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Powder Burns: A Pocket-Sized Essay Collection
My left hand is numb lately. My whole left arm feels strange to be honest. It started a few weeks ago, just when the mega rapid heartbeat days from Christmas stress were winding down. I Googled it, “slightly numb left hand” and “pins and needles fingertips” and “left hand heart attack signs” but nothing clicked. I don’t know. There is a part of each of us, I know, that wants to do our very best to avoid health issues. Once we hit 50, we are bombarded with all the things we need to be doing in order to live on.
Breast cancer. Colon cancer. Lung cancer. Emphysema. Diabetes. Depression. Liver stuff. Kidney stuff. Skinny veins. Fat jiggling all down your spine. Knees giving out, hips giving in.
Broken heart too many times.
Beat up hearts like dead bodies by an alley dumpster. Dying hearts lying out there in the night like pale nude mannequins in the streetlight glow. Hearts stabbed through: cheap steak knives in the hands of long lost lovers. Hearts speared in half: sharpened woodlot sticks in the frighteneing fists of strange parents who couldn’t find their own way. Hearts coat-hangered down your throat by your own insensitive kids. Wedged down your wet dark pipes by the very hands you would have died for without all this hoopla.
Muscles atrophying while I read ‘Being There’ in my bed at night. I can feel them laying down, friend. I can feel them saying uncle.
On the couch, with the wine in my blood, I feel the evening opening me up to a trillion possibilities still to come. I skip around in YouTube and me and her watch a kind of ASMR video of six young Iranian fellows descending down out of some sinister mountains to fish in a minty-colored river. The combination moves me/ this cheap buzz and this 4K world that seems so real that it is real, just not for me.
My art. My writing. My kids and their days unfolding. Tiny brook trout I could maybe catch if I even tried. All the books I need to read. All the fresh sunbeams moving through the curtains on all the Saturday mornings across all the springtimes that I am still owed. My time with Arle and our plans together. Salem at Halloween. Gettysburg at the anniversary. London, she’d love. Ireland, she says. The west, she’s never seen. Jedediah Smith’s campfires. Oregon Trail ruts. Chimney Rock and the ghosts of the ones who died right before they ever saw it. The powerful west. The inimitable west. RattlesnakeBuffaloSky. MountainmanLakotaKiss. DriedElkSaltyTears. CleanStreamMorningBath. CougarPineBeaverDeath.
My left hand is off and on. Some evenings I can barely squeeze the toothpaste out of the tube. And it ought to concern me and I know that, man. I know that, lady. I know that I ought to be concerned when there must be some kind of something going on in there. Nerve damage, maybe. Or some sort of weak heart warning. Heed the cries of the wolves, you say. I know, I know. I know I should.
Yet, aging fascinates me. And I kind of want to enjoy it a little. I want to stare at the pain or at the absence of power. I want to live inside the quiet loss of sensation for a while instead of just running to the doctors and playing the fucking games.
I have played enough games in my time.
I’m not looking to die. I don’t have a death wish or anything. I’m just saying what I feel inside.
It’s like, maybe certain physical things that happen to us: they need to be tended to right away or else.
But maybe other things: they need to be honored as wounds well-earned in the hard-fought wars we have known. A kid smashing a burning jar of gasoline all over your heart, hell yeah it burns. Hell yeah, it scorches your chicken skin and your hair is crackling and you’re gonna die, bud, if you don’t jump in the crick. But maybe give it a sec or two before you do, you know?
I mean, try to step outside of yourself now and then, hoss.
Rise above all this and take a gander at you down there on fire as fuck.
Flesh and blood fire, dog.
The worst kind. The hardest kind. We’re talking fire born up out of ancient polarities. We are talking Old Testament Molotov Cocktails here and we both know it. So enjoy it in your own macabre way! It’s not everyday you can live so close to the bone, feel your very bones popping under all that ancestral heat.
I’m squeezing my left fist as I write this, I swear, and it’s not all there anymore and I understand that that’s a bit of bad news, perhaps, in the eyes of many common beholders. But aside from all of that same old/ same old, I want to connect with new sensations. I want to see my failing body as a monument to all the work I have done here. I have accomplished some shit, you know? I have held space and been poisoned and cut and I have treated myself like a peasant thug so many times when I should have been looking deeper into the experience itself/ the fantastical experience of being me. Of being Serge.
