Recesses of Solitude

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*

 

What is life, if not a torrent of consciousness within a dream? Pleased to make your acquaintance, you say. Handshake. Then sleep, then rise, followed by an emotion, one or two, some activity followed by inactivity, an unvoiced sentiment, a white lie, a watery eye, a pang of hope before the fear, at once repeat. The days come on like a procession of immutable clouds. Suddenly the day of a season strikes, the first cold of autumn perhaps, ripping from the vaults of retained history an adulterated memory, eroded by time, warped in its essence by the mind’s wont to avoid discomfort. It harmonizes like wine the bad deed, the missed opportunity, the awkward confrontation with Jon, a dead love’s burial, a once open heart, all the regret of a bygone forgotten day. Everything is thus clear, and nothing is distorted except the infinity of future, including the very minute on your watch. Time. As real as the imagined ether poised in a fool’s paradise, as imposing as a child’s fancy. Your wrist, though tired of its wear, is naked without the dial of time. But you ignore it for now. You’ve no time for all the time in the world. Better to move along. You don’t want to keep you waiting. There’s a good dear.

 

*

 

Lawrence let his pen fall. It rolled to the side of a notebook and came to rest in the beveled frame of the weathered pine writing desk. He was alone, in his apartment, the year was 1972, the city, Charleston. He sat, melancholy, not because he had any great facility for misery, but because he knew that happy he was as skilled as dirt at composition. All of his recent paragraphs terminated by a loathsome retreat into the enigmatic dwells of “time”. Time mends all, he thought, but not the gaping wound of not having ever accomplished a single worthy verse. His sentences were trite, his vocabulary vile with pathetic boundaries, his thoughts someone else’s. He’d used the word “sultry” several times in a short paragraph describing the sea, and later realized with despair the ugliness of the adjective employed in close succession. He longed after literary achievement, deluded himself with the occasional worthy string of words, but would buckle finally on realizing the vanity of his aspirations.

 

Lately, as always, his labors at writing were endowed with commonplace trinkets: a story about a love unrequited, a man gone astray into the forest, a clichéd travel monologue, and an unintended plagiarism of de Maupassant. Nothing seemed to strike. Lawrence brooded for whole evenings, yet none of his cogitations ever managed to inspire the lucidity he longed for. For months, it seemed, not a single original thought had even dared to creep near the fringes of his musings. He attempted a story while in liquor, but found that while he thought like a genius, he wrote like a child. He took walks in foreign districts of the city, discovered the lack of wonder in nature by a brook, struck up conversations with strangers, paid for sex, read Proust again, left his doors unlocked at night, and tried to terrify himself in the eccentric quarters of his lodgings in the early darksome hours of morning in the vain hope that Poe would spawn. In short, he did everything he could conceive of to release himself from the writer’s block that stayed his hand from prose, his mind from creation, his quality of living from the quality of his destiny.

 

It dawned, then, upon him. He was seated in a yellow torn upholstered chair hard by his writing desk, a pistol, unloaded, tickling the soft grain of his temple. The end of the barrel was cold, and the hotness of a brain swollen with pride and self-pity was chilled by the cool steel. To write about what? Something. Some. Thing. To write about a thing within a thing. A thing within a thing within a thing. Suddenly all efforts to arrive at the great work, the intellectually stunning masterpiece, the particular sheen of the brilliant aesthetic, were obliterated as the glimmer of a faint prospect was born of a trance. He returned to the desk and continued where he had left off.

 

*

 

Atticus placed his pen on the failing table. He studied the paragraph on the page. Why must he obsess over time? What was time to him but a plaything, a nothingness advanced only by the manmade attributes of its theory: hands for the seconds, minutes, hours, numbers one through twelve for the monotonous division of days, months, years. He began to write again.

 

*

 

Really, how could you keep one waiting so? Time will motivate or destroy you. It’s a frightful earth when you’re alone. You sense it first without divining its truth. You sense that glimmer of hope in the open fields of the unknown, the obscure, the untouched upon depths of what it really means to be a human being. You peer, if you are a member of that privileged class, through an as yet unbroken telescope to realize the first pulses of affectivity for another of your species, and if momentarily blessed, the fortune of a requited gaze. The gaze enters you, belongs to you, can be stolen only through death, like the lucent white crown of a lily is wrecked in the surge of a wave. And then you realize the inevitability of the surge and the consequence of destruction once time has uprooted the lily from its resplendence. Amidst the wreckage of petals and torn greens, you peer again, only this time through the absurd distortion of a kaleidoscope, where the prospect of a union with the one that returned your gaze is impossible in this world, and thus, impossible per se. There is no love after the surge, and you accept that the closest you came was in the virginal commencement of courtship from afar, where the love was pure, not sullied, eternal, not the contrary, where the lily was but a painting in the distance and not the mass of dying cells in your hand. You prepare yourself for a life alone, in which you’ll perish, not as the animated lily reborn from the cycle of life, but as a mass of dead matter, as insignificant as a lit match dropped in water. You don’t despair from this, because you don’t despair simply by finally appreciating one of the basic tenets of the human condition.

 

*

 

Lawrence stared intensely into the words on the page. He contemplated the name of his protagonist, Atticus. Was Atticus a profounder man than he? What torrent of consciousness could he erect when once-removed from the control of the man inhabiting his paper? Taking up the pistol, Lawrence walked to a mirror and pointed it at a man wearing his face in the reflection of the glass. Who was Atticus? A man for one. A writer. A blank slate of a fellow to nourish or murder. The writer must write about something. A thing within a thing within a thing. Lawrence set himself to task. He placed the pistol on the mantle, walked back to his desk where he took up his pen and wrote fervently.

 

*

 

Atticus contemplated his second paragraph. The traffic in the street below his window had subsided. Only the occasional drunk was heard, the nightly calls to the moon howling in the empty streets. Atticus had a clear motive but was lacking in a certain profuseness necessary for the stream of conscious he cherished in his favorite authors. To write about life and love, what were they to him, a nameless bank clerk bachelor in post-Depression-era Cleveland, a city where the rats were celebrated more than he? A man devoid of a single sensible motive, a man beyond the fray and ignored, not like the old gentleman gone to pasture, but as the superfluous masked nonentity of a man at the station. A lonely, desperate man scraping for a living and working vainly to pen the next great work for sale to the proud masses. Jaded, alone, he began to write, almost because there was nothing else to do.

 

*

 

The earth is alive with a finite number of moments for any one man, woman, and child, Atticus wrote. To live is to exist exquisitely in each, good or bad, the first time you smell the zestful scent of a woman’s skin and the instance of your first broken limb. The scents, the sounds, the cuts and fractures of skin and bone and sinews, all tucked delicately in the brain to haunt the future, where time continues to haunt you too. What is life, if not a torrent of consciousness within a dream? He reread his first paragraph, and then continued to write the story of Thomas Shipley.

 

*

 

What is life, if not a string of waking moments tinged by the slight folds of existence within a dream? Handshake. Then sleep, then rise, followed by hope for a spell, then exile, despair, alone in the vast wilderness of Maine in 1892, an abandoned cottage, an abandoned life, a man on the brink of destruction from within, departing from his reason but somehow aware of the reasonableness of going mad in the obscenity of a frozen forest. Shipley, a bachelor of thirty-three years, had walked away from his miserable career erecting the Calais Free Library in his native town. On the job one day he had attempted to fling himself into the wet cement of the library’s foundation. He had fled in search of enlightenment, in search of the reason for his existence, determined to discover the mystery of life from nature and within himself. Months had passed. Summer turned to autumn and soon winter descended like a permanent kingdom. Time hung over him in the form of the sun, its austral rays mocking the disease of cold that flooded the air despite the brightness of light in those abbreviated winter days. The December winds racked the one-room timbered cottage that creaked and swayed in the howling nights, when Shipley would sit awake staring into the pit of embers that seemed to contain more life than the quiet man who passed the time in happiness and sorrow, depending on the memory.

