REPORT A PROBLEM
Chris Van Dyke
Late last night I saw a plastic bag floating over the intersection of Amsterdam and 163rd, weightless, buoyed by the insistent autumnal breeze, hauntingly light and ethereal, its billowing white form stark against the dark night sky, undulating gently as it drifted slowly, peacefully, just at the edge of escape. It seemed symbolic, seeped in metaphor – I saw it and a part of me leapt with disproportionate hope, as if I were watching the end of a poignant film about the posthumous ironies of human existence. Then it drifted higher and disappeared over one of the countless apartment buildings.
Drinking an A&W root beer this afternoon, walking along the platform of the Kingsbridge D train, the sharp, bitter taste washed out a memory, or rather a flickering series of remembered images from various childhood diners at the local pizzeria. The root beer tasted of red, thick plastic glasses half filled with small cubed ice, a pale straw probing its depths, the gentle mist of carbonation against my face, the bland spices of the rural pizza sauce under the industrially tasteless cheese and overworked, overly thick crust. All in aftertaste of the soda, captured somehow by the aspartame and carbonation.
He took a breath. He had just killed a man. Murder. That's what it was - there was no getting around that hard, ugly word. Murder. He tried rolling the word around a bit, to try it on for size, see how it fit now that it was part of him. Murder. The two vowels stretched and dipped in an awkward, unsightly fashion. It seemed awkward no matter where the emphasis was placed, regardless of how soft of muted he made the consonants. Murder – such a foreign, cinematic word, and yet here it was, present, real, and frighteningly mundane.
Looking back on the weeks leading up to the event, he was always most surprised by the sense of inedibility that preceded it, the nearly fatalistic nature his mind had adopted. Long before he had ever admitted to himself that yes, yes he would; long before it became voluntary, conscious, he had already decided, somewhere deep and dark that even he himself did not – could not – acknowledge, and this dark place had known before he had, known and whispered his destiny in his ear, and he had felt it hanging above him, weighty, sharp, nearly ready to drop.
Goddamit Jessica, what do I have to do? Do I have to show up at school with you every day? Sit with you in English class? Hold your hand on the way to math? Tell me what I have to do to keep you in school and I'll do it. Threats? I promise to beat your ass if I hear you're skipping school. Promises? I'll get you that stereo if you just pass half your classes. Well? What do you have to say? Nothing. Nothing. Jesus Christ, its always nothing these days. Talk to me. Please, I'm tired of fighting.
Don't move! But I Shut up! I said don't fucking move! Get down on the floor! Okay, I am. I'm down. I said shut the fuck up! Do you want to get shot? No, I Then shut up. Marshals! Yes, Lieutenant? Finish the sweep? No, sir. We Well, I want it done. Now. Yes sir. Why are you still here? Shit, why did I get all the shits just out of basic, Johnson? Sir? I don't That's a rhetorical question, private. Yes sir. Frisk the prisoner, see if he's got any cigarettes on him. I could really use a cigarette.
Heading home today, my subway car was packed with wet and irritated commuters.. The conductor came on to make the Skip Stop Announcement: this is a Bronx Bound nine train – I mean, one train, making skip stops. Again, this is a nine – no, one. He stopped and laughed. "Ha! I am so confused today!" His laughter was warm with honest amusement and everyone in the car laughed with him; smiling, we met one another's eyes, somehow wanting acknowledgement that we too were amused, and for a moment we were a community – strangers, dripping wet, but smiling together beneath Manhattan.
There it was again – an unfocused sense of disconnectedness, of gently floating. The feeling pulsed through him, radiated from some undefined point just in front of his forehead, an unseeable space just beyond the bounds of his vision. He felt as if he could see it, ghostly, pulsing in red or yellow light, but if he tried to look at it he realized he couldn't see it and it vanished into that insubstantial abstraction that comprised everything outside the range of sight. What was behind him – nothing, a sense of existence, solid lack of visual stimuli, existing only in theory.
My father's workshop was always an alien, nearly foreboding place for me as a child. It was always cold – that's the first thing I think of when I call up images of it, a bone-deep chill radiating from the bare concrete floor, the uninsulated garage walls, the open cobweb-strung rafters. There was the constant murmur from the radio turned down so that that the twanging mumble of country music wasn't quite decipherable yet persistently present, the tuner never used, glowing ethereal green. There was only KGBR 92.7 FM. The rest was empty static and senseless radiation from dying stars.
Sometimes he found it impossible to believe that he had ever actually experienced his childhood, that he had lived those years on the Oregon coast. This difficulty stemmed, in part, from the rather vague, undefined memories that he had from the first sixteen years of his life. This lack of memories filled him with guilt every time he thought about it; you were supposed to have hours of video stored in your brain, easily retrievable anecdotes that could still be reached and touched. That he didn't was a failing, a sign that he didn't care, that he'd turned out wrong.
