The Apocrypha of the Midwest
by J.M. Shiveley
"I stick my finger into existence, it smells of nothing. Where am I? What is this thing called the world? Who is it who has lured me into the thing, and now leaves me here? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted?” -Sǿren Kirkegaard
I. He once met a woman outside a gas station who told him her lover had killed a dragon She said these things while spitting out sunflower seeds into a paper cup and asking him if he would give her a ride. She was trying to get out of town and anything would do as long as it was going her way. She swore that the Sun owed her a boon and she would put in a good word for him if he would just give her a lift. Her words spilled out of her mouth and stained her shirt, all bruised light and neon cacophony. He looked at these words tangled in her matted hair, struggling under their own weight, and wished, not for the first time, that he could forget that he had once been John Cohen, Messiah of the Midwest.
II. Sitting next to her he felt every moment as if it were his last. This was not some waking dream brought on by caffeine and cute coffee shop waitresses. He felt this swelling of the world dying as it traveled down his throat every morning as he ate his usual breakfast of toasted tofu and bean curd spread. He had been this way since the age of nine when a regrettable accident involving two hamsters and a shop-vac drove him to Sartre and away from pet care of any kind. It wasn't a sense of lack of accomplishments, as countless counselors and psychiatrists had suggested. In fact, he believed that his fears were nothing more than self-taught paths but then again he had been self-diagnosing since the fifth grade. He looked back to her earnest face and tried to recall the thread of their conversation. Something pretentious most probably, he thought with his smile never wavering. So he did as he always did in these moments when the offal of conversations was hanging between his knees, he left certain phrases hanging as if they were too big for him to put into words. As if he was struggling with ideas that no man had caressed before. In the middle of this, a singular phrase escaped from the semantic tango they were weaving, "Has anything you have ever done made your life better?" Did I say that or did she? He thought for a bewildered moment before noticing that she was waiting, no longer amused but instead not even the girl he had started the conversation with. "Has anything you've done changed your life in any way?" she asked again, a small smile on her lips and her hands toying with his copy of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" that, until moments ago, had been a shield but seemed more like. . . nothing.
III. Sometimes he would wake up in new places and could not remember how he had gotten there. The air would drip and he'd roll over, letting the embalming gauze of sleep take such irritating questions away for a few more hours. Other times he'd wake up immediately and run to the nearest hardware store, buying cans of dusky blue and basil mint green paint with which to start mural treatises that always ended with self caricatures.
IV. The coffee tasted of day-old cigarettes and hair spray but he didn't mind as long as it was warm. He sat in a back booth at Ziggie’s and watched as if at a Broadway production the lives unfolding within the stage-like container of the smoking section. The smoke would curl against the glass and then part to show tattooed lovers looking more tender then they ever would on the streets. What was it about plexi-glass walls that made people feel safe? The curtain would drop to be opened with the next recycled gust of air conditioned breeze. Hicks with enough food to feed small countries would chomp silently, their grunts more meaningful than anything he had ever written. Then he'd look down and as always see that he had unconsciously been drawing on his plate. The ketchup and mustard swirling together to capture whatever collage of faces the smoke screens had shown him, all set to a pure border of salt.
V. He used to ride the bus but never had any destination. He sat in seats that he knew hummed with the settled peace of ancient pyramids reincarnated as ergonomically molded plastic. Looking up he basked in course tongued graffiti prayers scrawled with felt tipped markers and even coarser fingers. For awhile he measured his years in bus stops.VI. Despite what you’ve heard, he did laugh outside a friend’s apartment before going in to pretend like they knew him. And in most respects they did.
VII. He used to like to take naps in drain culverts with his feet slanting up towards the sky and eyes squinted to haze the day away. Sometimes he'd move with the changing shadows but other days he'd bake in pagan abandonment. Rats seemed to like him but kept a wide berth, noses twitching in shy acknowledgement. Other days, when it rained, he took dominion over the trees in the park and lived in a musical bower of swishing green and splattering bark. Each tree would offer embraces that he called home.
