Written by Aaron French
Guy with a bionic arm points NN-West with his human arm, sinewy, with the faded tattoo of an unidentifiable animal. Withered woman’s gaze follows his finger, away from her crossword puzzle. They see the world not as is, but as they are. She shakes and rattles her roasted eyes until they settle astigmatically in the upper-left of her sockets; she looks as if she’s thinking. I look at the place of interest. I see nothing.
An old man shuffles-shuffles-shuffles…pauses, and then twists his body in an impossible musculoskeletal sequence; his spine is curved, lordotic, crooked as a scythe; he sees nothing but his own feet. I want to die young. I don’t want to become a shuffler. Should I live 100 years, let it be 100 in my prime.
‘..(unintelligible).. a little gay without being one or the other, like a spectrum.’, some animated conversation behind me. Horns honk incessantly. Girl wearing only mesh struts by like an anthropomorphized peacock; chills sprout up like I’m an unseen ghost; her attitude says fuck off, and her nipples, exposed with disregard, say ‘look at me’ in a non-sexual ‘free-the-nipple’ kind of way. A layer of pigeon shit covers the sidewalk.
I wear my urban armor. I’m a trendy, grime-colored knight, more said with what’s left unsaid in the silent gaping moments that antagonize the constant thrill of metropolitan delight.
I’m often asked where I’m from. People the world round have an obsession with categorization; e.g.’what-school-what-job-what-country-etc.-etc.-etc.’, and I tell them I’m from somewhere different every time, mainly because I have many points of origin which are dependent on my given state of mind.
It’s annoying when people try to encapsulate their entire life’s narrative into one spin of the wheel. The way people display their layers says a lot about them. It’s usually to your own advantage to withhold each cutting piece of your puzzle until the subsequent moments when each of your solitary ‘isms amasses an independent value that appropriates greater weight in-and-of-itself than if all’d been collectively purged from the get-go. This is an instance where the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. People like to be surprised, and nothing is worse than ruining the tantalizing and outright arousing prospect of suppressed mystery by immediately putting all your cards on the table.
When I disclose that I’m from some varying central U.S. spot/speck/sliver, inquirers predictably reply, ‘I figured something Midwest U.S.A.’, and but so if I’m in some far off country and I say I hale from anywhere from Kansas to Ohio they’ll go, ‘Ah, Texas!’ and I’ll indulge them with a ‘Yea, that’s where I come from’ with a deferentially appended twang. I don’t expect foreigners to know all 50 U.S. states, but all of them do know NY, California and Texas.
I only ask people where they’re from if I suspect they come from one of the seven ‘stans, since I patronizingly feel this gives a much needed acknowledgement to their civilization’s all-too-commonly forgotten yet exuberant existence, given that most of humanity’s conceptualization of this world-region is that it is a sweeping black hole they might have heard of but can’t say anything about.
I have an urge which needs explaining w/r/t telling new contacts where I’m from. I feel compelled to dress up in full disguises and make appearances in an assortment of constructed characters. I’ll have unique speech patterns/mannerisms/political identities/professions and/or heritage, and I’ll have friends join me who are disguised as well. I’ll run into my old made up buddy, Earl Faulkner from Kalamazoo, and we’ll order a round of shots for anyone in the immediate vicinity to celebrate the chance encounter.
We’ll meet strangers who’ll be our dependent variables and tell them completely bullshit stories and have all these anecdotes that give acquainted subjects no reason to call us out but enough to fuck with their heads to the point where they have some inscrutable scratch within; kind of leave them squinting, but aroused.
Each person you meet opens up another new world you never knew existed, so this social experiment should have a sort of schizophrenic effect on people. Doing this at a small town bar vs. somewhere in a big city would yield interesting variations of results.
Compassion is hard to find in an urban environment unless something catastrophic happens and then there is a short-lived mega-solidarity. The city beats, it swells, it has intense energy. I return on blue moons back to the true Midwest town I was born and bred, where it feels like I must’ve slipped into a time machine. Gravity distorts things and slows them down and makes them heavy and monochromatic and everything appears like I’m caught in some old fashioned photograph, but it’s real, and these are my honest memories and these are the people I grew up with. It’s a sort of hard-to-escape spider web that conserves all in original form, unchanging, simultaneously beautiful and repulsive.
People gossip in small towns. Gossip in megacities is kind of pointless since you can be an asshole and not have to pay for it. In a small town, conformity serves the lucid centrifuging role of separating good from bad, and bad shit catches up with you fast.
Fights take place in spring weather, when it’s also mating, hunting and storm season for locales situated between the Tropic of Cancer and the 39th parallel north. Young girls get knocked up around this time of year hence all the December/January birthdays. This has been true for all sizes of zip-codes in this world region since time immemorial.
The fights are spectacles where anyone in the know is on site serving witness to some anachronistically approved ritual. In small towns they take place in someone’s field or back yard or somewhere that cops are never seen; but in cities, which tend to have more of a feminine culture and less testosterone and therefore less fights per capita (yet substantially more by volume) fights are not as much pomp and circumstance, and location is futile because no matter where fights break out, all parties on hand are ready to scurry like rats at moment’s notice.
