j o e    m i l a z z o

One, Something Like a Cloud, Peacefully Moving Along

 

At first, and from right out there on the surrounding plains, it hadn't been clear just what had happened. Those residents who'd been either too stubborn or too pious, in their own pagan way, to evacuate were now gone, and reports from those who fled, indistinct but brightly colored with panic, could hardly be trusted. (Or such had been the advance word from the relief workers who had dispersed through the country in search of survivors, individuals themselves in search of confirmation that the storm was dead even if, after all, it possessed no life of its own. Energy, yes; life, no.) And I decided early on that I had no business tracking such persons—whether man, woman or child—much less asking them about what they had witnessed. What was it after all, this event that had yielded but a thin scattering of evidence? Instinctively, I knew that the answer lay here, flat on this earth. Not across county lines, not on the streets of other towns where refugees and citizens looked no different from one another anyway, not in open houses and efficiency apartments reeking with the disinfectant odors of temporary shelter, not with those who wanted to tell their stories, not with recollections, not in motion.


Consider—I tucked pencil behind ear and spoke to the statisticians. I stared at the green integers avalanching down their computer screens. Not one of them could verify the precise speeds achieved inside the vortex. 145 mph? 230 mph? 190? They bickered with each other within their own reports; my file was fat with numbers. And not one of them paid much attention to what the eyewitnesses had said, which, when subjected to all the right trigonometry and push-pinned into any sad old celluloid wall map, indicated that the storm moved across the land, along axes sinuous both in vertical and horizontal aspects, "from point A to point B", at an average of 3 mph. The speed at which a man, even a giant among men, walks.


God had unleashed a terrible song of love against this city. Knowledge—present, prospective, revealed as well as hidden—is a natural enemy of sleep. And how can one rest if one knows a city—a city whose murders and graft are recorded in the thousands of inches of copy one has nursed through cartons of cigarettes and countless swallows of coffee, a city encrypted in the inflections of victims and the accents of criminals, a city whose pollution still smudges your breath and whose potholes still account for the drift you feel once you push it past the speed limit, that city—no longer exists? God had unleashed a terrible song of love against this city. That was the first mirage that drew me into the desert that has swept into this place. Yet, even at that, I quickly saw through it, saw that the ground and the sky here are not one band of unbroken color. As my imagination settled back towards monotony, all horror lost unity. I never read the competition, normally (it's bad luck), yet somehow I had read them all, those headlines—yellowed not by age but by the battered and dulled diffracting screens of corner newspaper machines, huge sentences that avoided mention of the divine. True, some of my colleagues quoted insurance adjusters to the effect that such an agent might exist. Still, his responsibility was nothing but a loophole through which the home office, as a last resort, could jump. But I know these surrounding communities, and I know, were I to lead any of their residents into the question, that they would make curiously sour faces and spit dark patches into the dust at any hinted conflation of God and Nature.


I have walked out here alone. I have accomplished all this without recourse to any typewriter, microphone, camera. I have no telephone. It hardly matters. Magnets do not work here anymore. Signals bend back upon themselves like the flight-paths of wounded birds. I have nothing to keep me company but my senses. My family did not want me to go, but they would never stoop to pleading.


I came with an assignment but I cannot unfold that brittle page without those orders tearing to pieces. I can function so long as I have one set of directives I can ignore. But if I allow those sentences to flourish and become contradictions—each incomplete and of roughly the same dimensions—I will not escape with my life.


I have no credentials. I've met no one who could verify my credentials even if I had them. I have no horse, no mule, no body but my own to do my bidding. I wish I had worn a belt rather than suspenders.


I prefer to think of my circumstances as elected, not imposed—ascetic rather than mitigating.


