Crows and Sparrows

by John Michael Cummings

In divorce, the gods drop you from their lap, and the force of the inevitable and adverse nudges you into the unknown, oblivious to your whimpers.  Before you can protest or brace yourself, another source of harm and ruin shoves you into the body of the stranger beside you, so that you yourself become that stranger, first to the world, then to yourself.  Alone, you wander into the forest of alienation where strangers introduce you to the age of self-help, Zen, and yogic self-centeredness.  And although you strive to attain mental well-being, you, too angry for enlightenment, feel only discontented and rebellious.  Or you seek spiritual elation in sex and food and sleep, but receive only disillusionment, the return of hunger, and another day.  You cannot suppress the scorn lacing your mind and will; you cannot unearth your good, kind self.  Instead, in spells, regret hammers against the inside of your head.  Or consternation vibrates through your ribs, tingling your fingertips.  In the aftermath of your marriage, you, pushed into a friendless world, roused to fear, and pacing with uneasiness, cling to the structure of yourself, hugging a kind of mannequin of yourself, and in the creepy grayness of dreaded daybreaks, you lay fraught and sleepless over what is to come.  Sweaty and weary, you sigh.  The fight of your life is on.

First stop.  My counselor.  I am full of confession this morning.  I tell Linda that at night, I fly the dark continent to my small hometown built on a rocky river-cut peninsula that fits into western Maryland and Virginia like a 100-yard-long jigsaw puzzle piece.  Raised on a makeshift stage set against the flaking plaster backs of old houses, I stomp and shout as a great tribal leader, while before me bob and sway swaths of my society, my clan, my family.  They are West Virginians, and I am their crusading leader arousing their unconquerable spirit.  Curly-haired and tight-jeaned, I look like Bruce Springsteen, my black boots pounding the platform,  my fist shaking the air, my raspy voice roaring out my anthems for them.  I am my mother's rock-and-roller, and in the rear of the crowd she stands, red-headed and young, her pride for me sheening her face.
  "Who are ya?"  I shout.

         "West Virginians!" they shout back

         "What are you?"

         "Beautiful and strong and good!"


         "Damn right!" they surprise me by adding. 

My mother--I can see her now--laughs into tears.  With her cheeks streaked, she waves to me, her favorite, her youngest.  We share the same spirit--I am her, and she feels me in her.  My father, with life in his old knees, stands out of his wheelchair, to see his son, the favorite son of the Mountaineer State.  My brothers, trim and healthy and baby-faced again, clap for the gladness they feel.  My sister, too, looks good.  They appear, in my mind, as a Bible family, immaculate in their innocence and purity and aroused to salvation.
Into the morning, while we sing and dance across the green, the sun rising over the shoulders of the Blue Ridge foothills bakes wellness into us.  Lush green maple leaves jingle with elation.  Rivers, converging behind me, flow past this Utopia like presidential trains.  By noon, God, wide-awake, presses his face against the window of the cobalt sky.  The world hits perfection.

“And how do you feel about that?” Linda asks.

Next stop.  The gym.  It’s good for me, they say, releases my instinct as a builder.  My mind and body unite in a drive for motion.  Reason and impulse pull together.  Below my conscious level is this concentration for action; deep in my nature is this feeling for the physical:  Over time, man has carpentered cities over valleys he has excavated of stone.  I am mind and body and will, the three of them in rhythm.  I practically sing work songs on the calf machine.  Later, with my shirt off in the shower, involuntarily rubbing my chest and shoulders and arms, I am an ape in my unconscious reflexes.  Although time, I know, will remove all trace of me, I am, today, total.

Next.  The bookstore.  Time to go to work.   Here I search among the customers for eternity in one encounter;  I expect my soulmate to approach with a discounted paperback.  At times, this bookstore, with its high glass walls, seems to trap me like a fish in an aquarium, although, in shape, it fits into the city, I often imagine, like another 55-gallon drum.  All the while, between me and the customers runs the counter of tact, behind which I am too timid and polite to risk good relations.  What can I brave saying, during ten-second retail transactions, to grab the heart of my rescuer?  The rest of the great, adventuresome world lies beyond me, through the spectacular pages of the National Geographic I shelve.  I am clerk #58.

