Jeremiah’s Lament

[ First appeared in The Cream City Review. University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Spring 1992. ]

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I won’t have the world this way. It isn’t right. Something had to be done. Why can’t people see it? Does absolutely everything have to putrify before we get a whiff of the stink? What happened to common decency? To common sense? To common anything?

Oh no. No, no, no. We live in the age of the individual. In-di-vid-ual! The big I. The almighty me. Numero Uno. The sacrosanct self. Me! My! Mine! My rights! What’s right for me. What I’ve got coming. Looking out for number one. I did it my way.

Okay, fine. Well, I did it my way, too. Can’t they understand that? I fought fire with fire. I gave them a little of their own medicine. They didn’t like it much, did they? Kind of stuck in their throats going down. Ha! Well there’s more where that came from. If not from me, then from somebody else. I’m not the only one who sees what’s happening. I’m not the only one who isn’t going to take it any more. There are plenty like me out there. Plenty.

Dad would have understood. He didn’t take crap from nobody. Least of all from us. He taught us right from wrong. Boy could he lay on the strap. I can feel it now—the whirr of it coming through the air, eager, straining forward to bite the back of our legs. Nancy would try to time the snap and arch herself forward at just the right moment to lessen the sting. Not me. I just stood there straight. I knew I had it coming. I always felt better afterward. Cleaner. Like things had been evened up. Sort of how I felt after I had organized my desk at school. Pencils sharpened and in the tray with the ruler. Scissors, glue and compass in the cigar box. Books neatly stacked, the big social studies book on the bottom, red reader next, arithematic, thin spelling workbook, and two spiral notebooks—one green and one blue. I liked to raise the desk top just enough to peek in at it. Everything in its place. I wished I was small enough to live in there.

Well, I have a small enough place now. No clutter. I guess I should be happy. I know I did the right thing. At least while I’m awake. incandescent I did what I had to do. Anybody with an ounce of understanding can see that. Dad would have been proud of me. God knows I didn’t make him proud very often.

I don’t know about Jean though. All she says is that she loves me no matter what. I ask her, “Can’t you do better than that? Can’t you say I did the right thing?” She just looks down and says, “I love you, Jerry, no matter what.”

Well, I don’t want to be loved no matter what. I want to be loved because I do what’s right, because I haven’t given in like everybody else. That’s the problem with the world, it wants to be loved no matter what. It wants to be able to do anything—ANYTHING—and still be loved, still be patted on the head and told it’s all right, everything’s fine. Well everything isn’t fine. In fact, we’re wiping shit all over ourselves like it was suntan lotion. We’re walking around in baked-on shit and wondering where the smell is coming from. Hefner told America it would love pornography if it came on glossy paper, and he was right. Smear on the shit. The ACLU told America it had to be protected from religion. Down came the Christmas creches, up flows the shit. Television—jiggle by jiggle, bullet by bullet, mockery by mockery—puts the cesspool into the living room. We swoon in rage over oil spills on our beaches, but gulp down the shit oozing from our televisions. Squish the stinking shit between your toes. Stuff it up the little girl’s nose. Lace it in the baby’s bottle. Suck it up. Suck it up. Suck it up.

I don’t like talking like this. I wasn’t raised to use this kind of language. Dad whipped me once for calling mom an old timer when she wouldn’t let us ride our bikes on Sunday. He taught us to have respect. He said God was listening to everything we said. Well I hope God’s listening now. I hope he’s keeping track. Because there certainly is going to be hell to pay. I tried to do my part, but I’ve got to admit it didn’t do much good. Put them out of action for what, maybe a week? That’s what’s so frustrating. The evil is everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. aglow Its the tarbaby, the leaking dike, the sandcastle against the tide all rolled into one. Where are the good people in the world? Why are they so weak? So dull witted, toothless, sleepy-eyed? Won’t anybody stand up for what’s right and honest and decent and respectful? Oh, I could just ram my head against this wall and have it all over with. Just get in a three point stance, like back in high school, and put my head down, and then hut, hut, hut, HUT leap forward with all my strength and smash the top of my head into this block wall and keep doing it over and over again, thrusting with my legs, bouncing like a fly between the sizzling light and lampshade, until my skull cracks open and my brains mush out like a broken jar of grape jelly and I won’t be able to think anymore and I won’t have to feel and I won’t have to keep making the world right.

