The first messages were written in code, hidden on sheets of volcanic rock. Etched in the cut-glass veneer of these obsidian mirrors, on tectosilicate tablets of feldspar, orthoclase, and quartz, scratched into the pits and ridges of tortoise shells, between the barbs of ankylosaur tails, incised on the skin of reptiles, a language awaited. The first words were unintelligible. Crosses and stars, crudely drawn, or spheres with antlers and sharp teeth. Tally marks or x’s that told of a great richness beneath despite an overall ignorance of scorekeeping. There were those who interpreted them as the graffiti of the gods, airbrushed on the sky and across the empty painted plain and everything that had breath, spoke and listened. Even the trees had conversations, some applauding their leaves in ovation, while others were rustled and moved by the breath of whatever spirit spoke, and the birds built homes there and taught their young to fall then fly and coo the proof of their existence into the animate world, to stake their claim on creation and make themselves known to some alien life-force beyond the swirling, sinking sand grains of time. These were puppet’s petitions to an invisible marionette, the string-puller of fate and destiny, the diviners of entropy. At first bacteria carried the code, wriggling into bodies and talking in tongues. It was the advent of glossolalia and each translated its virus into the bloodstreams of its hosts. Those living felt their missives and read these signs and salvos with fear. They hastened their own ends, and through their resignation were reborn into stronger vessels. They became interpreters. Birthed from protoplasm and given wings, they turned to traitors who overthrew the cherubs and the seraphs. And thus the dawn of the heresiarchs who threw water on the flaming swords of the guardians of the garden and pecked out their eyes. They shoved them over cliffs and picked over their bones on the spiraled jetties below. These were the supplanters of heaven, the morning stars, the ninth circle bound. They were madmen and fools, famished and desperate. They were aviators. When they became bored with the sky they traded their wings for osseous costumes and suits of skin. They tilled the earth and fashioned rakes. They put on faces and grinned, and stared at the water and their reflections. Whole days were wasted looking at themselves, attempting to speak to their images. There was no garden, there were no sacred shrubs, there were only ciphers and men, signs and wonders, arbiters and criminals. They built palaces. Each ziggurat kept the secrets of its creator from the would be intruder. Entire nations were lost within these impermeable fortresses. Inside, the thrones disappeared in labyrinthine channels of grass. Throughout the palaces effigies of the senior gods of the Roman pantheon were frozen in randominity: a stag with antlers, an ursine mother, a two-headed fowl, a basilisk, a chariot, a dolphin, a trident, a chest of pearls, a manticore. A desert surrounded the verdant maze and a river passed through bringing life to the desiccated garden. This was oblivion, the epiglottal galaxies of the mute. The aviators lived and breathed. They asked the leviathan why it slept in the sea, and carried the world through the water upon its broad back, and received no answer, all along learning the ropes of existence, nebulae of spheres in their dotted eyes and the wormwood of language welling up like holy water through the cracks of a healing pool, a cistern. They went down to the waters, honey-tongued and lonely, to tell each other stories, laid beside the banks and ran their fingers over the pebbles and smooth stones, in an attempt to memorize the universe, picked up handfuls of sand, and watched it vanish through their fingers. They thought of their lives as brambles of thorns that scribbled and scratched out whole chapters on their arms as they passed and hacked out paths through their overgrowth. They read them and wrote their own, finishing the tales, composing epilogues. They took the polymer dye of shellfish and coloured in the lines of their monochrome world, added curlicues and buttresses to their doric lives and stripped away the plaster. For plinths and capitals, they substituted symbols, and whispered their maladies into the ears of the foliage. Creation not only groaned, it talked back and spat. It took off its clothes. They witnessed its deflowering. And it’s rebirth. Now there are spaces and hives in the poplars where the wind caresses leaves like a white-gloved hand, soft and slow, they bob and lift their frail bodies, warming to the wind’s touch, softening and tearing, they dance and are blown toward one another. The leaves lock into their counterpartner’s grooves, the spaces left by their design. They join hands and clasp one another. Onto the tiles of the ballroom to dance the green mazurka. The canopy closes on the sunlight’s attempt to filter through, denies Apollo admittance to the ball, while the leaves link arms, choose partners, and pirouette, showing their bare backs and white shoulders, silver-veined and glowing like the first stars in heaven, before the years took their toll, and their faces slackened with age, remembering an era long forgotten like the ripe winter of the white dwarf, who heard the music of the spheres, the d.c. al coda of its own entropic swan song and went blazing in humble glory like a candlestick left burning to the wax hilt of its extinguishable existence. The white dwarf accepted the end, its finale, and it gave up its celestial ghost into the arms of whatever cosmic catcher awaited beyond the space and darkness of the vacuous universe. Ah, to bask in that coronal glow, when it breathed its fiery final breath, to feel and watch the last ember burn, like a dying fire on earth, the tiniest light, a speck of white-orange heat, the slow flicker and spark of death, shedding the mantle of its past life, the white dwarf expiring into the nothingness of space, the widening divide between void and matter, the unknowable silence and deafening roar.
The overpass led into a swamp.
There were six-pack girls weeping hair underneath.
The car did a 360 into sweetflag.
And bats belied a sun’s awakening.
The radio was on and gibbering.
Of trams, the resurgent popularity of faro,
and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
I closed my eyes and saw you in the window.
And waved the headlamp wand to say I love you.
Because I couldn’t talk.
For all the minnows in my mouth.
One night a shadow came out of your house.
It hovered over a stand of coupling cats.
One of them was blind in the eye.
And the other was molting fur.
So I gave it your name.
Assuming you’d be flattered.
By the bravery of mutation.
The assistant was curt.
The disease had spread.
Four words to indicate infection.
From the horseshoe ring of your heart.
To the bread and butter birthmark on your belly.
The mute button pressed,
I fed you a cup of fruit.
Because it seemed a more fitting protest.
Than lighting a gas rag.
Or wearing a skee mask.
And since you were a fighter,
You could handle the irony.
Of the bantamweight belt.
You chose to carry.
Slung over your shoulder.
In a gesture of modesty.
I had pegged you for stronger,
so I weighed you a welter.
And this was in keeping
With our longstanding tradition,
Of having an argument for everything.
Which reminds me,
The results are in
And I was better at being human.
Because I’m still alive I guess.
And in case you are curious,
The thing I loved most about you
Was your disregard for spelling.
And unlike everything else,
This isn’t up for dispute.
Because the mickingbird out my window concurs.
I laid in bed all morning.
Waiting for the clock to turn upside down.
Remember that guy you thought was on heroin?
Well his name is Leon Simpkin.
You would’ve liked him.
He spends most of his time at sea.
Just like I pretend to.
They tell me today is a State of Emergency.
So many Cadillacs caught in snow.
The kind of thing you’d love to finger paint.
Or read about in the paper.
The snow has turned to rain.
And the rats are out confesssing their sins again.
You can hear them all down 64th
In the mouths of larger confessors.
I’d like to say goodbye.
But my habit is to ramble.
You had a way of silencing me
The likes of which I’ve never seen.
People would come from all over
Just to hear me shut my mouth.
These days I do the things I’m supposed to do.
Like vacuum and pay the rent.
I saw Julia on the weekend.
And yes, she’s still wearing her chastity belt.
There are carpenter ants in the kitchen.
Your yellow sweater is shot with holes.
I have several more complaints.
Like the trees outside have been rearranged.
And they’re turning the city into cardboard.
The amulet you left me won’t stay shined.
And it no longer affords me protection.
So I’m returning it to the attic.