The booksellers, I not always among them, work as if in a commune:  owning the store jointly but cultivating it individually.  Gail manages her personal boundaries better than her staff.  Frank--"Self. Self. Self.  You’re always thinking of yourself. Volunteer if you feel self-absorbed"-- despises the egotistical but accepts me only because of my kindly, good humor.  Alice, dressed in black as supervisor of books on the benign supernatural, witches around her section at the top of the escalator, where all of humanity seems her coven.  In my desperate, overstimulated state, I wonder why I do not read anymore.

I have literary thoughts.  Living in Minneapolis reminds me of The Fountainhead. I imagine, around the city, the hero of this novel, Howard Roark (or antihero, depending of one's moral evaluation of progress powered by the ego):  I visualize him placed in the downtown doorways like a statue of Christ in church alcoves; I picture him gazing out a large, dusty black pane in the Warehouse District like a ghost from the fifties; I think of him standing, as a man outcast for his integrity, on distant bridges of the city, above the black water of the mainstream.  I see him sculpted into the pinnacles of the churches--Howard Roark, the highest in human development.  I imagine him poised on an I-beam above Minneapolis;  I see him, solitary and defiant, atop a department store being built downtown.  I see him everywhere, on the bony iron skeletons of buildings, the remote man working, wearing a green or white hard hat and standing still and staring over the city--seeing forever. 

Roark and I and others like us scale the heights of heaven to ponder above these regions of hell on earth.  We are the climbers and the perchers, situating ourselves as lone spectators of our infernal world.  We stand on the hood of this spaceship of earth, facing the breeze of speed.  We sit on rooftops, haul ourselves onto windy cliffs, and fly small planes through the clouds; we shinny up trees to reach widow's peaks, scrabble up goat trails to the mountaintops, and shoot up elevator shafts to the clock towers of the city--all to meditate above Pandemonium.     
Then, as if overnight, she arrives in your life, a beautiful lover.  You rejoice in your amazement that a lovely companion has saved you from solitude.  You grow younger, and both of you rush toward the future, to redeem yourselves in the triumph of regained love.  You bound into the days ahead of you, spirited and smiling, feeling great joy.

Her name is Beth.  She is tough.  All of my life I have been drawn to tough, older women.  I do not want to know why. 

So far, what we have discovered in common is that both of us married our friends--hers later became an alcoholic, mine a victim.  But the Wounded can Heal the Wounded, according to her copy of The Kitchen Table Book of Wisdom. 

At this early stage, she calls us "fitness buddies." Every morning she jogs three hard miles out in the hilly suburbs where she lives.  Last month, she did a 500-bike ride through Wisconsin.  Just this morning, she swam an easy mile at the Y, 75 laps in the Olympic-sized pool. All the while, I dangled my feet in the water, Aphrodite's young lover.  I know that to be an Olympian’s companion, I must run mountains with her, swim seas with her, bike continents with her.  The most significant conversation of our relationship will someday take place atop Pike's Peak.  Most couples limit their love to sour codependency while vegetating in idling, traffic-locked cars, with their bellies full of fast-food onion rings and shakes. Not Beth and me. 

She is a school teacher, and this is summer and her precious time off, but she is not sunning herself by her pool, reading back issues of School Arts to find creative ways to teach art to 8-year-olds.  Why she works out several times a day--jogging in the morning, biking in the afternoon, weightlifting in the evening--is none of my business.  Her husband resented her fit physique.  Also, none of my business. 

She owns a Chesapeake-blue condo in the burbs, a cute 3-year-old Honda, and earns 30 thou a year as an art teacher for a Catholic private school where she has taught for the last 18 years; I rent a dingy low-income efficiency downtown, ride the public bus, pretend to be a freelance writer, and accept money from my parents.

"Age.  Just a set of numbers, right?" she says, sucking on her water bottle.

