The morning is meant to begin somehow, a reckoning, or change in birdsong. When the mockingbirds finally quiet, and the doves murmur apologies, that’s when Andy throws a cord of wood into the pit’s smoker, which sits like a galvanized submarine at the end of Thorn St., a black matte thing, cylindrical, and neatly welded. It belches smoke before the neighbors can crack their windows, else—if windows are cracked—the smoker still acts as a pre-dawn and somehow undetected something, just part of the morning, like the first pour-overs of coffee, else the rustle of corvids sounding like sheeted plastic when grubbing for palm nuts in the fronds.
Scent is the furthest sense away from our notice, but the first to conjure memory. Which means I will not forget this time nor place though I ignore the mesquite, the early waftings like fire in milky brush, the sap having to sizzle away before the wood burns correctly and without any startling snap; you don’t hear it except when nearby stoking the fire.
You have a sense of smoke, but that’s also the sunrise rising, and everything dissipative in the morning: the steam off a cup of coffee; the new clouds which the night made old; the water heating the brass fixtures, the brass heating the shower.
It’s the crickets that you realize have been ceaseless—for how long? They rise and fall in volume, yet exhibit a particular algebra when they saw legs, when you want sawn logs, and when there is nothing of difference.
It’s morning, and you smell it, morning and mesquite, both the same.
“I have this idea,” Chris suddenly says.
Chris is dead. So is Italo. In different ways, they are dead. Italo, though,–he crafted a monkeywood sculpture that still sits at the local Thai place. Italo had the clever idea of soldering chain-link so that it stands forever upright, so it never collapse into coils on the floor. Has its place next to the monkeywood sculpture. This is cunning immortality, if you think about it.
The chain stands frozen next to a five-foot pillar of a statue, a human figure with limbs still congealed in media, arms frozen to hips as with alabaster chessmen. The whole thing’s done up in tempera. Italo liked tempera.
“It is stupid, tempera.” He’d lean in. “The Acropolis was a whore. Painted up with color thousands of years ago. All this garish egg paint. It’s white now,” he’d say dangling a demitasse from his pinky. He used fresco recipes to slapdash whatever sculpture he could unfinish, knowing that the tempera was bound to fade. Apparently some Rembrandts, the deep dank Rembrandts, are still wet beneath six inches of oil redux.
“I order all these monkey-men from a warehouse in Tibet. I say, ‘Give me all of them, give me all the monkey-men.’ I love them, my little soldiers,” he scratched his temples, the seemingly only well-groomed part of him. “Let the monkey-men turn white again, then people will think I’m genius.”
He said, “Here, here,” to me and Chris, “I love these cranberry bagels. Have some. You are my protégés. We share coffee.” We sat in a grove beneath old-growth eucalyptus that still had paper-thin bark.
He wagged a finger and spoke quietly, “The Parthenon is an ugly thing because it became beautiful by accident.”
“Make things ugly first, on purpose,” he gnawed a half-bagel. “Make ugly things.”
“Tempera,” he points suddenly and inexplicably upward, “I use it. It is the best disappearing ink.“ Chris hooked half a bagel toward himself and chewed laconically.
Chris disappeared in Czechoslovakia, when ten pairs of Levis could afford you decent digs, and when Prague was advertised as the city of spires and bridges. All these cantilevered and beveled constructions, romantic in their concrete and wire defiance of physics, leaden exercises in suspension.
“Hello from Praha,” Chris would at some point write to me, a postcard done up in dumb paint with scrawl on the back. He had an upcoming art show. “In beautiful Czech Krimsky R—-“. The R— word was illegible, else cut off, because he was dead before the postcard arrived Par Avion. He was found face down in a bar, supposedly having slipped on ice outside the absint establishment, which placed a half-pour in front of him as subterfuge before the coroners could collect him. The bruises, though, were obvious on the soft of his neck, two heady whacks to the brain stem, which loosened up the passport from his pocket and left Chris without any ID, which had him shelved for three weeks as John Doe in the morgue before his parents began their Transatlantic search.
“I feel…,” he said before the blue set in beneath his eyes and cyanotically discolored his cheeks.
