But I have to give it up to Douglas Glover for Savage Love, if only because it’s such a showcasing of why short fiction exists and what writers can do with the form. The stories are punchy, experimental, daring, dark, and funny in ways a novel or a poem cannot be. Oh, and they’re also really damn good. You’ll laugh, be appalled, cringe, and cringe, and cringe. — Chad Pelly
A good essay on Donoso whom I had the good fortune to meet in 1986 when he came to Saratoga Springs for a panel discussion with Cabrera Infante and Luisa Valenzuela (um, whom I got to dance with at the party). Juan Rulfo, also mentioned here, is, of course, the subject of my essay “Pedro the Uncanny.” Brilliant writers. Read the essay.
José Donoso (1924-96) is a vast writer. Though considered part of the Latin American “Boom” of the 1960s, Donoso remained on the periphery of the movement, little known until he produced his masterpiece The Obscene Bird of Night in 1970. Though Donoso’s work shares some superficial surrealist, political, and indigenous touches with the famous writers of the era (Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, and Cortazar being the big four), Donoso’s achievement is considerably different from theirs, and in my opinion inestimably greater, fit to stand alongside the equally brilliant Juan Rulfo.
Donoso’s basic strategy across his work is to take two or more (sometimes many more) conflicting realities—cosmoses, really—and let them generate a panoply of shifting views onto their intersection. Yet this is to downplay the dark, visceral nature of all his writing, at its peak in The Obscene Bird of Night. It is rare for a work so surreal, so confusing, so experimental, to seem so wholly lived, utterly thought through in all its multiplicative chaos.
Joel Thomas Hynes is an actor and author from Newfoundland, an actor who has invented himself as a character, loosely based on himself, and then become the author he invented his character to be. Something like that anyway. He’s very funny, touching, acerbic, raw, scatological, and Rabelaisian. He’s a voice, a character actor — everything he writes has that down-home outport dialect that is at once subversive, hilarious and charged with poetry (and offense). He has made himself a piece of performance art, performed himself on stage, in films, in bars, in streets. He has become his other self. Wonderful to see.
This is an excerpt from a new novella, Say Nothing Saw Wood, just published in a beautiful edition by Running the Goat Books & Broadsides in Tors Cove. With illustrations by Gerald Squires. Read the text, and take a look at the video below of his Manifesto monologue.
“O’ great saint Jude, whose traitor-sounding name, by man’s perceptions crude, confused is with the infamy and blame of him who to our gain and his disaster betrayed so kind a Master.”
Lost causes. Great St. Jude. Jude Shannon Traynor. Sounds a bit girlish I s’pose. Shannon is after me mother. Never knew her. Traynor being me father’s crowd. Leonard J. Traynor, so says me birth certificate. J for Joseph or John, one of them other bible names. Use to think it mighta stood for Jude. Len’s long gone too. All was left of him was the hood of his oilskin coat. Boat was called the Shannon Marie. People said Len was just askin for it to name ’er after a dead woman. I always thought it was a nice name for a boat.
They were takin in their gillnets for the year-end. Himself and his brother Angus. October. That undertow off Claire’s Head. So. Yeah. Angus, every time he told the story he always told it different. Sometimes he said Len fell overboard and other times he said he jumped. They stuck the hood of Len’s oilskin into a coffin with a set of rosary beads, a few flowers. Sunk the works into the dirt.
Dont remember much about Leonard. At the hay in the stable one summer, gettin me to jump it down. Never leave the prong lyin flat in the hay. Accident waitin to happen. I got one decent memory of his face, ’bout a month before he was lost. Maybe. Hard to keep things straight. Sometimes I dont know if a memory is a real thing or just some lie I’m tellin meself to help me get by.
Len, standin at me mother’s grave. Sunday clothes. Hard time keepin his balance, sorta lopsided. He dont say a word. Blesses hisself, bangs a nail back into her fence with a chunk of marble. Turns and looks at me. I’m sure he’s gonna crack me one. His teeth are… and his eyes. I used to like to think I had his eyes. Grabs me by the back of the neck and shoves me forward. I trips, lands face first onto me mother’s grave. Next he got me up in his arms, walkin me out through the gates of the graveyard. Funny walk, like he got a limp in both legs. Thick smell of tobacco off him. Tobacco and salt fish.
Tomorrow’s the fifteenth. Twelve years to the day I was shipped off to Dorchester. Life-seven. Non-capital murder. There’s no such thing as that no more. All a matter of degrees nowadays. I aint been back to the Cove in twelve years. I s’pose I’m calmed down a bit. Jail. Few years workin the bush out west, after I got out. Cracked to be headed back, what? I mean, I shagged it up once. Once. I was seventeen years old. A lifetime ago. Sharp as yesterday sometimes too.
The night her purse was found I took to the woods behind the house. Sloshed me way through the Beaver Gullies till I hit the highway in back of the Cove. Long old night. Got a run though. Right to Town. Knocked around the bars on Water Street. Got talkin to some foreign fella off the boats. Offered me a berth. Vodka. I came to in Victoria Park, just about froze to the ground, some old queer rootin at me belt. Missed me boat of course. I got drunker then. Later on that morning I read me name in the paper. Jude Shannon Traynor. It was funny, seein it in print like that. I read it over and over. Just that bit. Just me name.
Couple more days beatin around Town like that and gettin picked up was a bit of a relief, really. Smell of diesel, me head bouncin off the steel floor of the Paddy Wagon. I started screamin for Margie. I mighta been bawlin.
“You need not say anything, you have nothing to hope from any promise or favour and nothing to fear from any threat, whether or not you say anything. Anything you say may be used as evidence.”
Say nothing, saw wood, I said, over and over. Say nothing, saw wood.
Eight weeks locked up in St. John’s waitin to go to court. Lawyers. Doctors. Mounties. Plead guilty, make it easier on yourself. Not guilty, I said. Well, they paraded every arsehole and his dog into the court to have a say about me. This head doctor makin me out to be some kinda crackpot. Fellas I hung around with all me life.
Margie. She wouldnt even look at me in the court. Never once came to see me all the while I was held in St. John’s. Wrote her a bunch of letters from Dorchester. She never wrote back. They werent exactly love letters I s’pose. Couple of letters from Harold when I first went away. Deep shit, how some moose tried to mount a cow in the lower meadow. Harold. One thing that struck me as odd though was Harold’s version of how the purse was found. How Mrs. Alfreda’s horse found the purse in the stall of our stable, carried it down the lane in his mouth and dropped it at Angus’s feet. But how there was a few fellas standing around at the time. Don Keough and them. How they all put it together that something wasnt quite right, that there mighta been something else. Poor old Angus, no choice but to turn me in. I s’pose it all gets twisted up after a while and it dont matter what the truth is so long as there’s a good story. And everyone else’s hands are clean.
—Joel Thomas Hynes
And watch JTH’s MANIFESTO here.
Joel Thomas Hynes is the award winning author of the novels Down to the Dirt and Right Away Monday; the notoriously cheeky chapbook God Help Thee: A Manifesto; a collection of poetic non-fiction called Straight Razor Days; the novella Say Nothing Saw Wood; and numerous acclaimed stageplays. Hynes has written and directed two short films, Clipper Gold and Little Man, and has also performed numerous leading and principle roles for television and film including Down to The Dirt, Crackie, Hatching Matching and Dispatching, Rabbitown, Republic of Doyle and Re-Genesis. His first novel, Down to the Dirt, is available in numerous translations around the globe and has been adapted to stage and the big screen. The movie, featuring Hynes in the lead role, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, received many accolades and awards at national festivals and was showcased at Cannes Film Festival. Hynes most recently penned the feature film adaptation of Say Nothing Saw Wood, which is currently in post-production and will hit the festival circuit in the spring of 2014.
The Forte-May debates on Numéro Cinq have tipped me over into a fascination with Marcel Duchamp. Whenever people get into a debate, it’s always good to dive beneath the surface and teach yourself something and come to an individual conclusion. Here’s the second interview I’ve put up here in two days. Duchamp is surprisingly personable and amiable, and, as he tells his story, quite reasonable. Watching these interviews you get a sense of traditions and movements clarified through his history and his relationship with movements. This interview is in English and doesn’t display any images.
A Fata Morgana is a mirage visible just above the horizon line. The name is a hybrid term, with the Latin word for “fairy” combined with a reference to Morgan le Fay, the sinister witch from the legends of King Arthur. It makes sense: These optical illusions could easily be mistaken for sorcery, as light refraction distorts the image of a ship or an island from just beyond the horizon line, piling doubles and doppelgangers on top of each other, stretching or compressing them until they become almost unrecognizable.
Fata Morgana is also the name of the French publisher who brought out the original edition of Jonathan Littell’s new book of novellas, called in English The Fata Morgana Books, apparently as gesture of respect to the house that first issued them. If so, the coincidence is as surreal and bizarre as the stories in this strange short book, which rise like the faux castles and continents that baffled sailors in the Straits of Messina four hundred years ago, shimmering inexplicably at the far edge of the visible world.
Those who come to these tales expecting the standard protocols of narrative fiction, perhaps having just finished The Kindly Ones (Les Bienveillantes), Littell’s perverse epic Nazi confessional masterpiece (and winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2006), will find themselves adapting to a very different type of fiction. If as Umberto Eco suggests, any text molds its “model reader,” recalibrating the expectations of the audience from the first sentences, then Littell makes you over into a sensual voyeur of cryptic often displaced, deferred or interrupted erotic events unfolding among lovely but anonymous people who for all their couplings remain distant and alone.
“Études,” the first of the four novellas that make up the book, is itself written in four parts, or études, and describes the sporadic romance between the writer and B., his girlfriend. In the section called “A summer Sunday,” they are stuck with a group of friends in a city emptied by the war raging nearby. The writer longs for B., contemplates kissing her, but fails to act, “crucified by desire and fear.” Later he chides himself for obsessing over the incident: “You should learn to grow yourself a skin before you play at scraping it with a razor of such poor quality.”
In “The Wait,” the writer returns to Paris, the only named city in all of the interlocking stories, and waits – for a government posting, for word from the writer, for his life to begin. He entertains himself with a brief homosexual fling and then subsides into a waking coma of impatience and dissatisfaction.
As “Between Planes,” the third étude, begins, the war is back on center stage, disrupting civilian life without ever coming into focus. We read about “rioters” passing by in “commandeered trucks, waving green branches and chanting slogans against the new authorities,” whoever they may be. The narrator has a new girlfriend, C. who is traveling between an alphabet soup of anonymous cities, G____, K____ and M____ on various military transport planes, somehow never quite available for a meeting.
On one occasion the writer scores a job moving freight from the city, allowing him a layover with C. But a set of Kafka-esque bureaucratic entanglements, never described in detail, leave him standing on the tarmac, refused boarding privileges, clutching a yellow flower his hand. The situation is muddled, but the image lingers in the mind. The relationship with C. stutters forward, with shared insomnia and occasional revelations (she has a child, for instance, whom she had never mentioned and whom we never see). The writer never gets a clear view of her and neither does the reader; only the writer’s emotions remain clear. He is “distraught” at her aloof demeanor, “Mad with suffering,” but always “something very strong prevented me from pushing, from provoking her to a rejection that would at least have the merit of being clear.”
Littell salts these elusive events with striking images that shine brightly for a moment, revealing their emotional truth, car headlights glinting off the reflectors that mark a sharp curve on a dark road.
I was sitting in the lobby of the office where she was with the administrator when a little black and white bird flew in. It began walking around with disjointed but calm little steps, surprised at the closed door. Then it turned on a little moth that was sleeping there and attacked it with its beak. The moth struggled, but in vain and the bird swallowed it in a cloud of scales, a fine white dust of torn-off wings forming a luminous halo around its head.
This moment seems to define the power relationships in the entire story, both political and personal. At the end we are left with one more rejection and another cancelled flight.
The fourth étude, “Fait Accompli,” the most impressive text in the entire collection, features a leap into third person and an attempt at pure emotional abstraction. We have two characters – unnamed, of course, undescribed, virtually undifferentiated – thinking about the process of thinking about each other. Are these two people the characters from the earlier études? It must be, but it’s hard to be sure, because we have plunged from a satellite view of their actions to a close-up so extreme that we’re studying the pores on their faces, unable to see the larger features. This works because of the repetition of certain phrases, the obsessive recycling of language that perfectly captures to futile spin of the mind coping with jealousy and rejection. The narrative is abstract the way ballet is abstract. It’s a a dance of despair. The reader provides the music:
For him then, two questions, that is question 1 the other or not the other, and question 2 her or not her, To these two questions four solutions, that is solution 1 him without her without the other, solution 2 him with her without the other, solution 3 him without her with the other, solution 4 him with her with the other. Now for him at this stage with the other out of the question and hence out of the question solutions 3 and 4, remain numbers I and 2, without the other or without her, hence why not with, it wasn’t so bad, and it would be almost like before, except that in the meantime there would have been that. But here precisely is the problem, since for him with the other out of the question, for her without the other out of the question, of this he is certain, even without asking her I mean. So if for her, without the other out of the question, then out of the question solutions 1 and 2, remain thus numbers 3 and 4, already out of the question. So start again.
And he does.
The lover imagines various scenes with various settings – a Moscow subway station, a park at night, a restaurant, scenes with them walking or sitting, talking or silent or just exchanging letters, the phrases recurring — “the cage the locked window the key thrown in the pond”; “eating your cake and having it too” — the options divided by the chanted “or else.” Or else, or else, or else, with no solution, no conclusion, just an unfiltered, eventually unpunctuated down-spiral of despair with an unnerving intimation of violence: “Love in the garbage can, blood everywhere,” and the sudden possibility that all the time he has talking about not another lover but a child, not a three-way affair but a family, not a break up but an abortion. So the story becomes not simply the wild gyrating thoughts of a lover trapped by circumstance, but a plea for mercy. One can only hope that the woman will take his advice have the child, live happily ever, eat her cake and have it too.
But the chances are slim.
The remaining novellas feel connected, and Littell clarifies their subject, theme and purpose early in the first one, “Story about Nothing”:
…I didn’t really know if I was driving, or if, stretched out in this vast heat on the sheetless rectangle of my mattress, I was dreaming that I was driving, or even if I was having this sleeping-driver dream in the midst of driving, my hands inert on the black leather hoop of the steering wheel. Sleeping, I said to myself: one should write about this and nothing else, not about people, not about me, not about absence or about presence, not about life or about death, not about things seen or heard, not about love, not about time. Already it had taken shape.
We watch while it happens. The narrative devolves into reverie. The narrator drives to the beach, swims far out to sea, hears a woman’s voice calling him back – but from the dream of swimming not the swim itself; but the woman is only another dream, one more fata morgana mirage piling up on the horizon line.
He visits a friend’s house and the first thing he sees is a mirror, which will become the defining image for the remainder of this story and the final texts in the collection, “In Quarters” and “An Old Story.” Mirrors proliferate, cracked mirrors that evoke vaginas, black mirrors that threaten to swallow the narrator, mirrors on every wall and above every bed, reflecting every sexual act. And the sexual acts proliferate, to the edge of pornography, ever more perverse, from simple adultery to cross-dressing and three-ways and orgies.
At one point, the narrator is the only male at a lesbian pool party, though he’s dressed as a woman and many of the other woman seem to be hermaphrodites. Consciousness refracted through this hormonal haze creates its own stacked mirages: at one point he watches a porn film under a mirror that watches him watching the actors and seems to watch us watching all of them. You reel, amused, appalled, dizzy, from one surreal incident to the next. The narrator attends bull fights, nibbles lime sorbet beside swimming pools, enjoys affairs with interchangeable lovers, and somehow in the rush of action and memory, images or insights glint:
I had never received anything from her, either good or bad, she had never granted me any rights or down me any wrongs; what she had given me she had given freely, just as she had taken it back from me, and there was nothing to say to that, even though I was burning from head to foot in a fire of ice that left no ash. At the same time, I couldn’t have cared less about her.
Who is she? It doesn’t matter. The dream is moving on, in this case into the next novella, “In Quarters,” which amplifies and deepens the dream imagery, with an even more delicate filament of reality holding the scenes together. The story starts and ends in a large communal house with the narrator surrounded by busy adults and swarms of children, none of whom seem to notice him. One of the children, a blond boy who keeps turning up, may or may not be the narrator’s biological child.
Eventually he leaves this exclusionary idyll and returns to his own apartment, shadowed by mysterious men in black overcoats, a sinister surveillance that contrasts sharply with the way he moves through the big house like a ghost. He meets a woman at his apartment, they have sex, examine brutal war photographs, and before we can discern what their actual relationship might be, he’s on a train. It arrives at the destination and we watch the dreamer wandering around the town, looking for his friends, amid a tense atmosphere of unspecified political unrest.
Soldiers, overheard ominously talking about some faction “going too far” and “provoking” us, recall the early sections of the first novella “Études,” — the characters enjoying an eerie holiday atmosphere of a town cut off by war. And everywhere, shapes float on other shapes, pools against lawns, coverlets on beds, even the Rothko like squares in a painting that seems to watch the author as he moves around the room, evoking mirrors. Then the narrator finds some handwritten pages, a story in his own hand, which he doesn’t recognize, though it describes the events that began this narrative: wandering unseen through the densely populated mansion. “In any case it has nothing to do with me.”
The reflections and mirages continue to pile up. Eventually he returns to the mansion to find that the blond boy who might be his son has fallen ill. He sits by the boy’s bedside. “He raised his hand and placed it over my own, it was light as a cat’s paw, dry and burning.”
Everyone else still ignores the narrator — except the doctor, who eventually pays a house call. When he walks the doctor to his car in the street outside the mansion, the men in black close in, presumably to arrest him. For what crime? We can only hope he’ll awaken before he finds out.
And then we come to “An Old Story,” the final novella, which begins and ends with a man breaking the surface of a swimming pool from below, stroking up into the recycled air of the health club, or mansion basement, or prison exercise area, or … well, in fact the location of the pool doesn’t really matter. It’s too deeply buried in the unconscious mind of the narrator to need a geographical tag. By now it’s a familiar spot anyway, filled with strangers, surrounded by mirrors, the gateway to another cycle of dreams.
In this case the circular nature of the sequences become explicit. The narrator dons a track suit and starts jogging along a circular corridor, opening various doors, going inside for a surreal experience, then leaving and jogging on. In the first room he seems to be married, with a son much like the one in the previous story. There are problems with the electrical service, another theme that will recur through all the following vignettes, along with the plaintive excuse that the narrator called the electrician twice to have all the wiring overhauled. There are paintings that seem to observe the action and mirrors that reflect them, and a sense of menace and war in the background, and sex, always plenty of sex. In this case the child catches the narrator and the woman in the act. He runs off and the woman goes to find him. Night has turned to day, and the narrator steps outside into a lovely garden, feeling “a strong morning heat that clung to the skin.” Once again, a crystalline, perfectly observed image anchors the floating world for us.
Soon the narrator is running along the corridor again. Soon he finds another room, with another bed and another woman and another set of mirrors, the bed like all of them covered in “a heavy golden cloth, embroidered with long green grass” that evokes the chaise lounge on the lush lawn of a previous story. Here windows facing into the night (it’s night again) take on the looking-glass chores. And the sex grows funkier, with the woman using a dildo on the narrator in a prolonged scene rescued from the prurient and the salacious by the eerie detachment of the narrator himself.
He wakes up into another dream, another room, another bed with the same coverlet, and another woman, Here again the exotic raunch, escalates, with the narrator cross dressing and finding himself attending the lesbian pool party mentioned earlier. The pool itself functions as another mirror. And it goes on: he becomes by turns a child slave, the murderer victor in a conflict with a gay male prostitute, a voyeur, a sex-starved scavenger roams a surreal gay bathhouse, once again caught by the child in an even more compromising position and finally the leader of some barbaric Medieval army engaged in a war vague enough to echo the peripheral battles that began the collection. The woman in this story he rapes and murders, as the increasing perversity of these linked dreams starts to spiral out of control.
Then, when it seems like nothing more could possibly happen, the narrator is emerging from the water, breaking the surface of the pool, back where he started, at the beginning of the novella, and seemingly cued up to begin again, launched into a sequence of dreams perpetually eating its own tail, a nightmare of recurrence from which he can never wake up.
Littell’s message remains constant in these shifting tableaux: life may be largely meaningless, but is nevertheless redeemed by isolated moments of pure beauty We are hopelessly self-conscious, yet tragically incapable of real self-awareness, doomed to repeat both our pleasures and our mistakes until we learn to distinguish between them.
It’s a gorgeous tour through a world of human excess and futility, exhilarating and exhausting, a world, yes, ruled by repetition, doubling and displacement, a world in which the mind cannot escape the mind. After a couple of hundred pages squinting at the fabulous fata morganas of a refracted continent, I longed to make landfall and feel the actual sand between my toes. But I suspect that was at least part of Littell’s intent. Like many deep water ocean voyages, this one had passages of fear and boredom, but also exalted spikes of strangeness and beauty you could never encounter closer to shore.
Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the Writers Guild of America (west), though he hasn’t worked in Hollywood for several years. Poisoned Pen Press will be kicking off his Henry Kennis Nantucket mystery series in January, with Nantucket Sawbuck. The second installment, Nantucket Five-Spot, is scheduled for 2015. He’s also publishing his dark noir thriller Heat of the Moment next year with Gutter Books. Two excerpts from that novel have appeared in the most recent issues of “BigPulp” and “PulpModern” magazines. Steven’s work can be also be found on line at TheGoodmenProject and Salon.com. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island where he writes novels and paints houses, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers. His web site is here.
“There is only one possible law of style: write to the maximum of intensity and incantation.” That’s Hubert Aquin, from his 1968 novel Trou de Mémoire (Blackout in the English translation). It’s the only rule you need for writing and for life. And the novel itself is astonishing for its combination of obsession and rupture.
And here is a Jacques Godbout documentary about Aquin; Godbout, an eminent novelist and filmmaker, published two of my books in French in his capacity as editor of éditions du Boréal in Montreal (Les Pas de L’ourse and Seize sortes de désir)
“Mara” is a demon-lover story, something ancient refashioned for the present, dense with literary echoes. Its style is vaguely familiar yet out of time, uncanny in the sense Freud used the word. Adam Biles calls it a Boys’ Own adventure story for grown men. There are shades here of Conrad, Poe, Fuentes, Hoffmann, and, of course, Keats.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
…Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
…Hath thee in thrall!”
Adam Biles lives in Paris. He was a finalist for the inaugural Paris Literary Prize in 2011.
When the Nüwa puts into port, I count off what she unloads and count on what she picks up. I tip the customs official whatever he asks and record the amount in the ship’s ledger. It is of no interest to me what cargo we carry, nor do I care which city of which country we are in. With my duties carried out I return to my chair on the upper deck. From there I fix upon the horizon as we crisscross endlessly from one coast to another of the South China Sea.
My days pass in a trance. Thoughts are rare, ducking into and out of my mind like the occasional sea birds that sweep across my view. I dwell little on the past, less on the future. For years my destiny has been in the hands of another. I eat when I remember, and piss and shit when my body demands. Otherwise I sit and watch… not even the horizon, just the space in between, the void that reaches out before me.
I am writing now only because of the growing feeling that my time is short. This has awakened within me the desire to transmit, to leave something small behind. I thought these desires had been extinguished long ago. A worthy testament, no doubt, to the flame of human endurance.
May this document serve as a warning.
I wasn’t born to the sea. For the first twenty five years of my life home was B———, a town in the south of England. I was married – perhaps I still am – and had a little boy who’d inherited my eyes. I worked as an accountant for a local firm with which my father-in-law had connections. I suppose I was happy, although I have journeyed too far from the man I was to be able to say for sure.
Mara lived at the rich end of town. Everyone knew her house as The Carters’ – the name of the family that owned it before her. The Carters left under a cloud: the father throwing himself from the suspension bridge, leaving the family to be swallowed by the web of debts he’d spun before his escape. The townspeople were sympathetic, but there was nothing to be done. The remaining Carters vanished and the house was sold. Mara was young when she took possession of that grand old residence. She arrived alone and was rarely seen, so it was assumed she was a wealthy widow and everyone kept their timorous distance. There was talk, and rumours flowered, but with nothing to feed on they soon withered away.
I had inherited the file of a company with extensive offshore holdings. It was as thick as the Domesday book and dated from soon after the establishment of the firm. It was remarkable for its size, the number of my predecessors who had handled it through the years, and the intriguing legal exemptions that had been negotiated on the company’s behalf. The names of twenty seven accountants were pencilled on the cardboard folder, starting with the old man, long retired, who had given his name to the firm. Otherwise the accounts were impeccable, better kept than any I had seen. It was only when I arrived at the address on the folder that I realised the company was run out of the Carters’ former home.
I wasn’t perturbed. The job was interesting because of the value of the business and the peculiarities of the case, but was otherwise just the tedious number shuffling I was used to. As a young man I’d dreamt of making a living from writing – nothing high-brow or important, just the kind of swashbuckling boys adventure stories I had adored as a child. Then I met my wife. Mesmerised by her angular Nordic beauty I had allowed her family to shepherd me into a more conventionally gainful existence. At work, therefore, I fought to sustain myself by focussing on the anomalous cases. I devoted myself to the files in which I thought I could sniff out a story, living vicariously through the evasions and petty risks taken by my clients, hoping that behind the irregularities lay an adventure story worthy of the Boy’s Own Paper. The case of this offshore holdings company intrigued me from the start and when I found myself standing outside the Carter house my expectations somersaulted into a whole new realm.
How to describe a woman to whom I have never been anything more than a slave? How also to think myself back into the mind of a man in whose corpse I have been sailing this unforgiving continent for seven long years? How to see things again through his dead eyes? Impossible! I can only recall my thoughts as they developed during that first encounter and commit them to paper as they come.
Whenever I’d heard talk of that mysterious widow I had imagined a fragile creature, bird like, her delicate frame quivering beneath its sentimental burden. I have no idea whether Mara was a widow, although I doubt it. There was nothing of death about her. She was short and heavily built. Her body, visible through her black silk dress as she approached the front door, was a congregation of ample cupolas and deeply arcing crescents. She wasn’t one of Rubens’ women. Her curves were too bestial and hard for any Baroque ogress. Her ropey muscles twitched and gnarled beneath the dress as she moved. Not that she was trained to lift weights or run laps – nothing so manufactured as that. She was built only, like a lioness, for the hunt.
With the door open I saw that her skin was nut brown and leatherish, and her limbs were covered in a thin layer of black down. Her hair, black too and long, was twisted into a crude plait which she wore over her shoulder and fondled like a snake handler. Errant tongues fell forward framing her heavy, porcine features within which two black, bead like eyes were deeply set. She was of no “people” I knew. Not Mediterranean, nor from any nomadic nation. She was, however, unmistakably Southern, from somewhere far nearer the spring of original life than any of my pallid fellows. She was at once deeply ugly and yet oddly, carnally enticing. I had never felt this about any woman I had met before and, I can now assuredly say, would never feel so about any woman again.
She spoke only to tell me her name, pronounced with a thick rolling “r”, and to ask me to follow her down the long hallway into the dining room. The house was sparsely furnished for its size. Apart from the basic furniture the only adornments were five humanoid figurines on the mantelpiece, hewn with heavy chisel blows from ash-black wood. I thought they could have been African or Polynesian, but didn’t know enough to be certain. With me seated Mara repaired to the kitchen.
The dining room overlooked the Carters’ old garden. During her years in the house Mara had paid little attention to the extensive grounds. The grass had reached thigh height, the long coarsened blades bowing under their own weight. A climber had consumed the rusted frame of what was once a child’s swing and ivy had prised apart fissures in the concrete garage, caving in the roof. The garden was bordered by giant conifer trees. Untended, some had grown as high as forty feet. Mara returned from the kitchen carrying a tray with a large teapot, two ornate glasses and an antique tobacco tin. Then, in a very matter of fact, almost curt, voice she suggested we get down to business.
When I left the house I tried, with all my strength, to laugh about what had happened. I understood, without exactly thinking thus, that I needed to ground the experience before it was able to spirit me away. Everything had gone to plan, professionally speaking. We had sat at the table and worked through her company’s accounts. She had been polite and cooperative. We drank the tea the perfume of which was bitter and unfamiliar to me. I briefed her on all the activity in her case, all the incomings that had been filed by her different agents stationed at various corners of the planet. She listened to me talk for an hour, a passive expression on her face, smoking thick cigarettes that she rolled herself with great lumps of rough tobacco pinched from the tin.
I finished what I had to say, closed the file and was about to make my excuses and leave. When I tried to stand, however, my body was dragged down with an intense lassitude and nausea and I dropped back the few inches I had prised myself from the chair. I couldn’t understand what had possessed me and hoped that Mara hadn’t noticed. Then, silently, she stubbed her cigarette on the table top, lifted her eyes to mine and, fixing me, smiled.
If words exist to describe that smile, they do not exist for me. But I must try with those I have left. Immune to all scorn that may be heaped upon me, I say that with that smile, and that dark aqueous regard, Mara, that fiend, hailing from God-knows-where and made of God-knows-what clay, reached across the table, reached into the very core of my being, and sowed something hideous therein. Feeling drained back into my legs and without a word I made for the door.
Since my wedding almost two years earlier, it wasn’t unusual for me to take long walks in the middle of the night. My wife was an early sleeper, and slept heavily through until woken by the alarm. I’d always had difficulty shutting down, and on that day knew it was futile even to try. Some men claim that walking aids their thinking. It wasn’t so for me. Walking was my thinking. Unless I was walking my mind was treading water, merely keeping afloat on the choppy sea of brute quotidian existence. That evening I set out earlier than usual, barely waiting for my wife to fall asleep before leaving the house. My route was never planned, because my walks were geared to no particular end. My feet always led and I followed, until the first wink of dawn shook me from my reverie and set my course for home. It was only upon turning the final corner that night that I realised, with fast mounting horror, that my feet had led me straight back to the gates I had bolted through a few hours earlier.
The house was in darkness. As I stood staring at the building, struggling to make sense of the forces that had drawn me back there against my will (or so I thought then) a light in one of the upstairs windows flickered on. It was only there for a moment, and it was very faint, but etched on the burgundy curtains I recognised at once Mara’s orbicular silhouette. The light disappeared and, shaken to my roots, I turned and rushed home to the cocoon of my martial bed.
Weeks later I had word that the proprietress of a certain offshore holdings company wished to see her accountant. Since that day I had tried, in vain, to take the edge off the experience by repeated denial of what I knew to have passed between us. On receiving her summons I told myself, though remaining unconvinced, that there was my opportunity to lay this nascent demon to rest.
She welcomed me with more warmth than on our first meeting, keeping hold of the hand I extended to her and leading me by it to the dining room. There was something more human about her then, although the goblinish air that before had so impressed me still simmered perceptibly just below the surface. She was wearing the same black silk dress as the last time. On any other woman such an ephemeral garment would have been an obvious stab at seduction. On her it felt like an extraneous frill, a paper dart on the nose of a charging hippopotamus. As I made to open her file she checked me with a wave and crossing over to the mantelpiece, lifted one of the figurines:
“I saw you admiring this last time,” she said, turning the chunky black figure about in her hands before setting it down on the table. “I’d like you to have it.” I couldn’t recall having paid particular attention to any of the pieces, but seeing what she had chosen for me, I felt a sudden, jealous desire to possess it. I thanked her and bundled it into my bag. Then I tried again to open her file. Again she stopped me.
“A position has come up on one of my ships, sailing from Amsterdam in two weeks time. I thought you could be keen to fill it.” Her proposal startled me and for a moment I couldn’t raise a response. I had to reassure myself that she knew nothing of my personal life, of my wife and my son, before mumbling something about my lack of sea legs.
“That’s a shame,” she said sounding suddenly disinterested in the whole affair. “I think the life would suit you.” I restated my reasons, adding something about family ties, regretting it at once. At this she smiled again. It was a normal smile and had little in common with the one that had affected me so profoundly several weeks earlier. For me, however, it stood as simple confirmation that the damage wrought on me was irreversible. The seed she had planted had taken root inside me, I could feel it now, a pendulous presence, somewhere between my heart and my gut. All she was doing now was watering it.
I had forgotten my second wedding anniversary the previous day and, as compensation, had booked a table at the town’s most expensive restaurant that evening. Despite my nervous condition the meal went well. My wife had sensed something was wrong and her attitude was sympathetic, considering the hurt I had caused her. We had left our son with her parents for the night so that after the restaurant we could return to an empty house.
