I sat in the emergency exit row of the bus, where there is more legroom. With my elbow up against the glass and my cheek pressed into the palm of my hand I stared at the street. Many people walked along the streets and I recognised some from the day before. Some were complete strangers to me. It was the things that whizzed by I recognised easily; the buildings, the signposts, the curbs, the drains, the windows and doors, and displays in the stores. The things, or objects, were always there the next day.
I can trust objects; having been alongside them as similar matter, billions of years ago, riding on the crest of some cosmic wave. They say it’s slowing down, that the universe is retreating from its ever advance into the nothing. I wondered if we’re caught in the undertow, tumbling with our limbs stretched out, and seeing glimpses of light upon the surface above us. It’d be useless to kick for that glitter now. The waves will come down on me again and again, and I’ll be struggling to remember which way is up and which way is down.
The bus pulled up to Johnson Road’s stop, and an old lady I see every now and again got on, tugging her little shopping trolley, and supporting herself with a cane she held in her free hand. She stood at the front with the bus driver counting coins, as she always does; she always waits until she gets on the bus to sort her fare, delaying everyone behind her. She sat down in the disabled seat and pulled her trolley close to her as if it held the remnants of a deceased friend. We both stared outwards at the street when the bus puttered into movement.
On days like this the slowing of that cosmic wave becomes more apparent; perhaps the old lady is some metaphor for the universe aging. Its growth spurt ended, it no longer is in its adolescence. Galaxies formed like the teenage muscle compacts and strengthens. New thought and new connections comes with each collision of a star or planet. But the occurrence lessens, I suppose, as one ages. And we start to want to move backwards to where we felt that spark.
Approach the transcendentalist, those that retreat to the known – the what-works. I understand them, I do; their want to escape to primal home of wooded land and ponds of frogs and fish. Where they will lay their lines to collect the flittering fin, while droplets wink upon their scales and released upon a pink-skied morning water surface. They will have beards, of course, even the women, to keep their faces warm and protected against the clean crisp air, to maintain their idea of a man. And they will trim the fur in the dirty reflection of a mirror they found in the grass, staring at themselves, wondering if they should throw it away, as if seeing their reflection is a reminder of the unnatural. Perhaps the water surface makes a sharper mirror for the natured minded – until a skipper darts across their face, turning them to a ripple, a vibration. Curses will be spat into the grass and a search for the mirror will commence now knowing, in essence, that it is as naturally occurring as any other material. Anything created has naturally occurred. There’s nothing at all wrong with ingenuity. I see no harm in thinking this while sat on a bus, a vehicle that transports thirty-two persons to their place of work or leisure. And I don’t have the energy to argue about pollution and wastefulness, when I already see an end.
The girl with orange streaks got on the bus today. I felt we were two stars almost in collision. Her and her crocheted bag – striped red, orange, green, black, like some Rastafarian. But she doesn’t smoke, I’m guessing. I wouldn’t know. I don’t know her. And those days when she misses the bus I wonder if something bad has happened – whether she was stabbed in an alley, robbed, or raped. Maybe a family member of hers died. Maybe she choked on her breakfast and she lies, with a pale face, on her hardwood floor, and her dog is walking around her barking, whining, and trying to get her up. And then the thought hits me that maybe she’s just late, maybe she decided to get a later bus so she could get some extra sleep; or maybe she met a boy the night before and they fell into her satin sheets together, arms entwined as if broken, toes between toes, and lips against lips. And he told her that she’s some kind of beauty and they shared a deep breath as his cum dribbled down her inner thigh. I realised I’ve been staring at the streaks in her hair this whole time and shake my head.
She sat at the front again, near the bus driver, so she can look out the front window. I imagine it’s because she gets bus sick, because I get bus sick. I thought I’d get used to it after five years, but no. Everyday I still get off the bus feeling queasy, my head heavy, and with a slight feeling that I may fall at any moment. There are days where I wouldn’t mind if the pavement gave me a nice welcome. I’d let the concrete curl up to grab and encase me, to smear me into a paste, to reduce me.
