Fold up my mind into an envelope, mail it, put it on a truck and drive it through every town along the way from here to the Coast. Put me on a bus and kiss me goodbye, send me on my way. Put me on a rocketship to the moon of some other earth, tell me goodbye and hold my son up so I can see him one last time and so that he can see that his daddy’s face is smiling and waving goodbye and cannot see that inside I am dying one long death. He cannot see that inside I am bleeding out and back in, ka-thump ka-thump ka-thump, as the newsreels squeeze me onto a flatscreen and stamp me with a headline. He can’t see anything but my face. He can’t see anything. Nobody now can see anything but the engine flare as I go up into ether and glory and crushing nothing. What does any of it mean? This rush of words, this rush of life now entering me and leaving me. Now soaking the ground and my hair and this space-worthy aluminum. This metal ripped from the ground and thrust into the sky. This cooling crude flesh ripped from Annie’s bed and thrust into a white jumpsuit and the metal. Just as my son will one day be ripped from her or her from him. Just as everyone I know is dead and I am dead.
Laying back against the seat, zoned way out somewhere beyond exhaustion but before actual sleep, seeing the dull red of streetlights through my eyelids, feeling the warm bumps in the road, hearing mom and dad talking in low voices; that’s where I was when Thanksgiving break began. It was 5am. Dad, the road warrior, rolled us all out of bed and marched us to the van through the fog.
The fog was everywhere. Once or twice I opened my eyes and looked down the highbeams stretching out 20, 30 feet. Like bridges. Or, harnesses pulling us on into whatever was out there. On into long conversations with family we haven’t seen since last Thanksgiving, since the last long drive.
Somewhere in Ohio we hit a bump and I realize that I’ve been asleep. Lifting my head, letting my leg slide off the bench, feeling it hit…what? My bookbag, packed up with textbooks I won’t open but feel unarmed without along with a rumpled copy of The Great Gatsby. That’s the same copy that I read through twice in the week that, well. That’s something else.
Closing my eyes again I can see the frozen roads and the naked trees. Everything is hard and empty. The fields are full of shin-high corn stalks: remnants of another hot green year. One more street, now a hard turn and I’m there again. Not knocking or going in, just standing outside and looking through the walls into whatever there is. Speak, memory.
Another bump and my eyes are open again. The sun is shining down into my face now and how have I slept through so much light? If I took the amount of daylight I’ll have slept through by the time I die and added it all up, what would I have? A month or two? Six? Years, even? Enough time to fall in love or learn to dance. But that whole time my eyes were closed and I was somewhere else. Right now I’m the closest to hating sleep that I’ve ever been. Maybe I won’t sleep again for the rest of this trip. I could go back to school hungry and with heavy lines under my eyes to balance out all the rest of the well-fed and well-slept Midwesterners. For two hours of grey pavement, swelling green hills, and obscure towns my intention was set. I would take no rest. I would force myself to think through all of this, to be fully here for this long drive.
It was there, in the narrow space just above my cold still heart that I first noticed it: the ember was out.
Sitting on the bank of the river Mark pulled in a deep breath and was still for a second and I knew he was about to say something.
“We need to kayak this river.”
“When do you want to go?”
We just sat for a second and watched the light dance.
“We could put in up at Powers Ferry, leave my car down at the bluff and probably be out there for a few hours,” he said.
I’m sitting at a Caribou a few days later, just letting my mind wander. I look out at the perfect squares of grass and cement and think about how well everything fits together. One day fits against the next one just so, glued together by a couple hours of TV, a couple beers, a couple friends just sitting around. We’re so well organized.
But then Amy walks in and I get up from my chair, go over and stop thinking and start talking. We talk about anything.
“I feel like I have a phantom limb,” I start.
She smiles back with her lips parted a little and I know she’s going to say something back. She’ll say something clever and offhand.
The next Saturday I’m out on the river in a kayak; Mark’s got his about fifty feet downstream. He’s doing some nice paddling but mostly I just float along and padde sometimes to catch up.
It feels like hiking on a well-worn trail because people are out on this river all the time. It feels like a nice, safe, afternoon adventure and so, at the same time, feels nothing like an adventure. But the clean air smells good and the current is strong so we float on. Somewhere down there in the shade Mark’s car is parked on the gravel and it’s getting hot inside. By the time we sit down on those vinyl seats they’ll burn the back of my legs pretty good.
But that doesn’t matter now. For the next two hours I have a plan and my course is set.
I’ll be OK.
