A lot of my time is spent contemplating purpose, how it does or doesn’t apply to my life. I never thought I had one, not really…for so many years now, the only issue has been survival; learning to wake successfully to another sorry dawn seemed purpose enough. Three tours worth of years before that were spent the same way; in that endless quest for survival. The only difference was the dawn…to wake to it then was a rush I have yet to equal; the particular and peculiar thrill of realizing that yes, you breathe on for a while longer…no one is sweeping you into an anonymous rubber bag as the sun rises over mountains at once beautiful and deadly; their backs packed with their own purpose.
My days come and go like gray shifts of inconsequence, spills of time that run unnoticed into more of the same. Days spent as a mannequin of the self I once was; the shell is there but the turtle moved out long before Saigon fell…now the face that looks into mine from the peeled-back silver of passing mirrors is unfamiliar; and it is only recently that I find myself wondering where I went, what happened to that fearless girl who pretended not to care and did…when did the pretense become the fact?
I could blame it all on Nam, I suppose, as so many do…pile the great non-purpose on the dead heads of all those soldier-boys that poured their lives across the toes of my boots, spilled their thoughts into my waiting hands and lost any memory of those ladies who were lovely once. But to lay it on that lap would be a lie, because it was just a place, a span of miles I ran through when I was young, chased by tigers let loose from someone else’ nightmare. Nam didn’t mold me; I molded it…shaped it into a bullet that I would never chamber, never fire. That gun doesn’t belong to me, the tigers that creep down it’s barrel were never mine. Instead, I pulled from it a profession; skills I learned then I use now, the waiting hands are now replicants that act as if they give a damn when all they really give is time.
So I sit and I wonder, why do it? What purpose do I serve spending hour after hour trying to fix people who care even less than I? Most of them addicts, criminals, would-be suicides, drunks…very few runs turn out to be actual accidents or of a natural cause. And then I remember…who am I to judge, an addict myself? Dependent on Heroin as I ran those long ago miles; my own dragon set to fend off tigers. Then later, morphine; another dragon for another generation of nightmares…only this time, the guns are mine; their barrels sleek, disposable stainless steel. I seek the same calm they all do, it’s just that my search is private, not left lying in the street or in some seedy by-the-hour room…the difference is really only one of logistics. It doesn’t make me better, just better-off…I think my actual purpose all along has been to bury the details, throw everyone’s dirt on my truth.
I try to remember why it was once worthwhile…why the effort mattered; why it might matter still. I recall faces, write down names, sort it out on paper as if the words are purpose enough. I think of an old man, dead ten years or more; but it’s his wife that I still see, pacing the floors of my memory…countless shots of mescal and morphine won’t wash away her face; so I write this:
They lived in a perpetual past,
three dim and heat-heavy rooms
encased them in the crumbling husk
of a brownstone on a forgotten side
of the city.
We ran suicide shifts down dead streets,
and some midnights found our pulsing
red and white outside their stoop,
spinning strobes slapping brick with
He was the Phantom of the Opera,
she was his Christine. She would rush us in,
blue eyes wide in a thin plane.
Her scent reminded me of tabbouleh,
He was ancient, breath like smegma,
face like a leather mask. Cirrhosis ate
his body, drank his mind; accompanied by
strains of Wagner in unrelenting drones.
While we worked, she hovered-
frail wasp patting his brow, humming.
I saw her hug herself, fingers
dripping panic down her back
like slow sweat.
He was a wicked Raoul, hateful in his extremis.
He struck at her, called her a brainless zygote,
rotten whore. She gave him the radius
of her smile and crooned “Papa, papa,”
in dulcet tones.
We lifted him to the stretcher-
she cried when we strapped the belts
and clutched our sleeves in nervous desperation.
She made quiet, pleading noises
in a strange tongue.
They had been someone once;
he a producer of this, she an actress in that.
She had worn diaphanous gowns that clung
to her mons veneris, danced in hot abandon
for his pleasure.
We left her standing in the doorway on that
last night of our aquaintance, calling papa
in a pitiful litany that was at once beautiful
Once out, put down on my blank sheets like the scattered rows in an untended cemetery, I find the ghosts remain. Face upon face, they bob the surface of my mind and break the black water pooled there with an uncomfortable ease. I think of dragons, of tigers chasing miles into decades; their purpose leaps from my pen, ink like blood across the page.