I’m still in Tolstoy’s short stories. Again, one particular sentence just struck me as perfect. So here’s the challenge: In the below comments, let’s see if we can write with similar excellence. (One sentence.)
The bonfire was extinguished, the forest no longer looked as black as before, but in the sky the stars still shone, though faintly.
Here’s my attempt: The young boy stopped running, the city moved even faster, but he still felt her hand in his, though now she did the squeezing.
If by ashamed you mean ‘to chuckle’, then “Yes” I am ashamed when I see your eyes notice all the piles as you enter my home.
Immediately to your right, you see what is quite possibly the most random pile. It consists of a bowling ball bag, winter gloves, hats, and ski goggles. You next notice a kitchen table and chairs that reorient the word ‘messy’. As you gather your bearings, you see that under the kitchen counter there is an overstuffed book shelf, upon which sit more books and beside which rest two stacks of even more books. Recoiling a bit, you scan left and conclude that there must be at least one child living here because there is a small chair surrounded by children’s books and a panda bear and a remote control car with two pony passengers. The 88-key electronic keyboard and its bench have items upon them, as does the adjacent Steinway B and the instructor’s stool. Somehow that piano’s bench is without pile.
(Before walking down the hallway you pretend not to notice one more bookshelf and end table too ceased their resistance long ago.)
If your visit surprised me, I may not have had a chance to close the bedroom doors. In my bedroom you won’t see a massive pile of clothes at the end of my bed, because it is under a king size comforter which H- recently managed to place on top.
(If she’s anything like me, carrying something that big and soft from her room to mine was probably a delightful chore.)
In disbelief as you roll your eyes, H-‘s room snags your attention. Though admittedly more pink-themed, her bedding is likewise piled on her bed, and at every spot where the walls meet the floor there are piles. They are either piles of books and papers, piles of junk, piles of stuffed animals, or they are piles of clothes. Piles, piles, piles.
Why? you wonder. Why so many piles? You speculate that surely one of the books has to include both teaching on the importance and the ‘how to’ of cleaning.
Well, you asked, so I’ll tell ya. For me, piles equal happiness. Here’s the mathematical proof. If I begin to clean my piles, I’ll eventually decide to clean H-‘s piles. Half-piles do not exist. It’s all or none. And therein lies the problem. You see, H- and I spend very little time together in this junked up home. But when we do, she behaves like a Tasmanian angel. Whether coloring books, stuffed animals, reading books, or dolls, she is constantly relocating everything as she plays inside. To suggest that she “put them away” as you might think, is not really an option she would understand. And I wouldn’t know how to answer her striving for obedience, though honestly inquisitive, response, “Where, Daddy?”
This entire situation is adorable to me. Just watching her play is endlessly fascinating. How is she determining what to play with and for how long? Does she get a thrill out of not having to “clean” like I do? I’ll never know.
Anyhow, the point is, when I’ve tried to clean these piles in the past, it’s unbearable. I cannot touch her toys without thinking of her and I cannot think of her without remembering, as strongly as fire remembers hot and as ice remembers cold, that she is not here. And I cannot think that, without being sad–very, very sad.
So I maintain piles and I maintain that piles equal happiness.
He listened as H- dryly read, “And what was my life like? The heat burned me in the daytime. And it was so cold at night that I froze. I couldn’t-”
“Hold up, H-,” he interrupted at last. “Remember how we are focusing on reading with gusto? This is a good place to put some gusto into how you read the story.”
Partly frustrated by his broken record, partly curious, H- watched her father. His eyes widened and as he drew in a breath, his head bent back as well. Then he snapped it forward, his open hand slapping his chest.
“And what was my life like?”
H- smiled, beginning to understand.
“The heat,” he continued, feigning to wipe sweat from his brow, “burned me in the daytime.”
H- couldn’t remove her eyes.
“And it was so cold,” he began, shivering.
They both laughed.
“Or maybe it’d be better like this,” he offered. He then looked at frost-bitten fingertips which he rubbed together furiously and blew hot breath upon.
Laughing, she joined him.
“No, you should have done-” she began; then she huddled over, shivered and said, “Brrr, I’m sooo c-c-cold. Let me pour some hot chocolate.”
His laughter almost scared her.
“I don’t think they had hot chocolate back then, H-. Remember Jacob and Laban lived a long, long time ago,” he corrected, chuckling. “But you’re getting the gusto right. Good job. Now let’s keep reading.”
