the ring

An interesting story unfolded outside of the train window, on the walls of the canyon.  Between bouts of self loathing and an undeserved complimentary wafer I watched my life, in all of its splendor and mishap, display itself on the black canvas ripping in the opposite direction…detailing me to the other passengers, capitalizing on my vulnerability and making known to all why I am here, on this seat with my back to the future, to the forthcoming weather, wishing for a cataclysm to rupture me 180 degrees so I can again enjoy the predictability of a lazy Sunday at home.

I didn’t agree with all of it.  Most of it was true, like the part where I was 11 and I killed a robin as it suckled a cherry in one of our backyard trees.  That was true and watching it made me uncomfortable.  I glanced around the cabin and shifted my weight.  No one else seemed to have noticed.

I shot a perfect whole right through that bird with a Sheridan 22 pellet rifle…right through its fat cherry belly and out the other side.  I watched it drop to the ground and wriggle and bounce on its side like a lizard clenched by a seizure, looking at me.  Looking right at me with hollow eyes…hurting eyes, round and fading, two purple grapes peeled on a flat white rock, crucified by the sun, bled dry of any life, of any juicy vitality until they are shriveled and vacant and then they are nothing…  Its tiny beak opened and closed, gasping and pulling its last breath out of that September afternoon.  I couldn’t even kill it, couldn’t put it out of its misery.  So I, the assassin, instead stood stilted by horror and watched the carnage in great detail.  Fucking bird die!  It died.  Oh my God why did I do that?  I ran away, through the red gate and down the hill from where we lived…down the block and around the corner, tripping on a green garden hose recklessly snaked onto the sidewalk.  Although my arms were free (I had dropped the rifle at the scene) they were bound and knotted by guilt, unwilling to act the savior role and the impact of my face hitting the concrete was full.  I immediately pushed myself back into a sprint, desperately trying to outrun the demons I had left in the backyard.  The abrasion on my chin deservedly bled a cherry colored blood onto my shirt.  Still I ran…for two more blocks until finally I collapsed in a vacant yard and cried myself into a headache, praying I would choke and die on the anvil of shame that was pinning me to the ground.

I had a new puppy.  I sat up on a cinder block and replayed the scene in my head…over and over.  And as I did so, rocking on the cinder block, I remembered that my puppy had been in the backyard with me.  Temporarily my self-abuse was halted and replaced with a worrying that I had left the gate open, a worrying that my puppy had followed me out the gate and down the hill.  I worried that the bird I had sniped out of the tree was a disease carrier.  Maybe that was an 11-year-old rationalization.  Although a fitting turn, I would hate to see my puppy contract a deadly ill as he curiously sniffed my fresh kill.  I sprinted home blubbering and apologizing…making every bargain I could think of with God if he would please just look after my puppy for the four minutes it would take me to get to the house.  He was fine.  The robin was still there.  I saw it through the sliding glass door in the kitchen but that’s as close as I would ever get to it again.  My father came home shortly after.  He removed the bird, discarded of it in a gray trash barrel in the garage, and he collected me to ride with him to the tailor where he was to be fitted for a new suit.

My rifle was taken from me, but not why you would think.  Not because my behavior indicated that perhaps I had in me the making of a mercenary, someone who had little to no regard for life and nature and someone who certainly wasn’t mature enough to respect the utility and sportsmanship of a Sheridan 22 air rifle.  I lost my rifle because I cried about the damage I had done, holding it in at first, pressing my lips together and looking out the window as we drove to the tailor.  I’d feign a cough and quickly wipe away the tears streaming down my face, trying so very hard to keep my humanity hidden from my father.  The entire ride I simmered in a stew of morality and when we arrived at the tailor’s shop, I broke away and called my mother from a pay phone on the avenue…blithering about the Robin’s undeserved execution, my tears stinging the fresh wound under my mouth.  My father found me on the phone.  He heard from my mother what had happened, although he already knew.  I remember the disenfranchised look I got as he stood and listened to her.

The ride home was silent.  When we arrived, my mother gave me a hug.  My father took away my rifle.  He was disgusted.  I wasn’t man enough to handle and use a weapon, leverage it against even the most docile of intruders.  Cultivating that side of me was something I would have to do before I was ready to handle a firearm again.  I’d have to prove that I would take any measure to protect our precious cherry trees against any enemy, foreign or domestic.  I never got my rifle back from my father.  By the way, I still don’t like taking fish off of the hook either.

The lights in the cabin flickered on and the show ended.  The screen again became my reflection and I looked myself in the eyes and blinked.  What the hell did I have to watch that for?  We were ten minutes out from the Los Angeles station.  People were stretching, closing their computers and collecting their belongings.  There was a mist of exhaustion depleting everyone on the train; it was sticky and synchronously draining.  They all looked like robots to me, robots with flesh arms screwed into their tin body cavities, hunched over and awaiting a good juicing.  I couldn’t get a precise idea as to how many people knew about the bird.  Christ it was late.

