There are no routines to rely on these days. No comforting green valleys worn into the wooden floors between the living room and kitchen. These days it’s a constant feverish push forward, a self-inflicted chaos. A murky dream about abandoning the book on the beach, a flailing run into the tumultuous surf, dragged under, pressing each limb against an invisible resistance, pushing out to find the bubbles, to follow to the surface.
In soft darkness, the mind’s struggles are pitted against the search for pure, simple sounds. At the dawn’s early light, it’s all ears.
That clang of metal and heaving hydraulic system must be my waste management friends. I am anxious in my cotton chrysalis, wondering whether I’ve forgotten the recycling. I wonder if they ever see the care I take in securely tying the bags. Each week, making sure to spray the sticky scum out from within the can. I wonder if they ever find treasures to bring home to their lovers, sets of gold-plated knives, cases of vintage wine, unboxed encyclopedias.
Further away, the trains of midtown yawn in long, bleating wails. Ambling and creaking through overgrown city fields and streets. Everyone feels bad for their hobo ways, their graffiti disarray. But the cars are filled with rum, helium and pizza boxes. They’re just waiting for the right moment to say, “Surprise! Life is nuts!”™ Overflowing containers of macadamia nuts are near the caboose.
A house alarm shrieks. What could be an attack of perfectly orchestrated locusts is actually the outcome of a couple chubby squirrels wrestling too close to an array of protective lasers. As Catherine Zeta Jones faintly smiles, all the way from the coast of Wales.
Cops only sound their sirens as a sign of riotous, friendly laughter. Cars pass by below, each passenger woven heavily into their favorite heartbreaking song.
My primary high school vocation was to drop my backpack on the piano bench and watch the sun set through the windows of the living room.
Gently slumped beside a spindly creek, it was a pleasant enough home to the unfocused eye. Akin to a kindly guidance counselor with worn-out corduroys, the cerebral steering wheel soft and pockmarked with age.
No two pieces of pine met without a little breathing room in between. Awkward eaves askance, wood heat that never warmed the whole place unless you were sitting directly on the stove. There were bittersweet hallucinations of chopping holes in the walls to create currents, beckoning warmth to the icebox bedrooms upstairs.
I tried my best to abide in the basement — Helheim. The floods of summer would give way to ice slicks in winter. I slept with all my clothes on, fingerless gloves flipping Neil Young album sides, a can of Old Milwaukee cracking underneath two sleeping bags and the tentacles of a million scratchy sheets. Nevertheless, I needed the appropriate space to display my sick glow-in-the-dark Pink Floyd tapestry.
The neighborhood, Brook Hollow, had originally and obviously been christened Skunk Hollow. The whole stretch of town off Wheelock Street had been built on an ancient skunk mating ground. The spirit and size of these beasts was off the charts. (On our first Halloween, there was a critter on our porch that I was certain was just a wayward fourth-grader, waddling and sugar drunk.)
The smell became so powerful and overwhelming that the entire community developed an immunity. We weren’t even aware of our thoroughly off-putting odor until distant relatives visited, their faces full of disgust.
Rolling hills, dangerous intersections. And skunks.
The only time it all felt right was in early fall. When the wraparound windows were filled with lifeless falling leaves and the decaying day’s sideways tangerine light. I would sprawl on the bony thrift store couch and think about toothpaste commercials and college-educated women who could see beyond my gawky ways. Half-blind and wishing for the power to control time, about having my friends gather round me in my final, noble hours of fighting an incurable bout of seasickness.
Throughout his life, I saw my father a handful of times a year. Even with his brevity and short stature, he invoked bone-rattling fear with thunderous anger. As kids, I remember us all running from him and looking back in terror, holding hands, holding all we could carry — as if he were the unfunny Godzilla incarnate.
My first insurrection was in the autumn when I was sixteen. Drowsy powerful words, delivered softly. Something I’d figured out in all that lazy sunshine.
“I’m not applying to Yale.” Seven syllables that might seem innocuous and simple to most bystanders. But my father crossed two lanes of traffic, in and out of the emergency lane at eighty miles an hour, skimming the ditch that ran along 89, narrowly missing a semi and back into traffic for a silent, fuming ride all the way to Boston. He never looked me in the eye again.