H-, now seven, turned back to the sacred words and promptly struggled to locate where she left off.
“We’re looking for ‘chocolate’,” he proposed, unable to resist.
H- laughed with her voice, but her eyes seemed to say something else.
I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s shorter fiction and almost each story contains writing so good that I want to never make the attempt again. Here’s a few examples.
From The Death of Ivan Ilyich:
Ivan Ilych knows quite well and definitely that all this is nonsense and pure deception, but when the doctor, getting down on his knee, leans over him, putting his ear first higher then lower, and performs various gymnastic movements over him with a significant expression on his face, Ivan Ilych submits to it all as he used to submit to the speeches of the lawyers, though he knew very well that they were all lying and why they were lying.
From The Kreutzer Sonata:
“What is wrong with education?” said the lady, with a scarcely perceptible smile. “Surely it can’t be better to marry as they used to in the old days when the bride and bridegroom did not even see one another before the wedding,” she continued, answering not what her interlocutor had said but what she thought he would say, in the way many ladies have. “Without knowing whether they loved, or whether they could love, they married just anybody, and were wretched all their lives. And you think that was better?” she said, evidently addressing me and the lawyer chiefly and least of all the old man with whom she was talking.
From The Devil:
During coffee, as often happened, a peculiarly feminine kind of conversation went on which had no logical sequence but which evidently was connected in some way for it went on uninterruptedly.
Well done, Count.
As for myself, I had a coffee date with a young lady the other day, something I have not made an effort to do in years. As is often the case in situations like mine, I told myself that I was willing to re-enter the dating world for several clear and distinct reasons. Firstly, it is not good for the man to be alone. Secondly, the idea of sexual congress with a woman has not yet become altogether repulsive. Thirdly, and ever present, there is in me still some remnant of fire, quite incapable of scientific scrutiny, that wants to prove–or fail trying–that I might yet possess some quality desirable to a member of the fairer sex.
As for her, she was highly educated, well-spoken, and cultured. And beautiful. On these points there would be no dispute. Not wholly unlike the much publicized cases of celebrity progeny, however, her parents’ more modest wealth still seemed nearest the root of her inability to properly arrange cause and effect. On this point there may be dispute.
After falling flat to his face, he did not stay down. He would not stay down. The voice was unmistakable. He knew where he had to go and he knew he must run.
The door tried to stop him but failed. Once outside he ran unbridled. First the parking lot then the field then across the river that was too wide.
Nimbly dodging any cars that refused to slow, he made it past the last man-made obstacle. Only one voice could stop him now.
Beauty was unable to keep pace.
Like the periphery that faded with focus, his memory too was stunted by his remarkable speed.
He did not hear the cheetah give up. He did not feel the eagle miss.
Eyes fixed onward and upward, he did not see the blades of grass become shards of rock or the blood with which his path now painted.
His shirt lost to the wind. He welcomed the new freedom and speed.
The rocks grew bigger as he ran higher. His hands coated the terrain with their own hue as they helped climb.
Above the clouds, the sight tripped him. He tucked, rolled, and landed in stride, not even slowing enough for sound to catch up.
Closer closer, higher higher, he bounded from one boulder to the next, leaving behind more than his mark.
All false summits forgotten, his focus sharpened for the last time. Plans filled the remaining moment.
He saw the rock. He saw color become colors. He saw round become flat. He saw smooth become textured. He saw now become ancient. He saw high become low.
His fingertips reached skyward as he powerfully planted his right foot. All creation below searched in vain to see what he grasped as he pulled himself high into the air.
Chest out, shoulders back, fists balled at the end of arms flexed behind him, his body reached its summit. He cried out one word.
As his blood-drenched toes felt the earth once again, his legs did not have the strength or desire to fight the fall. He heard his flesh smack as he crumpled to his knees.
Covering his face with his pained and bloodied hands, he sobbed.
Then he prayed like a sinner.
H- answered, “Officer Judy is from Zootopia.”
“Zootopia, eh? When were you watching that?”
“So you wake up early enough to watch movies before school when you’re at your mom’s?” I asked.
“I wake up when my alarm goes off.”
“What time does your alarm go off?”
“I go down stairs and eat breakfast and then I change clothes.”
“You change clothes downstairs? Why downstairs?”
“Well, my mom throws down my clothes, and then I put them on and watch tv until it’s time to go.”
“I see. Where is your mom while you are watching tv?”
“She’s upstairs with C-.”
