by Richard Birken
Looking down at her looking up, I wonder: why exactly did I climb up here? I can’t even place how long ago it was; it seems like a long time but it couldn’t be, the broad-chested young men with their pimpled scalped faces still file up and disappear over the edge, though fewer than before. Another loud splash in the pool follows, but no response anymore from below; I’ve been up here long enough for them to grow bored. Still, young men follow too long and too easily; that’s why they use young men. And now young women. And now my daughter, looking up as I look down, wishing I hadn’t come, as I did while coming, uninvited.
Of course, I wouldn’t have invited me, either; then again, I wouldn’t have invited them. The young and the old belong to different corners of the world, different corners of time. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have accepted their invitation. In my time, they didn’t ask. In her time, she agreed before agreeing. Because she’s young; that’s what they count on. After all these centuries of broken lives the old still beckon and the young still follow.
This is definitely not my party. Maybe that’s how I ended up here, on the roof, instead of staying down there where she is. Strange looks greeted me when I arrived, but they’ve mostly stopped looking. I walked past her, not up to her, as she tipped her cup trying to look nonchalant. Not having a plan, maybe it made sense for me to follow the more intrepid, or just the less questioning, up here. But I didn’t follow exactly; as they jump down into the pool, I just sit here, on the edge, looking down at her no longer looking up, not having even the relief at not having been killed or maimed as justification for acting like an idiot or a free man.
I didn’t intend to come here when I set out. I didn’t intend to go anywhere. It was a good day for a drive, but the car seemed to drive itself straight here even though I had not only not been invited but was as uninvited as one can get without being expressly told not to come. I certainly didn’t intend to climb up on a roof. It seems somehow empty up here, there should be a cow, a fiddler; this roof isn’t even slanted, the stucco is topped flat like the round world that spins around and around while life still falls off into space, a flat roof looking out over a flattened topography with me perched on the edge. Columbus was right and Columbus was wrong, but when he got lost he became a legend while I’ve been lost all my life because I know wrong. It’s better to know and impossible to know. And it’s not got anything to do with her being young, all those down there being young, because in my time we were young and a lot of us didn’t go. The Commander-in-Chief didn’t go. We knew better, even when we were high we knew better. Now I’m high, perched in the sky watching the young men I followed up here leap into the pool with perfect faith, perfect hope, or perfect obliviousness to hope and faith. A cow would be good here, a fiddler. They could keep time, provide milk, lend harmony to the nonsense that sends the strong to act out of weakness, but she doesn’t see it that way. She thinks I’m quaint, the flat roof thinks I’m quaint, how could I who refused to go in my time have become quaint in hers? Columbus would be less if he’d been right; it is far better to be wrongly right and win your legend than to be merely right. The dead can’t remember and the living forget, while the maimed get pushed to the edge. The young lack memory, but they have hormones; that’s why they send the young.
As another young man jumps off the edge of the flat roof, I just perch here in my underwear because uninvited is unprepared but not unresourceful. I’m still looking down, but she’s stopped looking up. He doesn’t think I’m going to jump. Unable to decide if she’s amused, flabbergasted or disgusted, she’s returned to the beautifully ugly young men just returned with her from the desert, with those who’ve been shot at with her, with those she doesn’t have to comprehend to understand. Not like the father with whom she shares nothing but blood, the thin unspent liquid kind, not the more substantial bond formed by the forced kinship of the young hormonal and convinced. She’s not beautiful and they’re shaved ugly, but not as ugly as before they went, they’re more beautiful now that they know they’ve been misled and underfed and that they don’t care. They don’t dare care. She—all of them—don’t look so young anymore; she—they—filled out over there. Warriors leave looking like children and return prematurely matured.
They’re half naked now, freed from the incongruous weight of armor borne like slow Crusaders in the desert sun, freed from waiting, live bait for attack, in their stifling vehicles; soon she’ll probably be all naked with one of them. I don’t care about that. Better that than a naked mind, but I don’t know about that; she won’t share that. Maybe not until I’m too old and too dead or they’ve killed her. None of them will share that; it’s too late, they already went where they were sent.
Does she know how stupid it all is now? Has she returned with some distance closed? And how futile to think this while perched high above her on the edge of this flat roof, me who doesn’t even like heights.
Until a couple of years ago this recreation center had been an oasis within an oasis, a civilized place within the woods. Now it’s an oasis in the condos, just another left or right off the blacktop. When she was young I brought her here, when it was still woods. I wasn’t young even then, I waited too long to have her for that. Then, she seemed to worship me, like a puppy does, an awkward little girl spending time with her dad. Now, the distance between us exceeds my delay in having her; though I conceived her, she grew up in a different world, a completely different idea. Down there, they follow the jangle of the Meritocracy preached by someone who couldn’t master her own craft led by someone who can’t formulate complete sentences without—even with—the guidance of others. Again. When will we stop hiring spokesmen who hide the unrepentant continuity of all that’s gone wrong? That’s the world I brought her into, a neo-world looking backward for glory where glory never existed but to the bellower, the un-massacred, the bored weak inaccurate historian. Somebody has to justify the mistakes or somebody might learn from them, pretend cowboys need words put into their mouths sufficient to raise the money that raises armies. I’m lost in a Rand world with a Chagall mind, in a world where doing exceeds worth doing, where bad verbose writing congeals into mere bites of words. There’s no nourishment in this neo-world, but my daughter suckled on it anyway. My daughter, back from the war. What will she do now? What does she think now? What memories has she erected, had erected for her, in the distance between us that exceeds the mere chasm of age?
