Fiction — October 14, 2014 8:55 — 0 Comments

Different Chips – David Rutledge

A robin lands on the limb of a snow-stroked pine, in the afternoon of a bluish-gray day. The bird is figuring the weather, listening, wondering, until it seems about to speak, and it lets out the tiniest puff of cold bird breath.

Another afternoon, when the air was gray, a wet sparrow dropped to a dripping wire, watched me, quizzically, then flew to more interesting windows.

I stare out my window until time no longer exists, until eternity sets in.

On one indefinable day, between two seasons, when spring had stalled and the landscape remained scarce, I placed some crumbs on the windowsill, the broken and crushed stuff from the bottom of a bag of crackers, and a squirrel approached on the pine branch that scratches the kitchen window in the breeze. The limb lowered and wavered with each squirrelly step, just out of reach of the crumbs. His little weight made his own approach precarious. I witnessed this squirrel dilemma: to leap from the limb, perhaps end up stranded on the sill with the crumbs, stranded but fed, or to retreat. There was a tentative step back, an uncertain twitch of the tail.

The squirrel dangled, the limb wavered.

The phone rang. I always let the phone ring, and I can always tell who it is by the number of rings. Over ten is a sibling; twenty is a parent (father stops at twenty every time; mother is less precise); under ten is an acquaintance or a mistake or both. Sometimes it rings once, and I’m stumped. The most is over thirty, but I lost count. When something is there for so long, it cannot be quantified. It is. One has no option.

Until clozapine kicks in. Thank Teva.

Knocks are always awful. So close. Voices in the hallway, footsteps on the stairs, I try to be as far as possible from the door. Sometimes they don’t leave. Landlords, solicitors, inspectors. Knocking impolitely. Pounding. That’s when they might come in. Once it was the police.

Those who live alone will eventually wonder how long it will take for someone to discover them after death has arrived. The answer is three weeks. One can’t lose the world for long. For long enough. They broke the chain on the door and found me in bed. I smiled and told them how happy I was to see them. Or I wanted to. Sarcasm from the psychotic is rarely appreciated. Mother entered after the police. Stumbling over her emotions. They were all serious to the point of being absurd. Each person had a face from a sit-com: the worldly concern of the policemen, the amazed neighbor, the understanding janitor, the befuddled somebody who doesn’t get to say a word.

Their questions were inane. I had no questions. Three weeks asleep is not so bad when dreams are as vivid as life.

I have heard certain words – agoraphobic, schizophrenic. The first means that birds and squirrels are enough. The second means that I watch myself waiting, in bed, knowing who knocks.

City workers had been trimming the sycamores, hacking off the limbs that stretched over the street. It reminded me of a doctor and sent me to bed.

Autumn is the best, out the windows. Trees practically dance.

A fading maple waltz, expressing the soft transformation of the season. A balletic elm, pirouetting, yellow leaves circling around its trunk, twirling like a skirt.

Trees speak to me more clearly than people. I watch them for hours. Medicated or not. Sometimes I place a pill on the counter, to let it know who has the power. And I return to the trees.

One little tree last fall was out of rhythm, of synch, dancing with an unpracticed step, awkwardly imitating all the others. As if trying to decide which type of tree to be. Maybe an unknown tree, yet to be named? No step seemed to suit it. Attempting red, gold, back to green. Striving to stay in season. Angular branches displaying a complete lack of harmony. The tree tried so hard I applauded.

Another two were truly in unison, poplars, with subtle dips and bends that mesmerized me until they became shadows, ghostly trees at the end of sunset. I continued to watch when they were no longer visible. Trying to perceive without seeing.

I wonder how people can become so accustomed to the world.

One Monday morning I woke up to discover the leaves of the tree outside my bedroom window had turned into potato chips overnight, each leaf a Lay’s. Other trees’ leaves had turned into different chips: off-yellow nachos, inedibly orange Doritos, similar Pringles, golden crunchy somethings.

Or perhaps I was hungry.

To the supermarket. By foot. Each Monday. One-thirty. When the fewest people are in the store. Mother’s advice.

Sidewalk cracks, crushed crayons, cans. Other people’s never ceasing feet. Green leaf leak above left ear. Brought the apartment with me. Golden thoughts sliding in on one side of a skull.

Inside the supermarket.

Too many manmade colors. Cans bottles boxes. Overexposed. Paper-bright objects in every direction. Find an aisle with no people. Choose some food. Tuna soup coca-cola. Those amorphous folks always approaching. Cans. People shoving crippled silver carts. Unreal red silver blue. Boxes. Nothing natural. Frosted flakes. A clash of colors crowding in loudly from all sides, from every shelf, around every corner. Chips. From every shopper shoving a metal contraption, some containing half-caged babies, pale baby legs dangling. Everyone touching and poking the unpackaged food. Hands testing lettuce. People and babies and cages. Oranges, purples and other uncontained colors. People putting their fingers all over the potential food.

A stranger shoving stuff down a conveyer belt. Paper or plastic. Paper. “Excuse me?” Paper. Always a little too loud. Always another stranger. Shoving food down a conveyer belt. Something a little localer – a little less super – would be more human. A place where the colors are not so contrived. Something more fit for a head.

But I am safely contained. I know this ritual. Swipe the card to pay. Wait for the receipt.

I stay safely contained as I pick up the bags and walk through the automatic doors, outside, and onto the sidewalk.

To the apartment. Concentrated, closing out the surroundings, carrying bags. The world ceases to exist. On the best days.

A few blocks.

I do not know what I have purchased until I lock the door and breathe and look. By then, I am no longer hungry.

Never go shopping while psychotic.

