George Choundas

Dead Now

      (1) The older couple on Maple Street who lived between our house and the Exxon, back in that difficult and sweaty decade when the stauncher folk who said filling station had not yet seen their rout by the nulls and dissolutes who favored gas station, in a tall blond house with a long blond dog named Blondie and, formerly, with a reportedly beautiful blond daughter named Lisa that according to the block’s stoop-sitters got mixed up with drugs in her late teens, and with a fatal overdose before she reached thirty, which is why I never set eyes on her; who let me pet Blondie whenever I happened by; who liked to say as I pet her, “She just loves children, yes, she really is good with kids”; who may have been—though it’s impossible to say, which is to say there can be no doubt they were—thinking of, and pining for, and hurting over their own daughter each time they said it: they must be dead now.
      (2) The woman who screamed accented profanities out her third- story window each time I pedaled past her house on my Big Wheel, fat plastic cartoon tires scraping hideously against New Jersey concrete, and it was easy and indeed satisfying to simply scrape away and rumble on without even acknowledging her, as each time I heard her I was already on my way past, which, when you think about it, was maybe the best possible lesson for a second-grader on weathering the assaults of the life to come—i.e., Look Down, Scrape Away, Rumble On: she must be dead now.
      (3) The man with hair over his ears who wore his body concavely, back in that sweaty and difficult decade when a stoop could be impressive, whom our private school paid to drive us home in a station wagon, who liked to joke with the oldest and cockiest of the boys—the thirteen-year-olds—and strived at looking as relaxed as they seemed and grinned his way through validating high-fives and lapped up the nicknames and gamely dispensed cigarettes when asked and radiated a peculiar cool-boy mix of boisterousness and breeziness because it compensated for some fracture in his own childhood and perhaps for that reason said nothing and kept on driving like he’d heard nothing when in the rear area of the station wagon the cockiest of these boys told Prajit, Let’s go, and now in retrospect knowing what I know about being in vehicles and about driving vehicles and about life in general there was no way the man with hair over his ears could not have heard, and remembering what I remember there was no way this was the first time because six-year-old Prajit knew immediately what was expected and, still more tellingly, stalled like he hadn’t heard, and the boy said, Hey, let’s go and You’re not fooling anybody and Prajit took his pants down and showed it and the boy said, Go ahead, do it and Prajit didn’t do anything and the boy said, Do it, we want to see and Prajit rolled back the foreskin of his uncircumcised penis and simply waited, on display there, the imperious boy fixing a contradictory stare, low lids all indifference but focus and duration quite the opposite, and finally breaking off and punching one hand with the other like he’d solved a good mystery and launching without anything more into a new conversation with the other older boy and turning his back on Prajit who rocked forward from a squat onto his knees and wriggled up his pants and, hoping to conceal his humiliation, turned from cowed to furious and screamed for contrived reasons at Arthur our little Filipino classmate who in addition to being very little was very kind, and it is impossible to know how at age six I saw right through Prajit’s pretense at anger with Arthur to cover for his shame but failed to see right through the concave-bodied driver’s pretense at not hearing when he must have heard, and who knows if he was covering for something in his own past along the very lines of what he’d gathered was happening to Prajit, or if maybe he hated Prajit for it, for reminding him of the weakling he once was and for making him a weakling again, there at the steering wheel: he, regrettably, may not be dead now.
      (4) The stranger with dyed black hair, frontage scrupulously combed and shellacked into a kind of virile bosom, who stopped me poolside at the community center and pointed at my swimsuit and on it the blue-and-orange New York Mets patch that my mother with characteristic immigrant cunning had sewn there to equip her son with some alibi for the fabric’s otherwise unacceptable hue of orange (Different-colored swimsuit = dollars. New patch = cents.) said, You like the Mets? and, when he heard Yes from a boy who could not have named a single player and with characteristic first-generation self-consciousness spoke the word Yes without conviction (though, in fairness, an alibi for an alibi never made anybody cocksure), said, I hope you’re a better swimmer than they are a team and, after saying this, didn’t move from where he stood, but didn’t look at me either, and instead looked here and looked there as if he were on a mission to tell the truth wherever truth needed telling: he must be dead now.
      (5) The ragged-breathing fellow to my immediate right at the counter in a Manhattan location of Chock full O’ Nuts, where my parents and I stopped for a donut one afternoon, who with an air of consummate routine sipped his coffee and spread pats of butter onto the slices of American cheese in front of him and solemnly ate these slices of buttered processed cheese with a fork like it was meatloaf, loosing in me an electric revulsion and also, simultaneously, a reeling bewilderment at why two things so similar, so closely derived, but still non-identical, should together be so loathsome, and did not know that at this biochemical watershed moment he was causing my youngster’s mind to seize with the potent oddity of CloseButNotQuiteness— things akin but still unsame, approxidentities, bow-tied twins in somber sepia portrait but here the pinpoint of a shadow tells that one and only one has the start of a bleeding nose—and who to this day is responsible for my abhorrence of those hard white things in hard white light called hospitals, my preoccupation with almost-America Canada squashed belly-to-back against extremely-America America, my fascination with James Joyce’s snow falling in ocean and Arundhati Roy’s banana jam, my unhinged contempt for the successive vowels in Gaelic words and the redundant sauces in Venezuelan dishes and the compound dysfunctions of self-regarding humorless persons, and did not know when he turned to me and asked “What are you looking at?” that even decades later I would not know how to answer: he must be dead now.
