As Before by Brent Powers

It is done there. Nothing to be done about it. The funerary burnings have begun, all his awful old stuff, old marked-in books and notes on paper, paper files, lengths of paper tape run over everything, tape smeared with sticky black ink in clumps of his clotted script, the whole of it carrying his stink of cheap smokes, spilled wine, scum of self love … there, so there, ruins of Athens, Rome and Frankland, ravaged by the Goths of restless impermanence. A man not yet dead, no, not yet fully cognizant of a moving on from himself that occurred years before with the disappearance of his wife and friends, the erasure of all that he was in his own memory, leaving only this detritus of paper history. No, no, not yet. He goes on as before, goes on until he can’t any more. Then there is a period of simply waiting. Hoping for something to catch fire. When it does it is the actual fires of loss. Nothing to be done. Nothing to do. But even this is a dream, the dream of an ending.

He wakes before first light on the last day before the Time Change. It is the winter of his first year in formal Exile. He now lives outside a little seaside village in Q, a place of easy retirement. Retirement indeed, for none else are criminal here, merely old, or of middle age early struck down at the futile business of working, by that business, thence put away from society.

He hasn’t yet seen any neighbors, although he does hear occasional earthworks, tractors and cats attacking the bogs which lie among the paradisial trees of what could be taken for a parkland, his loveliest residence ever. He has never even vacationed in such a splendid place.

He had thought to make another accounting of it all. Another falsification of the past, as all accounts must be. Determining to do so one day he discovered that he couldn’t even gin up enough anger to go on for very long. Perhaps he wasn’t even angry any more. Old friends will call and ask him if he’s finally set about the business and he must lie, although he has begun to wonder why he even bothers. It is over with. Over.

It could have been different. With one or two wiser choices he would be someone else entirely. A smug bureaucrat, a shopkeeper. Yes. That little bookshop he’s always wanted. Never really busy yet there is the constant traffic of a regular clientele, people who hang out, bring him coffee or even lunch. It is on the main thoroughfare of a small college town, a place that still holds out false hope. They come and go, come and go. There is talk of books and films, music, politics, the latest religious balloon. Nothing too important happens, although there are rumors. People are always getting something up, even when it’s all taken care of. There can be no peace among humans. Sooner or later someone starts shooting.

One of them comes in and begins simply enough, with a postulate of some kind. From there it follows, marches heavily, like soldiers in the dawn. It would appear to be noble yet it isn’t. One is almost bored. Marching along, as before, marching as to war. What is the war about? Some vague broken promise. An argument at cards. It doesn’t matter, it must be. And so we go on, as before, as always, scratching and biting at each other, blowing each other up. First one dead son, then another dead in retaliation. Then legions, all dead, all burning up with the files and the books and paper, sizzling meat, stench of valor, all of it burning up for no particular reason other than to make way for new conflicts. We don’t like each other very much. Never have. The wise must come down from time to time and remind us to be nice, at least love the neighbor, which is impossible. These are his thoughts, his sometime discourses, admittedly all very comfortable for a bookseller, grand pronouncements made in the safety of a musty indoors, yet all of it somehow necessary. Must keep your hand in, keep at it, generating opinions, for to opine is human, valid as any war.

And yet some time one comes in with a story, even just a small vignette, more rarely a capture of something occurring at the subatomic level which somehow generates a whole mess of sudden springing circumstance, a world born of almost nothing, a Berashith, thus:

Know then that in the year One King Portius rode out grandly with men at arms and claimed Lands to the North, adding these on to his own with the expedition of the flag. Salamander VIII, rightful heir to the North, rose up in contest against Portius and there was war. The plain was flooded. Ships were brought in. There were navel battles. Portius employed Greek Fire. Salamander was defeated. He retreated to Johnswood which is inimical to Portius. “Will we give chase?” asked Bald Walt, hero to Portius. Portius cried Nay. “We must lose our way in the Forest,” he explained, beating his palm with a ruler. “Will we eat then?” Bald Walt inquired further. When the King agreed Bald Walt signaled for his Ensign to blow the trumpet. “Let’s Eat!” Bald Walt cried. Perforce food was put out on long tables. The food was comprised of tacos and pizzas and burgers and fries, all washed down with small beer. For Entertainment there was Suzy, who danced. An argument arose between sergeants and drum majors as to the art of Suzy. One said it was Balanchine inflected belly, the other called it pole sans machinery. Opinions bred out of these like the exaggerations of plague. Let the food fights begin! Hot cheese flying. The stuff of tacos. All the vagaries of burgers. You cannot escape, you cannot escape. Yet the King did nothing but enjoy the show, and it is due to this irresponsibility that History is not kind, for Salamander made insinuation of his troops in the guise of local peasantry albeit surreptitiously armed. After all, one does not throw down with pizza no matter the topping against cold steel. Portius is humiliated. Salamander rides through the Capital with the ensauced chivalry and marchers of Portius under arrest. The gathered citizens are invited to taste of these interesting blends and a fine entertainment was had by all. Again dispute arose, this time among the food journalists. But disputes rarely stay within the boundaries of interest groups, hence this one grew to include the farming community, the tech guys, the recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, our girls in uniform, the baking collective, various lobbies, sundry paid shills, finally the Paris Light Opera entire until there was again dubious warfare …

Once more he finds himself alone. He surveys the historic landscape with an eye for souvenirs. He hopes to establish a business which includes old melted ordnance and the bones of valor beside the usual books, possibly even antique motion picture cameras, music trapped in vinyl grooves, teeth encased in amber, teeth which had broken off whilst they worked at normally soft food which had been stuffed with gravel by the enemy. These are vague hopes but hopes none the less, and he hasn’t entertained such in a long time, no, not since his ambition let him go. But who could be ambitious here? For behold yon northern mulla drawing in his lawn to partake of the customary afternoon siesta, small zs shortly oozing from his little comma mouth to join the flies above as he drifts into guiltless sleep; others following suit short upon, parading various degrees of splendor in their bedding. Even pavilions appear, and suddenly erupting canopies stretched over birch rods cross the sky. All’s well with the world that can be, and much can be well here. In the marina toy ships shift in their slips, wind chimes ring and flicker through leagues of sad air. The boats go creek and the tides reach up and clap and glitter seems to fall from the masts and the breath goes out and out, joining the wind far out to sea, and nothing has changed for him at all except for that loss of breath going out and rejoining the wind and the sea.

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