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"The Parable of the Woodpecker," short story excerpt

Wednesday 2/23/22

As I understand it, the Bible was written by many people at a lot of different points in time, so it was like the book version of a chain letter, or an anthology. A multi-artist box set. One of those authors, I think, was Jesus. Or you could say that he dictated his parts to the apostles, declaring, “make sure you quote me right,” and they did.

What I liked about Jesus’s parts was that he spoke in parables. The other day on Twitter I saw where someone said Jesus probably had a great sense of humor. I’ve never read one of his parables and laughed, and more than that, I can’t imagine he ever laughed when he said any of them, nor can I find a part where a laugh—or even a smile—might be inserted. No room for laughter. Wine wasn’t coming out of anyone’s nose, be that wine made of blood or grapes.

What I have always wanted—and maybe it’s a strange thing to want—is for there to be another person like Jesus, and a Bible Part II, with updated parables, so they are not all about fishes and loaves and the overburdened backs of donkeys. And the other day I was thinking about how I could be a parable, if the right situation was presented to me. I could be an exemplar, without being exemplary.

For instance, as I was thinking about parables, I imagined a man—a celestial being—coming down to me. Let me stop and ask you this, as he might ask me: is there anything that would make you forfeit ten years of your life? Trade that decade away?

Ten seems a good, round number. And that is a lot of time. Think about how much occurs in a given ten-year stretch of your life. You could graduate college, get your first job, marry, have two kids—hell, call it three, only there was a miscarriage—and get divorced, move, bury a parent, develop a drinking problem, kick the drinking problem, meet someone new, get engaged, have her ghost you, only to develop the drinking problem again, move back home for a while with your mother, then move again, take up yoga, and hike a lot on your own, and contract herpes from that one time you put yourself back out there, but at least you know where you got it from. Who you got it from. Don’t objectify her.

But what would make you part with those ten years? What could you be offered? Okay—to save your child, if it came to that. Rescue humanity from something. Be the hero who preserves humankind from an earth-crushing asteroid, or an obliterative plague. But what if you knew you wouldn’t get credit for it? No history books for you, nor is there the eternal ringing of your name in hosannas of gratitude. You might have well as just fallen down the basement stairs and broken your neck en route to wash your gym clothes. Does that change the decision? Is there an amount of money for which you’d trade dying at sixty instead of dying at seventy? Ten million? You’re more apt to say, sure, where do I sign, if you’re in debt, budget to the nickel, and the number is $50K. Maybe you could get someone on board for forty bucks if they’re hungry enough. Or the price of a Subway sub, and a back-up sandwich for later, which you’d try and keep in a pocket of your jacket until tomorrow, fighting the temptation to eat it all at once, which is how it goes with hunger and the first opportunity of alleviation.

I think of someone in so much pain that they say, “I want it done yesterday,” meaning the dying, but then they realize they still had a form of a joke in them, which they find surprising, and maybe they haven’t given up entirely yet after all. Because if you are joking, aren’t you trying after a fashion, even without knowing it? Or calling it something else. They ask for the terms of the offer to be repeated. Say them slowly. Let me get this straight. They’re back in the game, fleeting as that may be. The life game. So they’ll listen.

But down comes the celestial being, twinkle twinkle, and it says to me, “I see you sitting here. I see the lost look in your eyes. What I’m going to offer you is you can watch anyone you’ve ever known, seen, been with, don’t know, wanted to know, have all of the sex they’ve ever had, and all of the times they’ve been fiddling around alone, too. It’s not illegal, no one will know, you don’t automatically go to hell. It can be your ex-wife, a cousin you last saw two decades ago, the sweetheart from high school with her useless, steak-inhaling, cigar-sucking, whisky-draining, hulking cretin of a husband at their McMansion in Fairfield County CT, where she’s bored and waits for him to have the heart attack that he will eventually have, or the woman at the Starbucks you steal the looks at. Pulchritudinous professor from undergrad who’s still got it. You watch it at home. On the screen. You have a record of every single time. Folders are nicely organized. All of the old times, and all of the times as they happen. Times with you, if you like. First guy after you. Never seen her roll on a condom before. At least she’s being safe. Pinched the tip, too. The winning form. Experimenting college roommates who had a go with each other that very morning before you walked past them drinking in the parking lot outside the stadium that time you went back for homecoming and must have said half a dozen times that you barely recognized the place on account of the changes. You just need to give me ten years off of your life.”

