Monday, April 30, 2012

The conversation centers for days and weeks afterward on the dart in my chin. Those who didn’t witness the event directly ask for detailed descriptions, then elaborate and expand on those descriptions for their own listeners until the tale becomes so outsized as to challenge those still circulating about the trappers that opened up whole sections of wilderness just west of here two hundred years and more ago and whose visages would now grace our coinage if not for the unlucky fact that no one can agree on just what each of them looked like. Of course there were no cameras then, and no camera obscuras, and very few people around who were handy with a paint brush. They had all been lured to some other continent (frequently the very one their own parents and grandparents had fled scant years before) by promises of wealth and notoriety and physical comfort such as we are, to this day, lacking. We bend the line of sight our mind takes when it is trying to gaze into the past because if we don’t, if we stare straight ahead like someone suffering mental illness or someone trying to act as if he hasn’t heard the insult aimed brazenly at him, we will see only what has managed to stand upright and undamaged through the years. We will glimpse only that, for example, which the wind has failed to topple, only that which has ossified to such an extent you can’t scratch it with your fingernail. My investigation is thorough, starting at the end of the street and taking into account each doorway and the amount of time it takes to move from one doorway to the next and who might have had reason to do so on the evening in question. Still, the task is daunting and I like the idea of giving up on everything, of abandoning all pursuits as soon as you have begun them. That way, there is never any danger of feeling as if you have more to accomplish than can reasonably be accomplished in the time you have been allotted. It’s like Eulalie always says (when she is in the mood to say anything at all, that is, which is rare enough and, here lately, only when you have managed to get a modicum of gin into her system by offering her the bottle as you might offer her a bouquet of roses or your hand in marriage): It’s necessary to get even with yourself. That way the rest of the miserable world is spared your vengeance -- which is almost always white hot and beyond anything they can possibly imagine -- and you are free to exercise it again and again with little in the way of consequence. Just a cold sore now and then. A trembling of the fingers that you can explain away easily enough as the aftereffects of a mild case of mercury poisoning. A misunderstanding, really. Something to take no more note of normally than one takes of the azimuth of the sun.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Empty envelopes spill out of the back of a truck making its way east. When I attempt to recreate the scene later with pastel chalk on cardboard, I can’t remember what the driver of the truck looked like or what the people in the street did when they saw the envelopes fluttering about like ailing sparrows. Perhaps they stood around in stunned silence or perhaps they took the opportunity to discuss the concept of happenstance in depth and then departed for the nearest pastry shop. Ever since I got rid of the phone, I hear a faint ringing in my ears, especially when someone, strangely enough, is getting ready to knock on my front door. This is the only avenue left to them and some, like Xarlemagne, take to it almost gleefully, seeming to recognize that rules are only as powerful as the language used to communicate them. When you scramble that language, the rules stop telling you how to behave. They become witnesses instead, standing on the sidelines. They are afraid to share their opinions. Xarlemagne raises donkeys the next town over and makes a great deal of money when the weather has turned soggy and cold and the roads going elsewhere are mostly impassable. He stays up three and four days at a time cooking powders in beakers and trying to explain to anyone who will listen why the planet is neither spherical in shape nor flat, but raised like the flesh on your arm when someone comes at you with a butcher knife. His theory is the result of thirty plus years of haphazard observation and a carful working out of formulas in the night when the moon is his only illumination. And the bees are humming contentedly in his walls. It was Xarlemagne first suggested the manufacture of chess boards as a means of communicating with those forces in the universe that respect the game despite never having played it because they have no hands with which to manipulate the pieces. I remind him of this every time I go to visit and my tone is none-too-conciliatory because my life has been affected adversely by his every suggestion, but especially this one. It slows and twists around on itself as if there were a hook in its mouth or a rider on its back and it wishes to remove it. My life behaves as though it can concentrate on only a single object or desire at a time and that object or desire usually happens to rhyme with words that have no obvious rhyme.  Like “delicatessen.” Or that for a place where one level of soil gives way to another, older level and your only hope of being able to tell the difference between the two is to study the pigments and the pollen grains in them closely, under a microscope. If that doesn’t work, you can always ask someone who lacks training in geology, who just happens to be passing by, in fact, and so has no vested interest in the outcome.         

