Christopher Bernard’s Amor i Kaos: Fifth installment
I see the following:
The interior of a west coast café, with seismic support beams making a graceful right-angled triangle in the middle of the room.
Numerous café chairs, a dozen tables of various shapes and sizes, most of them occupied by leisurely eating and chatting lunchers (most are in couples, with a few small groups, and several loners seriously addressing their plates; there is a common table with several loners exaggeratedly ignoring each other behind their open lap tops); two iron railings lead up to the café’s glass door through a wall of glass looking out onto the street.
Passing cars, a truck, bus, males and females bustling, pacing, stalking by at businesslike gaits (mostly adults, a few adolescents, no children), two small, abandoned-looking trees across the street, the entrance to a parking garage with a sign flashing in red (“CAR COMING”), a cat sleeping on a backpack near the curb (no sign of the owner), three, no four, pigeons pecking in the gutter a few feet from the sleeping cat, the entrance to a 7-11, the aggressively hip windows of a Banana Republic, two narrow green doors in a wall, shut except for one that seems invitingly ajar, several open laptops, three smartphones being swiped or tapped by anxious-looking teenagers, three ballpoint pens held by two students and a tourist (the pen in my hand is the fourth), a V-neck sweater and two turtlenecks, two white quilt parkas, a business suit holding a briefcase in swift passage across the view, shadowy reflections across the street, sun, clouds, sky (just barely visible if I stretch forward and look up).
I smell: coffee, cloves, cinnamon, pastry custard, bread.
I feel: the press of corduroy against my legs. The squeeze of a vest against my torso. The rub against my wrist of my new watchband.
I taste: …
—And that’s just a handful of almost wholly inadequate words (Shakespeare I am not) scribbled on a piece of paper. Uniqueness slips through words like mercury; they reduce everything to a class. They are like the internet. The internet reduces the universe and everything in it to an image on a screen; in other words, to the internet. Language reduces the universe and everything in it to a string of words; in other words, to itself. And we end up believing our words even though our own senses scream at us that our words are hopelessly wrong. Language is always in danger of turning us into nihilists. There once was a young philosopher who worked out a logically impeccable argument that proved, without possibility of error, that there was no such thing as the sun. He went over his arguments again and again, but the logic was ironclad, and there was no escaping the conclusion that the sun, not only did not exist, but could not possibly exist. He broke down and wept. It would have been no use to go outside and look up. And believe his eyes. No: the logic was impeccable. The sun did not exist.
—And burn his papers, she added.
—Go outside, look up, go inside, burn his papers. And end the insanity of reason, she said.
—But I love words, he objected. They’re my little darlings.
—Kill your darlings, she said, as the fool in creative writing class ordered you.
—No, he replied. Let them live. But always remind them who is boss.
—End the insanity of reason, no doubt! said the portly man. That had always been a pet project of his. Not that it required success across the culture, he having given up on his own “culture” a long time ago. It was a question principally of saving his soul. And help save those of a few of friends, though he had no desire to impose. They might see, or they might not. It wasn’t his business to grind their lenses for them and poke their eyes full of insights. After all, he wasn’t so sure he was right; he was probably as wrong as everybody else, more likely even more wrong as he probably had too much confidence in his brain.
His own personal salvation, however, he felt (despite the evidence, to say nothing of two thousand years of philosophy) he felt might just be within his grasp: he might be able, in effect, to force God’s hand. He was a Pelagian enough to consider that: he would shame God into saving him. He would be the insect that, in the act of being smashed by the divine palm, defied it. It would be the sincerest expression of his faith. He would lead an exemplary life (whatever that was). He would say, at the end of it: see what I have done with the life you gave me, I have done some good with it – nothing grand, I admit, little good things in small doses, in little packages of honesty, creation, love, even tenderness – I have grown flower and fruit, built a home and a shrine, drawn a few moments of beauty from the air, the earth, voice and skin , ink and paper, in celebration of life and earth and of their timeless creator; and whatever evil I have done (for who can avoid doing his share of evil in the world? Every life is built on the death and suffering of others), the evil I have done has been little more than the inevitable residue that every life leaves behind it; in fact, much of the evil I have done has done more damage to me than to anyone else. I have kept faith with you, with beauty and goodness and truth, even when I failed, and failure is woven into the being of the world you have created; more from luck than merit, I have fought the worst temptations, I have avoided the worst evils, I and those like me, and there are many of us, I speak not only for myself, have earned our salvation, I give you my soul and heart as pure and whole as when you first gave me life, enriched over time with a little knowledge and the brightness of a few thousand sunrises, and I hope something that might, just might, be almost confused with a shade of wisdom, for I have made mistakes and errors in untold numbers, but have learned from them beyond the bitterness of their first lessons, and I still am able to love your creation even though it has wounded me and many others (my sufferings have been bearable, but the sufferings of many others has not been) at least as often as it has caressed us, and still I am able to love you, creator of the universe, the metaverse, the eternal world, as of myself and us. I ask you to save us. For we are lost and stumble in the darkness raving and hurt and angry, cruel in our misery and even crueler in our happiness. We are lost and injured, bent and crooked under the burden of living. Save us. Please. Save us all. Even those of us who have failed and who seem without possibility of redemption. Take us to your heart. Embrace us. Show us more love than we have ever shown to you. Make us weep with joy.
