To the office, where called on by W. Bruck, and speaking about my coming journey to New England, where my wife’s mother is not well, and Bruck tells a goode story of a man from there who was known to be dead for several minutes but did return, and told about the curious and strange things he had seen and heard while dead. And Bruck lately married, and happy, and tells me so, and I see it. And I do reflect how at times I do so like my owne life, this life domestick, wherein one is out on business all the day but is really foraging news items and aneckdotes, to later, in the night, when alone with one’s wife, relate to her. Curious things, happenings, rumors, strange behavior, or simply, how beautiful was the sky that morning, or how the one City street corner, that of Greene and Bristol, does always have a most noisome smell, no one can say why.
And she, having collected equally such things over the day, to me relates them, and this our conversation at supper, in bed. And very good it is, because without it, these Life Elements would stay bottled in the mind, and dash about there like cometts, and find no relief, but only multiply. And the strangeness of life with them.
And so to home, but there I did have many high words with my wife due to my failing to seek for ayrefaires on line, against our coming voyage north. My reasons, being held long in discourse with Bruck and the sloweness on this day of the webbe, did not resolve my wife. And so I determined to search the airefaires the next day. And my wife and I to bed, talking long, until friends again.
With our tickets, we to the aire port, where security much encreased, and much feare and many saying and believing that they are sure to attacke us again, so determined they are, and jealouse of our freedom. And yet, for very long we have had only rumours. And so much waiting, and standing about, and I did remark to another Gentleman how, as a boy, boarding a plane was no different from boarding a coach, there was no scanning, or questions, or suspicion. And he saying how goode we are at creating things, and yet, we ourselves hinder our owne use of them, making them less goode. And his example being the internette, a brave toole, but hindered without reason by malware and spamme.
And the boy does complaine mightily, which of late he is wont to do, of waiting, of hunger, of thirst, of what he finds at hand. The boy grows proud and defyant, and does Act Out. And seeks always to blame, and it goes like a Spirit seeking a body in our house. Now it lay in this person, now in that. But his sister is as if of gold, doing the reverse of him. The flite quite smoothe excepting one moment when we hit an aire Pocket, and were shaken mightily, and I afeared but acting as if not, to calm the others, and the boy, seeing my entention, saying out loud so all could hear, and snide, “Father, beware not to shitte your pants.” Whereupon my anger at him did cause me to loose my fear, and so it was a blessing.
An old gentleman sits near my wife, and wise, and well spoken it would seem, and eager for distraction. He saying that the late war was endeed necessary, but could not prove it. And that surely the media are very knaves, and to remember it while I live. But the war begun, he says, as all warre and vyolence, difficult to end. This the reason to avoid the start. And I found much wisdome in these words, as most often, about war, it is the end that is thought of, not the beginning, which is the key. How our desire for success does preclude our seeing its pryce.
So to my wife’s mother’s house, where she better than expected, and not in bed, and as always I find her but a low and fowle person, a damned ill-looked woman, with little understanding, and few talents but to cry up my owne faults, when never have I used her in any way other than civil and goode. And so my time in her home a tryal, set upon at every chance, wanting nothing more than to fling her out at the window.
And Brucke calls from the office—a wellcome pause—and M. Downing, M. Humphrys – and Warren. And we speake of the matter of the purchase of the other office and there is much debate on the fruit, whether it be low-hanging, or no, and Downing very strong against it, and against Bruck, who cries up its value, despite its recent losses, but Downing saying only “Truley, one cannot polish a turd.” And Bruck replying, “What of their shipping business?” which endeed is well thought of. And Downing asking, “What is the white part in bird shitte?” And hearing no reply, and seeing our consternation, saying, “That too is bird shit” which pleased me mightily, though I would not own it to Bruck.
And my wife’s mother’s food very bad, but the meanest and simplest things for a woman of her standing.
One morning, while I was still in bed, a scream comes from downstairs. My wife making me go, I find her mother in her bathe room, water flooding up past the ankle, a pipe burst. I found the proper valve, she screaming at me to make haste, and stopped it. We then set to calling for someone to come and fix it. One Krems, known to my wife’s mother, but he did not answer. M. Pagey, known to a neighbor, but busy, and could not come. Pagey suggests Pove, but Pove could not come. And Wight, who could not come. Krems located, but could not come. And Mallard, who could not come. And Perkins, who could not come. And Parsons, who could not come. And one Carter, who could not come. And my wife’s mother full of anger, and falling most foul upon me. And Norton, who could not come.
And Perce, who could not come. And Isham, who could not come. And Groome, who could not come. And Bode, who could not come. At last Krems again, who agrees to come.
Three days in the house and it is now not only Tom but Jane who starts to waile and whine, and everyone nervous to escape, there being little diversion, and all of us accustomed to a great deale. And my wife and I trying to calme the children but with no success, only high words and slammed doors. But we do not ever beat the children, nor so threaten, believing the Psyckologie that it is better to give them reasons with logick, and move them with goals, and rewards. And thus did my wife create an excursion, to our great content, to a place where the inhabitants live as they did in very ancient tymes, called Sturbridge Village, and we goe.
Up pretty betimes, all of us, except my mother-in-law, who we leave behind, and dryve to Sturbrigge Village, about one hour, and there light. And where we Parke we see nothing but country, fields and forests, and we fallow a long dirt road with an old wooden fence beside it, walking until we see the spire of the wooden church over the rise, and then other houses and shops and the townspeople dressed in the old way moving about on errands that even from a distance did appear to be reale. And in the town, everyone Acting as if all is as ever, and taking no notice of us, we now the strange ones, with odd dress and ways of speaking. Some even looking at us askance, one at a corner pointing to us while talking with the constable. At first we find it comickal and laugh, but they do not laugh with us, and the play continues unbroken, and it seems very good sport.
Walking through the town we see smoake from chimneys, a blacksmith, a house a’building with men chopping and plaining woode, women milking cows and churning butter, the pastor of the church outside and shoeing his horse, carts of hay brought in from the fields, men debating inside a coffee-house, dead rabbits carried on a pole into the tavern. A woman picking lice from a man’s head outside. All truely Realistick.
And carried on with such care and for so long we begin to wonder at ourselfs, as to what time we belong in, if we had only been dreaming before, and this is our true home. A sort of fiction of natural philosophie. And I find I am almost desirous of it, and cannot recall what attractions my former life held for me, why I thought of it so serious, how it made me fretful and loose my mind almost with worry. And how everyone’s fears are so busy. Though these times in this Village do not appear so symple: still, they are filled with people, most intricate beings. And it is a tyme of much hard work. And yet, it appeals to me, as, it is at least a different time, and by switching times, I could perhaps take the new one less to heart, and have less worry, and be happier. Knowing that there are other times is enough to break the bonds of one’s mind to the present, and perhaps to enjoy oneself the more.
We anon to a candle shop, wherein creeking wooden floors and cracks between the boards, dust and dirt and wherein we see the makeing of candles. And I mighty taken with it, and with how many they make. And we almost ashamed in that we do not know at all how such needful and common things are made. And the women there taking almost no notice of us, close at their work, with worn and dirty clothes and we yet to see a single anackronism in this place. I did look out through the window of old glass, which is not perfect, but has waves in it, and blurrs the things seen on the other side—bright sunshine—yellow hay in piles—brown cart—green grass in the distance. All uncertain, smear’d, like memories when we looke too closely at them. People moving past, their faces only pink spaces blear’d into the landscipe. All of it a quite psychedelick.
Then comes in a strange man, tall, dressed all in black—hat, long coat, vest, trousers, and shoes. Black eyes in a long drawn face. And his hat, with a long black scarf tied around it, falling from the back. He looked upon us with a deep sadness, or anger,—I could not say which. Both. As if he looked upon the scene of a pathetic cryme.
He reached under his coat, into his vest, and retrieved papers which he placed on a small table by the door. Then he handed us one each, looking us in the eye as we tooke it. Then he backed toward the door, gave a small bow, and left.
Winged skulls—skeletons—angels—crossed bones—hour glasses— scythes—all in woodcut pictures on the papers, which told us we were desired to accompany the corps of one Th. Cuttance of Sturbridge in the way to his interment, and we to bring these tickets with us. And at the bottom were written the words
REMEMBER TO DIE.
And I must confess that the creepynesse of these tickets did afright us, as the maids in the shop began to ready themselves to leave for the procession, taking us by the armes, and we fain to go with them. And we begin to walk almost without knowing why, and they did lead us out and close the shop, and we away to see the corps. I begin to think upon the things we use to dress death—tombstones—black cats—dark skies—shadows—mocking skulls— how they make us afeared—how a place for death has been mayde here in life—to keepe it ever-present—because it contaynes some remedy for the ills of living. But what, I do not know. Nor how to imploy it.
And it seems strange not to know, as these people do seem. For us, with god so long dead, and death having no place in our minds. And yet, still it comes to all. As with the candles, we know nothing of it, and only feare it silently, rarely speaking of it, so much more superstitious we are in our own times.
By and by we enter the home of Mr. Cuttance, the walls covered in black cloths, a mirror turned to the wall, and candles, and he there, laid out on a table, in a winding sheet, the sheete tyed up in a knot around the feet. His face still and pale. And most others all dressed in black, even a baby wrapped in black, and black gloves, and scarves, and ribbons for hats. And after drinking some burned wine, each of also given a sprig of what my wife said was rosemary, with a strong smell, to carry with us. Cuttance was then lifted into a coffin, it closed, and a large black sheete placed over it, covering the heads of those carrying the coffin, and the corners of the black sheet also held by others walking alongside.
And the church bells begin to chime. And we to the churchyard, through the town, the inhabitants all come to watch us pass by. At the gravesite, a sermon.
MAN, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour; thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.
Behold, I show you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump.
Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
And while the sermon continued, I was taken apart by a Mr. Eveling, who doth tell me he is pleased to have no more burials within the church itself, below the stones, for the lasting stinke they do occasion, rising up from below the pews, but that he was a great and perticular friend of Mr. Cuttance, and seeing him now dead, who was alive and healthy only two days past, was endeed a sad sight and a worthy consideration. But this, he says, pleaseth the lord. But, he said, how expenseful was a burial in these times. Still, he says again, this is what pleases the lord.
Though I do think I had begun to forget my own times, how this yielding up and surrendering did strike me as a thing almost unknown in my times, and scorned and disdained, as a hindrance to invention. But how vexed our times, when not all is overcome, nor will be, not sicknesse, nor death, and still there being great povertie, and so some surrender is still needed. But how much? And when? Thus our painful dilemma. The proper meteing out of surrender.
It grew late, and they did lower the body into the grave, and whether it be a true corps or no, we at a loss to say, my wife and I looking towards each other, and our children towards us. Dirt begins to be flung into the grave, and the funeral broken up and returning to the home of Mr. Cuttance, and darkness upon us, we decide to leave. So my family and I slipping away around the corner of the church, and through the town, and along the long dirt road to the car, feeling odd, as if we had done wrong, committed a crime, or at least a great offense in leaving not just the funeral, but the town, and its time.
And then a strange thing doth occur after we were come away: the boy most sillily refuses to walk further. And we making haste to return, and no sharp words or other coaxing would satisfy him, but he stood where he was without moving. We all in perfect confusion, feeling we must leave before being ketched by the townspeople, and in great agony did pretend to leave the boy. So we go on, and he refuses to move. We trying not to look back, and walking on, the darkness overtakeing us, so that when looking back, it is hard to see the boy at all. Then he goes to sit on the wooden fence beside the road, and we now some great distance from him, both sides unwilling to be pacified. My wife and daughter amazed that the boy would desire to stay in such a place, of poverty and labor and where death keeps itself and is kept so close. And I pretending coldness, saying only “As he brews, let him bake.”
And he will not come, and will not come—and will not come.
Still he remains there upon the fence, refusing to come hither, and we further and further away, so that the sight of him so small in near-darknesse begins to make my heart blush, filled with worry that our ploy has gone on too long, and will only make a bigger problem. Until looking back, we cannot see him any more. And now my wife most vexed and Jane most anxious, and the boy still does not come, and it is dark, until suddenly we hear in the darknesse footsteps running and a crying like that of a spirit, so that Jane did shout out, “Cuttance!”—and we turn—and it comes closer—but it is the boy, at last come to us. But Lord, how most exceeding stubborn he was. Though I now greatly eased in mind.
