onto her own camera and cradle it with two hands. Immediately I imagine the existence of a baby-hulk: pudgy and squareish with tie-dyed skin, a camera biologically inserted in its chest. And a wave of nausea floods over me as Metal-head raises the camera and tells the Hulks to get together for the shot. Closer, he says, motioning with his hand. And I close my eyes as they’re gripping one another’s forearms, their mouths frozen agape in the suspended moment between pose and flash.

Zoom. The baby will contain all of the images that it sees in its life in the space between its neck and waist. Focus. It will have the ability to retrieve every lived moment in an instant’s reaction time.

Memory will become irrelevant. Flash.

My eyes open to the napkin resting right in front of me. Below the earth is a female stick figure labeled you standing atop a circle that is labeled mars, with another arrow pointing from me to the earth. But it’s only a second before there’s a startling warm pressure and I’m shaking – there’s a movement across the table as my eyes adjust to James grasping my right hand, staring into me with a discerning, locked gaze. My heart is in my face. I cannot move a muscle. My eyes shift back and forth from his hand to his face from his hand to his face, and I feel a jolt rush up my arm from the competing temperatures – a fear quickening and immobilizing as it’s acknowledged and arrested, accumulating speed.

He holds it for about a minute, but then the moment’s gone. He blinks and releases, and retreats back to his half of the booth. He picks up his pen and starts drumming it, while my hand stays unmoved on the table.

My dad presses the zoom-in button and holds it until her face is central to the window of the screen. I pause the video. My grandmother wears a wig – a straight grayish-brown bob that tucks in perfectly under her chin, the bangs trimmed to the utmost precision right above her penciled-in brows.

My grandmother’s lip rises up to the left. My grandmother smiles. The whole left side of her face bulges outward, disrupting the symmetry. My dad asks her a question. My fingers grip down as her mouth begins parting in slow motion. My legs becoming limp and heavy. My chest thrusts out open and wide.

The movement west is like a visual regression back in time. Outside of our windows, the land becomes flat but dense. A rustic gloss shrouds all objects and buildings, creating a visual effect of death and decay, a wasteland of images.

In the past two days I have seen more machines than ever before – plows, tow-trucks, tractors of all sizes. Boxcars. Cars stripped and rusted. Trucks without beds; trucks without bodies.

As the miles accumulate, complex machines become objects dispersed – store parts, pipes, wheelbarrows, things packed together: tubing, lumber, rolls of twine.

Objects separate from one another. Objects scattered. Objects abandoned.

Everywhere are signs of human life, but the landscape contains a sense of emptiness, a lack of living presence. But those grand, illustrative mountains in the backdrop somehow give an excuse for whatever’s around them, as if they’re “supposed to be” this way – that these strewn objects are part of the landscape, the ruins of another time.

I said to James earlier this morning that it’s hard to recognize all these objects when they’re not being functionally used. He said, “I haven’t changed my underwear in three days.” And I nodded and said, “Me neither.”

Half of the train’s population is experiencing in its full picturesque grandeur what the brochure calls the “scenic” part of the three thousand mile trip West. There are people of every place and age, language and dialect, all sharing a common anticipation of awe, a visible connection to the outside world. A pimply teen with blue hair in a Marilyn Manson T-shirt asks an elderly Chinese couple to say cheeseto a camera. Even Steroidal Mustache has befriended a twelve year-old girl; they occupy a love seat at the other end of the car, pointing out details to one another, their forefingers tracing the outlines of the passing landscape.

Think: Dr. Seuss. Red fish, blue fish.

Picture: Utopia.

Our train weaves in and around the Rocky Mountains, exploring areas that even cars cannot access. The conductor has taken the loudspeaker hostage: Ladies and gentleman, make sure you have HD to watch this footage on – oh! A tunnel, everybody. Here comes a tunnel! Ladies and Gentleman, Woweee!

Record. The picturesque depiction of erosion. The acceleration into short tunnels of all-encompassing black and then BOOM, the edges of mountains. Pan.

Are you getting this, Harry? Barbara, did you get that shot? Make sure you get that lake there, with the light on it like that. Won’t that one be a beauty?

Is there something recording?

My dad presses the zoom-in button until her face fills the screen. He asks her a question. Focusing in, the curves become craters, valleys, and mountains. Her face becomes a map. Each separated feature combines to make a fantastical and new terrain, an eclipsing of recollected form. One eye is next to the other eye, which rests right above the nose, which hovers just over the lips – I move from one sense to the other – never altogether, never at the same time. Her body falls away.

It is here that I pause the video, lean back into the futon, and try desperately to remember.

The second you start to actually look at something separate from its context, it becomes a foreign entity. Without speed, the landscape functions something like a photograph, a living image of a dead thing. You realize that the image will outlive the body, and that soon the body will die. That once you close your eyes, the film overexposes, and time becomes indistinguishable from memory.

