21 February, 2009
copyright 209 by Jim nail
It doesn’t lead him where he thought it would.
He thought it would lead him to the heart of town, a place he’s been a few times before but only because he had to, the bustling center of commerce where goods are exchanged and government is exercised, and people rub shoulders with other people in the public arena. Mass movements, Carl would call it. The amalgamation of the establishment, Floyd would say, the place where peace and love become commodities that are bought and sold. Wilbo would give it another image: the conscious mind; the quintessence of inland, the outward expression.
To turn inland, he thinks to himself, as he crosses the intersection of the Coast Highway, where there’s no crosswalk or traffic light, and the log trucks and micro-busses are clipping by at the mandated 55 miles per hour. A well-worn metaphor, that one: the shoreline as the edge of consciousness. It’s just the opposite of what you might think. To turn inland is to turn outward. It depends on the direction you’re facing. The ocean is the unconscious, the unknown. It’s vast and uncharted, and teeming with strange creatures. It’s difficult to go there. The land is where the people are. It’s where they meet and mingle and carry on business. It’s commerce. It’s the conscious mind. But the shore. The shore is that narrow strip between the two. It’s the place where the conscious and the unconscious meet. It’s where I live…
Perhaps it’s being lost in these deep thoughts that causes him to miss the sign at the intersection, inscribed inside the pointed wooden arrow: BUSINESS CENTER 1.5 MILES. The other problem is that he’s hungry and part of him is thinking about this café he knows about downtown. They make pretty good pastrami sandwiches. But he’s well past the intersection with the arrowed sign when he realizes this. He’s on a country road by this time, winding its way up into the hills.
The rain has stopped, but the road is wet and the pines that line the road are speaking in their water voices. There’s the smell of sage blossoms and skunk cabbage. Cars swish by leisurely, one at a time with long buzzing quiet spaces in between.
Up ahead is a makeshift fruit stand in a clearing on the right hand side of the road. Painted signs nailed to trees promise PEACHES, MELONS, TOMATOES, BOYSENBERRIES. But the sign on the stand itself bears bad news: CLOSED UNTIL SEPTEMBER. However, there is something going on. A straw basket sits on the counter, brimming with shiny red globes, and there’s a green Volkswagen beetle parked beside the stand. Coming closer, Wilbo reads a small cardboard placard propped up against the basket: WINTER APPLES, LAST CHANCE.
A young girl in the visible throes of puberty is perched on a folding metal chair, her attention firmly fixed in a popstar magazine. She looks up with a start. She wasn’t expecting to see a man standing there. There was no car.
“Excuse me,” Wilbo announces himself apologetically, “How much would you take for one of these winter apples?”
“Oh, you scared the shit out of me!” says the girl. She throws the magazine onto the counter and drags the chair back. “You have to buy them by the pound,” she informs him. “We don’t sell apples.”
Wilbo picks out the largest apple he can find and tosses it in the air a few times. “Well, how much you think this one weighs?”
“That’s only one apple. I said you gotta by them by the pound. Seventy five cents a pound.”
He sets the apple down on the counter and selects another. This one he does not toss, but he turns it thoroughly and inspects it from all angles.
“These two then. Put them together. How much would they weigh?”
The girl rolls her eyes and pulls herself to her feet. She places the apples in a bucket scale and leans over to read the weight.
“Nope. Sorry, still not a pound.” She’s about to take the apples out of the scale but Wilbo stops her by placing two more randomly selected apples in the bucket.
“Well, how ‘bout that? Is that a pound?”
She read the scale. “Pound and a quarter.” she announces. “That’d be a dollar.”
He reaches in his pocket and fishes out some change, two quarters, three dimes, four nickels.
“Here, hold out your hand.”
Reluctantly she extends a hand, palm up, and he takes it from below, cradling her down-turned knuckles firmly but tenderly with his big fingers. With his other hand full of change he covers her palm and holds her hands there in his hands for just a moment while the money falls from his hand into hers. He can’t explain this bizarre gesture- it just seems like the thing to do. What surprises him is the sensuality of it, the pleasure of the contact, skin to skin. It embarrasses him a little.
