by A. Newton
A Simple Formality
The Sound of 2AM
The Color of the Fire
Sweetly She Sings
A Simple Formality
You turn your face away when your heart is full of shame,
Never tell another lie, cause I can see it in your eyes:
If you're about to leave you would have to testify.
It's just a simple formality.
- Komeda, "A Simple Formality"
"Stop. Just stop for a moment!"
I knew she was gonna do this. Of course, she wouldn't be much of a parent if she didn't. I mean, no mother simply stands by idle while her fifteen-year old son packs his things, intent on leaving.
I stop. For a moment. I turn and glare at her (as much as I can glare), and resume packing what few items I feel will be useful where I am going.
As if on cue: "And just where will you go? What will you do?"
"We've been over this already. I'm going to the national park. You and I both know that I'm perfectly capable of surviving there on my own" (I've always been an outdoorsman). "Now more than ever," I add in obvious self-reference.
"That's not acceptable!" she replies, trying to remain calm.
"It'll have to be. At least for now."
"Oh. And I imagine the rangers are just gonna let you roam around freely, living off the land, huh?"
"They'll have to find me first."
"Of course they'll find you! Its their job to find people!"
"First they have know to look for me," I say, looking into my mother's eyes, the unsaid demand/plea burning in my own. Trying to remain calm myself: "You know I can't stay. Dad knows it too, he just won't admit it."
She starts to speak again. I interrupt. "Remember? Remember what happened to that poor girl in Anderson County?" She starts to cry again. She knows I'm right. I continue. "Her family thought they could protect her. And when the neighbors tried to help, remember what happened to them? And she wasn't nearly as bad off as me!"
I resume gathering items I'll need to survive. Luckily, clothing will not be much of a problem. My mother continues crying. I try to tune her out. I have to be strong. Otherwise...
I start to exit the room, leaving her sitting on the bed. I am stopped in the doorway as she speaks.
"What about Jenny?" she says, sounding defeated.
Oh no. Not there. I'd rather not go there. "I wrote a letter. Its on my desk. Give it to her after I'm gone."
"You're not even going to talk to her?"
As if writing that letter wasn't hard enough. "You really think she'd want to see me like this?"
"She cares about you. More than you know. And if you cared about her, you'd say goodbye. Personally."
I walk away. That's one discussion I don't even want to start.
The garage is cold. Not that it really bothers me. More importantly, its quiet. No doubt Mom and Dad are in the living room in a last-ditch effort to figure out a way for me to stay and not get lynched. I try to concentrate on what I'll need to live on my own. Fishing gear: check. Bow and arrows: check. One-person tent: check. Various sundries, knives, rope, matches, etc. If it were just a hunting trip, I'd grab some things and go - forgotten items make for more adventure. But this is for real.
The realization begins to sink in. This is For Real.
If I'm caught, I'll be arrested at best. I try not to think of what a worst-case might be. All I know is that being shot on sight is closer to a best-case.
A life on my own. Truly on my own. Something that I'd dreamt of in my fantasies: a rugged mountain man braving the elements, bending nature subtly to his will while living off her bounty. But this was different - this was Real. No 19th-century frontier drama here, just a freak of nature trying to stay alive and hidden on a parcel of public land.
No more parents. No more chores. No more school.
No more clothes. No more home-cooked meals.
No more Jennifer.
I eye the 12-gauge. I'm a skilled enough survivalist to not need a gun. But guns have other uses as well.
I finish packing the truck and prepare to say my last good-byes. We've worked out a plan: tomorrow they'll report the truck stolen. With luck, the rangers will find it abandoned in the park in a couple days. After that, I'm on my own - at least until it looks like its safe for me to return.
Mother and I say our final good-byes. There are more tears shed on both side than I care to admit. But we both know this is the only thing we can do.
Dad waits silently at a respectful distance until we're done. He grasps her trembling hand, and looks her in the eyes. With a nod, she heads back into the house, leaving us alone.
