Tuesday, October 30, 2012

City on a Hill (A Sun Rising)

          And then it was morning. With the amber sun shirking the rooftops low over Westham and the young families out walking in the cool air, the fathers in wrap around sunglasses and baseball caps, young mothers nervous and laughing too loud. An overabundance of polar-fleece. Babies. Too many babies.
Babies in expensive strollers. Practically swaddled, squirming, fighting the first familial binds. Their vision is limited however, that of the mothers and fathers, and outside of their range, between a whole foods market and a christian cafe, lies The Hungry Cowboy. Sits where it has sat dusty and sullen since 1889, this date which it claims makes it the oldest continuously running cafe west of the Mississippi river. This fact would not be immediately evident upon looking at the place as the interior is straight 60's tack: cracked peeling leatherette booths, pull-tabs amd dirty tile floors. It is a twenty four hour establishment and on any given night around two or three it's not unusual to see an ornery drunk juggalo getting 86'ed. Its dullest hours are between 6 and 10 on a weekend morning. Lacking the post-bar crowd and without workers coming in to drink coffee before their shifts the place is silent, a hesitant still fog hangs around the tables and grills. One of the beautiful moments in the place, though different from the others.
          Around 11 business picks up as the straggling bodies slither in and hunch, bleary eyed and spent in the corners and nooks to order bacon and pancakes (the portions here are enormous (ostensibly to feed a cowboy sized hunger, though the actual number of real cowboys that ahve set foot inside is, at most, in the low single digits) rumor holding that at one point in the mid-70's the plates were even larger but following an allegedly meal related fatality the cafe was forced to downsize). A line can be drawn between where the sun falls and where it is blocked and as the Hungry Cowboy fill almost all the patrons, dehydrated and GABA deficient, crouch in the darker portions. Keith and Jeff are among them, silent, Keith holding his head lightly, with brown mugs before them resembling squat ionic columns. Jeff surveys the cafe, drinks his coffee. Shifts his body and pulls his phone from his pocket. 11:47.
            Reading the time brings up a strange feeling in him centered around his diaphragm or his lungs, as if someone had taken a small syringe and was slowly pulling back the plunger - sucking out his viscera then releasing. A light pressure, but steady and worrying. A pulsing sensation. He can't  place it. Can't remember having felt this way before. For Jeff feelings rarely form strong memories, his past represented most clearly as a series of vague, fugitive events which generalize to a whole then fade away. Obscure facts: Kenneth Anger's birthday, a professor's explanation of Negative Capability, the pattern of an albino jay he had seen two years ago. These facts sticking longer than perhaps any other information.
                  He's thinking about Keely. The only way he can put the sucking into words in that it is somehow related to him having misplaced something, something that he needs today, right now, like a C.D. that reminds him how to inhale. But that thing isn't a C.D. or a thing and it has something to do with her and maybe it is her. Keith looks up. Notices Jeff looking around, notices a twitching on his face. His mouth tastes like shit. His thoughts shift like two polarized glass plates against each other, moire patterns of color forming and dissipating without an image forming. He had been mostly incoherent the night before, after Jeff found him. At least that's what Jeff had said. It had been a pretty good night though, all told, all remembered. Jeff exaggerated a lot anyways. The image of Hayley floods his view, he feels a nausea (the booze? the girl?).The opening door. Everything just goes black, just goes to shit. Everything becomes that door opening, the face leaning out. The faces. The door slamming.
              -Fuck. Keith looks up.
              -Is she still not picking up?
              -Yeah. No. She isn't. Jeff puts down his phone, disgusted look flashes on his face
              -I donno she's probably...Keith trails off. Looks around. Doesn't know what Keely would be doing. Shrugs. -You know what?
              -What? Jeff is obviously uninterested, his gaze is held in the wall length mirror behind and above Keith's head.
             -Did you know when I was a kid they thought I was gifted? I did kind of well in on these logic problems and wrote a story that the teacher liked so they put me in this achiever's program.
              -Uh huh
              -I got out of class one day every week and we would do these puzzles or like talk about medieval shit. I loved it. It was the only time I liked school but it was only because it got me out of school, really.
              -Uh huh yeah. I was in one of those for a little while...The door opens and Jeff turns around, Keith sits up to see an old woman troddling in, they slump back in unison.
              -Then, I donno...I got stupid? Keith says
              -Yeah. Happens.
              -You know...Keith shifts in his seat, holds out a hand for emphasis. -What if I peaked in third grade? What if that was when I did my best work? Do you know what that's like? To know your intellectual career had run its course by the time you were eight and a half? Jeff is still staring at the mirror, glazed eyed. Elsewhere.