But that would be quitting. I can’t do that. Can’t quit just because things are going bad. Coach used to say, “Quit now, you’ll quit again tomorrow. You’ll quit again the next day. You’ll quit all your life.” “Quitters aren’t born,“ he said, “they’re made. You decide every play whether or not you’ve got what it takes. Every play is a choice. ‘I’m a winner’ or ‘I’m a loser.’ The choice is up to you.” Then he’d add, “On this team, we’ve only got room for winners.”

Those were the best days of my life. We were a team. All for one and one for all. Football in the fall. Basketball in the winter. Baseball in the spring. Year in, year out. From peewees all the way through high school. The same guys. The same games. It didn’t matter so much if we won or lost but by god there was a scoreboard! Everyone could read it, and no one could change it when the game was over. If you could count, you knew who won and who lost and there was no going back. You could whine about the refs, you could cuss the other team, you could shake your fist at the sky, but you couldn’t change the goddamned scoreboard!

Who’s keeping score today? Who’s playing by the rules? There’s a joke. Ha! What rules? Who even believes in rules anymore? Oh no. Rules are for fascists. Rules are for the Ku Klux Klan. You try to talk rules, limits, right and wrong today and they spit in your face. “Who are you to say?” “Who are you to say?” “Who made you king?” “Everyone has to decide for themselves.” “That’s only your opinion.” “Authoritarianism is dead, buster.” “Don’t bring your paternalistic shit in here.” “Who are you to say.” “Who are YOU to say! “WHO ARE YOU TO SAY!”

Well, I guess I had my say. I guess for once they had to sit up and pay attention. I guess they found out they can’t spit in my face absolutely every day of the week, that they can’t rub my nose in it absolutely every hour of the day, that even a toothless dog will bite if kicked enough times, that what goes around comes around and if it’s no rules you want it’s no rules you’re going to get. And you’re going to get more radiant and orange than you bargained for.

Jean hates it when I talk this way. Says it scares her. She says I didn’t use to be this way. Well the world didn’t use to be this way either, I say. She says you can’t change the world. I say, they changed the world. They changed the world. It isn’t the same world I grew up in so somebody sure as hell changed it. So why can’t I change it back? Huh? Why can’t I change it back? Who are they to say? Tell me that. They ask me who am I to say, well I ask them the same question—who are they to say? I’m free to choose they say. I don’t have to watch television if I don’t like what I see they say. I don’t have to go to the movies. I don’t have to go when the church has gay pride day. Fine, how sporting, who could ask for more, what tolerance. All I have to do is get out. Unplug the television, quit reading the paper, take my kids out of school if I don’t want them coming home with free condoms. It’s so simple. I’m free to choose to check out of society. I’m free to quit being an American. I’m free to cancel my membership in the human race. “Filth! Love it or leave!“

I’m not free, of course, to say “no” to any of this stuff—except just to myself of course. I’m not free to say this is wrong, not just for me but for all of us together. That’s not allowed. That’s intolerant. That’s judgmental. That’s narrow. They can tell me that my company has got to be made up of 50% women, 15% blacks, 10% browns, 3% yellows, 1% reds and who knows what percent cripples, fat people and queers. But I can’t tell them I want my kid to be able to pray at school. They can tell me I should boycott grapes, not drink coffee from El Salvador or wherever, shun chocolate milk powder from Nestles. But let me stop buying aftershave from a company that pays for every kind of foulness on tv and they call me an economic terrorist. They tell me I’m trying to stifle free speech. That King was a hero for boycotting buses, but I’m slime for boycotting the filth merchants. And they can take my money—my money mind you—and lavish it on artistic genuises who put Jesus in a bottle of piss, who take pictures of naked children, who wipe yams all over their—oh hell, I don’t even want to talk about it. cracked black skin And then, and then, and THEN, they have the nerve, when I protest, the icy, let’s-all-be-reasonable here nerve, to tell me, with a straight face and a baleful look of pained self-righteousness that I’m the pervert! I’m the twisted one. I’m the one who needs help. Me, not them. Me. I’m the one who is dangerous. I’m the threat to the American way. Me, the great monster of intolerance. The yahoo. The enemy of art, reason, creativity, freedom, and choice.

