A bizzare, surrealist experimental poetry performance I created in 2012.
How penetrating are the ends of days in autumn! Oh! Penetrating to the point of grief! For there are certain delicious sensations whose vagueness does not exclude intensity; and no point is sharper than that of the Infinite.
-Charles Baudelaire, “The Confiteor of the Artist”
Eliza and I stepped out of the oblong metal box and into an expansive gray wasteland. Construction material littered the ground between pillars where walls should have been. The upper floors were supposed to be living spaces for humans, but when the recession hit the owner stopped paying for the building’s manufacture. We were standing on top of a tiny skyscraper looking over Rittenhouse Square. She was more than just my roommate and co-worker, but I didn’t know what I was to her.
While I was on break at work we had snuck into the maintenance area from the basement and took the freight elevator straight up. I was biting my nails inside the rickety machine. She giggled quietly at my nervousness and looked up at me with her bright ice blue eyes and freckles that matched her curly deep burgundy hair. My responses were bashful at best. At that time Eliza was twenty four and I was twenty one and wholly intimidated by her, even though she was almost half my size. We listened to the pulleys scream. Each floor took half a minute to reach, and because it was mostly out of service the machine would stall at every other number. By the time we found the roof access door I was craving fresh air, which while opening I realized was an insatiable desire in Philadelphia’s polluted atmosphere. At least the outdoors weren’t so closely filled with carcinogens and dust.
The late September sky was also gray and it didn’t smell like autumn yet at all. Actually, it never smells like fall on Walnut Street, although some of the trees were starting to change. So was Eliza. Her oven had become third-trimester-huge. As I turned to look at her admiring the skyline I felt guilt for worrying about my breathing when Eliza’s lungs had to work for two. You need to stop feeling so responsible for her, I thought.
“What the hell are you doing?” I yelled, after coming to from gazing off at the park below. She was leaning over the ledge, looking down a twelve story drop. Her belly was tucked under the short wall, but her torso was precariously bent over the almost abyss. Eliza laughed while I gently yet firmly grabbed her.
“Relax John. I’m okay, really.”
I pulled her back anyway and lingered for an instant while holding her hips. The baby inside her wasn’t mine, although I put my hand on her stomach as if it, she, was, and smiled back at her belatedly. My girlfriend Selena had introduced us when I used to sell weed. Selena was fiercely jealous of my friendship with Eliza.
“Why are you looking at me like that you creep,” she said, teasing.
I told her I was sorry in a sarcastic tone. We stared at the specks of people. It was then that she told me about all the horses buried under Rittenhouse Square.
“Do their ghosts trot through the park?” I laughed as I asked, but she was serious for once.
“It’s just horrible that there’s no memorial for them,” she said.
“Their corpses must be why the trees are so big,” I replied.
She seemed sad, and I wondered if her baby felt emotions in tandem with her, then I smelled her hair while she wouldn’t notice. It was beautiful. There were memories in the ether. The various branches swayed in the distance below. We didn’t matter, although all meaning was within us. Gusts of wind kept picking up, so I ended up lying on the hard roof, mostly out of fear, but also because I wanted to experience the world in a different way. Each building was a different color even though they were all generally made of the same kind of glass, steel, and stone. I checked my cellphone for the time.
“We gotta’ get going,” I said.
Our way back down was easier than the way up. Eliza got done work early. After taking orders from greedy childish adults for several more hours, a slight exhaustion set in, but I still didn’t want to go straight home so I walked across the street to the park. Eliza and her boyfriend, Ricardo, were sitting on a bench at the northeast corner. Ricardo looked agitated, and didn’t say hello.
“Hey, we’ve been waiting around for you after shopping. Look what I got for the baby.” She showed me the clothes and whatever else that was in her bags. I feigned interest. She asked if I was heading home, and if I wanted to walk with them.
“I appreciate the offer, but I’ve got some things to do,” I said.
