Ghosts, A Gambler

—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth Garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
—Eliot

Colkett, Victoria Susanna, 1840-1926; King's College Chapel, Cambridge, as Seen from Clare Hall Piece and Crotches

“Maybe…” The ugly glass building ahead of us glowed. Three behind us sang—a garbled, chant-like song. Polish, perhaps—“Maybe,” I repeated. “We’ve landed in Purgatory.” The hot air from the day had cooled, and the blue-black clouds of a slow-dying sunset swirled above us. The heavens spoke in puffs of off-white, dark blue. A large bus revved its engine and slowly pulled away, and the noise mixed with song mixed with smell of bus-stops and garbage and “It feels like, yes, this is kind of how I expect Purgatory to be.” A friend next to me on the wood bench had spoken and entered the sounds surrounding us. “Bedford. She was driving very quickly. Maybe we did die.” “What if that’s death, then, well… ” I tried to fit my thoughts around subjects and express subjects in words and speech but failed. I considered the possibility and looked at my leg, resting peacefully on my knee. The chant ceased; a bus neared us and we rose.

*

I sat down in a wicker chair in Gough Square. Alone, I looked at the old, wood railing. The room, empty, seemed alive with figures, figures and leaves, with pencils notched behind their ears. They examined the leaves carefully and jostled notes on a large table—centered, dictating to the room the moment. Little left the lips of the men—a serving man rose like a fog, creeping up stairs into room. Tea-things out, the men paused, drank. A deep noise thundered from below—everyone looked at each other. The large ugly figure squeezed his way up stairs. He grumbled something to the others, took tea, spilt tea, grumbled again, spoke, muttered, too-too-too under his breath, holding his tea cup, playing his tongue backwards, laughing like a rhinoceros, vanishing. Alone, again, I sighed and stumbled down the steps to a door, outside, and a day also descending.

*

Two hundred and sixty years later, we looked at his portrait. “So distinct, this one,” my friend said. “It’s famous. On a book, back home,” I said. “And here it is.” “I could be in here all day,” my friend said. “See, there’s Laud. There’s Sterne.” Wearied with walking we paced the rooms slowly—so many eyes staring at us—so many dead faces looking so lively, and “I just stood on his grave and wept. And there he lies, alive and well.” The names seemed to rise in those moments; each a full-grown story of love and hate and joy and sorrow and fear and hope and longing and the tale of good conquering evil for good. “It’s amazing he’s recognized, considering he’s a Christian.” I said as we walked outside his old home off High Street. “Think of all he’s done,” my friend spoke again. “At some point; they can’t ignore greatness. There comes a limit to their prejudice, when they must acknowledge the greatness of a writer like him. Forever, he’ll be canonized.”

*

The third canon sounded. We stood. One after one after one they came, racing up river. Arms moved like great wings to a voice. Shouts from the bank: “As a unit! As a unit!” Some made blades, some were bumped, and we watched on in the sun and heat. “One may need to go all Byron in this river,” I said. He was here, I remembered. So was… We walked along the river, three of us. Crossing a bridge we spotted a smokestack and continued. At the George, we rested, some eight or nine miles later. “How long has this gone on?” I asked. My friend replied: “Oh. Nineteenth century. Many of our traditions, Christmas, the way we know them, go back to the Victorians. They loved ritual, tradition. They created so many. And today we have that.” An ugly building glowed in the late afternoon sun. Then, smoking pipes on Fisher, the calm evening set in. “Glad no hoodlums are out,” he said. Moments later, a fat man in black stumbled near us. He wore a heavy coat and carried a Fosters in hands bedecked with silver rings. Two more cans were stuck in his coat. He saw us and mumbled. I understood little and watched him take a large pinch of the tobacco we smoked. And he smelled it. His eyes danced while he did so, the tobacco soon disappearing in his coat. He too disappeared. “Falstaff lives yet,” my friend said.

*

I took a seat on a stone slab by the river, near the theater. I tried to imagine him but couldn’t. To many of them—people, Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, America, on and on and on and me, alone. A man strummed a guitar while others had their portraits drawn or sipped on drinks, chatting. A fat boat passed by full of more people. He was here, maybe sitting right here. What does that mean? What am I doing here? Pilgrimages make us small and weak and the longing to be a part of something bigger and better than ourselves swells, and through this shrinking we expand and then—photographs. Around me, humans inhumanely took pictures by the hundreds. The theater was desecrated—Cromwell couldn’t have done better. The photographers tried to own everything—every inch and angle and wall and step and memory. They lacked reverence and contemplation, humility. He was here. I rose, turned, crossed a bridge, and walked back to the cathedral.

*

Behind me sways the large horse chestnut by the chapel. A tuxedoed student wrestles the breeze with lighter and cigarette while a band plays “Come Together” to no one. I know my location by the chapel. It won’t move, but it will move me. More dressed-up students head toward an evening ball in blacks and whites and reds. “I wonder if the town creates the poets, or if they came that way,” I had mused to my friend. “Hard to say,” he replied. “They started young, some of them, Byron, died young.” This chapel though, this town, straddles two worlds—a chapel rests on the edge of rural and cosmopolitan, the then and now, the here and there. When we enter, we lose ourselves to time, place, language; we find our identity by entering into the living tradition; it is within these walls we are ourselves as we truly are and truly can be; we see not only the living surrounding us but the ghosts of all those who came before and worshipped on that spot. I find it no coincidence the poets came from a town with so many churches packed together. I left the chapel and snaked around and through the market, but toward the river. Squeezing through pedestrians, I now edged the water across from Magdalene and on. Jesus Green teemed as it had with people enjoying the cool evening air, and I would remember it that way, as my feet turned homeward.

*

I left my temporary home on Fisher Street at earliest daylight. Passing Alexander Gardens, Jesus Green, Midsummer Common, I said goodbye. I boarded a bus at Parker’s Piece. Five thousand miles later it was night. An older, ghastlier version of myself walks through glowing penny-slot-machines and rainbow-buildings.

Broom Snow
Cambridge, England—Fisher Street, etc.
&
Las Vegas, Nevada—Rochelle Avenue
June 20, 28 2017

Painting: “King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, as Seen from Claire Hall Piece and Crotches”
By Victoria Susanna Colkett
Oil on panel, 1863

Apocalypse, A Gambler

“The stars are thin… Where shall we lair to-day? for from now, we follow new trails.”
— Gray Brother, The Jungle Book

Leighton, Edmund Blair, 1852-1922; Farewell

The knob was yellow, and I tugged on the lever from silver-lined holes—six, of which two scarlet, padded bars swiveled. Placing my legs on and through the padded bars, I tugged at another, chained, knob and inserted the metal stick at seventy. With my calves, I pressed downward on one of the scarlet bars. I felt that awkward contact of plastic lining against skin and leg hairs. My hamstrings tightened, burned. I counted. Eight, nine. At twelve, I rested. Suddenly, to my right, a most familiar grunt echoed throughout the gym—the somber silence of a campus January-gym where little but a few tings wrestle with the odious pop songs of Rhianna and company. But this grunt deadened all noise. To my satisfaction, it suffocated Rhianna. I recognized it and preferred it to her wailings and cries for attention. The grunt drowned out her racket, as if it beat her with a stick. It resounded, sounding like the man dead-lifted hundreds of pounds, even as if he birthed a child. My calves attacked the scarlet pad once again, and as I inwardly grunted, I cast my eyes upward. There, walking across my way, directly in front, strode Cephas—eyes bulging, head twitching, as silent and grave as the gym, as loud and magnificent as the gods.

Deciding to squat, I crossed the gym. On my way, I saw Cephas again, also squatting. I balked, then called out his name.

“Cephas.” No response. “Cephas!” I walked closer. The man whipped around and flailed his huge eyes at me. He greeted me with a fist-bump, and we flung ourselves into one of those conversations that lasts thirty minutes but circles around a single topic so that only the first and last few minutes are memorable.

