REPORT A PROBLEM
Chris Van Dyke
There are birds chirping outside my window – the same short, staccato shards of song that I used to hear when lying awake in the pre-dawn silence at Bard. Eight million people can't dampen nature's impulse, which urges these little musicians to sing arias to the turning of the seasons. The sounds of the city are muted: the clang-clash-tshak of the garbage truck, the low rumble of an idling bus, the shswitcsh of tires on wet asphalt. They are all quieter, slightly removed, as if the city herself has, out of deference to the thrush and the sparrow, held her breath.
The lingering death-throes of a head-cold, when you feel nearly fine except . . . It's the except, of course, that still means everything. The constant wet sniffling, the vague sense of pressure in an undefined halo about one's consciousness, the constant desire to close one's eyes, the general weariness that seeps into one's limbs. Part of you is convinced that you are fine, and in fact longs, after the long torpor of illness, to expend as much energy as possible. And yet the cold still lurks just below the surface, biding its time, waiting for you to mess up.
Somewhere there is a library comprised solely of unfinished books – the novels started yet never brought to a conclusion, abandoned by their authors before they could be brought to a close. Each book is bound as nicely as any published work, with their tentative title printed down the spine, though even here many of them bear the mark of their abandonment: My Book, Some Story Based on my Childhood, A Clever Refutation of Modern Society, Something Like Joyce, and of course countless numbers of Untitled. They are filled with characters whose love lives remain unfulfilled and mysteries which go unsolved.
He paused at the top of the hill and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his damp and soiled handkerchief. Somewhere above the jungle's canopy the sun was beating viciously down upon the leafy tree-tops, but here on the forest floor the world was washed in an eternal twilight. The trees blocked the direct light, but they did nothing to stop the heat – if anything, the damp soil and the thick vegetation trapped and even magnified it, the nearly unimaginable humidity turning the air into a veritable steam room. He was slowly gaining on them – it would soon end.
Today I biked from our apartment on 120th street to Penn Station, a nearly 90 block trek – 180 round trip. It was a bit too cold, and a bit too windy, but I was determined to try out my new bike, and to force some semblance of spring-time from the iron maw of this never-ending winter. Bicycling in Manhattan is different than anything I've done before – its more active, more aggressive, more dangerous, and, by extension, a bit more fun. You have to ride within inches of taxis and city buses, ease between vehicles both parked and moving without flinching.
Grey sky with a faint sun behind it, sky glows with a bright sheen of slightly polished brushed steel, waning to dullness about the edges of itself. The ethereal source less light of overcast, a quadrant of the sky that pulses a bit more, polished to a touch more brightness, but not specific like the burning sun on a clear summer day. It is noncommittal. The shadows are faint, undefined; the air neither warm nor cold, merely tepid. This day is, in all ways, a tepid day - neither bright nor dark, neither early or late, neither good nor bad.
I slept badly last night, turning like a slow-cooked rotisserie chicken, my left side just as uncomfortable as my right or my back. The smallest sensations magnified into mythic magnitude – the weight of the sheet, the firmness of the mattress, the outline of individual feathers as they somehow, rather than being soft, have coalesced into a rock beneath my head. Her body is too hot, radiating head and her arm is heavier than it should be, choking the breath out of me as it lies across my side, and her breathing . . . Late at night, time doesn't move.
There is a moment, late at night when you have been unable to sleep, that everything about existence has become utterly unbearable and you feel like screaming or pounding your head against the wall in an attempt to dull the pain. It isn't a physical pain, though your back has a knot in it and your head has begun slowly but insistently throbbing – it is the thought of breathing, the thought of remaining awake that hurts, the weight of the blankets, the closeness of the air. The mere facts of existence bring on claustrophobia, trapping you inside your own skin.
As a writer (sometimes poet), I have a reoccurring and rather insistent desire to write songs despite my complete and utter lack of any musical knowledge, save for the few tattered remnants of my former ability to site-read piano sheet music left over from childhood piano lessons, a half-dozen basic guitar chords, seven songs on the harmonica, and the Russian national anthem on the concertina. Snippets of song lyrics will float through my head, I will hum out a verse or a chorus, and then I am stuck as I don't have the slightest idea where to go from there.
See, I'm a Michael Stipe in search of an REM. The other three would write the music, then Michael Stipe would jot out some arcane and nearly indecipherable lyrics to accompany it and then mutter into a microphone. Hell, that's what I was born to do – half the shit that tumbles out of my brain onto my note-pad would be great song lyrics. Today I've been walking around with this line in my head: "The singer looked like Ian Curtis / sounded just like Thom Yorke circa 1995." It's a fragment of the song I'm thinking of calling "Mercury Lounge."
