Eyes Open, A Melody
Travis Gasper (University of Auckland, New Zealand)
The summer afternoon potluck is spread out on three cafeteria-style tables pushed together and covered with two teal plastic table cloths still splattered with the remains of past picnics. I’m close enough to notice the splatters, but not close enough to see any ants or anything, although I’m sure they’re there. The food is a chaotic mish-mash of interests, personalities, and various levels of kitchen expertise. There is some kind of pistachio pudding with fruit in a red plastic bowl. There is a cheese covered noodle mix with dark pieces of meat breaking its surface, laid out in a Christmas-themed casserole dish. A bunch of red grapes drip their sweat onto an attractive black bowl that is stuck between a plate of Sloppy Joes and a Tupperware container full of brownies. It is a display that would fall apart in any other circumstance, but as a post-sermon feeding of the masses, it works.
I’m not sure what town I’m in, although I know it’s in Missouri. I found the church early in the morning and was drawn inside by the promise of a potluck lunch advertised on their crooked sign. Faith Baptist Believer’s Church. I could find a similar congregation in any town throughout the Midwest, but not all of them come with the promise of free home-cooked food. Besides, I’ve been trying to fool myself that I’m on some type of adventure, and what’s more adventurous than trusting my taste buds and stomach lining to the Holy Spirit of the lukewarm outdoor potluck.
I’m the first one in line when the food is blessed, mainly because I’m not too worried about keeping my eyes closed and my head bowed until the Pastor finishes. I don’t mean any disrespect. I just know how these things go. If I’m not in the front I’ll be stuck with the burnt, the indiscernible, and the odorous. It doesn’t matter how selfless any of us claim to be, we are all encoded naturally to look out for number one. I stopped feeling guilty about this a long time ago; I feel much more sincere. And I don’t know when or where my next free meal will come from so I want this one to be good.
I finish a hamburger, two hot dogs, eight carrot sticks, and am working on half of the bunch of grapes when a man approaches me. He’s probably in his sixties or seventies and is wearing a pair of pleated khakis and a faded green sweater, even though it’s pretty warm outside. I’ve been ready for conversation since I stepped through the sanctuary doors that morning. I know how this stuff works; no matter where you are there is always a give-and-take. I think about writing about the give-and-take in my journal later, but I’m pretty sure I’ll forget.
“Food’s not too bad, huh?” the man says.
His voice is pleasant enough, although he’ll probably start proselytizing soon. I mean how long can he let me sit here and eat oblivious to the seriousness of hell-after-death?
“Thanks for not calling me son,” I say.
“I said thanks for not calling me son. I know I look like a prodigal in the middle of his wild stage and all that, and I’m used to old guys, no offense, calling me son right off the bat. I thought about keeping a tally, but in the end it’s not that interesting, just a little annoying.”
“And patronizing too, I assume.”
“Yes. Exactly. Very patronizing.”
“Well I’ll stay away from all the ‘sons,’ ‘sonnies,’ ‘boys,’ and whatever else might offend you. Any more I should stay away from?”
“No, I’m sorry for just spouting off like that. I just appreciate that you could start a conversation without drawing attention to our pretty obvious age difference.”
“Well, I guess I’m probably just as sensitive about being old as you are about being young. I’m Chuck. What’s your name?”
“I go by Josh.”
“So the food’s not too bad?”
“Nope, I’m glad there’s some fruit mixed in with all the cheesy-meat dishes. Did you bring something?”
“Just myself. Mind if I have a grape, they were gone by the time I got through the line?”
Chuck grabs a couple of grapes off my plate and starts biting them off of their stems two-at-a-time. I can tell that he’s still in pretty good shape, probably through jogging or some kind of early morning routine. And he’s alone. I don’t know how I know it. It’s just a feeling I get sometimes. People who live by themselves have a tinge of immediacy in the way they talk, like they’re going to burn through the conversation and then lie awake that night replaying it in their head. Sometimes I wonder if that’s how I sound, but maybe it’s different since I choose to be alone.
“I never close my eyes during prayer either,” Chuck says after swallowing his last two grapes.
“You saw me cheat a little,” I say.
“It’s alright. You’re not from around here so you shouldn’t have to sneak to be first anyways. You’re a guest. But that’s just how things are. I was silently cheering you on. It was a pretty long prayer.”
“I know. It was good cover. Why do you open your eyes? Isn’t that too much of a distraction? At the least, it’s not very pious.”
