I could die today, if I wished, merely by making a little effort, if I could wish, if I could make an effort.
One of my aims is to understand what it is (or what the its are) about certain men that I admire and fear, but I won’t name names. I know who these men are while you’re abandoned (assuming you give a damn) to grasp at context clues that remain muddled for the sake of my art’s momentum. Even if you discover who these men were/are, you’ll never really know because I will never tell you if you’re right. The most frightening part of this ride is that these men’s stories have such similar endings that knowing who they are individually might make no difference. Of course, all stories end the same: journeys vary; places of entry vary; methods and locations of departure vary: not that anyone needs to hear that twice.
—And yet it’s said again and again as if each generation discovered this anew.
—‘We’d be fools not to ride this strange torpedo out to the end.’
—A trail of quote crumbs?
—‘No. All is not clear. But the discourse must go on.’
—‘So one invents obscurities. Rhetoric.’
—‘I resume, having no alternative. Where was I?’
—The wheels on the bus?
—The wheel in the sky.
“You think I could earn a living singing, Trainee Funk?” Sergeant Baum’s voice reverberated around the tile-and-chrome dormitory. His piss splattered into the toilet, likely sprinkling the seat that the Latrine Queen had just cleaned and would clean again and again until graduation. I’d sat on my bunk, hating that I’d have to remake it once I stood because the taut dustcover had no doubt loosened under my weight. Pulsing in my feet reminded me that I needed to stay off them for as much time as possible or else the aching would keep me awake, and I needed as much sleep as I could get. I beat a polishing brush across my boot toe, swoosh swoosh, focused on shining the toe enough so it blended in with other trainees’ boot toes but not so shiny that my toes called attention to themselves and, in turn, to me. Keep your head down, Dad said. I didn’t want this for you, he said. Never volunteer for anything, he said, and so on until my memory of his words meta-morphed into daydreams that ripped me away from Lackland AFB, to places where Here we go Looby Loo played on an infinite loop, places where old men played knick-knack on kids shoes.
“Sir. Yes, Sir,” Funk said.
“Bullshit, Funk. My wife would kick me out on the street. My kids would starve. My life would become a tragedy.”
—Was his name actually Funk?
—I can’t remember. Funk? Fergus? Fugue?
—Fugue. Wouldn’t that be convenient?
—Everything’s convenient once properly constructed. The trick is to construct without leaving a sparkling trail that betrays one’s method of construction. Accidental order is the Mesmer we strive to capture with our butterfly nets.
—Isn’t this more like mitosis?
—If I knew for sure, then I’d probably lose interest.
Digressions are a necessity. I can’t shoot straight and avoid naming the unnamable. Although, to say they (these men) are unnamable implies that they’re incapable of being named; that’s not the case. They have names. They had names. Or names had them: names might still have them depending on how one feels about who possesses what once one dies.
—Shotguns are important.
Some of the men died from self-inflicted shotgun blasts to the head: two of them for certain. Two faces that have names that became faceless and shall now remain nameless. These two men influenced much of what I do. I admired them long before I knew they did things that I’ve done, long before I knew they’d killed themselves. Perhaps I was drawn to their work because of some invisible connection between my thinking and the way they communicated with black ink on white paper. Perhaps it was a connection I created out of a desire to connect to someone through a code I’d pretended he’d created just for me. Who’s to say? I am. And I did. But we haven’t and won’t because there is no us. So I can’t say who we are. To learn who me or I is one could investigate contributors’ notes or just ask me if you see me or I around (if you know ho to look for), unless me or I is dead by the time you read this. Then you’ll have to find someone who knew who me or I was and hope he tells the truth: or a truth. But don’t hope for that because any truth about me or I will likely disappoint.
—‘I shall not say I again, ever again, it’s too farcical.’
—‘Maybe you should drive.’
—‘No. You drive. I think there’s something wrong with me.’
— Stop turning this around.
—If it’s all a circle what difference does it make how the question is asked or answered?
—It’s not all a circle.
—We’ve been circled; it’s not the same.
—So what now then? So where now then?
—One can only digest this kind of absurdity from a voice like this for so long. Believe me; I know. We can begin a dialogue with a few of the dead men that I‘ve one-quarter to one-half referenced. That might create something sustainable.
—It’s better to talk to a live man I’ve never met/will never meet.
Galway Kinnell says, “I light a small fire in the rain.”
“Why did you light a small fire in the rain?”
Galway says, “….”
“Is it because you wanted the rain to extinguish it easily?”
“I sit a moment/ by the fire, in the rain, speak/ a few words into its warmth.”
