A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 7

I walked away from the shop feeling grateful, miserable, lonely, bored, and rotten. Thanks to the traffic on Water Street, which was increasing now as the afternoon wore on, a hot, smelly wind whipped along the sidewalk. Discarded gum wrappers, pieces of paper, and other bits of trash collected against the buildings and swirled around my feet. The upper windows of the offices on the opposite side of the street caught the sun and glared down with malice. At that moment, I felt I�d been banished from a distant galaxy to live the rest of my life in a desolate, urban ugliness, and doomed to sit at a computer and then to run around doing niggling chores for the planet�s most narrow-minded, self-absorbed inhabitants. A kind of typesetter�s purgatory, if you will. The worst of it was, I couldn�t remember my former life, or anything about the planet from which I�d come. It was reasonable to believe that I�d been given mind-altering drugs, shoved into a stainless steel canister shaped like an oversized enema, and put onboard a ship capable of traveling the speed of light. That was the only logical explanation I could come up with for being where I was and for doing what I was doing. It was either that, or believe I really am a typesetter. And that was something I refused � and still refuse � to do.

It took me at least half an hour to walk the four blocks back to my car. When I opened the door, I was greeted with a blast of stale heat. I gingerly touched the steering wheel, and in so doing nearly lost some skin. Owing to an errant toss, my folder landed on the edge of the passenger seat and fell to the floor, opening in the process and allowing the letterhead to slide out onto the mat. I sat down in the hot vinyl driver�s seat and leaned over to pick up the mess. I succeeded in brushing most of the grit away. A few grains were imbedded. These required the use of a fingernail, and left behind tiny pock marks. I put the letterhead back in the folder, and put the folder on the seat. I rolled down the windows and started the car.

Half a block to the west is the river. From the parking lot, through a gap between some old brick buildings, I could see several cottonwood trees, the silvery undersides of their leaves fluttering in the breeze. It was like gazing into another world � a world that was carefree and serene. I shut off the engine and closed the windows again, this time leaving about an inch of space at the top for air to pass through. I locked the car and walked back to Morgan�s Ferry, which is the nearest cross street, and followed it down past some old warehouses to the railroad tracks that run on the last high ground overlooking the river. Keeping to the tracks, I ambled south until I came to a narrow dirt path leading down to the water. I took the path without thinking, more or less as a matter of reflex.

I found the entire area strewn with trash � liquor bottles, beer cans, papers, cigarette butts, fly-covered clumps of used toilet paper. Embarrassed, the landscape has put forth a profusion of Queen Anne�s lace, trying its best to cover the mess. In some places the weeds are choked out by blackberry bushes and wild broom, creating dens and hiding places for small indigenous creatures still trying to go about their business. I also noticed several tiny camp sites � nothing more than dirt nests, really � where there have been small fires, started by people with nowhere else to go at night.

About half a mile to the north, I could see the massive concrete bridge that crosses the river, connecting the east and west parts of the city. The bridge was heavy with traffic. The west side occupies a large, hilly area dense with trees, and a low-lying flat area that still floods during extremely wet years. Compared to the downtown business section across the water, it looked like a casual relative who had come for a visit and then stayed.

Closer to the water, I could hear the wind in the leaves. Protected by the shade of the cottonwoods and sustained by the river�s moisture, the plant life was varied and greener. It was like changing neighborhoods. The smell of the river itself, and of the permanently wet shoreline, was heavenly, and it had the same primitive appeal as fire.

I sat on a rock in the shade, not far from the water�s edge. Three small boats were out, each carrying but one person. Two were floating with the current. The other, by means of an uneven-sounding outboard motor, was traveling slowly upstream. The captain of this boat was an older man, wearing a long-sleeved green work shirt and a simple gray cap. Being closer than the others, he saw me and waved. I waved back.

