I’m super excited to share this weird, dark piece of mine that just went live in Semicolon! Happy to be in such good company in this issue. 😊
The dead friend shows up like a glitch in a poorly-tested video game, clipping through walls, lagging, animation wonky. He’d look real enough in a freeze frame, but in motion the physics are just off.
The dead friend shows up wearing the jacket he wore when he became the dead friend. The jacket is thick, and woollen, but its fibers cannot adequately absorb the blood from the dead friend. They were made for other things.
You can’t seem to get the attention of the dead friend, and you’ve tried everything. All that DF is capable of is to carry out glitched animations, cycling through the keyframes until he can start the next animation.
And here is the dead friend now, sitting on an invisible bench, talking into an invisible phone, asking inaudibly for help. And you can try to sit on this invisible bench with your dead friend, can fall back and onto the ground. You can crouch down beside him, get right in front of him, attempt a lip-read, wave in front of his eyes, call out to him. You can do whatever you’d like, but he won’t notice.
Your dead friend will come for you in the liminal states, too. Don’t think it will only be when you’re out and about. He will sit on your chest like some sleep paralysis demon you’ve seen paintings of, but you will only see the whites of his eyes, will only hear his underwater voice of regret, not words but still intelligible, because regret can never adequately be expressed in words anyway. How would you even begin?
Your dead friend has been dead long enough where the experience of being a person is clearly fading from his cellular memory. He has more in common with the fog coming up off the hills during your morning walks, sunlight breaking up the view through car windows as you pass, thinking always that you’ve seen him, that he’s seen you, that there is a way out of this paroxysm of grief.
Or maybe he’s not the fog, not the wind, but what’s traveling through it. A dream, something that’s been coming back night after night. Your friend is a kite floating on the wind. You are holding the string that is tethered to his foot. All of him has been hollowed out. He is paper-thin, and empty, and his eyes are holes that wind can get through if it must. You look up and the string you hold is tethered to two other strings. They connect to his arms, to the spots once cut, tethered to the places that untethered your friend from this world.
In the dream, you’re not sure how you know that things will be okay eventually, but there is this deep, all-abiding sense that that will be the case. You can bring your friend down and out of the wind, collect his string, and walk him back home when the conditions are no longer right for flight. You can both go back home.
Take things day by day is something they tell you when you’re visibly heading toward a future without days. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just weird that now that I actually want to be here, the entire world is crashing down around me. I go in the backyard, take a few laps, try to clear the sour taste from my mouth. When I inhale, there are notes I never sensed before, little hints of neighborhood post-crisis, and the birds are singing at night now. I’m putting down words, drinking down tea, lining up my queue and working through. I’m taking things as they come, another favorite from back in my therapy days. Scenes play out in my mind’s projector, flickering at twenty-four, showing what I’ll look like at forty-eight, then ninety-six, shuttling through the seams of life till I am the last person out in the world, streets empty, grass clear and tall, and all of the things that used to matter so much are no longer a concern, I’m just carrying on, ever-forward, designing and desiring times like these, as chaotic as they might be, even so, letting them be and become what they will. Counting each day down and watching in eon-time, using the distinctly human gift of forward-thinking. See the sprouts grow, reach their predetermined top, come back down once again, as the human rockets buzz and hum around, appearing and disappearing as the sun yo-yos up ahead, first up then down then up again, stars shifting, spinning the sky in time, and I am here again, all at once, locked in a painfully slow retelling of a life I’ve already lived and seen. These are the things that make up a life, reduced to their core functions, and here are all the rooms you’ve entered, the ones you can never enter again. Here are the people you have seen, none of which you can see right now, some of which you might never see again. Here is the great abiding grief that accompanies the ones who’ve already left you, the ones yet to leave. Here are all of the things you can feel, dry now, because you are sober and will stay that way no matter what, these things you’re allowing yourself, maybe forcing yourself, to feel. Here are all the things that make up your altered, segmented life, the segmented lives of everyone right now. Because there is no going back, and you’ve seen that for some time now, since this whole thing began, but quarantine wasn’t the beginning of the change. It was already shifting, imperceptibly, by degrees so small that you could scarcely notice. You are really alive here, even now. There it is. You’re even breathing, taking down that water, letting light refract and strike the wall behind you, picture-smooth, rippled grooves like vinyl as you wake and wait for the day to stop hitting. And here it is, as it is, right now in this perfect, terrible moment. In this snapshot that is all there is but not all there ever will be, and that’s okay.
