What are we to make of such earthly things
as scepters and thrones and imperial maps
except baubles for those Broken Crown Kings
whose glories succumb to Man’s mishaps?
For what is conquest, in its destined course,
but an idle man’s hobby horse?
The moon was a skull in the sky, dark clouds laying over it like a torn curtain. The man sat in a black SUV, the engine off and the window partially down. Fog rolled off of the graveyard hilltop on which he was parked, his cigarette smoke blending into it. The graveyard was small and old, overtopping a rural road rarely visited by anyone except raccoons, opossums, and the occasional deer. The loved ones who once knew those buried here were by now buried too, but elsewhere, in more modern graveyards where flowers were still arranged in futile gestures of love and longing. The road was as dead as the hilltop. No one passed here at this time. It had been raining all week, ceasing just after midnight, and the fog rose like ghosts from the burial plots.
The man in the driver’s seat preferred backroads and scenic routes when driving to a job. He smoked his cigarette and stared out into the darkness absently. He would eventually take a nap, if he could, shrouded in the anonymous murk of this backwoods county.
The man was as unremarkable as his SUV. He did not wear a black suit like they often did in the movies. He wore a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and a John Deere hat over his bald head. Tomorrow, when he would arrive in Florida, he would shed this outfit for a button-up shirt, khakis, and maybe sandals— if the weather permitted. What he wore changed drastically from day to day. Shoes, shirts, pants, glasses, wigs. Sometimes he would actually wear a black suit, if the nature of the job required it. Sometimes he wore a white suit. When a job was completed he often wore three different styles of clothes from day to day, and bought some clothes along the way— paid in cash only—to improvise according to what was needed to safely cross state lines without drawing attention to himself. He kept his clothes within the hidden floorboard of his SUV, alongside the other tools of his trade.
His type of cigarettes changed, too. It was his only addiction because he knew that addictions, in his profession, could be deadly. The deadliest addiction was the one known as complacency. Living day to day caused complacency. Not dying caused complacency. People were so successful in living day to day— in waking up alive for the majority of their lives—that they were often surprised when they suddenly failed at it. Life was a gamble, from moment to moment, and the man in the driver’s seat knew that truth better than most since he was something of an assistant to the debt collector at the end of everyone’s gamble. It was a rigged gamble, much like in any casino. Everyone eventually lost the bet. That was why he was not addicted to his complacency. People risked everything, from moment to moment, and risked it all…with or without their consent. The universe did not care about consent, and never would. The cosmos were a cannibal mother, birthing and then devouring its young over the duration of a lifetime, particle by particle, memory by memory, until each child was once again but electrons conjoined in the nebulous expanse of Void. Ash to ash, dust to dust.
The man in the driver’s seat tapped the ashes into his ash tray, then took a pensive drag on the half-burnt cigarette. His eyes were not reptilian or empty of what some people generically labeled a “soul”. He could emote. He could do Shakespeare with such rapturous expression that Hamlet’s father would have clapped as if brought back to life by the riveting performance. Emoting was one of his many talents; one of his many skills in his needful toolbox required by his jobs. Not only could he slip in and out of his disguises like a chameleon its colors, but he could color that plain face of his with whatever tangential expression suited his circumstantial disguise. And it was all genuine, too, as he ingratiated himself or made banter or courted hearts— genuine until the moment when the lights were flipped off of that grand production and the curtains were closed.
Yes, every instant was a gamble and a game. Whether it was cosmic debris colliding with earth or the microbes in a man’s body destroying him with disease from within, the gamble played out without favorites, and with utter disregard for mankind’s delusion of importance. Even a man’s own genes foretold that he was doomed, breeding cancer to devour him with the very cells that manifested him. It was inevitable. The stage would be silenced and the spotlights extinguished. For most people there would not even come the forethought of taking a bow before the end.
“Yes,” said his passenger. “But why did you have to help it along? Why did you have to shoot me in the back of the head while I was taking a piss?”
It had been the right tactic, and the right pay. Leo Romanoff. Age 53. 5’10”. 198 lbs. Money launderer for a Russian oligarch. Went into a public restroom while his two bodyguards stood watch. Pistol and silencer for the two bodyguards, then Romanoff himself. His two bodyguards sat in the backseats of the SUV, their faces veiled in shadow just like Romanoff himself.
“You could have talked first,” Romanoff said. “We could have come to a financial arrangement. But you didn’t. You didn’t want to talk. You just had a job to do, didn’t you?”
