Two Poems, One Story – David Estringel
October 22, 2018
You Get My Meaning
What’s this sex thing between you and me
Tell me what I want to hear!
That strips me of my skin?
That crumbles the Earth beneath my feet?
I can’t stop this free-fall
Through the ether.
what to do with these moody blues?
words capture little, collapsing on the tongue.
like wicker baskets of water,
the head can’t hold thoughts
that run cold, along the lengths of silvery city streets.
hope shimmers from afar–
beneath the amber promise of errant street lamps.
what can contain the things that teem and spill
from gray matter
and make red this life’s blood?
Sitting and lazily swiveling in his broken leatherette desk chair, Jacob looked around his office, searching its contents for some sense of purpose for his being there, but much to no avail. Brown bookcases lined the walls, squeezed tightly together in uniform fashion, the shelves concaved, virtually choking on artifacts collected (hoarded, really) over his eight-year tenure at the university. A great deal of his many interests, adopted since graduate school (more distractions and dalliances than anything that, in lieu of slowing things down and actually reflecting on his life, occupied his mind) were also sufficiently represented: old English textbooks and supplemental materials, manuals on psychotherapy, stacks of literature (mostly of the poetry and “dirty realism” ilk), and guides that promised to convey all one could ever want to know about qualitative research methods and their ethical applications. Despite the random bursts of clutter that, strategically, were left untouched so as to add a sense of “busyness” to the room, it was a pleasant space to be in with its dark laminate wood furniture (in their varieties of almost-matching hues) and motley knick-knacks that, while decorative, gave visitors little to no information about the inner-workings of his head, leaving them a bit disturbed and feeling slightly off-kilter. The main culprits were a gold-leaf Ganesha statue/paperweight; a plaster skull that served as a makeshift bookend; a copy of the Zohar on the console table by the door; a metal dachshund on a wooden base, peeing on a fire hydrant; a dog-eared book of daily reflections on stoicism; and a vintage, 1950s toaster atop the bookcase near the rear window that immediately pulled one’s attention towards the office’s back wall, where multiple degrees were mounted like stuffed deer heads, but with no sense of pride or accomplishment attached to them. He stopped mid-swivel and eyed the few shelves dedicated to the field that he not only currently taught as a full-time assistant professor, but had dedicated a good portion of his adult life to– social work.
Many of the titles rang familiar, as he had immersed himself in the profession (clinical practice to be exact) for years now, hitting heights in his career that even he had never anticipated. He smiled and nodded to himself as he scanned book spines for the titles that he was particularly fond of and found most useful, mostly about cognitive-behavioral therapies and developmental theories: all subjects that had lent greatly to his success as a therapist and college instructor. Other titles were observed, however, inserted willy-nilly among the familiar that fell upon his consciousness with a dismally lackluster thud. He had no recollection of where they came from or even why he bought them in the first place. Their subject matters were relevant enough, spanning everything from family therapy to mindfulness to the science of compassion (whatever that was), but he had certainly never handled any of them nor flipped a single page between any of their crease-free paperback covers. Must have been bought last year when I still gave a shit…or at least tried to, he thought, disturbingly unmoved by the assumption.
Truth be told, Jacob was no stranger to orchestrating a life based on what he “should” do, though the origins of those narratives, really, were never quite clear. The pursuit of upward mobility and goal attainment had become second-nature to him with alternative options being tantamount to failure or—at the very least—proof that all the things he had been trying to convince himself that he wasn’t were, indeed–after all–true. To ponder too long upon such thoughts was unacceptable. “We don’t do that”, his father used to say (when they were still speaking) after any suggestion of doubt or surrender was made audibly known. The radio silence between the old man and him should have been liberating, making things easy to find a way out of his current sojourn into limbo, but it wasn’t. (Some specters follow you no matter how much time has passed. No matter how many skins you’ve shed and brushed under dusty carpets. They stick like birthdays or the need to breathe). No, those thoughts just weren’t going to do. They were weak. Dangerous. After all, what would that have meant in retrospect? All those years of school. All the training. The late nights and weekends in the ER. His private practice. The systematic sacrificing of what little personal life he had had. All wasted? No. That wasn’t an option. From a practical standpoint, it made absolutely no sense. To shift gears this late in the game and start over from scratch meant giving up everything he had talked himself into thinking was important; and that couldn’t happen, despite the fact that he—more than anything—wished he could.
