Yesterday’s Inkstrokes, from The Dream Machine

I was eighteen years old when I first ran across Herman and his hummingbird, Elizabeth the blind violinist and the golden moth. Nothing much has happened since, really. I grew up, I’m sad to say, and watched everything grow up around me. Of course no one believed any of it. Publisher’s rejected the story as fantastical or hallucinations. My family didn’t much care for it either.
My life continued much as it did when I met Herman, for a while anyway. I loafed around, smoked cigarettes, and got drunk occasionally. I kept looking at the sky with my brother and eventually he did kick my ass in chess. I stayed there with him for many years I was content in doing nothing.

Around age twenty three or so, Herman finally got shipped off to the Vanishing River’s in Columbia. I went and saw him a couple of times. Each time I saw him, he asked me why I never came to see him. Each time I went to see him, he thought it was the first time I had been there. And every time he cried and apologized. “Something wrong with my memory,” he said. And he always asked me about Hank. Hank never called.

No one paid much attention around here, so not many people even knew that he was gone. There were no great ceremonies, speeches, or quotable epigraphs concerning him. There are no great observations in real life. They come from concentrated books and movies. Maybe there was nothing I could say about Herman to show anyone who he was or why he lived. Maybe I just glimpsed the surface.

There are thousands of people like him tucked away in nursing homes with nothing left to hold onto but a stack of Polaroid’s and those Precious Memories albums. And each day to them is like another bit of sand falling from the hourglass, sweeping them completely under the rug. Their children or family don’t much care, either. They’ve got beer to drink, television to watch, and socks to make.

People around here don’t always grow and overcome some great struggle in their life, or see the errors of their ways. Most people just live, whether they want to or not. They walk up and down Main collecting cans, reading the paper in front of the drug store. Or they rake leaves and burn them in the fall. They don’t live the kind of lives you see on television, in upper case. But they live, and around here, that’s enough.

The cement streets along the house where I was born cracked year by year. Finally they paved over our names written in the cement.

The car door bridge was ripped up when the Leisure View apartments were sold. They were demolished, of course, and the no good bums that lived there had to find somewhere else to live. Most of them hung around on Main, wearing dirty clothes and asking for change or cigarettes.

I saw Murphy often. He’d sit on the corner, near the funeral home, just messing around with his bass guitar. Every once and a while, he’d come and ask me if I wanted to jam with him. We’d gather at a warehouse on the outside of town, plug in and play late until the evening. And yes, I finally grew up. There was never really a choice. We’re like children that want to stay at the swimming pool and play, but time forces us to leave it anyway.

None of my books were being published. None of my music gathered much notice. So I resigned to a mill just outside of town to keep myself fed and pay my brother’s phone bills before I went to school. There never was really a choice for this either. I made socks in the morning and spent the afternoons by the typewriter. I still dreamt that one day someone would care, but in this I believe I overestimated the human race.

For a while I kept visiting Herman. His health got increasingly worse and his mind finally demanded a divorce. When they shipped him off, they threw away all his pictures, posters, fliers; they threw away the only life that he’d ever enjoyed. But at the end, he’d even forgotten how to enjoy that one.

He taught me guitar for a while, and he continued teaching Elizabeth until she moved. She did reasonably well in the big, uncaring world. She performed at various clubs and party houses around our little town. Even at the Greenhouse – a gathering place for hunters and fisherman. People usually just go to get drunk. She never forgot how to play Athalie so sweetly. When we get together – we always talk about the odd times we spent with Herman. She really turned into a woman far too beautiful and cultivated for a gutter mouthed misanthrope like me. Late in her life she finally, by a series of surgeries, regained her vision.

Nobody believed us, of course, and several publishers turned down my story. Not that I blamed them, of course, but it really seemed to undermine what we were trying to do. And I remember it now as much as I knew it then. There’s still some mystery left in the world, strange things under rocks, and doors no human yet has entered.

Some said it was too unrealistic, which it is, some said it was too fantastical to be written as reality. They asked “how did the moth get in the snow globe?” or “How did the coffee tin link to a parallel universe?” I always tell them the same thing. I always tell them the same, irrefutable truth: I have no idea. It doesn’t even matter.