“You’re being evasive.”
“So you wanted to talk to something living? The fire is alive no matter how small.”
“I used to come to you/ and sit by you/ and sing to you.”
“So you don’t want to talk to me then?”
Raindrops slap our faces. I can’t see his face, though. I’ve never seen his face. He seems unhappy to be with me, having this conversation, fragments of a conversation he’s had before: all the way back in 1971. And I’m not even interested in having the whole conversation. I’m focused on these bits and pieces that I tell myself he meant for me even though the conversation happened ten years before I was born, twenty-five years before I ever said anything. Galway’s face is invisible in this scene because his face is invisible in my brain. He wears a black coat with the collar flipped up to shield his neck because I’ve seen black coats with collars flipped up to shield necks. I wears a white T-shirt because I have worn white T-shirts. The shirt soaks through, and I’s body-hairs curl dark and thick like crescent-bent earwigs that spoon one another beneath the translucent whiteness. “Here I am, Galway.” He stokes the fire with a stick shaped like a rheumatic witch’s index finger. He coughs, but it’s not a real cough. I needed his vocal cords to do something, so I made them rattle and shake loose imaginary phlegm that he could spit into the fire or at I, or phlegm that clung to the back of his hand after he brought his fist to his mouth to stifle the coughs. Here I want him to say, “And then/ you shall open/ this book, even if it is the book of nightmares.” I want him to toss the stick into a puddle, then lean back against a brick wall in their alleyway where they meet each evening after hours of wandering a town that does not exist. “You did not know,/ and yet you still remember,” he could then say. And the rain would fall harder. Heavy brown-black curls would slither down and cover I’s eyes, so that the pounding of rain against steel dumpsters and the cracked pavement might swell into a holy vibration that drowned all thoughts except how wet and cold I felt. Weak firelight would cast pale shadows on I’s forearms, his throat. I would be: I is: filthy. “Down the throat feathers/ Down the throat knuckles/ Down over the hum,” I says.
—If you just imagine all this, what difference does it make?
—It makes all the difference in the world to me.
—What about Galway? You’ve restricted him to the first section of The Book of Nightmares while I uses whatever words from whichever section he chooses.
“Do you have nightmares?” I asks.
G.K. tries to make a face at me but can’t because he’s faceless. “They hang her up/ by the feet, she sucks/ air, screams/ her first song.” He clasps his coat tighter around his throat and chest. He coughs into his fist and then wipes the sticky-spittle across his water-beaded forearm.
“I don’t even dream. So an entire book of nightmares seems ridiculous.”
—I’m trying to be honest.
—He was nice enough to sit there with I in the rain. He built the fire. I just watches him stoke the flames as rain soaks them both. You filled Galway with mucus; he didn’t complain.
—He couldn’t complain.
—He can’t complain.
—I feel translucent.
“I’m translucent, Galway!”
“A specter,/ descendant/ of the ghostly forefathers,/ singing/ to you in the nighttime.”
“Why keep trying to talk to you if you only respond with disordered fragments?”
“Featherless arms/ already clutching at the emptiness.”
—I can’t take any more of this.
—Your wheel was rattling. You drove 70 miles-an-hour on the freeway. You kept driving despite the rattle. Someone could’ve been hurt.
—I don’t know if this is the kind of thing you write about.
—But a conversation with a man you’ve never met/may-never-meet is something you write about?
—It’s something I wrote about. Something’s in there, and no one was hurt.
—You need direction. You see that?
—I see? I see.
—‘The best would be not to begin. But I have to begin. That is to say I have to go on.’
My wheel has rattled before. A bearing snapped free and thumped around the tire. At certain speeds it hummed in concert with the vibrations of my truck and the road; I hummed to match it. The humming and unified vibrations warmed me and made me feel illuminated: not epiphanic, but glowing. At other speeds it sounded like my wheel was filled with little dead bodies; my humming didn’t silence that.
—“Dead bodies”? Don’t you see how ridiculous that is? You want to use it as a way to get at something else. But there’s no subtlety there.
—You can’t picture a bunch of tiny corpses tumbling around inside a wheel?
—I can? I can.
—So why the anger?
—I hate that you’re relying on a wheel.
—You specifically requested it.
—I can’t go on. I’ll go on.
