Another piece that came into being during those rough, first few years when I was just figuring out how the hell to write fiction. It was published in a community college’s literary magazine and I felt content to let it rest there. It’s a transitional piece—if you look at the earlier, staccato-voiced stories and compare them to this, you can see I was trying to branch out.
Or you might more clearly see that I had quit wanting to be the next Chuck Palahniuk and moved onto wanting to be a more somber Tom Robbins. It was a while before I decided to try being just plain James Black. From 2003.
Here, under the apricot syrup of the afternoon sunlight, is the Shrine of Anamnesis. Here is where I am in my most perfect moment, and you’d think I would miss this, would miss the significance of this perfection as it unfolds itself, but I don’t.
This is the last moment and it stretches out to encompass surrounding moments all at once. A temporal cannibalization, time eating time and becoming both infinitely dense and distilled. A mutant cluster of temporal cells; a time tumor. It is the longest second.
This is a precarious balance atop the fine edge of teeth within the maw of sleep.
This is the center of a ripple, like the place where a sunk skipping stone finally says goodbye to the trailing, dotted surface of oceanskin. This moment is a satisfied gulp: plunk. From here, time radiates outward and speeds up through the line of my life and over distance. People and events further away from this moment move faster and more frustratedly. And so do I. Past or future makes no difference from here. Fast: me, twenty minutes ago. Faster: my six o’ clock self. Faster yet: tomorrow’s me.
But right here I am at rest. My momentum is dampened and I am stuck to right now.
This isn’t so much a ripple as it is a model of an atom, a map of electron paths and all their different orbits. A three-dimensional asterisk. I sit in the core chamber, the nucleus, the very bowels of fission. I am the innermost flame at the center of a starburst.
I don’t expect anyone to understand. Description is irrelevant. This is not a place you can go looking for, but you will know it when you get here. On the precipice of sleep, heavy and featherweight all at once, I cannot give. I will not. I have to remind myself to exhale at first.
My most perfect moment; this is the Center of Time.
And the smell of your hair holds me here.
* * *
Outside the window I’m under there is an oak tree. Last summer, I watched an albino squirrel swing from its branches. It wasn’t collecting food, wasn’t escaping any predator or scuttling away from greasy, phlegmatic car exhausts. Swinging acrobatically, he played. Enjoyed just being himself, a creature with only the slightest smattering of self-awareness. Our eyes met midswoop and he stopped on the next branch. We stared across and both felt ambushed. We held the moment and agreed that he could be an animal out of character if I could be a voyeur, and it would be okay with both of us. We promised and it was our pact and secret.
It was almost enough for me. Simplicity: what I could have, what I needed. I felt ready to forget the tedium of everything else. Dash all the trappings we had invented and swing, barely self-aware, like the squirrel.
Your arms came around under mine, so for a minute my pulse broke stride, and I felt ambushed all over again. You kissed my neck, asked “what are you doing?” and I realized I was out of character and you were a voyeur.
That was when I knew for sure I didn’t believe anymore.
* * *
I have flown so many times in my dreams; caught updrafts to spin and kick off of car sides and mountaintops. I’ve spent a quantifiable percentage of my lifespan aloft, blasting out into the distant blue spaces that are clear up close. I have flown so many times in my dreams that I can remember the feeling any time I want, but no matter what I do, my body will not reenact the dance.
This is not for lack of effort. Ceteris parabis, I should be able to fly.
Five minutes ago, I remembered what it’s like to push off with my hidden legs, appendages normally tucked away in my mind like wooly sweaters condemned to attic-bound cedar chests. I can remember the liquid feeling of everything as it runs across and past my skin like cold drips of watercolor paint on upright, slow drying canvas. Now, with my eyes drawn shut, I felt this distinctly, unmistakably, completely.
No matter what my stubborn meat will or will not do, I remember. And in the amber light glowing through my eyelids; in the shuffle of fresh leaves on that tree; under the window and on the couch I hold that feeling, but not my breath, inside of me. In the humidity snaking around the apartment’s corners—first the shower stall, then the bathroom door, finally the living room wall—your hair is redolent; it traps me here.
I sink into it. I am wet-sealed eyes on the paper cut edge of an envelope of sleep.
* * *
We both agreed that there should be more than just this. We both felt cheated and slighted every time we called out names at the phone’s chirping ring and answered to find our ‘premonitions’ merely guesses. I think we both felt the curious absence of God as we held amethysts and opals, passing them between our hands saying “you think?” and, “yeah” and, “you really think?” then, “I don’t know.”
