REPORT A PROBLEM
To begin is the hardest thing. To take the first step, say what must be said. It’s called breaking the ice and it’s what he has been conditioned to fear the most: that he will actually break through, and as the black ache of the water begins its slow annihilation, he will forget everything the wise men taught him. “Never speak,” they said. “Never give anything away. Never lose control.” Yet the ice is there, and she waits on the other side, and he must begin. “I’m sorry,” he said moments ago, and as yet the ice has not cracked.
Three in the morning: awake and alert he lies on his back listening. The refrigerator hums. The cats twitch and dream at the end of the bed. His wife coughs once, turns on her side. A car approaches, pauses at the intersection, fades into the distance. Random thoughts – A cat weighs more at night than in the daytime. Where’s that guy driving this time of day? If you hadn’t been such a weak fool with her you would have been a different kind of fool. You’re always looking for that second chance. Fool -- get it right the first time.
Some things he loves: Extreme weather. His Siamese cats. Soft poached eggs. The stories passengers tell when they don’t think the bus driver is listening. Being anonymous in a crowd. Brightly coloured socks. The way clay obeys his hands on the potter’s wheel. Comfort food. Patrick Lane’s poetry. Miles Davis’ music. Mark Rothko’s painting. His son’s birthday. Solitude. Simplicity. Living near the sea. The way arguments with Anita morph into comedy acts and then dissolve in fits of silliness. The feeling of well-being that can overtake a room full of friends. Rare moments of near grace. A good night’s sleep.
He sits in the warm room, cat purring in his lap, cup of tea cooling on the table. He breathes in. An image of someone he knows flutters through his mind; he breathes out, the image dissolves. Nothing matters. A memory of something that might be painful worms its way into his consciousness and he breathes in, breathes out. Is it a flame or a false word or a cold wind or is it just nothing? He breathes in, breathes out. His mind becomes a blank sheet of paper, then a dark hole, then less than that. Nothing is important.
At dinner parties he tried to be the man he thought they thought he should be. He would attempt to guess what they expected of him; then he’d act out a bit, test the water – is this okay? As the evening progressed he improvised, embellishing here and there, developing his persona. A relentless intake of alcohol always seemed to help. Inevitably during the night, he’d lose track and end up leading the party into a horrible social train wreck. Next morning he would offer apologies to whomever would listen as his silent shame continued to feast eagerly on his soul.
He has loved three women in his life; just now he remembers a particular lover: tawny, blue-eyed, and filled with a longing she never spoke of. He loved her in a headlong hard-driving way and then one day it was as if he had awakened into a reality that seemed too bleak and dangerous and overnight he became a coward and left her. This morning, years later, he wonders: does love die when it is neglected? Or does it accumulate and calcify the way limestone water in a cave drips inexorably to form stalactites and stalagmites in the absolute darkness?
He senses spring approaching, and the activity in his mind begins to change. Last night he dreamed he was sailing a white boat on a wide open sea. The air was silent, cold, and infused with a golden glow, and though there was no wind the boat moved swiftly through the water. He and his crew sang an old sea shanty and when he awoke the tune was still running through his mind. He arose from bed and as he prepared his morning coffee he realized he was enjoying a rare wonder. He was happy – totally, unconditionally, limitlessly, gloriously happy.
Here at his potter’s wheel, the clay alive and responsive in his hands, it’s difficult to imagine evil in the world. But today he can’t ignore these thoughts. As he centers the clay, he thinks of the AIDS-stricken mothers and their children in Africa waiting for their men to return home to infect them again and again and none of them – not the men, not the women, and certainly not the children – know what this enemy is among them, or how to defeat it and the bowl emerges, an ugly bulging off-centre mutation that haunts him the whole day long.
They drove into the high desert, parked the car and set out on the trail. As they climbed, they listened; the small desert sounds began to emerge one by one. Whistle. Tweet. Crackle. Creak. A low-pitched drone faint in the background. Above them the sky changed colour. The late sun warmed their skin. He took care where he stepped among the cactus and the ocotillo. She took photographs of everything. He saw her aim the camera at him. He smiled, and opened his shirt to show her his heart. It was all he had and he could not stop himself.
Dull, dreary, rainy. He tries to imagine himself in an unimaginable situation. Wearing fishnet stockings, perhaps? Or maybe being CEO of a major bank? Or looking someone in the eye, someone he has never seen before in his life, and saying something that is absolutely true? Oh, here’s a good one – he imagines himself fly fishing in a clear brook beside his father, both of them laughing as they cast ineptly out into the water, then screaming with rage as the lines between them become hopelessly tangled, finally refusing to speak to each other forever. No. Wait. That actually happened.
