Tuesday, January 15, 2008

This Magic Moment


Sometimes, they say, you can taste chocolate in the wine, pepper, eucalyptus. Critics suggest wine has "structure." Nonsense. Not to say some wines aren't a bit like turpentine while others flow like silk, but after a bottle (or two or three) why would a palette care one bit? It does not take long for the head to turn to effusion and whimsy. Whenever I drink wine I taste something broken: bone, blood, steel. The wine I drink has teeth in it—my own.

Yes, I know, the accident again. It is always with me, even when I don't notice it until, turning, I catch my reflection in a shop window, or until a certain slant of sun reminds me that all of life is a Nothing's short reprieve—no more, no less.

More than one person has asked, "Did you see a light when it happened?" Emphatically I tell all of them no. No, I say. There was no light at the end of a long tunnel. Nor did I see my own face laughing at any point, my boy-body riding on a park swing at four or five, or myself all pimply faced and a shy high school freshman, a first kiss, a fight with my father. My life did not flash before me. "That's a bad sign," at least one person has informed me.

What I knew at the moment when my face was actually being destroyed, the only thing I knew, was "the real," which I have ever since believed has its own significant power. Nature. Life yes. Death yes. Yes, when the corner of a concrete slab busted through my car window, me suspended upside down, the car overturned and spinning, and when that slab, overcoming the shield of my flailing hands, my arms, as it momentously began to purée (I heard the bones cracking) my cheeks, the only thing offered me was an obliteration not to be denied which, in and of itself, once come, was not as bad as it sounds. Black I tell them, is what I saw. Nothing the thing I experienced first hand. I surrendered. I was overcome. Lights out.

Obviously, I survived. And when I hear this spurious talk of wine, these are the things I think. An empty bottle weighs twice as much as when it had been full. It is filled instead with craving and consequence, with shame and despondency. Someone has said, "Live the life you have imagined." What happens when you look around to see that all the rot and poppycock of your life is in fact the life you have imagined, the one you have built, the one for which you alone are responsible?

* * * * *

The early morning sun was high and bright. Iowa in August is nothing if not hot. "Sorry I'm late," I said to the table full of strangers, a cafeteria-sized room so brimming with light that it washed out the color of the walls. A woman wearing a nametag (I hesitatingly clipped mine on), well spoken, well-dressed—also drenched in light—welcomed everyone, raised excited and expectant hopes for the week. She gestured from behind a thin podium at the front of the room. The sound system recast her voice in metallic, muffled airs.

There were tables all around just like ours, circled with men and women, nametags matching little folded cards on napkins. The man to my left scooted his chair over to let me in. I was dripping. I clipped my nametag to my sweaty shirt and smiled nervously, a little absently even. My thoughts were elsewhere.

I had noticed some curious structures as I walked along my chosen route—hexagonal frames of metal-sheathed, glass-paneled domes, modest semi-circular buildings set like giant buckyballs here and there around the campus lawns, all made of glass. Inside each one, visible at their centers, stood a vertical firebrand, a dark post with a flame on top. I imagined them the red eyes of leviathans peering out of time. Each structure looked identical, fragile, insubstantial.

"Those are the Author's Houses," the man I sat next to told me after the Instructor Orientation had ended. "The few fortunate students admitted to the university are each assigned a house. It's where they'll write their stories. We are very lucky to be here," he said with conviction. His nametag said Bill. "Thanks Bill," I said.

Drawing a handkerchief from my pocket, I patted my brow and turned to my right where an attractive, modestly dressed woman was sipping a glass of water. Her name was Gladys, and I learned she and her husband had moved to Ellenville from New Jersey. "There's an inherent goodness here," she said, nodding, smiling. I did not know how to react to any of it, the orientation, the Author's Houses, inherent goodness. I asked for directions to the men's room and excused myself.

These Author's Houses, as my tablemates had called them, did not appeal to me. Too symmetrical. Too something. Lovely in a decorative kind of way, perhaps. But I thought, looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, give me monsters that burn and howl, not these burnished domes of glass. Small blessing: they'd remain vacant for the summer, save for the red flicker of a dragon's eye in each.

Stepping outside, I once again felt the heat of the sun beat hard against my frame. No matter. I had another meeting to attend, at The Melrose Group. I thought it a simple twelve-step meeting place, but its compass was broader than that. Before the week was up I'd learn that Melrose was actually a halfway house for people struggling with feeling problems of every kind, a self-proclaimed nut house (how they'd laugh about that).

Still, as I had not yet been alerted to that fact, I sat, calmly watching an old man the color of putty scoot his chair in and out under the wooden, candle-lit table that ran the entire length of the room. An incessant tick rippled his cheek just beneath his right eye. A girl with garish blue hair entered carrying a guitar case. The door swung closed behind her. Others arrived, some sedate, some bent as if weighed down by something hung around their necks. A couple of others looked at me and smiled as they passed. One of them said, "Welcome." Her voice rattled like pebbles in the bottom of a coffee can. I nodded at her, attempting a smile.

Melrose House itself was old. The wood-paneled walls and faded carpet set the aged tone, along with stairs that creaked and small, framed prints hung here and there on the walls—a sunny cottage, a vase of flowers. Frayed cushioned chairs abutted low corner tables set with ashtrays. Once white curtains trimmed the windows in lacey patterns and the long wooden table at the center of everything had been set with baskets of paper flowers that were touched by the candlelight.

On the hour a bell chimed. The girl with blue hair read a preamble. A few introductory remarks were spoken by another person, a man in work clothes, his brown hair pulled back behind his ears. Other people around the room took turns sharing. When my turn came I simply introduced myself as an out of towner, grateful to have found a place to come and spend a little time. "I did not have a drink today," I said.

"Hi Michael," several of them responded in unison. "Welcome." The man with the tick on the right side of his face clapped his hands together.

At the end of the meeting everyone stood. We held hands and said a prayer. When we finished, the fellow with the work clothes looked up. "I love this program," he said. "Since I've been coming I've remembered how to screw." A few of us laughed.

"I'm coming back to this group," I said aloud, and more laughter erupted. The old man with the tick clapped his hands.

That night I said a prayer. But, It wasn't the kind of prayer you think of when you think about prayer. No. This prayer was not capable of being spoken. I was out of words. And, even if I wasn't out of them, words seemed somehow inadequate. Words themselves would have thought too much of that moment to stain it with their residues. Silence proved the only reverent response.

Nor was there any conscious effort on my part to pray. As best as I can tell it, I felt still. That's all. And I seemed to be setting something out, presenting something almost physical to life itself, a gift. At the same time, I was receiving something. I had no idea what. To this day I do not know.

I nearly slept that night. I lay back quietly and listened. The wind was passing outside the window. A halo of moonlight danced along my hands. I thought of Gladys's words. "There's an inherent goodness here," she had said. I thought, too, about my parents, my brother and my sisters, when we were all very young. Here it seemed my life did flash before me.

Sweeter than wine, I thought. A long time passed before I could say anything. Then words came. "Thank you," I said out loud. I whispered it more than once. "Thank you. Thank you."

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