A person can be internally consistent and absurd at the same time, like a comedy skit. Our imagined summaries make us lifelike, or so I heard on television. Don’t mind me, I’m just looking for permission, filled with suppositions about self-preservation through simple perseverance and tricky transposition mixed in blender-wise with kind attentions to the scratches on the table and the streaks on the glass as though I really believe I’d dissolve my fears if I could only embrace the imperfections of my style. Style—ha! When I set out to write I expected each stanza would begin with an abstract observation followed by a loosely corresponding question but here we are in the middle of yet another goddamn paragraph because I don’t stick with anything and slip on Freudians—a fact which you, conscience, always somehow saw as something akin to sin. In the end it was a party that pulled Styron out of his second round of depression, a fucking party, can you believe it? You could tread upon enlightenment and suggest all human achievement amounts to an elaborate mating game, though some pleasures, you’d surely concede, are incrementally higher than others, while others still are far. Sometimes, for instance, you sit nude before a keyboard looking for a compelling way to resist invisibility and silence through the publicizing of one’s life’s truths—a foolish pursuit, no doubt, when you’re so overwhelmed by unreality that you cover your face and refer to yourself in the second person because distance and non-knowledge appear to offer the only way through. But who knows the unwritten rules till we write them and then reject the limitations of language, opting for the ubiquitous lure of second-rate visuals of ritualized identity since it sometimes seems skin is all the world cares to acknowledge in the first place.
Wednesday at 8pm on the back of a plain white business card, the address below. 4256 N Ravenswood, the ominous Brothers Grimm-ness of which is not lost on me though any sense of numerology very much quite most certainly is.
That’s today’s first certainly is, and it’s after 7:00. The next two are that the street is split by train tracks, and it’s the west side I want, southbound, quite certainly, because south is down and west is away from my shadow. Dial intercom 242. 2-4-2 on the intercom upon arrival, that is, more properly. Meet 3rd floor, less so.
Well at this rate I’ll be there by 7:50 and the sun will still be up over this the great shared world and isn’t it just beautiful and don’t you just want to smile? You better, because each and every single last fucking one of us is hurled nightly into a sleeping world all our own though I bet you didn’t know I just stole from S. Ocampo to say it so who’s to say whose is whose.
In transit, I consider language and liberation, considering that language may in fact be liberation and yet all I can seem to think to scribble are stories of how we’re living and obscure directions to other destinations.
That’s the problem with seeming to think. Better to just go on and do it, and leave all that seeming to the wanting, particularly the wanting each and every thing to be the thing, because we only get one shot before the next transmogrification.
So, taking mine, I push the envelope into another envelope and insist this time I will be delivered, now that I know the address. The sun has been fierce today and I wipe the fear from my brow with a no less fearful forearm, an act which merely smears the beads into streaks of misfortune.
How absurd it is to try so hard to be so tame when every single very last pore pronounces total freedom.
I feel something when my eyes see that I don’t want talking to shatter. Always desiring, but desiring desire, wanting inner access, past the gate, but only for the simple strange something sake of getting in, never really wanting to stay, hedging to the vague side of the street to scramble any alterities of signal and noise over the din of found moments and too many persons, a few (maybe the two?) of “us” unnecessary selves popping murti-bings for the imagination of health in the midst of ills, excepting on the basis of the stories we like to tell about who we are and how we’ve arrived coming being becoming here, forming connections, finding meaning, postulating purposefulness for the Great Convenience of ascribing conspicuously high meaning to extraordinarily low probability events, hell-bent on pointing fingers at ingeminate abstractions as though blame will provide some refuge from the usual.
Are you distracted yet, I wonder? You who are enigmatic, cavernous, and irradiating, while I side inside with the alluring separateness of closed doors and sometimes wide flung open windows, thoroughly flouting the principles of plausible deniability. Those trees out there, they are just so much thinking. They sway, and there’s no such thing as absolute right and wrong, only right and wrong now, only ever right now. And wrong now. And what’s wrong now, what’s wrong now. What’s wrong now is this fantasy, you see, perfectly out of focus, this vagary of simple conjunctions tying my very disparateness up in a shoestring-strung stream of apparent consciousness and like all my fantasies it starts with silhouettes and secrets, some extant, desultory presumption of publicity to obscure dreams only a true pathologist could reconcile with reality. I’ll only tell if you truly wish to hear, I whisper from the margins, hounded by an insatiable hunger for definition, and only if you swear promise to keep that of me which to you I do entrust.
