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Arle Loved an Image
World Trade Center people back in the day would probably look out those high windows above the city and wonder what it would feel like to drop to the Earth one time. The idea of that is a bit macabre to most people now, I guess, but that’s only because most people don’t want to go there. We should go there though, me and you, I think. I say we should go there in memorial and as tribute and all that jazz, obviously, but also, there’s more…
I think we should go there because I go there. And I go there genuinely, without malice or awkwardness. I have no hidden agenda when I pick up my travel mug of coffee up off my desk and I wander, aimlessly/ bored and a little hungover/ towards the westward facing windows just beyond Kris’s desk before she gets here, smelling like bageltrainJerseydeodorant.
Kris. You fucker. You good son-of-a-bitch. Married, kids. Beach hair, tousled and blonde. Pictures in frames, smiling pre-teens, their arms around you, their faces snugged up against yours. Watching me all the time, telling me you believe in me, telling me I just have to try a little harder and apply myself and I can go places. But go where?, I wonder to myself, even as you’re saying it. Even as you’re giving me one of your signature pep talks like the one at the Christmas party last year. I got obliterated after that, remember? Jesus. Absinthe. Nothing in my stomach but hors d'oeuvres: A couple cheese cubes: A cracker or two: A pear slice wearing a slice of ham. I was a mess. Kris, you helped me out. Drove me home. You played Genesis. I threw up in your car and you laughed about it after the weekend.
Umm, ha. Okay, yeah. Weird question, but yeah, okay. It’s the Dungeons & Dragons logo. Shelly gave it to me on our second date after I took her to Game World in the shopping center near me on our first date. It was a reckless move, but I figured what the hell. If she can be with my people, fall into a game and possibly enjoy it then why not? But I hadn’t really expected much. Why the hell would I? I’d been alone a long time, man. I’d been living this way a long time. I’ve got my friends, I told myself. I’ve got this data job and it pays the bills and so I’ve got my hobbies, my place/ my apartment. I’ve got Gandalf: the coolest cat in the world. He licks my face on Saturday mornings for way too long, but that’s because I let him.
I didn’t expect a mug or anything from Shelly the second time I saw her. I didn’t even expect a second time to see her. What I excepted… hell, what I thought I probably even deserved was a brush off. I mean I I took her to play D&D with a bunch of strangers on our first date, for Chrissakes. And I damn sure didn’t think she’d like it. Or me. Or that we’d still be this thing two years later.
I’m in love with this woman and I never saw that coming. I didn’t expect that. Her. Us. These days. Saturday morning comes and I bring her coffee in the bed and Gandalf licks her more than me. We talk about going to the mall. We plan our day, but lazy like, you know? She makes me laugh with her impressions. Right there on the pillow as shafts of sunshine beam in on my thick pale leg, she does Leno. Mick Jagger. Bill Cosby. In her fleeting moments of humor, right before she goes serious again and reaches for her coffee and asks me what I want to do today for real, I see my whole life in her eyes: In a glint that comes and goes so swiftly, like a switchblade in a crowd.
Now here at the window over by Kris’s desk, I look down at the edge of the city and the river and out towards my place, our place, out there beyond that model train landscape somewhere, behind the strip mall, behind the two pizza places right next to each other and the Gulf station and the strip of dumpsters and the tiny park where dogs shit and toddlers trip on the heaving cracks in the sidewalk; Over there by where that helicopter is, that’s where we live. Home. It smells like Dunkin’ Donuts to me from here. Like Shelly’s shampoo and her wet curls rested across my arm on the couch last Sunday night. Watching a DVD. Watching Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves because she loves it so much. Maybe because she loves Kevin Costner so much. I don’t know and I don’t care.
Rocky Road in cold bowls in our laps. My Star Wars McDonald’s glasses she makes me use after I’ve saved them for so long to collect dust. A memory from my childhood I kept in a cabinet, she has taken them and breathed life into them for me. For us. Ice clinking in the Pepsi in the dark of the room where the screen is the only light.