“I guess we’re both just not cut out to be saints. Although for me, I’m still praying. I just like to be present in what’s going on—to not tune stuff out. God’s out there somewhere and if I just keep my eyes closed all the time, He’ll be easier to miss. And you see a lot of interesting stuff when you keep your eyes open.”
“What’ve you seen,” I ask. I turn on the tape recorder in my head.
“You see that man over there?” Chuck points to a tall, somber man who is bending over to listen to a woman in a light-purple blouse. “That’s Mr. Clarkson. You wouldn’t think it by looking at him, but he doesn’t fold his hands most of the time during prayer. On more than just a few occasions I’ve seen him rest a hand on the buttocks of his wife there.”
“Are you serious?”
“Very. Like I said, I’ve seen a lot of things. And God just might be in that man’s hand fondling the backside of his wife. Sometimes I think so.”
I allow myself to relax. I can’t really imagine Chuck switching from butt-grabbing to my need for salvation anytime soon, but I’ve experienced stranger switches to the Holy. I figure that he’s as close to accepting, or at least interesting, as I’m going to find at the picnic, and he’s probably eccentric enough to keep the more rabid soul-winners off my back for a bit. I figure he’s bound to ask me if I need a place to stay and I’ll probably take him up on the offer.
“I had a feeling about you when you walked into the sanctuary today, Josh.”
“Personally I don’t put much faith in weird feelings or that type of thing.”
“Well I do. I don’t like feeling what I do. To be honest it’s creepy and makes me uncomfortable. But I can’t turn it off. Usually I just don’t talk about it.”
“So why are we talking about it?”
“Because I can tell that you’re a listener, which makes you different than most of the people out here.”
I think about turning around and walking out of the church grounds. I’m full and I put in more than enough time for the give-and-take to be satisfied, but I can’t. The tape recorder is still running and Chuck is beginning to remind me of Laban, who I don’t want to think about but who, although long dead, still has the power to keep me in place.
“What kind of feeling,” I ask.
“I’m not really sure yet. It’s more just a charge in the air, like I’m supposed to pay extra attention. That’s why I noticed you right away this morning.”
“So it’s not because I’m probably the only new person to walk in those doors the last three years?”
“No, no. You’ve got to listen to me. I didn’t see you, I noticed you. It’s hard to explain but it’s different than just seeing a new young guy walk into the sanctuary. It’s like I knew right away that you see things differently than the rest of the people out here right now. Like me.”
“I’m not following.”
“You’ve seen someone die, maybe killed, up close.”
I try to keep my face still, to calm the tic that begins at my heart and tries to stagger forcefully into my eyes.
“Not yet,” I say.
“You don’t have to lie. I know you didn’t do it. I notice that about you too.”
“Look, this is a little weird and I don’t think—“
“Ok, ok, forget it. I could be wrong. I don’t bill myself as a prophet, not in the least. But I’ve been right before. It’s just a feeling.”
Chuck gathers my garbage hastily, like he is suddenly embarrassed by what we’re talking about. I let the silence grow. I will not talk about Laban. Mr. Clarkson leaves his wife and begins walking toward us. I can tell by his set jaw and on-looking wife that he is determined to win my soul.
“Are you coming with me?” Chuck asks.
“Yes,” I say, even though I no longer want to.
Chuck’s house is a two-story farmhouse that looks like it could implode any minute. You see a lot of them in the spaces between towns in the Midwest, homes that begin to sag as soon as the eleven children move out, gray with age and empathy. There is a dog that runs off towards the nearby woods as soon as the truck turns onto the long dirt driveway, but Chuck doesn’t seem to notice or care. A single, old growth tree towers over the house with thick, barren branches threatening to overtake the second story at any moment. It is hard to see the windows hidden by the branches.
“It’s not much, Josh, but I figure what it lacks in style it makes up for in minding its own business,” Chuck says.
“I appreciate it,” I say as I climb from the truck and take in the tree up close. “It’s an amazing tree.”
“Think it’s one of the oldest in the area, at least that’s what my family always thought. My great-grandpa built the house and cleared the land, but the story is he kept the tree as a reminder that the land is not ours alone. Ever since I was young I’ve found it threatening, the way it reaches for the house like that.”
We walk into his kitchen, which is surprisingly well kept in comparison to the outward appearance of the house. There is a rusting teakettle on the stovetop and a fairly new coffee brewer and an Ansel Adams calendar on the wall. I don’t immediately see anything of exceptional value, but I stay focused. At the absolute least, he probably has some type of prescription drug I might be able to sell to some local kids who don’t know any better.
“I’ll get some coffee brewing, go ahead and have a seat in the living room. You take it black?” Chuck asks.
“Good ‘cause that’s the only way I allow it to be drunk around here.”
I move into the living room, which consists of two bookshelves side-by-side against one wall, two easy chairs with faded backs and cushions, and a coffee table covered in used mugs. I walk to the bookshelf and read through some of the titles. Everything We Had. The Tunnels of Cu Chi. Where the Rivers Ran Backward. Every book I pull out has something to do with the Vietnam War.
“Yeah, I guess I’m a little obsessed,” Chuck says from behind me. He pushes some of the used mugs aside with his forearm and sets two new mugs on the coffee table. I sit in one of the chairs.
“You know much about Vietnam?” he asks.
“I don’t know, not too much I guess. I read Dispatches once.”
“That’s a pretty good one, especially with all the rock & roll stuff mixed in.”
I pick up one of the mugs and take a sip of the coffee. Its flavor is sharp and causes me to involuntarily wince. After a moment I ask the question I know I probably should ask.
“Were you over there?”
“You probably didn’t want to ask me that and I don’t blame you. I mean, look at those shelves. Probably not the best topic to bring up with someone you just met, right?”
Chuck picks up his own mug and breathes in the steam, but he doesn’t drink from it.
“Yeah, I was in it for a year, part of the ‘hearts and minds’ project. I helped build a couple roads for the friendly natives and tried to keep up good relations.”
I don’t really know what to say and don’t want to encourage the direction of the conversation. I can feel my doubts about the whole thing growing. So far there is nothing in the house worth taking and I wouldn’t know which way to go if I left.
“What are you thinking?” Chuck asks, finally taking a gulp of his coffee.
“Do you really want to know or is it one of those silence-filler questions,” I say.
“I really want to know.”
“I think it sounds pretty naïve.”
We drink the rest of our coffee in silence as the sun fades in the window. The shadows grow across the room at angles that are at first threatening, and then just are.
“You can leave the mug on the table,” Chuck says when he notices I’m done with my coffee. “Do you smoke?”
“Every once in awhile,” I say.
Chuck walks to the bookshelves and grabs a pack of cigarettes from the top of the left one. He throws a cigarette to me and takes one for himself and places the pack back on the shelf.
“I need to do it at least once a day,” he says as he lights his cigarette and then lights mine with his. “I’m not going to ask you where you’re going because it just matters that you’re in motion. But I am going to ask what you’ve got with you.”
He motions at my pack on the floor with his foot.
“Not too much. Some snacks. A couple of shirts. My CD player and some albums.”
“What have you been listening to?”
“It depends on the day or where I’m at I guess. I tried to bring along all my music that has motion and momentum, you know?”
“No…it’s hard to describe. I guess it’s like soundtrack music—stuff that fits in with where I’m at or where I’m going.”
“Hmm.” Chuck leans back in his chair and exhales a long, thin line of smoke. “I’m probably dating myself here, but do you have any Beatles.”
“Actually I do. I’m not much of a fan of their beginning stuff. I prefer the darker Brit-invasion bands like Creation. The only album I have with me is Sergeant Pepper’s. It’s the only one of theirs that matters.”
“You know the song I’ve Just Seen a Face?”
I shrug my shoulders and exhale. Chuck sings the melody for me and it is instantly recognizable, the way almost all Beatles songs are. His voice is surprisingly smooth and high, even when smoking.
“Yeah, I know that one,” I say. “I guess you’re making me eat my words, ‘cause that song’s pretty good. A pick-me-up about being picked-up.”
“I knew it. It’s that feeling again, right when you said you had a CD player—I knew you would know the song.”
I throw my butt into one of the used mugs and hear it faintly hiss in the dregs. I begin to think of how I can leave without hurting his feelings or being too awkward.
“There was this guy I became pretty good friends with over there who absolutely loved that song. I hated the Beatles, thought they were pricks who wrote nonsense songs for kids, but Rocky—we called him that ‘cause he was always whistling the tune to Rocky Raccoon—he couldn’t get enough of them. He would sing I’ve Just Seen a Face at the absolute worst times, like when we had to strip and bag some kids that were dropped off, or when one of our Tunnel Rats tripped an explosive and brought half a tunnel down on himself. It was always that song. A lot of guys tried to be ironic over there, it was easier to just kind of smirk at everything, but Rocky wasn’t like that. He sincerely loved that song and I could tell that it cheered him up, even in the midst of all of it. Like you said, it was a pick-me-up.”