I am the monster lurking on the hillside, chased by something even more terrible. I am watching myself be the terrified monster. I am the mirror that sees clearly but refuses the truth. I am the shadow behind thin curtains at night, lenient light from an unseen source playing on the softly undulating folds, imagining essences, routinely absurd. I am the reality harassing works of art, browbeating them into mere signs.
If only I were the beauty in the things I see and touch and hear and smell and want. I am what’s left of my sense of humor.
At around half past 3 in the morning I decided that I would go for a crafty cigarette. I was at my grandfather’s house – he didn’t (and hopefully still doesn’t) know that I smoke and I didn’t want to wake him by going downstairs and outside, so I thought it best to hang out of the bedroom window and smother the smell with perfume afterwards.
I opened the window, jumped up on the sill, dangled my pyjama-ed legs out over the edge and, before I could spark up, my attention was diverted to the meteor shower that was performing its drama in the space above me. I’d seen such sights before but never this clearly. These fizzling stars seemed so close, as if I could reach out and catch them. I half expected a piece of hot rock to land in my lap and burn through my shorts.
A voice shocked me back to Earth.
“Are you gonna light that or what?” my father whispered, a little too loudly.
“JESUS CHRIST, DAD, YOU SCARED THE SHIT OUT OF ME!”
He chuckled until his chuckle turned into a cough, which he tried to stifle. He was also hiding his habit from granddad (his father) – he had promised him a year before that he had quit. But here he was, also hanging out of his bedroom window, a few metres across from mine, smoking a joint and watching the shower.
He put his finger to his lips and said, “Shhh,” and then pointed at the sky.
“I know,” I whispered back.
We stayed that way for a few minutes, together but apart, smoking in the silence of the night, watching the meteorites falling so effortlessly from the heavens, knowing that they look pretty from here but up there the scene is one of violence and destruction. We were quite content to revel in the magic of the display, ignoring the science and calculations and unfathomable numbers behind it and the reality of our insignificance (although these things did cross our minds).
“You know how stars die, don’t you?” he whispered to me, again a little too loudly.
“Erm… supernova, is it?”
“Nah. Overdose, usually.”
I giggled into my hand, before whispering, “For fuck’s sake, Dad,” in his general direction. We didn’t know that Amy Winehouse would die from a suspected overdose the next day.
We spent another minute or so watching the sky. I looked over at my Dad, his face illuminated only by the stars. His smile had gone. He looked wistful, possibly even sad. Then I felt sad, knowing we’d be back in London soon and unable to see magic like this through the pollution. Back to London, to depression and money problems and bad decisions and drug dealing and dangerous dalliances and trouble trouble trouble.
“Dad,” I said, quietly. “Am I going to be okay?”
He looked over at me from his window and smiled, and said with such certainty,
“Yes. Yes you are, babes.”
In that moment, I believed him. I locked that exchange in my heart, archived, for future reference. Then I stubbed out my roll-up underneath the window ledge and buried it among the leaves in the guttering. Then I replied to my Dad,
But his window was shut and he was gone.
I went past him on the bus. Well I could only see his feet but I knew it was a ‘him.’
Sometimes my eyes see things that aren’t there. They are there, because I can see them, but apparently they’re not visible to other people. Like the time I saw a human-sized dog bounding towards me but nobody else saw it, even though my face was somehow covered in its slobber and I had dog hair on my clothes. Sometimes I entertain the things I see, sometimes I assume they’re not really real and ignore them. I wonder how many real things I’ve discredited because I’ve been told that parts of my brain aren’t trustworthy. But him, his feet, felt like something I should investigate.
I got off the bus at the hospital and instead of going to the psychiatric ward where I had an appointment I turned back and walked the way I’d just come, past the little park. I walked slowly but with purpose. I knew what I was going to see and I didn’t know what I was going to see.
I pushed through the willows and hedges and there he was, strung up from the strongest arm of the oak tree. Male. Late 30s/early 40s. 6ft-ish. Looks Eastern European. Blue t-shirt, navy jacket, dark jeans, white trainers. Fists clenched. Gold band on the ring finger of his right hand. Rosary in his left. I hope the Catholics aren’t right about suicide. He doesn’t look like he’s in Hell. And if his life was hell on earth then he’ll be well-prepared anyway. I’m glad his eyes were closed, it would’ve been more disturbing if they were open, less peaceful, less okay.