“There you go. That’s a dollar.” He slowly relinquishes his grip. Then he picks up the biggest of the apples.
“This is the only one I want. You can keep the rest.”
“Yeah, well, whatever.” The girl seems a little disoriented. She just stands there staring at the two remaining apples on the scale, as if they hold some hidden secret.
“Have a nice day.” she says finally, after Wilbo has turned to leave.
He walks with the apple in his hand for a while, through several bends in the road, past a farmhouse, an orchard, a row of painted mailboxes, a stand of foxgloves blooming in brilliant violet. The apple is cold and smooth and foreign in his hand. He imagines the apple is more than an apple. The apple is a prize he had to wrestle out of another dimension. If there was a picture of him walking down the road with his apple, everything else in the picture would be cast in dull earth tones; the apple would be glowing a numinous crimson as if backlit by an otherworldly light.
The road straightens out and starts up a long steep incline without a visible bend for as far as the eye can see, or nearly. At the summit the two shoulders appear to converge at a dimensionless point, blurred by mirage, and by a horizontal ribbon of low-lying fog. As if suspended in air the blue-green tips of the redwoods poke out of the fog and point to the sky.
Up ahead, a round coin of sunlight appears suddenly on the shiny surface of the road and begins to move. It follows the pavement, advancing swiftly down the slope, like a running egg yolk, toward the place where Wilbo walks. The moment it reaches him the sun itself pummels out of the clouds overhead and everything goes suddenly Technicolor. Wilbo stops walking and gazes into the rise of the road ahead where the sunlight has already passed and the cloud shadows are brooding.
“Might be time to eat that apple.” he says.
A sawed-off tree stump by the roadside offers a suitable place to sit. The apple itself is maybe a bit anti-climatic- it is, after all, only an apple. But it’s a good one, crisp and juicy, and the juice runs down his chin like the juice should run from a good apple. Besides, he’s hungry. He hasn’t eaten a thing since breakfast at Macs. He devours the apple in circles from the stem down, breaking off chunks with his lower teeth. He eats the whole thing, core and all.
Then he glances up the road ahead and his eyes lock in mid-focus.
There’s something going on up there. It’s hard to say what it is because it’s so far away, close to where the roadbed merges with the fog. It looks like the road itself is moving, a shimmering sideways sort of motion, not quite like the flow of water- it seems to be composed of distinct, individual particles. At first he thinks it’s a heat mirage, but no, it doesn’t look like a heat mirage. What could it be?
He’s on his feet at once, and starts up the long steep slope. His eyes are fixed on the movement and his thoughts are clear of anything except curiosity and wonder. Curiosity and wonder propel him faster than his internal speed limit. His heart begins to pound, his breathing becomes labored; he feels the strain in the muscles of his calves and thighs. But he stays with the movement, watching the focus sharpen the closer he gets, like a movie on the screen after someone from the audience runs up and arouses the projectionist.
Yes, for sure, near the summit of the hill, something is wriggling, slithering, or flowing across the road from right to left, from the mountainside to the ocean side. At first he thinks there’s water, and whatever it is is being washed across the road in a stream of water, maybe fish or just some kind of debris, caught in a flash flood. But no, drawing closer he sees that the road is dry and speckled; the speckles are in motion. Looking closer he sees color, flashes of color, streaks of vivid popsicle orange. Then he sees the legs, then the tails. He reaches the edge of the living stream and stops to catch his breath and marvel at the sight.
Hundreds, maybe thousands of salamanders are pouring out of the dense wall of blackberry and vine maple on the right hand side of the road and scurrying across the pavement as if it isn’t even there, as if it is just a band of weather through which they must pass. On the left hand side the shoulder drops off abruptly into a green grassy hill tumbling into the town and into the sea. Wilbo can hear the little bodies continuously plopping off the edge like raindrops, and he can hear the rustling of movement through the tall grass.
He leans over and picks up a salamander between his thumb and forefinger. Its back is brown and scratchy, like a moist piece of sandpaper, its belly smooth and brilliant orange. Its legs keep moving in the same steady rhythm, marching time in the air. He holds it for several seconds and it does not lose momentum. When he sets it down, it continues at its pace, as if nothing has happened.