Along with the memento mori.
That came with my Happy Meal.
Because I’m tired of thinking of you.
And because feigning clairvoyance is taxing.
Look through the lens jellybean: tell me if you see the moonstruck palm, the wavering rye, and the Adriatic, in that order. Raise your hand like an ear test so I can tell. The country we hail from is wounded and without border. It contains everything: a magma font in Polaroidal bleed, a bird of paradise’s plume, an acorn in squirrel paws, an alien circle in Illinois maize. a basketball shy of its orangine goal, the thumb calluses of a vagrant on a storm drain in Bruges, concealer in a Parisian salon, half naked lovers on a bottle of backwash, and the moon, hanging like the Eucharist, poised over a chalice, balanced on the berm of the prow of an American barquentine, sails set on a queasy sea, and the two of us, the lowest of lovers, double star-crossed in a deprivation of dream, curled up in the crow’s nest, telescoping the lissome world while our captain dead below deck soaks in an Epsom bath of his blood, somnolent shadows sharpied under eye, a semper fi xylene sky. And every star a window elsewhere.
S A B A D O
Below the bad wire and beneath the serried spruce and over crystallized clay aortas of river rush clear and cold and gush gunmetal through veins of verbena and vanish in veils of white whispering water that shunts schist slick with slime inchworm green aglow in radioactive rays of medusan moss as a moribund sun stalks typha tails and throws a shadow on the turned head of a tufted titmouse atop an acornbare oak sloped sinistral in avant-timber late November keel and coalblack carpenter ants crisscross along a longitude of brushburned bark dryrotten and sloughed loose like tarantula skin grafts godforsaken as mad cattle at a slaughterhouse queued skittering and bartimaean before the half dollar watch face glare of steel’s impending axe outfitted with a blade as blinding as a sunquilt of snow in the tired and timeworn eyes of the lost that severs the head of the dead day (traces of trout on a spit devoured by deer) from the body of the living night.
Screaming across a papaya sky a mute 747 spirographs a silver arabesque in cursive chemtrails that to the collective eyes of the townsfolk read Conrad Come Home. A Hallelujah chorus of birdsong fires an infinite canon that crescendoes in a hemidemisemiquaver finale and resolves in a twilit berceuse which begets silence. In the rainkissed wilderness, (dawntreader damned), a boy sits beneath the materializing moon immortalizing initials into an oak with a blunt blade. His story ends abruptly, punctureated by a winnowing fork.
There once was a time when darkness bent before us. At least that’s what our mother told us. She used to kiss us on the forehead and sing us lullabies. And that’d be enough to get through the night. These days I can’t be sure if the sun has even risen. I mean even the light looks dark sometimes. But then again maybe my eyes are closed.
Ebenezer Slit, that cow incarnate, grunts in the affirmative while chewing to the mezzopiano accompaniment of feedcorn ears ablaze under a sky churned to buttermilk. Orphaned his entire life, the other interlocutors can’t help but wonder what business he’s got empathizing with the memory of another. I guess, they figure, a man must have his reasons. A search party sets around a ring of fire throwing back moonshine in tiny tin cups as dented and dull as their faces. A herd of wastrels imitating the ruminants. The Nameless Man runs his fingers through tape reel hair. In the dying light, the wisp of beard on his chin appears painted on with a filbert. A stream of hope leaks out his eyes. The darkness doesn’t knock no more, he says to no one. It just keeps breaking down the door.
The earth in this place is scored like the skin on a lashed back. The Nameless Man has been awaiting the moment it will open and swallow them whole. He’s heard the prelude for going on days. The aria of armageddon on its heels. He tenders a resignation to fate, scrawling his Hancock on the dotted line of Death’s document. A contractual acceptance of absolute negation. C’est la Mort he hears Slit say. Insects athrob with green thoraces careen into corn, their wings whirring like toy copters under an Orwellian eye of sunset. Even the day must die, he muses. Say no more Slit repeats.
How in the hell did you forget the flashlights? Johnny scolds. Mr. Sensible was his nickname in high school. Don’t look at me, deflects Green Thumb semaphoring B at the Nameless Man whose eyes are on the ground varnishing the earth. Shifting the blame to a back of another, (typically the lowest totem on the pole), has always been his way. Just slipped my mind, manages The Nameless Man, assuming the mantle of burdened beast, barely able to speak, like a parched dromedary. Hooboy, says Slit trying to tame the tension, but it’s too late for tears. We’ll find him, Johnny lies through country teeth. He’s been down this road too many times to suspect anything but a dead end. Hell Utah weevil says Slit. Come again? ask each head as it twists on its neck. Water yasking me fur says Slit. Thas fer Jesus to do.
Elsewhere, a brobdingnagian steer chuffs over a splitwire fence no more than a stone’s throw from where a little girl’s body was found blue. The girl grew up in town give or take a mile from the field in a ranch style house with burnt umber shutters and a red door. She is survived by her mother, father, and two elder siblings. A witness claimed to have seen the girl trampolining in her backyard hours before her disappearance days ago, wearing lavender. Her corpse was discovered by a local cowhand, nude save the shoes on her frostbitten feet and Dora socks. According to the coroner the cause of death was strangulation. An ebenezer of sedimentary stone has since been erected in memoriam and a candlelight vigil is to be held in the town square on Sunday evening if weather permits. The sky goes gainsboro like a tabula rasa that wants writing. There are no words. Only a fog that hangs over the town, a soft mist that falls in the mercy of a chapter break.
D O M I N G O
A boy trails a two-tined twig through the whitewashed fence posts of his single horse town. If he had any sense at all he’d keep silent and let the locusts (seen here stage left balancing on blades of sawgrass) do the talking. Instead, the boy elects to emphasize each click of the stick, sounds of insouciance that echo in the blueblack before morn. Under foot the boy trods upon splintered wood, bug brainmatter, and oxalis, both eyeballs stuck on a waxing crescent moon gash that limns the sky like God’s own fool’s gold glory hole to a new white world. The dilated stars encircling sing climb on in. As the Old Farmer’s foretold the celestial water spickets withhold rain. Ailing cottonmouth cornhusks wither and rasp in a desperate thirst. A dreamcatcher of parasitic spider mites adorns a jade tree that jettisons leaves in vegetal distress, fired like the last round of a flaregun: an unseen comet’s weeping sparks meant for the watchman of some sad schooner’s halfshut eyes. Piercing the sacerdotal silence the roosters bellow a reveille to herald the crimson-colored chersonese of sun stretched taut as a tarp. Its entrance resembles a rewound mothership on VHS that crosscuts cumulus and births the world in a burst of niello heat and searing light, out of the slumbering hour of Erebus and into the fiery arms of Helios, like a child’s shadowbox cross-hatching a wall, brick-by-brick until everything shines.
The boy pauses to micturate training his firehose on a snakehole. A few shaken drops of afterpiss fall on his sneakers and he cusses the almighty Father to his omniscient face. Crossing the A&A parking lot the boy espies a crazed man with a beard and a face the color of russet potato who soliloquies in tourettic fits and starts as if summoning an ancient ifrit guardian. The man pays his respects to a cemetery of shopping carts crammed together and gleaming in the dawn, a stainless steel crypt appropriately epitaphed Return Here.
