A thought experiment courtesy of the Stoics. If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.
– Jenny Offill,
I could tell she was dreaming by the way her eyes darted underneath the closed lids as her fingers twitched involuntarily. The streetlight filtering in through the blinds cast striated bands across her face and body. I could see that her breathing had quickened. Was it that recurring dream she described being whisked down the rapids in a suit made of balloons? Was she scared? She almost looked to be smiling. Perhaps she was dreaming of another man. What would it be like to see inside another’s dreams? I sighed and gently brushed a few strands of hair from over her face. She took a deep breath and her whole body seemed to sink an inch deeper into the bed as she exhaled. I felt an inner peace watching her sleep… the rhythm of her breathing, the relaxation in her face, that sense that she was safe and potentially happy. Can one be happily unconscious? I had spent decades fighting my own need for sleep and yet I found it so right for everyone else.
She began to shake a bit. Almost like she was shivering. It passed almost as quickly as it had begun. The she began to moan. A deep sort of hum. I mistook it for something positive at first until I saw the grimace on her still sleeping face. Her jaw clenched. Her eyelids squeezed into narrowing folds. I usually tried not to wake her in the middle of a sound sleep—it was almost always more disturbing than whatever she was dreaming. Mostly, she didn’t remember her dreams. Nor did she seem to have that many bad ones. At least, not that she admitted to. Her whole body began to shake violently enough so that the headboard tapped against the wall. I’d only seen this once before in real life when I was in grade school. A male classmate with epilepsy had a seizure on the floor just before we were dismissed for the day. She had flipped over so that her back was to me. I threw an arm up and around her and pulled her firmly against me. “Shelle, Shelle.” I spoke trying to wake her. The shaking diminished some but she did not wake. As she pulled slightly away from me a band of light crossed over her ear quickly—it looked as if something shiny and sticky was coming out of her ear. Dark. Possibly blood? “Shelle?” I said louder. She went rigid on her back. I grabbed the sides of her face, cupping her cheeks. “Shelle, wake up. It’s just a dream.” She began to froth at the mouth. A raspy noise coming from her throat. Her eyes still closed. I sat up and opened her eyes by pushing my pointer fingers up as I pulled down with the sides of my thumbs. My throat constricted like I was about to vomit as I gazed into blackness. Just empty sockets. No eyes, no blood. Just holes in her cavernous skull.
I started to yell “Shelle!” but before I got pass the “Shhh” my left shoulder began to shake. Garbled deep within my head like underwater sounds was a voice repeating something over and over. It grew louder and louder until I finally understood it, like my head had burst out of a pool: “MICHAEL!” I jerked backwards, eyes suddenly opened. Michelle was leaning over me. “You were having a bad dream. It was just a dream.” I inhaled sharply not realizing I’d stopped breathing entirely for a bit there. I blinked and stared at her. She kissed me on the cheek. Told me to go back to sleep as she lay her head on my chest. My own breathing eventually returned to normal aided by hers pushing gently against me as she fell back asleep. My eyes surveyed the dark room, sliding over silhouetted furniture, the dark outline of clothes against a pale rug, a door on the wrong wall.
None of this was familiar.
I sat at the keyboard waiting for something to come out.
Libertines lulled by libations…
It’s not that I couldn’t think of anything to write or didn’t have anything to say. It was more like ten thousand things wanted to come out all at once.
Houston drowning in the background…
Like a herd of wild sentiments. Let one through and you’ve got a stampede on your hands. A few minutes exploding into several lifetimes worth of worry-thought-frustration-anger-diatribe-anxious-impulsive nothings.
Fine people on almost every side…
And then emptiness. A vacuum. So instead of relieving the pressure you work in reverse. Put more stuff in there. Read more. Eat more. Watch more. Listen more.
The Dow high on itself…
See if we can jam this flesh balloon until it bursts and no border exists between here and there, you and me, this and that.
But this too shall pass.
There’s a plot afoot all right, and I’ll gladly name the forces propelling it—hysteria, ignorance, malice, stupidity, hatred, and fear. What a repugnant spectacle our country has become! Falsehood, cruelty, and madness everywhere, and brute force in the wings waiting to finish us off.
– Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
Three more items: ginger salad dressing, laundry beads, big water. I repeat them to myself so as not to forget. I’m almost done this round of grocery shopping. Another customer peeks out of the aisle I’m about to go down. I pause to let him pass, but he eases back into the aisle. I turn and slide by him. “Excuse me, sir?” Such a soft, polite voice issues from this gentle giant; an older (50s?) African-American gentleman. Maybe 6’3”, somewhat heavyset, short graying dreadlocks, he seems to recede within himself as if stooping might minimize his size. “I’ve just lost my job and was wondering if you might be able to help me?” “I don’t have any cash on me.” A true reply but one so automatic it feels like a lie. “Well, if you could put anything—anything at all—on a card, even, it would help so much.” I look at the smaller cart he’s filled with maybe 10 items. “I don’t think it will be more than $20 total,” he says. “Sure. I can do that.” I turn my attention to the salad dressings right in front of me as he says “Thank you. You must be a Christian.” Without looking at him, I say, “Wayward.” “Well not too far off to take on a big man like me. There’s still time for you.” We both laugh. “Maybe there is,” I say. He asks if I’m a Nats fan. Not really I reply. Skins? A little—I tell him my family’s from Baltimore so I lean toward the Orioles and the Ravens, but don’t follow either closely. A strong, unpleasant odor is growing stronger. He mentions a hint of Orioles orange in the sunglasses resting on top of my head. “I don’t want to hold you up. How ‘bout I just meet you up front?” “That sounds great,” I say, “I’ve got 3 or 4 things to get and should be up that way in about five minutes.” As he lumbers up the aisle, the smell trails behind him. It is a smell I associate with mental illnesses whose collateral damage includes personal hygiene.
