Michael Grant Zimmer
The nights had become a problem.
Not so much getting to sleep, which happened without struggle; indeed, the warm tingling easily crested over his eyes, subsuming him, whisking him off to places in his mind or in the unknown universe, where he would forget his own body and life and limits. And he would simply be.
But he was always dragged back, sometimes hours into the night, sometimes minutes. He could never tell which. Before, the ready-to-burst sensation in his bladder was the siren wrenching him back to existence.
And then it was more. Somehow, he would drift out too deep. Beyond the orbit of dreams, off the scale of space and time. Beyond existence.
At a certain point, he would become conscious of the fact of his unconsciousness, of the fact that this is what it was like, not to be. The tether that trailed him into oblivion would stretch too far and he’d snap back suddenly into the world, gasping at the knife of fear and panic in his chest, a sheen of sweat on his face and neck, his pillow soaked and his body heaving.
The terror anchored him to his life. A life of meager triumphs, of expectations unreached. His one and only life.
He knew one day the tether would sever and he would be gone. Never to snap back, no way to return to himself, no possibility of knowing or feeling or being again.
His heart pounded at the thought, and he wanted to cry out into the night, to yell and kick and fight.
Sometimes, when he was alone, he did this. And for a few moments, he felt better. Or even silly. And that was good too. For a moment.
Then he would tell himself what his mother had told him when he was small; yes, it would happen, but not for a long time.
But it had been a long time. Now she was gone. There was no recourse, no way to start over. He would never see her again.
Inside, he felt excavated. In the void rattled his fear.
With the light of day, he could mostly forget, tiding himself through the hours. The daily ins and outs of his forgettable story occupied and exhausted his mind, so that when the night came, he would actually sleep. For a while.
Soon, though, his brain would sound its five alarm blasts of fight-or-flight and he needed to punch into the darkness, to fight off everything or, more precisely, nothing. The fear of nothingness.
His bed could no longer contain him.
In the living room, with all the lights on, he would pace across the creaky, cold hardwood floors, leafing through his magazines. The flushed panic in his face could momentarily recede as he read stories culled from life’s chaos, rendered static, given structured purpose by unseen hands and minds. All the while, his bare feet padding numb across the cold, polished wood.
He read until his eyes could no longer focus, and the sharpness in his brain felt blunted into something safe. He would sink into the couch, stretch out under the blanket his mother had knitted and try not to think about the few remaining hours or minutes he had until he would need to go to work.
Sometimes, he squeezed rest from these moments. But soon his mind would begin to fire again, revving in crescendo, supercharged, and suddenly the living room, too, felt like an undersized cage. He needed to escape.
The streets at night were mostly empty. And dark.
So he began to run.
His technique consisted of gathering low to the ground, in a three-point stance, and thrusting his body into a furious sprint down the sidewalk. Difficult for him now, nowhere close to the effortlessness of his youth.
Charging down the uneven concrete, his legs straining to reach maximum possible speed, muscles ablaze, his breathing in desperate, percussive blasts.
At first he could hold out for only seconds until his lungs or legs got the best of him. Or
sometimes cracks in the sidewalk or low hanging branches sent him sprawling to the rough pavement. Then his abraded knees and elbows, fiery with pain, would reveal reddish swaths of his inner self, stinging in their newfound exposure.
But he would not stop. He would run until he had exhausted himself and he could not even stand. Eventually he would hobble or crawl back inside, where he found peace on the rug in front of the couch. If only for a few hours.
After a time, though, his stamina grew, and his helpless fits of wheezing grew fewer while the lengths of his sprints extended.
And again he could not sleep. Peace required more.
He forsook the crooked sidewalk and its many small hazards for the width and space of the street. Wide open space, down which he would run as though fired from a rifle.
His speed increased again and still more, until he was running like his young self. Faster than that. Faster than anything he could have imagined when he was a child and his mother existed and everything was manageable.
One night, as he raced down the center of the road, he felt himself crossing a threshold, an invisible barrier of space and time. It was there to be breached, he knew. All his anger, determination and fear, he channeled into propulsion.
He blasted through the darkness and could detect the gossamer sheets of light and time around him, thin cobwebs of bright energy, unraveling behind him yet still connected to the searing incandescence ahead.
Beyond the light was where she’d gone. Where we all would go.
He could see it now and he could choose. He felt the unity of his body in motion, striving and pushing through the darkness to the low rumble of the light. As if nothing else could happen, as if it had all been preordained.
So on he ran, as fast as he ever would.
All I need is a good window
Friday casual sunlight
Beaming in over the neighbors’ rooftops
Sensible excitement for the whole weekend
Yet it doesn’t matter now
Now we only exist within these structures
Taking in the energy of an entire nation blowing off responsibility
When the singles out number the parents
Chaos becomes a drug for the masses
I place my hands over my ears and hold in a silence,
a silence I have found because the winter air is too
cold for women in short dresses and too
pure for pale-skinned men who lie in earnest
to themselves about the nature of their primacy.
This culture is hard and thick-edged like sheets of steel
built to keep me at a distance, but I steal what I know
from between the teeth of forefathers who tried to swallow
stories of defiance, stories that exist in broken
whispers, beaten out of their shape.
I take my hands from my ears to grasp at them
and I let in a confusion that dresses my eardrums
in the folds of ancient robes and the crowns of ancient queens
then deserts me in a day when light skin is currency
and I am poor many times over.
