The Late Mr. Middleman

“Punctuality is a disease of the mind which habituates the tendency to prioritize all the wrong things.”

When we refer to people who have passed away, we often prepend to their names, “the late”, which is a custom I find charming and a little strange. One of the chief benefits of being dead has to be the fact that you don’t have to show up for things anymore, which, for me, is one of the great joys of being alive, that is, when you can manage to pull it off.

Sometimes you have to show up though, and when you do, it is fashionable to be late. I have been told this before, and have tried in earnest to believe it. Being late, they say, establishes your reputation within the upper ranks of the hierarchy, provided you are properly dressed. This is the sort of conventional wisdom that may well work for others. I myself have found it necessary to take a different tack.

My own reputation is that of a man who always shows up on time and then lolls about not doing much, to the relief of everyone in the organization, who all have vivid recollections of what happens when I roll up my sleeves and attempt to accomplish things. It wasn’t long before upper management saw the advantage of giving me my own office and getting me out of the way.

My advice to anyone who would mimic my rise in the world of business is to first of all be on time. I have shouldered the burden of punctuality my entire life, making me the bore at parties and the least admired among coworkers and the most likely to be tapped for that position in middle management where one abides for the remainder of his days, or until they downsize, which ever comes first.

In the mean time, you get to abide in that sweet spot between the pressures of fiduciary responsibility and the grind of actually producing things that consumers are willing to pay for. Then when you finally die, let them go ahead and refer to you as The Late Mr. Middleman. It is a badge of honor, my friend, and one that you and your little alarm clock have earned. It is the secret reward crowning your lifelong campaign of punctuality. Because the day you don’t show up, they’ll know what you’ve trained them to know your entire life: you’re not late, that’s never ever happened, you must be dead.

And then finally, having shed all worries of tardiness, you will get to sleep in.

Delta

I was barely in the door when she spoke, without looking up. “The devil’s layin’ for those who walk the path of righteousness,” she said, apropos of nothing.

She put on an old delta blues record and started a little striptease to it. The bottleneck slide put a sadness in the air, becoming of her dim little bedroom. Sun dapples of late afternoon played on the shear curtains through the crepe myrtles by the window, and the walls glowed the yellow of candle-lit paper. I sank into the springy seat of a musty old wingback as she moved in fluid half steps, her petite form swaying. The record popped and hissed and a gravely old voice tried to warn us about some beautiful true thing. Some unavoidable thing.

I thought about God’s righteousness. It’s a suit of clothes. We play dress-up and save virtue for a rainy day. Always a goal, no more livable than a memory. There’s your devil, right there. The good in me is almost close enough to touch, but church people rub me the wrong way. I caught her eye and she gave me a wink. We go way back. You’d need a passport to get there, and better go soon. The memories have already lost a shoe.

There was always something of the healer in her, and she knew things. Myself, I never got away with anything. She could out-think the natural, make ailments shy away—or become severe if you had crossed her in some way. The rain would stop, even, if it sensed she’d had enough of it. That’s how people saw her, anyway. They would seek her counsel in matters of personal doubt, like you would a preacher. She had that reputation, and a kind of congregation had formed around her. She tolerated the hangers-on with a resignment that troubled her not so much. I was one of them, come to think of it. Closer than most, but not apart from them, or above them, as I sometimes wished to be.

She paused a moment and fixed me with a look. “Who are you again?” A good question. I supposed I was following the natural order of things. You lead yourself around by your own nose, and then wonder why you end up where you do. I told her I didn’t really know. I used to think I did, but not any more. She nodded thoughtfully and continued swaying to the music, working the sweater draped across her shoulders in a provocative way. I always felt forgetful around her. Like memory is just a treading water. The song ended and the phonograph lifted its little arm and clicked off. I felt pressed to get out of there.

“We’ve got to get going, mom,” I said. “Where do you want to eat? Let’s try to keep our clothes on, okay?”


Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

Passage

It was a routine run over the Pacific, en route to the antipodes with a resupply for the colony. Weather clear, trade winds driving our massive hydrogen balloon on coarse and in good time. Then, on the third night, our dirigible was overtaken and boarded by pirates of a most aggressive demeanor. Our security team had scrambled to the alert siren but fell in check to the intruders before a counterattack could be mounted. Their leader, a surly brute with cancerous skin and a hook for a hand, had us corralled on the quarterdeck and an unhappy end seemed at hand.

