“Then is nothing really fixed?” Ishmael asked on his labored jog up the hill, attempting in vain to find his second wind. “Is nothing s-”
“Well,” Hal replied through belied meditation, “It’s nothing but the times that make us of course.”
They were coming up on the hill that rose at a steady grade. The slope ahead wasn’t that bad, but the three of them had made this run enough to know what was around the bend. And the next one.
“Look man, you can’t possibly defend this idea of yours. You’re fighting decades of evidence, centuries if not millennia of human history that proves nothing but ambiguity. Why fight it? If anything it means we’re all free. Nothing’s fixed so let’s try and enjoy the waters while we’re here.”
A siren cut through the urban soundscape of the park like a buzz saw. A Caribbean couple pedaled a six-person surrey against the incline while a few toddlers made faces at each other in the backseat. A police car slunk past in the far lane of the pedestrian friendly road that circumnavigated the park, its lights soundlessly circling. Sirens cut through the urban soundscape of the park like buzz saws.
“Oh Jesus, look at that one!” Adrian jolted his fleshly head upward towards a farm of sunbathing Latinas along a humpbacked knoll. Their skin glazed gingerly, toasted as if the deified sun kissed every exposed crevice with entropic brown. An especially buxom Cuban lay prone, head raised towards the sun, exposing a strata-less canyon carved by sweat and Pilates.
“Wow wow. The land of milk and honey this is. Are you wearing your contacts Ish?” Hal’s stride was a lope more than a jog his Dri-FIT mesh shirt keeping him in a competitive spirit to Adrian’s shirtless mien and Ishmael’s two sizes too big black-T, failing to hide his skeletal physiognomy.
“No- I didn’t- I- don’t own- contacts.”
“Damn shame.” He said through his invisible squinting eyes
The sun had reached its noontime peak and shone with a sluggish indifference that broke or made the calm or clash of
day. Speaking accurately became harder with age, one of the few things that was actually worse than Ishmael expected, the precision of his words always missing their mark with the surgical quality others seemed to possess. Whenever he lacked the vocabulary to articulate some fleeting thought it tore his spirit like a page from a book. Finding that word merely seemed to suspend another failure without the satisfaction that hackneyed victories like this provided for others.
“It’s the way of democracy, things always change and what everyone wants is by definition the best thing. What the minority wants is how you breed fascists and such. When you get guys like Mugabe in power, it’s the rhetoric of an intellectual minority that takes over. Look at the Robbers Cave Experiment. Once people are on the same side they work together, it’s getting people on the same side that’s the problem. So much of this modern intellectualizing is about breaking people up, naysaying up the wazoo about denigrating this, negating that. They seem to be so stuck in how things were, that its keeping us from developing, from becoming more than what we are.” He slowed his pace so he could hear him finish his point. “You want to know what greatness is? It’s a bunch of people agreeing on something. You want to know why we don’t have a Dickens or Picasso or Plato? You can’t blame society. You blame the intellectual climate. As soon as they get on board with the 21st century we can start seeing the next Caymus lecture at the New School.”
“Whatever. Nobody stops to think about their own involvement. Their part in the play. Isn’t that what democracy is about? About a lack of elitism? A striving for collaboration. Look.” He pointed up the road at the Battle Pass monument, the bronze eagle perched in a rapacious stance above the signage. “We’re literally running up the hill where the largest battle of the Revolutionary War was fought. And the first battle after America declared its independence. Right here in Prospect Park. If you wanted evidence amigo you’ve got it here. These men fought for a cause, a joint-effort, unified cause. I’m sure many of those Georgian intellectuals didn’t want to start usurping their beloved Magna Carta by starting over again in the New World. But by God they did. By blood and sweat and the loss of life and limb they did. They made the best goddamned country this world’s ever seen. And sure we’ve got problems, sure we’re not perfect, but the whole world wants to be here. And believe it or not we still function with millions flocking to our shores. No other country can do that. If any other country was as thick of a melting pot as us their whole system would collapse. But not us. Together they overcame and now here we are, running up this same hill with them. Maybe that’ll change. Values always change Ishmael. You should know that. But you gotta work with the rest of us first. Feel that breeze, keep up the sails, and let the wind carry our ship where it will.”
The carefree crowds had thinned out in the dense forestation around the memorial. One of the oak trees had been felled in that Enlightenment era struggle to impede Hessian advances to the other side of Brooklyn and on to Manhattan, the same copse that guarded the runners from the sun. Washington would end up losing the battle but carried on through the winter and on to the war’s conclusive victory founding the first constitutional democratic state in modern history. And nothing stood in the way of their jog now, the liberated valley cleared for their own personal conquest.
“Oh baby baby, where’d that sports bra run off to.”