VIII. Rivers opened in the night as he slept in the bed of his '65 El Camino wrapped in a poncho against the chill desert night air. Water groaned forth from the deeps and he never stirred. In the morning he found his car had floated to the top of a mesa, ate a breakfast of warm Pibb and Oreos and held court for two lizards. He also received three holy visions, intercepted forty-three prayers and inadvertently fulfilled the prophecies of sixteen major and minor world religions. But he was used to this and instead asked some sage brush which was the most scenic route off the mesa. The bush only whispered hollow bracken and dry gullies in response.
IX. At times he liked to wander beneath bridges seeking the warmth of vagrant barrel fires with their smell of leaking balloons and glow like the prow of a sinking ship. He'd look into the shadows of grimy faces and only see celestial choruses connecting whole star chart possibilities from runny nose to infected eye to hidden beauty. For the time he spent there they were his congregation and he their very own barrio Messiah. They knew he stood for more than cheap rhetoric and parlor tricks, but he just warmed his hands, felt their eyes and moved on down his Path.
X. When he dreamed, he'd find himself wandering through a fiery nightmare landscape that he somehow knew to be the center of America. All around was blighted earth, cracked soil and abandoned cities finally drifting into rubble. The sheer weight of the air toppling spires. He could always tell in these dreams that he was being hunted by something dark and mechanical and that if he would just turn around he'd see a crowd of hopeful faces following him. An exodus of starved eyes all depending on his leadership, his . . . then he would wake and stare for a long time at the volcanic ash beneath his fingernails.
XI. Other times he would write his thoughts on the back of paper napkins. His loose hand scrawling things like, "Lost in the sway of gentle deaths I stumble up my mortality" or "The sum of our difficulties is the tour of our reality", but then again there had been a time when napkins and mass consciousness had meant the same thing to him.
XII. He met another messiah pumping gas at the Sinclair station, the one with the dinosaur on the logo that reminded him of Danny the Dinosaur. His face was the wax paper marvel that galleries only dream. He said that this was not his full time job and on the weekends he worked as a proper messiah healing ills and calming the masses with his synthesizer and backup vocalists all carted up from Tijuana. For a moment John felt relief, but then the man started talking about a pilgrimage to Branson to see if Andy Williams was really as slick as everyone said he was. Instead he spent the afternoon in a laundromat where old women stared into drying cycles claiming they could scrye his future amidst the tumbling whites and darks.
XIII. Three times a week he walked through a town-Pop. 142-and every door he passed had writing on it. Warning signs in every language of the world and he knew he could understand them if he just tried. On every doorstep was a child eating a pomegranate and at every shutter a watchful eye. But in truth, he had never felt more at home and knew that was why he must not stay.
XIV. Once he had a conversation with a crazy man who said, "I never met a running man who walked slower than I did" with an air of mechanical platitudes and pre-washed wisdom. The man sat in a cubicle and raved out of the corner of his mouth while typing insurance reports and faxing estimates. John could just hear an angry seashell murmur from the crazy man’s headset and he wondered how long it would take before it ate him.
XV. As of late he was eating more. For a time after his emergence as messiah he had stopped, but that proved to be just a phase. His mother would always ask him about it during their once-a-year birthday phone calls and he began eating just to quiet her. Food tasted different for him. Each bite held ancestral memories. Whole generational slideshows shot across his eyelids, each bite a static experience. Sometimes he wished for the days when a cheeseburger had been just a cheeseburger. But it was what it was so he took another bite of his danish hard luck story.
VI He dressed himself as the early morning sun filtered through the mini-blinds striping his shoulders with shadows and light He buttoned his shirt from the top down covering his lungs, appendix scar, heart and assorted ribs The rough fabric caught at his nipples It was at that very moment as he tucked his shirt into his pants uncomfortable with his early morning erection that he realized he was going to die And in that knowledge he rejoiced, for it had not yet happened.