Grey men in straight armed suits march down the road, all in single file. They are bone thin, faceless, each walking in the isolation of a lone death. They enter a steel grey building with yawning entrance, each disappearing slowly and definitely from sight. A thin stovepipe juts from the very top of the building, letting out a steady stream of smoke. Slightly greasy. At 5pm the smoke stops and the men exit the building in single file. They are lesser somehow, thinner, as though some small part of them has been consumed and will not be given back.
staggering through the graveyard at night we looked for the one grave. after a few hours someone called out a single sharp sound and we clustered round. it was found. we rocked it back and forth until the stone colossus toppled to the ground. one hand broke off but that was okay. i asked for the tent peg and the hammer, and once they were found i handed them to her. as she drove the peg in with the first hammer blow the pain flowed in my thighs but when the stone temple poured blood all potential was gone.
Cutting one wrist he moved between book shelves, found a book on the female nude, opened the cover, bled onto it. After a few minutes he closed the cover and left. Walking through the nearby park he stopped and bled into a fountain. A small boy stared, bit the head off a cockroach he was holding, and held out the body to the man. The man shook his head, waved the bleeding wrist as explanation, and walked off. Later, as he sat dying on a park bench in the sun, the small boy approached and sat beside him. The sun shone down. They felt good.
Inside, the ex-junkie was talking to my father, telling him how dangerous it would be to have a crash house open nearby . My father was deeply opposed, all “common criminals” and “think of the children”, and the ex-junkie was pretty mellow and telling what he was getting paid to tell.
Outside, his 18-yo associate was entertaining me with stories about his part in the Vietnam war. He pulled a six inch blade and waved it in front of my eyes, telling how fine it was to scalp men, and how you had to hold the blade “just so”.
we cozied the southern white trash behind the cash register while she made comments around her dangling cigarette about the negro fag and how hungry he would be cos she sure as hey-ell aint gonna serve him and a man standing behind her with hands in pockets boiler suit engineers cap smiled through broken teeth and the negro fag looked at me and I pretended like I hadn’t heard anything and surely i had not seen him once on the hours long bus ride from New York City and the burger didn’t taste so good after that
Spotlights hit the half hidden temple, and through the trees it is all crazy light dark. Earlier, I looked at the sculptures, the bas reliefs, stared at them in wonder. There was a certain grand madness to it all that deeply impressed me. Out here in the jungle, with monkeys and mountains, someone built this. I sat on the cool stone while night fell. No one came to eject me, but someone cut on the lights. Things unseen slithered in the grass, and creatures bounced in the trees. Someone was chanting in the shadows. This country began to dissolve me.
Out there in the darkness, beyond the edge of the lamplight, the bush ticks. Wild calls sound for a moment, then stop. Padding, stealthy and deliberate, comes close, passes as the hot wind, straight in off the limitless desert blows through black and blue dry and dead. A thing howls in the dark and a low chorus erupts from the lagoon. The wind sits in the heads of the trees and moans.
I turn in the heat, close my eyes to sleep, and the bush ticks. The dead air slips over me and I know I will never sleep peacefully again.
Do you remember how you’d tell me, “Watch out for the Joe Blakes – they’ll be in a bad mood” whenever it was a hot day? I’d immediately be on a mission, turning every rock and fallen stump, hoping to find one not find one. All these years later and on a hot day I still get the buzz of fear adrenalin when I kick over rock tire stump. The fun of the threat has seeped into my bones hands feet. And every time I take that short quick half step back I can hear you saying the words.