Out there. Out there, man. I can’t believe it still. Her heart for me. How? Why? Luck, I’m sure. Luck, luck, luck.
Look at this world. Look at this morning here. Stuck all the way up here with these jackasses while Shelly heads to class over that way, over there by that water tower way out there. Everything is so small from up here. It seems so easy to just move shit around, shift fate with a slight nudge in this direction or that. It seems as if I could put this mug down here on Kris’s desk and open this window somehow, maybe with a karate kick or two, and just stand there in the gushing wind for a moment or two
Balanced. Silhouetted to the people behind me noticing now. Saying my name, desperately. Play ‘em, play your stock Hollywood sounds of people alarmed and aghast. I mean, look at that guy. Look at Phil from Tech! What the fuck is he doing?!
It seems so possible somehow. This view from up here and the peace that hits you… no, SLAMS YOU… when you gaze out from here, from this monstrosity jutting up out of the planet and seemingly into the heavens. Up, up, up, so far, so high… and I am here, I am upon the crest of the rising and I am absolutely certain right here and now that if I needed to, or wanted to, or could convince Shelly that it was somehow doable and that she should wait down there in the parking lot of the strip mall behind our apartment building (Park Plaza Apartments!!).
Shelly! Hey, listen it’s me. Listen to me, okay!? I know this sounds fucking nuts but baby, listen. I want you to go wait, like, right outside Villa di Roma and Tony’s Original and just stare east at my building okay?! I swear to you this isn’t a joke. I’m going to do this. I’m going to fly down to you from up here. I’m going to take the day off! Ha! I know, I know, just trust me okay? You need to see this! It’s absolutely possible, I can just feel it in my bones!!
Phil, it’s okay, buddy! Just step back, man! We got you! You’re going to be okay!
Oh my god. These idiots. They think I want to kill myself! Hahahaha! That’s too good! Oh damn, I feel so bad but I don’t have time to sort this out with them right now. They’re not really dreamers, this crew. These are good people, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of them don’t really come close to any edges if you know what I mean. The fact that they work here in Manhattan is about as hip as they mostly get.
Look at all that. All that west. That unstoppable horizon. The water tower near the community college. I’ll aim there and then head to the left towards Shelly. Goddamn, I love her so much.
She is going to shit when I appear as a dot in the sky over the edge of town, huh?
She is going to cry, I bet, when I lower myself to her out there by the apartment. Lowering myself to her like a movie guy, like some lovable robot with jet propelled boots shooting steam off as he comes in for a landing upright and smiling. Strong and steady.
Let’s have a kid. That’s what I’ll say to her as soon as I land. First thing I’ll say. Let’s have a kid, but first let’s get stromboli.
She’ll bawl. She’ll cry happy tears and I’ll hold her in the lot outside the two pizza places and we’ll look back at that building where I work and the other one next to it and she’ll ask me how I did it and I’ll explain it was all just in my head the whole time. Everything has been up til now.
Flying is simple.
On any given weekday morning, as the trains hit the city and as the elevators climb and as doors open and voices greet one another, tired but a little bouncy, and as the coffee slashes round in a thousand different mugs: Dungeons & Dragons/ New York Jets/ World’s Greatest Grandma/ Eric’s Cup/ Rehoboth Beach/ Virginia is for Lovers/ Bronx Zoo/ Maine/ London/ U2/ Philadelphia Flyers/ World’s Greatest Mom/ World’s Greatest Uncle/ New York Yankees/ No Doubt/ Broadway 1999/ Santa Sees You/ Stop Staring at My Coffee: you suddenly understand something.
That you can do it.
You can make it happen.
You just have to want to leave a skyscraper bad enough.
Summer is gone now, I guess, and I don’t really care. I am ready for the change. I sense it, autumn. Fall. Whatever you call it. The leaves eventually, but the hot weather same as summer for now. Kids back in school, masks on. People talk of football but I don’t. I hate football. It reminds me of meatheads in their middle school jerseys smooshing their nuts agains the bus windows after I got off at my stop.
I watch Arle sometimes when I think she’s not looking and I wonder how it might be if I was gone. Dead. Collided with one of the gravel trucks shooting up the valley or maybe something less Go-Fund-Meish. A heart attack at the Little League fields. A downright embarrassing death and what bullshit for the kids to have to deal with. The trauma that never goes away. The ambulance roaring across the dirt and the yellow jackets dancing around and the evening air cooling the skin of the living but not me, not any more. Dead down there on the ground, pumping at my chest they go/ full throttle/ like a video game.
Or maybe just a long lingering one. Some kind of cancer. Pick one. There’s millions and I am sure I’m messing with at least a few of them down deep in my system as we speak here, me and you.
Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Death has no sophisticated way about it. It doesn’t need to. Death has a shit ton of work to do and so it comes up to you when it comes up to you and if you are in the hospital bed at that moment or if you are in the car or at the amusement park or talking to your daughter or dreaming your dirtiest little dream or your cleanest one, it really doesn’t make much of a difference to Death.
Death steps up/ slams you in the head with the Death Hammer/ and that, my friends, is it. Light’s out. Show over.
Your travel mug still sitting over there on the corner of that desk over there. No one has noticed it yet with all the commotion. Just sitting there, alone. Like the dog that won’t leave the spot where his owner collapsed and passed. Except the mug doesn’t give a rat’s ass.
Little League Dad.
Except no. No, no, no, no, no. I refuse that part of me. That sullen bullshit sad, mad, bluebird, blueboy part of me that sings the same Billie Holiday shit over and over again. Ghost Voice. Crack the world open and see what’s inside and see what it is and see that it’s heartbreak and bad blood and pain.
I have to move towards other orbits of seeing this life come down before it’s too late, dontcha know?
That’s what 9/11 is, honestly. That’s all it is. Oh sure, you can talk all you want about Never Forget, but that’s bumper sticker jive, Hoss. We both know that. Never forget what? September 11th?! Okay, alright, fine. But to what point? You mean forever? As in: No one will ever forget that day? Because I got news for you, and take this the right way and all, but I forget shit about 9/11 all the damn time.
Like, was it 18 years ago? Or 17? Yeah, this year is 20, so I can remember that this time around, but next year? I won’t remember probably. And who cares really. I don’t owe it to anyone to count the days since the deeds. That’s not my thing, man. I don’t want to get all wrapped up in your blaze of glory bullshit.
I want to go deeper. Further up the stairwells right before they come down. Just so I can maybe translate that into a living breathing moment with Arle. Or with my kids. Can you dig that? Do you understand what I’m saying? No disrespect to the families of the many who perished. I cannot even begin to imagine what anyone connected to that day has gone through.
But I can try.
And when I try, I do it not as an American. Or a Christian. Or this or that. I recall it all in my own blurry strange way, with heavy doses of absolute fantasy and fictionalized horror. Instead of flags and exploitation, I wrap myself into slight tiny daydream stares/ off into a western sky/ from a tall building I never set foot in/ my travel mug in my hands/ Monday morning/ looking at where she is out there/ our life together out there/ the kiss goodbye/ the ride to work/ the blue sky/ the water tower/ the unknown.
History, if you want it, man, is best served up like that. I know this is true. I feel it in my guts. In my bone marrow caves. In the pit of my soul. Placing yourself in the bagpiper’s song is fine and all. It needs to happen as part of the healing or whatever, but move beyond that, I say, and thrive- perhaps- in the shadow of the person who loves you most while you still might have a fighting chance to do that.
Complex emotions hurl up out of me when I play it this way. Imagining my own demise is a slippery slope. I have made so many mistakes. My truest love has come as of late, and she has known me deeper than anyone else I have ever brushed by on my way here. Yet, who would I be if I was no longer here? Who would I be to her?
Inside of a sideways glance, I test myself quite regularly at teasing the notion. If I were a ghost- suddenly, let’s say- and Arle moved through our house/ room to room/ slowly/ hauntingly/ feeling my presence and then being freight-trained from the shadows by the understanding that I am nowhere to be found any longer… what would she feel?
What would your person feel?
Loss? Broken? Lost? Heavy sadness?
Maybe other things as well. Or in place of even.
Tiny sighs of relief?
A resigned cry followed by an unexpected twitch of looking forward to… what?
I don’t know. I seriously don’t. But what I do know is this. Even now, in this moment very real and unfolding beneath my work boots/ all around me in Henry’s bedroom where I’m writing this this morning/ Wednesday morning/ distance to World Trade Center site from Millheim, PA: 3 hr 57 min (218.7 mi) via I-80 E/ even here and now, I honestly have no clue what any of this really adds up to.
I just know I don’t want to wear your Never Forget t-shirt for very long at all. It doesn’t feel right on me. I don’t know why.
But here are his things, Henry’s 10-year-old Fifth Grader shit. His baseball cards that were all once mine. He hasn’t ever cared to buy any new ones for himself. Secretly, I like that. He has like 10 Mike Schmidt cards and no current players. Over here, I see his boombox I bought him for Christmas two years ago. The CD player stopped working about a week later. I never got him another one and so nowadays he mostly just listens to the radio at night.
I hear it some nights, quietly playing in his room. And I picture his young body laying in there just beyond this one door separating him from me. I imagine what would happen if I went in there/ if I pushed the swollen door and it popped open and I am standing there looking at him in his bed/ Christmas lights I gave him dangling off his headboard/ the song playing low/ the end of Radar Love maybe/ or something I don’t know/ some Hip Hip jam or something. And I just stand there and clock that he is unavailable to me because he is asleep. In dreams. His breath wispy, his chest slightly rising. My son. My boy.
Other times, I hear the radio from the hall and I stop but don’t go in. Or I don’t even stop. I’m tired from my day. I’m worn out. I’m exhausted. I’m a little drunk. Or I’m feeling the bug spray dried on my skin and I want a shower more than I want to see him.
And so I go on, don’t stop. I miss the scene then. I miss his stuffed animals from when he was younger. I miss his clothes thrown on the floor. His balled socks on the orange rug. His Nikes flipped randomly to different landing spots/ one by the desk/ one by the bed. I miss his Fortnite poster tacked to the wall. His pile of shirts folded by Arle, not yet put away. His closet doors, one open, one closed. Like he’d been looking for something but he grew weary of the search and abandoned it halfway.
And that strikes me as something sad to miss.
Because I know that feeling.
And so does Death.
Arle will celebrate her birthday the day after 9/11. I don’t think she minds it. She never complains about it at all. Or anything really for that matter, except one thing, and it really isn’t a complaint by definition, I suppose. It’s more like a registered observance tied to a wish that has come a long way and needs rest soon.
She tells me that I can be mean sometimes.
And, outside of all of my natural instincts to defend myself and to pound my chest and turn on the hot air vents, I know it is true. I want to stand up as soon as she tells me to just be nice to her and I want to yell NEVER FORGET!!! Not for any exact reason or anything, but more like a distraction, you know?
I don’t say that though. Instead: I try to understand and to conjure up the notion to rectify and change. My love for her is beyond what I can describe and so it feels like me chasing my own tail like a madman when I find myself not able to comprehend my own shittiness. The switch, if I could find it, oh, how I would flick it, but where is it? On what wall? Where? Where?
In this time of looking back, then, on September 11th/ in this looking back on the people who died that day, I scatter this essay out like jacks on the schoolyard pavement and I search for more than the impossible reasoning or senseless explanation in the dust clouds that still run rampant across the memory blocks. They are thick and they will wrap around you if you want it, but you’ll need imagination beyond what they will tell you you’ll need.
