Fall 2002

Colors / Rust

The swirl of a drowned autumn

Albert Mobilio

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

It’s a different feeling. Depending. On the day. The person. The metal you’ve scraped it from. It can be rough. A gorge-deep rough, like a fistful of sandpaper working along the spine, working in quick, sharp strokes up toward the back of the neck. That’s the way it is for me most of the time, like my vertebrae are being rubbed until my spine’s as smooth as cable. But smoothness isn’t what I end up feeling. Long after the first rush, there’s an echo of rough singing somewhere inside some nerve. Other people say it starts out like needles—steel needles spiking out like sun rays inside your head. They talk about having to keep very still until one hits the ripe spot, low at the back of the skull. That one pulses through your body, down through your legs, until your feet cramp as the bright metal point pushes all the way through. Descriptions vary. Some folks go on about micro-chills or hyperawareness of their teeth. They rhapsodize about a motorized humming that sounds, when you listen closely, like voices on faraway phone lines. Others talk about their vision lost in the swirl of a drowned autumn. About the charcoal drip in their throats. When they talk this way, their mouths go a little slack and their eyes narrow and nearly flutter. They’re remembering that feeling, the one you get from doing rust.

Richard Serra, Union of the Torus and the Sphere (detail), 2001. Courtesy Robert McKeever and Gagosian Gallery.

Hydrated ferric oxide. A textbook will tell you it’s what happens when iron oxidizes after exposure to air and water, but that’s what happens to iron, not to you. Not to you if you put a fingertip coated with its sandy granules to the back of your tongue or when you inhale a long, coppery ridge. The body craves air and water, yet those things—the stuff of life—are transformed in rust. They become grainy husks of themselves. Of skies and breezes, of rain and breath. In rust, this has all been burned down to something lifeless. Something subterranean. The earth’s blood baked to a crisp. A voice hung out to dry under a tireless sun. Rust is the taste of dirt. Of old soil and stone that’s been freshly dug up and is suddenly aired out in your mouth, in your brain. It’s the taste of a grave. It’s the best high I’ve ever had.

They call us “red rims” because of the faint stains on our nostrils. They call us “rust-ups,” or “shed heads,” since we collect stuff—old nails, pipes, and buckets—from tool sheds. There aren’t many of us, but there’s probably more than I think. No one really knows since it’s not something you need to buy (although you can: clued-in factory workers at steel mills and auto plants harvest it by the pound—good stuff off fresh, unpainted metal), and not something you want to do with anyone else. Rust hasn’t spawned much of a culture—rust music, rust raves. Rust is something you do with the door shut and the lights low. When your eyes begin to coagulate with the color of a fresh scar, you don’t want company. When your stomach sours and your tongue grows chewy and dry, you want quiet so you can register each increment of physical change. Red rims are loners, people in love with their own sadness. They are dolorous people who believe today had to smother yesterday to take its place. How word got around from people like us, no one can really say.

For myself, I remember hearing a health official on the radio recounting the comeback of old-style intoxicants like airplane glue and oven cleaner, and then adding something about “anecdotal reports of rust being inhaled by anorexic teenage girls in the Northwest.” This stuck with me as one of those goofy, can-you-top-this tidbits that you bring up with friends. Maybe a year later, while cutting the grass, I found a pair of pliers that I had dropped while fixing the swing set in the backyard. Having remained outside through the winter, they had acquired a thick, uniform coating of rust. The pliers looked slightly comical, like a child’s fuzzy toy version of a tool, and even edible, as if they’d been dipped in a seasoning, paprika perhaps. The gritty stuff came off immediately in my hand. Blood-brown swaths on my palm: stigmata. A sunset smeared across my lifeline. The weirdly powerful impulse to bring that hand up to my face, underneath my nose, was no doubt akin to the feckless curiosity that compels children (and sometimes adults) to find out if the stove is hot by touching the burner. An hour later, I’d scraped the pliers clean so they were as silver as the day I bought them. That night it would take another hour to scrub the auburn smudges from my upper lip and nose.

I say it’s the best high ever but I don’t know what I mean by that. It’s not even a high. It’s a low, maybe as low as you can get and still climb back to the surface, to a world that isn’t aging and dying around you. I don’t know what it is. And I don’t know why I crave it. Why any of us do. We talk—some of us have been drawn together by rumor, chat rooms, or telltale signs like strips of neatly cut sheet metal browning on the back fence—about how it helps us accept our place in the mortal scheme of things, or how it’s like sex, a little death. How it’s therapeutic. But those are a drunkard’s lies. Mostly we talk about the big special effect, what we call sliding—the hallucinatory state in which you sink so thoroughly out of that day’s, that hour’s, grasp that you experience, not dreamily but in a way that is eye-widening and precise, what seem to be actual sensations and objects from the past. 

Sometimes it’s just the day before, sometimes it’s years, or decades. Sometimes it’s your past, sometimes not. Maybe you feel your father’s hand ringing your tiny wrist and smell the car exhaust at a busy intersection. Or maybe you can taste the dessert wine you drank last Sunday. You reach out for your stereo knob and find that you’re turning the dial on an old Emerson radio cabinet. Imagine a camera left in a room with its shutter open for, say, a hundred years, then further imagine that everything that turned up in front of that lens over all that time is exposed on a single frame of film. If such a piece of film existed, rust would be the wedge permitting you to slide between superimposed images. It lets you roam around the picture. Adjust the knickknacks, twist your finger in the hair of the woman who had to leave in haste two nights ago. Of course, there’s no such magic film. But rust—when its iron shreds are clustering in your blood, filing away at your spine—makes you believe there is.

Rust is a darker variant of red, but it’s also something you can sniff, swallow, or rub between your finger and thumb till the granules soften to a fine rouge-like powder. And then it’s also a process—corrosion—in which new molecules form from old ones. Getting your head rusted is another kind of process, one that corrodes the present (as real as an iron ingot in your hand) with an omnivorous past (enveloping as a mist). You conjure remnants of small histories—the chafing embrace of your starched, parochial school collar, a kitchen clock with a plate for a face and a fork and spoon for hands. On rust, everything you see, everything you taste or touch, is washed in a vibratory russet hue. (It’s the shed head’s sepia.) And it all glows—especially your own skin—with the warmth of unseen chemical reactions. The air around you whistles slightly, creating the impression—but not the bodily sensation—of movement. It’s as if you are falling while staying still, the world peeling off around you, the iron-brown earth parting to let you pass. You’re heading toward the empty place that’s always been ready to take you in. To make you at home. You are water and air turned to dust. You are red-eyed. You are gone to rust.

Albert Mobilio is the fiction editor of Bookforum. His most recent book of poems is Me with Animal Towering.

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