here again, at the end and the beginning, at the instant before the big wake, all tender and waiting to be shaped, as the embryo of the universe dreams about what it might someday become, slowly approaching consciousness but still hungover from the last cycle, here, with the fetal universe still a single incredibly dense and hot point of pure mind, the original period holding within itself every possible sentence, here, where everything is unwritten, before the stars roared, before the dust ever assembled itself and began to philosophize, before history overlaid everything with steel bars, before the grave gave birth and mothers brought death into the world, before the monocle and before the guillotine, here, with all the past and future whirling around us, long before we ever were, long after we will be, and yet where we’ve always been, in this fixed point beyond time from whose perspective time stays still, here with all the possible realities overlapping overhead, in the four-dimensional cogs of a machine where god in its blank mask sets trillions of words shuttling across the weave of reality to form the illusion of the observable universe, in these timeless little rooms in the centers of our skulls where we sit by fires and read the constellations on our eyelids, here in these waiting areas between existences where souls try on bodies like pairs of shoes, in this dust where heavy-hearted galaxies gaze into one another’s supermassive eyes over this nonplace, in this beat woven from the unseen, the unoccupied and the unspoken, as the universe begins to hatch, as the cosmic child screams suns, as the first organic molecules have their tryst in spiraling aquatic light, as the soul possesses its new body, as the director’s assistant claps the sceneboard, as the dream of the last life fades, as the lock becomes the key
You were my favorite hand. That’s why I flung you out when my bicycle skidded sideways, as if it were being pulled out from beneath me, and the pavement became a wall that expanded until it filled the world.
It was like high-fiving God.
The dark city vanished. It was just you and me revolving in space—barely me, almost all you—and your wrist had a molten crevice, and stars were embedded in your palm, ringing a high pure note of pain that was strangely perfect and almost beautiful.
I didn’t mean to sacrifice you. I’d gladly have given your slacker sister, my right hand.
While I’m still assembling myself from a thousand scattered pieces, a flock of birds descend on me and turn into concerned strangers.
Instantly they seem like the only real problem.
I announce that I’m okay, and chuckle to prove my point. I stagger upright, and with my left arm folded T-rex-style across my chest, hobble with my bike through the gathering crowd, ignoring all further inquiries.
The bike I leave unlocked against a wall. I’d known it was shit, but to save money I’d ridden it anyway. Fuck me and fuck that bike. Let it be stolen.
I limp down stairs to a waiting train, where I lower myself painfully into the seat and text my boss:
Had a little accident, might be twenty minutes late.
But now I can’t procrastinate any longer. I have to look.
My right thumb: wrenched and radiating chill spikes.
Elbows: bloodied and banged, but whole.
Knees: reddening my jeans, with holes disclosing a sort of magma jam. Unpleasant, but just scraped flesh.
Finally the left wrist, which
has a quirky new angle.
Staring in horror, I can’t uncurl the fingers.
Whole-body shivers hit me like a shower of sparks.
In shadowless hospital light I bite my bookbag’s zippers to get at my notebook, and with my lesser hand crabbed around the pen, I jaggedly scrawl You can’t escape your body.
Then: I speak so crooked with my spare voice.
My left forearm has doubled in size. But I can’t think about that.
The coffee machine eats my two euros, then stares at me insolently. Should I kick it, should I scream and one-handedly pull out my hair?
Abruptly everything’s funny: no coffee, no money, no hand.
Please just give me back my usual problems
and I promise to be grateful for them.
Several million years later the nurse calls me in for x-rays, and to maintain my arm in the proper position I have to growl and hunch over, twisting awkwardly sideways into a rough swastika, with one bloodied knee coming up.
Cherry-cheeked and cheerful doc informs me I’ll need a permanent titanium plate. They’re sending me home for the night, but in the morning I’ll need to nip on down so they can slice open my wrist halfway to the elbow.
They won’t even put me under.
For now he’ll need to straighten out the bone. He tightens white weaves over my fingers, then hangs my hand from hooks and attaches weights to my bicep.
I’m left alone for twenty minutes. One by one my fingers tingle, then wink out of existence.
Just a big ol’ frozen lobsterclaw.
The happy-go-lucky doc returns, his high spirits somehow gruesome. With hands as strong as machines he mashes my wristbones back into place, going hmm, hmm, squeeeeezing, hmmmmmm, SQUEEZING, hmmmmmmmmmm, rolling and and thumbing and pulping while my wristbones crackle like papyrus scrolls.
I suspect that the doctor is a professional sadist, crushing patients for his own sick pleasure. I rob him of his satisfaction by staying silent.
“You’re very brave,” he remarks, being unable to see my face.
I’m released at three a.m with my arm in a plaster coffin.
After a nauseous train-ride I find my bike almost where I left it, so obviously shitty even the thief noped out. For some reason I decide I should drag it home single-handedly.
With every step my knees and elbows squeal.
At home, in the grip of a sort of weightlessness, I pack and pace and scroll through memes I don’t find funny, and think about the food I’m not allowed to eat, and the water I can’t drink.
I wait for their call.
Eight. Nine. I am sleepless, parched, losing strength, trying to just lie back and let time bear me along but totally unable to be still. I spend most of my time staring at my sleeping phone and waiting for it to scream.
My hand is a hunk of frozen ham, and the wrist has a chasm.
My chest does this weird chugging thing that is like crying without tears.
At noon I break and call every number I can find, and after nearly an hour in the wrong telephone queues I find out that the orthopedic ward has had a crazy Friday, unbelievable, catastrophic—and they can’t operate on me till Monday.
Two days waiting to be sliced.
Holding my mind stiff as the wrist, so that everything is muffled and far away, I stay inside my tiny room, which is not unlike a skull with a single rectangular eye. The electric heat parches my mouth, wastes my skin. Posters crackle on the walls and my notes blacken at the edges.
Feasting on garbage food brought to me by an angel, I walk my good hand like a spider over the tabletop, then push off, ascending.
My surviving hand, floating in space.
When I wash the dishes one-handed, the bowls hop around clanging, till I laugh a dusty and infertile laugh.
I open the window to save my life but find I’m angry at the birds.
At night I spoon the cast and count the hours until—
The hospital is a pale promise, a white hole that had been waiting all this time while I stumbled around in stupid health.
I roll over, and formerly joined bones rub on one another, sending sparks thudding into my brain.
But it’s just arm surgery—how can I be so cowardly?
How do people with cancer ever survive?
Not just illness but treatments, curative poisons,
the scalpels catheters wheeled beds intermittent beeps,
surrounded but utterly alone.
Sepsis. Chronic pain. Complications.
My blanket pins me to the mattress.
I am being buried alive in my bed.
It’s coming it’s coming
and there’s nothing I can do.
Morning of, I wake at four.
I take my first shower since the.
Outdoors, a cruel chill. Plump drops.
Bus-stop flapping with newspapers.
Eerily empty bus.
Wobbling heads on the metro.
Rain-dust side-streets under construction.
The hospital—a block of solid light.
Admissions unstaffed. All empty chairs.
Me reading white-faced in unbearable silence.
Clerk. Papers. Hallways. Increasingly ominous signage.
The gatekeeper who takes my earthly belongings and gives me a hospital gown, gauzy underwear, blue plastic bags for my feet.
I lie on the bed they have prepared for me.
Nurses roll me toward the gathering conclusion. We joke, and there is more of that unpleasant crackling laughter that cannot possibly be mine.
Someone removes my glasses, and I enter the blur.
I’d chosen local anesthesia but I am seriously questioning my wisdom as they jam needle after needle into my armpit, shoving the steel spear around and jolting my fingers into a dance.
Every time I whimper, a certain nurse oohs and aahs, sounding genuinely hurt for me, and her sympathy strikes me so deeply I almost cry.
My arm begins to go away. The doctor pinches it.
“Does that hurt?”
“No, but I can feel it.”
“You’ll still be able to sense movement.”
Wait a fucking minute—WHAT?
We cast off. I say nothing but I want out. I’ll adjust to life one-handed. It wasn’t fair—I hadn’t asked for this body. It was thrust upon me. It’s a prison, only I’m the prison, destined to degenerate or be shattered, needled and pinched, shaved, scrubbed and flushed, cut, cut, and cut.
I am borne into a terrible room where seven or eight personnel await me.
What, so many maids of honor for my marriage to the scalpel?
The high priests arrive in masks. They stretch out my radio-static arm and sharpie where they’ll cut. I feel every nuzzle of the sharpie’s blunt nose.
Where’s the knife?
I begin to tremble.
Where’s the knife where’s the knife?
Slowly the talk trails off. Someone grunts. The empathetic nurse—I’d forgotten she existed—bends over me.
“Are you cold?”
I shake my head and begin to cry.
I’m given a shot for anxiety and a shot for sleep.
But they don’t wait. As the knife noses into my arm and tugs open the wristmeat, my head snaps up, I shudder. The surgeon growls, and I apologize in anguish, crying very quietly so as not to make it harder for them.
I don’t fall asleep completely. My hand is subject to squads of white-suited mechanics; it is like a white spider with five limbs and they’re carving up its abdomen and pulling out its intestines.
The ghost arm threads cold white veins into my chest.
It takes no time and forever.
The nurse appears from the fog and gently asks if I’m okay.
I nod—a lie. Her soft question seems like the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me. She’s close enough I can see her eyes, and they are fantastically feline, shaped like mosque-tops, with squiggling ornate eyebrows creased into eloquent sympathy. She’s so beautiful and so real. I cry again.
She stands up and out of my life.
I’m rolled to an empty room high above the city. The orderly opens the window, life blows in, and he leaves.
I grope for the bed control and slowly ascend on the rising pillows.
Outside, the sky up close and impersonal. And the city: the city: the city.
The back of my right hand is speckled with purple amoeba that flex and bounce as I thumbwrestle my pen.
In the distance, like a dystopian future approaching, towering glass hives bear billboards flickering through lurid ads, but nearby the old streets twist like the worn thoughts of the solemn, brick-browed buildings.
The arm’s still dead. It feels like it’s latched onto me, a parasite sucking on the stub of my shoulder. From the cast runs a thick tube dripping blood into what looks like a watercooler jug for mice. In my mind the surgical cut’s a flaming ladder, and the titanium plate plank-thick.
I am this thing that clutches its broken limb and sings.
When the sky darkens, I see my face in the window. Greasy hair thin as spiderlegs. Pate shiny with sickly sweat.
Eyes like archeological excavations.
Smile, buddy: this is what luck looks like.
[Author’s Note: This version of the story is now obsolete. A new and improved form will appear in my book Unearthlily. I leave it here because I like certain elements of the old version.]
The city’s rectangular eyes towered over me. Banks and offices whispered to each other forecasts of my movements. They knew I was lost and trying to escape them. Where the city wanted me to end up was anybody’s guess. Probably the same place where everyone ended up, and where my family, transformed beyond all recognition, would be hungrily awaiting my arrival.
I kept my movements erratic, preferring the small-aired sidestreets and alleyways. Stores leered at me. A sewer drain gurgled a recognizable melody, something sweet and sad, trying to lure me.
Then the alleyway ended in a brick wall.
I yelped and fell over myself trying to run. But it was too late: between me and the streetmouth was a little girl in a frock, with a rose in her hair.
If she was a real child, the streets would literally eat her alive—unless they killed her first. Not my problem though. I pocketed my hands and hurried past with my eyes averted.
But her fingers like five steel cables closed around my elbow.
I had no choice but to turn and look.
She was incredibly old, with a scrunched face and a single tooth. She had small confused eyes and seemed to have already forgotten what she wanted to ask.
Then her face lifted off from her skull and smoothed out like a photo of a teenage girl uncrumpling, with eyes like tiny red lightbulbs. Then her entire head collapsed and reformed as a glossy black vortex grinding inward. I watched my own frightened reflection sucked in.
She spoke, and her voice was like rusted machinery.
“You waaaaant to fuuuuck meeeeeeeeeee?”
I did not.
At her place she kept the lights off and played porn on her face. Was she trying to make it easier for me? Could something like her feel pity? Her bed was wide and cold as a bay, and she was gently trying to push me down onto it. I thought that if I co-operated she might stay gentle, so I lay down for her, but the mattress was sandy and wet and strewn with trash, and pebbles and loose screws dug into my back. I winced and tried to adjust myself, but she was already climbing onto me, and she was heavy as a building. I felt crushed into place by concrete and steel, with the mattress foaming and swirling around my head. Slowly she winched her architecture down over me. Her face had split into a city square with flashing billboards. By now bridges lashed together my knees, and my sagging jaw was filling up with high-rises. Skyscrapers crawled all over my body and trains ran straight through me, carrying sleepy commuters that stared out from my torso bored, as if she weren’t out there bearing down on me like an infrastructural sky, all her vast cabled machinery bouncing hard and heavy on my radio tower. Up through the tower pulsed a painful red sun; inside its sphere was my screaming face. Then the sun burst, and a mushroom cloud as thick and brown as gravy rolled over her harbors and meatpacking plants.
