Even now as I sit here, placing these words onto the page, the presence lingers.
Our senses not only pick up on external stimuli and alert us to their presence, they also remind us of both the effects and the significance of those stimuli. Sometimes it would be desirable if the senses were not so diligent in their duty.
We fell asleep last night in our chairs. More and more, this is the pattern, especially on weekends when I do not have to rise in the dark and prepare for a work day. The very ritual of preparing for sleep — turning back the covers, placing a glass of water at bedside — can sometimes chase away that very thing for which we are preparing. But falling asleep in the chair while engaged in reading or listening to music or watching a movie is a an organic act, an act with no whiff of interruption or preparation to it. At one moment, our attention is engaged. At the next moment, we are outside of our bodies, in another reality, flying and fighting monsters and reuniting with family members and moving through the rooms of former residences, while our physical frames remain and receive rest and repair. To sleep in the chair is to swim in the ceaseless flow, uninterrupted, un-shook.
And so it was last night. My wife had drifted off before me. I continued to read and half-watch a movie about an Estonian fencer, and my mind became cramped from the rapid switching between the words on the paper page and the subtitles on the screen. I put the book aside and concentrated on the movie, but the day caught up with me at last and there came a moment when my waking mind transformed into my sleeping mind. Just before this happened, I turned off the lamp; I let the movie roll with the sound turned down, translated English words continuing to blink onto and off of the bottom of the screen while my mouth went slack and my limbs went motionless beneath the blanket, and there was peace in the valley for us both, oh Lord I say.
Then somewhere around the second hour of this day, I became aware. I became awake. My warning sense was rattling like a fire alarm, and two of my physical senses were singing like steam whistles. Something was wrong.
The sense of smell was firing —what was that? What was that smell?
And then the sense of touch invaded the tatters of my dreams, flapping as they were on the clothesline stretched tight between last night and this early morning. Something was moving. Beneath my cheek. I tried to suss out what this might be, what this might mean. And then it came to me entire, like seeing someone through the storm door just as the doorbell goes off, and I had the full knowledge all at once. My mind and my body snapped together in a single unit.
It was a stinkbug. And my face was pressing down on it.
If a man can be said to be capable of leaping out of a recliner with his body spasming into a paroxysm of horror and landing on his stockinged feet next to the chair where his wife slumbers and doing so without awakening her, then ecce homo. Because my wife slept on and I stood next to my chair, clenched and taught, an emotional epilepsy roaring across my skin like a typhoon, my eyesight suddenly superhuman as I spotted the horrific little shield-shaped alien moving on the pillow where my cheek had been a few seconds before.
I grabbed the thing and padded to the bathroom, where I threw it into the toilet. And yes, my reverence for all living things has exceptions and provisos and riders and disclaimers stapled all over it.
I returned to the chair, my wife still undisturbed in hers. I again stretched out, and at some point sleep came. But only after I turned the pillow over. And yet the stench of the stink bug was with me. I managed to ignore it as it faded, but it lingered, and it was the first thing I noticed when my dog roused me a little while ago.
It is with me now, and it is a hateful thing.
Yesterday was the anniversary of my completing boot camp and being called a United States Marine for the first time. Two generations ago… can that be true? If I had had a son on that day, and if he had enlisted in the Corps when he came of age, he could have retired yesterday. Can that be true?
Can it be that I walked the path, that I carried a rifle and wore the uniform with the eagle, globe & anchor? To think back on those years is so similar to watching a movie just before one slips into sleep while reclining in a chair. It is to dream, but it is also to live in the shadow of the senses. The sights, the sounds, the touch, the smells, the tastes.
The sight of the gates at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California, floodlit in the middle of the night, a hard-eyed MP waving the bus through the gate, offering a pitying curl of smile as I stared at him through the window. And then the sight of the demons called Drill Instructors in their distinctive headgear, pacing near the yellow footprints as they waited for our bus to stop and open the doors so they could get at us.
The sound of yelling, yelling all day, all the time, in tones and intensities as varied as the weight and calibers of bullets in all the magazines of all the armories of all the military units in all the empire. The music of cadence called by the Drill Instructor, the symphony of sixty hands slapping rifles in unison, sixty boot-heels digging into the asphalt on the grinder, the primeval roar of sixty voices howling as they charged the “enemy” during tactical exercises. The sound of passenger jets splitting the sky overhead as they left the nearby airport, mocking those of us still tethered to the ground in recruit training.
The feel of small seashells in the sand, digging into my palms as I did squat thrusts and mountain climbers and push-ups as punishment for some infraction of the slippery regulations. The blisters on my hands, like small pearls, from the iron bars of the obstacle course and the climbing rope, thick as my forearm. The chafe of the utility cover, low on my forehead, in the winter sun of California. The weight and heft of my rifle, slapped and twirled and banged and held in eternal poses, waiting to have it grabbed from my hands and inspected by a pair of green eyes that could never be satisfied. The firm comfort of my rack beneath my exhausted body every night, calling me to a sleep so deep I cannot remember how it felt, a sleep the quality of which I will never know again in this life, a sleep no stink bug could disrupt.
The smell of eggs and sausages in the early morning air as we marched to the chow hall with flashlights swinging in time with the cadence. The sour reek in the squadbay from our PT gear, draped on wire hangars while soaked in sweat, drying in the still air, filling the squadbay with the animal musk of warriors rising. The burning scent of cordite at the rifle range, as we stood or sat or sprawled on the berms, squeezing out the bangs, hot brass flying past our cheeks, waiting for the disc, plotting our shots in our books, aware that we could turn at any time and empty a magazine into the strutting sadists who were our keepers…or into ourselves, if we were inclined to seek an early, final sleep. The smell of new wool as we were fitted for our dress and service uniforms. The perfume of rare rain on the warm concrete as we marched back to the barracks, our heels making a music so very close in timbre to that of a horse’s shod hoofs on a macadam road.
The taste of fear in the back of the throat, hot and coppery, as we stood, heads shaved, personal possessions taken from us, realizing that not only was there no turning back, but that we had done all this voluntarily. The watery eggs in the morning, the overcooked spaghetti at the noon meal, the just-off-a-bit chicken at dinnertime. The salty taste of blood as a platoon mate slammed a pugil stick into my jaw and made me bite my cheek. The ever-present sweat as it was licked from lips gone paper-dry while standing at attention for eternal moments under the sun and under the gaze of those who held the keys to the gate just two hundred yards away. The minty flavor of the envelope glue, savored as we licked envelopes containing letters home, letters back to what we called The Real World, not knowing how real our lives were in those cloistered hours. And the burning sugar bliss of the first Dr. Pepper in three months, gulped down an hour after graduating boot camp while being driven to the airport by my most demonic Drill Instructor in an act of kindness for one of his inattentive hogs who had missed the bus.
Thus, yesterday I lived in memories of the three months I spent learning the ways of marching and killing for the empire. I suspect that many of my kind remember such anniversaries. I suspect that many of us relive those things that happened to us, those actions we took, those explosions within our living senses. We relive what we felt, what we sensed. And we wonder if such things were lived, or merely dreamed.
We live in the shadow of the senses, and the shadows watch us even when we are unaware. Even when we are sleeping. Even when that sleep is disturbed by scent and movement.
I have no treaty with the stink bugs. I will kill them as surely as a Marine sniper will kill his target when the silhouette rises above the ridgeline. Knowing that I am prepared to kill the enemy helps me sleep better.
~ S.K. Orr