For everybody there is a song or some would say a beat that accompanies their days. Dylan, too, had a song, but it had become faint over his 28 years. His song was broken up and sent in every direction like invisible and soundless radio waves. He listened, but heard nothing, and wrung his soul quietly like a hundred tiny hands on a single wet rag.
He found himself slinking more and more into the false havens of Gardening, into the thin aisles, the brightness of Sears was somehow muted there. His favorite companions were the hard and sharp hand tools and simple, stupid, plastic gadgets promoting growth, that is, garden growth.
He liked the enclosed aisles for their security. He was protected on two sides from viewers checking in on him, bosses, co-workers. The customers he adjusted to. They were innocent fools, yet they were guilty somehow too, guilty of looking in on him, of being interested through basic curiosity.
Those in whose eyes he could see wisps of a pain unspoken and unrelenting did he shy from most quickly. They were too much like him and he knew he had to look away, escape with the sort of urgency that would come if you looked into a mirror and saw somebody else’s reflection.
Dylan never shied from the protection of these quiet places. It felt good that he had a reason to be in one now. He dug his hands deep into a box of hose attachments, pulled one, marked it with his price gun and placed it on a hook. He did it again. The repetition felt good to him even though he had never gotten used to the ugliness of what he sold and handled. Their utilitarian shapes connoted natures that were somehow grotesque and definitely flat and meaningless.
The box of green and yellow hose attachments said fifteen minutes of freedom to him, but he wanted more. He wanted the box to say two hours. Then he would be finished and he could go home without having to leave the enclosed place to help customers. But even that was an illusion. You always have to help customers.
So he placed the attachments quietly, each with its own clear plastic bag and green paper label held by a staple, on to a hook above a lower shelf. Co-workers secretly thought that he was too meticulous, that his disappearances into these alcoves made him a bad worker. But he always showed up on time and never called in sick.
But Dylan didn’t really care what others thought of him anymore. He was able to lose himself in a thin sheath of awareness that had in it no joy, but instead gave to him a tepid sense of completion and finality, a questionless state that asked nothing and therefore received nothing back.
Such an attitude made him, if not a good worker, a harmless one, who did his job satisfactorily enough. As long as nobody came down his aisle his solitude remained thick and hinted of substance, of time, if not spent well, spent just the same.
He felt the hose attachments through their plastic caskets, strange Y shaped objects that let one stream of water separate into two. It was an unnatural shape. He placed them anyway, aware of his own movements, the fluidity somehow empowered by the very shape of the pieces.
What had become of nature anyway? …he thought.
The thought was typical of Dylan, illogical, but somehow with an awkward sense about it. Nature had indeed seemed to have twisted and developed into something ugly, needing special valves to order its ways.
Dylan felt like that sometimes. He felt like something twisted, like the hose attachment, in that he too was going in two separate ways. The only difference was that if water ran through him he would surely die. The vigor would kill him. The cold department store light kept him dry. The repetitive motions of his day kept him sane.
Dylan once laughed out loud because it struck him odd that he worked in Gardening.
He stood back up after placing the final piece. It was always a little strange to him that he was here. He stared at the white wall of partical board on which hung the numerous gadgets; silvery pruners, dirt movers, tree helpers, hooks and wires. Nothing made sense and that was the only thing that made sense.
The half metallic, half plastic image of the wall in front of him was like some sort of monstrous drip painting desperately in need of interpretation. It seemed that its ugliness would save him somehow. But it was all too impossible, too illogical.
He wanted now only to sleep his way away from it, to find his way home and sleep in order to know what he already knew, that the mess, the ugliness, the incoherence, the disorder, all of it, all of it, was an illusion.
His mother and father knew that, had known that all along.
When Dylan left the store at 5 o’clock the sun was still bright. He never wore sunglasses although his blue eyes were sensitive. He knew the sun would be down soon. He waited every day at the bus covering, sometimes sitting on the bench and looking out for the bus through the surrounding glass.
This day an old woman came and sat next to him. She just sat there, looking down at a white plastic package. She had a scarf around her head and brown hose that curled at the top of her calves.
He smelled the carbon monoxide in the air and tried to forget about the woman as he looked out over moving cars to the businesses across from the mall, the cheesy little signs trying to entice people away from his monolithic shopping structure whose magnetic force had captured the imagination of an entire nation.
He was not unaware of his place here, but lately his knowledge of purpose and place had been slipping into dingy absolutes. The city was beginning to fade even more, the images were getting hazy, soggy even. Something somewhere was slipping. Somebody somewhere was dying. And now for the first time in many years and for an unexplained reason for Dylan it was starting to hurt again.