I have come to a location already lost within the associations of its own name, to a realm that makes a mockery of loneliness. Is this yonder? How does one arrive at such a place? Not everyone can. A reporter, however, is never stranded so long as he finds himself within the precincts of his investigation. I am here because I have volunteered to be oppressed by the volume, the mass of all that has been stripped away. I am not interested in reconstruction, really. For what can be reconstructed but the features that this event shares with cases other documenters have already chased down? I mean the absolute stillness of the air, I mean the air become the equator. I mean the air like a mountain sliding free of its elevations over the course of the most painfully imperceptible of geological intervals. The rare, rare green tinting of the sky about which parents whispered, a color that presses upon the inner ear and stirs nausea in you, so easy to disbelieve until it is upon you. No profound rain, no presaging hail. Rather, a choking dryness, a thick cottony parching—nothing brittle, crimson and trembling like a match-head. Heat inert, solid as a block of ice. Gray-green air, sickly air, turned to swamp water so heavy it is like stone—stone so gray and green with moss you do not notice that it is on fire. A flood of wind. If the waters breathe across us, we will surely drown. Inimical elements achieving harmony. And a tall black column approaching, cleaving this unnatural state of affairs that is terrifying not in that it should not be and is, but in that it cannot endure.


Are such figurations important? A counter-argument—such phrases are resemblances. Almanacs overflow with them. They are hollow. Description takes on a different meaning when the world, as far as you know, is a husk. No, less than a husk. A lariat so intricately knotted it could encircle any wild thing and bring it to a stop, now frayed through and nothing but a mound of cord tangled in its own slackening. A correspondent wants to write about that which is caught. Contemplation of whether men should want to hunt and brand and cage is best left to editors and, if they can't edit, philosophers.


The curious thing—the thing to remember—is that only with this churn of the derivative did a path to this destruction open. (I extrapolate destruction from these appearances all around me, but not much else.) In far-flung yet contiguous territories, places where the city I'm sure used to stand, there was not a home, not a prophecy, and not even a rumor of iniquity. In those places, so indifferent to the glass and concrete of this former metropolis, yet wishing it no ill, a tuneless harmonica wheezed or an impossibly echoing cannon volleyed or a draft animal lowed. Except that day, instead of rushing across the cooling fields, those rustic sirens died in the furrows. I heard it told that you could see the brown tips of the stalks in every acre bend back to white under the spreading weight of those falling sounds. The women in their summer dresses and the men in their dirt-drenched overalls waited for the wind to rise to that dull roar that haunts school teachers' longing for peace, but none came. So they walked back up or out onto porches that afternoon and watched as ink slowly spilled from the sky and blotted out the city. (I say this only because it aids in confirming a suspicion I have that it was all a gigantic error.) In every account I encountered, these good neighbors noted that, while sitting in the humid dark in front of radios and televisions reduced to buzzing uselessness, it came to them that, contrary to all they had ever known about emergencies of this sort, the storm moved not from the West but in and down from the Northeast—a corner to which they were not accustomed to according much significance.


Most disturbing were reports that very little devastation remained to mark out the boundaries of the aftermath. Aftermaths are typically made by men. Such aftermaths are essentially myths. They represent the concentrated fury of the storm with the chaos of stylized emotions. But this aftermath was curiously without force or face. Foundations of skyscrapers and 24/7 markets alike covered over like plots patted firm by a massive palm. Utility poles snapped off precisely at ground level, as though scraped down by a succession of razors. Effaced lines that were actually roads stripped bare of all negotiable surface. Houses, too, nothing more now than pale contours, alternations of light and dark grass. (Yes, the grass remains—grazed, vigorous.) Stretching forth in such faint spokes and spires from whatever center I create for it in my wanderings, the urban grid is anything but two-dimensional. It is the mark left by a towering structure that had been toppled. Gazing this long upon it fills one with the dread of imminent collapse. The more I connect these precise planes and dots and lines to landmarks and the possibility of population, the more I feel that they are figures sketched on walls that are inexorably closing in on me. At the same time, I know I am being presented with a city that is much reduced, a skeleton of a city, and that, even at sea level, I am looking down on it as if it were laid out on an examining table. In other words, the city, although the wind—surely more than just the wind?—has separated it from anything like a meaningful location, has not seen its confines blown away. If anything, the city is nothing but its confines. Borders purified, confines once expansively out of control, now preserved as some constant.


