As the chapel fills with rising octaves—
Hurricane Rothko nocturnal triptych opera
Nightfall voices widedeep wonder pockmark awe.
Thrum through, through furrows,
Bones, skin, teeth and vociferous mind
—Bible-black and vesper plum wine.
Revealing, heavy curtains bereft of stars,
Beauty whirling, weaving into patina skeins
Wrapping beholders of his darkest incantation.
Aware arising arias, voices in prayer—Preghiera,
Open up every opera, to passion, its pause
Every storm opens its rattle rage, its becalming eye.
Aftermath’s wake leave mad gathering what may,
Rothko, shuddering, silence so finite, by his own
Deft hand, composing temporal sacred laments,
Slices his wrists, sighs razor’s edge, and dies.
Blood burbling, falling
—Bible-black and vesper plum wine—
Splattering as absolute, God-given stars.
—As if from the lungs of Simon whistling down Iscariot
Darkness smokes briefly alights as singed doves.
Are we bound, as Antoine De Saint-Exupery says we are, to the meaning of things by our attitudes,and do things, material objects, as the Celts believed, house the dead past, the deceased, awaiting our recognition? And ifthis were true, that the trees we see, the dogs we witness wandering; that something as innocuous as a cookie, as Marcel Proust maintains, can bring to life something deep, forgotten and eagerly awaiting our attention. If this is so, how much do we miss? What is vying for our attention right at this moment?
Hang on to the moments as they pass. What happened was right now is gone. The full moon swollen is empty as dead stars are. Days are blackest at night. Wind surd and sonant: Calling. I am not here for me; I am because you are.
Dag Hammarskjöld Lawrence & The Memory Sylph
She’s below Cut Loose in what looks like a Rolling Stones T-shirt. She clips and cuts a woman’s hair, moving around her like a piece of art; there are times when Dag Hammarskjöld Lawrence pictures her as flecks of paint; infinitesimal filaments of luminance excited light. He knows that when he looks away she is a wave of vibrating string. In his memory, she is a wave, washing, ebbing, and bringing treasures to the shore, which becomes a girl he knew briefly while attending university. He laughs. He is a trite boy. Boys remember their scholastic career based on girls. She was a sylph, with dark European eyes, white skin and a two-tone colored short hair. He coveted her for a short while. She seemed dangerous and different. Dag remembers her that way.
Dag is across the street and on the second floor of a coffeehouse. His view is of the road to the west and the road south, across from which are shops—one hundred, two hundred feet away; a lifetime; leaves of a book; fields of lilies and sunlight; gravel underfoot. She is cutting hair in a salon.
Cut Loose. The sylph cuts loose. The memory girl.
While bending forward her back to Dag, he can see she has a tattoo on the small of her back. From this distance he sees that it is script, a single word perhaps, but can’t really make out what it says. It is a word, not an image. He knows words are merely symbols. Jacques Derrida hides behind all of his thoughts with a pink eraser, freshly sharpened pen and a notepad. Jean-Paul Satre is nearby too. Kierkegaard too. And the figure dodging behind the trees. Shadows are blue because they are lighting by the blue sky. The figure is the blue man. At least he thinks it’s a man! She is wave, and then, Dag has her locked.
What makes me? What’s the urge to cross the road? Heck even before that.
Dag rises and leans from his chair to peer out the window before him, silver with afternoon refraction. Maybe I could…? Heck before that. What makes me book at the dangerous girl, the memory sylph? Dag sits back down. His coffee is getting cold.
We all have these specters, these hanging around ghosts. If we’re lucky there’s only one or two of these intriguing people from the past. Right now, Dag doesn’t know if there are more or not; he thinks perhaps there are…
Wave, wave, figure, disperses, waves, string, figure disperses…
These are portals, faces, the embodiments of time when you were not yet you. You were stepping through, but were not quite there yet. Stepping through. From where? The ancient entrance; the sublime exit. From what to what? Light unto light. Dag’s person from the past appears dangerous and was different because she was holding the door open for him to walk through, to cross the threshold.
Briefly there. Opening. And Dag remembers her, and the others, because of what they did for him. They do it for all of doppelgangers; all our own spirits and us. We think of them warmly, as does Dag; yes we think of them nostalgically. The you that Dag is now wants to continue through and is looking for doors, looking from thresholds and is looking, or the lookout for the dangerous.
First opening doors passing us through. Over here, this way. Come on through!
Cutting us from the present to a future—cutting us loose.
All from a girl cutting hair across a busy street. Powerful is the desire to rise up from that chair and go through that door. The street. The infinitesimal luminance. You know what’s going to happen next.
In this way the souls we run into are always in the sound of wonder and surprise. There are always more doors, new doors; what doors and thresholds will be there when you get there. You sure know who you are until that moment presents itself.
Dag rises from his chair. Packs up his cigarettes. Drinks the last dregs of his coffee, walks out the coffeehouse and crosses the street.
Of course, a car misses killing him by the smallest of margins of error. Wave. He does, but she doesn’t see. There is too much light on the window.
Then she was gone.
Hang on to the moments as they pass. What happened was right now is gone.
For Dag, like so many others, everything that has happened is particles, everything in the future is waves.
Dag was detailing particles and was running late for work. He re-crossed the road filing the sylph in a special drawer inside his head.
We are talking about distance. From Dante’s portal, or dark forest, to center of the earth; from fingertips to eyelashes; Inferno to Paradiso. It comes in casual conversation one night in a dance club, with some vibe shaking our bones from the dance floor. We are sitting down, exhausted. We have to shout, lean into one another, get closer, and cup our ears to understand our words over the jungle of sound.
It’s a boy’s night out for the four of us. There’s Pete, soon off to attend Emory University in Atlanta; Davis an artist; Mike a newspaper publisher and myself, a writer.
There has been much hatred in the world. We are discussing how it can happen; how the young can butcher the young; how gay men are beheaded, pistol-whipped, or set on fire; how wives are beaten to keep households in their proper order; how civilians become the unfortunate victims of misguided war missiles while in sujud.
Distance creates an environment of ignorance, which begets fear, the parent of hatred. At a distance, things are out of focus, uncertain; from a great distance, we cannot feel the heat coming off another's body. There is no propinquity.
Since that evening, I have come to realize that there is a distance between all things, both wide and narrow. We are capable of such greatness when the gap, big or small, is bridged. At the very least, when the distance between the unknown and the known is lessened, understanding is the result.
It takes focus. When we look out upon our lives we tend to see randomness, but by inching closer, we see a design that smoothes out the rough edges of mystery and brings clarity.
Orion’s parts are not close together at all. We see what we have conformed. One shoulder Bellatrix is estimated to be roughly 350 light-years from the earth. Another shoulder, Betelgeuse, is in roughly 420 light-years away. The knees are 1,000 light-years from us. Yet, we see a body. And the farther we look, the more in the past we see.
She is well into her eighties now. She probably never thought it could happen, it was so long ago and so far away. It is 1912 and he is a young soldier on a ship bound for the battlefields of France. At the English Channel he writes a note to his wife and scrolls it inside a green ginger beer bottle with a screw-on rubber stopper. He throws it in the water. Just his past spring, some 85 years later, English fisherman, Steve Gowan found that bottle containing Private Thomas Hughes’ letter. This week, he delivered it to 87-year-old Emily Crowhurst, the daughter of the private, who two days after writing the letter, and dropping it in the water, perished in battle.
It is believed the farthest we can possibly see in the nightsky 20 billion light-years in every direction. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing beyond that. What is beyond just hasn’t had time to bridge the distance between us.
Over 29,000-feet in the air, at the top of the world, they are digging through snow, rooting around for clues. They found George Mallory, British mountain climber on a windswept ledge where he had died trying to scale Mount Everest in 1924. The bitter cold temperatures at that altitude preserve his body. A team of eight modern-day climbers are trying to find out if Mallory, and his partner Andrew Irvine reached the summit 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay accomplished the feat in 1954. The climbers are looking for a camera, and film, that when developed could confirm Mallory’s time atop the world.
The film speed needed for very dim light is 1600, especially in museums where no flash is allowed.
In the sea, and three miles down a perfectly preserved piece of American space history rests on the bottom. Explorers have found the Liberty Bell 7, the 1961 NASA space capsule, which sank in the Atlantic after splashing down. Once on the surface, the capsule can be examined to determine exactly what went wrong. Did Astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom panic or did the hatch to the capsule malfunction?
Calipers. Chalk lines. Compass. Gauge. Level. Plumb bob. Rule. Square. Straight edge.
Not far from where we are, ten thugs beat to death a young, gay man with boards with nails sticking out of them. The club the young man had been at was called Heaven. It is now closed. If I were to stand as close as I could to my companions, tonight, and come to meet ten thugs, they could not pick out the homosexual from the heterosexual. There would not be enough room. I would die miles away from the women I love.
A TV plays Columbine.
Over the next few months, maybe years, we will all become closer to finding out how the young can don trenchcoats, march into a high school and spray their classmates with bullet-fire. Maybe one day we will come to understand one another better and no longer need to apply labels to bring everything into focus.
Maybe we will simply lean in closer, cup our ears, feel the heat of another’s body. Invite propinquity.
This is what we talk about when we talk about distance.
There’s an odd feeling to the boy’s night out, because two of the men touring the gay watering holes and dance clubs are straight—yours truly being one of them. I say, odd, because there’s an invisible—and I would hazard to say, inevitable—demarcation between the straights and the gay men. Mike and Davis have been here before, whereas Pete and I had not. We are serfs; our guides are landed gentry in these quarters. Or perhaps, Mike is sherpa, Tanzing Norgay and I, New Zealand mountain-conqueror, Sir Edmund Hillary.
Over time, drinks, and laughs the space between us begins to dissolve. Admittedly this is the way of one and all who come to form new relationships, new associations. There is a bowing of knowing, a parabola where as understanding comes, and ignorance diminishes, people, undoubtedly, thankfully, bridge distance over time.
Thirty days hath September…
There is the message source, transmitter, coder, and modulator. There is the transmission medium, the receiver, the demodulator, and the decoder.
All in one long-distance telephone call.
We are talking about distance here. Because it is, out there in a visible and invisible array of potholes.
It a distance that allows the “us” and “them” sink hole to deepen. It becomes this black hole to which nothing can escape. Out goes light, out goes our sense of right and wrong; out goes our ability to bridge its gaping maw.
It is scientific fact that astrologists are puzzled at the origin of black holes because a black hole will never give out clues as to its genesis. It covets its secrecy. Yet, we all know how distance grows between two people, between two groups, between nations. Distance festers with ignorance.
We should no longer feel the other knows the exact route to the top of the world. It is a wish scrolled into a bottle and dropped into water. It is hoped it will be found, years later, three miles down, or 29,000 feet high, and understood.
The night is over and it is time to go home. As we walk to the car, we find ourselves behind a man and woman, enjoying themselves. There’s laughter and the tango of two people in the midst of flirtation. I don’t recall how it happened, exactly, but as we were walking up from behind, the woman lifts up her dress and playfully flashes her thonged-rear at Davis and I. It happened so fast, in an instant. A femtosecond.
It was a good cap to an evening for two straight guys and two gay men, who danced, laughed and share a few drinks.
We talked about distance; we leaned into one another, so we could hear our words of inclusion, over the din of the jungle. We became closer. We had gone to distance.
In the car, we all agreed she did not have a nice ass.
It takes five years on earth for a dying star’s demise to reach…
(Things happen between you and me when there is distance.)
Dag is six weeks into this semester, my first full-time teaching post. As an adjunct, or part-time instructor, I have taught composition and rhetoric for two years. My current job is different in that no pedagogy is imposed or even implied. At one of the schools I taught at previously I was told what textbook to use and how to teach the class--use the Toulmin form of rhetorical argumentation and critical analysis. At another school I was handed a textbook and told to teach whatever was in the book. Rightly or wrongly, my new job came with no such direction; for this I am both grateful and a little uncertain. Should I concentrate on grammar? On mechanics? On philosophy? On the writing process? I'm not sure.
Anne Ruggles Gere writing in The Allyn and Bacon Sourcebook for College Writing Teachers about the major theories of the teaching of writing points out there are several streams of which I could dip my toe:
1. Formalist or traditional -- concerning grammar and correct writing at the surface level. It isn't so much about the art of communication or the delight of writing as it is about correctness. Grammarian.
2. Discipline-centered -- concerning matters of logic, rhetoric and language. Here students would read prose that exemplified good writing and would attempt to emulate these in a recursive exercise. Personal.
3. Current-Traditional -- concerning not only the surface mechanics and correctness, but also the philosophy of logic in argumentation. Communicative.
If pressed as to which of these I employ, I could, but with little conviction behind my assertion. I mean I teach from the heart and wonder about the scheme behindit afterwards--regret, perhaps. Oh, I'm sure if someone were to observe me over a few weeks of teaching they might be able to pinpoint my pedagogy, but I don't think I could honestly recognize my own with real certainty. Is this a problem?
Does it mean anything to the students what pedagogy their professor employs? Isn't one theory just as good as the next? I think I teach passionately, and lean toward the more recursive nature of writing--to be a good writer you must read,with engagement, critically. You must understand how to construct arguments, which are argumentative, more so than persuasive.
I tend to praise an essay for its conformity to formatting, but also for its originality and clarity of thought. A perfectly written prose on the surface, much like the novels of 19th century Britain, leave me cold as I go deeper. Conversely, I look past a scarred and imperfect surface, contemporary novelists, to find the buried treasure.
But then I think of my students, the Muslim, the Jew. What is my responsibility to them, to all students that have something to say and seek my guidance in saying it? What do I want for them?
No writing theory fits perfectly for this responsibility, for me. Because it's not writing, per se, I'm talking about.
I don't want anyone to be afraid. I don't want anyone to be ashamed. No one should cower or hide. No one should have to bite their tongue, chew on their knuckles, grin and bear it. There should be tolerance. There should be freedom. There should be love. That's what I want for my students.
I want my students to feel free to express their love for the human race and their part in it. Can we disagree? Oh yeah, but it all has to be in the open, an open dialogue.
Prayer. Jewishness. Those Catholics. The gay boys and the lesbians. The unsure and the Bible-assured. The hayseed and the hiphop.
The only way to truth is to journey and to manifest the steps of the unique sojourn. We learn of travel by the wayfarers at our side or from those who have ventured ahead.
The chief tenet of an academic argument is that in making a claim, in reaching a conclusion, the premises or assumptions the arguer has chosen should be laid bare.
We must lay ourselves bare. Bare our souls, our assessments, prostrations, protests and proclamations in this endeavor we call higher education.
Mind you, it's just a theory; it's my theory for teaching writing. Through this can we come out from behind our masks, whose protection breeds little but ignorance and fear.
Dag snaps back into a wave of traffic!!!!
Awake now he continues his walk to work, which is a fair clip away from the coffeehouse he’d been sitting at, whiling away his morning smoking Gauloises and sipping the darkest of dark coffees. Scribbling too. Writing in his journal and getting caught by a fractal, a specter of his past, and the memory sylph cutting hair across the street. Rolling Stones. Hey You Get Offa My Cloud!
He steps back from the curb allowing for the en masse tin coffins to speedily make their way to an as yet canonized sixteenth ring of Dante’s hell; this new ring of hell would be discovered in some Bedouin cave, in some distant land, where sheep and earth the color of old Birkenstocks—the lowest point on the earth say—intertwine. There the manuscript would be unearthed, in a special animal-skin binder…
Dag was dealing in particles again.
He waits for the traffic to subside—which is an eternity in this metropolis of pavement and ozone-depleting behemoths on rubber and steel—sweating profusely in the September humidity. His forehead was the first to sprout perspiration; then came the sweat that forms in the ass (“swamp ass” his friends called it) and then the armpits. Soon, Dag is all about having a shower at the university where he works as an adjunct English lecturer. Adjunct. Part-time, a ghost in the classroom; the post-secondary equivalent of the elementary, junior and high school substitute with a gimpy leg, or a rolling eye or a strange taste in clothing. The substitute androgynous! A circus freak for the children to poke and prod; to offer up sticky cotton candy and stale peanuts; the substitute who bears their anus to the class by merely opening their mouths: That kind of respect; Dangerfield apogee in a horizon of academia and consternation.
Dag is standing by a cemetery of all things its landscape alternatively umbrageous and suffuse with great moats of light filled with the infinite flecks of angels on call for the legion mourners prostrate near gravestones and sculpted ersatz seraphim, the likes of which were mocked in the tiers of jejune guardians doting over their charges from afar. –The traffic!
Dag crosses the road and lopes down the sloping street to a main thoroughfare, which lines the city’s tea-colored, swollen, incandescent and foul-smelling bayou. It chews the city this bayou; during hurricane season it is the blood that rises and chokes. It is hurricane season now, from early June until November, the gulf coast of America is its pitch-zone: Thirteen are predicted for this season. The storms have names like Allison, Charlie and Eugene. Dag thinks they should give them more ferocious names: Attila, Genghis, Sigfried and Roy. The homophobic and xenophobic—clearly in the majority on these shores, would flee with their backward WWJD-Christianity tales and umbrage stuck between their knees. Pale shelters would topple. Only the strongest, authentic, places of worship would stand—those not made my hands.
The bayou is particularly repugnant; Dag covers his nose and mouth briefly; he gives up when he scans ahead to see how far he must travel to get to the university. The school is tucked at the farthest southern edge of the main conglomerate of downtown. It rests on the bayou, tiered and expanded like some Cubist experiment; Vishnu’s lunch pail. It has one tree. The parking lots float around it in various stages of disrepair and upheaval as if on the field of some giant’s irritating vulvovaginitis. It bobbles in the air upon inconsistent and possible faulty wavelengths of weakest predicaments. It is far. And taunting.
Time to speak.
Time to be there.
Dag uncovers his nose and mouth. What’s the use, he will soon tire of his attempt to keep the city’s offal and waste from his acute perceptions. His face locks trimus, and briefly he cannot breathe; settle down. The smell is of stank urine, and decaying pine needles and leaves. Mixed in with the humidity, the smell transmogrifies into a tang on his caffeine-saturated and thick tongue. He sticks out his tongue as he walks looking down to note its children with little to do but do everything that is placed before them. Lick a hill of scattering fire ants. Sniff the underbelly of feral cats. Take in the view of the next-door neighbor mounting his partner from behind. The sounds of babies crying entwining with the caterwauls of feral cats running from belly-sniffing scapegraces. The taste of hoarfrost; the feel of its spiderly spun magic. A door opening; a gust of wind, surd and sonant. Sibiliants of silence. At least, he concedes, the bayou flows (gurgles and pulses) all day and all night, new every moment, when he likes it to or not; whether he knows it or not. It goes by.
What is that?
Dag is nearly the bulbous, Impressionistic, sculpture of a bronze moment frozen, galvanized in space and time, in the park that lines the thoroughfare. Underfoot? A rock, a robin’s egg, a crack of recognition: Hey I’m walking here! Dag stops and takes a step back, staggering a little with grief that perhaps his mastodonic maunder has led to the utter annihilation of some unborn, unspecified, creature. He stares.
He picks up whatever and rolls it over in his puffy hand. It is a medallion of sorts—a triskellion—of a trifolded figure; three waves or points curving, parabolic, away and from one another into a center of singularity. I am because you are. He pockets the amulet. He is comforted that is rests aside his shockingly blue and tiny Jean Pierre LePine writing instrument in his deep pants’ pocket. For reasons he would later comprehend he thought of black string. It’s all chancy, all that lies beneath the stars. His friend, Moto, had once said that. Moto was last night. Particles… Here comes a wave…
As he continues, Dag goes over his mid-morning lecture proffered the Hip Hop dullards, dotes, starving lambent burgeoning academics, Sylvia Paths, Ernest Hemighwayesque organ grinding booze hounds, Crank-souped up dragon chasers and obsequious buxom farm girls that comprise his roster. On today’s menu: the core and logic of an argument. The essay of Montaigne—the attempt; not the nose on their faces; not the opinion that one and all have and share at the drop of a felt fedora or bolo tie! The argument formed to appeal to reason, not emotion; the Toulmin acrobatic play of law school moot courts and street-vendors defending their mistrals and baubles to inebriate Goths and Visigoths of alcohol-fueled revelry and angst. Of course, Dag is in his mind, a prolix of particles swooping and transfiguring blood and nothingness into squibbles and swarms of words and sins and ideas and sensations. The argument: Claim, reasons and warrant.
Claim: What I believe.
Reasons: Why I believe.
Warrant: The secret between us.
Dag digs out the medallion and lets it rest in the palm of his hand. The bayou flows even when he doesn’t wish it, or know it; it moves when he sleeps. At its core, it is an argument staking a claim that it will not be stopped, or trapped, or bottled or dammed—ultimately. In Turkey there is the Menderes, which came to be known as The Meander. It winds all over the terrain. It is reaching for the sea and the seas of the world refuse no river. And isn’t the sea but a aggregation of drops? Water drops on the amulet, and Dag looks up to see the sky is dark, foreboding, and that rain is beginning to fall. He scatters, taking the path running down the bayou bank to the under catacombs beneath the city streets and downtown edifices.
The bayou algorithm is simple, as is its path; flow. Flow continuously as in waves. Dag continues down the dirt, rutted, path strewn with the flotsam of passed floods: children’s clothing; tires; pornography; letters written and perhaps never sent; kites; twine; bridles; needles; torn and dog-eared journals; arguments for the belief that all is ephemeral, that we are no fixed beings, that all is situated in some Ultima Thule. Briefly, perhaps winded from his sprint, Dag stands wavering beneath the sky of concrete and building entrails. It is dark and foreign; the banks are close; the path from dirt to paved, winds seemingly without purpose, so close to the bracken and the brown water; an ossuary for homelessness and despair. Beneath and beyond common vision or witness; out of sight, out of mind: particle so insignificant as to be dusted with time’s veil thrown down by generations of ignorant pedestrians. He stands and nearly falls; he has to secure himself by reaching out, holding onto something concrete. Before his eyes a wildly scrawling oscillograph; something forms in the randomness of illegible writing.
It is a man. “Truditur dies die.”
Dag falls down.
Something under foot?...
Blood. Dag shifts between Elysian fields to concrete jungles. Particles and waves. Nearby Erebos, fluid and stinking, stands disheveled Tiresias. His lips move, but he doesn’t hear himself…
Once the rebels discovered their land could bear them children for sale, they ravaged; they scoured, they secured passage through the dark thickets of nightshade and steamships. In wooden boxes, stamped with their insignia their future hopes were packed and hauled away to markets in America. Men with thick hands and thicker billfolds made deals. Chains of keys hung from their thirsty necks. Messengers on bikes ran the stop lights to deliver the papers and the plans, skyscrapers filled with the chattering class. Boards were established and workers contracted, unions were bought and plants erected. New routes through Congress and churchyards established. Celebrities lined up for the paparazzi and the yellow brick road. Pool parties were thrown on the coast and in the Hamptons. Awards were stuffed here and there in sealed envelopes. Talking heads read from overwrought scripts. The government gave its people what it sought in forms thick with appetite and freedom. Soon the traders gave pointers to the boys in the back. The newsprint pages filled with subtle partygoers looking like guerillas. One by one the congregations got better without knowing why. Trophies were engraved, songs were written and sung; children with fatal diseases made the cover of magazines. Then the grass began to die, the land filled with locust; the morning stank of stale beer and the parks filled with deflated balloons. Matches were spent and glass was shattered. Metal gave up the charade. The best suits were packed away, secret notes were passed from postal worker to postal worker. The deficits grew and the machines grew rusty; she went into a coma ten years ago. The scientists donned white coats and headed for the jungle where rebels sat in the splendor gleefully rubbing their hands. What took you so long?
“Sit, you’ve taken a fall apparently and there’s (sniff)—the man dabs at Dag’s forehead—blood.”
The man dressed in old black coveralls, limned with dust and dirt; nametag over the left pocket reads: “Terry.” He sits Lotus-style in front of Dag who remains on the ground, groggy from his fall. They sit beneath the viaducts and elevated parkways of the city, on the banks of the tea-colored bayou, fronds of river plants and limbs, trunks of ancient trees, knobby roots, spread out before them in varying degrees of green and brown. The air is pungent, oppressively humid; the light is hazy, dark from the concrete above, but also because of the inclement weather. Pebbles clings to Dag’s cheek. He doesn’t know why he’s fallen or how exactly. He looks at the man before him—long white beard, weather-beaten skin, long white hair, clean hands, dirt-encrusted fingernails. Eyes as silver orbs.
“Let me… Georgian town… God… listen…
“because God was talking TO
“This God-talk came, in the story and in the dream, as a large tree….
“The town's oldest and tallest, …extraordinary light. (Music?)…The light in the branches, in the leaves was God talking.”
An old man said, “God is talking to them if they'd only stop and listen.” Behind the old man named Terry a gigantic tree suddenly fills with light… And the pain in Dag’s head intensifies. “Listen.”
There is orchestral music. Clearly.
The old man cocks his head. “The symphony is practicing outside again, over there…” and he points.
Dag tries to sit up, but needs the assistance of the old man. “Terry?”
“Name since birth.”
“I heard you give off a little cry and then stumble, stumble, stumble…”
Dag looks into the orbs that are Terry’s eyes. Nothing, but sparkle. “Blind since birth too. A homeless blind man—ain’t that a kick in the pants.” Along the bayou and on the opposite side, an asphalt promontory, sculpted with topiary, outdoor art and amphitheatre rows of seats, holds on its plane a few black chairs and various members of an orchestra who pluck at instruments or join in together for a brief snatch of music.
Musicians trying, plucking, to find the dots. Vibrating string. Waves.
Dag stares at the man. Think positive, think progressively. He’s not going to rob—it is then that he sees that Terry has friends, lots of them. The inclined concrete and dirt beneath the city are pockmarked with temporary shelters; blankets and boxes; pillows and stacks of newspapers. They sit listening to the sound of the symphony drifting across the water; elegiac. Black men in dirty T-shirts and torn jeans; young women in dark coats, wool caps and boots; a forlorn bunch—silent and all in the hue of forgetfulness and neglect. It smells of despair, of the rank of the bayou and the littered land. It smells of urine and blood. Yet, in amongst the dirt, the hopelessness, the sound of traffic overhead dulled, hollow; despite the unkempt garb; Dag can see in all those faces a serenity that—
Here is the hero with a thousand faces; increasingly there are a thousand heroes for every face. The face is of identity and the rubric is change. In the heroic cycles we all traverse the same path. We end up in different locations in time and space. How we get here is different, we tell different tales around the familial bonfire. Some wear jackets with fringes and clutch specters. Others speak of pink triangles. In my tribe, it is all about hunters and gatherers; men versus nature; man versus himself. Stories of women are almost always cautionary tales. But we all gather around the fire, of one kind or another, to spread our mythologies from the past and into the psyche of future storytellers. The illuminated shadows cast by this storytelling are of differing forms, too. To some stories and legends are recalled with a secret smile, pages passed from hand to hand. My stories were told of heterosexual teddy bears and their merry pranksters. It was Saturday matinees with John Wayne. On our bikes, we were once warriors. We would be victorious in battle, win the war, and get the girl. I never worried about lamenting the loss of comrades to a hoary King Kong. I never thought twice about my cowboy theology. Why did that change in me and so many others. Why was it never the same for brethren of different sexual orientation?
A thousand heroes behind so many masks.
Dag tells himself to avoid the knee jerk reaction, the ones his students take. But sitting there taking in the legion of homeless people—perhaps as many as forty—taking in the symphonic sounds reverberating down there, beneath the city—he can’t himself.
Crownless begging for alms. Blade broken dirty singing psalms. Skin the hue of neglected midnight coffee. The bad smell. The dirty clothes on the wandering who are not lost. Dishelved hair dangling across the crazy in the eyes;sanguine body language gutteral muttering to dead husbands and deader opportunities. Whispering to their former shadows and shells. Doorways, walkways, bygones, closed up banks, libraries and hells.
Arguably deranged, inexhaustably persistantly pleading, some clearly insane or on the way. St. Francis among them. Jesus on the rebound. But who is who, and which are which? Giving what you can, is it ever enough when there's always more to give. We hoard to live.
When you life is in your pocket you don't take it out and pick through it. Too often. To whom do you give and to who do you turn away from the lint that you pinch out. Give it all and you ignore the problem, give not at all and acknowledge that there is. All that glitters is not gold. This we are told over and over again, until it is sold.
But what to do when there is nothing to do but give. Just give and give and give. I would keep an inst-a-matic around my neck, my albatross. For each giving, a little taking. A snapshot of deposits and soul-saving. I would give and give and give. The contents of my hand, my pocket, my head, my life. All of it, I would have no guilt, just a newfound strife.
Walking the streets in Jesus robe I would speak of my pictures. I would seek out those that I spoke of in prophecy. “A light from the shadows shall spring, renewed shall be balde that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.” I would walk with those pictures looking for a little something, a little redemption, a little of their spare change...
Dag digs in his pocket.
Wait. Is that?
