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This essay is from Conversations With A Hypoxic Dog, the eponym for this log.
Henry Polk sat before a fire with his arms outstretched, palms offered to the tickling warmth of little tongues of flames. (Though his name might well be Harold Pollard. This is not the important thing.) The man sat on a large flat stone before a small rock-encircled pit where pieces of wood---a chest it was, smashed and pulled apart, a chest of drawers, the drawers, too, smashed and pulled apart---where pieces of wood, yellow-white, were splintered and black where lacquered--turned to ash. (The chemistry of this simple business is quite something if one were the least bit inclined to expend some effort on chemistry. Bit too daunting for most, though. Besides, the fire's the thing. What matters chemistry?) On top of this merrily crackling kindling, a wooden bust has been placed, and it, too, now fed the flames.
It is winter, clearly, as snow remains in gritty patches in the shady north side of the large rhododendrons, and in the shadow of the large, gray erratic that defines the site. Conifers, both Douglas fir and red cedar stand deep green as background to the site. The ground about the fire pit was tamped hard with the passing of many feet. It was winter. (This is what I mean: clearly we have located Herman in the northern hemisphere. It is winter; take my word for it, although early spring is certainly possible. These details are not important. It is cold and most would say dreary. That is what I mean.)
A cold dawning. A frigid waft of air came off the talused hillside at the man's back. No matter. His face is composed. Put together. No signs of discomfort, dismay, disingenuousness. He sat, absently warming his hands.
The sun rises.
He is a strange old man. He wears a long, wool topcoat, thread bare at collar and cuff. His hair is cropped short and grayed; his neck is thickly wrinkled; his face is ruddy, bearded; his hands are ingrained with dirt; his fingernails are yellowed and broken. As he inhales a lungful of air, his shoulders straighten and his head lifts and his eyes dance in the firelight.
(The scene is now set, yes? There is some understanding of the basic conditions? Simple enough: an old man, rather odd fellow, sitting in some clearing in the mountains [though mountains are not explicit, one hopes they came to mind] sitting before a fire in a clearing on what has become a chilly day a dawning.)
Hank reaches out, gingerly takes the base of the little statuette, and turns the blackened side up. He considers the face of Gautama.
Is it sacrilege?
Hank breathes in, breathes out. Perhaps he sighs, however unlikely that might be. He breathes in, he breathes out.
Why do men engage in such meaningless enquiry?
Am I cold? he asks himself. If I answer, yes, I am cold, I am cold. If I answer, no, I am not cold, I am not cold. Although the mind is quite perverse enough to invert the logic.
Am I alone and suffering (that ubiquitous human condition!)?
Listen carefully for the answer.
Wait for it now.
(Just as I thought. What nonsense. Beckett made a career explicating such nonsense. The Sam Spade of Angst. The poor pitiful creature. Generous, though.)
Hank sat waiting.
The dawn succumbed to heavy cloud pulsing into the low hills, into the mountains, challenging the light.
Hank sat not waiting.
The snow fell as thick fat flakes; and the man has drawn back his hands, arms crossed over belly, body now rounded slightly over arms. He was a shade in the snowfall.
Or perhaps not.
(The sense is that Hank seems perfectly at ease.)
The fire hissed. The snow fell in large, fat flakes, straight down, down. The breeze off the hillside at the man's back had died. (Some consolation in that, considering the wind chill factor and all. It is to be assumed, hopefully, that one would understand that Hank doesn't give a tinker's damn for the wind chill factor. Perhaps I should omit the wind chill factor? Consolation doesn't seem to be the name of the game here. Strange old fellow. I rather like him though. He's a tough, old goat. Brings to mind one of my heroes. [No objection, I hope, to a short, tangential, aside.] Walter Bonatti and his India Indian porter were high in the death zone, attempting to a put a first ascent up K2. Benighted, storm bound, they sat through the night on a bit of rock shelf waiting for the dawn, waiting for the storm to abate. Bonatti sleeping, finally. Bonatti waking in the morning. Bonatti trying to rouse his companion. Bonatti finding, to his dismay, that the man was dead.)
Perverse machinations of the intellect, the emotions.
Add them to the fire, will you.
Hank has spoken?
Snowing harder. Nasty turn, this weather. Before our eyes the snowfall engulfs the scene and all that remains is the hissing of the fire in an impressionistic whiteness or grayness or some combination thereof (the way televisions go awry, or use to, remember? Signal lost?) And then