Thursday, December 11, 2008

C'mon now touch me babe


I’ve heard that you should always have a plan B. I didn’t even have a plan A. The only thing I could admit to for sure was that I had gotten romantically hung up on a beautiful and deeply wounded woman who, up until that week, I never knew existed. And, that in some eerily providential way, her life had crossed paths with my own. It all seemed dream-like, unfathomable. How else could I explain encountering the box, then meeting her, and the Fab Four’s arrival here in Ellenville? It was all too creepy.

It had been a good day, up until a point. Allison (and Angus) had both come to class. Everyone had the opportunity to speak, to share about their week, and to say goodbye. Allison exchanged smiles (and notes) with her classmates. I expressed my gratitude for each of them. We would meet again later in the day, our class gathered with all the other classes—“Poetry,” and “Memoir,” and “Fiction for Dreamers” among them—at a banquet, the week’s closing ceremony.

I admit I got a little misty, listening as the speaker read a poem her class had composed for the occasion. “Why stories,” she asked. “Why poems? How can we justify such trivial pursuits in a world where people are beheaded by zealots, slain over drug turf, where death seems to gain the upper-hand every evening at six?” The answer, it seemed to me, was self-evident. I looked at Allison and I was crushed by want. I turned, glanced at my watch, leaned and whispered to her. She nodded and I rose. I adjusted my tie, shook hands all around—an occasional hug—and off I sped across the floor and out of the hall. I wanted to get over to the Melrose Group for another round of very important goodbyes. Allison and I would meet up later. I had a good idea where we might confront the four dingleberries and get her voice back.

The long corridor that led to the elevators was carpeted in stainless brown plugs. I loosened my tie and ducked into the men’s room, the door swishing shut behind. The tiles gleamed; every surface had been buffed. I was alone and it was silent—the air-conditioning whirring in the ceiling vents. I did my business and ran the spigot. I thought I heard some feet patter past, but no one entered. I turned the water off. Again I heard a scurrying past the door. The lights dimmed, then came back up. I moved to the door.

Crowds of people were charging past. I stood in the open doorway, floundering, at a loss as to what this all might mean. The air-conditioner humming behind, feet shuffling the carpet in front of where I stood, suddenly I heard the shrill crescendo from without. Sirens. I entered the herd streaming steadily toward the stairs. A dull whistle buzzed the outside of the building. A razor-like wind, the sound contracting and expanding, gusting fiercely. Then it dawned on me: tornado! I half-smiled, half-shit. I surveyed the tide of faces all around me, each one more somber than the last—bodies giving way to a fearful undertow—not quite panic, but close.

I followed down the stairwell with the rest. Once at the bottom, out through the door we all poured. How strange to find it dark. Though it had been nearly a week since my last drink, it felt as if I’d lost several hours to a drunken tear. It was two in the afternoon, nearly black as night—and cold. People rushed for their cars but to no purpose. A long line of traffic clogged the one thoroughfare in and out of Ellenville as cars inched their way toward the Interstate. I recalled the warning tacked on the back of the door, up in my room. I jogged off in that direction, dodging passing bodies at every turn, scanning the crowd for a glimpse of a beautiful woman with an enormous dog as I went.

This sudden turn seemed the strangest thing to me. Looking all around, only confusion, people of every size and shape running past, heads bobbing, bodies weaving. This was the closest I’d come to anything dreamlike in some time. The line of traffic along Dubuque wasn’t moving. Folks wanted to get home. I wanted to get as far out of town as possible, until I could be certain disaster would not visit this inherently good hamlet.

The siren began another pass, a gradual heightening. Dogs yowled in response. I wanted to raise my voice in unison with theirs and cocked my head against the rising pitch. The sound felt like something solid and it mixed with the wind that whipped us all. A shrill and sensate wail started thrumming in my head. I imagined a hilltop, one as high as Ellentine Road, its peak set against the sky like a towering brass reed set to cut the wind so that even the air was sliced in two as it flew screaming past. The howl grew so fierce that I was about to cover my ears when I heard something filter through. It was faint. I did not acknowledge it and stayed my course, heading steadily for the Mayflower Tower with every step. But again I heard something and this time I turned.

Now, what did I know, except books?—not just books, but cases of them, a library full lining every wall in my house. And here I was among all these people, people swarming in every direction, seeking refuge from the threatening tornado. Here, when I looked around, it wasn’t shelves I saw, not the backs of books with faded spines. Real live people were all around. It occurred to me that if I wanted to, I could reach out and touch some of them. A chugging and a periodic POP drew my eyes to the right and the orange color registered. In the traffic, a pickup, three roustabouts sitting shoulder-to-shoulder inside the cab, one in the bed behind. Yes, them.

My feet changed direction. Looking round, I spotted a familiar face, and then another, and another. A girl carrying a guitar; purple hair. A man in a blue jumpsuit, hair pulled back behind his ears, his step determined—the Melrose group, where I'd planned on being by now if not for the threat of a twister. My eyes drew down on the jalopy chugging along six inches at a time. I could see the Ohio barroom. I remembered every orange detail, and tasted the stale scent of an old spongy carpet in the back of my throat. The music they’d blotted out with stupidities, crassness—their assault on anything civilized, anything lyric, harmonies, guitars, voices—a song began to play in my ears. Everything faded to something else, distant—they alone, these strange new people, drew into focus. I flashed back to purple days, days of wine, red things. Days of short skirts and girls whose kisses I scarcely recall, a boyhood and an age of becoming. Thighs. Backs of white calves. Heat.

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