Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mr. Sitwell

Mr. Sitwell was a restless man, so it took a lot of effort to sit on his patio and read a book. David Divine’s scholarly “Hadrian’s Wall” was just dull enough to keep him reading the same lines over and over again until the coded information finally sunk in. He heard the low hanging branch of an old maple tree beyond the patio scrape its bony fingers across the gutter. He read a couple of sentences, heard the gutter squeal, scratched his arm, and reread the sentences.

The night before, he couldn't come home. He wanted to. He couldn't. He arrived at his house a dozen times, only to pass it by and return on a circuitous path that burned miles and hours well into the night. Every return seemed to push him farther and farther away. When he nearly fell asleep at the wheel, Mr. Sitwell finally commissioned the truck to turn in the drive and park in front of the house. By then, the living room lamp set on a timer had gone to sleep and only the porch light remained on. The return was surreal. He felt like a ghost re-entering its grave. He couldn't shake off that out-of-body numbness. He had full knowledge of what his mind and body were doing, but he had no power to control either. His body wanted to rest, so it took him to the bedroom, shed only his jacket and shoes, and then laid itself down on the bed leaving nothing exposed.

Mr. Sitwell dog-eared a page in Hadrian’s Wall that he hadn't read yet. He then unfolded the corner and smoothed out the crease. He looked at his arm. A rash was forming. He looked up at the maple tree branch scratching the gutter.

That morning, he woke in a foreign bed. He tried to recall the night before, tried to understand what kept him from wanting to come home. No reasons. Nothing logical, anyway. He had the same problem last week. He couldn’t come home last Tuesday and last Friday. He got off work and passed up his house, drove several miles out, drove several miles back – and kept driving until his body took over and brought him home. Last night was the worse spell. He even had to fill his car up again. Mr. Sitwell estimated he stood on his porch over fifteen minutes before one hand grabbed the front door knob and the other inserted the key. Like an uninvited guest, his hand twisted the knob as if not to make a sound while his exhausted body pushed its dead weight against the door. He unbent himself to appear more vertical as he entered the unlit room; paused while inside, half-expecting the ceiling to crash down on him and crush his miserable brain.

That wretched beast obviously got inside Mr. Sitwell’s head again. It followed him back home from work, like it did the week before. He felt it when he turned onto the road that would take him to his house. Traffic was thick, but he didn't mind. He wanted to be in it. He was relieved to be stuck on that bridge. He stared down at a blue heron standing just off a sandbar in the middle of the White River. The heron never moved; never lifted a leg or twitched a wing. He was stuck in his car on that bridge for ten minutes, and the heron did not flutter once. Mr. Sitwell turned around at the next street and headed back south. He returned to the bridge fifteen minutes later. He looked for the heron. The damn thing never moved! It just stood there, on the hunt, with no worries. It was patient and immobile, as if time moved differently; as if time did not exist. Mr. Sitwell dug his fingers into the leather steering wheel, felt the blood rush through his clenched jaw. When he got to his street, he turned and drove south.

His therapist had used the expression ‘slaying one’s dragons’. He came to accept that the beast was not a dragon after all. It was a heron that mocked him and taunted its ability to remain calm; to remain still. It had a logical strategy and it was as free as a damn bird.

Mr. Sitwell tossed Hadrian’s Wall on the slate. He returned to pruning the English ivy that grew too thick around the brick. He had been working in the same corner all day. He shoved the debris into a garbage bag already bloated with brush and maple seeds. He hated the heron. It had an exquisite disregard of time. Its entire life was faithfully executed, logically repetitious, if amazingly dull – yet, with no knowledge to the passing of time. While he was taking to the streets and alleys and traffic jams on bridges to waste time, the heron stood still in moving water and plunged its beak at only shadows of abbreviated movement in spite of time. While he carried on his recycled infliction inside his tired head, the heron…

He leaned the shears against the brick wall. Unfortunately, the unseasonably warm spring day had been mostly cloudy. His sun tea had been brewing all afternoon on the darkest piece of slate in the patio, yet the tea was colorized only to a middling tan. No doubt, it would be the weakest, if not the most miserable, batch of Earl Grey ever made. He carried it into the kitchen, poured himself a mug. Surprisingly, the tea was strong and flowery. A perfect cup of Earl Grey, with ice. But, could he make it better? Could he make it unique? He looked for some cocoa. He bought a can months ago…found it behind coffee beans and an assortment of loose tea. He added a teaspoon to the tea. It took some minutes to dissolve. He then added a half teaspoon of vanilla, stirred it some more. Yes. Unique. Yes. He was thoroughly pleased with the result, a fine cup with unique ratios of tannins and flavonoids that could never again be recreated again. And that was good, Mr. Sitwell thought. Like the heron, predictability was evil. He strove to take new paths in almost everything he did, and not to ever look back at what he had done. Despite the tea's perfection, he would never want to make the same batch again. Predictability and redundancy was to be prevented at all costs. To Mother Nature, redundancy was an important part in her recipe. But, for Man, such cycling was depleting. Man evolved beyond genetics. The heron may ignore time, but Man had to use time, and wisely. At his weakest moments, Mr. Sitwell gave in to redundancy. The endless driving, the endless reading of the same lines, the endless cycles of doubt, of pruning, of tea making, of failure, of… Moments of weakness. He just needed to focus, to get control of it.

Mr. Sitwell grabbed his mug and his laptop, pulled out a chair in his den. He Googled blue herons and discovered an old Indian tale. By day, the heron, it purported, was a timid and lonely animal that dreaded being seen. But by night, the heron took on the form of an extraordinarily beautiful man or woman who could lure you to fall in love with it; entice you to make love to it throughout the night. By dawn, however, the beast will have taken flight, leaving your heart cold as a stone, blood as blue as a stone, body as lifeless as a stone. He stared at the brown froth of cocoa floating on its deep sea of Earl Grey. The tale was bizarre, but so was the bird. A prehistoric thing; like the days of the dinosaur. He stared into his tea, imagined how it mated and how it spent the night and if it nested or just stood in the water all day, all night. Sitting alone in the quiet den, between boxes still unburdened from an anticipated move some months ago, he wondered how long he had been staring into his tea. The air pressure changed suddenly, as if a door to the outside had opened, a subtle hint that his thoughtless ‘thought’ cycling had reawakened. He put down his laptop, reached for his mug, held it between both palms. The top drawer in his dresser, he thought. No. He stared out the door and onto his pile of wilting ivy, felt an itch on his left arm. Dusk was nearing. He got up and flipped on the patio light.

Mr. Sitwell returned to the chair, sipped the last of his cold tea under the diffused emission of the patio light growing stronger as the sun became fainter. The landscape of trees and bushes and flowering perennials grew exposed in the patio light against the blackness of the night, giving them a surreal appearance as if they were cardboard cutouts. He took notice of this two-dimensional world, becoming aware for the first time, with interest, the layout of his backyard. He also observed the side of his house as it extended beyond the patio. A simple ranch built over fifty years ago, its white aluminum siding loose and parting, its joints heavily over-caulked, and its windows disturbingly spotty; some cracked. The clumps of last fall’s acorn and maple seed clogged the drainage gutter. The thick armor of English Ivy clung to the brick and climbed up past the roof and hung in the air searching for something higher to grab hold. In all of its waves of shiny green leaves, the ivy could not completely conceal the areas of broken brick and missing mortar which made up a ledge where a statue or flowering pot must have originally sat. His home was settling, like all houses eventually do. But Mr. Sitwell was taken by the beauty of all the imperfections, and the fact that they were the direct result of the stretching of time, as well as the weight of the environment around it; the massive canopy of a hard maple above him with thousands of her offspring hitting the roof, the hundred fingers of vine and root, the sun baking the bricks to a fist while the rain made them swell… Time, he reasoned, had a very real effect on such things.

Her wind chimes still blend
In the most monstrous of wind
And her patio light still flames
In the most torrential of rains

Mr. Sitwell chuckled at his simple words and quickly scrawled out in the low light a one-window, one-door house leaning to its right side with giant daisies and a leafy tree flanking on its left.

Of course, he did not purposely draw the daisies as large and as tall as he did the tree. It looked ridiculous. That was fine. But, giving it some thought, he struck a line through the sketch and proceeded to draw a ‘more accurate’ doodle. This time, he made the house larger, and the flowers much smaller.

As he sketched, Mr. Sitwell recalled the message he received two days ago from an old friend, Jeff Donnelly. Mr. Sitwell read them, cuffing the cell in his hands as if it were alive. Not possible. He chose to ignore them, returned to his prose. The information was not to be believed. His house was crumbling with the encumbrance of time, and he wanted to capture that genius scrutiny before it passed him up. There was beauty there. There was movement of some sort; beautiful analogy to the entropic process.

