24 January, 2009
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
It must be three a.m. by now, the hour when the darkness is darkest and the silence is most profound, the hour just before the turning back to the light.
Wilbo has built himself a little fire out of driftwood in the sand in front of his open cabin door. It has burned down to an ember, a pale, flickering radiance, like the tip of a cigarette, the smoke twisting up in a column to the dark skies. Wilbo sits on a driftwood log in front of the fire. It’s a perfect log for sitting. It has a straight smooth back and a precisely angled seat with just the right depth and height. There’s even a gnarly burl at one end for an arm rest. He found it down the beach in a cove, over a mile from here a few years ago and he dragged it all the way back, because he knew he had to have it. It took him several days. Now the wood is polished and smooth, like a piece of fine Danish furniture, not from any use of sandpaper or craftsman’s oils, but just from many, many nights of sitting.
Wilbo’s cabin is not really a cabin. It started out as a tool shed built by the park service back before most of the beaches went private and the park service was driven inland to the forested coastal hills. Now the cabin sits in an unclaimed cove between the two remaining stretches of public beachfront. It no longer resembles a tool shed.
One late night, a few summers ago, Doralina Steindl-Klas happened along the beach and found Wilbo sitting on his driftwood bench by his fire, pondering. This was shortly after he had found the bench. It was then she decided that Wilbo’s house must be transformed into something utterly new and numinous, to suit his character, she said. The very next day they set out, combing the beaches for suitable debris- driftwood and kelp and broken boat timbers and rusty old automobile parts. They knocked out all the planks from the tool shed, leaving only the framework and the two glass windows, and around this they built an entirely new and magical thing, without a single right angle to be seen. Part of one wall is a broken forklift pallet, covered in plaster and embedded with a mosaic of shells and beach glass. A third window has been added to the right of the door. This one is perfectly round, its frame being the rim of a bicycle wheel with hundreds of tiny colored rhinestones strung between the spokes on copper wires, like dewdrops in a spider’s orb. Colored glass bottles and pieces of beach glass are glued to the sills of the other two windows. The door itself is completely shingled on both sides with broken pieces of abalone shell. Above the door the flow of the house swirls to a focal point where a tie-died purple windsock hangs from a long forked limb. Sometimes in a storm, pieces of the house break off and disappear in the wind. It’s not a problem. Then Wilbo goes to find Doralina and they build something new.
Of course the time has passed and the act has changed. Tonight the house is nothing but a shapeless black form against the dark cliffs of the cove. The only light is the fading glow from the campfire where Wilbo sits and ponders.
Arno! Arno! Arno!.
Why do you torment me like this? Why do you torment me again like this? Will you always torment me? Will you always find some new way to torment me? I don’t like to think this thought, but it’s true: I almost liked it better when you were drinking. I almost had some peace. At least then you weren’t tormenting me.
But why am I thinking like this? Is there any truth to it? Is this really the way it is? Or am I just latching onto some dramatic device like I saw in a movie. Damn movies! I’ve seen too many goddam movies.
Arno, Arno, Arno, why do you torment me like this?
Like when you were a little kid and I was a big kid, and you wanted to play the piano, and Mrs. Buxom Bosoms broke your knuckle when she hit you with a ruler, or at least so you said she did, but you wouldn’t let mom take you to the doctor. I wanted to play the piano, Arno. But you told Uncle Allen, Wilbo plays the piano like he has two left feet! Ha! Ha! Very funny, Arno.
Do you remember the night we first got our names? I had just graduated. I was going to go off to college. That was before Dad went missing. And you were just a kid. Just a year of high school under your belt. All my friends were already gone for the summer, so I said hey Arnie, come out drinking with me. You were just a kid. We went out to Sunol, to the water temple, where the water from all the reservoirs comes together. It was a hot night. We were drinking that turkey stuff, wild turkey. We got so drunk we decided to change our names. We didn’t want to be Will and Arnie anymore. Wilbo and Arno! Wilbo and Arno! Later, you threw up in the car; it was Dad’s car, the one he took when he left. I remember I tucked you in that night, so Mom wouldn’t know, then I went out and cleaned the car. I don’t think I ever got all the smell out of that car. But the names stuck. Maybe not with everyone, but they stuck.
Wilbo halts the flow of his pondering for a moment to mouth the names silently: Wilbo, Arno, Wilbo, Arno. He doesn’t want to think the next thought, but he knows he will. He has before.
That was the first time you ever drank. You were just a kid.
After he thinks the thought he gets up and stirs the fire. He tosses a little wood into it. He steps around to the other side of the fire and watches the waves for awhile without thinking anything, just feeling the night air on his skin. He crosses the fire and sits back on the bench.
