The conversation had gone all the way around the corner and came back to death, or getting there, Prince having the floor and saying, “I had a friend just north of Boston.” That’s how he started, a simple opener, the way he does it, with natural pauses built in and a pass at saying he was familiar with Elizabeth Bishop’s poems. Hell, we knew that from similar discussions.
He offered an additional mouthful to clarify his opening: “He was a rebel, went against red tape, conglomerates, municipalities, utility companies, bureaucracies, you name it. A real loner, but a wonder worker with wood. Made things with his hands, beautiful things I could never make, never mind think about them in the first place.”
What was hidden therein equates to, ‘Well, at least anybody you know has one bit of grace on his side,’ where he’d never say ‘her side’ on a bet, unless it was for gain.
The story ensued with, “He had a running battle with the electric company and refused to pay their exorbitant billings and began to generate his own electricity for the small shop where he worked, where he kept his lonely bed, where he had a gas-powered generator.”
Came then a pause, a cough, “and one night, when he was sleeping, it started the whole place going, a bright ball all its own.” (This, of course, was a detraction to the previous ‘one bit of grace.’)
“Poof!” he signaled with snapped fingers, face swelling with feigned surprise. We felt the heat.
Pausing anew, looking around for mere nods, he continued, “The firemen found him beside his bed, not a mark on him but that black ring of death at his mouth they talk about, mostly to scare the Hell out of people. He’d taken one step, one breath balled up with heat, probably no more than that one breath, and it cooked him inside out. Said he never felt it, had been so quick. He was a beautiful guy. Real. Not a bit of horseshit with him. Like Carl, but not a bit like you, No horseshit! No gamesmanship! No phony probes to the center of the earth! I’ll take fire when I go!”
He swigged the last of his drink and looked ready to accept judgment from his peers, mostly their agreement.
The room went mousetrap silent, just after the trap was loaded.
Prince, the maestro, the manipulator, always helmsman at the rudder of talk, the deep ruminator, let the silence drift, morning mist settling onto petals, light as one can imagine, feathers, mere thinness. In command, he let silence come among us.
We were hushed and motionless, staring at centers of light in the middle of the room, death hanging for absorption, suspended motes of nothingness, but not at one another. He knew we were expecting him to make the next move, say the next word, take us where only he knew we were going in a discussion of death, getting there on the straight and level.
So sure, he was that a few of us were closer than we imagined.
He took a breath atop the grate of his teeth, honed, swallowed, going from someplace to no place, giving it an edge for pronouncement. We saw everything coming together for him and Fred, poor Fred, couldn’t be a better associate, mumbling, stumbling, foil’s perfect fool.
We were still quiet, studying space, death, waiting on him.
“Fred,” he said, drawing breath from his lungs, “You couldn’t die by fire on your best day! It takes two rugged testes to die by fire, not the kind that jump off all the time. Just find a hole, an edge, and jump. I thought you knew that before we started this game of ours. Fire’s a rugged death. Takes more character than one thinks, because most of the time you’re right in the thick of it, alert, taking smoke, looking for a way out. You’re not that much of a planner, Fred, old buddy. I think your whole life’s been reaction to panic. Every lay you’ve ever had, every good piece, was just a panic. Grab a tit! Shoot from the hip! That’s how it’s been for you, Fred, so you couldn’t die by fire if the choice was yours. You haven’t earned it!”
Toot’s shay, he could have said, coin tossing again, creating phrases, showman.
Fred by this time was balloon red, ready to burst, about to heave himself out of his seat. Prince, on a quick turn, thought of Bertha and Marlene and imminence of their deaths, the wormy, grubby, sluggish, maggoty knives of cancer, most contradictory evils that ever existed, slicing through their bodies at this exact moment, plowing all else aside, their deaths certain and ordained, now, here, part way into their final orbits. Such beneficence could only be tolerated by someone whose thinking was beyond these minutes.
In the hands of… he might have tried on.
He called on command genes and adrenalin to find way deeper into his true voice, but it was Fred who heaved himself out of his seat and yelled more at the walls than at Prince.
“Do you really think I’m so frigging dumb, Prince? Do you think all of us are so stupid? I caught it! I’m sure they did!” He looked wildly about himself, not into our eyes, but seeking spatial appeasement.
“You constantly rag my ass about screwing around, but it wasn’t me who offered up the tricky little phrase when you said Rod of the God Pod. What the hell does that mean, Prince? Is that confessional work? Are you owning up to yourself? D’you cheat on sweet Meg here, I mean, of course, long before you gave up your ankle-high black-as-hell two-dollars-a-pair Converse sneakers!”