I was going to be a father.
okay let’s see
you’re in debt
your significant other left you for a profile pic
you feel most alive when you’re on drugs
I know you
you failed the test
you want and don’t want the truth
you can’t handle and need the truth
some days you text more than you talk
your father didn’t mother you much
and now you are getting very sleepy
since you worked all day all week
didn’t even have time for chores
how do others cope with so much working?
every year you think more about climate change
you know about disasters, diseases, and serial killers
but not miracles or cures
you wonder whether you’ll grow old
you wonder whether it might be better not to
you would swear the walls are closer every day
you believe it’s best not to think too much about death
you think about death all the time
you wonder whether you maybe said the wrong thing
yeah buddy you did say the wrong thing
you said it a hundred times
you miss him so much
you tell yourself there are others like him, but better
you don’t find any
you know what you should have done
you don’t know what you’re going to do
you doubt too much, you believe too much
you want this part to end
you look at beloved faces and imagine them old
for the last decade you’ve been sidling around a hole
you think ever less about that one brief era when it all flowed
when love was easy
and you were about to become another and better person
but never did
you have this hunch though, that one day
sometimes this is all that keeps you going
you know there must be a better way
or this will all end badly
you throw open the curtains
I unsolved a few mysteries
(a good night’s work)
then strutted the morning streets
with a candle in my head,
half-believing that everyone was
watching me pass,
That lordly stride!
Those mystical lips!
The sky rolled its eye up over the avenue,
the city shuffled its deck of people,
and I blessed a park bench
with my presence,
slid my gaze around
and waited for a miracle,
Honey sunlight drizzled in waves.
A sunken woman drinking beer solo
stole looks at me.
Some decayed rockers argued about chemicals in vodka.
Planes left trails of white droppings.
A tragic teenage couple embraced.
And the sunken woman began to sob
so loud it echoed across the park
and she swung into her bottles
and they came clattering smashing down
and the pigeons launched and wheeled,
but her crying was louder and harder,
and the sobs slammed into bricks,
broke bank windows,
boomed over river boats,
bounced over factories and parliaments,
splashed hissing into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
It took me a while to find my body again
but there it was, slumped on a bench:
not much more.
I smoked weed
and wandered around in music,
a sleepless weirdo
timing my steps to eerie beats,
side-eying the sadder women,
the black-lidded and serious women.
They looked at me
and saw only the city.
[4:33 A.M.] O: ok im comin thru
I put on my headphones and went out to our tenth-floor balcony. Just a few blocks away was Toronto’s towering downtown—a deluxe crystal growth all the colors of credit cards—but the street below me was rough shit, an acned wasteland strewn with used needles, haunted by 3-D shadows and dumpster lurkers that scattered before the headlights of police patrols. There was even a dark humanish shape lying on the grass beside our driveway.
But no O. Why was she taking so long?
It was strange: when she got home, chances were we’d continue our grievous fight from before she left, she’d cry silently and I’d claw my skull, then we’d sleep back to back and avoid each other in the morning… but as I scanned the street, all I thought about was holding her and kissing her sweet head and rejoicing just because she was alive.
I texted her. It went unread.
Suddenly my music seemed stifling. I was reaching up to my headphones when someone grabbed my arm and wrenched me to one side. My heart leapt into my brain and exploded, this is it, I’m dead, and I swung around to face my executioner.
It was O. Still hauling on my arm.
“Come on! Come on!”
I resisted. Even tried to pull her down.
“Jesus FUCKIN Christ O, what’s wrong with you??”
“Come on! There’s no time!”
Then I saw she’d left our entrance door wide open, and I relented and hurried out with her.
About ten doors down, blocking the entire hallway, was one of the largest men I’d ever seen. His body looked inflated, bulging up against his hoodie and baggy jeans, while his head was tiny, a dark boil riding the massive ripple of his chest. His massive arms hung limply at his sides.
He was just far enough that I couldn’t make out his face.
O raised my hand high like I’d just K.O.ed someone.
“This is my HUSBAND, OKAY???”
I looked at her in disbelief. This dude could have crumpled me with one hand.
He didn’t answer. Not a twitch. Just the arms hanging like butchered pigs, and the bottomless stare out of a face I couldn’t see.
I hustled O inside, bolted the door and put my eye to the viewer: nothing… nothing… nothing.
O was in the kitchen drinking tapwater, long-legged in a ruffled short skirt, two big eyes visible over the cup. It had been a while since she’d looked like a priceless treasure to me. I took the glass out of her hands and embraced her tightly.
“He was in the elevator. On the ground floor. Just standing inside with the door closed.”
I drew back.
“And you got on anyway?!”
“I was so tired… I just got on and pressed our floor number. He didn’t press anything.”
“Oh my god.”
“He was looking at me the whole way up. Not saying anything, not smiling, just staring, staring… So I said, ‘Look, I have a husband, and he’s expecting me RIGHT NOW, okay?’ …No response. His face didn’t change. We reached our floor, he got off after me, I ran to you.”
“And what’d you think I was gonna do? He’s like three times my size!”
“When you left the door open, you gave him his chance. If he’d come in… What were you thinking?”
She crossed her arms and looked at the floor.
“Never mind, I’m glad you’re okay,” I said, though I could feel our closeness already dissipating. I’d blown it again. I was unsheathing our ten-inch meat knife. “I’m going to check whether he’s there.”
In the viewer’s fish-eye I saw only the neighbor’s door and bare walls. I stealthily unbolted our door and eased it open.
He was in front of me, lying on his side on the carpet, supporting his shrunken head with one craggy hand and gazing up at me, his mouth gaping and his tongue lolling out sideways. He looked like he’d been violently lobomotized.
I waggled the knife at him and tried to say something menacing. No words came; I squeaked, then slammed the door.
“We’re c-c-calling the police!”
The doorknob wriggled.
“WE’RE CALLING THE POLICE!”
And he finally spoke.
It was like hearing a well speak, a toneless bass wind groaning up a long stone throat.
“Ooooookaaaaay,” he said.
When the cops arrived he was crosslegged by the elevators. Without getting up he began ponderously arguing with them. One came over smiling and asked to speak to us in our apartment.
