fire thoughts at 3am

Identifiables go first. It’ll all burn the same, but I’m paranoid, and I want my IDs to melt and liquify till there’s no chance of being found before burning the other, more important things. There’s no way of googling this without looking like a weirdo, so the first time will have to be a charm.

I’m in the middle of the woods, looking like a witch preparing a meeting of a coven. I was responsible enough, though, to set up contingency plans. I have a fire blanket, for instance. I don’t want the whole forest going down with me.

Clothes are next, because I figure the fabrics will create a slow burn that can sustain the rest of it. I’ll only keep what can fit in a small backpack, and that sure as hell won’t include the clothes with dark memories attached to them.

So the fancy bras go first. I feel like a ‘70s feminist until I remind myself that mine is a selfish liberation–a revolution of one. And soon, that one will cease to exist to the rest of the world.

The slips, the graphic tees, the pajamas with cats on them. Truth be told, my backpack is already packed–filled with muted colors, whites and grays and blacks. Clothes I’ve never worn before, never would’ve worn before.

Everything must go. Like a going out of business sale at a store with sentimental value but no prospects of a future. I mentally prepared for this, knew what I had to do, but the tears fall anyway. There’s no way to practice dying, even if you know you’ll keep breathing afterward.

There’s an origin story. Of course there is. I won’t get too into mine, but it mostly consists of hurt and death. The real death of others, the almost-death of myself at my own hands, and now this fake death I’m staging. Permutations of death, caressed by a jazzy, sullen sadness. A singer under a lone and foggy spotlight, scatting the blues over improvised chords that somehow find their form.

Photo albums, old letters and notes, postcards from places I’ve never been but others have. All curling and yellowing inside the pale fire on this cold night, snow around the fire like a cosmic contradiction.

The rest of it goes in easy after that. Trash bags that I filled with my things, emptied out into the fire, trash bags that I dragged over from the trunk of my car, the car that I’ll douse with gasoline and torch when I’m done here.

This first fire dies, and I kick in dirt to cover the ashes, snow to cover the dirt. And just like that, I’m gone. Dead but still breathing.

I walk back to the car, gas can in hand and lighter in my pocket. The full moon’s peeking up low behind the bare trees of this quiet forest. There really is life after death.

Time Stood Still

Sitting in the back of the bus with a dollar store notebook on my lap, sketching and thinking about the past. October droplets stain my public transit window, turning the grime to a vertical stream as it passes and changes the passing headlights into alien stars–nothing more than ways to mark my way as I move along.

The headlights become fireflies in fading light, the summer retreating to its chrysalis, nights getting colder and rain and wind starting to claim the treehouse we made out in the woods, not in the trees but among them, sitting on the ground and made out of repurposed wooden fences, branches, and a blue tarp we liberated from a neighbor’s backyard. More branches plotted out the yard around the house, where we’d plant our garden once we had enough money for seeds. We never had enough money.

Playing backlit portable games underneath the blue tarp sky we made, taking our first sips of alcohol–vodka stolen from parental bottles and transferred to empty Coke cans, filling the bottles back up with water to disguise our theft. We were good.

You painted the tarp ceiling like it was the Sistine Chapel, counting sixteen candles and watching as you made a Frankenstein God touch the finger of a Super Mario Adam. You learned quickly that a little paint went a long way when some of it dripped off of the tarp and into your hair. It speckled it like you were a painted galaxy, took days to fully wash out.

You swiped a pack of cigarettes from the corner store when the clerk wasn’t looking, and we only got a cigarette in before we tossed them out, laughing and coughing. Your throw landed them in the creek, and I started like I was going to fish them out, but you told me it was okay. We were going to be enablers of fish addiction. We started a fire.

My pen is tracing lines I don’t know the endpoints of before I make them. It’s only when I hold it out in front of me that I can see the general shape, can make out what it is that I’m sketching.

You said we were going to get married someday, that you’d have my babies. We hadn’t even kissed yet. I laughed, sputtered out an, “Is that so?” Flames played in your eyes. You said, “mmmhmm.”

