The ceaseless circle of life.
The sour-spirited myth of timelessness.
Not enough people think about those things.
Remember when you learned to count to ten? Big accomplishment. Right up there with potty training and first steps. From early on, the importance of numbers is pressed into us.
“Time flies”….”time drags”…mind tricks. The Egyptians would be wildly disappointed in us.
I surpass my surroundings. The consequence-obsessed and prejudice-prone tintypes I fight for air, their retch-inducing single-mindedness, were once easy to ignore. No skin lost…let the world continue crumbling for all the wrong reasons. But the pity has become untenable. Uncle Robbie used to say “If they knew better, they’d do better,” and that’s well and true, but the line separating sympathy and irritation is so fine a good sneeze would send it to the wind. Knowledge is a person’s truest chum; ignorance is his foulest.
Fear is the axis around which knowledge and ignorance spin. The majority of humans do not question our self-imposed measurements. We hang clocks and calendars, we are told the best times to sleep, to wake, to work, to play. Collectively, we agree time exists. Ergo, time exists.
What if mankind collectively agreed that time did not exist?
There is no such thing as the past. The present, equally so-called. The future, the most laughable lie of all. All moments are happening at once. Every event fits the criteria of past, present, and future. The future will be present, will be past. For proof of how ridiculous the pedestal on which we place time is, look no further than time zones.
I am one man, living out one life, and neither I nor it matters much to anyone outside of myself. In the time-honored tradition of George Jefferson and Hong Kong Phooey, I make my living cleaning up after others, after hours. By myself, to myself, the pleasures of grunt-work. I push the cart up and down, into and through.
Time is borderline agitprop. Time is not something I need. At least, I don’t need it as much as I was taught to need it. Thus, I have taken on a massive responsibility.
I am going to scythe a path towards a new sanity.
I am going to make “time” arbitrary.
Start small: decrease awareness of the clock. Finish big: be the catalyst for a renaissance. Perhaps that’s a bit much; perhaps it’s better to say, I aim to set in motion a series of inconveniences intended to loosen up some of the world’s bolts while tightening up others. I will do this, hopefully, by causing a pure and sincere confusion in the general populace.
The results will be multitudinous and wonderful: individual lives saved, relationships enhanced, entire values systems recalibrated. An Earth of peace love and compromise, a planet where art assumes the status it deserves. (I’m not a creative type, but I have always been a dogged champion of those sensitive and thoughtful souls who are.)
To change, one must take a dare. Once resolved, one must commit. So when my old friend made another verbal invitation to a Sunday evening football-related get-together, I said “yes.”
I surprised myself; I shocked Dave. He’s been inviting me to these things for a few years now. A lesser fellow would’ve taken the hint and stopped extending offers to his hopelessly city-bound buddy. Dave knew better, somehow, and thanks to his persistence, I could answer a higher call. Do I like football? One need not be a football guy to enjoy free food; one need only be human.
I decided to finally wear the one Polo shirt I own, a gift from my girlfriend, who couldn’t make the dinner because of a promise to accompany her parents to a show at the theater, which I couldn’t make because of a promise to my friend to attend his party. The shirt is a very assertive shade of blue, and paired with the light brown trousers, they cast a dashing illusion. Getting dressed, I wished my girlfriend were present, just so one of us could experience disproportionate excitement.
“Hey Ed! Great to get you over here finally! Ed’s here, babe!” Dave greeted me. A pleasantly low-key gent.
Daphne flittered in from her corner of the kingdom, smoothed out and ready to take coats to the coat sanctuary. An unpleasantly high-strung lady.
Dave gave me a tour. I listen little, but hear much: “You still pay rent, right? I got a mortgage! You still live alone, right? I’ve banged my tight-assed wife in every room of this place!”
I nearly feigned a migraine when I noticed the monogrammed hand towels in the pisser.
Downstairs was ground zero, an expansive “entertainment area,” with three couches and a large wall-mounted TV on one side, and a modest bar, stools and all, on the other side. Occupying the space, a half-dozen of the “gang” from high school. Dave was the linchpin, Joe Cool, known by all and beloved by most. I never played sports in school, but I did smoke more marijuana than anyone else in the entire student body our junior and senior years, so the jocks tolerated the hell out of me.
“Hey hey Eddie, what’s going on?” Derek Sweeney is the loudest man possible.
“Not too much, just here, being a good buddy.”
“I hear ya. Where’s your lady?”
“Being a good daughter.”
“Oh, cool. Keeping it light tonight, huh?” Derek pointed to the red can in my hand. Beer gives me headaches, which is a pretty weak reason to abstain, so I tell people I am a “man” of whatever brand they don’t have. Offer me a Coors Light? I’m a Bud man. Fridge full of Bud? I’m a Coors man.
“Yeah, gonna see what it’s like to not wake up hungover on a Monday morning.”
Derek barked and smacked a paw onto my unprepared shoulder before excusing himself and promising to keep in touch. (He will not, which is great; I’d have to fake my own death if he did.)
I spent half my time watching the screen and the other half wondering when the game clock became so prominent during broadcast. No one noticed that I didn’t indulge in any of the hot wings or chips.
On the drive over I made a bet with myself: go at least four hours, without uttering more than ten sentences total, and no more than three of those sentences unprompted, I would treat myself to a lurid dessert before bed.
I shall sleep quite well tonight.
I spoke the words and made the gestures apropos of the friend. (Fake or fall!) Thankfully, the simplest acknowledgement sufficed. Ours was an earthy gathering. No shirts featuring crass puns, no gauche uniforms, nothing to indicate that with the exception of guess-who, every man in the room played high school football. Great guys, the exemplars of the American middle class.
These guys are wrecks. I don’t care how loud Derek speaks, how blithe Stevie comes off, these guys are hiding severe pain. Bill thinks that if he tells other people that he’s happier now that his divorce has been finalized, he will in fact reach that magical peak. Well Bill might fool Derek–because everyone, at some point, fools Derek–but I saw his attempt at a smile. Screw him and the sauce-covered fingers he went minutes without wiping clean. Screw their meticulously-scheduled lives. Screw all the average names in the culture that they strive to keep pace with.
At some point in the action, the television volume went from reasonable to apocalyptic. I scarcely concealed my happiness.
The hostess joined us as the game reached its final five minutes. Whatever she’d used to avoid the camaraderie one floor below lost its appeal. She hates football, she hates our negative influence on her amazing husband, she hates that he can enjoy himself without her. I watched as she squeezed her unspectacular figure in the space between Dave and the arm of couch number two.
It was hard to tear my eyes from the second-greatest love story in the room. Dave gazed at Daphne like he wanted to grab hold of her too-thick auburn hair and yank, a fisherman doing battle with a recalcitrant sheepshead–albeit one he wants to screw rather than cook. The persisting pulse of desire is, I imagine, down to the fact that no regrets have entered the equation. (Kids are the silencer on the double-barreled shotgun of domestic bliss.)
“It’s taken four minutes to play the two and a half minutes of this game,” Derek lamented.
You can’t start a fire without a spark, and an arsonist who doesn’t travel well winds up sleeping on ashes. When the promo for next week’s game began, I stood and made my unassuming way towards the stairs, Derek warning me not to take too long of a piss lest I miss the exciting conclusion of Concussion Theater.
Halfway up, heat once welcomed threatened to melt me down on the spot. Adjusting is indeed a bitch.
As the buzzing fuzz of the crowd and the commentators blended in a miasma of imminent release, I stopped in the kitchen. Not much larger than mine, but with more modern appliances.
Dave has a lovely home. Lady Luck has had her mouth around that guy’s balls since the day they dropped.
“Go go go go go!”
Derek’s slumped-over, inert body will be found within the next five years. The poor guy falls asleep staring at a hole in his roof caused by his blood pressure.
Ain’t it though…get some meditation in your life, D, some extra greens.
I placed my hand atop the stainless steel microwave.
Nothing referential or symbolic… 6:57 became 7:57. The surging elation threatened to blast through the tips of my fingers (yet my toes merely tingled against the cotton of my socks).
“Did you see that? What the hell was he thinking?”
Are you ready for some confusion?
