Here’s a tearjerker for pensive white males of trivial adversities in their mid-twenties who are about to make life-changing decisions that will alter the thus-far rather linear trajectory of their narrative arcs but won’t necessarily bring a premature plunge to those arcs should they fail because these pensive white males have pencils with wedge cap erasers for re-drawing the arcs if they so choose.
Puffs© at the ready.
Under a cypress tree planted just off the fringe of the Cape Fear river, a boy of 25 sits on a bed of cedar shavings, almost exactly like his hamster Skippy used to do when Skippy wasn’t training tenaciously for the wheel-spinning Olympics while the boy of 7 watched on with dramatic irony and occasionally refilled Skippy’s water bottle. The boy gazes at reality from behind the lens of memory, and through its sepia tint can still see Skippy’s cage before him in the form of a guardrail that separates his current self from the river (but only from a certain 10 feet of the river). These metal bars designed moreso to keep something out than in.
Behind – and also to either side of – the bars, the sinewy arm of the Cape Fear river reaches out in longing toward the Atlantic Ocean, the wind decorating its surface with innumerable chevrons like the sleeve of the nation’s most seasoned colonel. Above the river – perhaps in spite of it – looms a bridge made from U.S. Steel but resting dependently on concrete pillars, because even with all its industry and might, the U.S. Steel bridge would rust to nothingness if it touched water.
The boy sits in the shade and documents all of this, having chosen a spot under the cypress next to somebody else’s butt indentation (or possibly knee indentations) after first testing out two perpendicular benches by the guard rail, both rendered repulsive by the leprous touch of sunlight. He sits spotted with sunlight under the cypress’s weeping canopy, almost as if stained from his recent encounter. Just over a grassy knoll to his right, obscured by the bump, a young couple makes silent love right outside the gates of a colonial mansion, one of their stray limbs likely grazing the metallic cold of a wrought-iron fence that separates the mansion’s riverfront view from everybody else’s riverfront view.
The boy is otherwise alone.
In his black leather notebook, he writes something like, “The right combination of rippling water and sunlight causes the river’s surface to shimmer like white noise, as if someone in the sky above were watching a canceled cable subscription.”
His own imagery holds him captive, like he has hung a decorative mirror in his brain, so when a car edges into a handicap space several feet behind him and cuts the engine, he remains hunched over his notebook, parabolic, slouching back toward his origins. Writing has provided him the image of an old man.
The footsteps of such a man doppler to a mumble in front of him before the boy notices the man walking toward the river’s call. Steps that maintain the deliberate emphasis of a toddler learning to walk. The old man continues to put his foot down until he reaches the water’s edge, where he starts to fall but then catches himself on the guardrail and remains leaning. Allowing the guardrail to serve its purpose. Keeping himself away from the water.
He rests in his windbreaker, standing up like a blanketed horse, and bats tired eyes at the world in front of him, almost enticing it. Winks that are not imitations return from the river.
The boy stops writing to watch the man stand in the very place the boy had stood only minutes prior, with the same slouched posture, an identical survey of the river murmuring before them. No longer able to view the river, the boy sees only himself in the man, his future truncated and offered before him so manifest and conceivable. His hair grayed, his skin hairless but wrinkled, wearing the pleated khaki shorts and golf shirt, the New Balance trainers and ankle socks. Like viewing himself in third person as part of a childhood memory, he sees the old man before him tug at a clinging shirt with his self-consciousness, fingertap railings with his rhythm, fix wind-blown hair with his vanity. Knowing what will happen next, the sequence of things.
All of this the more real because the man’s back is turned, his face visible to the world and even to the water, but not to the boy. Because this is how the future confronts you, with its back turned.
From his perspective, the boy doesn’t know what the man sees, but here’s what the man sees: the river’s surface taking on a shape indefinable, not square, not circle, not human, not tree. Just not. The man having forgotten many words from his life but never known this one. Not round, not flat, not turtle, not Piscean. A shape you could never describe, no model to go by. One that reflects and refracts light, takes on all things given to it but regurgitates many. Seemingly composed of transparent matter, though one look at it and you won’t see a damned thing. And its depths only more of the same.
The boy sees none of this, only feels a unifying force tugging his heart toward the earth, some kind of emotional gravity. Though it feels particularly heavy at the moment, the force never changes weight or leaves him, but rather fades from his awareness like the rhythm of his breaths.
It does not belong to him, despite its residence.
The man spends no more than two minutes looking into the river before he absolves himself of it, turns and begins the task of retracing his steps – even mimicking their original trajectory – back toward the car. The boy is very aware of his approach this time, and he watches him with the tops of his eyeballs. The man’s face is visible but also not, as his eyes are obscured by aviator glasses that were likely earned in the skies during a war fought before the boy’s conception was conceived, a war that exists only to the boy in words. Flat lenses reflecting all of the faces that have ever gazed into them.
The man continues to shuffle forward, approaching the boy head-on, now only about fifteen feet away from an encounter. And the boy stares straight ahead at the river feigning interest, because this is what you do when approached by another human being, pretend not to notice until the last possible moment when the window is only large enough for a polite gesture and leaves no room for interpretation.
So as the man becomes flush with the boy, the boy delivers the gesture with a flick of his hand, if only as a defense mechanism after the man raises his own hand and waves hello or goodbye and smiles. And then he’s past. The moment, too. The boy doesn’t turn around to watch the man leave. Instead he returns to river-gazing and finding clever ways to describe what exists in front of him, scribbling furiously in his little notebook, yet behind him he hears a car stutter to a start, discerning its sound from the hundreds of other car engines that rattle over the bridge before him. A sound so proximate, it must be coming from the handicap space. The engine changes tones, from the low moan of stasis to the high hum of movement, and then the hum shifts and recedes, disappearing from perception altogether.
Rattled by this absence, the boy finds it difficult to focus anymore on those pages, as each engine on the bridge now garners the same attention the old man’s car demanded. He notes each one without enumerating them, for every time he becomes aware of a car’s existence, it is already passing out of his perception, and another makes its entrance, loud, present.
The boy sits vibrating, flecked with sun, radiant from such exposure. A common urge to take a nap lingers in his brain and bones, but is shaken out by the movement of his environment and forgotten. He continues to sit in the quake of everyone else’s movement until the vibration sets him into motion, moves him against his will onto his haunches, into a squat. He remains for a minute in the figure of the squat – more time than he’s ever spent in that position. And then he moves. Using stored power from his heart’s generator, he pushes himself to stand. The vibration echoing in the back of his head like his mother’s voice, yelling from the bottom of the stairs to wake up, it’s a school day. Your brother has already taken his shower. He pushes himself to stand until his head enters the canopy of contorted branches – all possible crowns, but all too thorny, with umbrage falling in veils unwanted – and instinctually shies away from such contact by ducking and stepping outside the tree’s domain into unfiltered sunlight. A spiderweb yarmulke glistens at the back of his skull unnoticed, its strands filling in for any missing hair follicles. The legs beneath him have grown foreign and numb from the length of his sitting, so he lifts them with much struggle, placing each foot down emphatically as if to beat feeling back into it. One foot comes crashing down as the other waits to rise.
In this way he walks toward the river, the guardrail ten feet to his left.