A Fish Who Worships Fire

by John MacBeath Watkins A sharp-faced man at the newsstand thinks he sees me talking to myself, but he’s wrong. I haven’t been on speaking terms in years. I’ve told myself too many lies, called myself too many names. My lips move, my voice murmurs, but it’s not a conversation. I use the isolation of my life to compose elegies to strangers. I have no books, the library kicked me out for falling asleep when I got warm, and the people at the newsstand won't let me touch their merchandise. Except for newspapers salvaged from the trash, I have regressed to a preliterate way of life. For untold thousands of years before writing was invented, the great literature of cultures was passed on through a verbal tradition. Rhythm and rhyme made it possible for generations of storytellers to tell the great epics verbatim, and they enable me to remember the details of my life and help me overcome my great fear that hunger and isolation will destroy my mind. No one touches me, no one speaks to me, except the cop who tells me to move on. It’s against the law in Seattle to recline upon the sidewalk, so I choose between slow steps from nowhere to eternity, or standing with the patience of a stork, or reclining against the law. Some of you might recognize my face. It’s a bad face, a sinister face, a face that all humanity 1

should oppose. When I was an actor my face was my fortune. On the silver screen I played villains, and my appearance alone was enough to make even the most lumpish and unsure actor look like a hero. I was a maker of stars, but consigned to the ranks of character actors myself. It was steady work, but not terribly well paid. And now I don’t own my face. I spent time in a psychiatric hospital. While I was there, my mother had power of attorney to handle my business. Max Milligan, director of a play I had starred in, persuaded her to sell him the rights to my face. I can no longer appear on television or in films without his consent. Unfortunately he died intestate. With no will, there was no way to know who to ask for consent to use my face. The case could be in probate for years, and I have no resources to pursue a legal fight. You could call me a visible man. Suppose you ceased to have corporeal existence. You somehow came to exist only in the imagination of those who saw you, a sort of reverse invisible man. People would see you, they would react as if you were there, but when they closed their eyes you would cease to exist. You would be unable to lift a teacup unless it were perceived that you could and should lift it, or even move without a sort of unconscious agreement with the people perceiving you. You would be a sort of thinking dream, a living ghost, perhaps able to persuade the dreamer to let you walk through a door but unable to do it if they could not imagine it. If this happened to you, would you know it? Would any action you chose to take be unimaginable to those who knew you? It happens all the time to politicians and other public figures. It happened to my friend Max. One night all the dreams of him were nightmares, and he flew from the roof of a building into the black oblivion of the pavement and freedom from the dreams that drove him. I still wonder whether it was my dream that killed him.


Does anyone dream of me? I wander alone, no one touching me, an image on the periphery of our consensual hallucination. I am homeless, in the old tongue I am a bum. I serve to remind people of the reasons for their compromises, their servitude, the suppression of their desires, the involuntary hours that steal away most of their lives. I’m not the only dream. There are dreams of power, dreams of glory, dreams to drive their owners far to hard for them to bear. Their legs stride by with a purpose and punish the pavement with well-shod feet, pushing the earth in its orbit, serious business and money to be made as long as the legs don’t stop. Faces of stone and eyes like glass curtains, expressionless, efficient, impregnable, pass by my broken eyes and abandoned mouth and lazy, good-for-nothing teeth. So I sit there on the sidewalk reclining against the law. I keep a sharp eye out for law enforcement and for people who seem somehow different. At the Public Market there are plenty of people to watch. Tourists and fishmongers, vegetable vendors and T-shirt brokers, arbitrageurs in used items and all the ordinary people of the city. In a single breath I recite The Shabby Man Ages to assure myself that my mind is still intact. His jowls sag, his belly swells his dreams are crushed beneath the years and yet he faces every day and doesn't let his mind dwell on slipping hopes and growing fears and failing eyes and still I say his courage holds up very well to walk among his desperate peers and face his fate down on the way. It has been three weeks since I saw him, and I remember perfectly, so my mind must be intact. Or perhaps it's been three months. 3

An atavistic figure appears, waiting for the walk light. An administrative assistant, although she still calls it secretarial work. Nylons and makeup, impractical shoes and clothing that fits like sexual armor. She wears gray and pink and her life is stolen hour by hour by corporate dreams. (Or is she a spy in mufti, penetrating a closed world by adopting traditional costume? Her boss wears the businessman's burqa, suit and tie, to make himself indistinguishable from other businessmen.) Something about her appearance is untrue. This isn’t who she really is, and I find the dissonance so tragic that I at once fall in love with her. An Ode to a Secretary, then. A secretary on a sidewalk has got to keep her guard up when she’s walking like a doe into a crosswalk where strong trucks growl at a stoplight and pimps prowl with ladies of the night. Down in those city caverns where the power lines hang like vines there’s a carnivore on every crosswalk, a woman’s got to keep her guard up if she’s going to survive another block. It takes a brisk step to keep them at bay, it takes a locked door at the end of the day to keep a woman safe from the city wilds and the sidewalk where a secretary’s perils lay. (A locked door, what heaven would that be. A hot bath, a warm bed…but no, this isn't about me.) The car is always too far…