I sat by the River
I am under the water forever, flinging this way and that, throwing my head back and waving my arms from side to side-dancing with the angry ocean. If I could hear my bones rattle then you would have heard my body break. You could hear everything in the blue chamber; the waves whispering to one another before coming up for air, and pallid faraway bodies screeching and squealing on the sand before coming down for nothing. For secrets. Because our bodies were buried there and the water had a way of getting us to confess:-
Sorry for everything I smashed when I was little, then when you scolded me said it was someone else. Sorry for the time I watched you fall apart because I did not know what to do about the grief in the hollows of your face. Sorry for when I saw you in the passage way and I said I wanted to meet you soon but I had already forgotten your name, and my own. Sorry, I said over and over again. Sorry, I sang like I had never sung before.
I rummage my pocket for keys, for a phone, for the time, but all my clothes have been ripped by jagged rocks. The only thing intact is a silver ring clinging to a brittle finger. It shimmers in the night-blue light-beautiful but absolutely useless then. If someone had told me I would not find my salvation in these things I would have left them behind. All of them. So instead I begin to pray like I have never prayed before. “When last did you go to church?” Ma had asked earlier over the phone. “Two weeks ago”, I replied nervously, hoping she could not feel my hot lying breath through the receiver. Yes, I had lied but now I close my eyes and pray until I felt those cold, unfamiliar hands ploughing into my clay-brown skin. I was safe I thought, they would deliver me and I would be alive again. But I have scars and bruises in the places where they held me.
On the sandy-pale beach, bodies envelope me as the man who tore me out of the sea shouts orders to the others. He is a doughy man, with a long kind face. He covers me with a blanket, and raises his hand to shield me from the hungry spectators. They gleam with terrified excitement, stretching their necks and shoving one another for a good view. Mothers bury their children’s faces into their chests as they look on. I eye the slight silhouette of a young man wearing a trucker hat and shorts. The boy fumbles and stumbles as he attempts to capture the scene on his camera. He pretends he does not notice me watching and moving my mouth with cursory words. If I had not been invisible before, lying here, I simply do not exist. I become, in an instant, just a spectacle.
“Come on, come on, breathe!” shouts the Doughy man, compressing my chest. Yes, just like in the American movies I thought. I broke three ribs that day. They would never show you that. In between the cracking of ribs he presses his cold, wet mouth into mine-in and out like a blow fish. I do not want to inhale his life. I want to take in my own life; to inhale the air of open skies; to breathe from the earth beneath me. I want to breathe what is mine. So I labour to keep my heart still and wait until he has given up. Cold air creeps through my curling lips. I gasp. The crowd staggers back, horrified and enchanted by my self-revival.
My eyes flutter open, beads of water weighing down on my lashes. The people appear like ghosts to me-empty shells full of pity. Their faces are twisted in excruciating anxiety. They are full of the things I would have loved before the ocean. But now I see porcelain smiles set against fleshy pink gums. Flesh the colour of the gashes in my palms. And once-slight hands reaching out to touch the pulsing air around me are now like claws. I am not sure what to, but one woman points hers and the others hover closer over me. “Give room!” shouts the doughy-faced man as help arrives.
“Is she breathing, how long has she been out here for? How long was she been down there for?” the medics ask the man. Questions are like darts. He flinches with each one.
“I’m not- I’m not sure” he replies, placing one hand across his chest. “But she came to just as you arrived but I-uh-I’d been trying to revive her for a while”, he continues. They ask him my name. They ask about the silver ring. He says he does not know me and he does not know my name. He quivers as I open my mouth to speak. The medic leans into me with his ear but my strength slips away and I forget my name again. Then I gargle. I cough. I nearly choke before words come rushing out like a hurricane. The abyss of bodies’ stills and their voices has petered out. They disperse half-heartedly, making way for the naked light of day. The world around me is stripped bare and I see like a new born child in the world.
In the back of an ambulance- siren glaring above the chorus of beeping machines and hooting cars-I realise that now my eyes are open and I will never be the same again. I know for certain, after swaying with the ocean-it’s cool, swelling arms wrapped around me- I know that I am born to dance. I dream, listening to the melodic silence of the deep, that I am a singer. But out there on the sandy beach, eyes grazing and gazing and suffocating me, I learn why the ocean was angry and I am angry too. I am angry that the world does not permit any of these things. That in the world I cannot celebrate, I cannot rejoice or cry. When I come to consciousness I wonder why I had never spoken my name like I did on the beach. Why had I never prayed? I should have shouted all along. Not for help, but so that I could breathe again.
So I wake up in the hospital with mother by my side and she asks me again when last I went to church. Not two weeks ago I say. Then she asks me what I was doing out there in the water, fully clothed. “These things are not ours yet-these places are not yet ours”, she continues, whispering mournfully. So I sit by the River, and I long for the ocean’s return to me again.
Michael Grant Zimmer is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He directed the award-winning feature documentary THE ENTERTAINERS, about the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest, and has fiction forthcoming in Akashic Books’ Mondays are Murder and in Spelk.
J.Donnelly lives and writes in Astoria, NY. His chapbook is titled “The ECW”.
Although she is currently preparing to apply to medical school, Lauren Fields continues to write poetry as a means of grappling with, and celebrating, what it is to be an African-American woman living in the United States. Her poems have been published online by Blackberry: a magazine and Literary Laundry, and she has had the pleasure of performing her poetry alongside the choir that helped raise her, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College.
Mwinji Siame is a graduate student of Sociology at the University of Cape Town. She was born in Zambia but has lived in South Africa for the last sixteen years. Mwinji describes herself as a Black thought activist.She hopes to bring to life the humanity,richness, diversity, and magic of Black experience through story-telling. When she is not reading or writing, Mwinji enjoys playing the guitar and listening to music.