One set of tracks curl out in one direction, the other set in another. Not a “v” exactly, more like the curling leaves at the base of a plant’s stem. The arabesques of living, of travelling for an extended period. Which ticket did I purchase? It is difficult to see beneath the hospital light. How many connections will I have to make? It seems more and more probable that I may have changed destinations along the way.
Or is the destination always the time spent? Are minutes the only stations? I have boarded a train of thought that will lead me, inevitably, I fear, toward smoking tobacco for some period of time again, toward filling my lungs and mouth with moments of deep rich smoke. Is the sensation of being enveloped, of settling into white puffs of dreamy contemplation worth dying for? At least as much as anything else is. Not that mortality is the new immortality, it isn’t. It is that immortality does not exist, god help us. Funny that, if looked at a certain way.
Maybe I am succumbing to the delicious comfort of distance. Each new plague seduces me away from you. Between us fills with leaves and secretions. An arm’s-length cloud of toxic grey smoke flowers out from me, while you, clever bee, sense that this is not the bloom you were looking for.
It is not that I have fallen out of the habit of obeying. None of us has. It is that the hem of my habit is filthy from the muck. Wound up until the spring uncurled and popped, I relish what is left of my existence as a broken toy. I stutter when I try to speak in the language of god’s high health. I have lost the urge to scrub.
While rust creeps into my joints, I am surrounded by bodies lesioned with erasures. Amendments and redaction have become a way to whittle away our anatomies across numb time, to carve an impulse out of so much inert flesh.
There is also pumping. Pumping is how we walk tiptoe on our glands. Crowded in chambers of chains and levers to exude their excretions, to flex and pant toward release from the pulse that pursues them.
If vice is stupid, why is it so tempting over so-called clean living? It could be because so-called clean living has become a bleach-flavored mask that covers fear and delusion.
Let’s say, then, that I have a bellyful of bad weather. Someone has to have fed it to me, right? Is so much dying worth living for? All rails lead to a brimming madness, a looking forth with flooded eyes at the poisoned distance that is lingering. The scorpion tail of chaos tightens its own circle almost to spiraling closed, stung, and then it opens again, a drifting tendril of havoc wreaking circumferences of silent ruin across the remembered names of places.
Fear stains maps across expanses. Less and less to do with you, slipped off into reclused suspicious mumbling. Less and less to do with me, casting off the crusts, the peelings of sticky heritage and monikers.
Though, and though again. You are forever telling me what I think. You tell me that I am forever under the misconception that I have to explain things to you. Imagine how all my tiny expectations leapt at being disabused so. Such scorekeeping disgusts me. What I mean is it actually tastes bad. Nothing like the sweet sorrow of crossing the river as I savor the bends and wisps of a mouthful of tobacco smoke. My notions snake away toward huge cities hewn whole from the sandstone of fancy. What is to be bartered for there? Dime store anger will get you nothing there, on the ledge, where huddling and pecking are never confused with flight.
Not even the trace of bitterness, which one learns to appreciate, but rather the dry tasteless nature of what one must chew, no matter how stale and diminished it may have become. Oh, lifeless wafer!
I say this as if the street gushed with epicural libertines sipping and tidbit nibbling, rather than being clogged with enthusiastic guzzlers, clotted with clamping snap traps. A tine in the tongue is not enough to seduce savor.
So begin endings. Perhaps a mouthful of smoke is the epilogue of desire.
Get your lips out of my ear. Step away and be at ease, no explanations are forthcoming. No, I will not be healed by the strategic placement of a billboard with my picture on it. Landscapes of pain are unfolded across a continent.
Life within the suppository that is virtue is an airless endeavor. The vacuum-packed stillness, as righteousness is proclaimed, never to pop, dense and menacing, oblivion’s little tumor toward taking the fall, another layer of muck, of lifeless clay, a dumpling dropped on a sunny meadow.
We are all of a heap, of a dumping. My geriatric mother no longer controls her spine. Gravity sends her floorward every few seconds. On my rare visits, I watch her track empty space with her eyes until I catch her gaze and she scowls at me with deep purpose, with intention, and yet remains silent. I am her echo. Regardless of where, I sit, I slip off, I tip forward into the fall. Soon, you will find us side by side, my mother and me, tied to wheelchairs so that we do not topple downward onto our heads and spill out our brains. Collapses.
The bad news for those who would have life be transparent: to live is to smudge.
Dissatisfaction layers and sings its own harmony. To whinge is to sputter the first firings hurling us toward the flypaper of disappointment. Disgrace, the struggle to earn exclusion, is the art of being the last to stick, in the disguise of indolence and befuddlement.
The only topic that merits lingering, for years entire, is whether at a particular moment the imminence of death has snuggled up or instead moved off a bit into the indistinct proximity. This spotlight game appears to be an act of survival but has more to do with hiding and seeking.
How energetic we are, keeping vice close, keeping decency’s mentholated kiss at bay.