For a while he just stands there, struck by wonder at the sight, no clear thoughts forming.
Eventually the thoughts begin to form.
This is strange on many levels, he thinks to himself. In the first place, what if a car came by? But there aren’t any cars in sight. The road still seems to be leading someplace but most of its destinations have already passed- the driveways, the farmhouses, the fruit stands. What’s left is a rutted and gravel path, a road less traveled. This brings him to his next question.
What about me? Is this it? The end of the adventure? Is this, then, what I came to see, and all that’s left is to retrace my steps?
It doesn’t seem quite right to come this far on a road and then turn back, especially when the road still leads somewhere.
He contemplates the stream of moving creatures. He focuses on the gaps between them, and the advancing formations of the gaps, and the relative velocity, and the patterned angles, and the available freeboard.
Yes, he concludes, a crossing by foot is possible.
Addressing the stream a moment longer, he considers one more variable. It has no dimension, but it requires action.
First, remove the shoes.
With his shoes in his hands, his socks balled up in the shoes, Wilbo steps barefoot into the road. At the edge, the salamanders are sparsely populated- he has no trouble stepping into the spaces between them. But he must keep moving. The spaces fill quickly. About forty paces and he’s into the thick of it. His eyes are darting, tracking the passage of the space ahead, and the space ahead of that, one for the right foot, one for the left. It’s a bit like fording a stream on slippery stones. He must narrow his peripheral vision and shut out all other concerns. This creates a sort of vertigo in which the field of salamanders appears to be stationary, and it is he who is moving, listing precariously to the right. He feels dizzy. He stops in his tracks.
At once he becomes like a rock in a stream and the creatures swarm like water over his bare feet. The effect is disconcerting. He loses his balance completely and sinks to his hands and knees. One hand cups a salamander in motion but it manages to wriggle free and escape through his fingers. The others swarm over him, climbing over his ankles and wrists and passing in formation under his chest and arms.
Shaken and breathless, he pulls himself into a crouch and rises slowly on his trembling legs. He wishes for a railing or a walking stick. He wonders if he’s going to be able to complete this passage. But it’s just as hard to turn back now.
After his fall he no longer advances with confidence. Now he takes each step at a time, pausing in each footing, allowing the creatures to overtake him while he scans the road for the next.
About ten paces of this and he suddenly feels the unmistakable sensation of something crawling on the underside of his arm. In a panic, he flings his shoes away, but the salamander remains, plodding steadily up his arm toward his armpit. With his right hand he grabs it and throws it hard against the pavement, but it seems to be unharmed- it picks up its pace where it left off and keeps moving.
The shoes, however, have done some damage. One of them lies on its side over a limp body, an orange tail twitching convulsively against the laces. He reaches the shoe in two steps and snatches it up, but the damage is irreparable. The creature is mostly a flat patty of roadkill, only the tail retains some dimension.
First do no harm…
From this point on his passage is painstakingly slow and heavy with troubled thoughts. His thoughts are not clearly formed. He does not ponder. Most of his mental energy is required for the task. But he gets images and he hears voices and other sounds, not just voices. The sounds he hears are ocean sounds, like seals on the rocks, or the waves flinging pebbles, or the distant calliope of the carousel on the boardwalk. The voices are saying things like the dog will never catch his tail, or there is no coin with only one side. The images are mostly faces and the faces are mostly children’s faces, children moving quickly or children sleeping. But gradually another face begins to appear and slowly insists itself upon the palate of his mind. It’s the image of Arlequino, the one on the amulet, last seen hanging around Claudia’s neck.. The face plays tricks. The mouth smiles but the eyes cry. Sometimes the eyes hold so much sadness they make the smile look like a frozen grimace. Sometimes the mouth holds so much mirth it makes the eyes look like they’re about to brim with tears of joy.
At first he doesn’t notice that the road has entered the shade of the redwoods. He’s at a point where he can’t see either shore of the river of salamanders, ahead or behind. That’s when he looks up and sees the glass.
Suspended from a redwood branch overhanging the road, about twenty feet up, there’s a long slender teardrop of pure white glass. At first he thinks it’s moving, so fluid is its form. But no. It just drapes from the branch and hangs there suspended, catching the diffused sunlight in its translucent surface. The moment he sees it he feels a sudden hush fall on the forest, as if the very act of his seeing it could cause a sudden hush to fall on the forest. What could it be?
Then he sees the others.
Just ahead, the forest is full of glass. Clusters of glass grapes in deep greens and purples cascade over the outstretched limbs. Bird’s nests made of tiny glass straws, holding robin-blue glass eggs nestle in the crook of a branch. A chime of glass rods, each a different color and length, hangs from a piece of driftwood suspended from a copper wire. The moment he sees it a breeze disturbs it and it sings a tiny minor chord. A riot of cut glass prisms dangles form a gossamer thread strung between two trees. Around the trunk of a young redwood a glass snake spirals and glowers through garnet eyes. A glass stream cascades out of the hollow of an oak; tiny sparkles of color dance in the flow. A glass cobweb hangs between two branches, a glass spider guards the fulcrum, a glass dewdrop hangs from one strand. He’s not sure about the cobweb. It might be real.
Patches of sunlight appear and move rapidly through the trees, flaming each glass fragment for only a moment, then hurrying on. Wilbo stands motionless. Each moment of sun illuminates him briefly, as if he himself were made of glass.
He closes his eyes and watches the moving patterns of sunlight on his eyelids. High in the branches there’s a chattering sound, followed by a tapping and a clicking. Maybe a bird, maybe a squirrel. A high wind sways the very tops of the trees and strums a few bars of an ethereal melody, like something by Debussy. Down on the ground it’s still and silent.
Still and silent.
Wilbo opens his eyes. Still and silent! The salamanders are gone. The road is empty and motionless. For a moment he wrestles with a disturbing thought: were they ever there at all? But, yes, they were there. He has proof. Down the road in the distance a passing swatch of sunlight chases a few stragglers toward the shoulder.
Wilbo draws a deep breath of the loamy, forest-scented air, and releases it slowly through his nostrils, savoring the yeasts and the alkalines of decomposition.
Well then. That’s that. As adventures go, that was one of the stranger ones.
He brings his attention back to the road ahead where the forest is flashing, tinkling, and pulsating with color and light. And this is a bit out of the ordinary as well, he tells himself.
His first steps into the new adventure are hesitant. Translucent salamander ghosts appear on the pavement and expand until they lose their shape and vanish. But even then the road won’t lie still. It ripples and swirls like molten glass.
It’s Ok. It’s safe. You can walk on it. You don’t have to be careful anymore.
At the crest of the hill the road widens into a rounded open space. It’s very dark here. It’s the heart of the forest where the ancient, moss-hung redwoods are huddled together like a conference of wizards, and even if the sun were shining fully in the bright sky, very little of it could penetrate to this dark and quiet place. Wilbo scans the circle looking for where the road might go next. But this is the end of the road.
Directly across the clearing there is a house- a cabin- he doesn’t see it at first because the wood is unpainted and it blends in with the forest. A large porch wraps around the front of the cabin. Glass objects of many different shapes and colors spin and dangle from the eaves of the porch. A cord of firewood is stacked neatly, ten by ten, next to the open door. An axe with a shiny red blade leans against the logs. He sees something like a bright blue point of light dancing in the air above the porch railing. At first he thinks it’s a glass object, but no, it moves differently; there’s a willfulness behind its movements. Then he sees the man.
The man is sitting on a stool. He’s wearing a pair of thick dark goggles. His eyes are obscured. His face is thin and his hair is long and skinny. He’s doing something with his hands that makes a bright ball of blue light dance and flicker. Occasionally showers of white sparks fly from his fingers.
Wilbo smells something- no, he smells two things, layered and blended in the still air. There’s the strong industrial stench of burning acetylene, and there’s the slow, rolling aroma of wood smoke and something delicious, roasting on a wood fire.