Frodo, when he got the ring, he knew what it was because it glowed in the fire. Did he ever stop to wonder what made it glow? No, because the more you know about something, the less mystery there is to be found in it.
I remember when I first started looking at the stars with my telescope. I thought that the fireflies in the daytime slept in the clouds at night. Then I learned what they really were and all the mystique disappeared. They weren’t as magical as they were to me before I knew.
After that last day at Herman’s, when everything returned to normal, Elizabeth and I snuck out while Herman fed his hummingbird and went to the sandbox. The door was gone, of course. In its place there was just a small dustpan. We both knew what it meant.
I never went to Mike’s Waffle House awake again, and Satan never gave me a call, but I refuse to write all of this off as paranoia and hallucinations. I went to Mike’s often in my dreams. He always greeted me in a familiar manner.
Around age twenty five, I decided that I was wasting my life to the fullest. I’d met a girl by then – a real kind of devil woman. The intelligent type with a wicked sense of humor. She was studying at a local college to be a pathologist, and she knew of my interest in psychology; she finally pushed me into trying to enroll.

I finally enrolled and majored in psychology, with astronomy as my minor. As of now I’m pursuing my doctorate.
Through all of that, I remained on medicine for nerve related disorders. I always took sleeping pills. And I never really thought of any of them as anything other than what Herman saw them as – Digitalis. Digitalis to him was what everyone needed to live. It was the fish for the fisherman, the music for the composer; it was whatever you needed to keep you going. His Digitalis was not only in those tiny plastic bottles. His Digitalis covered his floor in piles, some all the way up to the ceiling. His Digitalis hung on the walls.
Sometimes it seems that whoever I was that summer has been buried by a fancy suit and a degree. That’s not true at all. I’m still the same person, the same pie; now there’s just a bit of icing on top. And my suit really isn’t that fancy. In fact, I stole it.

Looking over what I’ve written, I realize that more often than not I just wanted people to think that I was clever. Or that there was something about me that would make them want me to stick around. Something about me that would make them not abandon me like my father did. That’s why I tried to make them laugh, and that’s why I’ve tried to make you laugh. Lots of areas in this story are silly. That much is true. But in the end, I realized, of all the things I could be – I never really figured out how to be myself.
In the end, Jennifer and I got married and adopted two kids. A boy and a girl. Come on, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

As the years went by, I found myself watching the trees every day. On my front porch, or on the deck round back, just to look at them. I watched the leaves fall off each autumn, only to grow again in spring. I watched the woods behind where I used to live be cleared off for a new textile factory. I saw the textile factory go out of business and collapse into rags and ruin. People were born and people died, and that about sums it up. Life just teaches us how to die in style. Some of us just suffer a learning curve.

That same mechanical instinct is there. The monogamy of routine finally settled back in. Now I just don’t have time to sit around. I wake up each morning at the same time and make my breakfast for my wife. There’s always a book – she’s an avid reader, and even reads my books – on the tray. She joins me on the patio and we talk, or read, before she goes to work. I feed our kids and then crawl back to the bedroom where I write my stories and essays. Nobody much cares for them, and I see why. Late at night when my wife is asleep, my adopted son, Uriel Lumière, sometimes sneaks from his room to join me by the typewriter. And every night I tell him that he doesn’t have to be funny or clever, that I’m not going anywhere. Like it or not, I told him, I’ll be here for life. In fact, I’d done something for him that once some very kind people did for me. I got him out of a god forsaken orphanage so he wouldn’t have to grow up looking at the world like I did.

Thousands of people live their lives in lowercase. They’re never really noticed or adored by many people. This town is full of them. They sit on their front porches doing crossword puzzles, watching daytime television and making meatloaf for supper. They gossip about who’s sleeping with who, who wishes they were sleeping with someone sleeping with someone else, or the Soap Operas that come on television. They pick up pecans and weed their gardens every day.