Welcome to our abode – no, that table has always been there. What? Heavens, why would you think there once was a bear-skin rug beneath the ottoman? What a thought! A suit of armor?! Now surely you jest! Why would we have a suit of armor . . . and a shield with a gilded lion rampart sinister across a vert field. My dear sir, I don't have the slightest idea what you are . . . Ah. I see. Well, you are as foolish as you are insightful, Sir Reginald. It will be a pity to have to kill you.
For some reason I love taking pictures of myself – my reflection in a mirror, my shadow on the wall, my hand resting on a book, my ghostly image floating in a window. I don't think its simple vanity per se, rather I'm searching for something; I think I'm trying to find myself removed from myself, to create the external view of me that comprises everyone else's experience of me. Its sort of strange how everyone who ever meets you will have a shared experience that you can never partake in, that of watching your actions as someone other than you.
Coaxilating transpodinals evolved spontaneously from the sub-atomic interaction of various chemicals that had been polluting the Hudson River since the late thirties, and have quickly become a deadly threat to both the river and the human population that lives along its shores. Quickly evolving from simple single-celled organisms, the CTs (as they are called) adapted rapidly, developing simple exo-skeletons sometime in the mid sixties and masticating jaws by the early seventies; by 1997 they had opposable thumbs and an advanced understanding of projectile weaponry, and shortly after began raiding the suburbs of Westchester County, raping the women and enslaving men.
E-Filing makes April 15th a bit of an anti-climax. Everyone at work is talking about finishing off their taxes, and all the ads on TV are giving me suggestions on how I can spend my tax return on mattresses and wide-screen televisions. Yet I am left out, excluded from this cultural ritual – my tax return is long since spent, having been direct deposited in my bank account over a month ago. And tonight the news is repeatedly stressing that tomorrow is the day, but tomorrow will not be the day for me – the day has been robbed of its significance.
I am beginning to believe that if I could decipher the messages contained in subject lines of spam, I would understand the deepest mysteries of life, the higher realms of divinity. For centuries, the mystic practitioners of the kabala, out of the desperate human need to bring order to the universe, have shuffled about the words of the Torah, searching for meanings within meanings, seeking the unspeakable name of God. Perhaps the internet, this matrix of decontextualized knowledge and nearly limitless technology that we have created, has a similar need - perhaps it too it seeking the name of God.
I am occasionally seized by paralyzing fits of antisocialism, where the idea of speaking to another is impossibly painful. I once saw a woman drop her metro card and while I wanted to tell her that she had dropped it, I was unable to force myself to address her, so strong was my abhorrence of speech at the moment. It wasn't even a case of hesitating until the moment passed, as she lingered near me for minute after agonizing minute before departing, leaving her card behind. I watched her leave and said nothing, thought I felt guilty for days after.
There's something about rain that just saps one's ambition – or rather channels it, narrows the focus of one's ambitions, until the only thing that one wants is to stare out the window at the falling rain-drops and the growing puddles. Rain transfixes, it fascinates. It is such a common occurrence, perfectly explainable, highly mundane in every sense of the word, and yet it is beautiful, sullen somehow, a display of natures inability to flee this earth of dust and mud, of the necessity of flight and the inevitable victory of gravity. Water itself brings life and death, beauty and rot.
Its sort of funny how slowly and quietly you loose track of someone, yet how sudden it feels that moment you first realize that you have no way to contact them. Friends from college whom I haven't seen for years now, but when I just sent out a mass mailing about my new address, their e-mails didn't work and I realized that all my contact information has changed, all their contact information has changed, and we're all adrift in a sea of information. Its not that I ever contacted them before, but the option was always there. Now it's not.
As a high-school teacher, spring is such a double-edged sword – I have been longing for beautiful weather since sometime shortly after the first snowfall a near lifetime ago, and winter in New York this year was long and brutal. Its arrival has filled me with joy: the budding trees, the gentle breezes, the patches of sunlight filtering in through the windows. As an individual I love it, but as teacher . . . my students have no attention span, and the warm weather outside is a constant distraction. The squirrels fight outside of our window, and we must watch them.
He was the kind of man who always gave a broad time frame for his arrival – "I'll be there between seven and eight-thirty" – yet always arrived just after the latter of the two figures, demurely apologizing for being "ever so slightly late, terribly sorry, all," although his companions had begin to check their watches thirty minutes before. He always included the earlier time, despite the fact that even as the number left his lips he knew he wouldn't even be asking the bartender for his tab, that he'd peek at the clock and eye the door, then order another gimlet.