The morning that Tuesday was steel grey and bitterly cold. There was a slight wind rustling down from the hills that made the trees speak to each other in hesitant voices, as if afraid of breaking the frozen peace that had descended during the night. It was the years’ first frost and it had come early. Everywhere the neat squares of grass, the trimmed hedges, and the hand-placed trees looked hardened, forbidding. When Jack would walk out of his front door in his old yellow bathrobe, taking the shortcut across his lawn to get the paper in his driveway, the grass would crunch underfoot. He would free the small strong blades from their transparent prison cells one slippered size 10 footprint at a time. He would shiver and look at his breath. He would pull in the cold air, feel his heat passing into it, and blow it back out, newly conscious of his chimney mouth. And the lightly moving air would embrace and sweep away this brief, insignificant, addition of heat. His breath would be soon forgotten. His footprints, too, when the frost melted under the fast-rising sun, would be lost in his green manicured square of a front lawn. And so his first steps into the world that morning would have long-term significance in only one sense, they would bring him close enough to the paper to bend over and grab it. He would walk with it back into the house, one hand thrust into his bathrobe above his heart in the height of Napoleanic fashion. His chest would feel so warm to him compared to the air pressed against his face.
“My body is a furnace.” He would mutter to himself. It is also true to say that he would be thinking this, because this is how Jack thought: in an undertone.
But all of this would happen in 21 minutes exactly, because when our story begins the time is 6:16 and Jack is still asleep.
There is a car in motion on Jack’s street at 6:16 and the driver is running late. She is young and she has a job to do. She has memorized her 348 paper route by sheer repetition. It changes little over time. During the course of a given week perhaps 2 or 3 homes will be added and a few others will be taken away but there is a core of houses that have always been on the list. Jack’s house is one of these. She has been outside of his house nearly every day of the year for the last two and a half years. She has seen it in rain, in the hard winter darkness, under the slow warmth of summer mornings, in every possible combination of season and precipitation. She has neither noticed it nor failed to notice it. It has been just one more piece of the morning scenery. But today, while appearing undifferentiated, is a special day. Because today she will make a mistake.
There is a tightly-rolled paper lying on top of the dwindling pile in her back seat. It wears the same orange sleeve as the others, but underneath the plastic blush it is different. It is one day old. It lies content, unconscious of what it will soon set in motion. And then she swipes it up and gives it an unconcerned toss out the passenger window. Smack! It hits the driveway, rustles and is then stilled. It too is caught up in the searing pause of that morning, a frozen moment between two glorious warm days.
The display on Jack’s clock reads 6:28. His bedroom is hushed, stale, and cold. He is sleeping on the far left edge of a king size, sprawled deeply in the unreserve that comes only with sleep. The room is large and empty but for a dresser across from the foot of the bed.
There is one small picture on the dresser next to the clock. The two objects stand there like soldiers on a great brown bare expanse of unadorned hardwood. Between the edges of the gleaming frame there is a heavily creased picture of a man holding a baby boy. The man is looking straight into the camera wearing a joyously distracted grin. The boy is looking to his left and reaching out for something.
The man’s smile appears contained, somehow, behind a natural reserve. But his eyes are open, unrestrained. His hair lies thick and thoughtless and brown. He is holding the boy lightly. The boy is twisting hard in the man’s arms, his mouth fallen agape, all of his energy focused on something just out of view. They might have been surprised in the midst of play. The man may have just picked the boy up, or just caught him back out of the air. He may have done many things.
The alarm goes off and Jack rolls to his feet quickly, makes the six-step journey across his too-large bedroom and turns the alarm clock off. Standing there with his hand on top of the clock/radio he stares challengingly at the bright green display. 6:30. His lips move slowly, deliberately, as if weaving an invocation. The silent words rise up through his throat and wisp out his mouth:
“Stop. Stop. Stop.”
They are a breath, a glimmer.
Nothing happens. And then,
This is a blow. Jack mutely replies:
“Slow. Slow. Slow.”
The words are round and, rolling down, they envelop the clock. They imprison it, crystalline and impenetrable. But then, shatteringly, it is 6:32.
Bowing his head, dropping his gaze, Jack’s shoulders slump a little more.
He stands there – lumpy gut and unshaven face sagging – for a minute or maybe more.
And then, while everywhere else he is still, Jack’s eyes begin to move. They inch up, up, and continue up the face of the dresser. He has moved past two drawers, now three, now he is to the top. Still, his eyes creep across the smooth top, gaining ground. His gaze moves around the frame, circling it once, slowly drawing in every detail, every time-worn indentation. And now he is looking past the man and seeing only the boy. Seeing him jerk and squirm, seeing him reach and explore. There is a fathomless sadness that reaches out from Jack’s eyes. He stands staring at the boy with his head pitched forward, as if ready to receive sentence, for as long as he can bear.
With his head jerking up the connection is broken and, turning quickly, he dons his robe and slippers and stumps downstairs to start the coffee.