Midterms and finals and college searches. But you wouldn’t make it that far.

One day you were here, and the next you weren’t. Recited words and lit candles and crying eyes and offers of consolation. Days and nights of empty wandering in my room, thoughts moving from what I could’ve noticed to what I should’ve done. Could’ve and should’ve. Weeks melting like wax from a candled finger in reverse, working up the energy to take a shower, change my clothes, go to the corner store we used to haunt so I could put some food in my stomach, no matter how unhealthy it was.

Taking walks through the woods alone, thinking I saw you walking beside me, like a phantom limb you were, always attached to me. I kept walking.

My stop is coming up, but I have to finish this sketch first. It needs to have an ending.

One night long after it happened, I walked back out to our tree house. The tarp had sagged from the season’s rain, branches bent, but it was still standing. I crawled underneath and sat in there, the moonlight becoming something different fed through the water-blue of the tarp, something new. You were almost there beside me.

We’ve already passed my stop, but that’s fine. The drawing is done. It’s us sitting under the tarp together, the glow of a portable screen on my face as you watch with your head on my shoulder, in a place we both know, back when time stood still.

In the Dark

We’re in the dark, slow dancing to a song we barely know the words to, mumbling, mostly just picking up the melodies and harmonizing on the chori, making up our words and movements as we go till we’re melting together, here, at night, with the storm outside, with old Christmas lights strung up inside as the only light for us to dance by, something lofi, something chill, with words aching past quivering vocal cords, kissing every half step, sweat running down your forehead like the raindrops that are on the window, raining, trying to hold this moment in our hands like a childhood snowglobe that’s been scuffed but is still kept for sentimental value, moving past assuring each other that we’ll end up together in the end, somehow, the finality of it like a semi truck sending us flying down concrete, knowing full well, now, that this is the last moment we’ll ever spend together, that I have to leave, for reasons we didn’t want to face at first but now have to, waiting for something to happen, some epiphany, some moment like in a dream, like in a movie, then trying to forget it, eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, conducting this moment like it’s a symphony, and I’m trying to remember forever the shapes of your face, the curves of your body, wondering if there will be a satisfying denouement, some word at the end to make it right, or if death is always something that happens with a whisper and not a bang, and I’m wondering what it’ll be like to be in my final moments, not just this one here with you but my last on Earth, if it’ll be quick, they never really know do they, and you’re trying to console, trying to make this all okay, because that’s who you’ve always been, using your half of the glass to fill mine, to make me see, to be my eyes, my light, my world, and it only makes sense that I’ll lose it all when I lose you, because the storm is starting to hit, and if you look close you can see the waves as they crash onto our block outside the window, the raindrops joined by branches and leaves, wind threatening to crack it, to break it all, and there was never any way out of this, no evacuation possible for us, no money for gas, never enough of anything but love for us, between us, and we’ve decided that we’re going to slow dance in the dark for one more song and make it right in our own way.

Burn

It’s summer, and I’m fourteen years old. That puts us at 2004. I’m in my room alone, watching the dust motes pass in front of the light that’s filtering through my window. It’s a matter of focus. Either I can look out the window and focus on the too-full dumpster out there, or I can pay attention to the dust motes hanging in the air like tiny planets. I’m alone in here.

A few weeks ago, I was in the hospital visiting Rodhi, watching his chest rise and fall as he was Resting. Only no one else would call it Resting. They’d call it being in a coma. I wasn’t there when his chest stopped rising, stopped falling, but I was there for what happened after, there to watch him be taken up on the wind, his mother standing in front of him, chanting words in Malayalam that I still don’t understand.

He’s gone now, and I’m standing in my room. I can sit down, but I don’t want to. I’m wearing my school uniform even though it’s a Saturday, polo shirt neatly tucked into khakis, belt completing the picture. I don’t know why I’m doing these things. Drew’s at a friend’s house. It seems like I haven’t seen him in days, weeks, and when I do see him he’s stumbling in drunk in the middle of the night, calling out my name in the darkness, trying to wake me, and I’m pretending like I’m asleep even though I’m not. I want to talk to him, but not like that.

I walk over to his side of the room, made obvious by the mounds of clothes and CDs and games and snacks and dirty dishes. My side of the room is almost too clean. I know I shouldn’t, but I start going through his things. I find pictures of friends, girlfriends, sports memorabilia, lighters, dice with suggestive verbs on them. I don’t know what I’m doing.

I sift through movie tickets and receipts and half-completed homework assignments that will never be turned in. Is this what a person is? The tiny bits of miscellania and junk that they leave behind? I don’t know who I am.

On the top of Drew’s dresser, in the center of it, there’s a big bottle of cologne. I pick it up. The bottle is wine-dark, almost black, and I can see that it’s almost full. I hold the bottle in front of my face, spray, and walk into the mist like I’ve seen Drew do so many times before. It makes me smell like a grownup. I spray it again on my neck, my chest, my wrists. I spray it on my hands till they’re soaking wet and rub it all over my body. I hold the bottle in front of my face again, but this time I turn it towards me. I open my mouth and spray.

It tastes like liquid fire. I turn and look at the little motes of dust hanging in the air. Outside, sitting on top of the dumpster, is a single bird. It chirps. I unscrew the bottle’s top and start drinking the cologne inside. It burns terribly, and every instinct inside of me tells me to stop, but I don’t. When I finally finish drinking the bottle, I cough uncontrollably. I try not to make a sound because my mom is home, but I can’t stop the coughing, so I go to the bathroom and I lock the door and I turn the faucet on full blast. My body is telling me to stick my finger down my throat, to drink water, to wash my mouth out, to do something, but I just let the water run, try not to look at myself in the mirror.

When I finally stop coughing, I turn the water off and go back to my room. It’s already gotten dark outside, and I can no longer see the dust motes hanging in the air. I go to bed a little bit after that. I sit on my mattress for hours, unable to fully grasp the fact that I am going to die soon. I wonder if it will be slow or fast, painful or painless, and then I start wondering what it was like for Rodhi. No one can really say, because he was hardly even there at all. One moment he was breathing, and the next he wasn’t. It was as simple as that.

I’m surprised to find that I wake up the next morning. My stomach hurts and my throat burns, but I’m still alive. One day passes after another; the pain in my body slowly recedes.

The other type of pain still lingers, though.

A Wake/Awake

I found my grandfather in the sepia-tone photos of him they kept on the mantle at the wake. He wasn’t old enough for them to be daguerreotypes like in cowboy times, but they kind of looked like it. Only this cowboy had a leather helmet and pads stuffed with straw for Chicago winter, eyes asquint like they’d always be, even when he was happy.

There existed in my mother’s family a whispered legend; not often spoken but well understood–Grampa was eternal, a force of nature like entropy or nuclear fission. This Irish Catholic wake was going to live up to its name. It didn’t matter that Grampa’s sickness turned him into a Peruvian shrunken head with a body to match. He’d be upright in the casket before long, stuffing his pipe and telling us to mind Father’s homily.

Grampa didn’t have names anymore, just initials. PGN. He lost his names in the war. Which war? Doesn’t matter. Tuck in your shirt. And shut the door while you’re at it. Were you raised in a barn?

This was a Special Family Occasion, which basically meant my dad didn’t have to hide his flask. This was the year 2007, after my dad lost his job but before he and my mom divorced. He’d transitioned from telling me about the various alien races that controlled every aspect of society to communing with them directly; telepathically. He kept telling everyone who’d listen that he didn’t kill PGN; it was a setup; they had to believe him. They all just shook their heads.

Mom had on her back brace and splint and foot cast and the trusty sling she’d bust out for SFOs. And the perfume. If you couldn’t hear her telling everyone about how she had scoliosis, and COPD, and kidney failure, and seizures every other Tuesday, then her perfume gave her away.

