Thursday, December 18, 2014

Energetic, young, broken, useless

This happened a year ago.

"Be still!" He yelled at me from across the street.

"What? Man, I can't hear you." I called back. Three minutes before, I had been on my way home from the Green Leafe. Since Eleven o'clock, I had finished off three beers, two excellent conversations, and one page of notes. Two weeks before this, road workers had repaired a long section of Scotland St., but never finished. I got a flat on a deceptively sharp pot hole. This guy, call him Rick, walked by on the other side of Armistead Ave. while I was repairing the tube. I had called some kind of respectful acknowledgment ("'S'up?") when I noticed his eyes on me.

"Be fucking still!" He demanded.

"Alright, I'm still." I said. I knew now what was going on.

"Get down. Now."

"I can't do that, man." I didn't want to take my eyes from him. I didn't want to confirm his fantasy.

"GET DOWN!" He yelled at me. "Five! Four!" and ran at me from catty-corner across the street. Forty yards. Thirty. Twenty. I stood my ground and talked to him softly, hands out of my pockets, open, palms facing. Not a threat.

He stopped inside of five yards. Eyes wide. I asked him if he served in Iraq. "Yes, I did." Still in his aggressive voice, the same rough, loud, monotonic tone a twelve year old boy uses on the playground to make a show of force and toughness. Falsely deep, I think it will crack.

"I know I look suspicious to you," I began.

He cut in, "Everybody does."

"But I'm not. I just stopped to fix a flat."

He's not buying it. I'm still the enemy. He's my height, maybe a bit taller, 5'9 and something. Broader shoulders. Dark hair, crew cut, maybe he's still serving. Khaki jacket. Features from the mid-west.
He's drunk. Slow, I could tell that when he was running. Probably higher pain tolerance and possibly unusually strong. But if he lunged, I think I could get out of the way. My phone is in my pocket, but I'm not going to do anything that looks dangerous to this man: this scared little boy in a man's shoes, the weight of many on his shoulders.

"You're a Marine?" I asked.

"Yes."

"My father was a Marine." I said.

"So was mine." still too-hard and loud, but less-so. His breath is steadier.

"He served like you. I've heard the stories. I know a little of what it's like." I'm waving casually at a passing taxi. He's seen the cab too, but he's scowling at it, chin set and pointing his finger at the ground.

He looks back at me. He's still making aggressive mumblings. I raise my right hand slowly and take a step towards him. "I'm going to touch your shoulder." His wide eyes flare wider and he steps back quickly. What did we do to him? "Ok, I'm not going to touch you. But I'm with you, man. I'm on your side."

"Just.. just give me what I want." He says, too softly now. I can't hear him, but he's pleading. Another taxi goes by. Too intent on him, I don't notice it stop behind me. "Give me what I want." He's stretched a hand out to me, now. Palm upward. I think he still might want me to get down, but I really don't know.

"I don't know what you want," I said. I put my hand on his, tentatively, aware he may grab and pull.

"Yes, you do!" His voice is getting louder again, becoming twelve again.

"My dad served out of Norfolk. Where do you serve from?" I'm trying to calm him. Ground him back into reality.

"You know what I want!"

"I don't know, where do you serve from?"

Someone is calling from over my shoulder. Calling his name. "Rick, come get in the van!" They're finally heard, but it doesn't calm Rick.

"Fuck you and your bike!" He yells. He grabs the bike, rear wheel still on the sidewalk, it seems energetic, young, broken, useless. He picks it up, swings, and throws it fifteen feet away. It lands in a heap on the lawn near a rust red sculpture of books held tight in a leather belt. It's dark over there, but it looks okay.

"Whoa," I'm saying, "whoa, Rick, calm down. These are your friends. You need to get in the van with them. Go home."

Now I'm someone else. "No!" he says, sternly, but not the same tone. "You need to! These are the guys that saved your life." It's odd. He's saying this with condescension. My life wasn't worth saving. They risked their worthy lives for my unworthy one.

"Rick, go home and get some sleep."

"They came back for you, man!"

