verve/violence/virtue

The young man dismounted his horse in the mad clatter of battle and forgot about his life, the unwritten codes and reverence of the land and deep honored traditions. He forgot about his young wife and the lump in her belly and he moved swiftly through the fog of rifle smoke trailed by his own long braids and the mad shrieks of wounded men. He approached the white man with red hair lying supine and staring at him from the mud. There were men upon wild horses weaving incoherently through the smoke with their guns or war clubs raised and there were fleeting visions of other men riding boldly and bareback but long ago killed on the battlefield and a small white sun directly overhead trembled each time the white men in blue coats fired their wagon-gun.

The young man stepped over the men strewn across the sodden prairie field and unsheathed his bowie and crouched down next to the white man. He took a handful of the man’s red hair and looked into his eyes. A bullet whistled over the young man’s head and another screamed by his left ear and he sliced the white man’s forehead from temple to temple and said to him quietly in Lakota, “The wind does not cry for you.”

Then he stood and tore the scalp from the white man’s skull and held it up to the sky and screamed while the white man in his final moments of life watched his own blood drip down the young man’s arm, his torso, lean and brown and heaving muscle in the gray light.

That night the young man sat alone in his tipi and thought about the mystery of battle, the subtle violent leanings of men and the power to forget one’s self amid the jolts of heightened awareness. Outside, the red fire glowed bestial and the hypnotic throb of victory drums brought to life the dancing ghosts of many dead men both white and red and the young man agreed with the ageless wisdom of his ancestors that warfare was indeed more spiritual than physical, that courage was an extension of the self but that acting upon that courage according to honor and principle was integrally selfless.

The young man reclined onto his blankets and listened to the chanting of his people and breathed deeply to remove the walls of his mind. He remembered what he had said to the white man with red hair and he reminded himself that the wind cried for no man, especially not the man who honored and defended it with his own life.

Our writer

And then the dust rose, sweeping upward into the pink light of dusk, and men clad in black armor and carrying guns chased the voices in their earpieces up the stairs, shouting commands, and a mile away thousands upon thousands coalesced to hear the words of one man in the dawn of their lives, a crowd amassed and awed into rapture on a crystalline summer night. The helicopter continued to hover before him, thick whapping blades carrying mechanical wind and the chaotic heat of the day, roaring intimidation unlike anything he’d experienced. He stared up through the glass to the faces of the two pilots and he could see their mouths moving and he could see their eyes frozen upon him but he could not discern their message. He half-expected gunfire to rip him apart at the seams of his being, his own blood spraying before him in plumed mists the color of sunset. Death by chopper. He wondered if the men running up the stairs would tackle him to the ground and press their knees into his back and he grimaced with the imagined pain and he could feel the small jutting coarseness of the concrete digging into the side of his face. He stared up at the helicopter and froze. Should he wave, try to convince them he was not a terrorist? Or should he get back in the van, drive it down the ramp? Feet frozen into place by fear, the fragmented buzz in his head distorting his thoughts, bending his mind into patterned confusion and suspicion. He felt like an actor in a film and no one was watching. Already he was trying to figure out how to explain this to someone else.

He thought of time as a snagged thread. The air he breathed. Dust whipping about him in the eye of the chopper storm. He thought of Vietnamese children dug deep in some Mekong trench where they told stories about alien aircraft and giant men with white and black skin from a place called America and he felt the vigor of their dread but nothing of their courage. He looked through the open window of the van to his book lying on the seat, face-down and spread open-winged, the interrupted message, potent talisman of knowledge, and he thought they were going to kill him or arrest him for his thoughts. That’s what this is all about. Incendiary mind, cultivator of dangerous ideas, collector of conflagrant titles. Banned on thirty-three lists worldwide. Because this is the power of ideas, the power of books. They retain the most practical and innocuous guise, glue and folded paper, lines of words on pages. Colors and privation of colors. Patterns and pattern-less. This is their danger. Because hidden inside that trite and compact geometry, books are the most resplendent of weapons. They carry and transmit the ideas of men and women and urge others toward momentous things.

He stood before the chopper and watched the pilots talking into their headsets, he imagined them saying, Suspect is armed. Alpha-three, two-niner. Copy. Looks to be a title from a reclusive American author inside the vehicle. Proceed with caution. Use force. Shoot to kill, they say. He imagines leaden trajectories in the tens of thousands, so many bullets flying in the air they create their own cosmic roar and erase him from the planet entirely.

He looked from the copter to the vacant roof of the parking garage about him. The sky was bleeding pink and red and orange gashes across the expanse of blue. He tried to block out the sound of the helicopter to listen for his cellular phone. Maybe they were trying to call him, the cops, the government. Let’s work something out, they say. Surrender. Negotiate with us. We know what you’re trying to do, rogue operative. Tell us who you’re not working for and what you’ve been thinking. Put your hands in the air. Hand over the book. Lie on your stomach, arms stretched out at your sides. Drop the paperback. He wished the pilots would give him some sort of message. Vacate the roof immediately. Put your hands in the air. Lie on your back, play dead. Prepare for death. Draw a target on your abdomen. Give us another reason to machine-gun you. He wanted them to either shoot him or fly off into the sun or maybe he just hoped for something else to happen because there was a helicopter whirling mad and threatening right on top of him and it was kind of freaking him out.

He himself was a writer. His own formulated plots, the stories, the characters, assassins and provocateurs. The subversive themes. His own ideas, the ebbing flow of lonely and violent delirium. And there were always the innate checks and balances of artists, of writers in particular. The men in the helicopter were trying to read his mind. They’d been following him all these years, since before he acknowledged the value of his own thoughts. The story he wrote about Dylan García, the philosopher-revolutionary, champion of satirical American transformation, government target and agent of sedition. Or the story he wrote about the woman with the prosthetic mind, a government experiment gone awry. The story was a revelation about the power of the human intellect and the dangers inherent in meddling with it. Both stories had been written before but these were his versions, taut and reasoned experiments, both fundamentally charged by the incompetence and tyranny of government officials, and both were slung out there on the Web somewhere with all the others he’d written, messages floating into space and back, carrying their truths out to the cosmos and returning unscathed, unbroken but absorbed by government computers set to intercept dissident communication in all tongues and dialects. The data of the rebel writer. The liberated dreamer and embattled artist. The dangerous, the followed, the hunted, hijacked by the dollar, quoted and exalted in underground communiqués. Recently someone had asked him what was the most difficult thing about being a writer and he answered without thinking, The loneliness.

He was alone now on the roof, or maybe he wasn’t completely alone but he felt alone, staring into the cockpit, two faces staring back. Patriotic sky of red and blue and violet. Frightened beyond words, panic-heightened consciousness. He raised his arms, spread them wide, a formal display to the pilots that he was not carrying any weapons, he was not a threat. He wanted nothing to do with the historic event a mile away. He was not plotting to kill or disrupt the charismatic speaker and he was not concerned with the thousands of followers, their faces glimmering, their eyes melted into a believer’s ecstasy. Our writer waved at the pilots, trying to smile, his face bent into a crooked visage of dishonesty. The buzzing in his head increased. He got back into the van and drove it down the ramp to the level below. He parked and waited for the group of officers to coagulate about him, silent footfalls, their hands on the weapons at their hips, secret tactical formations of duty, his likeness thrust out to the world through the digitized drone of the police scanner. A voice echoed for him to put his hands on the hood of the van and he complied and turned toward the stadium a mile away where the crowd was assembled and waiting to hear one man’s words, promises and declarations of grandeur in the twilight of our writer’s innocence.

Vigil

I pulled the car through the winding hillside streets in the evening stillness and I thought it both strange and affecting how in that town one could scarcely peer through the thick shrouding gray to the setting sun beyond. Crooked rows of small one-story frame houses in light pastel colors, the yards manicured into taut pristine statements and the black bay water forever looming immense and threatening in the background. Anonymous joggers of dusk puffing the saline air beneath the watchful eye of antique streetlamps not yet ignited to life there in the grayest of twilight.

