Sketches from the Here and Hereafter

February 8, 2014

“For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”
– Khalil Gibran

I want to talk to about the creations we only dream of, the unrealized masterworks that take up permanent residence in our minds but for whatever reason never see the light of day.

I am talking to Bud Wood, a twenty-something version of me (he’s real, I am the wraith, or some unholy vapor) and we are traveling aboard the spaceship Thanatos® heading for b-Eartha, sometimes fondly called “Bertha.” The first three letters of Bertha are the same as my mother’s name, Beryl . . . I am not in Heaven, there is no such thing, but I am traveling at the speed of light, musing whether or not I am dead or alive (like one of those kitschy wild-west outlaw wanted posters). Anyway, the question is irrelevant and not suited to my purpose. I can’t help talking so I babble endlessly in search of the true words, the true work. I would like to keep on talking, keep on telling, until my time is up, but even that faint wish I’m unsure of.

The starship has changed trajectory and now plots a course toward Rigel-7. We are small barely distinguishable points of light and energy and Zero-G doesn’t matter to us, though we tend to stay in or near our seat like good passengers as Thanatos® slithers through hyper space.

Of course we have Internet on the spaceship, and at the moment I can download what I’ve been searching for. There is a menu or search bar to choose from. You click on “Authors” for instance and type in a name (we were all authors by now). When I type in “Bud Wood,” the app retrieves an extensive list of songs, poems, stories, paintings, film scripts; stuff that was out there, published, but also some unfinished works and projects, beginnings of things—scrawls, some rough lines, maybe a few notes. But most important of all were the works that had never left his head, even those dreams that might have contained a germ of a creation, a single image, a setting, perhaps a phrase overheard in a crowd, or a random string of words that sounded profound in the dream state and upon first waking, much in the same way I am dreaming Bud Wood now: his thoughts and dreams, his creations, sealed within my own.

I select an idea for a short story, and step inside his head in order to begin my critique, though it’s not really Bud’s “head” anymore, is it? What I meant to say was his “mind,” a similar entity akin to “inside the head,” not the physical brain but the energy of the brain which still exists in Endland. I look for his thoughts, his imagery, his musings, his dreams, but only those that belong to the creation, the thing he may have intended to share, or still intends to share, not the private world of cogitation with its miserable daily toil, its worries and fantasies, its false memory and monsters, its necessary but mostly harmless scheming. I’m in search of the finer stuff, the intricate weave of rich cloth, the mosaic of gold and emerald and lapis.

“Your work looks good,” I tell him. “You have that uncanny talent or ability of stating your idea in simple form without appearing trite. You often present complex themes with simplicity and elegance. Not an easy feat to pull off.”

Of course he doesn’t answer me. Not even a “thank you” if my criticism is favorable, or an “I’ll think about it,” or “I’ll work some more on that” if I happen to point out a flaw. My comments are immediately absorbed by him/her in the instant that I think of them—before they are hatched into words. In this way we share a telepathic conversation and understanding.

“But you need a little more detail. When you empty your mind completely you begin to gather in more detail. You notice the grains in wood and even metal, the architectural lines of buildings, the shapes of lawns and fences, the pores and veins on people’s skin. You remember people, don’t you?

“And you need to develop subtlety. You don’t want the media and others figuring you out too soon. Everyone is essentially a cop. You need to retain your inner core and an outward air of ambiguity and mystery. You don’t need an advanced degree, but on the other hand you can’t let it all hang out, because that’s a sign of limited education and breeding, a lack of refinement, a lack of sophistication. If people are able to read you in a matter of minutes they will quickly grow bored, they’ve already figured you out, and you don’t want that, do you? A lack of subtlety, of sophistication, will permanently consign you to the working and lower classes, and an obvious desperation in throwing yourself at other people—needing them too soon, needing them too much—is unattractive and distancing . . . Play it cool. Always play it cool.”