He hears his name through the trees and walks deeper into the woods past the dumpsters lined with butcher paper and yesterday’s blood as if in a trance, trampling an accordioned glowstick that seeps chartreuse drool out shutters of shattered plasticene and a deflated mylar balloon with a picture of an anthropomorphic star. The world through his eyes appears unclarified like a pair of binoculars out of focus. He rubs out the rheum and trips over a shorn tree branch that rests under a tree with words like a torn page from a book. The big toe on his right foot throbs. He lifts himself from the wet leaves and winces, pivoting to punish the branch with a swift kick but it’s not a branch, it’s a body. As the nanoseconds bleed off his brain, he registers thought in polaroids, quick snaps that take time to seep into a visual whole. He sees in color: flush and red, from the crown to its little piggies with splotches of dark fruit contusion. Two eyes, blank like clearie marbles, look through him as if he were an object hanging from a paper mobile. The silhouettes of trees lean over his shoulder, jockeying for position to get a better look, Harbingers of the leprous earth. And a spark of recognition. This is my broth. A jet of acid geysers up the throat to interrupt epiphany. He wretches. The right hand has found a stinging nettle. He grips it. His lungs strain as if there is some Samson inside him, tied to the temple, wresting the breath from his body. A searing pain seizes him. The pillars collapse in a last gasp. The edifice crumbles. As the blood leaves his head and he loses his limbs, the last thing that looms in his mind is the mistake he must have made having chose not to heed the call of the stars.
Genesis chapter one, intones the Reverend, tells of a time when the world without form wore the dark like a mask. In the beginning was a void. And the void was the dark. And the void was with the dark. The Reverend pauses to sip from a cup of water he keeps on the pulpit, a little too close to the cattail-shaped microphone so that the smack of his lips and the salivated slurp reverberate through the sanctuary sending several misophonic congregants into paroxysms of repressed rage. He looks like Patrick Duffy if he were a blonde and his forehead was sort of sliding off his face like salt water taffy in the sun. The light, (he lifts the microphone from its cradle, holding it to his lips like a game show host beginning a slow sashay across the stage toward the contestants’ row), did its darndest to peel back the dark, but the dark was not to be reckoned with. No sir. It did not go, (dramatic pause), quietly into the night. It talked back and spat. The Reverend feels good about the reference to Independence Day. He considers himself a cool guy, unlike those stuffy pastors in the Presbyterian church. He’s purchased every volume of Now That’s What I Call Music on compact disc to better connect with the ‘youth of today.’ He is a practical man with scruples. For example, he deducts each purchase, arranged immaculately on the shelves of his rectory office, from his taxes as a business expense for the purpose of missionary work and hosts a biweekly game of the parlor game Probe where he permits himself a tulip glass or two of Basque wine.
The Reverend wonders if the treasurer, recently diagnosed with stage three mesothelioma, remembered to mail the electric bill and worries that at any moment, the church building might suffer a sudden blackout. If this were to occur, he reassures himself, at the very least he could claim it as divine intervention given the subject of his sermon. His mother was right. He who does everything for a reason holds him in the palm of His hand. The raven stays fed. The lilies of the valley, fashionable. With a tremor of voice and a silent prayer of glory be he stokes the steam engine of his lucubration and resumes: Now I know whatchur thinking. You’re thinking, Reverend, in the face of such immeasurable evil, at the insubordination of the shadow, and the unfathomable depths of dark, how did that bright and everlasting Light respond? Did it turn tail? Retreat? Call it quits? Vamoose? Make like a tree? Blow the popsicle stand of Paradise? The inflection in his voice rises with each rhetorical question. I tell you truly, ladies and gentlemen. It did not vanish without a fight. It lived on. Pitch-shifting to crescendo. It survived. A picture of President Pullman resolving into view for the climax. It-he loses the track of the train, derailing at the sight of parishioner Baumgartner asnooze in the third pew, arms tucked neatly across his chest, and snoring with subtlety. His wife, who has picked up on the reason for the Rev’s anacoluthon of consciousness turns to her other half to smack him in the cheek with a bulletin she’s snatched from her son that has been folded into a harisen fan. The Reverend squints his eyes believing himself to have detected a catsgame of dots and boxes in blue ink on the bulletin and wonders whether or not his aeroplanes of meticulously selected pop culture references had even made it to the tarmac, let alone landed. He comports his face into severity and continues: Ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry to say a darkness has set upon our town. We are faced today with an evil heretofore unbeknownst to us and our kin. In times of darkness, I am reminded of the trials of the psalmist. Turn with me in the Scriptures to Psalm 116 and follow along as I read. The psalmist says, “the cords of death entangled me, and the terrors of Sheol came over me. I found distress and sorrow.” The psalmist cries out in this time of darkness. The terrors of Sheol, from the Hebrew, the place of darkness where all the dead return, enshroud him and he cries in his fear and helplessness for salvation. He writes in verse eight, “now you have rescued my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” and “I shall walk before the Lord in the land of the living,” in verse nine. My friends, in this time of darkness we must yearn for the land of the living. The world that is not this world but the one we are promised given a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We must not allow the seas of doubt, the waves that crasheth ever onward, the tempestuous torrent of time, and the ebb and flow of life’s tides to compromise our warship or faith. We must remain steadfast and unshaken, like the light. The light that bore us into existence that we may one day walk in the land of the living because even the darkness is not dark to the light and the night is as bright as the day.
The Reverend invites the congregation to bow their heads in prayer before the tithes and offerings are taken. As he lowers his head he catches the raccoon eyes of Jonathan Law, up all night, who stands Stetson in hand in the narthex, his authoritative star casting momentary halos on the heads of the stained glass saints. If the Reverend knew what he knew, there’d be no talk of the land of the living or even salvation, he reflects, gazing into the eyes of the thorn crowned Christ in the clerestory, his consecrated head crying tears of blood. I’m sorry Reverend, but there is no land of the living. There is no living. Not anymore. Not then or ever. Not here on Earth or in Heaven above. In the end will be the void. And the void will be dark.
L U N E S
‘The perpetrators is still at large’ reads the Monday edition of the Ulanville Post as a matutinal madder lake pours through white shuttered windows and spills light on the tablecloth plaid where Green Thumb reclines, greeting the dawn with the dog in the kitchen. He wonders why he even bothers to pay for a subscription to the Post, its pedestrian pages riddled with spelling and grammar errors ever since their editor-in-chief abandoned the proverbial ship for the Sumneyville Herald. He scolds the dog who sits at his feet whimpering for one of the burnt ribbons of bacon leaking grease on the Farberware before him and returns his irises to the paper with a sheepish smile which goes suddenly circumflex at the obverse gospel in typeface, that is, the name of the victim emblazoned in ineffable letters, a tetragrammaton trigger that kickstarts a catenation of chaos beginning at the epicenter of Green Thumb’s kitchen, (where he sojourns at absolute center in his farthingale chair), and radiating outward in concentric rings in the manner of a vaporized city. The coffee mug, fish-hooked around his finger and dangling like a bajoran earring, shatters on the ceramic tile sending rivulets of Sanka under the refrigerator. Green Thumb either feels the world melt around him or himself melt inside the world like a hunk of mozzerella. The skronk of french horn from upstairs, a sunup serenade at the lips of his daughter he habitually suffers in silence, goes con sordino and everything rushes like a television ghost announcing its arrival in waves of deafening white noise. The sun stops its shine. His skeleton ceases to sustain the act of sitting. Even his familiars for a moment become phantoms. The world is obscured the way a commonplace word when concentrated on starts to strip itself of its original meaning until the foreign sounding syllables that comprise it reveal another form entire. Eyes screwed and sight doubled over, he enters his brain like a satellite does a black hole, antennas first, feeling its way through the dark.