A fist of fear grips his heart. He is one of three men riding a howling motorcycle through the desert heat. They wear evil like leather wrapped around their bodies and a carry a raw stench with them: hatred and hot oil and the slam of bodies. This is how far he has come since morning. This cobbled nightmare of men and machines and pavement and something awful about to happen. If he is dreaming he hopes he will awake soon. If he is not, he knows love will not rescue him. Not this time. They slaughtered love for breakfast.
Not a memory, not quite that. What was it? A moment of someone else’s consciousness? A fiction invented in a lost second of concentration? Or perhaps a slice from another time? Where would he be without this? Who would he be if not for this hiccup in chronology? He tries to remember, but how can you capture something that might not have existed? Is it important, or should he forget it? He shakes his head, takes a step. Enough of this time-wasting. Dance, says a voice in his head. He twirls and pirouettes and lets the music sweep him away.
The dance, the inscrutable intricacy of love, the swell of music and rhythm and lust overwhelm him as he slams into the heart of the multitude. A woman or a man or a beast holds his body aloft, as if passing him up to some higher force and he knows if he opens his eyes the light will blind him forever. He came to be broken and was saved. He came to taste emptiness and was captured by gluttony. He came to forget and was revered. He came for the promised oblivion and was welcomed by the disciples of fire.
He speaks his father’s name again,
three short syllables recalling the man,
the way he was when he drove:
confident, concentrated, serious,
ever ready to pass judgment;
the children and the wife
in their assigned places,
watchful as rabbits, poised
to praise him or flinch.
This is not a memory of anything
true; more a poor photograph,
skewed and blurred, all context left outside
the frame. A snapshot
from a larger and truer life,
before death cornered this average man
and left him nothing for sustenance
but his white-knuckled appetite for alcohol,
his fierce and private fear,
his abbreviated love.
The cars creep by dirty and slow. The snow smells like procrastination. The grapes are juicy and taste vaguely of desire. The sun is absent. Rain falls. He scratches his head, wishes for the mean-spirited beauty of the desert. Babies cry somewhere nearby, not one but two or three; the noise grates behind his eyes. Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck up shut the fuck up shut the fuck up. You get the picture. Things are as they are but not as they should be. He curses his refusal to act. Eats another grape and it tastes like deception.
24 SIMILES FOR RAIN
Rain falls like whispers.
Rain falls like prayer.
Rain falls like accusation.
Rain falls like gibberish.
Rain falls like silence.
Rain falls like indecision.
Rain falls like darkness.
Rain falls like fingers.
Rain falls like kisses.
Rain falls like fir.
Rain falls like nails.
Rain falls like needles.
Rain falls like comfort.
Rain falls like grief.
Rain falls like love.
Rain falls like ecstasy.
Rain falls like redemption.
Rain falls like absolution.
Rain falls like oblivion.
Rain falls like deception.
Rain falls like memory.
Rain falls like absence.
Rain falls like repetition.
Rain falls like rain.
Adjectives he has used this month,
written in the order they have been used:
black slow wise
awake alert weak
different extreme soft
anonymous rare near
good warm painful
false cold blank
dark important relentless
horrible social silent
tawny blue-eyed headlong
hard-driving bleak dangerous
absolute white wide-open
golden old happy
alive responsive difficult
ugly bulging off-centre
high small low-pitched
dull dreary unimaginable
clear tangled howling
raw hot cobbled
awful lost inscrutable
confident concentrated serious
ready assigned watchful
sad true larger
truer unquenchable dirty
juicy absent mean-spirited.
He makes a pledge:
no adjectives or adverbs
for the rest of the month.
The absence of rain is a blessing. This morning the sun has taken command. The wind is but a notion in the trees, an idea noodling in the wind god’s cavern of a mind, a moment of respite from the drudgery of wind-work. He looks for darkness, finds it in the remains of coffee in his cup. Brightness reigns all over the neighbourhood, light has triumphed, and he swears he hears victory in the air, ten thousand voices raised in a song of praise. This won’t last, it never does, but for now, in this moment, his soul runneth over.
The cat twitches and squirms. He doesn’t fit in the human’s lap; there’s no room for his hind legs and his neck has a crick in it. His concentration should be on relaxing, sleeping, owning this man stroking his fur. But he doesn’t fit, and his purr, which is supposed to fill the entire room, doesn’t have that pitch of well-being he craves. It whines and stops and soars and dives, like the sound of a humming-bird’s wings. Where’s the dignity? Maybe it’s in the kitchen. He stretches, yawns, slips off the human and wanders off in search of food.
the horse dreams he is smoke drifting
before the wind he is light
and the horses running with him
have lost their sight from staring at him
no other beast on earth or in heaven
can equal the swiftness of his gallop
he is strength power sex
his sons will never catch him
and kill him his daughters never betray him
he dreams of mountains and the tumult
of water and acres of grass
whose sweetness threatens
to burst his horse’s heart
with a generosity he thought
he could never dream yet he dreams
he is purity he is fire
One day they will use the artifact. The slaves will place it in the temple where every member of the congregation can see it. All will kneel and meditate, then the priests will begin intoning the artifact’s name, singing the first of the fourteen syllables in voices filled with awe and wonder. The congregation will join the song, and the sound of praise will escape through the windows and drift through the village. Those not invited to the ceremony will hear the chant, and will shiver around their firepits, fearing the temple that hides a truth they can never imagine.
