I. Caution Tape
Rae said it would be best if we left her alone. The electricity in the house stopped working so Eli and I called an electrician. She slipped in and out of consciousness for three days, and then she got better. When she woke she said to me, You’ve always wanted to seem happier, haven’t you. You were always looking for that bridge, weren’t you. Clemency’s a town without bridges. Her room smelled like incense and death. There were ashes everywhere and the lights were out.
Rae says she’s writing a holographic memoir. It has no method of transport from page to brain, but it’s nonetheless an idea. It’s going to bring light back into her life and I won’t have to take care of her anymore. Neither will Eli. She says things echo where she lives. Do echoes sound like questions? With me, it started with quite a few questions. The difference between everyday and once a day, for example. The nuances of implication.
Rae says her spirit hovers inches above her skin and she’s trying to get it back inside. She rubs lotion on her body to smell sweet, as though her spirit is a hummingbird. She smells like the last conversation before sleep. She says she’s determined that her spirit does not like sweet smells. She tells me I’d better work on getting mine back, too, and returns to writing holograms.
I try a different approach. I wander into the woods behind the house, boot laces tied, shirt buttoned to the throat. There’s litter everywhere. If I were younger I’d try to make a sculpture out of all the broken bottles and candy wrappers, but today I just step over them. I have a feeling my spirit likes the water. I reach a creek that’s clogged with plastic bags and wait for it to come.
I think about how Rae has a mind that rattles inside itself like an imploding galaxy. How she’s getting smaller and smaller without her spirit. It’s so close to her skin and she’s dying without it. She says she’s writing holograms to try to speak its language, but the truth of the matter is she’s avoiding confrontation. The partial consciousness seems to be in her control.
I listen to the water and try to understand its dimension, on the off chance that it might be the same dimension as my spirit. I repeat the mantra: Radiance. Renewal. Recognition. Some leaves and trash get caught in the wind and sail by my feet. The air catches my fingertips and I think something’s about to happen. I’ve never seen it happen, so I can only imagine the clouds of ether rising from the water and surging through my eye sockets. I can only imagine the color returning to my face. Nothing else happens (besides the greater scheme of actions in the moment, in which thousands of leaves and thousands of plastic bags are intertwined and sailing across the forest). Nothing else happens to me.
I get up and extend an arm toward the water. The water feels like jagged liquid ice. The ice travels through my veins and I realize I was wrong about eye sockets. The air smells like dead leaves and pine. I traipse back toward the house.
Rae gives me a venomous stare when I come back to her room. After being outside it feels sickly hot and humid inside.
I think I got it back.
What did you do. You have to tell me.
I don’t know. I was just . . . sitting there, thinking.
You found that bridge, didn’t you.
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Did it have a color.
I look down at the veins in my forearm.
Can you see mine.
But it must be here. It’s been right here above my skin.
How do you know that?
She looks at me with wide, hollow eyes.
I suppose I don’t.
She looks at her hands, as if realizing for the first time that she is in control of them.
She says, Well.
Well, do you think it might be time to start looking harder?
I tried to write it back.
I sigh, still vaguely disappointed that my own spirit has no color and feels like ice.
I got it back . . . and nothing changed. It doesn’t work that way.
This information makes her pallid. She tries to get out of bed and her atrophied body collapses. I help her up, and she stares at me the way she would stare at strangers when we were young. The back of her head is a gnarled mass of hair that hasn’t seen a comb in six weeks. She gets a burst of energy and races around the room putting an outfit together. All she says is, I’m leaving because I can leave now. I can leave this miserable place now. I think instead of imploding, she is now exploding.
The mania doesn’t last for more than six minutes, after which I find her sitting on her bed staring at the body-shaped indent in the middle. She gives me the stranger look again and says, I’ve been lost for too long, and lays down on the bed backwards. At the same time the doorbell rings. It’s the electrician, here to fix the broken house.
I go back to her and whisper What? because there’s nothing there—not even a body-shaped indent—and then it must be time to tip the electrician because he finds me in her room. I give him my wallet, tell him to take his family out for dinner, and leave the house. I go in the same direction as before, breathing quickly, walking just to be going somewhere.
II. Channel 18
We now return to “Lost and Found” with John Sandoval
. . . Because not enough of us realize this, this profound yet shockingly simple reality of existence: that we can CHANGE our lives. You have that power. I have that power. Everyone you know has that power, and yet so few of us harness it.
I want you to look to the past. How many of you have had the opportunity to change–you know, heard it pounding on your door, the whole deal–and refused?
All of us, right? ALL of us have passed up that opportunity. Myself included. We see things that could make us productive workers, loving family members, and fulfilled individuals . . . and we pass them up.
Now, look to the future. How many of you are going to leave this talk today and make a CHANGE for the better?
All right, all right, this is what I like to see, ladies and gentlemen. Now, now, you’re giving me too much credit here. Please. This is not new knowledge. You just needed a reminder. We can all use a reminder once in awhile. Now. Who’s gonna change?
