Sunday After the War

Posted on July 24, 2005 by

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When I don’t know where to begin you say start at the beginning. But I don’t remember the very beginning. I must start with what I remember.

Everywhere we were caught up in terror and we had to fend for ourselves. The demand was silence and yet I had nothing to be silent about. When the patrols came by we forced ourselves to act as Romans. Where there were no police, criminals might have come at us to take our money and call us faggots. People were going to keep us from what we wanted and there was never a worse injustice.

On the train Paul looked out the windows even though we were underground. He asked why there were windows. It did seem a funny thing to me, windows without wind. Paul mentioned there was too wind in the tunnels, and sure there was: a vast suction trailing countless trains. I said the windows were left over from when trains rode on the surface— vestiges, like hip bones in a whale.

Walking, I prattled constantly and Paul said the thing to do was observe but I was sick of all the observation. We did not observe the world: the clover chutes rising from fissures; the music of bells and playgrounds; the smell of evaporating urine which was the fact that someone had been there earlier, like stepping into a warm bathtub. We only observed as the rabbis observe holy days. We were made to observe the laws, to observe the quietude—the isolation of the neighbors. We were outlaws as a scientist is outside the system he observes, or a voyeur. But I wanted to clutch and grope, to upset the dishes and ruin all the data.

We must bristle like the thieves and rappers and grab things for ourselves. We must scowl even if we were full of desire.

Then there was the threat of thirst and exhaustion. There would be no water and our bodies would shrivel and die. We were going to die.

The people we passed were like disembodied legs. If they had arms they kept them at their sides as though they forgot they had any.

If only we could find some meadow to lie and raise our arms and our voices and dance like fools without being locked inside a cage. But the place existed! We headed there directly! The Park. In the Park we would be free and there might be fountains. I thirsted for the Park just as I thirsted for water. At that moment the Park was truly our only prospect.

Paul put in a call to Anne and she met us on her stoop, which was on the way, with plastic cups of water. It was the greatest service I could have imagined, Anne bringing us water down the steps like that. As she rode somewhere else on her bicycle I pitied those whose service comes from an altar, who can not guzzle their blessed drink and therefore merely sip and observe the rites.

All of it seemed left over, like the train windows or even more like so much rubbish which was stacked high on the walkway.

But at the same time the prospect of the Park appeared awfully far off and hopeless. Why should I expect the Park to grant us sanctuary? The place would crawl with as many cops as insects, for one thing, and why should I pin my hopes to a leafy paradise so distant I saw no traces of it, save for the trees, branches and a million pieces of green which proliferated from every stone where I already stood?

I decided we should not make for the Park. Or rather, we should not delay at all. Should not reserve an ounce of sweat for a false sanctuary when our bodies needed every drop and soon critical mass, operable hydration, would be out of reach. We should not believe the Park would offer us anything or help us in the least. We must bristle like the thieves and rappers and grab things for ourselves. We must scowl even if we were full of desire.

At that moment Paul spied the stone archway and the monument to an army which it says was once grand but is now depredated. So it was too late. We arrived. Now what?

The drums. We marched along a path of dust-covered soil and twigs. I spoke and Paul prefaced every interruption and attempt to shush me with the words I’m sorry. I told him he had nothing to apologize for and that I was perfectly happy for us to speak at the same time. I was trying to explain that my words did not interfere with me absorbing all the beautiful things around me, nor did my breath blow away their flavor from my lips.

Children played at every fountain and never came clean. Women read on slopes in bathing suits. None of the girls washed in the water yet they remained clean and sanitary. They showed their bodies to the sun and remained bleached.

Birds and squirrels carried on like there was never a park to begin with. They were right. Only the city around it started and stopped.

We followed the drums.

It was an argument, whatever was between Paul and I. I accused him of being like the police and soldiers who were out there, had stalked us all the way to the Park to make sure we didn’t suddenly run across the street and kiss the lamppost. It was like that all along but now that we were in the Park he was the only one who could get at me, the only one trying to clasp me in a muzzle.

He accused me of missing the sublimity of the more tender senses, what with my noise and gestures. Even more he accused me of intruding on his joy at the Park, of eclipsing smells of sweet potatoes and drowning the woodpecker’s snare.

If there was any doubt that whales are mammals, this woman put it to rest.

But we marched along together, as I say, and suddenly even though my mouth was closed I no longer heard the drums. What were we doing? We stood in the street, where there were painted lines and lights on chains—traffic circles, buildings, iron bars and curbs.

We walked backward and turned a corner which was just a grove of trees and instead of a sea of drummers in a woodland valley like an arenic venue all I saw was another circle—a circle of people. And everyone had brown skin and beards and breasts. The beat of the drum came very loud and layered, like the syncopation of trains moving in and out of a station very rapidly, of waves hopping beneath the pier.

I don’t remember the sound even, only the people. Boys dashed and jived and krumped. A woman in a deep black shirt leapt up and down with her head thrown back like a great whale soaring from the waves. The waves were the same waves as the drum and she flopped in an ocean of sound. If there was any doubt that whales are mammals this woman put it to rest because as she jumped her giant bulbous breasts heaved from below her knees to well over her head, billowing her shirt which was stretched and drenched with sweat. The woman’s skin sparkled with the sweat like the beads dropping off the whale that she was. She was no different from the animal, a mammy whose mammal mammaries plunged her deep into this eternal in and out. Everything flowed from the greater breast of the world. While the children hovered around their fountains here I found the nipple. In this circle, the areola of it all.

I wanted to join the dancers but I felt I was not welcome there, that I would be ushered out just as surely as if I went to the constable and confessed everything. Furthermore I grew suddenly aware that as I crept in closer to the circle I was getting in the way of the crowds who had gathered to watch the drummers. I felt obstructing people from this view was even worse than when I had been trampling all over Paul’s love of the infinitesimal twinkling of the Park with my words and distractions.

Anyway I no longer knew where Paul was. In the crowds around the circle we became dislodged from one another. I stepped back, back through pine boughs and clustered folks.

From there I saw it all. I took in the whole circle and every person surrounding it and even the people surrounding me. There was a roadway there beyond the people, a roadway in the Park, and I took in everything beyond it too, and all entered me. The beginning of the end was still just the end of the beginning. The beat of the drums. Everywhere starvation and extinction! But it was also as if genocide were itself exterminated. The Hutus were dancing with the Tutsis, the Bantus with the Hottentots, Cathars and Uighurs and Jews and Canaanites, Moor, Ainu, Navajo, Kakauhua. Grisly whiskers and missing teeth chewing the bottom lip and shaven pates and dreaded coils wound round one another and spilling forth without any lucubration. All the tribes of the history of mankind fashioning arrowheads and hardening them around the fire. To kill the game they would eat, exactly as I devoured the whole situation.

Of course I was also in tears.

I cried because I stood alone and maybe lost and I carried nothing, not even the cup of water anymore. I cried because there was such extraordinary wonder before us all and yet still sentinels and chairmen who would keep us from it, just like they had tried to keep us from reaching the Park. Or would have had they known. This latter thing seized me and while I stood even further back, beyond the road, a police car hauled its swirling lights near the drum circle and I thought they were going to shut it down. What are they doing? I started to complain. To my delight, the vehicle moved on past.

But I cried first because when I looked into the circle I saw what was in there and loved it but I also knew I already know it. I know the brown skin and the broken grins and the grass stems and the tree needles and the wiggling whale and especially the beat of the drum. I did not come to the Park to find what I already knew. I wanted what I had never experienced before. I wanted to know what came when the firmament split apart like Ralph Steadman’s drawings and I wanted to know whatever lies between the quarks and gluons.

The Hutus were dancing with the Tutsis, the Bantus with the Hottentots, Cathars and Uighurs and Jews!

