Blue Blood, Bad Books, Boogeymen, and Bummers

Alexander Pope once quipped that the ninth Beatitude was “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” Thomas Hardy outlined his formula for a happy life in a poem titled “He Never Expected Much.” It had such an impact that it’s inscribed on his tombstone.

To my credit, I’ve internalized these nuggets of wisdom–in Hardy’s parlance, “I for one failed not to take”–and they’ve served me well. Some call me a cynic, a pessimist, a blackguard.

All of that is true. Also, like many with my temperament, I lead a pretty joyful life.

Yet nothing was farther from my mind this morning as the alarm chimed at 4:30 a.m.

After a holiday break, another holiday, and three snow days (two of which were legitimate), I had finally beaten myself back into the necessary sleeping schedule. Bed by 10, asleep by 10:30, up by 5:30, though still cursing my fate.

My eyes generally flit open shortly after 5, I snuggle closer to my dog, Miss Molly Bloom, and exist in that foggy haze of semi-consciousness until the shrill trill on my phone beckons me from the blankets.

Not this morning. I was deep down death’s other kingdom. Yet I sat bolt upright, ruffled my pooch’s ears, and walked with an atypical non-plod to the Keurig for a steaming cup of java.

It wasn’t as bitter cold as it had been, but still hovering in the lowest digits of the thirties. I wrapped myself in a jacket and a blanket, and my quadrupedal companion and I sauntered onto the porch.

I couldn’t get the adjectives in the right order, but the net buzz has been all about the moon being super, blue, and blood. I think at one point I just went all in and called it “a big-ass, bloody, blue-balling moon.” Whatever the correct scientific terminology, the earth hadn’t seen such a confluence of events in 152 years.

Seemed worth waking up a half hour early to behold.

I had been told that the Eastern U.S. wouldn’t get the full oohs and aahs that the West Coast would. Yet the university’s planetarium was opening at 4:49 this morning. It had to be something to behold, right?

The moon was there, big and bright, hovering over the treetops that separate me from my neighbors. It was full and round. I shrugged, figuring I was a little ahead of schedule.

I sipped the steaming brew. I tossed on the headphones and dialed in NPR. I watched Molly sniff the residual odors of varmints and strays who’d pass through while we were warmly nestled beneath a blanket of goose down.

I waited.

Since I was streaming the station, not using an FM radio because I’m not 80, I was listening to Morning Edition not on Alabama Public Radio but WNYC. Hearing Representatives from Staten Island and Brooklyn react to last night’s State of the Union wasn’t particularly relevant to me. Knowing that the city is combining a pass to ride both the city transit and the Long Island Railroad did me no good. At least I could take solace in knowing it was a full 12 degrees colder on the streets of Manhattan than my porch.

There’s going to be an eclipse, right?

I waited.

I got another cup of coffee. I let the dog in so she could stop shivering and stretch her haunches across my slumbering wife’s face for a change. I turned off the news and weathered an unseen owl’s incessant, monotonous hooting for minute after excruciating minute.

The moon remained a perfect sphere.

I fetched another blanket and draped it over my head, leaving only my eyes exposed, looking like Orko from Masters of the Universe or maybe a Jawa who somehow found himself on Hoth. If only I had a tauntaun to crawl inside, Jack London style.

As the navy-pitched cupola gradually desaturated and lightened, a small shadow appeared on the upper left cusp of Luna. Finally.

I locked my eyes on it and watched the shadow grow, gradual but almost perceptible. It swelled to, from my vantage point, roughly the width of a fingernail.

Then it receded.

That was it?

Like a rabid concert-goer waiting on a curtain call from an arrogant band, I remained far too long, convinced there would be more fireworks.

There weren’t.

Now behind schedule, I thawed my frigid limbs and regained feeling in my extremities before I braved the searing liquid fire cascading from the shower head.

Swathed in viscous lather, a place where many an epiphany has come to me, I could only turn myself into a wet thesaurus.

Disappointment. Disenchantment. Dissatisfaction. Letdown. Anti-climax. Jilting.

Bummer.

***

When I was 15 and boldly flirting with a girl well outside my league, we found ourselves alone, underneath eaves pitter-pattering from a torrential rain. I gazed in her eyes, she in mine. We leaned forward as I anticipated the taste of her cupid’s-bow lips as I had in moments of silent reverie for months.

Our front teeth collided in what I can only describe as the most abhorrent tactile experience this side of accidentally touching a summer slug.

Moments later, she ran through the rain to her car. Two days later, she was dating the placekicker at the high school the next town over.

***

I got to campus after 7. My official office hours don’t start until 8 a.m., and seldom does a student brave facing the day until after 9 anyway.

Still, I like to ease into my day with stale workroom coffee, an unhealthy breakfast, and a perusal of new content from my favorite sites.

I thought I’d grabbed a frozen burrito laden with sausage and monounsaturated fats. Instead, I’d snagged my wife’s tofu and spinach breakfast wrap. Not enough hot sauce in the world, but I tried.

I opened my tabs: The Atlantic, Slate, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, Brick. An article on Lithub caught my eye, “Our Obsession with Lost Books and How They Often Disappoint” by Tim Wirkus.

Among other “lost books,” Wirkus mentions the letdown suffered after many Harper Lee enthusiasts got their mitts on Go Set a Watchman. #Truth.

I thought about “The I.O.U,” a recently discovered short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, uncovered and published by The New Yorker last May. It wasn’t bad. Just meh.

In the fall of 2016, The Strand published “The Haunted Ceiling,” a never-before-seen short story by H. G. Wells. I paid $12.99 plus shipping and handling to get my peepers on it. I would have gotten more satisfaction dropping a sawbuck and a half on an overpriced hoagie at Panera Bread.

Laughing, I recalled an episode of Duck Tales from my childhood. Uncle Scrooge discovers that the renowned playwright William Drakespeare has an undiscovered play hidden away. After the usual shenanigans, they discover MacDuck only to realize it’s a horrible stinker. To be fair, it wouldn’t be the first hunk of junk churned out by the Bard’s non-anatine cognate. (I’m looking at you, Two Gentlemen of Verona.)

Reportedly, Lee never wanted her sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird published either. Maybe there was a reason these authors kept their manuscripts tucked away.

Dare I say we expect too much from our beloved authors? Why do I keep forgetting Hardy’s exhortation?

Disappointment. Disenchantment. Dissatisfaction. Letdown. Anti-climax. Jilting.

Bummer.

***

The dimensions of the Mona Lisa are 2′ 6″ x 1′ 9″. Those who see it in the Louvre frequently remark that it’s smaller than expected.

Directly across the street from the Colosseum in Rome are the gleaming, gaudy canary arches of McDonald’s.

***

It’s the spring of my senior year in college. Aside from being surrounded by naive, snot-nosed freshman in the Biology 102, which I somehow skipped my first year, I’m also taking two English courses I don’t actually need to graduate, having already fulfilled the requirements.

I also have Bowling. And I’m the only male in my aerobics class. I’m taking both these courses because I still had credit hours to burn on my scholarship money.

Aside from the difficulty of navigating Middle English in my Chaucer class, it’s the easiest four months of higher ed I’ve ever experienced.

Except for 20 some-odd hours working as a “stock guy” at the local K-Mart, I have eons of free time.

Fellow “stock guy” Jon asks me if I’m interested in an adventure. Because we both have a natural aversion to labor, we spend most of our mutual shifts shooting the shit. He knows in my high school days I used to go “ghost chasin’.” I never got the results I wanted, or any results, so I abandoned it.

But he has a hot lead. He’s heard tales told about a ramshackle country church in the middle of Bankhead Forest called Pine Torch. It dates back to the 19th century, and parishioners and sightseers to this day claim to have seen all sorts of weird apparitions both in the building and the cemetery outside of it.

People claim to hear strange groans around the pulpit. In the surrounding woods, others say they’ve encountered a a gangly creature with spaghetti-thin limbs and arms that drag the ground. At night, among the headstones, a will-o-the-wisp-esque fireball strolls among the slumbering dead.

He and a couple of friends are going to make the hour-plus drive south and see if there’s any truth to the legends.

He probably also knows I have a state-of-the-art Canon EOS Rebel. We’ve yet to hear of a digital camera, but my snapshots are as cutting edge as anyone else he knows.

I don’t care what his motivations are. The girl I’ve been seeing and I have been on a constant rotation of Friday and Saturday night dates. At this point in my life, I’m still just a big enough douchebag bro to think leaving her alone one weekend night will provide needed distance.

She protests when I tell her, but I stand firm.

At 9 p.m. Friday night, he and I are waiting in the K-Mart parking lot when his buddy pulls up.

I quickly realize that, while Jon is a cool mo’ fo’, I’m not a fan of his clique. The entire ride, they blare the CD player. It’s on loop, and not one CD, but one song. Some new guy I’ve never heard of who calls himself Papa Roach.

The three of them are banging their heads like we’re cruising in the tricked-out Pacer from Wayne’s World and amid the swelling, electric movement of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

“Cut my life into pieces!” they wail, off-key.

By the time the highway shrinks to two-lane county roads and narrows again into well-packed dirt lined with pine trees so thick the moon is obscured, the car goes quiet. We’re getting close.

The road eventually opens into a clearing. The headlights fall on lopsided, weathered tombstones blanched from the years of exposure. The dead are encompassed by a rusty, wrought-iron fence. Looming just beyond is a tiny, single-roomed Sunday-Going-To-Meeting-Day sanctuary.

It has a pitched roof with modernized shingles. Clearly its been restored, its wood new and varnished. Nonetheless, it looks like something straight out of a period piece. More accurately, I’m pretty sure I built a miniaturized replica out of Lincoln Logs when I was 5, sans rustic steeple jutting from the top.

[Author’s note: I wrote this from memory, not wanting to sully my perception with that stupid interwebs thing. Later, out of curiosity, I Googled it. My memory did falter a little (e.g. no steeple), but I was mostly accurate. A Blogspot page called Castle Mischief has a few good shots from an excursion at the bottom of this page, including a shot of an old tombstone.]

