Inspired by Louis Aragonís Le Paysan de Paris
Ross E. Lockart
Today Iím thinking in color, but Iím dreaming in black and white. Iíve just dropped my wife off at work, and Iím driving north up Highway 15. The sun is filtered and distorted by the dirty windows of my truck and I adjust the visor to preserve my eyes. When I reach the 78, I head west until my turnoff, then make for the back of Palomar College. Today is Thursday, so I park in one of the back lots, in pretty much the same spot I did on Tuesday, Election Day, as well as the Thursday before. I perform the ritual to protect my truck from tickets by hanging a yellow and gold parking permit from the rear view mirror, mesmerized for a few seconds by the way the sun bounces back from the holographic metallic numbers. (One, one, four, six, three.) I pull the faceplate from my stereo and hide it behind the seat. I get out of the truck, locking it as I step out, and hoist my weighty backpack onto my shoulders. I feel like Iím smuggling anvils as I start my walk to class. I listen to the rhythm beaten on the pavementís drum by my boots and improvise short melodies as I walk past the temporary parking permit dispenser and building windowed with one-way glass that I think of as "the tollbooth." Sometimes I imagine the tollbooth inhabited by a kindly cannibalistic candy-house witch from a childrenís story, but know that I would be either fascinated or disappointed by its real contents. A shed filled with misused boots and ancient tools could open a beautiful new world. An empty one would close it. Maybe someone watches us from within.
Around me, other students climb out of their cars and begin to head towards their own classes. Not knowing their stories, I imagine them as two-dimensional creatures, existing beyond this time, this place, this parking lot only as shadows, as specters. I know I live away from here, work away from here, but picture this amorphous "them" as creatures, strange alien shellfish, hermit crabs, living only in their cars, crawling out into the real world only when necessary to present their human faces and maintain the illusion. I shudder at this thought.
I continue onward, towards my first class. Western Civilization. There is a myth that history professors are required to be Marxists. This is only a myth. Sometimes I feel myself biting into my tongue to keep from responding to this instructorís a.m. talk-radio proselytizing and admiration of absolutist monarchs. I make a wish that she has taken today off. I look ahead to my next class, the History of Surrealism, but feel like kicking myself as I realize that I have an unwritten paper due today. I make another wish, this time for divine intervention. I stop before I leave the parking lot to admire strange and showy phallic flowers as they wave slowly in the wind. I cross the street, make eye contact through two pairs of sunglasses with the driver of the low rider (Chevy, nice.) that Iíve made wait. He bobs his head in time with the hip-hop track playing loudly on his stereo. In his back window, a small, flocked, artificial Chihuahua bobs his head as well. I would laugh at this, but he seems to have put so much effort into looking "hard" that I hate to deflate him. As I get clear, he guns the engine, drives past. I feel the wind as his car moves by on the back of my neck and legs. I imagine the wind to be part of the music he plays so loudly. I step up onto the curb and prepare to cross another street, watching other students streaming past.
Once across, I walk along a sidewalk path, running my fingers along a fairly new chain-link fence. Through the fence, I see a red-brick sculpture, an arch. Iíve walked up to this sculpture, placed my hand against it, felt its rough-hewn face. Iíve imagined it to be the remains of a Spanish mission. Now a ten-foot fence blocks me from it. The reason for the fence appears to a series of ditches. Has Palomar started digging graves? Who are we burying, is there a war I havenít heard of, a police action? Have the penalties for parking violations gone this far? No, a woman in my creative writing class explained a few days earlier, the college plans to build a new set of classrooms or offices here, maybe a Science building. The holes are an archeological project, searching for Native American artifacts. I consider the specter of this new building for a few moments, picturing it and contrasting it with the ghostly sensory memory of my hands on the cold red brick of the sculpture. I feel like Louis Aragon in Paris Peasant, lamenting the loss of the Passage de líOpťra. I will miss this sculpture, as I have touched it.