“I have this idea,” Chris says, leaning against the porch railing. His idea was more an observation that, like loosely drawn curtains that can either be open or closed, didn’t solidify him in any tense except the soon to be preterite.
“These vans that go by,” and we are near the University, “They have ‘Information Destruction’ written on their sides.” And he half-heaves himself over the railing, anchored by his elbows. He lands back on the concrete in soft sneakers.
“What if they actually vacuumed up everything?”
“You sound high. They just get rid of all the files and shit.”
“No, no. Like, wherever they drove, everything just disappeared.”
Chris scoots a geranium pot from one side of the porch to the other with a scraping sound and does the same railing trick, just backwards this time.
“Like, gone,” feet landing on the ground again, “And you could drive one of these vans and get rid of stuff, just erase everything.”
“Yep. You’re totally high.”
He twirls against the railing. “They’d play ice-cream chimes. Minor key. And, <shwoop>, no more dog-walkers. No more cars. Complete takeaway of information.”
“That’s not what the trucks mean.” I pause, then nod approvingly. “Still it does sound delightfully sinister.” He lights a cigarette.
The crickets are forever chirping because the house is situated over a crawlspace and it’s easy for them to seek shelter up through the pantry and into the warm corners behind the fridge. You get used to them, eventually, just like you get used to the mockingbirds so much that you no longer notice when they become doves; or when the juncos start their flitting and antemeridial search for bugs to feed the cowbirds crowding their nests, the children that don’t resemble them but which the juncos take care of anyway.
Chris was maybe 5’7”, short of average and with forever-sleepy eyes that seemed sleepy as affect. Always the thrift store cardigan, the threadbare canvas shoes, and unkempt hair. He was unpolished to perfect blemish, insouciant and under-eye bruisy. He was from Santa Cruz, and pincered his cigarettes accordingly. Chris boiled water for tea thrice daily in his kitchenette.
“No, thanks.” I have my coffee.
“Fixes nothing, you know, you Degenerate,” I remark.
“It’s not supposed to fix anything,” he smiles, “But why not pretend?”
And the cars sit monumental, temporarily stopped. Andy throws the first logs into the fire to stir the air, which in actuality is just contribution to the morning, a new piece of the fabric. If the fire weren’t there, the morning would be incomplete. If I stopped waking up, as Chris did, the world would cease.
The mockingbirds of recent attention have stopped mimicking other birdsongs. They’ve taken to reproducing ringtones.
Hanging above the tea cannisters is a painting in unlikely color, something Chris has tacked to the inside of the cupboard. The woman depicted is ugly, else the painting is, and the fingers are prominent.
“You’re obviously not DeKooning, Friend. ‘The fuck is that piece?”
“Karen,” Chris says stirring honey into his tea. “Her name ‘s Karen. She presides over the Darjeeling.”
“She’s goddamn ugly.”
Chris taps his nose and acrobats onto the counter with a brimming mug, barely a slosh.
“But she’s got mighty fine fingers,” and he pats his crotch.
“Oh, shut up.”
The cars will sit for another hour, motionless, designed to look in motion even when stopped. It’s like a car can’t even be parked anymore, aerodynamic to the point of improbability.
Chris dangles his legs over the bar, the tea a medicinal effluvia of wet twigs. He scratches his scuff.
“Knew her in Santa Cruz. She’s down here now. Thought things could work out.”
He shakes his head. “Didn’t work out, but…” he trails off, touches his chin to his chest and rubs the back of his head. He moves his hand to cover one eye, then looks up to grin impishly, holds the tea cup at chin-level.
“Whatever,” he finishes. He inhales a laugh, which has him just rocking in his perch briefly, and he ponders a sip, rubs the side of his nose.
Italo would pace the classroom, and on unexpected days, he’d replace his belt with a braided rope. Always the same corduroys though, with wide waling and three colors of brown flecking the pants, the cuffs ragged at the bottom, and burnt marshmallow loafers.
His studio was set up in an abandoned water tower, a literal cylinder where you could walk literal circles around your work. It was junked up with monkey-men and chains and salvage-yard finds.
“That is DOPEY,” he’d berate a student occasionally. “You’re not dopey. Why do you make dopey?”
He’d walk across the room to readjust a needle on a turntable.
“I love Phillip Glass. All this modern jazz —no return to theme. Like when I first came to New York. I thought: why does everyone in America like yellow so much? Yellow is the worst color, so distracting, and all these cars. Yellow. Why?”
He slapped Chris upside the head.
Chris grinned, and ducked accordingly.
“Just exploring the media, Prof,” as he squished clay into another unrecognizable mess.
“They were taxis. I thought everyone just liked yellow cars. You people. I like the UPS trucks, you know. THAT is a fantastic color. Should all taxis be like that.”
“Was kidding about Karen, y’know,” I tell Chris.
“Oh, I know.”
Wet twigs make for bad perfume.
“Sorry—didn’t know she was your girlfriend.”
The crickets chirp, now I realize in chorus with the ceiling fan, the thrumming of regular noise, which by its constancy, fakes a rise and fall in pitch. There is actually no greying of white noise; it exists as an operant singing through radiator vents and conduits. The fan pulses, less helicopter than suggested; it’s the inconsistent buzzing of a light bulb fritzing out, the grinding and electric noise of insecure things. The fan swings on its swivel.
Chris ponders his tea, and points.
“Rauschenberg erased that DeKooning canvas, remember?”
“Made it his own by erasing it.”
“Erased DeKooning,” he announces, as if having erased the canvas himself, stupid art student.
Chris died on the street; in actuality he died in the bar, but his life escaped him on the street, that moment he crumpled and wondered, on hands and knees, what had hit him exactly—what was fastly deleting him. No blood, just a purpling contusion that surrounded his brain stem, which made him less likely to breathe, more likely to sleep.
When you don’t what’s hit you, there’s nothing to struggle against. It’s the cheapest, least fulfilling manner out.
Chris taps the overhead lamp; it’s flickering. “Karen—I really like her. I’d really like to be with her.”
“I don’t doubt you, Dude.”
Chris hit his head on the bar once, fell bodily, pulled himself up a second time and managed a drunkard’s posture with forehead against crossed forearms. He turned his head to exhale and let his right ear fall against the recess of his elbow. Cleared his throat.
The end of the bar was hinged, south of a football jersey stapled against the wall, red and black, the colors which shifted as Chris nestled deeper into his forearm.
Green, green with one eye open, the outline of the jersey in luminescent green as his pupils penned.
Please, back to purple, please, not green, please, back to purple, don’t. The number three, no eight, please don’t
“Buddy. BUDDY.” The bartender nudged Chris’ shoulder and Chris’ head slipped its hold, his nose falling bent against the bar. His mouth fell slack.
Chris was served an absinthe, on the house, while his cheeks turned blue.
“Yellow,” Italo announces, and seeing Chris’ gaze, “No, no, no. Have some more bagel.”
Chris picks at the crumbs, dislodges a cranberry for inspection.
“Yellow is dopey. Make nothing dopey. Yellow is the worst color, hard to erase. I like green, but that is me,” and he situates his coffee cup next to a small plate.
“Still–it must be erasable.” He crosses his arms. “There are colors you can’t forget; to be forgettable is the way to memory.”
“Do you ACTUALLY believe yourself, Italo?” Christopher asked, smiling, flicking the cranberry to the floor.
Italo leaned back in his chair. “I remember all the taxis,” he laughed, “But also I don’t. You see?”
Andy stokes the fire pit, and the embers match the orange sky. He rakes the coals to either side, watches them wither from black to white. There is the snap of mesquite releasing its hidden syrup and the brushing of the grill. There’s waiting for the fire to extinguish and the subsequent delivery of smoke, the smoke that eventually wafts past the porch and lingers in the gable as parcel to the morning. The mockingbirds have stopped; now the juncos, now the crows.
Karen told me that Chris was gone, years ago, a postcard of regret, a condolence, her fingers touching my shoulder.
“His parents were a wreck.”
I always have a hard time remembering his face, and the crows pick through palm nuts as if imagining there’s food buried deep within, their feet losing traction on slippery fronds. Cars are stopped, there is the scent of tea; there is signal of a present tense, and the morning begins and begins and begins again.