|Apr/May 2012 Salon|
I was walking down the Plymouth Road, and the Rabbi was there, too. And I came upon a man who was carrying a load he couldn't bear or cast off. It seemed alive and changed shape with every step as it undulated and heaved in his arms like the sea.
I thought I saw weasels, wolverines, and badgers, vicious in panic, musky in distress, dart from the load and bite the man's cheek. I thought I saw warm kisses and soft lips, a sigh and a relenting.
My heart was full of pity, and I wept for my brother.
"Why do you weep?" the Rabbi asked.
"Because my brother loves what he hates and hates what he loves."
"So is that why your face is bleeding?" the Rabbi asked.
"My face is bleeding because these tears turn to glass and they are sharp."
"The weasels, the wolverines, and the badgers—they are eating your face, aren't they?"
I cracked up. I couldn't help it. It was the way he said it.
"And this is what you've lived your whole life longing for, isn't it?"
"Didn't I tell you to maintain your boundaries?"
He asked the question so tenderly. I choked up and fell into his arms, right there on the Plymouth Road, where they sell your eyes for a quarter and no man is ever sure of his companion.
"Trust me on this one, Pilgrim," he whispered, as I rested in his arms, "you can always find a face when you need one."
My ears bled at the touch of his breath on my neck.
"Thank you," I said.
"Don't mention it."
I carried my load down the Plymouth Road, and the Rabbi was with me. We were smiling, and for an instant it seemed to me as if we were both invisible.
And it was good.
We just walked awhile, me, the Rabbi, and my brother, down the Plymouth Road, carrying our loads. And it was good.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road, and the Rabbi was there, too.
And I saw my brother, but my brother was no different from me. He walked beside me, and he walked in lock-step, and he really kind of freaked me out. When I went up, he went up, and when I went down, he went down. Lock-step.
The first thing I thought when I saw my brother was that I didn't want to be tied down like that. You go up, you go down. But when you are up and they go down, it just really inhibits your mobility. The first thing they teach you in life-saving is how to break someone's arm, so the drowners don't, in a panic, take you down with them.
"What kind of stunt are you pulling here?" I asked the Rabbi.
"Get used to it, kid," he said. "You're going to need to walk blind, and when you do, you're going to need your brother."
"Don't be a fool, it's not like he trusts you, either."
"Don't even try. It's all about the rhythm, and you've always known that. So why are you being so dense?"
"Doesn't mean I've always known how to keep the beat."
"Your brother is here. Why don't you just walk with him?"
"Like I have a choice!"
"Don't be petulant."
My brother sort of looked at me out the corner of his eye. I acknowledged his presence. He was kind of shy. We just walked awhile, me, my brother, and the Rabbi. I was intrigued.
But still, I was pissed, didn't want to meet the Rabbi's eye.
We just kept walking. Me and my brother and the Rabbi.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road with my brother and the Rabbi, and I kept seeing artichoke hearts. All along the road there were artichoke hearts.
"Someone's had their leaves shorn," I said. "Am I right?"
I looked at my brother and the Rabbi for some you-got-that-right-kid, but they just looked at me. There was an uncomfortable silence.
"I'm just saying, someone's going to have a rude awakening. Someone's going to have to look in the mirror."
My brother and the Rabbi looked embarrassed.
"I'm not wearing any pants, am I?"
We just walked.
"Son of a bitch!"
"It's alright, pilgrim," the Rabbi said. "Happens to the best of us."
"You want I should take my pants off?" my brother asked, swallowing a laugh.
"I don't even like artichoke hearts," I said.
My brother and the Rabbi burst out laughing.
I was so pissed, but I was laughing, too.
"What the hell?" I cried in mock outrage.
We laughed so hard, my sides burst. Artichoke hearts everywhere you looked.
The Devil Berates Pilgrim and Pilgrim Seduces the Devil
The devil said: You just keep flapping your gums. You just keep writing checks, but you got nothing in the bank.
I said: It all depends on what you mean by nothing.
He said: It's winners and losers in this world, and there's no neutral ground.
I said: I've seen that movie, and neither one of us were in it.
He said: You'll see, everyone pays in the end.
I said: I bought the ticket, I'll take the ride.
He said: You'll be sorry.
I said: Among other things.
Then I said: Have you lost weight? You look good.
He said: Well, I have been eating my vegetables.
I said: Whatever you're doing, keep doing it.
He said: I know what you're doing.
I said: I know, but we both know you can't resist it.
He said: You're little, and I will devour you.
I said: I bet you could. You're so strong.
He said: I hate you.
I said: Did you know your eyes are beautiful when you're mad?
When Mr. Bournesmith Finally Arrived
When Mr. Bournesmith finally arrived, his limosine having been detained on Route One, he entered a local high school gymnasium in Central New Jersey and opened his mouth. There was a pep rally going on at the time, so the kids were pretty much savages to begin with. Whipped up. Loaded for bear. I mean, you just knew someone was going to have to pay.
He opened his mouth.
But before that, he started to grow, he just kept getting bigger, and he was pretty big to begin with. It started to get alarming. His body had always been plump and not just fat, but plump, like you wanted to get close, like there was ripeness and safety, if you could just burrow in, snuggle up—cling to his girth. But he just kept growing, until his girth smothered everything around it.
