A Thousand Happy Lives

Youth. His father lived a thousand lives before he died at the age of 53. He worked as a security guard for Gem Lake Casino by highway 29, spending his days watching screens linked to cameras placed high above people playing cards, pulling levers, drinking, laughing, and shouting below. Drawn to the most interesting and dynamic outfits, hairstyles, mannerisms and physical peculiarities of the people who passed beneath his gaze, he invented stories for them, and gave each of them their own personality. In this, he was able to flesh out out unrealized pieces of his own being – his wishes, dreams, regrets, fantasies and inspirations – for them to live in his stead.

At night he would share these stories with his son. The boy would stay awake long past what his mother told him was bedtime, waiting beneath the dinosaur bedspread for his father to come home, the bedside lamp still on and books on paleontology and planes scattered across the floor. His father sat at the foot of the bed, his face half-lit in the light of the lamp, and told him of the woman who was once a star goaltender for the German soccer team – she blew out her knee making a spectacular save at the World Cup. About the man who had written poetry in his younger years, published three books in French, but never reached his full potential and now spends his time losing at the blackjack tables. And the family of four on their first vacation together (their first time leaving their hometown of Blooming Prairie in fact) enjoying an experience that will certainly change their lives for the better. And so on.

Though – while the boy enjoyed these stories very much, and always looked forward to his father’s bedside visits after homecoming, it was his mother who ultimately taught him the most about himself. It was his mother who shaped his personality, for better or worse, as she taught him the meaning of the word peace, though not of understanding. This resulted in a sort of radical individualism in the boy’s character. He learned to go inward with his feelings and often ignored the outside world entirely. This was something his father never came to understand.

His father suffered a series of small strokes at the relatively young age of 53, leaving him paralyzed and unable to work. He asked for a windowless room at the hospital – I don’t want to see nothing or nobody, he said – and found comfort, at the end of his life, through beige walls and corner shadows that had no human quality to them at all. He refused to turn on the television hanging above his bed. He died after only a month in the hospital.

The boy did inherit some of his father’s previous curiosity toward the lives of others: He found himself standing at his bedroom window for months after his father’s death (always at night, around the time his father would normally have returned from work) staring at the dark houses lining the boulevard on the other side of the street, pondering the lives of people sleeping inside. Though – he never gave them stories of his own. He never assumed he could come up with anything half as interesting as the lives they were leading already, and in this way found he had more respect for lived experiences and less for those of the imagination.

That summer, he began to write – a practice imparted upon him by his mother (who wrote often, also imagining lives lived by other people, but she wrote her stories down and never once shared them with her son) – but given his proclivity for nonfiction, he wrote what could only be called entries in a journal: His daily activities, the things he ate and enjoyed (and the things he did not), the people he met, the games he played, and how he felt about each of these things.

He wondered as well, and wondered quite often, about all the stories that had been written before his – if no one had come before him, would he have ever written a word?

His mother. She sits near the window, watching the grass and nothing-in-particular, thinking of her life and everyone in it. Her amor fati had transcended even that of her own body-and-self, and she falls asleep at night wondering how she could have possibly been so lucky as to end up with the life she did, the result of all actions leading to a comfort even the greatest poets had been unable to describe. In her heart-of-hearts she knew that there could be no better place for her, through everything that had ever happened to her, every decision she had ever made, and everything the universe had ever conspired to bring her.

But then – she knows where it leads, that all fates end up the same, that the end comes no matter how much we enjoy or appreciate the present. She thinks: Though, while it is hard to live knowing one day I will die, it is better than living in denial – it is better than those who pray for immortality only to be disappointed. She thinks: This moment is real, and this moment will always have happened, and what a beautiful thing it is to have been a part of it.

But not always. She remembers she felt the man’s hand on her thigh, then felt him inside her, eyes closed, she felt his movements and his breath on her neck, she leaned her head back against the pillow, letting him fill her completely for their three-minutes together. After, he raised his fist in a sign of success and she thought, Oh-wasn’t-that-awful, as he went to clean himself in the bathroom. She rolled on her side, her head at the crook of her arm. Some people simply aren’t worth the connection.

But we don’t have these dark thoughts of death-and-dying when we’re out in the sun, or running up a hill, hot and sweating – we care more about reaching the top of the hill. We have these thoughts only when we’re in bed at night, alone, by-ourselves, in the dark.

What comes after. This, she thinks, is the reason she does anything in this world. One thing leads always to another (there is no avoiding it); one thing leads to another no matter what it is, forward motion, progress as it is called (the opposite of peace in her mind), and if she is deliberate about the actions she chooses to take then her journey, she knows, will always be of her own making. This small piece under her control…

Or – we give up. Sit down in the middle of the hill and try-no-more, getting to the top of the hill will not bring us satisfaction or joy, or not enough to make the journey worth it. We wipe our foreheads and keep moving, or we stop, refuse to take another step, give up, forever.