Think of all the rest that is missing. No rummage sales of detritus dumped far from civilization. No reports of seedpod double-wides transported intact tens or hundreds of miles distant, or of a yokel astronaut emerging unharmed from a Port-A-San onto a country club fairway. No comic juxtapositions. No livestock replanted at an absurd height; there are no heights here anymore. No Jack of Diamonds impaling that live oak that was yea tall even in your grandfather's knee-pants days; no trees at all. Assuming that it was the desired effect, it was all very menacing.


It would be simpler, in the end, to say that the maps have been incorrect all this time. These have always been flats (not salt flats), duneless wastes (but verdant), low tundra. These surface striations and buried shapes are natural formations. Local climate and the local upheaval have interacted over several millennia and have given us these uniquely geometric motifs of erosion. The idea that there is something smacking of modern manufacturing, of hubris, of neglect and messiness about one's immediate surroundings is just that, an impression, the beholder's narcissism at work. A fancy and nothing more.


But I will not bow to the pressure and indulge my impulses. I don't want what I can control and what I can't control mingling so carefree.


It has been obvious since my arrival that, although this area has never been re-settled, it will always be the province of human beings. I have not been delving. I have not turned up an eating utensil or a warped book that, as soon as it is opened, pours forth sand as if renouncing words and mourning the voice that will not read it ever again, or the flabby pink torso of a baby doll, or a pet's tag—its embossed name and address glinting like icing sugar on a tea party treat. The ground has borne the step of neither poachers nor PhD's. If there were no inhabitants, how could there be culture? Unless it was all just a hoax. If pressed with food and drink, those scrabbling through the neighboring jurisdictions would admit the existence of their extinct cousins. (I knew this, as preparatory to my entering into the wild blue pluperfect, I had lived among them, as the outsider of whose return they had grimly suspected they would soon be reminded.)


Yes sir, the city had been dying for a long time. Oh sure, they had difficulties there. That downtown was a ghost town. The people there worked below ground, got from place to place using dry gullies and queer boats, I never seen folks sunburn so easy, imagine that, and still that tornado bored deep, scooped them out like they was the seed-stringy insides of a too-mellow cantaloupe that's just plopped off its vine. Schools and jails equal in their over-crowding. (I nodded in confirmation, but let them know how much I reserved judgment. Though now, bereft of quotations, I understand how much my paraphrasing—my ventriloquism—damns me.) No good mother and father wanted to stay there. Young people with too much money and too little sense of gratitude, they were masters of that place. Everyone waiting on everyone else, a life on one clock or another, you never saw such clothes and such a lot of filth being bought and sold. People came from there, it was said, "white in the face and stumbling something fierce."


"No," I heard many times, "I don't recall knowing anyone who ever left to live there. Their kind, they was foreigners to us. Sure, some of 'em was kin, but blood ran thin in that place, even when it was spilt, which was often as I hear. We never paid those folks much mind."


Nor, one supposes, any fealty, any tribute, any tithe. And the city, embittered that none was forthcoming, demanded indifference for indifference. I myself never knew of a remarkable sinner native to this since unincorporated place.


Still, I am not weary yet. On the contrary, I feel both blithe and very aware of being satiated. I feel this all along my bones and down in my guts, the way one feels after a tall slippery glass of unsweetened iced tea. I sweat so profusely that my coat sags and my feet slosh around in my shoes. Maybe my mind is a swirl. Perhaps my thinking is dominated by question marks, crooks overlapping and interlocking to create a spinning funnel. Proceeding far enough backwards, I see I have turned myself around and now face the direction from which I set out. How I wish I could stop these anomalies from multiplying. I am a burglar who has stumbled upon a mansion whose windows have been thrown open and whose doors have been left unlocked—a house screaming admittance—only to find that inside it is nothing but one huge, brightly lit void of a room.


What was the force running like mad within and athwart the walls of the great gray squall? It grew progressively darker as it took into itself straight trees without any low branches, shingles and siding, car doors, waves from the lake, tombstones, neon signs. Substances slammed into one another like rioters in some awful parade. The tornado's real power is one of blurring, of equivalences coerced. Of hellish consensus. One can picture the pieces of the city—a city both like and unlike any other—not so much shredded on their way to being atomized as distended, stretched into thin, unrecognizable wires, a vehement weave.


