“I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.” — D. H. Lawrence
(About a 19 minute read)
A strong woman with a singular passion in life
Once consented to become my neighbor.
Her spirit ran as simple and deep as a law of nature.
It was elegant in its simplicity, but ruling in its scope.
She was younger than me,
Younger than about half of us folks,
But she held herself truer,
Truer than most everyone does,
To her passion in life,
Her singular and sole passion in life,
Her one guiding star.
She loved and adored,
She cherished and adored,
She passionately adored,
Being a bitch.
Within six minutes of my meeting her,
Within just six disconcerting minutes,
Within just six unnerving minutes,
She flipped me like a pancake on a hot grill,
Flipped me between optimism she might be a good neighbor,
And dread that she was not.
First, she spoke in endearingly selfless words
Of her noble devotion
To the well-being of her animal friends.
She fed the birds,
She fed the squirrels,
She even fed the mice.
But she was primarily about the neighborhood dogs,
Who she all knew by their true names,
Who she handed treats to them whenever she could,
Who she conversed with in respectful and gentle words.
Yes, she loved animals, she said,
She loved them true,
She loved them kind.
She loved them unconditionally.
She hated just about every goddamned, sorry-ass
Man and woman she had ever been justifiably vexed to have known.
Though she didn’t say it outright,
I at once and immediately sensed
I myself was on probation, instant probation.
Probation even before I had been given a proper chance
To commit the heinous crime, the nuclear crime,
The unforgivable crime
Of even just once
Crossing her borders.
I had merely spotted my new neighbor on her porch.
I had intended nothing profound to come of saying “Hello”,
Nothing more profound than the conventional banalities
Of a conventional introduction.
Instead, she had run a bath for me,
A bath of an introduction she submerged me in
And during which she had switched taps
From warm to icy cold within the span of just six minutes.
Naturally, I at once decided to keep far and away,
Miles, leagues — however far it took — away
From even so much as approaching
The heavily militarized trenches,
The killing zones,
The industrial killing zones,
She whimsically called by the sugar-sweet name of “her borders”.
Yet that — all of that — wasn’t what shocked me the most,
Shocked me the most, the very most, about the bitch.
What shocked me more than all of that
Was the thought — the spontaneous thought —
The involuntary thought — the infinitely alarming thought —
The bitch might have a better side,
A hidden, better side.
“No chance of a good side”, I thought, “But perhaps a better side”.
Perhaps she practices humane and ethical ways to kill, for instance.
Perhaps she’s one of those hunters who take care and makes an effort
To minimize their victim’s suffering by practicing their marksmanship
Until they always — always — kill quick with just one bullet. Their first.
Or perhaps she conscientiously sends beautiful flowers
To the hospital bed she ruthlessly pounded your body into,
The bed that was your body’s first and only rest stop
On its inevitable journey to the morgue.
I could not shake the shocking feeling she had a better side.
In all the years I knew her,
She never once invited me into her cottage.
She never once allowed me inside her home.
She would talk to me, but from her porch.
Nevertheless, I would stand in her yard —
A brave man, a proud man, a courageous man
Who was, of course, at those moments far too properly preoccupied
With self-preservation, cowering, and cringing
To be so foolishly brave, proud, or courageous
As to even think about attempting the invasion of her sacred porch.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t humiliating.
Wasn’t humiliating to respect those distances between us.
With most anyone else, her distances
Would have prompted my indifference.
I would have simply ignored most anyone else.
But on some level, on some deeper level, I felt I “got” the bitch.
I felt she had some foolish, some foolish but understandable
Need for her distances.
I felt she might harbor some child-like fear of monsters,
Secret monsters, monsters she thought at any moment
Might come for her out of nowhere and in the dark.
I never saw hatred for me in her eyes.
Never did she flash the bolts of hatred at me.
She was younger than me and quite pretty.
Pretty enough she could have had her pick of men, I wagered.
Maybe not every man, but surely many, maybe most.
She could have brought one home had she wished.
Brought him home, of course, to fry him up and eat his crunchy soul.
She could have had her pick of men.
Yet despite the distances,
Slowly, quite slowly, quite slowly
She trickled out the stories.