He pulls it from his pocket and hands it to Terry. He rolls it around, sniffs it. And says, “There are primarily two ways for looking at the world.” Dag cocks an ear. “As Simone Weil said the world is made of gravity and grace. I took that to mean existence is either profane or sacred.”
Terry hands back the amulet.
“I can succumb to the elements or be submerged in grace. Rudolf Otto, writing in “The Sacred,” at the turn of the19th century thata sacred experience is to be confronted with stupendous power shown through divine wrath or manifestation.In the presence of that something, this “wholly other,” weflinch inmuted awe of the mystery, this mysterium tremendum,the majesty, the majestus and fascination—mysterium fascinous of something different, removed from ourselves, bigger than ourselves. We are struck.”
He points to Dag. “That felt like a Triskellion.”
“I think it is.”
Terry adds, “Writingyears later, Mircea Eliade said this experience, this manifestation,is called a hierophany. An elementary, hierophany would be an image, considered sacred, which appears in, say, ahubcap (Terry points to one), a tree (leans over and touches one) or stone (picks up a small one), which you probably tripped over. A “supreme,” hierophany is the incarnation of God in the form of a man, Jesus. So, perhaps you were tripped by Jesus?”
“The paradox of elementary hierophanies is that even though they are worshipped and revered because they are sacred,containing the wholly other, they can remain profane. A stone is a stone in the profane sense. But to someone who has a religious experience, a sacred outlook, the stone is then sacred—a hierophany—and still remains a part of the ordinary. The rock is either rolled away or is simply ignored.”
“So are you saying…what are you saying?”
“To this we can say that to that person for whom the stone is sacred, the entire world can become a hierophany. It all dependson whether we succumb or submerge. One takes time. One is eternity. One is gravity. One is grace.”
“Two ways: Which way are you going?”
“Which way?” Dag asks dabbing at his cut forehead.
“One is to be realistic, to see what is right in front of your face. The facts, the concreteness, the inevitability. The loneliness. The other is believing to see, sometimes highly irrational and absurd. The psalms, the parables, the prophecy. The covenant.”
Dag begins to leave; the symphony is breaking up and the crowd of homeless are leaving their perches and stations and are filing down onto the bayou bank. He feels threatened; he feels woozy and scared. He feels profane.
As he begins to walk away, Terry follows, saying, “Voltaire said if God didn't exist we'd have to invent the entity. Why? It's the same question Yann Martel asks at the end of the Life of Pi, the unbelievable story of an Indian boy who survives a Transatlantic voyage in a canoe with a Bengal tiger. Is the story better without the animals or with?”
“Was is your warrant?”
“Ah, composition and rhetoric scholar: The point being: Does it matter which way we choose? Perhaps not. Me, I'll take the chance of being thought foolish, to be vulnerable, for a little shot at grace from a wholly other.So what if I'm wrong. Besides, you can't provea negative.”
Dag continues eyeing the lighted path ahead that will take him by the opera house, the parks and bars and finally to his university. Terry adds, “You can prove gravity exists, but ask yourself did it exist before Newton got beaned by the apple good.
Gravity? Or by grace did the core drop on his head? There are two ways to look at it. …
“Who is that?”
...beneath floorboards and onboard transit buses, in the cracks of doorways and behind portraits of priests, rolled up pieces of paper...
Over there near that rock, down at the Bayou and crimped into the rampart of a bridge; in the teeth of a borzoi; in the paw of a Gorgon; left in the movie theatre seat cushion; at the library in all the books on Rumi; on dressers at dinner parties... in the hand of the blind beggar man; chained to the blingbling and the drag queens' preen...in love wanted ads; in mandalas and market stalls; in baggage claim and lost and found...
I place tight, rolled up pieces of paper.
Some day a Bedouin boy.
Will find me.
My Dead Me Scrolls.
...and this will be my secret gospel.
Dag meets his mother
We see what we want to see.
The smell beneath the bridges, the air fecund and thick, the sweltering humidity; the strains of symphonic striations still wafting through the air; the bang on his head; the strange proclamations coming from a blind homeless man by the name of Terry.
All of these contribute to Dag's falling vortex of sense and balance. As legion homeless make their way down the inclined banks of the elevated bridges down to the banks of the dank vein of water, Dag sees clearly that one of these people is his mother.
She is one of the missing, dirty and forgotten; living down here as the world above drives by in their cars or stares out the windows of office towers and Babels of chattering classes pushing papers, selling pigs with lipstick...stocks and bond and profits over people. People under bridges. People under laws and oaths and nature that says once you have left one circle you possible descend to another. It is dark and foreboding here, Dag adjust to the further loss of light as cumulus clouds, silver and heavy, slug across the available skyscape.
He whispers as he reaches out, “Mother?”
The woman in front of him does not repel nor does she respond, she stands only moving to remove the army green wool cap from her head. Out tumbles long hair of spun gold and silver, burnished and frayed, placing in parenthesis a visage ashen, wrinkled and anemic, yet still holding a smidgen of beauty's divine proportion through striking azure eyes, full lips and strong forehead. Dag gazes in wonderment. Terry at his elbow, steadying the still obviously dizzy man.
“I am someone's mother,” she says inching closer. “Every one here is someone's father, son, mother, lover... But once we're gone, that too disappears.”
“But you can leave.”
She lowers her head, touching her chin to her chest. “There is something about life that, little by little, makes us forget all that is good. This can happen to anyone...” She motions to the gathering folk. Terry nods.
People shout out: “Cracks.” “Booze.” “Melanin.” “Existentialism.” “Misfortune.” “H.” “Dubiousness.” “Truth.” “Madness.”
She turns to Dag, “Take your pick.”
“But I mean how did you get here, I don't understand?”
The mother points to a nearby bench, the kind civic-minded individuals purchase and dedicate to dead loved ones and planted, by footings placed in blocks of concrete, in parks and along riverbanks. The bench is resistant to most inclemency, but the human pen. It is scrawled with graffiti. Messages strange and familiar; midrash-like, mantras, madras, murmurs to Dag. He sits, feeling when he does so, a sense of relief in his head as is the blood there gets a chance to drain, and with it, the injured corpuscles from his fall. Terry sits too, make the bench a little uncomfortable.
Dag looks into her azure eyes. The eyes that awoke him in the morning and promised him the day ahead was going to be special; the eyes that sent him out the door; the eyes that soothed his soul; the eyes that greeted him by night; the eyes that said don't let the bed bugs bite; the eyes that took in all that was right and just and simple and loving. Those eyes.
“Gradual, the way of a river.”
“No sea refuses a river. It flows and meanders in a way to find the path, that flow.”
“That's what I tell my students...”
She nods. “There are so few patterns. We are holograms of the larger picture. Cells of the corpus.”
“So gradually you found yourself here?”
She nods that's not the case. “No, no, it's not like you take these baby steps and tiny breaths and then one time you look up and you’re down here. No, it's not like that, not for most anyway. For most of us, the road is the same; we just travel it in differing velocities.”
Dag is growing frustrated, in much the same way he is perturbed when his students fail to see his point or answer correctly an answer he has--albeit subliminally--written on the chalkboard behind him. It is right here? Right? Can't you see it? Answer my damn question!
“I can see you're frustrated. At the heart of this life is the riddle. The riddle is answered not by our finding the unapparent, but by ultimately answering it with the apparent.”
Dag's head felt like a bag full of recalcitrant mosquitoes and bees. He stares at the woman briefly then looks away. Is she nothing more than particles? Another memory? Or is she right now a wave of the future that is aligning to curve out for him what he needs to do or at the very least what he needs to be thinking about?
The core of an argument, he will tell his students in less than an hour, is blood. No. The core of an argument is certainty. No. The core of an argument is? Anyone?
Deductive or inductive. What is the apparent answer here? Dag rubs at his aching, throbbing melon; blood has crusted there. Stings. What a jerk for falling like that--here--wait!
This is his mother?
“So you gradually become my mother?”
This startles her and she looks around as if seeking a respond from the very thickness in the air; or she is looking to her brethren for an answer. They are still nearby; looming, lurking, and legion. They are mute, though. All that is out weighs all that is not yet. Or so it seemed, as it was. Apparent.
“We gradually become everyone's mother, everyone's son, daughter, lover...the castoffs. It is that we have a soul, but not a body.”
“How is that possible?”
“You don't see us but only later when you are a lone and uncertain do you feel our souls creeping into the very pores of your own corpus.”
What is everyone in a Greek chorus now; is he surrounded by the best philosophical minds of the times? Mother? Homelessness. Swaying symphonic sweetness crosses the river still. Particles or waves. “That's how you got here?”
“This is why we stay.”
In that answer, Dag realizes he has been there too long that he has somewhere to be, someone to be; responsibility; a certainty of schedules and syllabi. He is apparently a manifestation of paperwork. He gets up gradually.
“Will you come again?”
Most days Dag walks this way; that’s part of his consternation, his confusion. For every day this young semester he has stopped off at Agora for a coffee and every day following this he walks to school downtown and every day he walks down here beneath the city, and every day, except today, there has been no one. Not even him.
And of course, when he turned, out of a yearning for love, mixed with the toxicity of fear, there was nothing but particles dancing in front of his eyes... Nothing, save, if he squinted, beyond his field of vision, near the ever-running flow of the tainted once beatific river, by a unwieldy Yupon, behind it, in the umbrageous everlasting periphery, was that ragged figure. Not hiding; keeping vigil.
He glances at his watch. His class would be beginning in an hour and a half. He still had a ten minute walk ahead of him through the catacombs. Still feeling dizzy, and tempted to sit back down and stay in the relative bliss of this place, Dag moves forward through the viscous air a sense of purpose renewed in his gait.
The pathway winds, with sculpted walls of ersatz vine and falling leaves; strafing cliff sides; fossils; by a downtown amusement park—an aquarium. Across from the tanks of sharks, Mata rays and tropic fish; across from the nautical Ferris wheel and choo-choo train and paraphernalia, are two concert halls, one of red brick and the other of weathered lime. The site across the river is bucolic; there is a cascading waterfall, and tiered ridges for office workers and their lunch. The promenade across, which once held a few members of an orchestra, is dotted with black chairs, each one resembling stiff tarantulas. Soon the pathway winds past this amusements and becomes a lonely cement course traveling beneath still more bridges and thoroughfares. Rarely does Dag see anyone on the trail, and travels it alone—his preference. It is like those dark places we all shun; in the light of day; in the absence of malefactions; void of eyes and judgments, we can sojourn as if in experimentation of our own levels of dread. Dag thought this way about the path. It is no secret it houses the drifters, the grifters, the drug dealers; the morlocks, is you will. The Eloy seldom saunter. The Eloy check their watches.
Dag tries to put this latest incident behind him, reminding even himself (something he will tell his students) that life is not compose of such moments, piled one atop another, in the way shelter is not jerrybuilt of amassed brick and mortar, but so much more investment and nails. Dag has a place for such things in the back of his mind; the same locale as the door-opening sylph of directionless youth.
There she is again.
The face, the way she held her head when she wanted to know more, or to question him. The way the hair fell just so… The tattoo? Did she have one, he couldn’t remember. The indelible mark; we all carry one or another, and a few of us advertise our beliefs upon the skin. He searches her body, as if a map of some distant land. A beginning, in memory alone, if not in reality; excitement as the prospects; traversing with fingertips the delicate skin, infinitesimal body hairs, freckles, clefts and clavicles. Journeying to a high plateau somewhere at a crossroads of expectation and realization followed, incline, the flow, of muddy and at once crystallizing waters, gush, of novas and brilliant suns circling fountains of resplendent light; to a resolution of humbleness, of near-death, of near-life; an exhaustiveness, ushering in the enfolding arms of sleep, the visitation of Morpheus and his gentle blankets. Wrapping us until darkness passes.
Of course as Dag leaves the pathway's overarching, overhanging bridges and viaducts, the sky opens its bruised-colored clouds into a downpour. He is soaked within seconds; soaked in a way that feels soggy in the bones. Water squishes in his shoes, his socks, soaking wet. His clothes cling to his body. He holds his flimsy messenger bag over his head, but it does little to shield him. Thankfully not far ahead are the steps that lead to the university, which sits on stilts much the way the warring, invading machines of H.G. Wells' War of The Worlds moved among Britons on stovepipe loins. It rises before him as a gigantic Gregor Samsa. Dag laughs and alights on the steps taking them two at a time; soon he is out of breath. But he reaches the top and sees the building in sight. The rain is the color of skim milk and is falling in great volume and racket.
Dag sprints toward the entrances, as the rain actually increases in volume and with such force that it retards his progress. He finally reaches the door and has to pull it open with all of his strength. As soon as he is inside, the world grows deaf, and he drips. A puddle forms at his feet. He shakes like a dog would; an attempt to scatter some of the water. Outside visibility is down to nil; the nearby skyscapers have disappeared. The rain resembles computer code. The world is full of fragments and holes. What goes in between? Dag wonders.
He sighs and enters the hallway, which is always crammed with students and faculty walking to and fro classes; cell phones attached to their heads; hooked up intravenously to iPods and other MP3 players....Dag bumps into a rather large student, whisper-singing a song by The Roots (?); the student doesn't even notice he’s nearly knocked over a professor. Nor do the others in the hallway Dag bumps into as he makes his way to the elevator—there are only two for the academic building in the university and both are slow and unpredictable. Since the department and his office, which he shares with every other English adjunct, is on the tenth floor the elevator, always crammed and smelly; always slow and never running on any time schedule anyone can discern, is Dag’s mode of traffic.
The elevator doors open jarringly; one student must push open the door with his massive hamfist. A deluge of people pour out of the box. In pours another, containing a drenched Dag. In the elevator, packed and stiflingly humid, the humanoid display of tinny music and private cell phone conversations made public in sonorous, imposing, signal draining voices. What is going on? The smell inside the elevator is so strong Dag tastes it on his tongue. He exchanges a look with a few of the faculty on the ride up.
But the ride up doesn’t last. The elevator comes to a grinding…
You are not moving. Barukh attah Adonai. That was a distinct possibility up to just recently. Then it wasn't--gone. Allahu akbar.
What does it do, but make you realize that whomever you planned to be, whatever endeavors you may have begun to lay were being made for here, not there. You have moved, but you have not traveled. You have shifted from there to here. Dag is remember the night before. There was an eclipse of the moon. He’d gone out walking, unable to sleep, and smoked a cigarette.
At first it looked like a cloud to you, a night cloud, taking away the moon. Then it wasn't. Indian philosopher/lecturer Eknath Easwaran says that our minds are instruments, complex mechanisms, which can tune in positive emotional states while banishing negative ones; he says that positive states are permanent, negative transient. He says, “mental states do not have physical boundaries.” In community, there is a field of shared thoughts and emotional states. It is just like the wind catching the scent of the flower as it flows by, the mind takes on the scent of moods around it. Ave Maria. Maybe in making plans for new places you tuned into a better you, envisioned a better you and all this future person will do, and instead of pulling a geography, there is no terrain traveresed. But you have moved, you have been moved. Om mani padme hum. You have been changed by the journey. The moon shadowed by Earth passing between it and the Sun. Rama, rama. You've been entirely too busy wishing your fingerprints on that distant star, when all along you've made your mark. Right here. Right here moonbeam, right here. Ribono shel olam. Dag had stubbed out his fourth cigarette and thought about it more as he made his way to…
You didn't even feel it move.
The elevator moves and a few give out cheers. Those on cell phones continue to yabber as if nothing happened at all. One black woman, the blue of her cell phone, illuminating the side of her face, turns and stares at Dag, who look back at her; the eyes beautifully clear. She is listening. Dag is listening by looking into her eyes.
Who you are is found in the eyes. Take for example something as seemingly incorruptible as color. The physicist notices the waves of light’s length. To the psychologist, the physiologist the notice of color is a matter of the synapses, of our neurological responses found deep in our eyes seeking marriage with the brain. Unfortunate few, frayed nerves, rickety nervous systems suffer limitations when absorbing color. Color in nature has its advantageous and disadvantages; it offers naturalists the “oh,” in awe when beauty fills their eyes, but the color of the beast, of the flora and fauna of nature also serve as its protector; it’s hiding place and its survival. How come to understand black, blue, ochre to social historians and linguists is to unravel threads, tied to the shawl of community and culture. The art historian, too, might fumble with skeins; witnessing over time how, say, muted earth tones take on the patina of dream. For that artist, color is a turning of the inside out, bringing what lies beneath, atop, surfacing and glistening like blood, like stars in a dark sky. The intangible becomes wood, dark loam; a canvass of sea.
What was Dag seeing?
The doors open and she files out, but as she does, she turns and blinks, softly, knowingly. I am because you are.
The doors close. He thinks: There is a Greek word for sending your love out into the world. A pastor tells me during a counseling session there are three, maybe four, meanings of the Greek word love. It can be spelled differently, but within context, it can mean something totally different. He uses the Bible to show me. Later, by a lake trying to decipher my lesson, my thoughts turn to old friends; their faces come rushing back, one after another. These are high school friends who live far away and ones I have not seen in years. I try to imagine them as they are now, packing their children off to school; crying alone, staring out the window; celebrating quiet moments—perhaps like me, far from home. I stand with my eyes closed and with all my soul—it sounds sentimental—I send my love out to them. I tell them someone loves them and has not forgotten them, as I open my eyes. They are remembered. A lone heron glides just about the surface of the lake water. Its mirror image glides along the water too. As the heron rises into the air, the watery twin dives. I feel light my heart pumping with Greek words for love. I raise my hand to my lips as if to force them open, to say it. I know I am not forgotten, I am remembered, even if I have no words to describe it, but can taste the salt of its presence.
A ride up to the tenth floor is always a solitary one, or at the very least, Dag finds himself in there with one other colleague, often someone from another Liberal Arts, Humanities professor. Today, after the crowd has dispersed, Dag is surprise to find Little Danny Lytle—a professor of drama whose height is that of a midget. Dag looks down.
“In a crowd, always.”
Dag smiles. He likes Danny, because he’s not at all pretentious. And Dag likes the fact that Danny makes fun of his own diminutive stature, which takes the stress out of anyone having to pretend not to notice.
“What’cha working on?”
This is a common question between writers and Dag answers half-heartedly: “A book of essays—nothing too special.”
“Right it’s in rehearsal right now isn’t it… What’s it…”
“About? Drop by after class, it’s in rehearsal you can have a sneak peek.”
The door opens and Little Danny Lytle stands aside, holding the door with his hand. Dag steps through. As soon as he does he looks out at the sky boiling over the city. “Whoa.”
“The sky’s purple.”
“Well there is a hurricane warning.”
“Oh I hadn’t heard that…”
“Where have you been? By the way you have a cut on your forehead…”
Dag nods, and smiles. “I’ll go see CeCe.”
Little Danny Lytle continues on this way, “CeCe is like Duct Tape…”
“She’ll fix anything.”
Dag walks behind Little Danny Lytle for a brief time, as Little Danny Lytle heads to his drama office. It is always disconcerting to Dag that colleagues do that—talk one moment and then next crawl into another world as if worm holes opened up Little Danny Lytle and swallowed him whole.
Dag watches as Little Danny Lytle opens his office door, and the blazing light that comes from this, and disappear behind its oaked darkness. Dag continues onto the department office.
He opens the department office door, and…
“What in the world happened to you?
“Long story. Got any band—
“Bandages. Yes come in, sit.” She pulls over a chair beside her desk and leaves. She returns with a small First-Aid kit and places it on her desk. She opens it and withdraws from mercuricom and bandages. She dabs at the cut on Dag’s forehead and coos. “Baby what in the world…”
“I was down by the bayou and…”
“I always told you, you want to see the real world, go beneath it.”
“But that’s where…”
“You fell… Ha! That’s rich. You eggheads, boy oh boy.”
“Always got your head in the clouds except…
She stand back and takes in Dag’s face. She applies a tight bandage and throws the paper left over into the garbage can. She closes up her kit and returns it. When she comes back.
“What are you still sitting here for? Get to work!”
Dag leaves and walks around and down the hallway to the office of ghosts. The pedagogy ghosts, the adjuncts. He knows he needs a shower, but there isn’t time before class. On the door of the adjunct classroom/office is a poster for the Turkish Dervishes. Dag remembers… Particles…
The semazen's seven centuries old swirl, right arm directed toward the sky, his left directed toward the earth. Around and around he whirls, man at home heavy-lidded affixed to firma, still turning inward and outward. Wherever he whirls the dervish belongs. The Arunta tribe carrying wood hewn from a gum tree, an ancient crucifix, anointed with blood from the veins of a deity. Sojourning that wood, that pole, travels too, their cosmic axis, for when around this totem that is their home, their world. Its scrying, its wending, gives them direction but they never go far for having the center of the world with them they never stray far from where they belong. These ancient and esoteric beings find the center of their gravity, their veritas, always at hand. Does too the modern meanderer?
Wherever you go there you are...a sacred place somewhere in all the revolution or the things carried without, within by fierce grace, by fantastic mercy. Sometimes poles of relative inaccessibility, but never shut from that true belonging. We travel far for the simple gesture of that turn, a tap on the shoulder that says, yes, right here.
It never moved an inch, having always been with you..
Dag opens the adjunct office door and walks in. Right into a play by Little Danny Lytle…
AT rise: University in an urban setting. First day of classes. Adjunct office/classroom. There are two doors, separated by a large chalkboard facing audience. There are several desks and computer terminals on the desks, and file cabinets, a coffee maker, microwave, a nearly dead plant. The whiteboard is off to one side, full of scribbles. The walls are the color of salmon and the office furniture is off gray. Dr. Nancy Newsom (NANCY) enters, goes to whiteboard and erases scribbles. Wheels whiteboard downstage.
Good (clears throat) morning, welcome to Rhetoric and Composition One, or English 1301, if you prefer. I’m your instructor. (Writing on board, clears throat) Nancy Newsom (Goes back over her name having spelling it wrongly) Dr. Nancy Newsom. My office is… Gosh, I’ve forgotten; can anyone… It’s on top of the syllabus. Right, thank you. My office is South 1099 and for phone messages… Gosh. You couldn’t also read that out to me? Yes, thank you. (As if listening and writing) 213-777-5656. I think my office hours… I share the office with ten other professors, I think my office hours will be, oh, Gosh, 4-5 Monday through Friday. My e-mail address? (Pause. Clears throat) On top of the syllabus. Getting a hold of me will be tough, but not totally impossible. I teach here every day (gulp) all day and then I work at a Borders Bookstore evenings… Student loans, you know. Gosh, that might be too much information. The point is: If you need me you can probably get me, I’ll just… must… Gosh. I might be a while getting back to you. Right (Turning ironing the front of her clothing).
Let’s begin. Open your textbooks to chapter one, which I hope you’ve all read. Everything we do here at the university is an argument; I don’t mean screaming at one another over who’s right or who’s wrong. I mean making a point, reasoning it out and proving it… with evidence. The point we are trying to make in any argument is called what? What? Anyone? (Pause) Anyone? (Pause) Anyone? (Writes “claim,” on the board. Lights down. Wheels board away.)
Dr. Bishwapriya Chatterjee (BISH) sits at a desk reading. Jorge Diaz-Rivera (JORGE) enters. Bish looks up from his book, and happily addresses Jorge.
Oh I’m so, so glad to be back! Students knocking on the door—all ready. You wouldn’t believe it Jorge. Questions, questions, and questions: about textbooks, tests, essays…and the morning is still young! Well, how was your summer? The new novel selling well?
Numbers. Bestseller yet?
They’re not marketing the book at all. They made promises, but…bah! Nothing. No one’s paying attention, I can’t get the thing reviewed…
Takes a while doesn’t it? Wasn’t that you with John Updike in the ‘Times a few weeks ago?
Yeah. It was at the Chicago Book Fair. You saw that?
I had to use a magnifying glass you were well in the background…but yes I could tell it was you.
Sounds about right.
(Enter hurriedly, holding a bright green apron and black baseball hat in a ball under his arm. He enters, muttering hello and walks directly to a desk. Places apron and baseball hat in desk drawer, and closes it and locks it with a key from his key ring. Look up at plant on desk) This thing is dead. Didn’t anyone water you during the summer? Oh poor, poor thing.
We were just talking about summer. How was yours, what did you do…
(Talking to plant) I’ll take care of you. (To Bish without looking or turning from the plant) Starbucks.
No, sorry: What did you do? (Laughing unconvincingly)
Would an ad or two in Publisher’s Weekly or The New York Times Book Review kill them? A review in People magazine even…
No one cares. Look! The usual, really. (Underbreath, mockingly to self getting increasingly agitated) Triple Grande, non-fat, no-foam usual…
It’s because I’m Hispanic.
Dr. Snyder? (beat) Well I…
Starbucks! I worked at Starbucks, Bish.
George Lopez gets a TV series, Ricky Martin’s all over the place, Santana’s back from the dead…Jay-Lo’s creeping around…maybe they think we Latinos have enough already…
(Oblivious) … Taught American Literature, Summer One. Summer Two taught a seminar on…
I needed a break. I was exhausted—just like this plant. But broke. I was exhausted and broke. I am an unloved houseplant.
…The Indian novel, finished a paper on Bharati Murherjee, which will undoubtedly lead to job offers I just know it, if it gets published…
The sound of doorknob rattling and then knocking
…Caught up on some reading…back issues of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a study of…
Steamed milk. I steamed milk, okay.
I need to call my agent…
Did you say Starbucks?
Moments later in the adjunct room.
Female student walks in
female student #1
Doc Snyder in the crib?
(Timidly) Right here…
female student #1
(Flirting) I tried to register for your Russian Lit class, but it's full. I really, like, you know, would just love to take this course.
How did you develop an interest in Tolstoy? Dostoevsky?
female student #1
Russian writers: We read their works.
female student #1
I just need a lit class so I can graduate in December. And I need it at ten o'clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
(Beat) But I've heard you're a wonderful teacher. All my friends say you're really great.
Oh. (beat) And are you a good student?
FEMALE STUDENT #1 glances nervously over her shoulder at the door
female student #1
I’m the best…(leering)
Well. I. Well… Right, listen, okay: You attend all your classes? You're punctual? You do the required reading and submit your assignments on time?
FEMALE STUDENT #1 again glances nervously over her shoulder at the door, as JORGE re-enters.
female student #1
It depends on the class. Like, you know the class and the teacher. But I've promised myself, since this is like my last semester, that I'll do better than ever! Like, I want to make the Dean's List for the first time.
All right. You're in. Take this note down to the registrar's office. Tell them to phone me if they have questions.
female student #1
Oh, thank you, Doctor Snyder. Like, you don't know what this means to me. I'll be the best student you ever had!
Exit female student #1
She was in my freshman composition class a couple of semesters ago.
“D” student. Good luck, amigo.
Well, you know my policy. Slackers get the failing grades they deserve. She's going to have to get with the program.
(Falsetto) What, and like, miss graduation and, like, all? (Bats eyelashes, sits at desk begins to write in notebook)
(Entering adjunct room yelling back into the hallway) …Right well, call me about that! God I hate this place; feels like I just left for the summer; it still smells of bad food and bad career choices. Oh, Dr. Snyder! You make the best latte in the world! Imagine that, a cup of Joe from Joe!
…Female Medusas in the modern novel…Yaddo…a week in Southampton…
(With dread) Shamethia Ashanti. A regular…(mumbled)…customer.
Almost didn’t recognize you without the hat and apron thingey.
…The poetics of semantics…
Who’s he talking to?
It’s like an audio book. I don’t know how to turn it off…How I spent my summer vacation by Bish Chatterjee…
Oh Bish shut up. No one’s interested--except you.
(Goes back to reading)
NANCY ENTERS A PILE OF BOOKS IN HER ARMS
(Shyly, speaking softly.) Is this room ten ninety-nine?
They ignore her
(Louder) Is this room ten ninety-nine - south?
Honey, if you can't recognize numbers, you don't belong in college.
I'm looking for the English Department's faculty office.
Houseplants and students. (Sighs) Can I help you, miss?
I'm new here. I'm Doctor Newsome. (Approaches Joe to shake hands, but is interrupted by Shamethia)
Just Joe will do. I’m not a doctor.
You don’t have your Ph.D.?
Don’t you need a Ph.D. to teach?
You don’t need a Ph.D. to fill out an application form and work in this joint. (Joe sits down, turns on computer and begins a computer game)
Sorry. You're the new teacher? I thought you were a student. They come in here all the time, asking dumb questions.
Well, you know the old saying. There's no such thing as a dumb question.
Today I predict a new record. (Cracks knuckles)
Well, where's my desk?
Honey, there is such a thing as a dumb question, and you just asked one.
I don't think I got your name.
(Extending her hand.) I’m Dr. Newsome. Nancy Newsome. Can you show me where my desk is?
Honey, you do not have a desk. No one here has their own desk, because we don't have enough. We share. Just find a place your to park yourself and relax.
Take that one over here.
He's our token Catholic.
She's our token black.
He's our token Catholic.
(Looks up from notebook) She's our token Muslim. I’m Jorge Diaz-Rivera, nice to meet you…(Shakes hands with Nancy)
He's our token Latin Lover, heterosexual, Hemingway-wannabe. One big bundle of stereotype.
