Even those yucky yucca plants are sweating today. Even those cool desert cats in their shadowy burrows—what’s the word?—perspire. Today, I say, the prairie dogs plunge, the red ants blister, the javelinas hovel, and the tourists eat bagels outside the café under misters or in the gift shop where everything shines but nothing glistens.
August 25th, 2014
Huevos rancheros and grape juice.
Diary of a Changing Man
by David Huntington
August 25th, 2014
Huevos rancheros and grape juice.
The last of the Cinnamon Life and then a couple fried eggs. Remember when mom used to cut out the middles of bread slices and fry an egg inside? She called it a Hen-In-The-Pen.
The last year has been one of those withdrawn phases: brooding, plotting, meditating. But now I’ve started writing, apparently. And more than that, yesterday I left the house. Bought some fish at the supermarket. I haven’t had fish in months. I swear, the online delivery grocer always picked the stalest trout they could find. I hated it.
Today, oddly, my house felt small. The radiator clicked like an insect. I watched headlights pass on the road below with a desire I am yet to understand. For the past several months I have contented myself with long novels and the spiritual depth of the Maine forest. There’s always something rustling. Something swaying. Some small creature as afraid of me as I of it. But I’m no longer content merely watching. The forest calls to me.
I have never enjoyed writing, but this . . . there’s a desperation to it. Can’t you feel it in the word choice? Who but a desperate man tries so particularly at a twist of phrase?
I want you to understand. Yes, that’s it. I want you to understand—better than I can possibly make you understand—who I am.
Who am I? . . .
If anything, I’m changing. But everyone changes, right? Sure. But not like me. I can’t help it. It’s like multipolar disorder (they diagnosed me once) except the changes are slow and subtle. Month to month my temperament shifts in gentle gradation: agoraphobic to misanthropic, shy to quiet, friendly to bold. From greedy to stingy, frugal to rash. From spiritual to not-so-spiritual to spiritual all over again.
Now . . . in this new self . . . I feel a boldness within me. A surging. More alive than I have ever been. Dare I say, after all this metamorphosis, that I at last am ripe?
There must be something wrong with my diet, but for the life of me I can’t tell what. I tried giving up the usual suspects each for a week: dairy, meat, fruit, wheat, coffee . . . but to no result. Alcohol is next, though I rarely drink as it is.
The sensation . . . as if my organs were gradually transmogrifying. As if my psychological changes were physical, working from the inside out. I would not be surprised to find my cheekbones a centimeter higher one morning, my earlobes detached, my chin dolphin smooth.
Typically I read until the changes fade or I fade despite them. Other times I’ll listen to dark music and imagine sleep as a legion of dust mites pulsing around me. But last night, mid-mutation, I wandered into the pasture in front of my house. My property, like most around here, is a fragment of an old dairy farm. Though I stopped caring some time ago, my pasture is rather impressive. It sweeps down from the house like a gown. A thicket of cattails occludes a frog pond by the forest. Some mornings and late afternoons a family of whitetail deer grazes there. When they perk their heads they look like jackals.
But last night it was I who stood there perked. The clouds hung over me and the weeds stung my feet. I wore boxers and an old sweater. I listened to the trees.
At first the grass chilled my thighs. I turned my ear to the ground and a cold blade slid up it. I listened to my rhythms. I closed my eyes. The sky grew heavy. I rubbed my belly as if to soothe it. As some insect fingered my nose I heard, long and far away, a deep and beautiful groan. I felt warm and lovely. I imagined sleep as a legion of ants marching across me, burrowing into my navel like a hill. They lay their colony in my gut and when they hatched they ate. Soon their tunnels wove through me. With each generation I became a little less. Until there was nothing.
Satiated, I crawled off into a million Lilliputian holes.
I awoke wet with dew, craving root vegetables. I returned to the supermarket where I purchased the weight of a small child in potatoes, carrots, and succulent beets. Upon returning home I boiled a hearty stew.
I slept contentedly that night and woke at dawn. I scrubbed myself thoroughly, shaved, and tried to do something with my hair that ended up, I’m afraid, rather silly. I wore a good green jacket, a heavy plaid shirt, and khakis.
I am healthy. Thin. A little dark in the eyes, an old English look, but above average for forty, I would think.
