Archives for the month of: February, 2013

It’s a fine spring day as I emerge from the tunnels that led me back to Dodge City from China, my mind full of the wrappers of dime-a-dozen digging to China thoughts, what with the tunnels being kind of handmade-feeling, accomplished with more enthusiasm than professionalism, and so on. Looking at the sun, hearing the birds, smelling the pollen, the ground seeming still-washed from snowmelt, walking into Dodge City and then across town to my part of town, it’s like the kind of day someone in prison might imagine as the day of their release, or escape, the day they finally break through from the Inside back onto the street where they live, blinded by the light, free at last, etc.

It’s almost like that scene in the Robin Hood movie where he comes off the ship and falls down on his Home Shore and starts kissing and even then sort of almost eating the sand — it’s like a less hysterical, maybe less naive version of that, occurring, as it is, later in history.

Now I’m on my street. No one seems to be around, not even any parked cars or dogs. There are some birds, but they’re high enough up to be, essentially, on a different street. Certainly not privy to, or at least not concerned about, the situation here, which is:

My house has burned down.

My whole life’s worth of rigorously quieted worries about having left the stove, the toaster, the space heater on has come to naught, I think, or to fruition, depending on —

The strange thing is that it looks like it’s burned down very recently — is even still smoldering in places — but there’s no one around. No firetrucks or -men, no onlookers. I wonder if they haven’t come yet, or if they’ve already come and gone, or if they aren’t coming, either because they don’t know or because they do know but this knowledge just doesn’t do anything for them, anymore, at this point in their lives.

I go up to it, stand there unsurrounded. A single crow comes down from a telephone wire, dances in the ashes, its eldritch beak — no, that’s too much, I’m getting worked up.

It’s just me, trudging among those ashes, looking at what used to be my house (my “very first house,” I think, on the verge of tears, though this may not be true, there may have been thousands before it that I’m forgetting to list).

Then the tears are ready, and out they come. I’m all shaky and snotty, bawling like that scene in Gladiator where he kisses those charred ankles.

My life in Dodge City is over, I think, howling, pitching forward and back, heaving with the tragedy of it. My sneakers get burnt by the smoldering bits, and I’m on my back stomping my feet and pounding my fists when something catches my eye.

I have to rub it several times before I can get it dry enough to use, but when I do:

I see my house standing next door, unscathed. Even its lawn looks pretty good.

It takes me a while to realize that this burn site must actually have been my neighbor’s house. Kind Old Mr., or Mrs. … doesn’t matter, mainly I’m elated.

I sit on the curb to collect myself, try to wonder how I could have made such a mistake. Now some cars and pedestrians pass by, like they’ve been released from a holding pen now that I’ve come to my senses.

Underneath my relief, I feel pride. I’m proud of myself for the depth of feeling I was able to muster for my neighbor, my Fellow Man or Woman, the sympathy I felt for their misfortune. That’s surely what it was, I decide, not that I ever really thought it was my house.

That’s simply not a mistake that’s made. I mean, they don’t even look similar.

When my breathing and heart rate have stabilized, I stand up, dust the blown ash from my pants and shoes, and go up the driveway of my house. I can see the scorch of my neighbor’s backyard, and again a wave of tenderness takes me.

I never carry a key, so I have to force the backdoor open. It’s not easy. I have to throw my shoulder and hip into it.

Inside, I take off my shoes, wash my hands and face. Nothing’s familiar. Not the soap in the bathroom, not the damp towel, not the waterlogged magazines piled by the toilet.

Guess I’ve been away a long time. Longer than I appreciated, to have forgotten the interior of my own house. I chuckle at what’s possible.

I’ll make some coffee, I think, turn on some lights.

It takes me a long time to find where the coffee’s kept, the filters. Even working the coffeemaker isn’t, dismayingly, buoyed by any force of habit.

I sit at the kitchen table as it’s brewing, my mug with milk in its bottom (I’ll admit the presence of fresh milk in the fridge doesn’t bode well for this house being what I hope it is) ready on the counter.

I listen to the machine work, and hear footsteps on the stairs, someone coming down, no doubt, to investigate who’s here. “Just let me have my coffee in peace,” I remember thinking. “Just grant me that, please, then I’ll leave and never come back.”

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We’re all in our seats by the mouth of the Red Chamber, where my hosts here in China have been waiting for thirty thousand years.

We snack, they talk.

It’s been a week.

I go for a high score in the game of delaying beginning to wonder how I’m ever gonna get out of here. Aside from some kid named “Owen,” I have the highest score on record.

Just when this all seemed poised to go on forever, a mist or gas flows through the Red Chamber, frosting the glass until we can see through but darkly, as if through a, sorry I had to, an autumn sonata of winter light.