My head is straight and centered, my feet firm on the ground. I am gripping the sofa with my nails as my grandmother stares at me and smiles, her distending face flickering like a pulsating mound of collected bees. Images of her rush past me like pure, streaming objects. Images too fast for me to contain. Zoom. We’re in a Houlihan’s in Philly and I am seven. She’s whispering in my ear to dump the ice in my glass into her glass, and then hand it to her. Focus. She’s shoving it deep into her purse. My eyes are wide with excitement. My mother is shaking her head. Flash. At the time I did not know she wore a wig. I knew nothing about the wig until years later when I saw her bald, which was right after the first serious scare, when my mother woke me up one night when I was twelve and told me to get my little brother a popsicle and then take him out to the car. Now every memory has that wig. I can’t picture her without it. I can’t tell which one is true.

I see her mouth opening in slow motion, the spots of light reflecting off her gleaming teeth. The Golden Years have come at last. She is reciting to me the Dr. Seuss poem that’s framed above her sink. The Golden Years can kiss my ass. I picture the rows of packets of ketchup and mustard, sugar and salt, relish, pepper, all in the hundreds, crammed inside her kitchen island. The single serving cereal packs, the closet filled with cans. But still I cannot hear a sound. I have not seen her alive in eleven years. So I pause the video. She does not turn away.

The enclosure of bodies. The speed of glass and steel.On the Amtrak we are devoid of outside smells, temperatures, and touch. The dominant sense here is sight. Our maps show us the route of the train with a blue curvy line. The loudspeaker announces each destination as we arrive. You are in Burlington. You are in Creston. We look down at our diagrams, our laminated charts, rely on our memorized knowledge of recorded and mapped history.

The red star means you are here.

The cramp strains and squeezes. There is no room to move. Outside silver streams reflect the clouds with their ghostly claws, their shrouded hands of leprosy. Click click click. I think of the German artist who lived in a cage for five days with a wild coyote in a gallery in New York City, right after the Vietnam War ended. But he never actually stepped one foot on American soil. He lived with a wild coyote on freaking East Broadway without once looking or being outside.

An attendant announces: tunnel in three minutes. Please take your seats. There will be no moving for the duration of the tunnel, which is approximately ten minutes long. Let’s clear a path here, everybody. If there is no more room on the observation car, please go back to your designated seats!

I ask James if he remembers who I’m thinking of and he shakes his head, no. So I tell him what I remember.

What happened, I say, was he flew to the Kennedy Airport, where his friends picked him up, wrapped his whole body in felt, and shoved him in the back of an ambulance. They rode him all the way to the Rene Block Gallery, where he went straight into a locked cage, his only protection from the coyote a felt blanket and a cartoonishly large cane. After five days of learning how to live with this wild beast (and performing some sort of significantly symbolic shamanistic gestures) he left exactly the way he came: wrapped in felt in the rear of an ambulance, all the way back to the airport.

“The lord,” says James, “is my shepherd,” as he slowly raises his hands.

I manage a smile, but still I am unsteady in my seat. I feel the glass dome ripple and sway. I watch the Hulk emerge from behind his camera and turn towards the She-Hulk, their faces closing in. Smiling, he watches her silently as she adjusts the settings on her own camera. After a moment she twists around her neck and leans in to press her nose against his. “What a site we are seeing,” Metal-head is saying. “What a gorgeous landscape.” What a Polaroid moment. I wanted to experience the real time of distance. I wanted to observe the shifting of scenes. But if the window were a screen I doubt that I could tell. I wanted to be in the actual places. But I don’t even remember what that actually means. And I’ve a sudden sense of déjà vu, a feeling that I’ve been here, in this very position, muted and gridlocked, straining to break free.

And on the fifth day the artist knelt down and wrapped his arms around the wild beast, bringing it to the surface of his neck and chest. And the coyote remained still, acknowledging the power of the applied pressure of coexistence.

And I think about how I could not remove my eyes from the surface of the screen, how there are still scratch marks in the futon from my unrelenting grip (I blamed it on the cats), how I recognized her but I didn’t recognize her, how there was something off, how it felt like I was looking at something wrong. That somehow by staring at her too long and hard I had erased all familiarity, like repeating a simple word over and over until it loses meaning – producing some sort of horror, some sort of dread.

I am saying to The Hulk, “Looking out there is like looking through a screen. I can look at this gigantic billowing mountain right outside my window and still not fully believe it’s real.”

He is laughing. He is saying, “Look at this photograph I just took. Now tell me that’snot real!”

His smile with the teeth. His partner with the bulbous nose. The cameras. The flashing. The glimmer in Metal-head’s eye. His breath on my shoulder. The shaking of heads.

James, please.

It’s like I don’t even trust my sight anymore. Even outside in the actual places, I keep searching for the differences between thereand here– have been trying to figure out some sort of code for distancing, some reason for separation.

The pressure of bodies has me pressed firmly against the glass. The reflections of the flashes have me somewhat blinded.

The conductor is shouting: And here we go again, another tunnel everyone! They call this the Moffat Tunnel, the longest railroad tunnel in the west! Get ready for six miles of pitch-black darkness! Everybody find a seat and hold tight – there’s no getting up once we’re in this baby!