I drove to a diner I passed on my way to the supermarket. It had that linoleum look that was not only cheap but appropriate. A real American place. I chose a booth by the window. The smell of onions and coffee. I’m sitting in a latticed parallelogram of warming light. A refrigerator hums.
Other than the waitress and someone chopping in the back, the place was empty. The waitress poured me coffee from a stained pot and brought it over. Out of nowhere, I asked if she cared to join me, half joking. Out of nowhere, she agreed.
I asked if her boss would mind, she said no, disappearing for a moment, returning with her own mug.
We met eyes and I surged with questions, the canyons of her life yawing before me. What depth! What personhood!
She must have been in her twenties, not pretty, but magnetic. She seemed always to be thinking of someone else, such that when she acknowledged my words, or caught me with her eyes, I felt important and put-upon like a merchant before the queen. Most of the time, while her gaze fell distant, my attention was drawn to her black nose ring, her lengthy face, and her hair: three inches of auburn growing into six inches of dirty blonde, a streak of faded pink like panties left in the sun.
The prospect of conversation lit up my nerves like something dangerous. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, and she seemed simultaneously amused and distracted. In a surge of courage I asked if her life was boring. She said it wasn’t. I said mine was sometimes, but not always. Not lately.
She asked if I lived around here, and I explained that I lived on Tuttle Road, a notoriously wealthy strip of town, having earned my money from a fleet of garbage trucks I built up in Massachusetts when I was a different man. But now my money was running out.
She asked what I would do next. Start another company? Get another job? They were hiring waiters, she said; her grandfather owned the place.
I laughed and complimented the question. I don’t know, I said. Perhaps I’ll try to live in the moment. I hear that’s good.
So I hear, she said.
A woman called from the kitchen and she excused herself.
I ordered hash browns, eggs, and toast.
I drove to a South Portland joint called Old Alby’s. Their logo was a fat, anthropomorphized albatross with an eye patch and a pint. It celebrated old Portland with ropes and anchors on the walls, a big old boat motor mounted like a moose head.
I sat at the bar and ordered a Jameson. It turned out the surly, white haired individual sitting next to me was in the waste management business himself. He worked middle management at the dump, a reasonable job for a reasonable man, he said. To be honest, he informed me, you speak kind of funny. Kind of literary.
I laughed. Yes, I’ve noticed that too. It’s come on recently, actually. Just in the past month or so. I’m not sure why. I used to be such a down to earth sort of fellow.
He was surprised by this. He called me professor. I’m no professor, I told him, far from it.
He asked if I went to college.
I explained that I tried. I lasted six months, but was filled with such a maddening compulsion to travel that I walked straight out of the place to the next state where I got a job as a hotel clerk.
Let me get this straight, he says—chopping up and down with an open hand—you just started talking like a Bostonian aristocrat all of the sudden, out of the blue, just like that?
You know that sounds goddamn crazy?
I mean Christ, you sound like that creep from Lolita. What if I started talking like an Irish gangster tomorrow? What would you think of that?
I didn’t know what I would think of that.
People just don’t do that. People don’t sound pretentious on accident. I don’t believe it for a goddamn minute.
Well, I said, that’s unfortunate, but you’re welcome to your own opinion.
You’re goddamn right I am.
He then apologized for all his bully, said he’s just pulling my chain like he does; he tends to pull a little hard.
After he got another stout in his paw he brought up local politics. I ordered another double and tried to listen, though I really couldn’t. I started thinking about what he said. Sounding literary. Why literary? I’m not literary. And then I remembered this journal. I guess, I thought, I suppose I am a sort of writer now. Writing more and more, actually. I swell with words. I grow sticky with them. But it’s not like I’ve got some big literary point to make. Not like I’ve got some big shifty theme. Just a compulsion. A boundless, urgent compulsion.
He then asked me my opinion of the governor, at which point I was forced to admit I don’t follow local politics, at which point his chopping hand began pounding the table with every word, a slurry of civil responsibility coming at me like a locomotive, and I wondered if his hair was a toupee, but then why would a toupee be white?