Sunday, April 22, 2012

After the sun disappears I find myself on Pangolin street, under one of the cameras, pulling faces and practicing sign language. It has been years, I realize, since I took any lessons, and those were from someone I could never be sure actually knew what he was doing. Perhaps he was simply making the gestures up as he went along and I was paying him twelve dollars an hour! The prospect, the first of its kind to visit since those rarified days, fascinates me so much I drop my hands so as to better concentrate on all its implications -- so as not to distract the weak and minimal movements inside my mind with those naturally more rigorous conducted by my body. Just then someone tosses a dart in my direction. I am completely vulnerable, zoned out like an aye-aye on its vine, my hands slow to come to my face’s protection and so the dart sticks a little in my chin. It wobbles and doesn’t hurt and what blood emerges does so only reluctantly and in trace amounts, as if the blood knows that it is unwelcome here, that its prospects upon emerging are basically nil. I hear some hushed whispers from the shadows, the first trace of someone’s mirth, a sound no doubt belonging to the culprit and one I attempt to commit to memory so as to match it up later with whoever happens to emit that sound in my presence. Thus, I suppose, giving his identity away and opening himself up to the retribution I am almost positive would be forthcoming. I like to think I am a patient man, but the truth is I have no patience, and my memory is brittle like a sponge out of water. Only guilt sticks around for any extended period of time, a hazily-defined mass that hovers at shoulder-height and follows me now down Pangolin street with the dart still sticking in my chin. The first and lasting thought is, of course, that I somehow deserve this, that it is in cosmic alignment with some deed I have committed in the past or something I am going to do in the near or even distant future. Perhaps, then, it’s best to leave this emblem of my transgression where it is, let it hang there for all the world to see as testimonial of some sort. Or, better yet, talisman. Against whatever else might be in the works. The vengeance coming down on me in sheets and rivers of lightning, in letters filled with vitriol and published in the editorial section of the local newspaper. But then, no one reads the newspaper anymore and they never really look beyond the mirror. I’m not talking about the actual mirror they keep on the wall in the bathrooms of their houses, but the mental one they carry around inside them wherever they go, the image of themselves they have generated over the decades by plucking attributes from those they meet on the street – an eye here, a protruding nose hair there – and re-arranging them according to a pattern they have worked out based on the tales they tell about themselves in their heads. You know what these tales are like! Truly remarkable things happen in them. The whole world is brought to heel. Even Love is there. It makes its appearance. Love plays a musical instrument. It is a virtuoso, in fact, on something very like the Hammond organ.

