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Brightness at Midnight

                                    Alec Bryan


 

I am mostly tired of myself. No longer able to stare into the mirror, not because the disdainful rimple of physiognomy extends outward, creasing temples into vexed crow’s feet, nor for the permanent and tarnished smile of derision from the stained enameled porcelains; tired; simply tired of lifeless eyes appearing so comatose they might be mistaken dead if it weren’t for the intermittent blink glossing them over. It is time to move on, time to try and outrun myself if possible. 

It would be good to add some distance between me and my ex. In a way, in my own contorted way, I blame her for my misery. Had she not such an altruistic itch in her soul, had she not got on one of those every-day-let-us-try-to-be-better-than-we-were-yesterday kicks, and started forcing me to self evaluate my life, I might not abhor seeing myself look back at myself from the mirror. But she had ideas of me being something or someone, and it was something or someone I would never be, could never be. The truth is Baudelaire will never be Beethoven, though the one could yammer of his alleged and tawdry love affairs until the other’s ears began to burn, the two would remain affixed to their own worldviews. At least these immortals can sit back contented for what they were, what they accomplished, albeit through different means. Me, I am not afforded such luxury. When I am with her, I constantly feel as inept as a patron of Sodom and Gomorrah trying to inconspicuously fit in at a social hosted by the city of Enoch, and only a non-devoted sinner would let drop the goblet before draining the lees of sensuality and drowning in even the bitter dregs of sin and its retinue, especially if you saw this new crowd of stern saints waiting to greet you. 

Earlier that week she had tossed, into the fire, my copies of Kundera and Grass’s masterpiece, The Tin Drum, and sat with folded arms as black plumes scurried up the chimney. I nearly lost control, nearly sent her Beatituded ass out the door right then, but something stopped me, a warm tingling sensation like a broken bone, a clean break, eructed through my entire body, caused me to sit again and listen to her read from her tattered copy of Jane Eyre—she believed the bildungsroman the perfect book to start our new life out with—and by page three, I was trying to keep my dinner down, trying to refrain from puking my own sense and sensibilities out, trying to hold back my pride and not be prejudiced about the Victorian age, but she was not at all convinced. She jumps up, screams at me for not being more supportive of her and for not trying the way she tries.
 
I attempt, half-heartedly, to placate her implacable newfound zeal and her misdirected anger, but fail as my nose comes within inches of the slammed door, nearly embossing my entire face with the wood grain pattern. Rather than follow after her, I step away from the closed door and decide to relax my tenseness by listening to music. I take out Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” one of my favorites, but the damn CD has been replaced by some artist known only as Wagner, and the word Tannhauser appears with an umlaut over the second “a”. I’ve never even heard of this German person? Perplexed, I throw the CD and case across the room and watch in euphoria as the case shatters against the wall and the CD clinks on the ground and rolls the way nickels roll when the sound is slowing to a halt, and then finally rest unscathed. I reach for my next CD of choice, and sure enough, “Harvest” reaps few rewards. It has been replaced by some dandy named Bach, and words like “allegro” deface the entire cover. I frantically check my remaining “go to” CD’s. All have been replaced! and the ones that haven’t are now empty cases, bodies without bones. I place them back on the rack alphabetically. “What has she done?” I scream over and over, extirpating gobs of hair and bundling them tighter than wheat stalks between my clenched fists. 

My anger goads irrationality, which irrationality, prompts a phone call, a phone call causes ringing and ringing ends when the sound from the last person I want to talk to says “hello,” and with her “hello,” I realize I have called her because I must know why. “The last thought before sleep must be noble,” she tells me. “But what have you done with my CD’s, my precious music is missing, babe?” Draped in maudlin excess, she cries out, “Because I love you, honey, I threw them in the fire on Sunday when you were out with your friends shooting pool.” This is more than I can bear. CDs, books, what’s next? My wardrobe? My vaunted low-top Chuck Taylors because a spore or two might reside near the toe? I scream my expletives at her in a profane ecstasy and then hang up the phone. I pace up and down the apartment more agitatedly than the zoo monkey yanks at his caged bars of imprisonment. Finally, Fred, the tenant below, the ex-janitor from Winter Heights Elementary, hits the roof with the wooden end of the mop and yells at me to stop making a ruckus. Out of spite, towards Fred, towards my ex, towards the world, nay the universe, nay the universe beyond the universe, and the one beyond that one, I put in one of these new CD’s and turn it up so the music blares. 