Our love making had always been sporadic. My wife, a stickler for hygiene, had difficulty accepting that sex was not the sterile affair Hollywood had prepared her for as an adolescent. She hated the primal, mossy scent, and the dampness, and didn’t disguise the fact that she saw it as a service performed by her as a sacrifice to me. That evening, however, she had readied herself for this sacrifice, and when we arrived home she stripped in front of me and climbed onto the bed like a virgin mounting an altar. Cast in the moonlight that crept beneath the curtain she looked divine, like a statue carved from a flawless block of white marble. When I had undressed she held out her hand and pulled me slowly on top of her.
At what moment during the event the metamorphosis occurred I cannot say, but as I drove my hips against hers, charging her with my member, I knew that it was no longer my wife convulsing beneath me, but Mara. My wife’s long agile limbs had contracted, filled out with dense muscular tissue and her soft skin had coarsened, sprouting a coat of fine fur. The passive recipient I knew had also vanished, ceding her place to an aggressive, brawling creature, whose violence, dolled out with strong limbs and claw-like nails, I returned in ravenous kind. We fought each other beneath the sheets, biting and kicking, tearing at skin in the most sensitive regions. She howled and I howled. She hit me and I hit back, wanting to hit her harder, all the time jabbing at her with my pelvis, sinking myself into her up to the hilt. And then, with a guttural roar, I discharged into her, the jism dragged out of me, surging up my urethra like a string of heavy pearls.
When I came to, Mara was nowhere. There was only my wife. Huddled in the corner of the room, wrapped in the bloodstained sheet she had pulled from the bed. She was weeping. Without even looking at me she asked me, softly, to leave.
A taxi was to take me to Harwich, from where, the following morning, I was to board a ferry for the Hook of Holland. A new courage, born from the ashes of absolute defeat, compelled me to ask a question of Mara. For the only time in our three meetings a look of vulnerability filled her face and she laid her hand on my shoulder before answering.
“It’s not what you think. Money, sex or power. None of those trifles interest me.” She paused and for an instant seemed transported by her thoughts. Then she sighed and said: “Doesn’t everything in this world seem just so incredibly tedious?”
The taxi pulled up, and without a word Mara closed the door. As a final act of defiance on the way to the harbour I wound the window down and hurled through it a small black statuette.
My first six months on the Nüwa, I tried to make the best of my fate. I mixed with the crew, participated in their drinking bouts and, when we put into port, joined them on their expeditions to the brothels of Southern Asia. The result was always the same. What had happened that final night with my wife happened again with the girls I paid for hoping to forget Mara in their arms. I broke the wrist of one girl in Singapore and the crew decided that from then on I wasn’t to make any visits with them.
Confined to the ship I took to spending my days in the library. For a while I was able to lose myself in the books but not for long. Increasingly every book I opened spoke of Mara. Long before I knew her she was for the Buddhists, I read, the demon of temptation. To the Hindus she was the goddess of death. The sons of David knew her first as Naomi, who took the name Mara, meaning “bitterness”, after Yahweh robbed her of her husband. In Latvia she was worshipped as the goddess of feminine virtue and in Scandinavia dreaded as a cruel wraith who induced nightmares in sleeping victims. Her accursed name was everywhere. In every epoch of almost every culture. What could I do with all this knowledge except destroy it, before it destroyed me? One by one I consigned the books to the depths.
Sometimes I found solace in the belief that I was not alone. What could those twenty seven names on her folder mean except twenty seven men who had suffered the same fate as I? How were those legal exemptions arranged without her exerting influence in the higher reaches of government? How was she able to inherit the house of dependable Mr. Carter except by using her witching to orchestrate his demise? How is the Nüwa able to cut endlessly across these seas, ferrying suspect cargo and paying only the most token bribes? How, unless the influence of this bored, malign woman, stretches even as far as here?
It was after this realisation that I took to sitting on deck, gazing at the void, the small black statuette perched in my lap. What else was to be done? Sit still long enough and eventually, like sediment in a glass of water, all thoughts settle to the lower reaches of the mind. I suffer no regrets. Not for my wife. Not for my son. I wasn’t suited to that life any more than to this one.
When I first took to spending my days on deck the crew told me that my predecessor had done likewise, until he was washed into the sea by a freak typhoon. They thought it was suicide, but I know it wasn’t. Men like us don’t have the courage for that. Like molluscs we float, unwittingly, waiting to be scooped up by a gull, stripped clean and have our shells discarded in distant waters. There we bob about in the currents until nature sees fit to smash us into sand against the rocks. If the last fellow was washed from the deck by a typhoon it was luck, nothing more.
Click to View: Jeu d’échecs avec Marcel Duchamp (1963)
Much talk of Marcel Duchamp on NC lately. Read Stephen May’s essay “Beauty & the Brothel of Illustration: An Impractical Guide to Making Art” and Paul Forte’s essay in this issue “Visual Thinking and Cognitive Exploration.” I thought it would be helpful to see the man himself, hear his words and follow his life. This is a remarkably sumptuous filmed interview that tracks Duchamp artist through his life and influences (among other things, he rather hilariously recommends getting married).
There is a line in Rilke’s “The Spanish Trilogy” — “…to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing” — that rings down through this amazing interview, NC Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel with visual artist Lynda Lowe, an interview about art, making art, and the art of collaboration. All art is, yes, about making Things. We forget that sometimes. Expressing ourselves, making a point, sending a message, selling a line, finding a market, all take a back seat to the thingness of the Thing, its sudden and utter presence, sui generis and unique. Whether it’s a poem or a painting or some combination thereof (or a novel or a figure in a block of stone…).
NVW: I thought we’d begin with a few questions about our collaboration for the Poetic Dialogue Project, a group exhibit of poets and artists who were paired to combine poetry and visual art. Since we both live in Washington, we were paired together. I remember coming to your lovely studio near Tacoma and seeing all the cool “tools” you’d collected and thinking about a poem I’d written called “Left to Our Own Devices,” which was also about tools, tiny clock-repair tools.
I sensed we were both interested in objects and, as we went on to discuss, “thingness” or “objecthood.” We called our collaborative project The Object of the Object. I particularly love the piece of yours with those calipers in it. I would suppose that as an artist you must have developed a close kinship with the “tools of your trade.” Can you describe a bit what our collaboration WAS (the series, sizes, etc.) and also talk a little about the subject of “things” and its appeal to you as a visual artist?
Lynda Lowe: The Poetic Dialogue’s intent was to have a visual artist and a poet collaborate in the creation of a new work for a traveling exhibition. It was on my mind to not just make an illustration for your poems or for you to write something in reaction to a painting, but to integrate these forms as much as possible. Since we didn’t know each other before beginning the collaboration, we spent time sniffing out the turf where we might find something common and fertile. We passed back and forth word lists, favorite readings, images, and poems to see where we might begin.
Through Rilke’s poetry we discussed the interiority of the object, its thingness: “to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing.”
Things contain narrative, perhaps even a kind of sentient presence. Humans make stories from, and meaning out of, even the most random collection of them. The idea seemed a good starting place as it shows up in your poetry and also in my imagery. Thus began “The Object of the Object.”
Our work had to grow organically between us and achieve a balance that honored both word and image. I started with a group of paintings on 12” square panels that were deliberately left unfinished and sent images to you. You sent poetry in progress. We had to meander about with some directionless hiking for a while. An “aha!” moment for me was reading the last line in your poem “Coxswain”: “in us are the woods.”
Beautiful! Imagery began to coalesce for me. Our circumvolution continued. I remember we discussed the creation of a codex form where a viewer-reader would have to physically walk the expanse of a series of panels, thereby engaging time and memory through repeated imagery and text. The final product was a twenty-foot span of eighteen panels that were seated on a shallow shelf, leaning against the supporting wall.
NVW: During our collaboration, I recall you also brought up another term that’s near and dear to my heart: wabi-sabi. I think you rightly sensed my simpatico with this idea as you so well described it in our email exchange back then, ” the worn beauty of age and the graceful disorder of nature.” I know your work is influenced by Eastern philosophies in general and perhaps by the concept of wabi-sabi in particular. In our collaboration, how did these ideas influence the process and/or product?
Lynda Lowe: We both pay attention to that earned patina: your marmot playground of rusting factory equipment and my hundreds of old wall photos taken on travels. The layers of wear, weather, the mark of a passerby build such beautiful surfaces that speak of narrative use and history. Nature has these cycles of age and re-growth too of course. Being a gardener you can’t miss it. Imperfection and disorder is an undeniable part of the landscape on every level. When I’m developing a painting, vestiges of many additions and subtractions layer the work and this is never quite predictable. It lends a wabi-sabi quality to it.
NVW: I know you’re a great lover of T.S. Eliot and in particular his Four Quartets. You’ve used passages of his poetry in your work before, as well as lines from other poets, myself included. Can you explain a little about how you think text—and perhaps specifically poetry—may best share the visual field with your incredibly textured and expansive imagery?
Lynda Lowe: Text and imagery are in some basic way, information. They comprise part of a larger perceptual field. I’m very interested in how we construct meaning from a personal blend of reason, intuition, memory, and spirit. In the combining of elements such as poetry, diagrams, equations, realism, intuitive mark, and abstract color field, I’m creating a matrix that suggests these are all part of a unitive whole.
NVW: I was happy to reconnect with you recently in Tacoma at the Museum of Glass and the opening for your wonderful show, a series of 108 ceramic vessels called The Patra Passage. Again, I realized we had another mutual interest, Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift. I recall reading this book in the mid-1980′s and being very moved. It helped me to feel a better acceptance and even joy about my own life-choice: to make poems. Hyde speaks about art as a kind of gift the artist gives to her world. The gift is meant to be shared. This making and giving concern important aspects of community and shared values.
Hyde’s messages came to me at a time when I really need to hear exactly that. The promises of financial reward, publishing contracts and such sorts of “recompense” had begun to feel far off and unreachable to me, but I still loved and valued poetry and I wanted to continue with this art front and center in my life. Can you talk about your vessels which you gave away, and which the recipients (myself included) will again give away, and so on—and how, as an artist, you think about this interconnectedness of art-making and art-giving? And how The Patra Passage, in particular, was inspired? Here’s the wonderful video about that project:
Lynda Lowe: After a rough couple of years and I felt I was looking at life through the other end of the telescope. What do I consider valuable when viewing things in reverse, not ahead? I’d been incubating ideas for the Patra Passage for over a decade. The image of a bowl repeatedly shows up in my paintings as a symbol for the fluid act of giving and receiving. Interconnectedness is of great interest to me.
I knew where I wanted to take the idea, but the project required a total change in media and a large commitment of time without income. Lewis Hyde’s writing was and is indeed a true gift and encouragement. Also hugely significant is the privilege of many wonderful supporters and participants – you being one of them! The Passage seeks collaboration and connection. The website more fully describes the project. I wholeheartedly invite interaction from all visitors to the site: www.patrapassage.com.
NVW: What’s your next project?
Lynda Lowe: I’m in that transitional phase now after the launch of the Patra Passage where it’s back to the meandering path without a destination in mind. For the moment I’m playing again with my old friend T. S. Eliot and The Four Quartets. I don’t think I could ever mine that out. There are several exhibitions ahead, including the return of the Patra vessels at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. And soon I’ll be working collaboratively with poet Joseph Heithaus on another project. I’m grateful to be doing something I love and that challenges me.
—Nance Van Winckel & Lynda Lowe
After completing an MFA at Indiana University, Lynda Lowe taught fifteen years at Wheaton College and Northern Illinois University. In 1998 she left her academic position and began painting full-time. Soon after, a move to the Pacific Northwest brought fresh opportunities and the construction of a studio on the Puget Sound in Washington state where she currently resides.
Lowe’s overall imagery combines sections of color field, realism, text, and diagramatic figures. She employs fragments of poetry, handwritten scientific observations, and mathematical formula and layers them alongside highly rendered recognizable images to suggest that the construction of meaning is shaped from many different frames of reference. Archetypal symbols are deliberately integrated into her art, pointing out that the human experience is intrinsically connected the sentient world. Her surrounding environment and her travels abroad also profoundly impact her work.
A recent project, the Patra Passage. centers on the gifting of 108 hand-built ceramic bowls which are re-gifted at least three times throughout one year. After they return, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, will host an exhibition February – May, 2015.
Lynda Lowe’s paintings have been widely exhibited nationally in galleries and museums. She has been the recipient of two Artist Fellowship awards from the Illinois Arts Council, a distinguished resident of the Ragdale Foundation, a finalist of the Neddy Award, and represented by the following galleries:
- Gail Severn Gallery, Sun Valley, ID www.gailseverngallery.com
- Arden Gallery in Boston, MA www.ardengallery.com
- Forre Fine Art in Aspen and Vail, Colorado and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida www.forrefineart.com
- Abmeyer+Wood, in Seattle, Washington www.abmeyerwood.com
Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review. She is also the author of four collections of linked short stories and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Boneland, her newest book of fiction, is just out with U. of Oklahoma Press. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography appear in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Kenyon Review Online. Click this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.
Heading home after the first semester as Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick. I’ve been living at Mark Anthony Jarman‘s house just across the street from the Saint John River in Fredericton, about a 10-minute walk from the campus, also a 10-minute drive from the university’s research woodlot where I walk the dog often. R. W. Gray lives just down the third-floor hall from me. Both Mark and Rob have new books of stories coming out. According to legend, the house is built on property once owned by Benedict Arnold. Photos by dg, maj & ch.
Let Us Imagine Lost Love is the long awaited follow-up to Robert Day’s wondrous and acclaimed first novel The Last Cattle Drive; it’s not a sequel, but in Let Us Imagine Lost Love, Day returns to his native Kansas, of which he is a wry, witty and affectionate observer. His narrator is a book designer, who loves the jargon and paraphernalia of his profession, a man without a wife but a string of Wednesday lovers, his “Plaza wives,” he calls them, and at his back a doting mother who made him memorize three new words a day as a boy.
In Part Four, we have the return of Bottle James from the backrooms of memory, the infamous Blood Factory wherein the narrator and his friend Hazen (working their way through school in a medical lab) must drain the blood from living dogs, the narrator’s brief and unlikely affair with the dog delivery girl, nicknamed Pistol, the invention of a religion called Ta-Bid and the narrator’s acerbic meditations on the subject of marriage, which includes a bit of brilliant film exegesis on The Last Picture Show.
—You know the scene in The Last Picture Show, I said, when Cybill Shepherd is riding in the convertible with Timothy Bottoms and they’ve just eloped and she wants out.
—He has a bandage over his eye? Elaine said.
—Yes, and she is annoyed at his mere presence. He’s sitting there a happy young man thinking to himself something good is going to come of all this, and she is unhappy at who he is. It won’t be many miles before she becomes angry about it. That eye bandage is marriage. The convertible is driving toward 30 years of marriage. That is her future sitting beside her. It is what Ellen Burstyn has been telling her all along.
You can read the entire novel to date here (instead of clicking back and forth between issues). Stay tuned for the next installment.
Ostensible, Ubiquitous, Alacrity, Quintessential, Albeit, Circa
The Book of Ta-Bid: A Preface
One night at Beth’s just before the fall semester, the three of us were looking over the university’s offerings and, quite independently, decided to take “The World’s Major Religions.” Given who we were, it was a curious decision; first, not one of us talked the others into taking the course; and second, none of us—as far as I can remember—had expressed any interest in religion except, in Hazen’s case, to mock it not unlike he did society manners: “The tyranny of forks and napkins” and “the grief of Guilt Days.”
—Mothers Day! Father’s Day! Call Doctor Hallmark. Call Ma Bell. Call Emily Post.
“The World’s Major Religions” was taught Monday, Wednesday, and Friday by Professor Gabin, a wizened woman who wore only four dresses (of two patterns) during the semester: one green, one blue for two weeks (the green one on Monday and Friday, the blue one on Wednesday, then reversed them the following week), after which she alternated a yellow dress and a red one (again with the same pattern–but not the same pattern as the green and blue one) for two weeks, then back again to green and blue. Professor Gabin was, like Hazen’s mother, French.
She was the first homely woman to attract me: her bearing, her nerve to wear her four dresses in her routine way, her teaching us as if she were speaking from a book she was writing in the air in front of her (sometimes using her index finger to do so), were enthralling.
—She’s as ugly as homemade sin, said Hazen.
—I like her, I said.
—I know you do, said Beth. I do as well, but she’s no rose. And those dresses.
—I like those as well, I said. I like what she knows.
—Turn her sideways and you could chop down redwoods with that snoz, says Hazen. Call Cyrano de Bergerac. Good night Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.
—Not that you’ve got a stump, said Beth.
