Remember Only Your Name

By Eric Le Roy

“Considering that, all hatred driven hence,

The soul recovers radical innocence….

(“A Prayer For My Daughter” – W.B. Yeats)

Content 16+ I remember one early winter evening in Moscow when I had gone looking for a bookshop in New Arbatskaya. It must have been earlier than I recall because the skies had not slackened away into their usual numb abstraction, prelude to the Russian nocturne. Or perhaps, as my own dimming day darkens over my memory, it wasn’t even winter. Who can remember all the days?

What I do recall is that the gelid hint of some anonymous presence taking control of the evening air settled in, and — just like that — as the Moscow crowds hurried along the vast streets of that area in their daily bundled-up, heads-down fashion born of lifelong adjustments to the wind — I suddenly felt frightened by the thought: What if I had nowhere to go?

I wasn’t thinking in the sense of physical addresses. If it had been that, then any sort of gut-check would have snapped me right back. A quick rummage in my pocket would have produced coins, keys, and my metro pass; my rucksack was full of hidden rubles and English language books. I was feeling spirited and nimble enough even after the usual long day of tramping around Moscow to my teaching locations.

But then it came over me, this black-out cardiac arrest moment when my heart was beating just fine and paying no attention to me otherwise; this painless brain hemorrhage when my head had been untroubled and the typical random thoughts of peanuts and porcupines and pussy were bumping into each other like a crowded elevator full of nothing but molecules escaped from the molecule asylum.

It was something else that I couldn’t put my finger on.

Then, as the recognition came over me that the great city, for all its action of faces bobbing and slicing and grimacing through the self-created gaps in the gasping wind — most of them on contorted necks addressing themselves to the lividity of blinking phone screens, the horns of cars and trucks, and the lights on everywhere like signals reaching out to distant galaxies which they would never make it to — I was struck by something else, something of dead zones and zombies:

NOTHINGNESS.

It was as if, for a split second, the world around me simply disintegrated and a split-second later just reassembled. Nothing had happened. Nothing except the nothingness between slices of air.

I shall try to explain. Everyone thinks, or tends to, that epiphanies are invariably good, that they convert the infidel, charm the cynic, produce cries of “Merry Christmas” from the hermit, and cause the poet to think of surpassing metaphors. But can they not also represent an intuitive awareness (and even this word ‘intuition — so clear in meaning and yet impossible to define—has been challenged by the merchants of biotechnology) that just below the surface of things lies what the poet Philip Larkin described as a ‘solving emptiness’ and that, at the exact moment the Great Cosmic Fingers snapped, all traces of this world would fall apart instantly? No epitaphs or requiem masses, no caught-on-camera videos of the last moments, no talk show hosts and their theorizing guests discussing news real or ‘fake’. Just… Nothing.

In my city of Varna, there are two shopping malls and one of them has lost all its business. One by one, its shops are closing. Even on the food court, only a couple of counters are still open. If you walked through the remnants of that mall, those defunct businesses behind blank windows, the unbreathed air and dead escalators — there is nothing emptier than one of those malls — maybe you could guess, glimpse-like, of the dead zone zombie infinity I mean.

Infinity.

Try as we might, we can’t conceive of it, you know. We have words. Most of these words are emblems of concepts that we feel familiar with, even if they describe things we have no control over.

On one level, there are the words that have triggers but no precise aim: Beauty. Success. Happiness. Freedom. I always tell my students to stay away from these words in stories and be extremely careful to define them when writing expository essays. The reason is obvious. They all mean different things to different people.

On another level, there are words whose meaning we ‘get’, but, having ‘gotten’ them, are often helpless before their own bewildering, sinister and terrifying might. Cancer. Senility. Despair. Mortality. Decapitation. Extinction. They scare the shit out of us, but we can imagine them, can’t we? I mean, we die of leukemia and monitor the situation all the way, as those greedy white corpuscles gobble up the red ones. Like a military coup in our bloodstream, there is at least some entertainment value in knowing what we can learn about dying as we die. But we learn nothing of Death, do we?.

So finally, we come to words that we have invented and which have duly been entered into all dictionaries, and yet we really have no idea what they mean. Forever. Eternity. Infinity. Nothingness.

I remember reading a passage from the American writer John Cheever from one of his stories called “Just Tell Me Who It Was”:

“It was that hour of a spring day – or evening – when the dark of the woods

and the cold and damp from any nearby pond or brook are suddenly felt,

when you realize that the world was lighted, until a minute ago, merely by

the sun’s fire, and that your clothes are thin.”

Your clothes are thin. Perhaps that’s what it was on that evening in Moscow. It was not that I lacked an address. Moreover, as I have stated, I had some money in my pocket (and what could be more precious than that in a dead universe?) –, and as long as there remained a single bottle of vodka in Russia, there was no reason for a man like me to feel completely alone. As they say, in a world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. (Is that what they say?) No, it was more – suppose something on the order of ‘existential angst.’. Because at that precise moment, I did not know if I really existed. So Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” reassurance became more like, “I think I think, therefore I think I am but maybe I do not think and so maybe I am not”. Something like that.

