River Run Requiem

Since his death I’ve been trying to discover who killed my brother.

Is it a crime to kill a man who longs for death? If a man yearns for death so profoundly that he kills himself, has he committed a crime, broken the taboo? I still ask Chris these questions, although he’s been dead for nearly three years now.

cool_waterOf his death, there is only one fact, and this fact contradicts itself. Christopher Michael Clark, aged 37 years, drowned in the Mojave Desert on August 15, 1997. An amazing feat in an accident-prone life, to drown in the middle of a desert. He found the thing he went to find. Death, I see, is as subjective and unknowable as any other experience. Time is relative, Einstein reminds me, and space is curved.

In the lunar Badlands of Southern California are some of the largest free-standing boulders in the world. Boulders big as agribiz barns. Boulders with such high albedo they’re used like lighthouses to mark landing strips in the granite desert sand. Boulders so big some of them have been cult objects for thousands of years.

“Rocks have consciousness,” I say to Chris one afternoon. We’re standing on the Interstate 10 onramp that overlooks the Whitewater River. In respect to the hitchhiking gods, our situation looks about as immobile as the land around us. I’m getting a strange vibe from the granite nodules in whose midst and upon whose bodies we sit. Or maybe I’m just having an acid flashback.

Chris surveys the rocky terrain, then cuts his eyes at me.

“Better not let them hear you say that,” he says. His face is an encyclopedia.

After we’ve lived with and loved somebody for a very long time, we sometimes forego laughing out loud at our beloved’s funniest jokes. It is simply understood that the laughter is there, deep down inside, shoving aside the pit-rocks to make a little room for joy.

“Rocks of the world arise!” I raise my arms in benefaction and yell out across the low desert that runs like a sonorous hum until it gently flutes up to kiss the hips of the San Andreas range. No boulders move, the onramp is still carless, nothing happens.

“Hawk,” Chris says, but doesn’t bother pointing. He feigns a nipple-twister, but instead slaps the base of my shirt pocket. Boosted, my pack of Camels flies up, and Chris snags it from out of the air. I’ve been falling for that one for a while.

“Cigarette,” Chris says.

“I’ll have one too, please.”

“I am one to please.”

Lighting a match in the desert, as Chris now did, is a sacred act. For one thing, lighting a match is nearly impossible. The wind never stops, the air feels calm when rushing by at less than 20 mph. Not that sacred acts are necessarily difficult, but a level of difficulty is a good way to make an act feel sacred. But it’s more than that out here. I often feel that things, already so still in a wind-battened way, will stop when I light a match in the desert. The dry world is fascinated by fire, and no fire is too small to be overlooked. A spider will pause; a sagebrush will shrink. If it’s night, the flickering light will sparkle with Odyssean trails through the wool of a cholla cactus.

“Ents,” Chris says.

“Yezzzz,” I say with head thrown back, sending the slow sibilant into the sky. “Exactly my point about rocks. Tolkein was right on, man,” and Chris is nodding his head furiously in agreement. The immensity of open land, looming mountains a summer-day’s hike away, the not-caring if anybody ever picks us up, these I add to my list of what creates intimacy.

“Trees, squid, paganki, orange u-tangs,” and Chris smirks at the evocative enunciation of our childhood. Chris with our “baby” sister Kay backseat, and me, “the biggest,” (longest, in our trio’s case) up front. The little kid banterese, the “eggsploration” of “pronunskiation.” Kay and I like burbling brooks, inciting each other in punishing the English language, but Chris, not sharing in our vocabularic jamboree, was odd man out. He usually got the jokes, but made his wit with irony and the spontaneous righting of off-the-cuff accidents. A real physical comedian, he eschewed mere slapstick and went straight for the baseball bat. No mortal body could survive my brother’s genius for the capricious. His was a pulsion to gamble, and money didn’t interest him. Neither did puns, most of the time, or silly eloquence. Kay and I still sweat that difference between the three of us, baleening through our memories ever again, telephoning with insights or sudden panics. We do this not to try to change the past, but to correct the future.

“What’s a paganki?” Chris asks. The man left no stone unturned in his search; he’d turn over the obvious in search of treasure, because he remembers burying something there once himself. No possibility left unchecked, no intuition left unexplored. He was searching for the thing that worked, the thing, the person, that’d make him happy. “Natch,” I’d say when he got desperate for it, and when I wasn’t sunk in a hole myself, “and there’s history for you. The quest for the philosopher’s stone.” At which word we’d likely smoke a bowl, if we had it. Like scientists, we had our experimental parameters, our control states against which we could test the magnitudes of our emotions. If we couldn’t find our emotional “home,” at least we knew where the laboratory was.

“Paganki is Russian for desirously edible fungus. It means little pagan. I guess it’s like an affectionate name for their pet mushrooms.”

“I’ve had mushrooms for pets before,” he says, puffing up that last drag of Camel no-rag.

This I believe. “Yes,” I say. Perhaps we had been apart for a long time and were together again, or perhaps we’d been running together for a while looking for lovers, or dope, or, more often with him than anybody, maybe we were just lost in the desert, playing guitars, and talking it all out, getting it out and reassuring ourselves we had some sort of grasp on reality, the reality that seemed Hell-bent on killing at least one of us while still young. Goombye, the little boy’s word that echoes like a doorbell, one I can’t help but answer with a question: What if I hadn’t closed the door?

I killed my brother, and I meant to do it. I know that now. Before I am judged, though, let me ask again: When a man longs so for death that his longing consumes his life, where do free will and love end responsibility, and taboo begin its moral constraint?

We knew dying was part of the bill, and neither of us thought that death was the end of the show. Any act in life, though, could be emblematic of the uneasy pact Chris kept with living. Chris was always the one to insist unto death, my brother. I could only ever grimly agree; hell and high water seemed bad enough. I was never entirely sure what we might be getting into when he pushed his pelagic desire for mortality into words filled with oracular authority, his face stern, black diamonds in his brown eyes.

History wears veils, but I never invented the spook he put into the word death. That son-of-my-mother predicted his own death, and that’s no sacred match in the desert, that’s the pyre of my anger. He used to make me furious, saying, “I’m going to die before you, Brian.”

“You can’t possibly fucken know that,” I’d splutter.

“I do know, man.” He had the aura of Saturn sitting on his throne, dispassionately predicting the fall of the gods.

Was it fate, or, there at the end, did Chris force my hand, make me play into his last daredevil trick? He at last beat me at chess, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t paying attention. It’s because I, too, in all my divoricity, mournful midlife criss-crossed crisising, in all my too-freudened-to-be-jung-anymore state of waiting for Godot or my wife to come around, I, too, am a pawn.

“The devil may care, and I emphasize the word may,” Chris says. He’s quoting our Dad. I’ve been staring out into space, but I’ve never felt more attentive in my life.

Chris loved being out: of doors, of words, of conversations—fine, he had his own thoughts—out in the world, in cars out on the highway. And in, too: love, his black and blue emotions, danger. He was inspired by the dark side, but most of all, he loved to stand in the middle of the bright white light. The light that means this world is just a confusing illusion. And he’d look up and say, “I’m on my way.”

Now, I think every line he said is his summing epitaph. So I tell him, “I think the world is an organism.”

“You’ve said this before. Splain it to me again.” He reaches for his pipe and stash.

“Not only is the planet a living body, but some people say animals get consciousness from eating plants. And smoking them.”

“You have some big ideas, Kralc.” True names are often discovered by pronunskiating given ones backwards. He exhales, and the wind snatches the smoke away. Let the coyotes and the jackrabbits get stoned.

