Sunday, January 31, 2016

We May Never Find It

“It's gone so far away from here,” she said, shaking her head. “We may never find it.”

“That's always a risk,” he replied, staring at wooden houses beyond the crowd of people that had gathered.

The morning's misty rain yielded to something not quite sunny but at least clear enough for the masses to venture outside again. There were clouds, which cast shadows that gave her face an almost ethereal quality. He couldn't define the effect beyond knowing that he liked it.

“Liking a thing,” she said, as though reading his very thoughts, “doesn't always need a reason.”

He nodded despite not being sure he agreed with her. And yet, he couldn't find it within himself to argue the point. So her words lingered, like misty rain, obscuring what he otherwise might have seen.

“Logic itself,” he replied, “may be illogical.”

“It's a problem,” she agreed.

He tried to make out individual faces in the crowd. Who were these people that had come to congregate in this exact place, at this exact time, for no discernible reason?

There was no logic to their presence. They were simply here.

“Maybe they just like gathering,” he said.

“Yes, I've considered the possibility. It's hard to dispute it.”

The clouds shifted. Her face changed. He still liked it, still couldn't define it or explain to himself why. He was trying to make himself comfortable with that. The shifting, the changing, the inability to define or explain, the lack of logic.

“What if the logic isn't lacking?” he asked.

“Not an absence of that,” she said, “but a presence of something else?”

“Yes, exactly. But what?”

“I don't know,” she said, shaking her head. “We may never find it.”

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Lonely Men on Corners

There are lonely men on corners, not necessarily pondering their plight but suffering it just the same. They exist in every town, sometimes coming together to form a front that is united by chance and circumstance, aimless in their pursuit of a scarcely definable ideal that is forever beyond their grasp.

Buses and barricades make suitable metaphors, if not bedfellows. It's like the old cosmic joke: We will take you exactly so far, but no farther.

What? That isn't an old cosmic joke? Well, it should be.

One problem with jokes is that they often rely on cruelty for effect. Someone must be the butt of said joke. Lonely men on corners, for example. Revel in the absurdity of their plight. Isn't it hilarious?

Hilarious, indeed, until the realization that we are all lonely men on corners hits. Except for the lonely women, of course.

See? A joke. Which brings us to another problem with jokes. Sometimes they aren't funny.

But this can also be humorous. Because then the person telling the joke that isn't funny becomes the butt of another joke. Ha, look at that idiot, can't even tell a good joke!

And the one we have proclaimed an idiot thereby becomes funny. The joke is so bad—the setup, the delivery, the punch line, the whole shebang—that it becomes good again. Or if not good, then at least memorable. Who can forget an idiot telling a terrible joke?

Don't answer, it's a rhetorical question. Here's another: Is it better to be remembered as an idiot telling a terrible joke or as one of those lonely men on corners?

The choice we make could reveal a great deal about each of us. Or it could mean nothing at all. And if that isn't an old cosmic joke, then it should be.

* * *

Thanks to Brandon Isleib for the opening sentence.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Where I'm Not

I'm staring at this bed that I've put sheets on and there's a window that lets me look out onto whatever is outside, nothing much to speak of, some dead grass, a parking lot, another building or three on the other side. This is where I'll not sleep tonight before another long day.

“Seriously?” she says, “we're staying here?”

“Think of it as an adventure,” I say.

She's staring at me like she's gonna pop me in the face or at least get the hell out of there. It's crazy sexy, her hair all messed up and what not.

I blink. She's gone. She was never here. It's my mind again, thinking of different times, when we were happy beyond description.

But no, I must describe. It was like an overwhelming wind that swept us both away. It was like the sun and the moon and the stars. It was like everything, because it was everything.

Which was the problem, of course. And now that she is gone, everything is gone.

No sun, no moon, no stars. Only void. And this bed that I've put sheets on near a window that lets me look outside at who cares what.

“Where are you even?” she says, and I see her again.

I shrug my shoulders. “Somewhere in New York, Oneonta I think.”

“Where the hell is that?”

I look around the room and notice chairs stacked on desks. Am I supposed to be here? Is anyone supposed to be here?

“It's where I am,” I say. Her nose is a button. Of all her features, it's the nose I miss the most. I have no idea what that says about either of us.

“And where I'm not,” she says before slipping out the window.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Safe Passage

You're somewhere in Tennessee, or maybe Kentucky, and you've ventured off the freeway. You hear water running, maybe a banjo or three. Or is that in your head?

You recall a conversation from less than an hour ago, back at the last town that wasn't really a town.

“You any relation to Joe?” asked the man.

“Can't say as I am.”

No, that was a different place. That was Baker, California, several years earlier. The man looked like Cooter from Dukes of Hazzard. Maybe not, but that's how you remember him.