It was my stop so I alighted to be left surrounded in wheat fields. The bus trundled on, chasing the white markings of the road. I watched it go until its rump disappeared behind the horizon. The romance is fading from me, I thought, as I clutched my bag and walked into the swaying gold wheat. Above me, a piece of blue peeked through grey cloud and I smiled. There you are, you bastard, a cockroach laying dormant in the dark. But as quick as the bug is hit with light, the blue skitters away to hide behind the cloud. It is just light scattered, I reminded myself. Blue skies do not mean a thing.
Each step I took through the field I left a path of broken wheat behind me. I didn’t mind. I wouldn’t be going back the same way later. The owner of the wheat field won’t mind either, because he’s my father, and he won’t scold me if he doesn’t notice it. He will ask however, in suspicion if I did, and I will not lie, and he won’t necessarily care. Not these days.
I saw the barn in the distance. It’s the colour of a barn and it looks like a barn, and inside there are two cows and one horse and sometimes a couple chickens clucking about, pecking at the dirt. There is a lot of hay in the loft. It has been there since I can remember, long before my father was even born. It has been fixed up numerous times though. When I told my father I didn’t want to work on the farm he nodded and asked what I want to do. And I said I want to go into business. And he said okay, what business. And I said I don’t know, I’ll just get a degree in business first then find a job. And he said well okay then as long as you’re happy.
My mother died a month before that conversation. She had a heart attack an acre into the wheat field. I ran as fast as I could to the house for the phone while my father performed CPR. When I ran back to them, I saw him pumping away at her heart, telling her to come back to him, all the while they were surrounded in gold and under the bluest of skies I ever seen. I fell to my knees and looked up at that burning sphere to pray my heart out. A couple weeks later I read in a book that the blue of the sky is just scattered light. And that was fine with me. I didn’t want to think some divine force made sure my mother died on a clear day.
Jasper, our dog, was there too, barking and whining and walking around my mother as if trying to get her up. He was an old dog – an old, loving and loyal thing with brown patches splattered across white fur, a pink nose with black spots, and a mapped tongue. He was a gentle creature, as were we all on our farm. That darn dog was chasing a butterfly at the time of his death. He ran out onto the road between a couple of our fields and got hit by a car. Smashed its fender right up. My father made sure to chain up the dogs now, being too old to train them.
When I reached the farmhouse, he was in the doorway, his hand up upon the doorframe with a pipe in his mouth and he greeted me with a smile. He turned and walked inside. I knelt down to catch the newest dog in my arms as he came bounding out to say hello. I talked to it, stroking the rough of its neck, grabbing its fat, patting down the side of its chest and sticking my fist into its mouth so it would playfully bite me. His teeth were a magnificent white and I knew then my father was looking after him well. When inside I put my bag down next to the shoe rack and took off my boots. There was a piece of wheat stuck to its sole and my father shook his head and walked into the kitchen. It felt like I was forever chasing him places sometimes.
I took off my coat and put it on the hook next to his coats and hats. There was a little urn for his assortment of canes. His knees are not what they used to be (they were mostly cartilage and bone, for a start).
“You want some coffee?” he asked me from the kitchen.
“Black, no sugar right?”
“Yeah. And whiskey.”
I could feel him roll his eyes. I sat down on the living room couch and the dog jumped up next to me and lay with its head on the side rest, its eyes fixated upwards on the window. My father came in with a mug in each hand and handed me one.
“A little milk is good for the bones,” he said.
“I drink milk in the morning.”
The silence came and lingered, and we sipped our coffee, staring at different objects around the room. I was taken aback when I noticed my father had actually put whiskey in my coffee. The dog huffed a couple times then closed its eyes. On the television set was a photograph of the family – father, mother, son, framed in gold. She said she chose the frame because the farmhouse is framed in gold too, from the wheat. And I said, yeah, yeah, I get it.
Above the television was a painting of the farm. She painted it, and she painted well. Thick bright strokes, nothing too detailed, just the minimum to allow for someone to extrapolate an image – leaving room for the imagination. The painting was done from a vantage point on top of the barn. She almost broke her neck painting up there.
“How’s Uncle Jack?” I asked my father.
Tears started welling in his eyes, and he started asking me to come home and that he misses me, and that once a month is not enough.
“You’re unemployed,” he said. “I got the internets here now you can look for a job while you help me out on the farm.” He rubbed his eyes and then sipped on his coffee, trying to compose himself.
“I have an interview on Friday,” I lied. He knew.
