She was maybe ten feet from the top of the hill before her scooter gave out a sickening whir and died, finally, after five more feet. What was surely only the first of her many emotions to come was, surprisingly, relief. The rotary buzz of the scooter had died along with it. That thing that she’d assumed to be silence had turned out to be just the low drone of her machine. She wondered, briefly, at the sound of nothing. Now, no longer cowed, the stillness of this night crept toward her. Overhead lamps on either side split the street between unwell glows, and she’d been scooting their interstice right down the middle. Late at night after she got off work she had a tendency to do this, to scoot the dashed median. Whether she did so because she feared the streetside shrubs or the sidewalks beyond them was unclear—particularly to her, who had up till now not given the matter much thought. Cars rarely made their way through here at this hour. On nights when the mood struck her she’d slalom the dashes—whether for fun or to flaunt her indiscretion, again unclear. She’d been mid-slalom this night, diagonal across the space between two white lines, when the thing slowed. A frantic yank left had gotten the wheels and little else directed forward by its time of death. So there she sat, post-yank, center of the street, wondering.
What she felt next was a gentle tug backward.
Archie’s been getting these attacks of simplicity, he calls them. These moments of revelation, like, moments when the veneer of familiarity gets stripped off the world and he sees it for how strange the whole shit bucket is. His words, kind of, not mine. Only he’s been slow on his l’s as long as I’ve known him so the thing comes out first confusing, me here fearing the poor guy’s got a simple city attacking him, whatever that is. He could be drunk, from the smell on his breath, or that could be last night.
Walking. The sidewalk is riven as I watch it, one thin crack in the concrete spanning city blocks. It’s bright, it’s two of us, and I’ve got my head down not looking at the guy. If I pick it up I know I’ll see him staring unblinking and it’s far too fucking bright for a morning of, like, staring earnestly into each other’s eyes. Honesty ought to be banned on mornings above a certain pitch, intensity.
Squared in the seatback before him, the seven-inch screen looped a film trailer in unlinked frames. It took her a while to realize that he wasn’t listening to it. He stared at it silently—slack-jawed, intent. Twenty minutes, this was, that she watched him from the corner of her eye. She’d always found something distressing about a person who can settle so readily into indiscrimination.
The word like is the verbal analog to irony, a comfort blanket in which to clothe statements—to protect and distance them unconsciously from any claims to absolute truth. The word, as it’s used so often now, operates as a grammatical assault on earnestness. In every statement, the courage of conviction dies a death by a thousand small cuts, a thousand haphazard insertions of like.
We engage life as if it were the other, distant term of a simile. Like after innocuous like, we replace life with a mirror that merely bears its reflection.
(Continued from yesterday)
And you’ve begun mouthing them, the words to the catchphrase, My beer… forming on your lips in an oversubtle smirk you don’t quite seem to be aware of. The smirk becomes a grimace as his final silent syllable betrays a blemish. He holds that last beer shorter than usual. Your mouthings are tossed off sync by this. You wonder at it—he could be getting lazy, could be tiring, could be presenting symptoms of lungs weakened from the menthols you picture him smoking all game long, hunched and workmanlike over a primitive television monitor. You wonder at whether he’s dead at this very moment, the moment of your listening. He has to be.
The kid, who probably isn’t, peters out again right around the time the announcer does. No real reason yet, then, for you to be sure you heard him, or to believe that tenuous hum to be anything other than a tattered telltale of defunct technology. The kid only had to catch his breath. He and his sister sit just where their dad left them, isled by empty seats, and the girl’s settled so deeply into her own chair she has one armrest tucked into an armpit, body just about supine besides a neck craned against the seat back and knees at ninety degrees, more or less. She’s stepping with arachnoid composure toward the broken shells spilled from the dad’s bag near her brother’s feet. The boy himself long forgotten, no longer her test subject, three minutes enough to make of him a mere obstacle to peanuts. Over his left shoulder the sun begins its late afternoon slide, slouching toward the roof of the press box just behind them. As yet they’re still just beyond the tidal creep of the shadow it casts, and in the yellowing light the only sign of the sister’s strain is a faint tremble, calf down. In the same sunlight the hotel towering over the right field bleachers glitters like an Olympian turd. The boy briefly considers kicking out her feet—in fact it’s surprising he decides not to, it would be so easy—and without moving a muscle breathes in again deeply.