—Would you ball her if you’d grow two inches? I asked Hazen.
—What’s this about? asked Beth, looking at Hazen.
—No way, man, Hazen said, and stood on his toes.
—What’s this about?
Beyond our readings and hour exams, the semester’s assignment was to join with two or three classmates and create a religion. We could use the stories and doctrines from the religions we were studying—we were encouraged to do so—and incorporate them into our religion. We could add new elements. Toward the end of the course we would submit the “Sacred Codex” as our term paper. The best religion would be copied for the rest of the class and explained by the authors. Hazen, Beth, and I created Ta-Bid.
—Let’s begin with commandments, I said.
Our first meeting was at Beth’s one evening after Hazen and I had worked the Cage Book. We chipped in and bought two straw bottle-baskets of Chianti. Dago-red, Hazen called it. “Bye-bye Mussolini,” he would say when the bottle was empty.
—The first commandment is, said Hazen, that there shall be no first commandment.
—You can’t have a religion without commandments, I said.
—Why not? said Hazen.
—What’s the second commandment? asked Beth.
—There shall only be one commandment, said Hazen. And it shall be that there shall be no other commandment, other than there shall be no commandments. It’s like when it’s impolite to take the last piece of food on a plate, which, if you think about it, means you can’t take the second to last piece because you’re being impolite to the poor bastard who is stuck with not being able to take the last piece. The Politeness Police will get you. And if you think about it from here to eternity, you can’t take anything off the plate. You just fucking starve.
—What’s this got to do with our religion? said Beth.
—Never mind, said Hazen, and did his Dragnet knock on the side of his head.
Hazen took our nascent religion more intensely than I thought he would; in fact, as Ta-Bid developed, Beth and I discovered that it had a meaning for him beyond fulfilling a class assignment. And if he couldn’t get into our heads what was in his, he’d become exasperated and do his Dragnet knock. Or say: The Shadow knows.
—Let’s decide how the world started, Beth said. We can get to doctrine later.
—And a name for our religion, I said. We’ll need a name.
—The world started because two gods were balling, said Hazen.
—I name them Ta and Bid, said Beth.
—Why? I asked.
—Some things must remain beyond our understanding, said Beth. It came to me in a moment of “cosmic knowing.” A voice from Mel’s Coffee cups.
—While they were balling, continued Hazen, they had an orgasm so intense that they turned themselves inside out.
—You’d like to think, said Beth.
—The “big bang,” I said. They looked at me.
—So we’ve got two inside-out gods named Ta and Bid, Beth said, tucking in her lower lip without success. How does the world get started?
—The world gets started. . . said Hazen.
—One of the gods becomes the sun, the other the earth, said Beth. The sun gets to be the woman. The man is the earth and that’s why there’s strife in Iran. Done.
—Won’t do, I said. We need more parts. We need a solar system. A universe.
—How long does it take to create the world? said Beth to Hazen.
—The orgasm takes six days and six nights, said Hazen. On the seventh day Ta and Bid take a snoozie and in their snoozie they turn inside back in and outside back out, and when they awake, they look around and are pleased.
—Are there snakes? said Beth. I don’t care one way or another. I just want to know.
All this time she was taking notes on a yellow legal pad, the margins of which will have small drawings, made, I suppose, when our discussions rambled–as they often did. It will become my job to type a draft of her notes, then later, when we’ve gone over the text a second time, to type the final copy (with the aid of my mother’s dictionary) for Professor Gabin. Both Beth and Hazen observed the embellishments I made in the final draft and at least Beth was pleased.
—There are no snakes, said Hazen. I see no snakes. He was looking into Earl’s bong. I see the House Un-American Activities Committee, said Hazen, and J. Edgar Hoover. But no snakes.
—We have to go back to the universe, I said. We’ve got stars and moons and suns and meteorites and space dust to create. We’ve got to do all that before we get to snakes or apples or fishes and loaves. Then we can turn to doctrine. We got to have stuff. Stuff is the stuff of the universe. And stuff has got to come from somewhere.
We think and drink. Bye-bye Mussolini.
—Belly-button ganiff! said Hazen.
—What? said Beth.
—When their orgasm turns Ta and Bid inside out, said Hazen, they toss off their belly-button ganiff, and that becomes the particles of the universe. When they turn themselves outside out again and look around, Ta says to Bid: Did the universe move for you? In the beginning was the true interrogative sentence.
—How do you spell “ganiff?” Beth asked.
My Wednesday Wives
—I’ll make us coffee, I said to Elaine. She has stopped by. I have some Ethiopian from last Wednesday.
—Is that the one who?. . .oh, never mind, she said. How about trading your walk this afternoon for a ride to Lowell?
She was standing by the plasma television reading my list.
—I want to ask why you bought the apartment.
—I’ll tell you.
—And what you plan to do with it.
—And about this new television Rosetta says you have. Is this it? Why did you turn it off? And why you are not married?
—If my wives are married, am I not married?
—You know what I mean.
—Why not be married the way I am married? I said. My wives are happy to have me, and happy not to have very much of me. One of them said, rather wittily I thought, that I “swell a scene.” She must have been taking an adult literature class. Or maybe she didn’t know what she was saying; I like the latter better.
—It’s from somewhere, my sister said. Most of my two years at Vassar got lost.
—Nothing is lost. Everything changes. That’s the problem.
—Did you make that up?
She was quiet for a moment while I puttered in the kitchen; I heard her turning the pages of one of my books.
—Do you love these women? Elaine said as I brought our coffee.
—I enjoy them, I said. Isn’t that enough?
—It may be more than can be said of their husbands.
—And the other way around, I said.
—You know the scene in The Last Picture Show, I said, when Cybill Shepherd is riding in the convertible with Timothy Bottoms and they’ve just eloped and she wants out.
—He has a bandage over his eye? Elaine said.
—Yes, and she is annoyed at his mere presence. He’s sitting there a happy young man thinking to himself something good is going to come of all this, and she is unhappy at who he is. It won’t be many miles before she becomes angry about it. That eye bandage is marriage. The convertible is driving toward 30 years of marriage. That is her future sitting beside her. It is what Ellen Burstyn has been telling her all along.
—Ellen Burstyn is her mother?
There was between us that kind of silence on my sister’s part that I thought meant she was wondering if she might be riding in a convertible.
—Anything more? She said after a moment. About your wives.
—They come off the stage of their life into the audience of mine and I applaud their act. As far as I can tell, in “relationships” these days, there is mutual distaste for each other’s act. As well as a low grade contempt for the acting. After awhile. . .well. . .there is a “history” between them, and “history” is usually bad for theatre unless it is Shakespeare. Even worse for those who are living with it. Does that help?
—Go on, she said. You’re amusing when you get started.
—The result of this marriage/history business is a brisk market in self -esteem books for women and golf books for men. And wives who skip their French lessons for moi. As Paul Newman says to Mrs. Bridge: “You can talk to me.” But unlike Mr. Bridge, I listen.
—Not that you care what they say, my sister said.
—That is true, I said. Most of us don’t care what anyone says but ourselves. Which is why I talk to myself. As did our father. But for my wives I know my lines. I’m a smart man when I’m listening to my wives.
—But isn’t there something that has to do with you, not just with them? The real you.
—There is only the vicarious me.
—Now we’re getting somewhere. Is it because of. . .
—What happened in California?
My sister does not know what to say about my candor. I have let my mask drop. The actor has come off the stage into the audience and it is someone you know. Even I know him. Even though his plasma has been bled.
Elaine looked at me over her coffee. She put down the cup.
—Sophistry, I said.
—It was one of mother’s words.
—I never heard it, Elaine said. One day she said prerequisite about five times and I never found out what it meant until I got to college. And this “vicarious” business is that when you’re somewhere you’re not, but not really. Have I got it right this time?
—More backwards than right. But it probably doesn’t matter.
Elaine seems not to have heard me. We are quiet until we finish our coffee while in my mind’s I see my sister listening for the sound of our mother around the house on Lowell: at the sink washing the dishes, turning the metal cap back on her Mogen David and putting it in the “ice box” as she always called the refrigerator: ostensible, eminently, sophistry. Our father is watching the television, his beer in his hand. It is a Friday evening of fights and he is calling the action.
—Let’s take that ride, Elaine said. But I’ve decided I don’t want to talk about your apartment. I want to talk about California and Beth. And when we pass the filling station, I want to talk about the fire and our father, and how he died. And mother. And why she saved coins in her empty wine jug jars.
—As you wish, I said.
—And what you just said about your being in one place but not the other.
As she walked into the hallway, I brought myself back into life. With all that on the agenda, I’ll need someone to come home to.
Sometimes It Is, Sometimes It Isn’t
—Now use your forks from the outside in, said Aunt Lillian, taking me to her dinner table. “Outside” being the fork all the way to the left. And do not use the spoon or the fork above the plate until the plate has been changed, and use the outer one first; in this case that will be the spoon for the sorbet, then the ice-cream cake fork for the ice cream cake that I had made at the lovely bakery on Shaddock where they make so many fine things. When you have finished, put your knife and fork at four o’clock on your plate. That way Bella will know you are done.
I nodded and remembered what my mother had said about manners.
—When Bella serves a new course, my aunt continued, it is polite to change the direction of your conversation. You will be sitting between Doctor Reed on your left and Madame de Ferney on your right, and if you have been talking to Doctor Reed for the first course, you then talk to Madame de Ferney during the second course, then back to Doctor Reed for the next course. Madame de Ferney may not converse this way. She has a habit of talking to whomever she wants.
Aunt Lillian paused for a moment and looked at the table, first at one chair, then another, slightly nodding at each, as if more than counting.
—At home we just ate, I said. I thought I should say something by way of thanking Aunt Lillian for telling me how to behave.
—It is all a bit fussy, she said. Conroy doesn’t much like it. He says dinner parties are “fork fetish feasts.” I suppose he’s right, but we women have to keep up standards. Do you see a young lady in Kansas?
—Muff LaRue, I said, thinking I didn’t know the meaning of “fetish.”
—When did you last see her? said my aunt, now circling the table to make some adjustments in napkins and silverware.
—At the swimming pool where I was a lifeguard.
Aunt Lillian stepped back to look the table over at some distance.
—Everything is in its place, she said, more to herself than to me. Then: One more thing. Madame de Ferney always brings the hors-d’oeuvres. A duck pate on toast points. I will put them on a large plate and we will have them in the living room with some white wine before dinner.
—I know it is not polite to take the last one, I said.
—Yes, said my aunt. Madame de Ferney has kept her curious name even though she has been married all these years to Doctor Reed, who as you know, is Howard’s father, just as Madame de Ferney is Howard’s mother, even though she doesn’t have the same last name as Doctor Reed. Or maybe Doctor Reed is Howard’s stepfather and Madame de Ferney is his mother. I think that’s what Conroy once told me. She came to America when he was very young and brought Howard with her.
—Hazen, I said.
—And for some reason I think Howard doesn’t have the same last name as either of them because Madame de Ferney named him after a grandfather for whom a French village is named. Or maybe she is named for the village. Howard is an only child so I suppose it is easier to do that when you are an only child. And Madame de Ferney always calls Doctor Reed, “Doctor Reed,” not by Milton as the rest of us do. So we all call her Madame de Ferney and have for so long by now I don’t remember her first name, but I think it’s Mimi. You should ask Howard. Very curious.
Uncle Conroy and Aunt Lillian had invited Hazen and his parents to a formal dinner. My uncle and Hazen’s step-father wore tuxedoes and so did Hazen and I. We did not have to rent me a tuxedo because one of my uncle’s old ones was a fit.
The reason for the dinner was Doctor Reed’s Nobel prize for experiments done a few years before in which he had taken the amino acid “package” off proteins, then put it back on. At least that is how I understood it at the time.
I had never worn a tuxedo. My brother rented one for the prom. My sister’s boyfriend picked her up in one for the same dance. I wore a dark suit, went without a date, and stood by the record player looking across the dance floor at Melinda and Muff LaRue. Later, I walked home with Bones McColl and we shot baskets by the light of the street lamp near his driveway.
—You look very nice, Aunt Lillian said when I came into the dinning room.
She was wearing what my mother would have called “a cocktail dress.” Not the kind of dress you saw Harriet Nelson wearing on television in those days, but the kind that Olivia de Havilland wore in the movies. It was pale green with tiny gold flecks that seemed to have been woven into the fabric. I had never seen anything like it. Later in the evening I noticed her dress matched in a subtle way the dinner plates and goblets being put out by Bella, my aunt’s maid, for dinner.
—Doesn’t he look good, Conroy?
—Very good, said my uncle who, I suspect, didn’t put much stock in the formalities of social life but, like feeding his eggs to Pounce, had come to a routine acceptance of it.
—Here they are he said from the doorway.
—There is something else, Aunt Lillian continued, Madame de Ferney keeps both her hands on the table, sometimes even her elbows. She is French. They have peculiar manners. And her English after all these years is still odd. A bit of French mixed in with English. Very odd.
—My mother said I should cut my food with my elbows down, not up. And that I should bring my food to my mouth and not my mouth to my food, I said, again trying to reassure my aunt. But this time she seemed not to hear me and said:
—I am thinking maybe I should seat you. . . but no I can’t. . . that would disturb the arrangement.
I could hear my uncle at the door saying come in, come in, and they all did.
—Is it the case, Madame de Ferney said as Bella was clearing the table of the second course, “that in Kansas. . .how shall I put it? . . .comment dirais-je? Je ne sais pas…
She said something in French to Doctor Reed. I saw Hazen frown. I saw Doctor Reed frown. Doctor Reed said something in French. Then Madame de Ferney said to me:
—Is it “provincial” in Kansas? Provincial?
She pronounced her second “provincial” with a prairie flatness, as if to make sure I understood. Not that it mattered: It was a word yet to be disinterred in my mother’s dictionary: Rube. ff.
While it was true that Madame de Ferney had used her forks according to Aunt Lillian’s rules, she had not—as my aunt had predicted—abided by the formalities of conversation; also, her elbows had been on the table repeatedly, and—my mother would have been shocked—Madame de Ferney had removed her bread from the bread plate and put it on the tablecloth where it left crumbs. And she not only stuck her nose into the wine glass, she swirled it around before holding it to the light saying: It is the first duty of a wine to be red.
—Don’t you agree? said Madame de Ferney to my aunt.
—And also from what you call the environs. Is that the right word Floren?
—Yes, I said before Hazen could answer. Everybody looked at me and then Madame de Ferney asked me what kind of wine we drank in our environs.
—My mother has a glass of Mogen David as she fixes dinner, I said. My father drinks Coors. My mother is Polish. My father Irish. In the small silence that followed everyone took a sip of wine.
—I ask about Kansas being provincial, Madame de Ferney said, because I am told they were provincial ici in San Francisco before the gros earth cake. The gros earth cake and the fire did them a great good because the rebel lost their shanties.
—Rabble, mother, said Hazen.
Madame de Ferney paused only to mouth the word rabble silently with what seemed to me impatience toward the English language.
—Mother’s ‘gros’ is French for ‘large’,” Hazen said to me. The Great Earth Quake.
—Thank you, I said. And to show I was going to learn French I repeated “gros” out loud.
—You’ll need to work on your ‘r’, Hazen said. I had no idea what he meant.
At this point Bella came to serve another course, while Madame de Ferney continued:
—The families whose furniture came “around the Horn” began to assend and that gave the city its culture. Some people who first arrived in San Francisco brought their furniture with them over the prairie ground in wagons. It must have been very hard on chairs. Not to mention desks and tables. All of Doctor Reed’s family furniture came “around the Horn.” Our chairs are very solid. Très solide.
Madame de Ferney had been speaking to the table at large, but then she turned to me:
—They have no earth cakes in Kansas to make matters better. C’est très mal in that regards, don’t we all think so? Maybe a dust storm or a prairie bison fire could do the same thing. Does your family have the particle?
—“Quakes,” mother, said Hazen. This time Madame de Ferney did not mouth the word.
—They have tornadoes, said my aunt. Tell Madame de Reed about the tornadoes. How Dorothy went to see Mr. Oz on the Yellow Brick Road. That might be just as good as earth cakes.
I was about to ask “a particle of what?” thinking Madame de Ferney might have wondered if we owned a bit of farm ground when Doctor Reed coughed loudly a number of times to my left and we all looked his way. My uncle patted him on the back and asked if he was all right?
—I was telling our nephew the other day, Aunt Lillian said when Doctor Reed’s coughing spell stopped, about that big rock at the top of the road, and how it might fall down if we had another earth quake like the one Madame de Ferney has mentioned. My aunt stopped and seemed befuddled for a moment.