(Stands with book clasped to chest) She's our token lesbian. (Beat) I mean…
…And Joe, Mr. Big on the computer over there, he's our token white-anglo-saxon Protestant Horticulturist who used to drive a silver Porsche and drink Dom Perignon—he saves houseplants for taking the big dirt nap.
Gosh. Um. This will do?
(Quickly, without looking) Not that one—and whatever you do, don’t look in the bottom drawer.
Honestly. If I were faculty…
(Moves to another desk) This one?
(Quickly, without looking) Not that one.
(Goes to coffee maker). Who’d hire you, Bish? We’re never getting out of here… Anyone? Dr.Snyder?
(Moves to another desk) This one?
(Quickly, without looking) Not that one.
I wonder if someone thought this plant was a fake? Black, please. (Continues computer game) Yo! Fifteen thousand points…
Like your women? Black and sometimes fake.
SHAMETHIA is talking with NANCY, while JOE continues his computer game. BISH is still reading
The sound of doorknob rattling and then knocking
Stefani (female student)
(Entering harried. Looking at sheet of paper in her hands, up and around). I’m looking for a…(Looks at sheet)…Dr. Diaz-Rivera.
Keep on looking baby. He isn’t here—actually none of us are.
And he’s not a doctor.
(Perplexed)…He’s my teacher…
Good for you baby. I think…
Go to the English Department, around the corner to your left…
…And there’s all these books to read…
This is English…
…(Sobbing)…I can’t pay for these…
Oh brother…English Department around the corner to your left, deary. When I get my own office…
Come with me. Mr. Diaz-Rivera is not here right now. Come, I’ll take you to the English Department. You can leave him a note.
What about your coffee? We’re not caregivers. That’s not your job?
Can I come along—?
Juan (male student):
(Enters passing exiting JOE, Stefani and Nancy)… I’m looking for Dr. Diaz-Rivera…
Just missed her. She’s that white girl that just left.
Wah? I don’t understand.
I know baby that’s why we’re here.
English Department around the corner on your left. (Laughs, unconvincingly)…
Hurry, you’ll miss her. Run along now…shoo…shoo…
English Department around the corner on your left…when I get my own office…
What did you call me? (Shamethia glares at the student) Oh…(Leaves passing Jorge Diaz-Rivera)
…shut the fuck up.
Wow, first day, feels like a best-selling author at a Barnes and Noble—every body wants a piece of you. Miss anything you two?
Shamethia and Bish:
(Both nod no)
Bish? Busy summer, hey get any job leads—I thought you said you had that Hobart and Smith College opportunity all sewn up? If I remember correctly, you said it would be the last time I saw you…(turns to Shamethia) Eat any more men?
Sleep with any more fourteen-year old girls? (Pause)…Bish still works here. He wrote a paper no one will ever read, went out to Yaddo to play with his noodle. I went to New York thank you very much, while you were reading from that new novel of yours… what’s it called? I’m sorry, I haven’t read a single, solitary review of it, what’s it called? I’m a Latin Limp Dick…
I was considered, but not taken. Another qualified candidate got the job. I still have a lot of other irons in the fire, as it were. Listen, I saw a picture of you and…
Michael Cunningham. In the ‘Times. I got into a publisher’s party. How’d you know it was me? I mean I was practically out of the frame.
Yes, yes. You had a look on your face; you can just make it out there in the background; I had to use my magnifying glass to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. What was he like?
Honestly Bish, he doesn’t know. Jorge’s a wannabe. He probably crashed that party. He only thinks he’s an author--one book, big whoop-de-do. Anyone today with a Mac and a billfold can publish a book, like Jorge’s.
What kind of book is that?
The kind non-readers read.
That makes no sense.
Neither does your plot and characters. It’s all ennui and identity crisis after identity crisis; (affected voice) Oh my how can I get out of here with my sanity! (Places back of hand on forehead) I can live in my dreams, but not in my life!!!
Honestly, isn’t that door properly marked?
Every semester they hang a new one. “Use other door.” People can’t see what’s right in front of their noses.
Quan (female student):
Hello. Looking for Dr. Jorge.
I need to know if I need to buy all these books…even this one.
Is that your novel Dr. Jorge?
“El Paso Border Dance.” Never heard of it…
Yes, it’s required. All the texts are. Class begins in another (looks at watch) two hours. See you there?
Quan Yi Leoung
See you then.
Your own novel?
If he doesn’t assigned it…
shamethia and bish:
No one will!
You’re just jealous my dear—no one reads your esoteric, academic, ivory tower babble printed in those so-called peer-edited journals of yours. (Affected voice) Context implicates the language of poetry with its movement in verbal time and its movement in intellectual time. (Places back of hand on forehead) Time to vomit. At least I make a small living from my writing.
Living? You’re not living Jorge, none of us are.
Hello, adjunct office English department.
victoria (female student):
Hello. I’m lost. Is this Dr. Rivera’s office?
No it’s the adjunct office, this is Dr… Mr. Diaz-Rivera.
Oh, hello I’m in your Mexican-American Literature class. Do I really need to purchase all these books, including, what’s this one? Your own novel. We’re going to read your own novel.
That’s a little much don’t you think? Well, I won’t be purchasing this novel, nor any of these books until I hear a lecture or two from you…Good day. Thank you sir.
Bish. It’s for you.
Who is it?
It’s Ganesha calling…collect. (Irritated) I dunno.
Didn’t recognize the voice?
I know. Fuck off. When I get my own office…(Picks up phone) Yes, this is Dr. Bishwapriya Chatterjee. Yes. (Long pause followed by nodding)
(Soap Opera-like voice) His autopsy came back. It’s grave. Ganesha wants her peanuts back?
(Soap Opera-like voice) It’s official: He died giving one of his own lectures to a mirror (laughing…)
Reciting one of his (quotes with fingers) papers on the crapper…kerplunk: Elvis!
JEan-paul (male student):
Walks in, agitated. Points at Bish.
I’m here to see him.
Dr. Bishwapriya Chatterjee, you mean.
Uh, yeah, whatever. Dr. Beet-wah-pee Chadder-gee.
You’d better learn how to pronounce that, baby.
Sorry, mamma. Pronounce what?
The good doctor’s name.
Yeah, but why?
You do want to pass right? Pass the course?
That’s why I’m here, do you know what it takes to get an A in Dr. Bi…
No, sorry I don’t, but it usually means showing up for class, doing the assignments, and writing exemplary papers…
I’ll let you Newsom right here until Dr. Bishwapriya Chatterjee is off the phone. Shouldn’t be more than a moment.
…That’s what the numbers say. All right. Yes, of course.
Bish hangs up.
There he is now.
Yes, what is it?
I’m a student in your Rhetoric and Composition 2 class and I was wondering…
The class hasn’t convened yet. Class starts at 2:30 this afternoon.
Yes sir, but I mean to make a good grade.
Good. See you at 2:30, room 613 North.
But you see that’s just it. I know that. What I don’t know is how to get an A in your class. What should I do.
That’s all for now. Please excuse me…
What is your name?
Jean-Paul Ikard. Everyone calls me JP.
See you in class, Mr. Ikard.
Jean-Paul for a moment, turns and leaves
I had him for R&C 1. A strange one. High strung. Takes everything very, very seriously. Too seriously if you ask me. If he ate a piece of coal he’d shit out a diamond.
Bish what was that call about? You looked like a ghost called you.
(Absentmindedly) A ghost.
What? (Mockingly) Another qualified candidate got the job. I still have a lot of other irons in the fire.
You are a cruel beast. No, the usual.
Another rejection? I get them all the time. Some even tell me not to quit my day job. Ha! What day job?
You’re the cruel beast’s bitch. (Turns away)
Bish are you crying? This place doesn’t deserve tears Bish…
I just lost American Literature that’s all. I was looking forward to it…Shit how can I get a job teaching freshman English semester after semester… You can’t get where you’re going without knowing where you’ve been. I studied the great American novel. I am a scholar!
And you don’t assign my novel?
Gives Jorge a look of disdain
Have you ever talked to the department, here?
They’d never hire me, in a million years.
How do you know?
When? Was Reagan still president?
Okay, all right. Another time to be sure. The rumor is that government cuts are going to all but gut this place by next fall. Since we’re not the main campus, we’re this appendage they can chop off to save the vital organ.
That’s just rumor. Right?
How many classes do you have this semester?
Three, well now, two. As long as the enrollments stick. I need ten in each.
Don’t get sick now.
Oh. No health-care.
Right, two classes, and you can’t get sick; three classes and you can get rectal cancer…
Nice image. Man, I hate the first two weeks of the semester.
The first two weeks are a waste.
And the last two weeks are all class review, my favorite part.
That leaves what, eleven weeks...
julianna (female student):
Oh I’m sorry. I was looking for someone, someone else. I’ll come back.
Who are you looking for?
He’s not here. I’ll come back.
(Turning back to Jorge and Bish) The first two weeks are a waste, the middle’s pretty well all a fog of bad essays and incoherent classroom discussions—eleven weeks of that; the last two weeks, and it’s all rewind. Yep: Eleven weeks to pass our consciousness from one person to another. And half the students miss more than a class or two; quite a few miss so many classes there is no alternative other than failing them.
Failing them. That's sounds wrong the way you say it. They fail. Yet it sounds like we're failing them…
We do. We fail them because we fail to reach them, to get them to understand the importance…
That’s the thing. We think it’s important. They don’t. Even when we think it's important for them to learn, to defend themselves. To argue. Even then, it may not be that important to them. There’s other things…
Only because you think so.
Oh I guess. It's also wrong that someone would think that being able to stand up and be counted is so inconsequential that they would do anything: not attend class, lie to get out of an assignment, belittle themselves, minimize their chances of...
You're hectoring to the choir…
(Laughs) It's just so frustrating. We're with them only for a short time.
Not short enough. By the sixth week I want to throttle most of them.
Really? (Back of hand on forehead in mock shock).
You hate them as much as you love them.
Hate's a pretty strong word…
I fell out of love a long time ago. That ship has sailed. I’ve just been lied to, too many times. I can’t stand myself anymore for letting it happened, for standing there letting it happen. It’s like I’m letting my life be dictated by row upon row of misogynist creeps and dip-shit Mariah Carey wannabes—it’s all bling-bling and bang-bang. I get so mad, but then there’s that one student, two if you’re lucky, in each class, every semester who make you feel so good for caring, so in the end that little shine of happiness makes me hate the bunch a whole lot less.
I do—I hate them. I hate their little petty lives. All the drama they bring into the classroom. The broken down cars, the dead grandmothers, the domestic disputes, the printer's broken, my disk won't work here at the university, I had to work late. On and on and on...
It can be very taxing...it takes away from my writing. It does.
And we have to put up with it. For what? So we can put on our CVs that we teach here? People working in grocery stores make more money. I could sell books and make more money. Cut grass. More money. Write porn. More money.
It will lead to a full time job.
I've been adjuncting now for nine years; almost as long as you Bish, but not as long as Shamethia!
Student enrollment goes up every year—all those baby boomer kids and dot-bomb causalities. The number of adjunct this university needs goes up every year. In fact, if we decided to go out on strike we'd close this school down... It would stop functioning. There would be no classes. No teachers. The faculty would actually have to teach students who don't give a fuck.
It's about money.
No it's not. Well, of course it is, I mean. But it's really all about keeping faculty, the tenured, happy by ensuring that they have time to do their research—that’s very, very important. We need time to think.
I think you’ve been sniffing too much Elmo’s. You got to be able to think and teach, isn’t that so. But it’s just like everything else in this country: only a few get, and when they get, none other gonna get it too. This is a nation of hogs.
It's just the system and I'm sure as soon as I get more national attention for my work; another book published with a bigger publisher… And when you and I get faculty jobs at one of the Ivies, and we will, we won't care about adjuncts. We’ll summer at Martha’s Vineyard, write important books, talk to Larry King like he’s our best uncle on CNN, but ignore him completely at parties… We will get faculty jobs, and that’s the end of that story…
shamethia and bish:
If we get faculty jobs, you mean.
It seems impossible. So many irons in the fire.
The hogs are against it. I’ll never get out.
The enrollments keep going up…and the public always wants a good read…
The state keeps cutting funding…and the qualified candidates keep coming and coming…
What are we to do? This is what we love. This is why we went to school for so long, longer than our friends who ended up getting MBAs and are now pulling down huge salaries...If I hear one more story about some flunky selling his stock to buy a block of San Francisco Victorians I’m going to scream!
But how do they expect us to continue…to hang on. I live below the poverty line. You tell someone you're an English professor and their face lights up. You're one of the smartest persons in the room, you've read some of the world's greatest books, but you're probably the one who makes the least money in the room. There's no job security, little health insurance and yet we're charged with passing this consciousness…I just need to hang on I know, I know there’s a job for me out there. It’s like being unable to sing if you have a great voice, or drive a fast car if you could…which I can’t--too panicky--but you know what I mean…
I have to make a difference. I have to have some larger impact here…I don’t want to be forgotten…
…Someone needs to teach these people to drive before they kill themselves…(With some resignation) We do make a difference.
I’m going to scream. I’m going to scream…But I can’t. I can’t let that happen… (Sighs) Bish, I know we make a difference. It can be that one shine of happiness. Such a small something when we give so much. Give so much. But that shine. Just one that’s all I need. It’s the light that gets through the cracks that’s beautiful. (As if to herself) Just that little bit…escaping.
(As if to himself) Yes, and that might just be enough.
SAME ADJUNCT ROOM LATER THAT SAME DAY. IN WALKS NANCY AND JOE.
...there's a whole boat-load of adjuncts. There are more adjuncts than faculty. Very few stick around because they're teaching other places or have other full-time jobs.
Everyone's got a Ph.D.?
Oh no. Most have their master's degree; a few have their Ph.D. or else their ABD.
All but dissertation.
All but dead. Shamethia. You know her? She’s not a Ph.D.—yet. Jorge, I think you met him, has a master’s in English, I think.
I have... What do you have?
A Ph.D. I've only been on the market a few years. That sounds funny: on the market. Like we’re meat or something. On the market, it can take a long time; it gets lonely. There are people here who have been adjuncting for almost ten years. There are the writers. They're teaching in order to make money to write. Ha! There's no money in adjuncting. But it looks impressive to say you're teaching and working on that novel. There are the Ph.D. biddies. Old ladies whose husbands work top executive jobs. They don't need the money, they just want to teach so they have something to talk about at cocktail parties or at the country club. The Ph.D. students. They're teaching and finishing up their doctorate. They're pretty sharp if not a little self-centered—I should know! There is always one adjunct that’s able to work a full time job during the day and teach English classes at night. We hate them.
They can afford this little hobby. And there’s more. There are the printer hogs printing off recipes, their novels and poetry (Holds nose); Web sites; god. There’s the gay Mafia, the snobs, the adjunct who insists on eating their South Asian curried lunch meals in this room...(Holds nose) Right. We share this office, but so many think it's their very own hovel to use and abuse.
At least we have an office. I’ve heard horror stories. One professor I had in grad school, never left his office. We had to slip assignments under the door. In return he’d slide out these handwritten lecture notes on those tiny index cards. It was weird. When the semester ended they had to knock the door down. The poor guy had died in there—god knows how long he’d—and no one… I’m talking too much. At least with an office like this we have colleagues to commiserate with…to look out for one another…
Oh I suppose. That's the one thing I really look forward to.
What, an office?
No. Well yes let's be honest. An office with one of that Bose wavelength radios playing low classical music, a lamp for atmospheric light, bookshelves, a place to stash my brandy. At the very least somewhere I can hide from time to time.
I thought I was the only one.
No, coveting Bose wavelength radios.
Walks into office followed by Shamethia. Jorge is sitting at a desk, writing.
…I know one of the only ways to guaranteed a day's worth of world catastrophes--car crashes, sudden pregnancies, rampant death and dismemberment; marriage breakups; labor squabbles…Didn’t you have class too?
Let them out early…First day.
How Nostradamus how…? I think I know where you're going with this.
(Laughs) Imagine saying you know what someone like Nostradamus has to say. ESP to an ESP.
Well I am an adjunct ESP not a full-time one.
Right. Okay. So how do I know that I can guarantee a day's worth of calamity…
In walks JOE and Nancy
Whatever. A day of pain and suffering.
This sounds intriguing.
Yes. A day of pain and suffering.
Hello, I’m Nancy. What…
Everyone ignores her
Give an assignment.
A test, a paper, especially that…
…or say a writing homework assignment of some sort. On the day the assignment comes due, wham... I’m with you Bish…
The printer--at home--didn't work.
The printer at school didn't work.
(Overly dramatic) My disk isn't working.
I had to work late.
I got fired.
I got hired.
My boyfriend was involved in a hit-and-run and he's in a coma.
I had to have an operation. Do you want to see the stitches? Once I said yes.
The scars were drawn on using a magic marker. A red one.
(Holding a hand up) I told the class they could call me that. What is it Mr. Ikard?
Can I talk with you a sec…
Sure, but remember my office hours are from (walks to desk with Jean-Paul)…
(Overly dramatic) I donated an organ.
Oh and…did you see the rain out there. I mean it was dangerous...
Bish walks Jean-Paul out.
I took my finger, wet the scar, and wiped the scar off.
Yes, that's the saddest. I forgot.
But what are we do with the real ones... I mean sometime life does get in the way of doing their work, getting to school...
That's the sad part, the hard part. I mean besides a cop who pulls you over for speeding, is there a profession in the world where a person is lied to more...
A priest at confession.
I take it back. My point still stands. We don't go a day without being lied to and most of them think we're ignorant of their lies that we're so stupid to fall for their lame excuses...
I've become so hard.
Cynical and hard. I used to be such a caring person, but after caring only to be lied to, to be cheated and...
But we shouldn't care right. I mean we're professional teachers.
Well what we are, are ghosts. Ghosts in the classroom that's all we are. We don't linger anywhere else. We don't exist in course catalogues on Web sites, on office doors. We these gleaning ghosts. We don't last...
Then why do you do it, I mean you sound as if you hate it. At least do something you love, you enjoy at the very least...
But I do.
It doesn't sound like it.
It sure doesn’t to me…
The system makes it this way. It's that old adage, if you don't get the experience you won't get hired and to get hired you need the experience. I need this, these classes.
Just so you can be harangued full time.
I don't understand, what do you mean?
Everything you've said, well, everything. It doesn't matter if you're full time or part time the same things will bedevil you.
Oh sure makes fun of Bish. But it's true. Calamity comes without regards to paychecks. And lying, it doesn't discriminate. If there's a problem here, I agree, it's the system. But the great part is this isn't The Matrix. We're real people and we can opt out if we want to... Why don't we?
Adjunct room. Same day, late afternoon, early evening. In walks Julianna.
Here, I brought you something to eat.
You're always saying in class that you never get time to eat, so I was in the area and I thought...
(Whispering) I thought we agreed. (Stands, goes to plant on desk. Touches the leaves)
You agreed. I just nodded my head.
This is serious. (Picks off dead leaf)
What this (motions to the food she has brought)
Not funny. I could lose my job. This plant would die if it wasn’t for me…
We met before the semester.
But you’re my student. Don’t people care anymore?
I think you’re my student (laughs).
Shamethia walks in
(Loudly) Well, that's kind of you... Do you need?
I have an evening class in a couple of hours. I'm just killing time.
Well, is there something I can help you with? I just…
You too need the room?
What? Uh, no of course not. Are we disturbing you?
Disturbed a little. I mean come on don’t you think I recognize your fellow Starbucker there…(points at Julianna)
What? I don’t…
I was a regular there, remember. You’re, what, Julie, right? Am I right?
Julianna. And you’re extra-hot, soy, double-shot latte.
We women have memories.
So nothing. Just keep your pants on as long as she’s your student.
I should go. You're busy...
Shamethia, for… I can help maybe with. Well, let me eat this since you brought it.
(Leaving) Breakfast taco.
See you in class.
Yes, Ms Gonzalez.
JOE. Be careful. Those things never work out.
Speaking from experience?
Actually. Yes, I am.
Adjunct room. Evening.
Call me JOE, please, Bish.
Of course. I’m just making small talk here. JOE, do you have an evening class?
Are you grading papers already?
Then what are you doing here at eight in the evening?
None of my business? I can take a hint.
No, no it’s not that…
Listen you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to. I have these diagnostics to grade and a class in half an hour.
Just that this is my home. I have an apartment but I would be work there. It’s cold, boring. No one there but me and a few plants.
I can understand that.
I didn’t think you could. You’re married right? You have, what, two boys?
Two girls actually. Arundi and Rashmi.
Sorry I don’t see what you are saying.
You can’t possibly know what it means to be alone. I’m alone all of the time…
I can’t know what it means to be alone. JOE, isn’t that all the modern rage now? We are alone together in our own separate worlds—you in yours and me in mine. I plug myself into a portable MP-three player and be jamming to Buddha Bar and you could be sitting next to me spouting lines from, what, Gilligan’s Island and I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea you’re even there. We watch separate channels on satellite TV; we TiVo; we Google; we join societies through the mail. We attend different places of worship; we buy our food at separate stores. We have our neighborhoods. We have our food shipped from back home, wherever that is. We go home at night and say a few kind words, eat something, and then we either sit passively in front of the TV or computer screen and to verb a noun, veg. We’re the same you and I. Alone. I just share my aloneness with three women and a cat we named Ashoka.
It’s so palpable.
I know. What are we to do? Reach out and touch someone? Make contact? Say our hellos on the street corners? No one speaks up so we continue to isolate ourselves. I don’t mean you specifically…
Why not? It’s true. If we never take a chance, if we never say a word then it will all be just static.
There is so much danger out there. I can see it in my students’ faces.
I try to reach out to them.
Yes. Sometimes we actually connect.
I think I will go home.
Watch some TV…
Water my plants.
Spend a few hours in a chat room.
Read a little.
Yes. That sounds good.
Gets up and goes to the door.
Looks up from his papers
Maybe sometime you’d like to, I dunno, go out for a drink?
Walks in the door.
Good still here.
Have a pleasant evening, Dr. Snyder.
Waves and exits.
How can I be of assistance Mr. Ikard.
I don’t think you understand.
I need an “A” in this class. I failed it once. I can’t fail it again. I have things I need to do…
Mr. Ikard, like I said in class all the requirements for this class are clearly listed on the syllabus. I even gave you the grade distribution based on percentages…
I need an “A” and I had better fucking get one… I’ll do the work; you have to make sure you know what you’re doing…
I think you heard me.
end of act one
Dag Hammarskjöld Lawrence walks into his lecture trying very hard to be Dag Hammarskjöld Lawrence. He doesn’t feel entirely successful at the venture. We build the glance, before we turn to the window. We harbor the abstraction, before we turn to the painting show. We have the pain, before the pierce of the arrow. We have the break, before we turn to sorrow. We have words, before we grip our swords. We have morning, before we turn in mourning. We have a life, before we turn to the after. We have.
His clothes are growing stiff from the rainwater; his cut is crying and his face and body itch. The room is row upon row of desks and most of these are filled, given that it is the first day of classes. By the end of the week a complete row will have dropped out. By the mid-semester, nearly half of the class will have disappeared. It’s normal. They stare at him as if he were Himmler or Pol Pot. He goes to the lectern and opens up his daybook—a journal of sorts which holds class notes, diagrams; Progymnastamata exercises; rhetorical theories; argumentation patterns; snatches of poems and assorted other dubious Nubian diatribes. He finds his Post-It noted page for today, coughs and… in the back row! It’s her, the memory sylph!
Finally, a hand juts up. “What’s this class about?”
Easy enough question; Dag shakes it off, “Essays. The writing of academic essays.” No one cheers, no one jeers. Utter silence: Space Odyssey 2001 silence. He can’t stop looking at her. Tears are forming in his eyes.
She is all but wavy…
It must be the morning travails, the rainy clothes; the bump on the head; it must be Little Danny Lytle incriminating play that exposes Dag’s relationship with his student last semester. Must be must be must be. Madness?
“Haven’t you…” he began. But he stopped. Hadn’t he seen her—right there!?!?!?
“Salesmen… Please everyone take notes. This is a university class, not high school. You should take notes as I lecture. It will help you in the end.”
In front of him they move lackadaisically, lethargically; pulling out “Composition” books, binders, yellow legal pads and flower-decorated journals. Lavender pens, pencils and pens. They take out tape recorders and… she is not among them.
“They want our money, people want our vote, and remember when you were a kid (I said, kid, not good) a child, when you were a child (better Dag, better) and you wanted to stay up past your bedtime (for many of these kids that wasn’t too long ago—hmm I’d like to crawl into bed with that one with the large tits and the incredible crevice between her legs; I think I can smell her cherry from here; student conference, student conference; stop it, stop it, stop it; not this semester).
“Dr. Lawrence, you sorta…”
He continues ignoring her, the memory, and that student with his hand up, “It's just part of life.
“It’s called persuasion. Ancient Greeks thought it was a highly respected skill, something to be studied and perfected. The term used by the Greeks was rhetoric, meant persuasion, without those negative overtones.”
“Is this gonna be on a test or something.”
Dag ignores him. “We, I mean, the Greeks began teaching, began education with the study of grammar, by studying logic, and rhetoric. It was called the three roads. (Triskellion!)”
Dag fumbles in his pocket and pulls out the amulet, he lays it in the spine valley of his daybook. It is burnished and beautiful; when class is done he will go to a store and get a chain for it and wear it around his neck.
(The three roads…) “Grammar, sure, logic, maybe, but why rhetoric?”
No one moves. The class is a zero point field of nothing moving in any direction.
“Rhetoric was big in the fifth century B.C.”
Nothing. He knows what to do.
“Okay, come with me.”
He gathers up his daybook from the lectern and strides toward the door. He swings it open and…
“Follow me..” continues to walk.
Soon the class follows reluctantly, he could swear someone asked if this was going to be on the exam. He takes them to a lounge area at the end of the hallway of classes at the downtown university. There in a lounge, is a wall of windows looking out over downtown. Through the window the browns and blacks shadow the sky. It is bridges, graffiti, and the swollen bayou.
“See that?” he says and points.
The class, en masse, leans forward. Shakes it mesomophic head.
“That, and that, and that, that…” he says pointing at the graffito.
He then points, “See that…” Two boys are beneath a viaduct sharing a cigarette.
“What the homeboys.”
“Yeah them. Their in a gang called, the Sophists.”
“There ain’t no…”
“It’s a gang, believe me.”
“Yes, Sophists. People give them a lot of respect. They’re tough and they paint beautiful graffito. In fact, that’s their entire life, going around getting their work over. That’s what it’s called, Getting Over—when you create something, a mark, a sign, in the style wars of graffiti and that sign or mark is seen all over the world. They created that Andre The Giant graffito you’re always seeing. Time was it was all about marking territory, but over time as they, the Sophists became more and more famous and respected, they began to teach others—for money of course—on how to get it over, see my point? They were all about getting the persuasion on the concrete. Getting the word out. Getting their thoughts out. Getting Over.”
A few grins. Heads nod.
“But, there’s a downside, of course. Ain’t there always.” They nod again. He’s got them…
“See those guys. Well, it’s just a job now, it’s all about the Benjamins. So, can you imagine what’s doing down?”
“Not true anymore.”
“Yes! Not true, not well, yes. Misleading, downright false. They’ve strayed, their scrawl is sophistry. A gang of falsehood.”
“There’s another gang and it’s headed by this dude named Plato.”
“Right, Plato—a kind of Dr. Dre. He thinks that graffito is more than just making a buck. It should be truth itself. So, he said fuck ‘em, it is beautiful and they’re killing it. It’s about the beauty of right things. It’s about…”
“Did you… right, Logic!”
Dag looks out the window and can see that the two boys were then engaging in oral sex, so he spoke up trying to distract the class.
“The gang’s second in command, Plato’s, Emimem was this guy by the name of Aristotle.”
“He was all about the Benjamins.”
Everyone laughs, “Close. He was all about the…”
“Yes, but he took things to the max, ya’all by looking at how best to get props from the people. He thought about influence. Where Aristotle, Emimem, differentiated himself from the Gang of Sophists was in the beauty not the Benjamins.”
He glances out the window to see the boys have left. He points to a particular piece of graffiti. “It’s about beauty not the bucks…”
The piece of graffiti reads: “What you want?”
“What does it mean,” someone asks.
“There is the pursuit of truth, but there are also ways to speak of it.”
There is no bell, but students know, as cows know to herd, when time has expired and no matter how fascinating the lecture discussion, class is over when it’s over. Dag turns and finds himself alone with a river of students rushing by, all of them Sophists awaiting the Get Over.
They are not as you would imagine not sentient beings of bulk, of rags, of sockets and wire. Dag sees light. Some are so brilliant he must shield his eyes. Every semester a new crop of students; mostly Tabula Rasa and some Etch-a-sketched, amble their way into his nascent professorial life of textbooks, syllabi and evaluation; claim, reason and warrant. Until he comes to know them they are these pockets of emptiness—all eyes on his account and ennui on theirs; just bodies filling the pews, as it were. They begin as infinitesimal traces of tungsten, copper, and other elements, but shortly become mostly shimmering pools of water. These ponds burble with relatively vast quantities of oxygen. By mid semester what constitutes a student changes, from these basic elements, to something quite magical. Together student and professor bend a little space and some time. Dag gets to see their future and they get the fuel from him to get there.