All right. Enemy I shall be. . . .

Jean says I don’t laugh anymore. Not that she’ll have to worry about that now. She says everything makes me angry. She says I can’t read the back of a cereal box without my neck muscles tightening. Great, I say. Tell me something funny. I’d love to laugh. Point out the humor for me. I’m a little obtuse. I admit I’m not very bright. I know there must be a joke somewhere, because everyone else is smiling. Apparently the joke’s on me.

She’s right of course. I have changed. I never was like this before. I didn’t get mad at other people, only at myself. I was willing to live and let live. I knew that everyone didn’t believe the same as me, and I didn’t expect them to. I got along. But somewhere, I don’t know where, it just went too far. It was one straw too many. I was made to feel guilty for, for I don’t know what. . . for believing in right and wrong maybe, for thinking not everything should be permitted. They made me feel like I didn’t fit, like I was the alien. They started laughing at me. They started to roll their eyes and snicker. I hated that. aglow a perfect arc They pointed at me behind their hands. They exchanged looks and nods. I couldn’t stand it. They patted me on the head. They warned the world about me and my kind. They decided there was, after all, one thing that was not to be permitted—me. My values, my feelings. They couldn’t keep me from saying what I had to say, but they could be sure I didn’t say it on television, or in the newspapers, or in Time magazine. They could be sure my art didn’t hang in the galleries, my songs weren’t sung on the radio, my heroes weren’t in the textbooks. They could be sure they were the ones who explained me to the world. If my story has to leak out, they would tell it for me, in their words, in their pictures. Well I’ve got my own words. . . .

There I go again. I get caught in these waves of anger and frustration and I can’t escape. They keep rolling in, one after the other: swell, wave, crest, and crash against the sand. Even as one subsides another is rising in the distance. I’ve got to get out of the water. I’ve got to get to the beach and lie quietly in the sun for a while. I’m tired. I’m so incredibly tired. I need to close my eyes and feel the warmth, to breath slowly and deeply.

What a joke. What am I thinking? I’ll never see a beach again. I’ll never see most things again. They got me good. They not only shut me up, they put me away. They’ll do to me what I did to her. pink raw flesh Only what I did was an accident. They’ll do it on purpose. They want to make an example of me. Show what happens when people get in the way of freedom.

What rips me up most is the kids. Jean will find a new husband. But the children can never have another father. They don’t understand. Maybe someday, but not now. I tried to explain to Rachael. I thought she was old enough to possibly understand. But she just looked at me and said, “Daddy, what can I tell my friends? They think you’re crazy. They say your brain must have snapped. That’s what they say to me, but, really, they think you are a bad person. I know they do. They don’t say it, but I know they think you are a bad person. I hate that, daddy. I hate that they think you’re bad. I know you aren’t bad, daddy, but why did you do it? Why did you have to do it? Why wasn’t it enough just to march like the others? You’ve ruined our lives, daddy. We won’t ever be normal again.”

Oh I could rip out my ears and eyes when I think of her saying that. It puts such a knot in my chest I feel it’s going to break my ribs. It was the love of my own children that made me do it in the first place. I love them so much I couldn’t bear to think of other children being killed. I just couldn’t stand by and act like nothing was going on. I couldn’t be another Pilate. I had to do something. I had to do something. I won’t live a world where people can kill their children. cracked black skin It isn’t right. Something had to be done. Something had to be done to wake people up. The marches weren’t working anymore. Everyone was just playing games. People would put them on their calendars, like a Sunday School picnic. They would wear hundred dollar tennis shoes to keep their feet comfortable. They had their signs made at Insty Prints. They made plans for what they were going to do afterward. Made plans!—while babies continued to die. The newspapers hardly covered them anymore. If you were lucky they’d send a smart-ass young reporter down whose job was to get a few quotes from the most outrageous people he could find, and, if it was a slow news day, a picture of one of the demonstrators, preferably looking as though his face was contorted in hate. It doesn’t matter if we have thousands turnout anymore. We’re going to be buried back with the stories about school board meetings and the decline in ivory exports from the kingdom of Burundi. But let the lesbian caucus at the university roust out twenty-five people to protest the treatment of queers in Salvadoran prisons and you’ve got a front page story on your hands: “Gay Activists Demand Aid Cutoff, Declare Solidarity with Oppressed Everywhere”!