“I arrested this guy last week. Broke into the home of a Chinese woman. Not a young one, we’re talking maybe… sixty. He found her in bed, but just… stood there. Looking at her. Watching her call us. Didn’t do or say squat. Then we come… and he goes along peacefully, no problemo. In the car, I ask him what he was doing there. What he wanted. He said… God told him to rape Asian women.”
O and I exchanged looks. She shifted over to lean against me.
The cop took details, shook my hand, patted O’s shoulder, and left. Clutching the butcher knife, I roved the apartment, checking the street, the viewer, the lock.
“I feel bad for him,” O said.
I chuckled and kept pacing until she asked me to stop and be with her. I found a safe place by our bedside to stash the knife, then we wrapped ourselves around each other and lay there quivering, with nothing to say. It was starting to get light.
[Author’s Note: This version of the story is now obsolete. A drastically different form appears in my book Unearthlily. I leave this here because I like certain elements of the old version.]
With her right claw Genu46 grips the child and tugs her beak from its ribs. She dribbles softener on its forehead, then cuts from combed hair to snub nose and tenderly peels back the floppy bone, exposing lobes packed with eggs as round and white as pearls.
She gapes briefly but catches herself quick and tunes down her mood engine until she’s calm enough to tweeze out the eggs.
Afterward she darts up into the pea-green sky over the human village and cuts off east toward her roost, skimming over winged trees fluffy with spring feathers. On the horizon her roost, a glossy black pillar, slopes up hairlike into clustered stratocumuli.
Inside, Genu46 skips her usual friendly beak-rubbing and slips off to the chapel, where she discovers Genu85 perched in front, his eyeball cocked at the gauges set into the altar. In the altar’s testing chamber he has placed an entire brain—eggless, of course, like every day.
Normally 46 tries to be patient with 85—they all do—but today she shoulders him aside, plucks out his junk specimen, unseals her eye canal and lets one egg roll into the altar.
All sixteen gauges bong in unison.
46 and 85 glance at each other. 85 begins to twitter in happy hack-brained excitement, and even 46 permits herself some joy in the instant before her mind is overridden by an incoming command:
DELIVER THE EGGS.
Her personality dissolves like sugar into water. Only the smallest grains of self still blink on and off, sparking through the depths of an ocean of nonbeing.
Her beak siphons the egg back into her eye pouch. Her body turns to leave.
The chapel is crammed with her roostmates—they line the pews and are stacked along the walls up to the dome, tiers of glassy eyeballs arranged so that everyone can stare at her.
But her legs carry her past them, through deserted maintenance halls, and into a bright corridor to mountains and plains and oceanic sky.
Her body launches itself out and her wings lock into hummingbird mode and carry her straight up.
The landscape rapidly contracts, rivers and forests pulling together into a mottled, blossoming flesh. Her roost tapers and curves down into a shiny black spiral.
Other colossal spirals appear in the far distance, dozens tangling on pale plains that curve off to the end of the world, where red waterfalls cascade sparkling into astral darkness.
Her wings slow, three nozzles emerge from her tail feathers, and then she blasts up out of the atmosphere, a cyclopean magpie rising on triplet jets of white flame, a speck departing her planet, which looks like a reclining human wreathed in clouds, with a red umbilical ocean, ribs made of mountain chains, and a bald head with closed eyes and a serene smile.
Three eye-moons orbit its torso, sweeping their gazes across its length.
And near its left knee, the thin black hair of her roost.
In the back of her mind a half-crushed feeling rears up and she plunges after it, chasing the pain into herself, shrinking, as she falls inward, to a dot of mind snowing toward an electric island of fragmented emotions.
With time other human planets spin past, vast sleepers clothed in clouds and feather-forests, their transcendental smiles reflected in the glassy dome of her deserted eye.
Meanwhile, 46, deep inside herself, glitchy and incomplete, views and reviews the footage of her roostmates filling the chapel. Again and again they stare at her, the Finder of the Eggs, the One, with all the camaraderie gone from their ancient faces, replaced by disappointment and an awful distance.
As her body passes the sun, a gargantuan glass orb containing an irradiant organism with feathery membranes swirling around its blinding core, she’s composing a speech for her return in which she reassures everyone, and especially poor deluded 85, that she found the eggs only because of their work ethic, their determination, the unbreakable unity of all their people everywhere—they who had searched so long and so bravely for the eggs.
The sun fades behind her. The stars drop from view. Her body ascends through silent darkness toward a matte-black ceiling and angles into a short tunnel to a metal room.
She’ll say she was only ever the insignificant emissary of a noble, superior, and devoted race.
A mechanical pincer drops down, seizes her eye, and yanks her into the air. A green laser hums in sideways and halves her skull. Her body and most of her brain drop.
Her eyeball is scoured by microlasers until it shines and turns translucent—revealing the clutch of eggs stored behind its pupil—and then the pincer pushes the eye into a slot in the roof.
Her eye, wedged in place, looks out from a submicroscopic gap in a smooth pale surface that extends beyond all horizons, curving around 46’s entire universe—
All her reality contained in a round, glowing shell, a cosmic pearl that fills all space.
I press one final button.
Her pupil squirts the eggs. They spray out, glittering in a light that is not light, travel up your gaze and through your eyes and thud into your brain.
Your figments wriggle toward the eggs…
All philosophies condense to a line, with time,
and all songs dwindle to a single sooty melody,
and even if you sawed the locks off your senses,
even if you turned these letters
until light came through,
so that what’s behind them
could demand to be rescued,
even if you left behind the sentence,
tossed the whole scaffolding aside,
and let each moment become its own manifesto,
you would still fall back
to foil scraps and pigeon shit,
upturned take-out and puked noodles,
smashed flasks’ stained glass,
and sweatered smokers kicking
at the torn grey tissues
of dawn clouds.
Heinrich has crummy yellow eyes. His hair is gelled into short hedgehog spikes. He smokes six cigs in a four-hour shift. Starting off he’s uneasy. He watches nervously for the approach of the floor bosses. He worries out loud that the local bully will come over and call him a faggot. When he lags behind the conveyor belt, he hisses, “Impossible! Impossible!” and hurls boxes to the ground.
Later he mellows. Sipping on a single energy drink for hours, he shouts over the conveyor belt about nineties electronic music and the shittiness of work cliques. He praises my precise stacks and frets over his own. Looking at the ground he jokes with the fork-lift driver. When the driver leaves, Heinrich frowns and informs me that the driver always torments him.