This was different than the bearing. Even at slow speeds, I heard the sound; it was loud. When I released the steering wheel, the truck veered left. No one. Not one person pointed at the truck. Not a single person made me aware that they noticed anything was wrong. If they did notice, they didn’t think it or I mattered enough to tell me. If one person had said, “Hey! Your wheel’s about to fall off,” I might have fixed the damn thing. Someone else recognizing the problem might have made the danger real. But instead, I drove toward home, on the loose wheel, drove 70 miles-an-hour on the freeway, passed cars in the fast lane. I heard and felt the rumblerattle and still pressed harder on the gas. Then I heard another sound. Tuh-thwink. The wheel slipped off. My truck smashed onto the front left rotor, and I skated into the median. All other cars on the road disappeared; it was just me. My wheel rolled and bounced down the median until it bounced and rolled out of sight. And in that moment or hour before I opened the door to chase the wheel, I wondered why I hadn’t just crashed into the concrete divider, shot through my windshield and landed in oncoming traffic, living just long enough to suddenly realize that I would suddenly die.
—No, idiot. You didn’t die because that would’ve been too easy.
—Of course. Things must get worse before they get better.
—Dig the tire from the sand. Clean the tire. Present the tire for inspection. Bury the tire. Sleep. Wake. Dig up the tire. And so on.
—This is getting you nowhere.
Galway says, “It is all over,/ little one/ the flipping/ and overleaping.”
“For God’s sake, man. The flipping and overleaping has just begun.”
“They keep just beginning. Here we are flipping. Here we are overleaping.”
—You’re angry at him? He’s not even him right now.
—I know? I know.
—And you’ve just avoided what we started. You had a direction, but now you’re skating right back to where you started, a trail of sparks betrays your aim.
That tire in the sand: we dug it up. The Senior Master Sergeant watched us. Or I believed he watched us because what else could he do. “Retrieve that tire, airmen,” he said. And we dropped to our knees and raked and clawed and tossed sand out of the pit. There’s a tire in this pit, buddy boys! It was true. We discovered the blackness beneath the moist Mississippi sand. We brushed the tire clean. We tugged it from the pit. “Clean it off, airmen,” the Senior Master Sergeant said. So we rolled it and smacked it and bounced it until it was sandless.
“It was ridiculous, Galway. I’m telling you.”
—He’s not listening. He can’t listen.
—I must talk to someone.
—He is. He’s talking to you.
“Galway,” I says. “Can you believe it? We dug up a tire just so we could bury it. That was part of our punishment in correctional custody. Then I piggy-backed this guy twice my size a couple miles. It was a ruck march, but the man was my rucksack: a blood-and-gut sack. When we arrived at our destination, he carried me back to where we’d come from. I was his blood-and-gut sack; that’s something you can appreciate.”
—He’ll talk if we give him a chance.
—This isn’t about him talking. This is about wheels. Losing a wheel. Finding a wheel. Being in a wheel. Wheeling along in a world of wheel-ness.
“I was a kicker, Galway. This was when I was twelve or so. We were late leaving for a football game. I wore my uniform: not the shoulder pads, of course; it would’ve been stupid to wear those. No one was going to hit me while I sat in the car. But before I could climb into the backseat, Dad reversed the Explorer, and he ran over my foot. Have you ever had your foot run over by an Explorer? It didn’t really hurt. Then, during the game, I kicked a thirty-yard field goal. Not bad for a kid whose foot just got run over. Have you ever felt invincible, Galway? Have you ever put a gun in your mouth to taste the barrel? No? Me neither, then.
—Come on. He’s not going anywhere because he’s not here. You can’t run away from a place you’ve never been.
—I’m not trying to argue with you. I just want him to talk back. I hate that I ask him a question, and he just says things I’ve heard him say a billion times.
“Galway. What do you think about gun control?”
“A love-note/ twisting under my tongue, like the coyote’s bark,/ curving off,/ into a howl.”
—What the fuck do I do with that?
—I think you’re asking the wrong questions.
—I asked about the gun in the mouth. The shotgun. Should I tell him it was unloaded. I put the bullets upstairs in the bedroom closet, and then I went to the basement to create a physical gulf between the weapon and its ammunition. Then I wedged a stainless steel pen between the trigger and the trigger-guard so that the weapon couldn’t fire. I made sure a hundred times that there was no bullet in the chamber: either of the chambers. There are two chambers, and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t accidentally load a shell and then convince myself that I hadn’t loaded it as some kind of self-sabotage. You never know when you’re fooling yourself with things like this.
—Things like what? Shooting yourself?
—Anything really. You look and see that the door is locked or you pat your pocket and you have your keys, but then you look at the lock again or you pat your pocket again and the door is still locked and your keys are still in your pocket.
“Galway. Have you ever lost your keys and then smashed something you loved because you believed you no longer deserved to have the thing that you loved most if you couldn’t even keep track of your fucking keys?”