What's it been now, two decades? You still remember a guy at a gas station who may or may not have looked like Cooter. You met him once, and he was gone from your life in the time it takes to sign a credit card slip.

And yet there is much you forget. What is your neighbor's last name? When is your cousin's birthday (doesn't matter which one, the answer is always “I dunno”)? What is your purpose in life?

So you're in Tennessee, or maybe Kentucky, and you need gas. Your purpose in life right now is to reach North Carolina, which won't happen tonight but had better happen tomorrow.

You have eight dollars in your pocket and 300 miles to go. You blow it all on gas at this town that isn't really a town. But they only give you seven bucks worth.

“I bought eight bucks,” you say.

“No, you bought seven,” she says.

Your eyes wander around the store. Nobody here is any relation to you. You're a complete stranger in this town that isn't really a town, out of place. In the big picture, is a dollar that steep a price to pay for safe passage out of here now?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

That's the Guy

“Did I ever tell you about the time I met Marilyn Monroe?” he asked.

“You never met Marilyn Monroe,” she replied.

They stood at the back, away from all the others. He drank pinot noir, she drank pinot gris.

“It was 1954, San Francisco,” he continued, staring through the wall behind her at a world of possibilities, a world that didn't exist. “She looked good.”

“Of course, she looked good, she was Marilyn Monroe. Also, you never met her.”

He waved his hand at her, brushing aside the comment like gnats.

“She's no Jayne Mansfield, mind you, but still.”

“Oh, so now you met Jayne Mansfield?”

“Yeah, but I don't wanna to get into that.” He smiled. “I mean, I wanted to get into that, but it just didn't work out for either of us.”

“You and Mansfield?”

He brushed aside gnats again. “Whatever, we're talking about Marilyn.”

He swirled his wine, she sipped hers.

“Anyway, we're at this joint in Nob Hill. She's sitting alone drinking champagne and this tall, slender cat walks in and starts chatting her up. I mean, he was lean but strong, like he could take care of business if it came to that.”

“Sounds fascinating, do go on,” she said, finishing her wine.

“I keep thinking, this guy looks familiar. It's bugging the crap out of me, you know? Like I've seen him but I can't figure out where. Everything's out of context.”

She nodded and motioned for a server to bring her another.

“Then it hits me: That's Mickey Mantle! The ballplayer.”

She smiled as the server placed another glass of wine in her hand. “That wasn't Mickey Mantle, it was Joe DiMaggio.”

“Yeah, that's the guy.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

More Than One Street

Sometimes more than one street has the same name. Sometimes in the same city. Sometimes that city is Albuquerque and you end up where you were trying to go after a long and pointless detour, only to find a cheap motel parking lot surrounded by bars, looking back out onto the freeway you just escaped. Inside there is a bar.

“I'll have a beer.”

“We're closing.” She's wiping down the counter while 50-something ex-frat boys eat chicken wings beneath TVs broadcasting some sporting event. It's all very manly.

Everyone is going to the airport tomorrow morning, flying off to some other place. The bar closes, you're stuck behind bars.

You didn't plan for it to be this way. Nobody would. But tomorrow you'll be in Oklahoma, where you swear things will be better or at least farther east

The streets are empty. Not even a lady of the night to come spend it with you.

Last time you were here it stormed. Black clouds and lightning streaked across the desert, like some unseen entity pronouncing judgment on parched land: YOU WILL HAVE WATER, DAMMIT!

Well, okay. Water is good.

Now there is only dust and a saggy mattress. A hair dryer, some extension cords. Spare pillow and blankets. Popcorn ceiling, misplaced dreams.

You could tie sheets together and climb out the window, but then you'd be back in the parking lot, behind those bars.

You could stare at the ceiling or the TV. Or there's probably a bible in the drawer. Yep, there is. You could read that. You wanted a storm? Try Revelations.

You'll be up in five hours anyway, back on the road, towns bouncing past like so many tumbleweeds. You'll be in Oklahoma before you know it.

Things will be better. Or at least farther east.

Monday, January 25, 2016

They Disappeared Together

She had come to meet him, though she didn't know his name. Tall, dark, and handsome said the note. Yeah, right, like she was falling for that one again.

Still, there was something about his penmanship that told her he might not be lying. This, alas, was one of her blind spots. The ability to see things that weren't there hadn't often helped her in life, but she knew no other way.

Then he appeared, literally out of thin air. An apparition looking for appetizers in all the wrong places.

“Hello,” he said, head tilted, lips curled upward into a smile, “my name is not important.”

“What a strange name,” she said, extending her hand, which passed right through him.

“What a terrible opening line,” he replied. “Also, I apologize for not shaking your hand, but it is impossible as I am not a corporeal being.”

Ah, that would explain the penmanship.