Parabolic stories told in whispered corners of a broken-down house, where the moonlight creeps in like a suggestion and stays there, wandering, before dissipating just enough to let you sleep.
Ego fears and slipping between a version of yourself that you left behind and an uncertain future you find yourself barreling toward.
Approaching something like stillness, and training yourself to be okay with it, without trauma and learned internal violence.
Of entering conflicts only when needed, and even then with a distilled serenity, a weightlessness, and the calm that comes with being accustomed to terror.
Half-dreamt landscapes that won’t fill all the way in on waking but which leave impressions, visions of themselves, like an image burnt into a cathode ray tube, searching for the cells that make up this generational hurt, this wandering sorrow.
And it all seems so trivial now, the shouting matches, the screaming tears, doors slammed and feelings hurt, set against what we’re now fighting, all of us, collectively.
It’s in talking past the severed connections and getting at something like communication.
Not the way it was, but maybe the way it could’ve been.
Now it’s in sipping strong coffee in the morning, awake before anyone else in the house, and cherishing this newfound quiet as much as you don’t trust it.
As much as you fear it.
It’s being able to just sit, and breathe, and appreciate your cat as he sits in front of a window, unmoving, and the stillness of the morning world around you, the mourning whirl of grief coming in slow now, like the delayed pain of fingertip on stovetop, and wondering about the original order of things, if there ever really was such a thing.
And maybe it’s even making your own order, if you can, in the honey-drip stillness of a too-early morning, before the alarm hits, before the birds can really process things, awake in the undark, processing last night’s dream and the belief that it’ll fade followed by the reality of it fading.
Like a shadow yielding to light.
It’s in the way you can’t quite see your reflection now, coming away, and the great undoing that time can be. It’s in the way we smiled past punched-out teeth in the backyard boxing ring we made, cleared the ground of obstacles and debris and hit each other on the grass, midday sun gassing us a little earlier than we might expect, and thinking then and now that whether we liked it or not, fighting was in our nature. It was in the lights coming on to signal the end of the competition, and going back inside our apartments with busted lips and swollen eyes, going back to some GBA or N64 game, finishing up homework and explaining away the injuries to our parents with something about recess football. It was in dripping bloody noses into mashed potatoes, green beans, tasting blood past meatloaf, and learning how to launder out stains from clothing. It was tossing out the gloves when we got bored of that, and finding a different backyard to fight in when Zuhaib’s dad got laid off and was home all day and might see us. It was sleeping with my head sandwiched between two pillows to drown out the sound of my parents fighting. It was getting up at 5:30 to be able to hear something approaching silence. It was staying out in the cold past curfew and plunging my hands in the snow so I might feel something, regardless of what that something might be. It was sneaking back in through the broken patio door, hands as iceblocks, and running them under hot water until the tears streamed down my face and mingled with the water to bring me my healing. It was of course the way that I would punch myself in the stomach, to toughen up when backyard fight club was set to start up again, and the way that I couldn’t seem to shake myself of the habit, or any other habit really. It was getting up even earlier to watch the cartoons I used to watch when I was really little, before the punched-out teeth and frostbit hands, the ones where the good guys always won no matter what.
And those action figures. The ones with the bendy arms and legs and the tacky paint jobs, and how when I broke my arm in a fight I tried to rearrange the arm into one of those impossible configurations, if only for a moment.
How I imagined a giant, invisible hand holding me, lifting me into the air. Rearranging my limbs and actions into their own pre-ordained shapes and patterns.
To see yourself in pictures that will never be taken: a ghost of a ghost. To feel these faux-polaroids in your mind’s hands and the shape of them, the wear in the corners from wallet’s contact, and the genuine smiles, the eyes getting in on it, the weight and the wait till “cheese.” To hear the sound of the word divorce. To feel this dissolution in the heart-hurt, the shortness of breath, the physical signs that tell you you are dying. To remember that sometimes your brain can’t tell the difference between emotional death and actual. To rehear these same words spoken by your parents when you were about the age your daughter is now. To sound out the syllables like some rehearsed song in a language you don’t understand. To recall a period of your life where you saw the things that separate–the screen doors, the foggy windows–and not the views just past them. To see your daughter’s face with that same far away look, that bubble world of unknowing. To get sleep using cheap beer and sleeping pills, and to cry your vomit into the toilet when the world comes back to you. To dump these pills and to buy more when you can’t sleep again. To get on a bus and a train with these bodies around you, and the way that spills collect in pools under certain seats like portents of doom, waiting for changes in inertia to strike unsuspecting feet and bags. To see what’s become of your life as one great spill, something to slosh around and rapidly change states. To fall asleep in transit and to wake up when a mechanical voice announces a stop you’ve never been to before. To get off the train. To wake up in night snow, midnight inebriation, and the no-feel of where your skin made contact with it. To leave vomit the color of your frostbit skin and to howl your pain at a moon covered by clouds. To be taken in past red letters and bright lights and hallways choked with sick people, and to almost see the label you will receive, Just Another Drunk Off the Street, and the stinging stain of this. To be visited by the receiving and the attending, and to be given literature with meeting dates and times as you convalesce in a rented bed, steep fee but not as steep as death.