We need no flashlights to navigate the beaten trail, full moon pregnant in the air above.

Maybe it’s super. Maybe blue. Not blood for certain, but it’s magnificent to behold. It bathes the landscape in metallic gray.

There must be houses nearby. When our doors slam it sparks a cacophonous symphony of baying hounds that reverberates from the knotty pines towering around. Perhaps nerves are getting to me, but there’s an otherworldly, sinister pitch to their song. The children of the night making sweet music.

Do they sense the tenuous veil that separates this world from the next has grown thin?

The stage is set. As we step inside, I think to myself that this could be the part of any horror movie where things start to get good.

The stained glass obscures the moonbeams. Inside, there are a few rows of pews, divided in half by a small walkway. Front and center is a raised square just a foot off the ground. A small podium is built in, a crude wooden cross at its center. The wall behind contains a larger cross. All of it looks like it might have come from a high-school shop class, well-crafted but raw, unstained.

Using a small flashlight, I adjust the shutter speed and aperture of the camera. Willy-nilly, I snap the room in various angles. As I’m setting up the tripod and preparing for an even longer exposure on the camera, Jon breaks out the cassette recorder and attaches the mic he claims is “extra sensitive.”

“Is there anyone here with us?”

I click, wait, and change angles. Click, wait.

“If there are any presences, please make yourself known.”

The ear-splitting screeches of the distant canines reaches a crescendo, as if they herald the swirling visitors from beyond, invisible to us.

All the derelict structures I visited (trespassed in) during my high-school days, all the graveyards I meandered through looking for something other than an opossum stirring, all the attempts I made at proving that the departed do cross back into our realm.

If ever that desire were to be validated, tonight has to be the night. Never have I seen a setting so primed to usher in a rush of the supernatural.

“What is your name?”

Each time the church pops and creaks, as wooden structures are wont to do, we jump. Each shadow that passes, we duck. After a thorough investigation, we move to the cemetery, where I load a new roll of film and we begin anew.

“How many of you are present?”

All four of us hearty men nearly piss our pants when a raccoon streaks between the headstones and hisses . We laugh, gather our composure, and pretend that the hour-long serenade of the hidden hounds doesn’t unnerve us.

None of us experience anything off-kilter, but we’re undeterred. At least I didn’t have to hear about “suffocation/no breathing” on the way home. Instead, we pass around the hand-held tape, putting the speaker to our ears, listening in silence for disembodied voices unheard in the moment.

Nothing is perceptible, but Jon is not disheartened. He’s going home to put on headphones, dial up the equalizer, and listen to the faint whisper of those in attendance who are non-corporeal.

The next day, I drop four rolls of film off at K-Mart’s one-hour photo. Each roll costs $6.99, and, even with my employee discount, I’m dropping near $30.

Plus, I’m going to be out a boatload of cash because the young lady I’d ignored the night before casually suggests we should visit a steak house for our Saturday night date.

I’ll make do. It’s worth it if even one of the snapshots contains an inexplicable, translucent haze. I’ll know for sure in an hour.

I’m frantically rifling through the shots. Most of them are solid black.

“What the hell were you shooting?” asks the clerk.

“Ghosts,” I say.

“Well, I didn’t see none.”

Neither did I.

Jon approaches, recently clocked in, wearing his candy-apple smock. “Anything?”

I toss $30–two copies worth of a bad H. G. Wells story–into the wastebasket behind the counter. “Little jack and a lot of shit. But you got something on the audio, though?”

A voice above our heads croons in a thick Southern drawl, “Stock guy to HBA with a mop, please. Stock guy to HBA with a mop.”

He theatrically throws his hands up and trots away.

I lean on the counter and huff, as the infernal loop of shopping music plays in the background. “Wildfire” is ending, which means Paul Simon’s “I Am a Rock” will follow.

But the night was perfect. The baying dogs. The full moon. The harrowing atmosphere as we immersed ourselves in a terrifying place. Something should have happened.

The girl working photo leans over the counter. She’s a year younger, raven hair and sapphire eyes that sparkle even under harsh fluorescent lighting. “Still seeing that Cuban girl?”

I turn. Her face is inches from mine. Her turquoise eye-shadow makes her irises pop.

“Yeah, I gotta’ take her to Dale’s tonight.”

She pats me on the shoulder and turns to assist the incoming customer. “Order the crab claw appetizer. Scrumptious,” she says over her shoulder.

Disappointment. Disenchantment. Dissatisfaction. Letdown. Anti-climax. Jilting.

Bummer.

***

  • The musician who gave us Tuesday Night Music ClubSheryl Crow, and Live in Central Park has a new release called C’mon C’mon. It has a song about legendary cinematic badass Steve McQueen.
  • I graduated with an M.A. What does adjunct professor mean?
  • Tuesday, November 8, 2016.
  • After all the DC cinematic flops, Joss Whedon is taking over the helm of Justice League.

I wish I had an uplifting moral to the reverie sparked by this morning’s moon gazing. All I have is a still-persistent crick in my neck.

Just listen to Thomas Hardy, would you? Don’t expect much.

I know, I know.  Bummer.

 


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