Permanence

The brick wall stands across from me as I write
Cracked
Inert
An echo of a life

I imagine the worker who placed each brick
Leaving his silent testament
His creation outliving him
His children
Ensuring that I stay warm as I write
As the man at the bar with thin gray hair drinks
And rants
And talks about the corruption of politicians to anyone in earshot
As the server named Lisa pays for her college degree
One drink at a time
Ignoring the pats on her skirt

The wall as a protector
A bastion
A barrier from rain, wind, snow
From beggars asking for change I don’t have
Or change I’m not willing to give

I think about cracked skin
Split fingernails
A thumb smashed beyond recognition

I think about hard days in the heat
Sunburned neck and ears
Or gloves that fail to keep fingers warm
Numb toes in steel-toed boots

I think about yellow hardhats and long drives home in the dark
Tools spray pained neon green so they can’t be stolen and resold
I think about the worry for the next contract
The next paycheck
Eating cucumber sandwiches
Saving money his daughter
Or his son
Or both

The wife left long ago
For another man
A clean shaven white-collar man
Educated
Cultured
Well-off

Or maybe she died
A car accident
Or cancer
Hospital bills paid with mortar and shale
She wasted away with her soft hands cradled in cracked skin
Kids just outside the door
The boy wearing his father’s reflective orange vest
The hardhat at the foot of the mother’s bed
The nurse politely tells him visiting hours have ended
He tells her he built the walls that keep his wife warm

Then Lisa tells me it’s last call
Notebook tucked under my arm
I walk past the man with gray hair
Now quiet
Nursing his final beer
I walk past the brick wall
Out the door
Out into the cold
Past a homeless man leaning against the bricks
He holds out his hands
Asking for change
His thumb is flattened
I quicken my pace
The cracked sidewalk leading me away

521

“You wouldn’t have known me a year ago,” I pleaded.

“And I wouldn’t have cared, though I would have recognized,” he replied.

He added that I would have been the same person then and still am now and how do you stop being you and when are you ever not?  I didn’t respond and my shoulder bled and the asphalt burned against my left cheek as my right eye glared at the failing sun but I didn’t blink nor attempt to rise so I told him that people change all the time.  He arched his back as he laughed and his large buckle blazed in the sunlight just before he spat and told me that a being who changes is still the same being who was changed and he held the black canvas bag open to the wind and money fluttered and tumbled like green butterflies ascending until the sun was blotted out by his large silhouette as he leaned down with the barrel hovering just above my temple.  He began to speak.

“An individual only stops being once that person can no longer choose.”  I could smell tobacco as the barrel ran against my skull and the metal was warm against cold skin littered with marbles of sweat.  “Choices that lead to a future self are actualized from the consciousness,” he continued, “and the physical wiring of brain itself, along with the circumstances that surround it, do not solely define that being. “  He took a deep breath and smiled warmly.  “The essence of a being is a process, a process of choice within the confines of immoveable facts.”  He stroked my hair then stood and broken glass scraped against his soles as he walked behind me with sirens growing in the distance and I closed my eyes and told him about my dead wife and my lost job and my sick daughter and I had no choice and there are no choices and choice is a cruel and unforgiving delusion sent to torture and he yelled the words to the sky choosing not to choose is still being.

“It is time that is a construct applied through reason—it is what is illusory,” he said as he pulled the slide back and locked it in place and checked the chamber before he added, “the you that you were a year ago could easily be known today or in the future or in the past for the being that is you is immutable except in the vacuousness of death.”  I rolled onto my back and held my shoulder as thin streams of red rushed between my fingers and he released the slide and it snapped forward with an echo and he placed the gun on my chest and the barrel glared in my eyes and with sirens were now growing louder as he towered at my feet and added, “as long as there is being there is choice and to believe otherwise is to subvert the will, your future self—to deceive the self.”  I watched myself as I pushed the barrel past my lips and felt my teeth scrape against metal and I pulled the trigger and the gun whispered click.  

My eyes snapped open and my daughter was calling me out of the darkness, arms outstretched and suspended by small plastic tubes that ran to bags of clear liquid.  I jerked out of the chair and tripped over a stuffed bear that sat askew on the linoleum floor next to the heart monitor.  An ambulance pulled to a stop three floors down, its siren still blaring.  The rain beat the window panes until dawn and I held my daughter tight as she vomited and shook and wept and clinched her stomach, all while black glass eyes watched from the floor without blinking.

To Die Soon

It was Hemingway who wrote: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” This, before he swallowed a round from a shotgun.  Virginia Woolf stuffed rocks into her pockets and walked into the Ouse River.  Sylvia Plath stuck her head in a gas oven with her children sleeping in the next room.  Kurt Vonnegut populated his novels with a recurring character named Kilgore Trout, who frequently stated that “life is a crock of shit!”  Even the Bible declares the following: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity . . . one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.”  When the author of Ecclesiastes needs a prescription for Prozac and maybe a hug, something must be terribly wrong.

