[ an essay on originality and its absence from American fiction and culture for the last twenty-five years at least ]
from Trafficking in Received Wisdom
by T. D. Badyna
Nietzsche began his great work, Beyond Good and Evil, with the line, “Supposing truth to be a woman … ” By it he meant that truth had to be pursued, wooed, seduced, that wit and no dogma were required. Were I to write a work of philosophy, mine would be on the Epistemology of Neanderthals and begin, “Supposing truth to be an emotion … ”
We think of the stuff that is true and valuable and beautiful about ourselves like we do about the gravitational constant, Pythagoras’s theorem, Avogadro’s number, Boyle’s law, the inverse of the square of the distance, so on. If they’re sometimes not true, they never are. Fiction is the science of that true and beautiful stuff. Its experiments are carried out by asking what-if questions.
What if a vagabond Ishmael got on board a ship captained by a madman after a white whale?
What if an ex-pat in Paris had had his dick, though not his nuts, shot off in the Great War?
What if Billy Pilgrim became unstuck in time?
Would what we hold to be true and valuable and beautiful about ourselves still then be true and valuable and beautiful?
It is a dark book that says no, our comforting truths don’t hold up.
An inspiring, affirming book says they do, even under duress, especially under duress, for some of us, for the good among us.
And then there are the books that are neither, that, instead, identify something about ourselves that is true and valuable and beautiful and didn’t exist before the what-if was posed. When a writer aims for greatness, if he understands what greatness is, this is his aim. It takes courage and luck and no amount of polishing phrases and reworking sentences and workshopping plot and character can hit the mark already missed. The storyteller has to believe that what is true for him is true for all men and also that no amount of interview with living souls, nor study of the literary scene, will get it properly out, nor that any amount of historical research will make more plausible his answer. There is no excuse for this behavior, but then there is no excuse either for insisting that what is true and valuable and beautiful about ourselves is other than answers to formerly posed what-ifs.
But we have lost this, haven’t we, that aim to identify in ourselves what didn’t exist before? It seems so. A year ago or so, in an attention-attracting essay in Vanity Fair, Kurt Anderson observed and detailed the dearth and absence, in the last two decades, of evolutionary and revolutionary advances in styles and aesthetics. Our technologies have dramatically changed, but our music hasn’t, nor have our books, nor buildings, nor fashions. This is true for no other two-decade period going back a hundred years at least. We seem, Mr. Anderson wrote, to be stuck on repeat.
He offered no cause or way forward, and whether his thesis is true or not, a case can be made for its opposite. In books, if one dispenses with literary elitism, there is the startling rise of fan fiction, vampires, hit men, fantasies apocalyptic, dystopian and otherwise, stories possessed of a common theme, that evil protects good. A killer or hit man or vampire protecting a young girl has become—it could be empirically said—a twenty-first century archetype and a sentimentalité extrême, a symptom of a fin de siècle to be swept away like Modernism swept away the last, but with us it’s been going on and on, thirteen years since Y2K, and nothing has changed.
Meanwhile, through it all, beginning the late eighties, there’s been a cultural-wide sense of an ending. Google “the end of” and limit your search to books and you’ll get, from the last two decades alone, over a thousand distinct titles that begin with The End of and detail the end of almost everything—history, art, the novel, the West, science, the family, children, the oceans, intelligence, leisure, work, money, God.
These are sensibilities different, but Mr. Anderson was no doubt onto something, an emotion at least. We have more writers, more literary writers, more writers of every stripe, writing and publishing more novels, more literary novels, far more than ever before, and they’re asking, most all of them, more what-ifs, better what-ifs, more imaginative and clever and complex what-ifs than ever before, but none of it resonates, not the way we’d have it resonate, not if we’re honest.
When we want for greatness, the emotion of it, and aim to identify that true and beautiful shit, we seem unable but to claim even for our rebellions a moral equivalency, an aesthetic equivalency, with past rebellions—and that’s new, too, different. From the Renaissance to the recent past, we’ve had new men arise from the thin air between writers’ ears and we haven’t that anymore. It’s as if we’re seeing the future, hearing its voices and have no answer for them, no ideologies, no new man, no words at all but a picking and choosing from what brung us to here. A decade and a half into the twenty-first century, and we have nothing new culturally, aesthetically, morally, nothing that wouldn’t have been much out of place a decade and a half back into the old century, except our phones take pictures and movies and absorb our attention as if they were a needful invention, a necessary distraction, something that had it not been invented, we’d have had to birth it.
It would be helpful, I think, for you to understand that I hold to the notion that mankind rides big, synchronous waves, and when they break, the mathematician and the poet ride them down the same. Parts of us hope that we’re on a big roller swelling ominously to shore and about to break like the last of its kind did a hundred and some years ago and was surfed by Sigmund Freud, Pablo Picasso and Henry Ford, James Joyce, Knut Hamson, Albert Einstein Isadora Duncan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Scott Joplin, Vladimir Lenin, Emma Goldman, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Sergei Diaghilev, Jack London, Henrik Ibsen, Margaret Sanger, Oswald Spengler, Nellie Bly, Enrico Caruso, John D. Rockefeller and Harry Houdini, impresarios all, of themselves—and us. It’s as if they were all surfing one wave the same, the breaking roller of the modern, and if they were doing it with thousands and millions of others, they did it such they became not only the symbols of this wave, they were credited with creating it. We look back and see that there was one world before them and another world after them, and across the centuries, one sees this again and again, and then decades after the break, one sees the frequency of creativity and and genius and greatness diminish. It is as if the wave is spent. Novelists, archaeologists and statesmen are on their surfboards the same, doodlely paddling on a sea becalmed.
Whether this abeyance is a calm before an apocalypse imminent or inevitable—as we seem to be kinda fantasizing about like never before—I don’t know. As long as man’s been writing, we’ve been heading for an apocalypse and have never got there, and that seems a truer thing than any one vision of the future. None of the dystopian scenarios have ever come to be is not important, never has been. The aesthetic appeal of the genre has nothing to do with its prophesying facilities. It’s the titillating fear that what we find to be valuable and beautiful about ourselves, if not already rare, will not be commonly true for the generations to come.
At the same time, narratives written about the past derive their power in significant part, in a curious prizing of originality, from the author’s facility in convincing the reader that he is revealing a history otherwise lost and that standards common to the present are suspect, a failure, a forgetting, even a betrayal of what was once beautiful and heroic.
That narratives about the past and narratives about the future have opposite views of the present state of man might be disconcerting to our beliefs in enduring values, and it ought to, but it’s all of a piece with the paradox at the heart of the storyteller’s dilemma.
A writer of stories of the present instinctively knows that his sensibility, even as it aims to nail the tenor and dilemma of his temporal milieu, cannot be that what this milieu commonly understands as its own. To get on paper, spot on, the exact sensibility that sends sparklies of resonance through the brains of his marks would necessarily lack the emotion of illumination and so couldn’t be that same sensibility. To get into words a world readers recognize as their own, the writer has to step outside of what exists and, whether through style, structure or substance, needs to distort reality, to make something up. He needs to be a prophet of the present, asking the reader to recognize himself and the world as other than he and it are. Only originality can feel true.
This is the logic and paradox of aesthetics.
But originality no longer feel true. This is the Occam simplest explanation for Mr. Anderson’s observation. It’s more a useful answer, one possessed of a generosity of spirit, of wisdom even, than to suspect a couple of generations of writers of being particularly without genius. It is, too, a more likely answer than to accuse, as so many writers do, two generations of readers and agents and editors and publishers of being immune to originality. For the writer, getting down on paper something about ourselves that is true and beautiful and didn’t exist before feels passé, contrived in his or her bones. You know that’s right—and, for the reader, the same comes off as gimmickry.
This is the dilemma of us.
