All posts by Steven Augustine

P. Qua P. [from CITY OF AMATEURS]

photo by SG

P was British. Tall P, yellow-haired, green-eyed, slender and fit, was from the lovely resort town of B_____.  Nice thick 1970s-cut hair had P, and dimples and big white teeth. A fading bottle tan rendered her skin tone sweetly sallow. She looked good in white t-shirt, jeans and motorcycle boots and she was a little older than she appeared to be at first glance but that was a plus, in his opinion. All the wisdom of those five extra years without the apparent wear and tear;  forty years compressed into what looked like a thirty-five year old package. The wear and tear was on the inside. The wear and tear was in her skull.

“Excuse me,” she said, “Do you speak English? Where’s the next tube station? Will you walk me there?” In town for a Buddhist retreat or convention or something. Alright, okay: Buddhist. Better than Baptist, at least. What Salter liked most was the Eliza Doolittle accent that P would put on, pronouncing “lady” as “lie-dee” and even trotting out a few “blimeys” from time to time for laughs.

It only took about four hours, gallivanting around Berlin like backpacking teenagers, for P and Salter to develop a rudimentary system of inside jokes and catch-phrases and by the end of the day they were holding hands. When he put her on the train to Frankfurt (from where she’d be flying back to the U.K. the next day) they indulged in a lingering kiss goodbye. Walking home from the train station he was shadowed by an unexpected melancholy, but not because she was gone.

Salter did not, could not,  kid himself that he was falling in love. What Salter and P both seemed to be willing to settle for was a good-natured, no-sweat mimicry of passion as they remembered enjoying it in their twenties. They’d both hit 40 with an aversion to drama. No risk, no fun is a German saying but the Germans hate risk and rarely have fun and he was feeling the influence of his environment. When he was young he was into beginnings just as now he is into middles: middle-age, middle-class, middle-of-the-road, fair-to-middlin’, etc., and none of the taxing passions (each representing a beginning and an ending with no middle) of the bad old days…those brief ecstatic super-highs he invariably paid for with shattering dunks in the slough of despond. P felt much the same way but the trick was in not coming right out and saying it, or even being conscious of the fact…the trick was letting the subconscious hoard the truth as its terrible treasure. Salter liked P but if he had learned, the very next day, of her Discount Jet failing catastrophically to land without incident, he would not have been moved to shed a tear. Which may or may not be chilling. But that’s what growing up is all about: crying less and less over the fate of others and more and more over the fate of one’s self.

What did Salter like so much about P ? She had a good body, nice face, pleasant personality. The value of his body’s stock was not rising. Grab somebody while we still can, his body was pleading. The Germans call it Torschlusspanik, the panic of the closing door. The Americans call it musical chairs,  which is exactly the kind of passion-free calculation that the young abhor in the wise. He visualized, without pain, the possibility of ending up in B_____, patrolling the beach in a warm overcoat at dusk after a cozy dinner, white-haired and introspective and stripped of worrisome passions or options or that persistent nag, the Hope demon.

Over the following weeks they spoke on the phone every day, at exactly the same time. The aridity of the modern childhood creates that in us, a longing for rituals, for traditions. It was touching. She’d call him just as she was sitting down to eat her delicious microwave dinner while gazing out the big bay window upon the picturesque street angling down towards the brilliantined wrinkles of the sea. And all the bright bay windows across the street with none of their curtains drawn, either. Salter enjoyed the sound of her chewing in his ear. He’d had a lover once who couldn’t stand the sound of chewing. Mixed nuts would have her sticking her fingers in her ears in the next room and a bag of chips would have her out on the window ledge. It could very well be that P chewing in his ear on the telephone,  and not minding to hear Salter chewing in hers, won him over against certain perceived debits in her personality and her history. A man seriously considers spending the rest of his life with a woman because she chews in his ear during phone calls.

He considered marrying her. Even after learning over the phone that she’d spent ten years living as an expat lesbian in San Francisco, earning good money as a stripper. She earned “pots of cash” in one of the oldest tit joints in the city, the anti-erotically named LUVLEE LADY, with its red velvet draperies and uncle-spunk ambiance. Do they or do they not, wondered Salter, during the course of the conversation, turn tricks for quick cash backstage? Salter hadn’t seen her piercings but when she spoke of them, and the stripping, and the physically abusive lover who had driven her (with sisterly kicks and punches) back towards the plausibility of a relationship with a man (“Making up after a fistfight with your girlfriend is kind of an anticlimax,” as she put it)…he was intrigued and lightly revolted. She was good on the phone and revealed a streak of Celtic garrulity when touching upon the topics of her booze-addled father (“imagine an English Richard Pryor…from Yorkshire…whatever that means”), her job (“Don’t get me started…”), and her experience with black men (“None, but open to edification, Darlin’.”).

“I mean,” she said, “what’s it like?” Loik. “Is it fat and purple or long and black or…what? Is it positively elephantine, like they say? God, you must think me an awful slag to ask!”

“Not at all…how will you learn things if you never ask?”

“Well…” he could picture her smiling coyly, “…I can think of one way I could learn: you could show me.”

“Love to.”

“And I could show you.”

“Show me what?”

“Hmmm.” She smacked her lips. “I could show you…my naughty little party trick.”

He had never much cared for the word naughty. His inner-voice reacted strongly to the word “naughty” and urged him to forget it; to call it off over this one word, pronto. But rational elements of his mind complained, quite reasonably, that you can’t just drop a woman for having used one wrong word. There ought to be dozens of them first.

“Your naughty little party trick,” he repeated, with neutral inflection.

“Yep. My naughty little party trick.”

“How little?”

“Ever hear of a thing called female ejaculation?”

“Sure.” Salter cleared his throat. “Ever hear of the Loch Ness Monster?”

“Har har.”

“Tell me more about stripping.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Didn’t it make you hate men?”

“You’re putting the carriage before the horse, darlin’. And hate is too strong a word. I don’t hate anyone…I’m a Buddhist.”

“But you felt, shall we say, contempt for them.”

“My mum bought me a dehumidifier years ago. Right? I should probably warn you that I have mild asthma, by the way. Anyway, the dehumidifier sits unobtrusively in a corner of my living room, and it’s always just humming away. Naughty me, I’ve never changed the filter, if you can imagine…couldn’t be bothered, innit? I’m sure this dehumidifier is absolute shite at this point…good for nothing at all. But I’d rather not deal with it because of the thought of what’s going on under the lid…what with that grotty old filter and all…it gives me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it. But it’s too bleeding massive to chuck in the bin, see. So I just…you know…it just sits there, where it’s always been, plugged in but useless. I don’t even really look at it any more…I vacuum around it a few times a week and that’s the extent of it. See what I mean? It’s just…,” he could hear that she was looking over her shoulder at it, “…it’s just there.”

“So…”

“That’s how I saw those blokes in the strip joint. I mean, it’s not like I was stripping for them. I was stripping ‘cuz my boss told me to, and I got paid for it, and no, I never turned a trick for cash…and you haven’t answered my questions about your dick, by the way.”

“I haven’t?”

“Not very comfortable talking about old dickie, are you?”

“It’s not that I’m uncomfortable…more that the topic…offends me,” he surprised himself saying. “You know: black male. Big dick. Blah blah blah.”

“Oh God, I’ve been racially insensitive, haven’t I?”

“Believe me, you ain’t the first, Honey.”

“That was cute.”

“What?”

“The way you just said ain’t.”

When he didn’t respond to that she asked, “So then, how big is it?”

After chatting like this for almost a month they made plans for her to visit him in Berlin for a weekend, based on the grownup theory that three days in his flat together would be an accurate test of their compatibility. The morning she left for Stansted Airport (the cheapest route to that airport from B_____ took more than twice as long as the flight to Berlin) it was chilly in B_____, so P dressed accordingly. Which meant the baggy black running pants she’d painted her kitchen in, an old anorak and a ridiculous bobble hat.

Salter makes it to the airport quite early.

He doesn’t want to chance being late and having P get off the plane and walk through customs without him there to meet her. When he first finds the arrivals gate, no one else is waiting for the late flight from London. He is about thirty minutes early. This gives him plenty of time to think. One thing he keeps thinking about is how not excited he is to be awaiting  P’s arrival. He dwells on this. He’d much rather be in bed, alone, preparing to watch the Grammies.

A crowd eventually forms in front of Salter, a small-but-intense crowd of people more eager than he is to peer into the arrival lounge as loved-ones disembark the plane with the dazed gratitude of the living and line up to yank luggage off the sluggish conveyor. The crowd consists of the usual: girlfriends, grannies, grandchildren, wives, best friends, hotel-sent drivers holding signs saying ZIEGELDORF, etc. Directly in front of Salter paces a serious-looking middle-aged man in creased gray trousers, dress shoes and a leather jacket, nervous or anxious as hell, glancing at his watch incessantly and clutching a significant bouquet of roses. This guy’s been thinking about this moment for days and weeks, thinks Salter. This guy knows the score: life is short, find someone, buy her roses, pick her up at the airport. When the plane lands and his lover gets off it’ll be Christmas for them, Salter nods to himself, enviously. She might be plain or old or downright ugly but it won’t matter because he obviously cares for her and that’s what matters; I bet they’ve been together for twenty years; I wish I had someone to care for. He sighs audibly. I wish I had someone to wait at the airport for with a bouquet of roses.

But Salter is far from prepared for what happens when he sees the serious beau (not much younger than Salter himself) see his girl with creases of joy at his eyes and he gestures excitedly through the glass at her and she is the most unbearably beautiful girl in a Navy Peacoat, a fine-boned brunette with lustrous hair and exotic eyes and an incredible pre-Raphaelite profile and she hurries on her long legs without luggage through customs and practically pirouettes into the arms of the middle-aged guy who drops the bouquet to catch her: a fair trade, a lyric metaphor, and the crowd around them smiles, the people all smile, and Salter is flooded with feelings of …its just unfair, is all, and he’s hurt and he knows it’s ridiculous but still it’s unfair and it hurts.

And then P comes out in her bobble hat and baggy pants and anorak, red-nosed, walking with that foalish pigeon-toed gait; that asinine counterfeit of helpless youth she affects; looking befuddled and old nevertheless; mouth open…a caricature of dowdy British spinsterhood, dragging her wheeled plaid suitcase behind her…and it is all Salter can do not to slip through the crowd and run for the exit when she spots him and smiles and hugs herself and mouths its cold!

No doubt she realizes how awful her get-up looks; maybe it had hit her on the plane, half-way over the black face of the North Sea: the obvious self-sabotaging provocation of dressing this way for what was essentially a second date. Why did she do it? Why did she get on a plane for Berlin as though dressed for a weekend of D.I.Y. in a rustic cottage in Cornwall? She wouldn’t have wanted her mother to see her in a costume like this, more the less an attractive man she’s been courting (or been courted by) long-distance for a month. Was the bobble hat a subconscious Sapphic protest or simple self-destructiveness or even simpler fuck-it-all-edness at this late stage of the game or what? She knows she’ll have to hustle to save the weekend and she does…she hustles, going to work immediately. She grabs Salter’s hand and leads him off in an arm-swinging walk towards the escalator saying “Cor blimey, Guv!” or some such cutesy exaggeration. “I got sumfink for you,” she sing-songs, improvising a grin. Salter does his best to play along.

“You do? What?”

“Save it for later,” she says, coyly, Soivit fa lighter, but really she doesn’t have anything for him at all; nothing in the suitcase but three changes of clothing, a bottle of baby oil, some candles and her meditation mat. Save it for later is a stalling technique, and her teasing tone is so ambiguous that she might be referring to sex, and heaven knows she’s completely willing to offer her ass as a virgin sacrifice to propitiate the gods at this point. Stupid stupid stupid…with a little lipstick and her cat suit on and those thigh-high vinyl boots (somewhere in the back of the closet) she’d have been the master of this situation. As it is she will probably have to resort to letting him do something to her she’d never before let a man do and with a dick probably twice the size of the legal limit and pretend to like it, too. She can already hear herself saying it’s funny, but I could never understand why most women I know seem to hate doing this…and it makes her want to puke.

Most women hate doing this because it’s painful, unhealthy and perfectly degrading and they find themselves under constant pressure to do it, actually. She thinks of her pretty, tragically straight buddy Gladys back in ‘Frisco and accompanying Gladys one fine fall day under a sky of milk-smeared lapis to the free clinic in Haight over what turned out to be a cluster of rectal fistulas. Is that what P can look forward to, now, after her strategic fuck-up? Holes in her ass-hole? But it’s so trivial, the difference between what she did and what she should have done…mother-effing lipstick? This is how a man decides on a life-partner? A fucking bobble hat and no lipstick is a make-or-break? What about my brain, the quality of my affection, the depth of my experiences? And it makes her angry and rebellious all over again and now she remembers the space she was in about an hour before leaving her flat to catch the bus to the train to the tube to the train to Stansted. She’d ransacked her dresser drawers and the closet and tried on about ten different outfits, something she hadn’t done since the age of twenty, and yet in none of the outfits does she look twenty, or even thirty five…in all of the outfits she looks tarted-up and old and garish and desperate and first in despair but then in anger she’d thought: fuck it. This is me. Take it or leave it. Like it or lump it. This is me.

They manage to fill the long train ride from Schönefeld to Salter’s neighborhood with neutral chatter; that is, Salter, in no mood to pretend to be pretending not to be in love, is at least grateful that P is able to fill what would have been the uncomfortable silences. It is amazing to Salter that she has anything left to say after blabbing on the phone with him every day for a month; amazing that she can access this deep reservoir of emergency small talk; he gets away with nodding and smiling or nodding and frowning and the occasional interrogative grunt. It must look and sound hysterically funny to anyone in the seats behind them: this chatty animated white woman in the bobble hat and the all-but-mute brother beside her. From behind it must look like this has been going on for twenty years: she blabbing, he nodding. Not that his side of the trip isn’t full of rich interior monolog…covering everything from his first kiss to Dick van Dyke’s insufferable “Cockney” accent as the chimney sweep Bert in “Mary Poppins.”

The train passes through fifteen desolate stations in the blighted east before getting anywhere near where Salter usually hangs out in Berlin and he muses that the one single fucking advantage of sitting on this train with P as opposed to with his dreamgirl (that vivacious pre-Raphaelite at the airport, say) is that if Neo Nazis should suddenly hop on the S-Bahn they won’t be particularly enraged to catch Salter with this dowdy Brit…the bobble hat is a tool of invisibility like Wagner’s Tarnhelm, protecting them both.

The train finally reaches his station and they embark on the fifteen minute walk to his flat in a misty drizzle. Not another soul on the street do they encounter as P bumps the wheels of her wretchedly large suitcase over uneven concrete and cobblestones with a child’s passive-aggressive delight in unavoidable noise-making, the loudest thing for miles, he slightly ahead of her and grateful that it’s just cold enough outside to excuse his keeping both hands firmly in his pockets every inch of the way.

It’s better in his flat: at least it’s comfortable, cozy, a controlled environment. Salter opens the door and ushers P in and takes her coat and hat with what they both play as jokey, English-butler-like froideur and offers her something to drink and goes right to the television, switching it on and wheeling it to the center of the living room: just in time for the Nth-annual Grammies. P takes in the room with a furtive glance: high ceilings, immaculate parquet floor…minimal, roomy…some shelves, some gadgets, two tall silver floor lamps, two massive black faux-marble vases…nice…uncluttered but nice and it’s obvious that this boy is not averse to dusting. Men are far more likely to do the cooking than the dusting, usually…anything they can show off with they don’t mind doing.

They seem to have missed no more than the first third or so of the interminable award ceremony. There should be a Grammy given for Best Grammy Award Ceremony. The epic broadcast will give them something to talk about without forcing him to engage her directly on anything remotely personal …the television will be the third party, or buffer, or random arbiter for them that it is for most doomed, inarticulate marriages, no matter how brief or enduring. And the epic length of the show gives Salter some hope of putting P to sleep without even having to fuck her.

What Salter likes about watching the Grammies in Germany is that the broadcast isn’t sanitized for German audiences the way it is for all those sensitive, shockable, immaculate church-going virgins in the U.S…whatever happens on camera, the Germans will see. Same with “live” White House press conferences…if a reporter asks an embarrassing question, the television audience in Germany gets to watch the entire question being asked as well as its entire shaky and or furious response from the President. When Germans cover big political news in America, the German audience sometimes gets to see normally suave tepid Congressmen blurt words like “bullshit” or “fuck” (both translated as “Scheisse”) and once heard Strom Thurmond spit a super-dipthonged “Niggra” so close to “Nigger” that a mass spectrometer couldn’t have discriminated between epithets. In many cases, not only are Americans blissfully unaware of what’s happening in the world in general…they’re less aware of what’s happening in their own towns, or up their own streets, than the TV audience in Germany is. Who was Spiro T. Agnew and what did he do wrong? More Germans than Americans can answer that question. Not that the Germans are driven by any force more noble than pedantic Schadenfreude. The Germans are no more a nation of ethical bloodhounds driven towards the warm odor of All Truth than any other nation on earth. There are thousands of German school kids who couldn’t come up with more than a factual sentence or two about Adolf Hitler, and hundreds who haven’t even heard of him. Tens of thousands, at least, who still use the word Jew as a casual pejorative. But about American malfeasance they are all quite hip and plugged in…they are all media cynics, these kids, monitoring the TV and the Internet the way Weegee used to monitor his short wave police scanner…

Earlier that week, in fact, an American scandal, downplayed in the stateside press, had made front page in all the left-wing papers in Germany: two rookie cops in Baltimore, summoned to a mall to subdue a family of three accused of shoplifting, were caught on several amateur videos brutalizing the family…a 32 year old black mother and her two daughters (14 and 11)…to the extent that a 235 pound fourth-generation Italian-American cop is seen resting his massive knee on the fragile bones between the shoulder blades of a prostrate 75 pound 11-year-old while handcuffing her as the mother screams in the background that her daughter is asthmatic and won’t be able breathe with his weight on her. To exacerbate the blinding halo of absolute injustice around the incident it later comes out that the three weren’t shoplifting at all; the items found in the mother’s purse were returns, all of which she had receipts for…she had simply wanted to exchange the three Danskins in her possession for others that fit better. Security had only checked Mrs. Broder’s Gucci handbag in the first place, minutes after the three entered the store (in an upscale suburban mall), on a “hunch”. The final twist is that the very black Broder family is not from the ghetto at all: the mother is a veteran reporter at a local television station, married to an in-house lawyer at DOW Chemicals, and the punitive damages against the city of Baltimore are projected by their celebrity legal team to be in the tens of millions. The story is surprisingly (or not) muted on stateside media.

Salter busies himself in the kitchen while P sneaks the makeup kit out of her scuffed suitcase and does a quick, subtle job of rehabilitating her image before he returns with a big bowl of popcorn and two tall dark German beers. She has applied lipstick and blush and teased her short crop of gold-coin-colored hair with a switch-blade comb she stole from an ex-ex ex and checked her overall image pouting into the mirror of the bulging big screen of the television when the camera panned the Grammy audience and the screen went black segueing into a classy, Boomer-targeted car commercial. This is no time to make a political statement or prosecute mammal life on the planet for the way it should be as opposed to the way it is, to paraphrase her thoughts. Look pretty. Think of it as an investment in the future. Time is not exactly standing still. Commercial over, and The Rolling Stones’s live rendition of their bland new super-forgettable single gives Salter plenty to be funny about, and P makes sure to laugh. She laughs, takes a deep swallow of beer, and laughs harder. She’s reeling it all back in. Almost lost him. The beer is helping.

“Mick!” he shouts at the screen, “why the collagen? You should be donating that excess lip fat to needy starlets, man, not injecting more of it!”

Okay, thinks Salter: it’s true. I’m feeling better. Call me shallow. She took the opportunity to apply a little makeup while I was making the popcorn and it’s not just that she looks better again but it’s also the fact that she is doing her best to please me that somehow…breaks the ice. It’s almost turning me on. I know it’s creepy…it’s some kind of caveman trip, wired into my medulla oblongata, I guess. What can I do about it? Did I fucking design the human brain? Did I write the fucking program governing the reproductive hardware? Am I the perpetrator of my preferences or the victim of them?

“Holy shit, am I nuts or does Keith Richards look more and more like a Strat-playing hemorrhoid every day?”

P is meanwhile very stealthily scooting closer to him on the leather sectional. Not to touch him, necessarily, but close enough for him to touch her when he’s ready. She knows how to do this: to control through abasement. It’s the same strip-club principle behind getting a Kotex of Thomas Jeffersons in your g-string as opposed to a Kleenex of George Washington. All her post-pubescent life she has oscillated between fearing men and pitying them and the thing is you can love someone you pity. Yes you can. She could love Salter…she could see it being worth it to love him. It’s just not the other way around: you can’t love someone who pities you, and that’s what she is truly alert to, as she grows older…that’s what she is rawly vigilant about: not so much being objectified, as in the days of yore…about being objectified she no longer gives a shit…human beings are first and foremost objects…but being pitied. Being pitied by some paunchy dick with halitosis even older than her is what she could kill over. Okay: cards on the table. A black man can’t pity her, can he? That might be this poor guy’s greatest theoretical attribute as a life-partner.

When it comes time to announce the winner in the category Best Rap Solo Performance, there are two presenters: a gangling black feller with a steam-shovel jaw and owlish glasses in a sable-trimmed cap-and-gown get-up…and his co-presenter: a petite, top-loaded platinum blonde so skinny she looks like a Scandinavian hieroglyphic. Or the letter P when she stands in profile. The juxtaposition of the black male and the blonde female makes a good visual while at the same time spuriously implying a broadly integrated society, though in reality, of course, the only black men she associates with are her body guards and the only white females he’ll talk to are prostitutes. The blonde, Sabreena, is channeling her nervous energy into glittering glissandos of glib giggling as she waits for the applause elicited by the mere fact of her presence to die down. The brother, MC PhD, also beneficiary of a big hand for doing little more than finding the lectern with the help of a generically pretty escort, seems agitated, and keeps biting his upper lip and adjusting his mortar board. Two Grammy ceremonies ago, he was the Best Rap Solo Performance and his debut album, Matriculator, has sold 14 million copies to date. The son of militant West Coast “black intellectuals,” he embarked on a serious career in music only after graduating with a degree in communications from Howard University and is known to be incisive and fluent on record, if not quite so while reading from a teleprompter in front of a live audience.

We learn that there are five nominees in this category, four of which are men and one of which is a woman, and the audience already knows without being told that the only female nominee is also the only non-African-American. E-Rex, the fat blind paraplegic rapper from Georgia whose mother died in the Fourth of July drive-by shooting that put him in his customized wheel chair, is heavily favored to win. After reading off an inspirational statement explaining that Rap is valuable to American and even global culture not only for its sheer vitality but also for its ability to enrich so many other art forms with the irrepressible wisdom of the streets, MC PhD leans on the lectern and reads a scripted witticism haltingly, waits for Sabreena’s canned retort, steps on her mispronounced retort with his leaden comeback, and joins her with, “And the winner of Best Rap Solo Performance is…” as Sabreena tears open the envelope.

“White Krissmiss!” squeals Sabreena. Cue: the chorus from White Krissmiss’s breakthrough smash “Tales of the Pale” as the lady herself, tall and bald as a 100 watt bulb and dressed in the Wehrmacht’s winter camouflage ski-suit (or something just like it) po-facedly storms the stage to take her Grammy against the sustained approving roar of the audience, more and more of whom are seen to be rising with benign reluctance into a peer-pressured ovation after she pimp-walks down the aisle.

“Shameless!” whoops Salter, who can’t help being delighted. It’s the greatest Grammy travesty since the Anita Kerr Singers blind-sided The Beatles by triumphing over “Help!” with “We Dig Mancini” for Best Performance by a Vocal Group in 1966.

