The sudden urge to understand
a difficult passage from Heidegger. The urge becoming
an obsession as he wakes whispering Dasein. He thinks
of Tom, his easy laugh, his deep and generous voice.
He envied all Tom’s understanding. At twenty, Tom is perfect,
his dark Italian eyes exploding with the secrets of German
philosophy. He pictures himself taking notes as Tom explains,
interprets—four or five of them gathered in his room, idiot
students with so little hunger for knowledge. He is smoking
a cigarette as he listens to Tom’s voice and he is thinking
of incense. Tom was a good priest. He explained Descartes
to anyone around him who would listen. But one day
Tom hungered for another kind of knowledge—he looked up
from the pages of a book and saw a woman. All the angels
fell away. Amo ergo sum. And him? He could never be
like Tom. He never gave a damn about Descartes. Never gave
a damn about Heidegger—though he liked pronouncing
his name. He’s sorry for all his shallowness. For other things
too. He knew he could never be too sorry. He was Catholic
after all. He could never be too sorry.
Now—in his dreams—
there are birds falling from the sky. He has started
to paint all the birds. A friend keeps asking him what
they mean, the birds in his paintings. “They can’t fly!
They’re just falling!” He can’t explain. He’s not Karl Jung.
He’s not even an art critic—maybe not even a good
painter. Maybe he’s just internalized an old Hitchcock movie
that was more or less about desire and sexual repression.
Another phrase slams into his brain Jedem das Seine. He waits
for the translation but it does not arrive. He sees the words
written on the gates of a camp. His abilities as a translator
are not improving. There are many arts he will never
master. Beethoven was deaf. Goya too. There were
monsters in their heads that drove them mad. All
the dazzling darkness of the deaf. But him? His hearing
is fine. What good is that?
His life has become a series of bad translations.
This means that. And that means this. This and that
have nothing to do with art. Goya, Beethoven, Heidegger.
All the great translators are themselves untranslatable.
He’s thinking of his former lives. He is rummaging through
boxes, tossing out photographs and fragments of the past.
Why did he save this? And this? And this? He finds a box
of bullets. When his father was sick, he bought a gun. His
father wanted to kill. Parkinson’s. Doctors. Himself. One day
his father woke shouting and shouting at his mother ¿Donde esta
la pistola? His brother got rid of the gun. And him? He wound
up with the bullets. What will he do with them—him?—who
never owned a gun? Goya would have known what to do with
the bullets. Beethoven too. He picked onions as a boy.
The stench of rotting onions assaults him in unexpected
moments. Even now after so many years, that stench comes
back to him. He turns, almost expecting to see himself
at thirteen, bending to clip the roots of an onion with steel
scissors that leave his hands callused and angry at the earth.
Ruben eats onions like apples. He has discovered the sweetness
of onions. He envies his friend. His grandmother had
a peach tree. She spent summers chasing away the birds, an art
she never mastered. (Here they are again, the birds). He remembers
thinking that his grandmother would have done anything
to protect her peaches. Yes, she would have shot every last
bird that invaded her tree—except she hated guns. Once
she stared down a cop who kept his gun in his holster
during Mass. Jesus didn’t die, not for that. Sometimes, he’s sorry
he didn’t become a farmer. He would have grown acres
of organic tomatoes. He would have paid poor city boys
five cents for every worm they picked off the plants. Boys
should know about worms and tomatoes, how they grow,
the dangers they face, what it costs them to survive as
they ripen into the color of a man’s blood. He got lost
on the first day of school. He spent years looking for himself.
He thinks he’s finally found at least a fragment of himself
that he can trust. He doesn’t dream the devil anymore. When
he was a five, the devil was always chasing him. Maybe it was
only Descartes’ evil genius. It’s true, when he was a boy,
the devil wanted him, his mind, his body, his heart. Perhaps
the devil managed to steal a piece of him—
and has kept it ever since.
Descartes. The devil. And now
there are birds. He doesn’t know what all these flecks
and fragments are trying to tell him. Maybe he deserves all
the things that wander in and out of his dreams. Who is
to say what we all deserve? The Nazis knew. Dick Cheney,
he knew. Dasien. ¿Donde esta la pistola? The river is poor and dirty
but water is water. Born in the desert, he came into this
world a thirsty man. He will always love the river. He could
write that in any language the world has ever known. Tom
explaining Dasien. Ruben eating an onion. His grandmother
holding a perfect peach. Birds falling from the sky. This is
what life is: an endless stream of memories. When he wakes
from his dreams, he will step into the waters.
From the Last Cigarette On Earth, copyright 2017,
Published by Cinco Puntos Press,