“Hey! Hey!” Cephas pointed at me. “Hey! You can help me with those essays, right? You can help me, huh?” I agreed to this. “I just gotta get in to grad school. Gotta get in. I’ll be so friggin’ pissed if they don’t let me in. So I gotta get these essays written. It’s friggin’ stressin’ me out, man. Gotta friggin’ get these essays in and then hope for the best.” I assured him we would write up some good essays and asked him what his backup plan was. “I don’t know! It’s stressin’ me out, man. Gotta friggin’ get in. They gotta let me in. I got great references, we’re gonna write some good essays, I gotta good GPA, I’ll nail the interview. Look,” Cephas touched my shoulder and gave me a look. “Look, they’re groomin’ me for this over there.” He pointed in several directions and his eyes followed. “They’re groomin’ me for this, I gotta think. I gotta hope that I’ll get in, man. Just gotta get in.”

After Cephas asked me what I thought his chances were, I assured him he had a good shot. “Well, look,” he continued. “I gotta get in, just gotta get in. If I don’t then I’m out here! I met this girl—you’ve seen her, right? Hey! Have you met her? I’ve got this good girl. If I don’t get in, then I’m friggin’ outta here. I’ll be moving in May. So I gotta get in.” For the first time in my short relationship with Cephas, it occurred to me that my next door neighbor may not be forever next door. As he spoke, my stomach knotted. I saw visions. I saw Cephas moving boxes out of the apartment, his three cats wide-eyed with terror. I saw another man, a young rapscallion, moving a television. I saw two large speakers move into that same apartment. Then, I saw something else entirely: as if in the distance, at and during the end of the world. I saw Cephas with his girl, followed by a troop of young Cephas’s, all in a line, all flailing their arms wildly, heads twitching, eyes bulging. And as I looked at Cephas while he spoke, he seemed to slowly expand and multiply. I felt the horrid anticipation of another crushing blow, another goodbye.

*

Sometimes, at dusk, the Vegas sun tucks behind the mountains. Its glow bounces off the back of the range. It shines upward. The blue and purple mountains sink below a hot-pink. Those clouds color and crisp and look nearly solid, as if one could walk on them, carefully treading pink ice. For half a moment we forget to distinguish sky and land. Sometimes, heading west on those evenings, when the last hums and sirens of a tired day fade out into the void, when a few stragglers stumble home, or the nearest bar, when the last beggar rises from the bins, pushing his cart in the stillness, the echoing of cart-creaks, we feel we walk as one to the end of time and space. We live on the edge of existence—the final colonies. A few hundred miles and man follows the sun to the sea and the end of days.

*

“Hey!” Cephas stood in my entryway. “Hey! You want this?” I now stood in his bedroom, observing a large chair. “Go ahead, sit down, try it out.” I obeyed. Then I agreed. Returning about a week later, Cephas and I moved the chair into my apartment—he grunting and yelling at the movers to pack his television before it got hit. Once the chair was situated, we looked at each other—two men awkwardly observing that common human ritual. “Okay, well,” he said. “Well, hey! we’ll be in touch, right?” I assured him we would, knowing we probably wouldn’t. We hugged. He told me he loved me. He left.

I sat in his chair after, waiting to leave myself for England later that day. Soon, there would be two empty apartments on East Rochelle Avenue, hollow and alone. But as I sat on Cephas’ chair, now mine, that morning, I listened to him move the final items from his home and reflected. I remembered all my memories with the man—a blurry swirl of moments and objects that seem to have been going on for ages, of Albertsons’ fried chicken and potato wedges, beer-conversations, essay-outlining, essay-drafting, the late afternoon grunts of Cephas pulling his bike up the stairs, the evening call for Rocky, vet-visits, dentist-visits, Walmart-visits, conversations—politics, weather, Cepha’s stolen bike, Cephas’ new bike, Cephas dissatisfied, Cephas returning the bike, Cephas’ new-new bike, Cephas’ stolen bike seat, taking Smoky to the vet, checking in on Smoky, weighing Smoky, Smoky’s new food-bowl-pyramid, Smoky losing weight, Smoky’s new collar, building Rocky and Taylor a play-pin, dessert-gifts, more friend chicken and potato wedges, Rocky not coming home, searching for Rocky, putting up signs for Rocky, the evening call for “Rawckay! Rawkay!” rising in significance, beer that evening wondering where he could be—hoping, hoping, Rocky’s return, asking Cephas if I can use his internet, Cephas needing computer help, research help, formatting help, Cephas graduating, dissing on Vegas, ready to “get-outta-here,” one final “Rawkay! My boy! Rawkway!” as he shuts the door and descends the steps—nothing but an absence, an end, memory.

Broom Snow
Corner House—Carlyle Road
Cambridge, England
May 23, 29, 2017

Painting: “Farewell,”
By Edmund Blair Leighton
Oil on canvas, 1922

Pageants, A Gambler

These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air; into thin air.
— Shakespeare

I knelt and crossed myself because I felt it necessary. A few others observed the ritual, many ignored it, and I sat midway in the pew. Kneeler down, I took to knees, crossed again, raised my eyes to the crucifix. Then, bowing, eyes shut, prayer—that mystical communion between created and Creator, the soul in paraphrase, exalted Manna. When I finished, I crossed myself again. The chatter from parishioners echoed against wood-pews and stone-floor. My mind felt unease, unfocused, despite the calm of an organ at the front. The marbled altar was bare, and a mundane, wood cross that looked as if it belonged to a youth-camp passion skit sat on its side and leaned up against the marble. That cross was also bare. The noisy chatter made it feel as if the people were protesting the music. Are my neighbors here…? The cross had a purple cloth draped around it for no apparent reason, and I wondered which cross shouted more loudly my religion. The one on the wall hoisted an off-white, creamy-skinned, Jewish man, notably beardless. It demanded respect, attention, like the organ.

The building smelt like any other meeting placed fitted with low and low-middle class Vegans. Finally, the woman gave up the organ, never knowing my appreciation, my desire she continue. Another woman discovered a microphone and as if quieting a high school classroom spoke across, around, through each hovering voice and its echo.

But she spoke firmly and with authority, and the parishioners simmered and listened. When she finished giving announcements, she said, “And now, let us observe a moment of silence to prepare our hearts for today’s mass.” No more than eight seconds passed. Another woman. We all stood and opened the books in the our pews to the number. A man strummed an acoustic guitar while a woman, presumably the organ-goddess, pounded on a piano. Some of us sung with the choir-of-five as an old, balding man in slacks and a unzipped, blue-black wind-breaker glided down the middle aisle. Above his head, he hoisted a rectangular wicker-basket. He disappeared from sight the closer he approached the aisle.

Then followed two children, one girl, one boy, clad in white robes, each holding a candle. Behind them a boy carrying a tall pole with another bare, brass cross atop it. The whole building exuded a sort of barrenness—bare walls with only cheap, Sunday School pictures of the Stations and two large murals. The only statue was the crucifix. The priest followed the procession, reading from a large tome, and the parishioners largely ignored him as he made his way to the front. They couldn’t sustain their ignorance, however, when that same priest returned down the aisle with an altar girl, throwing holy water from a large golden spoon. As he approached the parishioners held out to him palm-leaf crosses, and I felt nervous and ashamed, for I had not taken one when I entered the pageant. As they held their crosses and were sprinkled, we struggled through more versus than was our custom, the priest making sure to leave no man unsprinkled. I only waited for the Kyrie eleison.

You were sent to heal the contrite of heart, sings the lady.

We respond, singing,

Crowd: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.
Deaconess: You came to call sinners.
Crowd: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.
Deaconess: You are seated at the right hand of the father to intercede for us.
Crowd: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

That works, I thought, sitting down. Why don’t we do that every Sunday? It’s the Greek that does it, for me, I’m convinced. These thoughts were on their way out as we prepared for today’s gospel reading. It’s a long one, I thought. Palm Sunday. Probably won’t be a homily today. What’s this?