The daily tedium. The effort of getting up early. Getting ready. Not having time to eat slowly and savor every bite. Out on the road by 9am and in the traffic. Pedestrians kids girls in short skirts dogs bicycles all day the situational awareness required drains a man. I think smoke drink coffee drive watch the girls. It is difficult this life this long life is difficult. No one appreciates the daily challenge. And hardly ever do you see the one. It takes time. And practice. But luck also. Goddammit I see her but she has slipped through the crowd and there’s nowhere to park the moment is lost the electric fades I keep driving driving
Your playful slap led to his unprovoked assault. The official report said he threw eight punches, but he insisted it was five. Claims of moving ring from left hand to right were never settled. I entered the toilet block while two friends were holding you up, the three of you standing in a makeshift island of bloodied hand towels. Your eyes were already closed. As you turned for the door I could see the puckered contusions on your face. Half of everyone said you could have died. Years later I saw you at a party, young, handsome, laughing with a beautiful girl. I wondered if they defined you to yourself, those five punches, as they defined you to me.
Being normal is hard after an ashtray has gone through the wall. The hole was small and square, looking planned it was so neat and predictable. She told me to clean up the plaster which was insulting as the fight had been between them. Max laughed quietly, his eyes slipping over my parents’ faces, as he appraised the two of them anew with this revelation. He asked what led to the fight, and she went still while he muttered something.
We didn’t have the money to fix the hole, so normality was restored by hanging a family photo over it.
You were wearing several dozen unfinished floppy felt hats on your head. You were generous, and handed them out to everyone, asking if we all had enough. You said it would be some time before you could break into the hat factory again, but were happy to take orders. When you left, you ran over John’s trash can in your unlicensed car. You stuck your head out the window, looked down at the murdered trash can, and said, “BEEP!” (The car’s horn did not work). The last thing John saw as you drove off were hundreds of felt hats stuffed into the back of the car.
After an hour we’d run out of booze. The performance was so bad it was lucky we didn’t kill someone. During interval a couple of us did an emergency run to a bottle shop and bought kid booze – cola with bourbon and so on. We pounded it down during the third act, and the sugar made us crazy. People glared their best glares, but we didn’t care. We figured if these snobs were determined to treat this play like it was worth shit that was their problem – we were going to get drunk. When it finished closed died whatever we crashed the after performance party and told the actors how great they were. It didn’t work – not one of us got laid.
We fit 12 people into my station wagon and drove to the pub. The drummer was in the back beating a happy tattoo on my speakers. When we got there Arthur and I went to the nearest door we saw and staggered inside, more happy than high. Every aboriginal in the place turned and looked at us, two lost skinny white boys. We backed out while a few of them nodded slowly. Later, when the band took the stage, Freddie did the one thing he’d been asked by management not to do: on the first bass chord he shoved the mic head in his mouth and began screaming. Sometime during the evening we sang happy birthday to Sara; she was too busy puking to notice, but we didn’t care.
We were watching a sex show in Bangkok one night and I was talking to an Australian guy sitting beside me. He was a nice guy who slipped into the conversation that he was a pilot “with a major airline”. As he talked I tuned him out and mulled over the fact that an extraordinarily high number of guys in strip joints were pilots “with a major airline”. Anyway, we settled into watching the action. Later I told Jo about the show and she asked, “How big was the guy in the main act?” I told her, mainly using my hands, and she nodded and said, “Oh yeah, him. I slept with him.” I laughed. Her boyfriend, Marc, acted like he hadn’t heard but we both knew he had.
I was talking to Chris when he reached into a pocket and pulled out some old scissors. He slid the blades into his mohawk and snapped them shut. Pieces of green-and-red dyed hair fell to the ground. “There’s something about street fighting, always proving yourself,” he said. “You constantly see how you measure up. ” More hair fell to the ground. “Why are you doing that?” I asked. “I’m going to Luke’s salon later.” I nodded. Luke was a friend, putting things together after cheating the wrong cocaine dealer. “I like to make it a challenge,” he added. I nodded again. His eyes settled on the middle distance, and I could tell how much he missed feeling alive.
I first met Chris while waiting on line to photocopy some research papers. He was attenuated and edgy, coming down off a couple of days speeding. He was also holding some papers to copy, but told me he wasn’t sure if they were the ones he needed for his class. I took from him the ones he didn’t need and shoved them in a trash can. We joked that the trash collectors were the best read trash collectors in the country. He wanted to know if I had a car and when I told him yes, we gave up photocopying, made our way to my car, and drove into the city to buy drugs. Halfway there he asked if I had any cash on me and I figured I’d found me a pretty lousy sort of friend.