Students at first are all hair and teeth, then eyes. Hair stands out first, then the whiteness of their teeth. A set of eyes stare up from behind the row of desks. Blue, brown, eyeglasses and contacts. From a distance all look like small portals. Some sparkle; others look as if deer caught in headlights.
Some of these students begin to smile, a few nod off over over-expensive textbooks, stiff and smelling of Kevlar and ink. At this juncture they have no discernable personalities; they are not giving anything away—they are a mirror walking down the street; they are carnage; they are blood, skin and bone—visceral. They just are human bodies.
Ninety-six-point two percent of a student’s body is composed of “organic elements” present in many different forms. Also, water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) as well as other small molecules involve these elements. Oxygen (65.0 percent) carbon (18.5 percent) hydrogen (9.5 percent) nitrogen (3.2 percent); 3.9 percent of body weight comes from elements present in the form of salts. There are tiny traces of zinc, iron, tungsten, mercury and elements like potassium. Rubidium is the most abundant of these in the body that has no known biological function; Dag thinks its what drives students to assume that the world stops when they close their eyes and/or fail to attend his lectures. Students have a pinch of vanadium in their bodies, the least abundant element that has a role to play in their biology.
Other things, defying pragmatism comprises the student, who as the semester ramps up morphs and transforms before Dag’s own oval sanguine eyes. They are the same, the student and the professor, yet there is something present, a condition, in their bodies that is not in Dag Hammarskjöld Lawrence’s—not right away or if it is, it’s hardly distinguishable from all the other chemicals racing around inside there. They are the same in that they share the biology of humans, but what differentiates each is the light—the interior source of which is a apex of indeterminate accessibility.
Dag believes that all exist in a sea of light, sharing all the elements that all living things on earth share. This sea of light is the energy that all molecules and elements give off signaling one another. To lift a coffee cup requires communication between cells. For every action there is a flow of energy. This becomes more and more evident as the semester advances.
What differentiates the student from the professor is that flow of energy. For the professor all that comprises the individual up at the front of the room from the individuals in the back is that energy is being dispensed. Light waves leave and are absorb by the students. As this exchange of energy continues over the weeks of classes, what was once a part of the professor becomes a part of the student. The exchange changes the emptiness in small and large ways and over time to fullness. This fullness is dealt with by each student given their particular needs.
Then students are no longer just flesh and angles, jugs of sloshing water tapped from a rag and bone vessel of the heart. They are more than the blood coursing through their veins; more than the electrical currents absorbed through the eyes and transmitted to the brain. They become particular energy, individual lights. Some of them shine, some simply glow.
With weeks left in the semester, Dag no longer has to look at his students; there is sagacity. Each student is promising in his or her own way. With their absorption rate unabated, a beautifully little thing happens—they begin to expel their own light toward Dag, a father-figure to some, to others, an Egyptian hermit wandering the desert vetting tales for an bowdlerized apophthegmata, the precursor to Cliff and Spark annotations sold via the Internet. And he sees them clearer and clearer. In white all the colors of the rainbow. It is white this light; it is susurrant: fuge, tace, guiesce.
Depending on the field, witnesses perceive light in different ways. Who you are is found in the eyes. Take for example something as seemingly incorruptible as color. The physicist notices the waves of light’s length. To the psychologist, the physiologist the notice of color is a matter of the synapses, of our neurological responses found deep in our eyes seeking marriage with the brain. Unfortunate few, frayed nerves, rickety nervous systems suffer limitations when absorbing color. Color in nature has its advantageous and disadvantages; it offers naturalists the “oh,” in awe when beauty fills their eyes, but the color of the beast, of the flora and fauna of nature also serve as its protector; it’s hiding place and its survival. How come to understand black, blue, ochre to social historians and linguists is to unravel threads, tied to the shawl of community and culture. The art historian, too, might fumble with skeins; witnessing over time how, say, muted earth tones take on the patina of dream. For that artist, color is a turning of the inside out, bringing what lies beneath, atop, surfacing and glistening like blood, like stars in a dark sky. The intangible becomes wood, dark loam; a canvass of sea.
They, his students, are aloft in a sea of light. There will be times in the semester when Dag will stop and find himself staring as the wonder before him: one student, a particle wave, another, the light of leadership and still another dimly so, a light yet to reach its nadir. He will not be there when that light is its greatest. But they, the students and Dag, get to bend time and a little space. D.H. Lawrence gets to see their future and they get the fuel from him to get there. His hope is that when they are out there (Dag scans the darkening vista of downtown; opaque windows of airbrushed darkness; and storming looms, they remember the time together and their lights burning a little brighter from what he gave them. Or not.
He too will burn brighter having received much from them. Or not.
Every semester is a gamble. The croupier sometimes slumbers behind the green felt tables of loquacious, flinty angels who know the inventory of Tells.
Back in the Baker-Miller Pink hued adjunct office, Dag shuffles his papers. There’s nothing to do, but put in an appearance for the sanctioned office hours, all professors have them, and no students utilized them. It is empty hours for an adjunct who could either grades papers—but at the beginning of the semester there are none—or work ahead on lesson plans—why bother—or work on research. Dag is presently without a plan for research. He is working on a collection of essays, but he never feels these ghost hours in a drafty institution, absconded in a windowless office decked out in circa 1980’s computers and pale desks and chairs. The phone rings. Dag is the only one in the room. He doesn’t rise to answer it. No one knows the number. And no one considers this their office. It is then Dag realizes…
He rifles through his messenger bag but to no avail. Where is his cell phone? Dag feels untethered, predictably; floating in ether of sibilant conversations swooshing by him. He has nothing to snare the syllables sluicing. Of course it is imagined. The telephone draws dead. He searches his brain for where last he…
Agora!: The coffeehouse of his morning constitution—notebook, pen, Gauloises, darkest of dark coffee. Window. Cell… “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything you need to know.” Moses?
The telephone rings again. Persistence is the hobgoblin of irritation. He snatches it from its cradle, like breaking the neck of some squawking kittiwake.
“Hello Ad-junked office.”
Dives Poly-Freemoss is the owner of Agora. “Dr. Lawrence. You forgot. Mobile telephone. Here.” Dives speaks like Christopher Walken, in broken sentences punctuated by a mind accustomed to viewing the world in broken symmetry.
“Right. I’ll be back shortly.”
Dag hung up the phone and took to the streets. Without a car, he needed to walk the same route he’d taken to get to school, back to the coffeehouse. The sky was still a bruised purple and low, but at least the rain had ceased. He considered a taxi, a highly-rare luxury few partook in for everyone, save penniless adjunct professors of Rhetoric, had cars—two of them parked securely in three-car garages.
So he hoofs it.
As he climbs out of the university and back onto the banks of the bayou he is joined by a fellow student, Bashnagoda Thumpa Ram Dass whose flowing puce gown gives him a feel of religiosity. He is small, dark skinned, with a shaved head; he has rabbit-teeth and oval eyes of deep brown. He swirls his head about as he talks as if it were on a loose axis.
Former students are always a welcomed intrusion; most of those fairing well in Dag’s classes find his company enjoyable, and he returns this amour.
“I have been thinking about happiness.”
This does not surprise Dag, Bash was that type of student. “Can I bounce something off you?”
Silly question, of course. So, as the brown-eyed Buddhist and Dag move below the city the walkabout began:
“Joseph Campbell is famous for saying, among other things, to follow your bliss.”
Dag offers, “Great! Can you point the way?”
Bash smiles. “Happiness is causal. Things happen and we’re impacted. The difficulty comes in trying to replicate what produced our euphoria, our flow or bliss.” Dag nods.
“The conditions by which we obtain our happiness can be artificially constructed, but we all know that anything inorganic rarely produces anything near real happiness. And quite often all the things we need to make us happy can be present, and we’re still not in the realm of joy.”
They for a short stretch in silence. Birdsong and traffic flux ensues. Then Bash continues, his hands clasped behind him. “One of my favorite writers on the topic is Alain de Botton.”
“Really. Isn’t he a little too Wal-Mart for you?”
“No. But I can see your point. He’s a philosopher who takes everyday problems—pain, frustration, or a broken heart—and applies the consolations of philosophy in their remedy.”
“Clean up aisle nine!”
“Okay now you’re…”
“No, no go on.”
“In his book The Consolations of Philosophy de Botton uses Epicurus to talk about happiness. Epicurus says for happiness ones needs as a necessity: Friends, Freedom, Thought, Food and shelter and clothes.”
“Make sense.” Dag eyes the land ahead—Erebos?
“Not necessary are things like a grand home, power and fame. In fact de Botton goes on to quote Epicurus’ more or less equation for happiness:
ID a project for happiness
Imagine the project is false. Look for loopholes (could I be in possession of the IDed project and still be unhappy? Can I be happy with out it?)
If an exception or loophole is found then the object/project is not required for your happiness.”
“The exception loophole never comes to mind for me when I’m plunking down five dollars for a cup of Joe and foam.”
“My weakness: Disco. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sees happiness in a little different way. He says, and I quote ‘…the control of consciousness determines the quality of life.’ He said in his book Flow.”
The area where Dag had fallen is now deserted.
“For an optimal experience (happiness) the psychologist found that:
The situation must be such that attention can be fully invested—few distractions, no chance of harm
The goals are within reach and identifiable.
Time is of no consequence.
The person becomes so absorbed in the activity, the self is lost in the activity itself.
A level of proficiency in the activity is important.”
“The best moments (in life) occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” he reports.
“In essence, we make happiness happen,” Dag offers.
“Further along those lines, is Jon Mundy’s The Ten Laws of Happiness. He says that happiness is a result of a deep spiritual set of laws including trust, honesty, tolerance, patience and defenselessness, to name a few…there are, um, ten of them. Faithfulness, of course, is a main tenant.”
“Sounds a little too Midwestern for you…”
Bash smiles, “But in the end, if comes down to purpose for me. Epicurus via de Botton is more about feeling happy and poor; Flow about the momentary; while Mundy’s is about a spiritual happiness that seems all too interior for me.”
“My favorite set of conditions for happiness comes from a Hindu teacher by the name of Eknath Easwaran, author of The End of Sorrow.”
Bash produces a book from his bag. He hands it to Dag, who flips the pages pretending to speed read.
“He came up with an eight-point plan for happiness that to me is not about immediate gratification but of long-term happiness. His plan includes: meditation, prayer, slowing down, one pointed attention, the need to train the senses, spiritual companionship, and the need to read the mystics.”
“Given that I’m not Hindu I’ve customized the practice, but then that in and of itself is the process of obtaining happiness. Happiness is causal. We know what works best. We know the way.”
Bash stops. “Sorry, I seem to be lost.”
“Where are you headed?”
“I forget.” Bash holds up a finger. He turns and pulls from a leather pouch attached to his ropey belt a personal data assistant. He opens it, scrolls to his calendar and “Ah, I have a physics class starting in ten minutes—If you’ll excuse me.”
Dag nods. Bash is gone, back to where the two men had just left.
By the time he reaches Agora, Dives is standing on the front stoop cell phone in hand. Dag leans against the building and extends his hand to retrieve. As he turns he sees the memory sylph, with the tattoo on her back visible from the rising and falling of the black T-shirt, boarding one of those Ginger people movers.
Dag versus Ginger; man versus machine; man in pursuit of woman--if there's a monomyth Mr. Joyce that is it. The mode of transportation may have changed but not the magnatism, the pull of opposites to seek one another out, to lead one another around by pheromones and heartstrings. Dag says a little Bash mantra as the skips after the sylph on the personal people mover....Dives calls after him:
“The phone it has been going off a lot this morning...”
Dag opens the clamshell cell phone before placing it on his hip, where it will sway as if a talisman on a swing. He opens the phone with one hand, the way he can and looks at the number of calls missed: two. The number comes up and at first he doesn't recognize the number. At random series of numbers both analog and digital begin to float through his consciousness; he feels like a math professor on crack instead of a English professor with a penchant for strange physics and gambling--both numbers that can make or break your reality. The numbers come and go; a filing of numbers from randomly called people and people that have called him; there is a familiarity and then he's got it: ......... The mother of his ex-girlfriend, the one who....
Where did she go?
Off in the distance he sees her floating, her shoulders upright, cutting through what passes for pedestrian traffic in this town of lumbering sport utility vehicles and the ubiquitous two, three, car families. No one walks here. Everyone pollutes. To the grocery store, to the mall, to the movie theatre, to the house, to the workplace. Dag is an anomaly; he doesn't make enough to own a car, or he could purchase a car if he wanted something that would require constant maintenance. It would also be an ugly car. But in this down that isn't terribly unique. Once a year a parade of garrulously decorated vehicles--cars, trucks, choppers and motorized floats--parade down a main thoroughfare much to the delight of thousands of adoring fans. The “art car” parade isn't about ugly, per se, for that is in the eye of the beholder, but about creativity. Cars are decorated with flowers, paint, sculpted material, foam, painted on hair and modified in shops to resemble a gigantic cockroach or stiletto. Equally creative are the minions who drive the vehicles along the parade route; the nymphs, fairies and dragonslayers on motorized scooters, skateboards and in-line skates. The parade devotees are also an assemblage of curious folks: done up in face paint, floppy hats, color T-shirts and wild pants, the entire menagerie is like something out of a circus, a circus as considered by Salvador Dali and Fellini on a lost weekend of codeine and liquor. The streets were alive with right brainers. Dag enjoys it, but there is also a part of him that dislikes that not only he, but everyone in sight were living out their fantasies in bright living color; with rubberized stick on flowers; paint, lacquer and imagination. It is overwhelming perhaps for the day's sights and sounds; children laughing; gays and straights enjoying themselves; the smell of beer and hot dogs; the music of The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Maher not that it happens in this short span of time; a mere afternoon but that it shouldn't happen every weekend. A pre-apocalyptic celebration that while only white is the norm, white, the normal, carries all of the colors of the human soul. It is breaktaking to Dag, so breaktaking this hope, this realization, that it makes him shiver even on the most humid of days, in a city, with a soul so resplendent it threatens to consume it.
Where did she go?
...fell into a coma so long ago, he cannot think of a time when she is awake and speaking and hearing his words. They were students, both in English. He met her through friends. They hit it off immediately and took a semester off to travel; she had never left the city before. He took her to Europe and to South America. They returned home, and by some freak of nature she was bitten by a disease-carrying mosquito and she contracted a rare blood disease. She would require constant dialysis; soon after being diagnosed she, she, she....
Prudence Gerry Honeychurch.
...fell into a coma and hasn't been out since.
Where did she go?
Dag shakes his head. He didn't know; science didn't know. It was the well, the keyhole, the boundary between the real and the unreal. She sleeps.
But there is always a doorway, and someone beckoning. The memory sylph's body, ahead, turns a corner riding atop Ginger. Dag runs after her. And runs right into an elderly lady.
Both tumble to the sidewalk. Dag to his knees, sees that the lady is laying still, her back on the ground. Her hands are crossed in front of her, funereally. “Are you...”
“Okay,” she says.
“Here, let me get you up,” he says and assists the lady to her feet. Dag leads her to a nearby cement step. “I'm sorry... I came around the corner and...”
“Oohmp. I know I was there.”
“Okay, okay, okay. I could use some water or something, there...” She says pointing toward a coffee shop nearby. Dag couldn't swing a cat by its tail without hitting a coffeeshop in this town. He goes to the coffee shop and purchases a bottle of water.
“Here, “ he says handing it to her. She takes it, her white hand the color of skim milk, shaking. There is a hint of jasmine in the air. The traffic nearby rushes, sounding like swooping birds. Dag takes a look at the woman as she drinks. Her hair is shockingly white and wild like Albert Einstein's. Her face is wrinkled with deep lines; and white like alabaster. Her eyes are grey and moist. There is a tear on her cheek. He reaches out a fingertip and wipes it away, feeling the elasticity of her skin, feeling it as if it were rubber. She nods. “Thank you.” Her voice carries a hint of an accent, one of the old ones from Europe. Dag licks his lips: Salt. The old lady extends the bottled water. “Drink.”
He takes the bottle and pulls in a good gulp of clear and cool water. It moves down his throat cooling as it goes. She smiles. “I'm Tess.”
“Tess, I'm Dag.”
“Well, yes, D-A-G.”
“The UN guy.”
“My father was an ambassador in the...”
“Long time ago.”
“Sit with this old lady for a minute. So few people just sit anymore.”
Dag is set to leave, she taps his arm. “Sit.”
He does. She stares briefly at the passing cars; the road is but a few feet from the concrete stoop. “Everywhere rushing.”
Dag nods. He rises, but she pulls him down. “The Russians came into the village.”
Oh boy, he is thinking.
“Kill everyone, except the women. Kill everyone. Burn it all down. Who knows of these things? Who orders such things?”
“Yes, but even barbarians can... The women went crying, please, please; this is all we have. One officer, perhaps the commander, said, 'Fine, take whatever you can on your backs and get out...'“
“The village women loaded all their men and their sons on their backs. Some could barely walk. When the commander saw this, he could not believe there could be such a thing. Who knows of these things? So, he let them go. All of them. They burned the village, to be sure; but all the people--my people--left, women carrying the men on their backs.”
“Who knows these things,” she says pushing a bangle of her white hair out of her face. “Me that's who, but everyone rushing. Not sitting, not listening.”
Dag smiles, pats her on the leg and rises.
The old lady looks up, “The girl? You want to know? The girl? Sasha. She lives two streets down, left, five houses in, around the back and to the top.”
“Who knows of these things? Me, that's who.”
The Segway, Ginger, people mover is parked under some stairs and is heavily draped in chains. He has no idea what he is doing here, but Dag finds himself, holding the railing to a set of stairs leading up to the top floor balconey. What is driving him here--a tattoo? A memory of a tattoo? There is no being behind the being? The doorways. The emptiness. He smells cloves?
Dag looks up and there she is on the balcony a cigarette in her hand. He steps up and as he does his breath is drawn out of him; she is beautiful. He rises and she turns to hoist herself up on the railing of the balcony. “Dives said you were watching me. You like to watch girls?”
“Ah, no, I, ah....”
“Never mind. You assume you've never been watched yourself. How would you know?” She taps a pack of clove cigarettes. “Help yourself.” Indian trance music wafts through the screendoor, where a black and white cat stares out. She glances down,
“Found that this morning. It has a name tag.”
Dag takes out a cigarette and lights it. He's never before smoked a clove and at first it is very foreign tasting to him. He coughs. “Easy Chomsky.”
“Oh I see. I cut hair for a living so I must be a bimbo.”
“No, but why call me...”
“Always writing. We in the shop have pet names for everyone. You're Chomsky because I was reading something of his at the time--last year.”
“You've been,” he starts. She jumps down and lets the cat out of her apartment. “Watching me for...”
“A year. Sasha.”
Dag takes her hand. “Dag.”
“I like Chomsky better. The cat's name is Happiness.”
Dag watches as the cat scampers down the stairs and rounds the corner. “Shouldn’t we…”
“Not my cat.”
“But it’s lost perhaps there’s a number on the tag.”
“Cats are smart—she knows what’s what.”
“What is what?”
“You can see it now.”
Sasha is pointing into the air above them. The sky is chartreuse and swirling. “There.”
Dag squints into the miasmic churn of the sky above; shouldn’t he be somewhere else? Someone else? Where have all the cowboy’s gone? The sky gives him nothing. He shakes his head, clove cigarette wedged in its pucker.
“Orion’s parts are not close together at all. We see what we have conformed.”
“I have no idea…”
“We see Orion. But it’s not even the same body.”
“One shoulder Bellatrix is estimated to be roughly 350 light-years from the earth. Another shoulder, Betelgeuse, is in roughly 420 light-years away. The knees are 1,000 light-years from us. Yet, we see a body. And the farther we look, the more in the past we see…”
“You assume it doesn’t know the way. You assume what you see; it conforms to what you want. Or what you fear.”
She smiles slyly smoke slipping through her thin red lips. Her hair flutters in the breeze. “Secret sites exist for people like you and me; out there in the rough edges of mystery, discovered by intuition, a kindling in the fire of our kinship; an inkingat our fingertips imagined or otherwise creating words instead of contact...wonder instead of wounds; ours is a secret society whose passwords fuel passionate pursuits of where you've gone to have your say, but left no means of getting there for the uninitiated. The vastness is almost too much to stand, the possibilities infinite, filled with longing; it is heat, sweat, the propinquity of skin; the throb of knowing it's out there, waiting to find its discovery... its admittance into the soft folds of belonging.
“We had better get inside.”
Dag looks up and agrees.
“Why watch you for a year? Turn around, lift up your shirt.”
She pulls him over to a mirror: On his back is an unfinished tattoo. It reads—Be…
“What does it mean?”
Dag doesn’t know. He’s never known.
Music plays salsa.
She says, “Ghosting the cake walk. One leg left behind, joined together by musical chains and desire, to move together with a swivel of our hips. A slave to Celia, God bless her soul, on order from Oro Solido and Grupo Niche, we heat up the sparks and let them fly. There is no time, no skin too close for this La Salsa Vive. The big house is stiff swaying in between conversation, while we are outside in the steely, alive, resplendent with the light that comes from our joined dance, and the illumination of so many stars. We are dancers ghosting something so old when we do it together the legs we share are the ones that lift us up and closer to pure, eternal, flame.”
His side hums.
Dag reaches down without looking, the way a haggard and tested gunslinger forms a hand into a gun, and pulls up caliber hardware. It isn’t hand to mouth, it is hand to hear; someday the hand will sidle dumb. He flips the clamshell phone open with one hand, the way he can: “Hello?”
A bone in his ear becomes praxis—fenestrate fielding. Everything vibrates. Dag—slack jaw—jitters at what’s being said, and eyes the arriving elevator. It is a memento mori and it lines his thoughts with ruffian silk fluttering oriflamme.
Goodbye dear sylph, hello???
This is a broken city. Piece scattered everywhere. There is a man who collects them. In an attic of his antebellum home, not far from salamander and coon taxidermists and crack dealers, D.D. Smiley houses his Museum of Negative Capability for the children he calls it The Children’s Crusade. In this museum, open free to one and all, Smiley collects what other discard. Nothing goes to waste. In one box he has 1, 459 cancelled stamps. He gathers them up, scrapes, carefully, the paper and glue on their bee-hinds, and stacks them in one hundreds. Truly Nolan Hampton-Keyes and Missy Bleu Snapdragon Raster, his grandchildren, spend their weekends tying the tiny stacks of spent stamps with coarse white string. There is plenty arcana inside this arcade some of it the very extravagant gesture of this story. For now, we focus on a single stamp…it came from the house next door. The stamp is on a letter and the missive is date-stamped from a time ago. The letter is from Dag Hammarskjöld Lawrence to—the writing is hard to discern partly via Dag’s discursive calligraphy and by the fact the sepia-tone ink is blotched and fading—to one Melinda Wentworth Honeychurch. The letter, carried by a plaque of brooding, breeding-frenzied, cicadas the last time they emerged from their dark loam slumber—a decade ago now. The cicadas still have seven more years of dreaming in the soil, of the day when the flags of manumission unfurl, they lick their loins and take the A Train to fucksville!
D.D. Smiley eyes the letter and as he does he looking out his window in the attic of the Museum of Negative Capability, he sees his neighbor, sitting on the porch of her home, sipping a beer.
A man walks up. Surd.
D.D. knows who he is. He takes in the letter.
Dag feels an enormous power surge through him. A storm is brewing. His bones rattle in their fleshy sheath. He takes the steps of this familiar place, glancing up at the sky. The sky is an attic window and in the place of the sun there stands a man, bespeckled, bemused perhaps, his lens circles of sheen; in his tiny hands, a letter. Dag climbs the stares and sees her there.
“It’s been a long time.”
“Never far from my thoughts…”
Mrs. Etta Barbara Honeychurch’s thin lips spread into a smile. She’s always had a soft spot for the professor. She stands and he goes to her, arms akimbo, and Dag enfolds the woman in his arms. She is olive-skinned, smelling of Sandalwood and Turmeric; spoils of cooking and leather work. Her dark hair is shoulder-length and shiny. Her teeth, completely straight and uncrowned, are a brilliant natural white. She is just over five feet tall, with large feet shod in Birkenstocks and rainbow striped woolen socks. Purple, corduroy overall cover her slender frame. A turquoise amulet hangs from black string at her throat. Glasses sit perched on the crown of her head. On her hands, every finger ringed in silver. She is warm, and as Dag leans in, he gets a hint of heliotrope and fresh tea. The skin on her neck and the side of her face, the texture of warmed butter. He feels her strong hands on his back.
Nina Simone wafts in the porch from a small tape recorder resting on a rattan table. A freshly lit marijuana cigarette rests on a clay rust and fire red ashtray; he draws in the air. Jefferson airplanes spent on the table surface; joint dud ends in the tray raster stars fallen from a raging eclipsed night.
She holds him by the elbows taking in his face. She adjusts her glasses onto her patrician nose. Squints still, smiles; “You haven’t changed, save for those.” Crow’s feet at his eyes wrinkle up for purely display purposes.
“I had a dream last night.”
He sits on a nearby stool.
“I quote: ‘the vitality, ellipses, of every art, ellipses, is the poet’s ability to realize his own experience.”
“That from Safe Conduct?”
“Yes and no. It’s from my dream. Pasternak. So I get up this morning and dig through my library. Safe Conduct, sure enough, but the others too, but that comes into my hand like a sylph. I open randomly…ad majorem Dei glorium…and viola!”
Dag nods, does an internal double take not sure he heard her correctly, at all, with any sense of volition and vicissitude he squeaks out: “Viola?”
“The long winter is over Dr. Zhivago.”
He will need a joint.
Inside the house, where it is warmer than outside, the stereo plays too loudly. She moves to quiet the room. “Storm coming you know.”
Dag glances down her arm, a sleeve of dark and beautifully-colored tattoos of Ovid Metamorphosis. He’d forgotten that.
Etta Barbara points toward the back of the house; Nina Simone warbles. “The garage with a client, a Samoan youth.”
“Still an artist. Wishes are tattoos on the soul. Knowing where to look for them in others, to end longing and be, is the art of your faith. That finding of place enough to speak of your own story. That we are blessed vessels whose value cannot be determined through an exchange of paper.
“Here sit a minute, let me tell you about my uncle. Declan.
Declan Miller traveled at night. He’d never admit it, but the darkness scared him. It was a kind of fright felt in his bones, deep and from long ago. Declan couldn’t remember exactly what made him this way. Sometimes he could see a man in his nightmares, his face moving as if water. At night, Declan moved about whatever city he was in, trying not to draw attention, to remain, unnoticed by everyone. He had no family, and no memories, save that of the watery man. His face was hidden beneath a ratty tweed cap, which cast concealing shadows across his eyes. He wore a shin-length winter coat the color of hot chocolate, black, frayed jeans and an old pair of army boots their soles duct taped to the shoe leather. Declan stuck to the shadows, hugging the sides of buildings, moving through nighttime via alleys and covered passageways. He hated the darkness, but also courted it. Declan couldn’t remember if someone was following him or not. So, Declan was the darkness itself.
You could smell or hear Declan Miller before you set eyes upon his imposing frame. He muttered to himself in a mix of Latin and Irish, the language of ancient monks clinging to a Celtic past, embracing a new faith called Catholicism. The stench was of beer and old cigars. Declan wasn’t a great believer in washing either, on account of the water. As a result a cloud of dust and despair trailed him wherever he went.
Declan had been homeless and aimless for as long as his 23-year-old memory could recall. Although he couldn’t read, nor write, Declan was capable of understanding complexities and nuances. This skill was borne from his travels and his keen sense of observation. Declan Miller, for the most part, did not stand out; he was just another crazy that could be found on any city street, soup kitchen, condemned building or flophouse, except in one respect: Declan Miller’s fists. His fists flanked the sides of his body, thick, massive and white. When Declan clenched those fists there was always a peal of thunder, a cawing of crows. When held up before his face, in a pugilist’s pose, his face disappeared. Nothing could get past his meaty hands. It was the first, physical thing you noticed about Declan, once you’d heard his hybrid muttering and inhaled his pungency. His fists were dangling pieces of raw meat and bone. Each knuckle was the size of an average nose. Each finger as strong as wrought iron. His palms were road maps to imaginary worlds. His fist were also callused and bruised, and Cheroot scented. Declan couldn’t wear gloves because none would fit. But, he never need gloves. His hands, always set and coiled as if ready to defend, were never cold. It could be forty below, in a cold so severe exposed skin freezes and turns bible-black and hard in under a minute, and Declan Miller’s fists would be steaming. They were what kept him warm, and safe. When he slept, during the day, he clenched his fists over his face to block out the sun and the din of the city. They protected him from the elements and from his enemies. Sometimes, he talked to his fists, regarding them as old friends. Declan Miller’s fists kept the world at bay. And, that was a good thing, because the world was always at Declan.
Or so he thought.