Something truly terrifying happened. Whether the spirit of Luther, Zwingli, Billy Graham, or Chris Tomlin had entered into the priest, I cannot for certain say. What I do know is that he sat down in the front pew. Lights went low. A lady stood at a microphone. A youth in white entered the stage. He was Jesus. The lady at the podium narrated. We witnessed the crucifixion before our very eyes that morning. Who needs a crucifix when you have the real thing? Three large men dressed like the Blues Brothers appeared on stage. They took and drug and beat the youth in white. Then, in sudden motion, they all froze. My eyes grew wide with fear, suspense, nervousness, terror. The lady continued her narrative, explaining the inexplicable. She ceased. They carried forth their deeds. With intermittent freeze-frames from the actors and explanations from our loyal and fearless narrator, the crucifixion scene played out before us. Veronica showed up to wipe Jesus’s brow and tears. Simon appeared just in time to help with the cross and offered a stirring monologue revealing his inner psychological and moral reservations at helping. But the Blues Brothers would not let him out of it.

Some parishioners shuffled, antsy with worry how long this would last. Then Mary entered. Jesus was laying down on the cross at the foot of the alter. One of the Blues Brothers had already converted. Now was the time. Whether it was the narrator or a recording, I cannot say for sure, but thunder boomed from the speakers above us. All went deathly silent. Just to my left, in the middle aisle, a woman appeared. Thunder, then silence. It was a terrible moment. She screamed, too loudly, I felt, “Jesus!” She thrust her arms skyward. “Jesus! My boy! Jesus!” She wept and cried out his name, approaching her son. She wept at his feet, froze, let the narrator bind the loose ends, and left the stage with her son in silence. They all flittered away as if evaporated into thin air, and the mass cautiously resumed. There was no homily that day, for there was no gospel. But there was an order to that pageant, an awkward, herky-jerky, even nervous order, that may have mimicked Christ’s entrance on a donkey. I wondered it was not choreographed by the spirit of Postmodernism or the five-hundred-year-old soul of Luther.

Broom Snow
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
April 24, 2017

Painting: “Donkey and Lambs”
By Eugene Joseph Verboeckhoven
Oil on canvas, 1849

Golf, A Gambler

He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their King Golfimbul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and sent down a rabbit hole and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment. – Tolkien

de Hooch, Pieter, 1629-1684; The Little Golf Players

The day was overcast. My grey putter showed marks of wear and tinged against the white ball that scooted across the practice green like an errant snowflake tossed by a breeze. It failed to disappear though, and a few more balls were struck when I heard our name over the loudspeaker. Who’s “Chang?” I asked turning to my comrade. “Guess we’re paired up with someone.” My stomach knotted as I placed my putter in its slot and headed to the tee. I envisioned the worst. Noisy teenagers. Beer. Cursing. Confrontations. Yet better than me. What I saw surprised me. I took out my driver and started loosening my joints. “Looks like we’ve got kids,” I said motioning to a Korean family with two girls, eight and ten. After muffing the first shot, I struck a solid, slicing ball down the right fairway. I felt alright with the shot, and after my comrade outdrove me, we walked a ways and watched the ten-year-old tee up her shot. A picture perfect swing sent the ball straight down the fairway, about a hundred and fifty yards. The two girls cleaned up with pars, I managed something other than par, and we proceeded to the second hole.

On the fairway, once again out-driven by an eight-year-old, I grabbed my three-wood. “I just love this club,” I said. “You might want to wait till they get off the green…” My comrade motioned to the group ahead of us. “Nah, I won’t hit ‘em.” I had a nice swing and good contact. The sound of “good shot” from the eight-year-old. The ball took its typical slicing direction but sailed straight, mainly. So straight, it collided with the cart path and rolled nice and close to a stationary golf cart waiting for its drivers to return from the green. My stomach knotted again, and I foresaw confrontations. Meanwhile, the two girls smacked flawless approach shots and seemed to glide to the green in a single uniform line. After apologies and two or three chip shots, I three-putted and proceeded to the third hole.

Just pretend the water isn’t there, I thought to myself during my third tee shot. I never did see that ball again, as, like my swing, it slowly sank, but my vanity was pleased when the ten-year-old also landed hers in the water. As everyone prepared to leave the tee, I grabbed another ball. “I gotta hit it over,” I said. Tightening my grip and keeping my eyes glued on the ball, I made full contact, so full I sent the ball fifty yards past the green and nearly into the street, to the sound of “nice shot” from the ten-year-old.

“You don’t want to hit over by the ditch,” I reminded my comrade, who did so the last time we played the fourth hole. My tee shot decided not to slice and hooked toward the ditch. Now, finding myself amidst a few trees, I decided I would hit a nice, easy shot back towards the fairway, about a hundred yards or so. Best to play it conservative, I thought. No need to play outside your strengths. You aren’t Phil Mickelson. There are worse things than bogeys. As these thoughts bounced about during my practice swing, I saw the shot in perfect execution. But after my club hit the ball, I watched in abject horror as it careened across the fairway, missing the eight-year-old by mere feet. My second apology of the day was followed by seven or so strokes (seven or so “nice shots!” from the girls) and the long-anticipated sound of ball falling into cup. The day was pleasant, and though my comrade was having his own difficulties, he wasn’t maiming anyone, and the two Korean girls continued in their angelic and nearly automated ascent to golf greatness. Each tee shot was flawless in swing, contact, aim. Bogeys bothered them and pars seemed, as it were, par for the course. But while my errant shots may have been taking out the innocent, and I may not have made a single birdie, it was not I who was ruffling feathers, but the girls.

*

“What’s this? Who are these guys? Where’d they come from?” My comrade looked with growing disdain at two golf carts that appeared on the left side of the fairway. “They were behind us. They cut in.” This came from Mr. Chang. “What? Without even asking? They can’t do that. What, look, they’re just waiting around anyways. Go ahead, hit.” I fiddled with my club and looked out at the carts. “I mean, you’re right. If they had just asked, we might have let them play through. It’s only etiquette.” “Play through?” my comrade questioned. “I don’t think so. Look, they’d just be waiting around anyways. There’s nowhere to go. We’re all jumbled up here. Go ahead, hit.” I didn’t need to be told twice, and my ball already on the tee, I took a few practice swings. When the two in the carts saw me load my weapon, they backed out of the fairway to the left rough. Little did they know that the fairway was actually the safest spot on the course that day. Little did they know that my golf ball instinctively did the very thing I told it not to. Just hit your usual slice here, and you’re fine, I thought. Don’t start anything. No problem here. Whatever you do, don’t hit them. Seconds later my ball shot off from the tee and like a sniper’s bullet flew at the carts. Luckily for them, it was low, and after three bounces collided with the bottom of the cart, a hollow “dunk” echoing across the course. “Uh-oh. I hope they didn’t think I did that on purpose,” I said, hoping deep down they thought I meant to hit them and carried it out with exact precision.

But any hope they were impressed faded away when, after a brief confrontation with my comrade, they watched me chunk or top my next several shots (to the sound of the girls chanting “nice shot”). On the next tee Mr. Chang explained they knew the family. “We beat his son in a tournament. I think that’s why they’re upset.” Any major drama avoided, we played out the next holes and my game grew worse and worse (and the “nice shots” grew louder and louder). When we shook hands and parted with the girls, we knew that someday we would be watching them beat other males in much larger tournaments.

*

We played two more. I bogeyed ten, and on eleven hit a slicing, but well-struck drive down the right fairway. Two strokes later, I was kneeling before my ball and eyeing the green-slope. Ten feet from par. My grey putter showed a little more grey from the day’s calamities, yet it tinged as always against a black Nike swoosh logo. And swoosh went the ball. As a dove against the prairie green, so my ball glided, glided, then, with a roar from my comrade, disappeared from sight.

Broom Snow
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
March 27, April 1-2, 2017

Painting: “The Little Golf Players”
By Pieter de Hooch
Oil on panel, c. 1660

Digging, A Gambler

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down – Seamus Heaney

 

Now, I’ve come to enjoy sounds. Not noise. But sounds—that cacophony of noise that blends and blurs, that mingles and meshes and creates harmony. The world is an instrument, and we are its bows. The world is a symphony, and opera, and we are its choir. The world is a very loud music hall, if one will only listen. The world, with its concordia discors of noise: now, a ticking clock, the whirr of heated air through vent, an orange tabby licking his paw, the hum of a fridge, the drip of a water-fountain; then, the heater, like an organ so dominating, ceases; the chirping birds, flutes, take over the moment; all other instruments are given their space, and even the silent breathing from a human is heard, along with the scratching of pen on paper—like that noise a boy makes when he digs dirt with stick; that rustling, too, of hand with cardboard, as the digger holds and fondles the journal-cover with his hand. It’s that rustling that reminds him of squirrels on trees, their claws scratching wood, as if the digger, with his stick moving earth, must hold back nature lest it interrupt his work.

