Shards of Glass
by Bill Bowler
O Death, old captain, it is time! Raise the anchor... — Baudelaire
The defeat of the Visigoths rang in his ears and faded into oblivion as he stepped off the curb. A bicycle brushed him back, a vehicle swerved, and a large chunk of facade fell to the sidewalk. A dumpster yawned, “Is twenty years a long time? To hold your breath? To live a life?”
The city swirled underfoot like carpet under a drunk, glittered like a present under the tree while the children slept. The guard ants raised their antennae at the entrance to the mound while worker ants labored earnestly deep in the tunnels, the drones dozed and the Queen gave endless and relentless birth after birth.
What could his girlfriend in second grade possibly have to do with it as he searched for her in the charred ruins of the post-nuclear apocalypse, all the grownups dead, which, at that age, he could turn on and off like the faucet, entering dreamland at will.
He took off the headphones and poured himself a glass of beer. An eighteen-wheeler screeched through a light and slammed into something. His eyes drifted to a clump of dust under the couch next to the last thing that could possibly occur to you. More bad news. Better not to look.
The sound of the cello and its shape propelled him past Amsterdam towards the end of the certifiably human. Not reassuring. He opened the mail. Nothing. Bills. Offers. A Quarterly Report. Not what he was waiting for, minute to minute.
A violin joined the cello and both voices sang the same line in harmony as the piano tinkled arpeggios in the background which became the foundation of an impulse he could not contain. He gave in and it felt good for nine seconds, plenty of time to explain just why it was you were late or didn’t finish or couldn’t deliver even though... Oh well...
He lowered the blinds so the thousand eyes blinking from across the street wouldn’t stare into his living room and life that night, the summary of all he’d experienced reduced to a choo-choo racing towards a “Y.”
He stuttered as his mind flew past his mouth and his mother sobbed and ran from the room as women will while men are impaled on their Weltschmerz. How could it be otherwise? Biology precluded any alternate outcome.
Experience was just a by-product regulated by odd dreams of sky scrapers and strangely familiar females from the past whose names he couldn’t quite recall though he sought for the words associated with the visions which sparkled and shifted before his eyes in geometric concatenation. Third Movement. Third Avenue. Third door on the left.
He hit the pause button and traffic stopped. He hit play and tripped over the edge. Motion again, action, reaction, contraction, in traction... Stuck in a rut on the initial syllable, he finally squeezed out the first word and a phrase splurted out behind, out of order, a bit confused, not quite what he meant...
Glued to the tube, he missed a cue and was sucked into another variation of possible patterns of art, rot, and the human comedy and tragedy unfolding all around, amok, inevitable, unavoidable, undetectable. He dreamt of the Archduke.
The triumphs of science slapped him in the face like an angry parent. Stung, he wailed even louder and poured forth from uneventfulness like a cork bobbing in the torrent, swept into a waking nightmare while the little boy walked in the old cemetery.
A wave of dread washed over the bathroom mirror like a bad joke, he struggled to focus on the mundane and fought off the thought he wished not to know, which never left him...
Mr. Big, bored, in the backseat, pickin’ his nose and staring out the window, leaned forward and, just for laughs, grabbed the wheel and gave it a spin. He slammed on the brakes but they slid sideways across the slick pavement, spun into a fishtail, into a tail spin. Big bailed out and they jumped the concrete divider head-on smack into an on-coming coincidence. Big laughed his head off and was violently ill. A startled flock of grackles fluttered black and blue, up over the lopsided synopsis of lapses and gaps in the synapses.
They swam out into the kaleidoscope, backpaddled along 68th across Columbus amidst the myriad disconnected faces, limbs, leaves, bricks, brown gray wafting honking and bonking, past pizza, past shirts, past health, past fine wines, past Chinese, past construction, renovation, demolition, domination and submission.
He stepped under the rickety scaffolding, out onto the pavement, and reached the white line; big rigs roared and he ran for sanctuary as the light turned green, through bodies, through traffic, through gloom, through schools of thought; the undertow grabbed him and pulled him into the park where a black squirrel cracked an acorn and a starling left its egg in a sparrows’ nest... He heard a deep chirp and a red-bellied woodpecker, well dressed in an irridescent golden herringbone vest with a sad, stricken look, hammered the bark of a dead elm while the bugs ran for cover...
He awoke in the dark and wanted his mother. He drew back the covers, his little feet found the cold floor, and he crept out of his room, past the head of the stairs and stopped at the entrance to their bedroom.
In the gloom, he saw the mass of his father under the covers. He entered the room on tiptoes and crept quietly past his Dad, around the foot of the bed, when a floor board creaked and his father mumbled something in an interrupted dream and rolled over. He turned the corner and came up along his mother’s side, warm, soft, silken, milky, fragrant, inviting, he crawled into bed with her and...