Several moments passed before the bus roared up to Dylan’s perch and when it finally arrived it passed him by several feet. Dylan, the first one there, would be the last in line this time, having forgotten to stand when he first saw the bus approaching. A few moments of waiting passed and then he lifted himself on to the black first step and listened to the change clanking into the cold and soulless money collector. Then he dropped his own five quarters in with as little noise as possible and went to the back of the bus where he sat down across from a man in a green shirt, whose face was pocked and his moustache too well groomed. He looked out the window. The bus roared again, this time from underneath him, and he watched the mall recede and disappear as though it never even happened.
The city passed as though it was made of paper and the paper was turned by a crank. There was little substance. The two dimensions of the city held color, but no vibrancy. The further away from the mall he got the more decrepit the buildings. Then he would turn towards his own white, middle class neighborhood and be home.
If he went far enough, stayed on the bus to the end of the line, he would see more city rot and ultimately he would end his day in South Central. He had never stayed on long enough to see South Central. He had never had a reason to nor the desire.
The rumbling of the motor was always hypnotic to Dylan. He could allow himself to sink into the sound and the vibration much more readily than he could allow himself to sink into the hard orange seats. Sometimes he daydreamed. There was nothing to look at except the small pains of a million strangers. The throaty growl of the bus took all of that away for brief moments in between stops when the engine pushed past the restraints of the lower gears.
Dylan bent down and loosened his shoelace. His feet hurt. He thought of taking off his shoes, but thought again. He would just have to put them back on. He watched the orange sun. It was no longer hot, the summer was behind him now.
He was wearing his tan jacket now and had been wearing it for almost a month. The jacket, plain with a sort of light brown knitted collar, kept him warm but did not compliment his pale complexion and sandy blonde hair. Whenever Dylan wore colors they always looked too bright so he stayed with the earth shades even though he knew they made him look bland. If someone looked close enough, he figured, they would notice that he was going for the “earthy” look. Most people didn’t notice though.
Dylan’s hair was thinning a little now as well, but that was becoming more acceptable to him. It somehow fit with the creases under the slight bags under his eyes which used to only be there in the morning when he woke up. In the morning he would sometimes look in the mirror and hold his breath as if that would somehow tighten his face or give his cheeks more color. The memory of a clear complexion and being “handsome” was still somewhere in his mind, but it was dissipating like morning mist.
Dylan looked up front and watched the bus driver’s steady bounce. The same black man drove him home every day. His name was Art Wilcox. Dylan had never met him, but knew him only through the name on his badge. Art held the steering wheel wide, like he was trying to hold a fat woman around the waist. It was funny how Art held the steering wheel.
He focused briefly on the back of Art’s head. His nappy curls were almost microscopic. There was nothing to see there, but the image sparked the thought of a forest to Dylan. The trees were chokingly thick and close. Dylan pushed the thought away and looked back out at the passing businesses with their cheesy neon and promises of more written on glass or painted on wood or lit up like they were real, like they really meant something to Dylan which, of course, they didn’t. Didn’t those fools know that?
Dylan knew he had a mile more to go at the Texaco star. That’s when he thought of slitting the old man’s throat, rather, that’s when he remembered thinking of slitting the old man’s throat.
The man had to be 80 years old. He sauntered into Gardening like all the old men do, slow and curious and yet determined, somehow successful at faking that they know what they want and they know where it is. Dylan served him. The old man looked up at him but said nothing. Dylan asked him again. Could he serve him? The old man said “hand shears.” Dylan said “Yes” and turned, unsure whether the old man was following or not.
When he stopped at the hand shears the old man wasn’t there. He waited a moment and then saw just the old man’s foot round the corner of the aisle. A moment later the man was completely inside the frame formed by the two artificial walls and the sharp, white light above. Dylan, who was holding the most expensive pair of handshears, as silently as the light, rejected the old man’s frown and imagined his hand extend towards the old man, the shears open up ever so slightly and then the cut.
It felt like slicing chicken meat.
The thought was unexplainable and he quickly felt shame. He squeezed the handshears and turned them around and handed them to the old man who looked closely at them before asking if there were any cheaper, which there were. Dylan did not look him in the eye as he rung up the sale.
The bus geared down to a stop and both the front and the rear doors opened. Two men got off of the bus and two men got on. Dylan was watching a couple waiting at a stop light next to the bus. They stared straight ahead, saying nothing. Were they thinking anything? Were they happy? Miserable? There was no way to tell. When the man pulled off the woman removed her hand from her chin and looked at Dylan. The natural, fluid quality of the motion startled him. He did not look away, but watched her look away a moment later. She had not seen him, he realized.
Dylan suddenly recalled a memory. He had been lost in a haunted house when he was four or five when the carnival came to town. He had entered a room that to this day he didn’t really believe was meant for everybody to enter. It was reserved, it seemed, only for those who would get lost and be the most frightened because of it. Now it seemed right to Dylan that he should have found it.