In the middle of the dark was a word (and the word was fear and the fear was inside him) that fell around him like the tattered remnants of his faith, slow and soft as slipped leaves at the gloaming and signified by the spit on his eyes. The blind remained blind and men remained trees in a bringing in of sheaves without a sickle. He hoped it would go no further, would like everything die (on the page) like he had, a figment, so many times before, in his sleep, in his dreams, would stop short at once as a collision does a car, airbags deployed, seat belt stretched to the point of bruising, a slo-mo mid-air mctwist in a tornadic whirl of windshield confetti and hemoglobin hung like marionettes in some shy third grader’s shoebox diorama dance of death. He petitioned floodwaters to flash, demanded that Dalian reveries drizzle in kodachrome equi, elevating and lowering in a carousel of life before the eyes returning him to reality. The hourglass’s upper atrium empty. Each telltale second of sand ticked off and spent like the hands of a cobwebbed clock buried beneath the floorboards of his victorian manse of mind. He desired to snatch the words up like a shoal of fish snared by the net of language (cast from the right side of the boat), cuneiform glyphs lifted out of one dark world into the next, just like him. The word and the fear expanding like the universe into something indestructible, one hot dream of a white dwarf startled from asylum into explosion, and he, some sad withering star at the center, afraid of his own glow. He feels a twisting towel of viscera wringing inside him like the screws being put to a soul without a washer like an inadvertent hand interrupting the spinneret silk of spider web with nothing left to lean on. His life in slow circle down drain like discolored dishwater from a scalded kettle of human experience.
And on the smeared blue fingerprints of the architects, the loops and whorls that make up the mystery or in the card catalog entries in all possible libraries in every language picked over and sorted since before the world and after it must exist somewhere, hidden between pages upon pages, some shared secret in eternal translation that might hint at an explanation for all this pain. The senseless monologues of tall men explained as essential suffering. And if no meaning exists then let it end, he supplicates to the ceiling, attempting to summon the shiva of assurance, sulphur-breathed and manacled, or gaze into the reflecting pool of narcissistic self, imagining all words communicant captured like still life pears on a living canvas of corruptible art, all the shakes and situations, every stop and start.
Of a pallid luxury wagon led by a shadowless coachman that stalls as his nephew tries the handle, gets in, and goes without knowing where to. Like a reader whisked away by fiction: a sea of inanimate grouper. Fools with lips agape in the incredulity of being, Mad mouths moving in synchrony, all inquisitive. (Which questions would you ask? Do you find answers?) My own life a half-finished pot of yerba mate, and all of existence a ship built in a bottle of armagnac afloat on an endless ocean. In the unfathomable book of life, am I an apostrophe or a comma? And what of my brother’s best boy in a coffin? A thousand or more moments lost in a hysterectomy of thought. A lifetime of deleted scenes: the snow-fleeced meadow, down bright milk hills on a Flexible Flyer, a mephitic fog stealing over the blue bay breathing black whispers in the ears where he sails with his sweetheart under a moon like a communion host, a soft ivory mare and his four-step clop in the quiet dusk, whinnying and kicking up dirt while an unshorn youth in a jean jacket scrawls on a crossword at a table for one, all the answers fourteen-lettered. And his heart in his intestines at having to learn about the death of a loved one in the daily fucking news when once upon a time he stood in a park wincing with snow-blindness half watching his younger brother throw ice for an energetic setter and he stood on a porch smoking a cigarette feeling half dead and sat at his table and drank coffee and ate half cooked eggs with raspberry toast and buttered jam where they spoke about sadness and what could he have done otherwise but stand in a park or on a porch or sit at his brother’s table rocking that cobalt-eyed boy back and forth while he slept away the deadness of the day speaking of sadness. And when more than just the day is dead, what then?
The whole thing feels make believe. Something one might see someone on television read off the back of a cereal box or a milk carton. Like violence that occurs elsewhere, events one might register as unjust before reverting back to the business of living, atrocities isolated in seperate contexts, that operate external of the first person perspective the way hurricanes or tornados are exciting until they’re over your home. Green Thumb conjectures that he has been desensitized to this kind of devastation all his life. The worst evil he recalls to ever descend upon these parts happened over a decade ago when a rash of delinquents in skee masks tormented local shop owners by barging into businesses with toy revolvers around closing time and pistol whipping the workers prostrate, consecrating each one on the temple with the cold steel coin of the barrel like Ash Wednesday execution style. Those were not real guns and that was not real terror, although it felt like it at the time. Maybe everything feels more severe than it actually is until the worst imaginable fate lands the pearl in the red on the roulette of hell.
Ignoring the mess, he opens the door to a day gone dacescale bright with a sky now eggshell that bounces off the hot macadam boiling beneath shards of broken green glass in the driveway. Bees the size of tiny thumbscrews dip to pollenate weeping hearts of hydrangea, their candlewax wings whining as they stoop to slurp nectar out of paperthin petal quatrains like little bug hovercrafts quivering in the autumnal breeze. Green Thumb clambers into his truck and slams the door. He turns the key and throttles the engine, peeling out of his driveway like a fugitive on the lam. He passes by Ray’s Garage, the legs of the owner under a brontosauric Taurus like a dead witch. He envies the obliviousness of his friend. For a few moments more, Ray maintains the luxury of living. He can exist on his own terms, floating in the world like a stupid fish. He recalls playing swimming games as a child in the public pool at camp. The one game where he would attempt to evade capture by every so often slipping from the water. Some things never change. The rest of the world swims while he strains at the gills.
He arrives at the station and swings the truck into an empty spot. Inside, the station is abuzz with activity like wasps daubing mud after the disturbing of the hive. He hears the click of keys writing reports and the jarring ring of telephone. On the television a weather report presages a strong cell of storms. He stands at the center of the maelstrom and scans the room for the sheriff who does not appear to be in his office. Impatiently, Green Thumb pokes his head into the room adjoining and sees his brother staring through the brick of the wall looking three times his age with cavities as wide as asteroids where eyes used to be.
M A R T E S
Okay he says when informed the casket is to be closed at the viewing so as not to upset any apple carts or stomachs. Standard operating procedure for victims who have been, er (the funeral director pauses to flip through a Rolodex of brain searching for the card that contains the most merciful word) mutilated. He glances down to see the dead boy’s father’s face say swing and miss. Alright the Nameless Man says after a while. Of course there are a few other items we need to discuss. The funeral director speaks like someone with a sinus infection, his words rehearsed and rushed as an aspiring Hamlet. What would you like him to wear? Who says the Nameless Man. The child, of course. Whatever says the Nameless Man without bothering to question why what clothes the corpse wears under a closed casket would even matter. How about a tuxedo? I can give you the number to a rental just down the street. They have exceptional taste. No says the Nameless Man for reasons he can’t altogether say. Maybe there’s just something sick about burying a kid in a tuxedo. He stares at the burn marks in the funeral director’s face taking note of an uncanny resemblance to the Soviet hammer sheathed in the bubble gum flesh of the scar tissue. He decided when his boy went missing that he might as well disappear with him. And since he could not bear to ever hear the germanic arrangement of letters that had passed down from his father’s father to his father to his once newborn son red and shrieking in his overjoyed arms spoken aloud again he lost them as easily as one might lose the remote control in the couch or the carkeys. And since nothing was left to be done or said he decided to do and say nothing. It was all he could not do to keep from dwelling on what he wished he did not know which was everyone was dead and whatever this was had always been an afterlife. While the funeral director speaks, the Nameless Man watches a version of himself cross the foyer. The click of his heels on the linoleum drowns out the sound of the voices. He forgets his wife on the bench beside him and thinks about a dream. He’s been having this dream where he volunteers to go into space. It’s unclear the reason for his leaving, but the consequences for staying would be dire. He must relinquish his life on earth, without knowing if he will ever see anyone again. In space, all is black and he must sleep inside a tent. The tent is silver and space inside is very limited. When it is time to rest, he must walk along a beam, taking care not to slip and fall into the void. He repeats this motion every time he needs to sleep until he awakens. He opens his eyes and finds himself on an alien planet. The vegetation is fuchsia and breathes in the shape of a human brain under an avocado sky. He is crossing a river on the planet and sees creatures carrying spears. They are wearing robes and look hostile. The creatures investigate the newcomer. One of the creatures appears to be the leader. He has a lackey. The Nameless Man, unprovoked, stabs the lackey through the heart. When the leader turns, another man in the dream attempts to stab the leader but botches the attempt. An entire army approaches them with spears. The Nameless Man understands that to earn their respect he must kill the leader and does so, running him through with a spear. His back turned, the leader capsizes in a pool of his own blood. The Nameless Man removes the veil from the leader’s face to find the face of his dead son smiling like the water canister in the corner of the room where his wife sits, harvesting tears from her hazel eyes.
