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Fiction Issue 2

Bench and All

Tom lived on a green wooden bench in Boston, in front of a three-story deluxe movie theater. As soon as he collected twenty-two-fifty, he’d purchase a ticket and small popcorn and enter the cold, cavernous theater a half hour before anyone else. Half of the pleasure was watching it fill. In the middle seat of the back row, he’d place his hands on his knees, sit upright, and smile uncontrollably as the darkness did its work, turning a skeletal, 53-year-old man with no job or steady place or wife or friend into a tacitly accepted member of a mixed-class, commercially sanctioned gathering. A movie was the only place Tom wasn’t offered change on sight. 

On the bench, back in the blinding sun, he’d try to talk about movies with passersby, and he asked the golden questions: Did you see it? And if they did: Did you like it? 

Tom always liked it. 

I stopped to listen to him once, when I had just seen the movie he was discussing and was planning on writing a review to submit to an online magazine that tolerated unsolicited slush. His evaluation was based entirely on the connection between the film’s lighting and the characters’ emotions. Bright-Happy, according to Tom, is when the movie screen itself gets close to pure white during a safe, joyful moment, like when lovers meet for the first time or an awkward boy gets a base hit. When bliss is bright, Tom is happy. “It’s like drugs kicking in when it’s midday July and there’s a nice breeze and you have a ticket for a bed if you need it — all the heads in the theater washed in bright, warm light, and we meld into the moment like night swimmers in a streak of rippled moonlight.” I wrote that down in a notebook standing off to the side while he talked with a young couple giving him a couple bucks and conversation. 

Bright-Unhappy, then, is when lightning strikes or explosives detonate or when any frightening moment incorporates a sudden blinding flash. “It makes all our heads fused to a moment of fear and terror. I see sparks come out of the tops of the scalps like cartoon bombs, but it’s not funny at all. Anytime I see bright light in the night it means headlights or flashlights, or it means I’m being hit awake. Usually it’s headlights and a loudspeaker from a cruiser threatening me if I don’t move. Flashlights likely mean social workers or nurses. They mean well, but it’s two in the morning and it took a lot to find a spot and actually fall asleep. They smile and talk loud off their midnight coffees and offer me stuff like soup and blankets, and I try to be nice as possible, but my heart is pounding and my hand is gripped around my club before I really remember who I am. I’ve hit them before by accident. They’re really nice about it. The cops, if they get out of their vehicles, they kick you first, not hard, in the ribs, and if you strike them, they’ll tune you up a little. They make sure they’re wearing their little black gloves before they approach you, that’s for sure.”

I was assigned Tom. That’s how I told it to myself, at least, when they finally made it clear what they wanted. I wrote what he said about the X-Y Light-Emotion axis, and they published it; they said it was original. Prior to that, ten submissions hadn’t received as much as a form letter. The publisher credited my account with twenty-five dollars; I gave twenty-two fifty to Tom. I joked with myself about the law that makes it legal to record a conversation in certain states if but a single party has given consent. 

After the third Tom-review was accepted, I submitted my own. They published it, but the acceptance letter was accompanied by a lot of embarrassing feedback hinting that a submission of similar quality would be returned. I’d never try my own stuff again. But what I did was to try to talk to him more about whatever he wanted to say. Giving him my time seemed like good charity. I actually said that. 

“How did you become homeless?” I asked after appropriating a new review.

“I couldn’t take one more thing, and I let go knowing I could sit here in the city and get enough of what I’d need, food and clothes. It’s more exhausting than I imagined. I never really get to sleep. I get hurt a lot. And no one wants me anywhere, so I’m always moving before I’m asked. I see how they look at me, and I get it. It’s like people want me fired — from being a human, from the planet, from their couple of hours in the city with their kids. And I agree to a point. Now and then I have to remember about my point of view, about surviving. It’s easy to forget how fast you drown out here, and how it doesn’t feel like you’re underwater at all because you got a bench, and the other guys respect that it’s your bench, and the bench feels dry when it’s hot in the sun.”

“What brings you back? I mean, when you feel like you’re slipping, how do you find yourself again?”

“One time I saw a cloud stop in the sky. No, it didn’t stop — I’m getting it backwards again: It stayed the same; it was me — I started moving like a cloud… I was sitting on the grass in the Gardens and I had been there about eight hours just sitting there and hadn’t eaten or gone to the bathroom… no one bothered me all day, and I didn’t feel like I needed anything… I was content, but more than that, I was beyond awareness of comfort, of biology… I was floating, and I was huge; I was everywhere stretched across the sky like a river of air, sun-pierced and soft currents. Every inch of my body tingled, and my neck felt straight, flexible, strong and totally absent — my neck always hurts, is always wrenched, my head always feels a hundred pounds, my body is usually just sores and lesions, just horrible things up and down that never really heal. But then, I felt supported and free. Powerful but soft. I felt like my whole body was my head perfectly supported by the architecture of the neck, and the slightest movement, the most subtle shift in the weight of my head caused pleasure to spread throughout my body, deepening my feeling of relaxation… nudged along by the laziest, most perfect stream of warm air, buoyant and shining, and the top half covered in sunlight and the bottom half cradled by air; I was a cloud. 