To be let out after a time, and to read about continuing treatment, and to put this in your pocket. To breathe. To go to the place you remember and to make that first date, feeling almost remade, re-naissanced, reborn.
My girlfriend surprised me with an early Christmas present the other day: a vintage Kodak Instamatic M2 movie camera from the mid-60s. The estate sale she’d bought it from included a similarly vintage indoor lighting kit and a projector for home viewing after you’d gotten the super 8 cartridge processed at a photo lab. I’d once shot in 16 mm on a Bolex back when I was a film student, but I’d never shot on super 8 before even though I’d always wanted to. I mentioned it in passing once, and she remembered. Just a really, really good gift.
Inside the box the camera and assorted gear came in, there was a small metal box. I guess the estate sale people didn’t notice it, because they never mentioned it to my girlfriend, and she didn’t even know it was in there until I started rooting around and found it under the projector.
Inside the small metal box were a collection of film spools. Picking one up and holding it to the light, I could tell it was already processed, but it was hard to make out what was on the film. I found a YouTube instructional on that model of film projector, managed to locate a pdf scan of the original manual. I spooled the old super 8 film on the projector and set it against the wall for my girlfriend and I to watch.
It was scratchy at first, blown out in spots, but I chalked that up to the film’s age. But it kept happening, over and over. Almost like a pattern. Clear, vivid shots of blue sky sliced by cirrus, wispy, curling, like ethereal hair, then darkness, scratched film, and color flickering by one frame at a time, accumulating shape and weight like painted cells from a bygone era where color film was hand-colored. And I realized that that’s what this was. We were watching the work of a visual artist.
Miasmas of color gave way to eruptions of pitted black, simulated static from strategic distortions of celluloid. Then figures, maybe human, definitely moving, almost imperceptibly slow, but then with sudden, sped-up writhing, close-ups of grotesques and detailed makeup that seemed almost anachronistic for how vivid and real it seemed to be, how modern. This film had to be decades old, but it seemed fresh–hard-edged. There were elaborate stagings of musicals kept silent in the film, then abrupt cuts to sidewalks and streets, the camera sometimes placed on the ground perilously close to passing tires as cars rolled by and over it. Frenetic hyper-fast cuts of neighborhoods as they looked 60 years ago, the passersby and their fashions, the cars they drove the only giveaway that this film was made that long ago.
I dug around for his name, or for titles scrawled on film tins, but there was nothing. This was some of the best experimental work I’d seen on film, and by all accounts, its filmmaker lived without ever finding much recognition, if any. A lifetime of work, relegated to a cardboard box that can be sold after you die.
I started cataloguing as I waited for the new film cartridge I’d ordered to come in. I tried finding his name out later, but everything turned up a blank. So, for the time being, I catalogued the work under the name John Doe.
In time, I had over a dozen short films catalogued with runtimes, brief summaries, and considerations of artistic merit. I suggested titles where appropriate and went ahead and paid a company to make digital copies for posterity. I wanted to have a positive ID on the guy before I started sharing his work on the internet, but I never did find out his name. Either way, his work found a footing early on, the older folks considering him a peer of Stan Brakhage, and younger people noting the logical progression from work like his to people like David Firth and Jack Stauber. It was incredible to see the explosion of interest, the way this thing seemed to take on a life of its own.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do–I mean what I really wanted do with my life there for a while. But when that package came in and I opened it, when I loaded that fresh, first film cartridge into my Instamatic, I knew.