I’m the purveyor of the parable here. This isn’t something I’ve wished or prayed for. It’s been presented to me. Even when I thought of it I didn’t sit down to think of it. Was presented that way to me, too. I’d ask if this was a trick, because first you have to verify. We’re talking a decade. Get it in writing. The writing of the stars in this case. And once I was certain, I’d probably say yes. I’d give ten years for that. Most people would. The people you’d be watching yourself would themselves be watchers. But not, I bet, for much else. Consider that for a second. That’s what would get people, and maybe only that, or close to only that. I think you’d have a hard time finding someone who said no. Sure, you might have to haggle over the official death date, whether that’s seventy-seven or sixty-seven. This is easier if you knew at what age you were otherwise going to die. Do you really need 102? Sixty-seven-years really isn’t enough time to be alive. Seventy-seven, okay, maybe now we’re talking.


A pileated woodpecker looks like it'd be a woodpecker. Has the shape of a woodpecker. If you reduced the pileated woodpecker to a silhouette and showed that silhouette to a room of five-year-old children, they’d laugh and say it was a woodpecker, because woodpeckers induce laughter in children, and they know one when they see one, even as a silhouette. Has the long beak for it. A downy woodpecker doesn't look like a woodpecker. A downy woodpecker looks like it could be a sparrow with a red tuft on the top of its head. When you see a downy woodpecker standing on a branch, before it begins to peck, and then it starts to peck, you experience a spasm of incredulity which takes the form of “Hey!” or “Huh, that’s strange, look at him go!” I like that a downy woodpecker knows to peck wood. It's in its blood. "I will peck wood, damn you," it seems to say. "For that is what I am here for, and what I am." It just knows. It knows the right thing to do for a downy woodpecker. And it will not veer. It’s true to the purpose. And the purpose of itself.


I think I have envied downy woodpeckers. I have envied them honestly. That’s an important qualifier. Whether you envy someone or something, or you envy them honestly. The latter means you shoot for something based on an idea they gave you or rekindled in you. Or you would if you could. You might.


So I was wrong about Jesus dictating the Bible, as my further researches have indicated. But you know who did write a lot of it I’ve learned? This amateur scholar. That’s how he described himself. In one way, that’s so humble. I mean, you wrote a lot of the Bible, and you described yourself as this dabbler. It was something you did on the side, a hobby, like gluing model ships together. I like that. I’d like to be a person like that. But you know what? It also pisses me off, because it’s kind of arrogant. “I’m not even a pro, I’m not even a real scholar, and sure, I’ll write this motherfucker for you. For humanity. Where’s my quill?”


Who would I watch first? I have no idea. By which I mean, there are various strong contenders. That’d be a tough decision. I probably wouldn’t go outside for a lot of days. I might never go outside again. I bet in time I’d become a professional watcher. I’d invent some device on the computer to measure hip flexibility and determine who the best riders were. I’d time orgasms, to see whose lasted over twenty seconds, who hit thirty seconds consistently. I’d start what I called the Half Minute Club. I’d say cryptic lines that meant nothing but sounded like they did, such as “She makes a strong case,” but not knowing for what. I’d go in a big fan of watching people I liked ride, or liked in this way, but maybe that appreciation would lessen as I got more into other things? Would I be sad as a result? Crestfallen? I’d watch everyone, man. There isn’t anyone I’ve ever known I wouldn’t be curious about. Not literally. But a high percentage. The women. In time I’d refresh the original agreement that was written in the heavens, to make sure—because I’d be pretty paranoid—that I wasn’t doing the worst kind of wrong ever. That I didn’t have to go to hell and go to hell ten years earlier at that. I could picture the devil saying the point was moot or academic. He’d have a case, technically. But still. Can there not be degrees in the measuring of eternity? Maybe not. But I know that it may feel that way. Even while you’re alive and know you’re going to die, and living feels like the eternity, or a first one. I think eternity has chapters.


But what if I met someone? And I loved her? You know what I often say? There is no love. There is who will have you, and how okay you are with that. The bargain, the compact. Whether you can swing it. Make a go of it. My decision with the videos would certainly have been influenced by my belief that I will not meet this person I love. That she does not exist. Or if she does exist, how would I ever meet her? What would be the chances? The people who are happiest in relationships are the people who are not really happy who can nonetheless believe that they are happy and these same people would be happy with the most amount of people. I feel that way often. I believe it often. Their math would kick the ass of your math.