As the silence of his office began to stab at his ears, Jacob was overcome with the urge to feel tethered to something—anything: the constant free-fall was beginning to wear on him. He was always in his head, and when he was lucky enough to be present—really present—he felt pressed by the weight of it all, hyper-conscious of the meat that burdened his leaden bones. His work brought him a decent amount of security, which had been the most important thing in his life up until recent months and had opened enough doors to secure many more years of automaton-like productivity, but the implications of that prospect eluded him, losing their platinum-card appeals. Maybe it was because he never really wanted to become a social worker—and clinician—in the first place: it was just a means to an end; a way to prove something, though he wasn’t sure to whom. Maybe that was what came from expecting too much…too little…or nothing at all. Maybe it was what came from forcing a purpose in this life and not letting one be revealed. (To expect a different outcome seems silly, if you really think about it. Glamours fade and, ultimately, you’re left navigating a world of hard edges and empty space).
Leaning his head back onto the cracked leather of the chair’s headrest, his thoughts pulled him back to the summer of 1977 when he drowned in his apartment swimming pool. He and his sister had gone down to the pool to fuck about and cut the boredom of the day. He remembered his father was there, reading a newspaper on a nearby bench with his cup of black coffee. His sister, Lisa, a pretty and slightly chubby girl, was laying on her stomach in a black Woolworth’s one-piece with sash-like fuschia and turquoise stripes that wrapped around her thick waist , flipping through a –then–current edition of Tiger Beat magazine with John Travolta on the cover, while Jacob aimlessly dog-paddled about the shallow end of the pool, enjoying the warmth of the sun on his back and the silky coolness of the water that glided against his legs. After a while, a boy about his age—probably from another unit in the complex—entered the pool gate and headed to the patch of grass near the water. While close to the same height, the boy was much bigger than Jacob. The boy threw his towel in the grass and dove in, surfacing close to where Jacob was treading water. It wasn’t long before a friendly exchange took place, and both shot the shit, chatting about everything from Legos to what pains in the ass sisters can be. Eventually, a game of tag ensued, and the boys flopped around and darted to-and-fro, launching themselves from rough pool walls, in relentless efforts to make the other ‘it.” Jacob remembered one of his ankles being grabbed and then being pulled down, but not before an excited laugh escaped his lips. He remembered being underwater for a long time and not being able to breathe…not being able rise above the surface. There was thrashing and kicking. The pulling didn’t stop. He remembered the play of refracted webs of sunlight on pool walls. He remembered the world above the surface. He remembered panic and the color light blue. Then black.
When his eyes opened, he was on his back; the silhouette of his sister’s head loomed over him, as the noon sun beat down in a relentless assault. Instinctively, his eyes searched around for his father, but he was gone. Lisa had given him mouth-to-mouth: a fortuitous perk of working part-time as a lifeguard at the city pool that summer.
“Oh, my God, Jacob! Are you OK? Are you OK?” Tears filled her eyes.
Jacob had taken in a lot of water and was too busy coughing up what seemed to be an endless supply to answer her. Each cough set off a fire in his chest, as small trickles of warm water splashed on the concrete. “Where is dad? I want dad!” he cried.
“He’s getting help. You stopped breathing, Jacob. We—I couldn’t find a pulse. Oh, my God! You scared us to death! Are you OK?” Barely navigating her way through her many emotions, she pulled up his limp body from the hard concrete below and hugged him, tightly: something that had never happened before. “That fucking asshole! Was he trying to kill you?”
“What? Who?” Jacob lay back down on the warm, wet concrete.
“That kid. That asshole you were playing with. He pulled you down and wouldn’t let go.” Lisa began to cry, stifling her sobs as she continued. “I—we didn’t notice what was happening until…We saw you under the water. You weren’t moving!”
Even more muddled and blinded by the sun, after Lisa moved away to give him some air, he asked, “What happened to him?”
Lisa looked confused. “What are you talking about, Jacob?”
“The boy. Where is he?”