Friday, April 20, 2012

No one recognizes the songs from my childhood when I try to whistle them now, try to unravel the tune from the knot my memory has made of it. They look at me on the street as if they can see the blood vessels throbbing inside my body and they wish they didn’t have to see this because it reminds them of the vulnerable structures inside their own, the bones made brittle by whatever process turns bone into a mere shell of itself, the retinas of the eyes filling slowly with leftover images until there is no room anymore for what passes outside before the eyes. I give in to a sudden, unexplained urge and jump up on the counter and make wide sweeping motions with my arms and my upper body almost as if I am conducting an invisible orchestra. The late afternoon sun shines in through the bay window opposite and for a moment I am carried away by the power I seem to wield over the entire scene, by the realization that no one else on the face of the planet is witness to precisely this set of circumstances at precisely this moment in time. I know this fact should actually make me feel a little lonely, should remind me that I got rid of the phone that used to hang from the wall because it was always in the habit of ringing at inopportune moments, and I have yet to replace it and I miss that sound now sometimes, though rarely. Sometimes, for instance, in the middle of the night when I am playing a game of chess against myself, which is easy enough to do given that I don’t really know the proper rules of the game. I know the piece that looks like a horse must move two spaces one direction followed by a single space in another perpendicular to the first. I know the little ones go wherever they please. Because I don’t know, though, or because I knew at one time and have since forgotten, the other rules that govern the remaining pieces, or even precisely what the object of the game is, I like to make up new rules each night based on whatever snippets of conversation I may have overheard on the street during the day. Translating what was said by people I do not know into what shall be done on the board sitting before me is no easy task and I deliberate for hours sometimes about this process before I ever make a single move. Sometimes I get impatient and wing it, assigning each piece the role of a part of speech and watching what happens when it does what that part of speech is supposed to do in the sentence I overheard earlier. Follow the others around in a predetermined sequence, for instance. Say one thing and mean another. But I usually regret this the next morning. I have been too careless in my approach, I have let the contingencies of the language infect the outcome of the contest. And I always promise myself to be more deliberate in the future, to ensure reason and technique predominate if they can’t eliminate contingency altogether. And then the next night it is the same old story all over again – a willy-nilly mishmash of event and speech. Of what happened and what was uttered and why the one doesn’t always have to precede the other. It’s enough to make you want to quit playing chess altogether if it weren’t for the fact that I love chess. I love the idea of it anyway. I love the way it makes me think of the past, as well as the faulty image of the past we, of necessity, carry around with us when we think we are carrying around the real thing.           

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Rumors swirl around B ----------, Stepanovich’s wife, like insects drawn to the carbon dioxide that oozes from our skin. These rumors, though, are rarely salacious. I happen to know a thing or two on the subject, but I’ll never tell. I could, however, be persuaded to drop some hints. It doesn’t take much to get me wagging my tongue – a bottle of cheap gin, say, even just a partial bottle. Tickets to see the minor league baseball team. They play in an area of town no one really feels comfortable visiting anymore, at least not since they put cameras on the light poles and they put decoy cameras on some other light poles and you can’t tell which ones are actually taking snapshots of you and which are just there to get you to behave yourself even when you don’t have to. Once, B -------- and I were sitting by ourselves in an abandoned horse cab – the old throwback buggies that ply certain parts of downtown in hopes the tourists will give their operators more money than they deserve to take them once or twice around the block. She was fiddling with the snaps on the front of my clothes as if she had never seen snaps before and wanted to figure out for herself how they worked. The moon was barely discernible in the sky and the traffic was making its peculiar noise on the ramp overhead, but we were unobserved and unobservable in the horse cab abandoned at the end of an otherwise deserted street. I liked the way B--------‘s breasts moved around visibly inside her black shirt and when she would catch me glancing at them she would let out a laugh that sounded very like a piece of machinery grinding its gears or, later, after we loosed all parts of our bodies onto one another like debris – fence posts and ripped tarpaulins and blocks of Styrofoam -- riding the swell of simultaneous floods, her laugh simmered for a while and dissipated on the breeze while I was trying to imagine why I might have done such a thing to Stepanovich. I felt guilty, even though he and I really weren’t all that close to begin with. I mean, I wasn’t entirely sure what his first name was or if he had a first name. I had never heard anyone refer to him as anything other than Stepanovich, and there were some people that never referred to him by name at all but just held a closed fist up in front of their faces in order, I suppose, to imitate his nose which was misshapen, to be sure, but not overly large or imposing and certainly not the sort of thing one could expect to be known for when there are so many other things one could be known for. Like generosity. Or a tendency to reduce absolutely everything that happens -- and many things that don’t -- to an axiom originally gleaned from college trigonometry class.                

