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The day before a great storm he sat behind the wheel of his old pickup truck before his God with his eyes closed and he considered all the necessary preparations.
He had made them.
Now he wanted to go somewhere, because men like him want a breather before they enter the realm of combat, although so much of life is conflict. He knew this war would come. It had been predicted. Other men had told him of its coming. As a man he knew the inevitability. They just made it official. They told him when and how much and where but none of that concerned him. He just knew he needed to be ready. Nobody would take care of him if he did not take care of himself and those for whom he cared or loved, for whom he would give himself. They mattered even more than himself. He would use himself to help them all he could and now before that happened he would seek a word of solace, not from his God, but from his muse, his lover. There are many kinds.
This storm would be a blizzard, white and amazing. It would begin tomorrow they said and stay for an entire day or two, maybe three if it stalled and bring snow and ice and wind and danger and zero visibility and cruel punishing requirements to maintain simple ways of life.
He knew this. He knew blizzards and he knew he had done all he could do to meet it and now all he could do was wait. He would seek her. Maybe she would be there. He rather thought she would. No one else came to see her as far as he knew and unless something had happened to her of which he had no knowledge she would be right where he left her. She would wait. They had an arrangement.
He had filled the tanks on his truck with gasoline and added treatments against moisture. He had dual tanks. They held a total of forty gallons. He could drive hundreds of miles. He’d drive them all in the city.
He placed eighty pound sand bags over the rear wheels for traction, a total of one hundred and sixty pounds and if traction failed, sand from the bags could be thrown loose underneath the snow tires. He had diamond pattern tire chains if needed and knew how to put them on without jacking up the truck and hold them secure with bungee cords. He knew how to drive on snow and ice with or without the chains. He had gas for his snow blower in an Army surplus five gallon jerry can with pour spout he fashioned from a two inch diameter black iron pipe threaded on both ends and rock salt and more sand for pavement such as sidewalks and driveways once he cleared the snow. He had a strong agile body. He stayed fit and healthy by virtue of work and wore durable clothes from lugged work boots with steel safety toes to all manner of protection from cold and exposure or material hazard. He’d been subject to them and knew their secrets and their threats. He wore goggles if necessary to protect his eyes and a cap of wool which pulled down into a hood to cover his head and neck. He had mittens for warmth or gloves for dexterity, but on this day of mild temperatures and calm birds sang from unprepossessing tree branches and eaves glistened as water yet to freeze dropped from where they fell free to puddles on the ground.
What more could he do?
Warn them of impending doom?
They probably already knew, perhaps better than he.
He followed the vision which had come to him, the one now before all hell broke loose.
He knew the route. He saw it within himself before he arrived and when he did arrive there she waited, jut as he had remembered her, imagined her and hoped.
He needed her.
He had to admit his need.
He knew that much.
Here is what he saw.
He saw the statue of a mermaid atop a pedestal. The mermaid poured water from a jug, but no water poured now and no water had poured for a long time indeed for the statue and the fountain it incorporated stood silent and derelict and abandoned this winter as in every season for however so long.
Poor mermaid, poor slow inexorable demolition of beauty and creation unmercifully neglected through time, no water no splashing sound of rivulets and streaming threads of liquid worthlessness for entertainment and appreciation of aesthetic joy, no water to reflect the clouds or sunlit sky or deep set stars and moonlight for lovers holding hands or groping for reward upon the benches here and there now only empty in the air before the storm, poor mermaid.
He wondered if she had a name.
“Hello,” said Jack Bonner.
The mermaid did not answer.
“I’ve come to see you,” he said. “It’s going to storm. A great big storm is coming and I won’t be back for a while. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, but I wanted to see you before it comes. I need to see you. I love you and I hope that’s all right, because I do even if it isn’t.”
The mermaid smiled down on Jack.
She only smiled for him..
He’s the only one who could make her happy, make her feel alive.
“I hope you’ll be all right,” Jack continued, “but you’ve weathered so much. I wouldn’t doubt you’ll be fine for one more assault upon your beauty.”
“Love me,” the mermaid said. “Don’t leave. Put your arms around me and keep me warm. I’m cold here and it’s lonely. I will make you happy if only you will love me. I will never let you feel sad or care worn. I have ways of helping you find paradise. I can keep you there. All I needed to learn I learned beneath the waves and I can show you, the soft, tender ways of tides and currents, motions only known between the surface and abyss. These are all for you. I will give them to you, because I love you,” the mermaid said.
“I love you too,” said Jack.
The mermaid smiled and returned to silence.
Once the great and overt gift of an extravagant entrepreneur who faced his last illness anguished by the many ruthless deals he cut to make the money that couldn’t save him, the mermaid and fountain now sat like some disheveled decorated cake upon the graceful slope of a public park no one attended but this man, this hero without a medal, this man without a country, not because he forsook his country, but because his country had forsaken him. He parked his truck on the street to which he now returned having said all he needed to say and heard all he needed to hear from his inspiration and his love.
The mermaid and her attendant cherub and dolphins rendered in stone around them had been vandalized repeatedly through the years and one more note he felt those who violated her violated him and he would kill them without remorse, shame or guilt, glad of killing anyone lawlessness against innocent art in a world too small for anything but love.
As he walked away his eyes beheld an object discarded on the curb. People do that. In America people who don’t want something place it on the curb. People who want things they don’t want to pay for and other people still want for themselves often break in and steal and some people who just love the very thought of making money go out and buy whatever they want without much regard for what they already have if only they can have more. This thing he saw had been there for him to see as he approached the mermaid, but then he could not be bothered. Now he saw it again as if for the first time and walked directly to it, a large heavy gauge steel filing cabinet discarded in anticipation of the city’s large item pick up every other Thursday from the curb.
The filing cabinet had six drawers.
The bottom drawer had sprung open and protruded slightly from the cabinet at a dislocated angle.
He knew what it felt like to be abandoned, adjudged worthless yet retain essential function and seek mere purpose in life. He knew anyone watching from the nearby apartment building made of red brick would assume he wanted the filing cabinet and wait for him to load it onto his truck the way people watch and wait from the safety of their own domicile, but he resisted the act of showing any interest whatsoever other than walking toward the derelict steel cabinet and coveted his pride he was no rag picker until he saw what might be considered inside the cabinet to render his pride irrelevant.
He saw papers by the thousands amid manila file folders.
It must all weigh hundreds of pounds.
One drawer alone allowed him to surmise the weight and content of the rest as a mere physical obstruction, let alone the information contained therein.
He only came to see the mermaid. Why bother with refuse?
“I can help you,” she said.
“What if it’s nothing?”
“Nothing is every nothing. You won’t find anything unless you try. You’re here for a reason. So am I. You found me. Now find the reason. Take it home. Then find out why. Look inside. You can’t decide anything if you don’t take it. Only stupid people don’t try to find out what they don’t know. Open the box.”
“It’s a cabinet.”
“Open it,” she said.
The first lines told him he held a story in his hands.
He opened two other drawers. The latches wanted to stick, but he managed to spring them. Likewise they contained typed and handwritten papers packed tightly together.
He had discovered the manuscript of a novel.
“This is my story. It is not your story. It belongs to me. I lived it. I’m writing it. I’m gone now. You’re reading it. You come after me, but I don’t want you to feel upset or excluded. I want you to read it. Whatever you find in it to your liking cannot be known to me or of any particular concern, fr I am not writing it that you should enjoy, but in writing it I have told the truth within myself, and trusting the same humanity exists within us both, I will have done my best and you will recognize the effort. That is my hope. That is my authorship. Readership belongs to you. We are partners.”
“When the phone rings, when the clock chimes and you have somewhere else to go, when the kettle boils, whatever happens to make you set aside or step away from my words, it is proof of their poor relation to your life, but let us not over dramatize. Perhaps something I attempt to communicate will linger. Perhaps it will manifest itself as true in some way in your life. Then we will be sympathetic t each other’s needs and that will be a part of the process at once mysterious and overwhelming, like love when it happens.”
“Don’t you find it so? Don’t you find the finest efforts are subject to interruption? That’s why we attend a concert, to see and hear the performance from beginning to end and applaud or withhold approval of the creative effort, to judge the work of others like gods entitled to omniscience. That is the raw, pedestrian character of it all, yet there is within n urge, a motivation, a calling to what is more and above and higher than the top of what we know as reality.”
“Our hearts beat to a rhythm. It is not a smooth hum, despite a continuous flow of blood through the muscle. It is a pumping of tension and release and innumerable halts perpetrated between contractions. So we live and when it stops we die. We die suddenly, no matter how we linger, so the episodes of our lives are held in thrall by momentary lapses which, if even one persists, usher us into the great beyond from which we will never return. We have never been here before. We will never be here again. That is why love is such a treasure, because it lets us feel the essence of eternity while keeping our place in the here and now. It is a true revelation. Any attempt to substitute what is not love for where love should be is destined to failure. That is why we are such a troubled country. We are forgetting how to love. We are forgetting what we know.”
“This is my story.”
The woods he entered had never been seen by any white man, never seen any man standing between these trees as wide as a man strong enough to see them, towering toward the sky big and bold and blue amid clouds white themselves beyond man’s divine hope of piety.
He stood momentarily and beheld creation and him the Adam with an ax and cross cut saw, each slung over opposite shoulders, the saw bending down in a bow of tempered steel with a handle at both ends, edged with teeth so sharp you could shave with them or use the ax, glistening and lethal as a guillotine for trees, chipping down the aristocracy of any forest with him the executioner wearing double fronted canvas pants reinforced with rivets and rolled in cuffs over hob nail boots, a shirt over his chest and torso of thick flannel plaid patched with leather at the elbows and tucked into the canvas pants, a pair of thick cowhide work gloves already conformed to the classic concave curve of his hands by grim work and a hat pulled down over his brow stained from sweat from a hundred jobs, ten times a hundred and so he stood, ready to destroy and lay waste for a dollar a day when he could get it and clear cut for whatever purpose men bigger than himself chose to make for the lumber grown by God Almighty in such profusion.
He never came to protect a forest such as this.
He never came to save or conserve or lay back and let some other man do the work.
He never came for anything but work and he never came to turn away from any work he could do with a beer t the end of the day and a pillow for his head, although he’d lain on the ground and slept in stalls no animal would deign without squeals or snorts of protest.
This man could do it all.
He could kill or procreate.
He never thought accessories, only necessities, never options, only obligations.
The world never taught him how to be gentle, kind or good.
Religion didn’t teach him either.
He did what he did for reasons of his own, never because others preferred them that way.
He knew right from wrong instinctively from old times, times beyond his own or anyone else’s recollection.
The time they came to the village where his great grandfather and great grandmother lived, the Lord and his men at night and held his great grandmother down while others tied his great grandfather to a tree and raped the woman for sport.
“Save room for me,” said the Lord. “She bears sons for the realm,” in a language no one in America generations later would understand or need to understand, a language gone from the earth.
“Good, my Lord,” said one as he withdrew. “She is ample. There is enough room for all,” yet she bit the animal’s face as he turned away to speak and he replied with a thrust through her belly with his blade. The Lord, though perturbed when he heard her scream and realized what had happened to spoil his fun did not punish his vassal for men were men and women bore them. The man standing now in the woods a world away and equal to them all had no knowledge nor could he have known his great uncle, a kindly man had taken the children that day earlier out into the woods and so returned to find the smoke, the ashes, the cleaved torso of one they loved with the body of his dead brother against the tree where he the dead man’s brother carved a curse against all who bore such power and committed such evil.
It would be different in America as they dreamed it without knowing a name by which it might be called. Wars came they did not understand and men who did not understand nor could they read or write were carried away at sword point or bayonet or gun point and lashed if they complained or resisted behind horses to be drawn or dragged into the king’s service, the realm’s bidding, the kingdom’s unquenchable thirst for power. It would be different in America, before they knew its name. Starvation drew the faces of children tight and their brains withered and breasts that might have given suck withered as well for lack of nutrition or mercy. Wombs miscarried and limbs creaked and bent and broke from work, healed and broke again until life stopped and death came too late or too soon in a ditch or drowned in some well reaching too far with cupped hands or a wooden cup for a sip teaming with scum and vermin dead or spawning on the surface and warnings given by toothless crones or crippled sires who never knew hope chained to church laden with superstition and sanctimonious wealth worthless to God or pleading hands and bleeding hearts of reeking humanity, but America would be different. In America freedom would be something this side of death. Freedom would be against death and in favor of life, so he stood in the woods solitary and perfect, powerful not for others as they would have him powerful only for them, but powerful for himself and others only as he chose. He never finished fourth grade and had no certain knowledge of even the past he himself came from, but knowing somehow deep, deep, deep within himself he stood for all the others who had come and gone. He could feel them inside his soul if he chose to have one, a great and powerful force he dared not comprehend. He thought it beyond him, men and women like animals through the years who had built their fires and warmed their hands and undressed in shame or dressed in haste against the cold and conceived and given birth and paradise they would never know he now beheld as he stood within it for them with ax and saw and cant hooks when they came with the mules and horses and men built like himself, the finest men who ever walked the earth, strong to a fault, funny and smelling of sweat, urine, shit and stupid pride to cut the lumber and others like themselves to build the houses of the lumber they cut for the ones who dreamed the dreams and built their lives not upon the dead past but the vibrant pulse erection of future wombs and umbilicals yet to be cut.
This man spit on the ground and found a place any place would do so he didn’t have to stoop too far down to pick up his tools so he leaned them against any place and turned away to unfasten his pants and pull out his cock and piss on the ground, the same place but a different direction than where he spit.
The fallen leaves and foliage received his stream. It steamed in the cold morning. It would get exceedingly colder. The frost would come soon and make piss freeze almost before it hit the ground. Never mind about the spit. Better get to work. He pulled himself back inside, buttoned up the fly of his pants and now began the slaughter of these trees the way his own people had been slaughtered back in the old country.
He owed it to them even if he never saw them or even knew their names. In America names and the past didn’t seem to matter much. He’d pay it back to them as these bastards paid him to put his strength against monoliths of growing wood and everlasting branches as if he stood in a temple of fluted columns and flying buttresses like Sampson blind to the beauty intent only bringing down the house and everything in it for a dollar every goddamn day.
He knew without going to church.
He never went to church.
It said, he heard, Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy might. It never said anything about his mind. He didn’t need to understand. They didn’t have anything to offer his thoughts. He knew the truth. He had to work and when he worked he did whatever they told him to do or they fired him and he starved and if he starved the people he loved starved with him. That made him religious.
The rest of religion could go to hell.
He stood here in God’s house and God didn’t mind if he cut it down, because God cut everything down and raised it back up again when He willed.
This much the man understood.
This man touched the trunk of a tree with the blade of his ax at full arm’s length.
The tree seemed to quiver.
He got the measure of the swing, checked to be sure he didn’t touch so much as a twig or branch or underbrush behind his back that would throw him off and when he felt sure he swung.
The living ax of tempered steel at the end of his living arm bit into the living flesh of the forest. After the next swing at a different angle a chip the size of his fist flew away into the startled air like a bird on the wing.
This man like so many men at a dollar a day felt the edge of the ax he had sharpened with a file and a whet stone go in deep and ripple with contact and reverberation of nerve and muscle up through his arms and shoulders into his spine and he swung again. He could do this all day. He’d done it with his whole body without the ax with shipyard whores in Brooklyn. He’d done it with a shovel naked from the waist up in the sand pits of Cleveland. He could do it here. He could do it anywhere and he could do it better than any other man because he knew he could and would for a dollar a day, a dollar every goddamn day.
If they paid him.
“Oh Mary, Mary,” he sang. “You wicked girl. What are you doing in this desperate world?”
The chips flew.
This man was getting back at every prince that ever lived, every king that ever deflowered a virgin by divine right, every child that ever went hungry while adults ate their fill, every soldier that ever burned an unarmed village, ten times over for the officer who ordered it done and the filth who pretended to have the guts to declare war, but not the guts to prevent it, every low down conniving public man who took the public good and made it bad, because, all those reasons kept this man swinging in the forest until that tree would fall.
They could plant more trees.
This man would give them hell and hell would give this man more bills to pay and trees to cut and God would give trees more men until the eternal referee called time and raised one arm in absolute triumph.
This man, undeclared heavyweight champion of this or any other world.
The words appeared to have been written by a woman.
“The kingdom of God is within” the preacher said. “Don’t look for it out there beyond some broad horizon. Look within. That’s where you’ll find it. Look into the dark of your soul as it exists within your heart, as the light comes through your willingness to let it in. That’s where you’ll find the kingdom of God. Claim it as your own.”
“Do you seek for riches? Look within. Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you. What better foundation to be grounded in than to be grounded within? Who can take that from you? Who can break in and steal? Who can say I own more of you than you own of yourself? How can you be found lacking if the treasure is within?”
“I’ve known such people and so have you, the quiet people, the ones with firm resolve and certain strength, with courage without braggadocio or contempt for others, the believer who believes in himself and in his God against which there can be no successful resistance, one man against one hundred.”
“One man against one thousand,” the preacher intoned.
“One man against the world, because that one man knows what he must do and that one man will win, not merely endure, he will win. He shall prevail. He will win victoriously because God wants him to win, designed him to win, ordained him to win. That resolve is imperturbable, beautiful and serene.”
“Let it be born in you. Do not delay putting your hands upon the greatest treasure available to mortal man, the gateway to immortality and eternal life. Open your mind and your heart to this enormous resource available within you. Why will do die? Why will you live merely living, hopeless and resolute to do nothing but wait out the clock until it inevitably tolls the death knell you will never hear to completion, because before the last stroke has died away you will be dead and forbidden to hear it by a God who has at last wearied of your procrastination?”
“No, faithless and afraid though you may be until this all important moment, embrace the gift God has to give you, embrace the Godliness within yourself and be born again not once for all, but all the time for your cherished life. They will look at you and ask if something is wrong. They may never have seen anyone like you before certainly not in the crypt they call a church. You will smile and tell them the truth. No, nothing is wrong. Nothing can ever be wrong again, for you are right with God. “What does that mean?” they will ask. Tell them if you can, but the best way is let your life testify to what they see and wish for themselves. You are witness to the truth, because you are the truth. You must tell them. You cannot do otherwise. Your life bears an inexorable obligation. One way or the other you will manifest what it is you have come to believe. Wreck your life. It is what you believe. Trail in the dust and be trodden down by other men and the brazen hearts of those who do not care. It is what you believe. Amass wealth until you collapse beneath the weight. It is what you believe. Give to others and find ways to help your fellow men. Love until you have no strength to love and die beloved. It is what you believe. Forgive and be forgiven. It is what you believe.”
The preacher concluded his sermon and looked down upon the congregation come to hear him.
“There is no God but the God within you now,” he said. “Whatever you conceive God to be that is indeed your God and you are the evangelist of your God so long as you both shall live. You are created to prove Him.”
“You are created to prove Her.”
“You are created to let Him rule.”
“You are created to let Her rule over Him.”
“Make your God omniscient and omnipotent. Let your God reign forever and ever and declare your God Lord of Lords and King of Kings, but if you do not serve your God to make your God as great as your God deserves to be, then you have made your God as nothing and you are nothing with your God and that my brothers and sisters is the only definition I know of hell worthy of the punishment you bring upon yourselves. You will find yourself cut off from God forever because you gave nothing to your God in life and you will be damned to hypocritical eternity, not dead but aware of your own worthlessness, self deceived and deceiving others.”
“What could be worse?”
“Be the gods God made you to be and go in peace.”
They’re tearing down a church in the neighborhood today, a church that stood for a few decades and empty for a few years more and then without a buyer for the church without a purpose and unwilling to wait or pay for unused space or accept the liability of what would happen if someone went into the empty church and caused trouble it goes down as it is going down today.
Great machines have come and with diesel voracity have begun to rip and rend like hydraulically evolved dinosaurs the flesh and body of in this case Christ.
“Vanity of vanities, said the preacher. All is vanity and a striving after wind.”
It isn’t vanity.
It appears to be justice.
Every dollar spent on construction of that church was given as a charitable contribution. No legislated tax dollars built it. No administratively imposed surcharge or license fees built it. No bond issue money built it. Money out of the pockets of the faithful built it. Or were they? Where did they place their faith, those givers of the money to purchase the land and buy the architect’s design and contract the builder and obtain all the permits required and pay the bills through the relatively brief years of its operation? What did they intend to do? What did they really believe in and why didn’t it translate into another generation determined to do the same? What kind of a church is it that gets dedicated and demolished in a single congregational lifetime?
What’s the point?
They’ve taken artifacts from the demolished church and used them as decorative features in the new building on the site.
It’s a police station, complete with holding cells and arsenal, but I’m getting ahead of my story.
The church came to the day of dedication and now swiftly to this day of crucifixion. One thinks of all the sermons, baptisms, funerals, weddings, choir rehearsals, cantatas, communions, candlelight services and quiet prayers in this yawning steel and concrete cadaver open to the sky with dangling wires and pipes exposed like desiccated ribs while a monster feeds with a maw large enough to hold a cubic yard of debris every bite, ripping away and grubbing out basement walls, shattering and exposing to public gaze the classrooms, restrooms and pastor’s study,the bride’s room and prayer chapel, library and gathering space, all in an apocalyptic heap upon the ground and sprayed with water to keep down the infernal dust. There’s a fence around the property for safety. It’s a hard hat area. There is no admittance. It is not open to the general public, but then again it was locked so securely each night for years for the same reason and to ward off evil spirits. It couldn’t have been about love, because love does not die and real love would have built a real church and real people would have loved it so much or one another within it no lesser truth could have prevailed against it, but today the gates of hell have swung wide and the church has entered in, deep down into the ground where the machines strive to find a new foundation for the new building dedicated to law and order.
There’s going to be trouble.
The new police station guarantees it, just as the church might have guaranteed something else, but the church is gone. No one wanted a church there any more.
They destroyed it.
The church is vanished.
Two words are printed on the side of the construction trailer at the demolition site. The words are Commitment and Passion. Those words might have been found embroidered on banners in the sanctuary donated by the Women’s Auxiliary or the Wednesday Quilters, but those words as they relate to spiritual life have been removed. Only demolition experts proclaim Commitment and Passion these days.
Yet there’s more.
Not so fast.
God reserves the right of first refusal.
No one escapes the wrath of One for whom a house is built and then torn down. They swore to serve Him and His needs didn’t change, the needs presented as the people all around, their hunger, their fear, their starving hearts, yet now when no one can see the point with human eyes, the edifice of devotion and faith and worship is eradicated.
Could they come with no better dedication of the place on which a church once stood?
A stone, a tree a flower bed?
But no, rather this ghastly sight, this decomposition no one wants to see but to which no one objects too strenuously, this abject failure of inspiration and vision.
God still needs all the help He can get and since no one here will help Him and give Him the credit, He will find other people, someone more adept at humility and receptive of grace.
The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.
The name of the Lord is blessed.
God bless and for God’s sake help us all if He decides to do unto us what we have done unto Him.
There is something in me that does not want to stop anywhere, does not want to settle, wants to keep moving and moving and does not want to be bothered by anything, least of all the horizon way out ahead.
All those places on the map, they all have one thing in common. They’re all places where other people have already been and they’ve all been marked with a name like dogs on a post.
I don’t want to mark anything. Well, maybe that’s not true, but before I do I need the space to do it, just enough to leave my name on something other than a tombstone, a living signature beyond where I stopped to write it, because I don’t want to stop.
I want to keep moving.
So where shall we go and what shall we do when we get there? What means the most and how can we believe in where we’re going and where we’ve been?
I don’t know. I only know I am and that’s slender knowledge.
Home is where you rest. We’re all dead soon enough. After we die we become the very light and breath that never rests in the life of others, so why fight so hard to be alive? I don’t think I’ll ever die so long as I keep moving and leave the dying to those ho stop and say enough before their time, the sad ones who run out of life before they die and wait for death to catch up. Some of them wait for years. Death is impatient with people who wait for it. The way death works is reverse to life. If life finds you holding back, you become impatient and life makes you frustrated, but if you wait for death, death itself becomes impatient and doesn’t think you appreciate how important life really is, so death, being impatient makes you wait and wait and wait and then surprises you on a day at a moment when even momentarily you wished you could live, then exerts its authority and takes you away.
Every suicide is like that, every single one. At the last infinitesimal second divided by instants indivisible by any other fraction of time, you realize how good it would have been to be alive and you die anyway. It really is awful and you can’t come back. You can’t say how sorry or anything else you are because you aren’t any more and no matter what you think might have been wrong with life before or wrong with you in life, that instant you realize its your own damn fault for being so stupid in the first place. You didn’t have to die. All you have to do is live.
No name appeared on the pages, therefore no proof by name of authorship, but sense told him he beheld feminine words, a mystique and mystical female temperament. Notes and notions appeared scribbled in the margins. He took pages in bunches from the drawers and put them in the back of his truck for his decision had been made. He felt vaguely he performed the rescue of a woman in distress, as if he offered his hand literally across a puddle or his arm extended over a patch of ice, a mixed feeling of haste to avoid detection for he sought no notice and diligence to guard the passage.
He had no intention of relinquishing the prize held so firmly now in his possession. He resented the imaginary accusation he felt of curbside theft even from a refuse pile and took care to avoid any hesitation that might jeopardize his acquisition.
The drawers would not come out of the cabinet. Maybe he didn’t comprehend the intricacy of the mechanism. He removed all the pages by hand, piled them in the bed of his truck then manhandled the steel filing cabinet up onto the tailgate and into the bed of his truck. He closed the tailgate and drove away with frequent looks in the rear and side view mirrors to confirm no papers or folders fluttered up and out into traffic. He remonstrated to himself if this happened he would stop in the middle of the street if necessary and collect any papers that attempted to escape.
Without knowing their content, he loathed the thought of losing a single page.
“What are you doing?”
A voice asked him.
“I don’t know.”
“Why are you doing it?”
The same voice asked.
“I don’t know.”
He gave the same answer.
“You plan to read all this stuff?”
“I don’t know.”
“Watch out for that kid on the bike.”
“I see him. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried, just concerned. What are you doing later?”
“Reading through a bunch of these papers. I don’t know. There’s a storm coming.”
“Good luck. Have fun.”
He drove to his studio, a cottage he called Zion behind his home. He used a wheelbarrow to transport the papers and cabinet from the driveway in several trips and reassembled the cabinet upright in the cottage. He put all the papers back in the drawers without the slightest regard for order. There had been none. He imposed none.
Times were tough.
He sat down in a wooden captain’s chair without cushions and looked quietly at the new presence in his life, as he might look at a stranger in the room, one with whom he intended to become very good friends born of necessity. He took his time. He felt no hurry though he felt excited.
“What are you waiting for?”
“Maybe there’s something I shouldn’t see.”
“Don’t be afraid. What could possibly hurt you?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s right. You don’t know. Whoever threw it out didn’t throw anything of value.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I’m sure and so are you. Be honest with yourself.”
I am, but I’m a bit apprehensive. It’s as though I’ve already written what I’m about to read.
People throw out valuables all the time. The dumps are full of priceless heirlooms, trophies, money, documents. Why don’t you burn it all? Why bother with someone else’s mess? You’ve got a stove. Or take it back to the curb, any curb. You’ve got one right in front of your house. You wouldn’t even have to take anything back where you found it. You could scare yourself into complacency and do nothing.
“That’s right,” he thought. “Then I could be like everyone else who does what they do out of fear. It’s amazing how many that includes, how many people live their lives in fear.”
He accepted the challenge.
He put his fear in the trash can.
He put his fear in the cast iron stove.
He put his fear on the curb.
He got up from his seat and opened the top drawer now as though for the first time, as though he approached a research project in a restricted laboratory or the cage of a wild animal.
Suddenly from an increasingly cloud filled sky came the dull dissipated flash and thud of winter lightning rare and unheralded.
It began to snow.
They talked about global warming. They talked about climate change. Weathermen predicted rain after a few inches of snow from this storm. Anything could happen. He lifted the first folder out of the drawer and opened it on his desk. The studio provided a perfect setting for whatever he might discover.
The first page bore the title Introduction.
He read aloud.
“There is no going back. The road has disappeared behind us. Time has had its way with all of them. Now it is our turn. Time will have its way with us. The good ones who pierced their hands or feet accidentally on a square rusty nail and died in clench jawed agony, the wicked who never did or hoped to do an honest day’s work in their lives and inherited wealth to live off in ease and comfort, all of them are gone and their stories gone as only they could tell them or never got the chance to tell, the unassisted child births, the cruel losses in sleepless vigil and endless nights, all those stories are told and retold and forgotten and now our turn has come.”
“We cannot history,” the man said and now we hear its footsteps coming down the long corridor to our cell and we know the scaffold out there in the courtyard or the blank bullet scarred wall are ours and the only choice we have to make is whether or not we want the blindfold.”
“We will never know the virgin planet. We will never know the unperturbed horizon. Now there will be fences, poles and wires, windmills the size of three armed giants waving goodbye to the past, floating islands of debris the size of sovereign states and hideous towers of communication disguised to look like trees where trees will never grow. They try to convince us it is outer space and frontiers beyond the galaxy that hold the future, but those numbers are too big, those distances too far and the void between infinitesimal points of light too infinite for us to comprehend as the first man knew who beheld Yosemite Falls before it had a name or Niagara at night under a full moon or Kilauea in eruption from a vessel far off under sail. These things were given to others and we are left to wonder.”
“What has been given to us?”
“When we see the endless miles of automobiles stuck in motionless exasperation and we know we spend so much of our lives merely waiting it is beyond calculation yet we refuse to take the next exit. When we read the news and are horrified yet keep reading the news, when we fear annihilation at the hands of leaders who bear no relationship to leadership, what has been given to us?”
“When no one dies of measles or diphtheria or whooping cough or polio or yellow fever yet thousands die of gunshot wounds and tens of thousands die mangled every year in automobile accidents, what is left to us? What has been given to us? When there are no new worlds to conquer and only one world on which we all may live and hope to grow, what has been given to us?”
“We have all been given to one another and every one is a way to God, every one, not one or only one, not one to the exclusion of all others, but all others to the exclusion of that one who considers himself more important or more sacred than all the rest.”
“We are each that avenue to God for which the world has waited, each and every one a savior, not in the name of anyone called a savior, but in our own name, not for all time, but our own time, the brief exquisitely important temporary time of our lives, a limitless source and a constant manner of salvation ordained and designed by God in us for now, not for then or before or later, but now as we are given the doorway within ourselves to heaven if we will only throw back the bolt and throw open wide the only portal so near at hand.”
“If we will not then we have lost ourselves and lost for others the way it might have been if only we had been true to God within us as He crated us and never stops and we are moving closer to the truth whether we choose to move or not. The time within us will advance and we will be remembered in spite of ourselves or forgotten because we ourselves refused the gift, chained ourselves to the rock of our salvation and there let the vultures eat out our liver because we refused the share the fire, because we quenched the Holy Spirit, because we sat on our sorry ass and thought in that position neither God nor anyone else would dare go ahead and kick it.”
“Only people matter.
Nothing else matters.
No avenue of God opens without people yet we teach this isn’t so, that theology somehow uses people like factories use them and has a right to use them because people are miscreant and somehow minus from the moment of inception. Even the thought of procreation is subject to the taint of sin for whatever reason stunted minds can give to make it their business more than the business of even those engaged in copulation. This is good we say or at least the way it is if not the way it ought to be, but what can one do? The truth is one can do nothing, so no one so to speak all by themselves is going to prove the answer. We need each other, so any system which denigrates or diminishes the human soul, puts a cloud of guilt or shame in the way of light and then dispenses light as though it had to come from someone else and has no original home in us is false. We are helpless without one another and once we join in the process of what it means to be helpful we relate to the world in which we live. This is good and self sustaining. No system, no device, no pharmaceutical, no medium or machine or means of exchange means anything without people to whom we can relate and who may take mercy and pity on us and give us love in whatever way by whatever means and thereby enable us to live.
The only enemy is the one who hates himself and wants to impose that hatred. The only one worthy of our hatred is the one who tries to make us hate. They destroy only themselves, unless we assist them in destroying others by allowing them to seduce us into believing self hatred is the truth, the light and the way toward hating others.
Let no one deceive you. You were born to live, not die or kill or be killed. You have no right to pull death out of life and call it God’s only begotten plan for your life. Decline the invitation to enter hell. Say no to original sin. It’s not original. Somebody else made it and gave it to you like a terrorist makes a bomb and leaves it on the school play ground.
Say yes to life.
It’s already looking at you in the mirror.”
“We have never been here before, you and I. We meet for the first time. We see each other today as though we had never seen each other before. We come from different places. We know different facts. Why should we be afraid? What is the reason my world should be any more than your world or your world any less than mine? We were not born or brought together by accident. What is the reason we are here? That is the one good reason we must find. That reason alone makes us friends. That reason plus all the others makes us something more and someone more to one another. It’s a start. We must start. We must find that reason.”
“Who are you?”
The Red Man appeared at her door without a single sound whatsoever, without so much as a shadow, as if light passed through him leaving a silhouette.
“What do you want?”
Yet no words were possible.
No word passed between them.
His people killer her people.
Her people killed his.
The killing of knives and blunt instruments, rocks lashed to sticks with rawhide thongs and bones sharpened into blades, of rifle butts and bullets melted and poured at home or shipped in tiny cardboard boxes from factories in the East or crates with tin foil liners from the arsenals of government. They killed each other, but not this time. There was no time, this man and this woman faced each other across an abyss of infernal reasons and blood brought to a boil by injustice, ignorance, greed or revenge, but not this time. He stood resolute. She could never cross the distance to the mantle piece where the carbine hung in time nor could she wield the butcher knife on the table against his agility and strength. he knew it. She knew it. They stood looking at one another. Him in the light of midday. Her in the shadows of the cabin.
He liked her.
She liked him.
A fire passed between them, enemies inscribed by God to be something more, a fire of recognition they would both try to understand. It would take time. They would need to fight for the time instead of fight with one another, this woman and this man from different places in the mind of God, different creations in the creation they had come to know. Her people from old countries on the other side of the world. His from mountains and valleys no one but his people and the animals had ever seen, glacial cirques and alpine meadows named only by the sun, moon and stars. Fear made it impossible for her think. He did not want her to think. If she did she might reach for the knife. Then he would have to kill her and scalp her even though he liked her. She would stab to the heart even though she liked him, though he broke her arm and she knew her life had ended. She merely stood as the Bible taught her to stand in the firelight at night alone, having done all to stand. He moved first. He took his right hand and passed it down over his chest, inscribing a fat belly out toward her into the air and then moving his hand in that arch back in and down toward his crotch. Then he brought his hand up open in a gesture of peace, swept it swiftly to one side and she thought she understood the meaning.
“No,” she said in English and shook her head in the universal language. “I am not a mother.” He did not understand her words, but she misunderstood his gesture and he understood the shaking of her head. “No, this woman is not aware I mean her own mother, the one who bore her now lies dead on the trail.”
“Have I done the wrong thing?” the woman panicked in her mind trying to hide panic in her face. “Dear God, what does he want from me? Where is my mother? Where are the men? They should have been back now.”
They would never come back.
The Indian brave turned and sat down upon the threshold of the cabin and placed his gun so it would not pain his injured arm. He turned his back, inviting her attack by his turning of the back. She came out of the door behind him and rather than strike the blow she knew would kill him as she had killed for butchering asked a question in her English because she liked him.
Great God in Heaven in the name of Christ what am I doing I like him.
“Where do you belong?” she asked him pointlessly. “Who are your people?”
She saw he was wounded. He was bleeding.
There was a lot of blood. It had dried in places, still wet and glistening near the wound.
She liked him.
She tried to sign. He disregarded her efforts. He would not answer. He had seen her parents killed. He did not want to be a part of the killing then or telling of it now. His own war chief struck him on the arm so hard to break it in furious contempt to make him fight, but no he would not having seen this woman work all those times outside the cabin from the forest where he watched all those days unseen, as thought living a life he never imagined through her, mysterious to be so close to all she did by watching unawares and though he did not know the word in her tongue knew something within himself that sparked a warmth and no longer provoked in him the need to shed blood with the big fury that came like the little one inside a woman when they eventually lay together and unlike fighting when one got up they both arose to realize the fury and the fighting had passed.
She knew now none of this. She knew only after time her parents must be dead and he knew but had no part she could sense and so her fear gave way to grief and somehow in his quiet absolute stoic petrified presence she took great comfort, as though a rock had come to place itself at the mouth of the tomb not for protection of the dead but the living.
She began to teach him words and although he guarded his ability to learn as a man might guard his manhood, she knew he could understand and he let her know just enough to know she knew the truth.
“I am Thunder Sky,” he said when at last they understood the will of God.
“I am Jane,” she said.
They named their first born from the Bible.
They named him Isaiah.
“Is it permitted?”
“Is what permitted?”
“What you and I will do.”
“No,” she said. “I’m sure it is not.”
“Will that permit you?” he asked.
She thought a moment and corrected.
“You mean, ‘Will that prevent me?'”
“Yes,” he said. “Prevent you.”
“No,” she said.
“You are of Christian?”
“No. Not any more. I renounce it.”
“What is you say?”
“I renounce it. I make it go away.”
“Is such possible?”
“I say it t make it possible within myself. I say it to make it go away. All things are possible.”
A White Woman and a Red Man in a cabin built by her parents to which no parent of either would ever return.
“I tried the faith of my fathers,” she said. “It did not work. My mother had faith in my father. They are both dead. I’m alive. You’re alive. I want to love you. I do love you. Do you love me?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, a man of prodigious strength and silence.
“Then what we do we do in faith, because what we do we do in love. No one else is here. No one else is invited. No one else has right to what we feel between ourselves and God.”
“What is this God?” he who believed in the Great Spirit asked.
“God is love.”
“Here we stay.”
“What does he mean?”
“Hush. Quiet. No talking.”
He walked away, just away, almost aimlessly through the buffalo grass. He never looked right or left, up or down or at anything so it seemed, he walked slowly, as if following.
Then he disappeared amid a clump of trees at a distance and they stood without him for what seemed a time excessive.
“Where did he go?”
“I told you to mind and be quiet.” Then, “To find something,” then, “to find here.”
“What is here?”
“Here is where we will be if we belong.”
“How do we know?”
“We don’t know. He will know. He’s the one anointed by God to know. Wist, here he comes.”