“Yes, well, not all of us can be witty on the first try. Give me time, I'll get better.”

She had to admit, he was tall, dark, and handsome.

“I've got all the time in the world.” Then, looking around, “where are we anyway?”

And dead. He was also dead, or at least not alive in any sense she understood.

“You picked the place,” she said, “don't you remember?”

He chuckled. “So I did. I had forgotten that part. An unfortunate consequence of my... condition.”

“I'd buy you a drink, but I'm guessing your condition keeps you from that as well.”

“Very astute. And you are getting better. You weren't lying after all.”

“Neither were you,” she said, raising an imaginary glass as they disappeared together into the thin air from which he had come.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Watch Out for Big Trucks

That time you drove through Indiana, past where James Dean was born. A day later your Saturn got run off the interstate by some truck hauling antique cars. Maybe it was two days later. This was a long time ago and the memories play tricks, the mind fades. It was eight years ago, not that long ago to the universe but plenty long for humans.

Imagine yourself in line to buy tickets for this performance of family fun and baseball action. What might you talk about while waiting? Nietzsche? Schopenhauer? The weather?

“Look, the sky is so blue today. What a beautiful day for baseball.”

“Yes, so beautiful. It gives me the will to live, but let us speak no more of Schopenhauer.”

And mercifully you would soon be at the front of the line handing your money to the attendant, thus killing this contrived discussion. Ah, but you'll still have nine innings to sit together and contemplate the human condition, perhaps making wry observations on the finite nature of things.

Or if that fails, maybe you'll catch a foul ball. Wouldn't that be grand?

Then there is the middle part where everyone gets up to sing.

“I can't sing.”

“Nonsense! If you can talk, you can sing.”

“I can't talk.”

How does one argue with such logic? But argue you must, even if it means being thrown out by some invisible umpire that oversees all.

“You're talking right now.”

The trap you've set is inescapable. She spoke to say she couldn't talk, thus negating her own assertion. Therefore she can sing. Too bad the song has ended.

But the sky is still blue and there are many more philosophers to read. Just watch out for big trucks, especially in the southwest corner of Missouri.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

You Might Get Hungry

But how many dreams do we hold on to?
—Nada Surf

In the morning, before coffee but after blinking, it all seems a blur. The process of waking feels suspiciously like the process of aging. Not slow and methodical, according to some predetermined plan, but uncontrollably fast and chaotic. Less an on-off switch than a dimmer broken beyond repair, behaving unpredictably, giving either too much light or not enough.

Eventually it passes and you get on with the day, and the life, and this goes on for quite a while. Who knows how long. Maybe you get married and have kids, or you eat a sandwich. Maybe you have a dog and write a book.

Maybe you pause to watch the sun try and creep out from behind magenta clouds. Maybe you ignore the sun and the clouds, stay focused on whatever it was you were trying to stay focused on. It helps if you can remember that part.

Is it the quantity that matters, or the quality? A plane flies overhead and you read words. They don't seem right, but there's no time to worry about that now. There will be other words to read, other planes to watch.

Fast and chaotic. Broken dimmer switch. Everything a little bit off, not quite the way you'd like it.

Fast-forward an average life expectancy of years, give or take your magic number, your unknowable variable, and there you have it. What did you hold on to? Was it good? Would you hold on to it again?

Such meddlesome thoughts are why, while teetering on the precipice of introspection, some prefer to eat a sandwich. Just make sure it's the one you want. You might get hungry on the way down, or if you're one of those people, on the way up.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Optimism Is Hard

It was a time of hope, the spring before inevitable failure when possibilities still existed, paths not yet chosen and solidified into fact. Dozens of them stood at the gate, lying in wait for what was to come, not knowing all that it might entail.

Some would find their way to a better place, others would end up stuck in desolate wastelands, wondering if they had made the right decision. It could have been as simple as what they'd eaten for breakfast that one time when they were eight years old. Butterfly effect and all that.

Theories are fun, but the simple reality is that we never know until we try. And though we may stumble and fall, we will get back up again and keep trying. The clever among us will try something different or at least the same thing in a different way.

Still, there's much to be said for optimism. Sometimes it's all we have. And if this isn't a comforting thought, well, this isn't a comforting world. Take what you get.

On the grass, beneath cloudless sky, maybe 10 in the morning. Still waking up, not too hot. Better than dirt in July. Hard enough to stand there, let alone run around chasing a ball.

Which raises the question of entertainment. What value we place on it. What passes for it. Who pays and why. A dream to let us escape for a moment?

And what of the entertainers? Where do they go to escape? What dreams do they dream?

That's a lot to think about while you're waiting for something to happen. Better to just stare at the grass beneath your feet, although that raises other troubling questions about life and death.

There's much to be said for optimism. If only it weren't so damn hard.