I have heard life referred to as a ‘stage’, a ‘dream’ even a ‘video game'. As I grow old, I think that I am nothing but an insect among insects. I do not mean this in a particularly negative sense. It’s just that as I near the Great Non-Answer, I feel that in reality I have more in common with an ant, grasshopper, a termite, or any other common bug than I do with this imaginary construct called ‘civilization’ and all the ‘pageantry’ within it. I think that very possibly I am little more than a stone that woke up. Along with everybody else who ever lived. Holy men would say that we left our innocence behind when we went from those stones. Data programmers would say that there was no innocence to leave behind.

I watch them in the field sometimes. The grasshoppers, I mean. Or the dung-beetle. A praying mantis or two. The flocks of birds and sheep and the little unnamed things that climb along the bark of trees. Birds in the low heavens, the heavy heavens of a locked in winter that the birds know to escape. The plantlife. They always know what to do. I say, “Yes, they are all alive, and what is more, they all know what to do.”

I don’t. Holy men would say I have a choice. Data programmers would hand me a printout showing me that, having been properly hacked, I had already made my choice before I started thinking about the problem. They would not be speaking of astrology or destiny.

I thought to myself in New Arbatskaya: You can die here, but, even if it is because someone is kicking you to death on the street, the real death comes beyond all that, and from beyond the beyond — where there is no malevolence, hostility or judgment, but Silence expanding into further silences way past even the vocabulary of mathematicians, let alone the understanding of the insect, the monkey, or me. The fragile rose and the invincible weed know nothing except what to do. And then they do it. They are protagonists of the dark. I join them, my molecules shivering in non-light, and I don’t know what to do. I know nothing about it. I have fumbled my keys away. My hands dissolve when I reach for them. I cringe in a darkness beyond my understanding. But not the cats and cawing birds. They dominate the alley and the tree. Mockingly, it seems to me. And then they fly and run to their obvious doings.

This is why we all need to imagine a place to call home and then go and live in it. It is also why we need God. It doesn’t matter — O how can I say this — if this ‘home’ is an actual place with an address carved above the front door, nor does it matter if God is really some Old Misery up there in his Celestial Garret meticulously gathering the evidence that will send us all to Hell — none of that matters at all. What matters is what we think we are and in relation to whom — the universe and our rightful home in it being simply an artifice of our imagination.

If I love you, we are always at the crowded station. Is your train coming in or is it going out? I stand there, filled with the warmth of anticipation or the chill of goodbye. I remember you. Were you really there? I want you. Are you actually coming? Everything is a moment of epiphany, everything a fantasy of what was there a moment ago — sometimes, we forget even things of our common knowledge, like our names. Say your own name quickly 100 times and it loses its identity. Say it 100 times more and it becomes gibberish. You are nameless in the nothingness, even as you speak in tongues. Have you ever gone to introduce your wife or girlfriend to people at a party and momentarily forgotten her name? I have. If you haven’t, well, it embarrasses the piss out of you, believe that. “This is my Little Fox,” you say, grinning like a poster boy for Wanker’s Monthly magazine.

Mark Twain is famous for saying, “‘Home’ is the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.” Spot on, as usual, Mr. Clemens, but back then there were only street – not electronic – addresses. Maybe today, as we surf the asphalt city seas and urban oceans just beyond, we feel the craving of Oysseus to go back home. But where is that? No longer at the end of the wind. Disconnected, we sail the cyber waves, we glide in rhythm with Poseidons that turn out to be the names of video games, not natural gale-torn seas. Home is virtual..

OK OK, I am being too melodramatic, too ostentatiously literary, but give a guy a break, will ya? I am trying to make a point. And the point is that home, home — that last-ditch bedrock of every wayfarer, clean or dirty, drunk or sober, and always an elusive location for even the well-heeled as they hippity-hop from manor house to mansion – has become more nebulous, more insubstantial, harder to define and thus harder to find.

For some, it is a crack in the wall under a bridge made warm by the rats. For others, it is a narrow street in a backwater town with a twinkling pub at the end. Some people are at home with a microphone and the world as an audience. It depends, doesn’t it? Mostly it’s a single set of rooms on a certain floor in a certain building in a certain town or city, and the bed shared with someone you call Honey.

For example, I am a 73 year old American man living in an apartment near the sea in Varna, Bulgaria, with my Russian wife, who is age 63, and two dogs, 11 and 9, and a young cat who should survive us all.

We have been in this new apartment less than a year. Before that we lived in a village that I had very much wanted to call home, but never did, and finally moved out in buried anger and triumphant dismissal. I never met anyone in that village that I really liked, and this was a first for me, because meeting strangers had never been a problem before.