It was the dragon attack (they’d flown in out of nowhere it seemed) that was our saving grace. Differences aside, we were now all fighting for our lives, gangster and citizen alike, against a common peril. The pirate’s vessel was dispatched in a horrific fireball almost immediately, as this type of aircraft is quite vulnerable to sparks and heat. We drove the great beasts away again and again with our water cannons, as they are averse to moisture, and we resorted at last to praying for rain. A sound drenching from a thunderstorm would surely drive the dragons away.

That’s when the alien craft uncloaked itself off our starboard bow. The ship was birdlike in form and its sudden menace provoked the flying reptiles to leave us and attack it at once. Then, as men encounter that divide where waking crosses into dream, and unsure which side was which, we report to you that the captain of the alien force beamed in before us on a shaft of light, the sight of which none of us would be eager to testify to, and even the heretics among us were moved to cross themselves.

The being spoke to us as plain as a man ordering a meal, and bid us good day and asked if he could borrow some tea. With great relief, we all understood this as the blossoming of peaceful relations for we sky-men are all dedicated tea drinkers, pirate and merchant alike. Our captain had us fetch four full parcels of our best Darjeeling and everyone started to relax. On port side we watched with amazement as the alien ship protruded teat-like spouts which the dragons, now tame-like, hovered before and fed upon, like hummingbirds. Our captain hailed down to the galley and bid the ship’s cook to prepare a feast.

Soon we were all bending elbows as brothers and the fiddles started and the party roared in the clouds and starlight until morning’s glow arced over the brim of the ocean, though we kept a sharp eye, the whole time, on those pirate fellows, and they upon us. In our hearts we’d have loved to reform those thieving rascals and welcome them to the mercantile way of life, but those low ways get into a man’s blood. We bid the alien captain, having pulled him aside, to remove these characters down to the surface, as their ship had been reduced to ash. He agreed, and to our astonishment they all dissolved into a sparkling orb of light right before our eyes and were gone.

Sated, the dragons had disappeared as abruptly as they’d arrived, and all seemed well under the sky. We asked the alien captain how they go about taming dragons. We found his answer a bit strange, that they like to have the dragons on their side when they visit, so they’d developed a drug-like meal formula that the beasts find irresistible. Reluctant to elaborate, he thanked us again for the tea and departed on that crazy beam they use to get around and their ship then, likewise, vanished.

The Grind

A stumpy old molar lives alone in the back of some mouth, like a tombstone at the grave site of all the missing teeth. He reaches up, searching for his mate above, to press against, eager for contact, ready to grind and mash together like crazy young lovers, but alas, she’s long gone. She got the rot and they came and took her.

He thinks they might as well come take him too. Lone molar, a widower with nothing much to do but keep that cheek from caving in. They give him a good flossing now and then, but really, he’s just biding his time, a mockery of function, like a gate with no fence. He can’t even go put in with the smile up there, back of the line his whole life. Front teeth were always so well cared for, weren’t they? Vain sons of bitches.

Well, at least he wasn’t a wisdom tooth. Butt of every dental joke he’d ever heard.

The Line

I barely had one foot in this world when they handed me a face and a name and a number and said, “get in that line over there.” So I did. I don’t know much else. I don’t know where the line goes. The lady ahead of me doesn’t know either, or the guy behind—you’d think someone would know. And don’t think I haven’t asked around. Everyone has. Around here it’s like talking about the weather. Anybody find out where the line goes? Nah. Think it will rain tomorrow? Maybe. Continue reading “The Line”

Whale Song

The oceans evaporate

—and mingle with the air, sky being lung to water. Days of thirst, nights of deluge, mountains of liquid, mist like evacuating angels. Wisdom stands somehow mute while we change the dressing on a festering misconception, and the atmosphere convulses in another round of violent coughing. During the storm, shutters slap in a heaving, belligerent wind, the effect somewhat muted by the plaster walls of our carpeted room.