The man in the driver’s seat never wanted to talk. He never spoke to them when they came to him like this. He would have never listened to them at all if their voices did not seem to come from inside his head. They acted like the job was personal. But the job was never personal.
“Even when you loved me?” she said, sitting in the passenger seat. Her blonde hair was luminous like moonlight, but her face was black within the halo; a solar eclipse. “You cried when you killed me in our bed. Why so many tears for a job that was not personal?”
Natalya Heidmann. Age 34. 5′ 9″. 120 lbs. Wealthy widow of a hedge fund manager. Her husband’s daughter resented the money her deceased father had willed to his third wife. She wanted Natalya to love the man who killed her, so he comforted the widow and slowly seduced her over the course of a few months. Three months into their relationship stepdaughter told him to kill Natalya. So he kissed her upon her lips and slit her throat while her eyes were closed. A jealous ex-boyfriend was used as the patsy. But it was not personal. Nothing was personal.
The universe did not care about love, family, society, ideals. Such things were as inconsequential as dew upon a headstone, and as meaningless as a headstone upon a mass grave. The worms worked their magic regardless of human pretenses, recycling flesh into forgetful soil. The mindless earth rolled on, like a ball on a roulette wheel. Eventually its luck would run out. It was a mirthless game where everybody eventually lost. It was the only game in town.
“I liked games,” the little girl said to the man in the driver’s seat. “I used to, I mean. And you played them with me when you were our butler. I would play hide and seek with you a lot, until the night you were no longer playing. You found me and I didn’t even scream for help. Who could have helped me?”
Anna Maria Gurlukovich. Age 7. 4’3″. 54 lbs. Daughter to an Pro-Russian politician in Ukraine. He had poisoned her parents’ tea and then strangled her when she tried to hide. It was a politically-related job. Afterwards he was relocated to the United States with the help of the CIA.
“You treated me like I was your daughter,” she said. “And then you killed me.”
So, too, did the universe. He may have been the man in the driver’s seat, but he was also a passenger. He did not drive any of them to their final destinations. He was not the arbiter. He was just another puppet upon a string. He chose nothing. Their deaths were never his to decide, nor the particulars. He had been chosen, but anything else could have easily accomplished the same result, and would have, given time.
He shifted in the driver’s seat, trying to make himself comfortable for a nap. He snuffed the cigarette butt in the ash tray, then tried to extinguish himself with sleep for a while. His brain did not obey, however. It began to wander. The passengers in the SUV murmured in discontentment. He did not know what else they could want. More time? What good would it have done them? The same result; nothing more. He had scoured the philosophies of the world— from Greek Rationalists to the Asian Harmonialists to the German Mechanists and the French Absurdists—and he could only confidently summarize the meaning of Life as thus: Shit happened and then you died.
His eyelids began to close, drawing themselves down so that the outer night would be welcomed inward. But then he saw a herd of deer pass through the graveyard. His eyelids jerked open and he roused, sighing. He watched the deer. Their ears sensed him, lifting alertly, but their empty, imbecilic eyes skimmed over him without further concern. Occasionally they hopped along, as if ready to flee, only to stop and graze once more upon the grass, steadfast in their own complacency. He could have shot any of them and they would have tumbled over, surprised by Death as if it had not been staring them in the face all along.
Fireflies drew his attention from the deer. They blinked in and out of the darkness. People blinked in and out of that darkness, too. The darkness did not care. One moment they were alive, the next moment they were not. Nor did he think himself a spider capturing the fireflies, like so many in his profession did. If he was a spider then he was a spider trapped in the same web as the fireflies. He held no pretenses sacred— only the moment that followed the previous. And he knew it was only sacred to him because it was all that he had…until he lost the ongoing gamble. All he could hope for in life was the occasional contentment of small, temporary victories because all humans were engaged in an existential war for which they would inevitably suffer a final defeat, given time.
It was time to move again. He had dawdled too long. Movement was crucial for his job. Always be moving and never be restless. Movement meant peace of mind and relaxation. It was only when he stopped to rest that he became restless and fretful and was visited. He could settle down when he was dead, and that was inevitable. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but eventually. Until then there was no rest for the wicked. And so the world never rested, because it never stopped its one-sided gamble, no matter how many it raised and buried from moment to moment to fleeting moment.
He obeyed all rules of the road, as he obeyed all rules within society. Except for the one, and that was because a greater Law held precedence over that arbitrary one. Obeying the other rules helped him serve that greater Law. After all, that one Law trumped all others. The rules of civilization bowed to it as well, civilization itself made manifest from the fear of that Law, and the promise of that Law, and thus was never immune to it. That Law was Death, and everyone obeyed it. When his time came the man in the driver’s seat would bow his head in resignation to it. There had been times when Death taunted him. He had scars to attest to the playfulness of Death. A scar just above his heart. A scar along his left temple. Several scars from knives up and down his back. But they were mere reminders of the Law, and so he saw them as heralds of things inevitable; post-it notes he could not throw away.