Anyhoo, things are getting rough in there.

It’s too thick and hazy to tell exactly who’s who, or what’s what, but I can tell you that there’s one humanoid figure and one less so, and they’re going at it hard.

There’s slamming against the glass, which clears away the condensation for a moment, affording a temporary window.

It’s paw and pod, finger and fang, tail and tentacle, limbs of numerous sorts intertwining and going for the kill.

The human looks like a guy about my age, in a sweaty T-shirt and jeans, and the thing that’s killing him, or that he’s killing, looks like a cross between something archetypal and something out of Laird Barron.

The audience sits quietly, politely, watching, and watching me watch, as if waiting to read something on my face that they’re not yet reading there.

After some parts that are so gruesome I have to look away, the guy stands there panting, the thing dead beside him.

It’s unclear what role the gas played in this surprising victory, but I feel a low tremor of empathetic elation. At the same time, though, I can’t help feeling that it wasn’t a real, or at least not a very important, battle, like the beast had no other properties and served no purpose in the world other than to introduce the new character of this guy, and show what he could do.

They look over and see this empathy spread across me, whisper to one another.

It’s quiet for a while, the guy in there pacing, looking out, though I can’t tell if he can see us.

Then everyone in the audience turns toward me with that “What’re you waiting for?” look.

I give back that “I don’t know, I guess the same thing you’re all waiting for” shrug.

They shake their heads. The Translation Centipede whirs to life, producing the words, “When, at last, travelers recover themselves on the other side of the glass, they must go and rejoin themselves there and be off. That is how our civilization has prospered and — can it really be that the past of thrive is throve?”

They seem distracted, disturbed by this last notion. I think, “Here’s my chance!” though I don’t think for what.

“Why aren’t you going? Look!” the Centipede says, pointing at the guy inside the glass.

“That’s you!” it continues, pointing again. “That’s you in there! In our Chamber!”

I look.

“Why are you clogging our Chamber?” it whispers in my ear. I can feel the gray of its tongue. The guy in there scratches his ear, like he can feel it too. “What business do you have here? We are waiting, humbly, through the generations, for an infinitesimal taste of the Sublime. Not for you sweaty and covered in beast blood.”

The guy in there holds his shirt away from himself and checks it out, like he didn’t know how stained it was.

I can sense that they want me to go, but I don’t yet know where — or, better put, how. So I hesitate, and see the guy in there hesitating too.

“Don’t make us do something we’ve never done before,” it says, and it’s clear they know just what this something would be.

“You want me to be him?” I ask.

The question doesn’t compute. “Whom are you dividing? There is only one.”

I have, before in my life, consented to say “That’s mine,” regarding something that was not, to avoid what seemed the greater evil, but never yet “That’s me.”

But then the day comes when you see no alternative. “Okay,” I say, getting up. “Thanks for all the hospitality.”

*****

Now I’m him, in there, which is to say, I’m me, in here, on my way out.

Beyond the Red Chamber is a network of tunnels, fanning out and away.

The tunnels are edged in thick glass, aquarium-thick and -size, with dioramas of drowned civilizations behind them, showing not only how and when those civilizations drowned, but what’s befallen them in the time since, i.e. what they look like today. They are so large and lifelike it’s hard to tell if they’re the real items or detailed facsimiles, miniaturized, if at all, not by much.

As the days start to fall into this new stack, I miss my old self, whoever I used to think I was, surely gone now for good. To stave it off, I imagine company. What companion would I choose from a wide-open phone book?

Anyone would be better than no one, but Julius Knipl would be better than anyone. Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, I’ve got a job for you.

Later still, I imagine appearing before a first-grade class many years hence, telling them what I’ve done. I take the floor, with my anecdotes and briefcase full of examples, after an introduction from their teacher which went something like, “Here, children, is a man who was changed utterly by his time overseas.”

This whole minced Rublev movie theater scene I was so down with last week is getting to be too much, or too something. All that mist is ghosting off the screen onto the sleeping man in the front row, whether Lutz or another, and I don’t want to be here when it’s sheathed him entirely.

 

I send up a distress signal from my seat, a mild one, but there it goes.

 

An employee escorts me into a side area.

 

He hands me a towel, thoughtfully warmed, and a cup of lemony brine.

 

“I haven’t seen you since you were a boy and your father was younger than you are now,” he shudders, when I’ve handed him back the towel bunched up in the mostly empty cup, warming up, I can tell, to unstopper on me a reverie of action comics and baseball cards, bats and mitts, borrowed bikes, hot rods with someone’s uncle on Saturday afternoons in spring, the garage door open to all that fresh pollen, malted milkshakes, somebody’s brother’s Telecaster and a litany of what used to cost a nickel, all mutated freakish by the wringer that capped off the century.