It is true. I did not go to Yale. I didn’t even finish college. I burst out the door of a speeding tan sedan and fell wildly through most of my life.
Be that as it may, I still know there is a brilliant blue sky overhead. And this seasonally insane sunlight that I’ll never stop trying to define.
Like this very afternoon, when the sun is coming straight for me from the horizon. Insouciant sideways gold light. And I can’t make everything out, but I get great flashes, sharply contrasting moments of mountain outlines, tree branch and power line towers.
The undefiled convict trying to escape himself. Through boughs of long, soft pine needles. Translucent green mixed with yellow sumac and reddening maple. Clouds, the threadbare ivory sheets above, smudged on the overhanging wise blues. Below, orange and brown litter of brittle leaves, of things to come, of the eventual and inescapable passing. Boozy insects hum and buzz, slacking and splayed in an overgrown pasture.
Woodland impulses, prickly dreams, connected disconnection. I finally fit in. Black shorts and aqueous insides on a stray synaptic search out in the wild. Sometimes junk food hungry, sometimes looking for cheap, truehearted love. Always trying to get lost in a sick song.
The greatest moments are seasonally swirling and nearly unconscious as the mind goes missing. Extended eyelids let the other senses stretch. The drawn-out woosh and whir of grass and weed. With the same pervasive smell from the barns of youth. Soil, hay, decay.
Look out through the misshapen brambles and see the bicycle acrobats hightailing to the shops, highway pilots precariously threading yellow lines. And yet we sometimes still fear the cyclical conclusions that validate our days and give meaning to our existence. As if there’s another way, as if anyone is above or beyond the only true fate we all share.
I don’t get it. Death is just death.
A plea for decency ascends in the purple-gray curtains of an early morning firmament. Smoky dew tangling with laconic leaves, hangers on, holdovers from a hot summer of abandoned baseball diamonds, of frowzy brown lawns, of street lights blinking alone in the murkiness, waiting for one lonely windshield to wink back below.
The first drivers head out into the world. Over the white-noise rumble of wheels on pavement, I shout from the ramparts of my solitary stronghold: “Stay true to the two-second rule!”
A cursed caw of a telephone-pole crow, trains from midtown moan for more caffeine, pleading with the sun’s shy lip to emerge, to roll out of bed and clarify all those underscores that lead us down the road.
There was a time when rules were meant to be broken. I burned bright in those years, peeling out at every stop sign, weaving through bumper-to-bumper traffic. (Relieved, I can finally remove my mask: I was that jagoff.)
But in my woolgathering mind, I was the greatest getaway driver, fluttering cash aloft over the dash, the engine and me humming the same damn Guns N’ Roses songs.
Both Mazda and Dodge totaled at excessive speeds, one dipping into a ditch and the other hugging a displeased pine tree.
The age of vans brought me a little closer to reality with gravity’s weight and unwieldiness. But I still kept my stunt dreams alive in the back of my brains, knee-steering and radio scanning. Chewing on a strip of gum, indifferent to the precarious equations I was constantly creating.
Ahem. I have left that state of mind to become a vehicular nun. Curses replaced with prayers. Rules instead of unruliness. A thumb’s-up and heartfelt grin have been swapped for every other profane digital profanity, every threatening rev-flex-swerve.
The two-second rule. The sacred left lane. The almighty indicator. These three buried cornerstones of automobile operation are paramount to a whirling whorl of metal and speed. Can I get a heck yes?
Beyond that, I believe it’s simple. Behind every other turning wheel is another human being. Someone worth exactly the same salt as myself. Or at least until Google tells us different.
Ok, maybe it’s not all sweet wine and am radio, rocking chairs with ripped wicker backs and the gentle droning murmur of evening vespers. Maybe sometimes round midnight the habit leaves the head, guitars are hung upon expectant shoulders, amplifiers unleashed.
The bed is a stage, the horse lamp a strobe. Where heads do bang and whiskey will pour.
