Syntagm

We are fifteen when we create our first language. It is a cipher, a tongue we make by altering our first language, which we did not create. Old words, new meanings. Things that appeal to adolescent poets, adolescent boys—long-haired flannel kids in corners who take more meaning from things like song lyrics than they should. Than is fair to the songs. Anthems and punctuations for the roil of being. Young.

In our first language, things come to mean otherwise. When we say Are you guys ready?, which means, primarily, “. . . to do something,” we are saying, now, (especially now) We are all for one, which is a thing long-haired adolescents among the post oaks and greenbrier in the undeveloped acreage against Veterans’ Park, twenty feet above the creek bottom, fists and rope-swings, around illicit sleepover campfires, and the rites of our first secret society, and over film canisters of pilfered loose-leaf tobacco curling smoke in pilfered fathers’ pipes, and thoughts like small secrets of the girls we don’t speak to, say to each other. It is a thing we say to each other. We create our first language from our first language, altering it into something that appeals to us. And now we mean “Are you guys ready?”

This is how we parse our thoughts. On things like how right the Romantics were, how right the landscapes and energies and expressions of self in creek beds, geodes, and mountainsides. Like what it is to be landscapes ourselves, which is a better thing to be than adolescents in used cars, west of Dallas, in a place without project housing, bars, or even public transportation. Like how much sense this (or that) song makes. Like how things are going to go down.

We are fifteen when we create this first language, which we call “No”—the collision of our names, the letters we share. We are cheating, of course, using a word from our first language to name our first language. This is important. It is important to us that our first language means something to someone beyond us. Even though we will not share it, are forbidden to share it, with anyone else. N and O are the only letters to appear in each of our names, but only in the ones we create. Danno’s name is really Daniel, and it would share an E with Owen. Thompson is my last name, the one we use—Alan, which is my first name, would share an A with Daniel. No is what we want, because it is the real name of all things we have to say.

We say other things as well:  Later, which is now. I know, which is My honor, my life. We mean things adolescently, which is the greatest way to mean them. The potential way to mean them.

She is part one of three: Love, Honor, and Truth—the three things we mean most, in that perfect order. We will only mean this now while she is only potential. When she becomes real, for each of us, all three things become just that one.

But not now. Or rather, only now, if one translates in reverse.

All of this is important, of course. For we create a second language. We are men then, and nothing means anything.

 

 

“We need a word for this,” I say.

“Something that won’t change,” Owen says, “doesn’t mean change.”

Danno doesn’t like this cigarette business. The tobacco pipes at least come from our books: elf-land wizards, and poets strolling moors, and soldiers carrying swords, which is a fight we like. A fight we would have a chance in, when intelligence (and not simply bullets) has something to do with it. We tell ourselves. This is what we think. Pipe smoking is people thinking.

Still, Danno buys cigarettes for me and Owen because his father is in the same group as the man who owns the gas station and convenience store near the park. A Mythopoetic Men’s Movement group. On occasion, Danno and his father and the man from the convenience store gather with other men, other sons, to channel themselves through ritual drumming. Through “talking drums,” or sound boxes they make in their garages with wood glue and jig saws. They plumb archetypes by sharing classical mythology, and they read poetry by people like Robert Bly. They know about things like role stress, which Danno and his father have both encountered, individually, in therapy. I won’t know what they are talking about until graduate school.

Once a month, my father and I go on Boy Scout camp outs, which isn’t the same thing.

This convenience store man sells cigarettes to Danno, but not to us. He is like that. Danno is like that.

We are in a copse of honey locust trees, back behind Danno’s housing development, in undeveloped acreage, which we call home. It hasn’t been developed because it is private property, and not for sale. We are trespassing.

Danno thinks of one of these trees, the crook-backed one, as a totem—a self he can control, a stronger self. One immune and apart from all of this. It is the oldest tree in the copse, the one that had taken lightning to half its limbs. We all call it Danno.

Danno leans.

“We’ll call this ‘now.’”

Which, of course, in reverse, means later.

And this is what he means. Now. Now means then. Nothing happened to us today. School is over for the week. We will be playing Dungeons & Dragons and going for hamburgers and drinking soda all night. But that hasn’t happened yet. There weren’t any fights today. There isn’t any homework. We haven’t talked to any of our girls. The ones, specifically, among all of them whom we can’t talk to. Like I said: Love, Honor, and Truth. There are rules to this, and it is easier to follow them than to risk fucking things up.

Owen is doing just fine. Danno can’t know what this means now, but he will know it later.

Which is exactly the point. We will always need now to mean exactly this. Later, now will mean so much more, once we know what a terrible thing it will be to capture this moment—what terrible meanings will happen to it because we are isolating it from all other moments. Making it vulnerable to all the meanings that will happen to it as all the first-language nows keep meaning (are forced to mean) now.

We do this to ourselves.

 

 

They were in Phoenix, which is where their father lived. Visiting.

“I was with him,” Danno’s sister said, tiny through my phone.

“What?” I asked.

“On the couch, watching T.V.,” she said.

By themselves. Danno’s father wasn’t even in the room with them, because it was late. Which defeated the purpose.

“What?”

My wife walked into the dining room, where I was sit-standing. Walking and not. I thought of Danno’s old house, so close to home. The sun room was nothing but windows, and that’s where the talking drums and the sound boxes were kept, alongside fossil souvenirs from Galveston Bay. Hiking sticks, and the converted aquariums where the ball pythons lived.

“What?” she asked.

“So I called the ambulance right away,” Danno’s sister said.

“Wait.”

I wondered if there were a sun room in this new house. This Phoenix house. Danno’s father and step-mother had moved there while Danno and I shared a duplex, in college. Home no longer existed for him, in either language.

“Okay,” I said, “what? I mean, which side?”

“The left,” she said. “It’s too soon.”

“What caused it?”

“A blood clot in his leg, through a tiny hole in his heart.”

Primarily, stroke means movement. Energy put (somehow) to use.

Danno leaned, having taken his brain’s electro-chemical lightning to half his limbs. He had grown this clot in the meat of his thigh, with each Friday-night hamburger—later, with each Wednesday night beer. He had nested it and warmed it and taught it the sound of his voice, while we walked and hiked and learned to sail. He had given himself to it in the stress of his first marriage, in the anti-depressants and internet dating services that followed. Danno was a clot of blood, and he had helped my wife and I pack up our everythings and move them nineteen hours away, when we took new jobs, one year ago.

“Is he?”

She was crying now. “They’re concerned because it happened where the personality is.”

“What. Can I talk to him?”

There were rules to this, a rite—a recreation of older times, preserving community knowledge, asking questions with idiotic answers, unnecessary answers. The questions were the point. Where? Which room? Phone number? Getting the story straight to tell it twenty times, getting closer with each phone call to making this normal.

There had to be a reason why I didn’t ask these things.

“No.”

I hadn’t spoken to Owen since my wedding. We made a point of texting each other our new numbers each time we moved, so we wouldn’t have to.

 

 

It is important, at this point, that we believe in God. Because, later, in college, we won’t. For precisely this reason, because I am soon to disbelieve, it is very important that I make Danno and Owen believe.

Our ideas have to be realizations—they can’t be self-generated. They have to come from divine order—a greater sense of how things should be. We learned Transcendentalism in our sophomore lit classes, and it is right. There is a here that we are missing, but so much less than everyone else. We find it in our favorite songs and at home and around the gaming table. There is no point in talking to our girls if they don’t get this. This was why, of course, we don’t talk to them.

This is as close as Danno gets to believing, so I convinced him to follow me to church. His father doesn’t mind, though he disbelieves. Owen goes because he does everything I tell him to. I’ve been taught nothing but panic for my friends’ immortal souls.

Our Sunday School class is specifically for high school boys. We learn, from our teacher who has done mission work in five countries, that women are not supposed to teach religion. She tells us that the Bible tells us so. This is chivalric, and we are fucked here by Honor and Truth.

I look at Danno, and he writes I know on his notepad.

Perhaps this is the beginning. We each write a poem about this, and they each appear in our school’s literary magazine. We are on staff this semester. Two of our three girls are also.

Owen’s is not.

By the time we reach our third year of college, we will have had the conversation that God is, in fact, the universe. That suns and orbiting planets and plasmoid dark matter are god’s atomic structure. Perhaps, then, we are simply clots of tissue in God’s great thigh. We know, after all, that we are cast in his image, that he gave himself to us.

We are getting somewhere, on our way to appropriate late-twenty-something ideas about faith and being nothing. We are becoming energy put to good use. Strokes, ourselves.

We will discuss God’s great thigh while we smoke pot in our living room, which will be done up with fishing nets, dress forms, fencing foils, and the other emblems that we feel identify us as un-serious romantic individuals. By this point, Danno will have taught me how to play the sound box.

 

 

Eventually, she becomes real. We begin to talk. Owen and I each learn that it had all, really, always been about sex. Danno isn’t dating anyone.

My parents are out of town this weekend, so after we swim, after we are in those next-step swim suits, we get ready for this. For the first time. She and I, finally. Before my phone rings.

“There’s no one here with him,” her mother says. Owen’s girlfriend’s mother.

“What?” I say.

“I think—he’s panicking.”

This is not about Owen’s mortal soul.

“Wait.”

“Could you come over here?” she asks.

“Have they been fighting?”

“Yes—not really. Owen chased him around the driveway. The police would rather not arrest him.”

“What?” my girlfriend asks. She is ready, too.

He is a friend from junior high school. High school, too, but not as much. This has been coming on the side—a thing born of long afternoons while Owen was working with us. On the literary magazine. His girlfriend was left without options.

“Owen ran into the street,” her mother says, “but the cars wouldn’t hit him. They just swerved, or stopped.”

Luckily, Owen has been coming with us to church, because I told him to. For this reason, the staff at the Thousand Oaks center are willing to admit him after hours. Because it is a religiously funded institution. I wait with Danno and Owen’s mother in the waiting room while they process Owen in another room. I fall asleep in an arm chair, still in my swim suit.

We gave him a machete, that Christmas, because it was the closest thing to a sword we could find. We found a store in the mall that engraved it with “My honor, my life” in a font called “German Gothic.”

He is not allowed to keep this.

 

 

When can you talk to him?” my wife asked.

It was two days before his sister thought to call me again. There had to have been a reason why I didn’t ask for the number the first time.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you need to go there?”

We couldn’t afford a plane ticket to Phoenix. One month later, we would be back in Dallas, to participate in two weddings—friends from graduate school. This is what we did now: attend weddings.

After her, Owen impregnated a different girl. He married her. While Danno and I were in college, Owen moved to Texarkana to manage a seafood restaurant.

“I can see him in Dallas.”

This is what was happening now. This is what we didn’t realize.

“Do you know that he’s been going to church,” I said.

“What?”

“Because this girl, she goes.”

“Wait. Maybe he’s alone.”

Alone didn’t mean anything.

We had ceased to believe in college.

“The only thing worse would be if he had died.”

“I know,” she said.

“That’s not what I’m talking about.”

 

 

Danno leans. The stream below it is two inches closer per year, as the tree bows under its dead weight, aging. We have each carved a sigil of a bird into the collapsing bark. Our seals, with which we sign our letters and make things official.

“You know they’ll make fun of us,” he says.

One of these birds is not real.

“Whatever,” Owen says. “they won’t know.”

I am supposed to be the smart one. “Of course. But secretly—I mean, come on—do you think they’d rather have poets and D&D geeks, or office monkeys with tie-jobs?”

We are talking about her, and we plan to meet all three of her at once—a convergence of two groups. We are only half-kidding when we talk about how crazy it would be if they simply came hiking down the creek bed, with rules of their own.

The plan is universal. We’ll be neighbors, after college—or as close as will be manageable.

Danno shoves Owen as he launches from the creek-shore, fists rope-swing tight. “Yours is going to be the ugly one!”

 

 

He wants to talk to you,” Danno’s sister said.

“Can he?”

“He wants to.”

The name of his hospital is Thunderbird, in Phoenix. I was warned that this was most important to him. For now, this was his everything.

I heard him grunting on the other end of the line.

“Hey, asshole,” I said. I was the one who could make him laugh.

He made a sound like a bird calling. A thunderbird.

“What?”

My wife’s hand was soft against the back of my neck.

He choked. Made the sound again.

We are men, when we create our second language. I cannot transcribe it, via three-letter alphabetic keypads, into a text-message for Owen. There is a sound, from our past, that makes sense of this. We made the sound once, fifteen years earlier, calling to each other in code, through the trees. I will text it from our past selves to our present selves tonight. Starting with Owen. Because it will be easier.

I am not sure we are finished. Danno and I. When I hang up the phone. So I call out, just in case. One bird to another. SONARing space-time with sounds that don’t exist.

 

 

Darin Bradley is the author of Noise (Ballantine/Spectra, 2010). His fiction, poetry, and critical nonfiction have appeared in a variety of journals, and he has taught courses on writing and literature at several universities. He keeps a website at www.darinbradley.com.

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Darin Bradley
Darin Bradley is the author of Noise (Ballantine/Spectra, 2010). His fiction, poetry, and critical nonfiction have appeared in a variety of journals, and he has taught courses on writing and literature at several universities. He keeps a website at www.darinbradley.com.

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