“There’s all these microorganisms that keep the carbon dioxide in the air in check and that make sure the seas don’t get too salty. When you look at the planet from the perspective of an alien, you’d think the entire surface of the Earth, right along with the oceans and the atmosphere, everything’s acting all together. You’d see the Earth’s not a system, not a machine, but a body made of rocks and wind and blood.”

“And titties.”

“Yes, so suck on the sun, the biggest nipple, cause we’re gonna get a lot of it today.”

“Shad’up and suck on this.” The pipe. A vehicle, an engine of reality hacking. Eventually, though, dope becomes either an ally, or we leave it—if it doesn’t kill us first. Being conscious is never easy, but dampening and altering states only infuriates the soul determined to leave the body. After disastrous times Chris would make peace with this fact, and clean up. We’d talk on the phone a lot. I’d visit as often as I could, guitars in tow. But then his love of Thanatos would bear down, and his eyes would be hard and black with pain.

My soul, apparently, is determined to live. I’ve tried to check out, bizarrely, numerously, with blood everywhere. I think the best I’ve been able to do is leave myself hobbling for a few weeks, or maybe best was leaving myself for dead, OD’d three days in a drainage ditch. On the streets, we call that really getting into your drugs.

When no cars come, things like water, and where to take a shit, move strongly into focus. The Whitewater River is raging directly beneath us. I look at Chris like we’ve been doing this forever, but I’m only 23. It’s 1981, when hitchhiking was still barely tolerated.

“We could walk up to the beginning of the offramp and make like penitents or pestilents or postlewaites or whatever it’d be called,” I suggest.

Chris looks at me as if I have a serious infection on my face and is wondering if he should take evasive action. I take it this means he doesn’t fell like getting up and moving.

“We could get down on our knees and pray the drivers on the freeway for a ride. Is what I’m trying to say.”

Chris cranes around and peers past our boulder, out at the freeway. Because that’s the thing, the interstate is right there, less than a quarter mile away.

“Fuck that. Let’s stay here. It’s peaceful.”

Meaning, no dangerous animals, especially no bipeds. A tentative suggestion: depression is the inability to remember that everything is right here all the time just as we find it. Life is just a bunch of fucking stuff that wants to make more stuff. The elegance and eloquence of a life is simply the marks, the philosophorescent trails, of our participation in the stuff. And this stuff, desiring replication, seeking novelty, once in a while insists that a body bend over and take it in the ass. In the vernacular, we call this “life.”

Life is—at times, in part—doing the DNA bend-over. We are fucked because we are bodies. The planet is a tight weave. Kay and I had the family genetics figured out by the time I was first trying dope, so she must have been eleven. Addiction from Dad, and depression (and worse, I silently hoped she wasn’t also thinking) from Mom. We may have been children, but the path was clear: stay on top of the dangerous inheritance. I got stoned that night after Kay and I mapped our genome, and forgot for ten years.

When I emerged a decade later, and started remembering people I’d grown up with again, Chris was waiting out in the desert. I was walking to work one day, and instead of crossing at the corner and continuing to my latest restaurant gig, I stopped and gazed up the onramp. 120 miles to Yucca Mesa. Might be there before dark. Everything behind me, nothing before me. Nothing but Chris. Early the next morning, freezing, I walked up the drive to his house after my last ride. I add this memory to my list of ways to make a left turn in life.

The ability to change horses in midstream, to “turn a life around,” is, I think, the gift of the soul that insists on living the life of the body. The soul has to be willing to make the journey. If the soul is not willing, it seems that no amount of cajoling on the part of the body’s spirit will instill happiness, peace, or the ability to love without destroying. What is the body’s spirit? We call it consciousness sometimes, or intellect, or logos, or any of a number of words that together start to look like an Aristotelian list. I think the spirit is the erotic force of organic being. If scientists can’t supply mathematical definitions of soul and spirit, it may simply be that we don’t have the physics yet. The soul take its own time, and offers us intuitive, physical experiences that supply us with speculation for many lifetimes to come.