(Continued from 5/23)
When his dad gets up to nab himself another cold one, a pat on the shoulder for each of them after an amiable half-minute spent wiping broken shells off his shirtfront onto the empty seat in the row below, the boy watches him blunder the thin strait between seats and find his way to the stairs. And the boy starts to hum. He lets a flat note catch the tail end of a long sigh and settles into it. It surprises him at first. It’s something he hadn’t expected to find within himself waiting to be loosed, this incidental voice, but he keeps it. He holds it till he has to take a breath and then slouches deeper in his seat before he releases another note, this one now blooming with intention. Seats are empty just about all throughout their row and the rows above and below them, leaving brother and sister alone save for the few faithful to either the team or their drinks, both varieties utterly inattentive to the boy or anything really but the men in uniforms vaguely defined from these nose-bleeds and standing maddeningly still down there, every single one of them somehow, but nevertheless—knowing all this the boy hums with a deeper voice than he would have otherwise, if he had been alone in the quiet of his own room. He doesn’t realize that he does this. With lips tightly closed, he looses what he thinks a basso rumble—a tenor though, really—and stares carefully straight ahead, stares at nothing in particular. His face goes red a bit. He can tell his sister isn’t looking at him with all the intensity he’d seen their dad not look at panhandlers on the way in.
On the tape, you can’t hear the boy too well, at least not at this point. That’s partly because he keeps his voice just loud enough to remain casual, no louder, and partly because the lead play-by-play announcer at this same moment reads aloud from a typewritten sheet he was handed when he arrived at the press box that afternoon. “Bayside Doppelbock,” goes this announcer, affecting that family-man timbre of the backyard barbecue confidant, “The German-style lager—with a funny name and a heart of American gold.” Here he pauses, making some ill-advised attempt to straddle the divide between glossy-ad tagline and friendly suggestion, and here in the pause you can just make out the voice of the kid if you’re listening for it, really listening for it and know what you’re listening for too, a frail-sounding monotone steady amid the patchwork fuzz at the tape’s fringes. But only for a moment before the announcer resumes. “What makes Bayside different, you see, is the care those guys take in brewing it. Cold storage—that’s the key!” And here again he takes a break but not long enough to let the balance of the mix return to the background. What follows instead is a quarter-second silence so blank it’s as if the tape winks at you. And then: “We keep our beer stored in vats just above sub-zero for a full five months before we pass the drink along to you. Sure, the process may be long, slow, and costly—but you and we both know it’s the way beer’s meant to be brewed, with care and consideration. So next time you’re at a ballgame crack open a Bayside. And discover why your friends all say, ‘My beer is Bayside, the cold beer!’”
You’ve been listening to this tape so long now the catchphrase has begun to sound like a mantra. The words have long been leaked of their meaning. They return to you empty every three outs, the only way to tell they haven’t been prerecorded being the occasional errant inflection in the announcer’s delivery, tiny blemishes you search for in the squinty manner of a practiced connoisseur. Though of course you don’t need to squint. You’re only listening, and frankly the advisable course of action at this point is rather to keep your eyes just about as open as possible. You’ve crossed the threshold into the eighth inning, and you’re listing hard into the armrest of the black rolling chair they pointed you toward when you walked in. Glaring at the fluorescent light directly above you to stay awake. And you’ve begun mouthing them, the words to the catchphrase, My beer… forming on your lips in an oversubtle smirk you don’t quite seem to be aware of.
Cliché: the repetition that obscures the transcendant meaning that inspired the repetition in the first place.
Imagine for a moment the sight of a crowd. Its shape gathers before you, dozens of meters distant, discernible yet somehow alien. Amoebic and many-limbed, a vast bouquet of heads and knees and outstretched hands, this crowd collects bodies like sediment. As if in great intakes of breath it draws others in—more people join now, and now many more. If only you relax your gaze the boundaries between them start to blur and weaken—or appear to, at least. Like iterations taken from a single template, the members of the crowd begin to look the same. And listen: that buzz of a thousand scattered noises, that mingling of grunts and rustlings, that too begins to change as the crowd gets denser. Chants or handclaps, even the most meaningless of sounds—in repetition, they become something more: a single voice made of many. At once unsettling and fascinating in equal measure, the crowd continues to grow.
Mostly, we’re just getting in on the ground floor of the memory of being on the ground floor.
A kid tests his voice somewhere in the second tier bleachers just above the right field wall, staring somewhere he shouldn’t be. Beside him his dad drinks a beer in one hand and crushes peanuts lightly between two fingers of the other. One after another in a cruel grip and a complacent smile. The dad is sinking into the kind of listless joy three drinks deep that suits a summertime ballgame just fine. To the other side of the boy his sister fidgets carefully. She taps the heel of her hand on the armrest separating them, loud enough, she thinks, to get the boy’s attention but not so loud as to get her dad’s. It’s a sloppy syncopation, her tapping, to the beat of a song she overheard once in the car coming over.
