“I match my spirit against yours, you orbs, growths, mountains, brutes,
Copious as you are, I absorb you all in myself, and become the master myself.”
And then out surged billows of his own verse.
“I have worn the soiled cloak of the perverters,
clawed and pecked for my coveted share of this our daily bread,
and when I am alone and find myself homesick
for the stench of this united cesspool,
I bolt my door from the clattering human chains
that battle to commit me.”
He looked down briefly to see if she displayed any sign of awareness that the two poets’ sense of the individual’s triumph seemed to merge together, as though in an embrace, and found himself moved to a depth even greater by the captive trance of this singular audience. He wavered emphatically back toward Whitman again.
“The many in One- what is it finally except myself?
These states – what are they except myself?”
He stood there silently swaying for some time, lost in a familiar vision of himself and Whitman sharing a bottle of wine, arms clasped in genial admiration, while they took turns reciting poetry. Some nights they spewed out a mutual disdain for the limited souls that surrounded them, but tonight it was strictly poetry.
He lowered himself carefully back to a sitting position, grabbed the bottle, took a swig and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He produced two cigarettes from a pack in his shirt pocket, stuck them both in his lips and lit them. He handed her one and put his arm around her. He blew out perfect smoke rings one after another, dropped his hand to the small of her back and let his finger drift delicately around in little caressing circles. He loved her for her perceptive silence. He took one more drag off his cigarette and with a low, steady hum eased into another humorous childhood story while distant cars and voices and dogs maintained a natural, unobtrusive background.
She smoked and listened to a dog barking in the distance while his voice dropped to a dull, bearable hammering and his clumsy hand raked at her back. Her first sight of death had been a dog that lay freshly run down and battered on a side street. She had sat down on the curb across from its wailing, howling moans and watched it foam, kick and spasm with an unwavering intensity as singular as any Olympic swimmer churning and flailing toward the finish. She had been horrified, but fascinated, by the amount and intensity of motion before death. Did the dog quake and shudder its way out of life toward death, or thrash to hang on to its final ledge of life. She didn’t know.
She waited a long time before death drained itself in front of her again. It was a grandfather this time, saddled with a cancer that had been spreading for years. He had been stamped “terminal” from the onset of his illness and maintained this precarious state for over two years, until the doctor and family expanded on it, whispering “terminal stage” instead, and with the evolution of this stage they had wheeled him out of the hospital and into their house, setting him up in a bedroom upstairs–this arrangement would not be wasted by her. She pulled up a chair next to his bed and sat.
For five days and six nights she watched the eyes recede further and further into the creaseless, dappled skull that got bigger while the decayed body beneath the covers diminished. His cough remained dry and hopeless, struggling out every hour or so from a head unable to lift its increasing weight from the pillow. He choked on anything that the family fed him, but most of the time just lay there with rice paper lids that either fluttered or did not.
Until the moans began. Here now developed a new terminal stage no one had anticipated. The family brought in every obscure aunt, uncle, cousin, or neighbor who filed in and stood or sat fidgeting beside the bed, each silently reckoning with his own death scene, staring anxiously at the moaning, skeletal man who barely looked through them when his eyes decided to open at all. The moan started out as a low, guttural sound rattling from inside his throat like someone drowning or gargling, and then sometimes it rose and wavered like a sick, southern woman or became a man crying horribly and heaving from the gut, or like a child barely audible after the child had screamed himself hoarse and could barely whimper, and each of the haunted visitors quietly turned away at some point and left.
But while the day moans might have seemed somewhat recognizable, the moaning after dark when she was alone with him was depraved and cunning. The grandfather became a hackling, haughty lunatic at night. The head that hadn’t lifted off the pillow in days suddenly bolted up, and those hollow, frantic eyes of his turned back in on this world again, railing over her in a feverish pitch, while his demented fingers that had shuddered uselessly under covers all day began to grope through darkness until they gripped her wrist, reminding her that he was the one who was dying here and whatever she or the rest of them had thought of his sedentary life was to be dismissed entirely. His fingers and eyes would lock on her, the delirious moans would claw inside her like the old dog dying in the street, and she realized that now, for the second time, she was going to be able to watch death move.
He flicked his cigarette out into the night, ruminating amiably at his own expense, humbly drawing to the close of another handful of somewhat humiliating scenes. “Lost once again in the recitation of yet another poem.” He shook his head. “God, it was bad.” It had actually been one of his most accomplished poems of the sentimental genre to date.
“I think I was on the third stanza.” He put his index finger to his lip, absently tapping it and smiled, “yes, well,” he cleared his throat.
“Oh, quivering tree
drooped in banal deformity,
mere backdrop to the life
that radiates you,
another muffled voice now,
how has it come to this?
Your berries drop no longer
as remainders of some heaven,
but only scattered, soiled turds
of any life that deigns to surround you.”
“But, you must excuse me–the plague of first love. I drove us right past our exit sign and we ended up lost for hours that night.” He’d actually driven the girl straight into a ditch, but he spared his audience that part. He brushed her hair off her forehead and slipped it behind one ear.