What had I done? The overture, at first, sounded archaic and spewed forth rapid brass and woodwinds in ostentatious fashion; the way an overt Pied Piper might enter a village, knowing his good looks, charm, and talent will mask his most invidious intentions. Then the violins entered in and with passion streaming from the strings, slowed the entire movement down to a crawl, to a heartbeat—a drawn out quavering heartbeat. The sound then shifted momentum, once more quickening and coalescing into a crescendo of soothing strength while the softer string movements vacated to the foreground. I fell down onto my couch and stared at the ceiling in awe as a slow catharsis crept its way over my being. Who was the immortal guiding such rhythm? The very planets could not rotate and spin with such precision as this orchestra’s plotted course maneuvered and thrashed upon the different emotions of man. I put another CD into the player. The result was the same. Over and over and on and on into the night, I listened to the glorious sounds, the tonal waves screaming, crying, whining, bellowing in controlled pitches through my mind, through my apartment and out into vacant night. Try as I might, I could not stay angry at my girlfriend while the music played. I consigned myself to the harsh truth: I would have to forgive her and try to reconcile our relationship. This was a strange outcome, irrational I might add. I knew I did not love her, nor did I want to be with her. I must say, as abstract and arbitrary as it might sound, the composers made me do it. From their pining I heard the distinct call for reconciliation and order. How could I offend the immortals? 

I couldn’t. Neither could I enjoy my time with her. Minutes dragged, hours seemed like decades, and days were whole lifetimes spent in shackles, fettered to an unquenchable flame. But each night I would play the immortals, sit back, fall into a trance and reconcile myself to her again, ashamed of my day’s dastardly wishes. In her presence I suffered the misery of Dante’s damned, and then, left alone each night, on the notes of the immortals my soul wafted to the sidereal heights of the celestial, of Beatrice. Had I time to think abut the lesson the immortals were trying to teach, things might have turned out differently, but neither metaphysical prowling nor prowess is my forte. 

Then you entered my life, Beethoven, and changed everything, put an end to all metaphysical debates, squashed the quarks of induction under your colossally-talented hand. You—my Beethoven, the genius, the virtuoso, the champion of all human emotions—you, you—who plumbed the depths of the human soul and found the harmony residing at the bottom of it all—you, you—who dropped the pebble into the pond of humanity, and even still, the ripple works it way towards the infinite shores of the unknown, showing no sign of turning back inwards, gliding endlessly, like a straight line progressing without knowing why, with no thought of returning—You, the immortal musician, the maestro who taught me the vainness of the circle, contemptuous in its declaration of no beginning and no end, claiming the cycle cannot be broken. You, you the deaf man who discovered true sound—a sound for everything—FOR EVERYTHING, even the crack splitting open the circle, forming a beginning and end yet to be found. 

I say Beethoven entered my life, but I think of him as always there; my star of Bethlehem luminescing around the corners of unconsciousness, waiting for me to spot him on a near starless night. He first spoke in a dream. Many nights in a row I had fallen to sleep wondering how to get out of my present predicament, but never could find a reason to hate my girlfriend, never could find adequate fault for abandonment which would appease these immortals, for they instilled love where the hatred should have flowed. After losing the battle again to the immortals, I fell into the throes of a violent sleep. I don’t remember the context of the dream. I remember my girlfriend (now ex) was there, and I remember I was there. She said something to inspire wrath, and then, fragmented, as dreams’ images sometimes impinge like stained or broken glass, I was upon her, thrashing her head back and forth in rhythm, slamming it against the wall in cadenced flourishes. The angle of the dream changes, and I see myself beating her face now like a gong. The angle changes, and now I am throwing her back and forth the way the horsehair brushes against the catgut to make it scream. The whole scene is orchestrated and each move I make is brutally syncopated. I am the composer; I am the orchestra; and my girlfriend (now ex) is the instruments on which violently I make sing through my brutal conducting. Then I wake up, covered in sweat, still swaying to the images in my head. 

On the player, Beethoven’s “Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens” furrows out and hammers its way into my skull. I hear it, feel it, and now see the cadence of my cruel dream is to this angry yet victorious song. Each “fweunun, fweunun, fee, feee dee dee dee dee,” (albeit I realize to put musical tones into words impossible) is in unison with the vicious sways my hands force upon the instrumented head of my girlfriend. I cringe in fear and ecstasy at the same time. How can this be? Finally, an immortal has come to me with a new, violent, triumphant message: No more guilt, atonement, guilt, atonement motif. I laugh to myself, play the song over, relive the moment one more time, and then dose off to a peaceful and long sleep, snoring zzzzzs to a rhythmical “fweunun, fweunun, fee, feee dee dee dee dee.” 