His friends are out of the cab. Rick turns and paces down Scotland, towards the elementary school.
Five minutes later, his friends have managed to pay off the confused and worried taxi driver. (Though one tried to offer him some kind of rewards card in payment. "It has fifty points on it!") They've been standing on sidewalk behind me while I put the wheel back together, talking together about how bad life is ("I'm going back to New York, gonna be a student." "Me too, I'm gonna be a student too." "But that's all I got going for me. If I fuck up one class, that's it." "New York, man?" "Yeah, that's where it all started, 3000 people died there in 2001.") apologizing to me for Rick, ("I've never seen him this bad." "Are you also a marine?" "No, I'm Navy! but I've been with him for as long as I can remember.") wondering what to do now ("He's gone now, man. Gone off somewhere.") I've picked up the frame. The derailleur is bent. I notify the soldiers that Rick is coming back. ("Good spotting, bike guy." Like I'm one of the team.)

After a brief drunken struggle under the spotlight of the street, they head off together, cajoling and consoling Rick, this time down Armistead towards the train station. "Don't call the cops on him, bike guy!" as they leave.

"Just get him home, guys. And tell him Semper Fi for me."

Ten minutes later, I leave the scene and three police cars behind me. (He didn't have a weapon. I'm not pressing charges. Not worried about the bike. I'm worried about the guy. Just see if you can get them somewhere to sleep this off, please. He's been pretty messed up. More ways than one.)

The officer, slightly overweight, blond hair, buzz cut, double chin, maybe 5'10", had asked if I needed anything. "No, I'll get home alright." Was I sure about not demanding any money for repairs?

"Yes. It's just one of those things, you know? It's life."

The bent derailleur clicks the whole way home.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Exposure

It was a long trip.

“There’s a thing,” he said suddenly, “that I’ve never been able to express - mostly for fear of making it true. I’ve always felt, since even before his birth, that he was too good for this world. I can see, when I look at the rest  of my children, their futures spreading out: the paths they might take, and whatever lies at the end of them. I can see nothing ahead of him. Every day he gets closer to the nothing or unwittingly avoids some unseen peril, but eventually that last step is unavoidable.

“The details of his birth only confirmed this nagging feeling in my mind. The sudden complication, his attempt to get into the world backwards, his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, like a noose…”

He trailed off, so I interrupted his thoughts with mine, “an omphalic suicide.”

“A what?”

"Omphalic. It's a Greek word. 'Omphalus' the navel, the source of life, the rock of Delphi, the center of the world.”

“Oh. Yes. Huh. Omphalic suicide. An ironic death, maybe.

“I don’t know. I could be… I hope I’m wrong. He will probably live a complete life. Go to school for dentistry, marry a girl named Barbara, have three children and a black lab, become devoted to the art of Chinese calligraphy, and retire to a life filled with brushes, ink pots, and grandchildren. It’s just - it’s a secret fear. He’s too perfect to survive.”

And that’s all he said, because he had to tell someone, and so he told me. We rode the rest of his journey together in silence. He tipped me a few dollars, gathered his umbrella and briefcase, and left his secret behind when he closed the door.

Coffee Characters

In the corner, under the lamp so low that it stands accused of causing the headache of many unwitting patrons, sits a matriarch lost in time. Surrounded by her family, she mutters wisdom under her breath. She has watched the rise and fall of civilizations. She’s seen the sun set over a thousand lands. She has witnessed the death of ten people, both parents, two husbands, her firstborn son, and five others: relations and friends whose names are indelibly etched in her memory. You do not forget a person you’ve watched die.

She is too old and hunched too low that not even that lamp, stretch as it might, is a peril to her. Her family pays no heed to her words, because even her daughter, aged seventy-three, reaching across to pull the blanket over her mother’s shoulders, is too young and headstrong.

So she mumbles incessantly, even over the lip of her earthen mug, the history of the stars. She scatters the treasures of a lost world on ears which are attached to mouths that say, “take a sip of this fine warm soup now, _Mee-Ma_.” No woman is an oracle in her own house.