“I dove in and tried to pull you away from him, but he just wouldn’t let go. He wouldn’t stop. Asshole! That fucking asshole!”
“So, how did you—”
“I kicked the fucker in the stomach, hard, that’s how! He wouldn’t let you go! I snatched you away and he took off, crying. I don’t know where. I pulled you out and…You weren’t breathing. You weren’t breathing!” she sobbed, wiping hot tears from her cheeks. “I checked after you got out. You didn’t have a… are you OK?”
About a minute passed before Jacob could speak, as he clutched the hard ground beneath him and waited for the world to stop spinning, as if he could be flung off at any minute. “I think so,” he said, still in shock, shivering. He raised himself onto his elbows, slowly, with his eyes—like his chest—burning with chlorine. “Where is dad? I want dad! Where was he? Did he see?” he asked, wishing it had been his old man who had saved him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the bench where his father had been sitting: a newspaper was neatly folded on its surface and the coffee cup was gone.
Jacob rarely thought of that day: it, essentially, remained wiped from his memory, except when things got low, which still happened every now and then. (More than he cared for, if the truth be known). He chuckled to himself at the irony of being saved only to live a life that didn’t seem like his anymore. Guess God wasn’t done with the show yet. At times he felt like maybe things were so hard because he did come back, like he wasn’t supposed to be here and the world around him let him know that at every turn. Or maybe he didn’t come back all the way, as if part of him had died, leaving remnants behind that couldn’t be pieced together all the way. It was tiring, but that is what happens when you live life on a dare: the words “want” and “can’t” just don’t exist, so you just keep moving and trying until the day you don’t anymore. (He longed for that day, but that wasn’t up to him). He could hear the custodian cleaning the office next door: he would be in Jabob’s office, soon. It was almost six in the evening, according to the clock on his computer. Jacob let out a drawn exhale and gathered some ungraded papers from under his keyboard and stuffed them into his satchel, powered down his computer, and prepared to lock up for the night. He turned off the lights and scanned the space for anything he may have missed. Turning to leave, he slightly hesitated, as he noticed how peaceful the room was without the electric hums of fluorescents and a running computer. It was time to go, though. Papers to grade. Dogs to feed. Sleep.
The drive home was calming. The lulling, rhythmic kisses of rubber treads on the road. The random selections of his iTunes on low. The stale smell of cigarettes and sweat that reminded him of his grandfather, who died forty years ago too soon, and his old white, Ford pick-up. He took the back-roads home, as he always did, which took a little longer, but they were rarely used that late in the afternoon, so he could take his time when the inclination hit him. He didn’t mind. He liked to drive, especially when the quiet in his life overtook him, granting license to thoughts and memories to rouse and scramble, looking for hints of light seeping in through doors, opened ajar—hungry for recognition. He reached his right hand over towards the passenger’s seat, threw back the flap of his satchel, and dug into its contents for a Marlboro, fumbling through the sharp edges of papers and uncapped pens with determined purpose. Keeping vigilant, his eyes were fixed on the road, ahead, when he felt the edge of a cardboard box graze his fingertips. He pulled out the pack and with his thumb flipped open the top and brought it to his lips, where he proceeded to pull out a lone cigarette out with his teeth. He lit it with the lighter he had purchased that morning at 7-11 (one more to add to the slew that he has progressively stockpiled at home in errant drawers and leather bags, as well as his bathroom, where he ritualistically has his first smoke of the day after dragging himself out of bed. He always forgets them when he leaves the house. Too many thoughts, too early). He took a long, crackling drag and held it in his lungs, exhaled, then wrested his wrist on top of the steering wheel: the cigarette dangled between him and the speedometer. He eyed the yellow-grey smoke, as it streamed from its flaming cherry, lost in how it rippled and curled like a fine silk ribbon. He admired the graceful poetry of it and thought it a shame to turn it to shreds with an exhale.