He moves lightly around his bare kitchen, starting the Mr. Coffee that he had prepared the night before [“The ‘start’ button should be labeled ‘sputter,’” he remarks], putting his cast-iron skillet on the stove and heating it up for his morning eggs, putting down toast and pulling out a bottle of his Tuesday breakfast beverage, medium pulp orange juice, from his black refrigerator.
His preparations are clipped, honed to a razor’s edge. He disembarks from the kitchen, taking the usual number of steps through the front entry to the door. Four locks later he is on his porch, lengthening his stride out to the waiting paper and it is 6:37.
He walks back into his thin-walled tract home and sets the paper down heavily onto the island in the kitchen.
The coffee has all dripped down through to the pot. Jack quickly fries up four eggs over easy while buttering his light toast. He is moving smoothly, quickly, ready to finish his breakfast routine so that he can move on to the shower and then get dressed. The paper will play only a tangential role, something to occupy his eyes and short term memory while his mouth and hands are busy.
Breakfast is set and he picks up the paper, sliding it out of the plastic. He rolls the rubber band off and whips it open.
Sitting heavily, arms extended, eyes roving, dark brow furrowed, he is a picture of incredulous disbelief.
There is a long pause. The stillness in the kitchen momentarily joins that of the outside world.
His throat convulses briefly, stills. He slowly lets his arms fall, the paper crumpling face down before him.
“You made a mistake; how? No. What’s the meaning of this? No, too formal.”
He thinks for a moment.
“Was this a prank or something? How did this happen? Yes, that’s it.”
With this preparation complete, his furrowed brow smoothes. His head bowing, eyes growing quiet once more, he quickly eats the eggs and toast.
His day passes in industrious solitude.
The next morning as the clock reads 5:17 Jack is lying flat on his back, staring unblinkingly up at the ceiling. He is waiting for the alarm to sound, for his day’s opening bell. Crunching up slightly in his bed, he glances over at the clockface.
“Almost an hour.”
He seems to digest this thought. Then he lurches up, swinging his skinny legs over the edge of the bed and rising. His day is beginning earlier than usual, but this is necessary. He must be vigilant. The paper boy could come at any time and he must – must! – be ready.
Slumping quietly downstairs he finds himself breathing too heavily out of anticipation for the meeting. He begins working himself up to full readiness, ignorant as he is of the moment he will be called upon.
“Was this a prank or something? How did this happen? Hmmm…”
“Was this a prank or something? How did this happen?! No, no.”
“What is this to you? Huh? A prank?! Are you some sort of prankster…or, or something?”
Shrouded implications rest heavily in that final word. His voice is becoming powerful, working up the circulation in his head and chest. As time passes he quiets down, but continues mumbling the words “prankster” and a heavily, almost absurdly, emphasized “something” as he finishes preparing his morning refreshment.
And then, sitting with coffee in hand, he waits. Loosely gripping his favorite black and white piano key mug he sits staring out the door to his kitchen at the front window. He has opened it slightly, letting in some of the frigid air but also permitting entry to the morning noises. He will hear the engine and then he will rush out. His bathrobe will surely billow impressively behind him, his clear voice ringing ominously through the suburban morning hush. His head ringed with thickly matted bed-hair, haloed as it were. The hot black coffee will still be burning in his ulcerated stomach and his words will similarly rise forth to strike the negligent delivery boy with righteous conviction.
“Yes. Your time is coming.” He mutters slowly, letting the words drip down onto the table. Darkness rests on his brow, a mug-shaped lightning bolt clutched warmly in his hand. He is ready for battle.
Fourteen minutes later the neighborhood hush is struck own by a loudly rattling muffler. The sound lands heavily across Jack’s kitchen and with that the first blow has been struck. Well, the second actually. The paper was the first. He must respond! Honor demands it.
Rising like the tempest, billowing through his kitchen and out the already unlocked front door he flashes. The offending paper clutched naked in his left hand, held at readiness, the cooled, splashing, and ignored coffee still unconsciously gripped in his right, he strides powerfully across the lawn. He can see the car now, rounding the corner. It moves at an impressive pace, papers slinging lightly out of its front windows. Inside, the cab is dark and in the low light he cannot clearly make out the driver. There is only a shadowy form constantly twisting, reaching, throwing. They seem to be driving mostly by instinct.
Sizing up his adversary, he slows his pace and feels his energy flow through him. It is the energy of rising early and going out into the morning chill with a job to do. He has stopped moving now. He is just standing, slightly hunched over, coffee dripping heavily from the soaked sleeve of his robe, paper clutched to his chest in defiance, righteous indignation rising in his chest. It rises to his face, making it grow hot and red, making his eyes flash. The final possible moment for action is fast approaching and now, now he is frozen. He has become rooted.
The car rattles nearer, the noise building. It is perhaps 30 feet away now. It is time.
“PrankSTER!” his rasped pronouncement becomes a roar, a battle-cry.