 

Shipley recalled to mind his first vision of Abigail, a faded vision now, her form something only of color, her face something of a blurred sum total. Then her radiant vermilion lips advanced against the suppressed bubble of her opaque face, clarified in the immediacy of space between the physical existence of a former era and the profuse memory that, while not eternal, defied the erosion that time works upon the corporeal world. And then they were gone, soaked into the coals that warmed the tips of his boots in that remote corner of earth. The chimney screamed, the roof swayed. A spark shot from the fire and landed near the hearth where it charred the wooden plank that was its final resting place. There would be another day, Shipley thought. And then another. And perhaps another still in that wicked tundra that knew not the sufferings of man nor the passage of time. The food supply was low, the coal nearly gone. A knife that Shipley intended on turning against himself mocked him from a tabletop.

 

What is life, he thought, but a prelude to eternal nonexistence? Happy marriages, ignored funerals, obsession with self such as this, a banal game of wait before the axe of time slashes one’s throat with dispassion. An incredible undertaking of acquiring as much knowledge as possible and then dying with it. A headstone that marks the period of my life and identifies my name, as though either are superior to a blank slate moored in the transient soil. Flowers near the headstone that, like the body below their vibrant colors, will wilt and turn to barren dust. There is no cycle, no renaissance of soul nor any soul at all, and you’re left beneath the earth to decay and become simply a part of it in the continuum of space. Shipley uncorked his final bottle of Canadian whiskey, flinging the cork into the fire where it was set ablaze instantly by the fiery bedding of cinders and hot ash. He took a long, measured draught from the brown neck. Not the faintest twitch overcame his countenance.

 

He thought momentarily on his birth, or what he envisioned it as. His mother cursing another mouth at an already burdened table; his father sorry for the plight of the helpless babe that was sure to want nearly for everything. His brother, Henry, appeared as though an apparition in the flames of the dying cork, a silent screaming face of a boy, snuffed out by the surrounding air. Shipley took another long draught from the bottle. The warm liquid clung to his insides and melted away in the nether regions of his tired organs. An encroaching pine scraped across the wooden roof as the wind gusted, its needles brushing along the corner of the broken shingles. Snowdrifts shed their peaks, and a deep, terrifying whistle rolled throughout the land.

 

Shipley could feel his past accompanying him in the room. The bristly charms of his grandfather’s mustache scratched at his face, or was it ash in the air? His sister played house in the corner with an imaginary set of china, singing softly to herself. The notes, distended from the fountains of reflection, had a soothing quality, every word in key, the consonants and vowels muted to the gentle sounds of certain harmonious syllables. The voice was mezzo-soprano, though lost on Shipley, to whom it had only the distinction of a purely female, purely beautiful quality. The song hung in the air. His sister was gone, yet the music flourished, suspended in the air like the pregnant expectation of applause at the first fall of a curtain. From the corner of his eye he could see the knife hanging in the air above the table, bowing across the strings of a cello held by a stranger without eyes, nose, or mouth. He turned his head, but at the instant of movement the savage image from his peripheral vision disappeared. The uncontrolled dirges of the wind and the stillness of the room returned. The sweet nectar of momentary awareness thrilled Shipley’s spine.

 

The purpose, he thought. What is the purpose of eating bread for another day? It was not the only question, but it was the most natural, save for taking in breath. Time will present me with another moment of hunger, when the nourishment of supper wears off and the belly is anxiously lying in wait to be fed, like a hungry dog whining for its bowl. The constraints of living outweigh the liberties, of this there is certainty. Breath, water, food, sleep, the occasional service of medicine, what precedence they take over your fishing hobby and your stamp collection! What preeminence these necessaries of life enjoy, to cause one man to tear out another man’s eye for a bucket of water, or to kill a man’s family for the scant meat of a rotting deer carcass. Put all your other passions aside, the pursuit of money, the pleasure of satisfying the carnal instinct for sexual intercourse, power over your fellow man, these are nothing in comparison to the ultimate exigency of water for a parched throat. I can’t however, see the purpose in my life, thought Shipley, the purpose of swallowing a single morsel henceforward. It is at an end. The man with the featureless face staring at me from the window has made it his bidding.