There is a flexibility

—to the way the minutes pass and the storm outside has lifted the building from its basement. Foundation bricks peel off in jagged wordless paragraphs. Lightening reveals dark forms in the clouds through the rattling panes of window glass. They look like dinosaurs, like great dirigibles hanging in the sky, tethered by giant tubes, wires, bundled and twisted, disappearing into the tumult of vapor and thunder below.

We will settle

—for nothing less than the full account. Our shack must land on the wicked witch. Appease the gods, pay off the sorcerers. What have we forgotten? Have the Enterprise beam those whales back up. The sea is not ready for them. Our abridgment comes at high tide, as the water crests that city on a hill. Now convenience stands on its head. How inconvenient.

Dream Shanty

We had shrimp for dinner, and later that night they came back to me, and they made up my dreams for me. The shrimp, that is, their bodies buried in the shallow grave of an appetite sated. Born shrimp, born to be eaten, a waking life of monotony, but their dreams are quite elaborate. You eat something, maybe something eats you, but dreamlife swings wide and hard, twirling like a centrifuge. The deep stuff pulled out of its shell.

The years were piled behind me like great mounds of bald tires in a vast rural tract bounded by chain link fencing, ablaze with morning glories. Something about the bent, linked wires attracts the vines. It was the shrimp dreaming, and myself, eating their dreams. The vines look a tangle, a thicket made of dreams, like intestines, dilated to accommodate the diaspora of displaced thoughts. They form vast tent cities, shanties of curiosity in the bardo of the seeking night. Dreams weighted down by heavy meals. Stomachs themselves, dreaming.

Bee-like, the shrimp dream of flowers. A trumpet shaped flower may one day dream me up. They have yet to name that color, that something-blue, rattling the ocular nerve. It is uncertainty. You call an endless thing infinite because you run out of time. You have to call it something. You are given your name. My bent, linked mind attracts these vines. In dreamland the dreams dream you.

In the morning we rise and dream up another day. The shrimpers return to the docks engulfed by clouds of frantic gulls. The birds take repast in open water. On the boat, cormorants, pelicans line up aft, on the railings, like a depression era breadline. They wait, dreaming of shrimp, then dive after the spoils as the fishermen sort the catch. They are in for some crazy dreams. I was caught out in a daydream and, snapping out of it, I got a whiff of salt. The gulf is dreaming and I am in that dream. At dock, the boats sway and the sun makes its way. The net booms point skyward, but no one seems to see this as a sign.

Do you ever crave mountains? And when you think of mountains do you think of hulking peaks of buttery mashed potatoes with scoop-dented crests, filled with steamy hot gravy? I face the water. Behind me the land stretches out flat, like water. I’m thinking of vegetables now. Or maybe I’ll fast. Try dreaming my own stuff, for a change.

A Medical History

The last 24 hours: six a.m. eating breakfast I bite my tongue really hard on the side and it hurts quite a bit. I finish breakfast contemplating mindfulness in general and mindful eating in particular – I am thinking about mindfulness, mind you, not actually being mindful.

There is a pain in my jaw from the day before that can’t decide if it is a toothache or a headache. My memory of it calls forth the actual sensation – don’t think about it! My tongue hurts for the next eight hours. At lunch I eat some junk food and feel full of stomach and depleted of spirit – my tongue seems acutely aware of the nearby gnashing teeth, fresh is its memory from this morning and it is still sore.

After lunch I develop a thick feeling in my throat and it is awkward to swallow – I ignore it and do my job all afternoon, preparing some items for a shipment with a nagging irritability lurking around my work area.

Early evening I have no appetite. I watch some of the film called Babel and when Cate Blanchett is struck by the bullet, which has a complicated history, I think about how many causes lay hidden in the scenery of our plodding days, unbeknownst to us. I visualize myself as the Medicine Buddha for a moment and become a light-filled mandala hosting every living being, human in form, Buddha in essence, from the past, present and future, and everything functions as medicine, even poison. Back to the movie. Everyone in the film is either making bad decisions or dealing with their consequences – this goes for the one watching the film too.