Lunging forward into the street the mug falls forgotten, irrelevant, into the dewy grass. There it rests, bleeding out the last of its life in one final rush. His slippers hit the pavement and, slightly off balance, he crashes across the street to meet the car as it draws even with his house. Now, in his hour of greatest need, words fail him. The blood is pounding at his temples and behind his ears, the pressure building. It must find expression. He reaches the opposite side of the street a moment before the car does. He turns quickly to face the onrattling beast. He raises the paper up and begins to issue his judgement:
“Was this a…” he begins hotly. But then the obvious realization crashes through him a moment before the car does. His legs are blasted backwards, feet sliding instantly out of his slippers leaving them where they lie, his indignantly ballooned chest dents the hood an instant before his head and raised arms crack the windshield. His widened unbelieving eyes lock for the splittest of seconds with the shadowed eyeholes of the prankster controlling the rattling beast from within the darkness. The moment of shocked unrecognition is broken as he rolls over the hood and windshield back to the pavement.
Looking down from a great height one could take in the whole scene with a wide lens. There, further outside his house than he has been in years Jack lies prone, shattered. His legs are splayed at an absurd angle, arms spread wide, head tilted back unreservedly resting on the pavement and he is not moving. The car is still running, driver-side door ajar, skid marks left behind and beneath. There is a young woman kneeling next to Jack. She has not succumbed to shock. She is quickly dialing a short number and now speaking in low measured tones to an operator, describing her emergency.
Jack’s head is inclined towards her and his eyelids are fluttering lightly in the cold air. His eyes are still and gazing up into the infinite sky. His eyes are glassy and clear, liberated by the collision and the endorphins. He says nothing.
Looking down, one could see further toward the middle of town a blue and red light beginning to flash, a tinny siren sounding. The light moves quickly toward Jack through a series of right angles. Further back a red light flashes on a heavier vehicle and a different siren sounds. They grow closer, closer, four and some minutes later they arrive. Jack is assessed, gently and quickly lifted, wheeled, laid down, doors are closed and he is off.
The young woman stands speaking with an officer.
“He…shouted something, I think. I heard it. Right when I looked up, there he was in front of me. I couldn’t stop. I…” she shakes her head and trails off.
“Do you know which house he lives in?”
“No. I’ve never seen him before.”
“Do you know their names? The people you deliver to?”
“No, only the addresses. They pay the Herald and the Herald pays me. I never see most of them.”
“Okay. Officer Dean has a few more questions for you. We’ll take your information down and be in touch.”
She nods and crosses her arms, looking off to her right. She stares at each house down the line, questioning them. As the first officer turns away and begins to walk back to his squad car she reaches a decision, takes four quick steps and reaches out for his arm. He turns.
“When you find out what his name is, could you give me a call?”
“Yeah. I’ll do that.”
“Ok. Thank you.”
Jack lies stiffly on a small white bed. Everywhere, white linoleum, bare walls, cheap furniture.
He is looking at the small bed stand to his right. His brow is creased, his breathing deep and even.
A young nurse walks into the room.
“You’re awake,” she begins, “good. How are you feeling? You had quite a day yesterday.” She says all this quickly and continues exhaling after the words have ended.
Jack says nothing, but turns slowly to look at her where she stands next to the foot of his bed. Carefully, his eyes move across her face as if memorizing it.
“What do you remember?” She continues.
He sits silently for a long moment, studying her as she moves around his bed, checking the displays. She finishes and appears to be in the verge of turning away, continuing on her rounds, when his voice finally cracks across the curtained room.
“I remember sitting at my table. I remember getting up and walking out to the front lawn. And then…I remember crashing down onto the ground. The cement.” His voice slows.
“I felt…” he trails off. Then, he begins again.
“I felt strange. Something had been broken down. It was, uh…” losing his train of thought, he begins to think of an old picture he has seen.
“What had been broken down?” she asks. She has half turned away; other patients and other responsibilities are pulling at her even now. But this man’s words are different. He is speaking from across a great expanse, from out of the abyss. She can see that and wants to understand where he has been, what the abyss is like from the inside.
“What was it?” she repeats, softer now.
The softness of her voice catches his attention. He has his thought completed, the image set in his mind. The barest shadow of a grin has lightly caught up the corners of his mouth as he begins afresh.
“You know of the Berlin Wall? Yes? You have seen the pictures of the wall as it was falling, being torn down? There was one picture that I saw that had a hole in the wall. It was large enough for a man to step through, but nobody was going through it. There was a boy on the east side and a boy on the west side. They weren’t going through the wall, they were both just sitting there and looking at each other. Maybe they said ‘hi’, I don’t know. But that was what I felt. I felt like I was laying down and looking out.”
Wide-angle pan out.
The nurse smiles slightly at him then, taking him in. She nods her recognition, looks down, leaves the room. Jack watches her go. Now she is gone and he once more resumes his contemplation of the bed stand.