[audience: We’re gonna change!]
Who’s gonna change?
[audience: We’re gonna change!]
Now this is what I like to hear!
When we come back, we’ll talk about moving ourselves toward happiness, fulfillment, and joy–all with the help of what, folks? That’s right. That sweet little thing called CHANGE . . . And we’ll talk about the thing that makes us change, ladies and gentlemen . . . Why, it’s the very thing that made you stop in your tracks. You’ve heard of it before.
It’s called your spirit.
[audience cheering fades to advertisements]
III. The Traveling Friend
Even with my spirit back I am weak. The house pulls me with the allure of a warm bedroom and a glowing television. I find Rae in the guest bedroom. Walking down that hallway makes the floorboards creak, and I remember what’s under a certain one. She’s asleep again, with the comforter pulled tight and incense ashes on her feet.
I tidy up her room as well as I can without using the vacuum, make a rum and coke, then go into my bedroom and close the door. I mute the television and stare without blinking. I tell myself I can’t think about the floorboards. I think about the difference between a blank slate and a dirty one.
I always wanted to tell someone about the time a girl visited us a few years ago. She was Rae’s friend from college. It’s hard to picture Rae in school now: taking a final exam, lighting a cigarette, going places. It’s strange that she ever had grades, and that they were good. Her hands can barely grip a pencil now.
Her friend’s name was Sheila, and I wanted to believe her when she said she hadn’t slept in the same bed more than twice since graduation. I wanted to believe in a nomadic life: beholden to no one, searching for nothing except a meal, a couch to rest on. There was a wild sort of purity in that way of living. Something about the promise of a perpetually blank slate.
Sheila didn’t own a cell phone. She had this timeless air about her. Her hair was cropped short and her patchy sweater hung off one shoulder. When she sat at the table, she looked so powerful. It showed in the measured position of her arms on the table, her body in the chair, her legs under the chair. Her eyes were tiger brown.
She had that certain style when it came to pouring wine, opening doors, and handling money, too. It’s not a learned delicacy; I’m certain it’s innate. I’ve only ever seen it in a few people, and I’ve never seen it in me. And this made me fear her. I stayed quiet through dinner, only daring to wish her goodnight.
She took the guest bedroom and was gone before sunrise.
I had considered a life like hers. Or, more accurately, I had seriously contemplated leaving. It’s hard for me to believe it now. The closest I ever got was a few weeks after her visit. I drove a hundred miles east to a town called Amity, sat in a booth at the local diner, and watched a lady drink soup. It was anonymous, which was grand for a while, until I remembered I had to make dinner for Rae. The haze wore off. I drove back to Clemency, sped down the dirt road home, and found her sleeping for the first time in days. There were photo albums and sticks of half-burned incense scattered around the living room. I put the photo albums back in the garage and threw away the incense.
IV. The First Candle
I haven’t said a word to Rae about Eli. I haven’t seen him since Rae asked us to leave her alone. Before she took a turn for the worse, our lives were strung together with fits of sibling rivalry, cigarette breaks on the porch, and weekends alone in the house. In essence, the three of us killed time great together.
He’s a decent brother, even if he’s consumed by the search. He works, stocks the house with food once in awhile, and takes off in his pickup truck when he can’t deal. (Things he can’t deal with: Rae’s moods; Found people; our stepfather; a crowd.)
A certain night stands out to me now that he’s been gone for awhile. We met a band after a show a couple months ago, and they invited us to their after-party. There was a big group getting ready to leave, and I looked for Eli, only to see one of his red sneakers darting behind a closing door.
I found him with a whiskey and a novel when I got home that night. We talked about things we had never talked about before. I told him the drummer had asked me out. Rae was having a good day, which meant her mind was fiery hot. She couldn’t wrap her head around the thought of me with another guy. She just kept telling me, You were drunk. You didn’t know what you were saying. Eli told me I didn’t have to be gay or straight if I didn’t want to choose.
I want him to come back so I can tell him the search isn’t worth it. Sticking my hand in the creek didn’t change anything.
* * *
Rae has woken up and she’s asking about dinner. I start some water boiling to make pasta and go to read in the living room. I try to sit in the armchair, as though my body is powerful. Rae walks with small, careful steps toward the couch. Her headphones look giant wrapped around her neck. She has attempted to unmat her hair.
Yeah. e.e. cummings.
Maybe reading would help me get it back.
Get what? Oh.
So you’ve forgotten about the search since yours ended? That’s pretty selfish.
She rubs her eyes and folds herself around a blanket. She never seems to be warm or comfortable.
We’re still not even sure it works.
Oh, it works. And I was thinking about something . . .
We lose them at a certain moment, right? When we lose contact with our authenticity.
That’s a direct quote from The Lost and Found, the Bible of spirit searching, and I’m sure she feels very informed using it.
Yeah. There’s also gradation theory, where we lose them in bits and pieces.
I believe in complete loss. Or anyway I can feel the difference . . . and I think I know the moment I lost mine.
My sixteenth birthday party. I wished for the wrong thing when I blew out the candles.
