Listener, Take 4: You Have Never Lived Because You Have Never Died

Welcome to Take 4 of our Listener reaction. This week, a few of us are taking different pieces from the band Listener and writing what comes to mind. Have you checked out Take 1Take 2, and Take 3?

Today’s piece is brought to us by Malone (a.k.a. Kevin Still).    He’s a good friend who scratches out his words mostly in local news-rags, letters, and ferocious emails.  Kevin is a right good feller.

***

***

I saw 13 black crows as black as 3 AM
And as big as vultures eyes
With wings hanging to their sides like laundry on the line.
– Dan Smith

Red carpet, stretched like blood-cushion between wooden benches. I walk forward and say, “Yes, I understand.” I’m seven. My parents walk with me. We go to Brother Jerry’s office and I answer more questions. My Bible in my lap, black leather with a gold cross zipper. Yes, He died. Yes, He rose. Yes, I need to as well. Yes, I will tell others. Now when do I get in that swimming pool? The water washes cold and my blue jeans dry slowly. Grown men shake my hand, say they’re proud. My underwear rides up hard and damp. We go for steaks and potatoes and tea. I am the birthday boy in spring even though I turn eight in the fall. Inside my closet at home I have pictures of elephants and raccoons taped to the wall. I have some baseball cards and my grandfather’s coin collection. I go there with a flashlight, sit in the dark and look at those animals, the faces of men I don’t know, feel the carved edges of blister-earned silver, and I hate forever. It’s too big. Oceans without bottoms. Skies without ceilings. Saw that movie once where the green cloud dropped out of the night and killed all the little boys without blood on the doors. Really? Is that what I signed up for? Is that what I’m left to battle through surrender? Sheesh, Christ! I like monsters and a girl named Amber and movies that crackle through the cable late at night on HBO. Give me a tree and five minutes, I’ll climb that sucker. Give me a bike and a steep hill, and I’ll be back down before you catch your own breath. But forever bought with wet underwear?

***

I saw four black eagles, with horns growing towards the ground,
Like columns or anchors reaching for the bottom.
Their feathers folded like hands on a man resting in a coffin.
– Dan Smith

My hair just started growing back, so I kept the mustache. Helped the image. Speaking in churches – my circuit was three states wide – you gotta have the right P.R. move. So I kept the mustache. Cancer took my hair, but Jesus gave it back. “Get your hands up!” Rock-n-roll took my soul, but God put the groove in my heart. “(Men): God is good! (Women): All the time!” One night we did a show at my aunt’s church. My friends in the band did not let me rap-for-Jesus, but I told my cancer-to-Christ story and brought a date. Afterwards, my escort joined me for burgers and parking. We sat in my car. We talked. We kissed. She raised her shirt and I went there. A car pulled round the bend and she saw the blue and red roof-lights. I stepped out, hands up shoulder length, walked through the search beam. I knew the guy. Father of a friend in the youth group. He asked what we were up to. I said, “Got a sad friend who needs to talk. You wanna pray for us?” He said yeah. I said, “Thank you, brother.” He slapped my shoulder and said, “I’m glad she’s with you.” I said yeah. He left, and we left. I didn’t see her again.

***

I saw 18 black hawks with beaks full of teeth,
Roaring like a pack of wolves in a perfect V
With hoods over their eyes to cover up what they’ve seen.
– Dan Smith

Two other Baptist boys and I crawled into the woods through a trail marked by a lamppost. We were angry and alert, marked by bad hygiene and worn out shoes. We each wore last week’s facial hair and dandruff over dusty cardigan sweaters. R. carried our bread and wine. The path curved uphill, cutting a hard right by the cliff’s edge, overlooking the Ouachita River and towns where cousins experiment with cousins. The river rippled laughter over broken down limbs and tree trunks and car parts. The path cut hard to the right and swiggled through brambles, puddles, pine cones and still more brambles. We climbed the trail and cut through the ravine with the tire swing. Then we shimmied out on a sofa of tree roots gnarled like fingers in fists, jutting from the cliff face, hanging in midair like a wooden hammock. We three Baptist boys fit in the nest of those roots with room to stretch stories into boldfaced lies. We said words of thanks and took bread. We spoke words of confession and took wine. We spoke words of regret and took more wine. We spoke regret attached to names and killed off the wine. There was nothing left to do, drunk on the Last Supper’s after party, but disrobe and run the woods naked. So we did. Swerving between trees, we hoot and holler and trip over anything larger than a pine needle. Alive and alert, pine straw stuck to our butt cheeks, we laugh louder than the river beneath us. Our voices rising through the Arkansas pine like so many tiny phoenixes born from so many tiny fires of misguided passion.