So that village whose praises I had sung on first arrival with pristine visions of hearty neighbors standing proudly before their green meadows and grape-swollen vineyards, open doors in the summer and lit candles dancing behind the frosty winter windows — became, not a source of disillusionment, because that would imply that I didn’t know much about the human race - but a stimulating stab of enraged shock at how right the nasty, nay-saying little troll in me had been all along. I had wanted to be proved in error; instead I was confirmed. Once again my naive auguries of innocence had received a dry corn-holing.

The locals treated their fields as a dumping ground. There was fucking garbage everywhere. Moreover, the people were boring. And physically nondescript with a nod towards being downright ugly. Those with both ears were missing teeth, and those with a full rack of nibblers, however gray or yellow, were short of an eye. Bake you a cake? They’d sooner shit on your shoes. As a rule, just a hollow glare and non-responsive cough would be their response to “Good morning!” or “Good evening!” The local administration consisted of a bunch of corrupt assholes whose thievery was legendary. They’d sooner burn your house down than pave the road in front of it.

One of the great fictions of village life is that of a still unblemished little milkmaid with an involuntarily suggestive blink-blink in her ‘astonished’ eyes when you look at her the way you do and when her flirtatious countenance glances playfully at you from a valley of cleavage: “Whatever do you mean, sir?” — and in the distance the horses go clippety-clop in the lane by the old stony chapel. If she was ever there in the first place, the ‘fair maiden’ is now in Sofia getting boned by a government official, her eyes bulging in a different way entirely. But lambwhite days of milky virginity about to offer itself up for your manly deflowering, is and has always been, the great vision that we the over-educated retain of the sour, suspicious, provincial ‘village’. Like the schoolmaster, mailman, birdwatcher, and that eccentric old woman who feeds the pigeons. You search in vain for the drooling village idiot. None of them are there, just a sawdust-brained collection of deadbeats.

A better vision of home is a bus station.

And yet, and yet, and yet, something in us wants to believe. Just now I took a break from writing and walked my dogs. There is a woodsy patch right next to our apartment building, and from it you get a great view of the Black Sea. To the left is a headland knob of houses that shimmer in the morning and evening.The sea is never really black, but changes constantly with the weather, and today it is like an old navy blue tarpaulin. The sky lowers over it, a judgment of gray.

This morning, the early sunlight that remained hidden, nevertheless somehow poked a hole in the bleak mast of the flint-clouds, and through this aperture strings of light rained down and opened up a small but bright pink pond way out there in its dark blue surrounds. Beyond it, like a stranger hovering by a trestle in a di Chirico surreal painting, was a ship, a tiny button of afterthought there on the cobalt sea. It occurred to me that an ancient religious man or shaman would have known what that radiant light and impromptu lake meant. Surely, a sign from God, or the gods, as the case may be. Doubt would never have entered his mind.

I have been reading a lot lately about infotechnology and biotechnology. They’ve got us figured out, you know. Love and heartbreak, spontaneity, intuition, and the kind of craving the human soul often longs for, are nothing but neurons of an algorithm. Just think — all that wasted love! You and I, we are simply a pair — or a group — of test tubes in the chemistry lab of the universe. One of these days, Artificial Intelligence will snap to life and steal our wives.

They probably will. It’s coming to that, you know. It is mere evolution: the monkey into the man, the man into the machine. Nothing has ever been more obvious to me.

And that is why — whether against my better judgment or because of it — part of me is turning to God. Religious faith, Spirituality, whatever you wish to call it — is mere mythology. I can accept that. But so is a dollar bill or the notion of coca cola. These too are mythologies. There is no Mr. Coca Cola. And what is bitcoin but a mythology created out of nothingness? All of this stuff exists only because we agree that it exists. Without that collective agreement they are nothing and do not exist.

God has always existed for those who want Him to exist. I get it now. God is the face — often a face much like our own — that we place over the Great Nothingness.

The Nothingness of that Moscow Street.

Walking home, Cass and Poppy and I meet Molly, a street dog that I have taken to feeding. Molly is scared of everything but streetwise at the same time. She knows to get out of the way of traffic. She follows me to my front door and waits because she knows that once I have bribed Cass and Pop with some treats I will fix her a bowl of good food and bring it to her. So she waits for me. She’s too scared to let me touch her, therefore I don’t try. But she knows me.

I talk to her. I’m the one who gave her a name, and I always try to convince her that now she is Molly. She doesn’t pay a damned bit of attention to that; her eyes are on the food that this strange anonymous god she knows is faithfully bringing her.

So she is the Molly of mythology, as I am the Eric of the same romance. But a part of us believes in each other. It’s the only way to get through life, isn't it, Molly? Put God in the middle of New Arbatskaya and you defeat Nothingness. If He wasn’t real before, make Him real. Look for the Buddha, sail toward Poseidon.

Stare into the air far enough and you will see what you want to see. It will look back. Existence is better than Nothingness, isn’t that right, Molly? So imagine it.

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Last updated February 01, 2018


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