May I ask what it was?
The water’s bubbling over the pot. She puts on her headphones and lies down with The Lost and Found. I notice she’s on Chapter III: Am I Lost or Found?
V. After Intermission
There are things in this life, about ourselves and our communities, that we lose touch with. And that’s what this is all about: losing touch.
What’s the thing that makes your eyes shine? The thing that makes you walk a little taller, smile at strangers . . . follow your heart.
Clemency, they told me you were a loud town! And I can’t hear you! Say it like you mean it . . . What makes you you?
We’ve all lost things. I’ve lost things, my neighbors have lost things, and I’m certain everyone in this room has lost things.
But what does that mean? What does it mean to lose the very thing that keeps you connected to yourself and your aspirations?
It means suffering. It means . . . spinning your wheels. I can tell you from experience, that don’t feel good.
We lose ourselves in unlikely places. It happens when we make decisions that don’t line up with who we are. And it happens to most everyone.
I’ll tell you my story if you promise to reflect on your own. I was in a diner in Indiana twenty two years ago and I didn’t tip the waitress. Now, I know what you’re thinking, that this, of all things, made me lose my spirit.
Let me give it a little context: I had divorced my wife of ten years, left behind our children and our friends, and moved east alone. I was teetering on the brink of a life of alcoholism and drug abuse. I was depressed, to say the least.
There’s no way of knowing exactly what happens, but something leaves your body when you make decisions like I had made. Whether it trickles out slowly or reaches a breaking point, I don’t rightly know. That’s the Divine Mystery of spirits for you, in a nutshell. But something happened to me when I walked out of that diner. Something in my chest felt empty, and no amount of booze or drugs or food or sex or even friendship could bring it back. I looked in the mirror and saw a stranger. Every day for six years I saw that stranger, until I started making changes.
Lost and found. That’s the way I think about the course of my life. I’ve spent time being lost and I’ve spent time being found, and sometimes I feel both at the same time. What I’m trying to tell you beautiful people here tonight is that we can all be Found, and remain Found for a very long time.
Enough of the serious talk, now, let’s make some noise! When I say, “lost,” you say, “found!” Lost!
And, you guessed it, it’s the title of my book as well as this talk. The book’s at the front lobby, it costs thirty dollars, and it’ll give you the tools you need to reclaim what has always belonged to you.
I’d like to thank you all so much for coming out tonight, you’ve truly been amazing. Goodnight!
VI. Wild Horses
There was a storm last night. It took down one of the giant oaks in the front yard. I heard it crash around two in the morning, and now it’s lying on its side like a tipped cow. I can’t saw it up and haul it away without the pickup truck, so I’m putting it off until Eli gets back.
I found a bunch of lipstick-stained water glasses sitting around the house early this morning. Rae must have gotten ready to go somewhere last night. I find her asleep in the guest room again. Her eyeliner’s smudged into the thin creases of skin around her eyes.
She groans and I notice Eli’s bottle of whiskey on her bedside table, empty. She’s talking in her sleep.
I haven’t mentioned you. I mean, I love you, but I haven’t mentioned you.
Hey. I nudge her.
You just haven’t come up, okay?
Afternoon, sleepyhead. You know what day it is?
Monday. You’ve got an appointment with Collins today.
She must have watched a Hepburn film last night because she keeps using irritating words like darling and gruesome. She gets dressed while I make her lunch.
Collins is Rae’s spirit counselor. She lives two miles away in a house that’s crowded with things like fog machines and rolled-up tapestries. She doesn’t believe in antidepressants. She’s supposed to guide Rae toward reclamation. Their sessions have hit a plateau in the past few months, but Rae keeps going anyway. I drop her off in front of Collins’ house and head back home to clean things up. I step around the upturned tree to get to the front door.
I find a lipstick-stained water glass and a cigarette butt in every room but mine. I start with the basement and wonder why she had to drink in the basement. I find a crowbar in the corner by an old toolbox and pick it up. I work my way upstairs with the crowbar as though I’m on some violent Easter egg hunt. The house is especially cavernous with no one home. I find two glasses in the living room and one in the kitchen. I go up to the second floor. The guest bedroom will have to be last. There are two glasses in Rae’s bedroom and one in Eli’s. The guest bedroom is at the end of the hall, past my bedroom, the bathroom, and the study. The floorboards creak more as I walk down the hall because we don’t use that wing of the house very often.
I stop in my room to pick up my cell phone. I call the drummer and ask him to get dinner with me in an hour. I text Eli, Pick up Rae in an hour. He must be somewhere close. I walk down the hall, trying to will some kind of power into my arms. I feel the ice in my veins. I use the crowbar to pry open the floorboards by the guest bedroom. They splinter and I peel away the shards of wood to get to the lockbox filled with cash. I take the key to the lockbox off my keyring and put it in my pocket. I leave the keyring on the hook by the back door. I step around the upturned tree to get to my car. I drive to pick up the drummer.
Radiance. Renewal. Recognition.