I hate trains, always have.  Trains were Annie’s thing.  She was certain that they were the most romantic means of transportation.  That was absurd to me.  That any mode of transportation could be labeled as romantic or not just seemed ridiculous.  Still does.  I took a deep breath and leaned my head back against the seat, closing my eyes.  There was an air vent blowing directly onto the top of my head and still I felt flushed.  I miss those kinds of arguments.  Just between you and I, the trips are my favorite memories.  And I agree with her, about the trains…quietly…I agree.   I don’t hate trains.

I got home around midnight.  The shuttle flight from San Francisco would have docked me in LA around 2p.m.  Even Amtrak can’t make the trip in less than nine hours.  I had a headache and what felt like the onset of a fever.  A jack-o-lantern with its insides on fire…That’s what my head felt like if you can relate with that at all.  I spent at least ten minutes hunting down a bottle of generic aspirin that I knew I had before I ever even moved my bags out of the front hall.

Tossing and turning for two hours I realized that there was something serious going on with me.  I rolled over.  My eyes were used to the dark so I could lie on my back and stare at the whirling ceiling fan without much difficulty.  The sheets were a wash of sweat, outlining my body with a dark green shadow.  There was something about the day that I was supposed to figure out, something that needed to make sense to me that I hadn’t yet pieced together.  That train ride…  I’ve never taken the train by myself, only with Annie.  I did it today for the first time.  And while the train whisked through the black valleys and cold deserts, over dark mountains and cities, I was entombed in theater, re-living memories, memories before Annie, before life…  The memories that make me feel raw and fluid…the ones that I want to hide.  I rolled over and looked out into the night.

Black paper trees slashing at a violet sky.  Ripping through the canyons, bending around corners so quickly that the frightened squeals from the tires weren’t always drowned out by the blaring of the radio.  I was driving recklessly.  I knew that.  Bleeding out tension through erratic transgression.  Headlights cutting through the black abyss like two steel rapiers irradiated by the resplendent energy of every star in the heavens that extended above me.  I unhitched my seat belt.  This was it.  Centrifugal force pasted me against the door as I careened around a bend, just inches from the guardrail.  The energy had shifted sideways…so much so that I could no longer reach the brake pedal or command the steering wheel.  The kinetic force was too great and I was at its mercy.  The nose of my Honda faced a looming wall of rock but I was moving sideways, parallel to the mountain where I would be smashed and obliterated into a million fleshy particles.  I tried to grab the seat belt, a final fleeting effort at retracting my destructive intentions.  I didn’t want to die…only to taste pure, unadulterated decadence.  I’d gone too far, past irreverence, past the point of dissension until I couldn’t fight the driving energy flattening me against the seat any longer.  I slammed my eyes shut and wrapped my fingers around the wheel so tightly that my knuckles fought to break through the skin.  I thought of Annie.  Three years rocketed through my head like a gun shot.

We met as an accident.  I delivered a pizza to her sorority house missing the address of the order by 3 blocks and 4 houses.  Some accident.  Annie had blue magnetic eyes.  Cool eyes, like water, they splashed over sometimes…all over people.  You could bathe in them for hours, swim in them and then sink…oblivious to the fact that you were drowning.  Everywhere we went, no matter how public, we were alone and protected in our private vessel, bouncing here and there in a glass balloon.  We were friends for many months, neither of us sure we were ready to succumb to the avalanche that would be unleashed should we cross the unspoken threshold.  All night study sessions were fueled with unspoken sexual tension, thick tension, our eyes buttoned shut to the incidental passing of anything in the world less significant…and everything was less significant.  On Halloween night our senior year Annie grabbed me by the ears of my Dr. Spok garb and pulled me into a world of inescapable servitude.  Her lips touched mine, instantaneously unleashing a flurry of lightning tongues flashing in all directions and there we stood at the base of the universe, our balloon shattered and replaced with glittery stardust, suspended outside of our bodies, glowing and fusing us together on a platform of purple clouds.

We were married one year later and divorced two years after that.  That viscous rapture that had bound us together and eternalized every breathing moment we shared was, at best, fleeting.  To deny that it ever existed would be offensive.  To believe that it was there all the time would be a blatant distortion.  We wanted to get along more than anything.  More than I wanted to project my destiny to the golden gates of Heaven I wanted to look at Annie again and see the first crystals of winter ice, watch lavender lilacs bloom and allow all of my senses to liquefy into a beautiful pool of circumstance where I could once more immerse myself completely in her essence.  But things had changed.  We were older and hostage to the realities of being a young couple on our own.  Some days, days when we never so much as exchanged words, we would catch each other in a glance and I could see a storm blowing up in her eyes.  The melting away of the life that we had built and shared was so utterly devastating that on some nights, late, late nights I prayed for a reprieve, an uncontested amnesty from the Lord for destroying one of his finest creations.  Neither of us believed we could repair something that was once so wonderful but had turned so sour, though, for many months, we scoured our hearts for the archived recipe.