Thursday, April 12, 2012

For several weeks explosions intermittently rock the neighborhood where I live, and no one seems to be able to identify where the explosions are coming from or what exactly is causing them, let alone figure out what to do about them. At four o’clock one morning around this time, I am tossed from my bed by the power of one of these explosions and I think for a moment, while still half asleep, that the earth has opened up down the middle and everything is funneling in. The entire surface of the planet and everything resting on that surface is sliding into oblivion. I search for a camera with which to document this singular event, but my hands just get stuck in the pockets of the robe I have worn to bed and inside there are bandage wrappers and half-eaten pieces of candy gathering lint. Afterward, I can’t sleep, as is usually the case anyway, and so I do what I must do to keep myself occupied as the stars rotate slowly above my head. Frequently, when I can’t sleep I have visions of the walls sliding slowly outward, revealing a place between where the room ends and where the outside world begins, a place without color or substance, about three feet wide from top to bottom, where, if I could figure out exactly how to accomplish it, I could spend my nights more profitably than I do now. Reading books that take place on a lane far away where someone who is rumored to know the names of the different plants and flowers she passes while walking on that lane spends the entirety of the book calling out the names of those plants and flowers just to demonstrate that the rumors concerning her are true. Wouldn’t it be something to find we enjoy again the things we enjoyed in our youth? The local delicacies made with watercress and cognac? The songs about the train depot where the trains were always late, where the people who were waiting for the trains kept looking at their watches and mumbling threats under their breath? These threats, like most threats, were not serious. They didn’t hold the weight and import of, say, a diplomatic wire from overseas. Just the same, it’s hard to imagine ignoring them completely if you were the target. If you felt as if you were being given an ultimatum, say, and the only way you could respond was to do what your father and your father’s father before him (and perhaps even two or three generations beyond that) had done – namely, to address the threat directly by making a threat of your own. One as serious in tone as a canvas by Michelangelo but having at its center a soft, white spongy material that could be pressed and formed to hold any image whatsoever. A bird, maybe. Someone with a bird perched on his arm. He is holding the arm with the bird on it up and out -- toward the sky, as it were -- and you can tell he wishes the bird would fly away and that he is a little bit disappointed that the bird is showing no inclination to fly. It keeps its wings stubbornly tucked up next to its body.                    

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Stories like those my cousins and I liked to tell one another, those that center on the workings of machines that haven’t yet been invented, must, of necessity, catch the listener’s attention by using facts and details you do not find in the real world, that arise from the imagination as effortlessly as bubbles from the murky waters of a swamp. To insist otherwise is to take the perceptual equivalent of the back pages of a catalog and transfer them to the front where they will be misunderstood by all but the most discerning of patrons. They will cause a disconcerted rumbling among those who rose early just to be wherever the auction the catalog belongs to is going to take place. The Pakistani man turns out to be native born and explains what I took to be his accent as the result of a stroke that nearly felled him when he was very young, that deadened a patch of tissue in his head about the size, his doctors said, of a postage stamp. He is working hard to reinvigorate this patch of gray matter by doing crossword puzzles obsessively and drinking enormous quantities of pomegranate juice. He invites me into the bowels of the boat he works on, lays out the different conch shells, the different pairs of tin earrings on a place mat depicting road maps of various states other than that we occupy at present. I can tell this by the numbers assigned to each of the roads depicted, numbers in the high-forties mostly and corresponding to none of the highways that bisect or meet at the center of town. He tells me he is not that interested in bartering, in accepting even so much as a dime in trade for the conch shells, the earrings. He just wants them out of his sight as quickly as possible. This makes me suspicious, of course, and I begin a line of questioning I observed once when my friend Stepanovich was trying to determine where exactly his wife had been and what she had been doing when she returned home one evening after having disappeared for a week and a half. Her hair was a different color than what it had been before she left, or so Stepanovich insisted despite his wife’s adamant refusal that this could be true. She claimed she hadn’t even been gone and had woken up beside him in the bed that very morning. But he would have none of it. He knew when he was being played for a dupe and so he asked her a series of questions that seemed at first to have nothing to do with the situation at hand, very technical questions concerning how much water volume might be displaced when different objects were lowered into a bucket that had been filled up beforehand with water. If I remember correctly these objects included wind chimes and industrial strength cleaning products still in their original packaging. Soon the brilliance of the strategy became apparent when Stepanovich’s wife slipped up while responding. She admitted to things she obviously didn’t wish to admit to all because of the rapid-fire manner in which Stepanovich asked the questions. She hardly had time to think, to formulate a studied response, and when she did think, she inevitably thought about where she had been when she disappeared and what she had been doing and with whom, and it was these details that snaked their way to the surface and eventually shown through.          