They say pages are leaves, and the noise they make when turned sounds like the rustling of a leaf or two under the walker’s foot. Perhaps, the writer is no more than a walker and digger. Perhaps, each page is his dirt, each pen his stick, each turned page a new field to furrow. I remember as a boy often digging in the yard, or, on the creek bank. I remember those sounds, the subtle scrape against dirt and stone. It’s so subtle it’s loud. Anyone who grew up a digger, like me, would know. That boy doesn’t just feel the different in texture, that difference between damp clay, dry dirt, soaked mud, and rocks; he hears the difference; and he knows the difference. Because hearing is knowing. He grew up before, and during, the age of noise; he experienced that transition in he world, when sounds were replaced with noise—so much noise the sounds were nearly drowned out. He can’t help but hear that familiar humming of the vehicle always as a backdrop to his memory. The city creek was an odd mixture of natural noise and created noise; like the blending of Beethoven’s Sixth with the ominous buzzing of Hans Zimmer.

The most beautiful instrument is the human. Now, the silent morning welcomes a distant 757; the nearby vehicles roar, now a smaller plane, perhaps a Cessna, murmurs. The human is an animal of noise. Silence is golden, but it is not always natural. Perhaps, it is our struggle. Perhaps, we forget, perhaps we have forgotten, in the past one hundred odd years, the unending joy of good noise—noise that elevates to sound and symphony. Perhaps our civilization has grown too old to appreciate the noise of the digger—that we have grown so old we are afraid of hearing, listening, afraid of what, or who, we might hear. The most beautiful instrument is the human. The most beautiful sound is the voice. A songbird chimes this morning again against the backdrop of a 757, that other bird. A dog barks, just once, and then sliding windows snap and introduce small Latino voices. Nothing is louder than that voice. On a pale evening, when the digger is tired of digging, tired of reading the voices of the dead, he hears, often, the most endearing sounds flow through the walls. That familiar sound of his next door neighbor. That familiar voice yelling his familiar words in his familiar way. That “Rocky!” ringing through the air. Sound more lovely than anything else on earth. A man may hear it through the den of a hundred other noises. And he may do so because he knows it well. It is familiar territory, familiar dirt of another sort he has come to find has unending depth.

*

Every home has particular sounds. I once lived in a house in northeastern Iowa that creaked and croaked like an old man. It was built in 1918, and the wood stairs echoed throughout the house. We became experts at listening to those steps, at knowing whether a human or a cat descended them. If it sounded like a giant tearing through the place, we knew it was my father; if it sounded like a small child, trying its darndest not to make a noise, we knew it was only our cat. Other floorboards lay in their specific way, and one learned which to avoid at night. My current home is not so old; built in the 1970s, it is a young boy compared to that house. Yet it has its own creaks. In my bedroom, just to the right of the door, the floor squeaks, as if out of place. Sometimes, when I am at my desk or sitting in my rocker, I will hear that familiar squeak. Then I will know that the orange tabby approaches.

I am a quiet man by trade. Apart from my digging, I try to listen rather than resound. Recently, though, I have begun enjoying the noise and sounds of cooking: clanging glasses and pots and pans tinging and ringing; ground turkey sizzling; water hissing and bubbling and boiling or slurping and swishing; noodles plopping; rice fluffing; that clunking of knife to cutting board that echoes about the kitchen; the slice of onion layers and crunch of green pepper; the slop-slop of raw chicken and crack-crack of raw eggs; the bubbling of sauces and dusting of salt; that pop of the toaster and then the crispy butter-spread with knife; the slurp of wooden spoon, digging through ingredients in a pot and sounding their depths. All these noises together, all these noises against that daily backdrop of Latino chatter, deep bass, sirens, and 757s, create their own song, their own moment. A good recipe should have a rhythm and depth to its sound as much as its taste. A meal, like worship, should encourage and please all senses. It is little different from the song of the digging boy; for it takes time, effort, and patience; the sound, as all good sound, should never be rushed.

*

My favorite story of digging is of the little boy and St. Augustine. Digging has a rhythm to it, like music, yet its rhythm is of a different nature; it is endless and therefore timeless. One may dig with their pen and come closer to understanding the Divine; the same man may realize that he still has an inexhaustible number of leaves to traverse before he begins understanding the Divine. He may learn, like Dante, that the best way up is first to look down; that if we will ever dig wide enough to fill our holes with the whole ocean, we need time and we need humility. That is, we will need proper humus, the stuff of the earth, from which we come, with its heavenly song.

Broom Snow
The Jolly Mariner—Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
Saturday, February 25, 2017

Painting: “A Man Digging Potatoes”
By Thomas Frederick Mason Sheard
Oil on canvas, 1890

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Racket & Chatter*

I found myself
upon the brink of grief’s abysmal valley
that collects the thunderings of endless cries.
— Dante

Condy, Nicholas, 1793-1857; Old Man Smoking

The night was calm. I trudged into the apartment with a burrito and some brown ale. My cold was on its way out, yet my head still felt like a balloon. I enjoyed the burrito, savoring each bite and washing it down with the ale. My head was in such a state that noises amplified – chewing and swallowing, swishing and gulping from within; a cat scratching a couch and distant sirens from without. Everything seemed to enter my head through the five byways of my senses and simply bounce about for awhile, as if wandering in a snow-globe. Luckily, there was no one to overturn this snow-globe, and when I finished eating, I decided to read a magazine article silently. Later, I chatted with my grandmother, listening to her ninety-year-old yet animated voice. Then, I did something I rarely do; I decided to watch a movie.

Cracking open another ale, I dimmed the lights and eased open my laptop into a position so I could lay back and view its screen. It was Ground Hog’s Day, after all, a good excuse to indulge. I am the only man in the world who feels a twinge of shame at watching a film and who views the act as a sort of guilty pleasure. But I won’t feel shame about feeling shame, and anyhow, I was fully entrenched in the movie, when I heard the most ominous and blood-curdling racket. It was more menacing than sirens, more harrowing than a lady’s scream, more obnoxious than a dog’s bark or a baby’s wail. It was just as, if not more, soul crushing than the noise of traffic: than the noise of engines, horns, tires – the noise of Efficiency and Hurry and Death. Far more terrible than this, for my whole body quaked, my old bones rattled and knocked against each other. So loud. So near. The beating sounded like Satan’s wings in the pit of Hell—thump! thump! thump! It resounded on and on. It seemed to grow nearer with each second. It was my neighbor’s rap music.

*

I don’t consider myself a complainer. Or, I believe I am improving in this major flaw that I have. But recently I have taken to complaining about my neighbors’ music, and I have become something of a noise policeman at my complex. There is a reason Dante and Milton emphasize the noise of Hell. There is a reason that most depictions of paradise are relatively quiet. There is a claustrophobia that comes with loud noises—specifically the racket of rap and heavy metal. Music is fundamentally a thing which one should listen to rather than merely hear. It is not primarily background noise. To appreciate the art, one must actually stop and listen. And at a certain volume this ceases to happen. At a certain volume, one feels cornered. He can’t think straight.

Music is fundamentally good. Good music, the best music, is almost as much about silence as it is about noise. Notes are placed, quite literally, onto silence, the foundation. A concert hall is a very silent, peaceful place, so that those in attendance can listen to the music. And when they are done, they get up and scurry about. A rock concert is a stifling den of noise and clatter, fit for mosh pits where men spin in circles. It is not surprising that the humans at such events resemble those shades stuck under the ice in Dante, barely able to move as Satan’s wings thump them to death.