—You were about to say something about the rock, Lillian, said Doctor Reed.
—Yes! Well, if it rolled down the hill it would squish that nice bakery on Shaddock where we got the dessert for tonight.
—Ah oui! said Madame de Ferney. It is a lovely bakery and Doctor Reed and I always get something from it whenever we are coming to the University. There is rien like it even in San Francisco.
—Rien means “nothing,” said Hazen. I nodded. Rien, I said, this time doing no better with my r judging by Hazen’s look.
—Nada in Spanish, said Doctor Reed.
—Nada I said, thinking at least there wasn’t an r. Again a moment of silence while everyone took another sip of wine and Bella bustled.
—And they probably don’t have a bakery in Kansas like the one on Shaddock that we all like so much, said Aunt Lillian. Just like they don’t have hills down which rocks might fall because they already have fallen down and that’s why it’s flat. And maybe that is why Madame de Ferney has asked about it being provincial. No quakes. No hills. No rocks. No bakery.
—Ah oui, said Madame de Ferney, at which point Aunt Lillian rang the bell for Bella who was standing beside her.
—Maybe I should not have asked about Kansas being provincial, said Madame de Ferney. It is of no matter, but sometimes those of us who live la vie de chateau cannot imagine remote places in the United States as being other than provincial. That is true in France as well. We have peasants in many places south of Paris. Some of them harvesting their own “poulet.”
—“Chicken,” mother, said Hazen.
—I know it is “chicken” in English, said Madame de Ferney. But I prefer the French. Who can like the word “chicken” instead of “poulet”? Or “duck” instead of “canard?”
—It is what we had this evening, said Aunt Lillian. A recipe right from France. Chicken Cordon Bleu. Not that we raise chickens or ducks here in Berkeley. I expect there is some kind of rule against it. I know there is one about hanging your clothes out to dry, isn’t there, Conroy?
—There is indeed. It is called a “covenant,” my uncle said to Doctor Reed. As if good taste were a religion. No rabbits in cages. No chickens. Or ducks. No horses or goats. It was quite a list they gave us when we moved here. No clothesline, as Lillian says.
—In Kansas we have a clothesline, I said. I do the hanging out when I am home. Uncle Conroy looked at me and smiled. I was about to say the Simms down the road had both chickens and ducks, as well as a pig they fed but Madame de Ferney said:
—It is our own limitation, I suspect, and I would be pleased to learn otherwise. How did your parents’ furniture come to Kansas?
—Here is dessert! Aunt Lillian said, and once again rang the bell, even though Bella had returned to the table.
The arrival of dessert and the clatter of plates and forks and the general talk about the bakery on Shaddock changed the course of the conversation and as we ate Madam de Ferney turned to Hazen and asked:
—Do you remember when you were an adultlesson and we took you to Paris?
—“Adolescent,”mother, said Hazen. It is the same in French.
—Yes, I suppose it is, said Madame de Ferney. It is just that we were showing you where I was reared—is that the word? You raise cows but rear children. Do I have that right?
—Yes, said Doctor Reed to Madame de Ferney, and then to the table: Edmond was born in Paris as was Mimi, but after her husband died they moved to America and he was reared here.
—Conroy and I have not reared any children, said Aunt Lillian. This is our nephew, nodding toward me. Aunt Lillian seemed either to have forgotten my name or was continuing my family’s tradition.
—Ah oui, said Madame de Ferney to Aunt Lillian.
—Ah oui, said Aunt Lillian. But do tell us about your rearing in Paris.
—We lived in the Sixth, but below Saint Germain. The Sixth goes all the way to Boulevard Montparnasse, but my father would not admit that. For him it only went as far as Saint Germain. So I was reared in that domain. Is that the right word? Madame de Ferney asked me.
—Ah oui, I said. I saw Hazen smile. Or you could say “environs,” I said. Madame de Ferney seemed pleased at this information and this time said environs out loud with a peculiar guttural sound on the “r.”
—My father was très formal and would not even “tu” my mother. Of course he did not “tu” me or my sister. Madame de Ferney paused for quite awhile and looked away from the table. The only sound was Bella putting out coffee cups in the living room.
For my part, I imagined Madame de Ferney was thinking of her days growing up in Paris. I imagined this because in between the rocks tumbling down and squishing the Shaddock bakery, the tornadoes that might be as good as earth cakes, covenants against chickens and clothes lines, I had been thinking about Kansas. About my father’s webbed aluminum lawn chair and how he took Uncle Conroy’s letter and his meatloaf sandwich outside to read while my mother cleaned the kitchen counter where on summer evenings we “just ate,” my mother having her glass of Mogen David wine while she cooked with no idea about the wine’s duty, my father with his beer in a bottle after dinner as he read the paper or, on Fridays, watched boxing on television.
And it wasn’t when Aunt Lillian asked me about a girl friend that I thought of Muff LaRue. It was when Madame Ferney was talking about chicken and poulet and duck and canard. How, after both Muff and I got dressed, we sat in two chairs under my life guard stand and talked into the night about our futures: me to California to become a doctor, she going East to Sarah Lawrence to major in Classics—and I thought then that studying classics at a fancy East Coast college for girls and skinny-dipping in a Kansas municipal pool with the life guard whose father had a car garage didn’t go together. But I did not say so. And how later I drove Muff home and we promised we’d meet again over Christmas break—at the swimming pool, cold and snow or not.
—Thank you, my uncle said to Bella as she began clearing the table of dessert plates, all forks now at four o’clock.
My aunt fingered the spoon on the top of her plate. She picked up her wine glass by the stem and studied the color. She started to ring for Bella even though Bella had just left.
—Maintenant that you are ici in Berkeley, said Madame de Ferney, do you think it provincial in Kansas?
My uncle was about to speak and so were Hazen and Doctor Reed when I said to Madame de Ferney and, with considerable aplomb, to the rest of the table:
Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.
—Ah oui! said Aunt Lillian.
A One-Page Blank: Our Mother
Our mother was a shorter version of Uncle Conroy. She had his gray hair, and from about the same age (which is as long as I can remember), a wide forehead and pale blue eyes. Her arms where short, and in contrast to my father, she walked with a slight—a very slight—stoop, more a bending forward as if to get where she was going by putting her head in that direction.
The one-armed painter who did Uncle Conroy’s portrait did one (albeit smaller) of my mother. It was hanging in the hall near Elaine’s bedroom and became a piece of wall furniture.
The woman in the painting seems sad. At least sadder than when we were living on Lowell, but not as sad as after my father died. I can think of no portrait of a woman from any period of art history that resembles it. The one-armed painter got the eyes right, the forehead, and hair. If she could speak out of it, she would say: The quintessential me. More for the word than for the fact.
—May I have it? asked Elaine as we were cleaning out the house.
—When did you realize it was mother?
—Not long ago. And you?
—Not until now, my sister confessed.
Portraits of Age: A Sampler
Ursula must have been close to my uncle’s age. We took it she never married. This was because of the severe bearing she had around the lab, somewhat like the stainless steel that was everywhere–especially in the OR. She was without humor; she had a slight accent, which I thought was German but which turned out to be Polish. Her non-Polish surname remains a mystery, but her hatred of the French was to be discovered half way through my Twentieth Century European History course, circa Emporia State Teacher’s College.
When you are a young man living in America in the fifties and sixties you imagine that women—all women: girls, young women, older women—have no hidden qualities, no secret life. They are either Muff LaRue or Tina: Body and soul on the surface. I did not imagine Ursula was other than she was, which was a stern taskmaster who, if she had ever had sex, did it, as Hazen said, once by the stopwatch:
—“You have two minutes. Now get off.’ Not bitchin, man. Call Doctor Kinsey.
We were wrong: There had been a husband. And while there were no men in her life when we knew her, she had fallen in love with my uncle: something I did not know until later, and I suspect my uncle never knew.
Ursula didn’t like either one of us, but she especially did not like Hazen. She felt we had compromised my uncle’s reputation, and she was protective of that. When two new research apprentices showed up the following spring for a few days of induction, she treated them differently. They were both from very good schools, and they had both been vetted by professional standards. They would be a credit to my uncle. She was right about me. She was wrong about Hazen.
—I like her, Beth said one day.
Beth met Ursula while waiting for us in the parking lot. The two of them got into a conversation, one in which I suspect Ursula indicated that Beth could do better than whichever one of us she was seeing. Which was Hazen. Not that I knew it at the time.
—What’s to like? said Hazen. When you’re as ugly as a dead jellyfish on the beach and the worst thing about you is your personality, you got trouble. Nobody at home to call. Besides, she’s old.
—You’ll be old one day, said Beth. So will I.
—Not like that, said Hazen.
—What’s “like that?” I asked.
—Over thirty, said Hazen. Never trust anyone over thirty.
I suppose the saying was around at that time, but Hazen used it with such ease that I wonder now if he might have coined it.
—I wouldn’t mind being over thirty, said Beth.
I had been thinking about Ursula as well and had come to the same conclusion: She was old. But so was my uncle. And we liked him, just as we liked my ditzy aunt, and I at least liked Professor Gabin. The way I thought about Ursula had nothing to do with her being over thirty—not, at least, in the way the aphorism came to mean. I trusted her to do her job–and mine if I failed at it.
—She wants to be old because she wants to be mean, said Hazen.
There was an unusual silence among us, then Beth said:
—We have to do a series of self-portraits from different perspectives for my painting class and I’m going to do them at different stages of my life, ending at what the French call “A Woman of a Certain Age.” I’m going to make myself more interesting and better looking the older I get.
—Ursula’s old, old, old, old, old, old, old, said Hazen. Seven “olds” is as old as you get to be before you’re Dead Old. I’m at “three old” and holding. You find out where you are by when it feels good, and that’s where you stay. Let everything else get old around you. The Kansas kid here might live all seven “olds” before he’s done. Call Doctor Methuselah. He can tell you how it will turn out.
—Why do you want to be older? I asked Beth.
—To know more. To be less attractive in the way I am now.
—You’re lovely, I said. She smiled.
—Thank you. My mother told me that when a man commented favorably on your dress you were not to say “this thing, I just grabbed it out of the closet.” Thank you.
And she touched my arm.
—I think you’re good-looking, said Hazen.
—I don’t mind being good-looking, Beth said. But I don’t want to be just good-looking. That’s what I like about Ursula. She is who she is without being good-looking. Or nice. Last year in Introduction to World Literature our professor told us one of our authors wrote that to marry a woman because she is “nice” is like buying something in a shop just because it is on sale. I like Ursula because she’s a palate-knife painting. I like palate-knife paintings even if I don’t do them myself. The problem is you guys can’t imagine her with her clothes off.
—The problem is we can, said Hazen.
—I wonder if men get better when they get older? said Beth, looking at us.
She didn’t say it to be critical; I understood that. She just wondered.
—Do you remember who wrote that about marrying a “nice” woman, I asked.
—Anton Chekhov. Our professor told us he was a doctor. Maybe he’s somebody you should read.
When I was in the lab the next day, I looked at Ursula.
—She’s wearing barbed wire for panties, said Hazen when he caught me.
—Rusty. Your tally wanger will get you a good case of lockjaw.
—Call Doctor Penicillin.
Hazen clapped his hands a few times and went over to the Tall Tugger. Upside down he claps: Clap. Clap. Clap.
It is Tristam Shandy‘s blank page of beauty lost, but now not forgotten, somewhere in my bookcases. Lawrence Sterne. A page after my own desires. What has triggered this memory, I cannot say. Call Doctor Proust.
Notes for an Agenda Book of Vests
Elaine and I lunch once a week at either Meiners (my choice) or reVerse (her choice; she likes the opulence of it, and the way they slide open the windows when the weather is warm). When we go to reVerse, she treats–it gives her some pleasure to do so. Gerhard has “done well.”
During these lunches, my sister reviews her failures to get me a “solid girl-friend.” Not that some haven’t tried on their own.
—Hello. I’m Laura. Laura Wingate. I met you the other night at Elaine’s house. We do yoga together.
—Yes, I said. I want to tell you how pretty you looked in that blue sweater.
—Really, she said.
—More than pretty, I said. If it is possible to call a woman “handsome” and not be misunderstood, I would say that in that sweater you were handsome. I understand you knit them yourself.
—I am très flattered.
Laura Wingate called me just as I was beginning a calendar book for the Irish Tourist Board. Instead of a shamrock or sheep motif, I am using sweaters. It was Laura Wingate who gave me the idea.
Her sweater that evening was a deep blue–past Navy, almost black. Light enough for a cool late-summer evening. Cashmere to be sure. A delicate pattern along the sleeves. Not quite a turtleneck, but half way there. It made her very inviting. I found myself wishing she were married. A bit older. Late forties instead of late thirties. By then she would have gone from handsome to striking. And married women of a certain age do certain things very well.
Traditional Irish sweaters have a different pattern for each fishing family: Sullivans, McDougals, O’Deas. That way drowned men can be identified by the sweaters they are wearing. It is not a detail you put in a coffee-table book.
Sitting across from Laura Wingate at my sister’s dinner table I imagined her in various sweaters: thick white winter ones which gave a hint of her breasts. Cardigans. Not buttoned. In spring she is in thin sweaters through which I see the outlines of her body. She is nude except for the sweater. Leggy. She comes out of my kitchen with a plate of salted mushrooms she has brought from the Better Cheddar.
Not that I prescribe such acts for my Wednesday wives. I let them create their dramatis personae. Their own scenes. Sometimes they are not who they thought they would be. Nor whom I thought they would be. And we are both pleased. Maybe Laura Wingate would do vests. I’ve never had a lover who did vests.
—I was wondering, said Laura Wingate, if you would be free on Friday night for dinner? I am having some friends over and I think you might enjoy them. They are into books. Please say this is possible. I will wear the same sweater.
—I will need to imagine you in it I said. Because I am sorry to say I cannot join you on Friday.
There is silence. I expect Laura Wingate was waiting for an excuse so she can judge the matter: Am I giving her the brush off? Do I have a woman in my life? Am I otherwise occupied on Friday and très sorry I cannot accept?
—Tant pis, she said finally.
—Ah oui, I said, and wondered if she too was taking the lunchtime learning course in French.
Again a silence.
—Perhaps another time, she said.
My sister is not particularly happy in her marriage—not because she was “forced” to marry Gerhard (the marriage has given her two early sons, plus Lillian), but because she feels she should have married Hazen.
—Have you heard from him? she asked.
We were at reVerse. The windows open.
—I have not, I said. Have you?
—No. But he wouldn’t contact me. After all I only. . .
—Twice, I said.
—Yes, well, then twice, she said. But the second time was after you walked away from him at Aunt Lillian’s clinic. What was that about? The least you could have done was not leave him standing there.
—I didn’t know he told you about that, I said.
—He did. Were you still angry over Beth?
—I was never angry over Beth, I said.
—Having walked away from Hazen, I cannot explain it, I said. Doing so made it self-evident. As when I walked away from Beth.
—I didn’t know you walked away from Beth, she said.
—Now you do.
My sister looked puzzled. That is rare for her. I have come to accept being puzzled as a natural condition—and rather enjoy it.
—Have you heard from her? my sister asked.
—I have not. But from Jo, yes.
—From one or the other. You choose.
—You’re not talking to me, said my sister. You’re talking to yourself.
She was right. I talk to myself but I don’t tell myself the truth. It gives me a pleasure I cannot name. Many must do it.
And we all have seen Jo, first in advertisements as she began her modeling career. Then, in television in shows: Jo as an unfaithful wife; Jo as a police sergeant; a reporter: she is multiple personae. My sister tells me that she is in the afternoon soaps: “Watch General Hospital. She’s the older doctor. The nurse is the young man. He has the hots for her. Isn’t that ironic?”
—Why didn’t you go to Laura Wingate’s for dinner, my sister asked. Were you busy? As in “busy!”
—I am only busy in the afternoons. I am too old to be busy in the evenings. Especially if I have been busy in the afternoons.
—What’s wrong with Laura? She was quite taken with you. I think she would have made you a solid girl friend.
—There was nothing wrong with Laura, I said. Does she wear vests?
—Do you ever see her in vests?
—As a matter of fact, yes. What has that got to do with why you wouldn’t accept her invitation to dinner?
—It has nothing to do with it, I said.
—I don’t understand you, said my sister.
—Neither do I, I said.
—And you like it that way.
