Patsy Cline’s band might work on material four hours in one afternoon. At the end of four hours they would have composed a beauty of a song, a real song, like something you might sing packed against a mass of bodies, pushing to get closer to the song itself. Patsy Cline said “I sang it and was happy to have found the melody. I didn’t know the quality of the melody until everyone was singing it and it seemed like a real melody then.” It was something Patsy Cline might have sung to her mockingbird. The mockingbird itself is a songwriter. Patsy often woke up early and placed blank sheet music on her desk before her bird woke up and began working through melodies.Walking After Midnightwas written at 6:15 some morning in 1952. The sky was the color of nostalgia; hazel, pink, and blue. The radio was made for mockingbirds. I was a mockingbird for three generations. I wrote songs for Patsy Cline and for Mozart. Also Led Zeppelin. Sometimes mockingbirds write speeches and philosophical tracts. Sometimes mockingbirds pull on heavy boots and thick slacks, suspenders and a heavy wool sweater and they carry their lunch with them to the construction site. Sit on a beam 400 meters in the air with other mockingbirds, a jaguar, and a grizzly bear to take their lunch. Drink hot coffee and tell stories about jumping trains and sneaking into movie theaters through the back door. I worked at a theater for a summer and was always chasing mockingbirds out of the back hall and into the parking lot where they turned into rays of sunlight, flew away. Once I chased a mockingbird out of doors only to discover I was the mockingbird and I was being chased by an angry theater employee. He was angry because he’d just had his wisdom teeth cut out and the holes where the teeth had been kept getting filled up with bits of food and he knew his mouth smelled like something in decay. He knew that he couldn’t ever kiss a girl that way. She would think he smelled rotten and she wouldn’t kiss him. Patsy Cline would have kissed him if he would only have been a gentleman, opened the door for her and stood up whenever she went to the ladies room or to the bar or maybe just to the telephone booth for a smoke. She would have kissed him strong and sang while he caught his breath in between sessions of her exploring tongue and hands working in unison. Patsy Cline was an 18 year old that summer and she sang and played keyboard for a church in Lebanon, Kentucky. She had dark brown hair and a slender, handsome face. Patsy Cline was a miracle worker. She was out rowing in a canoe with me on Green River Lake and I asked her if I should try to walk on the water. She laughed at me and took off her shirt and stepped out on to the lake. She walked off and never came back again.
Driving in America can be like walking on a treadmill. The things that seem fine in Vermont seem equally fine in Kentucky. Here and there are old Victorian houses, sable barns cresting hills, the tail of a red fox darting behind a tree, following the animal’s bounding feet, no more than a moment’s flickering image. At some points in life the feeling of America as a treadmill can be a great distraction. At such times people will share something in common with the darting foxes, only bigger and more well connected, able to drive motor cars in fancy coats and hats. The men who wear moustaches will seem most like foxes, the bushiness of facial hair like big, downy tails whipping here and there. Lawsuits will seem like attacks, great sudden springing leaps from within forests of trees, claws out, making scissoring sounds as they slice through the air, expecting purchase on flesh. Domestic troubles will share the same sad tenor as a moon almost fully waxed, silvering into a roadside pond, half green with jealousy. The foxes not going there at all. Dollars will sometimes be exchanged for hotdogs and coca-cola, not the same at all as opossum meat, roots, nuts, all the offerings of the Northeastern woods. Hotdogs, like dollars, are not grown on trees, a fact held in common by men and foxes, and, even if they were, driving across America still wouldn’t be easy. Driving off would mean there would be no one responsible for picking ripe dollar bills and fully grown hot dogs. Who then to package the links? Who to sign the treasurer’s name in majesterial hand? As an act of goodwill, and to promote exchange between the two states, the Governors of Vermont and Kentucky will trade fox for fox, 1,000 foxes in all. Convoys of foxes will be sent in great big trucks. The drivers exchanging vehicles somewhere in Northern Virginia, and the animals, when released, won’t realize they had gone anywhere. They will all scamper off to the homes of displaced foxes, looking just the same as their own. The truck drivers will then go off together in search of a hotdog tree in full bloom. They will note that it is the middle of December and that In America there are more treadmills in use per capita than there are treadmills, foxes, and hotdogs combined.
