* * *
The moon’s faint refection nears the shore and stretches into a slender oval, a cat’s eye fading as dawn breaks.
The black gravel path to the cabin takes on a vague iridescence as the morning’s first rays cut through the pine trees and shimmer off the morning dew. The path traces the natural layout of the island, weaving through the trees, rising and falling with the earth, every bend and curve so familiar that as he walks he stares into his freezing hands, grieving the missed opportunity to thrust them deep inside Harvey Strohm’s still living chest.
The warmth of life.
He reasons this egregious oversight is to blame for the pressure in his throat, the way his muscles ache. But then again, that grave didn’t dig itself. This is exhaustion, he thinks, and he hastens his pace toward the cabin.
Inside, Sean pokes the few remaining embers in the fireplace. Nothing to worry about, but nothing much left for warmth, either. He rubs his hands and blows into them, then quickly peels away his coveralls, trades what he calls his ‘cabin boots’ for a pair of Chuck Taylors, and slips into a corduroy jacket.
With an apple in his mouth he opens his messenger bag, slides a couple notebooks and a textbook inside and throws it over his shoulder. He secures two deadbolts and a padlock, drops the key ring into his pocket, pulls his knit cap down over his ears.
Rowing back to the dock on the main land, even the fog lifting gently from the lake reminds him of the day he changed, of the steam rising from the deer’s open belly. From daddy’s face and neck, the blood pumping out warm into his lap, in time cooling. By the time grandpa made it back with the truck it had frozen solid.
His bicycle slips and jolts along the uneven muddy path until he reaches the paved road and from there, it’s a straight shot to Monroe High. Before the road takes him out of the woods he pauses on the shoulder, pulls a pair of Ray Bans from a case with his father’s initials still visible.
Now breaking free of the patchwork shadows and into the sunlight he pulls his knit cap snug with the top of the black plastic frames and the transformation is complete. This is the familiar Sean Edison, a nothing face half hidden, a façade no one bothers to look below.
Sean is reading a paperback with the last half of the book bent completely in half as Mr. Johnson walks down the hall form the teacher’s lounge to the classroom.
“That’s no way to treat Henry Miller.”
Sean stuffs the book into his bag and pulls out a folder with a clear plastic cover.
“Oh, now Sean, that’s not due until the bell rings. Until then, I’m a free man.”
Sean slips the folder back into his bag.
“And so are you, you know…”
Like most mornings, Sean reads at his desk while Mr. Johnson flicks on the lights, then settles in at his own desk to commence with his morning ritual; sipping on his coffee until it’s cool enough to drink comfortably, reading the news on his laptop and semi-consciously drumming his fingers to the beat of whatever song played last on the drive in. And on those days when a student wanders around this side of the building to sneak a cigarette, that ritual includes running to the window to shoo the miscreants away from his 1966 Volvo P 1800S parked in full view of the classroom, then running his hands through his hair and repeating some variation of his rant about teenagers having no respect for things of beauty. On one such morning, the first of exactly five scratches (to date) was perpetrated in the candy-apple red paint.
On this particular morning, no one has snuck around for a morning smoke, but if they had, Sean would have seen them first. With his book as a shield, his eyes dart about the side lot with nervous energy, the adrenaline still palpable in his chest, thick behind his eyes and ears. Senses still on high alert. Riding the wave and waiting for the crash.
As a handful of students shuffle into class, while it’s still quiet enough to hear the school buses unloading, an odd humming noise breaks up the usual routine.
Mr. Johnson bolts up, knocking his old swivel chair backwards. The left armrest slides across the floor, a rat’s tail of duct tape in varying degrees of decrepitude trailing behind it, but he takes little notice; It’s the sound he’s after.
“Oh shit. Oooh man, is this it?”
Mr. Johnson pats himself down, checking the pockets of his blazer, his pants, his briefcase, and finally his overcoat, from which he pulls a cell phone.
“Kathy. Oh shit.” He checks himself for a moment, “Sorry students, that kind of language is not…” the phone continues to buzz.
He’s grinning ear to ear, but his eyes are pensive, focused. He hits the button.
“Kathy, is it- Oh, okay. Sure thing. And you- right, gotcha. On my way.”
He flips the phone shut and shoves a stack of papers into his briefcase followed by the laptop.
“Okay, uh, Rodney. You,” he points, “Rodney, alright. I’ve got to take my wife to the hospital so I’m stopping by the office on my way out, they’ll send someone in as soon as possible. Will you just take roll and tell everyone to pick up… well, whatever we were reading on Friday?”
“I wasn’t here Friday.”
Sean reaches into his bag, holds up a copy of The Old Man and the Sea without looking up from The Tropic of Cancer.
“Thank you, Sean.”