And hastening our steps we did wonder what would await us at the end of the road, if endeed our carre would be there, and the reste of its world, our olde world, and if it would remember us, and we it. And talking until all of us friends again, and mighty merry as we came around the last turn, I hot to try my new way of thinking in my worke and in my life, that we are all free visitors of the perticular time before us, and thinking also that some thing had been taught the boy—though what, exactly, I could not say—and all of us laughing at our pretty misfortunes.
"Those Were Likely Beginnings"
Those were likely beginnings
skeleton of a bird cage magnified
We are even parts logic
and reverse, as if
it’s as simple;
the intimacy of opposites
found tracery on inflated Jupiter last
ratiocinations of a spiniest galaxy
where we found ourselves forgotten
and with eyes closed.
You triangulate mists,
muted fog-horns, great distances.
The case of infinitesimals
to a time we disappear
Fixtures, fixings, figurines, etc.
are interruptive engines in the bodies of extraterrestrials.
Using a periscope
you survey photosynthesis in the convexity,
Positivity of one Dutchman’s
I am an apparatus for the happenings.
are cyclical, cyclican & cyclones.
attach threads to the bodies of flies.
In the inlet of the brain
wash memories to patterned silks.
there are worse fears,
Spelunkers in a time mine.
I liked when you told about Herbert and Aunt Putsy.
I liked when you told about the green pointy car,
the silver flatware kept by Grandma Ruth.
This passion for talk trips off thoughts
to time canvases
and plastic language.
"Predation In Poetics"
In wearing weather’s chaos
I grapple with something orange and feathered
offer you a golden head on a platter.
Wind’s howls navigate our shared alley
like you said they would.
4 a.m. and I give in to neon signs.
The velvety brown of an oscar cichlid
reflects in your watery eyes
like the morning after the Parisian
and his pulsing walls.
With this I fill my fall in pace
chew over thoughts of a predatory animal again,
find a penny in the drive
of another shadow season
when watches rest spring and cog.
In its coils we are prayers for all days.
I pick pears I will later erase.
With their penciled bodies
I make all small again.
Advancing upon scent of olive sprig,
when walking always said how she wanted some.
A Trial of Last Resort
In wearing weather’s chaos
I grapple with something orange and feathered
offer you a golden head on a platter.
Wind’s howls navigate our shared alley
like you said they would.
4 a.m. and I give in to neon signs.
The velvety brown of an oscar cichlid
reflects in your watery eyes
like the morning after the Parisian
and his pulsing walls.
With this I fill my fall in pace
chew over thoughts of a predatory animal again,
find a penny in the drive
of another shadow season
when watches rest spring and cog.
In its coils we are prayers for all days.
I pick pears I will later erase.
With their penciled bodies
I make all small again.
Advancing upon scent of olive sprig,
when walking always said how she wanted some.
Eleven Pinprick Poems:
Between a Pollack and a Joan Mitchell
From the sutures of an American life colored red,
a Calder, perfectly positioned defines movement
and emboldens our spry bodies.
Rituals in Returning
books to their shelves,
cups to their cupboards
and cats to frosted windowsills.
Friends to foreign cities
can be dimly, dreary,
fleeting to darkest gray.
You and me, we make the Atlantic sigh
dangling the world beneath our feet.
How shall we know what it means?
Seeds of Persephone's Fate
In and of hiding, she was
one small and solitary begging, she was
Up! And swallowed up by the earth!
Trill of birds in French harvest fields,
teach me to die.
Of Darners and Skimmers
Sunday has the dragonflies out,
sewing up the lips and eyelids
of the dead and the dying.
With your voice in my head, we are talking
(one in living, one in dead).
Both as something that survived.
With pens in their pockets, a shoal of people,
their fish-colored bodies—sometimes failing,
sometimes falling—walk. Walk the shadows
talking about the economy, color the clouds
of another, while lumps of tar the size of mother’s china,
from the earth’s belly crawl to shore.
The Architect's Apprentice
In the anatomy of a poet’s body
teased from her strange hours of sleep,
a white pine grows from the remnants of a decomposing self.
We are potentially carcasses
and at times already partially so.
feels cold against the skin
like the painting that saturates again
and again, homo sapien.
At times a conflagration of spirit
defines bridges, June bugs, and blackberries,
blessings & blasphemies
and that is only picking at random.
Worn of hands and with draping clothes
the possibilities of a patient people
move in a yellowed hum,
inviting plasticity of mind.
A precipice of bone
for sentiment or sacrifice.
On the Yangtze or the Yellow River
At the age of twelve
she diagrammed the innards of insects,
a brigade of them frozen
and pinned to the cardboard.
In a Vernal Scenery
It begins to feel we’ve lost something they’ve not
and they’ve got.
Like when I stood to watch something ugly for days.
In some lonesome return to history
with the song of mourning doves,
a chronicle of light comes together.
Three Speckled Blood—
contort in the eye of a convex mirror.
Measured in the roots of trees
the weight of a temple forms a language for living,
offers a permanence that eludes us,
its twitching muscles in a supposed sleep.
I walked up to the bright moon. A seriously good start I will never get over. I will never strip the story down to its barest language. I trust you know how peaceful it is to hear the door unlock. Finally, someone is coming for you. Then and now you can say as many words as you’d like. You can pretend like this is not a game, but then you’ll be complicit in the greatest cover-up man has ever perpetrated. Perfect people are really remarkable, but I’m just moored on the moon, not one of them. If you ever think of this conversation later, don’t remind me I admitted this. I will not hate anyone until I die. I’m joking in the sense that God is the worst, but be true, God. You have all my thoughts, but I have all the responsibility.
To the Mountains
It’s absence that’s confusing
a dream. We have the slate
scrubbed and the night’s clean.
To take it from here. The foot stabs
the dark to say what. That’s what
I say. There’s been harm done
and a lemon tree.
There’s a way to recover
it means you go away.
You get out of your car
on the highway and it
scares you. Is it the sound or
is it the divorced end of it.
Attachment and its opposite.
The Timely Turn
The vacant stare at the fuse-box,
the assurance, the some way of assuring
the fate out here in the desert, the desert
and time, the desert and disgust, the desert
and the feeling it evokes when I read about it,
when I stare at it, when I’m worried, when
you’re not around, doubtless, pigeonholed, refugee,
the sandwich for dinner, the thing is
I want to know something about true religion,
humble pelican, the gold I found in the woods,
because what am I working for, the manifest
heaven, the first and last, the million winds
whipping about the corners of my mind,
the drift, christ, the seeing, the coronation,
the feeling that, okay, I’m going to be okay.
Thinks and Wants
I abolished an idea
I had once. I believe in sort of
closing off and starting again
with believing for all of life
all of life. It is what
you are supposed to do.
You say a series of things
greatly abandoning the highly emotional
red. Fond of amplification, you turn up
the AC and the sound on the TV.
Then there’s the rapport
between noise and the cellar-feeling
that’s the biography of being
alive. It’s dawn and dawn can be
a ship. It’s the pros of the rejection
of the cons of I don’t know.
Of and of and of and know
and know and know. I found
a fever and further
the simplicity in an inner
society. Now comes great doubt
in the pieces of the house
where you live and everything.
What can you do by listening but forgive?
Way down deep in the morning
I considered the synagogue’s strangeness
in just being there when no one else is.
A room, it is just one of the folks.
Show me your indiscretions, the ones
you didn’t and the ones you did.
This writing does nothing,
you know. Look alive, everyone.
Everyone is an egg and ends.
A ship out on the ocean
pings back something. The materials
lie down. One more thing between us
and everything will be between us.
In the mornings, they had drinks in the compound. Hector’s parents, his dissipated siblings and his almost-cousins all drank, usually mimosas and Bloody Marys. The sunlight strobed the stucco walls, making the pool opalescent and so inviting that Hector was tempted to drown himself. He stole a glance at Danielle, who sprawled in a rattan chair near the pool. She was his almost-cousin, which meant off-limits, but he still wanted to seduce her.
In the afternoons, they took the armored cars from the compound to the beach.
The beach was surrounded by thick concrete walls and guard towers. The walls were topped with ornate rococo designs and shards of glass. The ornate designs were for beachgoers, the glass was a warning to the others, anyone outside. They were all others, usually dark-skinned, sometimes dirty, their faces pinched with worry.
Danielle was only nineteen. She had a round face and large innocent eyes but her thick, dark eyebrows were almost always furrowed, as if she were constantly being denied some small but essential convenience. This quality made her attractive to Hector; he had a thing for incurious women, as if they harbored some inner wealth that made them impervious to others. Hector was almost thirty, still unmarried, and had no intention of ever marrying.
The family reclined in lawn chairs by the pool. Throughout the day, the pool was aquamarine, emerald and turquoise, like the jewels Daniella wore around her neck. If he had any advantage over her, it was simply experience.
Manipulation turned him on, and he was quite good at it himself.
He’d seen her once wearing a strand of emeralds when he was inspecting the rooftop garden. She was wearing nothing else from the waist up. Later in the evening, during one of the biweekly socials, he’d been thrilled by the pale sliver that the emerald necklace had left behind, where her skin had been untouched by sun.
Now he retreated to the bathroom, its sink with bronze taps, its large whirlpool tub, the windows overlooking the bay. He stripped and sat naked on the toilet seat. He could have almost any girl, he knew that. There had been a time when almost any could’ve satisfied him. Not anymore.
On weekends, when the family had guests, they would sometimes visit the vine-covered temples in their armored cars. The guards would surround the temples and do a quick reconnaissance. Once they’d cleared the area, the family and the guests of the family would get out and inspect the grounds, the statues, the temples. They usually didn’t stay long. It was hot and humid. The air-conditioning in the armored cars was more pleasant.
They had lunch, and sometimes dinner, at the club. They relaxed at select coffee shops (after they’d been cleared by the guards) and visited certain designer clothing stores (likewise cleared). It was not an easy life, always being protected by the guards. There were no surprises and they had to make their own excitement.
Danielle must’ve been thinking the same thing.
Only a few nights before, at midnight, she’d taken off her bikini and dove naked into the pool. She must’ve known that Hector was on the roof; she’d glanced in his direction. A pale line crossed her lower back and belly and it almost seemed as if she were still wearing her bathing suit.
He talked to her often, in the way that teenaged siblings might banter, as if they were pulling each other’s hair with their words, name-calling, teasing.
Both wanted to go to the nightclubs where the others went. The armored cars would be necessary, but the clubs were heavily guarded and it wasn’t necessary for the family’s personal guards to clear the premises. But the family wouldn’t let them go. Their bodies couldn’t be cleared, their beds wouldn’t be swept for mines. The result, if it wasn’t a little vacation to the clinic, would be potentially hemophiliac offspring, which would necessitate more money for more guards. Their personal army grew as the family grew, as their properties accumulated, as there were further compounds, children and beaches to protect.
Hector asked Freddie about the bloodlines and found that they were sufficiently distant. He asked Leslie about Danielle’s tastes and found that she liked dark chocolate with cherry filling, large orange purses with buckles, gemstone bracelets. Had she kissed another? Yes. Had she… yes. Of course, no surprise. Virgins were awkward, anyway. Was was she in love? Not exactly, no. Infatuated. With who? Names weren’t disclosed. Freddie, Arturo, Jacob. All were possibilities. None could be trusted. All almost-cousins. And the other female almost-cousins— horse-faces and donkeys. Money couldn’t buy them beauty, much as they tried.
He was friends with one of the drivers, a young guy named Tony. Like the other guards, Tony was tall and muscular and always vigilant. Tony drove in a way that seemed careless but not reckless, like a racecar driver. It was Tony who’d described the drawbacks of an armored car to Hector.
Though the family wished it so, armored cars weren’t impervious. In a situation where the others, whether bandits, paramilitia or rivals, had the means to breach the armored cars (and there wouldn’t be ambushes if they didn’t have the means), an armored car provided only a few extra seconds to escape.
Tony described the way an experienced gunman could shoot a triangular pattern in the bulletproof glass, compromising its structural integrity and shattering it. Bulletproof glass wasn’t really bulletproof. Armored cars were like nightgowns when assaulted by the proper equipment— rocket launchers or land mines for instance.
Hector wasn’t particularly concerned. “What would they do with me, anyway? My family knows I’m worthless. Good for nothing but lounging around and fucking.”
“You’re worth more than you think,” Tony said.