I don't know what to expect. Dad and I have always been close, but in a "manly" sort of way. More friends than anything, I guess. So I'm not really suprised when he simply places a hand on my shoulder and says, "Take care of yourself, y’hear?"
We sand in silence for a few seconds, and I begin to turn my back and reach for the truck door. His grip tightens. I turn to face him.
He places his other hand under my chin, in a gesture one might reserve for a child, and tilts my head up until I am looking into his eyes. We hold our gaze for several seconds. Just as I am about to look away, he says in almost a whisper, "Talk to Jennifer."
And with that he walks away towards the house.
I drive down the winding country road. The headlights illuminate the path ahead, but I can navigate these roads blindfolded (and could since I was thirteen). Lucky for me, because the road is the furthest thing from my mind right now.
The finality of my decision is also pretty far from my mind. All I can think about is Jenny.
How I'll never see her again. How pathetic and inadequate the letter I've left her is. How I'll never see her green eyes again.
How she'd react to the fact that her boyfriend is now a mutant thing.
I reach the intersection with State Road 46. To the right and east is the national park and my best chance for survival. To the left and west is Jennifer's house.
I turn right.
Two miles down State Road 46 the old Chevy seems to stop of its own volition. I am only remotely aware as paws that are only vaguely my own place it in reverse and turn the thing around.
The dust shimmers in the headlights as the truck twists its way though the back roads. Part of me knows that I am in fact driving it, navigating the dangerous highway with unerring accuracy, as if the vehicle were a slotcar on a track.
The rest of me is concentrating on its destination.
28 January 2000
Riding through the city's abandoned industrial district on your ancient moped, trying to keep from catching your tail in the spokes as you weave to avoid the numerous potholes, you being to wonder if the address on the flyer is correct.
You coast to a halt under the orange halo of an old-style sodium-vapor lamp. Why this lamp is here, why it is functioning, why the city even bothers to light this street, you'll never know. Glancing around through the steam rising from sewer vents, you check the shadows around you for danger. The decrepit warehouses lie like rotting carcasses, their sheet-metal skins hanging on sagging frames as they stare at you through filthy, shattered windows.
You hear the sound of something scurrying away in the distance.
Convinced that you are safe for the moment, you take out the wrinkled flyer from your pocket and unfold it. Yes, according to the paper, you're heading in the right direction. In fact, your destination is only a few blocks away, if the advertisement is to be believed.
Sighing, you fold the paper back up, stuff it into your pocket, and continue.
You continue for three minutes and find nothing except urban decay. The fog rolling in from the river combines with the steam from the sewers to blanket the area in a damp haze. Your fur, which has been frizzing out for some time, gives up and begins to sag with moisture.
Beginning to feel the elements, and having not seen a single soul, you give up. Either the flyer was wrong, or the event was canceled. Either way, you'd rather be back in the small yet warm room that passes for your home. You slow to a halt and begin to turn around.
As the tiny 2-stroke engine slows to an idle, you hear something.
Or, rather, you feel something. A steady, rhythmic pulsing.
You freeze with responses beyond your control.
A heartbeat. That's what it is. But too fast for an animal so large!
You spin your head around, ears perked, trying to identify the source of the thumping. A giant clock, or an elephant on speed. It seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, faint and yet menacing. As panic begins to set in, you place a paw to the damp, glistening pavement to steady yourself.
Through the cold asphalt, you feel the pounding. Your mind goes away momentarily as you are convinced that the street is alive, and that you've woken it up.
Seconds pass and nothing happens. You regain your calm as you realize what you're hearing. With human instincts this time, you try to determine the source of the pulsing, and presently you decide on a direction and set off.
However, as your scooter buzzes its way towards your destination, you can't help but think that the city has a heartbeat, and that you've found it.
The sound gets louder as you approach, and your own heart begins to pound in sympathy with the droning beat. Soon, smells begin to hit your sensitive nostrils: they are indistinct and stay that way, but as you approach 2 scents dominate the cacophony assaulting your nose: sweat and joy. The smell of hundreds of living things, human and not, sweating happily.
You push the throttle to the max.
