An Unfair Conflation
by Nicholas Claude De Palma
A knock at the door. I am expecting company. Impressionable, fresh friends. I am preparing a seminar for them, a testament to the indolent. Two women, replacements for Baby. Baby is eighty-sixed. Please, Gabriel, bear with me, this information will be given in vomit-form. As my mind deteriorates, I lose sight of who and where I am—making leaps and bounds in logic and time. It is unbecoming, I suppose, to cling to sanity.
If only tragedy would ensue. How exciting that would be, wouldn’t it? To live vile, to live multiple lives in a single, protracted moment. The world is in greyscale, a flutter of eyelashes, and I will soon open myself, and the horizon, in search of red tides amidst shadows.
A noose hangs from a matte, grey bar that stretches over a courtyard of marble. A chair is positioned in the middle, below the noose, and I decide to sit, rather than stand atop it. In the corner of the courtyard is the ancient Evangeline and, looming, a colonnade and fixed entablature. Longfellow’s vision is blinding me, entrapping me. I figure the poet is, most often, a charlatan.
Her skin cracks into dusted fragments and partially concealed with loose, worn fabric—ripped and flapping. She shrivels and writhes there, in front of me, making a dull shifting sound as her garment heaps and stretches in contest with her emaciated figure. Her fibulas have been rounded beyond once-existent ankles. She attempts to stand and face me, but the weathered bones chip and scrape against the concrete. Evangeline can only rest there, on all fours, semi-stabilized and palms flat to the ground, all the while smiling under a veil of thin hair. She will catch up with Gabriel, it is written, and, for now, she is content. My content.
Dreams are no better than memories. My head shoots up, my body limp, from a desk in a cheap motel. A haze, a nap, perhaps, or a similar reverie. I’ve heard sleeping helps people relax. Dreaming of things, the general masses, like shooting a twelve-gauge shotgun while erect or another American Dream.
The light in the motel buzzes, illuminating a shag carpet infested with sand and road salt. This is an incessant buzzing I obey, a distant, tinny vibration that I can liken to an old refrigerator or an electric car or circuitous stories. I am wiping Baby’s cum from my lips and chin as she bends over the sink, spitting—naked and showered in the artificial light and smut of the room.
The crashing of waves gets louder throughout the hour of quiet meditation that follows the act. I feel incapable of finding something. Something to say to her. A friendly reaffirmation. Anything. We have a rule. The rule of complete silence. This is good. I can love, the essence of what love may very well be, when she doesn’t talk. Almost as if hearing her voice would break that window pane I have fabricated between us. I feel no desire to clean up fictitious shards. I can look through it, this contrivance, and retain thin separation. Does humanity—she and I making up its entirety—have the capacity to shatter that partition? Maybe the window is more opaque than my initial conception, like stained glass. She isn’t looking, now, on the stale motel mattress, in a crumpled fetal state, bruised and reminiscent of mold or fungi. She did on the beach. Look at me, I mean. It was below freezing and the sand was iced over, trodden and blown into a range of peaks, the last traces of sunlight through the fog and the whitecaps now lost. In the daytime, we held hands for the illusion of touching one another. Touch is fabricated, our epidermis is always separated on the atomic level in a sliver of blank space, and you can never touch. I cannot touch myself. What a sick joke. Baby is not looking at me now. She starts snoring and I imagine what she dreams of while I wander.
Find me somewhere quiet, please, please do, dear. Find me later somewhere damp—bloodied floorboards unlocking a door, walking straight, body parallel to the ceiling, into the floor. Beyond the floor my mind is incapable of anticipating or anticipation. The context of the floor is the floor, dummy, just a floor. Find me somewhere loud after you find me in the quiet place. It will have to be loud, this is imperative. My thoughts can only rattle against one another as rusted pinballs unconfined, not shackled by anyone, by me, or by the absence of me, or my, or I, or pronouns inherent. Atoms humping and grinding to accidentally formulate fleshy life, disappointed. Lay me lower, and lovely, and lower beneath gravel driveways and impenetrable rocks that chip shovels and tell me to go fudge or fuck myself on the way down into the floor of the earth. Something vague and meaningless like the floor of the earth. Adorn my coffin with tacky ornaments that line grocery stores aisles.