Change begets change. Day 8 of a 1000 calorie diet. I went to the Vitamin Shoppe by Gold’s Gym and purchased protein bars and drinks of tastes ranging from decent to delectable. Maybe soon, I’ll go to Gold’s Gym.
Three days in, and my longest sleepless stretch has been twenty hours (day two). A few dizzy spells, but that’s just adjustment.
I also shaved for the first time in several weeks, so I’m no longer scratching my face every ten seconds.
A nice little experiment which could end my life, but is more likely to enhance it. There are side effects. Difficulty concentrating. More than once this past week I’ve had to smack my own face–hard, none of that “love tap” stuff–and shake my head until I hear soft matter sloshing against hard stuff. But, I’m strong, and the misery of weakness passes while the misery of strength stays.
There’s something about being the janitor for the same elementary school you attended twenty years ago. Some things, actually, none of them imbuing me with optimism.
The clock is a mighty enemy to the child. Perception at that age is a cruel pest. Buildings loom larger, landscapes stretch wider, the sky appears infinite. As we grow–physically, mentally–and certain truths come smashing down. But school is the worst: recess finishes in a blink, while the day’s last hour drags on forever.
I’m entrusted to perform certain duties, with absolutely no benefit to anyone if I dilly-dally or corner-cut. I’m not now, nor have I ever, been part of a “clean team.” My skill-set is solid, and I shine brightest when left alone. (Girlfriend claims I clean with a “weird intensity.” When did hard work and dedication become freakish?)
I finished up early (per the standards set by my employer, anyway), coming across only one other person in the entire building, a grunt-happy English teacher hunched over his desk.
The environment evokes no particular emotion. Whether ornery or honor roll, children appear the same in my scope. Future serial killers at best, future welfare mothers at worst (the world needs more life-takers than makers, this point in the game).
The clock concerned me, beckoned me from above the chalkboard. I slid the chair at the teacher’s desk over and took one deliberate step up. I was under no rush, but decided to behave as though I was.
I grabbed the clock by either side and lifted it away from the wall stud. The skin rippled beneath the neutral fabric of my custodian’s get-up. My heart rate accelerated, my vision narrowed, and I knew I was right. The device itself underwhelmed–a bit over a foot in diameter, a bit over a pound in weight. Didn’t stop me from pulling a Lion King.
I had a mini screwdriver at the ready, but the battery was exposed from inside the clock movement kit, so I used it instead to remove the AA in lieu of a fingernail. I replaced it a with dead battery that once helped power my remote control. A snap, and success.
I lifted the clock up to my face, happy as a fat guy at an all-you-can-eat fish fry. “You’re not dead,” I reassured it. “You’re just asleep.” Sharp, man, sharp.
Some men travel thousands of miles for a glimpse of civilization. They stand on cliffs of pink granite, gazing upon even more pink granite, under a chameleonic sky, absorbing the convergence and dispersal of the Earth’s energies, until at last they understand why one day their bones must decay and their flesh must rot. Yet other men will tamper with the clock and be overcome with a world gone agley.
(Imagine if I worked at a hospital! Unreal enough they let me work in a school.)
I returned the clock to its rightful home. The time is…4:47, for the next fifteen hours.
I will tell you in a hummingbird’s heartbeat of all the wrong I’ve said and done. I’m generally selfish in bed; I can’t take being that close to someone else’s body for too long. I’ve never said “I love you” to anyone that doesn’t share my blood, not even under cover of darkness. Those who do so wind up guilt-ridden and remorse-ravaged, and who needs that.
(Dave’s a great guy. Heart destined for a blender with ice and strawberries, but once certain decisions are made, you can’t intrude. You can try and open their eyes before the garish golden noose fits around their necks but not after. Just be a buddy and wait. And don’t be smug when the rope finally snaps; just agree when he laments what a bitch the executioner turned out to be, like it’s a revelation.)
8:44 becomes 8:47. 180 extra seconds. Enough time for three viewings of a video featuring a pug and a kitten frolicking on someone’s atrociously ugly bedspread.
I’m single again. (Almost said, “I’m one again,” but I have only ever been one.) We had a slew of irreconcilable differences, the killer one being: I’m a man, she’s a woman. The truth is, unless you’re talking about genitalia, men and women do not fit together. Women tend to be soft of brain as well as heart, and hard to improve. When they show signs of impudence, a wise man will not beat around the bush; he will break out the blades.