He was the kind of man who had an infallible sense of direction, yet such a lack of confidence that he would constantly pull out of the sheet that that had his directions scrawled on it, unfold the crisp paper, and pour over a list he had inevitably memorized. He was, as always, exactly on schedule. His first time going anywhere he was, without fail, twenty-minutes early, as he always over-compensated for the various delays that could spring up along the way – slow train-service, a station out of service due to construction, the line for coffee at the corner deli.
With the soft whoosh of opening doors the car was filled with the cool, musty scent of damp subterranean, the heady smell of silent, oil-slicked puddles and dewy clay tiling. The sidewalk above was blisteringly hot even though the sun had not yet climbed to its zenith. The hot, summer air wavered with the intense temperature, but down here the wind blasted cool before the oncoming train, and there was something in that loamy scent – the musty weight of mud and moss and over-turned rocks revealing countless scuttling insects. There is some memory trapped within the scent of the breeze.
Memorabilia and roadmaps – those two ideas encompassed the two opposite extremes that preoccupied her thoughts. Her apartment seemed to her a sarcophagus, a tomb dedicated to enshrining a past that she wished she could still embody. Above the mantle were the trophies and certificates, artifacts testifying to early promise, promise that she had not lived up to in the slightest. The roadmaps, on the other hand, were badly folded and crammed into a drawer. She liked peering over them when things in her life got particularly bad. They whispered to her of escape; they smelled of uncertain futures and freedom.
He walks down the sidewalk with a decrepit arrogance, shoulders stooped but eyes looking sharply ahead, stride long and purposeful. It is not yet eleven in the morning but his shirt front is damp with sweat and his high forehead glistens. He takes a drink of his coffee, then a drag from the cigarette that he holds in his other hand between his thumb and his forefinger; he smokes it down to the filter, then disdainfully flicks the butt toward the gutter without breaking stride or looking to either side. Gold rattles against his chest as he crosses the street.
The clouds moved in to block the sun, but as the day was so warm none of us minded. The roof was perfect for a weekend gathering, and the weather had decided to cooperate for once this spring, giving us balmy breezes and enough rays to tan but not roast us as we sat around with our Coronas and Heinekens and toasted our friends' new home. An evening of sunglasses and hands raised to shade eyes, the dull rumble of the planes leaving LAX over the sun-bleached sidewalks of Queens. There was talk and silence, the grate of a lighter.
Sometimes the strangest sensations summon memories from the unfathomable depths of our minds – at times these moments are not truly even memories, merely quickenings of the breath and a strange sense of temporal claustrophobia, as if the past were trying to force its way into the present moment. There are no names, no pictures, not even a location or time; just a sense, a visceral knowing that there was an experience, there was a time, and that somehow it had this very scent or else the dying twilight played just this way off other bricks somewhere half a world away.
From the roof-top, all of Queens lay before you, swimming somewhat incoherently in the sun of a New York summer. Our here, away from the cavernous avenues of Manhattan's towering skyline, the buildings sprawl in low residential clusters, so you can stand with one foot on the ledge, beer sweating in one hand, the other raised to shield your eyes from the glare – you can stand and look down on back-yards and alley ways, on quiet side-streets and busy sidewalks, on other roof-tops, their flat expanses black or silver and wavering. Beyond it is another roof-top, and another, and another.
Our cat seems to think that everything is edible – or rather, everything that exists can be killed. And not just can be killed, but really should, even must be killed. She kills the small artificial mice that we bought for her, of course, but she also brings her deadly hunting prowess to bear on Mulzer's hair-bands, our house-keys, my bracelets, silver-ware, houseplants, bits of paper, loose staples, and countless patches of invisibility. Ella, however, is fundamentally lazy, and when laziness and murderous glee meet, laziness will eventually overcome. She crouches, her tail twitches . . . and then just sits.
We wake before you – while you are still lying wrapped fast in the miasma of your nocturnal dreams and tangled in your sheets, we are awake and moving about the city, passing through doors that never open to daylight, whispering to one-another in tongues reserved solely for the night. We are the star people, children of the last-call neon flicker, children of the empty avenue and the lonely chill of the pre-dawn dew. You hear us sometimes, at the fringes of your sleep as we slip silently through your bedroom, vanishing into your closet, retreating once again before the day.
Listen. No, that isn't just a word, its an imperative – LISTEN. I'm serious! Take your hands of the keyboard, turn down the volume on your speakers. Okay, pause the mp3 player if you have to. Done? Ready? Yes, you can keep reading – I didn't say stop reading, I just asked you to listen. To the world, of course. To the soft wheezing sound your nostrils make when you breathe in; the so soft you might just be imagining it sound of your heart beating ever so quietly; the slight hum of the electrical light just above and behind your head.
The Tip Jar