We set out in the early evening, across the ocean on an economy airline with bright magenta signage. Our plans had dots, lines, question marks penned in red across the map. Unanswered equations of internet ideas and weather-driven maneuvers. Our jokes were especially skeletal and sketchy, all those dreaded puns and pitiful impersonations at 10,000 feet. (We would later take our comedy routine to the Icelandic coast. In Vik with a runaway map, the flapping blanched paper contrasted against volcanic black sand. The four of us giving chase, flailing after our broken paper pet.)
We had no sleep nor any definitive destinations. Get in the hire car, head east. Seeing, ascending and descending as much as our five days would give us.
We arrived at Geysir at eight am on our first day. The smell of sulphur and downpour of thick rain seemed like a sour, new-school greeting. Around the Golden Circle wind and rain pushed at our chests, yet we persisted and stayed stupidly hopeful, even though the forecasts spoke of dreariness and cold.
Back at the flat, we passed out in our damp clothes. Half-sleeping for a couple hours and out on the town. Reykjavik! (Our group was outnumbered by revelers, drowned out by the shouters, tripped by the stumblers. We took refuge in Kaffibarrin, had a couple Vikings and discussed best and worst of Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen.)
In the morning and from far away, four small explorers moved through the undulating island wilderness. Sky and clouds and sun grinding out their stuttering, syncopated choreography. Always breaking at just the right time for one more epic shot.
Our second day, our pact had been to avoid any signs of life — whenever a crowd gathered, we dispersed. Þjóðgarðurinn Snæfellsjökull Park, driving down the wrong roads for our tin can rental. We outraced an oncoming storm the whole day, staying just ahead of the rain-filled lip in the sky, climbing over lava fields where we felt like the last people alive.
Back in Reykjavik, our inability to pronounce anywhere we’d been snowballed with our punchiness. We sipped small bottles of overpriced wine, roasted vegetables and once again, drifted off in our clothes.
Reawakening to waves of coffee, we struck out for Seljandsfoos, Skógafoss. Waterfall after waterfall. (Please have faith — their abundance does not make them any less dramatic.)
Skaftefell. (The awe of standing beneath the giant paws of an encroaching glacier was enough to stun me for a lifetime.)
Jökulsárlón. Crowds, yes there are crowds. But if the brain can be slightly forgiving, the focus can maintain on the serene cerulean ice. Magnificent without any magnification of glass or words.
This is where Chris and I got drenched and chose to go with it. Rocking on glacier chunks in the ocean, watching them crush and crash all around us, waves splashing over our very breakable bones. Drowning out our unmitigated and uncontrollable laughter.
Then backwards, back through the pure yellow light of sunset, back to Reykjavik, to Gaukurinn for some jazz and cold beer. Politics and slap fights sprinkled through senseless conversation.
In the morning, we rushed to a Raufarholshellir lava cave, rain and sunlight pouring down through the jagged openings. Somewhere just below Midgard, humming Led Zeppelin.
Back on the road, disregarding the speed limits, to the empty beaches a few miles away, blasting waves. Traveling on the coastline, then back through mountains to burbling sulphur and crater lakes. A first and last dive into the most frigid water of all time.
Tumbling onto bicycles through Reykjavik, up to the Pearl, through the rain, the absurdly impatient drivers, the humming city, now in the rearview and home.
We didn’t immerse ourselves in any hot springs. We never made it to the north, there wasn’t enough time for Mývatn. Each one of these locations held infinite views, perspectives. Should the traveler stay and behold or move on to the next unknown?
At times, there were busloads of geared-up sightseers, waving selfie-sticks. A half-turn would always reveal an empty landscape.
There were a million suggestions for this trip and all of them were well-founded, serious contenders for our time. But the clock is the biggest commodity of travel: we spent every second discovering something, every second shooting film of the always-expanding landscape. There were only so many seconds in the day, only so many gravel road miles that can be crossed, only so many sandwiches that will fit in your carry-on.
Moving on to the next unknown.
It’s been a lifelong aspiration to be a true gentleman. To knowingly breathe in time with the tides, reading a folded newspaper in a beard-stroking repose. To be a modern-day knight, renowned for the constant forecast of clear headedness and perfectly tailored trousers. Elegant, eloquent, stately and sane.