Just one week from the finalizing of our divorce we traveled to a cabin at Big Bear Lake.  Sweet Annie…it was she that had cast the inaugural kiss, beginning our voyage together and it was she that offered a final proposal…a weekend away from civilization, our glass balloon reinvigorated, a striving to spin the forthcoming separation into a new direction, with a different resolution.  We packed for 30 minutes, clothes from the drawer and food from the refrigerator, and we jumped in the car with as much spontaneity as either one of us could feign.  But…with the absence of distraction the secluded environment did little more than amplify the gaping deficits in our shared life.  The trip that was our marriage’s ephemeral bandage spawned perhaps the most explosive argument we had ever experienced.  Hurt.  There was so much hurt on that mountainside…   We were each privately and publicly acknowledging a major failure in our lives…the inability to salvage a covenant with the person whom we cared about more than anything else in the world.  All of our love, our laughs, all of our promises, endearments and enchanting fantasies were stripped of their merit, leaving us exposed and skeletal, reeling for cover and desperately trying to quell the sub-zero gale ripping through our hearts leaving behind only a penetrating ache.  I was at the foot of the fireplace when the pain became so very insufferable.  A life’s conviction, tattooed in my mind since childhood, was scraped from its pallet and left ashen and lifeless on the cold brick floor.  From deep inside of me I felt my life systems rupture and begin to disconnect.  Terrified, I bolted from the cabin, threw myself into the car and tore down the mountain.

I opened my eyes and winced.  My left forearm had cramped and my fingers were attached to the steering wheel like a claw hammer.  A lingering smell of hot rubber coated me and lined the inside of the Honda.  The car had stopped.  Miraculously, my car had slid more than a hundred yards and had stopped in the correct lane, facing forward, no different that if I had merely stopped to take in the scenic view.  The noxious smog from the cooked rubber on the tires cleared much more quickly than my head was able to.  It took several minutes to realize what had happened, to make sure that I was, in fact, still alive.  I got out of the car and was enveloped by the mountain quiet.  I hadn’t disrupted the night in the least.  The sky was starry and the radiance shone brilliantly off the snow, silhouetting the mountains for what seemed like miles above me.  I looked at the guardrail, eighteen inches of tin, beyond it, a drop off with no visible bottom.  I shivered and rubbed my arms, turned a half circle and looked behind me.  Annie.  Jesus Christ what the fuck was I doing?

I jumped into my Honda and strapped on the seat belt.  There wasn’t enough room to make the U-turn.  In search of a widened shoulder I proceeded cautiously around the next corner and stopped.  Two red eyes stared at me from seventy-five yards away.  I squinted.  They were tail lights.  I let my foot off the brake and inched forward.  There was a car in front of me, in the middle of the road, with its lights on…and it was upside down.  I pressed the gas to the floor.  It was a fresh accident.  The Mercedes had clipped the canyon wall, no doubt traveling too fast.  It had swiveled to the side, much as I had done only moments earlier.  But the car couldn’t handle the shifting velocity.  It had sucked an angry current of wind beneath it and was cast into an airborne spin, up, into the night and then it was furiously slammed down onto the asphalt, pummeled and laid to rest on its back.

I got out of my car more cautiously than I should have.  The fear of what I might find sent a message of hesitancy to all of my muscles, numbing and delaying them.  From the trunk of my car I saw the arm, twisted out of the driver’s window, it lay lifeless on the road.  There was no sound, no air, no color.  Everything had been embalmed in a thick glaze and it was slowing down time until eventually nothing would ever move again.  I was dizzy with what I was seeing and what I had just experienced.  So surreal was it that my right hand pawed at the air as if it were independently trying to peel away the layers of fantasy and again find the mountain.  Blood coursed through my arteries and brain, churning and churning.  There was a ringing I couldn’t recognize, but I hid inside it for a moment until the tension was finally burst by a faint resonance from within the metal heap.  Someone was alive in that car.  It was a gurgle.  A grotesque wheeze pulled through a perforated esophagus.  My breathing accelerated to a heave, my forehead knotted and I began to jump up and down.  Where the fuck was everyone?!