I watch her eyes watching me, watch the scowl that pretends not to watch me. I know her eyebrows, they’re arched in curiosity, but they’re arched.
Now what—she’s removing her blouse, letting it tumble to the ground, thrusting what is barely covered by the top of her bikini at me. So, we’re both shirtless now. How could she get this far without knowing how little I care about such things? Go ahead, get fucked tonight; do it right now, right here. I don’t believe in that kind of shame, you do. You’re of them, not of me. Nakedness is of me. Besides, you’ll never feel nakedness if you didn’t feel naked over there. They stripped you, my daughter, as soon as they got you, you didn’t strip yourself as I stripped myself. If Columbus fell off the edge it would still be his edge, not theirs, because it was his idea to be wrong. These people aren’t the Columbus of the voyage, they’re the Columbus of the conquest; that was a different Columbus, not the one daring the edge.
I dangle my toes over the edge of the flat roof, flattened as the woods that used to surround it, woods I knew nakedness in, and watch her stop looking up at me looking down.
They all know I won’t jump; they know what I don’t know. I don’t know anything. I don’t even know why I climbed up here; perhaps it was to avoid explaining why I came where I wasn’t invited. Wanting to see, I watched them climb up and jump down. They offered me beer, and I accepted, then someone offered me a joint and left me with it; I breathed it in even though that’s something from memory, it hasn’t been part of my life for years, but memory returned quickly as the inevitable splash sounded below. How far down is the pool; I never even looked at it? But it wasn’t the beer, wasn’t the pot. Too much going on to feel what was going down. No, I just followed to be following those who follow. Me on my non-Chagall roof in their Ayn Rand world, their neo-world. My daughter believes that shit, my daughter. We’re all lost in a world of bad writing led by non-readers. No, I’m lost in it; she feels found.
I’m desperate for the simple mooing of a cow, a cow bearing milk, even the milk that is indigestible to humans but advertises well; I’m desperate for the simple melody of a fiddler—my thoughts could use the direction of a melody. She’s desperate for words tangled in the bush. We’re all desperate for the violin music of words that we can neither hear nor understand. I need air, but this is a flat roof in the full fire of summer, in the smog and reflected heat of buildings thrown up after the woods were thrown down.
I hope she finds nourishment in one of those buff bodies tonight; I hope she realizes she deserves that, that surviving is enough, that mere survival is the only victory in life. But that’s me. That’s not her, half naked surrounded by the half naked returned from the desert where they had to walk armored in the stifling heat if they wanted to walk at all. They deserve their nakedness. They’ve seen death, smelled it, lived it, reveled in it. It’s me who doesn’t belong here. I haven’t earned their nakedness.
But I’ve earned mine.
They always come home to this, the parties the nakedness the booze the drugs, those who make it home. And those who don’t? Heroes over here, martyrs over there. Is this what I lived my fucking life for? Trying to live the right, in that I could see the right, only to have the right take it all, even my daughter, and not even do it well? So I could stand here on the edge of this flat roof, me who is afraid of heights but not today, not with her down there, watching the return of the warriors still again, like a curse on all that should be? Another place to massacre brown people to free them from themselves when we don’t even know how to save ourselves from ourselves. If they wanted saving, they would have done it themselves. They don’t want saving; like me they don’t know what they want, as if wanting were enough. Living by what I believed while all around me changed, adapted, so that my very lack of money, my neglecting to spend my life in the pursuit of it, sent her to them. Is that what happened? Is that why there’s not even a cow, because I couldn’t afford to buy one? And if it pays for college what now will she study? Will she study war no more? Or has she seen too much to want anymore, too much spent to learn now that she has the money to go to school, like soldiers everywhere throughout time giving all for old men so old men can feel strong?
There’s too much in my head; there’s always been too much in my head. That’s why I’m up here instead of down there with her, up here looking down at her no longer looking up at me wondering what the hell I’ll do next knowing what she’ll do next. I’ve lost her that I never had to begin with. I’m quoting Dylan in the Chagall sky looking down at the dysfunctional Rand world; it couldn’t get any more pathetic up here or down there. The eternal pathetic led by the pathological observed by the apathetic so we can have stories to tell, more rotting flesh for the maggots who cry to be fed, who crave meat and stink. I look up at the smoggy sky from the roof in this spot that used to be woods and now is private swimming pool so that the hordes in all those buildings heating the Earth can cool off, but I don’t know what I’m looking for up there any more than I do up here.