Numb fingertips in the orange string lights I strung up in the bathroom. No one knows I’m looking at them. No one cares. They remind me of the randomness of everything. That life is wind, shifting and changing according to the tides of space, to undertows we will never ever know about.
Maybe it’s the Sertraline.
Maybe it’s the years of guitar.
Maybe it’s my heart screaming out from the kiddo fire.
Maybe I don’t really care what it is.
Maybe numb fingertips are a gift from the universe, just when I was thinking I don’t get invited anywhere anymore.
How to Obtain Civil War Train Smoke.
In the Civil War times, trains would carry soldiers to places where many of them would die from diarrhea or a wad of lead through the face or whatever. Old trains, most of them are gone now, I guess. But I often think about what it would be like to climb aboard one now. If someone had one, I mean, and they knew it was one of the ones that the soldiers rode on once upon a time.
I want to stand inside the train car that carried my great grandfather south from Philadelphia. Summer of 1862. A month later the regiment would be decimated at Shepherdstown, a battle that hardly anyone ever talks about anymore. But what happened to that train? What was it like and where did it go? Melted down for iron? Melted down to make space for something else? Driven straight into a deep, deep hole out on the wild prairies somewhere and buried like a dead baby and forgotten forever?
Is it weird to think about such things? I don’t know. I doubt it. What else is there really? I can’t waste my time trying to get ahead in life, trying to make more money and achieve more and accomplish more and climb all these greasy fixed ladders when that stuff doesn’t hold my attention. I am intrigued by things that get me nowhere yet captivate me/ peculiar specifics that would be immediately dismissed by almost anyone alive on Earth: they float me away to bijou places.
To live so much in my head is the most beautiful thing I have known.
Soldiers rowdy and drunk. Soldiers staring out the dirty windows, the warm summer gushing in. Young men, boys even, smoking cheap pipes and slapping each other’s shoulders, of course. But others, more reserved, looking outward/ peering inwards/ uncertain about the days to come. And with mighty good reason, too. Train cars full of sweat and smoke. Train cars full of glorious shit talk. Train cars full of blue uniforms and glistening eyes. Train cars being met at each station by crowds cheering and singing. Train cars clacking south. Clacking down the tracks, taking farm boys and city kids to fields to die on.
Were the seats wood? Were they just benches really, digging into your ass as you bounced and jostled? Or were they comfortable enough, especially when you were preoccupied with the party? Or with the introspective event.
Did the quiet soldiers attract the lite wrath of the more loutish ones? Or did quiet soldiers scare the hooligans, make them uneasy in the presence of someone staring off into what might even amount to a knowledge rare and frightening?
What was my grandfather like then, on the train, on the war trains he rode upon?
Where did he piss?
Out the window?
Was he scared?
What did he smell?
Burning hair? Cinnamon? Sour feet? Summer flowers? Autumn rain?
I have crawled down into the Civil War in ways I can barely describe. There are no maps of the things I find fascinating. There are no monuments to the trains full of lads who have all been forgotten. There are no books about their feelings as they walked down the aisles and found a seat. For so much of the war there is mostly nothing at all/ just what I conjure up in my mind.
And those are the places where you will find me, watching uneasy soldiers watching that setting sun watching over once loud train boys being swallowed up by night.
Every Day/ For Violet
The Autism continues to trick me, to trip me up. I try to connect with Violet but then I lose her in the fog of things that come along out of the ether. Her teachers and aides have been brainwashed, I am afraid, into thinking that I’m a bad dude/bad dad because I had to go no-contact with her mom. But it isn’t like that. And yet I can’t bring myself to tell them my side of things because I don’t want to make it all so much worse, or confusing, for Violet.
Not for anyone else. I don’t really care about the rest of them; I’m too far gone to waste my time trying to enchant other people so that they think I’m special; I let other people do that; I watch other people do that.
Still, speaking with Violet about things that have happened in the past, it sometimes seems to resonate with her but other times: it seems to break her down. And I cannot ever tell if that pain or sadness she is feeling comes from within her own self or is guided into her port by other voices whispering in her ear. Incessantly. Influencing. Narrating. Convincing, or just plain wearing her the fuck down.
