from Nothing in the Dark
My mother would assuage my childhood night-fears by saying There’s nothing in the dark that you can’t see during the day. There’s nothing that doesn’t belong there. She would flick on the light and point out my nightstand, the mound of tossed clothes in the corner, the lampshade that in silhouette too often resembled the head of an evil Martian robot. Then she would switch it off and ask me to imagine all the things in the room as they were seen in the light, only drained of color, in black and white. I understood, and the fears would subside. Decades later, I try to remember that lesson when the fears return. But now the dark is so much greater; it expands across the city, the hemisphere, threatens the sun on the other side of the planet. And if the things it conceals are there all the time, even in daylight, belonging to this world as surely as redwoods and dolphins, then why can’t I see them? Why, as I walk down the mid-morning street, are so many people heading in the opposite direction, as if hurrying away from whatever it is I seem to be moving toward?
It would have helped if they’d told me exactly why they assumed I could identify the body. Try as I might, I couldn’t match the deceased’s face with any I remembered having seen before. The man was somewhere in his fifties, balding, and though thin, his body seemed flabby, without musculature, deflated flesh around a small-boned frame, with two round puncture wounds, like a bite, between the right wrist and elbow. Death diminishes everybody, even professional athletes in their prime, extracted from tree-hammered sports cars or found fatally drugged and wearing only sunglasses and women’s underwear. No one in this condition could possibly be anything but pathetic, a disturbing eyesore.
No, I’d never seen the man before. Yes, I’m sure. Yes, I’m very sure. Yes, if I think of something I’ll call the precinct. Yes, if I ever think of anything again I’ll be sure to call. No, it was no trouble. Sorry I couldn’t help. Sorry no one on this entire planet could have helped.
In the coffee shop I saw a man who resembled Kafka: thin, dark, timidly feral, those Vulcan ears, his suit, coarsely woolen as if it had been tailored in the last century, the last last century, I mean. He seemed, in the words of the novelist, exhausted by the usual as well as the unusual, his bony hands flat on the table top, his eyes focused down on a black and white photograph that lay between them, pinned at one corner by an empty ceramic cup. If the usual and the unusual are equally tiring, then at the end of the day what real difference can there be between them? The dead are those voices in our minds that urge us toward or away from action. One way or the other, they know what they would have done in life. Our thresholds are crowded with them. Turn right, back away, step forward, don’t do what I did, do what I should have done, take a deep breath, go far away from here. They wear neither angel’s wings nor a devil’s red underwear, but they and all their unfinished business remain with us, even if their debts and body odors do not. I try not to listen to them. The dead are no wiser for being dead.