Gargoyle 42
Cover art by Robert Alder
Published 5/21/1999

Boy Meets Death, Boy Falls In Love

Richard Hell

“We imagine infirmity and sickness to be deprivations of being
and therefore evil. However, if death is as real as life, and if
therefore everything is being, all states, even pathological ones,
are positive in their own way. ‘Negativized being’ is entitled to
occupy a whole place within the system, since it is the only
conceivable means of a transition between two ‘full’ states.”

–Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked

Who’d have ever thought I’d come to value the goddamn sky more than anything else? My friend Mike says he’s always wanted to write a novel without any characters, just weather. I wish I could speak sky. (That’s how old I’ve gotten.) The only things I want to follow or understand any more are the signs in the cloud formations–and I know they aren’t really there. It seems that something must be being said by the nonstop monologue of it, as if it were Times Square, the turning news, breaking news. It’s so confident, large-scale, beautiful, crisp… resolute–… So beautifully sealed off from mind.

So much about life is half, partial, failed. For instance, 1) love and “love-making”–what the hell are you going to make of it, do with it? There’s no way to talk about what it really is, because words are about capture, about choice and isolation, whereas if anything it is we who are spoken by sex and “love.” It’s just impossible to straighten out. For instance, 2) the way we are all crazy and alone. Sit around with some “clinically” crazy people for a while: it truly is a continuum and a circle and at any given time of day the big hand may be pointing directly at you. At times like these every cheerful feeling seems like a self-delusion. That one’s human life is just adulterated, misshapen, badly packaged death–that life is just death telling a lie. That if you want the truth you must have yourself die.

I’ve been depressed before, I’ve felt baffled and turned around by life and my “fate,” but never has this particular way of looking at it occurred to me until now: that life is a kind of typo in death. And the scary thing is that I perceived it in a sudden insight: it was a revelation, a kind of “Oh, I get it–,” not some corny intellectual formulation. It was like catching your dad with the poison bottle and suddenly realizing why you’ve been sick for so long.

I was at this AA meeting for people diagnosed with psychiatric as well as drug/alcohol problems. Double Trouble they called it. AA meetings have names. Most people there were taking drugs, but they were prescription drugs: anti-psychotics, drugs for bi-polar (manic/depressive) disorder, drugs to counter seizures… It was a pretty heavily-dosed crowd, but nothing that looked like a lot of fun to use. I’m not diagnosed with a mental disability, but I’m a “recovering” drug addict and I was going to this meeting once a week because I liked it. The people in that room had bad problems, but, 1) they seemed to be managing–the ones who’d made it to there had stories with happy endings, at least for the time being, and, 2) there was a minimum of trivial self-pity–even if someone went on about everyday bullshit, you couldn’t blame them, you knew they had a lot to contend with. Plus, it was good because nobody would be expecting anything of me–nobody there expected much of anybody else there. Though everybody was friendly.

I bet you can see it coming. Why even tell you about it? Why go into the details? Imagine listening to these people talking, the few of them that took the opportunity to talk. Imagine identifying with them, seeing oneself in them, seeing how severely one’s scope is limited by one’s brain, how any achievement is so small, so partial, that everything one does is in the darkness anyway. And then it came to me, that feeling, the feeling that death was the truth, that this state of being alive was a sour chord played in death, a kind of dead end, tainted mutation, a freak and temporary warp and wart on death’s resources, presently to be reabsorbed. That being alive was a lie, a kind of grotesque misuse of material–like a sculpture made of food–and that to be truthful I’d have to die, I’d have to kill myself. I’m not saying I decided to get myself fatally real, just that I felt my roots in death and I felt the dishonesty of fumbling around, trying to operate without the equipment here in life.

Well, I will tell you a little about what that particular meeting was like. First, the speaker, the person who “shared” his “strength, hope, and experience,” told us how his regular meeting was one called Triple Trouble(!). It was for mentally disturbed drug addicts who also had HIV. Then after he talked for a while about what his life had been like and how it’d been since he stopped taking drugs, everyone else got a turn to talk too. That was the format of the meeting–everyone in the room had the chance to speak. Most people didn’t say very much, people tended to just smile happily and announce how many days or months or years they’d been clean. They might say what their psychiatric diagnosis was and what drugs they were on for that. There was a good amount of enthusiastic clapping.