The crossword is finished at dawn with barely a yawn. After an hour of intense, non-prespiratory yoga, soothing green tea is served on the veranda. Cool breezes magically prompt the world’s most appropriate cardigan.
The walk uptown is magnificent in its modest grandeur. Small steps, long strides. A chickadee lands upon the shoulder of a tasteful tweed jacket. Tilted heads and warm regards, mutually recognizing the simple majesty of what it means to be alive. And then off, off into the branches of a Dynasty Lacebark Elm framing the breathtakingly blue horizon.
A dog. A rescue dog. A black, collie-mix rescue with impeccable taste sits patiently below the worn, wooden farm table. His name is Wayne. He’s saved two children from drowning, another from vehicular collision. The toddler bounced like a beach ball, thrust by the dog’s muzzle into the arms of his desperately grateful mother. Tears and a citywide ovation. Banners, placards, joy, Wayne!
Disputes never get ugly. They’re settled by charming bows, sweet-tempered with a wave of the kerchief. Concession and understanding rule the day. Phrases like “My good man” and “I’d be delighted” and “More corn, please” swirl in the leaves of this swooping fall air. Doubt is an obsolete concept, roaming the arctic circle alone. In its place, the soft, simple word “grace.”
Enveloped in the soft, simple word grace.
I want to be a gentleman. But I am weak. I sometimes eat popcorn in bed. I’ve consumed entire sandwiches in one bite. Other times, I’ve followed stray thoughts, of unattainable ambition, of journalistic jealousies, of monetary musts and carnal lust.
I mean, who am I kidding? Shame, fear and the abominable dread of the north, doubt — these are my midnight heroes, my shadow soldiers. They’ve been with me since the beginning. Imaginary companions creeping in the crawl space, groaning and risibly loathsome. Terrors that used to frighten the hell out of me. Clown dreams, lunar moths, the scratchy arms of a cobwebbed pine.
But now, they’re my messy friends. Puppet-like beasts, furry and full of grumbles and pointless jokes. Bewitchingly broken. We are infinite in the shattered glass sea of ourselves. We sit on a stone wall and chuck rotten apples at razzle dazzle cars. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do with rotten apples and fucked up friends. Naturally.
From under the bed all the way up to the star-studded inspiration Nótt’s night sky, these mewls are my lullaby, as the gloaming blankets us all in our beautifully, misshapen glory.
Standing beside the lines of an oversized ruler, distorted commands come from behind a pool of black glass.
It’s smells like the first day of fourth grade. When all the floors have been redone, before the janitors have lost hope.
“Number eight, please take three steps forward.”
In a daze, life’s crimes are clicked and counted autobiographically. Who knew about the secret midnight snacks, the twelve ounces of party-cheese devoured alone in the pre-dawn light, restless and unsteady at the failure of divorce. How could it be that someone had seen the jealousies kept locked up airtight, the cracked marble vault below the furrows, the identical small, black holes.
Here in the dreamworld, the rulers inside know everything. The fumbled interviews with The New York Times, the hastily signed demon deals, mightily misguided repartee and misplaced decorum. A brazen daily allowance of hypocrisy, punctuated with a glib, imitation kickflip.
It gets worse. There were women with green eyes who believed in every strum, who followed from faraway lands. Friends who fell off the hay-wagon, snubbed by the devolving wooden wheels, reins whipping in pursuit of the always-unreachable golden treehouse.
Looking down from a frosted plastic window, the ocean and sky mimic shades of blue in a way that makes the world seem empty of everything. Unknown coasts recalling pasts of blue-green existence.
In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. Each note, thought, pause placed exactly where it’s supposed to be. A pure testament to love, spinning through infinity. Like the indiscernible shapes of Iðunn and Bragi, feeding me and pulling me forward.
While I may not get any closer to the sun — with my turtle chin, my pointless tangents, my cloak of doubt, my annoying affinity for the word “like” — I cannot stop throwing myself forward.
