Excerpts: Words for Some Lost Reason


Stan Adler

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 116 in 2008.

Disappearing Cross

Chapter 1—Part 1

Climbing the first two steps and checking the balusters at top, I am confronted by the back of a knee (sinew perjured by desire). A coin's worth of skin becomes a plaited leaf of flesh—moist in the shadow of a swinging hem—taut grooves wavering in the soundless stretch of a bare thigh. Slowing my step to articulate my view, I watch a moment wait. Innocence surrenders, repels the villain with awe, and quiets him with questions, anchors upon actions: where do I stand between that flesh and this desire for flesh? Is there space to stand? Walking through the city, a meditation cross, as long and as wide as my hand, stuck in my hip pocket. Is my body the shim and fill between actions and desire? A stake and beam of German silver, inlaid with dark wood, inscribed inri, and emblemed with skull and crossbones. The cross, stunning in its holy definition and unlimited command when borne by one authorized to bear it, hugs my hip with the spent grace of a sprung switchblade, uncomfortably balanced between purpose and pride. Conscious now of glances hit and miss across my hip pocket—I could switch the cross to the pocket of the jacket slung over my arm, but not without attracting suspicion of theft and quackery. Saying yes-yes-yes to return the glances and maintain the luxury of a stroll—becoming a march—the sun has suddenly ceased making a sound and the stores and their customers though apparently conversing are inaudible or incomprehensible in relation to me—perceiving an odd relation between a bicycle rider and an automobile. Both travel at exactly the same speed, neither one losing a measure of space, be it an inch or quarter of an inch. The sun remaining silent, allowing for the clear reception of an aimless hum now explicit in contrast to the silence of the light. I smell a cheap carnival smell, as of crepe paper and popcorn, caramel, and galleys full of cologne. The cross heavy in my pocket. This world has paused and the sun is silent and I am silent and I am saying yes—yes—yes and walking like a saint this side of no, without a space between me and the flesh of beauties bouncing down the sidewalk beneath bushels of blond hair with small breasts tied up in bows hardly shaken by the mince and strut of sturdy calves. I would give my cross away, but this would be or seem as indiscriminate as my moment of stealing it. And the bearer of stolen goods is as guilty as the thief, if the thief can be judged guilty when the booty authorizes him to say aye and maintain grace in a world that is without charm so long as it remains untouchable—as it does—so long as there is an nth of space given recognition as existing, as real, between someone and someone, so long as eyes can stare with desire at the flesh behind knees bending to climb and question with satisfaction, no matter how slight, the grounds of propinquity, for if the vision of flesh be real, the question is not of flesh but of breath, belonging to eyes before mouth and mixing the space with unaccustomed silence until the only sound is—the hum of life, of two breaths coinciding—strange in their recognition of each other and ignorance of everything else. The middle finger of one person's hand placed against the middle finger of another person's hand—when rubbed by the forefinger and thumb of either person will induce a chill—we smile at the strangeness of nearness—and walk with desire dancing like a transvestite behind our pupils trying so hard to mind the steps and stay out of the joints of the girl tossing her skirt ahead of us. Reach out, gently, and with thumb and middle finger arrest the barest most alluring portion of the runaway knee before you, and do not say thank you for the smile cramping into a leer behind your teeth—open your mouth, smile or stick out your tongue and say have dinner with me tonight or let's make love or just yes—yes—yes, for there is no space between you.

Chapter 1—Part 2

Most people know someone they would like to love, I said before meeting her, as most people know what they would like to say, but when you know what you would like to say, you rarely find it worth saying. A soul doesn't die for lack of words, she said much later, but glows on, just like a candle that grows brighter as it becomes smaller.

Our perspiring foreheads shine in the sunlight as we eat avocado sandwiches on the chipped steps of the Municipal Auditorium, involved with the smiling grimace of jaws chewing—a scrap of lettuce sticking out one side of her mouth as she chews and smiles and squints her eyes. The feet of convention goers stamping up and down the steps beside us. The sharpest heels scratching the marble inlay flawed too many times before without regret. A fountain, pale blue, spilling like an upside-down faucet into the sun, limpid droplets landing on the tiled parapet with a teary splat. She smiles—a sunburned wrinkle in her nose—her elbow knocking against my ribs as she turns a small piece of bread between her thumb and forefinger like a pitch pipe. The delegates move past mopping the sweat from their brows with silk handkerchiefs. "Why," she asks, examining the last bite of her sandwich, "did you touch my knee of all the knees you must have seen and had the chance to touch as much as mine?"

"Maybe because you had the prettiest knee, or maybe because you looked as if you were going someplace besides a convention."

"Don't be so sure of yourself, maybe I still have some place to go," she says, shelving a quandary above her eyes as bright and as clear as the fountain water pouring into the sunlight. Were I so sure of myself; I was never that sure of myself. Leaning while climbing, chancing to fall on my nose all for the touch of one bare knee. (My eyes scaling the small muscle leading like a velvet string up the back of your thigh—where God knows the elastic grasp of panties holds tight against the bounce of your buttocks beneath the tremble of a bold plaid skirt I yearn to lay upon a breeze—as I lay your body on the ledge of a step, for people can always step over what they pretend not to see.)