Coming when it did, his simple gesture seemed nothing short of a miracle. More so, I think, than if he�d stopped his motor, stood up, and, with outstretched arms, walked toward me across the water. The man waving was a private miracle � a small accident entirely unsuitable for grand or religious purposes, and therefore something to be treasured. The kind of miracle that rarely happens, because so many unrelated elements must be receptively aligned. The kind of miracle that proves there are no unrelated elements, and that all things are subtly and delicately intertwined. The kind of miracle that in fact does happen all the time, but goes unnoticed and unappreciated. Weeds, soil, ash, roads, insects, buildings, sky, young women with cell phones, old men with cigars, waterfalls, hands reaching out, the sun, peaches hanging ripe on a tree, a first kiss, the hush of mortality, mothers expecting their first child, sorrow and joy, the thrill of discovery, the mysterious past wound as tightly as a ball of string, fresh-baked bread, confetti, a dead man�s shoes, leaves found in a park, a child�s first birthday. The kind of miracle that makes life what it is � a painful, sweet, maddening, befuddling journey. The kind of miracle that says, Listen.

I watched as the man motored away. First it seemed he was barely moving, but within a few minutes he had reached a brushy little island not far from where the river makes a turn and cuts into the flank of the city on the eastern shore. Soon thereafter, he disappeared. If I had wanted, I could have climbed back up to the railroad tracks and followed him. Upstream, there are a number of old houses tucked in amongst the trees and brambles, overlooking the river. No doubt he lives in one of them. But the calmness of the river prevailed, as well as a sense of privacy.

A while later I realized I was hungry � too hungry. When I stood up, I was lightheaded. A dizzy, tingling sensation began at my eyebrows and moved back over my scalp, all the way to my collar. For a few seconds I felt cold � enough so that the hair on my arms puffed out. It was obvious that if I didn�t get something into my stomach soon, I would collapse in a heap somewhere.

Without hurrying, I made my way up to the railroad tracks, then wandered back to the car. I didn�t meet anyone. I didn�t want to, either � which is sad, now that I think about it. I remember my father telling me how as a kid he had walked on the railroad tracks from Norris to the neighboring town of Freewater, a distance of about eight miles. He saw several people. All of them were strangers, and none bore him any malice. Drifters. Men who were hungry, in search of food, in search of jobs they knew weren�t there. In Freewater, he sat down in the shade in front of the hardware store, or some similar type of place. While he was resting a dog came up, sniffed at his pant-legs and shoes, then sat down at his feet. My father rubbed the dog�s head. Of course nowadays one is just as likely to get clobbered. So I�m sure fear played a part. And that�s the price we pay. The more we are afraid, the more steps we take to protect ourselves and to avoid harm, the more suspicious and isolated we become.

My car was still hot, but not as hot as it had been, thanks to leaving the windows partly open. I started the engine and rejoined the traffic on Water Street heading north. I turned right on Mason, turned left and passed the bank again, then finally picked up the Parkway where it begins near the Buick dealership that a few years ago displaced an old brick hotel that no one was interested in saving. The hotel wasn�t much, but it was a lot easier to look at than the parking lot decorated with balloons and flags that�s there now.

On my way home I passed several restaurants, but I couldn�t bring myself to stop at any of them. It was partly because of the expense, but mostly I just wanted to avoid the circus of having to read a menu, order, and wait when what I really needed was to eat. And fast food wasn�t an option, because for years now I haven�t been able to eat that stuff without my digestive tract going into revolt. Finally, though, I hit on an idea: I stopped at the grocery store. I bought a loaf of sourdough, a good-sized lump of sharp cheddar cheese, some ham, a small jar of green olives, and a cucumber. To have in the car, I bought a big bag of corn chips, which were almost as salty as Ernie Taylor�s peanuts. The whole thing set me back sixteen dollars and four cents, but it was worth it, because I had enough food left for another three or four meals. After that, I didn�t care. Thanks to my clever financial system, a little money was bound to come in. Then I could make an official grocery-buying trip and stock up for three or four days. If it didn�t, I would shift to Plan B, which calls for dipping into the money I have saved for rent. In fact, this is exactly what I�d done when I took twenty dollars out at the ATM � proof that the system works.

As soon as I got home, I washed my hands and made an enormous sandwich. I opened the olives, but didn�t slice any of the cucumber, as impatience won out over a balanced diet. In fact, I was so excited that I took my first bite before I had complete control of the sandwich. Luckily, instinct took over. Sensing the danger, I gripped the sourdough. After a brief struggle, my prey submitted to its fate. I ate then as I believe humankind is meant to eat � with complete, absolute attention. If only we could live that way � participating in the moment with all our senses � aware of everything, demanding nothing, keeping nothing in reserve � surrendering ourselves completely to life on its most basic, glorious level.