He came to a bridge, and the bridge was closed. Headlights flashed back at him from the orange sign that warned against attempting the bridge. It began to rain again. It was a downpour. Through the heavy hammering he could hear his fellow passengers murmuring with unrest. When lightning flashed he could see them in his rearview, though their faces were still eclipsed by Death. When your life centered on the end of other lives you were keenly aware of the destination. It was easily traversed, but never returned from. There were no refunds for the ferryman’s crossing. The river could not be forded but one way.
The rain had filled the river to teeming, the overflow flooding out his planned route. It might delay his job for a few days— maybe even a few weeks. No matter. Everything in its own time. He turned around and followed Fate’s path, as he had always done. However it determined him to go, he went. The particulars did not matter. The end result was the same.
I have been lost in a labyrinth without walls,
following the footprints of Borges, the blind;
I have paced up and down the stairwell-linked halls
of Emerson, transcending the mortal mind;
I have strolled around many oasis fountains,
listening to Rumi’s inward-outward fugue;
I have climbed dizzying summits of mountains
to become a monk in the caves of Lao Tzu;
I have willfully retreated from my prison
to seek the insights found in a foreign soul,
and thus died only to find myself risen
within myself once more—now greater than the whole.
In times of war I should like a viking
to fight on behalf of my beloved people,
but in times of peace Christ could be my king
to forbid blades beneath a beckoning steeple.
In times of vengeance I should like a knight
felling an evil man given to wicked acts,
but in times of justice I wish the right
to a lawyer and jury to hear out the facts.
In times of defense I want samurais
to stand as one, together, their katanas drawn,
but in times of calm we would be quite wise
to heed the Buddha with every rising dawn.
Know that I do not seek to draw a blade
from out its soothing, silent, sleepy sheath,
no more than I wish anyone be bade
to lay upon a coffin a funeral wreath.
Nor am I a man of contrary minds,
contradicting himself with his convenient turns.
Of necessities there are many kinds:
those of peace, war, mercy, and death, or so one learns.
Like a slowly winding waterwheel
that rolls with the river’s easy flow
without trying to grind the grainy meal,
this is the way I wish to know.
Like the moon which lights the nocturnal sky
with the gaze of the far-sunken sun
and pulls the tides from low to high,
I want to do as if not having done.
Like a bird that flies North to South
at the breeze of embittering seasons
and sings songs with an unfaltering mouth,
I wish to do without thinking of reasons.
Like a seed asleep in fertile soil
and drinking deep with its roots
while rain slakes the thirst of its slumbrous toil,
I yearn to grow my own unselfconscious shoots.
And yet in wanting to do as such
I know I will never achieve that state of mind
nor the “non-doing” that achieves so much
by leaving the ego, the self, the “I” behind.
I am captain of this ship of bone and blood,
overseeing its sails of sinew, its wheel of nerves,
and it rides the great ocean of Life, that grand flood
of experience, for I am the master whom it serves.
Lord of my vessel, I do as I think I please,
charting a course for a fabled treasure hoard,
and while sailing these seven sensorial seas
I discover a coffin, by chance, and haul it aboard.
Curious for coin, I open the casket to discover
no coin, but a woman who has no beating heart;
yet she rises and embraces me, like a lover,
and tells me her name is Francine Descartes.
I know not what to think of her, or her cool skin,
for while she is beautiful, there seems something strange
in her eyes, and her movements, as if within
her heart there is a hollowness of human range.
Yet, strange as she is, she does me no harm,
and wishes to do little more than to dance
round and round in clockwork circles, arm in arm,
keeping rhythm with me—yet so odd in her glance.
While dancing on deck with this flotsam daughter,
I cannot tell if she is made of flesh or of wood
and so, curious, I throw her out into the deep water
and watch her float—as I would float if I could,
but such heavy thoughts now weigh upon me
and doubt makes me pause at the edge of starboard
to stare at my ship’s reflection upon the open sea,
knowing that the ship is my soul, too, my mind thus moored
in that flawed flesh; and no matter how I plot this trip
body and mind are as one, the same, ever together
so that the captain always goes down with his ship—
always, inevitably, even if he prays for halcyon weather.