            -Naw man, you're smart.
Keith is not convinced. -Like you read all the time and know a lot of stuff about politics and other stuff...90's R&B.
           -You know what? Here's a secret, don't tell anyone. Half the stuff I know I learned by reading the backs of hardcovers in Half Price and Bee and En. The rest I just make up. Who said that: 'Say anything convincingly enough and people believe it. Repeat it enough times and it becomes reality.'
Jeff forces a small chuckle. The disingenuousness of it pierces Keith
           -Yeah I used to go to Half Price too.
           -God what happened? Keith has more or less given up. His voice has lowered and he has accepted that he is essentially talking to himself -It's like I used to know everything and now it's all gone. I've been...cast by the wayside...
            Jeff sits up quick, turns around. This jolts Keith's already frayed nerves, though one wouldn't know it from watching him. Keith looks up, sees Keely at the door. Jeff puts his hand up to catch her attention then sits back down. She comes over and slides in next to Keith. She looks tired but is beaming. Jeff starts.
          -What happened to you last night? I came back to the house after...this" he points his thumb at Keith "and you were gone. Where'd you go?"
          -Dude I met this person last night and we talked till five, I still haven't slept yet. He's crazy, he's a genius. He's a grad student and he studies this weird math stuff, but it's like math and philosophy but it's like nothing I've ever heard of before. I just listened to him for hours, we sat on this swingset and I listened the whole time.
          -Uh. Cool.
          -Mm. Jeff is staring at the table, elbows in, coffee at his face, blowing strings off the mug in deep breaths. The waitress comes over and lays meat laden plates before Jeff and Keith, asks Keely if she wants anything and she declines. They boys start to eat in silence, Keely watching them. The silence between them grows quickly and begins to exert an oppressive force.
         -So what's this stuff all about? Keith asks -This math stuff?
         -He...he explained it for a long time but...I don't think I could tell you really. He's a really captivating speaker but the math was a little beyond me. From what I gathered it's about the pieces that make up numbers. The building blocks of math but it's...more than that. Somehow. Something like that. I felt like I understood it at the time. It's about using math to understand the really basic things that make up the world.
        -Like molecules and adams and shit? Jeff asks, a pretentious incredulity edging into his voice.
        -Well...yeah. I guess. He kept mentioning these "invisible fundamentals" which are...which are all the things which you can't see or touch but know are there.
         -Like what?
         -Um, feelings I guess. Faith, sort of. A lot of different things. You'll have to listen to him. But mostly the ideas that you have that you can't put into words.
         -And this is math?
         -Sort of. But it's bigger than math. Like how some math is on paper, then you use it to build bridges or planes or whatever you use this math on the paper then you can apply it to your life. Another big thing he mentioned was there being this ultimate truth in solitude. About how being around people is all good and well but it sort of blocks you off from reality, that we cling to others because we can't deal with the reality of the world. He mentioned these times he would walk around in the middle of the night and he would think about these ideas and...
        -Ah huh. Keith and Jeff begin to slow their eating, pushing the food into their mouths now almost reluctantly, or out of obligation.
       -Okay well I'm not good at explaining it but you have to listen to him, it all makes sense when he explains it. Keely reaches out to Keith's coffee and begins to drink it. There is little noise in the cafe aside from forks and knifes dancing drunk over the glaze of the plates.
       A waitress comes around and drops black plastic folders on the table, Jeff lays down a blue credit card, Keith unfolds small bills from a tight wad deep in his jacket pocket, he lays out a hand full of quarters and nickels to cover the rest of the bill and a tip. As he does this he catches the eyes of the other two and lets out a sly smile, at once rebellious and self conscious in is poverty.
      -So what were you guys going to do today? Jeff asks after the money had been taken. Keith runs his hand through his hair.
      -Just...nothing. Ride out this hangover, I guess. Keely shakes her head.
      -Well I was gonna go down to that crazy antiques place near the water. I heard they have some weird shit there. Jeff looks up.
      -What kind of weird shit? I wanna come. The way he says this reminds Keely of a child. She imagines Jeff as a child for a seconds. It becomes difficult to not imagine Jeff as a child.  -Yeah Keith you should come too.
      -Okay. They three slip out of the booth asses sticking slightly. Outside it's that strange time of year between summer and fall where the day's heat holds over each night but is replenished less and less each afternoon. This, through contrast, gives the strange illusion that the nights are warmer than the days. Though unable to put it into words each of the three has roughly the same thought cranking through their minds: that as the walk through the strollers and couples, the domestic herds, they are avoided, weaved around, as it stone pillars. Inanimate objects. The world they inhabit is so far removed from the instant formula and modular furniture and other concerns of these people.