She looked at me strangely, then they were gone. I could tell that Ricardo didn’t want me around. He was tired from working so much, saving up money for the coming child. Eliza knew that I had no cash nor subway tokens left, and felt bad that I had a long walk alone ahead of me. There was something about that evening though, a foreboding feeling and I needed to be by myself. Selena had texted me multiple times, so I turned my phone off then went to sit on the public lawn. Not just the sky but the air itself was orange. It looked like everything was combustible.
With legs crossed sitting in the wet grass I pulled out my small crimson sketchbook from my back pocket and tried drawing what was in the present, without any contextual interference. Leaves were changing with the atmosphere. Bark falling onto the broken, dirty soil. Most of the environment had been overtaken by the artificial. I imagined all of the invisible energy pulsing through my body, all of the radiation soaking everything. Humans began to look monster-like in appearance. I saw flesh falling off the many homeless people in the park. Walking skeletons crept behind bushes, smoking and coughing incessantly. Rotting teeth fell out of casually passing pedestrians’ mouths. Before then I felt alone, but the lack of nature made me realize how clustered we all were. I was one with the crowd. Eliza was bringing another human into this claustrophobic world.
My fingers gripped the pencil, but I couldn’t draw anything substantial. Just lines, twigs and leaves overlapping one another until they looked like wires tangled, like something so unnatural. The animal corpses underneath me did nothing but nurture the roots of those trees; their bones were barely left. Life had sucked death dry. Inanimate languages fell upon deaf ears. I looked around for their spirits and found none. Having lost my duel with creative expression, I put away the pencil and paper, and just sat there, breathing in nothingness.
Getting home was long and boring. We lived in North Philly, a far walk, but usually not too bad while drunk. I was looking forward to drinking whatever booze left in the fridge at the house, if Ricardo and his friends hadn’t drank it all already. I’d hoped not. The neon lights of Chinatown pierced through my skull. Chewing nicotine gum didn’t help either. My teeth were yellow and practically rotting. Sewage ran along the sides of the streets because of flooding from weeks of almost non-stop rain. Selena is going to be pissed, I thought.
On the southern corner of Seventh and Spring Garden I waited for the light to turn green then realized that there wasn’t any traffic anyway, so I just walked right through until coming upon a black metal fence on the other side. A nineteenth century red brick building loomed in front of me. I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t really paid attention to it until then, when I lived only a few blocks away. It’s a national historic landmark. What struck me was the woman in white tending the garden. Her dress was more like a gown, and I could have sworn there was no dirt on it, though nighttime had settled in, and the streetlights were dimly flickering. She would lean over with a spade and strike the earth, then crouch down to plant seeds.
“Why the hell is she doing that in autumn?” I whispered to my still self.
I took the cellphone out of my pocket and turned it on. When I looked back up she had appeared several feet closer and was facing me, but bent forward. My heart fluttered. The screen said “LOW BATTERY” so I put it back. A gurgling sound came from the sodden soil. Vegetables and plants crawled about in the dirt before me. She altered as my face was pressed against cold iron. Her skeleton reverberated as she wheezed and hacked up phlegm all over the stems and flowers. That only made them grow faster. My hands searched around for pencil and paper to no avail.
“Swallow me,” I said, without reason.
I just wanted to be inside of her, but I couldn’t get past the fence, so I pulled the sketchbook out of my pants then opened to a clean page and began to draw verdure the likes I’d never done before, although as I looked up she was gone, and all of the vegetation along with her. Cars sped down Spring Garden with radios blasting unfamiliar music. A foreign heart beat heavy in my chest.
Getting in the house took a minute with my dull and rusted key. Once I got through the threshold Selena was ready with fists clenched. All I saw was a blur, then my temple throbbed. I put my hands over my face. Her jet black wavy hair was everywhere. She looked sexy, all done up, but for a reason, because she was furious to the point of breaking.
“Where were you?”
I just looked at her, and felt sad.
“You know what, it’s not working out.”
Just like that she was gone, so I stumbled to the fridge but there was no beer. My head was killing me. I walked back to the living room and landed on the couch, not wanting to move a muscle. I turned the television on with the remote, but all I could see and hear was white noise. I sighed. The antenna was broken. That dressed-up woman in the garden wouldn’t leave my mind.
