I'm Their Pilot

Michael Pearce

I’ve never been touched where it counts. The barber cuts my hair, strangers shake my hand, the doctor probes deeper—but I don’t love any of them. I’ve never been in love. This city is all streets and possibilities, so I take off my boots and walk. I’m looking for something in the streets.

All the guys on the submarine talk about love—they squeeze into their bunks, line the night walls like books, forty of them in this long tube of a room sharing one pair of lungs, one mind’s experience. In the dark wet room they all talk about the body of one woman—how it swells and folds and sweats and smells, grows bigger and softer to their rough touch. I’m their pilot at the helm. I say, Hey fellas, what’s it like to love? They say, Just keep your eyes on the water, and they all laugh together as I guide us through the ocean of ink toward morning. I can feel the heat of them and their woman against my back—they all know love together, grew up muscular and hairy together, surge toward that woman together. I don’t like what goes on behind me but I just keep doing my sub pilot job.

I’m looking for something in the streets on this damp downtown summer night. The mild sewer stench and laughter of cars remind me of the submarine. I walk barefoot on the grimy pavement looking for love, and I find something like it when the cabbies and pimps tell me what I need to hear. Father, they say, Father who has stepped down from heaven to walk barefoot in our streets, we look to Your suffering body to tell us how to save ourselves. What should we do? Should we walk with that sad, overworked stoop, that sacrificial shuffle? Should we dress our faces with stubborn smiles and exhausted eyes? Show us how to be ourselves in You, we’re here to emulate and serve. Sure, I say, feeling more like a son than a father, I’ll show you, I’ll show you once and for all. It’s my job.

In the submarine the men are still alive but they smell bad. They’ve begun to decay and they mumble among themselves like termites. They are loving something new, something like a woman, I think, though I can’t make out any details in their dumb mutter. Whoever she is, their bodies have become a sacrifice to her. They invite carrots, turnips, parsnips to enter their bellies and swell up big in there. The great ocean around us has thickened like tar that the submarine has to worm its way through. I’m their pilot at the helm but every time I point us up out of here I hear a loud buzz, the great insect buzz of complaint. The sub’s rivets rust away, inky pitch oozes in through the seams, yet the men complain when I point us up out of here. They all mumble their complaint together like a nest of termites.

I’ll show you what love is, I say to my cabbies, my pimps, my streets. I make a scrub brush with the hairy skin of my chest. I wash the pavement with my blood and elbow grease, scrub the brick buildings until they are white and seamless and taller, until they are sleek submarines on end trying to escape the earth’s muddy clutch. I’m feeling inspired and I chisel out little pictures on a door, but I don’t recognize them when I’m done so I call them words. I cover the white walls of buildings with little pictures that nobody recognizes so everybody calls them words. The cabbies and pimps look up at white walls covered with my ciphers and they become pious and thoughtful. Father, they say, we read Your walls and now we realize that we’re not naked, Father. And they throw off their clothes, go down on their knees, pray for grace on my blood-scrubbed streets.

The submarine men think together like a nest of termites. They make me their queen, feed me coughed-up carrots and parsnips, feed me nonstop for what seems like forever. They cultivate my largeness until I am immense and fertile, a bloated gelatinous blimp with only the thinnest membrane holding it all together, expanding out toward the walls of the rusty leaky submarine. And my men, who love me like they have never loved, one at a time enter my belly like Greek warriors. The last one slithers inside just in time because the submarine has crumbled and falls away. Now I’ve become their great chrysalis submarine. I waddle through the inky night, I am a membrane who has learned to love, and all that is held within me stays itself and all that is held outside me stays itself. Inside and outside talk to each other through me but stay themselves—I could burst with the joy of it as I lumber barefoot through the warm slippery night loving what’s inside and what’s outside, and loving my job, which is to remember, only to remember, so that all I know is what belongs in and what belongs out. And who I am, I always remember that.

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