The Translation of Daniel
by Wade Venden
Daniel Shine set the moving box down on the front lawn. The evening air was quiet, still. His mind was not. He scanned the area with weary eyes.
Chaos, he thought.
He shook his head. How had it come to this?
Brown boxes were stacked haphazardly atop each other. Some were sealed with tape; most were left open with contents spilling out of their tops. Few were even labeled, and those that were had a sloppy, hurried script that was difficult to read: kitchen, books, hobbies…
Daniel sighed. He couldn’t think of anything less welcome in his current life than the pursuit of a hobby. Hobbies required stability. Consistency. His life contained neither, nor seemed as though it would accommodate either anytime soon.
He had arrived home this afternoon after working a full shift at the mill. He was greeted by an eviction notice taped unceremoniously to his front door. It had ended with a command: “Said tenant must have all belongings removed from the rental property by midnight of the date of this notice,” after which was scribbled the current date, “5/31.” He had felt the life force draining out of him as he read the notice earlier. His life was a watch spring that had come unwound, with no means of rewinding it again.
No, he thought.
Not a watch spring.
His life was, in fact, a slow-motion train wreck.
Every groan of agonized metal, every violent shudder as the impact telegraphed down the length of the train was felt, seen, and heard by him in intimate detail. Like the unstoppable force of a train coming off the rails, the transpiring disaster of his life carried with it its own inevitability. It was this perceived inevitability that had switched him from the driver’s seat to the passenger’s seat of his life. It felt to him as if he had become but a witness to his life’s events, as if his life had ceased being his own. Unsettling, to say the least.
And, like any train wreck, the unraveling of his life had taken its due time to unfold. It was a process that could not be rushed, no matter how much Daniel willed it to be. If it was going to crash, he had reasoned, and there was no stopping it, then just let it be over with quickly so he could begin to pick up the pieces and cobble together a new life, duct tape, bandages and all.
But this train was apparently a very long train, and there seemed to be no end to it. The crash just went on without pause, moving its way down the tracks in reverse, car by car, and Daniel went with it, ever the observer, unable to even look away, wincing with every calamitous impact.
Of course, it hadn’t always been like this.
He’d had a comparably promising start. Good marks in high school, then on to University and the high hopes of any student with a reasonably ambitious makeup. Back then, the future was something to be eagerly anticipated, not feared. It seemed a lifetime away now.
As bright as that period of life sometimes seemed to him, he knew that was when the trouble had started. The Wheel of Fortune had advanced to a new station, and Daniel’s life had advanced to a new phase with it. Suddenly, nothing flowed anymore. The lubricant of his life had dried up. Everything became a struggle. Exhaustion, mental and physical, became the norm. Life had lost its luster.
Problem was, this section of the Wheel of Fortune, the negative section, took up more than its share of the wheel’s circumference, at least in his opinion. Like the train wreck, it just went on and on. To Daniel, this flew in the face of the whole idea of a “Wheel of Fortune,” which was supposed to be composed of alternating periods of good following bad. Apparently, on his personal wheel, with the circumference of the wheel representing the entirety of his life, it was divided thus: at the top of the wheel (representing the start of his life), there was a small sliver of good fortune. The rest of the wheel after that was one long, enduring segment of bad fortune – enough, in fact, to follow him to the grave.
Daniel blinked out of his ruminations. The clutter of boxes sharpened before him.
Enough of mixing metaphors, he thought. Daylight is burning.
And it was. The bottom of the sun was already kissing the horizon, and the lower third of the western sky was warmed by its orange fire. There were only a few more things to be retrieved from inside. He mounted the stairs measuredly and entered the front door.
His apartment had changed. It was no longer a home. Now it was only an empty husk, devoid of character or life. He was surprised at how quickly it had released his hold upon it. The impermanence of it was remarkable and troubling. Just by moving a few belongings outside, everything had shifted, and Daniel suddenly had no place to call home.
A few boxes sat in the corner of the living room. He grabbed the packing tape from the kitchen counter and sealed them up, neglecting to mark their contents on the outside. These remaining boxes he quickly carried outside and placed with the others. The sun was gone now below the horizon and its fire with it. The sky was a spectrum of blue, light to dark. He went back inside.
He rechecked all the kitchen cabinets. Empty. He poked his head into the bathroom. Nothing left that wasn’t attached to the floor or walls. He pushed open the bedroom door. On the floor sat his mattress, the last thing left in the apartment.
He looked at it and shook his head.
Pathetic, he thought.
Somehow it was a testament to the big, fat failure his life had become. Somehow, that lone mattress said it all.
