May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
October 10, 2004
Adam Lowe was waking. In truth, he was wrestling to wake. Patches of Gunnison County had seen the risen sun, but for others, anyone west of the Bells, night stayed on a little longer, keeping them in an undecided blue. Adam’s interior body was mimicking the shadow of the valley, with his soul somehow stalled in a space below awake and above asleep.
He’d been hearing a constant mutter for some time. But until now, nothing had spoken decipherable words.
I can hear…You. What did you say?
Hearing a stranger speak in his thoughts lit one kind of panic. Catching a stranger outside his window lit another. This was both, plus a third.
I’ll get up now.
But he couldn’t. He immediately hated the length of time he was held in the balance. It was unnatural.
I’m walled in.
As near as he could tell, part of a dream was still in play. He knew it, as if a curtain hung at the rear of the stage and he at once recognized the left and right sides as the backs of his own shut eyes. Only there was no way to part or lift them. He searched out the weight of his body frame and where it resisted. From chest to foot there seemed a gross absence. Still, somewhere in the void, parts were being intruded on.
I’m in surgery.
The conclusion came quick before any evidence, and it may have been spawned from still working delusions, but he trusted what he could and checked his memory to find a reason why it might be true.
The only track playing was his interview with Meyer Mazelli, which he found well under way.
He sat down where his former self was already seated. Meyer sat across the table dressed in the same white shirt and black suit jacket. The gray nodes of the carpet, the white tile in the table top, the silver casing of the cassette recorder, the gray light cut by the curtain beyond Meyer’s bald head, every detail of the room was perfectly familiar, as was the part that came next.
“It’s been written that added strain in the pace of the film was only a device to thicken a simple plot. How do you react?”
The filmmaker took his open gaze off the still-life on the adjacent wall, then narrowed his stare and fixed it on the critic.
“It must be terribly dissatisfying.” Adam’s grin dropped. Meyer’s picked up.
“In the end, your entire body of work will be nothing but a running commentary on the original works of other’s.”
Adam meant the question as a lead. He intended to get a recorded defense for a movie that had not been received warmly, at least in contrast to Meyer’s previous films. Adam loved it. But for him every piece Meyer had written and directed was genius and the more subtle his genius, the better.
He timed his asking wrong, a rarity for someone who makes a living off his instincts and his questions. He sat up against the back of his chair regretting the turn they had made. The turn he had caused. Meanwhile Meyer raised his dome higher, now wearing fresh contempt all over his face.
Adam had six years to think out his reply.
“I don’t see it that way. If we have messengers, there should always be interpreters. We need a truth teller.” Adam sounded certain at first. “What’s brilliant deserves to be named brilliant. And when someone puts out garbage, it should be named garbage.” But it was too late. Meyer had jilted him and his stare was unnerving him still. By the time he uttered the last line of his response his voice sounded muted and humiliated.
“Truth tellers, opinion makers,” Meyer mumbled. Adam would play it back later at full volume.
“The truth of a certain man is indistinguishable from that same man’s opinion. That kind of truth brings trouble.” In the dream version, this was unmistakably a threat. “See that you don’t sell that kind of truth.”
He wants to kill me.
“I’ll watch that I won’t.”
The interview ended just as before, with a strong dismissal.
Meyer’s last words came from another voice, maybe a reply to the first voice.
Perhaps an anesthesiologist was asking if he had administered enough sedative. Deeper sleep now carried the allure of suicide. More drugging felt reasonable to Adam.
Is my skin peeled back?
His belly was cut open and his purple insides were being handled by latex hands, metal clamps, and gauze. He believed it was all happening, or had happened or was only about to take place. Live bodies moved around and above him. And dead bodies rested in his innards.
There are rocks in me.
These he saw with an added sense, more than he could actually feel. He counted four, lead slugs suspended in the flesh like seeds around an apple core. He tried convulsing, but without an abdomen he quaked in thought only.
I’m cold…Please pull them out of me.
He cried to God, and the surgeons.
I CAN HEAR YOU…I can nearly see you, doctor.
Behind the curtain, shadows were collecting as shapes. Dull traces of green tangled themselves up with shifting forms. Whispers and mumbles begot isolated sounds and rising above the constant hum was the rhythm of breathing and also a chiming.
That’s my heart. I hear it.
He stopped breathing to listen. He couldn’t start again.
I’ve gotta wake.
The muscles in his face grew stiff and with no ability to trick them to twitch; he forced every pulse of his mind to his eyes to beat against the lids. He imagined what it was to be buried in a box.
He clinched his fist, maybe.
He needed his gut for his instincts, to react, to jerk, but it was carved open and clamped back.
Concentrate. Shake your neck.
Before all ether dissipated, he awoke in a different memory. He was five years old, peering at the tall, grown maples standing legion in every direction outside his bedroom window. The full moon lit them.
I can’t sleep.