Over the years,
She trickled out the stories
Of how her life had broke,
Had broke and then broke again.
Then time and again after that.
Of course, she had set out fresh to the world just like most of us.
That is, with no real sense, no real clue
There might be impassible, truly impassable
Swamps and mountains waiting for her.
She had set out firmly believing
No swamps or mountains were truly impassable
For honest people, people who worked hard,
People who played by the rules.
The rules. The rules were really guides, you see,
Rational guides, true and wise.
How-to manuals for getting ahead.
Manuals printed in bolded black on white:
Play hard, play fair, follow the rules.
The world is good.
The world is kind.
The world is fair.
The sun rises in the morning
For those who are honest, hard working, and follow the rules.
The world could be hers.
Without her knowing it,
Without her having a clue at first,
And mostly without ever her will and consent,
Mostly without her will and consent,
Had taken a beautiful thin-walled vase
Made of delicate, rare, blue Phonetician glass,
And on some early frosty morning,
Set the precious vase on top of an old weathered fence post
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere,
And then had indifferently wandered off
To leave the tall, lithe vase swaying dangerously in the winds.
All of her sunny morning dreams and ambitions
Had been inevitably tortured to dusty death,
Had died screaming in the grinding teeth of experiences.
It seemed to me mostly indifferent chance.
What people sometimes quite optimistically call, “Bad Luck”.
Chance, indifferent chance,
But now and then she had lightly seasoned chance
With a few truly foolish decisions.
A few grievous errors in judgement.
She had now and then loaded the dice against herself.
Men, for instance. She’d had a few.
One in particular. The only one who had stuck to her for years.
He had been the biggest love of her life.
He had stuck to her for years.
Stuck to her because he enjoyed the thrilling sport,
The sport of cheating on someone, of getting away with cheating.
He had correctly identified in her the chump, the naive and optimistic chump
That he needed to play his games.
Like so many people, people dull, people bright,
She’d been fool enough to make her heart
Available to an initial charmer,
A man like a fish,
Colorful when first pulled from the water.
So pretty and colorful.
The colors quickly faded, and then the fish began to stink,
But by then, the fish had his hooks into her.
A charming chameleon who once had made her feel
She could turn herself into a butterfly,
A beautiful super-butterfly
Capable of soaring with the eagles
And sipping nectar from the sun,
Nectar that she expected to taste
Just like what it means to truly succeed in life.
She was intoxicated by his visions for her.
He had distilled for her a drink of hope.
She drank so deep of it, her blood-hope levels rose way beyond
The legal limit for being behind the wheel
Of a moving, tender heart on the road of life and love.
Yet even after she finally saw that he was a natural bullshitter,
A man perhaps born a con,
She still clung to him.
Clung to him like a fool thinking she could change him.
Change another person, truly change them —
Always the black, sucking hole and project of a foolish lover.
Change the man that she had by then so heavily invested her love in.
For a few additional years, she threw good love after bad,
Thinking her love could change him.
It was about then, I guess, she decided to turn pro bitch.
Not that the decision changed the fall of her dice.
It really changed nothing at all.
For such decisions never can change indifferent chance.
Sometimes people call indifferent chance, “luck”.
They call it luck because they’re human.
They’re the ape that evolved a superior brain
That it mostly uses now to find superior ways of fooling itself.
Chance is indifferent.
You can no more influence it,
You can no more bend it to your will,
Than you can command a breeze to rise or fall.
At best you can only work around it.
At best you can only adjust for it.
People hate to hear that, of course.
They fear what they cannot control.
After all, they’re Nature’s most beloved ape.
She has blessed them with a superior brain.
Quite obviously, both God and Darwin, in their wisdom and benevolence,
Intended for them to have a sacred and inviolate right,
The eternal right to comfort themselves by fooling themselves.
So folks invented luck.
Good luck, bad luck.
There are ways, everyone knows there are ways,
To push luck around.
There are comforting ways to push luck around.
The bitch’s dice had rolled bad again and again.
She might easily have interpreted the streak as proof of luck.