What’s the use? What’s the use of one more march, one more letter to my representative, one more meeting, one more fundraiser, one more lapel pin, one more poster, one more anything in the face of a million and a half more deaths? The response is all out of proportion to the slaughter. It’s as if we’d tried to fight Hitler with opinion polls. “78% Think Hitler a Jerk. Humbled, He Gives Back Poland.” It’s insane. We’ve left doing what’s right to the mercy of human fickleness. Who’s got the best slogan? Who’s hired the right ad agency? Who’s selling their case most effectively to the American people?

Selling, selling, selling. Everything has a price tag. Everyone has their price. Everything is negotiable. It’s the art of the deal. It’s the social contract. I’m sick to death of it. We’ve sold our moral birthright for the pottage of convenience, of comfort, of what’s in it for me, of I did it my way, of ‘who are you to say?’ Well I’ve got something to sell, too. I’ve got a place in hell to sell to all the murderers and everyone who holds their coats. I’ve got a place in hell for the destroyers of families, for the dope pushers, for the Hollywood sleazers. I’ve got a place in hell for the centerfold with her little pout and big tits, for the guy taking the picture, for the fellow who repairs his camera, for the copywriter who tells us about Miss October’s hobbies (screwing the mailman being the only one that’s believable), for the proof reader who’s sleeping with the copywriter on weekends while her husband’s out fishing. I’ve got a place in hell for the layout man, for the copyeditor, for the guy who answers the filthy letters, for the woman who sells the advertising, for the buyer of advertising space and the people he answers to, for printers who print it and their bosses, for the woman who puts the brown covers on them (Superman can’t see through lead, God can’t see through brown paper?), for the kid in the mailroom who is working his way through college, for the truck driver who takes it to the convenience store (convenient for what?—death?), for the clerk who sells it, for the corporate board of the store chain who see it as 8% of their profits (10% if we can break the boycott by the fundys). save me jesus And I’ve got a special place in hell, Mr. Middle Class Family Man, for you who buy the shit, who takes it home and oogle it in front of your wife and daughters—sending them what message do you think?, who leaves it around for your sons to sneak a look at and learn from. Learn what? While you watch the news and grumble about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Well, at least you’re right about that. I’m selling a place in hell for all these people and for millions more like them. The price is high but most everyone is buying. Wall Street is bullish on hell. People can’t get enough of it. They’re dying to get there. And the biggest joke of all is that most of them don’t even believe the place exists. It disappeared with the flat earth, blood letting, and angels dancing on the head of a pin. . . .

I’ve got to stop this. I’ve got to quit thinking for a while. radiant and orange help me jesus I’ve got to let this anger seep out of me. I’ll just lay down here for a minute on my bunk. Everything will be okay. I’ve got to have faith. I did what I had to do. I didn’t mean for it to turn out that way. It wasn’t my fault. I never thought about a cleaning lady. halo of flame sweet Jesus I never meant to hurt anyone. I was trying to stop people from being hurt. I was trying to stop the babies from being killed. I was trying to stop the mothers from hurting themselves. They wouldn’t listen. No one would listen. Even Jean wouldn’t listen anymore. Just like dad wouldn’t listen when I tried to explain how the window got broken. He just went for the strap. I walked behind him hopping from foot to foot, trying to keep up, trying to explain, already crying, but he didn’t listen, he didn’t even seem to hear my voice, to recognize me, he just went for the strap. He did what he had to do.