The ink bleeds, hemorrhaging its own hue. Enough with unclaimed comparisons. This is what happened.


It came, it acted, it went away. It pursued the stationary city and undid it from first to last. Its base touched the latest, outlying regions first, swept around to the west and then to the new developments in the south, rose to the east and landed again where the highway interchanges were still being completed. It repeated this design, slowly circling inward until its diameter covered the entire expanse of downtown, effacing in one instant the history the city's population had been neglecting with so much languor and for so long.


To witness the tornado would have been to glimpse time's tail. This was how the disturbance was truly monstrous. It could not be thought of as having covered distance, at least not as one watched it happen. But can an object happen? Can something be both object and event?


A summer day at these latitudes. That, finally, is all the explanation I can allow.


Some said the tornado dragged the city behind it, to its death, carrying it along rather than blowing it away. I'm sure I heard this said underneath the train-trestle and through open windows in the dead of night. No one who saw its hypnotic, twisting length ever really saw it dissipate. Did the storm ever cease? At some point in time its energies were spent—senseless as those energies were. So others believe the cyclone is still present, still hovering there, camouflaging itself in both night and day, that it's learned, evolved into something that can consume noiselessly, become a danger that cannot be felt, except obliquely. Only I know there is nothing to find, and nothing to take, and nothing for which I must fear revenge.


Something is approaching. It is not a man. She is lean with what I assume to be age, not intent, but her cheeks, though flat and plastered over with greasy wisps of white hair, appear to be ruddy. In fact, her hair is a fright. Her eyeglasses have no lenses. Her fingertips are black with either broken nails or crusted under with dried blood. Her mouth is a crooked slash. Panting, she limps, and as she tilts forward and slopes back with each step, it is as if she is being illuminated by red and blue lights flashing into purple all around us. She makes a series of beckoning gestures. Gradually slowing in her approach, she sits down. She looks up at me for a long few minutes, then looks at me no more. I sit down next to her, but not too close. She takes two cans from a nearby pile that marks the side of a road. (Is this where I have been all along? Have I become a hitchhiker waiting for a back upon which to crawl?) There are soldiers in the vicinity. There is a crackle to the air. There is smoke but there is no wood in it. She hands one can to me and keeps one for herself. The cans have no labels and the steel, long naked in the sun, nearly burns my fingers. She hands me her knife and mimes instructions on prying open, extracting, giving oneself nourishment. She turns the knife around, pointing the handle at me, the blade glinting in the shadows of her palm. I know before I take it that it will be sticky to the touch.


We eat and the eating takes its time. We pass the knife back and forth and it clanks as, mouthful by mouthful, we use it to scrape something to taste from the corrugations of the cans. She turns to offer me what she cannot finish. I decline; I know a pretext when I see one. Undeterred, she speaks, but, wiping her mouth, she only muffles the beginning of the story she is about to re-tell.


Has she deliberately obscured her motives? I am convinced that either she knows who I am or that I have seen her before. I have the unmistakable feeling that I have jostled with her collar balled in my fist. That the knuckles of my left hand have rubbed against her gums. That I have pushed sour breath into her face. That I have slung her into the bedpost or in such a way as to send cold cream jars and mascaras and cut glass atomizers waltzing crazily across the floor. But I was never there.


I must interrupt her.


"Is that so?" There is a trembling at the corners of her eyes, but I can hardly tell her I'm sorry. I don't mean it, any of it, not even this little bit.


I reach to take my notebook from my back pocket.

 

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JOE MILAZZO is the author of the chapbook The Terraces (Das Arquibancadas) (Little Red Leaves Textile Series, 2012) and the novel Crepuscule W/ Nellie (forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Productions). His writings have appeared in The Collagist, Drunken Boat, H_NGM_N and Black Clock (among others), and are forthcoming in Horse Less Review, Tarpaulin Sky, Whiskey Island and elsewhere. Along with Janice Lee and Eric Lindley, he edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing]. He is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, and his virtual location is http://www.slowstudies.net/jmilazzo.


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