Instead, microcosms and macrocosms disappeared entirely.

The Park was no longer a prospect but an aspect, or really a bunch of aspects. And those aspects proffered such outlandish perspective that it had to be respected and inspected at the same time, without any need for spectacles. People always see me squinting and assume I have an eye problem but all I’m doing is trying to view more than I can. Just then I could see as much as I had ever seen on a clear day. But somehow I saw the same things better, because I saw them as they are.

I would defy a hundred popes, each of them screaming, It is as it was. No! It is as it is and that is all. When I saw the drum circle and knew that I know it, I knew it was everything. I know everything and the only thing is to remember. To remember those things I already know, all of it obvious. And every discovery is only noticing something near and obvious, which Zora Neale Hurston already said. You say you are surprised you haven’t thought of it before and you are wrong because you have: you have only to be reminded. Everything was there every moment.

I went behind a tree and sat on the root with my back to it, and to the drum circle. Of course I still heard the drumming. It is all so obvious, I thought. And if it really is that obvious how come nobody seems to know? But they already did know, every man and woman and even more so the children in the Park. That’s why they came. That’s why they sat listening to the drums.

The nearest party to me was another bearded dreaded man and his family picnicking on a blanket beneath another tree. I watched them putting food in their mouths. If I had gone up to him and tried to explain it he would have ignored me unless he felt he had to defend his wife and child from this red wild tearful man, myself. And if I had gone to the blackest hairiest man leaning against the stone wall over there farther down the road and tried to tell him about the deepest soul, he would have murdered me on the spot for presuming such privilege. But there they were, watching it happen, so I knew that they knew it too.

Why should I be rejected? To explain it was all I had, all I could offer the police or the criminals if they wanted to get me. To me, going on about it was exactly the same thing as its being, in the most active sense as a verb. Explaining the world was an interface with it as needed as allowing it through the windows of my eyes or swallowing the water. An integration.

Well imagine a man on the street comes to you, clutching at your coat and bawling out his eyes and pointing into the street. He isn’t making any sense at all but he’s manic, frantic, waving at the street and the citizens and the fruit and the window dressings. The street is old and not paved but hardened mud densified by the walking of a million feet over a thousand years, and as it hardened and dried it kicked up a ton of dust and stones and these are really what you walk on, avoiding the puddles in the low points and gutters. And the people are filthy or spotless and there are few vehicles because the road is not paved but everyone travels to and fro, barging into each other. You look at the sight and back at the man who desperately wants you to see something there and perhaps you have somewhere to go and you leave him. But maybe instead you see his despair and his streaming tears, and the man is certainly me there at the Park, and you ask him My God what on Earth is the matter?

Very matter is precisely what the man is waving at. If he can get it across you say That is all very obvious and why should you be upset about it? but he is upset because he cannot explain well enough and no one will listen. The only reason you thought he required you is somebody might be hurt or in trouble and because you are human you care about people and want to help. You care also about who you’re on your way to meet. But here he is shouting about nothing more than what is perfectly obvious and asking Why don’t you care? while you just want to know why you should.

Why why why why why? Five kinds of questions and never beyond why. It seems like there might be more than those few categories but if there are I don’t know what else…. But if everything is truly all there is then anything else is just comparison.

I would defy a hundred popes, each of them screaming, It is as it was.

By this time I discovered I needed to talk to Paul. I knew no one else would listen. Paul wouldn’t want to listen either because he wouldn’t want to be removed from the drum circle but I could make him if he cared about me. When I went back inside the crowd I actually found him quite easily and he just sat peacefully rubbing his hands in the dirt, fixed on the drums.

I knew for Paul finding this drum circle would be like finding his God, which is to say more or less the same as I have said above but from yet another aspect, one I cannot exactly apprehend. For Paul this would be again the beginning and end of everything, the healing of the sick and the dancing of the joyful and the descent into hell.

To tear Paul from the scene I might have to pull him and shout at him. And if he would not go I would shove him in the chest to move him. I would punch and wrestle, and spit and bite if need be.

