The story of a complete life rests in a singular, unmitigated tension between the melodramatic and the dramatic. We can remove the piecemeal events that we bind together for interpretation and cohesion and for the need for meaning, and we can weigh them. We can plumb the cold depths of their being and for perhaps only a moment peer into what they might really be, what we might really be. What we will find is dark and shifting, like the world before divine recreation, because we are yet before divine recreation. What we will find is the subtle poise on the fulcrum of the world’s heart, the balance that teeters between farce, and tragedy.
R- thought of the mundane and wove this hypothesis into it. Here am I walking outside, he imagined, and it is cold. Winter. I am pulled tight into myself, and the sky has been dredged of the warmth in its blues so that it is blue only insofar as it is gray. I am bowed into the wind. I am walking and then – there. A bird on its side, one wing splayed outward and the other crumpled under it. Eyes and beak open, unmoving, dead. The bird and my foot, paused before lifting it into the path that would carry it to the bird, the object once alive, now not, simply object.
Was it a farce or a tragedy? It is not a question of if meaning can be pulled from it, it is a question of if meaning is in it. If a farce, then whatever question a dead bird calls into our minds is melodrama, is a question that has the stature of meaningfulness but the character of an empty void. If a tragedy, then it is what ultimately we suspect it is: a sign that the world is in truth not a neutral setting nor the progression of itself for the ultimate good but is actively and resolutely against us, against the life within it.
This R- flitted upon and then off of by thinking only a single question at the dinner table after his mother began to cry. He would unpack it later, imagine the bird, think about whether he is right in saying it is the world that is against life or if it is life that is against life. For now, he looked from Gabe to his mother and thought: farce, or tragedy?
“Hey,” he said, hoping the word would pat his mother’s back softly, to reassure her that he was there, that someone was. He realized that this would not happen and stood up, bent down beside her and laid his hand on her back.
“Hey,” he said, “hey.”
Gabe began to turn red. He felt at once the villain and the victim, and could not understand why, so he decided he was the victim and was unfairly teamed up on.
“It’s been six months,” he said, “Can’t we move on?”
R- didn’t speak, looking at his mother. He had momentarily forgotten about Gabe but felt a pressure he would ponder later. He would acknowledge Gabe’s difficult position and the compounding of it by his natural arrogance, and would decide to bring the subject up to Gabe. He would forget. For now, Jemmy spoke.
“Perhaps you can,” she said, “but perhaps it is too much to expect others too.”
The admonishment slipped between Gabe’s ribs because of the one who had wielded it.
“Or perhaps,” he said, stressing the soft word and mistaking whose sake Jemmy had used it for, “we should let sad things make people sad forever, and we can live in a tenuously held existence that will crack apart with the slightest tremor.”
R- rubbed his mother’s back, “It’s alright, Mom. I mean, it’s not, he’s gone and …” R- trailed off. If he said it he could not unsay it. And if he said it he know Gabe would leave the table, that his mother would have to hear said what she thought, each day.
The passing of their father opened a hole in the illusion of life and now it could not be closed again, but it was not the tragedy the family avoided. In R-’s time back, they had not spoken of it in full, only of their father. They reminisced about him, cried about him, remembered him at unexpected times that would take the breath away like a vacuum, but they always got it back. They always breathed again. How do you talk about the unspoken things? And is it even necessary to? R- wondered this as he held his mother. What could he say? He tried to say it to himself.
My father died of a car accident six months ago. He was driving into Spring from a weekend trip away and lost control in the glare of another car’s headlights. His car careened into the railing and he died on impact and–
No, he would not say it. He could not. He stepped outside of himself and watched the situation: is this sad, or pathetic? Is it all even real? Who are these people, who is this woman crying over loss, spoken and unspoken? Who is this boy who cannot think even the first thought? And who is this girl who moved to Spring for a boy who’s guilt brought him back?
He felt the melodrama of the situation and wondered what could be made of it before the last question imprinted itself in his mind. Guilt. He had asked himself each day why he was in Spring, and each day complicated the answer. He only knew he had to be in Spring, whether it was for his own exonerated guilt or whether it was from true concern for his mother and his soon to leave brother. He only knew he had to be in Spring, that he had to work for his father’s company, that he had to preserve something, only he did not know what.
His mother began to wipe her tears and breathe slowly. She did not know how R- was as gentle as he was, or how Gabe was so hard – for each sentence uttered, each had an immediate response that felt so natural one would think it was premeditated. And yet R-’s replies took the sentence and rotated it like a foreign object in the light, hoping for a partner to reply to his statements, while Gabe tended to shut down conversation with a retort so clear and cutting it left no room for another. Both led to the frustration of their listeners: Gabe because others had little ability to follow the clarity of his logic with their own, and R- because the conversations never ended, never found a resting place, never did anything but question, re-question, revise, start over. Regardless of their differences, she was proud – even when Gabe was flexing the sharp tongue he had inherited from– she stopped herself before finishing the thought, knowing it would lead back to the tears.
“Thank you,” she said and forced a smile up at R-, “I think I’ll just take some time alone and read for the night. Jemmy, it is wonderful to see you. I’m so excited you’re here.”
“I’m sure I’ll see you often,” said Jemmy.
R- watched his mother leave. If it was all a farce, she did not yet know it. Or maybe she did and he gave her too little credit, maybe she did and held on anyway. He thought about the bird again. It had happened years ago, when he was an undergraduate. He was walking to class and had not expected it to be so cold outside. He saw the bird and it startled him, but instead of jumping away he stopped and did not move. He remembered every awful detail. He let time meander forward while he stood, forgetting that he was standing, forgetting everything except for the bird traced against the sidewalk. It seemed fake, almost too perfectly real to be real. He began to feel sad and thought of what could have happened for a bird to end up here, like this. Did it simply fall from the sky and land here? Was it a lucky bird who had lived to the length of its heartbeats and when those trickled out this was the unplanned grave? He was being melodramatic and knew it then. He knew it now too, looking back on himself looking at the bird. It could be farce or tragedy for all he really knew. The two shared the same disturbing truth: no human course can change the outcome. R- felt it in his bones, that there was a powerlessness in him. He could watch the bird, he could extract meaning or use it to point to the lack thereof, but he could not change it.
The wind reminded him he was alive. Winter, he thought, is when you know you’re alive. And yet the wind did nothing for the bird. And yet winter, too, could be when others know you are not alive.
R- lifted his foot and pressed it hard against the bird’s head. He exhaled, and walked to class.