I parked in front of a modest green house enclosed by a painted wrought-iron gate with RENNAY engraved into its steel nameplate. The sky sunk from gray to charcoal and I walked through the creaking gate to the house and rapped quietly on the front door and waited for the old woman to answer. It took her several minutes but she finally opened the door and the front room smelled of wilted lilac and dust and candle wax. She didn’t speak but led me to the right through a long hallway and I entered a dark room near the far end of the house where there was no indication of the neighborhood outside nor the secular bay at dusk nor the concept of space or even time as contingent upon men to decipher such things. It was dark in the room and there were jagged shadows dancing on the walls behind the molten arrhythmia of candle flames licking the air.

“Finally you show up in this town and I can’t offer you a drink,” the old man said. He sat staring at me from a rocking chair in the corner of the room, heavy patched blankets covering his body. “I drank the last of the scotch,” he said, holding up an empty tumbler, rolling it slowly around in his thin fingers. “Eighty-four years old.”

I stood and looked from the old man to the candles spread in divine geometric petition throughout the room.

“Come over here and sit,” he said. “What I have isn’t contagious.”

“I’m fine,” I said calmly. “Listen. Some men are on their way here. They’ll be here just before dawn. They have guns. They’ll threaten you and they might even kill you. They’re coming here looking for a box of papers. I believe you know which one.”

The old man looked away from me to a candle at his left, the flame rolling and thrashing in shades of orange and red, his face illumined by the throbbing vigorous glow that had not truly come from within in many years.

“These men,” I said. “I’m the one who sent them.”

I turned my face to the flickering lights and the mad swaying shadows born from them and I told the man to give me the box of papers so that it would not fall into the hands of the men who were coming for it.

The old man was silent for a long time. He looked from the candles to me and then back to the candles, forty or fifty wavering truths whipping loose and radiant about him, little eyes of fire sustaining his brooding contemplations and force-feeding his old heart.

“I spend a lot of time in here staring at these candles,” he said. “Just thinking. Little flames swirling in the air. It comforts me. Colors and privation of colors. All the answers I’ll ever need. One of the things I often think of while sitting here is the queer relationship between time and light.”

He looked up at me again, his dark eyes afire with strands of pooled light, pale and intractable and omniscient.

“We were taught as children that the human brain receives visual information as the cornea intercepts it from the light spectrum. As if the light wasn’t there before. As if it needed the human brain’s sanction to exist at all. We were also taught that the mind assimilates this visual data into assorted modes of scientific and psychological assertion. Cause and effect. Theory. Association. Illusion. The mind thrusts upon itself certain varieties of light as time’s witness, as specific and inalienable proofs of time. Our vision, more than any of our other senses, acts as a placeholder for all the things we experience in this world. It is the supreme catalog of the human condition. Of course, light is synonymous with many things in the human lexicon, but the most pervasive of associations is light with the pairing of our concept of time. For those of us who are not blind, and I imagine even for some of us who are, the visible world is permanently wed to history. We cannot think of the past without trying to see it, trying to visualize it. We can’t possibly comprehend a future without looking for it, trying to see what our world will look like. But light is not time, my friend. Nor does it exist in time. Light creates its own time, it carries its own dimensions, all of which far exceed and outperform our frail human understanding. Time is a human machination, a device of logic and pragmatic substance. But light is meta-human. It operates as an instrument of the gods, as a divine right of privilege, the sole witness of soul transit and multi-dimensional communion in this, an omnisensory universe of mere human speculation.”

He sat silent for a while and then he pointed with a long bony finger to the closet at my right where the box of papers sat small and dusty on the carpet. I looked at the man and picked up the box and began to walk out the door.

“The light of this world does not create shadows,” the old man said to my back.

