By Lyle Rosdahl
In the cubicle, newly moved in as he was, he could not help but notice everything as there was nothing of substance to observe. The high fabric covered walls that hemmed him in (how could that entryway be so tiny?) also muffled conversations around him piquing his sense of isolation. There were no windows in the long, narrow room (were the oaks dropping their messy tassels or the pecans their nuts?). Desks on the left and right staggered against the walls; cubicle entryways lurched haphazardly to reduce possible contact. But it was his first day and first day impressions were often hysterical, weren’t they?
They had come earlier that day to set up the computer — that awkward silence like the suspended ceiling — seeming to at once hide something and bare something much even less attractive in the process. Still: it was something different for him, this “work.” What had Philip Larkin called it? That “toad work”? Haha, yes, that was it. He remembered the word “squat” so clearly and it made him glance back up at the ceiling, much too close to the top of the cubicle walls. He was glad that he wasn’t claustrophobic, and worried that he would catch it, like a cold. How many people have buried themselves in here? he wondered.
He trolled through the computer, changing the desktop photo to a picture he took at one of the meetings (illicitly — how could he prove even to himself, otherwise, that he had gone?). He didn’t like to think about those meetings because then he would think about why he was there, about the part of his life that was over, and the starting over that had always held so much cleansing allure, but which, upon necessity, clung to him like a film. They told him that he should always think about it, but even after all these years he didn’t want to. So he started opening drawers.
One at a time. Stapler. Paper clips. Staples. Office things. Some with traces of humanity, like the moth-eaten half-roll of breath mints. But what he found in the middle drawer pulled him up short. A picture of a woman. Not necessarily so unusual. The last cubicle-man’s wife, probably — nothing that would inherently shake off the toad. But she looked so much like someone he once knew. So much like her that he couldn’t help but remember, as if every single synapsis in his brain had suddenly loosened. Her hair, so dark, and then everything opened.
Acapulco Drive-In or Specter
On cool fall afternoons he sat in the sun on one of the green plastic adirondack chairs. Across the street, in that particular autumn light, which had changed suddenly, as it does, from one day to the next — the angle, the hue, saturation, value — the firehouse glowed a translucent amber. On that particular day, the Acapulco Drive-In sign cast a long shadow, as did the Lone Star can on the armrest when he positioned it just right. He enjoyed watching the shadows lengthen, at first slowly and then quickly just like he drank his beers. He was waiting for her as the day exhaled and the evening breath commingled with the sighing heat of the asphalt. She probably wouldn’t come, but he had become used to it by that point. The disappointment melted, at any rate, with the equalizing indulgence of daydreams and hooch. And soon, in the darkening blue dusk, the water-like rustling of the palm trees smeared into the city sounds. The clanking of his empty beer can falling onto the cement brought him around. Is it empty? he wondered (though the sound answered his question before he posed it to himself). When did that happen? People swarmed around the bar and ate from styrofoam plates and talked and drank. A band set up in the corner and the whispers of twilight began to bend under the intentional, vociferous fortitude of night. And she did arrive. Like a specter risen from his revelry. Or transubstantiated from the residual heat because suddenly she was in an identical adirondack chair next to him, beer in hand. Where’d you come from? The murmur of the crowd and rustling of traffic becoming focused. The hoppy daydream he was unconsciously happy to have, momentarily, left behind. I’ve always been here, she said.
The Esquire or Frisk
You know they frisk you in here, she said, like he didn’t know. In the evening, she added. She said this every time they went. He wasn’t in the mood, but she never seemed to notice when he wasn’t in the mood. That was one of the things he liked about her. They found a place easily at the long, wooden bar, which needed to be redone — you ran the risk of splinters if you weren’t careful. You put your elbows up on that bar anyway, and your foot up on the rail and ordered a tall boy and a shot of tequila for $3. It wasn’t quite noon but that’s what you did anyway. It would help, he told himself. She was talking about the time that some guy got knifed on a Sunday night because he was checking out some other guy’s girl. She tilted her head back and laughed. Knifed! That’s real life, she said. And she was already on to the taxidermal animals on the wall (like that suicide squirrel, she said). He was only partially listening (and weren’t those animals later?). That was something he would regret. Something he would dwell on. And it would provide odd comfort. At least he was able to remember her, though he had not thought of her for so long. The tequila was sweet and acidic. Alcoholy, she said around the wedge of lime in her mouth. He said, ahhhhh, and wished he was dead. Something else he would remember later.