After the shift he invites me to sit on a concrete ledge with him while he smokes. He offers me half a chocolate bar. He tells me a secret: he lives at home, with his mother. But he can’t leave her, because his father is dead and she depends on him. He wants to see the world. To have adventures, to meet more people like me. Instead he works here at the warehouse, ruining his body and giving up his life for minimum wage. But after work on Friday nights, he goes into the city to have a small adventure. Would I be interested in coming?
All the drive to his house Heinrich fidgets. Cursing at the rain speckling the windshield, he worries that our night will be ruined. He turns up the bass woofers till it hurts, then turns them way down. He complains that I forced him to meet my wife when we dropped by. It had been a terrible idea, he says, she clearly had not liked him. I protest. He says we should drop it, he doesn’t want to fight.
The rain has stopped, he announces, leaning over the wheel and looking up at the black sky. He turns up the bass again. He cackles and slaps me on the knee and tells me that we’re going to have a wicked time.
Now he wants me to guess how long it’s been since he hung out with someone.
“I don’t know, a year?”
He frowns. “Four months. You must really think I’m a loser, huh.”
From an easy chair his mother greets me without looking up from her crossword. She is an indistinct mass behind heavy black glasses. I meet his sister – a rosy cheerleader studying psychology – and then Heinrich leads me down to his basement room. It’s got off-white carpeting, wooden paneling, and a seventy-inch TV with turret speakers. The entire wall behind the TV is covered by a glossy digital print of the Brooklyn Bridge under red skies. Heinrich gestures at a boss black armchair.
“Sit there, sorry – the room’s only set up for one.”
He runs up the stairs. I hear him ask his mother to make me a sandwich.
“Why don’t you make it yourself?”
“Mom! Come on! Please?”
Bearing a cold-cut sandwich and two beers, he comes back in factory-faded jeans and a tight black T-shirt with a skull-and-feathers. His hair has been freshly hedgehogged. He hurls himself down ass-first on the edge of his bed and then springs back up and turns on his sound system and LEDs; prismatic colors rinse through the speaker cabinets. He beckons me over to watch his computer tower’s wicked black fan pulse and vanish into blue glow. On the seventy-inch screen his desktop’s background cycles through pictures “of places that don’t exist”: Martian bubble cities, last-boss citadels, red Edens. He turns on a video comparing gaming laptops. He apologizes for his mom as I scarf down the sandwich, then apologizes for the laptop video and turns on scientists talking about theories of time. He says he’d love to talk like them. He asks if there’s just like one big book he can read that will update him on everything that intellectuals know.
Heinrich offers to play me some music he made, then immediately rescinds the offer, shaking his head and muttering something I don’t catch.
He apologizes for his room. He had lived down in an apartment owned by his mother, but the neighbors complained about him playing loud music on weekend nights, and finally a man kicked in his door and slammed him against a brick wall and choked him. Heinrich moved back into his mother’s house the next day, but she wouldn’t give him his old room… so: life in the basement. He shrugs and drains his beer.
Upstairs Heinrich digs up an empty 2L soda bottle and dumps in grenadine syrup, a flask of Jägermeister, and two cans of extra-strength energy drink. Then he goes to the bathroom, and his mother struggles up from her couch and takes my hand in her two wet ones.
“I just want to thank you for spending time with Heinrich tonight. I hope you can be a good influence…”
I try to smile.
At midnight we rush off late for the bus to the city. Heinrich scurries in front, talking over his shoulder about all the different ways he’s worried our night might go wrong. His fist is clenched around a bulging red plastic bag that swings against his jeans.
On the bus we sit together. Crossing his arms and then uncrossing them, he sinks in his seat, leaning forward to protect his hair. He complains that the chamomile tea he chugged hasn’t calmed him. Peering out the window at farmland, his eyelids heavy, he murmurs that he hopes everything will go okay.
We disembark in the old city square. A medieval fortress, a cobbled plaza lined with antique townhouses home to pubs, strips clubs, discos, casinos, brothels and fast food. We park ourselves on a grassy ledge in front of a particularly grimy disco and he rummages in his plastic bag and takes out the 2L bottle of Jägermeister and energy drink. He pours the mix into two red plastic cups and hands me one. Slurping happily he grins out at the crowd.
I pee behind a piss-smelling wurstwagon and when I come back Heinrich’s talking to a leonine blonde who smiles at him through fake lashes, and her shorter but otherwise identical friend who stands off to one side, inexplicably shaking her phone like it’s a mixed drink. Heinrich is complaining that people think he’s a weirdo for always coming alone. The lioness, glossy and self-assured, keeps interjecting, but Heinrich just speaks over her, apologizing abjectly, desperately, and then yammering on, telling stories with friendly outrage about all the times he’s been publicly shamed. Eventually she stops trying to reply, and she and her friend stub out their cigarettes and go back inside.
Rain dots the sidewalk.
Heinrich yells, “Tim! TIIIIIIIIIM!”
Tim looks like a melancholy brown bear that only uncomfortably walks on two legs. He plods over with his diminutive friend Devin and after a round of backslapping and introductions little Devin pipes up that they were just going to do some coke, and would we like to buy in?
Heinrich swings his red plastic bag like a windmill, then drops it, punches the air, and screams YEEEEHAAAAAAW!!
We creep under some scaffolding and up over a low wall into a parking garage, where we sit cross-legged in an arc against a low wall, our sneakers almost touching. Heinrich and I dig up bills while Devin cuts four equal lines and then snorkels his up with aplomb. Tim follows suit, slugging his chest afterward and hallooing into the echoing garage. Heinrich rails his and then snuffles around with his 20€ proboscis after stray powder. I put a rolled-up five to my nose and snort, but only a few flecks vanish.
“Faster! Faster!” shouts Heinrich. He gets up on his knees and points at me imperiously. “Try the other nostril!”
“It’s just as blocked! Haven’t you ever noticed how nasal my voice is?”
I give him what’s left. He’s stunned. At first unwilling to believe. He weakly pushes it back at me. Then a look of awed happiness rises through his face.
“Wow man, you’re a real friend, aren’t you?”
The tiny dose of coke never confronts me. There’s a gentle buoyancy and a certain impatience to get my words out. Tim corners me. Heinrich has mentioned that I’m a writer. Tim, whose bulk blocks my view of the others, says things like, “If you examine it from through the lens of the late Marxism of the Frankfurt School …” He talks slowly, eyelids half-closed as his furry voice lumbers after a single gigantic thought that he never quite catches.
When he casually mentions that he “has been to known to go crazy on coke,” I chuckle and shut up for good.