As if caught in a looping, loping simile that won’t quit. Like, ever.
In the beginning, nothing seemed possible. There was just a clumsy, speck-like kid floating aimless in the bloodstream of the north country. Too nervous to speak up over the middle school cafeteria din, looking down at his reconstituted potatoes and wishing for some alien life force to beam him out of the White Mountains.
He spent most nights down in the basement, listening to the drone of the television. Daydreaming a future above and beyond his reach, he imagined three vague scenarios: in one he acquired a pitiful, brave illness; in another he made his home in a treehouse held up by telephone poles; and in the third he lived the sweet life of a black-and-white playboy, skimming the edge of the mediterranean with a Ferrari 250 GT California Spider. In envisioning a synthetic destiny, most of the details were intentionally glossed over. The first and last tool of surviving mediocrity is to wash it all away.
Reality was a strange and faceless fantasy until music came sauntering along. Shamelessly disheveled, music perched on the edge of the neighbor’s abandoned in-ground pool, smoked clove cigarettes and sang about sitting in a park in Paris, France, about panic on the streets of London, about wild horses, searching for a heart of gold and supernovas made out of champagne.
Even the cynical insomniac can sometimes see the light. Even speck-like kids come to life under the stars. Every single morning is a reawakening. Literally.
Despite all the grifters out on the shadowed streets, trying to ruin or rip off anyone with the blind will and stupidity to believe in themselves beyond reason — there is almost always another chance to wake up and sing one more beauteously exasperating, overemotional tune.
Etched into the plastic coating of an amaranthine Trapper Keeper: “So now you’d better stop, and rebuild all your ruins. For peace and trust can win the day, despite of all your losing.”
Valhalla, I am coming!
The forearm-held hand props up the chin. It’s one of those lazy, sleepy holds perfected in the back of algebra class. Elbow-skating on simulated wood grain, shining in fluorescent splendor. The face saved from a certain desk-top death by the always vigilant neck.
These arms have been on holiday while the eyes and the brain begin to cool beneath the screen.
A widowed, friendless window fan has been a blessing and a nuisance since the heat first hit the streets. Blades grinding against the screen like sped-up, nervous chatter. A lower hum might be plenty to lead me through the dwindling humidity of an early September evening.
Summer is trying to say goodbye without having to speak the words. Hints of discoloration are beginning to tug at the deep greens. The grass and the overgrowth settle their hips, slowing down over the saddle, a gallop, to a canter and a trot.
There’s Summer! In the methodist church parking lot, running away with a pack of his dad’s stale Newports and a Ronsonol-soaked zippo, visions of a lonesome crowded west unfocus on an orange down vest.
Feathered hair, mail-order puka shell necklace. Heaving breathless through the cattails and tall wet grasses. Camera lenses flare with a disorienting spin, electric yellow lights make heavy trails between thoughts. The desperate nature of a creature that can’t stand getting caught.
(The half-assed escape ended at a Pilot on the edge of town. Passed out between two cruddy diesel pumps, the cops were effective at simultaneously wolfing Slim Jims and getting Summer back home and in bed before daylight.)
Shuffling out there under the cool night sky, Summer waits to make a permanent break for it. Hanging fire ’til slumber swallows the soul, ’til Odin and his valkyries pick sides to play kickball in Valhalla under Autumn’s looming golden light.
Collapsing days, falling leaves, dropping degrees, falling snow. To let it all come down.
Across this strange human life, my throat has latched onto various items and held them as if to make fleeting friendships. Pretzels, crackers, aspirin and vitamins often spend the day stuck to the side of my esophageal wall, clinging like ancient cliff-dwelling autochthons. Once, there was a sushi bone in Seattle that stayed put for a week. I was voted to back of the van, quarantined due to a new array of exaggerated facial expressions. A rasping dinosaur bark that drove everyone to their headphones. In the dull television light of a Red Roof Inn, I coughed up the bone after a show outside Detroit. A thin wispy-white twig in the palm of my hand.
So when I say, “Let me clear my throat,” I sincerely believe in every last word.