There are some things that are so real they should never, ever, be exploited on a television, in a conversation, in daydreams, on a canvas.  Her head was pinned to the ground, permanently lodged between the steering wheel and the roof of the car.  I have no idea what she looked like although I could see gray hair among the blood and shattered glass in her scalp.  The back of her neck jutted up, just below where the steering wheel was implanted and then twisted what should have been her face towards me.  But her face was a blur, a smear of tissue and splintered bone.  Her left eye was the only recognizable feature.  The blood that should have been surging through her body had broken the dam below her left jaw and she was hemorrhaging wildly while still trying to wrench and tug a breath between the spilling plasma.  And she was looking at me.  In her contorted position she was completely immobile, but the one eye flickered unevenly.  I knew then that there was no saving her.  I was going to watch her die.  She knew it and I knew it and there was nothing that either of us could do about it.

I fell down on the road, right on the shattered glass and put my back to her, leaning against the car heaving, crying and screaming.

“OH MY GOD!  I am so sorry!  I don’t even know your name!  My name is Kevin.  Can you hear me?!  Oh!  CAN YOU HEAR ME,” I choked and gurgled.  Thank God because it drowned out the wretched wheezing noise she was making.

“Everything’s going to be ok,” I wept.  “I’m sorry I’m not looking at you…  Do you forgive me?  Please forgive me!   PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE!”

Through drizzling eyes I saw her hand, lying on the ground next to me, her blood flowing beneath it and under my legs.

“Oh!  I’m going to hold your hand!  That’s alright, isn’t it?  Here…” I wrapped my hand around hers.  “Oh you’re so cold!  Does that feel nice?  Can you feel that?  Oh God.  You’re so cold!  Are you cold?  I don’t know why this happened to you!  You must be a wonderful lady…  I know God is taking you because you’re a wonderful, beautiful, wonderful lady, aren’t you?  I’m with you…Oh!  I don’t know your name!  Mine is Kevin.  We’re by ourselves, aren’t we?  Just you and me.  You and Kevin…  Christ!  I WISH I KNEW YOUR FUCKING NAME!! So why were you driving so fast?  Huh? You’ll have to be more careful from now on… Well why are you in the mountains tonight?  It’s so late!  There are so many people worried about you but don’t you worry about a thing…  I’ll take care of everything…  DO YOU HEAR ME?!  Kevin will handle everything…I’ll tell them…”

Saliva was pouring out of my mouth, mixing with tears and then streaming to my chin and dripping into the flowing red river I was sitting in.  I stroked the backside of her hand, cool as marble, and my fingers ran across the ring flimsily attached to her wedding finger.  My head fell back against the car and the sobbing increased.

“Oh!  You’re married!  I’m married!  I’m here with my wife…I mean in the mountains…  Her name is Annie and she’s beautiful too…she’s wonderful…you’d love her if she were here…   Maybe the two of you can meet sometime…”

Her fingers were shrinking and I clung to that ring and floated with her over the wreckage, over the mountain and above the quiet, quiet earth.

“Annie’s upset with me now…I left…I’m going back.  We just try so hard, you know?  We try so hard and things are hard…I know you know what I mean.  I’m going to tell her about you.  I’m going to tell her all about you.  She makes banana bread really good and one time we woke up at three in the morning and made banana doughnuts…  It was my idea but they didn’t come out very good…but Annie said she liked them…she said they were better than any other banana doughnuts she ever had…”

I don’t know when she died.  I was sitting there on the ground when a calm blew through my body, brushed my face and massaged my heart.  And the tears just stopped. Her hand gently slid out of mine and out of the ring I was holding.  It was left in the palm of my hand.  I looked at it then I closed my fist around it.  My head was thick, but from the crisis had arisen an acute clarity.  I stood and stared into the distance, silently asking the heavens how much they’d heard.  Silently they told me.  They’d heard it all.

Annie was in court the following week.  I had been trying to reach her night and day since the accident, but she wouldn’t talk to me.  I heard three weeks ago that she’ll be married soon.

I don’t think it’s healthy to fondle memories for too terribly long.  You learn what you can from every situation and circumstance and then you move forward.  You don’t bask in the past.  You never bathe in history.  I lock up my memories, but some of them always seem to break free.  I think that’s what happened on the train.  And I’m afraid sometimes of what life means to me.  Sometimes there are no angels and night is a disease and others…there’s magic everywhere.

I woke up the next morning with a vague sense of who I am.  There’s a brass nail in the wall, to the right of my mirror.  A thin string loops over it and from it hangs a gold ring.  The first thing I did when I got out of bed was remove it from the nail and sit on the floor.  I leaned my back against the bed frame and I held that ring in my fist, closed my eyes and I reminded myself.  I do that when the center of the universe begins closing in on me.  And I’m reminded to step lightly because this world is really just paved with rain.  See for yourself sometime.  Watch the sailing ships pass, they never die…they just fade away.

There’s a tiny window above the dresser.  Sometimes I sit and stare.