Shoulders curling forward prostrated themselves to doubt and concession. Moments like this ran downhill through our life together and filled a reservoir of resent to half-full. It fumed and sat in deliquescence until it was a struck match away from cataclysm. We spent years in its fog. And soon, I was no longer fighting for proof of what I didn’t know. I fought for disproof of what I did.
I remember the first confessions, the very first hints. Our visits to Lily Dale and the psychics there who botched all the details of our pasts, never mind our futures.
“Your parents want me to tell you they love you, they don’t feel that they affirmed this enough beforehand,” said a slug like lady, her entire body looking mammary and pale, barely sheathed in a blue, daisy print dress. Her tortoiseshell glasses perpetually sliding down a nose that oiled itself through thick, almost clownish foundation.
“My parents aren’t dead.”
“Yes. But before you left them. They felt shocked and threatened by your independence.”
“My parents drove us here,” you told her and then both agreed to keep all the details of the session quiet for a refund, gift shop gift certificates and the shard of rose quartz she wore around her neck.
Whether we hated her more for being a hack, or she you for being the one who reminded her, I don’t know. But it was these moments, instants in time, a series of numbers and swoops across a clock face; tumblers in the lock that opened us up and spilled the dead leaf sludge of our hope down into that reservoir cesspool.
Water into acid.
These moments were tumblers in the lock that opened up into Capone’s empty vault.
* * *
We both needed that hurricane to end when we commanded it to. Basement walls damp and cold, but not too damp or cold—the comfortingly consistent way all basement walls always feel—we weathered the storm in a postmodern dungeon. Almost underground. We had sage grass, had wormwood; we had white, brown and gray candles. A book of spells by a woman calling herself Lady Silvia Fox-Dove. Our backs were not to a door and the window was not obstructed. We had octagonal mirrors covered in eyeliner pencil hexagrams and we were stoic and powerful. All the bases, every last one of them was covered. The basement was a mystic’s buffet.
Sweet Isis, white in the same sooty, twig braided way that all outdoor cats are, was an ideal familiar. Isis, the blue eyed, half-blind cat we fed our own pin-drawn blood in first separate, then joint Bonding rituals. Pricked fingertips healed, we held those same hands tight and felt the dry crackle of heat as a single entity. Felt it at the same time as the candle baked our grip just four inches above its flame.
“All magicks are powerful and not to be trifled with, but Weather Magick, since it affects so many Life Spheres, is especially majestic.” The leather bound grimoire said so. “It takes a disciplined mind and the right ingredients to alter Gaea’s Mood. You and your Coven will be hard-pressed but successful if an Image is held fast in your mind.”
We held our hands until they blistered together, sebum seeping down the canals in our palm prints, mixing and making us more than blood brother, blood sister. We held our hands until we feared permanent scarring. Maybe the book should have been bound in goatskin; maybe the candles and sage should not have been lit with a half-size, pink Bic lighter. But ceteris parabis, it should have worked.
This is all it would have taken. This one thing. It would have superceded any burden of proof that a cross-examining mind could have set to be met.
We both expected more. We both sat out the storm’s duration eating canned corn and ketchup sandwiches in different corners of the cellar hating each other and God just a little bit. And when Isis lost half her straying tail over the white candle in a car dashboard orange puff of fire—one errant twitch that led to a four month singed fur smell—I think we were both sure the sacrifice would halt the winds.
I know that in the end, in the grayscale sunlight that oozed through the opened door, we climbed the stairs as husks. We walked away from that afternoon as freed hostages: shamed, reluctant, hating our captor for letting us leave alive. We never discussed it again. In my memory, I can see your loping gait; you practically dragged knuckles on the way up. And even so, I would be the one to break. Perhaps I was less destroyed because I had less hope to begin with.
Perhaps that basement was our reservoir, a postmodern oubliette we filled with liquid disappointment during the storm. And when it was over, the door opened and room drained, my faith surfaced, bedraggled and drowned.
* * *
To have a life full of magic and God, one must first have unadulterated belief. One must first have that Bible Standard ‘mustard seed of faith’ to move aside what may obfuscate the white hot radiance underneath everything. To have this faith, the rational mind requires proof. Evidence: a logical reason to foster belief in a possibility otherwise unindicated, unsuggested by observation of the maelstrom of existence.