At the next table closer to me sits a short man who shaved his face this morning with a flat razor while leaning close to small round mirror as the dawn’s newborn light illuminated his square chin. While he shaved, he hummed an aria from an opera I don’t recognize and in a language he doesn’t know. Now he’s sitting silently, leaning back in his chair with his legs crossed in a manner that is confident, but there is a tension beneath his mannerisms, like he’s trying too hard to be comfortable. I think, perhaps the only time he’s truly at ease is while he’s shaving in front of that small round mirror, in the bathroom of his own low house which smells of damp stone and aftershave.

At the far end of my row, a wizard and apprentice discuss some arcane experience. The elder mystic is content in himself, is surprised at how easily he slipped into the role of tutor. He frequently finds himself recollecting his own time as an apprentice and finds himself unconsciously emulating the body language, posture, and tone of his professors. He's doing it now: leaning back against the uncomfortable straight wooden chair, leg crossed, hands together or steepled on the table. He thinks that this posture must have been passed down, tweaked, personalized, by unknown generations of mystical tutors, since prehistory. He imagines now, while he continues to discuss the latest alchemy, his apprentice in this position a hundred years from now. Her own thin hands steepled. There's a word, he's sure of it, for the cultural markers passed on and around, evolving in meaning and method, a word that has itself passed into popular culture with expanded and unscientific meaning, but he cannot think of it. She probably knows. He won't ask.

She, though, is more interesting to me. He's certain, and I tend to dislike certainty. She is intent, concentrated, absorbed by the new knowledge. Two years ago she had been a frightened little girl with a talent for the telekinetic that she could not understand and could barely control, meeting a group of  powerful people that intimidated and impressed her. Now she is a woman. Through force of curiosity, she made something like a family out of that eccentric disjointed convocation. She’s confident and powerful and she simply won’t look at me. Hasn’t glanced in my direction, or any direction, really. Her eyes bore holes through the mind of her professor. She leans forward, over the table and her medium brevĂ© in a to-go cup. The closer she is to source, the quicker she hears the words.

Behind me, a tree stares deeply into her mug. She’s trying very hard to focus on the things she’s learned since assuming her human form, things like the an appreciation for time and mortality, the nature of loss and physical pain, but also of joy and pleasure, but she keeps getting distracted by the thing her roommate told her about Deidre’s boyfriend’s brother. She flushes and the sap rises to her cheeks and leaves uncurl in her mossy hair. She’s cute and unkempt and younger than her years.

And in my corner, in my chair, sits an ordinary man with wild hair and terrible breath. He’s seated at a small computer, typing at it absentmindedly, and he keeps getting confused about who he is. He’s imagining the lives of strangers and forgets that he is the ordinary man in the corner. He’s looking at his own hands now and wondering, ‘Who’s hands are these?’

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My Mother is Hunger

We reached a barren summit. The sun, mirroring us, breached the next, and I struggled to my feet, touched by the golden light of dawn. The new day washed me clean, trickled down my neck, my chest, sloshed at my feet, and cascaded down into the valley. The dewy cedars below us sparked a million rainbows, a million promises. The streams glared into a brilliance, blinding.

I am dying.

Several deer, as the sunlight touched them, lifted lazy heads. Time soon to retreat into the forest's edges.

Never again will the world be destroyed by water - fire will cleanse as easily. Who will light it?

I was no longer afraid. I was no longer anything. I saw no fire, heard no morning birds. I felt nothing: not fear, anger, exhaustion, or hunger.

Hunger. I am dying.

At my feet, obscured by the harsh shadow of some large stone, lay my companion. Pitiable, wretched thing. Weak. Weaker than I.  The fool that I'd followed into this wasteland. What had he promised to show me? What strange passion goaded me to follow? I no longer knew.

It was his fault. His fault that I'm dying, yes, but worse, he's a thief. At the moment he promised me nature, He stole from me the joy I'd had in it. And now he was too weak to move, and I had nothing left but the stone in my hand.

His eyes were already dead as he watched me. He lay his head on the great stone. "Here it is," he rasped, and barely motioned at the scene behind him. "This is your mother."