He was constantly looking at himself in mirrors out of the corners of his eyes: quick, fleeting glances, turning ever-so slightly as he passed a tall, full-length mirror in an ornate hotel lobby; peering furtively over the rims of his glasses at the long, narrow mirror that ran the length of the lunch counter at the corner delicatessen; sideways in the bathroom while brushing his teeth and ostentatiously inspecting the shower curtain for mold. He was trying to catch a part of himself unawares, that ever mysteriously unknowableness that others saw that made him who he was, that defined him.
He stood in front of the racks of wrapping-paper in near despair, a panicky sense of helplessness rising slowly along his spine, creeping inexorably towards the base of his skull. How much should he buy? If he bought too much they would have to store in somewhere and nowhere would be convenient: too accessible and he'd curse every time he had to move the Santa-speckled paper in order to get to whatever was behind it; too hidden, however, and he would run the risk of forgetting it was there and buying more next year when they wouldn't actually need any.
He despaired, some days, at ever being heard. But then it wasn't necessarily that no one would listen (though that was true as well), but more that he had nothing to say. He had an intense need to be heard, to have someone pause whatever they were doing, to put down their neatly folded Metro Section or ergonomic vegetable peeler and give their full attention to what he was telling them, the insight he was revealing to them like a treasured jewel. But even had there been someone who would have done that they only would have heard his silence.
The largest obstacle to actually living was life itself. He couldn't actually articulate what he meant by "actually living," how the word "actually" was meant to qualify the verb "living," and yet he had a firm (if vague and abstract) sense that there was a right and a wrong way to live (authentic and inauthentic, if he reached back to his undergraduate philosophy courses), and that he, for some unexplainable reason, was not living the right way. He didn't know what he was doing wrong or what he could change, but he was sure everyone else had it figured out.
It was cold today and felt like winter for the first time; it isn't winter until the wind hurts, until your ears cheeks nose fingers cry out silently against the bitter injustice of it all and you walk everywhere at something just short of a run. The cold clarifies things, puts an edge to lines that are normally softer, indistinct; there is a new found precision and purpose as movement cannot be wasted – the least taxing effort is sought, a straight line where before it curved slightly, bowed out with a lassitude that has fled before the encroaching chill.
The gull on the platform preens itself, its sharp beak ruffling dirty-white feathers with quick stabbing motions, unconcerned with the incongruity of its surroundings. Its presence wants the ocean, wants the sting of saline-air, the cold directness of an oceanic breeze, not the dull concrete and rusting iron of the elevated station, the graffiti crowded walls of hunched over apartments, the faded tatters of bodega awnings. It is out of place, subtly wrong here within the solidly finite bounds of the city. The gull brings with it a touch of fluidity, the soft openness of waves and an uncrowded horizon.
There was a black-teenage boy on the six-train today. His hands were strong and calloused, manly, close bitten nails and thick, wide thumbs; his hair combed into a tight, explosive afro. Slowly I noticed his shoes – pink lined girls' low-tops ending in short, pastel striped socks. He seemed to be wearing baggy jean shorts, but when he shifted his stance I realized it was actually a long, loose-fitting jean skirt, and when he turned around the front was festooned with garish floral embroidery, a series of blue, yellow and white daisies climbing the line of his heavy, muscular thigh.
Everything he touched was saturated with history; the soil was filled with the bones and blood of generations; there was not a tree or knoll that did not have some story that went along with it, some memory to make it artifact – here is where Thorin slew the slave Bani, that gulch was where Steinni Stefansson broke his neck when his colt Trottir threw him. The places bore their own names, and the names told the stories that were already known to all: Skallagrim's Steading, Egill's Leap, Grettir's Lift. To speak of a location was to tell its history.
Later he would be beaten, and when his father returned in two days, he would be beaten again. He knew he would cry both times, and in crying be infinitely removed from his stony, iron-jawed ancestry; but that was impossibly removed by the future. For now (and now was all there was) he was Egil lying in the grass, seeing the slate sky with Egil's eyes, hearing the plaintive cries of geese with Egil's ears, and inside his quick mind these sights and sounds resolved themselves into words, into stanzas of poetry that could catch and hold these fleeting presents.
He hated it when his ideas would disappear, almost as if the bitter northern winds that blew in off the fjord had snatched them away and sent them tumbling across the snowy plains. There would be a sudden sense of loss, the aching knowledge that something alive had just died but that he didn't know what it was. That was what gave it the bitter, painful edge, the knowing that something beautiful had been just within his grasp but that now it was gone, inaccessible, it being the nature of forgetfulness that he didn't even known what he had lost.
Resurfacing to this now strange world - filtered dust tinged remnants of another, sliding, fading, stretched too thin, thinly across the unnamable, the echoes of silent voices, the sense that, at any moment (someone you once knew but had utterly forgotten) through the gauzy curtains of personal history and you shake your head, slowly the subtle presence of subdued anxiety shaking off the cobwebs of forgetfulness lights brightening from a distance, the murmur of strangers and the cold clangor of traffic as you realize it is already your stop and you stumble from the bus into the bitter December air.