Chuck’s cigarette is burning past the filter but he doesn’t move. I want to move, want to walk out of the room, but I can’t. Everything is too fragile. I can still hear his voice faintly singing the melody.
“That’s when I first got the feelings; it had something to do with that song. It just fit into place—a soundtrack like you said. That’s good. I woke up one morning and the song was just in my head and I didn’t hate it any more. It made me feel pretty good. So I go over to tell Rocky about it and his throat’s cut and all his gear is missing. They used to come out of the tunnels at night and steal things from us all the time. We didn’t really know how intricate all those tunnels were. They never killed anyone, just took stuff. It was kind of a joke to see what random stuff they would take. But they killed Rocky that night and something passed onto me that morning. It was like his hope was all in that song and once he died the hope had nowhere to go so it just kind of floated around until I woke up and breathed it in. That song got me through the goddamn war.”
I feel like I’m suffocating so I don’t move. I try to relax my whole body starting with my fingers, but they are digging in to the arms of the chair. I try to cough to break the silence and, although my head jerks forward, there is no sound.
“It’s just a war story…just another woe-is-me war story,” Chuck says. He stands and walks over to the bookshelves and turns around. “I read all of this—all these words and stories and facts and history—I read it because I need to find God in it. I need to find God in it. He’s everywhere and He’s there but every time I think I’ve found Him, it all comes back to that song that Rocky gave me. I saw men die and God was not in it. You know… I know you know. You’ve seen eyes with the life going out of them and you know God’s not there. Can He be in a song and not be in death?”
The room is now dark and I feel like Laban will step from the shadows at any moment. He is a weight that presses at my chest and he is the curse I throw at God, the blanket with which I cover myself to avoid His cosmic gaze. I don’t have any words and I pick up my pack from the floor.
“Just another war story,” Chuck says from the darkness.
I’m lying in bed, fully clothed, listening to Chuck move around the house below me. We didn’t talk much after his story. He looked used-up and gray, like the house. He took me upstairs and showed me the guest room and his hands were shaking and his fingers were yellow. I didn’t even look in the bathroom for the drugs I know are in there.
The branches of the tree break apart the moonlight as it enters the room, splaying the walls with shifting shadows and lines. I can’t fall asleep. Laban has entered my consciousness and he refuses to leave. His eyes are there, printed on the inside of my eyelids, and Chuck is right. God is not in them.
I pick my pack off the floor and take out my CD player. I shuffle through my albums and choose Philip Glass’ Glassworks, mainly for the first song. As the piano notes unfold into my ears, they blend with the branches and stretch like fingers across the room. The fingers pull at the ceiling and the walls, stripping the barriers from my vision. Chuck was wrong about the tree; it is just trying to help.
As the shell peels, I am laying on my back on the top of a hill. I am sweating in my fatigues and I can’t fall asleep. I look to my right and can make out Chuck through the grass. He is looking at the sky and I do the same.
Tracers light up the night above us, blinding us to the stars that slowly reappear as the after-image fades. There is some kind of repetitious symphony coming from somewhere in the darkness.
“Do you hear the music?” I ask.
“Yeah,” says Chuck. “It kinda sounds like the circus or something.”
I like the idea and when the next round of tracers fly over us I pretend they are fireworks, and they are fireworks. They explode in a shower of red and blue sparks.
“Are you seeing the fireworks?” I ask.
He’s right, they are more beautiful than any fourth-of-July display I’ve ever seen back home. I can feel Laban’s presence trying to break through the silence in between explosions, but he is long gone and has no power in this moment.
I pull a cigarette from the pack in my shirt pocket and light it. A familiar tune works its way into my head and I allow it. I hum along.
“I’m gonna make it,” Chuck says from beside me.
“Yeah,” I say, “You’ll do just fine.”
It is still dark when I leave my room, but there is enough moonlight to see where I’m going. I walk through the living room on my way to the door and Chuck is asleep in his chair. His arms dangle on either side of the armrests and for a moment he looks like a discarded doll waiting to be picked up one more time. I move to the bookshelves and take out my Philip Glass album. I know it is no longer part of my soundtrack. I take a book randomly from the shelf and place the album in its place. The book’s title is To Bear Any Burden, but I’m only interested in completing the give-and-take. He won’t miss it.
Travis Gasper was born and raised in Wisconsin, where he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Currently he lives in Auckland, New Zealand where he is working toward his Master’s of Creative Writing while writing his first novel.