Dusk. By motorway’s margin, Jissom seethes. Bilious eyes glare at pitiful shreds of tyre, then down at, cradled in his own soft milquetoast palm, apparatus. On this, screen signifies signal’s absence. Jissom, cursing in decibels drowned by road’s roar, now over crash barrier’s lip surveys elevation’s panoply, bounty of artifice: warehouses, caravans, nissan and quonset huts, prefabricated dwellings indifferently lit, beyond all of which in middle distance silhouettes of low hills make of vista a valley.
“This is Hell,” mutters Jissom, and then, as the rest of the line returns unbidden: “nor am I out of it.”
A seeming eternity of gale. Rain begins. Lorries pass. Jissom in his thin coat hunches.
From this, deliverance is a box on wheels which, otherwise nondescript, stops. Jissom, by now drenched, hence quite beyond the reach of scruple, seizes the passenger door, jumps in, is immediately assailed by tobacco’s stench, and that of unwashed body. The driver, dry grey hair dry yellow hands dry lined face dirty shirt, speaks first.
“Coming off next junction. That do you?”
“Anywhere,” says Jissom, “I can get a signal.”
A sardonic chuckle.
“You’ll be lucky.”
“I doubt it,” says Jissom.
“Going far?” says the driver.
“Conference,” says Jissom, “In the Vale. Design. The conference, I mean.”
The driver introduces himself. His name, mumbled, seems to be ‘Wankingstain’. His desiccated hands, gripping tight the wheel, otherwise shake.
David F. Shultz writes poetry and short fiction from Toronto, ON. His more than forty published works are featured in publications such as The London Reader, Abyss & Apex, Dreams & Nightmares, and Star*Line, among others. Author webpage: davidfshultz.com.
I was walking one day recently in the old-fashioned downtown area of one of these cute central Virginia towns, just taking a pleasant stroll, and I remember being fairly hypnotized by a great locomotive passing by more or less parallel to the sidewalk I was traveling on. It was pulling innumerable faded black and yellow freight bins that were beautiful in a way, and I marveled at how the chain of industrial boxes seemed to stretch on semi-forever. They had the responsible clean markings of the companies and plenty of unauthorized graffiti also. It was like a hobo Berlin Wall mega-tramping through the land.
But the containers finally ran out and when they did my ears picked up on another heavy though more organic sound. I traced it to a tall lean old man standing across on a street corner about two blocks down. He was speaking to no one in particular, maybe preaching. The man appeared to have made of himself a cardboard and prophet sandwich, as he wore a stiff dress fashioned out of two pieces of brown board held together at the tops by a long cut of sturdy red twine threaded through four holes and knotted. There were neatly printed messages in bold black ink on front and back.
As I moved closer I realized he was probably blind since he wore dark glasses and a white cane was standing against the big blue mailbox near the curb. I sidled up further and took position against the brick façade of the post office.
He was reciting what sounded like poetry in a deep southern accent, one I fancied could have been forged in Biloxi, Mississippi or Alvarado, Texas or some such far down place. Though his manner of speech might have indicated a charming old black man, he was white, while the inflectional flourishes seemed somehow to belong to a bygone era, like the 1920s or 30s I imagined. The man appeared undernourished, definitely on the skinny side. He was bald in front and up top but elsewhere sported longish hair, with strands of silvery white from the head’s upper back and high sides dancing intermittently in the breeze, sweeping back and forth across his shiny pate and briefly standing, as if in salute, before lying limply back down. He had at least several days’ worth of same-colored facial hair.
The front of his sign read: THE 1990s DID NOT INAUGURATE THE END OF HISTORY, DUH, DUH, DUH. WATCH AND SEE.
The man turned in slow circles, and I soon glimpsed the words on back: OUR DAY AND AGE IS BETTER CONCEIVED OF AS: STILL PRETTY CLOSE TO THE BEGINNING OF HUMAN HISTORY, WHILE CIVILIZATION IS NOT EVEN PUBESCENT YET. JUST WATCH, OVER THE NEXT TEN THOUSAND YEARS OR SO, AND SEE.
By now I was beginning to appreciate that this particular man was unlike many of his counterparts in that he did not intend to announce, or otherwise commentate on, any kind of Armageddon or pending catastrophe. He was not, so to speak, your stereotypical sidewalk wacko.
Somewhere between shot five at Ethan’s apartment and shot eight at the party, I had passed my limit. Limits are important, they’re the framework of societies, but occasionally the real art and the real truth lay outside of the limits. Unfortunately, outside of the limits there are also heightened senses and the leftovers of heartbreak I thought I had purged the last of months ago. The heartbreak rested at the back of my throat and it burned, but I wanted to keep it down. Keeping the pain down was better than having to deal with it coming up.
“I love him,” I sobbed into the toilet bowl. “I don’t understand how he can just sit there and look at me and not miss me like I miss him. It’s like a—”
The second half of the simile was lost into the toilet bowl as Fireball crashed up my throat. We had run out of the vodka before getting to the party and I had been too drunk to refuse whatever was dropped in front of me.
When the wrenching stopped I pressed my forehead against the toilet seat. The water settled and looked almost like a yellow and orange Jackson Pollock painting.
And I’m still looking for my father, two weeks after his death at 92—searching among his closeted clothes and dresser drawers for confirmation that an unrecorded event, more than two decades old, really occurred, proof that my imagination didn’t invent the roadside timothy grass and what happened there.
Memory’s poignant snapshot of my father bears no resemblance to Bacharach’s stiff-backed view: that formal portrait on a living room end table where a trial lawyer stares from his medieval office chair, its cordovan leather cloak outlined with giant brass thumbtacks.