Tim tells me a story: once he was drinking screwdrivers with some university friends and one of them, playing around, pushed him. He fell backward, onto his open book-bag, and smashed the vodka bottle and some beer – all the booze he had till he got paid. Everyone laughed. His back was cut by broken glass and blood ran down onto his new white capris. And he was too broke to buy more booze. But no one had any sympathy, in fact they mocked him and said it was his fault for getting so wasted… so Tim went to a construction site and fetched an iron rod and threatened to beat their heads in. The guy who’d pushed him – an expert on Derrida – wrestled away the iron rod and smashed up Tim while everybody stood around and watched. The next day, home from the hospital, Tim tried to commit suicide for the third time.
I ask Tim what he thinks about Heinrich.
“Heinrich? He’s a nice guy, but he … he needs … I had a friend, he used to sell speed, right … and one day, Heinrich comes up to him in the grocery store, and wants to buy some speed … this guy doesn’t have any … I mean he’s in his jammies, on a chips-and-cola run … but Heinrich doesn’t believe him, he thinks the dude is fucking with him, and he breaks a beer bottle – full, from the shelf – and shoves it in the guy’s face, and screams at him to hand over the speed…”
I glance over. Devin is bent and solemn with ear cupped, listening to Heinrich jabber. They’re both smoking hard.
At three, Tim suddenly announces that he and Devin have to leave.
Heinrich claps him on the shoulder.
“Hey man come on, we’re all have such a good time,what’s another hour or two?”
Tim removes Heinrich’s hand, laughing.
“Sorry dude, gotta work in a few. You know what it’s like.”
He turns to go, but Heinrich snatches at his arm and pretending that its a joke he gets down on his knees and clasps his hands and prays to the sky that Tim and Devin will stay around and have some more fun. Tim scowls.
He’s already walking away.
Heinrich leads us around the beer-bottled square, looking into every face we pass. “The two of us aren’t enough to make a party,” he says, and then stops short and puts his hands on my shoulders and looks in my eyes and pleads that I don’t take him wrong. He says he needs to make it clear that he’s grateful to me for coming out tonight and spending all this time with him. He says that I have proven myself to be a real friend, even though it is after all best to be careful about calling someone a friend. For example, he says, can he really be sure that I won’t tell everyone at work that he lives in his mom’s basement? What if I go in on Monday and tell everyone how he spends his time and they all laugh at him together? What if they find out how pathetic and doomed his whole existence is? What if by trying to make a friend for once he has made his shit life at the warehouse and in his shit fucking basement finally and for real impossible to bear? After all, how can he go on living breaking his body stacking boxes for not enough money to live on? Not enough money to respect himself, or even have some fun sometimes – he’s spent next to nothing and he’s already broke! If it weren’t for how much it would hurt his mother, he would have killed himself a long time ago, he’s known ever since his father killed himself that the old guy was smarter than he was, his father knew that no one wins. No one! Not you or me, friendo!
Sometimes Heinrich interrupts himself, craziness crawls into his face, and he yelps and laughs maniacally. The few around glance over warily. Holding high his red cup, he calls out to them: “Hey, can do you me a favour? Could you guess how much of a fucking loser I am? HahaHA! I live in my mother’s basement!”
A muscled luxury dude assesses Heinrich’s narrow shoulders and fragile chest, his hair spikes and faded jeans, and says, “Oh come on kid, how old’re you? Nineteen?”
Heinrich’s skipping toward him, cackling. “Thirty-two, motherfucker!”
“Oh shit,” mutters costly dude, sidling away, “I guess you are a loser …”
“I hate my life!” Heinrich screams into the increasing distance between them. “I hate my fucking life!” He turns back to me and sees my face and suddenly looks chagrined, desperate: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry … you know what’s happening, don’t you? I told you, right?”
“I have a hunch…”
“A hunch! A hunch! H is for Hunch!”
He spots someone sliding through a parkette. He calls out, “Hassan! Hassaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaan! HAAASAAAAN!” and the silhouette stops and turns into a bony ash-locked man in a filthy beige trenchcoat, who waits silently for Heinrich, his face withdrawn behind white curls.
As we approach, Heinrich explains, “He’s a good guy, he always says ‘Thank you’ …”
Hassan, who looks like the fossilized skeleton of a Renaissance angel, falls into step with us. He doesn’t say hello. Heinrich wants to know what he’s been doing. Hassan shrugs. Heinrich tells him that he met me at work and that I’m from Canada and that I’m moving to Berlin soon and probably won’t be back. He says that I’m probably trustworthy. Unlike Tim. Tim has always had in it for him. Once upon a time he trusted Tim and it ended in bad, bad trouble.
Hassan never gives a sign that he’s listening. His dagger-eagle profile is always half turned away.
Heinrich’s nose has turned red. He rubs it and sniffles.
The sky is now less than black.
When Hassan wafts off to pee, I lean over to Heinrich and say, “Be careful. He doesn’t like you.”
Heinrich looks over sharply: “Hey man, Hassan is a good guy! He’s here every week, unlike you …”
Hassan drifts back over, and Heinrich pointedly strikes up a monologue in his direction.
It blooms into a chilly grey morning. Heinrich moves us to a glass booth in the middle of streetcar tracks crisscrossing cobbles under a golden clock. In a dull-red electric wheelchair sits an old man with stubbed arms and legs like those of a supermarket turkey. Heinrich greets him by name and offers him a cigarette and then wedges the cigarette between the old man’s pursed lips and lights it. Hassan leans back against the smudged glass wall and stares at the ceiling, his jawline an arrowhead. His fingers delicate as wires intertwine in steady rhythmic loops. Heinrich smokes and stares with narrowed eyes at me for a long time, and finally says, as if only now coming to the conclusion: “You have to remember: we’re not friends. You’re a good co-worker, that’s all. A real friend would come and hang out every week, not just once. But you have no money, you live too far, and one of these days you’re just going to vanish off to Berlin.”
I said that we had different ideas about friendship. It was true that I wouldn’t be around for long, but while I was here, I intended to listen to him and have patience with him, even if sometimes he was mean. For me that’s—
“Waitwaitwait: I’ve been mean to you?”
“Everybody’s mean sometimes.”
Eying me as if I’m insane: “Why didn’t you tell me sooner!?”
“Because it wasn’t important?”
Suddenly he looks skeptical, and then crafty.
“When, exactly, was I mean to you?”
“Oh man, I can’t remember.”
“You being honest?”
“You can’t even give me a single example, and you want me to believe you? I can’t trust you, motherfucker … you laugh at me when I’m not around.”