A loud ruckus broke Jacob’s reverie, as the car and everything in it shook and shifted. Shit! Did I hit something? His eyes darted forward and found nothing but open road, ahead, then he quickly looked into the rear-view mirror. He noticed nothing but a blackening sky and asphalt, divided by intermittent dashes of yellow. Pulling his attention back to the world outside his windshield, Jacob noticed a shock of red among the dark hues that flooded his rear-view. He squinted and focused, intently, into the mirror, noticing a band of red that stretched in tandem along with the road’s surface, while his tires intermittently jarred and sounded, as if driving over rocks and wet, rolled-up newspapers. Slightly disoriented, he clutched the steering wheel with his other hand, pumping the blood out of his knuckles, and scanned the road before him and noticed the same ruddy hue extended off into the distance. Clumps of black speckled the highway, disappearing as quickly as his tires propelled him home, while intermittent bumps and pops from the road below reverberated within the cabin. What? He tossed his cigarette out of the cracked, driver-side window. Something got run over. He checked his mirror, again, and saw no traffic behind him, then decelerated to better see what was going on in front of him. It’s blood…and fur. Given the distance the length of gore had stretched and the amount of carrion on the road, it appeared as if some poor animal was hit and dragged along for a mile or so. As if automatic, Jacob turned the wheel, slightly, to adjust his position within the lane, centering himself directly over the deathly strip. Off to his right in the distance, he spied a motionless black mass by the side of the highway, much larger than what had been feeding the road and his tires. He drove on and followed his “guide” until it minimized into sporadic smears and splatters that trailed off onto the side of the road, where the still thing lay. He veered off to the side and stopped just ahead of it, turned off the ignition, and just sat there, staring at the somber reflection.
A quiver possessed his legs, as he noticed his hands were still grasping the steering wheel. He released them, his right hand instinctively searching for another cigarette. Damn! Stopping himself, he remembered he had just smoked the last one. It’s gotta be dead. No way he could survive that. He wondered why he had stopped. What could he do? It didn’t make sense, but he knew he had to take a look. Bracing himself, he released his seat-belt and opened the door. The air that night was cooler than usual—chilly, almost. He poked his head out into the dimmed light of evening and looked to the right, then left. Still no cars. He got out, closed the door, and took a deep breath. He looked ahead at a field of cotton that flanked the left-side of the road. The stalks looked black against the evening sky with a peppering of stark white that punctuated the—seemingly–lifeless expanse’s absence of color. It seemed colder all of a sudden–the air more humid and nipping than before.
He turned to his left and walked towards the heap, the crunching of gravel and clods of dried mud beneath his feet. With every step, splatters of crimson and bits of meat and fur marred his path, until he finally came upon it. The headless tangle of broken limbs—a dog, likely—had thick, black, woolly fur, that was stickily matted with congealing blood and gore. It was sprawled out in an almost apologetic fashion, seeming as if it were trying to edge its way towards the shallow canal just beyond its reach, past a patch of chaparral trees some forty feet away from where Jacob stood. Looking down upon the sad beast, safely distanced from it (though safe from what he didn’t know), he stood in silence and inspected his summoner. Shards of bone and bloody, gray innards crept out from peeks of torn flesh. Flies and ants had already started to feast. Doesn’t take long, does it? The smell of carnage hung in the moist air like the odor pennies held in a sweaty fist for too long. He thought of how much it must have suffered. How long it must have taken to die. All alone…out here. He wondered if he belonged to anyone. If he was missed. If anyone even cared…or would care. No answers came. Just the whispering of the wind through chaparrals and the stalks of cotton beyond.
Jacob wanted to feel sad, but he didn’t…couldn’t. Something stirred within his chest: a burning. He thought about what he would have done had he found the animal alive. He might have saved it–if he could. Stayed with it–if all was lost–so he wouldn’t have to die alone: a prospect that made his chest flame even more. He imagined it alive and what it might have looked like: a pair of pleading, brown eyes, looking up at him for succor and comfort; a tail, furiously wagging. In his head, he heard it whining from fear and pain. A “We don’t do that,” escaped his lips before his consciousness could ground him in the bloody place that he stood: his eyes began to sting and moisten. Silent and fatigued, he hung his head, as if in prayer, and watched the sun glistening off dampened, black fur and red-tinted bone.
Before Jacob got back into his car and left, he pulled off the college ring he had bought himself, after graduation, and tossed it onto the carcass, as if to show any passers-by that he wasn’t alone.