Typing to the tempo of an irregular heartbeat in an apartment with a green drink drip, every awkward alliteration, an arrhythmia, sometimes enough – the bad beat – to stagger a word or two, or to sit me down.

Another word I have heard is hypochondriac. It may be accurate, but if so, I am a hypochondriac with a cardiac problem. I tolerate them. I have learned to tolerate the name-placers, internal and external. When I can stay in the apartment, the words do not matter as much.

In front of the television, trying to return it – the heart – to a more regular rhythm. Trying to quiet it all.

Sit. A perfect pace maker. Calm.

Calmer when louder. Self-medication by volume. Laugh track therapy.

Only repeats are reliable. Previously seen shows are able to make time seem cyclical. To make rhythm reliable.

Repeats are an imitation of immortality.

Commercials intrude. When they attempt to sell something – Miller, McDonald’s, a medication to settle the mind – the melody of the laugh track is disrupted.

Still, Gilligan’s giggles are glorious. Seinfeld’s snickerings are sublime. Lucy’s laugh is a laudanum. Again and again.

All of them are equally able to soothe my squirrelly heart.

Except, the room with the TV has a leak, up in a corner of the ceiling, cracking the walls. When the snow melts, there is a cloudy drip … no, not quite a drip, but a wetness that threatens stability. Fog is worse than rain, for some reason. Sun doesn’t help. Always a slowly developing yellow-greenish stain, up in the corner, where the ceiling meets the wall. Developing but never spreading. Thickening. A weatherman mentioned it once. But that is unreliable.

I try not to be unreliable. It can be contained.

The ringing phone, the knocks on the door, the ceiling. The world that keeps insisting itself. The world that ignores a puff of cold breath from a beak.

Robins breathe, after all.

Whenever I mention a bird’s breath, people feel a need to diagnose me. All the terms of the world have been tossed at me. But the terms are too clumsy, too clunky. They throw words at me like rocks and try to define me by those rocks. Crude sculptors.

I feel tentative about opening the door.

Only the janitor comes in here nicely. Once in a while. Heavy eyes, a stale beer smell, dragging last night behind him. Politely crushes out cigarettes on the hallway carpet, then enters the apartment. Checks the smoke detectors, the dripping sinks. “How are you?” Pretends not to see the ceiling leak. He’s a nice enough man. Frank.

The eighty-year-old woman’s son, in a wheelchair, wheels by in the hallway, a neighbor.

“There for the grace of God goes I,” says Frank, shaking his head, looking profoundly at the brown carpet.

“Yes,” I sympathized. “There for the grace of God goes you.”

The janitor looked at me with tired eyes. Surprisingly moist eyes. As if there had been a lifetime of crying or a nighttime of drinking or both.

Later I realized my reply had missed the mark. I tend to identify more with trees. The way they keep so quietly to their rituals.

One has doubts about people. One wonders. So tiring. Sometimes it takes a complete sleep to maintain one’s faith.

I can’t go on (nap), I’ll go on.

Then there are the rare inspirational days when birds wake up and chirp with immediacy, as if they had all received an urgent revelation in their overnight nests. As if delivering an infinite message from some twittering divinity. All the congregation exclaiming at once.

Bi-polar birds at a giddy peak.

So ecstatic it can make one forget the ending.

This apartment is four lanes away from a cemetery. Too many trees to see the tombstones. Funerals often stop up the traffic. Mourners with nowhere to go. Limousines with the seated bereaved, unable to proceed. Those in the daily drive frustrated by this vehicular ritual of death.

I watch from the front window.

Three old sycamores live across the street, wrinkled and straggly bark displaying their age. Often they will join limbs and perform a slow, dignified dance that I cannot name, perhaps a traditional dance from some old country. Perhaps it is older than the old country. Their mournful movements are slight but precise, each aching limb adding something solemn and significant to the performance.

Faded gray branches extend slowly skyward, while three thick trunks remain rooted to the dirt, as if immovable. Together they express a somber and permanent yearning.

Their dance is private, intensely personal.

Sometimes I let them know from the front window – with a nod – that I respect the purity of their work. A breeze will bring one to respond – softly, so softly, as if to suggest that no mortal movement should disrupt this dance.

The idea that the trees may be performing for me – that I may be the sole witness to this exquisite scene – sends a spiritual chill along my spine.

For a moment, I know.

I have been privileged to see the meaning.

The knowledge will remain illusive, but I will remember. I will try to remember.

The world is there for us. It is part of us.

If not, there is nothing.

A restless butterfly zig-zags erratically, yellow and black, a flower in flight, passing through the front yard, finding its way over the road, around the traffic and the trees into the cemetery, continuing its flight.

Buses unknowingly rush past, advertisements on their sides. Punctuating nine and five. Those with definite goals ignoring all the neglected ghosts in the road. Unable to see the more significant messages sent by birds and trees.

Spring rain splatters the scene, splatters the traffic. Birds return to their wet nests.

Leaving traces in their wake. Ideas above a building.

Transparent rooftops. Sun glistening on a wet perspective. Cloud’s eye view. People quietly sparkling in little boxes. A few fizzling. The tops of diligent heads. Trees trying to entertain.

Rain changing to snow as the sun shines, as if the world is indecisive.

A cold puff of bird breath. A robin startled at the thought of being in the wrong place, in the wrong weather.


David Rutledge has edited and contributed to two anthologies about post-Katrina New Orleans: Do You Know what it Means to Miss New Orleans? (2006) and Where We Know: New Orleans as Home (2011), both from Chin Music Press. He also published a book about Vladimir Nabokov, Nabokov’s Permanent Mystery (2011, McFarland Press). He is currently teaching at the University of New Orleans and living in the French Quarter.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney