It Must Be This


After having been asked numerous times by some of the people I work with at the factory, I finally agreed one night to go back to the trailer one of them lives in for a party after work.  About a dozen of us were there all told.  Some sat on one or another of the frayed, sagging chairs that had been crammed into the trailer's narrow living room while others bunched themselves up on an old, tattered couch or sat about on the floor.  Cans of beer were distributed, a joint or two got passed around, then everyone settled into having a good time, smoking endless numbers of cigarettes and shouting meaningless party talk at each other over the blare of the stereo, which had been turned up full blast.

I found it difficult to enjoy myself.  I was too aware – as I am aware every day when I go into work – of being too ill-suited to the company of these people to really relax.  I did not, after all, really understand them.  I did not know how to be one of them.  Unlike me, they did not feel themselves to exist outside the social order into which they had been born; they knew who they were and what they were, and where they belonged.  They were a friendly enough group, and happy too, being no more and no less disgruntled with their lot in life than they had been taught by life to be.  They were, in other words, as content with themselves and each other as any group of people who are of similar background, intelligence, and sensibilities are.  I did my best not to let the difference in our temperaments show.  This was, unfortunately, the best I could do.

During the course of the evening one of the men in the group had a long fit of coughing; this left him looking exhausted and sounding hoarse.  After he'd finished, he stared down at the joint he was holding, ruefully shook his head at it and said, "I guess that'll be enough of that!"  So saying, he passed the joint on.  Then he shook a cigarette out of the pack he kept in his shirt pocket, lit that, and immediately started sputtering and hacking all over again.  This made everyone laugh.  "Better now?" somebody asked, and they all laughed some more.  The fellow with the cigarette, his face reddened from coughing, laughed right along with them.  The capacity to laugh at one's foibles is a feature much appreciated by these people and, despite the shadows under his eyes, the paleness of his skin and the yellow stains on his teeth, this man had a self-effacing sweetness about him which made him quite popular with the other members of his group.  Someone asked after his health.  He has a chronic lung condition and has been strictly forbidden to smoke; the doctors have warned that if he does not quit his lungs will continue to deteriorate and soon become seriously damaged.  He told us then the riddling little joke he'd made upon hearing this news, and which I repeat here now more or less in his own words:

"Why worry about it?" he said with a shrug.  "Like I said to the doctor, the only thing you need to worry about when you get up in the morning is what you're going to do with your day.  And if you're too sick to do anything, well then, you don't have to worry about that.  If you're sick, the only thing you have to worry about is whether you're going to get better or die.  And if you die, you don't have to worry about that either.  The only thing you have to worry about then is whether you're going to go to heaven or hell.  And if you go to hell, well, the only thing you'll have to worry about is what you're going to do with all your friends once you get there!"

This joke was greeted with cheers all around.  After all, for these people it was more than just humorous; its moral formulated a major tenet of their lives.  "Anyhow," the fellow concluded, taking another long, ruminative drag on his cigarette, "I already know I'm going to hell.  So I guess I figure . . . why worry?"  This final comment was greeted with yet more cheers and laughter.  The fellow looked dazedly about him, a happy grin on his face.  The response given his remarks was meant, after all, to be friendly; and he took it as such.  I, however, did not.  I thought I sensed a callous quality to it.  For there suddenly swept through me the conviction that this man really meant it:  he really did believe in hell – the old Biblical hell of tormenting fires and eternal damnation.  Not only that, but he believed he was already condemned to go there, and that there was nothing he could do to stop it.  "This is a cold, cold world," he seemed to be saying, "and we all know it.  Weakness can neither be helped nor, in the end, tolerated.  But I am weak.  We are all weak.  And there's nothing we can do about it.  So . . . why worry?"

I found myself staring in wonder at this good-natured, and essentially good, young man.  He felt my gaze and glanced over at me, a fleeting, semi-embarrassed smile parting his lips.  I grinned back at him – felt my grin go wrong somehow – and averted my eyes.  There passed through me then a sudden feeling of intense physical desire for him, a feeling which continued to possess me for the rest of the evening.  Through the impetus of pity, my lust had been aroused; and though he did not know it, I'd gladly have accompanied him to hell that night.  Had I been willing to surrender myself up to my lust, purely and wholly, I may even have convinced him to allow me to do so.  But to rescue him from that hell he would not have allowed.  That would have required of him the sacrifice of his cavalier attitude towards life, death, and morality; and however feeble its protection, this was the only defense he had against the surety of his damnation.  Had I gone to hell with him that night, I would have had to stay there.  And this, for better or worse, I was not willing to do.


Having been squeezed and squashed,
then left suspended between heaven and earth,
like dust – now the slow spreading of dawn
begins, the sky growing gradually finite again;
and cold, white, jealously reveling in its revelation
of the inevitable solidity of this world –
all this some watchful I observes,
as cautious as glass or any other
watchful, silent, finite thing,
no matter how well it imitates the light.

And feels a surging in its breast,
the dam that keeps bursting, again, again;
the sticky air of human breath;
the brain like a cobweb, its passive stealth
netting whatever the eyeball reels in
on its endless, incompetent, selfless quest:
and this is life, and this is death.

Men and women are putting on clothes;
cars give a roar and go speeding away
on missions more urgent than the message of love.
No matter:  numbness settles in like a scar,
each stranger's face, while some
you rolls over restlessly in my bed.
Already I am hungry again for the night;
it will inevitably come, I know, in its turn,
and consume again the two of us whole,
just as this hunger consumes my soul.