Thursday, April 21, 2011
Clare shimmered into hazy focus. She held her small pale hand’s close to her face, as if reading one of wayward Hume’s dispatches. Then, distinct:
“Then why,” Clare asked, poking me in the ribs, jarring me to answer, “if it was such a great experience, why didn’t you finish at the university?”
An excellent question. The tea cup resting on my palm was so tiny it seemed like it originated from a child’s tea set.
“I don’t know. Endings have always been difficult for me.”
“Not for me. When something is over, its bloody over. I just end it,” she said resolutely.
“Well you’re young, you’ll learn .” I answered sagaciously, “I just didn’t want to complete my studies. And I didn’t need a college degree to get into Johns Hopkins. I only needed to pass the medical boards… which I did with flying colors.”
“But you didn’t finish medical school either.”
“No. Again, endings are not my specialty. I would rather just fade away then end.”
“Why?” she asked, raising her brow in a V, which always signified a perplexed or stymied Clare Mumpy.
“It seems so artificial, to end.”
“What about death,” she said, “that is the ultimate end.”
“I don’t believe in death. At least not my own death. It seems empirically unsound. My own death is a completely meaningless concept to me. That I should cease to exist. It’s even absurd for me to say it. How could that be? It would be as if the world came to an end.”
“You have a rather high opinion of yourself, Langley.”
“It actually makes all the sense in the world. If I end then the world ends. I have no other point of reference but myself.”
“If you die Langley, rest assured, I’ll still be here. The world will still exist”
Situations, once so fluid and effortless, so banally and logically segregated and separated, were coming apart at their literal seams; they were becoming bogged down in a limitless practical and conceptual morass.
It all falls down… changing directions, sliding us to new, truer vistas, unable to hold up the pretense… of purposefulness, they flutter away…
One may as well begin here:
If there is a chink in the woodwork then one must peer through. The crooked boards, knotty and rotting, invite a peek. Take the roving lens: old furniture, broken, twisted, black with age, soot, and dust, piled to the ceiling of the parlor. Cushions, trailing behind a central mound of tangled featureless objects. There, if you push aside that old, detached radiator is Father’s desk. An old mahogany affair that has already been rifled through, all important documents stored in a strong box, with the exception of one, whose properties, I fear, not flat, featureless, formless, letters and words on paper like this feeble article you are reading, but all too three dimensional:
Dear Mr. Vandemark: We regret to inform you that your application for a combat position in the American Expeditionary Force has been denied…
In my hands, a document from 1917 has a strange animation, it pops into multi dimensions, like a collapsible diorama:
The trench was dug in a zig-zag pattern, so, if overrun, it was more defensible. I was moving along the line, giving my men words of encouragement before the show. They were scared, scraggly recruits from Lincolnshire, and I, a veteran of numerous battles: the Somme, Verdun, Pescadilly… somehow, miraculously, I had survived them all. I had a reputation as an Iron Man. I was not overly reckless, but not inordinately un-fond of risk taking. In a war where personal behavior accounts for nothing (it is a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time conflict) my luck is supernatural. A shell explodes in a spot on the line you just passed! But it is not bravery or foresight or advanced planning that led to such salvation, but that blind goddess Chance. She spins her wheel in the dark. She strikes the innocent and guilty with equal hailing barrage of blows.
I removed my cigarette case from my belt. I had engraved the name of each battle on its bulging bright surface. Three so far. Perhaps, when I blow the whistle and I must swing my body over the parapet and begin the laborious march across no-man’s land, the case will see its last engagement. After all, it is odds we are discussing here. The age of Determinism is upon us on a mass scale. All of these heart breaking, mind bending, and ruthlessly cruel engagements have proven that one must press forward blindly, atavistically….
But I have a secret. It is a small nugget that I keep imprinted between the sheets of my twin selves, and it has preserved me from harm. My secret is a maxim, a mantra that is unlikely to have a wider currency among the ranks of humanity because it is, like most profound ideas, astonishingly simple, yet painfully difficult to adopt: I do not care if I live or die.
Without that burden, when relieved of that fundamental drive, suddenly a wall cascaded down and I found myself sitting, serenely, placidly, like some orientalish totem, stripped of the of veil of existence finally, and irrevocably, seated lotus style in a wide empty room that lacks walls and a roof but contains, miraculously, marvelously, no sense of space, no depth, but a cushion of a static, sparkling whiteness…
Sitting on the lip of the parapet I checked my wrist watch: 06:00. The creeping barrage across no-man’s land commenced all along the three meter gap between us and the Hun trenches.
“Alright boys, God protect us all!” I yelled, clenching a whistle in my lips. To the left, one of the Lincolnshire lads poised a football in his outstretched arms. I nodded to him. He sculled the ball beautifully, flawlessly; it arched into the steel gray morning sky and disappeared into the yellow churn of the creeping barrage. I blew the whistle and swung myself over the parapet. Glancing to my left and right one hundred thousand men were advancing on a fifteen-mile front. The barrage was supposed to move forward, protecting us from German fire, we began to run… the run, a head long dash into our own fire; we had to stop, something had gone bloody wrong… the barrage was moving backward, knocking down row after row of Linconshire boys, whole villages of boys wiped out because of a miscalculation in someone’s mathematics…
The barrage ceased. All around me was a pocked, open brown broken landscape, lunar cratered, twisted blackened trees splintered and toppled.
Now, from the other direction a hails of shells. Gerry is firing on us. Shells fell around me in a random pattern. Parts, pieces, innards of Lincolnshire lads were spewed all about, as if tossed about by a random hand. Once every boy was dead and I stood alone, the shells poked holes in the ground, puncturing the dirt, revealing, exposing, the whiteness beneath…. and brilliant space!
And as more shells exploded more of the Western Front evaporated, and more of white light poked through, until a dizzying height revealed itself, and I began a fabulous free fall. The last shell hit, the last piece of brown oozing dirt cascaded into the snowy static abyss, as I fall, yet remain motionless, am in space, yet do not exist, like a gap, a space that is not ------