Would I be convicted by a jury of my peers? The idea of finding twelve people like me is ridiculous. Where would you look, a limestone cave? One hears about the primitive men, and women too, who painted bison, reindeer, and even human hands, but one never hears about anyone who just looked. Find me a Paleolithic woman who went off by herself and looked at the hands painted on a cave wall and wept. She can be on my jury.
Find me a woman who watched a man’s hands painting a boar and then painted her own hands. That was a more historic moment than the discovery of fire. Archaeologists think the hands were painted by women because they appear to be female hands, but it seems to me the archaeologists may be underestimating the Paleolithic imagination. I like to think of a caveman crawling deep into a grotto to paint a woman’s hand.
Do they allow convicted felons on juries? I’d like to have the Bird Man of Alcatraz, or a simple shoplifter, a girl who’d stolen a silk scarf from Saks and understood beauty isn’t a luxury and you’ve got as much right to it as a hungry man has to steal a can of beans, the good kind baked with molasses. Maybe I should invite everyone. The butcher, the baker, the circuit breaker. The pallbearer, the sun starer, the system error.
No, I need someone who sat every Monday afternoon for six years on Mrs. Chen’s chenille couch waiting for her piano lesson, waiting for Billy Milton to finish off Rachmaninoff.
I need someone who had eleven treatments of shock therapy, who had someone kick their Coke machine eleven times while they were asleep to see what flavor would explode when they woke and, yes, I admit, sometimes it’s a good one, sometimes it’s a sunset in Maui or getting dressed in the morning without howling. I want more than a Maui sunset. I want a sky. I want a horizon line.
Anything can be justified. Murder: easy as apple pie. The so-called preciousness of life. Ice cream is good but mint chip is not enough to render life sacred. Of course the claim is that love renders it sacred, but is it possible for lovers to look into each other’s eyes without thinking, This is the part where we look into each other’s eyes?
When I lay on the beach at St. John, half asleep under a blue umbrella, I noticed a man near me extracting pleasure like a bee from every blossoming inch of me, his eyes moving slowly up my calf, never leaping from flower to flower but submitting to the step-by-step order: x, y, z. Stem, pedicel, calyx. Ankle, calf, knee.
When I went to New York last fall, I saw Monet’s waterlilies, and I wanted to drown in them. It would have been like drowning in me. I walked through them, examining the layers of blue and red and green and black and yellow. When the canvases were discovered after the Second World War in Monet’s studio, they’d been damaged, perhaps enhanced, by slivers of glass fallen from skylights when the town was bombed, and now embedded in the paint. Later, when I visited the Vietnam Wall, it was the same: names on the black granite, lilies on the black pond.
Does Fran deserve to live? What does that even mean? Do mushrooms, fungi, deserve to live? What is unique deserves to be spared from extinction. The life of a chanterelle would be sacred if it were the last chanterelle. At least that’s the argument: human life is sacred because, unlike a mushroom, each person is unique.
Maybe Monet was unique, but Fran is not the last member of the endangered species of Fran. There is nothing of the infinite in her love for her rugby fullback. And she has never been as excited as I was under the blue umbrella and in the gallery trying not to set off the alarm while I got close enough to see into the paint and saw something in the pond among the lilies no one else had ever seen: the names of the dead.
There are simpler ways, of course, than convincing the FBI to admit me to the Witness Protection Program, moving to the Aleutian Islands and learning scrimshaw, or killing myself. I could get a new job. At least that would get me away from David and his interminable crosswords. Alice, what’s a three-letter word for half a dance? Can, you idiot, can. What’s a three-letter word for a big heart?
I aced the typing test a couple weeks ago when, in fact, I did go for an interview, but other than that, it did not go well. I had to talk to a big-boned redhead who asked me about my education. She said she was impressed by my education, but that seemed to mean that in her vast experience people who read a lot of fiction will climb out and clean pigeon shit off a window ledge on the 21st floor. They’ll walk the boss’s Shih Tzu.
When the big-boned redhead asked, as they always do, for an example of how I work under pressure, I suspect she wanted to tease out what I’d do if the Shih Tzu peed on the boss’s Art Deco rug. I suspect she may have confronted that scenario herself at some point in her career and emerged triumphant, Venus from the sea, a box of cornstarch in her hand.
I wanted to tell her that the best example of my grace under pressure was sitting in this interview without running into the hall screaming, breaking the glass on the fire extinguisher with my bare, small-boned hands, and rushing back to extinguish her fucking flaming red hair. But you put out a fire from the base, don’t you, so before I could subdue the hair shooting from her head like solar flares, I’d have to aim the foam down and drench her French pumps.
I wanted to tell her about the time I’d knocked David off his chair with a toner cartridge and sat at his desk so I could finish a job where he’d fucked up the footnotes. Instead I just smiled and told her that the one thing I liked about my current job was that it was not stressful. I knew I was damning myself but it was worth it to see the look of shock pass over her face like a shooting star—not shock but envy—before she stood and extended her big-boned hand to me.
There are circles in hell, and I’d found someone below mine. We both may be dishwater spiraling down a kitchen drain, but I could see a glimmer of greasy light above and she was under me in that curve of cast iron so aptly called the trap. When I got home I wrote a thank-you letter to Ms. Bones that explained everything, but I never sent it.