*

With these self-righteous thoughts brimming, I paused my movie, kicked off my slippers, and put on my sandals. I’ll find these rabble-rousers, I thought. I’ll complain on ’em first thing in the morning. I don’t care if these rapscallions know its me either! With a furrowed brow and head ready to explode, I left the apartment. To my utter surprise I saw a very short Asian man in my entryway. He wore a t-shirt, but his neck was wrapped in a scarf, making his neck look very fat and his head a protrusion, much like that of a baby’s pacifier. He leaned over the guardrail, gazing toward the noise and smoking a cigarette, when I entered the entryway. I must’ve had quite the scowl on my face, for the man looked at me in horror, as if he half-expected me to attack him. He immediately spoke, almost apologetically.

“Hi, I’m Toro. I just moved in two weeks ago.”

Something close to a thousand questions bounced around my head. Is he part of the conspiracy? I thought, probably intensifying my scowl. But I took a different route.

“Hey. Do you know where that noise is coming from?”

“Huh? Oh, I don’t know. Over there somewhere, I suppose.” He pointed in the obvious direction, and it seemed he was not an enemy but a comrade. “When they do that, I just have to come out here and join them.” He took a drag on his cigarette, and I looked at him in dismay. Join them? I thought. Those rascals? Join them? Something, I know not what, but something perhaps like shame must have been carried along with his words. For my cold, cranky heart slowly melted as I looked at this man, puffing on his cigarette and enjoying the racket. Never in my entire existence had such an idea occurred to me. Here I was, in my all my righteous indignation, and there he was, in his silent and peaceful acceptance. Well, I did not know exactly what to do, so stunned I was. Stupefied, I placed my elbows on the railing and spoke.

“Maybe I should… Maybe I should take up smoking.”

“No. No, you shouldn’t.”

“You’re right. But it’s rude isn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes, it is.”

“I was trying to watch a movie. Couldn’t hear a thing.”

“What movie?”

Grumpy Old Men.”

He said he had never heard of it, and we ambled our conversation around to our homes.

“So you moved in two weeks ago?”

“Yeah. I’m from Nepal. Know where that is?”

I furrowed my brow like an idiot, and he explained it to me.

“Mt. Everest, you know?” Right. I did know, and I apologized for my ignorance, blaming it on the music. I asked him about work and school, and we chatted for a bit as the music blared. After a few minutes the music died down and ceased. We stood there for a moment, looking at nothing in particular. The night was very pleasant and now all that we heard were the usual sounds of sirens, babies, and airplanes. I heard Cephas banging around in his apartment and yelling at his cats. I thought I would tell Toro about him, but checked myself. Cephas’ neighbors should experience him firsthand, I thought. Eventually, the music started back up as well as our conversation.

“So Kansas City is in Missouri?” he asked.

“Well, it’s confusing. It’s in both. There are two cities, though its really just one city. I’m not from Missouri, I’m from Kansas.”

“Oh. Do you go back often?”

“At Christmas,” I said, sadly.

“Oh, you’re a Christian?”

“Huh? How’d you know?”

“Well, you go home for Christmas…”

Sadly, I had not made such a connection. I explained that most people who celebrate Christmas probably aren’t Christians. But I actually was. I mentioned I was rather devout.

“I’m Hindu,” he said. “I’m not devout. We have something like three million gods. One for the sun, the moon…”

“Oh. Like the Greeks. I don’t know much about Hinduism, but for the reincarnation thing. My sister’s Buddhist, I guess.”

“Yeah, in Nepal, our Hinduism is mixed with some Buddhism.”

This only complicated matters more for me. He mentioned something again about having a million gods, and then I interjected.

“Yeah, we simplify all that. We have just one God. But, I guess we complicate it too. You know, the Trinity.”

“Yeah, the Father, Son, and Holy Father, Holy…”

“Ghost. Right. Three in one. One nature, three persons. Very confusing.”

“Yeah. I think all religions are virtually the same. They all want you to live a good moral life.”

“I would agree they do, but Christianity is a little different. You have to believe certain things are true. Like the Trinity. You can’t just be good and deny that. You can’t just be a good person and believe in three million gods.”

Whether I offended him or he simply had finished his cigarette, Toro decided to turn in. We said good night, and I returned to my movie, much more at peace than when I had left. The music had ceased now for a bit, and I was nearly in a happy mood despite it all. But then it did return, and like a cold spirit it entered my body and iced over my heart. I finished the film in a huff, and the next morning I promptly complained like the grumpy old man I’m slowly becoming.

Broom Snow
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
February 3, 2017

Painting: “Old Man Smoking”
By Nicholas Condy
Oil on Canvas, 19th C.

_____________________
*Thus begins Part II of The Gambler, which will essentially be a continuation of the same old rambling, yet without numbers.

Gambler, No. 42 [House Calls]

“While talking or even musing as he sat in his chair, he commonly held his head to one side towards his right shoulder, and shook it in a tremulous manner, moving his body backwards and forwards, and rubbing his left knee in the same direction, with the palm of his hand. In the intervals of articulating he made various sounds with his mouth, sometimes as if ruminating, or what is called chewing the cud, sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen, and sometimes protruding it against his upper gums in front, as if pronouncing quickly under his breath, too, too, too: all this accompanied sometimes with a thoughtful look, but more frequently with a smile. Generally, when he had concluded a period, in the course of a dispute, by which time he was a good deal exhausted by violence and vociferation, he used to blow out his breath like a Whale. This I supposed was a relief to his lungs; and seemed in him to be a contemptuous mode of expression, as if he had made the arguments of his opponent fly like chaff before the wind.” — Boswell

Fildes, Luke, 1843-1927; The Doctor

I

The night crisped, and I left the friend’s home, placing beanie on head and scratching my beard like one newly grown. I ambled my bike along sidewalks, left out a gate, and then alighted on Taurus. It was dark but not still. It never is. The Vegas day shouts at sunset, “do not go gentle into that good night.” The demons roar against the lanes and alleys and roads, and that good night becomes a series of light and noise. Noise, noise, noise worms its way around apartment complexes and buildings into the ears of the innocent. And those few raise their eyes to the skies and wish that day a very good night.

I heard such a noise behind me, thundering down Tamurus. I passed University, weary, hungry, a belly full of beer, and soon stopped on the side of the road, letting the machine pass me. I swiveled on my back seat and pressed a button. Before long, I was a blinking red light, glowing under the yellow, crisp air of streetlights. On Rochelle, I came home, turned off the light, and heaved the bike up stairs. As I neared the top, I noticed a note shoved in my door. I held my breath. Visions of eviction and thirty days to leave washed over me. Then, I read the note.

It was Cephas.

II

“Come in!” he yelled as I thumped on his knocker. When I came in I saw his bike.

“Oh, looks like you got a new seat. Did they discount you because it was stolen?” I asked with interest.

“Huh? No. Come in, sit down,” Cephas sat in a small office chair facing a larger chair to which he motioned me. His head twitched back and forth, almost as if he was trying to loose something from his ear. He spoke in his common way, with arms flailing about madly. “It was forty bucks, the whole thing, but I don’t care about that—Say, look at, could you look at Taylor? Could you just look at Taylor?” he pointed with great energy at his cat. “Just look at her for a minute, will ya? See her? Do you notice…? Look, I don’t know if anything’s wrong, but she’s been making this noise with her throat, and I don’t know what it is! I don’t know what it is!” His voice rose as he spoke, and he pointed to the heavens with bulging eyes. “Look at her, will ya? Just look at her for a minute. Come here! Taylor.” He grabbed the wiggling cat and forced her on his lap. “Would you look at her for just a minute? Maybe you’ll know what it is. She’ll do it. Hey! Sit still!” The cat wiggled a bit more, then he eventually let her go. “Look, I don’t know if anything’s wrong, but if you just look at her for a minute, you’ll see she’s been making this noise with her throat, sort of like a gulp. I don’t know what it is! But I was hoping you might know.”

I looked at the cat a little more intently and noticed nothing out of the ordinary. I asked him for a few more specifics. “It began last night, but today she was doing it, oh I don’t know, every thirty seconds or minute.” He raised his hands at this. “Would you look at her? Just look at her right there? She’ll do it. Look, look it was like this.” Here Cephas stopped his hand gyrations, pointed at himself, and then placed them by his side. My own eyes widened as I looked at him. In his chair, the old man suddenly seemed to lock up; his whole body stiffened, and his eyes bulged even wider than before. Then, he looked not at me but out, over me, as if a man staring through a dark passageway into the bright, distant light of heaven. And with that fixed gaze and stiff body, all performed within seconds, the man demonstrated with perfect artistry that act of coughing up a hairball. A terrifying glllck-glllck echoed throughout the home. His cats and I watched in horror as the man’s Adam’s apple rose and sunk with the noise. And for three or so terrifying seconds of my life, I imagined Cephas coughing up a hairball.

