The Dead Man
It was dark. I know that.
Earlier that day I had shifted sides with my mother, as we walked Fifth Avenue, so that the aggressive traffic would hit me first and somehow save her. She was so very proud of my thoughtless move, for the very reason that it was thoughtless. She expected great things of me. The stoned taxi drivers understood I was first-timer to The City, probably some hick from the Gothic South or something. Which was true.
It was no game. By the second day I was saying ‘Ya’ instead of ‘yeah’ or ‘ye-as’, when I meant yes. Like in an elevator where there was a hop, is it hop?, dressed in red velvet but no funny hat asked ‘ground floor?’, I said ‘Ya’ and then stood thinking seriously about nothing in particular. The way an exiled Russian Prince might do if living in Paris and visiting New York on a lark.
Elevators are spooky because the people in them are never themselves. It’s like they’ve entered into a song and don’t know the words; just riding along with the melody until the door opens and they are released into themselves again. The door glid and I bowed not too deeply, in a spirit of exilation, in keeping with my station. I handed the good man a dollar and fled.
Just outside the door, beyond the reach of the doorman, who also needed a dollar, were two men in medium-caste suits selling red kazoos from a stolen, I guess, grocery cart, for a dollar each. I swear, everyone in New York needs a dollar! Like if you ask some passer “Is this here place open?”, they say ‘ya’, and then stand around a moment just in case. One of the men was alternately preaching; not too good, and playing the kazoo; which was pretty good, except he had a cough which the kazooing seemed to aggravate. The other man was sweating for a bath.
“I won’t lie to you!” Said the kazooer, “This man needs a drink! Pray for his soul! You sir!”
“Won’t you lend a dollar the cause? Look, a fine kazoo for your troubles.”
He then began the overture for Jesus Christ Super-Star on a big red one that featured a slide. Like a bone.
The strangest thing now, is that I don’t remember any other people that day except the dead guy we saw that night. The sidewalks are as clear to me as the bottom of any ashtray, and the crammed together stores were pretty much like the mid-way of a poor carnival which had decided to stay in town forever. I ducked into one and went through the Jazz section. I think I bought In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida as a punch out for a dollar. Then I went back to the Waldorf Astoria and flipped a nickel with my mother to see who would get to sleep in the bath-tub that night. Big-Daddy snored.
The body, at least, was at Tet.
Anyone can see that.
Probably kicked around some after that,
In the hands over and over of some lost one
Who had seen it first in the reporters
Curled and keeping fingers
And took it, blood and all
As a prize.
Then, more than likely,
Into the heart of darkest Africa,
A train ride into the erasure pit of Biafra,
The zoomed massacre of any nameless state;
Announced by a gathering of birds
To the eyes of greater worlds.
Fascinated by the shadow show of remains –
The bodies flattened in moonlight;
Deflated and surprised.
When looked in the eye
Through a lens
Dinged beyond repair:
Shutter stuck on 1/30th of a second,
As if expecting a steady hand,
So everything blurred
Like final sight,
Deeper than any passing religion
Then legless from beds.
A whizzchunk of the cocking lever,
The sure sound of a grenade fuse
The time it takes for a fragment of pig-iron
To reach the lizard parts of the brain,
The spotless mirror flip-up
Exposing the final frame:
A life of vision.
Into the sterile pocket of a rough textured nurse,
With a zone system of heartache.
He said she could have it anyway,
He would give it to her, anything,
For stoically digging away the steel balls
In the tenth day after surgery
So he could finally with a relieving sigh
Move again the waste from his life.
At night she would touch the aged sharkskin case,
Soft and ready still,
The edges of the cut the color of beach sand,
Highlighting the royal blue black bruise
Of the skin itself,
Still strong after all these fractal years
Away from the sea.
She showed it to a coffee shop lover
In a Super 8 once.
He seemed to know how it worked,
Cocking it like the old man,
Explaining the nuts-flat film plane,
Making no sense in an Irish stutter worthy of Joyce.
Then the familiar flip of the mirror again,
The sure unwinding of the spring timer;
1/30th of a second released into life,
The mirror spotless still,
Dropping back to reflect and twist
Through the prism maze:
Every trick of light
T-Maxed and bare.
Grainy and pushed,
She pawned it for food
One day when she had had enough.
“It was at Tet”.
She told the man at the cracked glass counter,
Who only smiled and said, “50mm, 1.8, clean.”
As he swathed away discarded promises
In the ring case
With his hairy and tattooed hand of god.
He scribbled a note that said:
In The War,
Which was close enough
To be true,
And set them in there together
To wait it out
In the fluorescent glare.
“Listen”, he said, two weeks later,
Not hanging up when at first she didn’t answer,
“There was film in that body.
So I developed it and I want you to see.
I think you should.”
The one film roll had been run through
Over and again,
The tail-end fished back out of the cannister
Like a blacksnake down a hole.
Light defined darkness,
Recorded in silvers of time,
The same lines of different days,
Until the negative was a confused unthinking brain map
Same as any life ever lived.
Just the smile lines of memory,
Bleached bones and thirsty silver mountains,
A word in French.
All except frame 32.
“Musta capped the lens
And fired on black every time.”
He said, eying her closely.
He laid out an 8 x 12 print on the fast-food table
Next to bad coffee without looking down,
While cars sighed by outside in the heat
Like nothing was going on.
They sat in silence, unbelieving.
Until finally he pushed a diamond across the table
Like a gamblers last chips,
Someones tacky engagement ring,
Now a monument to truest love gone bad.
Then, with a hopeless grin,
Perhaps remembering his youth,
He said, “I thought you should have this.
It was worth more than I gave you.”
Later, she watched his elaborate tattoos
Breathing as he slept and snored;
Comfortable in the wet spot.
There was a moonscape of scar tissue
Under his tatts
Which bled out like the ink had hit wet paper
The word was the same,
Maybe he had even cried it out
When he came into her,
Before falling into the sleep of indifference men get
When their work is finally done.
Strangely comforting; his relaxed weight upon her.
Then smothering, and he would not wake up,
So she worked her way from underneath his steamy skin
Like a miner trapped
In some depth of memory.
She sat on the edge of the bed
Watching the light change in the dark room.
He might have been dead.
So she picked up her purse
Noticing it was there again,
The sharkskin now shiny with tire cleaner
A fresh roll in,
Counter set to one.
She stepped into the thick scent of honeysuckle vines
Leaving the door ajar
For the chance that he might follow her
But he didn’t,
So she went on as she always did,
With a single blinking eye.
J H S