She was silent where she sat in the darkness, overhearing him praying. She could hardly believe her ears. It made her almost believe. Correction: it made her almost want to believe. It was an hour before the dawn. Then the sun rose. And, as has been known to happen, the light dispersed the ecstasy as though it had never been.
If he could only discover what it was. The pebble on the windowsill, the slack call of the snowy owl, the waste of time in the long welter of personal loss. An unseemly business no one had ever heard of before. A few black strato-nimbus clouds crossing the foaming cumulus and the cold hard blue behind it.
—I call down the long dark corridor. You hear nothing at the end but the sound of water dripping into a pair of cupped hands. The silence was almost blinding. I keep telling you but nothing seems to sink in. Because you seem to hear only what you already know. Is that it then— the curse of it, trying to communicate with you? Well? Do you think we have a chance?
The storm came up from the southeast. It blew down three hundred trees in a dozen parks across the midwestern city. More than you had thought possible. The town staggered like a drunk through the nightfall, the air smelled of resin for weeks. And the fires could be seen from as far as Warren. They told you on Sunday you could have known sooner if your cellphones hadn’t been singing music from the last century. And you had been so certain that technology would save you. In its black, frowzy gown. The connection was so alive – it almost melted in your hand.
—We have a chance, though barely. Had a chance. Now gone, of course, like so many others.
And again I call down the corridor. But nothing springs from the cages. The nihilist followed his luck when it came, pried the stones from the wellhead and sucked on the mortar in the frost. What was it again that you don’t believe? In anything. Sounds like an awful lot. Even the winter believes in the snow. Though he had not seen snow in years. He wondered how he’d react to it now that his hair was entangled in the grass.
A curt and haughty robin twittered and sprang from the ink-black pines. You do not know what happened next but your gentle reader might. It’s why you cannot speak of the present – you have no perspective on it. It’s all a bright-walled blackness. You keep stumbling on the threshold of a door that will not open. You hardly know where you have been. There may even be a way out. Expectancy is a long disappointment. Something makes no noise while passing through a distant room. Why can’t you hear her? Is she still there?
She looked anxiously down the hall but could only hear the pattering of disappearing feet. Like dust.
—Insist on knowing. You will tell me and I will know. I shall. I must. In all.
Tirelessly he labors at the high cliff face. Working through the granite with his fingernails, for lack of other tools. His finger bleed sometimes when he has been overzealous. You would think he’d be making more progress, after all he’s been at it for years. Surprising how little. A few inches of bloody rock, a small alcove, just big enough to fit his body. But how proud of those inches he is! He dreams of a son to carry on the work when he’s gone. Though he has no son. He dreams of a spiritual son to carry it on. Knowing nothing of who that might be. And he stares at the shallow ditch in the rock with its traces of blood from his own hands in despair. A door, not a grave, he prays.
—Some atheist, the atheist laughs.
—Ex nihilo, quips the nihilist, nihilum comes.
What after all did you expect? That someone would hand you a key? He doesn’t answer but goes back to his scratching scratching scratching till his fingers are bloody again. The rack after all is holy, the blood is proof. Isn’t it? The pain theory of value. The nihilist continues to listen with a bright-eyed smile. But he laughs gently.
—Love mirrors chaos, he said once.
—Chaos mirrors love, she retorted, as he deserved.
—So, says Sasha, referring to the current situation in the country, in the world. What are you going to do about it? Anything? Aside from moaning, that is.
—What is there to do? I could hardly murder the president!
—Hardly, she says dryly.
That is no doubt when the seed drops into the moist furrow near the late spring road past the farmer’s field under the hickory tree. A seed that germinates and grows to blossom in the amorous heat of July.
So: how do you go about preparing an assassination?
First, no doubt, you must supply yourself with a weapon.
You do the obvious: you search the internet.