Then dad disappeared, and I changed my mind about college. I got the job at the movie theater. All those movies. So many movies! And I started reading the books. Nostradamus. Edgar Cayce, the Book of Revelations, the Mayan prophecies. It became more and more clear to me. There wasn’t going to be a future. It started with the bomb. Why do anything at all, if there isn’t going to be a future? Mom was worried sick about me.
You never knew I went looking for Dad. For about a year or so. On the weekends. In the bars and the museums. Once I tried hitchhiking to Nevada, to the test site. But I never got out of Sacramento. I knew who some of his friends were, the ones he didn’t share with Mom. But they didn’t trust me. They wouldn’t talk to me. My hair was getting long. I lost interest in trying to find Dad. What’s the point? There wasn’t going to be a future anyhow. Not a recognizable future, anyhow.
And you had your friends that you drank with and I had mine. We never drank together again, after that night we changed our names. You had your career path. You believed in the future. You were going to go off to college and become a concert pianist. What were you thinking, Arno? You got it all wrong. Your head was in the wrong place. None of this would have happened if your head had of been in the right place. You should have cared about Dad. You shouldn’t have cared about the future. There wasn’t going to be a future! You should have cared about Dad. It’s a code of ethics, Arno. You have to have a code of ethics. It starts with caring about others. Deeply. You should have cared about Dad!
Wilbo clamps his words to a halt and lets his thoughts spin out like a wheel, disengaged from its thrust, spinning freely but slowly losing momentum.
Foolish thoughts! Shouldn’t think these foolish thoughts. Stop them at once!
The sounds of the night gradually fill in as the stillness in his mind accumulates. There’s the sound of the breakers, always there, easy to forget about, but quickly returning whenever you tune back in. It’s like breathing-rhythmic, yet varied, and there are other, subtler rhythms hidden in the variation, like the myth of the seventh wave, or at least Carl says it’s a myth. He read it somewhere in a book. But Wilbo knows there are other, subtler rhythms, even if they don’t come in sevens. He’s heard them, he’s counted them, on many a long pondering night. And there are other sounds as well, hiding in the breakers. The waves drown them out so you can’t really tell what they are. They sound like little clicks and booms, like pebbles or logs are being washed up on the shore somewhere. And there are cries and whispers- voices, maybe human, maybe animal, maybe neither. You can’t really hear them; they’re hidden in the crash and the tinkle of the surf. Many nights, many nights, countless nights, it takes to learn these things.
Foolish thoughts. I will not think them.
Presently a small flock of gulls passes along the length of the beach, from north to south. Their cries are arrhythmic and scattered. They don’t have the precision of a soaring formation of geese or blackbirds. Each gull seems to be lost in a thought of its own.
And then you married Eleanor. You didn’t have to marry Eleanor! I could have married Eleanor. We were going to go to college. You talked me into it. San Francisco State. You said, come on, Wilbo, come to college with me. We’ll get an apartment together. We’ll have fun. Then that summer you turned around and married Eleanor, out of the blue. That was the weirdest six months of my life, living in that apartment with you and Eleanor. Why did you marry Eleanor? What good did it do for her? What did she get out of it? Two sickly kids and a drunk husband who hits her with the leg of a chair!
Arno! Arno! You should never have started to drink. I take it all back. You tormented me then, too, when you were drinking. I just didn’t think about it all that much. When I thought about it, it was like oh man, my brother, my own brother, I can’t think about this. And so I didn’t think about it much.
Except I remember that one time, you were flying away on that airplane, you hadn’t been drinking for a month and you were going back to New York for that big audition. Of course Eleanor was gone then. She was out of the picture. But there we were. We were all seeing you off- mom was there, she was smiling and smiling. Everybody was happy, things were looking up, things were going to turn out after all…
Oh, Arno, Arno! Why do you torment me? It’s more like I’m your father than your brother! I feel like I’m your father and you’re just a little kid. Like I could just pick you up and rock you in my arms…
Wilbo is surprised by the power of this image, by the way the glow of the fire blurs in his tears. He has to stop his thoughts again just to feel the feeling, just to let it pass over him in waves. Sometimes this happens when he ponders. It’s not that unusual to be overtaken by emotion. Especially if you’re a person with a code of ethics. A person who cares deeply for others. And not just yourself.
The gulls vanish in the distance. The breakers continue. A pale boatlight blinks twice on the horizon.
So now what, Arno? What’s this all about? What am I supposed to do with this? Is this for real? Are you really saved, like a shipwrecked sailor? Saved? Well, I’m glad for you then, if this is real. Of course I want it to be real. I want you to get better. I care for you. But I hold my judgment. It’s only been one day. There were other times as well, when we thought you’d found a way out of your predicament. That whole New York thing- the big audition. And there were other times besides that. I just have to hold my judgment about this one, Arno. We’ll wait and see.