Thursday, April 5, 2012

K------ sends a text warning me of the Dean of Students’ true motivation, which is, she’s sure, to pinpoint the location of his globe, to trick me into inviting him up under the pretext that he is not feeling well or that he has some sort of important business matter to discuss with me. And then to drug me perhaps, to ransack my place afterwards in search of the globe he must know now for certain that I stole from him on my last visit to his office. Don’t trust him, she writes, run quickly in the other direction when he is distracted for a moment. My opportunity comes when a loud explosion sends a sewer grate skyward two streets over. One can’t help but turn and look in the direction of any loud noise and the Dean of Students is obviously no exception to most rules, especially one as universal as this. Before I know it, I have found a side entrance to what turns out to be a premier eating establishment known for its elaborate seafood concoctions and its wait staff versed in at least seven different languages. I know the place by reputation but have never considered myself the sort to frequent any establishment with a name of more than four syllables and so my discomfiture at finding myself standing square in the middle of it, or at least in the middle of that portion of it where the food preparation takes place, where the lobsters are, for instance, dropped squirming into vats of boiling water and the leeks are minced up finely by hand, is enormous and has, I realize, the potential to become debilitating if not for the fact that the explosion outside has rendered me virtually invisible due to everyone on the premises – guests, staff, and self-important members of management alike -- rushing for the wide, blue-tinted windows so as to have a look for themselves at what might have caused this explosion. Now is not the time to start singing, I know this instinctively; I should sneak unseen out the front entrance and into the street where I can blend in again with the crowds come downtown so as to avoid wasting away anonymously in the fields and the forests that proliferate a mere half day’s journey by rail from here. But I can’t help myself. Sometimes the throat insists on a reality the head had no hand in creating and when this occurs, you might as well pull up a chair and listen, might as well admit sound is a more effective vehicle for the transmission of that which the soul wishes to share with anything that lies outside itself than is any other medium. This includes the spoken language the soul has created for itself, has synthesized out of nothing, so as to be able to make its wishes known, to break down the very barrier the soul has -- let’s face it -- been defined by throughout its long and checkered history. The barrier that allows one to refer to it as a soul in the first place rather than something else, like an appendix or pocket.            