But somehow the bitch had colder eyes than that,
She saw chance at work when others might have seen luck,
She saw chance with the clarity of chilled eyes.
“It is what it is”, she would say, as if that were her mantra,
As if that explained everything.
Would she have turned bitch if she had put it all down to luck?
I don’t know the answer. But I suspect she might not have.
I suspect she would have focused on changing her luck
Rather than focused on changing herself.
But even turning bitch didn’t stop it,
Stop the streak that came out of nowhere,
Came out of the dark for her.
Things that few people, if any, would have planned for.
Turning bitch proved powerless to stop the things, the monsters,
That came unpredictably out of nowhere.
Yet, I suspect turning bitch
Calmed and soothed her fears. It must have made her feel
She was in more control of her life,
At least, in somewhat more control of her life.
Lucky for me she had not
The genuine cruelty, the true malice, the talent
To instinctively perfect her bitch.
As it happened, there was a door to her,
A door she had forgotten, had neglected,
To shut, bar, and nail tight.
Some folks, good folks, decent folks,
Would have seen that open door
But still not have passed through it.
Those people, those respectable people,
Are sorrowfully afflicted with a conscience.
They can feel shame, you see, they can feel rejection.
So they turn timid, respectable.
But I myself am not a decent man.
Yes, I can feel shame. Yes, I can feel rejection.
But neither one whines at me.
I do not cling to them long enough to hear them whine.
The sorry bitch had taken extraordinary care
To live in a low crime neighborhood.
She didn’t notice it, she failed to see it,
But her neighborhood had deteriorated.
I had moved in.
I once had a conscience, of course.
Long ago, I had a true and enlightened conscience,
A shining, guiding conscience. A beacon of a conscience.
Long ago, in the years I personally refer to now
As “The Dark Ages”.
Ah! But the damn thing was a whiner, an incessant whiner.
An insipid, sniveling, sobbing, self-pitying, shaming whiner.
“Look what you have done to me! Look what you have done!”
Day and night. “Look what you have done!”
Naturally, I was absolutely forced to bloody murder the prick,
Ruthlessly murder the whiner in the basement of my heart.
The silence now is so much more musical than the whining.
In contrast to me, the bitch still had her conscience.
Tragically, she could still feel shame and fear rejection.
In fact, I am convinced her failure to murder her conscience
Was one reason she had turned bitch.
The world is full of shamers, you see.
People who would shame you and everyone else
For the tsk tsk sin of not being them,
Of not being enough like them.
Those shamers, those all too proud, arrogant shamers,
They are clueless about the nature of real evil.
They are sightless to how much real evil they do to others.
They don’t see their true work is to alienate people
Alienate people from themselves.
Unnecessarily and without warrant,
Corrupt, corrode, debase, and alienate people from themselves.
They don’t see how it’s evil to turn people
Turn them away from being honest, true, and authentic;
Turn them instead towards lives lived only
To live up to someone else’s standards and ideals.
The bitch was not a shamer like some bitches are.
She wasn’t really evil. She wasn’t spiritual death to others.
True, she was defensive. Hair trigger defensive.
But she didn’t shame me, nor anyone else I knew of.
She didn’t try to turn people into traitors betraying themselves.
She was better than that, much better than that.
She was a bitch, but she wasn’t an evil bitch.
I confess I did not plan my invasion of her heart.
I merely took shameless advantage of an opportunity.
I merely stumbled up against the door the bitch had left unbarred,
Tripped against it the moment I by chance showed her my art.
And when I felt it move a bit, well I pushed it open wide.
I was looking at a canvas one day.
Looking at it in natural light to see its true colors.
She happened to pick that very moment to appear on her porch.
She saw me, saw the canvas. Asked to be shown what I had painted.
That’s how it began.
I found myself inside her heart.
Just as I had imaged, just as I had expected,
It was far from some fairy tale heart of gold.
The bitch’s heart was far from a heart of gold.
Her heart wasn’t gold, but yellow.
Bright yellow, flashing like a warning light.
And most likely, I thought,
Murderously wired with booby traps —
It would be just like her to do that.
I was in her heart, but I kept to my toes.
I said nothing, suggested nothing, gave her no hint
I was aware of her growing affection.