My big brother Drew was almost out of basic; they let him come home for the funeral. I eyed his crew cut over guzzled cups of coffee and wondered why he was calling me by my real name instead of “Chubs,” why he wasn’t using my shoulder to work on his jab. He told me in basic he saw a guy try to off himself with an M16. Drill sergeant came in as the guy was trying to pick his nose up off the floor, but he couldn’t do it because of how slippery the blood made everything. Told me some other guys were caught fucking each other, that they’d had their heads put through drywall by a different drill, been discharged on the spot. There was a window overlooking the parking lot in this coffee room. I rattled off every car brand in sight before Drew could quiz me on them.

PGN had a yellowed Charlie Chaplin poster hung on the wall at his old house, at the top of the stairs. Charlie looked demented in it. Drew told me he looked fine from his angle, but I wasn’t tall enough to see the difference. We used to collect mothballed pillows and race down the steps whenever Grampa had one of his coughing fits. Would joust with borrowed wheelchairs and stolen tree branches outside the hospital when PGN was first admitted. If he’d seen the silver dollar bruises we gave each other he’d flip his shit, but we hid them well.

Mom came in with her Polaroid to take disposables. We gave her a smiling one and Drew wanted one where we flipped off the camera. That’s the one I kept, one of the few of Drew left after they brought him back in a box and Mom laid up in bed for a month or more, crying for me to bring in more pictures. She wasn’t eating. I told her she needed food more than pictures and she called me a bastard and locked me out. I slept on the lawn that night and watched the stars.

But the wake. While we waited for PGN’s second coming I cornered one of his old war buddies. Tried not to stare at his crocodile skin. Wasn’t entirely successful. Told him my Grampa was a war hero, then tried to squeeze in a question mark at the end. He poured me a little of what he had flasked and told me to sit. I did. His eyes were a blind man’s gray, but I could tell he saw me.

Grampa was an engineer in the war. Built bridges. Worked on one that spanned a deep, otherwise impassable gorge out in the middle of nowhere. His crowning achievement. A beauty. Took months of hard labor, most of which he put in himself. Anyway, when they were about a week away from completion they spotted the enemy, on the other side of the gorge. Ten men for every corps man under PGN. Heavily outgunned. Not a chance in hell.

-So what did my Grampa do?

-What did he do?

-Yeah.

-He burned the bridge down.

-He was a good man.

The man’s crocodile hand was firm. I drank what he gave me, mostly so I’d have an excuse for the watery eyes.

PGN never did wake up. Or maybe he did but didn’t want to give it away. I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past him. Anyway, I didn’t go home with Mom and Dad. Neither did Drew. Instead we marched home together, kicking errant stones and surveying all the land that belonged to us, all the land that could never be ours.

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UNDIMINISHED

Tiny eyes wide and skybound, watching clouds roll by in an endless procession, rain threatening from afar, but far removed.

20

Rites of passage all gone by in a flurry of laughter and tears, bike scrapes and bottle rocket burns.

19

Teacher sits you down and pastor stands you up, but neither tell you what you want to hear.

18

Playing on blacktop you know is cracked beyond repair, the older kids peddling their switchblades and cigarettes.

17

A baby bird in the street, cars barely miss, the kids make fun but you care.

16

Chemicals swishing all around your body haphazardly, sending that girl you know into another light.

15

Heartbreak’s first real bite as she gets away, your ulterior teenage motives on display.

14

Desperation to fit in as the seasons pass by in their staggered steps.

13

A tryout session, but your stomach drops at “let’s just be friends.”

12

Graduation’s here, all unreal–she’s moving away and so are you.

11

Life drips by and hangs on slowly without her there.

10

A blink and you’re done again, into the unknown.

9

A phone call late at night, fingers crossed.

8

Lunch goes well, is this a date?

7

Days turn into weeks and months.

6

A ring is shakily offered.

5

She actually says yes.

4

Now it’s just.

3

You and.

2

Her.

1

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BE

Stop.

Look.

Breathe for a second and realize you’re living.

Listen to the birds sing.

Feel the ice cube slide down your back as your brother runs away laughing.

Smell the freshly cut grass as you tumble end over end; ground then sky then ground again.

Feel the thump of your heart in your wrist and run in place to speed it up.

Wonder a while about what you’ll look like when you’re older.

Give a high five to someone who’s stretching.

Army crawl in the mud, your legs only pretending to be paralyzed.

Think.

Crack your ankle to the beat of the song.

Realize that you’re reading right now.

Laugh and then listen to the timbre of it, the way it carries.

Watch the clouds cut wisps before the sun.

Tie knots in laces, one on top of the other.

Do a dance for no reason at all.

Slow walk as if you’re on the moon.

Embrace.

Make your life lively.

Be.

 

WE

We are here.

We make decisions, we mend fences, we live and breathe.

We are still.

We wander in fields, we climb up trees, we eat till we’re full.

We expect things.

We feel our way around, we think of all the ways, we sit beneath the stars.

We tell stories.

We dig under the snow, we play tag on the blacktop, we think of one another.

We laugh sometimes.

We heal our wounds, we dance in the rain, we watch as the water becomes frozen.

We trade cards.

We empty out tanks, we collect all the shells, we wonder who’s out there.

We sing songs.

We run till we’re tired, we jump into puddles, we breathe in the helium.

We clap hands.

We get the chores done, we color inside the lines, we dip toes in the pool.

We hammer nails.

We fold over the pages, we drown waffles in syrup, we scratch off fake tattoos.

We smile within.

 

THE EXAMINED LIFE

The man was simply born without the ability to conceptualize death. Period. The whole thing was chalked up to childhood ignorance at first, mental capacities, that sort of thing. But bring up the subject and you’d see for yourself. He’d give that same blank stare that was his norm, smile and just nod. Oh, you could try explaining. Many have. But it wouldn’t really get you anywhere. You could sit this guy down for like an hour, tell him that he was going to die as was everyone and everything he’s ever known, you could say that he would no longer exist one day, not even in the minds of others… Hell, you could kill a person right in front of him and all he’d likely do is smile and ask you why they stopped moving.

He was a freaking scientific anomaly. The tests were inconclusive, but what could you expect? We know far less than we like to believe, even in these matters. The big test was his parents. They aged, and he got that well enough, but the cut-off between life and death was where his brain just froze up, like some loading screen stuck at ninety-nine percent. Even at their funerals he wound up consoling everyone else, wondering all the while what they were all so darn upset about.

He had no ambitions really. Why would he need them? He didn’t know he was going to die some day, so he in turn had no urgent desire to accomplish anything before said death. He liked reading and so he did a lot of it. That was that. He was a daredevil without ever really trying. He’d cross streets at red lights, cars missing him by inches most of the time. He once leapt off his house’s roof just to see what it would feel like. It wasn’t like he couldn’t feel pain. That wasn’t it at all. If anything, he was hyper sensitive to it in general. And he wasn’t suicidal either. How could he be? He didn’t even know he could kill himself, let alone die at all for that matter.

It didn’t even change when he got the diagnosis. His chest had really hurt something awful, and he was coughing up blood. He went to the hospital more because the whole thing was unpleasant and frankly kind of distracting. Inoperable lung cancer. Terminal. Those words could have been exchanged with, “How do you do?” and you would’ve gotten the same response from him. He had six months at most, the doctor bearing all of the somberness for him as he told him the news.

And so the man went home and kept reading the book he’d been wrapped up in before the appointment. The next day he went to work, engaged with his coworkers and friends, and just generally lived his life. Six months came. And then a year. Then two. Five. Ten. The man still coughed up blood from time to time, but his existence wasn’t dramatically impeded. He just kept on living.

Years went by. The man withered and aged, but he just saw it as a natural progression. What needed to happen as far as he was concerned. His hair grayed, receded, fell out. His skin sagged, hung down like wet paper. Before you knew it, he was ninety-seven years old. And on a particularly warm summer evening he tucked in for the night, content with the great book he’d just finished reading. He dozed off, peaceful as can be. And then…

He woke up the next morning. What did you expect me to say? That he died? Because he didn’t. Not then, and not ever. He didn’t know that he could die, the thought never struck him, and so he just didn’t. For decades, centuries, millennia… People and civilizations rose and fell before him and still he lived on, just reading his books. Minding his own business. And so he will for all eternity.

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