Sweeter Than Anything
If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that. I’ll live my life or I’ll end my life with this project. Herzog
Someday, life will be sweet like a rhapsody. When I paint my masterpiece. Dylan
To what shall I liken the creative process, birth or death? Yes! Luigi Zeripaldi
Chapter Three: The Sorrows of Nelson
An ancient sage said no man should own more than he can carry. Clutching a Hefty bag and watching the dawn rain brimstone on Milwaukee, Nelson makes a virtue of necessity. One of his boots has no laces, forcing him to favor the other leg, signaling a weakness he doesn’t have. If consciousness is a stream, compassion is a rivulet that appeared yesterday and could dry up this afternoon. Don’t count on it during droughts. Don’t count on it ever.
He walks behind a drugstore and leans against a dumpster and searches through his bag and pulls out a pair of jeans. Is the split in the seat too big to be worn in public? Once upon a time. Not now. Amazing how standards change, like a yardstick warped by humidity. The ragged cuffs don’t reach his ankles, but they’re less awful than what he was wearing. He folds those sour shreds and places them in his bag, a tomb of Bethany from which they will one day arise with new life, when the jeans by comparison are worse.
Sunlight oozes over walls painted with cryptic symbols and spreads an orange growth in the alley, irresistible to a one-eyed cat. It makes a pact with gravity and plunges from a windowsill. On its back it stretches and writhes, in the throes of a feline vision quest, perhaps napping with a pride of elders. Contrary to popular belief, pleasure is the absence of pain. Blink and it’s gone. Don’t blink and it’s gone too.
Back on the street Nelson limps with great resolution. In lieu of rage or bewilderment or resignation, the remains of dignity smolder in his eyes. Avoid the inference. If it can happen to him …
He stands across from a bank and studies the digital clock, outraged by its testimony as if arriving from a place where Time’s obscene striptease is prohibited, the wanton display not tolerated.
Drivers watch him. Disgust hops from one host to another like some condemnation from a Universal Mind using individuals as vessels. It inflames a young man driving a pickup, possesses a woman in a Camry, then fills the faces in one shiny vehicle after another until Nelson yearns for the paradise of invisibility or at least the stupefied indifference of his fellow homeless travelers. With what talisman do they deter this demon or aren’t they superstitious?
Funny how you care what others think even when critical issues vie for precedence. A wise man said consciousness is an illness. Then being concerned with the consciousness of others is a fever in a funhouse.
A yellow Mustang detonates hip-hop tremors across the pavement. The passenger inspects Nelson and looks away as if recanting belief in his existence. A hybrid runs the light to avoid idling next to him. For this they’re saving the planet? Should have bought a Hummer. It requires no psychic to detect thoughts piercing as screams: sentences of exile commanded by dozens of petty dictators each day. Maybe his cohorts who argue with unseen tormentors are practicing soliloquies of innocence. But their energy nourishes the scrutinizers, transforming lowly magistrates in the court of social norms into executive editors deleting names from the Book of Life.
He spits in the gutter and crosses the street. His reflection in the bank window flinches. If only some telescope could have seen this apparition approaching from the distance of ten years. He could have taken another direction. Or were other future incarnations worse? Maybe there was only one. Cold comfort until you think about it. Something made this happen. This. Hard not to take it personally.
The people inside tend an abstraction that grew from the exchange of beads for food, the way sacrificing goats to stop thunder morphed into Mozart’s Requiem. Small changes accrue, leaving few fossils. Remember that. The rest is trivial.
“We don’t have public restrooms,” says the security guard, followed by a disastrous attempt at a smile. Any juries deliberating whether pity is worse than cruelty are dismissed.
“That’s alright,” says Nelson. “I piss and shit outside. Like an animal. There’s something wrong with your clock.”
“It tells the time, temperature, and date. You can watch it for free. Outside.”
“Are you sure my eyes won’t wear it out? I’d be happy to pay for the depreciation. I have some underwear in my bag I could trade.”
On his first day the guard must have thought he’d be foiling robbers, negotiating with kidnappers, and seducing tellers who instead act as vessels of the same harsh judgments haunting Nelson. Some of the patrons turn away from the confrontation, declaring neutrality or at least indifference. Those who watch find succor from the pain that living brings, mollified by the ultimate antidepressant: Schadenfreude XR, time release, a natural tonic used by all people at all times.
“I want to call your attention to the fact that it’s not showing the same temperature as the credit union,” says Nelson.
“I’ll be sure to mention this to the president.” The guard hands him a pen. “I’d like to thank you for your support.”
“You don’t have to be an ass. I’m trying to help. You need to check and see if anything’s wrong with it.”
“Nothing’s wrong with it. Ours is the correct one.”
“How do you know? Prove it. What if they’re both wrong?”
“Maybe you could keep an eye on our clock. Outside. If you do I’ll give you another pen tomorrow.”
“Can I fill out an application for your job? I promise I won’t mention the grade school diploma that makes me overqualified.” Nelson unzips his parka. A ghastly stench seeps out like some malevolent genie escaping a cracked bottle.
The guard steps closer until his face contorts. He remains a few feet away as though blocked by a force field. Revulsion is an instinct. And judging. He can’t help blaming Nelson for stinking and dressing this way. Everyone naturally believes we choose our traits. Some thoughts are as essential to survival as lust and thirst. Most are lies.
“There’s a restaurant three blocks up the street with a bigger sign,” says the guard.
“It has the same temperature as the credit union. This isn’t a matter of consensus. If it were, your bank would have some explaining to do.”
“Maybe the temperature is different from place to place. Why does it have to be the same everywhere?”
Nelson covers his ears and screams. Two of the guard’s neckless comrades approach, chomping gum. A teller with shooting stars tattooed on her neck and a swarm of earrings grimaces and looks away. Some tribal chieftains killed subjects who walked in their footprints or made eye contact. Talk about privilege. Bank tellers have no such rights.
“The thermometer here is wrong,” Nelson yells to the patrons. “They’re lying to you, you stupid sheep. Don’t you care?” He retreats through the revolving door. This one doesn’t lock when he’s halfway through, trapping him like an insect in a Tic Tac container. Distorted by the tinted glass, the guards watch him like mad scientists performing a biopsy of his soul. He doesn’t wait for the diagnosis. Far above, all those chemicals failing to clot in the silent and beautiful reaches of space have no idea how good they have it.