Night jars the torn window blind; and as it flaps against the sill a turning hip awakens a body nearby—two sighs are heard. A smile of blue eyes from behind brunette curls. Municipality, I've found a Dutch girl on your front doorstep. You have have you, says a whisper, and what do you think of your Dutch girl? I like her. You like her—I see. I might even love her. Oh really. Yes, I . . . where were you going when I first touched you? To change. Into what, or for what? For my class. You have a class at the auditorium? Yes—there is a recital room where I teach dance every Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. You should come and watch. You might like my class.

I move atop her, my elbow below her armpit, my chest grazing her breasts, her arms, hands and fingers steepled together beside my neck. "I think I would—like your class," I mutter against her lips. "—maybe you would, you know; you are really a strange person—do you know that?" she asks, puzzled, almost smiling—her fingers falling and wrapping themselves in my hair. Her lips and tongue carrying each individual syllable from her barely parted mouth—the touch of a whisper seeming to add a secret life to her voice in the still darkness of the room. "—there is something I must say—(shadows like mice in the warm folds of disarray surrounding us)—but you must listen— " Silence and mellow worry in her smile teasing my eyes like a glimmer of mirror light—I glance away, smiling, sadly I know, into the shadow below her chin— "I would not bother to tell you if I did not feel like I do—it is something you must know before you will know how you feel about me." I hear her saying the words and watch her say them, understanding them moments later. Fact upsets my practiced solicitude, like a mime upstaged by a cataleptic—my eyes seem momentarily empty, then dash like startled minnows from ear to ear, seeking wary refuge beneath her wayward curls—moistened on the edges with perspiration. I love her. I have (I love you)—I have a husband and a child. (I have the love that wandered for one night and never had time to change) my husband is somewhere faraway, I'm not sure where. Do you always change your clothes after swimming in the Municipal Auditorium? "God, why do you sweat so much?"—I don't know, I answer, naïve, but smiling, I don't know. Do you always leave sand in the bed you sleep in after swimming in the ocean? "God, it's like taking a dip in the ocean— " her arms tightening about my ribs, hands sliding down my spine, the shifting of knees, the lowering of my mouth and slight twist of her neck, advancement of her hands, deployment of my body. One hand, hers, to make certain the entrance, and then, lips together but ready to shift like sand below the tide, the downward, slow and perfectly painful descent into the undulation of movement to rhythm to momentum into love without thought as to when it will end, again, to begin the thought of love, never felt or given birth—we do not know we begin to be in the plunge to end what has been begun by descent. She falls, I rest, we are beached and gathered with our fears and our smiles and yet, though clothes are spread on the floor, we are not naked and I roll to be resolved in the light of morning with several grains of sand clinging to my penis, hardened in doubt, falling in recognition of her absence, and I spoke not a word to my mind telling something if someone were or were not here or would return or was ever here, the male member is fallen, in peace to wait resolved. And strangely, I notice, the window blind is up and the morning is cloudy, but the rain smells sweet and I smile, then smile again at the moisture lying on the sill, dripping slowly down the wall, my eyes grin up at the clouds and I stand bare at the window, stretching with a vigorous yawn—I glance back at the bed and know that she is gone.