“My God,” gasps P “It’s Elvis all over again!”

But MC PhD isn’t having it. White Krissmiss, out of breath and smiling humbly, reaches for her Grammy but PhD, clutching it to the breast of his sable-trimmed gown, leans across the lectern again, taps the microphone thuddingly and says, “Whoa. Wait a minute. Wait up.”

He says, to the eight hundred and fifty formally-attired people in the audience at the Bob Hope Memorial Westinghouse Pavilion in Los Angeles, and the estimated 1.4 billion people (some of them in loin cloths) watching “at home”,

“Yo. This ain’t…that’s just…see, this ain’t the deal. You know what I’m sayin? Nuh-uh. It’s like, first Baltimore, now this? I don’t think so…and y’all…see, no disrespec to Krissmiss…okay? Know what I’m sayin? But we didn’t even…when I was growin up…I was hungry. Okay? I’m talkin’ ‘bout Oakland, okay? And we didn’t go stealin’ or robbin’ ‘cause my mama, she woulda…she woulda whupped our black asses with a belt. And that Sista and her family down in Baltimore, they coulda been…they wasn’t even shopliftin or nuthin…know what I’m sayin? …and that cop coulda killed that little sista with her asthma and now y’all wanna tell the other nominees…like, the brothas shouldna even bothered come down here tonight and y’all just…Y’all think y’all can even do that better…ya’ll don’t even want ya niggers black!”

And he goes on in this vein but the segue music swells up and it’s suddenly time for a commercial break and White Krissmiss herself has been standing to the side during the jagged verbal collage of MC PhD’s impressionistic sermon, head-bowed, hands clasped behind her back…nodding the whole time. And when she looks up and over at MC PhD she looks not as though she wants to throttle him, as well she should…she looks, instead, as though she wants to hug him and feel his pain and Salter thinks: are white people just smarter, or faker, or do they have ice-water in their veins, or what? Just like the android super-villain the hero can only hope to defeat through the miraculous intervention of sheer luck, he thinks. What would Isaac Asimov suggest? Every time a black somewhere loses control, flips out, gets loud…there’s a level-headed white somewhere waiting in the wings who not only benefits from the loss of control but benefits enormously…

“That was brilliant!” says P. She is by now pressed close beside Salter on the couch, with her hand between his shoulders, giving him a light, experimental, prefatory back-rub. “He really told it like it is; that took guts…I am so proud of him! Wow. That was inspiring!” She pats Salter on the back and repeats “I am so proud of him.”

If she could see Salter’s face at this moment she’d be shocked. Frightened even. On the television another classy car advert is playing out a Wagnerian scenario of soaring eagles and winding mountain roads bracketed between jump-cuts of black on the screen…black upon which the flickering white words elegance, then stature, then sensuality fade in and out…black like a mirror so P glimpses a fleeting, distorted reflection of…but that’s not possible. She hasn’t done anything wrong, has she? But she feels his back muscles go rigid as a tractor tire to her touch and she removes her hand without even being conscious of removing it and he leans forward and turns off the television and says, without facing her, “Proud of what?”

Salter looks over his shoulder and sees: the proverbial frozen smile. He turns away again, cracking his knuckles. He has no way of knowing that her abusive ex-girlfriend used to crack her knuckles in much the same manner. “You’re proud of what? That clown in his cap and gown didn’t make one ounce of fucking sense.”

“I thought what he said was quite powerful.”

“Gotta love the irony, though…he’s standing up there in his fur-trimmed cap and gown and he couldn’t speak one complete sentence in English! Hey, and please don’t try to tell me…”

“But I don’t understand what you’re getting so upset about.”

“Please don’t try to tell me that if it was some white dummy up there being incoherent, you would have been proud of him, too!”

“But that’s just the point…there won’t be any white dummies, as you call them, up there …reacting with grief…genuine human rage and grief…over an injustice done to them by the black majority…because there is no black majority. And most of the injustices…the kind we’re talking about… are against blacks. Or am I a dummy too?”

“Look, I know you mean well. I really do. But liberal condescension does not help people like that…”

“People like that. That’s a funny way to put it. People like that…”

Salter gets up and grabs a jacket where it’s dangling from a door knob. “Oh, I see…I’m not allowed to make a distinction! Gee, thanks for reminding me of my roots, Miss Daisy…I almost got uppity there for a second!” He slips the jacket on and zips it. “Don’t wait up.”

“Jesus.”

He leaves the room, marches down the hall, and exits the flat, closing the door quietly behind him. Down the stairs. He feels better already. It’s only when he’s about a block away from the building that it hits him that now he’s being over-emotional, rather than coldly analytical…he’s doing just what he’d excoriated MC PhD for doing…he’s flipping out. I guess flipping out is just my fucking heritage…flipping out is my culture. I come from a long line of last-straw niggers; for us…everything is the last straw…we are born to flip-out, Jack…we emerge from the womb with our fists clenched and our eyes bugging out, little black hand-grenades, packed with the DNA of exasperation. Well, he sighs, at least I flipped out articulately…at least I can say that. Fuck it.

He hugs himself.

There’s the moon again. Very small, very cold, astonishingly incurious up there in its track in the cold sky over its humanity-infested paramour the Earth. All the little details, every day and every night without end: wildfires, volcanoes, the silver needles of jets and the warped quilts of farmland and the intricate gray circuit boards of metropolises and hurricanes like vast toilets flushing all over the equator…and Las Vegas a smashed re-molded disco ball and rhizome-like lightning illuminating the soil-like-air over the rusted industrial hubs…and satellites like glittering insects and sweet green pollutions like intercontinental perfume…all this…of zero interest whatsoever. Maybe there was a time when the moon was a dedicated witness, even a loving one, recording the surge and recession and resurgence of humanity’s Dorian-Gray-like self-portrait on the face of the Earth…those soft-as-cookies Mayan, or Elizabethan, or Igbo motifs…but then came the 20th century and it was all just too fucking much to look at…the paparazzi fusillade of A-bombs going off on the red carpet of the world premier of the modern age… and the moon is now catatonic or hysterically blind, lashed to its gravity track forever, a white-eyed corpse on a merry-go-round. What a sick thought, thinks Salter; I need another beer. A nice black Weizenbier. There is a tankstelle about four blocks from his flat, on Leibniz Strasse

…the Tankstellen…the petrol stations…sell beer at night. In the old days, before the laws loosened, grocery stores could only be open between nine in the morning and six at night, and about four hours on Saturday and not at all on Sunday and that was the law. You’d end up doing most of your shopping in gas stations, especially if you fucking worked for a living. Every day at a quarter past five every grocery store in Berlin was packed with people dressed like businessmen and their secretaries…five or six check-outs in the bigger stores and aisles all jammed and the queues ridiculous. And if you couldn’t make it before six or you didn’t want to stand in a queue for twenty minutes or you wanted a snack, quite spontaneously, at three in the afternoon on Sunday…the petrol station. Beer, ice cream, road maps, porno magazines, wiener in jars, flour for baking, milk, wiper fluid, candy bars, and all kinds of beer. Weizenbier, translated literally, is wheat beer…he wants, he thinks, specifically: Hafer Weizenbier…yeast wheat beer. Buy it in a club or a café and they have to give you a very tall glass for it because of all the foam. The bartender rolls it on the bar to shake the yeast off the bottom of the bottle.

The Tankstelle on Leibniz Strasse is a grand one, a meeting place for night drivers, a small grocery store. Salter goes right to the corner behind the bottled water and grabs a big green and gold can of Pilsner (no more Hafer Weizenbier tonight) and gets in a line about six deep, guzzling from the can already, standing directly behind a very tall, very skinny, very blonde girl in a black vinyl raincoat and black vinyl cap and hair all the way down to the hem of her jacket, not quite reaching her ass, which is one of those asses where the jeans pull the cheeks apart under the coccyx causing a gap like the apex of a cathedral archway. Or an inverted saddle. She is drenched in a musky perfume that Salter guesses is an attempt to mask her own odor from herself…women like that are perpetually in heat or at least imagine themselves to be and ashamed of the condition, he thinks; they think everyone else can smell it. They are ashamed but also crazed by it…they are as easy to pick up as the bruised fruit in the shade around the base of the copious pear tree. The short-haired check-out girl (Peter Pan in her green jumpsuit) has a radio on behind the counter and Salter has heard, since getting in line behind Rapunzel, the very end of the Sid Vicious version of My Way, followed by Mr. Sandman by whoever did the original of that gem of Ike-era putrefaction and now it’s Golden Lady by Stevie Wonder… so of course Salter, very quietly but with great accuracy, sings along with Stevie. And of course Rapunzel turns around, glowing at him.

Oh, don’t stop, that is real entertainment, she says.

Her face is painted like a souvenir ashtray from Tijuana and she is no less than fifty five years old, with big red lips and blue eyes bleached of sanity, utterly free from any mood more moderate than lust or terror…she’s loony and sexual and fascinating, in fact, and Salter realizes: it’s The Moon herself. The Moon come down to visit after I invoked her spirit with boozy ruminations in my time of greatest need…it’s my Cherokee blood that enables me to call down The Moon. A talent my grandmother had. What was the Moon’s name again? What was her name? He used to know from reading all that Science Fiction. That’s it: Selene.

“I’m glad you like it, Selene,” Salter answers. Everyone in line ahead of them turns to stare because of the loud English but he doesn’t care…the beer has immunized him against self-consciousness. “I have to say, Selene…your hair is amazing.” Like ripped yellow silk. She reaches and touches his.

“Your hair also. It’s very unusual for a colored man. Where does it come from?”

“My grandfather. He was a…German Jew…” and here Salter shrugs with Yiddish resignation about a sentence he need not finish. A German Jew? Why not. This is how you flirt with old Germans.

She shrugs too. “Aha! My father was a very big officer. Ein Oberst. What is your word? General. So,” she smiles, “we have something in common.”

“No, nothing in common.”

“Ach.” She pouts. “You are very intelligent for a colored man.”

“Colored men are very intelligent, as a rule, but we have a weakness.”

“Blondes.”

“No: humanity. We’re too human. Colored men are far too human.”

“Yes. I have always thought the same. What was your…grandfather’s…profession before my father sent him like a carrier pigeon to his after-life, may I ask?”

Salter squints. “He was a sociologist. I don’t know the German word for it. Sozialoge? He studied people. Cultures.”

“And so his knowledge couldn’t save him.”

“He needed more proof.”

She laughs a smoker’s laugh and squeezes his arm and says “A long time ago I had a clever thought that I couldn’t tell anyone, a terrible waste, so I’ll tell you. Yes?”

“I’m all ears.”

“It is this. If we had said not that we are killing all the Jews, but rather that we’ve decided to be rid of six million of our fellow German citizens…like your American Civil War…there wouldn’t be so much for the Germans to feel guilty about now.” She squeezes his arm again. “Do you see? It’s just semantics. That’s why I can’t take this Jew business so seriously. Jew this, Jew that. Those Jews were first of all Germans, never forget. They would be the first to agree.”

She smiles and turns to pay for a liter of Diet Coke and a carton of Marlboros. She leaves in her caul of perfume and a creepily blank expression (dead eyes painted on) as Salter pays for his already empty beer can, handing it crushed to the cashier to please dispose of, and when he steps out to in front of the pumps he sees Selene in her silver Jaguar right there in front of him, sucking a flame through a cigarette while the engine revs, checking herself in the rearview mirror, the overhead light on, the bill of her cap shadowing dramatic cheek bones and sunken eyes. She sees Salter and her mouth opens, eyes jammed shut in a bowel-voiding ecstasy as if preparing to step forward bloodily and in a glistening slip of mucous from out of her own loose skin. Or maybe it’s just an old whore’s terrible yawn. He can see all the way down her throat…the rimey tonsils and her yellow teeth and a dozen gold fillings…and the pink and red and black plumbing…and the smoke rising out of her and filling the car like her guts are burning. Oh I would love to fuck that, he thinks. I would love to.

Salter hurries home like a paramedic delivering a vital organ on ice. At the front door of the old building with the moon at his back he shoulders the door open and crosses the courtyard and the moon peeks over the lindens. He slips into his hinterhof. Up the stairs. He’s hurrying as though he can apply the momentum directly to the intensity of a fuck, like the fuck is a wall he has to ram through. If she’s in his bedroom he’s going to fuck her without a word of apology or preamble. If she wants to be fucked, he’ll do it…if not, at the slightest hint of resistance he’ll abandon all efforts and sleep on the gold couch in the other room.

In the dark flat he listens. The significant silence not of sleep but of hold-her-breath listening. She listens for clues to his frame of mind. Listens for clues. She has learned to listen for clues. She can hear his breathing…the short stopped breaths of the surprisingly great physical effort of stripping. The awkward, quick, balanced contortions: try, just try, to do those slowly: that takes skill. First one shoe, then the other: already a rain-dance in and of itself. The roll and shimmy of his broad shoulders as he slips the confines of his jacket. Pants. Shirt. Socks. Briefs. All in a pile. We are so small in our words and our clothing. He imagines seeing his own image in the infrared as he pads down the hall, massive and dense with muscles but with this tip-toe delicacy that makes the image eerier. If he could but see himself it would be terrifying, he thinks. It’s not an implication of violence but the dawn-of-time shit that this would put him in mind of and make him leap out of his skin to see himself in his skin this way, two hundred pounds coming down that long white hall in the darkness. The missing link. He eases the bedroom door open and just a flimsy gray meringue of indirect moonlight gives faint shape to the bed on which he can just about make her out. The word is sejant: in repose like a sphinx or a lion. She’s breathing like a woman doing her best to stay calm. He can smell her; she has humidified the room. She moves…comes across the bed with a shift and rustle of the sheets…very good at this game. There will be no talking: finally, there will be no talking…

…after a few false starts at various awkward holds she is straddling him, pushing her sopping wet bush over his face like a sponge in rough scrubbing strokes… he has to hold her in place to keep her from crushing the bridge of his nose and banging his teeth with that asinine clit ring. That offensive ring in her clitoris: she goes oh every time she dings his front teeth with it like it’s a shared pleasure and he sees stars, green stars, every time she lands on his nose so he grips her pelvis and forces her down to a more congenial squat and keeps her still with great effort against her willful bucking and goes about the task of straining to eat a pussy he is manifestly not enamored of, spurred only by the desire to do a good job. He likes neither the way it smells nor how it tastes, her pussy. He reaches up to pull on her nipples and encounters hardware there, too: she has armor-plated her pussy and her tits. It’s not unhygienic or bad, her pussy smell, just alien. If he’d loved her then the pussy would appear to him as a big fat lovely dandelion to blow on with joy but not loving her it’s just very hard to resist the idea of abhorring this whole damn gig. It’s bad enough, that faint whiff of anus he’s getting, late in the game. Didn’t you even bathe before you got on the plane? So anal is totally out. This is too intimate. He feels a prissy resistance to ingesting her substance that borders on being a matter of civil rights… his… she’s violating his civil rights and maybe this is an angle she’d respond to if he called it off and framed it that way… it’s just all the horror of the word “juice” in this context that he can’t seem to force from his mind… so very not the way it had been when he was young and eagerly gulping a girl he’d dreamed of for months, because…

…sucking at the reddened base of a girl you love is one of the great unrefined body-joys of mortal existence but this is just drudgery. This is like being forced to eat floppy pounds of something on a wet toilet under fluorescent lights at gunpoint in February’s cold. And he does his best not to imagine the dozens of ugly frothing dicks she’s had jabbing around in there before, a whole history, a Decameron of gruesome hard-ons, straight, bent, curved, runty, skinny, fat, pointed, huge, soft, sore and blister-red on parade, tight little balls or hanging big loose ones or even those one-balled sacs with psoriasis though some are ginger-haired or mossy-black or with blonde curlicues or pelted sleek like otters. Or picture a fat lesbian tongue with a coat on it going slurp slurp slurp like a basset. He’s licking a wall full of wallpaper paste. He’s licking a seabed at ebb tide.

And the funniest thing happens. A miracle.

It thrums in thick hot jets up her pipes from the knot of stripped nerves at the root of that armored pussy and P tenses like a mare about to kick a big ol’ bucket of suds and Salter feels P kegel-brace for the big one squatting so deep down good down fused within herself and she grinds again in an apparent attempt to remove his features and something squirts! Holy fuck, thinks Salter, Holy fuck, I’ve slurped her so well the lady is shooting! Female ejaculation! ‘Tis no myth, Sir! The trumpet-tooting angels knew it all along! The opened lights of heaven knew it all along! P explodes in a triumphant convulsion, clutching hard at Salter’s face by handles he never knew he had and holding him there and pouring out, pouring on him, pouring her hot blessing, gushing her all, emptying all that simmered love on Salter’s face, incredible how she’s gushing. Even Salter can’t come like this, no man can, not this much, not cups of it, it’s too much, he’s choking on it, spitting it out, swallowing what he can’t spit out and coughing it out and he shoves her in a panicked epiphany and rolls from under the flushing haunch and crashes off the bed as she kneels on the bed with her hands clamped over her ears shouting loud as she possibly can…

“That is not piss, I assure you!”

Career Move [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

 

 

Berlin (862)

 

Wednesday evening at 19:00, Simon’s event at the North Coast Gallery, in association with Absolut Vodka and Virgin Records, is scheduled to open with a wine-and-cheese reception, followed by a learned discussion between Kahn-Meyers and five panelists, followed by the event itself. Simon is in competition for the lucrative and prestigious Stein Prize.

The North Coast gallery is a handsome space on Sophienstrasse in Berlin’s gallery ghetto, where there’s an opening every night of the week in the last warm period before the soggy beast of winter’s stomping return. Openings which feature munching crowds on the sidewalks in commingled clouds of German champagne, garlic breath and American cigarettes. The heated scramble for cred and/or authority in a comically under-funded milieu results in a bitter, bitchy lethargy that is part of the charm.

Simon feels that civilization is in conflict with itself and that it all goes back to the playground. We tell children, be good; do no wrong, but a child who turns in a wrong-doer is a quisling or a snitch. We tell a child, do not resort to violence, but a child who goes to a teacher for protection is a whiner or a crybaby and the kid who kicks the ass of a bully gets our eternal respect. Simon did not enjoy his time in primary school.

Simon’s submission for the Stein Prize this year is a tent. Simon has won the prize twice already, but not more recently than the year of the second Space Shuttle disaster, when he hung a gallery full of illegal Chinese skeletons dipped in dark chocolate and called it SUGAR COATING DEATH; the smell itself had been a statement. The current piece is a tent, deluxe model, weather-proof and kelly green, reeking of newness, big enough for two Yuppie camper couples with a wordly arrangement going, pitched in the middle of the gallery’s judging-you-white concrete 85 square meter floor. A cool spider of complex tracklighting stands on the tent, lightbeam-legs akimbo. Within the tent, in odalisque-parodying repose, is reputed to be Simon’s stunningly beautiful irony-naked 29-year-old Eurasian girlfriend Thy Trann, herself an artist (a “Wetter Künstler”), who will likely be ovulating (as the catalog attests that her gynecologist has attested) during the climax of the event.

As the catalog puts it on page ten, after recapping Kahn-Meyers’s illustrious CV and indulging in the requisite dense page of art-speak mumbo-jumbo, plus sponsor ads: any one of the six anonymous judges of this year’s Stein Prize is invited to sign a release form (at an undisclosed location) waiving paternal rights and responsibilities and be chauffeured via special limo to the gallery…to enter the tent (hooded) and impregnate Thy. If the insemination is successful, Trann and Kahn-Meyers have pledged to raise the resulting child in a kind of ongoing Performance Art that will, “hopefully,” as Kahn-Meyers put it, “long outlive me.”

The title of the piece is THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE and there is a giggly buzz in the usually demonstratively unimpressed crowd of both highbrow and boulevard press and cognoscenti and curious onlookers and free food parasites who meander around the outside of the mute tent with their plastic champagne flutes, their chatter kept at a curiously polite low level, as though in a room where a child is sleeping. The thought that the tent contains not only a beautiful naked girl but the artist’s girlfriend herself electrifies the evening with a kind of verisimilitude that hasn’t been generated since Warhol’s pioneering efforts at making decorum irrelevant in the midst of the decorum-hungry 20th century.

Not that Simon Kahn-Meyers reveres Warhol. He tends to deride the “Slavic hucksterisms”. Kahn-Meyers wants, first and foremost, to draw a line in the critical sand between Warhol’s conceptual moonings and serious work such as his own. Kahn-Meyers considers the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy of received art history intolerably irksome and will assail this sloppy thinking with this his latest masterstroke, reminiscent of the work that immediately preceded it, the gently titled PLACEBO.

PLACEBO featured a fully operational vintage voting booth from the American state of Illinois containing a naked Thai (not Thy) on a chopped-legged stool in the booth offering oral pleasure to anyone who could produce a passport stating Artist in the blank reserved for “occupation.” In the catalog Kahn-Meyers refers to THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE as a “self-evident escalation” of PLACEBO’s intent: to blur the lines between public duty and personal compulsion. The only thing Simon fears now is German taste: they always confuse metaphysical with intellectual, these Germans, and Simon can never, he fears, get quite metaphysical enough for these Kraut fucking mystics and their prize money. Simon is thinking of his first major piece: a life-sized ironing board made of pure white wax called Irony Board; sold it for a pile. Heartbreakingly beautiful. Seems like a century ago.

At the far end of the gallery is set up a long table upon which are placed three microphones facing six empty seats. Facing the six empty seats, on the other side of the table, at a respectful distance, is a square of thirty six black metal folding chairs. Slowly, the thirty six chairs are filled. Those who stand do so with German Kultur rigor: chins up, hands clasped behind their backs. The difference between the overly-cerebral and the occult is what, exactly?

He takes his seat at the center of the table with a recondite smirk (as if contemplating the news of the humiliating defeat of an old rival) and the five other panelists straggle in from various conversations around the spacious gallery like staff at a private school, summoned by the principal to a disciplinary hearing. The panelists (in the order they take their seats): Yeon-Ju Bongiovi (video soap artist), Riley Klein (Kahn-Meyers’s gallerist), Simone Pohle (film maker/writer/art critic/clothes-designer/model), Siegfried Stummfeldt (photographer) and Sylver Goldin (self-proclaimed “self”-artist, patron of the arts, and prosperous local gender-ambiguous restaurateur, driven to the event in its trademark lavender Jaguar). The music being piped in over the gallery’s sound system (jazzy Bach) dwindles to a hiss as Simon taps his microphone.

“Before I begin,” says Simon, “although, how one can begin before beginning is not entirely clear…” he shrugs to acknowledge the titters this receives, “I’d like to say something to, uh… I want to address something to the artist Thy Trann, I’m sure you know and respect her work… who… uh… as you are aware is collaborating with me on this particular… piece.” He lifts his chin over the microphone and raises his voice. “Thy?”

All thirty six seated members of the audience and the dozen or so standing twist like licorice to hear Trann call out from the tent behind them, in her throaty trans-Pacific accent, “Yes, Dear?” which also receives titters. The un-amplified quality of her localized voice, in contrast to Kahn-Meyers’s Moses-like omni-directional amplification, serves to call vivid attention to her presence in the tent, while at the same time serving to subliminally support the visual imagination of her as stark naked therein. Not to mention providing, for the comfort of sensitive or militant lesbian members of the audience, confirmation, inferable from the casual music of Simon and Thy’s exchange, that Thy isn’t being coerced… wasn’t bullied, threatened, drugged or tricked… into performing this history-making “action”.

“Thy, I just want to make sure you’re comfortable in there. Are you comfortable in there?”