*

I sat on the pier and watched the gulls float high above the lapping bay tongue, darkened ghosts circling slow and listless in the gray dawn. I checked my watch and turned around just in time to see the clock tower behind me strike the top of the hour and I heard the brawny bell echo throughout the bay town and when I turned back to face the water the gulls were gone. Something was moving about in my pocket and so I pulled out the vibrating cellular phone to answer it.

“Something’s missing.”

“What is it?”

“Looks like records. There’s a dimple in the carpet where a box, maybe a pile of boxes used to be.”

I sat silent, listening to the cold water slap the wood pier at my feet, looking into the murk for some vestige of life in that bleak and dark cold mystery. I watched the foam froth against the wood and fizzle away and then repeat itself again and again as it has for a hundred years, and for another hundred years before that.

“Maybe it means something,” I said. “Maybe it doesn’t.”

“Yes sir.”

“Christian.”

“Yes sir.”

“Let them go.”

“Yes sir.”

I put the little phone in my pocket and saw a steamship crawl across the water way out on the horizon. It was big and black and rumbling in ill spirit of augury and I stood up and listened to my bones creak and I felt the muscles begin their little dance of mutiny and then I turned and walked back to town, the opening of shops and emergence of sleepy-eyed buskers and myriad invisible homeless advancing from the margins of town with their ragged blankets and empty bottles and I walked beneath that old clock tower that had endured windstorm and pestilence and centuries of starless night with nothing to display but its consistent pulsing record of history and its rote totalitarian demands.

Somnambulist’s reckoning

Deep in the gut of the earth a man and woman moved together through the cold darkness, wandering without diagram or any semblance of light to guide them. They staggered panting through the endless tunnel of mud and rock scratched and badly bruised and with nothing for the eye to uphold nor nourish the want of the godlike human mind.

“Whatever you do,” the man said. “Never let go of this hand.”

They walked and walked and there was nothing in that dark narrow world but their invisible breaths and their movement and their delicate thoughts and the understanding that they had nothing but each other, colorless and blind and hungry and frightened. The world continued to revolve about them and the hardened planet shifted in deep turbulent scars high above and the smell of earth was like cordite in that enclosed cavernous place. There was silence and there was blackness and they trudged on continuous through the tunnel, their hearts like two small bellies of fire or signals of life in an alien world reduced to its rudiments.

The man was terrified and he often thought of stopping and holding the woman in his arms and surrendering to the giant void because he foresaw one of them dying in that dark place and the other alone and cold and hopeless. He imagined the two of them webbed together by their arms as the darkness unfolded its timeless maxim upon them and they would not speak but only sleep and dream of a consciousness with light and sight and the promise of tomorrow. The eyes make their own vision, he thought. For I am seeing things that I cannot possibly see. There are walls about me and a flat muddy ground and there are small beings with round gray eyes shrinking away from my probing hands. I can see the future in its rote black agony and I can see the errors of my past and their influence on my conscience like a nimbus of heavy gray fog hanging about my head. I can see deeply into the dark and smell my own fear and I can feel the woman’s hand though I want nothing more than to look into her eyes for I’ve long forgotten their color and shape.

They walked clutching tiredly at the hand of the other and feeling their breath in the dampened air and they knew their world was one of cold and lightless uncertainty and that somewhere ahead the tunnel would have to end and the sudden seepage of light would overwhelm and embolden them. Somewhere behind them they heard an echoed scream neither human nor living and they froze in the darkness, clinging to each other and shivering. After a while they moved on again and they could smell flowers growing in the tunnel and they could hear water somewhere about them, a steady rushing flow like the open vein of the very earth and each of them thought in private how they could be dreaming the whole thing but which one was dreaming neither knew nor cared.