Fade to black. Roll credits.
“There was a summer, well, not that long ago I guess. It was the summer we went out almost every night to watch the sunset. There was one night in…July, I think. We were just lying out on the beach feeling the sand get cooler and cooler under our backs and watching the sky because it was dark and the night was clear and we felt like we could see everything. We had been lying out there for about an hour just watching the stars, not saying much, when we saw some shooting stars. You were a lot younger then and you asked me where the falling stars went to when you couldn’t see them anymore, when they went out. I said that when they went out that meant they were all burnt up, but that whatever was left of them would keep falling and would settle somewhere. Do you think we could ever find one, you asked. I said I don’t know, but maybe. Do you remember that?”
There were a few seconds of silence on the line.
“Yeah, I remember it.”
“That was a great night.”
“Yeah. I have to go.”
“Ok. I love you.”
There was another pause.
“The morning you were born I thought I’d found one,” he thought
After the phone call ended he sat still on the thick leather of his chair. His eyes alone were moving but even that movement seemed unnatural. They lurched up the wood grain in the wall of his living room up, up, up to the ceiling and then back down to the floor. He performed this circuit three times before he blinked. Then he blinked again. And again. Something was rising in his chest now and he could not hold it back. The drops inched down his lean cheeks and weak chin and paused there, like divers gathering themselves before the plunge. And then shivering, shining, hesitatingly, they tumbled their way down. 9.8. 9.7. 10.0. They were fine tears.
“How many others are grieving now?”
He rose before dawn the next day. Walking down to the beach, he could feel the warmth in the wind coming off the water. The heat had moved from the Sun to the sea to the air to him. And from me to….nothing, he thought. From me to my house, today.
Walking on the beach in the early morning was something that used to always raise his anticipation for the day. He would focus, centering his thoughts and energy on what needed to be done. Some mornings he would even go for a short swim. The duration didn’t matter much; it was about connecting with the elements in the morning, getting grounded. After the walk and swim he was able to move through the day feeling like he was rooted, standing with flat feet and a straight back. There were people all over who slouched and slid through their days, but not him.
“Every part of this water is moving.”
He moved through his house like a mortician, efficiently rearranging the furniture into the middle of each room, spreading the plastic sheets, taping what needed to be taped, opening the windows wide. While the sun burned low in the east and began its ascent he set the stage, preparing for a burial of sorts and for a rebirth. The king-size couldn’t be moved far enough from the wall so he just threw a big clear plastic sheet over the whole thing. It lay there on the bed like wax on a butterfly, the burnished bronze-colored comforter smoldering in the morning sunlight. Its life was ending now but it would be preserved as it had been at its best, as it should have been. He stood and looked at the way the light played off of the plastic. The reflected light made the bed itself seem softer somehow. The glare made everything look softer. And then the moment died and he was turning away, leaving for the garage.
The battered garage door crashed up. It was the kind that you pull up with your hands. There were 20 gallons of eggshell paint there on the ground. It wasn’t enough for all the walls and ceilings, but it was enough to start. It was more than enough for today and today was what mattered.
He bent over and grabbed a 10-gallon bucket, paint roller, and pan. He was wearing the cheapest most disposable clothes he had, yet he still wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Crate and Barrel that Saturday morning. He felt a brief thrill at the prospect of working with his hands on a home improvement project. Very middle-America.
“Have to stay focused.”
Opening the plastic wrapped around the rollers, twisting one onto the handle, screwing in the extension rod, rolling it in the paint tray forward and back, forward and back, tap, tap, forward and back, and then he began. At first he had too much paint on the roller so that it dripped thick tears slowly down. He paused for a moment and watched them slowly fall, then annihilated them and began again. Eventually the rhythm took over and the real work began. He had already decided to begin with the conversation with Sarah last night. Every time he thought of her now he couldn’t forget seeing her for the first time. She was red, naked, newborn. She had cried so loudly and then abruptly fallen asleep. She had fallen into her first real sleep right before he had to give her back to the nurse. There had been a moment of peace there that he wished he could live in. She had been his. Now she was complicated and cold and spoke in ironic ellipses. She seemed old to him and so young at the same time.
Up and to the left, straight down, up and to the left, straight down. His roller was going dry but that was ok.
“Yeah, I remember it.”
“That was a great night.”
“Yeah. I have to go.”
“Ok. I love you.”
“…I love you too, dad.”
And he was off. The walls of his house weren’t all that he painted over that long afternoon. It was selfish, yes, but also merciful. He was being merciful to that girl lying in the sand next to him, her eyes as bright as the falling stars and her love as fleeting.
A week later he was done. His house was painted over and ready for burial, for sale. He couldn’t stand any longer to stay in a place whose life he had driven away.