Because I’ve been chasing such notions all my life, and Chris was interested, passionately interested because of his quest for the stone, we talked a lot about our souls.

“I just don’t understand how I’m supposed to know what my soul wants,” he says, again and again over the years of depression.

Nothing makes us more aware of, or seems more to disable communication with our souls than depression. To some of us, at times, depression becomes synonymous with life itself. On the ground, in the world, in our culture, we are led, through various means, to feel bad about feeling bad. Depression is often modeled as a disease. As a disease, depressives get the most help from pharmacology. Psychology, despite its name, rarely even discusses the soul, and so its talk therapies miss the depths of depression’s wisdom. The depths that John Keats called “the Vale of Soul-Making.” As a state of being, depression is a metaphor, not a symptom. It is not a sign of something wrong, but a sign from someone.

Psyche, in ancient Greek, means soul, and the indigenous, “pre-Socratic” meaning of psyche is specifically as an organ, a part of the flowing weave of the body. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, when a warrior gets his head bashed open, or his chest stove in, his mates might well see his soul leave his body, pouring out of his poor, broken skin as a viscous gray smoke.

Psyche, though, is just one of a host of ancient body parts that were sacred, or interpenetrated with the divine. The founding metaphor for the relationship of the human body to the divine appears to be the medium of air. The lungs, chest, throat, mouth, nose, and head are all involved in inspiration, a word that literally, physically, suggests breathing the divine. The direct experience of the sacred, it seems, begins with the autonomic nervous system. Our gods and goddesses dwell in the reptilian brain. Life is as automatic as breathing, but in the human, this implies speaking.

For it is the word, so often mistakenly taken as sacred itself, that invokes the divine. And that, I think, is what the soul wants. To speak and be spoken to; specifically, to speak about itself, and for us to speak about the soul. And in that seeming narcissism or circularity of “reason,” there is yet another thing for us to feel bad about: this incessant desire to figure out and tell our stories. Because the soul demands so much introspection and time wasted talking, it doesn’t really fit into the game plan of late capitalism and logocentrism, but that’s why the ancient Greek people had two words meaning “word”: logos and mythos.

This distinction is by some forgotten and by others contested, but I suspect that one who is contemplative of the soul will recognize it immediately. Poetry, music, love making, all can induce mythos consciousness, and the reason for this is simple: Mythos makes a connection with the world as a physical body, while logos separates us and insists that we are distinct and in need of individuating. It’s our human lot—like an living thing, I suppose—to be stuck betwixt and between such that we even need to make the distinction between logos and mythos. But we do need the distinction.

We need the distinction because we die. We need the distinction because the Socratic imperative is to heed our souls. We need to make the distinction anew, now, these days, in order to renew the conversations with our souls. We need the distinction so that when we hear somebody say they want to die we don’t with Pavlovian swiftness respond with tranqs and strait jackets. In order for speech to invoke the divine, we must listen to the words. We must attend to the soul. “A cry for attention.” But who is crying for attention?

The being of us that wants connection cares solely about directly experiencing our emotional inheritance, and in this, the soul is our best guide. That’s the connection the soul demands we recognize, and found our acts upon. Do whatever we want, but do it in the cognizance of soul.

And this is exactly the point where Chris would say, “Right. And I want to check out.”

The world is too fucked up for some people, too disconnected. Depression is a longing toward death because our blood remembers a place and time of undifferentiation. To this mythic place our depression “abducts” us, to use Diane Ackerman’s word. That we call such a place and time a myth is precisely the point: our bodies know things our logocentric spirits would rather not deal with. Our bodies know pain. Our bodies often feel to be reservoirs of pain. My brother’s desire was simple, matter of fact, and clear to him: not to escape, but to surrender. We may live in harmony, discord, or in ignorance of the soul, but ultimately there is no escaping the soul’s will. This will, which we call our fate, by the myths of the world, is to return from whence it came: to Hades, the sky, the earth. “I’m on my way.”