Liberty Bar or Pecans
He thought for some time that she was haunting him. Like a house. Him both passive in the matter and active - alive - because of it. Her energy somehow animated the inanimate - something from nothing! And sometimes (almost always) he felt stupid about that. He didn’t believe in that kind of thing. He was rational. But he came back to that simile. And what were similes but hauntings? Images making tenuous, translucent connections. Vehicles and tenors incomprehensible in any other way except to the human mind. That too was a haunting. Consciousness. The fabrication of meaningfulness in the face of eradication. How will I be remembered? you want to know. Children, legacy, stories? Does it really matter? The yawning maw of fickle-natured culture inevitably sucks you into these questions and you are gone, so much nothing, in your wondering (in your lust!). So why concern yourself with residuals? Why worry about how you’ll be remembered? The other part of the equation where the tenor becomes the vehicle: memory is death and death, memory. Some people just work through it more slowly than others. Some never work through it at all. Those must be the thoughts of a dying man to whom both of these things matter very much. But he was not yet a dying man in that immediate way. All around him conversations lilted and pitched in drunken alacrity. It had just been a lull, after all, as iambic pentameters suddenly matched up for a second (an eternity). On the bar, condensation pooled around the base of his pint glass like loosened skin. Through the big windows on the second floor, just beyond the pecans, the Tower of the Americas lanced the blue, cloudless sky. But she was not there, anymore.
Pig Stand or Pigs
Look at them, she’d snicker, all bunched up with their belts full of stuff. Haha. Those cool autumn nights at the Pig Stand. So full of drink-promise. The lull in the afternoon breezes after the hurly-burly of summer. It was always the difference between summer that made autumn anything at all. But he was drifting and so she talked even louder and the cops fidgeted. All night, she said. You never listen. That may be, he said, reckless,heedless, But sometimes you don’t say anything. She turned that light red — just at the ridges of her cheeks — then she reared back and slapped him. The sound reverberated in the night-diner-silence. Every one of the cops looked over as she marched out. No one else but he would have noticed the tiniest hint of a smile on her lips. That’s how he remembered it, anyway. That’s how it must have been. One of the cops laughed — a good, loud guffaw. They made up later. They always made up. After all, what was more important than making up?
Espuma or Smokes
He sat quietly having a sandwich and a cup of coffee thinking about where he might — must! — go afterwards. But when he wasn’t thinking about what was next he was momentarily satisfied with the present, though he was not aware of it. Anyway, that coffee-fueled self-consciousness would have brought him back to what was next. Where was the next place, always some distance off, that might hold such an unconscious moment, the mere thought of which dissipated itself like smoke? But for a little while he was lost in the spindly, devil horn shadows cast by the late afternoon sun through the still juvenile, and bare, chinaberry tree. The ripe berries hung down tantalizingly, even as shadows, on the wall of the coffee shop and through the windows and tripping across the door jambs and tables and coffee house paraphernalia and a few customers. It was not yet cold, but the chill in the shade said it would be soon. Before the shadow caught his attention, he had considered the vague insistence of frost in light of a pang of loneliness — nothing horrifying yet, but nagging — and wondered if he was lonely or not lonely or both. But, perhaps, he thought, that doesn’t matter and I am content — or not content. He was neither in that thought. And then there were the people walking by. Holding hands, or with their heads down against the last piercing rays of light. He loved to watch them. Loved to think about who they were. More, he thought, than he wanted to actually know who they were. It was all too apropos when she sat down at the table next to him and asked him for a cigarette and then a light. Both? he grinned. Seriously? I’m trying to quit, she said, seemingly without beguile or irony. He fished around in his bag and produced a hard pack and a book of matches. Good luck, he said.