So I back off some in fear of tripping my own soulful child up in the very wires that are quite crossed already. Autism, for all of its millions of ways of showing up and being so present, it still insists on being as confusing and mystical as anything that I have ever even heard about, let alone experienced on my own.
Which continues to make me feel wildly concerned about the human being in my life who is living it, all the time, every day.
To try and co-parent like you and all your friends probably think divorced people at this point should co-parent would be utter futility. The intense damage that I have experienced and the potential for further abuse raining down on me, they were realizations that forced my hand. Which I can live with, and indeed I do, but still: it makes it so hard to get the kids to understand that I want what is best for them. And what is best isn’t me and Arle being ravaged by forces we can barely comprehend. Real untruths and hard abuse in the name of ‘what’s best for the kids’? Uhhh… no thanks.
I have gone through hell to get this far. No one knows. Only me and Arle know.
Like any parent, I would give all my blood for any of my 5 kids in a moment’s notice. But I cannot figure out what to give them in the face of the hurricane that never ever ends.
If I could:
I would take your Autism, kid, and put it into me.
I would take your ADHD, kiddo, and put it into me.
I would take your confusion tears and I would put them into me. Pour them directly out of your tired eyeballs straight into mine.
If only I could, I would. I would. I would.
But I cannot change much at all, I’m afraid. I can only sit here, on this winter Monday afternoon, and try to let you know… from miles up the road… that I am good. And I am honest. And I am true.
Me. Dad. Serge. Me. Dad. Serge. Dad. Me. Dad. Serge. My love is so real. My love is so pure. And someday, kid, you’ll know. Someday, you will see.
Old things, things that are old and kind of beat up, I love them. I don’t know why. Everyone digs their own stuff. Each of us marches to a slightly different drum, they say, and I think that’s true. I like rust. And oily old wood. I like chipped paint way more than total paint and if there’s a chance of seeing an older paint job showing up through the chips of the newer paint job, then I love that even more.
If something seems like it once served a utilitarian purpose, like it held tools in a shop or maybe held raffle ticket money in the VFW hall, then I want to own it. Not so I can fix it up and sell it or anything like that. No. I want to own it because I want to walk by it and pick it up and feel it shooting faded yesterdays into me like lasers. Like marrow transfusions or mountain fresh air.
I collect old rusty nails. Even bent ones. They remind me of people who once worked hard jobs and then died, hunched over, walking down the lane on a bluebird summer morning. When I come across an old rusty nail, I want to make something artful with it. I want to re-drive it into a piece of 100-year-old barn wood and maybe hang a wooden figure (that I made) of Joey Ramone paddling a wooden canoe (that I made) down a river. That’s what I see when I find an old rusty nail.
Sometimes I wonder if maybe I am crazy. Or just a little off. But I don’t think I am, honestly. I suspect that, instead of being crazy or off or strange or whatever, I’m more creatively driven than I ever actually understood. It’s like, all the years in a rock/roll band were cool and all, but they were limiting too. It wasn’t just me. It was so many others as well. Band mates, fans, record companies, DJs, and bartenders, and sound guys, and blah, blah, bah.
But loving an old rusty nail or a greasy old wooden box is a much more personal thing. It’s all me. I look at it in my hand, I roll it, I feel it, I open it or touch it’s dulled point, and I have such a deep overwhelming desire to spend time with it/ make peace with it/ listen to it/ and then create with it. With it and with all of it’s history. I want to dig up the Civil War soldier’s bones and hang them from the late April trees. I want to do it in a way that is magnificent and scary and delightful and inspiring. I want to make art out of the dead.
I want to take old forgotten things and hold them in my hands until they open their shut eyes and scream out loud.
At long last.
Hello out there. Thank you for being here.
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Edited by Arle Bielanko
My Venmo Shop (Open 24hrs!): @Serge-Bielanko
Photos: SB, except ‘Hanover Junction, Pa. Passenger train at depot’ Photograph from the main eastern theater of the war, Gettysburg, June-July, 1863. From Library of Congress.
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The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages. -Virginia Woolf