None of this means I hate women, or regard my own gender as superior. (A useful person is an accident, a decent one an illusion.) I just don’t fall for their tricks, or seek their approval to certify my manhood. The only women who have ever captivated me were all much older than my ex, much less attractive, but years from now as I lie on my death-couch I will recall their coarse skin and their round faces with disturbing precision while all of my used-to-be’s will have faded from memory.
My ex’s taste in music was her most attractive quality. I open up Spotify and bring up her playlists. I re-tune the tunes: pause, rewind, skip around, repeat. I am a fearless arranger, the conqueror of numbers.
The sufferer of dizzy spells, as well! Fixing fluids generally does the trick. Normally a small cup of creamer will do; something told me to pour in another one. I remained upright by the stove, watching clouds disintegrate into the moisture that birthed them.
The shaking became unbearable enough to send me reaching for the fleece jacket that I sometimes use for a pillow on those nights I choose to use the couch for a bed.
But I could not lay down.
Two nights ago I decided to combat my insomnia with a late-night drive. I had barely turned off my street when I saw a small group of transients wandering the area. They rarely venture over to the residences, preferring the park, particularly the train tracks that see the daily rumble of CSX. The brush with vehicular manslaughter sent my mind into a tailspin, and I couldn’t stop thinking about those shadow players, those haggard men who began inspiring fear in others as soon as they stop feeling it within themselves. I yearned to join them in their unorthodox joie de vivre.
Why? I wondered.
Amplify the atmosphere and divine the reasons, I realized.
My father told me not to be afraid of the dark. My mother told me nothing good happened at night. They both told me to sleep eight hours a night.
I threw on a gray hooded sweatshirt and headed out, keys in my jeans pocket and phone on top of my TV.
During the day, the roads around my building are delirious with painted metal heading to or from US-11, streaking down Memorial Boulevard, gliding into the park, whizzing to or from I-65. Nothing good happens at night, my ass. Mom just allows silence to wreak havoc on her imagination. Whoever’s out and about when the world is snoozing has (or will have) a story worth the telling.
The bare chill sped me down my block, across the street (I even jumped the median strip!) until I reached the grade crossing at West Church Street, where every day between 2-3 PM, departures from the nearby railway yard sent the boom barrier downward and the blood pressures of drivers upward. I walked along the tracks for several feet, until gray became green.
The serrated laughter acted as a beacon. Seems they saw me before I heard them, however, as from out of the shadows a round-shouldered man with raccoon eyes approached, a specter of a smile floating around his mouth. He reeked of aggression; I swear I smelled his hands against my chest before I felt them. I staggered, recovered, pushed back. He grinned and beckoned me to follow.
Huddled on and around the tracks were three other men, none exactly young, or exactly old, bonded by rootlessness. All eyes on the new element. When the proudly bald man sneered and sniffed, my breath caught.
“Name’s Ed,” I answered, meeting his gaze as I exhaled.
“Your eyes’re so close together,” he slurred, “you look like a friggin’ Cyclops.”
The man to his left gave him a lazy push to the shoulder. “You’re rude, Bern. He’s a guest. Bust out those M&M’s.”
“A’right, a’right. Just gimme a second to pick out the blue and green ones for myself.”
“They all taste the same.”
I considered my phlegm-ridden defender. He had hair so bright I suspected he leeched light from the moon, and it cascaded onto the denim vest pulled tight over a possibly-gray Henley. These men dressed in layers; it was obvious to anyone who didn’t avert their eyes.
“No they do not. If you have a discerning palate like myself…you can taste the difference.”
“Oh taste this.” Vesty grabbed Bern in a headlock that he attempted to transition into a full nelson. For a searing second I wondered if an initiation awaited.
(Wrestling was vastly more entertaining before the “entertainment era.” Those years when Hulkamania ran wild were the golden ones, when greased-up grapple-monkeys operated at the peak of poisoned glory. “Take your vitamins!” the Hulkster commanded, and damnit all I still do, just boring adult ones shaped like nothing.)