You google “buy handgun,” open a website half way down the second page of results,
site named, after the ’80s band, Guns and Roses (But Mostly Guns . . .) (it’s logo is an old-time engraving of a laughing cowboy and its motto: “We aim to please—but we’ll shoot if we don’t!”; its owner is The American Liberty Tree Company).
You run your eye down a column of photos, you click on a picture of a small, tight pistol that seems easy to handle and conceal, you click on the “Place in Your Cart” button, and then on “Are you ready to check out?,” you type your address for delivery, submit your information to the gods of the web, and just before completing your purchase using PayPal, you abruptly realize you are going about this all the wrong way.
You are leaving a trail of electronic crumbs a thousand miles long; the NSA would be parsing your info before you even got a receipt. Not that you fit anyone’s profile of an assassin—yet. Though you visit alternet or Anonymous or Indivisible at least once a week and mark every post attacking the current government on your Facebook page with a luscious or lurid emoji.
Anyway, the whole transaction has been slightly unnerving: no one asked you a thing: no background check, no 24-hour wait, no questions as to your intelligence, motives, politics, sanity.
No. This must be done more discreetly. Face to face. And somewhere not too close by.
So you google “local gun shows.” If the machine is as smart as everyone says these things are, you won’t need to stipulate anything more to be located in the blink of an eye. Less, as it turns out.
It takes less than 0.0017849 second (the average eyeblink takes, on average, roughly 0.0345 second, if you care to know. You’re welcome!) to come up with a list of 278,536 results—a staggering number, given the search term, though no doubt some of the results refer to gun shows a century and a half old or use an unhelpfully generous definition of the word “local” that includes most of North America.
The first result, however, is all you could have possibly hoped for. It is for a show featuring every manner of legal weapon, from BB guns to bazookas, machine guns to assault rifles, from a classic Bowie knife to a howitzer from World War II to a decommissioned Bradley tank, scheduled in two weeks in Hollister, a mere forty miles away.
You tell Sasha nothing about any of this, of course. And two weeks later, you put on your oldest denim jeans and a beat-up jacket, dust up your shoes, and drive down to Hollister, walk past stalls lined up end to end for “We Heart Freedom! The Show of Strength” at the Hollister Convention Center till you find something like the one you saw on Guns and Roses (But Mostly Guns . . .), and pick it up for a mere $299.99.
—And man, it’s a steal, says the thick-waisted skinhead at the stall, which is tricked out in red, white, and blue bunting with a laminated portrait of Davy Crockett in a brass oval frame hanging from a hook nailed into a corner post at the back. Used to belong to my little brother Jamey. But he said he needed something bigger for bear hunting. He laughs a fat laugh. Imagine bear hunting with a Glock 26!
You try but fail to imagine this as you contemplate the smug little piece of aggressive iron mongery before you, and for a moment wonder if you are purchasing a big enough weapon for the purpose you have in mind. Then you shrug, and buy a box of bullets as well: you’re surprised at how light the gun was, how heavy the shells.
When you get home, you take the pistol in hand and gaze at them both—first the pistol, then your hand, then your hand holding the pistol. It’s very strange. The feeling of your finger against the trigger, of the handle against your palm, of your other fingers against the cold metal, is not at all what you were expecting: it’s actually quite pleasant, stimulating. It makes you feel strong, it makes you feel quietly powerful. No need to make a Big Show at all if you have this stowed away, you think, in your pocket..
You had watched several YouTube videos demonstrating how to fire a pistol—the correct way to hold “your weapon,” with both hands, elbows locked straight, the correct stance to take to keep from being knocked down by the kick, how to aim at your target (slightly ahead of the presumed trajectory when in motion, slightly above it at distance), and the like.
Several days later, you take your pistol and drive to a stretch of uninhabited woodland several miles from home. After walking deep into the woods, you come upon a small clearing and stand some forty feet off from a dead-looking tree, take your stance, raise the gun using both hands, lock your elbows, remove the safety catch and press your finger against the trigger for what feels like a little eternity, until, at long last, the gun fires.
The sound is also not what you were expecting: short, sharp, without the resonance you heard when guns were fired on television or in movies. It is also a hella lot louder; your ears go blank and sucked out for a moment and you involuntarily shut your eyes. When you open them, you find yourself looking straight up at the sky, where a handful of startled birds flutters across a gap in the leaf canopy, and your pistol, still in both hands, is aimed at the heart of a dissolving cloud. The force of the kick had nearly knocked the gun from your hands. . . .
You pull yourself together and cross quickly over to the dead tree. A hole surrounded by freshly splintered wood stares at you, with, just barely visible, the dull gray plug of the back end of a bullet.