There is the sound of Thy punching a plush pillow or two. “Yep!”

“And you’re warm enough?”

“Yep!”

“Good. I just need… I just need for you to bear with our chatter for a little while… and, uh… yes. And then… you can… get ready to…” Kahn-Meyers’s gaze sweeps the audience carefully, almost accusingly, in order to complete the sentence in everyone’s head for them.

“A-okay!” Trann calls out, and the panel discussion can commence, granted the easy segue of generous applause for Thy Trann, this evening’s sacrifice.

So far so smooth, thinks Kahn-Meyers.

“Before I begin,” begins Riley Klein, Simon’s jowly American gallerist, pausing a beat for the laughs he anticipates being able to milk further from Simon’s inaugural witticism and getting one… from Simon himself… he continues, “I want to thank all of you for coming, as well as salute Simon and Thy,” more applause, “because we are all, each one of us, a part of this equation.” He clears his throat, plucks his glasses from a pocket in his dark tweed blazer, and hunches forward with the glasses on the end of his nose to read aloud a “provocative statement” from a sheet of paper on the table in front of him, his hands in his lap. He looks like a dutiful school boy and reads with the dutiful schoolboy’s abashed singsong.

After the statement (a long quote from Robert Mapplethorpe) is read and absorbed, the first panelist to speak, Simone Pohle, touches her microphone as if to give it pleasure and looks sidelong down the long white table with narrowed eyes and poses the question, pushing her white-blonde hair out of the way and displaying perhaps the faintest hint of piquant hostility, “Mr. Kahn-Meyers, what is it that you are trying to achieve here tonight?”

Kahn-Meyer’s blinks innocently at the audience and replies, stroking his neat white beard, “What am I trying to achieve here tonight? I’m trying to win an art prize!” And the audience loves it.

The Paracelsus of Hair Straightening

Across town, Sadie Olubodun is putting the finishing touches on herself to the sound of Les Negresses Verts, a horn-driven French ensemble that gallops out of the stereo with a loping gypsy beat; the music is a stupid dog dashing ecstatically between the man-sized speakers. There is an aura of romantic anarcho-collective about the band that Sadie loves, having herself been raised and schooled by Catholic nuns from Belgium. The music is very loud. There are intermittent floor, wall and ceiling  bashings from the neighbors. 

In the free-standing “bathroom” mirror (there are no walls around the toilet) Sadie is puckering her lips to paint them: a swollen strawberry into a deliquescing heart. She’s running a special comb through her very long hair; the very long hair she is very proud of. Staying stick thin is easy: pharmaceuticals take care of that. Flawless black vacu-formed skin and giraffe height and a spot-lit Steinway smile she was born with. But her hair is the Grand Project of Sadie Olubodun’s life.

Having just turned twenty seven, Sadie O has been busy with hair maintenance since the day she “graduated” (escaped over a chain link fence) from Saint Serifina’s Polytechnical Boarding School for Wayward Girls. She literally ran away, five barefoot miles down a dusty road at dawn to a bus stop, to make it to a model casting at a French hotel she’d read about a week before, by accident, after unwrapping Friday’s fish. Sister Berthe-Claudette is probably still shouting Sadie’s name during roll call every morning. Sadie Olubodun, that tall skinny shy girl with the modest afro. No longer!

Every three or four weeks for the past twelve years Sadie has gone to have her hair straightened first by the best black private hair stylist in West London, a dwarfish Gay Canadian named Horton Bard, nicknamed Hard-on Board, and then, after she’d escaped London, by the best black private hair stylist in Hamburg, a portly straight Senegalese named Monsieur who often worries about the fact that most of his clients are wealthy black Muslim ladies who procure his services at the risk of being stoned.  Sadie makes the trip to Hamburg monthly. Monsieur happens to be Horton Bard’s hand-picked acolyte; his initiate in the alchemical mysteries of hair straightening. Monsieur is the Comte De St. Germaine to Horton’s Paracelsus.

“Kinky hair,” says Horton “is merely asleep. We wake it up!”

Sadie has cultivated her hair to the point that it rivers down the macadam of her back, ending near the Lamborghini scallop and sudden twin convexities of black lacquered showroom ass. She calculates that her hair (rippling with windblown arabesques like Muslim devotional script)  has cost her, to date… she figures something like £30,000. Her hair is a statement and an investment and a way of life.

What she hates is when sisters of every nationality go the cheap route and prance around in public with armadillo shells and coconut husks for hair. She’s ashamed for them. You’re not satisfied with your natural hair texture and so you fry it, pickle it in pigeon grease, stack it atop your lye-scorched skull like something scraped out of a drain? Sadie wonders what she abhors more, the lye-job conks or the… the thirty dollar polyester wigs from Woolworths. Honey (hah-nee), she wants to say, just shave it off… you might as well… have a little pride. Have a little dignity (deeg-NAH-tee).

If Sadie, a girl from a village (born in a semi-detached house with only two televisions) can afford to do it right, how are you going to persuade her that an American can’t? Sadie’s hair is a contrarian manifesto of equivalence that says: if a European (Your-OH-pee-ahn) can get her hair curled, I can get mine straightened! If she can wear blue contacts, I can too, or wear them red if I choose. For every hundred Your-OH-pee-ahns who pay for twenty minutes in a tanning salon, one Michael Jackson is allowed to bleach his skin! Or lop off his nose! Or whatever. Fuck off.  She kisses the locket on the gold chain around her neck, a thumb-sized engraving of Olaudah Equiano.

“Hey ho, let’s go!” she shouts and punches Siegfried’s ceiling-high, twenty year old rubber tree plant in the midsection on her way out of the flat, slamming the eight foot steel-reinforced door behind her. She can still hear Les Negresses Verts from a block away as she flips her hair in the wind and raises her arm for a taxi. The taxi over-shoots Sadie then screeches to a halt, that time-tested cinematic cliché.

Whoever Loves a Black Girl

Simon glances at his cheap watch as a heated argument between a panelist and a member of the audience stretches like an interminable surrealist ping pong game in which each side keeps serving a brand new unreturned ball. He’s never heard the name Tristan Tzara evoked so many times in his life. Tristan Tzara and the word paradigm. He can remember when it was synergy. Hell, he can remember when it was parameter; he can even remember back to the ‘50s when the artspeak word of choice was atavistic.

Put one Englishman in a room full of Germans and the Germans will outdo themselves avoiding the speaking of German, because no one wants to seem provincial. Consequently, Simon has never lost an argument in Germany, though his rhetorical fire has been doused on more than once occasion in America (even, once, by a Mexican fucking clerk in a fucking Rite Aid ) with the dreaded un-trump-able… whatever. Only Americans could have invented “whatever”, the neutron bomb of heated debates. America, the looking-glass land where the children of slaves subsist on welfare and where being crippled is seen as some kind of advantage and where guns don’t kill people (people do); America the anti-abortion, pro-death penalty land of puritanical pornographers and pro-Israel anti-Semites where you can lose weight and save money by eating and buying more…

Simon rubs his eyes and has a vision of a mound of corned beef hash of infant pinkness beside a weighty brick of hash brown potatoes dressed in two fried eggs like a bikini top, an unheard of dish in Berlin and something he could have right now, or even at three in the morning (the hour he roughly calculates this ordeal will be over) if he were in Manhattan. But if he wants to keep his prices up in New York he has to keep his mystique alive in Europe and that’s why he’s doing this. Business has been bad since 9/11, a simple fact. He can’t help selfishly framing that fishy act of terror as him being put out of work by a rival gang of faux naïf Event Artists with deep-pocket patrons.

He’s on the verge of calling the discussion to a halt (fifteen minutes to show time) when the discussion calls itself to a halt. Everyone in the back of the gallery to listen to the nothing-at-stake rhetorical jousting of the panelists is suddenly peering back to the front of the gallery where a taxi was just heard to screech to a halt and screech off again and there are curious murmurs and shiftings of attention and all artspeak has ceased, for the nonce. Art is so easily ignored when Real Life gets up off its ass and deigns to reclaim our attention. Simon stands up and gestures to Riley to put phase two into motion; he leans forward into his microphone and says, solemnly, redundantly, “Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our panel discussion…if you will please move to the front of the gallery…” because they’ve already started moving that way.

Good God, whispers Simon.

Standing just within the gallery’s front door, having effected a grand entrance, is a six foot plus, on teetering Lucite heels, skinny-as-a-Giacometti alien. Universe-black, possibly female. Nude, at first glance, in a see-through vinyl raincoat. On closer inspection (Simon strides fearlessly her way) she’s dressed in a black bikini under the coat, which warps and pools the light from the ceiling across its dazzling surface. It’s like she’s walking around in a force field or a vertical swimming pool, this towering black alien with the ponytail tickling her flog-worthy ass.

Imagine owning one of those, thinks Simon, with survivable guilt. Those 18th century Yanks weren’t fools.

Ancient graffito from poor Pompeii: Whoever loves a Black girl is set ablaze by black charcoal; when I see a Black girl, I willingly eat blackberries.

She’s not stark naked, but the effect is the same and Simon nearly panics: the integrity of the event is being threatened: camera flashes have already started their scale model electrical storm around the gallery. She’s de-focusing his event.

He takes her by the arm and says, very softly, very deeply, “I’ll need you to clear the entrance, here, darling… would you care for some wine? Some cheese? Riley…” Riley is panting close behind, “Get this lovely girl some… sustenance. Smashing outfit,” he adds, squeezing her waist as he passes her to the blushing care of his gallerist, who takes her by the elbow as though he is wearing asbestos gloves.

“I would like to please draw everyone’s attention…” shouts Simon, then, at a lesser volume, “to the two gentlemen standing in front of the tent.” He has to work to get his timing back after the miraculous aberration of the alien (where is she? Near the back with Riley and that pony-tailed photographer clod; they seem to know each other). Normally, Simon lives for miraculous aberrations. But not now. He points and proclaims: “Elite members of a private security force.” From out of nowhere, two very large gentlemen, dressed in identical secret-service type suits, have materialized, anthropomorphic representations of the capital letter A in front of the tent.

“They are not. Not. Here to protect… Thy.” Simon strokes his beard as though weighing carefully the next remark. “They are here to protect… you. To protect… Art.”

Glancing again at his watch he asks, “What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is that art is a serious matter. I am not, as they say, fucking around. If one of the judges of the Stein Prize has the courage to take me up on my challenge, the question is… will I then have the courage to follow through?”

“Let’s be honest. The odds are not great that one of these so-called judges will climb into that specially assigned limo… have I mentioned already? That the limo… a vintage 1933 Hispano Suiza J-12…”

Simon pauses; several older art buffs stagewhisper Picasso… Picasso. Simon’s eyes narrow.

“I mean: I know that the likelihood is not great that I’m going to have to follow through on all this. But without at least the risk that we will all be involved in a life-changing event here tonight, can we call this… Art?”

“These large fellows,” Simon smiles, “are here to protect you … and Art Itself… by insuring that Simon Kahn-Meyers, the so called international art star, ” he says with very nearly misjudged vehemence, “Doesn’t get cold feet. That I don’t renege on a promise. If one of those judges has the courage and vision to take me up on the ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE challenge, there’s… nothing I can do to stop this thing from running its course… because these gentlemen have been pre-paid rather handsomely and instructed to physically restrain me from interfering with this event, if need be. They are under contract, in fact… should they fail to restrain me from ruining this event at a crucial moment, they are each legally liable for a considerable sum.”

“Thy Trann is now in a state of inner contemplation… she is deep in herself… she is creating this piece even as I speak… deep within herself in this tent. I was the conceptualist but her fertile body is the concept. We have agreed that she say nothing at this point… nor attempt to communicate with anyone until this event is formally over, whatever happens..”

As unlikely as anything really is to actually happen, Simon’s words and masterful delivery have mesmerized the audience. Lulled them into an eerie sense of traumatic relaxation, or anticipatory recovery. As though the event as described has already happened and his words have started a healing process; have started them on the road to recovery after all they’ve all been through. Though nothing has actually happened. But everyone could see it, somehow, as Simon spoke it. Could picture the old man flailing in a shamingly effortless headlock, screaming “No! Stop! Make it stop!” and straining against the merciless professional restraint that he himself has hired. So moved is the audience that they aren’t even sure of the etiquette of applauding, until a trickle starts (from a far corner less affected by the charismatic field of Simon’s presence, possibly) and then an ovation.

During which Simon does his best not to be caught peering furtively after the stunning, must-have Watusi from Mars who very nearly stole the show. She’s still in the dead bit of the gallery where Riley is keeping her. Riley and that ponytailed galoot. Simon sees, with satisfaction, however, that the alien is applauding him heartily, with all the rest. How to separate her from that Nikon-toting idiot (dressed in a Tuxedo jacket and camouflage battle fatigues) long enough to get a phone number or set a lunch date?

Hispano Suiza

The Vernissage has reached that point in the evening when all of the cheese is gone, the champagne is running very low, and the chatter is thinner but very loud. The contemplative low rumble of pseudos wallowing in the aural loam of their own pronouncements has become the boisterous deaf barking of drunks. The evening, which hasn’t even truly begun, smirks Simon, has been a mild success.

About twenty minutes ago, one of the somber giants standing with arms folded in front of The Tent was given a bottle of Evian to hand to Thy within it, for which gesture she was heard, by those nearest The Tent, to thank the guard, who had reached in without looking. About seventy percent of the original attendees are still present; the ones who have gone on (to home, or restaurants, or bordellos) are of no importance. The ones who have remained (Sylver Goldin, Simone Pohle, et al) are networking and therefore connected and therefore useful.

Simon’s already thinking of his next piece…either the Muslim thing he’d been conceptualizing of late or a technology gambit involving taking dead kittens and puppies and stuffing them with animatronics to get them gamboling around a gallery in all their cloudy-eyed rotting flesh. Which one he starts on next will depend on whether he wins the Stein Prize because those animatronix are expensive.

Simon makes his way to the back of the gallery and touches his gallerist’s arm and whispers “Riley, give that freakish black girl my cell phone number and instruct her to call me in exactly forty five minutes” and returns to a spot where he can hover in close proximity to The Tent. He is thinking, because he suddenly remembers the dread and pleasure of reciting it in his bed in the morning as a child, of:

Solomon Grundy,
Born on Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
And that was the end of Solomon Grundy
.

There are about thirty people outside, smoking or cellphoning or smoking and cellphoning or cellphoning smokers, when the Hispano Suiza, huge and sinisterly well-kept in its antique ebony and white leather sleekness, in mass and value so like a cast-iron yacht, pulls into a long space marked by parking cones in front of the gallery, rumbling and hissing like a docking dirigible and scattering a dozen onlookers. The liveried driver climbs smartly out, circles crisply round the side, and opens a heavy door, chin held high, as one… two… three… six, finally, hooded men of various heights, weights, apparent ages and classes; two in tuxedos and others in business suits and one gangling fellow in a track suit; emerge from the limo, striding through the gallery door and stooping into the tent to gasps and then merriment from the crowd.

“Oh my God!” claps Simon. “All six of them! This is great!” He hurries to the front of the tent (where he is blocked, politely but firmly, by the two large gentlemen) and calls into it, hands cupped around his mouth, “Way to go, boys! Thanks for having a sense of humor about this!” He turns to a bystander and adds, “You see, deep down, maybe I was a bit afraid the judges were offended by my little stunt…” laughing “…but, you see, they’ve shown us all how classy…” he turns and gestures at Riley with a sweeping arm, raising his voice jovially. “Riley, get some Moet up here toute suite…”

But wait: evidence of struggle. Grunts and groans and what sounds like a compressed scream in an avid hand clamped over a mouth. Scheisse, comes a brutal male voice from within the tent, Sie hat Mich gebissen!

“Thy!” shouts Simon. He lunges for the tent but, as he had to expect, one of his Armani-suited security guards grabs him and holds him fast to a spot about four feet from the flapped opening. “Let go of me, you fucking ape… are you brain-dead? Those aren’t the Stein Prize judges in there!”

He squirms and punches out wildly but is headlocked with humiliating ease. The chiseled brute holding him doesn’t even look much bothered. He looks pleased. He obviously likes his job. What he’d really like to do in fact is kick the rich old Jew around the gallery floor for a few minutes but that would be a too-liberal interpretation of the range of his duties.

“Let go of me! They’re raping my girlfriend!”

Some of the bystanders are still amused, applauding, but an increasing number achieve a sense of giddy disquiet or even concern, frowning, approaching the tent from all sides, exchanging thrilled glances with a communal sense of having the historical luck of being present where some REALITY is taking place. I was there, many can already imagine saying, when that famous artist was raped in that gallery…

“Thy!” screams Simon.

What did he say to you?  hisses Siegfried to Sadie, after Riley Klein walks off, showing concern, towards the front of the gallery. Siegfried, ignoring the ruckus, grabs Sadie’s hand and pulls her to the dark corner of the gallery where the few remaining boxes of champagne are stacked. He sits her down on a box, hands on her shoulders, staring into her upturned face.

-What did he say?

-He gave me that art bloke’s number and said I should call him in forty five minutes.

-Kahn-Meyers? Simon Kahn-Meyers wants you to call him? And are you going to do it?

-Should I?

-Of course you should. Do you know who he is? Who he knows?

-Who?

-Everyone.

-You’re worse than the nuns. You’re just a pimp…

-You know how much I love you.

-Then why are you always giving me away?

-Because, otherwise, my love for you would destroy me.

-Oh Ziggy…

-You wouldn’t know what to do with me if I loved you the way you think you’d prefer me to. I could write you love poems and give you flowers every day, but you wouldn’t be happy… you’d be bored within a week…

-But how can you stand the idea of other men with their hands on me? With their lips on my lips? Their things… in my…

-It’s just like having a bad tooth. Have you ever had a bad tooth?

-No…

-No, you wouldn’t, not with your east African teeth… your east African teeth are perfect. But we Europeans, we have much experience with having a bad tooth. And when you have a bad tooth, I’ll tell you something strange… it gives you much pain, the bad tooth, but, somehow, biting down on it, and making it hurt even more… it feels good. So I give myself the pain of knowing that another man fucks you in order to kill the pain…

-Nonsense! You simply buckle under your perceived pressure of the responsibility of loving me! You want to spread the responsibility as thinly as possible… and if you can get something out of it, by pimping me to men you want something from…all the better. Or perhaps, deep down, you’re homosexual and giving your girlfriend to other men is a way, indirectly, to fuck, or be fucked by them and the sad truth is it’s probably a little bit of both explanations and I’m a fool to put my heart at your mercy.

-Maybe you’re right. But what are you going to do about it? We’re stuck with things as they are, just like everybody else. Can you pretend that it would be better with other men? Can any woman?

Siegfried stares hard into Sadie’s eyes, blinking slowly, and Sadie looks away, then back into his eyes, then away again. And there’s nothing more to say or think on the topic. She stands, brushing his hands off, turns slowly and walks towards the front of the gallery, where all the shouting is, hugging herself in her transparent vinyl raincoat.

Aboveness

The first time Sadie Olubodun saw Siegfried Von Stummfeldt, he was sitting at the snaking long wrought-iron bar of some trendy nihilist cave-like club in a run-down neighborhood deep in East Berlin, reading Baudelaire and looking so above it all. The music was deafening and the disco lights were seizure-inducing and this guy is sitting there with a green glass of Absinthe reading Les Fleurs du Mal with a smirk of genial boredom. Of course she had to talk to him.

He was wearing leather pants, sandals, and a tuxedo jacket over a hooded sweatshirt. Sadie was wearing a terribly expensive tiny kidskin backpack over a second hand wedding dress over thigh-high black vinyl boots and her hair piled in a tilted tower atop her perfect little black head. She stood behind him and spied on what he was reading, so close that she was literally breathing down his neck, but he played it cool and did not react and she spotted a fortuitous couple of lines near the bottom of the page, something that would go very well with the Absinthe, and she raised her voice, quoting it to him over the idiot throb of the music: Et dans ces bains de sang qui des Romains nous viennent, Et dont sur leurs vieux jours les puissants se souviennent…

He closed the book without looking up and finished the passage for her, declaiming: …  Il n’a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété, Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé!  He gestured to the bartender to bring another glass, filled it about two thirds full from his bottle, and placed his own monogrammed spoon (the slot in it was like a snake, writhing in harmony with the wrought iron bar itself) over the glass, then a sugar cube in the slotted spoon and so forth. His preparation of her drink of wormwood was practised and precise and embellished with magician-like flourishes of his long-fingered hands. The satiny hands of a man who’s never done a day of manual labor in his life.

One thing Sadie truly abhorred was the hard-earned “character” of a workman’s paws. The pathetic scars and bulging knuckles and ugly calluses. She could never bear to be handled by mitts like that. Mr. Fleurs du Mal’s face was merely so-so and his body was not the sexiest she’d seen, but she was instantly smitten with those aristocratic hands.

He handed her the glass and shouted, “Do you know the Café Slavia? It over-looks the Moldau. There is a painting in it of a good-dressed Bohemian fellow enjoying his delicious Absinthe and seeing this most lovely vision…” he touched the air above them with the glass, “… a naked, absinthe-green girl floating. But now I see…” he handed her the glass, “…that this floating dream girl, she was really very black and has come to life in front of me.”

Linking arms they sipped the Absinthe.

Things happened very quickly. They left the bar, ears ringing, and hailed a taxi and promised the driver a huge tip to defy the speed limit rushing to Siegfried’s loft where Siegfried practically kicked the huge door down and Sadie hiked up her wedding dress and commanded Siegfried to bugger her without much preamble right there in front of the kitchen sink. In her kidskin backpack there was a water-soluble clove-scented chapstick from The Body Shoppe that she favored and bending over and bracing her hands on her knees she’d directed Siegfried to fetch the chapstick out and smear it on liberally as a numbing lubricant. This chapstick she never used on her own lips of course but she’d been known to share it on location once or twice with various models and booking agents she didn’t much care for. When he’d slipped in with much gasping and groaning she asked him, firmly “Will you do as I say?” and in a very humble tone he said yes.

She said, “Good. Now, hold very still. I will do all the moving. You see?”

And he held very still with his hands bracing his back and his mouth hanging half-open with bomb-defusing suspense as she moved on him in the high-ceilinged gloom of his lit-only-by-a-tiny-fluorescent-light-under-the-buff-aluminum-kitchen-cabinets loft with an almost imperceptible corkscrewing of her serpentine hips. There curled a livid seam somewhere deep in her rectal lining just itching for the jab of a pointed dick. That irritable little seam was her ersatz clitoris. By slowly rolling and shifting and clinching and un-clinching she inched the tip of his organ towards that very spot, holding her breath, eyes closed, straining, knees weak, creeping up on a howl of satisfaction…

Without so much as discussing the matter with him, Sadie moved into Siegfried’s loft the very next week, bringing over a dozen suitcases in a taxi around dinner time, unannounced. He hadn’t eaten dinner yet and they went for a walk in the twilight along the Spree where the sun was warm butter on the cool green water as it set. Siegfried, with a massive old Leica hanging from his neck and dressed in the dashing vest and dented ball cap and worn khakis of a modern war correspondent, took the opportunity to lay out his Manifesto, seeing as they were now living together, and also to tell Sadie about his best friend Hansi Kraus…

…the I.P. photographer whom Somalians had beaten to death in the city of Mogadishu in 1993. Poor sweet little Hansi who loved black American culture like you wouldn’t believe and was executed by an African mob for his white skin. Siegfried described the weekend-long soul parties Hansi would throw in his cool pad on Wiener Strasse… described Hansi’s proudest possession: the old time American juke box stocked with mint-condition 45s… What Does it Take (to win Your Love) by Junior Walker and the All Stars and Give it Up (or Turn it Loose) by James Brown and Love On A 2-Way Street by The Moments, etc., but even better: three different versions of Mbube, that unrivaled Meisterwerk of African pop, by the late great Solomon Linda… the first version (1940 or so) of moan-inspiring rareness and scratchy as a recording of Edison’s voice and it had to be transferred from the original massive clay 78rpm disc to the “modern” 45 on vintage equipment in Stuttgart to even play in Hansi’s jukebox… that’s how much passionate love and tender respect Hansi Kraus could show towards African culture.