The next day I receive the needed call. “Brightness at midnight,” they say. I thought the Aurora Borealis occurred much later in the year. They tell me they mean the summer solstice, June 21, the longest day of the year. I tell them I will be there and hang up the phone relieved not only because the preceding night Beethoven cured me of any altruistic feelings towards my now ex-girlfriend, also relieved, fetters fallen, I could leave this rotten city behind me. 

I don’t call her. I am happy to have a clean break, like a broken bone; besides, the element of shock and surprise when she comes over and finds out I am gone is too ironic to pass up. I think about leaving a note posted on the door: “The better me is better off without you,” but I don’t. I just leave. 

I put what little cash I could muster to part with into my landlady’s gormandizing hands. Her hands voraciously accepted the cash and her mouth railed on and on about me being the worst tenant she ever had. I am outside on the steps waiting for a cab now. It’s late. The landlady comes and sits down next to me. I keep my duffel bag between us as a barrier. She gets this overly-sentimental look in her eye and starts telling me about how she will actually miss me. As bad of tenant, as late on rent, as uncouth and unkempt as I am, she tells me she had come to grow fond of me. Inside, I laugh to myself, wonder if this is actually happening, wonder what sick and perverted illness could change this woman’s heart so rapidly. She extends her hand to me and it is full of money. “I want you to take this. It is your cleaning deposit. It isn’t much, but you could use it more than me.” She flutters the money towards me the way a person in a park might coax a pigeon by offering seed. I am angry. I know what the money represents. She wants me to take it so that she can erase five years of her harsh and unruly treatment of me. She wants to, with one easy gesture, even the score, erase the sleight, atone for all her vindictive behavior and all her vituperative remarks, but I will have none of it. Inside my mind, I hear the victorious cadence of Beethoven’s March and it shores me up. 

The taxi rounds the corner. I have little time to decide upon the proper course of action. Then a spark of inspiration shocks me. I bat her hand away from me with brutal force. Her hand flies the opposite direction and the money falls swan-like to the concrete. I stand and look down upon her, yelling, “I don’t want your filthy money, and I don’t take handouts from someone I dislike; moreover (yes, angry as I was, I used this conjunction), I cannot stand you. You are rude, callous, and the worst landlord ever.” She stares at me in shock and tries to stutter her way into graces. “But, I, I am only trying to help you. I am trying to do what is right…” I cut her off. “Do not feed me your good-natured lies. You are a mean, ill-tempered woman and always will be.” I start walking away. She tries yelling some pacifying words at me, but I cannot hear her. I toss my bag, then myself in the taxi. The entire ride to the airport, all I can hear is the clarion call of Beethoven’s March, and all I see is her hand flailing as I bat it time and time again. Early the next morning, I am peering down at Salt Lake City as it sits regally ensconced by its granite-spired mountains. 

My duffel bag never makes the trek up the ramp and onto the spinning carousel. Everyone else from the flight is gone, the carousel stops spinning and a new flight number appears on the marquee. The airline offers me a conciliatory stay at a downtown hotel to make up for their error. I decline their handout, and to make matters worse, miss my flight, deciding to stay in Salt Lake a few days and head north later, once my duffel bag arrives. I walk the gridded streets in the same outfit and within three days my putrescence begins to ward off would-be partisans. I take a job as a dishwasher, working with Jesus Hernandez at a dive. The work is monotonous, and the pay minimal, but the mind-numbingness of the task pleases me, and I enjoy Jesus’s response of “No hablo Ingles,” each time I feel the need to speak. I take up residency at the local shelter. The food at night isn’t horrid, but it isn’t Alain Ducasse’s gourmet butter poached lobster either. The blasted trains, eighty yards down the road, with their fifteen-minute intervals of coming or going, make it impossible to really zonk out. My duffel bag never arrives. 

The summer fires plaguing the West, rolling in over the Salt Flats, cause smog and smoke to blanket the valley and make the sun invisible even at noon. I enjoy the pollution, and after work I start hanging out at a peculiar place called Temple Square. The architecture is beautiful and the flowers Edenic. I am awestruck by the egg-shelled structure called the Tabernacle. I take a tour late one afternoon. This old spavined couple with name tags on their lapels tells me it is a myth that the roof is held together by beeswax, as if I thought it were. In actuality its sturdiness is derived from small wedges, dowels and rawhide wraps. The egg-shell is a marvel. I come to it often and sit and listen. It has a large organ in the front. I wonder what the immortals could have done with it, what march Beethoven might have hammered out with such a battalion of sound.
 