And then—here’s the point of this whole thing—I burst into laughter! I swear it! Right there in front of him! He turns communist red and asks what’s so funny but all I can do is spit out half-phrased apologies while I bubble forth like a shaken pop. Like the writing, like the joie de vivre, the laughter surges out of me. I swear!
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I soothe, dropping a fifty on the counter.
As the audience and I tunneled out of the movie theater, our skins born in embryonic light, I felt I could almost speak with them as sisters and brothers. A midwife with a broom told me to have a nice day as we stumbled into the high-windowed lobby. I watched the sky shake and shudder. The people clustered at the hearth.
Once outside God kissed me rather savagely—it was a passionate affair. Electricity filled the air and her wet tongue addressed me thoroughly.
Intimacy is freedom.
Her fulsome moon glowed through the storm.
She trembled loudly.
Life is good, I whispered. I laughed.
I crossed the parking lot up to the street with all the classy stores on it. Silhouetted shopkeepers watched through window displays, camouflaged amongst manikins. Cars made sloppy tearing sounds as they passed. I shimmied between umbrellas and brick storefronts, squinting through the lamp-lit intersections as I forged Nilotic streets.
God spasm’d and shook, hot flashes through the sky.
I turned up the steps of an urban pantheon: the L.L. Bean flagship store. Cedar-clad buildings towered like mountain shrines to the ursine spirit. At the entrance rose a monolithic fiberglass boot. I ran my hand over the squeaky thing and was wondering if I could climb inside when I noticed those civilians huddled in the mudroom, watching Her rivulets curve my breast. They laughed and whispered. It was then that I knew what must be done.
Pretending I didn’t see them, I approached the doorway. She thundered again and I flashed a smile as I threw open the door and shook my hair, not “noticing” them recoil. Through another set of glass doors I entered the central chamber and inhaled the fragrance of cedar, pine, and natural nylon. Aisles of outdoorsy paraphernalia stretched out before me. And behold: at the barycenter, a spiral stair ascends from a murky indoor trout pond.
FOR THE SAFETY OF THE FISH, it declares, PLEASE DO NOT THROW COINS.
I would return here, but first: from the camping department I bought a flexible cooler, non-rolling, easy to carry through the night. From the fishing department I bought a line and hook. I then returned.
Under guise of weariness I sat on the rocks surrounding the trout pond, tactically positioned under the rising stair. I dipped my cooler in the water, filling it. I wrapped a fishing line around my wrist and allowed a simple hook and worm to drop behind me. I made casual like a highschooler in a skate park.
I felt brilliant. I no longer pondered my life but performed it like a naughty Shakespearean.
A tug on my wrist and a splash. It’s a foot long and muddy silver—Yank! Smack! Sploosh! The thing convulsed in the air like a botched hanging. I slapped it in the cooler, zipped it, and stood.
I marched out of the place, a rather noisy bag at my side, and gave my friends by the door a nice howdy-do before Lady God took me back with a mighty flash and cry. I rubbed the giant Bean Boot as I passed and looked up into the deep of the night. Time to go home, I think. Time for dinner.
Oh, what’s the point of a diary without honesty? I made a childish mistake that night. My plan never was to eat the fish, it was to set it free, but in my excitement I forgot that a freshwater trout won’t make it in the nearby ocean. It would surely suffocate before I found a lake. I hadn’t saved it, I had killed it. I stood there on the steps of that pagan store and felt very small for a while.
At least, I think, there are worse bodies of water to swim in than mine.
I wonder, are we parents to our future selves? Am I not a sort of father to the man I am tomorrow?
I say this because perhaps I have not been the best parent. When I visited the county fair today I spoke with farmers, clowns, and pretty girls with the facility of my recent change; I lay in corn fields amongst God’s hot and sodden breath; I wrestled a piglet in the mud and won a prize; but through all this my heart never beat above half fever. I wandered in a halcyon daze through the thousand bulbs of fair-light and the swirling screams of children. Though I avoided it the entire night, after encountering the waitress from the diner in line for a funnel cake, I ended up on the damn Ferris wheel.
I asked her if she would like to split the pastry, since I really wasn’t in the mood for a whole one, in fact, I was eating it more out of novelty than desire. She felt the same. We talked about sitting at a picnic table but decided against it. Instead we strolled, side-by-side. Without speaking, we seemed to settle on an understanding: that she would use me to hide from someone and I wouldn’t mind.
