The Gates of Sleep[i]

I saw a man get tasered last night
on Broadway Boulevard;
I was standing at the entrance to the park
underneath the Jacaranda trees,
the ones with the graffiti on their trunks—
all those unwanted tattoos
that I can never make any sense of
so they seem important somehow;
the police got this man
three times in the ribs, although
I think they missed the second time
because the man just
sort of
staggered for a moment,
out of habit almost,
like a performance of staggering—
this was around sunset
so the sky was something terrible
(I sometimes stand on street corners
longer than I probably should);
in any case, after the second tasering,
the man noticed he was unharmed
and he began charging at the police
once more like a crazed bull
and so
for whatever reason
I pulled out my video phone
which I don’t usually have with me but I did this time
(there must have been a reason for that
I later joked to the police)
and I began to film each one of these taserings
with great concentration
so that it looked more and more
through my little screen
like there were these
firecrackers going off
underneath the man’s shirt
or else it looked like
somebody was standing above him
stirring spaghetti with an invisible spoon—
you know the way a noodle of pasta is
sometimes flung at the wall
to see if it’s ready?—
(the man was in fact airborne, at least
after the first and third taserings, at least
until he cracked his head
with a loud thump
on the wall behind him
and his languid body just slid to the ground
where the police took turns
kicking it each time
it tried
to get back on its feet again,
until you could see the marinara,
I mean blood, spilling out
from its hair);