From then on, you make a point of regularly wandering the woods with your pistol almost every day, practicing. It’s like a brand new toy you can’t get enough of. It’s the most impressive thing you have ever owned, combining absolute immediacy of effect with absolute irresistibility of impact.
You only shoot at things dead or non-living; for some reason, you can’t bring yourself to shoot anything alive. Though you pretend to, aiming at passing birds, squirrels, the occasional furtive fox, deer, pressing the trigger (though with the safety catch on) and whispering “Bang!” to yourself, like a kid with a toy gun.
Until one day you almost step on a rattlesnake. Its tail is rattling in a high-pitched whirr as, panicking, you shoot your entire load of ammunition at the snake, which slithers away unharmed, with an air of contempt for the incompetent neophyte. And you, burning with shame, take your defeat out later that day on a duck waddling along a creek bank.
But you feel no satisfaction when you go over to examine the water bird’s splattered remains. You kneel down next to the unlucky duck, its neck twisted as if in astonishment.
“Sorry,” you say to the dead creature. “That was wrong of me. You were not the right target.”
And vow to yourself that, in future, you will only shoot at what you know you must bring down. Not for sport, and not arbitrarily, just to take revenge on something. Save your revenge for your enemies. And what you must bring down, you realize, is one thing and one thing only. It is the reason you bought the gun.
—And so, says the portly man, looking at Pascal keenly, what happened then?
—I continued practicing, he says, for weeks, for months. All summer long, until at last I felt I was finally ready for my one true target. I told Sasha I wanted to show her something out in the woods. She came along eagerly. We went to the same clearing I had shot my first bullet in (it had sentimental value). I had gone there earlier and nailed a photograph of my target onto the dead tree. Sasha laughed out loud when she saw it. Then she turned and, for the first time, kissed me. Not passionately, but I was easy to please at the time.
—And who was it nailed to the tree?
—Must I name him? Everyone knows who I mean. There was only one possible target. One person. One man. The one we all feared and all hoped to bring down, somehow, in some way, though no one had drawn the obvious logic or acted on it. Yet.
—But I hadn’t acted on it. It was all still nothing but fantasy. I was playing hero, freedom fighter, assassin. After Sasha kissed me, I raised my pistol and shot the target. I didn’t lose control of the weapon, I didn’t fall, I didn’t close my eyes. Sasha ran up to the target and poked her finger through the new hole in the photo. It was right through his heart.
—Bingo! she shouted.
Pascal falls silent.
—What happened then? asks the portly man.
The other shrugs.
You continue practicing every day in the woods. And you make your plans. The target is well protected, hard to know where he will be at any given moment, hard to get to. And there is always the problem of escaping after the deed is done. Or accepting martyrdom. You are unlikely to survive even if you kill the man. And there is no guarantee you will succeed even if you shoot him at the closest possible range.
There are cracks in the schedule. Chinks in the armor of time that surrounds your target. You study these – they appear inadvertently, as soft spots, weaknesses, on the internet. At first only in the past. But by studying them, pondering them, guessing at their algorithms, a pattern becomes clear, and with a pattern, the likelihood of prediction.
For example, there is vulnerability in the liminal spaces between spaces of transport and spaces of shelter. These spaces are open to attack. And these spaces are known. The times are what needed to be addressed. And the pattern you detect suggests the times of greatest vulnerability in the places of greatest exposure.
You take yourself to the Tower in Manhattan where the cracks are most multiple and most exposed. You wear your funeral suit of black, with a black tie, black shoes, black shades. When you catch your reflection in a display window on Park Avenue, you look to yourself like a skinny version of John Belushi. Without the hat. Though with the smirk. It is mid-September and a final summer heat wave oppresses the city.
The blocks around the Tower are sealed off; the Secret Service knows its business. But this is also a dead giveaway. There are only a limited number of entrances to the improvised citadel. And the pattern has told you which of the three favored ones, all off the main avenues, is likely to be used today. The obvious ones will appear to be; that is the point of having decoy caravans. But a third, arriving, as it were, by sleight of hand, will contain the Man. And they are becoming lax, even this early in the administration. Who knows? Maybe they are relaxing deliberately, after the fence jumpers and house invaders, after the hooker scandals and marijuana parties and the vituperation from Congressmen. After the late-night jibes tweeted by Him they are paid to protect.
The decoy caravans are always longer than the one with the sacred limo. They also have the motorcycle policemen and the sirens screaming through Manhattan.
