Scenes from An Alternate Life – a daily story

S

To hear me read the first ten days, click here.

Tell them again what you want from the world and
let the world tell you again about its heart, exposed and heavy—
tell me again what it means to be alive and ornery, fussy with the day.

Let my adventure be your inspiration, my disappearance be the well from which you drink.
I will send you my observations from the sea in a glass bottle.
Like Shackleton.
I will tell you of the birds and the islands and the angle of the sun as it eats away at the skin beneath my eye.

When they see your painting.
When they see it.
A massive wall of your incisions for all to see.
Let the first cut be my name.


When your husband died
And Conroy went away to school you weren’t left with much
But brushes and a pallet
Your afternoons to start the day
Alone at the edge of the Atlantic
Waiting for winter’s cruel fist to disrupt the tunnel vision

This is your gray period, your life has been a gray period
I am a gray period
The decades in your wrist, the
Loneliness in your fingertips the color of concrete
Your sweater blends into your mood

I’ve come in from Danbury on the train
in search of your rowboat


the night before my bon voyage
you treated me to steak and rice while you told fantastical stories
of your time in Croatia

paint and black market cigarettes, the month you smoked hash until
you met your baby Conroy in a café built for dolls,
where you met your baby twelve years before he took root in your womb

the night you turned twenty three in Rijeka shouting for all to hear your damnation
of Charlemagne and his men, your fist raised high still ready for the fight
even the police loved you

was it in your hospital bed overlooking the Adriatic (a broken leg to keep you company,
your canvas and brushes brought to you by an Italian you once kissed)
that you first wondered about the reflection of a rowboat under a quarter moon


when the shore disappeared, from distance/from dark, I still rowed, determined
to give you what you needed, slow playing your addiction to dizzying heights
until we were overboard in our own ways, struggling for breath

my arms grew tired in search for the bottom of the sea
still I went on dreaming of escape hatches bolted to the sandy Atlantic floor
on the other side, the earth’s molten core to keep me warm

where once was the sun outside our bedroom window
where I once was, a memory turned to silt
made cloudy by hypoxia


we made a game of the details—our steps, the placement of stars, the reach of the tide
you adjusted my scarf as you kissed me goodbye, whispered
don’t let the dampness bring you down

told me stories of the first man who learned to swim, who impressed
his hunter gatherer friends with his splashing and games
before being swept out to sea confused by the thrashing

imagine the inspiration you will find at sea, my love
a short story carved with a loose screw
an obituary for long distance critics


the first night at sea I wondered where I might run ashore
shipwrecked in international waters intent on survival
slowing down with an intentional drag of the hand in the chop

when we were alive in the time of Panthalassa
the continental puzzle affixed in a box
you asked if I’d ever seen so much water

when we were alive in the time of Da Gama
high on cinnamon and scurvy
you asked if I’d ever seen so much water

when we were alive in the time of asteroids
the ruins of civilization smoldering orange on September nights
you asked if I’d ever seen so much water


You drew the map, tracing time by the species we became
as we foraged the savannas of our youth
on continents unbothered by tremors and drift

I have not forgotten the games we played in the presence of creator gods,
their teeth bared at the threat over my shoulder, while
you rolled through tall grass, naming the dangers like the constellations

and I was always nervous with the way you danced,
in awe of your balance on high wires in high winds
telling me it will always be okay because even a fall doesn’t last forever


there you were, in the fall of 1991, barefoot in a Brooklyn gallery
brush clamped between teeth while a line formed on the other side of the door
unknown and unsure and unconcerned about the madness to follow

you kept the photograph—an artistic black and white, low contrast—on your bedside table
a compass point for early mornings, to remind you of what happened and
what was only a dream

a thousand miles to the west in a heartland cul-de-sac
I spent the evening under my parents’ roof, busied by high school math
insecure over the gap in my teeth and the betrayal of my skin

you told me how anxious you were, waiting for somebody to show
waiting for somebody now dead and in the brushstrokes you left exposed for all to see
how disappointed and empty you felt by the absence

you asked, why weren’t you there? What took you so long?
and I explained that I didn’t have my license then
that I was fifteen until February


I packed everything I owned into a dying Chevrolet the day I graduated from college
sixty seven miles an hour as I rattled across the border, Kansas in the rear view mirror
enough gas money in my wallet to make a New Jersey junkyard

rest stop sleep and gas station sinks, I kept my toothbrush on the dash
taking notes for a novel I felt important, but could never see clearly
everything a constant vibration from trucker speed and decade old shock absorbers
prayers to middle America Gods to keep me between the ditches

by the time I got to Pittsburgh, memories of a trip we took in the summer of 1984
to visit cousins long since scattered
I was convinced it was the longest trip I’d ever make, but
you and time and an ocean I’d only read about in old encyclopedias were always waiting
to the east


the day my agent called with the news
I was hanging sheet rock in a Jersey City duplex, my lungs coated in dust
the sweat soaking through my only clean shirt and Marshall Tucker on the radio

we went out drinking that night – my recently divorced boss who hated his ex-wife and me
asked if I’d ever read Michener, said how much he loved Michener
when we got to the parking lot a few minutes after midnight he dropped his keys and
asked if I thought the bartender was in love with him,
said how he knew the bartender was in love with him
she really has a thing for me. Should I go back in and make my move?
his mind already settled on mistakes not yet made

I walked three blocks in the company of my last seven cents
this ding woosh ding inside my pocket a song for late night drunks and displaced poets


you took Conroy all the way south to Boston
showed him your art on museum walls until the life left your lungs
taking deep breaths in search of ancient Parliaments stuck to canvas
desperate for inspiration from an old parlor trick

we met, for the first time, next door in a deserted diner built for 70
three of us, tucked into the back corner, the two of you at a table
and me, shrunk over a weathered copy of my novel preparing for the night’s reading
finding nothing I liked enough to share

when I think of it now, that moment when the bell above the door rang with your entrance
I was mad, my love, at the distraction because how could I know?this wide open diner in a wide open city and all I wanted was the space to have a crisis
but the waitress brought you back to me,
Conroy in mid-story wondering what would happen if the skyscrapers came to life,
the whole while fidgeting with his checkered driving cap

I eavesdropped until you asked me about the weather and I told you I didn’t know,
that I was only up from New Jersey for the day but that it did look like rain,
that I could feel water all around me, could feel it filling my lungs
I swear I saw the spark in your eye catch fire when you asked
what brings you this far north?


it was then, holding my book for you to see, the crumbs of a club sandwich on my shirt—
a vague familiarity I couldn’t place radiated out from my heart
or maybe I’d stood up too fast, but
didn’t I know you from somewhere?
Is this your first? you asked, taking 324 pages of my life in your hands

when you told me you were an artist I became self-conscious of the cover
tried to see the colors and the photograph through your eyes
worried you might think the book less serious because of the yellow

I told you about the article in the Boston Phoenix and the reading I dreaded
six hours and two blocks away
in an auditorium built for genuine theater,
afraid to confess that I’d walked by and seen my name on the marquee, convinced
nobody would show, that it would be me and the host and the janitor wondering
why anybody had had the notion

I’ve always loved that place
you rattled off the musicians you’d seen
and the experimental plays you’d sat through
sometimes you said I, sometimes you said we
and I wondered who wasn’t with you now


we went through the double doors, told the woman at the cash register who we were
as though our names themselves were badges
maybe she believed it because we believed it, too.

Conroy counted the empty chairs
There’s a balcony, too. I smoked grass up there the night Bob Seger came to town
and so I went, the Exit sign the only thing giving light to stairs
while I hummed Against the Wind  in the echoes

you grew quieter until I couldn’t hear you at all
and the only thing I saw was a stage lit in a blue so electric
it looked like it had been made in July nights
above the Plains of my youth

in your absence I wondered if you ever were real
wondered, wondering, wonder how much any of this is only a dream
wondered if I was waiting to be arrested for trespassing

closed my eyes but everything was still blue


do you remember the day you picked me up in your dying Nissan truck
Fela Kuti’s Question Jam Answer playing three quarter speed in the tape deck
and I told you I didn’t think I’d ever be able to write again and that even if I could,
nobody would buy it

you held my hand and told me it would be alright
I asked—”you mean I’ll write again?”
even if you don’t we’ll be okay

for a month I couldn’t look at the computer,
hated anything with an electric pulse
then an idea for a novel
about a man and his rowboat
was enough of something to turn on the power

when I told you about it that night at dinner
you called it fantastic, said make it swing with what you know
what did I know?


broke the routine, packed a bag
we left the Atlantic in our wake so I could show you
a Kansas
coal mining town
the dead grass out past the city limits such a pretty
pair to gray

and with each breath you took, the despair took home in your lungs
told your blood the stories buried in the earth
with the boys who went down one day
and kept walking all the way to the center
like Portuguese whalers,
their loved ones left to stand at the edge and
call their fado songs into the inky void
only the saudade to keep them company at night

I asked if you’d miss the ocean
and you asked what difference did it make

when we were sharks this was the sea floor
so mysterious

you spun,
your hair falling from your head like a paper umbrella in the Shirley Temple
Conroy used to order at Wegman’s when we tried dress up Friday dinners

and now it’s gas stations and wheat fields

I told you if it wasn’t bleak enough
we could ride south past Treece
to the Oklahoma border, the lead dust chat piles in Picher
where the local boys were once the state baseball champs
and all the ammunition for war waited for them in the mines
bullets and bones


I am afloat, my love.

When I grow tired of the water beneath me, I roll over to count the stars.
On a good night I will get to a thousand before I fall asleep.
I see you among them, a manic blur of paint and smoke.

I know, in the swirl of the clouds and the glow
that you’v taken up your vision and given it life.

The day a plane flew overhead,
the closest thing I’d had to human interaction in a week,
I waved, yelled my farewell to them thinking any minute that I, too, would be
lifted into the heavens,
having invented an intricate folklore about waterfalls flowing skyward.
A great Niagara-at-Sea throwing me toward God.

I am writing you this postcard having negotiated a plan with the seabirds for delivery
to you,
my love


in the morning I’d listen to you pace the kitchen floor, could imagine you
your coffee mug in hands cradled to cheek
staring out that big picture window overlooking the Atlantic
thinking and considering the oblivion that awaited

the nuclear materials for the type of bomb to displace
lives like ours
waiting for fissure and assemblage
how heavy all that water must have been in your cup

but I knew, had always known
the request and the order would come some day
wrapped in a bow, signed with your fragile letters
the lines forever breaking my heart
reassurance of God


You couldn’t know that I would find my salvation in the form of a lobster boat
that a man and his son would pull me
aboard, rough handed and startled at the detritus they’d scooped from cold Atlantic water
you couldn’t know
and I, I believed I had died
found the light I invented to pass the time
that light had whisked me higher

I begged them to leave the rowboat behind
surrender it to the water
a sacrifice to tidal Gods
so that I may disappear without evidence
I introduced myself with a different character’s name

We came ashore south of Portland
on the Atlantic
under the cover of the dark and
cold, fingers stiff
I helped move rope by the mile
feverish concentration to keep the body moving
then came an invitation for sleep in temporary quarters for a transient


your first painting of Kansas
a kerchiefed babushka screaming at the approaching storm, defiant
her heavy black shoes planted firmly in the wheat
you called it The Woman Challenges God

this was the first week, others would follow
a simple routine of food from underneath gas station warming lamps
picked through on back country drives
a bottle of Coke between the two of us
what you found in the adventure I mistook for home

your brushes never stopped moving
but I couldn’t find the words

Ben

Ben LeRoy is spirit trapped in the 21st century on Earth. Someday he will be somewhere else. Until then, he's glad to know you're out there, too. And later elsewhere he will be glad to know you're out there, too.