Casting a line off the edge of a barge micronation somewhere off the Adriatic, plum sky undulating like some childhood experiment with oil and water, and all of a sudden that seems so long ago, that 1990s childhood spent tinkering with PC parts, putting together your first computer, and now here you are thirty years later, in unclaimed waters, undisclosed location, starting some religion, maybe a country, you haven’t gotten that far, it isn’t clear yet, but it’ll be something different, whatever it is, so you return to these old practices and prepare the precepts for the initiates who will be here next day, their boat is coming in then and will promptly be destroyed upon their arrival, because there will be no need for transportation when everything they could possibly need is right here on this constructed island, when all of their needs can be met by the Almighty Godhead and all that he provides, on this barge that’s been assembled from the repurposed garbage floating aimlessly through the ocean, you’ve gone to great expense to have it collected, and you’ve studied all the major religions to make sure that you’re not treading over tired territory, that you haven’t accidentally plagiarized Zarathustra or anything, and you haven’t, not that you can tell, so you will now establish this colony in the ocean, this empire everlasting with yourself as omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent leader who will rule for now and all of time, for you have teachings prepared on the nature of time, you’ve presented them to the internet and have been brutally ridiculed, but that’s the measure of a great idea, isn’t it, the ridicule of small-minded people, and that’s what convinced you that you were doing the right thing, convincing others to worship you as a god on a barge of garbage floating out in the ocean, this is what you’ve been working toward all your life, the unadulterated adulation of others, the drowning in their praise, happiness everlasting, it is all yours to take as you prepare your vestments you’ve created, a robe also made of reconstructed refuse, it still stinks even, but that is the last stink of the world to be washed clean from you, you’ve prepared the sermon, you can visualize the rite even now, with you and the others dipping into the ocean to rid yourselves of the scent of the world, to replace it with something unsmelled and unknown heretofore, it will be a glorious birth of a new state, a new state of mind and of being, you’re sure of it, or else you wouldn’t have sunk all your savings into this construction, wouldn’t have sold all of your things and left everyone you’ve ever loved behind, so you need to make something of that sacrifice, now, and here, you’re sure it will be worth it, so you look once more over that plum, undulating sky, that dark mass that will be either your salvation or damnation, and you sit on this barge, and you wait for the coming day, and you hope beyond hope that they will come.
Pet the cat. Thoughts coalesce when you pet the cat. It’s tactile, like a grounding method or something. You read that somewhere. Where did you read it?
Do something. Touch the fabric of your shirt, smell the inside of a melted candle, but don’t touch the hot wax to your nose. Or maybe do. Maybe that’ll make you remember more. What are you trying to remember?
Check your pockets. Some change, wrinkled receipts. A lighter. You don’t smoke, do you? You’re losing it. Okay, okay, what else? Keys. A little Buddha on a bent keychain. Buddha. Shakyamuni or Hotei? Skinny and serene or chubby and smiling? Why do you know these distinctions?
Back to your pockets. Wallet, phone, knife. Phone. Unlock it with your password. Can’t remember what it is, but you’ll remember once you get there. Good. Check messages first. Nothing newer than three days old. You must’ve dropped off the face of the Earth. Vanished like a ghost. Ghost, spirit, scary stories, campfire, cold tent.
Okay, sensory perceptions, then. Stale air on tongue, rusty breath. Need to brush. Itch on arm that’s getting worse the longer it’s ignored. Lifting up sleeve and finding a perfect, filled-in black square tattooed there. Three inches on each side, perfect lines, like it’s been stamped there or something. It hasn’t, though. Rubbing, scraping, and scratching do nothing. Spit shine. Nothing.
Nowhere neighbors nesting near nurses, nails nipping notations (nevermind nightwood), notwithstanding nestled noses; nearsighted nuns negotiating Nicean niceties.
Feel around darkened corners of a room you remember smelling once, like a dusty old book this room, and the feeling of remembering a memory that’d been missing for decades, that book with a page ripped out of same, crumpled up, burned, flushed down waterways only to reassemble in its current form, somehow, a simple impossibility, but here it is, a memory coming up and out of this inner abyss, this inward twistedness, can even taste its metallic clinging bitters like nettles on the skin, running water over same, cold in temperature but not in feeling, still burning, and isn’t it fucked how this is a memory you cling to, simply because It Is A Memory That Refuses To Fade, so you let it play, let it cycle through without stopping, because the celluloid will jam and burn if you don’t, so the picture flickers through.