I could hear the crickets enveloping the night and it wasn’t too cold for sitting outdoors past eleven letting the sound ascend. I remembered thinking that late spring was a promise of love, fireflies at night some romantic pulse, the face of a lover deep and forever. I could hear her voice through the rustle of leaves in the woods at the edge of the park. There had been divine passion. We were constellating stars. I found her spirit in mine and desire spilled out of me like a flooding river, like endless crickets in early summer singing of hidden glory. I was part of the infinite then, had found the great expanding eternity that God sets in the hearts of men, some great coursing energy without beginning or end. I was pure energy then. In an early summer night I drove over miles and miles of Kentucky to find her studying for the bar exam and took her in my arms. After two years of being apart there was rest in it. She was thin and pretty like leaves pressed in a book, and I felt that she might break apart and scatter into nothing when I held her, dancing to the languid music playing from my phone. She drew back, placed her hand on her head, “I’m getting dizzy from this. Can we sit down?”
She sat next to me told a story that cascaded across me in pretty rivulets of hope. ”I dreamed you were with me one night. I was fixing my hair and couldn’t get it right. I washed it and combed it and tried everything but it was no good until you took the brush. You brushed my hair and told me I was beautiful and in my dream I fell asleep. That’s why I wrote to you.”
“You are beautiful,” I told her. I didn’t tell her that I dreamt we met at the Palace theater and a month later it really happened and that in the dream we kissed and laid together like what went on to happen. I had foreseen enough that when she left I felt my vitality go dark. I wondered why I hadn’t seen her leave in the dream too. Universal desire has the summer lasting forever, has passion burning on. It’s hard to sort out, hard to figure out what to do after something like that vanishes. The crickets never seem to mind. Their song maintains its cadence, sweet and slow like discovering burning love.
There are these photographs of Indians I like to look at. Brazen, hard faces looking far past some old camera. I think the Indians were stronger than the people that conquered them. They might be stronger than most of the people currently living on the planet. I wonder that sometimes, about the generations that came before that were stronger somehow. Men whose muscles were iron, with courage more tempered than the steel in their swords. I measure myself against them and feel a strangeness imagining myself more like them. A spartan worded man with eyes glimmering full of knowledge and wisdom. A spirit of resolve. At home within myself. I think I’m close to that last one. I feel that way a lot, but I’m comfortable with a make-up far from the brave Indians I imagine when I see those pictures. I wonder what they felt when they ran their hands across tree bark and watched the sun slowly rise above the hills, shedding golden mist.
Ralph had been gone for several days. He never told anyone he was going but I’d noticed that he had been distracted a few days before. He’d only half listened to conversations, sitting in a chair pushed more toward the corner than usual, his face turned to the wall, tracing cracks spidering along the plaster. He came back a few days later and I found him pacing around his room. “Look here,” he said, slapping a notebook down on the table. “Right here.” There were lines of a song leading into pages of some story that began and ended in the stars and opening up heaven in-between. “Ralph,” I said, “this is real good.” “Yeah, I figured,” he said. “You should take it. Turn it into a book probably.”
“Ha, I don’t know. This is real untouchable stuff.”
“Jooooseph. Joooooseph.” He said, folding his arms across his chest to imitate me. “Forget it then, lets get some lunch or something.”
I got behind the wheel, and we found a station playing classical music, I wondered aloud if the trees were feeling the sheer magnificence of today. Ralph had a plaintive smile on his face, and I could feel his mind come and go like heat lightning on a summer’s night.
I knew a girl for a while that liked to laugh at her own tragedies. The more hopeless her situation the more laughter that sparkled out of her like cataracts splintering over dark rock. She played piano well enough to fill the room up pretty well and never tied her long brown hair back. She let it spill out like notes. There was a night, car parked next to a lake that she was telling me some of those secret lover’s things when a police-car pulled in behind us. I let her talk to the guy, noticing the way he liked being close to her too. He could feel the energy behind her voice and maybe played with the idea of feeling her browned Italian skin pressed up close. Lips like a mother’s touch. He asked her if she was alright and I watched her place her hand on his arm and say, “Yes, thank-you officer.” He left us there and she laughed about the whole thing and her laughter was a sign all its own. I didn’t let her press herself close for awhile. I Listened to her tell me about a boy that used to live down the street. How he taught her things about music and love and rejection. She laughed part of the time and I could see that laughter was the way that she kept from crying. I held her close then and we pretended we were lovers again. She talked about the dinners she wanted to make me and I said we could take a walk every night, watch the sun set again and again. Before I left she held me close, digging her face into my shoulder, and I could tell I wouldn’t see her again. On the drive home I could feel her laughter coursing over the stones in myself.