The elderly man with the long white beard walked by them as thought he had no awareness of their presence and kept walking to the nearest wagon. The young boy would have spoken once again, but he knew better now and stayed quiet looking at the patriarch and the wagon.
The elderly man returned after he looked up into the sky, took off his hat and offered what appeared to be a prayer as was his custom, before taking an ax from the wagon sideboard where it hung lashed. He took the ax to the trees and deliberately with strokes before which he crossed himself blazed a mark upon one of the trees at a height equal with his chest. For an old man he struck the tree with the force of a giant.
“We build a house here,” he breathed beneath his breath, “by God’s grace here we prosper,” he he knew other things which made him a man. He knew death and dying and felt the encroachments of age, the aches and nagging pains that afflicted his body and grew as he knew they would until they overwhelmed him, as inexorably as the trees around the clearing for their log home would have their revenge as growing things live longer than the death which claims them. Here is whee he would willingly die God forbid, but better to say he would willfully die fighting, fighting, fighting, working and dying at work, fighting to keep, rather than willfully quit or give up what he must inevitably lose.
When that feeling overcame him, that overwhelming feeling of a circle complete within himself, then he could be owner, master, be himself among others at least for a time.
This he could know.
This is what all men must know or be nothing, be animals or slaves for all slaves are animals.
He would be willing to die now, know this, but not surrender. His age had nothing to do with it. As long as he lived he would lay with the woman and nurture the boy. They needed him and he loved them, more than he loved himself.
“God be merciful,” he prayed as he carried the ax back to the wagon. “Strengthen me and guide me by thy Holy Spirit. Curse those who curse me and bless those who bless me.”
“What happened then?”
“Ran aground. Missed her stays.”
The story of other men’s misadventure is always of passing interest to other men. Other men present themselves as judge, jury and executioner to the fate of those less fortunate than themselves, praying to God if ever they believed in Him they are not the subject of other men’s entertainment.
Missed her stays is a nautical term. It refers to the unsuccessful attempt to tack or steer against the wind by taking a zigzag course to achieve progress against adverse elements of nature such as wind or tide.
She missed her stays and piled up on the rocks, a miserable end to a gallant ship, a three masted schooner that sank in thirty feet of water, coated with ice and the next gale from the north broker her as effectively as a crew of wreckers with sledge hammers and bars.
“What happened then?”
The captain quit the Maritimes, got his crew off safe through the rigging into the trees hanging out over the cliffs, lost the cargo of lumber and spuds and spent the rest of his life in a factory working to pay back the farmers who lost their cargo.
“T’weren’t his fault. Winds came up. Rudders fail. Helmsman didn’t come about on orders, all of them, any of them together or apart enough to send her down. No one man needs shoulder all the blame, any more than one man can carry off the glory.”
“He didn’t see it that way. He worked to pay them back.”
“Yes and some with interest.”
“Buy you another round?”
“No. Time I headed home,” and on the way it puzzled him. “What does a man get out of what cost him everything?”
It came to him.
“Glory?” he thought. “No, not every man gets glory. Some get nothing.”
Then it came to him.
“Honor,” he thought. “That’s it. A man gets honor. A man like that gets honor and with honor an honorable man gets life.”
This is what he read.
The house stands on the east side of Highway 14 in Egg Harbor, a town in Door County, Wisconsin built as a mansion in a time before highways with numbers or paving. Most people today are tourists. They pass by and they do not stop. They do not really stop anywhere in life. They have no reason to stop in Egg Harbor or anywhere else unless they can eat and drink and spend money on impulsive pleasures.
They do what they want.
They do only what they want.
Some people want more.
Some people are willing to wait for what they want or work for what they want and some people never get what they want, but tourists want it now. They come to get everything they can get and they only leave when they run out of time or money. They have nothing to offer. They’re here for a good time.
Only those who know how to work and wait come to stay.
They’re the ones who build and keep on building.
Americans are all tourists. They do what they damn well please.
They may be thoughtful. They may have planned their vacation for years, but they have no real idea nor do they care what it would be like or have been like to live and die in Egg Harbor, any more than residents of Egg Harbor one hundred years ago or more would have any idea what it means to spend hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars on recreation.
The two worlds are separate. They are apart in time, yet the burden of proof lies with the present, as present before the jury of future generations. The past lies at rest, the testimony complete, the evidence submitted and marked for exhibit. They gave their lives for what they believed and the verdict is final. It admits of no appeal.
The village of Egg Harbor on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula connects with no major thoroughfare. There is no railway or airport. There is no commerce as once Door County and all Wisconsin yielded lumber and natural riches without limit. Green bay and Lake Michigan churned with fish. Forest swarmed with wild life amid trees six feet thick. Man lived in Nature with life or death in harmony. The man who built the big white house on the east side of the road that became a highway through Egg Harbor lived differently. He built to impress. The house becomes the center of this story as once it stood at the center of so many others, the biggest house of its day in Door County. Now there are many other houses and some bigger, but not so many stories, because tourists have come and with them boutiques and galleries and restaurants and resort condominiums and motels, but wildlife is rare. The sun rises and sets on pleasure boats with few fish under them in water more or less polluted by the legacy of flesh which is industrial waste or sewage.
The house stands as a landmark, a symbol of wealth and prestige, the lighthouse of a different sort, a beacon of what it means to want more than enough in a world of once raw wilderness and now much smaller dreams, once no entertainment by electronic means, now wonderful images without meaning and sounds without apparent source, once pioneer settlements in cruel vulnerability to the elements, now prime commercial real estate available at the right price for development.
It comes as a philosopher’s stone in the alchemy of this story.
The house is essentially a ship sailing into legend.
Clouds silently superimposed themselves on a perfectly blue sky.
Water in waves not unlike clouds wrapped themselves upon the shore as he regarded the natural stone and in its nature featureless. A cliff rose before him to the forest floor above and into the forest beyond. Water at his back extended to the very sky as he stood upon the beach. He held an iron spike, a white man’s trade for fifteen beaver pelts and he held a mallet of stone and stick and sinew bound together. He had not so many beaver pelts to buy from the white man the iron implement the white man called a hammer. As this man stood clad only in a thong about his waist from which hung pieces of animal skin front and back the sound of many children and two dogs could be heard as smoke rose from carefree fires in camp amid the trees.
He struck iron with stone nearly as hard and struck again and again against rocks amid prayers to the Great Spirit, for the Great Spirit wrote with this man no less an instrument than rock or iron or laced hammer or sky and water and earth upon which he lived he story.
He wrote the story of his people, amid stories of love and need, amid spirits, amid forest of pain and uncertainty in the Great Spirit which gave life and took away and gave life again in such abundance. Without linguistics he wrote in pictures as he became a picture himself standing tall and unceremoniously naked on the rocks before the cliff to record history for those he would never know if ever they came to pause in their own time and history to read.
They would come.
They would read.
No man would ever know air so fine as air this man breathed. No man would ever stand again as selflessly unaware as this man stood in soft gusts of wind and shadows interspersed with sun spun upon his shoulders upon his weathered skin. He scratched and rubbed and chipped with cold iron to inscribe upon the limestone a certain wisdom, a line of knowledge in this line of figures to impart an understanding of the hunt, a ritual of hunger and food to those who did not yet know and would come to be taught as children such as those he could hear above beyond the cliff playing in open camp, in the spirit of every animal who gave its life that he and the others might live, the great place beyond this world which existed now and before the world and would exist forever after.
He understood the moods of nature.
He yielded to them.
He did not try to fight the Holy Spirit, the Great Spirit, the One of All.
He understood blood and water and how they both turned cold to ice or hot to burn and love or hate like thunder after flashes in the sky.
Except for scars and paint upon his body, he required no means of adornment.
“What’d you think, Levi? How many you make them out to be?”
“Four. Maybe five. No. Wait. I see four more.”
“Jesus H. Christ.”
The man beside him flat on the ground spit to one side, his right side. He didn’t spit far. He spit scared. Some of it stuck to his beard. They lay on the ground behind a rotting tree fallen in the jungle. The dead tree had become home to insects and fungus living off the dead and soon they would be dead, the man who spit feared and the same thought crossed the mind of the other man, but he didn’t spit. He didn’t need to spit. He didn’t need anything just now.
It rained real hard.
It rained on both of these men and the bandits numbered nine just now.
The rain washed away the one man’s spit.
It rained torrentially.
It had been raining for about an hour now and the spit slid away in a dissolving glob into the underbrush and foliage, the same as their blood would do.
“We’re done for,” the man who spit said beside Levi Thorpe. He wiped the back of his hand and sodden sleeve against his hairy mouth. Water and what remained of spit dripped from his beard.
“Done for in this goddamn pest hole.”
“You shouldn’t swear,” said Levi. He drew his pistol. A six shot forty five caliber double action revolver made by Colt Firearms Company of New Haven, Connecticut felt good in his hand wet or dry. He had a Winchester 30-30 back on the mule, but at this range even a carbine had no purpose and if he tried to go for it they’d see him sure. He didn’t want the fight. That would be the art of this thing not to fight so he didn’t want the carbine. He’d kill six anyway with what he had in his hand. This would be the first time he killed a man, but there was a first time for everything and in this case six times.
He didn’t need the carbine.
“You shouldn’t use the name of God in vain,” said Levi Thorpe on this occasion and several more when you come to think of it.
His father had a saying.
His father liked sayings.
“Don’t fight,” his father said. “Don’t ever fight. Don’t ever, ever fight, but if you do fight, kill the bastards.”
His father used bastards in the plural.
More than one were always to be expected.
Such as now.
Levi Thorpe loved his father, despite whippings with the belt.
He always obeyed his father.
He intended to obey him now.
“I’ll die swearing or whatever else I goddamn want,” the man beside him said.
Levi knew this man to be good enough on a good day, but not today. This man might not be good enough today. He might be number ten if you came to think of it, good enough to lift and carry on a good day, good enough to shovel gravel into the sluice box and shake the contents, good enough to pick out the wealth and ride behind him going into town on a good day, but not good enough when Death with bad teeth sat astride stolen horses half drunk on tequila ready to kill anything that got in its vermin infested way before Death itself swung from a noose or shit its pants tied before a firing squad.
Levi Thorpe wanted his companion to be quiet and shut up.
“Nine of them and two of us is no goddamn good,” persisted Levi’s now proven coward with whom you don’t need an enemy.
Levi could count and drew saliva back up into his mouth but he didn’t spit. He swallowed without effort and without comment and kept his mouth shut.
Then Levi said, “If God says this is what it’s going to be today it’s good enough. We take what we get. We take it nice and slow. We take it easy and maybe we don’t die today.”
The man beside Leviticus Thorpe fell silent.
He had no choice.
He didn’t pray. He did not know how. He even tried to spit again out of his dry mouth. This time he could not, not even wipe his mouth on the back of his sleeve. What good would it do?
He had no sense to realize the rain concealed them and made Death down there on horseback in the arroyo keep looking down to keep the water out of its eyes instead of looking up and around to scan the rocks and terrain and impenetrable foliage like it should, like it always did being bad and evil, but not in this rain.
This Death was bandits and Death was talking.
Death had killed many men. Death did not know how many. To know was to count and to count was to care and Death neither knew nor cared. As many as it took to kill to eat and drink and live like animals, like vultures to pull carrion from bones or peck out eyes.
These were bad men.
Levi and the others could hear them talking but could not understand their words. They understood plenty without any words. This jungle grew in Panama where someday a President named Theodore Roosevelt of the United States would build a canal.
This would not happen quite yet.
The bandits discipled to Death talked incessantly very loud and all at once. They swore in Spanish and cursed the rain which came down from Heaven as thought it came up from Hell under the influence of alcohol they killed a man yesterday to take the last bottle from him they threw to the ground with a smash. They had seen smoke from the campfire Levi and the other man tended before rain quenched it and our heroes rode on before the bandits covered the mile or so through the jungle and arrived to view fresh sign of another killing they might enjoy or be killed. The bandits followed Levi’s trail until it washed out in the rain. Voices of the bandits grew louder. They grew angry. Levi could see them clearly. He couldn’t understand a single word. Anger he could understand. It required no interpretation. Levi understood the international language of angry men. A twitch developed in the corner of Levi’s mouth. It sometimes did so in the presence of danger. Levi ignored it. He always did so. He stared a the bandits in the rain even harder now like Almighty God contemplating judgement. They pointed in several directions at once as individually and separately they had a mind and then changed their mind and then what happened happened very quick.
One of the bandits jerked the reins of his horse and started to ride away from the others with a vow he intended to go where he wanted to go without seeing Levi or the other man but against the wishes of the one who looked like boss among bad men. The man who rode away rode in a perfectly straight line toward Lvi and his companion in concealment. The chief of the bad men snarled. This rebel to his authority getting closer every moment said what he wanted to say with a gesture of vehemence over his shoulder. No one hiding behind a log needed to understand Spanish or any other language to understand the meaning and others acquiesced. They simply retreated without moving to the inevitable boss of the bad men who they knew would do exactly what he intended to do. He pulled out a massive pistol, stolen from the previous owner with a shot to the head and leveled it now at the one who road toward Levi and the man who helplessly closed his eyes and this shot too he aimed for the back of the head which came out between the eyes beneath the sombrero as the dead bandito toppled off the saddle and into a puddle of mud beneath his horse’s hooves now bloody as well. The dead man’s horse stood perfectly still, as if it expected to be shot next. The bandit’s horse did the same. The bandit chief holstered his perfect gun, ignored the dead man and the living and dismounted to urinate while all the others dismounted in their turn to strip from the corpse anything they wanted and rode off in a pack in precisely the wrong direction while rain buried the body in water that began to flood the arroyo as if the sky itself were a grave.
“Jesus H. Christ,” said the man beside Levi, the second time he’d used the Savior’s name. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
“You’ve seen it now,” said Levi.
Even if they had killed his own son, his only begotten son, Levi Thorpe would have never moved. Neither did he speak any words beyond the ones he just uttered. He held the large caliber dragoon percussion cap revolver unfired in his right hand with the destiny of six men and kept peace within himself.
Bandits love killing.
Levi could take it or leave it.
The one who led the bad men, these or any other bad men, did not need to be smart. He just needed to like killing. So because he liked to kill his bad men followed him. They even followed him in the wrong direction, as bad men always will, because bed men are stupid. If they had listened to the dead man before he died they would have discovered almost immediately Levi and his partner and enjoyed killing all the more before they turned to start killing one another once they discovered the immense wealth two dead gringos carried in their saddle bags.
Bandits truly love killing.
Gold is a bonus.
Levi sat on the porch with Elisa Jane. Her mother sat five feet away on the other side of a clap board wall to one side of an open wooden sash window. Levi’s mother lay six feet under ground on Washington Island, what they used to call Pottawattamie Island in what since 1848 they called the State of Wisconsin.
He had the advantage. He knew death and pain and killing and he knew he wanted Elisa Jane. He could draw on a deep wealth of reason and instinct to get her.
Elisa Jane’s mother sat knitting inside the house, a stupid old woman full of faith and ignorance and presumptions, a helpless old woman who suffered in life a perpetual re-enactment of he crucifixion from which there could be no resurrection, only the consolation of a grave.
The window had white lace curtains.
All the nicer homes had them.
“I come to propose marriage,” said Levi to Elisa Jane by the method of handing her a piece of paper he got from the bank, the kind of bond paper they use to write important documents because he had no paper f his own and wrote those words as best he could in his own calloused hand calloused by work and weather in his best script he learned as a boy with ink he dipped then with a goose quill from a broken whiskey glass with ink made from lamp black and blackberry juice with a little blood and water mixed and now with an honest to God steel nib pen with real ink from New York City in a cut glass ink well on the desk of his brother’s store in Fish Creek. He asked his brother to spell the word propose.
Then he needed help with the word marriage.
“You sure you intend going through with this?” his brother asked him.
“Then damn sure it is,” said his brother. “It’s like purpose except you change one letter and then turn two of them around.”
He explained it that way to confuse his brother the way brothers do when they want to poke fun even when the moment demands seriousness.
“Get on with it,” said Levi. “What’s the difference?”
“They’re just about the same,” said Adam. Then he showed his brother.
“Why you want to try me when I’m doing what I’m doing here?”
“Because you’re a big dumb ox getting himself hitched to a plow,” said his brother.
They might have quarreled. They might even have fought, but they laughed, but Levi didn’t laugh so much as Adam because he meant and intended to marry the girl so with determination as with a gun or with a knife he wrote very purposefully and correctly the word propose and resolved within himself his brother had one coming.
Levi did not want Elisa Jane’s mother to know what he had in mind tonight as he had wanted it every night since he saw the young woman and later met with bosom so grand and waist so tight and held by all those buttons above her hips and skin so fair it made milk a poor second. Cream would be closer to the truth. He wanted her and dared imagine all those things within her bodice and up beneath her skirts. He didn’t like to think about what he thought about so much because of any morality or lack of same, but a practical man like him big and strong and not to patient could take what he wanted and didn’t want to spend too much time in thinking, because that would make him silly and absent to the moment and he knew moments were important just like nails in a fence or bricks in a wall so much of what you did were done in the moments as they were given. Unless she said yes now he’d have nothing, but if he didn’t ask he wouldn’t have anything anyway and that would be his own fault all through the times to come when he wondered if what he should have or what she would have done. He couldn’t stand that kind of shit for brains. Even when he didn’t want to think too much and get himself in a bad way or stupid he couldn’t help thinking about her and tonight after he handed her the paper he watched her face as she read the note.
He thought he might be in love.
That’s what he thought.
He didn’t know.
He hadn’t thought about it much before.
When he saw the look on her face and they way her body moved tonight he dared to believe he understood and reached inside the lower right pocket of his vest. He brought out a piece of pencil which he handed to her and she too understood the meaning of it all and wrote. He had a watch in his lower left vest pocket. He could hear it ticking. It sounded like his heart. The whole night got that quiet. The watch connected to a button hole by a solid gold chain made of the same gold he deposited in the bank, only one of several banks.
He did not believe in banks.
He did not trust the men who ran them.
He knew men.
He did not like to see his money taken out of sight and therefore wore his fortune in a canvas vest all the way back from the gold fields. Now he wore a leather vet made for him in Chicago, a very fine vest of Spanish leather and black onyx buttons. He could not wear his gold all the time, not if he intended to go among men and buy them, buy his way in the world. He didn’t have to trust anyone, but he did need to give his money to those who could be bought and sold and that is what he did.
Elisa Jane wrote a single word on the paper and handed it back to Levi whom she never called anything but Mister Thorpe and the pencil she handed back to him as well, although if she had been so bold she might have kept it as a memento or made him ask for it back as a token of this illicit exchange which made this moment all the more delectable and thus far inconceivable. She always wondered what it would be like to be in love with a man.
The world she wrote he folded and placed back in his pocket beside the watch he bought with the proceeds from his partner’s stash after the man he warned about the name of Go died of yellow fever on the boat out of Bocas del Toro.
“His loss my gain,” thought Levi Thorpe. He thought that way from time to time and he thought that way now. It felt pretty good. He could think like that looking into the face of the woman he loved. It didn’t hurt his love at all.
He would need every dollar he could get his hands on to make this is what he wanted come true and work the way he wanted and what he intended exactly that and more.
Fortunately for Levi Thorpe Eliza Jane intended exactly the same.
“Tolerably fine weather,” said Levi.
She dared not so much as glance at him. She wanted him naked. She had never seen a man naked, only her father in his nightshirt without shoes long ago and that had been so long ago other men had grown and died without seeing any of them naked. She had no idea what a naked man might look like, but though Adam and Eve in her Bible as a little girl almost made her faint she did not faint now nor ever would. “Tolerable fine,” she echoed correctly and in her best come fuck me voice added, “Indeed, if we may hope for a prolongation of fair skies and these favorable winds many hearts will be gladdened hereabouts I feel sure.”
She emphasized the last three words.
“I feel sure.”
She pouted her lips.
Her thighs tightened when she said it.
These words came from a nineteenth century soul, a soul that seduced men for ages without knowing how, without being taught, with every fiber of a woman’s soul who knew somehow she would only allowed to live through the essence of a man so should choose the right man very carefully, as she might choose the body if given the choice in which she would live as a disenfranchised angel from heaven.
This is the way Walt Whitman would write, but Eliza Jane had never heard of Walt Whitman. He wouldn’t be published for another ten years. She wouldn’t read a copy of his Leaves of Grass for another fifteen and then she would burn the book. It made her think of sin and believe in fires of hell because it unleashed so much fire within her now she had no power to burn.
“I trust your parents are well.”
They spoke for the benefit of her mother’s listening ears. Levi Thorpe hated her father, hated him enough to kill him and thought about it, but wanted Eliza so killing had no place on the porch at night waiting for her mother to die first or fall asleep on the other side of the clapboard wall through the open window.
He saw bandits kill.
“We thank God for His mercies,” said Eliza.
“You yourself have been well, if I may ask?”
“You may and yes, well enough to be of service to my family and our home.”
“I would presume to inform you my plans now include joining my brother in the State of Wisconsin,” he said. Talking like this made his mouth hurt. He never tried too hard to speak words. He didn’t like them. They got things all confused and complicated. “My brother owns a house and property on the east shore of Green Bay. He asks me to join him.”
Eliza Jane did not want him to go work with his brother. She did not want him to live anywhere but here. She did not know where Fish Creek might be as he explained to her. She did not care. He talked. She listened. She only heard part of what he said. All the rest of his words ran through her ears like fish through a net too big to catch them. She shook her head to clear it. The motion did not clear it. He did not understand what she meant. She meant nothing. He want on talking. He knew of nothing else to do.
“I would favor the opportunity to speak with your parents ‘fore I depart, if only to express my gratitude for their heartfelt hospitality and kindness.”
It made his teeth hurt.
He wanted to throw back his head and bay at the moon.
Levi paid a street urchin to throw a rock at the back of Eliza Jane’s house at a given signal which would be his hand laid on the spindled front porch railing. He put his hand there now. When he did he remembered the bandits. This lawless act would change his life forever and her life and all their lives and he went ahead and did it. The grubby boy in the unpaved street saw the signal and ran like a streak of mud a long way around into Eliza Jane’s back yard and moments later they heard the crash. He threw a big rock way to hard on purpose given permission to throw anything and broke out a window. Shards of glass flew inward like Christian hypocrisy across the kitchen floor. Levi choked on his laughter. Otherwise he’d die from all this palaver. Eliza Jane’s mother screamed which delighted his heart. He stood from his seat as Eliza Jane abruptly did the same and Eliza Jane’s mother forming the scream into a yelp for her husband the big good for nothing she might have known would be down at the saloon where else as Levi took advantage of the chaos he bought for a dime out of his tens of thousands from the gold fields and took Eliza Jane by the arm, pulled her near and set his face so close to hers she could almost scream herself and would faint if she could but didn’t not even in childbirth after he shot his creamy spunk into her.
Her womb ached now.
“You belong to me. I’ll come back. As God above is my witness and Satan looks up from hell you belong to me.”
“I do,” she said practically practicing her vows inadvertently, in what could be called an orgasm of emotion, but not for another one hundred years or so and then in a society gone mad with sexual obsession. “I will,” she said.
“Say yes,” he said.
She had written it already. He disregarded the paper evidence now, but they’d bury him with it beside her sixty-five years hence.
Eliza Jane had never been kissed by a man, nor would she ever be ever again in his manner unless he did the kissing.
It left her stunned.
He took his hat and took his leave.
“Where’d your young man go?” Eliza Jane’s mother asked back on the porch after the commotion died down, after the town sheriff had been called and never came and the old man tottered back from down the street drunk enough without the sense to realize the window to the kitchen had no glass.
“He went to make his fortune,” said Eliza Jane. “He’s coming back to claim me and I’m going to marry him. I’m going to be his wife.”
The kid might as well have thrown a rock through the old woman’s face the way she looked. The kid named Jack Fons might as well have set fire to the house.
Leviticus Thorpe gave him two cigars in addition to the dime for a job well done which the kid smoked at the age of twelve. The cigars did not make him sick. Children his age enlisted as in the Civil War and would be killed as drummers and powder monkeys beside men who walked into battle side by side facing cannon lined up side by side and muskets in the hands of valiant men side by side with bayonets two feet long fixed and volley fire.
The first month Eliza Jane and Leviticus Thorpe were married they had sex every night. There were thirty-one days that month. She gave birth to their first child the first year of their marriage. They had a second child and a third pregnancy ended in miscarriage and her near death with black blood flowing out of her uterus. No doctor attended. She survived. They buried the fetus in the woods. Leviticus would to bury it alone. He wanted no help any more than he wanted help when he made the child in the woman he loved. There would be no marker. That’s why America is great. We do things alone and we don’t tell people what we do because some things are better left private and never forgotten marker or no.
Levi sat despondent and desolate upon a rock by the stream.
Somewhere two weeks east of Sacramento.
The curve of the rock hollowed by innumerable floods over uncounted millennia allowed him to sit rather comfortably as he considered the utter futility of the last four months digging, panning and sluicing up and down ravines and tributaries, working through rock and gravel from dawn to dusk alone and unaided, hungry wet and cold, fearful of stories he’d been told of men found dead and what was left unburied without respect left to rot and further dismembered and distributed over the landscape by vermin, carrion eaters and scavengers without allowing fear within himself to stifle the longing also within himself with room to spare for wealth without due regard for single bullet from out of nowhere killing him before the sound of the shot and a hole the size of a nickel punched in his back or the base of his skull like those poor devils he herd tell about who worked like dogs and died like dogs to never work again. Face down in the stream, their blood running along crystal rivulets and mud and tailings. He had seen himself dead so many times now in his mind’s eye he sighed and repeated the words of a personal devotion and all he knew of catechism.
“Lord, don’t let me die here. Not here.”
He had another vision, far off and away in time himself master of all having won his rights in this wilderness, but just now it eluded him. To tired to think, thoughts of no consequence or particular order like the effervescent water over these rocks in a torrent, through the gravel beneath the lugged soles of his high top laced boots he felt ready to call it a day.
Levi stood up and walked a few steps away from the rock he sat upon and along the stream. He reached down. He unbuttoned the fly of his riveted double front canvas pants and reached in and pulled out his cock. He needed to relieve himself. He intended to do it in the water. He didn’t hold his cock when he got it out. He let it hang and exhaled to let the muscles relax and felt the piss surge as the contents of his bladder came forth clear and copious and flowed away in the otherwise pure spring fed water and snow melt from higher up. He reached down after admiring the view up and around the scene of his ease and tucked himself back in the open folds of his pants with a shrug of his whole body as me are apt to do. Then he took a few precautionary strides back upstream and knelt. He cupped and dipped his hands down into the water. He lifted them full to drink.
No danger upstream, though he urinated only a few feet away.
As men are apt to do.
In order t drink he crossed the index finger of both hands slightly inward over his middle fingers, because his hands gaped wide between the middle and index fingers and the water would otherwise drain out. He had to make this little adjustment in order to drink out of his cupped hands. It constituted a mild idiosyncrasy of his body. His mother always said wide spaced fingers brought good luck and women with wide gaped front teeth made good lovers. At least the gap made it easier for him to reach an octave higher or lower when he played piano which he hated, but his mother insisted he take lessons. He hated lessons, but he loved his mother. He took the lessons. He raised the water to his lips, drank what he needed and a bit more, a couple extra swallows before he let the rest of the water fall smack back into the stream.
As he opened his hands and the water went back to rejoin the inexhaustible supply at his feet he saw a glimmer, a glint other than fractured liquid fractured in the sun. He often thought of his mother when he drank water. He didn’t know why. Something about life he supposed and wellsprings of life without which life would die and saw it again, a glint a glimmer below the gleam and gyrating gloss of the surface.
“There’s never enough to go around,” Mother said, “so you keep going around until you get enough.”
His heart stopped.
He didn’t move.
His heart started.
He could not move.
He had no life within him to move, no power to even stand. It felt like he would fall, but kept standing. Suddenly as if the bullet from behind had come and found him he had been slain and born again.
“Don’t stop,” his Mother would say. “Take joy. Don’t just stand there looking for it. Take it. Someone else is sure to reach out and grab what you want while you’re waiting. If you want it, take it. Make it your very own.”
He bent down and sent his hand like a spear into the water as he had seen an Indian once do and could do because they were starving and pulled dinner alive and thrashing out of a shimmering pool.
His fingers closed on something inert and curved and so smooth it seemed soft but heavy and he pulled it forth, the shape of an egg and almost the size, a hen’s egg more irregular and embryonic in its feral shape, a rounded mass of dead weight and in fact a lump of pure solid great God Almighty gold.
Levi Thorpe held his destiny.
They would call him Mister Thorpe from now on. His soul drank it in like water but now what he held in his hand felt like fire. He would be rich. He would be powerful. He would control men. He would have sex with women. His Mother coursed through his veins and his Father powerful and potent.
He stood erect holding a nugget of gold.
He held it tightly.
He never thought they had it right in church.
He would never darken the doorway of a church again as long as he lived.
They did not know shit.
They didn’t know him.
“Brothers and sisters, we are born in sin. We are sick in sin and condemned to die as we are born dead in sin without the eternal gift of salvation offered free and clear by the grace of God through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” he silently asked the preacher in his thoughts as he sat and listened with other sheep of the pasture. “You don’t know me. You don’t know my mother or my father. Who the hell are you to say such a rotten thing about anyone, let alone me or my family? Where the hell did you come from, Mister High and Mighty? Who are your people? You ashamed of them? You trying to make me ashamed of mine and myself because you’re ashamed of yours and yourself? Is that it? You trying to make me eat shit because you ate it?
He thought what he thought, but he didn’t say what he thought.
Now he knew he would say it.
He would say whatever he thought.
Who would stop him?
Who would dare?
He could be an American now.
He could be himself.
He would be free.
He could take the preacher by the collar and look deep into his face. He could see a man like himself, except he’d be looking into the face of a coward, a foolish craven little man who used another man’s blood to atone for his own and found it helpful to convince those foolish enough or craven enough or helpless enough to believe he held the keys to paradise or a way to solve their problems by admitting they were livestock. He saw a man unwilling to take a chance with life, so not a man like himself anymore. A man like himself didn’t need to punish anyone for his own inadequacies. All he had to do was drop the preacher’s collar, walk away and take a deep breath of freedom.
Leviticus Thorpe, bearing a Biblical name and the wrath of God barely contained within him, stood erect in the flowing stream of salvation and held the gold he had been given just as surely as he he had been baptized in the faith and set on the road to glory.
Leviticus Thorpe didn’t flinch or ponder.
He could buy a church now if he wanted. He could build anything he wanted. He could build a house as big as a church.
He could feel it.
He didn’t throw his hat into the air or yell or shout some stupid declaration he had just become a wealthy man.
He concealed his emotions.
He hated emotions right now the way he hated piano lessons.
This would be his first lesson, the lesson he held a fortune in one hand, more than most men would earn in a decade.
Then he saw another fortune.
Without letting go of the one he picked up the other and saw yet another, and yet another a few more feet away. They were everywhere there in the stream where moments before he had just pissed. Life could be like that. It became that for him now. He had never seen anything like it. He would never see anything like it again.
He had no need to see it again.
Would any man expect more than one miracle in his life?
Some men never got any, but not all men went to the California gold fields in 1849 and ventured deeper east into Nevada territory. Not all men dared and not all men would take off their hat and fill it with gold nuggets until filling it to the brim he sat down on the same rock he’d sat on a few moments ago poor and disheartened to make sure he’d not gone made with longing and loneliness and lack of food and deprivation.
Men worked for a dollar a day if no one offered to work for less.
Men became thieves and stole from other men.
Men used the law to steal from other men the way some men used a gun or a knife.
It didn’t make much difference.
This man gathered up the equivalent of a house, a farm, another farm, a herd of cattle, a carriage and horses, a mansion if he wanted before he set down the hat which barely took the strain, filled his pocket sand left a couple nuggets in his cupped hands as he reached back down into the water yet gain yet for nothing more this time than a drink from the chalice that had become his own flesh, blood, bone and sinew.
Then he looked around.
He saw no one.
No one saw him.
he looked far and away, a good long look.
Just to be sure.
His life depended on it.
Even if someone had watched all they could say and swear they saw would be a man relieve himself in the stream and drink from the same stream a couple times and look around at the rocks before he sat down.
That’s all they could say.
Levi took off his shirt and surrounded the gleaming gold with it, then carried the wealth to his horse and led it to a knoll a few yards away from the water, just far enough so the sound of the water would not confuse the sound of anyone or anything coming through the brush before he had time to get his gun if it sounded like a sound he didn’t want to hear. He unfastened his bedroll and saddlebags and picketed his horse on the branch of a bush.
He’d camp for a few days, file no claim, keep a sharp eye, build no fire and stay so long as it took to find what he’d kill to keep or what others would kill to take. He found three more nuggets the size of musket balls and a puddle of gold dust in the cup of a rock under four inches of water before night fell. He’d gained by then more wealth than men who dream of work can dream, enough to buy one thousand six hundred acres in Door County, Wisconsin when the time came, but the time had not yet come.
He went to sleep.
He didn’t dream at all.
He slept lightly with his pistol on half cock across his chest.
Mother would be so proud.
Water undulated away from the prow, a flat sheen a few feet out from the copper sheathing, then scrolling like a sacred text to a series of rolling curves on a featureless surface so calm otherwise he lost track of all forward motion, yet he leaned forward as now over the rail and saw emblems of the shore, a floating leaf, a twig, a twisted scum of foam entrained with seaweed. Movement seemed vain against this measureless distance of sea and sky.
What could he do within this vastness? What could he accomplish? Amid the wealth and poverty of others, amid the cruel opposition of ignorance or disbelief and blissful self-assurance, what chance did he have to accomplish any goal? People live unborn, he thought. They live as unburied dead. They could not be moved. They took pride in their selfishness, their insolence, their inadvertent assertions of stupidity. They were too ignorant to recognize a good idea when it stared them in the face, but perhaps therein lay the means by which they could be helpful, as bricks and mortar in construction of a genuine structure greater than themselves.
People made life difficult, but no one could make anything in life without them. He held the rail firmly in both hands firm by determination as he gazed far out over the water. He plunged into the future as the ship plunged under his feet through turgid seas toward the all but indiscernibly curved horizon.
What would he do in California? He would become rich. He had no doubt. However, the first wealth is confidence. Men and women may want money. They may own money, but without confidence there is no wealth, no lock on the door, no security. Every form of wealth and every dream of it lies exposed and vulnerable without confidence. He would surely be wealthy because he believed himself to be wealthy from this particular moment. He did not venture to California to see if it would happen. He went to California to take possession of what he already knew as undeniably real.
That is what Leviticus Thorpe knew as his soul looked out across the flat calm of this day under sail aided by steam as the flag of the United States of America snapped back and forth in a freshening breeze upon the halyard atop the main mast. It fluttered forward pointing the way.
What would he do with his wealth?
The blank eternal surface of the sea spoke to him. He would not buy anything so transparent and murky as water, unless water became his means of controlling men. He would buy land and land would be his means to success and victory. How much land? That would depend on how much money and upon money and upon himself he placed no limit. He’d let the limit take care of itself and limit himself only in terms of one word he always used to ask for what he wanted.
“More,” he said out loud to the sea which answered back correctly.
“I want more.”
More than enough money to buy land and men to go with land then use both to buy more of both, land and men in so many multiples he wearied himself with the effort.
They’d hate him for it.
No one likes a man this real.
People pretend, but only inside their self-imposed borders of envy, respect and admiration. Men compare themselves to such men and don’t like them. They make issue out of strength and worth. The two are interchangeable. Even men who faced Christ and mind Christ did nothing but love and heal and offer food and living water to those who hungered with thirst yet those he sought to help sought to kill not only him but those ideas he brought with him and those who said they loved him loved him not enough but failed him in cowardice and greed.
Men don’t change.
A mass of seaweed rode by and back over the sumptuous curve of the ship’s wake, up and over, down and away, then up and down and over again as wavelets found their lonesome angle from the hull. He felt their enticement and sudden siren temptation, desolation like seasickness bred of dead calm and lassitude came to seduce his soul.
He’d have none of it.
He wanted more.
He hungered for storms.
Whores and barmaids showed their curves in every port, cleavage and ankles for free, more if you paid. They crowded and cooed for attention as he gazed out over the rail into the back streets of his own indefatigable reflections over innumerable miles on the journey to a moment’s caress or overnight oblivion. He spit. His spittle hit the waves and added to their volume. He had nothing to do with them, those women and men like them, whores and shysters who bore disease and laid traps and told lies with supreme confidence. Suckers followed them through doorways and disappeared down hatches and trap doors, food for vermin and shellfish at the bottom of cesspools and off backwater docks, sometimes carried away whole and swallowed for service on rotting hulks as shanghaied slaves.
That’s why Levi Thorpe slept with a derringer and a knife.
A voice came now at midday out of heaven.
It came from the lookout.
Levi came to his senses.
“Where away?” shouted the captain from his position near the wheel.
“Away off the starboard bow. Three points off the starboard bow.”
The captain extended his brass telescope under the visor of his cap and stood against the binnacle for support to find for his own eye and reckoning what the lookout decried.
“If a man had a place to look out,” thought Levi Thorpe, “a good place, a high place above all of it,” he regarded his own place upon the deck and the captain’s upon the bridge and most importantly the man way up top in the crow’s nest, “then a man could see what other men could not see or where they must be told to look. I could see the future for myself and,” suddenly the word came out loud and clear, “Yes.”
Levi Thorpe brought his hand down on the rail hard in a fist.
It hurt he hit so hard, but he swore not in pain but resolution and resolve.
“Yes, by God,” he declared himself to land and sky and sea all around on which he rode, “I’ll build myself a house the way they built this ship of wood. I’ll build it tall and grand and give myself a place to stand. I can see all and they can all see me.”
“Let them look. Let them take a good long look and wonder how I did it.”
“I’ll be captain.”
“They’ll call me sir.”
The date and latitude, the longitude of Levi Thorpe’s decision to be himself are not recorded.
“We are stupid,” said Snow Hawk.
“We are men,” said Levi.
“Men are stupid,” said Snow Hawk.
They smoked the pipe and drank whiskey. The smoke cooled as it spiraled up through the air. The whiskey burned as it spiraled down through their throats. The bottle stood half full upon the table, the pipe now half empty on the table beside it. They spoke as friends, despite the killing their people had committed against one another. That time had come and gone before perhaps it came again. The old Pottawattamie knew more of a different world than the man who said he owned what no Indian imagined ever owning.