When Mr. Bournesmith finally arrived, bleachers were bull-dozed out of alignment as his belly advanced. There was a horrible sound of metal stretching as his thighs swelled. Backboards were shattering like heads through windshields. Kids were bursting like squeezed cherry tomatoes.
When Mr. Bournesmith finally arrived, blood squirted from ears and made squishing noises as Mr. Bournesmith's body expanded, bursting through jagged window panes—like water from a Fourth of July hose, with your thumb on the opening, maintaining the pressure, cold water running up your sleeve. He opened his mouth.
Silly old Mr. Bournesmith, always getting himself into jams! Isn't that Mr. Bournesmith all over again? Always opening his mouth and swallowing his own ears?
Plymouth Road Memoir
What was maddening on the Plymouth Road was the constant awareness that, though the majority of pilgrims one met along the road shared your conviction that it was possible to become someone new, born again, etc., there was, nonetheless, a sizable minority that was struggling just as hard to hang on to who they always already were, or more exactly, to be anyone at all. For every two Huck Finns, there were was at least one Aunt Polly—and this was on the Plymouth Road, which anyone with any sense could see was, at best, a major thoroughfare among the backstreets, and hardly the main drag. It served as a reminder that the Pilgrim Road was important to you because it was slightly out of the way. It was celebrated because it was the road less travelled, and you loved it because just taking it made you feel different, unique, called.
It's no headline that the Plymouth Road never existed on any map, and when roads appeared that were given the name, they weren't the same road you found yourself walking. This often led to great confusion, but sometimes enlightenment, as well. Once along the road I saw a crossroads leading to the orchard, it turned out to be the exit ramp to Ann Arbor. Not a bad place to be, but hardly the place to which I was going.
The hard truth is that Huck was never welcome on Main Street, and the river just always rolled and never knew, or presumably cared, that it was named. If you were on the Plymouth Road, either you couldn't make it on Main Street, or you never could bring yourself to accept that Main Street was the only road to take, which pretty much amounted to the same thing.
The pilgrims on the Plymouth Road were all refugees, uprooted and displaced, the vast majority of which would have just stayed home if they could have, and yet, they just kept walking. Along the Plymouth Road. As if walking itself, leaving one's kindred, leaving one's land, going to a place to which I will show you, as if the sheer act of getting on board and needing no ticket were itself the fulfillment of a promise.
You met a lot of strange customers along the Plymouth Road, and you saw a lot of casualties along the way, and there were many nights you questioned your own judgment and longed for the cessation of the longing itself, but it wasn't like you didn't give thanks and rejoice with every step on the road, that narrow way, that royal road of dreams and faith.
That should be noted as well: the pilgrims who took to the Plymouth Road suffered the consequences of their choices, but at the same time received rare blessings and gifts, signs and portents of a time to come and a promised land—even discrete moments of ecstasy and release—that could never be found or savored on the main drag, though they only received those blessing and gifts in hardship and lack and squalor and in humiliation. The road isn't for everyone, but it is there for the ones who need it—and that's one of the greatest lessons of the road itself: gratitude.
I wouldn't have had it any other way, which is why I always did penance on the Plymouth Road, always paid my toll and peeled the onion—pay the man!—always and only finding the Rabbi outside the camp.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road; it was me, the Rabbi and my brother, and we came upon a man who operated the locks on some out of the way—some no-name—canal, feeding the system, the infrastructure, the Erie Canal. And he pulled the levers, and he turned the dials, and he opened gates and closed gates and raised the water level and lowered the water level, and his whole life he had allowed boats and barges to get to where they were going, and goods to where they were needed, and passage to some other place, some other place, just get me the fuck out of here, on all those last chance American boats, last chance American barges, but he'd never been to Buffalo, never himself, left his little station in Waterloo, NY—a way station, itself, a backwater, a becalming, not properly a part of the Erie Canal, though it could get you there, which was the point. The Great Lakes.
And this man had spent his whole life making it possible for other people to get to where they were going and goods to where they were needed, and he'd never been a damn place himself, just remained at his station, a secondary station, feeding into the Erie Canal, so that people and goods could get to where they were going, make passage, finally and reliably arrive, just that and nothing else. And it was so very long after the railroads, and so very long after the highway system, and so very long after Wall Street and anyone caring.
And I said to the man, this is what I said: "Don't you feel used?"
And he looked at me, looked at me a long time, like he was perplexed, like he was hearing a language he used to speak, long ago when he was young, long before the stars fell from the sky, fell from the sky like ripe figs, and the heavens rolled up like a scroll.
And he said, this is what he said to me: "Does the nail complain because it's not a hammer?"
And I said, this is what I said: "Yeah, it does. It most certainly does."
And he said, "I'm not a nail, and neither are you."
And the Rabbi said nothing. And my brother said nothing. And I opened my mouth to say something, but I had nothing, and nothing came out. The canal man pulled his levers and twisted his dials, and boats and barges got to where they were going. The Great Lakes. The water flowed.
This hammer is so fucking heavy.
The canal man didn't look up when I waved goodbye. Everybody was going home. The Great Lakes.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road, and I asked the Rabbi if it would get better.
I said, "It gets better, right?"
And he said, "Technically it's never been any worse or any better."
"Yeah, but it gets better, right?"
"Your love has to grow bigger than your outrage."
"Oh, for Christ's sake!"
"Language, pilgrim, language!"
"You probably think this is pretty funny, don't you?" I asked the Rabbi.
"Wouldn't you?" he asked in reply.