You stash your moped behind a long-abandoned cargo container. After a quick glance at the assorted creatures loitering outside the building, panting as hard as they can, you remove your clothes as well.
You make your way to the entrance, avoiding the broken glass and rusted metal strewn about the old warehouse. Your ears are pinned against your skull... no doubt you'll walk away from this evening with permanent hearing damage.
You wonder if it'll be worth it.
You turn down an offer to buy illegal substances from a rat holding court on the roof of an old rusted truck, and proceed to the gate. You show your flyer to the huge rhino at the door and slip him a ten, and then you're inside.
You stand and look upon the mass of moving bodies therein contained. Living things of all description move in synchronicity. The drumbeat, which you had imagined to be the heartbeat of the city, seems to have taken control of all these people, and it reaches for you, deafening you, pulling you into its embrace. The crowd pulses as a single organism, order within chaos. They are a stormy sea, and the reptilian DJ spinning old-style CDs and even records on the raised platform does his best to control the tide with his music.
And what music! You weren't sure what to expect, but this isn't it.
The sound coming from the massive speakers is that of pure joy. Celebration. In every synthesized note you hear the sound of culture being redefined, re-invented, right here and now. Music base enough to move every single body in the room, yet sublime enough to elevate every mind to a state of infatuation - the infatuation of self-knowledge. Everyone here knows who they are, and (at least until sunrise or the arrival of the police) will possess something that can never be taken from them.
There can be no doubt that this music is by Scabs, for Scabs. For a few moments you wonder how a class of people so oppressed could be responsible for such a hopeful sound. But as the beat blots out your higher brain functions, you cease caring.
You press yourself into the mob of furred, scaled, and sweating bodies, joining the crowd in their celebration. And, for the first time in a long time, life is worth living.
31 January 2000
The sun goes down, and I begin to get nervous, because it's almost Time.
You think I would be relaxed. It's not like I don't do this every week. And it's not like I'm going in front of a huge crowd or anything. But then, a crowd is something that can be predicted, measured, and analyzed; a performer can desensitize himself to a crowd. But for me, there is no crowd. Just fellow musicians. And I am their self-appointed leader.
Its quite a burden to bear, being a hack.
People don't often realize the fine lines between being a visionary, a pretentious wanker, and a bona-fide hack. Some artists are true pioneers with a keen sense of what hasn't been done before. Some are so full of themselves and their creations and their Great Vision that they blind themselves to the true state of the art. And then there are those who take their little foothold in the art, be it a mere successful gimmick or just 20 minutes of fame, and milk it for all its worth.
Oh, I do my best to convince others that I'm the former and myself that I'm the second. To the press, I'm the "Roaming Maestro" who "travels from town to town... gathering his troupe and leading them in joyous recital."
I try to tell myself the same thing, that I'm on some great quest to unite my people and teach them to Sing. But the truth is, I do this because its something I'm good at, and people expect it of me.
Oh, I have no doubt of the good I'm doing my commnity. But some days it seems like more of a duty than an art. Some days I like to think of myself as a soldier, doing his duty for the greater good. But I can never escape the fact that I'm doing it all in the name of Music.
I'm not just a hack, I'm a heretic. May the muses strike me dead.
It's Time now, and I take flight. I weave through the dusk, dodging buildings and power lines, and I begin my Song. Soon, others will join me.
I often wonder how I ended up in this position. All I ever wanted was to get an album published. Three years and several lawsuits later, the digital music standards were extended to cover most Scabs' hearing ranges, and I was a cause celebre. And then it was too late to back out; the press wanted to know what I'd do next.
And so here I am, like some latter-day pied piper, flying from city to city gathering the local bat population together and leading them in Song.
The first member of tonight's Choir joins me, followed by a second, fluttering in loose formation behind me. I'm chirping out a rhythm from my first album - they know it and sing along. With three voices, it won't be long before every flying rat in town hears us and comes.
Yes, soon my little band will be assembled, and we'll begin our Song. It will, of course, be unique - each performance is. Every member brings to the choir their own voice, their own experience, their own beauty and soul.