“Men say what they think. What they think is what they dream when they are not asleep,” said the Indian.
“I know I own this land,” said Levi. He had been to the land office in Sturgeon Bay. He paid gold. He brought the gold with him from California, struck at the mint in New York into glittering coins he carried in a canvas vest. One ounce of gold equaled twenty dollars. He bought one thousand six hundred acres. He paid one dollar forty five cents per acre. It took seven and one fourth pounds of gold. His vest weighed twelve pounds.
“You own nothing,” said Snow Hawk.
The Indian took the pipe from the table and lit a sliver of fat wood he drew from a beaded pouch on his belt, a possibilities bag. A candle guttering on the table in a tarnished brass holder supplied the flame as he lit the wood and applied the flare to re-ignite the contents of the pipe.
The air filled with truth.
“It is you who are owned.”
The wigwam reeked of animal smells, other smells, cooking burned and gone bad. Things never coked and never to be cooked, but never wasted, maybe used for bait in traps to catch more food. Men of a later age would make fine distinctions between what could be eaten and what should be disposed on mere suspicion. These men ate mostly anything because they knew life and death s they knew each other. They were not particular. They sat together as brothers of different fathers and different mothers, united in the forest within sight of water in the great Green Bay, amid mold and mildew, the rot and life giving corruption of decay.
Smoke from the pipe ascended upwards toward the same hole in the roof which let down a little air and sunlight in a blue white shaft diagonal between them.
The Indian did smoke.
He did not share the pipe.
The sharing had been accomplished.
He wished to share now only words.
He offered again the burning bowl toward the sky beyond the curved roof of bark and sticks, branches chinked with mud.
“I pray for you,” he said, “my way. You come from a bad place. You come from a world divided against itself which cannot stand.”
The Indian named Snow Hawk said this long before a white man with dark skin named Abraham Lincoln said it another way for another reason and stood great for wisdom as he used it before his people who would prove him right. Snow Hawk said it as the Great Spirit gave him utterance without ever having read it or been told it existed in a book they called the Bible.
“You take the world which is whole and good and you divide it between good and evil. Then you try to put it all back together again in your own image, for your own reasons. You take men and women and you divide them the same way. You say there is evil first in all people. They are born evil you say and you say you must fight against evil and darkness, but you cannot fight without a savior who must fight on your behalf. You say if you lose and do evil and betray your savior he will forgive you. He is your god. You say he is perfect, yet you do not fear him. If you are bad, he does not punish. He forgives you, but you do not forgive him for when he walked among you and did no wrong, when he led a blameless life you killed him. His love did not cure your hate. His perfect love did not keep you from doing evil then to him and to everyone ever since, so what kind of god is this you say you worship? How weak he must really be and how wicked you are to worship a god who does not care what you do, but loves you for no reason. How do you even begin to worship him? You come from a terrible place. You fight wherever you go. If you cannot find a people to fight with you fight with yourselves. You fight within yourself and you fight the very earth who is the mother who gave you birth. You seek to claim as masters what you should hold sacred as servants of the world into which the Great Spirit has placed you and all men who are your brothers. You seek to control, yet you say you are free and all men should be free. You found them free and you enslaved them, so what do you know of freedom when you enslave even yourselves? I do not understand. Can you explain this to me? You come from a terrible place.”
The whiskey did not influence the words of the Indian.
The smoke did not cloud his eyes.
He had a greater fire within him than the fire of the whiskey or tobacco.
“You make nothing and you own nothing any more than you made yourself within the womb of your mother or owned he seed of your father which sprang into her. She nurtured you within herself. There is a cord. You are born with it. It is never broken. You are still nurtured by the power and the will of the Holy Spirit, even if you deny the blood and the water and the breath He gave you. Did you have no peace within your mother, my brother? What hunger within you demands more than enough food to live? Did your mother give you no love? Did she hate you inside her very self and deny you birth? Did you suck bitterness from her breasts? Did your father destine you to starve? Look around at the abundance of the earth. Look yet you see nothing. It is the nothing within you that can never be filled. I see you behold the land and what you see is not the land. It is what you want to take from the land you see until all the land is empty. Then you want more land to make this death grow. Why is it? What is it you seek, white man? You wish the earth to be white like you, bled until there is no more blood, white without color, white until death, white as the bones you leave to bleach upon the ground, a desert of white because you so hate the colors you do not have? What possess you, my brother?”
“I guess I just want more,” shrugged Leviticus Thorpe.
The Indian stood. He stood tall in age. His height suffered no diminishment with age and he grew as he gained his full height, a man of God in buckskin and beads with a feather at a rakish angle out of the tight black knot of hair at the back of his head. He had been a warrior. He still could fight. He had killed men with a club. He had stabbed them with a knife. He had shot them with an arrow. He had shot them with a gun. He did not tell people what he had done. Those who had done the same could tell it of him without being told.
Such men are known to one another.
This man had been hunted like a dog and escaped their traps.
Such men are part dog and dogs are obedient to such men. They lick their hands and such men know dogs are silent for good reason.
“Then own it,” said Snow Hawk. “Give gold for what you want until there is no more gold and no more land. Kill for it. Take life for it and gain your land. Then kill the land. My people cannot stop you. We will sell it to you, though we claim no part of it. We cannot eat dirt. We find the taste of it bitter. You may find the taste of gold is sand in your own throat. My people will give you land even as a gift. We are loving and strong and we are as we are without your god of the cross. You crucify us and tell us you worship the instrument of torture. You are part of nature and you come to us as the plague that eats our people, the disease for which there is no cure, until the Great Spirit the Holy Spirit bids you stop. We see you as part of Creation. We do not understand, but we live in spite of you. We live with what the Creator has made. You wish to see us as the enemy? Is that what you wish, you who read and believe in the Garden of Eden and perfect peace, you who believe in love? It is we who love better, because even if you make us sick and we fight with the sickness of anger we will give what you want because we know we cannot win. We see your machines and your weapons which are also machines. These you have in great numbers, as great as the animals you slaughter as you slaughter us. We give as we are given by the Great Spirit to be as your Christ who gave himself on the cross, but you do not honor him and you will not honor us. This we understand. We do not need the name of Christ to be like Christ. Pottawattamie lived as Christ before we heard the name of Christ. Ojibwa is Christ. Ho Chunk is Christ. Menominee is Christ. We do it better than you who call yourself Christian, because you come against your will, taught that you are wicked and evil from birth and we have been born into the realm of life without blemish, spot or stain. You fight among yourselves to test if they can be as good as you think they need to be. It is terrible for you and you make it terrible for us. My people cannot live with you. We cannot stand against you. My people have no power in their love of life to make you go away. We can only bow our heads and feel you upon our backs like rain that falls from the sky heavy and wet like blood. It is our love you cannot buy or sell, white man, what you call our souls. It is the land which owns you. You cover the land with papers covered with words and numbers and the words and the numbers have no meaning because you change them as you may so ever, but the land does not change. The land is alive and we are alive with the land and the land will eat you, my brother. The land is hungry and the land will eat men who are hungry for land.”
“You’re drunk,” said Levi Thorpe.
“You made the whiskey,” said Snow Hawk, “and you brought it for us to drink. You were drunk before you opened the bottle. Yours is the greater drunk. If I get drunk too much I get sober. You are drunk always with the spirit of your desire. You cannot be drunk enough to forget your thirst. I fall asleep. I wake up. You never sleep. You never rest. You only die. I know I will drink and awaken to drink again. Your only hope is you will awaken some day in a place you call heaven. Yet now you make this earth a living hell.”
Thus endeth the words of Snow Hawk.
“What do you think of my report, Grandpa?”
The fifth grade student, the great grandson of a man named Thomas C. Hooten, sat on the porch of his grandfather’s house overlooking Egg Harbor in Door County, Wisconsin.
The old man handed the meticulously and painstakingly albeit hastily handwritten paper back to the boy.
“Do you believe it?” the old man asked.
The boy worshiped the grandfather and the grandfather knew it. They loved one another. This would be a chance for the old man to tell his grandson a gratuitous lie, for the easiest way to contribute to a loving relationship is to lie, but the old man had other finer and more dignified qualities and so did the boy. The old man loved the boy with an old fashioned idealism that included the truth and the truth although often rough and odd smelling is so much of what engenders and derives meaning and gives substance to life, so much the same as old men themselves or the old women who together have seen one another through life. When they don’t seem good for anything else, old men and women are in fact good for everything, because they bring wisdom and honor and integrity to the vulnerability and stupidity and culpability of youth.
“What do you mean?” asked the boy.
“Do you believe what you wrote?”
“I wrote it,” said the boy with half a shrug.
This is the noblesse oblige of youth.
Kids believe themselves innocent until proven guilty.
The old man shook his head and smiled reassured his grandson had not yet learned to lie by any of the devious arts of circumvention, intonation or inflection. The child had not lived long enough to accomplish any of that bullshit. The old man’s job lay in dispelling his credulity without damaging his spirit. The old man knew if a spirit can be broken it will be and better now than later, better now here with him than somewhere out there in the world alone.
The old man folded his newspaper censoriously and set it down on the wicker table beside his lawn chair throne. Newspapers didn’t impress him much any more. They didn’t impress him whatsoever. Once they were worth reading and then, no matter how well written or how important the story, they still ended up wrapping the garbage and taking out the coffee grounds while the reader made up his own mind. Words came from the likes of H.L. Mencken and Dorothy Kilgallen, Jimmy Breslen and Mike Royko, Studs Terkel or Daymon Runyon for Christ’s sake, but all went out to the curb with tin cans and glass bottles before everything went to plastic, but now writing itself had gone to plastic. Nobody had the guts, whereas in the days grandpa remembered writers had guts enough to know their writing would wrap the fish guts and they still gave it their best. The Pulitzer Prize meant something. The National Newspaper Award meant something, but not anymore. Now it meant the internet and he didn’t mind putting down and tossing aside a newspaper any time he had the chance or anything they still called a newspaper or magazine but ended up getting smaller and smaller and being nothing but advertising or sports filled with trashy stories about trashy people doing trashy things for more money than they knew how to handle without a dime’s worth of character. Truth had gone out of fashion, so he had strong attitudes about it looking now as he did at his grandson. Hell, you couldn’t find the truth even in a church anymore, so he wanted more and more of it for this child of his heart, as though sending him out into the world with a wholesome meal to nourish him, whether the world had appetite for truth any more or not. The old man reached out across his grandson’s rapt attention and picked up a mild cigar handmade in Nicaragua and beside it a pointed tool he used to poke a hole in the end of the cigar, an iron pin with a pointed tip twisted in the shaft from the ancestry of their family, a tool Leviticus Thorpe used to clean the firing port of his percussion cap pistol, the one he carried with him into Wisconsin territory, according to family tradition. The pistol hung now over the fireplace inside the house and hand’t been fired in more than a century. The old man used the pin that once kept the massive pistol clean to pierce the end of his cigars so he could smoke.
Funny he never thought about the pistol smoking when it fired.
The cigar lit with application of a strike anywhere kitchen match the old man dexterously and surreptitiously struck along the bottom of the table that his wife would incredulously scold him for doing if she ever caught him striking a match on a table and by the way the table held a shot glass of his favorite whiskey which his wife had abandoned trying to reform him from drinking so early in the afternoon years ago.
Just a shot.
He drank one hundred and one proof bourbon he loved because he once saw a wild turkey walk across his yard and named the bird Beatrice. He fed her stale bread for years, a story he’d told the boy many times which the boy always pretended he never heard before.
“People write lots of things,” the grandfather said. “They don’t always write what they believe. What do you believe?”
The way the boy held the paper, the way he looked down without looking at his grandfather let the grandfather know they both knew the answer. They just needed to agree on it in silence for a moment.
“Do you believe what you wrote?” the old man persisted. “Do you believe that story, or did you just write it down because you thought that’s what somebody else wanted you to write? Tell me the truth.”
“No,” said the boy.
“No I don’t believe the story. I wrote it, but I don’t believe it.”
As ash tray adorned the table with the lead crystal shot glass of whiskey, an ash tray made f glazed porcelain depicting a naked woman, a triumph of les beaux arts, a woman on her back with her legs up in the air. The grandfather rested his burning cigar on the ash tray in a place designed for that repose while the boy wished for the thousandth time he could take up smoking and someday take possession of both the habit and the ash tray.
“Let me see that thing,” the grandfather said. He reached for the paper.
The boy gave it without ever wanting it back.
The grandfather set his tortoise shell reading glasses a little lower on his nose and therefore looked a little further down his nose at the now heavily adjudicated story surrendered by his grandson. He would not be cruel, but he had no intention of letting his namesake off the generational hook.
The boy waited none too eagerly for his comeuppance, a word he could not spell.
“You say here,” the sage began, “in 1825 a man named Henry S. Baird and his wife rode in a boat with Joseph Rolette and another man from Fort Howard to Mackinac and they put into a bay right here about where we’re sitting. I’m going to read exactly what you wrote.”
“The boats started racing each other toward shore. One of the crew began throwing eggs at the other boat just for fun. The men threw eggs at each other until they ran out of eggs. That’s why they named the place Egg Harbor.”
The old man gazed at his grandson and shook his head.
Off came the reading glasses. He picked up the cigar from between the glazed legs of the flawless ceramic woman and took another pull. He blew smoke onto the paper with a symbolism the boy would understand only with time but dimly comprehended now.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said the old man.
“I know,” admitted the boy.
“Do you know why?”
The boy shook his head in contrition and said, “It just doesn’t.”
“It just doesn’t what?”
“It doesn’t sound right,” said the boy.
“Now you’re talking,” said the grandfather. “Explain to me. What doesn’t sound right?”
“None of it,” said the boy. “Men don’t do things like that.”
The old man smiled. The boy was growing fast and remained silent.
“Do you want help?” asked the grandfather.
“OK,” said the old man. “Have a seat.”
The young scholar pulled up the other wicker chair. He wanted to be closer to the supine lady, the cigar, the whiskey, his grandfather and, of course, the end of this lecture.
“You remember the time you and I and your father rowed out into the middle of the harbor, the time our motor quit?”
The kid nodded.
“Dad said some pretty bad words.”
“He sure as hell did. What did we do?”
“We rowed back.”
“We sure as hell did. How far?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a mile you said.”
“That’s right. We rowed back a mile, a good long mile. How long did it take us?”
“A long time.”
“How many miles do you think those men rowed back then in those days in those big wooden boats or canoes or whatever you want to call them, those heavy boats made of hollowed tree trunks or rough cut lumber an inch thick?”
“Even if they made their boats out of strips of wood and birch bark, they still loaded them with all the supplies they could carry to survive in the wilderness and those boats weighted even more after those big men got on board besides their equipment. There were eight or ten men in each canoe. You think at the end of a long day rowing or paddling from dawn to dusk they felt like racing?”
“I’m not saying they absolutely didn’t or they couldn’t, but I am saying it’s not too damn likely, if you’ll pardon the French. Men are likely to do anything, mostly for money, sometimes for love, but we need to be reasonable. These men were tough. They lived in a brutal, savage world, a world of survival, a world ready to kill you if you made a single mistake and these men knew it. Racing is fun. People do it for fun. You think those men had time for fun? They had time for nothing but work and more work, eating and sleeping, especially at the end of a day that began at dawn with night coming on. That’s when enemies and animals have the advantage.
“Row for your life,” is the expression the boy heard his grandfather use many times. The boy repeated it now.
“Exactly,” said his grandfather. “Row for your life, not row for a bunch of damn eggs.”
“I guess so,” said the boy.
“I know so,” said his grandfather, “and so do you if you’ll admit it. That’s one of the reasons the story doesn’t sound right. It sounds stupid, but you’re not stupid. You’re smart. You get that from your mother, not my side of the family. Now, what else is wrong with it?”
“Isn’t that enough?” asked the boy. He figured he’d had his dose of higher education.
“No. We might as well tear it to shreds,” his grandfather said.
The boy took the paper from his grandfather and looked at it as though his eyes would burn a hole.
“Here’s what you wrote,” said his grandfather taking possession again.
“The men threw eggs at each other until they ran out of eggs.”
He took off his glasses because he’d put them on again.
“What’s an egg?” he asked the boy.
“No, now I’m asking you. What’s an egg? Tell me.”
“All right. It’s a chicken that hasn’t been born yet.”
“What’s a chicken?”
The boy doubted the old man’s sanity for a moment, doubted his grandfather’s love for a poor weakling scholar. They told him some thing happened to old men, but then light dawned.
“It’s food,” said the boy.
“Bright as a light bulb,” said his grandfather. “Does your mother let you waste food?”
“She doesn’t let me waste food either. Food is scarce sometimes and always sacred. It’s worth money all the time and back in those days, same as now except now people don’t pay it any respect. Food is life. If you don’t eat you die.”
“Those men wouldn’t waste food,” the boy said and his grandfather interrupted with ardor.
“You think those men in those boats in the middle of this wilderness two hundred years ago went to a grocery store and bought food every time they got hungry?”
“Did they open a tourist guide and go to a restaurant?”
“What then? What do you think? Really think about it.”
The boy took a deep breath and looked around at his surroundings. He felt it. He saw the scene as it would have existed so long ago and suddenly he loved his grandfather all the more for giving him this opportunity, demanding he exercise the courage to see it for himself. He launched out with all his might the same way they did so long ago, now a young boy with the imagination to go voyaging on the road to discovery of facts when all they had given him was myth and legend.
“If an egg is food and it is then men wouldn’t waste food by throwing it at one another before they got to shore and knew for sure they could find more food and they wouldn’t waste food anyway, because if they did and they couldn’t find any more they would starve to death and it would be their own fault. It would be doubly their own fault because they had already wasted what they needed to survive when they had it in their hands.”
“Well done,” said the old man who had known real hunger three times during his life, once during the Depression, once during the War and once when he couldn’t find job. “What are you going to do with the paper?”
“It’s due tomorrow,” said the boy.
“You won’t get any sympathy from me,” his grandfather said. “You should have had that darn thing written a week ago. There’s pencils and paper inside on the dining room table. You sit right down there now and write that report all over again.”
“Do you know how they really named Egg Harbor?” asked the boy.
“I sure do.”
“Some joker found a nest of duck eggs on the shore and called it Egg Harbor. That’s how it happened and that’s how things get done. That’s how men do them, short and simple.”
“Do you know the name of the man who named Egg Harbor?”
“No,” said his grandfather. “It doesn’t matter. Make one up.”
“The doctor will be with you in a moment. Please take a seat.”
He did so. He knew how to wait. He’d been waiting all his life. He noticed the waiting room. He’d been noticing all his life and wondered why all waiting rooms looked the same. No matter how stylish or ornamented, no matter how much taste the establishment manifest in paintings or potted plants or magazines placed on racks or tables, they all looked the same. Something didn’t matter. That something, he knew, happened to be himself.
“You can go in now,” the receptionist said. She had a small button below the level of the counter where she st behind a set of sliding glass windows of tempered glass. The button would alert the doctor of any problems in the waiting room and a closed circuit camera would record the disturbance. He didn’t know that. They wouldn’t tell him. He didn’t need to know.
“We have your address as,” the receptionist said as he stood and she recited the address which he confirmed as correct as he walked toward the door to the doctor’s office which he would open and go through, though he didn’t know why the receptionist would need to confirm his address. He’d been coming to see this doctor for months and nothing had changed. He didn’t need to know why she asked. He liked old movies about men making decisions and risking their lives for right and truth and justice, but he had never risked his life for anything, except getting out on the freeway every day, but he preferred and usually drove the surface streets, although it took much longer. Better be safe than sorry. He loved that phrase. He probably loved it more than our father who art in heaven. He sat down in front of the doctor’s desk. The doctor stood up from his desk the size of Texas and came around the desk and sat in a chair nearby. The doctor had a much bigger and more comfortable chair than his patients, about the size of New Hampshire. Patients didn’t consciously know and would probably never realize, but this size thing exerted a subtle and subconscious message of dominance and authority the doctor enjoyed in his own mind over his patients, to say nothing of the dominance and authority he exerted over his receptionist when he had no patients for the next hour. Who would question a receptionist coming out of the doctor’s office anyway and who would see anything amiss or in the slightest way disarrayed since the doctor had a lavatory complete with mirror off to one of his office and the receptionist could step in there to freshen up a bit before she stepped out to welcome the next contestant to their wonderful world of psychiatric fantasy. It didn’t make much sense if you thought about it, but nobody thought about it and if anyone did think about it they discarded their own thoughts and paid the doctor extraordinary sums of money to provide them with thoughts of a different nature that would be his own nature to replace their thoughts so they could feel more comfortable with his thoughts than they thought about their own thoughts and of course they didn’t pay at all. Insurance companies paid and medications came with the coverage. He wouldn’t accept any uninsured patients. He also gave out free samples provided by pharmaceutical companies which supplied his practice. Samples seemed to help like free first doses on a playground and if they didn’t help then other medications could be used, so many in rotation or multiple combinations the patient would never get through all the available drugs to make the problem go away, not really, just hide far enough back in the dungeon of therapeutic incarceration the truth which became less and less relevant and would never be found.
“Where shall we begin today?” asked the doctor after he had taken his position and now they both sat in an office made opulent and secure for the doctor’s benefit and to make sure he kept a Walther PPK .320 caliber in the top desk drawer because he loved novels by Ian Fleming about James Bond and read them with a gun just like the one carried by James except the doctor used his as an admittedly thick bookmark when someone with an appointment like this poor schmuck interrupted his fantasies. The doctor had it all. He had pictures of jockeys in red silks on broad mares lopping toward the paddock at Pamlico in expensive frames. He made a lot of money. He didn’t bet on the horses. That would be foolish. He only liked to think of himself as a jockey when he mounted the receptionist. That wasn’t foolish. That was fun. He liked to think of himself as James Bond and James Bond got all the women, spying on other people with problems and with no problems of his own he couldn’t handle he could handle everyone else’s problems and if he couldn’t, well, he always had the gun.
“I don’t know. I just can’t get over it. We walked about it last time. I didn’t know if I should even bring it up, but I haven’t been able to sleep and even with those pills you gave me I keep having the same dream. I see her with him. I see what they’re doing. It makes me feel like I want to die. I tried to rationalize, you know, like we’ve talked about and make some sense out of it, but it doesn’t work. I did something I need to tell you about. It happened, let’s see, it happened last Wednesday. I remember I had my appointment here with you and then I went home and I couldn’t stop crying, but I held myself together after she got home. I didn’t ask her where she’d been. I don’t like to do that. She doesn’t like me to ask so I don’t and the next day I went into the basement and started looking at some old family photographs. I don’t know what made me do it. I just thought maybe I could gt some proof, but I don’t really want proof. You understand? I want to be wrong, but I don’t think I’m wrong. I think I’m right, but if I’m right then everything is wrong. Can I just tell you what happened?I went into the basement and I found some photographs of our daughter, you know, baby pictures and I looked and used to be so proud of those pictures, but now all I see is that blonde hair and those blues eyes and I think, “I don’t have blonde hair. I don’t have blue eyes. Her mother’s hair is black and her eyes are brown. So where did the blonde hair and the blue eyes come from? And I know, because I see them in the dream and there are other things, like phone calls that end when I come into the room and walls I lean up against the listen through like that party a few months back when she went into the room with him to get her coat. We were at their house and I listened. I put my ear up against the wall and I heard her say Darling just as clear as a bell. I couldn’t believe it, but I knew. I think my daughter is his daughter, but I don’t care because I love her. I love both of them. I don’t think my daughter knows, or I mean I don’t think my wife told my daughter she isn’t mine, but she can’t be mine, because she doesn’t look anything like me and she doesn’t act like me and sometimes when we’re together I don’t even feel like she knows me or wants to know me and it makes me feel so small. I can’t stand it. I feel like I’m nothing. I feel like I want to die.”
“Are you suicidal?” asked the doctor.
“Are you having thoughts about suicide? Do you see yourself committing suicide? Do you have a plan?”
“I must ell you that if you inform me you are contemplating suicide, I am obligated by law to inform authorities that you may constitute a risk to yourself or others.”
“I’m the one feeling like this,” he said. “I’m the one who doesn’t know who I am or what I’m doing. I’m coming here to talk to you about it. That’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? I’m coming here and I’m paying you and I’m waiting outside to see you like a good little boy and I’m taking your pills and you’re giving me pills and I’m taking them and I’m doing everything everyone is telling me to do and I’m telling you I feel like nothing, I’m telling you I feel like I want to die and you take me and you push me up against the same invisible wall I’m facing and all I want to do is feel better and now you tell me I might have to explain all this in a jail cell or a padded cell or a strait jacket or take more of your goddamn pills when all the time my wife is fucking the living daylights out of the man who should be helping us, our own goddamn pastor and I can’t prove it but I think its true and my daughter I mean his daughter is standing there looking at me the spitting image of the son-of-a-bitch and now you have me defending myself against even the thought I’m having and how I’d be better off dead than alive? What kind of a doctor are you? What kind of a son-of-a-bitch mother fucking doctor are you? I’d be better off without you. I’ll bet you get it on with that Valentine ass receptionist of yours. Am I right? Am I right you mother fucking cock sucking doctor?
The doctor had a button of his own, this one located under the left arm of his comfortable chair.
He pushed it.
“Here, look at this. It says here we can take a walking tour of Egg Harbor.”
“Who the fuck wants to take a walking tour of Egg Harbor?” her husband said.
“I’m just saying we could take a walking tour of Egg Harbor and it might be fun. It says here we can take a walking tour of Egg Harbor.”
“You want to take a fucking walking tour of Egg Harbor? Go ahead and take a fucking walking tour of Egg Harbor. Go ahead. See if I care, but I’m not going to take no fucking tour of walking Egg Harbor. I can tell you that. I’m not taking another fucking step.”
“You don’t have to get nasty about it,” she said.
He didn’t want to do what his wife suggested, no matter how politely she suggested it. She’d been suggesting politely for years, lots of years, lots and lots of polite suggestions. He didn’t want to do anything. He didn’t love his wife. He didn’t love anyone, except himself.
“You don’t have to get nasty about it,” is what she said.
She’d been saying it for years, all the time for years.
He got nasty about it. That’s the only way he knew about anything.
“I’m not getting nasty about it,” he said.
That’s the only thing he did with enthusiasm.
“Let me tell you something,” he intoned the last word, always the fucking last word.
“Here it comes,” she thought.
He’d been repeating the same riot act for years, basically how important he was and how unimportant she was, the way god might compare himself to a rodent if god were a tight fisted son of a bitch or a master to a slave if god were a monster with a whip and a noose. That’s what he wanted. That’s how he wanted to be feared. He always thought Abraham Lincoln had a lot to learn. Everything this pompous, arrogant, bigoted slob thought or said always came out the same. He had no mouth, just two ass holes. She knew he didn’t love her. He knew she knew and he didn’t care. He never cred, not even when he asked her to be his wife and she imagined correctly when she tried to remember through all the haze and fog of pain she didn’t care either when she agreed and said yes. It must have been the money. The time had long gone if it ever existed for apologies or reconciliation.
Neither knew the meaning of either word.
These two would die adversaries, combatants drenched with each other’s blood, fighting to the death.
It didn’t matter.
They didn’t want to live.
They wanted only to fight.
Know anyone like them?
“Let me tell you something,” he repeated.
“Here we go again,” she said out loud.
“That’s right,” he said, “here we fucking go again. Here we come up here on our fucking vacation. Every year it’s the same goddamn thing. What you see in this place I don’t know. I’m telling you, I don’t fucking know. We drive up here all day it takes us. I put gas in the car. I don’t complain. It takes me time off work. It takes all the time I’ve got coming and I’ve got my goddamn boss and his goddamn son the jerk off breathing down my neck and we fucking go off to fucking Door County and take up residence here in fucking Egg Harbor in these fucking overpriced digs every goddamn year. I’m sick of it. Have I told you I’m sick of it?”
“You’ve told me,” she interrupted.
“I’m sick of it,” he rammed on. “So many goddamn tourist traps you can’t count them and so many goddamn stuck up Midwest New Englanders it makes you sick. Norwegian this and Danish that and Scandinavian everything and all they want is your fucking money so they can all close up shop and go someplace for the winter where they don’t have to make believe they give a good goddamn about any of this Norwegian Scandinavian nostalgia crap. It makes me sick. You know where I’d rather go? I’d rather go to Las Vegas. That’s where I’d rather go. I’d drop a bundle in Las Vegas and enjoy every minute of it. You know what they got in Las Vegas?”
“I know,” she said.
Believe you me, she knew.
“They got showgirls,” he informed her. “You know what they got here?”
“Bimbo Tyrolean waitresses and goats on the goddamn roof eating grass so people can take pictures of the goddamn goats on the roof eating grass. Give me a fucking break.”
“You don’t have to get so nasty about it,” she repeated like a parrot. It had become her line, her litany as if confessing her own sins. This time though she did feel herself hurt, not so much because of his cursing. He did that all the time. He mentioned showgirls too. There were a lot of showgirls and she couldn’t turn on the television without some showy girl doing some show and she knew for Christ’s sake she lost her own figure a long time ago, about the time they started coming to Egg Harbor, but that’s why it hurt. She felt sad because she was growing older and she thought he might be growing older too, but now that she looked like an egg, all he did was become more hard boiled. If he said two more nasty words about anything she felt like she could belt him, but of course she hoped somewhere deep down he’d throw the first punch and if he dared do it even once she’d take pictures of the bruise so quick it would make his head swim and file for divorce and get so much money from him he’d die of a heart attack because she hit him in the one place he loved and sat on with his fat ass everywhere but the toilet, his fat wallet. If she took all the shit she had his money anyway, at lest enough to go shopping pretty much every time she wanted and come to Door County once a year, so why go through all the court malarkey and end up with the same?
He knew he’d gone maybe a little overboard with the showgirl crack at least this time so he laid off. He considered if he made her too upset she could back the car into a post and claim she’d been rear ended. He liked the car. He just bought it.
He paid cash.
“We drive all the way up here through cow turd and cheese turd country,” he droned on.
He couldn’t help it.
“What do we get?”
“Cheese curd,” she corrected him.
He ignored her correction.
“Egg Harbor on a stick and what do we find when we get here?”
“The same fucking thing we found last year and now Jesus Christ you want me to take a fucking walking tour.”
It had come to an end, but he simply didn’t know how to stop, like a pumpkin rolling down hill.
She’d let him go, the big ugly jerk.
Why try to stop him?
Maybe he’d split when he hit bottom.
He relieved his distress by resting his big ugly ass under his big ugly gut on a nice comfortable recliner in their luxury suite overlooking the water and cursed the day his mother gave birth as he sipped a drink made of fifteen year old Scotch to sooth his rattled nerves mixed with imported ginger ale and a maraschino cherry amid ice from purified water in a cut glass tumbler with reservations for him and his wife to eat their fill of prime rib and lobster at a supper club half way to Ephraim later that night.
She allowed herself hatred for him and everything he stood for this time for the ten thousandth eight hundred and fifty sixth time, as if she kept track in a book.
She said nothing more. It had all been said. It didn’t matter. He could make her miserable so many ways she didn’t care. She wanted him to die miserably slow enough sometime so she could tell him what she thought of him and he couldn’t do anything about it the way she couldn’t do anything about it now. She’d have he money plus a life insurance payout, unless he made arrangements to exclude her from his will. Could he do that? Could he leave her as miserable after death as she felt now actually embarrassed to tell people how long they’d been married? It devolved into a grueling marathon, a gladiatorial contest with nothing to do but fight in public and pretend to keep from being sick in private, really sick and throwing up.
He ignored her in favor of his drink and television.
She felt glad.
He had the news on.
They both missed seeing the magnificent orgy sunset fucking the sky with flamboyant iridescent color and stripping he earth of detail as light faded into glorious and romantic night if you happened to be naked and emotionally vulnerable to one another as human beings which they actually regarded now as a horrid concept beyond their comprehension. That’s why they still went to church together.
They hated the very thought of life.
They came here as descendants of people who had lived and died to make a simple living and tame the land before they gave up what little life they had into wooden coffins and cold graves difficult to dig in stony ground.
These two didn’t know so much as the names of their ancestors.
People dead like them didn’t need to know.
The man used the television to preclude and alleviate any further conversation with his wife. She disappeared into the room He held the remote in his free hand, the hand that didn’t hold the drink he made extra strong because he’d driven all day in an air conditioned luxury sedan and deserved it. His back hurt despite infinitely adjustable heated sets in the car. He’d buy another car next year. It couldn’t come soon enough. Hew’d buy a different make and model. He smoked cigars, but he couldn’t smoke in the room. They wouldn’t let him. It wasn’t allowed, so that made him irritable, but the drink helped, so he’d wait impatiently and compensate for loss of irritability. The news didn’t help. At least all those horrible things that happened to him. He’d smoke out in the parking lot or down on the beach like a schoolboy hiding a pleasure. He attributed his inability to smoke where he wanted, especially in a room he paid good money to occupy as somehow vaguely due to the decline of America. His contempt for his wife fed his racism, his venality and his addiction to pornography. He resented anything that presumed upon him even momentarily to interrupt self-indulgence. He rationalized his conspicuous consumption as good for the economy and himself as a benefactor rather than glutton. The very thought of sex with his wife made him absolutely Benedictine in his attitude toward youth, health and love, as if torturing non-believers or burning heretics alive might be fun.
He wore a diamond ring inscribed with emblems of a quasi-religious order t which he belonged, a secret society comprised of men exactly like himself of whom there existed a surprising number.
He wore no other ring including no wedding ring.
The wagon wheels belonged to an old wooden wagon that belonged to a family, a family hat owned and operated an orchard near Milwaukee. They raised apples. They called their orchard by the family name. They left the farm and the orchards when the old folks got too old to work those twelve and fourteen hour days and no one wanted to operate the land like that any more or didn’t think they could make enough money, so they sold off most of what they owned, but one especially beautiful piece they offered to the University of Wisconsin as the last piece of virgin timber and prairie known in Milwaukee County.
The University turned them down.
No one wanted the prize, the ground littered with trillium and verdant grass, alive with the sound of birds in spring and summer and the crusted step of rabbits in the snow and nothing more obtrusive than the ever watchful gaze of hawks looking for their life, so the land got sold, the picturesque stone barn over a century old got demolished and bulldozers reshaped the natural pond into a predicable lozenge ringed by a standard construction to maximize profit from minimum cost per square foot complex of replicated townhouses.
Then they built a volume discount store to service as in screw the residents who would come to lead their pedestrian lives and paved three acres for a parking lot for their ll too perishable cars. In the now man made pond they installed a pipe and pumping system and water they tinted a deeper blue jetting up into the air for no reason, to make a fashionable, to make a statement, to make it attractive. Brokenhearted members of the family who despaired of the sale and sought nothing but the past to somehow endure in a remorseless future couldn’t bring themselves to drive by the location for a look for years.
There was nothing to see.
The wagon came to Madison and fell to pieces in the back yard where it came to rest, no longer a means of carrying bushels of apples, no longer anything but a statement of respect and due regard and a display for pots of geraniums. The wheels disintegrated into a few wooden spokes rusted rims and broken out hubs with bands of iron stubbornly in place, until a man decided to fix the wagon for personal reasons, not really fix but restore and not so much restore as completely reconstruct this old piece of wooden shit called a wagon nobody wanted any more.
The wheels took shape under the hands of an Amish wheelwright who fashioned the wood into rims and spokes and hubs and worked diligently for almost two years in his spare time as father, farmer and faithful primitive to complete their construction. When they rolled back into the yard to accompany the wagon yet to be rebuilt, the world rolled with them, rolled back to the incredible world of no doctors, no dentist, no banks, no money to spend and barrels, buckets and utensils handmade of wood, no sound machines or video means through the air or over wires, amplified now by creaking leather and harness fittings, brass polished by wear and iron hand wrought or fashioned in great mills where men lived and died as though already consigned to purgatory with no insurance, no benefits, no recourse but to pit their muscles against crucibles full of molten metal in a haze of sparks and acrid fumes. Wagons like this carried them to a new life and many of them to an early death, war of a sort defined by endless work in exchange for land and hope, something of value and a chance to be free. The wagon is waiting now to proclaim once again what it means great God in heaven yes what it means Hallelujah to be free, to be strong in the face of adversity and so help me God to be free.
There is a great bell in the state capitol building of Wisconsin in the city of Madison, a gift from the people of France, a project of great mining and foundry companies with the intention the bell would be sent to every major community in the state so people could see an exact replica of the Liberty Bell which proclaimed the birth of this nation. The bell sits upon a pedestal. It is immovable. It is static. It has been silenced and people look at it in silence. There is no one to come forward with a hammer and say, ‘Let Freedom Ring’ and give the bell the resounding strike it deserves loud enough for the peal to be heard in every corner of the capitol building or take the bell out of the capitol altogether out among the people where it belongs under the sun and the rain, the storm and the daylight bright and all the people hear it ring by ringing it themselves. Let everyone take a crack at the Liberty Bell until it falls to pieces and they take the pieces and cast another one if anyone remembers how. There is no one but the one God has chosen to make Freedom a world alive again and once again Free. There is no one but the one He has chosen to pull the sword out of the stone called Liberty and make it ring like a bell.
“Hey you, nigger, come over here,” the man said.
So he did.
They laughed at him, not so much when he came up close, but they laughed at him as he came. They laughed at a big man, bigger than all of them put together, a man with black skin and nappy hair. Sort of American Indian if you came to think about it. What is it with some men? They make fun or kill others who get there before they did and they make fun or enslave others who came after against their own free will. What is it about some men that make them think they’re better than other men? Don’t they know how bad they stink, how bad they mess up the place? Don’t they realize how pathetic their skins really are and how easily their skins can be used for something more useful than covering their guts?
“Call me, boss?”
“I sure as hell did, nigger. What you think you’re doing over there?”
“I’m working, sure I’m working.”
“Don’t look like work to me, boy. Why don’t you find somewhere else to shuffle along while us men here try to do something beside watch your sorry ass to make sure you don’t up and try to steal something?”