A terrible sketch. Immediately, Mr. Sitwell was dissatisfied with the redraw. He took out a new sheet of notepaper, making a greater effort to reflect the meaning of the beautiful instability his simple poem tried to depict. Will anyone know that his slanting house drawing was supposed to be a slanting house? Roping. He drew lines that looked like ropes tied to the tree and holding back the house from the verge of collapse. Ha!

Though imperfect, Mr. Sitwell was pleased with his third version, deciding it captured both the humor and charm of what he wanted to express. And suddenly, he found himself committed to yet another redraw. In this one, he added several windows and a better roof. And the new tree he drew was now thick and old and bare. The ropes were gone, until he decided to add them back in. Terribly amateurish, he thought, this latest attempt. He was no artist; but he felt he needed to be.

Time had gotten away. Hours had been burned up, though it felt like only minutes had passed. It was late and completely dark and frigid outside. Mr. Sitwell was painfully aware that there was unfinished business here. The imperfection of his sketch made his skin crawl, and the urge to take out yet another sheet of paper was enormous. Thankfully, his mind was drawing blanks and his hands were trembling from the cold. Mr. Sitwell forced himself to declare the art complete…for now. He went inside, thought to go to the top drawer of his dresser. Not yet. Not now. After a hot shower, he retired to his cool bed and slept restless with commercials blaring.

In the morning, Mr. Sitwell washed up in his usual routine, making sure any dirt from yesterday’s pruning was gone; and gone for good. He had to be sure that nothing remained. He had to be sure; and he made sure of it. He found himself buttoning his shirtsleeves and staring at the drawer. He wondered if Jeff Donnelly’s text was valid; that their mutual friend, a very dear friend, was truly back in town and asking if ‘Wellsie’ was working things out. He opened the dresser drawer; it did so smoothly. He need not dig for it, for it was right there lying on top of tiny shampoos and paper-wrapped soaps that he collected from hotels for no good reason. It was an orange container with a white label, prescribed by Dr. Youdon'tknowwhatyourtalkingabout. Take one a day. He placed the pill on his tongue. Wellsie.

One month had passed when Mr. Sitwell noticed he was less distracted by some of the usual stressful thoughts. The passing of time felt different; not because he disregarded it like the heron, but because time was now tangible. Yes; that was it. Time felt like it was moving, and not just…not just wasting away. He was able to meet with Jeff Donnelly a couple of times down at Frizzy’s Pub – but only an hour or two, and just after work. Another month had passed, and he felt nearly the same, but continued to check in with his friend and discuss things…other things. It was nice when Jeff Donnelly promised to say hello to their old friend – but only hello, Jeff had promised. When another month had passed, Mr. Sitwell lived differently; his writing rolled, torrents and all. Friends were calling again and asking to meet him in the village. Really, even if Mr. Sitwell wanted to drive around town and eat up some hours; well, he just couldn't find the time for that kind of stuff anymore. Yeah, the thought was there, but he didn't have the time to waste.

Summer was in full swing. Mr. Sitwell unpacked the stacks of boxes, placed each item back in their rightful and proper place. The grass needed cut, sometimes twice a week. He watered the maple and all of his hollies and
hostas around it despite the watering ban. He made Earl Grey tea the old fashioned way, with a tea kettle, rust and all. His gutters were replaced, even though it hadn't rained in weeks. The wounds on his leg and arms were not caused by an imaginary avian beast, but by other beasts, such as mosquitoes and poison ivy. Dirt was fine, if it was understood how dirt got there. A simple cleaning. A simple washing sufficed.

Mr. Sitwell slept without a television screaming. David Divine’s “Hadrian’s Wall” was a scholarly road trip; he completed it in two nights and got inspired to learn more. He buttoned his shirtsleeve in the mirror; looked over at the drawer. He pulled it open and held the yellow bottle, its label worn and barely legible with all the times he took it out before, contemplating whether he should have taken another pill after all. Somehow, a new path presented itself without them; a new desire almost like magic; greater than magic.

The knock on the door interrupted his writing. A bit annoyed; but that was fine. He saved his work, closed the laptop, and then opened the door. His eyes opened up to a beautiful day whose brave, yet familiar grin tried not to be seen. Mr. Sitwell stepped aside and welcomed the life back inside with all of its handsome splendor. A dear friend had decided to visit. A dear friend decided to return home. As Mr. Sitwell closed the door, his house stood and shook off its ivy, tightened its brick and reshuffled its siding, took in a breath and settled into the earth, leaned just a bit as time reasserted its grip. A mile away, the heron stood still against the moving water. Wellsie made some tea for two and eagerly let go.

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