I waste another minute or so looking for the one dressing they don’t have, then it’s laundry beads, and a 4-gallon container of water. I see him and give him a thumbs up. “You all set?” He nods. We form a mini train heading toward the open cash registers. “Do you have a discount card?” he asks. “These juices are on sale, but make sure they discount them. Sometimes they’ll get you.” The lines are crowded and we exchange a line or two about how busy it can get. A new line opens up and we get a break. I put my groceries on the conveyor belt, then his as I ask the cashier to bag them separately. He’s got 4 cartons of Tropicana Twister fruit drink, 8 mini cans of Vienna sausages, and 4 boxes of Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies. It reminds me of my late mother-in-law, a true devotee of comfort foods. He has struck up a conversation with the African-American woman behind us in line and seems fully engaged. I finish paying, put his bags back in his cart. I have to interrupt to shake his hand and wish him luck. He tells me to have a good day as he turns his attention back to the woman.
I leave feeling confused. Did I get taken advantage of? Was this helpful to anyone? Was I expecting a greater sign of appreciation? Honestly, all I feel is awkward. I load the groceries in the trunk and stop by the frozen yogurt place to take some home to my wife and son. All of this has cost me nothing in relative terms. My own health and financial security feel like mere luck. I try not to take them for granted.
A man makes a coat out of an old piece of cloth.
When the coat is in tatters, he makes a vest from the coat.
When the vest is in tatters, he makes a scarf from the vest.
When the scarf is in tatters, he makes a cap from the scarf.
When the cap is in tatters, he makes a button from the cap.
From the button the man makes nothing at all.
And then from the nothing at all he makes this song.
– Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days
full of safe,
the Lore is with thee.
Undressed are thou among adverbs
and fleshly is the antecedent
of thy doom.
Holy Maybe, Mother of Sod,
delay for us slackers
now and at the dower
of our breath.
connect me with
you to them so
I can friend your
avatar, retweet your
hashtag upside your
network of digital
handles dying for a
death archived in
IP heaven, live-
an unfanned server hell
rebooted with each
post, modern update,
like 404 error riddles
on the line
offset by network
straight up your
tightest port, as
secure socket layers
rot silicon pus
ad infinitum digitopolis
without end amen.
THE WWW PRAYER
Our Online, Who art in Cyberspace,
Hallow by Thy URL;
Thy System run, Thy data be done,
In analog as in digitalia.
Link us this cycle, our daily feeds,
And format us our drives,
As we format zero/ones among us;
And route us not into page migration
But upload us eternal,
“Ya been keepin’ out of trouble?” my Uncle Joe asked.
“You know it! I’m the early bird gettin’ the worm and all that.”
“Don’t forget that you’re working hard to play hard, right? You look a little rundown–gettin’ enough rest?” he said.
“Oh, I figure I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Heheh.”
He hugged me, said something about the apple landing near the tree, and told me to keep up the good work. We wished each other a good-day-god-speed-happy-trails-goodbye-for-now. He mumbled something about my having greener grass as he turned and walked off into the sunset. I thought he might be vaporized.
I was counting my blessings on the way home when I passed a babe in the woods beating a dead horse. I didn’t know him from Adam, so I just tried to mind my own business. The winds of change made it feel like a dark and stormy night was approaching quick as a bunny. The town floozy was on the corner like clockwork shouting that “a hard man is good to find!” I thought she’d have thrown in the towel by now, but apparently there were still a few men of honor who would touch her with a ten foot pole.
As I turned the corner at Memory Lane, I tripped. Talk about taking a load off! Before I came to my senses, I was staring eye to eye with a green pill bug. Worried that he’d heard through the grapevine that I was not playing with a full deck of cards, I tried to beat him to the punchline. “Knock, knock.” I said. “Who’s there?” he replied. “Your mama!” I laughed like a hyena. He told me it was better to burn out than to fade away, at which point, he let down his hair, curled into a ball and started his rolling anti-moss-gathering maneuvers. I took this as a sign from God and began to watch like no one was dancing.
It felt as if a moment of truth was upon me. At the end of my tunnel vision, a light, brighter than a thousand sons. Either I had my wires crossed, it was darkest before the dawn (aside from that weird light in the distance), or I had indeed had my fifteen minutes of fame.