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Chris Van Dyke
He shoved his fists deep into the pockets of his ratty jean jacket and exhaled another plume of mist into the freezing morning air. The sloping steps of Morning Side Park were slick with a nearly invisible rime of ice, ice that would last long into the day as the warmth of the sun was held at bay by the trees until the early afternoon. His eyes scanned each step with a practiced glance, finding a safe purchase for his shoes as he descended the hill in a stilted, dropping descent. The sunlight on the ice reflected pale and cold.
Winter slowly bleeds into springtime - the overcast skies subtlety taking on a lighter shade of grey; the morning breeze which whips off the Hudson mellowing from biting frost to a more muted chill; the quality of light in your room when the alarm blasts you into consciousness, each day imperceptibly shifting towards the golden glow of summer. The air smells of fog. You may live in Harlem but it still smells like childhood in Oregon, like wet grass and pre-dawn walks with the dog and a walking stick, pant legs heavy with dew, the sky heavy with anticipated rain.
The city of Meltzner is located at the edge of the P'lanu desert, amongst the tangled maze of cliffs that are the foothills of the Saringethi Mountains. During the first full moon of spring, when the nights still thrill with an edge of cold yet have the first rumors of summer warmth lurking about their edges, the people of Meltzner take all of the wooden bed frames from their homes and pile them in the center of the town square. The dry timber is then set aflame, the townsfolk bring forth their violas, pan-pipes and sitars, and the dances begin.
But first, the news – at a press conference in Mexico City, the President of the Neo-Republic of K'Ta'lz announced a new economic stimulus package between his nation and Mexico. The package would involve a revision of all tariffs and luxury import taxes, tax-breaks for off-shore and international business, and an exchange of babies and young virgins for use in Reflexive Blood Offerings (RBOs) and Officially Sanctioned Hecatomb Actions (OSHAs). Local interest groups in both countries have expressed concerns over the new treaty. The head of the K'Ta'lzl group Home Sacrifice said "We need to keep our babies and virgins here."
Welcome! Do come in out the rain. Here, let Carlos take your coat – Carlos, take Mr. Hitchenson's coat. Let me show you to the sitting room. Follow me this way. What was that? Why yes, how observant of you – that is an original De'Soule. "Sacrifice of the Vigins to the God K'Ta'lz," one of the painters lesser known works. Not many of our guests even recognize the name De'Soule - but then you are not like most of our guest, are you Mr. Hitchenson? Nothing, nothing – I was just muttering to myself. May I offer you a glass of Tokaj?
It still moves. Those were the words he muttered to himself as they dragged him out of the hall, it still moves and the guards gouged his sides with the sharp edges of their arm greaves, the nails in their boots ringing on the hard marble tile. It still moves. Was he removed from that imposing courtroom, or was it removed from him – relativity was not even the flicker of the shadow of an idea, but still it moved, moved him, moved in him. They all moved, together in relation to the cosmos, in relation to history and to God.
The old water towers balance atop the city with awkward grace – while squat and cumbersome something in their very height, in the soaring beams of iron and steel that hold them aloft gives them a lightness that seems to defy logic and expectation. Their wood is dark, ancient and water stained, patched with rust-red and rot. There is something of a ghost town about them – the crumbling general store, the abandoned train depot, the haunted skeleton of the old lumber mill. They were the pioneers that first dared the sky, and for their troubles, were the first to be forgotten.
What is writing without an audience? The internet has forever altered the ontology of text, the act of composition, by creating an undefined area set between private and public writing. Once there was an idea of the private, of writing for oneself – there were diaries, letters that one never intended on sending, poems one never meant to share. Then there was the public – books, essays, letters to a lover, advertisements, notices. There was either the presence or the absence of an audience, a viewer – now that audience is unknown. One merely accepts that ones work might be read. Or not.
One-hundred and eight sandwood beads, worn through the countless repetition of mantras: om mani peme hung, bead. Om mani peme hung, bead. His ancient leathered fingers move at a pace somewhere between leisurely and hurried; the subtle clacking of wood on wood, the murmuring of the mantra drifting up to the shadowed wooden rafters above. The light carves scars of light and darkness across the prominent bones of his face, lips moving nearly unperceivably along with the Sanskrit prayer, catches the for-edge of the dun sandlewood and makes it shine as if with an inner light. Om mani peme hung.
He felt her contemptuous glance across the entire crowded length of Grand Central Station's main terminal. Somehow it cut through the swarm of human bodies and the echoing cacophony of feet and voices that reverberated from the arched ceiling high above. There was an indefinite tingling in the back of his skull, he turned around – and her cobalt eyes slashed across him with a casual savagery. For a timeless second everyone else ceased to exist. The hurrying brokers, bedraggled mothers with their spoiled toddlers, mustachioed foreigners and attaché clutching interns: all were unmade, and there was only himself and her.
