The Color of the Sky

James David Cohn


None of them knew the color of the sky.

That Stephen Crane, he thought, what a great opening sentence, that guy could write. He had read “The Open Boat” in high school, in a literature book, where it had appeared without Crane’s subtitle, “A tale intended to be after the fact. Being the experience of four men sunk from the steamer Commodore.”

Years later he had encountered the lugubrious subtitle in a collection of Crane’s stories and loved the story more because of it, the subtitle so heavy-handed and mock-objective as to be comical, Crane pretending with a wink to be a reporter but not so, he was a “creative” as they call it now, and he had died young. He had died young, like some other creatives, Mozart and Thomas Wolfe and Janis Joplin.

He sat in his chair at his laptop and wondered what that expression meant, “died young.” He thought of all the cemeteries he had ever visited, all those grave markers chiseled with their miniscule spans of life and their infinite durations of death. All of the lifespans were as nothing in the face of death, the rituals said, and it was true, but.

Baby Jenkins, October 2, 1978 – October 3, 1978. We held you a moment / No time for a name / One day or a million / We loved you the same.

He remembered a line in a play, “Talley’s Folly,” where one of the characters says about the word “lifetime,” “Whatever time there is in a life is a lifetime.” Nice work if you can get it, he thought, but he knew it was true because how could it not be?

He looked out the window. A tropical storm was frothing up, not a tropical storm in the technical sense perhaps but a storm that was tropical nonetheless, the wind was throttling the taller palms but these trees had been through this before, they knew they had more time left in their lives. The barometric pressure must be dropping, or was it rising, he could never remember, one day he must get a barometer, but that was just another round tuit, he knew, like it said on all his mother’s pot-holders and jar lid unscrewers and now the time in her life was over, no more lifetime for her, she had gotten a round tuit alright, she was buried underneath other palms in a city on the mainland while he lifed on, he was a lifer trying to write sentences and he was sentenced to life and a life sentence is not forever, there must be a full stop at some point even if your sentence runs on and on and on and then here comes the full stop.

Lenore Jenkins, November 4, 1919 – February 3, 1998. Beloved daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother.

The cats could feel the pressure change or they could hear the scuttling sounds or whatever else they heard and felt, one under the bed waiting for the life of the storm to die and one on the windowsill watching with earnest dedication, but he knew that was extravagant, he must delete the word earnest because wasn’t all dedication earnest by definition but he left it in because life was short.

Robert Jenkins, March 30, 1951 – September 6, 1975. Some creatives step into their own lives and take a hand in the matter, yes they do. They don’t wait for it to happen to them. They happen to it.

Object lessons one and all, but of what?

He got up and made a cup of tea, which is what he called it when he made a cup of coffee.

In 1895 Crane wrote, “I suppose I ought to be thankful to The Red Badge, but I am much fonder of my little book of poems, The Black Riders. My aim was to comprehend in it the thoughts I have had about life in general, while The Red Badge is a mere episode in life, an amplification.”

Crane was a reporter as a young man so his later mock-reporter status was honestly earned. Anyway Crane was never any other kind of man than a young one.

He sat down with his tea which was coffee, opened a book of Crane’s uncollected poems which were in a collection and read aloud to the cats.

Bottles and bottles and bottles
In a merry den
And the wan smiles of women
Untruthing license and joy.
Countless lights
Making oblique and confusing multiplication
In mirrors
And the light returns again to the faces.

****************

A cellar, and a death-pale child.
A woman
Ministering commonly, degradedly,
Without manners.
A murmer and a silence
Or a silence and a murmer
And then a finished silence.
The moon beams practically upon the cheap bed.

An hour, with its million trinkets of joy and pain,
Matters little in cellar or merry den
Since all is death.

He put down the book and looked at the ceiling. Since all is death. His father would have objected, not on grounds eschatological but grammatical. The word “since,” his father had often opined, relates to the passage of time, as in, Those fucking tacos, I’ve had the runs since Tuesday. When a causal connection is meant, the correct expression is “inasmuch as.” I’ve had the runs inasmuch as I ate those fucking tacos.

On Tuesday.

“Inasmuch as” instead of “since,” well sure, why not? When your sentences run on and you haven’t yet arrived at your full stop, you might as well use two words in place of one.

Thinking of incorrect usages he recalled an appearance of that poem in a book about Crane. Instead of “the wan smiles of women” it had said “the man smiles of women.” He wondered if grad students had written entire theses based on that misprint, just imagine. He found this amusing but he did not mention it to the cats and he did not laugh out loud.

Once at a little concert on the lawn of a bed-and-breakfast he saw from behind a woman in a tank top with many tattoos over her back and shoulders and arms and he saw that one was a cat in a position that the King James Bible would describe as “couching,” as in “sin coucheth by the door,” a word mistaken as “croucheth” by later generations less meticulous in the art of scribal copying which gave an entirely different and erroneous spin on the Bible’s intent, as the couching non-crouching cat in this tattoo clearly presented no threat and was probably purring. Staring at the tattoo, he realized that all the tattoos were cat tattoos.

He walked over to her and said “Excuse me but I assume you’re used to this, I want to see these tattoos, I assume you are a patron of the feline arts?” It was insipid but he meant it, sometimes he meant the insipid things he said. She smiled and held out her arms, rotating them, and he saw that they were different cats disporting themselves in different positions and it appeared the tattoos might have been done from photographs.

“These are my cats,” she said.

“You have all these cats?”

“No, these are the ones who have died.”

“Then you must have had cats from an early age,” he said. This is called flattery.

“I just euthanized one of them the day before yesterday. My friends dragged me out this afternoon, they said no more mourning!”

“I have two cats, sisters,” he said. “They’re eight years old. I expect I might have to euthanize one or both and the thought terrifies me.”

“Yeah,” she said, “of course you never know, when I euthanized this last cat two days ago I thought ‘Enough already, it’s time for one of you to outlive me, damn it!’”

He was grateful she used the word euthanize and not the expression “put to sleep.” The etymology of the word euthanasia conveyed the idea of a death that was easy or good or both. He had seen the truth of this when his then-wife Jill had held Quacker in her arms at the vet when the Nembutal had been administered and the cat did go to sleep it was true, but only for seconds and then Quacker died, and it was easy for Quacker, as easy as going to sleep, so maybe they had put her to sleep after all.

Quacker’s body was cremated and the remains came back in a little cedar box, more like a tiny chest or locker, maybe six inches by three by three. This chest sat in their living room, its contents defying interment, Jill being unable to do it, what with all the other deaths she was dealing with, all the deaths he had inflicted on her, all those lifetimes of hers that he had cremated while yet they lived, one by one, and none of them an easy or good death, he had not euthanized them but murdered them or, perhaps more charitably, he had shown what the courts call a reckless disregard for life.

Cats have nine lives and therefore like cowards they die a whole bunch of times before their deaths, and he was not unacquainted with the character of a coward for he most certainly was that in addition to being a lover of cats. The woman with the tattoos knew him as a cat lover, but had the conversation gone forward to another life, then in the time of that life she would have come to know him as a coward too.

The conversation did not go forward into any life, except the life of his writing.

He did not fancy himself a writer but he wrote. His prose was not immortal. The time of its life was only that of paper which was short, or electronic storage which was longer except that if civilization crumbled and there was no longer any electrical power with which to access the electronic storage the paper would have the longer life as well as the last laugh, and anyway when the universe expanded enough the thermodynamic forces would reach equilibrium and nothing would change anymore and if nothing changes then time doesn’t exist and without time there is no lifetime. And if on the other hand the universe doesn’t expand forever but contracts into an infinitesimally small point then time will cease to exist, so it is, in that expression that is an oxymoron of sorts, the same difference, the difference that is the same.

Full stop.

What does one do in the face of such things, the enormity of it all, without the prose getting too prosaic except maybe a little. You brass it out don’t you, you just brass it out. You make a cup of tea from ground coffee beans. You watch your cats watching the weather and you know the color of the sky. You take your blood pressure medicine so the time in your life will be longer inasmuch as but not since that is the point, live longer, extend that sentence for good behavior.

But it was good, and easy, to write in the morning with a hot beverage and two cats inside and writhing palms outside. To live longer was to write more and it was easy and good.

Stephen Crane, November 1, 1871 - June 5, 1900.

© 2018 James David Cohn