He stands respectfully at the foot of the porch steps with his hands folded behind his back, presenting himself.
“Hello, Blue Lake.” he says.
Levon does not look up from his work. “Welcome, Wilbo. Would you like some fish?” Then his head nods imperceptibly to the right. “Opal, Wilbo is hungry. Fetch him some fish.”
He hadn’t noticed Opal at all. She is woven invisibly into the fabric of a quilt, draped over the back of a porch swing. When she rises, she seems to rise straight up, like smoke from a fire and then drifts silently like smoke down the porch steps and across the yard to where a ring of stones encloses a bed of embers. She sinks to her knees effortlessly and with bare hands draws a foil-wrapped parcel from the coals.
Meanwhile, Levon is conjuring up a blue heron from his wand of glass. The neck flows gracefully out of the flame and a tiny glass thread curlicues from the tip of the beak, solidifies, snaps off, then vanishes into thin air. Levon turns off the torch with a pop. He holds the heron in his gloved hand while it cools, then sets it down on the porch railing.
“Rest your feet, Wilbo. Eat some fish.”
Like an apparition of Sacajawea Opal Moon materializes before him, holding out an open foil of flame-baked salmon in one hand, a tall tumbler of cold water in the other.
These are the rules with Levon Blue Lake Moon and his wife Opal: you don’t worry about lulls in the conversation. There are no awkward pauses. Words happen only when required, to convey information. Wilbo takes a comfortable seat on the top step of the porch. There are no utensils but that’s not a problem. Propelled by a day-long appetite, quelled only by one small winter apple, he digs into the fish with his bare hands. It tastes like salt, water and sky, fused together by fire, seasoned with lemon. He eats slowly and the flavor seems to center him, to draw him into himself.
Blue Lake leans easily on the railing and looks out into the forest. “I won’t be at the Dogfish tonight,” he announces. “The newts are spawning. Send my regards.”
“You mean the salamanders?”
Levon nods. “It isn’t safe to drive.”
Wilbo considers this. He considers the way the salamanders made their crossing above the last driveway off the road. He thinks about Levon and Opal’s predicament, cut off from the rest of the world by the spawning of newts as surely as if they were drifts of snow.
“I don’t think I’ll be there tonight either.” he says quietly.
Some time passes. Opal returns to her place on the porch swing, folding back into the pattern of the quilt. Wilbo finishes his salmon and drains the tumbler dry. A squirrel scampers to the center of the clearing, stops, rears up and shakes his fist, at what? Who knows?
“Something has changed in your life.” Blue Lake says. He says it matter-of-factly, as if he is saying you’ve got a little fish caught in your beard.
Yes, this is true, Wilbo thinks to himself, but exactly what? It seems like many things have changed- a whole tumbling maelstrom of change, disrupting practically every aspect of who he is and what he does. It seems like everything has changed. He searches his mind for a cog in the machinery, the one main change that started it all.
“I met this girl.” he says at last.
Levon makes a deep utterance in the back of his throat, a word that can’t be spelled, like the Hebrew name for God.
“What’s her name?” he asks.
That much is easy. “Claudia.” he tells him.
Levon closes his eyes for awhile. It looks like he’s searching through a file cabinet behind his eyes. He opens them and looks at Wilbo.
“Her name means she who walks with a limp.”
These words are hard and troublesome. Wilbo wishes he hadn’t heard them. “Well, that’s not a very good meaning.”
“Sure it is.” Blue Lake replies. He straightens out his body to its full height. His head almost touches the eaves. He rolls his head in a slow circle, working out the kinks. He leans back on the railing. “Everyone walks with a limp. It takes courage to do it outwardly.”
Wilbo ponders this tidbit. Sure, it sounds wise, but it doesn’t seem to fit.
“She doesn’t walk with a limp.” he says. “She’s a dancer. She’s graceful. She’s light on her feet. She’s young.”
“There you go.” A sly little smile turns up the corners of Levon’s mouth. “We get our names for a reason. Sometimes we have to grow into them.”