They had been sitting on hay bales and the black mammoth had been lifting bales to his shoulder and carrying them to a wagon some distance away. The man who considered himself the friend of the black man he hired to work side by side with him had gone away for a time, maybe gone to buy a drink and find out what went on in town at the bar with the other men or get something at the hardware store and left his loyal and trusted companion to load hay in the presence of other men who turned out to be nothing but scum and bullies. It happened and in the days before Civil Rights as if they needed to delineated or explained further in the land of the free and the home of the brave where all men are created equal, a black man or any other minority had no recourse except to take it, like the Indians took it, like anyone took it who came under the gaze of those vile enough to call themselves citizens when denizens defined them more accurately, denizens and purveyors of hell in democracy.
“Don’t pay ’em no mind,” he said to himself, bigger than all of them put together. “Don’t pay ’em no mind. They can’t touch ma soul. They can’t touch ma very soul. No sir, no man can touch ma very soul. I stands free inside. I stands free and I be free to walk free. I be free to do no harm. I be free to lift here bale though it were nothing. I don’t know. They tell me eighty, maybe hundred pound or more for certain more if it be wet, but what I care? God made me this strong. God made this here way. I be free and I do am strong. I am free yes sir to call no man God but God who made me. Hallelujah, I am free Jesus Christ done make me free. I am my own man and I am His man and I am good enough to be the man God made me to be. Amen.”
His black skin tensed and rippled in the heat. Men and women aside who caught a glimpse saw streams of sweat rolling down his face onto his chest staining his shirt with holes in it from usage and no money for new shirts at a time when nobody had much money and nobody who had money would work as hard as this black man to feed himself and his family which included his mother and father and grandmother. Granny they called her.
“Yes sir, I be a free man.”
He said nothing to Hiram his friend when his friend Hiram came back from errands down the street. He didn’t tell him about the humiliation or the assault which would have occurred if he as a black man had committed the slightest indiscretion toward those who deserved to lie dead in the street by his hand. The angel of death passed over their heads not as testimony of their own worthiness to be saved, but in evidence of an integrity they could not comprehend.
A flock of Canadian geese on their way north wavered and slid in echelon way up high.
The black man looked up and saw them.
He removed his cap and just stood there looking up.
The crowd went about its business, swirling about oblivious to the drama they avoided seeing and the one they might have seen, a black man that might have been hung or beaten in the street until dead, now looking up to heaven.
“You boys have a right fine day up there for me will you?” he asked. “I commend you all to the Man who made you up there and me down here. Go on to glory now and I’ll be up there with you by and by. Yes sir. I’ll be up there by and by. Wait a minute,” he said as though he thought it out and asked God a question. “Do I get to look down on them when I’m way up there beyond the blue the way I get to look up at them standing down here as I do? I hope so, Lord. I hope so. I’d surely miss them, not getting ever to get to see them ever again. I’d miss them sure.”
“How’d it go, Tom?” the white man asked when he returned.
“Jus’ fine,” said his black friend. “Jus’ fine, Boss.”
“Let’s go then,” said the white man.
“None too soon for me,” said Tom.
He didn’t elaborate.
They rode out of town together on dry land.
The waters closed after them.
An ax and a man are a good combination if the ax is sharp and the man knows how to use it.
An ax takes a certain knowledge.
You have to stand a certain distance from the tree, unless you’re dressing timber on the ground. Then you stand at a right angle to the tree or astride the fallen log. Otherwise you need to know where to cut precisely, how deep and how wide so the tree will fall where you want. That depends on the orientation of the tree to other trees and the perpendicular. It all enters the equation of how the tree will fall, a further function of the main cut then the back cut and the depth to which these two are cut into the trunk of the tree and how high off the ground to make the cut which is a function of the man with the ax as he swings parallel to the ground. So he walks around the tree several times and takes the measure of surrounding trees and brush and branches, anything that could impede his swing or grab at the ax and deflect it at the worst possible moment to create accident or injury or just plain wasted effort.
The way must be clear.
So if the day is hot, which it often is in the forest despite abundant shade, the man takes off his shirt because as he works he will sweat. There is no sense getting his shirt soiled.
He will take a few swings before he gets warmed up, but the shirt comes off because he’s a reasonable man and shirts are expensive. He hangs it from one of those branches he won’t hit when he swings his ax. The ax bites into wood clean and deep. He doesn’t hit the tree edge on. He hits it an an angle up or down. The next stroke is taken at a precise opposing angle so a chunk of wood is established and detached with every swing and strike, one chunk followed by another and another and another flying away in all directions as he establishes an ever deepening notch in the wood. The chips go flying and the man can step subtly to one side or the other to expand the width and depth of the cut as his ax an extension of himself makes its way deeper and deeper through the rings of previous years, back in the time of living growth.
A man like this makes good children in somewhat the same way, by the same way.
The man thinks his thoughts. He does not feel spiritually attached to the tree. He is not that kind of man. He regards the tree as a challenge, a practical obstruction or obstacle, the thing he must cut down for whatever purpose usually money and something happens inside the man no matter what the purpose while he cuts down the tree, because trees are not easy to cut down with an ax. There must come a time when the tree seems like it will win, like it will stand forever despite the man and the ax. Maybe the man feels this and takes a break from cutting the tree to have a drink of water. He may rest a few moments. He may have lunch or gain the company of someone else to wield the ax and help him in the task, but otherwise he works alone against the tree and the tree stands alone against the man. The tree has stood for perhaps over one hundred and fifty years. The man has not stood so long, nor will he stand as long if the tree is left standing. The tree has been alive for seven of his life times. It is nothing but wood to him, but suddenly being flesh and blood is very important to him for he is a man of flesh and blood and now he has the rhythm. Warm blood flows through his veins, through his body, slightly less than one hundred degrees which is almost hot. He is the tree of God, a man with an ax among trees. He feels an echo of what it must feel to be like God, not the creative part, just the destructive god, but he doesn’t trust any feeling that takes him into a forest he cannot see, so he goes back to the simple rule of looking where the ax must bite the tree and he looks nowhere else, nor will he allow his thoughts to roam, because he has seen the remains of men who didn’t keep their mind on their business and he stands amid the elements of light and darkness in a forest and he knows they exist within himself and the men who work in forests cutting their way through life. He knows and most times he prefers to work alone. He knows solitude as a friend because there exists within this man a hunger so great, an emptiness so vast that to chop down one tree in so great a forest is nothing, less than nothing. If he could chop all trees down to make the hunger, the fire of disappointment and dislocation in his soul go away he would chop all of them down and never regret a single fallen giant, for there are things he has seen in life, the humiliation of man to man and man to woman, the bestiality of men in the face of justice or love or fear of God that makes the ax keen and true to part the soft fiber of the tree as though it were flesh of some stubborn monster.
He sets his jaw. His muscles grow more tense even to breaking but they refuse to break. His feet now take a grip in the loam and underbrush as though they themselves had roots. The handle of the ax seems to bend, but he knows this is an illusion. It gives him pleasure. He knows the impact and recoil are all absorbed in his iron frame, the sinews and ligaments of his rock hard soul.
Yet he can be moved.
This man can be made to bend.
A voice calls to him, a woman’s voice. She brings him something good to eat in the forest where he works. He stops the ax in mid-swing and harkens to the woman, because the woman calls his name.
“Abe,” she calls, “Where are you, Abe Lincoln?”
“Here,” he replies in his unmistakable voice among the stately columns of his times in the forest of men like soldiers in the army of the forest so many destined to fall beneath his ax in the hands of his indomitable strength.
“Here I am.”
There is a monster. It has no name. It has no sex. It has no soul. It has no reason for doing what it does. It wants only more. It wants always more. It lives. As long as it lives it wants more and what is bed about the monster is it never gives up and it never gives. It only takes. It cannot create. It cannot wait. It does not share or offer. It only grabs and fixes itself on the provider of what it needs and consumes all it wants until it finishes to begin again and take again and rend and tear and leave half finished what it has taken. It only wants to find itself immersed in what it wants and it can never have enough. That monster will take anything from anyone anytime and never pause to consider or appreciate what it has taken. That would be against its nature. The monster never sleeps. It cries with a voice so loud no one can block out the sound or the monster resorts to violence and silence and no one can bear the shock or the absolute solitude of its presence. The monster knows its adversaries and its victims and makes no distinction between the two. It is endowed with superhuman intelligence and power beyond the mortal, but when it strikes it is as the swift rapier to the heart and never the overt act of brutality others might expect. The monster is cool and collected and solemn and patient until the moment of its truth and then all hell is witness to its efficacy and consummate skill. The monster is machine like in its efficiency and relentless in its ways. It believes only in the base though it pretends to be beautiful and seduces with humility, only to draw near enough to dominate and assassinate the morals and integrity of those it plans to drain of all will, all personal identity and life. The monster is systematic and precise. It never risks its own when it can consume those of others. It is voracious and cloaked in secrecy and invisible to the naked eye. Only the discerning can know its true nature, but they are too late. Their warnings go unheeded. The monster eats them first and then the others. The monster eats everything and burps without shame or apology.
The monster is freedom with conscience.
The monster is liberty and the pursuit of happiness without God.
Insatiable maw, voracious beast, they are what we are without the diversion of wealth and plenty. We are what they are at leisure. What will happen when we run out of what we want or think we need? What will happen as the land becomes crowded and the whispers of deprivation become louder and louder? As the rich become noble by design or title and all others find themselves scratching for the remains of what they once thought due all men? What will happen as he cupboards yield nothing but shelf space and the rules of warfare no longer occupy the silver screen but now become the evening news and no longer out there somewhere safely on the other side of the globe, but a few short blocks away, the way of all nations, the way of all those who once thought themselves safe within their walls? What will happen when the land of the brave and the home of the free realizes it has become a department store and the world has no money and doesn’t understand the language, but realizes here is where they will find what they have been looking to own and they outnumber us and come from where we came from, except now the time has come and they have no intention of learning another language, but teaching us their own? What will happen then?
Insatiable maw, voracious beast we have taught the world how to take what it wants. We have taken from the land. We have taken from people we found upon the land and we have taken it from people who came here with nothing and found themselves as nothing in the presence of people who knew how to use them. What will we do if those who never ventured forth realize we are no different than anyone who ever lived and we have rested from our labors, assuming the world to be no longer hungry or starving and willing to take what it must have to survive? What will happen if they look and see what we have done and learn to do it to us as we have done it unto them, the Africans who grew our crops, the Chinamen who built our railroads, the immigrants of all denominations who struggled to watch their hopes dashed by the debonair shysters and glib politicians with a wink and a sly nod after adjournment? What will we do if they listen to us say it isn’t God but evolution and impose the logical antonym which is survival of the fittest and they are fit, oh they are fittest now, more fit than we? What will we do?
Insatiable maw, voracious beast we will be as the dinosaurs became, huge and ponderous and imposing. The ground shook when they walked. The air beat into vortices with their wings and the night and day resounded with their cries and suddenly as is measured in the history of ages, suddenly all gone because they knew no bounds, knew no restraint, knew no limits and the limit came.
Insatiable maw, voracious beast what can we do but eat or be eaten?
Without humility, without love of something other than ourselves, what can we do?
Don’t give up, America.
Don’t give up.
Don’t let them tell you it isn’t worthwhile. Don’t let them rob you of the confidence to try by telling you it isn’t as pure or fine or noble or heroic as you thought. They haven’t gone through what you’ve gone through. They’re trying to make a name of themselves by denigrating yours. They’re revisionists, but their revisions don’t read as well. They just leave you with a vague sense of indecisiveness. They rob you of your confidence. Don’t let them do it.
Don’t let them tell you the old stories aren’t true or the great stories aren’t great, that the method of transmission is more important than the message transmitted and that media is the message, that what matters is numbers not individuals and everyone has a right to be exactly who they want to be without reference to anyone else which is love without which there is nothing but isolation, chaos and conflict. Don’t let them tear apart the fabric of life for scraps and rags and call it a crazy quilt because they don’t know how to weave.
It’s a good country. It’s a fine nation. Mankind waited a long time to express itself in freedom and happiness and hope. Don’t let them convince you it isn’t, because they don’t know. They’ve taken the very rights and privileges they enjoy and fashioned weapons, like beating pruning hooks and plow shares into swords and spears. They want something. They want you to give it to them for nothing and nothing is exactly what they offer. Don’t let them do it. Don’ you do it. Let them know it takes work and patience and has nothing whatsoever to do with making a name for yourself. It has to do with making a nation for others, others you’ll never know others who will never know what you did to make the world a better place. I can give you a few examples.
The other night on television I watched a program where two items were evaluated and given estimated worth. one a mass produced toy car, the other a collection of hundreds of meticulously hand drawn botanical pictures in watercolor of every variety of wildflower in the state where the artist lived, a quiet, unassuming woman who died a hundred years before the program depicting her work and whose work remained hidden and kept in a trunk in a room in a house until now.
The toy they said would bring one hundred and fifty thousand dollars or more. The pictures were worth a few thousand, so few I could buy them if I wanted if only to rescue them from oblivion.
Don’t give up, America.
Don’t ever give up.
There’s Rhapsody in Blue and hot dogs and relish and mustard and ketchup on a hot day with beer or a soft drink and there are so many beers or soft drinks to choose from you could spend an hour trying to make up your mind. There’s cars and trucks and motorcycles and mopeds and bicycles and wagons and flights of planes and gliders and snowmobiles and skateboards and roller skates and bowling balls and baseballs and softballs and footballs and soccer balls and tennis balls and golf balls and billiard balls and basketballs and all that for fun if you want to have fun and even if you don’t its fun to watch.
Don’t give up, America.
Don’t ever give up.
We’re just getting started. There are nations and peoples so old they have lived twice as long as we have existed in the first quarter of their history and wouldn’t it look funny if the land of the free and the home of the brave winked out after a few setbacks and a few crisis and didn’t know what to do with its own success? Wouldn’t that be funny? Wouldn’t that be a joke on the whole human race and the people who came over on boats with all their possessions in a trunk the size of a foot locker and risked their lives to breath a few gulps of free air after burying one of their children at sea and pulling an abscessed tooth in the between decks with a pair of pliers and vomiting their last meal of salt pork and a biscuit over the side in a storm?
Who cares the beautiful girl from Holland felt a slight fever around her cheeks when she left the boat in New York Harbor and never lived long enough to bear her first child or meet the man who would father it or the GI from New Jersey who tried to make it ashore on June 6, 1944 in Normandy but caught one of the 8,768 rounds expended by the crew of a German machine gun overlooking Utah beach before they died in a flame from the Bangalore torpedo pushed into their pillbox by a master sergeant who wanted to die anyway because his girl told him in a letter he received staging from the London docks for the invasion she’d met a Marine sent home with shrapnel she loved better with a Silver Star to prove it? What about them anyway? Who cares what they did? You can see anything you want on the Internet. You can read anything you want on your phone. You don’t even have to go to the library. You can be anything you want online and if you want pretend your way into another world with drugs. If your doctor won’t prescribe them you can get them somewhere else. It’s all about now. The Greatest Generation didn’t have a clue. They gave their lives for nothing because all they gave their lives to do or save for others has been so altered and amended and re-arranged they wouldn’t recognize it if they came back and quite frankly they wouldn’t if they had the chance because they knew concepts like honor and loyalty and sacrifice and those things don’t matter any more. It’s got a bar code if it’s important and if it’s not who cares?
“Now you try it,” said Sergeant Thrasher as he threw the M-1 carbine back in my face, all 9.5 pounds of it unloaded the receiver cocked open for inspection, “but let me tell you something. They can talk ’till they’re blue in the face about tactics and strategy, but when the first shot goes off its every man for himself. Remember that and remember your buddy. You might just make it home. Otherwise we’ve got a body bag just your size.,” and he added, “this musical instrument invented by Mister John C. Garand is your best friend. Love it, respect it, honor it, cherish it, call it your Mother but do not ever call it a gun in my presence again. Understand?”
Do and I’ll ram it down your throat.”
“Yes sir, clear sir.”
The next day we saw the Marine Corp Silent Drill Team and I got an idea of what he meant. I never went to war. I never killed anyone. I never believed what they told me. How could they be the Greatest Generation if that’s what they believed? They dropped the bomb. They dropped it twice. The world got smaller. Trouble is it never got any better, just smaller and that’s what they call critical mass. I wonder what’s going to happen if we do what uranium does, if we just explode because we can’t take it any more?
Don’t give up, America.
Don’t ever give up.
Remember what it felt like for Thomas Alva Edison to throw the switch and see the filament keep burning. Remember what it felt like for Alexander Graham Bell to shout into the next room, “Mister Watson, come here, I need you,” and Watson came in astonished and said, “I heard you,” and meant he heard Bell through the wire. Remember what it felt like for Wilbur to look up and see Orville sailing away under power and Orville to look down and see Wilbur waving his cap madly and running and trying to shout all at the same time.
“We did it! We did it! We did it!”
All with exclamation points and hurrah after hurrah.
Remember what it meant for Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in the world, to give away every last cent before he died. Remember the tight smile across the lips of Henry Ford when he counted an internal combustion engine on a frame with four wheels, a steering wheel and a gear box and it ran and he realized how he could make more, more than anyone but he could imagine and more money than even he could imagine, but didn’t stop smiling that tight little smile and said, “Things bust and the devil drives”. Remember Eli Whitney and Robert Fulton and William Tecumseh Sherman and Paul Revere and Alvin York and the Unknown Soldier. Remember all the names in all the cemeteries or all the names in one cemetery or just one of the names, your own name as it will appear someday in the list of those born and those who died in the United States of America and don’t give up.
Don’t give up, America.
Don’t ever give up.
The sun is almost up. Light appears in the sky. A new day has begun. Some have never slept, up all night watching the stars and signs in the heavens, lovers, homeless, scientists, cowboys and sentries never closed their eyes, believers in the vigilance it takes to be aware and prepared lest someone use darkness as a cover for chicanery, but they are free to close their eyes now, for we are awake. The world is ready to greet us and we are ready to greet the world. Coffee and a hot shower and all is well. The silence foretells great stories and wonderful thoughts, the amazement of the mind free to roam without restraint or other people’s expectations.
What will freedom mean today? What will God ordain which is impossible for us to ignore or avoid? We are destined it seems for greatness in what we do and what we fail to accomplish, out in the open, obviously superior or inadequate, self-conscious and stumbling over our lines we are just the best damn show in town. We’ve done it all and this new day will see us do even more, this new day is ours. Shell we run and play? Shall we hide and seek? Shall we roll up our sleeves and let out a shout? Shall we sweat in the sun or roll snow balls in the snow? You tell me, but be quick. I’m on my way. It’s a new day. I’m in it. I lived to see it. I’m ready for it. I feel great.
Daylight in the swamp.
Don’t give up, America.
Don’t every give up.
Where did you come from?
You came from the soul of dissatisfaction. No one who ever dreamed about you believed life could not be better. No one who dreamed about you ever woke up crying, “No, no, no, never!” They woke up crying, “Yes, yes, yes, forever!” and did not want the dream to end, but never wanted sleep again if they could but awaken to the dream come true. They wanted what they wanted in their deepest souls and whether they believed in God or not, they wanted to invent God and call it by a name and that name became America. The only true atheists are the ones who do not believe, not in God, but in America, because belief in God takes faith. Look around. The evidence of God is everywhere. Trees and grass and rocks and sky and birds and earth and water and fish and animals of all descriptions, let alone the plants and animals of their kind. That’s all evidence of God. People who say they don’t believe in God are just being obstinate. They don’t matter, but people who don’t believe in America need persuasion. Look around again. Look at the crime and poverty. Look at the corruption and pollution and ignorance and slavery to whatever fashion is going around. Look at the needs and the wants and the desires and the wrecked equipment and the derelict buildings and tell me you don’t believe in America. If you do, I know you don’t believe in fixing anything or inventing anything or working to make anything happen for good and I know you to be the only true definition of an atheist. Then again I will ignore you, but not with the whimsical sympathy I feel for those who say there is no God, but with the hatred and abiding contempt I feel for a sluggard, a slouch, a naysayer and a traitor, because you take all you can take from whatever is left wherever you can find it and you don’t put anything back for anyone else or improve anything for people yet to come. You intend to use it all for yourself and make everything serve your own expectations and appetites and that makes you not only un-American, but a lousy human being. I say to hell with you, because even in hell you might re-arrange the furniture, but you just sit and complain.
Don’t give up, America.
Don’t ever give up.
Remember the pain. Remember all the pain it took to be who you are and don’t let it be for nothing. Remember all the bloody births and agonizing deaths, the millions who lived and died for something as noble as another human being’s well-being or just their own venal comforts. Every saint that ever knelt in church or lit a candle for peace and love and every trollop who ever sat at a bar grinding out a cigarette and asking for another drink for the same peace and love have contributed to what you have today for being an American. Every laborer and every deadbeat, every mother and every whore, every father and every playboy who never had any intention of marrying the girl anyway, they’ve all been there before you and paved the way, the assembly line worker who spent twenty-five years on the line and paid for it with two bad knees, a bad back and feet that hurt so much he can’t wear leather shoes, that guy who raised a son who ended up; in jail for petty larceny and a preference for little girls, all the teachers who retired after faultless careers before countless students over decades and the poor schmuck who can’t hold a job because his preference is for gin or her preference is for cocaine, all of them are waiting in the grave to see what you will do with the outright gift of freedom and excess you have been given and if you can’t make anything happen with a landscape littered by all the merchandise and resources of a century without warfare ravaging our land, then you can’t make it out of anything. They would lead you to believe it’s over, the only thing you have to do is stay out of trouble and enjoy your life, but they’re wrong. They’re lying. They’re telling you what they want to tell you and what they think you want to hear, but they’re telling you a lie. Have you come to realize yet the biggest stories aren’t sports or politics? The biggest stories are out there in the hearts and minds of people just like you and if you don’t write that story with the blood of your life for ink and the paper of your soul it won’t get written. No one will know and the media will win, the great middle ground that never made anything happen, just hangs around to see what other people will say, but if all the people just wait for what is being said then don’t you see it’s over. It found the hole it fell into and pulled it in after itself. It’s all over, but not if you don’t want it to be. Ask God what He wants and listen. He’ll tell you. It’s not over yet.
Don’t give up, America.
Don’t ever give up.
It doesn’t have to end this way. The murder and the mayhem, the endless lines of cars, the parking lots that cover entire states and counties and principalities, the ground covered by concrete and the millions of miles of wore that cordon and fence and restrict and the acres, even hundreds and thousands of square miles of signage that direct and prohibit and warn and instruct and caution and restrict and declare, someday all of them will be gone and the question remains, “Who are you amid the signs?” What role do you have to play amid the lives other people are living, people you don’t know, people who have just as much right to live their way as you and won’t take you or no for an answer? That’s the challenge. That’s the future, for in the midst of a wilderness no longer composed of trees and desert and unfenced boundless horizons, but a wilderness now of people, you must find a way to explore and adapt and acquire and achieve among all of them and let them know you are who you are without offending them, at least more than you can handle in managing them in your own style to your own purposes as a compliment to your own ambition. It’s about the people now and how you relate to them, not any more how you relate to the bold, gross elements or wild aspirations of nature which could care less whether you live or die.
Don’t ever give up, America.
Don’t ever give up.
It has be be about something greater than the money. It has to be something greater than the millions of abortions and the hundreds of thousands of deaths upon the highway. It has to be about something greater than the murders and sexual abuse and drug addiction and mindless hours spent in front of tubes and screens that glow and remain dark. it has to be bout something more, something greater than the churches gone empty and the scheduled worship and the doors that are locked until just before and locked again just after the people come and go to be socially acceptable and feel good about themselves while the house around them burns. It has to be about something more than fear and contempt for others who have less and gates and bars and closed circuit television for those who have and want to keep it and for those who have been arrested and incarcerated for trying to steal it. It has to be about something more. It has to be about something more than shopping malls and derelict small towns and now the shopping malls go empty because people don’t want to leave their homes. It has to be about something as grand as wondrous as the sight of land after a voyage of months on the open sea in an open boat or under sail and the last barrel of food or water open and rotting in the hold. It has to be about something as great as the wagon wheels that left ruts in the solid stone of impossible ravines and blank deserts on the way to what they hoped would be a better life if only they could make through the day and freezing night. It has to be about something more than what we have. It has to be about where we are going. It has to be about glory and the discovery of the world we left behind to begin the new one now not new anymore, but new enough to provide us with all the materials we need to make the world at large a better place. We can do it. We must do it. We are destined to do it. We know how. We only need courage and God. We are all together ready and He is ready always. We need to do it.
We need to try again.
We can do it, America.
We can win.
I want to sing as the bird sings in anticipation of the dawn. I want to sing as the bird sings in sunlight and clear blue clarion skies. I want to sing as the bird sings in the twilight and gloaming, under the leaden skies of impending rain and through the tempest, yet keeping my wings over the flock for which I have been made responsible.
I want to sing as the bird sings.
They have no reason to do it, other than the face they are birds. I have every reason to do it, born as I am and into a country of heritage and dreams so big even the world cannot hold them for we have gone into the void. We have gone to the moon and there are so many more void and barren places into which we must go, but first we must learn how to sing. Everything else does.
All creation sings and we must learn our song.
The continent sang upon which we landed. It sang of trees and rivers and fish and birds and plants and animals of every description and we came without knowing how to sing and mauled the landscape, but we learned our notes and came away with songs no one else had sung in the history of mankind. We sang of rivalries between companies and cut throat competition and we built dams and bridges and highways and buildings so tall no one could believe they would not fall of their own weight and towering stature, but we still did not know how to sing well enough to keep ourselves as beautifully as the land upon which we landed.
So we must learn to sing.
I want to sing as the birds sing, all of them on any glorious morning when their nests are set between branches and the air receives the plaintive need of their chicks which only they can feed. Where will they find the means to keep themselves alive? Do they worry about it? Do they have a doctor they can see, a counselor to assure them being a bird isn’t all that bad even though being a bird isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Or do they industriously fly around until they find what they’re looking for and bring it back to their mate or their fledglings and sing and sing and sing?
I want to sing s the birds sing, all of them in the hope that my song will grow and grow and dwell into the air so big no one would believe it came from such a tiny chest, a song so sweet people would say, “Listen, do you hear that?” even if the person they ask shrugs and says, “I can’t hear anything,” or “Who cares?”
I want to sing as the bird sings. They don’t sing so much at times of frost and ice and snow, because they’re smart enough to conserve their energy and draw no freezing air into their lungs, but given the slightest excuse, the slightest warmth, even the suggestion of what it means for spring to come and they open their mouths and throw back theirs heads and they sing, they sing, they sing.
I want to sing as the birds sing. I remember the song of the birds. I remember in my own silence. I remember when being a man is overwhelming and I think I am above or beyond or cannot attain the simple grandeur and grace of a creature on a branch to proclaim the glories and mysteries of creation, but I am wrong whenever I feel more like a man than a bird, because I have never been anything more than one who wanted to sing, sing, sing and make it heard by those who might not have a song of their own or who have not yet learned to sing or will never learn because they have allowed their hearts to become the same as stone. Let them perish in their misery. It is not my job to save them. My job is to sing. My job is to fly. My job is to sit on my nest and guard my eggs and let the world envy my ingenious ingenuity, because I know how to sing and I know how to fly and it’s a reasonable assumption the best singer who ever sang and the man or woman who ever flew the best learned how to fly from me, because they saw me do it after they heard my song.
I want to sing as the birds sing and I do, because I am free and if you want to know what kind of bird I am and you haven’t already guessed, I’ll tell you because the answer is part of my song and I’m proud to be who I am.
I am part crow, part eagle, part chickadee, part parakeet, part hawk, part vulture, part sparrow, part woodpecker, part turkey, part owl, part meadowlark.
I’m an American.
The answer does not come from the problem.
The answer comes from God.
The cabin on the frontier or the mansion on the hill does not come from the inventiveness of man or woman. They come from the willingness of God that they should come at all. It is not us against the wilderness. It is us in agreement with the will of God. The way we find our way is the way God allows us to find our way. The wilderness journey is not a test of our endurance. It is a test of our faith. Endurance is beside the point. The test is our relationship with God. If we have one we live forever and we live in the light. If we don’t have one we live forever anyway since we are created by God, but we live in darkness, without the direction, without the hope, without the cause of our knowledge of why we came to be in God’s mysterious design.
The answer does not come from the problem.
The answer comes from God.
No one ever confronted the problem and got the answer from the problem.
The answer only came after the person faced with the problem turned away from the problem and asked God for the solution. Then the solution came and all that comes with the solution is a part of the ongoing miracle of life.
That is why America is so great and that is why it will cease to be great the moment it turns away from God, for without God who is love and answers all that is answerable or knowable or attainable or true in this or any other universe, all we have is problems.
“It has been my intention to change the character and nature of this place as little as possible,” the developer said.
“Not much of a developer,” thought a member of the Egg Harbor Planning and Zoning Commission.
“Not much of a man,” thought another.
“My kind of man,” thought a third.
There were other members present.
The developer stood in front of the commissioners with his well-kept beard, his soft flannel plaid shirt, his designer stone washed jeans with fashionably frayed cuffs bought that way in a fancy store for more money than his own grandfather earned in a month, held up by a coach leather reversible belt he chose to wear on the brown side this evening in keeping with his naturalistic earth tone mood and crepe soled suede shoes on his soft feet. He had never indulged in a pedicure, but he considered it at his last tanning session and thought well of it as he did the diamond stud in his left pierced ear. The decision of whether to pierce the left or right ear lobe had been arduous. Someday he would probably balance his life by having the other ear done. He had a vague sensual attraction for his hair stylist he thought he might explore.
“Never served in the military,” correctly surmised a commission member.
“Don’t ask don’t tell,” thought another.
“Nice sensitive face,” thought one of the women on the commission seated around a Formica table made to look like wood.
“Nice narrow hips,” thought a man seated beside her on the left who also considered and would have been amazed and gratified to know in accordance with the speaker before them he too considered a pedicure, tanning sessions and pierced ears for himself with diamond studs as possibilities however telltale and distinct.
The developer stood before a styrene board upon which he had printed at considerable expense a plan to build a series of luxury condominiums on the slope overlooking Egg Harbor. The town had lots of money. He wanted some of it for himself. Actually, he wanted lots of it for himself. The Egg Harbor Egg Auction had caught his attention and decided his thinking. The town had organized an event upon invitations to various artists to create fancy and fanciful eggs for display throughout the town. These had been accepted for display upon approval of a special committee in charge of the event and the response had been extravagant. Eggs became birds, submarines, time machines, planetaria and items of phantasmagoria. The town had once favored fish cleaning sheds and nets dried on spindled racks, cords of firewood lined on the docks for sale or shipment on boats that burned them in boilers on the way to Green Bay or Sturgeon Bay or even Milwaukee and Chicago. The eggs made by artistic hands without calluses were sold at auction. The least expensive sold for one thousand eight hundred dollars, the most expensive for ten thousand. That cinched it. Any town that could raise a quarter of a million dollars for fun could afford to buy itself the best accommodations and attract like wealth to win friends and influence neighbors. He didn’t give a good goddamn for the environment or any other consideration in his way. He knew if he had enough money to invest and used it judiciously to attract money from those less scrupulous than himself, he could get anything he wanted in a world where the only conservation that really mattered is what people thought they could get for less, the same people who would spend anything for what they wanted. His own environment so to speak stank to high heaven. His teenage daughter hated his guts and called him a pansy to his face. His teenage son hated him for being such a venal materialist, whatever that meant and his ex-wife hated him for never being able to insinuate himself adequately between her legs or into the lives of anyone who stood to make them any money. She had expensive tastes and he had a lot to make up for including self-hatred, disrespect and disillusionment. His ex-wife now dated a Latino cop in Chicago and told him in no uncertain terms more than once what other uses handcuffs could be made to perform.
“It’s all about love,” she told him. “It’s all about love and enforcement.”
These condominiums meant a lot to the man in front of the styrene poster board on an easel, the Power Point presentation on the laptop computer plugged into the Egg Harbor city hall projector system with a scale model and glossy brochures he’d taken out a bank loan to produce. He’d be paying off the architectural firm for their preliminary work for over a year.
Yet in the great scheme of things, of lowest common denominators and herd instinct, in the way of less being more and community action against all events of genius or intuition, nobody else in the room gave a damn and the project, the entire brainchild and dream of the man with so much to gain or lose, represented nothing more than a change to the members of the Egg Harbor Planning and Zoning Commission and the one thing, the very thing, the absolute reverse of their intentions wold be that change he proposed because they sensed he wanted it not for them but for himself, needed it for himself and therefore would be intolerably beholden to them if they approved without the means to benefit them greatly what he felt so grateful to receive.
In other words, he might prove an embarrassment.
The presentation of the developer lasted one hour and thirty-four minutes.
He thanked them for their time.
They thanked him for his.
“Are there any more questions?” he asked having received none.
Right away he knew it wouldn’t work. They wouldn’t approve. They didn’t know their collective ass from a series of test holes in the ground.
“I’d be glad to answer any.”
They didn’t think so. They shook their heads in silent condemnation.
They might as well have placed black napkins on their powdered wigs.
He didn’t allow his emotions to show, but inside he died.
They executed him.
He could see too late they loved to say no. That’s why they all served on the Planning and Zoning Commission, not a commissioner among them, but a pack of guard dogs watching for the slightest sign of intrusion. He didn’t have enough money. They knew it. That made all the difference. He knew it. If he had enough money he could do anything. He packed up his display materials and left them in deliberation.
“I don’t think I can go along with this,” said the Army veteran on the commission. He had his Purple Heart, his Honorable Discharge, his pension for twenty years on the state highway department and his boat securely moored down in the marina. He called it the Lucky Strike.
“Why’s that?” asked a woman on the commission in a rather desultory manner who didn’t like men who fought in wars but preferred men who stayed out of them and took their wine selection at dinners they took her out to rather seriously. “Better in bed with a red than dead in the head with or without a bed,” she thought rather whimsically and wrote it down for her diary later when she’d be alone at home with her vibrator. She’d made love to any number of men, but never with any member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, thank God. She saw no more advantage to it than they saw approving the presentation tonight.
“When he said he didn’t intend to change anything I wondered why he even bothered to bring a plan before us or how he thought he could build anything without changing anything. I mean, it all sounded a little vague.”
“Very vague and I didn’t think he seemed too confident about his financing. The worst thing we could do is approve a project that stalls out half way finished and then stands there falling apart with nothing but a roof and framing.”
“You thought he lacked a certain amount of inspiration?” asked a very masculine member who also happened to be a woman. She actually preferred women and thought of men as stupid, vulgar and indispensable as the objects of her scorn.
“No,” said the veteran.
“No, what?” asked the woman who looked like a man.
The veteran with the Purple Heart had no time for this ambush.
“I just thought he dished out a lot of bullshit,” he said and then he said, “I make a motion we adjourn.”
“I second the motion.”
“All in favor signify by saying Aye. All opposed. The motion carries. We are adjourned.”
“Only when we allow simplicity to reign in our lives, only when we allow our center to control our circumference can we attain the harmony of our senses.”
“What an ass,” he thought, not the formation of her thoughts indicative of her tranquil mind, not the essence of her intellectual or spiritual expression as she addressed the class to impart celestial wisdom, but quite simply and literally that round firmly inverted valentine bulging excruciatingly for him if no one else from the black spandex tights and leotard she wore as though her ass had been spray painted and how he would have adored that assignment no pun.
That ass combined with her tits jutting forward in the opposite direction from her ass just about sent him into the seventh heaven or nirvana or wherever in the hell else she wanted to take him before the first lass had even begun. They sat there on the floor listening to her introduction and he wondered about how he could keep from getting an erection and go through this preposterous proximity to a woman who said she would use verbal and tactile feedback to ensure proper form. Who cared how she did it? The words on the promotion brochure he found in the rack at the resort adjacent to the registration desk with her picture, a nice demure head and shoulders shot didn’t do her justice.
If justice were done he’d get ten to twenty years and no chance for parole.
“God,” he thought. “If she touches me I’ll die.”
He decided instead to concentrate on his dog Buster who died when a car ran over him in front of their home the day before his twelfth birthday.
Not Buster’s birthday.
His birthday and how that affected him because he really didn’t want to get an erection in this case and so he thought if he saw it happen again in his mind and how it made him feel when he saw the insides of his dog squished out and tried to eat his birthday cake next day and kept crying when he thought about his dog and the way Buster yelped and the way they buried Buster in the back yard under a tree by the headlights of his father’s car when the old man came home from work that night from the factory and didn’t want to wait until morning because he didn’t want the neighbors to see them putting a dead dog in the ground under the tree in the back yard.
Landlords didn’t like dead things buried on their rental property.
That seemed to help him keep his cool in the presence of this Amazonian yoga mistress.
Why should it take that much to keep him line, to keep him from making a fool of himself? Was this fair? Did he deserve this kind of abject sorrow and mental humiliation?
It didn’t seem right to the boy who loved Buster and wanted to see a ceremony with flags or red, white and blue bunting or something reflective of a loving animal who never hurt anyone in his life, the way this man tried to be taking pilates whatever that meant to stay in shape and maybe keep his spirit in tune with the cosmos if it ever had been in tune with anything except his dog.
He wanted to put a cross under the tree for his dog. That’s what he thought they should do, but they didn’t. They never did anything he thought they should do. They didn’t do anything. Buster died and no one really cared or understood and now his parents had died, well, not actually, but his father really died and his mother had Alzheimer’s in a nursing home and that seemed like death and no one understood that either, except the resentment he felt inside he could not express that somehow this woman in next to nothing, wearing an outfit that revealed every curve of her voluptuous figure should be ashamed of herself parading it all in public before men who lost their pets and their parents and never really felt loved, so repressed they even lived in fear of an erection if they ever got a chance to have one, divorced from their own failing bodies, afraid of their own shadows, living in fear and feeling like crying all the time because at times like this for no reason he could understand in the presence of a very sexy woman he thought of his dead dog Buster and felt like nothing.
“Let us be supremely on guard against permitting ourselves to become infected by the spirit of the vacationer,” the minister said as he peered at them over the Bible open on the pulpit. “I say the vacationer, who seeks not an understanding of the nature of things, things as they are and as we understand them to be in this created world of which we are a part and stewards beneath the all seeing eyes and mighty hands of our Living God, but the vacationer who seeks only as escape from the world they themselves have made into a mire of dissolution and disrepute and who invade our world seeking only contrived amusements. Beware, I say and forebear against the cup of sin.”
It’s the people now.
It used to be the land and the earth turned each year with the plow and planted to crops that fed man and beast through the winter. It used to be animals that could be raised on the land or wild as part of the land so long. It used to be the fish, so many fish a man could almost walk on them across the water you could drink by simply bending down and raising it to your lips in cupped hands. It used to be the lumber, trees so great one tree could build a house or a few trees a cabin hewn of bark and branches and the sheds and fences and trees to build carriages and wagons and heat the house and cook the food, so many trees all you had to do to build a farm was split the logs or stack the rocks from the field you called your own to plant to seed to fee your family and haul the surplus to the market for sale. Money came in handy, but money didn’t mean much in a land of guns loaded through the muzzle and a mold board plow or a harrow drawn by a team of horses or a couple mules. No one needed money if they had something to trade. Money came in handy, but money could change value. Whiskey could be used as money, but real worth remained the same. A man’s willingness to work, a woman’s willingness to work, these remained the single most important currency in the wilderness, until the wilderness of real estate and speculation and market shares and contracts and stipulations came along, until development came along and men began to forget the cold and hunger, the fear and loneliness and raw reality of life without even the semblance of guarantee or insurance.
It’s the people now.
The land is gone. There isn’t a single square foot of it that isn’t owned and entered on a title registry in some county courthouse or state database, right down to the last fraction of a degree, the last square inch. Every aspect of the land is known and owned and even photographed, so you can even go places you’ve never been without every going there. You can see pictures of it all because someone has been there before you, and you can never own it because someone else owns it and they don’t want to sell. They have other plans and those plans don’t include you. The wild animals are hiding. There aren’t many of them any more. They’ve been pushed to the edge of extinction and those who do remain are splattered across the highways in numbers so great there is no way to calculate the carnage. The crops are planted by machines enormous and capable of planting up to forty-eight rows at a time and harvesting like death during the plague. It’s all part of the progress of man and machine. There are no fish that have not been restocked and the water is not safe. It contains volatiles and heavy metals and toxins that make you sick and bear the warning poison and unsafe on beaches and pastoral lakes. The only thing that matters is money. If you have it, you can pass. You can go where you want to go, but if you don’t have it, then you cannot go anywhere. You cannot stay anywhere. You are not welcome. You are the enemy. You are uncivilized.
So what will happen if we treat one another the same way we have treated the land and the water and the animals we were given free? What will happen is exactly what happened to the people we found on the land when we arrived, the people who did not presume to own where they lived and lived there a very long time without damage. That should be easy to answer. We will rely upon the one rule we have always bowed and vowed to worship and obey, survival of the fittest. We will eliminate all we do not fear and be eliminated by all who do not fear us and the strong will inherit the earth and all it contains. That is what has happened. That’s the news. It isn’t new at all.
People are dirt.
Plant whatever you want in them. It will grow.
People are animals. Make them afraid and they will hide from you. They will do what you want them to do.
People are water. You can trust them to flow down and never up and collect in the low places and stay there.
People are fish. You can catch them individually or by large numbers in nets, such as the Internet.
People are lumber. Cut them down, trim them and use them. They’ll fall for it.
They come to Door County on Highway 42 and Highway 57.
They come from Milwaukee and Chicago.
They come from everywhere.
It doesn’t matter where they come from. All places are becoming the same. It’s a capitalistic communism, a technological socialism. Everybody wants to be like everybody else and they are. They come to get away from it all, but they bring it with them. There is no escape. They come to have a good time, but they don’t know how, because it isn’t about what they take. It’s about what they give and they don’t know how to do that either. It’s all so depressing. It’s about survival, but that’s out of date. Once there were tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but no one wants the wretched refuse of their teeming shores any more. It’s all about boats and mooring fees and gourmet burgers with sweet potato fries if you’re willing to pay the extra dollar. The tempest can be avoided by tuning in the National Weather Service. I lift my glass and the golden pour is craft brewed beer.
Dead alewife used to wash up on the beaches after the US Department of Natural Resources imported them to get rid of the lamprey eels that came into the Great Lakes from the improved Saint Lawrence Seaway. That caused a lot of trouble and damaged the sports fishing industry. The homeless, tempest-tossed have no business here. We got here first and we’re glad enough to be of service, but we’re not in the business of providing food and shelter to people who can’t afford to pay. We’ve got our own lives to consider. We have families. We’re descended from immigrants. We know how to struggle. We’ve been struggling all our lives. Now it’s your turn. Christian charity must be a free will offering and not imposed upon us. After all, there’s such a thing as separation of church and state. Don’t tell us what we have to do to be kind or considerate or compassionate. That won’t do and if you do, we’d just as soon crucify you as the first guy who tried it and thought he could push it down our throats as the truth the light and the way. You have to consider the fact that we as law abiding Christians are doing the same thing we did when we saw Jesus hanging on the cross, absolutely nothing. We were willing to watch him die in mortal agony then and we’re willing to watch you die in mortal agony now.
Have a nice day.
People are the resource now, the only sustainable resource on the planet. People come faster than we know how to deal with them. If only we could love the people, cherish them, care for them and the planet and everything else would fall into place, but we don’t love the people. We don’t care about them. It’s every man for himself and we care only about ourselves and how to defend ourselves against those who come later and want the same as we have found. So it’s likely we’ll treat one another the way we treated the clear water and the great stands of forest and the open prairies, the way we treated the passenger pigeon and the buffalo, the Indians and the Great Lakes. We’re going to destroy them, because we have a hatred within ourselves toward ourselves and the very world we inhabit and since we don’t want to sacrifice ourselves we sacrifice others. We destroy others in an effort to defend ourselves and in the end because the world is round we end up destroying ourselves all the same.
It’s the people now.
Terrorists plant bombs and blow themselves up with innocent bystanders. Heads of state and governments do the same with arsenals beyond imagination, as we cannot imagine how terrorists can love death so much they impose it upon themselves and others in an apparent suicide of conviction. Yet we justify war.
It’s the same.
It’s the people now.
It’s the people who matter not because they’re rich or important or got elected to public office, but because they’re people just like us and we’re just like them, but we hate them because they’re not believers.
We’re desperate to find reasons to hate and disapprove.
We call them infidels.
They’re superior or inferior and whatever we feel within ourselves we dump on them like garbage because we hate garbage and don’t want it in our lives although we created it and they’re people and like it or not they resemble us and all of us resemble God.
If we hate people we hate God and some people do, but they’re mistaken.
They reek of death with every word and every hateful act. They come into a room and you can smell it on them. They don’t know how to love. They walk as skeletons covered with ft and they sit as carrion connoisseurs picking over the carcass of whatever they disavow they have killed. It’s all because holy has something to do with being clean when holy really has to do with being dirty and covered with blood, sweat and grime because we’re human and that’s where we come from, not the immaculate conception of a sexless creche, but the guts and shove of sperm through penis into womb as if that isn’t enough of a miracle for any human being since that’s exactly where each and every one of us came out through those legs spread wide and the screams and gasps of a woman in labor and a man standing there or wondering what the hell he’s going to do now or giving thanks because he hopes God will give him a vague idea.
It’s the people now.
You can’t stop them.
You’re only one of them, but you can decide whether to disavow your humanity and seal yourself up in a walled fortress and defend yourself against your own kind or bask in the glory of the resurrection each and every day birth notices appear beside obituaries and humankind gets another chance to be another generation another immigrant another explorer another pioneer in a wilderness of other people’s dreams and intentions or the shame and half told stories of history which may again be rewritten to include the final triumph and if you want to be a part of that you need to try and be what God made you to be not against but altogether for and in harmony with the music of humanity in love.
It’s the people now.
The people have an insatiable need for heroes.
They’re infallible and they know it.
They just can’t explain it.
“Shut the door,” she told him.
When he did she lit a cigarette in defiance of the rules after he also opened a window at her instruction. The windows were supposed to remain closed.
“Good boy,” she said. “Now, tell all.”
“I will,” he replied.
He had been coming to see her for over a year.
A year seemed like forever.
He wanted to see her forever.
Her command to tell all always began their conversations as an omnibus commencement.
“Before you begin,” she said, “let me ask you a question.”
“Are there two cats out there on the roof?”
Her eyes were not what they used to be.
They used to see everything.
Now they failed as her vision became what she saw within herself and others.
He looked where she nodded out the window.
“No,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
The silver cigarette lighter snapped shut in her hand. The other hand held an unfiltered cigarette t her mouth. Both hands betrayed rheumatoid arthritis. She pulled a long draw into her lungs and let it out with disdain for direction, exhaling at random into the room, blowing smoke into the world she disdained.
“There’s aren’t,” he said conclusively.
“Then what may I ask in he hell are they?” she asked with a certain and intentionally unladylike hauteur.
“All I can see,” he said, “is snow on the roof and two air vents. They’re painted black. The vents are painted black. I suppose they look like cats.”
He wanted to be so very polite and correct for her.
He loved her.
She loved him too, but she did not want to be polite.
“Black vents on a white background,” she said as if quoting the title of some famous painting of which she had seen her share in museums around the world from St. Petersburg to Cairo, from Berlin to Beijing.
“Damn it,” she said as without offense or recalcitrance. “I do hate it when my eyes play tricks. Maybe its just the cats. They love to play tricks.
She played with him like a cat.
She loved to play tricks.
“There are no cats,” he thought, but allowed himself to utter no further comment.
He loved her.
“Or maybe its just you,” she said unrelenting. “Sit down. They hate it when I do this.”
She referred to smoking.
“I know,” he said. “You shouldn’t.”
“Don’t correct me,” she said, “and don’t make any attempt to reform me. It’s unbecoming in one so young and it won’t work on one so old.”
“You’re not old,” he said.
“You’re a liar,” she said, “pathetic and adorable. I love you.”
“I love you too. You’re not old.”
“You’re eternal,” he said.
“That’s good,” she said. “I’ll settle for eternal. It gives one so much more time to change one’s mind.”
She took another full lung of smoke and savored it, blew it into the air all around him and looked at him through the curling haze as though it were the special effect of some stage production.
She had been an actress.
She would always be an actress.
The world would always be her stage and she would always star.
The circulating air from the vent in the ceiling caught the smoke and swirled it around before it disappeared without a trace, except an aroma lingered, the faint whiff of cyanide, formaldehyde and nicotine in a white paper wrap, he way life so often is, the good and the bad within a slender form all too soon extinguished once lit and savored all too soon ash and cold all too soon.
She thought of how she would disappear from the earth without trace when she died, leaving perhaps a similar tang, a fragrance some would not imbibe and he thought of soap bubbles for some silly reason.
They had their differences.
Then he said, “Maybe I shouldn’t help you do something you shouldn’t do.”
“You’d be a fool,” she said. “We should all help those we love do things they shouldn’t do or we are all enemies trying to stop one another from living our lives. That would not be your way with me, I trust. I trust you love me more than that. Am I wrong? Do you love me or hate me?”
She asked all the important questions.
Then she said, “Screw should’s and should not’s. Sit down.”
He sat down.
She patted the chair next to her wheelchair.
He moved from the chair a polite distance to one rather close.
It felt better.
They had a special relationship, a really very special relationship.
“Now,” she said, “what is it you want to tell me? What is it you want to ask?”
They’d been friends for some time. He came to see her at least once a week.
Then he fell in love with her. He started out visiting because he thought he felt sorry for her, because he wanted to be nice to her, because he thought he felt curious about her or needed to perform some kind of altruistic charity, but he mistook himself and he certainly mistook her, this woman of the world whom the world could not contain. He loved her madly then. He had no reason to be curious or attentive otherwise. Sybil lived in a care facility. She lived long enough before they met to be his grandmother, to be his great grandmother, but age didn’t matter. It didn’t matter at all. Other people came to see her. They loved her too, but he didn’t care about their love and they didn’t know about his or they would have bitched. He couldn’t get enough of her. She became his church, perhaps the priestess of his church. He loved her without saying so for a long time, because in his day and time, this day and time, he would be misunderstood. He thought it ironic after two thousand years of worshiping the God of Love and His Son love itself should be subject to laws whereby if he declared his love in a way anyone thought inappropriate to an elderly woman in a care facility he might end up facing criminal charges for harassment or abuse. He underestimated the object of his affections. He called her Dame Sybil, because she reminded them of a great lady and she became for him a true Sybil, a portent of prophecy and supernatural divination.
She liked the name.
She called him Sir John.
She told no lies.
She repeated no secrets.
He needed her desperately, her confidence and the trust they shared.
God would eventually take Sybil, he knew.
God would kill her, but she would never die.
The moment he read the poem she had written entitled Cosmic Orgasm he fell in love with the woman twice his age, the way a knight fell in love with a queen, the wife of a king when kings could torture a man to death or nearly so and save that man after torture for something more entertaining by tying him between four horses and whipping them into a startled gallop. He didn’t care. He had no choice. Men have no choice about love.
What he did and all he could do in the beginning he did by asking inane questions and piece together her past while she looked at him with benign humor, herself having lived far long enough to read him like a book and be amused to his lack of self-discretion. It charmed her to think of a boy his age barely a man at middle age coming to see her, a woman her age, but she never let on. She wanted to prolong the pleasure and feel rightly the moment she interrupted his reverie with the truth.
He’d either fold or rise to the occasion.
She wanted to test him.
She wanted to see what would happen.
Did she spend her time this way with a man or with a mere adolescent?
If he passed the test he could re-enter his world of romance and chivalry with her blessing, but such aspirations required training and discipline.
What good is romance if it doesn’t involve the risk of catastrophe?
She hadn’t loved any man after the death of her husband or her sons, although she had loved many men.
“Where were you born?” he asked her.
“In South Africa,” she replied, “of British parents.”
Sybil spike a perfect British accent, crisp, clear and euphonic, another reason he adored her. What a thrill to hear English spoken without this or that and like and like again so many times and all the profanity without meaning, rather the high old grand fashion of talking like having sex with words with a willing virgin who told you nevertheless be careful and gentle and therefore you tried to be perfect in every way because you loved her extravagantly and the moment unconditionally and the graceful gift she gave. Every instant of Sybil’s time came as an epiphany, a consummation of thrilling friendship even if she didn’t particularly like you. She had time for friend or foe alike, but she liked this one man who kept coming because somehow he reminded her of both her husband and her sons.
“I’ve always enjoyed people,” she said. “That’s one reason I enjoy you. No, better say that’s one of the reasons I love you, because you’re a real one, an authentic human being.”
She smiled at her own remark.
“Where do you come from?”
She turned back the question.
“It’s a long story,” he said.
“I have all the time in the world,” she replied. “Haven’t you noticed, I’m on a stairway to Paradise.”
She took another pull on her cigarette.
That had been another cigarette another day, many cigarettes and many days ago.
They were growing close.
“I like talking to you,” she said. “You make me like to listen.”
In her lifetime of lovers and there had been many lovers in a long life, Sybil had spoken every world before she now spoke to this man who came to see her in a nursing home. She hated the euphemistic term care facility.
“Hell,” she thought accurately. “They’re nursing me and this is my home. Why demure?”
She kept her thoughts to herself in his presence. He would have sat there anyway. She could not know the depth of his love, even in the depth of her own experience.
She didn’t have to believe anything. She didn’t have to prove anything. She had become indeed Sybil and like any Sybil who embodied the truth, she knew the one embodied in this man, yet Sybil knew more truth than the others. It’s what happens when you come from a long line of them.
Truth is amplified and concentrated.
So he told her details of his life and they seemed like ingredients of a confection, so sweet and insubstantial, though they more than satisfied for the moment.
“Now you,” he said. “Le me ask you some questions.”
“Who were your parents?”
“You wouldn’t know them,” she quipped. “They’ve been dead a long time, as people who die tend to be, but you ask so nicely.”
She arched her eyebrow and looked at him askance, a mannerism equated with wicked irresistibility.
“Their names were Margaret and Samuel.”
He wrote down their names.
“They’re names are still Margaret and Samuel,” she said. “Death hath no dominion.”
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“Yes. They are all so dead. Pity. I enjoyed arguing with them year after year. Now I win all my arguments. They have nothing to say. I can accuse them of anything. Now they are my pawns, complicitous in everything. Their silence cannot save them. You would have enjoyed knowing them, my older sister Pamela especially. She did so like younger men. She knew so many. It became a hobby.”
So there she sat like Regina, the lady of a great mythical kingdom so steeped in memories and authority not even the death of all her subjects or fire breathing dragons of old age or club wielding ogres of encroaching illness at the portcullis of her once adorable svelte body could dethrone or in the slightest intimidate her majestic demeanor. She intoned the names of her brothers and sisters as if enunciating saints of the faith and included the name of her brother who died at the age of twelve with special reverence.
“He had no time to be anything but an angel. Then he became one altogether.”
“I spent one restful year in children’s hospital,” she said, “with typhoid, but s you see I survived. I determined I never wanted to rest again and one other thing I never wanted,” she tapped out the cigarette, “is darkness.”
She detested the past tense. She assiduously spoke in the present or future tense.
“I felt death so near even as a child and saw others die I developed a considered aversion to darkness. It reminded me of the inevitable grave, what it must be like to go underground. I used to lie between the sheets at the hospital and imagine that I died. I didn’t want to be afraid when it happened and I practiced being unafraid, but I never performed to my own satisfaction. However I certainly did learn what I liked and disliked in terms of death scenes and I learned I positively hate darkness. I prefer light. I love light. Darkness is the antithesis of performance. No one can see what you do in the dark and everyone should see, including yourself. That’s why I never made love in the dark, incidentally. It always seemed indecent, at least a complete waste of effort. You should see what you do to make yourself and someone else happy. I began loving light in the hospital. They always kept a light burning somewhere and I gravitated to it like a moth. I would get up out of bed even when they told me I shouldn’t and walk down the hall to the nurses’ station. That’s where they had the lights on to read. They’d say, “Go back to bed,” and I’d reply, “I will if you give me a light,” and they’d say, “You found your way down here without a light. Now you can go back the way you came. You don’t need a light,” but they didn’t understand the light guided me and I thought, “I never want to go back the way I came even if I have a light. You know just as it’s a terrible waste to have sex in the dark, it’s a terrible waste of light to do the same thing over and over, except for sex. You need to use light the way God intended, for everything,” and she spread her fingers with a double aura as though impersonating a starburst or fireworks in the sky. “Light goes everywhere,” she said. “When we die that’s what we become even if we go to hell. Maybe that’s where we shine brightest.”
She did what she did with her hands without dropping the cigarette which seemed to float and smolder amid her talon fingers and add to the effect of a mistress of magic in the middle of her act. The cigarette wrote words undecipherable in the air.
“Tell me about your house,” he said.
“Which one? We had so many.”
“Your favorite. The one you remember most.”
“That could be very bad,” she said apropos of nothing. “I lived in a house full of light, windows on every wall and high ceilings and the porch went all way around and doors in every direction. I kept all the windows open wide as I could as often as I could, because I loved to see the curtains move in and out with the wind. Our house stood way up on a hill in the country, way out in the country at the end of a long lane that wound its way up a hill as though we lived in a castle. I loved it there. We had a piano, a great white upright piano. My mother played and sang and we had a pump at the sink that brought water up from a deep well under the house down in the clean rocks of the hill and I remember listening to my mother play the piano and keeping time with the handle of the pump as I drew water into a glass and the sunlight spangled off the water in the glass and the fluted indentations of the glass itself, as though I poured pure life into my glass to drink and never tasted any wine or champagne ever in my life so good or so refreshing or youth giving, although I tried and bourbon seemed nice from time to time after a great performance.”
She looked at him rather meaningfully.
“All kinds of performance if you adduce my meaning.”
Then she relapsed into academic reflection.
“Don’t you find it odd, wonderful really, that we can discover something that tastes so good without flavor and we need so desperately for life and we drink it without fear out of the bowels of the earth we identify with death and darkness and the underworld and things hot and putrid like hell? Isn’t it wonderful to pump life up out of the earth?”
“Yes,” he said. “It is wonderful.”
“Have you ever done it?” she asked. “Have you ever pumped life out of the earth?”
“No. I never have. Hand pumps were before my time. I’m a modern man, I fear.”
“That’s the trouble with modern men,” she said. “They always fear. They have so little practical knowledge. Have you ever pumped life out of a woman?”
He bumbled the reply.
“Poor boy,” she said. “Have you ever pumped life into a woman?”
He fared no better.
She took pity.
“Why don’t you kiss me?”
He meant it as though he had not understood.
He meant it to bide time.
He had the lost the initiative if ever his had been the initiative.
“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “Kiss me.”
The thought transfixed him. He sought all kinds of answers, some kind of witty reply, but found none. There could be non. He faced the absolute resolution of all conversation.
“All right,” he said, summoning courage.
He took her hand and kissed it.
She gave him an arch look.
“What was that?” she asked.
“A kiss,” he said.
“Oh, you poor liar. You inarticulate boy. I want a kiss. I want you to kiss me with your mouth and with your lips and with your tongue. I want you to kiss me on my mouth and feel my lips and my tongue. I don’t want you to take me for a fool or a lady. I want you to take me with a kiss. I’m old enough to be your great grandmother. Now all those nice little kisses you give to elderly women can go bye bye. You can keep them for the net elderly woman you kiss, but I am not one of them and I will resent for eternity upon the threshold of which I stand if you do not favor me dear heart with a kiss worthy of the name. I am entitled to a real kiss, a reckless kiss. I am facing death,” she said at last after they stared into each other’s eyes. “Death will kiss me and I won’t be able to resist. I want you to kiss me first. Then I want to kiss you. It’s your duty and my unmitigated joy. Are you man enough? Are you alive enough? I want a real kiss.”
She had pronounced the incantation, yet he hesitated.
“You’re afraid,” she said. “You have no idea in your short life what there really is to fear. Once you reach my age and look at death every day in a mirror and see yourself falling into oblivion before your very own eyes you’ll know fear. You do not want to go into the realm of darkness alone and neither do I. Kiss me, damn it. Damn it all to hell kiss me.”
He leaned forward.
“Tell me all,” she said. “Tell me all with your kiss, your beautiful kiss. I want you to kiss me.”
Their lips met.
He began to tell.
Then their tongues.
He told all.
“I need people,” she said. “I need them all the time. I’m sad if I’m not with people.”
They lay on the beach side by side on a blanket in the dark under a full moon. The stars shown best away out from the moon. There were plenty of stars. The wind played with the tops of cedar trees behind them by the car.
“I don’t know what it is,” she continued. “I had a loving mother and my dad always treated me with respect and kindness. No one could have asked for better parents, but I always needed people like something inside me went missing ever since my birth.”
“You don’t have to analyze it,” he said. “It’s just you. You’re a people person.”
“That sounds cute but stupid,” she said.
He kissed her on the cheek.
He seemed to be patronizing her. She didn’t mind being kissed, but she wanted to talk. She needed to talk. She didn’t want to substitute romance for truth.
“There’s another part,” she said. “There’s the me who doesn’t give a damn about anybody, the me who doesn’t care what they think or what they do or what they think I should do, doesn’t want any part of them, just wants to be who I want to be.”
He kissed her again. She didn’t mind being kissed, but he couldn’t make her stop her need to think and express her thoughts. She thought all the time. She had a genius within. At times he seemed to have nothing but love.
“I’m glad you have time for me in all that wanting and being you,” he said.
He did pretty good. Sometimes being with her resembled a sparring match where they exchanged blows in anticipation of the main event if they ever got the chance in life for a shot at the championship.
They lay on the blanket together out in the open, yet no one could see them in the dark. No one walked out on their part of the beach. The moon stood half way across the night sky so it must have been after midnight. They had come to this beach before, but never come this early or stayed this late. They were getting serious. They had the opportunity and they took it. He let his hands find their way beneath her clothing and she let him find her beneath her clothing. In addition to her genius she had full big breasts and a narrow waist, wide hips and long legs. They called her Filly when she ran on the intercollegiate track team.
Her stomach flat and firm led to regions of exceptional delight.
They called him Johnny.
“I love you,” she said.
That coming from her would be the biggest admission of human frailty she would ever make.
“I love you too,” he said.
“You want to get married?”
She asked him.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean married.”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s the same as no,” she said.
They sat up on the blanket by the edge of their known world, the only world they knew together, contemplating the great unknown and vast expanses, wondering if their souls love each other enough to make marriage and maybe a child or two and bring new life into a world as troubled as the one that brought them here to the beach alone together in the middle of the night, but before they could answer any of those questions and resume the talk about getting married they had stripped and laid back down on the blanket and he made her pregnant.
That’s the way it goes.
There has to be a way, a given course, a sense of life in the night amid the chaos of orderly creation. You venture inland without a course. You lose your way and die or they kill you. Wade out into the water and the tide sweeps you away and you drown. Either way its a mystery.
“I love you,” he repeated.
“I love you too,” she said and as it happened they lived happily ever after.
A short distance away another conversation took place, this one in a furnished apartment filled with art and the best appliances, all the conveniences of life without risk and plenty of money. They even bought warranty extensions and double indemnity clauses on their life insurance. They took no chances, yet life had fallen apart.
She talked to her mother.
She didn’t have anyone else to talk to. Her mother came to visit and stayed on the couch. They talked a lot. He left her when he found out about the other man. He couldn’t understand. What he couldn’t understand amounted to the face she had been happy and made him happy because the other man balanced her life. That didn’t seem strange to her, but he moved out and now she felt lopsided. She had been careless. It takes a lot of work to be happy. It isn’t a natural state.
They talked about generalities at first, she and her mother.
You have to talk about something.
“I love him too,” she said.
“Don’t talk rubbish. Your father and I were married for almost forty years and I never once looked at another man.”
Mother looked at daughter and realized as John received the revelation on Patmos all that nonsense about morality and keeping up appearances over the years had cost her the best years of her life. She had been enslaved. She saw the face of her daughter now and in that face she saw the truth, the truth of what it might have been if she had only taken the time and found the courage to do what she wanted instead of what other people wanted her to do and she didn’t even know that for a fact. She just assumed and assumptions had cost her everything. In her own face, now the face of a disappointed stranger in the mirror, she saw only sorrow and regret as she tried to counsel her daughter.
She wouldn’t make a very good counselor, but she had to try.
Her daughter, though disheveled and combative, seemed more alive, more what her mother always longed to be, a hungry animal in search of a next meal.
“It’s just he doesn’t want me anything but married,” her daughter railed. “He wants me to be a wife and mother and I want those things. I never didn’t want those things. I can do them on my head. I’m a natural, but I want more. I’m not selfish. I’m complicated. I’ll admit it, but I want more. Everyone wants more. It’s just about getting what you want without hurting anyone.”
“You hurt him.”
“He found out. He pried. He searched and searched and sure enough he found what he wanted and he hurt himself. Now he judges me. I never went searching into his life. I never opened his desk with a piece of wire and a credit card. I never hired a private investigator to follow him all day. He hurt himself. I’d stay with him, but now he calls me all sorts of names. Where does he got those names? Doesn’t he know the only reason I could be as good for him and I was plenty good for him, is because I had something good for myself?”
“He wasn’t enough? You admit it?”
“Of course I admit it. Why not? I love it.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said her mother.
Her daughter fought the sad conviction that her mother, the woman who brought her into the world, probably didn’t have any idea.
“I’m desperate to be who I am,” said the younger woman. “It’s like a hunger. I have to satisfy the hunger. I have to fill up who I am.”
“You mean find out who you are.”
“I know who I am. I know exactly who I am and I don’t want to throw anything away, nothing I’ve worked for or nothing that’s been given to me. I want it all.”
“I’m your mother,” said the older woman as the younger woman sought primacy. “You need to settle down.”
The younger woman disregarded the admonition and smiled and shook her head.
“Then be my mother. Don’t make me a bastard and tell me I can’t have what makes me happy because somebody else says it’s wrong.”
“You have to make a decision,” her mother said. “You have to decide to stay with your husband or go with your fancy man.”
“I don’t want that decision given to me and I don’t want to make it. He’s not fancy. He’s plain and simple and hard working and he has a great body.”
“Please,” said her mother.
“You have no idea.”
“You must,” said her mother.
“Make a decision. It’s the only thing to do, the only right thing to do.”
“I don’t think so. Why? Why is it so important to divide and subdivide the world? I don’t want one or the other. I want both.”
“I can’t continue this conversation,” her mother said with a dismissive wave of her hand and left the room.
She wept not entirely for her daughter when she could be alone.
Later as the adulterous one lay on the beach with her hard worker the night after her mother had gone they talked.
“You’re married,” he admitted. “I know you love him. You love me. You want us both. I want you. You know I love you. What am I supposed to do? Tell you to leave him and be with me? Destroy what you built with him and build it all over again with me? That doesn’t make any sense. I don’t expect it.”
“Thank you,” she said. “You’re not jealous?”
“I want to be. I suppose that would be normal, but I’m not. I want you all for myself. That’s normal. That’s greed. There’s enough of that in the world. I’m your lover. He’s your husband. Why wouldn’t I be jealous? But it’s not all one thing or another.”
Then he kissed her all over and went places only her husband and a few other men and one woman had gone with their hands.
“You’re a good lover,” she said, “and I’m a very greedy person.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I’m a very ambitious and somewhat reckless man.”
They met exactly one year before. She had taken a few days off from her job and came here for a rest. What she found instead lay next to her now on the blanket looking up into the sky. He held her hand when they finished what always became for her a very loud climax with no one on the public beach to hear. He liked her to show off. He kissed her again. She hungered for it. She hungered for his kiss. When he came into her it seemed as though a wave had crashed.
“It should be so easy,” she sighed, “but it all gets so complicated.”
“We can talk about it sometime,” he ventured. “This is more than I imagined.”
“You don’t have much of an imagination,” she said.
They both laughed.
They held each other in their arms as the night passed.
It didn’t pass very quickly. They didn’t want to risk being seen going into or leaving each other’s rooms at the resort so they stayed on the blanket and made love in he open under the black sky. They both held restraint in contempt at this time in their lives. It got a little cold, but they had another blanket. They each brought one from their respective rooms. He put his coat over her shoulders as they walked back to their rooms, two people who had shared physical intimacy and spoke many words of lust and consuming desire into each other’s ears and mouths. All the same when they parted they walked to their respective rooms as apparent strangers and when she discovered by answering a message light in her room the tour group she traveled with would leave an hour earlier than previously scheduled because of a consideration she did not know anything about when she allowed him to touch her she decided not to tell him and she left the resort and went back to her life and he discovered she had gone and went back to his and they never saw each other ever again in a modern age of casual sex and consummation which also constitutes a happy ending.
There have been so many houses. They are all the same. They are all different. I have lived in all of them. The white frame house with the spindled porch, the one where alligators lurked beneath the lawn, the one of brick with steps of concrete leading to a porch with those square at the bottom stucco columns tapered at the top holding up the beaded ceiling over the front door, the mansion no one wanted any more three story stone with antique glass doorknobs and antiquated hinges we left for another drab frame house whose only redeeming feature hung from the screened in porch a swing where we used to sit on hot still evenings and watch the fire flies, the track home on a wind blown field overlooking another tract home and another, the inner city soon to be demolished or simply vandalized and abandoned home, the suburban box with a chimney made of tin to look like brick, the home on soil so wet it shook like jelly when the big trucks went past, building yet another freeway t look down into your windows, the upper class home we couldn’t afford, yet the least expensive model in the neighborhood that ended up being sold for fifteen times our purchase price, all those homes plus the farmhouse in the country I spent my life rebuilding and perfecting that burned and the house beside it I restored from basement to attic that didn’t, the Edwardian castle in a river town, the mortgaged money pit in Dallas at eleven and a half percent interest, the borrowed home full of stench and stains from dogs never kenneled or let out who soaked the the hardwood floors beneath the mummified carpet beyond repair, the desert home that never bore my name, all the homes not counting all the others until home doesn’t mean a goddamn thing. It’s more a feeling than a place, more a state of mind or a faith in where you live than any location or address.
I’ve lived in all of them and without love none of them are anything.
With love it doesn’t matter what they are.
They can be anything, but without love as the Bible says, it doesn’t matter.
I’m grateful where I live now, because even though I don’t own it, this is my home.
I live here, but I’m an American, so you know what that means.
No matter where you find me today, I’ll be somewhere else tomorrow.
He sat looking at the paper. It lay propped in an awkward manner amid the technology of his desk, the computers of which he had two, not counting his tablet, the screens, the speakers and printers, the wires and mouse with a cell phone to one side. He looked at the writing on the piece of papers, the scrawled hand and lines pointing from one thought to another written half in ball point pen another few lines in pencil. What could be simpler? He understood they no longer taught cursive writing in school. These few words faced him to all intents as the combination of some vault, some treasure of information he needed to uncover, yet he needed to rest, to step back momentarily before he swung open he door.
This presented itself as an adventure of the mind, a true odyssey and like all adventures, explorations into the unknown, it involved a separation, a departure from the known and accustomed. That always defined the spirit of discovery. You have to leave what you think you know and risk what lies beyond. It provokes a response.
He lived in a time of unparalleled affluence and luxury, more access to materials than any other time in the history of the world. In the same way internet communication provided unlimited information good or bad, true or false. The land in which he lived provided unlimited food and clothing, shelter and goods yet people lived with increasing poverty and decrease of hope. They lived with fear and uncertainty. The dichotomy grew together in a nation once the most powerful and self-confident on earth because freedom gave it confidence. Now as freedom became license and license became excess, people drifted and strove with one another as God once again confused their language and made them merely mortal. The image of omnipotence wavered. The light of truth guttered and threatened to go out in a New Dark Age, the dawn of a New Night.
He didn’t want to go on just yet.
He wanted to think about what had happened in his own life and the lives of those around him, what he really knew and not what other people thought or how many thought the same thing at the same time when truth of any sort disseminated drew comparison with a disease. They called it going viral.
The time had come for another foray into the wildness, this time the wilderness f what had already been discovered, the wilderness of life beyond the electrified.
He wanted the truth within himself.
He turned off the computers and turned away from the telephone and opened a book.
He turned the page.
“Here’s the thing,” she said. “The thing is mostly about fear and love. The difference is a sense of direction. Do you know the word antipodes?”
“You disappoint me,” she said. “Every school child should know the meaning, because that’s what they teach in every school and every church, no matter what they teach. They teach antipodes.”
“What does it mean?” he asked for the record.
“That’s one of the reasons I like you,” he said. “You ask questions. If you didn’t ask questions I might not like you at all. Antipodes are exact opposites. They represent you here,” she said pointing at him, “and whatever is on the opposite side of the world in the exact same place in relation to you.”
She pointed straight down.
“All the way through,” she said. “That’s anipodiatic, if you want my personalized version of the word.”
He wrote it down. He spelled it phonetically the best way he could. He still didn’t look too sure.
“You’re here,” said said, lighting another cigarette. He wished she wouldn’t. They had been lucky the first time earlier this afternoon, but this doubled the risk of detection. She cared not a wit. The way she applied the flame of the lighter to the tip of the cigarette, the way she drew the first long drag into her lungs and let it out, the way the cigarette tip burnished red and dimmed when she took the slender white coffin nail from her mouth with her victoriously, vigorously slim fingers, held the smoke causing her to catch her inhaled breath momentarily with complete disdain for the filthy nicotine, resins and tars even formaldehyde it contained before she blew caution to the winds and continued by saying, “Inside you is the truth.” She used a sterling silver cigarette lighter which once graced the coffee table in her fashionable home, the one where she entertained students and slept with a few, professors and their wives and slept with a few. “You are the truth. There’s no one else like you anywhere in the world, anywhere in the universe. Believe me. There’s no one. That’s your story, your essence, your come if you want to be graphic, your semen if you want to be literal and academic, your poem if you want to be literary, but that’s not as much fun. It’s your truth. That’s what’s inside you and that my dear is your love. That’s what you have to give and that’s what they call making love when you combine it with another human being and together you make something out of what you both bring to the moment and the moments combine to form eternity. That’s the essential beauty of letting someone else see and feel the truth within yourself and accept their own truth as you discover it within them and they discover it through you for themselves. It’s very big.”
“Then there’s something else,” she said. She looked at him closely. “You sure you wouldn’t like a puff?”
“I’m sure,” he said.
“There’s fear,” she said. “It’s the enemy. That’s why they say it over and over again in the Bible. “Fear not.” The only thing we have to fear is not fear itself, my darling. It’s God. Then do what you like. That’s Luther, but he got it from God. He certainly got it the first time he screwed his wife, I mean Luther not God. I think she escaped from a monastery by hiding in a fish barrel, which is rather iconic when you think about it.”
“You mean ironic?” he asked.
“Don’t interrupt. You’re afraid of smoking because you’re afraid of what it might do to your precious health. You’re afraid of getting cancer, even if I’m the one doing the smoking. You don’t care about me. You care about yourself. That’s fear. You don’t want to breathe the smoke I smoke even though it’s already been in my lungs and done whatever it’s going to do there and yet you say you love me, yet something as ethereal as smoke makes you afraid of me. Some lovers trade smoke making love. They trade other things too, but let’s not digress. What if I was an Indian princess and wanted you to smoke the peace pipe with me and my tribe so we could live together in harmony and have children? Would you decline because smoking is bad for your health? Would you be that stupid and selfish? I’m talking about fear. I can’t teach you about love, but maybe I can teach you about fear. That’s antipodes. That’s what teaching is for. Well, not always, but tragically most of the time, what people think you should or shouldn’t do and how they think you should or shouldn’t do it, because they want you to fear.”
“What if they teach you because they love you?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“If they love you,” she said, “they don’t teach you. They show you and you learn in the process. You learn by example. Here. Let me show you.”
She ground out the cigarette.
“Come here,” she said.
He did as she told him and for the second time that day, like lighting the cigarette, she kissed him full on the mouth and sought his tongue as she gave him her own.
He didn’t resist. The natural hesitation about kissing a woman more than twice his age so deeply had passed as though it never existed.
She kissed him very well.
As they parted, as their lips parted she said, “You kiss rather well for a novitiate.”
He didn’t know what she meant. He didn’t know what to think.
“I can teach you a lot about kissing,” she said. “I’m old enough to be your grandmother, your great grandmother.”
Without further ado she reached yup and deftly removed the upper and lower dentures from her mouth, placed the false teeth on her bedside table and reached down with both arthritic hands to unbuckle his belt.
“My mother died at the age of forty-five,” she said. She lay beside him naked. They were both naked. They were not ashamed. They passed a cigarette back and forth between them. She handed it to him. He handed it back to her. She finished it, ground it out on a black onyx bowl she produced from the night stand drawer and took another cigarette from the pack beside the bowl. He saw her do this, reached over her body and took the cigarette lighter which he flicked open to spark and flame and offered the burning wick smelling of combusted lighter fluid from which she lit the cigarette with eyes closed as she did so, listened with exquisite appreciation as he snapped the lighter shut, that rhapsodic spring loaded metal to metal sound, exhaled the first puff as a homage to sex and satisfaction and handed the cigarette back to him as if they had never finished the first. They lay on their backs. He had one arm free. She lay on his opposite shoulder. His wife bore him four children. This woman didn’t intend to have any children. She looked like she had never borne children, a flat stomach and sculpted abdomen, a smooth uncreased pair of thighs and rather proud breasts that never felt the press of milk or bite of newly emergent teeth.
“I felt abandoned,” she went on. “I felt she directed my entire life. I did everything to please her. Then she died. I couldn’t prove anything to her, how good I wanted to be, how special I wanted to be for her because she needed me to be special to love me and then God damn it I couldn’t blame her or tell her what a mess she’d made of my life because she died. I tried. I stood there by her coffin and talked to her the day of the funeral. I didn’t do it in front of any of those people, of course. I came back after visitation and talked the funeral director into opening the parlor for a private showing. I told him I loved my mother more than anything and I asked him to give me fifteen minutes if he would. He did. I wore a low cut blouse. He must have thought I needed comforting. He put his arm around me and gave me a little squeeze that felt like something extra when he said yes, the bum. Can you imagine working with dead people all your life?”
“No,” he said.
“On second thought maybe it’s not so hard to imagine.”
“You don’t have to tell me this,” he said.
She took another pull on the cigarette.
“Coward,” she replied.
“Go ahead,” he said.
As if she needed permission she waited for him to breathe in and out a few times with the cigarette for emphasis and relaxation, whatever people smoke for after sex and she said, “I stood right there by her body and I told her to go to hell. I didn’t actually hate her that much, but I figured what harm could it do? After all, she left me alone with all those expectations and no way to carry them out, so I played it for the melodrama.”
“I know what you mean,” he said, not intending to patronize, but it didn’t come out as a very strong statement. They’d just spent about an hour exploring each other’s body.
“My dad wanted me to play basketball, but he never taught me the game. He just handed me a basketball and expected me to know everything. I still don’t know the difference between a guard and a center. I don’t give a damn. I suppose that makes me part of who I am.”
“Not giving a damn?”
She wanted to tease. She actually wanted to hurt him. She realized how badly she wanted to hurt him for getting her naked and doing this in the middle of a work day.
“No,” he replied, “play a game I don’t understand and I play it anyway. I even want to win. I wanted to win for him even thought he never taught me how to play.”
“Then it’s like love,” she said. “We want to win, but we don’t know how to play. We worship a sexless god who created us as sexual creatures. We haven’t got a clue. Well, maybe one clue.”
The cigarette disappeared. He put it on the onyx dish as she presented her face and their lips found one another again and they began what would become their second consummation of the day, this tryst of longing met, recognized and accepted.
“We have pleasure,” she said.
“That’s the clue?” he asked between pressing their lips together, little kisses that led to big ones during which they did not speak.
“Hmmm,” she said.
The way she said it meant yes.
“The most important lesson I ever learned is how to declare myself.” she said.
“How do you do it?”
“I’m doing it now.”
She looked at him. He looked back. He didn’t waver. Neither did she. They felt something happening. It required words. There didn’t seem to be any. They had spoken to each other all the necessary words. Now something else needed to be said. They faced a great chasm between the two of them. They had closed a great distance, to be sure, but another lay ahead, a bigger one, the ultimate distance all human beings must cross or remain forever alone. He watched her sitting there. She could do very little else in her condition, but now she stirred with a special meaning and he took her hand in his. The door to her room remained closed. It had no lock, but they would not be disturbed. They sensed this. They did not want to rely upon locks. This would be a moment set apart and vouchsafed in time as uniquely and entirely their own. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. This kiss lingered as she left her hand delicately within his grasp. She allowed his lips to rest upon the flesh behind her knuckles.
“I love you,” she said, the first time she had ever said it to him in the years they had known one another, the years he had been coming to visit. She said it now. It came out of her as a child might be born, not without a little pain.
He listened to her as he would listen to his own mother or some ancient seer, a woman of infinite mercy and wisdom. She poke only truth and understood everything.
“I love you too,” he said.
Their ages stood aside.
What difference could the decades make?
Forty years difference between them?
That made hr a child because of her age and him a child because of his age.
What difference did it make?
Their eyes met and held each other’s gaze.
They did not look away from one another.
“Let me see if I remember,” he thought. “Born in Milwaukee and raised in DePere, her mother did not favor a college education and she had two sisters. One married out of high school and the other became a nurse. Is that the way it went? Her father worked nights to make ends meet, two jobs or double shifts. When she eventually married her father-in-law insisted they have a house of their own and financed he house in Brookfield otherwise they never would have had a place of their own and their lips met. His lips met her lips. They transferred she and her husband transferred from one home to another as he followed his work and it didn’t seem to matter her father-in-law bank rolled the first home because at last they could afford to do what they wanted and as the moment unfolded the same way a flower opens in the spring he felt the tongue of her mouth against his and she became the aggressor, seeking something out of him that he could not believe but really he had been chosen out of all the men on earth and now to give as she sought to receive. She had a daughter, a daughter his own age and that daughter had children of her own and now he understood the lesson she had learned which told her to declare herself and she did it with her hands upon him now his shoulders and down his arms but she let go holding him and told him with her mouth to keep kissing while she reached between them she on the contour chair with her feet upon the ottoman and him sitting beside her as best he could on the little wicker stood and she unfastened one after another with incredible deftness after so many decades of practice the buttons of her blouse and let fall the fabric and with her hands both now in unison she took his hands in hers and placed them simultaneously on her breasts coming from beneath her clothes that beat without the touch of a man unless in medical examination for God’s sake that did not count for so many years the mere excitement came to her as satisfaction enough though she thought, “If I die I die,” and he thought as he felt insider her blouse with a much younger man’s fear, “What if I hurt her? What if a nurse comes in the door with the afternoon medications?” and they’d all end in court and him behind bars.
“What the hell?” he surrendered.
“Don’t worry,” she read his mind. “I’ve read all the regulations. I’m allowed to have sex in my own room, any kind I want and I asked once to be sure. They were shocked, but I’m sure they knew I meant business and I do my innocent young friend. I’m paying for this cheap excuse for a care facility and I might as well get my money’s worth.”
That’s the way she declared herself teaching him that quiet Sunday afternoon a woman in her late eighties could still teach a man anything she wanted and she taught the same lesson she taught her first young man the year he graduated from secondary school and she came back from her first year in college. She taught only the most important lessons and none of her students ever failed.
“Why the hell did you ever move to Wisconsin?” he asked when they finished.
“Cooler waters,” she said.
They both laughed because they both sweat just a little because they were both hot.
“You might have died,” she said.
He didn’t answer outright. He nodded. He looked at her. That seemed to be enough, at least for this moment. They sat in a room with a tarnished brass bed, a broken down dresser, a rickety little table and a wooden dilapidated straight back chair. The dresser had been carried in off the street by a couple boys who wanted to earn a nickel each for lugging it upstairs. The dresser had been dumped off one of those wagons heading west through town day and night in a sullen endless dream of hopes and attendant misery. That dresser had once been someone’s pride and joy. Now it had deep scars running across the top where a knife had been used and the mirror attached to a cheaply embellished frame in turn bolted to the back of the dresser had been cracked not altogether shattered so it still worked well enough, just never so fine that anyone of self appreciation would look at themselves in it so the mirror didn’t matter. Nothing mattered at all in this place at the moment except they sat on the bed.
He sat on the bed. She more or less leaned against the head board and looked at him with wild and tousled hair and eyes just as wild and without focus. She’d been drinking. Women in her profession usually drank and he did too but not so much. He didn’t do it for a living, just to live. He never drank too much. He liked the warmth, but not the drunk, certainly not the crazy drunk the way she needed and wanted from time to time for the face she let herself be used by men for what and why men use women. Men got stupid when they drank too much and he didn’t like being stupid or men who did and no matter what they did to this girl he liked her and didn’t want to get stupid with her. He’d already done what all men do the same and that made him feel stupid enough, the way all men feel afterwards. He thought now about the woman he asked to marry him back in New Bedford, the one he’d send for when he got back to Wisconsin and tried his luck giving gold for land and taking what he wanted. Well, he didn’t need luck. He had gold. He had sewn his gold into the pockets of the canvas vest that now hung at the end of the bed where he lay with this blonde woman no girl really who had given him everything a woman can give and might have given him more or called him anything he wanted or called some friends downstairs with a secret signal to take the money or his life if she’d known enough gold hung in that vest to buy the entire neighborhood in which she walked the streets in her striped stockings and frayed petticoats. They lay in a bed on the third floor of a dingy hotel on the outskirts of Chicago, a sprawling quagmire of streets and stench that had not existed five years before. He took her hand and led her away from a bunch of toughs on the street corner just a few hours earlier and made her his for this time. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he thought, “but it’s the sort of thing a man should thank God for letting happen.” She looked clean and healthy enough, just lost and willing and he knew. He had enough instinct in these things. Some men didn’t. Some men didn’t care. Some men thought too much about themselves. They wouldn’t help even a dog if they thought they might get a case of fleas or end up smelling of cur. If she stayed on the street too long in this butcher block city she’d get sick from some sodomite or cow catcher and end up dead, eviscerated in some alley or dropped over some railing into the river for her draw string purse no matter what they found in it. He wondered how she got started. He knew. He had the same instinct about these things. She started out a big, kind hearted girl. That’s all. Evil didn’t exist when you lay down for another person. It just had to do with the fact she felt love or sorry for some boy or some man gave her a lot of compliments and told her how pretty she looked in the light of a candle or a gas lamp and she got dreamy and he took her by the hand and led her somewhere and started to kiss her and that set off the girl’s emotions and she wanted to be loved so much or wanted to love so much she did what he told her, what she thought he wanted to do or what he wanted to do that shocked her and made her want to leave but she couldn’t so she went ahead and he left or they left. She didn’t leave after he did or they did. She just lay there and after a while she got up and after a while believing in love after being used she realized he’d never come back unless he had nowhere else to go and so she felt sorry and sad and did it again to make up for the first time and pretty soon word got around and they started calling her easy and started calling her all the time and being nice for the sake of what they wanted to do for money which is when they stopped being nice and punched her and kicked her and used her like a bag of something they despised, something dirty and he’d given her money sure enough but he liked her. She didn’t look like she really wanted the money, even thought she looked like she needed it. She had blonde hair, rich and luxurious and full of curls, so many he could see she hand’t put a brush or a comb through it for what looked like a long time and wouldn’t be able to now even if she tried and something like a dreamy look with skin like something out of a diary secret and rich with big boobs, a flat mellow stomach because she hadn’t had a baby yet and hips wide for it no telling who the father would be or how many unless childbirth killed her as it so often did. He looked at her legs, big and sturdy and before she covered back up and sat looking at him, but she’d never known hard physical labor outside the bed she did business in. He could tell. She had that softness overall that made her still like a girl and not yet a woman, although she knew all the ways of women, the oldest ways so legend thought but who cared what they thought? This woman had more in common with Christ than any church filled with Christians he’d ever seen. He knew why Christ consorted with prostitutes like this one. He didn’t pity them and he didn’t judge them. He admired them. Anyone who tries to love everyone is a whore. Politicians are whores. Preaches are whores. They give themselves physically to satisfy the needs of others and they get paid for it. Who didn’t? Who cares? This one could be his own daughter or the wife of some good, kind natured grocer or a clerk in some department store or soldier or school teacher if only she could be a little more contriving and selfish and do what she needed to do to get them to marry her and promise her always to take care of her and the children. All she had to do would be play the game as the world played it, the way he intended to play it when he got back to Wisconsin, just over the border now a few miles to the north and west and buy that land for the money he’d taken from the earth, the money the earth gave to him like this creamy blonde girl from some place in the country had given him her love, freely and without restraint. God, he could do it all over again to her if he didn’t have to get dressed now and get on that damned steamboat headed for Milwaukee at noon. He would too. He could wait another day. What would be the difference? He told her about the adventure, just a little bit of the adventure that took him through the Isthmus of Panama with the gold and the bandits and the death of his partner by means he didn’t explain completely, but enough to leave her spellbound. She didn’t know what to believe. Some men didn’t talk much. Some told lies. Some didn’t speak English. He could have told her he carried papers from the President of the United States, the Great White Father, to the Indians of the Pacific Northwest in the manner of Lewis and Clark and she would have believed him. She’d believe anything he told her and that made him love her. He sensed her vulnerability, her gullibility and he knew he’d never find another woman so willing to believe and perhaps he sensed her sanctity as he mounted her again and the bed creaked and groaned under his weight as he threw it into her. She groaned. She really seemed to enjoy it. He did not believe she knew enough about life to pretend, not like so many women brought up to believe in the sin of it all and childbirth as atonement and blood of nothing but Christ and menstruation, but nothing having anything whatsoever to do with passion. God, he just loved getting in and staying inside her. She didn’t make him feel like a bully or a villain, just a man in the world of men and women and he made a decision. When he finished he took a knife out of his pocket. His pants hung on the chair. When she saw the knife she put her hands to her mouth and almost let out a cry, but he told her to rest easy and she believed him and with the knife he cut a thread or two on the pocket of the vest and took out a coin, a big heavy gold coin and put it in her hand once he had taken her hand away from her mouth. “Mister,” she said without understanding, “this is a lot of money.” He couldn’t have loved her more at that moment. He knew he’d love he a long time. “That’s right,” he said, “and you’re a lot of girl. Tell you what,” he said. “I’m going to ask you to do me a favor. Will you do me a favor?” “Sure,” she said. “What do you want me to do?” You can imagine what she thought he might ask, but he said, “I want you to get out of this city and stay out. Go someplace small where people can get to know you and here take this.” He gave her a second gold coin. “When you get there, don’t tell them anything about yourself. Make up a story. Tell them you’re an orphan and you do house work for a living. Don’t think about this place. Don’t dream about it. Don’t let anyone bring you back here. Forget it. Find some nice man and marry him and have a few kids. Make yourself a life. That’s exactly what I intend to do. This is going to kill you someday,” he said. “I know,” she replied. “Don’t let it,” he said. “I won’t.” “Fight it. Fight it like hell You’re a good girl and you don’t deserve what could happen here. You gave me a real nice time,” he said. “You were nice to me,” she replied. “What’s your name?” he asked. He didn’t think he should once he asked. “Clarissa,” she said. “What’s yours?”
“Leviticus,” he said.
“That’s a good name,” she said. “Is that out of the Bible?”
“I thought maybe. My mother once read me the Bible.”
He kissed her hand.
“Oh my,” she said.
No one had ever kissed her hand before.
She threw her arms around his neck.
She held him.
“Let’s be friends,” she said. “Let’s be friends.”
He got dressed and she sat there stark naked and watched him.
“You do what I told you,” he said. “Don’t ever let me come back here and find you in this place.”
“You coming back?”
“I love you, Leviticus.”
He didn’t reply.
“Where you going?” she asked.
He finished getting dressed, put his vest on which weighed him down and put his gun in the holster on his hip, the knife in its sheath where it belonged.
“I won’t cause you no trouble,” Clarissa said. “I just want to know. Is that wrong for me to want to know? If it is you don’t have to answer,” she said.
“Wisconsin,” he said. “I’m going to Wisconsin.”
“I’m glad,” she said. Her people came from Poland and Germany.
“I love you, Leviticus,” she said as he closed the door. She couldn’t pronounce his name all that well because she had a gap between her two front teeth and a slight lisp, but he didn’t hear the way she said it because the door had shut already and he wouldn’t correct her anyway for anything that came from that mouth she used so well.
He left the room as quietly as he had come once he gave her a third gold coin.
This is the End of Part One
There are Four Parts
This is the Beginning of Part Two
The vision appeared to her three times in a week, a maiden wearing a flowing red gown with black sash wound tightly around the waist draped with long fringe. She wore a crown of long vicious thorns upon her head under which blood flowed in sensuous rivulets down her face and onto her neck and into the folds of the red gown where it presumably continued to find its way south along the entire length of her voluptuous body. Yet her feet peeped out from under the floor length gown snow white and unstained. The vision’s feet hovered a few inches off the ground. The maiden of the vision smiled, although her image presented itself at once alluring and terrific. It sent a thrill through Adele.
Then it vanished.
It reappeared once more outside Adele’s home before it quickly, and then it spoke, because the third time Adele asked it a question. She asked because her mother told her to ask because she told her mother what had happened as they sat by the fire in their home. Adele’s mother stopped her quilting and looked far away, not into the face of her daughter, but far away and replied, “If she appears to you again ask, ‘Who are you?’, ask her, ‘What do you want from me?'”
“I am afraid,” replied Adele honestly to her mother.
“Fear not,” just as honestly said her mother. “These things come to us in life. Consider it a blessing from God and ask the question. If you do not ask, you will not receive.”
Adele asked the questions even before the maiden appeared again. Adele practiced them in her bedroom when she had put out the candle and drawn the covers up under her chin. She stared into the darkness and intoned, “Who are you? What do you want from me?” She practiced several nights as though she were in church.
The maiden came.
The room filled with a slight aura then a growing amber glow. It continued to brighten as Adele felt herself warmed and sensed a tingle as though the bed on which she lay vibrated ever so slightly, almost as though someone had opened a window and let in the breath of a midnight breeze or the call of birds before dawn. It seemed so perfectly quiet yet she strained every nerve to catch whatever the vision might say. Yet she knew the vision might not say anything if she did not ask, as her mother had warned.
“Why are you?”
The maiden spoke.
The answer came.
“I am Queen of Heaven and of Hell.”
The radiance increased immeasurably. Adele needed to close her eyes against it, but she did not waver or blind herself. She thought even if she must lose her sight she would lose it with eyes open receiving light.
“What do you want from me?”
“I pray you will listen to what I saw and hear what I mean by what I say. I love you. I want you to love as I love and become love so others may be converted from ways of living death into living life and love throughout. I want you to love as I love and save children by returning them to the wild.”
“How am I to love as you say?”
“No one will listen to me. No one will do as I say. No one will help me. They hate me. They hurt me. They ignore me. They tell me to go away.”
Adele had become a prophet.
“I love you,” said the vision. “My love is all sufficient for you and all of them.”
She approached Adele with her arms extended. No longer radiant unto a fault, she suddenly seemed to invite Adele’s reply and embrace, as though a good honest woman such as Adele would have no need of artifice any more than shroud or sheath could separate their love.
The vision enfolded Adele.
Adele was twenty eight years old.
She had never known a man.
She could not know what love would feel like, other than the soft feeling she got from what she loved and tried to be so gentle in loving.
This came differently.
It swept through her and lifted her almost as the vision off the ground and she wanted one thing more than any other as the vision filled and surrounded her.
Adele wanted more.
“Everything,” the vision said.
They were made for each other.
The vision lasted about twenty five minutes.
Then Adele was left uttered alone.
She wept, because she had never felt so good or safe or wonderful in her entire life and she did not know if she would ever feel such happiness again.
She told her mother.
Her mother said, “You must never tell anyone what has happened to you.”
“What do you mean? It felt like I was going to heaven. I could feel myself taken away and I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You were happy,” said her mother. “You were happy.”
“That is what I mean. People will not understand. Promise me you will not tell anyone about your vision or anything of what has happened.”
“I will never speak of it again. I promise. Can I at least tell you?”
“I don’t want to hear any more of it either. You can’t tell anyone. And don’t tell your father.”
“You’ll tell him, won’t you?”
“We’re not like that.”
Her mother looked far away as she had the first time Adele mentioned the vision.
“We’re not happy,” her mother said.
The discussion ended.
The first home Adele visited contained a crippled boy named Lars. He had been born wrong, the umbilical wrapped around his body in such a way that combined with the breach position of his birth oxygen had been stopped to his brain during the birth process and no one knew both motor and neurological damage had been done beyond repair. Lars could not speak. He could not sit upright or walk, so his parents tied him in a chair in the family cabin and likewise tied a rope across his body in bed at night to keep him from rolling onto the floor. They knew this had happened numerous times, but in winter especially the discomfort and disturbance of getting up in the middle of the night had been so great they let him stay where he fell and if anything simply cast a blanket over his shivering form rather than struggle to put him back into bed which they could do in the morning and place him in the chair for the day.
Lars was not a homely or loathsome boy. He would live until God took him, the same God who delivered him into this world of pain and suffering. The family did not attend church any more. They despised the God of the cross and crucifixion so long as they saw their own son crucified in a different position not once a year on a day made holy by tradition, but each and every day of his miserable life which made their lives miserable without respite.
“Hello, Lars,” said Adele when she entered the cabin.
The parents were gone. She knew them to be gone. That’s why she came at this time. They left Lars alone for hours at a time. If he soiled himself they cleaned it up. If he did not soil himself they made no comment. They considered themselves lucky that day at least. They left food and water before him on the table, but of course he upset the water cup and could not find the dexterity to feed himself unless he grabbed for food convulsively and sent the better part of any handful scattered to the floor.
The rest he smeared around his mouth as he tried to gain whatever nourishment he could.
“I love you,” Adele said as the vision told her to say.
Lars stared incomprehensibly.
“I love you. Would you like me to love you?”
Lars could not answer. Not even his eyes could speak.
“I think it is terrible what God has done to you, but I cannot question God and if I do it is not His will to tell me what He has done or why. I am only here to love you. I come for love. That’s all.”
Lars sat bound as they had left him and Adele did not want to disturb the knots, only give Lars what she had come to give in any way should could according to the vision which told her now somehow intuitively to step close tot he boy and unbutton her blouse. She did this to his stolid gaze and when all the buttons had been unfastened she opened her blouse to reveal her ample breasts. They swung slightly forward as she leaned toward the boy and since he could not move bound in the chair she made it perfectly easy and said “I love you” once again as the nipple of her left breast came in contact with his lips. He began to respond.
Lars kissed and began to nurse.
“You are a very good person,” said Adele. “I know this and I love you. I will love you with all my heart.”
Lars nursed at her right breast also when she offered it and she remained until his parents came home to find her sitting some distance from the boy reading to him a passage from the Bible. She bowed to them, apologized for entering their home unannounced or unexpected and took her leave kissing Lars on the forehead in a manner both chaste and respectful.
“She is a good girl,” they thought.
Lars made guttural sounds they had never heard from him before and considered he did not feel well, perhaps constipated or in pain for which they had no remedy or medicine.
They never did.
He fell on the floor again that night despite the rope.
They could never nor would they ever know he tried desperately to walk and find Adele.
Lars died of pneumonia six months later during winter.
They buried him in a box of pine.
They cursed the frozen ground.
“What is wrong?” asked Adele.
She sat with Beatrice on the rough wooden bench outside the cottage. They sat alone. The family had gone to market and the weather proved fine. They sat together from adjoining farms. Her family, the family of Adele had great consideration for her. They seemed to leave her alone after the visions. The mother had spoken to the father a special sense of peace and purpose had descended upon the family or risen among it. However the spirit prevailed it proved beneficial and no one doubted its trust and compassion.
They seemed blessed.
The other family, however, the one from which Beatrice came, had no such spirit.
They hurt one another.
They competed for the essentials of life and seemed at odds with one another and with those around them.
Adele told Beatrice she understood.
“How could you? What do you know? I am so lonely, so wretched. I feel to die would be better than to live.”
“You must not say such things.”
“I will. I will speak the truth and the truth is pain. I am ready to die.”
“You will never die,” said Adele. “You are too beautiful.”
That brought Beatrice to silence.
They sat still for some moments.
The birds sang to them.
Two girls in rough clothing, filled with nothing but what the land would reluctantly yield, the fruit of labor hard won and forever needful, the land where people died from anything and everything, from the slightest infection to the most horrendous injury. Teeth were bad. Water was bad. Meat rotted and meat got eaten anyway. Cows stopped giving milk and dogs barked at strangers. Their fathers butchered on the farm and even the hides were used for leather and harness.
“I hate this life,” said Beatrice.
They were young.
They would not be young forever.
“You are beautiful,” Adele repeated.
The words melted Beatrice.
She began to cry and Adele put her hand on the shoulder of her friend.
That broke all resistance and Beatrice put her face on her friend’s shoulder.
The tears sprang like torrents and stained as they washed the dirt off the face of Beatrice and graced the cloth of Adele’s blouse.
The moment became sacred.
Adele lifted the face of her friend to her own with a tender hand and then placed her lips firmly upon the mouth of Beatrice.
The two girls kissed and Beatrice, too shocked and utterly amazed to react, allowed the kiss to linger, so Adele followed it with her tongue and the kiss became sublime.
“I love you,” Adele said.
Beatrice had never heard the words uttered to her in her life. Neither her parents nor her brothers nor even the priest had ever said so much. Beatrice sometimes uttered the words to herself in the forest only to hear what they might sound like if spoken.
“Are you a witch?” she asked Adele.
Adele kissed her friend again and placed her hand upon one breast of Beatrice, the left breast.
“No,” she said, “I am not a witch.”
“I only ask,” said Beatrice. “I love you too.”
The girls spent the afternoon together.
No one knew until this writing what they did together and this writing does not tell all they did together.
One man gave her money. He gave her a handful of golden coins. He had never seen her before and expected never to see her again. He wore a ring on his hand and a livery of the finest cloth and accoutrements. The money seemed unusual in her hand. She didn’t know what to do with it, so she put it in a leather wallet and put the wallet between two logs in the cabin up in the loft where she slept. Another man gave her a chicken. She killed the chicken by wringing its neck, plucking the carcass and stuffing the feathers in a bag for later use she boiled the chicken in a black cast iron pot and when her father and mother came home from the fields they dined on the chicken she said wandered onto their farm. She saw no trouble in telling an untruth, since it simplified the acts she performed with the man who gave her the chicken. Her mother seemed to know. She got a rabbit skin from an Indian boy and later three more. He had a brother who gave her tobacco and a pipe made of stone, hollowed out with amazing ingenuity in the shape of a crow. There also came to Adele a small brown jug full of liquor which she tasted with the tip of her tongue and winced before replacing the wooden peg in the orifice and putting it away it tasted so awful and a candle stub and a knife. These things she all found a place for and eventually, perhaps after her mother and father spoke to one another but not to her about what had come into their lives with the coming of age of their daughter and her visions, her father built her a small cabin outside the yard cleared of trees and stumps, in another clearing out of sight of the family home.
People came to visit her there at all hours of the day and the night. They stayed for a little while, sometimes longer and they always brought something or something next time they came and the sounds of the small place echoed and re-echoed through the trees around the little cabin called Zion for reasons of her own. She could not read, but she knew the name Zion had meaning.
God wrote it in the Bible.
The cabin became a chapel. It measured twenty one feet square, a single room with one window and one door and a chimney made of rocks and mud which hardened into clay with the heat from the fires within. The door secured with a branch from the inside laid across two stanchions and from the outside by inserting a twig in a hasp, but otherwise the cabin had no means of preventing anyone from entering at any time and in the summer the door remained open despite the insects, for the smoke from the fire kept them away. She kept house simply, living with her thoughts and others as they came and went. People had a way of coming and going and no one ever fought or created a disturbance, as though the very air around the cabin became sanctified by what the cabin came to mean. People left food even if they did not leave it with her by leaving it in her hands. She would come home from a walk and find a slice of bread wrapped in paper on the bench outside the door or a pot of beans or a slice of meat hung high on the door where the dog could not get it or a jar of pickles or beets or beans sitting there where she could not fail to see it.
She didn’t like beets.
The jars came in handy.
She collected pebbles by the stream of fish bones from the beach, perhaps a feather or a bead, trinkets from life that went into the jars and became her only decorations, but men sometimes brought her things store bought and handsome in their own way, pieces of cloth and once a pair of shoes she found attractive and functional so she wouldn’t get her feet scuffed on he rocks that poked up through the soil.
She had a reputation.
People came to her with questions, but most of them didn’t have a questions other than the one they wanted to ask, the real question of so many lives.
“Do you have time for me?”
“Is this a good time?”
“I wonder if you could spare a moment?”
That kind of question in many forms.
They all had the same answer, the one she loved to give, the one her vision told her to give all the time.
“You do you want me?”
“I can be yours for a little while.”
She died after a long time living in the little cabin.
No one knows how many people came to visit, how long they stayed, how old they were or of what religion, race or creed.
Some people said so many no one would believe.
Some said the same few over and over again so it only looked like a multitude.
No one ever knew.
She died beautiful and serene.
That they all agreed and one thing more.
No one ever knew where she lies buried.
Anyone who ever made a disparaging remark or cute reference to the position of her body beneath the ground tended to suffer a severe accident or cruel and lingering death.
The cabin remains standing to this day.
It is a shrine.
The Great Peshtigo Fire burned one million two hundred thousand acres the night of October 8, 1871 and following day. Two thousand people lost their lives the same night as the Great Chicago Fire, but few people know of the fire that obliterated the town of Peshtigo and swept into the air to leap Green Bay and start massive fires dozens of miles away in Door County. Only a few sites remained unscathed in proximity or in the path of the fire and one of those happened to be the cabin where she lay that night with her best friend’s brother, the girl who kissed her and held her hand the day they spent together in the barn. It was that girl’s brother and they lay together on the straw mattress in the cabin where the one window faced south and the door faced west and the sun appeared to rise twice that day as the sky became red like dawn in the hour or two before dawn.
“It’s the end of the world,” he said.
“I don’t believe that,” said Adele. “You need to believe in something good, not something bad.”
“I shouldn’t have come here,” he continued. “We’ve committed a sin and God will punish us.”
“Nonsense,” said Adele.
She pulled a knife out of the chink between two logs.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“It’s a knife,” he said.
“Bright boy,” she might have said, but she said, “If I stab you with it what will happen?”
“I’ll bleed. You’ll hurt me. You could kill me.”
He still watched the glowing red in the sky.
“What happened when you put yourself in me?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You did know. You told me. You told me it felt good. I told you the same.”
“Yes,” he admitted somewhat reluctantly.
“So if I stab you and it feels bad, then it’s a sin and I shouldn’t have done it, but if I let you stab me with yourself, then it doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t bring injury and death, it brings life. Even if I die in giving birth, it gives life. That’s the idea. That’s the difference between sin and virtue, at least that’s one of them. Do you want to stab me with yourself again?”
“It must a fire,” he said. “I’ll be its a fire out there somewhere.”
“Whatever it is it can wait,” said Adele. “Put yourself back inside me and talk about love. Tell me what you want to do when you grow up.”
The Peshtigo Fire is the worst fire recorded in American history.
The cabin today stands in the middle of a well kept yard because the people who bought the property have no idea of the reality they bought. They know the cabin measures twenty one feet square and smells of chickens, because years after it became a place for humans it became a place for poultry and although humans never fouled it fowls did and their essence remains, so not all the human smells and extrusions made the indelible stench, but the chickens that produced eggs and became food for the table, the innocent animals left the offensive taint.
It stands there tonight beneath the stars, the empty cabin with its memories and murmurs. The stars have seen wars and winters, drought and failed crops, seen the sun and clouds in their courses and myriad plans and hopes and dreams of all those who have lived their lives nearby; for no one has lived in the cabin for many decades. The county passed an ordinance to demolish the nearby property long ago. It had fallen to decay. The house and its grounds were bulldozed and they might done the same to the cabin, but it seemed special. There aren’t that many cabins in Door County any more. People grow sentimental as they do over war, as they do over a battlefield and that is why perhaps they pass the cabin by undisturbed, because they know something happened there that cannot be explained, something happened there primitive and unrecorded.
What are these messages we try to tell?
What are these signals we write in smoke and dreams we try to remember?
The churches are public. They hold no secrets. The places of true worship are never places where the public is invited, only tolerated if they happen to come at all, because the public cannot know. They were not there. They are curious, but they come too late. They are uninitiated. They cannot possibly penetrate the mystery.
“Did I do well?” she asked the vision.
She lay dying and she saw the vision as she gazed up to heaven and it came.
“Did I do well?”
“Yes,” the vision answered, “you did well indeed.”
“Did I miss any opportunity to do good? Did I fail? Did anyone go away unrelieved? Did I turn away from those in need?”
“You gave to each and every one. I sent you not one you turned away.”
“Am I forgiven then?”
“You were never condemned, never blamed, never accused. I never gave a second thought to hat I myself told you to do. It is my commandment you obeyed, my love you presented whole and undefiled.”
“How many?” she asked. “Is there a number?”
“It is mine to know,” said the vision with the thirteen stars. “I am the keeper of all you need to know. Come to me. The time has come.”
“I come,” she said. “Receive my spirit.”
“As you come from me so return, my beloved sister, my child and my Only Begotten Daughter.”
A great gasp came from heaven and the heavens opened to receive the one who made them whole.
Ghosts come out when the people have gone, all the people, the summer people, the autumn people, the spring people, all the people who come for comfort and go away disappointed if they don’t get it. The ghosts don’t follow the people. No self respecting ghost would follow any living person. It’s the living who follow the ghosts, to go where they have gone, to know what only a ghost can know.
When the people have gone and all the shops that cater to people have closed, when the trees are bare and the comparison with skeletons is too obvious, when clouds scud in ever increasing numbers until they hide the waning sun and triumphant moon, the ghosts proceed to make their presence known. They have no reason to hide now, no reason to be afraid.
“We know the secrets. We know all the truths we could never know in life and cannot tell you now that we are gone, but we can give you clues. We can whisper words you might not like to hear.”
Winter is coming. We come from a time when winter did not so much mean cold as it meant pain, to be in pain for months on end. Cold brings so much pain before it makes you numb. If you take something for the cold to make you warm like whiskey it makes you numb before the cold and then the cold is deadly because the cold makes you freeze. The whiskey only makes you stupid, so you don’t care what happens.
When you find it feels so much better than when you lose and we know so much about losing, because we have lost it all. Not even a little bit is left, so we like this time of year, when everyone must go back and start again. Even the year will come to an end and all the numbers of how days and months are counted will return to what they were when they began.
Geese fly overhead wild and free. Men hunt them, but I am like them, not the men the geese.
My heart beats rapidly. My heart is within. I am not afraid of cold or wind or adversity. I care nothing for distance or pelting rain or snow. I care only for one thing, the star that guides me and my place at the point of my flock. I lead them. They follow me. I know the way.
On Friday evening, October 15 in the year 1880 the side-wheel steamer Alpena left Grand Haven, Michigan bound for Chicago, a distance of 325 nautical miles. The weather was perfect, an autumn summer of calm winds and almost warm temperatures with a chill after dark, but nothing uncomfortable, nothing a shawl or a light jacket would not alleviate. The Alpena left her dock at 9:30pm and the lights on the boat cast a glow upon the water. It headed southwest and the next day would find it safely berthed at Chicago. It extended 197 feet did the side wheeler Alpena, powered by a single cylinder massive and connected by a drive rod to a counter balanced beam above her flying deck which powered two 24 foot radius paddle wheels. The single smoke stack towered over thirty feet above the uppermost deck, held by guy wires and turnbuckles and two wooden arches incorporated into the hull reinforced the ship from sagging beneath the weight of her boiler and crankshaft. She was an ungainly vessel, more like a river boat or intended for lakes much smaller than the mighty Lake Michigan, but her captain had no doubts as he piloted her away from the dock. They would see Chicago at dawn of the second day with Captain Nelson W. Napier at the helm and no fewer than eighty souls on board, perhaps as many as one hundred. The ship’s clerk held the passenger manifest and no one would ever know what happened to the clerk or the manifest or the passengers or the captain or the Alpena for at approximately 3am on Saturday, October 16, 1880 the worst gale in the history of Lake Michigan came up from the southwest. No one saw it coming. No one heard it coming. No one survived its coming aboard the Alpena. The temperature dropped from near seventy degrees that day to freezing with snow as far south as Chicago.
At approximately 6am and again at 7am and 8am on tht first and last day of her voyage the Alpena was seen by the schooner Irish and by Captain George Boomsluiter of the barge City of Grand Haven by then about 35 miles off the Wisconsin coast of Kenosha, far off course and wallowing in the tempest. Other captains not loaded with apples or passengers or a piano in the main saloon reported her capsized as she drifted north then with winds shifting west and northwest eastward again to Michigan. Debris washed up along the coast for twenty miles including thousands of apples in the surf at Saugatuck. No bodies were reported recovered.
None of them on that fine day in October knew as they boarded a ship destined to carry them to the bottom of the frigid lake, the captain and his crew. How firmly he must have held the wheel and when at some point he knew the ship would founder, how firmly he must have held the wheel. How faithfully the First Officer J.H. Kelly must have tried to reassure the crew and passengers and carry out orders to the end which came when the water broke down the bridge and rendered the steering gear disabled. How perhaps the Stewards John Brown or William Shepard held the hands of elderly passengers or attempted to assist children and young parents even with the lie the Alpena could ride through any storm and then know the fires were out and the furnace quenched with the cessation of the walking beam that drove the paddle wheels.
Oh, the trust and the sure confidence as women in pleated skirts reaching to the ground boarded over the gangplank with portmanteau or valise in hand or paid a deck hand a few cents to carry it aboard, perhaps with parasol to ward off the sun come morning or a small pet in arm, perhaps a lap dog or the sort in fashion who sniffed and snapped at those who came too close and the children, the several well behaved children in suitable attire, tired from staying up so late to board the ship but fascinated that they among their schoolmates and nursery friends would get to ride out upon the water and the young men with romantic eyes looking at the young women and those young women looking back in a civilized age before they ventured to wonder if by chance a time might be given aboard when they could speak, never likely to ever see one another again, but not in reference to the hideous fate awaiting them when the darkness began to eat and dismember their world.
“What’s that sound, Mother?”
“It’s only the wind, dear.”
“When will we arrive Chicago?”
“Not long. This ship is so much faster than if we traveled on land and isn’t this fun, to be out on the water? Isn’t it exciting?”
“My name is Ralph. What’s yours?”
“I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do now, isn’t it?”
“My name is for my friends.”
“Could we be friends?”
“My name is Alice.”
“Hello, Alice. My name is Ralph. I’m glad to meet you.”