The water canister rests on a ledge jutting out from the wall. The ledge is knotted pine, dirty blonde with eddies and whorls whirling in fingerprint randominity over strong, smooth-grained, lacquered wood supported by cast-iron curlicues bolted hard and fast to an unglazed wood wall creating a log cabin intimacy like home sweet home, which casts a rustic pall over the dimly lit parlor, its windows blotted with ink-paper arranged in mosaic. Atop the canister, the cylindrical glass is bookended by the stainless steel lid and its holder, the latter of which resembles a trophy in atrophy, beginning base up as a Kennedy-era Jell-O mold stylized with intricate rounded ridges that bubble up, froth, and resolve into silver shape in a nonpareilellogram of mirrored white light. The base is radiant and metamorphoses via catalytic stem into the cup-portion of the holder, double-ringed and telescopic with the final one swallowing the glass canister whole. The canister takes the shape of a non-committal hourglass and is flecked with condensation spattered in honeycombic conformity above the cubes, or, more geometrically correct, trapezoids of ice that comprise the focal point of the canister. The aforementioned zoids lay stacked in avalanched rows above the remnant murky dark blackwater that accounts for less than an eighth of the canister’s volume, juxtaposed in chiaroscuro like a blasted terrarium . The lid sits askew slanting left like a Pisa in reverse, as seen in the window of a nearby souvenir shop in the Piazza del Duomo. It catches light in a fissure down the middle of the lid and shines like silverware under the gleam of Michelin stars, crested with a handle in the shape of a Russian imperial crown. The nozzle, extruding from the lower-half of the canister, is secured with a rubber-ring which allows access via pressurized mechanics to the ice-water trough at the nadir of the canister, where the water is drawn and drips from an ureteric orifice upon the slightest twist of the bronzine lever turned adroitly dextral. To the right of the canister sits a plastic cafeteria tray with a stainless-steel grate in grid formation inserted so that any excess water from recently rinsed water receptacles seeps through and is collected on the tray, sepia in color. Exactly eleven clean glasses rest on the metal grid awaiting use. The canister casts a parabolic penumbra to the left of the wall behind where it is situated, not directly thrust out from the wall, but turned about thirty-three degrees to the left, facing the sinistral section of the lobby, and kind of appearing to stare right at The Nameless Man, its cloacal maw stretched in semi-perpetual yawn. As the din of the funeral parlor roars he spots a housefly resting on the metal bridge of a window’s crosshairs. The fly shivers and rubs its front legs together as if trying to conjure flame. The mirror on the wall captures this motion and pingpongs it back for the rest of the room’s retinas to catch, but for the most part, the attendants remain ignorant of its attempted absolution. The Nameless Man, however, is entranced. The bug’s halted movements are like stop-motion cinema, its filthy and fur-bristled legs brush back and forth, without pause, crazed as Macbeth’s wife at the cistern.
The first to go are the fingers. It’s a slow sensation, like coming in from the cold. Only instead of the blood’s eventual return, there is a continual diminishment of feeling. He can’t feel his skin against the wind or the stab of fire from a withering match. He can’t feel the warmth of his wife when he’s half awake, tracing secrets on her back through the ripening night. The lack of touch advances from the tips of his fingers to the ring on his right hand until it assumes the wrist, as if forever frostbit. At the viewing, he can’t feel the shakes. He can’t feel the scalding hot water in the bathroom of the funeral parlor. He looks up and sees the face of his mother etched on his eyelids in the razor bright glass. His hands are turning red and his heart wilts. Worse still is his inability to feel his dissolving, like a copper coin in a glass of Coke, he must wait. Something needs to keep feeding. Like leaves feel at the onslaught of aphids. The voice of Neil Young comes over the bathroom loudspeaker to confirm his predicament. He remembers that someone once told him suicide was like letting go of the jetty and being taken by a tide. A warm embrace, surrendering to the arms of another. What relief, he thinks, staring at the decorative soap.
M I R A C L E S
Outside the Depth Charger is a man with flies in his mouth. He gives a passing car the thumb off the front of his teeth and adjusts the angle of his lean on a drainpipe where he slouches under the bar’s neon beacon of alternating salmon and periwinkle sporting a John Deere cap. He’s got a faded leather jacket that fits tight around his shoulders with camel patches on the elbows and stonewashed jeans he must have cribbed from the Goodwill around the corner. His lips peel back to reveal a cob of bi-colored corn in the mouth and sneers at Slit, hunched over by the window ogling a woman at the bar. Beauty is the greatest seducer, the man, who the regulars of the Depth Charger affectionately refer to as Vernon, says to no reply. An orange tabby skulks from a nearby dumpster and mews.
A boy awakes to woodpecker shots fired from the elm outside his bedroom window. Through the obliquely slanted slats of mahogany shutters tendrils of sun creep over his dream-woven visage. From downstairs he hears the sizzle and smell of two eggs frying in a cast-iron pan where a thin-lipped man stands fork-in-hand. The radio presages a chance of rain and parts of clouds. The man takes a deep drag and ashes his cigarette in an empty glass beside the stove. He prods the eggs with a spatula, absentmindedly like tearing the label off a bottle of beer. The boy descends and is met with his gruff salutation. The man stands over him, a gargoyle adjusting the collar of his sheepskin coat, pressing back his shoulders, and ruffling his sandy hair with pride like christ almighty what a fine boy. They keep quiet while dressing, hiking up their breeches and snapping the suspender straps over the arms. The boy leaves his eggs to go cold on the dinette and solemnly dons his fisherman’s waders, hunter green and a size small, then lugs the tackle box to the boat, dragging his boots in the soft mud. They cast off quiet into the water from the shoal, stirring up dirt from the bottom where minnows dart out of sight in their wake. A chill from the morning wind ripples the surface of jet glass, a mirror for the tall pines encircling that creates the illusion of a symmetrical reef when refracted by the jonquil sun where the treetops reach deep to the bottom of the lake. The man is illshaven, sunkeneyed and balding, his face cloudy with a regret that becomes him as he dips his oar into the still water scattering silt from the shallows while the boy looks to the lake and the bait.