There was a pause between us and in that pause I think my sister wanted to talk about Hazen.
—You have heard from him again, I said.
—How did you. . .
—It came to me in a moment of….
—I got an e-mail from him.
—I don’t do e-mail.
In the silence that followed on my side I considered confessing that being discordant to Laura Wingate was wrong.
—You want to say something more about Laura?
—I’ve said it to myself. And I have heard from Beth.
—I know, said my sister and signaled for the check.
An Introduction to the Blood Factory
That fall the Blood Factory dogs started to arrive. Doctors Evans and Cody were awarded grants to do research and both needed blood and dogs. Doctor Cody would start her work before Christmas; Doctor Evans, the following spring.
In preparation, we cleaned out the garage at the back of the lab and installed stacked kennels down both sides. To avoid animal rights protesters, the pound was to bring in strays at night. Once a week, either Hazen or I had to be at the lab between eight and midnight to meet the truck.
The dogs arrived two to three to a cage, and some were badly chewed because of fights. After unloading them, I’d spend another hour or so cleaning and patching their wounds.
By this time Hazen and I had learned to dissect a number of animals. And before the dogs started arriving, my uncle sent us over to a local vet clinic for sessions on canine care where we learned the techniques of stitching wounds. I got pretty good with a Kelly clamp and a hemostat, and I got so I could tie a surgeon’s knot with one hand. These skills were useful not only in tending the dogs when they arrived, but in the routine work we did in the lab—and later when there was canine surgery.
One of the truck drivers was a small girl with black hair, and nearly black eyes. She wore bib overalls–the kind you might see on a Kansas farmer coming into Emporia to buy feed—and thick gloves. One night she decided at the last minute not to turn over a dark, stout terrier.
—What do you do with them? she said as she put the dog in the front seat of the truck.
—I’m not supposed to say.
—You kill them, don’t you? she said.
—Yes, I said.
—I’ll keep this one for myself, she said. I’ll put it in the log as DOA.
—Fine by me, I said.
I signed the log for a DOA.
—I’m going to name him “Floren,” she said.
—For the other guy who works here, she said. Tell him I said hello. Tell him “Pistol” says hello and I’ll see him next week on Tuesday instead of Friday.
—I’ll tell him, I said.
—“Pistol” says hello, I said to Hazen the next day.
—We do it on the clean towel pile in the laundry room. I told her about how I thought balling will make me get taller, and she said she’d like to help.
—She’s named a dog for you.
—Which one of me?
—Glad you told me. I’d forgotten who I was with her even though I love her deeply. I call her “Pistol” because of how quickly she goes off. What’s it measure?
—Five four and a half.
—See. It’s either the vitamins or balling. Or Tall Tugging. Maybe I should ask Ursula to apply the scientific method to see which one.
—I lied about the half.
—Not so bitchin.
Our job was to bleed the dogs to death. Doctor Cody needed blood for her experiments on pregnant bitches. She was implanting an intestinal blockage into selected unborn puppies to see if that blockage could be detected after birth by means other than surgery. In addition to the blood, she needed pregnant dogs. Every time a bitch came into heat we’d let one of the males breed her. We’d also check the bitches to see if any were already pregnant.
Doctor Evans’s grant was to develop a heart-lung machine for children. By the early sixties, heart-lung machines had been in use awhile, but they oxygenated and pumped blood at a rate compatible with adults. As I understood it from my uncle, you could regulate these machines to account for the difference in the body size between adults and older children, but the problem was more complex when it came to babies: the whole apparatus had to be reengineered so that the doctors at the pediatric hospital next door could do open-heart surgery more effectively–and with fewer devastating side effects.
In the spring, when it came time to test the various designs for Doctor Evans’s heart-lung machine, we would need a lot of blood from a lot of dogs. And because dogs had roughly the same blood capacity as children, small and large, we would need dogs on which to perform the experimental heart surgery.
—These small ones aren’t worth the trouble to put them under, Hazen said, pointing to a miniature in the kennel next to the larger one.
But put them all under we did, hooking up the artery tubes, opening their chests, and shooting their hearts with adrenaline near the end to get another half bag. When the dog was drained, we hauled its carcass to the incinerator by Hazen’s Tall Tugger and tossed it among the hairspray hamsters and starved rats and rabbits and Guinea pigs and beagles, all of which we burned en masse.
“Cook Time” it was called on Ursula’s clipboard, and it meant you had to be at the lab between eight and midnight to turn on the gas jets and throw the switch that ignited the incinerator. We “Cook Timed” the dogs at night for the same reason we unloaded them at night. Sometimes as Pistol was driving away, the dogs she had brought the previous week would be smoke curling over the parking lot.
—Five bags, said Hazen.
Five it was.
—You owe me, said Hazen.
We would bet on how many bags of blood each dog would have. At the end of the day’s bleeding, we’d add up the score. A bag of blood plus or minus was a cup of coffee at Mel’s; two bags, a beer at the No Name Bar in Sausalito.
—Beer or two coffees? I asked.
—Do “Cook Time” for me tonight and we’ll call it even, Hazen said. I got a bitchin date.
—Is your bitchin date anybody I know?
But it was.
Memory not Mixed with Desire
Whenever one of my wives says: “Remember the time when….” (a tall red head who would cry afterwards); or “I really appreciate the way you’ve always. . .” (a soft, small, shy–almost silent blond); or “If I am to offer a small observation in the interest of the health of our relationship. . .(a high breasted runner, younger than most)–when I get speeches like these from whatever characters my wives are playing, I close the scene. Exit nudged by William Holden
Thus, they come and go. Talking. At times I’m down to three. Two had to suffice for a month. There threatened to be five when one wife quit the play, then wanted a revival. She showed up on her old Wednesday; however the apartment doorman, Earl (as McFate would have it) understood another scene was being played out, and told her I was not in. By that time she had been replaced by a Red Boa.
—Have you seen that homeless man along Brush Creek? I asked my sister one day at reVerse.
—Yes! she said. I almost told Gerhard about him, but he would report him to the police. The one who’s a waiter?
—That and other acts.
—Really? I’ve only seen him as a waiter.
—He’s Bottle James.
My sister looked around the restaurant as if to find him waiting tables. She seemed afraid.
I think she is wary of the past, even though it has given her a husband and three children, and even though it is our destination when we take our drives. Maybe it is the “memory” of the past she doesn’t like since some of what she remembers is what she has done badly.
Memory: The Mother of All Guilt
It could be a book. It will need paintings: Suzanna and Elders, comes to mind. Many versions. There is The Music Lesson, a British painter I think. Madame X as a Wednesday wife (It’s the title that tells the tale, as well as the pose). Or I could use photographs: Walker Evans. Diane Arbus. But that would be another kind of guilt, more ours than theirs. Maybe party-shuffle them. Put discussion questions at the end:
1. Why are all the paintings of women? Does a man feel guilt?
2. Would he talk about it if he did?
3. Would he talk to you?
4. If not, what does that say about him? About you?
5. How do you feel about your guilt?
6. Why not: Memory: The Father of all Guilt?
It could be an Oprah selection. It bores me already.
I have no illusion about memory being the past; it is more likely to be the present; or, given the way my books and I travel, the future. However, I am not insensitive to Elaine’s plight. When she looked for Bottle James, she feared she might be called upon to act out scenes from her past—not unlike being afraid in the theater when the actors spill off the stage and into the audience asking you to participate. I have been at such productions and I have not been afraid, but then I have not been called upon. They also serve who sit and wait.
—Have you talked to him? my sister asked, leaning toward me.
—I have not.
—Are you sure it is Bottle James?
—I am not sure of anything.
—Well then, he might not be, she said, and seemed relieved.
—That’s true, as well, I said.
—What are you going to do? she asked.
—Perhaps nothing. Perhaps something.
Just then Bottle James came over the edge of Brush Creek as a doctor. The lab coat was worse for wear and it needed washing and mending. But if you didn’t look too carefully, he was the part. There was a bulge in the left-hand coat pocket that was probably not a stethoscope. He crossed Ward Parkway and walked by our window toward Eddie Bauer and Halls.
—What are you looking at? Elaine said. Is he out there?
She turned around, but he was gone.
—Don’t frighten me like that.
—Yes, I said.
—He just passed our window, I said.
She turned and looked again.
—I don’t understand you. You just said. . .
—Having already frightened you, I see no reason not to tell you the truth. He was Doctor Welby. Or maybe a colleague of Jo’s on General Hospital. Someone brought in as specialist from Johns Hopkins for a few episodes. And he and Jo. . .
—Now what are you going to do? she said.
—Cross paths with him, I said.
—For what reason?
—To deliver the lines from my past.
Medical History: The Kansas-California Edition
The best time to take my exam over Harrison’s at the Med Center is in the mornings when there are plenty of indigent people in the public lounge. After I pass my tests, I treat myself to lunch at Hannah’s.
There is something worn and California about Hannah’s, as if the sixties are preserved, not so much in formaldehyde but as a small anthropology museum. A poster of one of Beth’s murals (in which she is a row of auto points across the top, getting older and more beautiful until she’s finally a woman of a certain age) is on the south wall; my usual table faces it. Thus seated, I have the pleasing sensation that I, too, am part of the tableau.
I wear my uncle’s white coat. My stethoscope is in my pocket, but not so that it sticks out. I am addressed as “Doctor.” Sometimes there are interns in the cafe, and they nod—as if they should know who I am.
Once Nurse Barkley came in with two medical students, a young man and a young woman. Because there was no place else to sit, the owner brought them to my table.
—Do you two know Doctor Hansen? Nurse Barkley said after they sat down.
I had given her the lab’s name coupled with my own first name.
—Any relation to Arild Hansen? asked the young woman.
—No, I said. But of course I know his work.
—A real pioneer, said the young woman. It all stands to this day. Those studies he did on nutrition. His lab was in San Francisco. Then he was followed by. . . what was that man’s name? Also very great.
—Oakland, said the young man. I think that lab was in Oakland. Am I right? he asked me.
—I only know Hansen by his work, I said.
—They are taking me to lunch before they go on their preceptership program, Nurse Barkley said.
—Conroy Watkins, said the young woman. That’s who came after Hansen. He wrote a section of Harrison’s, I think.
—Where have you been assigned? I asked.
—To the boonies, said the man. Western Kansas. Some town called Atwood. I leave after Christmas. Just in time for the blizzards. I am told there are no children there. Only geriatrics. I am in pediatrics.
—It is the same, said nurse Barkley.
I didn’t know she could be witty. But then we never talked much.
—And you? I asked of the young woman.
—Emporia, she said. William Allen White’s town.
—Pediatrics as well? I asked.
—Yes. And as there are Mexicans, and as they are Catholics, there shall be children.
—Don’t rub it in, said the young man.
Neither asked after me in any professional way; my guess was that they felt they should have known me and were too shy to reveal they did not. As for nurse Barkley, I suspect she had by now figured out that I am not who I pretend to be (whoever that is), but as I am a forbidden delight, she has decided not to press the matter. Only once did she ask:
—Do you come down from the Lawrence campus?
Am I alone in thinking that a woman dressing after she has made love and has enjoyed it is as delicious as she when she is undressing in anticipation?
—Yes, I said.
—Do you know Doctor Whitehead up there?
—I do not, I said.
—And he does not know you, she said, buttoning her uniform.
Ta-Bid: Chapter Deux
Hazen wanted to use French in Ta-Bid to give it “cachet.” He said you had to have “cachet” to attract celibate monks who would then “ponder and speculate” on the meaning of the text. Celibate monks were more attentive to details and nuances. The rest of us were just trying to get laid.
—To have “cachet” in America you need French, mais oui?
—Sometimes yes, and sometimes no, I said.
Hazen looked at me. Self parody, I was beginning to learn, is a portable mask over the face of ignorance. Later, I would check my mother’s Webster’s for “cachet” (page 202 where, just across the page on 203, I had previously discovered Cadillac, Antoine de la Mothe.) Angst and ennui and enigma are yet to be found. Provincial was disinterred on page 1173: rustic, limited.
—Do you know “cachet?” Hazen asked.
—It means money.
—I don’t know it either, said Beth. I suspect she did, but didn’t want me to be embarrassed–which by then I was not.
—What about “provincial?” Hazen said. My mother was ga-ga over your quip extraordinaire. You are quoted on Russian Hill. She thinks you were serious.
Amid such declarations on the part of Hazen and patience on Beth’s part—and on trips in Austen up and down the California coast, and at late-night bull sessions—we assembled Ta-Bid.
—Which one of the gods is a woman? asked Beth Ta or Bid? We never decided that.
—Ta, I said.
—Bid, said Hazen. Your vote, Beth.
—How about we keep it a mystery, she said. It will give rise to debate among the faithful.
—Very good, said Hazen. Like there’s a “flaw” in Paradise Lost.
—There is? I said.
I had not read Paradise Lost but at least I knew it was famous.
—That’s what my English Literature professor taught us, said Hazen.
—What’s the flaw? said Beth
—He never told us, said Hazen. I think it is supposed to be a mystery. You just know there is a flaw and you ponder and speculate about what it is, and that’s how you get a Ph.D.
—Let’s call the mystery about which god is a woman and which god is a man “The Mystery of the Universal Sex,” I said.
—Too long, said Beth. And it comes out MUS if you abbreviate it.
—The Divine Enigma, said Hazen.
—Very good, said Beth.
When I typed her notes, she had written it as DE, and next to it was a drawing of Hazen scribbled over.
—Is there a hyphen between Ta and Bid? I asked.
—That too, we shall leave unsaid, said Beth. So that different sects can develop. Let many faithful sects develop. Some over the hyphen.
—I don’t want the faithful in our religion, Hazen says. It clutters up Ta-Bid. You can have wars over a hyphen.
—We don’t even have Ta-Bid yet, said Beth. Let’s not get sidetracked by the problems of the religions that exist. What role do women play?
—They are Ta-Biddies, I said.
I was coming into my own.
—Very funny, said Beth.
I was also beginning to understand irony when I heard it.
—We need names for the priests, I said.
Nobody said anything for a moment.
—Grand Flayman, said Hazen. The Earthly head of Ta-Bid shall be the Grand Flayman de Ta-Bid and he/she shall not reveal his/her identity or location, about which there shall be great angst and ennui. The other holies of Ta-Bid shall be called Arch-Flaymen, one for each of the Seven Seas.
—You’re on a roll, Beth said, writing it down.
—I am the Arch Flayman for the Pacific Ocean, Hazen goes on. My full title shall be Arch Flaymen de Abalone de Half Moon Bay de Ta-Bid. You guys pick whatever sea you like. It will leave four Arch Flaymen to anoint. They shall be appointed with tenure and cannot be removed except for religious competence or immoral turpitude.
—The Mediterranean for me, I said, to which Beth says she had hoped for the Mediterranean because of its excellent light for painting, so I quickly gave way and took up my present post: The Atlantic Arch Flaymen de la Alphabet Soup de Hurricanes. My specialty (Hazen assigned us specialties) is to explain that the total destruction of homes and businesses by storms large and small (Hurricanes and typhoons crashing in from the oceans, tornadoes plowing through towns in Kansas and clearing away provinciality) is Ta-Bid’s way of “disinfecting the souls of the impure in order to bring into bloom a thousand springs.” As to the persona of the Grand Flayman de Ta-Bid, his/her whereabouts has remained a secret to this day. The original Deep Deity. Four Arch Flaymen are yet to be anointed.
The Incomplete Book of Women
—Do you know who I am?
—No, I said.
I was in the lab waiting for the dog truck. The phone in my uncle’s office had rung three times: once I did not get there; once it was the wrong number (they wanted the hospital), but this time I got it.
—I am your next lover. I am taking off my clothes. My shorts are on the floor. Did you hear them drop? I’m holding the phone against my ear with my shoulder while I unbutton my blouse. I am not wearing a bra. I want you to kiss me on the neck. And on my breasts. Now I’m going to put down the phone while I take off my panties. There. Do you know who I am? Find me. Or I will find you.
Click. From my uncle’s office, I could see the pound truck drive in.
—Where’s Floren? said Pistol.
—I don’t think he knew you were coming, I said.
—I told him I was coming. He said he’d trade with you.
I walked along the side of her truck to close the garage door, but she had not backed in far enough so the door was hung up on the front bumper. When I looked in the cab for the keys to move it, I saw dress clothes folded on the front seat. High-heel shoes. An overnight bag.
—Maybe he misunderstood, I said. Do you want me to call him?