I stood about a metre away, lit a cigarette and looked at him for a while. He waltzed with the breeze. The only music was the rope creaking. He was a reluctant dancer. His face was pale grey and his lips were blue: he looked like a painting. I looked at the rope. A perfect slip-knot. Would’ve been painless. No broken neck. Boy scout.
I thought about him climbing up this tree, perching on the branch, tying the rope around and around, double-checking it’s secure, putting the noose around his neck, tightening it, triple-checking it’s all secure, taking a moment to look around, to breathe in, gently lowering himself underneath the branch, his arms over it, then placing one hand on the rope, then another, slowly slipping down, one last look at the world and then letting go. Bam.
I reached up to his jacket pocket and took his wallet out. Polish national. Same name as my grandfather. Oh, it’s his birthday today. He’s 38. Shit. I put the wallet back. I found two folded bits of paper in the other pocket. Oh, of course. Notes. One to his brother, one to his wife. I don’t read them even though morbid curiosity tells me to go ahead. No. I might be crazy but I’m not heartless. I put them back in his pocket. They’re not mine to read.
I looked around the tree for other clues. Bingo. A black plastic bag from the off licence. Inside: today’s newspaper, a switched off mobile phone and 4 cans of Dębowe Mocne, a strong Polish lager. In the bush nearby I see an empty can of Dębowe and at the base of the tree trunk there’s another. Creak. I go over to it and pick it up. Creak. It’s half full. Half empty. Half drunk. Half gone. Half left. Around the lip of the can I see saliva mixed with beer.
Suddenly a yappy little Jack Russell comes running over out of nowhere. He looks at me and looks at the hanging man and starts barking.
“SAMMY! Come here, boy, over here. Sammy!”
I say to the dog, “You’d better be on your way then, Sammy.”
He didn’t move, just kept on barking.
Then comes his owner. A short, tubby Irishman with a red face.
“JESUS MARY AND JOSEPH!” he says, taking his hat off. “Christ! What’s happened?”
I stare at him, blankly.
“Don’t answer that, bloody come here and help me get him down!!!” he yells and he hugs the man’s legs and tries to lift him up. I want to laugh but it’s not the time nor place.
“Fucking well help me then!” he shouts at me.
“He’s dead,” I say, unhelpfully, helpfully.
“Christ!” he says, letting go. “Have you got yer mobile telephone on yer girl, we need to call an ambulance right now, right now!?”
“No, I don’t. Sorry.” I say.
“WHAT! I thought all yous kids had a phone on yer! Right. Right. Okay,” he says, clearly losing his shit.
He crosses himself. “How very sad it is. It’s a sad thing, suicide, isn’t it? Very sad. Very tragic. Good grief. Right. I live just over that road there, I’m going to run home and call the ambulance and the police and do yer think I should phone the fire brigade? You know, to, to cut him down, like? Jesus. Oh, Jesus. You stay here, won’t yer. Just… watch him… make sure he doesn’t move.”
I don’t know what’s funnier, the thought of this fat little flustered old man running or me watching a corpse to make sure it doesn’t do anything.
“Right. Stay here. Come on Sammy, come on boy. Mary mother of God. Right. Police, ambulance, fire,” he muttered, shuffling away.
I was still holding this can of Dębowe Mocne. I took a few swigs because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. Then I suddenly thought about this dead man’s saliva mixing with mine, on my lips, in my mouth. I decided that I can either think of it as disgustingly disrespectful and too macabre to justify or I can think of it as a sort of last kiss, a kiss goodbye. I looked up at him. The poor bastard.
I noticed that whilst the chubby little man was manhandling this guy’s legs, one of his shoelaces came undone. I did it up. For some reason I said aloud, “There you are. All fixed” like I say when I do my nephew’s shoelace up after he’s fallen over. I wondered about this man suspended above me, about who he is, who he was. I said to him, “What was it that made you so sad?” I wondered if his sadness is equivalent to mine, or if he was even sadder than me, or if I am in fact much sadder than he was when he chose to do this but by some fluke I’m still alive and he isn’t.
I looked at the beer can. Dębowe Mocne. That literally translates as Strong Oak. I wondered if the beer was a coincidence. He killed himself on a Dębowe Mocne, on the strongest oak tree in the park. Maybe he wasn’t strong enough to ask for help or to carry on. Maybe he came to this tree for strength and didn’t find any. Or maybe he just bought this beer because it’s a super-strength lager and it’s cheap to get pissed on it.