Without proof, faith is impossible. Without faith—all the Holy Books out there will agree—proof is impossible.
In the end, faithful children and eager teens become the people to work out a creative budgeting scheme when their old Hondas need new transmissions; this instead of singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” with all the legions of Angles in choir.
When it’s already happened, it seems unavoidable.
* * *
But right here, on the altar of memory—under the picture windows, on the sand brown couch and in the path of a breeze that cools, not chills—I can hold on to the gingersnap and citrus smell of your hair, just washed, as you stand watching yourself in the mirror and preparing to leave.
On this couch, feet resting on the asymmetrical blanket my mother crocheted, I draw you into my lungs; imagine you as the oxygen infecting my bloodstream. Right here, I hold on to your scent, hot water cooling in the mane of your waist length damp hair. I know that everything at the Center of Time is safe. This moment is the only moment, time swallowed by time, and it is all mine for as long as I can keep it. There are only potentials, possibilities.
I can’t lose it to sleep, not just yet.
In my dreams, all watched pots boil and every falling tree, even the ones in the loneliest of places, makes the same sound. And when I wake, I’m forced to remember how it feels.
At the Center of Time is the place some people call Limbo.
* * *
Lucy, the very first years we spent together were all I needed to be sure that, if anyone could stuff Santa Claus back up the chimney and put the wizard back behind his curtain, it would be you. The very first time we met, I guessed that you could make it like I had never asked the questions and drawn the maps. You could make the world nameless again; turn things back away from what they mean to what they are.
With you, there would be no father—sweaty and pillow stuffed red velveteen coat blackened by a tight, staged crouch in the flue—eyes wide and reflecting a son who held a press-on beard in his tiny hands. There would only be Jolly Saint Nick.
I knew that, if anyone, you could erase all a cartographer’s lines. You might spend your days sculpting new apple flesh to fill the negative space left by bite marks; you might take the time then to hang them back on the tree.
You would be the only, the only one, who might help me achieve what I never could alone. I knew that you could be faith’s wet nurse.
And something was so right those first few years, something that sparkled everywhere, all the time. All houses were haunted and everything went bump in the night while we held each other secretly and quietly, your parents stewing only the distance of an exhaled sigh away.
We had no room for everyone else’s evidence and discontent. Pitied them even: the Godless, the Unsurprising, the Living Dead. And what teenager isn’t positive that adults are only the missing link in Darwin’s evolutionary chain; only that and nothing more? We knew better. We knew that magic was there for those who had eyes to see it, for those who had ears to hear it.
There was a whole other world just beneath this one. This world that covers truth the same way a shroud drapes the deceased. A person—Yogi, Shaman, Witch—just has to know where the seams are to filter through. We would, we promised, one day know all secrets; we would know every single one of the two-hundred and sixteen letters that spelled out the true name of God.
We could crawl inside and find the roads to Cibola, Valhalla, Shambhala. Lemuria. Mu.
One August evening, when the stars shifted and the charts said it was right, we made the slowest love possible, bed frame never giving a tell-tale creak. And even though nobody came, we knew it was powerful and potent and far-reaching and perfect. We knew it was a spell cast and that ten years later, we would still be corset tight in each other’s arms. So we lay awake until the sunrise half out of fear, half out of expectation. Hearing werewolves and poltergeists, waiting for Angels or Demons. We knew our magic was strong.
The word ‘know’ means completely different things every five years of a lifetime.
* * *
They say all wars are initiated by some combination of illusion, expectation and misperception. They say that through history, this triad has crumbled the greatest empires. So by comparison, we were nothing but the smallest of casualties.
At three a.m. that night—the real witching hour on the Autumnal Equinox—under September’s balsa colored harvest moon, we buried a single bean in the earth at the forking origin of three arboretum trails.
And the other three—illusion, expectation and misperception: the true Horsemen of the Apocalypse—were with us. That troika, liars and harbingers, filled in around our dyad as we prayed. From above, we would form a five-pointed star around that tiny, still open crater.
At three thirty-five a.m. that night, the only night so suited in a forty-year radius of time, you lay down nude, legs a V around that pit. Your smile so positively diaphanous. You checked a golden pocket watch and, in the Kabbalist numerological tradition of forty-seven as Yoni, we timed the act and spent a dozen minutes, you in estrus and me in rut. When the time came and so did I, I leaked out my offering half inside you and half out into the hole with the bean. I planted my seed.