I guess I could go blind. Or at least half-blind. There for a while there were flashes, little xerox machine lights going back and forth somewhere in my eye. Once an hour and sometimes every few minutes. The left eye in rebellion is one of those slaps in the face from the body, a reminder that no matter what kind of hard work is put into making the body strong, it can’t last. Won’t last in fact. It feels, too often, that there are too many things beyond my control. Like dreams of fifty foot waves rising above the highway or a past that goes on being untouchable. Without my eyes I would listen to stories more often and would play music, but softly, to spare my hearing.
I don’t think I’m going to go blind. Not now. I don’t need to go blind. I need to see the world a little longer now that I’m seeing without illusions casting their shadows across things that are sometimes more beautiful shadowed, sometimes less so. There’s a pool I like to swim in, mostly because you can float on your back and look up at the glass ceiling above. All the concentric circles bisected by steel with its perfect circle in the middle. I found out that a guy I know swims in that pool three times a week. I said, “I love the glass ceiling there. I really like going on my back to look at it.”
“The glass ceiling?” he said, “In the pool?” He hadn’t ever seen it. Hadn’t noticed something that had made me feel so much inward peace at the end of my swims as I looked up at that circle and imagined it looking back at me. I kind of doubt my friend has even bothered to look up even after I told him about it.
I wonder how many people are already blind in a way.
“What’s it like being thirty?” said the girl. She had on black tights and a grey dress and sat beside the young man on a park bench in the heart of the city. They were pressed close together for warmth in the cool night.
“Oh, I mean, it’s good. I feel great. But I guess the funny thing is that I probably should have felt this way a long time ago.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well. Ok. The thing is, there was all this time that I was stressing myself out about the strangest things. Or at least, things that shouldn’t have stressed me out. Like paying rent.”
“Yeah, I could see that. Like you’ve experienced things now and you know generally how things will go.” said the girl.
“Right. I kinda know how they’ll go,” said the man. “I guess the only thing is I feel like I should have done more up to now, and I never should have been worried about things like paying rent. I had a friend that said to me a few years back that I should do whatever I most loved. That I should try to do the thing that I would do if I there was nothing to stop me from succeeding. It’s taken a long time for me to try to do that.”
“What is that exactly?” the girl said.
The man thought of all the kinds of things that people say in these situations and realized he had used them all before. He needed to be able to tell her, as best as he was able, only things that were very true.
“I guess,” said the man, “that the degree is what I’ve wanted to do. It’s not music. I thought I wanted that for so long and I still love it, but I guess I’m wanting to do something responsible. You know, something I can keep doing when I’m older. I could never see myself as a drummer for a band when I’m sixty you know?”
“Well. That’s good then.” The girl examined the man’s face carefully. “Is that everything?” she asked while gently digging her elbow into the man’s side.”
“No. It’s not all,” he said, leaning in to kiss the blushing girl.
One hot day in July I played home run derby in a backyard pool in Kentucky. My first girlfriend was there running out of the house in a bikini and the sound of her laughter trickled out like a waterfall. Her friend ran out of the house, a block of ice in her hands. My first girlfriend met my eyes as she ran toward me. She was a heaven of long brown hair and dark eyes. Skin gleamed and flashed against the sky. My first girlfriend tackled me and held me on the ground while a block of ice was held against my back. The day wore on in innocence with lemonade and grilled hotdogs and a round of home run derby. For some reason i was the only person able to hit a home run. I hit a home run every time at bat. My first girlfriend eagerly swung the bat but never really connected very well. After my fourth home run my first girlfriend rolled her eyes and made a huffing noise. I hit home run after home run and swam the bases with unhindered joy.
The only thing I was really hitting out of the park was my chance at having a lasting relationship with my first girlfriend. I think my first girlfriend liked me because she thought she could hold me down with ease, call every shot. After the home run derby she stopped flashing her eyes at me and the summer had nothing left to give me but the heat lingering deep into the night.