At first these words draw a blank. They speak of the future, and it’s hard to think of the future. It hasn’t happened yet. But after a period of silence he feels a little wave of emotion, a brief, heartstrung tug of tenderness, like something a mother might feel when sending her child off to college for the first time. It passes quickly and he lets it go without comment.
A longer time passes. The shadows deepen. The setting sun makes one last appearance and throws long slanted yellow beams through the forest, glancing off certain glass objects while others remain subdued in the blue shadows. A golden-haired dog strolls up from somewhere and presents its ears for Blue Lake to scratch. After much scratching it grunts its appreciation, ascends the porch steps and climbs up into the porch swing where it lays its head down with a sigh on Opal’s lap.
“So…why do the salamanders cross the road?” Wilbo asks. The question makes him laugh. It sounds like he’s asking a tired old riddle, hoping for a brand new answer.
“They’re spawning.” Blue Lake replies. “These are the males that are crossing now. The females will go in a few weeks. They’ll go to meet their boyfriends in the marshes by the beach.”
They stopped crossing when I was coming up here.”
Levon nods. “They stop when the sun gets low. But it’s still not safe to drive. There’s always a few who don’t stop. What would Carl call them? The eccentrics…”
Wilbo ponders. “Like us then. The eccentrics.”
Levon’s reply is uncharacteristically immediate. “You think a lot about that, don’t you Wilbo. How you differ. From the pattern of the world.”
Wilbo’s retort is just as immediate. “Don’t you?”
Blue Lake closes his eyes. There’s a moment where he is standing on the porch with his eyes closed, and Opal is sitting on the porch swing, scratching the dog behind the ears. Opal is the next to speak.
“It’s more important how you differ from the pattern of yourself.”
Immediately Wilbo remembers something Carl said, just the night before. People don’t change when they get older. They just become who they always were, only more so. The time when someone changes into something else as they grow older- that’s the stuff of legends. It amazes him that he can remember this, out of all the other things that Carl said last night.
Levon speaks next. “Tell me more about this girl,” he says.
Wilbo’s thoughts are far from Claudia at this moment. Claudia is like a burning sensation in his loins. Claudia is like an alarm clock waking him up to a strange scene, a landscape, a bed in a cabin beside a lake with tall alpine mountains rising in the morning mist, reflected in the lake, shimmering, a broken reflection, a wind across the water, the reflection of the mountains broken on the surface of the lake.
Claudia! What can he say about her? She is a mystery. But she isn’t that mysterious. Not really. She is a rich girl from Los Angeles. Her father works for Warner Brothers. She is looking for an older man to help her get wild. To help her let go. Onto the scene she bursts with razzle dazzle, a great clumsy exuberance and a full keg of sensuality, enough to impregnate the expanding universe. Claudia!
But before that. Before Claudia, or swirling with Claudia in the maelstrom of events of the past two days, breaking like a stamping horse into the repetitive pattern of three layered years. Arno, his little brother, with his crazed demand. A skunk offering an amulet as a talisman for the coming changes. A mysterious phosphorescent presence behind the arched rocks, calling him into the waves. Floyd Collins in his recurring grief, soothed by the magic song and propelled into a newness of action by Doralina Steindl Klaus who brought Amanda, the patron saint of lunch meat, out of the closet. A stream of salamanders, crossing the road, throwing him into the eccentric of the wheel, conditioning him for this moment, this cathedral-like moment, standing before Levon Blue Lake Moon, pondering the request: tell me more about this girl.
“I don’t know, Blue Lake,” he says at last. “Maybe it’s something more than just a girl.”
Levon nods. “I could have told you that.”
Wilbo sighs. It’s a weary sigh but it’s not an endless weariness. It’s more like an expulsion of air as the weariness is being pressed out by something much larger, some large and awesome thing rearing up inside, like a big brown bear waking up from hibernation. When he opens his mouth to speak he is startled by the flow of words.