There wasn’t a wall Declan couldn’t punch through. Every nose that poked into his business could be broken with the flick of his wrist. In turn, glass couldn’t cut his hands. Fire couldn’t burn the skin. Frost did nothing. Weapons of destruction, someone said once and ran far from Declan’s anger. Yet, with those meaty fists, he could pick up a butterfly with his fingertips. He could unbutton and button up his coat. Touch-tone phones were a problem. Declan couldn’t pick his nose because his nostrils were too small.
The two things that could shrink those slabs of flesh and cartilage was water and darkness. Together, they struck his fists dumb and weak. Water brought on such an ache that it forced Declan Miller onto his needs and then into a fetal position. The darkness made them slow. At night, Declan constantly kept his eyes on his fists. It was a repetitive glance forward to where his feet where taking him, and then a glance down at his hands to make sure they’d not fallen off without him knowing. When Declan was indoors, and it was dark, he rested his fists on his lap in clear view of everyone. He’d thought if someone were to attack him at night they would see his hands, and not knowing any better, would turn away in fear.
That strategy did not work on Wren Knockfierna.
Declan had been in the street mission for about five minutes when the diminutive Wren Knockfierna stood before him, his gaze aimed straight at him. Declan had ducked into the mission for a cup of coffee. The darkness outside was extra thick, and Declan thought he was being hounded by monsters. On every street corner he could see them. He slid through the streets via the shadows and entered the mission, Declan thought, without being followed.
But then, here was Wren.
He was what most would call a midget. Wren’s basset hound face hovered over his small frame. A grin produced a crooked white picket fence, complete with what looked like mud splatters. His hair was a tangle of grey electrical wires and black smudge. A green briar on an equally green pipe was wedged at the side of his mouth. A pair of golden wire-framed glasses sat perched on the end of his gin blossomed nose. Behind the lenses, his eyes were bright and alert. Wren sported a emerald ascot at his neck, wore a fisherman’s wool sweater, brown cords and old Converse high tops. A backwards tweed cap was wore over his confusion of hair. A cane of twisted, black wood was gripped in his left hand with his knobby knuckles had all the outward signs of an advanced case of arthritis. Wren used the cane as his exclamation point, an extended arm, to make his points. The pipe never left his mouth as he spoke.
“That’s a mix of Irish and Latin,” Wren said poking Declan in the ribs with his cane. Declan tried to growl. Coffee spilled down his chin. He held up his fists angrily. But nothing.
“Don’t hear much of that,” Wren continued poking Declan.
“What?” Declan barked sending coffee spittle onto Wren’s glasses. The small man took them off by hold his cane against his side with his arm, and using his hand took them off and wiped them on Declan’s winter coat. Wren placed his glasses back on his nose and re-established his cane as his point of authority poking it right into the ribs. Finally he rested it back on the ground.
“That muttering of yours. It’s a mix of Irish and Latin. You’ll say one word in Latin, and turn around and say the next word, or a whole string of words in Irish.”
“Really,” Declan replied.
“Is ea,” said Wren.
“Is ea. Mind if I sit here?” Wren said pointing to a stool near Declan.
“Is ea,” Declan deadpanned. Wren pulled up the stool and sat down anyway. For a moment he simply gazed up at Declan. This made the large man completely uncomfortable.
He raised his fists again and growled.
“Yes, fists. Wren Knockfierna is ainm dom.”
“Your name is Wren Knockfierna. OK. I’m...”
“Declan Miller,” Wren finished.
Declan tried to get up and leave, but Wren placed the knobby shaft of his cane on his chest. Declan tried to move the cane, but found he had no strength to do so. Wren smiled, and asked, “Who is the man that limps?”
“My enemy,” Declan said without thinking and leaned back placing his fists on his lap.
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember. Do I know you?”
“Oh yes,” Wren said, and continued, “Do you know what night this is?”
“Samain. October 31. Halloween, I think they call it. People dress up.”
“As monsters,” Declan offered, tentatively.
“Monsters, witches, clowns. Ghosts.”
“Well, lost souls really. According to us...”
“Let me explain. We believe this night is the one night when the souls of the dead come to visit, a night for spirits to move within the dual worlds of the living and the departed.”
Declan sipped his coffee and kept an eye on the small man sitting near him. He wanted to bolt, but he was far too slow for that, and he remembered Wren’s cane and its strange power to quell him.
“It is our night to face our fears.”
“Declan, I’ve been following you for days. I just found you again, after...”
“Why would you be following me?”
Wren leaned in. “I have to take you home.”
“And I’m afraid of that?”
Wren smiled, “Come with me.”
Reluctantly, Declan followed Wren out of the mission and into the monster-filled streets. He often cowered close to Wren, who’d hold up his cane and wave it into the air, shouting in Irish: “Ta me ar mire! Ta me ar mire!.” The monsters crossed the street, or steered clear by ducking into doorways.
“Here,” Wren finally said, coming to a tall dark condemned building. “Up on the top floor.”
Declan looked up at the building which had been gutted and was nothing more than steel beams and busted dry wall. “It’s not safe.”
“No, it’s not. But we’ll make it, Declan,” Wren said, surprising Declan. “Come. Carry me on your back. I’ll give you directions. I know you cannot see well i the dark.”
Under Wren’s directions, Declan climbed staircase after staircase, ladder after ladder, walked carefully across beams and weakened floorboards. Slowly, with sweat pouring down his forehead and curling on his lip, Declan made it to the very top of the building. Wren climbed off Declan’s back and walked to the very edge of the building where a wall had once been.
“Don’t! You’ll fall.”
Wren turned back, the light from a full moon illuminating outlining his small form as if an aura. “Come here.”
“I can’t, I’m too weak. I’ll fall. It’s too dark....” Declan stopped cold. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Wren stood on the edge of the building and with his cane poked into the night sky. It rippled. The sky rippled.
“Come here. Tonight is the only time. Gabh I le, now.”
Declan summoned all his strength, all his courage and inched closer. He kept his eyes on the ripple that continued to move before him. He watched as Wren dipped his cane right into the darkness submerging the cane’s shaft. Wren held up an arm.
“I will help you.”
“But...” Declan said, but Wren had his by the arm. The small man moved Declan closer to the edge.
“Put your face back into the water, Declan.”
“Put your face back into the darkness, Declan.”
“Put your fists back into the darkness and the water, Declan.”
Declan clenched his fists in front of his face and could see nothing. Thunder pealed. Crows cawed. And Declan felt water covering his fists, his head. Water.
“Try to look beyond your fists. Face what you fear most.”
Declan couldn’t. Then, he could. He opened his eyes, and saw light in a jagged, liquid line pressing down into his eyes. He saw the hand of a Roman soldier. Declan was choking, but was in no pain. He removed his fists and peering through the darkness that was water, there above him and beyond the water, somewhere else, and long ago, in a land that spoke Irish and Latin, Declan saw Wren’s face, saw Wren’s hand pushing through the darkness, through the water, pushing aside the soldier’s hand, screaming, screaming, screaming.... the soldier, limping, sword drawn and thrust at Wren... Wren, dagger drawn, ducking, thrusting too... then darkness...he covered his face with his fists.
Declan Miller’s fists closed over his face, and he felt his body move up and away. Away.
“Every year something like this,” the medic said to the police officer as they stood over the body.
“Quite a jump from up there,” the police officer said and looked up at the looming skeletal building.
“But look at this.”
They looked down at the body, a man with his fists clenched, up over his face.
Across the sea in a small county, in a tiny village, in a farmhouse know one would pay to live in, a woman eased herself up on her bed, a baby boy cradled in her arms. Sweat glistened on her forehead, making strands of black hair stick to her cheeks, her neck. It had taken all night to give birth to her child. “What should we call him?” she asked looking up at her husband. He was washing his hands in a nearby basin. Washing away the dark blood.
“Declan, ‘wa,” he replied, a green pipe wedged in the side of his mouth.
“Declan. Is ea. That’s a good name, Wren, good name, ‘wa.”
The baby clenched its tiny fists, and sneezed. It sounded like a peal of thunder.
The young couple laughed.
She smiles, and leads him down a narrow hallway to a bedroom, which when the door is opened fills with bright light. From the ceiling hang thousands of origami cicadas. The room is painted bright yellow with white trim. The air scented with bergamot. It is hot on the skin, but not because of a heater; the windows are always open. The sound of distant traffic, birds and dogs can be heard through the open window. The air tastes slightly antiseptic. Dag takes in the room’s focal point as if staring into the sun. It is bright and brings tears. He instantly falls back against the wall.
It has been ten years.
Cicadas circle the room; moving the air as the air moves them. I am because you are. Particles.
The voice is almost inaudible. His ears drink every syllable. There she is: He took her to Europe and to South America. They returned home, and by some freak of nature she was bitten by a disease-carrying mosquito and she contracted a rare blood disease. She would require constant dialysis; soon after being diagnosed she, she, she....
Prudence Gerry Honeychurch.
...fell into a coma and hasn't been out since.
Where did she go?
Just then through the window came a black and white cat. It springs from the ledge onto Prudence Gerry Honeychurch’s lap. She extends a hand and up, up goes the cat’s head.
“Now, Dag. How about we finish that tattoo?”
Dag’s lower back is tender. He lowers his shirt and thanks Harold who continues to puff on a small Meerschaum pipe wedged in the side of his face. “Now remember, let it dry before taking a shower; use that anti-bacterial soap and it should be up and running for you in about a week.”
“It’s a miracle.”
“Some would say yes, but I never lost faith that she would come around again.”
The tattoo studio is in the Honeychurch garage. The walls are a collage of images: Richter, de Koonig, Chagall and Rothko. Dag examines one painting, a Rothko. “The Rothko canvases are so meditative, no?” Dag nods. “Rothko paints how the blind see. He wanted to paint the infinite and the finite: Always looking for something more.”
“Aren’t we all,” Dag say and taps gently on his new blue wound. A soul tattoo? He retrieves from his pocket the triskellion.
“Haven’t seen one of those lately. Where’d you get it?”
Harold, a plume of aromatic smoke nearby, floats his massive body to Dag and takes the medallion from Dag’s hand. It appears to float itself. Harold goes to a workbench and Dag watches his back and he attaches the small medallion to a piece of black leather. He returns and places it around Dag’s neck. He looks down and is pleased. “I’m still in shock. Thank you.”
“We all are. Prudence is a Rothko you know.”
It is one of those times when all the walls that are built inside the mind to yard off the pleasant from the horrible, the irreconcilable with the reconciled; the strange from the familiar—all of it breaks and there’s a landslide. Dag stops it briefly holding it back like some Sisyphus who got the instructions all backwards. “She was born two months his famous chapel was opened to the public. He didn’t live to see it open; he’d already been dead a year.”
Dag nearly faints. He steadies himself sitting down on a barstool prop up by the window. He sees that the sky outside is a Chagall. Nothing makes sense.
“Mark and Etta had been lovers. She was just pregnant when he killed himself.”
Outside Etta pushed Prudence in her wheelchair. In Prudence’s lap sat the sanguine black and white cat.
“I think the girls want to go for a walk.”
Dag and Harold follow the girls, talking about tattoos and how they have been a part of culture for eons, how they were once ways to determine pecking orders; if a Christian had been on a recent pilgrimage. The thigh of the unknown warrior in Revelations. The tattoo on Dag’s back read: Believe.
As they walk the day brings more and more darkness to the land; the sky lowers and it is Etta who first turns… “Oh.”
The sound of her voice scares the cat. It leaps from Prudence’s lap and scampers down the street. Etta pushes Prudence as Prudence calls out to the cat. Harold runs after Etta and Dag after Harold.
They run to the building on the corner. The cat rounds the bend. “Oh,” Etta says again and points—Aeolos is free. “We’ve got to get inside.”
They round the corner of the building and see a large matt black door swing open for the cat, which goes inside. They follow.
Inside: Silence and…
Sunlight hits shadow box #41.
I’m the foreshortened blur. I am the hazy memory that writes the suicide note. Remember me: The unexplained, frenzied, telephone call in the middle of the night, the chicken-scratched signature in your yearbook? I’m the cautionary tale making the rounds at barbecues and dinner parties. I am the reason for someone’s pain. That is why I decided to kill myself. Then, you come to realize everyone conspires against you during the composition of a final note. You hear John Coltrane or happen to stumble into an old friend. Or The Emotions sing on the clock radio awakening you from nightmares. Moreover, you come to the realization, as surely as God is the head of the church; The Emotions are its choir sent to rattle me. And that spooks a guy.
It was a suicide note five years in the making. It took one summer to alter it.
Sometimes love is so powerful it overwhelms. With its strength it blinds, it makes you dumb, deaf and derailed with such authenticity it is assumed by your friends and family they can bury you beneath the lilies and your granite tombstone. Apparently, the overwhelmed look vacant. I have a picture of John Coltrane in my mind. He looks just about close to death, and the joy on his face, in his stare, is incredible. A love supreme. Just incredible. Of course, he’s dead now. But when light conspired with time and space and placed Trane here, it captured a man in love with his muse. I have felt such moments, but they have been rare. Why exactly, I don’t know. I guess I could blame my absent father. Don’t we all have to reach back to find blame? When I reach back, he’s not there. My father is the man on the moon, in fact he reclines by the Sea of Tranquility doing crossword puzzles. But I can’t blame him. After all it is because of a little piece of him I found, ultimately, some redemption. It was that piece of glass, a ghost note played by a little man from another planet and a love so powerful it threatened to eat me up whole. I still have that piece of glass; it’s in my pocket right now. The little man? I have my hands on his shoulders. The love? It’s all the places I care to look.
This is about finding all of those things in the middle of my own nowhere. This is about coming to the end with a belief I had nothing left to lose and then realizing I could always lose a little more. But mostly, this is about Thomas and this tribe I find myself in. And that’s how it happens, suddenly you find yourself in its membership totally unaware of being inducted. Where it started; I don’t know. When did I first notice I was in its midst; I don’t know. I was in the midst of the beyond, and knew suddenly, that I was untethered. This is how, I suppose, you find yourself surrounded by circumstances, friends, and a future you had no part in making. You find yourself ripping up old maps and resumes. Nothing works like it used to. You use yearbooks to stand on, to see off in the distance the vanishing dinosaurs. You find yourself drunk staring at the horizon through the telescope of an empty bottle. There was once a time the bottle never emptied, now every time we drink we age and grow more stupid.
I am looking at the sun, using an empty bottle as a telescope, and it’s giving me a headache. The sun is distorted and weird. I hear jazz playing somewhere behind me. A tonal prayer of some sort. It’s time to cut Pigeon George’s grass. I’ve been doing it now for almost thirty years. He’s an old friend of the family. They call him Pigeon George on account of all the pigeons on the roof of his dilapidated barn. His yard is nothing but abandoned cars, old threshing machines, bike parts and chicken wire. He hasn’t painted the barn nor his house in years. Some say it was the bombs. Others say it had something to do with chewing too much tin foil. I don’t really care. I cut his grass once a week, come rain or shine. I have a few drinks with him and listen to jazz. He was a friend of my father’s.
“You’re a thousand heroes with one face,” Pigeon George bellows from his front stoop. I turn to see him teeter. He’s got a crystal tumbler full of Glenmorangie (he doesn’t drink anything else) in his gnarled fist. “And the horizon you seek is within yourself.” He’s garbled when he drinks. He is now standing on his stoop surveying my lack of attention to his lawn, which truth be told, is nothing more than the stalks of green growing amidst the junk. I have forgotten how long I have been standing here, looking at the sun through the empty bottle I found on the ground. Nearby the wheat fields sway as it does. The music sways too. This is before anything, really. “Come on the grass will keep young man. Come have a drink.” I throw the empty bottle into the passenger seat of a rusty 1967 Austin Mini. “Come on, just one,” Pigeon George continues. A few pigeons fly away from the Austin Mini, flapping their wings in apparent disgust. I follow the sound of the horn, probably Trane’s, into Pigeon George’s house. It is the beginning of the summer that will change my life. Good thing too, because I was about done. I’d begun to compose a suicide note in my head and was making plans for mother. But, as someone, somewhere once intoned: Life happens while you’re busy making other plans. Fuck the grass, I say and stumble into the liar of jazz and scotch. It ain’t that high yet.
So, I’m the blur. My father, if you squint you can see his hands on the deck railing, has thrown the ball that isn’t anywhere in the picture. It was the day of the eclipse and father had just thrown me the Earth. With such lousy hands, I don’t catch it. Instead I turn and just about run over my mother, taking a picture of us talking about solar eclipses. Father gives me the prism anyway as a present. As he hands it to me, I drop it on our concrete driveway and chip one of its corners. He’s already turned away. When I look at him, through the prism, I see that he is bent and made of ribbons of light. Strands of purple flowed off his head, like long hair or heat waves.
I make shadow boxes. A shadow box is a framed container with a glass cover. Mostly, the boxes are the size of an average picture. Say, 8.5 x 11. Inside, beneath the glass and between the frames, I glue objects and interesting pieces of paper I find lying around. I try to group the objects and cutouts together in a theme. Sometimes, even before I have found something to place beneath the glass, a box will tell me what it needs.
My mother reads yesterday’s newspaper and predicts the future. She is drunk on words and outcomes.
Imagine this is a shadow box and I will have to find things to put inside it, to make it make sense. So far, I’ve got a picture of me, taken when I was five, a red, white and blue ball, and a chipped prism. I would use the following to make a shadow box of Pigeon George: a pigeon feather; paint shavings from his barn; a rusty bolt; a picture of an RAF airplane; his medal; a label off a Glenmorangie bottle and a jazz disc (thank God he graduated from vinyl).
I went to Pigeon George’s house once a week, to cut the grass, drink his water of life, and to talk about jazz or anything else that entered his idled brain. He was 75, but had the mouth of a third grader. He was a very animated speaker and always full of stories. He knew my father way back when. I like Pigeon George because he never made me feel like a child, which I was in his company. I can’t count on two hands how many times I slept off a round of booze on his couch. In many ways, he’s a gentle man. People see the barn, the junk in the yard, and immediately think he’s a bum.
“Once Trane told Miles he didn’t know how to stop when he was totally immerse in a solo,” Pigeon George said from an easy chair in the living room. The room was cluttered with books and newspapers, but not messy. I recognized some order in the mayhem.
“What did Miles say?” I asked sitting down on the couch in front of a fireplace with fresh firewood stacked in the grill.
“Try taking the saxophone out of your mouth,” Pigeon George said and laughed. He took in a gulp of scotch. “They couldn’t catch him.”
“The Trane. They couldn’t stop him. He told Wayne Shorter that his aim was to start in the middle of a sentence and progress to its beginning and end at the same time.”
I picked up a book, examined the cover and opened it to read the first line. “Is that possible?”
“Put that book down,” he said. Pigeon George impatiently waved his empty crystal tumbler in the air. I rose and grabbed his glass. In the corner, near the stereo, sat a small leatherette bar. Behind the bar, there were five bottles of Glenmorangie in varying degrees of consumption, an ice bucket with melting ice, and uncapped half liter of soda water. I mixed Pigeon George’s drink, made one for myself, and sat down. Trane was heading into “Psalm.”
“So I’m at the grocery store and I see old man Walters,” Pigeon George said as if he was continuing a story he was telling me. I thought “old man?” Walters was younger than Pigeon George was. “And he was really excited about his new pocket golf game. Yeah, he brings it out and goes to show me how it works.” Pigeon George was laughing at this point, his drink giggling in his fist. “And it doesn’t work. He can’t get it to work. Man, you should have seen his face, it got redder and redder, man, it was sad and funny at the same time, I just about pissed my fucking pants.”
Describing Pigeon George, also known as George Van O’Reilly, you have to start with his collection of hats. He wears a hat every day. Some are baseball hats, some are made of straw, and some are fancy brown fedoras. Pigeon George has hair the colour of scotch tape and just about as wispy and sticky. His eyes are always busy and full of sparkle. He’s got an infectious laugh, and a full set of teeth; no dentures for him, not yet. His nose is gin-blossomed and bulbous. It slants to one side perhaps the target, once, of someone’s ire. There are two scars resembling giant scratches that come down his forehead from his scalp. Whenever he gets agitated or excited they seem to glow whiter. You can’t see them when he’s wearing one of his hats. But I always get to see his faint white hair and his scars, because indoors, always the gentleman, he takes his hat off. His face is pock marked scarred with white and red patches of dry skin. Sometimes he breaks out in rashes. Other times he appears as if he’s been scorched by too much sun. His body is that of memory, full of yesteryear’s athletic fluidity mixed, stubbornly, with today’s rust and rigor. His mind wants to be able to throw the ball or get up gracefully from his chair, but his body won’t let him. A self-imposed amnesia refuses to admit his aging body in favour of his youthful verve, which is nothing more than recollection. He walks with a limp from a bad left knee and his right hip gives him trouble for his compensating gait. He lashes out with his gnarled, arthritic hands at the invisible gremlins poking him in his sockets, filling his pockets with sand. He curses the Fates for their folly. Aside from his ailments, he has a zest for life I have seen in few others. Everyday is an adventure, that is, when he allows others to see him. There are times when he will shut himself up in his house of junk and listen, endlessly, to Louis Prima and Jack Teagarden. I would cut his grass and leave having never seen his face in any of the windows of his house. He’s been a psychologist of some sort, a pilot, a teacher, a basketball coach, and a writer of bad jokes, gimmicky short stories and novels of soft pornography disguised as psychological dramas. This is how I see him, others aren’t so kind. He’s eccentric with such flourish to seem to others as borderline psycho. He shrieks in public, grabs women’s asses and isn’t afraid to speak to anyone. He’ll be walking down the street and he’ll yell at a guy, “Hey, Frank, good to see ya,” and give out a really loud whistle, knowing full well the guy isn’t Frank, in fact, he’s a total stranger. I’ve heard it’s because of the war he’s this way. I hope it’s just the way he is, because he wants the most out of life. What, pinching women’s butts? Well, I mean, truly living means not always conforming to what others would like you to be. That’s Pigeon George. He wonders a lot why people are uptight.
I handed a scotch and soda to George and sat down on the couch beside a stack of newspapers. He raised his glass, “Here’s looking up your kilt,” he said and we clinked glasses. Coltrane is winding down. “How about some Louis,” he said placing his glass down on the table near his seat. He rose from the chair in a series of jerks and groans. On his feet his reaches back and grabs his glass and began to walk toward the stereo. From where I sat it looked like he didn’t see the book on the carpet, because he stepped right on it, tripped and came crashing down to the floor smashing the crystal tumbler in his hand. “Ah shit,” he screamed as I ran to his side. His hand was dripping blood onto his carpet. I grabbed a towel off the bar and wrapped his hand with it. I helped him get up and sit on a bar stool.
“Got any bandages?”
“Ah, shit, no, fuck.”
“I’ll take a quick run down to the drugstore and get something for that, you got nothing in the medicine cabinet…”
“Laxatives, that’s all, laxatives.”
“OK, I’ll be right back. Keep it elevated and keep that towel on it.” I could see the blood soaking through. “Do you think we should go see a doctor?”
“No,” he bellowed.
I ran from the house, hopped onto my ten speed bike and raced to the nearest drugstore.
It was the darkness at noon that would forever have an impact on Thoreau Smith. Science told him it was merely coincidental that the day he should lose his eyesight forever was to be the day the moon came between the earth and sun. It was Thoreau's parents who insisted the eclipse, a prenatural occurrence, was a spiritual sign of their young son's blindness. “In God is everything,” they intoned at the breakfast table the morning of the eclipse, which had been widely reported in the newspaper.
Thoreau was all of three in 1970 when a total solar eclipse marked his childhood in upper state New York. His parents, his father Joe a carpenter and Elsbeth, a painter, were highly religious people who insisted on changing churches every six months so as to not become too much a follower of church routine-the hobgoblin of diminutive minds. Little Thoreau never really took notice of their frequent church changes, he always seemed to adapt to new surroundings without much bother. When he caught a strain of measles the spring of 1970 he didn't cry or whine; his parents did enough of that. “Why have you forsaken us?” his parents, often prone to over dramatics, shouted. Thoreau looked up into their ruddy faces and smiled. They weren't directing their rant at him.
The measles attacked Thoreau's eyesight and within weeks the attack left the youngster blind. The last thing Thoreau saw was a rubber ball bouncing across the road, in front of the Smith family house. His brother, Jackson, was a blur chasing the ball. It was near noon. Thoreau was studying the bound and trajectory of the ball, which had been the moon in a demonstration of the eclipse his father was showing the two boys, when the lights went out. The day was dark for everyone.
At the time little Thoreau, who was a rather patience and quiet child, assumed that his blindness was because the sun had been blocked out by the moon. He thought everyone was blind as he. And as soon as the moon kept on its merry way, everyone, including himself, would be restored to sight.
The eclipse lasted thirty-two minutes; for Thoreau the eclipse would last almost thirty-five years. In those thirty-five years Thoreau would excel. At school he got all As; he ran long distances on track beating all on-comers; and he won every science fair he ever entered. Two months prior to graduation from high school he was granted a four-year scholarship to study Physics at Princeton. When he graduated Princeton cum sum lata in Astrophysics, Thoreau was the school's first blind physics Ph.D. His picture was on the news cable stations and on the front page of most daily newspapers-the media called him “Wonder Thoreau.” The next day at the hotel where his parents and brother were staying he typed up a note and left it for them at the front desk: “Dr. Thoreau Smith is now dead.” He left town and moved to Seattle. En route, his westbound plane crash-landed in Iowa. Forty-seven passengers died. Thoreau, and sixteen other passengers, survived the crash. He lost his left arm and had a portion of his face badly mangled in the accident. Thoreau had a prosthetic arm attached; plastic surgeons fixed his cheek and nose using bones and skin from his thigh; the bridge of his nose was fashioned out of steel. The airline paid for everything. The airline asked few questions, Thoreau offered fewer still answers. Six months later, he checked himself out of hospital. He dropped Smith from his name and never again adopted the term doctor. He was simply known as Thoreau. Over the years his family looked for him, but in the end gave him up to the mystery.
In Seattle, he took a job as a mechanic at a garage downtown part time. In the afternoons he worked on his computer composing music or went to the park to play chess with an old blind man named Methuselah so named because when he was only weeks old his arborist father, studying and caring for the oldest known tree on the continent, named his only son after the tree--Methuselah. If not playing chess, Thoreau ambled over to the Soap-Box Chautauqua Square where he stood on a wooden crate and gave lectures on the concepts of time and space.
For all intents and purposes he was reborn. He didn't recognize the touch of his nose. He left his past behind.
Until the phone rang almost three years to the date of his graduation. Thoreau had each call recorded and sent to his personal computer, which was equipped with a program Thoreau had designed to delete calls from exchanges not recognized by the program. Thoreau on a weekly basis fed the telephone numbers from his PDA transferred onto his 400GB hard drive. He voice-activated the computer and the program, which would play the recordings in sequence. By voice command Thoreau could delete or save messages. In this way the message from Dr. Rosanna Geiger never got through. Thoreau didn't know her and had never talked to her before; she wanted to talk to him. CAM the computer took care of that.
Everyone who came to visit Thoreau at his apartment was weighed. The weight was fed into Thoreau's computer and given an identity. A weight-sensitive monitor pad was placed at the door of his apartment and when any visitor stepped on the mat, which they were directed to do by a sign posted on his front door, the computer registered the weight and announced out loud the potential visitor. Usually within a pound or two the computer, which Thoreau had nicknamed CAM when he first built it in 1980, announced the name of one visitor. The monitor was highly sensitive to balance of weight, which helped to differentiate Brian of 193 pounds to the newspaper delivery boy, Sammy of 193 pounds as well. For new persons at his door, which had no doorbell or brass knocker, the monitor registered weight and a microscopic filament scanner atop the doorframe expertly took a quick brush with ultraviolet light the frame of the person. CAM announced this information. “134 pounds. Female. (Pause) Unknown.” At this point Thoreau would interrupt whatever he was doing and go to the door. There he would push a button, mounted on the wall near the light switch, which he never used, to turn on a small LED crawl message bar which he has attached to the outside of his door. “Announce your business...” the red-lettered crawl, asked the visitor. Dr. Geiger read the tail end of the message looped to crawl through every ten seconds, and said through the door. “I can restore your sight.” On his prosthetic left arm an ultra-thin remote control panel was strapped to his wrist. Thoreau pressed the red button and the apartment door unlocked automatically. The door was ajar. The crawl said: “Enter.”
The surgery would involve cornea and stem cell implants; Thoreau was all for it, or so he thought. It would be someone else's corneas after all; could they be inferior in any way? Would he see what that person had seen? His thoughts at times paralyzed him. He'd be hovering over a Mazaratti Z150, his hands on the fuel injection value, and wham-he'd be stuck. He began to imagine what it would be like to see after spending most of his life in the dark. In his thoughts everything was blurry, made of string and static. Would clarity make his life easier?