And so did I. I put the gasoline can and timer right under the operating table. I remember smiling to myself. It was the perfect place. It was right—exactly, poetically, God’s-in-his-heaven right. I looked around at all the tools of death—the pinchers, the scrapers, the slicers, the dicers, the hoses that suck, the buckets that slosh—and I felt, actually felt in my guts, the ecstasy of being in the right, of doing the right thing, of destroying evil, of evening things up. pink of raw flesh

I felt so good and yet so tense that I couldn’t leave until it was finished. I went back to my car, drove it around the block and then into the all night donut shop across from the clinic. I remember ordering two chocolate cake donuts and milk. I sat in a booth by the window and tried not to stare at the darkened building across the street.

The explosion lit up the windows of the clinic like lightning inside a thunderhead. A shiver of satisfaction started through my body, making me spill the white milk all over the donuts. The clerk yelled and ran to the door. I sat and watched as the first fingers of smoke probed through the cracks of the windows.

That’s when the woman came lurching, incandescent, out the clinic door. She was on fire from the waist up. Her head was aglow, a halo of flame extending, radiant and orange, in a perfect arc from shoulder to shoulder. I screamed “No, God, No!” and raced into the street behind the clerk. A car skidded to a stop in front of us and a young man and woman jumped out. We all ran toward the pillar of fire. We couldn’t catch her at first. She staggered recklessly away from us, strangely quiet, running a race with death.

We finally caught her and forced her to the ground. I had taken off my coat as we ran and now beat her head and chest with it. The flames died quickly. We knelt around her, paralyzed with fear and helplessness. The pink of raw flesh peeked out from under cracked black skin. She began to moan and weep, “Jesus! Sweet Jesus! Save me, Jesus. Save me, Jesus. Why, Jesus? Why, sweet Jesus? Save me Jesus.”

The clerk raced back toward the donut shop yelling that he would call the ambulance. “Save me, Jesus. Protect my little ones, sweet Jesus.” I began to sob over her. “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” I cried. “I didn’t know you were in there. Please forgive me.”

“Save me Jesus. Take care of Tashi, Jesus.”

“Please forgive me. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it.” “Take care of little Otis, Jesus. Oh Jesus . . .” “I can explain. Oh, please let me explain . . . .”

The young man and woman stood up and hugged each other, staring at me with new horror. In the distance a plaintive siren.

And now it’s my turn to burn. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, fire for fire. My lawyer says we can delay it for years, likely even beat it altogether. He says they shouldn’t have ever given me the death penalty for this, second degree murder at the worst. They were looking to make an example of someone, he says. The country is tired of intolerance. He says it will never stand up under appeal. Never.

I don’t see it that way. What I hated the worst was when mom would say, “Wait till your dad gets home, then you’re going to get it.” I always wanted it now. I couldn’t stand the torment of thinking about it all day. What am I supposed to do, sit in this cell for the next ten years dreaming the same dream every night, hearing her calling out to Jesus, watching her skin split and curl up around the edges? Am I supposed to sit here into a new century weeping for the loss of my own children, kissing the crayon drawings they send me, touching Jean’s fingers through the wire while she explains why Rachael wasn’t able to come again, knowing that I’ve become a symbol of all that is ugly about ignorance, of the twisted face of intolerance, the example of what happens when we limit freedom of choice, knowing that I sell newspapers, give columnists grist for another day, maybe two, that I win votes for politicians I despise, that I’m the perfect fifteen second sound bite, that my mug shot frightens man and child alike, that I’m the latest bogeyman, momentarily substituting for Jew, black man, gook I’m not afraid I insist on my right I have rights too I insist on the right to have my sentence carried out I have a date with old Sparky I will not have it broken I will not continue to live in a world such as this the strap the leathers straps my hands will be bound by the straps they will caress my ankles i will shave my head in mourning i will sit down singing i didn’t mean to do it i would do it again please let me explain please forgive me it is only right it’s exactly what i deserve it will even everything out i wanted to do what’s right i want to be cleaniwanttobeforgivenicantliveinthiskindofworldidontwanttodieiwanttodie

Daniel Taylor