“I can’t be here alone no more,” he said and he nodded at the dog. “Look at him, depressed as I am because I’m depressed.”
“You are not depressed.”
“I got no one,” he said, looking back at me.
“You got me,” I said obviously, “don’t you?”
“Then do something. Find a friend. Go to bingo.”
“That’s what old people do.” I stood, still holding my coffee and began to pace around the room. “Quit whining if you’re gonna suffix everything with you being old and sad. Everything is old and sad.”
“You’re twenty eight,” he told me. “That is not old.” He pointed at the dog. “She’s fuckin three. That’s not old. Even in dog years – ”
I thought of that cosmic wave and I imagined splitting myself down from chin to navel to show him I am as old as him.
“Are you sad?” he asked me. “If you are sad again you can tell me.”
I shook my head and rubbed my temples. “What’re we doing today?”
“You’re helping Jim bring in some of the harvest is what you’re doing and you’re earning some cash for it.”
“I don’t need cash.”
“You don’t have a job. You need cash.”
“I got some cash. You keep your cash.”
“You will do the work and then you will take the cash. And you don’t give me lip about it.”
I said okay through my teeth and walked upstairs to get changed. I took off my jeans and put on some dungarees and pulled its straps around my shoulders and then looked in the mirror at the man dressed in his teenage work clothes.
When I was eighteen, I had A Her, and she was monumental. When I was twenty, we got engaged. When I was twenty-four, we weren’t. And when I was twenty-six, we stopped talking and she faded from me. Soon after, my mother died, and then Jasper. Things seemed to disappear without my consent, and no matter how much I tried I kept losing things one after another.
Maybe she’ll be back, I thought, when I walk out that front door to start the harvest. She’ll be sitting on the hood of the tractor like she always did and she’d watch me work. At noon, she’d go inside and she’d get lunch ready with my mother for all the boys on the farm and we’d come in with dirty calloused hands. We’d sit around the table drinking and eating, smoking and making dirty jokes. She’d be on my lap sometimes and she’d put her index finger on my nose and press it up to make me look like a pig. I would oink and squeal and she would laugh. And now, without the romance, I realised she made a fool of me. Her playfulness was deceit wrapped in joy and I was ignorant to anything other. I kicked at the floor, wishing for that feeling again.
In the living room I finished my coffee as I looked out the window. My father was already getting the combine up and going and he drove it to the edge of the field, pointing it in the same direction he always had it pointed; the same starting point as he always needed it to be before we brought in the harvest. He said he worked out it was the most efficient way, and that we will always do it this way. There’s no need to double back on yourself ever, and we can get it done in only a few hours and before twilight. He saw me in the window and pointed at his bare wrist where his watch used to be. It broke the same day she did and he doesn’t dare get a new one.
I put down the coffee mug and grabbed my old baseball cap from the rack and put it on. I stood staring up at my father speaking at me from the combine’s open cabin about the routine and the process when Jim came up in his own combine shouting hello over the sound of his engine until he turned it off. I said hello back and we exchanged how you beens. He asked me if I had a job yet and I said no, I’m working for my pa today. And he said, soon enough it’ll be only you on this farm. The joke was too morbid for my father and he did not laugh. Jim teased him for it and told him to loosen up.
I helped my father down, and walked him back to the outside table. I told him he shouldn’t be doing this on his own – it’s dangerous. He said he’s been doing it his whole life and nothings ever gone wrong, and he doubts it ever will again; he’s received enough punishment for being good and whatever God wills, he follows.
Midway through the harvesting routine, the new dog’s chain came loose, and he ran under my combine. It was a bloody mess. The chain was caught in the tracks and the poor thing’s body was all mangled. It took some time to get him all out there and the combine washed down and clean again. The high-pressured hose did a good job of removing the tiny bits of flesh. It all sort of floated together in a diluted puddle near the machine. Little flecks of wheat swirled in the bubbly red mixture. I wasn’t sure if I should collect the bits of his body for the burial. By the time I came to the decision that collecting the separate chunks of meat would be a better and I guess, more respectful burial, it had already flowed into the nearby drain.
We buried what was left of the dog under a tree in the middle of the field, where the other dogs were buried. They died quite often that it became accepted as a natural occurrence – almost expected. But that didn’t make it any easier to deal with. We took the rest of the day off.