Bern finally broke free. “You almost made me spill the M&M’s, ya son-bitch!”
I told them almost the entire truth of what had driven me out of a warm apartment. Then Pusherman Cliff decided he wanted to pick up a soda from the vending machine just outside the Greyhound station–a five-minute walk away. He assigned me as tag-along, since I was the only one who spoke up when he asked if anyone else wanted a drink. We hadn’t made it a hundred feet when a cop car crept by. (The first vehicle I’d seen or heard since leaving the apartment.)
“Ah hell,” Cliff chuckled. “Can’t believe he didn’t stop. Well. We’re not sleeping, so they might not mess with us tonight. Good idea to split up anyway. Gimme a minute to walk ahead of you. I’ll wait for ya by the store,” he added, sensing my reticence.
I resisted the urge to count in my head, starting west once more when I felt that sixty seconds had passed. One-tenth of a mile in, I saw the cop car pull into the parking lot of Greene’s Auto Store and idle. I sighed, keeping a steady pace. As I passed the auto store, I heard an obnoxious series of siren blips that made me yelp. Yes, yelp. Like a puppy who’d stepped on a surprise stick.
“Get over here.” Officer Whoever didn’t step out of his car. I let my body hang limp, hands visible by my sides in hopes of keeping it that way. I looked him in the eye, but not for too long, choosing to focus most of my attention on the driver’s side mirror.
He was a square; square-jaw, square-hair, nose you could hang a coat on. He probably dressed up like a cop every Halloween. That kid who snitched to the teachers and the parents in the neighborhood whenever his peers acted in a manner less than admirable.
“Do you know what time it is?”
When I’d left the apartment it was 3:09.
“It’s 12:17,” he answered for me. (Hope the beat treats him well; he’d make a crappy doctor, not to mention a crappy ice cream man.)
“People keep different hours,” I shrugged.
“You look rough, buddy.”
“You need to work on your pick-up lines.”
“Hey! You want me to take you in?”
“That’s better. No, no, I don’t want that.”
“Then you just need to move along. Find someplace and stay there.”
“Okay, officer. Any suggestions?”
“What do I look like, a goddamn Salvation Army? Just get moving.”
So I did, spotting a stray cat on my way–homeless pussies are approaching epidemic in the area. Every one I see reminds me of my friend Dave. He kicked dogs, spat at cats, threw rocks at squirrels and birds, all because they live freer than us. They don’t obey external clocks or pay taxes, and for certain species abandoning your offspring is not just expected but encouraged. Dave couldn’t handle that knowledge. He also couldn’t handle being rebuffed by women, which wasn’t really an issue until that woman was my sister.
Back at the tracks, with some sugar inside me, I get to know the guys somewhat better. The vest-wearing Viking answers to Jake and rounding out the group is Brad, a man more of sounds than words, the top half of his face hidden by a trucker cap. They seemed to have a Goofus/Goofus dynamic happening, which I found endearing compared to Bern’s Bern-ness.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“I forgot. You don’t believe in watches.”
“When I talked to the cop, he told me it was 12:17,” I remembered.
Bern jammed his hands in his jacket pockets and tilted his head skyward. “So it’s what by now? 12:30, round about?” Back down came the head. “Domino’s is still delivering, gentlemen.” He wagged his eyebrows and I couldn’t help but laugh.
Cliff’s look was not devoid of sympathy. Prefacing with a sigh, he explained that Bern’s words were not mere suggestion. Seems that when it comes to nocturnal shenanigans, the stakes shoot higher as the temperature drops.
Per Cliff, they’d pulled off the scam twice before: pick an address within a mile radius, call a pizza joint (a different one each time) and order two large pizzas. Brad and Cliff, as the more slightly-built of the group, would act as lookouts. Jake and Bern would hide nearby (once under a porch, once on either side of an apartment building) and wait for the delivery guy to approach the front door.
“You like pizza, Ed?”
“Who doesn’t?” I chuckled.
“My ex-wife. She liked calzones.”
Jake reached into his jacket and pulled out brass knuckles.
Cliff squinted in my direction. “Are you up for this? You don’t have to be.”
Squibs of heat went off underneath my skin. Clearing my throat proved far easier than clearing my mind.