It’s more likely someone will get stabbed in city fights (per capita and by volume) but city fights are less exciting in any sort of functional sense; i.e. small town fighters can potentially gain socially useful non-gang related respect, win or lose. The character of a fighter during a small town fight says more than the actual outcome. Nonetheless, both in swarming cities and in small-towns, it always seems to start raining when the bloods of fighters start boiling.
Good fights are the best gossip in small towns. They’re legendary, talked about for generations, and everyone always roots for the underdog. In bigger cities the excitement of a good fight gets lost quickly into the buzzing pulse of a place not concerned with yesterday. Urbanites think clenched fists are a cave-man like mentality and that all disputes must be uniformly settled on higher ground, “since that’s what sophisticated people do”, they say.
People slay with words and money in cosmopolitan areas where intellectual firepower is more lethal than brute force. I concur half-heartedly since most physical altercations are provoked by vain and momentary emotional chaos, but I also think there’s a lot of people in the world who could use a good punch in the face.
I spent a hot minute living in a town called Hays — a brute force kind of place. Hays was, and still is, in western Kansas. One could assume towns don’t pick up and move, but you’d be surprised. I’ve passed through a handful of places only to return years later and nothing more remains other than the lingering vibe the town once put off.
That’s the Code of the West.
Hays is the size-of-town that urban dwellers would call small and small town people would call big. Rodeo is a cultural extravaganza. I worked on the Fort Hays State University rodeo team feeding cattle, opening gates, distracting pissed off bulls, wearing pliers on my belt, and so on and so forth on all things good natured, wholesome and country western. I’d drive home after the livestock kicked up enough dirt to taint the sunset copper red. I’d come down off the adrenaline high, taking note of the tumbleweeds blowing over the flat voids beyond, wondering how soon I’d have enough balls to ride a bull. I like the suspense of prospect; thinking of an ensuing 8 second hell ride is better than actually having done it. “Prolong the tension”, I tell myself. Many people can say they rode a bull in their prime, but far fewer have that sifting knot in their stomach that persists on and on and on and into the grave. My what-could-have-beens are what keep me going.
My apartment on 106 East 7th Street hid behind a bar where oil men would unravel seven nights a week. Pass through town any given evening and I’d likely see a group of wrangler clad, tobacco chewing, church going, beer chugging bachelors on their front lawn throwing a lasso around a saw horse dressed with short horns.
See the rope. It cracks a distant memory.
The rope among ropes in my mind’s eye was stored in an old and broken crate — a dull orange crate engraved with the words CRATE, and it was covered by a thick and uniform film of dust. The rope was half-tangled and half-coiled like a snake, covered with a charcoaled resin, the color of decay, of earth, of oxidation and whiskey barrels.
The rope fibers we frayed and swollen, but the rope wasn’t stiff. It had the character of those wind blown men who ripen the older they get; the kind of old men who wear brown worn-out leather jackets and drive old cars that luster and rumble with grace and command and confident power.
The rope resembled a snake not of nightmares and phobias, but of the kind not to be fucked with; the kind of snake that would see you in it’s yellow eyes and slip into a daze of chemical dissatisfaction that wouldn’t be reconciled until it ate you whole.
It’d slowly starve itself and mark a day in the distant future that it would hunt you down and eat you. And but so the rope, maybe it was once used to moor a boat to a dock, or for a construction pulley, or to pull open a theatre curtain or one or another of infinite functions. It could’ve saved a drowning life; maybe it ended a few. It could have once been part of a primitive bridge across a gorge, or the rope kids climbed to enter a treehouse. It could have been sitting in that old crate for a year, a decade, a century. How many times had the world spun ’round?
The sight of the rope was for only a quarter-second; one among 86,400 each day. In that solitary moment amongst the innumerable more, my lonesome eyes churned over a jagged rusty saw, a telescope, a box of nails, a cracked window, an old toy train set, outdated holiday decorations, and so on into oblivion.
The wind whipped outside the ramshackle shed.
Time marches on yet rarely if ever do I stop to drink something in whole. That’s why my short time in Hays left a deeper mark than of places I’d spent a much longer time. Things would appear and make me reminisce or spark the day-dreams of future reckonings.
See the rope. See the resurgence of the previously mundane —old thoughts sprouting anew, dormant seeds germinating, factoids that’ve been floating around in some internal universe that now cross the threshold; this inner dimension was elevated in Hays.
I drank a lot, but I saw with clarity. Something made the world more fluid. There was something to Hays that you can’t find in super small towns or in the chaos of a city.
Travel to a new swath of land. Tectonic plates shift slowly and enormously beneath. The map shines green. Eyes above are busy darting here and there, minds forever running frantic, shifting elsewhere, anywhere, everywhere.
The power of familiarity seems strongest when you least expect it. A surprise works best when it is hidden in familiarity. I seek familiarity, because it makes me feel safe, and yet I’m charged by the thrill of challenge, elctromagnetically powered by a pioneer lust. The knack for comfort contradicts the longing for discovery.