The boy recalls the day they moved into the house on the lake, moving furniture with his father and his uncle and his father’s friends, oak bookcases and an upright piano up stairs and how despite lifting with everything in him he always felt like everyone else was carrying the weight, as if the objects would move and get moved without him. He remembers the strain in his father’s eyes like albumen, as the muscles of his sweatsoaked neck went taut as wound steel on a tuning peg. He can still hear the warthog grunts of the other lifters increasing in anguish with each awkward adjustment of grip, but cannot recall the feel of the shift of weight or the burden of lifting. He knew that everyone could sense this too. He could hear their brains move. Each thought sloshing in the vinegar of spite. He could see it in their eyes and hear it in their groans, which he believed were meant for him, each utterance meant to convict him of his consummate insufficiency until he began to feel not the weight of the object but another weight entirely, one heavier than the actual lifting. He could feel their disappointment unanimous through the heaving and the gritting of teeth and the wincing and his father, aged and failing, still giving it his all like he can’t and won’t and will never live up.
When they reach the middle of the lake, the man opens the tackle box and baits his hook. The boy looks at the eyeless bait where it writhes in the soil of its styrofoam crypt and cannot bring himself to bait the hook. He pities the worm tickled pink in the dark but doesn’t have it in him to impale it alive on a barbed hook for a second feeling the eyes of the man lower as he closes the container ashamed at the anacoluthon of conscience. He sits at the bow of the boat and winces at the purling splash of panic in the water raising his eyes as the silhouette of the man arises and arcs his rod to snag the fish through the lip from the spurt of dark blood on the surface to the force of the rod jerked and the line reeled the spin of nylon echoing across the face of a silent lake save a horsefly buzz in the boy’s ear as he swats and watches the man shake from the strain of the last gasp of the fish all the life and fight gone out the eyes and the concentration of the catch as he tightens his grip and grits his teeth the line taut and circumflex as if to snap then reels and beats the whiskered fish into a sad submission lugging its body over the edge of the boat where he slits it up the middle and sees its entrails run.
As he cuts the fish the man frowns and recalls the day they moved into the house on the lake, moving furniture with his son and his brother and a few of his friends, heavy oak bookcases up the stairs and an upright piano and how he wanted to sweat and shine for his son, and so tensed his muscles and strained to carry the weight and shoulder the load lifting harder than he ever imagined he could and arching his back and gritting his teeth and pushing and lurching and lifting and looking at the boy with pride taking more than he could ever handle his eyes wide and shining saying I got this and you don’t need to and I love you but his son seemed sad and silent and the man grew sad and silent thinking how it would never be enough to strain and heave and grit and wince even if he was aged and failing he knew that he could never live up.
But he kept on lifting if only to show the boy he had him and because it was easier than speaking and since neither could speak the man and the boy on the lake were mute in the boat as they beat back with the catch through the wind to the shore.
Good Evening Madame/Monsieur and Welcome to Chez Shit, I’ll Be Your Maitre D’ for the Evening (or)
Hillary for Prez: Because It’s Hard to See Through All This Wool.
Simply equating the two is a weak argument. It is a false equivalency. However, similarities exist insofar as they’re both motivated purely by self-interest, they’re both untrustworthy, and each of their campaigns is steamrolling along on the back of big money. (Trump’s coming out of his own filthy pockets, of course). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for Trump. Truthfully, I don’t support either candidate. I also don’t think that The Gram and FB are constructive forums for political discourse exactly, but I do think it is important that we keep our eyes as wide open as possible these days and that means acknowleding some pretty harsh truths about both candidates.
Trump is a bigoted, sexist, narcissistic, megalomaniacal bully who will, if elected have all the makings of a fascist tyrant. You would think “enough said” would be applicable here, but unfathomably, according to a new Quinnipiac or whatever, it isn’t.
As for Hillary, I’m not sure why, given her proclivity for weathervaning whichever way the political popular opinion winds blow, anyone believes a word that she says. See the TPP, NAFTA, CAFTA, KORUS, practically every trade deal, arming the Syrians, gun control, gay marriage, clean coal, Keystone pipeline, deleted emails, shady Clinton Foundation quid pro quo donations, off-shore tax shelters, etc. She’s a proven liar, and consequently, voters need to take what’s said behind the podium with a grain of salt, because chances are she was on the opposite side not but fifteen years ago. Beyond the lies, I’m not into the nationalism that has permeated this election cycle. I don’t believe the US is the best country in the world, nor do I believe it needs to be. I’m equally as worried about the state of other countries, most of which have routinely been shafted by US foreign policy, as I am about the real issues here: income inequality, systematic racism, climate change.
Ultimately, Hillary is bad news for other countries. While her warhawk ways are most commonly cited, (and verifiable), what worries me is her involvement in the Honduran coup d’etat, which created a power vacuum (similar to the situation in Libya and Syria), resulting in unprecedented violence and poverty in the country, which was considered the most dangerous place in the world, until the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria. In addition, she advocated (with the State Department) to keep Haitians working in off-shore US factories for less than .61/hr. These are, to my mind, unforgivable injustices that only scratch the surface of what’s wrong with the Clintons and their Foundation. And yes, Trump is corrupt, and unfit for office, and an idiot, and a megalomaniac, and just the worst, but I can’t justify voting for someone who is categorically everything I am against. I believe(d) in Sanders, but hold no allegiances to the democratic party, or the system, which is, truly, no bones about it, indefatigably rigged.
In the end, we’re served two bowls of shit, and we’re forced to decide which shit is tastier, more filling, healthier for the body. One of the bowls some of us actually (heaven help us) ordered up out of desperation, in response to our disgust for the rest of the menu and the cleanliness of the kitchen itself. The other bowl used its connections with the line cook to expedite it through despite the customers’ insistence on their desire for a more flavorful and nutritious, perhaps, a truly inspired and original dish. To my mind, the tragedy of 2016 is we don’t appear to have the dignity or integrity to unify to collectively send both bowls back. And so, because we believe there are no options, and have internalized this disillusionment into a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we believe we are too small to change the system or make a statement, we opt to play the game, and so continue in the grand american political tradition of quadrenially eating shit. If we continue to eat the shit, rest assured, they will keep serving it, and the more we allow the system to churn out shit, (the more we pay to consume the shit with our own personal Nielsen ratings on debate night and our tweets and campaign contributions and total lack of outrage at the largely unattended funeral of democracy), the more complicit we become in its creation. We keep turning the cranks on those shit machines because we can dream of nothing better and will never ask for more. We do it to ourselves. And that’s what really hurts. That’s my view at least. What about you?
Addendum: regularly scheduled short story is forthcoming.
Twenty-five years ago my mother made a videotape to commemorate the anniversary of my father’s fortieth year. She held a party and invited his friends. My father never had many friends, but the house was overrun with guests. They were all running up with little gifts that said over the hill. Everything was black and purple. The gifts had cartoon cemeteries on them. They thought it was a riot.
On a calculator I added up my father’s days. There were fourteen thousand six hundred of them. I was on the deck spitting watermelon seeds into a planter with my cousins. We wondered if a patch would grow. In October, we’d spit pumpkin seeds. In spring, sunflower. I guess you could say we had a seed for every season. The party was a catered affair and there was beer and cake. The kind of cake you could really sink your teeth into. Angel food or the like.
There were people lined up all around the pool. I can still see its emerald like Aquafresh after dark, demon moths gathering in the glow, sucked under. Before the floodlight switched on the water lay calm and black and you could trick yourself into thinking anything waited below. We’d kick to the steps in a panic. Always shy of a shark. Screaming like burn victims.