 

*

 

Atticus stepped back from the table, pocketing his hands and then holding his palms against his hips, cocking his head to one side and removing one hand to scratch a non-existent itch atop his forehead. He’d arrived again, as he did with all his work, at a point of dwelling on the carnal platitudes, describing the human at its most basic. He was disappointed with the devolution he caused in Shipley, a tedious case of suicide from the beginning. To go from the lofty eloquence of amorous reflection to the mundane waters of nihil, it was unfortunate. What had happened to his lily and its crown? He thought seriously of tearing the pages and dispersing the shreds into the night air above the street, drinking heavily, and forgetting the enterprise. After a short reprieve, he returned to the story. An old woman from an adjacent window had caught his attention. She appeared to be crying at him. He closed the sash and pulled the curtains.

 

*

 

Shipley shook himself, opened his eyes wide and let out a great sigh. Abigail again stole into his thoughts. She came to him as he closed his eyes, her body clothed in a kind of indigo dupatta, a type of garment she’d never worn in her lifetime, but that the caprice of Shipley’s imagination had inexplicably clothed her in. The dupatta fell from her shoulders, her body stood bare, a white orb faintly surrounding the curvatures of her component parts, complimenting the soft glowing peach of her skin. Shipley remembered the hope he’d had to wed Abigail, to carve out that life that was the tomorrow of every young man in the territory. Even his faults in that spring of life gave him hope, for he considered that any morning he might wake without them. As he drowned his throat with the dreadful liquor, he thought what morning meant now. A good morning, as he considered it, was one that failed to start. The images of Abigail in her horrid casket obscured the fire at his feet. The disease that crept into her without a legitimate reason other than to kill her, the tortured months at her bedside, a convalescence that was prayed for and never came, Abigail’s sedulousness in the face of ruin, in the face of a racked body, a death that was hardly untimely. Time. Keep waiting. Wait, won’t you please? Only a little longer.

 

*

 

What is life, contemplated Atticus, but a sham supplication against drowning? To be inflicted a heavy blow is to be born; to be born, if planned in advance, is but your parents’ futile strike against the very sands of time, that like them, will wash over you too. You’re a dilettante for a season, maybe two, the high times of your life in town. You have your youth, your experiences and those you hope will come. You have your proclivities, some of them secret because you’re afraid to be called evil. Your hobbies are varied, your salary something to write about, maybe, and you’ve perfected your signature and shown it to your mother at Christmas time. You have ideas, and you haven’t yet been called intolerant, even though you’re quite the talker in wine. And really, you’re getting along. You’ve glimpsed through that telescope your future bride or husband. But then you stepped back, attempted to reason something, stalled, played the game too long. Perhaps you are alone now. Perhaps you haven’t taken up a hobby in years, if ever you had one. Perhaps you haven’t seen your name in print nor have you put your signature to a single page. Perhaps your body is failing you. Perhaps you don’t know the date. Perhaps you’re asking strangers what year it is, was.

 

*

 

Thomas Shipley raised himself, walked over to the fire. He stared in at the incongruous elements alive in the pit of the grating. The cinders and coals, confined to the reality of a fleeting life yet blazing in incandescent tinctures beckoned him to enter. He placed a foot in the fire. His shoe began to sink in, as though in quicksand. The destructive violence of the careless flames and scalding foundation of fiery embers ate immediately at the leather, blistering and cracking the sole. He pulled his foot out, confessed that the torture of burning himself alive would be too painful an end to a life at once so full of pleasure and good intentions. Fire it could not be for the infamous deed. Shipley brooded for many hours more. His childhood, his brothers and sister, mama and papa, and the old gray mare with the twisted leg. A career, a paycheck, and bread on the table. A woman, a passion, a wife to be. A damnatory plague against love. A death. A sudden state of bewilderment. Solitude. A shattered plan to flee to the Orient. A church with open arms and a man with a closed fist. He fell asleep in a blind haze, clutching the knife from the table in one hand and a bloodied fistful of hair from his scalp in the other.

