My life’s decades are the number of fingers on a well-formed human hand, not including the thumb. We could say the last five years ((half decade)) have been the thumb, half-a-thumb, anyway. I pretty much finished off the first four fingers and skipped to the next hand to use the index finger then jumped back to the thumb on the first hand as though an afterthought. These last five years have been opposable. Does that work in this context? Opposable? Do I need to explain? ((Too bad if I do.)) The details of what make this so are… what they are and don’t matter other than they make up something that is opposable.
One fifth of one hand standing opposite its fellow digits completes each of those digits and is useless without them. I don’t care that you know my age or not, so I’ll leave the math to you just for fun. The other odd finger, the index as we mentioned and the only finger counted on the other hand, makes an easier task of moving a few remaining peas with accompanying gravy onto any clumsily-held fork.
Lately I’ve been noticing more individuals without all their digits. I’m most impressed when they don’t try to hide it, but don’t make a big deal about it. No etiquette exists, officially, and why should it. I’ve shaken many hands, or partial hands, and I’m less shocked or taken aback each time a person presents his or her hand as a greeting. Extended stubs, knobs, gnarled and twisted hands and fingers, often result in warmer communications than from the fully-fingered. The stories they tell without saying a word, are epic. I am fascinated, dare I say, gripped.
I met two older gentlemen brothers. They were well older than I am now. Let’s just say I hadn’t quite finished the decade of my third finger. One of the brothers hands were some of the oddest hands I had shaken, had seen, and at which gestures I marveled. I’ve got pictures of these guys somewhere I’m sure I will never find under whatever papers in whatever boxes I may never unpack again. But the photos are there. A few were published along with the story I was writing that occasioned our meeting. The photos show two men with hands. As far as I remember, the brother with the deformed hands made no effort to conceal this difference. In so doing he exhibited confidence enough to offer no hint that anything was missing. And so, nothing was missing other than our perception of his missing hand.
His accident, I learned, was from chasing coyotes away from livestock, something he’d done most of his life without mangling his hands. That particular time he must have been distracted, probably overconfident. Long and short of it: he held onto the stick of dynamite a half or even a tenth of a second more than he should have before throwing it. I didn’t find out what happened to the pack of coyotes he was after. But by the time we got to this part of his story, it no longer mattered. Neither did it matter what happened to the livestock. Not to me, anyway. ((But I think it would have been pretty cool had he gone on telling the story including the fate of the coyotes. That’s pretty hardcore ranching. “Blew the suckers away,” he would snort. “Oh, yeah, and my hands, too. Hah, hah.”)) His thumb vanished into a pink spray, dissolving into what sure must have been a difficult time of life that squeezed him tightly.
An early childhood memory: playing with fire before the age of accountability. The twins who lived in the house behind my family’s house, would meet me at the back fence where our two yards joined. We would bring our plastic soldiers and model cars and whatever supply of flammable liquid (we could get our hands on) and a reasonable supply of matches. This was something we did as naturally and as predictably as the lawns getting mowed and meter readers jumping fence after fence with their clipboards.
The twins brought their older brother this time, and he had a new tool, very cool, very exciting. He pulled out a glass syringe. His father was diabetic. The syringe was an artifact of the day’s technology. The clear-glass syringe yellowed as it filled with gasoline. One of the twins scraped a match head and the brother squeezed the inner plunger stick with his thumb, holding the syringe between his middle and index fingers. The fuel, in its narrow and compressed piss-like stream, passed through the flame on that tiny match head and exploded into a fully formed miniature firestorm that would incinerate the little foxholes we’d set up. Plastic green snipers were still being hidden under the plastic army trucks, carefully being placed with my own two little hands. No procedure was in place for an all clear signal, no “fire in the hole!” shout-out.
I don’t remember seeing the match getting struck. I do remember seeing the brother dip the syringe into the jar of fuel and then pull back and the plunger. I remember thinking that the flame would probably squirt out of there so fast that it would knock over whatever it hit before it burned it. I also remember an unspoken but certain and urgent prompt to move my hands, to pull them toward my chest. And as though for what seemed no reason at all, I jerked my hands toward sternum as fast as I could. I cannot tell you how close the flames came to nearly landed on my hands. I would be interested in a high-speed film recording of that event. It was, terrifying. It was dramatic. The four of us burst out with unison “wow,” or something like that, each remarking how close that was and that we should be careful and all that. But within a minute our young brains had moved on to other distractions, still in need of further exploring, discovering limits we had long passed while looking for things that our two hands could do.
The Green T-Shirt
I’d only worn once
In what is now a profile
Picture on all social media
There it was
Not all that important
Where it had always been
So beloved and simple
Freshly laundered, folded
And then before I wear again,
Like any favorite
I never knew I wanted
Delicate work is brutal, a paradox eventually forgotten as the craftsman polishes his technique. As he polishes his technique he cultivates his patience. This is how he learns the effort of restraint, and learns again that particular effort is a supreme effort, a choice that always allows more choices in future but demands more refinement at present, toward making more of a universal statement in the universe. The grind is daily only in its season, and only after the chipping away hints a vague silhouette, the shape of the thing to come, but not anytime soon.
Such a principle applies when creating any original work of art worthily rated as a masterpiece, perceptively imbued with multiple levels of emotions implied or inferred.
Boredom is not necessary, neither is it illegal. Resorting to subjects, verbs and objects that are illegal often serves as boredom’s potent antidote. For a while, anyway. Until one becomes bored with whatever illegal activity, hormones will surge, chemicals will churn life into the dull grey soft matter that is the hardware of consciousness. We are children squishing ants on the front porch. Nothing wrong with that, even kind of addictive. And it never gets old until we do.
Let’s turn things up a notch. That bird over there needs a rock thrown at it, we think, and throw one in its direction not intending to hit the target, which it does. The sparrow falls quickly, unaware of how or why or even that it has become acutely inert.
A few years later another juvenile ensemble has assembled, waiting to pounce. That kid with the new bicycle (sweet tufted banana seat, suicide handlebars, nothing but chrome for fenders) sees them staring at him. He innocently leaves it unlocked in front of the drug store. The glass door doesn’t even shut before one of the boys mounts the stingray and flies it to the next neighborhood. Hey, it’s something to do. The dork comes out holding a candy bar he will never eat. Sick with loss, new emptiness where his new bike was a few minutes earlier, safe, solid and real, all his, suited to no one else. How dare anyone ride it but him. He must walk the city block to his home. It’s a joyless hike, the distance compounded as barefooted forced march. The void that is his loss weighs on him brutally. That fine machine, the envy of the other boys, the most significant physical extension of his personal identity, the thing that got him from place to place in style, gone.
The dork rides shotgun as his father steers the Impala through the neighborhood streets. Decades will pass until father and son both relive these moments in dreams they never share with the other. It never occurs to either of them as they reflect on this memory, a horrible experience transformed into a sweet recollection, time together, so long ago. And there it is: the stolen bike, still recognizable under the all the disguise from a hasty black paint job. The thief later becomes a friend.
He remembers the time he returned to check on the carcass of the fallen sparrow a few minutes after he’d killed it, but it was gone.
These mops don’t smell too good no matter how many ways you soak
Them, frayed and rattled like the ends of torn tendons, spliced especially
So the silken ligatures slowly dissolve into flesh, absorbed like a child
Takes everything as possible until proven otherwise, stories that evoke
Senses of place in young imaginations are impatient seeds of epics, fully
Flowered when the sun burns the cultivated ground, a harvest reconciled
To our contentment, we can all agree on a balance, what should be is not
What shouldn’t, and should objections open another cavity into our chest,
Beasts will make this hole a home, leave bones of prey and lovers, drawings
Of hunts and conquests, ageless and ancient, no carbon dating will assign
The artist’s pigment a circa, an opus, a period, even a ballpark figure at best
Falls within limits of our ken, a language of thought that dances and sings
With each idea, each fresh soldier still, a weeping mother on his mind
Fading with every deflowering, solace turns to lunacy like an old friend
Both raising an instant brow acknowledging a reference too obvious
To leave ignored, their timing so perfectly coincident that laughter ensues
Unashamedly, bottles of the same vintage opened and turned on end
Until every residue distilled from the old country bears a serendipitous
Remorse at such behavior, the influence of teachers who scold and refuse
To hear excuses, each one a litany on parade, new majorettes in old uniforms
Twirling from the knob end against every other beat, dyed ostrich feathers
Blowing like a cool blue flame against a flat-bottom kettle, its steamy whistle
Begging for relief, searching for shelter from all soul-encircling maelstroms,
Exhausted, treading around and around a hub that is a hole, your wet hair:
A fiery whip and a golden veil, punishment and protection like this will
Mean your journey should continue, it must go on, never without incident,
But surely with no harm or indefinite delay, a lingering of legs entwined
For a season or two perhaps, not much longer before roots dig deep, tangled
In tight knots around our graves before we know it, days and weeks spent
Settling into the past like contents during shipping, new products left behind
When the heavy factory doors slammed for a final bolting, all the chain led
Workers having already moved their families into freshly painted suburbs,
Layered new sod so green and treeless where amber waves grew to heaven,
Where heaven held the hearts of generations, blessed the hallowed ground
With those they loved, toiled to excess, fed the world from what now are curbs,
Stylish hybrids idle in hidden driveways as soccer moms leave their children
At practice, errands and caffeine calling the fiber of their beings to new-found
Malls, especially more caffeine for the special cup, the special words spoken
On nearly every corner, summon blue tooth wanderers into wi-fi wilderness
And espresso breath, hopped up on social networking lest we forget voices
Speak most clearly from the heart when filtered through time’s sacred token,
Doubt measured against decisions we made before coming of age, accountable
To ourselves, mostly, and to those from whom we grew, we consciously caress
The flesh of our flesh and teach them our lives turn pale given all the choices
Of trampled paths, forks with which we cannot eat beneath our kitchen table
Work continues the same everywhere
Beginning again in the early evenings
Into the nights and mornings as quietly
Changed into white clothes we wear
Surface layers of dust that air brings
Are wiped again until the cloth is slightly
Shaded where fingertips polished the hue
From flesh to cloth a mild vinegar scented
Astringent of sorts, the final mortal flavor
Held to thirsty lips, an ancient chiseled statue
Cleanses daily filth from pure and repented
Fixtures that furnish the house of our Savior