Mischief in Brevity
Eventually, there would be no more trees to chop.
This painting always haunted me. An axe stands buried in a tree stump, next to a neatly chopped pile of wood. There's one piece of wood left unchopped, but the axe remains buried in the stump, like the arm swinging the axe isn't coming back. The job was almost done, and the woodsman just walked away. There's a thin layer of fresh snow on everything, and the pile of wood is next to this boarded up cabin. The shadows are lengthening, and the day is coming to an end.
I always wondered about the woodsman. Did he give up and head inside the cabin? There's no footprints, so whenever he walked away, it was a while ago, before the last snow fall. Or the painter just forgot about the footsteps, so the painting is unfinished. I spent a while trying to decide where he is. Who leaves a job unfinished like that?
I can imagine him walking away, down the hill, away from the cabin. His boots crunch in the snow. He looks up at the sky and notices the snow begin to fall. It falls slowly, almost imperceptibly, and seems to stop in mid air. The world freezes with the snow. All the work yet to be done will remain forever undone. The snow will cover the earth, and every car will stop in its tracks, every store will close, the airports will shut down and people will have to make a life wherever they are.
Maybe some businessman on a trip will be forced to walk away from the airport. He'll find a small town near the airport, and the people there will take him in. He'll begin a new life, chopping wood, tending the fires. He will help keep the small town alive, and every step he takes to find fire wood will signal the end of the world. Eventually, there will be no trees left to chop. Maybe that's why this woodsman walks away. He knows he's just stalling the end.
But maybe the snow doesn't cover the last trees for some years to come. Maybe he stays in this town, he hunts, cleans, and cooks for his neighbors. Maybe someday, forgetting his old life, he reaches down and holds the hand of his neighbor. She smiles at him, and he keeps the fire warm, and they make the best they can of their last days. Maybe he chops wood, every day, walking farther and farther. Maybe he has built a wagon, and the townspeople begin building a tunnel to the woods.
Lying some nights next to her, he thinks about his old life, with an apartment in the city. He thinks that he would have died if he stayed there, in a city surrounded by desert. There would have been no wood to cut. He remembers that every one he knew must be dead. This should fill him with sorrow, but it doesn't.
He goes on chopping wood. Why would he walk away? Maybe something snaps inside him. Maybe she dies one day, maybe the chopping takes too much out of him. Maybe, although this new life is good, he misses the world. He misses sitting on a train, reading a new novel, listening to music from across the world. When the world shuts down, there is quiet. There is chopping wood and conversation. There is the music of his neighbors, slightly off-key but comforting. When the world shuts down, there is nothing to buy, no shop to keep, no business to run. There is just taking care of each other. So why would he walk away?
At first, it is comforting. Life slows to a crawl. People stop rushing around, drugging themselves awake and drugging themselves asleep, twisting themselves into knots to do a job and keep up with everybody else. All the pressure immediately lifts, even as the pressure of the snow weighs on the new world. Maybe this woodsman waited all his life for this new world, only to find that the pressure of life is still here.
But it's different now, isn't it? He has her, and life is simple, and it is good. He chops wood, and gets older, and maybe they have children. Maybe he misses the old world, but that longing comes and then goes.
In the painting, there are plenty of trees left to chop down. When the woodsman walks away, he isn't giving up. Just as this woodsman walks away, and the snow covers any tracks, and the work stops, so does the painter stop working, puts down his brush, and declares an end. There is more wood to chop, more painting to do. But sometimes it's OK to walk away.
The woodsman, with his wife and children, remembers hoping that the old world of streets and noise would end so that the pressure would end. When the new pressure came, he picked up and carried on. He took care of his family. Maybe he walks away on vacation. Maybe his children pick up the axes and walk out, further and further, looking for wood to chop. Maybe he laid down one day, held his wife's hand again, and they slipped away.
Maybe his children run out of wood someday. They huddle together and make the best they can of the end. I don't think they were afraid. The snow kept coming on, and they smiled, grateful for having taken care of each other, of the town.
These days, I feel like the storm will never stop. I'm not sure that I want it to. I think most days I live without thinking about the end. What else can you do? But then: the snow comes on, and I can't wait for the world to end. There will be so much to look forward to.
(With thanks to Richard Kelly)
What's that sound? Is someone tapping on my door? No, I'm disoriented, wrong direction. Oh, it's coming from the window. It's too slow of a sound to be rain. Is that a bird? What time is it? The phone says 10. It's pretty dark for ten. Alright, I guess I'll actually look outside. Oh it is raining, just really lightly. What's making that sound? It's hitting the shutters, that's it. Weird.
