I am wearing a long, slinky rubberized raincoat that falls generously to my knees, a proud set of fisherman waders and a whaler hat thrown back mischievously on my head as if my harpoon is on its way, Japanese style, to piece the heart of Ahab’s curse.
Actually, the scene is more pedestrian. I am part of a neighborhood arts group called Poets of Bardonia. We have two main missions. First, we pick up rubbish thrown from vehicles rushing toward New York City to further litter the landscape. Second, we try to find poetry and art in the rubbish we collect. I will acknowledge that more than one local resident has said to me in the cryptic language of the bard, garbage in, garbage out. But most citizens of this proud Shakespearean town simply give us rubbish pickers a thumbs-up, or so it seems through my lenses that some have been called rose-colored.
Today I am away from heavy traffic in another theater, a suburban stretch pockmarked with delicious trees and impressive fences that keep everything in and everything out. For me, this is where the rubber hits the road and catcalls and imprecise metaphors fade as I focus on the art and rubbish underfoot. I spear with my lance that others might call a spear condoms, love letters and candy bars wrappers.
I am making my way along a catch basin, fair warning that heavy weather and danger lie ahead. The catch basin is lined on the north side with a long white fence that has a six-inch gap at the bottom, a perfect collection bin for condoms and tissue paper. From the tire tracks in and out of this ditch, it seems as if there was a lot of sex underfoot, both coming and going.
Thoroughly trained in my trade, I reach under this fence gap trying to retrieve a wad of something, pleased that this might add a cryptic line to my verse chest. Before my right hand could penetrate this space, the small, furry head of what could be a sock puppet appears and nibbles at my appendage. I fall to my knees in perfect operatic pain, recovering sufficiently to whack the little blighter over the head until it slips back under the protective fence. This is where things get fuzzy.
I recall looking at my hand and seeing a large reddish-brown spot about the size of the saucer in my daughter’s tea set. Perpendicular to this circle was a line of teeth or claw marks that raised the skin like a heavy wool stitch but did not seem to draw blood. I recall looking at this wound for a long time before calling out to everyone and no one: Diphtheria! I have absolutely no idea why. I vaguely remembered a thirty-year-old fact from a history class that proclaimed 1613 was the year of strangulation in Spain because once diphtheria gives you a bull neck, the disease has you by the throat. I had an incessant and somewhat buffoonish urge to get a diphtheria shot.
The fuzziness continued. I’m looking for help, wandering through a Catholic Church sacristy, bumping into a mumbling New York Cardinal Dolan on the way out and ignoring an entreaty that would put me in front of the altar. I looked at the empty church pews and made my escape.
The dreaminess continued. I almost walked head first into a President Obama motorcade and was sure, since I had met him earlier at some undisclosed location, his car would certainly stop and help me with what seemed like a pressing health concern. He didn’t and the word diphtheria, one I had never used in polite conversation, began to grow in stature.
I was lost and literally traveling in circles by scooter or bike, throwing up sand and grit on my rubber raincoat as I circled toward and away from an imposing church structure that seemed as cold as the stones holding it together.
There are hints that something is cooking, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that a number of celebrity chefs show up, with Paula Deen at the margins because she is still shunned by the inner circle. It is dark and there is chatter about too many cooks spoiling the broth. I tried to say diphtheria again slowly but the language back from the pots and pans is an echo of my word and my wound, sounding like some sort of party dip. Something had me by the throat, which is beginning to feel like a bull neck.
I had this strange feeling that someone had left me at the side of the road. I could see myself looking through a bag of dreams, visions and psychic moments for a perfect couplet but could summon little more than an image of an aging man kneeling in winter leaves and pointing to the heavens with his diminished lance. Was my breathing becoming labored? What was happening to my voice?
The scene shifts again. I am in a basement listening to voices overhead talking about some play I am acting in. One says I was over-the-top in my performance. The other agreed, adding that I wouldn’t know understatement if it hit me in the face. That man is all drama, says the first.
I thought, remembering my British slang: that took a lot of neck. I went further, remembering Churchill’s social dagger directed at some poor thing who promised to ring his neck like a chicken: “Some chicken; some neck.”
The dream scene shifts still again, getting close to ground zero. A freckled Jerry O’Connor, a childhood friend from London, appears. He begins rubbing my face and singing: Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.
I told him in my childish way that I would wipe it off, as if his offering is all surface. Then a chorus appears and the anthem becomes even louder, singing and rubbing, rubbing and singing until blood flows into my temple node, waking me from sleep.
I remember Jerry is dead and he and his chorus have given me a gift and summoned me home. And my heart that is saying in the words of Molly Bloom Yes, Yes, Yes is there for the taking, far away from the call of art and artifice.