Jed Brody teaches physics at Emory University. He spent two years in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa. He hasn't had a driver's license since 1995.
Helen is wearing her favorite dress and sitting in her favorite chair. She smiles, but only I can see it. We speak the new way now. Heart to heart. Mind to mind.
"You know what I've been thinking about lately?" I say.
She raises an eyebrow.
"I've been thinking about all the jackass things I used to do to try to impress people," I say. "I used to do card tricks. Only jackasses do card tricks. I used to juggle. Only jackasses juggle. I used to make puns all the time. I don't even know the word to describe the jackass who makes puns all the time. But if there is a word, its meaning is 'jackass.'
"It gets worse. I used to think of jackass things to say and then come up with jackass ways to bring them up in conversation. One of my favorites was this: Other people feel sorry for Jesus up there on that cross. Not me. I feel sorry for the tree. The tree was crucified first."
"I don't think that's a jackass thing to say," Helen says. "And I don't think you should be so hard on yourself."
"What kind of jackass isn't hard on himself for all the jackass things he's said over his entire life?" I say.
"I know what will cheer you up," she says. "I'll tell you a jackass thing of my own."
I try to raise an eyebrow, but my eyebrows aren't working now.
She says, "Lately, I've been imagining that I'm canoeing at dusk along a gentle stream."
"That's not a jackass thing to say," I say. "That's an idyllic reverie."
"I haven't gotten to the jackass part yet," she says.
"Oh," I say. "Do go on."
"In the dim twilight, the stream is dark and thick, and my oar presses silently through the waters. Thunder bellows rhythmically, and the breeze is humid and hot. The cries of loons and the wails of coyotes bruise the glowering sky. I sample the current with my oar. Other streams are joining mine. Up ahead, the mouth of a cavern swallows blackness. I crouch as I enter and feel chill droplets falling from stalactites.
"The stream veers and descends, and cold gusts rush out from the depths. My canoe plummets out from under me, and my oar shatters against something I cannot see. I accelerate down spiraling passageways as the thunder pounds louder. I splash into an ocean that tosses up waves with every crack of thunder. I become aware that I am in my own heart.
"And this ocean is just a small well, and I'm not even in the depths; I'm just floating at the top. I drift down into the sunless rock that holds in its pores the Earth's blood. The silence is somehow musical. And I see that this aquifer is pierced by the wells of billions of human hearts."
"I was with you until the end," I say. "I think every human heart is a toilet that flushes into a common sewer. This might explain the thunder you heard."
She laughs, but other people think she's sighing.
"My husband and I went canoeing once, early in our marriage," she says. "It was my idea, so I drove. That day, I drove my own car for the last time. My husband worked from home, or he flew out on business, so I usually drove his car. I liked his car. It smelled like him. Cigarettes and rottweiler."
"You had a rottweiler who smoked cigarettes?" I say.
"Did I ever," she says. "So, one day I decided to get back in my own car for a change. The windshield was whitewashed with bird droppings. One of the tires was flat. And one of the side mirrors was cracked. But I got in and put the key in the ignition. I turned the key, and the engine wouldn't start. So I just left the key in there anyway. It was comfortable there, and it had nowhere else to go."
"I never rode a real canoe," I say, "but when I was a young boy, I used to build little rafts out of grass and twigs. I'd put them in the creek in the woods behind my house and run along the bank to race them. There was a tree that marked the finish line. I'd always careen into it at full sprint, stopping myself with my arms.
"I usually finished ahead of my rafts. But it was more exciting when a raft won. That meant I'd built a really good raft.
"One day I built the best-looking five-inch raft ever constructed in this world. I'd peeled the bark from the twigs to make it slick. I tied the twigs together with dandelion stalks that I'd squeezed the juice out of. I kicked it around in the dirt to test its sturdiness and to give it that weathered look.
"When I went to drop my canoe in the creek, I saw a griffin drinking from the other side. I'd never heard of a griffin and didn't know it was any more outlandish than a deer or a fox, which I'd seen very rarely. So I dropped my raft in the creek and raced it downstream. I beat it by a lot. When I looked back, the griffin was gone.
"A couple years later, my parents told me we were going to the city on vacation. We left the house by the woods and went to an apartment above a comic-book shop. After a few days, I started asking when we were going to go home. I wanted to play in the woods. I kept asking for nearly a year.
"I grew up, you know, and stopped thinking about the woods. I read comic books. I lived in my own comic book, moving from one tiny box into another, all stacked on top of each other, all separated by flat surfaces and right angles. Stairwells, elevators, classrooms, apartment buildings. Telephone booths, but no Superman. Page after page after page. Who wants to read a comic book without any superheroes? You read it only because you have no choice.
"Years went by. I did what I was supposed to do. There was work to be done. Important work. Difficult work. Dangerous work. It wasn't until after the war ended that I started thinking about the griffin again. I'd just been discharged and had some money and didn't know where I was going to go or what I was going to do. So I decided to buy a car and go back to the woods by the old house and look for the griffin.
"The drive was about 45 minutes, which gave me far too much time to think and fret. Now, 15 years had passed since I'd been in the old neighborhood, and a lot of things looked different along the road back there. I began to wonder what I'd do with myself if the woods weren't there any more. I decided, after careful deliberation, that I'd rip the bumper from my new car and beat to rubble any building that stood where the woods used to stand. What goes around comes around. Sometimes you wait for an act of God to set things right. Sometimes the act of God is you.