“You can use my building,” I shrugged.
(Compromise the parts, corrupt the whole.)
I also agreed to use my phone, saving a trip to the pay phone outside the Circuit Court some five minutes north, but sending me back into the apartment. (Not once did I consider staying inside.)
In my brief absence, the generous placement of streetlights throughout this part of town had given the guys cause for pause. “I made the call already,” was all I could say.
Across the street, a couple staggered to their apartment building, the guy slurring and accusing the girl, who took it champ-like until he made the error of calling her a slut, at which point she lost her cool and slapped him hard (I mean hard, not just girl-hard) across the face. Our group hooted and hollered. Pathetic as a man striking a woman is, a woman striking a man is more so. Especially when he just takes it!
“Gentlemen, assume the positions.”
Brad had the ears of a baby elephant, but his walk was closer to a satyr. Cliff scanned the surroundings with the most purposeful glare I’ve ever seen.
My role–stand inside the vestibule of my building and keep guard. Should anyone descend the stairs, I was to experience a sudden crisis of health.
From behind the glass, I watched Jake remove his fatigue jacket, revealing a green plaid tee underneath. He turned to join Bern on the east side of the building, motioning to me that I should lift the hood on my sweatshirt.
I thought of the brass knuckles and shivered. I hadn’t seen anyone with those since middle school. As far as I knew, they were sent to the same cornfield of obsolescence as the Rolodex and the typewriter.
The joys of a life without time. Twenty minutes, forty-five minutes, I don’t know how long it took for the car to pull up. Without a clock to watch, your life is yours.
The car door slammed. Take your time, buddy. It is yours, after all.
I turned to the side as he made his way up the walk, catching the action from my peripheral vision: Jake grabbed the pizza guy by his collar and pulled him to the ground. Seconds later–I think–Jake and Brad take the out-cold body back to the car, holding it up like the best friends every blackout drunk wants looking out for them at night’s end.
“We did good!”
The layers of Brad’s exclamation nearly sent me somersaulting into the blackness. I slapped my thighs in an attempt to calm my legs. Only a rap on the door brought me back to reality. Cliff was standing outside, crap-eating grin plastered on that unfortunate mug, clutching a pizza box.
“You said you’re a pepperoni man? Take a couple.”
“What about him?” I jerked my head. (They liked me, see, but that doesn’t equate to trust.)
“Let’s just say it’s our turn to deliver. See you around. And don’t forget to call.”
I stood there, dumb as a bag of brick bites, cradling two large slices in my right hand, watching as they piled into the delivery car and drove off.
Calling Domino’s to ask where the hell my pizza was while popping a slice of pepperoni into my mouth, being a bastard never felt so satisfying.
First thing I saw this morning were digital numbers–the alarm clock, the floor heater. I had changed the former but not the latter. I can still feel a distinct difference between the hours. I have so far to go.
Shifting is part of life. Only recently has it become depressing. Sitting on the edge of the bed, head between my legs, I squeeze my eyes shut and remind myself: I aim not to kill time, but to retell time.
Imagine my foolishness across many miles, affecting many people, causing a smidgen of unrest at every stop. Start small and persist. Like the clouds and the stars, like the dust and the dirt. Time means nothing to the clouds and the stars, to the dust and the dirt.
I have a healthy bank account. I could overcome my apprehension and travel the world. Or just America. I could find a loyal partner with whom to spread the words: Letters over numbers! Take control!
Is it right, what those men did? Is it right they should be out on the streets, rejected and dejected?
Knowing better does not indicate the subsequent doing of better. That I find to be the most offensive of all possible outcomes. Warm heart and sharp mind must reposition in the collective conscious. The poison of hubris released, the only antidote is taken in solitude. The recovery of decency, the restoration of kindness, must be a communal event.
I’ll do my part.
Jennifer Benningfield’s stories have appeared in several publications, including Black Dandy, Sonder Review, Vagabonds, and Fiction On the Web. A lifelong Marylander who has been in the (mostly) benevolent thrall of words since receiving “Green Eggs and Ham” as a birthday present, her writings can be found online at www.trapperjennmd.blogspot.com.