—If you want him to say something, make him say something.
—Then I’d be lying. I don’t want to lie.
—And yet I think/ it must be the wound, the wound itself/ which lets us know and love.
—Now you’re doing it.
—What’s the point in pretending there’s a third person here?
—So you admit that you’re not me?
I am on the freeway and the wheel vibrates. I don’t stop. The wheel is loud, screaming. There are children and mothers and fathers in cars around me, but I drive on, letting the rattling happen until there is no more rattling, until it becomes grinding and skating and stopping. The wheel doesn’t stop, though; it bounds down the median, bounces out of sight. I kick my door open, run in my boots. Cars speed past. No one sounds a horn. It’s just me and my feet and the cold air I suck into my lungs. I need that wheel, or I’ll never make it home.
The wheel rests against the concrete divider, like someone had placed it there to make sure I didn’t lose it, to make sure it wasn’t damaged. I grab the wheel and hug it to my chest and run back to my truck, biceps and lungs on fire. I call a tow truck company and try to explain where I am. “In the middle of nowhere on a freeway between nowhere and nowhere.” He tells me he’ll have someone out to get me. I check the wheel; it seems fine. The rotor though, that silver disc has been smashed on one side and the studs the lug nuts had once screwed onto are missing.
“Sheared off,” is what the mechanic tells me after he’s examined the rotor. He chops one hand across the other to physically define shearing. “Sheared off, man.” He shakes his head.
“Thanks for sticking around to do this after you already did shit like this all day,” I say.
“All day every day.”
“It’s just work,” he says. And he’s right.
Galway wasn’t there to help with any of this. He was some place I’ve never been and may never be. It was just me in a place where the tow truck driver said, “Do you know where you are? People around here just don’t care anymore. They’ll fucking kill you for no reason.”
—It was Gary, Indiana. You can say that.
—Those mechanics fixed my truck and got me on my way in less than two hours. They were good guys.
—What are you trying to say?
—Gary doesn’t seem that bad to me.
—You were only there for two hours.
—I’ll always be safe there in those two hours.
—Lieutenant!/ This corpse will not stop burning!
—Is it necessary to continue that now that we’ve agreed this is not Galway?
—But that’s exactly how you read the line.
—Where does the corpse burn then?
—It burns all over.
—No. It burns inside.
Galway says, “The flames may burn the Oboe/ but listen buddy boy they can’t touch the notes.”
“So the music is what matters. Not the wheels?”
Galway, who isn’t here, who doesn’t wear a coat that doesn’t warm him in the cold rain that doesn’t fall, says nothing. He doesn’t snatch the stick that does not exist, that he didn’t throw in the not-puddle, and he doesn’t stoke the not-fire that doesn’t burn. His face is not illuminated by the not-flames that do not flicker. And still I want to ask him questions.
—It’s the wheels again, isn’t it?
—You can make him say something. You’re in control.
—Once the wheel starts to come loose, it must break free.
Sheared off, man. Completely. Where do I bolt the wheel when there’s nothing to bolt it to? The wheel wants to keep rolling; it rolls on. I skates into the median, stops there. Galway not beside I in the passenger seat doesn’t say, “He who crushed with his heel the brain out of the snake.” But I hears those words anyway. I says, “What kind of snake was it?” And Galway doesn’t smile and doesn’t laugh or sigh because he isn’t there. It’s just I in the truck, tons of weight leaned on a smashed rotor. I is calm because it’s too late to panic. “There are dead men in my wheels, Galway. Do you know what that feels like? Or,” I says, “Maybe it’s better to ask if you know what it sounds like.” He doesn’t respond. But I imagines Galway would smile about this: his nightmare book and our not-book of daymares. Years of not dreaming while asleep have forced us to dream while waked and those waking dreams have filled our wheels with dead men. “They don’t ever say anything other than what they’ve already said. So many words and voices at once that they melt and are recast as ragged corpses that go thump thump in my rolling wheel. If I drive fast enough, the vibration, the hum, it mixes with the zip of treads gripping pavement. How do you feel about that? Would you try and silence the thumping and rattling or would you listen for how it varied at different speeds, listen for what the hum meant?” He’ll never respond because this Galway is not-Galway, and the I who speaks with him is not-I. But if they could speak, I believe they’d both say that some days the hum of the wheel and the hum of the world must vibrate in unison. Other days the hums must grate against one another, or we might forget we’re really here. Turn it up or drown it out. Watch the wheel break off and bounce. Until the wheel is lost. Until our songs sing on without us.