I do not respond.  I am not thinking about our ages.  I am thinking about our lifestyles.  Around us, the room is still.  Even the furniture looks petrified to hear what I am thinking.

Play exhilarates intimacy.  Play joins adults like kids.  Play makes friends.

I love her book The Kitchen Table Book of Wisdom.  Romantic relationships begin and last, it tells me, when kept fun and friendly.

I am at her house.  We are lying in bed.  She has just told me that the Catholic priest at the private school where she teaches has been her lover for the last few years.  I roll over and face here.  What am I thinking?  "This next chapter has already been written for me,” is what I am thinking.  A Thornberg story…

I also know that, by the way, this is one of those future-determining moments.

         "A priest?" I say.

         She gives him a name.  Tom.

She gazes off into the darkness, as if expecting, or deserving, to be reproached.  But I feel no righteous anger--she has not betrayed me; amazed me, maybe, but not violated my confidence. In her and, for that matter, in my life after divorce, I feel no confidence at all.

         "A priest?" I say to myself, lying naked where, last evening, he, the priest, must have lain, his big wooly belly spreading and settling like pie filling:  I have seen a photograph of him, a big, bearded man, shown to me, in undetectable, surreptitious guile, as her "friend."  Who would have ever suspected that she is having sex with her priest?  Such an unthinkable thought, right?

So how is sex with this priest?  That is all I can wonder, lying there, where he, Tom the spiritual father, the carer of souls, was and must have often been, his collar placed properly on her nightstand.  I look down my body, glad my stomach still appears sunken.  Beth still sits on the edge of her bed, waiting for me to react in rage.

         "So you love him?"

         "I'm in the process of breaking it off with him," she says back. 

You cannot remember when--how long ago and at which instant--you broke with yourself, with your bond of faith and honesty.  When you hear planes whisking through the blue, see bright taxis carrying excited families into the shopping district, and smell tasty dinners in the hallway of your apartment building, with chatter and laughter beyond the walls, you realize, as your heart withers and hardens into a plum pit, you are alone--yet you are how you wanted to become.
It is just two evenings later.  I am again lying on her bed, naked, when she arrives with another development in my meditation on divorce--we would become ugly with each other now.

         "I feel guilty about this," she says, waking me.

I roll over to face Janus again.  I already know she is about to kick my heart out like the bottom of a rusted bucket. 
  "I still love him."

         "I think I should leave."  I am furious, or think I am, and rise to dress.


Hers is a lazy, half-hearted plea to keep me, and only for this gross mockery of me do I despise her.  As she attempts to stop me from leaving her condo, stepping in front of me and  grabbing my hand as I reach for a doorknob, I feel we are acting in a prime time romantic drama written by Danielle Steele.

Then, the horror, the unimaginable, starts.  You cannot hear her apologies over the pounding of your resentment.  Soon petulant and quarrelsome, both of you feel unseemly together, tarnished by arguments.  Discouraged by your sudden incompatibility, both of you agree to give up, to break up.  What amazes and dismays you, in the days after you part, is how brief, how fleeting, the relationship turned out to be.  As you remember it, the vehicle of the relationship, the passion that carried you, careened out of control--but you are not to blame, you are certain. Rather, you simply retaliated for the bad conduct, for the unfulfilled honesty and trust, for the violated obligations, of the other.  You are blameless, you have decided.

I go to see Mary, an older, writer friend.  I am an incubus, I tell her.

         "A what?"  She squints into the sun blazing across the outdoor café, and from that I see for sure that she’s too old to become my next victim.

Is anyone well-read today?  I scoot my chair closer and whisper my incredible secret to her.  My friend Crystal has identified this demon in me, I add. 
Old Mare gives me the eye.  "Is—was—Crystal," she asks, "'drained?'"

No, Crystal was wise, elusive quarry.

         Mary relaxes.  "Because my friend has a daughter named Crystal--that's why I ask.” 

I make some kind of face of mock disgust.

         "No, but I think that's fascinating, really," she continues.

