The Tao of Humiliation ~ Lee Upton

The guy with stringy hair was still staring at Everett, which made Everett even more nervous, as if something was going on under the table with that guy.   Was he nuzzling something on his lap—a field mouse?  Or was it something else—a genital tattoo?  “I’ve been around,” the nervous-making guy said, without provocation.  “It’s important to get around.”  His hair fell in two thin fronds from a center part.   His name was Barry.

“How do you afford it?” a deep voice asked from the other end of the table.  The guy who asked was Lucas, some sort of businessman who was retired and spent half his life in Florida.  His eyes proved it, the cracks around the edges like sun rays in a child’s drawing.

“I come from a generous family,” Barry said, pushing back strings of his hair.  “They believe in travel.”  With that, he stood, and Everett realized what the problem was.  Barry was wearing a kilt.

Kilts.  Why should kilts be a problem?  Everett had watched Entertainment Tonight and saw an old clip of Sean Connery in a kilt, which looked okay.  But this guy in a kilt, this guy Barry—it was like a crime against a culture.  Like he tore the kilt off some giant school girl.

When Barry sat back down, Lucas said, “I had the cancer” and spread his hands and looked around the table until he had the other men’s attention.  “I’m all right,” he said, “despite the cancer.”

When no one responded, Everett said, “That must have been hard.”   His voice sounded as if something was wrong with his teeth.

“Hard?” Lucas said, winking at Everett and tightening his grip on a plastic bottle of Deer Park until the stag buckled under his thumb.  “It’s the waiting.  Not knowing and waiting.  And then you’re going around giving the impression it’s no big deal that you’re dying.  This featherhead—pardon my French—this idiot that my wife worked with—when things were at their worst she told me to my face, We all must die.  She’s dead now so I shouldn’t stay angry.  Yeah.  I know.  I feel guilty about that.”

“You killed her?” Barry asked.  He dug at iceberg lettuce as tasteless-looking as a rice cake.

“No.  Railroad crossing.  She wasn’t paying attention to signals.  That’s a joke. She’s alive.  So am I.  She has to worry about that.”

“I bet she does,” Barry said, adjusting the waistband of his kilt.  “You know, I can’t remember the last time I had sex.  That’s a joke too.  I  mean the sex I had with my wife.  Not the other kind.”

Before anyone else could, the dentist named Dwayne said, “The sex you had with yourself.”   Dwayne seemed like he was trying to exculpate every professional courtesy a dentist should develop.   He didn’t even look clean.

Barry said,  “I lied.  As a joke.  I’m not married.  That’s why I have sex with myself.”

It pained Everett when no one at the table laughed.   He himself couldn’t fake a laugh.  Throughout his life he had paid for that incompetence.

Groups were about to harden.  Circulation would soon be futile.  Everett watched as Lucas, the retiree, scanned the meeting hall, clearly calculating if he should leave the table and set up somewhere else.

He saw what looked like pin pricks off at the other end of  the hall before he recognized he was seeing antlers.  A wall was lined to the ceiling with them.  Some racks were so huge that Everett questioned if they had been supplemented.

After some difficulty, Everett peeled back the lid of his fruit cup.  It was the kind of fruit cup that goes into unfortunate kids’ lunch boxes.  How is it, he wondered, that certain people find themselves together during social occasions, or at an office, or at a retreat like this one?  And would he ever feel comfortable enough to contribute to the conversation?  Not that he could call what he’d been listening to a conversation—not quite.  Something his uncle once told him kept him off the bridge to self-destruction:  Remember who you are.  A sufficiently vague piece of advice.  Everett had played around with those words and their meaning for years.  He preferred to think that the words meant:  Don’t remember who you were.

 The staff member’s voice, at least forty yards ahead, sounded like a mouse knocking around in an empty tin can.   Dwayne and Barry were standing off the path, trying to make out the words as well.

Everett’s sandal straps dug into his heels.  Up the wooded path, other men carrying pails were stopping.  Why did they all have to go clanging around with pails?  Like a herd wearing cowbells.

The staff member in a black tee-shirt, blue green tattoos twined up his arm (cobras?) was saying, “Gather them—they’re for us—not for eating now, for later.  Remember.  Not now.  For later.  Watch for the pricks.”