“Oh,” I said, cutting myself off quickly. Unable to resist the pull to follow inquiry further, I rejoined with, “What is she doing with him?”
“I think they play with each other.”
“Hmm. What do you mean? Like play games? Maybe play video games?”
“No,” she held the note, “not video games.”
“I don’t think I understand, H-. What are they playing?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
As if Truth’s gateway, the rear-view mirror reflected that her searching eyes did not notice mine.
Finding no satisfaction, H- concluded, “More like wrestling, I think. I don’t have the word.”
Not sure the reason, I found myself standing in the kitchen, holding the Krusteaz Belgian waffle mix box. (H- adorably calls said mix ‘sugar’.) She was finishing her waffles at the nearby table. That’s the reason! I was putting the box back on top of the refrigerator. Beside it, I also keep the cereal and–my favorite non-perishable treat–the Nutty Bars up there. Like her ol’ man, H- too had experienced love at first sight with Little Debbie’s delectable wafers.
“But you can’t give me the peanut butter and chocolate bars for snack time,” H- declared out of the blue.
I turned to look at her. She turned to look at me.
“Oh yeah?” I asked, carefully dividing my attention between the waffle iron and H-‘s mind.
“Why can’t you have them at snack time?”
“Because some kids are allergic to peanut butter.”
“Don’t they eat lunch with you too? How can you have Nutty Bars at lunch, but not at snack time?”
“At snack time the kids sit at the same table as us and they can smell the peanut butter,” she answered steadfastly.
This smelling problem being news to me, I resumed my inquiry with, “Okay, so what do they do at lunch?”
“They sit at the peanut butter table. There are not very many of them.”
“Ha. The ‘peanut butter table?’ What’s that?”
“That’s the table where you can’t have peanut butter.”
“So the poor kids who can’t have peanut butter have to sit all by themselves?”
“No,” she corrected. “They just sit at the peanut butter table. Anyone can sit at the peanut butter table as long as they don’t have peanut butter.”
“So there is no peanut butter at the peanut butter table?” I asked.
The baby is not the last thing that will be removed during an emergency C-section. Neither will the baby be last in a planned C-section or vaginal delivery for that matter. The last thing will be the placenta.
Attempting to quell some of my new-found, seemingly limitless nervous energy, I quickly flipped through the CD book. I was searching for the one she wanted to hear.
“This is it. This is the last car ride as a childless couple,” I pointed out, hoping to distract her. Her musical request now playing, I put it in reverse and slowly backed down the driveway.
She was ten days overdue.
Almost from the moment of conception, though definitely intensifying during the Lamaze classes, I had witnessed her become more and more terrified by the thought of a C-section.
“Do we have the movies?” she asked, playing along in our little game.
“I put them and the DVD player in the backpack three days ago,” I reassured her, tapping the bag stowed behind me.
Having completed the stretching of her skin, the doctor will cease to give consideration to anything or anyone–whether the room’s familiar beeps and buzzing, his assistant’s breathing, or even his own thoughts–as he silently and hurriedly slices through the exposed portion of her tough, clammy, and purple uterus with precision.
Like a consecrated moment of silence, his worth can now be demonstrated solely through execution.
“Well, looks like you’re all settled in. This seems silly. We’re going to sit for twelve hours, eh? Just waiting? Do you want me to put on one of the movies? Or I can read to you from one of the books? I brought T.C. Boyle’s new one.”
The hospital room’s television was already on. She was viewing it from her bed as she shifted her attention over to me briefly. I kept talking about random trivialities, but we both knew there was only one thought being entertained.
Guys at work, fathers, had recently reminded us–unhelpfully–how doctors were paid more for performing C-sections. “That’s another reason why there are so many these days,” they would speculate. “But the female body needs to experience a natural delivery if the mom is going to come out of the pregnancy alright,” they would continue, with a look that meant alright in the head. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in a woman’s body during a pregnancy and just cutting her open and pulling out the baby does not let nature take its course,” ran the last theory explained before I noticed her dilated pupils and silenced them.
Back in the hospital, she said, “I can’t eat, but if you want to grab some food like we planned, now’s a good time.” She tried to smile.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” I asked before leaving.
Her rushing breaths will never abate even as she unavoidably seeks the eyes of the motherly voice that just announced, “Okay! We’re getting ready to pull baby.”
Four hands will squeeze into her abdomen. They belong to the doctor and his assistant who will have positioned themselves on opposite sides of her. Not even sparing the moment it would take to make eye contact with each other, they will then begin to alternate a violent pulling and tugging. Their pace for stretching her skin will be a mean one–precisely between reckless and urgent. Pull-tug-pull-tug-pull-tug.