She is my Zen master of sorts.  I need her advice.  I tell her I am not keeping any of these "drained" women as friends.  Each, in the end, disdains me.

"Well, as a writer, you court rejection," she says, "so maybe these conquests...maybe they off-set all that.

I think about this.

          "Maybe you're a satyr,” she says.

I smile:  The old girl proves herself literary after all.  I pull out my notepad to jot down the word: satyr.
Bursting into the streets to search for your savior, you become aware of the hopeless size of the world around you--seeking companionship, you might walk for the next 30 years.  At the start, you pass only zombies of despair huddled at bus stops, littered and grimy.  (Divorce, you note, dropped you into the low-income district.)  Old scrub women with massive baggy arms do not see the handsome youth in you anymore, and young office women modeling smart outfits detect the trouble, the desperation, in your stride.  All the world, it seems, senses your uneasiness.  Even bums eye your frightened soul like food.  Or you feel invisible, when not ugly.  Buses blow soot at you--you are too sensitive, you admonish yourself.  And too self-critical, you add.  Downtown, attractive, moneyed couples snicker at you.  Uptown, predaceous gays smile sinisterly at your vulnerable self-consciousness--you are curious, they know, of how men comfort one another.  Day after day, fear and hope kick and slap and shake each other in a tussle for your soul.  When you feel at your worst, crows fly low to cackle over you, "...John Lonely, John Lonely, pessimism is you, John Lonely, John Lonely..."

Tonight, the good and evil in me are in a dead heat.  I balance myself on my bike on the 1st Avenue Bridge, gazing through the smelly mist at the lighted towers of the city.  The mighty river bridge shook as cars blow past me--everyone is hurrying to be not where they are.  Weightless on the suspended vaults of concrete spanning the river, minute under the skyline of geometric mountains of glass and steel, I feel painfully little and alone. 
In Rhode Island, I reproached myself for not selling my short stories to the New Yorker, like John Updike, and for not selling my literary novels to Knopf, like John Updike.  The highest ambition. I wanted to be in the company of the greats:  Norman Mailer, fatter than ever;  Lewis Lapham smoking a Parliament; and, staring out of the shadows like a mummy, weird Will Self--a spectacle of fantasy as bold and burlesque as a scene in a Roman Polanski film.  All I got was the Tinker Toy Review.

I phone my former counselor.  Former.

"Linda, why is everyone so afraid to laugh and love today?" 
"People are afraid of being hurt.”

"Aren't they more afraid of not living?" 
"John," she addresses me officially, "are you interested in resuming our sessions?"
All of my life I have yearned to be someone's hero, I tell her.

         "And you have been," she reminds me.  “Several times.  How's the job going?" She is beginning to assess.  That kills it.

Having her on the phone, I grow desperate for her understanding.  "We're all dying, Linda, dying in spirit."  Now I sound gravely troubled. 

         "I hear you're hurting --"

         "I'm not hurting," I quickly correct her.  "I'm perplexed."

I worry whether I see the modern world clearly:  I perceive an edgy land of incertitude, in which people remain unfamiliar, talk seems generic, and feelings go unidentified.  Life, as it seems, has neither limits nor possibilities.  People are as vague as dreams.  They seem as constrained by caution and reluctance as the low-rise apartment building and office parks interlocking over the land. 
People breathe in caution.  They warn themselves not to laugh and love; they inoculate themselves against danger and risk.  We live our lives beforehand. 

         "I hear you, John.  But I think in your case," she says,  "you spend so much time being charming that you come off as if not having a care in the world--now you’ve called me at home.   Come on Monday morning.  Bring a payment."
Love drowns like a sweet, pale girl too dazed to swim, her mouth bubbling out life, her nightgown flowing upward beautifully in the cold black water.

         "What do you want?" Phillip puts to me long-distance.
What I want, I answer him carefully, is a good, complete friend and lover.  I keep a picture of her in my head, in a vignette, framed by maturity and wisdom.  Is my request of life reasonable?  Or do we just get what we can get.  Modern life entails this kind of oxymoronic free-for-all for possessions, this materialistic brawl softened and disguised by laws and ethics.

