Issue 1 Invented Languages Winter 2000/01

Colors / Bice

Jonathan Ames

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

­When I was a little boy, I liked to pick my nose. In fact, I've enjoyed picking my nose for most of my life. This is not something to be proud of, but telling you about my nosepicking brings me to the word bice. Perhaps it's not clear how this brings me to bice, but I will try to explain.

The good and clever editors at Cabinet asked me to write about a color. I said I would do this. I am a writer and writers usually say yes when editors offer them work. So the idea was that they would choose the color for me and I was to respond. But they didn't give me the color right away, they told me they would call me back in a few days. Fine, I said, and I looked forward to this. I saw it as a version of that classic word association game—the pschiatrist says to you, "Just tell me the first thing that comes to your mind after I give you a word." Then he says, for example, "Cereal" and you say, "Morning," and then he says, "Picnic," and you say, "Apples, no—copulation," and nobody figures anything out, but the game is fun to play. So I waited for my color, to which I was going to respond to with immediate first-thought, first-feeling sensitivity and clarity and enthusiasm. I did find myself, though, cheating and mentally preparing my essay in advance, hoping for blue, about which I could write about my grandfather's eyes, or red, the color of my hair, my son's hair, my great-aunt's hair, my grandmother's hair, numerous uncles' and cousins' hair, and I envisioned an essay with the winning title A Family of Red Heads, or just Red Heads.

Then the phone call came. The Cabinet editor said, "Your color is bice." I was silent, mildly ashamed at a deficient vocabulary, as well as a deficient knowledge of colors. Blue and red were striking me as quite pedestrian now. "Do you need to look it up?" asked the editor. "Don't worry if you do. I didn't know it either. It was my colleague's idea... Do you want something easier? Like yellow?"

I felt tempted to say yes. My eyes are often yellow because of a dysfunctional liver, and I immediately thought about how I could write about my liver and about the body's humors. But steeling myself, showing a flinty courage, I said, "No, bice is fine. I have a good dictionary. I'm on it. You can count on a thousand words on bice from me."

We rang off.

I opened my dictionary—it's an OED for the field, so to speak; it's about the size of the Bible, as opposed to the colossus numerous-volume regular OED. I found bice, though, out of curiosity, I checked my American Heritage Dictionary, and there was no bice. Good thing I have my Junior OED. What I encountered in the dictionary was this: "pigments made from blue, green, hydrocarbonate of copper; similar pigment made from smalt, etc.; dull shades of blue & green given by these."

Well, my immediate response to bice was straight out of the ethers of my long ago childhood; it was Proustian; it was tactile; it was visual; it was beautiful, sad, and lonely. It was better than blue or red or yellow. What I saw in my mind's eye, my soul's heart, was the standing, tube-like copper lamp, which used to be beside the couch in the living room of the house I grew up in. And every night, I would sit on this couch in the darkness, alongside this unlighted lamp, and I would watch television all by my very young (six, seven, eight; this went on for years), lonesome, yet happy self. I felt a solitary contentment in the darkness watching my programs before dinner, my mother cooking in the kitchen beside the living room, and all the while as I absorbed the stories from the TV and soaked up the radiation from that ancient, large contraption (TVs, like cars, were made uniformly big back then), I would pick and pick my nose and then wipe my small treasures in the tubing and grooves of that long lamp. And no one saw me doing this because I was in the darkness. And the effect of my salty mucous—like sea air on a statue—was that the copper lamp slowly, in streaky spots, turned greenish-blue. To everyone but me this was a mystery. "Why is this lamp eroding?" my father would sometimes ponder.

On occasion, showing largesse, I would put my snotty treasures on the underside of the wooden coffee table in front of the couch and our dog Toto, named by my older sister after Toto in the Wizard of Oz, would come and bend his red and brown Welsh Terrier neck and happily and aggressively lick up the snots. I can still see him in my mind, craning to get under the table. And my parents and relatives would notice this and everyone thought that he must like the taste of wood.

I was clandestine in my actions, but I didn't feel too much shame about any of this—nose picking was too much something I had to do. But as I got older, the lamp was looking more and more terrible, and there was talk of throwing it out. I secretly tried to clean it, but the blue-green streaks would not go away. But I didn't want this lamp to be forsaken by my family; things back then, objects, were nearly animate to me, dear even, and to lose a thing from the living room, my special room of TV and darkness, would be terrible. I wanted everything to stay the same forever; and, too, I felt horribly guilty that I was killing this lamp. So I pleaded with my parents on its behalf, told them I loved the lamp, and it wasn't thrown away. With this reprieve, I tried not to wipe my snots on it anymore, to only coat the bottom of the coffee table and feed my beautiful dog, but sometimes I would weaken, and I'd find a new unstreaked spot—I could feel them with my fingers—and so I'd make my mark, my hydrocarbonated snot—there must be hydrogen and carbon in my mucous, all the elements of the world must be in me, in everyone—would mingle with the copper and make a union, a new thing, alchemically, chemically, pigmentally. And that thing was the color bice, a good color, I think, because it has brought back to me that TV and darkened living room and childhood and lamp and coffee table and beloved dog—all things gone a long time ago. All things that didn't last forever.

Jonathan Ames is the author of two novels, I Pass Like Night and The Extra Man, and the memoir, What’s Not to Love?: The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer.

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