THIS IS HOW I MAKE MY ESCAPE
This is the wrong answer: things happen for a reason.
This is my strategy: to make myself seem human. Human enough to be allowed a scrap of space where space is still available. To earn my shadow back.
This is the shadow: a trim, dark-haired, featureless middle-class man with white skin and a pink tucked-in dress shirt, a hesitant speaker of simple English, a category: “He seemed nice; he was quiet and kept to himself.”
This is the landscape the shadow falls on: an American version of the late 20th century, a lie about historical and geographical centrality, service with a smile, progress with a sneer, the joy you take that the nameless trees in the distance are indifferent to you.
This is the chorus to the song: this isn’t how my father told me the Good Book was supposed to work.
These are my errors: assumptions, passions, savings, squanderings, delicate squalor, unfinished fantasies, believing in an afterlife, believing that being alive was enough (solved many problems and created none), believing I can still be alive just because I’m still breathing, sitting here slowly turning hollow on a rented bed confessing bland and popular sins to an empty room. I tie my shoes, I tie my tie, I wash my hands, I smile, I still know left from right and bad from worse––which is more than enough, sometimes, I tell myself, staring into blue eyes in the mirror seeming to belong to someone who should be somewhere else right now instead of halfway lost but not lost enough.
This is the moral of the story: knowing you’ve done wrong stays with you long after you’ve forgotten why it is you’re chasing absolution.
This is the penalty: I am not allowed myself and I am drowning on dry land swallowing a dry breakfast at an un-American time of day in a motel room I can’t recall the number of in a small city I don’t care to recall the name of, if names are necessary, if specificity can convince and there are specifics for my slapstick show and tell, and there are specifics, but they’re a cold lake into which light will only push so far. Too many specifics, but not the right ones. His name, for example, was Thomas, but I called him Tom.
This is my happy ending: there’s no one here to forgive me, but also no one here to refuse.
Some of this is verifiable and some of it is lies: when I was young I once was ordered to return the keys to the family home to my father, which I did, silently, not as distraught as I was supposed to be.
This is the map I lost: I know I loved him and I loved my wife but never really had the chance to meet her, and loved children whose strangeness made me think of burial, and that I also had a life, if it were mine, and I loved most of it, but not enough to stop myself from smearing the pristine surface of it with mud, with something south of mud. My family didn’t deserve me, so they got what they deserved.
This is what I said the last time I saw him: I don’t know what to tell you, and even if I did, have no idea how, but please don’t die. Please don’t die, I’ll do the dying, I’m better at it, I’ve been studying for years.
This is advertising: I am not lost entirely, but I am lost enough. Black tongue, scuffed meditations, tired hands. I am neither drowning nor dust, not yet, not this early in the morning or this late at night.
Fatherhood ––> “You’re more important as a son and husband and father and employee and property-owner than you are as some strange man named David who thinks life is something other than a set of obligations.”
Tom’s absolution ––> “Even when you stand still, David, you’re never standing still.”
Prayer ––> Scrapped plans to visit the Rothko Chapel on the hesitant and disjointed meandering away from Milwaukee toward a big-enough body of water to drown in the way a responsible adult should. Rothko’s black painting a kind of deferral that could be witnessed and believed.
Things have changed ––> “Sometimes even when prayer is necessary, even when it’s secular, it’s still too far away.”
Inheritance ––> Olive tells her younger brother Paul, “Dad was right, we’re not going to miss him, and eventually we’ll replace him, so stop crying, you’re crying more because you think you should than because you really want to.”
Make a wish ––> When David and Tom traveled together, locally or otherwise, they looked enough alike that they were often mistaken for brothers, but neither was sure how sincere the innocence of strangers really was.
A ghost is born ––> Often, what actually kills a person with terminal lung cancer isn’t the one or more sarcomas in the lungs, a kind of near-dry drowning; sometimes it’s that the cancer has reached the person’s brain and begun to turn it one, piece by piece, like light switches flipped, either directly or through disrupting the brain’s autonomic system, which regulates things like pulse and breathing.
David Carlson loves his wife very much ––> “Please tell me you won’t miss me, please tell me you know you’ll be better off, tell me you hate me, tell me I should be punished, tell me I deserve it, tell me there’s no one I can ask for forgiveness. Please.”
One ocean may hide another ––> The first leg of the sweep southwest from Milwaukee to Southern California cuts through the plains, most times of year a patchwork fuzz of greens and browns whirring by, the world on either side of the interstate seeming to have been pushed downward into place by heavy sky, and the faster you drive, the more it seems possible that the fields you cut through may begin to roll into a wave.
Tell me you love me ––> “Hit me, bruise me, cut my throat, just do something, say something, scream, tell me to go, tell me if I disappear everyone’s problems are solved.”
Happy endings ––> It took six business days for David’s employer to note and eventually inquire why it is he’d stopped showing up without explanation. The hum of agreement on the seventh floor of the Plaza Building was that it was only a matter of time before the guy did something like that anyway.
This is evasion: I sing to myself that it’s not self-pity, or at least not entirely.
This is what I want to believe: I’m a person, still, even now that it’s late in the evening or early in the morning and I’m still feverish and waiting for the near future’s explosive noise. Tomorrow I’ll continue my pilgrimage though the destination may change and I may not have confessed enough for you to care, to want to know, to think in terms of trailing and keeping track. I am not a pilgrim, though. In my pragmatic blue sedan I am not ascending any holy mountain as I drive and sing quietly some songs I know and some I don’t. I think of myself as a commuter even though I don’t know anymore where it is I will work, or what work I will do, I just know that although when I reverse course at the end of whatever a day is to me, now, the travel will be familiar but the arrival will not.
This is what I want you to believe: Love is always involved, somehow, even if the wrong way, or hardly at all, or hidden behind shrug or pall or a blur of trees or each and all the tiny alveoli in my lungs, in his lungs, ballooning as if to welcome the cold water that’ll come.
This is what I know about death: I will never be ready, though I will claim otherwise.
This is the truth: all I know how to do is close my eyes and accelerate.
This is how I make my escape: I always somehow seem to know which mistake to make, which road to go down without hesitation, even with him gone and even with me choking on questions, and I’m able to keep moving because I think soon if I get somewhere I can call home I’ll know it when I see it, even though I won’t, haven’t ever wanted to, probably never will.
Nicholas Grider is a writer and composer who lives in the upper midwest and whose work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Always Crashing, Electric Lit, Isacoustic, and XRAY.