“A sputtering romantic.” He studied her face in horror. She was distracted. He had lost her. He trailed back over his orchestrated pursuit somewhat deflated. The gloom of childhood had been interwoven with a spattering of poetry, but maybe he’d gone too far. He’d had an unfortunate incident recently with a bitter grad student who had sucked down most of an expensive bottle of merlot one night, stared at him and asked, “Why didn’t you just stay home and masturbate? You would have had a better time of it, and wouldn’t have wasted any of this crap on me,” and then she had got up and left him. It had horrified and stifled him for weeks, leaving him devoid of poetry and the desire to pick up girls. It had become a vague and ugly period spent shuttling home every day after work to mutter to himself on the couch while the darkening walls illuminated revolving, evil sitcoms and scattered empty pints of ice cream.
It took the potent detonation of Walt Whitman to set up the ironing board again. Walt shot him, ironed and starched, back onto the boulevards with quick, convulsive steps traveling blocks past his destination, hands clasped behind him, restructuring meter or tempo, only to find himself halting to pull his pen and notepad out of his suit coat and fill up his pockets with folded slips of pleasant new compositions. A blue silken vest and three new sport coats were purchased in celebration of his reclaimed confidence in an ever-expanding universe.
He wondered what had gone wrong this time. He’d complimented her eyes, her hair, her smile, held her sweaty hand, and rubbed her back. Very little mention had been made of his credits. Granted he had been hazarding his way into the publications and various readings he had under his belt and the fact that he’d been the same age as Faulkner when he’d procured his first set of stanzas in print. No. He decided it was time to change his course. He put his hand on her dry knee, thought for a moment, looked at her and smiled. “Well then, enough about me.” He patted her leg. “Let’s here a little something about you.”
She looked at him as she did the rest of humanity. She knew that he would not disappoint her. Something was expected of her now, as she had expected it, and so she smiled at him in acknowledgement of her role. He was no more than the public, waiting with pathetic regularity for her to amplify his performance by some formless human display, and so a smile subdued him, and he gratefully smashed her against his chest. A six-story building, roof to concrete, was ample distance to spare her from any more blundered attempts at capturing those animated moments when life and death merged.
An overdose of somebody’s pills on a Christmas no less dismal than the rest had been sloppy and ineffectual. She’d drifted up in a hospital bed with no keys, no shoes, no memory and twelve cents. And after two days of concerned intervention and a doctor’s prescription for a new vial of pills given to her mother, she’d walked out with detached annoyance and “The Little Drummer Boy,” replaying the dreary holiday over and over again in her head. Slitting her wrists had been slightly more melodramatic, proudly playing itself out like a bad made-for-TV movie.
Her mother had discovered her with the obligatory screams, panic, and sobbing, “how could this have…what’ll they…oh, no, not my baby,” and then the sirens, the ambulance, the pooling neighbors, the hospital, crisis counseling to follow-up counseling she’d passively sat through while they pumped her for childhood trauma, as if twenty-five years in the world didn’t account for enough.
She waited for him to release her, finished off the last of the wine. She stared down beyond their dangling feet into blurred shapes that amounted to almost nothing, but needed no sharp edges to provide her with details. This roof had long since ceased to be a roof. It was a platform, the point of entry measured exclusively by the height of its possibilities. A house, a bungalow, a three-story building were no more or less than a vial of sleeping pills or a razor, carrying out only what was to be expected. Blatant mediocrity worshipped by the indignity and uselessness of the feeble attempt. High- rises sat on the other end of the spectrum, mere carnivals to a mindless public already priding itself on the slaughter of the individual, displaying their hunger for protoplasmic gatherings in the stretch of a single building, stripping away all shreds of a dignified end by spraying the body out like a garden hose. But a six-story building promised something. It had the firm foundation of six solid stories without excessive waste of distance.
The roof was, of course, now his platform as well, even if she had brought him there. Nine to five, Monday through Friday, he genuflected with the rest of the world for the same meager salary increases, same useless titles as the next, but nights and weekends were what sustained him with something that never let a suit coat see the bottom of the hamper or feel the dust cracks of the tile and hummed a meticulous sheen to his shoes each night. He had rounded the stairwells and climbed up the ladder to this roof and made it his own, even if it was not what he would have chosen. He always made it a point to walk out of restaurants that had bad lighting, and theatres where seats were not available in the back. This floodlight from above was a grotesque assault that created a stage-like mawkishness that did not in any way suit the women he chose. The world at large might have considered them homely or unappealing, but he believed that it was nothing but an empty triumph to pick the largest, reddest strawberries peak season, and discover the jam delicious. His women were the cobblestones, the cupboards, and the back alleys. Their coarse, ordinary features wore a history of deceit, disappointments and solitude as uniformly as they wore the future that would replicate the past, only slower. They were invisible and unadorned, uninhibited by momentary spectacles of beauty or romance that saturated the rest in an interminable fog. And the less seducible the woman, the more extraordinary his performance, because what can a man think of himself when he has molded and transformed the most raw of ingredients into sculpture? And when he genuinely believes that what he sees is art, then the piece itself takes on a more expansive and captivating stance in response to him, and so, art it is. What these women walked into his life with was a scant shadow of what they departed with. But, of course, he wasn’t always successful, just as there are people who walk out of the greatest opera and theatre bored and dissatisfied, unable or unwilling to allow themselves to be swept into something. He had to remind himself that these women were picked from the infested orchard of humanity as well, and there was always the risk that what was inside had already rotted and decayed.
