Black Dog

 

Fear.

That delicate sweet fear, it gave his life a sharpness, a spice. That sacred panic which embraced him no matter what he was doing; smoking, drinking heavily, having uncomfortable conversations, leaving his squalid flat for the grim outside, it touched him each second. Every action taken and every action untaken.

All promises were guided by that gut feeling, a feeling which he had felt since before he could remember. An apocalyptic mindset, which had set his mind longing to wander. A feeling that every moment he was on the verge of a monumental discovery that would change his life beyond all recognition, yet which he knew he could never reach unless he moved. A hunted man, but hunted by what?

When he was in the world he would try to pass through it as a normal person, but people could smell the difference on him, they could feel the emotion in every gesture and most would avoid his friendship, themselves fearing the feeling he gave to them. An emotion that is so necessary to survival, yet one that has been turned into a social evil. Fear, they would think, makes a person less of a man. Less human.

Not to say that he had no friends, individuals attract others and he had a group of people that he loved dearly. They were a surrogate family of individuals, each one with a past as colourful as a Caravaggio biblical scene.

When he wasn’t drinking with his accidental tribe, he would sit alone in his room writing in a thick black book searching his own mind for a clue to himself, writing as if his life depended on that book. And it did. All his true thoughts, his self-analysis, his weaknesses were stored in those pages. No one ever got to see its contents, no printer would ever print its secrets, as banal and wearisome as they were, they were his.

He had been writing in thick black books for ten odd years and as soon as he finished one, he would re-read it once over, then burn it. After the sacrifice came the ritual. He would collect the remnants, stand on his balcony and scatter the ashes to the winds as if they were of a dead relative in an urn. He protected these books like a she-wolf would protect her cubs.

He awoke one Saturday with the usual blinding headache and mild nausea of a hangover and pulled himself off his bed sheets that were damp with his perspiration. The sickness took the fear over for only a minute or two then his morning groggy mind began to feel flooded with it once more. He felt two thoughts at the same time, the first being – Still alive, the second being – Cigarettes. And so sitting on the edge of his bed, he reached over to grab his papers and tobacco, knocking over an ancient copy of Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. He liked reading Miller, it made him feel good; he enjoyed the depictions of sleaze and the rotting world done with an almost maniacal glee. How he turned all that people consider low or dirty into something to be cherished. He felt that way about himself. How his terror had become his god and he wouldn’t wish life to be any other way. He rolled and smoked his morning cigarette with an almost religious feeling of ritual, and smiled as he watched the smoke curl into the air. It was the simple enjoyment of seeing the world as it was for a moment. He finished his fag, stubbed it out and began to read Miller again when memories of the previous night’s conversations entered his waking brain and he began to chuckle. The previous evening’s meditations were as chaotic as the people speaking, the subjects had been –

getting laid,

the awfulness of the local brew,

how the locals deserved the repressive government they had ended up with as they did nothing to help themselves,

the merits of cunnilingus,

how in an unnatural society the highest state of evolution was individual thought and that survival of the fittest meant nothing more than those who were willing to adapt to situations not those who are content with their own happiness,

concern about a friend’s mental disintegration,

and so-on…

He caught himself grinning and at once stopped himself, as he was afraid of joy most of all. Joy was the feeling that possessed him, used him and left him more fearful than ever. Sometimes he would let himself be taken over by it just to feel its sting, but not today. The feeling that it may be the last time he felt true joy, that joy of nothing else but life, sent him running to the bathroom to vomit all the contents of his stomach into the death-white toilet bowl. He returned to his unruly room and began to fight with his kettle in order to make himself a strong black cup of bitter coffee, to wash the taste of his own stomach acid out of his mouth.

Around two in the afternoon he began to write, and as he did so he became overcome by thoughts, or to be more precise by thought itself. Putting so much of himself, of his soul into his book left him exhausted and at around six o’clock he stopped. Emptying his ashtray overflowing with tiny little corpses of fag ends that he had chain-smoked his way through while writing, he went over to the fridge and opened himself a can of beer which he drained in less than a minute. Then he fell fast to sleep.

His dreams were a mishmash of images yet amalgamated into one final sequence that he would remember when he awoke…

he was in the desert and found himself watching a herd of wild elephants passing him by. He looked around and saw the scorched wasteland with its forlorn looking trees and scrubs of vegetation. His consciousness then became directed to a single animal, a decrepit bull that could not pull itself up to stand. A younger, stronger elephant was trying its best to drag the older one onto its back. The ancient beast began to scream with desperation as suddenly from out of nowhere a pack of black wild dogs began to attack the herd of pachyderms. To his horror he saw that the leader of the pack was an evil loathsome mutt that he knew he had dreamt of somewhere and at sometime before. This despicable hound began to break ranks and dash straight towards the ancient, pathetic elephant. He suddenly felt himself running to save the older bull, he knew he must, he knew that there was something of himself dying there. So he began to push the elephant in tandem with beating the gnashing dog at the elephant’s feet. He struggled and lashed out in a frenzy of hatred at his enemy, his nemesis. He finally managed to shove the beast onto the stronger creature’s back and as he did so kicked his adversary, his affliction squarely in its disgusting face…

Suddenly he awoke sweating, trembling and gasping for breath, it was nighttime and his phone was ringing.