God I get so down you wouldn’t believe it. When I get down, I will eventually give in to the down-ness, and I’ll either die, or another vacuum will start to be filled, if I have any life left in me. The down-ness fills, so then it’s like something has to flow into the up-ness, which has been emptied out, but that’s just physics. Emotional physics. Unless the chamber of the down-ness explodes, and that means you are done. I find myself talking to myself, like someone who has been made a child again, and speaks to themselves as though they were a child, because of the destabilizing nature of their pain, which shaves away their years—their adult years—of protection and resistance. The things you thought you knew, that you never really knew at all. Ripped from you. I’m back to the rudiments of a cave person, or the child that looked down for the first time to see that its knee was skinned. Because of lack of experience the child does not know how far this thing goes, what it portends, this warm slurry of pooling blood and ragged skin, if the end has come already, or is starting to. Knees possess chapters as well. I have these conversations out loud with adversaries. My side of the conversation. Because I’ll probably never have the actual conversation, and I still want to be ready for it. But I still want to be ready for it, I should say. I wrote a poem without any words called “Touchy Touches and Rapey Rapes.” That’s how dark I get. Coal in my heart. My entire being is the inside of the dirtiest, rankest mine, but maybe I shouldn’t say rank because rank sounds wet and my heart is dry like an unsparked ember. I joked to myself that my poem without words could be part of a kids’ book, which is evil when you think about it. But is it? Because I thought I wanted to die, I was so lonely. And I just had to laugh. I had to laugh at something wrong. Because you can hurt so much that you can’t laugh at something right. Laugh or die. There comes a point when it is laugh or die. So what? You’re supposed to die? I’m not being consistent. If I agreed to the video offer—as I think almost anyone alive would, though with some variations in their reasons—I’d be forking over ten years of my life. But it’s not the same. Saying I won’t live later is not the same as saying I won’t live now. There are so many words in common there, and seemingly concepts in common. But I don’t know that there is anything of greater difference.


On my actual computer, I have a picture of a pileated woodpecker that I took when hiking alone, and a picture of a downy woodpecker that I took. They are side-by-side—I spliced them into one image. Sometimes I use that photo as my screensaver. It blows my mind that there has never been a downy woodpecker—and I’m sure there hasn’t been—who has apprised the size of its beak, the shape of its head, the nature of its build, which is so sparrow-like, and went and acted like a sparrow. They are so unlikely based upon everything you see with them to do what they do. But every last downy woodpecker drills into those trees. It gets up each morning and tries, the best it can, to be itself. Do you know how thin a bird bone is? You probably don’t. Many are hollow. Chances are you’ve never thought about it. If you’ve seen a dead bird rotting on the ground you likely either went “ugh, gross,” or felt sad and looked away. Told your child not to look. Maybe you wondered once if you were starving because the world was overrun with death and there was almost no food and no people if you’d try and eat that dead bird you saw. Would it be worth it? Could you keep it down if you determined it was? But think about it—those bones have to be thin. Why? Because birds obviously fly. But this knowledge of being, of utter certainly, of eternal essence, goes right down into the bones of that downy woodpecker, even the hollow bones. And that is enough. That is more than enough.


I dated this woman once who I loathed. She was cruel. Shallow and cruel. People said we made an attractive couple. It was the longest relationship I ever had. Have had. Longer than I was married. We were together four years. She went to therapy and it didn’t make her any nicer. I think she got harder. Flintier, in the way that people of ever-expanding defensiveness do. She always reminded me of those sticks of cinnamon you see. She smelled like cinnamon, actually. But you know what I think when I see a stick of cinnamon on the cover of a box of something that is cinnamon-flavored? I wonder what the hell is it. Is that wood? Seriously, is cinnamon wood? Because it looks like fucking wood. Am I eating wood or shavings of wood? But it also looks like wood that is brittle. Flick your finger against it and it becomes dust. Is that what cinnamon is? A kind of dust from wood? Is that what all spice is? The spice of life?

People talk about that. The spice of life. Seasoning. Elixir. Cure-all. Rotational device. Self-deception. Fodder for a Facebook post. What can I put up this time. Go Broncos! This is what my dessert looked like at the restaurant tonight. Why you’re taking an adult education class. The excuse for that affair. Your baby’s asymmetrical smile. Your actual joy in seeing the tireless teacher who helped your daughter overcome her mathematics anxiety and understand algebra as she gets an award at an end-of-the-school year function you had thought wouldn’t be worth attending but you went anyway. Good for fucking her, you think, and you mean it. You’re standing and clapping as hard as anyone, and you’re not that kind of person normally. The spice of life.

