We Live in a Harmonica None of Us Can Play
But we try. In the unclotted wound of morning, I get up to water the magnolias, and start thinking of Cherrie again. Time continues to disappear like vitamins in a glass of water. I think of her and how she once caught time in a state of dissolving, so it hung like a hammock between palpable and gone. A puddle swells out of the nausea-pale magnolias.
In the next yard my neighbor is watering his pepper bushes. When I first moved here I thought he was wise, I thought his emaciation fighting its way through the flesh was noble. I don’t think of him like that anymore. A lot of things changed since I moved here.
“Hello!” I call, approaching him, pretending to be cheerful. “It’s a beautiful day.”
“Yes, it is,” he says, dropping the hose and letting the cement flood. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Do I look unwell? I’m fine. How’s the day? Anything ripe?”
“Not yet. But you still have to be here. You have to be ready.”
“There’s such a thing as balance. When I began this garden I’d stay out here all night sometimes. Can you imagine! I was feverish…” I start getting bored and stare over his shoulder at a squirrel on the fencepost. When I turn back to him he’s not talking anymore, just looking at me with this curious smile and picking up the hose. He turns back to the wall.
“Do you mind if I watch?”
“Go ahead. If it interests you.”
I don’t watch his watering so much as the way the frailty given to him by manifestations of time in his movements. His hands shaking, holding the hose, his struggled breaths like pushing air through a drinking fountain. I pity him, I pity him and that time-crinkled skin. How many unclotted wounds of morning! but he always wakes up again. His back bent like a bridge arc, and the promise of death lurking around him like a bad smell, death soon –
“Enough. Please, enough,” he says, dropping the hose.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. You said I could watch –”
“How could you go on like that? You think speaking under your breath makes you inaudible?”
“I do not fear my own promised death. It will happen and I will embrace it. Don’t pity me; I pity you. My body I accept because all it’s saying is ‘Yes, this all happened.’ You would be lucky to look like me one day.”
“Huh?” I say once more, then I realize what happened. I reach up to touch my peach-soft forehead, lighter today because my thought-veil is gone. I try to think of where I left it but can’t even remember taking it off. Not left on my pillow in waking, or fallen in the shower to nap beside the drain –
“Go away. I don’t care where you left your damn thought-veil. I’ve got mine,” he says, pointing to himself. “All of us should keep it on. To avoid things like this.”
“My apologies –”
“Don’t mean much. Go away.”
The old man gave me a headache. I try to rinse it off in the sink, and hope that in the afternoon the sparrows will eat the rest of the worms. And we call them masochists who self-inflict their wounds but what of those who want their heads to be as the train wreck, repeating, repeating –
“Dude.” My roommate, Chad, is standing behind me; I shut the water off and turn around, feeling the wetness on my neck. “Dude, that’s nasty shit. That’s unhealthy. Is it pretend?”
“Those things you thought.”
I try to erase my mind – thinking of a milk bottle broken on a sidewalk rushing out –
“You don’t gotta erase your mind for me. I understand you. But that milk bottle thing is nice…”
I turn away from him, because when the thought-veil’s down you can see their expression adjust to each new thought you have. A new kind of nakedness. Outside, the cherry-red apes are trapping squirrels in trees – think of these instead. The screams they make from their little throats like boiler tanks overheating (of course he can still hear what I’m thinking) “Yes I can. But I’ll pretend I can’t if it makes you feel better.” “It does.” The moon is a tongue hanging from a half-asleep mouth and the cypress trees like drowsing horses. Think Think Think
“Is now a bad time to drop something on you?” Chad asks.
“Well now you have to say it.”
“Cherrie called. She left a message.” My eyes drop to the windowsill. Yes but what could she say. An ant crosses the sill and gets stuck in a splotch of spilt soap.
“Well? What’d it say?”
“Don’t get too heavy about it, dude.” I already am; like frozen in secondless time and resumed days later unslept. Chad sighs. “She just said not to call anymore.”
O. Like bullets through parasol wings. As if snails snuck into their shells until castles were dust mounds. Remembering being breastfed where everything is given and nothing is asked – I was brain-damaged young because dropped. Like the bright sucked back into the flashlight “Dude, stop. It’s not like that. Things go on” and coughed out nickels. “Please. Believe me.”
“Nobody else ever loved me. This girl, dude…”
“I know. We give them our hearts so they can squeeze what they can out of them. I know. You’ve said it.”
“We give them our hearts –”
Ah, there are many things I used to think about when this happened. Gravestones. No, things like tide pools and the smell of churches. Walking through the park in my adolescence and (holding my mother’s hand) never getting hurt. If the heart were a turtle I’d tell him to stay inside, where there is only the sound of himself.
“Calm down,” Chad says.
“Yo, fucking pretend you can’t hear what I’m thinking. Alright? It’s much easier if you do.”
“Okay, but I don’t need to hear it to know you need to calm down. It’ll be okay.”
