The Wildlife Lecture
Neal Durando

I was once so excited.
I didn't know what I should do next.
There were certain choices. I mean equal choices between what to do next that were so intoxicating that a boy had to sit down someplace near his father's stoop and spend a moment thinking about each. Talking on the telephone. Nature walks. The train museum. Those were then the chief things in my life. It should be known that I allowed my father the honor of making nearly every decision for me; I would even gladly bear with the consequences his judgments caused. Assist your mother, seemed his favorite thing to say to me.
I'll bet it has become clear by now that each of these intoxicating activities carried with it a penalty for the favoring. Spending the happy balance of an afternoon breaking off sticks in the snakeholes that circled the foundation of our home could later mean I might have to use the same sticks to beat my way through the children packed together in hope of being admitted to the antique steams and diesels and electrics. Too early to the trainyard might mean I would miss an important message phoned in for my mother. The men who phoned were after something dirty, now that I stop and think about it. They were polite until they become furious. They said dirty things, I was silent, they became polite again. It took only so long. Similarly, I believe one has only so much time before he finds himself all on his lonesome, before hazard stirs itself from beneath the stoop, before the receiver is taken from his hand and a filthy and seemingly endless talking back ensues, before he must assume some measure of the blame on his part.
Still and all, what excitement there was to be had.
Our days were all the same. That is to say that our family slept wedged into a single bed and every morning urged our beloved into motion with the smell of over-steeped tea, jabs, legal writs, feet in faces, the droned recounting of our dreams through mouths stuffed with puffed corn. There was never more before us than just to begin the day, just to make bare stirrings that, when they occurred during business hours, could be mistaken in the city for a paying job. My father, for instance, had an unbalanced way of running through subway turnstiles that soon qualified him for state assistance. My mother, on her part, had a fragile way of giving up and then going back to bed that soon qualified her for same. Myself, I stuck my fingers down the snakeholes after sleeping away half the day with my mother in her customary stupor beside me. I was flighty and without direction. I was often out of sticks, though seldom far enough from the sound of our antique telephone. How my times have changed in everything save the largest ways. How memories are inherited by the houseful.
Mornings now are a slice of something other than a life spent in the family's fresh hells. I know, of course, once that headlong motion of mine gets past the goddamn beginning-moment, I will feel so excited again. Once I have attended to my afternoon obligations, the phone, the paper, the assault, a magical sort of quiver invades my day. I like that kind of excitement. Really. By mid-day there comes to be a buzzing through my pockets. That kind of excitement can boil up out of nowhere, from inside of myself. I've been trained to the extent I will say anything, do anything, to keep my pockets buzzing in this fashion later and later as long as the organs within might bear it. If you were to repeat my exact words, in order to defend yourself in a court of law perhaps, I would not mind at all. So go ahead. The damage people do to one another in the name of mimicry warms me to the core. Permission like this should suggest a lot about my advanced age. Over this the agents of the state have no truck. One may explain nearly any behavior to a person who breathes chiefly through his mouth. The state and its agents. If it weren't for the décor, how easily one would confuse the lawyers and the shrinks -- even though the litigants and the insane are impossible to discern. So it goes with our modern state.
Look, I know when I have to sit down and take my breather-moment. I've figured that much out on my own. You see, I taught myself to break down in the face of certain restive feelings I have. These are not, as you must be thinking, those out-of-control feelings I used to have lingering about me back when black and yellow could kill a fellow and my steps were little steps. Such activity risks turning one into a garnishee rather than a ward. It could be that I work inside a bank; it is certainly something financial. Yes, high finance, nothing more than that. My mornings that were marked out in paper cuts immediately melted into shrill afternoons of waving a fist in the face of any passerby who would stare blankly for a few breaths. Our country then conquered its overnight distances by means of sleeper cars. It may interest you to know, I had a minor role in securing the enabling loan. My mother to this day allows me to fight each and every child who darkens our path. She is frail, under indictment, and must be indicated around by fingersnaps. The sights and sounds confuse her. Staring at institutional architecture strikes her dumb. When she was stronger she would hold them still for me in the more peaceful quarters of the city park so I could kick them in the guts without interruption. In the mornings she was kind enough to bash at the faces that peered through the windowpane so I might have a hope of continuing my beauty rest until a more suitable hour or else the phone, the phone, the phone. The screens of our house were, as you might imagine, in ruins.
Now, we are not quite so solemn. These contemporary feelings of mine are something altogether more elegant, are the product of actions I hope haven't yet become apparent to the public. My sleeves are held together with silver links and I crap in airconditioning. Oh, I suppose I do have a secret self that I want protected, especially as my behavior may have already been mistaken for that of just another man of violence. Sloppy public dress for one thing, a stupid way of walking that is in no way justified by injury for another. He has this irritating tendency to tip things over. I have heard it said about other people, too, not just myself and my entire line. His mother is that irritating sort of woman who shreds her napkin at the dinner table instead of eating. That kind of violence, clement though it may be, is what I most notice in myself, my colleagues, my contemporaries.
What am I talking about?