He called Sarah the night the house sold, to give her the news. He tried hard not to notice her mostly unbroken silence, prattling on and on as he was with asking prices and the back and forth of home ownership changing hands during a recession. He wasn’t even listening to himself much because inside his head he was getting dizzy from that new life smell and his nostrils were burning from all the paint.
He had dressed with too much care; that was it. He dressed with the practiced care of a man wishing to appear careless. The same mistake marked him every night. If he had been able to notice it he never would have begun everything in the first place. But here he was, in his small apartment. It was remarkable only in its perpetual state somewhere between compulsive organization and general neglect. The Drive, Work, Drive Back, There, the perfect Get Ready, Go, Search, Drive, and finally Sleep tempo beat through him without regret. Pulsing unquestioned, it had become his heart. There was no crescendo that night; no fermata; no rumbling from the orchestra pit of his thickly carpeted desperation. There was a rhythm. The tone, timbre, and pitch were the same as every other Tuesday. 1, 2, 3, 4, leave the car, shut the door. 5, 6, 7, 8, buy a drink, sit down and wait.
The count is over, so what am I waiting for? Stupid. Just a few glances flashed twice and then perhaps once more. Why have I felt so uneasy? Need to find a new Tuesday spot. It was the button, I’ll sew it back on tomorrow. Open bag, insert book, close it up, take one last look.
Green and grey together. I…. [A pause, a contrivance, and then…]
Mind and heart are racing in lockstep. Pounding, coursing, boiling their way through veins and side streets both blood and body fled the scene. Oh, God, the scene! It was the scene of his death; the scene of the tempo kicking, reeling, falling into nothing. Crashing, smashing, going. And now he’s rushing, turning the engine, pushing, and fleeing. Yes, fleeing.
Blurry lights flashed by and then a tree stepped in my way. I taste warm metal. Is it seatbelt? No. Seatbelts don’t go in my mouth; they go in the push-click.
I never saw him walk in, I just let my eyes slide through my friend and there he was. He was opening a book. Goethe, I think. Who reads Goethe? It seemed almost intentionally obscure to me. There he was, just sitting and reading. I got this strong feeling that even though his eyes were moving side to side to side and always down he was really just watching us. Whenever somebody shifted their weight towards him, looked at him, or walked in or out there was always some small accompaniment in his face or eyes. A small drift of his gaze, a slow shift in his brow, something. His fingers would make small intentional movements, like he was counting. He must have been marking time somehow because one hour after I noticed him he put everything in his satchel and looked up.
He noticed, finally, that I had been watching him. Right as he dropped the book in and fastened left and right his dark eyes flicked upward and found mine. He froze, like I had caught him stealing something. He just stayed like that: mostly hunched over, looking straight. Rigidly, breathlessly, staring; like he had died.
And then he just got up and ran out. He fumbled with the bag. That was it.
I can move. I can get out. I can stand. My car’s pretty screwed up.
His face shows nothing as he sinks slowly to the ground. He sits there for a few minutes, not moving, not even thinking. Just existing completely separate from the world he has built up for years.
I have to go back. She won’t be there, but I have to at least see that she’s gone.
THE LONG WALK
He tumbled to his feet and turned his back on the wreckage. It never occurred to him that his face was probably covered in blood, that his clothes were far from perfect, that his lip was swollen. As he walked down the gravel path on the side of the road his mind never left that 40×20 space where he had found his freedom; his tearing, soaring, horrifying freedom. It took 24 minutes to crunch his way back to the coffee shop but years later the only thing he would remember about that walk was bright ocean eyes.
Walking up to the shop’s cookie-cutter exterior he finally saw his reflection in the front window and realized what everyone was about to see. Exhaling to a stop, he watched himself shudder and then be still. For a moment it captivated him. But gradually, the desire to catch another glimpse of her gripped him. He let his eyes slowly slide through the pane and look into the bright warm envelope inside.
There she was. She was talking with her friend, still. How could they find so many words for each other? He realized that he had nothing to say to her. The words wouldn’t come. Maybe they never will. What was he trying to do, to prove? He watched her until she happened to glance at the window. He watched her until the glance became parted lips and widened eyes.
She recognized him, clearly. Slowly, uncertainly, she took in the blood and the rising bruises. He looked at her sitting there, he saw her as if seeing for the first time. He was really looking at someone now, not just searching for his own reflection in their eyes.
What must she think of me? That I’ll come in shooting? What?
Her friend had begun staring now, too, along with many of the others. He realized that he didn’t care. He hadn’t been counting their eyes, carefully adding up the sum total of their attention. All he knew, all he wanted to know, was sitting there in front of him.
He blinked, turned, pulled the door open, and stumbled inside. As he crossed those last few feet he blurted something out. He said it loud, loud enough for everyone to hear.