A blank page can be the most intimidating thing in the world – there is so much white, so much emptiness, such utter potentiality without any guidelines or restrictions, no help or suggestions. It can be anything – Prufrock was once nothing more than a blank page, as were Hamlet and Oedipus. They were scratched on sheaves that were no different than the countless others that became grocery lists or mediocre short-stories. A computer screen is, perhaps, even more terrifying, as it is always blank, always primed, universal in its willingness to absorb and reflect your words . . . if you can summon them.
These are their stories. Their stories always begin in a back ally or quiet stretch of Central Park, in a darkened corner of a parking garage or hall of an SRO. Their stories begin with a startled maid or caustic security guard: there is a casual conversation over coffee, a joking banter to fill the dead hours of the night shift – then they find the body. The jogger or delivery man puts a hand to his or her mouth, steps back, lets out a short, startled utterance. Then the fuzzy base kicks in, and their story begins . . .
The man moves slowly, deliberately, easing his massive bulk into the small plastic chair at the table with the practiced skill of one comfortable with his obesity. He takes a large bite from his slice of pizza, drops it casually onto a paper plate, and wipes the grease from his mouth with a paper-towel. He leans forward with an intensity that is magnified by his sheer size, his eyes sparkling as he cuts off the man who had been speaking at him for the last few minutes. "I'm gonna tell you the way it is, okay?" The other man listens.
"Horseshit! This is fuckin' horseshit. Fuckin' New York City."
His cheeks are flushed bright red with indignation, his eyes flashing beneath his heavy brow, glancing side to side as if daring someone to take the side of the city.
"They hold up the fuckin' trains for so fuckin' long that they have to go fuckin' express. Horseshit. This is horseshit, man!"
His moustache quivers before his acerbic tirade and he shoves his hands violently into his jacket pocket against the cold of the station.
"Where's the other fuckin' train? Liars. Fuckin' liars. Just like this fuckin' city. Everything is horseshit."
Drifting off in the afternoon, the sun in the window pale and warm against my face, cheek pressed against the palm of my hand, swimming in the scintillating ether of closed eyes. Everything slowly slides away – desk, seats, the voices melting into an indistinct murmuring, an obfuscated chanson of casual conversation and lazy observation. The light is golden, shapes forming and dissipating in the shuddering whisper of an afternoon dream, thoughts interweaving with half-hopes and memories. The room is temporarily the fields outside of Christchurch, the open highway of Nevada, the beaches of Oregon, a summer on the Great Lawn . . .
The snow was already gathering on the steps before nightfall, so by the time Michael entered the park they were nearly impassable. It wasn't that the snow was deep, but it had settled into the granite steps nooks and crannies, and he struggled to keep his balance with every gust of frigid air. With his scarf wrapped about his face, he could just make out the next step, and he squinted against the unending onslaught of snow. Suddenly the ground seemed to be moving of its own volition, the sharp edge of the steps rushing up to meet his face . . .
The darkness makes is hard to see – there are flashing lights, shadows, what might be their shapes moving at the edge of your vision. You hold a hand above your eyes to shield them from the street-light above and squint into the night. There, past the cop cars, a patch of darkness shifts in front of a car, and then, in a second, you realize that they've been marching up the street without your noticing them – they are almost upon you, but somehow they had been lost in the darkness. Your breath catches as the elephants emerge from the night.
I love the random bonding moments that occur with one's fellow New Yorkers. In a city where nearly everyone is anonymous at all times, these moments are somehow more memorably, even more intimate, than the casual familiarity that one experiences in a small town. While sitting in a delayed D train at 7th Avenue, both you and the woman across from you strain to make out the garbled announcement, but all either of you can catch is "for alternative downtown service, transfer is available to the E train." You catch each other's eyes, and both laugh at the absurd world.
Another moment of shattered anonymity between two denizens of out Metropolis. Standing in line at Fairways, having navigated the crowded and impossibly narrow chaos of the urban supermarket isles. A harried man asks me if I am in line to check out, and I say yes. He then asks the woman who is standing next to me if she's in line, and she says yes too. "Which line are you in?" We explain that its one line for all eight registers. "One line?!" He storms off, inexplicably angry. The woman and I exchange glances about the absurdity of other people.
Weak coffee and a cold wind – spring stumbles towards New York in fits and starts and chilly clear mornings. The sky – blue (nearly startlingly so), the pale white clouds, the yellow almost white sun. It promises a warmth that is not delivered, but there is something else; morning as awakening, as slipping out of the lazy warmth of sleep into a day of hazy words. Words spoken, read, written; our – yours and my – lives are shaped of words, tumbling from page and lips into the cold breezes that wrap about our legs and redden our faces as we speak softly.