I suppose it’s possible. Maybe religion is the answer, at least for you. And we do have some history in that department. There was that time, Mom went through her religious phase, and she took us to that Sunday school where Mrs.Beehive gave us all those jelly beans. You were probably about five years old. Those were actually happy times, even if the religion was weird. Things were going pretty well, dad was making money, we were living in a house. Maybe all those religious ideas got hooked up with happy memories, and that’s why they resonate for you now. It’s a subconscious thing. And there was that picture on the wall of the classroom, that one with Jesus, standing on the waves, pulling that shipwrecked sailor out of the water. Maybe that image just works for you. Saved. Like a shipwrecked sailor. Saved.
Well, that’s fine, that’s good. If it works, it works. Like William James. Pragmatism. I want you to get better. I care for you. Deeply. But why this? How could it possibly help you for me to stop drinking? It’s something I enjoy. It’s not a problem. I have control over it. Besides, it’s not just drinking- it’s the whole thing. It’s the Dogfish, and all my friends. It’s those long nights with Carl, wrestling with philosophical questions over a glass of deep red merlot. It’s sitting by this fire on a warm summer night, watching the Perseid meteor shower over the ocean with a glass of Old Bushmills on ice, waiting for the glow. These are simple pleasures, Arno, and they’re harmless. They’re part of what I am. Why should I give them up, just so you can be saved?
It’s weird then, what happens. It’s almost like in a movie- damn movies! Wilbo hears a voice in his head, clear and audible, just barging right into his head, drowning out his thoughts. Arno’s voice. Arno’s very words:
Listen to yourself, Wilbo. Listen to the excuses you’re making. How can you say you don’t have a drinking problem when you have to make so many excuses? First you say I’m your brother, I’ll do anything to support you. But then in the next breath you say, but I won’t give up drinking! Wilbo, I would call that a drinking problem.
These words are horrible and irresistible. They’re horrible because he can’t think of any defense against them. Surely they are not true. If they were true there would be no reasonably-minded person anywhere in the world, sitting in a pub like the Dogfish, haggling over philosophical questions, or getting up to dance a jig or breaking out into the eerie strains of an Appalachian folk song. These words seem to invalidate all the human goodness he has ever known. And yet there’s no defense against them. There’s no way he can use them to spin off onto another round of pondering. And where is that at, if you can’t ponder? What good is it for there to be a fire, an ocean, a sky full of stars, a bench worn smooth with sitting, if you can’t sit on that bench by that fire, under those stars, listening to that ocean, and ponder?
So you see, Arno? That’s why you can’t make this demand on me. It’s a question that has no answer. If I answer yes, it’s the wrong answer. If I answer no, it’s the wrong answer. It’s a trick question. It’s like one of those Zen koans.
Maybe that’s what it is. A Zen koan. Maybe you’re being used as a pure instrument in order for me to realize something- a truth that lies beyond paradox, something that’s both/and and not either/or. It’s neither either/or nor neither/nor. Even your Jesus said something about the peace that passeth understanding. I think it was Jesus. Some Christian guy, anyhow. That’s what I’m looking for. The peace that passeth understanding. I don’t have to answer yes or no to your request. It’s not a yes or no question. I just have to live in the moment. Like Ram Das says, Be here now…
In the here and now, Wilbo remembers something. It comes to him first as a vague shape, then he can feel the shape of it in his hands, then there’s a sound, a full-throated popping sound, releasing a rich, mind-drenching aroma. Ah, yes! It’s a bottle of Almaden Tawny Port, half-full, inside the house, under the bed. A gift from someone, now he can’t remember who, it’s been waiting there patiently for just the right moment.
He allows this pleasant thought to saturate his consciousness, but he remains seated on the bench by the fire. Of course this is a trick, he tells himself. He won’t be fooled that easily. He isn’t a slave to pleasure. The memory and the promise of pleasure is pleasure enough to the man who is fully immersed in his life. The pleasure itself can wait. Right now there is work to be done.
But even so, he thinks about it for a little longer. Then he gets up from the bench and goes into the house. He explores under the bed in the dark with his hands, like a blind man trying to understand the face of a woman with his fingertips. He locates the bottle, but he does not move it. He does not even roll it over to expose the label. He caresses its curves briefly and releases. He returns to the bench.