Second version, recorded live in concert in 1957 by a white group called The Weavers and also not the easiest artifact to come by was re-titled “Wimoweh” after a homophonic approximation of the refrain, and Hansi had that one, too. The third version of the song in Hansi’s jukebox was the one almost everyone knows: The Lion Sleeps Tonight, a Christmas hit for The Tokens in 1961, and this was the version that the drunks at Hansi’s soul parties would end up singing along with at three in the morning, cracking the glass in all the windows of the apartment block by singing the high parts en masse, though it was the original version, the version performed by its creator, the profoundly cheated Solomon Linda (who received less than one percent of what he deserved in royalties) that Hansi would insist on.

It just so happens that Siegfried was watching CNN the night they reported Hansi’s lynching and Siegfried was eating spaghetti with ketchup for sauce when he saw the footage… glimpsed a near-naked barefoot limp white corpse being kicked and dragged and spat upon, and it may have been Hansi or it may have been one of the others in his doomed entourage but the sheer magnitude of the injustice was surely greater than whatever happened to Solomon Linda. Siegfried spent the next two weeks shouting accusations at whatever confused little African students were unlucky enough to cross paths with him, no matter from where on that continent they’d come to Berlin.

Siegfried said to Sadie I must be completely honest with you…  since then I have had two feelings…  A) that I need to do whatever I can do to insure that such a misunderstanding never again occurs in this world and B) a certain ambivalence towards blacks.

Siegfried talked and Sadie listened. He talked not only about poor Hansi but also about Baudelaire and Lou Reed and Thomas Bernhard and all about the Artist’s responsibility to his own Aboveness… above Work, above Morality… which is why in ninety nine out of one hundred cases women can’t really be Artists because they are too firmly grounded in the quotidian… the domestic banalities of clothing and food and children… too grounded to know Aboveness… even if they let themselves float a bit they get an earthy reminder once a month that no amount of detachment will enable them to ignore… and yet any woman truly capable of Aboveness is such a freak that her presence would be repulsive and sexually intolerable and the Muslims would be right to stone her. This last bit was a joke. Wasn’t it.

He said, as they passed closely by plain or unattractive couples strolling in cautious or giddy hand-holding silence, these people aren’t even living. He said do you know what the great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss said when he was told, while he was in the middle of performing a great calculation, that his wife was dying? Siegfried beamed at her and shook his fist with admiration:

He said: please tell her to wait a moment until I’m finished!

Intermittently, during that rambling inaugural lecture on the topic of his Weltanschauung… his worldview… Siegfried would halt… at a corner or facing a weird old Gothic Church or the streaky hand-lettered storefront of a Turkish Social Club (through which you’d see the men at various little round tables in their cheap boxy suits, smoking and playing cards) and snap pictures. Siegfried said: Sometimes I go out without film in the camera and snap pictures anyway, to remind myself that it’s the taking, not the having, that counts… after which he leered at her significantly. Sadie had just started thinking: yes, I could be happy doing this for a year or two when she noticed that Siegfried’s speech was starting to jumble and slur.

And his stride was getting. It was becoming slightly limpy then staggery and…  was he being funny? But his breath. It smelled…  it began to reek… of chemicals. Acetone. Had he popped some evil powerful pill unbeknownst to her during the course of their conversation? One minute they were walking side by side like any slightly awkward man and woman on a date, crossing Berlin in the twilight, and the next thing Sadie knew this tall strange Siegfried was stumbling and ranting like a shit-faced belligerent drunk trying to walk across a trampoline.

He crumpled to his knees and then collapsed on the curb like a string-shorn marionette. This is not happening, she thought. Oh, okay: it’s a dream, yes? No. Her new boyfriend was thrashing about and screaming and foaming at the mouth and what was she supposed to do about it?! She barely spoke German!

He was having some kind of seizure right in front of the gates of a playground and kids from all over the little park ran to the gate to watch him flop and sputter on the sidewalk under the garishly cruel street light half-shaded by a tree and all Sadie wanted to do was back away… back away a few paces and turn and run because it wasn’t fair because he hadn’t even told her he was an epileptic! Or possessed by the devil or whatever the fuck his problem was. His lips were shiny black with blood and his eyes were vivid whites rolled up in his head and he was growling and banging his skull on the pavement as though refuting the untenable principle the pavement was intent on adhering to.

A cherubic redhead with a mouthful of corrective braces that made her look too young…  in overalls with a two-year-old slung over her hip…  calmly unlatched the playground gate and handed numb Sadie her squirming child. She knelt beside Siegfried and batted his flailing hands away and stuffed a Snickers bar in his mouth and even pressed his jaws together to start him chewing it. She glanced over a shoulder at Sadie and said, with a reassuringly competent British accent, “I’m assuming your friend never bothered to mention that he’s a diabetic.”

Sadie stared.

“I always carry a bit of candy in my pocket or a can of Coke or something in my purse just in case.”

Sadie blinked.

“A pretty good indicator is when they start behaving in an inebriated fashion.” Looking puzzled and shifting back on her haunches and standing up she added, “But then it got to the point with my Marco that I could always tell something was amiss when…  he’d suddenly become this playful, affectionate…  puppy, almost. Not like him at all, seeing as he’s a 14 stone Squaddie. Funny, isn’t it? When he was being lovely to me it always meant something was wrong.” She stared at Sadie and said, “You poor dear.”

She handed down to Siegfried a Kleenex to dab his mouth with and fetched her child back from Sadie and looked on with tired benevolence as Siegfried sat upright on the sidewalk, moaning and looking very much like he’d fallen out of a tree. The lens on his Leica was good and cracked. There was the slow blue flashing light of an ambulance pulling up on the pavement. The redhead squeezed Sadie’s arm and walked back through the playground gate towards where another daughter was calling from the floodlit swings.

How many embarrassing and/or terrifying diabetic fits has Siegfried jigged through since that first one, her initiation, wonders Sadie. Twenty? Twenty five? The prize winner had to be the time his big fat mouth got him in trouble with a Prole in front of a Curry Wurst stand and he puddled into a seizure as Sadie pleaded and the Prole had him by the lapels of his jacket, preparing the head-butt. And yet he’s the one afraid of commitment! And if his racist Austrian mother has finally in some small way accepted the black African Sadie Olubodun in her precious son’s bed it’s only because Siegfried Stummfeldt needs a fucking nursemaid and nobody else, certainly no German bitch, is stupid enough to do this thankless job.

“Aboveness!” spat Sadie, pushing her way through the hubbub of the gallery and looking for Simon Kahn-Meyers, who was at that moment indisposed; working; wrapped up in the grand drama of his own design. She knew better than to interrupt just yet. She spotted his gallerist, Riley, instead, and shoved towards him and Siegfried watched her move, a Queenly silhouette, a head above the others…  he watched from the safety of the darkness at the back of the gallery.

World Fame

Sadie is having her toenails painted with voluptuous care like a travesty of the famous scene in Kubrick’s Lolita where Humbert is abasing himself to his nymph. Heavily allegorical: rich wise old Jew in a bathrobe and lovely young Negress, nude.

Glistening.

Sadie reclines in a special throne of leather and chrome, a customized gynecologist’s chair re-designed for the purpose, her foot secure in a raised stirrup while Simon Kahn-Meyers, squinting into a jeweler’s loupe and squatting on a stool specially designed for the purpose, lacquers her nails from an expensive bottle of cardinal crimson. The scene is reminiscent also of Tintoretto…  a cross between Suzanna at her Bath (c. 1560) and a detail from Christ Washing the Feet of his Disciples (c. 1547)… compositional elements from the former and psychological aspects of the latter, with Simon playing the part not only of Suzanna’s diligent foot-attentive servant but the voyeuristic elders looking on, as well… and Christ.

Sadie’s toes wiggle indolently. She’s thinking about tomorrow’s hair appointment in Hamburg. She’s not thinking about Siegfried at all. She gazes upon the speckled pate of the old man who is her transitional lover. A patronizing smile softens her calculating expression. She’s thinking that the next one will either be about true love or mind-boggling amounts of money. The next one will either be her soulmate or someone who owns a private jet. Simon is neither, but at least all he wants is to play with her feet. The money shot he spares her. Does it out of earshot (eyeshot) in the bathroom or somewhere. Maybe he can’t even get an erection any more. That’s fine with her. If everyone else in this world could only want what no one would mind giving them, this would be paradise, wouldn’t it?

Sadie wiggles her toes and closes her eyes and drifts off into semi-sleep. It’s so relaxing. She needs this. Simon needs this too. It relaxes him.

He didn’t win the Stein Prize. He didn’t win the Stein Prize. That beautiful Korean nut who calls herself NO won it, of course. She won with a simple-as-a-shit-in-a-bucket piece called YESTERDAY’S INSULTS ARE TOMORROW’S COMPLIMENTS. In which she sat casually dressed in a darkened room in a gallery watching a loop of old black and white Laurel and Hardy movies… crying.

Weeping, softly, non-stop for precisely eight hours and eight minutes. What the numerology of the piece was supposed to symbolize Simon has no idea but he knows that not only didn’t he win the Stein Prize with his infinitely wittier and more provocative installation (come on: a gang rape of the artist girlfriend of an artist competing for an art prize by the judges of the art prize? what’s not to like?) but he’s out a lot of money. That was an expensive fucking installation. From the rental of the Hispano Suiza to the security guards to the actress playing his girlfriend and the actors playing the half dozen rapist-judges and six cases of champagne and god knows how much expensive French cheese and crackers. The sponsors covered the advertizing, flew in a couple of the panelists and presented everyone of importance with a bottle of Vodka, otherwise it was Simon’s dime. Jesus. Meanwhile, how much did NO spend on her prize-winning schtick? The cost of a junkshop television. She probably didn’t even buy the TV. She probably borrowed it. It makes him sick.

Simon needs to relax. Simon needs to think. His real girlfriend, the “weather artist” Thy Trann, has been strangely evasive of late. Could be that she smells a plane crash. Could be that she senses that Simon’s stock is plunging. Simon’s problem is that he’s a British conceptualist, and his reputation is therefore ineffably bound to the public profile of Damien Hirst, who is being perceived as slightly passé of late. What Simon needs is for Damien to make another big splash and soon. Or Simon himself will need to do it.

But he’s afraid.

He first got the idea years ago, when those towelheads laid that career-making fatwa on lucky Rushdie. The death and destruction which Rushdie trailed in his wake (people forget: there were casualties of that particular fatwa, even if Rushdie escape unscathed…  for now) put Simon off the idea for a few years, but then 9/11 happened and he was seriously tempted to go for it. But, again…

He was afraid.

And yet, what does Simon Kahn-Meyers fear more? Death or irrelevance? Which does anyone fear more?

Sadie has a dream right there in the chair in which every man loses his head over her. Their heads literally fall off. Their eyes go wide with panic and they point at their necks, gesturing frantically, as the necks turn black. And then their heads fall off.

Doonk.

Three hours later. Sadie announces loudly that she’s going to a dinner party. No answer. She’s already showered and perfumed and dressed in a gold lamé pantsuit and green velveteen slippers and ready to step out the door… she searches for and finds Simon sitting at a slanted work table in a back room in the flat and announces again quietly that she’s leaving for a dinner party.

“A dinner party? How delightful. I am feeling peckish.”

“Darling, it might be slightly rude to bring you.”

“Why would it be rude?”

“Darling… they aren’t expecting you. You aren’t invited.”

“Perhaps my arrival will be a glorious surprise. I am, after all, a known artist, Sadie.”

“Simon, I promise you, they have never even heard of your name.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

“But how?”

“Trust me.”

“But how?”

“I’m going to be late. If you insist on tagging along you had better get yourself dressed in five minutes.” Five MEE-nots.

“I am dressed.”

Sadie gives him a look.

“Okay, okay. Give us a minute. I’ll put on a fucking suit, for Christ’s sake.”

While Simon roots around in the armoir in the next room for his one serious suit, Sadie saunters across the studio and peers with blasé curiosity at the large sheet of drawing paper on the work table that Simon had been hunched over. Beside the paper are a drawing pencil and the wretched black rubber frying pan crumbs of a vigorous erasure or two. There is also a T-square and a plastic lettering stencil.

On the creamy sheet of paper, in roughly-sketched lettering, are two simple words in large block print; one an expletive verb and the other the name of a major religion. Two smaller words, in cursive, look more like notes or directions than sketches of the art itself. The two small blue-ballpoint words are the word green and the word gold…  Sadie is struck by the coincidence: these are the colors she’s wearing. Kismet? The little word green seems to be a note about the color of the background. Gold is scrawled within the body of one of the letters of the two large words which are obviously meant to be the subject of the painting itself.

There are numbers across the bottom of the page: 22′ x 18′.  Sadie nods. That’s feet not inches.

An Uncomfortable Moment at the Thirteenth Annual Delmore Schwartz Memorial Picnic

 

photo by SG

Grill smoke drifted as chalk drawings of tropical fish on the darkening air. A sudden calm suspended everything…the falling sun; Frisbees at apogee; the tiny crucifix of a jet dangling from the string of its vapor trail…in the mellow aspic of future memory. They all prepared to listen to Gregg read, conscious of the fact that many years into the unknowable they’d look back on this moment with intense affection. Affection for the city and the era and their former selves. Eric, Dave, Andy, Bill and Eric grinned open-mouthed with anticipated pleasure, their shadows long, as Gregg cleared his throat and lifted a finger of emphasis. All of RooseveltPark, along with their future selves, hushed for a moment to listen. 

 “ ‘Two decades ago, with her sculpted features, Alaia-friendly figure, and a languid drawl that spoke of nannies and finishing schools, this rangy, patrician beauty (her uncle was a prime minister of Belgium) was perfectly cast to play artist’s muse.’” He peered up from under the corners of his tinfoil hat and affected a lisp. “‘They were a very, very glamorous couple,’ recalls the artist Peter Blah Blah, ‘He was this powerhouse of creativity and bravado and interest and talent. She was so intimidating to look at; a camera couldn’t capture her outrageous beauty.’” He closed the magazine and waited a beat.  “Now, I ask you…”  

Andy said, “Kinda makes you see the world through Charlie Manson’s eyes, doesn’t it?” 

Dave adjusted his tinfoil hat, which suffered from being a hasty construction, and said, “And for that I’m grateful.” He sipped beer from his family-size jug of Diet Sprite. Gregg handed Dave the Vogue and Dave put the sloshy jug down between his knees and paged through the magazine with one eyebrow raised and nostrils flared, a patented Dave expression. He passed the magazine to Bill, who would have preferred the jug. 

“Whatever happened to the peasant class, anyway? Why don’t we hear from any of them on stuff like this? Aren’t we long overdue for widespread rebellion?” 

“Revolution these days,” responded Andy, as Bill passed the Vogue to him, “is atomized, permanent and absorbed by the system. If we could somehow organize all the yuppie muggings that take place during one year in this country and concentrate them into one day and location, that would be your uprising right there. But the revolutionaries are all lone wolves now and they tend to have crack habits.” 

Eric reached for the Vogue. “Where did you find this thing?”

“Wait,” said Bill, “You mean even bloody insurrection suffers from the same crisis of hot-dog individualism now plaguing the NBA?” 

“Gregg got a subscription for Christmas,” said Andy. Andy took off his tinfoil hat and looked at it with some interest. “Hey, am I just imagining it or are my thoughts a little…I don’t know…less staticky while I’m wearing this?” He put it back on top of his head. 

Gregg, with his perfect deadpan, said, “Now that you mention it.” 

“I don’t know about less staticky thoughts,” said the other Eric, “but I’ve had an erection since I put mine on…and that was at 5 in the morning.” 

“And they said he’d never screw again!” 

Who said I’d never screw again?”

They.”

“Oh, them.” 

“The same know-it-alls who said Christopher Reeve would never walk again, I presume?” 

Eric swatted Eric with the rolled up Vogue and Eric snatched it away and swatted Eric back and everyone laughed. A bumblebee lobbed over their loose circle in a wobbly arc as though it weighed a ton, and a beautiful girl in cut-offs and a vintage The Police t-shirt, oblivious in headphones, intersected the bumblebee’s flight path on her way to the water fountain. Eric and Eric had to twist on their spots to see what everyone else was gawping at. The denim lobes of her cut-offs appeared to inflate as she lowered her mouth to the spigot and she pulled her hair out of the way and slurped.

Dave said, “Hey, in all seriousness, how are those burgers coming?”

Bill crawled over to the hibachi on two knees and one hand, holding his tinfoil hat to his curly head with the other. He said, “The burger that’s directly over the one hot coal is getting there. The others appear to be incubating salmonella to varying degrees according to their distance from the one hot coal.” 

Dave chugged from his Diet Sprite bottle again and said, “I always thought that was the tastiest sounding food poisoning, you know? Salmonella. Salmonella spread, with pimento. I’d buy some of that.” 

Gregg said, “Let’s face it, it’s a major setback that our manliest member couldn’t make it this year.”

Bill chuckled. “Manliest member.” 

“Mark,” said Dave, wistfully, “was, indeed, an idiot savant of the hibachi briquette fire.”

“Is hibachi a Mexican word or a Japanese word?”

“A skill he picked up as a pyromaniacal adolescent of the upper-Midwest, no doubt.” 

“It’s a Japanese word that refers to a heating device but not a grill, actually. The correct word is shichirin, but that’s too difficult for the average American consumer to pronounce, so they were marketed as hibachi.” 

“I love being forced to learn things.”

“I told Mark he could bring Sadie if he wants.” 

“Well, the funny thing is it’s actually an ancient Chinese technology.”

“He obviously didn’t want.” 

“Will somebody stop this guy?”

“Maybe he was afraid we’d covet her.” 

“Or frighten her with these hats.”

“You asked and I told.” 

“Sadie. What kind of name is that, anyway? Is she a retired rhumba teacher?”

“Next time I won’t ask.” 

“No, but I bet she refers to sexual intercourse as ‘relations’.”

“He says they want to have kids.” 

“Quick, before the population falls under seven billion.”

“Anyone ever notice that the blink-rate of a baby is only something like once every three minutes? My sister’s kid…” 

Bill jumped up and said, “Okay, who am I now?” He folded his upper lip under itself, exposing his teeth, and stuck his thumbs into his armpits, but before he could finish the impression a very large black woman loomed, wearing camouflage pants and a hooded black sweatshirt which presented a picture of Albert Einstein with his pierced tongue sticking out. She was large not only in the sense of fat but of tall as well and physically intimidating. She spoke with such abrupt loudness that Bill flinched, his upper lip still folded under itself.

“Is this the thirteenth annual Delmore Schwartz memorial picnic?” She gestured with the classifieds section of the daily paper. 

“You advertized?” hissed Eric to Gregg.

I thought it would be fun.” 

“Well here’s your fun.”

Bill said, “Yes it is.” 

She gestured at Bill’s tinfoil hat. “Is that supposed to be funny?” Before he could respond she added, “Is mental illness funny? Is suicide funny? Is the suicide of a gifted 53 year old poet grappling with the debilitating effects of an untreatable mental illness funny?”

Gregg, with spell-breaking sang froid, said, “I’d prefer to conduct this interview in writing, if you don’t mind,” and Eric, Dave, Andy, Bill and Eric all laughed, grateful that he’d shown them the way.


The Black [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

 

Berlin (1237)

 

   Berlin (Reuters)-Police in re-unified Germany’s capitol announced today that a serial rapist targeting elderly women has been active in the Charlottenburg, Mitte and Moabit neighborhoods of that city. The suspect is described as a tall, well-built, extremely handsome dark-skinned black male of approximately thirty-five years of age who speaks English with an American accent and wears a dark blue woolen cap. The six reported victims of the alleged rapist are said to be between the ages of seventy two and seventy eight years of age and of a uniformly tall, handsome, aristocratic appearance. At least three of the alleged victims are of “blue blood” by birth, and the others by marriage, sporting the tell-tale “von” prefix in their surnames. Police are as of now unwilling to speculate on a possible motive, but have confirmed that the alleged victims display few signs of physical trauma as a consequence of the so-called attacks, and forensic experts have been unable to establish evidence of forcible entry at the purported crime scenes. Women who fit the victim profile are strongly cautioned to exercise heightened vigilance in the vicinity of individuals matching the description of the alleged perpetrator.

There is a secondhand English language book store around the corner. A basement shop. The Black feels like a man who has made a resolution to get in better shape and so takes the next opportunity to walk right up to… and then actually into… a Health Food Store, or a sports equipment shop, sucking in his gut and reading with great care the labels on year-supply tubs of vitamin E and Brewer’s Yeast and then hefting chrome barbells with a thought towards investing. But it’s his brain not his body he needs to improve and therefore a bookstore not a health shop he dutifully enters. He has to watch his head as he descends the steep concrete stairs into the sick fluorescent lighting. The dark wood floor is warped and paint-spattered and there are fat pipes (the color of the ceiling; the color of the spatters on the floor) racing across the ceiling and around a corner into the back room.

The not-entirely unattractive woman behind the glass counter, with unconvincingly jet black hair and not much chin, gives The Black the tolerant smile with which she means to put him at ease on the matter of whether she’ll hold against him his inevitable decision to circumambulate the store once and then leave without buying a single thing, never to return. Little does she know that The Black actually feels compelled to buy, and not only by her reassuring smile. He is on a self-improvement kick and hopes to walk out of this place with an armload of second-hand books because there’s no time like the present to start.

The Black read a few books in High School. There is a case to be made that Isaac Asimov is every bit the genius that Vladimir Nabokov is but even The Black suspects the case would be ridiculous. Where’s the literature he can lose himself in? Where is the book that isn’t merely a careerist tactic or an extension of the writer’s adolescent libido, rotten with clichés or sub-Joycean experiments in narrative and typography that invariably go dud? Where is the living, breathing and engagingly sincere literature? The stuff he can apply towards Life? The Truth Telling?

The Black picks up a handsome old volume with a photo of what looks like a sinister Edwardian chickenhawk on the cover and rifles the pages and puts it with vague reverence back. The Black hasn’t the slightest idea who Gertrude Stein is (although the name rings some kind of bell) and he has certainly never read Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha, the second story from Getrude Stein’s much-discussed Three Lives, so how could The Black possibly be aware of Richard Wright’s oleaginously positive assessment of Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha in this handsome old edition of the Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein?

“The first long serious literary treatment of Negro life in the Unites States,” is how the Negro writer Richard Wright praises Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha in this handsome old edition of Gertrude Stein.

“Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress,” writes Gertrude Stein about the character Rose Johnson in the Richard Wright-lauded Gertrude Stein story Melanctha. “Her white training had only made for habits, not for nature. Rose,” explains Gertrude Stein, “had the simple, promiscuous unmorality of the black people.”

Richard Wright noted: “I gathered a group of semi-literate Negro stockyard workers… into a [Southside of Chicago] basement and read Melanctha aloud to them. They understood every word. Enthralled, they slapped their thighs, howled, laughed, stomped, and interrupted me constantly to comment upon the characters.”

Later in this edition of Gertrude Stein’s Selected Writings, sui generis Gertrude Stein displays her mastery (a mastery which clearly vindicates what might seem simple and racist in such writings of hers as Melanctha) in a piece inspired by travel, with her mousy factotum, to Spain: It can no sail to key pap change and put has can we see call bet. Show leave I cup the fanned best same so that if then sad sole is more, more not, and after shown so papered with that in instep lasting pheasant. Pheasant enough. Call africa, call african cod liver, loading a bag with news and little pipes restlessly so that with in between chance white cases are muddy and show a little tint…(sic)

What The Black doesn’t like is the feeling (imaginary?) that the shop girl’s eyes are trying to steer him towards the colorful rack of celebrity biographies to the immediate right of the door, or the LARGE TYPE sports “literature” that stands in the rack to the left of it, forming a lowbrow gateway The Black had to pass through before discovering the musty nest of middlebrow paperback fiction lining a water-stained wall.

These same books are always waiting to be rescued from places like this, and they are as unappealingly poignant as mustached Romanian orphans. The kind of books that not only infest and depress second-hand book stores all over the English-speaking world but infest and depress junk shops, too. Something about these books emits an aerosol of salt peter for the literary boner. Something about the cover designs, the typography, and even the stylistic content… everything… turns The Black off to the extent that he suddenly wants to circumambulate the shop and leave without buying a single thing, never to return, despite his avowed intent to purchase an armload of brain-improving literature.

“I am liking your shoes.”

The Black looks up at the shop girl. She’s smiling at him over the top of a tabloid newspaper, the Berliner Zeitung or BZ. The headline on the cover page in 72pt bold screams SCHWARTZE RAUBTIER!?!

“Thanks.”

“They are pretty… nearly the woman’s shoe. You have small feet to be so big.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“That’s a good one.” She nods towards the book that The Black is just then pushing back in its place on the shelf, making him feel obligated to pull it out again and pretend for a moment to re-consider it. One of Anais Nin’s old things.

The shop girl sighs and says, “She was so free!” The Black stares at the self-absorbed face on the cover of the book, examines the back cover with equal intensity and slips it, finally, into its slot again.

“She didn’t care what the world is thinking. That’s the best way, I think.”

“Yes, I agree.”

Without warning, the shop girl erupts into theatrical laughter, covering her mouth and apologizing. The Black picks up another book and rifles the pages and says “What?” without looking at her.

“I’m sorry, but I look at you and I think: he has many girlfriends.”

“No.”

“What sort of book are you looking for?”

“A good one.”

“They are all good. Every book was once somebody’s hopeless dream…that’s what I say.”

“It’s a nice thing to say.”

“Thank you.”

The Black smiles back at her and gestures awkwardly that he’s about to retreat into the back room to check out a bit more of the inventory. “Enjoy,” she says, and pretends to go back to reading her tabloid. But she looks up again as he turns his strong broad back.

Is it him?

The back room is a catacomb. The 70s saw a fecundity blip of middlebrow paperback production and the output (from huge pipes at key points around the globe?) seems to have papered the planet three or four times over in self-regarding, clunky, sexually summer-campish fiction, for The Black has been seeing exactly these books on the Lit shelves of second hand establishments for thirty years now, across twenty American states and four European countries, though some of the books are surely by now eighth, ninth, tenth hand…with penciled-in prices erased and re-written and erased again on the fly-leaf in layers of embossed pentimenti. Interesting thing, in the books where the successive prices are crossed-out rather than erased, is how the values first show a steady decline until bottoming out well below a dollar (or Deutschmark), but then a weird bounce-back, post-Internet, as books more and more became the spinster’s luxury item…decorative artifacts for the shut-in’s night stand. This Gravity’s Rainbow, for example: the penciled-in asking price is €8, far more than its original cost (in 1972) of $2.98, though it cannot be considered a collector’s item… the cosmic joke being that no way did any of the chain of seven people who once owned and then re-circulated this fat gold tome ever read it.

Shockingly, a paperback of a non-70s vintage has found its way in the tight slot between Irving and Mailer and The Black digs it out. Yellowed pages and a dark blue cover sporting a grid of four headshots of the heroes of another era titled FOUR GREAT MINDS: A QUARTET OF MEN WHO SHAPED THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. Then, possessed of a sudden inspiration, The Black seeks the piously cloistered “ethnic, gender, disability” section to the far left (as much as he hates to) and finds one miraculous copy of a book he hasn’t much thought of in almost forty years: MANTAN in LILY LAND by Napoleon Fanon. He digs it out with trembling hands and experiences an instant erection. The book is like Viagra for him. He taps Fanon’s name on the cover.

Despite the considerable embarrassment of obviousness he must endure (a black man buying a book about black issues by a black writer; why not a Frenchman in a striped shirt and black beret in line to buy a baguette?), The Black marches right up to the shop girl and plunks down the money for this 1968 first edition paperback of ManTan in Lily Land (with its lurid, racist cover). The shop girl waves goodbye. Her heart is beating so hard that she can barely catch her breath.

Once he is home, the light on everything else around him in the room seems to dim as the book emits the melancholy glow of erotic nostalgia. Dusty, perched on the windowsill, closes her eyes when he catches her watching him caressing it. The laminated cover of the paperback, though yellowing and cracked, gleams with the image of a black giant’s gaudily be-ringed, kong-like hand as it grasps a creamy doll-sized nude blonde. Her pubes and nipples are tastefully hidden behind giant black fingers and the expression on her face is compellingly ambiguous. Her mouth is open. Her eyes are half shut. Terror? Rapture? Her hair is done in the big blonde aeronautical style of the late ‘60s, a platinum nose cone. ManTan in Lily Land. As a blurb has it, the shocking narrative of an urban pilgrim’s progress from stuttering Negro to bold Revolutionary

The Black’s bedroom is high-ceilinged (the ceiling ringed with the 30s-era ornamental plaster-work called Stück), with tall windows, white walls, and a hardwood floor. The floorboards are separated by quarter-inch gaps where some kind of putty used to be, and down between the boards, in these deep dark grooves, is the shoe-deposited stratified compote of twentieth century Berlin (dried cum and blood, dog shit and dandruff) along with a sprinkling of the desiccated essence of the 19th and the 21st centuries, too. This is an old old building, as rooted in the brittle block of Kant Strasse as a stone molar. Still, no unfamiliar ghosts have bothered to trouble him here, despite the various moans and howls and gasps these bedroom walls have absorbed during his tenacious occupancy.

He did, however, one Sunday morning, glancing up from a crossword, get an adrenalized glimpse of a hawk with a wingspan the length of a man’s body taking lunch in the linden outside that window… so close that The Black could’ve swung the window open and leaned on the sill and dared to tickle the bird’s wingtip with his finger… so close that The Black could see the baked dirt on the pale scruff of the creature’s wide neck where no contortion of beak was possible to preen it. With one talon the hawk clutched the headless body of a pigeon (an old unraveling sock), tearing off red bits and shuttering its big black Pentax of an eye at The Black… there was something of Herbert Von Karajan in the hawk’s profile as it took him in through the double-glazed window… and it did seem to give The Black a glance of disdain before lifting back off into the merciless grandeur of its natural element… but the ghosts he expected to haunt him in Deutschland… livid Aryans and mournful Jews and plaster-dusted, eyeless waifs… they never did materialize.

Though someone once put to The Black the chilling proposition that a certain percentage of the pale, poorly dressed and dour creatures one comes across in Berlin every day… on the streets and in the U-Bahn, in the bakeries and grocery stores… are, in fact, corporeal ghosts from the War. A casual removal of their dingy jackets or stained skirts would reveal the noose burns or perforations of ancient machine-gun fire. Why were these spectral scowlers still hanging around? They had nowhere else to go, rejected by the afterlife itself, having made the bizarrely stupid error of persecuting the Jews in a Universe run by the father of a world-famous rabbinical student.

The sun is setting. The sun has set.

Dusty is staring out the bedroom window with an unreadable expression as twilight suffuses the sky with dark blood and the courtyard lights click on, casting unvarying shadows in the high-walled courtyard. The black imploring shadow hands of three old leafless trees stretch across the grass and red brick tiles and stand up on the dirty stone wall under The Black’s windows like a creepy etching by Otto Dix. Across the courtyard, visible through gaps in the high foliage, life of a sort is evident in random windows, bright or dim, under the pearly folds of Europa’s view of the Milky Way.

A too-tall blonde in an evening gown is ironing pillow cases. A pacing man with vivid black hair is lecturing (with broad gestures) a white-haired straight-backed couple seated on opposite sides of a kitchen table, making his passionate case for Euthanasia, perhaps. Two white-capped guys in overalls are painting an empty room, under a bare bulb…a portable television is placed atop the third step-ladder. The movie on the portable television is full of explosions and the screen blossoms repeatedly with orange blooms of fire and digital debris intercut with close-ups of a small-eyed, blank-faced starlet and her swollen, parted lips.

Near-naked in his dark bedroom, spying on the well-ordered mystery of German existence through a wind-shifted scrim of moon-blue leaves, what The Black misses most at this moment is… cricket song. Cricket song, and the smoke from the incense they bought as kids for two a penny and called punk and burned to ward off mosquitoes. Cricket song, punk, lightning bugs and talcum powder. Oh, and adolescent armpits. And autumn leaves, burning in damp piles, and Doctor Pepper, or Wint-o-Green Life Savers, on a pretty girl’s breath. Laundry flapping on the line, both the sound and the smell of it. Hose-water hitting hot sidewalks.

And the ruckus of a two-blocks-distant, contentious game of twilight stickball and the hiss of traffic on a Sunday morning after a light rain and the bright orange taste of a Dreamsicle and the deep smell of Vaseline on his anus as the rectal thermometer slid in… he was sickly as a child and that rectal thermometer was always sliding in. Burnt pancakes… don’t forget burnt pancakes. Don’t forget the menacing odorous glow of RCA tubes through the grille in the back of an old timer’s radio. And the clank and roar of a coal-burning furnace and the pagan dance of the flames as his grandmother snatched the grate open with a hooked poker to shovel more in. A grass-covered gasoline-smelly lawn mower parked in a damp hot garage on a puddle of oil on the garage’s cracked floor. A box of stale coconut macaroons, too. Garden-fresh tomatoes and green beans in two dirty buckets. The pulse of windshield wipers versus the throb of tires across the steel matrix of a drawbridge and their doze-disturbing properties. The crackle of ozone from the loosely connected tracks of an electric train set. A brassiere from the dirty clothes hamper. The sharp black reek of a chicken coop. The electrifying odor of a brand new Schwinn bicycle, freshly stolen from the shop. Wet cardboard. Wet bandages. Wet dog. Paper-thin cicada song above a vacant lot. The smell of cornpone baking…

The Black caresses the cover of ManTan in Lily Land

With two flicks through the pages of the thick-as-a-porterhouse paperback, the pages red-edged as rare steak, he comes right to the most familiar passage of the book, as though the copy he holds in his hand is the one he read from originally, in the library, Chicago, 1968, Harriet Tubman Elementary…

“What do you want with me?” she demanded, her eyes aflame with hatred. No Negro had ever so much as made eye contact with this proud daughter of America’s Anglo Saxon ruling class, this much was clear. That I dared not only to stare her down with an equal hatred, while seizing her wrist in a grip whose strength had been forged in everything from the Memphis workhouse to the brutal stockyards of Chicago, but also to address her in a tone that the Master reserves for his servant, was beyond the pale.

I twisted that fragile white wrist until she was down on one knee, and, truth be told, the expression I showed her then would have frightened even me, had I seen it, for it meant only one thing, and both of us knew it. Still grasping her wrist with the one hand, I back-handed her with the other, and she sprawled at the foot of the king sized bed in her parent’s master bedroom, overlooked by a framed, crocheted American flag. The symbolism was striking. She touched a finger to her bleeding lip and wept softly as I unbuckled my belt.

“For centuries,” I growled, in a voice devoid of emotion,”what’s about to happen to you has happened to innocent Negro women at the hands of your rapacious forefathers…”

Doomed from the Beginning: a review of On Chesil Beach (5/15/2007)

On Chesil Beach Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cape, 166 pp

Ian McEwan is the gothic poet of British class anxiety. Over an arc of novels including The Innocent, Black Dogs, Enduring Love, and Atonement, McEwan has polished a talent for giving his readers nasty and sometimes bloody surprises when the classes interact on too intimate a level. His most recent, On Chesil Beach, however, is both a perfect specimen of McEwan’s hardening suavity as a prose stylist and the latest example of an ongoing renunciation of his greater gift. As Saturday did before it, this novella-length book promises much, initially, but ends up being deeply unsatisfying before its conclusion. A necessary catharsis has been frustrated for the sake of a decorous treatise on the grim predestinies of class.

The book’s unhurried narrative anchors to the first few hours of a marriage between Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, shuttling between the “now” of their honeymoon supper (and its aftermath) and earlier points in their lives and their relationship. The presiding metaphor is on view from the French windows of their honeymoon suite: the “infinite shingle” of Chesil Beach, on which “thousands of years of pounding storms ha(ve) sifted and graded the size of pebbles…with the bigger stones at the eastern end.” Edward, a lower-class rustic educated above his station and faintly embarrassed about his background, is, in practically every way, Florence’s inferior. He’s even a chronic masturbator.

Florence’s upper-middle class parents are a neurasthenically haughty Oxford don and a prosperous businessman so competitive that he’s nearly an anachronism (or an American). Florence is a chaste, disciplined and accomplished violinist in possession of an IQ 17 points higher than Edward’s, as he discovers by having a “peep” into her school report folder; even this peep indicates a moral inferiority on Edward’s part. As if his congenital disadvantages weren’t enough, an accident during his childhood has left his mother brain-damaged and the Mayhew household dark and filthy as a consequence, in schematic contrast to the Ponting’s Victorian villa, sterile with the hard light of eminence. While Florence’s mother is friends with Iris Murdoch, Edward’s mother is friendless. Clearly, Edward and Florence are like the pebbles on Chesil Beach, widely separated by the work of thousands of years of merciless grading.

McEwan’s schematic stacks the deck with the force of stereotypes so entrenched they feel like empirical laws of a natural science. Making the upper class female love-object in this novel superior in almost every way may feel like an expression of the author’s (unconscious? Self-hating?) class prejudice, but it’s also the de rigeur chivalry of the post-feminist celebrity, as it would be difficult to imagine a writer with McEwan’s following getting away with making any of the males in his couples more intelligent than their invariably attractive wives or lovers. Hewing obediently to this unspoken stricture is a minor failure of nerve that doesn’t, on its own, threaten the integrity of the work. But as McEwan ages and his stature grows and he devolves towards the artistic cul-de-sac of Elder Statesmanship, other strictures…other obediences to the sensibilities of his auditors…undermine his mastery. A certain squeamishness sets in.

In the disappointing Saturday, the bloodletting centers on a broken nose for a prig and a tumble down stone stairsteps for a bad man of the lower class variety. Even in Enduring Love, the beginning of McEwan’s spiral descent from the previous heights of his Grand Guignol, the virtuoso set-piece is dispensed with in the first chapter of the book, as if to step clear of childish things before getting to the mature business of the rest of the story, which being a report on the dangerously unhinged behaviour of a lower-class person and the effect of said behaviour on his betters.

On Chesil Beach consists chiefly of interlocking character studies of fair nuance; as ever, with McEwan, we are privy not only to dossiers of the telling vignette for the folksier players on the page but rifle through papers written, curricula mastered, books planned and theories mused upon in the service of fleshing out the rich interiors of the brainier players as well. Edward’s and Florence’s story (and the story of their story) is about ideas when it isn’t about sex, and most of the sex is a phantom dreaded or a vision longed-for but not a physical fact. Tension accumulates as the mounting effect of preparatory exposition indicates the McEwanesque relief of a shocking twist, foreshadowed in carefully-seeded references to Edwards’s potential for violence.

The narrative tension created by putting this poorly-matched couple in the wedding night’s bed is further amplified by the tamped-down sexual hysteria of the era; it’s 1962, after all, and Kenneth Tynan hasn’t said “fuck” on television yet. The explosive pressure of the era’s sexual tension is recapitulated in Edward’s having “saved himself” for the big night by an unprecedented fortnight of autoerotic chastity. He’s fit to burst and, as it turns out, his brand new bride is frigid as a fjord. His legal right to Florence’s body can’t even guarantee him a sensual kiss, so something has to give.

In classic McEwan, the build-up always resolves to a horror, a corpse, some blood-letting…the uncanny moment around which the rest of the book swirls as towards a sucking drain. The horror revealed will be a set-piece of cinematic power; a short, sharp shock to cure the abiding malaise that has crept with the pace of a wasting disease into the mind of the reader for the duration of the book: the proletariat German corpse rolled up in a baklava of glue and carpet, then sliced, in The Innocent; the (perhaps apocryphal) rape of a French beauty by Nazi-trained Alsatiens in Black Dogs; the “head on a thickened stick” of the good samaritan who fell to his death in Enduring Love; the rotting extremities of parents exposed in their cracking tombs by the slack workmanship of their children in The Cement Garden.

With On Chesil Beach, however, we climax with an anti-climax…with nothing more shocking than a flesh-crawling joke as McEwan exerts his superb technique to alienate the reader from something only slightly more dramatic, and only slightly less common, than a sneeze.

In the perfectly functioning McEwan novel, the suffocating horror of class is just the beginning; we are made to suffer it to the limits of our readerly tolerance (knowing how far to stretch this limit, which veers dangerously near to boredom, is the mark of mastery), at which point McEwan saves the day by producing and then describing with rejuvenating relish a human corpse, for Death trumps class every time. There are no upper or lower class corpses. In On Chesil Beach, however, McEwan provides the reader with no such twist or violent redemption. McEwan’s novella reveals itself as a monograph on socio-economic kismet in the United Kingdom.

The final movement of this book is a queerly compressed postmortem that violates the pace of all that came before it; roughly ten pages for the next forty years of the life Edward has tossed away merely by blowing his chance to remain married to a disciplined, ambitious, upper class girl. Edward, it seems, was doomed from the beginning, but not in the way a loyal reader of McEwan’s might have hoped.

AMINA

photo by SG

 

A figure in a hooded lapis running suit rounded the northernmost curve of Lake Pleasant. Veered up the leaf-strewn incline to Pleasant Lake Road and cut across the fresh black of the asphalt. A pantheon of street lights looking more curious than protective craned over the runner as it ran under the unblinking eye of one after another in a long row before taking a sharp right up Plymouth Circle Drive.

She jogged the road’s middle as it curved into the heights of Pleasant Hill, canopied by elms as old as the city, a grand continuum of elms whose thoughts were obvious, though immemorially misinterpreted by tone-deaf humans as the meaningless rustle of leaves. She remained on the dotted median of the road, keeping the late model imports a good distance to her right. She exhaled in punchy syncopation with the soft slap of her excellent shoes on the pavement and when the moment was perfect she enjoyed the sensation that the world was a weighty treadmill rolling with incremental majesty beneath her feet. To top this pleasure she ran for a mile with her eyes closed, chin up and arms out-stretched like a child becoming an airplane.

Unlike the corona of dead brilliance around the lake, the Pleasant Hill sidewalks were lit with genteel inefficiency by electric faux gas lamps. These faux gas lamps were themselves so old they had become authentic antiques. The neighborhood was lovely yet hypothetically dangerous, too, so dark and moneyed and full of hiding places, though statistics continued to indicate that violent criminals remained remarkably reluctant to commute. Such criminal activity as could be found on ‘The Hill’ was merely quaint: leaf-burning; low level tax evasion; residents of a certain age keeping rubber-banded stashes of ‘ganja’ in mysteriously marked coffee cans on high shelves in their two-car garages.

The higher along the pretty spiral of Plymouth Circle Drive the runner ran, the more impressive, and stand-offish, the houses became. Parked cars thinned out and then disappeared from the curb entirely except for the occasional Beetle or half-restored vintage muscle car indicative of home-for-the-holidays offspring, and picket fences replaced hurricane fences and hedges replaced picket fences and the hedges grew lusher as she put on some speed. The hedges intensified into crennelated battlements, mutated into topiary fantasias and resolved into the simple-yet-vast, this last example being a description of the stately, ten foot tall, six foot deep hedge around the Van Metzger Estate. A moat wouldn’t have looked out of place around the Van Metzger estate.

She slowed as she approached the grand green citadel of Gus Van Metzger’s corner. She loved this part of the run. As the neighborhood’s demographic shifted she was up here with decreasing frequency but later in the decade, in fact, she planned on seeing old Van Metzer himself. The air was creation-fresh and hung like a gallery with decorative lanterns of fireflies that winked out, one by one, as she reached to touch them. The sheer diversity, she marveled. The inaudibly low octave of far-ranging insect systems in the soil. And then the next order of creatures for whom these ‘tiny’ insects were armor-plated dinosaurs. And the bacterial super-communities of minds even smaller than that, whose thoughts were individual atoms. And so on. The atoms themselves were neither living nor dead nor entirely without consciousness.

If you looked from the bluff where the street ended, one block on from the Van Metgers’s, in the little roundabout called Plymouth Circle with its central boulder featuring a commemorative plaque of two loin-clothed indians and a white man in a preposterous hat, the view presented was a toy metropolis’s downtown as it fit in the soft box of the valley…the diamond bracelets of southbound traffic and northbound necklaces of rubies and the pearls of municipal lighting. She stood for a moment on the ledge of the bluff, checking her pulse.

On her way back down the spiral road, she took the detour up the alley behind the Van Metzger property, pulling her hood off in order to look less like the kind of character some might fear would spring from the bushes. Heaven forbid she should scare some dogwalking old lady to death. Her Afro expanded in the dark wet air and she felt, with a wry smirk, like intelligent topiary.

“Merriam?”

Upstairs at 5727 Humboldt.

The house had settled into itself for the night with an asthmatic wheeze from the central heating. To the left and right and across the street and behind the alley were nouveau mansions in the understated Scandinavian style, but 5727 was a bungalow in comparison, the oldest structure in the area. 5727 faced its mainstreet sideways and the soft-edged roofing over the attic dormers sagged in a way that made the old house look fraught with worries. The j-shaped walk from the gate in the hedge, curving across the yard to the front door, was broken-backed where roots cracked the old concrete. The roots were also responsible for muddy bald spots all over the yard and the owner of the property, Mrs. Gustafson-Davis, had been meaning to remove the offending tree since forever. Inside the house, the master bedroom had that flickering, morbid glow her husband Marcel always associated with blue balls. Blue balls and palpitations.

Merriam was wearing her gargantuan wireless headphones and watching The Mitch vs Spectre Hour, immune to her husband’s extremity in all three senses of the word. His nightly stations of the cross. Marcel Agonistes, is how he put it. Merriam, who prided herself on the fact that she and Marcel hadn’t had a voice-raising argument in twelve years, feigned to fail to notice that it had been exactly that long since the marriage had heard a voice raised in laughter or ecstasy, either. And then she had discovered wireless headphone technology and could do almost anything on either the first or second floor of the house without severing a connection to the ongoing narrative of the outside world, or having to listen to any distracting, vaguely irritating, or embarrassing sound that Marcel might make after Merriam got home from work at the travel agent.

“Merriam?”

In those headphones she appeared to him, laying there on her side in her pyjamas with her back turned, to be sporting Mickey Mouse ears that had sagged and slipped halfway down her head in late middle age. Still, he longed to have his knowledge of her sketchy cunt hairs refreshed; he wondered if they had all gone grey. Her husband lay there fretting while Merriam’s breathing synchronized itself with erotic empathy to the cadences of television personality Nate Mitchell’s voice.