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The wind picks up without making too much noise and reminds me I have an appointment at the wharf, a meeting with a Pakistani man I have run into on several occasions but whose name I still do not know. The light in the sky refracts itself into a million different pieces, or wavelengths as the experts call them. But I am beholden to no one and so can refer to those elements that make up the sky any way I wish. I can give them proper names like those belonging to my cousins, for instance, if I can recall what my cousins were called when I was still in the habit of visiting them. They lived across the mountain range in a series of cabins that got so cold in the evenings you could hear moisture crystallizing on the windows, inside and out. We told each other stories to pass the time, to explain away that noise as part of the operation of whatever mechanical device inhabited the heart of our stories. For we couldn’t seem to invent anything that didn’t somehow involve machines, just as if we thought machines arose of their own accord from the soil and weren’t labored over, engineered and designed, by people who looked a lot like we ourselves would look once we had reached an age when we were expected to make something of ourselves. When we were expected to know the difference between units of measurement and what those units measured. We treated the world as if it were simply one of many, and as such subject to the whim of what we said, the tyranny of our childish, impudent daydreams and speech. Halfway there, the Dean of students falls into stride beside me, simply appears as if conjured from the air itself and the brick dust and the sounds of people nearby shouting at each other because they are in love and they are afraid to show this too clearly to the objects of their love lest the objects of their love do what any of us would do in a similar situation – namely, use that knowledge to their own advantage. The Dean of students says he wishes to speak to me, that he has been looking forward to this opportunity for so long, in fact, he can hardly believe the opportunity has finally arrived. It is akin, he says, to a holiday. In this he is being disingenuous and he doesn’t, of course, care in the least that I am aware of it. He winks at me with his left eye without actually making any eye contact and the corner of his lip lifts just enough to reveal the one rotten tooth that hovers beneath it, an eye tooth gone black from neglect or genetics, one is never sure which in such situations, though the Dean of Students’ grooming is never anything but meticulous in all other matters as is testified to by those who know him, and many who don’t. And his habits are as ordinary as a locust’s. Which suggests we must look deep in the chromosomes for an answer to what has happened to him, but who has time for all that? Who even knows how to open a chromosome so as to have a look inside: use what implement, train which lens or fire what high-powered laser?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Whatever was flopping around in the floodwaters is obviously gone now, the streets having dried up and become overrun again with busses and people on bicycles going places it’s hard for me to imagine. No carcass after the fact, no grainy photographs. We are situated so very far from the sea here it is impossible for the creature, whatever it was, to have arrived from the sea, to have swum upstream through murky deltas and innumerable murky tributaries to show up (quite literally) at my front door, but the enormous size of the thing makes it almost impossible for the creature to have originated anywhere else. K----- says I probably imagined the whole thing, I dreamt it up right along with my diplomas from various prestigious universities and our single night of passion spent together in the Ural mountains. Certainly we have never been to the Ural mountains, I will admit this, and so any memory I have to the contrary must have been created by my subconscious mind and then was allowed to leech out into my dreams. This I will grant, but despite K-----‘s denials and air-tight arguments against my position, I know as certainly as I know the shape of the state of Colorado in silhouette that K ------ and I have slept together at some point previously, have made the creature with a single back if you are looking at it from above, and we did this not across any oceans or in previous lives, but in the here and now, if by now you mean within the last, say, five years. Perhaps we were drunk, perhaps we were so carried away by the intensity of what we were doing, by the very real fever created by emotional and physical overload, she has since begun to suffer as a consequence from some sort of minor amnesia affecting only that particular stretch of time. Who knows? But certainly I can’t have created entirely out of my own feeble mind the taste of K-----‘s lips (something like licorice combined with egg shell), the way they attached themselves to my bare skin and refused to release their grip! Ah, it was something to write ghazals about! And so I spend about a half hour each day trying to write ghazals, trying to get the couplets to exist as autonomous entities in their own right while at the same time trying to repeat whichever initial refrain I have come up with for the day. It is a very difficult and exhausting task and when I sweat over it the sweat smells a little bit like kerosene, which only happens when I am trying to write ghazals. Usually my sweat smells like everyone else’s sweat, which is not pleasant by any means but neither is it unique. K------ thinks writing ghazals, or writing anything for that matter, is an enormous waste of energy. She wants me to come by her place instead with flowers or a pork roast or something in between, and we will see, she says, what happens from there. I would claim her voice is coquettish and suggestive whenever she says these things, but I can’t. The fact of the matter is I never hear her voice anymore. We communicate now solely via text message, and I would go to her, I would, but her place is on the other side of town. When I try to find it, when I walk in that general direction with my hands in my pockets and my head down so as to avoid eye contact with those who might recognize me, those who might ask me to sing them a song because they know what everyone else around here knows – namely, that my voice is like a harp strummed from the heavens – I get lost. I wind up having to ask complete strangers for directions. When I do this, of course, I must make sure to croak the request so as to avoid being recognized. I am forced -- just to ensure my own anonymity, and, to a certain extent, my safety -- to make myself sound like an animal that spends most of its life in mud.