“I used to wobble. It used to be all wobble. My dad went missing in 1961. He was part of the Manhattan Project. We lived in Livermore. He worked on the atomic bomb. One day he just drove off in the car and never came back. I think he told something to my mom but she never let on. She never really tried to find him. There was a silent understanding. Even today nobody knows if he’s dead or alive. Mom won’t talk about it. She gets this funny sad little smile. But to me it was the end of the world. Not just my world. The whole world. I read books about prophecy, ancient prophecy. The Hebrews, the Mayans, the Hopis, Nostradamus. I decided it was the bomb that would be the agent by which the world would be destroyed, to fulfill the ancient prophecies. I had this weird hunch that dad knew this too, that’s why he left.
But then suddenly it broke open. Suddenly there were wobblers everywhere, big time wobblers. That first human be-in in the park, the psychedelics, the Mime Troupe, the communes, the Diggers. Like the earth, moving into a whole new field of cosmic energy, you have two choices, go with it or be destroyed. The new children dance! I am young! Life is change! How it differs from the rocks! Those were the happiest days of my life. We were doing things that didn’t have a name yet. Suddenly it all made sense, There was hope. There was a meaning for everything, even the bomb. The bomb had come so we would leave the path and strike out in a new direction. Stupid hippies!”
The last two words are like a derailed locomotive hurling off a cliff over a rocky chasm. They echo once in the tall pines and then they are swallowed up by the silence of the forest. Wilbo repeats them, but this time quietly, mournfully.
“Stupid hippies… You went out of control. You completely abandoned your code of ethics. Floyd is right. Personal hygiene! That’s what it all boils down to. Personal hygiene. I think I was already beginning to see that when I took this job. I think at first the job was a ministry, another way to wobble. I would be a thorn in the side of the establishment. I would be a guerrilla on the sidewalk. I would be an art form. But it didn’t take long for it to break down. There was no movement, like Carl says, no movement. All the freaks in town, just sitting around in the Dogfish every night drinking and talking about how it used to be. And the hippies in the hills, no personal hygiene. Hepatitis. And the rock stars, all of them, phonies, the great phony, Neil Young stopped off at the Lighthouse and ordered a vanilla milkshake. The Lighthouse. Jesus Freaks. She doesn’t know it yet. I wonder when she’ll find out. Jesus freaks…”
He stops talking abruptly, as if he has hit a wall of silence. He listens to his own words rattle around in his head for a while until they simmer down and finally fall silent. So many words for such an empty mind! He enters into a short period of amnesia where he can’t seem to recall anything he’s been saying. Then he remembers.
“Everything is changing, Levon.” he blurts out. “Everything. It feels like my life is being washed away. Frankly, I’m a little scared.”
For the first time since this conversation started, Levon moves. He stands up straight and picks up the glass heron from the porch railing. He holds it up against the fading sunlight and studies it with first one eye closed, then the other. He runs his finger over the shape of the bird until he reaches the tip of the beak where he very gently pinches off a tiny glass spur. He sets the heron down, turns and takes the empty foil and tumbler from Wilbo’s lap.
“That’s because you fight it,” he tells him. “You’ve been fighting it for a long time. When you fight it, it’s difficult. But when you let it go, it just happens. It’s supposed to happen.”
After that he disappears into the house. This is a sign for the yellow dog who perks up on Opal’s lap, hops off the porch swing and follows his master into the house. His paws make tapping sounds on the hardwood floor. There’s the brief sound of water running, then the slobbery lapping sound of a dog drinking water.
Then there’s a breath of silence- just a breath, before the next sound begins.
The next sound is the voice of Opal Moon, singing. There is no prelude to the sound of her voice, no formal introduction, other than the breath of silence. Maybe the breath of silence was the sound of Opal, taking a breath to sing. Regardless, Opal begins to sing in a voice pure and high and shrill, erasing thought, commanding attention.
The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days,
Oh may thy house be mine abode and all my works be praise.
There would I find a settled rest while others go and come
No more a stranger nor a guest but like a child at home…
When she finishes the song there is another breath of silence, like the one at the beginning, except this one flows out, so the song is framed on both sides by an in-breath and an out-breath. After that the ordinary sounds fill back in, the birds in the trees, an airplane in the sky, Levon in the kitchen washing pots and pans. Wilbo feels no compulsion to move and apparently neither does Opal. The moment flows on for a long, long time.