If an apocalypse is coming, there’s nothing to do because it’s of our own making, made out of what we are and have been, and we haven’t the temerity to find in ourselves something true and beautiful and valuable and that wasn’t there before because all we’ve previously made of ourselves has left us and the world fucked. In many ways, ways you likely wouldn’t expect, we are—on a cosmic level, a metaphorical, metaphysical, a if-not-born-have-to-invent thing—slack-jawed and on the couch and watching TV from the future. Our souls, if we have souls, have already, I say, invented it. We’re collectively like Mozart in the movie Amadeus, the opera’s written. It’s all in our head, done, only—tee he he he—the last trifling details of transcribing it to paper, assembling an orchestra and a few singers, a pink and blue wig, a baton to tap tap tap the lectern.
We’re not so far from it. The physical laws of the universe, those tested and proven, make no prohibition against the possibility, which is to say that it’s a matter of technological advances only, none of them far fetched. The science is as plausible as Twitter and its effectuation as inevitable.
So what will you watch? What would I watch? What show’s popularity would we take as proof of our culture’s decline?
One of the financial news channels?
But the question is, if you think about it, what will they put on?
Won’t they—their own contemporal audience watching their own Future TV—program for us?
And won’t we, Tuesday next, or a Wednesday further on, or Thursday next year, as soon as we’re able to watch TV from the future, the Web too, the creative among us, begin to program and write and perform for our immediate past?
Won’t the future, performing for us and watching their own Future TV, not contrive something new and true and beautiful and valuable about themselves that wasn’t there before, but ask of us, in the subtle subconscious ways of art, to be other than what we are that so fucked them?
And won’t we do the same?
And aren’t we already doing it?
And so won’t art—instead of advancing on the aesthetic achievements of the future, leapfrogging ahead—on those of the past, do a reconfiguring, a reimagining, of yesterday’s new men, and each wave of present-day artists will create, as it were, Postmodernism before Modernism, Surrealism before the Realism, Naturalism before Transcendentalism, Romanticism before the Enlightenment, the Restoration before its fall, chowder-mouthed Chaucer before the Shake-a-Spear explosion and so on, from then to forever. History, art and aesthetic history at least, will run backwards. Our heirs, like we are soon to be our own, will no longer have the heretofore natural sense of the future as apocalyptic. We will be watching it, and the future will have the cast of the pathetic, as they struggle on in a world diminished by what we have, as we race backwards, stolen from them—possibility—as they helplessly steal from their heirs. And the past, instead of the heretofore heroic, becomes villainous, in need of reprimand and fixing.
And hasn’t this already happened? Have not our arts begun this race backwards? Doesn’t this explain the overly long Postmodern that fizzled with nothing to replace it but a reimagining of former advances? Aren’t we in some ways already, literary ways at least, at about 1916 now, our best writers, anti-voluptuaries all, putting away their bangley flapper shifts and tying up their fuck-proof corsets for a date with a palimpsest-skinned Henry James unpacking his old attic wares? Don’t we read in the forced manners of our newest stories the awkward twinkle-in-the-eye last of Modernism, Sherwood Anderson in the parlor like Benjamin Button, getting younger, almost pre-Modern, scuffed shoes pigeon-footed, self-conscious, making to leave—through the womb?
We don’t write or act as if clearing the way for ourselves. We’re watching the future and going backwards and thereby stealing from our heirs, and they, from their distant perch, can do nothing about it.
So what will you watch?
Think about it.
If the revolution is to be televised, as predicted, with Future TV it will be televised before it happens—which sounds as if already true, no? Its belief in itself will be so long dissipated by the time its living actualization arrives that it can be little but a feeble and affected striving for an old justice that, if bothered enough to be achieved, will be disowned by its heirs, even as those heirs were once, yesterday, the day before, the very perpetrators of what is being disowned.
Only the revolutions of yesterday, pre-Future TV days, have caché, resonance.
Milan Kundera, born 1929, a living fossil, writes in one of his recent books, Encounter, of the two springs of Europe’s 1968, that of Paris and that of Prague. “Paris’s May was a high-spirited challenge to a European culture viewed as deadening, tedious, official, sclerotic. The Prague spring was an homage to that same culture.”
We cheerfully hold to both revolutions, untroubled by their contradictory aims and content. But poor, old Kundera—he’s old. He cannot reconcile their differences. He doesn’t get the essential harmlessness that either has become.
Think of the heroes of Paris and Prague 1968 as if they had Future TV and could see what we would do with what they were about to do. Would they, do you think, have gone to quite so much bother? Would they have, in their originality, felt quite so much truth?
We recognize ourselves only in what used to be true, a little of this, a little of that, a little Paris, a little Prague, part pirate, part party girl. Words still feel true, but differently.
We have yet our old brains, the reptilian brainstem and medulla oblongata, the limbic system, amygdalala, pineal gland, cortexes up the wazoo, same neurophyisology as had Moses and Descartes, and we do what we can to tickle up the emotion of truth, and if we once and for a long time believed that the unity we found in fiction, art and song enfranchised our souls, it doesn’t anymore, though we’re yet stuck with our old brains. We’re trying to play hip hop on the violin. We’re chimpanzees looking out the rocket ship of us.
The world we love is coming to an end, the one wherein we recognize ourselves—and I mean other than the world with song birds, narwhal whales, six million species of South American beetles. I mean something deeper than that the terrors of lions and tigers and wolves exist now as wards of our charity, that mountain redoubts have become suburbs of our imagination, Everest little more than a snowboard park, Shanghai about as exotic as a South Dakota county fair.
What is coming to an end is what was us at our deepest and most humane, our most compelling and brilliant, all that was only possible with originality, and originality was always, at heart, a cry I, I, I am here now.
Whether the memoirist’s I or the entirely fictitious I of the storyteller, that sense of I had to be original to have power, to feel true—and it doesn’t anymore. Any novel representation of man or his soul or place in the cosmos feels as not much other than a momentary accomplishment, not much more than commentary. Any possible aesthetic or sensibility itself feels to us no different, of no more importance, than the clothes one wears, the list of books one likes, no more than another item in a collection of traits by which we attempt to identify ourselves—photos, music, opinions, likes and dislikes, truths and fictions. Any artistic representation of man cannot but be seen as a more-or-less elaborate Facebook page. We traffic in received wisdom like boys of old traded baseball cards.
It wasn’t that way before, but that’s how it is now.
Originality doesn’t feel true.
And we’re fucked.
But if originality no longer feels true, and only originality can be true, emotionally true, then how can we still feel the true, which we do?
Because lies do.
Lies feel true.
You know this sounds right.
Studies have shown that the more one has doubts about one’s own beliefs, the more passion one will exhibit when defending those beliefs, or proselytizing for them. In the famous David Gal-Derek Rucker study, the more research subjects were forced to confront evidence that undermined their core convictions, the more forcefully they advocated for their original beliefs.
You know this is true. You know the feeling. Only lies feel true, especially sentimental lies.
And what we have left then, the honest among us, is charm—the saving third rail of aesthetics.
Charm—the acting as if you were beautiful or as if she were beautiful, the acting as if something were true that is not and doing so in such manner that wins you over, though you know it is not so.
Charm we have as a species, as well as opposable thumbs, and whatever the future holds, it will be held by those holding it, and some will do it with charm. Whatever we think of the logical apocalypse of Future TV, when we watch it, we will do it best with charm, as if all our old worries were so much piffle.
That’s how it will work.
The realities of physics require that before future people can decide whether to watch The Revolution or Super Bowl CLXVIII or Desperate Housewives of Planet Pluto, they will have to watch Wolf Blitzer broadcast from three hours into the future, then three hours and one minute, three hours and two minutes.
And before we can get the evening news at three in the afternoon, we will have to watch Wolf Blitzer broadcast from ten minutes into the future.