When I think of high school, I think of Luann. I'm not exactly sure why – we moved in entirely different circles all four years. Luann was one of the popular kids: a basketball player, homecoming queen, school president. I was one of the nerds, spending my time with the drama club or hiding out in the library over lunch. But for fifteen minutes a day, when she drove me to school in the mornings of my sophomore year, we were in a little world of our own. For those fifteen minutes the cliques disappeared, and we were merely two people.
Some nights exhaustion forces itself on me so forcefully that it hurts – the downward drag of eyelids, the painfully weighted limbs, the promise that if only my eyes could close -- oh if only for a moment -- then everything would be alright, the pain would end. They begin closing of their own volition; quickly at first, simply a rapid blink, then more often and for longer amounts of time. The promises are true – every time my eyes close it's the single most pleasurable moment of my life, and I can make it last longer by keeping my eyes closed.
Smoking always came easy to me – you always hear stories about how first time smokers have to hack and cough their way through their cigarette, forcing themselves to choke down the smoke of dozens of half finished packs. Somehow I never experienced that; from the first flare of a match, smoking was purely pleasurable. The smoke curling away from the burning ember poised between your fingers, burning slowing into your lungs; that heady first rush to your head as the nicotine hits your bloodstream, the worlds suddenly sharper and more intense. It's a hedonistic and deadly burning pleasure of flame.
Today was the first day of spring in the Bronx – I could tell because an old latino woman was pushing a cart of flavored ice slowly up Jerome Avenue. It wasn't quite warm enough to warrant buying a frozen dessert – the sky was a bit overcast, and the breeze still had an edge of winter about it – but seeing her trundling along with her covered canisters of frozen cherry, mango, and coconut ice brought back memories of last spring: the tart coldness that nearly burns, the crumpled paper-cup squeezed to milk out the last of the sticky sweet melting slush.
The weather changes so quickly, so subtlety – one moment I am casually mentioning how wonderful it is that spring has finally arrived, that the blue sky and sun are illuminating this cluttered cavern of Sullivan Street where we sit near an open door in a small café; the next I suddenly realize that the world is washed in grey, the sky overcast by a creeping blanket of low-hanging clouds. A table is scraped across the tile so that the door can close, shutting out the world that just a short while ago we longed to invite inside to join us.
Like foreign toys washed upon the shore, they find refuge in the dimly lit interior of the crowded café. The pierced-lipped and pink-haired young woman; the man with his short hair and unkempt beard melting into one hazy outline about his face; the plaid clad hipster, trucker cap ironically crowning his purposefully mussed hair: they form an indistinct sea of clever t-shirts, silk-screened with out-dated pop-icons and intentionally obscure phraseology. Dos XX, Heineken, Stella Artois, Brooklyn Lager, beers that have traveled across oceans and seas and beers brewed across the East River – the conversations and beers washed down with laughter.
Here on this palace of earth, the spinning of the fabric of the lives of men, the telling of ancient tales forged anew. Behold – the goddess Athena has fallen from the summit of Mt. Olympus and lies ranting in the gutter, her hands clutching the tattered rags that are the sum of her earthly possessions. Agamemnon has wandered far from Troy, shuffling between cars on a Bronx Bound 9 train, shaking a cup of change and singing old blues songs in a raspy, untrained voice; he who elicited terror from Trojan princes can only hope for pity and a dime.
The turtle sits there for hours, motionless, at time nearly a piece of the decor that breathes. He sits in the light of the heat lamp, timeless, something that has never moved and never will; he is no more active than the log on which he sits, and the rough texture of his shell seems but an extension of the bark. Then, after some unfathomable internal decision, something stirring within his ancient reptilian brain, he suddenly dives into the water, his awkward, immobile bulk transformed into a sleek figure of grace. With a flash he has vanished under his log.
Is there something, something to be writing about? Something to be feeling, or talking to with this a word or two – we we we have come upon many things in the years since our, in the eons and eras that have passed between us. Come! We are awakened, we are quickened to something subtle, something holy, something that arises not our of either of us but out of some third, some sudden, sudden . . . whippoorwill. Whippoorwill, oh child of time, oh child of specious lassitude! Can we, can we? I testify that we can, that we certainly can.
The past always colors the present – the layers of our experiences and memories settle one upon another, each new shade slightly but forever altering everything it touches. Like ripples on a pond, the effects of our every action reverberate in all directions; the words we spoke yesterday change what we said last year and make it impossible for us to say certain things in the future. We curate our lives haphazardly, blindly, without realizing the implications until it is too late, and even then the obscure mystical alignment of our experiences can only partially be known. Nothing can be unsaid.
They were known as the Old Ones to the people who lived in the valley, though when they whispered to one another beside a bonfire they might call them the Dark Powers or the Shadow Lords. In the minds of the people, the Old Ones controlled every aspect of their existence: they dictated when and where the first rain of autumn would fall, and when the winter frost would finally retreat for the spring; it was the Old Ones who chose who would grow large with child, and who would loose their son before his first year. Nothing escaped them.
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