A chemical explosion had taken the sight of his friend, Methuselah when he was a child growing up in Georgia. “Freak accident made me a freak,” the old man had said. They talked about what it was like to smell people; to know when women were having their menstrual periods; to hear private conversations. They found each other in the park, one day in the fall. Methuselah was sitting on a park bench when Thoreau walked up. “I've been waiting for you.” Thoreau sat down and examined the man by listening to his heartbeat. “Are you listening to my heart now?” He was a little thrown by that. “It's common for men like us. I know you're blind, but I didn't know you were a mute...” Thoreau gave little laugh. “Thoreau.” he took the old man's papery hand. “Methuselah. Named after the tree. It's a long story I'll tell you about it sometime.” He clicked his tongue. They sat facing forward, taking in the park through the warmth of the sun on their faces. “You play chess?”
Every Wednesday afternoon, rain or shine, Thoreau spent time at the park with Methuselah playing chess or just talking. On the Wednesday after the visit from Dr. Geiger Thoreau asked the old man if he'd ever wanted to get his sight back. “Why?” Thoreau said, “Because I assume there's so much to see...” Methuselah tapped him on the knee: “No, not the reason why for me, why do you want to know--there's a difference.” Thoreau considered this and said, “An operation can restore my vision.” Methuselah coughed, “Really. So my answer isn't about me, it's about you.” Thoreau shook his head, “I suppose it is. Do you think I should have an operation to restore my eyesight?” Methuselah laughed and said in a low voice, “Then was brought unto him one…” then asked more loudly, “Why?”
“The human race is on an evolutionary path,” Thoreau told the cashier at the garage. She chewed her gum like it was chaw. “This isn't the end for us, it's only a part of the way. We still have a long way to go. We will soon evolve into better humans, resistant to disease, living for hundreds of years, able to download our personal DNA onto a computer hard drive for use when our present body crumbles and we need a new one.” She smacked her gum, stuck her finger in her mouth and pulled the pink wad into a loopy string; she wound it around her finger like rubber and stuck it back into her mouth. “Why?” Thoreau didn't understand. “What do you mean?” She sighed a long pregnant breath of air and huffed out a response, “Who says we need to improve?” Thoreau didn't know where to start with that one. He simply said, “This can't be as good as it gets.” He turned, but he could still hear her say under her breath, “Well, it is.”
Thoreau wanted to see that better future, to have all his senses intact. He knew that there would be an adjustment period if his sight, as Dr. Geiger estimated, were restored. Thoreau knew he was in so some psychic pain, but he thought no pain, no gain. He needed to see the future with his own eyes. He called her up. “Okay let's do it. On one condition.”
He wanted his eyes to be blue.
Believing is seeing.
There are so many ways to view the world. Furtive glances give us instant-a-matics. Deeper gazing develops truth. Take, for example, a monochromatic painting by the late Mark Rothko. To most, it's just a band of color; to the more discerning eye the color beneath, the underlay, can also be seen. At a non-denominational chapel here, four of Rothko's larger monochromatic paintings hang. At first glance the painting appear black. But if you look closer it becomes clearer: there's more. One of the paintings has a purple tinge, another has an underlying blue. It takes a while to see these things, given the light inside the chapel. If you sit long enough the magic behind the blackness surfaces.
Red (I think).
I read somewhere, in an art book no doubt whose contents I stole while speed reading at Barnes and Noble, that Rothko wanted his paintings to be the night sky; he wanted you and me to look upon his work much the same way we look skyward: In wonder and awe. That night sky is infinite and mysterious. So too are his paintings.
Rothko killed himself by hanging. To me he remains mysterious, infinite; he is a blackness awaiting its cleansing. Nothing surfaces,yet. But if you go to this chapel, and if you face the front-most painting, at the blackest night sky, in wonder and awe, slowly, assuredly you will witness, in the upper left hand cornerrises, as ifsurfacing from the deadness murk, a shimmering image of the sun.
Abstract art isn't about what you're seeing, it's about what you're seeking. What are we seeking but the light in darkness, to see.
Believing is seeing.
Dr. Geiger sits by the window. He and Thoreau are bound for Houston where Geiger’s practice resides. During the flight he turns and says:
A blind Italian tenor is giving my parents the chills. Andrea Bocelli stands bone-straight before a Tuscany crowd singing Con Te Partiro with English opera singer, Sarah Brightman. A few times Bocelli opens his eyelids showing his vacant eyes. Brightman, in a sheer and sexy black gown, is all over the Italian tenor like an infatuated schoolgirl. He can’t see me, he can’t see me dancing here. He can’t see I’m afraid of his voice.
We are home for the holidays. It is Christmas with my aging father and mother, who have not been well. Two months ago, she suffers a minor heart attack. Tests show she has angina, a narrowing of the artery leading into her heart. Mother is good at explaining things. She says, she has to take it easy, cut down her cigarette smoking and wear a nitroglycerin patch. Doesn’t it give you a lump in your throat? my father asks as Brightman and Bocelli belt it out over Tuscany.
Over a few days at my parents’ place, I come to see that my mother is largely unfazed by her ailment. She is a bit slower, grayer, but not as stricken as I imagined she would be. A tooth in the bottom row in her mouth is missing. Her skin is more wrinkled and elastic. That is just age; she seems fine. My father is another matter. He is pacing like a nervous polar bear at the zoo. He is terribly restless, shuffling about in his noisy slippers; he is getting in the way. He cannot sit still long and if he does, it is to listen to Bocelli, to old folk songs, the bagpipe. He is telling the same stories, repeatedly as if convincing himself of something. He wants me to see what he sees: The beach down the road, the salt mines nearby or the vacant eyes of Bocelli.
He takes me for walks, to a former railroad bridge, which is now for pedestrians. He takes me through a trail in the stark woods. His is picking up discarded pieces of trash, humming, Con Te Partiro. The water crashing in on the beach is the color of cold coffee and cream, the air salty. See, he says. I feel distracted; I had come to visit mother who had been ill. See the salt mines.
One night, mother lifts up her shirt and shows me her nitroglycerin patch. It sits there on her skin giving her these unseen hits of need. The ordinariness of things. It looks like a bandage used to cover up a scratch. It is on her stomach on her skin, so soft that I want to reach out and touch it. Outside sharing a Christmas smoke—she a cigarette, me a Cuban robusto—she said she is all right. That is it. She is all right. Let’s go back inside, she says, where it’s warm. Don’t worry sonny, don’t worry.
On our way home, two hours to the nearest airport father regales us with his stories. Andrea Bocelli warbles on the stereo. Con Te Partiro, means ‘Time To Say Goodbye,’ my father says suddenly. Doesn’t it give you a lump in your throat. I catch his eyes in the rear view mirror. Yes it does.
He can’t see I am afraid of his voice.
From his passenger seat, Wonder Thoreau says:
A long time ago, and under different conditions that exist today, Marshall McLuhen proclaimed that themedium was the message. Others have come in his wake to warn of the television's perils. I'm not joining the chorus--they sing from an over-ardent songsheet. To my thinking, television can be instructive; television can be a vehicle for transformation. No, my worry is not the medium, but rather the message beamed relentlessly into our homes, into ours lives. Increasingly it has become fashionable, desirable, to live one's life in front of the camera. In whatever guise it takes, the so-called reality television posits that any life worth living is one with an audience. Conversely, a life without audition; a life without celebrity judges nor public execution and makeup, isn't living. Do we need to evoke Plato, his cave and his show of lights to make our point? Perhaps.
There is much that happens from the glare of cameras and without post-production in state of the art editing suites. We all don't need voice-over narration and scrolling credits. We can live private, quiet, unadorned lives. And these may be most powerful, because they are authentic transformations, for the most part, without the Cyclops presence, which requires humans to do something, anything, under its gaze.
What happens when reality is defined, not by the authentic, but the contrived there is distortion. For it to be “real”, there must be an identifiable prize, clear opposition, a loose spectrum of goals, commercial endorsements and a time of unreality when the cameras are turned off.
Look at your own life or that of this nation: Are the prizes, the opposition and our goals apparent? Do you clearly understand your role? Do you detach yourself from reality when the gaze of friends, of family, are averted?
Arguments can be made that reality television does indeed mimic, at least, reality, that we no longer know the outcomes of games on television no more than we know the fates of our own lives. This is true. It can be argued that blogs, such as this one, are mere vehicles for public edification; true. But, blogs are executed in private, are composed (hopefully) with some sense of reflection far from the immediacy of television.
My fear is that not that reality is being twisted, but rather that a private life is not a real life until there are witnesses. You must act. You must preen. You must show for cues and curtain calls. You must be public.
Choosing to live a private life, then, becomes today an abberation, a freak of nature. It becomes heterodoxy. It is not unexamined, this privacy, but it is not the business of anyone but the subject and his/her higher powers.
We are watched anyway in this privacy. We are judged. There is a goal. The opposition comes as blantant evil-doers and subtle grifters. There are obstacles and we endure in familial, in friendships, immunity covents.
The difference is that in the dark we act not as we should, but as we are.
We are not slick. We are not forced by the medium. We are ourselves, the message.
The message is the message. What are we saying? Has it changed? Or, has the message never been altered, save the twisting medium?
We are the message. In private, we can hear and understand that. In public we strive to survive willingly ignorant of its import all the while smiling for the camera.
In the hospital preparation room, Dr. Geiger says:
We are all products of causal chains of varying strengths. A results in B, which produces C and so on. My distinction, Ibelieve, is that my chain is more fractious placing me in a tribe of disorientated, some would say emancipated, 21st Century denizens. We can profess no home; grew up with few spiritual or cultural traditions; have lived in several countries; assimilate well; are highly tolerant and are the children of one Diaspora or another.
Where others could look back to see the links to their past, I glance at gaps and broken circles and see further still down the line some hazy chain meal. My being, like so many I am in no way saying I'm unique, is forged to the here and now. We find that wherever we go there we are, as our patron saints Buckeroo Bonzai and Jon Kabat-Zinn had long ago proclaimed. There is an inherent, ironic,freedom to this chain dragging, but also a sense of being untethered to the point of discombobulating apple carts, baby carriages and life cycles. We become embodiments of determinism and find free will to be somewhat a game of chance. We're of the “life is a box of chocolates,” mantram. And as such, as the late great George Harrison so aptly put it, “if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.” We don't know where we're going partly because we don't know where we'vebeen--but at least we always have ourselves for company.
Light is never seen.
What light illuminates do we witness. There is much that is not lit, that resides not in perception, but in the past. In the future. In hope and dread.
How it works is a mystery. Light, invisible, a wave of energy—a nanotechnological storm of holograms with every secret and scroll every conceived to herald the knowledge of homosapiens—breaks the shore passing through the cornea. We all have lens, in there light begins its transmogrification, its tiny dancing minuet; pirouetting through the vitreous humor. Straight on would be too overwhelming. We are nothing if not correction engines. Light is bent, focused: purposeful wave of energy. The irises dilate if the source is dim and distant, contracts in a resplendent ray. The pupil is mentored by the iris. In there, the light is focused on the retina by the transmogrifying lens—illuminated shadows form on the cavernous backdrop; an image—a symbol, a sign, for immediate assessment visually, whose song or code is downloaded for later retrieval and unconscious use. Rods and cones on the retinal surface, lightning storms; scratchy microscopic fingers clutching; vainglorious and optimistic; pick out a language, a text, packets of dots and dashes, send it commuting to the city of neurological commerce: the brain. There we store, we filter, we project. There we see.
I am because you are.
The room is sparsely lit and cool. Thoreau feels the cold examination table beneath him. Dr. Geiger moves slowly; the lab coat smelling of starch makes a scratching sound. The room smells of cleaning fluids perhaps bleach. Outside a motorcycle careens by; a radio plays static. Footsteps. Breath. Alone.
He tilts his head in the direction of the voice. “I’m ready.”
The doctor softly grips his head in large hands. There is a short tug, and soon the feel of pressure on the side of Thoreau’s head. “I’m cutting off the bandage.”
Unraveling. Round and round. Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies: Husha. Husha. We all fall down.
There is a space now. The doctor is stepping back. The bandages are in his hands. He scans Thoreau. Eyelids shut. But slowly...
“What do you see?”
Dr. Geiger waves a hand in front of Thoreau. He can feel the air moving. He can—”I don’t know.”
“My hand, don’t you see my hand moving?” The doctor continues to move the hand up and down, side to side. Thoreau shakes his head. His is seeing only varying degrees of brightness. There is intensity once, and then dullness. Brightness falls; brightness swims; brightness subsumes; brightness is and brightness is not. Brightness…shatters; sparks; susurrant?
Dr. Geiger moves closer, the moving hand extended. “Feel my…” Thoreau reaches out and grabs the hand offered. Texture, context: “It’s moving!” Thoreau smiles broadly. “I can hear it moving!”
“Use the light within you to see…”
Thoreau drops the hand. “What, what are you talking about?”
Dr Geiger clears his throat. “You will need to relearn to see. This light, your new eyes—there’s not enough.”
“What else do I need?”
“Believe? Believe? This isn’t about belief, this is about physiology; the science of my sight. Restore the damaged cornea…”
Dr. Geiger draws close: “There are no images here,” and touches Thoreau’s head. “You must learn to restock this. For now I imagine it is hollow and silent; dark. The light,” the doctor says and opens the blinds by turning a small rod behind them. “Beckons. But you do not know its language—yet.”
“Shouldn’t I just see?”
“Light and mind together bring forth vision.”
“Thoreau; it takes time. Even the brightest light can escape our sight.”
Only thirty people at most have regained eyesight; most find the returning visions horrific. Many commit suicide so disturbed by what they see; their visions too much to bear following a protracted immunity or deficiency to sight. “Stem cells formed a protective layer over the new corneas…”
“To prevent clouding. I’ve read the literature.”
“The Divine Proportion?... Nothing but mathematics.” Dr. Geiger took Thoreau’s hand.
“Come outside with me. Wear these.”
Thoreau placed dark glasses on his new eyes and threaded an arm through the doctor’s and they exited the building. Across a street, they traveled to a small park with benches and sat down.
“As a boy I loved geography. I spent countless hours under a dim light bent over unfolded maps. I knew every valley, every mountain and every town. I was determined to become a cartographer, until my high school mathematics teacher forever changed that plan.
“Not that he lessened my love for maps. But he aroused my curiosity for the obscure world of numbers and equations. With his help, I started to recognize that abstract mathematical figures can have an inherent beauty. More important, I realized that mathematical beauty exists not only in mere numbers--it is also an intrinsic feature of the living world. It was hard for me to grasp at that time--and somehow still is today--that the structures of plants and animals alike seem to obey mathematical laws. Yet, when I was about 16, one such law, the “numbers of life” or Fibonacci sequence, awakened my interest in biology--an interest that carried me all the way through a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and a medical degree.
“The pattern of the “numbers of life” is elegantly simple. In the Fibonacci sequence, every number (after the first two) is the sum of the two preceding numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, and so on. This looks like a simple pattern, yet it determines the shape of a mollusk's shell and a parrot's beak, or the sprouting of leaves from the stem of any plant--a revelation as surprising to me, at 16, as it probably was to Leonardo Pisano--later known as Fibonacci--almost 800 years ago. Pisano, the first great mathematician of medieval Europe, discovered these magical numbers by analyzing the birth rate of rabbits.
“He wrote in the Book of the Abacus, in 1202: “Someone placed a pair of rabbits in a certain place, enclosed on all sides by a wall, to find out how many pairs will be born in the course of one year, it being assumed that every month a pair of rabbits produces another pair, and that rabbits begin to bear young two months after their own birth.” When Fibonacci checked after one month, he found one adult pair and one juvenile pair. After two months, the count was one adult pair (the original) and two juvenile pairs. After three months, there were two adult pairs and three juvenile pairs. One month later, the count was three and five, then five and eight, eight and 13, 13 and 21, and so forth. Rabbits helped Fibonacci to discover one of the great marvels of nature.
“It wouldn't be a marvel, though, if these numbers were found only in the growth of a rabbit population. Interestingly enough, the “numbers of life” appear throughout biology. Botany offers countless examples. The leaves of many plant species sprout in well-defined geometrical arrays spirally from the stem. In willows, roses, and many other plants, consecutive leaves follow each other by an average angle of 144. Therefore, five leaves account for 720 or two complete circles. In other words, the periodicity consists of two windings and five leaves. Other plants show widely varying periodicities that are nevertheless consistent with the numbers of life. In cabbage, asters or hawkweeds, for example, eight leaves complete a period after three circles. In the cones of spruce and fir trees, 21 scales turn eight times for one period. The cones of pines, in contrast, use 34 scales in 13 windings.
“Yet, Fibonacci numbers appear not only in the leaves and cones of plants, but also in flower blossoms. Pick some random flowers and count their colored petals. On average, daisies will have 21, 34, 55 or 89 petals, chrysanthemums 21, and some senecio species either 13 or 21 petals. Although exceptions to the Fibonacci rule are not difficult to find, the “numbers of life” occur so frequently in nature that they cannot be explained by chance. There must be a general law of symmetry, aesthetics and beauty.
In fact, such a law seems to govern the Fibonacci numbers. The ratio between one number and its predecessor in the series approaches 1.6180 as the numbers increase (5/3=1.667, 8/5=1.600, 13/8=1.625, 21/13=1.615, 34/21=1.619, 55/34=1.618). This magical ratio turns out to be a universal measure of beauty, which the Greeks called the “golden section” or “divine proportion.” Most of the ancient Greek temples, including the Parthenon in Athens, obey this law of divine proportion. They are exactly 1.618 times as long as they are wide. Long before the Greeks, the ancient Egyptians had already built the pyramids along the same rules. A pyramid's base length is 1.618 times its height. And many artists, too, including Leonardo da Vinci, have used the divine proportion to structure their paintings and sculptures.
“Returning to the living world, let's go one step further. Draw a “golden” rectangle with a width-length ratio of 1.6180. Then, draw a square in one end of this rectangle and you end up with a smaller golden rectangle in the space left. Next, place a square into that smaller rectangle, following the same rules, and you produce yet another, smaller golden rectangle. Theoretically, this can be done infinitely. After you've nested about ten rectangles within the original rectangle, try drawing a curved line connecting the centers of all the squares. You'll be surprised to find that the line forms a perfect spiral.
“This “golden spiral” defines the shapes and structures of many features of living organisms. The claws of a lion, the horns of a ram, the tusks of an elephant, the beak of a parrot and the shell of a snail all obey the rules of the golden spiral. Such perfect shapes appeal to us through an irresistible combination of order and beauty. Yet, the golden spiral appears unexpectedly in many non-living things, too--in the shape of a breaking wave or the structure of a galaxy, for example.
“This enmeshing of mathematical laws and the natural world awakened my love for biology and shaped my scientific career. After graduating from high school, pondering whether to enroll in geography--my old love for maps had not vanished--or biology classes at the university, I chose biology rather spontaneously on the last day of enrollment.
“Throughout the time I spent at the university, the “numbers of life” accompanied my scientific career. For example, I remember very well one field trip to Marettimo, a small Mediterranean island west of Sicily. A group of about 25 undergraduate students, we set out to Marettimo in spring 1984 to learn about the local flora. On our daily hikes across the rugged island, we detected all kinds of gorses, ericas, holm-oaks and orchids, as well as many other wonderful plants. But the most memorable experience was when I realized how many different blossoms have either 5, thirteen or twenty-one petals, all of them “numbers of life.”
“Later, during my graduate studies in molecular genetics, I had another encounter with the Fibonacci sequence. Trying to find out more about the molecular mechanism of how the nervous system forms during the development of an organism, I chose the tiny fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as my object of study. Looking at anesthesized fruit flies under a stereo-microscope, I always admired their perfect shape. One day, I realized why fruit flies look so beautiful. In fact, the segmentation of their bodies matches the law of beauty: A fruit fly has two or three head segments (hardly visible), three thoracic segments (where the legs and wings are attached) and eight abdominal segments (with no legs), all of them Fibonacci numbers. That makes 13 segments in total, just another “number of life.”
“Aware of this universal law of beauty, I have tried since high school to find the Fibonacci numbers wherever they might be hidden--in cones, blossoms, or even in fruit flies. And I always think, with a little smile, what an irony it actually is, that I had been imprinted by my high school math teacher to delve into the biology of beauty and the mathematics of aesthetics.”
Thoreau is asleep.
Nightsky Billie warbles around that red orb, Cosmic Teagarden just left for farther reaches and that satellite that brings me music from before I was born, takes another trip around my neighborhood. There's magic in the air and down here too. Up there, I wonder what the world looks like, what that face on Mars sees down here... Things are always their closest when soon departing. Family, friends, old lives, older planets and new dreams. It's hard sometimes to be who we are, to let the ones we love move away even though we know it's for the best. We know Mars is the closest its been to us for over 3,000 years, and will soon depart and the distance between us will grow again. Driving home tonight, Billie, her sweet dizzy voice, the closest she's ever been to me, and yet, so far, out there, bouncing off stars and stardust, off our hopes and all those waves of prayer. It's so beautiful tonight, so blessed to have this closeness, but it's also sad to know it doesn't last. That sweet voice from a distant time, old Jack Teagarden (who's gonna know you pass them around, a hundred years from today...) and friends who were once strangers, now closer than some kin, leaving for another part of the world. But not tonight. Now all is close. The stars, the jazz saints, the sinners and our clannan; the things we said, the things we did; the everlasting joy. Tomorrow, a different day, a beginning I suppose for all of us to close the gaps out there between the grace of our heart and the pang of our soul, between two rocks in the sky, between Billie and a lonely latenight listener. You and me. It's just so beautiful tonight...
It is not hard for Thoreau to navigate the new apartment; all of his possessions were shipped from Seattle. He landed a job at a local garage referred to him by his last supervisor. He closes himself off much the way he did in Seattle. Keeps people at bay. Stumbles around and seeks a new Methuselah. He finds none. He lives near Dr. Geiger’s office, in an area known for its museums and quiet streets. He walks with dark sunglasses and a cane; new impressions assault him and he must be prepared. A GPS system attached to his waist, which at the push of a button can summon a calm female voice, gives him coordinates every thirty minutes. He knows exactly where he is; his watch speaks too, but in a different tone and gender. CAM at home keeps everyone away. He is considering broaching the subject again with Dr. Geiger.
Where did my new eyes come from?
She has told him the information is confidential; the family of the donor wanted it that way. He will persist; it is his right to know for whom the visions he is experiencing wrought.
Where did my new eyes come from?
Simple enough question. He would ask and ask it until she folds. He senses in her a sense of spirit; he knows there are those who believe there are three lights. Thoreau knows there are only two—both of them explainable in physiological and natural terms. There is the sun—ball of fire. And, the mirror lens of the eye, which produces it own bent and split light. Two lights not three; one never walked the earth; the other never lorded it over all others. Simple answer. And when lacking either the light of the sun, or the light in the eye there is blindness. Thoreau always knew his blindness was temporary that the day will come when vision will be a downloaded program. Already lasers corrected what nature bowdlerized. Though he thought it possible to live a life without sight, why would anyone?
There was Stanley. He read about him in books the doctor provided in Braille; Thoreau had CAM translate the relief into human tongue. Stanley had been blind since a tot. Got new corneas. What did he see?
His stock and trade going through life was that of a cobbler. Oh how 20th Century, thought Thoreau. Oh how Dickensian? Sure he was independent enough, but still a cobbler—a cautionary tale, a fairy tale of woe and wonderment. He led a life dependent on others; would go bike riding with one hand on the shoulder of a fellow rider. What did he see?
He turned toward the sound of a voice. This when the bandages came off. He turned toward a sound. And saw a blur.
He reasoned since voices come from faces, the sounding blur came from a human—perhaps a physician…the ones in the room with him. Faces were never be easy for Stanley. There is a place for Thoreau which is never easy. What did he see?
Learning to see as an adult was never easy for Stanley. The doctors took him to a museum of technology which housed tools of progress and history in glass cases and in mock presentations of work environments. His tools of course were back in history, behind glass. He couldn’t touch them.
“Do you see Stanley?” they asked, smugly. Stupid scientists.
“What are they?” he replied, quietly trying to look past the glass, since and the doctors’ reflections. “What are they?”
“Tools. Cobbler tools.”
He broke down; somehow they convinced the museum to allow Stanley to hold the tools in his hand. He held them close to his face like a mother would hold a sick child. “Now I can see them.”
Years of depression followed. Not all that could be seen could be touched. Visions came unaccounted for, impression left like fire onto stone: surd. There was so much unclaimed. He made a decision and ended his life, leaving behind a typed note, with several misspellings: Iy us vettre to nw blonf.
What did he see?
After all, much assails the human mind and not all that does is understood. There are gaps in our understanding, our comprehension. When it comes to saying what we mean, we sometimes come up short.
We must use code.
In able to bridge the gap between what we understand and do not understand; to say what we mean but do so without the full in of language we resort to symbols.
Our language is replete with symbols, initials and abbreviations to stand for what we want to convey. OPEC. UN. USA. AWOL. SNAFU.
This shorthand if you will is meaningless in isolation; they have acquired recognition through repetition of use and adoption. Signs are not symbols: These are not symbols per se, they are signs. Signs point toward an accepted truth: for the most part immediate and obvious. Are you at all confused by a red, octagon, piece of metal at the end of a street with the letters S-T-O-P written on it in white? Symbols are…
Symbols are terms, pictures, and names that over time have become highly familiar. Aside from the basis meaning of any given symbol, it also implies something vague, unknown and hidden from us—a deeper connection. Additionally, it has to have context. Slippery When Wet sign at the bottom of the ocean symbolizes what? A cross in one nation means quite the opposite in another country; the wheel is both Buddhist and Christian; the swastika is both Germanic and Tibetan, but have different meanings.
A word or an image is said to be symbolic when it conveys something other than its obvious and immediate meaning. A symbol has what some would call an unconscious aspect to it, appealing to something deep in your mind. This aspect is something ill defined and beyond reason.
Our mind, mulling the symbol (a peace sign, a crescent moon, a star) from which a meaning can sometimes be elusive tends to search for ideas that lie beyond rationalism.
When we say something is divine we are simply giving it a name, beyond reason, other than we base it on a creed. There are no factual evidence to support how the mind turns the symbol into what you see. Much is beyond our range; for Thoreau this is behind him, that which is out of range.
Much of our daily lives, and the lives of those time immemorial, deal with uncertainty—beyond human understanding we strive for clarity through symbols.
These symbols represent what we cannot define or fully understand.
This is why religion uses so much symbolism in language and image. This is why our stories, the way we unfold the world around us to one another is laced with symbols. Much is beyond our range.
A great stockpile of symbols is our own minds, and deep within that entity, our unconscious. We are marvels at the production of symbols unconsciously and spontaneously. We do this every night when we sleep. We process. We filter. We arrange the comprehensible and the incomprehensible into symbols—images that stand for something else. We are dream factories.
Perception isn’t enough.
Dreams are a great help in helping us comprehend the world and our place in it. Because we ourselves, at a sensory level, are not enough. We can’t do it alone.
We never perceive anything fully or understand anything completely given that as humans we reply on our senses. Our perception is based on the quality of those senses. Look around you, examine yourself, who among us is free of sensory deficit. This is called normal.
I’m not blind; I can hear; I can touch, taste and smell.
As I suggested, deficits can be corrected or lessened. This is done through instruments—hearing aides, eyeglasses—just last year a man blind 43 years was given new corneas and now can see.
But regardless of these advancements, we as humans always reach the edge of our understanding that no instrument, no matter how well built and sensitive, can go beyond.
Instruments cannot enter the unconscious.
We do not fully understand how what we sense in sights and sounds are translated into the brain. We do not fully understand how when that information is translated into the brain how it becomes a psychic event—an event, psychology tells us, whose penultimate nature is unknowable (ask a flashlight to find itself in the dark).
We don’t know. So it is safe to say that almost every experience we have, large or small, contains the unknowable—we cannot know the nature of matter itself.
How do we comprehend those things, which cannot be detected by our senses or our most highly sensitive instruments? Subliminally we are absorbing information all the time. Unconsciously we are filing away information for later retrieval. We do this on autopilot. Las Vegas casino muzak is said to contain the subliminal message, “lose, lose, lose.” This gathering of information and images and symbols sits in our minds for use later. Where? When?
It arises later as an afterthought or, say, in a dream. In dream it is not rational what we witness, but rather a symbolic rendering—a comprehension beyond our limited capabilities. Consciousness Our thinking, our consciousness, has developed over time very slowly. Some estimate that it began to clearly develop in 4000 B.C. at the time script was invented.
Script and mind brought to the forefront a sense of duality. There can be thoughts and discernible symbols to represent them, but that there was still something else at work.
Here, perhaps, is where the great divide of conscious and unconsciousness got its start.
Here humans rationalized that their thoughts were “little gods,” speaking to them—not their own thoughts. You have to remember our sense of consciousness and theirs, the concept of soul, was vastly different. Primitive culture believes that humans had a bush soul, as well as his or her own, for example.
Other tribes and cultures believe that for every human soul there was an animal familiar, a psychic double; and an identity in the animal kingdom. This way the bush soul could be a fish, a bird, a tree and as such these other souls would hold great power over its kin. Any injury to the bush soul would translate, or be understood, to be of injury to the human. Primitives learned that to please themselves they must first please their kin, their bush souls and their gods.