I lifted the can up as high as I could, above level with his stomach, and said aloud, “Happy Birthday, Stanisław. Wszystkiego najlepszego. To sadness. To slipknots. To strength. Na zdrowie, mate.” I necked the beer, threw the can in the bag and walked to the hospital.
“Sorry I’m late, fucking roadworks. Can I still see Dr K for my psych review or do I have to reschedule?” The receptionist eyed me suspiciously and said, “Take a seat.”
“You’re late,” said Dr K. “And you smell like a brewery. Have you been drinking?”
“Not really,” I said.
“Well you stink of beer,” he said sternly, offering me a mint.
We went through the usual charade. How’s my sleep, how’s my energy, how’s my appetite, how’s my concentration, how’s my social life, how’s my sex life, how are my thoughts of harming myself, how are my thoughts of harming others, how’s my drug use, how’s my alcohol use, how many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?
Dr K asked me if I still see, hear, feel or experience things that aren’t real. I said, “No, not to my knowledge.” He asked if I am still taking my anti-psychotics properly and I said yes, yes I am, and he said great, I’ll see you in 6 months then.
On my way home, past the park, I anticipated the presence of a police car and ambulance, perhaps the coroner’s hearse, the area cordoned off, officials milling about the tree. But there was nothing. I stood there for a moment in shock, surveying the park. Then this yappy little dog ran up to me and started barking.
“SAMMY! GET HERE NOW!” I heard a man shout in a broad Irish accent.
I don’t understand.
This stump of a man strolls up to me and says, “Sorry about my dog. Have yer been at the hospital?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Have yer been at the hospital, like?”
“Erm, yeah, just now,” I reply, perplexed, thinking he’s going to tell me what happened to the hanging man.
“Ah. That’s it, you see,” says the red-faced old man, “my little dog here smells death from a mile off.”
Image by Christine Renney
Dalton was not the first to arrive and if he hadn’t noticed the others (a handful of men standing at the edge of the road gazing out across the field) he wouldn’t have slowed, wouldn’t have pulled off and up onto the verge. Only then did he turn and see the smoke rising in the distance, a grey and dense column.
Dalton climbed from his car and, as he walked across to where the others stood, he looked toward the burning building. A mansion in flames, it was most certainly something that he wanted to see.
Joining the group he asked, ‘What happened?’
He regretted this instantly, wished that he could take the question back, realised just how inane it must have sounded but at last one of the men mumbled, ‘Don’t know.’
And Dalton was able to breathe again and along with these men he stood in silence watching the house burn and watching the fire fighters who from so far away appeared small and inadequate. They scurried about in front of the blaze and quite clearly weren’t up to the task at hand. They couldn’t get close enough, couldn’t touch it and attempting to contain it they set up cannons and fired water into the air. But it couldn’t be controlled and they hadn’t any choice but to let it run its course. All they could really do was stand back and wait for the fire to burn itself out.
Dalton was pleased by this, excited even, and furtively he glanced at the men standing beside him. They were all of them quietly engrossed and he quickly turned his attention back toward the burning edifice.
Behind him others had begun to arrive, he listened to them talk. They were questioning and speculative and Dalton realised that if he had arrived just a little later he would be in this group. But now he was part of something else entirely, something much more intense.
The man in front of him, the ‘don’t know’ man, stepped onto the grass verge and pushed through a gap in the hedge. Dalton followed and so did one of the others. Together all three of them then moved out onto the open field and away from the noisy, gathering rabble.
Dalton glanced back and was surprised to find the rest of the original group were still standing on the other side of the hedge, had decided not to follow and were already turning and, gesticulating, they joined the throng.
Dalton tried to concentrate on the fire but couldn’t, the moment was getting away from him. Awkward and uncomfortable, he wondered if they were talking about him, if they, the three who had foolishly and pointlessly ventured a little closer, were now a topic of conversation.
It struck Dalton, but just momentarily, that it was like watching a scene from a film but it was far too real and much too big and the camera didn’t cut away in order to reveal something else.
He looked up and watched the smoke spiralling into the sky. Looking down Dalton noticed, for the first time, the ambulances parked off to the far right. It was an enclave of activity, the paramedics moving purposefully back and forth and the dazed survivors wandering aimlessly.
Dalton realised that they couldn’t see, not from the road and he suddenly felt less self-conscious, was in fact decidedly buoyant and able to watch again.