What little light there is filters through the red shades. The room glows slowly, the day creeping onto my bed. It's that moment before anything has happened, before I remember who I am or what I have to do. I look around the room through blurry eyes and decide to lay here longer. The rain is speeding up and it's nice now. Funny how the rhythm can change a sound... the same sound.
I wake up again to the sound of distant thunder and faster rain. I guess I fell back asleep. It looks darker in the room now though. What time is it? I reach for the phone again, but hesitate. The screen is going to be too bright in a room this dark. I guess I've finally learned from history, the many times I've turned on the screen in the dark and immediately had the light stabbing the furthest reaches of my brain. I'll wait.
Eventually, after many minutes listening to the storm fall harmlessly around the house, and wondering what the animals are doing in the storm, I stretch. The stretch starts me moving and brings me back to myself. With a groan, I remember who I am, and what the many yesterdays have brought to my today. Many problems solved, challenges overcome, but all I can remember are today's complexities that weigh on me. My heartbeat quickens and I reach for the bedside lamp.
I sit up and bed and just look around at nothing in particular. I reach for the phone and apparently it's noon. Why didn't anyone wake me up? I must've needed it. That's what Jenny will say to me later. I'll smile and agree and quietly love her for understanding that. Maybe she'll smile back, and it will be a moment like this.
I pull back the covers and slide my feet to the ground. I sit on the edge of the bed, head in my hands, and work up the energy to actually stand up. Eventually I do. The windows of the bedroom open upwards, so I left them open as the rain came down. No danger there. But it's starting to get windy and I close them out of caution.
The wood floor feels cold on my bare feet as I pad my way to the bathroom. I tell myself to turn the heat on at some point. It's early August, why is it cold already? My reflection in the bathroom mirror looks solemn, my eyes set back deep with sleep still in them, looking back as though curious. This new beard that's growing in is still surprising, and I can't decide if I look older or just un-kept. Maybe they amount to the same thing.
The smell of mildew pervades the staircase, typical of these older New England houses. It smells like home, and the creak of the staircase as I carefully make my way down on the wobbly legs given by sleep... it's home. I make my way into the kitchen and notice the thermostat. I turn it up, then make my way over to the stove, and wait for the clicks to turn into a whoosh as I start the burner under the kettle. I give the kettle a little shake, and there's enough water from yesterday. Then I reconsider and fill it, in case Jenny comes home soon. She loves tea on cold days.
The storm is picking up strength, and the wind is battering the windows outside the kitchen, as I wait for the whistle of the kettle. I look out the window and notice that it has turned to snow. It's coming down heavily, and as I hear Jenny's car come up the gravel drive, I sigh, relieved. Something's coming.
(Profanity, reading discretion advised)
(Part of a longer piece yet to be written, a rarity)
I’m security. What a joke, right? This lady I used to work with asked me to house sit and now I’m sitting here, fast food mostly eaten, downing a really strong drink. Don’t get me wrong, I’m here to protect and serve. This girl I used to date gave me a very me kind of gift once: a slim boot knife and a collapsible baton, like the kind that cops whip out and extend when they want to look really scary. I think she wanted to give me something to investigate strange sounds in the night other than my shotgun. The more often I was drunk, the wiser that gift seemed to avoid putting a hole through a wall, or through one of our friends looking for a place to crash at 4am. An opportunity to house sit was the perfect opportunity to drink with abandon, so I opted for the tools less likely to cause property damage, or kill this lady if she decided to come home early for some reason.
The thing is, I’m sitting here in suburbia, getting liquored up and watching James Bond pose all muscular and heroic. What in the fuck could happen around here? Nothing, is the answer. Still, it feels nice to be of use to someone.
James Bond is protecting and saving the girl, and I’m just ogling her. I’m a couple drinks in, which wouldn’t make me feel a single thing, except that I really know how to pour. I started to stumble around after the last drink, making trips to the bathroom and fridge, and this drink has me thinking about another day completely wasted, and the bed I made myself earlier. Maybe I won’t even find my way up there. Maybe this couch is just fine and dandy.
After another heavy pour, I’m on hands and knees finding my way up the stairs, and kicking a toe into the porch light switch. My car is out there, a beat-up old Pontiac, and the light gives just the right “somebody’s here” kind of tone. Not too many people around here, which makes the light even more of a security blanket.