Her limb was always cold. The calf especially but the thigh too, which as a boy I would not be able to place my hand there very often if at all, possibly those times she was in a deep sleep. The entire leg was a chilled muscle-less tube of inert flesh and it needed to be borne along by the locomotion of the good leg and hip, as if it were some vagabond hitching a free ride . . . step forward, pull and drag, step forward, etc. . . . When sitting (and I observed this most when she was getting in the car) the dead leg was hoisted toward her with the hand beneath the crook of the knee, raised and then lowered into position parallel with the good leg. I may have written it about it before. I will have to find that sketch. Does it matter? Is it relevant? Is writing about your mother’s dead limb relevant? Does a dead limb have relevance?

There was always some kind of haze around cemeteries, or so it seemed, a hazy telephoto feeling like some movie cliché, a scrim overlaying the all too green grass hugging gravestones and the white of marble or pale gray of granite and distant black-clad figures — clergy, mortician, and mourners, their heads bowed, blots of color from the flowers that littered the coffin. Oddly, the haze may not have been subjective, may not have been induced by the general mood and activity of what typically takes place here but was more likely due to the summer heat and humidity. It seemed I was always here in the summer: June, July, August; father in June; maternal grandmother in July; mother in August, as though Death wanted to make a more poignant statement — no cold and barren landscapes for Him, he was all about equal opportunity regarding the seasons, as though Death would come a calling for my family (and who knows, maybe myself) in swim trunks, Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses.

In the August before we buried my mother, nearly one year to the day, I had driven her to the cemetery. Because of her limp from polio, she did not want to climb part way up the hill to the family plot, so I walked up, for her and for myself, to check on the graves. It was a warm August day but with a strong dry wind . . . I looked at the grave markers of my father, three of my grandparents, and a great aunt. There was only one unused grave left. I looked at the names on all the bronze plates and then the one plate that was nameless, and then I lifted my gaze and looked down the hill at my mother leaning against my car and felt an uneasy stirring over the certainty of her place in this ground. To me, my mother still seemed some years away from death, but one year later she would lie in this family burial site with the rest of them. She didn’t want to stick around. She had waited 11 long years. She wanted to be with my father.

My mother must have had the stirring herself, maybe anticipated the cancer that within a few months would begin shriveling her. She said it had been a great day, and I agreed, and when we returned to her apartment, she brought out from her papers a ruled yellow sheet with instructions for her service and burial. She wanted no viewing, no embalming, no special casket obviously. The cost of other funerals, including my father’s, had turned her against the death business, it didn’t make sense to her, spending all that money. We would simply meet at the undertakers on the day of burial, my brother and I would give readings and conduct prayers, we would buy our own flowers, and afterwards the mourners, if they chose to, could join us for lunch and then head back to their lives. The plans were simple, the way she liked things.

I landed in a basement corridor. I heard plastic trays sliding on metal racks, the clinking of dishes, plates and silverware, the voices of hospital kitchen workers who prepared the meals that were served in the cafeteria, and who also cleaned up the mess and emptied the garbage. Their presence was earthy and reassuring, life going on. Double doors swung open—a sharp bump, oiled hinges, and then slamming shut, though quietly, nothing too abrupt. I lingered here for some time, a cold dispassionate observer, before I noticed the elevator. The light above the doors was stuck on the number four, the fourth floor, but as the doors parted the light remained on number four. When I stepped from the elevator onto the fourth floor and looked both ways checking for patient room numbers, I realized I was 12 years younger than I’d been a few minutes earlier, and in a different hospital, which didn’t matter really: all hospitals feel the same at their core—the same starched staff, the same flowers and Mylar balloons, the same gurneys and IVs and surgery wings, the same TV’s flickering in patients’ rooms blocked by a half closed door, the same convalescing, the same dying, the same boredom . . . I didn’t need to check room numbers. I had been here many times already. I knew my way around and found the room. The door was shut most of the way, and I had to gently ease it open. I wasn’t sure if I would find my father or mother in there, lying there, but if I was really 12 years younger it would have had to have been my father . . . or maybe it would be me. I wasn’t sure.