This tangent I’m living might’ve all started when my sister and her first husband gave me an Alvarez twelve string. A twangy, wide-mouthed high school birthday gift. I fell head-over-heels in love and became totally disinterested in the same afternoon.
Even though I was a practiced teenage dissident, the prophecy stamped in my head told me that I was not worthy of wrangling beauty.
Songwriters were gods. Whereas I was destined to be the manager of sleepy Circle K in a dusty corner of Arizona. At night, watering a six-by-six patch of grass behind my trailer and talking to the stars. Microwave a pizza and drift off to the snow of black and white television. I was supposed to disappear in a puff of smoke.
But I’m no good at following fate. Me and that guitar, we became disgruntled partners. Archetypes of irascible roommates, waking up in each other’s underwear. The kind of couple that keeps deafeningly quiet over morning coffee. Mourning coffee for contemptuous comminglers. Absolute adoration and hatred in every shared look. The life of surrender, of unkempt beards and forgetting to restring the rusted strands.
At rest, the guitar would inspire oily guilt. Leaning in the corner, bored out of its mind. Waiting up late in Providence, in Burlington while I was absent, wasting time or committing minor crimes. Coming home, I could still see the shine and curvy shape in the darkness, slack-jawed and lonely.
I adapted in a desert island manner. The instrument was a coffee table when I didn’t have a bed frame. It was a coatrack when the winters were unforgiving, a custodian of towels in the summer. A bedmate when the creaks would supernaturally speak.
We survived. I drank a cheap malt liquor called Laser alone at night. Lasered, and staring into the mother-of-pearl inlay on the fretboard. I wished for my alternate life in Arizona, carefully restocking the bubble gum display at the Circle K.
I have missed so many memories I haven’t experienced.
The land of the living was a shadowy planet back in those days. There were no words or ways to run from continuously broken hearts. And I was beaten by love from the start. Do you remember Collette? The hamster wheel of humiliation picked up speed at that eighth-grade dance. Before there was a shot at reinvention or resurrection, there was just the cold stare of a wavy-haired girl who didn’t care. I waited for my mom to pick me up outside, underneath the floodlights, below the jagged shapes of pine trees. My back to the front doors, the music bleeding into the parking lot, swallowing me with the echo and decay. I swore that would be the last time I’d ever allow water to spring out of my eyes in front of human beings.
It wasn’t over. That was just the start. Gangly body, drama department haircut, a closet full of cardigans. High school didn’t do much to help. (I wonder if it ever helps.)
The only thing I had to hold onto was that annoying guitar. Since it was out of tune and a million (twelve) strings, I adjusted it to the notes that I admired the most. A dime-store dulcimer. I held on at night, strumming its face until it started to speak.
And then I began to disappear. Undercover with no allegiance. Gone.
The surface of the water is still. And then bubbles. And then small waves of rings. And then awake.
If I was going to do this, I wanted the display to be modest. The most unostentatious neon that a nickel could buy.
“Songs,” glowing up above a slippery basement entrance. Moss growing out of the broken concrete steps, the over-painted rails, shaky and leading down, downward.
The bell attached to the doorbell rings and the scene is set. Tight shelves, musty book musk, trembling book lust. Slow-moving, trepidatious characters begin to relax and go deep into the trance of reading titles, as they let go of Midgard and shed their earthly weight. A bespeckled clerk sleepily looks up and and asks, “How can I help you?”
The real question is what do you want. What do you want?
A dogless woman with puppy pins stuck in her purse, on the edge of tears.
A pink-faced thirty-year-old man, looking out of place in his new suit, discernibly second-guessing his new career.
The cop hates being a cop. He hates the word cop. Even without his uniform he’s a cop. He used to be invited to his neighbor’s oddly magical above-ground pool. He misses committing small crimes and fitting in with the rest of the world.
A twelve-year-old girl is trailed by saxophone, dragged by a thin black nylon strap. It slams every descending step. A wounded soldier, a cross to bear. The cracked-plastic carrying case is soundless coffin holding onto some splintered parental dream.
It is a wrestling match to be honest! Here’s to blamelessly saying it out loud and freeze-tag-stopping everyone in their tracks!