A light came on in a box and there was a hand, soft and smooth, under the circle of light. The limb had been severed and was seeping blood, but the beauty remained, the fingernails were long and red, the skin was tight and splotchless. It was a hand to be kissed. Dylan did not kiss the hand, but cried and beat it with his own hand, feeling the rubbery texture and the hatefulness of the light that did not go off when he so desperately wanted it to.
Dylan looked up. Why had he remembered that? He didn’t know, but lately he had been remembering a lot of things and the stranger they were the more normal it seemed. Was he coming full circle, he wondered? Perhaps like a dog returning to his vomit?
He shook his head, but he realized he wasn’t shaking the image. The bus started violently it seemed and Dylan’s head was pushed back and he looked for a brief moment at the cool, ordered seams of the bus ceiling. He saw the hand again and it moved with the fluid grace of a lover. The fingers touched one another and Dylan saw a powder fall and soak into something else, a bowl, a cup, something that held a hot steaming liquid that he could not see. The cup floated with the hand and he followed the action as it lowered down for him to see.
He looked away briefly and saw the city and then sat back and closed his eyes. The cup and the hand had gone nowhere. When he opened his eyes again the cup was beneath him and he could see the mixture and smell the strong aroma of a potion red as blood and he knew delicious as cream. He looked away again at the passing city. It was a “furniture blowout.” That’s what they had, he thought. He, at the same time, took the liquid to his lips like a man dying of thirst.
At that, the image disappeared. There was nothing but the jostling bus riders and the blue early night filtering in through the full windowed machine on which he was riding. Outside his window he could see the more familiar sights. There was the Safeway and then the laundromat. He took in those things fully. The other things he saw but dismissed. There was so much around him that wasn’t his, that wanted no part of him. The city had become faceless to him.
He had dipped his fingers in each one of her pools and even bathed in some, in her university, in her sweet potions of love. Each time he came out he felt more naked and more cold. Sears was able to keep him warm for now, like a fire or a cup of hot coffee in a snowcamp.
Dylan stood up and the bus slowed and then came to a stop across from his apartment. As he stood he looked at Art Wilcox, whose forehead was wrinkled from looking into his mirror at Dylan. The door did not open immediately. Dylan turned and found he was staring into the black eyes of Art Wilcox and yet the door still would not open.
“You want off?” Art Wilcox bellowed.
Dylan winced. The sound of the man’s voice frightened him.
“Yes,” Dylan said. Didn’t he know that? He let him off there every day.
“You didn’t ring the bell,” Art Wilcox yelled.
Dylan said nothing. Art Wilcox’s eyes told him that he should have rung the bell.
“Sorry,” Dylan said.
The door opened suddenly and Dylan stepped off the bus. The bus roared away and Dylan thought of Art Wilcox and felt sad for he would forever on have to think of him as being mean. Perhaps he should have rung the bell. It is a simple courtesy, he thought. That he did not usually ring the bell, but simply stood up, gave Art Wilcox’s chastisement an even sadder and more peculiar flavor. He thought Art Wilcox knew who he was. He was wrong again.
Dylan’s apartment complex was small compared to some others in the area. It was painted light blue with a darker blue trim and consisted of one long strip of apartments, a first and second floor, with the owner, Mrs. Felcher, living in the bottom corner apartment next to the small parking lot. Dylan’s apartment was in the middle of the structure on the second floor. He crossed the street and then walked up the steps to his door into which he put his key into the keyhole.
The door opened and he ignored the smell of stale paint and musty carpet. He didn’t turn on the light. The room was gray with the last of the day’s light. Dylan couldn’t remember if he usually hit the bell or not. It was strange that he couldn’t remember and he took off his jacket and threw it on one of the chairs at the kitchen table to his left.
To his right was the thin green carpet and his old blue couch. To the left of the couch was a tan easy chair that was pushed down on the seat, the work of some fat man probably who knew when it was time to get a new chair. Dylan rarely sat on the chair, but preferred the couch.
He moved to the couch and lay down after removing his shoes. The remote control lay on the scuffed glass coffee table. He reached for it and hit the red power button. He watched the local news. More insanity. More drive-by shootings and murders. He turned away from the television and placed his wrist on his forehead and looked at the only picture in the apartment, a leopard sitting in a tree with the lovely eyes of one who would either devour you or love you until the end of time.
The gray feeling of work was loosened now. He felt his solitude and listened for its rhythms, but tonight it felt different somehow, impatient. He listened to an anchorwoman describe a fire that had taken place recently in South Central, how it may have been arson related and Dylan thought, ~South Central. How strange all of that was.”
There were no people running in the street that night of the riots, the mayhem had not touched him where he lived in this mostly white neighborhood. He remembered the strangeness, though, of locking his doors and watching the news in a blackened apartment. Dylan felt calm now looking at the leopard. It’s eyes somehow asked the question “why?”