You take yourself to a back street behind the Tower, almost an alley, one-way, not sealed off by the cops, as if inadvertently missed or considered unnecessary. The way into the alley is barred by a gas line repair set up over an open manhole; two men in orange crew suits and safety helmets for the city utility stand nearby, staring, suspiciously alert, at the few passersby: well-healed neighbors who clearly resent having their lives upset every two weeks by the government.
You walk, with officious speed, like a young lawyer mentally rehearsing a defense strategy for a hopelessly guilty client, around the block to the other end of the alley, before the street exit, where the sign saying “No Entrance” has been removed. And you stand there, the Wall Street Journal folded around your Glock, looking impatiently at your watch and up and down the street. Nothing unusual about that. Your Uber must be late. And you don’t know the president is visiting his New York White House. How could you? It’s never reported till it’s too late.
You hear the sirens in the distance as the faux caravans race down Fifth Avenue, from opposite directions, to the entrance to the Tower. You pretend to look with a blasé expression toward Fifth, like any cynical but compulsively curious New Yorker. But you are actually listening intently to what is happening behind you.
There is a whisper under the wailing of the sirens: it’s the limousine, a hybrid using its electric cruising almost silently toward you. It comes alone, quiet, secure, invincible. You hear it turn into the alley, going, naturally, in the wrong direction, and you turn and watch as it stops twenty feet from the corner, opposite the back fire exit to the Tower. The door opens and two men with grim expressions slip out; one of them opens the fire exit door, then both stand on either side of the open limo door. There is a gap of about two and a half feet between the outer edge of the open door of the limousine and the open exit door. That is the gap of greatest vulnerability. The time will be less than one second.
The Man walks out.
You raise the paper, take your stance and fire.
You will never remember how you escaped. Technically, it should not have happened. The bodega owner near the corner should not have let you inside even as the Secret Service men ran out of the alley; even more, he should not have directed them across the street toward a large delivery truck that hid the sidewalk, where the men ran, disappearing as they dashed after a phantom that would soon vanish in a sea of young men in black suits and black ties and black shoes and black shades. The bodega owner should not have shielded you behind the soda cooler when they came back fifteen minutes later to talk to the owner and get a description, which was curiously different from how you actually looked. Red head with a moustache and yellow socks was not what you had seen in the mirror that morning.
He lets you stay there the rest of the day, as the area is under lockdown and dragnet till evening. You sit listening to CNN news reports the owner blares all day on his TV. You learn that your shot had been wildly off, ricocheting down the alley, leaving the man you had hoped to kill or at least maim, shaken but unhurt; if anything, strengthened not only by his adrenalin and sense of invulnerability, but by a national wave of sympathy from his supporters and even from many of his enemies as every news channel does nothing but report this non-news for the next thirty-six hours. The only person everyone in the country hates right now is the unknown would-be assassin—many because he tried to kill the president, the rest because he failed.
The bodega owner lets you out just before he closes, past eleven. He gives you a bag of food to take home (“No one think a guy wanting to escape from killing the president carry a bag of groceries with him!”) You say thank you, then ask why he helped you.
—I live this city for thirty years. I have this shop behind his Tower for fifteen years. My brother help build his tower. He no get paid. He got billion dollars and he can’t pay men who build his buildings? I know people he throw into street! I see his wife – she stop by buy candy for her boy. I see strange look in her eye, she look scared. Why she scared? What she have to be scared of? This guy no good. He destroy everything he touch. He destroy country!
You toss your jacket and tie and shades into a sidewalk trash can and carry the groceries back to your hotel, ignored by the cops.
—So we are honored by the presence of an assassin, says the portly man.
—Would-be assassin, you correct him. Which doesn’t count.
When Pascal returns home, Sasha doesn’t speak to him for days. He says nothing in return. Then finally he speaks.
—Are you mad at me for trying? Or for failing?
After a moment, she looks up at him despairingly.
—I don’t know!
She abruptly leaves and he doesn’t see her for months.
A rabid leftist from Far Rockaway is picked up in SoHo and accused of the assassination attempt. He has no alibi and owns a Glock that had recently been fired. The bullet is never found. He protests his innocence, and you are tempted to show up at the court and melodramatically admit your guilt. But, too quickly, a hung jury spares you. The leftist is let go. Then it occurs to you: no one would have believed you anyway. It would have been assumed you were just another grandstanding kook trying to get free publicity. You can’t even use the bodega owner, who saw everything, without betraying him. You laugh for quite a long time when you realize all this. There is something quite exquisite in its irony.
The next time the Man visits his tower in Manhattan, he goes brazenly through the front entrance.
Later you are not sure this even happened. It feels like a fantasy, a dream from which you have never woken.