Each concert is theirs and theirs alone. And I get all the credit.
My flock reaches critical mass, and we must now choose a place to perform. We find a concrete drainage ditch with excellent acoustics, and roost on its edges. Silence falls over my Choir and they all regard me, waiting for my lead.
I begin with a rhythm I've never used before. It is a complex one, enough to put the best drumcorps to shame, but rooted firmly in the Songs of Choirs past. This kind I usually reserve for the height of a performance. My Choir sits silent, stunned, and then one timidly joins in with a counter-rhythm. Simple and pure, but tuned perfectly to the harmonics of culvert we have chosen, ringing off the walls with a resonant beauty that few ears can appreciate.
And then, one by one, the others join in, and the evening progresses in a blur.
The eastern sky is lightening as the last of my Choir takes her leave. It was a good night. The rhythms and harmonies of nights past combined sublimely with the individual songs of each Singer, each adding his or her melody to the Song I carry across the country. Tomorrow night I'll be gone and they'll return to being vermin, but their Song will live on. And as long as I fly they will not be forgotten.
With weakened wings I take flight, seeking a quick meal. But my mind keeps returning to tonight's performance, and I can't help but think how glorious the entire affair was.
And that it wouldn't have been possible without me.
6 February 2000
I curl myself around the trash can, trying to suck the residual warmth from the old metal barrel into my body. Already I can feel the bitter wind sliding across my scales, carrying away my consciousness. I start to drift away. In the distance, dimly, as if buried under several layers of pillows only not as warm, I hear the flick of Carl's lighter as he tries to save my life.
*flick* *flick* *flick*
"Damn!" I head the mongoose exclaim through the swimming haze. Maybe he burned himself, I think; but there is no more heat now than before, and the lighter keeps flicking.
*flick* *flick* *flick*
I stare through fogging vision at the newspapers in the corner of our alley, wishing I could tell him to get them and use them as kindling, but I'm too weak to even move. Not that it would make a difference, because:
"Shit. Its out of fluid, Mike."
Well ain't that a bitch, I think to myself, which in my current state seems damn funny, in that ironic-twist-of-fate-sort-of-way. This is made even funnier, I realize, because our situation is completely without irony.
I am vaguely aware of him popping his head out of the barrel above me. "Mike. Mike, you still with me?!" I try to flick my tongue to acknowledge him but I don't have the strength.
"Shit," He says. "Shit shit shit." I feel his claws scraping across the metal as he scrambles out of the trash can down its side. "Stay with me Mike! Shit..."
I feel him close to me now. I feel warmth and pressure near my head, and I realize that he's laying on me. I want to coil myself around him but I'm too weak.
My thoughts race, as much as they can. Shelters? Too far away. A steam vent? We'd be trampled, kicked off, or arrested. I consider the possibility of turning ourselves in - but to do that Carl would have to leave, and I'd die before the cops could arrive to arrest us.
I begin to realize that this is quite possibly the end, and I expect my life to flash before my eyes. The highs, the lows, my family, the flu. But all I can remember at this point are the last couple of years, and even at that only our oft-repeated scam.
"No good times, no bad times, just the New York Times" someone once said.
I think we made the New York Times once. Robbed a senator or something, we did. It was a perfect routine, worked every time. I'd rise up, flare my hood, and hiss menacingly. And the poor fools would stand there, petrified in front of an 11-ft king cobra, while Carl climbed their pantleg and snatched their wallets. I often wondered what Kipling would think about that!
I also wonder, as my rapidly demising mind returns to the present, what he'd think about Carl, wrapped around my head, trying his best to keep me warm. I return to the thought that perhaps this whole situation is ironic after all, and I carry that thought with me into oblivion.
There is motion above me. Motion and sound. Carl is chittering something to someone. More motion, more speech, more chittering. And then I am being lifted, and my mind screams out to strike but my body is too weak.
And then she presses me against her body, and I take in the warmth and try with every remaining ounce of strength to press myself against her. She is speaking to me but I don't understand and it doesn't matter because she is warm.