“Right.” As funerals are okay and happen correctly. They happen correctly; the dead get buried and sleep. The mourning mourn until they forget and then only the forgotten would mourn.
Chad wants to say something, but bites his lip. “I need a new one of these,” I say, touching the empty spot on my forehead.
Chad took his off and made it mine, temporarily. It fit with the warmth of someone else’s recent use and we sit out in the backyard, watching seagulls take laps in the sky.
“I don’t need that thing, you know. You might call me an ‘idiot.’” I laugh. When he takes his thought-veil down you hear almost nothing but farmyard noises: chickens rattling their cages, cows mooing in pastures. Sometimes you hear words but they’re always casually floating like ashes from a fireplace. Like “Dude” pigs eating out of a metal buckets “this grass” snorting, and rolling in the mud “is warm” the rooster at daybreak “as fuck. I gotta find some shade.”
Anyway, he took work off this morning to be with me. Here we are. Looking at the seagulls, and the grass like microwaved potatoes. And it could all be so warm but I think of her again.
When Cherrie and I were together we used to hook ourselves to televisions and watch each other dream. It took a while for the dream to start and until it did I’d always just stare at her, underneath the blankets on the couch, half-smiling. Never self-conscious. I’d kiss her forehead and think, “This will be my wife.” I used to think things like that. Then a dream would start in the television.
I loved watching what she dreamt. It was never cold; she wasn’t addicted to cold like I am. I’d watch cucumbers made out of sugar colliding and filling the whole screen with sugar. The moon wearing a dress, doing ballet. That terrible radio music she used to listen to. I loved it, because it was hers. And sometimes I’d be in it and I watched myself make love to her, and when we finished in unison she drew me into her and said “I love you. Always. My baby boy.”
My baby boy. Ugh… (the seagulls painted like broken blackberries)…
Then I would dream things that hurt her. She said it’s usually like when a plastic bag breaks underwater, but those weren’t the bad dreams, they were just ugly. The rest were filled with this unhealthy feeling she couldn’t understand but used to cry over. I told her I have no control over it and she said “You do, but you don’t. It’s because you do in the daytime and neglect to take control that you don’t when it’s night. Understand?”
Then once I dreamed something that really happened. I was with this girl who to me had always just been an orgasm. We were drunk and found ourselves in her bed. I remember thinking, staring up at her naked body moving, I love her because she’s not Cherrie. That’s all. And in the dream I said to her, “This is so wrong. Ah, it feels so good.”
“Should I stop?” Heavy breathing.
“No. Fuck no. Don’t stop.”
Cherrie called the girl while I was sleeping and she admitted it. Had no idea how we were discovered. I woke up with that dumb half-smile on my face and said “Did you like what you saw?” already forgetting what I’d dreamt, but Cherrie was gone.
“I have to call her,” I say.
“No,” says Chad. “No, no, no you don’t. It’s better if you don’t. It’ll never fix if you keep calling.”
Miles away, a thunder cloud breaks, and reaches us late and padded by the distance. But the blue sky’s being infringed by the rhinoceros of an approaching storm. I let my neck limp. “Why is it like that?”
“You say the wrong things, man. It comes off too desperate because you’re not thinking. Just talking.”
“But I could say it better now” and the grass is cooling down. He grabs my arm lightly but I shrug him off.
“Be honest with me, Paul. You know it’s no different.”
I point to my forehead. “Without this?”
“Oh God, that’s what you’re thinking? No man, definitely not. You need your thoughts hidden and you need prepared speech. Alright?”
I stand up. “I’m calling her.”
He looks at me sadly and then back down, his fingers running over the grass like it’s a piano. “If you have to. I’m gonna go to the store.”
Before he can say anything else to dissuade me, I cross the lawn to the back door and open it to go inside.
The sunlight like a wet beehive on the counter. In a room with no windows, no sound, you stop seeing time twitch like hummingbird wings, but then there is boredom, the other rabid mouth of time. (I stare at the telephone, my portal to another ear, and leave it hooked).
I should call her. She doesn’t understand and I could say it all right, like hot glue made of words. She doesn’t understand; poor girl. She thinks she understands but she doesn’t know better. I know what she’s losing and if I let her lose it, it’ll be gone forever. I won’t come back.
Then the dial tone like a tuning fork softly struck. I can hardly hear it and push the numbers in by touch. As it rings, I feel the outbursts of my heart grow more alarmed, heavier in the brain and back to the heart again heavier. The beehive of sun leaves abruptly, gagged by clouds outside, and she answers.
That voice, that old familiar…
“Hi. Do you want something? I told you to leave me alone –”
“I can’t do that. Please don’t make me do that.”
She sighs (I could put that sigh in a bottle so it would never stop) and her fingers start tapping on something. “What?”
“How have you been?”
“You know, putting things back together. I’m better. I’m much better now. I’m doing much better.”
