A Quick Existence

I was sitting behind a pine tree in the low shade, long grasses turning to straw in the heat around me, bent and trampled, reading a book, and the tree blew in the wind, throwing the shadows back and forth across the words on the slightly yellowed pages, making them more intoxicating. The whole landscape was ethereal every time I lifted my head, the goldenrod in the distance, where the mowed lawn stopped and a small swamp, that smelled stagnant, led into a forest. Behind me, music throbbed out over the surface of a parking lot, and several people roamed around on the tar, smoking. I had been reading too much–the words were so sensual that they were as real as the existence around me, and I would become absorbed, wanting to talk in long streams of overwhelmed language every time I raised my head. In the brick building, punk band after punk band was playing. Occasionally I’d have the urge to get up and join the music inside the building, but a quiet kind of melancholy, that I liked, kept me from it. Cymbals crashed and the trees lashed back and forth in the wind, softly, the breeze cutting between the branches and rustling the leaves. I peeked around the tree and a friend, standing on the tar, waved to me, flicking a cigarette into the air, that bounced on the tar with a shower of sparks. I felt like I had been asleep for a long time, at least since I had woken up on someone’s floor that morning, with sunlight streaming across a short, bedraggled rug, ashes and beer bottles, none of which were my own, scattered around me and birds squawking outside the window, their cries invitations to the world. I had grown quiet, lately, and found it hard to speak to people with any emphasis, after moving several times in the past year and finding myself now several hundred miles from my girlfriend, without a job and without a consistent place to stay.

When I looked back at the book it was a dead thing, no longer a transportation to another world, but flat, unremarkable, like a plain sidewalk that didn’t lead anywhwere. So I got up, joined the friend who had just waved at me, and entered the building, the music swelling around me as I went in. The band members were jumping around with real energy, slamming into each other and whipping at the cords of their instruments with frantic hands, and I got the chills, as I always did when hearing any kind of passionate music. But at some point I had started to overthink everything, absolutely everything. Rather than just enjoying the music, I had to wonder what it meant, what it would mean in one hundred years–or maybe that thought was really supposed to mean, “what will I mean in one hnudred years?”. My writing had become increasingly tormented, to the point of near-psychosis, the characters in my stories overturning coffee tables and throwing things through windows at the slightest provocation, and acting generally like sociopaths, which was likely how I would be acting if I didn’t write the stories. Something was creeping up on me, I felt, a realization of some kind, a revelation that would make this fall into place, the doubt, or the lack of direction, behind the music, and behind my own life and art, more coherent–or destroy it completely. The music paused and then went into another song, banging away, beautifully, the lead guitarist reaching a kind of violent triumph, his spiked of blue hair trembling as he screamed into the mike. I loved everyone who made good music–music was the force behind life, I felt, something imperfect but holy nonetheless. I grabbed at it for more and more meaning all the time, and was starting to grab at nature in the same way–snatching at it for some sign of transcendence. There was a force in me that needed a clear target, that was like an airplane that kept taxing down the runway and never quite taking off. I would stand on the fire escape during the sunset over the half-wrecked industrial town I lived in, listening to headphones and staring at the sunset, which was usaully a violent red, every night, and grab at the whispering behind it the same way I did when I listened to music.

The drummer hit the cymbals in a crescendo, and the guitarists shrugged the straps off their shoulders, grinning at each other, sweat dripping from their faces. The lead singer had screamed himself horse, but his expression was calm, Buddha-like and soft, as if he had spent all his life’s venom in this room, venting it through the speakers. I looked closely at his face, studying him carefully, which was another thing I had been doing lately, looking at people so closely that they seemed to pale under my glance. I had the unfortunate habit of wanting to understand everything, or at least experience it more deeply thatn most people did. I had grown up in a religious home, where I felt paralyzed, so in the outside world I had always been astonished by the amount of freedom that people had, and wondered why they, and I, didn’t do more with it. These thoughts were beginning to make my life intolerable. The singer with the blue hair, who was a friend of mine, held up a pair of scissors and smiled at me as he went past. Earlier he had planned to cut off the spikes, in order to strip himself of his assembled punk identity and get closer to himself, and to see how his changed appearance would alter others’ reactions to him. I followed him outside and offered to help him cut off the spikes—I was happy to perform something like this, since I always felt a need of greater intimacy with people and any way of stripping down their exterior was something I was in favor of. He stood on the lawn as I stepped outside, with a few people gathering around him, and the scissors were too dull, they kept getting caught in his hair when he tried to close the blades. Someone took out a long, sharp, glistending knife and offered it to him. He grinned and took it, then handed it to me. Fading sunlight danced off the end of the knife and I starting sawing through the hairspray-clotted spikes, one by one. They fell on the grass, blue neon on the freshly cut green, somewhat jarring. As we sliced them off another friend of mine spoke into a dictaphone, recording his thoughts, which were getting increasingly chaotic. He played his voice back, the tones crackling in the air through the tinny speaker, and I looked over my friend’s half-shorn head into the sunset, which was red again, like something cut open. Another spike dropped to the ground as the dictaphone played back an earlier entry, from when my friend had been living in the woods, and a comment about considering suicide dragged over us in the air. It seemed to become part of the red in the sunset as he played it, the gasping, grasping desperate voice, alone late at night, drunk and stumbling in the woods. I had been to the place that he had documented, and as I heard his voice come from the small speaker, I could feel as if my own soul had been inside his body, as he walked through the forest, my own nerves replacing his as his hands lingered on treetrunks for support as he walked, tripping over roots and speaking into the tiny machine. I cut the last spike off the guitarist’s head, and looked up at the one playing the dictaphone, seeing that he had a sheepish, embarrassed look on his face, his mouth crumpling in a grimace that was half a rueful smile. I smiled back at him with sympathy.

We all had separate urges to find something lasting, something sure, concrete, in ourselves, but the urge didn’t seem to be bring us any closer to ourselves, or to anything solid. I walked back to my spot in shadow behind the pine tree and started reading the book again, across the parking lot, taking one lock of my friend’s shorn blue hair with me, a jagged spike, looking like an alien object. I used it as a bookmarker, still unable to focus on reading, and looked back to the scene I had left, where several girls were running their small white hands over my friend’s freshly-cut head, smiling. The one with the dictaphone was speaking into it again, documenting every minute, as his disgusted girlfriend looked on. She had a small chin that receded slightly from her mouth and gave her a very dark shadowed frown when she was angry, and she had that grimace on now, her mouth puckered in distaste, irritated with him for recording himself and his thoughts, detaching himself from reality by documenting it so obsessively. She walked off across the yard and sat in a crab-apple tree, balancing in the fork, as he continued to rant, and the other bands, carrying their equipment, gathered on the lawn, most of them looking happy. Those of us who were questioning, tormented by something nameless, were separated from them by a kind of shroud, a fog that lingered around us. Tension grew in my belly as I looked at the glowering girl in the fork of the apple tree, her thin arms crossed and her hair blowing almost imperceptibly in the distance. Her separation resembled mine, but was different in that I wasn’t distressed by anyone in the group, only estranged from them—or maybe my alienation was an illusion. My friend with the tape recorder walked over the the tree and rejoined his girlfriend, and tried to placate her, their shadows in the fork of the tree holding hands, trying to make peace, as the sun got lower. It brought a tear to my eye. I felt an intense sympathy with people, especially when I saw them in desolate scenes, but wasn’t sure how to touch them with the feeling that I got. So I often remained in the distance like this, watching their dramas play out like they were on a stage. I got up and walked toward the woods.

The last band was playing, to a diminishing crowd, most of which had filtered out onto the lawn in front of the building, and the music served as a soundtrack to my journey, wherever it was taking me. I looked through the forest and saw that it was only a small section of trees, just before a hill, that dropped after them. I looked through the sparse branches, the illusion of a deep forest disintegrating, and down below saw building after building, many of them hotels, red lights shining on the tops of thirty or forty stories of porches and white plastic chairs replicating themselves. Alone, detached from the movement of the city below, it looked like a slightly dingy heaven, like something distant and unreachable. Cymbals smashed, and leaves waved in the wind. I clenched my fists and felt unutterably alone in the world. These desolate scenes had taken over my mind—if I was distracted from my life for a moment, they would flash past–hotel windows looking over an expanse of snow, long streets passing under blinking traffic lights with no traffic, train tracks with no trains, rust, concrete, an occasional bum passing through the whole empty scene, but mostly just the expanse, the expanse of so much loneliness, so many cracked sidewalks, so many rough-barked trees and silent cats, and alleyways, all yawning like mouths. Scenery of any kind had a powerful hold on me–the urge to turn every room, every face, into a poem, to frame it in a space that I could understand, was overpowering, and when I got a job the room would whirl around me as I tried to capture it all. I would stand at a dish sink, for instance, and it would be raining outside on the tar, blackening it, and the road would call to me, each drop landing making a commanding signal, an urgency to explore, to find other human beings with this trapped desire. The problem was that if not many other people showed the same frenzied urge, that you would begin to naturally stifle it, thinking it insane. It was unhealthy because it built up an interior frenzy that made your features freeze and your mind seem to clog up with thoughts, with endless questioning.

I could smell the swamp behind me, like a whisper to my senses. It called me back to physical reality, which was something I was always in danger of leaving. I walked back past the pine tree and into the clearing of the parking lot, and watched people getting into their cars, detached from the process. It was strange—ever since I could remember I had always been vaguely on the outskirts of any group that I was associated with, some uncommon element keeping me always on the outside, feeling somewhat stranded but curious as to why. The boy and girl in the distance detached themselves, shadows lengthening, from the apple tree, and, holding hands, came back to the ground, faces pale and drawn but relieved, as if from crying. I loved them, and pitied their emotional fragility. Maybe the whole world needed more emotional fragility. People, in general, were a wonder to me–they lived in an unspeakably incredible environment, yet seemed barely to notice. The huge clouds rolling overhead, the raging music bursting from a small room in the middle of nowhere, they had gotten used to these things, and most didn’t treat them as miracles anymore. I wanted to know why, but also recognized that I myself didn’t always move through life with enough obvious passion–maybe because I hadn’t yet found a way to communicate it to people, maybe because writing was a solitary medium. Several car horns honked and amps were loaded into trunks, the instruments that had been plugged into them before now detached, soundless, and the landscape of the city beyond now the loudest noise, but only a hum. There was something illusory about it, even in its immensity, and it glowed like a dream in the distance as conversations and cigarette-smoke drifted past on the quiet, warm tar. A churchbell rang in the distance, a dulled metallic bong. Church. A distant universe to most of us. I placed my faith only in the solitary voices, in the strange and tormented individualists who made art out of the near-nothingness of their lives, who made the world sing and dance even against its will. There were many others who had felt what I felt, who had felt alienated, strange, passionate but trapped, but many of them were dead and I was starting to question where their theories had lead them, and where my thoughts would lead me. Before I had left the town I had been staying in, my relationship with my girlfriend had been troubled, by this distance created by too much desperate thought, too much dissatisfaction. I could feel her bright red hair, as shocking in its appearance as sudden blood from a wound, brushing against me every time I closed my eyes between the conversations, and feel her body beneath me on a distant bed, but I was disconnected and I had the nagging feeling that I would never see her again. The same feeling had always come to me in airports, at bus stations, in doctor’s offices, in restaurants—Something is going to happen. Somebody is not going to arrive. The person you’re waiting to meet isn’t ever going to get here. It was a persistent, nagging paranoia, that I always tried to brush aside. But it stayed, a thought that clung like an odor, a vacancy, a missed connection. Someone tapped my shoulder. I felt like an ice sculpture. I got into a car and we streamed off through the glowing city as night fell, memories tumulting through me like a terrible waterfall, flickering as if lit up by passing flashbulbs or headlights. I felt sterile, not in a clean comfortable way, but in a scoured metallic way, untouched by my surroundings. My eyes grabbed at things so hard that my body was beginning to feel like a viewscreen, and a feeling of forboding lingered behind everything. It was going to be a long, long summer, I thought. Was there a certain point of alienation from which a human being could not return? Had I been hammered past the point of normal human communication? A friend tapped me on the knee. I looked to my side and his teeth were like a small sun, his smile carefree, for the moment, and wide, small shards of remaining hairsprayed blue hair glittering on his head in the passing streetlights. It was temporary. We were temporary. The people passing on the sidewalk would be mostly forgotten in a hundred years, as would most of the music coursing through my head. The sky was an immense dome, and above the hotels that stood high on either side of the car, some of which I had stayed in, watching the evening newscasters with icy faces in white, quite rooms, it stretched past into a lower hemisphere, it kept reaching past the horizon, into other time-zones where the sun was shining on other landscapes. It almost hurt to look at it for the wonder that it was. Maybe that was why we had roofs–not just to keep out the weather, but to keep out the awe. But I had lived in the woods before, and so had my friend with the dictaphone, and he was no longer entirely immune to it, and I was nearly paralyzed by it. His recording played back in the car’s small claustrophobic interior–

“Lately it seems like people are…distant…I can’t get a handle on what it is, I just feel like people aren’t real, or don’t want to be…it freaks me out…” the tape cackled, and he pressed a button to turn it off, the hiss of the speaker seeming to reflect the machine world around us, the hiss of technology behind his speech, invading, molded together with it. I pictured the tape unwinding, unrolling, unravelling, its information unreachable. Temporary. We’re temporary. Then why do I feel, while watching all these bus stops and shop fronts go by, that none of us will ever cease to exist. Why do I feel the nagging of…eternity? My poems were cluttered with streetlamps and parking lots, eye-make-up, shopping carts and headlights–anything but the real world of flesh and blood, except for a few scatological details. I was running from something in reality, but certainly not its harshness, not its power–I had thoroughly acknowledged that, I thought. My girlfriend’s eyes in my memory joined the silvery street landscape, her huge eyes, prematurely tired in her very young face, crying. Grabbing at me for something. Something I didn’t have, some permanent knowledge I didn’t have.

Luke Buckham is a prolific contributor to Spread.