Throughout the night, my father, Jim, and I grieved, drinking until we could drink no more. My father said he was too old to train such a young pup well. The best he could do was to clean his teeth.
“An old man can’t teach a dog tricks, I guess,” he said, sighing. “Maybe I made him suicidal.”
Jim laughed, and then we all did. And soon enough, the three of us were passed out in the living room.
We woke midway through the night, our heads pounding. I made some coffee and poured some water. We drank until our dry mouths turned wet enough to talk.
“He was a good dog,” my father said, and we nodded.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t looking out,” I said. He put a hand to my shoulder and told me it’s hard to see what’s right in front of you sometimes. We walked outside and sat on the old table and looked upwards at the stars and the moon. The clouds had cleared while we slept.
I knew it wasn’t night when the stars came. My heart sank at the scale of it all – and soon the worry moved in. I tried to remember I’m only in a different place, that I’m still the same person, and that nothing is crushing me or weighing me down, but it didn’t help. Nothing is a greater reminder than that infinite black. That I am just a reflective material, dying or dead, to a would-be civilisation light-years away.
I looked towards my father who carries his faith around his neck; the faith he blames for everything good and everything bad. And he is a man who used to get up every day at three thirty in the morning to earn a living. And he thanks God for his work. He thanks God for his love. He thanks God for his wife, his son, his dogs, his farm, his money. He thanks God for everything. I don’t see how that helps him feel good about what he does, but he can believe whatever he wants.
Part of me wished that sort of faith would hit me again. That there would be a new twinge deep in my stomach where I’ll think that maybe my obsession with the stars shouldn’t fall short of a heaven. But I knew when I would get down on my knees and stare upwards into the vastness, with one of my hands holding my other and with tears in my eyes, I’d end up lying through my teeth – knowing that in the heart of all prayer is fear. And I don’t want to be fearful. I want to accept and then appreciate. I want to love as I want to love, and not how others tell me to.
My father asked me what I’m thinking about and I said our place in it all, and he nodded back. Jim said when his girlfriend died in that car accident he was sad for a very long time. And then he found someone new years later and he didn’t realise that things can change just like that, at a whim. He said that soon enough he was sharing his penned up feelings with her and she made him feel better for his loss. She shared some of her life with him and it is as simple as that. He said people think there is mystery, but that’s only because they don’t act, and so it stays a mystery. Their questions don’t get answered because they never ask them.
We stayed up until sunrise and I got changed and ready to go home. Jim and my father walked me to the bus stop. Midway through the fields, my father broke the silence.
“I need a new dog,” he said.
“One of mine just had a litter. Come round later and take a look. It’s a good stock.”
My father nodded.
“I got some new chains too,” said Jim.
The bus pulled up and I shook Jim’s hand, and then I shook my father’s, but he didn’t let go and he pulled me in and hugged me and then patted my shoulder and thanked me for coming up to see him again, and that he knows it’s a hassle and a burden. I denied it all and hugged him again and shook Jim’s hand again.
As I got on the bus, my eyes tired and red, my hair scraggly, my face dishevelled and my muscles aching; it didn’t surprise me one bit when the world started to spin and I collapsed in the aisle.
When I came to, she was above me, her streaks like those splashes of orange in a sunset waterfall, and her lips parted slightly to reveal white teeth lined up. She slapped me gently in the face and asked if I’m okay, her brown eyes darting left and right. I asked her where she was going, and she didn’t reply, confused. I asked her again and she said she’s going to work. She’s a vet. I told her I lost a dog yesterday and she was sorry about that. After she helped me up, I sat next to her until her stop and we talked of dogs and other animals, and my time on the farm. She gave me her number and told me I need to get some sleep and to call her when I’m refreshed. She said this not knowing I had never been more refreshed in my life. My heart was screaming and slamming its head against my ribcage. I had turned naked newborn surfing on some starlit wave, spiralling between asteroid fields and skimming the surface of distant moons.
When I was home, cleaned up, and encased in pillows and blankets upon my bed, I imagined I was thousands of miles above Earth. The black that surrounded its blue surface didn’t seem like darkness anymore. It was more of a duvet – a cover – something there to keep us warm and safe. It was no longer a reminder of the infinite, but a comfort for the now.