Chapter 3 —Part 2

Walking divergent from Broadway, south one block, where tall buildings flatten out into shaded mesa-lands of always-open corner arcades planted with empty pool tables. A cue ball rolls across the sidewalk like a deserted egg. Pushed by an afternoon breeze, the Tokay wind. (Breath of a drunk boy fallen cheek against the curb—arms milling—flopping and folding across his chest. Problems of false identity unanswered by cards printed around the corner. Sharing secrets with the midnight gloom of a canvas-curtained booth. So sick and in fear of sadness as the promiscuous progeny of Paracelsus dances behind a dusty piece of glass and fills your wide-open stare with her pretty rump—offering up her panties, no bigger than a piece of confetti, and the ache in your strait jacket is hardly worth the dime, and not worth two bits now.) The Singapore Inn (—she's not there). I spend my last dime on an orange in a Chinese grocery store, learning that Fallbrook avocados are more expensive than Hawaiian papayas. Import-export who cares, just a nuisance, says the grocer. I just don't know, I reply, filling his ashtray with a handful of thick peelings, drooling sour orange juice, I just don't know (where she is—the signal blinks from Wait to red to Go). Ma'am, with giant breasts bouncing from arm to arm, you're crossing the street too fast, dragging your dog (look into his eyes). Where in hell is she? The lissome barefoot child, archaic memory. A meaty seed caught in my molars. Serving G.I.'s for twenty-five reliable years. Poster face in a dusty showcase, pocked and patriotic, peers from beneath a squared-off white cap out over a field of a half-dozen machine-tooled zippered billfolds, one autographed by Roy Rogers, potentate of the purple sage—where does Trigger graze these days? Wise palomino stallion rearing into the shadows of a prairie dusk, scrubbed hooves kicking nervously atop hard ground confused by an empty saddle, head tossing and stretching against the jingling length of a silver bridle. He whinnies—rearing and wheeling about, galloping off into a grove of oak trees. Trigger, with your bold and shining back in mind, I have ridden with ignorant daring into haloed landscapes. Now I search for your shadow in a dirty shop window. I have no zipper to rend, hear no compliments rendered (to a rebel: close creature who is neither boy nor man, reprobate nor renegade), standing on a defaced sidewalk—Tallyho Tojo—where—there! Slapping a licorice stick against her thigh like a swagger stick, hips swinging and tresses shaking. Though we are on opposite sides of the street, I am not about to be lost—caught like a rooster by a line drawn in the earth, past G and Market—I follow (entranced by her direction limned by the lope of long thin limbs provocatively mired in slim buckets of black). I am now a mindless bird inflamed by a scissoring illusion of opening and closing and reopening of swinging bars—of a cage that would cease to exist should her legs cease moving and fanning untouchable shadows across the bottom of the cage I chase to occupy—a cage I might claim as my own. I follow (a wholly unique urge) like quarry to the lair and there demand seduction by freedom (within bounds—where clouds drift between the bars, where fetters await ankles as wide as rivers) step lightly (rebellion waiting like a smile) past Island Avenue where stoplights end and Jesus Saves at the Full Gospel Rescue mission, I halt and spin backwards into the doorway. Shoulders tense and trembling against the rattling door. Across the street, she comes to a stop, glancing in both directions. (Meals Served After Services As Usual reads the blur of a sign next to my head) she grins and pats her hip pocket. Echo of a cough from up on the corner. An old Filipino man weaving and barking up phlegm. She watches him fade past the intersection, then she turns her attention back to the door in front of her. No canyons of light or shaded mesas out here. Nothing but unobstructed sunlight, falling as profusely as the dust sweeping and floating before every doorway—a warped and withered Closed sign hung in every one—all except the one rattling against my ear (my pale face—a faint shadow—diffused by the light of the sun). I watch as the door springs open across the street—and watch the door close behind her. A faded Johnny Philip Morris flaps a toothy grin against the glass. Sorry We're Closed.

Johnny—dapper witness to my stare—you are demented. Etiolated echolalia. Stepping gingerly away from the privacy of walls, off the curb with an audible heartbeat, crossing the street (over a white line and dare), Trigger, steady your flanks—the door of the lair but an inch beyond my fingers, breeze pushing it a fraction further from my reach. My hand leaping to catch the door before it bangs against the wall. The barrier of the bolt—a matchbook scrap—flutters to the floor. (Johnny: Nothing is closed until gone.) The fading sound of hoofbeats. I ease the door behind my back—in the darkness a momentary blindness. A thin transparency of dust floats down the aisle ahead of me.

Dark alcoves and sunken booths filled with angular shadows set along the long wall to my right. I glance to the floor but no footprints, the dust rising up around my ankles and spreading like floundering webs ahead of me. No sound. No peering eyes or reflective foreheads, no sight of a grin or sound of a scuffed boot. The light is still, and dim. (Your spell is cast, Reverend Rebel—where are you?) My heart beating out of control, and nothing but boxes. Cardboard boxes everywhere, piles and stacks of boxes, all sizes, piled and balanced like deserted playthings of a retarded giant, stacked up to the ceilings and against the walls and in the closets, spilling out of the washrooms and crammed beneath the booths where boxes sit gazing at boxes. A long narrow box stuck in a metal duct. Xmas Tree is scrawled along its side. I try perceiving a plan, dust following me around corners, down halls, through a passageway. Plan of the boxes. Divisible by three. Xmas, Easter, and (in the smallest room) Halloween. There on a box labeled costume, resting against a package (masks), I try recalling time, tracks, and a few other things leading to these scrawls which I stare at and—in a quiet blur of exhaustion—watch turn from labels, indicating contents, to signs (significant distinction)—pointing to other surfaces. Breathing the real dust of a premature dawn —eyes moving over the boxes, slipping from different dimensions, memorizing and repeating the words until they are labels: xmas, Halloween, costumes, cards, decorations, accessories (over and over . . . ).

I feel unrelated to desires or dimensions of living things, uninvolved with any particular thing; guise, form, make-up, characteristics . . .

My mouth is dry, no chance of water. I sneeze and blow my nose. My analysis—in view of a back door beribboned top and bottom with hasp locks—is frightening. Nothing animate, moving anywhere near—still as a guilty thought.

Wishing to retain command of my senses, I enlist them as aide-de-camp—realizing my mistake . . . my senses are agents of mutiny. Trigger! Up to my eyes in dust and the reconstituted waste of an animal I have ridden. Costumes (kiln of – Angel:) mantle the living against the mine of memory—mind. Vulnerable and out of place as I walked out of town looking for neither advantage nor adventure, no bags, but above vagrancy. Looking for a viewpoint or clues of you along the way, passing a tall pine tree filled with sap and the bombast of starlings. This shade of a pine falling over the liveried limousines of a mortuary. A tree bearing birds without a banner—from trunk to branch—I stared and watched a burning cross in full flame.