Mitchell was handsome and blonde in the manner of an ambrosia-fed Liberal and his partner/opponent Spectre looked wonderfully-well described by his name: white-haired and gauntly Conservative. His head wobbled, a la Hepburn, when he rose too high in the saddle while on the charge viz certain topics: abortion, school prayer, The War. The show was ostensibly a balanced presentation of Left and Right worldviews in the form of an ongoing debate, with the audience voting the ‘winner’ at the end of every program. Merriam had been a campaign volunteer in every Presidential election since Jimmy Carter’s. Marcel had yet to register to vote.

“I’ll register to vote,” he said, softly, externalizing the conversation in his head, “when they put something relevant on the goddamn ballot.” He’d vote against professional sports, Fourth of July fireworks, recreational water vehicles and Nate Mitchell in a New York minute.

Nate Mitchell, who never got flustered on camera.

His brow never creased nor wept with perspiration and his voice maintained the gratifying temperature of pot-warmed honey on an oven-fresh banana nut bran muffin. Just imagine those two Liberal Aryans start talking politics together, thought Marcel, who considered politics to be a trivial affront to the majestically unambitious intangibility of the human spirit. He imagined the couple that he imagined Merriam was (foolishly) imagining the two could make. Merriam sometimes claimed that Marcel quitting his job at the Art School had established some kind of a pattern, ironically. He’d quit that job because of her. His student.

Quit that job back in the ’50s when Marcel and Merriam had been, literally, illegal. Being illegal had given them a thrill and a purpose, first at the Art School and then in the electrifyingly hostile territory of daily life, when shopping together could turn the morning into an ordeal they’d cap with a defiant sex act in the fragile safety of the efficiency they’d rented, from a sympathetic vet, a mulatto, a guy named Vincent Cob,  before moving to Minnesota.

Marcel remembered that time he’d sold five big canvasses to the actor Robert Culp: Two thousand, five hundred and seventy five dollars. How he’d thought he was finally on his way and how he still had a Polaroid of the check somewhere. He remembered his father teaching him to pronounce “mischievous” properly, and, almost immediately after, mispronouncing “erudite,” then scooping the silver muscle of a spirited fish from the blue bosom of the lake. Sitting in a skiff on Lake Calumet. He remembered Merriam playfully correcting his mispronunciation of “erudite” on their fifth date (the morning they’d first slept together). He remembered meeting Trini Lopez at a Civil Rights Benefit. The skiff called Cherokee.

He could hear the Van Metzger’s neurotic border collie Apollinaire barking in the dead of night at the crickets and/or squirrels again. The VMs were at the other end of a very long alley but it was such a quiet neighborhood and the acoustics of the alley were so peculiar that on summer nights with the bedroom windows open you could hear Apollinaire whimpering and farting in his sleep. Could Apollinaire, conversely, hear Marcel whimpering and farting in his sleep? Marcel frowned: the batty dog was barking louder and harder than usual. Possible sign of a coon in the garbage cans. They could be scary if backed into a corner.

“That damn dog is going to have another heart attack,” said Marcel, suddenly, in a loud clear voice, before remembering, immediately, for the Nth time, that Merriam couldn’t hear him. Merriam used to point at the headphones to indicate that she couldn’t hear but she no longer bothered. The isolating boundaries of their marriage had hardened into a tacit, durable and convenient structure.

“Merriam,’ said Marcel, to himself. He moaned and shifted his position. The trick he’d learned, long ago, was to keep a knee up so Merriam couldn’t see the blanket fluctuating like an irregular heartbeat on his his jerk-hand.

“Got a confession to make. Merriam, you remember the last big piece I did? Before I quit Art, I mean? Years ago. Twenty years ago. My masterpiece. Driving around town, collecting old futon mattresses like it was my job. Rolling these nasty things up and stacking them in the back of the station wagon, I was kinda affected. Maybe they were a bio-hazard. Maybe I got the disease. This loneliness thing.”

“I turned down a few futons for being too gross,  even after driving all the way to the other side of town, ringing the bell, jogging up flights of stairs and being met at the door by a person too bleak looking or filthy. I wasn’t about to hug that nasty history to myself and drag it to the car and nail it to the gallery wall. Most of the mattresses I bought were from couples, or single women. Didn’t want to touch a mattress a man had been crying on, I guess.”

“Well here’s my confession. I never told you that the one I paid the most for I bought from a beautiful law student named Amina. Wish to god I could remember Amina’s last name, it was so beautiful. Her name was mellifluous. She had described the color, lapis, over the phone. Queen-sized. Consider this my confession, Merriam. Close up, you could see the futon was covered with her long, long, kinky silky hairs. So gorgeous it hurt. The faded lapis and the long exquisite hairs like devotional script. Been dreaming about that girl ever since. Twenty year old Muslim law student with an Afro. Amina. Love of my life. Sorry. You think it was you?

“It amazed me the number of people who weren’t ashamed to sell me their futons with big old urine or period stains on them… ”

Marcel arched his back and wrenched to the right and threw up on the side of his pillow, away from Merriam’s side of the bed. It came out so easy. He let it go.

Nate Mitchell’s startling blue eyes, set in a bronzed mask that briefly changed the color scheme of the entire bedroom, seemed to follow Merriam as she rolled out of bed and slipped, while lowering her pyjama bottoms, into the master bathroom, door open, headphones still on, in a cruel parody of a marital post-lovemaking pee.

Amina jogged back down towards the lake, slipping the hood up over her Afro, and Marcel, confused, ran after her.

Piotr and the Baby

photo by SG

Piotr had never seen such a small human being up close. Stretched straight from the balls of her feet to the crown of her skull, she couldn’t have been much more than two feet long. If Piotr had a ruler or a yardstick he would have measured her. Measuring her precisely, with scientific instruments (in no way expensive or otherwise intimidating but stringently reliable) seemed important, somehow. He pictured himself recording the measurements in a log of some kind and the fantasy was immensely comforting. Piotr in a white lab coat and a clipboard, licking the pencil tip and inscribing digits with professional detachment in his tiny, neat script. The hum and whirr of machines in the background and the bright white blur of a lab. Obsequious assistants consulting with Piotr in hushed tones. Excuse the intrusion, Professor Piotr, but can you look at this data for a moment? Piotr the famous seeker of truth, fair in his dealings with underlings but impatient with the time-wasting niceties of politic deportment. Yes, that would have been him had he not become the he he was instead.

He looked around the room and mentally toured the rest of the flat and tried to imagine, objectively, being a stranger and guessing the profession of the person who’d choose to live there. He couldn’t, however…couldn’t imagine what a stranger would guess about the inhabitant of such a dwelling by the clues of the dwelling’s contents…and he realized what was throwing him off.

The baby on the blanket on the floor in the middle of the room.Did Piotr, in his library, have some sort of measuring device, or a straight-edged object of a known length? He used up a certain amount of time on that question, without, however, getting up and venturing into the library to settle the matter. Instead of moving from the spot he peered out the little window over his bed, and guessed from the quality of light on the wall opposite that it was late afternoon. Which would mean he’d been staring at the baby for hours. Then he had an amusing thought: yardstick? The last time he’d seen a yardstick was in grammar school! Had he known anyone in all his adult life to have possessed a yardstick? A bright orange yardstick for measuring what, exactly?

He stared at the baby but the baby did not stare back and it seemed to him that she was strangely unobservant of her surroundings, glazed eyes scanning with a sparrow’s nervous methodology a few cubic feet of the middle distance. Staring vacuously into space whereas Piotr, had their positions been reversed, would have been without a doubt immensely interested in the giant kneeling on the floor nearby. If Piotr had been a baby in Piotr’s room, the last thing he’d do is take his eyes off Piotr, or any adult, or any living thing bigger than a fly, for that matter. Was her obliviousness the natural arrogance of the baby in its exalted ignorance, or the sign of a subtle defect? Some sort of recent trauma, possibly. Weren’t babies famous for wiggling and crying and generally making noise? This one simply lay on her back, breathing. The rise and fall of her ruddy little chest. Breathing and scanning the middle distance with both hands balled in fists and held to her mouth. Like an old woman in shock.

If you squinted and forgot you were looking at a baby it was easy to imagine that in all of her soft smooth heat and pinkishness she was some adult’s large-ish, heavy, temporarily-removed organ. Especially in that throbbing, docile state. She probably thought of herself that way, in fact, and was still in denial about external existence, the harsh lights and cold dry sounds, waiting to be stuffed back in and hooked back up to cozy wet infinities. Piotr was dying to go to the toilet but he dare not leave the room. He rocked a little on his haunches.

A breeze pushed at the curtain and he remembered that it was spring, albeit in a tentative way. Spring this year was like a machine with a faulty switch, a machine that sputters before coming fully on, mixing bits of winter, still, with the flicker of warm days Piotr had been so desperate for. He’d barricaded himself in his flat with November’s onset, ordering food to be delivered every Monday and reading his books morning, noon and night while the weather clawed at the city, leaving white scabs on the streets and bleaching the days of purpose. He’d passed the months in bookish hibernation, and what he longed for now was a park bench, some late-morning sunlight, a warm breeze laden with the sweet obscenity of flowers. Girls would traipse by in their short skirts and invincible legs and Piotr, as he did every year, would distinguish himself by not leering.

The baby had a swirl of thick black hair on her head like a calligrapher’s sable brush laden with ink. That would indicate Asian, or Mediterranean, parentage. Possibly.  Piotr felt the sudden urge to curse his luck: stuck in a room with a helpless creature relying on him for everything but the air it filled its small lungs with, what could he hope to accomplish? He was no longer even free enough to void his bladder, a freedom the scruffiest dog takes for granted!

Piotr sighed the sigh that meant that work on the novel would be indefinitely postponed. The need to urinate was another matter entirely. Piotr and the baby both knew this.

 

Top 5 Patricides of Midville, Illinois

 

With apologies to Ambrose Bierce

 

5.

Lucius Nathaniel Calvin. “Luke” or “Lucy” to his friends. Good-looking boy with innocent sour milk breath. Dutifully unspectacular student. Never show-offy with hand-raising in class or sinister in the sophistication of his cheating. Reasonably popular within the limits of rural terms of popularity, which hinge on things like prowess with a hunting rifle. Unrealistically blue-eyed, farm-tall, short-lipped, with veiny hands and close-cropped, pale-wheat hair which he kept in a Caesarean haircut that only a perfect-eared boy would dare to. The grainy photograph showing up in all the papers on the same day was from his yearbook, of course. The kind of smile that everyone of a certain age knows is put on to mock the cheap-suited yearbook photographer. 

Jennifer Paine. Jennifer Paine would later call Lucius, in all the interviews, on regional TV and local radio and for all the Midville newspapers, her fiancé. Lucius’ maternal grandmother (with whom Lucius had lived the first five years of his life, after his mother’s exit and before his father had gotten his accounting firm “off the ground”) claimed she’d heard of no such plans. She’d never said this in interviews for she was never interviewed. She always said it in a room featuring a television or radio on which Jennifer Paine was being interviewed, whether or not there were others in the room at the time. Lucius had caught his grandmother talking to the television before.  “Dream on,” she’d say. Or: “As if.” 

The kick of a rifle should increase with the size of the animal hit. The kick of the rifle should hurt. Then it would be fair.

Once, Luke said that the sky is a river. 

“What?”

“The sky. It looks like a river, doesn’t it? It’s like the sky is a river and we’re stuck on the bottom of a cloud looking down on the river and we could fall in it if we don’t hold on.” 

Jennifer squeezed Luke’s hand. He recognized the gesture of concern. Her other hand was palm-up on the sharp tips of fresh-mown grass and her eyes were shut. “I guess.” 

“No, seriously. Try.” 

“Try what?”

“Try and see it that way.”

“But why?”

“Because you’ll love it.” 

“I guess I’ve heard that argument before.”

Lucius laughed. He loved it when she acknowledged their iffy sex life. They were using pregnancy as a method of birth control.

A bullet is also a message.

Civilians were still finding silver blobby or feathery black fragments from the space shuttle in their driveways and swimming pools. Portrait-sized flakes of ash were scattered across flat roofs. Jennifer Paine loved Mike and the Mechanics and Lucius Nathaniel Calvin did not. 

4.

Oh My Papa

A big hit for Eddie Fisher. 1954. A very big hit. Fisher was of Russian Jewish descent but came off to many of his many fans as Italian. Being Italian had gone from acceptable to dreamy overnight and everybody wanted to know one and nobody knew why. What they called those dark good looks, which are always accompanied by a swagger. He thought he had it made. Died and went to Acceptance heaven. Fisher had a variety show called Coke Time with Eddie Fisher.

The unconscious smile on the old man’s flickering face as he stands in the doorway, angled against the jamb. Like, he doesn’t want to dignify that red-baiting network by sitting on the divan and taking the entertainment it offers like everyone else, as a responsible member of the audience. No, he’s making a statement, which, at this rate, it’ll take Ike approximately six thousand years to get the ambivalent message. But Debbie Reynolds is a different story. That he’ll watch. Eddie and Debbie duet. 

-It wasn’t six million Jews, it was six thousand. It’s not six billion years, it’s six thousand. Is this a coincidence? 

Three distinct strains of local rumor about Fisher that year (as though Midville has a plausible connection to either Hollywood or Tin Pan Alley) merge into one and hit Abraham Winters’ son with the force of an iron fastball to the temple on the suntorched baseball diamond he first hears it on, standing at first base with the kid who’d got there by bunting. The not-green grass of the diamond is patchy. The kid has a classic bowl haircut that reminds him of 1950. Maturity is measured in rectal thermometers. He caught himself thinking the word Ralston-Purina without anything attached to it. 

“Hear about Fisher?” 

“Hear what about Fisher?” 

“You seriously don’t know?” 

“Seriously what?” 

“Eddie’s a Hebrew queer who sucks colored cock like it’s going out of style. Pass it on.” 

“You’re so full of shit your eyes stink.”

“Oh yeah? My uncle’s seen the pictures.” 

“You’re uncle’s a drunk.” 

“So’s yours.” 

There’s a line drive straight over the only other half-Jew on Winters’ team so he never gets the chance to finish the argument. Home is a very long walk away for the losers.

“If you looked any more like Eddie Fisher than you already do, your father would smell a rat.” 

“Don’t say that, ma.” 

“I thought you liked it?” 

“Eddie Fisher’s a queer.” 

His mother slapped him. Slapped Robert Algood Winters, Caucasian, 5’6″, brown eyes, 125 pounds, fifteen years old in December. Nicknamed Howdy Doody by the arresting officer. Apprehended in flight to Matoon. 

The old man is shouldering the doorjamb in a plaid suit with the tie loose watching Channing Pollock saw a lady in half on Sullivan with a look on his face like he’s picking up tips. Like he’s matriculating. One hand balances a paper plate that’s way too shifty and bent and hot with baked beans while loud drunk relatives cavort in the gazebo. Speedy Gonzalez jokes and everything they imply, including the aunt with the bristle chin whom nobody can remember which relative by birth she used to associate with before he died and to ask now would seem insensitive. But the old man is mesmerized. Looks like Ray Milland in the cyanide-blue Sullivan light. The ghost-beacon that is midcentury television, guiding lost souls through the ether. The Ray Milland of interstate feedgrain sales. We’re talking about a magician that the old man quotes like a Winston Churchill. 

-Happiness: a way station between too little and too much-Channing Pollock. 

-No man in the world has more courage than the man who can stop after eating one peanut-Channing Pollock. 

There were two main medical theories about masturbation and neither was flattering.You were either a homo or a werewolf. He had a two-handed technique that made him look like he was committing hari kari with a turkey neck. His father would curse under the window before trying to yank-start the lawnmower again. His bedroom walls would mottle with waltzing late-afternoon clock-gears of leaf shadow and he couldn’t help thinking of them as Jew walls; Jew leaves; the roar of the motor. Robert first learned the adult theory of the word pussy back in the fateful Thanksgiving of ‘53. This sparked an increase in the annual productivity of his jerk-off factory by an impressive 51% percent. 

There’s a street in Midville, east of his house, with a colored on it.

The old man lectures him that he never touched his own self once before marrying your mother. 

Midville isn’t even a proper name, but a description, as a teacher informed him, sadistically, because Midville is half-way between Decatur and Matoon. Mr. Schieble. Feeble Schieble. Is Robert a name or a description? She lives in a split-level with a two-car garage and her polio husband with two young unisex offspring, pretending to be Italian, doing that pinchy hand-gesture, but you can see the Mulatto of her at the end of every summer, when her skin is just a little too brown and the humidity of August brings the frizz back up in all the tawny hair bunched under the scarf and he pictures her on her knees in a pearl necklace and zip else, sticky as butterscotch, blowing Eddie Fisher and boom the earth moves and Robert sees stars and his junk hits the ceiling. He has trained himself in the art of not groaning. His mother’s Episcopalian, meaning he is not a Jew, an explanation he has polished to terse perfection in the relentless rehashing. Maybe Mrs. Schieble is an Octoroon, speaking of Robert’s favorite kind of cookie, a brand new unopened box of which on the dresser awaits him. 500 million sperm cells in the average healthy white male emission. 100 million on the ceiling alone. He does Jackie Gleason doing Reggie Van Gleason III, the imitation everybody says he should get paid money doing, saying, What do you think, old boy, shall we go another round? 

The old man suddenly bangs the door open. 

His Schwinn can do ten, fifteen miles per hour, easy, just cruising downhill towards the reservoir. He’s standing up on the pedals like a walk on the wind with a song at the top of his lungs and furious black smoke like a thunderstorm bottled up in the house behind him. But no more songs by Eddie Fisher. 

3. 

I look you and everything forgiveness. You are unbelievable beautiful. I feel like wrecks compare myself but I’m think you choose me for be most beautiful also. I do not dare for looks in mirror to whispering of sentence for staring you with sleep for whispering loud to hear this make me strong. This is hope my letter is tell you. 

Life is such in Europe city to require every for what my strength is. I know is choice of me with go was make to go is true. I for snapped him finger one by one to daring try is stop me leave for everything. What a terror is for getting on such plane! But so many terror are unbelievable thrilling. For terror you are comfortable make to misery live. So for consider blessings to what city for people say way of talk with uncomfortable stay to stay. So smell of walking sidewalk with careful not bumping not notice for people I’m walk here. So stay is food smell for make is remember carnival or such childhood of fair from childhood is happen. This fair in a longest driving city was far long going. I from do not think of fairs now more. 

Sometimes I wonder so panics what you think when look me. For always fears I say with do wrong thing to see what loving turns with pity. Loving what impatient become is something else. I wonder such times if not for transitional emotion, love. Unstable by definition, connecting deeper more useful states like fear, disinterest, hatred? I mean maybe you can’t hate something until you have loved it first and maybe the capacity for hating something is so important that love had to be invented in order to making hate work? 

You can tell your mother almost have go for college. She know is Somerset Maugham or Upton Sinclair or also Saki.  She know is Pride and Prejudice for. As you can also tell she unbelievable mess. Remember you get the good and the bad with everyone. But look at you so perfect, beautiful, innocent, deserve everything good. I am looking at your slightly parted lips with that rosy space between them so unbelievable small like ghost of the finest watch-part. It’s like you are truly powered by some new kind of energy better than sunlight glowing through your cheeks and eyelids and the tips of your hair and warms your sweet breath. Or it’s like you’re made of this energy and I cannot believe it came out of me. They always called that the miracle of life that I finally understand, after thinking this was just flower talk for many years but I know it now something so pure can come out of a body so stained and dirty with a dark bubble of pain from this dirty body’s bloody mess. 

I feel that you angelic is masterpiece of geometer to look at the spiral of the wax of its ear and the small fat fruit of each balled fist unfold in a flower. Exactly its dreams probably are made still of the numbers more of the one than words that are something more envy to because the life of its mother is words and nothing but. My dreams are words always mumbled or scream but remembering I used dream for mostly in smells. For remembering the smell of a man’s aftershave could make me sicker than dogs. I’d go in and out of the house with a handkerchief deliberately soiled with chickens–t covering my nose when he’s shaving. I don’t want to complain in this letter but I have had rashes you could read in the dark by plus problems of the lower body most doctors would kill to look at. And these are just a few of things I overcame to becoming your mother. 

Today when you found your own seat on the tram and sat a little ways apart from me swinging your feet looking back to wave, I was so proud and crushed, darling. It made me so hopeful for future and for worrying. I thought about how today it’s your own seat on the tram, tomorrow it’s you talking with people I don’t know and bringing questions home with you. It all depends on how much I’ve unbelievable lie to you, which is not a lie for fun but for safety and pride and caring. This letter is my answer for one of those questions. I’m still not sure how I’m going to writing this. 

You don’t have a father, but you will know that already, by the time you’re read this. Oh, and you’ll probably never know the sensation I just felt after writing the last dependent clause of previous sentence. It’s like seeing one’s name on a list of the dead. I’m write this from the other side of my extinction, in a way, since (and I guess it’s spookily significant that I was always unbelievable affected by plot devices like this in second-rate novels and third-rate films) I’ll have made the necessary arrangements that you’ll be reading this letter only after receiving whatever possessions you’ll inherit in the event of my etc. Well, corny as that sentence is, I just can’t bringing myself to write it all out. 

Back to the thing about you have no father. That’s just the way it is, darling. I guess there’s a good chance I’ve already discussed this part with you (by the time you read this), but, in case the topic never came up, or I never had the nerve to be straight about the situation to your face: I wouldn’t recognize the man who inseminated me with you if my life depended on it. If your life depended on it, I’d make unbelievable effort, but, no. All I wanted was you, and I needed a man’s help to make for happen. 

He was very good looking and intelligent enough (we chatted for quite a spell at the touristy bar I picked him up in because I wanted to make sure). It was a Friday night, warm out, crowds on a sidewalk. We held hands on the way to his hotel room, which is more important to me, now that I think back on it, than you can possible imagine. I’m sure he’s the father, because I’ve only had sexual intercourse with two men in my life and the second man followed the first by gap of fifteen years.

You’ve never seen America and there is a good chance we will never go there together. Maybe you’ll go on your own one day. It’s hard to believe that I wouldn’t have discussed Midville with you but truly it’s obvious that my method will be for balance your happiness with the truth for shift and evolve as you grow older depending where your interests develop and so forth, so, if it turns out that I’ve decided to inventing the city of your mother’s (me) birth and childhood I’m sorry. The truth is the place I’m from is called Midville in the state of Illinois which is know as part of the Midwestern part of the United States of America. 

If I’ve invented my own exciting childhood in an urban metropolis for you, with rich parents and exotic friends: no. None of that is real and I hope I haven’t going too unbelievable far overboard to give you a mother with past you can to proud of. Again, I am very sorry if that was the case. The only difference between a working farm and the place I grew up on was that the place I grew up on was not working. I always felt I had a certain right to be bitter about the thriftshop clothing and chewed-on hand-me-down toys (shipped in crates from superior cousins I never met) but I always thought also even as unbelievable kid: what you expecting? The country’s ten times bigger than it was in the days that a farm was a livelihood… something more than the perfect place for the head of a family for hang himself. But your grandfather never hung himself. 

No, he didn’t. But you’re going ask of me, one day, about your grandparents, and whatever story I will have made up to tell you when you ask, this letter is the final truthful answer. 

2. 

“What a coincidence.” 

“No such thing, my friend.”

“This is the last place I’d expect…”

“Paging Carl Jung… “ 

“A real live Midvillian. Pinch me, I’m dreaming. Remember the Dairy Queen? Everyone called it the Hairy Queen…?” 

“I do indeed.” 

“Bastards tore it down. What. Fifteen years ago. It’s a Planned Parenthood now. There’s an irony for you. When was the last time you were in Midville, anyway?” 

“Don’t ask.” 

“Honey, you wouldn’t recognize it. Even got ourselves a gang problem these days.” 

“Inevitable clash of hierarchies.” 

“You’ve lost me.”