Because Paul dislikes violence he wouldn’t stand for it. He would fight me to keep from fighting me more than to stay near the drums. I would have to ask him if he did not agree that everything in the world was just as important as this, which was indeed the most important thing. Whether he agreed or not I would have to show him that in addition to the things in the world we like best or most, we must face and respond to those that make us uncomfortable, whether a conflict between friends or a syphilitic child. Otherwise would be ignorance. And anyway I didn’t want to shove him or show him a syphilitic child but just to talk and tell him the things I know.

Naturally I had to talk myself into this for a few minutes. Even though I was sure I must do it something about tearing a man away from his own God seemed improper. In any event I was not quite prepared in case I had to start swinging. While the psyching myself up was going on a woman to my left made a noise I didn’t understand. Then she and her companion moved a little way in front of me. I paid no attention but she turned around and asked if she was blocking my view of the drums. I remembered my earlier fear against obstructing anyone’s enjoyment of the scene. You’re not in my way! I cried. Everything is fine!

Surely that was nonsense. Much was very very wrong, starting with the laws and probably not ending with the famine. But now as I think of it, perhaps I meant my view of the world was then perfectly fine-tuned. No frame could be reduced or coarsened anymore.

But it’s difficult to tell because I had little command over my speech. I launched into the episode where I had to pull Paul from the circle and it didn’t go quite right but I didn’t have to fight him either. When I got him out of there I just wanted to go a little way away and sit where we could still be near the drums and talk, but he was compelled to keep moving. I started saying all the things I was thinking but couldn’t communicate a word of it. Surely if I could have heard myself talk I wouldn’t have understood either. I talked about the man in the street with tears and about the use of violence and caring for others and all the things that are and that all the words for anything else are only comparisons. I pointed at a sunset over a lake and said that the sun over the lake might be as important as the drums to a man watching it but tearing him away would be just as needed.

We walked on like that again not making much sense to one another but both perfectly understanding now that we both knew and had always known already. Everything. And bicycles everywhere and out of sight. The air was full of dragonflies and butterflies and for all I know tsetse flies too. It was impossible to keep everything in mind at once, but I lost any worry about forgetting because all I had to do was look at anything and be reminded.

Paul glimpsed a shower of sunlight breaking through some trees and in it another gathering, very nicely dressed people like a funeral. I wanted to stop and remember that one for a while but he now had the itch and dragged us ever along the path.

From somewhere we remembered he was supposed to go meet a girl he loved. We were marching home to cascade him with solubles and wash his feet to make him ready. But why? But why? He wanted to know why he loved her. Perhaps I didn’t think he should but I definitely felt like shifting the questions onto him so I said I don’t know and began asking him about it. Paul decided he loved everything just as I love and know everything and so we shook hands and hugged our shoulders and said we loved each other too and I witnessed a tree reaching its leaves to the ground.

The champion raises his arms because he knows no one will stop him. And the people stand and cheer because he has reminded them that they too have arms to raise.

We were going directly again, without stopping for the bath. I would have picked up any piece of the Park and inspected it like a strange stone or an arrowhead. Where did she live? We went without knowing where or how. There were many bicycles and ambulances but they were not after us either. We broke with the Park. We had no more cause for agony after what happened at the drum circle. Police could not throttle us. The drugs had long gone, if they ever held us at all which might have been an illusion. And we possessed none of the money the brutes would be after. Time itself absconded. But the knowing everything had not faded.

After that it was nothing but wandering. We mostly went in straight lines but followed the contours of the land and the curves of the women and once we even passed through the very same Park again. Paul kept a very sturdy pace but I preferred to meander. In fact, realizing again the thirst, I thought we might try to find someone else who might give us water. But the thought of going anywhere but onward did not touch Paul. To everything I said he said I know. Once he did ask if I thought what we had seen was God and I said I thought God was an abbreviation for something so that people don’t have to describe it all. So perhaps it was God but I would rather find out what the abbreviation stood for. At times the aimless walk seemed seasoned for another contravention, to get water or simply to rest our legs. But now I had no alternative to whatever fetched his attention. So I kept at it, running to catch up now and then.

