By R.C. Hampton
"And Then There Was None:1"
Drawing by R.C.Hampton
treachery. It happened again, just now. My jazz lite radio station
shot me in the heart with a Top 40s Pop hit from the seventies.
I'd rate it a pretty good shot, too. A near-kill. Damn their eyes.
At least this time I'm alone.
It seems like this sort
of thing usually happens when I am in the company of Kind Near-Strangers,
or maybe I'm just more aware of how awkward it all is. They mistake
that odd look on my face for amour,
and think we are sharing a special moment. Sweet, callow things;
we aren't sharing anything. They are hearing a piece of music, a
lyric, perhaps even forging a moment of their own, but if they are,
it will be a bittersweet one at best, because they are in it alone.
I'm decades away, lost in the texture of memory. When I come back
to the present, the damage has been done. My Kind Stranger no longer
has any shine, the evening is pretty much through, for me anyway,
and almost certainly I won't see this one again. Poor child, whose
only fault is not having lived long enough, or hard enough.
Oh, they are mostly all
lovely. After all, I still have my taste and my standards, but after
a visitation by a radio ghost how could any of them stand up to
you? You who stand alone in my memory, and past. The blazing, brilliant
face apart from, and part of, that crowd of humanity that has touched
me, and whom I've touched through the years. They can hold no candle,
these sweet, young Kind Strangers, and from my perspective, "young"
has rather a different quality of definition than it once did.
one of the ghosts gets me I don't know whether to "shit, run, or
go blind", as my old Granny would have said. I want to rage, to
break my stereo, to weep. The memories of those tumescent seasons
long gone are so close to the surface now, but no matter how I feel,
a casual observer wouldn't
see it in me. I hold myself in, even here, even alone, though I
want to rage and break and weep. I can do that now. Age has its
perks. I've mellowed a bit, as they say. Gained control. Even, to
a degree, over you, or the memory of you.
Startled by the radio
ghost into thinking of you, I struggle with a torrent of feeling,
and as ill luck would have it, the weather and season make it all
the more tender and hurtsome. Rainy early summer nights and warm
late autumn afternoons are when I feel most keenly those ghost bites,
though I don't know why, except that it was on a warm late fall
afternoon that we first made love, on the ground. Made love like
panthers, so intense it was like making hate instead, with all the
rage we had in us, and, finally spent, the tenderness was like nothing
else I had ever known in my young life, and am not sure will ever
be matched again. Yes, I understand
the reason that fall afternoons leave me more susceptible, but not
rainy early summer nights. It seldom rained on us, so it must have
to do with the weeping in my heart.
It is raining tonight,
in very early summer, and raining now in my heart. On the wet spattered
windows I see my soft, back-lit reflection, and if I unfocus my
eyes a bit, it could almost be you. I ache to hold that reflection,
but if I were to see you for real, flesh and blood real, I'm sure
I would run the other way, run like a panther, the way we first
loved, with all the rage inside of me.
is it that you still have this hold on me, after decades? What kind
of juju magic passed between us, that this is still so strong? If
you still walk this side of the river Styx do you feel it too, on
early summer nights, and fall afternoons?
I look through my reflection
to the wet streets below, the neon and car lights a smear of vibrant
colors. Were I to go down to the streets, just a few blocks away
I could find all of the same action we knew so well, years ago.
Different streets, half a continent away, half a lifetime away,
but city streets are city streets and the night is the night, and
they are all the same, really, this city very much like any other.
The vibe, the hustling, the scams, and the sense and flavor of it
all, it's the same. And once exposed to that dance you never really
lose the edge of it that the streets impart, although it may dull
"And Then There Was None:2"
Drawing by R.C.Hampton
Sometimes when the mood
is on me, or I've heard a Radio Ghost I go and walk those streets,
to feel the hum of action, licit and illicit, and sometimes I recapture
for a moment the energy of what it was like to be in the street
life, in over our heads in everything. But that's only sometimes.
I no longer have much of an edge. I've grown older.
These days I live very
high above the streets like we once ran. All those years ago, as
we would lie together and dream futures, I'm sure I never imagined
that my life would become what it has. I remember some of those
dreams. We would somehow become very wealthy; we would be the very
essence of cool; we would have all the best; do great and wild things.
And we would do them together. Always, we were together in our dreams.
Together . . . and I haven't seen or heard from you in twenty years.
Nobody has. Your parents have grown old, your brothers and sisters
grown up, have made lives for themselves. Do you know that? I've
kept up, in your stead. Twenty years. A generation. Strange to think
that if there had been fruit of our union, it would be grown to
adulthood now, with fruits of its own, but of course the only fruit
of our union was the scars that I carry, inside and out.
my windows high above the animal streets I think about those long
ago dreams of wealth. I had no real concept, then, of what luxury
could be. I do now. I live in the very lap of it, but I've become
accustomed to it. And getting here was not half the fun, to misquote
that old aphorism. I wonder, did any of your dreams ever come true?