 

Of all the things that could wake him, it was the noxious crow of a raven that on the next morning caused him to stir. The knife lay on the floor, the fire was long gone out. Broken glass from the last bottle of whiskey lay charred in the lifeless soot of the fire pit. The December cold struck at the exposed skin on Shipley’s face. Outside the sun shone bright. Not a cloud lingered in the sky above the pointed canopy of pines that stretched as far as one could see. Shipley found the knife, walked to the only door of the cottage that led to a broken landing raised barely above the frozen earth. He stepped out into the wild air of a frozen shiny morning. He looked to the sky. He outstretched his arms, took in a deep breath. He opened his eyes wide, very wide. It was then that he raised the knife to his neck and spilled its contents on the front portico of the broken shanty. He fell forward into the white snow, gasping for breath that he didn’t want. A heavy snow in the succeeding night obscured the body, a senseless scene, like the moth starved in the web of a dead spider.

 

*

 

What is life, Atticus pondered, but an endless series of events that have taken place in advance? Who am I but a floating brain locked in the prison of dying skin? He turned the loose sheets of handwriting over on the table, disconsolate. The story was drivel. His writing was a fool’s errand. He opened the curtains to find the woman gone from her place of fitful tears. The room she had occupied was dark, as were all the windows of the neighboring building. There were no noises rising from the street, no sounds at all in the night air when he opened the sash. There was no discernable stimulus of any kind, and the silence of the pervading hour coaxed Atticus to his bed, where soon he was met by his usual nightmares.

 

*

 

Lawrence broke the pen in his hand. The ink spilled over the sheets of paper containing his work. The television was on. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were co-hosting the Mike Douglas Show, which was the unconscious catalyst for his decision to end his story by giving Atticus nightmares. The story, he thought, was as pleasing as a fingernail torn from its residence. He ripped the pages in two, and then again, and then a third time, until a stack of symmetrical squares sat idly in a wastebasket at the side of his writing desk. He returned to the yellow upholstered chair with pistol in hand, and stared at the television screen. A young boy in a Bounty Paper Towels commercial spilled a glass of chocolate milk, while a woman in a sweater that matched his chair soaked up the liquid on the counter. He pointed the gun at the screen, privy to the permanent certainty that if ever the gun fired, it would be into his own head. He never wrote again.

 

*

 

“When the effects are invariably the same in all times and places,” says Voltaire, “and when these uniform effects are independent of the beings to which they attach, then there is visibly a final cause.” In the infinite regress of this work there is no final cause, no mountain peak, no final resting place. The point in the chain at which you are reading is but a division in the exponential whole of anecdote that defies the consistency required by an unbroken universe. It is a chimera. I am no more a man than the sorry souls created by my hand. A force beyond me dictates my very breath, and is dictated by a superior entity in turn. It controls the pistol in my hand and the coffee at my lips. It controls my hand on the page, but only because its hand is controlled similarly. There is no telling where the narrative has its source or its terminus, and all attempts at arriving at the answers are hopeless. In the end it hardly matters. Thomas Shipley killed himself out of madness and fear, not because of an understanding for the fatalism that occupied his days or the weak hand that devastated him. Atticus wrote about Shipley at the pleasure of Lawrence, and Lawrence wrote about both at the mercy of my impulses. All of them existed, as do I, by the hand of another that feeds me life. And though I may exist no more than the symbols of ink before your eyes, I persist like a layer of rock embedded deep within the earth.

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