Spring2008

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Of Animals

Stoplight

By Michael Quinlan
“Limbs, images, shrieks…”
—Sylvia Plath



Three children bend and play on top of a reddish-clay hill, in the afternoon sun, casting a fanned triptych of shard-like sunshine rays onto a glacially moving background of curtained blue sky. They’d met here, by agreement, about an hour ago, and were now fully engaged in their (seemingly) separate tasks. There appeared to be an enforced silence surrounding the three boys—but no adult was present to impose such stillness onto them. The youngest, Andy, had spent the better part of the early afternoon in a self-exiled orgy of television viewing, submitting to its elective, obligatory boredoms and diminutions of consciousness, yet crouched here now, next to his two friends, and amongst the weeds, fallen leaves, and broken sticks that littered the hill, he felt a strange, almost private, elation. It was as though he were standing precariously on a large precipice of expanding emotion, internally exploring its depths and its limitations, all the while marveling at how quickly life had deposited him here—seemingly in the blink of an eye—how easily the discontented trance in which he lived could be broken apart at the behest of others.

The sonorous, soothing tones and repetitive whooshes of passing cars on the highway below (about a quarter mile from the hill, behind a small woodland of trees) entered his ear canal at metronomic intervals and gave distinctive rhythm to his racing thoughts. How strange the effect his thoughts were having on him! His father had told him that great care and consideration goes in to the timing of stoplights, that getting it “just so” was essential to controlling the flow of traffic—the reverberations of which Andy could now hear from atop the hill. One poorly timed light could disrupt them all. He closed his eyes languorously and tried to envision the lights changing, again and again, alternately halting then allowing the flow of cars to advance, as a bracing wind—which had unobtrusively blown all afternoon—began to swirl across the hill with effusion.

His father spoke often to him of systems, specifically of “the system,” of how fragile and imbued with mystery their workings could be. Andy thought fleetingly that to observe systems, the way his father did, might mean that you were no longer a part of them, or had been cast out of them, in the way a stunned driver would survey the damage of a sudden car wreck, replaying the sequence of events carefully, while the traffic zooms by indifferently all around her. But he tried to not think of such things just now. The weight of these thoughts made him tired. The wind was picking up now, and he felt a shiver climb up his spine with brisk authority.

His friends were still crouched on the hill alongside him, at equally spaced intervals from him and from one another, and were systematically arranging an abundance of scattered toys and junk that lay beside them: A tattered lawn chair whose mesh seat was completely busted out, a blue bucket with white seashell handle (clearly intended for much younger children), the circular lid of a backyard grill, a single discarded bicycle pedal (with red reflective strips at each side), a filthy and completely deflated plastic “kiddie” pool, an un-spooling cassette tape whose artist and track listing were completely rubbed out, an orange and blue knit cap, intact except for a missing Chicago Bears insignia that’s stitched outline was still visible, a tennis ball tube, an empty and rust covered tin of lighter fluid, some yellowed, decade-old newspaper, a car tire, a few Styrofoam cups, and (best of all) a plastic, curbside garbage can. All these had been culled from previous expeditions into the small woods that surrounded the hill.

Andy walked with purpose towards Thomas, the friend who had invited him here, who was mentally weighing the pros and cons of putting his lips to the exposed air hole of the deflated pool. Andy felt his mood lighten as he drew nearer to his friend—though they said nothing to one another—and he was glad; their quiet camaraderie provided a respite from the solemnity Andy tended to drift to, as though by default, when he was alone. He felt uniquely euphoric, yet drawn into himself, as the anorexic feels a curious exhilaration in the willful repudiation of the nourishment offered all around her, or as an inveterate people-watcher revels in the simplistic delights of being alone, yet not alone, observer, not observed.

Thomas looked at Andy squinty-eyed, dreamily affixing his chin to knees, (which appeared to glow translucently yellow-orange in the sun), in an unconscious display of resigned tedium. The idea to bring the discarded items to the top of the hill had been Thomas’s, and it had given him great excitement, only hours ago, to imagine the games and fun they would construct out of the items. The boys had had high hopes for the hill, and the improvised encampment they hoped to make of it. They shared a penchant for varying degrees of introversion, and reveled in the subtle mysticisms of their (so-called) “wonder years.” But what had they expected to accomplish, really?, Thomas now thought incredulously, after fiddling for the past hour with the disjointed accumulation of his treasures, finding them lacking, feeling only the sharp rebuke of a recurrent failure. Andy too had hoped something special could be constructed from their finds, but now here they were, victims of their own stunted imaginations.

“Was this a great idea, or what?” Thomas asked, with comic earnestness, walking towards Adam, the third boy, who was hopelessly engrossed in re-spooling the mystery cassette tape. But Adam said nothing. “You don’t think you’re going to be able to play that, do you?,” Thomas asked more seriously. “Shut up,” Adam mumbled distractedly, tossing the tape to the ground in frustration. “This is stupid, let’s go,” he added.

Adam suggested, in his persuasive way, that a change of scenery may reenergize the three, and so it was decided that they would walk the trail-way through the trees to the nearby highway, to “bullshit” the remainder of the afternoon away. In truth, he had been agitating to leave the hill since they got there. Thomas and Andy were disappointed in foregoing their project, but agreed there was no point in staying on the hill for the time being. They secured most of the items by placing them underneath the overturned plastic garbage can, then Adam mounted it, stood at his full height, and let loose a barbaric yawp of wordless screaming—as children are somehow compelled to do—while Andy and Thomas made their way down the steepest side of the hill, with Adam soon following suit. The afternoon was ending, and the sense of defused energy that accompanies it descended on the boys.

As they walked, Andy felt himself fall back slightly, as the more talkative Adam dominated the conversation. Adam seemed to prefer speaking to Thomas, as though they had an understanding between them, one that Andy did not (could not?) share. But Andy did not mind. He liked to hear the staccato rhythms of the conversation that surrounded him, bounced off of him, but was not meant for him, did not include him. He walked behind his friends with his head down, listening to the slightly labored breathing of Thomas and Adam as their pace, and their conversation, quickened. Andy wondered if his presence, now so unobtrusive, somehow still managed to inform the direction of his friends’ current conversation. If a tree falls in the forest, with no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? His father had asked him this, smiling. It was a joke. An abstract rhetorical conception not meant to be taken seriously. But Andy had considered it sincerely, his brow furrowing under the labor of his own concrete thinking. “You’re still fuzzy,” his father had said to him, tussling his hair. But the question still remained.

It was at this time, that Andy saw (in the unconscious but perpetual intake of his peripheral vision), the carcass of a deer, lying just off the trail, in a small clearing of the woods. Andy saw, to his horror, that the deer was still alive and twitching slightly. Andy reasoned that the deer must have been struck by a car on the highway, then managed to run here, dying. Thomas and Adam had continued walking, and were now several yards ahead of Andy. “Guys! Look at this!,” Andy yelled. Thomas and Adam turned back and stood next to Andy, who was pointing at the deer, which had begun to twitch more intensely. Adam felt his pulse quicken with an infusion of brutish hyper-stimulation, one that any violent act incurs in its witnesses, even violence by proxy. There was no denying: this was exciting! But what should they do?

Thomas too, was visibly upset, seeing the deer (so large!) lying prone before them. “Should we do something?,” Thomas asked haltingly. Andy could not imagine what they could do. He wondered, but did not vocalize, whether they should try and kill the deer outright—use a rock to smash its skull, maybe. But Andy knew realistically he could never do this, even if it was the right thing to do. But was it? Would Adam or Thomas be willing to do this? Or could the deer be saved, somehow? Andy didn’t think this could be so, but how could he be sure? The three stood in silence for a few more moments, when Andy realized, with considerable sadness and disgust, but also unyielding clarity, that the inevitable outcome would come to pass. They would leave the deer as they found it, and continue walking towards the highway, ultimately doing nothing. The three walked the rest of the trail in single file, in a resigned silence. They soon neared the traffic of the highway, emerging from the woodlands as ghostly child-pedestrians among a corporal procession of continuous cars, their headlights flickering incandescently in the early evening air.

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