A geriatric portrait of the artist at twenty-four: persistent and growing inability to “chill out”, to hold a job, to watch television, to be ordinary. Overarching tendency to mock and satirize the issues, to intellectualize and put things in categories, to traffic in ideas and concepts rather than love and happiness. Growing inability to have ‘a good time’, to ‘laugh it off’, to take things lightly, to not feel strongly about ‘the issues’—empathy is waxing, but at the same time sympathy and tolerance has been noticeably diminished. A newfound vigilance against the unconscionable act of wasting time. Against everything nowadays: especially the thieves and flies, who so subtly rob us of moments in this infinitesimal lifespan.

***

I like the way I look sick--a weight added to the spirit. Strangers passing on the street look at me differently now. Perhaps its the blue vein visible through the translucent baby-soft skin just below my eye, or the gathered darkness of my cheeks, a slightly vampiric pallor. Interactions take on a certain weight now, a levity that comes from understanding that I have a limited number of them remaining. I glow when I take the time to speak now. I am magnetized to my subject. The person I am speaking to is the most important person in the world.

***

I've stopped communicating so much with friends--the constant chitter chatter updates, how are you doing, how are they doing, an update on the status of our mutual friends, what are our life problems, what are we "working on" what are our plans. The world, it turns out, is the most interesting companion. The sting of cold air on the skin at every sunrise and sunset. I stare into the blank canvas of North Carolina and it stares back— the empty streets and ghosts of possibilities that are always lurking around but never materialize. The dead of winter is the best time here: the flush of air, the moon cold and clear and bright, and sunset, as the blue sky turns ultramarine, with little wafty tufts of pink floating through it, and big, glass ball moon above. The lonely sound of a train horn can be heard in the distance. Music playing from hidden speakers in the parking lots of incandescent, empty Shell and BP gas stations. The roar somewhere of cheering crowds and high school football games, the drums of a marching band like the galloping of a thousand horses...

***

When dawn comes, it’s like a bow playing the low note on a stand-up bass…a quivering…and then the thin orange gash ripping its way across the horizon. Light, heat, a twilight-like cerulean, the daylight a little shaky at first as if it might at the last minute slump back into night. But then, an omnipresent splendor...a lightening, like a wash of paint spread across the silent landscape--ozone whisps around on the asphalt, and the street lamps still on, always humming--a van delivers the papers--people like me walk gingerly down our driveways with big mugs of coffee to get the paper, happy to still be "walking down the driveway to get the newspaper" in this pixilated era. Beard wrote that in a couple more years, all our printed objects will be obsolete—the great variance of touch and smell that one can experience with woodcuts, magazines, newsprint. They would take away our tactile sensations and replace them with a flat little piece of plastic, a data reader connected to the world by invisible strings, utterly devoid of charm or feeling. No more sensing, no more interacting, no more emoting, Beard wrote. No more sweat, no more ink, no more muscle. No more smell, no touch, no pain.

***

In 1998, Beard wrote, "People move to cities because they are unimaginative. They can no longer find ways to entertain themselves in the half-nature with sunrise-watching, steady fucking and making up of new dances to confound their enemies. So they choose a prefabricated life. The easy way out, where all interactions become predictable, accounted for. They move on top of each other, and pursue a life of homogenous experiences—the routine of work, the bar, the coffee shop, public transit home, the social. They can’t stand having responsibility for their own time, for their own lives. They can’t stomach the responsibility of living on the outside. So they linger on in the known world. In that garden of sensual pleasures, where, child-like, they will always be provided for.”

***

Neddie holds me at night. Sometimes I cry and sometimes she does. We are young and in love. We are both dying, though I’m doing it a little faster than she is. The cat lays between us in bed, and we poke our head out of the covers, like peas in a pod. I contort so she doesn't rub the bruised spot on my back, the source of the malignance that’s steadily making its way through my lymphatic system, like neon dye that slowly makes its way through the veins of a flower. When the doctor tells me I’ve got to do more chemo, that we’ve got to pump poison into my veins to fight the poison inside, I can only smile at him and think of Metallica lyrics: Fight fire with fire. The living—they cope with absence, but never actually have to go through anything—the fire, the sulfur, the darkness. Well, It's been a beautiful, interesting world, and I'm sorry I have to leave it. Neddie and I wake up with the sun pouring in the window, and give each other butterfly kisses, saying ‘Good morning, my sweet’. I make coffee the way she likes it (two sugars, two creams) and she makes the toast, with a thin film of margarine and marmalade. We live together in a photograph of time, more than anyone could ever ask for in this life. I am proud that the end will come before our bones have ossified, before our dicks and breasts have begun the long sag. I hold Neddie tight. Our sheets are clean and white. Our bed is always made.

***

Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher, spoke of New York through his description of Salt Lake City on his astral road trip through America, writing, “Everywhere marble: flawless, funereal…The Empire State in New York has something of this same funereal Puritanism raised to the nth power.”
Like a metal-detector prophet driven across the country in search of dark vibrations, Baudrillard seemed to tap into certain truths and feelings hidden barely under the surface of life in America, foretelling the story of the simulacrum-woven city and humanity’s final slouch into symbiotic dependency with machines. Baudrillard’s book America was printed in 1986, which means that he had to scribble his metaphysical prophecies in 1985 or earlier, an astonishingly early date for the technocratic prophecy gleaned within. Baudrillard’s been dead now for two years, and his books seem destined for occasional reprint in smart set obsolescence by the American and French post-Marxist press. It seems that his fate in death as in life will be both known and unknown, relevant and irrelevant all at the same time, like a shadow, a fun-house reflection of himself. Dead, Baudrillard’s work continues to haunt me with its fragmented revelation; his Reagan-era tongue lashing my pitiful, fractured twenty-first century frame. In his book, faced with the wonder, the wonder that is America, he wrote like one crumpled on his knees in reverence, all analysis failing, like a convert before the colossal scale of our utopian American project. The funereal Puritanism of the Empire State--There’s no debating the linear perfection of the Verrazano Bridge, stretching across the New York Bay. It is a line manifested, a supreme and unnecessary act of willpower. Without the Bridge, boats would have continued to ferry people across the rivers. The draping horizontality stretches from Bay Ridge to Staten Island, its perfectly vertical wires like pikes suspending its sleek frame above the icy waters of the frozen Bay—efforts on the measure of the Verrazano, like the undertakings of the past--the Pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Great Malls of our country, are non-negotiable. Even the most committed luddite can only grin stupidly at its prettiness, unable to deconstruct or imagine the ruins of this act of consummated will, this fantastic dream of dust.

***

I've been waking up at the first light of day, as if my physiology has been soldered and perfectly aligned to Earth's slow tilt around the great burning SUN...6:47 AM...6:46 AM...6:45 AM...the sound of galaxies and time passing like white noise. Wake up with a start from a dream you can’t remember… the sound of a slow rumble, like a giant boulder moving open to reveal a trapdoor in an Indiana Jones movie. Planets moving, titanic celestial vessels, lives shifting in and out of bounds…all in these first moments. In an attempt to try to squeeze the last waning moments from this wasted life, I’m sleeping very little...how many more sunrises, Beard? How many more going to beds, Beard? Two hundred? Nine hundred more? When the end comes, at least I rose at dawn and saw the sun, felt the cold, ate hot food, fucked hot fuck, and endured real feeling. I jumped out of bed every morning into the still-dark bedroom...a couple of minutes to get the coffee pot brewing, alone like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia...and then a Folgers moment, the play of colors in the sky, entertainment beyond any man-made reproduction.

***

In the first pages of Beard's 2006 tract Aphasia, he wrote: "People like squinting moles in offices across the world, living only in darkness. They get to work and log onto their laptops to spend a large portion of their workday Gchatting with friends who are in other offices doing the same thing, caged animals communicating with howls across the expanse of some vast social prison. Millions of people living into their loneliness occasionally prodded on by some kind of genetic social impulse to reach out to others for a temporary reprieve with small talk. “Hi, how are you?” “Oh my—what a beautiful dog you have!” “I’m so hung over this morning!” “Did you get my message?” Other more maladjusted souls delve deeper, hoping that their lonely work could bring them out on the other side, like digging a hole to China. Without their social networking tools, we’re “not in the conversation” and are slowly being phased out of the social circus. Careers and relationships are being made and broken, names and brands are gaining and losing credibility, bands are getting their start. And we could care less. Those who are missing can be presumed dead, so let’s play dead.”

***

Highways, hopelessly tangled across the states. What will become of all of them? Return to dust? Poor Beard, dead at only twenty-eight years old. Poor Neddie--green shoots will one day tear through the asphalt, New York City will lie in ruins, civilizations will crumble, but sometime soon she will be asked to step to the back of the funeral home and identify my body. Snow whisping across the streets like sands in the desert. Like on the steppe in Russia, and the cars, like a warm set of hands, always rubbing the road, cradling it in their arms, trying to keep it above freezing. The alien landscape in the morning--huge moon, tufts of lavender clouds, trees like out of a Dr. Seuss book. Empty town, like a model that some kid built for his Lionel train set to go around—perfectly bleached warehouses and factories, pine trees, empty streets, “neighborhood” barber shops, and modest skyscrapers. A flickering picture of purgatory. It’s as if the tropical fruits of hyper-capitalism that have blossomed so vibrantly elsewhere just haven’t been able to take root in the tough, red soil. The austere, institutional businesses here seem almost state-owned, peppering the streets with modest signs stating their social function—Greensboro Soap Company, Greensboro Educational Supply, Greensboro Auto Repair, Greensboro Brick and Mortar. It’s as if Greensboro were a skeletal structure of a city with all the necessary products and services to survive, but with none of the decorative flair. A city built by IKEA, dedicated to stark, Scandinavian simplicity. All the elements of life, without any of the feeling of it.

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© 2009

Ten Dawns

Aaron Lake Smith