Barry, his jaw dropping, turned to Everett and whispered something that Everett couldn’t make out.   The staff member continued:  “The berries allow you to think about where your food comes from—and to work with others, to commit to the act of gathering in preparation for a greater gathering.  Sustenance on a higher level.  First, we think of our gratitude.”

“Funny little buckets, aren’t they?” Barry said.  “I feel like a milkmaid.”

You look like one, Everett was tempted to say.

Heat writhed off the bushes.   Everett could smell insect repellent up high in his nostrils.  The deer flies were supposed to be the size of hummingbirds.

The bush to Everett’s left raged.  It was only Barry trying to extricate himself, like a cat with a claw stuck in a drape.

Barry set his pail down and asked Everett, “What do you think of all those antlers back in camp?  I’ve been wondering: what if deer owned the place?  Would they hang up a bunch of human skeletons?  I mean, what do you think about somebody who needs to display so many antlers?  I mean, I’m not like that.  I ran over a mouse with a lawnmower once and it made me sick.  The bone fragments were flying and I had to stop mowing.  Do you think they killed the deer first or just found the antlers in the woods?”

“It rained last night,” Dwayne said, edging over toward another bush that was so shiny it  looked wet.  “They’re probably pretty clean.”

Barry was still talking.  “I don’t know about this fruit patch thing,” he said.  “I mean, this is like manual labor.   Are we getting paid for this?  Although I admit it.  I  have learned something: do not go berry-picking in a kilt.  They ought to inscribe that somewhere.  Maybe  I almost like this.   We’ve been here only for—I don’t know—not long, and hey, we’re buddies.  Buddies.”

The heat was getting more spectacular.  Heat for heat’s sake.  As if the men were stuck in a giant pot of jam.

“Your shirt should breathe,” Dwayne said to Everett.  “You’re not dressed right.  You’re wearing cheap synthetics or a blend.”

Barry stretched on his toes to examine Everett’s scalp.  “You’ve got mist rising off your head,” he said, not eager to confirm Dwayne but helpless before truth.  “It’s like your brain is steaming in one of those Japanese bamboo baskets for bean sprouts.”

Dwayne called out loudly, “Water—anyone got water up there?”   Under his breath he said to Everett, “You’re shaking.”

“Maybe Everett is shaking with indignation,” Barry said.  “Other mammals besides humans do that.  You know what’s the most self-conscious animal?  Other than us, monkeys, apes, and cats?”   He clapped his hands. “Fish!  Just kidding.  Like anyone knows!”

Then somehow Dwayne was holding a water bottle out.   Everett closed his eyes and drank.

“They’re trying to kill us,” Dwayne said, “from heat exhaustion.”  He was looking at Everett.  “You in particular.”

In the first light of sunset the tips of the antlers flashed white against the walls of the meeting hall.  Everett was thinking that maybe it would be a good thing if people had antlers.  Maybe some people had invisible antlers.  The lucky people.

As soon as  Dwayne left for a refill at the buffet table, Barry said, “You know what Dwayne’s like?  He’s not like a dentist.  He’s like a Komodo dragon.  Komodos enjoy expressing dominance.  They cripple an opponent and won’t stop.  The winner rakes the loser with its claws.  It’s like somebody wins an argument with you, breaks your leg, and then works you over for a half hour with a file.  And that’s not all.  I saw all of this in a video.  A Komodo bit a water buffalo and watched for fifteen days—fifteen days—until the buffalo died.  From putrefaction.”

At the far end of the hall, one of the staff members was leading to the stage an old man in a plaid shirt and chino pants.  A beam of late light, pink and orange, settled around the man’s head like a fried halo.

“Forgive me,” the old man said into the microphone.  He looked like a talking death’s head—like a yellow skull in an oil painting.  “You’ve come here for help.  For that I appreciate each and every one of you.   Your strength has been what’s called me to you.  The anxiety you live with, that constant anxiety—you’re going to say goodbye to that anxiety.  What I say won’t put an end to it.  This silence you’re going to experience, these gentle tests of character, this fresh air and enforced cabin meditation sessions—all these will put an end to it.”

Everett glanced over at Lucas, who was taking notes on a pad balanced on his knee.