“Listen. I want you ready at eleven tomorrow night. At the gates.”
“Not in the driveway?”
“We have a discreet situation here. It’ll be worth your while.”
He hadn’t talked with Danielle but felt assured of her desire. He took a bath, his arms and testicles floating on mounds of bubbles. That silky soft water was like skin, like the inside of her skin. A wall of windows above the bathtub let in the morning light and afforded a view of the pool, part of the grounds, and the bay beyond the wall.
After he finished bathing he shaved carefully, examining his reflection. He didn’t look bad. He was long in the face but his eyes had a striking violet color. He was a bit cool and aloof, yes, but he’d been humbled before, spurned. He’d learned to assess himself and the situation in a relatively objective manner. He lifted weights, which made his arms unwieldy, his neck stiff. His musculature gave him the burnished, dull glow of a minor god. He was paunchy, his belly distended with good food and wine, his torso covered with a thick, healthy mat of dark hair. His appearance was intended to demonstrate confidence, virility and deep repose. To some extent, it did.
He put on his swimsuit and bathrobe and went down to the pool. It was getting hot and Danielle was the only one out still there, lying belly-down on a towel, the straps of her bikini top untied. “Dani, you’ll burn,” he said. “Want some lotion?”
She nodded, her eyes closed, too weary to answer. Her skin was warm to the touch. He started with her shoulders and the back of her arms, then her back, her lower back, her buttocks, the back of her thighs. He could almost smell her.
“What are you doing? Someone might see us.” She didn’t open her eyes or move, didn’t even raise her voice. She sounded irritated.
“With this sun you can burn anywhere.” He leaned over and smelled her hair. “Come with me to the club tonight.”
“We’re not allowed.”
“I make my own plans. You’re invited.”
She smiled. “What time?”
He told her the time and place. “Don’t tell anyone. And don’t change before we go or everyone will know.”
“How can I change then? I have to change before we get to the club.”
“You can change in the car.”
The armored car would be their shell, their hermitage, their honeymoon. He applied more lotion.
“I think that’s enough,” she said.’
“Just a little more or you’ll burn.” He squirted the lotion onto her lower back, imagining that the viscous white liquid was his sperm. He rubbed it in, leaned forward, and kissed the space between her shoulders. “I’ll see you tonight.”
He avoided her for the rest of the day, even when she sought him out in the late afternoon. She slipped a note under his door. He decided that the gesture showed both her desire and her inexperience.
Hector, she wrote, I expect that you will be a gentleman tonight. Danielle
What lovely handwriting she had. She’d perfumed the note. He wondered it the fragrance was intentional or, like an orchid, she couldn’t hide her smell.
The gifts were waiting: a box of chocolate truffles, a pearl choker, two bottles of champagne, one for the ride over, the other for the ride back.
At a quarter to eleven he left the house, walked down the long driveway, and once beyond the marble fountain, looked up at Danielle’s window, which was still lit. Beyond the outline of the statue, its lips gurgling with briny juice, he saw her outline on the gauzy curtains.
The armored Mercedes was idling by the gate, its lights off. Tony had the window down and was smoking a cigarette. Hector took the cigarette from Tony’s hand and crushed it underfoot. From the pocket of his button-down shirt he removed a cigarette box wrapped in gold paper and handed one to Tony before lighting his own.
Hector had already changed into his eveningwear. He’d told Danielle not to change for two reasons—he’d acquired the ability to slip out of the house without attracting attention, while she hadn’t; more importantly, he wanted to watch her change.
At eleven thirty, Danielle still hadn’t arrived. Tony kept the car idling and they smoked more cigarettes. “We could have a bottle,” Hector suggested.
“I’m driving,” Tony said.
“I bet you drive better drunk than I drive sober.”
Tony looked at him with heavy-lidded eyes. His calm was deeply coiled, as dangerous as a krait basking in the sun. He shrugged but didn’t smile.
“Escape routes, huh?” Hector said, allowing a touch of admiration into his voice. Tony had trained with special forces and was a firearms expert.
Finally Danielle appeared, walking awkwardly in high heels.
“What took you so long?”
She was heavily made up, like a whore, which excited him. She had a bundle of clothes under her arm.
“Tony, could you step away for a moment?” Hector handed him another cigarette.
“What about you?” Danielle asked.
“It’s dark in here. I can’t see anything.” He leaned over and kissed her neck. “Can I help?”
“You can get out of the car,” she said in a peevish voice.
“Kiss me first.”
Her kiss was reluctant, which made him angry.
“Promise me we’ll go to Inferno,” she said.
“Because it’s the best.”
“You’ll have to give me a nicer kiss than that.”
She softened up, allowing his tongue to briefly enter her mouth. He stepped out of the car and joined Tony. When she was ready, the men climbed into the car and Hector opened the bottle of champagne. He wanted to spray Danielle’s dress, which was cut low to reveal her breasts, and which also rode high, well above the knee. He poured two glasses. She quickly finished her first drink and seemed more at ease, smiling impishly at him.
The armored car hummed quietly and barely seemed to be moving. Through layers of dark tinted glass and the hazy night Hector saw the crumbled ruins of the city only when it was revealed under the halo of an occasional street lamp.
“I have something for you,” he told her. He handed her the velvet-lined box and her eyes widened when she saw the choker. “Let me put it on you,” he said. His heart began to beat painfully as he clasped the choker around her neck. He couldn’t remember the last time a girl had made him feel this way. He leaned over and kissed her again, found her more willing.
“Be a gentleman,” she said when he got too eager.
He poured fresh glasses of champagne and closed his eyes, focusing on the susurrus hum of the car. The champagne bubbled and popped in his mouth. When he opened his eyes again, he saw Danielle looking out the window.
Inferno, because of its clientele, had high cement walls with guards in towers. They were waved through a checkpoint and Tony dropped them off in the valet area. Hector and Danielle walked arm in arm between the velvet ropes and into the club. The theme of the club was glass. You could see into everything except the bathrooms. You could see the bartender’s legs through the bar. You could look through the tables. You could see the DJ spinning in his glass booth. If you were a guy pissing in the urinal, you could watch the dancers on the floor through one-way glass.
They took a small booth near the dance floor and Hector ordered drinks and appetizers. He recognized many of the partygoers and so did Danielle. There were cheek kisses, hugs, handshakes. Danielle got drunk quickly while he took his time. The strobe lights were disorienting and the music was too loud. He was getting too old for this. The hours passed slowly and in aggravating fashion. He excused himself and went to the bathroom. Looking down, it seemed like he was pissing on the dancers through the glass.
He watched as a young man approached Danielle. Hector stood in the urinal watching, his fly still open. Danielle kissed the young man.
Hector washed his hands carefully. When he returned to the dance floor, he found Danielle sitting alone again, trying to look bored. She was too drunk to be successful in her attempt. “Should we go?” he asked.
“We just got here.” That wasn’t quite accurate. They’d been at the club for a few hours but most stayed until dawn and then went to after-hours parties. It was a little after two in the morning.
“We don’t want to get in trouble,” he said. Danielle took his arm and pawed at his side. He kissed her and she kissed him back. He imagined the other man’s metallic flavor in her mouth. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed another man watching them, no doubt her secret admirer. He called Tony and told him to bring the car around.
When Tony pulled up, Hector requested that the privacy window be raised between the seats. He opened the second bottle of champagne. After pouring two glasses he leaned over and began to kiss her, working his hand along her thigh. She giggled nervously.
“You’re beautiful,” he said. She drank the champagne and it bubbled down her chin. He licked it up where it had spilled.
He poured another glass for her. “I like you.”
“I like you, too,” Danielle said.
“Who was that guy you were kissing?”
She looked surprised. “Just somebody I know.” He began to slide her dress up her thighs. “I told you to be a gentleman,” she said.
“I never promised anything.”
She was quiet, neither accepting nor resisting.
“I’ll take you anywhere you want to go,” he said. “The islands. Up north. Somewhere there aren’t any guards.”
“That sounds nice.”
They finished the second bottle and he managed to dispense with the most restrictive of their clothing. He could smell her, almost taste her. His lust felt like a kind of rage—he wanted to tear things apart.
There was a muffled popping sound, like tires blowing. The car began to swerve back and forth and the privacy window lowered. “Get your clothes on,” Tony said.
A car had pulled up beside them and Tony floored the accelerator. There were more popping sounds and a constellation of winking lights erupted around them. The triangular pattern formed in the glass, its points made of round spider webs. The glass shattered. Tony pulled a pistol from the dashboard. He fired several shots at a car coming from the opposite direction.
“Get down,” he yelled. Danielle and Hector threw themselves down on the floor of the car. Hector smelled urine, saw it dripping down her legs. She was crying.
“We’ll be all right,” he said, pulling her close, feeling a surge of protectiveness, as if it were he and not Tony that would save them. There was another round of popping, louder now that the bulletproof glass no longer muffled the sounds. The humid night air poured through the broken windows, smelling of burning garbage. The sound of the engines echoed against the desolate buildings around them. Hector felt as if they weren’t alive but deathless, following some random trajectory through space. The car’s movement had a sort of elasticity, as if no one were driving. He peered over the seat and couldn’t tell if Tony was alive or dead, he was so motionless. He noticed the barely perceptible movement of the steering wheel and then Tony turned hard left and braked, doing a one eighty.
“I said get down!” Tony yelled. He pumped another round through the broken windshield. A black car was heading directly at them and Hector ducked again, bracing himself for the imminent collision. There was a screeching of tires as the car passed and then a few seconds later a crash that was already distant, sounding like tiers of champagne glasses tumbling down. They returned to the susurrus hum of the road. Hector eased back into the leather seat and held Danielle close to him, stroking her hair. His hands were covered in blood. One of the bottles had shattered and there were shards of glass everywhere. Funny that he hadn’t noticed before. Danielle shuddered and suddenly he felt ashamed.
If there had still been a windshield it would’ve been like the movies, just another scene to watch through tinted glass. Within these spheres, for now at least, they were deathless, but the broken glass was a row of jagged teeth framing the city. The streets bloomed with strange odors, not chlorine, not sun lotion. On days when the wind blew in the wrong direction they smelled the city’s rot in the compound. Hector realized that their existence was a form of extortion. If you didn’t pay the full price (which for members of the family was quite expensive), you died.
Beyond the outskirts of the city they rose into the hills between gnarled trees with hanging vines. The smell of the ocean had replaced the smell of garbage. They reached the gates of the compound and the guards stopped Tony at the checkpoint.
“We had an incident,” Tony said.
The compound lit up as they pulled in, brighter than any constellation. The doors were thrown open and family members converged on the car. Danielle was crying. Her makeup was smeared across her face, her dress was torn. It was clear she hadn’t protected her virtue. Hector’s shirt was unbuttoned, his hands bloodstained. Only Tony looked impeccable. His suit was freshly-pressed, his chauffeur’s cap pulled tightly over his head.
Of course there were consequences. Danielle was sent away, Tony sacked, Hector warned. Hector vouched for Tony’s driving abilities but loyalty to the family was more important than skill. He asked the family for permission to join Danielle but nobody approved, including Danielle herself.
In the morning, Hector had drinks in the compound, in the afternoons he went to the gated beach. The family acquired a fleet of armored cars that were less agile but had heavier plating. The additional armor provided little more than psychological security, if such peace of mind was in fact possible. No matter how high the walls or how large the army, others were determined to get them and destroy their family.
She steers her children relentlessly
along autumnal palisades
in a fleeting two-door
across a steel suspension bridge
from the suburbs to a game at the Garden
she takes the turns tightly on surprise snow
in a superb red Thunderbird
her son day-dreams he’s a regal athlete
her daughter already is an accomplished servant
having escaped through the family room to rendezvous
with an art student under a weeping willow
both so young now long dead
Their familiar is newly-licensed to drive around
their sartorial lives as sportsman and slut
silver braces set her son’s teeth
but the girl refuses intervention
she assumes the role of the intruder
their parent is a part of history and its provincial theater
with her sister Rachel—each with a first kid
abandoned to their mother Goldie
would steal afternoons at the movies
to dream of leading men
It is years before they are delivered
of second children cars single-family homes
and husbands unleashed from war
not yet human enough
I confuse mother’s desires for assignations
in the ignoble role of her admirer
I compete for her projection
on a blank screen I am born
and no sooner am back home
with mother and father buried
my brother and I light tapered
candles to see them more clearly
at the oval dining table holding hands
with mother I allow
she could crush mine
as she warned
if I lose my mind
she will have the advantage physically
Dead you both stare down
candle after candle
into a quiver of moonlight
not a soul believes my sob story
in something this tight and exquisite
Acclaimed writer Lionel Taft’s claim that acclaimed writer Lionel Taft’s work is “a way for Taft to talk about himself” is, according to Taft, “preposterous, specious, and subject to hootenanny,” although we think he meant scrutiny. Then again, we cannot be sure, especially since Taft, like Taft, is often unclear in his clarity, a symptom, doctors of grammar have said, of what does not concern them. However, what we can be sure of is that Taft, like Taft, is suspicious not only of his own work, but of his own work, leading many experts to believe Taft and Taft are two entirely different people. Then again, we cannot be sure, since, as everyone knows, no one can really know anything.
Roth Phillips, a professor of literature at Coleman College in Chicago, believes, as we do, that Taft’s suspicions regarding his work, or what Phillips calls Taft’s “suspicions,” are essential to who Taft is as a writer, which, according to Phillips, is almost six feet and about two-hundred pounds. Phillips claims in his book on the relationship between Taft and Taft, Taft Times Two, that Taft’s suspicions are significant of his loathing, his disdain, his disgust for Taft, a disgust most likely born, Phillips argues out “an insecurity as shallow as it is deep.”
Taft, who is very aware of Phillips’ work, especially since they work together at Coleman, disagrees with Phillips’ conclusion; “Phil should really mind his own business,” Taft told an interviewer for the Taft Annual. “In fact, it makes me laugh that he thinks he knows me as well as he does.” However, according to Phillips, Taft’s “difficulty in accepting the criticism of others is the proof in the pudding, or the buzz in the bee.” Phillips has a point, and not just on his pencil. Taft, who unlike Phillips, has never met Taft, at least not in person, although they have been in the same room several times. It is really a wonder that they have never met, especially since they share so much in common. For example, Taft and Taft received their degrees from the same universities, they both dated women, and they both once enjoyed long walks in the rain. On the other hand, they are, in actuality, quite different. For example, Taft grew up in a suburb famous for its zoo just south of the Chicago city limits whereas Taft grew up just south of the Chicago city limits in a suburb famous for its zoo. Taft grew up on Arthur and Grant. Taft grew up on Grant and Arthur. Where Taft attended St. Hermione on the Grange, Taft attended St. Grange on the Hermione.
Taft first discovered Taft’s writing when Taft was only nine with Taft’s short story “The Purple Airplane.” However, it was only with Taft’s essay about why Taft’s mother was the best mother in the world that Taft really began to become interested in Taft’s work. “He wrote so clearly about his mother, and so passionately,” Taft writes in “The Good Old Taft.” In fact, it was the balance between the two that struck me so deeply.” Taft has often cited the following passage as an example of Taft’s stylistic skill: “My mother is the best mother in the world because she cares a lot about me. She makes me breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She also helps out a lot at school with the other kids and stuff.” His command of language, Taft writes, is amazing. “Note how Taft is able to equate the personal and the professional, how he manages to parallel his mother’s duties at home with her volunteer work. Besides, his description of her peanut butter and jelly sandwich is breathtaking.” Taft, like Taft, began to write about the same time as Taft, composing mock-academic papers about Taft’s work. Among these papers were papers Taft would later revise for his doctoral dissertation. They included “What’s So Purple about a Purple Airplane?” “Why Every Mother Can’t Be the Best in the World,” and “I Tried to Kiss Jill Gallagher, But She Pulled Away.”
The shift in Taft’s view of Taft came while Taft was writing his dissertation. Believed to be due Taft’s anxiety about finding a job after graduation, Taft began, rather suddenly, to dislike Taft’s work, finding in it “a sentimental view of the world born out of a shallow romanticism and unrealistic desire for adventure.” Asked about the shift, Taft said he got sick of Taft. He got sick, he said, “of Taft’s failure to write anything of real value. It was always the same,” he told an interviewer for The Taft Quarterly. “It was almost as if Taft couldn’t write about anything else but Taft. It felt as if Taft was moving forwards by moving backwards to a time when he wanted to move forward, yearning to become part of a movement that he didn’t really understand.” What movement Taft longed to be part of Taft never said. It is because Taft never identified the movement that has led many scholars to conclude Taft was sick not of Taft, but of Taft. “What often happens with doctoral students,” writes G. Kennedy Wise, professor of Literature at Coleman College in Chicago and author of Why I Hate Grad Students, “is that they become dissatisfied with their own progress which leads them, often, to give up all together. Most get over it, but some, like Taft, become obsessed with what they do not like. In other words, they strive to demonstrate why things are ‘wrong,’ instead of showing, like most of us do, why they are right.”
Psychiatrist William Miller disagrees: “Taft’s negativity is, in contrast to T.K.’s claim, central to Taft as a critic. Note, for example, how he structures his essays—he never actually states anything outright. He has a thesis, yes, but he constructs his argument from what he cites from other scholars and from Taft. Even when he does manage to find his own voice, it only appears as a citation from one of his own articles. It’s because,” Miller writes in “Taft’s Dual Dichotomy: The Twin Kin of Taft’s Taft,” “Taft’s sense of himself is elusive. In fact, I might describe him, even if it was not so crazy, as mildly schizophrenic. Taft is, in some ways, two people, as if one Taft was eaten by the other.” Even though it is scientifically impossible for one human to eat another, if Miller’s claim that Taft ate Taft is metaphorical, it still does not work very well, although Miller is correct in identifying the importance of negativity in Taft’s scholarly work.
Negativity functions in Taft’s work on Taft as a device to dislike everything about Taft. Specifically, it allows Taft to be a complete bastard. “Negativity,” Taft writes in “Not a Chance,” “strips the work down to its bones and forces it to ask itself why it should be read. It brings it to its knees. It makes it cry like a little baby lost in the woods, cold and alone.” Even though the language Taft uses to justify negativity in the scholarly process is disturbing, it is an interesting proposition since it can serve to remove a work of fiction from that which, in Taft’s words, “serves to swaddle it in the clothing of sycophancy.” Although creepy, Taft’s extended use of the infant to provide him with the language to describe his process is telling. Taft does not see the work of fiction as a fully realized work, grown-up and using the bathroom by itself, but rather as a baby needing to learn how to eat, dress, and achieve a cohesive structure by isolating what is transcendentally thematic about its primary tropes.
The best example of Taft’s use of negativity to understand Taft’s work is his essay “Why I Hate Taft,” which is not really about why Taft hates Taft, but rather about what Taft finds so disagreeable about Taft’s work. In it, Taft claims Taft’s only novel, I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, is not about the shiftless, uninspired narrator who spends his days teaching for a university in Chicago and writing about a scholar whose sole project is a self-loathing author who writes books about his own self-loathing, it is about the necessity of self-loathing to criticism. It is, Taft claims, about the significance of failure to success. “It is a model for criticism in general,” writes Taft. “It is about the necessity of building of an idea from the ground up, from the text itself. All this business about locating your idea in a larger world of ideas is hogwash. We should rather be stripping the text down to its knickers, reading one word and then the next, from left to right.” Yet, Taft knew this would never happen. He knew reading would always be from left to right.
Since reading backwards would not have made any sense, Taft decided to “go with the flow,” and continue reading as his father taught him, no matter how much it pained him. Eventually, Taft did the only thing he could do – he stopped reading completely, doing it only when he opened a book. According to Taft, not reading freed Taft from reading, in addition to giving him much more time to knit. Taft also began to write more. Although he did not allow himself the use of words, his writing was, surprisingly, wordy, almost to the point of white noise, as if he was not writing at all. Taft says Taft’s dedication to his new project was the result of Taft’s desire to stop “dealing with language since language” Taft writes, or does not, in his yet unwritten treatise on Taft, What Do You Want From Me Now?, “has caused Taft nothing but trouble. It got him his job at Coleman, which he doesn’t like. It got him entangled in a self-destructive relationship, with himself. It even invited questions from admiring scholars who felt his theory of negativity was not only intriguingly simple, but also deceptively deep.” According to Taft, the negativity Taft utilizes in reading Taft is particular for its negation. Specifically, it is the negation of absence. Taft explains: “‘I Hate Myself’ works because it does not seek to aggrandize the author by way of a fictional character. The author is Taft, and except for the fact that he does not really admit it, Taft admits to being the author. We get Taft at his most honest. It’s Taft at his most shamefaced. It’s thrilling in its emptiness. Really, it is.”
However, it would be impetuous to take Taft at his word considering his relationship to Taft. According to Taft’s colleague at Coleman, Gerry Mandering, Taft, unlike Taft, is, or can be, “especially” sensitive about what he takes as slights against his academic work. “He takes,” Mandering says, everything personal. Apparently, Taft had once threatened Mandering after Mandering asked Taft for a copy of a lecture Taft delivered at a symposium on Taft. Taft felt Mandering was “acting” out of self-interest, self-interest Mandering denies having—“I couldn’t care less about myself. Ask my wife.” Whether or not Taft is, as Mandering claims, “completely crazy” is neither nor there especially considering Taft is not currently here or there, preferring instead somewhere in between.
Oddly enough, none of this would have mattered if it had not been for what Taft wrote about Taft in the last issue of Taft Quarterly, an imaginary journal of articles on Taft existing solely in Taft’s own mind, and in a print format published by Coleman College in Chicago. In his article “Taft is a Humungous Ass,” Taft argues Taft is “a humungous ass capable only of outrageously asinine things.” Perhaps egged on by Taft who only weeks before had apparently threatened Taft, Taft wrote venomously about Taft’s “penchant for pederasty,” a penchant, it is believed, was, at best, metaphorical, if not entirely an allegory. Taft disagrees. In an interview conducted just before his death about an hour ago, Taft states he knows for a fact Taft has no skill in using metaphors, a fact substantiated by Taft’s use of the metaphor—“It is…” Unfortunately, Taft was unable to complete his thought because of his death.
Ironically, when asked about Taft’s death, Taft responded kindly, stating he never knew anyone like Taft. “Taft was, in his own way, alive. He really was something to see.” Such a comment is surprising considering how much Taft hated Taft when Taft was alive. Taft explains his reaction this way: “There is a huge difference between being alive and being dead.” Although this is true, it is uncertain exactly what Taft meant. However, we assume it means Taft simply preferred dead things to living things. This would make sense, especially in the context of Taft’s theory not only about Taft’s writing, but about writing in general—“What are books but the ruins of a once active mind? They’re corpses. They rot. They soon to ashes will return. In other words, texts are never more than the evidence of our own dying, testaments to our mortality.” Interestingly enough, this is a view Taft shared with Taft. In his last book, Taft wrote almost the same exact words: “Writing makes me want to kill myself.”
Taft’s relationship with Taft is indicative not only of how obsessive one man can become with another, but also of how far writing has come from its origins in the primordial swamp, a swamp best known for its one-celled works, Me Amoeba and Prince Protozoa. In other words, writing, or literature, has changed from the expression of the individual need to establish a community history into the evidence of a dialectical erosion of an individual identity who desires nothing more than to establish itself. It is no wonder, then, why Taft found it essential to understand Taft’s works, works that almost seem as if Taft himself had written them.
We soak the walls with water, my brother and I, buckets full. We thumb the hose and spray down the siding, then climb to the roof and do the same to the shingles. We drench the couch, the bed, the carpet – we saturate the drapes until water drips down the baseboards and pools on the hardwood.
The man on the television had cried as he talked. He said he knew things. He said an Angel had visited him. Fire was coming; everything and everyone would burn unless they knew someone, someone that we didn’t. He said the Fire might very well be visiting that night, on its way that very moment.
Grandma heard none of what the man on television said. She slept upright on the couch, head back, mouth gaping through it all. Doesn’t hear us drowning the house, either, which isn’t a surprise – she could sleep through a demolition derby. Not like mom, who could hear us think about misbehaving.
But we aren’t misbehaving, not thinking about it, either. And Mom couldn’t hear us if we were.
We gather all of our treasures, my brother and I, fill the bathtub with them, turn on the faucet and get in ourselves, like ancient Egyptian princes in crypts surrounded by all they hope to take with them to the afterlife. The tub overflows, but we just keep the water running.
Soon the water heater will run out of hot, we know, but we’ll stay in. Sure, we’ll shake from the cold, but we’ll keep strong, holding each other, submerged, because we know the Fire that chased down mom’s station wagon now burns for us.
Poems by Thibault Rauolt
Appendix Q contains Steve’s full autopsy records. It does not include pathologist HJ Fukuyama’s comment upon Steve’s choice and, by implication, him: “Common.” These archives will correct that fool doctor.
Photographic evidence is contained in albums V-Z. The last three albums capture Steve’s studio apartment and his personal property as he kept it. I call special attention to the contrast in quality between his technological equipment and furniture. In photo X2, his MacBook, Droid phone, and surge protector are set in a careful triangle. One foot to the right, from the viewer’s perspective (X6), are his unshelved stacks of 19th century German philosophy, one writer per stack. These books are yellowed, dog-eared, and heavily annotated. Dorito-flavored thumbprints stain their pages. Atop the stack of Nietzche, ironically maybe, is his Bar Mitzvah copy of the Pentateuch with his name engraved in gold letters along the center of the cover’s bottom. Tacked above the books (X7) is a picture of Steve with Glenn Danzig. The autograph indicates it was taken backstage at The Edge in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2004. In the room’s center is a foul mattress purchased perhaps from Goodwill. Under the pillow I discovered three Njoy brand smokeless cigarettes (Y2). He never informed me of his switch from Marlboros. This led, in May 2011, to a misunderstanding. His only other furniture was a clothes’ hamper (Y6), which served as a chest of drawers. Dirty clothing was piled in the closet (Y9). It smelled like armpits and cancer.
As evidenced by these photos, his apartment was flooded with paper. The label “graphomaniac” may have fit Steve. He wrote on whatever came to hand, backs of bills and business cards, notebook paper, construction paper, index cards, napkins, shower curtains, etc. He posted a number of these thoughts on his blog, saladday@blogspot. com. Most fell where they fell. He filled pages without regard to margins, using blue ink and remarkable penmanship. He drew swift lines through mistakes and pressed on. Many important writings may have been lost. He may have trashed a significant percentage of his work. These archives don’t provide firm answers to all questions. I only testify to the data collected.
Steve’s notes on K (Kay, Kristin, Kelly, Kelliqua, Kimmie, Kat, Katarina?) are denoted with an additional “K.” If she’s mentioned on E45, that page is specially designated E45K. These notes suggest Steve’s chances at love, marriage, and the possible fortunes implied thereby. On the back of a business card for James Ramajalal of Anderson Toyota, Steve wrote: “K makes me smile” (B41K, 11/2/2010). Overall examination of the record, though, indicates the relationship’s core instability. K’s temper is detailed (B24K, C53-55K offer prime examples). Kitchen photographs offer visual evidence. Photos Y17-23 reveal damage to walls, a kitchen drawer missing its face, a saucepan without a handle. Steve often reflected on her temper with love, something near poetry. B42K: “She belongs to her past, the Father I’m forbidden to name. At her worst, however, she subconsciously renames everything after Him. Then all things resemble Him, and a wall, lover, and bed become targets for her revenge.” Their final break-up was not recorded, though it likely came in February 2011, when he described the burning of his ’93 Toyota Tercel (E1). Afterward, his writing became more introspective and analytical. K and I were never introduced.
Inconsistent dating of papers, as reflected in the previous examples, constituted my foremost organizational difficulty. However, Steve’s blogposts were virtual duplicates of written material and automatically dated by computer. This enabled simple cross-referencing. Soon I noticed many of his duplicate posts described his smoking-related struggles (including disease prospects, addiction, and social rejection). I was thus able to establish a plausible biographical narrative, and the remainder of his scribbles fell into place around it. This narrative may be read as what psychologists would call a cry for help. In my defense, Steve never confided in me. He may not have considered me suitable for the purpose. Digression is not advisable, so I will stop. I pasted all loose materials onto whole business quality paper and, together with his other papers, bound them in lettered binders.
Future scholars should be able to flesh out a connection between this narrative and the development of Steve’s Inverted Pyramid of Suffering, illustrated on C1, 12/1/2010, and reprinted below.
The pyramid appears essential to understanding Steve’s worldview. Its highest level, open, natural suffering, afflicts victims of disasters beyond human control. These include population-ending catastrophes, cities blasted by tornados, hurricanes, volcanic ash, etc. Further examples include no-fault car accidents, trees crashing atop Kindergarten classes, bears eating unarmed civilians. This form of suffering allows news reporters to wear sad faces, politicians to enhance their media profiles, and communities to come together and probe the mystery of God. The middle level, open, unnatural suffering, involves human-on-human violence. It is often politically motivated. Foreign army invasions and occupations are obvious examples. Domestic governments may label their citizens criminals, anarchists, gangsters, and terrorists before firing into the crowd. Roving gangs may club the elderly. Separatists may bomb a nightclub. It also includes the steady diet of rape, murder, arson, battery, and so on. This picture is clear.
Steve’s most interested in the bottom category, hidden, relative suffering, and exploring our modern sources and expressions of personal grief. Consider what he calls “The Spaghetti Conundrum”: “shoppers must choose from whole wheat and regular pastas, seventeen potential shapes of pasta produced by eight name and generic brands … neglect a previous choice to eat spaghetti over other serviceable dinners as well as the choice to boil pasta and heat up tomato sauce rather than splurge on microwavable or canned preparations … tomato sauces require an additional choice of flavor—peppery, meaty, mushroomy, chunky, harvesty … spaghetti dinner requires modern man to endure an unprecedented type of mundane thinking …” (C17-39, 12/21/2010).
For twenty-two pages of pink construction paper, Steve teases out the number of choices available to an unmarried shopper at a supermarket. Choices multiply exponentially by the number of groceries needed and again by snacks desired and again by the variety of brands available for individual groceries. The shopper weighs his preference for strawberries against the fact that it is February, measures the cost of fresh fish against the price of frozen, and so forth. Then he hypothesizes about the number of similar choices the shopper might make in order to survive an average day. These choices occupy time and brainpower. They are the hallmarks of a skin-deep freedom.
Yes, Steve has merely rehashed a stale but accurate critique of consumerism. You’ve read it before and shrugged. But this only sets up his contrast between the masses of American shoppers and serfs under feudalism. Those poor bodies were slowly ground to mush by labor. Now, we suffer from a surplus of trivial choices. This new suffering cannot be compared to the old. It cannot be expressed by time-honored methods, either. On the ethnic food aisle, tears would make everybody uncomfortable. So we can’t cry anymore. You might see this as a minus, but in the development of new expressions of grief, Steve sees an upside: Reason, dry dialectics, and materialism are junk. Quiet exploration of our private suffering, however, can revitalize human creativity, develop new insight and knowledge.” (C22-24, 12/26/2010). Steve’s charmed by soft light touches of grief, expressions I’ve rarely noticed: the bachelor’s stroking of cantaloupes, the secretary’s compulsive mouse-clicking, the grandma’s doodling of spirals, the child’s snapping of twigs. Further examples are included in C25-31 and E7-18.
But what happens when we do notice? Mostly we smile politely. Sometimes it’s worse. Steve later wrote: “Manners are of great interest. They are the curtain over honest feeling. We must watch for the times they drop away, when our closest relations cannot hide their revulsion for our authentic selves. Our essential personhood, manifested in our greatest weaknesses, is then rejected” (I77). I wonder if he had me in mind. On 5/3, 4, 5, or something, 2011, I called him, anxious about my son’s Bar Mitzvah: the hired DJ who may or may not be a cokehead, the hardass rabbi, the Hadassah secretary’s onerous expectations of charity, the desire to buy the kid a guitar both economical and cool, the feelings of my Catholic in-laws, Jonathan’s indifference to Jewish rites and responsibilities. Steve and I hadn’t talked in a while. It probably wasn’t the subject to discuss off the bat. Maybe I should’ve asked how he was doing or something. Instead, I just ranted away. Every few words, he slurped. His voice sounded like a cheap electronic projection. I couldn’t take those death noises. I shook my head and made faces for my wife’s benefit. Over the phone, I figured my movements were undetectable. Maybe not.
While assembling this archive, I tried out one of his Njoys. I couldn’t drag without slurping. He recognized its effect on listeners: “noises taken as evidence of plague” (H5). He cataloged his neighbors’ particular responses in H6-22. The sad joke is that, according to H2, he adopted the Njoys out of remorse and penance. Those strange words do apply. He added up the number of people he might’ve infected with second-hand smoke since acquiring his habit at age 12. That’d make anyone crazy, upon reflection.
His mutated voice should have been easier to diagnose, but I didn’t until Dr. Fukuyama offered his post-mortem report. Steve knew it, though. On B16, “emphysema” is written obsessively with neither punctuation nor break in his lovely script. Our misunderstanding was never resolved.
Steve never wrote about his pre-adult past. Maybe it isn’t such a curious omission, given the number of Thanksgiving dinners he attended the past five years (zero), yet it seems to me a man’s origins can help explain his present dilemma. This omission implies denial.
His final posts touch on familiar themes, but they are difficult to follow: “The wide range of modern choices sucks at a black hole level. Most men blind themselves to focus on phony leisure, try to convince themselves there is pleasure in the selection of products. This leads to the stagnation of human potential. Detachment, thoroughly tested, is no help. It leaves us arrogant, cynical, bored. The development of true sensitivity is essential. Contemplate it every day…” (I82).
Scholars may wonder if they can reconstruct the actual Steve from the total of these archives, or whether a gap exists between those words and the man. It’s all theoretical. Consider the likelihood, though, that Steve wrote A1 just after he purchased the valium. But he couldn’t quite understand what he had decided to do. In writing, he groped for an explanation of that choice. Somewhere in this archive he said what he needed me to know.
Part One: Séance/A Critical Theory of Grief Sensations
Secrecy can function as a group, to maintain the identity of that group. To maintain the group’s shame. I have not yet functioned as a secret, as a person shrouded by shame. I have not been a group or the maintenance of a group. I have not seen a ghost, but I have dreamt one. I have not haunted anyone, but I have left traces in the hopes of haunting them. I have not built tunnels to the other-side of anything. I have not collected or perused the undersides of tabletops, of slips, of bottoms of bottles, but oh, how I have wanted to come undone in this way. I have not come undone in many ways, having learned early on what the result is. I have at times lost touch with my body. I have felt more like an aura than an organism. I have feared being psychic. I have feared being seen by those who are psychic, of presenting an energy I could not control. I have short-circuited watches and laptops and radios involuntarily. I have not been present at a séance, but I have tried to conduct a séance.
A séance functions as a perception. A stone feels like a dream. Imagine a dream with the weight of a stone or try in your dream to become a stone. A stone breathes and a stone becomes and a stone is perception traveling. I sleep with a stone in my ear. I listen to what the stone says. This is a séance. A stone may hold some ghosts. I used to say a tree would be a good place for a ghost to live and that all allergies were the result of ghosts in the body. Put your body ghosts in trees and eat wheat again, eat nuts and milk and put your ghosts to rest. Take refuge in the newly revived heart, and stomach, and liver. There is no shame in loving a ghost, or in dreaming as a stone dreams, with shifty eyes, like vessels cut open by the scalpel, like a drowning man in flight beneath the water, like a body ghost loving a tree ghost loving a person.
Loving a person is like a séance, in that it involves a strangeness and a necessity. It requires you to seize up in fits of possession. To become water, to become air, to become fluid. To say, We are both horses again, aren’t we. We are both in a race around this goddamn giant circle. We are both heaving forward with all four hands on the floor. We are pressing down the floorboards with our tongues. Marking the points of erasure of a person. Licking up the stains the body leaves behind, swallowing their shadows in the morning. When I lean this close to the floorboards I hear the wood whispering. I hear myself whispering to the wood.
I hear myself whispering to the wood, at night, on hilltops. I hear myself whispering at night in my sleep. What are my eyelids saying. At night the room fluctuates. Becomes other rooms, other landscapes. I am dreaming in this room while the other room of my dream heaves forward. Embeds itself in the coat-rack and the door-frame, seeps in between pages of a book. Later I find traces of it. A residue on the countertop, a piece of bark in the sink drain. The impression of an ear on the wall. I have the distinct sense that the dream is listening. The dream is carving out new ideas beneath the skin. The pores soak in their salt, sweat out the dream, move the dream upward into the light. Let the dream sink like a stone cradled inside the ear. The stone will absorb the dream, not necessarily bring the dream. Some people live on borrowed dreams and their eyes are shakier for it. It is best to dissolve a dream like this, to walk away from it and not turn back to check its progress.
While this progresses I am bathed in sunlight drinking a glass of milk. I am lapping a glass of milk from a bowl in my undergarments like a cat. I look in the low places beneath the dresser, under the door. I put my paws beneath the door and meow. I press my body against the walls, against the books, against the chair legs. I press myself against the furniture and the clothes and the doorknobs. I press myself against the windows, and the screens, and the fabrics and ask plaintively why these things are here. What purpose does it serve to separate me from mountains and rivers, from ravines and roads and light of the sun and lampposts and stars. I look with my cat eyes at the scene outside the window. I watch dandelion fluff float by. I jump toward leaves I cannot reach. I howl at the other cats if they look at me. I howl and puff-up my tail in their direction. I spit and hiss at the door-frame. I try to escape but I no longer wish to escape.
I no longer wish to escape without a trace like rust under the red lights of the city. I no longer want to leave stones behind to find my way back to the house. I walk the cages of the street, rattling their abandonment. In the morning I stop at the post-office. I walk through a glass door and suffer a migraine. I eat small vials of salt, and sand, and crushed oregano. I paint my ribcage red and make a print that looks like lungs on the wall. I reminisce about the color orange. I drink orange juice and lay on the lawn, still wet with dew. I watch clouds roll by and become a cloud. I sail up into the air. I hyperventilate and come back down. I am a girl, and what does it feel like to be a girl. It feels like a hand over your mouth. A hand over your mouth and on your thighs. Some say it is the sound of a rabbit before it is caught. I say it is the sound of the sky before it comes crashing down.
Before it comes crashing down it is suspended. And then, as it moves, it evaporates. I conduct a study to find out which gender is more concerned with death. I find out it is men. I have never much regarded death, or cared one way or the other, as long as I do not die by the hands of men, in strange and brutal ways. Death has never been particularly interesting. I prefer the ocean depths or night sky to feel unwieldy. I have never wanted what was beyond death, except for the dust of it, to become a material. A fine grain of something. A thing the wind could truly lift. And to be disparate for once, and whole. To be in the sea and on the oak leaves. To be breath inside all the bodies and to be unseen and slipping through all of those hands, toward the light and away from the light, free of the face of the body.
I face my body the way a moth faces light. I graze the edges of the room, edges of the city, edges of the continent. I touch water with my ankles and my fingertips. Weather moves and you move with it. Your pores unlatching, your thighs unhinged in wild grasses and flowers above the beach. Rushing headlong into them, them bending back and resting you gently against the earth. I told a girl I would meet her here, like this. We would know the moment. The sky would be a brand new sky. It would be bruised and clouds would rush toward us like smoke. We would make a pilgrimage then. We would live in the nest of grasses at the ocean. We would live in Sonoma County. It wouldn’t matter when.
It wouldn’t matter when the ice melted or when the fog lifted. It wouldn’t matter how the water looked or where the horizon ended. We would not need a boat. I would become the boat or fin we need to travel. I would become the face of death. I would face death and tell him to fuck off. I would tear up love letters death writes to me that are just Depeche Mode lyrics anyway. I will not drink Zima with death. I will not raise the roof with death. I walk away into a field of my own choosing, and as the sun comes down, I place the stone back inside my ear earnestly.
I place the stone back instead my ear earnestly. I swallow the world and I listen to the world. I have met the world’s ghost. I am related to trees and I know the tree of knowledge. I am related to trees and I used to be a tree. Now I am uprooted. I am a new organism craving light. My mother is Francesca Woodman. She is standing in a room with a turtle. Our great problem is post-revolutionary. A space where one can be a sensation and outplay the law. My mother, Francesca Woodman, is at a loss for words. She is unsayable. Her body is a body of pictures. Are these pictures shocking? Only if you are underwater. And then they reflect grief sensations.
Sunken in the bog-hole: an architrave. A yew tree made of glass. A coal seam. A quarry. A stool with three legs. Great cries come from the bog-hole. We sit on a stump in the darkness. It is dark, but a greater darkness comes from the bog-hole. I am diseased in my skin, says the beldame. I gather bog-water in a jar to pour on the bald head of the beldame. Yes, that is soothing, says the beldame. We eat the acorns of the swamp oak. Meat is sweet and acorns are bitter. I have known both, though I am barely born, without purpose in the world, or path. In the pines, there is a dwelling. Where does your heart tend? asks the beldame. The darkness around the stump is now like the darkness that comes from the bog-hole. It is a darkness greater than the other darkness, the darkness that is a property of night, that comes from nowhere. This darkness is greater because it comes from somewhere. It comes from the bog-hole. Great cries rend the air. The beldame speaks in the voice of a sow, a broken-toothed ewe. I weep upon the beldame’s breasts. Yes, that is soothing, says the beldame. The nubs are long and white. In the village of the unclean cloth, says the beldame, my teeth were boiled in my mouth. In the village of the crows, says the beldame, I laid a crooked egg formed from the teeth I had swallowed. In the village of architraves, says the beldame, I dug a hole and found a cask of honey. Honey preserves the flesh, but if the flesh runs with scalls, it must not be preserved. Sunken in the bog-hole: a dwelling. A cluster of grapes. The pines. Fragrant rushes. The girl who lies beneath the bedtick, dreaming. How do we leave the village of the bog-hole? I ask the beldame. The stump is sinking, says the beldame, but shoots are growing from the stump. Yes, that is soothing, I say. The bog-water has darkened our feet. The bog-water has darkened our thighs. The darkness upon us comes from the bog-hole, but the white nubs on the breasts of the beldame, the white nubs rising on the neck and scalp of the beldame, come from the skin of the beldame, where I am sent to dwell.
Village of Crow-Stepped Gables
Breaking turf in the homefield, Bjartur looks up. He sees a cart in the cleft between mountains, a cart with two wheels and a dog to pull it. Soon he will have milk. The cart carries milk. His sheep having died in the snow, Bjartur hopes for no other milk than this milk, this milk that comes by cart. Bjartur chews a fragrant twig, watching the path. He realizes that he has misperceived. It is not cart and dog approaching, but rather a beldame yoked to a sow. Bjartur enters his croft and sets water to boil. He has learned that when he sights cart and dog in the cleft between mountains, they will attain the homefield in the time it takes to chew a fragrant twig and then to boil water, but today he has not sighted cart and dog. He has sighted beldame and sow. Perhaps they move more quickly on the path through the mountains, or perhaps they move more slowly, or perhaps they move at the same pace but map a slightly different course, a meandering course that takes them off the path and into the bracken, for sows long always to root in obscure places. As for beldames, they too crave obscurity, the obscurity of tangled ways, and they veer when they can into darkness. Instead of sky, they want above the dim solidity of mire and pass when they can beneath thorny bowers, outcroppings of rock, or canopies of linen cloth dipped in dung by bogmen to draw away the gnats. They seek the places where to move on the surface of the earth is very like tunneling below. Bjartur pours mushroom tea in two earthen mugs. He takes the stool with three legs from his croft and positions it on even ground, beneath the birch tree, so that the beldame may rest if she desires. Bjartur has apples but he will not share apples with a sow. He eats through one dark apple leaving only the stem and six seeds in their pith. In this time, the beldame and sow attain the homefield. The beldame’s neck is bent so that the beldame’s head seems to grow from her pelvis. Bjartur unyokes the beldame and helps her to the stool. The beldame cannot straighten her neck; she turns her face to the side to look at Bjartur, but even so, she must see only the fustian pants of Bjartur, between the knees and cuffs of the fustian pants. “Is this the village of the crow-stepped gables?” says the beldame. Bjartur glances about. The meager croft, the rolling turf, the low stonewalls of the enclosure, the scattered birch trees. There are no men, no sheep, no neighboring crofts. In one distance, the mountains with the cleft between. In the other distance, glacier. “It is no such village, hag,” says Bjartur, gravely. “Then you must lead the sow to that village,” says the beldame. “I am diseased in my skin and the yoke pains me. Besides,” says the beldame, “The contagion has come to your homefield. It now spreads through the mosses of your homefield and even the flowers that grow from the moss will exhale contagion from their open throats.”
Self-Portrait in Neutral Tones
I watch: breath drops from your nose like the dust
of the bones you called mushrooms.
Cut to living room. Cut to the only thing
you’re tasting, the sticky memory
of espresso on the back
of your teeth.
I am indebted to my house like a serf,
I whisper to the gas-eating flame every night.
If I could catalogue the life of our bones together.
Stress fracture of a Saturday afternoon,
coffee hiding under the stove.
At the Rothko Chapel, the experience of black makes you
walk through its shower
and keep walking.
I am mostly certain I like gray skies.
Tell me about the long shadows, days of bodies
writhing in snow, of wearing the wind
like a scarf, then, peeling it off, of boots shucked
like corn husks in strange doorways
and the smell of pine sap baking
in the hearth. Tell me the trees
that mark the end of the earth, of the nights
spent wondering which moon will rise, how oceans
can swallow your sandcastles
at a moment’s notice. Tell me the blizzard
and the cab ride, tell me snow tires and salted roads,
of the bassinet and the shit stains—
were you expecting this? One day, you’re on top
of a mountain, the next, well, you’re still
on that mountain and the mountain
is still on the earth and the earth, it seems, is a forest
you cannot escape from.
Best believe the old stories—you go walking
in the woods, man, shit,
look where you end up.
Eight Months in Buenos Aires As Still Life With Skull
In the end, what you loved moves
across seasons, so you think about winter break
in June and wonder if his hair carries flecks
of the south pole, while you’re creasing your summer
like a paperback. To travel the world
is different when it’s up and down: if brain is north
and body south, then the equator’s a bread knife,
slicing the magician’s assistant in pieces, stuffing the legs
in the trunk of its car. In the painting by Cézanne,
for example, the apple sits in front of the skull
like a taunt for those who are done
eating. Cut in half one way, an apple is two halves
of an apple. Cut in half the other, it’s a star.
They both came from Toledo. They’d been together forever, one of those kindergarten deals, and then they left home when they were done with high school because they thought they might try and do the right thing and go to college. Sandy had often dreamt of college—the ivy-covered walls, all that kissing in public, but it turned out that neither she nor Christmas could go to college, because they didn’t have any money. So they moved to Kendallville, Indiana where Christmas got a job at the hardware store and Sandy worked at the florist. One day when they were both twenty-one, living in their flat in Kendallville, Christmas turned to Sandy and said, “We’d make good grifters,” and Sandy, who had been drinking a cup of instant coffee and staring irritated out the window, turned her head at him and said, “Why?”
He said to her, “You know how you’re always saying we’re so cute? Well, we are, and people want to give us things.”
Sandy thought about it. It was something she’d never thought about before, but now it seemed so obvious, and she supposed it was true. They were so cute that they often got free french fries at the burger joint down the street, and free milkshakes and sometimes a free glass of beer. All they had to do was be cute and be nice and sit at the bar where the owner could see them, and they’d get free things until they couldn’t eat or drink any more.
So they quit their jobs, and they broke their lease, and Christmas cashed in his savings and bought them a car, an old Buick Skylark, color: purple. They drove it to Chicago where it was busy and expensive and they painted a big crystal ball on the side of the Skylark and then they painted the words The Untold Secrets of Sandy the Great. They went around town, and Christmas started telling everyone that Sandy was a psychic, and Sandy thought it was okay, and she started telling fortunes for two dollars, or for free meals or free beers or free whiskey shooters. Have your fortune told, Christmas would tell you, Sandy will tell your fortune for two glasses of Coke. Sandy would be there with her pink lips and her curly brown hair tucked into a red bandana, waiting with her eyes closed, and then she would hold out her hands and touch them to your hands, and she’d wait a minute for it all to come to her, and then it would come fast, something like: You will get married beneath a golden tent. Or, You will have four babies and all of them boys. Or, You will die very tired and sick, she said a lot. One time, she said, Love is near.
She did not know how the words came, only that they did, and she figured it to be imagination or perhaps some small contact with the great divine, but she knew enough to know that it was mostly a game, and everyone else knew it, too. Their ruse didn’t always work. They were so cute and so young, however, and their act was so precious, that it worked a lot. Still, it wasn’t like they were really grifting, because nobody believed them—they just thought How sweet and What’s a glass of Coke when they’re just so adorable? But Sandy and Christmas called themselves grifters anyway. It seemed so interesting and unexpected to be grifters. The future of a grifter was so wide-open. Anything the grifter wanted, the grifter only had to reach out and take.
But even with all the fortunes and all the loyal customers of Chicago, Sandy and Christmas still weren’t making enough but to put gas in the Skylark and to keep themselves fed. They had been sleeping in the Skylark, too, a circumstance of which Christmas had grown gravely wary, so after three months in the city, it was coming on winter, and without enough money to get a place that was warm, they decided it was time to move on.
Christmas had no parents because of the war, and Sandy had no parents because she chose it so. They were on their own. They made love all the time, hard and soft, lots of positions and always making it new and looking into each other’s eyes and saying You’re my possession over and over and over again, almost always all of it in the back of the Skylark. It was so nice for a while, that all they needed to keep alive was their love and their sex and Sandy’s fortune-telling and their purple Skylark and the kindness of the city.
When they left Chicago, they drove past the state line and into a city in Wisconsin called Kenosha. Kenosha was old enough and ugly enough that they could afford a small apartment down by Lake Michigan in a tiny building called the White Brick, and this was all they needed for now. Sandy even got to liking it at first, having a room, a place she could put away her things, display all the little knick-knacks she’d stolen and scooped up along the way: tin unicorns and a wooden jewelry box, dice, decorative spoons and plates and scented candles that had never been lit. She didn’t know how long she and Christmas would be staying in Kenosha, but still it’s always nice to have a place to put your things for a while.
They began to spend time at a local bar called Pea-Eye’s Place. It was the kind of place with brass studs in all the cracked leather seats, and TVs over your head and the lacquered wood of the bar, and there was a juke box and dart boards and tall booths where you could sit and order a hamburger. Christmas got a job there washing dishes. After a couple weeks, Sandy wanted to get a real job, too, and she told him one night while they were playing cards. Christmas told her No, this was only for a time and he was doing it just to scrape up enough so that they could get out of this hell-hole and go west to Los Angeles where there was money coming out everybody’s eyeholes and such weather of perpetual sunshine that they would never have to run from the winters again. They were drinking a bottle of red wine and the game was five card draw next to the furnace in their living room. They were betting pennies. Christmas had worked the lunch shift earlier and on his off-nights, they liked to do this, to play cards, bet pennies, and drink.
So after a little while, Sandy asked him, “Well, then should I continue telling fortunes?”
“If you feel like it,” he said to the floor, or maybe to the cards.
She played around with his hair and kissed his cheek but he was focused on the game like guys get and she said back, “I guess I feel like it.”
He sad, “What?”
“I said, I guess I feel like it.”
He didn’t say anything else then, just smiled a little, and she didn’t push it so they lazied through the rest of the game and Sandy won, and they got drunk and they sexed right there on the floor. You’re my possession, she said to him. You’re my possession, she said, and then they fell asleep right next to the furnace, all tangled. Sandy slept hard with her head on his chest. She dreamt of white rabbits and Christmas trees.
It was months then, the coldest winter they could ever remember in their lives, and Sandy started telling fortunes again while Christmas was at work. She was really getting a knack for it. The people in Kenosha really seemed to believe her. She still charged $2 a fortune, but what satisfied her now was not the money. Almost all the people whose fortunes she told as she went around town, driving in the Skylark, almost all of them liked giving her things in addition to their $2. They would give her clove cigarettes, whiskey and hot meals and slices of pie at first. Then, as time went by, some of them began giving her very beautiful, even valuable things, like pendants and velvet gloves with silver buttons and heirlooms like ashtrays or watches or quilts made from ancient thread that somebody’s grandmother had passed down to somebody’s mother who then passed it down to them. These were gifts, she thought. She liked gifts. Soon she stopped charging altogether and only accepted gifts if they were offered to her. Almost everybody offered her something, and even if they didn’t, which happened every now and then, because they were too poor or didn’t understand, she would never deny them their fortune. Because of this, she was starting to feel like a real fortune-teller. It felt important, being able to turn people away but making the decision not to.
She and Christmas no longer talked of her fortune-telling. Even as their apartment began to fill with stuff, beautiful stuff and useless stuff, all of it stuff, he would just smile and kiss her and he took no real interest, never said anything beyond: Wow, that’s a great phonograph, or Take a look at that vase—That’s Depression glass, you know. Sandy figured that he could tell she was happy, or else he’d say something, and that was enough for her. Also, he was busy, and the fortune-telling occupied much of her time. They had separate lives now, in addition to their red wine nights and the occasional poker game. Some days, she was lonely, but it was okay.
By springtime, Sandy had turned her fortune-telling into nearly a fulltime job in terms of time spent, and by the summer, she had accumulated countless artifacts from other peoples’ lives—photographs, toy chests, rosary beads, recipes. For a while it had seemed to fulfill her. Christmas would wake up and walk to work, and he really was working fulltime now, nights, weekends, and he was learning to tend bar. So every day after he left, Sandy would get into the Skylark and drive somewhere new in the city, somewhere she hadn’t been to before, and she would talk to the people there and tell their fortunes, and then she loved more than anything but Christmas the reactions, and how they would touch her shoulder and thank her and tell her how incredible, and then they would offer her something of their own, something of their heart, something of unique value.
But soon, she seemed to be running out of places where she could go and find new people. It seemed like the same places over and over again—the cafés on the lake, the restaurants of downtown, the bars of midtown, the department stores and their parking lots, the Italian delis, the liquoreras of the Mexican neighborhoods. Sometimes, she’d make a second or third visit to the same place by accident, and she’d see someone whose fortune she’d already told, and they’d ask her to do it again. They’d offer her something like an antique locket with a diamond in the middle or their dead father’s favorite pocket square to do it again, and for a little while she tried, but then she couldn’t do it anymore, because no matter what she did or how many times somebody asked, their fortune never changed. This started happening all the time, every day with different people—and it was almost always the people whose fortunes weren’t good. It was sad for Sandy and it was sad for the people, to know so sure that nothing could be helped, and how many times do you have to hear it before you understand? Kenosha wasn’t that big, maybe 70,000 or so, but that’s not bad, and Sandy certainly had not gotten through them all, but she was sick of going out looking for them and finding the same ones like this and then having to feel sad about the fact that she couldn’t change it. Even Just for fun. They’d say, Change it just for fun, and they’d laugh like that was it, like it was just for fun, but it was not fun anymore, and Sandy couldn’t do a goddam thing. So she started quitting earlier and earlier in the day, and she’d sew instead or clean or stare out the window at their apartment in the White Brick. She was getting tired, and she could feel her body getting sore and her mind getting strange and puffy, and she began to wonder if she and Christmas were ever going to leave Kenosha, because suddenly she hated it. Hated it, hated it.
One day she got so sick of it all she went back to the apartment and started filling boxes. Boxes and boxes of shit, of gifts, of Tiffany lamps and silver tea sets, some music box that, when you opened it, played Danny Boy in sad, old-fashioned notes. She packed all the velvet gloves, the Depression glass vases, the quilts and the ashtrays and the watches and the stupid phonograph. She packed the photo albums, some of them with bookmarks of gold thread. She packed a hundred vinyl records signed by musicians, and she packed the crucifix, the very old Bibles, the rosary beads. God, there were a lot of rosary beads. She packed the antique dolls with their weird, bobbling heads and their weird, haunted faces. She packed the jewelry, loads and loads of jewelry, a whole box full of pendants and bracelets alone. The bracelets were gaudy. The pendants were shiny eyes. Sandy held two red ones up in front of her eyes and looked at herself in the bathroom mirror, and she looked like a devil. “Devil, devil!” she said, and threw them in the box with the rest. She packed everything into the Skylark in a thousand wobbling trips. Then she drove out to the interstate and left it parked somewhere along the frontage road with a for-sale sign in the window. The for-sale sign said FOR SALE: ALL OF IT GOES, CAR INCLUDED and it had their phone number at the White Brick but no price.
After, she walked four miles back into town and then took a cab back to the apartment. She felt crazy and exhausted like her body was made of rubber. It had been impulsive to put the car out like that, but she didn’t care. She wanted to be through with the Skylark. She also thought that maybe if she put it up for sale, Christmas would remember why they needed it, and he’d yell, because how were they going to get to Los Angeles now?
But when Christmas got home from work, he was not mad. He tried to understand.
“Why didn’t you at least tell me?” he said. They were standing in the living room, on the carpet which was a sea foam green.
“I couldn’t help it,” she said. “I was out of my mind. We can go get it back.”
He took a moment to think. He seemed to be mulling over his options. “No, no. Let’s sell it. We’ll see what the story is at the end of the month. We’ll just wait and see.”
“Wait and see?” said Sandy.
“It’s fine.” He touched her chin. He kissed her cheek, then her other cheek, then her forehead. It was like, no matter what she did, she was a child. She didn’t say anything else about the car.
Then Christmas said, “It’s so empty in here.”
Sandy looked around. All that was left was the stuff she’d brought from Chicago, or from Kendallville, or all the way from Toledo. There was one of the tin unicorns, and it was tipped over on the shelf beneath the living room window. She set it back up on its feet and straightened the white curtains. She looked around for other things she could straighten. Some of the books had fallen open to the floor, so she went over and picked them up one by one and closed them and put them back on the shelf.
“Time for a change,” Sandy said, standing in the pale, emptied living room with her hands on her hips.
Christmas went into the kitchen and got a book of matches. He lit one of the scented candles on the coffee table, a tall marbly one, brown and black.
She said, “Why are you doing that?”
He said, “Change. Now it smells good.”
“I guess,” Sandy said.
He sniffed the little flame. “Mmm. Coffee. Hey”
“Did you keep any of the stuff?”
“Yeah, the stuff. All the stuff.” He looked around. There was dust everywhere, flying around the room in little clumps. “We should open a window.”
Sandy said, “I did keep something.”
She went to the bedroom to get the broach given to her by a pretty red-headed woman who worked as a reporter for the Kenosha Journal. The broach was pewter leaves and a white bird made of gemstones Sandy didn’t know the name of. Sandy thought it beautiful and had been wearing it on all her sweaters. The woman’s fortune had been suicide by water.
When Sandy got back in the living room, Christmas had all the windows open and was standing in front of them like some kind of hero, the wind in his hair. She handed him the broach and told him where it came from.
“Why did you keep this one?” he said, fingering the gems. “It seems so sad.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I just wanted it.”
“Well, it looks pretty on you.” He pressed it to her collarbone and admired it there. This touch, so fast—she realized she’d forgotten what it was. He gave it back. “You should always wear it.”
She stopped wearing it after that. It was pretty, but still. For some reason now, suicide by water just felt so specific. She could not take it out of her brain. She hid the broach away in the drawer in the kitchen where they kept all the knives.
One afternoon in August, Sandy sat down on a newspaper box outside of Pea-Eye’s Place while waiting for Christmas to get finished with work, and she leaned over and puked on the sidewalk. She’d been feeling a little under the weather all week, which was the only reason she was there visiting him in the first place. Pea-Eye’s was one of the only bars on fifty-second street that Sandy had never gone in with the intention of telling fortunes. Bars were a very good place for fortunes, sure, but not this bar, not the bar where Christmas worked.
“Jesus Christ,” Sandy said, and she spat and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and she thought a gin and ginger would do her good, so she went into the air-conditioned bar, which was empty aside from Christmas cleaning a glass with a white towel. He was the barkeep now. He was looking up at one of the TVs, watching the Brewers, and Sandy thought, oh god, when had it become baseball season? and then she caught Christmas’s eye, and he was happy to see her, but he was different, too.
“Hey, sugar,” he said. “How’s it going? I never see you in here.”
“I’d like a gin and ginger, please,” she said. “Barkeep.”
“You look pale.” He gave her a glass and poured her some ginger ale.
“Gin,” she said, “and ginger.”
“It’s early,” he said.
“What do you care?”
So he shrugged his shoulders and gave her some gin to go with it.
She drank while pushing the curly hair off her face and Christmas leaned over the bar to kiss the hollow of her cheekbone. She told him about how the Skylark had sold, some bright little punk-girl had called, offered one-thousand dollars in cash money, met Sandy out at the interstate that morning with a fat envelope, and took it off their hands for good. They’d both taken taxis. Christmas didn’t seem to care about any of that.
“I just handed her the title,” Sandy said. “And the registration. I just crossed out your name and she wrote hers.”
“Great. A thousand bucks?”
“She had spiky, red hair, Christmas. She was like a wacky child.”
“Was she eighteen at least?”
Sandy shrugged. “Yeah. I made sure.”
“Then there’s no problem.”
They sat for a minute, Christmas still looking up at the game, shining the glasses. Then, a man walked in and sat several seats down by the window. He was wearing a blue jacket and had the crumpled eyes of someone who drinks too much, or has chronic insomnia. Christmas greeted the man as Detective and poured him a glass of whiskey, neat. The man thanked him and said something about the baseball game. “Terrible shame,” Christmas said. When he came back, Sandy waited to be introduced to the detective but was not. She figured the detective must not be important enough, or else she wasn’t. She sipped her drink one more time, then she pushed it away.
“I feel all funny,” she said.
“You look pretty,” Christmas said and squinted at her. “But pale. Are you okay?”
She didn’t know. She felt a mess. “I puked on the sidewalk,” she told him. “I tried kicking it away, but you can still see it. It’s not so much. Just bile. I’m sorry.”
She nodded her head and after just a couple more minutes, decided to leave. On her way out, she smiled at the detective with the blue jacket and the whiskey neat. He smiled, too. She thought, a detective is an interesting thing. She wondered what kind of crimes he solved and where he came from and if she’d ever see him again. She thought of what his fortune would be, if she were to touch his hands and tell it, but of course she would never touch his hands. She would never tell it. She went home.
At home, she went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, touched her fingers to the glass and said, “I’m going to tell my own fortune. I am going to do it.”
She waited. She said, “I can do it.” She could not do it. She couldn’t bring herself to do it, and she didn’t even know if she was able. Anyway, she didn’t have to tell her own fortune to know what was coming. She already knew.
Her period was late, and she was feeling sick. It meant one thing. She couldn’t change this, either.
A few nights later, in bed, after cards in the living room and one glass of red wine, Sandy decided to ask Christmas about Los Angeles. She needed to know. She said, “We haven’t talked about it in so long, Christmas. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t forget.”
He sighed. It was so big, his sigh. He was always sounding more like a man, it seemed to her, like he had responsibilities and power and weight in the world. Sandy didn’t know this part of him, and it was new and she couldn’t tell if it made him seem depressed or just serious. She only knew that it made her feel alone. “I didn’t forget,” he said.
They were still in the dark. Sandy rolled over on top of him then, and she pressed her small, cute body into his and she breathed into his ear. She wanted him to relax. He did, even if just for a moment, but he got hard, too, so she reached down to grab him. “I will tell your fortune,” she said pulling on it and making it hers, “for sex.” She kissed both of his eyes. She wanted to feel like a woman, not a little girl, but Christmas didn’t respond like she wanted him to. He got quiet and kind of tossed her off of him.
“What?” she said, and she felt sensitive about it, like her face was going to get so red it would melt off and die. “I’ve never told your fortune. Haven’t you ever thought of that?”
“I’ve thought of it,” he said. “I don’t want my fortune told.”
“Why?” Sandy said. “I’m retired now. On the house.”
“I just don’t want it.”
“But why?” she said. “We used to live off my fortunes. My fortunes were your idea!”
“It’s not important to me, Sandy,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
By then, the mood had passed, and the dark in the room was no longer charged with their love and their sex. It was limp now and boring and it made Sandy think of Toledo and everything they had left behind. “What’s not important?” she said.
“The fortunes. They’re not important.”
So she said to him, “Fuck you.”
He shook his head. She could barely see his face, but she could sense that concerned look spreading all over. She wanted to slap it.
“But it’s not real,” she said to him. “The fortunes aren’t real.”
“You say that,” Christmas said, “but it could be, in some way or another, it could be real, and I don’t want to know.”
“It’s not real!” she said and said it again. “It’s not real! It’s not real!”
“Fine,” said Christmas. He was serious now and tired at the same time. He had turned onto his side away from her. “Then why don’t you go into the bathroom and look into the mirror and look at yourself and tell your own fortune.”
Sandy swallowed. She was not about to tell him that she’d already tried, that it didn’t work. She’d seen nothing. She’d only known. She was not about to tell him what she knew. Not now.
So she said, “Fine. I’ll do it,” and left the bedroom. She went down the little hall to the bathroom, and as she went, she wondered why they’d left Indiana in the first place, why they’d even left Ohio. They were the same in Kenosha, she was sure, as they ever would have been in Toledo.
In the bathroom, she looked in the mirror, just like last time. In the mirror, she was pretty with curly balls of brown hair on her head. She looked very sweet and approachable in the mirror, with her little, white hands on her stomach. “Hello,” she said to the mirror.
Mirror-Sandy nodded and said, “Hello.”
Sandy said, “How are you today?"
Mirror-Sandy said, “I’m very well. How are you?”
Sandy said, “Oh, I’m just fine. Hey, you look like a nice person.” She said, “I bet you’re a really nice person and you come from a really nice place. You look like a person that somebody would want to be friends with.”
She was wearing a night gown and this was very unbecoming. She went into the kitchen, because she remembered the broach. She took it out of the knife drawer and came back into the bathroom, and in the mirror, she fitted the broach to her night gown, right in the middle of her chest. “That’s better,” she said, tapping two fingers to the broach. “Now you are pretty, too. I bet you are even desirable!”
Then she took off the broach. She looked at it one more time in her hand, little sparkling bird of sadness, and she flushed it down the toilet. “You are not mine,” she said to the broach as it went down. There was a moment of release, a moment in which she felt free, free to fly and to live any way and anywhere she wanted! The moment went away.
Back in the bedroom, Christmas said, “So, what did you see?”
Sandy just lifted the covers and got into bed. She said, “Nothing, Christmas. You were right.” They said goodnight to each other in the dark. She listened as he fell asleep, but she could not sleep.
Sandy wrapped herself around Christmas to remind herself that he existed. His muscles felt stronger and harder and bigger, like he was grown-up and like he was someone else’s Christmas, like he didn’t belong to her anymore and she wasn’t sure where or to whom she belonged. She wondered what he did all day, working that bar. Was he lifting heavy things or merely cleaning the glasses? Did he have friends there? Did they know about her? And the clientele—Who did he pour drinks for in this town? Aside from the detectives. Vagrants? Homeless? Alcoholics? Bikers? Lonely women of a certain age? Sandy had never thought about any of this before, but of course, she knew. Everybody went to Pea-Eye’s in this town. It was that kind of place. This was that kind of town: everybody always running into each other, and she didn’t really know any of them—just her and Christmas and the same old people, their same old lives, over and over and over and over.
Song of Captivity
Sarcasm was a kind of pep talk for the withered landscape and palm trees filling the wind with their convulsions. And from that point forward the moon led the citizens astray through theaters of sand and marathon video chats with malicious strangers back-dropped by blue screen. To compensate for the culture of death we wore hats in the manner of gentlemen in Fellini films. But one by one they found us drowned in our own fluids, wearing gas masks and clutching Mother Jones to our chests. Though radiance remained in the bowl of rotten fruit on the sill and in the synthesizer music and sunrise paint. Behind and around us the mind’s environment was cast out of its frame. Where we wondered lost. Up to our knees in the discarded wings of pet birds. But we heard a whistle. And a whistle returned.
After the influx of electronic mail and unrestrained weeping, among the rotten plums of the courtyard, I found a rip in the smoking tapestry of rent and suicides. I peered beneath the crowns of napalm at the fluorescent vegetation flecked like a form of displaced adoration: an epidural of poison berries and pachysandra thorns. The dead Russian painters once declared the symbols had entrapped them. It became a freedom that turned black as charcoal on the lawyer’s toast. The open drain of the past patiently rendered on the filthy subway walls where I take the 93 steps on the way out. And hold my nose. Up through the cramps and the harried loom to the potted streets and the helium cries of strange birds descending.
The freeway weeps at dawn. I cannot strike these words from my mouth. Crash helmet in my lap and a block of diapers stacked to the rearview. The antiseptic despair of hotel pools passes in a blur of blue light along the periphery. I am heavy from the harsh tone of straight talk and volumes of data poured through the senses. But we have holidays to attend. Mothers to porter down hallways of accumulated stains. The tyranny feels real this coming winter. Its icy air always a painful glass to look through. Razor burns on the face of a saint in the waiting room where nervous parents dote on the hurt and fearful children. When combined with food stamps it makes a meager sandwich and a side of stems. But we’re never as hungry as the surgeries looping the limbs of patients like blue vines that grow long. Like an extension of our souls.
Like a baseless accusation we watch the sun dive. Pensive and cold the spotlit flag nurtures a black bloom and erases the bird songs from the trees. I am walking down the street with what’s left of the day—a canele shell in my hands filled with the flesh of ashed orchards. A season of strange bugs put to rest and into perspective. The way we cling to our macaroni art and Lhasa Apsos with a view of city lights spidering out into space. As the last bus leaves behind what we fail to comprehend in our folly of whisky and aesthetic of smoke. It slanders our fidelity with its stench. Devolved from a sign of trust and friendship the enzymes revolt in our stomachs. As always, it only takes a thought to banish ourselves like daisies in fall, lost in the waves flashing white on the bay that blind the eyes of dogs lapping ice deep in the honeycomb of windows and light. The lots soundlessly vacant of crows and miniature men, the lingering borealis of repetitive dreams shines like a distant mist in the eastern sky like a carcass cape unfurled. And goats climb blanched rainbows high into hills tilting toward stars.
A View in the Fog
We are waiting for my brother to close the transaction. This is America’s first frontier—where variables are endless and depress you. Enraged by the opulence into a practice of profit and steady pains, it’s the stupidest thing that trips you up. Heart like a gristmill. Or a kite. The wide-open spaces have conditioned a reaction of overreach and overweening pride. In the cramped city empathy burns out and is tossed into the breach. The spring’s lattice of rain compels a downward looking perspective at the boxes in which young men lie. Like blank address books a dimension of nobodies on the curb by the park in moth bitten caps with holes in their eyes. They pick wild flowers without a theory, feeling that despite it there is love.
Be careful. There is some sort of gaping hole in the front yard. It’s a sinkhole, I think, or it’s a pit of quick sand maybe (probably—I mean, it seems to be swallowing the yard, the trees, flowers, grass, driveway, me). You have to step around it on the tips of your tip toes. You have to pick your way through like a ballerina en pointe.
It helps if you spread your arms high above your head. It helps if you pretend you’re graceful. If you allow the sun to catch you full in the face. If you block out the feelings of rage swelling in your belly. If you use the pick ax to take down the dead shrubs in the front yard. If you leave the car idling in the garage the whole time.
Take a swing at me. I’m a dust bowl. A dream. I’ll dissolve to ash before you can blink.
If you would like to sit in the living room with me and drink iced sweet tea from sweating china cups, press one. If you would like to hang out with me in the kitchen while I cook you chicken and dumplings and we share a bottle of beer, press two. If you would like to sit with me on the back porch drinking wine coolers looking out into the parking lot, press three. If you would like to lie on my bed, staring at the ceiling while I slowly undress you, press four. If you would like to cut my head off, press five. If you would like to come in out of the cold, press six.
Together we create a language that no one else understands is a lie. We don’t just believe in god because we desire to be saved is a lie. There is a sinkhole in my front yard and I need your help with it is a lie.
But still it’s there, the hole, an atrial spetal defect. Can you feel the arrhythmias pulsing us out into dust? Did you wear your protective face plate? Can I kiss you through it? Do you miss being kissed? Do you think about what my mouth tastes like? The dental hygienist said I probably have more plaque than normal people. It builds up on my teeth like concrete.
If you want to get around the hole in the front yard, consider investing in a steel bridge. Or a ladder you could lay sideways to be a bridge. Or a handful of friends who will link hands you can walk over like a bridge. Basically you could use some sort of a bridge to bridge the gap between here and there so that you can: a) come into my house and fuck the shit out of me, b) come into my house and cry with me here in the living room, my grandmother’s china cups lying in pieces on the laminate, c) pace outside my front door in a threatening way, or d) all of the above.
I need you to come over now, I’m stuck, sunk in the sand to my stomach. Being so still allows me to hear moths shifting in their cocoons. It sounds like rubbing lace between two fingers. It sounds like your breath when you breathe into my mouth. Please.