We passed intricately wrought benches and gates. We passed a street carnival, walked through a feed tent and past musicians and amplifiers.

Then the land appeared to drop away behind some shipyard and fences got in our way. The streets here were calm and I walked in the middle of them just the same as walking in the desert. When a van came along I steered to keep from colliding and so did the driver. I thought I saw the person inside nod, knowing I had no more intention of colliding with his vehicle than he did with me. So I decided he knew too.

The next people I passed included a man with his hair twisted in knots and a woman as white and round as an egg wearing a dress. They herded their mulatto brood filling the whole sidewalk when I came up on them from behind. Paul was then way out in front so I was by myself. As I bounced to the outside I turned and peered the man in the face. I suppose I still looked very disorderly and his first expression suggested wariness. But I remembered the man in the van who didn’t mind my strolling the street so I smiled here. And then the father smiled easily at me. All this happened quite quickly. There I decided this man knew as well.

It seemed everyone knew what I had learned, or rather remembered, with the drumming. And the only explanation for all the mistreatment and suspicion was just a lapse, that some people sometimes forgot. But if I smiled I could restore their memory. Everyone already knew.

With that under my belt I went around smiling and the oldest people always knew best. They came out on stoops and steps or sat in car windows and smiled. Samoans and Poles and Chinese. Everything I passed seemed to be a home or an automobile or a piece of garbage or a person. I passed a pregnant lady and adjusted it to say I sometimes passed two people within one. But none of these meetings were rare.

Everywhere we walked was not just a place but a passageway. Nothing could have been more obvious. But it was also a campsite and dump all at once. The streets were literally sheathed in cars and houses. One after the other just like that. Redundancy and redundancy. I remembered the arrowheads. And the houses began to look like castles. Everything was made of stone, or pulled from stone like the iron railings. Each object I found was an artifact, an arrowhead. Stones and arrowheads littered the world, enough to last the lifetimes of all the people who lived in all the lithic eras, and wouldn’t be gone until subducted under the escarpments of the ocean. Only to extrude again as the most basic basalt. New rock, chipped into a new arrowhead, smelted into a new automobile panel, ground into the finest piece of sand and, replaying its igneous rebirth, melted into glass panes fit for all the windows in all the subways. Broken glass and bottles too. Bloated plastic garbage bags and bound cardboard and dust and dirt on top of the blocks of the walk, which themselves were either cut from giant cliffs or plastered out of tiny particles. And the arrowheads stuck in the skeletons of beasts who ate the plants while others died to fuel the cars and fire pits.

I remembered and stepped on it all. Every glass tooth and banana peel and rubber condom. And did not complain or protest, not even about the smelliest barrel of trash, because it was all the same and all of it still … left over. I had no more voice to complain than I did to explain. I was so thirsty I would have drunk the water running from below the peeling fence into the sewer if I could have got my hands and lips around it. I stepped freely and would slip between the cars traveling on the roads because I had a smile and the drivers understood. To me skirting between the cars was something like the cup that had held the water. I carried on and brought forth and Paul kept saying I know.

The things in the sky were no different than what was on the ground.

I saw what appeared to be an inflated gorilla wearing boxing gloves with its arms raised. Yes! The champion raises his arms because he knows no one will stop him. He has defeated them all and can do as he wills. And the people stand and cheer because he has reminded them that they too have arms to raise, without having gone through the ranks. Raise your arms if you have them!

But of course the gorilla was only a balloon moored to the top of a building. What did it mean? There were words on every surface and all of them failed to communicate anything. They were written on the sidewalk and the castle walls. Oaths and cryptic characters and signs. In this way too, the sky was the same as the ground: when I looked up an airplane wrote words of smoke on the very air. The writing was all bastardized and misspelled or cobbled together from bits of other words, as though everyone were struggling with the language just as I had struggled to explain what I saw in the Park, and this is what I mean when I say they failed. Every word was an error. But it is not true they conveyed nothing because every glance gave me the gist.