Dylan realized that this question had been coming into his mind all day. It had not entered in the usual way. The question was real as a person is real, but unlike a person there was no definition. For Dylan, all there could be was an action, say, the straightening of a shelf or the helping of a customer, but then would come the question again, simply and raw and in the form of a word, simply: “Why?”
Dylan not only didn’t understand the word, but he didn’t understand why it would be appearing now. It was as though something somewhere had crossed Dylan’s secret line and the breach had taken place so recently and so silently that he was baffled because of it. Something had attracted his attention and asked him to respond, but he didn’t know what.
Dylan stared at the picture of the large cat. There had been no reason to question. There had been no break in his routine. He had been careful about that. If there had been any sort of fracture in his plan then he would have noticed. The daydreams were the only fractures but they were all within him. Nothing actually happened and yet still he felt that somehow he needed to piece it all back together. This non-something was taking on form and so far the only thing he could say about it was that it was bizarre and something he did not want.
Dylan felt his solitude now like ice on warm flesh, but there was nothing he could do with the pain. He did not want to question himself any further. All questioning was doing was leading him down a path on which he didn’t want to be lead.
Dylan looked back to the television. The weatherman forecast a sunny day. It meant nothing to Dylan. What was happening? he wondered. Nothing was happening. Nothing was happening at all and why should that be changed? After all, he thought, nothing happening was the best that there could be. It just seemed there was always too much to handle. How could he trim the fat of his existence any further?
Dylan was aware that he couldn’t even figure out the questions to ask himself to make the changes he needed in his life. He could go to nobody else for help either. There was no one to go to it seemed.
True, there was his father. The old man was always at the house, living alone, even there somehow for his son. But he was off the list. He was not a receptive man. He was cold, unpassionate. He could not understand a question that could not be presented like an exhibit or shown through an image as if seen through a crystal ball. Dylan rarely spoke with his younger brother Tom who was away at college. Cindy no longer bothered with the complexities of his secret life.
Dylan again remembered the pleasure in his daydream of slicing the old man’s throat, but the evil thoughts were too new to him and too foreign for him to know they were just quirks, mishaps, mental accidents. He once again pushed the image out of his head and it pushed him back somehow against a wall without anyplace to go. His shame turned to frustration and he felt depressed.
When he was a child he would sometimes strike himself with his fist when he was angry. That was an easy thing to do, an easy solution. The force of the blow would jolt him into an even angrier yet somehow passified state so that he received a feeling of false resolution. His mind then slipped away from the direct obstruction and waded off into the green muck of a much larger question.
That was where the answers were anyway, he thought, in the muck.
At 28 the questions are of a different sort. “Am I sane?~ is a lonely question to ask yourself at that age and one that is asked in such a private place that there really is no place for the answer to rest.
Dylan sometimes heard soft resonances of the question inside. It could be sparked by simple things, images even, the shape of a chair, the fullness of a cloud, anything.
It made him fall back as observer in a way that prohibited him from observing anything at all. Instead he saw the images of a world too complex and the images often gave him an inward sense comparable to vertigo. He would reel back from the confusion of the everyday scenes filled with such a cold, hard reality. And it would simply be too much.
He sometimes thought if he could just allow himself to know that he was asking that simple question then maybe he could get…something. But he didn’t know what he needed to get. Help came in too many forms and he had found that none of the forms were particularly interested in him. Some of that help was reserved simply for crazies and he was not crazy. He just worked at Sears and came home, ate dinner and watched television or read like everybody else. There was no way he was going to be called crazy.
Sometimes he wondered, though. Why else would he be working at Sears with a college degree? Cindy, who taught him the ways of love and then left him for a tenor sax player in the university band, was assured of his insanity. Dylan still reeled from her last statement before he saw her for the last time. “You need more than I can give you,” she had said.
Was it sane to go to work for eight hours every day and come home to canned spaghetti? Was it sane to sit down without even an inclination to dive into the liquid sanitarium of alcohol and watch television shows that try to explain your life in terms of being a better father or son or mother or daughter, but that never stop to think that you yourself, also a viewer and consumer, have nobody, absolutely nobody?
Suddenly Dylan envisioned one of the storefronts he saw on the way home. He did not question the image but let it flow like his other thoughts. It was a hair salon called Desires. He passed it every day, but it was not like the others. It’s face was painted in swirls of pink and blue and green. A waterfall was painted there and trees and on a rock sat a woman, a river nymph or fairy queen, dressed in a white robe and golden belt. Her hand brushed her own hair and he could remember the detail and care the artist took with the fingers and the hair falling through them as if the strands were spindled gold and could be shorn, collected and spent and used to buy happiness.