Anything to preserve the monster that preys upon our visceral matter, receives all our blame for each new bubble of foolishness. Not everyone is lucky enough to develop a distaste for obsessive spinning in place, for fixated and effulgent misconduct.
Is it that our yearning to be less substantial, to float like ghosts above reality, to prolong the shades we extend over living, is it that these have made pestilence our favored vice. Finally, a bad habit that spreads without the need of anyone’s help.
It could be that my virtue is latent, that my intentions are never allowed to germinate, like a fistful of seeds, cast off at the season’s first seizure and stumbling. I keep attempting to behave but I have no knack for it. I am clumsy with my attention and time creates nooks in which to stray.
I will die from a stroke that results from having blown my nose too hard. But, would I ever have flirted with the dream of an unimpeded life?
Trudging along the never-ending stretch of process, from kerfuffle to cracking and crumbling. Making the air breathe as some sort of cyclical aspiration. How to filter out malaise and maudlin mumbling, to inject the base material with effervescent giddiness and giggling. The time spent servicing disease has filled our hours and swallowed our voices. Gobs and fistula brim over the cities within us. Today, the only reveries in reach are those procured by poisons.
Biting words to bits, curdling the chuckle, all for a sanitary grunt, a copious groan, a simmering and salubrious gurgle. Just so the pine woods remain fresh and the sun lemony. And this, this thus remaining, being what is left to have to walk through.
I go now to die. What else would you call it? The slap of light, while within the moment caged, trying to touch, even through unbearable attention, salivating to speak. React to proddings and cacophony. Breathe, resist, choke by mouthfuls. Strut, prance, wobble a bit further until topple. Fret in place. Then still. Yet utterly exhausted. Pronounce dead between teeth. Fumble for a way to describe it. What would you call it then, at that point?
Whether words widen or not. Discarded like a dried peel, like the yellow-tinged swab organic, a soiled bandage, folded and snuggling among so many others in the lidded receptacle. A trying to make the unfolding funk murmur something, to incite the intimate stench to describe what the blue-granulated massacre has been. The cold and tidy, unencumbered galaxy of wiped-down surfaces, almost free now of the film left by words secreted in an embarrassingly organic and potentially contagious moment of rot.
Even now, expecting you to love me, though I know it may not be today. Doing what I want is not as easy as it seems. Rather, I am always choosing between what I want to do and what I know I will have wanted to have done. I would have wanted doing to have been a lovesome thing. The only space between us filled with garland and celebration, syllables were meant to bloom, not curl away or fall off. Busying their mouths with denuncings and renouncings every minute of the brief expanse makes people stupid.
A rag-tag jumble of lives entangled that just seems to roll along mashing in and casting out stray souls as it goes along. These are not chums, something rare and lovely and far beyond any of your likely business. These, on the other hand, are just desserts. Talking about the company I keep is like a ship describing how it picked the iceberg that will later disembowel it. Yet the perpetual swirling of this cluster of flotsam keeps it relatively varied at least, both pimply and liver-spotted of rind.
Before this, it was ejections and wandering. This was that for so long. Not even getting the chance to find out whether there was anything to belong to in the first place. Just heave-ho and into the open empty air. Back into the curvature of my own skull, like a cyclist doing tricks.
The music always changing, missed opportunities. Tapping and waiting or wringing and remorsing. The loogie and the moment, to hawk it up in peace, never coincide.
When I am thoughtful, when I am still, I become an obstacle. Others plot a course around me. Bugs misbehave and buzz about my ears, sting my ankles. Once, a bat ricocheted lightly off my ribs. I am as if the world has stubbed its toe on a dead thing.
Virtue refuses experience; the favored child wears grace as if it were a prophylactic. Regular dousing means it takes longer for you to begin stinking again. Only moving things remain clean, along the way is a kind of holding your breath.
The loss of being everywhere. As immanent as a turd, virtue is a spectacle that demands you pay admission by secreting dizziness. Innocence is an arrow while it is still in the air. The green smear blots out contemplation. I am turnsick with yearning for each thought curling in the pipesmoke.
Vice is the refusal of perpetual transparency. It is the furtive pleasure of leaving a fart in the board room. Vice insists that the mayhem at least be punctuated.
“What am I going to do tomorrow?” you say, because it is not a question, “What else? I am going to stay shut in with you in this house. Because nothing ever occurs to you, you never propose an outing, you have no ideas.” You hand me a shit popsicle, and I understand that you too must be anxious.
Company is possibly another exception. Narcotics, stimulants, hallucinogens, such as liquor, cannabis, cocaine and other opiates, amphetamines, various plants to chew, perchance to vomit. All these, in my earthly trudgings, have been, for the most part, superfluous. No further fragmentation has been necessary. Tobacco, the cloudscape created by the soft white whorls of its conflagration, has been the only luminous exception. There, like Baruch, I have found respite and solace.
I regularly sell my strengths. My weaknesses, on the other hand, are priceless, and I would never part with them. Call it indulgence, call it enough rope, to stray from marching is always the first gesture, the first detail toward a rendering. Reflection creates more space within to dwell. Without it, we become the righteous, the megaphones that abuse all the air between us. A world fills itself with the grubby impositions of military love. Such exercise ensures longevity; a cockroach lives on for a month after its head has been crushed. And so, we have democracy and civics.
To bleat, or not to. The sheep have scattered into opposing herds. The microphones have tunneled to the extreme edges, to the borders beyond which fear flows in screaming. Should I have aspired to be a goat? As a ram, my half-course already run? All paths lead to bloodletting and orthodoxy. Dare I shear my horns and leave such ire shed, curling impotent, like worms above ground?
Receive and return, receive and return, another well-behaved way-station of poison, with just enough spillover along the long conduit. The curving venom extends past drowsy children mumbling their excellence into the muck, past false reconciliations and bear traps recruiting any who might stray. Not in the mood to walk today, not of a mind to tussle.
I am surprised when the terminal takes the trouble to inch closer. Meanwhile, I waltz detours, checker the periphery with traced squares. Even the track I have imagined will run out, leaving the train car in the dust without even the blurriest destination, no matter what I do. Still, I find irresistible the urge to sidestep each bullseye. I will not apologize for using the end of the ribbon to tie a bow. What is weakness then, if not a flowering?
Will I have to book a room in this hotel eventually? If I arrive early, there is nowhere to sit. If I arrive late, I am fined. If I stay home, I am irresponsible.
I will deal with two people. One behind a counter and one behind a door. The one behind the counter continues asking me questions even though she does not make even the most minimum effort to listen to the responses. In the end, I am allowed behind the door, though I am clearly undeserving.
As I enter this new room, the unsuitable nature of my presence is confirmed by the dread in the eyes of person who peers at me over the upper edge of her computer screen. She motions me to a plastic chair while she peruses the intimate details of my physical frailty.
She tells me that feeling breathless, running out of energy, and experiencing ongoing exhaustion are things that eventually happen to almost everyone.
I tell her that this seems like a reasonable statement to me.
Therefore, these things are not covered by your plan, she says.
I try not to show that I am not surprised.
The problem, the real problem, she says, is that you refuse to be good, and insist on being naughty.
This descent into infantile vocabulary mildly irritates me.
In fact, if you did what you were told, she insists, everything would be okay.
I inform her that this seems highly unlikely to me.
She assures me that continuing to do whatever I feel like doing will lead to a sinister and pathetic end.
Like our Lord’s, I say, preferring smoke and mirrors to engaging her directly, now that she has begun threatening my future.
This is no joke, she says. You are in for some nasty moments, mister.
I am again disconcerted by the vocabulary shift.
I tell her that I have genuinely enjoyed our time together.
She tells me again that all my troubles stem from my refusing to do what I am told.
As I leave her office, I am under the impression that unless I die or get gravely ill relatively soon, she will be deeply disappointed.
Even if I wanted to, I could not comply. Without the tension, harmony is just a droning. Direction and misdirection are still a not-there-yet, a push and longing to shut off the apparatus. An apprehension become carnivorous numbing. And so, we roll on darkly. But before this pull here, I would have keeled over onto, before this point, I would have curdled out of the recipe, crumbled out of the edifice, gone out of the story on an errand. Because after all, this is what we do, in the end while we breathe, and against all advisement, we bloom.
If you are lucky enough to take a wrong turn, there is a small abandoned sector at the edge of the city. Its exact location is difficult to fix. You seem to have passed through a lot of nowhere by the time you get there. It always seems to take longer to get there than you remember. This place, and even the places around it, outlived its use to the rest of the city decades ago. Now, what is left is a neighborhood of narrow canals that presumably open out into the bay. These canals are filled with boats that appear to be stationary, where people live, though not much seems to be happening.
To effloresce into translucence and then transparency. To leave the thicket of whispers in a hush, finding nourishment beyond attention. Eventually, the petals will lose themselves in the wind.
In the maze of canals, sumptuous flower gardens drift together and then come apart in the abundant silence. New configurations drift into view, belonging to no one. Fragrances copulate in the capricious air and the paths have dissolved in the waters.
The flat boats are brimming with habitation and sustenance. There is nowhere to march here. The floating world, too, wilts, dwindles, wafts, and lingers.
About the Author
The son of Colombian parents, George Mario Angel Quintero was born in 1964 in San Francisco, California, where he spent his first thirty years. He studied literature at the University of California, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Under the name George Angel, he has published poetry, fiction, and essays in English. Since 1995, he has lived in Medellin, Colombia, authoring seven books of poetry, and three books of theater plays all in Spanish under the name Mario Angel Quintero. He continues to write and publish in both English and Spanish. He is also a musician, a visual artist, and a theater director.