And before that, we will be used to Future TV upon its very birth. The week of its inaugural broadcast, Wolf Blitzer reporting from thirty seconds into the future, Time Magazine will have on its cover an image of Future TV calamitous or celebratory, and, six months later, with Future TV broadcasting from tomorrow, old people will do what old people do, miss their villainous past, while the young will dance pointlessly assured that what’s hot today can make no headway into a diminuted future.
And a year on, the broadcasts coming from next month, those renowned as the more brilliant among us will, in a thousand op-eds and think-piece essays, still be laboring after this news, whether to craft it into a signpost in the decline of man, or in the birth of a new age, even as mankind continues to watch neither happen.
This is the human apocalypse, the eradication of the future by its actual witnessed existence, terrible to us, ironic to an infinite degree, but to those living it—some of them will do so with charm.
So, when you can watch TV from the future, what will you watch?
I’m guessing you’ll likely watch the same channels you watch now, and, after a brief fascination, you will watch with roughly the same raptness, boredom, curiosity, whatever, as you watch now.
You will eat your dinner in front of the TV, as you do now, but saying to your wife, “Look—look it’s the future. It kind of misses the point if I TiVo it.”
Or you will turn it off for the same reasons you do now and go into the kitchen and open wine and make ragout or risotto and sniff the savory.
And though maybe a fungus will have wiped out future grapes forever, like the American chestnut trees of old, and you will think the wine more unbearably precious than you are capable of tasting, or even somehow morally wrong to connoisseur sip what will be extinct, you will drink anyway, eat anyway, and do so pretty much as you do now, and then you will fuck or not fuck your wife or your girlfriend
and do so about the same as you do now.
And then you will kneel down by the side of your bed and pray, no matter what it is, for a different future.
Proof of Maybe
His next ride turned west on I-70 across all of Pennsylvania, and it was okay, the day, but the green land grayed under evening, and the driver stopped his On the Road talk like none of it had been true, or wasn’t anymore, and he dropped the hitchhiker off at an exit in Wheeling, West Virginia and went on home up into its hills, not so happy, these last miles, and the hitchhiker stood on sloped asphalt and orange light was on the black hilltops, and through the Interstate valley long lines of slowed headlights moved like going home, all of them, through smoky air, and he had a hundred and eighty-three dollars and all his life, but too much he spent for a night in a chain motel, not a good night either, what, with telephone and television and traffic noises making every thought a homesickness, but he didn’t turn it on, the television, and he didn’t pick it up, the telephone, and next day’s noon, outside of Columbus, Ohio, he got a ride from a dog-faced lady cop off duty and driving a purple muscle car and wearing a short skirt to show thighs like a fullback’s which she spread to show a fat little pistol strapped to the front of her seat. “Don’t try nothing,” she said, then not so many miles more, before Dayton, offered up a joint and they smoked it and the rider wondered how it was for her, being black like she was black, having a dog face like she had a dog face, a body that turned Twinkies into muscle. Why was she a cop? How did she get her jollies? He wondered that and didn’t think they were good, her jollies, not like they were supposed to be, and he wondered that she knew that, and he told her his story, and she told him hers, but both left everything out, and it was better for that, he thought, and the car left the flatland Interstate, and too soon they were making their way by intuition alone, his, down into the south of Indiana, on state and county roads that became narrow old roads crowned and without shoulders in the miles and miles of corn that rolled over hills to go down into broad valleys with ridges of spired trees. But the valleys became narrower and steeper, and the old growth trees crowded to the edges of the small fields as if to threaten to take back their land, and at twenty miles an hour, one after another, the lady cop and the hitchhiker, silent each, idled through Indiana towns through which ran the long roads down which in front of them rattled cattle, a dozen to the trip, in fat, red trucks, slaughterhouse bound, nine cents to the pound.
And along one of these roads, in the sun beneath an old elm tree—he thought she was dead—was a man and his wife, two roadside gourds selling corn in the evening sun. “This is my pension,” he said, “four ears for a dollar, three ears to a beer. The road took my children, the land took my wife. Help me Lord, let me die tonight. Don’t you know, Dear God, that I’m tired tonight.”
That’s what he thought and thought it for the lady cop too, and and she kinda knew it, and along these roads, on a gravel driveway in gold evening sun, the hitchhiker’s eyes looked on a girl, an Indiana face freckled and blond, waxing the truck of a brown mechanic nineteen and shy for her touch, for what it’d do to him, make him have to believe. She was offering herself to the giddy-up smile of greasy bronzed muscles so that there would then be, in these places between places, nothing but them for years and years and years, so long as he let them be.
He thought that, too, and thought the thought a lie and didn’t know the truth, neither his nor theirs, and the rottenness came back to his insides and he didn’t care, and the car turned off a county road and onto a dirt track cut into an eroding hillside. The lady cop said, “Is this the place?”
“It might be,” he said.
“I think so,” he added, for her benefit, as he grabbed his small suitcase from the back seat, a bag of groceries too, another from the liquor store ten miles back. She’d been a helpful, patient cop. The setting sun lit the treetops. The woods themselves sucked black so as to pull down night. “Thanks,” he said. She was an Indianapolis cop who’d gone to an ex-fiance’s funeral in Columbus, Ohio, driven him an hour out of her way, an hour at least, and when he opened the door to get out, she handed to him two long joints rolled fat and tight, and he took em kinda awkward, and she smiled like she was willing to understand, help even, but he suspected she had hope he wouldn’t take her up, and he closed the door, and through the open window she said, “You sure?”
“Thanks,” he said again and turned and walked the dirt track several miles in the woodland dark where rusting mobile homes with light dim inside were tucked half-hid up overgrown slopes littered, here and there, with flatbeds a generation unused. Further up, near the ridge top, were gray-wooded homes abandoned, three or four of them. In the trailers he thought lived did chicken-necked, banjo-loving Daniel Boones with dirty drawers and worn out socks.
He had the memory of that, of them, kind of.
He had the sense anyway that eyes from up in the woods were watching and that this was a mean place in old America, but he paid neither no mind and followed the dirt track a mile down past inhabitation to a stub of a trail that came up short of a cabin of rough-milled oak blackening with age. Nine feet squared at its base, two stories high, set some up the cockeyed slope of a steep hill, it stood improbably plumb, but of wrong proportions. The upper story overhung the lower. It stood like a spook’s house in the gloom come down from the ridges, come up from the valley, pervaded in from every periphery like ground fog on the forest’s deep carpet of a thousand years of leaves just like memory had described.
He put at the door his suitcase and groceries and liquor and walked some down toward a natural meadow stream-side at the valley bottom where was what once had been a go at a corn field and a vegetable patch and a little orchard where weeds grew up through the skeletons of shrubby peach trees. He looked and kinda saw something like a kid running through living trees but the kid was a ghost and the trees were dead and the kid, he knew, was laid down, curled up and never to awake inside whomever he had become, as inside him, like nesting dolls, curled up were his successively younger selves, the boy he had been, and child who had been that boy, and the baby who had been that child, and the infant who had been that baby, each asleep, each one one a failure to the one who’d come before.
It was okay.
He thought he hadn’t really seen the kid’s ghost and thought too that thoughts proved nothing and in the last of light he walked into the woods and gathered up deadfall and outside the cabin’s stoop built a sizable fire and after a while buried potatoes in the embers and jerry-rigged a spit on which he roasted a duck and then pulled its sizzling flesh apart with greasy fingers he had to keep licking like they was burning. Later he drank whiskey and smoked some of a joint and listened to owls and other noises he knew nothing about and thought his father might as well had not disappeared, just receded a bit, stepped into the background to give him room, eighteen now, but like a man as he had no likely future, not anymore, and it didn’t matter since when, not since the moment it gone and left him alive in a man’s unlikelies.
He lay back and felt as if his father might come out from behind the trees and he could kinda almost sense him or see him but couldn’t think of anything the cocksucker might say, nothing at all, and that mighta been kinda profound, but then those were just thoughts, and thoughts floated on the same sea as dreams, big ships silent from a fog, and he drank a little more and where thoughts ended and dreams began he couldn’t anymore tell and that felt profound too, though it wasn’t, and in the morning he had bread, cheese and juice and couldn’t recall the details of the ships, but their feeling he remembered like the weather, and he worked a rusted wheel barrow into serviceability and for two days in intermittent rain, some of it hard, he pushed it back and forth the quarter mile from the cabin down to the wide brown stream where he pulled up from its clay bottom what flat rocks he could claw out, and from the cabin door down the hill to the dirt track at the end of the trail he made a stone path in the mud beneath the leaves. He pulled the leaves back and drove the stones down into the mud and then layered more stone, sometimes five deep, to make a broad, stepping walk from the road to the cabin’s stoop whose supports were rotting and that’s what he looked at and didn’t know if he’d fix it, though said to himself he would, but was now tired and dirty and drunk that way too, and up the dirt road further into the forest he set off and walked over one ridge then another. Tall trees black and green went up steep hillsides and down and at the bottom at last was the dark and silent water he’d thought would be there. Weeds ringed the shore and gave way to lily pads that extended out as far as the permanent black shade of the tall trees going up the steep hill. In the middle sparkled green water in the only sunlight two acres big.
It was a Forest Service pond high on a hill inside the eastern boundary of the Hoosier National Forest and surrounded by trees, miles and miles of trees and looked down over more trees where generations ago men and women took a young country into the wilderness now grown back jack pines and silver maple weed trees in the clearings where once grew corn beneath the stares of men who lived in the rusting trailers some downhill from the ruins of their fathers’ homes.
He stood and remembered and wasn’t sure. He stood and remembered and did not want to swim again through the wide ring of weeds out to the black cool in the middle as he hadn’t wanted to when he had had to beneath his father’s stare.
He was tired and did not want to be there, if he was there. He was drunk, and the day was over. His slacks were wet and muddy and heavy. All day for two days from a river bed he had drug stones in the rain that came and went and came back sometimes torrential and he had made a walk of stone for a life gone away, the whole thing, all that might have led to a place from which he might look on his work, hands on hips and say, “Ha!” to himself and his father—if there was here. The stone walk was a piece of shit, and he knew it because what might have made it anything else was gone away from him and he did not want.
But, “Go in,” was said. Someone had said for him to hear, “Go in.” He did not think it was anything or that he had heard it.
He was tired and drunk and his slacks were muddy and his shirt was heavy with sweat and grime. He stepped down to the steep, slick bank and could no more shed his shoes and socks than could an animal shed its skin, which he was and wanted to go up the hill to a dark burrow into sleep and did not want.
He did not want to splash into the water though he could see like a ghost the him he was supposed to have become, the one for whom all his selves had lain themselves down to sleep inside and never to awake, the one stripped and ripped and splashed into the water and in the middle, in the sunlight, with a bar of soap. And that would have been right, and the lady cop would have been right, and ….
He did not want and and did not want to step into the cold water and did and muck and algae slid into his socks and shoes and up beneath his slacks. He sunk in the muck and struggled into the black water two steps and had to lunge into the thirty feet of lily pads choking each other for what there was of light, wan and green. He felt the tangle of lily pad stems that rose in tangles from the rot.
This was the world and how cold was the water a foot beneath its still surface.
It was a mean place in old America, and he swam lazy circles in the cold middle and looked up to the tall surrounding trees dizzy with whiskey and dope and ready for sleep.
He swam lazy circles and did not think
He swam lazy circles and through wan light that made him very far away he did not want to fight back through those watery weeds. He did not want to leave the cold water. He did not want to slide off his slacks and shoes and socks. He did not want.
Then Death announced her presence. She whispered low, comforting. “I am here.”
“Not here, not now,” he said, and shrugged and did not want.
She let him slowly swim another circle, then said, “I am here.”
He did not want to kick his legs, did not want to plunge back through the tangle of watery weeds. He swam lazy circles with heavy arms and legs, and he liked his face in the cold water that was of sleep a minute before she took you away into her, and Death again whispered to him, “I am here.”
She had a soothing voice, and in the pond’s two-acre middle he was not moving and realized he wasn’t and didn’t know if he could and he looked to the shore and the woods and he was not moving, not him disappeared now beneath the dark green water. He raised his arms and tried to kick and he didn’t. He looked through a foot of green water up for one second to the woods, to see that there might be in them eyes for real, for he had it not in him to fight anymore and was sorry for it all, for it was very tiring, drowning was, but not so bad, not once you were there.
It was not so bad, not now that he had no future, none, not with Death’s voice there whispering to him.
The water was cold and clear, and he had no future, and it was not bad, and “I am here,” she said, Death, and he slowly sank and felt the light and warmth go away.
And it was not bad.
Socrates could have learned from him. And Ernest Hemingway and Yukio Mishima. Virginia Woolf, too. You needed not a philosophic frenzy. You needed not walk with a pocket full of rocks into the River Ouse. You needed not tie cement to your neck, nor drink hemlock at a party, nor put a gun to your head, nor take a knife to your guts. You needed only work and drink and go for a swim in a pair of muddy slacks in a still pond high in the forest in a mean place in old America and swim lazily round and round until the cold put you to sleep.
And it was not bad.
And Death was not there in that last clear moment in the cold, green water. She was not there, not her. No girlfriends were there, the few he’d had and all he hadn’t. His life wasn’t there, the parts lived and the parts unlived. His wife wasn’t there, whoever she was to be. No one was there, not his mother, nor his father, not his sisters, no brothers, no sons, no daughters, not her, not for a second, not a flicker of them in his brain anywhere. They were gone away into a world not for him. But up on the hill, someone was there. In the trees, someone was there. Up on the hill, stepping from behind trees, a woman in white, a woman of light, someone was there. He knew not who, knew not how, and put little stock in such things. They did not give him the jitters. He was but one of God’s critters, barking poor dreams, now that He had lost count. And it was not so bad, dying. “You are here,” he said to Death, but she wasn’t, and the black cold water slid down his slackening throat. He closed his eyes. And he did not want.
He lay there and closed his eyes and did not want and dreamed of his life and its journeys and saw all the glories he was to have brung back.
He lay there and dreamed all the dreams men had and saw they were lies.
He lay there and lay there forever and ever, never to awake.
He lay there and lay there and another opened my eyes and I turned my face from the slime and opened my eyes and through the green water saw up on the hill the light that was a woman stepping to me and “Not yet,” she said to me and I would be there still, I would be there silent, put to sleep, me and each of whom I had been, each of whom I would be. I would be there still but that she was stopped and said, “Not yet,” and turned away, turned away to leave, and I made some few flails with my arms after what I’d thought was her and surfaced at the edge of the watery weeds with no way to breathe but seeing thirty feet away, his ankles in water, a chicken-throated, banjo-loving Daniel Boone. He stepped forward to his knees in water, and his feet sunk in ooze, and he staggered back looking still at me for the second before I went down into water with no breath in lungs that hurt but sank into the weeds and climbed them up my head above sucking on foam in my mouth so our eyes met again, and mine were panicked now, said to his, “Now what, fucker?”
Then I disappeared and came up and disappeared and came up a few feet closer each time, arms flailing for a grab of something, and Daniel Boone slid off his jeans and knotted a leg of them to an arm of his shirt, then splashed into the muck, whipped his new rope about, that I might grab hold. Which I did and yanked on it hard enough that it pulled him under, pulled it from his grip, and I thought I’m dead now like an idiot as Daniel Boone ran through the woods looking for a stick long enough to reach me from shore. The underbrush scratched him up. In twenty-seven thousand square feet of the Hoosier National Forest there wasn’t one stick laying about big enough to reach me.