She was in the truck getting dogs, but when she came to the tailgate she didn’t have one. She was wearing her thick gloves and bib overalls.
—You busy? she said.
—We’ve got the Blood Factory this week, and Cook Time, if that’s what you mean.
—That’s not what I mean. I mean Floren was supposed to take me to dinner and I was going to stay over with him, and we were going to ball in a real bed at his place instead of on the fucking towels in the laundry room.
She went back into the truck to get dogs. She was tough on them, grabbing them by their tails and the scruff of their necks and shoving them at me.
—I’ll call him, I said.
—Does that mean you’re busy? she said, holding a tube dog.
—I’m not busy. It’s just that. . .
—What? That I’m with Floren. Well, I’m not with Floren. Is Floren here? No. You’re here. He’s not here, she says. Not fucking here. Asshole.
I put the tube dog in a cage and came back to get another. It was a black and white Border collie. Pistol shoved it at me hard. Then she turned around and looked into the truck. The Border collie started to whimper. The other dogs in the garage were barking and howling and baying. They do that when the truck first comes in and they don’t settle down until after it leaves. I put the collie on the floor and it ran under the garage door and into the night.
I’d always liked Pistol. Once we had a cup of coffee at Mel’s. This was before Hazen started swapping times with me, so he could ball her in the laundry room. It turned out she worked three jobs. This was her night job. She didn’t tell me the other two. Just that she had them. She’d start to say something, then not. We had two cups of coffee. She told me her name was Liz. I offered to buy her something to eat before she left, but she had to go. Sometimes when you’re young you don’t know why you like women. Or what it means. She wasn’t Beth. But she was someone.
—Will you take me to dinner? Pistol said as she turned around. Remember how you wanted to buy me a meal across the street? I’ve got money, and if I give it to you will you take me to dinner on the Berkeley campus and pay for it like you were treating? Someplace nice where the rich students go. I’ll ball you afterwards. I’ll buy a bottle of wine and we can go back to your place and I’ll fucking ball you. But not here, she says. Will you? she said. I don’t want to do it ever again on a pile of towels. I want a bed. I want flowers in the room. I want a bottle of wine on the table. I want. . .
She went back into the truck and got another dog and gave it to me, not hard this time. After I put the dog in a kennel and came back, she said:
—Never mind, I’m over it. We better look for the one that got away.
—Are you busy? I said.
I could see she wanted to smile.
—I’ve got that dog to find, she said. If that’s what you mean.
—I haven’t eaten. And I’ve got a few bucks my mother sent me for my birthday. I was thinking you could join me. I know a place just off the campus that’s nice and open late. Flowers on the tables.
—Sure, she said.
She hands me another dog.
When the truck was empty we went into the parking lot and searched for the Border collie. We looked for about ten minutes with no luck. Heading toward the lab, Pistol took my hand.
—I’ll mark it DOA, she said coming across the parking lot.
—You don’t have to ball me, I said, holding her hand.
—Thank you, she said.
Then we saw the dog under Austen. Pistol put on her gloves and pulled it out. It tucked its head to turn away.
—Do you want it? she said. It tried to get away. That means something.
—I can’t, I said. I’ve only got this room and we can’t have dogs.
We took it back to the lab where I put it in a kennel by itself. Usually we double them up, but there was a cage on the top row against the inside wall where the vent pipe for the incinerator went up that was small for two dogs, so I put it there.
—I’ll find it a home, I said. Mark it DOA.
—Thank you, she said. I want to change here.
I looked at Pistol and hoped that when she got dressed I wouldn’t want to ball her after all. In a moment she came back wearing a bright yellow skirt and a white blouse. She fixed her hair so that it was above her right eye. She’d put on perfume. She was wearing high heels and stockings. Pearls. She had a scarf for her hair. Because she was taller in her heels she didn’t seem like Pistol any more. Behind her I could hear the phone in my uncle’s office ringing.
—You want to get that? she said.
—No. But I want to stop by my room to get slacks, I say. And a sports coat.
—Thank you, she said.
—Leave your truck in the parking lot, I say. I’ll bring you back.
—I want to stay with you, she said.
—You don’t have to.
—I know I don’t. I just want to stay with you in your room so I can wake up someplace other than where I live. I want to be near somebody. I’ve brought a night bag. We can have breakfast together in the morning. My treat.
—Fine, I said.
After dinner, I asked the waiter if I could have the flowers on the table: a small bouquet of daises. Sure, he said.
—Don’t forget about the dog, Pistol said the next morning at Mel’s.
Behind her, Hazen was getting off the 51 bus. He looked to see if Austen was in the parking lot. It was next to Pistol’s truck.
—Thank you, Pistol said. She was wearing her bib overalls and her hair was knotted in back. But she was still wearing her pearls. She caught me staring at her.
—I like to look at you, I said.
—I know, she said. Feels good, doesn’t it?
—That’s my middle name, she said. Elizabeth Pretty Bond. I don’t know why he calls me Pistol.
She looked into her coffee cup.
—Don’t forget about the dog, she said.
—I’ve got to go, she said.
—See you next week.
She doesn’t tell me she won’t be back. Maybe she didn’t know.
—Was it your birthday? she said.
—Did you want to ball?
Behind her I could see Hazen looking in the truck. Before we came over to Mel’s, Pistol had put her night bag and dress clothes on the seat.
—Yes, I said.
—I didn’t know, I said.
—I didn’t want you to.
—Sometimes it’s better this way, I said
—Thank you for saying so, she said.
After she left, I went into the lab through the garage door into the Dog Room and looked at Pretty in her cage, no longer nameless to me.
Nudes in Painting: A Revised Edition
—What I like about you is that you look at me when we talk.
—Who else would I look at? I said.
—Bob looks at the television.
—Maybe Bob likes television.
—Why would he like television more than he likes me?
—And when I tell Bob I love him, he says “ditto.”
—I don’t love you, I said.
—I know you don’t, she said. I don’t want you to. But I want Bob to love me because we are married.
This wife has my book Nudes in Painting out of which she creates our afternoon. I was sorry to hear her talk like this, because there is a Renoir and a Manet she has not gotten to–the latter with a Rosetta holding the flowers I buy on Tuesdays. My hope had been that she’d get as far as Ruben’s Little Fur. But when my wives start talking about their husbands, their Wednesdays are numbered pages; perhaps Rubens can be the denouement. In her youth she could have been a Balthus.
—I like to look at you because you are so many women at once, I said. For instance, I noticed you have arranged your hair differently; it is braided and wrapped in front. I like it that way.
—See, she said. After lunch I want you to guess who I am. Someday I’ll tell you how I get the ideas for my poses.
Soon she will become Titian’s Venus of Urbino (sans chien). In the meantime we talk about “the moment at hand”–always a good subject between men and women who do not love one another.
The Self Help Book of the Cosmos
—There are “direct” lines in the cosmos that make connections from the world beyond our knowing to the world of our knowing, and there are “indirect” lines that make those connections, says Professor Gabin. It is the obligation of science to examine the “direct” lines; it is the obligation of religion–in so far as religion is connected to spirituality– to examine the “indirect” lines. The “oblique” lines. The lines that require faith. The light and sounds and touch from another world that cannot be seen or heard or felt. That sense of knowing something that is not knowable is what religion puts into dogma, which claims to be a way of knowing. The world might be a better place were this not so, but it is so: It is the business of all religions to confide what cannot be codified and to demand the impossible: that we take as fact what is at best a guess. Remember this as you create your religion.
It is one of the few times Professor Gabin did not read from the hologram she projected in front of her. She leaned into that space, and beyond it she saw me for the first time in a week.
—I said you were sick, man, said Hazen after class. Ursula is not in happy-happy-ville. I am not in happy-happy-ville. I covered your ass. I got dog blood up the wazoo. Were you stuck on the MTA?
Beth would not talk to me. She walked out of Professor Gabin’s class toward the student union.
—I went with Jo to La Jolla, I said.
—For a week?
—What were you doing?
—I’ll bet you can’t guess.
—No shit shinola? Hazen says. He seemed surprised. And impressed.
The Gathering of Light
—You know how Bill Holden lures Kim Novak out of Hutchinson, Kansas in Picnic? Bottle James said one night in the garage room. Well, I’m Bill Holden and I’m taking myself out of Emporia. I’m not going to stir burn barrels just so I can dance to “Moonglow” with Hulga. Or even Tina. “The train got in, thank God! What time is it?” Want a pull? Vodka is the fastest way out of Kansas.
Even before the posters went up, you knew a play was in production because Bottle James would walk around campus in one of the costumes: “Oh, reason not the need,” he ranted one week wearing a long white beard. “Nothing will come of nothing.”
—Do you think it’s true Tina’s father is Professor Humbolt? I asked him the week he was ranting in his beard.
—You still trying to ball her?
—Never, never, never, never, never, he said.
—Who are you? I asked.
—I have in my countenance that which will have you call me “sir.”
When I first went to work for Hallmark, I proposed a series of books based on quotations from Shakespeare. The Famous Hamlet. The Famous Romeo and Juliet. The Famous King Lear. As examples, I used both “Hang Up Philosophy,” and “Never. Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.” It was a successful proposal, but the editors used “I love you more than words can wield the matter.”
In recent days I have been watching for Bottle James through binoculars that were a gift from Stripper Suzie. It was her idea that I go across Brush Creek so she could play peek-a-boo on my balcony. When I said I didn’t have binoculars, she gave me an excellent pair: Swiss made, she pointed out.
—I always hoped there was a peeping Tom in my neighborhood when I was growing up, she said.
—Maybe there was, I said.
—I would draw the shade and arrange the light so it was behind me when I undressed.
—As in Straw Dogs?
—Is that a movie? It sounds vile. Let’s check our watches, she said. One thirty. Can you get where you can see me by two?
I walked to Married Love and looked for Bottle James. I saw where he had camped against a tree not far below me. I scanned the creek. He was nowhere to be seen. Then I sat on Winston’s lap and trained the binoculars at my balcony to look for Suzie.
—Did you see me? she said when I came back.
—I did indeed.
—What did you see? she said. She was fully clothed in a yellow tailored suit and that meant that for her—for us obviously—the end of the afternoon.
—I saw your bare leg first of all, I said.
—Did you see what I was wearing? Did you see me take it off? Could you see me behind the curtain?
—Yes. I said.
—I must go, she said. Next time, I’ll stay all afternoon and make it up to you. You’re such a dear, sweet man. Why you’re not married, I don’t know. If I wanted to share you—which I don’t—I’d introduce you to my sister-in-law. She’s sort of married but… how to put it…? she needs a diversion. She says so herself.
—You’re quite enough.
—How good of you to say, she said, and, as the elevator doors closed, she pulled up her dress with one hand so I could see she was wearing a black thong with the logo of a rap star on them. With the other hand, she made a phone of her thumb and little finger. Her sister-in-law who is sort of married has recently come swimming back from my past. The coincidences of English fiction alive in American fact.
Later that afternoon, I took the 39 bus to the medical center where the doctor will see me, but not until six. Still, the cure is pleasant. As is the disease. While waiting, I spotted my first Achondroplastic Dwarf, plus two cases of jaundice.
When I returned from my doctor’s appointment, I went to the far edge of my balcony with the binoculars. The directions testify (in English, French, and German) to their “superb light gathering power.” They can be used to great affect (sic–or maybe not) at dawn or dusk. If there is any light at all (stars, the moon, or lights from a “city-scape”) they will “gather that light.” (Perhaps even the glow of a slide projector).
Peering into the dusk of the creek, I saw Bottle James crossing the bridge by Married Love. He was wearing jeans, a white shirt, a vest slung over his shoulder: A waiter? A bartender? His head was down. As he entered the Plaza, he looked up as if into the eyes that gathered his light.
In Elaine’s attic along with our record player is the album from Picnic, the moon-glow of which has now been gathered as well.
Ta-Bid: Heaven and Hell
—I think that in Ta-Bid heaven should be hell, and hell should be heaven, said Hazen one day.
—Why? said Beth
—What do you mean? I asked.
We were at my aunt and uncle’s house; they were out of town.
—That heaven should be a cul de sac, tree lined streets, barbecue suppers, swimming pools, Montavani on the hi-fi. White pianos with brandy snifters on them. Tall tanned blond woman. Tall, handsome, blond men. Sunshine, Hazen said.
—California, said Beth.
—The perfect burbs, said Hazen. Eternal happiness. Fluffed pillows. Roses that never wilt. This! Hazen said as he made a circle above his head with his hand that took in the loveliness of my aunt and uncle’s house.
—Why is this hell? I asked. Uncle Conroy and Aunt Lillian are happy here. What’s wrong with that?
—Happiness, said Hazen, is an illusion and when it fades it leaves congestive heart failure.
Beth was silent. Sometimes she would put her elbows on a table and fold her hands under her chin as if to keep herself from speaking. Then she’d rest her chin on her hands and after a moment talk from there.
—Your heaven seems dull, she said. And the point is jejune.
—Jejune! What kind of word is that? said Hazen.
—It means naive, said Beth still talking with her chin on her folded hand. Sophomoric.
—I know what it means, said Hazen. We’re all sophomoric here. Making up a religion is just an excuse for a bull session. All bull sessions are jejune, ergo, every time we talk about Ta-Bid we are jejune. We’re not going to get out of Bull Sessionburg until we’ve got real jobs. Taking courses in world religion is not real work. Smoking pot is not real work. Drinking beers at the No Name is not real work. What professor Gobin has done for us is make our bull sessions earn credit. Cal Berkeley credit is not real work.
—How about bleeding dogs? I asked.
To which there was silence.
Later that night after Beth and Hazen had gone, I went to the windows of my uncle’s house and looked over the Bay with its lights and water and cars going along the roads and over the bridges and remembered a summer evening after a tornado had blown through Merriam. My father and I had come out of the basement to look around.
—What’s that? I said.
I pointed to a car fender that had fallen into the yard. There was no other debris. Nothing of our house had been damaged. No roof shingles ruffled. A breeze was in the trees. There were others along our street coming into their yards, talking. The sky had cleared and the night above us was stars. My mother had gone into the kitchen to reheat dinner.
—A fifty-six Chevy, said my father as he went over to the fender. Probably Bob Snow’s.
I wondered—even then—what triggers memory. And I wonder now if it was Bob Snow my mother had once loved.
A One-Page Blank: Elaine
When my sister was younger she looked like Dina Shore. She could enter a room with the same television show skirt flourish, which she would do to the amusement of those who understood her parody, our father among them. And like Dina, Elaine could sing silky torch songs: “A Small Hotel;” “Dancing on the Ceiling;” “The Way You Look Tonight.” She was as out-of-date in her Elvis-and-Beetles and Dylan youth as I am now.
These days Elaine has about her a Joanne Woodward countenance. She said she was hoping for Grace Kelly as they both aged (modesty is not one of my sister’s virtues). I think Joanne Woodward is better. Recently she has reverted to Dina, once singing “My Funny Valentine” on a drive to Lowell.
—Are you thinking of someone? I asked.
Like me, she is tall, at least taller than our mother, but not as tall as our father. Unlike the matrons of her society, she is lithe. I think a man other than Gerhard would find her winsome. I wonder if she has lovers, or has had lovers. Should a brother ask? I’ll ask her what she thinks.
She wears little make up, has auburn hair with touches of gray, stands straight and walks with ease; bright, alert, I have seen her suppress a smile at something up ahead along the creek: a lady with a dog that is pulling her toward a clipped goose. Always when we pass Winston and Clementine.
A Cosmic Manual of Coincidence and Clocks
I have been leaving money for Bottle James. When I see that he has come onto the Plaza in one of his guises, I go to Brush Creek and, finding his pad, tuck two ten dollar bills into his clothes. If I am taking one of my walks, I carry the tens with me. By now I have given him a hundred dollars.
The second time Stripper Suzy was on my balcony, I spotted Bottle James coming out of Brush Creek dressed as a waiter. He seemed in a jaunty mood. I saw him dip his head as he passed a pretty woman. It was as if she might have been a customer in the restaurant where he worked. Then he rounded the corner at Warnell Road and, walking into the Plaza, vanished.
By the time I turned my binoculars toward my balcony, Suzy had finished revealing herself, but I saw a black bra in one hand but still wearing her signature thong before she went back into the apartment. She was patting the top of her head and her hair seemed undone.
—Did you see me? Did you see what I did?
She was fully dressed in a Channel suit, a Liberty scarf, not a hair out of place.
—Tell me you saw what I was doing, she said.
—With your hair? I guessed. How you bent over and ran your hands through it.
—Yes, she said. And then?
I was out of guesses and wondered at my luck.
—With your black bra? I said.
—Yes, she said. I feel so free up here. I can’t say why. My sister-in-law says she feels free when she swims in the nude. She told me how in high school she went skinny dipping at the Roeland Park swimming pool with the lifeguard after it was closed. Have you ever been skinny-dipping?
—I have not, I said.
—I haven’t told my sister-in-law about you yet, she said as she closed the doors and blinds to the balcony. About us. I wonder if I should. What would you think if. . .
She has lost track of what she is going to say because she is looking at the table where she had set out lunch; she likes to do that and so I let her. She also brings it: a pasta salad from the Better Cheddar and oil-cured olives, tiny cobs of corn, and baklava for dessert. There were also two good cuts of cheese, a brie and something else—maybe a blue d’Auvergne. I think of Cloris Leachman in The Last Picture Show setting her table for her young lover and waiting, waiting; only one day I will be the one who has a table—in this case not set—to which a Wednesday Wife does not come. It, too, will be predictable.
—Sit, she said, sit down.
My guess was that she’d been imagining herself at the other end of my binoculars and that is why she was breathing deeply with desire. The wine she has brought is an aged Saint-Estephe.
—Very good, I said, tipping my glass toward her.
—Don’t you just love the Better Cheddar, she said. I hope we are together long enough so I can buy you one of everything they have. Not all the wine. But olives and prosciutto, and Biscotti. Where is the foie gras I brought you last time?
—Too good not have, I said.
It had gone down the hall, along with some Bendicks Military Chocolate that Red Boa Rachel brought me the previous week.
—I’ll bring you another.
—There are things I want to do to you this afternoon, she said as she settled into her chair, when the wine has gone to my head. I want to let my freedom swim over you.
—If what? I said, just being curious, not about the answer, but about her train of thought.
—What? she said.
—Nothing, I said. Entice me with hints of my future pleasures.
—Well. . .
And as she did, I wondered if the Prince of Serendipity would script sisters-in-law crossing paths down stage in front of Earl McFate: “Hi! What brings you here?” “Meeting a friend, and you?” “Me, as well.” “We must talk.” “Lunch tomorrow.” “Sure, Hollians. Noon” “Fine.” Doors open (one gets off). Doors close (one gets on). Somebody must have the wrong Wednesday. That happens. One of them doesn’t have a Wednesday.
I have been trying to spot Bottle James when he finds my money. So far, no luck. Once, he moved from where I had left it earlier in the day; another time, he returned before I got back out. One day he never returned. The morning after Stripper Suzy, I got up before dawn to gather light by Winston and Clementine.
—Do you need help? the Plaza cop asked me when he passed on his rounds.
—No, I said. Just waiting for the sunrise.
—There’s a bum who hangs out on the creek, he said. He thinks he’s a fireman. You’ll want to be careful.
—I’ll keep a lookout, I said.
—We’ve put him in the slammer a couple of times, and once on a bus to West Jesus Land, Kansas, but he keeps coming back. Probably harmless, but you never know. Hasn’t been around for the past few days. Sometimes he’s a clock.
—The officer on the weekend shift tells me the guy thinks he’s a clock. He found him standing on a corner going “bong, bong, bong, bong, bong.” That’s when he took him over the line into Kansas.
—I’ll listen for him, I said.
—My guess is he’s left ahead of winter, said the cop.
—For Florida like the bum Dustin Hoffman plays in the movie? I said.
—I don’t know it, said the cop. I know that other one though. Weird if you ask me.
In the Beginning the World Was Not a Blank
Professor Gabin said our religion must come to grips with five topics: The beginning of existence. The nature of the deity. The rules for the faithful. Good and Evil. And the text of the religion.
—Why does she want to know about the “text” of the religion? Hazen asked one day at the No Name Bar.
We had been up the north coast above Timber Cove. Beth had taken her paints and the Ta-Bid notebook. Hazen and I did surf casting and caught some stripers that were in the trunk. Later, Beth would cook them for dinner. She would also make fish-head soup for Earl. Beth thought she could get Earl off his bong by feeding him “pure nutrients,” such as clam juice and vegetables juices she’d make with a blender—and most recently, fish-head soup.
Hazen and I were reluctant to tell Beth nothing was going to keep Earl from bongs or roach clips. And other drugs as it turned out. Later, when Earl went to jail, Beth would take him bread and containers of her soups. Hazen and I were pretty sure he was trading them.
—Professor Gabin wants to know how The Book of Ta-Bid got written? I said.
—We wrote it, says Hazen. We talked it out all semester over beers and dead Mussolinis and Beth took notes. You typed it. Then we turned it in. For an A. Bang. Done. Big Bang.
Hazen left to go to the jukebox. Whenever he got restless, he’d play jukeboxes. He especially liked the ones where you picked the songs from your booth. In those days you got seven songs for a quarter, and if you spaced them, you could play the same song twice. Hazen chose his bars by the jukebox. If they had Tom Lehrer we’d stop. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. In the No Name Bar you had to go up to the jukebox, which Hazen would do two or three times while Beth and I were drinking our beers and watching the sunshine on the water. The No Name had Tom Lehrer, Dylan, and Joan Baez. That made it Mecca.
—We have to come up with a “story” about how The Book of Ta-Bid got written said Beth when Hazen came back. Just as we wrote a story about how the universe was created. We need a “story” of how the “story” was created.
—Ta-Bid told us to do it, said Hazen. Why can’t we just say, “And right after Ta and Bid stopped shaking from their orgasm they told Beth Brookings to write it down.”
—Too short, I said. Our religion has got to be a term paper. We need some padding. The story of the story can’t be short.
—“In the beginning there was the word” is short, Beth said.
—But we’ve already said that in the beginning Ta and Bid were balling, said Hazen.
—We could change the order, said Beth.
About this time the jukebox played Joan Baez’s “Take a ribbon from my hair.” Hazen smiled, rare for him.
—How about Ta-Bid having a song? said Hazen. Maybe a song could explain how it got written. They are singing to each other in the wilderness with a bottle of Mussolini and a loaf of bread and the song they are singing a version of the “Ta-Bid Rag.”
—How about we save a song for good and evil, said Beth, who was flustered in some way I did not understand.
—Sure, I said.
—“It just takes a smidgeon to poison a pigeon,” Hazen sang. Or “Ta-Bid made thine eyes, plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize.”
—Are we into evil here? I said. Or good?
—Both, said Hazen. That’s the nature of Ta-Bid. Good and evil are intertwined. And you don’t know the difference. Only Ta and Bid know. And they’re not telling. Cover up, cover up, cover up. Something will come of it. Only the Shadow knows. The Shadow of Your Smile Meets the Windmill of Your Mind, he sang. We could use some Keanes as illustrations.
—Back to how the text of Ta-Bid got written, Beth said.
—I like your idea, I said to her.
—What’s that? Hazen said.
—That in the beginning there was The Book of Ta-Bid. That it came even before Ta and Bid were humping. Even before they were Ta and Bid.
—That doesn’t make sense, said Hazen.
—You have to start someplace, I said. And wherever you start can’t make sense. It only has to make sense when you come to the end.
—How about we write that “In the beginning there was the beginning, and the beginning was The Book of Ta-Bid?” said Beth.
—But if we don’t have Ta and Bid in the first place, said Hazen, we don’t have the big Ficky-Ficky in the sky; and if we don’t have the Big Ficky-Ficky in the sky, we don’t have the belly button ganiff popping off, and we don’t have the universe. And that means we’re not here. We’re not in the No Name Bar in Sausalito, California, and the sun isn’t shining and I’m not Hazen Edmond Floren Reynald and we don’t have to get this fucking assignment done because there is no Professor Gabin, and that’s not Bob Dylan coming up as G 4!
—Calm down, I said. Maybe we can figure it out that we’re here.
—Art comes before life, said Beth. At least for Oscar Wilde. Maybe it’s the nature of religion to be written first, then Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha, or Yahweh or Ta-Bid come along and act it out. Like you need a playbook before the curtain goes up.
—Just as long as we’re here, said Hazen.
He seemed gloomy at the prospect we might not be there. It was as if one of his names has been taken away. He fished in his pocket and got out a quarter and slapped the table.
—I play the jukebox, therefore, I am, said Hazen. Call Doctor Frenchy.
—It goes this way, said Beth: The Book of Ta-Bid creates Ta and Bid. It is written; therefore, it shall be. In the beginning there was The Book. And The Book is not Blank. Use capital letters for “Book” and “Blank” when you type it.
—Sounds good, I said.
—Are we here or not? said Hazen.
He was standing beside the table looking out the window onto the street. He flipped his quarter a few times. The last time he slapped it on his wrist and looked at it.
—Sometimes we are and sometimes not, said Beth, who by now was in on the joke.
—Yeah, right, said Hazen.
Our Blank de Blanche Design Proposal: Four of X
1. Title: Ostensible, Ubiquitous, Alacrity, Quintessential, Albeit, Circa
A. Trimmed page size: 6×9 cut from 38×50. Paginated in lower right. Two wire paper, antique.
B. Where a Part ends, there is a word from the text in Garamond Bold Italics, e.g., Covenant.
C. Typeface for text: Garamond 12 point.
D. Watermark for end papers and other blanks: subliminal “dictionary words” that have not been italicized in text.
- Typeface for watermark: Garamond Italics. 6 point.
- Text: Bong, bong, bong, bong, bong. Never, never, never, never, never.
— Robert Day
Robert Day’s most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”
The novel banners at top and bottom are by Bruce Hiscock.
Theodor Adorno famously wrote that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” And here’s a quote from Jacob Paul‘s new essay about writing novels after the Holocaust, about performing absence, as it were, or thinking the unthinkable (which is what Adorno was talking about, thinking without turning the thoughts themselves into ossified things that cannot feel or see freshly). Jacob has contributed fiction and essays to NC.
It wasn’t until I finally saw Shoah in 2007 that I began to fully comprehend the depth and magnitude, the foundational nature, of the relationship between postmodernism and WWII’s horrors (and Stalinism’s). In watching Shoah, I began to see what performing absence might look like, aesthetically. It connected for me, at least on an intuitive level, and it created an urgency within me. I started really caring, frantically caring, about what a post-postmodern might be, and of what actually made postmodernism postmodernism beyond a set of aesthetic moves.
The moves—fragmentation, self-reflexivity, destabilized subjectivity, auto-generative text, awareness (and destabilization) of a reader, concrete text, absurdism—were built onto modernism’s innovations, and were all initially devised to point at the materiality of the text itself. This effect led to Francois Lyotard’s proposed distinction of postmodernism from modernism based on a shift from epistemological inquiry (what knowledge is and how it can be acquired; or, in the case of modernist text, how the text knows what it knows) to ontological inquiry (what makes a human, human; or, in the case of a postmodern text, what makes the text, text). His distinction, however, centered on the presence in a work of aesthetic devices that have since been appropriated by the literatures of other cultures to different ends
- The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation. (Prisms, 34)↵
William Olsen is a dear friend and former colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a publisher, editor and poet, a major force, diffident and yet such a presence. In this new poem, he pens what he calls “among other things, some sort of response to and loving argument with a favorite poem, Coleridge’s “Frost At Midnight.” The Coleridge poem situates itself as an address to the poet’s son, sleeping in his cradle. It’s night; it’s cold. Frost outside. Everyone is asleep except the poet. The world is so still the stillness seems to flutter with presence that disturbs meditation, the presence of the Stranger, which is a kind of Coleridgean encapsulation of a neo-Platonic deity behind or beneath the phenomena of existence. The poet bemoans his own childhood (much to complain of there) cooped up in the city grime and tells his son he’s lucky; he’ll grow up in sight of “…lakes and shores / And mountain crags…” that are the “eternal language” of God.
Olsen’s poem plays with Coleridge’s poem starting with a brilliantly suspended first sentence that takes seven stanzas to come to an end as the poet takes us deeper and deeper beneath the surface of things, past regret and mother’s tears and “funereal vacuities” (more than a hint of humor here) to something that, in the end, is not Coleridge’s Stranger nor his God, rather something the poet cannot name or even choose to name. Note the line “wherever it is leaves must fall” and its echo farther down “The leaf falls to earth…”
The leaf falls to earth and keeps
falling and cups the frost,
then decomposes beyond the deeps,
to teach us how to be lost.
And the word “teach” here echoes the Coleridge poem that also is about teaching: God “Great universal Teacher!” But Olsen is much less credulous or sanguine than Coleridge. He cannot say why things are nor who speaks through the delicate traceries of frost and the decomposing leaves that teach.
Far down below black, lowest regret,
deeper than death, and deeper yet,
down where my mother weeps to me
to leave tomorrow’s sorrows be,
far below sadness and tenderness,
where more is less and less is less,
below the sky or the sky-blue lake
brimming over like the hull of a shipwreck,
below where the crows crow and the cows sleep,
below the bluestem and the apples the cows crap,
below the prettiest sunset,
below even the bluest white-
bright-last-sunlight upon even bluer waves
gleaming their overly-precious granite graves,
below funereal vacuities,
far below the lovers’ quarrels,
or their story’s broody morals,
in its own good timely time, time has gone back home.
Time and time again, homeless time—
all the time in the world, homeless,
homeless space of universe,
all the time that time might pass
inside a shiny timeless hearse——
far down below idling hopes,
below the learned astronomer’s telescopes,
wherever it is leaves must fall
is neither my life nor my choice to call.
Upon a few gnarled stunted vines
fall’s first frost fairly shines,
mist rising up from fields while new minted frost
mummifies a shingle-sided house.
Here is a glittery homelessness
better acquainted with earth than with us.
All we are is less substantial,
all our fears, less substantial.
Dawn is ready and the heart is able.
Fear could not be less substantial.
I’ve had it with odes to dejection,
which is never more than the fear of rejection.
Here’s what frost isn’t—insubstantial,
querulous, of itself too full,
a mood of ferried buried
waves and the threadbare eroded
dunes we sightseers climb up and down to ruin.
Torment never spread itself this thin.
Incandescent, heartless, so like tin—
gull-gray gulls shriek atonal tunes.
The light of frost is the understudy of day,
this lake, once, as hard as rock:
icebergs—like ships, they broke
to floes which, farther down on their luck
drowned, to nothing—invisibly.
This frost is anything but free.
It looks like the moonlight got good and lost.
It got busted, sprung, and lost.
Frost has a cryological conscience:
the afterworld is cold chance.
Lunatical . . . white as a grin.
It shines unapproachably, like sunlight shines on tin,
whitening fields between cars and houses.
Plow-slashed furrows freeze
over smooth to its silver sky.
Forgive this intricate analysis
but it looks so stunned and incredulous.
It is spotty, like a roof of a vacant crystal palace,
it scribes the window glass.
It is so distinct from rain.
It shuns asphalt as too human.
The lustrous is
incipient in us.
Its deposition of glory
is inexplicably ordinary.
What a tenacious
underside of heaven it is—
it won’t be pushed around or salted or plowed like snow.
It won’t be tracked on and no weatherman will see it lift.
It is profligate thrift.
Its past is vaporous.
Beauty never spread itself so thin—
incandescent, the heartless night
turned inside out—
pasture field light.
The great lovers once frantic to touch
in darkness no dawn or frost can reach—
my mother gone in the blink of an eye,
my father going by and by,
all mothers, all sisters, all fathers, all sons,
all brothers and keepers, everyone’s
truest, best, lost influences,
nameless lovingkindnesses. . . .
it is all and none of this.
It seems irretrievably early.
Time is awake, only barely,
Tight, fibrous and delicate,
around the fine white plow bared roots,
its extremely minute white
threads appeared overnight.
It prompts us and then reproves us.
Its intricate paralysis
crystallizes . . . miraculous.
The leaf falls to earth and keeps
falling and cups the frost,
then decomposes beyond the deeps,
to teach us how to be lost.
So night may be said to be over,
over, and over at no real cost,
each dawn the stars take cover.
Stop fretting about the frost.
Frost clung to the shadow places
and as always already was there
before anyone could take a step.
In the sky, stars stayed on
while you were asleep.
While you were asleep
everyone was asleep;
if we sleep, if we die,
stars hang in the sky.
Between our houses
is its heartlessness,
but whatever grass
is, the frost blesses
whoever sees this,
whoever would mean
that frost be seen
not heard in this:
now fields steam and
its steam mists to sky.
Under us is only sand
and who can say why,
or whose voice this is.