Low-balling was easy for Fred. Prince knew it before Fred did.
Fred shrugged his shoulders at Meg and then at Carl and Rhonda. It was an apologetic gesture, and he sank back into his seat, a fish thrown back into water, not a keeper but getting another life just the same. It was Fred saying he was not graced with driving force, could blow up and then forget any explosion. Life moved on regardless of his impact by deed or desire. Fred, all of us knew, was no more than a one-night stand on everything.
Carl felt old feelings repeating themselves, having seen Fred before in the same circumstance. He kept a special place for Fred; once a teammate, always a teammate, and even now, when their bond was straining at the seam, the bond was still in place.
Rhonda, in her turn, snickered against the back of her hand, leaned over and gave Fred a kiss on the back of his head. “You’re still a great piece, Fred. Don’t let him steal everything from you. All this damned philosophy is just some frigging cover-up for whatever the hell he’s bringing along with him. Just think about all this for one minute with a clear head and your eyeballs not all stuck together like fish eyes looking up as if they’d swallowed your ass all the way up to your armpits.”
Prince almost kissed her, she was so real, in with it, on top of it all.
She laughed at herself, puffed regally. Her great breasts lunged in her blouse, hit hard on the silken material and flattened out rapidly, ripples on a quiet pond moving toward small infinities, future tenderness in hand.
Carl knew she should have lived in another place and another time. Oh, on a planet where time and a place belonged solely to her. He tried to find that place for her in his mind but couldn’t bring it around. She grew warmer in seconds, filling space, congenial, graphical, her heat touching him.
Fred, diminutive for the moment, saw her as a power he’d never attain no matter where death was hanging out.
Prince, gone prone Prince, inhaled the striking Rhonda only to find Meg’s likeness.
He wanted to light out at Fred again, but Rhonda spoke hurriedly to him, referee and judge in her tone. “How tall are you, Prince, seeing we’re talking things prone or standing?” Her eyes were glowing, her cheeks royal red, playing him.–
“I used to be five foot, eleven inches, but right now I scale out at about eight inches at my very best.” His grin lit up the mirror they used in conversation. The gray eyes, often hazed over with opaque film looking on life perpendicular to us, leaped with quick brilliance, found for each of us enough light to sense his self-reliance, despite evidence underneath completely different.
He was at a high point in the by-play, not morose or sad-faced, and across the room Meg felt a fluttering inside, happiness, a sudden updraft where small muscles ached and unknown feelings continually stirred, flaring upwards, a cool blue fire climbing out of sadder depths.
Suddenly uncovered were desires, needs, the feelings which had moved in and through her, touching all the parts she wanted touched. All daylong she had thought of the phrase The Laying on of Hands and it had continued to beat at her ears, echoes accompanied by pictures of her being bent and molded and touched, and the cures that might come her way, what Prince had so forcefully advocated about odor and sound having union. She thought of commitment, her role in life, what she long ago had accepted for herself. At these odd moments the iron-clad chains did not have a thorough bite to them, did not dig in hard the way manacles talk to bone, cold speech needing no punctuation.
The two sisters laughed about his height comparison, their eyes quickly livelier, in themselves mirroring each other quite uniquely, as if they had waited for such a union. Nothing needed to be healed or cured, only celebrated. Carl noted the merger, the complement, the special way they came at the same resolution from different directions.
Prince went directly at Fred again. “I thought you’d prefer ice, Fred. It’s quieter. You place yourself down to sleep much of the time, feelings leaving your fingers, your toes, your butt cooling down so that it practically disappears. Slowness coming up your limbs, the outer to the inner, route preference if you’d have it, and it takes no balls. It’s like nap time, Fred. Crib time! Bed time! Just as if you’d be going in for a roll in the hay! Laying down. Phasing out. Getting out of the mainstream. It’s like going bankrupt, Fred, cashing in everything, and no more bills, no dues to be paid, no deeds to be done. Nothing! Just tossing off one more night in the sack that just happens to last forever. Who knows, Fred, one of your erections might be frozen in place for all eternity!”
“Fuck you, Prince!” screamed Fred. “When’s the last time you had one?” He was on his feet, hands waving in the air, cursed in his own mind at what he was doing and not caring one rat’s ass about whose feelings were hurt. A foggy picture of Bertha came out of the darkness, then Marlene came trailing behind her. They were dressed in identical clothing. They had the same faces and he did not know how to tell them apart, except there was a presence in one the other did not have and he supposed that was Bertha. There was a smile on her face for a moment and it faded as if she had said, “I can’t tell you who I am or where I’m coming from but right now, after all this, I think you know.”
He swore he was going to sob. He could feel the blob of sound catch itself in his throat, the way phlegm hangs onto the passage. High throat muscles worked to force it back, the force building in his veins.
“We’re all going to die, Prince. What the hell difference does it make how? Do you think Bertha and Marlene aren’t going to die by fire? Oh, none of that high inferno shit, but that frigging slow ignition and combustion and endless eating away at their goddamn guts and organs and the arms getting skinny as match sticks and their cheekbones polished marbles sickly yellow and stomachs puffing, pregnant again and just giving birth to death. Their little babies are just balls of death! Never mind nine months of it, but a lifetime of death. That’s really getting fucked, Prince!”
“And you want to talk about goddamn smells, buddy boy. Well, they’ll have all the smells you’d ever want, sinking right into the middle of your brain and stench up every idea of smell you’ve ever had, like a landfill burning where oranges rot at the bottom of everything and burn right beside plastic going black and wet newspapers and old burlap thick as Fourth of July punk. The ungodly smell you dream about.”
He sat abruptly, nearly falling on top of Rhonda. She urged him into place and kissed him again on the forehead. “Them’s my words, sweetheart!’ she said in his ear. “You’re going to get everything out of you okay, Fred. It’ll all come. Don’t worry one more minute. Mother’s here.”
When she looked at the others, not one of them remarked which one was sick, horny, incapacitated, allegorical.
Carl did not let Prince bring up his rebuttal, if there was one coming, and he was sure if it did come it would sting. “If I get my choice, if it happens the way we tell it, then I’ll take the water and you can have the ice and the sleeping and the fire and the quickness. What I’ve thought of it is being right back where the whole thing began for me anyway, right in the tight little sea my mother carried around for her nine months of me, sloshing me all over town, bringing me to work and church and shopping and my father’s baseball games in the field outside of town.”
He went on: “They said the grass smelled good early in spring, leaping in April and May, and smelled like sweet grass a little later on when they had to cut it. I’d be thinking of that when I’d be back in the water for the last time, how good that old grass smells when you’re diving for a sinking line drive, and I’d hear the sound I never really heard and that ‘d be my father’s bat on the ball, that splunk of ash on horsehide, the only sound in the world of its kind, how it leaps up in the air like a getaway, liberty on a breeze, a carefree sound, a sound of purity and time clutched from one place in all the places you’ve known. A lifetime carved right in the air from the old days.”
He paused and noted Fred had sat back in his seat and Rhonda, good old Rhonda, had her hand in his pocket, and Meg was looking straight at him and he could see the light burning down inside where he’d seen no light before. His own words came spilling back, tidal move, soft inundation, and he knew he could taste the sweet grass in his mind and hear the sharp echo of vibrating wood and moving ball carrying cargo with it over a summer field buried in twilight, soft as all those yesterdays we remember.
Prince Kendry, for all his machinations, knew something the rest of them didn’t know.
Water, he thought, would be just fine, and he’d just have to tell them how it was coming at him, if he could remember how it came with focus and force, its visibility possible. “I read a Richard Hugo poem a while ago I’ll be thinking of when water starts its reach. I don’t remember all of it but have it locked here, about a ball in orbit, on the way out.”
He pointed to his head and began, his voice lower than it had been, perhaps the reader’s voice come back to visit: “ It’s called ‘Letter To Mantsch From Havre’ and part of it goes this way….’First inning , when you hit that shot, one on, the stands went stone. It still rockets the night. I imagine it climbing today, somewhere in the universe, / lovelier than a girl climbs on a horse and lovelier than a star. I’m trying to find Monty/ Holden’s barbershop. I want to tell him style in anything, pitching, hitting, cutting hair, is worth our trying even/ if we fail. And when that style, the graceful compact swing/ leaves the home crowd hearing its blood and the ball roars off/ in night like determined moon, it is our pleasure/ to care about something well done.’”
Meg and Rhonda stared at him, Fred nodded, and Prince said, “All right. You can have water. It’s all yours, pints, gallons, ponds, the seven seas. But is there only the bat on the ball and the sweet hay? Isn’t there anything else you can bring back from what you never heard in the first place?”
The air was full of demand. It was electric, touching everything and everyone. “Because now we know you, but so recently as a stranger, as a carrier of things, too. You tote so much, you’re like a Hertz Rental, better yet a road master whipping a blockbuster of a Kenworth along, the rig of all rigs high, wide and handsome on the long hot-top, and you lock baseball and water together like Hugo had baseball and time together. It’s exquisite, the lift, the mounting, the imagery. My compliments to Mr. Hugo.
One of them was ready to die.