The couch consumed me. There was even more commotion upstairs. Ricardo and Eliza were fighting now. He sounded awful. The static continued in the foreground. Ricardo was getting violent and throwing things. Eliza’s screams gave me goose bumps. It must be really bad, better go up there, I thought, although I didn’t. I was immobilized, but not out of anything physical. She came down the stairs while crying silently.
“Is everything all right?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. The television set hummed in abeyance. Eliza slammed the front door shut. I finally got up and looked out the window, but I couldn’t see where she went. Instead there were sanguine lit windows across the street, and shadows of figures embracing, which gave me newfound strength. Suddenly I was filled with anger, so I went upstairs to confront Ricardo, but once I made it to their room I found that he was passed out completely drunk and or high. Down the street I could hear a car honking.
Outside was dark, but I ran along Seventh Street nonstop while panting and sweating until catching up with Eliza. She was sitting on brick steps with her tummy sticking out and her head in her hands. I sat next to her.
“You know who lived here, right?”
I knew the answer, though I couldn’t speak just yet. It was such a simple, calm question; it took me off guard. I looked around.
“You see that statue over there, of the raven?”
I answered that time, “I see it.” She looked up at me with her drying cheeks.
Our bodies melded, and I felt warmth all over. In the distance the woman rose. Her pale face was all I could see, that faceless face I never saw.
“You don’t have to deal with that anymore,” I said.
“I know,” she said, “nevermore.”
We laughed together.
A woman with two children spills a glass of water at a family restaurant.
She turns around and tells her husband “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He shakes his head.
The little girl says “mommy is the best cleaner in the world!”
Later that night, while walking back home from work, Dave decided to venture the extra four blocks to the beer store on the corner of 9th and Washington even though he was exhausted. He made up his mind that he would purchase a six pack of PBR pounders and a 32 ounce bottle of Yuengling Premium instead of what he would usually get, which was just a six pack of Yuengling Lager, which, as a native Philadelphian, he simply referred to as “lager”. His legs felt kind of numb but mostly a little weak from all of the standing and walking that he did that day.
Dave used to think that the young black guy in the white t-shirt and white do-rag in front of the beer store was actually a police officer, because he carried a badge and a gun, but eventually realized that he was just some kind of security guard. Although his badge still said “Officer Benjamin Davis.” Dave had figured out that the man’s getup was absolutely necessary fairly quickly after first becoming a regular at the beer store (while still a teenager) because it wasn’t actually just a beer store, but an elaborately organized, old-fashioned and notorious saloon. He had often heard other residents of the neighborhood, known as Bella Vista, call the beer store “The Stabbing Grounds”. This wasn’t an over-exaggeration either, as Dave had witnessed one stabbing at the saloon, and had heard talk about many more.
The inside was split between the walk-up beer store on the right side, and the sit-down, rowdy saloon on the left side with the two sectioned off by a four foot tall concrete wall topped with just-as-tall stained plexiglass. From Dave’s experience, the beer store was oftentimes filled with inner city punks, former suburban hipsters, and out-of-town crusties, while the left side was populated with moody-looking druggy white trash couples, groups of laughing and yelling Mexicans/Central Americans, and African American loner-con-men. When Dave opened the glass door half covered with Latino music advertisements he immediately smirked at the sound of a regular eccentric skillfully making music by slapping two spoons together. The security guard approached Dave with his hand out, using the universal sign to hold up.
“Yo, what’s up?” Said Dave.
“Oh, my bad man, we’ve been havin’ some trouble tonight. There was this punk-ass kid who looked kinda like you fuckin’ with customers.”
“Oh, word. How you been B, haven’t seen you in a minute.”
“Chillin’ man what’s good? Yo, that chick you was with the other night, she had a fat ass. I was like damn, you hittin’ that?” The security guard laughed, then amicably slapped Dave on the back.
Dave liked Officer Ben, whom he called “B”, especially because he reminded him of John Malkovich’s character in the play True West. B gave off a somewhat similar kind of wildcard vibe, except ironically being even more wildcard by being in a position of authority with a gun. B also had a significant gap in his tooth, the result of which was a slightly effeminate-sounding voice that foiled his tough-guy exterior. Dave had played that same character in an acting class once. His professor claimed to have worked with Sam Shepard. Thinking about John Malkovich momentarily made Dave depressed.
“Thanks. I know, right?” Dave said.
“She your girl?”
“Yeah, B, you knew that man.”
“Word. Ight man, I see you.”
“Take it easy.”
Dave waited in line behind two Mexicans and a white girl whose behavior and skin marks exhibited that she was addicted to meth. She was trying to convince the two men to come back with her to wherever she came from, but they just kept shaking their heads and laughing at how brazenly fucked up she was.
It was Dave’s turn to order, but he had forgotten what he wanted.
Out of habit Dave said “yeah” to the Asian guy behind the counter. The clerk started asking Dave this question whenever he came in after a couple of months of him ordering the same thing all of the time. He spontaneously ordered a shot of Jack Daniels as well. The Asian guy smirked.
“Shot of Jack?”
Dave informed the man of this phrase a few months before when he had ordered a shot of Jack and the guy didn’t understand what he meant. Dave swiftly placed a twenty on the counter underneath the shoddy bulletproof glass. He downed the whiskey, turned around, nodded at B, then headed out the door. He closed his eyes, tilted his chin upwards, and breathed through his nose while drowning out the sound of bums arguing with each other a few feet away.
“Young bull.” A homeless man with an idiosyncratic gait approached Dave from the cluster of bums.
Dave instinctively pulled a pack of cigarettes out and handed the bum one. The man looked like a tramp, but really the opposite was true. John was a salesman of grocery bags in the Italian Market. He was always either in front of the beer store or at his spot in between stalls across the street. Although he never really had customers, John would stand by two shopping carts overflowing with brown paper bags and plastic bags all relatively organized and fairly new-looking. If a person had the compulsion to purchase bags at 25 cents each in order to shop at the vegetable and other various stalls in the outdoor market, he would be the man to go to, but that was rarely the case. John had told Dave many times of the travails of being a shopping bag salesman. Perhaps back in the seventies selling used bags was a legitimate business, when John had began his life-long career, and when the Italian Market was in its prime.
“Buncha’ assholes claiming I owe them, I don’t owe them shit, I’m an artist baby. You know that, you seen my drawings right?”
“Yeah man, they’re pretty good.”
“I know. Young bulls aint givin’ respect no more round here, ‘cept you man, what’s your name again pal?” John had a smooth, soulful but soft-spoken voice as if he always had an ulterior motive, even though he was a genuinely honest man.
“Dave, remember, I gave you a beer last night.”
“Aye man, I don’t owe you shit.”
“Nah you’re good.”
“Ight man, yo I ever tell you I was in Rocky?
“You see me in it?”
“Yeah man, when he runs through the market. I’ve seen you.”
“Yeah man, yeah. Don’t get recognized no more man, shit.”
The long light on Washington turned green. There wasn’t much traffic on a Friday nearing midnight, but the cars that were on the street would speed at about forty to sixty miles per hour, making it difficult to cross without getting stuck precariously in the narrow median. Dave used this as a mental excuse for himself in order to get away from John the bag salesman, not because he felt uneasy around him, but because the bum somehow emitted melancholia without ever seeming unhappy himself.
“Alright John I gotta’ get going, take it easy.”
Dave hadn’t actually seen John in Rocky, but he liked humoring him, and also felt bad because some of the younger guys who worked at the butcher would mess with him. They’d steal his boom box, which was his prized possession, as he lived for listening to soul and Motown. One time Dave felt horrible because he’d seen those guys cajoling John since he couldn’t jump high enough to grab a ten dollar bill that one of them was holding in the air above him. When Dave would stumble home from the dive bar at two am he would sometimes stop and stare at John sleeping while sitting on a milk crate not far from 9th and Washington. Dave would watch the old man sleep, listen to his congested snore, and admire him for living such a difficult and lonely life without outwardly showing any shame and even spreading a bit of joy via sparing loose change for candy from a nearby stall for children here and there.