The neighbor heard the screaming and came right away. It was a false alarm. The Virgin Mary looked on, smiling. A dog slipped into the water. People laughed, clinked glasses. Someone sung badly over the din of tijuana brass. Someone pissed off the deck. The dog’s eyes widened as he hung half submerged. The good samaritans tried to lift him out. The more mephistophelean tried to pry his paws off the ledge. A surly Irish uncle sung Danny Boy in falsetto. Everyone wore leis. I was on the loveseat in a scuba mask. Dive rings on the ocean floor. A frog in the filter. Blonde hair green. Red Ranger trunks and the games of the twenty-fifth Olympiad.
A few kids caught Janet from Produce making out with Tom from Deli in the kitchen pantry. She was in a lycra bra the color of Barney and he was in the act of unbuckling. They were crushing a box of Butterscotch Krimpets and Cheerios were falling. We knew nothing of sex outside of Kindgergarten Cop. Rubber buns and liquor. Fruit on the Bottom. We grew up in a slice of America where sex was sacrosanct. Taxonomized and solely missionary. And so instead of making love we chose basements, glowing in the dark and walking into walls.
My brother told me he kissed the neighbor girl one time in the basement. It was either on the davenport against the wall with the black hole or on the pool table. I call the couch davenport because that’s what my grandmother called every couch. They were playing truth or dare and her brothers watched while they went at it, smirking. She had pink ribbons in her platinum hair and wore a Barbie camisole. They were eight or nine at the time, all grown up. I think they kissed for ten minutes or an eternity. The neighbor girl was dolled up in the cerise lipstick she had stolen from her mother’s Avon kit and eye shadow. In the caked on concealer she had all the makings of a Paduan prima donna.
The black hole in the basement is not your John Q. Public’s orifice. It is a door for disappearing. The walls around it weep lead tears. The floor beneath it groans like all creation. The hole smolders like the desert does when you look through fire and you see the heat stretched out like a dreamcatcher. I wondered if the hole was a portal. Not to anything extraterrestrial, just somewhere other, say Lake Tahoe. I imagined if I were to step in, it would feel lukewarm. Like a return to the womb. It would not drip down my legs or soak, but swallow me whole, a primordial Jell-O of sorts.
I remember standing before that old black hole one evening. I had been playing Luigi’s Mansion and was interrupted by a ticking sound. Luigi’s Mansion is a game where you walk around a haunted house sucking up ghosts into a vacuum cleaner. At first, the ticking sounded like one of the carpenters who built the house dropped his pocketwatch behind the partition and it continued to keep time within the walls, eternally wound. The more I listened, however, I realized the ticking was not so much voluble, but more like a continual tightening of the chest, as if my heart was a Phillips-head screw getting repeatedly stripped. Through the hole I thought I could hear strains of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. It was the second movement, Andante con moto, the one fabled to simulate a dialogue between Orpheus and the Furies before the gates of Hades. (I had always loved music, even as a child, playing the plastic snare to my grandmother’s John Philip Sousa record with regularity). I found the response of the piano perfectly plaintive, like the cry of a palmed junco.
There were devils down there. Serpents in the sump pump. Iaculi in the attic. Chimeras in the craft room. A man with a machine gun in grandmother’s bathroom. Minotaurs and crocs. Basilisks and banshees. Eidolons and incubi. It was a gauntlet of the dracular, a dungeon for the damned. To survive, you had to flick off the lights in a certain order. It was imperative not to deviate from the pattern on pain of death: Storage room first, yanking the string to the lightbulb that flickered like a god’s eye. When that went dark, you had to take out the lights in the back, following the walls clockwise, and moving with purpose. Then came the craft room. Tiptoe past: pinecones and pipe cleaners, around the wyvern in the closet and Bloody Mary in the mirror. Flip the switch and hightail it to the billiards hall feeling blackness fall around you like swansdown. At the second to last switch, the room would fill with fire. You had seven seconds to make it up the stairs. Once thrown, the Ganon awakened. You could feel his hot breath on your neck. You could see watchwords of blood on every wall. His eviscerated victims. At the top of the stairs was the last light, but even this was far from safe. There was still a man with a machine gun in grandmother’s bathroom.
When I was a baby I had nightmares. It was my mother’s fault. A talented artist, she had attempted a mural on the nursery wall overlooking my crib. It was a scene from Peanuts. The whole gang was there. Snoopy supine on his sideways shack. Woodstock parasailing. Charlie Brown at the plate. Linus in the outfield. Schroeder playing catcher. And Lucy on the mound. It was, for the most part, a pastoral scene. One reminiscent of dandelions and pink gum to break your teeth on. The kids were smiling and there were no clouds. But she got distracted in the process of painting, (her mother died) and walked off without finishing.
And she had ruined Lucy. Her one eye, a black spot, was normal. The other was fucked. Slit as Simone Mareuil’s and hemorraghing its vitreous humour, the eye dripped like Dalian clocks down toward me in the crib. I looked up at the inverted image of an Evil Lucy at the age of two and would never again sleep through the night. I would close my eyes and find her plotting to kill me. In these dreams, she became animate and stalked me through the house. I caught her watching me from the balcony. Stock still. Her ochre shirt and scurvy skin. She would wait until I was alone. When my mother and father weren’t looking. When no one was home. I would climb the stairs. I would turn the corner. She was waiting. Everything got hot like a factory. She laughed and laughed. I tried to run. She laughed and laughed. My legs were anvils. The smell of sulphur and the sound of a train to a tinnitic ear. I awoke underneath her grinning visage, the smeared eye trained on me like a reverend at the altar invitation. The dreams continued until we sold the house. Each night my family was murdered.
One day in April, I smelled what I thought was burnt chocolate chip cookies and wondered if it meant I was about to die. There was this kid Willoughby who lived down the street who told me that’s how you go when it happens. You smell something strange and your brain blows like a fuse. He said some people smell burning hair, and for other people everything tastes like china paper.
I heard all about the different ways to die. My father told me that when you have meningitis you’re unable to touch your chin to your chest. He said that meningitis will kill you quicker than cancer. Your whole body goes rigid and your blood becomes poison and your brain burns like phlogiston. Every time I get a headache or a sore throat I touch my chin to my chest to make sure I don’t have that. I used to lie awake wondering if I was going to have an aneurysm before an episode of Boy Meets World introduced me to the term hypochondria. There’s a pain on the left side of my back that I’m convinced is metastatic. The end is always nearer than we know.
We used to debate which type of death was easiest. Willoughby said drowning. He said that as the water flooded your lungs and the Duchampian images drizzled in Kodachrome equi, elevating and lowering in a carousel of life before the eyes, the soon dead would most likely feel a sense of serenity, waving the white flag of surrender, as the just man, like sandalwood, perfumes the blade that cuts him down. I said car accident. Because at least then life would stop short, on impact, like the collision does the car: its airbags deployed, seatbelt stretched to the point of contusion, a slow motion mctwist of windshield confetti and hemoglobin, hung like marionettes in some shy second grader’s shoebox diorama dance of death. We were unanimous in our belief that there was no clear winner for the worst way. It was a stalemate between: Incineration, Drawn and Quartered, and Vivisepulteration.
Willoughby always wore these collared shirts with vertical stripes that were tucked into his shorts. He was tiny with pale knobby knees and kind of pranced everywhere he went, as if he couldn’t wait to reach wherever he was going. In the winter, he licked his lips until huge red rings formed around his mouth. It kind of looked like he had been drinking cherry Kool-Aid. The crueller kids would make fun of him. They called him Honeysuckles because he loved to pick flowers by the bus stop. When it got cold out they called him Bozo or Ronnie McDonnie because of the lips.