What am I hoping to unearth as I go through his things? What splendid secret waiting to be surprised? Something that, like a zoom lens, would zap the airspace in our distant kinship.
Perhaps an envelope inscribed in his elegant penmanship, “To Be Opened After My Death.” Love letters from a mysterious woman, breath-tightening as the rubber band around them. Even one of the birthday cards I’d drawn for him every year since I was five. Or—impossibly of course—a jigsaw puzzle piece.
Yet a mahogany box, cornered in a bureau drawer, assaults me with empty space. From jacket pockets, I harvest two sealed toothpicks, one torn theater ticket stub, three broken golf tees and a penny—the flotsam of a long life.
After years of guerrilla warfare, with their base in the rugged Sierra Maestra mountain range of Oriente Province, Castro’s victorious troops triumphantly marched into Havana on January 8, 1959. On the eve of this historical event –during 1957 and 1958– I had been in Cuba on four different occasions, twice as a civilian on vacation and on two other visits as a crewman on a destroyer-escort for training with the U.S. Naval Reserves. The experiences as a civilian were not the same as those with the Navy.
I had joined the Reserves in my senior year of high school. A friend and I had joined at the age of seventeen purely to experience adventure and to see something of the world outside Hudson County, New Jersey and the City of New York. As a member of the U.S. Naval Reserves, I was obliged, and privileged, to take part in one two-week training cruise annually, as well as to attend weekly meetings at the Naval Reserves Station in Jersey City for instruction. I loved the training cruises because it was exciting to be on board a naval vessel on the high seas. Even better, I had the opportunity to visit places I had no possibility of seeing through my own financial resources in my youth.
Every training cruise brought me out of what was then a humdrum existence. Learning more and more of seamanship aboard a naval vessel provided a side of the work world I never would have experienced otherwise. Participating in the daily routine on board a naval vessel was a combination of drudgery (for example, chipping paint from the decks) and exciting activities. In the early years of my training, I was given the lookout duty as my watch. Whether day or night, this involved scanning the horizon with binoculars from an outdoor position on the bridge. We needed to report anything we saw and report our findings to the Officer of the Deck. In addition, we had General Quarters drills, practice for battle, at any time of the day or night, in which each man rushed to the specific position assigned to him. My first training cruise, in 1950, was to a naval base on the fogbound coast of Newfoundland and to St. John, a city in the Canadian Province of New Brunswick, on the Bay of Fundy. On that voyage, my General Quarters station was in the handling room of one of the six-inch guns.
Detectives, Ten-Cent Rum and the Den of Sin:
One of my experiences ashore was entirely outside of my comfort zone. It also provided me with excitement, with the risk of danger, the possibility of violent action, as well as a series of learning episodes. Our port of call was Havana, Capital of Cuba. For one hot day in January of 1958, I was assigned duty as Shore Patrol, which is Naval Police duty, in a combination bar/brothel. That day is memorable. Four pairs of sailors with SP duty were under the supervision of one Chief Petty Officer. We used local taxis, at the expense of the U.S. Navy, to arrive at our first destination: Havana Central Police Headquarters, where the American Navy had been assigned a desk. The U.S. Government had an agreement with the Cuban Government in which the U.S. Navy would police our own men. This arrangement freed the Cuban police from attending to any unlawful behavior on the part of our sailors and avoided having our men arrested and placed in local jails or being subjected to appearances before Cuban judges. Some of our men could become involved in mayhem, especially when under the influence of alcohol. It was at our desk within the Havana Police Headquarters that we received our orders and instructions for the day.
Seeing the mustached Cuban detectives in their double-breasted suits reminded me of movies I had seen that took place in Latin America. Especially the film, We Were Strangers (1949), in which Pedro Armendáriz played the Havana police chief. In those days just about all American men, especially in the military, were clean-shaven, so that these Cubans with dark moustaches seemed somewhat sinister to me. This gave me a real charge, and provided me with the feeling of truly being in an “exotic” locale. This was adventure, something I had craved since high school!
So I said to her when we were in the car, “One thing I’ve learned about myself. I can’t be trusted. Not that I’m a liar or anything. I’m not. Though I lie sometimes, everybody does sometimes. And not because I’m always mistaken; I’m sure I’m not always mistaken – though I could be mistaken. It’s just that I have no other experience to measure life against than my own. Even someone — you, say — telling me about your life, is still just me experiencing you telling me about your life. You see? It makes relationships between the sexes difficult.”
“Is that what does it?”
“Yes. I feel I should tell you that my mental health may not be good.”
“You look okay.”
“I hope so. I run two miles every day in a circle. Kind of pointless really, getting up extra early to run two miles in a circle. The thing is, wherever you start your approach to life, and you have to start somewhere, someone will ask you what led you to that point and you will not be able to answer, because if you could, you would have started there. Still, you have to start somewhere. I start by observing that at some point we find ourselves alive in this world, and the question is always what is the correct response.”
“Um, speaking of starting — the engine? If you turn the key…”
“Right. Where do you want to go?”
“You said dinner and a movie.”
“Dinner? Don’t tell me you eat. If you didn’t eat you wouldn’t have to shit – excuse my French. I ask you, is that a fair trade?”
“All right.” I cranked the engine. “We’ll go downtown.”
“I can drive and talk at the same time.”
I pulled out of her driveway. It was still early evening out. Or late afternoon.
“It all begins, every date begins, with science,” I said.
“No, not chemistry. Well, yes, chemistry, but philosophy. The aim of the process of science is to take a long sheet of paper and write down every fact there is about the universe. The theory of everything. Complete and total knowledge. And what will we do, when we have this?”