I’m not really part of any, well nothing organized. Circles are a good thing though, right? We move in circles, and find circles in everything.
I visit dad’s on Good Friday with my sister. It’s another wet day and they have the wood-burner stoked and hot, the lounge is an oven. We bring pizza and wine and my sister’s shih tzu puppy, Freddie. My old cat Mr Jones sits up and watches the pup and doesn’t seem too excited but dad puts him outside anyway. Murphy, the old cat that lived with dad and I, had clawed the eye of Skoots, dad’s and Penny’s Corgi, when they first met. Skoots was a lovable, hard working dog. He never did much but it always looks hard for a corgi to get around and do anything. And he only had the one eye after that day so it was easy to surprise him. Skoots had died last year, Murphy six years before that.
As dad let Mr Jones out he called Sophie, the Labrador, to come in from her kennel. As we talked we also talked to the dogs, reassuring Sophie that Freddie was okay, not to be rough. Freddie went on bouts of exploring. Sophie followed him and lied down at a distance to watch. The Grey One, my sister’s old cat, whom Penny is sure is a psychopath, walked across the terrace and looked in on us. He pisses on Penny’s gumboots and leaves and we don’t see him again that afternoon. He’s just letting the pup know he’s out there, dad tells us.
Dad’s medical folder was on the coffee table and I read through it with Penny, she explained the black pieces of his cardiovascular map. They just have to fix some of the plumbing, dad says. The ticker is okay its just the plumbing.
My face becomes red. I take some of my layers off, and occasionally I go and stand outside near the rain to cool off. I talk to Mr Jones to see if he remembers living with me in the city and dad comes out to check I’m not smoking out there. I ask him if he’s been sleeping at night and he tells me he’s been sleeping fine but the medication has him getting up to pee during the night. Later in the afternoon he tells me about the dream he had a couple of nights earlier. He could see from above the surgical lamps as a surgeon was operating on him at the table. I wanted to call out and tell the surgeon not to cut where he was about to, but he couldn’t speak in the dream.
Autumn has been wet. Weeks have dithered beneath a long cloud. Toadstools and mushrooms grow in the fields, leaves stick to windows and wind-shields, small lakes gather in the swales and gutters around the school grounds. At interval I make coffee in the maths department staff room. Carolyn has baked hot-cross buns and the staff are enjoying them with their morning tea, a large daub of melting butter, the smell of baked cinnamon, nutmeg and raisins fills the room. Outside, in the middle of the F-block courtyard, the lone apple tree is almost bare. Its spindly limbs still carry some green apples and when a breeze passes it rains amber leaves across the courtyard. A pair of girls walk through the peppering of windblown leaves. They raise their hands and twirl.
We meet at the pub on Sunday night. Varnished pine floors and rimu tables, the light dim to soften the fall into the working week. She wore a red sweater and lipstick, her skinny jeans rolled up from her patent leather oxfords. As she paid for a pint of pilsner at the bar I smiled to myself. This young woman that had appeared from the internet wore reality well.
The hours crooned and we traded our stories and awkward taunts, family histories and past employment. After our second pint I guessed she was a Virgo, and she couldn’t quite believe that I had guessed it so easily. The bartenders turned all the stools onto the tables and mopped the floors around us. They assured us it wasn’t any kind of hint that we should leave so they could close.
I make the rain. It covers this town like the tobacco stains across my teeth. The raven pools on the pavement and in the gutters wear a skin of streetlights. This strange gravity pulls me over them and I have to step into the gathered water, hoping to fall into the dream, but my boot only ripples the light and I fall further towards The Nightbreed Bar and Grill. I fall across this town, past the hookers in stilettos, their dirty mouths tough and taunting, their gasoline manes, their bruised limbs. I fall under the cracked sky, the edges alight by a hidden moon. Incognito serpent of witchcraft light. I fall past the gangbangers sitting on the chest of a Nissan Silvia. Wha ya lookin at, they ask me. Nothing but the hungry dogs in the skin of men. Nothing but raw desire to break bones to feel wanted. I fall through the town square, the statues of the noble dead, their names forgotten. I fall through the alleyways where the children throw up their courage, where their eyes roll back in their heads. They reach toward me as stumble past, a hand toward a stranger mistaken for a glorified soul. Sorry kid, an’t nothing here for you, nothing but broken dreams wearing beer stained trousers. I fall down Regent Street, beneath the grinning mannequins, the seraphs of this hollow land. I fall through the door of The Nightbreed Bar and Grill, into the bowls of this humid beast, the grumbling of the fellow fallen, the yeast stained carpet, the amnesia light and turpentine on ice. I fall to the mahogany veneer. I fall to the cup before me, and sing the requiem of this drowning man.