“Why don’t we see how laying on your left side works again?” nurse number five suggested. I had just finished my burger.
The nurse–like the others before her–mechanically touched the bedding and then my wife as she waited for task completion.
“I’ll be back in a bit, after we see if that works,” she said on her way out the door.
On one of the screens near the bed, I noticed that the green number relaying my wife’s heart rate had climbed ten digits since last I looked.
Only two of the twelve hours we were told we would have to wait before they would induce delivery had elapsed when a tall forty year old doctor that we had never seen before walked into the room.
“The baby’s heart rate is staying consistent through your contractions which is good,” he began. “But the baby’s heart rate is dropping after them.”
Hearing nothing, I turned to her in time to see her hold back her tears by nodding rapidly in response.
“We need to do a C-section to deliver the baby,” he concluded. Then he left the room.
All I could think about was what the guys had said. The doctor is greedy. He knows the baby would probably be fine, and the only reason he told us anything is to justify his payday.
“I can’t believe this,” I began aloud with an undignified tone that feigned a feeling of helplessness. “Can you believe this?” I asked her as she trembled uncontrollably. “This is exactly what everyone told us would happen. I am so sorry. We don’t even know this man and we were supposed to wait twelve hours before even beginning to induce. It has only been two. What the hell is going on here?”
Waiting for help, she cried.
These days scalpels under a new name are plugged into a power outlet and cauterize as they cut. There will be no blood.
I came into the operating room after being shown how to put on all the disposable sterile gear. The room appeared to still be under construction. A nurse led me to my wife’s side along a path that ensured that the blue sheet hanging over her torso, the sheet meant to obstruct her view of the procedure, would also obstruct mine.
Arms and legs strapped down, the woman will lay on a padded table awake though nauseous from the anesthetics.
“How are you doing, sweetie?” the nurse will ask just prior to the doctor making the initial incision. The doctor will not hear this, his thoughts centering instead on getting the baby out.
The hot blade will then slice through her unfeeling skin, fat, and muscle with little resistance.
Her restricted hand moved. The finest edge in the room was the courage behind the words that I will never forget. Piercing every form of fear, she filled the world with five syllables.
“Will you hold my hand?”
Looking at the still-stiff, sixteen year old, canvas duffel bag with his daughter, he couldn’t prevent the thought, “Man, I can’t believe I still use this bag-”
“What’s in that pocket, daddy?” she interrupted. “Socks?” she guessed as she reached with a raptor’s velocity into the opening. Looking up at him, her excitement was betrayed by her breathlessness and she said, “A glove?!”
“Your gloves,” he answered, pulling out the second one, anxious to keep the pair united. “From when you were smaller. Just give them here.”
“But I want to wear them.”
“Fine. Whatever. Actually, no. Don’t put them on just yet. We have to go to church-”
“-But,” he continued, “I’ll put them in the go-bag and you can put them on after we change into comfy clothes for the trip. Deal?”
Finding themselves changing in the old church’s random nursing station, the father couldn’t have had more on his mind. Remnants of the adrenaline his body released earlier that morning whilst playing the piano for the congregation lingered, and also capturing his attention was the anxiety of starting a road-trip from an unknown location in the city.
“My hands are cold, Daddy.”
“Okay, H-. That’s fine,” he said. “We’ll be in the car in a minute.”
Upon her entry into the back seat, she found the gloves and put them on.
“Clevah gairl,” he mumbled to himself.
“So you’re hands were cold, eh?” he asked, laughing. “You sure do have a one track mind. ‘I see gloves. I want to wear gloves. Dad controls gloves. Gloves make hands warm. I need cold hands. Must share hand temperature with Dad.’ Ha.”
“Daddy, I’m hungry. When are we stopping for lunch?”
“We’re headed to Limon for lunch. I just want to knock out a bit of the trip before we stop. Sound fair?”
“H-, where are you going? The restroom is over here.”
“Huh-uh,” she said, pointing to the family restroom sign.
“Ah. Okay. Good call. Let’s go then. We need to hurry and get back on the road.”
She stood and watched as he ran his hands under the faucet.
“You gonna wash your hands or what?”
He watched an incredulous look come over her face as she began to fiddle with her hands.
“You want me to take off my gloves?”