But it won’t, not now, not when you want it to, it will send its information filter flying through filament traps in your mind like shutters clocked at twenty-four, blistering past, data cascades like avalanches of ones and zeroes, interpretable only in sleep, in dreams that you accept at face value during the course of but doubletake at once awake, wondering what the fuck it is you just dreamt, and why, dreamt not dreamed, and that’s something else you remember now too, scrolling through this fetid feed like galoshes sloshing through sewer contents at night, running through the innards of your city like an intrepid intestinal traveler, tapering this way then that when your feet don’t make purchase, then do, contact imminent with bricks laid centuries before you were born, and you’ve never felt more alive than in this moment with the balaclava tucked tight over your nose, filtered breathing, thinking that a Cockney accent might render it bolly-clahv, can’t help but think in this accent now, internal monologue going British, that’s a right nasty meat piece you’ve got there, in prime primal fashion brandishing a peace that can’t be bought but can be sold, mass-produced and disseminated like so much newscopy to chew on, Chungus Leafleg V is your name, there’s a line of them, a lineage, all the Chungi really had a time, and it’s something to do anyway, watch the words tumble out your mouth like a 19th century Freak Show, acquiring language even as you’re speaking it, and the thing about multitasking is that you can never do every task completely well–call it an overclock of the soul, a restructuring of the mind, gathering memories like drops in a bucket that keeps overflowing from a summer storm, power flickering out, and heat like its own separate entity–you know this place (not consciously, but it won’t exactly leave your mind either), and it gets trapped to the point where all you can do is rattle off names and dates, your personal history, like you’ve got the textbook memorized (social studies class as a child taught you well), yes just names, dates, and places but nothing of their substance, none of the really juicy details that make up a personality and individual; anyone could have these facts, could spew these words, so you’ll need those things that can’t be replicated–you’ll need the look of realization when a memory of a childhood barbecue comes back with waves of heat refraction shimmering off the top of the grill, and the way that every burger managed to disassemble itself and flop onto your T-shirt before it could find your mouth; you’ll need the image of sliding down a plastic slide that’s been baked in the sun, nearly melted, with a garden hose propped under one of the handrails at the top, sending down water that should ostensibly cool it down but doesn’t, not really, but it doesn’t matter because you’re sliding down now, sliding toward an inflated pool at the bottom, sliding for a second, sliding for a week,
Days like magnet letters on a dusty refrigerator, speckle stains of barbecue sauce and ketchup like culinary crime scenes as an animal collects leftovers from where they’ve fallen–from a midnight sandwich or sunrise coffee-and-bagel.
You can learn a lot about someone from the stains they leave behind.
It’s collecting bruises in a ten-dollar-a-class dojo, swishing trial size mouthwash in the dojo bathroom because it always burns your mouth and helps distract you from the pain of the mistakes you’ve made.
It’s coming out in muddy brown dusk with sky the color of pre-tornado, leaves more like slush than tree structures, coming into the night that’s just now arriving, with lighter fluid in one pocket and a matchbook in the other, only feeling comfortable when you have the capacity to make fire at will, not even for nefarious reasons, just reveling in the fact that if you could go back in time, right now, even as you are, and show this to cavemen, you would be God to them. God in ripped jeans and scuffed-up sneakers.
It’s learning how to lucid dream and astral project, alternating every other night, living then living again, then taking off work for an entire week to do nothing but sleep, actual sleep, deep sleep, nothing but darkness and time to fill you all up.
It’s all about variety.
So the other day I was walking home from work, same route I always take, straight down Fourth, sun staring at me over the hills, feeling like a forlorn traveler from biblical times, not even one of the memorable ones, and I saw this, felt it, until the setting overtook plot, brought me back, to an old man with wild eyes in the middle of the street, pointing his finger, wearing flip flops and socks, accusing the man he was pointing at of stealing same, and the other man was looking for help, looking for a way out, so I got between them, got between as others watched or took out phones–not to call the police but to record–people watching people, an American pastime, and I assumed an authority that came from nowhere, that I gave myself, in order to do what I thought was right.
The old man called me a faggot.
But hey, there was no violence, and it ended with him flip-flopping his way away down the middle of the street while cars honked and tried to go around him. The guy I helped remembered my name a week later when I happened to walk past him again.
So that was cool.
To get home and to be lighting this cigar that we are looking at right now, in crystal-prism clarity, smoke trailing into clouds, and we can roll this CLOUD into the rest of the neighborhood, collect PARKED CARS and TREES so that they will all be one and we can gather this here, now, in our backyard, the one we pay taxes for, and build a bonfire, yes, a great big one, one that has STICKS and LEAVES and BITS OF PAPER that we have FOUND.
So what do we have?
An arm, a leg, a couple eyes. Two ears. Some other appendages. Hair, toenails, and an awful lot of capillaries. Enough inner piping to plumb a city. Cells that are themselves self-contained living things. Neurons and tissue that somehow contain memory. An aching-longing for connection and understanding in a vast, uncaring emptiness that’s occasionally decorated with the odd flower here, ray of sunshine there. And that?
That is okay.