More frightening, I think of Theseus and his long-lived boat
and the paradox of his many-timbered hull
and wonder if I have replaced myself while afloat
in the brain fluid of my waterlogged skull.
So many timbers have rotted and cracked and sank
during my journey’s course heretofore…
Perhaps “I” should just walk the plank
and become another shipwreck on the ocean floor.
Most of my acquaintances will tell you that I look like a very unassuming kind of guy. A geek my whole life, I have always worn dweeby clothes and never really put on airs pretending to a high degree of badassery. If you see me walking down the street you do not hear the song “Bad To The Bone” playing. Rather, it would probably be “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”. Normally, it wouldn’t bother me, but occasionally I find myself running afoul of a redneck. Living in Kentucky, this is bound to happen. Additionally, it happens to me even more since I work Security for a local business and have to ID various contractors from day to day, some of whom are felons with a natural disposition to resent, and resist, authority. Most of the time I seek my Center (or Zenter, if you will excuse the terrible pun) and let it roll off of me like so much hogwash. Yet, I must confess that occasionally I do want to surrender to my inner tiger and uppercut a couple of “good ol’ boys” when they say something passive-aggressive (often in passing and at a distance since such people are always cowards). The thing is, as my acquaintances will attest, I don’t look like a fighter. In fact, I am of a slender build and have fluffy hair (which my fiancee adores, thankfully) and I tend to cultivate a courteous demeanor. I am, in some ways, not unlike a certain Martial Arts master whose philosophy and fighting acumen have inspired me throughout my life. This person, of course, is the legendary Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee was one of the reasons I began my Martial Arts journey over two decades ago. Here was a man whose life was written by the philosophy he believed. Moreover, he was a peerless fighter who pioneered so many things which the rest of us Western Martial Artists take for granted. For example, he was one of the first to teach Martial Arts to Americans. He also formulated his own Martial Arts—called Jeet Kune Do, or the Way of the Intercepting Fist—and embodied a philosophy that reconciled a lot of Eastern and Western thought into something that was greater than the sum of its parts. He was a Renaissance Man. Idolizing him, I studied Chung Do Kwan Tae Kwon Do— in which I earned my first black belt— Kajukenbo Karate, Judo, Jiu Jitsu, and boxing. Studying him in the dojo, (or dojang), helped me not only to handle the rednecks of the world, but my own need for self-discipline and self-betterment. His lessons lent themselves to all the areas of my life. As a writer and an artist I utilize what he taught me. The pursuit of perfection, after all, is endless, and he inspired me to emulate his focused drive in the life I live (even if I falter and fall short of the aim sometimes).
Yet, there was more to him than jump kicks and two-inch punches. Despite being an amazing Martial Artist, Bruce Lee also valued the Yang aspect of Martial Arts, or passivity. His notion of the“art of fighting without fighting” wasn’t just some catchy koan to throw about to sound wiser than the people around you, but something that hints at the core of humanity and the basis of continued civilization. That is to say, our world works as well as it does because we do not, generally speaking, kill the guy who disrespects us. This refusal to follow Nature’s “tooth and claw” paradigms saves the world every minute of our lives. Without it, we would be feral beasts succored on blood.
I have lived a long time among the redneck demographic and I know that if there is an alligator nearby they will want to grab it by the tail, heedless of the consequences. And I COULD bite, if I ever surrendered to the inclination, but I instead choose to keep calm and persist in friendliness as much as I can. When I have confronted these cowards, they tend to walk away, mouthing things under their breath. Later, when they are entering the plant again, I tell them “Good morning” or “Have a good day” and they will, for the most part, mumble something likewise while staring at the ground. See, that is how I have won: they realize what they have done and become ashamed of themselves. That is the art of fighting without fighting. That is the wisdom Bruce Lee gave to me.
I rarely plug anyone’s book, but a book I have owned for over a decade now is the wonderful “The Warrior Within” by John Little. It was endorsed by Bruce Lee’s widow, Linda, and is a great place to start understanding the legend and how he can inspire all of us. It has many anecdotes and quotes and several sections regarding different aspects of Bruce Lee’s life. One of the most wonderful passages is in the section wherein Bruce Lee’s ideas about romantic relationships are discussed. He believed something that I, too, believe in regard to my own relationship with my fiancee: he says that he and his wife were like coals, burning warm and long together rather than flaring out in a blaze of passion. This, I believe, is the perfect image of a mature, healthy relationship and is the same sort of relationship I share with my fiancee. We do not party. We do not rely on mutual friends. We stay together and are happy, even if the whole world should fizzle out, leaving us together, burning contentedly in the ashes of the world.