Mirroring the mood with his own bewildered look, he answered, “You still have your gloves on? Fine. Okay. Nope. I guess there’s no need to wash your hands if you went potty with your gloves on. Come on. Let’s go.”
I should be reading, but the content of what I have been reading compels me to write.
First, in a class session discussion on the intricacies of Bible interpretation, we were presented with the idea that the goal of interpretation is discovering the author’s intended meaning. Seems fair enough. Within this there is something called the Speech-Act theory, which carries the assumption “that authors or speakers write or speak with a purpose; words have a performative function.” (Class notes…not my idea). Thus, I learned three new words: locution, illocution, and perlocution.
Locution: the words employed on the page.
Illocution: the author’s intended impact on the readers.
Perlocution: the thing/response the author intends for his reader.
So, if I write, “Jesus loves you,” my locution is, “Jesus loves you.” My illocution (impact) on you is, “There is hope.” And my perlocution (response I intend to incite in you) is, “live life in a spirit of Christian brotherhood.” Now you know.
In a book called The Next Christendom, the author writes the following,
“Middle Eastern Christian communities flourished until they were devastated by a series of wars, expulsions, and population exchanges between 1915 and 1925, during and immediately following World War I. … Iraq, too, had a venerable Christian community that in the 1980s might have accounted for some 4 percent of the population. Since that point, though, it has been gravely reduced by the combined effects of war, sanctions, and persecution, and many Christian leaders have been murdered. Quite conceivably, Christian life in Iraq might entirely disappear within a few decades (33).”*
The book overall is startling in its announcement that Christianity is more widespread in the Global South than the stereotypical White Western World, but (perhaps because two of my three deployments to Iraq had me rooming and flying with uber-Christians who believed their service to the country via the military was tied to their Christianity at the least, and at the most a bizarre self-manifestation of biblical prophecy) on the whole as I read about Iraq’s demographics I felt an acute sadness.
Lest any of you think my schooling is having the intended effect of opening the pearly gates for little ol’ me, I also wanted to share that I recently have come to hate suburban Coloradans in large pick-up trucks. That I harbored this attitude came to my attention a month or so ago when I was being tailgated by one such devil and was having nearly physiological manifestations of anger that I could not explain. As I attempted to process them through venting to my brother, I realized that my anger was justified by the reality that my Elantra, and its passengers, would suffer great damage if contact was made with such a tailgater.
Well, on Friday, after picking up H-, out of the corner of my eye I saw one of these trucks essentially run a stop sign on a side street and end up behind me. His errand was clearly more important than mine and so he attempted to let his truck inform me of this fact. In a classic case of developing road rage, when he saw I wasn’t going to accelerate beyond the speed limit for his pleasure, he thought he perceived an opening in the right-hand lane and aggressively changed lanes in order to take it. Calling upon my inner-asshole, I mildly accelerated to ensure that there was no room between me and the car in front of him. He then got behind me and quickly closed in again. I depressed the brake pedal enough to illuminate the lights, but not give rise to contact between us.
I think he honked next, as he waited for the car in the right lane to move relatively forward enough for that to be his better option. I lowered my window and using sign language told him that he could go fuck himself. As he pulled up alongside me, I looked over and saw his window lowering, so I lowered my passenger window. I wonder if I, with my gorgeously Jason Statham-themed hair/gruff, rimless glasses, and Kansas City Royal’s World Series royal blue hoodie, in my compact car appeared as cliche as he and his white, bald, bearded head, in his monster truck appeared. He shouts, “What the fuck is your problem?” I answer, “What’s your problem?” (Admit nothing, deny everything, make immediate counter-accusation. Works every time. Ha.) He informs me that I am his problem, then he rapidly moves to my mom being his problem (?). Then, with exponential speed (I can’t make this up) my mom becomes a “black bitch” and the conversation concludes with his confused facial expression as I dispassionately yell, “I like your truck!” before we each go our own ways.
H- was confused by the situation and wondered aloud why he called me a girl, when I clearly wasn’t one, and so yeah, I guess there must have been another round of banter before my idea of Christian brotherhood manifested as a compliment regarding his vehicle choice.
On the whole, the entire event has me contemplating becoming a hermit. What do you think?
This post’s locution–read it again. Illocution: “arouse empathetic feelings that despite my espousing lofty ideals, I am living in the same world as you, in the same condition.” Perlocution: “Don’t placate to monster truck driving imbeciles, really give some thought to how effectively fighting spreads the Gospel, and pray for me.”
*Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford UP, 2011.