By Steve Passey
“Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.” —Ovid
There are no prophets anymore, and no prophecies save those made in hindsight. We are all now prophets of regret, less initiates and adepts of mysteries than we are scavengers of old car wrecks rendering the scattered metal of what we find into simple tautologies. Like breakup songs on the radio, love comes and goes in sing-along praises, invisible and weightless, and when the song is gone, all that is left is a man sitting by himself on public transit, or on a balcony, or maybe on a retirement home veranda with his reflection drawn on windows across from where he rests, a reflection that he hopes isn’t really him.
Verse One: This is how we meet, this is how we part.
We met at a poetry workshop.
I lie, we met online, and for our first date we went to a poetry workshop. At a break, she told me, “Don’t listen to that guy. No one gives a fuck what he has to say about writing and no one ever will. No one can tell you how to write. They just want you to have to listen to their opinions of their own opinions.”
I thought about her becoming my bible, right then and there. I looked to her for truth.
The next time I saw her she said, “Let’s go to my place and chill with a couple of beers. We’ll listen to some Misfits. Danzig and Doyle—or Graves, he’s as good as or better, just different.”
She knew her Misfits. I followed my prophetess in. She had blue like the Mediterranean in her tattoos and red like henna in her hair.
She asked me, “Are you done with that beer? Let’s do a shot. Bushmill’s Black, it’s Irish whiskey. It’ll burn good. We’ll kiss and it’ll burn better.”
She did not lie.
I remember her telling me “One more shot and we’ll be kissing lying down. Let’s not think about fucking around writing if it’s not writing about fucking. There’s another time and another place for that.”
We did the shot but I didn’t finish mine. She told me that if I wasn’t going to finish it, she would.
We wound up kissing lying down.
She didn’t believe in luck. She did believe in global warning except that she thought it too late to do anything for it. She believed that some animals, like some people, are good and that some are bad. She asserted that Graves had a better voice but that Danzig wrote better songs.
Why don’t people who love the Misfits and poetry and know everyone else is faking it stay together?
Time, distance and the economy. Always the economy fucking us, no one had much money. We lived too far apart, and distance costs money. Her jealousy too, her insecurity, a particular sickness pumping through her heart with every red and white blood cell, every day, all the time. Always her accusation phrased as a question: Who is she?
She looked though my Facebook. “Did you sleep with her?”
“Yes, a long time ago.”
“How about her?”
“No, not her.”
“Wrong answer. I know you did. I know, I know, I know, I KNOW.”
I wish that I had lied. It would have been easier just to agree. It was an hour-and-a-half to the airport. She screamed herself hoarse. How else was I going to get to the airport? She knew that too. How else?
I am sentenced for crimes I never committed, and for imaginary acts done before we even met. Should I appeal one, there are others to be drawn from the inexhaustible well of her poetic imagination. If her wet earth is thrown in spastic handfuls against my wall of silence surely some will stick. Then tomorrow comes, the same as today and the same as yesterday, minute variations upon the same tautological themes. There is an injustice in having to bear the curse of someone else’s eternal recurrence. It comes and comes, until by some low miracle made by the base instinct of self-preservation, it doesn’t.
I can’t remember the last thing she said to me. I am sure it was the repetition of an accusation so banal that I discarded it in syllables, or even its consonants and vowels, as it was being spoken. I remember the tone though. I think of that when I think of her and not poetry and “Bullet.” I think of that and not truth or the taste of Irish whiskey in her mouth and mine. The last time I left her place I was done. I was going away forever. In the end it’s as if we never were and in this crazy world we live in the problems of two people don’t even amount to a decent poem, just an empty summary paraphrased from an old movie from a nobler time.
She wrote me a letter, an old fashioned letter, her printing in small block capital letters on graph paper. The envelope had no return address. I don’t think she was hiding; I think she just couldn’t bear for me to respond. She wrote:
It’s not that I don’t believe in global warming. I just don’t care. I don’t want to live by the ocean. I just want a roof over my head and to be warm at night.
I will always love you. I will never speak to you again.
Are you going to finish that? Because if you aren’t going to, I will.
You know why you shouldn’t buy lottery tickets? Because there’s nothing a million will do for you that a dollar won’t.
I will always love you. I will never speak to you again.
I think that if you care about animals more than people you make sure that there will be people who don’t care about animals. You read about them every day.