 

“I’m feeling none of that,” I put my foot down, one at a time, tipping the other side to side to slosh off the maudlin that has begun to condense from the air.

 

He shakes his head at the world-mystery, rummages in his pocket for what he says are the tears he would like to cry. The tag on the chest of his blue jumpsuit says Pawprint.

 

“That you?” I ask, nudging at it.

 

He seems to think I mean him in general, his whole person. He nods in the affirmative.

 

He looks curiously at the damp rag I handed him, like maybe this is, after all, what he pulled from his pocket. Then he remembers a scripted question. “Would you like to go someplace else?”

 

“Can I just leave?”

 

“Not until the film is over.”

 

I nod, someplace else it is.

 

He nods too, and off we set down a hall, doors with names and degree abbreviations lining our way.

 

“How far you wanna go?” he asks.

 

“Keep going,” I say, and we do.

 

“Nice hall, eh?” he pipes up, a few hours later.

 

A few hours after that, we come to the end.

 

“Okay,” he pats my elbow. “There you are then. More lemon water? Another warm towel?”

 

I decline and he’s gone.

 

Through the door is an interval of climbing. Up I go, through a hot, dusty afternoon, not quite hand-over-hand but my feet have to wedge in at diagonals to retain purchase. At first it’s thrilling, then I get to wishing it over. It’s too far, too high, I don’t like it anymore.

 

I can tell it’s somewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand or Vietnam, and that I won’t get to stop climbing until I reach China. I can see it way overhead, far to the North, higher by some brusque power of ten than I’ve ever climbed before.

 

*****

After what feels like years, I arrive in China. I have a thick beard now, a new accent, and something wrong with my back.

 

A medicine man near the top heals me into a green meadow.

 

Families picnic all around me, children chase balls through grass and air. Kites tangle, beget new kites.

 

I am fantastically hungry. Carts with steaming metal slabs are set up on all the margins, grilling meat and dough, selling light summery drinks anchored in cups with gummy lumps.

 

I am about to buy as much as whatever currency I may find in my pockets will let me, when I remember what happened last time I ate street food in China. I sit down, realize, with the disappointment of a child realizing that he’ll have to return to the store another day as the [ ] is not about to get bought for him right here and now, that I’m going to have to think this through.

 

I lose the afternoon in thought.

 

The picnics abate, remembered in monuments of plastic wrap and beer bottles.

 

Alone in the evening, I spy, just down the hillside from me (as if I hadn’t yet thought to look in this direction), a gas station with a convenience store. There will be my dinner, and dessert, safely irradiated and sealed up fresh for my gringo valve.

 

I laugh at the simplicity and roll to my feet.

 

As I set out toward the store, some older men, dressed in robes, press in at the sides, whisper behind and beside me, to me or one another.

 

“You shall find that difficult,” one says, after much conference, in the first English since Pawprint took his leave. “You shall not reach that place,” he warns.

 

And it’s true. I’ve been walking at least an hour, and am no nearer than when I started. It has, however, gotten darker, as though I’ve made progress through time but not through space, though I suppose that’d likely prove equally achievable sitting still, asleep even.

 

As it gets dark, it tends toward red, not black. As it gets redder, these men begin taking their seats, and more file in, their jocular voices fading as they draw near.

 

It’s now red all over. The picnic meadow and gas station spread has been rolled up, replaced by banks of folding chairs under a low ceiling, at the end of a corridor with nooks cut into the wall, faces peering out through hanging ranks of devotional paraphernalia.

 

I am shown to a seat as well, and do not refuse it. A bowl of steaming tea is placed in my hands, and a plate of grilled meat on sticks is laid out on a low table. The man beside me motions to take some and, reasoning that I may never eat again if I do not, I do.

 

In front of us, through a pane of tempered glass, is an even redder place, sealed off at all its edges except for a door on the side directly across from the glass.

 

There is an audience of fifty or sixty people around me now, all of them trained on the glass.

 

From far down the line one whispers something, and I can hear the whisper approaching me, ear to mouth to ear, until the man next to me spits out a mouthful of English: “This is a Red Chamber. It is a room where something must happen. For this, we wait.”

 

When I hear “room” and “happen,” my thoughts stray to evisceration, vivisection, the dyeing of ventricles, Benn’s kleine Aster. I let these thoughts paw the ground, plant something in it, retreat. Then I ask how long they’ve all been waiting, entering my whisper back into the Translation Centipede in the other direction.

 

It comes back, “Thirty thousand years.”

 

Later on, waking me up, I am asked if I would like more snacks. I check my fingers, my heart, tell him sure, please.