The woman thought to speak and then refrained, for under what domain does the decree of language have in such a place? All we have is the tangible communication between us, the communion of flesh and heat, our bodies tied together by the noblest of bonds and axioms of trust. Dirt frozen still in the deep leathery ridges of our fingers. Nails and ashen skin and thin jutting hairs. This is our language, this is our life. These are our words. This link of flesh could fail us at any moment. She pictured the myriad of ways they would die, a gaping hole up ahead in the darkness swallowing them one after the other, their hands broken apart by the force of one body falling, stumbling down weightless and alone to that other unknown darkness of similar breath and sound. She imagined a creature looming up ahead in the darkness, human in proportion but lacking the probity which distinguishes humanity from other mundane life. A six-legged likeness of nightmarish wonder, viscous body mass and thin spine-like legs and throbbing cold heart and they would see it in that last flashing moment before it struck them totally blind, glimmering eyes of diamond light in the only thing they’d seen in so very long, the last light of the world known to them, and there would be a knowing in those eyes and also a familiar form of understanding for the creature had lived in the darkness all of her life and was accustomed to surviving on the flawed wanderings of others. The woman imagined the creature devouring them and slinking silently onward through the tunnel of mud with her former body in that creature’s jellied womb until the next stumbling and condemned soul strolled blind and unknowing into the nest of a frightened somnambulist’s reckoning.

“Wait,” the woman said. “I need to catch my breath.”

“Are you all right.”

“Yes. I just need to stop. For a moment, is all.”

The man was quiet. He thought he could see the woman bent at the waist, her head down and blonde hair dirty and matted and clinging to her temples. He saw her there in the dark, a shadow of light, body heaving with warm breath, angel of soft white incandescence drawn in the framework of a beating human heart. There is a light within her. There is a light within us both.

“I can see you,” he said, and smiled. “You’re magnificent.”

Marquee

In the town of young men and women voices could be heard shrilling in the quiet pocket of night. Streetlight glow painted the walls of the closed brick shops on main street and the young men and women walked drunkenly by them clutching at one another and laughing at nothing but the levity of their shadows and the understanding that this world belonged to them under some unpenned contract with the figurative constraint of time looming somewhere indiscernible. The young men and women came from privilege and knew that privilege would be awaiting their immersion back into the real world and clouds danced swiftly in front of the oblong moon so close and yet so distant from their lives.

They lived in shared light and they spoke of the dreams they often had with nothing but youth in their guises and the young women drank and danced and the young men drank and watched the women and all of them were living deviations of those people they otherwise always were. They fell in love with the poisoned facades of themselves and squandered their summer days and nights and some of them discovered the nature of their childish rue while others glimpsed clear and firm into their future and saw a formal departure from the very youth that bound them. There were many days of heat and stupor but there were even more nights of blithe abandon and the recklessness we tend to tolerate until a particular age or experience of life’s revolving strain has been reached.

The sun or the scent of a friend awoke them in the afternoon and carried them through another boundless and eventful evening worthy of their potential narratives in the far-off and same but somehow much different life. They knew they were constructing the future diagram of their fondest and most bereaved reminiscences like the perfumed skin of all their favorite summer romances, like the collective delight of all their twilight laughter. The young men and women operated beneath the protective shroud of the town’s own undemanding regulations and flourished in the narcotic bliss of being young and knowing it and heeding to no authority save for that which lives among the tanned hide and billowing hair and rampant nubility of its hormonal supplicants.

I knew this town and I lived there as witness to its mystical lessons. I grew disenchanted by its charm for I was no longer young nor free of responsibility and perhaps I never had been. The tension swelled within me so that soon I grew to imagine a world where the town of young men and women no longer subsisted but burned steadily somewhere between the iron gates of perdition and the subtle snickering memory of those who had escaped the wrath unforeseen. I imagined the young men and women running naked and hairless through the smoldering streets beneath a bloodred autumn sky with their skin bubbling from the heat and their eyeballs liquefied and melted to their cheeks.

There was caution in my rumination but I believed the agonized fate of the young men and women to be taut and certain. Each night I dreamt the same horrific dream where the town collapsed in fiery ruin and the sky turned black above those callow heads and all the smiles and all the town clocks were washed away in sweeping conflagration while sparing the select few dramatis personae compliant enough to withstand the terror and each morning I awoke from that same dream smiling. I would walk to work and see the young men and women in the town still awake and poisoned from the night previous and I knew that God would play the role of god in the film version and I would direct the cataclysmic beauty of the tale to the visual medium and watch orgasmically while the young men and women of other towns across the cosmos sat mesmerized into silence by the film’s searing truth. And I knew my name would appear on the marquee just above the title of the film in thick red letters and that the earth would ultimately swallow that black hole of loathing where neither future nor past was ever paid any deference.