Her son son is the reason for her happiness. Her son is the only reason for her happiness, and everything else in her life has led to his creation. She created him, with a little bit of help, and she thanks fate every day for conspiring to make this happen.

But – if this is true – do his movements then become hers, or vice versa?

She watches her son playing in the yard from the window of the living room. She holds a steaming mug he had made for her in school, which is warm in her hand, that warmth spreads from her fingers to her wrists, her shoulders, down her back. Her breathing slows, steady. There is a fly floating just behind her ears, it lands and rests on her shoulder, for a moment, before taking flight again.

She notices nothing but what she sees through the window.

His mother’s father. Devout, affable, strict, superstitious, never left the door open, never swore, never sat down for dinner before the table had been set, never laughed near the cemetery, never slept before the moon or woke before the sun. He washed his hands three times a day to keep the devil away, prayed before going to bed, kept a gun in the top drawer of his dresser with his socks and Hanes, and went to church every Friday and Sunday for Mass.

He was an educated man, a chemistry teacher at Buffalo High School out somewhere in the middle of Minnesota. He understood the importance of knowledge, advocated for public schools, and preached the importance of continuing education after graduation. But still – he believed the answers to life’s most-important questions came more from faith than from books, never fully swapped God for science, and lived his life in an uneasy balance between the two.

He wrote down his beliefs in a leather-bound notebook.

a. He believed the world could be a simple place, but this belief far-too-often complicated what little of the world he knew – that small piece of the world he was able under his control; his family, his home, his classroom, his church.

b. He believed some people were better than others; that some deserved the goodness and grace of life in this world and the next, while others should be grateful for what little they got.  c. He believed miracles were possible (Why not, he thought. For some, those who are deserving, but not for others) and that he should be able to have everything he wanted in life.

d. He believed that his family should believe the same things as him.

e. Though these are not simple things, or if they are simple, they are not easy to attain – and ultimately proved themselves to be false – he still imagined that they would make the world a better place for him and the ones he loved.

By the time he left his job teaching in the city to retire to his farm in the country, he had taught exactly 1,000 students. He taught for exactly 40 years, each of his classes held 25 students. He knew, deep inside, that he had made an impact (for better or worse) on every one of their lives. But he found he was often lonely on the farm, the companionship of cows not the same as that of bright-eyed students looking to learn the secrets of the known universe. He left the country when the developers came to turn it all into suburbs (he sold the last acres of his land for a large sum of money), and ended up alone in a one-story rambler in a town not far from where he had been born.

He died of a heart attack at the age of 76 while on his annual trip to Las Vegas.

His daughter. She remembers what her father told her: Life is a choice. And to continue living is to have faith in the future. This has not saved her from a low-hanging gloom she is unable to describe in words. This has not offered her the clarity she had only ever found in mirrors – without her reflection, she thinks to herself, she really has nothing.

Sunshine through the kitchen window. Summer in Minnesota is beautiful. Hot, sun, life on lakes and in woods, parks, drinks outside. The kitchen is clean, the sink scrubbed and shining, the floors swept, mopped, the refrigerator (re)organized, the cupboards as well, and dusted. This brings her peace, a confident sense of calm. She hides, and disappears completely, into this peace and stays there for minutes, hours, days as the hustle-bustle of the city moves on without her outside.

She thinks: Knives are chilling for what they (might) do to skin. She keeps them polished, hanging from a magnetic silver strip along the wall. There is coffee on the counter she will pour for guests if they come.

There isn’t nearly as much to life as she thought there would be, under the thumb of authority, work all day, make dinner, watch TV, and fall asleep at night. She thinks: There is nothing else. Are people content to live this way? There is so much good we can do for each other (for others; for people, plants, and animals), but we choose not to, each-and-every day. We love beauty and truth and are arrogant; we can find neither. Empathy, they say, is the highest form of intelligence: to think of others before yourself, put yourself in their situation after taking yourself from your own…

But care (caring for others, our social nature) has had little to do with the mind – the most educated have failed us time-and-time-again, have committed terrible crimes against their neighbors, have shaped the world into one of venality and greed. The greatest minds created the atom bomb, have left millions of people dead in the wake of their inventions. The greatest minds, perhaps, understand the inherently-selfish nature of humans. She thinks: Education has not saved us, no. Not from ourselves, or others. And: To live is to have hope. Yes. But even her father knows, sitting by the window, that the best sort of hope is reserved for tomorrow, where we are all taller, happier, and braver than we are today. Education has not saved her from the gloom hanging from windows and doors. She looks from the window, at the sun shining through the glass, across the kitchen floor and the knives on the wall. Her mother had always said it would come to this.

She has not yet visited her father at his home in the Montana desert. She thinks: Save me, save me.