“Who was that young man?”
“That was Ralph.”
“Do you know him?”
“We just met.”
“He’s impertinent. You will remain by my side.”
“I just met the most wonderful girl on the lower deck.”
“Yeah. Her name is Alice.”
“You give me a pain. You’re always meeting girls.”
“They’re not like this girl. She’s beautiful.”
“You give me a pain. What time is it?”
“Jeez. Lay off and get some sleep will you? I’m dying if I don’t get some sleep.”
“OK, but she’s beautiful.”
“So dream already and shut up.”
“How do you make the glass?”
“Falling sir, falling rather fast.”
“I’d like you to make sure our bunkers are secure in case we cross into rough weather and see to the lashings on that cargo deck, will you? I want nothing loose.”
“Dear Mother, I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to write next. I want you to know how sorry I am for the misunderstanding that made this trip necessary. I’ll try to find Dad and bring him home. This is all about pride and money and I know neither is stronger than the love this family bears for one another and the right way we can follow to bring us all together again. Don’t worry and expect word from me at the first opportunity. Your loving son, Randolph.”
John Osborn or Osborne was aboard with his wife and three children.
Accounts varied as to debris scattered along the Michigan shore for a distance of twenty or seventy miles.
This is my dream. This is what I am going to do. After I have done everything else that needs doing in my life, I’m going to California to a place in the Greater Los Angeles area I know called Marina del Rey that is Coast of the Sun. I went there years ago on my way to Catalina and I noticed they had a lot of boats. I’m going to buy one. It will be a sailing vessel and I’m going to name it the Pride, because my great uncle on my grand mother’s side, my father’s mother’s uncle named Christopher Klingenberg served as the captain of a three-masted schooler named the Pride in the late 1800s and on a day in November in 1902 he ran aground in Washington Harbor on the north side of Washington Island during a fierce winter gale. She missed her stays as he attempted to tack out of the harbor and ran aground just south of the east harbor entrance and sank in about forty feet of water, but not immediately. Ice covered the ship like a crystal shroud and pictures were taken, but nothing could be done to save the ship and when the next storm came she broke apart and there are pieces lying on the bottom to this day and people can visit them if they know how to dive. I won’t visit them. I don’t want to see them. I want to sail my ship into Washington Harbor on a clear day in May and drop anchor about fifty yards off shore, take off all my clothes but the white shorts I’ll be wearing or maybe all my clothes and dive off the bow as an old man tanned by the sun and toughened by the sea, for I will have sailed the Pride down the west coast of California, past the Baja Peninsula of Southern California, along the coast of Mexico and Central America, through the Panama Canal and into the Gulf of Mexico, then along the Gulf Coast and around the Florida Panhandle, up the Eastern Seaboard and into the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes where I will sail to yes the north shore of Washington Island and into the harbor by that name. I will swim to shore and clamber up on the rocks to be greeted by those who know I am coming and walk to my home, the house I will inhabit for the rest of my days, stopping briefly to place a bronze plaque on the War Monument which bears the names of my father and his brother who fought in the Second World War and whose names belong on the monument and then I will be home and I will rest and I will give the boat to someone and they may do with it as they wish.
It will always be mine.
I do not know how to sail at this writing.
I have a sixteen foot rowboat I now name the Pride.
It sits on a pair of trestles outside my office window, covered by a tarp for the winter.
It’s a good beginning.
“I lived for sixteen years in a log cabin down by the water, sixteen years of waiting and wanting. I spent all my money to buy the land for miles around and worked to gain enough back to build the biggest house in Door County. Others worked for me. I paid them, but they worked for me. They worked hard. I worked hard. All life is like that or should be. You work hard. Then you die. It’s a fair trade.”
“I lay upstairs in the house I spent sixteen years building and keeping, sixteen years learning everything I needed to know about lumber and building and every aspect of home repair and maintenance and it all came to this morning on a cold day in February when I lay there and wanted to die. That’s all I wanted to do, not die so much as rest from all the turmoil and the pain, the endless numbing cold and heartless cruel indifference of my family, of anyone I thought cared about me or gave any thought to my life, of anyone I thought cared about me or gave any thought to my life. I lit a kerosene heater and brought it into the room, made sure the window was closed tightly, then closed he door and placed my bath robe at the bottom rolled tight. I installed that door. I finished those walls. I hung he wall paper and built the closet. It had been done, all of it, to accommodate my family, my own family on a farm in Iowa. Then I lay down on the bed and watched as the flames from the heater reflected on the snow white ceiling and I prayed a prayer as the oxygen in the room depleted from the Perfection heater. Funny name for a heater, I prayed, “God, this will be my last prayer to You. It won’t be very fancy. Please help me.”
“I bought all the lumber from Menominie and had it shipped across Green Bay. I specified Number One Clear Pine, that is white pine without knots, not a single knot in boards ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen and eighteen feet in length and up to one foot wide, a full one and two inches thick; two by fours full dimension and timbers four by six and six by eight, perfectly clear of any imperfection. I wanted everything perfect and I got what I paid for. My home would not have a single knot hole in any of the framing lumber. It would have three floors and a cupola on the roof and a total of fourteen rooms with a ballroom on the second floor so my daughters could be married in high fashion with all the extras and memories a man could buy. I wanted it all and I wanted the men who married my daughters to know I could destroy them even in love with all I possessed. I could never be beaten. They would always have to come to me for the permission or experience they required. I stood in the cupola of my house like a man on a mountain, surveying my domain, but from the top I could see the cabin where I lived when all I had were dreams and youth and sometimes I would go down to the cabin which stank of fish and water and just sit on a crate and remember and in some ways, I confess, the remembrance of what I wanted before I gained anything came sweeter to me than the knowledge of what I came to own. I tell you this in confidence. I don’t want it known.”
“In 1902 my great uncle Christopher Klingenberg sailed his ship the Pride into Washington Harbor and he never sailed it out. She missed her stays and sank in forty feet of water after grounding on the rocks. In 1896 his wife died, the beautiful Eliza died and ten years later at the age of eighty two he wanted to leave. He wanted nothing more to do with the town or its people or any of he wealth he had amassed or the dreams that had come true and gone back to dreams through the doors of memory. In the next century the house would sell four times and finally become a boutique selling collectibles and souvenirs to tourists as the lamp of commerce other than recreation and hospitality flickered and died and Door County became a place of leisure and antithesis of the work that had made it habitable.”
“I survived the divorce and loss of my home and all I worked to obtain or create over almost two decades. First I went to work in a nursing home as a nurse’s aide. Then I became a sales clerk in a book store, then a sales agent in a different state selling trips to fancy people on private aircraft and never able to escape the wonderment and dreams of a life beyond my own, unable to defend myself and never able to create the gift that if not otherwise bestowed, can never be realized. I went away from everyone who knew me and started life again, out of nothing, as though a pioneer and a refugee, certainly a survivor of the wars which rage now in America after the natural resources have been plundered. We exploit one another and only the strong survive, unless by the grace of God we find a place called home.
She sat on the great porch and looked out over the town.
“What a bunch of hicks,” she thought. “What a bunch of losers. I can’t stand this any longer. I wish I could sell. I really do. I wish I could be done with this place and call it quits,” but she couldn’t. Not yet. She had a score to settle with herself. It required a final act, a gesture of contempt and she hand’t found it yet. They confounded her with their microscopic brains, their pathetic attempts at city planning and their resentful attitudes toward her wealth. She could feel it. They wanted to prove that just because she had money she couldn’t do anything she wanted. They wouldn’t let her. It would all fall apart,because they wouldn’t let it happen. They would stop her and so she hated them. She accepted the challenge and wanted something so big, so bold, so daring, so incredibly irresistible she would have them at her mercy. She hated them and she hated very well. She worked very hard. Her husband was dead. She had no love interest in her life and her children had grown up just like her. They only cared about money and so she had all the opportunity she needed to be conspiratorial toward the very community in which she lived like a witch of sorts, not bound by necessary conventions or habits, a free agent ready and willing to destroy or build upon caprice. She smoked her cigarette in silence and drank the rest of her seven and seven, Seagram’s Seven and Seven-Up, a nice combination for a lady.
Hannah Hilton sat at her desk in the offices of Tamara Trails Real Estate in Madison and watched traffic going by on Mineral Point Road. Sales had been good. They’d been good all quarter. fifty thousand dollars earnest money had been wire transferred into the agency account that morning. It landed with its twelve digit transaction number into the ten digit business account number guided by the nine digit bank routing number and there she sat, twenty five years old with cosmetically enhanced breasts, a four year old son in day care, no husband, a boy friend who flew for United Airlines and slept with her every chance he got, a body trim and fit from workouts at the gym in the same building as her condominium and everything in order this fine day in Madison as she watched traffic going by on Mineral Point Road. She wore a handsome business suit with a white blouse and string of cultured pearls around her neck. She left the top two buttons unfastened on her blouse if you didn’t count the button at the collar and that let her cosmetically enhanced breasts produce a fine almost one might say perfect cleavage visible to all those who might walk in to take a look at real estate after they tried looking away from her breasts. Her boss would be in Seattle today and tomorrow at a conference so Hannah didn’t have to try too hard today, this Hannah Hilton and her stiletto heeled shoes, her hair piled up in back, clutched by an art deco enamel pin and her legs crossed behind her desk so she cold see the traffic. She enjoyed her third cup of coffee for the day. It didn’t make her nervous. She enjoyed the caffeine. It made her alert. She liked being alert. She preferred it over every other feeling. She knew too much coffee might stain her teeth, but if that happened she could always have them whitened every so often if she wanted whether they needed it or not and even if too much coffee made her go to the bathroom a lot what did that matter? She had a bathroom right here at the office a few feet away and it had a lock on the door. She never stayed in there too long. She didn’t need to. She had everything under control, even her bodily functions, especially her bodily functions and she always tended to business. That’s wall that really mattered. She had another man interested who called her every so often, but they hadn’t gotten around to sleeping together, yet. It didn’t matter. They would. It didn’t matter.
Hannah looked at a paper on her desk, a rather large piece of paper from the office of Wisconsin Land Surveyor Jim Drawnbee, a rather odd but interesting name for a surveyor, until she looked him up on Google and found he didn’t look interesting at all, just as you might expect a land surveyor to look in Wisconsin and she looked at the paper he produced, a Plat of Survey for a Gov’t Lot 2, Section 34 in T. 34 N., R. 29 E. of a town in Door County, Wisconsin. She knew T stood for township and R stood for range, but she didn’t care. She looked at a lot of other numbers and names on the map she didn’t understand. She’d taken a course in reading survey maps at Madison Area Technical College, but she didn’t need to know anything about a map like this one. She only needed to know they needed one at Tamara Trails to complete the paperwork and conduct real estate business and the buyer paid to have the map drawn and Hannah Hilton gazed with disinterested eyes, the same eyes that beheld the traffic on Mineral Point Road. It all bored her exquisitely. She really had no interest, but she needed the money and she got a personalized business card with her picture printed in full color and her name embossed with gold and her telephone number and all the other contact information about the agency in elegant script. She liked the card. It gave her existence meaning as did sitting in the office today with nothing to do. She had the photographer take her picture twenty three times to get he right angle and her smile. She looked at the survey map. It had a Legend and Surveyor’s Notes, a Description labeled Tax Parcel No. 028-02-24542912L and she read a little, “A tract of land located in Government Lot Two (2) of Section 34, Township 34 North,” and she skipped to where it said, “Commencing at the East one-quarter corner of said Section 34, thence S which meant South 03°08’46” which meant three degrees eight minutes forty six seconds E which meant East along the east line of said Government Lot Two (2), 441.16 feet to the point of beginning, thence continue and she looked at all the other words, but she didn’t read them and her eye roved to the Surveyor’s Certificate and his seal and some other stuff and dotted lines and a Green Bay label on what she knew meant water and all the lines stopped there with a scale in feet and an arrow pointing N for North.
“God,” she thought. In church last week she heard a man talk about what the place had been like where she now sat in an air conditioned and heated office on Mineral Point Road. He said as a boy his grandfather had owned the property and he played where she sat in open fields with cows and horses and orchards and all that had been sold in ways she could understand if she tried and subdivided and all these buildings had been built. Down the street the community college had once featured a giant reflection pond with fountains, but the college couldn’t afford the location any more and the standpipes for the fountain stood up out of the marshy and overgrown bottom of the long since drained pond like vestiges of some long forgotten architectural nightmare and they never should have built if they didn’t have the money the old man said and she agreed or maintain, but that didn’t matter any more because all the farm land had been converted t commercial use so long ago it probably happened before she had been born and it would continue to happen long after her death. She didn’t think about it. She never thought about death. She didn’t mind thinking about cows and horses and that might have been nice, but she didn’t like cows and she didn’t ride horses and she didn’t go to McDonald’s and eat hamburgers because she didn’t know where the meat came from and she liked to eat healthy and she should call the day care because she’d be picking him up early because she could go home early today because her boss wouldn’t be any the wiser.
It all belonged to the Indians once, she knew. She knew cars and trucks had once not existed, but that didn’t matter now. Here they were on the road outside her office window. They never stopped. She didn’t care about them stopping. Why should they? Even if they did, they always started again or people called a tow truck. She couldn’t imagine a world without them. They could tear down her office for a road or a parking lot if they wanted. That’s what happened. Roads and parking lots were more important than anything, except maybe shopping malls or restaurants. She didn’t own the office building. Even if she did she’d get a good price and it wouldn’t affect her if they tore it down. She could drive somewhere else to work, maybe better. She could even find another job. With her tits it would be easy. She had nice legs. She had her breasts enlarged before she got married and she could still use them when she wanted. They were a good investment. Men loved nice ones and women did too once they got over the envy, but she never went that way at least not yet because women who did never seemed to have as much money as me who did and would someday like her boyfriend or other man she hadn’t slept with yet but wanted to and would. She wondered what it would be like.
She had two hours before lunch. No one had come into the real estate office yet that morning. The phone had not rung for twenty five minutes. The last time was another robotic call that came from out in the California desert and sounded like a warning from a voice simulator saying the cops would be called if she did not reply immediately and give her Social Security number and birth date and she would be arrested. She looked at the clock. She also had a watch on her wrist that cost five hundred and ninety five dollars and would be replaced by the watch she told her boyfriend who flew she wanted for Christmas and that would be nice, but she didn’t have it yet. She thought about what she wanted to do. She could probably do it now and no one would care. It wouldn’t matter. She stood up from the desk and walked to the office door and put a small clock placard on a hook held by a suction cup on the glass of the door and indicated a time yet fifteen minutes in the future with the adjustable red plastic hands of the clock. Then she locked the door. She’d only need ten minutes. She knew from experience. She returned to her desk. The telephone in the office rang four times before it automatically switched to a message machine so she wouldn’t miss any calls and she opened the top right drawer of her desk which she kept locked. She kept the key in her purse and her purse always at on the floor under her desk where her feet rested in her Ferragamo shoes and sheer panty hose unless she slipped her shoes off for comfort. She unlocked the desk drawer and reached to the back of the drawer and took out a rectangular box with a spring loaded lid and left the drawer unlocked, because she’d be putting the box back and she took the box with her as she walked down the short hallway in he offices of Tamara Trails Real Estate agency to the women’s restroom and entered where she would be completely alone for the next few minutes as long as it took with the rectangular box which contained her battery powered vibrator.
Elroy Hurth sat in his office on the main campus of the university, the state university with a commanding view of the state capital.
All those letters should be capitalized,” he thought, “the words main campus, university, state university and state capital should all be capitalized because he, me Elroy Hurth’s name is capitalized and I am president of this university.”
The indignation of life bore in upon him. The title president did not seem enough. All his life he sought for more and by God he got it, although he paid for the increase with his life. He might have been satisfied with the job he had in college, checker at a grocery store. He snorted. He might have taken the managerial route and advanced to produce manager and then store manager and regional manager if he kept his nose clean, but no. Merchandise never won his heart. He sat in class as a student and envied those who taught him, especially the showman, the egotists, the pretty boys of information and academia who propped up wisdom as it propped up them.
“I want to live like that,” he thought, “regardless of the subject.”
An apt pupil, envy had always been his favorite subject.
And as a checker he took special note of what people bought as he hoped and fully intended to buy the same good items for himself someday, the yogurt, the Camembert, the succulent greens, the broccoli crowns, never the stems. Why pay for waste and God forbid, why eat them? The wines he had to call a checker twenty one older than himself to ring up . The pastries and whole wheat multi-grain bread, all the foods and sundries of the well informed. No one ever bought an item he didn’t attribute to their character and he over time had become a good judge, even forensic specialist of character and significantly, a point that escaped him, primarily among the dead, that is, those in life who had stopped living. He had a fine eye for detail, but none for spirit, so he sat in his office at the state university, one of the most prestigious men within the landscape he surveyed, yet a very small inferior man, elevated by the world’s penchant for small inferior men.
He hated very well, this man. He hated the governor who had cut over one hundred million dollars from the university budget in two terms. It would take a lot of fund raising to regain even a tenth of the amount and why bother? He hated enough professors and department heads it would give him extraordinary pleasure to cut a few off and blame a negative political climate in the newspapers as the politicians blamed a negative economic climate which they themselves created but no one without a doctorate in economics could figure out and anyway the president, this man served at the pleasure of the board of regents, God what an odious depiction of dignity and they owned companies and they did business and they loved basketball and football, especially football, so all he had to do to remain favorite is enthusiastically endorse the hottest, most expensive coach to lead a winning team to national title and that automatically brought in revenue to offset the rigging governor’s cuts and benefited everyone all the way down to the vendors selling overpriced t-shirts in the parking lots.
A coach earned millions of dollars per year plus benefits, but if you considered a few million as investment capitol to stave off tens of millions in lost revenue and concessions, it made perfect sense. They were coaches or players. They were commodities, public relations specialists. Noe one gave a damn about the game, just the air time, not the time of the ball in the air, the time of the team on television.
The government and the university used to be partners, working side by side for the good of the people, but those days were gone.
“Screw the people,” thought the president of the university, “and screw the governor and the horse he rode in on. Screw them all. I make more than the coach. At least there’s some sense of decency left in the world.” He graduated magna not summa cum laude from college this college and hung on, got a pissy little associate professor’s job he parlayed into full professorship after fifteen years of ass kissing and boot licking and then after fifteen more years of unrequited devotion to the ignorant, foolish and hopelessly inept, not to mention his students, he achieved leadership of the department which entitled him to sit at the head of the committee room table and meet with the president who preceded him more than either of them would have otherwise found convenient hating each other’s guts.
It went something like this.
“Harold, you know I have the utmost respect for you.”
“Lying bastard,” thought Harold.
“I feel it incumbent upon me to bring a matter to your attention that, well, quite frankly has the potential to damage the school’s image.”
“University,” said Harold mildly.
“We run a University,” said Harold. “It’s not a school.”
So they didn’t like each other. Harold made it clear.
“What’s on your mind?” asked Harold. He knew Elroy as the undisputed king of bullshit and Harold had no time to waste on this or any other day. Harold had cancer.
“That log cabin on the stadium grounds,” said Elroy, “shouldn’t be there. We can move it. We can preserve it. Hell, we could put it in the State Historical Museum, but it doesn’t belong where it is, in the shadow of the athletic stadium. I want to set a new standard, a new forward vision for this school,” and corrected himself, “this university.” He wouldn’t be sworn in as university president for three weeks from last Tuesday at precisely noon.
Elroy referred to a rough wood hut measuring six feet square and six feet high at the eaves, built of two by twelve deck timbers bolted together with three tiny windows in each wall used during the Civil War to house Confederate prisoners in Madison where temperatures during the winter went and stayed below freezing and zero degrees and wood huts such as the one the only one surviving were the reason one hundred and fifty Confederate soldiers lay buried in the cemetery a mile away from pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, frostbite, malnutrition and dysentery while mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord.
“I’ve never liked you,” said Harold to Elroy’s complete and utter astonishment.
He’d file a complaint. Hell, he might even file a lawsuit.
“That log cabin as you describe it is a hut once used by Union soldiers to confine their Confederate brethren during the Civil War or as the South prefers to call it, the War of Northern Aggression. It stays right where it is as a reminder that in this land of football heroes and pampered academics we once lived in a nation where school boys who could neither read or write beyond the elementary grades signed their names with an X if they didn’t know how any other way and marched off into the mouths of cannon for an ideal neither side would never live to see. Do you know what’s written on the granite monument to Cowan’s First New York Battery of artillery at the copse of trees on the battlefield at Gettysburg where Longstreet told Pickett to focus his charge that fateful day on July 3, 1863?
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” said Elroy.
“Double canister at ten yards,” said Harold. He got up and walked from his desk to the window. They met in the president’s office, the same desk and the same window where Elroy would soon preside barring a miracle.
“In the name of God,” Harold thought to himself, “don’t let this jackass become president of this university,” but God permitted Harold to die of cancer and Elroy to become president of the university.
“The Almighty has His own purposes,” said the Bible and Abraham Lincoln and Elroy could care less.
What Elroy could care for he found hidden in his wife’s dresser drawer under a pair of underwear he’d never seen before, a note inscribed as follows in part, “Dear Crazy Legs, Why can’t every day be like today? Why can’t my arms find their way around you all the time? Why can’t you come to me as you did with your arms, your legs a fine around,” the note went on and with the signature he didn’t recognize the president of the university vowed revenge against his wife who took it first by divorcing him, but first another five years would pass in which he complimented himself on his restraint and acumen and she hated him with a hatred beyond all reason, but without the means to live without him did not know what course to take but toleration of his incessant demands upon her ability to respect herself as a human being.
“I hate him,” she told her lover. “I hate him more than you can ever imagine. I married him because I hate myself. I married him because my parents taught me to talk back to no one who represented authority and when I met him he had the chairmanship of the department almost in his hands. My father told me, because my father served on the faculty administration, so he had my parents’ approval and that meant more to me than my revulsion at his touch. He touched me like a fish, like being touched by a crab or a carp, something with scales or a shell, not like being touched with flesh or flame, like what I feel when I’m with you. This makes me want to live, but he made me want to die even from the start and I went to church and I talked to the priest about it and the priest said die to self. What the hell did he think I’d been doing? Imagine, a man sworn to a life without sex telling a woman to die like a savior on the cross. I believed him. There’s something in all of us, I suppose, that wants to be a hero, wants to die for love, but death isn’t love. It’s just death. We never had any children. I didn’t want any with him. I used to get down on my knees and thank Heaven for my period, because it meant I wouldn’t bear a child by him for another month. I lived a lot of those months. Then I started taking birth control pills. I never told him. I never came. I never had an orgasm with him. I never faked one. I didn’t have to go through that charade. He didn’t care. All he could do he did in a few moments, blind moments of piggish rutting and then he’d just stop and pull out and roll over and go to sleep and I lay there pressing the back of my hand against my mouth to keep from screaming. I felt violated every time. It went on for years. I went fr decades. Everything I read or tried to find to help didn’t help at all. In a world of righteousness or sin you really can’t find any middle ground, but I respected myself enough to never get involved with drugs or liquor. I didn’t want to be asleep or stoned when redemption came. I always dreamed it would happen. I hoped it would. Then I met you. I found love. Do you know what that means to me? Do you know what freedom means to a woman who has been imprisoned for all these years? Look at my body. I can show you pictures of when I didn’t look like this. You should have seen me in a bathing suit. You should have seen me fit and tan. There were years I ran and swam and played tennis just to get away from him. I punished myself just to experience life on my own for a few minutes and he showed me off to his friends. He really didn’t have any friends. They hit on me. I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone having anything to do with him actually becoming part of my life, like a contagion you avoid. He felt himself superior to everyone he worked with or pretended to admire. He harbored hatred like a Nazi harbors the image of his Fuehrer. All he had to do was look in the mirror and salute. Well, he made it. He became president and now I’m going to divorce him. I’m going to file the paper and walk out and if he lays a hand on me or if he tries to hurt you in any way, I’ll kill him. Maybe not physically, but I can do better. I know things about him, things I won’t even tell you. I know what he does. I spent my whole adult life looking and searching and finding and keeping and I have him in the palm of my hand. He’ll do anything I tell him, because I have the power to destroy him. Now put it back in me, lover boy and let’s be happy. I’m going home tonight and he maybe there unless he goes to a meeting and tomorrow I sign the papers.
The storm is coming.
It will come with fury unabated and power and all will be swept before it. Centuries of heritage and history will be obliterated, consigned to record and memory as most glory is through history, because history cannot contain all that is real, ornate and complicated. It must be reduced to a few iconic symbols and those remain at the pleasure of the intervening culture and convictions.
The Lincoln Monument with the statue of Lincoln gone.
The Washington Monument snapped off half way and the other half gone, perhaps broken up for building materials or paving stones.
The Library of Congress a burned out shell.
The Grand Canyon partially filled with cars until they can be scrapped and salvaged or buried and forgotten altogether.
Courthouses and state capitals overgrown with trees and weeds and birds nesting in the rafters of chambers where elected officials once debated laws.
What a terrible storm.
The cries of the wounded and struggling no longer heard.
Only the silence of death and disappearance over the landscape.
The world is no longer complicated.
It is simple.
If you have strength and a weapon, if you belong to a clan or a tribe or a club you live. You may even prosper, but you cannot rely on complications to make your way for you. The way is clear. Only the strong survive.
The roads are empty.
The roads are dangerous.
There are armed and dangerous men at night and there are women who don’t like men who are also armed and dangerous.
People kill for food, whereas once they killed for other reasons.
This is worse.
This will not be quickly ended nor will anyone come to make reports.
There are no policemen or firemen on duty.
There are only soldiers and most of them wear no uniforms.
If you have strength and a weapon, if you belong to a clan or a tribe or a club you live. You may even proper, but you cannot rely on complications to make your way for you. The way is clear. Only the strong survive.
The storm is coming.
It is almost here.
When the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, before Plymouth had a name, the people died because the people had come to discover a new life. They did nothing wrong. They only hoped to live by the few rules they could invent to help their colony, but they died of dysentery and typhoid, exposure and bacterial infections. They died of pneumonia and food poisoning. They were buried at sea, their bodies dumped overboard into the freezing salt water and they only came for a new life. Now there is another death, not instigated by wilderness but by terror and selfish pride, a form of madness born of excess and bizarre thought, nightmares originally intended only to entertain and amuse have become the standard of social degradation.
The storm is coming, filled with all those images that have been used to shock and horrify. They will not be so entertaining when they come for real, when the storm comes to savage the audience that thought they could turn it off or someone else would turn it off for them.
There will be no electricity or running water that is safe to drink, no natural gas at the turn of a switch and no machine will work as intended.
Listen to it howling, a storm without soul or conscience. It will not listen to reason. It is ordained by God. No sermon will stop it. No prayer will avail. No worship will quell the circumstance of its retribution. The babies killed, the animals slaughtered, the crimes committed, the money wasted, the weapons preferred all will be represented in the storm and the storm will prevail. Then will come a new America. Something will happen.
A New World will be found.
My eyes have seen the world, so many things I cannot count or number yet they return in visions of light and shadow, colors arrayed against my memory as paints upon a canvas left waiting to receive them, eternally white and ready to be filled.
I remember the cold of a distant land, white and barren, frozen into winter sleep, draped in snow and ice, the sky a grey nothing, expanse of cloud so thick only God could blow away the fabric. How I stood as few have stood before me, draped in furs and insulated clothe to receive the blast of winter, a solitary man in a barren expanse. I didn’t mind. I came there to experience the solitude and I survived to experience the crowds and push, knowing the nothing from which it all might return. I set my face against the blast and walked through the crusted snow, pushing my way toward home or outbound to some distant goal important only to me. I walked though temperatures cold enough to freeze water before it hit the ground unheated, liquid when I poured it out, vapor of ice when it landed. I knew that cold. I can tell I knew it sometimes late at night when my fingers ache for no reason and I realize the cold has left its mark. It has not imposed a physical scar, but it sliced through me and my soul stood there to greet it.
I love the cold.
I knew blizzards.
I knew snow falling sideways on wind so strong it pushed over everything not already frozen. I knew deep drifts and agonizing ice and twinkling diamonds of sunlight through water exquisite beyond the dreams of Cartier, Tiffany, Harry Winston or Bulgari or all of them combined on a single day in a single blaze of orgiastic splendor. No one saw it with me. I found it all alone like Edmond Dantes in the cave of Monte Cristo. How rich it made me I can never tell, but I am wealthy beyond your wildest dreams in what I have seen and heard, the crunch of my well shod feet through crusted snow in search of where it all might end, envious of those who have gone to the Poles, but knowing I am their brother.
I am not afraid of cold.
And I am not afraid of you.
What can you do to me, you who have always sought comfort when I have sought the edges of what I might survive. I challenge you by my very existence and I suppose you feel it when I walk into the room. I look different. I act different.
I am different.
I am smart enough, tall enough, strong enough and still mean enough to put my strength against any task I might conceive and pull it off. I’m good at what I do.
The storm is coming.
The great march of history will be upon us soon.
The stores will close.
The cops will ask for identification and you better pray you have the right kind or even if you do they’re the right cops and not out for blood or money.
You better have the right papers.
The storm is coming.
I know storms.
Do you know how to take a shot of whiskey and not make it master of your soul?
Do you know how to do the same with a woman?
Do you know how to do the same with money or love or this day God Almighty has given you?
The storm is coming.
It’s closer now than when you began reading this line of words that lead but cannot lead far enough away or fast enough for you to avoid what’s coming for you.
It came for me.
The storm is coming.
When gasoline is forty dollars a gallon, when you can’t buy gasoline, what will you do? Will you still love your wife and children or do you even know where they live? Have you spent all your money on guns and ammunition? Are you ready to use them now?
Do you know your neighbors?
Do you trust them?
Have you ever spoken to them?
Do you know what they intend to do, because they don’t know you and they might think you will shoot first, so maybe they should go ahead and shot you just for safety sake or just for fun?
What do you know about storms?
And human nature?
What about human nature?
Have you read your history?
Do you know what men and women do who have lost all faith and decency?
They make storms look peaceful, because the human storm is wicked and cruel and worst of all unnecessary.
Here it comes.
Maybe there’s a place you think you would like to go, a place where you will be safe, but there you may find people who have found your place before you got there and claimed it for their own. What will you do when they appeal to you for mercy and then show you mercy is no longer up to you. They don’t intend to move and you can’t force them no matter what you do. All of it is as it has always been. Only the strong survive. Only the strong prevail. The history books were right and correct and all the revisionists nothing but callow self-congratulating fools.
If they think it has anything to do with justice or fairness or right or wrong or sustainability they are all the more mistaken. It has to do with strength and they get what they asked for, what they demanded as true. They accused God and called Him irrelevant and ushered in evolution and revolution now they get exactly what they asked for. They get themselves.
We live in a dark age. It is electronic, but the fires are out. Without electricity we are stone deaf and mute and savage, inarticulate and brutal, simply helpless against forces we no longer understand and feel ourselves at odds against. It all happened swiftly as we declared our progress and congratulated ourselves on technical achievement, all the time racing at every increasing speed toward the abyss from which there is no return. Many plunge headlong. Many are swept along and a few, those few chosen for survival not be themselves but by the God of creation will live to see creation continue and make whatever adjustments they believe are best in the light of a new yet altogether familiar reality.
We have done this to ourselves.
In this country, in this land of the free and home of the brave, in this country of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the most beautifully conceived government in the history of mankind, we have done this to ourselves.
We have only ourselves to blame.
No government has done this.
We are the government.
We have done this.
No king or potentate has done this.
We are the people.
We have done this.
We vote. We have the right to petition for redress of grievances. We have freedom of speech and assembly and we have every opportunity to question and learn and yet we have failed every ancestor and American citizen who has gone before and hoped for a better world for themselves and for those who follow. We have wallowed in selfish excess and demanded more and more for no other reason than what we simply want is now what we believe to be our right to have whatever we want in any quantity and there is absolutely no restriction and on our requirement and appetite for comfort and pleasure.
To even suggest we might be wrong or fat or lazy or selfish is to be undemocratic, unpatriotic, un-American.
The world stands aghast.
We have become our own worst enemy.
We have become the increasingly worst nightmare of liberty.
We have become a decadent democracy.
What does not please us we change. What we can no longer tolerate of ourselves we simply eradicate. The monuments, the great reputations, the characters of history must all be removed or denounced as so deeply flawed all who came before are fools to have ever believed in them. What is more, there is no truth other than the truth within ourselves and we are not obligated to try and explain it, only express it in half uttered contemptuous cat calls and screams of injustice and prejudice where no evidence need be produced, the accusation alone is sufficient to condemn.
It is, in a way, another Coliseum, a place where people are brought to fight and die for the amusement of a public that cares nothing about ethics or morals or crime, only the sensation of being witnesses to blood mixed with sand. We pay to witness murder. It comes in many forms. It began with sounds and images on radio and television and now it comes real to our doors and windows and there is nothing we can do to turn away our otherwise pathologic invited guest. It knows where we live. It already has seen inside our homes and lives. It will come to stay. It has no intention of leaving. We made it welcome. It will not forget our hospitality.
The car at the intersection with the entire front end ripped away because someone coming in the opposite direction ran a stop sign or ignored the traffic light, we do not know if the person in the vehicle has been killed or critically injured. We pass by. Someone else will clear the intersection of debris. We are grateful the accident did not involve us. That is all we feel. We are grateful it wasn’t us. The accident happened outside a church wile the services continued uninterrupted. Why should anyone go outside and disturb the service? Two blocks away a few months before a man in his seventies walking his dog was killed by a car traveling more than one hundred miles an hour in a thirty-five mile per hour zone. The death happened on the property of another church. The car came to rest in the church parking lot. The church chose at its sermon topic “Be Still and Know That I Am God” thirty six hours after the homicide on Sunday morning. One year before that another man died when his car collided with a tree after leaving the pavement again at speeds in excess of one hundred miles per hour on the same street and the car was torn in half by the impact with pieces landing on the porch of a nearby house. No trace remains of the accident today except a place on the tree where the bark has not grown.
So in this land of the free and home of the brave there is violence.
What can we do?
It is our responsibility now to record the facts, not try and change them. People will follow this path until it leads them to the final destination. The great experiment in freedom in America will come to a conclusion written not by human hands, but by the hands of God. he is working on the manuscript today and the reading of it will not be light.
It will make a great lesson in humility.
It will make unborn generations wise in a way we can never be, because we have not asked or been willing to receive the same lessons learned by other people who no longer live to share their stories, but the stories are there. We can read them if we want, but we must realize they will make us sad. In the same way a vaccine inoculates against serious illness by introducing a mild dose of the same hazard, we will receive a melancholy but not the fatal illness, if we will but listen to the lessons already learned by those who troubled themselves and no trouble us to record them. All the lessons are known. There are no new ones. We have only to avail ourselves of the facts.
We took everything we wanted. We all but exterminated the buffalo and did exterminate the passenger pigeon. We drove the Indians off their land and gave them only what we didn’t want unless we discovered we really did want it after all. We never questioned our own authority, any more than slave owners questioned the right to own slaves. We still treat the earth as a piece of shit and the earth knows it, so do the oceans, rivers, lakes, the very air we breath and there is only one phrase in the Bible that should cause us any interest or concern and automatically put theologians and professional clergy out of work.
God is not mocked.
Yet we mock Him. We mocked Him all along. If He had not been a Christian god it might not have mattered, but we chose to call Him by the names we learned from the carpenter of Galilee and therein lay the condemnation for when we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki we neglected the fourth option which would have called for a national day of prayer to decide by God’s hand whether to use the terrible weapon or the fifth option not to use it at all, but we used it not once but twice and continued the test and develop it as the god of our salvation and in the decades since every social ill, every deterioration of value and ethic can be traced directly to the fact that our society is based upon not love nor under God the spirit of love, but fear and god as fear, the hideous visage of devastation and destruction against which no calm assurance, no contrite confession of personal sin can stand. We have done this and the churches, all the churches of the Christian faith, have bowed in turn to the monolithic phallus of intercontinental ballistic truth and the poison eggs of nuclear armament. No one has cried out and those who did in numbers too small and voices too weak to make any difference. If God’s people had risen up and declared themselves friends of life and love and eternity on earth as God has demonstrated its beauty and complexity through the ages, we would not be now in the state of madness to which we have descended, but a choir in robes and a collection plate at the end of the second hymn seems to be the only regular way in which the people of God find it convenient to exercise their faith.
They will pay now.
They would not pay voluntarily.
They will pay the cost of being cowards in the face of the enemy.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” has a simple answer.
“Because you’re a wimp. You please me not at all. You’re cowardly and hypocritical and more concerned with the color of the carpet in the sanctuary than the color my blood which is the color of your own upon the cross. I’ve forsaken you because you’re selfish. You’re no son of mine.”
“What can we do Heavenly Father to atone?”
“You can go straight to Hell.”
So what we find is not theology, but sex. Not democracy or socialism or neo-Platonism or Classicism or exorcism. What we find is sex. After all the complicated structures of society and the ways in which men and women find to rule over the lives of one another or themselves, sooner or later it comes down to sex. You can call it love if you wish, if that makes you feel better, but even love can be so ornate it bears no resemblance to the simple act of sex and what sex does when it is potent. It engenders life. When sex comes of age and finds its fulfillment, it makes a man a father and a woman a mother and whether or not they ever took the time or even cared whether or not they married in some fashionable way, the child is born. Every war, every plaque, every natural or man made disaster, every weapon ever fashioned draws its conclusion somewhere before or beneath the essential truth that life prevails and life prevails through sex.
That gives us our souls.
The only real example I can give is from personal experience. I saw a woman dying of cancer, wasting away to a cadaver in a bed, but she still enjoyed having her hair done and the company of adoring friends, all women who looked upon her as a saint. She played piano and had lived a solitary life. She wrote, “The only way to Godliness is chastity” and I might have believed her, but I went to her apartment to help collect personal items from her funeral when the end came and we opened the door upon a morbid, cold, dirty, barren cell with virtually no furniture or decoration whatsoever and she had lived there decades. She lived not in poverty, but in squalor, a mess of missed opportunities to be delightful, to be hospitable, to be eloquent with her life and to be fun. Instead she chose the life she eventually lived, the life that leads to death before death comes, a poor dilapidated soul who could never be a women because the greatest sensual act she could imagine was crucifixion and she performed it on herself since nobody else stepped forward to perform it on her.