Scars

I watched her fingers trace the angles of my chest down to my abdomen, deep ridges of muscle and bone and patches of coarse hair and skin darkened in thick tracks of scars. I watched her hand grow timid about the stained edges, as if touching the scars would bring back the memory of what had caused them, as if my seeing them each day and feeling about them with my own fingers wasn’t memory enough.

What happened, she said.

I thought of lying, about how I fell drunk from a window and landed on some rocks or broken glass or maybe about how I was in a fiery accident or a knife fight and needed surgery to re-stitch the deeply shorn tissue. Something that might make her nod or smile or laugh and then forget it all. But she was gentle and seemed forgiving and so I told her the truth. She listened and was silent for a while and her fingers grew still and rigid on my skin and I regretted telling her almost immediately.

Are you serious, she said.

After a few minutes she rose and walked to the bathroom and I breathed the warm air of her departure on the sheets. There was artificial innocence and deep acceptance and years of hurt in her scent. She was like most every other woman. Light framed the closed door, a symmetry of knife edges in the dark. I heard the toilet flush and then the hiss of the faucet. She opened the door and stood in the frame, half-lit and exposed to the darkness, her nakedness stark and emblematic and teetering between the shadow of here and now and the verity of past light.

I’d better be going, she said.

She gathered her clothes about her and put them on methodically but gracefully, like I wasn’t even in the room. As if it wasn’t my room. As if she had done this a thousand times in a thousand different rooms just as I was certain she had. The clothes had come off in haste, without ceremony, the sole neutralizing obstacle to will. Now she stepped into them just as quickly and callously but with robotic calculation, like the clothes were a requirement and nothing more, as if they reminded her of her life before she took them off and how this new life was exactly like the old life and nothing like she thought it would be or perhaps hoped it would be. The clothes reminded her that nothing had changed, nothing would ever change. The brief nakedness between lives was her hurried respite from herself, from both lives.

It was nice meeting you, she said. Call me some time.

She sat and the edge of the bed sagged beneath her. She reached into her purse and rummaged through it and I wondered if the bathroom light was bright enough to kill moods and strains of moods or if it would even stop there and I could hear the wind whipping through the city outside my window but I could hear nothing more save for the screaming of bedsprings as she stood up and put a folded piece of paper with her phone number inside it on my nightstand. She crawled on the bed toward me and kissed me softly on the cheek and then the side of the mouth and for the first time I understood her intense sadness and its brutal dominion over her young life.

She walked out the door and shut it softly behind her and I could still smell her pale nomadic skin and her scalp and her breath woven into threads of the moment now lost to us. Her ghost haunted me through the night and so my dreams reverted in myriad to that lonely face at the far table in the coffee shop, that dark, worm-like body of abandon atop mine, shivering with the brief delight of self-sustaining sovereignty of soul. I closed my eyes and traced the scars on my stomach and torso with sudden longing for I never even thought to search her body.

Labrynth

The piece of paper was a perfect white rectangle on the desk in front of me, an empty shape too intimidating to breach. I tried to think, to collapse myself into thought the way I so often do, communicate the credence of my ideas through swift and elegant pen strokes, angry letters and words, sentences and jutting symbols of association. Maybe it was the shape of the blank white sheet obstructing me, its precision so taut and unforgiving, deconstructing the creative process into pure barren silence. Or maybe it was her, the woman to whom the ideas were directed, my love for her so sightless and violent in nature that all rational language died prematurely in my mind prior to its exposure to the influence of the pen.

My dearest Brooklynne . . .