“Have you seen that before? It’s like that,” he said, releasing his hands from their bondage and pointing to his throat. “Just like this.” He performed the action again—glllck-glllck! “Have you ever seen anything like that? Just look at her; she’ll do it, I know.” I looked at the cat who stared into my eyes, unmoving. “It was just like this, look—glllck-glllck!” Again, I saw Cephas stiffen his whole body but for his Adam’s apple. “Just look at her for a few seconds, will ya? She’ll do it, watch. It was just like this.” Again, the demonstration. “You ever seen that? I swear she was doing it like every thirty, or I don’t know man, every minute. Friggin’ had me worried. Just look at her for a minute or so; she’ll do it.”

Cephas and I studied the cat for about fifteen seconds, and then he spoke.

“Why isn’t she doing it now? I hope she doesn’t, to be honest with you. Look, have you ever seen that though? That sound, like this? Glllck-glllck!” We observed the cat some more, and I explained that the orange tabby sometimes makes the noise too.

“But he doesn’t do it every thirty seconds does he?” Cephas’ question was more of a statement, and his arms flew in the air as if winning a debate.

“Well no…”

“See! Taylor was doing it every thirty seconds. It was weird. Look, just watch her; she’ll do it.” We both looked at the cat who now rested calmly on the back of my chair. “I can’t believe she isn’t doing it. Well, I’m thrilled. Must’ve been that butter.” I perked up at this. “I put butter on her paw, so she’d lick it. It’s supposed to help whatever’s caught in her throat to go down.” Cephas, strained his neck as far as it would go, kept his eyes peeled to mine, and pointed at his own throat when he said this. “That’s what that mom said. You remember her? You remember when we visited that mom? You remember when we visited her with Smoky? Hey! Do you remember that?” I mumbled something about remembering.* Cephas’ eyes bulged. “I called her, look, I called her, and she said, ‘just put butter on his paw.’ And I did. It must’ve worked. Well, I’m thrilled. The butter worked. Look, that mom knows stuff. You remember when Smoky’s eye was… what was wrong with his eye? Hey! You remember that?” He touched my shoulder.

“Wasn’t it twitching?” I asked.

“No! It wasn’t twitching… It was all red. You remember that? Hey! You remember that, right? She told me to put… what did she tell me to put on it? Benadryl! Kid’s Benadryl. I put Kid’s Benadryl on it, and that cured him. You remember that? Huh?” Cephas touched my shoulder again. “Huh? You remember that? That mom told me to do that.” He pointed as if the mom was in the room. “Well, hey” he flailed his arms in the air, “I’m thrilled the butter worked.”

I was also thrilled, and the conversation slowly shifted to other things. We chatted about school and his new bike seat. He raged for a few minutes on thieves. “There’s no market for a bike seat! That’s what they told me at the bike shop!” he said with great enthusiasm. “That whole seat was forty dollars! And the bolt—that little bolt. Do you see that bolt? Look at that little bolt. That little bolt costs ten dollars! Did you ever hear of a bolt costing ten dollars? Hey! Have you ever heard of that? Ten dollars! But whatever man. Just praise God that Taylor’s alright. Thank God the butter worked.”

We parted with fist bumps, and I entered my apartment. I half-expected a knock at some point, followed by a wild-eyed man with his cat. But as I scrounged for food and the noise of the day receded into far distant memory, I knew, deep down, my house call had not been in vain.

Broom Snow
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
Friday January 20, 2017

Painting: “The Doctor”
By Luke Fildes
Oil on canvas, 1891

End of Part I

__________________

*See Gambler, No. 33, [The Lights]

Gambler, No. 41 [The Cabby]

“Why, Sir, consider how much easier it is to learn a language by the ear, than by any marks. Sheridan’s Dictionary may do very well; but you cannot always carry it about with you: and, when you want the word, you have not the Dictionary. It is like a man who has a sword that will not draw. It is an admirable sword, to be sure: but while your enemy is cutting your throat, you are unable to use it. Besides, Sir, what entitles Sheridan to fix the pronunciation of English? He has, in the first place, the disadvantage of being an Irishman.” – Johnson

Elwell, Frederick William, 1870-1958; The Last Cab

It was brisk but not cold, and I held my jacket in the nook of my curved, right arm. I set my bag on the curb and waited. Not long though. The cab sped my way, cutting off another cabby who honked. As he pulled forward and parked, I reached and grabbed ahold of the back door handle. Before I could squeeze my old, tired bones into the vehicle, the man stopped me.

“Wyanna pyut ’em byack here?” he asked. “Yit wyould be a lot easier fyir ya.”

“Oh, sure.” I placed my luggage in the trunk. “I appreciate it,” I said, as he shut the door. I shuffled into the back seat, and he took the wheel. Inwardly, I smiled. I knew the accent. It sounded like the many horns of heaven trumpeting across the automobile, and it was beautiful, if not divine. For it was the all too distinct nasally noise of the North. Of long, blustery winters and short, steamy summers. Of ominous autumns and reluctant springs. The sound brought pines and lakes and geese to mind. The sound brought ice, and fog, and pastureland to mind. The sound brought memory. It came equally from his mouth and nose, and it piped and resounded in my soul like the final flourish of a Rachmaninoff concerto.

“Whya’re tyo?” he asked, fiddling with a phone. The crackle of a radio noised behind him, and I gave him my address.

“Eh? Whyat’s thyat?” I repeated it.

“Sorry it’s not an easy casino.”

“Nyo, nyo. Nyo problem. Jyust gyotta gyet yit in my phone. Thyat’s how thyey’re doin’ it these days, ya know. Whyen I was a Kyid, ya know, ya hyad to pull out a myap and fyind the streets all on yer own. Nyow these phyones jyust tyell ya whyere to go.”

“Well, you’re a better man for it.”

“So, East Rochelle? I’ve nyever byeen to East Rochelle, only Wyest Rochelle, over by Jyones and Ryainbow.”

“I’ve never been to West Rochelle.”

“Yyeah, I jyust moved hyere. I gyot a plyace in Summerlin.”

“Summerlin’s very nice.”

“Yyeah. Moved hyere from Minny-soda.”

“You know. If I had to guess what state you were from based on your accent, I would’ve said Minnesota.”

“Oh, yyeah? Wyell, I lyived myy whole lyife thyere before I moved hyere. I retyired and thyen thought I’d pyick up thyis gyig. Thyere’s nothin’ to it.” He honked at another cabby. “Excyept fyir thyat gyuy. So, whyat would be the easiest wyay to East Rochelle?”

“Probably Swenson to Trop to Maryland.”

“Swyenson, Trop, Myarylyand…” He said somewhat trailing into space. He sped down Swenson, looking as much at his phone as the road. I kept an eye on my rising bill, blinking at me in red from the dash. He turned right on Tropicana.

“So what part of Minnesota are you from?” I asked.

“Minny-yappolis. Lyived thyere my whole lyife.”

“I lived in Waterloo, Iowa for three years; northeast Iowa for five years.”

“Iowa? Yyeah, Lyots of cyorn thyere. Lyot’s of pyigs too. “

“More pigs than people.”

“Yyeah? Yyeah, I thyink I’ve byeen to Wyaterloo. Once ’er twyice. I knyew a gyuy who wyent dyown to the Yiowa byorder, ryight thyere on the thyirty-fyive, yand he’d brying me byack a hyalf a hog. Gyot a real gyood byargain. Syome asks, wyell, whyy do ya go dyown to gyat hyalf a hyog fyer? Byut, if yit’s a gyood dyeal, wyell, ya know, thyat’s a tyon of myeat.”

I agreed with him on this point.

“I’m drivin’ byack to Minny-soda, yand whyen I do I’m gyonna styop thyere off the thyirty-fyive and gyit me a whole hog!”