There is a time for reading with resistance, and there is a time for going with the flow. I resisted my brother’s desire, but I could not thwart it. And, in the end, I went with the flow. When we make a story, we make a flow. As readers, we want the flow to take us. A story might be more or less accurate, more or less true, more or less manipulative of its subjects and hearers, but a story is, I think, a making of emotion. Whatever the intellectual weight of the story, it cannot succeed without a stirring of feeling on the part of the reader. This stirring Roland Barthes called la jouissance—the “pleasure” of reading and writing that stirs our sense of the discoverable, and that gives reading its erotic pulsion. Chris read genre novels compulsively, and he read the world, the faces he met along the way, for clues.

There is no linearity to my brother’s life because he lived as if at any moment he might make the discovery. Every moment was an experience that accumulated in connection with every other based on the relative nearness to the discovery he felt he was having at the time. His entire life was subject to dramatic, impromptu reinterpretations, like an insecure writer searching for a sustaining metaphor or guiding theme.

We loved the desert because it laid metaphors bare, reduced high-falutin ideas to their simple, most physical components. Water travels through here, we could say, here’s the track of green to prove it. The wind carves, flattens, heaps, and erases. Naked, our lover Sophia traces the interpenetration of spirit and soul in the way life and rock grow and check each other. Sitting on an onramp overlooking the Whitewater River, the continuum of life and death is laid bare, and the aching question Why to live is replaced the equally daunting, but somehow more sure of its feet, How to live.

My love for Sophia was heavy on my mind three years ago. Sophia—who is she? My name for God, or Goddess, or biophilia, or tao, a name for the numerous, unnamable tangibles that stir me. She’s a gut feeling. And three years ago the tangibility of Sophia’s presence was growing on me again. I’ve tried everything to get rid of her, even tried suicide, as I and an old song said. For me, she is the fear of aesthetic freedom, the fear that made my brother’s desire to die taboo. Sophia is fearsome and frightful, not in aspect or voice, but in her beauty, her fire stones and paganki. But what scares me most about her is that she demands I use the world to make stories. She insists I make stories of what kills us in order to reveal the web of her body. A lover, she leans into me and whispers, Use your language.

Tough love, too, was weighing on me three years ago. My senses of motive and direction were scribbled knots. I had spent years drunk and faithless, hiding from and resisting Sophia. Now that I’d come clean, she was rearranging the furniture of my life. She displays large tapestries, and in the summer 1997 one of them was a narrative of Chris’s life. I stood, a few weeks later, in the San Francisco MOMA, and saw the same tapestry. I tried to write down a description in my journal, but a guard immediately came and took my pen. Foolish me. She gave me a tiny pencil. I soon had to get another from her. Much later, I managed to salvage the following from the afternoon I made an ass of myself, weeping before an abstract Modernist painting.

1.

The moon is full. It is August 15. The hand is cut off despite the face. There is no face. The knife is bloody. A yucca flowers from a hungry shoot. A revolver rests on the windowsill.

The moon is full. There is no discernable pattern.

2.

Red become black. It is our favorite theme. For we are men. The theme we hate. That’s why it changes to black and why the revolver rests on the windowsill. Silent as rage.

3.

In the black silence a streak of red emerges. Hope. Unavoidable hope, boulders in the full moon strewn on a windowsill. No wonder red emerges like a hungry shoot.

No wonder there is no face.

The very truth I had come to in being Chris’s brother led me to feel, more and more, that I could not resist his desire. And his quest had become intense—rage, violence, brutality—he knew he was losing to the dark side, and that just made him want to fall the harder. Many of us were suffering in his soul’s drive to take leave of his body. His desire was manifested powerfully, unmistakably, I felt. He was being thrown in jail, his body was having restraining orders placed upon it. He was turning into shrapnel and poison gas, and it was killing him.