Do gods have fingernails and how often do they clean them, clip them? Did they scratch out each other’s eyes in the formative years of their society, or on the front door of our galaxy? Should they clip them, their nails, or have their fingers surpassed the point of self-care and personal hygiene, automated evolutionarily? Will we? When we’re covered in ash? Is their god visible? One so old and tangible that they are unsure whether if, one day, it will pass on or keep floating or both? Floating and chatting—spinning and excreting shit and your mouth tightening for days, or months, on end until your jaw aches and wires itself shut.
The bones on my knuckles are getting whiter; and the skin on my knuckles tighter;
and the knuckles do not bleed when the skin tears; and I am talking about coming into your home at night—grabbing your family by their necks—and chopping off everyone’s head before apologizing to the marionette floating and watching, the gods decapitated now, too; and I align myself on your couch to sleep; and I won’t kill myself. So, ask me why everyone is a two-faced, ignorant chasm and I will try and be as unbiased as humanly possible.
What a strange dream Baby is having.
The poem I am rewording, and barely rewording at times, rather, the poem I am stealing, is a vessel of sorts. A cumulonimbus beard erupting from the writer’s chin. The class of it all. The implicit mockery of it all.
Columns of shining smoke rose from my childhood home and insatiable flames thrust through their folds and withdrawn, like the quivering hand of a martyr. Evangeline was fettered by the muck of pursuit but her heart was sustained by that same mantle. It floated before her eyes, and beckoned her, like stars coaxing the idle voyager. Forget the wandering Gabriel, Evangeline.
I wish to be foreboding as the taciturn bear, that anchorite monk. I could never be so quiet or replicate hibernation. The forest primeval evades me. As he digs for roots, I feel his sense of longing for that burnt home. This is the home where I originally found him, and the bear. He wore a suit and I took his dress socks off when he returned from work. We played checkers and I never won—no, not once—always missing something or several steps behind. Here are my roots dug and dried, now rotting and less potent. I don’t suppose you even care, do you?
Her breath slows into a comforting rhythm and I open my eyes. The buzzing light crawls through my ear canal, a worm. The only source of light, I notice, in any direction.
I pass through the door under the chipping paint of the balcony. The street lamps are out. The houses in the distance, beyond the thin grass of the dunes, are hidden in shadows. The sign for our motel is unlit. I rush back inside to flip off the buzzing light, and I cannot see Evangeline anymore, instead Baby, my wife, is curled and still as mold. Through the door now I feel myself entering a fathomless womb. If only [the forest] could return to the shores. Eventually, perhaps. The anticipation of eventuality and the aimless waiting associated is an isolating burden. I feel no pressure to take another step, but to succumb to the parking lot and decompose over a painted, yellow parking spot divider, cracked by the expansion and recession of the asphalt’s slow heartbeat. Perhaps death—my death, god willing—by exposure might form life through one of these tiny cracks. If only they wouldn’t scrape my frozen body off the pavement in the morning. Baby stands in the doorway shivering, wrapped in a coarse, tan blanket.
“Only my dad calls me Buddy.”
“Sir, you’re naked.”
“You’re naked. Are you okay? Please, come back inside. ”
“I’m not naked.”
“Come back inside and get your wallet. He’ll be wondering, this time of night.”
I’m forced to take a step into the light, buzzing anew, and watch her reenter the motel through our room’s window. In my reflection, in the window, I can see the expression that’s frightening her. I try and contort my face into something more acceptable and husband-like. I nap. I collect myself.
I am fertilizer on the pavement. My mother’s crown is breaching the sky, she throws me into the ocean, but I am drowning in clouds. I drown and suffocate in the gaseous mistings and particulate.
In unison, in a different time, in a different place with nothing tangible to remark on, nothing to be remembered, in unison, “Find the anchorite bear.”
I travel at a hover through a valley of tall trees and bluffs, and in its serpentine concavity I reach a small island only fifteen meters off the shore. Fifteen meters that seem to stretch farther than I can swim; I will drown in pursuit of the island, I know it. I will drown in shallow water.
There are footprints in the sand, on the island, and I can see them clearly from the beach. The island is small, there might be someone on the other side staring out from the brackish delta and into the sea. The trees around the shore have all fallen, pointed, like dull arrows, in the direction of the island and clumped together on either side of the massive, jagged rock formation dividing the beach. I touch the water, no longer hovering, my feet consumed by wet sand. And I am Gabriel in the Ozark being followed and followed and followed, the water reflecting the clear and crystalline heaven, the protective hand of an absent God inverted. Don’t ask any questions, please. There is an impatience looming. I can sense it in the opaque cloud of sand rising from below the water’s surface. Edgeless, blooming shapes form around my legs as I wade and stray further toward the island.
The snorting grew from the rocks, as did the bear. A grizzly, as giant as my mother once was, gazing out towards the island and no feeling in his eyes. Desire does not enter the mind of the beast but to sustain, to self-sustain. It is hard to find a reason to do anything, anything you should or must do, other than the second person imperative, interjected and irrevocable. And yet, I found the bear. He is covered in scars, an attestation to the defense of this, his, holy ground. Holy? Could this be my thought?
That ground, holy or otherwise, shakes under the immense protruding, full belly that sways and near to fissure—the contents of its belly a dam. What creature would dare fight this immovable mass of flesh and hair? Could anything, organic or inorganic, possibly survive that encounter? I step back onto land and creep beneath the fallen trees. The bear, longer than the trees themselves, uses its snout to push the trunks apart. I am devoured and pursuing breath.
“The following, huh? You’re being followed by Evangeline aren’t you?” Gabriel implores.
“I didn’t know.”
“You remembered her. Why is it difficult to imagine she remembered you? That she wanted to see you again? The way you were before your hair was greyed and stumbling amongst the suffering, amongst the plague, and she recognized you in that town, bony and impotent from the aimless wandering. Is it so difficult to imagine you were desirable or consequential or unforgotten?”
“You’re fixated on windows, Buddy. It’s grating.”
The little village in the Acadian land is aflame, still sucking the oxygen from our lungs to burn higher and brighter.
“Can we stop wandering? It’s awful dull, isn’t it?”
“I am sure, eventually, we can.”
A knock at the door.
I am halved, falling from the bear’s mouth, calm and watching my legs tumble beside me, into the water. They stand beneath the surface, and run towards the door.
Empathy is that contagion. Empathy infects your life and in its wake leaves that sense of hollowing. My job is hard. Parents are difficult. I’m stressed. I’m anxious. Bullshit, all of it. I would like to meet someone out there, anyone, that does not have a sleek, dark suitcase of emotional baggage to drop at your feet once empathy is allowed to emanate from your skull like a disparaging radio-transmitter. To be empathetic is to validate the weakness of character or the conditional human. To be empathetic is to disregard what actually makes us human in the first place—suffering and suffocating in pursuit of attention and subsequent suffering. The buck really stops at understanding. No one will ever understand you or the quiet place in your mind. What they really want is that attention. Look at me, I’m broken, too. Watch me bear my flaws and are-we-not-so-damn similar? I ripped empathy from my chest with conviction. It was hiding beneath my rib cage.
I did string that belt over my door and scooted myself lower and lower. It was not some grand, intellectual exercise or a walk on a razor’s edge. I wanted to float off, drift, as the belt cinched tight and my cheeks burned purple. Simple, right? I made a coward of myself, surviving my best intentions.
To step outside myself, if I only could, and crack my skull ajar with a softball bat and watch the pooling of those buzzing thoughts cling to life on the carpet, this is a dream worth dreaming. To continue to whack at my own lifeless head until I realize I am only swinging the bat because the buzzing is inescapable and following me beyond my blotchy, green flesh so I might as well have fun and swing away.
He squints in the mirror, unimpressed. He looks strong. He looks hardened by isolation and clear and proper alive. He shows no empathy for me, and I allow myself to suffer the buzzing and remember the buzzing taught me everything about being strong. In turn, I will show no empathy for others. He has asked this task of me. How can I refuse when I have been given so much?
Walking in the ancient forest, I am alone. Again? No, since time began—and not again. I follow the paths eroded by the liquid feet of Gabriel and Evangeline. I turn perpendicular to the path and reach the crest of the hill that looms overhead. There is a higher hill, straying farther from the path, and another beyond that. I keep elevating, relentless. I am lost at the top of it all in banks of snow. I spin in triumph to further disorient myself, hoping to wander, resolute, through the tall pines and mist. Fear strikes me for the first time since this memory or dream began.
I look down to the bearded moss that stretches out forever along oddly round rocks that shine despite the retreat of the sun. There is a circular formation—with peeking, pink pillars of chiseled quartz, monuments—on the ground, with a wall raised high on one side. A barrier to shield extinguished flames. The craftsmanship stuns me. I am decidedly nowhere and this ornate structure stands. So, where are they now?