“Why do you think that?”
“You’re going to tell everyone that I’m stupid.”
“I have never once laughed at you. Have you laughed at me?”
“You’re the one who laughs…”
But what has happened around us? In our glass booth amid the streetcar tracks, the ring-shaped bench has become home to the strangest crew. The limbless old man is arguing with a fish-faced woman with protrusive buckteeth. She’s squeezing the arm of a thick boy talking to himself in a gentle Pooh-bear voice. Next to him sits, fuming, a spherical man with a red choleric face with so many pores that he resembles a deseeded strawberry. Hassan stares yogi-like skyward and alone in some other place. Tears roll down his arrow jaw, dangle briefly from his ears, spatter his trenchcoat’s lapels. Heinrich’s on his feet and offering cigarettes to everyone, greeting them by name, slapping them on the shoulder. He repeats to each person that he’s had a terrible, frightening night around people he can’t trust. He gives four cigarettes to a kid he seems to fear, a dirty boy with clean circles around his eyes, looking like some kind of inverted raccoon, with a holey green garbage sack between his ragged feet. A skinny Japanese man in a bob-cut black wig thanks Heinrich effusively and then begs a second cigarette for his friend, a drag queen with jowls sagging down over enormous pearls who is just now jiggling across the cobbles.
Then a ponytailed wraith floats in and everyone rises and rushes toward him babbling.
Heinrich and Hassan crouched behind a crumbled fortress wall, bent over folded-up paper with tan powder in it. Heinrich complains that it’s chunky. He worries he’s been cheated. I sit facing the street and warn them whenever somebody comes by – not that either cares. Hassan is bent almost double, his grey curls concealing his doings, but Heinrich is half-turned toward the street, and keeps getting distracted by the words tumbling out of his mouth. It seems to take hours for him to get ready, and then, his face hanging over the paper, furled bill plugged into his nostril, he rolls up a urinous eye and says, very quietly, “You want some?”
I shake my head.
He swoops down and snorts the short brown line. Then he straightens up, dusts himself off, claps his hands and rubs them together, smiling with great satisfaction. “You were wrong.” He turns to Hassan’s tousled crown. “He said you didn’t like me. But he was wrong, wasn’t he?”
Heinrich turns back to me. “Hassan did something amazing just now. I offered him some H. And he said – can you fuckin believe it – he said I should keep it! – he said that he had his own! Do you know how hard it is for a fucking homeless heroin addict to say that?”
Hassan, sitting cross-legged, hands on knees, is leaning way back, almost reclining, his pretty white locks over his closed eyes, swaying.
I remind Heinrich that my train home leaves in an hour. He says he’ll walk me to the station. But every time we start to leave, he pats my arm fondly and says hold on hold on and goes back over and whispers to Hassan, touching his shoulder, leaning in, smiling like he’s been washed clean of sin.
Once we’re on the way, Heinrich stops every few steps to illustrate a point or to look me in the face to make sure I’m listening.
“Hassan is a good guy. You know what he did back there? But you’re a good guy too. Really. It’s rare: I feel like I can tell you anything and you won’t judge me or laugh at me. Do you know how rare that is? How fucking extra-ordinary that is? I don’t tell anyone that I live with my mother! and you can’t tell anyone, because it would destroy me – but somehow I know you won’t. I trust you. You got a hug for me? Hhhmmmfffff. Thanks buddy … god I was so nervous we would fight. I thought you would come and see how pathetic I was and it would be awkward and terrible at work on Monday and you would laugh at me with the others and that would be the final straw for me, the last time I ever reached out to anyone … That’s why the chamomile didn’t calm me down … the chamomile always works, but I was just worried, I wanted so bad for us to get along. But now, oh my god, it’s hard to believe – it worked out! Here we are in the sunshine! And we didn’t even come close to fighting. You know … I sit before work in my car in the parking lot. And when I see you come in… You come in on your bike and go around the corner. And I see you and I smile – just like this – I get a big old stupid grin on my face. Because you won’t laugh at me, not like the others … when Horst comes by and makes fun of me they always laugh at his jokes. They’re scared of him. But when he came by you just looked at him like he was an idiot, and for once – the only time ever – he didn’t get to me. And it’s because you were there, my friend. It all seemed so simple. I could just choose not to feel bad. Horst didn’t matter at all. And if he called me a faggot, so what? I’m not some homophobe. I made a friend at a disco once and he needed a place to sleep and when we got home I said he could sleep on the couch but he wanted to come on the mattress, so I said okay, and he got up there, and then he wanted to go down on me, and I was drunk, and I thought, okay, sure, any port in a storm, haha, whatever – but I couldn’t get it up! His awful little mouth moving around down coldly down there. Then he wanted me to go down on him, and I thought about it, I considered it, and it made me want to puke. So I said no – and he got so mad! I moved to the couch, but then I couldn’t stand the thought of being in there with him, so I went upstairs to my old room and slept there, and when I woke up my laptop was gone … and my new camera … no, I’m really not gay at all, but if I were into men, it would be men like you…”
I ask Heinrich whether he really threatened Tim’s speed-dealing buddy. Heinrich seems confused. He has me relate the whole story. Then he cocks his head sixty degrees and narrows his bloodcurdled eyes. “Tim made that up! Tim … Tim … Tim’s antisocial. We were drinking together once and he just whipped his cock out and pissed right in front of everybody, in front of girls! And then he was mad at us for getting mad … But his friend, Devin, Devin’s all right. Devin just sitting there with his hand to his ear and listening, really listening, instead of just pretending … that’s rare. You don’t find that much … Of course you listen too, I see it, but there’s one thing I just don’t understand about you: why are you here? What do you want from me? Did you really think we were going to have a good time? Didn’t you see this coming all along? … But no no shh you are here, and you have been nice to me all night…”
He stops us for so many hugs and fist bumps that I miss my train. We wait on a mezzanine over the tracks. He squawks, the squawk echoes. He calls out: “Echo!” Looks dirty us. I take us down to the platform, which runs from beneath a glass overhang out into drizzly grey. Sober commuters in rainwear stand around on their phones. Heinrich sets down his eternal red plastic bag and puts his hands in his jacket and gazes out into dripping wetness. After a long time, his first silence in hours, he says, “This was a bad idea. You shouldn’t have come.”
“Because it’s just once. You should come every week, and we could do this every time, and you would be my friend. But it’s already over. And every week I’ll want you here and you won’t be. And it’ll hurt.”
“You thought it would help me.”