So he came to me. I knew he would, I’d been getting reports from Kay, close to the action of Chris’s life in Southern California. Kay and I had agreed that he had to get help or we were through. We were in a crisis, and at a loss. We’d been soaking our pillows for years, and it had hardened us. He drives 500 miles north of the desert and rings my doorbell on Noe Street.

“Hey. I came to see ya.”

“Come in,” I say. I’m flatlining: let fate have her way, but I’m not going to let Chris stay. I don’t think of anything else, not of my leaving my wife, nothing but of standing firm and giving nothing material. I feed him, though, and give him gas money. He eats, he speaks, but he reads my face. Our faces are granite with the desire to weep, but we’re frozen slabs in the black trench.

“You have to go now,” I whisper.

He nods. “Yeah.” And then he leaps. “Tell me, Kralc, tell me where it is. Where did I go wrong?”

I’m so tired. I can’t even remember my own story, and trying to meet his gaze, to say a word, exhausts me. He’s playing our old game: ask Brian. The walking encyclopedia. Smart mouth in the front seat. I can barely hear a whisper inside myself right now.

“You didn’t go wrong,” I muster. “It’s inside yourself. It’s in the world.”

“That’s what you always say.”

“That’s because it’s always been true.”

“Then why can’t I find it?” He’s angry now. A tear does leak out. He snarls it away with a gnarled fist.

“I don’t know, Chris. I honestly don’t know.” But I must have, because of what I said next.

“What should I do?” He’s choking with pain.

“Do what we always said, man.” I suddenly feel urgent, I suddenly feel convinced that there is something I can say to him, after all this experience. “Go watch the rocks crack. Remember?” He nods, his mouth tries to smile and multiples the pain of the memory. “Go out there, Chris, go back to the desert and just sit. Just sit there and ask what to do. Ask the rocks.”

He nods. We embrace stiffly. He walks away, down the dirty city street to his van.

He drives. He goes to the desert. He goes to the places of his memory, the places in his moving blood. He talks to old friends. He tells them he’s found Christ. He’s happy. Then he goes out to Whitewater.

The raging rapids in the bleak boulder-strewn Badlands. The sharp contrast between water and rock. From underground, the river suddenly surfaces and carves a visible way through geology. The river’s is a warrior’s path, but it finds in the land a willing subject, the canyons urging these lovers’ thrusts. The river disappears as mysteriously as it came, within the ground of boulders.

It’s dusk. He parks. He steps down into the unstable rocky strew. He slips, and flailing in the failing light, his head raps hard against a boulder. He’s bleeding profusely, dazed, but he thinks to go down to the water to wash away the blood. He rights himself, and his body immediately falls victim to its own design. To protect his brain, blood pumps up into his skull. He gets to the water, lowers his face to the water, and in the change of blood pressure, passes out. He pitches forward into the river. The next morning, Sunday morning, some children on a church outing come upon his body, trapped between boulders in an eddy of the rapid river run.

I didn’t kill Chris, of course not, nor did he commit suicide. He died accidentally; it was a warm evening; he was happy. But it appears as if my brother made an aesthetic choice in the last few days of his life. Heed your soul, Socrates insisted as he drank the Athenians’ poison. I suggested, I urged Chris, to go to the desert, to check in there just one more time. He did, and the few that saw him in those last ten days report he said that he had found something. Chris found the philosopher’s stone, and the rocks spoke to him. Now he is transformed.

White water: I keep seeing the river, water foamed with air in its rapids, chaotically ricocheting, vortexing, smashing against the lunar gray boulders. My lungs boil with water, and spasms of pain convulse consciousness. My brain starves for oxygen; attention fades… the black broadens, consuming, but now there is no pain. And then it happens: suddenly I can breathe, and swim, and dodge the potent swirls of rapid water. The eros force surges within me. And then we’re gone, Chris and I, into an empty endless road of white—

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