They wake up in the morning and get their kids ready for school and clean the house while they’re away. At lunchtime they sat the tables and the forks and spoons; they never make the news when they feed their children or make somebody laugh. The cameras never come to watch them tend their garden or feed the hummingbirds or plant a flower. And their death might not make the world mourn, but when they’re gone Mother Earth is a little less bright. It might not matter much to people or to anything in the cosmic sense of things – but it matters here.

Sol rises every morning regardless of what we say or do. And we’re hurtling through space, laughing and screaming, like children on a carousel. And isn’t the music pretty while it lasts?

We never heard from anyone on the other side again. The other side, ha, it sounds absurd, I know. Elijah, Anne, Aaron, or Isaac – we never found out how their story ended. In the end, I guess, Herman left it up to them. Hopefully, whatever has us on the strings will let us do our own dance. Hopefully we can get off Digitalis and its myriad of forms. My wife takes sleeping pills. Our young daughter tends her garden and that’s her Digitalis. Our young boy plays his plastic guitar, and that’s his. Writing this has kept me going too. For what? I’m not really sure. C’est la vie.

It kept Herman going. It kept him going long enough to feed his hummingbird and make us sandwiches and tell us all his stories. It never really bothered me that they had been fabricated. It never once bothered me that all of his posters and papers and fliers were forged. It showed me a whole new side of the man.

The fact that Herman died, when I was thirty three, should be of little surprise. I played Wheels, by Chet Atkins, at his funeral. There were few people there. Those who came gave off the kind of impression that immediately lets you know they’re only there because of obligation. At the time of Herman’s death, my wife and I were in Rome. Elizabeth sent me the telegraph from home, and from Rome we made our way back to our small, warm, gossip riddled town. Everybody knew where we had went, what we ate while we were there, and more than a few people claimed to know the exact moment we consummated the marriage. How this happened, I don’t know. Of course I did put it on my website, along with video and photographs, for your listening and viewing pleasure. I can’t do that much more than I can write. That should give you an inkling as to the duration and degree of success I managed with it.
We returned to America and then to South Carolina. We had a big dinner at my grandmother’s house the Sunday after we got there. My brother heard I was coming, and he showed up with a chess board ready. He already had my first move set up. Pawn to king four, every time. I even let him win a few times …

My brother became one of the biggest demons the chess world had ever seen, and won several master’s tournaments. Everyone he played, as I said, let him win.

After dinner, we went to where the Leisure View apartments had been. The swing sets lilted with the gentle wind with no one there to swing. The rusted chains squeaked as the wind whipped by them. I stood there in front of where his apartment used to be for a while. My wife was waiting in the car, so I didn’t stay long. Just long enough to plant a flower, just a flower, where his home had been. And that was that. Herman died. He didn’t become a great man, nor did he become the widely beloved man he was in his fantasies. He just did what most people do: he lived, with marginal success, and died. There was no heart wrenching speech at his funeral. No overt sentimentality; Elizabeth and I didn’t shed a tear.

Not because we weren’t sad. Of course we were. But I didn’t feel sad for him. His hands had stopped shaking completely and he could finally get some rest. He looked so calm laying there. Poor fool, his own funeral – and he slept all the way through it.
The only thing I could think to lay inside his coffin was my often used Jazz III guitar pick. I stood there for a moment, awkwardly in my awkward suit, then placed it in his picking hand. At that moment, the image of an angel playing bluegrass with a glass of orange juice beside him crept up inside my head. I laughed a bit to myself, and walked away. That was the last time I saw him, and haven’t really had much to say since all those years ago.

The world was different then. I was different then. I figured I could lay around forever without time sneaking up on me.
I spent some time in college in philosophy. I wrote papers on epistemology, ontology, and existentialism. But I had only one conclusion: I concluded that I’d never come to a conclusion and if I did it probably wouldn’t be worth all the time I’d spent looking for it. But I won’t bore you with this. You’ve got television to watch, malls to go to, fast food restaurants to eat at, and music to listen to. And so do I.

From here we go a million routes to the same destination. Hopefully we’ll find our way through the maze as they must have, hopefully we’ll find our way to Ra’s Patio, and hopefully there will be sunshine there.
And that’s all I can say. I would say more, but it’s two o’clock. Time to take my medicine.

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