He had first discovered her disrupting the rhythmic balance of a rush-hour crowd. Her slow, lurching steps forced everyone behind her to bypass her with a look of disgust. She was lanky, clumsy, perfect, and so he had found himself unable to stop following her, and when they’d shuttled through the turnstile of the public library his anticipation grew, because an educated woman was not prone to empty pleasantries and could accurately measure the depth of his erudition. She picked out two books. He picked out Rilke and followed her to a table. She ignored his recitation of one of the Duino Elegies, his invitation for coffee, a few of his own poems, an invitation to dinner, but suddenly got up leaving her books behind when he’d offered to buy her a beer. A bar down the street was noisy and ineffectual, and she seemed reluctant to leave it, sucking down four beers in about forty minutes, which started to panic him. He was afraid she might pass out before they got to this roof she’d promised to take him to, although she quickly pacified his anxieties when she stood up and lurched out with no more of a sway to her steps than before.
She spent many hours in the library. It was the only place she had found where a group of people in the same building was able to do as they pleased. There was no time limit, no procedures, nothing to buy or sell, no dress code and no explanations necessary for sitting there or staying there all day if one chose to do so. She had listened to him recite Rilke, beg her to go for coffee, tremble through some intolerable poems and then invite her to dinner, and when she’d thought about telling him to go to hell, she’d nodded her head instead. This tall, nondescript man in a suit too small for him had transported her back up to the roof. She had looked at him and the scene had created itself as if it had already happened–the two of them up there on the edge– and she had stood up, and he had followed her quickly out of the library, although she had a brief moment of pity for this ridiculous man with the shrewd, drooping eyes when she had worked over a plan that would prove itself to be the final spiraling death of his own.
She let his fingers snarl through her hair and stomached the hollow words that dribbled out of him like so many empty cans dumped into a recycling bin. Attraction, intimacy, love, every one of them used up and deprived well before they were ever voiced, and yet when she looked over at him, she discovered that he was actually trembling like some fanatic, drumming everything he had into each and every word like one of those rare actors who are able to play the same character in the same role, belting out the same soliloquy night after night, year after year, as though he truly believed that this was his life and his words that were passionately delivered and shared for the first and only time with each separate audience on each single night.
He turned his head and moved slowly toward her, whispering, while everything inside her accelerated. Blood drained through her at a diarrheic rate while her body trembled and sweat, and she was sure that if she looked down at herself she would discover everything visibly spasming beneath her skin-heart, liver, intestines, lungs. She saw the roof again as she had first seen it and would always see it-the tarred, abrasive edge imprinting her palms as she pushed away from it, falling forward, forward, with that nausea of weightlessness that is experienced only on the edge of sleep when she might find herself falling from a cliff, falling in relation to the height of the cliff, maybe slowly, seeing everything in sharpened detail, or watered down in a rushing blur with arms and legs flailing recklessly, apparent traitors to any final decision she had made and acted on, as though there was something inside her that was divided and maybe stronger than she was, something that evolved in spite of her, unconsciously, without her knowledge, battling and foraging to save this pathetic life that she had rejected without her consent, or for that matter, any concern for who she was or what she believed. Then the asphalt was straining up at her and those last twenty feet spiraled and plummeted with unnatural speed and the ground flew up at her not once, but over and over again until all of the senses had time to formulate their own fear into a physical response, and then the final contact with the ground that was beyond pain, because everything inside the body had been bombarding through the system already, and so any pain of impact would not be powerful enough to wrestle through the overload of sensations the body contended with at this point, and it would be a long, long time before the aftershock of the body’s trauma stopped its cataclysmic pumping and flooding of blood and adrenaline and everything else inside her and even if she had woken up to find it was all just a nightmare and she had not really fallen from a cliff or a roof, but was strangely secured in her bed, it would prove itself to be no less apocalyptic or physically severe.
He moved toward her whispering as she watched his lips part and come together, felt him brush her hair away from her face and pull her toward him, listening to him as one listens to buzzing flies on a carcass, whispering, “it is you…you are the one…knew when I saw you…meant to be…ours was an inevitable connection,” while beneath, or inside, or maybe in place of those disinterred phrases she began to hear something else as well, whispering that death moved not in one way, but in many ways, and that this singular occupation that possessed her had actually eluded her, that she knew nothing of it at all, and she began to listen to him closely now as she watched his lips move, and the words circled inside of her, one after another in a way that she had never allowed them to before, and she suddenly felt herself falling forward, slipping into another one of the blurred shapes in the distance, and watched his hand reach out above her as clearly as she saw his contracted face take its exaggerated form, every feature strained as far as it was able, into a mask of disbelief and horror, and then he was screaming her name, and it reverberated until it became as empty as the scenery, gravitating further and further away, rotating through space, a succession of circles, how everything moves, a continuous band, a single moving cycle, around and around.