“Country clubs, Al-Qeada, the Black Panthers, Catholic Church, the military… they’re all hierarchies. That’s the first thing you get wherever two human beings or more shall gather together is a hierarchy.” 

“Interesting.” 

“That’s what people say when something isn’t.” 

“Isn’t what?” 

“Interesting.” 

“No, seriously. Tell me more.” 

“Well. You find yourself at the bottom of one hierarchy, what you do, any self-respecting ego, he invents one he can be at the top of. Say you’re some towel-head with a 5th-century education who couldn’t get laid if his life depended on it…” 

“Ouch.” 

“You invent, or situate yourself within, a hierarchy in which towel-heads…” 

“Not the most politically correct member of the frequent-flyer club, are you?” 

“Oh, I can do better than that.”

“I’ll bet you can. Let’s go back to your little hierarchy theory for a sec.” 

“Okay.” 

“Are we a hierarchy?” 

“Unless I’m missing something.” 

“Who’s on top?” 

“I guess I’m thinking what it would be like to put my cock in your mouth.” 

“You smooth-talking devil.” 

“That’s me.” 

“Hey, what’s the rush?” 

“You only live once.” 

“A grab the gusto kind of thing.” 

“Life is short, my cock is long.” 

“Vita brevis, cockus longus.” 

“You’ve been to college, I see.” 

“Auto-didact.” 

“Impressive.” 

“That’s exactly what people say…” 

“When something isn’t. Touché. You never answered my question.” 

“I don’t recall it was phrased in the form of one.” 

“Can I fuck the shit out of your ass?” 

“My, we’re saucy this morning.” 

“It’s been at least an hour since I jerked off. Look, I’m shaking. Hold me?” 

“Poor baby.” 

“If you let me fuck you in the ass, I’ll let you clean the sweet shit off my cock with your tongue.”

“And people say the art of conversation is dead.” 

“Now you’re being evasive.” 

“Not evasive. You just haven’t closed the deal yet, honey.” 

“You’re a treasure with a rusty lock.” 

“Getting colder.” 

“Are you allergic to beautiful dick?” 

“I think I hear my mother calling.” 

“Hey, it’s called a layover.” 

“Check please.” 

“Okay, okay. Have you ever heard of the name Paul Michael Swanson before?” 

“Rings a bell. Are you telling me you’re a celebrity?” 

1. 

The country was wooded everywhere except at the bottom of the valley to the northward, where there was a small natural meadow, through which flowed a stream scarcely visible from the valley’s rim. This open ground looked hardly larger than an ordinary door-yard, but was really several acres in extent. Its green was more vivid than that of the inclosing forest. The configuration of the valley, indeed, was such that from this point of observation it seemed entirely shut in, and one could but have wondered how the road which found a way out of it had found a way into it, and whence came and whither went the waters of the stream that parted the meadow below. 

Ambrose knelt on the bank of the stream, weighting his father’s poor pockets with stones. His father, Mordecai, inclined a torn face away from the boy’s activity as though shamed by it, despite all evidence, such as the blood caked everywhere and the bone of his skull exposed white as chipped flint, that his cares on this earth were now settled. Mordecai still clutched the hawthorn switch he’d meant for the beating of Ambrose, and Ambrose still clutched, between his teeth as he grunted in his efforts, the blade he’d used to forestall forever the beating. That the sun still flamed and birds still sang and nearby squirrels even frolicked, despite the terrible scene of not an hour’s coldness they’d all been witness to, helped Ambrose to nurture a grievance against the callousness of nature and the perceived insignificance of nature’s darkest bastard, which is man.

 

 

 

 

 

.

Teen Angst and Handcream [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

photo by SG 

Ginger Green’s destination is a showcase for a supposed rock group at an unlikely venue at the corner where the Ku’damm is crossed by Uhland Strasse. It is an intermittently overcast day. The clouds look like spit on a windshield. It was not easy getting this venue. It was Ginger’s idea but it was Ollie who pulled it off. How Ollie pulled it off…what he threatened or offered…Ginger is almost too frightened to wonder. Ollie refers to the golden demographic of 11-22 as The Bosses. As in, “Yeah, but will The Bosses fall for it?” The band hasn’t taken the stage yet. The band is called Chocolate Chainsaw. Ginger’s brainchild. Ollie didn’t like the name… he lobbied for Soul Soda… but Ginger and Reason prevailed. 

A well known Belgian manufacturer of hand cream wanted greater penetration into the youth market. Don’t we all. They commissioned Ginger and his partner Ollie to write a catchy song which wouldn’t reek of jingle and could pass for actual rock. The idea… the good lie… being that the song pre-existed the ad campaign. The song should be able to fake a plausible life of its own. The song should represent a fresh young authentic reality. The song should appear to be written by some movingly struggling band… struggling as in authentic…a band that would have come by sheer coincidence to the attention of the executives at the Belgian manufacturer of hand cream. The story will be that a Belgian executive “fell in love with the song and just had to have it for this great new product”. The whole project was reverse-engineered from the plasticky song that Ginger and Ollie slapped together in four hours after lunch the day after the initial call from the ad agency (otherwise known as the House of Good Lies). The song is called “Dreamwalker”. The lyrics have nothing to do with hand cream. That’s how the Belgian executives wanted it. 

Chocolate Chainsaw have known each other for two weeks, although they are well-prepared to pretend to be childhood friends. They have been studying. Three of the members are Berliners but the keyboard player Rheinhardt and the lead singer, Lux, are from Hamburg. Lux was recommended as a plausible “rock star” by a manager-friend of Ginger’s and came down by train a month ago, sang the song in a recording studio and began the grueling process of learning the band’s intensely confabulated back story. The back story, as stitched-together as any Hollywood epic by committee, is a group effort from Ginger, Ollie, three executives from the Belgian hand cream giant and three executives from the House of Good Lies. The back story stretches itself the furthest in explaining what the hell they are all doing in Berlin, if they’re British. Lux, according to this tale, is the son of a British diplomat. 

This gig in a McDonald’s is the first showcase. The showcase will be three songs. It’s an attention-span issue. The site was chosen for its strong American associations since the last thing anyone on Ginger’s side of the curtain wants is for Chocolate Chainsaw to read like a German band. The band should seem distinctly British, with Yankee influences. One of the ad guys had said “Clash meets The Strokes” whatever the fuck that meant. Another said “Pogues meet Bon Jovi.”

“The Ramones meet Fleetwood Mac,” wasn’t even taken seriously enough to make a bewildered face at.  

The band all speak English with a British accent… this was a prerequisite more important than fluency on an instrument. Germany divided by America equals Great Britain… therefore the McDonald’s. The Kentucky Fried Chicken would have been too weird. Dunkin Doughnuts too unhip. A lot is riding on this show. It will not be a play-back… it will be “real”. The band’s Past will be fake therefore its Present must be real; there are rules about that; conceptual guidelines. The band will really be playing and Lux will really be singing a song they will pretend is theirs while pretending to know each other: they have been coached extensively on the conspiratorial glances and inside gags and mysterious asides to one another during solos they should indulge in on stage. 

The showcase is deliberately set during school hours in the middle of the week to force kids who show up for it to be skipping classes, which adds to the aura around the event. The kids attending the show should feel that they are seeing it despite the best efforts of the Powers that Be. The experience should feel like a secret that the kids will smuggle from the show and parcel out like arbiters of cool to their classmates. After building grassroots mystique this way for five weeks, The House of Good Lies will leak the song into media outlets, hoping to spark an explosion of kids claiming to have loved it first while buying the product (which Ginger can’t remember…was it lip balm? Was it sugar-based lubricant?) as an afterthought. But even that isn’t the main goal of the campaign. The main goal is to hook the kids now in order to keep them as adults and get a lock on their children. The goal is genetic conscription. 

Look at Lux. Ginger looks at Lux. Lux is a tall, thin, long-haired blonde of about 23…neurasthenic in a way that should seem ‘70s rock but reads more as 21st century atonal. Lux is the victim of too many influences and far too many choices…the self-canceling non-presence of the undecidant who doesn’t know where to start and therefore doesn’t. He feels like an unfinished sneeze. Lux, with his big blue eyes and parenthetical hyphen of a mouth looks and walks like a cartoon. In a rehearsal room he puts on a passable show playing rock star; he prances with a hand on his hip and goes down on one knee with the mike-stand or detaches the mike and windmills it on the end of the chord without hitting anyone or knocking his own teeth out. Milling around in the McDonald’s before show time however he looks awkward and self-conscious in his black sleeveless t-shirt and the long white scarf around his neck and his huge red satin elephant bell-bottoms and Ginger realizes that a drug-free “rock star” is a sad and disappointing thing. He only hopes Lux doesn’t choke. Ginger has seen many a performer choke and is sensitive to the half-dozen or so telltale predictors…cardinal of which is excessive humility and/or politeness before a gig. Which Lux is displaying. He’s clutching a complimentary burger, enjoying the freebie perk. Or maybe he’s really hungry. But Germans are strange when it comes to free merchandise.  

Ginger spots, in the growing crowd of surprisingly attractive teenage girls, silver-haired men who look out of place in a European McDonald’s and pegs them as guys from the ad agency, or maybe Belgian guys from the company, or perhaps a smattering of both. They had evinced little interest, both camps, in having representatives at this first showcase, which everyone very coolly predicted would be “inevitably rough-edged”… but it’s obvious they’ve changed their minds. Or had planned on spying from the start. If any of the well-dressed, silver-haired men are in fact from either the ad agency or The Company, there’s a good chance that this is the only “rock” concert they’ve ever been to and are using a professional excuse to do just once what they never had the chance to do as teenage boys already on the fast track of Euro-Corporate life. Upper-class Germans can guess with an accuracy of within a 5% deviation a man’s income merely by being told his age, his last name and the kindergarten he attended. A name with a “Von” in it is also significant. 

The McDonald’s is now packed to its capacity of three hundred and fifty and to mollify its normal clientele the management is distributing free ice cream in little plastic cups with wooden spoons to everyone and meanwhile giving Ginger fervid looks meaning get them going exactly at the scheduled start-time and get them finished exactly at the scheduled wrap-up time and get these non-buying kids the fuck out of my franchise immediately after. A space of perhaps ten square meters has been cleared around the drumkit and the amplifiers in the main dining room and the space is already filled to the extent that female bodies are pressed against the equipment. It is ten minutes until show time and Ginger squeezes through the peristaltic throng (with its absolutely un-Americanly low average body mass index; imagine squeezing through an American mob from the same demographic and actually feeling bones) towards Lux.  

Lux is propped against the wall, down a short hall, next to the door to the unisex WC. He is chatting with Reinhardt the freakishly tall keyboarder and clutching a second burger with a cartoonishly perfect crescent-shaped bite out of it. When Ginger makes eye-contact with Lux he gestures peremptorily at his wrist-watch and Lux nods, chewing vociferously; chewing so vociferously in fact that he looks like an old-time speeded-up Keystone Cops type film of the silent era; and holds up his burger by way of explanation. Lux falls back into conversation with Reinhardt, who has combined elements of a freakishly tall man’s posture (the round-shouldered slouch of a vulture) with elements of the keyboarder’s default stance (arms folded low across the chest and feet splayed far apart) and added the twist of the terminal adolescent’s addiction to the outlandish and/or uncomfortable by propping himself like a stork on one leg. 

Reinhardt is by far the oldest member of Chocolate Chainsaw but hides the fact under dyed black hair, and a skater’s cap, with the fringe of his hair down over his eyes. At the cap-hidden crown of his dye-job there is a large asterisk of gray which appears almost white in contrast. Reinhardt is 37 and he can’t fake a British accent but they handled that by forbidding him from speaking on stage or during interviews: he’ll be the mute one. Ginger barely knows Lux and Reinhardt not at all; Lux got Reinhardt into the project and that was the one concession he demanded in his contract. 

Ginger notices that Lux is clutching the half-chewed second burger in one hand and holding a third in reserve, still wrapped, in the other, and they weren’t plain burgers after all, but, rather, the slightly more exalted filet-o-fish. This is either a good sign or a bad sign, but at least he’s hungry. Singers with hysterical stage fright don’t woof down filet-o-fish sandwiches just minutes before a gig, even if the management is providing them free of charge. Not the Big Macs or the Quarter Pounders, of course. Just the filet-o-fish or the  plain burgers featuring a pickle and a dollop of ketchup on a bun. Ginger would love to see one of those digital bits of postmodern burger data next to the prototype, a real live hamburger… one of which Ginger himself gobbled down at the first official McDonald’s restaurant in creation, known as McDonald’s #1, just outside of Chicago in the scary suburb of Des Plaines in the year 1964 as a guest of his Uncle Man. But everything these days is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy… 

A very pretty and tallish fifteen year old brunette in a pink sweater and a low-cut white top and skin-tight white jeans no longer than to the bottoms of her calves…with skin as softly reflective as the surface of a sugar-frosted cookie… tugs the sleeve of Ginger’s burgundy blazer. Every girl in the room is wearing either a vanilla-based or musk-based scent and she seems to have opted for the vanilla, which heightens Ginger’s impression that licking her face would yield frosting. 

“Excuse me, are you, like, with the band?” Her English is advanced MTV. It will take another few sentences before Ginger can be sure that she isn’t American. Her voice is throaty and older and sexier than it should be.  

“I’m the body guard.” 

“That’s very cool.” She reaches to shake Ginger’s hand. “I’m the Tanja.” 

“Nice to meet you, Tanja.” Her hand is a mere trinket in his.  

“Can you tell me, please, what does Chocolate Chainsaw really mean?” She manages to make the question extremely suggestive. Or maybe Ginger is projecting. 

Ginger says “You’ll have to ask the singer, Lux, that question,” and he nods towards Lux, who squeezes just then past both of them with an ironic salute, with Reinhardt in tow, both Reinhardt and Lux giving Tanja craven side-long glances more appropriate to roadies for the band than the lead singer of the band itself but there’s nothing Ginger can do about that. It’s disturbing enough that this fifteen year old hasn’t stopped flirting with 45-year-old Ginger long enough to give 23-year-old Lux the eye. With her weird European sophistication about power this girl has gone right for Ginger over the lead singer of the band she’s supposed to adore, despite Ginger’s pose as a hireling. Germans girls know to look for the boredom… the ones worth knowing are always truly bored. American kids are much more sophisticated consumers of media which is why their pop culture is better… but sophistication about media breeds a crippling innocence towards the real world of power and fucking and animal life. The fatness of the American teen is a symptom of innocence. German girls know better. After two local world wars and a local cold war, they are tuned right into the animal verities. 

“Tanja, I want you to look at my shoes.” 

“Oh, they’re nice. Where’d you get ’em?” 

“The store I bought them at is no longer in business. Out of business for fifteen years. These shoes are older than you are.” 

“I guess that means it’s, like, time to replace ‘em.” 

“How old are your parents, Tanja? I bet they’re not as old as I am. I bet your father would give me his seat on the U-Bahn.” 

“My father wouldn’t be caught dead on the U-Bahn.” She looks at him quizzically. “Are you American or not?” 

Ginger says, “American? Yeah, I’m American. When I was your age I was an all-American virgin, and there was no such thing as cell-phones, the internet, VCRs, CDs, DVDs, reality TV or AIDS. We didn’t even have answering machines. Don’t you think you’d be happier without all that junk, Tanja?  Don’t you think you’d be happier having picnics and climbing trees and flying kites in the sunshine for a change?” 

“Sounds, like, romantic. Are you free this Saturday?” 

“You’re not getting my point.” 

“Maybe my English isn’t, like, good enough. What is your point?” 

“That I’m old enough to be your grandmother’s gigolo.” 

“Na, und?” 

“You’re just a child.” 

“You make it sound like it’s, like, my fault.” 

“I’m talking about wrong and right.” 

Tanja puts her hand on Ginger’s face and pushes it gently to the left.  

“See that pretty girl in the expensive clothes over there? Talking on her handy? Looks like Paris Hilton but with much bigger boobies?” She pronounces “clothes” as cloe-thus. She pronouncesboobies” as boob-eyes. 

 “Yes.” 

“She’s sixteen, she’s my best friend, and she drives, like, an S-Class. Okay? She’s the happiest person in, like, the world. Her dad is, like, in really good shape. She has her own flat in London and gets really good grades in school and she… goes on dates with her dad because her mom is like, a total, like, bitch… you know? She got the boob surgeries because her dad has… wie sag man… suggested it. Is suggested a word? You know what I mean. Don’t you like German girls?” 

The drums and the guitars kick in and Tanja gets on her tip-toes and shouts “What’s your name, anyway? You never told me!” but Ginger shakes his head and waves bye-bye and pushes his way back towards the main dining room to stand in the deafening epicenter of the Chocolate Chainsaw experience. Anything less than a rude exit would have been a seduction. Ginger is trying to be scrupulous about that. He is trying. The silver-haired men are nodding to the beat at various stations around the room. They are all wearing sunglasses. 

The first song has a thirty-two bar intro to give kids outside or in the WC a chance to drop whatever they’re doing and rush to a spot in front of the”Stage” without missing Lux’s entrance. The third song, the hand cream song itself, scheduled to commence in exactly six and a half minutes, is to be the high point of the gig… it’s the song that the silver-haired men flew down here to see. The first song, the opener, is just the mood-setter and is built around a two-bar sample from the head riff of the Animals cover of the Nina Simone song Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood… they are not seriously thinking of releasing a tune built around such an expensive sample, of course, but if the kids flip over it, who knows? The beat is already hooking them. It’s such a heavy, cocky, storm-troopers-on-the-march-into Paris kind of groove. 

The drummer, a hefty kid with black horn-rimmed glasses and a modified Mohawk (short strip on top, lines on the sides) is the best musician in the band. He was participating in a dozen other projects until Ginger began paying him a modest monthly allowance not to. The kid’s a monster. Ginger likes watching him slamming the skins with the professional frown of a proctologist on the toilet. The beat is so solid you could nail sheet rock to it. But the guitarist is merely a mammal and only there because he’s Japanese, which is still considered cool in Berlin; not Japaneseness in and of itself but Japaneseness with a guitar. And the youngest at 18, the bass player, he’s so cute he looks like his own little sister but is far from a Jaco Pastorius…see him grinning that 5-gee moonlaunch grin of terror. He pinches off each elephant-dung fundament on the downbeat with a sexless thud, but it’s okay because the drummer makes it all right. A good drummer is a panacea. Lux has his back to the audience (as per instruction), waiting for the upbeat at the end of bar 31 before he’s to whirl around and grab the mic and deliver the first line of the song, titled Ms. Undastood, which is “Hey I ain’t your toy, little girl, and I ain’t your baby boy, little g-r-r-r-r-l…” 

Everyone in the densely packed McDonald’s, as far as Ginger can see, is bouncing like beans on a bongo, locked into the song before Lux even opens his mouth. He scans the crowd for his partner Ollie Daumen and lo and behold he catches Ollie standing on the very spot that Ginger himself vacated just twenty four bars ago, proving the theory that nature abhors a vacuum, or that Ginger and Ollie are matter and anti-matter… for Ollie is standing with territorial intensity right there next to Tanja, looking quite sly and irresistibly bored and more than old enough to be her father. 

Lux whips around with his wild blonde hair and his eyes screwed shut, lurching across the stage to reach blindly for the mic like it’s a loaded rifle in a room full of lions and he opens his mouth and a buttermilk-colored python of vomit springs out. It coils around the shoulders of several little girls in the front row, suspended solid in the strobe of a camera flash for a millisecond before collapsing down the fronts of their dresses… setting off screams and a stampede in which several teens are severely rattled but none are very seriously hurt. 

From Near to Eternity

photo by SG

On the centennial of the passage of the American Civil Rights Act of 1964, an act of Congress made the word ‘race’ obsolete and the concept that the obsolete word represented illegal. “The very concept of ‘race’ itself,” stated the document, known as the Personhood Bill, “is racist.” The replacement word was Somatype and it was determined that humankind breaks down into 22 major Somatypes, each Somatype divisible further into a dozen-plus-one S-Inflections, each of these S-Inflections either an “A” or a “B” of its kind, and each “A” or “B” a possible positive or a negative, according to specific markers in the genome. It was hoped that the unwieldy terminology would inhibit casual distinction-drawing in a kind of inverse of the way in which the intuitive simplicity of the original system had been a runaway success in framing and disseminating the uneducated hatred of diversity. Not a year later, in time for the semi-centennial of the inauguration of the First Earth Parliament of 202 countries (minus China), the Somatype standard was adopted as global law.

Another century plus forty years after that, Siegfried Olubodun was told by his nearest rival at the University of Hamburg’s department of Tempanthropy that the only reason he’d got the research grant was because he was black.

About Siegfried’s blackness there was no debating; you rarely saw a face that black in Europe. Siegfried’s blackness was only marginally less rare than the famed whiteness of a family (blue-eyed, blond) who lived in a northern suburb of the city and whose estate had become a zoo, practically; people came from all over Europe to see the throwbacks in their natural habitat (they were auto mechanics, dynastically; half of the 80 hectares of the family compound was given over to garages and test-tracks). Siegfried tried to remember their name. The Ziegeldorfs. Siegfried was ancestrally Nigerian to an unusually single-minded degree. Whereas the Ziegeldorfs were viewed in Europe with great curiosity and a bemusement bordering on distaste, the Oluboduns were sometimes suspected of reproductive fascism. The Ziegeldorfs had been, perhaps, as driven by self-preservation as by greed in the opening of their compound to the public. But the Oluboduns were not so many in number and were spread among a handful of baronial flats overlooking the Alster.

By the time of Siegfried’s thirteenth birthday, human Somatypes had dropped from 22 to 15 and, as a result of cheap travel and zero borders (but one) and the lingering lure of exogamy, the number was still falling. Practically everyone on earth these days looked like a somewhat lighter or darker Brazilian. With the notable exception of the Chinese, who had long-ago absorbed Japan, the two Koreas, and much of Malaysia and who were exactly half of the global population. Africa (with its population density of one human per three hundred square kilometers) was still pretty dark but only in the range of bland toffees. There was something his father always said but he could not remember.

“Selbstverstaendlich,” said Siegfried. Naturally. Speaking German was considered an elitist affectation. But sometimes Siegfried couldn’t help himself.

“Ich wollte damit keinen Ärger machen,” I meant no harm in saying it, countered Marta, shrugging, but Siegfried suspected that Marta’s aggression (not the first time) was her clumsy way of flirting. No wonder the population figures in Europe were falling again. Perhaps it was on that topic, the thing his father had said that Siegfried could not seem to remember. Though it ticked on the rim of his memory.

“They can’t very well expect someone with beige skin and European facial features to infiltrate the living quarters of Igbo-identified field slaves of early 18th century North America, can they?”

“But there was mixing even then.”

“Not so much in evidence among the field slaves. House servants were another class entirely and my research is on the topic of field slaves, Fraulein Sauerwald.”

“It’s a major grant. You’re lucky.”

Siegfried lifted his chin. “I don’t, as you know, believe in luck.”

“But perhaps,” said Marta, with an unreadable pout, “you will need it.”

“Excuse me?” He touched his codpiece.

“Something could happen.”

“I’m sure you’ll agree that ‘something could happen’ in the faculty dining hall, as well.” Siegfried curled his lip with bravado and placed the call confirming his receipt of the notice of his having won the grant. He pressed the patch on his throat and spoke clearly. In a flash he remembered and the enormousness of it filled his mind to bursting not only with the implanted knowledge of his era but the weight and roar of future history.