We sped passed Maryland, and I saw he was taking Spencer instead. I thought about how I knew more than his phone. He ignored the fifteen-mile-an-hour zone on Spencer and continued chatting in his glorious, high pitched, speedy Minnesota accent. I almost asked if I could take him home with me, but then said,

“Hey, have you ever been to the Blue Ox?”

“The Blyue Ox? Nyo. Whyat’s thyat?”

“It’s a bar, but it’s Minnesota themed.”

“Oh, ryeally? Whyere’s yit yat?”

“Well, there’s one right by the airport. Another on Flamingo. East. Not sure if there’s one in Summerlin or not.”

“The Blyue Ox? Ya know, I’ve byeen lookin’ fyer a byar, but all the byars hyere are casinos.” He laughed at this. “So the Blyue Ox. I’m gyonna hyave to chyeck thyis out.”

“Yeah, it’s a very comfortable atmosphere. Very laid back. Good prices. Pictures of Minnesota on the wall. They even play the Viking’s games on Sundays.”

“Yyeah? I styopped chyearing fyor the Vyikings yafter the Hyershyel Wyalker tryade.”

We were on East Rochelle, and soon parked at my apartment complex. The cabby grabbed a tablet of some sort.

“Whyat’s the myatter hyere?” he said fiddling with it. “Yit’s nyot totalin’ yit up.” I looked at the screen, which read that I owed him nothing.

“I like that total.”

“Yyeah. Yit wyas dyoin’ thyis tyo me thye yother dyay. I wyas in thyis cyar. Thyey’re myust be somethin’ wryong wyith yit. But ya shyoud owe me abyout fiftyeen. Syee?” He pointed to the red figures on the dash. “The tryip wyas twyelve nyinety-fyive, yand thyere’s a two dyollar yairport fee. Syo thyat’s fyourtyeen nyinety-fyive.”

I pulled out a twenty and told him we’d call it good. And now, as I write this, I realize I gave him an outrageous and possibly undeserving tip. But I stand by my weary, knee-jerk, Christmas-spirited decision. For it is only fitting to pay a man too much who speeds around town, talking in a high, nasally voice. I know too that someday I’ll be at the Blue Ox, hungry and alone. That day a certain cabby will show up, and because he is from the North, and from the Midwest, he will remember me. And we will split some Minnesota cheese curds on his tab, as he tells me all about his latest hog.

Broom Snow
East Rochelle
The Orange Tabby on my lap
Friday, December 30, 2016

Painting: “The Last Cab”
By Frederick William Elwell
Oil on canvas, 1931-36

Gambler, No. 40 [The Pace of Man]

“Surely nothing is more reproachful to a being endowed with reason, than to resign its powers to the influence of the air, and live in dependence on the weather and the wind, for the only blessings which nature has put into our power, tranquillity and benevolence. To look up to the sky for the nutriment of our bodies, is the condition of nature; to call upon the sun for peace and gaiety, or deprecate the clouds lest sorrow should overwhelm us, is the cowardice of idleness, and the idolatry of folly.” – Johnson

I

The sun was nigh fully set when I rolled up to the corner of Maryland and Harmon. I pressed the walk button, and waited on my bike for the green man to beckon me. I was alone and contemplating something, when I observed a lady crossing the road on my right. Like most ladies, she shone brightly against the blue-black night and walked with queenly authority. She held her head up high, and though taken aback by her majestic gait, I managed to unblock the sidewalk by awkwardly backing up. It was far less heroic than had I dashed out the opposite direction; but I comfort myself that it was heroic. In any case, my gallant act was recognized.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling and pressing the button. I squeaked out a “you’re welcome” or, worse, a “no problem.”

“You ride everyday?” she asked. I answered in the affirmative. “You ought to ride with a light. It’s very dangerous not to, and they are not that expensive.” I agreed, and shamefully explained I had forgotten it at home. “You’re lucky,” she continued. “Be thankful you aren’t disabled. I wish I could ride everyday.” As she spoke she stared off into the traffic and noise, and I furrowed my brow inquisitively. Surely, I thought, she is not referencing herself. She walks as well as any abled body I have seen. I nearly asked, rudely, why she couldn’t bike. Then, catching myself, I said the more sensible thing.

“Ah, but walking is better, I think. I’d rather walk.” As the words came out, I realized my hypocrisy, mounted on my bike.

“Well,” she countered, “walking is slower.”

“True,” I replied, “but, you know, God gave us feet.”

“This is true,” she said, still aloofly staring out. I nearly wept for the subtle reminder that a gaping and growing divide exists between me and the world. But yet I heard two words. “He did.” Then, I saw a very beautiful thing – a flash of light in the dark, a faint and happy smile forming across her face.

II

Nearly two weeks ago, I left the UNLV English building, now well after dusk. I fiddled with my lights, unlocked the beast, flung a leg over the seat, and mounted my way homeward. But something felt off. I did not go one whole revolution when I saw before me a young man. He stared as a deer in my Cyclops-light, frightened. He ambled to his right, but by then I was wobbling left. We shared ideas; he ambled left now and I countered his act with a right wobble. His fear cemented itself across brows, down to chin. But he outsmarted me. In what felt like minutes, our tussle quickly ceased. I re-wobbled left to remain mounted, and he, now mindful that I was wayward on my stallion, juked right yet kept left, strolling out of harm’s way. I then wheeled myself, dismounted, and checked the front tire.

Flat. Drat, I thought. Now I have to walk – hold it. I was nearly about to curse my circumstances but stopped just in time. I get to walk, I thought. With great passion, I grabbed the neck of my bike and slowly pattered my way home at the only pace my body has ever accepted: the pace of man.

III

“Come now,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “God gave you a foot for a reason. There’s a reason you weren’t given a wheel. There’s something about this motion.” I raised my hand and flapped it like a foot. The image recurs often, as I foot my way to work in the mornings or take an evening stroll at the park. The walk, unlike any other form of transportation, is the most reverent, the most humble. There is a good reason why we measure in feet. Because the size of the world is best understood by the way of our human propellers. Imagine a world in which all was measured by feet. It’s the most exact measurement because it is the most in tune with our flesh. To say, “I will travel five miles today” obscures what will actually occur. For that man will travel 26,400 feet. That is, he will travel 13,200 humans, for humans have two feet. Suddenly, I better recognize both my smallness and my potential. I am but one man, but I am capable of conquering so many more. Herein lies the secret to humility and courage. A man must be small to conquer. He must see the world for what it is to see how large he can grow.

IV

Our bodies were obviously created for a specific pace, and that pace has become a sort of exaggeration. Walking exaggerates the world by merely existing in it. Wind might be more treacherous on a bike, but the walker endures it longer. Rain, sleet, snow are not mere nuisances but substances. The world suddenly becomes, not some passageway through which we travel, but an expansive and exotic room we enter. It is the least safe of spaces, for in it we control so little – noises, weather, humans. Yet for all its uncertainty, all its potential violence and lack of comfort, walking is the most peaceful form of transportation we know. In it we do the least amount of violence to our bodies, though we enter such a dangerous world.

I wonder if our souls were not made for a specific pace; if like our bodies, the soul longs for proper pacing. I often cry with Donne, “batter my heart, three personed God” or sigh with the psalmist, “how long, Oh, Lord?” Might I not instead say with Herbert

this soul doth span the world, and hang content
from either pole unto the center?

Might my soul, so fond of running, need but to learn to walk again?

V

I listened as the Rebels were getting hammered by Reno. Turning off the radio, I thought, I should go get swoll. Then, I thought further. My bike is out of commission, and the gym lies on the opposite side of campus, a healthy mile jaunt. Suddenly, working out took on new significance. The event swelled, and I realized, once again, my limits. Man cannot do all, for he was not created for such things.