His brother took the photograph years ago on the causeway, standing so that the camera framed it like this: mother, son, bench, pathway, sea. He and his mother face one another, each with an arm draped over the back of the bench. Light glows in her face. Her head inclines toward him as she speaks. His chin rests on the back of his right hand. He watches her and listens. She is dressed in grey, he in blue. The sun warms them. The ocean smells like salt and pickles. The sea birds whirl and cry like oracles. The shutter clicks.
Scrambling over the girders exhausts and exhilarates him. The cold burns his skin through jacket and shoes and mittens. Below him the scramble of traffic, the midday sun strafing the concrete, the horns and voices and sirens and diesels, the city howling and churning like a cauldron of anger. At last he stands here on the top of the bridge. Wind slams into him like air from a deepfreeze. Sweat crusts his flesh. He climbed up here for sanctuary. He climbed to keep from sinking. And he knows with a certainty that comforts him there is no descent without terror.
The certainty in the last few seconds. He knows now how the lamb feels on the floor of the slaughterhouse, death pounding toward its brain. He spreads his arms, soars into the freeze of noon. He passed the point of no return yesterday or the day before. Today, now, this is the action taken. This is why the men built the bridge. This is why they painted it blue. This is why the people below stare up at him, their faces as round and big as money. Quiet falls around him like a blanket of comfort that turns to nothing.
His eyes open into a night that is blackness and nothing. The transition from dreaming to waking founders on its own weakness and he doesn’t realize he is no longer falling. There are no boundaries and nothing to separate phantasm from reality. He licks his lips. Swallows. Tastes the bile of sleep. Thoughts shuffle through his mind, collide and carom off one another, form patterns of logic that confound him with their weirdness. Shards of the dream stick to his memory like words from a promise he may have made but he can’t remember when or where or to whom.
So this is how this love thing works. There she is, sitting among all those pillows, drinking coffee, speaking about cats and work and movies. He watches, listens, sips his coffee, and realizes he loves this woman – the delight of her smile, those hands and fingers that touch him with a kindness and a delicacy that scramble his brains, her great compassion for all things, her love of laughter. Love is not an emotion or an idea. Love is a verb. It’s action. He loves this woman. It’s the one true thing he can do and he loves doing it.
Every question has more than one answer that fits.
The one who made sense cornered the market.
The one with no pot to piss in stupefied them all.
The one they applauded got lost in the shuffle.
The one they wouldn’t believe became the one they worship.
The one who wanted to be a cowboy and the one they called darling were too good to last.
The one who amused them is now the fool no one remembers.
And what question is served by all the others: the abandoned, the undesired, those they accused and will burn at the stake?
Are these words mistakes? Is he just filling space, wasting breath? Does anyone read this? Where will this questioning take him? Where does he want to go? What does he want to…that is the question, isn’t it? What does he want? Why is that question the one that stops him in his tracks? Knowing it will stop him, why return to it when all other questions have exhausted him? Does he ask the question because he thinks it is expected of him? Is it another form of procrastination? Ask the question that can’t be answered and then go do something.
He leans against a lamppost and watches her stride along the sidewalk. He thinks he might know her, or at least he might want to know her. There’s a whisper fluttering somewhere in the back of his head – encouragement or warning? Her arms and legs propel her forward with purpose and confidence. A breeze blows her hair across her face like a veil. He feels a pang of disappointment as a truck passes between them and he loses sight of her. She reappears, and again the whisper: “Talk to her.” The metal of the lamppost is cold against his shoulder.
A passenger rings the bell and for an instant he has it, that freeze-dried moment of stillness, no thought, no feeling, no thing happening except this emptiness of total awareness and as always as soon as he begins to define the this-ness it disappears and he is still driving the bus, the three young women are still talking too loud, the addict continues to nod off in the seat behind him and he craves it even as he knows he can never have it, knows the craving makes it impossible to grasp and the grasping makes it impossible to remember.
He is twelve years old again, standing in a field of stubble, looking across the prairie at three crows in a tree. He raises the .22 bolt-action to his shoulder. In the gunsight the birds are blurred against the hardness of the midday sky. He squeezes the trigger, remembers his father’s anger. The hand. Crack! The rifle recoils against his shoulder. The fist flying toward his face. The crows take flight, their caws mock his hunting skill. In any given moment you cannot know if something has changed, but after the change you never return to things as they were.
The Tip Jar