Even though Dave was only on slightly cordial terms with John the grocery bag salesman, he felt a peculiar, inexplicable sense of camaraderie with him. Dave was aware that this feeling was somewhat due to naivety on his part, but it made him feel good anyway. He lit a cigarette and enjoyed the rush of wind against his face. Then he started walking back up 9th street.
He felt dizzy, not because of the whiskey, but because of the lingering soapy aftertaste from the under-the-counter double shot glass. He had become familiar with that uncomfortable feeling and grew to like it because it quickened the disorientation process that was necessary for him after a closing shift.
Dave put his hand in his back pocket and realized that he had left his keys in his room, so when he got to the house he pressed the buzzer and waited for someone to come to the door. He stood there for a while drinking a beer and looking at the bourgie people strutting into the Italian restaurant a couple of doors down. Dave would sometimes have a cigarette with the VIP parking guys during the day, but at night he disliked them out of an odd sort of temporary envy of their servile purposefulness.
Dave sat down on the stoop and pulled another bottle of beer out of the black plastic bag. He thought that the women in red and black dresses were sneering at him, so he considered chugging the whole beer in one big swig and throwing the bottle in their general direction. He imagined the glass bottle shattering into hundreds of pieces and flying into the pack of middle-aged women, cutting into their exposed legs like shrapnel from a roadside IED. He just chugged the beer and placed the empty bottle on the stoop. Someone that Dave barely knew opened the door to his house. He realized that his roommates were throwing a party.
He brushed past the person at the door and ignored everyone while heading to his room. He was tired of everyone around him coming from privileged households. He couldn’t believe that he had used the word household while thinking to himself. He put Cupid Come by My Bloody Valentine on and fell asleep while horizontally drinking lager. It felt wet inside his chest.
9th street was less vacant than usual for a Friday morning in early May. Tourists and old people converged like schools of fish on the dirty pavement that was hemmed in by stalls on one side and stores on the other. Dave was sitting on a plain wooden bench outside of his favorite cafe while intermittently smoking a Camel Filter and drinking a sixteen ounce cup of La Colombe coffee. He couldn’t stop thinking about how there could be glass shards in the breakfast sandwich he would be eating in the near future, as the girl with soft-looking curly brown hair behind the counter had shattered a mug while preparing his Painkiller, which consisted of microwaved eggs and cheddar on an everything bagel.
Dave had stood by the counter pretending like he didn’t notice that anything unusual had happened while she was sweeping up pieces of ceramic, but he was too outwardly unassuming to say anything, like usual, and so stepped out front for a smoke, even though he decided on cutting back the night before while hacking up mucus in bed.
An old man named Jeffrey, who was sitting at a table by himself across from Dave, was also smoking a cigarette while sipping coffee. They both stared vacantly ahead of themselves. Dave briefly thought about saying hello to Jeffrey, but decided against it, because the man seemed condescending the last time they had a discussion about literature.
One time Dave had overheard another regular say that Jeffrey looked like Larry David, and that Jeffrey became angry when this person had told him that he looked like Larry David. Dave thought about telling Jeffrey that he looked like Larry David just to spite him.
Dave realized that he had taken a drag of his cigarette after it had burned past the filter; he stood up as a kind of silent overreaction, and then spit out brown phlegm. He tried to stop thinking about other people because he was self-aware about often being under the impression that others were out to get him. As he stepped back inside he wondered why the cafe was named The Seeker, and noticed for the first time that it shared the same name as his college’s sub-par student newspaper.
The girl behind the counter looked bored while idly pressing her thumbs against her neon-green-rubber-encased smart phone. Dave assumed that his microwaved egg sandwich was in the brown paper bag on the counter in front of the girl, and tried to recall what the girl’s name was, while simultaneously trying to decide whether or not he should say anything to her. He walked up to the counter and stood parallel to her, facing her, staring at her momentarily. She didn’t look up from her phone. When Dave reached for the bag he saw that there were still tiny white shard fragments on the wooden floor beside the girl’s expensive-looking boots.
Dave realized that what he had just said was so vague that it could have been construed as a comment on almost anything, but then became annoyed at how quickly she had questioned him in a monotone that resembled a declarative statement. “I don’t want to live anymore” he thought. He often thought this phrase, but not often actually meant it. Her eyes fleetingly moved up and then to the right. Dave momentarily became worried that she could hear his thoughts. There was the sound of footsteps coming from the basement.
The sound of footsteps reversed back down the stairs. She went downstairs. Dave had heard that voice before, it was her manager. Dave didn’t like the manager of The Seeker. When he had applied for a job there a few weeks before he didn’t get a response. He would have preferred to work at a cafe that was only a block from his house, as opposed to one twenty blocks away in Rittenhouse Square. He came to the conclusion that the boss only hired good-looking females.
As Dave walked out of The Seeker he couldn’t stop thinking again about how there could be glass shards in the breakfast sandwich he would be eating in the very near future. There could be microscopic shards that he wouldn’t notice right away, not even while swallowing and ingesting the eggs and cheese and bagel, but that the tiny glass or ceramic or whatever it was could slowly stab his insides for days and/or weeks until he died a horribly painful death.
“She could have slipped some shards in while I was out smoking,” Dave thought. “That girl never liked me anyway, always giving me dirty looks for no good reason.”
While walking out the door of the cafe, he looked up in order to avoid eye contact with the Larry David look-alike. The color of the aluminum awning was the same as the sky beyond it. He didn’t feel like a form-of-life anymore. Everything was so mundane for him; it all unified into a non-personal generic pronoun. Dave didn’t like to think philosophically, instead he decided to just cope with the feeling of dread. It started to drizzle a little while he was walking home, up 9th street, where it was also starting to get less crowded. He considered stopping at Lorenzo Pizza and just throwing out the egg sandwich, but then remembered that he was broke. He also felt guilty about starving people. Then he remembered the summer when he first moved to the city, and was half-starved half the time. He was standing at the corner of 9th and Christian waiting for the stoplight to turn green when the aroma of pizza began to overwhelm him. He crossed the street, was distracted by some dogs he walked by, and then tried to ignore the impulse to run in to Rite Aid in order to buy another pack of cigarettes.
After Dave opened the door to his house he sub-consciously slammed it shut because it normally wouldn’t close all the way otherwise. One of his housemates shouted something from upstairs, perhaps in criticism. He ignored whatever was said and walked to the living room, where he had to move a bunch of dirty jackets off of the couch, and didn’t feel like clearing the table of beer cans and malt liquor bottles. He opened his breakfast sandwich that was wrapped in aluminum on his lap. His coffee had become cold, but he finished it anyway before lifting the top half of the bagel and thoroughly inspecting its insides for any ceramic. Even though he didn’t see any, Dave thought that “there is a good chance that some glass got inside this bagel.” Although he ate it in a vociferous manner, partly because it tasted so good, partly just to get it over with, and he knew that there would be some sort of psychosomatic reaction in his throat, but he dealt with it.
When he was finished he went and got his laptop. He preferred sitting in the living room during the day when no one else was around in comparison to his dark bedroom whose only window faced an alleyway. Dave enjoyed the soft yellow light that he could almost feel shining through the large storefront window and into his body while he was lounging on the stained striped couch.
He stared at the intricate yet thinly painted over floral design on the ceiling while waiting for his Macbook to reboot. It re-loaded to Google Maps, allowing Dave to recall that he had passed out drunk while searching for satellite images of North Korean concentration camps again the night before.
Dave typed “Philadelphia, PA” because he had reasoned that his mind wouldn’t be as desensitized to the thought of emaciated-children-prisoners eating rats in this sober state of awareness. While looking at an image of Philly from space, Dave realized that the city looked like a giant sack of geographic testicles sandwiched in between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. Then he started to fall asleep despite the caffeine.