and so
in the middle of all this
people came up to me to ask
what happened,
although not before long
most of them came to their own
conclusions about things;
it was a halfway house,
someone said,
it should’ve been closed down years ago;
another passerby who seemed even less interested
in what was happening,
I mean what was really happening,
proposed the idea
of an elaborate hoax—
or an incredibly convincing
film set, so convincing
(he said)
there had to be a hidden camera
(besides my hidden camera)
someplace in the brush there
which was making the rest of us
huddled around my video screen
appear foolish, just another pack
of mindless puppets
drinking up Hollywood’s Kool-Aid,
the studios’ collective raid on the too-articulate
(he actually said that);
why is there a halfway house across from a park,
unless the city put the park in place
later on, someone else said—
an idea which made sense to us
at the time but this might have been
only because of how distracted
and flustered we were—
and so
all of this went on
for at least thirty to forty minutes—
the tasering
the botched manhunt that ensued,
the growling dogs and
the armed standoff with the crazed man—
I don’t know how long exactly,
I’m generally not very good at keeping track of time
and anyway I kept looking over
at the African man in the park,
a refugee who says he comes from Kenya,
who talks to himself each day in broken French
through the little metal bars,
and who reminds me of that lab animal some years ago
that scientists say completed the first successful drawing
ever to be produced by an animal
and everyone was all excited about this at first,
until later on when they had to hide their excitement
because the drawing turned out merely
to depict the bars of the cage that
the animal was kept in;
that is what this man reminded me of in this moment;
and he also reminded me of the author of the
Ruins of Paris, who spent
forty-eight hours on a street corner
trying to record every detail
of what happened there on an ordinary day
(what happens when nothing happens,
that kind of thing)—
until the space around him, the author says,
became maritime,
and I always liked that sort’ve thing;
that’s a little what space and time must have
felt like for this Kenyan man
who was forever mumbling things
to himself in French, I imagine,
in any case, that’s what it felt like for me;
I guess I envied the man a little;
nobody paid any attention to him,
he didn’t pay attention
to who was paying attention to him,
and I have to admit
that
as long as I stand around
on street corners,
lost in time or lost thought
allowing space to become maritime,
for all of that, I still feel remarkably conscious
of these moments when I’m becoming lost,
so that I am not ever really lost, at least not exactly;
it’s something difficult for me to describe;
it’s almost like giving myself over to the moment leaves me
utterly unmoored
so that I soon feel this mounting
sense of panic, or else I feel a kind of strange inner calm
that can only precede some grave and unforeseen disaster;
at one point in all of this
somebody must have tackled me
to get me out of the way
because I felt my video phone go flying
in the air and it wasn’t as if I was
watching the man in the park
just then,
because I later remembered
very clearly seeing
the gun pointed at me,
which was meant to be pointed
at the other man,
although I must have been
caught directly in the background
and then I remember the police yelling ‘crossfire!’ and also,
‘kid with the camera–get the fuck out of the way!’
(you can just picture me holding up my silly screen
like a man who has brought a knife to a gun fight);[ii]
and I honestly didn’t realize they were talking to me
until later on, but I remember
I was looking at them
looking at me through my screen
and I can’t say whether I imagined dying
in that moment but I know that I saw myself
from the perspective of the gun—
I saw myself seeing myself
in a way that I’ve often wanted to in my life
but have seldom pulled off;
and
when the police put the man on the stretcher
someone said, the man will have a fractured neck for the rest of his life;
someone else said, scrofula can often occur from the electronic jolt in the tasering mechanism;
someone else said, third-degree burns are a common side effect from this kind of thing
—what’s scrofula, I asked;
—oh, it’s an archaic medical condition that involves glandular swelling that lasts for the rest of your life;
—it’s essentially a glorified leprosy of the skin,
someone else remarked in agreement
—except that it can be lethal,
—yes, truly a hideous thing;
soon the ambulance left
and I experienced a total and sudden feeling of emptiness—
I’ve often felt this way before,
it’s as if I had broken something a long time ago
without anyone ever giving me the bill;
the feeling isn’t easy for me to describe,
except to say that
I wanted them to turn back and come get me,
or for someone to tell the ambulance they had
left something behind;
eventually,
after everyone left
I walked back into the park
and I’m not sure why but
I approached the bench
where the Kenyan man was seated;[iii]
once again
it seemed to me
like the Kenyan man had been floating
in a condition of weightlessness,
unaffected by the prevailing panic
and general commotion that had occurred
just a few moments ago,
no more than a few feet
from the gates to the park;
I noted the low box hedges at his feet
where I imagined he slept,
I saw that his clothes were covered
in a layer of dust, and smelled of soot-
and then—
I still don’t know why I did this—
it wasn’t as if this man looked particularly
hungry or destitute;
although I noticed
he wore his pants a few sizes too long
so that the front hem probably
touched the ground when he walked,
and on another occasion,
I noticed
his jacket was also perhaps
a couple of sizes too big for his body;
but in any case,
I rummaged through the two or three items
I had in my canvas bag
until I found a chocolate bar
that I was saving for myself,
and which I handed over just then
to the Kenyan man
who regarded me warily at first—
but then he sat up straight,
all royal and proper as if
to receive a guest
so that I suddenly felt as if
I were part of some dark
web of intrigue
and at the same time I experienced
this unusual sense of wholeness;[iv]
I guess I started to feel a little like the police
officer must have felt
pointing his gun
or his tasering device
(whatever the mechanism was)
at the crazy man from earlier on;
and so
finally stashing the chocolate bar away beneath
a heap of clothes, the Kenyan man
thanked me, only
he thanked me in his broken French
and his voice had grown thin and cracked
perhaps from too much silence,[v]
and even though
it seemed for a moment like this thick warm charge
had passed between us, or like
if someone had been standing off to the side
and watching all of this they might have got
the impression that this man from Kenya and I
had a lot more to say
to one another, even though
I felt dizzy now and
wanted to sit down,
I eventually turned
to leave the park
once more,
hoping
at least
to get out
from the cold.
[i] A point of contention in classical studies, ‘The Gates of Sleep’ marks the site where Odysseus and later Aeneas are granted their respective tours of the underworld. The description of the Gates of Sleep in the last lines of Virgil’s Book VI are of particular interest, as the narrator suggests that those who pass through them in order to return to earth are perhaps not as alive as those archetypal ‘shades’ or ‘shadow-spirits’ who remain behind.

[ii] The word screen comes from the old French escren:
A screen is something you may hide behind.
Sometimes a screen is a large sieve or riddle, especially for sorting grain, coal, and so on into sizes (as in the case of a ‘sight-screen’, or a ‘wind-screen’).
A screen can also be a wired netting to keep out bugs.
In basketball you don’t see a screen coming, if it is a good screen.
To be screened is to be tested, as for a disease (like HIV, Hepatitis or, in this case, adulthood).
Many people, the Japanese especially, prefer to get dressed behind a screen.
To screen also means to shield or protect—to afford shelter, or to hide.

[iii] This park bench was as if abandoned by war, and way up in an infinite altitude, the sun sent light to keep it company. Whoever sat on this bench sat firm.

[iv] Fortune is gold. It shatters when it shines.

[v] Dante’s description of Virgil, his guide through the underworld throughout The Divine Comedy. This phrase also represents the voice of Reason that has been silent in Dante’s life for too long.

 

*published in the forthcoming volume of FrankMatter, September 2013 (also featured in a live show for Under the Influence in SF–details TBD)

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