First, it was a twin. He was 32 years old and was sleeping on a twin-size bed. Now, he could argue that the reason he had bought a twin was financial – it was cheap and he was broke. Of course, he was always broke, but at the time, he was thoroughly broke. Flat busted, as they say. But that wasn’t the only reason he had settled for that bed. In truth, he knew that at some level, he had given up the hope that he would ever share his bed with a woman again. This understanding hadn’t been explicit then when he had purchased the bed, but it was now as he stood there in the bedroom doorway looking at this mattress on the floor, the lone item left in the room.
That now familiar feeling washed over him again, that feeling of his life, his identity, being drained away. He had barely lived in this apartment long enough to begin to identify his life with it, yet he had, he could feel that now, and now that it was being stripped from him, what of him was left? Who was he now?
He knew he should just go over and take the mattress outside, but he couldn’t. The act seemed somehow sacrilegious. A bed was a place of rest, of sleep, a daily period when we are most vulnerable. A bed requires the protection of walls, and to remove it from that sanctuary without another made ready to receive it, well, it just seemed a grave sin to him. What good was a bed without a bedroom?
Daniel inhaled deeply, and as he expelled the breath through pursed lips, his shoulders sank low in resignation. Soon he would move. But not yet. Right now, it seemed as if his feet were nailed to the floor. He could feel a distance inserting itself between him and the room, not that the room was receding, but more like he himself was shrinking and occupying a smaller and smaller space. Some part of him, a part he could not identify, was vanishing. He breathed deeply again, steeled himself, and walked to the mattress. He placed it deftly under his right arm and exited his apartment for the last time.
It was dark now, save for the wan yellow glow of the street lights.
Daniel had not made arrangements for where he would sleep for the night, or where he might store his belongings until another apartment could be secured. Getting evicted was not a total surprise – there had been warnings. He had simply ignored them, choosing instead to act as if the threat of eviction was not part of his reality. When it became part of his reality, he had no compartment to fit it into. It was a glaring anomaly that his life refused to abide or even acknowledge. It was the old “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” tactic of childhood, the warm blanket pulled over the eyes.
It wasn’t as though he didn’t have any options. His parents lived right there in Newburg, as did his sister. He had grown up in the town and knew practically everyone, though he might as well not have had these people available to him because the thought of utilizing their assistance never formed in his ever-numbing mind. Doing that would preserve his previous patterns. It represented somehow a desperate holding, clinging, grasping, a striving to maintain a system that was coming undone, and to try and stop that from happening was like trying to catch water with a sieve. This, of course, is what normal people do in a crisis. It’s what society expects us to do. When the pattern is threatened, you preserve the pattern at all costs. You reach for the sieve. You hold on.
Daniel didn’t want to reach for the sieve. He didn’t want to hold on. He wanted nothing more than to just let go.
It was late, and he knew that he wasn’t going to call anyone to come get him. The mere thought of doing that exhausted him. So he dropped the mattress on the grass of the front lawn near his pile of boxes. Then, from a box labeled “Bedding,” he dug out a sheet set, a blanket, and a pillow. From another box labeled “Clothes & Misc.,” he retrieved a set of blue-striped pajamas which, during a lull in traffic, he changed into right there on the lawn. He stuffed his work clothes into the clothing box and set about making up his bed.
He was in a novel state of consciousness now, such that didn’t view what he was planning to do as being insane or, at best, slightly abnormal. It viewed his actions as practical responses to his given circumstances. He was tired. He was outside. His bed was there. His sheets, blanket, and pillow were there. A fully made bed would be the most comfortable place to sleep that he currently had at his disposal. Conclusion – that was the obvious choice. He would sleep outside on the front lawn in a fully made bed in his pajamas.
What he didn’t anticipate was that it would prove to be the soundest night’s sleep of his entire life.
The first thing Daniel became conscious of the next morning was the sound of birdsong.
It was an intricate chorus. Some were short, rapid-fire trills. Others were slower and more lyrical. The only birdsong Daniel could identify was the low and mournful cooing of a dove.
He opened his eyes. Where he lay, his head was pointing toward the trunk of a tall and very old conifer tree. As he looked up he could see the trunk stretching skyward, with the branches extending outwards at staggered intervals. Through the canopy he could see blue sky.
A robin flitted into view with its ruddy chest flashing brightly. It alighted on one of the conifer’s branches and commenced to hop out towards its narrow extremity where the needles began. When it neared the nest, its chicks raised a raucous response. Feeding time, Daniel thought.
He gave a lusty stretch, yawned, and sat up. His hair was a wild tangle of bed-head. He gazed about himself and realized with surprise that something was amiss. The problem, which didn’t feel to him like a problem at all, was that everything looked different. New. It was not that he couldn’t recognize where he was. He could. But it was definitely not the same scene he’d left behind when he fell asleep last night.