Top Dog lay spread-eagled, spouting platitudes by the bottomless pit, hooked up to an IV, with a catheter rammed into the tender tip of the most sensitive part of his current assets, a third tube inserted into his fresh wound to drain fluid. He ripped out the IV but felt paralyzed and couldn’t roll over or even scratch an itch.
The sheets were drenched in blood but the nurse was unconcerned or didn’t notice. Or did she? What should he do? Who would tell him what was coming next? How was he supposed to know? A young unknown someone in the next room moaning heard his number called and kissed his kids goodbye...
The patterns changed again. The little pieces rearranged themselves into a new more beautiful stained glass window. A sunbeam streamed through the glass, into his pupil, and ricocheted off the back of his eyeball, sending a quivering impulse along his optic nerve down into his brain stem.
The next day was grey, brown, damp, cold; they walked along the path around the little pond; the geese swam gracefully, unconcerned; the ducks scanned the sky for hawks; the children laughed and played, full of motion. The slight effort fatigued him and he sat on a bench, alone, quiet, head down, withdrawn, grey like a silhouette, a clouded reflection, fading like last night’s dreams, withering like a leaf in autumn, like a cut flower, while shadows hissed out through the cracks in his elbows and knees and escaped into the netherworld where Charon and Cerebus sat on the river bank waiting for lost souls to come up with the fare.
He sat in the waiting room, killing time, gaunt, his rib cage rippled like a xylophone, and fathomed indigestion and constipation, the twin vestibules to the imperial palace of King Nausea IX, where the minutes hung heavy like great thick curtains in the windows of hewn stone where never a breeze had stirred nor light shown.
At the dress rehearsal, amidst the incessant small talk of phony sentiment and forgetfulness, no one seemed to notice there was no time left since they had only imagined it in the first place, though it was a very persuasive fiction, like history, and useful to some as a reproach to subsequent installments of an all too familiar scenario which nonetheless held their attention as they basically just wanted to find out how it ended.
To some, it seemed so utterly predictable, so commonplace, so underwhelming, terribly dull, tedious. Others just blithely went about their business as if it weren’t happening to them, too, as if they weren’t standing in line, as if it were all some dreadful misunderstanding that didn’t apply to them, some mistake on somebody else’s part, some slight difference of opinion which could certainly be cleared up in due course, after all if not this time, next time, why not? They could do it over better.
Time was palpable. It wafted, it drifted and slipped and slid and slithered and, in the end, withered and drooped and dropped off leaving, what? An uncertain recollection of vague stirrings and shifting patterns and incomprehensible symbols representing some primitive proto-language which, if they only deciphered it, would alter their destinies. Yet emptiness filled with tedium what little time he had left. The days, few in number, dragged by...
Days were years; years were days; the space-time continuum collapsed like a lung, dreary, dreary, dull, like a thud; it sat in his brain refusing to budge, like a petulant child. He tried to connect the dots, to follow the arrows or signs, the way is well marked.
At 2:30 a.m. on his second to last Thursday on Earth, he stumbled into the bathroom and saw a field of daisies. His molecules sought the scattered trees, the earth, the diffuse air; they scattered from constraint and formless fled aloft on the four winds like a puff of dandelion seeds carried airborne, merging, and re-merging, and emerging...
The curtain dropped lower and lower as the last chords of the finale died down in the hall and the public rose to leave, in awe of the spectacle they had witnessed. Sinking in quicksand, he groped his way through the dense fog, through the congealing morass, thickening like cement around him. He made an enormous effort of will to focus his failing eyes, to collect his drifting thoughts and answer in a word, at least, the familiar voice speaking to him closely, but his speech was slurred; they couldn’t understand.
Sleep, sleep, lethargy descended upon him enveloping him in its dark, dull embrace, shielding him from time. Parched lips. Labored breathing. A hoarse rattle in the chest.
The nomads folded their tents, broke camp and headed out across the desert towards the next mirage, the journey’s end; the sun set low in the west, resting a moment on the orange horizon as they circled the airport waiting for clearance...
The squat authority figure behind the desk announced, “No one is going to the bathroom now! Is that clear?” He had to pee like crazy. What to do?..
Tractor trailers roared down Broadway, leaving car alarms cycling in their wake. Enraged motorists snarled at gridlock. Storefronts shone and glittered. A young mother pushed her children one by one from the rooftop, then jumped, clutching her newborn. A knock at the door. Mozart looked up. The stranger ordered a Requiem, to go...
Copyright © 2008 by Bill Bowler