I follow the moss further into the forest trying to find the empty, uninhabited space between trees and fallen branches, only to pass empty shopping carts and beer cans—not blanketed in the frozen leaves or snow that suffocate the woodland floor.
A naked man in tennis shoes, beyond the moss, sprints towards me and brandishing a knife. I turn to run, but I have only just found nowhere. I must claim it for myself. As he weaves through trees I can see his flesh peels from his shoulders and face. I can see he is afraid. His scream melts against the sonic backdrop of the rising wind— clearing the mist and forcing the trees to buckle and creak. Only several feet away. a couple bounds at most, is the naked man. Time moves uphill.
Could this be my skin? The unafraid? No. I allow his knife to run through my belly, and twist counterclockwise, as his face gnarls and expands, I feel nothing. I strike him to the ground and begin to claw at his belly, a child in a sandbox, until I am wrist deep—laughing and twirling his entrails like playthings. I took nowhere back from the naked man in tennis shoes. Not just that, not just victory, rather, but it was easy. In triumph, I leave him here and venture further into nowhere. I look down and, to my dismay, I am standing on the path again, accidentally finding myself somewhere. Like a phantom, Evangeline appeared between erect, vital trunks and legs whole. Each step stole something from that beautiful face with fresh, hairline cracks like thin fingers or intermingling twigs and branches below a moonlit sky. On her face the cracks expand, broader and deeper, the gloom and the shadows interstitial.
“Will you come home?” she asks.
“I suppose you mean you.”
“No, Bud. Will you ever return to the version of yourself that anyone could appreciate? Will you stop trying to make your world only about yourself because it’s comfortable and it’s easier?”
“No. No, I don’t suppose I will. Do you suppose you’ll stop asking bitchy questions?”
“Why are you trying to get lost, then? Who is the dead man on the hill?”
“That’s trivial, Baby.”
“You just don’t know. It’s okay not to know. I don’t know why I’ve been following you either. I could have my own life. I could be happy, truly, without you.”
“That’s why I let you go.”
“Look at the weathering of my face and tell me you let me go in time.”
“You’re a coward, Bud. Afraid of your father, the bear. Afraid of the man in tennis shoes. Afraid you understand, all too well, how the universe operates or doesn’t. Gabriel, at least, was brave enough to never look back, and here you are dreaming of me.”
She cannot have the last word. My mouth tastes of copper, of blood.
My mother stretches her arms. She is the earth and we are in a timeless state. I am fetal and small, growing smaller. I am an egg left unfertilized. I sink into myself and I hear my own infantile cries and the cooing of my mother. I am awake, expanding!
I open my eyes and I am in the house. There are books along the walls. The light fixtures remain off. The smell of gorgonzola cheese permeates my nostrils, wafting from the barren wasteland of the kitchen. I am awake.
There is a horse in my living room, it’s coat and mane painted like the sky in blues and whites. There is a portrait of a bear on the far wall, aflame. The landlord is calling my phone. He wants the bear, or was it a horse, no, a bear. Any bear, or this bear in particular? He wants money. Yes, money. I have no money. I never had money, when I had a soul or an illusion of a soul or some moral fallacy that helps one acquire money. Evangeline is dead. It is fucking poetry. Poetry is useless. When has poetry done anything, for anyone, ever? I can no longer idle in subjectivity for I am awake. Gabriel rips at my hair.
“You’re awake,” he coos.
“I said that. Try and keep up.”
“Maybe a dream. We dream, we wake. Sometimes neither.”
I struggle. Was it Bud ripping at my hair? How long have I been the wandering Gabriel, asleep? Was Bud alive somewhere I could reach? No. The window is open, letting in brisk air and a flurry of snow. I am Gabriel looking through the window at Bud. Lost? It must be true. I know it’s true.
Longfellow, decayed and pages yellowed, speaks: All was ended now. The hope, and the fear, and the sorrow. All the aching of heart, the restless, unsatisfied longing. All the dull, deep pain, and constant anguish of patience! And, as she pressed once more the lifeless head to her bosom, meekly she bowed her own.
She is still here with me on the path. She looks concerned as she always has. Why am I remembering? It’s too painful to bear.
“Walk with me awhile,” she whispers, days and miles behind.
A knock at the door.
“Please, walk with me awhile,” softer, in the wind.