Not a crumb was wasted. I ate five olives and another handful of chips. Then I washed my hands again and drank three large glasses of water. Amazed, delighted, and satisfied, I went back out to the car to get my folder. Within thirty minutes I had the letterhead set up with the necessary changes, printed out, and ready to deliver. As I made out the bill, the ease and simplicity of the arrangement made me think it might even be worthwhile to try to expand my business. On a small scrap of paper, I quickly did the math � so many hours at such and such a rate, etc., etc., etc., would result in so much per month, etc., etc. I was going along fine until I remembered who would be doing the work, and who would be putting up with the increased demands of printers and their customers, and who would be expected to meet their unrealistic deadlines, and who, all the while, would have to pretend to be interested. And so I put down my pen, turned off my calculator, and crumpled up the piece of paper. Then I tossed all three into the cardboard box I use as a wastebasket. A few minutes later, I took out the pen and the calculator. But I left the paper, and that�s what counts.

To many, this will seem childish. To many, the whole way I go about my life will have them thinking I am lazy and irresponsible. And of course they can think whatever they want. But they shouldn�t fault me for trying to find a better, more meaningful way to live. True, I stumble, I contradict myself time and again, and I eat peanuts at three in the morning. I live in a place I hate, I drive a beat-up car, and I don�t go to parties. But at least I admit that I�m miserable. I don�t distract myself by pursuing ever-more-complicated needs, wants, and desires in order to keep from facing the truth. I don�t join clubs, I�m not in therapy, and I don�t read self-help books. Life is tough enough as it is. I don�t want to dig myself in any deeper. Dig far enough, and at some point you�re stuck � permanently. I don�t want to be stuck. I want to live. I don�t believe the secret lies in having more and doing more and being more. Just the opposite � if there is a secret at all � if the answer is not so simple that it is already there, staring me in the face. I don�t want to die saying, �Oh, I see it all now! What on earth was I doing?� If avoiding that fate requires failing along the way, then so be it. If it requires wondering where my next meal is coming from on occasion, so be it. I�m not a consumer. I�m a human being. To me, finding out what that means is far more interesting than wondering which celebrities are sleeping together. And if it turns out that I�m wrong, or crazy, or misguided, or stupid, or blind, then that�s my problem and I�m the one who will have to live with it.

That evening, I made another attempt at reading The Unnamable. After going over two or three pages I�d already read, I finally found the place where I�d left off. Unfortunately, I was too tired to concentrate for very long, which made it difficult to understand what was happening. There was something about the narrator�s head being kept in a container, and the container being partially buried alongside a street near the home of a mysterious, not altogether trustworthy woman, who for some unknown reason had taken it upon herself to look after the head, and to keep the area lit at night so people would know it was there. All of this was related by the narrator in a pleasantly detached yet absorbed way that made him sound impressed and bored at the same time. Other than the obvious difference in circumstances, the familiarity of his predicament was striking. Like me, Mr. Beckett�s talking head was hoping for deliverance, always in search of a clue, and painfully aware of the many he had already missed. If anything, the few pages I read � before my full stomach completely undermined my focus � helped me recognize the unreliable nature of thought. What seems to make perfect sense is often only a mirage � a construction of the mind intended to settle matters and return us to a state of well-being � a state which, despite its lack of foundation, temporarily passes for security. The trouble is, we make decisions based on this inaccurate process. Not only that, we expect the decisions to be binding, and to ensure the fulfillment of our desires. This inevitably leads to disappointment and conflict, because the world is always changing, and doesn�t care a fig about our desires. Simply put, there is a major gulf between what really is and what we think. Of course the quick answer to that is, �Sorry, pal, this is all we have to work with.� But is thinking the only tool at our disposal? Might there not be something else? Ask that question, and thought grinds to a halt. For all its power and wonder, thought is unable to solve itself. When it tries, it falls silent � until we are distracted � and then it pounces, like a cat that waits and waits without moving until the bird it is watching forgets it is there.

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Also by William Michaelian: Winter Poems and Another Song I Know

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