My father was sleeping after one of the hospital’s many surgeries—futile intrusions upon a dying body to keep the machinery of modern medicine working and profitable. Father was on a morphine drip and unaware of my presence, the IV tree at his bedside like a sterile harbinger. There was a food tray with some uneaten applesauce. Racing cars circled endlessly on the television alongside his bed, a loud modulated drone, a swarm of bees with little change in motion, the same few cars in front, moving up, falling slightly behind. There were four camera angles: above from in front, on the ground at the mechanics pit, directly overhead and higher, and above and a little in back of the cars. Around and around they went with their incessant hum, with their constant looping speed and noise. There was something Zen-like in the televised drag race, and perhaps the monotony was helping to keep my father asleep which is where he needed to be at the moment. I was unable talk to him, there wouldn’t have been much point, he couldn’t hear me. The cars spun endlessly around the track. I finally turned off the television and let him rest.

I left his room and left the hospital. I approached a line of mourners across the street, and made my way to the head of the line where the pall bearers were loading the casket into the hearse. The undertaker recognized me and mentioned something about following him, about being the lead car. I saw that my car, at the front of the line, and the 20 other cars in the procession already had those orange signs with the word “Funeral” in bold black letters. Was I attending my burial? (I could have been in the casket, the casket was closed) Or more likely the burial of one of my parents, but which one?

God, the way they decorate these rooms. The placement of flower vases, of overstuffed armchairs and settees, all so artificial and bland, neutral, characterless, a staged representation of Life. They are called homes, but they’re not homes, homes are for living people, these places are theater sets for the dead. The living people, when they do gather here, are only gathered for the purpose of paying their final respects to the dead, and the rooms and furniture are so many props on a stage set. The bereaved and their guests greet one another and talk. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? How are you and how is so-and-so. The guests’ talk is predictably hushed, though a little hurried and tense too, a conversation to establish a secure wave of presence above the undertow of certain mortality. (“Hey, we’re still here, you and me. Have you heard the one about the duck who walks into a bar?”) Sometimes the gathering is large, like tonight, a room full of people, some finger pastries and coffee and the same level of sibilance and laughter as at a staid gala reception — well, not quite a gala reception — but the same aura of polite decorum.

When they are leaving you there isn’t much you can do except be there with them, a presence in their presence. They are often heavily drugged and asleep, and if not asleep and not eating, then possibly incoherent, far away. They may be aware of you but their speech is often desultory and fragmented, sometimes surreal and humorous. You help with whatever meagre skill you can marshal under the circumstances—possibly feed them or give them drink, reposition their body on the bed, procure more ice chips, find the TV remote and either turn the TV off or change the channel. You may stroke or kiss their brow, hold and squeeze their hands hoping for a reciprocal tension, a response, but you should not need a response, you should have no expectation of them acknowledging, or thanking for your care, don’t take it personally, it is not about you at all. They are simply leaving, their bodies slipping from your confused grasp. And it’s the idea of total release that seems hardest to wrap one’s mind around. I try to imagine total release from the body—the energy, the soul if you will, which has animated the body and quickened the flesh for decades, being cataclysmically dispersed and scattered into the larger or exterior world, or space for that matter. But space then takes on a double meaning. We have the “space” of “outer space”—the cosmos, the heavens arrayed beyond the window of Starship Thanatos—but then there’s the space immediately surrounding us, the air beyond the tips of our fingers, the crown of our head, the elastic curve of our skin. The two really aren’t different when you stop and think about it. Space is space. We are released into nothing. I try to conceive of nothing. I get a mental handle on merging with space and nothing, no separateness, no personal energy of one’s own, but simply rejoining the universe from whence we came. There is no longer harm or hurt to the volatile ego, or pain or shock to the flesh, nothing remotely threatening or horrifying; so why is it then that I’m still occasionally scared shitless by the thought of Death? I believe these memories and musings, random and disjointed as they may appear, will serve as a personal eschatological check list, the way my mother’s yellow notepad did.

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