The sky is darkening, revealing a sliver of moon; it should be closer, next to the cow that isn’t here, not way up in the stars not even reflecting much light. I’m alone on the roof now, ignored--they’ve finally tired of their game, even they can get tired--though in truth I’ve been alone all along; it’s best that way, I wasn’t invited in the first place. Mistakes are best made, or suffered, alone; in my non-Rand world, mistakes are real and are faced whether one labels them mistakes or not. I need a violin, my thoughts are too loud, they drown out the sound of laughter below. Laughter for coming home, for not being the ones maimed and killed to free those who didn’t want freedom and prove it with cleverness and shrapnel. I’ve been through this before but I was younger then, it seemed an opportunity then to not do it ever again, yet here we are again, and this time it’s my daughter and unlike me she went because she was told. She never listened to me that way. She never listened to me at all. All the investigations all the recriminations all the living again through division and diversion won’t revivify a single death. It won’t make me whole again.
It won’t make my daughter listen to me, nor me to her.
My legs and back are aching; I’ve been crouching too long. My body is telling me how old I’m getting, how far away from my war. We stopped that one, but it took a very long time after so much cost. Then, it was peace with honor; now, they call it no honor to have peace. Pretend cowboy commanders and not a cow in sight, no milk, even unpotable milk, in which to cleanse the need for being on a roof with (or without) a cow and fiddler, the need to escape the ground. Even a flat roof with an edge one could fall off of. Or jump off of.
Still, it is a lovely night for a party, a nice night and a nice moon. The breeze feels good on my nakedness, as it must on theirs. Drunken revelry for the heroes, all of time’s heroes who didn’t fight back except against the ones shooting at them, the ones so much less dangerous and deserving of killing than the ones whose words sent them there. Support the troops; damn those who think thought is a better choice. It’s a Rand world, people doing without regard to what they do. It’s a neo-world looking backward to the family that never was, like my family never was. My daughter, drawn blood, thin blood, thinner than water and much less loved.
She looks lovely grown up and half naked. I just look old, my belly hanging like some frat boy’s. It’s her world now; it was never really mine, I’ve always been on the outside looking in, even then, even though some of us had hope then, shared hope. Losing hurts even when physical life isn’t at stake, at least for those who think about the doing of things and the whether-or-nots. We have a funny way of choosing our heroes after so many centuries of rotted lovely bodies stinking in the sun. Who will cry for her, not for having died but having chosen to live for them? Me, of course, but I don’t feel like crying. I like the breeze against my skin too much. I like the woods that used to be here too much.
I only cry at home, never at funerals.
They’re not looking at me anymore, not even pretending not to look. I’ve passed into history. Life goes fast for them now that they haven’t been killed. Until their next tour of war on the cheap, war of choice, the neo-Rand architects working only in their own minds for fear someone might point out something uncomfortable, building buildings that won’t stand just to have said they built one with a poor choice of words. I’d like to save the desert, too, but you can’t save the dead, can’t save the terrified, won’t save those crazed by birth or loss into vengefulness. I ache for God for having to watch this, if there is a God, the lone architect having built so badly. If, because I leave possibilities open knowing what I don’t know, being better at looking out than looking in. I ache for my daughter, but you can’t save the already saved. I had her too late; I was already old. She pays for my mistake and doesn’t even know she’s paying. She’ll always be happier than I’ve been, unless they maim her. I hope she gets all the way naked tonight; I hope they all do. Make love, not war, and, if not, at least make love between war. Everything’s been talked to seriousness, but it’s all a prank.
My legs hurt. Time to sit down. Time to meditate on this. Time to meditate this away. All things must pass, just please not my daughter, my daughter, not yours even though she gave herself to you her Commander-in-Chief. She’ll die for you; she’s already tried. They all will. Support the troops.
I must have looked up too long at the sliver of moon, or at nothing at all; I hadn’t heard the quiet. They must be gone, all gone; not only isn’t she looking up at me looking down, she isn’t there at all. I don’t like the edge, I don’t like it up high, but I move to the very edge of the edge and look straight down, I have to make sure she’s gone, because if she’s still there I’m not free to be myself; I have to be her.
The water feels harsh at first, then cool and refreshing even as I plunge nearly to the bottom, just as they all must have done. There really isn’t anything they were asked to do, told to do, I can’t do, even at my age. I’m not that old yet, not that out of shape and mind; it’s a technological world, anyone can aim a gun or guide a cannon with a computer. It’s just that I wouldn’t do it that makes all the difference. Maybe I didn’t have her too late; maybe the mistake was just in me having her. One becomes responsible for what one produces even if one doesn’t control what’s demanded of offspring. My parents probably felt the same way, would certainly feel the same way still if they still lived to see my head break the water and suck hungrily for air.
Richard Birken is a recipient of the American Independent Writers’ Prize for Short Fiction. His work has appeared in The Adirondack Review, The Raw Art Review, and JuxtaProse. He studied screenwriting at UCLA and holds graduate degrees from Berkeley.