No, this is wrong, this is all wrong. This type of beginning is an instant showcase of hollowness. I never speak to her like this, nobody alive speaks like this. If it is practical sentiment I want to relate, defragment these complex thoughts into common meaning, I must find a practical vehicle with which to exchange them.

Brooklynne, I cannot . . .

A negative proposition at the forefront sets a malignant tone for the entire letter. I must begin with an authoritative propositional phrase, an affirmation of love. I must lean on the theme of our love, our history together, and push the apology aside until later in the letter, when nothing but an apology would make sense in its reinforcement of the aforementioned.

*

I tried to stop thinking and went to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of wine, and then another, a formal release of mental strain, drinking down the crystalline purity of deflation. Then I went back to the study and wrote the letter, discarding the burdens of message and meaning alike, diving headlong into the chasm of blank whiteness, my thoughts stretched outward in time and place until the entire letter was suddenly finished an hour later, lines and curves painted on the page exactly as I wanted them, truth without restraint, love in collusion with purpose. Then I sealed the letter in a blank white envelope and dropped it in the garbage.

Who reads these letters, I wondered. There must be a thousand letters in this world written each day that just get thrown away, the messages sealed and signed, adoration and violence and meaninglessness perfumed upon the pages. Someone reads these letters, the evidence of our irresolution, our frail whims. The moment we dispose of our ideas and rear them to the heap, the moment we place the neat folded parchment in the trash and expel it from our conscience, someone on the other end is already waiting for it, a reader far more astute than we imagine, the sole cultivator of our discarded feelings and suspended emotions. By not delivering them to the intended recipients we feel as though we’ve rendered the meanings in the letters harmless, we’ve absolved ourselves of our reactionary blunders. But someone finds them and reads them and thrusts meaning back onto the messages. Maybe this person finds pleasure in what they read, as though each hypothetically failed correspondence is a valued discovery, an unexpected unearthing into another’s private life, a magnified examination into the social machine of our culture. The person who finds these letters and reads them keeps them for self-edification. The words on the page and the page in the envelope are raised up to semi-iconic status in their lives, brief but genuine illuminations into the world of private conversations to which they otherwise wouldn’t have been included. He or she who reads the letters finds it much more difficult to discard them than the person who wrote them. For the man or woman who finds the letters and digests their content, their subtle meanings painted in abstract and concrete idiom, these letters are the battery of their operative hopefulness. A line wrought from love and sentiment becomes their personal shining juxtaposition with disenchantment. The pain splayed across the page, the heart-shorn emotion from a love askew, the tender eulogy and the apologetic logic, these are the most vivid and tactile reflections for the reader. The letters were of course written by strangers with the intended audience as strangers and yet the reader feels as though he or she knows them both. The letters strip away the mystery and put a profile to the writers, they put a garbled and imaginary face to the name at the top of the page, the salutation at the bottom. The reader invents living people from the names because the written emotive force is too profound and real to keep them from identifying humanity with the language. These letters are at the vanguard of everything that makes humanity such a tremendous communicative current, they unite us in our solitude and mystery, these letters bind the likes of community and individual, they fully replace the very things the writer of the letters was trying to avoid, that subtle inward heartbreak of not being understood, that feeling that the words didn’t, and possibly couldn’t accurately navigate the complicated labyrinth of feelings within. For the lucky or reluctant reader, the letters are more descriptive and enlightening than the writer could have imagined. This is the only language either of them could ever possibly understand. Some will tell us to bury our pain, others will instruct us to express it. But this is really the only way to learn, the proper way to heal from our emotive wounds. If only we were instructed to recreate our pain in language, construct our meditative ailments out of idea and paper in letter form and then ceremoniously place our arrangements in the garbage rather than the mailbox, this world would be a world of deep committed understanding and empathy. It would be a world where the letter was exalted above all else save the human condition.

*

Back in the kitchen I finished the bottle of wine and shattered it on the linoleum floor. After careful consideration, I decided not to remove my clothes and roll around on the wreckage.