***

I saw nine black owls. They were quiet as death.
They had talons like antlers growing from their hearts
And they were tearing me apart.
– Dan Smith

Boats are out but nets are still on the beach. Women with small fingers pluck string and rope, ciphering garbage and bits of dead fish. We nod to each other as I pass – I pass every morning – but neither of us smile. I walk past huts and clay buildings. Out where the smell of fish simmers to the odor of garbage. I see an abandoned factory to my right, where the beach curves into private property. I’ve been here twice before with two lovely women: each for a different reason. But now I’m here alone, as I’ve been for nearly a month, and I feel comfortable to begin the ritual. Shoes off. Face seaward. Salt on my brow. Sand on my ankles. A tiny green book in my hands. I read, “In the beginning was the Word . . .” Everyday I read John 1 aloud standing here. The water laps my feet like 1,000 tongues. Fireball sun-rays crackle my chicken-skin neckline. I say, “Men asked, ‘Teach me to pray,’ but I ask ‘What is salvation?’” Like so many times before, I’d had enough. Little do I know, I will always reach a point of having enough. So it kept – it will always keep – coming back to this point. A month prior to standing on the beach, I laid in bed, hungover and greasy, telling God, “I’m not good at this faith thing. Let’s call it quits.” It was the first time I heard Him laugh. So I began walking the beach, past the nets and huts, to ask, “What did I sign up for?” For a month solid, I hear nothing but the ocean washing in stories from foreign lands. My hour on the beach expired. Time for oysters and beer in the market. Time for Ally McBeal and Yantai Pijui. I reach down, grab a shell, and throw the tiny brown thing into the Yellow Sea. It’s a speck. A single bone in a body. A faucet drip on a forest fire. That’s when I hear a voice say, “That’s it. That’s salvation.” And I see it as if for the first time: all my silly effort and trite understanding, all lathered-up belief and fence hinged faith, swallowed by an ocean without bottom, pressed and pulled by a sky without ceiling. I am no more destined to get it right than I am to live forever. I see this and turn for home, certain that I’ll be here again sooner than imagined.

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17 Responses to Listener, Take 4: You Have Never Lived Because You Have Never Died

  1. there are no words. this is beautiful and good. haunting, even.

  2. cloisteredaway says:

    Such powerful writing in this series of Listeners. Thanks for gathering.

  3. faith says:

    Unbelievably profound. I love it. Man, I am sure honored to know that right-good feller, Kevin Still.

  4. Otha Graham says:

    Flannery O’Connor would want to shake your hand. Haunting and both morbid and full of life.

    • Kiki Malone says:

      I’d just want her to shake with her peacock pettin’ hand while extending to me some of her mama’s homebrewed sweet tea in the other. Glory and hallelujah.

  5. i agree with the above – duh – but want to give a specific nod to your use of details, kevin man. you paint with a very detailed word brush, but choose so wisely. no “the year was this and i was in china” – you just are, and you bring us there, and that is good writing.

    learning from you all the time.

    shout out to oysters and wet baptism jeans. raw in every sense of the word.

    • Kiki Malone says:

      Abby – I love a specific comment, especially in matters of style and choice. I’ve noticed in my reading that most of the details given by most authors is completely unnecessary. As a reader, I don’t always need to know the time frame or location or what a character looks like. As a writer, the author should decide what is most essential for the reader and merely present that (and then they should probably still shave a hair or two off for pitch and good measure). I was thinking about that while writing this. In my rough drafts, there were some of those introductory statements, “Back when I was in college”, but in my rewrites I knew to scrap that stuff because, guess what, it’s not important that I was in China or college or high school. The issue in this piece is internal, so all those outer pleasantries and concepts are immaterial. It’s tough to drop those details sometimes, particularly when dropping the details requires cutting a sentence that feels really nice. But if the detail is not necessary then it’s just fluff that distracts from the actual purpose of the piece. Of course, the reader is left to interpret or infer or imagine or filter the writing however they choose, but as the writer we have a lot of control in what they’ll be interpreting and inferring and imaging and filtering. Alright, I’m gonna stop here because I’m beginning to geek and this could easily flow into all kinds of thoughts and ideas that are totally nonessential.

  6. Kevin, just “thank-you”. And especially for His laughter and that last paragraph. Something happened inside me.

    Love,
    Erika

  7. Kevin. Oh, my. This is exceptional. Visceral. Tactile. And beautiful. “Is this what I signed up for?” EXACTLY. If we don’t ask that question repeatedly in this life, we’re asleep at the switch. And you, Mr. Malone, are definitely NOT asleep. Thank you so much – makes me want to muse a bit, to see if I can find some wooden hammocks in my own story. What a week, what a fascinating week!

    • Kiki Malone says:

      Diana – Thank you much. I want to say a lot right now, so I might just steal your email from the Monthly Collective. – km

  8. “I am the birthday boy in spring even though I turn eight in the fall.” Yes. Exactly. That’s all it was about for me, at that age.

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