“But- does it- feel- right?” His tongue clung to the roof of his mouth. “Does this- feel- like-”
“We don’t have a say in the matter. History is a pattern we’re outside of. It writes itself. We don’t create the zeitgeist, we’re merely a part of it. Libet’s figured this shit out over thirty years ago. Don’t focus on the morals of all of this. Focus on-
“But I’m not- focusing on- MORALS!” He didn’t want to yell but the lactic buildup in his quadriceps, gastrocnemius, and gluteus maximus, plus the lack of oxygen necessary for his body to continue progressing up the hill made the dynamics of his speech involuntary, chaotic at best. Thinking about his dependency on his Latinate makeup didn’t help either.
“Then what are you focusing on?” Hal said coolly.
“Who’s- writing- the-” It felt superhuman but he thought he found it, “LANGUAGE!” He continued to run uphill.
“Language? Look. Science shows that language comes from a continuity-based theory which delineates how language used to exist in a pre-language form that naturally evolves from our primordial origins. Steven Pinker for example in his tractate…”
But he didn’t understand the question, and Ishmael lacked the energy to try and explain where he was coming from. This was enough to negate where he was coming from.
Most of the trees around here were birch and elms, not as many oaks like centuries past, like the ones used as weapons of war, and absolutely no cedar, pine, or cypress. A few oaks still stood but their usefulness failed to survive a century of industrializing, a century of post-industrializing. Now they remained in a century of tawdry nostalgia, their puissance seemingly behind a vail of glass in the confining public park. It was the willowy birch and elm trees, some mere saplings that evaded adze and axe, by the strange mutation in civilization that permitted a forest in a city as unreal as New York. They remained but faced a countdown, land sliced piecemeal, the hope of growth stripped like so much bark, Eros modified to velleity. Now life seemed criminal, the seed tainted with omens of end.
Ishmael notices a cloud move in front of the sun and a tacit wave of relief engulfs the runners. The cloud is thin and long, defined with the voluptuous ridges unlike most cumulus mediocris clouds. The cloud has contrast amongst its clefts and rounded hills, vertical shadows cast on its puffy sides. He can’t tell if it’s growing or shrinking but it floats eastward, backwards, and it bears resembling to a photograph he once saw of the Challenger explosion in a history textbook near the end of the school year, an unfair comparison he thinks to himself.
That was when he was just finishing high school, preparing to face the world. But he still feels like he’s just preparing to face the world. He feels unsettled, the world more protean than anyone could prepare him for, because nobody had to deal with a shifting shapeless world like he does, like this age does. All it takes now is a summer for nothing to be the same, but somehow for nothing to really change. He’s helpless to do anything about it, which may have something to do with starting these runs with work associates. Like a cutter it feels real, a physical response to all of this virtual stimuli, so virtual it takes up his dreams now. That’s about as real as it gets.
He can remember the end of that school year post-prom (he went with a friend, nothing happened) pre-graduation. He settled on a career path that sounded interesting but not the kind of interesting when a friend tells you that the etymology of muscle came from the Romans imagining little mice under the skin, the word for mice in Latin mus. No, it was more like the type of interesting that you say to your employer during job orientation for a job you don’t want but need in order to do more things that fit under the former type of interesting.
He can remember his mother’s fervent anxiety when he had to buy the graduation robes. He had put it off, laid it aside while he spent his time working his first of many jobs, going home consuming all sorts of media, always calculating the number of views when making those three second decisions for three minute escapes. He didn’t see it as important, but his mother was furious on driving him to graduation, her son the idiot. He had to admit that the decision to eschew the academic garb was a precocious way of declaring his autonomy. Funny that his idea of growth was an absence.
She was forced to stop by her father’s house and rummage through relics from America’s Cold War heyday, broken hula hoops, dried out vials of Playdough, lava lamps that hadn’t been plugged in since the last nuclear scare. In truth, all of these objects still had some sticker indicating their price somewhere on it. Each antique coming from beyond the land of the dead and slipping by the present into the future. Ishmael could only see objects as decade-long remainers after-that, immortal entities bought at flea markets while their original owners only appeared within picture frames.
She found her unisex robe for the same school as her son’s, the same colors, the same cap, the same tassel. She hadn’t graduated honors but Ishmael had, the embellishment that would signify his superiority like a watch or the mentioning of a recent vacation: imaginary, unpurchased, essentially nonexistent for the convocation’s intentions. And unlike her times at Washington High School, the caps could now be bedazzled in all sorts of designs, the uniformity of public schools having been supplanted by atomizing craft store beads spelling out 2001!, outlining pot leaves, gesturing towards inside jokes nobody was really a part of. His generic appearance and lack of nuance set Ishmael apart as he sat in his row, fusty gown and cap belying the authenticity of his original initiation. With his mother’s dress he felt like he had been here before, as if this had already played out in his mind, in his dreams, when it still mattered. But being here (in the flesh) he couldn’t help but be let down, a feeling he was also used to having played through, though more often in the real world, not his mind’s eye. He couldn’t imagine anyone else wearing pre-worn robes, everyone else there, by design, had purchased new silky gowns, the fibers woven with polyethylene terephthalate, his with fraying cotton.