And I sunk bottomward again thinking less of eternity and Death and her voice and the Woman of Light than that this Mr. Boone would have to call the sheriff’s department, hang around while they dragged the place with grappling hooks, answer all their questions, find out who I was, make a call to my mother, tell her that her son was at the bottom of a small pond in a dark woods a long way from anywhere he ought to have been, stand around a foot-shuffling dope as my mother, maybe a few others, asked, “Why?”
Instead, Daniel Boone used a month’s production of adrenaline to rip up a small sapling and run back down to the shore, and I, once more gasping foam, grabbed hold and was pulled to shore and coughed up a bit of pond water and took some minutes to catch my breath, which ached, and I saw that Daniel Boone was as exhausted as I. His legs were scratched and bleeding.
“Thanks,” I said.
He said kinda mournfully that his jeans and shirt were at the bottom of the pond, and I said, “Sorry,” and after a few minutes, we realized there wasn’t much else to say, and I offered him my shirt, and he put it on, and we walked up the hill and passed the spot where the woman of light had appeared. I kinda looked around for her, or a sign that she might have left for me, but there was none, and I mumbled, “Fuck you,” to which Daniel Boone said, “What?” So I explained.
I owed that and said that I’d heard Death whispering to me but came to the surface for a woman of light but she was nowhere to be found. I said she was an angel, a vision, something, and had called me back to life and then went away.
Daniel Boone said, “Yeah, they’re like that.”
I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “Yeah, they’re cockteases.”
And we walked up the hill towards the ridge coming down which were two hunters, and they said they’d come for the noises of panic, and we said everything was alright, but they didn’t believe two mopes soaking wet, one pair of pants between them, but they turned back anyway. We went back to my cabin, and I made a fire and gave Mr. Boone some clothes, some parochial-school polyesters—which fit—said, “Keep ‘em,” and he said, “They’re nice.” And we ate, drank whiskey across from each other, tossed the bottle back and forth over the small fire. Surrounding us were the hillbilly woods, and they had eyes, the woods did, and not human eyes either, which made you scared, but in a lonely, childish way, which you simply ignored.
Daniel Boone said he remembered a man and his son who used to come to the cabin, but that had been years before and the man didn’t belong and the boy was small.
There was some silence. Then we exchanged our stories, brief and cryptic enough, and after that didn’t talk much, but we had thoughts, and maybe we knew what each other was thinking, or maybe not, but liked to think so anyway, and in order to keep thinking so, you couldn’t talk so much.
After some time, Daniel Boone said, “You coulda died, fucker.”
He said it again, “You coulda died, fucker,” and I nodded, and after a while he said it again, then again, and it seemed to mean a lot more to him than to me, and we didn’t have the same thoughts, and I lay back and wondered about being dead, and it seemed like it would have been okay. People’d got over it, and I wondered about the visions and about Death and the woman of light and the lady cop and all that I hadn’t been and my father too, how it was for him, if he was dead, and when Daniel Boone cried again, “You coulda died, motherfucker,” I said, “Shut the fuck up,” and he did, and after a while I kindly handed the whiskey bottle to him with but one swallow left, and he took it and then winged it over his left shoulder forty-eight feet in a low, tumbling arc right through the lone, small window of the cabin, a perfect shot that could not be duplicated except in a moment of transcendent truth.
Which you can’t ever say and have it stay so.
And we didn’t.
And chicken-necked Daniel Boone said he was going for home so to bring back more whiskey and some plastic and tape for the window, but I knew he wouldn’t and lay there long with my unlikely future and woke rotten, cold and damp in the twigs and leaves and went down to the creek and drank and washed up best I could and took one more look around the inside of the cabin for clues but there were none and walked the eight or nine miles to the nearest town, Storyville, and ordered breakfast in a diner filled with locals who all knew each other but never shared the deep, dark and true reason, not here, not with each other, that they were put on God’s green earth. And I ate and lingered. I paid and lingered, and the breakfast crowd cleared out, and I sat for another cup of coffee, but they were done conversing with me, didn’t want to extend none of themselves, and I stared a minute or two at a pay phone on the wall but didn’t see how a call would do anything but suck me back in—and then what? The pain was okay. Given and received in equal measure, unmussed up by explanation, it had incubus in it, and I thought that and thought the thought was bullshit and lingered and when the dawdlers seemed about to object to me, I asked if there were any jobs around here for a feller traveling through. There weren’t, not according to them, which there wouldn’t be, not with their lifestyle depending on the perceived absence of work, but the waitress, like an unlikely and idiot oracle, she said, “But listen ….”
Something Like a Journal Entry
In all my previous lives, never was I from a superpower country. Never was I in Babylon, Assyria or Vilcabamba. Never did I possess a mystical allegiance to the Ming Dynasty, the Middle Kingdom, the British Empire. Never was I a Roman, Hittite or Inca. I did not march with Alexander, Hannibal, Charlemagne or Napoleon. I did not know Cleopatra, Theodora or Victoria.
I do not know how I got to be an American, here, now.
I am miscast.
But I am American and likely so in my bones and blood and not given, not when alone, to bandwagon criticisms, political and moral excoriations, left or right. Yet, I am befuddled by my country. Some days, I think she is the perpetrator of evil acts around the world. And she is. On other days, days I don’t read the paper, turn on the computer, converse with strident morons in bars, days like last summer’s slow drive across Kansas back roads, it is different.
The two-lane road was arrow-straight and jiggling in the hundred-degree heat up and down swales and vales of endless human-grown green. Cicada heaven it was, if you had brains enough to have the windows down, and every twenty, thirty miles was a town you rolled through at idle speed, and somewhere along there I was following a yellow VW Bug with the vanity plate DUSTRY, and when she pulled into a crossroads root beer stand, I followed. She was blonde and lovely, somewhat like a hawk, and had her sullen son with her, fourteen, small and acne angry. We sat up each on separate picnic tables for a bit of the breeze moving across half of the whole wide world’s corn beneath a blinding blue sky cantilevered far over the horizon. The root beer had in it micro-crystals of ice and you had to think civilization wasn’t all a mistake. Across the parking lot was an abandoned clock repair shop, the only other building for miles, and I commented on that, wondered at it, and she said this and that, as did I, commenting on her vanity license plate. Her father, he said, had long wanted to name his first born Destry, after the the hero of the Jimmy Stewart movie, and when out she came a girl, birthed in the farmhouse, her father said, “Destry,” and her mother said, “You ain’t naming my little girl no Destry.” She preferred Dusty, after the singer, Dusty Springfield.
You silently take her in, the woman Dustry, her life out here, where everything is either personal or it’s a thousand miles away, over a hundred horizons, and you think “What else is there any truer?” and you have thoughts about this, and then you’re gone, out on the big land, rolling away, and it’s a little bit sad, the distances the American prairie puts between us, but it’s a true thing too and better than champagne, any champagne, for the savoring.
No matter what we do to it, the land, there’s three million square miles of it. It’s there, ours and us. We are the slag heaps of our might and neglect just as we are, too, the home-dotted valleys of a tenuous perfection. But more we are the land between our poetic moments, those millions and millions of awful acres without which we’re Luxemburg, a country whose mosaic is wall-to-wall postcards, fifty or sixty of therm, and nothing else.
I made the west coast, Susan’s place, and for the price of a stone wall was given two months to write and nothing else but to eat all her leftovers, nap, smoke outside, drink some. You don’t know friendship until you’ve had one that’s lasted thirty-two years, all of it in America, and still don’t knock before entering, even after a trip of ten years and two thousand miles, still don’t measure your words before speaking.
And there are days like today, rain days. I go for hot bagels and Somalian coffees, black, earthy, strong. I read the whole of the newspaper. I read between the lines, try to see the living people and the whole of their lives behind the stories. I read the obituaries, do the same there. I pay special attention to the veterans. I read to see if they fought in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf. There was a guy in there today who fought at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. I think about that. What was his experience, what were his thoughts. Did he remember them truthfully? Or were they translated by what he wished were true, by what’s he’s absorbed from movies and books and culture, that he came from a great and free country whose intentions were noble?
Philosophers used to take very seriously their debates on what’s good, what’s evil. The good philosophers had a hard time with absolutes, but they’re a nitpicking, fussy lot, and it’s amazing, to read them, to wonder how they ever got through breakfast and out the door to get any work done at all. Still, they did, and if there’s a consensus among them, the Western ones, it’s that a given act may be considered “good” if it produces more benefit to mankind than it does harm to specific individuals. Some are strictly utilitarian in their definitions here, some are metaphysical, some ontological, and so on, but I’ll argue for the veracity of my summation of their ethos. Not so often, though, is it the other way around. You don’t hear the moral argument that what is good and grand for an individual, even if it diminishes the commonalities of mankind, is the way to measure. Even Ayn Rand libertarians justify their philosophy with claims that mankind would be better off without altruism.
I am not good with good and evil, right and wrong, what’s better for me, what’s better for mankind, if there is a difference, but it’s the argument that gets me. I’d like some day for a philosopher to say the hell with mankind, I’ll build my ethos from there.
But you don’t hear that.
I’m some of a dilettante in these matters. My evenings have never been spent in musty study by fireplace, a thousand leather tomes for me to put in my contemplating pipe, but I know some and don’t know that any philosopher, not one of note, ever said that, but among the people, we once had the language for it, but we’ve lost that, the language of ecstasy. Ask me what’s been lost in America and I’ll not tell of rights and opportunity and egalitarianism, a healthy middle class and quality schools. I’ll say a meanness has crept in, a narrowing. We have lost the language for other, for ecstasy.
In 1990, I took the first vacation of my adult life, first round-trip ticket ever I had bought. This was with Kathleen—Looney Tunes I called her. She’d come from a Bronx childhood worse than Sybil’s, a ruined, mad mother, abusive foster care, one after another, asylums, so on, but she had a will to be a good person. She knew, had learned like an anthropologist, the things to do, the words to say to be a good mother, a good wife and friend and lover, but those parts of her were all fucked up inside. I’d come home, those first years we were together, from long days chisel-cutting stone, my first years as an apprentice stonemason, and I’d sit at the kitchen table in our small white house in an old green valley, some distance up from above Albany. We had two kids, three dogs and a cat, fish, too, and two ruby finches in a bamboo cage. In my work clothes, I’d have a beer at the table and watch her at the stove, a little tremble going through her, a thing she could not express and would not express and dare not express, and I’d know that soon, the next day,or the next, at eight o’clock on the street by the carpet store, I should meet another walking her dog, sniffing for larks in old America. When I got my journeyman card, 1990, I took with her, Kathleen, skittish in the forest of her mind, the first vacation of my adult life, first round-trip ticket ever I had bought, to New Orleans.
I took her to all the old places from my decadent years, my degenerate years, but my enthusiasm for the places and people didn’t match her experience of them. Nor mine either. I was a union bricklayer on a round-trip vacation, wasn’t on the same page as the hippies, drunks, addicts, pensioners, scam artists, real artists, thieves, others out of step with America. We cut short my plans and had our coffees at the Cafe du Monde on Decatur Street, ate those drops of deep-fried dough covered in powdered sugar, drank, I think, in every bar in the French Quarter, caused a ruckus or two, and one night, in a tropical, torrential downpour, we danced in the street laughing because it was raining so purely hard, like two inches in a half hour, ridiculous. You could hardly keep your eyes open in it. But we danced like we were drunk, if we weren’t, just us two on a Bourbon Street all to ourselves and never wanted the rain to stop.
A few years later, I took another, Doris Biddlebop, not her real name, The Evil One I’d come to call her, to New Orleans. I’d told her that when a woman I was getting going with was getting to be that thing for which we hadn’t a good word, my significant other, I’d take her to New Orleans, to my New Orleans, and see how we were there, how she was with the place, the people, how I was with her, if I was guarded, intent on a role, performing, if it left in my mouth the aftertaste of cloying.
She said that it was a test. I said it was test, but didn’t take her to my old haunts. They and them likely didn’t exist like they had. Certainly they didn’t. Nor did I. The Evil One and I ate at the usual places, drank too, swam after midnight in the hotel’s rooftop pool under glass, played golf, the mornings she wasn’t too hungover. Our last night there, I took her to Bourbon Street, asked her what she thought of New Orleans. She said it was smaller and dirtier than she had thought it would be, and I said I guessed it was, with her, a Yankee blue blood if ever there was, though that was okay. With Doris it was. We strolled the carnival street and drank rum hurricanes and had whatever we had no matter what we said. We passed a bright-lit costume shop, and she said she wanted a boa, a cheap gaudy boa, a souvenir. I came out with three, just so the color’d have a chance at being right, and she squealed at them, their absurdity, the kitsch, whatever. She put them on, all three, and made a few struts to the street’s middle and extended a boa-wrapped arm this way, extended her other arm that. She was dancing, parading, and looked back at me and tossed off her top, and, three boas shimmering, she was conga-stepping alone and beautifully, erotic and untouchable.
In all my previous lives, never was I at Woodstock, or in Paris in the Twenties, or with Emerson, Thoreau, Lowell, Fuller, et al, in Concord. Never was I in Vienna or Arles or Samuel Johnson’s London. Never did I possess a mystical allegiance to the Impressionists or the Moderns or the Enlightenment. Never was I a scholar or poet or lyre-playing troubadour. I did not know Hemingway or Whitman or Cotton Mather, either.
I am miscast here, among you, with your worries and assumptions, your desicrying language.
I am an opium Bulgar,
come pillaging from ancient Kazakh,
to take a Moldavian cunt down into Thrace,
to live nine hundred years,
as a Yampol peasant,
but am come American now, half ogre, half ghost, voyager and voyeur,
to wander here as through the dream of a previous life, searching for omens and augurs, signs and portends.
It is, what we are, all going away. I can tell you that. For all our fiddling and fixing, fidgety over mankind, our diets, the diet of others, the diet of cows, our cities and seasides and farms and badlands will be without us, our monuments without meaning. Our rivers will be empty of what we know, our skies tuneful with unfamiliar song and screech.
What has been for the hundred years past, for the thousand, maybe ten thousand, maybe more, it is coming to end and doing so this year, or the next, or a thousand more, or ten thousand, but coming to an end anyway. There will be a day when there will be none of what we know as man. There will be none of his beasts or works or words, and of all the questions ever he asked, none will have been answered, and of it all, what alone could truthfully be said is that across the stage of us, on this land, once danced beauty.
New product description for FLICK:
Flick is a damned difficult book to describe, but one might, if pressed, say, “It’s a seamless blend of memoir, fiction, rant, eroticism, porn, a drifter’s travelogue, bon-mot prose, a startling genuine voice storytelling, without gimmick or pose, a novel of thirty-one chapters arranged chronologically backwards with a swarthy skinned narrator of uncertain ethnicity, Walter, Wally, Flick, Tom, whatever, scarred on the outside, wounded on the inside, but out and about across America anyway, like of old, on his own in all ways possible, in the most fundamental ways possible … ” but one suspects the author would be bored already. The book’s intent, like a dog’s on the same old walk, is to stray. A long leash is not enough. The narrative’s going over hill and dale, into backyards, up skirts—and higher. Flick is written in a voice on a mission, but one that doesn’t know, not for the first three hundred pages, what it is.
Flick begins midway through a quixotic adventure going wrong and into hillbilly squalor and degeneracy in Alabama hills and ending on a desolate California beach, and from there goes back to the adventure’s beginning in a decaying New Orleans, a hundred intoxicated pages spinning backwards through twisted relationships to a cheerful Pennsylvania farm for an ordinary girl, though the reader already knows the sexual and emotional crescendo ends without consequence. It’s the intensity and sincerity of what amounted to inconsequentiality that challenges our moral firmament. There are no familiar handholds in Flick, not in the prose, not in the stories. The reader is on his own very much like Flick is, traveling the endless road of a young man adrift across America, living one coming-of-age story after another, but never getting it right, never truly coming of age because in America there’s nothing to come of age to, nothing good.
Before Pennsylvania there was bohemian New York and a mutual, magical passion with a rich Dutch girl chasing Kerouacian dreams, and since we know what became of all that, their words to each other read as illusory, delusional, sometimes desperately so, beautifully so. It all reads true maybe because we, like the characters—because of the book’s structure—seem to, know how it’s all gonna end.
Before New York, there were the oil fields of Wyoming and a romance, a dance with a hooker, and before that, brutal, lonely months working highway construction side-by-side with three Native Americans in New Mexico. These were led to from a satori on the Big Sur coast at which Flick had arrived to from a year given to becoming a writer in Seattle, which he’d got to by leaving behind an athletic scholarship to Indiana University, all of it inexorably going back to his childhood in a Detroit burning down.
The reader gets inklings a hurt is coming, a big hurt, a mythological hurt, but going backwards there is nothing the reader or the narrator or anyone can do it about it, or ought want to do about it, for on the other side of the hurt, there is something the narrator learned as a child, as most children do, those having a rotten time of it, and that’s that there is a thing carried inside like a small, bright-lit cloud and that this is his soul and that his soul isn’t him, and that when he is to die, it will go up to heaven and his body and all he had been will rot in the ground. That’s the deal, and the question is, is it worth protecting and nourishing one’s soul if the price is hurt and a life screwed up again and again and without redemption?
You will see that I can write. It is easy, too easy. With pen in hand I am as adept or as clumsy as I choose, but I am not a writer. I have, until this moment, scrupulously avoided marking up clean white paper with my cryptic, cramped slashes, squiggles and dots. Ask me what I’ve been doing with my life, and I will tell you that, that I have been a good dog, obedient, content, writing no books.
If that does not seem like much of an accomplishment, you are not looking at it from a dog’s perspective. Told to stay, a dog remains motionless for the exact length of its attention span. It is not bored. In its little brain is a refrain, “I’m staying put, I’m staying put, I’m not moving a single foot.” Every cell in its being strains to stay in that moment that it was told to stay. The dog thinks it is accomplishing something monumental. It breaks from its stance not because mischievousness overcomes obedience, but because its brain is exhausted.
This then is not so much a book as it is a lapse of attention, a bit of forgetting, the fading of a moment.
The Dirty-Minded Maid
“If you wish to find freedom, wake before all others”
From drowsily abed my eyes disengaged from mind watch out the window the Big Dipper rotate against the clock. When it occurs to me that its bowl will skim behind the roof ridges and demolish nothing, I stagger downstairs, belly hurt, collywoggled by last night’s brooding indulgences of the solitaire.
I listen to each note and time stretches out. I am sailing to Finnegaeum, language my own, this tattered coat upon a stick waiting for soulclap, but then what other than song in this mortal dress and louder sung, this dying animal costumed, the golden boughs of Byzantium commending all summer long whatever is begotten.
I am composer, quill in hand, seconds or minutes between each note, the beauty permanent, traced by this Phrygian, Babeled by those finicules of finaglism that would wriggle past God’s obstacles, decalouged in heaven a harlequin pose — how pretty. Worse, though, beauty is, though how does one argue when the orangutans are enfranchised?
Faith says she doesn’t mind. The music does not wake her. And if worries do, then the sound of the music I play informs her of some other concerns, some beautiful. And how beautiful it is, proper tragedy, and why?
I dreamed last night that I came into my room to find the dirty-minded maid and her helpmate friend engaged in wild sex with clean-cut men-boys pudgy. “Are you upset?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
And a conversation ensued. Does God want us to have wild sex? The maid thought yes. I said that if there is a God, He probably doesn’t. He probably wants us to fuck like the Amish.
“So that’s why you are upset?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s because you said you were going to do my laundry and didn’t and now haven’t time.”
Against the season’s swelter of miasma air, I work in the amber light of an unoccupied, unfinished home, pointing a stone fireplace. It is peaceful work, patient work. Ninety degrees, but the mortar sets up very slowly in the febrile air. I keep working, mixing more mud. The acrid scent of the mortar seasons the damp of everything. It’s taste on my tongue is other than pleasant, but I like it. I wash the stones with sponge and never wear gloves. The cement and lime in the mortar are caustic and curl my fingers into white claws. Tiny burns open on callouses softened. I am punishing myself, a psychologist would say. I don’t think so. There is nowhere to go, no one to see, nothing better to do. This is freedom, ruined hands the price. All my life, it seems, I have been here, in the yellow glow of lights inside the homes of others, longing to have such mine, but suspicious of it. My thoughts here are razor like, hard as nuts, without need for justifications or rationalizations. My ruined hands, too coarse for booty, they feel like the truth. The air turns rose, day and light rays stretched to their ends. I sweep the stone and mortar dust from the floor and look from the kitchen and through the rooms to the fireplace at the far end. The mortar between the stones is yet wet, an uncured dark gray. Darkness threatens, but I sit on an overturned five-gallon bucket for coffee, a cigarette, a study of the scene perfectly true there like a knot in the gut. The floors are plywood, all the wood fresh, raw. A Christmas from now a young family will celebrate. Like ghosts I see their smiles, their sweaters, the luster the wood will have, then. I wait for the mortar to set up enough to brush in its texture. This is where I live.
The light grays, says I am finished, and I think of Faith at home, red toenails on her pink couch, how when I walk in the door, if my eyes linger on her face, on the puffs of sag at her jawline, around her mouth, she will look away half a degree more frail every evening I see her, frightened, almost, to look up.
I go into the big dark bar at John Casey’s, thirty seats long. A couple of shits have just walked out on a forty-dollar tab. The barmaid is in tears. She has to cover it. I study her for a bit and think of the economic avalanche that this could start. I know how these things work. You suck it up and go on and in two months they’re shutting off your electricity and you can’t figure out how it happened. I get sad over America, leave a forty-dollar tip, leave, go home for my rooms and books.
Dina is at the tail end of a headache. That was amazing aspirin, she tells me. What was it?
From the three-seat bar at the near end of the long sitting room with three white couches and a wall of pink silk curtaining a bank of French doors, she has my drink without my asking, ashtray too. I sit at the bar and studiously, courteously, avoid eye contact.
I scratch my beard, stone dust falls on the bar. I run my fingers through my hair. More stone dust.
I will not engage her. I will say nothing. This is instinct. I will, however, surreptitiously observe her, everything about her. Can’t help it. She watches me as she fixes herself a drink and sits on the stool far from me. On the seat between she places her purse. Her purse is on the large side and nearly full. Her life takes unexpected turns.
She’s from Byelorus, not sure she wants to tell me anything. She’s in her mid-twenties and thin, thin and round, in the Slavic way. Her hair is thick and dark and short. She has soft, subtle features, no freckles, no age. She wears glasses, a silver necklace, a tight t-shirt red and purple and pink. She is on the short side, though, like a Playboy centerfold, until you’re close, close enough to sniff in her scents, Pine Sol and perfume, a hint of sweat, a hint of snatch, she’s bigger than life, other than life.
