Often, in the late afternoon, Clarence Tilting’s mother, busying herself in the kitchen with preparations for that evening’s dinner, would glance out the open window and see Clarence and the young girl who lived next-door playing quietly on the Tilting’s neatly trimmed front lawn. There might be a gentle breeze stirring the edges of the curtains, blowing faintly in through the window, exchanging a distinctly outdoor fragrance for the odor of whatever was simmering on Mrs. Tilting’s stove...
She’d stop for a moment, one hand on one hip, and her eyes would open and close quickly, like the shutter of a camera that thinks it knows. Clarence Tilting was nine years old on the afternoon when, angry over childish matters, his young girlfriend stuck a sharpened pencil into his ear just to make Clarence cry out in pain. Thinking back, Clarence could recall a sound like the frenzied twitching of an overturned insect’s legs, amplified, of course, one million or more times—then an incredible heat on one side of his skull—as his mother ran from the house, yanked the pencil clumsily from his ear, and slapped the girl with inexcusable violence. The deep gash on the girl’s cheek was attributable to the sharp edge of Mrs. Tilting’s wedding ring, the stone of which had been snapped from its setting upon impact and hurled to the ground where it lay hidden forever after amongst thousands of long and even blades of deep green grass. Even more clearly than the girl’s scream Clarence could remember the flashing yellow arc of the ambulance light, and the purring of its wheels beneath him—as it carried him he knew not where, and so quickly, so quickly.
Returning from the hospital that evening, alone, in a taxi, Mrs. Tilting stared at her home in disbelief—for one of the young girl’s parents, angry over childish matters, had uprooted the flowering shrubs that lined the Tiltings’ front walk, and had hastily chopped down all of the hedges that Mr. Tilting had planted the spring before he’d died. As she rushed madly across the adjoining yards toward her neighbors’ front door, Clarence’s mother saw a light go off quickly in their kitchen and then another fainter one in a room upstairs. For a full fifteen minutes she pounded on the door without stopping, pounded and pounded, and still there came not a sound from the darkened interior.
Clarence recovered from his injury as well as could have been expected, but he remained deaf in one ear for the rest of his life, as well as subject to sudden and erratic spells of fainting and dizziness. Years later, as an earth science teacher in a local public school, these momentary but always spectacularly ill-timed bouts of un-or-half-consciousness caused him more in the way of embarrassment than actual harm. It was, as always, or at least as usual, the bout of self-consciousness that was the matrix of all his problems.
Once, during class, while demonstrating the mountainous buckling of the earth’s crust with the visual aid of a baked apple, Clarence Tilting did actually faint, completely, and fall to the floor. He’d been running his fingers along the ridges and puckers on the skin of the recently cooled apple, when he got an unexpected whiff of the pungent odor of the fruit itself. Before he knew it, his eyes were watering, his knees were weakening, his attention slipping away along with his feet right out from under him.
Fortunately, these incidents were rare. Usually Clarence was able to maintain his balance through such dizzy spells, and even to conceal his discomfort from those around him. Nevertheless, his reputation amongst the students was established, and it wasn’t long before they discovered that when Mr. Tilting was turned with his bad ear to the class, he couldn’t hear a thing they said, as long as they kept their voices to a moderate whisper.
Still Clarence taught doggedly on-trying, in all sincerity, to express the wonder of the earth’s surface and the natural laws of the heavens to group after group of adolescents all of whom pantomimed their own version of a loss of consciousness every time he turned around to write something on the blackboard.
Clarence Tilting could not help but be convinced that living was a thing impossible to accomplish with any remnant of grace or ease. That children could be quite cruel, he had accepted that. That a bottomless void awaited him at any instant, he had accepted that as well. And yet, despite such heroic humility—still he could find no even, no natural rhythm with which to crawl through what seemed no more than a random heap of experiences, a random pile of consistently unfortunate events.
Sometimes on a Sunday or a Saturday, when the pressures of the classroom were remote enough to allow him a moment or two of relaxation, he would leaf through the numerous snapshots that his wife had, over the years, painstakingly secured in dozens of leather-bound photo albums. Regardless of their technical ineptitude, they all, each and every one, seemed so perfectly composed, so correct, so effortlessly afloat upon this flood of lives lived and time spent—suspended with just that balance, with just that poise, that Clarence felt to be so sadly lacking from his own life.
He did, occasionally, try certain experiments. For days at a time he would remind himself, constantly, to look at everything in sight as a potential snapshot, to frame each and every moment, like a photographic scene that a certain angle of the lens could suddenly supply with an inner and an outer composure and grace. It didn’t work.
And when his wife would casually suggest that he take a camera in hand and actually snap a picture himself—of his daughter, perhaps, or of their lovely two-story home—he would always vehemently refuse. Clarence Tilting was terrified that his own clumsy snapshots might turn out to be lacking the harmony of all other snapshots—thus verifying, once and for all, that it was not a problem of living itself, of living and perceiving, but just another problem of his own, just another problem of Clarence Tilting’s.
The earth’s crust, upon which Clarence paced and stumbled back and forth year after year, is oddly continuous—continuous in a sense that none of Clarence’s textbooks had ever been able to express satisfactorily with mere words, or even diagrams. It was there, this continuous crust, costumed as the horizon, in the background of so many beloved snapshots. It was there, deep green now, coiling impersonally around Mrs. Tilting’s eternally lost wedding pearl. And it was there again, this time tiled with faded linoleum, when Clarence awoke one morning in a strange bed, with a strange woman snoring, nakedly, beside him.
He opened his eyes slowly, gradually, and with no trace of that alarm with which he usually emerged from an accustomed spell of dizziness or darkness. The events of the previous night were indistinct in his mind—perhaps due to the fact that he had, against doctor’s orders, consumed a substantial quantity of alcohol, several vodka martinis he seemed to recall, and a bottle, maybe two, of champagne—perhaps three bottles of champagne. The sight of the sleeping woman’s swollen eyelids, and her partially opened mouth, still bearing the traces of a flamboyant lipstick, should have frightened him. And yet they did not. He merely turned, shifting his head on the pillow, calmly surveying this strange room in which he found himself.
An odd thing happened to Clarence then, as he looked about at the clothing scattered over chairback and bedpost, lying exactly where it had fallen or been tossed. Trying to organize his thoughts, trying to take charge of them and explain to himself how he’d come to be here in this room, beside this woman, he found that his memory had become strangely passive. Rather than composing, actively, the previous evening’s scandal, his mind, on the contrary, was itself being composed by the landscape of discarded clothing in the room. There was no story, no explanation. Only these draped and folded forms which seemed to be melting right through him, warming him, along with the few scraps of sunlight struggling to penetrate the cracked and dusty pane of a single window above the bed. So correct was this arrangement of fallen garments and falling light, so unbearably harmonic, that Clarence suddenly leapt up from bed, startling the woman beside him from out of her deep sleep.
"Wha-what? What is it?" she cried. "What’s wrong?"
Clarence was exultant, truly breathless, dizzy with joy.
"Good morning!" was all he could say.
What else was there to say? For here it was, life, life as he had known it might be, pure life, that singular moment in time with which one could find neither argument nor rhyme.
How great, how uncorrectable it was!
Clarence thanked the prostitute profusely, gave her all the money in his wallet, kissed her, like a brother, with passionately closed lips. He suspected that there must be some sort of conspiracy between all forms of surrender—and so this woman had in effect guided him, he couldn’t imagine how, from one embrace to another, from one immediacy to the next.
The woman herself was uneasy. She was not accustomed to falling off into a deep sleep beside a paying stranger, much less a madman. It was against her general policies, and she dared not wonder why it had happened. "It must have been the champagne," was the only thing she said to Clarence, afraid to look at him, her eyes fixed instead on one of the empty bottles that lay on the floor at her feet.
Nothing could mitigate Clarence’s joy!
On his way home, he stopped impulsively and bought himself an enormous strawberry ice-cream cone with a handful of coins he dug out from one of his pockets. Heading for the bus station, he suddenly remembered that his wallet was empty, that he’d neither cash nor a train ticket, and so he would have to walk the entire way home.
He’d been underway only a few minutes when he suddenly caught sight of himself, framed and reflected in the dark glass of a shop window. His eyes did not flinch for a moment, he saw himself exactly as he was: a heavy-footed, middle-aged man looking unnecessarily intelligent and uncomfortably warm in his old fashioned dark suit, and concentrating with a childlike intensity upon the amazing strawberry flavor of his ice cream.
It had happened with the swiftness reserved exclusively for miracles, this perfect reflection, this melodic moment not of self-consciousness, but of self-knowledge. And yet it was a leap that began and ended solely in the finite world. It was his life, and it left Clarence smiling, grinning from ear to ear.
Nor was it only a private affair, a private revelation. He saw them looking—the others. He saw them stealing glances, peering out from beneath their lowered hat brims and around the corners of their averted eyes. Let them look!
Poor old man, they thought to themselves, or whispered to their companions, looks like he’s never tasted sugar before, never tasted anything so sweet. Let them look! he told himself, continuing on his way.
And see how it’s dripping, dribbling, pink, all down his chin, and down the wide dark lapels of his old wrinkled suit.
(Clarence Tilting is an excerpt from an unpublished manuscript, The Biographies of Particles—a series of stories based upon "found" photographs.)
R. Nemo Hill is the author of an illustrated novel published in collaboration with painter Jeanne Hedstrom (Pilgrim’s Feather, Quantuck Lane Press/Norton, 2002), a book length poem based upon a story by H. P. Lovecraft (The Strange Music of Erich Zann, Hippocampus Press, 2004), and a chapbook (Prolegomena To An Essay On Satire, Modern Metrics, 2006). In addition his work has appeared in various journals including Poetry, Sulfur, Iambs & Trochees, Ambit (UK), The Lyric, online at the Hypertexts, and is forthcoming in Measure and Smartish Pace. He has performed at various venues around New York City including The Public Theatre, Cornelia Street Cafe, and The Stone—and is co-editor of Moderns Metrics Press, www.modern-metric.com. He lives in Manhattan, but travels frequently to Southest Asia.