Taking a nature walk through the notorious park, for example, wearing my disconcerting shoes is just the sort of thing I'm talking about.
Wearing what I call to myself "the potato shoes" when I see them on other people's feet.
In general, I like the idea of the dead rest that overtakes me after a walk in my own potato shoes. I have dared, you see, and maybe others have not. People and our filthy feet and our deadness to decorum and our running into one another in crowds and teams and dirty crews. My father, product of his times, crashed through the stiles with his hands in his pockets and took donations.
Sights like this are not seen without cost. He was the definition of headlong.
There are reasons why things have taken a turn for the way they are. I know there are those of us who have chosen for the good life underground. The fascinating waits, the platform heat, the snows that clog the stairwells all make a fellow much too thoughtful before his time. Ever notice how our city has been reduced to shunting its citizenry from place to place in subway cars that are most accurately thought of as museum pieces? (I have even heard that you citizens, in turn, have occasionally been reduced to pushing the boxcars yourselves.) Destruction of municipal property has become positively upstanding, if you were wondering, if the state of the union is somehow different where you are. My father is buried beneath the cross-town right-of-way. My mother undermined the grave with her bare hands. Her well-honed caterwaul steadied our nerves. Myself, I'm limited by my limited abilities to leaving little indelible marks on the plastic benches in Sharpie or El Marko. Fuck or Suck depending on my feelings.
These are not the only choices.
Cremains, still lives rendered in four colors, the young are so very different, they eat together in the cafetoriums and cheer spills, every one of them ready with his snotty rhyme, too much milk makes them so, what ambitious characters they cartoon on every surface they visit for more than five minutes, it is exactly like animal pee, so said my father, they know exactly enough about the state of the union to say exactly nothing, it used to be that there were only three colors that mattered, the primaries, the colors they now call the importants, milk, milk, lemonade. I haven't forgotten the rest, what happens around the corner. Our secret pledge of allegiance always held just around the back, the coprolites.
So, now you see how, these days, the progress of an antique such as myself depends on a terrible momentum. I'll give you an example of what I'd like to mean since I'm in one of those breather-moments right now, one of those times when I've given up speed and my general desire for headlong appearances.
A man sits before his favorite bridge, as the story goes. He was once in a hurry (his words), but many types of people are now crowding up the path he was hurrying along, the path that led him, by happenstance, to the viewing bench. The idea is that this man has abandoned certain pressing affairs by leaving the path. The wildlife lecture he promised to his newborn son, perhaps, will have to be neglected. His mind, weakened as it is with age, is away upon the rail of his favorite bridge in an instant, discovering once again how that rail looks in truth. The design of the rail gives him certain feelings in his mind that keep his attention stuck there -- it might be permissible to say that this rail design has likewise made changes in the very physical structures to be found within this man's brain. Say, for the sake of argument, that it's got into the organ and made for some extra filigree.
Somehow, through the crowd of people who are momentarily hard at work destroying the possibility of path-use, our man keeps his head. He will remain a calm customer of the bridge through all the tangle. The people, so that I might still stand a chance of being fair to the best of us, are innocent of any visible infraction. They do not upset the qualities of the man's breather-moment, but probably should. Red and black, the man could be thinking of the snakes he knew in his youth, scratch its back. This, the only thing he remembers from the wildlife lectures of his own father who underwent death by viper to impress the importance of the saying upon his then-young son. As a new father himself he is faced with the hideously normal possibility of making up the rest from whole cloth. But it is the bridge that brings him back to himself, through the scrim of all the years. The bridge, its lovely rails, and nothing else. Not the people. Not a filthy scrim, but bleached and since repaired. Not the newborn son who is someplace nearby, who is maybe laying down the pennies his father earlier pulled from his ears on places where it could mean a loss of hands to lay down pennies. The right-of-way indeed. Scrim is not something one should see his mother wearing when answering the door to strangers. Not the newborn son who is, at the very least, being preyed upon by bullies with dimmer eyes than his. Nor calico, that other rot. No matter which activity actually occupies the boy -- he is missing out on his father's murmured tale of how ready and welcoming this world of ours really is for his dreamy and brutal rambles.
How a man, a grown-up father like this man can stretch it, his attention, in spite of the obvious duty of the passers-by to shake him out of his spell! Anyway, he can't get out of the trap he is in because his eyes are both so rested and interested by the ironwork. They roll around the heavy curves like magnetic bearings until they click together in his head.
He has the strange feeling that he could guess the weight of the bridge, deploy the very figure in this afternoon's wildlife lecture. This, he supposes, would reveal to his listener something about the wild ways his mind works if he could advance even an undercooked figure. For the moment, however, he can just look past the murder people, lose himself barely into the filigree and impossible math of the bridge's being, and be very clever all by his lonesome. Red and yellow, kill a fellow. Watch your hands.