Sanchez Ice House or Stars
Some nights he would look up at the stars with her and he would name constellations. She told him later that she had liked that at one point. Some nights he couldn’t remember them and so he would make them up — there’s Snoopy Loop, he might say. Or The Kennedys. Isn’t that Chock-a-block? It wasn’t funny, really, but she said she enjoyed the way he came up with names out of nowhere. Then one night, out under the highway, he said, “Blanket of stars.” He thought he remembered saying that, but it may have just been because that’s what she told him later. Blanket of stars. It was then, she told him subsequently, that she had decided she’d had enough. It wasn’t the drinking; it was the lack of effort (though, she said with her hands coming down like axes, one is symptomatic of the other — he was never sure which spawned which and would never agree with her out loud). So the cliché doomed him, finally. Ha. The lazy residue a person might leave behind on a blanket of stars. A sort of smearing across the sky — dots become smudges. The world spun much too fast and he tried to stop it with both hands. Cars hissed by on the highway above. And under the lights strung out around the ice house, people danced about in the ragged edges of Tejano music. Mists of conversation settled in the crisp air stirred by bursts of laughter, the clink of beer bottles. He pulled another Lone Star out of the metal bucket unsettling the chips of ice. He stared up really believing, not only in their existence, but in their substance, though he was unable, or unwilling to communicate it, as if he had internalized the light that reached them from so long ago. He tried to imagine places where he was not and how the stars might look. But at Sanchez Ice House it suddenly felt like too much, like he was being crushed. The beer bottle felt so tiny in his hand and cars suddenly jumped the cement barriers and piled up on the dancers. He heaved up, knocking the metal folding chair to the ground. But, she said later, she knew this too well, and so she watched him go, blank-eyed, streaking the stars behind him.
B&D Ice House or Strands
He found strands of her hair, though he never used to call them strands when they were together. All this goddamn hair, he would say. But when he found one so far removed, that’s how he thought of it. And suddenly he seemed to find them everywhere: stretched across a bottle of ketchup or clinging stubbornly to a pair of chopsticks. Strands. Connections, tenuous and faulty, to her — or the memory of her, tenuous and faulty. Fibers of memory like the shredded story he tried to tell himself. Just try to put it back together. Filaments. Figments. But at least they were something. They had to be something. The embodiment of her, rising still, in surprising places (behind a rock or in the meat drawer of the fridge matted into the corner). He quite often left them there to surprise him again — memory is like that: dormant and then there, taking you over utterly. And the karaoke singer singing "I Walk the Line" at B&D Ice House surprised him by reminding him of that one night so long ago when, besotted with drink and maudlin, she had sung that song — belted it out in that very ice house. Time had plastered over the residual until he heard the man, himself besotted with drink, sitting on a stool, crooning, off-key but heart-felt, into the thick, warm, fall air of Southtown. He sat down to listen and remember and Bruno (had he been there or was he mixing up this memory with that memory?) thumped the Lone Star he ordered on the counter and joked about the caterwauling. He remembered that he never called them strands when they were together. He remembered not remembering since.
A new man, he thought. A new man takes these shots. They are more than whiskey! They are the frothy whiskey piss representing the memory multiverse. And what is memory if not the tally of absence — the presence of nothing which passive-aggressively reminds you that there is nothing? Bubble-pops like randomly released neurotransmitters — the incomprehensible passing moments leaving only the translucent residue of memory. But where is it in your head? Careening off synapses or dendrites or odd fleshy angles? Such immense loss in so little time. Such tenuous connections like so few strands of hair.
Another shot before they kick me out of wherever I am! I don’t remember anymore. And I don’t think it really matters anyway.
This is not what I want to say. None of this is what I mean to say. When you are done — burn it, so it will be forgotten faster. The less residue, the better.
Lyle D Rosdahl received his undergraduate degree from Concordia University in Montreal and graduated with an MFA from Goddard College in Vermont. He has been published by Tarpaulin Sky, Art Voice, and Press 1. He also facilitates and contributes to Postcard Fiction Collaborative.
For more writing by Lyle Rosdahl, visit www.lylerosdahl.com.