While sitting in the Tabernacle, the same couple who earlier escorted me on the tour accosts me with one free ticket for a concert to be performed. A surge of indignation flushes over me because of this handout, but I am held in equipoise by other emotions, emotions which want to hear this choir sing within the Tabernacle. 

I return days later. I feel unkempt for this performance, almost guilty, but what do I care. I take my seat and pay no attention to peripheral details. I am fixed upon the choir and their matching outfits. Shortly after their entrance, the choir begins performing soaring renditions of antiquated hymns. I am familiar with Howe’s “Battle Hymn,” and the good old gospel “Rock of Ages” forges forward like a stone cut out of the mountain with no hands. I am awestruck by the pathos, the cathartic thumping deep within my heart, a nostalgic thump of bygone days, of listening to my own mother sing the hymns on Sunday morning. The choir then serenades the entire egg-shell, as if the ceiling had disappeared and the veiled heavens received the melody. I have never before heard the hymn, perhaps it is modern. Even now, the words indelible imprint etched into the tablets of soul, I recall: 

Teach me some melodious sonnet
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it
Mount of Thy redeeming love.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it
Seal it for Thy courts above. 

The song ends and I say to myself, “Choir, almost thou persuadest me to change my ways. But I owe no debt to grace nor do I wish to be bound.” I leave the Tabernacle and head towards the shelter. The wind is warm, and I decide to sleep in the street. I find some cardboard condominium next to the Denny’s dumpster and am about to call it a night when the same couple who gave me the ticket approaches, probably shadowed me the entire time. They invite me inside the restaurant for a free meal. I hate handouts, but my belly is amoral and responds only to the pangs of hunger, so I accept.
 
They seat us in a booth in the back. The couple begins by asking me what I do for a living, how did I come to be in Salt Lake City, do I have any family? I believe they have mistaken me for a homeless person. I laugh, and tell them my story and what it is I am doing in Salt Lake. I tell them I need to earn some money to catch a flight to Alaska where my friends are expecting me. The couple just nods their heads and becomes reticent. Finally, the old man asks me if I am at all interested in hearing what they do. I tell him I’d rather not get to know them so personally, that it just convolutes relationships and requires commitment and sacrifice—two things I am unwilling to experience. The couple is at a loss and the woman finally says, “Well. You seem like a very nice young man. Is there anything we can do to help?” And it begins: Beethoven’s March is rising to a crescendo. I hear it now, hear the distant fweunun, fweunun, fee, feee dee dee dee dee maturing louder, see the ruins of Athens, see humanity trampled under my enormous foot, see the lady and man’s faces in perfect unison headbanging into their bowls of chicken noodle soup. It is beautiful. “No ma’am, I don’t want your cursed money and the meal you bought me tastes like three day old rat shit.” 

Not that I have ever tasted rat shit, but it seemed appropriate. The couple is disgusted. The man is on the verge of telling me off, but before he gets his flaccid tongue to work, I stand up, and tell them I am leaving, tell them I have seen the face of death and it was a little bit younger than they were. I walk out to the praises of the March. I see the immortal smiling down upon me. I grab my thrift store jacket from off the rack and head out into the night.
 
I decide to sleep in Pioneer Park. The amount of homeless people and drug dealers in the area act as a safety net. Just try and locate me now you altruistic oldies. I crumple my jacket and am about to put my head down when I hear the sound of paper from within. I examine my jacket and out of the left pocket, I pull an envelope. It is addressed to no one. It isn’t even sealed. I pull the contents from the envelope and am amazed at what I see. Ten crisp one-hundred dollar bills accompanied with a folded note. I put the money in my pocket and debate whether or not I want to read the note. To read it might bring on guilt. What if it is someone’s birthday money, or someone’s paycheck, or even worse, what if it is money meant to be used for medical treatments. I read it anyway:

Dear Stranger:

We once were also like you. We were a young couple struggling to find means to support our six children. We were destitute, hungry, tired and afraid. Then a miracle occurred. We received an anonymous letter with one thousand dollars inside of it. The money was a godsend and helped our family survive a harsh winter. We would like to repay the favor. We hope this money might help you on your search for happiness.

Sincerely,

Brothers and Sisters in our Lord and Master

I wipe the lachrymal ejaculation from my eyes. It always makes me tear up to read in bad lighting. I am unresponsive to the letter. The cash would have been fine on its own. Why bother me with their tale of misery and woe? Had they not had six children, six inexhaustible mouths to feed, had they heard of birth control, none of this would have happened to them. I leave the park immediately and taxi it to the airport. I buy a one way ticket to the place furthest away from Alaska. I already know I would never be able to get a good night’s rest with the sun fixated in its sky. Give me darkness at noon and a nice bed—nothing more. 