“Because that anxiety isn’t you.  It’s a tick that’s lodged under your armpit and feeding.   You have to put a match to its head.  Or you have to pull it out with long tweezers.    If I feel like hell today it’s because I have reasons.  Your pain, your sense of worthlessness, your despair, your self-contempt—those are things I can intuit. Your pain isn’t only personal.  Remember that.   I’m not well today, and so I can’t help but absorb what’s eating you.  If you feel lighter in a while,  think of the Bible verse; the sins cast out upon the goat, upon the swine—and that’s what’s happening here, the weight of what you are, that’s what I experience.  You have to cast off your pain, burn it from the head down.  You have to watch it curl and fall off.

“If I have the strength to appear before you, how much more strength do you have?  Strength is gained by pitting yourself against forces that aren’t hospitable.  There’s a little seed in your heart—”

Did anyone besides Everett find the reference to “a little seed” embarrassing?

“There’s a seed in your heart, and it has not been given the right conditions to grow.  You have untouched capabilities.”  The speaker’s voice softened.  “What can I give you?”

Everett looked down at his own feet—long and skinny in rope sandals.   They didn’t look like his feet should look.   A wasp landed on his elbow.  Until the wasp lifted off, like a hostile little helicopter, he missed a few bars of the talk.  He caught up with “These few days, these few precious days allow us the opportunity to step back.  Every activity is natural and reveals something of your nature to you.  But remember this”—and here the microphone squealed—“there’s something within each of us that must be faced.  Individually.   There’s a depth you need to approach.”

Despite everything, despite his own skepticism, Everett felt it—that extreme of self-belief hanging in the air, as if the speaker had found something that eluded every other man in the hall.  Everett’s eyes ached.   The chord that tugged at his chest tightened.

“Some of you are afraid to see what’s in front of you.  You might see your failures laid out naked for you.  You might see how you made the wrong choices. Some doors are closed to us.   They were open for a while—but it’s too late now.  There’s a shelf life for certain behaviors.  The truth was revealed, but you turned away.  You couldn’t face the truth.”

With that, a suffocating smell of decay rose in Everett’s throat.  He struggled out of his chair.  He was able to make his way to the exit and around to the side of the building before he retched into the gravel.

When Everett returned to the meeting hall, the old man was leaving the stage, a staff member clasping his shoulder, applause thundering through the hall.  He hurried to intercept the speaker.  He was grateful for what the speaker had said—although it hurt like hell.  The speaker was right:  it was too late.  Everett had made the wrong choice.  The truth was revealed.  He hadn’t been able to face the truth.   The memory of his failure had come upon him even while he was puking, the memory thick and overwhelming as a hallucination.

As Everett was about to call out, the old man turned his head, his pupils shrinking into a chilled internal world.  Everett couldn’t speak, couldn’t extract from himself a word of pained gratitude.  When he got back to his seat he found Dwayne holding his head in his hands, his back pumping.  He was either crying or laughing while Barry whispered to no one and everyone, “Aren’t you glad you came?”

Nothing in the preceding hours had gone well.  Everett had overhead Lucas stop a brawl between Barry and Dwayne when Barry insisted that the combined weight of termites on earth was higher than the combined weight of humans.  Lucas had said, “Theories should be based on evidence.  Did either of you count the human population of the cheese-making states?”

Now Dwayne was saying, “I have some ideas of my own.  The Tao of Humiliation.”

“The cow of humiliation?” Barry asked.

Dwayne turned away from Barry and said, “I don’t want to waste the required energy to begin to do justice to the amount of contempt I hold for you—but I’ll continue.  There are various emotional responses that I’m pretty familiar with.  First: embarrassment.  Barry, you’re the big animal buff.  You must know that even animals get embarrassed if they’re caught, for instance, digging up something dead that they shouldn’t have. Next: humiliation—that’s the stage I’m interested in.  The rich stage.  The third stage is shame.  You have to enjoy a degree of responsibility for shame.  Not so interesting.”

Barry was following this better than Everett.  “No one enjoys shame,” he said.

“Give me a break. There are people who wouldn’t know they’re alive unless they were ashamed.  They’re busy congratulating themselves on not being sociopaths.  You should believe me.  I look into mouths for a living.  I know something about humiliation.  People can’t keep secrets from me.”

“So why is it a cow?” Barry asked.

“It’s not a cow.  Tao.  The Tao of Humiliation.”  Dwayne exhaled hard.  His breath smelled like skin pulled off a fried chicken.

“I don’t know what Tao means,” Barry said.  “I actually don’t know.  I usually know these things.  If you’d asked me about cows…”

“Everett,” Dwayne said, kicking at the path, “will you help out for once?  I bet you know something about the Tao.”

Everett didn’t know anything about the Tao, and he would bet that Dwayne didn’t know much either.  The only reply he wanted to offer was, There’s a lot to be said for the cow of humiliation.  But he thought that would be humiliating to Dwayne, so he kept silent.

“In India cows are sacred,” Barry said.  “Maybe our cows should move.”

Dwayne ignored Barry and poked at Everett’s shoulder. “It was like they had a microphone right where you were puking today.  It was magical.”

Behind Everett the sound of voices died away.   The path was thinning out, becoming invisible under pine needles.  What did Dwayne mean when he talked about humiliation?   Dwayne had the ability to be irritated, but he didn’t seem easily humiliated.   And Barry—he was so out of touch that he came in costume to his own life.  Everett couldn’t blame Lucas the cancer-survivor for ditching them halfway through the hike.  Today he himself couldn’t resist peeling off from the group early.

The woods were silent except for the sawing of pine branches.  The dry grasses gave off an almost sweet smell.  For a long time he walked aimlessly before he saw the deer.

The animal was motionless amid birches and pines.  To brace himself, Everett rested his hand on the trunk of a pine.   He drew his hand away slowly, taking a step toward the spot where the deer stood, as if he could walk through an apparition.   His  memories dropped over him—memories of himself and the woman he had known since they were children.  The two of them had come upon a clearing in upstate New York and saw a nearly identical sight as the one before him now.  A buck like this one, with enormous antlers.  What he remembered most was their looking together, looking for once in the same direction.  He and the woman waited, while just ahead of them, the animal’s skin rippled.  The eye lid flicked over the wetly shining globe of the eye.  And now, after all these years, in the space where the deer was standing, a concentrated afterimage clung.   Some desire in his mind had cut out that space.

He was there with that woman—it pained him to say her name to himself—the two of them, suspended, united in a way he never had been, before or since, with another human being.

He held back, not wanting to spook the animal or break the hold of memory.  Suppose people we lost could come back to us in time?  What if their genuine arrival was only delayed?  His mind whirled toward Lisa King—that was her name, the name he had been avoiding saying to himself.   She had such a common name she could be in all fifty states by now, if she were still alive, which was doubtful.   He couldn’t bear to find out.  Back then  she couldn’t be in his car on a winding road without asking him to pull over.  He had to walk back and forth with her on the side of the road until she could go for another ten miles.  She had a bad heart—already, in her twenties.  And yet somehow she made him think of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, a book he read as a college sophomore.  The major activity of women in that novel was blushing, their cheeks suffusing with blood.  So too the tips of their ears.   If she was feeling all right, she could blush as profusely and disarmingly as the Russians.  But then she didn’t feel all right too often.  Her skin was like cool glass.

The next memory blotted out the first: a dark room—a fish tank illuminated with a hand-written sign propped against it.  Don’t feed the fish, in magic marker.  The feel of her cheek under his, cool and fragrant and then the shock again—the knowledge that he was not enough for her.   And then the other memory, the worst: the sheet on the bed drawn back, purposefully, the way someone from another century might pull a curtain to show an impressive oil painting.  My Last Duchess.  He knew she wasn’t asleep—but almost dozing.  The soft dimples at the small of her back, the curves of her, the white sheet.  Her body looked doughy, unreal.   Even if she was a small woman, at that moment her body filled the horizons of the room.   Her body that he had loved—it seemed to go on and on, stretching to the ends of his sight, a place more than a body, stunning and endless, this landscape, this world he had known, this love of his life.  Like a shooting pain the woman was back in his mind, lying naked on the bed, posed for him to see her.

And what was Everett to do—to stand and witness—to see what a woman he loved would allow, what lengths she would go to as a way to demonstrate that he was not included in her life anymore.  He had walked out, his mind hot with revulsion.   She had been lying naked on the bed in his new friend’s apartment.  She had known he would be coming over to see his friend.

Gradually the deer, the actual animal, impressed itself more fully upon Everett.   Its hide was mottled, diseased.  Something stuck out from its side, an arrow, broken.  At last Everett realized.

He hadn’t known such life-like replicas of bucks even existed, but here it was.  It must be abandoned from  a bow and arrow shooting range.  A crusty old model of a buck.  That was all.  He’d been fooled by a fake.

Except for his breathing, no sounds broke the surface around him.  He headed toward a copse of birches that he thought he remembered.  The grasses in the hollow were singed gold and white.  After long minutes he shouted “Where are you?” as if the others from the camp were lost.