Crescent

“That’s just too much to think about,” he said, waving a cigarette. “I mean, think about it. We’re young. We have our games and our bars and spars with emotion. We have our ceremonies. We have sex and pop culture. We have sex, mostly. This is what concerns us. This is how we find value in our lives, by how much sex we have. What more do we need? I mean, who wants to break all this rhythmic lovemaking to worry about elections?”

He sucked on his cigarette, the garden light behind him breathing electricity into the white smoke, thickening it into luminous veined strands. He looked up at the deep black canvas sky, a breathing shadow silhouetted on pale light, a living penumbra of audacity. He smiled.

“But I see what you’re saying. This stuff is important. This stuff should be important. What I’m saying to you is our priorities are confused. You and me and our whole generation. We’ve graduated into ethical destitution. We’ve been moving this way for years. Activism and social justice are irrelevant to us. History and our culture has dictated to us the ignoble farce of our own lives, it has fashioned us into gluttonous instruments of superficiality.”

I shook my head and the woman walked toward us, slinking into our light, a slow dirge of crickets announcing her arrival. There was an empty plastic cup in one of her hands.

“What are you boys talking about out here?”

“Your boyfriend here was just explaining the privation of virtue common to our generation,” I said. “And I was just preparing to refute his bullshit and destroy him intellectually.”

“Take it easy on him,” she said, her body melting into his, their arms disappearing behind one another into those ritualized human folds, those tactile zones of repetitive comfort. The small of the back. The nape of the neck. Gently rubbing and patting. A stray finger jutting somewhere below, a test of safety and assurance but also identity, the interpersonal barometer of another’s mood, the formalized suspension of leeriness, a subtle acknowledgment of partnership. This body, this strange and miraculous human shell of pulsing cells, where skin and hair entwine in the murky heat and residue of dimpled flesh, the lines of animal and operator integrating the fragments of pure behavioral essence. This is what I thought about in that brief flashing moment as I drank from my cup and waited for my friend’s predictably lowbrow retort.

“He told me himself that he uses big words to compensate for his inability to please women.”

“Play nice,” she said, kissing her boyfriend softly on the cheek and filling her cup from the keg of beer nestled benignly between us. Then she stepped out of the light and moved toward the house, chatter wafting lazily from its open windows, men and women laughing together over the sleek resonant drawl of cozy urbane music. These summer nights are heaven, I thought. I’m dead and this moment is the post-elegiac reality of my former life, thrust into perpetual bliss, this is what I’ve chosen to take from the succession of years of toil and reward to project upon the eternal screen of my career as a perceptive agent of experience. This is the crowning jewel of everything I ever was, my skin warm and sunburned, a warm stale beer in my hand and rivers of it in my blood, a smile on my face in the most tragically happy I’ve ever been, I’ll ever be, levity and something like ardor equally on display beneath the incandescence of history’s crescent moon.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said, filling up my own cup. “There will come a night when politics is truly useless to men like you and me. It will be a dark night much like this, cicadas buzzing death chants from the trees, the moon looming large and fraudulent in a sky just as endless and inviting. It will be a night of a thousand thousand corpses, a night lit by the profane infernos of man’s destructive whims. The night politics died will be the night before men won’t be around not to talk about it the next day.”

“You’re scaring me,” he said. “I’m trying to stand here on a beautiful summer night and drink beer and you’re concerned with politics and death and revelation. Whoever designed this god-awful scene paired me with the wrong character.”

He filled his cup and we drank and others strolled out of the house in pairs to refill their cups. The music changed, a languid discourse of trumpet and alto over a steady athletic electric piano. The bass and drums were in there somewhere, holding down the measures, keeping everything intact, everything including the meaning of the song itself, and we bounced casual and profound ideas off one another until the dialogue approached that inevitable crescendo of laughter, the apex of the moment before we all reset and start again, shifting in our places, our skin, taking brief solitary seconds with our own thoughts before engaging in the others again, and we all realize in our own peculiar way how our scattered vignettes are somehow united out there in the lamp-lit perfection.

“I wonder if heaven is anything like this,” someone said into the quiet.

“Probably for some people,” I said.