We were jealous of the Atlanteans because they had so much water and that’s what everyone seemed to want and need. I passed Atlantic & Pacific Oil.

After I saw a street sign that said Hamilton I saw an auto repair shop that said Hamilton too. Though the one set of letters looked nothing like the other they were shaped enough like the other that I could tell they meant the same thing, even though the word Hamilton meant nothing else at all. I saw a paper crown in the weeds growing out of a barrier. It was unclasped and flattened and inside out. It was the relic from a fast food joint. And when immediately afterward I saw another fast food joint, its arches were just the same as the tremendous arches carrying the throughway over our heads.

From time to time I would catch up to Paul and we shook hands or hugged again. We returned to the Park quite by accident, as I said. I noticed lampposts there in chains and asked Who would chain up a lamppost? but I could also see the chains merely outlasted bicycles. And I was pleased to see the lamppost was very old so I did it, I went over and hugged the lamppost too. I saw police vans but to me they were milk trucks and parcel deliverers—nothing else.

It was a Sunday and when we left the Park once more I knew what Henry Miller meant when he was talking about Sunday after the War even though I had never seen a war. A street sign said Stratford and I knew I was now at Shakespeare’s birthplace and liked it even more. We still marched in the middle of streets, between motorcars and brown people. They stared at us like we were sprinting into the desert with no memory. And we were.

Without leaving the street we ventured into a hundred neighborhoods. Leafy lanes and ghettos and cinema districts. A car drove by and somebody had thought it a good idea to take the wheel and put another wheel inside it, so that when the wheel turned the next wheel turned more slowly and shimmered.

Men wore robes and sandals and beards and yarmulkes. Children played ball on the concrete and they too smiled and knew.

Still the faulty language. Sub-sational. Paperific. We passed a paean to human communication on the side of a school. A mosaic of smoke signals, talking drums, courier ships, telephone, telegraph and satellites. I passed a Western Union office where all the writing was Arabic. I passed the Eastern Grocery and that too seemed fine because I was never better oriented in my whole life. I passed the Atlantis Laundry and seven car washes in a row. We were jealous of the Atlanteans because they had so much water and that’s what everyone seemed to want and need. I passed Atlantic & Pacific Oil.

Paul peed on the concrete in front of a woman with an empty stroller while I cleaned my hands in a burst fireplug and stood lookout for cops. Observing the law took on one more meaning.

The sun had disappeared. There was a neon bolt of lightning bolted above a vestibule and further down the block was the Lightning Showroom. Lightning was the new thing I said and Paul pointed out the second sign actually said Lighting Showroom and I was fooled. Well what’s the difference between lightning and lighting anyway? It’s all light. The only difference is n and that’s all the difference there ever is. The nth degree. N raised to the exponent of n. All the words in all the writing fell apart, disintegrated. All that remained were the letters. Streets here no longer had names. They were assigned only letters.

We could not tell where we were but that it was the world. Except suddenly we saw crowns everywhere. Roy’s Mattresses and Kings this and that. Burger King pillars and neon crowns on the pillars. I remembered when we were kings and then I remembered we were in Kings County. I remembered the tattered paper crown in the weeds and wondered what happened to it.

Paul and I sat on a bench outside another gas station and decided it was time to go home. He asked me if I knew my name. He phoned his mother. Both of us were exhausted. I was totally empty. Empty of food, now empty of water and every muscle frayed. Almost inanimate. But I also felt full, full in the way you say the ocean is full of water when the water is really the very substance of the ocean itself. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again and, still knowing everything, I felt that way too. Nevertheless the first thing was to find the subway. I asked a man who didn’t speak English but he gave me directions perfectly.

We headed underground.


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