Having a police badge had given me the privilege to call up people I didn’t know. All I had had to do was tell them, either when I reached them by voice or by leaving a message tucked away on their telephone answering system which may or may not have notified them instantaneously of my calling them, that I had had a wish to speak. Whether I had placed a telephone call to the proprietor of a saloon or an atavistic candy store filled with bonbons, or to a suspected chimney burglar, it made no difference at all to me. Over the years I rose in rank, retired, and spent afternoons working as a landscape laborer, raking the lawns of neighbors as a hired hand. My pension was never spent, never exhausted, and when the catarrh hit me I was as much surprised as anyone. The denouement was quick. In just weeks I was chewing on food as though it were ashes and gravel. Several rifles with painted white stocks fired their bullets high at an angle to commemorate me. At the outskirts of the funeral service was a man I had once warned decades prior and a woman together, standing arm and arm, who had telephoned the station and been connected to me in a panic once, with thin but empty smiles on their faces now.
After all, what had there been left to say. People say things, tell stories, construe narratives where there is just blunder, accident, mishaps, and old fingers of the past reaching in the honey-pot. So maybe Alexander the Great caught himself on a nail. Or the Buddha sipped a sour bowl of soup. Was Kant run over by an ox cart? And Barthes a laundry truck? Most people pick up exactly where they left off. It’s not even a story, or worthy of one. Just another moving truck full of moving in, and a different body to lie beside, and get off on. Same game. No pause. No direction. No home. No essence. No ground. No space. Same old being beaten against the same old rubber doorstep. The same moment stretched out like a huge wad of greenish-red taffy between the four arms of two people stretching it out and getting all tangled up in it. They could be planted roses. They could be gold teeth. They could be torn Lotto tickets unclaimed. They called it sweet. And was it? It was not. They said it tasted good. And it did not. They had seen some image, some nostalgic contract with childhood they had wished had not been broken, had wished had been true. All the colors they dreamed! They hadn’t even known what red, yellow, and blue were.
What else could it have been, my little friend, that you had gone away so sweetly? The voyage to Mont Saint-Michel never occurred, and the northern sands of Carthage must, too, be blown away. Instead, some old snow shoes in a rusty shed had had to be returned, and I trekked the hills alone last February without you. I can’t even say that I had shown you even the smallest part of my record collection. Most of the things I grew you ate. Few of these I remember your hands, your fingers, planting beside mine. The cords of wood we stacked together, they were burned more than two winters ago. The chemises, silk camisoles, and dress I once bought for you are crammed on hangers with oddly fashioned jackets from the 80’s in my back closet where every so often I go inside and throw out whatever under plastic has grown any mold. Though I re-did by hand the gravel in my driveway for you and me, I think you pulled up beside my car once. I’ve even switched the side of the bed I sleep on; yours was so much firmer. I’m out of all sorts of things. Almond butter. Fish oil. Sardines. Walnuts. Hair conditioner. The reach up to the shelf to buy them is too high for me alone. And I do without them, do without you.
The old things that were, or which had been. The filthy crow’s feather. A cut open bottle of Clorox used to empty a dinghy. A woman’s sex tired or just worn out of love’s continued indifference. A man’s prick shoved up with a catheter from biking a thousand miles crushing all the little bits, the pathways inside. Places rent out used automobile tires to the poor who will miss payments. Reedy-voiced landlords will squeeze money they don’t earn out of Section 8’s who don’t care anymore. A bumpkin takes a bottle of polish and a hand cloth and scrubs away the patina on the old bronze plaque and paints the cement block on which it stands deep, dark green. Even the Perseids are blotted out by rainfall and clouds for three days. A mid-town technician charges for 16 MB for RAM and puts in 8. 15,000 more Clinton emails are found and are as meaningless as a pile of dirt in front of a tank. The kid in Tiananmen Square got bulldozed. iPhones do give everybody brain cancer. Monsanto seeds do not reproduce. Indians starve. Chemicals are squirted so deep into the ground no one can tell for fifty more years. All the coral reefs spit out their bacteria and die. The bluebirds will not eat. Geese don’t bother to migrate. The mother serves her children frozen pizza, baby carrots, sliced apples every night. Nobody minds. Two blond, pony-tailed women in Greenwich wearing fluorescent skin-tight leggings jog in different directions on North Street. Their husbands work on Wall Street and the chimney smoke in the mansions they live in designed by Bob Stern protégés can be smelled by the next door neighbors who live in similar edifices on either side and straight across the street.
To us there is a difference between the fallen and the brave. We may sort out the backs of the dead. We may separate the coats, gray from blue. Time and borders and affiliations sift about and spill over as they do and must. This is all seen in red and white, too. I had, picking strawberries, hunted about the overgrowing vetch which had blown over from afar, from another farmer’s field last season, for something succulent and sweet to eat. So it seems. So it was. So it had been. And even down the low narrow line in the forest, I had witnessed the doe in the mist, her head lowered while the world itself was framed by constant death. The butternut tree had fallen, and the beetles had undone to rough yellow the bark of the standing ash. While for some, all human records of these are deemed memento mori, I had not been able to agree. Not from my standpoint, not from the toss of space where I had landed. For me, all had been some visions of life. Chaff and wheat. Fool and sage. Villain and hero. And so on. The usual dualities never applied. Never were. Never had been. There were just gradual mixtures of dusts in the heavens, in earth, and somewhere in the seas, too.