On the plane I sit next to two goobers who look like they just left BYU’s campus. Their hair is short, cheeks clean shaven, and they keep spouting off the word “fetching.” “It’s fetching cold in here,” or “It’s going to be so fetching cool when we get there.” Within an hour of touching the tarmac, the blond one begins a conversation. “We are headed to Campinas, Brazil. We teach English to the impoverished every summer.”
“That’s nice,” I say, “but I didn’t ask you what you did, nor do I care.” 

I turn away perturbed at the imbecile. What makes him think I am interested in how he spends his summer? The blond freak won’t let up, keeps badgering me with his feigned kindness: “What are you doing in Brazil? Are you on vacation?” I want to pop this freak’s eyes out the way the cork is extruded from the wine bottle by the corkscrew, want to lop off his tongue with dull scissors, anything to make him shut up and stop looking at me. I turn back to the kid and say, “I am going to Brazil to die. Now leave me alone.” My ploy worked. The kid left me alone. And in the labyrinths of my mind I could almost hear Beethoven’s March

We land in Saint Paul. It is swarming with human activity. My head feels wheezy. So much humanity so near one another. How can they stand it? I take a crowded bus and head for rural country. I have had enough of humanity, and if I hadn’t, the body odor alone on the bus would have persuaded me to flee the city. I am dropped off about one hundred miles away from Saint Paul. I don’t know the name of the town. My only currency is one Benjamin Franklin. I head to a local bar and order drinks for everybody, but then I rescind my offer and drink by myself as the men in the bar stare at my back like it were a dartboard. I leave the bar good and drunk and moneyless. I stumble into the vacant alley. The men from the bar trail me, mask my every move. I am not afraid of being knifed. I decide to lie down in the middle of the street like a drunkard to see if they will knife an inebriated man. They do something much worse. 

Two of the men come forward from the shadows and attempt to succor me. “E perigoso na rua! Voce tem uma casa para dormir?” (It’s dangerous in the road. Do you have a house to sleep at?)The men try to lift me from off of the street. I don’t let them. “Deixa-me. Deixa-me aqui na rua!” I tell them to leave me in the road. I would have rather them been a group of bandits than the altruistic dandies they turned out to be. I didn’t deserve their sympathy. They leave me to my fate and head back to the bar. The cobblestone is cold and the wind cuts through my layers of clothing. I begin to cough around two in the morning. My head sobers up and I stumble towards a field to sleep. 

I sleep for three days. My dreams begin to haunt me. I see my friends in the Alaskan sun, prancing in the circle of illumination. The vision becomes so bright it nauseates. My eyes still burn when I wake up. It takes me a full day to recuperate, a short day thank the Eastern hemisphere gods. At dusk I stagger into the village. I stop at a window and watch a family eat dinner. It is feijoada, a staple among Brazileiros. I watch the father dish up a bowl for grandmother, wife and children. My hunger exceeds explanation. I can smell the beans, the morsels of meat, but the Rockwellian image makes me sick. I find a deserted street and lie down against a house. It is cold and dark. I begin to drift in and out of sleep. When I open my eyes, a young child and his mother are standing over me. The young child’s eyes shut in innocence. He looks at me with compassion, then he looks away for good. I vomit. The mother rushes to my side and asks, “Ajuda? Ajuda?” I tell her I don’t need her sympathy nor help. “Just leave me be.” 

The night is now freezing. I am no longer drifting in and out of sleep but wavering between consciousness and unconsciousness. I can no longer feel my legs. They, along with my hands have gone numb. My stomach still aches. I begin to hear Beethoven’s March beckon me. What a quick infirmity; how fast decomposition has set into my heart. It feels warm, fuzzy, the first signs of inebriation, intoxication. I hear it, faintly. Fweunun, fweunun, fee, feee dee dee dee dee. I see my ex-girlfriend’s head rocking back and forth. Fweunun, fweunun, fee, feee dee dee dee dee, I see my hand slapping money from my landlord’s hand. Fweunun, fweunun, fee, feee dee dee dee dee, I see an old couple throwing their faces into soup. Fweunun, fweunun, fee, feee dee dee dee dee, I see a corkscrew extruding an eyeball, scissors lopping off tongue. Fweunun, fweunun, fee, feee dee dee dee dee, I see brightness at midnight, a red dot, a circle of illumination. Fweunun, fweunun, fee, feee dee dee dee dee —then, I see the circle tear apart and a line of red light briefly progressing towards nothing, then, mysteriously, the line circles back, unable to outrun its beginning, creating a cycle, damn it all, then—Death.

 


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