      (6) The realization in my late twenties that youth had been a time of promise, and that aging was the death of that promise, and that life owed me nothing; and the realization in my thirties that this earlier realization had itself been a foolishness of youth, a nice illusion, because youth in truth had never been a time of promise but was merely a front-loaded reprieve, a fleeting sanctuary from the cold wash of existence—lonely, pointless, futile, dilapidating, and relentless; these realizations that seemed ridiculous as my forties pressed against me their musty wool because it was then I realized that both realizations had been youthful mistake, that youth was neither promise nor reprieve and both had been nice illusions, that even when I’d been thinking like an older person, about how youth was promise extinguished, and even when I’d been thinking that I was thinking like an older person, about how youth was mere reprieve, I’d been a young fool because life and the world are indifferent, and I and you are bits of material that catch fire for a time and that’s all, and when I was young I took youth seriously and thought it was promise and when I was aging I took aging personally and thought it was disappointment, and later as I became what I thought was aged, I apprehended what I thought was the truth: nothing is fundamental, nothing is personal, existence and meaning are names we put on things that do not have us especially in mind, and in the end all is more or less nothing and nothing everything, and we proceed unto death no matter what, and no matter that, we think: both illusions are dead now.
      (7) That weakling version of me that at age five does nothing to help his not best but still pretty good friend Prajit and in fact leers on with the others which is approxidentical to inflicting, and I remember everything, everything, except why I didn’t do something, whether it was because I feared an eighth-grader powerful enough to make sidekicks out of grown-ups or because I—baptized and raised Greek Orthodox, a faith that teaches Christ represents a new covenant upending the need to snip penises and sacrifice oxen, but admittedly in all likelihood condemns one to hell for the view that people are only bits of material that catch fire for a time— was at the time thinking to myself, There but for the grace of Vishnu and Christ Pantocrator go wretchedly I. But oh I hope it is. Dead now, I mean.
      (8) The eighty-something who come eleven every night made halting way, peering down with bluehot intensity, as if silently christening each of his steps with a different name before taking it, into the Wendy’s on Queens Boulevard where I’d bring my laptop because the dining room stayed open until two in the morning, me and the AARP night owls with the place to ourselves; and the loud eighty- something who called to the puttering eighty-something from a booth of autumn-hued propylene, What do you want? I’ll buy it for you. You doing a coffee or a meal? I’ll get you one of these days, not because he owed his puttering friend a coffee or a meal but to the contrary, as he explained loudly to yet another eighty-something with evident indifference to who might hear because in fact he’d picked up a meal for Greased Lightning weeks ago when the fellow had forgotten his wallet at home and because (interrupting himself here to call out again over his shoulder, I got to get you one of these days! ) it was against moral code to dun a debt so small, so instead he was hectoring the fellow with offers of generosity to prod him into remembering the debt and paying it back—thus proving, without prejudice to the separate question of who the bigger shit might have been in this scenario, the truth that people even when they’re eighty-something can be real shits: they, all of them, must be dead now.
      (9) The man who shouted “Use the bathroom!” across Shop-Rite’s parking lot when he spotted my father, Greek-born and raised in a mule-track village, standing at the edge of the pavement urinating onto a clump of weeds and who—after my father put up a conciliatory hand and ineffectually, incongruently, humiliatingly responded by lofting the mere word “Yes?” and after his son inside the car winced from embarrassment because his son was too young to know Rumbling On when he heard it—purported to know from one little syllable across an asphalt expanse what my father was about and how to stab the kid in the back seat where it hurt and shouted again, “In this country we use the bathroom!”: he must be dead now.
      (10) The blind man tasked by the municipality to gather up eggs for re-use after the Easter egg hunt at the town park at Palisade and 24th who approached my mother and sister and me and asked for our plastic eggs and was refused by my mother with a rather grim definitiveness and then explained he wasn’t asking for the candy back, only the egg containers themselves once emptied of candy, and then it was my mother’s turn to explain, provoked into ferocity by some atavistic hypersensitivity to threats against offspring, that he was mistaken if he thought he should be collecting hard-earned eggs from children after an Easter egg hunt and moreover should be ashamed of himself for trying, and the blind man who didn’t know what to do just stood there with his hands in front of his waist, thumbs nursing a litter of shy fingers, and finally turned around—he could have shrugged, it seemed to me, but didn’t—and walked off without a trace of rancor, leaving me in a spiny welter of confusions that, here I am a full-grown man and gray hair to boot, I still haven’t worked out, leaving me to wonder for decades why they’d send a blind man to collect Easter eggs when the foundational premise of an Easter egg hunt was the challenge in gathering them, indeed for children whose eyes were closer to the ground and, moreover, functioning, and to feel guilt that I might think of a blind man as ineligible to collect Easter eggs, and to resent my mother for yelling at a blind man who was just doing his job, and to give thanks for a mother who would yell for me even at a blind man doing his job, and to resent the blind man for creating a foreseeably untenable situation in which I might end up resenting my mother, and I do not remember how the candy tasted, but I do savor the memory so well that though in the Greek Orthodox faith the tradition on Easter morning is to approach one another and say Christ is risen and Indeed he is risen I think to say instead, Long ago on this day, my beautiful mother, cruel with love and sweet, prevailed against a blind man: he must be dead now.
      (11) The notion that all is more or less nothing when even a stumbling encounter with a pure stranger can change the bent of a mind and the sense of a life, when even dumbest happenstance has consequence, has in fact a brunt and fervor that can outstrip all we know and outlast even our deaths: that, I realize—still short of fifty, but sure took long enough—is foolishness.
      (12) And dead now.