“A hundred men,” she says, “have eyes of poet, but only one sees.”
Her mouth, smallish in repose, widens brightly.
“A client tell me is poet and want me to clean his house in nude for hundred extra dollars. Do you think?”
It is a lovely smile she has, warm and tolerant. If she ever has on any make up I cannot tell. She is lightly tanned, a very Slavic face, round, almost plain, a bump on the end of her nose.
God told her to come to America when she was eighteen, but not like that. It was through prayer, the abasement of the self, the ego, every fine thing about oneself, the only kind of religion I understand in my heart — old Catholic, Byzantine, Orthodox. I think of her a girl in a Vitsyebsk church praying next to big pillars, dark parts in the church, a thousand small red candles before Mary on the left and Joseph on the right, gold, robes, stained glass, gruesome, graphic and stylized stations of the cross. I understand. God is a shepherd and raises his flock knowing there is the occasional slaughter. He doesn’t get to close. He doesn’t name his sheep. They bleat out, I am Paul, I am Ruth, I am Sarah…
She reaches for my hand and lightly feels the skin of my finger tips. “Sandpaper,” she says.
“I think it bad.”
Her new helpmate comes down the stairs. The purse is removed and the seat taken and possessive kiss is given and received. I am introduced to Mary, and Dina makes a round of drinks, and Mary looks queringly at me. I nod it’s okay. “He is a stonemason,” Dina tells her. She says it with pride. Mary and my fists meet, bash, like baseball players. She is a tall, wiry, hair full, swoopy, cut up high, falling across her eyes; baggy pants; walks like a little boy wanting to be a fighter.
Mary says she is not finished with the master bath. The last of the laundry is almost dry. The guest bath is a sty. She finishes her drink and pauses on the first step, turning to Dina, who freezes.
“You use guest bath, Tommy?” Dina says when Mary is up most of the stairs.
How did we get here? Dina asks later, meaning sitting next to each other, boozy, leaning into each other, leaving.
There are two distinct essences of true romance, I say. It is dark, our mouths are close. She is afraid of the impending kiss we are falling towards. There is innocence, I say. Rebirth in the eyes of another. The rush to a happy ending. Our lips are so close, mine whispering move hers. I am kissing her with words. You build a dam against the past and live in the valley unchanging forever and ever. The water rises behind you unseen. Then there is the other essence. You leave your dim rooms to go into the evening and pause at the door, a tightness across your chest, the gray sky black-streaked. The wish for sunlight, hayfields, daisies, aprons — is a wish against your own life. Say a poem of your own devising. Make it true or untrue, just so one more step and the river runs. You cannot kiss without a broken heart. You cannot see God any other way.
There is no air.
Her words are of cheating, sexual fidelity. “You have cheated, Tommy?” Her mouth outextends her lips by a centimeter maybe, and I study those thin corners for signs of that downward turn such mouths are prone to. But there is none and in the firm straightness I see that optimistic will that would bid a tarrying sun to rise on her gloomiest mood. She has to go. I have to go. We talk. She calls me Tommy again. “What is love?” she asks.
She goes for the stairs and climbs them like she’s wearing shorts, short and tight shorts. It’ a vibe thing. I can tell. She pauses. I want to follow her upstairs, but can’t. It is bad manners to follow a young girl upstairs.
Plans for the dinner party have gone awry.
Faith and I are tooling around in her Jaguar, arguing. Love exists, I say. It is something separate and like truth and beauty and Plato’s spheres. We see shadows of it only. Faith says I do not believe that. And I don’t, but I argue for it anyway.
She is elegance and refined culture personified. She did it herself, left rural Mississippi at seventeen for New York City, but she is older than me, seven years most of the year, eight years for its end, if she is telling the truth. I catch her before her mirror, pulling her skin taut. Surgery is coming, though it goes against her grain, her principles.
She has just gotten her first rejection, from Random House, via her agent.
“Did you like it?” I ask.
“No — it was awful.” Her agent says she needs to rewrite. A lot of work, she says, as if the very thought of rewriting was not only vaguely offensive but unconscionably wearying.
I tell her about Dina and me.
“Twenty-seven years old, Thomas — what are you thinking?” she says.
I smile. “Love exists,” I say, “something separate –”
“Oh, Thomas. And a lesbian, too.”
Home, she has me sit on her white couch, has my hands in hers. She wants to talk.
I tell her about my trip up into the bayous that noon, to Jeffries – how much I enjoy the place and the people. “Cynthia gave me a birthday present,” I say. “A tree ornament, for Christmas. Her mother made it out of wood.”
“It was. I don’t need anything else for my birthdays. That made me very happy. You want it? I think it’s in my pocket here.”
“Will you make love to me?” she says.
Dinner the following night was beef filets in a puddle of Bordeaux sauce, each topped with a glob of Béarnaise. Odd combination, I thought, but very good, and I must have been happy, because I had desert, shared with Faith a German chocolate cake with drizzled orange sweetness on it — and that was beautiful until she beseeched like a puppy, “Mmm mmm,” and opened her mouth so that I would with my dessert fork give her a bite to savor.
And everyone had a final drink and went back to their hotels and homes and I let Faith go up the stairs alone and stood on mossy bricks of the courtyard telling myself to go in, go to bed with your books, but I pour more Scotch into a glass, return to the bricks. The air is chilly, wet and still. The people are out on Magazine Street. I can hear them moving and searching in the moonlight from two blocks away and would go there if there were something to be got. Instead — a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other, splayed in a chair, head tilted back and looking at the moon and the stars — I count the days in my life, backwards from this point, and forward, too, to the end, and compare mine against all the days in the universe and then think of sunlight and daisies.
Wednesday night the moon goes toward full above a warm wind chasing litter and bums down the street I don’t know where. The big buildings of downtown are near. You can feel their gravity, how the earth tilts that way. I am in shadows, seated on the sidewalk, back against brick, forearms on knees, longneck beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, waiting for Dina to ditch her girlfriend. Expectations, though, left my life sometime back.
I sit on the sidewalk, sip at my beer. That moon shines on all that I know, on every step of my life. It is the color of old asphalt, the moon is, but against the black sky it is silvery. It is flat because the rims and walls of craters in the center cast shadows and on the edge they catch light — and every artist knows that is not how to make the illusion of a sphere. I hope Dina does not ditch her girlfriend. I hope she does not return. I wish for her daisies and sunlight and long for my rooms and books.
“Tommy,” I hear.
Writing’s a feminine thing. There’s no other score to keep. It’s not weightlifting, who puts the most over his head; nor running, from here to there the fastest; nor plain knocking the other guy down until he can’t get up. It’s not sales that measure your writing: ninety-eight percent – ninety-eight percent at least – of the people in America have the inner wherewithal of a cow: ring a bell and they come straggling, whether their bell is Lady Gaga or Maya Angelou. Nor can it be critical acclaim, for critics are often enough wrong for a generation or two, or forever. It’s a feminine thing, nothing measurable, a writer and a reader and the question, “Am I pretty to you?”
When one writes belle lettres, even my dirty, tattered version of it, your creation – that part of you – will, at best, make her entrance at someone else’s debutante ball. Whatever she knows about herself, whatever she says, there’s that question in her eyes: “Am I pretty to you?”
We like to think it exists independent, that inner beauty, that thing that makes belles lettres, other stuff, that one can stand self-assured of one’s own appealing worth, but we are social critters, and if at ball’s end the girl is standing alone, and there is none to tell her that she is beautiful, that there will be another ball, there is no word or measure for it, whatever is innate in her.
Most every person, every girl, dancer, artist, writer, debutante, sooner or later, sooner for most, later for some, changes the question, asks, “Am I pretty like her?”
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