Silenus imbibing wine.

Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy about King Midas, who captured the demigod Silenus and demanded the most desirable thing for man.  Silenus remained silent before belting out a sardonic laugh, answering: “Oh wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear?  What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing.  But the second best for you is—to die soon.” Perhaps Kind Midas should have stayed in his kingdom turning things (and his daughter) into gold.

Nietzsche replies to Silenus’ charge by explicating the duality of our existence.  One side of this dichotomy is emotion, personified as Dionysus; the other side is reason, personified as Apollo.  (Think Kirk and Spock.)  Dionysus is nature; euphoria by getting drunk with wine and having frenzied sex orgies in the open fields of Greece (yes, this happened).  But Dionysus also represents the brutal truth of nature: suffering, pain, agony, and progress through death and life—the lion consuming its prey to live.  Apollo, on the other hand, represents the individual who acquires knowledge and the wisdom to rise above nature and subvert its vicious tendencies.  However, according to Nietzsche, the Apollinian perspective is ultimately an illusion to conceal the Dionysian truth.  How does one overcome this problem of existence? (Excluding Hemingway’s solution, of course.)

Apollo and Dionysus collide, raze, and rebuild each other.  Nietzsche uses the term nausea to associate the hopelessness when the illusion of Apollo succumbs completely to Dionysus.  Man realizes he is merely an unimportant part of nature—soon swallowed up by the Earth.  Pushing up daisies.  Worm food.  “Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion,” Nietzsche writes.  All effort to project a future self seems vain, revealing the “horror or absurdity of existence.” Indeed, Silenus’ solution seems more sensible—to die soon!  But this is not the overly dramatic solution Nietzsche would encourage.  He argues the Apollinian civilization is, yes, illusory—but necessary.  Necessary to live, to experience this dance between of Apollo and Dionysus.  And what do they dance to?  “Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress . . . she alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live.”  Embrace creativity like Hemingway, Wolfe, and Plath (just keep away from guns, rivers and gas ovens).  Write, paint, play music not for the masses (for Nietzsche considered art for the masses to be worthless) but for yourself.  Use art to show that life may at times be a crock of shit, but it’s worth enduring—to die later!

Six Minutes

He spent two hours on a single sentence.
Naked feet flat on a cold, linoleum floor.
Next to his computer a dog-eared thesaurus.
It lay open.  Limp.  Words eviscerated from its bosom.
He pushed Enter.
His heel sprang from the floor when he typed the first word of the new sentence.
It fell back to the ground slowly, nuzzling itself next to a sock.

He shifted in his seat, a ragged comforter draped over his shoulders.
He closed his eyes.
The cursor blinked.
His fingers detached themselves from the keyboard like satiated leeches.
He lit another cigarette and winced at the taste.
It was Pall Malls or the heat bill.
sixminutes
The cold kept him awake.
The tobacco kept him company.
Six minutes passed.
He started typing again.

Another six lonely hours and the poem was finished.
The sun now hiding on the other side of the Earth.
With both his heels off the ground, he posted it online.
He waited.
He smoked his last.
Turned the computer screen off.
Ate dry cereal out of a dirty bowl with no spoon.
Peed twice.
He waited some more.
Snow flicked the window pane next to him.

Another three hours and he turned on the screen.
He squinted from the sudden light.
One person read the entire piece in less than a minute.
In the comments section:  You have too many sentence fragments!  Learn to write!
Another wrote:  What is flagitiousness?
Another:  I didn’t even finish reading this.
Hours consumed in minutes.
Regurgitated.
Vomited onto his naked feet.

He closed the browser and opened a new Word document.
The cursor blinked.
He waited six minutes.
His left heel lifted off the floor when he typed the first word.
The thesaurus trembled.

 

© Mike Yost

Psychic Vampire

Chuck Palahniuk once said in an interview that his favorite place to write was in the waiting area of an emergency room.  To be embedded in a whirlwind of raw emotions to feed off of.  And no one ever, ever bothers you.

Granted it sounds a bit parasitic.  Some might call it macabre.  But Palahniuk gets paid good money to write novels, so chew on that.

I prefer public places.  Coffee shops work well.  My drug close by, though it’s hard to key when my hands start shaking after twenty cups.  I like the library on occasion.  City parks.  But my favorite place to write in is a bar.

I work nights, so I find myImageself in bars that open at 7am.  I’m usually the first one in the door.  As the denizens shuffle in, I type away in the corner on my laptop, a cold beer sitting patiently next to the keyboard.  Moderation is important, or your stories end up resembling the slurred ramblings of, well, a failed writer.  One beer an hour.  No hard liquor.  No shots.

Headphones are essential.  I’m a proud member of the LGBT community, but their musical tastes are lacking.  Blasting Lady Gaga at 8am?  Really?  And, of course, there’s the typical crowd noise to contend with.  So, headphones with classical or instrumental electronic music, almost anything with no lyrics.  On noisy mornings (usually on a game day), while I write, I listen to death metal until my ears bleed.

So why contend with the noise, the bad music, the smell of urine and Clorox wafting from the bathroom stalls?  The same reason Palahniuk sits in emergency waiting rooms.  I, too, feed off the energy of the crowd around me, like a vampire in the shadows, greedily drinking in the elation and misery of veteran alcoholics.  I observe the groups telling jokes and the loners sipping on their despair.  I write.

And the harder I work to ignore the distractions, the harder I work on the words, the stories, the characters.  I have to force myself to concentrate and live in my fictional world, far away from obnoxious laughter, the loud calls for shots, Lady fucking Gaga.

363 Days

Image363 Days

New Year’s resolution?  Not to make any.

It’s a bit too late, since I already made a promise to myself to finish my second novel.  What can I say? I am a man of contradictions (not really [but sometimes]).

After sleeping off the New Year’s Eve hangover, I set up my laptop, surrounded myself with various caffeinated beverages, along with a few caffeinated needle injections to stave off a crash.  I turned on some background music and began pounding out the next chapter.  A few good ideas began to manifest themselves.  But progress was slow.  When I looked up from the screen, my cat was looking back, curled up in the corner of the room thinking to himself: ‘If I were bigger, I would eat you.’  I looked back at the screen.  I’d written about a page.  A page in three hours.

What was wrong?  More caffeine?  Maybe a change in background music?  I put on Omnium Gatherum’s latest album.  The growling vocals made me smile.  I even banged my head a few times at the laptop.  The cat stared at me with even more contempt.  Still no words. Those bastards can be elusive.  I sat back and turned up the music even more.  Sometimes it’s better not to think for a bit.

Screw New Year’s resolutions.  Who picks an arbitrary date to get shit done anyway?  Oh that’s right, we do.  I did.  I made a resolution and now nothing’s happening.  What the hell?

ImageMaybe it’s because we are all going to die this year In case you haven’t heard, a rogue planet (called Nibiru) will cut across our solar system at a right angle, throwing off the gravitational pull of the sun and knocking the Earth out of orbit, sending us hurtling into the void of space, our entire species frozen on a floating rock.  So what‘s the point of writing?  Unless… maybe we’ll be found by some advanced alien species.  They’ll thaw out our lifeless planet and set us up in a new solar system.  They’ll teach us quantum physics and share their advanced technology and tell us what the meaning of life is, and we’ll show them fried butter on a stick.  A whole new beginning.  Crap.  I just wrote a science-fiction novel.  A really bad one.

So, I turn up the grinding guitars and double-bass drums even louder (the cat has left the room by now, the pussy) and continue to pound away on the keyboard.  Fuck words.  I’ll drag them out by their entrails if I have to.

Back to work.  Only 362 days left to finish my resolution.  Make that 363.  The leap year gives me an extra day!

Merry Mythmas

No, I’m not at war with Christmas.

I use to write X-mas merely as shorthand.  On box lids.  In emails. On greeting cards.
Then the war started.  I don’t remember when it began. The body count hasn’t risen above zero since it started.  But I’m being told that little baby Jesus is being maliciously attacked every year by laser-guided uranium-tipped lexicon missiles.

Since when did Christ (and more specifically the arbitrary date of his birth) need all this defending?  If I saw Jesus on the street and wished him Happy Holidays, would he really smite me with a bolt of lighting that zigzagged down from the clouds, burning my soulless, heathen body to a crisp?  Aren’t there more important things to worry about?  Helping the needy.  Fighting the AIDS epidemic.  Getting our troops home safely.

If I’m at war with anything, it’s with conspicuous consumerism, pepper spraying people in the face to get a kid’s toy, saying Christmas belongs to Christ while maxing out credit cards.  Disney on Ice.

Now days, I don’t wish people Merry Christmas, or Merry X-mas, or Happy Holidays, or Happy Kwanza, or Good Yule, or Happy Chanukah.  I wish people Merry Mythmas (thank you, Bill Maher).  For the myth that buying things for your loved ones is the measure of how much you care.  For the myth that a tree decorated with small lights and cheap, plastic ornaments is somehow a Christian tradition.  For the myth of a virgin birth.

I say Merry Mythmas for the mythical war on Christmas—we have enough real wars with real body counts already.

Of Aliens, Transmissions, and Violins.

So, we found a new planet 600 light years away, one of 713 confirmed exoplanets discovered so far—Kepler-22b.  It’s more than twice the size of Earth, takes 290 days to orbit its sun, and it sits in the Goldilocks zone—not too close to its parent star, and not too far away.  This means that if there is water on the planet’s surface, it’s in liquid form.    On Earth, where there’s water, even in extreme conditions, there’s usually life.

Soon, SETI will be pointing their satellites in the direction of Kepler-22b to listen for signs of life.

A plethora of assumptions:  Assuming there is life on that planet, and assuming this life is more advanced than our own, and assuming they transmitted radio signals at least six hundred years ago, we should be receiving their first transmissions any day now.

I wonder what those Imagetransmissions would be?  Perhaps a short question:  “Is anyone out there?”  Maybe someone ranting about their political climate, or about religious and civic strife, or about a massive economic crisis.  Maybe a TV show.  Maybe a bad TV show.  Maybe a reality TV show.  I hate to think what an alien species would think of Earthlings if all they had to judge us on was Survivor.

The first Earthly radio broadcast was on Christmas Eve in 1906.  Reginald Fessenden read the Christmas story from the Bible and played “O Holy Night” with on a violin.  This means in roughly 500 years, our potential alien friends will be serenaded by a violin and the story of Jesus’ birth.

A bit unsettling.   One of the greatest scientific accomplishments at the time, accompanied by a song calling for all to prostrate themselves before a child born of a virgin.  At the very least, our alien friends will be confused, perhaps a bit curious.  “Who is this Jesus, this Savior?” they might ask.  “Is he your leader?  Can we speak with him?”

Plenty of Earthlings would tell them who their “savior” is.  Many of those answers will contradict.  Arguing will ensue.  Fights will break out.  Perhaps another war.  While we are battling for ideas, our alien friends will quietly point their own SETI satellites in another direction.  “Give them a few more centuries,” an alien astronomer might say, “just until they stop arguing over whose god is greater.”

Of course, all of this is also assuming aliens from another planet can understand English in the first place—which is a pretty big assumption (and very arrogant for us to think so).

What would be worse is if their own religions, ethics, and philosophies mirrored our own.   In the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “If aliens are like us, then they should be feared.”

Indeed.  But if we did hear from Kepler-22b, what would we want to hear?

Soap Box

A loud voice is perched above a black frock and below a black book held high above black hair.

“You sinners will be sleeping with regret tonight!”

His words are brief clouds of white that quickly disappear.  Their meaning rolls listlessly along the bed of snow made black from workers working their way home.  A shuttle bus drives by, kicking up slush.

I look up and to the right at the clock tower.  Six after five.  “Time will soon replace regret with another trick,” I say, turning towards him. He brushes away a few lonely snowflakes from his shoulders and continues.  “Without forgiveness, your past sins will drown your future in eternal darkness!”

A woman to my left raises her gloved hand and bellows out the word taxi.  A homeless man stumbles toward her, whispering the word please as his empty hands shake at his side.  She gets in the taxi and is driven away.  I tell him I have no cash when he asks for help.  The preacher tells him he needs Jesus.

Little warmth is found behind a heavy wooden door that slams hard.  I face other faces in a mirror that runs along the back of the bar.  Their heads are bowed, drowning above half-empty glasses.  Shirley and Lee’s “Let the Good Times Roll” plays from the jukebox.

The chair groans as my lungs sigh and soon my belly feels the warmth of barley.

Behind a window framed in frost my eyes track pale profiles gliding by in a background of white.  The word another? taps me on the ear and I nod without looking.

Fingers, wrinkled and stained yellow, wipe a mug dry with a blue towel before sticking the glass under the tap.  “It’s like the center of Dante’s hell out there tonight.”  The barkeep punctuates his sentence by slapping the tap back with the side of his hand.

The glass lands in front of me, and I pull it toward my lips, watching the foam fall over the edge.  I set a portrait of Lincoln on the bar.  “And the devil’s on the corner selling a haven from regret.”

The barkeep turns his back and lowers his head.  The cash drawer kicks open and lands on his stomach.  The eyes of dead presidents stare back at him. “At what price?”

I reply, “Cognition,” pulling the glass away from my lips.  Foam hangs in the corners of my mouth. “No different from you.”

A chuckle jumps out from behind the bar.  “Except I never lie to you about what I’m selling.”  The bartender turns and sets two green portraits of George Washington next to a puddle of beer, taking Lincoln away.

I pull a pen from my pocket and flip the two faces over.  “And you preach without words.”  Twice I bury the word God under a thick coat of ink.