From Salt Hill Journal 36
I am an American. I am a man. I am mostly indifferent to cops. I have two driving tickets on my record: speeding in a work zone in the late 1980s; speeding in a regular zone in the late 1990s. I am white. I still can’t grow a beard, though I try every fall. In October I am determined, and by Thanksgiving I accept the patchy letdown. I fear that somewhere in my genes a structure is weak. That as a caveman I would not have survived a bad winter. Only once in my life have I had a dream in which I was not a man, I was something else/in-between, possibly sexless but certainly wearing the kind of housedress/muumuu my grandmother used to wear on hot Southern Californian weekdays. I have a lot of acquaintances but few/no friends. You might observe: I don’t seem to care. I subscribe to the weekend edition of the newspaper because those are the days I have off. I don’t read the newspaper so much as look at the newspaper. Is my wife my friend? There looking at the newspaper beside me in bed, we role-play relaxation. Is a friend someone who makes you feel (by her mere presence and tangibility there beside you) constantly inadequate? Less-than, or other-than, what you should be? I exert a lot of mental energy trying to predict how to act/what to say with my wife around to see/hear. It’s amazing how long a person can keep up a performance. So long that he is living the performance, becomes lost in the role; his own real self a floating, migrating self inside this second, subsuming self, the self everyone will comment up, recapping history, when the man dies, while the primary self will die unmourned, unknown .
I am hesitant to admit this but I will: I don’t really know what my job is, and because I don’t really know what it is, I don’t really know how to do it. I print out data, brew more coffee, fake the software. When I was seven I feigned playing the flute in the music class—I just held it to my lips and blew lukewarm air, and the girls on my left and right made the sound, read the music, until one day Mr. Kemper moved his conducting hand above the class (this was in preparation for the big Christmas program—I believe the song was “We Three Kings” (of Orient far/ tried to smoke a rubber cigar)) and group by group, silenced the saxes, the trumpets, the clarinets, the oboes, the French horn. He bade the flutes play on with a gestural flutter; birdy hands, excited—my girls played beautifully—and then he stilled his right hand above flute one, lowered it down to silence; and lowered flute three to silence, too. I could feel his raised eyes burning down on me, trying to sort me out and kill me. I looked down, stared fixedly at the rectangle of exposed skin on the chubby lower back of the trumpeter in front of me, and blew my spittle over the hole in the mouthpiece, willing it to produce a clear note—it was like prayer, how hard I willed it, like trying to crack a walnut with your brain—and all that came back to me was the sound of my own fierce breath, the tiniest, toneless whistle, and the dead quiet backdrop of the band room.
If I were a caveman I think I’d be the one still living at home, still living in my mother’s cave until my cave mother and cave father, fucking like donkeys in their furry bed, grunt one day that it’s time I go—my rotting teeth are a liability for them; I’m eating through the winter stores of buffalo jerky, acorn mush. It’s time for tough, pre-lingual love. They give me the dreaded hand-sign; father pats his chest above the heart once, then pats mine, then gives me a good clean shove. I stagger off to find my own rocky crevice. It’s so narrow that there’s only room for standing up or lying prostrate; no sitting down, legs crossed, most human of positions. The autumn is warm and I am depressed. I sleep a lot, in my cranny, while the cave people around me evolve: conceive of God in the thunder; sort out the poison berries from the good berries. When winter comes I have not prepared my buffalo jerky stores. The wind laps into my rock shelter, tears my tunic to shreds. I go delirious with cold, wander outside, and die. My brethren make ropes of my torn furs. They cut me open (I am good and frozen and easy to handle) and make a soup bowl of my skull; weapons of my femurs; strings of future-instruments with my small intestines. My brain becomes a plaything; the children use it to scare the littler children, wear it like a crazy hat, whip the babies with my dangling spinal cortex.
This fantasy is half-dream, half-thought; the early-morning kind that comes when the world is most surreal . My wife’s breathing is steady and normal. Her back is a flat white plane of nightshirt. She mumbles some nonsense words in her sleep—something pre-lingual of her own, though the emotion is confident—a command. A dull, comfortable sun is rising beyond the window shade. Inside the suburbia of her dream, she knows what she means. I do not know what she means. She knows what she means now, but in a nanosecond she will not remember.