The autumn Sunday was powder blue. I washed the sheets of my bed. I ate tomatoes and toast outside in the sun, watching the sheets on the line inflate and curl in the small breeze. My house-mate made mango tea and joined me in the sun. We argued over who’s love life was the poorest.
Late in the afternoon I visited my mother’s for dinner. My step-father was out front, cut and polishing the car in the driveway. My brother and his girlfriend were hidden in his room. I talked with mum in the kitchen about her latest paintings while she peeled vegetables and made me a cup of tea. She told me about my sister. She asked me about dad’s heart. My step-father passed the windows of the kitchen, a leaf-blower whirring in his hands. He’s got three stents, she reminded me.
I finished my tea in the lounge and watched the last half of a wildlife documentary on TV. Under the Teton Range in Wyoming a colony of beavers were building a dam in a small creek. My step-father joined me and the industrious animals had us smiling and shaking our heads. In night-vision we saw the interiors of the damn. In time-lapse we saw trees felled and cut to pieces. In computer-generated graphics we saw the pond fill and tributaries reach out into the forest around it to float in more timber. For so long, this had been our Sunday ritual I had forgotten about. No matter how different the tastes of my family, we always enjoyed watching wildlife docos on TV together. We all found something remarkable in the talents of other species. My brother and his girlfriend soon joined us, and we gave names to the beavers. The lake froze and the young were pampered and warm in the dam. Mum served our dinner in the lounge so we could watch the end of the documentary. The warm comfort-meal on our laps. The roasted meat and vegetables covered in gravy, the smell of tarragon, rosemary and parsley.
A coronary bypass. This is the what the stranger tells my father. And his insides sink and his head fills with the machinery of clocks and measuring tape. He calculates his age. This is not something he is sure of any more, these days he has to count, he has to remember what year it is. And he looks at the stranger’s hands, and he thinks he’s the same age, thereabouts. There are scars around his knuckles but the open hand is soft. And these hands will be inside his chest. This stranger will come the closest to his heart. And my father thinks of his girlfriend, and children, his brother and sister. He thinks of his age and he measures it. Is that really long enough?
My classroom has become a clubhouse at lunchtimes. Juniors sit out on the front steps and sunbathe. They lie across the cement and grass and as I approach their legs recoil to make a path for me to the door. Inside seniors lounge around the desks sharing youtube clips and rumours from the parties on the weekends. The girls ask to play their playlists through the AV unit and tell me why we should study the poetry of the Broods and Lorde in class. Some draw pictures on the whiteboard. Some share slices of their mother’s baking. Mostly I work there but occasionally I listen, who’s got a crush on who, why won’t they txt me back, I don’t know what I’m going to do in the real world.
There is another world beneath this one. We will meet there when our words forget their meaning, when our feelings are only colour, when we see that the past is as flat as paper.
Days off blur and are as swift as handfuls of water. I eat everything left in the refrigerator. I wash everything lying on the floor. The little one catches butterflies in the yard and asks me to help her keep them in a jar. She draws them with chalk on the driveway. I walk to town with a list of things to keep me home and amused. I get DVDs and beer, I get soup and bread, I get the newspaper and eggs, I get chocolate and fruit. In the park I see Geordie and buy a cigarette off him. I promise him it’s the last time and he smiles like priest on bail.
A Manila folder filled with essays to be marked waits quietly on the table. I bargain with myself to open it. Just after I’ve ironed my shirts. After I’ve visited the folks. When I’ve found the TV remote. As soon as I finish my drink.
Going to bed without setting an alarm is a godsend. I sleep like the king without a kingdom.
Our old song played at the supermarket. I hadn’t thought of her in long time. She’s married with children now, they live in Stockholm. I think the last time I spoke to her was online a few years back. Her father had just died and it had filled her with panic, she was sure she couldn’t be a mother while her heart was filled with so much grief. She couldn’t ask her son anything without crying. I tried my best back then to reassure her, but what did I know, I had no children.
