The Agony of Hope
At the landscaping company where I worked for two summers, they called me “Danimal.” They gave me this name because I didn’t landscape. I attacked.
I filled my wheelbarrows so full of earth, sand, and rock that the handles creaked and groaned. It took all my might to wheel the barrow without tipping it over. A coworker once asked, “Why do you do that?”
And I, like a wild Danimal, said, “I don’t know.” But what I meant was, Why does the bear roar? Why does the tiger also roar? Why does the lion’s hair look effortlessly amazing?
What choice do we have?
Another time, my boss needed someone to dig under his house to make room for a new foundation. That’s a good reason to dig, but I didn’t care about the reason. All I knew was my boss had selected me, and digging is one of my favorite things. The darkness and quiet of the underground calm me down like my dentist’s weighted blanket, and in the freedom of that soothing calm, I go insane.
Beneath that house, I battled the Earth with pickaxe and spade, working by the light of bare bulbs, little golden moons. I howled at them. I became Stephen King’s gunslinger, sort of. I was the dirt-slinger: “I do not dig with my shovel; he who digs with his shovel has forgotten the face of his father. I dig with my heart.”
At one point, I was on my belly in a tight spot, snarling at the ground, stabbing at it with a hand spade, imagining myself a captive digging out of a French prison with a spoon. My boss’s voice suddenly filled the air behind me. Surprised, I savagely twisted my head around. I must have looked crazy. A demonic dirt puppy.
My boss stared for a moment then said, “Dan… are you okay?”
Is the python okay while he embraces the warthog? Is the cheetah okay when he T-bones gazelles at eighty miles an hour? Is the tick okay when he injects Lyme into a-hole uncles?
“Yes,” I said.
Another time, the Danimal was given the task of stacking wood. Instead of stacking in chest-high piles, I decided to stack as high as possible. One pile. If three to five piles is good, then one pile, 11 feet tall, is great!
The next morning, my Babel tower of winter wood was leaning dangerously, a tsunami of split timber waiting for one of my boss’s children to run beneath it and die.
“Danimal,” said my boss before making me tear down my achievement, “why?”
I thought of beavers building damns, beetles rolling dung, dogs smelling crotches.
How would they answer?
The beaver looks up from his wood, the beetle from his perfectly spherical turd; the dog reverses out of a stranger’s crotch, and they all answer the same:
“Before the foundation of the world was imagined, I was imagined, and even back then, I was doing this, for I am mighty.”
But of course, there’s something else behind it all, as usual:
For me, anyway. For the animals, it’s the mightiness.
What is my hope? You guessed it: that someone will recognize the fires inside me by my odd feats of power and will hire me. To do what? To train as an elite operative rescuing kidnapped people. To star in a blockbuster action movie about a landscaper who’s pushed too far and brings down the city’s crime families using only a spade.
All my life I’ve been infected with this bad hope that someone will notice. Someone will see the passion. They will give me five million dollars for it, as a signing bonus. The billionaire will then say, Now just be yourself. We need someone with fire in their blood on this dull Caribbean island. Do you know your way around a spade? Dig me a lair.
Though it’s nuts, I can’t stop this hope.
Everything I want in life is poisoned by hope.
The other day, my phone rang and the caller was “California.” That’s the name my phone gave me. The state of California is calling you. I didn’t answer, because I’m afraid of talking to states I don’t know. But I waited to see what kind of message California would leave in my mailbox. What message did I hope for?
“Hey, Dan, this is Hollywood. It’s time.”
Yes, I really thought Fame itself was calling this prodigal son.
“I’ve been watching,” says Fame. “You don’t merely live your life, Dan. You attack it. Don’t you think it’s about time you were properly compensated for this with the leading role in an action film?”
I am weeping.
“I do. I really do think that!”
Everything I want in life is poisoned by hope. More like intoxicated. I can’t see straight enough to walk the line of realism.
When I was a child, I wanted a four-wheeler. Hope led me to dream of people giving me four-wheelers. I truly thought they would. They’d see the four-wheeler fire in my eyes and say, “Kid, you need this more than I do.”
Once I started writing, hope made me dream of Stephen King saying, “I’m a Mainer and a writer. You’re a Mainer and a writer. Would you like me to be your mentor and best friend?”
“Well good, because it’s already done.”
It was the same with love. I met my wife at 32, but I had been looking for her since the first grade, hoping to meet my dream weaver every day. I sought her everywhere. In churches. In Subway sandwich shops. At family reunions (yes, I did, but in my defense, I hadn’t seen that side of the family in a very long time). It was this hope of mine, an overabundance of it, that caused me to accidentally go on a date with two women at the same time.
As Red says in Shawshank, “Hope is a dangerous thing.”
The Danimal Wounds Himself
One day, my landscaper boss needed me to destroy a part of his house. I did so blissfully, with gusto.
I love love love demolition.
My dream: a field full of irreparable upright pianos. A banquet table is covered with implements of destruction. Sledgehammers, hatches, bats, crowbars, mauls, battle axes, and boxing gloves.
The billionaire who hired me to do this says, “And don’t return to the hobbit hole I bought for you until every last piano is leveled to the ground.”
Writing this, my eyes just filled with tears.
So, with a mini-crowbar in hand, I went to work beating up my boss’s house. I was so high on happiness, however, that I didn’t get my hand out of the way of my other hand, which was swinging the crowbar. One of the metal teeth mercilessly punctured my finger.
The wound was bad enough that I had to go to the hospital, but not so bad that I couldn’t drive myself. So, to the hospital I went, eager to be patched up, sewed up, amputated, whatever, so I could hurry back to my labor of love.
Speaking of love, it occurred to me, “Today is the day I will meet my soulmate.” I was a single landscaper manfully bleeding out. She would be a single nurse, or lightly attached, dying inside for a taste of fire.
“How did you do this to your finger?” she would ask, breathlessly.
“How does the eagle endanger himself? Passion.”
I sat in the hospital’s waiting room, noticing that the finger I’d wounded had lost its feeling. Ghost finger. I imagined myself sitting in a dark corner of a fisherman’s bar. The barkeep nods warily in my direction and tells a few green sailors, “That one over there. We call him Old Dead Finger. Don’t let him catch you staring or he might just tell you the tale of how he lost the finger’s feeling. It was the loss of that feeling that led him to his true love, the love he tragically lost while secretly serving the government. And you know what the poor soul can’t feel now? His heart. Sad story. Beware. Now buy him a drink if you don’t want Old Dead Finger’s curse.”
My dreaming was interrupted by another person seeking medical attention. This guy entered the waiting room joined by two other people: police officers. He was wearing all orange, one of my favorite colors. If it wasn’t for the cops on either side of him and the chain between his ankles, I would have thought this man was an adventurer. You see, the color orange is the color of adventure for me. I don’t know why, but it is. When I was a kid, I had a beloved orange shirt I wore once a week, only on Saturdays. Why? Because Saturday is the holy day of adventure.
Of course, this hospital guest was a prisoner, either visiting the hospital as a reward for good behavior, or because of a wound. I couldn’t tell. The beefy cops gave nothing away. They chatted with one another as if there wasn’t an entire prisoner sitting between them.
As I skillfully stared at the orange guy with every inch of my peripheral vision, I wondered what he was in for. It could be anything. Probably murder. Once I realized this, I tried to look tough, like someone who would be hard to murder. The murderer would take one look at me and think, “Dang, I might have murdered him when I was younger, on my best day. Today though? Not gonna to risk it.”
Suddenly, I heard groaning behind me. I looked, and there was man in a wheelchair at the nurses’ station. A woman stood behind his chair and a little girl stood beside it. I think they were a woman and a girl, though they could have been human shaped clusters of bees; I wouldn’t have noticed. I couldn’t take my eyes off the man.
He was doubled over, his chest resting on his legs, and he was groaning, moaning. Whimpering. It sounded like he was trying to cry but had forgotten how. He sounded exactly like a bunny full of knives, begging God for death.
In all my life, I had never seen or heard someone in that much pain. I’d heard about that much pain from my father who tore a ligament playing basketball. He said the pain was “Unbelievable.” He said the same thing about his kidney stone. Unbelievable. To prevent this kind of pain in my life, I loudly refuse every time someone suggests basketball. I don’t care how many recruiters want me, I will not play. And to prevent kidney stones, I drink so much water my urine sparkles.
I turned back around and the prisoner was looking at me. The wheelchair guy groaned again and the prisoner and I shared a moment. Together, we made this face: “Glad I’m not that guy.” As soon as my face aligned with the murderer’s, I knew I had leveled up in his eyes. This guy, he thought, he’d be really good at murder. Maybe the best.
I imagined myself with the murderer in a field of pianos having so much fun we can’t stop falling over with laughter. We’re not that different, I thought. Both tough. Both clearly adventurers. Both unlucky, and I wondered if maybe we had the same disease called hope. Of course we did. He hoped wonderful things would happen in his life, and look where that got him. I sighed. Did you fly too close to the sun, my friend?
I know all about it.
The same went for the man in the wheelchair. I knew his story too. A coffee guy. He drank with abandon. Would you like some water instead? Like me, he saw only a marvelous future for himself. “Me?” he said. “Water? What do I look like, a fish?” This man, drunk on hope, expected every urination to give him that fine fluttery shiver that says, “Even this goes your way. And that promotion you’re waiting for? It’s yours. That lottery ticket? A guarantee.”
But then… the stone.
And another flying dreamer, stoned on hope, perishes in the sea.
I sat in the waiting room far too long, because I never checked in at the desk. Why not? Because I don’t know how things work. Why else?
It made me believe that I all I had to do was sit in the waiting room and I would be found. Discovered. Celebrated.
By the time I realized you have to check in, the prisoner had been seen by the doctor and was gone, and the groaning guy was nowhere to be heard. I checked in then waited again.
Finally, a voice said, “Daniel?”
It was a male voice.
Obviously, it was a male voice belonging to the male nurse who was here to bring me to the female nurse who would cut the small talk and dive right into the passion.
I followed the blue-clad man into a room where he laughed at me for what I’d done to my finger.
While he cleaned the wound and dressed it in a little bandage instead of stitches or a hook (because, unfortunately, it wasn’t that bad), I kept hoping there would be a knock on the door and then a woman named Natasha, a woman dressed like the sea, in teal, would say, “I’ll take it from here.”
Take what from here?
But Natasha never arrived, and by the time I made it back to my boss’s house I couldn’t even demo anymore, because the work day was done.
I headed home, pinching my finger, enjoying its deadness while it lasted. It didn’t last long. Depressed, I stopped at a gas station to treat my wounded self to a restorative Mountain Dew. I saw the pretty cashier and wondered if she’d want to know what had happened to my finger.
“You know,” I would say, “I can’t feel a thing?” Then I would lean in handsomely, adding, “Unless there’s a deadly storm.”
“Really?” she’d say. “How’d you do that to yourself?”
“How does a bat hunt in the dark?”
“Wrong,” I would say. “Passion.”
“No, it’s echolocation,” she would say again, sexily.
The Danimal Finds Love
It was Halloween night, my first semester teaching at a small college in Western Pennsylvania. I was going to a play put on by the school’s theater program, and though this doesn’t sound like me at all, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t expecting to discover love. I was going because someone told me the play was about ghosts and was happening in a graveyard. My wheelhouse.
I put on my best skull t-shirt and followed the map I’d drawn on my hand, which did not lead to a graveyard, but to a little theater living inside an old bank like a hermit crab in a stolen shell.
In I went, and there, selling tickets, was this woman. Red hair. Huge eyes. She was the director of the play, and after the play was over, she was the woman who asked me if I wanted to get coffee. I was shocked. Why didn’t I see this coming? Shouldn’t I have felt it? Why had I felt it all those other times, at churches, hospitals, gas stations, and reunions, when the answer to my hope was decades away, waiting for me on Halloween night in a graveyard built on stage by the woman of my dreams?
Did I feel any kind of hope leading up to this night of drama? Yes, but it was merely the hope that I would see a ghost. My other hope, the one that had made a ruin of my life every day for 30 years, was somehow not paying attention.
Now that I think about it, maybe that’s the reason things went so well.
“Hello,” she said.
“That’ll be five dollars.”
I handed her my card, wondering if she would see the scar on my finger and want to know more. Did you get that scar from some passionate accident?
“Actually,” she said, “we only take cash.”
“Oh,” I said. “Shoot.”
Then she told me how to find the gas station next door and its handy ATM.
When I saw her a second time, ready with cash now, my foolish hope was back, paying careful attention. Hope whispered, This is it. She’s the one I’ve been telling you about all this time. I always knew it would happen tonight! I wanted to tell my hope to shut up. I wanted to say, “You had no idea. And you can’t swoop in like this and take all the credit,” but I didn’t have time. I had to follow the beautiful stranger leading me to my seat in the graveyard.
I waited for the show to begin, for the dead to arrive and tell their stories, and after the show, when she asked me to coffee, I thought, This is how it’s done. All you have to do is stop hoping for good things to happen, and they will. They have no choice.
If only I’d known this 20 years ago.
If I had known it, I would have given up hope faster than anyone in history. Then I would have immediately met and married my wife on that wonderfully hopeless day.
So, for all of you young pups out there longing for glory and for love, give up hope. Drop it like it’s hot. Then all you have to do is close your eyes and hold out your hands.