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The Burden of Ashes, Justin Chin

The Burden of Ashes

I'm trying to clean out my appointment book. Put the new fillers into the ring binder, throw out the old pages. Every year it happens: I come across the handwriting of people who have died. Phone numbers and little messages that I allowed the then-living to write in my book; and before I know it all I have left is a handwriting, the last vestige of anything really organic. Once, I crossed out a dead person's name from my address book section – one hard dark felt-pen streak slashed across name, address, phone</i> - and immediately regretted it. Now I use a pencil and merely put huge brackets around the scrawled writing, two gray number 2 curves gently holding fragile information.

A friend of mine lived with AIDS for 10 years before he died. His sister told me that he died with family and friends. She had gone to Hawaii to pick him up to take him home to Minneapolis with her. But he got sick suddenly and died in the islands, where he had wanted to be buried all along. I only bring this up because I was cleaning my drawers and I found a little golden frog that he gave me when I left Hawaii. “For luck,” he said. His name is still in my address book: David Grossman, framed by two delicate pencil marks holding what remains all together.

Man Gets Pushed Off Subway Platform, New York City

A man is pushed off the subway platform. The perpetrators run away, two red woolen caps dashing across the crush of commuters, bouncing up the stairs and gone. The man careens forward, one hand tucked firmly inside his jacket's front pocket, trapped; the other hand reaches out to grab something to hold on to. In that one pose, he looks like a Life magazine photograph of an Olympic runner breaking the tape in triumph. He doesn't find anything to hold on to, not quite. His outstretched hand, overhead, finds the row of fluorescent lights that line the ceiling of the station. He grabs the tube, but it doesn't hold. It snaps into two, like a candy bar, with a gorgeous sound. The air fills with electrical smoke as the gaseous insides of the tube meet the cold air. The man falls into the gutter between the tracks. The light in the station is one tube darker now, making the man's fall look more painful. The gutter between the tracks is filled with black water, the melted remains of snow and rain that sloshes through the roads, down storm drains, sluicing downstream into a stagnant river filled with candy wrappers, shreds of newspaper, potato crisp wrappers, bits of fallen clothes, take-away food cartons, empty cans of soda. The water looks like dark syrup, but when the man falls into it, proves to be thin fluid after all. A rat the size of an infant's foot scurries away; it had been standing here doing its rat things, camouflaged, all this time. The man stands up in the gutter. A woman yells, “Get out, get out, there's a train coming!” Another man shouts, “Don't touch the third rail!” The other commuters look on, horrified, waiting for that train to come. No one comes forward to help him. It is as if a giant hand is holding everyone back the requisite three feet away from the edge of the platform.

Finally, with a great amount of effort, the man manages to get himself boosted up, one leg on the platform, a supreme effort, and he clumsily lumbers onto the platform much like how bears climb onto crude unnatural make-believe landforms at a zoo. The commuters move away, part like the Red Sea and let the man walk away, up the stairs and out of the station. At the edge of the platform where he climbed out, there is a smudge on the tiled floor, pigment of grease and sludge from the waters of an urban Styx. Five blocks away. Or five miles. Or five minutes away, in an art gallery with walls a colour so fashionable it doesn't even have a name, a man and a woman are looking at a painting. The frame is a fat, extravagant, gilded thing with ornate petals and flowers. At the center of each side of the frame are angels' wings – no fate cherub, just wings. The canvas is a mad splatter of colour. The woman points out a path of colour for the man to follow. She holds her finger up in the air in front of the painting and traces that path. The man's eyes follow the woman's finger back and forth across the canvas but he is looking not at the painting anymore but at the woman's finger. He likes the way her finger hangs in the air as if the rest of her arm, sheathed in her green sweater-sleeve, does not exist. Across town, in an office on the third floor of an old brownstone, a young man is sitting across the desk from a doctor. The doctor holds up cards with ink blots on them and asks the young man what he sees.

The examination goes on and the young man is responding to the doctor's questions but he is not looking at the doctor nor the cards anymore but out the window behind the doctor. There is a pigeon with one good leg and one mangled leg with bits of wire attached to it sitting on the window sill. It is not an uncommon sight in the city. Someone yells, down below in the street, and the pigeon flies away. In the contrast between the dark pigeon and the bright sunlight, the young man's eyes are imprinted with the shape of the bird so that he sees the bird's silhouette every time he blinks.

The Swedish Psychologist

Who is he? Why are you talking to him? Do you know him? and I feel the sting of the backhand across the side of my head. You're no good, you're nothing but a cheap prostitute. I don't want to see you anymore, and I'd be on the floor wishing for a bit more wine and pleading with him not to leave me give me a chance to explain and that I love him, which must mean something.
He's disappeared in the restroom. He thinks I didn't see the glances that the two have been giving each other the whole night. Hours of mild flirtation and suddenly they're both in the restroom at the same time. “I didn't chase after him in the toilet,” he says. “We talked, yeah, we talked.” The man wandering around alone is French-Vietnamese, a flight attendant. “Nothing happened; he's good-looking but so are you. Don't you trust me?”
The next week, they are both in Saigon and the French-Vietnamese flight attendant is playing tour guide, showing him the sights, driving him wherever he wants to go, letting him stay at his apartment, cooking for him. In the man's apartment overlooking the sea, he writes me the tenderest love letter he has ever written. He tells me that he loves me dearly, that I will always be dear to him, that he thinks of me all day, that I deserve good things, only the best, to happen to me because I'm special.
I love him so dearly I think I'll kill myself if he ever leaves me. The guy's name was Alfie. Alfie in Jakarta. He shows me a picture of the boy. Alfie the Dancer posing by a tree on the beach in the bright June sun, shirt unbuttoned, staring straight at the camera, smiling straight at me.

Opercuthalousas (A Lexicon for Blindness)

UNCOMMITTED. There are spots on the retina where images, after passing through the lens of the eye, do not reflect, hence the image never appears in your brain. The light rays and the image enter the watery mass of your eyeball and simply vanish. This is known as the blind spot. Something dangling right in front of your eyes may not ever be seen by you.

VISION. Passion and astigmatism.
Here I go blindly stumbling barefoot through the bamboo-shoot jungle.

WISH. I have a fantasy where a man obsessed with me would secretly live in my basement and sneak into my apartment when I'm away or asleep. He leaves china cups, pressed flowers, and insects preserved in vodka in small jam jars where I will find them. In my bathtub, he leaves small sculptures of cranes that he carves out of carrots and cucumbers. I pretend that all these objects appearing in my apartment are nothing out of the ordinary so he will continue doing it. On the 90th day, I will leave a trail of paprika leading to a sheet of glass with my thumbprint on it for him.

X. It's perfectly all right to skip over something. The eye does it if the object is close enough to the face.


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