Description of an Accident
I tripped today, today I tripped. (A beginning, certainly, but a beginning marked by an immediate, unfortunate break of a microscopic palindrome! Ach! How the form gives away the content!) The sudden loss of balance, and the successful attempt to regain it, in the darkness of a late November night. Action, and reaction: cause and effect. The reason? A slight misalignment (vertically) of the concrete slabs that form the sidewalk. I would have called it imperceptible, had I not been forced down by it. Even my dumb foot perceived it, while my mind . . . my mind drifted somewhere else. Tectonic shifts, brought about by seasonal rises and plunges in temperature here in the Northeast. Matter contracts when it gets cold; it’s a kind of material introspection. Matter dilates in the summer; think of rail tracks, derailments, people killed on their way to the dinner. Did I say it was November? The shifts are small on the scale of geological dimensions, yet large enough to catch the sole of my right shoe. My bones: still the good old elastic buddies? Or brittle bastards, about to burst? Am I osteoporous already? Bones through which the wind can whistle? A sieve for the ether – sorting quarks from the pure, heavenly essence.
I’m in transition; I’m evidently headed downward; one second I’m standing, walking, whistling, celebrating my day, minding my own business, the next I’m on the ground, defeated, dispirited, eyed by vultures circling in the air. (What saved me from their sharp eyes and beaks, on the night I tripped, was the darkness of that night! It might also have been too cold for the bastards). This put-down is symbolic; it is pregnant with symbolism. Verily, verily: winter in the air; winter, the old, worn-out metaphor of old age. Old age has a smell to it in novels and poems. My dog runs away when I blow my breath into her face, as though she were sensing that I have that fictional final smell. But I keep holding on to the other, more benevolent interpretation: that the dog’s reaction is an instinctive escape from microbial insults. How long did it take evolution to make dog? (Evolution, breathlessly, reports to God: “made dog, just as Thou said: wet nose, four legs, with tail covering asshole. What next?” God to Evolution: “Gee, I dunno, I forgot this business about the dog. I can’t think straight. There are too many things. I’m tired today. I tell you what: just keep on making dogs. Vary theme a little. Pinchers, schnauzers, dachshunds, poodles. You get the idea! Then we’ll see what’s next.”)
I have been waiting for a sign to mark a new beginning. It could have been the sighting of a wart on the face of a man I saw at the airport; the sound of a clock stopping, the unexpected escape from unnecessary heart surgery in St. Peter’s Hospital; it could have been thousands of things that engulf my senses every day, but no: those events have left me unperturbed, like a mass, dimly aware of its inertia, moving through finely dispersed matter; like a beam of light slipping through glass. No, it had to be a piece of involuntary slapstick in this city’s already sufficiently prosaic downtown – unwitnessed, yet powerfully felt, insofar as there is now a definite before and after: before, when I had no anticipation of the challenge I’d be facing, of the mess I would get myself in; no fear of an impending accident; no grasp of the true range of possibilities, that already included stings by bees, serious allergies — like the one against Penicillin –, being brushed by poison ivy, being hit by a chainsaw run out of control, by a car jumping the curb; and after: now that I’m haunted by the memory of awkwardness, of having narrowly escaped injury, and ridicule heaped on top; by the implied hints at the fragility and decay of my body; by the evident slippage of control. But I should, despite all these foreboding signs, take it as a chance for a new beginning.
It is no accident that incidents like that happen at night. At night is the time when the world around me expands just as it seems to collapse into smells of dog poop and coldness; though the feet in my shoes stay warm. They move importantly, like my heart. Hurdles that we might have laughed away during daylight have become insurmountable, threatening to become walls. Why am I out at night, when I could be in the safety of my home? It is difficult enough to be at home, and stumbling along badly illuminated sidewalks with cracks is the worst one can do in the dark.
A voice rises inside of me, listening for an extended echo. But what I hear instead is people mumbling, people swearing. Those are divided people: divided by gender, age, skin color, and degree of optimism. Sometimes I think everyone is divided; there is doubt in everyone’s face, there is struggle, if not now, then as an ever-present memory of the past. For instance, with each step, the legs separate, as though trying to go their different ways, threatening to pull the body apart right where it counts. Only in the last moment of each step, reason prevails, or something like inertia, or the memory of the way things are, keeping the two legs together. But there are other, unsurmountable divisions: people are divided into those who have slipped, like I, and those others who stayed on their feet despite the precarious condition of the sidewalk. The latter are the lucky ones. The probability of stumbling into the slab is quite small. Most people walk on the opposite sidewalk, where the shops are, and those who prefer to walk on the shopless side will not hit the slab unless they follow my footsteps religiously. But that is unlikely; I have few followers. Those who are swearing are most likely the ones who have slipped at least once. But who knows? Those who are mumbling might be just be swearing under their breath. They might have slipped many times but have forgotten the evil that befell them. Those who are swearing might also be swearing without reason, just, as people say, for the heck of it, because they like the irresponsible sound of the phrase, or they feel more honest than the ones who swear under their breath. Accidents like this happen at night, as sure as every major earthquake hits California in the morning at 6 a.m.
In the tripping, and in the actual process of falling to the ground, I anticipate all the failures still to follow, the malfunctioning of body parts, the inking of confidence, the loss of certainty about events of my life. But just as St. Augustin said, the past does not exist, because it is gone, and has presence in our memory only. The present does not exist, because every moment, like a sword, is an infinitesimal line that divides the future from the past. Nor does the future exist, by virtue of its very definition. It has potential, that is true, but it rushes toward the line that dooms it to oblivion. We mortals ride the knife – he might have said – and embrace the non-existing tenses with our hopes and fears. So when I talk about the day I tripped, I talk about a knife being held in suspense, with time gushing by underneath, while no-one has found a way to hide in a barrel and plunge along.
To reap the opportunity for a new beginning, I should rethink my plans, especially those I never formulated but adopted out of kindness or fear of reproach. I should retrace my steps, change my habits, undo my fall, apologize to the crack, wipe my knees casually without admitting ever having fallen down.