You call down the long dark corridor. There is an echo, then not even that. A sound of crumbling, then a sigh, then a long deep boom.
The fall of an ancient city, its tall flames shining on the surface of a lake as black as the night above it, far from the haunts of the owl and the petrel and the hard-bearing joints of the cloven ice. The smoke hiding the great armies of the stars and the mindless, staring moon. Where were you when all that started? You’ve always known how to make yourself scarce. Fearlessness was never your virtue. Unless it was a marker of split tabs and barroom testimonials. And other dire and implausible schemes. Admit it. There is no modern myth that claims too much for you. You even season the belly’s appetite with – read it! – moldy cheeses. The pleroma is waiting for you, sagging like an accidental pregnancy. But who knows? I landed the last fish before the pond froze over. Now it’s as flat as a table. Can I share, she asked? I only want to be able to see you and hear your voice when you grumble on the phone and smell your smell, it gives me so much peace. He gazed at her with a deeply hurt look. I detest being reminded of my body. I have spent my life doing everything I can to forget I have one. To forget the accursed fact I am one. And then you have to say that. But that is what I am supposed to say. You were supposed to say I don’t think we can even be friends. With that terrible smile of yours, so charming, so brutal. And so slowly kill my heart. And then you ask me why I hate you. The gall. I hate you because I loved you. Because it keeps me alive.
If he could discover what that was. The bone of contention having long been gnawed hollow.
—Like a penny pipe whistling during spring break. With a heave-ho!
The storm eats the shoreline of the continent then paces in long gales into the interior, where, blind with snow, it kicks an abandoned city to pieces. The hills across the lake are flooded with refugees, the valleys drown in the rainfall. And nothing can be seen in the dancing night. The foam spits in the camera’s eye and the image is forsaken in an instant. No picture, no evidence. If it’s not on video, it never happened. The chaos of the sea meets the chaos of the land in a long, poisoned embrace.
From the blackness of space it looked like the icing on an enormous cake, a blanc mange spread with a butterknife over a vast, succulent blueberry. Catastrophe offered by the mindless ocean to the mindless continent.
—What a spectral thwarting of man’s decency and pride!
The cotton-candy stand ripped to shreds at the first blow. The ancient pier wrecked in a shattering white swipe. The old river ferry beached and broken. The pavilion taken up and twirled in an old-fashioned dance, then cast aside into the blasted shipyard for the next intoxicated partner. The boardwalk wrecked and floated, a raft at a time, out the rocking tide.
A dog barks frantically somewhere between the beach and the dark horizon.
The absurd and scornful pity of it.
Then the fist shaking at the sky and raising the invisible tower.
To end the insanity of reason.
—Perfect strokes for perfect blokes. Blowhard windbags in the bar scene, voguing and mou’ing in the clubs, you really should have been there, I’m tellin’ you. But forget it, there’s no getting through to you . . .
The ice was three inches thick on the river between Trenton and Washington’s Crossing. That night, of all nights, the darkest in years, the stars snuffed out like the candles on an only child’s birthday cake, the moon black as the cracks in the ice. I shiver just thinking about it. The grease smudge on my hand. The sound of the oars in the oarlocks. The rust between my fingers. The acid at the back of my tongue. Expectations were too high, and the mourning afterward lasted for months. A rustling of dry roses on the kitchen sill. A game of tag in the junkyard. A smell of compost in the fall.
—Listen! I think it’s a whip-poor-will.
—“Whip, poor Will!”
—“Whip, poor Will!”
—“Whip, poor Will!”
Deep under the sand there is an ancient anchor. No one knows where it is buried. By the dunes they found a doll house, the little pieces of furniture were scattered over the sand. A seagull crossed the sun like an open hand.
—A modicum of sanity is sometimes all we need, she said softly. Sometimes not even that.
Though it takes slightly more to catch the tailings from a coal pit and line them up like dead cinders from a long-forgotten fire. And light them again as if memory were a miracle as old as Lazarus, and indeed it is – matter remembering is almost as astonishing as matter coming up with “So What?” or “Guernica” or fractal theory. Or the iPad. Yet, if they last in the mind alone, do they last indeed? Because, if it happens once, it happens forever. Some might find that reassuring, others an unendurable nightmare.
The clanging buoy on the wind-beaten bay. The waves slipping between the pilings near the gulley. The scent of decomposing oysters.
—Sigh, he said. Just once for me. I can hear you from the chair in the corner. Why are you weeping? You’re in America, after all.
—But that is why I am weeping. It’s true even here.
—What is true?
The rain slips down the windowpanes. They meet and they break apart and they meet again. They live in a kind of hushed expectancy. The glass is cold to the touch but not unpleasant. The gray sky hides the scars. And the dawn is always ready like a secret amulet in your pocket.
—Be brave, my darling. Look. I’m holding the sun in my palm.
Such comfort even in the cold.
—The dream I can just remember forgetting. The woman appearing in it, like that famous French actress I always liked, Juliette Binoche, not quite as seriously beautiful perhaps, but lovely enough, oh yes, who, part of a couple apparently, parted from the couple on meeting me, whispering behind me, “I’ve fallen in love with him,” and me feeling tickled but taking it just a bit for granted, then a moment later, I show up at her apartment, talking about everything and nothing, but seeing how happy this lovely woman is to see me, at one point gesturing her to come to me, but she protesting she isn’t on the pill. Nothing like that has ever happened to me in real life, heaven knows, most women avoid me like the plague; they won’t even talk to me let alone try to seduce me, which is why I once thought I hated them (the truth is I’ve loved them too much for my own good, I get far too excited in their company, then I realize it and go mum, and there I am, either blathering like a spaz or frozen stock still, hypnotized by their beauty, either way it puts them off – but I have to take some revenge for their hostility, indifference, their sexual disgust: that is the real war between the sexes: the childish “I loathe you more than you loathe me”). Where had that dream come from? I have a guess but I’m almost afraid to acknowledge it, even to myself.
—Underneath your pride, the arrogance glittering from your appraising eyes, the body language of self-affirmation, the gestures proclaiming your superiority, you are in fact forever laughing at your own pretentions, you think it a great joke that other people take you far more seriously than you take yourself, in your own eyes you are just an ordinary fellow, vain and fallible and selfish, though with a strain of common sense and decency that prevents you from ever causing deliberate injury to another living thing. That’s the real source of your pride. Not that you love people, you don’t – you find most human beings stupid, deluded, deceitful, predatory, self-absorbed (“Yes, I’m awful – but you still love me, don’t you?”) – but you can’t bear the thought of hurting them.
This is too much explanation, it explains nothing. The one image of the dream that lasted in his memory was of her soft middle-aged face looking just past him and slightly above as though catching a glance at herself in a mirror across the room or lost in a sweet fading thought. Not looking at him. He looking at her. Contented. Quiet. Happy. He in her. She in him.
—I would seriously consider rephrasing that line.
—About what happened after he left and the lights went out and despair fell over them like the winter night. How cruel the withdrawal of goodness can be. It can feel greater even than the advent of evil. The closing of the door of love. There is no cold quite like that cold. Even death seems not so savage. So you might want to reconsider it, I think.
He held the letter up in his bandaged hand and gazed at it absent-mindedly.
—Perhaps I will, he said at last. After all, there’s more than one way out. Though none that doesn’t inflict pain on someone. For a long time afterward you’ll feel the phantom heart beating in the place where it once sat in your ribcage behind the sternum between the two still miraculously breathing lungs. It will take some time but eventually it will fill with warm shadows. And you will no longer be cursed with happy memories. But we anticipate, he said.
—No, she said, you do.
A falcon hovered above the town.
—But, really, there was nothing between them, nothing but air, though he’d always hoped there might be. Something more substantial, that is.
—Like a glass of lemonade on a summer porch or a breeze off the ocean at nightfall?
—Well, something you could almost hold but that didn’t hold you. That passed off with a smile and a strange pale look, like a dropped petal on a coffee table or the memory of a yellow rose in the darkening evening. The one he almost gave her but was afraid of the message it told, it seemed so stark. Love, after all, was a terrible thing. Its small hand was heavy as the world.
—But he never grew desperate. Enough.
And so the moment passed into history. The empire declined into decadence, the barbarians overwhelmed the borders, the cities burned beside the oceans, the flames reflected in the night sky for miles out to sea. The emperor wept in his lunacy, he had taken himself for a god. And the master of the universe stood staring in the streets, babbling between long silences of his days of money and power, but above all money. And now the money could buy nothing: its ashes fluttered up like black butterflies from the conflagration.
—I was richer than God, I was king of the world before DiCaprio was out of diapers. I bought two presidents of the United States, half the Congress and three Supreme Court justices.
The bruised mouth is flecked with saliva, the crazy eye is yellow as pus, the body stinks of urine and sweat.
—You think I’m crazy. You think I’m lying. But these hands brought Wall Street to its knees.
The king passes by, with his knights in tow. He is riding a red wagon being pulled by a fat man, his followers hobble by on crutches singing “Material Girl” at the top of their lungs.