“You were wrong. And what makes it worse? When you’re in Berlin, I’m going to miss you a lot more than you’re going to miss me. You have the city, your wife, your writing. I don’t have anybody. The first day at work after you’re gone is going to be so depressing. I’m going to sit in my car and you’re not going to come by on your bike and I’m going to cry. And I hate that that day is going to come.”
The train booms and rattles in, doors hiss and commuters rumble past. Heinrich grabs my shoulder.
“If you were in my place, what would you do? Would you move to Berlin? Or would you get a better job? Go back to school? Would you find a wife? Just don’t say quit heroin. Say anything else.”
I step onto the train and turn to face him.
After yet another deep and wide night of strumming my intestines for no one, I don my denim armor and venture out into the city to find myself, seeking some reality in other people, in the dying summer as darkly yellow as a middle-aged banana. This early the streets are half soft, breathing like someone asleep. I hadn’t seen my old pal the sun in many a moon; his mothery light strokes me like dove wings and renders every tenement, every tired leaf and obese cloud, carbuncular poster and broken-nosed traffic cone, as distinct as a familiar face. I witness each existence eagerly, hungrily, unless someone is passing me, in which case I drop my eyes and quicken my step.
Soon the mural-sided tenements curve out like hands opening around the raised train station, whose window-walls are illustrated with silver graffiti. I perch on its lowest stair, pull out my notebook, and write this sentence. A few stairs higher a seriously sunburnt homeless man pets a grubby teddy bear. On the corner a few yellow-eyed dealers joke with a bedraggled fruit vendor who sells mealy watermelons and collapsed grapes. Against the back of a bus shelter squats a bike-helmeted kindergartener staring up sadly at cluttered golden balconies identical in construction but unique in decay. Unseen overhead a train sighs in and slices open its own sides, and soon ex-passengers climb down from the sky and spread out past me into the seedy plaza. Everybody strikes me as a specially made treat offered up for my personal delectation, their looks and ways both novel and familiar, unique and generic, and a standout few inspire in me a violent and obscurely painful wish to know them. I don’t dare approach anyone, however, can only gaze at profiles and backs of heads, and despite my delight am in fact no closer to other people than I was a year or a decade ago, even if their physical presences do feel ever more stirring and urgently significant. Somehow the reality of other people draws closer even as I grow further away inside.
Sleep sneaks up and almost nets me, but I am determined to go further. I want to write something that makes this all real. I want to be so present that I’m no longer afraid. I want to feel awe. I relocate to a park and climb the stairs of a deserted amphitheater. Up there, as I record these words in my front-row seat to the long sky, big brother sun shoulders in close, slaps me around, shrinks and magnifies me, and with trillions of needles inscribes on my skin many ultraviolet tattoos. Before long I hop down the hillside to a twice-shaded bench, where I watch with satisfaction as dancing lindens clasp hands over the bully sun and it spurts, spilling yolk, from between their leafy fingertips. In the other direction an inflatable white dome, big as a three-story house, pulsates like a jellyfish about to push off from the earth. I may be sweating and light-headed, with visibly stinking shoes, but my pen, which I am holding onto for dear life, has finally loosened its tongue and sweetly lays down for me throbbing lines of fat pigment. Three barking dogs run by and abruptly freeze into a stand-off. Piebald magpies strut like the louche members of a highly dressed gang. A pentacle-shirted girl with movie-blood-red lips, clumping after her shaggy black familiar, stops nearby and smiles palely in my direction, but my own head shouts anxiously at me and though I’d love nothing more than to smile back I just hunch deeper over this hermetic landscape of ink silhouettes, my neck slowly being wrung by its own strained muscles. Yet my shyness has led me to do the right thing, for my fantasies of meeting others should remain fantasies, lest they become my life. If I want any chance at all of making words live, if I want shimmery slithering sinister tonguetwisters that spread through cables and infest all responses, if I want to fall as Lucifer did, wrapped in words, into a new language of new possibilities, well then I’ll just have to stay away from lovely vampires: to create my own adventure I have to be alone with the page and the clock in my chest tick-talking. I cough deep.
On the tree-lined banks of my beloved canal, mother of these reflections, I observe with glee as swans periscope in reverse. One lifts its neck like a muscular arm with a white-and-orange-painted hand and turns toward me its tyrannical glass eye. An inverted beer bottle bobs past, dunking as if being chugged by the current. It begins to rain: water arpeggiates on water, but the water resists, the water seeks rest, the water is a hard surface that thrums when struck, and I am regaled with ripples upon ripples, the sky needling its mirror for me, every drop exploding and launching a smaller drop, the water pingponging itself. Amid this crystal physics, confronted with the water’s interlocking equations, I huddle cross-legged and mortal beneath a homey maple, and although I’m only a little damp I still feel like one big dank itch, a pulp-scalped and scaly swamp creature with raw sore eyes and subaquatic socks. I’ve been awake for as many hours as the years of my age, having spent all yesterday suffocating under the weight of another’s genius and then all night industriously drawing my own fire and extinguishing it; nevertheless it is only here and now, at the limits of my body, that I am finally beginning to reach someplace real, and it’s not the scene around me but its reflection in this mirror world of words. To either side of me vines trail lazy fingers in the water for the puppy waves to frolic around. A white feather writes upon ripples, a scrappy white butterfly scampers like a shred of plastic bag, and a white tourboat bearing a zoo of sitting tourists drags its own perpetually shattering image through wavering and stretching foliage. It’s as if every word were a step in the massive journey to myself, though perhaps a step in the wrong direction, for in this lifelong hunt for myself I’ve already crossed my own trail many times over, I’ve thirsted and shivered and used up my feet, I’ve mapped forests and coasted over oceans, exhausting all the clues, but I might still discover that the distance from me to myself was no further than this pen from the page, or my dangling feet from the singing water. See my reflection rippling on the paper: my crow’s feet branch like lightning. Thirty-one years ago I was packed into a capsule of self-consuming flesh and fired at that last black wall, and by now I know I’m merely dreaming meat floating so high I can see the future and the past, with my little thoughts flying about like tubby bees, but my eyes are made of sights, upon my foggy shirt the falcon of the intellect alights upon an alchemist’s finger, and from my prismatic ballpoint flows the world waving all its flags and banners, tails fanning out and colors burning, every key pressed and all stops pulled, and I may breathe for now, that much is permitted me, I breathe, and I breathe, listening to the passing seconds plunk on leaves, letting the clouds wash over me and the birds sing my name. These words plunge from the sky, letters spattering the page. I begin.