I have no known allergies to any medications. Check. My maternal grandmother had diabetes. Check. My deductible on prescription medicine is outrageous and I relive a bad memory in which I accused, in an unpleasant phone call many years ago, an insurance rep of malfeasance after receiving a letter saying my policy would not cover a condition which they had determined I was susceptible to: I stopped short of calling the man a heartless grifter, however, in a follow-up email I did suggest to him that he seek an honorable line of work before it was too late – deathbed regrets are not a treatable condition.

At around nine p.m. I head to bed, my bodily condition seeming like a profound irrelevancy. My aches, pains, worries and anxieties, complaints in general, are like a ship full of waving vacationers leaving the harbor, setting sail on the ocean at large in a vessel lighter than water, heavier than air, and stocked with delightful amenities.

As I drift off to sleep I wonder briefly what the weather will be tomorrow.

All Hallowed

A black cat arches
its bristled silhouette
against a sour green moon
in a newspaper ad
for mattresses.

September thumbed its nose at one keen summer and abruptly closed that happy book. We turned out each day after school to a gradually shifting light and a sense of turning. October’s grid of even and odd days played out like a roll of tickets and we slashed out the calendar squares one by one. Now it looms. It’s Halloween.

We dress out in style, not costume, and hit the pavement, the night before us rising in imagination. We meet up at our usual haunt and set out. The evening is drained of its color and clouds hang like wilted lilies at the edge a tree-clawed horizon, still glowing in the daylight’s wake. Mist is creeping below our knees. Flashlight beams vivisect the malign shadows. But the senses cannot claim what unknown dimensions might intersect with the ordinary on a night when saints and ghouls mingle together.

An election of angry spirits descended upon the hordes of feral children. Eyes open wide, the youngsters saw nothing amiss. They felt the strangeness of a life-eclipsing moment, no more palpable than a sense of being watched. It went unnoticed in the excitement of the holiday. Soul-snatchers unseen drew the essences right out through their tiny pink nostrils, and their animated costumes continued as before, lurch forward from house to house, shouting for sugar treats at the neighbor’s stoop with the echoes of little voices they no longer quite possessed.

We don’t see it happening like that. We are counting candies, sneaking cigarettes and breathing free, wandering the neighborhood with a sense of power over destiny. We have mischief in mind. Trick-or-treat is a make-believe protection racket and every kid knows it. Nice place you got here. Shame if your landscaping got TPed. All this youthful energy and potential, radiating on the hailing frequency of the vampiric, hungry spirits. A dead chill arrives on a gust, like a summons, and we disappear into the cavities between street lamps, wild spirits revolting all around us. We can’t see them. These ghosts, they would burn down this sleepy borough if they could even grip, yet strike a match. But their rebellious fits are as unknown to us as heartbreak.

On the night called All Hallowed the living do perversely antagonize the dead. A police cruiser slows, shines its beam on some trick-or-treaters by the side of the road. Their reflective costumes and glo-sticks shimmer at the burning edge of youth. He sees who they are, there is recognition but he sniffs, like a wraith, to be sure. The officer was himself robbed of spirit as a little punk, on this very lane. His memory of it a latency sunk like stone into forgotten water. He operates on instinct now, pulled out of nowhere. Pulled out of the darkness.

We meander down the last alleys there would ever be, fleeing the warm safety that has driven us, by the length of its boredom, right out of childhood and straight into a kind of nightmare we could not have hoped to guess. We laugh and chatter and eat treats. The glow of our cigarettes, like sprites or faerie traces, inscribe with movement cryptic runes in the darkness. The subtle chill of a watchful gaze seems to tingle upon our necks, we are so ready to be spooked.

Unearthing Sky

Under a spooning dome of swollen sky, they gather in swirling kettles. They never know where to look until a vision taunts them. They hesitate. The light of the sky waiting for its own green signal. Then they shine. How do they know to be so quiet?

The red things reflect the reds. The rest of the spectrum disappears into all the red things. Now everything is bathed in light. Rainbows crammed into the suitcases of every wave, every particle. The neurotic, misty light searches everywhere, looking for shadows to expose. It is constant. Seeing makes it confess to this persecution of the dark.

If it could only shine inside one, for a while, then we could see them too. The shadows. We could see within them. What on earth could be found in such a place? Light thinks it’s the only thing that matters. But without it we could not see fit to argue. Are we shadows, then?