I don’t think that she will always love me, but I will never speak to her again.
The chorus comes then, singing: Light me up, lift me up, sing all of my favorite songs, my soul to fly with the sparrows, up through the trees and then gone.
The next verse, but she’s different than the first. Everything is epilogue, even when it’s now.
The cards and letters. I kept the cards and letters. She has beautiful hands and beautiful cursive handwriting.
I loved, I loved.
She texted me a picture of her slightly parted self, two fingers wet with her arousal. She sent other pictures too, always after our fights. It was like she was saying “Hey, umm, that never happened, so here’s this.”
They all have dates; they all were from before me. Not so long, but before, and so, not for me. I was impressed in a particular way. I hung on the cross of my own desire for a while, until my instinct for self-preservation became stronger than the cross, stronger than the nails. Now I am gone from her like all those before me and all those to come after.
I didn’t keep the pictures she’d sent. I kept her cards and letters where she wrote “I love you” because she has beautiful handwriting, and those cards, I am sure, were for me and me alone.
After the fire, even now that the rain has come, I remember. Even more than remember I sometimes think of her in the present tense, like a moment inside of another moment. She has strong opinions on politics, so every once in a while I’ll read something and I think “She will enjoy this.” I’ll see something funny and I think “She will laugh at this.” The heart remembers all of her small kindnesses and of how it loves her without reservation. The heart has its moment, but that’s all it gets. Then the head steps in and reminds the heart that she was volatile, and cruel—exceptionally cruel at times—and of how she left the heart no safe place. How I was nothing special. How I was just another guy brought in to serve sentences passed on by other men now gone.
The head wins that argument every time.
But still: I saw something on the news today, something I think she’ll like.
The chorus comes again to remind me that I learn nothing from the verses: Light me up, lift me up, sing all of my favorite songs, my soul to fly with the sparrows, up through the trees and then gone.
The last verse: Cathedral City. An old man sings about history never repeating but always rhyming.
In the retirement homes and extended care facilities you hear the horror stories about the confessions of dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Crumpled people speaking openly of their infidelities, their thefts, their violence. I don’t want to be one of these people, these mottled old confessors. Their children die a little each time they see them, then they quit coming.
Instead, let me deny. I will deny everything.
It was not me, who, in a used bookstore discovered one of Bukowski’s collections (in good condition) and took a ballpoint to the cover to cross out the title and write:
“Kneed in the Balls in the Tournefortia”
And I walked out, just walked on out. It couldn’t have been me. I was never there.
I deny that I wish I had been more violent, and not less. That it was really fear of prosecution and not honor stopping me when they were down. “I would never hit a man when he’s down” is what I’ll say. So I didn’t ever do that. Judge that how you will.
I’ll never admit out loud that I only ever loved one woman. It’s like it was yesterday, everything in life defined as either before her or after her, but I refuse to speak to her again. That wasn’t me. That isn’t me. I’ll say I was lucky in love, and that I stayed friends with most of them.
On a sunny day in May the personal care attendant will push me out onto the porch for some sun and leave me too long. I’ll burn on the left side of my face and on my left arm. It will feel good, proper even. Better to deny and burn rather than to confess in front of everyone.
The last chorus, a quiet reprise. This is how all of those things I thought I’d ever have never really were: Light me up, lift me up, sing all of my favorite songs, my soul to fly with the sparrows, up through the trees and then gone.
Coda: On hearing of her passing I thought of the pendulum swinging too far like it always did with her, and I think of the last thing she ever said to me, frantic and cruel. It’s like it was yesterday, so fuck her, I will not think of it again. But I remember too, the first morning that we woke up together, of having coffee on her patio in Cathedral City. I think of how she held the hot cup in both hands, how she leaned back in her chair with her bare feet up against the table’s edge. I could hardly see her for the sun in my eyes. A hummingbird flew down to dance upon her halo. The hummingbird’s heart beat a thousand times while mine stood still, and I know now, in hindsight, that what I saw was Love and Ruin, and I am now become only The Prophet of Regret.
This is the wisdom of three-minute songs, faint and rhyming praises transmitted on low-frequency radio waves, hardly here to listen to before they disappear on sparrows’ wings, up through the trees and gone.
Steve Passey is originally from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the short story collection Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock (Tortoise Books, August 2017) and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee for fiction. His fiction and poetry have appeared in more than forty publications worldwide, both print and electronic.