In comparison to my silence,
A mouse’s fart would have roared.
From the moment she saw my first painting,
She became my biggest booster, my most enthusiastic supporter,
My most fang-less critic, my most loyal fan.
Even I was surprised by how she took to her new-found mission
Of encouraging me to realize my potential as an artist,
Of encouraging me to bloom like a vase full of exploding tiger lilies.
I think now she maybe recalled how she had once herself felt
In the days when she honestly believed she could become a butterfly
Recalled her feelings then and knew what it can mean to someone
To have an ardent backer, someone who affirms your dreams.
She and I never became buddies. We never became that close.
But we had at last became true neighbors.
Her borders didn’t shift an inch,
They didn’t move at all,
Nevertheless, I was happily convinced
My rank with her had risen,
Had risen quite high in her bitchy eyes.
I sensed it had soared to impressive heights.
I felt she ranked me now right up there
Just as high as any stray dog’s knees.
Every bit as high as any stray dog’s knees.
At first her doctors thought they had beaten it.
Their tests all came back with the news her cancer was in remission.
Their tests reported the good news. She could quit holding her breath.
She had been made whole, she had been made 36 again.
But just six months later, they broke the firmer and more stubborn news,
Something had broken, something had gone wrong,
The tests had been, you might say, unfaithful.
Her doctors said they might have been able to save her,
They said they might have been able to make her whole.
If only nothing had broken,
If only nothing had broken,
If only they had caught the cancer in time,
Had got it in time.
No shard was left.
Not one shard was left now.
Her glass vase was completely, totally ground,
Ground to blue dust at 36.
I found her on her porch one morning soon after she’d learned her fate.
Her head was bald and her face was tired, but she was quick to speak.
Just as my mouth opened to say, “Cheryl, I’m sorry…”
Cheryl cut me off.
“It is what it is”, Cheryl told me, in her voice so tied, so worn, but firm.
“It is what it is, I’m dying. But shut-up and hear me first.”
While she paused for a moment to pick her words,
Her expression said — or rather threatened — me to wait.
“John said he told you I’m dying, so let’s cut to the chase.
Thanks for being a good neighbor. At least you weren’t so bad.
I like animals better than people, but you yourself turned out tolerable.
“But we need to get something straight.
And we need to get it straight right now.
There is just no way the last sounds I hear on earth
Are going to be your tiny, little chirps.
Don’t tell me how bad you feel about I’m dying.
If you want to be a sissy and bawl about it,
Then please do it out of my sight.
It is what it is,
So tell me your jokes.
Stick to them instead.
You’re pretty good with jokes, Paul.
You might even be mistaken for someone with a sense of humor.
At least someday.
I’m an optimist.”
Gods! That broke the ice!
The ice that always forms so quickly,
And is made not of water,
But of all the proper sentiments,
All the conventional words,
All the lines you are supposed to say
In the presence of the dying
In order to comfort them,
Soothe them, it’s supposed.
Typical Cheryl, she pounded that ice tactlessly,
But she pounded it until it broke, and that’s what mattered.
She and I kept it real
Until the end.
I did not expect it.
It came out of nowhere.
But without the ice to insulate me from her,
I felt the loss
Of her life
As I had never before felt the loss of anyone’s life.
Cheryl saw to it that a few of her things
Were passed along to me.
Mostly things she’d had in her house.
Including the packets of instant oatmeal.
About four dozen boxes full of packets of oatmeal.
God only knows now why she’d had that many.
God only knows what oatmeal meant to her.
I’m sure she was not trying to give me the biggest gift she gave.
I’m sure she never even thought of giving it to me.
But it was her best gift.
Far and away, her best gift.
She taught me so much more than I already knew
About how to stand while you are falling.
She taught me so much more than I already knew
About how to stay un-scorched while you are burning.
She taught me so much more than I already knew
About how to stay true and real when you are dying.
She taught me how to die.
At least, I hope that’s what I learned.
But I’m not as brave as her.
I’ll probably fuck it up anyway.
I think Cheryl would expect me to fuck it up,
My being human and all,
And not quite up to being a dog.