I feel like I may be running late, that Iíve spent too much time contemplating the ghosts of the future, so I pull my watch from my pocket and glance at it. Nine-thirty, Iím just on the cusp of late. Iíve often wished that I could be one of the watchless, unrestrained by the god Chronos, but I am tied to either being accurate, or fashionably late. I run my thumb across the face of my watch, feeling the two scratches on the crystal, I think of my wife presenting it to me, and then put it back in my pocket. I quicken my pace, speed along the chain-links, along the path, down a ramp, some stairs, ignoring the near rain forest beauty surrounding me. I cross a street, cut between classrooms and weave through other students. I reach my destination, my first classroom, and as I reach for the doorknob, taped in the center of the door, a yellow sheet of paper, at a slight angle. A part of me rejoices, one wish granted, no lecture today, no notes. I go over to the library to kill the next hour and a half.
I donít make it inside. Instead, I sit down at a table by the downstairs entrance. I take out my notebook and begin to write, hoping that thoughts come leaping into my brain like insects infesting a fresh carcass. A woman sits down by the wall and lights a cigarette. She is blonde, the cigarette a generic menthol. I would ignore her; in fact I would forget her, but a large man in misshapen glasses and a dirty white T-shirt walks up and sits down just downwind of her. He speaks.
"Did you know that Jacques Cousteau died last night?" He breathes heavily as he speaks.
"No." She fingers her cigarette nervously. "I hadnít heard."
"Yeah, it happened about three years ago."
"Oh, I think I heard that." She is trapped.
"Yeah. He was a personal friend of mine and I used to go on the Calypso with him, he had a son that died, he got the bends and his lungs exploded and died and then Jacques Cousteau died; he liked to fish and theyíd catch fish and heíd make a Welsh rarebit and this other guy liked beer, he was a close personal friend of mine. He liked Fosters and Grolsch and my sister had a Baja bug that was really cool and Iím on medication. I take Paxil. Yeah. Jacques Cousteau died last night three years ago he went to Scripps hospital for a heart attack and died on the operating table. What a way to go, they couldnít save him." He smiles a big grin. She gets up and leaves without saying anything, without even looking back. "It was nice talking to you, pretty lady."
I decide that itís too cold where Iím sitting, the sky threatens to rain, and thereís a chance he might talk to me, so I go inside, climb the stairs to the top level, the silent floor. I find a seat, a desk by the window, throw my backpack down in the center of the desk, take off my sunglasses and set them on the desk in front of me. I unzip my backpack, conscious of the sound of the zipper in the quiet room and pull out a book. Giorgio de Chirico, Hebdomeros. I open it to a random page, ignoring the index card I use to mark my place. Page 43. "ÖIt is the continent where the world will know its last great civilization before growing cold forever and sharing the fate of the moon." I worry about these gloomy predictions for a few seconds, imagining a barren stone earth marked only by mankindís graffiti, a paved-over and mourned Passage de líOpťra floating around the Sun. I set the book down again, look around the library. Two girls from my first class sit at one of the tables, one red-haired, Irish, the other dark and vaguely Middle Eastern. They laugh quietly about an unheard inside joke. I pick up the book again, open to my marker, and read as the minute hand hikes around the clock face. Every few pages, I find a punctuation mark in looking out the window. I wonder if the sky will decide to rain. As my friend the minute hand begins his climb from ten towards twelve, I decide that it must be time to go to my next class, Surrealism. I stand up, grab my backpack and start for the stairs. I reach the door to the stairwell with my right hand while reaching up to pull my sunglasses from the top of my head to my eyes. There are no sunglasses there. I feel a moment of panic. Iíve carried these sunglasses for several years now, after finding them in the record store where I used to work. The lenses are scratched, dark and green. Iíve bought maybe half a dozen pairs of glasses since finding these, but all of them have broken. Only the ones I found have survived Ė until now. I retrace my steps, walk back to the desk, and retrieve my glasses. I walk back to the door, past the two girls from class, they continue to laugh at their inside joke. I feel like Iím the one being laughed at. I put on my glasses and burst through the door into the stairwell, heading down the stairs, two at a time.
When I step back into the real world, the rain has started, and I look up, letting it wash my face with its cold grace. With my eyes open, green-tinted droplets splash against the lenses covering my eyes. I imagine myself driving from the library to the classroom. I walk up to the classroom where my Surrealism class meets, open the door, first to arrive. I drop my backpack onto the floor and sit down; I close my eyes, I whisper a silent incantation; I unzip my pack, reach in and pull out this document. Another wish fulfilled by mysterious gods. I close my eyes and wait for class to begin.