Any of them? All of them? Did you leave to make those dreams come
true, driven by some deeper ambition that I just never possessed?
Sometimes I think that I want to believe that, that somewhere now
you are looking out a window and, if not remembering, then reflecting.
I want to believe that somewhere now you are grown into middle age.
I want to believe, even, that you've lost your looks, your wits,
your way. I want to believe, mostly, that somewhere now you are
. . . just are. I want to believe, but I don't.
I think that the way
you were living when I saw you last couldn't have lasted very long.
You were way too close to the edge. Besides, between the warsboth
sanctioned and non-sanctionedbad dope, prison, and the pandemic
there are so few our age left. That's why I'm seen occasionally
with one of my young Kind Strangers. They are not so terribly young,
either. They are all older than the scars I carry from you, but
some not by much. But they do seem terribly young, perhaps because
they never saw the madness I sometimes saw in your eyes, or the
wildness and desperation of my own eyes reflected back from yours,
as I tried to search your soul through those windows.
a while, a while, I'll gain control over myself and drive your memory
back into that place in my mind, and my heart, where
they live and are kept safe, and at a safe distance from
the rest of me and who I have become, but right now I ache. Ache
in a way that hasn't changed much in a generation, that is, in fact,
the most constant thing I have known in my life. The only thing
I have owned longer than that ache is an old cotton shirt of yours,
much worn and unwashed. I keep it carefully wrapped. It still has
your scent to it. When I hold that shirt, and smell you across the
years, you become a palpable presence in the room with me. I wish
I could sleep with that shirt tonight, but I keep it in its bag
in a safety deposit box. To keep it very safe, but at a distance,
like I try to keep your memory. The bank people look askance at
me when I open that box and sniff that shirt and weep, but I can't
have it close. Your memory would have a life of its own, then, and
consume me, I'm afraid. It has taken me a very long time to become
who I am now, to build the life I have and am sometimes satisfied
with, to gain the strength to control my emotions, which I lacked
as a youth, and I will not be consumed, not even by you.
Getting that bank box
was the first thing I did that was anything like being responsible
for property. Removing that tangible piece of you to a safe distance
was my first step in the long climb up from the streets, my first
step toward not being young, although at the time I was, still.
Getting the box gave me breathing space, separated me from that
passion for loving, and life, and the dance of the boulevards that
only the young, or the naive can feel. I believe that you can feel
true passion for many things, and people, and certainly can feel
it more than once in a lifetime, but only the first time, whenever
that happens, can you feel it burn with all its exquisite, inutterable
power. Ever afterward, you are changed, and passion, like a wreck
on the highway, might be terrifying, or compelling, or both, but
having seen it once, you will be affected even though you have some
idea what to expect. Passion might burn again and again in your
breast, but it will sear you only once.
capacity for passion is gone, scorched out. A lifetime's worth crammed
into one long season of a few years in my youth. Any opportunity
for my heart to flourish was surgically excised when you severed
our ties that bound. When you left me alone and wounded. I think
maybe that is why I can take no satisfaction in my life. Without
passion you cannot truly dream, and without dreams to measure success
by, you don't know when you have succeeded. What I don't now for
certain, and never shall, is whether my accomplishments are barren
for me because I am alone, or because you are not with me.
I choose not to examine
that too closely. I would rather keep that puzzle in the pocket
of your cotton shirt, locked in a box in the bank. At a safe distance.
"And Then There Was None:3"
Drawing by R.C.Hampton
The reflection in my
big windows that could be either of us is looking more and more
like me. The worst of the moment is past. Perhaps I will spend a
little time grooming my graying hair and then get busy. Busy at
playing those games that others play with such passion, those games
of financial chance that I am very good at, but play with no passion
at all. I suppose it could be viewed as an asset, this dispassionate
attitude. I honestly do not care if I win or lose, succeed or fail,
unlike the others around me who care a very great deal. I do the
things I am good at, and forge my life into a chain of time that
lies heavy on my heart. Sometimes I leech some enjoyment from life,
but mostly I feel very little.
I wonder, if you live do you still carry the fire? I am certain
that you would always have passion, if not for me, then for another;
if not for this, then that. We are so unlike, at last. The only
thing I ever cared for, besides a dirty old shirt, slipped out of
my life decades ago.
Text and illustrations © 2001 R.C.Hampton
former hustler, former dancer, former
dirt-bag street-creep, former entrepreneur X3, former soldier, former
bi-ped, lives in Nebraska, where he is settling into an early and
tenuous geezerhood. He's written for BENT before.
BENT: A Journal of CripGay