Let’s move forward hundreds of years, further down the trail of consciousness-raising. By extrapolation, humans who saw the natural world as an extension of themselves, began to develop eternal symbols of this comprehension. Religious, social, familial symbols were all created as a way to hand down this knowledge, knowledge of what could not be readily sensed.
There were many ways to hand down this information, this consciousness; plainly the oral tradition was paramount to the survival of a tribe or primitive consciousness.
But memory was deficit; people died; there was distortion.
With the advent of script, the eternal symbols of a people could be transcribed and archived. These became text, religious dogma, songs, poems, myths and story.
In this way it is not hard to understand how say a Greek myth about a sailor lost at sea for ten years, beset by trials and tribulations, can have any connection to our world today. The details of one hero may differ, but the structure, the paths if you will, the story travels in our consciousness has not changed.
The contents of our consciousness influence our psyche. This psyche is still developing and is acquiring more, but in this pursuit it does not discard what it has learned from the past. Modern-humans have preserved the symbol-making capacity that once found expression in the beliefs of the primitive.
This makes Thoreau turn.
In the patchy haze of this that resides behind him, he sees a blur; a ragged figure, carrying a large hunk of darkness.
The wasp its stinger; cunning is the fox; the hare granted acceleration; the turtle its hard mosaic back. Afterthought, in the epoch of beasts, divvies loquaciously. Comes up empty, bereft of Mother Nature's offerings for the sapient bipeds: All spent.
Ready the eye positioning on an axis, the aim of a microscope.
Bungling Epimetheus, a.k.a. Afterthought, seeks out the counsel of his brother; the one with the eternal burn.
Sutures pre-placed, crossing one over another with filaments of 6.0 silk securing the eye to the cheek.
Puncture near a suture a simple clean access.
Grafted fire from Zeus, carried in a fennel stalk.
Circling cut, light: Trephination.
This the god did for us: Pissing off the boss. Out of chaos comes the organized crime of gods—revenge—by the hand of Hephaestus: Bring in the bimbo.
Using a blade furrow for harvest. Grasp the edge of the button, the cornea, with forceps.
Afterthought thinks only of the proffered box. Trouble soon ensues.
Move the blade a short distance, round, cut with curved surgical shears any remnants. Open.
Peel back, too late. Pandora calls up an electric smile: teeth, gums, candy-red lipstick.
With care; with the care of a thousand timid nuns, grasp the epithelial--not the endothelial, edge.
Illness! Grief! Pain!
Lower the donor button, graft, into the awaiting orb. Crosshatch four cardinal sutures: 12, 3, 6, and 9 o'clock.
There is a burden of care. The thieved flame warms and illuminates and blinds. Look closely: crystals. This in the weeks following surgery, when Dr. Geiger unwraps Wonder Thoreau. “Oh.”
Crystals. A minor infection of micro-organisms. Even now, Thoreau's new blue eyes sparkle with Prometheus' gift—bounty stolen from gods.
Dr. Geiger sits Wonder Thoreau down. It has been two years.
There are complications, there always are, thinks Thoreau. Not only is there the persistent and reoccurring infection in his eye, hence the look of ice in his eyes; his left eye has an Uritz-Savellia pupil; a pupil that is dilated and will remain so for the rest of its life. There had been some bleeding, which was disconcerting in public when strings of bright brown blood trickle from beneath his tony Wayfarers, but that has stopped. What is left is astigmatism. Things look ragged or cubed. “I thought that would disappear once the sutures were removed.”
Thoreau nods. “Still there.”
“You might need contact lenses.”
This makes Thoreau laugh; “a borrowed button covered by glass! What of the person these come from?”
Silence. Thoreau cannot see clearly that Dr. Geiger is giving him a face or reproach. “I take that as a no.”
“The graft interface may stretch. Surgery will not…”
“New lenses are fine. Maybe they have those cat’s eyes ones.”
Who you are is found in the eyes. Take for example something as seemingly incorruptible as color. The physicist notices the waves of light’s length. To the psychologist, the physiologist the notice of color is a matter of the synapses, of our neurological responses found deep in our eyes seeking marriage with the brain. Unfortunate few, frayed nerves, rickety nervous systems suffer limitations when absorbing color. Color in nature has its advantageous and disadvantages; it offers naturalists the “oh,” in awe when beauty fills their eyes, but the color of the beast, of the flora and fauna of nature also serve as its protector; it’s hiding place and its survival. How come to understand black, blue, ochre to social historians and linguists is to unravel threads, tied to the shawl of community and culture. The art historian, too, might fumble with skeins; witnessing over time how, say, muted earth tones take on the patina of dream. For that artist, color is a turning of the inside out, bringing what lies beneath, atop, surfacing and glistening like blood, like stars in a dark sky. The intangible becomes wood, dark loam; a canvass of sea.
Thoreau stands outside a museum with Dr. Geiger, who finishes a smoke. The air is thick with aphids and foreboding humid air. Schoolgirls across the street, reeking of marijuana, scream by on motorized skateboards. Thoreau tastes liquorice; a childhood addiction. “In the absence of memory, there is nothing but truth that the persistence of memory is but lies. That line came to be me in a bizarre dream, last night. I dreamed that I was with a group of people the world had forgotten about. There was some kind of disaster and we all ended up in a large facility awaiting rescue.
“We were there a long time. We slowly made our way back to civilization, but still no one could remember whom we were. But we still existed and the truth set us free.”
Geiger coughs and taps Thoreau on the arm: “We hang by threads, some frayed while others seemingly broken—but never severed. They are lassoes and haloes, lines tied to angels and hope horses. They keep us tangled together, free, yet entwined. Look up some time when you feel as if a puppet, and see all the lines wavering in the sky. See all the other threads. Gather them and never wonder why just me. We are all hanging, we are all dancing on our string: We are all kites who sometimes miss the wind.”
Thoreau smiles, “I think you inhaled too much of the recent air.”
“Come on we better get inside. It looks like rain.”
Feeling a sculpture near the front door of the Menil Museum, Thoreau has this memory:
Waiting for Ben Adam. He was inside still sleeping after coming to the window to see me. He looked out, gave a little sleepy wave and left. It was a Saturday morning, early summer, early hour. I sat outside his house for what seemed to a child a very, very, long time. I can always remember that even now decades later. Was I bothered? Did I get mad? I no longer know, but what I do remember is the warmth of that morning, the sunshine, the meandering dogs, the curious cats, the moats of pollen, the intriguing detritus on the ground, birdsong, train whistles, the whisper of wind, all that beauty told me while I waiting alone, I was anything but. In a way, I am still awaiting Ben Adam, and in this waiting I enter the everlasting calm of beauty also waiting for me to let time by for now.
There is nothing for Thoreau to see. The only thing he wants to see is his file. He must know where his corneas came from; he needs to know who has lost their sight for his gain. What is he seeing?
He goes at night to Dr. Geiger’s office, crawling through a second storey window. The darkness doesn’t bother him and he has no need of light. It is all touch and taste; he smells the recently cleaned floors; the wax. Dr. Geiger’s perfume. He walks on all fours through the office, the carpet burning his hands. He finds her office and her files. His file is not in the cabinet, so he searches her desk and after emptying numerous drawers comes to one that is locked. He jimmies the lock and there inside is his file. His name is written on the tab, but is also outlined in Braille. He fingers his identity. And throws open the file reading off all the notes Geiger has made during her visits with him. Thoreau digs and digs finally coming to the page where all of his life he has been waiting, this moment and all it entails is his to own now. The name on the file: his brother’s.
The next morning Thoreau waits outside the museum where he knows Dr. Geiger will be; she visits the museum every week with or without a patient. At his side a bucket of battery acid. When she came out of the museum, Thoreau lifts the bucket and the cloth and the doctor begins to scream, in a deadrun. “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Thoreau dunks the cloth and applies it to his eyes. There is nothing for Thoreau to see, but red on red pain. He throbs so much it is as if he is convulsing from every pore in his body. He hears Dr. Geiger yelling, holding onto him, and he can see faintly, blobs and orbs, the sky a miasmic swill of grey and grey; dust and all the molecules of the world…. Chagall! Tears of hot acid run down his cheeks, burning, them. Geiger hoists Thoreau to his feet.
“You weren’t supposed to know…”
“You couldn’t keep it…”
“We’ve got to get you help… Oh!”
Thoreau is pushed and pulled down the street. “Follow that…cat?” says Dr. Geiger and they do down a street treelined and vibrating, over sidewalks erupted from ancient roots. They round a corner following a bobbing cat tail, a cat tail, to a large matt black door, which swings open to let the cat in. They follow.
Inside: Silence and…
East of the Sun, West of the Moon and its Sea of Tranquility, Maria Callas streamsincandescent light from her warbling throat, her mouth. Quand je vous aimerai...L'amour. We are learning the moves again. How the King moves, in any direction, one square at a time; the congregation only gets better one by one. There is no scarcity here, there is thaumaturgy, linked networks, seen and hidden, moving the raucous exterior into the silent, independent, inner world, moving in any direction, willingly capturing, advancing, dancing in this incredible light somewhere East of the Sun, West of the Moon, confirmation signs of healing in deep waters of the heart.
My window this morning is wet with condensation, offering an opaque view. It is bright outside on this first of July, but all I see is the dappled, impressionistic trees and patches of pale blue summer sky. In all the patches and pieces there is a design that can only be seen if one considers that it's all part of a bigger picture, now a forest, a sky, a day, a human just being interested anew in the world alive. Jagged.
There is a story told at your funeral, recited from scrolls retrieved from the jaws of mangy dogs. They meander, eternity's bloodhounds,throughout the battlefield, slack and hungry, sniffing out those final words we say; all words should be considered the final utterances, until followed by others. Since we know not whom the target of archers. Luck, Aristole said, is the guy next to you getting struck with the arrow. Our timecan come and go without much of a sound. One moment we're just struck by the beauty of it all.
There is a story told at your funeral and you have no part in itsrhetoric. It is pieced together, agreed upon and recited. It becomes gospel, according to you. But if you're smart, and devious, throughout your life you will find places, caves, to leave your gnostic story. For a story is being written about you, and it's not the truth. The dogs are circling. Begin today the letters that will be read when you are gone and those left wondering will undertand the beauty of it all.
I hover over the water fountain basin watching some microscopic ants trying to escape the burbling water. "Get going," I whisper, my face inches from them. Two escape, one drowns. Didn't it hear me?
This is my first stop, this water fountain, on my daily, three-mile run. My runs continue down a few streets to a residential area. There, after getting water from another fountain, I turn around and head back home.
As I leave the first fountain, the one where an ant has drown in water I produced by pushing on a small metal button, which filled the chrome basin, I think about Supreme Beings, God, if you will, and how we must appear to them. Microscopic perhaps; ignorant of our clear messages for safety. To the ants, no doubt, the loss of their friend is tragic and perhaps meaningless. After all it was a beautiful, quiet day. The sun was out; in fact it was well over 100 degrees. The basin was cool. The ants probably thought it was a great place. Then came a storm, a calamity, a sudden gush of water, a hovering monster and death. Senseless. Why did our friend the ant have to die? The surviving ants may well have heard my caution, my encouragement to get out; or maybe they were just faster than the one that sunk beneath the water. On the lip of the basic the survivors might have turned and looked up at me wondering how I could let this happen. It made no sense. Why?
On the roads I run there is, most days, a lot of traffic. In Texas, in suburbs and major cities, there is always a lot of traffic. On a road nearby a woman driving north on a two-way highway drifted from her lane and struck head-on another vehicle, this one driving south. This happens a lot anywhere, these two-way roads. We zip past one another so often we almost forget the other vehicle is there. We're going so fast, or driving a route so familiar, we no longer notice anything about what lies anywhere but right in front of you. Next time you're driving, just try, if you can, to look into the trees and bushes that line the road--what you see might surprise you. Do this of course, when you about to stop or when you're about to accelerate from a light or stop sign. Look around.
When the woman driving north drifted, she was drifting too; she was falling asleep. The vehicle travelling the other direction was a prisoner transport van (we have several prisons in the area). Inside the van were two correctional officers and a death row inmate. Three people once you take away the uniforms, the crime, and the barriers between them--just three people. When the car hit the van, one person died while others were seriously injured. They will survive. Oh, the dead row inmate, who in three to five years, will be executed, survived. The correctional officer who died walked away from the accident, but only briefly. He walked around highly agitated, then he collapsed and died. Apparently one of his aortas was severed. The woman in the car, she too survived largely unscathed. The one who died was father to three and husband to one.
Most people I talk to about this says the same thing, that the death of the officer seems especially tragic given that a murderer survived only to be put to death some time later. How could God do this, they ask. It seems senseless.
On my run I think about this. About the ants, too. Do you think we only count the near misses, but fail to see all the times nothing happens when it easily could have? I mean, is there someone telling us to "get out," and sometimes we just don't notice? Are there times when we notice instinctually, but can give no rationale for why we decided to slow down or not get on that airplane? Don't go to work today.
As I run, and sometimes now when I drive, I look at the thick bush lining the road. I don't know what I'm looking for: A sign? Siddhartha in the thicket. Yahweh in the yarrow. I'm not entirely sure. Maybe it's just that ant, that one ant that didn't make it and me thinking about how I could have spoken louder or lowered my finger to help it out.
And I think too of what goes unnoticed, what is hidden there in the bushes, knowing the flowers are dormant even though we know that the bush contains the potential to bloom. And knowing this I listen too. I listen. Maybe we've all been missing what is potential?
Why bushes? What am I talking about? I think of what the deceased might have been looking at just before dying; what did he see, walking away from the accident, agitation burning like flame in his chest? What did he see and what did he hear at the side of the road--was it all nothing but dense brush?
He is not just some philosophical pawn I employ to settle some inner dilemma. He is proof that tragedy makes some sense, that something is being said here. He did not die in vain; you've undoubtedly heard that platitude a time or two. But it's true.
I don't know this man's name only his circumstance, his unfortunate death. You don't know him. And if from someone we don't even know can make an impact on us, what does it say for the potential that for those he knew personally to see the world anew? His life saved thousands. We call those heroes; sometimes we call them angels. One and the same they’re messengers. Are we listening?
This is about gravity, about wood and fire, ash. This is about free falling, about the coming and going of the years. The freedom of this transformation. I’m turning from the inside out and I’m philosophical about the sojourn. I do at times believe we are but spheres of energy, light or that we are anchors lowered by angels. But within myself there is less doubt, less resistance to God’s will. I pray silently to myself in the morning before rising seeking not answers for myself, but seeking only His way with me. I give it over.
As I age I loosen my grip on those things that pretend to define me, to turn my feet into stone. I seek only the fire which blows and burns the wood, the crate which has imprisoned my soul, falling away like ash and rising up to get caught in the eyelashes of downward glancing seraphim. This happens as I free fall, shed my earthly bounds and alight to greater salvation and understanding. Yet I still hunger and love and yearn for gravity, for the belonging breezes, which come as the soft voice of God whispering: Let go, between heaven and earth you reside as love’s flesh and blood, love’s carrier on the sojourn of the soul turning ages and ages.
There is the road. It's not whether you travel it--we all do. The matter comes down to how. It's the How Road, as Kierkegaard calls it.
"...In a spiritual sense, the road comes into existence only when we walk it. That is, the road is how it is walked," he says in Provocations.
This how is self-determining, to a degree. How we meet the challenge. How we talk the talk; how we walk the walk. For every thing we do results in consequence. The skill is in minimizing negative outcomes--though never entirely avoidable--while cultivating positive consequences. And then even when the negative arise, and they do, how we react to those takes us further down that road. The road simply is. The road less traveled is not a physical fork in the forest, it's the divining principle in yourself. We are what's important and different.
There are no more paths, simply more and more pathfinders and takers. My way may not be your way, but we both face the road. I can only tell you about the way of the road; I can't walk the road for you. Nor, I think, would you ask me to.
That road can be a joy to travel along or it can be a chore. You can have a sense of happiness and not notice the road; you can be aware and choose happiness or your can wait for a ride and bemoan the ground beneath your aching feet. The road is the road, nevertheless. Pious if you choose; pitiful too if you choose otherwise. Sacred and profane and everything in between.
The road is how, not what. The road never, ever, reaches an end. Bear that in mind. The walk as wonderful as the walker.
In an uncertain age, a period of duct tape and blinders, a time when much is hidden or neo-Victorian in a self-preservation kind of way, it shouldn't surprise me that a Muslim student wants to be assured his essay will not be read by his classmates. His subject? Prayer.
I don't have the heart, or perhaps I just plain forgot, to tell him he isn't writing the essay for me, he's writing the essay for them--his classmates, his audience, the very people whose judgment he so wishes to avoid.
But it's not even judgment avoidance; my student doesn't even want to single himself out. I see this constantly. As we discuss his need for privacy, I notice standing at the classroom door is my class' only Jew. She's not concerned about what the Muslim wants to do, rather she wants to hear how she too can be afforded protection. Only you will know--right?
Of course, I am not in the business of betraying confidences, especially the confidence a student places on his or her teacher. I want to encourage openness, but I know that my sense of openness and vulnerability as a white man differs than, say, a closeted lesbian or a Hindu.
So, I.B. Cyrus sighs in Scullionspeak from his slightly parted lips, it is to the birds I must heed. Cranes, Starlings: Seagulls; the foes of his dearest feline. The caller, distant, susurrant, hisses hastily from the receiver as if hummingbirds haunting succor.
-You cannot serve me. I must go to water’s edge, to the verdant end of this virile, fecund, forest in congress with those aerial winged wonders to seek guidance on Happiness, missing more than a night’s rest now. I must go.
Mr. Cyrus lowers the telephone back to its cradle, gathers his latchkey and exits his tony tower. On the lawn he lights a cigarette, pulls his fedora down closer to his eyes to guard against the morning sun. In the pocket of his coat, a tuna fish sandwich—a favorite of Happiness’ He scans the sky thinking of places where things are lost. Dia duit, sonny. Ah, Papa, good morning, the sky says to Mr. Cyrus lost in cirrus. His grandfather’s aplomb appears apparition, singing a’capella, Dia duit. The slow maundering murmur, of his milting, his marrow, his no more.
-Ibby! Mr. Cyrus deafened by divinity, crosses himself, and kisses the tips of his fingers, which taste of ash. Wednesday. Is it? The sun; he covers his eyes to witness Buck Milligan emerge from an oblivion amidst the sun shards slicing the street. Pollenshadows float silently by through the morning solace from the parapet of his manicured lawn with each Milligan step; the light a mirror of the sky at once dark and light: blue: the color of change. Happiness is? Mr. Cyrus fills the bowl near the sink, an earlier time, with the first knowledge of Happiness’ missing furry form. Nine lives. Fall down seven, get up eight? Nine years in human years is one.
-What’s with the moping? Milligan, stately and plump, clamors as he comes to the side of his companion who greets him him with initial silence, enough of an interval for a volley: What cat got your tongue?
-My Happiness is missing. What do you care, love of dogs, you madra, you flea-bitten licker of balls.
His head halts for a brief moment, hikes towards the sky. Birdsong?
-Squawks? Mr. Mulligan barks as if bitten by fleas or festered by feathery foes falling from nearby fronds. He takes off his hat and stares at the sky.
-Birds. Their song has been our family’s salvation. Did I ever tell you the tale of my uncle the poet? Only a few of his poems exist still today. But for a brief time he was famous. Back then, famous. Not now famous. All that is really known of him is the dramatic story of his demise.
-O, an impossibly Greek story no doubt! Milligan slaps Ibby on the shoulder. They walk down the lawn to the pathways. Ibby weaves an arm through Milligan’s.
-He was attacked on a pathway and robbed; he was mortally wounded. A flock of birds, seagulls, kittiwakes, flew by overhead, and he called on them to avenge him.
Milligan withdraws as if wounded. –Such blarney from the Irish!
-This is Greek, remember. And I am not Irish.
-You are madra.
-Perhaps if I bear my fangs: yellow: enticing. Soon after the seagulls flew over the coast to a line of fishermen coming in from the sea. It was noisy.
The sea sings sirens seeking to wash world-weary welts from the body of beaten beasts. The sea sings sirens seeking to wash world-weary worry from the brain of the begotten beasts.
-A man’s voice: The seagulls of Skellig, the saviors! The fishermen turned, their nets swollen with the sea, to see. The men stood and understood; the shouted: The murderers! The murderers! The seagulls took the men to the robber who got them drunk, boarded them on boats and buried them beneath the briny sea.
The sea sings sirens seeking to wash the world-weary worms from the bones of bargained beasts. The sea sings sirens seeking to wash world-weary words from the beak of seafaring beasts. The murderers!
Mr. Cyrus walks quickly to the end of the street: Mr. Mulligan follows, his arms pumping at his sides. He noshes on chocolate, a bar he withdrew from his pocket. At the end of the street, he offers his companion a bite, to which Mr. Cyrus raises a palm, closes his pious pupils, and silently shakes his head.
-Forty days. (Heathen)
Throughout the forest, he fumbles, festooned with frustration; he is a lone, aloof to the chattering cicadas, eager for egrets and seeking seagulls. Birds. The dove, the olive branch; the responsibility of bringing peace. Happiness is chasing birds? Something purple in the woods; a finch? The color of mourning, memories, memento mori? He might be lost in this unfamiliar liar this untrimmed untamed unction umbrageous and unbearable. His parents? It is hard to pinpoint one memory of his parents; the woods twist into confusion, a worry of will ‘o wisps and thorny bush; roots make one stumble. The burning bush: They were cremated. They are everything to this young Turk. But now gone. They feed him still (is he a worm?); clothed him, protected him; never lost him. In God We Trust! Indeed! Happiness! The pursuit of Happiness! The tuna fish sandwich! Mr. Cyrus takes it from his pocket and unwraps it—the shroud of Turin unfurls there too—and waves it about. Oriflamme! There are spelling mistakes in the scrolls. The wind is surd and sonant. The smell, the aroma of home. Tea. It was dark, the town lights on and he sat quietly just watching the parade of shoppers go. He cannot recalls exactly what was said. Just cups of tea. Sustenance. Succor. Safety. She says you are from here. He doesn’t know where they are. At that moment there is truth. And the word is: Hope. Miasmic and ungainly; twisted and untethered, truth unravels when it leaves the hands and enters the abyss of larger things. But then. Then. From here, he can state at them swimming in the pool in the yard, in the place where they cannot she him. He lowers his hands, unzips his pants, and for a moment; meme meme meme, memememememememe, meme, me me. He is meme of masculine motion.
Lig se beic as.
-Excuse me, do you know the way to Montrose, eh?
Mr. Cyrus turns to see the short man standing in the lane near the water’s edge. For a moment, he wants to see a cat face above the man’s shirt collar. He wants so badly to be home. It’s been ten hours already. Will Happiness remember him? There are no birds, no song, but confusion and roots and brambles and wind in the leaves. Fucking cicadas; the humidity!
-Are you Canuck?
-The ‘eh’ gets them every time. Yes. Montrose?
-I’m Canadian, from the west (I think the lie goes)
The finger points north, just up that road there. There west of the southern ridge of the green so dark it is the color of a dead cat’s tongue. Happiness.
-Have you seen a black and white cat. Big, furry. Little guy got away, eh.
Guy shakes his head, turns and trundles off his body slowly eaten molecule by molecule by the day’s gloaming fast approaching—what! A storm perhaps? Day’s ending, Happiness must find before home is dark.
His secrets: Old stories are lies, the tattered photos of revelers in Scottish pubs; in Irish pubs; the old photographs of relatives and relativity no longer known to him are given names of uncles and aunts; his family tree weak with lead smudges and dusted with eraser grit. A birdcage with the gate open. Song awaited.
O, wont we have a merry time
Drinking uisce beatha and wine
O, won’t we have a jolly time
At the reunion drinking?
He takes his Irish-English dictionary from his hip pocket. He looks up lost, he looks up found. He looks up family, up cat.
Mewing. He hears mewing. There at the pungent water’s edge, with feathers on its whiskers. Happiness, harking, Happiness, harking. Memories. Bone in the belly: memento mori. Mewing.
He watches his furry charge warm up to his presence in her killing field. There were no birds for she has eaten them. Birdbone, craw, featherduster. Nearby a black cat is plucked by a murder of ghost crows (the gloaming) as if a musical instrument. G minor. A battleground. It is the sound of freedom; the sea singing sirens: Seagulls: Skellig: Savior. The sun sits hard against the Muesch skyscape. The gloaming flies in full and foreboding as if on winged carrier.
-Where have you been?
Mr. Cyrus does not expect an answer as he stoops to scoop the sly sinister cat from its hunting haunches and sits near the skanky water. But: Song comes from birds. Birdsong rhapsody.
-Don’t you know the history of cats? The history of history?
He sits Happiness in his lap. He takes his hand and steadily strokes her head. He shakes his noggin. In this unfamiliar place he calls his home. Now, here, he can be whomever he wants. Tear up the photographs. Cut the lines. Deny, deny, deny.
-We hide best when sought for.
(The ragged figure there behind the tree)
The sun nearly nimbus numb against his need, slides, then sinks in gauze: blue: the color of change.
-I am…Mr. Cyrus begins. The ash of Wednesday; the giving up for Lent. Suddenly he is arisen!
He tosses the cat in the bayou before him. A good pitch, a strong throw; the arc of triumph. Watery grave; bubbles of purloined profanity. Mewing, murmuring, murder.
A seagull lands as if epaulette at his ear. Mr. Cyrus smirks serenely and sings a Scullionspeak sonata in praise of birds.
Turning the curve for wherever, he waves a dismissive limb. It calls again: Tempting: Untempted. He does not turn, didn’t need to; a sleek black head, Happiness, far out in the water, bobs, sink, and swims to the distant shore where it alights into the shadows of a far side. All. But.
-I am a descendent of dinosaurs.
He stretches his arms as far as his marrow will mightily muster.
In stretching this way, and that, the swaying of the cross that bears the name of his… and falls, falls down the bank of the river, over rocks and smashing his head, who’s head? Where’s head? What lake? This…
Dank bayou. Blood on his…who’s forehead.
Ibby stands akimbo, off kilter, akin to nothing in his surroundings. Lost forlorn and loathing the experience.
Who’s clothes, who’s feet, who’s hands. Nothing is the same and all is the different here and now and forever more; where is the past; those shadows, those calls from the street, this lady!
-Can you see? The soft voice static at once then sibilant and fulfilling the next enters Ibby’s mind. He stands, barely, his back against a gigantic tree, whose limbs sway above him in symphonic movement with winds lo and beholding. He can see, but How you have fallen bright son of morning…fell to earth, no…
-Can you see sir?
How you have fallen from heaven, bright son of the morning, felled to the earth. –Yes and no. I don’t know. Ibby leans more heavily into the tree, which holds right back. The rain begins to pelt the ground with fat walloping drops. Before him stands a woman, with bright blond hair, running shoes, shorts and singlet; earplugs protrude from her tiny ears and run in white cord down to a pack on her waist. Schubert’s Ava Marie, faint, tinny. She is pointing. –Can you see?
Ibby, much to his shock realizes with a goodly glance gloamward, that a river plant has festooned his foot. And is pulling him bayouward. –The calypso weed. Very dangerous… She bends down, and unleashes Ibby from the horticultural horror. Her tiny white hands—fingernails painted puce—work diligently at the weed, freeing Ibby from its clutches. As soon as the last tendril of the smoky, lime green, vinous bayou vegetation is uncoiled, it slings, quickly, back into the teabag green and brown bayou bilge. Ibby issues a hue, a cry. –Lord sakes!
She stands, astraddle, Schubert sirens sound silently in surrounding sluice, and sighs. –Legend has it the bayou is home to a vicious spirit of all the evil that’s ever been poured into its gullet; an evil whose sole purpose is to keep and marry any man who dares to court it with prizes of detritus. Like cats!
Ibby hasn’t a clue. He hasn’t the foggiest. He hasn’t his hat…?
She picks up the chapeau found on nearby fire ant festering fronds of bayou bank blades of green, green grass and hands it to him. –Can you see, now? Ibby lightly takes the hat and looks inside it: A picture of a cat. He shows the woman.
-Have you seen?
From her belt the woman, a marathoner in training no doubt, takes from her pouch a small, clamshell of a cell phone and opens it with one hand, the way she can. She dials a number and soon is talking to someone on the other end, a person who goes by the name Zilla. A big man in these parts, she whispers coving the phone with her hand. Ibby nods. Right now Ibby has no idea what he’s doing here, what’s he’s seeing, who this cat is in his hat only that if he were to find the furry creature perhaps on its collar will be an address, an address, a home, a home, a person, a person, some answers, for all the questions that pick and pick at him incessantly with each throb of his throbbing throbbing headache. Inexplicably, confused and hungry, Ibby pictures his home, his beloved home, the one in his brain that he’s conjured up, not the one in real life, covered in vines, which are slowly, effortlessly, and ravenously chew at its foundation. What is this but…
Heremie? –He’ll take you anywhere you want to go… I suggest the hospital, but the choice is yours. I wouldn’t go near the bayou again today.
-Why not? Simple enough question given that the water is always there and has never before threatened Ibby. He wonders if perhaps the lady is a vagabond, some looney-toon from the local asylum on the hill; there is no hill, but it’s far more illustrative of Ibby’s train of thought than landscape. Schubert shrills. The lady begins to jog in place. In the rain no less, which has just picked up. –Athena. Memememmemee Ibby gets a good look at her in her velour tracksuit, its tight fittingness, and its sheen of angelic white. He gets a humungous boner. To which, of course, he must turn away from her. When he turns back around having stabbed himself in the thigh with a tree limb, she is gone. Vamoose. Exited. Exeunt stage left. Gone tropico? It’s then that he notices the taxi; bright orange with black and white checks and a faint smell of cigar smoke wafts through the open passenger window. The taxi resembles a small boat. A dingy. –Ibby? Hermie? That was fast. Ibby scampers over to the awaiting taxi, unsure as to why he should be doing so. Has he ever scampered before? Who is he? Why mememememe? He tips his hat.
-Hey I’ve seen that cat?
Hermie points to the picture Ibby has taped inside his fedora. He turns the hat toward himself and peers inside. Sure enough. –How that get there?
-Maybe the cat knows.
-Cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man on the moon…
Hermie smiles. –I know where, hop in.
Ibby hauls his ass into the backseat of the taxi, the interior of which is covered in rich red velvet and the smell of cigar is everywhere. In all the ashtrays, in front and in back with Ibby, are smoldering cigars. Hermie turns around and gawks at Ibby. –Mind if I smoke? Help yourself. Ibby fingers a Zino, and then chooses a CAO Toro, half smoked. He places it in his mouth. Does he smoke? He can’t recall. The taxi leaves the curb with a loud bang, Hermie turns up the radio loud and soon the taxi is a floating scream of music, car engine sounds and Hermie’s off-key yodeling. He tells Ibby a story, by first giving a little tilt of his head heavenward, -Ibby, this I must do. For the baby my missus and I had, ever so briefly. I do it to evangelize, but also to keep pure this thing that happened, this being. Understand?
-This is a prayer for you, Baby Bean. Although you were with us for such a short time, this is a prayer of thanks. Do not blame yourself. We pray that you understand there are so many reasons why right now, was not the right time. Believe that we will miss you, believe we will remember. Believe that we still love you. Believe that in everything there is a plan, and that you were part of a larger one. We pray that one day you will see a brother or a sister who looks just like you. That you smile then, knowing we will recall in that baby, our Baby Bean. We thank you for this possibility, although it all may seem so tragic now. We hurt, but we are not destroyed. We thank you for entering our lives ten weeks ago, and changing us forever. In preparing for your birth, your mommy and I let go of so much that did not matter, to be ready for what truly does. And even though, the day of your birth did not come, there can be no tears of sadness, when you realize that your time here was not in vain. We were blessed with your presence, and gives thanks for the experience of bringing you into this wonderful world. You cannot imagine how much healing you brought into this world on your tiny shoulders. You cannot imagine how many other babies did not arrive on due dates, but changed the world forever, just like you. You cannot imagine how many other mommies know what your mommy had to go through. Or, how many other daddies held their chin high and wished, like me, they had the power of the universe at their fingertips. This is a prayer for you, Baby Bean that wherever you have gone you know that we reside in your little heart, as you do in ours.
Thanks for bringing us the promise of parenthood and all that it entails. Without you there would be no understanding of how important it is to live a full life. To live as if the last breath is soon to be exhaled. To live a life knowing there is something afterwards.
To live a life full of surprises and in awe of all that surrounds us. Thanks to you for pointing out miracles. Thanks to you, Baby Bean, we now know there is no other thing we want to be but parents. Thanks for bringing me the joy of hearing all the stories of all the other babies being born. And for helping us to see all the baby clothes, toys and Winnie The Pooh we had previously missed. We pray that you can send your love to the grandmas, the grandpas, and all the other family members who are mourning. You gave us all so much. Let them know you are safe. Let them know we are fine. Send your love too, to the co-workers who, in the blink of an eye, became more than the people your mommy and daddy see at work. Send some of your love to that little church of ours. Everyone is praying for us, can’t you feel it? We pray that your love and your life helps others, as it has helped us. That those who have babies in their arms have the means to feed them, to keep them safe and warm. That those who have babies but are tired and may raise a hand to strike them will think of you. That those who tonight go home and give their own child all their love do so because of you. That those who desperately want to be parents, become what they have wished for, because of who we have become ourselves. We pray you will be with us when we place the little things we began to gather in your name, in a memory box. We pray you tell us the best place to keep it. That you can understand how hard it was for your mommy to write a goodbye letter, and place it inside the memory box. We pray you can comprehend all the words, and their weight.
We pray that all the “whys,” disappear from your memory and all the wonder remain.
We pray that you will be with us, when I stoop ever so gingerly to rest an ear on mommy’s stomach to hear the beckoning arrival of another miracle, just like you. Be there when that new day arrives in the future. Be there to see a new heart beating 155 beats of ultrasound light per minute. Be there with us as we stand in the living room, staring at each other, in awe. Be there when we tell our story to the world.
Know, sweet Baby Bean, this is not the end. As we turn now to a new beginning, we do not see a conclusion. We pray and hope you know this to be true. We pray that you will be with us when we plant seeds in your honor. Moreover, that the seedling will grow, tall and strong, with roots burrowing deep into the earth. That light warms its soul.
Water quenches its thirst. In addition, that the loam be its perfect place.
We pray that as we sink our hands into the dank soil, you know that this is not about loss; this is about gaining new insights. That this is not about the dying, but the living.
That this is not a final resting place, but the starting point of the substance of dreams.
We pray that you will always be our Baby Bean. There will never be one exactly like you. You made us proud to have been your parents. What a gift you have been.
Mercy and Godspeed, be with you. This is a prayer for you, Baby Bean, see you someday, soon.
There is a silence so deep sometimes only life can bring up life again.
-God, like an oracle, neither shouts nor shimmies into disappearance, but gives us signs.
-Aye. Amen. Ad majorem Dei glorium. Where did that come from? Ibby has no idea. Then, quiet suddenly the road disappears. Water is everywhere: on the hood of the taxi, near the doors, on the windows. The trees are swirling and gyrating in crazy patterns of hell and miasmic nightmares; tree limbs leap out in gripping motion as Ibby grips tightly to the seatbelt strapped across his waist. In the front sea Hermie is laughing uproariously, his cigar bobbing in his gaping maw like a burning magical stick. The taxi tosses and turns, like a child, bounding on a field of bubbles and pure adrenaline. Ibby is screaming, gripping too tightly. –Let go Ibby. Just let go. Ibby can’t believe his ears; all is a roar of a million voices and songs; sonatas, hip-hop, jazz, Tuva throat singers; Billie Holliday and Ozzy Osbourne; The Grateful Dead jam with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir… Chagall and Picasso is the sights before him, swirling in garish color and texture; cubes of people and animals; clouds both clean and jejune swish by, the bayou swells, calypso reels and belches bile and brown water the color of summer’s ice tea. –I have to get out… The taxi rocks and begins to capsize, Hermie opens his door and beckons to Ibby to follow. –Swim for it man. The rain is coming vertically, slashing the taxi with glowing fat pelts of water carried in from the gulf coast; this is African banana trade wind rain, the opening sally of a hurricane. Hadn’t he been listening to the news. He’d forgotten that a hurricane was on the loose. Ibby exit the taxi, his fedora tugged tight on his head; soon all is muffled and silent; all is wet and brown; he is floating in a gigantic roiling toilet of dead animals, car tires and detristus. This is how I will die! He screams and swallows a pungent foul tasting mouthful of bayou. Calypso laughs and unfurls a tendril of water weed, wrapping itself around and around Ibby left leg. Ibby jerks but nothing, his hat floats up, seeking the light of the day above, which is being assaulted by the hurricane to come. Soon Ibby is near unconscious; the last thing he sees is Hermie falling from the sky above through the gelatinous void screaming with his body, hands massive and imploring steady and dead aimed at calypso; he tugs and rips; he moves and pushes—soon Ibby is free and the two men swim to the surface.
Air, active and suffuse with a thousand stains of wind and noise. Car horns and cicadas compete for Ibby’s attention. His fedora floats by and he reaches out to snag it, placing its soggy form onto his aching head. Hermie tugs on Ibby’s coat collar and straddles the waves and churning water, as one who surfs does, and makes for the distant shore. Ibby looks back to see the taxi, its bright orange roof, in the drink, its dead and unmoved tires up and pointing toward the sky. The car rolls over a wave and then, slowly, disappears beneath the gulping appetite of the swollen river bayou…
The land is muddy and smells of urine and excrement; they claw up the bank, sinking several times into the muck of sediment long compacted with buffalo bones with the exoskeleton of a thousand blind salamanders seeking redemption and a little sustenance. Ibby thrashes bush and bracken, rock and exposed roots in an attempt to secure ascent onto the bank. Hermie is slightly ahead, stepping onto rocks and root as if mountain climbing; he is cheering on Ibby and looking back, as the bayou continues to amass a watery grave for all that steps more than twice into his history of meandering madness and belying summertime calmness. Ibby gropes and finds Hermie’s massive ham of a hand reaching down. Grip and pull and the cat-lost man is up and onto the grassy knolls of the bayou banks. Up there is no rest as the storm that knock out the bridge the taxi had been on, continues to lash and soak; the sky is lower and lower; the city cannot be seen. They fumble, holding onto to one another in an attempt to form an island of sanity and stability; it is not always possible to remain upright. –The hurricane isn’t even here yet. Ibby strains to hear Hermie. –Then what in blue blazes is this! In all directions, nothing but water and mayhem; and ultimate players, a whole team running towards Ibby and Hermie. –Come with us; over there… Ibby follows the finger to a warehouse up on a hill in the short distance; it waves in and out of sight through the torrents of rain. They run as a scrum, holding on to one another. A Frisbee nails Ibby in the nose and blood begins its iron-tasting run down from his nostril to his lips. He licks and licks. Lent! Still Lent! Still Still. Vigilant! The warehouse is made in staggering steps and lurches of a group of men coming to resemble a large poly-limbed beast making an evolutionary run for survival. A redhead Ultimate player, Larry, he has said into Ibby’s ear lunges for the door and tugs. The door opens and the men fall in one after another, slapping the tile with their soaked feet and their drenched clothing. As soon as the door closes the roar subsides, and the steam of their bodies and struggle rise in unison throughout the lobby of the warehouse, which apparently is a building of lofts. –Wow and wow backward. This is Larry. He sinks into a leather chair as others fall to the floor in grunts and groans. Here come the prayers of thanksgiving of horror and enjoyment. Congregations are not pews, thinks Ibby, there people in the pews. He sinks to the floor, taking off his fedora. He looks inside—the cat! Where’s this cat. Finding the cat means finding his home, finding his home, means finding out who he is. Where does be belong? He is longing for the prefix: Be. Longing. It hasn’t been long it’s been deep.
Larry pulls from his pocket a bag of marijuana. The bag he tells every one, who cheers, is waterproof. He unzips it and withdraws Zippo papers, lighter and pours some marijuana onto the glass table top in front of him. Ibby watches with great wonder as Larry rolls a massive marijuana cigarette. Larry smiles and lights the end of the large joint. He inhales and the tip’s embers glow brightly. Is this a good idea to smoke a hallucinatory weed when the world is coming to an end. –It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel find. Larry sings REM. He hands the joint to Ibby. –You guys need this. We saw what happened to your boat.
-Taxi, says Hermie.
-Oh, it looks like a boat.
-I know. Everyone says that. It’s a taxi with fins and an anchor.
-Sounds like a boat.
Hermie smiles and watches as Ibby delicately and with great hesitation take the gigantic cigar of dope into his mouth. He looks as if the thing might bite him. He sucks, and the warmth of the smoke pleases him, soon it pleases him so much he has fond memories of summer cloud watching and dogs whose tongues resemble the color of dark water. He passes the joint to Hermie.
Soon the lobby of the condos is filled with smoke and a sense of lightness despite the rage bashing at the windows. A music box was found and Pete Seeger’s voice wafts through as men continue to lounge and stare; few of anyone would be considered fully conscious now. Larry has called it wheelchair weed because once you smoke it you can’t move without some assistance. Hence wheelchair. Hermie wants to stay of course, while Ibby is eager to move on for reasons he could explain if only he could figure out what it had to do with the three problems of modern-day physics, the topic of which is riding the waves of his electric, but comfortable, brain. He can’t say why, but he must be going. He stands and explores the world outside of the lobby; he wipes condensation off the window and sees that the rain, temporarily, has stopped. He turns, smiles at this captors, his saviors, gives a peace sign to Larry and begins to leave. Before doing so, he turns and finds Hermie asleep on the floor. His face bathed in the half light of storms gone and the storms to come. Ibby bends and uncharacteristically, kisses Hermie on the forehead. –For Baby Bean is waiting.
Ibby leaves the relative warmth of the lobby for the cold of outdoors. The place feels washed and leery; the storm has passed but Ibby’s senses tell him more is on the way. Oh yeah, the cat. He tips over his fedora and examines the feline in the picture—this cat! Black and white. There’s a tag on the cat’s throat; an address; an identity—a hope in the substance of things found. The mystery will be in discovering whether or not the cat survived the lashing storm? Ibby sets out, placing one foot in front of the other as he can do if not reading a book or chewing bubblegum.
And runs smack into a man with a handgun a black patch over one of his eyes. –We’re all just sheep. It’s every man for himself. Now, what do you have to offer? Ibby can taste the man’s sour coffee-breath; an unlit cigarette dangles from the side of his face. He is short, pugnacious, but beefy and menacing. He sneers and growls. He waves the pistol around like it was a whip. Ibby recoils, then, again uncharacteristically, smacks the man across the face. The man begins to cry and drops the gun. It falls onto a concrete walkway, rolls, a few feet, bounds for the bayou and before doing so hits a large boulder; this causes the gun to fire a single bullet into the air—where it lands no one ever knows! –I’m a nobody. The man cries throwing his pug face into his beefy hands. He is weeping in great heaves of his body; Ibby stands and holds the man. –No no, I’m nobody. In fact, I don’t know who I am. The man stops and stares, with his one good eye. –What? Ibby explains that shit has happened to him today and that it’s sticking.-Maybe I should walk you home. Ibby offers this. Is this usually what he does, help people! –You remind me of someone.
Ibby stands back. Does this person know me? He takes off his hat and shows the picture to the man who smiles. –Dives, names Dives. Dives Poly-Manus. And I know where that fat cat is.
Ibby extends a hand. –After you.
-No after you. I insist.
The unlikely pair begin their sojourn, nor a mere maunder, no, a walk with purpose and aim, a cat at the end of the lane. –Are you sure? This is the one you saw earlier today? Dives shakes his noggin, eye-patch dancing in front of Ibby like a square of torn out black hole from a distant galaxy. Huh?
-This very morning.
Ibby wonders about the weather though and if the cat could have found shelter from the storm. –The cat’s in my place.
-Agora, a meeting place up a few blocks. I’m sure she still in there sunning her—
-Sunny his face in the window facing the street.
There is no sun in the sky; there is grey upon grey and low silent winds. The streets are littered with Mother Nature detritus, twigs and dead cicadas; circling mad white plastic shopping bags—dead letters and quite an assortment of cancelled stamps Ibby notices.
The walk, enjoyable for its silence takes less than ten minutes up a long boulevard of cemeteries, homes, gas stations, eateries, art supply stores, car washes, comic book stores and lofts. The scene is largely deserted, as if some giant musical event is happening somewhere else in the city and all are in attendance save Dives and Ibby. They walk on, Dives telling Ibby this story:
-I saw you looking at my eye patch.
-No something you see, oops…er, well, yes; see everyday I mean with eye surgery and contact lens and cornea transplantation. I know a rather good doctor…
-Why, ye… I think yes?
-I keep the patch as a reminder.
Ibby piques. –Of.
Dives takes him arm, ever so slight. –Of the war. It was a dark dark day much like this. I had taken my men to shelter in a jungle warren. Inside was—I can only describe it as a monster—a man that was half beast. My father always told me these stories of Screwtapes and Wormwoods, and I never believed him, but he it was staring me in the face. It had one eye. It held us captive with his size, this beast; it had fangs of great yellow and breath that smelt of death and decay. It’s eye was green and pussy. The voice—it stays with me—told me this story: He was once a saint. He lived in a cave very much like the one we’d stumbled upon in the jungle. He was a saint! Imagine. He said one day while he was meditating, the elders of a nearby village came to call. They never sought his counsel, because it was thought once his counsel was given once it was never given again. They came to talk about the serpent. A gigantic serpent had been terrorizing the village; the whisper of the serpent, its hhhhhhhhsssssssssssssssiiiiiiiiiiiisssssssss could be heard everywhere; there was no place you could hide. Hissssssssssssssss! The serpent was ravenous; it swallowed children whole; cattle was easy prey; women disappeared and a few men too. There was fear in the land. No one left their homes, this thing was so big and foreboding, the hisssssssssssssssss drove many of them stark raving mad. Soon the serpent, hungry, ate all of the village’s grain, left stored in great golden heaps. Monsoon season would soon come and the village would have nothing left; its numbers were diminishing and the grain was gone. The elders pleaded with the saint to give them something, some kind of sign or weapon to combat the evil serpent. The saint left the cave and went directly to where the serpent sssssssssslumbered, beneath a giant twisted and ancient tree. The saint taunted the serpent; called him out of his hole. The serpent, massive, oily and black slithered to the feet of the saint, and reared its fist of a head; an evil eye, a single orb of fluorescent yellow and black clicked off and on; the saint was undeterred. Leave your destructive ways, the saint said, be good, stop biting; leave the villagers alone. The serpent said gladly on one condition. The saint asked what the condition was—it was the procurement of one saint’s eye! The saint gave of his eye, he had two. He watched the serpent, slither away an eye in its mouth, slinking out the village never to return. With the loss of an eye the saint however could not find his way back to his beloved cave. He wandered for years, growing weary and angry; he was chased and scarred. Into a jungle warren the former saint fell; he was dying. The only way to survive was to hunt and kill, to eat and consume all in his path; he could no longer read; no longer see into the future; he was driven to get another eye, to return to his visions only he could procure with the use of two eyes. He sought long and hard, and each eye that he found and placed in his head rejected him and soon withered and died. He sought for years to find the right one, and on that day that my troop stumbled into his warren, he looked me straight in the eyes, and for the price of one of my eyes, would save me and my entire unit. He gave me a plant that would put me to sleep; he was kind enough to do that. When I awoke I had this patch. We were on a beach and a ship was coming for our rescue. We shut out eyes to the beginnings of evil because they are small, and in this weakness, says Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is contained the germ of our defeat. The loss of my eye reminds me of that that in the smallest of dire there foretells the darkest of dawning. And sometimes, that darkness is within, hiding, just bidding its time. You see, we’d just come from a village where we’d burned every hut, where we’d killed any man that walked; we burned down the granaries and we set fire to a schoolhouse of children. I turned a blind eye to what my men were doing. It was war. I would have given both my eyes to that former saint. But the darkness only asked for the one. Here we are!
Ibby looks up to see a house, brick and ancient trimmed in blue and painted a Greek white. Umbrellas, tables and ashtrays outside; an opulent door opens to a warm wooded coffeehouse. Indeed, as Ibby scans the room of baccarat players, smokers, scribblers, agents provocateurs; cell phone hogs and magicians, he espies a feline in the window—he flips his fedora and notes that the cat does not have the spot under its chin that this cat, this “Happiness,” cat has. –Wrong one.
-Oh. Sorry. Bad eyesight. Buy you a double shot.
-I don’t know if I do. Why not start. Ibby sits at a long dark bar while Dives runs around the back of it. A small Chinese girl manning the bar asks Ibby to name his poison. –Double shots for me and my new friend, says Dives who begins to gather up demitasse cups and froth some milk.
-Fall down seven, get up eight.
-You look, lost.
-I’ve lost my cat; there’s a hurricane approaching and I seem to have misplaced my identity: I can’t remember exactly where I belong, who I am.
She shakes her head. –All the time, but it doesn’t last. It just means something is standing in the way of your K-line. Ibby sits erect. –This ancient Chinese wisdom being dispensed. He flops his fedora on the brown bar. A pack of Gauloises cigarettes are thrown along the bar; he instinctually lands a mitt on the cellophane package. She shakes her head and scrunches her nose.
-Say your making a cup of coffee. Before you start you smear your hands with black paint. Then everything you touch in making coffee will end up with black paint on them. When you’ve got your cup of coffee, you take in the array of materials left with black paint and you store that away—black means good for making Joe. Next time you want a cup of coffee you gather up all those things with black marks on them.
-But what about, say, spoons.
-Right there will be some materials you use for making coffee that will also be used for doing other things. Different colored paint works.
-How do we keep it all straight? Ibby removes the cellophane and takes out a cigarette. He places it in his mouth and the Chinese girl leans over the bar to light it. –My name is Julie. He nods.
-The brain is anal retentive.
-That and Papert’s Principle.
-Are you asking me out on a date? We know things already, we don’t have to relearn them or acquire entirely new sets of things, but find new ways to administer our own power.
The bar top is tattooed with demitasse cups housing dark oily pungent espresso. Dives raises his cup, so too does Ibby.
-Here’s mud in your eye!
Ibby spends an hour at Agora, with the cat from the window sitting on his lap, sipping espresso, smoking cigarettes and being regaled with tales of memory and wonder from Julie and Dives. Up a ramp at the side of the coffeehouse and into the actual coffeehouse runs the Segway Girl.
-Have you seen a cat. Ibby shows Sasha the inside of his fedora. –Do you know who I am? She scans the picture and when the fedora is dropped, she scans his face. –No, but you need a trim. Ibby’s hair is helter skelter white on white. He combs it with his fingers.
-The cat, yes. Happiness right?
Ibby is astonished. He jumps up from the barstool sending the other feline scampering across the Agora wooden planked floor. –Yes.
-Follow me. Sasha turns her people mover 180 degrees and begins to leave. –Wait, says Dives and Julie both holding paper sacks out to Ibby. –For sustenance, says Dives. –For K-lines, says Julie. Ibby snatches both and runs after Sasha and her Segway.
-It’s not far, she calls back moving effortlessly down the backlane to the street. Ibby follows punching his fedora onto the top of his head; his tie, a brown and blue number from Jerry Garcia flaps in the increasing wind. He stuffs the sacks in his coat pockets and skedaddles.
The unlikely pair—one ambulatory atop a people mover, the other falling chest over gangly feet—head down a busy thoroughfare to backstreets of quiet homes, green lawns, and gnarled trees whose roots send out never-ending knobby shockwaves erupting pavement and gardening plans.
-There! She shouts screams points toward a bluff in the distant, a puff of smoke and whey in its bracken. Ibby squints, flips the fedora and scans. Perhaps. Just perhaps.
Ibby runs toward the fleeing cat, across the verdant lawn, past the twisted tree and the cross of iron. Down the street, ruptured with tree roots, around the sandy-colored brick building and… He stands briefly; in the near distance—mayhem; Aeolos is free and whirly Gurley. Ibby ducks around to the back, cat tail, bobbing, cat tail bobing, and there he see a matt black door open and the cat scoot inside. Segway girl whirls about. –We have got to get in now. She is pointing at the sky coming ever so closer. –HURRICANE!!!!! Ibby is the last one in.
Inside: Silence and…
It’s hurricane season. It begins in early June and lasts five months. In that period up to twenty hurricanes can develop off the coast of Africa, travel the Pacific to the American coastline and travel inward. These are water-born natural disasters with powerful winds that can exact incredible devastation. Winds can travel of speeds exceeding 32 meters per second. The winds spiral inward, counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere. The eye, or central zone, is where wind speed, humidity and rainfall increase. This is the story of four people and a cat within the eye of a hurricane, which hit downtown Houston, June 16 at 3 p.m.
There are five different categories for hurricanes based on severity. A category one hurricane has winds going speeds of 74-95 miles per hour; there’s some coastal flooding, no real damage to building structures, but there will be some uprooted trees. A category five hurricane in comparison is apocalyptic: Winds greater than 155 miles per hour; eighteen foot storm surge; root failure of houses and buildings; low-lying escape routes cut by rising waters three hours before the arrival of the hurricane. Complete destruction in its path. You’re fucked.
This is a category four hurricane. Extreme winds at speeds 131-145 miles per hour. Walls and roofs collapse. Doors and windows blown out.
Inside the chapel, the one commissioned by the Schlumberge and DeMenil families it is quiet and stark. There are fourteen paintings by Mark Rothko—three triptychs and five panels.
Voices in an opera, said Rothko: Preghiera. Susurrant symbolic numbers: eight. Sibiliant. It is an octagon; one for each of the panels. Three in the triptychs. Rothko’s paintings grew less and less about light, and more and more about the invisible.
As the sky grew dark and calamity came, inside the chapel it was night, as it is continually. Peaceful is the night. He cut above his elbows. Neuroleptic pills. Red on Red is unfinished.
The chapel’s octagon shape serve a particular purpose: Stand at its center and the viewer finds that they are at an equal distance from the eight sides. Rothko worked the last three years of his life on the paintings in the chapel. He made a replica of the chapel in his studio in New York hanging a parachute on the ceiling to filter the light. He destroyed many canvasses. One night beneath that diffused light, surrounding by the voices of the opera, the destroyed and the living, Mark and Etta made love.
The first thing you eyes adjust to once inside is the north apse triptych. Ibby and Sasha did just this, and then saw other things. The silence has already been there. Then they begin to notice the other triptychs and panels. Overwhelming. At each one stood a person, holding a black and white cat. All cats! And people: A rather tall man, eyes bubbling with tears, stood in stock still motion staring at Segway girl. “Such beauty.” She moves toward him. Nearby a woman in a wheelchair strokes the back of a black and white cat; behind her a man and woman consoles one another looking at the canvases. A man, fingers a medallion at his chest. There are others; Ibby can see. All hold a black and white cat.
The walls are buffeted, but do not bend. The roar is silent inside the chapel. Ibby stands at its center. “Happiness?”
All the cats stir, briefly, and then one strikes to the floor and makes it way to Ibby. Ibby crouches and picks up the feline, who is purring. “There is a dividing line between life and death,” says Etta. “Mark told me that. Sometimes there is hardly a difference at all. You take your own life when there is nothing but despair. When it becomes too dark. Madness visits. Sleep comes. You want to show the world you are suffering. You want to send God a message…”
The chapel shifts ever so slightly. Then, a stillness never before felt in each and every heart in the array of susurrant and still small voice.
“But God has a message for you: You are because I am. Hang on to the moments as they pass. What happened was right now is gone. The full moon swollen is empty as dead stars are. Days are blackest at night. Wind surd and sonant: Calling. I am not here for me; I am because you are.”
“What do we do now?” Ibby asks the purring Happiness in his grip.
Etta, Harold, Prudence, Thoreau and the Segway Girl come to the center of the chapel. And without speaking them embrace one another. Soon others join in. There is no discernable way to tell one person from the other. It is all and one. “We go out and see, when the storm has passed.”
Etta says, “Seeing is believing, we have been told, but that’s not right: Believing is seeing.”
“Let go find out.”
Etta begins to walk to the large black doors. “But what if there’s nothing left.”
“Well let’s go see.”
Prudence holds Etta’s hand. "How's my chick?" Etta asks her voice dry-sounding.
"You know how a chicken is born?"
"No. How?" This was something they did. Etta could be a font of useless information or seemingly useless to those who heard it."A gas fills the egg. And it makes them sick. The only way to survive is to peck their way through the egg."
"You're so smart."
"They're dying to be born."
Ibby smiles. I am because you are. “I know where I belong. I know who I am. Let’s go.”
Thoreau, “But I’m…”
“With me,” says Sasha, and loads Thoreau on her Segway.
“But what about all these cats?”
“Set them free, set them all free.”
“Wait, wait.” Is is Dag. Everyone turns. “What does your tattoo say?”
Sasha lifts up the back of her shirt. The tattoo reads what everyone thought it should read.
Are we bound, as Antoine De Saint-Exupery says we are, to the meaning of things by our attitudes,and do things, material objects, as the Celts believed, house the dead past, the deceased, awaiting our recognition? And ifthis were true, that the trees we see, the dogs we witness wandering; that something as innocuous as a cookie, as Marcel Proust maintains, can bring to life something deep, forgotten and eagerly awaiting our attention. If this is so, how much do we miss? What is vying for our attention right at this moment?
They stand outside the chapel, the sky vanilla and bright; tree limbs are scattered everywhere; leaves swirl in relief in the air. All is quiet, all is calm. Roads wind away, its end a tantalizing curve. A book of reasons, its leaves falling gently, opens in your soul. Calm yourself and breathe. Survey the landscape of this very moment. You will never be this way again, and even if you are, by chance, this way again you will have changed. So this is now. Breathe. Be light; bend easy across the winding way before you. You never step into the same you twice.
“What’s left,” asks Etta.
“Let’s go see,” says Ibby.
And they do.