Eternity In Still Frames

By Eric Le Roy

Content 18+ As time goes by, I feel distances spreading within myself. It’s as if the core of me is a little private plane without a compass and running out of fuel circling aimlessly in a sheer blue sky with snow-capped mountains in the distance on all sides. In effect,  my essence has been stretched; it is becoming the material of the sky, and by this I do not mean to make an analogy to ‘heaven’. More like some kind of viscous and almost transparently thin taffy.

      I confess to suspecting that some of it is just my age: 74 as of 8 May 2023. I measure my future in terms of every new sunrise experienced, and this is good because it encourages a sharp focus on matters at hand. But there is also a very odd sense of detachment that has entered the picture, as if my Creator – whether a conscious or an unconscious force –somehow comprehending that dying from the inside out would be more terrifying for me than from the outside in, has brought about a  compassionate change.

   What I mean is that there’s a certain distancing element involved in the process I understand myself to be going through. It involves a growing sense  that  mortality comes to my gate, shrugs and wanders off only to return a few weeks later, standing again by the gate, looking around this time a little more carefully , sniffing,  taking a few moments to gaze at the windows – as if checking for something – and only then finally strolling  away once more. I understand that he is the vigilante heart-snatcher, the grave’s bounty hunter, who keeps disturbing my gate.

To my amazement, even though he still leaves me behind, I notice that each time he comes, he takes something away with him. I know it because I feel the lessening of something inside me. So he leads my soul away in little gusts – as if my spirit  were only a draught in a room, or something akin to a domestic animal half resisting, half-willing to obey and follow so – even as this force will also take my body with it according to its will.  I am a token left behind to keep up appearances of how I once was. I walk and talk, yet so much of me is already gone, and only as I observe myself disappearing down the road do I understand that there are many deaths, not just one, and we die them as we go.  

And so now, amid this gradual erasure, as if I were but chalk being wiped slowly from a blackboard, I look at human civilization with an increasingly  uninspired and unsentimental vision, as though watching a film or reading a book whose suspension of disbelief was violated about halfway through, leaving the rest of it a tedious playing out, hardly worth the attention. 

   It is said that such detachment is a natural stage of the ‘aging process’, as they rather clinically call it, like the ‘grief cycle’ or a ‘near-death experience’. In the modern world, everything is a ‘system’ or a ‘process’.  Sort of like what happens when you flush the toilet.

Nevertheless, I scribble out my thoughts voluminously and in haste – one wonders why –  as if they would still move mountains in myself, perhaps? Certainly I have not successfully commanded them to move in others.  No, I do it simply to record them, thought after thought,the way lovers used to do on trees, and prisoners on wooden tables. But for me, it’s funny, it’s odd,  when carving your name actually produces the deepest sense of anonymity of all, as when a murderer deliberately leaves misleading clues.

Here in Varna where I live, they are doing a huge building project starting directly along the road just beyond my apartment complex, which, when we moved here, was the last residence building  and thus offered an unimpeded view of the Black Sea. That was a year and a half ago. Throughout the hot summer months they have been working furiously and now a yet unfinished but in some cases habitable Lego set of buildings has arisen. The sea view has thus become a cityscape. 

My dogs and I go into the small neck of woods remaining and camp out under a patch of tree-covering that gives out over the back parking lots of the new buildings. We still have a grand view of the sea, but for how much longer I wouldn’t pretend to know. At night, more and more lights come on in those buildings.  But in the early mornings there is only silence and the same is true of Sunday afternoons. At this point, a kind of Edward Hopper mood prevails. 

I have no earthly idea why the mood is so seductive to me, no idea at all: emptiness even in the last apparent heartbeat of brightness of a fading day; ennui, as though the world before me and the sky beyond are trying to express the common languor of a weary whorehouse in the rising sun;  enigma, as if something in the enamel stillness of the buildings keeps promising to wake up but then changes its mind and lapses away again.  One is reminded of  how parts of historic cities under reconstruction often post facades depicting old empire days;  these hearkenings hide bare walls held up by  bony scaffolds.

   As bold as custom jewelry and just as fake.

   And a softening thus without softening. A deepening longing buried in the impenetrable suggestions of  the dead buildings and glass sky, like someone, or a harmless bug perhaps, curled up into a fetal position on the unbreakably transparent wall of air and blue.

 Strangely, I find myself longing for the 1950s, an age in American history that most people find boring, just as a lot of the people back then found it so. I want to sit in Edward Hopper’s over-bright cafe, among the other nighthawks, frozen in eternity, in a night that hints of all sorts of clandestine and maybe sordid things in the dark places outside, but which will never be visited again by the frozen ghosts at the counter. At first glance the stark setting would seem the  very antithesis of Keats “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, but in some ways the message is hauntingly similar. In both, proximity does not foretell inevitable intimacy soon to be consummated, but rather the opposite. Something agonizingly close to happening but which never does. The woman at the counter, whom we imagine to be a semi-glamourous denizen of hotel lobbies,will never leave, neither with the fedora-headed  mobster at  her side, nor with anyone else. Busy little Bud with his company cap will never serve his coffee or moxie or whatever it is. The anonymous man hunched alone at the counter, cloistered in moody solitude, will never resolve his riddle or show his face. From the vacant streets will come neither killers nor liberators. This is ephemeral eternity, and it is exactly where I place myself. I am the man sitting at the counter whom Hopper never chose to include, but who is there nonetheless. The invisible one. That’s me.

But I have built a fantasy out of it, and I remember it now in a poem I wrote years ago. This is the story of what would have happened if I had left the nighthawk cage with the woman sitting there, who will always sit there.

THE ROOM BEYOND THE OTHER ROOMS

All the romance was in that other decade.

    luminosity in the dream-cafes,

slicked-back hair at 3 A.M.,

your sable.

                         And then the porters

of dawn, the vast

           decadent bed

in a dingy hotel room at the edge of the slum.

     Bootleg liquor in paper cups,

your stilettos discarded.

                                                  and later, the river

dragging its legends through the city,

    its endless commotion,

its sinuous coat

    the color of nickels and pennies

soiled by the swaying of many pockets,

       River of lovers

and pitchmen and bums.

                                                       We watched,

still groggy

     and eating whiskey breath,

         thriving on sleeplessness,

                                        from a high window,

and the river carried us

                            and bore our ghosts

    into the horns and jackhammers 

                                  and the odd cry,

tossed everything to the smokestacks beyond,

     leaving shards,

                     our broken comeliness

                                                                       spilled…

The last stars crashed into the floor

                                                              And I knew

                                                    surveying the room —

that tawdry chair with its sprawling arms

                                               covered with cloth

    showing a man in a turban 

           Riding an elephant –

                                                      that I would return alone

someday, wander the street,

     gazing up at the tired geometry

                                       of the windows,

                         and wonder which

                   was ours –

                                             the city, the river,

muttering and jabbering behind me,

making their deals.

           Yes, that’s how I imagine it might be if I ever left Hopper’s cafe of the Night and the Nighthawks.

          I saw a short (8 minutes) French Film called “Death and the Lady: When the Grim Reaper knocks.” It shows a lean, stooped old woman in her little lamplit house while the crackling thunder of a storm rages outside., and her big old dog Jackson is resting in his basket. The old woman puts on some piano music (“Autumn Leaves” actually) and together they listen when suddenly there is a loud authoritative knock at the door, followed by another. The old woman opens the door and it is the Grim Reaper. She greets him amicably and leads him into the kitchen to have a cup of tea. Jackson growls menacingly, but the woman scolds him and drives him away. Then she sits comfortably with the Reaper. The heavy-jowled old dog looks mournful and he even starts a fight with one of the young cats.  Finally he attacks the Reaper himself, as if to protect his mistress, but after a brief scuffle, the old woman puts Jackson in a dark room.  The dog does not understand his punishment.

    Finally the Reaper comes to him, and now we know: it is Jackson he has come for, not the old woman. Jackson brings the Reaper one of his toys. Imploringly. But the Reaper signals and the dog, now humbled and passive, follows the Reaper out the door and down the road. Just as they reach the start of the long path to eternity, Jackson stops and looks back. He wants to go home. The Reaper waits, signals again and Jackson joins him. And now, in a moment I’ll never forget, the Reaper throws Jackson’s toy down the road way ahead of him, and Jackson, his energy renewed, trots after it, then happily runs toward the little prize, all other things forgotten.

    He is going to a new place, and now that he knows and understands, he forgets his fear and bounds ahead of the Reaper, far ahead of him indeed now, and down the road wagging his tail . I am moved by this. Jackson doesn’t slouch or shirk his destiny. In the end he chases it like a puppy. Into the brightening darkness. 

    I think about Jackson as I sit looking at the cold silent buildings on a calm, too calm, Sunday afternoon.

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