"And I planned, as I drove, what I'd tell the court on the day of my sentencing. In my head, a packed courthouse was captivated by my words. 'Who is this madman, raving before us, and what peephole into insanity does he stretch open, before we do away with him forever?' And this is what I'd say.
"'The Garden of Eden is not a mythic past. It is any place where everything we see was crafted by hands greater than ours, where everything that moves was conceived in a mind greater than ours. It is any place that we have no power to create, only the power to destroy. And it is here, in these wilds, that we remember the freedoms we once embraced. The freedom to follow your own heart and none other. The freedom to hunt like a wolf and to flee like a deer. The freedom to transform unhurried and alone, like a caterpillar. The freedom to live without duty and to die without remorse.
"'And if one of these wild places touches a child and says, "Do you love me? Will you live for me? Will you fight for me? Will you die for me?" and the child says, "Yes," then even the collisions of planets cannot sever the bond.
"'I had such a bond with a forest, and that forest stands no longer. And if my eyes can't watch those trees caress the face of heaven, then I have no use for eyes. And if my ears can't hear the whispers of the breezes and the lapping of the creek, then I have no use for ears. And if I am not free to walk among those living pillars, my heart seized with wonder, then I have no use for freedom.'
"That's what I'd say. Then all would go dark beneath the thrustings of pitchforks and torches.
"I'd resigned myself to a gory public execution. I was almost looking forward to it. So it came as something of a shock when I arrived and found the woods intact! There were marked trails that had never been there, and some jackass had put up a sign about not littering, as though the sign was any less ugly than litter.
"I started walking downhill to the creek, then jogging, then running. I was already at a full sprint when I saw the finish-line tree, standing where it always stood! I gulped air and stretched my arms out before me. Then I crashed into the tree and collapsed against it.
"And in that instant, I remembered what it was like to be six years old. I remembered how my little pecker felt when I stood on my toes to piss in a urinal. I remembered the taste of the school lunches -- milk from the square cartons, small cubes of Jell-O, meatball sandwiches. I remembered the smell of the red, rubber kickballs. I remembered the hugeness of everything -- the grown-ups, the school yard, the hallways of classrooms filled with older students.
"And I remembered the faces of my parents when their skin was unlined and their hair was brown, almost black. I remembered the ginger snaps my mom gave me when I got home from school. I remembered my dad coming home from work smelling like gasoline and engine grease, and the black stains around his fingernails that never washed off.
"So I was holding the tree and leaning my head against the rough bark and sobbing like an infant. And would you believe, before I had a chance to properly wipe my face, a jackass walked by with a baby in some harness on his chest. 'It's beautiful here, isn't it?' the jackass said. 'My grandfather took me here when I was little. He told me many stories. If you like, I can pass them on to you.' And he handed me his jackass business card! I didn't know what else to do, so I took it and put it in my pocket. I stared at him with a mixture of incredulity and hostility until he left.
"So I kneeled by the creek and washed my face and decided, in my impeccably reasonable way, to wait here until I saw the griffin again. I was comfortable and not in a hurry, and the afternoon was long and serene. I sipped from the creek now and then and noticed how much the rocks at the bottom looked like cobblestones. By dusk I was getting hungry and starting to wonder exactly how long I was going to stay here.
"The night was even longer and more serene than the afternoon had been, but I was starving. I decided that at dawn I'd leave and continue my griffin vigil some other time. So I lay on the moss and leaves and watched the dome of stars do its slow pirouette.
"To my surprise, I awoke around noon! No griffin tracks were present, so I went to the car and drove back to my apartment. There was nothing to eat except a box of saltines, so I ordered a pizza. While waiting for it to arrive, I shoved a handful of saltines in my mouth and changed out of my dirty clothes. Before putting my pants in the laundry bag, I emptied my pockets. And what do you know, I found the business card given to me by the jackass with the grandfather. I read it: 'Edgar Moss, Executive Chef, The Griffin Tavern.'
"I sat on the couch and wondered a little about the name of his restaurant. But I was hungry, so I wondered mostly about what it would be like to eat there. I pictured wild boars with apples in their mouths and turkey legs the size of mandolins. I pictured bearded men slurping ale from washtubs and resuscitating each other with punches to the stomach.
"Then a guy in a tank top came to the door with my pizza. So I paid him, and as he left, I noticed that the tattoo on the back of his shoulder was a griffin. Not the most common tattoo motif, you know?
"So I turned on the TV when I started to eat, and guess who was on TV? Merv Griffin."
Helen's eyes are mostly closed, but she's still listening.
"So you saw your griffin," she says. "Just not the way you expected to."
"That's right," I say. "Things never turn out how you expect."
A nurse comes to give Helen her medicine. In a few minutes, a volunteer will wheel me into the television room. I don't want to go, but I at least want to get there myself. I try to stand. I turn the key and the engine won't start, so I leave the key in the ignition because it's comfortable there and has nowhere else to go.
Jed Brody reads "Igniton."
David Lee Simmons interviews Jed Brody.
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