Today is a special day. He is not sure yet what is going on, but he knows that today is special.
He gurgles some more, looking up at them with his brown eyes, feeling the curiosity, the need to know, burning in his tiny chest like a shrunken furnace.
Mom and Dad put the new blue and white bib on him and move him up to his high chair by the table, right there on the end of the table where Dad normally sits. But Dad isn’t sitting on the end of the table today because today is Sammy’s day. The boy sits there like a king.
Out comes the cake, light blue and white just like the bib. One big candle is already burning on top. As it burns a small trail of smoke tumbles up towards the ceiling. The wax is solid, then liquid, then gas, then up it goes. Rising throughout the process, it is deified before vanishing. Mom and Dad sit in one small silent moment and then, looking at each other, they begin together. It’s a new song for Sammy.
Dad leans over and blows out the candle because the baby doesn’t yet know his part. They all sit there and watch the candle smoke. The tail forms whorls and canyons, intricately insubstantial. Slowly, the wick cools. As the temperature drops smoothly down through the scale, Dad reaches over and puts his hand on the boy’s head. He feels the white, cotton soft hair. Then his hand stops moving. He just lets it lie there, feeling warmth and giving it.
-Today you’ll get your wish.
23 pairs of eyes will all follow the flames, watching them rise and fall like dancers. The warm light will flicker, weave, flash, the logs will pop and sparks will rise. Bonfires are his favorite way to celebrate. The bonfire comes every year after the songs, the cake, the presents, the funny hats and wishes are over and darkness falls.
As the sun drops and ignites the sky, Sammy’s anticipation builds. He can’t take his eyes off of the window.
-Is it time yet?
And then it will be time, when just a moment before it wasn’t. Sammy and his friends, his parents and their friends, everyone, walks out to the pile of dry logs. It looks like a wooden pyramid, a tomb. As if they have entombed the last year of his life to give honor to the new one, to “5”.
Dad doesn’t use gas or lighter fluid; his fires are done the way nature intended. He starts it with a matchbook, the kind you fold backwards to strike.
Slowly the fire builds. From the heart it grows out, laying down coals, whispering smoke up and up, until it’s too high and thin to see.
Around the fire, the light softening their faces, making them appear intimate, they all tell stories to each other. The one fire unifies, consecrates them. Afterwards Sammy’s clothes will reek of the unity. He will have been washed in it.
Mom and Dad put him to bed, but his day isn’t finished yet. After the house has gone quiet he sits up, listens, and then slowly, slowly, pulls back his covers. He moves like a pajama’d specter, with the infinite caution of a child working a secret ritual. He walks over to his small chair, pulls it to the window and stands up on it. Looking out he can still see the embers glowing, dying. He stares out until the black and grey pile has become cool with the last of its heat spent on the ground and the sky and his clothes and hair.
-It died for us.
As he wakes up he feels two things simultaneously. The first is a wrenching confusion located somewhere in his intestines and the second is an overwhelming thirst. He can barely swallow, he is so thirsty.
-Where am I?
The pieces slide together as they always do. He is in his room in the new house.
Get up, drink a couple glasses of water, shower, breakfast, and then sit down and watch the TV.
-You’ll still have your special night tonight, just like we always do.
Mom’s glance lasts a few seconds too long, and then drops.
He just sits and watches, not moving a muscle.
He thinks to himself,
-I’m 12. I’m 12 and the first thing I’m doing is watching TV.
Something about this thought doesn’t sit right, so he turns the TV off and decides to do something new. Walking into his room, picking up an old beaten-up Top Flight notebook and blue ball-point, he sits down. He realizes that he has no idea what he is about to do but inside his chest he can feel something strange, like a pressure building. And then he starts writing:
-Why are birthdays always such a big deal? It’s just another day. I think some part of us misses dancing around fires in a cave somewhere and we just want to take any excuse to sing songs and have a ritual.
That pressure he felt has begun to slacken now and it feels good. He knows that he has to continue. Gradually, his practiced penmanship devolves into that hasty scrawl of the confessional, of the first trembling stretch and flap of just-discovered wings. The rest of the day is a blur of off-white paper and sharp blue lines. There is singing and cake and the bonfire and all the pomp and circumstance of the young prince taking one more measured step towards manhood, but all that is peripheral, incidental. They are things that just happen to be for and about and around him. The reality is that his heart has caught fire and the fire is spreading.