And just then, when the walk light changes and she begins to cross, a swarthy man with a face 4

like a wolf streaks by and thrusts his arm through the straps on her handbag and uses his momentum to sweep it from her grip. She looks at me. I am flooded with a feeling as if I am somehow one with her, closer than a lover, not quite as close as an internal organ. I have to rise as the bag snatcher speeds toward me; she is thinking I can block his path. As with almost everyone else since I lost control of my image, he sees me as peripheral, a figurative player with no speaking part and no contact with the leading players. I weigh about as much as a moth, but my limbs are long and I might get in the way. She reaches my arm out like a man hailing a cab and he runs right into it. With his Adam’s apple. I spin halfway `round and fall with him in an ungainly heap of limbs. When he rises again gasping, my leg has somehow become entangled in the straps of the handbag. The human wolf pulls at it, but I bend my knee and he can’t get it away. Running footsteps approach and he flees. A forest of legs and a storm of voices surround me. “We got the sucker.” “No, he got away.” “He’s right here.” “That’s somebody else.” “He’s got the handbag.” “He grabbed it with his leg?” “No wonder he tripped.” Why do I try to be helpful? With my face, I always get blamed. A policeman enters the ring. “Back off, people. Stand back.” He’s using that dog trainer voice they teach police to use to


make people mind. “Is this the bag, ma’am?" She bends over and takes it. Her hair is permed like a helmet and dyed that artificial blonde that never fooled anyone. “That’s it.” The bag is bigger than I realized, and heavy. It is red leather with stiff sides and a strap across the top with fastenings straining like a fat man’s belt. It looks like a way to never be separated from her unabridged dictionary. I didn’t know then about the Book. “Will you press charges against this man?” She doesn’t even look at me, not even to look through me. “No.” “I can’t arrest him or hold him without your cooperation. You can bet this isn’t the only bag he’s snatched.” She might say something in my defense. She of all people knows that I am innocent. “No.” I guess she means no cooperation, but in context it should mean that was not the only bag I’d snatched. I object. “I almost got the bag snatcher. I got the bag back anyhow.” “You have the right to remain silent,” the policeman says. His inflection indicates that this means I should shut up. He is a sturdy man about thirty, with a tendency to plumpness. “But I didn’t grab the bag.” “Ma’am,” the cop calls. “Now where did she go?” “Can I stand up?” 6

“Didn’t I bust you for sitting on the sidewalk?” “That’s why I want to stand up.”

The feeling is gone now, the oneness I felt with her. I am empty and alone, untouchable and cold. So I move my feet slowly like a penitent in chains, in my walk from nowhere to eternity. I should feel safer, the cop keeps watching me. And yet I feel exposed and long for escape. The car is always too far, the bus takes too much time to come, and the eyes are always seeking her, the eyes of urban beasts on the city streets where the bankers and the bikers and the bums strut and stumble and seek small openings in her fabric armor. A tear or a gap will give them a chance give them flesh to feed the furtive glance that fixes now on the line of her calf, then takes in the shape of her ass. (Or is it I who fear the piteous gaze of the ordinary man, or the clenched face of a woman who caught my eyes' quick scan?)

It takes a brisk step to keep them at bay it takes a locked door at the end of the day to keep a woman safe from the city wilds and the sidewalk where the secretary’s perils lay. Plenty of time to finish it later. Time for an epic poem. I will write it then forget it, then write it again. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity and shepherding the wind. I have no goal but to put one foot before the other, marching with that thousand-yard stare, hayfoot, strawfoot, like an inept soldier in a long lost war. I retreat from Moscow every day and leave my dead strewn in the snow bloodless and 7

inert and unfit food for ravens. I must sit down, but the cop is watching, so I retreat from Moscow step by step, clayfoot, strawfoot, clayfoot, strawfoot, broken by a thousand defeats and desertions, glory gone and life ebbing. Struggle never made me stronger It only made me weep It only gave me broken dreams That hurt me in my sleep.

(No, that lyric is mine, not hers.) Where glasses clink and eyes link and whiskey fills the tumblers and ice melts and eyes melt she seeks someone to love her. Her head turns like a lighthouse, searching for herself in the eyes of an unmet lover. When she was younger she had power, and beauty was its source. She’s survived a barren marriage and a bitter divorce, and wonders if beauty has begun to decay and fears what the unmet eyes might say. She watches the couples who merge more than dance to a slow-paced number. They sway like the waves on the loneliest day in the life of a lighthouse keeper. (Even knowing I’m not human in your eyes, I am still fool enough to fall in love with you.) It takes a locked door at the end of the day (deadbolt and blinds drawn until the coffee perks at dawn) to make the woman safe 8

(night shut our, lights on don’t know where the neighbor’s gone) from the city wilds. At home to hear another voice she turns on the TV It speaks of love and passion and dreams that will never be. And when the moon is empty and when her tears wax round she dreams that sleep will take her to some quiet, private ground.

But of course, this isn't her. It’s only my dream of her, the dream of an undreamed man. Psychologists call it projective identification, seeing all our flaws in the face of another. No doubt she is loved and happy when bums aren’t watching her or fantasizing about her and wolf-faced men aren’t stealing her overcrowded purse. I know nothing about her, so the emptiness, despair, vulnerability and loneliness I have spoken of must be my own. It is I who fear the effect of my appearance. It is I who… she is far more real than I, and all her passions and problems are real. Only my own dreams lack substance, as do I. And any thoughts or feelings I may have about her matter about as much as a fish that worships fire. She’ll have no part of my world, and her world will have no part of me.