I can remember my bike chain slipping off and, after putting it back on, there was a bit a grease and sand on my fingers and hands I could just not get completely off. And I’d continue biking another eight or nine miles uphill to where the bees were buzzing in their hive. There were two plates of glass between which they had built their comb, and I read a sign as a kid on the outside of the display that told observers that bees can sense danger. From that moment on when I have been afraid I turned it around so I would not get stung, a sort of push-away feeling when I felt the danger of bees and other things. I’d felt a little low as well about the gritty, black grease that was still almost smeared off my hand, but that’s just the way it went. It could not be gotten off; that’s all.
And, I think, as the deer pull at the cucumber vines that have grown to the top of my fence; or when the cat plops on the shiny wood floor a dead bird—worst of all a bluebird; or when the birch trees I planted with my son die off after a few years, these are just the way things go. It is somehow better to feel the ever-fading day all the day than to believe or wish to believe in some hand-picked diamond that you’d really have to be crazy to think would sparkle on forever. Things don’t. You can look at Monet’s haystacks and see that all the beauty and joy in the world was always fading away at every moment. It cannot be really disappointing that way—momentary highs are not sought, breakneck speeds on the highway are not driven again, even something as simple as a daily perfect cup of coffee isn’t brewed time after time.
All exists as if it were flight upon a dragonfly’s wing. It views the water over which it flies, hovers there, and, as if thoughtlessly, curves in design and then flies off elsewhere. And with its big-eyed vision-trackers, its primordial form, its shape and its purpose, they appear almost demonic. But this backwards flying mini-phallus is only another of the many nearly comic earthly reminders that we and it and all of what is this life here are just temporary lookers-on, be it over the river, near the pond, in the mountains, through the woods, beneath the late afternoon, tomato-ripening sun.
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.
One hour I had worked in the dirt. And one hour I had worked in the sun. One more in the rain. And the hour that I had liked most was filled with filth and mud. In that were stones, roots, and glass bottles tossed by careless men meandering down drunkenly the backside of the sinuous mountain road away from the police and human desires. And each of these bottles, smashed and whole, I tossed gently into a glass heap. For decades since, the rain had washed the dirt, and the bottles’ broken colors had shone. Now that I had become old, about to die, I had recalled my venal life, uncorrupted by most things most were corrupted by. For me, it was never women, and it was never gold. But the glint of glass, old roadside bottles broken to pieces, all these jewels, all this rubbish had become my Aqaba, my final shipwreck, my Pyrrhic victory against fortune and time.
Half the stuff that I had had had been obliterated. And in order even to see it I had had to put the CD-R into the pop-out side-drive on a machine that had been my own daughter’s from 1999. My thought had been to copy over the back-up folder that had held everything, a folder called “Bane,” which had been at one time the name of an old machine, and then destroy both. But that did not work. Even going folder by folder, copying one folder at a time one folder at a time, did not work. Files got mangled, and I got curious along the way about what had happened to the pictures. I had had to suppose that in a fit of smooth drunkenness I had either a) deleted the whole self-incriminating lot, or, b) stored it in a place so secretly secretive that eighteen or nineteen years after the beginning of the recording and accumulation of these facts, the information was just as good as gone without a trace. The apparent neutrality of this present account notwithstanding, however, belied the uncertain corruption of the words and images that had been, for all intents and purposes, believed to have been destroyed. Like the small bit of pain when biting down on a bagel in the back in between back teeth that promises some sort of eventual root canal in the rotting nerve end’s ineluctable dying history, I had had to face the prospect of biographers pulling out the thousands and thousands of loose digital ends, prying loose the files, searching through extensions, making multiple attempts to pry out rotted bits of biographical gold that would further complicate and baffle any coherent understanding of my otherwise muted character; or, I had had to have destroyed the nearly one dozen machines in my possession already themselves. Though I had been once told by a friend decades ago that even then I had overestimated the ripples of my importance, the willful destruction of as much of my one-time presence on Earth by all means necessary, by anything I could dream up at night, more than anything else, this sort of human self-cleaning had become for twenty years already my lifework. There had been only so much attachment to grief and horror, misery and disappointment, misdirection and recklessness, amidst a vast sea of accomplishment and generally regarded renown, that I had been able to take. In lieu of this, I had opted to turn back to what had become, in retrospect, some of the oldest public technologies, and had had to use these against themselves to erase, step by step, everything as successfully as they had made it possible.
The sunlight had glistened on the tops of trees. And it was the tops of the trees that had glistened. So, it meant that the sunlight had shone there. And each morning that I had risen from bed, from my sleep, I had looked forward to this. I had looked forward to cold winters, winters during which the snow had never come. And I had looked forward to summers whose rains were just as hot as sweat. Autumns whose colors were like brightened memories. All that had come back again and again, like a sweetness I could almost touch, almost taste, almost see. Everything had hinged on the “almost.” Had I lived in perpetual sunshine, perpetual warmth, the human comfort of love, I could not have been more than a day. It had become like a gaze in whose stark absences longing made me a sort or sorceress, dreaming up tubers of recollection, prophecies of others’ pasts, and soft unguents tending to the morrow. My rake and shovel had kept me company most of the time. I dug more trenches with my hoe, planted more seeds, grew more to eat. I had counted on nothing. I dropped a stone at my feet and was amused by the ever oppressive force of gravity. It alone had never changed. Its certainty could be depended on, relied on, predicted. Even the day’s next coming had seemed a contiguous moment in space and in time. And even death, like a common penny left outside an envelope containing a hand-drawn letter posted to the beloved, was not possessed, was not known, was not held or cradled or kept.
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.
His friend had once declared that he had had the fantasy to remove by his death any evidence that he had ever existed. Imagine, the friend had once said, how in the past people strove for immortality. Now, he insisted, everybody—from the day people are born—they are followed by and create strings of numbers, identifications, and identities by which they will be known down through the ages. Poets, politicians, philosophers, the people who live next door, everybody who’s moved away! The whole world! Everybody’s immortal! What everybody used to strive for today is unavoidable. And the friend’s laughing friend would say to whomever he had managed to collar when the two friends bumped into each other in public: My friend here wants to erase every trace of his existence! Then, he would kiss his embarrassed friend on the cheek, and wander off, still laughing.