Before the Sun rises, Sam has already risen. The special day has come again, but Sam hasn’t asked for anything this year but some peace and, of course, the bonfire. His chief concerns now are healing the broken and seeking out the Authentic. Cloistered there in his room, its dark red walls set ablaze by the new sunlight, he does his alchemy. He is an alchemist, he has realized. Performing arcane passes through the air with his hands, drawing symbols, letters, and [expertly placed] punctuation marks he is transmuting reality itself with devastating efficiency into this distilled, pure, imminently legible form. Surely this work will reduce the self-seeking reader to tears. The tears will be painful, but they will bring healing. Sam’s art will heal the soul wounded by the American Dream and its empty pursuit. That is his vision and his destiny. He is more than an artist, musician, and poet; he is an Authentic Being with his finger on the wild pulse of the universe. He can keep an eye on his watch while feeling that pulse and describe it in 7/8 time on a microphone. Or, better still, he can wring from its heady froth some pure glistening prose so sublime that it could bring the most mundane of souls into a dedicated pursuit of life’s headwaters. No, today he would receive no gifts; today he would give a gift. He would give the only gift he knew how to give.
12 hours later, everything was ready. He and a select few were outside around the fire. His father and mother were there, along with his siblings. His small group of friends was there, what few bohemians could be found in a typical Midwestern town. Each guest had also brought a few friends of their own, as the tradition went. The fire was cracking and rustling, nudging the logs toward immolated freedom. The stage was set for his gift; all that was left now was to give it. He took to his feet and without preamble began to declaim in a loud voice.
As he speaks there is a strange ringing that he can hear building inside his ears. He is suddenly conscious of just how loud he has been speaking. Beginning now to stumble over his words, he momentarily reconsiders his choice of venue.
-Too late to stop now,
he thinks to himself and then continues.
He now takes a measured and [he believes] more adult tone. In his mind’s eye the darkened skies are opening and a voice from heaven is ringing out, like at Christ’s baptism. But will the bystanders hear his impassioned argument in favor of a wholehearted pursuit of truth and beauty or will they only be frightened of the thunder, as were the Israelites?
Upon finishing, he heavily resumes his seat with the air of a king who has just issued a weighty judgment.
-It is good to be the king.
his mother hesitantly begins,
-How…nice! Thank you.
He is confused.
He has decided to change his methods.
-If I can’t reach anyone with sincerity, then I will through satire,
He would become a parody of their suburban ethic. He would allow himself to be immersed in their concerns, drown himself in their diversions, become more like them than they were themselves. Someone would understand, turn and be healed. He would do his best impression of them. He would watch Dancing with the Stars, wear khakis, and drink vanilla chai….whatevers.
-For my birthday dinner…
-…I would like to go to T.G.I. Fridays. After that we can go to Showplace and…
here he couldn’t help but shudder
-…watch the new Die Hard. That’s really all I want. Ok.
A few hours later they were all piled in the car. He could barely contain his smirk while walking into the restaurant. The tremendous irony which nobody but he himself seemed to pick up on was indescribably gratifying. It was as if he was the only person wearing clothes in the whole city.
-Thanks, mom and dad!
he said loudly.
It had been a long time since he had written anything that he didn’t immediately email to a colleague. Art, the pursuit of truth and beauty, even the conscious effort behind his crusade to subvert the professional class had all fallen away. The khakis were no longer an ironic coup, they were him. And they were pressed.
He had invented a new tradition, though, one which he performed every day during the drive home. It began very simply. At a stop light he would fix his eyes on some object in the distance and slowly pull in a deep breath. He held his breath and focused completely on that object he was staring at, using his peripheral vision to drive. His pulse would rise gradually until it was thudding heavily behind his ears. Something about that pressure building in his chest felt right. His mind was active, too. He imagined that if he could hold his breath in just a little longer this time his heart and lungs would explode out and paint the inside of his windshield. He would need windshield wipers on the inside but they wouldn’t be there.
He had almost caught his breath when he pulled into his driveway. And then, stepping out of his car, it hit him. It was the smell of wood smoke. Someone on his street, neighborhood committee be damned, was having a bonfire. But he knew that it wasn’t just a bonfire, it was a bonfire today. It was on this day. The memories didn’t flood back; they rose up as gently and silently as smoke. He could see himself at 20, flushed with pride at his new undertaking, his great adventure. Then Sam at 17 rose up and started making some sort of ridiculous speech. He saw himself at 12, rising, feeling the buildup and release of his first inspiration, of his first fumbling attempt at authenticity. And even earlier, younger, less remembered Sam’s were there. They all had that burning heart, that desire to wave their hands and have everything make sense.
He understood then how far he had fallen. It wasn’t the khaki’s, it was him. His heart had just…cooled down. He had lost any sense of urgency. He stood there for a while longer, savoring that smell and the clarity that it had brought. Then he knew what he needed to do.
Walking inside, pulling open drawer after drawer, he gathered up a black Pilot G-2 and some stray engineering paper he hadn’t used since graduating. He didn’t stop to think, he just let his hand move across the paper.
“My life began on my birthday and ever since then that day has been pretty important to me…”
And on and on he wrote, long into the night. It wasn’t very good, but that didn’t matter. It was his.