Security is really about the unknown. Any bad guys don’t know who the fuck is in here, what they’re carrying, or whether any valuable shit is here. It’s all unknowns, and the porch light is just one more unknown in a sea of “fuck, this isn’t worth it.” I know that because I’ve robbed a few places.
Alright, I’m a piece of shit. I apologize. The truth is, after a few too many places, I turned into whatever I am now, started trying to make the world a better place, whatever that means. The thing is, it’s been a tough time, and staying straight is becoming almost fucking impossible. A guy has rent to pay, liquor to buy, and car payments coming up. It would be easy to ignore all of those, but I did that before, and that found me in a “stealing shit” business. Maybe the 12-step program over there on Maple should have mentioned the fucking money factor.
So as I said, I’m on my way up the stairs, hands and knees, ready for the bed I made, and then shit goes wrong. It was about 11pm, and I never thought somebody would have the balls to rob the place so early and with the light having just come on, but the door starts shaking back and forth. No doorbell rings, and the light is still on, which means this is somebody trying his luck and in a real fucking hurry. A crowbar shimmies there, lodged in its embrace, and I figure I have about 60 seconds of prep time before I’m in a fight. I could run I guess but this lady is a good person and she doesn’t deserve this shit. Besides, I’m armed, and I’ve seen enough action to think I’ve got a shot here. Not much of one, but if things go wrong, at least I can die a hero.
I start thinking about that action movie, “The Last Action Hero.” Arnold was in it, and the bad guys were pretty pathetic compared to him. I’m not a giant like he is, but I think I can handle this. The phone wasn’t far away, but it never occurred to me to call for help. I guess, in retrospect, winning wasn’t the point. When your life has been a series of “things gone wrong,” you stop thinking that things are gonna turn out right. You just hope to look good on the way out.
I managed to shuffle up the stairs and stuff the knife into the boots I had been planning on taking off a few seconds ago, and grabbed the closed-up baton before the door burst open. Having done a few of these, the beginning was almost boring. The guys were yelling at each other to find the good stuff, which is pretty funny since none of them knows what the good stuff is, and to be quick about it.
Clearly they weren’t planning on any police… or me. It was weird when I thought about it, how they didn’t show up until I hit the outside light. Then it dawned on me: they were already on their way up the lawn when I hit the damn thing, they just thought it was a motion activated light! The unlucky idiots knocked over the nice clock downstairs and a few of the shiny boxes before I figured it was my cue. I wasn’t planning on any shit going down; these guys sounded pretty fucking stupid, and I didn’t hear any of the usual “Stay out of our way, we have guns” bullshit followed by any gun-type sounds. After a while around guns, you get to know how one sounds being handled. You don’t even need to cock a gun, just pick one up and I’ll know you’re armed from sound alone. I figured, worst case scenario, it was me and 2 or 3 fuckwits with crowbars.
That turned out to be right. I took a deep breath, flung the baton open, and started yelling as loud as I could that I was coming downstairs with a shotgun and 4 guys from the Rinks Security Company, and that they had better get the fuck out of here if they valued their lives. I guess they valued their lives, or didn’t care to fight anyone for the whole-lot-of-nothing they found, because 2 of them took off through the front. One of them stuck around, though, and he was unarmed.
I just kind of looked at him for a second when I got down to his floor. He looked back at me and just shrugged. “Where’s the shotgun? And the guys?” I started laughing and couldn’t stop. He looked at me in kind of this bored way while I laughed myself silly. You had to love it: a drunk, overweight guy lumbers down the stairs in his pajamas, scares the pants off two amateur thieves, and then starts having a conversation with the guy leftover. I stood there shirtless with my pajama pants hanging to the floor, sizing up this guy dressed in some ratty Goodwill-esque black stuff. When I didn’t answer, the genius figured out that I had been bluffing.
The adrenaline of trying to scare off some assclowns was wearing off, replaced by the drowsiness of the booze. The hysterical laughing fit passed, I started getting curious.
“Didn’t you idiots see my car out there? I mean, you had to know someone was in here.”
“They said they saw an older lady living here, we figured she’d just hide upstairs… Didn’t think there’d be big guy that looks like a cop ready to run at us.”
”A cop?! Jesus, kid, you really know how to insult a guy…” I smirked.
No answer to that. Not even a laugh. He didn’t care. He was just shooting the shit, that bored look in his eyes still heavy. I was getting annoyed.
“You falling asleep or something? I could still beat you half to death just for fun and be in my rights! What if that lady WAS here? You guys would’ve given her a fuckin’ heart attack, you know that?!”
He sighed. “Just do what you’re gonna do,” he said. I guess this guy’s life didn’t mean much to him. Seemed to me that he thought his life was so fucked up that there was no coming back from this shit. I guess we had something in common. With any other guy, he probably would be dead or bleeding right about now. But I was trying not to be that person anymore. I rested the baton on my shoulders and just kind of smiled at him. I started laughing again. Booze does this to me, the world just seems hilarious.
Laughing has a way of calming people. Whether you’re the good guy or the bad guy, people will relax when there’s laughing. It’s a good trick to know about, especially if you ever do anything stupid. He just stayed where he was, kind of curious where this was going. Maybe he figured I was a cop and could stop him or just have him picked up when he started running. I guessed that he was just too tired to care, too tired to run. Maybe best case scenario for this guy was to just shoot the shit for a while until the next awful thing happened.
I heard some tires peel out while we were standing there, so I guessed his friends had given up on him. I’m not sure what their hurry was, since there hadn’t been any police sirens, but some asshole claiming to be private security was often worse. You didn’t know if Captain Rambo had just come back from a tour overseas in the military, or worse, some private military company that encouraged violence for morale’s sake.
I remembered the memos advising “discretionary drills” on certain days, which meant firing some rounds into some dummies dressed up with a turban, and holding a rifle at their hip. Everybody on the little fakey-base called them orgasm dolls, because nobody thought they were actual combat drills, given the number of the dummies, their stereotypical garb, and their ridiculous combat stances. They were just there to get your rocks off and “maintain a state of readiness”.
Maybe I had some of that PMC readiness still in me because this guy seemed pretty scared, if slightly resigned to the situation. Laughter as a tactical tool or not, this whole thing was damned funny. This guy’s friends had just left him with an ex-Sergeant from a PMC who actually cared about the place he was defending, and was on a compassionate streak.
“So,” I said. “What’s the next move?”
“Whatever dude.” He said. He just stood there and sighed.
Seemed like this guy had no plans on fighting whatever was coming.
I chuckled. “Don’t you care what happens to you, boy?”
He brightened up at this. “I don’t make plans.” He said it in this really final way, like it was an absolute truth about the Earth and everyone on it.
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
He stared back and got this really confused look on his face.
Standing there in this awkward pose, door open, shirtless with this strange kid, I had to make a decision. I shook my head and went to close the door. I turned back to Mr. Apathy.
“So, kid, what’s your name?”
“Ray, have a seat. You want a drink?”
“Yes!” Enthusiasm for drinking and not much else? Christ, they cloned me, huh?
“Alright, park it. And then you’re gonna tell me why you don’t give a good god damn about anything, buster.”
I fixed him up my usual whiskey and coke, thought of making myself one and decided that would put me over the edge. For some reason, I needed to figure this kid out, and I couldn’t be passed out on the bathroom floor to do it. I was about to hand him the drink when it occurred to me I had no idea if this kid was old enough. Then I realized I didn’t care. I’d been drinking since about 15, and this kid wasn’t a stranger to the bottle if I was any judge.
He grabbed the glass with both hands and drank like he’d just come from a desert island. Yup, definitely not a first-timer. When he put the glass down – about half empty by now – he surprised me by having a question of his own.
“Listen, dude, why the fuck would you be nice to me? If those other two idiots weren’t chicken shits, I’d have ganged up on you and started kicking the life out of you.”
I smiled. “Well, you could have tried I suppose. And I am a little tipsy, so maybe you would have. But they ran, and you didn’t kick me. I don’t play little ‘what-if’ games, and I don’t believe in coincidence.”
“No Sal, this is no coincidence.”
All the blood drained from my face and I started shaking. “How the fuck do you know my name?”
Patch of Eyes
(Intense subject matter, discretion advised. Trigger warning: self-mutilation.)
The old man steps onto the path, compressed and condensed by his daily travel. The glow of the windows of his cabin has faded, and he is almost in pitch black. He does not need to slow down, and he does not stumble. The path is well worn. He has walked this path every day since it was cold enough for water to freeze.
Feet of snow lay pressed beneath his feet. How many he cannot say. Flecks of snow fall on his shoulders now, another weight to make sure the path stays pressed.
The snow falls like stars, tiny points of light against an omniscient black sky. The sky presses on him like he presses on the snow. There are no tracks anymore. The snow is too hard for that, frozen.
Kelvin is frozen. 2 hours have passed and he isn't there yet. He does this every day. There are no thoughts anymore, just the ritual.
He listens to his breath as he walks. He would focus on keeping his balance, but the days of needing to focus have long passed. Sometimes he closes his eyes and walks down the path.
A patch of ice lies before him, where expected. He stops before it and strips. He kneels naked on the path and prays. He whispers sweet nothings to a god, his past, to his girl. He apologizes.
On hands and knees he slides to the pond. Once there, he brushes the snow away from the surface to reveal the deep gouges he's made. The snow is bloody.
He presses his jagged thumb nail into the biggest crevice and pushes. He's almost numb and the pain is minimal.
He slides his thumb back and forth, jagged nail dragging across the ice, widening and deepening the crevice. The progress isn't enough. He reels back and slams his weight behind a punch in the ice. Fingers pop, but none seem to break. They've all broken before and are stronger now.
He punches the ice. Again. Again. There is a subtle dent, and now the smaller parts of the fingers have fractured. Or more fractured. He has not seen a doctor or another living person for years now. He has no idea what shape he is in. In some ways, this vexes him and in others it is perfect.
After an hour pressing, pushing, and punching the ice, there is no pain. He has become numb, and knows that he is approaching frostbite. This will not do. The point of the ritual is punishment. He cannot lose his hands, the objects of redemption.
He stands and throws his clothes around himself. He begins to stumble back to the cabin. Minutes pass and blur together as he embraces the euphoria of the ritual. Some time later, and several miles, he falls across his threshold and onto the floor in front of the blazing furnace.
Kelvin is an expert in fire. Some days he sits in front of the stove, throwing matches into the clustered mass of wood and debris. There is no shortage of debris these days. He knows the fire will catch eventually. He is patient. He waits for the fire to catch. Like all experts, he ignores the rules, and rests on the surety of the eventuality of the variables.
Gradually feeling returns to his hands, and with it, agony. This is the moment he has waited for. Having failed to pierce the ice, to retrieve the treasured object beneath, he weeps. The pain is immense and euphoric, as he savors the release of getting what he deserves. Nothing can make up for what he has done, but this is a start. Another start. Perhaps he can punish himself enough to someday earn forgiveness. Forgiveness must be earned.
In the euphoria of the completed ritual, he passes out in front of the glowing stove. He dreams that it whispers to him. “How dare you live,” it says. “How dare you reach for absolution,” it says. “You should have tried harder.”
Upon waking, he resolves to simply repeat the ritual, without hope of forgiveness. He does not deserve it. Now he is simply enacting the justice that none are left to sentence him to.
The sky looks down on the ragged figure tracing his course again. Clothes are beginning to rot off the last man standing, and the snow falls in a blinding sheet. It wishes to change the only thing left to change. Where before nature was constant, now Kelvin is the only constant. Perhaps, nature thinks, blinding the man will stop him. Nature is ignorant.
Each speck of snow is an eye, watching the last events left to see. The sun descends beyond the ridge of dead trees, lighting up a sea of floating, blowing, vicious snow. Not vicious enough, for the old man stomps it down. Nature is uncomprehending.
When I said I wanted to execute myself,
I thought of the long row of uniformed men
Their trigger fingers tied to mine
I didn't want to die, you see
But finding that I had not lived,
Decided to execute myself
What would tomorrow bring?
Another chance to execute life
To execute the many plans I made
Left crumpled in the recycling bin
Only to come back again
And finding that the paths diverged in a wood,
And I took one sometimes traveled by,
Walked off into the wood
Who could know I'd be a martyr
Pressed against her burning breast
Screaming to burn alive,
To be burning for life,
To go up in smoke, from too much living
I want to die, you see
To someday look at all the yesterdays
Then smile, squeeze love's hand,
And walk through a door without tomorrow
When people say that they want to go to heaven,
They mean that they want another life.
Who am I to deny them that?
The many ways that this isn't life,
The ways that the days I want this life,
Are dying days
I want some other life, another time
When seconds bring me further from death,
When I squeeze a hand to begin my life,
Except we won't call it that,
We won't have a word for it,
It will just be these things that happen,
Tied to a string,
And we'll breathe at each other
And the woods we walk into don't end,
The paths always bend,
And around every bend,
We find each other.
It's not that I want to pull the trigger,
Or watch the glee in the eyes of uniformed men,
It's just that this isn't life.
I want to burn alive, torch the plans I made,
Because plans are things you make
When this has to end someday
How wasteful, to spend a second more afraid
Away from your embrace,
When I can be surprised again,
By the strings,
Lined up in rows,
And these things that happen,
Are just more things.
So we breathe now,
Not knowing the word for it,
Just doing what comes naturally,