There, see that, Arno! I don’t have a drinking problem. I can take it or leave it. You’re the one with a drinking problem, Arno. It’s OK, I’m not making a value judgment here. I have other problems. I just don’t have a drinking problem, that’s all. I can take it or leave it. You’re the one who has to leave it. Don’t feel bad about that. It’s just your karma. It’s not your fault. It’s a good thing. It’s an opportunity for you to do some real growth. I envy you, in a way…
This new train of thought seems to calm Wilbo’s nerves, somewhat. It frees him up, so to speak. It untangles a few of the knots. Besides, he realizes that he is nearing the point in the pondering where he needs to seek some closure. Not final answers, just closure. It’s a point he reaches in all his ponderings. The hour is late. Sleep is a requirement. The good work done in a session of pondering will not be lost in the oblivion of sleep. It carries on over into the dreamworld like a passenger on a ferry. And for your boatman choose old John of Dreams. In the dreamworld the fruit of pondering is transformed into something liquid that diffuses out through all the limbs of the body and the mind.
He rises stiffly from the bench and stretches. He kicks the fire with his boot and spreads the last of the embers thinly over the sand. A flurry of sparks rises and disappears into the sky, to join the stars, perhaps.
Well, I’m glad for you Arno, if this is real. I want it to be real. I want you to get better, Arno. I’ll do everything I can to help you get better. I care about you. I care about you deeply. Just remember it’s a big world, and an even bigger universe. The truth is huge, Arno. It’s so goddam huge…
He grunts and coughs and rubs his hands together. There are a few necessary rituals he must go through before he can sleep. In the house, on a shelf just inside the door sits a stoneware crock with a metal spout at the base. Wilbo draws water from the spout into a mug. His toothbrush and toothpaste are propped up in a flowered blue glass tumbler. He steps outside and brushes his teeth for a long time, humming little snatches of melody as he brushes. He spits into the sand. Then he goes back inside and takes off all his clothes, folding each item carefully, even his socks, and laying them over the rods of an ornamental iron trellis that reaches all the way from the floor to the ceiling at the foot of his bed.
Completely naked then, he steps out of the house into the bracing night air. This is something he does every night. When did he start doing this? He remembers the night. It was the first night after the house had been finished, after he and Doralina had rebuilt it out of things from the sea. Now it’s always late when he does it. There’s never anyone around. Naked, he walks out onto the beach until he first feels between his toes the sensation of wet sand, the event horizon on the shore where the waves last touched. Of course this place is different every night, depending on where he is in the cycle of the tides. He stops here. Facing the waves and the west he raises his arms high above his head while inhaling, then releases them slowly as the air falls out of his body.
He turns to the north and faces down the wild and rugged northern beach where the double arched rock sits offshore and the cliffs swoop up tall and jagged from the ocean. Tonight the bald dome of Saint Brendan’s Head is cloaked in fog. Again he completes the exercise, raising his arms on the inbreath and dropping them on the out.
He turns to the east and faces the mountains, rising and rolling up from the sea, dressed in pointed pines and stately redwoods with wide swatches of clearcut edged with the black silhouettes of bare snags, all of it washed tonight in rivers of fog, flowing down the contours of gullies and canyons like soft cream poured out of a giant pitcher. He makes the gesture, arms rising and falling.
He turns to the south, the civilized stretch of the beach, curving along the line of the bay, where the houses and stores and factories and motels all nestle together. From here he can’t see any of the lights, only an orange glow above the dunes. In the daytime these dunes are teeming with dune buggies, tearing up the sand and filling the air with dust and sound. In the night the tracks mysteriously disappear, the virginity of the sand continuously restored. Wilbo honors the south with his rise and fall.
He turns back to the west and faces the ocean once more. He makes a small bow. Soon, the red tide, he thinks to himself. Dinoflagellates. Not every year but some years they bloom in such profusion that the bioluminescence kicks in and the waves burst into bright light when they break- a magical sight to behold. Maybe this year. Already, when he kicks the wet sand bright little points of light appear and fade.
He walks out to where the waves lick his feet. There he urinates into the ocean. This is not part of the ritual but it is something he does every night. His body requires it.
He returns to his house, climbs into his bed and wraps himself like a burrito in the blanket. His bed is a narrow bunk, built into the wall; his mattress a thin cotton futon. His blanket is a large multi-colored quilt in a classic style known as the double nine patch. It’s stained and worn threadbare in places but the design still shows through. It was made for him fifteen years ago by his mother, the year his father disappeared.
There’s no yes or no answer, Arno. That’s because it isn’t a yes or no question. It’s just a big question mark, that’s all. A big question mark, hanging in the sky. We’ll see what happens.
We’ll just wait and see what happens.
His last thought before he sleeps is a memory: a memory of a sensation, a sensation of softness and smoothness, his hand, pressed by her hand, against the young skin of her chest, just above the plunge of the neckline of her sleek black dress.