      Keely thinks this, and all things, as a string of emotions: in varying degrees of dread and joy, fear and humor intermixing and aligning as the situation allows. Jeff's is a monologue with many voices fighting for attention. A weaker constitution might be plagued by a multiple personality type situation but at this point in his life Jeff cedes psychic dominance to one voice usually. It is cynical and falsely jaded which, in its attempt to stay subdued,  attains a certain tendency toward the dramatic. Keith thinks in images, some of which are found in our world but many of which are his very own. These are chimeric, brief flashes of the world as it could be. To Keith they feel more real, have more texture, have deeper grooves and ridges that the concrete and steel around him. When attempting to convey the feeling one time he described it as seeming like he was 'remembering something that hadn't yet,  and never would happen'. He associates these images with the only true, pure pleasure he has experianced.
      The antique store is only a few blocks from the Hungry Cowboy, west with the walk of the sun and downhill. The store's oversize windows act as a haphazard display of the stuff inside:boardgames from the 70's, feather boas, vintage records and empty coke bottles, the old ones that are textured and ribbed. Trash by anyone's imagining. The place is roughly the size of a warehouse and upon entering Keely's heart sinks as head turns up toward the 25 foot ceiling. A few wooden kayaks hang there and she can't help but imagine one of the boats breaking loose, the end careening toward her, the metal spike at front slipping into her throat, through and down her esophagus-her body enlarging around the boat, her skin pulling at sown seams, the kayak lodging in the ground and Keely becoming button eyed and ragged yarn haired, bursting, no blood spilling out, but mild cotton sloughing onto the floor.
     Keith is staring at a row of porcelin figurines: one in exaggerated blckface, another a bucktoothed, squint-eyed, strawhatted chinese girls with her hands pressed palms together, another a fat boy in leiderhosen. Before them is a small handwritten plaque that reads "friends of the world figurines 50-". Bent at the hips Keith squints hard, puff out his cheeks, stares for a long second, his eyes jumping to each then moves on, unmoved. As he walks he finds himself unsteady on his hungover legs. He sees himself crashing into a scale crystal swan (priceless) the neck snapping, body shattering, small chunks catching in his ribs, palms and inner elbow, the old woman at the front extracting his last penny as he bleeds out on the ground.
    Jeff has disappeared already, a common habit of his. The high counters and bins obscure him, seated on the floor and bent over an old, hardbound art periodical filled with full color plates of japanese wood block prints and old English estate homes. He runs his fingers over the massy pages. The pleasant, regular texture of the embossed jacket. He pulls the book up and breathes in fumes from the binding. like no other smell, each one different, like a dog almost able to detect the differences like this. He reads a caption below one of the pictures, a stream of names and dates and place names. He flips through the rest of the book, closes it. Bored. The book bores him. Jeff gets up, thumbs through some records: Ella Fitzgerald, Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Stravinski's Firebird. All $15. too expensive, what was it about stravinski, a riot? he a marxist?. BeeGees, Blondie, Rolling Stones, Rolling Stones Rolling Stones what was sir mick doing right now? like right this second, at this very moment? haven't heard of their satanic majestic jeez... cover design at their satanic majestic request, probably doing somehting horrifically mundane, not too much different from me i guess, school and eating and sleep, the mundanity of it all, tour in china, eat, sleep, always expected i'd do something great and in class all i want to do is get and out do and make a movie but then when i'm out i just drink fortys and or make music and don't even record it or watch shows in in the basement
        Jeff notices an old woman from the counter up front watching him, across the aisle trying so hard to make it look like she is not watching him. do i look like that, like i'm going to steal something? i don't look like that, paranoid bitch. He looks down again, flips through a few more records and catches her again watching him. should just steal smoething to spite her. She scuttles away, embarassed.
      The air here causes Keely to think of her grandmother's house, the attic which lived above and apart from the rest of the house. The stoic serenity of the place, the objects inside which existed in a dusty stasis, never moving, almost forgotten, living in a halfworld. She had only gone into the attic two or three times as a child, but the unchanging nature of the place had always struck her. At times she had imagined living up there, forming a nest of moth eaten wool blankets, the single westerly window catching the setting sun in its orange fade, no sounds except the kind croaking of the boards under her feet. This was a familiar and constant lacunal fantasy in the hailtoss of her childhood.