Old age. The boy discovered, too late in life, the truth of his father’s obsession. He learned that it is only when we see people together in a group that we begin to see how alike, and how different, they truly are. On the bus or train, say, or together on an airplane. Standing in line for concert tickets, or with hands-in-the-air at the show. In the seats of a classroom at school, or on the sandy beaches of a West Coast shore, at an amusement park, maybe, and huddled close for large family photos; rushing the doors of department stores on Black Friday; assembled in peaceful, or violent protest; corralled together in refugee camps; moving along the streets of Sao Paolo, Beijing, Bombay, New York, Lagos, Los Angeles, Seoul, or Berlin. And when they linger unmoving and still.

He sits alone now, rocking in his chair like a metronome by the window. He thinks: I didn’t end up where I wanted to end up, perhaps. But – I ended up wealthy at least.

His thoughts, at the end of his life, concern mostly his past affairs with women. This surprises him, given the more profound and poetic notions he had assumed regarding end-of-life reflections and reveries. Still – he thinks daily of the women with whom he had spent one night or more, the women he misses deeply and hungers for still (and the ones he does not), and the two men, on two separate occasions, with whom he had shared a bed as well.

There is something about skin he remembers, the touch of skin, though the skin of men is generally rougher there is still something electric about touch.

Many of these affairs he had taken for granted. Some he had placed on a pedestal. Some had passed far-too-quickly, and others had lingered far-too-long – though he understands, now, and this understanding brings him a certain joy, and peace at-long-last, that he had loved each-and-every one of them (for a certain amount of time at least).

Mostly, he thinks of her. He sees her face in the window, a glimpse, her hair, her mouth, her neck, there-and-then-gone – oh, but she was beautiful, how beautiful, and with the smell of lavender, of coffee, of rain, of oranges in winter, of spring flowers that grew along the hedges, along the street, along the windows of their one-room flat in the city… With her: It was high noon and flying through the clouds. It was summer and sunset forever. It was moonlight on lakes and rivers, It was a flash-flood in May after months of cold and darkness. It was there-and-then-gone – she was a bathroom mirror after sex, their reflection steamed and covered in fog, running in long lines of condensation to the sink; a reflection he had prayed would never change.

But it had changed. With the passage of time and its mark on the skin.

There are no mirrors in his room. But then, he had never found in them the answers to the questions she asked. And he does not miss the sight of own face or figure – they too hold too much truth to be truly honest. Change, he knows, can be cruel. And the end comes whether you fight it or wait patiently for its berth. Whether you charge at it like a bull of Pamplona or regard moments as they pass, counting each one so that they don’t slip by unnoticed. It’s thoughts like these (unlike thoughts of sex, but like his thoughts of her) that bring him both deep sadness and a pure, unending delight.

It was a dream, perhaps – perhaps he had seen her only in sleep – and in this dream she is with him still, sitting by his side. She had never left, with her head on his shoulder and her fingers crossed with his. But no: As the beacon blinks from the mountain in the distance, as it blinks through the window and reflects on the glass, he realizes he has been awake for days; this light, he knows, is real and dreams are not, dreams are only imagined, he sees no windows, no beacon light when he closes his eyes – this glimpse of her, then, it must have been real.

What he wouldn’t give to touch her again – no, to feel her touch, to lay as they once did in bed together, their white, bleached, gray, blue-striped sheets wrapped tight around their thighs and waists, the sun still hours away from day, how he wishes…

His nurse stands just behind him in her white smock and shoes. How are you feeling? She asks.

How quickly time passes. How it wanes and fades away. And then only memories remain. And he remembers what his mother would say to him before bed when he was still a child: Memory is an addiction which cannot be reversed.

Though his mother had suffered from dementia late in life, only a few years older than he is now, so indeed her addiction had been reversed after all. She had not met a peaceful or placid end; she could not remember anything in the end, though she would try her very hardest whenever he came to visit. She gave him saltine crackers to quell his stomach-aches when he was a boy. He remembers this. The thing he remembers most about her is that she had given him love without reciprocation, that he deserves love from women without reciprocation. This had not served him well; he is old now, but he still feels like a child.

The nurse places a soft hand on his shoulder and asks again. How are you feeling?

His whole life, he realizes, had been lived through a series of flashbacks, as though existence is only what we can remember of it, he had never understood time except through wages, and he was never one for questioning his thoughts: each moment gone, slipped away before he had a chance to get to know it, to discover what-it-might-mean to him. His calendar, then, had become his only reply.

How are you feeling? He is asked by his nurse. And he responds, I really need to sleep.

There are mountains rising over the horizon. Far in the distance. Old wooden telephone poles stand like religious relics along the road; Catholic crosses that semaphore somewhere deep inside his chest.

This stationary world is the last world he will see before the end. But stationary, no, is not the right word to describe it. Birds like small specks dance across the sky, car engines rev and their tires kick up dust along the road, high clouds roll this-way-and-that. When desert storms come, they come heavy and pour water by the gallon down the window.

But the only movement he looks forward to, the only movement he craves, comes in the form of the long passenger train that passes through his gaze twice-a-day, headed west in the morning and then back east again at night – he catches, for a moment, different but unchanging, a thousand faces pressed to the glass.

And then gone.

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A Thousand Happy Lives