Jul/Aug 2015  •   Fiction

Thunder Bird

by Timmy Johnson

Photography by Lydia Selk

Photography by Lydia Selk

You were an electric corpse that first time around, stifling and rigid. And it took a too-long-time to realize you had two hearts. The first one, doing all the daily chores and crossing off lists and regulating body functions and exchanging witticisms in restaurants and planning out your day. Then the other one. The discolored one, like a deep-purple-plum at the bottom and a gushing-red-popsicle at the top.

While my effort could never be called into question, still how I fumbled with the thing. Love came in a box I couldn't open, and now that I'm done with it and want to return it, I can't manage to stuff it back in, even as the world moved along, oblivious, and even as we progressed and fucked and fucked things up as best we could. Spring makes sketches upon the world in anticipation of that season of great renewal (and thus great death). Brush strokes of birds and long, dotted-in snakes, and swift blots of insects and algaes, as we populated our own house with hereditary miscreants. Two, to be precise, pounding along floors and speaking always at high volumes.

On a certain sad day, I'm wandering through the house wondering what happened to my well-structured life, as the littlest one runs screaming and naked out of a bedroom, and you on your hands and knees, chatting with your mother and scrubbing the shower. There's an immense storm of grape-colored rain pounding on the tin roof, and so I head for the porch to be soothed. Strange it took storms to quiet my tempestuous insides.

I sat out there and merely was. I'd learned long ago not to bother with wishing. Wishing is a draining electricity. You've only got so much of the stuff in you, and when it's gone, so is that intangible something. This is the slow death of life. Kids, pre-wishing, soft and moist and mushy. And the antithesis, dried-upped and cracked and bony adults, having overdosed on the narcotic of hope. In my house, we've named god If, capitol "I."

We're comfortable together now, if not content, once we've seen both of our scions to sleep and have little left to look forward to outside of their loud wakings, well before we're ready. You with the TV and I with my book, our heads on separate pillows until the lamp-string-yank. We still love in our own ways, but not the ones in which we used to. Your lips are always dry for me.

I used to eat the seeds of watermelons when I was a kid, and I would dream of patches of watermelons growing in my stomach. They would have died and rotted by now. A long time ago.

And then we're coffee-drinkers in the kitchen, curing our nightly maladies. Your beauty, sometimes, is a monster to me. The days stay lighter longer now, and the nights stay darker shorter. I find this depressing. Time of days are borderline unnoticeable. I kiss your body as it lies on the bed, skin like after swimming.

And on some days life is little more than a waste of perfectly good consciousness. Sitting on the living room carpet, trying to be of use to the generation that will topple me. My son's cursive letters are a little tough to read. Vowels and consonants all absorb one another, or else just stand a little too close. I tell him good job. I say I'm proud of him.

Machinery runs in the next yard, extremely close to the gloaming of the day. A weed-eater, a power saw perhaps. At night the baby actually sleeps for us. The summer is coming, and I envy my son. I think back to those momentous Ages between grades, gone so swiftly. That will be a hard message to convey: the passing of time.

If I draw your picture on a blank piece of paper, I can usually make it smile.

There's cold air in the stairwell leading to those upper bedrooms. The fizz of the soda is alive as I hand it to him, to drink between levels, his blood-shot eyes on the video screen. Sometimes you fall asleep without me, leaving me to this mad existence as the words slither around on the page. All alone now, and the book I was reading now reading me.

We talk politics in the coffee shop, and the political scientist from the college doesn't chime in. He merely sips. There are moral bellows from the back corner of the room as some young fellow bemoans our disregard for Mother Nature. We salute his idealism, what we call naivety. We talk much and do little, instead twiddling the less useful of our fingers.

High ceilings in the living room and ducks visible on the lake through the sliding glass back door. You eat ice cream in maddeningly small portions, knuckles red from your solid grasp on the world. The electricity flashes, and the whole house turns to me.

Colonies of bees in the breaker box. I have to kill them first, to protect myself. Standing at a distance with a mask over my mouth, I unleash a long white spray of poison. They fly and fall, almost one by one.

You have decided on a field trip. You hold the car keys as I kiss you. This sometimes seems to be my only service to you. You use my body as a shield against something I can't see; only you can. Marriage little more than a surfeit of resurrection, against a death you think I don't know about, your true love, tossing you and that love of yours physically down a flight of stairs.