       The memory of the attic, the feeling of calm in that room was the same, the exact same she had felt while sitting with him on the swingset. After they had met on the porch he had talked to her about the fight, what he had seen, what she had seen. He called it "the altercation", which she had found pretentious. She leaned out the porch door and scanned down the street for Jeff but he was already gone. The empty street brought a rush of anxiety, and she just wanted to be alone until she could find him. She excused herself but he followed her out, started talking about "the passions of man", which he emphatically claimed had caused the fight. Keely considered this irritatingly obvious and she became frustrated with him. Keely began to walk faster, hoping to lose him, but he followed. She continued to listen however, in spite of herself. It was something about the tone of his voice, the way he paused to see if she was listening that drew her in, little by little.
        It was as they came to a playground, eerie in its midnight emptiness that the tone of his voice changed a little and, with her back turned to him she heard him say:
       -I get this feeling sometimes, do you ever get it? It's like I'm tired of being human, and not that I want to die, but more that I want to wake up from an exhausting dream. Do you ever feel that way?"
Keely paused, a mist now falling from the sky set halos around the streetlights. She brought her hands up and looked at the palms then rubbed her face with both hands.
       -Look what I found. all those things that happened last night, what happened last night? Jeff is standing a few aisles over holding up a porcelain figuring of two lily skinned figures, what do they all think of me?how many have seen me? that door opening all black, a picture of burning flesh paunches and baldness providing them with vaguely disgusting, my flesh, it's my flesh burning but it is my flesh burning infantile forms. He chuckles at Keely's grimace and puts down the statue. my flesh burning AND IT'S FALLING OFF IN CHUNKS Keely meanders down the aisle flanked by the stacks of trinkets, I CAN'T SEE, I CAN'T SEE OH GOD I'M DYING the lot of them blurring together with their common traits of yellow and hardened antiquity, each small product melding together and taking on this class. This aisle is particularly long, almost spanning the length of the store and at the end she sees Keith, curiously hunched overand holding onto a shelf. looks like an old man like that, a funny old man all bent over like that, and his back heaving but something here is...something is not right. She walks toward him, slowly then faster as she begins to understand, as he falls to his knees, his face ever toward the ground. His grip is off the shelf and his hands are before him now, weakly opening and closing. As Keely reaches him he shakily touches his face NOT THERE I KNOW IT'S THERE BUT I CAN'T FEEL IT
          -Are you okay Keith? NO AIR NO AIR He's breathing fast short gasps, his strange posture: kneeling, face down, hands out, seems religious or maybe autistic to Keely. She puts her hand on his shoulder and calls to Jeff. CAN'T OPEN MY EYES WIDE ENOUGH She kneels down next to him and notices he is sweating and cold. There is a strange dark animal smell around him. Jeff approaches, the look on his face ostensibly meant to convey concern though it appears to Keely more as an annoyed anger.
         -What's he doing? Dude are you okay? Keith slowly crumples into a ball, his head tucked in and begins shaking or twitching,  shivering almost. He pulls on the neck of his shirt with two fingers over and over, arhythmically, automatically.
         -He can't be here like this, the little woman says. Keely looks up, she hadn't noticed her silent approach, the woman's mouth small and eyes tight and distorted behind thick lenses. The face as a whole totally expressionless.
        -Okay well...we'll leave in a minute. Keely says, hating the woman as she stands there, motionless, watching.
         Keith's breathing has begun to slow, though he has not moved, still hunched and appearing weak, fragile even. He slows the pulling at his shirt as his other hands descends to the ground. He begins to rub it lightly with his knuckles.
      -Keith? Keely begins to lightly rub his back. It occurs to her that she has never touched him before. He feels thin, his ribs are little hard waves of unforgiving bone beneath his skin of bird's parchment. He turns his head just slightly.
      -He can't be here.
      -Okay, I know, I understand but he can't move right now.
      -Well he can't be here. Keely looks at Jeff but he's staring at his phone, little help. Keith sits up which startles Keely. He is still shakey but is able to lean up against a shelf. His hair is disheveled and his eyes are closed. Sweat darkened blotches rest on his sternum and armpits.
       -What happened? Are you gonna be okay?
       He nods, just barely, his eyes open for a second and sweep over Keely. They are red and she wonders when the last time he had cried was. -What happened?
    Keith breathes in deeply, hungrily, and lets the air out. Keely notices a boy, five or six, down the aisle from them. She puts up her hand and tries to smile, tries to make everything appear okay. The boy turns and walks away, his eyes on Keith until he is out of sight. Keith breathes in, then breathes out, breathes in, and breathes out, breathes in, breathes out, breathes in...

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