"Base to Alpha, Base to Alpha. Do you read?" There was the tense pause that always accompanied the hissing-crackle of static while they waited for the reply, the distance and the alien planet's thin atmosphere creating an unknown delay factor that ate at them silently. How long was too long? At what point did the audio snow signify that something was wrong, that one of the worst-case scenarios they had attempted to anticipate and practiced handling in countless drills was actually happening. The delay was only ten seconds, but seconds stretched torturously while their minds dredged up their worst nightmares.
After the second straight week of record-breaking snow, the news stations were at a loss. It wasn't exactly news that snow was continuing to fall at an unheard of rate; each network had completely exhausted the national pool of meteorologists, climatologists, environmentalists willing to blame this disaster on Bush's gutting of the Clean Air Act, think-tank scientists willing to state it had nothing to do with Bush's much-needed changes to the Clean Air Act, meteor-archeologists declaring a second ice-age, and mediocre state poet-laureates who were all penning poems to capture the mood and feel of the endless banks of snow.
". . . and the fish can sing." Robert caught the end of the man's rambling introduction to the farm and his head snapped up. "Come again?" The farmer's wide face went slack, and Robert could tell he was trying to decide how much of his (very detailed, very boring) description of the farm to repeat. "Well, over there you have the milking stalls, where each morning Betsy (that's my oldest, thirteen this spring . . ." "The part about the fish. You said something about them singing?" The farmers face split in a wide grin. "Oh yes. They sing."
Everything is dissolving into silence, resolving itself into darkness (or is it light?) from whatever confusion of colors and shades currently exists, the vague cacophony that comprises the current days and hours of our lives. Now we speak, but soon there will be nothing to say; now we watch, but soon there will be nothing to see. We will have said it all, seen it all, and abhorring meaningless repetition, find ourselves in a state of confusion. Our eyes will close; we will stuff our ears with wax to deny them. Every silence is unique, so we will stay silent.
The room was dimly lit, the only source of light the floor lamp that stood at the end of the sofa. Outside, the northern December dark clung tightly about the house, pressing against the blinds and heavy drapes that kept in the faint light. He sat shrouded in a quilt directly beneath the lamp, slowly turning the pages of his book. He was the center of the warm 60 watt glow, the shadowed corners bleeding into the soft yellow highlights on the golden oak coffee-table, the padded corners of the upholstery. He could hear their voices in the next room.
Sailing directly east from Trelia, we came across a most impressive current flowing swiftly south-south-east. We were not aware of it until Smith went to check our longitude and found we had slipped some several dozen kilometers south of where we were supposed to have been. Sure enough still water could be seen a scant few hundred yards off to starboard. First mate Henders suggested we exit this unnatural slip-stream, but Smith countered that we were traveling at a good fifty knots, and we ran the risk of splintering the hull should we run half of her into unmoving waters.
"Sir, you need to open the door now." "What do you want?" A tight, nervous face appeared in the narrow crack between the door and the frame, pale blue eyes peering out beneath the taught chain that kept the door from being forced open. The eyes narrowed as they caught sight of the silver badge pined to his breast. "Oh. Cops. Donwan nuttin' to do wit' nuttin'. Sow if youse could kindly step awf mah porch, I'd appreachiate it." Andrew stuck his foot in the door just as it started to close. "Actually, I've got a warrent. I'm not asking."
"You don't need to tell me mother." "Now sweetie, I know it will hurt, but . . ." "No, I mean you don't have to. I already know." "Know what, dear?" "That you and father are getting divorced." "What? I . . . that wasn't what I was going to say." "No, I know. But its what you wanted to say. You were going to build up to it through a series of contrived conversational smoke-screens." The room was silent. Martha stared at her daughter, struggling to keep the mixture of fear and anger from showing on her face.
Another year draws to a close, eh my friend? What? Resolutions? Poppycock! Merely the foolish tradition of those too weak-willed to actually do what it is they truly desire. By making an inane list of "resolutions", the common man feels he has taken active steps towards accomplishing his ambitions while, in fact, he has done nothing more than ensure he lacks the drive to actually and vigorously pursue them. Where as I am the proverbial Man of Action of which Yeats spoke. I desire something and I seize upon it. This Trisket, for example – I shall eat it at once!
Dawn is merely the reversal of dusk: the light is returning rather than fading as the sun sets rather than rises. Then why does it feel so different? The early morning and the late evening are utterly different from one another, as different as they are from noon, from the way the light plays across the surfaces to the way one's feet sound upon the pavement. If its all merely physics and light refraction, why is a sunrise so different from a sunset? Is it merely that we can sense when something is dying, and when it is being born?
The Tip Jar