Nobody wanted to.
She made sure of that.
She didn’t die of cancer.
She committed suicide.
Men hated him because he associated with pimps and whores and bartenders. If he didn’t say anything, if he didn’t teach anything, if he hadn’t made any other name for himself, they would have remembered him for the company he kept. He let children sit on his lap and they didn’t feel afraid. He had no grief within himself, no hidden fires, no anger and no pain to make them pay for his own inadequacies. He came from God and when God had done the best he could with the people who saw him working the miracles and feeding the multitude, God let them gather him up, bind him tight with his arms behind his back and slap him in the face until his teeth loosened. They flogged him, spit on him, cursed him, showed him off before the howling mob and then gave him something heavy to carry which of course he did because he knew what he must do. He knew it before they knew what they were doing to him. It all fits beautifully into a grand tapestry of pain and realization, evolution and development through time and space. It’s over now. The pain is over. The tomb is empty. The clouds are ready to part and here we stand, staring at our smart phones, dumber than we’ve ever been, staring at our screens while the heavens begin to tremble and the great mystery of life descends.
What a surprise when the angels begin to sing and we think it’s a siren, when the heavenly hosts shout hosanna and we think its the next public service announcement broadcast as a test of the emergency broadcasting system for us to ignore. Then we will be consternated. We won’t be happy and happiness will never come again.
We will be just who we want to be, inheritors of the greatest nation ever devised by the mind of man who ran it into the ground because we loved a good buzz.
You’re going to have to get over this crap about being better than everyone else and realize without everyone else you’re nothing.
The scum of the earth came to these shores and made a great demonstration of the nobility and pride that can come from ruin and despair. They made this nation from scraps and pieces and now the time has come to turn it around and put the world back into the equation. Not that we made it fr ourselves and we intend to keep it. Even our forefathers knew better. We need to give back what we learned. If we do we’ll get more. If we don’t, we’ll perish.
It’s that simple.
Make it more complicated if you want.
The Indians who came here with the dawn of creation can help you. They watched you come much later. They can help you put clothes back on the land and help you stand before it naked and unashamed.
Right now even that scares you.
“I didn’t like you at first,” she said. “I really didn’t.”
“I knew you were trouble. I sensed it. I don’t like trouble. I hate it, actually. I try to avoid it. I know its inevitable. Well, I suppose its inevitable, even Biblical, but I hate it all the same. Why shouldn’t we have as much heaven on earth as we can?” she asked. Then she said, “I’m not really asking you. I’m telling you.”
She liked telling him things. She didn’t like asking anything. She knew too much, had seen to much life and didn’t regard him as serious in her life, until he became that way. She couldn’t get rid of him. She tried, but he wouldn’t go.
Now she tried to make the best of it.
“What first attracted you to me?” she asked.
“Freedom,” he said.
“What do you mean? You enter into a relationship to be free? Most people go away, enter into solitude for freedom, not toward anyone. You didn’t get freedom when you got me,” she chided.
“I got what I wanted,” he said. “I wanted you.”
“Why? I’m asking you why?”
“You’re beautiful,” he said. “I like the way you look.”
“You’re easy to please,” she said.
“No,” he said. “I’m not. I’ve never seen anyone like you. I knew the moment I saw you I wanted you. I intended to have you and I did.”
“You’re not the first,” she said.
“I don’t need to be,” he said. “I don’t want to be. It doesn’t matter to me. All I want is you whether others have you or not. I’m not particular, nor selfish.”
“You’re the most selfish man I’ve ever met. I like you for it. That makes you the luckiest man I’ve ever met. I don’t like selfish men as a rule. They bore me rather quickly, but you don’t, because you have a way.”
They sat there across from one another, in full possession of the moment, a shared intimacy that admitted of no other influence or hospitality. They just wanted to concentrate on one another.
“Do you want me to say it?” she asked.
“You conquered me.”
“There’s more,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “The hard part, the part you really don’t want to admit, the one thing you’ve avoided more than anything throughout your entire life.”
“You don’t know me that well.”
“I know you completely. You’ve never wanted to engage or be what you are now, but you’ve come to it and now the time has come to make your confession. Go ahead. I’m waiting.”
“You really are bad,” she said.
“You could wait a long time.”
“I will. I’ve waited this long.”
“I love you.”
“Say it again.”
“I love you.”
“I love you. Make me say it again and I’ll scream.”
“Go ahead,” he said. “I love you too.”
“What do you want from me?” she asked.
“Everything,” he said. “Is there anyone else in the house?”
“Tell me the truth.”
“Why should I lie? You’d find out.”
“You damn right,” he said. “And so would they.”
He held the gun in his right hand.
“You got anything to eat?”
“Lots of things. What do you want?”
“Don’t be too friendly.”
“Listen to you. I’m being held at gun point and you ask me to be scared. What do you take me for? I was an Army nurse. I saw combat in Viet Nam. You think blood is a novelty? You need to grow up.”
He stood there indecisive.
“Give me something to eat,” he said. “Anything.”
She went into the kitchen. He followed. He kept the gun on her but he realized he didn’t have to. He credited himself with being able to react to her and so he put the gun to one side, pointed it as something other than the small of her back as she walked away from him. She went about the business of being attentive to his needs. She made him a sandwich and poured him a glass of milk. Then she thought better of it.
“I have some beer,” she said. “Would you like a beer?”
“I’ll have one,” he said.
She poured him a beer. She pried the cap off the bottle and poured the beer down the inside of the glass by tilting the glass to receive it and creating a minimum of foam. The beer filled the glass and left the bottle about half full. She set the beer bottle and the glass on the counter beside the sandwich she made of whole wheat multi-grain bread, a little mayonnaise smeared on both slices, a wafer thin slice of aged Swiss cheese and a few pieces of honey cured ham before she cut the bread into two triangular wedges with a sharp knife which she handled without apprehension despite his nearness with the gun and laid the knife down beside the finished sandwich.
“There,” she said. “It’s all yours.”
“Sit over there,” he instructed her.
She sat over there, by a window.
“And no tricks,” he said. He more or less had to say it, like they do in the movies.
“Do you want me to talk to you while you eat?” she asked. “Or do you just want me to be dumb?”
“I don’t care.”
“What makes you think you can get away with this? You’re more or less trapped in this house,” she said. “If no one saw you come in the chances are twice as good they’ll see you leave. Everyone in this town knows I live alone. Someone will call the police. They’ll call the minute they see you. Everyone has a cell phone. They’ll call in your license number and the make and model of the car and if you take my car it’s the only red Mercedes convertible in the county so you’re worse off than if you walked.”
She didn’t get a response. He at the sandwich and drank the beer.
“Or ran,” she added.
He finished the sandwich and poured the rest of the beer from the bottle into the glass.
He drank it in one swallow, a long one.
“I won’t leave,” he said. “I’ll spend the night.”
“Hi Mom,” she said as she stood on the front porch after her mother answered the door. “I was coming up to the cabin and I just thought I’d drop by. How’re ya doing?”
The attractive blonde stood at the threshold, very attractive. He held the gun loosely in his hand and stood behind the louvered doors leading from the front hallway to the kitchen. You could see right through the house to the kitchen from the front door, but she couldn’t see him. She walked by her mother without being asked into the house and her mother stood there silent while her daughter began to unbutton her coat and shake the wet out of her hair. It had started to rain.
“I don’t know why I bother to get it styled,” she said about her luxuriant and perfectly cut hair. “This weather ruins everything.”
“It looks alright from here,” he said and she wheeled around the face him. He stepped out from behind the louvered doors through which he caught a glimpse of her as she entered and liked what he saw and pointed the gun directly at her stomach.
The young woman almost fainted, about half the age of her mother. She had never fainted in her life, but this was close. Her mother would never faint.
“Who the hell are you?” she said, the young woman managed to say through a breath she gulped like a fish in water. She regretted saying anything or asking anything, but it just came out. She was so scared she might say anything. She berated clothing store clerks and grocery store checkers and service personnel of all kinds, but she thought better of speaking at all to a man holding a gun, too late to keep her from saying what she wanted. She had never been so scared in all her life. She had never seen a gun in her mother’s house or in any way pointed anywhere but in the movies and on television. There it seemed normal. Here it seemed obscene, utterly and irretrievably obscene. She thought amazing thoughts, none of them good or life affirming, all of them having to do with blood and internal organs spattered across the room.
“I’m me,” he said. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m her daughter.”
“I gathered,” he said. “Come on in.” He motioned laterally with the gun.
“Mom,” she said, turning savagely toward her mother, “you could have warned me.”
“Why?” he interrupted. “Nobody’s going to get hurt. I wouldn’t dream of hurting you. Would I dream of it?” he asked the older woman.
She shook her head.
“No,” she said. “You wouldn’t. I don’t believe you would.”
“That’s right,” he said. “We wouldn’t. Keep walking,” he motioned agin with the gun.
They all entered the kitchen. The lights were not on in the kitchen and the lights outside had not turned on automatically as they would while the light of day faded noticeably with the hour, the rain and the increasingly heavy weather, so no need to gather the curtains or make any alterations to the routine of the day. They all made themselves comfortable in the kitchen, him far more comfortable since he held the gun.
“What are you going to do?” the young woman asked and she kept asking questions in a sort of hysterical litany of self-importance that primarily centered around her life, her children, her husband, her business, all the people that depended upon her and it seemed as though she would never stop talking, the young woman would never stop talking about what she perceived as a threat to her own life and happiness and the threat to her own security and the threat to her own universe of which she apparently lived as the center.
“Shut the fuck up,” the man said to her.
She didn’t stop.
She just kept talking.
So then a remarkable thing happened. It happened this way.
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” the woman said. Then she said, “Here, give me that,” and she stepped over briskly to the man with the gun and took it away from him. She took it away from him without a fight. He more or less handed it to her because he felt something happened in her that made her want to use it if not fire it, but he couldn’t be sure and he knew his instincts told him to go ahead and give her the gun. She pointed it at her daughter.
“Whoa,” he said.
“Mother,” the daughter said.
“Shut up,” the mother said. “Just shut up for once in your life,” and she stood there doing what she should have done a long time ago, face her daughter with utter authority and complete control. “I’m ashamed of you,” she said. “Do you realize how ashamed I am of you, how utterly humiliated I am to think of you as my daughter? I gave you everything and I tried to make you appreciate what I gave you, but I failed. You’re a twit, an absolute self-centered imbecile and you haven’t got the sense you were born with. I’m so grateful you’re not who you think you are. I’m so glad you’re not Harold’s daughter.”
Harold was the name of her deceased husband, the man she’d been married to for twenty-nine years when he died, just two weeks short of their anniversary for which they had been planning for a year all for nothing.
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying the man I screwed that summer up here two years after I married your father is the one responsible for all that blonde hair you’ve got and the blue eyes and probably everything else I don’t like about you.”
“Nice,” said the man.
“You stay out of this,” said the woman. “I’m not finished yet. You have no idea,” she continued turning on her daughter, “no idea whatsoever about real life. I suppose it’s my fault. I tried to buy you off, assuage my own guilt without you even knowing I had anything to fee guilty about, but look what I’ve done. Jesus, what a dish you turned out to be. Did you know I had a little brother who died at twelve of an ear infection, screaming until he was too weak to scream any more and died in bed at home when I was ten years old? Did you know that? No, how could you? I never told you, trying to protect my precious little girl from the big, bad world. I had two more siblings, a boy and a girl. They were twins, but they died at birth, right out of the womb and we buried them in the same coffin to save money. They were lucky they got their names on a tombstone. The funeral director felt sorry for my folks and didn’t charge for the second name.”
“You never told me.”
“Shut up. I’m telling you now. Just shut up and listen. I spent a year in the children’s hospital with typhoid fever I got from drinking water out of a bad well. We had a pump by the side of the kitchen sink and we carried our shit outdoors in the winter in a chamber pot. We never had indoor plumbing while I lived in that house. My father had a fourth grade education. Do you understand what that means? I know I’ve told you, but did you ever really understand what that means, for a man to go out into the world and try to earn a living with a fourth grade education? My mother died at the age of forty-eight from overwork and worry. Families invited me to live with them. They felt sorry for me, but I learned never to feel sorry for myself. My Dad started drinking and worked nights at a metal shop. He never gave up. He died trying. I got married to your father, but he isn’t really your father. He’ a nice enough man, but do you know why your grandfather got us our first house, before you were born? The house you grew up in, do you know why he bought us that house and kept us under a roof? I’ll tell you, Little Miss Sunshine, it’s because every Wednesday or so for about three years he came over and gave me the good fucking he said I deserved for being such a good wife and mother and such a real good daughter-in-law. That’s the kind of man you had for a grandfather, the one they honored at church for being on the deacon board for twenty years. They should have put him in prison, but he’s dead now so what the hell? You want to mess around with my daughter? Go ahead.” She handed the gun back to the man who looked about as thunder struck as the girl who just stood there unable to speak or move and suddenly fainted dead away, straight down to the floor as though someone had let all the air out of a balloon.
“What now?” he asked.
“How should I know? You’re the bandit.”
“Think she’s alright?”
“OK. I think its time I got on my way.”
“You just got here.”
“I’m pressing my luck.”
“You’ll need this,” the woman said and put some food in a bag. “Take the car, but put it somewhere safe and if you value our friendship, don’t wreck it. Why should I get penalized for being so generous?”
“You’re incredible,” he said. “No really. You’re incredible.”
“You come back here when my daughter doesn’t come waltzing in and I’ll show you how incredible I can be,” she said. “I’ve been around a lot longer than you and I can teach you more than a few tricks.”
She put her hand firmly on his crotch, looked up into his eyes and made a kiss with her mouth without kissing him.
“Later,” she said, “but not too much later. I’m not getting any younger.”
“Oh, what a sad world it will be in a few hundred years,” he said. “All this will be gone. We’ll have to go to a new place, because all the new places here will gone. We have no hope to preserve them, save them, any more than we may hope to live forever, not in this world.”
“You see,” he said, “we live and die through seasons. We start out young and growing. We grow old and whither. We may try everything to stay young, but we cannot. We must age. We enter it inevitably and then we die. We are remembered or forgotten, but what will we care? We have gone on. We cannot halt the process. We cannot even conceal it. People who try are artificial and irreverent of the process. The process is actually quite beautiful. It won’t be beautiful if you don’t love life. If you love every chance you get and make yourself vulnerable and available to the needs and opportunities of love you’ll live. Otherwise you’ll die before your time. That’s what time it is, my dear. It’s time to love.”
“Love is eternal.”
“Don’t worry about dying.”
“Love and don’t worry about anything.”
“Look at all this. It’s all going away. All of it will be removed and rendered utterly barren. Why? Because it happens to everyone on the face of the earth. We all suffer life, but life endures and all of us must learn the same lesson. No one remains ignorant. We are proud and we say, “You can’t knock this over.” It doesn’t mean anything to me. I’ll knock it over. You can’t fire me, I quit, but not for long. We’re too young to know better and we’re too young to lie convincingly. Our parents know when we’re telling a fib. We’re telling one now. We don’t know what to do so we’re pretending. Our father will come home from work pretty soon and we’ll catch it when Mom tells Him what we did. Even if she doesn’t tell Him he can figure it out for Himself. He’ll punish us because He loves us. He’ll punish us for what we did, but its so we’ll grow up big and strong and He’ll say, “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” and He’ll be telling us the truth. Trouble is a lot of children these days are bastards.”
“They don’t have a father.”
We have been so innocent in America, so unwilling to use our powers to conquer, but we have forsaken our first love. We subdued a continent. We exterminated species, but we never disciplined ourselves. We never taught ourselves the rules of endearing ourselves to others.
This denigrates our Christian outcries.
This is the End of Part Two
There are Four Parts
This is the Beginning of Part Three
And the great storm came, the great white storm to inundate the land and cover all the works of man. Every aspect and detail leveled white and featureless in the unmitigated authority of God to ravage and reduce and return to basic elements that which had been constructed through the filter of man’s soul. Every design and function, every plan and completion, every rock and rill whether moved or left of its own, completely rendered blank in the omniscient will that brought it out of nothing.
Thus it came, predicted and foretold in whose path man could do nothing and did nothing of value to mitigate the deluge of frozen splendor, because it is beautiful, this great event, this great reminder of what it means to be humble and contrite before the forces of nature and of nature’s God. Animals burrow down. Men and women seek warmth and some, finding none, despair and retire to the doom of their convenience, for the storm will render all preparation inadequate and ignorant of reality imposed so casually by a force almighty and obliged to omnipotence. It will come. It has come. What has it done? What has it covered?
What has this once blank page recorded for those who will read?
One million abortions are performed per year in the United States.
Forty thousand traffic fatalities occur per year in the United States.
Every day twenty-nine people die in motor vehicle crashes involving a drunk driver, one death every fifty minutes in the United States.
Seventeen thousand murders are committed per year in the United States.
Three hundred thousand persons are raped per year in the United States.
Forty million people take anti-depressant medication in the United States.
Ten million of those who take anti-depressant medication have taken medication for depression more than ten years in the United States.
One million people inject themselves with heroin per year in the United States.
There are ninety guns in America for every one hundred residents or at least two hundred and seventy million guns in the United States.
Twenty thousand people use guns to kill themselves per year in the United States.
There are one half million homeless people on any given night in the United States.
Our six hundred billion dollar budget for national defense is greater than the annual defense budgets of the next seven largest nations combined compared with the United States.
Twelve million children live in households where hunger is termed ‘food insecurity’ in the United States.
One fourth of all high school freshmen drop out of school at the rate of one every twenty six seconds or seven thousand dropouts per day in the United States.
One hundred and fifty six motor vehicles are stolen every day or one every six and a half minutes in the United States.
Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce in the United States.
There are four thousand and eighteen nuclear warheads stockpiled with another two thousand eight hundred considered retired but not dismantled and over one thousand four hundred nuclear warheads deployed on a variety of delivery vehicles including intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers by the United States.
In God We Trust is the official motto of the United States of America.
“It is all so different today.”
“What do you mean?”
“The land has been depersonalized. It has been bled white of its spirit and its good. The land is now money and money is to be hoarded and kept and given for what only brings more money. It is a thing now and no longer a soul.”
“You call it progress. I call it illness. Something must happen now to return the land to its mystic good.”
“What might that be?”
“I don’t know. I am a man as yourself. Perhaps some great battle. Then the land will be revered for the struggle which took place upon it and the land will gain its fertility once again from the blood of man.”
“That’s a fearful prospect.”
“It has all been fearful. Your forefathers came here and desecrated all they discovered. They cut down and burned the forests. They cleared the land to plant crops. They built fences from the stones they found in the fields, the stones that got in the way of their rows and rows of planted crops. They impoverished the soil and the water. They captured all the fish and when the fish became too small to catch in their nets they wove smaller nets to catch the smaller fish until not even a line and hook would catch a fish. They turned the land and the water the air itself into a plaything or a machine. Whereas a man might give his life in exchange for the land upon which he sought to exist and raise a family now only money answers the needs and only money is accepted in exchange for what once required love and hunger and spirit. Now there is no spirit. There is only pleasure. It is a hunger for sweets.”
The old man stared blankly into the darkness.
“Do you know why I see so well?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “Why?”
“Because I am blind.”
It ll stays the same.
The way the sun comes up and when, no matter what they say about which revolves around the other. The way light plays through dancing leaves, the way the wind makes them dance.
The way a man or woman doesn’t know who they are or what to do as they awaken from sleep until something or someone calls them to reality. Then you know nothing changed. It all stayed the same you’re glad, but even so something way down inside or just beneath the beating of your heart wishes it were different.
Now you know the dreams you saw as you slept are merely dreams and you know unless you dare nothing changes.
It all stays the same.
The way your feet sound on the gravel as you walk, in time with the beating of your heart, the way sky and earth enfold you. The rocks have seen it all, but even if they form from sand or cataclysmic forces, even if they return to sand and wash away, they know nothing changes.
It all stays the same.
The cars that hurtle by a few feet away s you walk down the road toward town are nothing new. They are the lives of other people. If you step in front of one inadvertently or think you know what you are doing and you’re wrong, you will die. It is the same as it has been with an arrow from the bow of a hostile Indian or a bullet from the gun of a bandit. It might have been a tetanus germ from the ax you used to split wood for the fire when it glanced off a knot in the kindling and cut your ankle deep. It means your life is over. You’ll go back where you came from. Even if they burn you and smoke from your flesh and bone rises into the sky or roots and worms take you to be a part of themselves nothing changes.
It all stays the same.
What do you want to do?
What do you really want to do?
Is it what God would have you do?
You better ask Him.
He knows nothing changes.
He knew it all stays the same.
He’s not about to change it all for you.
Far more likely it’s you He’ll change or hell is thinking you’re the ne who knows and hell is what you get and hell is what you give and God just laughs.
It all stays the same.
Seagulls today sound the same as on the day they first took wing. The wind right now is the same Jesus spoke to Nicodemus of that night upon the roof in Jerusalem. A camp fire tonight will be the same as Roman soldiers stared into on guard outside the tomb and people will live or die as they have always done, but some of them will hope.
The ones who know life best will hope.
Their hearts will be broken most profoundly, because life is exceptionally cruel to those who hope. Their tears will be hot and they will wet the very pillow on which they rest their head and if they bleed they will bleed more than those whose hearts have turned to stone.
Those who love will live with a shout and a cry and a passion because they know nothing changes.
It all stays the same.
They know love wins. They know light prevails. They know justice and mercy and crowning glory adorn the few and all who would be saved from the snares and eternal darkness of death and oblivion or if the old ones had it right, the fires of Hell.
It all stays the same.
Now it’s your turn.
He asked through rotted teeth.
You could smell the stench of his breath, as though the contents of his bowels were connected to his mouth. He didn’t ask to find out. He asked to refuse, unless of course you had the money.
It had to be gold.
You had to have gold.
If you had enough of it, he’d just as soon kill you.
You didn’t have to have much.
“No,” came the reply. “I’m here to tell you something.”
“What?” The word didn’t come through his stinking lips. It came through his silence, his glaring inhospitable silence, filled with hate, contempt and revulsion toward everything but his own insatiable appetite for meat, bread and any alcohol.
“I own the ground you stand on.”
The dog on the plank floor did not move, so when the spit from the putrid man who owned him landed on the dog it came as no surprise. The spit contained tobacco juice and a few black, sodden crumbs. The next expectoration would be aimed at the new comer. It never came. The man who said he owned it all kept talking. He said it with a bag of leather that sounded like money when he dropped it on the rough hewn table and emphasized the statement by placing his hand on the butt of percussion cap revolver loosely tucked beneath his belt.
“Here’s how it works,” the new man said. “You work for me now. I own this hole nd instead of you waiting for the next poor bastard to walk through that door so you can skin him, I’m going to pay you one dollar a day to sell what I say at the price I say. I know what I sell, how much and how many, so if I ever come up short either way by your hand I’ll cut it off. Savvy?”
The man with the bad teeth spit on the dog again. This time the dog moved. The man took it as a bad sign. He didn’t have that many teeth left. It hurt every time he moved his jaw. The poison had gone down into the bone. The dog crawled away and went outside. This morning the man who couldn’t pee more than a few drops at a time or hear any more on the left side saw a dead seagull on the beach and dreamed last night a dream he couldn’t understand.
Fear helped him answer.
“Savvy,” he said. Then he asked a question.
“What’s your name?” he asked the man who stood there before him in rugged clothes and wore a knife in a sheath in addition to the pistol which shoulders obviously broad and powerful. He stood tall and clean shaven, although he hadn’t saved in a couple days and he wore hobnail boots below his turned up canvas pants. You could hear the thick soles of those boots against the planks of the floor. He wore a black bib front shirt with big pewter buttons.
Leviticus Thorpe told the man his name and walked away. Later the man he bought told his woman about the dream. She had Indian blood, so she knew about dreams.
“I dreamed somebody stole my goddamn hat,” he said. “When I got it back I could tell they’d run over it with a goddamn wagon or something and I put my hand clear through it up by the top and it had the damn brim near torn off. Now what the goddamn hell something like that all about?”
The woman did not answer, but she knew.
It means pig man you are now only a pig.
Glory Hanson stood in the offices of B.H. Mecomb and Associates on the twenty-fifth floor, the top floor of Mecomb Tower downtown. She stood there in Feragamo shoes, black suede with silver buckles. Her black panty hose, as far as could be seen below her business cut knee length dress, showed a faint iridescence. The dress itself, a new Yves St. Laurent, featured polished buttons, also silver in a double row, overtly military in style with epaulets at the shoulder for further emphasis. The collar had lapels. Glory Hanson looked smart. She looked stunning. Her figure could have been used to model the dress on any runway, but she bought the dress and the shoes for this interview and she meant business.
So did Bruce Higby Mecomb. He’d flown back yesterday from three days in Las Vegas, an extended weekend to celebrate signatures on a five million dollar project development in Door County. Now he rang his secretary on the intercom and said, “Let her come in,” which meant Glory Hanson who he’d never met had five minutes to say something he might ask her to stay and discuss. He decided she could stay longer the moment she entered his office.
B. H. Mecomb rose to greet her and held her hand when she offered it a fraction too long. He looked at her a way she understood. She sat down. She crossed her legs, but she straightened her skirt after she set her briefcase on the floor beside her chair. He didn’t sit back down behind his desk. He came around the massive oak sarcophagus and sat down beside her on the other chair. He turned the chair first to face her. Their knees were about one foot apart. He didn’t lean back. He leaned forward.
That’s when he said, “What can I do for you?” and she knew he wanted to put his hand on her knee.
“Nothing,” said Glory Hanson.
“I’m sorry,” said B. H. Mecomb, his voice going up at the end.
“So am I,” said Glory Hanson.
“I don’t understand,” he said totally mystified.
“I’ve changed my mind,” said Glory Hanson. She took firm hold of her briefcase and stood. He now looked up to her, too surprised to rise.
She walked out of his office.
“Is there a problem?” asked the unquestionably voluptuous secretary in the pretty much all glass outer offices of B.H. Mecomb and Associates.
“No,” replied Glory Hanson as she pushed open the door to the elevator lobby. Then she changed her mind again.
“On second thought,” she said, “you can tell your boss his fly is open.”
“What the hell is going on?” asked B.H. Mecomb who came out of his office as the elevator door slid shut behind the footsteps of Glory Hanson.
The secretary shook her head and shrugged. She knew Glory Hanson had spoken the truth, even though he zipper on the pants of the man who paid her salary and a little something extra every so often did not appear open.
Now comes the hard part.
You walk out the door and a beautiful woman comes running down the road. You see her afar off. She runs toward you as you walk toward her.
You see her hair flying and her hips working as her legs take each stride easy and loose. She comes straight on. You each occupy the same side of the road. She runs with the traffic. You walk against it. As the distance becomes less, you see what had been only silhouette now all but naked, a beautiful young woman in full bloom of life coming closer and closer, closer and closer.
“Good morning,” you say and salute with a tip of your finger to the brim of your hat and she’s gone without a word, without a glance except to look away. She’s gone. She won’t look back. You don’t turn to see if she did. You walk on and on the ground at your feet, a dead animal, eyeless and flat, struck by one of the vehicles that hurtle by at fifty or more miles per hour, faster if they dare.
A road marked Wildflower Bath lead to nowhere also marked Dead End. There’s a sign For Sale on land Chief Black Hawk once said could belong to no one, because only what could be carried away could be owned, but we come from a race of dump truck drivers and earth movers.
“You want this dirt moved?” he asked chewing on a cigar he didn’t bother to light. “You tell me where. I’ll sure as fuck move it.”
He climbed into the cab of his Mack truck and slammed the door.
“I sure as fuck will.”
He started the engine and that’s him hurtling down the road by me and the beautiful blonde who ran by going the opposite way. He sees her and shouts and honks, but I didn’t hear what he said and she didn’t stop. She knew men are mostly trouble. That’s why she runs. They get you pregnant.
There’s a dead rabbit on the roadside. Another vehicle killed it. There are hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of people killed on American road every year. No wonder we love football and game shows and lotteries and guns and killing things for sport. We kill so many things by accident.
The farmers market across the road is run down. It doesn’t know what to sell, so it tries to sell everything, but the only thing of value is a McCormick-Deering Model A Farmall tractor parked in the back of the store, impossibly surrounded by stuffed toy animals and canned goods, candles and caramels and knick knacks and you have to wonder, in a world of starvation and ignorance, is it really our best wisdom to design and build a virtually indestructible farm implement and then consign it to the role of a decoration for the inside of a tourist shop?
Where are the tourists?
Why don’t they come?
Maybe the next generation of people to arrive will be refugees.
Maybe they’ll have to move heaven and earth to get this tractor out of the gift shop and back out running in the fields so people can grow enough food to survive.
Makes you wonder.
When you open the front door of this place they don’t have a bell or a buzzer to announce your arrival. They have the recorded sound of a rooster crowing.
Time to leave.
This is the End of Part Three
There are Four Parts
This is the Beginning of Part Four
In the old days, the crack of a whip, the neigh of a horse, another crack of the whip.
“Geeup there. Geeup. Gee.”
The groan of animals born to bear weight against their bone and sinew, their muscles, their blood, no thoughts, no tricks, no training except the harness, the bit, the bridle and the reins or that whip, the constant sound or threat of that crack at or about the eyes and ears or the lash laid directly on the flesh and men the same, except for maybe the lash or the whip, but there’s always the dollar, the Almighty Dollar instead of the slave’s servitude.
“You can’t fire me you no good son of a bitch. I quit.”
They fought the Civil War to free the slaves, but if I ever get my hands on that low down no good piece of shit I know what I’ll do.”
“What will you do?”
“All I can say is he better not cross my path in a dark alley.”
“Here he comes. Let’s see you take him.”
“What’s the matter? You yellow?”
“I’m no fool and this ain’t no alley. He owns this town.”
“And every alley.”
“Ah shut up.”
Gulls in clouds above the docks, keening and swirling up and down and around for guts spilled by men with wooden troughs from shacks where young girls and women stood with knives all day long and slit the bellies of the catch it seemed would never end, so many fish it seemed if Christ had walked upon Lake Michigan he could have done so upon the roiling schools of fish and wood cut form the steamboats on the lake, four thousand cords of wood stacked for the season, four thousand cords of wood each four feet high, four feet wide and eight feet long, about two hundred and eighty pieces of wood per cord, all for the cutting, all for the back breaking labor of men with cross cut saws and axes and cant hooks and pry bars, all for the land at one dollar and twenty five cents an acre government price.
All for a dollar a day, a ten hour day, a twelve hour day, a fourteen hour day, a sixteen hour day if it had to get done and some other bohunk with muscles and a mouth or two to feed or five or six to fee could do it just as well if you wouldn’t.
Life then in the good old days of typhus and measles and whooping cough and goiters meant flour and beans, whiskey and guns, fish hooks and knives, tools made of iron or steel in the United States of America, wood if needed for handles, wheels or decking, even roads of oak or hickory or walnut and nobody talked about conservation.
They only talked of more.
More land, more time, more money, more power, more ice, more snow, more coal, more goddamnit more and more is what they got.
The cemeteries are full of them. Their stories mostly untold. Their dreams mostly what they dream of now in the sleep that never ends.
What they would find now if they awoke would seem to be a dream, the only real work now pleasure and the only commodity entertainment.
“What do these signs mean?”
“It means you can buy artisan bread or artisan cheese here in this shop.”
“What about just plain bread or cheese? I’m not particular. I’m hungry.”
“I don’t know. I’ll ask.”
“How much is a loaf of bread?”
“They say eight dollars.”
“Christ Almighty. I can buy a barrel of flour for less than half that and keep the barrel.”
“You can’t do that any more.”
“They only sell flour in five pound paper bags if you want to buy a lot and there are no barrels.”
“I use that much flour in a day. I’m up at four in the morning to bake bread and pies for my family. What happened to the barrels?”
“They use them for making wine now.”
“Who drinks wine except at communion?”
“A lot of people. They cut the barrels in half for yard decorations.”
“Jesus. Jesus H. Christ. What about these other signs?”
“Those are about gift shops. You can buy toys and trinkets and art work or candles, candy or coffee by the cup, souvenirs with names of places you’ve been printed on them or postcards and pieces of clothing, but most of it made in China or Thailand or Mexico or some other place.”
“I don’t know about those places. What about this place? Don’t they make anything here any more?”
“Not much. They only make money.”
“They print it?”
“Yes. That’s about all they do.”
“They can’t imagine it’s going to be worth very much. You can’t just make money. You have to make something money can buy, something more than what people want, something they really need, something they need to survive.”
“I suppose that’s why a loaf of bread costs eight dollars and a cup of coffee five. They make you believe it’s something special.”
They won’t ever make me believe it. They used to have a better time around here for less. I could get drunk for fifty cents worth of beer. They served it in a bucket. I could dance all night with a girl from the fish house. She smelled like fish. I could tell you a joke about it.”
“Ole and Lena went to a dance and Ole asked Lena, “Would you care to dance?”
“I don’t think so,” said Lena.
“And why not I’d like to know,” said Ole a little put out.
“When I dance I sweat so,” said Lena, “and when I sweat I stink so. I don’t think so.”
The preacher stood at the pulpit and looked out over the congregation.
He saw no one.
God had blinded him to all but the truth.
The Holy Spirit had him by the throat and filled his heart to where it felt within his chest like it would burst. The people waited in silence. They seemed to sense the presence of what they came to worship. A few sat uneasy. They knew themselves. God wouldn’t judge them. The ones in trouble were the ones who didn’t budge, the ones filled with a comfortable sense of safety, the ones who came to listen not to God, but their own likeness in the polished surface of a cross or drink from a chalice not made of dung, but some ornamented precious metal.
“Brothers and sisters,” said the preacher, “let us repent. Let us do again the deeds of childhood as we live before the Lord as children. Let us love one another, because we know not how to hate. Let us forget the hateful lessons of the world. Let us live and love together in peace.”
The preacher went on.
No one said Amen.
They didn’t dare.
“In olden times,” the preacher said, “men worshiped God by sacrifice. They killed and shed blood to atone for what they held as sin within themselves for without the shedding of blood they believed there is no remission of sin. Then a man came to die and shed His blood that all other sacrifice of living creatures might be abolished. He died for us and yet we have gone on killing. We have gone on shedding blood. We have gone on believing not in Him, but in the filth He came to cleanse. We believe it lives within ourselves and we believe it lives in others. So we are willing to crucify ourselves upon a cross of self-hatred and crucify others by nailing our own guilt upon them and declaring them to be corrupt. We spend our whole lives in search of enemies to make war instead of peace and so it is because we know war and we have no knowledge of peace. We don’t know how to do it. We do not know God within ourselves.”
“God is love,” the preacher said. “That is all I or He or His Son or anyone will ever have to say of any use or value from this or any other pulpit. If you hear them say anything else in any form they are mistaken or they are lying. I am telling you the truth. I am in love with God and God is love. I love you because He loves me and I love you because I love Him. Now by the grace of God and not in His name, but in your own, go and do likewise.”
Then the preacher said Amen.
I am an American.
I am brave.
I am free.
I am no one’s slave.
I may serve, but I am free to do so.
I am me.
All my ancestors have died to make who I am.
I love them.
I am not ashamed of any of them and I am not ashamed of myself.
If they did wrong they paid for it and all debts are paid in full. All bets are off.
I own no one anything.
I will not be held accountable or responsible for who you think I am.
I am happy to be me.
I am young because I think I am young.
I am strong because I am hopeful.
I am industrious.
I am inventive.
I am vigilant.
I am adventuresome.
I am God fearing, because only God could make a man like me and God loves me, because I am here to prove it. He could have done otherwise and that would have been too bad.
I am opportunistic.
I am exploitative.
I am prayerful.
I am changeable.
I am interested in everything and I am an optimist, because I’m having so much fun.
I am solid.
I am dependable.
I am curious.
I am stalwart.
I am reliable.
I am visionary.
I am incorrigible.
I am dangerous, because I’m right.
You on the other hand are weak. You are soft. You expect everything to be given to you, because you are spoiled and you feel you are entitled as a king or a duke or a lord is entitled, but you have no class. You disdain authority and you are completely selfish. You are an embarrassment and a disgrace without soul or character. You have been carried through life and the only choices you make are entertainment for your pathetic whims. You are habitual and self satisfied. You are craven and crafty only in the ways of self aggrandizement. You are encrusted with prejudice and superstition, although you deny it. They cling to you, because you have lost the fit of imaginative enterprise and determination which translates dreams of value and service into reality. You are false. You are hypocritical. You are forever sorry for yourself and because the world does not pay you enough attention, you are angry. You are envious. You are pompous. You are stupid. You are arrogant. You are corrupt. You are pandering. You are frightened. You are cowardly. You are a braggart. You are deceitful. You are backward. You are authoritarian. You are obtuse. You are mercenary. You are complacent. You are undisciplined. You are dictatorial. You are obsolete, because the great themes of liberty and justice have passed you by. You had them. You were the world’s greatest example of what free men and women could do and you had history in the palm of your hand and you sold it all away. You spent it on baubles and trinkets and toys and weapons to defend what you could inherit, because you rejected the very values that brought it into your hands from the dead who preceded your decadence.
I am so sorry for you, but I am also ashamed.
This is a terrible legacy, a frightful turn of events which only God can redeem now that men have spoiled the image in which they were made.
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to leave.”
“Don’t be a fool. Where will go go?”
“I don’t know. I only know I want to leave. this is no place for me any more. They hurt me continuously. It seems they have fun doing wrong and I want no part of them any more. There must be some place I can go, some place better where I can try to live my life with integrity and success or fail on my own terms and not be enlisted in their games, chained to their wheels, working to build their monuments to false gods. There must be some place better.”
“Have you considered the risks? Do you realize what might happen? You’ll lose everything. You’ll be destroyed, destitute, at the mercy of every chance and circumstance.”
“You have no experience. You have little or no money. It will be worth less where you are going. You don’t speak the language. I’m determined you should see the folly of your ways, the mistake you’re about to make. Do you realize this is all a figment of your imagination, this dream of another world in which your life will somehow be transformed? It won’t happen. It’s a myth, a legend, a dream. You need to wake up now before its too late.”
“I am awake. I’ve never been more awake or alive in my life. I don’t belong here any more. I belong where I am going. I’m going to America. I am an American. Do you hear me? I’m an American.”
E Pluribus Unum