“Then I realized I was me again and that I was looking at a cloud, but I still perceived I was moving like a cloud, and I watched the cloud as it kept going, and I took notice of how happy I was during every millisecond that I was the cloud, and I knew this was the whole point to life–to experience something like this, and I knew I’d never experienced it before, and it could be another thirty years before it happened again, and as I kept looking at the cloud, I grew sad — my first unhappy moment since I was a cloud. I watched it move west toward buildings — you never see a cloud really disappear around here like you do on the plains, flattening on the horizon, dissolving into eternity; here it just gets blocked, lost behind churches and insurance companies. I was watching the cloud as it was drifting away from me and realized it was over, my moment, maybe the only reason I ever had to live had just happened, and I was so disgusted with myself for ruining it so quickly. I had been a cloud! What more did I want — more time to be a cloud? I experienced a moment of timeless bliss, I told myself, and I was going to sit there until it came again: I would be the guy who sits for the clouds. 

“But I was incredibly tired by the experience, and I turned away from my cloud before it became impaled by the skyline. I didn’t want my last memory to be of the thing that obscured it. I fell asleep right there on the grass for hours, woke up when bars were getting out, scratched up some change and got a couple of slices, slept some more, and the next five months went by like reading a book on a train that goes past your stop. Now and then I’d try to remember what was so important about that moment. I’d remember that it happened, but I’d forgotten what it once meant — I couldn’t connect to the person I was, the person who felt that it was the most significant experience of his life, the whole point for human existence. I just pictured a guy sitting in a park, looking up, feeling good, falling asleep.”

“When did you start getting into movies? It seems to be the main motivation for your efforts to acquire money. Was it after the cloud?”

“Yeah. I never thought of it before, but five or six months after that experience I started going to the movies a lot. Like I said, bright things at night usually mean something terrible, but it was during a movie called Julian Strope — Did you see it? Artsy flick with moors and a lady. The problem is no one can feel anymore with their hands, literally, so their hearts grow huge to compensate. They talk all the time about their emotions, but they’re unable to feel anything physically. And then Julian Strope, he’s had enough of all this talk without sensual reality — even though everyone else learns to really like this new world: less messy, basically a virtual reality, an online social media kind of world but set in a Victorian countryside; isolated feelings expressed loudly without the necessity and pain of human contact — Julian Strope and his girlfriend, her name was something like… Phoenicia! (The name’s really in your face once you know how it goes) they go to the center of town at night and build a huge fire, and all these people open their windows and talk about what they think in very elaborate words and complicated sentences. They think they love passion even though they’ve literally never felt anything since their hands mutated generations back by some deal with a witch — that was pretty underdeveloped; the way it looks onscreen is the old palms are on the back of their hands and the old palm lines are now shallow and one-directional. Their new palms, which used to be the old back of their hands, are just knuckles and nails… you get used to it as an audience after the weird shock, which I think is part of the point. 

“Anyways, all of a sudden, Julian Strope thrusts his hands directly into the heart of the fire, and he refuses to scream or say anything to the people watching from their windows except for what he whispers into Phoenicia’s ear — Julian Strope, in total control of his purpose throughout his agony, tells her of his true feelings, and she starts crying into the fire as she listens (nobody cries in the village, that’s part of it too, she’s the first) — and then Julian pulls his hands out of the fire, and they’re melting and black and horrible, and all the people are completely silent, no ornate sentences, just the stench of burnt hair and flesh in the air… stunned silence until someone from a dark window pleads, ‘What did he say?’ and Phoenicia looks at them all, she places two logs on the fire in the shape of a cross and gives them this mocking glance, inviting them, daring them, ridiculing them. They turn with a flourish of capes and hoods towards the Forest Erotic — I am certain that’s what they called it; if not, I’m embarrassing myself — and then the two of them walk slowly from town into darkness. 

“And one by one, the people shout, ‘What did he say?’ and it shows them grinding the shallow-lined, insensate back-of-their-hands into the edges of their window sashes attempting to feel something, but they can’t feel anything except the sounds of words and the aural descriptions of the way things probably are… emotional eunuchs, intellectual liturgants unwilling to make the sacrifice of Julian Strope, lover boy, Christ in a cloak; his smoldering, crucified hands backlit by the burning cross-shaped logs of the fresh fire when with a flourish he turns from town. When Julian first shoves his mutant hands in the flames, the movie screen is instantly bright, but a soft, warm white, and there was this icy little tone played, like the sound of a snowflake touching another snowflake as they fall while this guy Julian was having his moment, his intense pleasure, his total immersion in an unobtainable element, his whole life drawn to a single point, his becoming fire, his becoming feeling and sticking it to the whole power structure of that stuffy little village, and the moment was presented to us visually as bright white with snow crystal music — that was what kept my cloud moment alive: the brightness in the theater. It wasn’t just that me and Julian Strope had similar moments of connecting to nature, of losing ourselves; it was the audience, all lit up… I feel like I saw every single face for a split second even though I sit in the back. I saw parts of faces, cheeks, eyebrow ridges, necks — a neck is the same as a face, all the same features and character; if a neck looks different from the face, the neck is telling the truth. The whole audience became one moment of this guy, Julian Strope, and me connecting: immersion in light, burning alive, infusion of truth. 

“And so when movies do Bright-Unhappy, I don’t like it — getting all the people lit up by crazy stuff or evil — seen it before, hate it. But Bright-Happy rejuvenates. Even when a comedy does it — with a laugh — laughter is an element, immersion in joy made audible, physical. So that’s where it came from, the whole talking about the brightness of movies. I got lost along the way and started analyzing light contrasts as it related to thematic structures, visual dynamics, symbolic pacing: began using timed intervals between light and dark as the representation of narrative respiration. I forgot why I even cared about the brightness in the first place, same as with the cloud moment — the meaning was lost. It’s strange to live your life staring at shadows of the thing you set out to do, caught up in a thing that’s not the thing at all.”

“Will you continue?”

“What I want to do right now is sleep. I want to sleep and not be afraid of anything while I sleep. Bed, covers, bathroom, shower, curtains, dark room… that’s what I want. But nothing else that comes with it. Nothing. Literally nothing. No social worker. No landlord. No maintenance crew. No guy who delivers the mattress. No guy who fixes the toilet. No opening the door and saying hi to people in the hallway. I want none of that. Not one piece. I just want the thing, the sleep, without any of the other things. Just that big soft mattress, just that enormous comforter — the figure of the bed divorced from the ground it lies upon — and I’d drift away to sleep. 

“But this is where I sleep, on this bench, seated, high collar, arms folded, drifting in and out, snapping to attention at noise or the sense that something is hovering. 

“Last thing I’ll say is this: it’s the image I want to dream. I try to remember to think about what I want to dream about before I fall asleep, and drift to that image, and sometimes it works. I dream it right away when it works. My dream, and then ‘Goodbye Brother’ — in a nice way, sincerely: I didn’t think it all together until we talked, talking lines up the ducks — my dream is that my cloud is looking at me, looking, looking at me with all its being, and the longer it looks at me, the reverse of what happened happens: the cloud becomes me, becomes a man with feet and a brain and can fall in love and have kids and eat popcorn in a theater… the cloud watches me with all of its molecules until it transforms into me and I transform into the cloud and drift east, east, east, and he is sitting on a bench, maybe a newspaper that he bought folded across his lap, and he keeps looking at me while he finishes his lunch before going back to work, but this time he doesn’t take his eyes off me until what I’ve become is completely obscured by a fence of buildings.”  

The one decent thing I did was leaving when he asked me to. I submitted everything he said, and they held it up because they wanted more: a novel, a screenplay. They wanted to know the guy’s history, why he sounds articulate, how he really ended up there, and they definitely wanted an arc where he teaches me about life, and then one day I show up to talk to him but the bench is empty. And I tried to do everything they said. I’d have put him on a bus if the publisher’s fact-checker was prepared to buzz the theatre district with a surveillance drone. 

What happened, though, was he just wouldn’t talk to me anymore. I kept giving him twenty-two fifty anyways. I’d say hello, try anything to get him talking, remind him who I was, like putting a hand out to a dog to sniff — it’s me, boy. He shut me out. Maybe he felt he had said too much to me, or maybe he could see an aura of filth oozing from my frame. I took to watching him from across the street on a green bench to see if he still talked movies with people walking by. He did, but I noticed all his conversations were very short. Maybe I pushed him too far. Maybe something inside him told him that people are a noise, hovering.

Even years later, I’d pass his bench hoping he’d be gone like in the story they asked me to write, but he’d still be there, wrenched neck, twisted over, talking a little or sleeping in spurts. I wanted to experience the empty bench of Tom so that I could have a sense of my actions toward him being long past, a memory of a morally conflicted person struggling with a desperate sense to matter as an artist, as a writer. But even four years after our conversations, I couldn’t escape him, couldn’t disappear what I had done, and couldn’t confess either — not to him or to anyone. Taking advantage of the homeless: that’s how it would sound on paper, and nothing I could say would make them see any difference. 

Except when it’s really raining, I sit and watch Tom, some days just for an hour, and I will him away with every cell in my brain, to vanish him into one of those silhouettes from a bomb, but the closest I get is when the sun sinks behind the theatre and a long black shadow creeps up the pavement, over the metal legs to the green wood, and devours him, bench and all.

By Robert Keefe

Robert Keefe is a writer from Massachusetts.