Rodney shrugs, “Why don’t you just have Nosferatu do it, then?”
“Fine. Stephanie, will you take roll?”
She looks up from her make-up mirror with a sneer, but before she can answer Rodney takes the roll sheet from Mr. Johnson and slips back into his seat.
Mr. J shouts a quick thank you which echoes behind him as he runs down the hall. As the headlights to his ’66 Volvo momentarily fill the classroom with unnatural light, Rodney smiles in such a way that, though it was just visible within Sean’s periphery, he’s sure he felt the intention behind the mischievous grin a moment before.
Rodney beams, as if this is just a bonus, since gym class is already his prime time for terrorizing those low on the totem pole. The more clever the nickname, the lower on the pole you fell. Nosferatu, taken from the 1922 German silent vampire film, is one of Rodney’s most intuitive nicknames to date. That the movie was subtitled A Symphony of Horror has not escaped Sean’s notice.
Now, peering over Tropic of Cancer’s spine, with the smell of Harvey Strohm’s blood fresh in his mind, Sean pulls down his Ray Ban’s and makes direct eye contact. He doesn’t smile. He only waits for the look of confusion, that millisecond of pecking-order-faux-pas panic. Rodney’s eyes dart away like a submissive puppy.
Equally exhilarated and frightened by the sudden, almost hasty surge of confidence, Sean pushes the shades back up against his wool cap; Safe for the moment, but not pushing his luck. With a slight quiver in his hand, the adrenaline rush has officially ended.
* * *
© Anthony David Jacques MMX
Henry Miller died a year before I was born. I read his words and I feel like giving up altogether. Here’s a man with a voice. Here’s a writer who was ahead of his time. I feel like I write in the past. Do I even have a voice? Or is it just a jumble of words and thoughts that only work once in a while, purely by chance?
This empty page stares emotionless back at me. My scotch glass is empty but I can still smell it in the air. Can I craft an image without just stating it plainly? Do I even have style, will I ever?
Am I a writer or do I just want to be?
We’ll drive to the beach and I’ll pretend not to be cold in the ocean breeze. Miller talks about the cancer of time, but I can tell you about the cancer in my bones. It makes your blood thinner. It makes you cold no matter where you go, and no matter how beautiful the sun shines down upon your face the hairs still stand along your arms and neck and you feel a chill.
My cancer is a slander against the midday sun.
So now to craft an image? Alright.
The salt in the air mixes with the odor of sun-baked seaweed. All around the surf is a chorus of ghosts waiting for the dark. People talking and seagulls looking to steal your unwatched picnic. Children laughing, building sandcastles, happier than I can remember being in years.
The sun distorts on the horizon. Someone peels an orange upwind and the mist hangs in the air for just a moment.
It makes me wonder, is it all fleeting?
I sit at the beach with people who love me, whether I deserve it or not. Later, I sift the sand out of my socks and shoes and look for my pen but after half an hour the page is still blank. None of this makes sense. We step over the orange rind as we leave and it has lost its scent.
The ideas flare up in my brain like fireworks, they shoot down toward my fingertips but fizzle, choke, die before I can move my pen. They suffocate and turn blue, then black. I write something down anyway. It’s an odd experiment I’ll likely not repeat.
I drink some scotch just to feel it burn in my chest.
I set to writing a story but they all begin to feel the same. It’s as if I’m stuck on infinite repeat, recasting the same conflicts like a mad lib, swapping out nouns and verbs.
I pour some chardonnay and wonder if anyone will remember me thirty years after I’m gone. Will anyone talk about anything I accomplished? Not that I want to be famous, I just want to do something, to be meaningful to someone.
Later, she asks me if we just had an earthquake. I say that I don’t know and try to keep writing but I lose my train of thought.
It’s okay, though. It was nothing. It’s all meaningless, but I’ve known that for years, whether or not I could admit it.
I swirl the chardonnay and it tastes awful after scotch. It was much better when we opened it, with the lemon-peppered fish. The scent of lemon zest floating out from the kitchen. The wine doesn’t taste good now but I hate to let it go to waste.
I read some more Miller, I read aloud to her and she doesn’t like it because it makes her feel something she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t get the words, but she feels the imagery, she gets an emotional response and that’s confusing.
And she’s right. It is confusing. It’s just like life, feeling all the nonsensical emotions and being scarcely able to put them into words.
I read some more Miller, then I pour the rest of the chardonnay down the sink. It tastes awful and I just can’t do it. I’m cold and I need to sleep.
I just want to live but I all I ever do is die. I pour another scotch and swallow it down but it doesn’t burn like I remember.
The wicker chair pushes its pattern into my back. My paper is blank and my scotch glass is empty. The world leaves an impression upon me and I cannot seem to return the favor.
* * *
© Anthony David Jacques MMX