I've sired the American dream. Two offspring, one of each sex, adequately separate: the youngest will leave the house at about the time retirement wraps its arm around my weary shoulders, and yet still my stamen grows restless. And so I watch them leave, believing it to be but a temporal parting. I spend the rest of the day in the sunlight, flowering, a netting of hair encasing me in a living tomb.

And then night again. You're still not home, my entire family absent from the house I built for them, and now I'm sleeping with books like lovers. Midnight snack. There are no clean spoons, but a spray of water works for me. And then I'm lying back down never to rise again. Not in this life, anyway.

It takes a death to know, finally, what you were. That our bodies were merely vessels for dreams. And there is this person I once loved, you, lying next to me, spitting milk out of wounds and gashes in your body, out of your mouth. I think maybe it's all the poison inside of you the last time.

My favorite thing, the smell of breakfast already cooking on waking. In the kitchen, small tongues saying small words. My little girl is grown up now. She sticks a cigarette in her veins and grows drowsy. The boy, on the other hand, lacking any appearance of malevolence, cuts open a telephone wire and watches it bleed empty words.

Outside, a football tosses itself wobbly through the clothesline while a group of colorful raincoats do a dance number in the driving rain. I think maybe all life is mere delusions of sentience. Later, with puddles left to slowly wither, and there are blurred forms of other humans, passing time on this brief plane, in this new manifestation.

Meanwhile, you had given birth to a new organism, our new daughter born as half-fish. I think you plotted this mutation on purpose, to hurt me, an active attempt to inflict emotional pain. There is little room to breathe here, with Americans stacked as they are, one on top of the other. Letting go is not loving, no matter what they say.

So now I'm watching you undress between the flashes of lightening outside the window. Dry lightening, as yet not punctuated by rain, followed by inadequate thunder. Lights from the city are twinkling in the distance. I will make my two eyes into cameras and remember everything from here on out. Every moment like this.

You didn't like the idea of fate. You didn't like to think of things as being determined beforehand. But just you give the actors choices instead of lines and see how the play unfolds. As for me, I've decided we were all of us lost in someone else's heart. A deity perhaps. A giant, fucked-up deity. To which our only refuge were the melodies pouring out of the radio. Sonic salves. Even if I think my ailments are essential to the very fragment of who I am. It's to the point where I'm not sure if I need surgery or an exorcism. The world full of cheery negations and great voids of understanding between the two of us.

Outside, and the sun bequeaths the night to the stars. You're at the window, watching the dark with suspicion. Off in the distance tall buildings dance to unheard music. Death is a foe at first, something else later.

They're out of Menthols at the food-mart up the road, so I settle for Filters. The liquor store clerk looks bored. On the drive home I'm at peace with pain for a little while. In the driveway, the tips of my teeth start hurting. I decide on yard-work in the night, sacking up leaves to be burned later. It wasn't that I chose to love you, but that I was chosen. Till you I'd only been playing at love. Breaking hearts like balloons on a dartboard. And so then here I am, near-40, the parts of my body still pretty much working. The world was black and white for a long time, but it's been in color for a while now. I used to flail around with these feelings, writing you ten-page love letters that could have been summed up in the salutation. Writing songs from words found around the house.

An ornament in your dark garden watches me with suspicion. A white lion, bottom half an uneven red, as if it had been submerged in soft, bloody sod. Back inside, and my son's bath-toys are sailing across the bathtub, water grown cold from his long absence, mother forgetting the drain.

An air-conditioned staircase leads to sweltering bedrooms up on the landing. I waver for a moment in a force field of truth I get caught in from time to time, missing the person who is now more than a world away, who doesn't exist in this sphere.

The books are all dying from underuse, their dead letters dribbling down the back of the bookshelf, into a black puddle of Cambria and Times New-Roman. I call out in a moment of real grief, voice rising up to the second floor where there's no one to hear it. A cold slurry is pumped into the blood. Ornamental language is all that's left. I'll never see the outside world again. Frozen now, in stasis, but still sentient, still breathing emotionally, if not physically. Still a psychological entity. Still a soul of sorts. Still a collector and purveyor of thoughts. Still a machine producing kilowatts of empathy and sadness. And all I can do anymore is think of you.

And all I can do anymore is think of you.