I took time out in the aisle next to the canned fruit so I could hear the song. All of it was so long ago. I closed my eyes and listened, because I wanted to see what memories I still had of us, what the song could dig from the alluvium of all those years. She was still there, but only the tiniest bits and pieces. I could remember meeting her in the wind on the steps of the Chicago Art Institute, the uneven curl of her smile. I could still see her in black, her blonde hair almost colourless. So much of it all, though, was missing. What was left was less than dust at an open window.
I guess this is the fate of such things. Without children there’s nothing sure to hold onto. These connections we make are not made of anything sure or strong, they’re only narratives, and eventually we forget how to tell them.
At night the buildings in the distance became a mystic code of scattered light. Above there was an orange haze of Osaka’s light in the smog that loomed over the city. Ed Broody and Sam Tress sat on the balcony and drank umenshu, a rice-wine that had sweet plums infused in it and was very sweet and easy to drink.
“I saw a television,” she said, “in one of the recycling heaps round here. It might still work, if you wanted one?”
“I only ever enjoy the adverts. They’re all I understand. I don’t know enough of the language.”
“You don’t know any.”
“I know ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘excuse me.’”
“You don’t know any.”
“I might be stupid, I can’t speak any.”
“A television might help you, although they do speak too fast for me most of the time. You need to go out with a Japanese girl, then you’ll learn.” Sam finished the rolling of her joint and lit it.
“How can I go out with a Japanese girl if I don’t speak Japanese?”
“Have you ever been with someone that doesn’t speak the same language?”
“No. I can’t begin to imagine how a person could. Have you?”
“Actually, no. But I know a little French, Japanese and English.” Another one of those insinuating smiles as she inhaled from the joint.
“I don’t want a Japanese girlfriend anyhow, technically I have a girlfriend.”
“Technically. Yet you’re over here on your own for some reason?”
“Things were just so miserable back home after the earthquakes. The city I had grown up in was empty, buildings and landmarks are gone, whole neighbourhoods are deserted now. There is just so much lost I felt choked by it.”
“Not Lola though.”
“No, but that’s more complicated.”
“She’s a pretty girl, Broody,” she passed him the joint, “and she’s lived here too which means she knows what it’s like here, what young men are likely to get up to. You’ll wear her tolerance thin if you stay here too long.”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“You’re waiting behind a rock for something.”
“What was that?”
“I think you’re…”
“No, I saw it flash over there.” He pointed out past the apartment buildings, in the sky above it. “I saw something flash in the sky up there.”
“I was just, I can’t believe I’m doing this again, but something flashed up there. No, it was a trick of my eyes.”
“Whitman said he was seeing things lately too. Maybe it’s the grass.”
“It was a trick of sight or something. Or it could have been fireworks.”
“Yes I see it. Over there, it was a flash.”
They sat attentively there for a while and the flashes began to occur more frequently. At times there could be two or three shooting stars that occurred at once, in all different directions. Sam grabbed the rug and convinced Ed to go down to the gardens. She was sure they were on the cusp of something, that this was an atmospheric shower, bits from space that would burn up in the sky all night. They hurried through the apartment and waited anxiously as the lift took them down. Out in the garden Sam lay the rug out on a patch of grass away from the taller apartment blocks so they had a better view of the sky. And laying there on their backs it was hard to catch them all, realising the whole sky was too much to see all at once, yet they tried. Each shooting star made them hold their breath. All at once it would fire up and flash in the corner of the eye and leave a delayed vapour trail that would take several seconds to diffuse. Brush strokes of light and vapour. Ed wondered if it was the pollution that made them appear so vivid and close. There seemed to be so many, like the stars were tearing holes in the haze. Sam held his hand, not to romanticise the spectacle, just to hold his hand and know that he was there, that the sky had turned into some kind of dream and threatened to whisk her away with it. And he held her hand and knew it was only that. Ed had travelled the world to lose himself, to feel foreign and new. But sometimes all it takes is a moment to sit still, to see that the world was on a journey too.
In the midst of marking writing samples I heard thunder. Out on my deck I watched the storm come in. The thunder was the rolling kind, a crack in a mountain that slipped off over the horizon. I couldn’t see the lighting so I had no idea how far away the front was. I’ve always liked to see a storm coming in. I always make time to witness it. The rain was light at first, and it was still warm out so it was good rain, it didn’t get my clothes wet and felt good on my face. As the heavier rain came I got to see a black swan fly over, away from the thunder. A fine, black brush stroke fleeing the roaring grey. Before the storm’s overture was complete there were hailstones and sun-showers.
I’m always grateful to see a storm arrive, a chance to see and feel the world around me changing its mind.