"Good women do not root through--"  I am growing flustered in my search for a wise, clarifying remark.  "--through the Dumpster of Souls." 

         "Dumpster of Souls..." Phillip repeats, almost singing the phrase.   Then he tells me to scare myself, to step into the body of another man.

I could dress as Bruce Springsteen; I could impersonate Fabio; I could portray Romeo; I could double for Nicholas Cage; I could pretend to be F. Scott Fitzgerald; I could imitate Jackson Brown;  I could pose as Van Goh.  Or I could be John.

I have plenty of advice, but no help.

        "Breathe well," Craig, from his holy orb in my conscious, reminds me. 

        "Respect the dignity of each individual," Amanda, behind a tree in the park, whispers.

"Be true to yourself," Gary, from voice mail, contributes.
In Melony’s house reads a plaque:  "Live well, laugh often, love much."

But in the end, all I can do is to think furiously to form my mental picture of John.

Sunday afternoons press against your chest, as if your soul were in the vice of the week's end and its beginning.  You feel short and slow and heavy, like a settling house.  Depression floats over the hemisphere of your brain like heavy gray clouds.  You pray to reach Monday, to rejoin society in routine.  You pray to belong again.  You pray.

Monday morning.  Time to see Linda.  In her office, I am heavy-hearted and fixed on the past.  My deceit of myself, I say, nearly cost me my place in the world. In Rhode Island, where I lived for seven years, my writing literary novels in seclusion reduced me to a curious fear of speaking ungrammatically outdoors.  One solecism from my mouth, like a helium balloon, would rise quickly beyond my grasp, I feared in my derangement, and float upward into the heaven where, before God and ascending souls, my ungrammatical combination of words would hover long after I was dead and gone, like space debris.  Under any structure, though, from a ranch house to a newsstand, I could speak naturally, because the ceilings of these structures would block the rise of any balloon I emitted.  In the open air, however, my idiomatic speech would rise and rise until out of the galaxy.

I talk about Craig.  He is my editor at Utne Reader.  Well, he is not really my editor.  More like he takes pity on me, as well as takes my calls during which I whine for an assignment, and he gives me none, smelling instability on my end.  Instead, he meets me for coffee, every third Friday, when he needs to feel benevolent.
"Sponge people up," he smiles.  "Don't bat them away—and don’t forget to breathe."
Whenever I meet with Craig, I note his remarkable mellowness, first, for a busy, important editor, second, as a father and husband and 46-year-old.  I assume that as an adherent of the Utne thoughtfulness, he has gone peacefully hippie over the years--or maybe by chanting as a Zen Buddhist he has purified himself.  Anyway, I have noticed that he does breathe slowly, calmly.  In the coffee shop below his office, where he can keep me at arm’s length, he sits breathing like the sea.  So self-controlled is Craig that he seems to balance, on his head, a stack of a thousand bricks.  Living, for him, is restful.  In discussions, his mind hums like small, tight wheels on a sporty coupe.  I can learn from him.
But he is not my friend, I tell Linda.  My true friends are gone.  Ted is in Hampton, Virginia.  Walt went to Prague to be the editor of a revolutionary newspaper.  When he finally called me back last week, he sounded different, himself screwy, full of abstract chatter about spirituality.  The newspaper had folded, and he’s now running a yoga school.  Also, he is in love.  I don’t recognize him, nor he me. 

I ask Linda about the changes people undergo. 

         "Well, your friend Walt's been halfway around the world," she replies, "and you--you've been to hell and back."

I shift, feeling wearied by it all.   

         "But you are getting better,” she says.

         With that, our eyes meet, and I actually wonder if she’ll co-sign a lease with me.
Take the next bus, she says.  Love and safety will wait. Weirdness is not my friend, she says, and there is no punk called fear.  Inhale, exhale.  See the beauty.  Have friends.   Be a Spartan sharing the distance.  Be in the universe.  There is no incubus, only crows and sparrows, no life by cellophane, no lone spectators, only the audience around us.  I tell her I forgot to bring a payment.

Back at the bookstore.  

         "So, are you taking a trip to Bermuda?" I ask easily and naturally to a pretty woman needing a travel book
about that place.  What thrills me about being a bookseller is cozying up to strangers.  We are walking along a corridor in the bookstore, as I am showing her to the travel section. 

A friendly, outdoorsy gal with a bouncy stride, she is naturally shining her smile on me.  "Yeah, in February, with friends.  It'll be cool."

         "Oh, sounds nice.  Friends from work?" 

My smile is equally jaunty and also a tad frolicsome, to the extent that my small, innocent questions play around me like puppies. 

         "No, from church."

         "Church?"  I stop--still and silent on the floor of the store, like a toy man whose batteries have just run out.

Without her smile, her eyes enlarge into cold black buttons staring at me in sudden uncertainty, quickly verging on alarm, for in her view of me as a kind and helpful young guy is now a blind spot.

Seconds widen around the earth as I stand still.  My reaction has activated in her ears the store alarm. 
"It's just that it's nice to hear that," I finally tell her.  "If I may say so."

Joy, like a puppy, jumps back into her arms and licks her face. 

"Oh I know," she gushes.  "It's been the best thing in my life."  Religion, she is free to tell me, has delivered her from the great modern mix-up.
I like her.  Jackie, her name is.  She is, as they say, okay.

         "I can't wait," she goes on.  "A whole week in Bermuda."

She is, for the moment, my own bright and warm Bermuda. 

"So," I resume, as if now asking her an important question, "what'd you plan to do there, for a whole week?" 
In the vaguest way, in my secret hope of someday outrunning the ugly ostrich of loneliness, I am inviting myself along with her. 
Jackie and I are somewhere on the stairs taking us to the ground floor when, in the blur of passing posts, she tells me that she is really going to Bermuda because, there, her boyfriend can receive experimental chemotherapy, their final resort against his leukemia.  The stairwell under me begins to shake.  
"Oh, it's okay," she assures me.  "We've been dealing with this for a long time."
Okay?  Death is a giant chasing them--I can hear it above her now, pursuing her down these stairs like a beanstalk. 

         "Are you all right?" she asks me, smiling.

I say yes, but I am not all right.  I manage to find her a book and to make sure it’s the one she wants.  But I’m glad when she leaves.  I go upstairs and sit down in the lounge.  I don’t care who sees me. 

I am not a loner -- but I am lonely.  And I am not as courageous as I should be, in a lonesome world.  Many walk alone, I notice.  Many men, women.  Actually, I do not want companionship--what I want is courage.

As I sit here, sunken in the lounge chair, I realize that to feel and seem normal is to settle slightly.  Life after divorce, to put it directly, is a hard-boiled afterlife, a tough existence after innocence and good conscience, a later period in one's life when hope is stained.  Divorce seems both a brand on the shoulder and a wrinkle on the cheek, a mark both of discredit and age.

At 34, I am boating miles upriver of the great high falls; at 44, I will arrive where the terrain begins descending and funneling toward a gap in the mountains; at 54, I will reach the low sandbars and rocky shores and slow, heavy water of the river shouldering in a pool against the dam; at 64, I will hear, in the distance, the hiss of the dragon living in the waterfall and will smell its zesty, organic watery breath;  at 74, I will feel the showering mist of the roaring, angry falls, salivating while it waits for me to fall into its mouth; at 84, I will drift to where the water drops, then I myself will drop, at last, to the center of earth.  The vacation of life will end on that Friday--but this is still only Tuesday, and I have my cat to feed.

JOHN MICHAEL CUMMINGS's nonfiction has appeared in ACM (Another Chicago Magazine) and Utne Reader. Excerpts of his first novel, The Best Mark of a Man, are forthcoming in Confrontation, Puckerbrush Review, Kennesaw Review, Rosebud, and North Dakota Quarterly. His short stories have appeared in North American Review and Alaska Quarterly Review.  He is a native of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and today lives in New York City.
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