It was like that experience one has when, for years, they enter a town from one direction only. Then, for some reason, perhaps because someone else is driving, they happen to enter that town from the opposite direction, and the town appears entirely different. So different, they barely recognize it, though it bears a vague whiff of familiarity. It’s as if the town was a record groove, and by entering it from an unfamiliar direction, the needle simply couldn’t seat itself into the groove and recognize the music that’s there. Something similar must have happened to him as he slept, he thought. He had gotten turned around somehow so that when he entered waking consciousness again, everything was new. It felt incredible and refreshing. The dull, old crust had fallen off everything, and now it all simply glowed.
He turned his head to regard the pile of boxes. They didn’t feel like his boxes anymore. They were just boxes, filled with “things”. He leaned forward in bed and stretched his fingertips towards his toes. The underside of his legs burned and tingled. He laid back a corner of the covers, gathered his legs underneath himself, and stood up.
A car neared, the first car of the morning, and slowed as it passed. Daniel locked eyes with the driver, whom he recognized as Margaret, the clerk at the convenience store. She was an older lady, perhaps 55, and had managed the store for many years. He assumed she was on her way to open the store. Her mouth hung agape beneath her wide saucer eyes as her car crawled by. Daniel simply smiled at her. He realized that he must be a strange sight to behold, but he was surprised that he didn’t feel the crushing press of self-consciousness he normally would feel when being examined and judged by another. He felt totally at peace. He even waved at her. Her mouth popped open even wider, then slammed shut. She pressed down hard on the accelerator and sped away. Daniel gave his bed-head a good scratch, picked up his pillow and mattress, and – without changing out of his pajamas – set off in the direction of town center.
The sun had cleared the hills to the east, and the small town of Newburg was throbbing with the vivid green magic of spring. At least that was the world as Daniel saw it. He remembered what the world used to look like to him; it had only been a day after all, though it seemed so distant now. The world then had a dimness to it, but the scales had miraculously been swept from his eyes while he slept, and now he could see the world as it truly was, and it was truly wonderful.
He ambled past fastidiously tended lawns and tidy little houses with shutters painted brightly in red and green and yellow. That was how Newburg residents added “character” to their houses. To an observer, everything in Newburg was in its place. Everything, that was, save for Daniel. He was a glaring anomaly in this small town of painted shutters and picket fences. Although he was exactly where he needed to be, he certainly was not exactly where the residents of Newburg needed him to be, at least in their minds. That was about to become abundantly clear.
As Daniel approached the short strip of old brick buildings that comprised Newburg’s historical center, a patrol car eased up alongside him. He glanced over and recognized Bull Davis, the town sheriff. Bull was not his given name, but everyone had called him that for as long as he could remember. It had to do with a certain thickness of build, a jutting under bite, and perhaps also a flat-top haircut that had been his constant companion for as long as he had been visiting barbers. Not much surprised Bull in Newburg. Not much could. But he was unprepared for what was standing next to his patrol car right now. He thought he could’ve used one more cup of coffee before leaving the station that morning.
When his car came to a stop, Daniel stooped over to peer into the side window.
“Morning Dan,” said Bull.
“Hi Bull,” said Daniel. The sun was in his eyes and he was squinting in effort to see into the shade of the car.
An awkward silence followed as Bull waited for Daniel to offer an explanation. Daniel didn’t. Bull raised a hand to stroke one of his prodigious eyebrows. Daniel thought he looked fresh and clean in his starched uniform. The epitome of officialdom.
“Is everything OK, Dan?” Bull finally said.
Daniel’s gaze shifted momentarily as he considered the question.
“Yeah,” Daniel answered. “Everything is better than OK, actually.”
Bull struggled with conflicting thoughts.
On the one hand, Daniel was doing nothing wrong, certainly nothing illegal. Perhaps he was dressed inappropriately, but that was not a crime, and Bull was not the fashion police. On the other hand, Bull was feeling a curiously strong compulsion to protect the townsfolk from… from what? He considered this, still stroking his eyebrow. Protect them from Dan? Protect them from… discomfort? Awkwardness? It seemed ridiculous, but that was exactly what he was feeling. Mostly, though, he was concerned about Dan’s mental state. At first, he thought Dan was involved in some kind of joke or prank. Now he wasn’t so sure.
Bull was feeling pressured to come to some decision about how to handle the situation, even though Daniel showed no signs of impatience whatsoever. He just stood there, stooped over, squinting into the car with a sincere but crooked smile on his face, his bed still tucked securely under his arm.
Seconds ticked by, and with each one Bull’s discomfort grew, until at last he opened his mouth to speak. To his chagrin, no words came out, so he simply extended an open palm to bid Daniel goodbye and good luck, gave a taut smile, and slowly coaxed the patrol car back out onto the street. Daniel waved back, watched as the patrol car slowly receded from view, and then resumed his walk.
Ten minutes later, Bull was back at the police station with a cup of coffee in one hand and a phone in the other. Not knowing what else to do, he had decided to at least let Daniel’s parents know what was going on with their son.
“Um, hi Marty. This is Bull Davis,” he said, then took a sip of black coffee.
There was a short pause on the line, and then a voice rough with sleep said back, “Hi Bull. What can I do for you this morning? It’s not election time again so soon, is it?”
Bull chuckled. “No, I suppose not,” he said. Then, in a more serious tone, “Listen, Marty, it’s about your son…”
“Go ahead,” Marty said, reluctance apparent in his voice. No one wanted to hear those words from their sheriff.
“Oh, it’s nothing serious,” Bull said quickly, trying to put Marty at ease. It felt a lot like lying, Bull thought. “It’s just that I saw him this morning, and uh…”
“Yes,” Marty said, growing impatient.
“Well, he was walking downtown in his pajamas, and, uh, he was carrying a bed under his arm.”
Dead silence from the other end of the line.
“Anyway,” Bull continued, “I talked to him for a few minutes to find out what was going on. He told me that everything was AOK, which clearly it wasn’t. I think we can agree on that one, Marty. So after I left, I drove by his apartment on my way back to the station. All of his stuff was in boxes on the front lawn, and when I stopped and checked his front door, there was an eviction notice on it.”
Bull paused to let the information sink in, sipping eagerly at his coffee.
“Geez Louise,” Marty finally said. “You know, it’s been one thing after another with that boy lately. If he’s not losing jobs, then he’s losing apartments. He’s been in and out of the hospital for that heart thing, what’s it? Irregular heartbeat. I don’t know, Bull, maybe the stress has caught up with him. Walking around in his PJs? What the hell is everyone going to think?”
“I just thought you should know, Marty. Clearly he needs some intervention. I’m always available if you need me. Don’t hesitate to call.”
“Thanks Bull. I appreciate you getting on the horn with me. I really do.”
“Alright,” Bull said. “Bye then.”
“Bye,” Marty said, then lightly set the receiver back into its cradle. He rubbed his face into the palms of both hands until it was a fresh, hearty red.
“Janice!” he called out. “You’re going to want to get in here!”
Daniel strolled by the plate glass and brick facades of the downtown buildings with a bearing that broadcast a careless ease. It was clear that he had no agenda, no itinerary, and no baggage other than his bed, blanket, and pillow. He had no idea where he was going because he had become totally absorbed in the process of simply walking. Never had he seen such beauty. Beauty in the swaying of the trees, beauty in the cut of the architecture, beauty even in the tiny bits of rubbish that had become caked into the seam between the sidewalk and storefront. All was beauty. Everything that had been lifeless and mundane to him before was now pulsing with radiant light, and he couldn’t understand how he had missed it all before.
At the far edge of the downtown strip was a small park, and when Daniel reached it, he made his way to a nearby bench, leaned his bed against it, and sat down. This transition from walking to sitting occurred without conscious direction. It was a fluid and natural change. It was just time to sit, that’s all. So he sat.
The morning breeze was soft and becoming warmed by the fast-rising sun. It felt exquisite against his skin. As he became still, new sounds and sights entered his awareness, each more subtle than the previous. He heard the gentle chirping of birds in the canopy above. Traffic sounds from afar were discernible, cars accelerating from intersections. He could hear the outdoor intercom pages of the car dealership many blocks away, and thought about those whose work was being interrupted by the calls. He pitied them for the stillness and serenity they were missing as they shuffled their work responsibilities between this and that, distracted by an endless procession of tasks.
All that Daniel was basking in now was available to them, each and every one, without fee or restriction. But no one seemed to realize that. No one could see what they were missing. Daniel felt the pinch of loss in this, though it was not a wrenching sadness. It just was, just like yesterday, he was as blind as they were. Now he wasn’t. He was thankful. In fact, he was bubbling over with gratitude at what change had been wrought in his life. Think of it, in the span of one day, he had received a gift of incomparable value. He was reminded of a phrase from a Kurt Vonnegut novel he had read in high school. The line had stuck with him:
“Lucky me. Lucky mud.”
True. He was lucky. That much he knew for certain. Maybe he didn’t understand precisely what had changed for him just yet, but it was obvious that whatever had happened to him last night as he slept his dreamless sleep had been a great blessing. Somewhere in that mysterious span of dark night, he had laid an enormous burden down, a burden without physical weight or dimension, but a measurable burden just the same. It was a stripping away that had benefitted him, not an adding-on.
So what if people think I’m crazy, he thought. What a small price to pay for what I’ve received and I’ll pay it gladly.
He looked up to see a sedan roll up to the curb in front of the bench he sat on. His mother and father were still as stone inside, regarding him gravely.
Perhaps I spoke too soon, he thought.