By the time we were standing in front of the Ferris wheel, by the time she said “why not,” it was already too late. The attendant opened the door of our carriage and gestured like an Elizabethan chauffeur. I tipped my imaginary hat and we sat in opposite corners, gazing out opposite windows, over opposite horizons.
Nevertheless, that sensual, celestial rhythm united us. I looked at the waitress and knew she was a heroine. I wanted to cross the carriage, sit next to her, fall asleep on her shoulder, and imagine the wondrous things she would conquer as she left this un-destined wheel at its zenith, continuing to rise as I went round again.
I have not slept in two days. It all began with a poorly executed batch of scrambled eggs and a blank expression. Yesterday morning I sat over this diary for a while with a blank mind before wandering around my property, blankly. It was one of those days when you keep noticing your breathing and it gets terribly annoying. There, look, I’ve gone and done it again. Do I always breathe so loudly?
I went to the diner around ten and there she was, but different. The place was packed. Singles, couples, and families, old and young, rich and poor, they filled every table in the joint. My waitress grinned like a celebrity. She sat with them. Half the tables, it seemed, she joined for a moment, stared deeply into the people’s eyes, and laughed.
In our brief exchange she said that this is a small town. Even if you aren’t friends, you’re friendly.
I drove home and lay in bed staring at my diary again. I went and saw a comedy film and drove back. In bed my stomach churned. I twisted about, tried reading, counted everything I could. I kept thinking about the Ferris wheel and its damned twinkly music. Eventually I gave up, pulled on some sweats and went outside.
I lay out in my pasture. I turned my ear to the ground and a cold blade slid up it. I shivered. The wind swelled. My own rhythms.
When I was a boy I used to imagine my heartbeats were footsteps in the fall leaves. Someone was always approaching, just beyond my window.
I arrived early this time, before the crowd. I didn’t have to ask. She smiled and sat down with a fresh mug.
I like this place, I said.
I asked about her.
She was just out of college, she said. She was saving money to get her masters in sociology. She could get a better job, but she was lazy. Her grandparents were good to her here.
Encouraged, I ask about the fair the other night. What was she hiding from?
My mother, she says. Oh, fuck it—I actually lied to you just now. She laughs. I’m not saving money for college. My mom wants to pay for my degree.
My mom already paid.
I went for the first week. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
She said she hated this town and wanted to leave.
I don’t believe it. I think you love it.
Ha. Sure. I like talking to people. But this town is always too rich or too redneck. You’d think it’d be somewhere in the middle after all this time, but no. It’s just two groups of people who hate each other just enough to ignore the problem. Look around this place. The fat locals sit on that side, the doctors and dentists sit on this side.
What about me?
There’s something weird about you, she says. I like it. Like a bad movie.
Apparently her mother’s back in town with the pretext of organizing the grandparents’ basement.
My mom doesn’t care about the basement, she says, fuck that, my grandmother can’t even make it down the stairs anymore. She’s only here to make me miserable.
But I don’t think she’s as upset with the situation as she puts on. I can tell how she mentions specifically the restaurant they always go to: It’s a shitty restaurant, she says. Always that same little shithole. Greasy and fattening and not even good.
After another long night at the bar I miss breakfast. I arrive at noon, just as she’s leaving.
There’s a couple with a baby that won’t stop crying. She makes it stop crying. I compliment her. She says she loves children. Loves them more than anything. If she ever got her masters she would study children. School systems or something. But she could never be a teacher, people get on her nerves too much.
I hate everything. You get that? No. You don’t. Like, it’s not that there aren’t things that I like, but everything, like everything together, that’s what I hate.
She’s excited by the idea of hatred. She sparks with it. To her, hatred is not a weakness; it’s a reason.
It’s true. Breakfast food is the best. It’s like . . . uhh . . . an awesome coat. Yeah! It makes you feel so safe you could wear it forever, even when it’s fucking hot out.
You’ve got, I don’t know, a priestly air.
I’m such a mess, she laughs. How are you always so composed?
“Well, we climbed the mountain.”
“Well, we did.”
Roland and Mick look out over the purple-hazed peaks to ensure that they indeed stand on the highest in sight.
“Well, that’s good.”