A deep grinding of metal on metal pervades the glass body of the car, enveloping the Amtrak as it plummets through darkness. The car lurches. Bodies shift from side to side. I realize that this is the first time on this trip that I have felt actual speed.

The smell of bodies. Stale mingling odors. Metallic and nutty aftertaste. A sore in the mouth from nervous biting. The sense of solitude that overwhelms the car, engendering a shared sense of quietude among the passengers, a unison of deep and charged breaths.

My god. It’s like my body can’t adapt. I am shifting in my seat, my leg throbbing from the numbness of immobility. I grip the futon with my nails as my grandmother says something to the camera. I cannot hear her over the static of the worn tape. She blinks and smiles at me. A thick heat begins to develop in my fingers, my toes. She says something to the camera. I can’t even remember what she says.

A pain shoots up my whole body and I gasp.

The panic ensues once you realize that the entire time you’ve been trying to convince yourself that you are here, that the only distinguishable smell inside of the observation car has been the odor radiating off the Tie-Dye Hulk, like some sort of overly synthetic version of the interior of a new car sprayed over a corpulent and perspiring body, and that wherever you are at this particular instant – the high mountains of Colorado, the swirling dunes of Utah – you are contained within an enclosed, air-conditioned vessel moving at a fixed speed towards one destination – and that it is not the landscape that is moving past you, but youwho are zooming through. That the question is not why these places look unreal, but what we constitute as realin the first place. That the familiar might just be the answer. That it all might be a matter of speed. That at the end it comes down to the human body. Its ingesting. Its processing. And that the whole time that you’ve felt so out of control in this seemingly delusive and fraudulent setting, you realize that the impostors are not the Hulks or the train or the car or the video that seem to work their very hardest to trick you, but that it is you, the viewer, the body who is believing in it, succumbing to its fantasy, devouring it and processing it into meaning.

I pause the video.

In the pitch black I sit face forward, my legs spread just slightly apart, my hands gripping the booth on either side, my arms sandwiched between Metal-head and the glass. James is telling a joke to the older woman on Metal-head’s other side. He is saying, “There is a black single story house and everything in it is black. The doors are black, the windows are black and the TV is black.” He is trying to be funny.

Suction-cup noises expel from the area of the booth’s opposite side. I don’t even want to know what this is. I can see a slight advancing luminescence, an oncoming of distant and pressurized light. A lull of chatter begins to simmer. I feel a warm hand on my thigh.

He asks, “So then what color are the stairs?”

Do not move from your current position until we reach maximum light capacity. This is for your own safety, ladies and gentleman. We ask you please to stay in your seats.

I am pushing through bodies. Back in the light, the passengers have resumed their places, their cameras adjusted and erect at the most precise and calculated angles. Limping, I slither through shoulders, elbows, concave lower backs. I have a heightened, focused energy. A frenzied body aching.

Please let me recognize something.

Zoom. Climb down steps and push open the bathroom door, then lock it from behind. Focus. Check your face in mirror just to be sure. Flash.

You realize that once the familiar becomes opaque, that once you’re watching time dissolve backwards on a vehicle of speed, and what seems to look ancient and prehistoric turns into a whole other place altogether – a landscape all too familiar (though you’re still not exactly sure why), that the air humans have been breathing in and out for billions of years is still the same air, that you are just like everyone else – a creature yearning for connection, a single specimen of memory. That most of your memories have no complete bodies, no faces at all. That what you picture as her is not coming solely from you, but a flat image, a photograph, a screen.

And you realize that once you’re downstairs in the bathroom just off to the left of the snack car with your pants dropped down to your ankles, your left hand balancing your body, which is stark-stiff and planted, your mouth in a perfect O as your right hand mills furiously down there in an attempt at some kind of reconnection, a remembering of the self, a reprocessing of the information that it takes to live – that the world won’t disappear if you just close your eyes.

In the memory,blotches of sunlight stream from different parts of the apartment’s white-walled living room. There’s a flash of our old sofa’s worn gray corduroy. Imprints of bodies are all around. A feeling of panic and rage at a girl even younger than me that I hardly know, grabbing my new pastel-colored soaps shaped like animals, and running around the room. That’s mine that’s mine that’s mine. She snatches the Easter-pink soap shaped like a rabbit and bolts down the hallway. And there’s me in my purple party dress and purple tights, and purple Mary-Janes, popping up to chase after her, shrieking high and mighty assertions in first person pronouns.

Changing scenes to the kitchen, my grandmother stands off to the side, perhaps looking for something, or contemplating a thought. The picture glitches a little bit, the sound grows hollow and numb. My dad says something from out of the scene. He asks her a question. Her face becomes large and bright, like the sun, and her lips curve up to the left. I am in my parent’s room retracting the soap. She blinks and says something to the camera. And then.

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Rachel Nagelberg rode Amtrak cross-country from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to San Francisco four months ago in order to experience the distance and speed of traveling. Although based on a real event, Image Wasteland is entirely fictional. Rachel currently lives in San Francisco where she is working on a novel for her M.F.A. at The University of San Francisco. She also feels the need to give a shout out to Paul Virilio, who inspired much of the philosophy behind this piece.