The woman I was with was like that wood. When one of my sisters overdosed and died, the woman I was with said, “Don’t use needles.” A tip. Ex post facto. Said it very curtly. The way I’d imagine the host would at a fancy restaurant would say, “Tie, sir,” if there was a dress code you weren’t familiar with and didn’t have anything around your neck, but what? Growth rings, like a tree has. Invisible growth rings, which is not a tie, and will not fly with the maître d’.

A couple things here. She’s married now to someone else. I would totally watch her fuck. I’d be curious. She might be the first person I watched. I have a cousin who is forty who lives like a spinster, and is attractive in a girl-next-door kind of way, though one could also say that that quality is fast on its way out and could be a memory in a Christmas or two, but who I know will always be alone. I’d actually probably pick her initially, because I bet there’d be a compelling contrast with the lonely spinster side and the “oh look, she squirts” side, and it’s not like she’s never fucked.

We live near each other, the cousin and myself, and once I saw her at Faneuil Hall the day before Thanksgiving. She was going home—about twenty miles away—the next afternoon for the holiday. Her family always had a bunch of people over. A more the merrier theme. She asked me what I was doing, and I told her I wasn’t going anywhere, and I’d try and get through the day, I guess. Another day on the calendar. I didn’t say it like a dick. An angry, cynical person, because I’m still not that, I’m pretty sure. Somehow. I just said it. Some news you want to be honest about but you don’t want a boo-hoo poor you pity party in the streets of Boston. Or a tourist trap of Boston. You know what I mean.

She didn’t invite me. But you know what she did say? She said I should get a dog. Said it with authority. That voice of, “that will fix everything for you.” So really I have no fucking compunction watching her fuck. I would enjoy that.

Anyway, the woman I was with for the four years had a breakthrough session once with her therapist. She spent a lot of time, I learned, talking about her college boyfriend. He was an All-American defensive end, which is sufficiently impressive that if you say that to other people, years and years later, they think, “wow,” and are surprised that you would have known someone who knew someone who did that. He blew out his knee at his first mini-camp for the Seattle Seahawks and never played a down in the league. Same as me, baby, I wanted to say, zero days of NFL service, when she talked about this guy eight years after the fact. Their fact. She told me that she finally unearthed a source of her pain at one of these sessions. She owned her pain, she said. Announced it like I should have pinned a medal on her, or someone better at adjudicating the worth of these things should have. Someone who was probably a more successful person, too, until you really looked at their life, and understood what matters and what doesn’t.

(Note to self: Determine what really matters and what doesn’t.)

I hugged her after she shared what she wanted to impart, the stuff of her major moment worthy of beating one’s own fist against one’s own chest in that way that always makes me think of Maya Angelou saying, “I rise!” She cried into my shoulder. Then she told me what she told her therapist that she couldn’t say all of those years, which he had said to her—the defensive end, that is—when they broke up for the last time, because they were people who broke up a lot and my understanding was that she viewed their relationship as “fiery” whereas ours was “easy.”

“You’re just holes,” he said.

Allegedly. But I believed her.

Another time when we were quarreling—I guess you could call it quarreling—and had gone two or three days without really talking but still having sex but in that way so that there is something because there’s nothing else, she said that I viewed her only as holes, which almost led me to reply, “How many do you think you have?” because she said it like she had twenty-six and I collected them, polished them, displayed them on shelves, cherished them, but not her. So it was a theme. But an awful thing for the defensive end to say. I said that and meant it. I think it was the most honest moment I ever had with her. Or perhaps our only honest moment.

When she looked him up on Facebook and he’d put on more weight since the last time she’d looked him up, she’d say, “karma,” and have another drink of her wine, toasting whatever spirits, sprites, or trolls who just wanted to put in enough time to qualify for a pension as they pulled the levers of this thing to which some people append the label of karma. The enterprise of cosmic judiciousness. I gave her a thumb’s up from across the room once when she turned to me for either approval or echo. But when we broke up, for the one and only time, in a hailstorm of feelings and words that we’d jammed into a boggy cloud that had never had its turn to do what clouds do and disgorge itself, she told told me that every time we were together she pretended that it was Chet fucking her. Every single time. It was Chet. That was the defensive end.

“Even last night?” I asked.

“Especially last night,” she concluded.


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