There is motion and sound and more motion, but I don't comprehend any of it. And then we are in a warm place, a quiet place with lots of light, light everywhere. She places me down on a soft bed, and lays down next to me, and presses her body against me.
With what power I can muster focus my eyes and I flick out my tongue to take in her scent, to capture her essence, to make sense of all this; but all I can discern is her lush, thick fur: the deepest red, darker than blood, warmer than fire.
10 February 2000
The afternoon sun pours in the open window where I've placed Janet's cage The dust catches the rays, giving the illusion of light shining through smoke or perhaps murky water. Shadows dance across the floor and walls as the curtains billow and curl in the breeze.
She sits on her perch, twittering her random melodies, abruptly starting and stopping as her attention is drawn to various distractions outside.
I stand up, and throw an empty beer can into the pile with the rest scattered across the floor of our townhouse.
Townhouse. Town-house. House. Houses are meant for families. I feel like a hypocrite still living here.
"Our love nest" she used to jokingly refer to it as. The irony I do not find amusing.
I go over to her cage, and for the seemingly hundredth time today, place my fingers on the gate and toy with the latch. Just do it, I tell myself, get it over with. But my hand starts to shake and my eyes start watering again and I walk away to the fridge for another drink.
"If you love somebody, set them free." I think whoever said that never actually tried it.
I wander back to her cage, and peer inside, trying to look her in eyes. Looking with hope I didn't know I had left for some sign of intelligence, comprehension... humanity.
But she doesn't even seem to notice me, let along know me. Hers is the vacant stare of a caged bird.
The sun sinks lower until it is showering its hazy column of Brownian motion across my knees. I stand, and in what is now a seemingly oft-repeated motion, toss an empty can into the corner and shuffle over to her cage. I finger the latch and begin to lift the gate. But I stop and stare into her eyes once again. I have to be sure.
Again, nothing. I make up my mind, grit my teeth, and begin to lift the gate. The hinge creeks slightly; the sound of it rings in my ears and suddenly I am flooded with memories.
Grad school. Our first date. The tiny back-alley Chinese restaurant where I proposed and she said yes. Our wedding and honeymoon. Our first night in our own house.
The door of the cage swings shut again with a tiny *snick*.
I am on the couch with a whiskey bottle in my hand. I'm not sure where it came from, but it is half-empty. The sun has set but dim sunlight is still filtering through the open window, accompanied by a chill breeze.
Janet is singing, but differently than usual. I can't place it, but its not her usual warbling. There is a definite melody to it. Yes. Wait...
It is the melody from some cheesy 1980's love song. But that doesn't matter. Because its Our Song. I'm sure of it. The song to which we shared our first dance at a Tex-Mex joint on campus nearly 5 years ago. Dammit, I can't remember the group or even the name of the song, but there it is, clear as day.
I set the bottle on the floor, stand up, and stagger towards her cage. I'm not following the melody, but in every note I heat Our Song; in every chirp I hear the love that drove us together like two freight trains on the same track, like two magnets with opposite polarity. I approach the cage, and she continues chirping, the melody is gone now but I hear it all the same, echoing in my skull like a scratched record, the chorus repeating over and over in my head.
I look into her eyes and she looks back into mine, and I see the pain there, the utter stifling of being a creature of the sky imprisoned in a wire mesh cage, never to know the freedom of the open air. I see in her eyes the love we once shared; every innocent study session, every dance, every night of passion, all summed up in the depths of those beady black avian eyes.
My hands move to the cage door in a long-practiced motion, and I open the latch and raise the gate. I know we have Connected. I see it in her eyes. She is Human after all, she is still my love, she is still mine.
Janet sees the open door. Her song stops. She seems to regard me for a moment, and in those tiny black eyes I see reflected everything I ever felt for her.
And with a thrust of her wings, she is out of the cage, out the window, and gone forever.
Sometime later I find myself packing a suitcase, intent on staying in a hotel. There's just something wrong about a single man living in a house by himself.
14 February 2000
Copyright 2000 by A. Newton. If you want to post these stories anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.
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