I’m no shapeshifter time-traveler, mind you. No superpowers up in this fading body, either, but the one that makes me try harder to escape deeper into a moment I never even knew in the first place.
All for the sake of what?
Love, I guess.
What else is there, really?
I’ll tell you what else.
There is nothing else.
Never forget that.
Anxiety and depression and my blues and my old ways, I stare at them through the billowing dust by a taxi on a curb. People cannot scream here, it’s way quieter than you’d think. All around comes the pop-pop-pop bang-bang-bang of the bodies falling from the sky. One near. One closer. One up the street, up the block, but still: there it is.
There it goes.
Landing on awnings. Landing on roofs. Landing on cars. Landing on the yellow lines in the middle of the street. Landing on people maybe. I just don’t know. But I squint and I’m not supposed to be here but who says and fuck them. I can’t remember what I never knew.
I wander up the block and now I get it. I am looking for someone who looks just like me. And that’s when I see Arle. And she is running and I am scared for her. My heart is rapid. I feel sick in my blood.
I move from there, up, up, up…
On my phone not long ago, moments after I’d sent Arle a selfie of me in my car, a notice bounced down off some satellite somewhere out in vast and infinite space.
Arle loved an image
That’s what it said. My heart sang then in that second or two. I took a screenshot of it. It seemed, in that obscure everyday moment to point me towards something bigger and deeper and more profound than I am typically able to either dream up or comprehend. Those four words together, they seemed to sing to me a song of my life/ of my world and my work and my blood on the ground/ of my purpose, really.
She loved an image of me and I was being informed of that as I blazed by cornfields and rushed by cows and rolled out under a shining sun in the afternoon minutes and weeks and years and centuries after the deaths of everyone who had ever died before in this world. All of them wishing they had tried a little harder. Been a little kinder. Seen things a little clearer. Loved a little better. Spoken words a little truer: a little less hurt and a little more tender.
I knew then that this was the title to an essay I would write in which I attempted to fuse both 9/11 and what Arle means to me in some kind of grand groundbreaking act of raw beauty. I also knew- almost immediately- that I would never pull it off.
But I don’t care.
I have to try to splice entire magical galaxies or else what’s the fucking point?
Smile with me. We are just imagining. It’s all okay. We get another chance tonight if we want it. Or tomorrow morning. But don’t delay. I’m telling you.
Don’t fuck this up.
The years are melting away and so are the two of ya.
Realizing you’ve hurt someone you truly love is both paralyzing and debilitating if you can bring yourself to be brave enough to face it. But still, what time is there here? I mean, c’mon! I need to save her and where is she now?
Nowhere I can see.
I saw her in the dust on the street, but now I’m above that and she has wandered off.
At the window in the high office I look out at the west and I am overcome with one very odd peace I have known at singular times across my days, but honestly not lately. The sky is all inside/ where it hasn’t been before today. The air is rushed, hot, impossible to decipher.
There are no sounds. There is no sound at this level of fear. No shadows. No discernible light or dark. There is only stoney calm, the movement of wind, the maggot sky/ yellow’d and writhing.
Oh how I want her by my side/ same as you would want your person by your side in this weird sad moment. But what now?
Oh, it’s too late isn’t it?
Please no. Please no.
Let me find her.
Let me find her out there.
Tomorrow is her birthday and I want to love her more and I need her to know my heart.
I call her name.
I have journeyed so far to walk up to this moment/ to steal it away from someone who was lost in the middle of it quite long ago. I steal their eyes, but yeah: hardly and I know that too. Yet it’s all I’ve got/ this closing my eyes/ this come on up for the rising. It is a dreamer’s approach but it’s mine too. My only approach to ever making sense of any of this madness.
I stand in the open window. I take my step. And I talk to my wife.
Meet me in the parking lot by the pizza places. Bring a hundred bucks and the car and your smile.
I love you.
I always have.
Carefully edited by Arle Bielanko
Photographs: Arle Bielanko
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