I brought the stone down on his temple. Twice. Again. I crushed his head into the rock. His chest heaved a final breath. I lapped his blood as his heart lay beating. I savored his life. With renewing strength I devoured what strength he had left.

I gobbled him up. (Mother, this is your son.)

I turned my back on the morning. I turned to go. I was quenched but still alight. I was filled but never, never again, sated.

--

I was born again some time later. I do not know when, though it seems like autumn. Deep in the teeming lonely forest, I no longer know the names of the animals that surround me. Playful, graceful, familial, or fearful: I only fear one thing now. And so do they.

My mother is Hunger.

Great Green Prism

I am sitting alone in a great green prism. Leaves like glass glisten, mottle, contain me. Suddenly interrupted by a mad throng, a cataclysm of noise and passion and feathered lust. Partners dance above my head - offerings and brilliant displays at my feet.

Their presence is as one body; and I am in its beating heart.

Just as they came, they are gone, leaving silence and tatters and shit on my page.

I am sitting alone.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Sound and Experience


When I close my eyes - here in this wood, near that stream, under this light canopy suspended by delicate aluminum poles - here in the dark, jacket and the socks I wore for pillow, when I close my eyes the world disappears. The wood and stream and tent and pillow: out. But not, like a candle, instant. I close my eyes and they dissolve slowly with my day and my tomorrow. They melt out of my mind as my aches melt from my body, and are replaced by
Sound.

In the rafters of this place there is a tripping - a wash - a cacophonous rainbow of noise. An army of privateer mice simultaneously and incessantly sound the march on bells made of hollowed acorns. To my right, over the broad river, the frogs - the mice men’s warring cousins - thump a tinny response on lilly-pads with silver spoons.

Much closer, inches from my face, the suspended fabric resonates without rhythm. The vibrations are more than heard. The thump-thump, thumpthump,thump can be felt along the length of my naked body. A cool, cold noise welcome in the humid pre-summer night.

These, I thought, were all I could hear: the small army at war and the cold low beat, but I turned on my side and concentrating-intently I discovered one more Sound.

Quietly all around and under me, beneath the carpet out the door, beneath the floor inside, echoes a rustley shifting. An old man shuffles to church - slowly, patiently, trudging the old path, sliding footsteps through the leaves.

This is the rain, and these are a few of the oldest and best sounds in the world. A thousand years before a thousand years ago someone lay under a canopy in a wood near a stream and heard just the same things I hear tonight: The same tiny war, the same deep cold beat, the same old man shuffling through the leaves.

Like a child's first cry, this rain is the oldest and newest sound on earth. Its ancient ritual is verdant, fresh with new life. It is bitter with wild shock, and refreshing, calming, homely. It's worst gales are yet welcome.

Life is full of these tiny experiences: moments to, not merely cherish, but ardently pursue. This night, this rain, this experience is not an accident. It is a quest. These sounds are an elusive beast I've hunted and captured and will hold on to for the rest of my life. This memory is mine now. I will guard it jealously.

So I lay under my tent in the dark wood near a broad stream and listened. I waited intently for the warriors to begin the charge they were sounding, for the clash of mousy rapier on the toad's heavy staves. I resisted the cold beating at the edge of all my senses, and expected the ring of church bells, the end of the old man's ritual. But nothing changed until I slept.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Separate but Equal

Source: Warren K. Leffler, U. S. News and World Report, Donated to the Library of Congress
Today, June 11, is the anniversary of this event: Stand In the Schoolhouse Door, in which a U.S. state governor attempted to physically block the entrance of a public university to prevent the admittance of two black students. It is a deep shame that this could ever have occurred in the United States, deeper that it happened just 50 years ago, and deeper still that, following this sorry demonstration, this man would again be elected to the governorship three more times.

It is important also to remember that the argument made for segregation - separate but equal treatment - fifty years ago is still being made today. About marriage. It is just as true for gay rights today as it was for civil rights then: separate is not equal. The only real purpose for segregation or civil unions is to provide a legal method for one group of people to treat another unjustly.