He didn’t know what was more humiliating: to be lost in the woods or to be found dead in the woods and have the newspapers report that he’d been on a strength retreat.

It would be humiliating if a rescue party had to be sent out.  He already had enough to be ashamed of,  given the puking that Dwayne said every one heard.   Now: disappearing in the woods.   Anybody who didn’t know him would think he was deliberately self-destructive.   But he wasn’t.   He wasn’t like the woman he had loved who must have wanted to humiliate him.  To get rid of him.  She had branded him instead.  At unexpected times the image of her laid out like that punched through him. He should have grabbed her and set her upright and shouted at her: why the fuck are you killing me?

After more walking he gathered twigs, acting purposeful, trying to lose himself in the task.   He took a birch’s fallen branch and brushed off the loose peel.  He put it beside other branches and twigs.  He’d seen other men at the retreat making these little overgrown basket-like contraptions big enough to hold a crouching body.   It calmed his nerves to behave as if he had something to do—some bizarre activity like every activity assigned at the retreat.  He walked in the direction where he thought he smelled a stream.

Through the clearing ahead of him shrubs swayed.  A bear?  They’d been warned of bears.  It smelled like a bear—the air was broken into particles.  The huffing and coughing of a bear.  He crouched down to make himself invisible.

And then, hurtling into view, saddle bags of sweat under each arm, his kilt lopsided: Barry.

“I thought I saw a girl—“ Barry said, looking baffled to find Everett.

“A girl?” Everett shot up, trying to tamp down his embarrassment.  Then he could feel his face relax, as if it were slowly unsticking.  He was so glad to be found by Barry.  Barry only noticed Barry.

“It wasn’t anything.  Something.  Nothing.  A girl.”

“You saw a girl?” Everett asked again.

“Are we lost?” Barry asked.

Everett should have picked Lisa King up in his arms—he should have taken her out of that apartment, gathered the sheet around her.  He should have told her she didn’t know what she was doing.  She was sick.  The friend whose apartment she was in was a reckless guy who must have put her up to it—being with a guy like that could have killed her.  She was that fragile.  Maybe she did it because she would get sick if she confronted Everett.  Show and don’t tell was easier.  Maybe she was afraid of what he would say.  Maybe she was afraid of herself and her temper. Maybe he wasn’t the only guy that something like that had happened to.  Maybe it’s happened to every guy that’s ever lived.  He was so relieved to see Barry that he was almost ready to forget Lisa King.    His heart was loosening, flopping open.  If he didn’t watch it he’d cry.

Barry asked, “We’re not really lost, are we?”

To which Everett replied, “We just have to wait.  Wait long enough and they’ll come for us.”

“You’re sure?”

“Eventually they’ll realize.  We may have to wait a long time.  They’ll miss us.”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know if they’ll notice we’re gone.”

Everett didn’t have to think hard before he said, “They’ll miss your kilt.  It’s unforgettable.”

“Oh.  You think so?”

“Your kilt will save us.”


“Or else it will get us killed.  It’s kind of shouting ‘Kill me.’”

Barry said, “I kept thinking I saw a girl.  Running.   Like out of the corner of my eye.  Just flashing by.  I think it’s a hallucination.  You know that guy Lucas?  The cancer survivor?  He’s writing a book.”

“Oh yeah?”

“He says that before you kill yourself or maybe he said before you die—I can’t remember—anyway, either way, he says you’re hallucinating.”

Everett asked, “Did he try to kill himself?”

“After the diagnosis.  So he wants to write a book about how not to kill yourself.  That’s why he’s at the camp.  For tips.  But you know what?” Barry lowered his voice. “ I wouldn’t trust Lucas not to depress a clown.  Although clowns are often depressed individuals.”

Barry couldn’t stop talking—about depression, about clowns, about how you can’t go back into the past and survive the present.  On the later point it was like he was reading Everett’s mind.

Neither man told the other, but they both hoped Barry’s eyes weren’t playing tricks and that an actual girl was lost or in trouble, so that the two of them, although they themselves were lost, could save her.  They walked deeper into the woods.   Their shadows fell ahead of them.  Frogs were starting up.

By then the girl had run back in the other direction, far on the other side of the rushing stream, and could not have heard the men who would so gladly have saved her, not even Everett, loud with theories.