All within this one hour, we sewed our entire crop. All eggs in that basket. But you knew it was destiny. And ceteris parabis, it should have worked.
Muddy kneed, I felt ridiculous and my final prayer was more of a threat. An ultimatum. I was cold in a tree’s shadow, a draft catching my backside, fast-moving and unobstructed thanks to the curious absence of God.
Adults with our adult concerns, this is all we would have asked of magic. Of God. One child, made from ourselves. Our blood to keep and mold and swaddle in cotton blankets. Our child to keep innocent. This is all we would have asked.
Our ritual was a mystic’s buffet and it was sanctified by every tradition we could think of. Sanctified by science too: young and in perfect health, we had every right. God be damned.
We were ready to be adults, to be parents. But instead, we balanced the checkbook and scrubbed dishes with Palmolive and argued about if maybe the sheets didn’t match the new paint in the bedroom. Six days later, in the final deposit that trickled in and overflowed our putrid reservoir, you bled.
* * *
The next day, a doctor—our last resort, an HMO approved clinician; not an acupuncturist, not an herbalist—told me that no matter what I do, no one will ever have my child. He said it with his glossy, bald pate facing me, eyes to the floor. Then he added, “Short of a miracle or some kind of magic.”
The curious absence of God is the negative space bitten out of Eden’s Apple and it encompasses everything.
* * *
From my vantage point now, I could picture that garnet red apple and Santa Claus lying bloated, core-rotten and debunked. I could see the way the feathers spread out and resisted gravity, enacting a faltering hover just under our bedroom window, as I tipped and shook the blue, velour-lined box empty. We had saved them for years, plucked out of our way on the paths we’d walked together. Omens of Right Choice, you called them.
I could see how I fell short of the expectation, how magic was an illusion and we had misperceived the problem all along. I could see all the illusions, expectations and misperceptions of our time together as insectoid creatures frothing around the joists and lode bearing beams of our relationship: a swarm of termites building cathedrals to no god.
I could hear the echoing crinkle of crumpling star charts and rice paper sheets covered in your tiny scrolling Incantation scrawl; the sound resonating in a chamber of memory somewhere between the rings and ripples of the near past, back away from now, the Center of Time.
I could listen to the ricochet of crystals and gemstones shot basketball style into the hallway’s stainless steel garbage bin and I could visualize the way that, in the end, the half-filled cylinder looked like a pirate’s treasure or dragon’s hoard.
I could pay attention to any of this, but I don’t. I let it float on the oceanskin: all of it previous plunking points of impact as the present, like that skipped stone, leapt out and became now. At this moment, on the Shrine of Anamnesis, all memories are only lichen-wrapped, floating air bubbles that time has disturbed. Right now, none of the past can touch me, because I am encapsulated and protected. This moment is an atom, and the perfect afternoon, like whirling electrons, creates a nautilus shell around me that stays all momentum and maroons me on the very cusp of sleep.
All of those memories are a rapidly fracturing chain tethering me to self-awareness.
I inhale and rise up and all that keeps me from drifting out those windows, on and on until somewhere the sky and sea and I converge, is the sharp and sweet bouquet of your hair. I sink into the sap of this instant—knowing that my soul will calcify, fossilize as I pine away while trying later to retrieve this second. Right now I am warm and adrift and halcyon and free.
And the smell of your hair is the thread that keeps me moored to consciousness.
* * *
In the end, I came to you. The light seeping between the blinds was just right, and the dust suspended in dewy, thick morning air gleamed and made your face look like pointillized. “Do you know what the best time of my day is, every day?”
“No,” you admitted.
“It’s during the fifteen seconds I walk from the bed to the alarm clock and hit the snooze button. It’s right then that I am awake enough to know I’m really still asleep.”
“I live for that, for just the walk there and the walk back, because then I fall asleep again and it’s gone. You can’t fully enjoy sleep when you’re sleeping. But during that quarter-minute of stumbling around, I know that I will fall back asleep and dream another dream and everything will be spectacular and extraordinary for a little while longer and whatever happens when I’m awake, it can only be downhill from there.”
“There’s nothing at all, and no amount of crystals or ribbons tied round candles will change it. The pyramids are only slave labor high-rises, all the Mayans died of smallpox; strange lights in the sky and the cold spots in all the houses have a better, more logical explanation. When I’m awake, I know that Nietzsche’s famous declaration was right. And I know that you will never have my child.”
“You know this?”
“I do. We can’t have a family, but I remember how to fly from dreams, Lucy. And when I’m awake the absence, the inability is palpable, painful.”
“You know this for sure.”
“Maybe… maybe this is an omen. Maybe it says something about…us.”
“Maybe it is. Maybe it does.”
* * *
In the end, there was quiet as reality held me by the collar, against the wall and with both its implacable hands. Pinned and prone, I let you walk away, still believing just a little bit, free and unburdened by the unbearable bulk of truth. In a hidden fifth chamber of your heart you held the single essential mustard seed.
You will never break. That sliver of unadulterated belief is a pressure suit, insulating you against the starved nothing inherent in the infinite vacuum of space. And that week became this week, and then became now, and you are preparing to leave.
The universe still glows for you. Cooler, red-shifting maybe, but it is still subtly glorious and self-illuminating. You have a child’s mind, Lucy, and only children can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. When I emerge on the other side of the Center of Time, the world will appear as nothing more than an immaculately tuned perpetual motion machine.
I will know that there is no room for magic in modern life. I will know that the stars that burn the brightest also exhaust their fuel the quickest. That when life is found out, all the rest is denouement. That once the illusion of magic is gone, what you have is only what you bring with you.
Now, on the Shrine of Anamnesis and at the heart of it all, if I wanted to break the spell, I might chance an open-eyed glimpse. I would see that even in my most perfect moment, there is that looming and curious absence. I would see that, in the fabric of my universe, there is a God-shaped hole clearly visible from the Center of Time.
* * *
Your feet round the corner out of the hallway and enter the living room, crushing the knap on a vacuum stiff carpet, then stopping silent and patient, respecting my trance.
“I’m awake,” I say, giving permission.
“Thanks for letting me shower.”
You hesitate long enough that I can hear my breath rattle the small hairs in my nose, I can feel a tickle, but I do nothing about it. My eyes stay closed, holding on. I can hear the moist snap as you blink. “There is no ‘anytime,’” the silence says, “this is the only time, the last time.”
“This is the end of it, I think. If you find anything else, will you call me?”
“I guess I’ll see you.”
“Yeah. I’ll be around.”
You slip into your heeled sandals and an open-topped box rattles ceramic and glass, contents settling as you lift it from the desk opposite the door. I don’t hear you walk there, I only hear the groan of the screen door closing and then your thump-thumping down the two flights of front steps.
* * *
Seeping in under my eyelids is late afternoon’s sepia tone and I can still smell your hair in the room. The sun paints a knife blade swatch of my face with heat. I am fading fast, sinking into this and soon I will lose the feeling. The October wind rustles loose leaves and I become an astral body, the dissonance and resonance of sound. I do this effortlessly, accidentally, yet comfortably.
When your scent fades, I will know that you are gone. Within its lingering trail, I stay limp and momentarily suspended at the Center of Time. At the Shrine of Anamnesis, all moments are simultaneous. All memory is savory. Here, I will always have you, Lucy, and we will always have our single, fervent, shared belief. Everything will be mysterious and phenomenal and nothing will be explained. Every house will be haunted, all animals will be omens. Even if I can never return, I will know that these moments are still happening. Somewhere, somewhen.
That will have to be enough for me.
They say that everyone misses the most important, pivotal moments of their life while they’re happening. They say that those things can only be known in retrospect, in hindsight. But I’ve proven them wrong because here, in my most perfect moment at the Center of Time, I know I have to hold on as long as I can: when I wake, everything else will be Before and After.
Here, on the fine edge of teeth in the maw of sleep, is where I teeter. The closest to perfection my life will ever creep. And instead of missing it as it passes me by, I draw it in as breath. Here, under the windows and in my mind, I see that chain of memory stretching out and away, into the past. I see us. And if I time it right, then push-off into it, it could be the tail end of our first summer. Baseball, cigarettes, sex, forever.
But no consciousness can exist in the Center of Time forever. Soon enough, under the honey thick sun, there will be the cessation of all sound as everything fades to black. And in a recurring dream, I will fly down into the turned over U of a cellar window. I will see my breath tinted a shade of crepuscular blue in a room made of ice; try to catch in a bottle the first gold of dawn or the last of dusk. Capture light as a half-solid, create a colloid prison and bring it back to my homeland as a souvenir. Evidence of this other place.
I find it every time.