Another. Another, finally.
Who are they, my fresh friends—bound to green, vinyl chairs? They look nice with black hair. I try and wash the dye off my palms. It took a while, a long while. I had to beat the quiet, pretty one within an inch of her life so she would stay still. She loves me. She screams like she loves me. She screams with her eyes when I threaten to cut out her tongue. She screams with her mouth when I hold the stapler, cracked open, and whip it on her bare back.
I make a joke about Elmer Fudd’s big head and impuissant shotgun. I tell her not to worry because cartoon characters never die or get permanently injured. It is important to keep things light. Slivering, fickle blonde hairs still slink through the jet black follicles. It is amazing what physicality can do. In mere hours, I have trained them. They’re smart, really. They learn fast. I am not going to kill them, but it is better if they think I will.
“Rabbit season.” I wait.
“Duck season,” they vomit out in unison.
“Don’t you see?”
“Duck season,” the pretty woman chokes out.
“Shut up! Shut. Up. Don’t you see?”
I’m beaming. I am performing myself. A caricature. A means of dumbing things down for the general audience.
A tea kettle hissing, crackling into, “Help!”
“You don’t understand,” sighing, “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
The duct tape makes a sticking and unsticking, an inanimate, guttural ripping as they attempt to pry their limbs from the green vinyl.
“Imagine,” I begin, “stick with me, imagine we are all Bugs Bunny. We all know Bugs Bunny, yes? Everyone else is Daffy Duck, and we are all staring down the tip of Elmer Fudd’s double-barrel.”
I pick up the stapler and they silence themselves before I am forced to reinforce my narrative and perforate thin skin.
“Jesus Christ. Please, I know politics are difficult. Evangeline, please this is important. Have you read Evangeline? Of course not, it’s poetry. Anyway, where were we? Ah, double-barrel. Thank you, Baby. Now, we are too involved with our own survival aren’t we?”
They do not budge. They are slaves to heretical empathy, lamentable—pacified.
“Yes, well, we are. This I can assure you. I am, as are you. Empathy, therefore, is a chimera. Now do you see?”
I rip the duct tape off the roll and pull it tight around their mouths, wrapping it over the backs of their heads, wrestling with their jerking, frantic necks. I realize, again, that I am naked. When did my wife leave me? I am too young to be divorced.
“We cannot reach one another, god. We cannot reach God. Although you sit right before me, our inner machinations and desires and hopes and dreams are infinitely distanced, even in such close proximity. Physical distance is abstract in this sense. So close, betwixt the fabricated framework of time and space, but never intersecting, like parallel lines. All of humanity—it’s rather funny, actually—all of humanity a row of perfect stripes. Duck season, rabbit season, rabbit season, duck season and so on.”
They love me. My captive audience hangs on every word, tracing a conductor’s baton.
“I have to rest now, girls, it’s been exhausting. Just relax. The next lecture will take place in due time.”
It is quiet in the forest primeval. The buzzing does not exist in the confines of the forest. The buzzing does not exist when I enter the realm of dream. I can float, with ease, in and out of sleep and memory. This is because I am always dreaming and always remembering and I accept this with my whole heart. I walk where I wish in this realm. I am the author, now. I am at the foot of the brackish water waiting for the anchorite bear to emerge. I allow myself to grow upwards towards the sky, higher than the peaks beyond the valley. The bear emerges now from the cavernous mass of rocks, smaller than my pinky toe. I am the one who will lash fresh, sanguine scars into his back and belly. I am the one, not you. That hairy bastard, the coward menace, softens.
“You may end it now, if you wish,” the bear chuffs.
The two of us coming to this conclusion is all too swift. Do you agree, Gabriel?
“I was too small.”
“You never thought to grow.”
“Why remain small? Why allow me to surpass you?”
“You never thought to stop growing. Let them go, Bud.”
I have dawned the hairy torso and limbs. I have inherited them. I have inherited the rage and the hate and the haste and nothing else. I have inherited the violent spirit. My father, the bear, is blind. I took his eyes. I now hear his twisted sensibilities percolating inside of me. He wants forgiveness. Was it not clear? I took his eyes, dammit. The past informs the present and the present informs the future and the future informs our dreams and so on and so forth and backwards beyond our comprehension.
A knock at the door. A click suspends the buzzing.
About the Author
Nicholas Claude De Palma lives in Brooklyn, NY.