He was in the exact fear he had as a boy, which was strange with all the nights that slept between now and then.
Laid out flat on his bed he stared down the limbs that swung beyond the glass. Watching was the only way to quiet his suspicion. His eyes stayed wide just watching…watching…because if fire came, the forest that fenced his home would betray them. One tree would ignite the other until an impassible wall was lit. His family would be handed to the flames.
I can’t blink.
But once he did every next blink lasted a little longer and weighed a little more…until…
Green still waved arms above but now it made a hard floor below his stomach. He laid half out of his bag with the zipper partly undone down the side. He breathed first, then twisted upright. Water was running to the right. And thirty yards to the left juncos were chasing each other from limb to limb in the hemlocks, playing more like squirrels than birds.
My stomach is whole.
Thousands of needles pricked the hand that had been pinned beneath him as he placed it back on his solid belly. What was a gaping wound a few breaths before was now dressed in white. Inside, under his t-shirt, things not meant to be there remained, and he turned to vomit out his core, gripping the ground as he turned his stomach. In the end, he only spit.
Adam raised his eyes to the others. Their black and blue sacks made no motion and no sound. Embers still burned orange under a blanket of ash in the pit between them. He reached back to sit, still clutching some ground and grass in his right hand.
There’s something else.
He opened his hand to study it. Green blades swept out floated to the ground. Bits of earth dropped to his thigh. Pressed in his palm was a rock whose slender body narrowed to tip at one end. He marveled at a drop of red that pushed its way up and out from a spot the rock had broken his skin while his stomach and fist were clinching their hardest.
A minute passed.
The breeze came back. Yellow poured into the blue above.
When his mind became willing to speak again, it whispered stolen lines from one of the few poems he could commit to memory.
This is how it is with the anxious. What will not happen is happening all the time.
“How would the fire start?” His father had a way of asking that authentically considered Adam’s fears.
“Stupid men.” Aliens had also crossed his mind but he left them unmentioned to his dad, who was a sleeping dragon only a few dreadful snores ago. Under the soft light he looked kinder than Adam remembered him looking. “Smokers,” Adam gave as an afterthought.
In short time his dad robed himself, stepped into his slippers and led his son out on to the deck. He paused to stare at the moon which had lowered itself into the patch of branches straight ahead. Adam peered up at his father’s profile until a motor startled him. A mile off, out on the paved road, a truck was speeding away from a stop sign. The engine’s rattle bounced off the sky and through the trees. Those kinds of creeps were the ones who would toss a burning cigarette or a burning something into a dry ditch either in carelessness or cruelty.
I can see it.
The grip of his dad’s hand and the open door behind them both served as relief for what could’ve easily been a boy’s nightmare. Then, as if on cue, a hot August wind shook the arms and hands of the disquieted giants.
Why do we live here?
“We all get worried about what might happen,” and without saying another word, his father grabbed him and lifted him to his side. Adam anticipated the next move in which father swung son around onto his back.
Together, the pair walked into the forest hunting the moon with only one set of slippers cracking branches and dead leaves below them.
By the time they returned to home’s door, Adam had already closed his eyes on his father’s shoulder several times. He opened them again as his dad laid him down, and he kept them open to say goodnight and to see that the forest was no longer a threat.
Meyer was right in the end. Or at least, Adam started to believe his words shortly after they met, when he had time separate them from the tension of the interview.
He began to think all the writers at The Post were nothing but mere commentators, veiling their opinions (sometimes only subtlety) under the reports they made. Sports, the weather even the crime beat was only news that someone else was making. Most of the ink was given to the greedy, the vain, the killers and the sum of their deeds.
So he began venturing West of Aspen more and more, to the places protected from traffic, the lords of the day and the feast of swarming illusions. At first the trips were only on weekends. Eventually he’d stay longer, a day extra and then two more, unbeknownst to anyone but his fellow travelers. He liked his work less and less, and he considered his termination a favor.
Everything had become rather ordinary, and that frightened him. After standing on summits thousands of feet above the sea, coming down to the city and the way he lived left him feeling like a ghost returning to a corpse.
Meyer had made his diagnoses and the poet hers, and his dad — it had been so long since he’d seen his father or even spoken with him. The miles between son and father seemed the longest sitting in the center of wilderness without a wire in sight. His dad really never understood the pursuits that took his boy from home and then the Midwest. And Adam grew tired of offering explanations, so he stopped altogether when his career stole all other shares of his life. Shame only widened the rift.
Adam looked again at the two sleeping Johns, still as stones. Without another thought, he stood up, walked to the tent and unzipped the door. Inside he dug out a small pot from the kitchen pack and walked back to the fire pit where he bent down and scooped out the hot coals.
He headed to the trees, where the birds either had gone silent or disappeared altogether.
Adam poured out the pot over a bed of drying needles and roots, spreading the seed for a fire. He took a spot a few feet away, laid down and just watched.