—Make them stand on their own two feet, he said hoarsely. That will give them some sense. It’s time to get over epatay-ing the bourgeoisie, the avant-garde is long past its time. The winter of a long senescence is the gift of a childhood never outlived. Peter Pan was no fool. There are no adults in the room. Even if there were, it wouldn’t save you. More wisdom is lost between the ages of nine and thirteen than is made up for in the next six decades. I’ve read mountains of books by the world’s greatest minds, and not one has a convincing answer. The best they do is shrug before the darkness toward which we gather. I was almost sixty before I was as smart as I was at ten.
—Your strange conclusion, my love?
—It’s strange that one can ever have known. Puberty has a lot to answer for. It’s an embarkation for idiocy. The beauty of the hour sounds like a gong, but softly. Behind every dead rose is the spring’s promise of a magnificent garden. We lived in a cave of wonder. Every eye was an emperor’s court, every mind a palace, the universe our crown. My little ignorant mortal self was like a drop of the sea in which suns moved on mysterious and urgent journeys. I could be sure of nothing but that I inhabited a ragged miracle more vast than space and time, beyond even the godlike human brain. I have been drunk on hope. I have been drunk on despair. I have been high on vanity and pride. I have been crazy with bitterness. My universe creates unendingly, then takes it all back. And then, the sly joker, creates more. Forever. Multiverses! And that’s just the beginning! It’s like a capitalist factory running on ecstasy, steroids, acid and crystal meth – an immense laboratory of unending novelty. Eternity is just the way it is. Look at the end of your index finger – yes, look at it. There. See? Infinity spiraling in 5,000 dimensions. More or less. And you don’t think that you and God are brothers! You are an atheist? That only means you have lost faith in yourself. My conclusion? What could that possibly matter! There is no conclusion.
—You’re a child, she said affectionately. That is your conclusion.
—Scion of a castle of matter, energy and chance. If only my stupid brain could state it. Sometimes I feel we human beings are like children locked in a room at the far end of a huge house, just able to hear what the adults are doing at the other end, and we spend our time guessing what they are up to but never knowing for sure. We dress up like adults and pose and preen and make war and speeches and kill each other in the name of the voices, garbled and indistinct, that we think we hear, and we behave like crazies and fools because we never know for certain and can’t face the simple fact that we cannot even be sure we are locked in our childhood room and must make do. The room has a window, and the view – sometimes ravishingly beautiful, sometimes viciously ugly, sometimes a crushing bore – is constantly changing. We are like little spirits locked in inadequate bodies.
—And the universe is ours. Have you ever noticed, you self-absorbed little man? We “own” nothing, despite those lies called laws, but everything we see, hear, taste, touch, smell is our possession. I see the sun, I possess the sun. I look at the sky, I own the sky. If you buy a Lamborghini, you possess it when you see it, touch it, handle it, smell it; the moment you walk away from it, you abandon it, it abandons you. It may as well not even exist.
No one can live a life of just seeing hearing smelling touching tasting – of sensation alone. Of paying attention. The holiest of holies. The vita contemplativa. Even if we should. Even for a monk, life is a barrage of distractions: make supper, clean up, cut the grass, sweep the stairs, milk the cows, take a bath, ring in matins – then every so often you’re allowed to pray.
—Yes, she said. We can discipline ourselves, of course. Even if it happens only once a day, it will reveal the splendor of our lives, the miracle of our godlike existence, our kinship with transcendence. The great secret, which is that we are gods, however small and far down in the hierarchy of the heavens.
—Gods? I looked at you, Sasha, with (he could feel it on his face) a smile. Spectres, more like it.
—You shouldn’t look so surprised. We can’t be spectres without being gods. You’d agree human beings can be demons.
—Have I seen the news today?
—And a demon is a vicious, little god. So you actually do believe me, though you don’t realize it yet.
—Well, he grinned, I’ll be damned.
—More to the point . . . though, if I want to sound official, I should put on my wings, hover over your head and sing, in great choirs: “Nay, Mortal – Thou Shalt Be Saved!”
—Nice to know angels have a sense of the ridiculous after all.
—What do you think we do in heaven all day – sing hymns and read sermons to each other? You’re confusing us with hell. We spend much of our time dreaming up jokes – especially about the Old Man. It tickles him pink. You should hear him laugh. Have you heard the one about God coming into a bar? He’s sitting at the bar, complaining to the bartender: “Technology!” he says. “I keep saying ‘Fiat lux, fiat lux!’ and the damned light still doesn’t come on!” I thought he’d die laughing at that one.
(to be continued)