There had been times to do nothing at all. Nothing to make. Nothing to mend. Nothing to buy, even if it might have been needed. There really had been no need to polish anything at all. The brass pin that I had worn on my lapel, I could not remember even when I had stuck it in on the left side of my jacket, let alone gotten it. The peeling leather of my watch strap, same kind of thing. What it had been to be reminded of them now, like the weathered wooden pickets to a country fence grown gray and showing their grain splitting over time, is that these alone are the bring-about of death. When looking at an old canvas field coat, or a pair of well-worn boots, that is exactly in step with one’s own working, one’s own walking.
Some things, like gardens, renew themselves each year. And, if they are tended well, each year they grow a little better—only because the gardener has learned perhaps one small thing last season. But the gardener is older. Other things, inanimate, forever lifeless, they, too, have their own sullen beauty—stuck the way they are, almost the perfect emblems of eternity. If any change should ever come to rocks lying about the forest, such would only be through something cataclysmic, or something human and mad the way smashing them up to rocky small bits with a hammer would be mad.
The simple fact is that things wear out—valves to kitchen faucets eventually leak; tomato stakes rot at the ends; bicycle tires will get flats. That is how it goes with tree stumps chucked over the stone wall, with a sweet pile of sunflower seeds sifted through by the careful paws of bears, and with people, too, falling asleep to the back-and-forth sounds of katydids chirping again at night when the middle of summer has passed, the way I had in childhood.
I might as well as have been building tiny ships in tiny bottles. I might as well as have been filliping the tiny clippings of tiny fingernails clipped from tiny fingers the whole while. I might just as well have been pooling tiny frogs from a tiny pond into a tiny bucket all the time. And while I might as well as have been not doing or doing all these things, everyone else grew up. The boy had. The girl had. The father of the girl he got older. And the mother of the boy she got older. Both parents got older as did both of their children. And me, I might as just as well have been a shoebox of cedar shavings kept full of cedar shavings all the while, all the time. Oh, I had gotten older, too, but nobody it had seemed had seemed to notice. And, indeed, were I to have died while the boy and girl had grown up, I would have been interred off to a plot of the cemetery to the side of everything, to the side of everyone, somewhere over there, a spot in the green where neither unnamed paupers nor regal ancestors had ever belonged. And in that death, my wife would have glanced across her former husband, and their two children at both of them, from either side of my plot, and as the funeral party had walked away, the ground would have closed up forever upon me.
I had always been a hot pepper. So when the storekeeper in the village said, “Hey, Hot Pepper, try this tunic on,” I had to tell him that that tunic was twice the size for the Wicked Witch of the West. And when I was filling up my tractor with petrol, the same thing: “Hey, Hot Pepper, don’t you overfill that tank with too much petrol.” Naturally, this was always on account of the terrible, which is usual the precedent to any terms of endearment. My family had perished so long ago flying across Nebraska in a Cessna 172. I was at the time taking my place on the podium for third place in a Science Olympiad project as a winner who could make windmills turn just by the energy given off by four pairs of human eyes staring simultaneously at the sails, front and back, paired up. It was something like a potato alarm clock, but different and fancier. And they were all killed in a field of DuPont wheat out there. And though I got the news straight from my earpiece, I went right on along with my presentation in ninth grade for this, and that is why I earned the epithet Hot Pepper because I am not at all. When you take most human sorrow, most of it gets spun around at the outer edges, just like the tips of a windmill’s blades turning looks like a carnival fantasy of fun and death. But right there at the dot of the center axis, at the hub, the part that holds the entire mechanism in place and together, there is a dot of being. It is so small, it is so infinitesimal that it does not turn at all. I know of winds, and I know of hurricanes; I know of storms and gales. I know of love drowned in the waves of Lake Michigan. I know of motorcycle accidents. At the center of it all there is nothing that holds the universe together. And from that tiny point on the sharp end of pin so small that you cannot imagine it, I think a fairy must have leapt off smiling.
Several years ago, or, as I’d say, a few years back, I had glanced upwards and saw a lone deer making its way down the steep half-wooded hill behind my house. It did so holding its broken left back leg up, the hoof never touching the ground. A pretty big animal, it slipped and skidded down the leaves and scattered snow there. Once I saw it had crossed my yard, I next saw it crossing the iced-over road, where it fell. It scrambled on the slippery asphalt before it rose. Lame, hobbled, damaged I watched it disappear into the forest on the other side. And I thought about this poor beast’s days being numbered. Despite pain, injury, and hopeless winter survival it did not give up. We of course do. And when we foresee coming despair, we sometimes do strange things. We have ourselves tied to ships’ masts lest singing voices carry us away. We have ourselves anesthetized lest we drive far off into the night and accuse our forsaken lovers of fistfuls of treacheries. We half-booze ourselves to death lest we feel the Earth’s own sorrow. But the will and pacing of this deer was something else. It was more than symbol, and more than sign. It was the very breath of life, whose only certain destiny was to one silent day stop somewhere in the woods alone.
We were festooned with leis. We were draped in scarves of many colors. We were seated on blankets, on hand-sewn kanthas, on silver-stitched carpets, on birch bark peelings wide enough for lovers, on just plain green grass. We had had our peace pipes and panpipes ready to smoke, and ready to play. We had had our minds all set to hear sacred and holy things. We had all gathered in the open field together to hear the great man speak. And just beyond our lowered heads, a little ways just across the right outfield of the town’s baseball diamond, just over that, just beyond the rusted iron fence, the just smiling Dalai Lama stretched out his robed arm and pointed to the ancient graveyard. “The final destination!” His Holiness said, before he had said a word.