This morning, Ms. Bones, I managed to put on my skirt without taking the scissors out of my desk and slicing its ruffles into ribbons—no, into snowflakes, like children make. You remember how magical it is. Simply by folding a piece of paper, you free yourself to cut as messily as you want, and when you unfold the paper, the chaos is symmetrical. The trick is trusting the process. Children who cut tidy, careful lines make boring snowflakes. But that’s not quite true. The trick is also knowing how to make the fold, and that’s what I’ve never understood. I just cut. That’s how I manage, Ms. Bones, grace under pressure. I just cut.
It’s Sunday night and I haven’t slept since Thursday unless I’ve been walking in my sleep, which is possible. I walked the two miles to work on Friday morning because I didn’t expect to come home and I wanted to see everything again. Or see it for the first time. It felt as if people were seeing me for the first time. I felt like the Taxi Driver guy. You lookin’ at me? No, more like I was wearing Jodie Foster’s white hat.
I should have felt something under the circumstances, but at the stop where I’d caught the bus for eight years all I saw was Red Rock Realty painted in black on the bench. It was earlier than usual so I didn’t recognize anyone. A thin, thin-lipped man who looked like the old guy in A Hard Day’s Night had taken the place of the curly-haired woman I’d always imagined was a florist because she always looked in bloom. A teenage girl with a backpack covered with travel stickers to places she probably wanted to see—Nepal, Budapest, Fiji— had taken the place of the teenage boy none of us dared ask to turn his music down. They did seem to have taken the places of the “regulars,” but only because they were there earlier. I saw things I’d never noticed from the bus. A brass plaque on Russian Hill in memory of Russian sailors. I’d never known the hill was named for a cemetery at its crest that no longer exists, where penthouses now float with panoramic views. Someone must be buried under every square foot of the city.
San Francisco is unique, but it’s also like every other town, and I’d never seen that so clearly. It’s home to nail salons and coffee shops, though in Dubuque you might be less likely to find the Thai woman opening the blinds to the nail salon as she flicks her cigarette to the sidewalk, or the grimy bottle of grappa that isn’t on the coffee shop menu—that the owner brings out from behind the counter for his oldest friends, while across the street, hidden by a stand of poplars, the Indonesian consulate minds its business.
I imagined an inner room where shadow puppets performed by the light of an oil lamp. The audience had sat on the floor all night—nine hours!—watching, listening to gamelan music. That is a commitment that families watching Cats at the Curran can’t even imagine. I’m not remembering now—I’m imagining what went on in the gray stone behind the poplars. More likely the consulate clerks were doing what I do at my job: figuring out whether to feed a letter face up or down into the fax machine.
But I do imagine... I want someone to sit in an inner room at three in the morning watching a shadow play of a green-eyed girl abducted in the woods by an old king who holds her prisoner until she’s forgotten it’s a prison, forgotten her brown-eyed beloved (all this done with nothing but shadows), until one day the beloved goes hunting and the audience waits to see if the two will recognize each other, even though they know—they’ve heard the story a thousand times—that when she pours the mint tea he’ll see the scar on her wrist from when the king’s guard seized her years before: he’ll know he’s found her. They can’t hear the story often enough: how it was her scar that saved her.
All things considered, I was calm. Was it only sixty hours ago? At ten I took my break and read the newspaper at my desk. I honestly felt as if I didn’t have a care in the world. By eleven the adrenalin had kicked in as if I’d gone to drink at a river and seen the reflection of a sabertooth next to me: green eyes shimmering in green water.
Do you know that sabertooth tigers were once all over California? The throat of a white-tailed deer slit by a crescent moon. I was at its mercy. But what was it? Whatever it was, I sat at my desk as long as I could bear it, afraid of disturbing it, but as Cro-Magnon man had to back away quietly from the water, I finally had to go for a walk.
It was unprecedented for me to be gone from my desk at eleven o’clock. I walked the Financial District, under the trusses of the Transamerica Pyramid, and felt as if I were—not in a jungle—a rainforest. My concentration for that twenty minutes was as sharply focused as it’s ever been. I walked as if I might step on a venomous ribbon vanishing in liana vines, or fall into a trap dug for feral pigs, or simply lose my way.
The flashes of beauty that flit through my peripheral vision and hearing and smell were all the more intense because I couldn’t stop. A semi screeched as it parked to deliver furniture on Icehouse Alley: a cockatoo crying, flashing its red coverts from a treetop in the canopy. The scent of stir-fried garlic overflowed from a Chinese restaurant preparing for the lunch rush: ylang-ylang flowers flung their intoxicating aroma, strewn to prepare a bed for newlyweds. Two women in black and yellow coats strolled into a bakery: a tiger stole into the forest with too much dignity to look back for predators, and I followed his path.
As the saying goes, the die was cast. Didn’t Caesar say that? When he led his army across the river. We forget that he wasn’t heading into the unknown. He said it when he began the march back toward Rome. I always thought it meant playing dice, trusting to a game of chance, but I found out it means die casting, pouring molten lead into molds of letters to print Shakespeare or the Bible. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” “Tomorrow will I bring the locusts into thy coast.” Into thy coast. That always scared the shit out of me.
In other words, it means the opposite of what I thought. Casting the die is precisely not trusting to chance. And the shift in my understanding of that phrase captures perfectly the shift in my understanding of everything. I turned and walked back toward the office. The letterpress. Hot metal. Movable type. Offset. The die was cast.
Robert Thomas’s second and most recent book, Dragging the Lake, was published by Carnegie Mellon. His first book, Door to Door, was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the Poets Out Loud Prize and published by Fordham. He has received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Pushcart Prize. His poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Field, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, New England Review, The Threepenny Review, and many other journals. Other poems from Bridge can be found in Poetry.