Makeshift wasn’t quite the word he wanted, but it would do. When out with his friends he sometimes liked to assume the baritone of a film trailer voiceover and say things like, “There are moments in a man’s life which define his destiny” which made them laugh or groan (Declan had one of those contagious laughs, an almost perfect laugh, but then everything about him tended toward perfection) but he really meant it. He struggled—and it’s not a stretch to say that each and every day he sought it—to find one of those moments; he wanted just a few in his life, even one. One moment of mystical clarification and he’d shut up for awhile. He liked to believe he’d act rightly given the chance. His drive to be in a position of power, for example, stemmed less from a real desire to act responsibly or be in charge than a sense that, if he were at the helm (almost any helm would do), he’d know what to do when the time came. No takers yet at time of publication. He found himself envying people who live under repressive regimes, who had survived life behind the iron curtain, or even now in North Korea or Syria, India or China, all billions of them. Personal adversity is built into those systems, thus it falls to the character of the individual how he (or she or course, he’s not like that) will respond to the givens of nature and circumstance. The heroic path remains open. And surprisingly, he didn’t mean some kind of dick-swinging heroism—he was a man of average size and a pacifist—or martyrdom (he liked his head where it was) but rather something more substantive and less qualitative: he wanted to rouse the hearts of others.
But it’s like that old cliché, about playing tennis without a net, he thought. Life in a rich free country gives one few opportunities for greatness, and—so maddeningly obvious—only achieving greatness counts, not just the feeling or desire for it. Too often he’s wanted credit for his aspirations, recognition for potential, as a way of evading accomplishment. It’s simply not enough to merely love the right things. At least he had World of Warcraft, where he played as a Blood Elf priest named Idhrethor with an insatiable hunger for old magic and a pretty mean Surge of Darkness spell. I mean like Fuck, he liked to say with emphasis: life is a tragedy with occasional comic elements; everyone dies, and maybe it doesn’t matter what kind of life you live. The dissolute and the noble go the same way all told. Valar Morghulis and all that, even if maybe it might be true that—Valar Dolaeris—all men must serve. He had no illusions about honor, knew it to be just one more vanity of vanities, but felt its allure all the same, maybe even more so on account of its absence, on the sense he had of himself as essentially without character. Not shifty, per se, although maybe a little, but makeshift, yes, always contriving to make do within an exigency. Yet, in any given moment of ordinary life he could feel himself resisting the path of suffering, even though he knew, in his mind, that suffering was called for. He wanted life guided by pleasure but took no pleasure in that.
It’s what he grudgingly admired about Declan, his native sense of duty and discipline and the joy he seemed to derive from it. He hardly ever chose against the thing that needed to be done (and the one time he did, the one day he skipped work and went with them to the roller coaster park, a woman died right in front of him). He had what they used to call a well-ordered soul. Declan did his dishes after meals, and cut the lawn every Tuesday before trash pickup. His lusts he maintenanced or endured within their proper proportion to the whole. He kept perspective. Until his conscience had been cleared of obligations he could not relax, and he possessed an exacting sense of what that entailed, about what the opposite of chaos felt like, and the intertwining relationship between leisure, play, and exertion. Work for him did not constitute the antithesis of anything, but rather comprised the substance and aim of all energy. His father had been a military man, and his mother a nun who had left her convent after hitting it off with the soldier from a nearby base.
She did not, however, see anything exalted or romantic in this exchange of one vow for another, or one passion for another—she did not follow her heart, so to speak, but rather understood marrying Sgt. Brill as an extension of her life of obedience. No two people are asked to do the same thing, she would say, and for whatever reason or reasons, which were not for her to know, she had been asked to leave her community and start a family. She liked the ending of Luke 2 especially, where Jesus sneaks off to the temple and engages (and puts to shame) the teachers there for days on end, confounding and worrying his parents with his strange construal of allegiance, his utter lack of regard for them and their feelings on one hand, and from then on although a good boy they felt that he humored them somewhat, yet it’s clear his mother knew the score. This restraint, this modesty, this roleplaying the mortal, is given as the root of Jesus’ wisdom and favor with God. He did his chores, in other words. She subtly and with a light hand conveyed to Declan, then, through stories like this and others (she especially liked the Grimm’s “Girl Without Hands,”) as well as her example or joyful rectitude, the importance of keeping one’s house in order, of the absence of grand moments in life, that discipline is not—as his father would argue—a regimental matter, a component of security, chain of command, tradition, sobriety, stability, etc. (although he inherited his father’s gun vault and keeps a carry license), but rather a form of readiness, a kind of listening.
John Estes is the author of three volumes of poetry— Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011), Stop Motion Still Life (Wordfarm, forthcoming) and Sure Extinction, which won the 2015 Antivenom Prize from Elixir Press—and two chapbooks: Breakfast with Blake at the Laocoön (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve, which won a National Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America. Online his work has appeared in The Cossack Review, Swarm, Alice Blue Review, Lumina, and elsewhere.
Photo Credit: Sa’ d Khorsid from Karachi, Pakistan (Grass 01 Uploaded by Yarl) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons