When sleep becomes something to fear, don’t sleep.
One night I work on prints, a solitary light burning in the back room, coyotes yowling in the outer darkness, a great horned owl sending forth a quavering query nearby, very close, perhaps perched atop the old yard light a hard sneeze away. Beyond the walls and windows the world continues with its restless, fecund energy.
Who, who, whoooo, asks the owl.
I wish I knew.
Inside my hollow shell, myself a hollow shell, I experiment with various papers. Polar matte, a fine art cotton rag, even an expensive glossy baryta paper whose initial results proved disastrous and now, using different settings in the printer driver, reveal minute details with a crispness that stuns me. The paper’s lustrous blacks and silvery highlights appear depthless, but dragged down by the exhaustion cloying my brain I stare incomprehensibly at the print as if seeing it for the first time. I dimly recognize the location as a place we once walked with something approaching joy, though it seems a million years ago. It’s almost enough to meld the broken pieces, but not quite.
I’ve discovered it’s easy to become a recluse. Close the door. Draw the blinds. Refuse phone calls, ignore e-mails. Hide. If you need groceries, eat something else. Or don’t eat, which is also an option.
It’s doubly so when medication eats away the flesh on your face, the tips of your ears and portions of your scalp. People stare at you as if leprous, children point in fascination and horror before parents slap their hands down, and if anything is said it’s a timid stab at humor. That, too, is a reason to withdraw. As good as any, better than most.
It’s the living that’s tough, especially on the cusp of spring when the world is moving out of winter’s long shadow. Reconstructing a life is one thing but I’ve forgotten how to do the ordinary things ordinary people do. One evening with Lori gone to work I turned on the living room light and sat down in a chair to read a book. It was a good book but almost all of my reading for the past four years was done in the back room, on the floor, with Sheba beside me. After two pages of uncomfortable silence—last year’s storms fried the stereo—I snapped the book shut and walked outside to stand beneath the stars, and stood there immobile until the cold drove me back. Such a simple act seemed a betrayal and a renewal of unfathomable loss.
When I did go into public I felt like a fraud. Who was this stranger wearing my body, who laughed and discussed the latest news, who conversed without screaming or confessing to an unease around sharp objects?
One morning I accompanied my editor and a coworker to Topeka to help judge entries for the Louisiana Press Association’s annual awards. While I realize that rural newspapers everywhere lack skilled journalists, the number of stories abysmally written were stunning. Depressing, even. After judging feature stories, one of which including Sparkie the dog, a heroic American dachshund who almost sacrificed his life to defend his owners against a vicious, deadly copperhead, I moved on to something I thought would be more fun: photographs. The first feature photo entry was a grainy snapshot of a goateed man wearing camouflage, his slovenly wife and their newborn baby—also dressed in swaddling camo clothing. I was aghast that anyone would submit it for an award. It went downhill from there with only a few outstanding entries to smooth my ruffled feathers. By the end I was becoming almost surly in my written comments, my most common complaint bemoaning the inability of photographers to focus their cameras. Is it really that difficult?
We finished the afternoon judging ads, and here I really let my creative juices flow. If the ads were good, and a few were excellent, I rhapsodized with superlatives. If they were bad, I let them know in no uncertain terms—“putrid” was how I described one color used in a wine ad. (“Can he do that?” my coworker asked.) The final entry of the day was a Summer Fun Sale! from a major importer of Chinese goods that rarely bothers to advertise unless when trying to annihilate any local competition. Below the miniscule images of cheap outdoor recreational supplies were prices blocked off inside little flip-flop sandals. “I liked the sandals,” I wrote, “and detested everything else.” I probably won’t be invited back.
I’m not in a humorous mood or even one approaching interest in anything other than looking out the window at the world going past, the skeins of geese heading north, the flocks of robins skirling through the yard, a sharp-shinned hawk in the tree out front as dusk settles down, an unlikely shape where none had been before, a squirrel madly planting a walnut out back by the stub of the hackberry. For a moment I imagine a towering tree shading that empty quarter and then realize I’ll be dead long before it would reach any size, if indeed it manages to sprout.
It’s hard to keep a life on hold when life is so insistent. A thousand blackbirds make landfall in the field. Almost idly, as if struggling to recall a reason for doing so, I reach down and pick up the Swarovski’s and slipping off the end caps lift them to my eyes. Mostly starlings with one or two redwings and a lone brown-headed cowbird, a shifting weave of dark motion eclipsing the stunted grass and the rain-damp furrows. The ground puddled and wet beneath low clouds scudding on a stiff south wind. From my vantage I see green shoots of grass and weeds poking through the chestnut soil, scarlet buds on the maples, a pair of yellow-shafted flickers preening in the redbud, bluebirds bringing nesting materials to their box. Lori’s garden lies dark and damp, awaiting seeds and the sun’s warmth. Let rabbits be our bounty.