I have pictured him, all these years later, running with short powerful strides. His face open and shocked, unblinking, rushing after me. It’s not possible I saw him like this, his cardigan open and flapping, his hat missing. But regardless, his broad gnarled hands swallow my tiny maimed hand and I am yelping and he is whispering, “It’ll be alright.” I am shaking shaking. “It’ll be alright.”
Of course, the finger doesn’t matter. All these years later the pain is only of the heart, for causing him anguish; but also for knowing that at that moment, on that day, he held me.
He sits in his labyrinth, colossal muscles still in the half light. His broad head turns. He gazes down a stone hallway and wonders if someone will come to visit. He crosses his hooves on the table before him, stares at powerful forearms, watches light glint on gold bracers. Eyes drop to stone floor. He sighs. Hours pass and shadows lengthen and he waits, quietly.
In the night there is the surprise of fire and bright metal, shouts then screams, he is bellowing and blood spills. He stares at the dead and wonders which could have been a friend.
Sometimes we would speak to one another. As he cast his line into the dark water beneath the trees, I would ask him about the river. “Why aren’t there any redfins to catch?” He’d stare at the line like it had done something wrong, and wait patiently for the red and white float to drift closer to the far rocks. “Because the pollutants upriver killed them off. Or drove them away. Just carp and eels are left.” “Will they come back? The redfin, I mean. Will they come back?” He stared at the float, assessed its movement, shook his head.
She was a young woman who danced solo in a rundown cafe situated at the end of an unmade road, just before the jungle started. All her young years she had dreamed normal dreams, enjoyed school, shared giggles and emotions with her friends. But then, at her parents command, every night she donned the traditional garb and danced the traditional dance, to entertain the bored tourists. One night two men came and watched, applauded. The second night they were back, eating nothing, drawing their chairs closer, raising their hands. The third night there was no entertainment.
Death of a parent is a funny thing. Everything changes and stays the same. Subjects never before broached are suddenly acceptable. A freedom is granted, and the thin veneer of – What precisely? Love? Civility? – can be peeled back to reveal the truth beneath.
My older brother and I found ourselves discussing the points at which we suspected our father was having an affair. “What about the time… Remember that fight… Who was…”
Our mother pronounced the Big Truth (years after the secret had been guessed) that she fell pregnant while unmarried.
Loving vultures picking the thin bones of dead men.
In 1975, when Bart and I were in fifth grade, we decided to skip class, visit the forbidden garden that abutted the schoolyard, and hang our friend, Mickey, from a tree. We took care choosing the tree: it had to be able to support 55 pounds, have strong low horizontal branches, and be by Main Road so passing motorists would see his small frame swinging in the breeze. Our knots were poorly tied and more poorly placed: we almost cut his testicles off. A motorist stopped and frowned. We slinked away, later getting detentions for being in the garden.
“This is the new student children. Let’s make her feel welcome.” I finished tying the straps around her bony wrists and stood. “Say hello, class.” Their voices rang out in chorus: “Welcome to our class. We are sure you’ll like it here.” I walked to the blackboard and turned, surveyed the ranks of eager faces. The new girl was not sitting correctly. “Please wait class, while I make an adjustment.” I went to her desk, grabbed her skull, and jerked it quickly to the side. I saw and heard the bones in her neck snap into an acceptable configuration. Perfect.
Dusty flakes fall and land on arm, cheeks, hair. I breathe them in, brush them away, narrow my eyes so they don’t get past my ashes. They fill the air, twisting out of the fire in a column of grey smoke, then spread randomly over the onlookers. Continue to rise continue to fall continue to breathe them in.
I dream: School. Abuse. Washing. Working. I’m owned. I own. I birth. I raise. After a fashion I love.
And when she died her ashes set her free; tokens of her life caressing those who watch the pyre burn.