I kicked off my slippers and put on some sneakers. The night was windy and chilly, but I did not mind too much. The sun was just setting to the southwest as I sauntered slowly. I listened to the wind push trash and men talk, huddle around a shopping cart. The cars were noisiest as I neared Maryland, but I crossed safely onto campus. UNLV is a type of sanctuary, for no cars are allowed. Men walk or bike or skateboard, and all is relatively peaceful, and safe. I’ve taken to listening to the sound of my shoes patter along the cement in the quiet, and I did so this evening. The patter of footsteps sound gigantic in silence. The echoes bounce off one another; our bodies become bows, the cement strings, and a steady rhythm of music reverberates around us. I made two quick stops at the English Department and Lied Library then headed down to the gym, one clop-clop at a time. It had been several days since I had lifted, and my body, mind, and soul were eager. I decided I would enjoy a full upper-body day, and I saw myself hoisting metal above my head and turning heads. I did mental crunches and curls and presses. I passed the bike racks and thought about how invigorating my walk was, how mentally prepared I was now, having covered such a great distance, having thought so deeply. I grabbed the door handle and pulled. Nothing happened. I tried the next door. Nothing. I saw the sign, read the words “closed,” and postponed my work out for another day.

Broom Snow
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
November 23, 26, 2016

Painting: “Breeze on a Cliff”
By Arthur Hopkins
Oil on canvas, 1910

Gambler, No. 39 [The Emergency Room]

Boswell: “But is not the fear of death natural to man?” Johnson: “So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.”

Matthews, Donald; Waiting Room

I

The Orange Tabby looked in my eyes, and I gave a half-promise to return. I entered the dark and wheezed my way to my car, fell into the seat, dropped keys into ignition, and wheezed my car away. I crossed my chest and prayed. When I parked, I stumbled my way to the door, hunched over and wheezing. My chest felt as if a fat man sat on it. My labored breathing caused additional pain. Then, I arrived at the door. “Closed at 8:00 PM. Enter by Emergency Room Entrance.” I wheezed and sighed. Is this an emergency? I asked myself. I walked down the sidewalk, hunched over and hoping. At the end of the sidewalk, I stopped. Across the way a large sign read “Emergency Room” with an arrow pointing down a dark road. I huffed and puffed my way back to my car, drove down the dark, followed a few road signs surrounding construction. Then, I saw the emergency room and went to park.

But the lot was small and every space was handicap. I cursed Something and parked at the door.

“Where does one park?” I wheezed, frustration on my face. I held my chest. “I’m having chest pains. I don’t even know if this is an emergency.”

The nice lady pointed me to a back lot, behind Do Not Enter signs. I passed them, parked, and stumbled passed ambulances, back to the Emergency Room, avoiding long draws of breath.

II

I looked the man, Donald, in the eyes and explained myself. He nonchalantly looked back at me, as if surprised I was there.

“Oh… Sign in please.” He casually pointed to a small pad of paper, keeping his eyes on his computer screen. “So what’s the matter?” he asked when I sat down.

“My chest hurts. It’s painful to breathe.” I answered.

“Okay… how tall are you?”

“Five-ten,” I said confidently.

“How much… do you weigh?”

“One-forty,” I said, take or take a few, I thought.

“On a scale of one to ten… how bad… is the pain?”

“Uh, seven,” I said, trying to associate pain with numbers.

“Okay… wait over there. I’ll call your name when we’re ready for you.” Donald pointed to a waiting room, eyes locked to screen.

I rose to leave, then Donald resumed.

“Hey… do you smoke?”

I sat with my back to the television, facing most of the Others, about twenty. I sat hunched over and tried to distract myself without pulling out my phone as the Others did. I studied the floor panels and thought about how cheap and new everything looked. I watched an old man pace in sweat pants. Gray hair poured out behind his black cap. He wore what looked like an old Sand Diego Chargers jersey, numbered eighty-five. That’s not an Antonio Gates jersey, I thought. Looks like he’s kept it since ’85. A few seats down, a homeless man in athletic pants and a black hoodie spread butter or jam over a slice of wheat bread with his finger. He had a jazz patch and black hair. In between bites, he drank Sprite from a small can. I prayed. Then, I heard Donald call a name. For the next hour, Donald called several names that rose, entered two wide doors. Every now and again, Donald rose. He was a tall, aging man of about fifty. He walked with hunched shoulders, more quickly than he talked.

III

I gave in to my phone, but justified it with the reading material. I read an essay of ghosts, witches, and blood.* I looked at the Others. I resumed reading of zombies, downtown screams, pulled hair, emergency lights, chins-on-chests, gurneys, lead-foot runs, zombie stumbles, faux blood, human blood, red eyes, eyes, vomit, empty smiles, sirens – I heard my name and saw Donald looking at me. I wheezed over and saw him holding a white paper bracelet with words on it.

“This you?” he asked. It was. He placed it on my wrist, and I felt trapped, felt like one of Them. When I returned to my seat, my stomach knotted. I noticed other bracelets and felt as if in a secret club that no one wanted to join. I went back to my essay and felt comfort with the ghosts. As one does in waiting rooms, I looked at my comrades and thought about my death. I thought about how its quite un-human, nearly blasphemous not to fear it.

“Donald… Donald! Where’s Donald!?” Donald looked up from his screen at us. One of my comrades pointed to the lobby. “Oh… Donald went that way? Popular name you know. Donald… It will be the name of our next president.” Mild chuckles. I winced.

My essay ended, and I switched reading material. A play about abortion and life. For several minutes, I lost myself in dialogue and prayer. When I finished, I looked around at my comrades and thought that maybe the pain was receding. Why am I here? I asked myself. The old man in the Chargers jersey now sat, jittery. The homeless man slept, slouched greatly. I prayed. I convinced myself the pain was receding and tried to take large, labored breaths. I rose, went to the desk, and explained that I would just leave. “Huh? You’re next. Come with me.”

IV

I followed Donald down a quiet hallway where he motioned to a second, empty waiting room. I asked where the restroom was.

“Restroom?… two doors down on the right.” He pointed.

I walked to the second door. It read “X-ray.” My brow furrowed, and I looked for Donald, but I found myself alone. I sank into a seat and listened to silence.

I was ushered back to the first waiting room. “How long will the results take?” I asked. I was told an hour. I sighed.

“Is the restroom down that way?” I asked another man at the desk, afraid to ask Donald.

“Yes, just down on the right.” I followed his orders but did not see a bathroom. Eventually, I entered a large, lonely foyer. I looked in vain for a bathroom then saw a large blue sign, reading “Restroom” with an arrow. I walked down a hallway, looking left and right. The hallway veered left, and at this junction was a large blue sign that read “Restroom” with an arrow. I followed this arrow, and came to another blue sign that read “Restroom” with an arrow, eventually wheezing my way around to a familiar looking waiting room. I was again alone and thought about Donald. Then, I saw a doctor appear in a white smock.

“Sir. Excuse me. Where is the restroom?”

This man looked confused, as if I should know, or that I was living. But he pointed down the hallway, the same hallway Donald had sent me. Two doors from the end, on the left, was a restroom.

V

Back in the waiting room, I watched and listened while Donald grilled a new comrade. The man was bent over, sobbing and holding his shoe, and Donald asked him the usual questions: height, weight, pain. Then, just as the man was going to be sent to the waiting room, Donald asked, “Hey… Do any drugs?”

“Meth,” the man sobbed.

“Okay… wait over there.” The man walked to his seat, sat for a few minutes but slowly sank until he lay on the floor, sobbing. Minutes later, he was taken away.

A security guard entered and Donald pointed to the homeless man. “Yeah… he needs to go. Been here too long.” The homeless man was woken up. He asked the guard for five minutes and if he had change for a twenty. I have learned that the question is properly interpreted, “Do you have a twenty?” Five minutes later, he grabbed his belongings and left. I prayed.

VI

At midnight, I was discharged a healthy, sane man. I slept and woke six hours later. With blurry eyes, I mounted my bike and headed to school. My chest was still sore, but I now at least knew my heart and insides were healthy. I thought about Donald, single-shoed men, spreading jam with fingers, the living, and the last ten hours. I decided to take a deep breath to test my chest and heart. It stung slightly. But I felt also that I inhaled a great gulp of life.

Broom Snow
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Painting: “Waiting Room”
By Donald Matthews
Oil on board, n.d.

______________________

*That is, R. Eric Tippin’s Trifler, No. 30 [On Halloween]. The following list is taken directly from this Trifler.