One time he threw up on the schoolbus. All the kids were grossed out. The older ones at the back of the bus pushed his head into the vomit like he was an unhousebroken dog. He had carrots for breakfast. Carrots and celery. There were carrots all over his backpack and on his homework. There was celery on his socks and in his L.A. Lights. He had to go to the nurse for a change of clothes because he smelled like sour milk. The kids in the hall were all holding their noses as he passed. One of the kids stuck his foot out and tripped him. He hit the cold tile, splitting his lip. The blood ran onto his shirt, its collar hanging loose where chewed, dark in an upside-down drool rainbow. There were drops of spittle on his chin. Eyes watering, he pulled himself to his feet, shouldered his bag and said the words I’d heard him say every day a thousand times before.
Nobody knew what it meant. The words. Some believed it to be a Polynesian island. One kid swore it was an obscure brand of nougat candy. Another, a type of rorqual. He said it all the time. In the lunchline. On the bus. Every pothole. After school. In the kitchen. His mom serving up ants and celery. At the bat. In the pew. On the toilet. Balo Nopto. A lot of people thought he was a freak. They called him retarded. To them, it was utter nonsense. The ramblings of a lunatic. And Willoughby was a prize horse in the Preakness for abnormality. He told me that sometimes he felt like he was being possessed by Paul Anka. His father was a big fan, and had all his records. When this happened, he would impersonate the legendary crooner. An ice cream truck might come rambling down the road and Willoughby, adding lyrics to the music box melody of the truck, would proceed to serenade anyone in earshot with (You’re) Having my Baby or Times of Your Life or Lonely Boy. His eyelids lowering like he meant every word. As he loosened his grip on an imaginary microphone, sometimes he would shake.
Willoughby was watching when my brother and I got in a fist fight in the neighbor’s garden. In the backyard were tumuli of dirt that we used as ramps to jump our bikes off. I don’t remember how the fight began, just that we were rolling through plots of blackberries and snow peas. My neighbor who had a mustache and wore camouflage pants was cutting the grass and saw us. He had red earmuffs and a cigarette. I punched my brother in the nose, drawing blood. He laid on the ground and I kicked him in the ribs and in the penis. The neighbor was furious. He dismounted the tractor and pulled my brother to his feet. He pushed me in the chest like I was his equal. My shirt was torn and stained palatinate. He looked at me like I was a cat he was getting ready to punt. I looked at him like an emaciated eel. Willoughby stood a few paces away, hands balled into fists with his eyes squeezed shut and streaming, repeating the words like a liturgy. I don’t think he had ever seen this kind of evil.
He came over every day. The doorbell would ring and there would stand Willoughby grinning like the bride of Christ. There was this movie called Joe Versus the Volcano that my family had taped. We watched it in the living room, lying on our stomachs, the cadet blue carpet drawing maps on our elbows and knees. My mom made us pancakes shaped like Donkey Kong Country. Bisquick effigies of King K. Rool and Queen Bee. Rambi the Rhino and Enguarde the Swordfish. He showed me a map of Ohio where he grew up in Lodi. I said that Lodi is a great name for a town. It must be a magical place. I thought about how the names of other places sound more mystical than your own. I marvelled at the possibilities of towns like Massillon, Galion, Bucyrus, Oceola, Kalido. He said I was off my rocker, that all those places are the same, people and buildings, and the occasional park.
Then he got hit by a car. I was in home economics when I heard the news. He was killed on impact chasing a butterfly across the road. The driver was a sixteen year old boy, newly licensed and looking down his girlfriend’s shirt in the passenger seat. He slammed on the brakes and swerved, spilling Sprite on the dash and spinning the wheel, but the damage was done. An eerie silence stole across the class when they told us. Nobody wanted to acknowledge that one of us was dead. We all kept staring at our boxes of SnackWells stone faced like nothing happened, defying anyone to say otherwise. It was important to maintain the veneer of normalcy. In time, they forgot about him. Everyone said there was something wrong with him. There’s probably at least one thing wrong with everyone.
The videotape my mother made to commemorate my father’s fortieth year was assembled out of pictures in photo albums, thick behemoths of memory with maroon covers and sticky plastic pages. She handed the albums, full to bursting, over to someone who superimposed the photos on magnetic tape with corresponding songs for each stage of life. The finished product was a lifetime on VHS. You could rewind it and skip over the boring parts. The stages of life went like this: Being Born. Getting a Job. Buying a Car. Getting Married. Having a Honeymoon. Buying a House. Getting a Dog. Having a Baby. Buying a House. Having a Baby. Getting a Dog.
The music for the scene of the movie where my Mom meets my Dad is All I Ask of You by Andrew Lloyd Weber from The Phantom of the Opera. The music for the scene of my entrance into the world is The Wind Beneath My Wings by Bette Midler from the Beaches soundtrack. The music for the scene where my Mom and Dad buy a german shepherd is How Much is That Doggie in the Window by Patti Page. The music for the scene of my brother’s entrance into the world is Johnny Angel by Shelley Fabares. The music for the scene where my Mom and Dad buy their first house is Our House by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The music for the scene where my Dad is growing up is Times of Your Life by Paul Anka.
My father turned sixty-five today. He is still working at the Acme with Janet and Tom and Nancy and Carol and Lou. No one ever quits the Acme. It’s the kind of place where you walk through the sliding doors and disappear. Like the corn in Field of Dreams. You can still see him though, somewhere between the aisles, smiling out of his tiny eyes into disquiet. On the edge of an abyss. Four dogs later. Still afraid as the lot of us.
There’s an ice cream truck out tonight. I hear it sluicing up the street to the infinite chime of Turkey in the Straw. For a moment, I think of Willoughby and hear his voice. I can see him swaying and semaphoring, cocking his head back with every third word just like Anka at the Copa.
Good morning yesterday. You wake up and time has slipped away. And suddenly it’s hard to find the memories you left behind. Remember. Do you remember? The laughter and the tears. The shadows of misty yesteryears. The good times and the bad you’ve seen. And all the others in between. Remember. Do you remember? The times of your life. Reach back for the joy and the sorrow. Put them away in your mind. The memories are time that you borrow. To spend when you get to tomorrow. Here comes the setting sun. The seasons are passing one by one. So gather moments while you may. Collect the dreams you dream today. Remember. Will you remember? The times of your life.
It’s 3:22 in the morning and I’ve found myself at a Chinese store. There’s a man with a handgun tapping on the glass. Is it a handgun or his finger? Too drunk to tell. I say listen amigo, there are only two kinds of people on the street at this hour. There are drunks and there are criminals. Which are you? He orders a bag of plain potato chips and reaches into his wallet. I pull out a handgun. Is it a handgun or a Snickers bar? He turns the question on me but I’ve already gone. On the walk home I see a man with his eyes tied down by sacks of confederate gold. When he opens them they look wide and green and sad as tidepools. It takes me a moment to recognize myself.
My Snickers bar says it values me. It feels good to be reminded now and again. Maybe Willoughby was trying to warn us, like an apocalyptic mime snipping at the cable of a not so invisible piano, it all comes crashing down. The glass is neither half full nor half empty. It is running over with air. Perhaps his favorite phrase was an acceptance of the ineffable. Baby talk. Or a prayer. Something to keep us warm on the walk home toward the inevitable whatever down the road. And the other one beating at our backs.
In the night, the street comes to life. There are new secrets. For example, I’ve never seen a flower like this before. It smells so good, even in the city. And it’s just outside my door. Blooming like the dawn. And all our little hearts.