You may have guessed by now that I'm the sort of man who would talk to you on the telephone all day if you would only ask me to. I would take out time from my affairs to guide you through nature and keep you safe from her. The hour of our meeting would have to be arranged in advance, I admit, but I would go through with your heart's desire -- sterling manners over the telephone, the inexpert guidance of a hard-knock scout -- without any tiresome last-minute excuses on my part. I'd stick to the letter of the bargain struck, huff around the block again to achieve a short-lived rudd and calm, write it all down on waterproof paper, present myself at the parkside turnabout one hour before the hour, even buy a tourist's map to stuff in your pocket the moment you appear. You have just to point -- there is no citizen your new friend will not favor with a kick between the legs on your kind recommend.
But depend on nothing more.
I do not have a very violent nature -- but please don't push. My feeling is that I can take the time to explain what I mean. I'm not one who confuses his mother with just any stranger who smells of bedsheets and sores and scrim or even with the stately civic objects that might surround such an implausible stranger, valiant statuary or spent waste cans -- they are not my mother, for that matter. As you must now see, I'm not yet entirely overcome by peace and iron nor stilled by the sight of water.
Push all you want to after we are through politely urging one another, if you can still push.
So, have you figured out how to free yourself of something like looking into the rail of that bridge and work yourself back toward the full-tilt, to the company of other exemplary citizens, where in your heart-of-hearts you know you belong?
Quick, friend, quick. My father never had to open his mouth as we knew his mind so well, how we lurched to his requests. Rescue me from the floor, he was very fond of saying.
Someone comes along, I suppose, and speaks to you in his tiny voice to break the spell. He asks you, for example, if it would be all right if he took up the bench beside you -- though nothing more inciting than this sample sentence, please. He might, this angel, even ask if you would care to explain the behavior of the intoxicated man standing idly in the sludge beside the bridge who happens to be removing from his feet, of course, a version of "the potato shoes." But instead, without warning, his tinyness is already moving your body around in woofing loops, is making your arms do these rotten and familiar acrobatics in hopes of catching at supports not found in places off the transit grid. This tiny and false friend of yours is here to enforce what amounts to a law dictating that you adjust your legs into what will no doubt result in a less comfortable position. It seems the half-pint, dear child, has been put on this earth only to kick out the slats and to rings sparks off the ironwork until his orange crimes become beautiful owing to the darkness in which they are committed.
You see, you are to be his only witness.
Nobody is going to ask you to take it. I'm not, at least, but there are a few things I will not consent to. In the short run, such consent on my part would all come down to new aches, probably. (I might be asked to shift myself, correct? Is that the way it is done? By request? A lie, then, your bit about the club or bar or bat?) Especially since at least one of you will say nice things as per your part. Watch your hands. Another might even work her posture around so that I can see the sight of her fairer side if I said something about how my father once left me to bang around in my sneakers, free, for hours upon hours inside the dusty boiler-tank of a genuine MoPac engine some muddled curator embedded in a concrete slab down at the train museum. Remember the train museum? Have you forgotten the telephone? The stoop no longer matters. I lost count of the snakes that molested me while I was playing in the interior of the boiler but, safe to say, it was then that I came to value the endorsing tang of venom in my blood. You do remember our little saying from the wildlife lecture, don't you? Your life may one day depend on its remembrance. Forget it and you could end up one of those knuckleheads sentenced to drag an iron prod behind him for safety's sake each time he finds he must depart from the footpath while crossing the park. Or else a leg will be removed, a hand, they hardly ever take heads anymore. No matter.
On my part, I remember how the motorman often saved a place for me beside him. My father stepped onto the train for just a moment, cleaned the seat thoroughly with a cloth, spit on my seat, sat me down, handed me the financial pages, bade me study, held me by the shoulder until he was sure I would be still, went for a quick piss in between the cars, and sent me on my way with only the pennies remaining in my ears.
Upon my departures I made such noises to my father's ear that I cannot now describe them for the making -- I think they had to do with my feelings -- but they doppled by his vacant stoop from such a black place -- the boiler tank my whole being so easily fit inside. I had to sit so deeply within the boiler's stink all I could do was dig at my ears and watch the hinges turning red. Copper gobbed orange from my scorched canals, it stuck to my arms (slick then with broad scars), but I would not swear to it. Those days we exchanged speed for the smell of sizzled marrow, but I would not swear to it -- go down to the museum and you will not believe we ever moved off the slab. This is a secret you are now a party to. We hurried along the hills and timberwoods. Rest only came after overrunning the garbage piles we telephoned ahead to have assembled in our path. On the way, I remember watching other children whose only duty was to wave the national flag from the platforms. Some of them even spit. Yes. One of them did. A foreign kid. A fascist in tight clothes. Perhaps my father once saw this, it would explain his strange custom of beating foreign people. Spit while a flag was being waved to celebrate our progress. They act like animals when given the opportunity, a national holiday. I wished the spitter spit back at. I still do.
Nowadays a man like me keeps himself toward the calm; the museum pieces must be sponged off periodically or else they will just appear to us as ruins. My son is rumored to be spic and span, an amateur murderer but hardened, studied in the law, and, as all who have peeked in on him agree, fair copy of his old man.
So, will not one of you speak out? Or be still and consider himself a success? Or allow a private body to begin pounding itself into the iron places, even one so well poised to begin?