I do not want pyrotechnics or spandex or millions of dollars. I do not want clothes that cost as much as a car. Or a car that costs as much as a house.
I want to play music for a living. I merely want to write. (Confession: I’ve dreamt of sailboats and mountaintop cabins. Of umbrella-enhanced drinks that appear in my hand before I think of thirst. There has been a degree of toplessness in a smattering of these daydreams. I sincerely apologize.)
It’s not something that deserve automatically. I’m not a shredder. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve ruined many a jam session with my sarcastic harmonica. Virtuosity has too many syllables for me to sing.
Because it’s not really about music. It’s about connection. It’s about the love that sees around the corner.
Because I know what it’s like to put on an ill-fitting suit and pretend to be a good kid while meeting the next step-parent-to-be. Sunday afternoons, with cool drinks and forced conversations. Overheating on a wraparound porch. The pressure to stay positive when the lemonade has turned warm. When it’s just a half-empty sludge of citrus-flavored drink, mostly sugary gravel at the bottom of a finger-smudged glass.
As much as we try to pretend it isn’t true, I know you know it, too.
Dingy rectangular windows shine dim light down onto the scene: This is fine, right here. Boxed in by books and ragged guitars, a perfect americano is still steaming. With all the missteps and miscues, I did what I wanted with my life and that’s all she wrote.
It’s slipping through degrees. The mercury flutters and ebbs downward. A sweet release from Saturday’s encircling humidity. Streetlight clicks yellow to red. Click. Green.
Without air conditioning, the depth of darkness expands beyond these walls. Now there’s a new geometry. New points of focus to map the aural contours. Crickets, katydids, cars lurk on newly paved streets, cops slink and stalk like sharks. Voices, whiskeyed and low.
Out from the nocturne: “That’s not what you do with golf balls.”
Back up in the bedroom, this timid spy of alarm clocks blinks his submissive, droopy eyelids as time slows with every glance, each sigh at the digital bedside blues. But the wakefulness feeds on drowsy nods, building to the bushy-tailed heights of night, the prickly overload of sleeplessness.
Lingering smells change. Skunks and hydrangeas surrender to cut grass and gasoline. Fading scented oils crawling along with soft breezes.
“Seven sisters is too many sisters.”
The lights-out novel was troubling. It revived memories of lost friends. The ones you’re not supposed to lose. You’re supposed to give them a gunnysack full of sand and slash a slit at the bottom. A trail that cannot be broken. That way you’ll both know where to meet when the world ends.
Once-warriors without a war used to run through the woods at night with knives. Cut the tree to taste the sap, slice the palm to share the blood. Shooting bottle rockets sideways into the chest of a best friend. Barbed wire scars across the shins. Bruises were the first true tattoos.
But not now. The trails are blurry. It’s a blind climb til morning, instead of building a nest in the evening’s elbow.
“I like ferns. Hell, I love ferns.”
It’s 4:52 am and they won’t stop nattering.
The makeup of their meeting is impossible to distinguish. There could be four to ten creatures. Perhaps cloven hoofed, maybe winged. Land spirits speaking in the voices of Ask and Embla, baritone registers, but not hushed, tones. None of the sentences respond to the prior or allude the next. It is as if they’re all reciting a frayed epic poem. Homespun words splash into words, like plodding bumper cars or drunken paddle boats. Branches of sound banging against my windows.
“Fiddlesticks…haunted lighthouse…Jenny’s a man now…more like sour cream and stale…rusty rails are assassins…blanks, just blanks…no, that’s pure voodoo…crop dusting pirate ship…burp…coming down from heaven…leather ringlets…nobody could see that coming…conspiratorial utilities…my throat…ice… sixteen when they got married…a candle and a deck of cards…the vultures don’t let up.”
The insensible summit recedes, street lamps hand the keys over to a slate-colored sun. Finally quiet, finally sleep.
