The Good Guy Dies
It is a funeral and everybody is there but you don’t know anyone .You should know someone but you don’t and who is dead is not clear. The time of the funeral is not clear. Neither is the place. It is No Place. No Place, Louisiana, you think. Have you been there? No? You have not missed much. The town seems made of cardboard; even the brick houses remind you of cardboard; and the trees look dead but they are flourishing, flowering, and giving you hay fever. Lawns are trimmed but trees are not and everything in the place is covered by dust like glass dust that results from sanding glass with a water-irrigated sanding belt. You remember the place. But the butterflies are gone. They should be everywhere but they are gone. So are the birds. At least it seems so. You know you have been there before but there were red-winged blackbirds and you have been there all day and have not seen one. Not a cardinal either. It is spring, or summer. Anyway, it is not snowing. It might not even be Louisiana. You are not sure where it is. It doesn’t matter. It is a place; just a place.You are trying to sleep but your bedroom seems like a tunnel. You can hear someone talking. It is your aunt’s husband. You have never heard him talking so much. He talks on and on and he seems reasonable, as if he is explaining something to someone. No one else is speaking but him. He is speaking in someplace like another bedroom at the other end of the tunnel. You know it is him by his voice and his voice is always pleasant and patient. He is tolerant but in his own way cruel. You cannot make out what he is saying.
For it to be a place there must be people to perceive it as one. But there are no people. You sense their presence but you cannot see them. You can hear your uncle-by-marriage, the one you tried to like but never liked much, talking. It is strange, because he almost never talks. But you remember his voice. It is an educated voice. A calm, subtly patronizing voice, but not unkind. He was never unkind but he was intellectually cruel; and he would allow you to be beaten by his drunken wife. He gave an impression of extreme gentleness because he was a big man who wore glasses and was strong and competent like a chiropractor who has been at it for many years. But he is materialistic and cruel. He hurts people in order to put their bones in the proper positions.
There is a closet that you remember because there are wooden coat hangers that you appropriated from someone else only to return those years later unasked. You recognize them but they are jammed among clothing that you don’t recognize, so it is not your closet any more than they were your coat hangers, which alone hold no clothing at all and that is strange because the other clothing looks heavy, like winter coats and foul weather gear, and it hangs on wire coat hangers. But someone stole the foul weather gear that you bought in Canada, so it is not your closet, and you gave away all of your clothing several times. Not your closet at all, but definitely they are the coat hangers that you had appropriated from a friend who wanted you to help paint his house. You returned them but there they are again. You can see nothing else, and only sense the presence of the tunnel.
He is talking and talking. He sounds so reasonable. He is different somehow. You are not different. You are the same. You are living in an incomprehensible mystery that no one will explain. No one cares to explain. Suddenly you realize that you are sleeping but awake. You can hear people in the house, but it is dark and you don’t know what house it is. Is there a window? You open your eyes and look but it is dark, dark; except for the closet and a tunnel that you can vaguely sense but not see. The voice comes from the tunnel.He talks on and on. No one answers. It is only him, talking. You cannot make out all the words but they sound reasonable; logical. But he was always logical so that is how you know it is him.
It is now morning and you are driving a car. You are hungry and that is strange because you are almost never hungry. You are alone and that is not strange because you always are alone. The street is small but suddenly it opens to one as wide as Kremlin Square. There are other cars but not many. You look over and see your mother’s brother, your uncle by blood; he is driving a car to the right of your own and there are other people in it but you cannot tell who they are. They are shapes. But it is your uncle all right; the one who suddenly cut off relations with you because you took the side of the Serbians against Bill Clinton and the lying, bullying government. You did not like Bill Clinton because he was a southerner and you never met a southerner that was not a liar. You are not a southerner although you were raised there. You never felt like one of them. But you are a liar too.
They did not like you, and you did not like them either. But it is the South all right. The weather says so because it is humid and hot. And now it is day and you are driving but no one has explained who the funeral is for and there is no one to ask, because no one is really there. Is it a dream? You don’t know. It seems real. Dreams seem real, more real than waking, and you prefer dreaming to being awake. All other life seems phony and insubstantial. Only dreams seem real. But this is a strange dream. Well, they all are strange; strange, perhaps, because they are real.It must be Louisiana because the butterflies and red-winged blackbirds all are gone. You don’t know where they went. You know that the chemical and oil businesses killed them off while people built houses and factories in their habitats; but you have no evidence except the absence of blackbirds and butterflies amid the Los Angeles of oil and chemical refinery stacks and lights. Nobody else seems to notice their absence; perhaps they did not notice when they were there, so their absence is not unusual. But you had always noticed them because they were beautiful. Everything there was beautiful except the people. All the people are ugly and misshapen. You cannot see yourself but you know that you are the same. You look good on the outside but on the inside you know that you are ugly too because you want to kill a dog. Not just any dog, but two dogs in particular. You want to kill them.
You shout hello to your uncle while you are driving. He waves and moves to the right away from you in the big square. You shout that it is legal to carry a knife in Mexico. He says, “Is that right?” You start to explain that you need a knife because of the dogs that bite strangers and you are always a stranger. Dogs have bitten you because you are old and they think that you cannot fight back. You tell him you want a Bowie knife to strap to your leg because you know you can fight them off with a knife. When the biting starts you are surprised, frightened, shouting, and looking for a rock, forgetting that you have fists. You could have hit this last one hard enough to hurt. You want to explain all this but he does not slow down.He does not hear you and suddenly his car is gone, lost in the traffic. You race ahead looking for him but he is gone. Finally, you park at what might be a restaurant. But the front has been torn apart and is being rebuilt. You get out of the car and shake a wall that has not been properly nailed. It should not shake but it does. You don’t care. You find a door and walk inside. It is dark and smoky. There are empty booths and tables. At the end of the room is another room and you walk and look down a passage and realize that the restaurant is closed but the bar is open. People are in the bar, but they are only shapes. Silhouettes.
You don’t want to be in a bar but there you are. Someone is talking about an execution. Someone is to be beheaded but you don’t know who or why. The conversation is between others and you are only listening. They are talking about the proper way to remove a living head from its body. It seems that an axe is not sufficient. It must be cleaner and more complicated than that. You start to mention that a guillotine works fine, but no one hears you. Besides, a guillotine is difficult to construct.The conversation seems ridiculous. It would be so much easier to use a sharp machete. Any strong man could chop off a head with one blow from a machete if he knew what he was doing. But someone wants to use a chain saw instead. You don’t understand. You cannot make out what the crime was, or why a head must be removed to pay for it. You want to point out that a chain saw would be bloody and messy. Blood would fly everywhere. Tissue would fly all over the place; flesh, veins, muscles, lymph nodes, blood. It should be obvious to them but since they are stupid it is not.
They would like the blood and flying bits of flesh. They might even eat and swallow it. Finally you tell them outright that all one needs to do is lay the prisoner’s head on a block of wood as big as the neck, so that the neck is flat and to chop it off with one blow of a sharp machete, like slicing a coconut. No human spine can resist the blow of a machete if the executioner were strong enough. But they do not acknowledge your remark.
Whack! Goodbye head, you tell them. No one listens. It is as if you are talking to an empty room. They cannot see you sitting at the bar alongside of them. You want to eat breakfast but there is no bartender or anyone else to order from, and you still are not sure that it is a restaurant. It seemed like a restaurant, but in Louisiana nothing is what it seems. The only thing clear from the conversation is that they want to torture the prisoner as he is being killed.But where is the funeral, and who is dead, and who invited you? You don’t know but you showed up. It is strange because you almost never attend funerals. When someone dies you seldom offer condolences. It seems meaningless. Another useless ritual. You keep their phone numbers in your book only so that you will remember them now and then. But they are dead and gone and condolences help no one except the sentimental. You are not sentimental. You despise sentimentality worse than Lenin did. You have contempt for the sentimental. You have been to only three funerals in your life: your grandfather’s, your mother’s, and your best friend’s funerals. You missed your grandmother’s funeral because no one knew where you were. It was a good thing to miss because it would have broken you.
You cannot allow yourself to break apart because you would shatter and never reassemble. You are fragile. You hold yourself together with great effort. You look strong but you are made of fine crystal.
The voice goes on and on.
Suddenly you realize that you are dead and perhaps your head has been chopped off.
You don’t know why they killed you. You don’t remember your crime. Perhaps it was a thought that you had had. You don’t know. Or perhaps for something you did or did not do. You don’t remember hurting anyone, except perhaps in their pride; perhaps you punctured their conceit. And you abandoned your wife and child. You have insulted many because sometimes you cannot keep your mouth shut. There is a rage inside you that you can hide most of the time but not quench. But you are dead all right. You wonder if you are in a coffin. You don’t know. But there is a tunnel, and you can hear your detested uncle-by-marriage talking and talking. Sometimes a woman’s voice says only your name.“Mike.”
Once at an empty crossroads in Wyoming where you stood for hours waiting for a ride you heard your stepfather whisper in the wind: “Michael.”
Then you wake up finally and realize you are in the same room as this morning when you collapsed at dawn, exhausted from writing and streaming movies; a room empty of other people, with two tables, two beds, two nightstands, a few books, a laptop that craps out every day in one way or another, a coffee machine, and a large window that you never open for ventilation because no one bothered to put a screen on it, and when you open it flies enter immediately, and you hate flies.Before they killed you they tortured you. You tortured them back. It made you feel worse. It did not relieve the pain. It does not work. The pain persists. You feel ungenerous ungrateful and unworthy. You did not want it to be this way when you started. You had hopes. You wanted to be a good man. Your grandmother taught you. You tried. You failed but you don’t feel like a bad man. You don’t know why you are here. You don’t know why you stay. It all seems pointless. You excelled in nothing. You deserve nothing.
You wait alone. Now and then you go to a store for food. Twice a month you go to a bigger town for pain medicine. Sometimes you go to a fancier town and drink beer or wine, smoke cigarettes, and do other things. You sit at a bar that opens late and talk sometimes with the woman who owns it. There is not much time to talk because it gets busy. You watch them play pool and kiss and laugh and hug and jump up and down to the music. Sometimes you keep time with your feet or your whole body. But you don’t much like the music. They never play Dylan.You look at the ocean and stars at night and don’t wonder anymore. You watch sunrise. You go home, take a Valium, and sleep, hoping to dream.
You wonder if you have a persecution complex. But no, all that really happened. And despite all, you still trust some of the sentimental, idolizing sons-of-bitches.You wait.
You wait for them to chop off your head.