“That’s good. I am too” though I may walk through life like I’m suffocating. You were oxygen “and everything’s been alright. I miss you.”
“But I do.”
“Well don’t. It’s like wishing you were somebody else.”
“I don’t wish I was somebody else.”
“Then don’t miss me.”
“Why don’t you want that?” It’s alright, you don’t understand, I’ll make you understand. “I’m still here.”
“That’s good. Just don’t tell me about it.”
“Please give me another chance.”
“I’ll do anything.” Remembering how before I broke things, you smiled at me without hiding anything. Then it happened and I lost that and the next time I saw you there was this look on your face like the morphine-dazed, you wouldn’t give me “Anything” and your lips like hardened cement.
“Why are you saying these things?”
“Because I want you back.”
“I’m sorry, Paul. Please understand” I do, you don’t. My words like hot glue healing things without blemishes “You need to understand.”
“No, you don’t. I’m going to hang up now.”
“Wait! Wait” while I think of what to say. “I love you.” I can’t help it; if the balloon broke it would still be beautiful falling. I’m addicted to these things, let’s keep starting over –
“I know who you are, Paul. Don’t think I don’t know who you are.” Her voice breaks in that tragic way and I can’t say anything back. “Sorry.” When she hangs up the phone I have a vision of my mother’s hand with stitching running along the sides as if severed from a doll. It lies with the fingers curling up, being eaten by mice.
When Chad comes home I’m sitting in the same place, watching the sunlight tint into a dusk-colored fossil of day. “Hey, man. I got you something.”
I look over and see a packaged thought-veil in his hands. He puts it on the counter, then says “Go ahead, open it. I’ll go grab the screwdriver so you can put it on.” I tear it out of the cardboard and plastic and it’s so much like a cold body in a coffin, the way it feels, but this is what each one of us wears on our foreheads. Out of a laboratory and onto my head, our heads, all of us wears one of these. I can see a blurred imitation of my image in its metal.
“Here you go. No more messy thinking,” Chad says, handing me the screwdriver, but when I say “Not for me” he doesn’t say anything back. A short laugh that sounds almost like groaning.
“Did you call her?” Chad asks.
“You were right.” I expect a jolt in my head like a sudden surge of tide pushing a boat close to tipping, but nothing. Smoke gathers at the hem of my mental sky. In life I collected acquaintances, they became paper dolls and most of them lit one-by-one in flame. Few left and those I imagine shivering at the constant dust of ash in the wind, or walking away by themselves. “At least I have you, man.” I look at the thought-veil again, thinking You can make me beautiful –
“What, dude? You’re a good-lookin’ guy.”
“You said you’d pretend you couldn’t hear what I’m thinking.”
“Okay, fine.” But he’s standing there biting his lip and I can sense the restlessness in him. “But why do you think that?”
“I don’t. You know how the mind works, always wandering.”
“You think you’re ugly? Because you know when you split with a girl you take a lot of her bad thinking with you. If Cherrie told you that, dude, forget –”
“Nah, dude. I’m not worried about that. Let’s put this thing on –”
“What’re you worried about?”
“I just like having my thoughts hidden, that’s all I meant, just like everyone else, but you know how the mind works –”
“Always wandering. How about this.” He takes the screwdriver and starts to remove his, loosening the screws on the right side first. “We both go without.”
“No, thanks. Keep yours on, give me that screwdriver.”
“No, dude. You are a beautiful person –”
“Dude, you’re too much. Calm down.”
“You are a beautiful person! I’m proud to be your friend!” Getting himself fake-worked-up to make me laugh. His face fills red and he dramatically works the screws out. Bending over for breath he shouts, “We’re doing this together!”
I laugh despite my resistance to it and grab his arm to make him stop. “Alright, alright. We’ll go without tonight. Tomorrow we wear them.”
“Fair enough.” He pulls the screws the rest of the way out and then his thought-veil is off. So the kitchen becomes barnyard sounds, with the cows and the horses almost-silent in the pasture, and the soft ring of porch wind chimes, and the hum air makes when throbbing in a sleeping place. A farm uninfected by thoughts like I have. For we are of two minds, let’s call these minds washcloths. His he wets in the warmest puddles he knows, it never stops being drenched in them, it never dries out or drips into something else, while mine I cannot get dry. I wring the water out of it every day but they say the sky looks like however you want it to look – No, they never said that, that’s something I say –
“I’m sorry,” Chad says. “You’ll be okay. Let’s put our thought-veils back on.”
Forrest Armstrong is a hybrid artist from Boston. He is the author of Asphalt Flowerhead (Crossing Chaos Enigmatic Ink) and the editor of Avant-Garde for the New Millennium (Raw Dog Screaming Press). He also puts out hip hop under the name Gasoline Monk. If you want to, you can probably find him walking around Back Bay in a daze, chain-smoking cigarettes and dreaming too hard.