In the dream, I’m asleep at my school desk. I slowly awaken to berations of a tenth-grade geometry teacher. Sluggish, slurring, “Aw, alright already with your divine proportions. What’s the point in enlightenment if it only defines being unfulfilled?” I mumble the truth of youth for an army of my matchless peers! All the while stroking a beard that I shouldn’t have at that age, suddenly realizing that I can now be the one to procure beery beverages over in White River Junction. The jackpot of Old Milwaukee and Milwaukee’s Best will make me a minor hero in the resistance! The clock on the wall counts down, pencil shavings in the air, still air groaning with the weight of late afternoons, and the final alarm brings the elation of the weekend, to a meaning that meant so much when it was trapped in between valleys of a grinding curriculum. The arm’s reach touches anticipation’s shoulder, to firelit faces of freed comrades and beautiful ligneous women.
I stir from my sleeping dream, still stroking my beard.
Terror, escape from bedroom, stumble downstairs, slam last night’s cold coffee innocently sitting on a table with the same moniker. Rip the top off the tube, carefully apply an even layer of sunscreen, grab modern life’s indisputable triumvirate: phone, keys, wallet — slam out the front door, palms on concrete, up and into the van, gone.
Roads and routes 9W, 9G, 9, 9H, 9J parallel the Hudson. They run north-south with distracting views of blue-lit Catskills to the left. Inspiring the likes of Washington Irving, Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, Bob Dylan. Trying to run away from home and freestyle to these facts is humblingly impossible.
Writing, recording, mixing and beards. All of these require a steadfastness and faith in something that is ultimately, conceivably superficial. (Someday we’ll train Dickensian ghosts to demonstrate or disprove our life’s work. And the legitimacy of our facial hair.)
Mjölnir swings and strikes high above bringing a static wall of rain. Reflected primary colors, saturated by sudden wet pavement, summer storm street light. Humidity and quiet desperation are conveyed without effort, without performance.
The direction doesn’t matter anyway, the camera regardlessly follows the footsteps. A candy cigarette blows a fine mist of sugar crystals over the lens. Cut.
“Is this the world’s stupidest song?”
“Might music actually mean something to someone?”
“Please put me out of my misery before I hear the same chord progression again.”
I don’t like carrying on with inanimate objects. Speaking to stones and branches only accentuates a fully fed sense of madness. Far beyond the counted footsteps or turning spokes, the scraped knees, misreads and diorama mania.
But that’s the way most mornings start.
Good morning, ceiling. Hello, twisted sheets, headphone noose, unfulfilled ambition of being a forest ranger. Blanket hogging guitar. Orange plectra stuck on my thighs and back. Book spines aching under their dangerous stretch, posing like butterflies at the edge of the mattress.
You are all my dream companions, my advisors after a rough day of fumbling through the cobblestone minds of other human beings. My acceptance lies here, my silent demigods. Please smash my forehead with sparkling wine and send me off for another spin around the sun.
And you. Good morning, beard.
Each dawn, I wake up to a small rodent growing on my face. Steel wool slumbers shared upon a crumpled pillow. A trail of inedible crumbles, punctuations on unsaid sentences, the feverish cursive scrawls penned by an insubordinate ferret.
I don’t remember the moment I decided to let my mug take control. How did I end up with this furry parasite, passive acceptance, living in long, silent disharmony with a cropless field surrounding my mouth? The initial instant, lost.
Forward. Maybe it’s time to get serious about this reality of mine. Maybe the pale skin should see the light. Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to itchy external distractions that send me spiraling in inane circles.
Look, beard, it’s not you. It’s me.
Why, hello, mustache. I didn’t see you there, skulking around in the dim Schlitz-sign light, leaning against the tacky, vinyl-padded bar, hitting on everything that moves, acrobatic eye rolls at the perpetual refusals. Another singalong with Bob Seger and the rest of the classic rock gang. A sporting soliloquy, a disjointed conspiratorial rant, an argument over the rules of sloppy pool. Operatic and awful. And yet somehow, in some way, you make mildly compelling arguments. About waking up to pure, pristine daylight. Where breezy polyester curtains gently flow with matching drapes. So maybe let’s drink cheap frosty beer until we close this dive down, until the Corvette clock stops ticking, the rest of world sleeps soundly in the safe low-end hum of air conditioning as another terrible impulse sticks.