Summer 2007 Volume One Issue Three
As I Walked Out One Evening - Edward Morris
He was there every day, regular as the weather. His beard was long and oily, matted into three uneven locks that hung at crazy angles. His skin was red with summers' worth of sun, caked with dirt on top of that to form a grayish-bronze patina.
He wore two different sneakers. His legs were mostly hidden by an odd agglomeration of oily rags and sweatshirts tied around his waist or cinched through his belt loops. I counted at least seven coats on him, the outer one a parka with a fur-lined hood.
When I could see his legs, they were always clad in black Levis cropped almost to the knees of his oddly sticklike, malformed legs. The scab on the back of his right calf never really went away, just changed colors like the leaves north and south of the Foster Road Miracle Mile where he sat in front of the old car wash at the intersection of Foster, Holgate Boulevard and 50th Avenue. He always had a shopping cart in front of him, loaded down with something wrapped in a weathered green tarp.
Every day I took the #14 to class or fieldwork, I saw him sitting on the old blue painted pipes of the parking-lot guardrail, facing the street but looking at his shoes. The visual bookmark for his position was an old orange fire hydrant directly behind him at the opposite curb. When I took the same bus back at dusk, he was still sitting on the rail, but in the other corner of the lot by a thick stand of blackberry brambles, in the same position.
He could have been watching the traffic go by, or lost in the Om, or having a poker game with all nine of the voices in his head. Classically deteriorated schizophrenic, I thought every time I saw him.
The Psychologist's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (known in my day-craft as the DSM-IV-TR) was always in my backpack, but I didn't need to look at it. I knew if I came up to him and said hello, I could expect at best a rambling, incoherent monologue or an instantly suspicious glare, at worst an attempted punch in the throat. I could have told him his coat was on fire and gotten an equally illogical response.
In any city, one learns very quickly that some people are beyond help. This is an interesting neighborhood. The local law just beat a man like him to death for running when he saw them coming. There was no indictment, and the man they chased could have been anyone running, for any reason. When I read of that man, I thought of old Anthony Burgess writing that the breakdown of the state can best be illustrated by what sort of people get hired as cops.
I couldn't afford to jeopardize my career by using the poor old guy as a field experiment. In my real life, however, I practice a different sort of medicine. My Night-Eyes, such as they are, showed me that although his brain was hopelessly out of balance, his body was surprisingly well-fed and in ruddy good health.
He was there every day, and only moved in the small hundred-and-eighty-degree arc from one guardrail to the other, at least when I saw him, pushing whatever remained of his former life around in that cart. After a few months of seeing him there, I realized he was moving from east to west with the sun, so he could face its warmth.
But even those Gifted like myself who choose to work within the healthcare system as healers are sometimes stumped. On the afternoon of January ninth, I saw something that made no sense even to me.
Most people confuse schizophrenia with having multiple or disassociative personalities. The disease is much more complicated than that. It's generally accepted that head-voices and schizophrenic idea-patterns, feel more like an accepted presence, an Other operating just outside of one's mind, giving instructions like a voice in a strange, waking dream.
It was bitterly cold outside, maybe thirty degrees out of the wind. The bus' heater whirred and burbled five seats back. My head rested on the glass. I slept, or so I thought, my eyes half-open as we passed that silent human cuckoo-clock marking the hours from rail to rail---
There were two faces, there on the rail. Someone was sitting with him. Two presences, one aft and one fore, the other smaller, darker, younger. Female. Her arm was around the old man, her small snub nose in his hair, her lips kissing his cheek through the scales of dirt, andó
I opened my eyes all the way. The old man was alone. He saw the bus going by, turned his head laboriously, and waved. For a full three minutes afterward, the image was seared on my eyelids. I had no idea why there were tears streaming down my face.
Paulie'd been sent to Adaptive classes at this maximum-security school with a nudge from a judge after some impromptu ballistics experiments with M-80's and mailboxes that cost his four-year-old neighbor her hearing.
Paulie currently was paying an overdue fine. I didn't even look up, counting fifty cents by the ring of the coins on the counter. Mrs. King the librarian spoke with him in a voice that sounded as tired as I felt. The wood grain on the table made patterns of patterns.
Then he was standing before me, looking at the spine of my book. "Comparative Mythology Three Hundred," Paulie read in a big, loud cartoon voice that he knew always got my goat, "Proff J Campbell, Sarah Lawrence Uneee-versi-taay." Sensing his need for attention from authority, and his minor crush, I marked my page and looked evenly at him. "Yes?"
"Just saying hi. Whatcha readin'?"
"Sit down," I answered. He did, frowning. At fourteen, his eyebrows were already starting to beetle. "In Group today, you were talking about the way stories relate to everyday life. I think you mentioned Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth, from when you were in elementary school. Yeah?"
"Yeah." He looked cautiously interested. I plowed ahead.
"What's the most important thing in your life?"
"You just answered your own question." The Zen koan behind Paulie's perpetual smart-assery surprised me.
"I think I see what you mean," I admitted, steepling my fingers over the textbook. "Explain."
"Life's the most important thing in life," Paulie answered, voice cracking on the first syllable. (He blushed) "Why does every grownup have to run around and look for all these big deeper meanings? The simplest things are the happiest. Well, for me, anyway. I don't know about you."
He was looking away, not meeting my eyes. Clearly, baring his soul in front of Authority (Was that what I was?) made him nervous. But he had a point.
I took a deep breath. "Sooo . . . if that was taken from you, if you were . . ." I had no idea where this was all coming from. "A ghost roaming the earth, like in that movie The Sixth Sense. Ever see it?"
"Sure." He didn't look like he knew what to make out of having an honest conversation with a teacher. For that matter, I had no idea what to make out of having an honest conversation with a student. It usually took a lot for me to have this kind of conversation with one of my kids.
This was all new to me. The bus ride that morning must have freaked me out more than I thought, I realized, and let it go. "Like Bruce Willis' character if he knew he was dead. How far would you go to get your life back, since that's the most important thing to you?"
I'd lost him. Paulie looked at me like I was his age. "You can't. Dead's dead. No going back. They even said, in that movie. You just have to . . . I dunno, move on."
For a moment, I felt totally unsure of where I was going or where I had been, hurtling down a fast track after the madness of my twenties had come and gone, chained to a career I wasn't sure I really wanted, locked outside of free will and pounding on the door. I thumped the book.
"But what if the most important thing to you was another person? Would you go through Hell to get them back? And what would you do once you did?"
Paulie grabbed the book out of my hands, opening it to a black-and-white plate of Orpheus reaching vainly for Eurydice as Cerberus drags her back down to Hades. "Cool!" he gushed. "Mrs. King, Mrs. King, can I---"
I snaked one hand out under his as he turned around. Mrs. King barely looked up from her computer. "No, Paul," she said back, just loudly enough to hear. "You still owe me two bucks."
"My book," I said as he set it back down. "But I have another one of his you might like. I'll bring it in. It's called The Power of Myth. Fair enough?"
"Fair enough," he said. "Gotta catch my bus. See you next Wednesday?"
"Lord and Lady willing and the creek don't rise." I opened Joseph Campbell again. Paulie was still standing there.
"Yes, Paulie, next Wednesday. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel."
"Do all artists talk that funny?"
"Go. Before I put the leeches on you." We both had a good laugh. Paulie left to get his bus. After a while, I did likewise.
That night, I woke myself up at three a.m. My heart was beating so fast it felt like a minor cardiac event. My boyfriend Rob rolled his big lanky carcass over and snored once, loudly, then stole the sheet and most of the comforter. I let him keep them.
The house was quiet. Our cat was nowhere in sight. The dream was still stuck to the roof of my mouth like a long-ago hit of acid, screaming through my head, leaving a swirling, thunderous wake. . .
...Summer of '72 and Hawthorne Boulevard littered with a rainbow of VW vans, decent bud on every streetcorner for forty-five bucks an ounce, just the place for a smartass wannabe poet fresh off the rez. I went to earth at the St. Francis Hotel, bought a typewriter and made the open-mic scene night after night, week after week, yelling about Nixon's war. In the day I waved signs and blocked traffic on Broadway for the length of the Portland State campus, where I haunted the library and the student union long in the tooth on my own independent studies, nose-deep in Charles Baudelaire and this new Charles, this Bukowski, only looking up every so often to ogle what I thought I was too old to pursue . . .
The flood of event and image hit me in a time-lapse timeline, hard and fast and talking all at once. I struggled to make sense of it all, but it made no sense at all . . .
Until her. You know. Her. The one who walks up and asks you, 'Whatcha writin'?' and your pen stops moving and before you look up you just know, you know, that the very mythopoetic holy water you will never drink is sitting across from you in the booth and snuffing your cigarette out in the ash tray as she parks her books.
Her . . . I saw the silver dreamcatcher pendant around the girl's neck. Her . . . Branded on my retinas and olfactory nerves, white lipstick and white jasmine, white light, white heat, white--- No, not white at all. "Huron Nation, since you ask. On Dad's side, anyway. Mum was Mohawk. Mostly. Both sides marched on the Trail of Tears, so we figure about half-Cherokee each. You look like this Hopi guy I knew when I was hitching to Mexico in '68 . . ."
I got up, tucking the covers in around Rob, who made some affirmative noise and mumbled, " . . . Those are all the questions I have. Thank you very much for completing our survey. I . . . hzz . . ."
Under normal circumstances, Rob's sleep-talk makes me howl with laughter. But I wasn't laughing. I was remembering.
Dreams are always central to my gift. I learned the Dreamwalk long ago, the wave of meditation that makes your whole body go numb while you exit through the window of the trance-state and travel far in the spirit world . . .
But all too early, we found ourselves hitching through a dark forest where the right road was totally lost and gone. By the time my dear Satah dropped out, I was shooting a teener of crank every four or five days. After Allen Cohen's Oracle dropped me like a hot potato and Black Sparrow Press cut off the gravy train, there was always a new chapbook next year, never a publisher this year . . .
Great Mother in the earth, give me strength, I prayed with numb lips, I come to this vision unarmed, a child in your sight. Draw round me and keep me safe to do your bidding . . .
So I kidded myself that I was doing something constructive, in the manky Southeast basement of a manky Hell's Angel named Great Bear who used to come to some of my reads in the old days, and did favors for the Weathermen, sometimes. When Portland PD raided that basement, they never called the newspapers. To do so would have given our cause, such as it was, way too much credit in the public eye.
Something heard. I went through the motions of pulling on a black hoody and a pair of pants over my PJ's, socks and big clunky boots, a coat, gloves, a headpiece filled with straw. Rob's mother sent me a pair of dreamcatcher earrings last year for my birthday. As an afterthought, I slipped them through my lobes. Casting back my mind, I let the dream play on.
I can still see the black smoke in the basement. I can still see Sata lying hog-tied in the street, twitching and coughing blood. I can only wonder how she found me, how she found Bear's place at all, or what she came to tell me. I can still see the hulking State Trooper coming up behind me when I boiled out of the bushes with the baseball bat and took down one of the city cops, and ----
I unlocked the bike from the rail of our tiny back porch. My motion tripped the photoelectric eye of the landlord's security lights. Across the yard, two stray Siamese cats saw me and bolted into the tall, silent hedges at the edge of the property.
Without a frame's transition, the truncheon connected with the back of my head and I was out, gone and away. Portland looked very different, a great clearing in the woods where vines crawled up the sides of skyscrapers and PSU Student Housing shared space with limestone caves.
In the sky, a flock of white geese flew in formation across a black moon. There were salmon in the creeks as long as a man. Gangsters in concrete sang 'Happy Days Are Here Again' in decayed tenor perfectly on-key with the land's soundless hum, a hymn in tongues long-gone when the First People settled the Valley of Death between the two rivers . . .
The old Indian was trying to tell me something. I knew that as surely as I knew my own name. The easiest way to troubleshoot a problem is to sleep on it first. But doing so tonight seemed to have only popped the blister.
Overhead, the stars wheeled and spun, throbbed and beat and beat, harmonizing too far away, their radiation falling on my half-blind eyes, deaf ears, nerves dulled by the old creepy crystal until Death itself was the only thrill.
A fey Virgil rose from those shadowed steel-engraving backstreets to greet me, antlered like the moose, robed in mossy green, waddling on webbed feet.
Every soul has a price , the Lord of the Dead whispered in my ear, his breath all burnt tea-leaves and sulfur springs. What's she worth to you? Poet. Think you're a poet? Sing to me of the humble acorn squash, Poet, and the rattle of seeds in its hollow husk . . .
I pulled to the side of Foster Road several blocks away, locking my bike to the fence in a stand of pokeberry bushes by a used-car lot whose wheedling young salesmen were all home in bed. My stomach felt like the inside of a lava lamp, and I wished I hadn't quit smoking three years before.
I sang down the black moon for him, sang from the broken throat of the body-idea I'd wrapped around myself for more than the minimum number of years to shield me in this place. I sang everything I never got to tell Sata about my life, the dreams I had in the womb, the way the light caught the river from the bridge when I took my old BSA motorcycle out on Indian-summer afternoons, my first taste of hard cider at some tavern on Belmont, everything I could never put into words.
After a while, I realized I was following the horned one, that we had been walking the whole time, and that he was ahead of me, the whole way on the other side of the Hawthorne Bridge, looming so tall in a false perspective that he seemed to blot out the stars. He looked down at me, and made his face shine upon me, and told me to stop.
"What'd I say?" The wind was cold, colder than it should have been to a dead man. His cloak began shedding seeds that began to vine and flower in the mud of the riverbank. I was afraid.
"Poet, you said enough." The Lord of the Dead opened his hands, which held two halves of what looked like a gourd. Sata pushed aside the green velvety stage curtain of his cloak and stepped out into the night, coughing out clouds of steaming breath.
Then she saw me, and screamed my name . . .
The dream began to break up as my mind woke all the way. I knew I'd be faded to George Romero zombie levels in class tomorrow, but I couldn't make my feet stop moving.
I wondered what Paulie would make of this. But thinking of the day-craft had no place. This was Night work, of a kind I had not allowed myself since Rob and I got together and I got sick of phone rooms and foodboxes and starving art and decided to go back to school.
The Horned One swept us up into his hands, into Heaven, into a dream inside that squash. Far away, I felt them resuscitate my body in the hospital. The silver cord connecting it to me had only stretched, never broken . . .
I cast aside the spiritual too much to get there, though, and drove myself nuts in the bargain. Then this old babbler off the street yanked me back into my duties as a healer, whole and breathing. What was I supposed to see? What---
Every soul has a price, Poet. What's this worth to you?
His sick sense of humor kept my body alive as the Keeper of our afterlife, our eternity. When Reagan shut down the mental hospitals in the Eighties, I was set out on the road. They let the clay that used to be me keep the squash. It was all I ever had, or wanted . . .
Dawn's first rosy fingers plucked the horizon's black string at my back, making it glow a weird cobalt blue. I saw him appear on a side-street. His cart sounded louder than a river at flood tide. Inside it, the green tarp was loose. I could almost see what it covered, and began to understand.
The old Indian had come to die . . . or be born? The Tomb couldn't be solved in terms of the Tomb. My thoughts were speeding up into a stream of spells shielding me much warmer even than my black goosedown coat. The sky began to spit mist that was almost rain.
He saw me before I crossed the street. I could feel his degenerating mind sensing my thoughts. He had two auras swirling around him, their colors indescribable and unknown to me. By comparison, the multilayered NightEye shimmer rising from every building and telephone pole on Foster looked washed-out, the timetracks of the dreary humdrum day people as lackluster as last year's movie poster faded by the sun.
"You died." I whispered, wondering what was real. His head turned toward me at an unnatural angle as he sat his trembling old shanks down on the guardrail, facing a point to the East that would soon be the sun. He shrugged, looking like something on strings.
"Some of me came back. To look after the seed . . ." He jerked the handle of the cart with one big hand. His voice sounded like the water running through the hidden city below our feet. My pulse was racing. I could barely blink.
"W-w-w-" I struggled to keep my voice at a steady whisper. "You're out here every day. Why haven't the cops hauled you off, old wanderer?"
His eyes still didn't meet mine, lidded and hooded and hidden, turned away. "They won't see me."Those cracked, bearded lips sealed once more on the last word. I shuddered, rocking from one foot to the other to keep warm.
"Sorry. I'm afraid I can't let this go. Where do you go at night?"
Damn it, why wouldn't he look at me? "The graveyard." He jerked his thumb in the direction of Holgate Boulevard. "Where they put the rest of her."
No one walked on Foster Road, just then. Not even a long-haul semi broke the silence. I drew my energy into myself and prepared for the worst, chanting down fear inside.
"How do you eat?"
"I put food in my mouth, and chew."
Oh, I could have socked him. "No, no, what do you---"
Then the bond between us broke, just like that. The world suddenly looked a bit more prosaic, but the scene itself didn't change. For a moment, my old Night job and my new day-job crossed axes between my world and his. I found I couldn't be mad at him. Could I shake my fist at the black stormclouds, or hurl epithets at the Columbia River in its mad plunge down the Gorge to the coast?
Just before the paddy-wagon bumped up over the curb (yellow light flashing, blue-suited behemoths bailing from the cab with plastic Zip-tie cuffs in blue-gloved fists,) the old Indian opened his eyelids and showed me his empty sockets. Then he stood, bowed and removed the tarp from the cart.
It was like an old sitcom, I thought maddeningly, an empty punchline layered in a gigantic box with wrapping paper and a bow, full of nothing but stuffing and one tiny jellybean, except in this case . . .
A hoary acorn squash, big as a man's head, its outer skin frost-burned the same color as his own. I focused my life-force and made my Night-eyes come on the whole way, screaming from within, screaming to See, See, See, in your Mother's name, See---
Inside the hollow squash, two souls entwined. Her thighs clamped him immobile, his hoary hands pinned back her upraised wrists. He penetrated her with glacial slowness. She trembled and moaned, her face in his neck. Her exhale penetrated him, again, again, again . . . For the last time.
Their Eternity was over. Creation could reset. Where once were Two. . . came one. The body of the former He-half, his clay, Keeper of their incidental afterlife, folded into itself as the big men with guns punched and kicked its ribs, sending the life from it.
One of the cops knocked over the shopping cart. The hollow squash rattled once, splitting down the middle, releasing . . .
I shook myself. Somewhere, I could swear I heard a newborn's barbaric yawp. Then one of the thugs across the street pointed his Maglite beam in my direction. I ran like I was underage and high.
At Seventieth and Duke, I was felled by a stitch in my side, right by a pay phone. The newspapers could call me back if they wanted. The CopWatch people probably checked their voicemail regularly.
Inside, I was wondering what to tell Rob, or for that matter, myself. My day-eyes had just seen a homeless mental patient murdered by public servants. My day-mind was making my body shake and ache in useless, hopeless rage. I was five-two and a hundred and thirty pounds. I could have done nothing to stop it. But . . . but . . .
But old Joe Campbell would have gently pointed out that some ghosts only stick around long enough to pass on their stories to someone who understands. At the first sign of something better than a blank look, their work is done.
When I got off the phone with a very sleepy stringer at the Oregonian, I deep-breathed my way through the rush of adrenalin and epinephrine and cold black fear, and made my way back to the car wash. I brought a plastic bag I found hanging on the fence near the place where I went back and got my bike. In the interim, someone had stolen my headlight. By then, I could have cared less.
I gathered the shattered shards of squash, and the two big seeds, and buried them in my back garden. I never told Rob anything. He assumed I couldn't sleep and went for a walk.
But Rob's been working in the yard a lot, now that it's March and the skies are clearing. He brought me outside a few hours ago to show me the small vine already busy with varicolored squash blooms he couldn't understand.
"Nature does what it wants, in this neighborhood, " I shrugged, trying not to let my eyes betray me. Then I walked quickly back in the house so Rob wouldn't see me cry.
This story is for James Chasse
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