T for Tom

Negotiations in the Desert

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on February 21, 2018

The sound came in as if from outer space, bumbling easily along on waves of activity like gentle beams from outside the known, a message of peace from the unknown. It sounds like night descending without relent, no more tomorrows. Just a long bleeding line of darkness.

That was the feeling out there in the desert. The pattern is familiar and the refrain is soothing, but it looms with regret, or even somber acceptance. It is an acquiescence – “no more false promises.” Somehow, in spite of the better part of this automatic life promising greater if not just simply other things than anything like this, we wake up in the desert. And then we wake up in the desert again the next day and the day after that and on again that way until someone of importance tells you to board a plane and go home. This could be metaphorical, but for me it was literal. And the notion of having a place to be is now senseless.

Home becomes the unknown and then rightfully dissolves. Familiarity, comfort, being in a place of belonging, these sensations are after all this time now relegated to the sound of kicking larger stones across smaller stones that line the sand floor during the walk to the dining hall, sitting on one concrete pillar for a cigarette while staring at the concrete pillars directly across that provide a blast shelter to every building and road and become ubiquitous, or rising early in the dark to see the one spectacular and humane thing available that is the cold, cold rising desert sun striped in purple and red across the long, flat orange and yellow horizon only to curse the same sun mere hours later as it melts a pair of boots to the cement and pasting the wind-blown sand onto skin and into hair.

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The sunset from the back of the USS Ponce, November 2012.

These are things we’ve never done and certainly were never meant to do. We run timed miles on uphill roads along chain link fences hundreds of miles from the nearest Quonset hut. We drag boxes of water bottles over a hundred yards into our tents and stack them five feet high so the single stream of chilled air from the vent can cool the bottles to a drinkable temperature. We each take up a hobby or two that will fill our time and do it over and over again every day. We have all the time in the world and somehow we didn’t do all the things we wanted. I wrote a book, mostly. Two people have read it in its entirety.

I’m writing it again, differently this time, though the thing remains the same. Because the memories can’t be swatted away enough. “Heartache one more chance for you, All those things in the days before.” I sat there alone, at a desk, in the tents, in the tents that were our offices, in concrete corners of concrete towers alone with the wind-whipped trash to just get a minute to myself, or on Sundays in a half-crooked lawn chair tucked away in a dried-up wash berm behind the mobile shower unit that didn’t work any longer, the berm high enough to block the light from the flood lamp over my shoulder and the sky just dark enough to see the stars through the sand in the nighttime sky. Those moments were simulacrums, facsimiles, representations of things I knew in forms I’d never known before and never experience again. It was a series of negotiations.

All the while using these fake plastic moments, we’re left with the memories of things we can’t any longer see. Foods, persons, clothes, weather patterns, foliage, sleep. These things are replaced with choruses of indignation, collective shouts, grunts to the familiar. We churn. And somehow amidst the time lost, an actual year of life and choice that cannot be taken back, we replace our acknowledged home with this open air prison. Coming back from the unknown, we long for more. There is never more comfort than in a life on the edge. And soon, memories replace memories. “Memory leaving what you knew, former times how they follow you.” We now think only of the desert, we think only of outer space. In outer space, the worries of man whither to dust, wash to energy. It is a place of wonder.

How to get back? The strange machinations that made it possible are treacherous, impossible, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. It could be that a desire to their effect is evidence of my crippling. I too have become unhinged. But I think of these modes, these methods, these negotiations, and I think of a time when I was at my highest frequency. I was alert, I was kinetic. I was interstellar. And whenever “Streetlights fall on hollow night, I see up ahead what could be.” I see the dark and I am not afraid. I see the dark and I do not wait for the light.

I try to picture myself in the desert and think of the work. The good, terrible, painful work of getting it all down, putting it to paper as much as putting it to rest. A true literary history must be told, of all that exists out in the open. There are no more stories, only the things that have been done. There are no more fantasies, only the horrors of man.

I’ll let you know when I get mine down again. It’s not about the desert, though, but a time on the way there. And aren’t we all on our way on to the desert.

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I was there once, in the desert.

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