I imagine him waking up, the images of the dream stuck fast behind his eyes. Answering the phone, not really wanting to share his company with others; making lame excuses which his friends see right through and with the art of gentle persuasion and humour they force him to leave his apartment for theirs. He wanders almost aimlessly, on autopilot down backstreets, past noisy Thai restaurants cooking to the sound of atonal music with fire leaping from huge woks and tender-eyed Moroccans making this deal or that. Into the neon-filled night he notices none of them, his world reduced to the memory of his evening dream. How much do dreams affect our waking state? To what degree do they exert an influence on our lives and therefore our actions or inactions? Some believe that they are nothing more than a reflection of our awakened selves, others that they contain our repressed desires, yet almost every ancient culture deifined dreams as being portentous and our link to the otherworld or the divine. In our age of therapy culture and rational Freudian psychoanalysis have we not still failed to get an answer that truly satisfies?

He pressed the buzzer on the apartment door and within a few seconds the door was opened by a welcoming Swedish smile and in a few seconds more he found a beer had been shoved into his patient sweaty hands. There were seven people cramped into the small apartment, six he knew, one he didn’t, but he greeted everybody anyway and found a space on the bed to start drinking. The evening’s psycho-drama was already in full swing. Miles Davis was loudly proclaiming his mastery of the situation and a single figure was acting out the commands of others to the sounds of the sweet jazz. The state of affairs was this –

the lone absurd actor was playing cards with a group of Mafiosa and was cheating. One of Mob guys starts to become suspicious and therefore very angry as there is a lot of money at stake on the table, but the actor continues to cheat and feign innocence. There were various gigglings and lewd comments flying around the bedsit floor-cum-makeshift theatre. The actor acts in an over dramatic way as he tries to deal mentally with the situation and the seductively sad music, and there is a hint of pathos in his parody of a performance. The storyline had gotten passed from one person to the next, until it was bled dry and the actor had been brutally beaten and murdered by his assailants. How else could it have ended?

Each member of the party went through the ritual and the more they drank, the more absurd and surreal the imaginary situations became. Some involving sex with a dominatrix, others with Godzilla tearing their adopted city apart with spiteful glee until it came to his turn. As he wrenched himself away from his beer bottle and stood up, he took one last swig with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man. Then it began.

– … Uuhh, you’re in the desert, it’s hot and there’s a scorching wind blowing dust in your eyes…

He felt a great surge of emotion well up inside his stomach. He stopped listening for a second and stood frozen to the spot. – …’erd of elephants, an’ you see this old fuckin’ bull elephant, right? An’ ‘e’s fucked, right? E’ can’t get oop…

He just stood there, glued to spot. Hardly breathing, not thinking, just listening and feeling. Feeling like rabbit caught in a car’s headlights. Seeing his friends grinning in the dingy half-light of the room, seeing their teeth and eyes reflected by the light from a lamp, seeing their canine smiles. An audience to his humiliation, to his execution.

– … Ay, wassa matta?

He suddenly turned and ran to the toilet and heaved with sweat pouring down his face and back, hearing his friends’ voices in the next room with their curious drunken tones. He washed his face in the sink, opened the door and apologetically smiled at everyone there. Everybody showed concern on their faces and he made his excuses, saying that it was probably something he ate and that he’d been feeling unwell all day but could he get another beer? He drank the beer quietly and the conversation moved along of its own course, avoiding all talk and enquiries of the previous ten minutes. A movie was shown, a useless American comedy but one that served to break the strange atmosphere that had built up inside their two hundred and forty square feet world. He watched the movie, finished a second bottle of beer then made his excuses and went home, much to the protest of the host, but he promised to visit him again the next day and the protests were nulled.

That night he could not sleep. Can you see him? On the one hand, he really needed to relax, to regain his strength both physically and mentally. And seeing as he had accepted his fear, one might say that he should have indulged himself, taken a chance to see where his unconscious mind would have taken him but the night’s experience had disturbed him. So all he could do was stare into the room’s blackness. Black. The colour of nothingness, yet if you mix every other colour together on a palate what shade do you create?

The colour of depression, of the bad guys, of shadows. The night’s sky, that reflection of the beginning of the universe, of the primal firestorm, it is no coincidence that it is black. Same as the feelings of our animal instincts.

A couple of days later, he decided to go down to a local second hand English bookstore to see what he could find. He had spent the previous forty-eight hours drifting in and out of a thankfully dreamless sleep. He had managed to stop himself fully experiencing that cushion from reality and now he needed to leave his apartment as his hand ached from frenetically writing since the early hours of the morning. He arrived at the bookshop at around nine o’clock. It had just opened and he entered into the illusory safe and quiet realm of paper and ink. Bookshops always have the air of peacefulness, of cultured snobbery; but if you look behind the curtain you will find more blood and madness, murder, rape and death than in a hundred prisons. Look at the names – De Sade, Genet, Burroughs, Dostoevsky, Bukowski, Nietzsche … the list is unique. Each one of these writers wrote books that contain ideas that are not for everybody. It is not just a matter of taste. Some books are dangerous. Take “The Bible,” for instance. Or “Zarathustra.” How have these books been abused and misused, or how many people have become heroin addicts after reading “Junky.” Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, everyone is influenced by something or other and the writers should not be blamed for anything done in their name. Only for predictable and mediocre writing should a writer be criticized. That is the law.

He understood this. He passed the books dedicated to thirty-something working women, bad murder mysteries, political conspiracy blockbusters, and went straight to the literature section. At a glance he saw a couple of Kundera’s and a Gunter Grass or two. This made him happy. It just came down to deciding now. He pulled out one of the Kundera copies and as he did so another larger, fatter book became dislodged and fell to the floor. He bent down to pick it up, then he stopped in shock. The notebook had a pitch black cover and he recognised it instantly. Trembling he picked it up and opened it and, to his horror, the inside cover had messages all over it; from somebody as a gift, what looked like a teenaged girl’s love poem in bright purple ink, a scrawl in Japanese kanji. These scribbles seemed to be taunting him, inviting him back into his past. He began anxiously reading through the pages, odd passages here and there, merely glancing to confirm his disbelief in what he was reading. A moment later and he closed the book, looked furtively to the left then to the right and shoved the volume into the front of his trousers, pulling his T-shirt down over it. He proceeded to walk briskly out of the shop in a cold sweat and with that familiar tight sense of dread he headed for his home.

He did not dare to look into the book until he reached his room for fear of a reaction in public that would draw attention to him and amplify his already growing shame at his own very real confusion. But once he had locked his door he threw the object of his bewilderment onto his bed and stared at it with an intense look in his eyes that seemed to be willing the offending book to disappear. I mean truly, how would you feel? If you found that something so truly personal that you felt you could either keep or if not you would have no other choice than to destroy it for fear of someone else finding out something real about yourself, not the masks we wear in public life but something close to your very essence; say old love letters written to a mistress that you once loved more than your spouse, or a letter of goodbye to a friend dying of cancer that you never sent, and you found that it appeared in a shop, for sale amongst such items as clothing pegs or bathroom slippers. Tell me, how would you feel?

He stared and then sat quietly down and began to read. Recollections of his past began to seep into his brain, he began to recall why he wrote this passage or that sentence. He remembered where his psyche was at that stage in his life and he started to think about people and events that had taken him to where he was now. He began to feel nauseous at the nostalgic whispers in his head and tried to block them out with sensation, but even a cigarette and a glass of cheap whisky could not stem the tide of haunting images. The door inside his mind opened and all the phantoms he wished not to remember entered and started clamouring for space. There were reunitings and old arguments resumed, old fucks coming again and again, and drunken blackouts finally rediscovered.

Why do you think he always destroyed those books? It was not only for fear of being discovered but to continue living. To be done with each stage of his life as a snake sheds its skin, to be continually moving. On a constant crest of a wave. And now this. His head began to feel as if it was about to explode, the mental pressure pushing through all the rooms inside him, flooding him, knocking down even the locked doors with the ferocity of a cornered shark. This pain continued for some time, he clutching his head fighting against the past trying to push himself, to project himself to the furthest corner of the universe.

Then suddenly, he looked up and I can see all the mad things dancing in his eyes.

A couple of hours later, he went out to meet his friends. He had so much to tell them now. He would be more honest with them than he had ever been with anyone before in his life, after all they were his friends. He entered the cafĂ© early and waited for his friends to stumble in. He gazed around the small bar, a couple of people talking quietly, aimlessly. The place had a slightly Bohemian atmosphere, with scented oils burning, candles lighting the tables, the odd Japanese Buddha observing all. He ordered a small Espresso and waited, feeling like he was going to burst with the expectancy. More people had gathered in their small groups like drops of oil on a pan of water by the time his friends emerged from the evening’s dusky shadows. They all greeted each other and began talking. Talking of this or that occurrence or joking around, talking of work, of relationships, of their other friend’s trials and tribulations. All except him. He just sat there waiting for the right moment to speak, he would know it alright, that moment. Then some minutes later he blinked. He did not even notice the involuntary action of shutting and opening his eyelids. In that split second he knew it was the right moment. He began to talk, whispering at first, the sound gathering force with every syllable spoken, then he started singing his truths and finally he began laughing the words, laughing so hard that tears streamed down his face. Have you ever laughed through joy? His joy was the joy of fatherhood, his gift to the world, his baby had been born. He understood that his friends understood him. He knew because of their howling into the coming night. His friends and everyone else. A pack of black dogs howling, merging with his bliss amid his screams of delight.

And as I see him in my mind’s eye, my gaze rises into the deep young night’s sky, where the glorious stars are watching their mad child below and are rejoicing that it is his time to shine.

Jason Simon Michel may be reached at jprune(at)yahoo(dot)co(dot)uk
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