After the long-winded introduction (and the yearly swell of more and more valedictorian speeches) they enumerated the list of names with a sustained excitement. He remembered walking up to the dais with a line of people he didn’t really know, shaking the hand of someone he had never spoken to and being handed his diploma by someone he had never seen before. The looks on their faces, their glee at him having made it this far, the cordiality of all of them having worked together to reach this point, it was so passionate, so emotional. Enough excitement rippled through the crowd in the crescent shaped bleachers that The Wave would seem to be oddly justified. Not that an authentic Wave would be plausible due to the bleachers’ lack of circumference. And Ishmael wouldn’t lie that he looked like everyone else there. He harbored the same anxiety as the rest of the nervy crowd. He remembers facing the crowd on his walk to join those in the small stadium’s rafters, but only seeing the glint in his principle’s eye in his mind, a 64-year-old’s rictus, a man who was rumored to have cheated on his wife and had a cocaine problem throughout the Reagan administration. He estimated that the man had shaken the hands of 5,000 students over the years, going out into the world, blessed by his hand to become bank managers, yacht dealers, drug-addicts, chiropractors, lifers, carpenters, gas-station attendants, jobless recluses, pedophiles, musicians, civic engineers, and one or two attempted rapists. Ishmael thought on whether this man felt responsible for any of it, whether or not he felt culpable for the anomie that many of those above would call freedom. It was the glint in his eye that all Ishmael had to go on. He could only speak for that moment, and the shine in his eye that reflected Ishmael’s that snaked past the years of his life also reflected what was in front of him, behind Ishmael who was told to look forward to reap his reward. Behind him the students had failed to stay coordinated. Instead of a line, instead of a circle which would have been a favorable omen in this case, it instead looped to make a figure -.
“Are you even listening to me?”
His shoulders sagged and his hands went limp at the crest of the park, the top of which synched up with the hill’s peak. His legs had cinched tightly against the framework of bones keeping him from becoming shapeless, ligaments fighting towards the dry core of his body’s structure, which, by itself, was as valuable as a mast without anything affixed, but with the skin and muscles attached, held up a solid shape.
“Jesus bud, hold onto yourself. The climb’s over, we can just ride it back down to the bottom of the hill - finish the loop.” The taught muscles on Hal’s limbs twitching like a lone gunman’s paranoiac shifting.
“We’ve still got more wildlife to examine. Hahahahahahaha.” Adrian seemed to already roll down the declivity ahead, his gaze fixed on the lazy shores of the Long Meadow.
Ishmael, slowing to a walk, already knew there wouldn’t be a full circuit, it would have to be left open. Instead, he strayed outside of the park towards the arch in Grand Army Plaza his face tilted upwards. He was in pain but he felt handsome, the stubble on his cheeks and his lips peeling back to form a suffered grimace that aped a smile. He could see himself, in his mind, walking towards the arch, Union heroes immortalized in bronze miming the act of being. Slowly, it came. His tendons weakened and he felt dizzy, the air circling around him with suffocating rapidity. The concrete opened up and the shade became minimal, scarce, nonexistent. A growing hum crescendoed around him as the tree line receded behind him along with frivolous argumentation. Out here, a police officer directed a homeless man, and a couple truculently reproved their child, a melting ice cream cone in his hand. A prolonged honk from a semi-truck bellowed over the fracas like the towering spire of a German cathedral, unintentionally raising the volume of the entire scene.
It wasn’t his muscles that sent him into a psychosomatic spiral. It wasn’t his friends who went after him but continued jogging as if caught in a river’s flow, calling without the hint of an echo. He stumbled down this direct line through the market only to find the winged figure of victory hemmed in by the circuitous roundabout, the only way out of the park. Traffic in all forms wisped as if it would soon turn to vapor failing to take any definitive shape. The muggy air was thick with activity and noise, the Sunday market saturated by throngs of shoppers. A few police officers began to walk over to him after he stumbled into a woman’s stroller. He could see his murky figure cast out of the park, but he couldn’t see the roundabout beyond the shelter of the booth’s that kept the sun off the backs of the bargaining smiling vendors.
Viscous vertigo subsumed him and deafening sirens cut through the cloudless soundscape of the park like bone saws.