One guy turned out to have a lot to get off his chest though. It seems he’d been visiting his sister that week and she’d told him about having found this ninety-year-old friend-of-the-family woman dead on the floor of the old lady’s apartment a few days before. The sister said the old lady’s face was already black. (The guy said he was glad he hadn’t been the one to find her.) He asked about the funeral, and his sister said she didn’t think it would be right for him to go because the old lady was afraid of him. Well, the only way she could have gotten afraid of him was if his sister’d been badmouthing him to her, so that really made him mad. Then his sister asked him to go out to get cigarettes for her friend and herself and she gave him ten dollars and told him to get some for himself too. It turned out he couldn’t find his brand, so when he came back he asked to keep $2.50 to get his cigarettes later and his sister said, “You just want that money for crack,” and of course that really pissed him off too. Then there was his niece, the sister’s seven-year-old daughter. He really thought his sister should get her some help. She had learning disabilities and psychological problems that should be dealt with right away to save grief down the line. She had “trouble talking and thinking.” The little girl had been taught to call her mother’s old boyfriend “Dad” and then she’d met her real father and that had confused her. And then just recently the kid’d confessed to killing their pet cat months earlier by strangling it with a piece of string. Now the sister was afraid to leave her alone with the five-month-old newborn.

The sharing went on around the room. One guy was completely incoherent. Another bright-eyed guy who looked to be about sixty shouted how he used to like to “shoot coke, look at girly magazines, play with my nipples, and try to shoot off into the sexual realm,” but thanks to the meetings and his lithium, etc., now could walk down the street and not look at girls’ asses but in their eyes.

I kept noticing how doughy and bloated everyone was. The guy sitting next to me was one of the ugliest people I’d ever seen. I wondered how he kept from scaring himself. He looked kind of like Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, with patchy, stringy, shoulder-length hair, high forehead, high cheekbones, and these two huge black tunnels pointed straight at you from his button nose, plus thick greasy glasses, a deep crease of scar sunk in his right temple, and this yellow-dark complexion like tanning lotion. He was wearing shorts and his legs were as hairless as a girl’s, his toenails in his sandals orange crescents of horn on big white-scuffed toes… It was just all adding up. I’m trying to give you the atmosphere. The point is I’m talking about myself. This is all me I’m describing.

It won’t let up. You know where I get relief? From the sky. That’s where I get it. I look at the sky, the colors and shapes. The problem is I have to get myself out of my apartment first, and that isn’t so easy. I’m very glad for Dylan too. Those little songs of Bob’s, they’re nearly as good as the clouds. Thank God for Bob I gotta say.

But it doesn’t go away, it’s there underneath and it stays. I was at a meeting again tonight when suddenly everything–the faces offering their earnest vows and confessions and rearrangements of self-view–seemed all pathetically time-bound, and meaningless by that. No it wasn’t pathetic, really, it was kind of pretty and poignant, and I tried to maintain it, this view from beyond. But something happened to break the spell. (I know what it was, somebody started sobbing, miserable for her insecurity, missing childhood, relentless self-hatred…) Somehow, for a roll, I’d been able to look at things, namely this Brooklyn ’60s meth-freak who’d been clean seven years and was (also, again) HIV positive, chattering on–the consoling, promising, litany of AA suggestions and angles of perception–to see him against the church wall there from a vantage of timelessness and silence where nothing he was saying had any meaning except as another tone from stone, breeze in the leaves, just chatter, and soon we’d all be dead, so soon it may as well have happened already. I saw it from out of that corridor, that wind-tunnel. That guy talking in his oversized aviator-type yellow-tinted glasses. The sound went off and the lack of meaning became obvious, and it was a sweet feeling, but then it was that crying girl’s turn to talk and the spell was broken.

Look, I know this is adolescent, self-indulgent. I used to try to reason with my girlfriend when she’d get hopeless, when everything seemed ugly, scary-ridiculous, to her. “I know it’s a legitimate, reasonable point of view,” I would tell her, “but where’s the percentage in buying into it?” We all know we’re going to die, but it’s only common sense not to give that information the upper hand. “Maturity” is not wasting time and energy on that kind of shit. Anyway, it’s not dying that bothers me, it’s being alive.

Yeah, I haven’t mentioned yet: I fell in love this year. That might have something to do with all this. I kept falling further and further. I finally touched down and everything looked immensely promising. It didn’t seem that there could be too much more I could dream of having. Then it turned out this girl had to go on “psychotropic” medication herself to calm down the electrical activity in her temporal lobes and the medication’s washed her all out, brought her down to half-speed, and staggered her, so she isn’t the person I knew anymore. It’s a long story. Mostly she’s tired and grouchy now, though we hope it’ll get better.

They want you to believe in God at AA. I can’t really do that and it’s become a problem. I mean, hell, that’s a pretty big leap when you come down to it. They insist to you at the beginning that the God thing is a flexible concept, that the idea is to recognize that one isn’t in control oneself, that if you’re going to have a chance to stop using long-term, you’ve got to stop feeling sorry for yourself, and at the same time stop being so afraid of everything and have a little faith… It’s an ego thing, you’ve got to get humble to have a chance to stay clean, accept things as they are… But the longer you stay, as soft as they peddle it, the clearer it becomes that they’re talking classic God. You know, “there are no coincidences,” and “miracles happen,” “He doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Well, sure, faith that it’s all for the best, that there’re reasons for it all, has got to make things easier, but I just don’t have the means… To me it’s unacceptable, when not ludicrous. And if that makes me a lost and bitter person, I guess I’m hopeless. Which may well be true. Then again, what the hell, sometimes it all seems so crazy, a “God” wouldn’t be any crazier than anything else. Check out sub-atomic physics.

Maybe it’s because I’m middle-aged now, too. The people who do things exactly right are not that much different from us, but they have to make so many of us to get one of them. The country of the sadly confused. All they are really is an unembarrassed version of us–they don’t really have things any easier. I’m thinking of Bob, but pick anybody, including Jesus. But… middle-aged I’m saying. I’ve been thinking about how things are different. Life becomes maintenance. Fucking for its own sake–fucking people who actually bore you otherwise–long a favorite pastime of mine–gets kind of untenable, as does the idea that you have some special insight into reality. You realize your temperament, your sensibility, isn’t reality, it’s just what you’re stuck with, you’re just another character… Learning becomes negative–a matter of illusions and prejudices lost. And what was “learning” before is now amusement, pastime…

Another example of what’s been going on happened the other night as I was watching t.v. with Jennifer. It was late, we were really ready to crash, but we were skipping around in case of a good movie when up came something with Jane Fonda. I didn’t know what it was and I was trying to get oriented when Raul Julia came on the screen. Let me tell you where my brain went. First I looked at this face, I knew I recognized it but I couldn’t place it, then–zing–it came to me: Raul Julia. And the sequence went like this: 1) That’s Raul Julia, 2) he’s dead, 3) lucky guy! My brain did it, I just noticed, I was kind of amazed myself.

We’re at the god damned mercy of our brains. That’s what’s so frustrating! That’s what bugs me is that. That’s what’s so damn half-assed. I want to be God myself. (Which is just what goddamned AA predicts!) I want to know it all and see it all, without any limitations. I want to have it all. I’d rather be dead than half-assed like everybody else. There you have it, that’s probably what’s going on. Doubtless.

But hell it’s gotten to where it’s so easy to slip into this thing. It happened a few minutes ago when I was sitting on the toilet. I saw my hands unreeling folds of toilet paper, and it was like some innocent memory of the long-past, it was like a dream, the realm of the being whose bowels had just moved was an illusion, like the Easter bunny or Santa Claus. I don’t know what’s happening to me.

Maybe that’s what this millennium will bring, maybe I’m a portent, a precursor, a prediction, an early example. Consciousness will move from the human to the dead via the diseased. Everyone will look at each other and see skeletons, broken hearts. “Mementi mori.” Excuse me if this is boring. Maybe it is middle age, some kind of vitality outlived. I’m going to stick it out, I’m going to see where it goes. I’m not saying this right. I’m not saying any of it right! Maybe I’m in a transition phase, where the consciousness is making death more acceptable to itself. One thing I’ve learned is that there is no last word. To the question, “Can you top this,” the answer is always yes. No doubt that’s what the sky is saying.