The boy ignores it or acts like he does. He’s more concerned with his dad. Every few minutes or so, since before the game started and since before even the first drink, the dad breaks reverie to glance silently at his boy. It’s a corner-eyed glance, the dad’s, and it’s getting so frequent now the kid can’t tell which is his dad’s base state, the catatonia or its quiet breaks, and it makes him anxious, the kid, not to know like this. He doesn’t meet his dad’s eyes, for fear of embarrassing the both of them, so he looks away, looks at the press box to their left, looks at the thin smattering of fans still here, most apparently confused as to why they’re still here, looks at his feet. He doesn’t look at the diamond straight ahead of him and slightly to his right because his dad’s there, in the periphery, cradling a beer and crunching nuts without any real intention of eating them. And every now and then again looking at him, his kid.
The game’s a blowout, some innings distant now from a thing worth watching. Those few still in the stands seem to be staying from sheer embarrassment, having missed what looks now in clear-eyed retrospect to have been the proper moment to leave earlier, in the middle of the sixth probably, and the rest are slumped drunk in their seats. The kid is bored, of course, and so is his sister but she’s always taken this kind of thing in cleaner stride than he has, a remarkable thing considering the difference in their age and gender and in the predispositions you’d expect of their age and gender. He’s ten, maybe, or twelve or eleven, in that prepubescent throat-clearing phase that kindly addresses height first and saves voice cracks and acne for later. She’s some years younger, eight or nine or something, and often watches him with the studious air of a tourist learning the culture. This hasn’t stopped so much as she’s lately developed a measure of subtlety about it. She doesn’t stare so much anymore.
But she’s tapping now. It’s an experiment of hers, apparently, to see how he reacts, to see how she’s supposed to react if presented with a similar situation. The kid looks again at the scoreboard and sees the inning hasn’t changed. Not so much as a single out has been recorded. The reliever taking his time warming up, must be. He doesn’t look to check. He looks instead to his left at his sister to see what she wants, and her eyes dart away before he gets there. He begins to wonder is this what despair is.
When his dad gets up to nab himself another cold one, a pat on the shoulder for each of them after an amiable half-minute spent wiping shells off his shirtfront onto the empty seat in the row below him, the boy watches him blunder the thin strait between seats and find his way to the stairs. And the boy starts to hum. He lets a flat note catch the tail end of a long sigh and lets himself settle into it.
Every day at 8:30 on the dot a man in a gray pinstriped suit steps outside of his stately three-stone brownstone on N St to check the flowers that grow in front of it. 8:30 in the AM, I’m saying, and the man’s suit is pinstriped vertically with white usually, though sometimes a sort of off-white like eggshell or something, and he makes a point of checking each one individually, each one lined in a long row only one-deep so not one is hidden by its plant fellows, maybe ten or twelve in all, depending if you count the two on the ends which one could arguably call shrubs not plants, depending what you qualify as criteria for shrubs versus. Each of the ten to twelve plants faces the street. It’s like the street is the sun or something, their petals facing flatly forward like those bathers you see in one-piece suits and frilly caps in old movies or movies that want to look like they’re old with heads upturned and eyes closed and triptych mirrors cupped in two hands and waiting for it, the sun that is, just waiting for it. Quiescent, you know. The plants sit like bathers but confused ones. They don’t know where the sun is, I’m saying, and this man in his gray pinstriped suit checks each one.
Which is waste—unhappiness or unsuccess?
A Word on Writer’s Block
And if, after all, that thought you’d nursed so long
never musters the strength to get past the pace of your fingers,
It must have been no worthy thought at all.
All this energy, all here clotted in the kuckles—
a whole gravesite of thoughts
condensed as scar tissue,
as you age eventually.
Keepsake for a sandpaper transpiration.
Time is the tool I’ve used to shape my sense of failure.
Martin O’Malley is a psychopath. But a benevolent one: a maniac who’s turned his mania to good or so he thinks it. Next time you see him on a television check that fallow glint in his eye. It’s like glassy water, a plain that appears vast if only because you can’t find the horizon. Or perhaps because the horizon’s all there is. O’Malley’s all middle, you see: the depth and the surface so fused that to distinguish between them would be misleading. He lives solely in the act, the understanding that life’s all and only roles to play. And so he plays them. The governor, after all, is running for president.