Like Prometheus…

Even as Marta, with her lustrous blue-black hair, arms folded (the aureole of the left nipple lurid against the bisque mound of its breast; an allergy; it was itching like mad) looked on with an impossible mixture of longing and resentment, Siegfried, along with all of his belongings there at Uni… family photos, clothing, equipment, nametags and gene-keyed snacks in the faculty locker… vanished. With no sense of motion, Marta, too, vanished and her haircut changed. She re-materialized on the other side of the campus and formed in the midst of a conversation with a PsySoc Prof who, by appearance, might’ve been her cousin. She was not surprised by Siegfried’s disappearance; she’d never heard of him. Nor had anyone.

That’s how time travel works, since no object can occupy two timestreams in one universe. The only options are A) sending a duplicate, or B) removing the original from one timestream completely before inserting it in another. A virtual googlebit calculator in quantum n-space is responsible for keeping track of (and eventually reversing) the transaction. The process is funded by shaving a billionth of a second from the very end of all Time. As a military option it made the oxygen fission bomb seem like a toy in comparison.

The first thing that met him was the smell. The smells. He hit 19th-century North America vomiting… he staggered and fell to his knees in a sunlit bush, vomiting his guts out and scratching his arms and chest on the brambles. The sweat, bad breaths and long reek of the open latrine hit him like a seething kiss. Or perhaps it was a side-effect of the massive dose of thought-modifiers he had taken in order to mask his true intent.

Woman, Older; Boy at Rest [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

woman-older2

 

The car is a yacht. They are sailing under the dripping roof of the night’s weird cave in a black Cadillac convertible and he is freezing. She can’t remember the procedure for getting the dirty old rag top back up. She doesn’t know the year and wouldn’t even know the make if Cadillac weren’t in her mind a word like Hoover or Xerox or Biro, a brand name jumped up to a category through common consent. She has heard her husband say about a dozen times in twice as many years that the car is nineteen feet long, that’s all she knows. She feels lucky enough that the keys turned out to be in her purse and not in his pocket as she had initially believed. Her fur coat of course insulates her against feeling too bad about the top being down but her new friend, in his baseball cap and thin jacket, collar up, is on the brink of pneumonia.

“I never could stand the look of Berlin in the sunshine,” she says, “but at night she’s a real doll, don’t you think? Tragic ‘n sexy. Kinda like a teenage welfare mother in Old Tijuana.” She pronounces Tijuana correctly. You can just see her flirting with a Mexican pool boy. You can see her holding out a ten dollar bill with gentle insistence, offering a leaf to a fawn.

She looks much better with the yellow wig (now stowed in the glove compartment) off and her hair turns out to be a pearly bob raked by the wind’s dark fingers, thin as champagne but luminous and full of bounce, snapping back into shape at every available opportunity of stop light. Her facelift is a cartoonist’s allusion to speed, it looks intrepid, the way the corners of her eyes and mouth sweep back as she leans forward over the wheel, driving far-sightedly, but she’s a handsome woman with a softening jawline and a debutante’s nose, upturned, decorative, a master’s knifework. Her ability to snap back into sobriety in order to drive indicates that her husband is an incorrigibly boyish drunk and that she is the best kind of mommy, countering her little boy’s missteps at every turn. Flat-chested older women like her almost always have men who play the role of only child to the hilt, it seems to him. Runnels of the remains of a quick drizzle play across the Cadillac’s black hood like cold sweat.

“Where are we going?” he asks. But he doesn’t care.

“We’re escaping, doll,” she answers. “Can’t you feel it? Gravity slipping away?”

“Don’t you have to be back on the Queen Mary in the morning?”

Good joke. She laughs way deep down in her throat: a coughing growl. The kind of sound you make when your husband struts forth in his leopard-print undies. “We’re not complete tourists here, you know. As a matter of fact,” she says, with a half-hearted attempt at a posh British accent, “We keep a house in Grünewald. Little stone thing surrounded by trees. Care to see it?”

“Why not.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Do you know that your husband offered to suck my cock for me at the party?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s going through a phase of late.”

“It doesn’t bother you?”

“Not half as much as it would if I caught him picking his nose. You’re not a nose picker, are you?”

She asks him to keep a hand on the steering wheel while she retools her lipstick in the rearview.

“Much much better.”

She reaches across the armrest and the rain-beaded expanse of the red leather seat and rests a hand on his biceps, where it remains until she needs it again to hit the clicker and make a drastic left turn over a long iron communist-era drawbridge. The tires hum as they cross the drawbridge and the moon is a saucer and the saucer’s teacup is smashed in the water, smashed china, lilting away in shards upstream. It’s a scary old bridge that implies they are entering an earlier, unhappier era as they cross it towards a horizon either of low clouds or black trees. They cross it and see industrial fields left and right,  near and far ruins, a factory gaping rotten in the grass, squatting on a zipper of rusted tracks, staggered away from the tree-lined road, harassed and destroyed not by triumphant capitalism but by diligent little boys with their slingshots.

“No children?”

“Do I look like a breeder? My husband is enough.”

He can see that she had once been very striking, if that’s the word for it, and that she’d never been fat, or poor, or forced to beg for any favors. Her confidence strikes him as a kind of wisdom and he wants to pose questions to her as he would to an oracle. But he just can’t think one up, or fix on one long enough to body it forth in words. He is tired and cold and not averse to having his cock sucked at some point but not counting on it, either. Sometimes it’s just nice being looked at.

“When I was coming along, it was always a matter of pretending that the guy was better at stuff than you were…  this elaborate charade of deferring to the male as the default superior in everything but homemaking. God. My husband was the first man I ever met who was, in truth, truly better at some things than I was… which freed me to admit that I was better at the other things…  he wasn’t threatened by that. You know what I mean? What a relief! But of course he has his quirks. Germans seem funny enough to us anyway, don’t they?”

She asks, gingerly, “Have you ever been with an older woman?” and he laughs so hard and long at this that she turns as red as a silver dish of Thanksgiving cranberries on her grandmother’s white embroidered table cloth in 1957.

.

Three Structural Definitions of Race [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

photo by SG

A. George Walton was born in 1809, child of a black father and white mother, and died in prison about twenty eight years later, having lived as a man who was good-looking in a manner that predated all hope of appreciation, as if a painting by Yves Tanguy had found its way back to the dawn of the 19th century only to inspire baffled glares and lots of kicks in the pants, as though a kick in the pants was the only persuasive critique his critics could improvise to respond to the singularity of his appearance: the loopy curls of broth-colored hair, the tawny skin, the full lips and a high-bridged nose sporting freckles…this, remember, during an era when leaded-white faces and lips like livid incisions were considered the very essence of beauty.

B. Von Ziegeldorff drove into town every Friday night to patronize a low club called The Chicken Shack which was famous for appealing to blacks. The drive in from his villa in a wooded, nearly rustic suburb of Potsdam through the throb of weekend traffic often took ninety minutes, during which he either had time to nurture his grievances against society in general and women specifically or listen to an instructional cassette of Advanced English for Germans. Somewhere in the lonely vastness of his car there was also a misplaced cassette of Callas he was suddenly in the mood to hear again after a year-long estrangement from that exquisitely bullying voice, the voice of high culture, because he’d been listening to far too much soul music recently.

C. Ramses sneeks a peek at the graying blonde as she steers gravely home. Or so he assumes. She reaches over and switches on the sound system. The fantasy, obviously, is that they will do the dirty without exchanging so much as a single word and she’s afraid that Ramses will ruin it now by saying a word. She doesn’t know that Ramses Gordon knows the rules of this game so well that he might have invented it; that he can play it blindfolded and has on more than one occasion and that he is thinking, also, against the background of the anti-erotic aria from Lucia Lammermoor, how differently blacks and whites absorb the behavioural proscriptions of Christianity. How this difference has a measurable impact on the respective copulatory styles of the races. How they fuck and how we live. Their guilt and our shrugs and the sacrificial sacrament of chicken.

A. Across the broad map of his short life, having been abandoned at an early age by parents driven chiefly by sexual logic through a low-walled maze of poverty, George Walton served almost a third of his earthly existence in prison. Born James, alias George, alias Jonas, alias James, alias Burley, alias Chick or Chicken John.

B. There was one black in particular. Von Ziegeldorff had made the mistake, early on, of running after all of them at once, like a kitten in a fishpond, therefore catching none, but being observant and far from stupid he soon took note of the fact that the old hands were patiently bedding one after another of the finest specimens the club had to offer, merely by chosing one and bringing to bear a convincing ersatz of passion until the goal was achieved (or quota met) and thereafter moving on. Every black girl in the club, of course, thinks of herself as The One who will prove to be so irresistible that the game will stop with her, therefore perpetuating the game.

C. Look at this respectable middle-aged German lady, for example. The grimly determined look on her face (this is supposed to be fun, lady); the way she clutches that steering wheel as though it’s hot with current: she feels Christ’s eyes on her, his disappointment in her, his weary sneer of disgust. Her husband has no problem with her little Liebesaffären…he encourages her because it absolves him of guilt for his substantial porno expenses. Christ is not so easygoing about it. Christ is not quite so cool. He plagues her with subliminal remonstrations (in which his lips never move, spookily, but his sad eyes pierce her). She wasn’t even raised in an overtly Christian family because Germans are traditionally pagan and she believes that she believes in fucking as a kind of physical therapy…a higher form of jogging…all the more therapeutic if she fucks an Asian, a Native American, or a Black. That’s what she thinks she thinks a liberal West German should believe they feel about it. But a stern (and vaguely oriental) Christ has the last word on all that and she has to hide the physical act itself behind all kinds of masks and filters to smuggle the pleasure out of Hell like a red hot trinket between her legs without fainting.

A. As a boy the tragic mulatto was the object of lazy sport among the poor whites of his acquaintance, though when he was kicked in the seat of his dusty breeches it was as a kind of running gag or after-thought, rarely with enough force to mean tears. As a manchild George fed himself by doing odd jobs for neighbors and once spent a summer doing back-breakingly honest labor for a farmer who paid him with two counterfeit five-dollar bills. “Well nigh half of what was owing me,” as handsome James alias George alias Chicken John put it. A philosophical turning point.

B. Earletta Goins was a would-be disco singer with her own little cassette out called The Story of My Life, released by a local label, an independent based in East Berlin and on this particular Friday night Von Ziegeldorff tipped the DJ a substantial amount to play both sides of Earletta’s cassette, as well as subsidizing free beers for all the patrons in the club (about two hundred people) for the duration of the cassette’s play, making for a good mood and plenty of people on the dance floor to dance beside VZ and Earletta while they danced with attention-getting self-consciousness to her disco music, which was neither truly bad nor truly good but fell within the range of most things.

C. The bedroom smells like…what? A kitchen. It smells vaguely of chicken not fried but stewed. Disgusting. On the walls flanking the massive bed, one on each, are two large wood-framed photos meant to resemble very old oil paintings. There is one of the lady in question and the other of her husband, or what looks like her husband or could be an Ex, and they are dressed up to look like an Iroquois chief and his squaw…the weak-chinned fellow sports an enormous feathered head dress. His lady, in real life the gray-haired blonde on her back on the bed with her eyes closed and her legs up like an as-yet-unstuffed Christmas goose, is black-haired and light-eyed in her sepiatone photo and neither reveal the subtlest shade of mirth, self-mockery, defensive irony or even decent embarrassment in the portraits.

A. After another period of backbreaking in the Charlestown shipyards and then aboard a fishing smack with the olfactory bloom of an African cathouse’s toilet, Walton fell in with a hook-nosed ex-convict named Symmes who mentored him in the trade of bank robbing, the craft of which George failed fully to master, being neither self-righteous nor brutal enough with his pistol, landing in prison in 1824 for a six month sentence after which he dabbled unchastened in the lighter art of the highwayman…with just as little talent. When Walton wasn’t busy being apprehended (being a mulatto in early 19th century America was a liability in the incognito game), it was easy if unremunerative work, as most of his victims chose to toss him their wallets and flee rather than tussle or risk injury at the hands of a thieving diabolical coon with freckles.

B. “I must confess,” shouted VZ, “I have never before seen a lady of your race with these green eyes of such beauty,” and he mimed his own astonishment, hands on his heart as though it might burst, for also her skin was the color of the pancakes he’d been mad for on his legendary trip across America, during which being a slave to this crude delicacy had given him an insight into the American psyche he was sure he could apply to the swift achievement of his goal.

C. Ramses imagines, quite vividly, the chin-free husband answering the telephone on one of those interminable Sundays of petty household chores choreographed to the pandering drone of television, the day on which long-married Germans speak less than a sentence to each other and he envisions the man of the household putting a hand over the receiver and lifting an eyebrow and invoking, yet again, the worn-out magic of his wife’s name as though it were a mild rebuke, tonally, or the long-suffering request to please stop something.

A. It was only when Walton came upon intended victim John Fenno, returning one evening from a dance across the old Chelsea bridge, that he met resistance and his fate. Fenno was a beefy man and sprang from his cart to wrestle Walton rather than part with his coins or jewelry, invigorated as he was by sexual frustration; had the dance been successful things may well have turned out differently; as it was, the robbery was thwarted though Walton escaped, but not before trying and failing to punish Fenno with a bullet. A suspender buckle saved Fenno’s life and doomed George as he was soon captured.

B. Driving on the fast black road towards his villa before dawn with gems of sparse precipitation fixed like glass moths to his glittering windshield, VZ found himself bedevilled by a sickening internal debate as to whether he dare risk slipping into the stereo his rediscovered cassette dub of a valuable reel-to-reel bootleg of the one-time-only performance of Callas doing Lammermoor with the notorious unscored E-flats included…punishingly high notes Callas tries for with laudable brio but misses, grazing the first E-flat with such a strained shading of the pitch that it’s almost a blue note and chipping the second with a Levantine fraction redolent of the bazaar. In every subsequent performance she eschewed the dreaded E-flats entirely. Wisely. As far as VZ knew, he was the only one on Earth in possession of this wounded version of Donizetti’s lugubrious masterpiece, a discarded run-through of Callas’s premier performance of the piece in Mexico City, 1953, and he felt a craving just then to hear it. Despite the fact that there in the white leather seat beside him was his prize, Earletta Goins, slouched with drowsy pliance, a half smile playing on her chewable lips, lips he fully envisioned in contact with the freckled red glans of his penis and VZ had to think long and hard before changing the sexual weather in his Porsche just then. He could only imagine the anti-aphrodisiacal effect an opera would have on this colored American sex machine. He could only imagine his future grief at never knowing the warm weight of those lips and the breathlessness of those strong brown unshaved legs crushing the breath out of him.

C. Wifey’s on her stomach, moaning and kicking, both hands locked under her thrashing pelvis making an extravagant display of humping alone. Some guy must have told her, thirty years ago, as an excuse for not touching her, that it turns him on. She’s waistless, veiny and pale as an old frog. Ramses very quietly puts his fat dangle of dick away and hitches his pants back up and sneaks out of the bedroom as the gnadige frau whips her egg into its cold-lathered glory. Down the hall and to the left the second floor bathroom door is open and sizzling with the sound of a midday shower and Ramses’s interest is piqued. Is it hubby, home early from work? A nubile daughter, out of school for the day with a chest cold? An impertinent maid, a poltergeist or a poor relation? Ramses eases up towards the invitingly open bathroom door on the plush white carpet, carrying his shoes, boldly curious, holding his breath, with little or no backup plan in place if anyone should catch him.

A. Faced with the gravity of his final punishment, Walton directed that a copy of his memoirs be bound in his own tawny skin and presented to the very Mr. Fenno whom George was sent to the gallows for trying to shoot. White historians take George Walton’s avowal that the gesture was one of esteem for Fenno’s bravery at face value, unfamiliar with the bitter nuances of colored irony. His skin, stripped in a supple parallelogram from his still-warm back after the hanging, was treated to look like a gray deer skin by the tanner, who delivered the stuff without comment to Peter Low the book binder, the latter of perhaps a less pragmatic disposition and therefore much disturbed by the job and suffering increasingly vivid nightmares the rest of his life.

B. I’ve spent so much time and money on this one dream of making sweet love with an Afro-American and on the very threshold of all that and more I decide to risk ruining the sexy mood that all of my efforts have managed by some miracle to put her into with a blast of my so-called high culture? Am I crazy?

C. What Ramses witnesses through the fogged, beaded, soap-scummed shower door is a jug-eared middle-aged black man with love handles and a sagging ass, the cheeks of which are matte and blacker than the rest of him, his large head crowned with a cap of webby, water-matted hair. Who is this man? Where does he fit in the cosmology? Was the guy in the Iroquois photo the Ex or is this the Ex and are things much kinkier around the homestead than Ramses first imagined? This avuncular apparition of a black man with the posture of an utterly defeated specimen. His left armpit foams as he scrubs at it with an eerie lack of energy more suitable to a nursing home sitz bath than a home owner’s shower; it’s like he’s preparing for his own execution. It is a joyless, prosaic, song-free ablution so full of truth that Ramses backs away from the threshold in waves of nausea and a paradoxically simultaneous joy in being alive, the details of which he can claim as wholly his own, his uniqueness in time, the song of his soul in his skin.

IntraView #3: James Marcus

James Marcus-axe grinding

As a professional critic, translator, editor, and author of a published memoir, as well as the proprietor of the popular and well-respected “House of Mirth” literary blog, James Marcus is an amphibian between the sea creatures of so-called lit-blogging and the land mammals of “print”. As the author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut, Marcus collected (as far as I know) an unbroken string of glowing reviews, and remains a book-world figure with few,  if any, detractors. The universal respect that Marcus enjoys is as attributable to his courtly, old world diffidence as it is to the sanity and intelligence of his literary tastes and opinions. Mr. Marcus is currently shopping a manuscript to better agents and publishing houses in the U.S.A. and it’s this novel of his that I wanted to talk about…

-SA

SA:  The manuscript of your novel, The Only News I Know, which you were generous enough to let me read last year, opens with this:

“Aside from a faint smell in the air, like a spent bonfire with mysterious chemical overtones–the perfume of things that weren’t meant to burn–and aside from the universal expressions of grief, anxiety, and rage you saw on the faces of the pedestrians, it was a normal day in November.”

As gracefully understated as this first sentence is, it alerts us to the possibility that we’re in the presence of a so-called post-9/11 novel. However, despite the fact that “9/11” as an event influences the tone and sprinkles ashes over the characters and the backdrop, the narrative establishes itself very quickly as the story of a particular marriage at risk, detailing with gentle precision each troubled half of the union between the characters Henry and Deborah. Do you consider TONIK to be a “post-9/11” novel, or is the label problematic for you?

JM: At this point I suppose every novel is a post-9/11 novel. And when I first began this book, back in 2004, I was very interested in conveying that post-9/11 texture of life: continuous fright superimposed on dull, null normalcy. But I wanted to write about a floundering marriage, too. And about movies, children, ambition, science, sex, mosquitoes, death, and so forth. There are certainly a great many historical particulars trapped in the amber of this manuscript, and for the people who relish that stuff, it’s great–like reading Victor Hugo to learn about the sewers of Paris. Bad marriage is more of a timeless subject. So the label doesn’t mean much, is what I’m trying to say, unless it helps to sell the book. It’s a marketing tool more than anything else.

SA: Whether it’s marketed as a “9/11” book or not, I’d say that TONIK more properly belongs in a distinguished line of dysfunctional-marriage novels from the American postwar period.

Bellow, Mailer, Updike, Roth, Burroughs (obliquely) all contributed notably to the genre, which may well have been inaugurated by Paul Bowles’s “The Sheltering Sky”, in which a couple of urbane travellers are destroyed by their cultural hubris and an inability (both between themselves and with the world) to communicate. In most of the examples of the genre I can think of (because most of the ones I’ve read have been written by male authors), the wounded marriage is something for the male protagonist to set himself against; the impediment that the male must overcome in order to become himself.

In TONIK, you treat Deborah’s point of view with much more sympathy than that…I can remember commenting to you when I first read it, in fact, that I thought you were being hard, at times, on Henry. Deborah seems to be the stronger, rounder character with the serious issues (including Henry himself) to overcome on the path to a fuller flowering of her Self, and this strikes me as very unusual in a novel from a male writer. And not a bad thing at all.

Is it a generational shift that accounts for this difference? And did you set out to redress the matter of, say, Philip Roth’s purportedly “cardboard” female characters (even Updike has been accused of being a greater poet of the anatomical female than the psychological version of same)? And does this mean that women can expect better treatment by male novelists in the future? (laugh)

JM: Well, that’s a very nice, very flattering genealogy, which I doubt I can live up to. Off the top of my head, I can hardly think of a single novel about happily married people. I know they must exist–wait, there’s always Wallace Stenger’s Crossing to Safety, where the marital success rate is at least fifty percent–but I suppose writers are drawn to the marathon quality of a bad marriage. It goes on for years, with two inches lost for every one gained, and often the grievances on both sides are completely understandable. Beyond good and evil, in other words: just an epic of low-intensity suffering. (Sometimes high-intensity as well.) 

Anyway, I’m glad that Deborah’s POV is as persuasive as Henry’s. In some sense I was looking to Richard Stern’s wonderful Other Men’s Daughters, where the wife gets much less time in the center ring but is never dismissed as the irrational albatross around the hero’s neck. Her pain is very real, and I wanted Deborah’s to be real as well. I think you’re right, she is more likely to accomplish something with her life than Henry is. He’s most comfortable in a holding pattern. On the other hand, some readers–including my ex-agent–found Deborah almost repellently cold and unfeeling, which still puzzles me. As for my role as a harbinger of the female-friendly male novelist, that’s a very heavy mantle. I’d better shrug it off. 

SA: While your first book, Amazonia, was a memoir, you seem to take great pains to detach TONIK’s Henry from any possibly autobiographical “evidence” (though only a close friend or family member could make that observation with any real confidence, of course). Does it irritate you when readers look for “clues” to your own attitudes or personal details in your fiction? Are novelists justified, do you think, in being, as a whole, touchy about this kind of textual mind-reading?

JM: Since Amazonia was about me, I wanted Henry to be somebody else. Not bookish, not ambitious, not a Jew, not even particularly smart. Of course this is harder to do than it sounds. I’m sure Updike had the same plan in mind when he created Bech–to come up with an anti-Updike of sorts–but all of the cringing anxiety and comical failure seemed to emanate from some strange, compartmentalized pocket of his own personality. It was a brilliant piece of ventriloquism, sure, but nobody really believes it’s the dummy who’s doing the talking. Needless to say, this is an exalted comparison. If any reader wants to look for clues about me in my fiction, I’ll be very flattered. 

SA: But do you feel (more as a critic than a novelist, possibly) that knowing something of the writer’s biography is important to an understanding of the text?

JM: Oh, sure. I love to get the biographical data, than mash it together with the books themselves in a way that would make Cleanth Brooks spin in his grave. But a great text will always survive without the biographical data. Or should, anyway. 

SA: TONIK does not strike me as one of those novels that revealed itself to the writer as the pages accumulated (á la the work of Haruki Murakami or Michael Ondaadtje). Was the book carefully outlined and colorfully storyboarded before you attempted the first page of actual prose? And how painstaking and time-consumptive was the research that went into the impressive job of making Deborah’s job (researcher, ironically) so convincing?

JM: I made a very rough outline of about 20 chapters, then plunged in. Certain things did reveal themselves as I went along–even fundamental facts, like Henry’s stint writing obituaries before he graduated to the Valhalla of film reviewing. But I purposely left the outline rough, not wanting to steamroll any spontaneous impulses along the way. On the other hand, I did tons of reading in order to describe Deborah’s work. I had a head start, because my father does the same sort of research, and I’ve been hearing about thrombosis at the dinner table since I was a kid–in fact, there was even a little professional cenacle called the Clot Club that used to meet at our house. But I did read a bunch of papers and journals and took careful, uncomprehending notes. 

SA: You mention your father doing the same sort of research as Deborah…are there elements of your father in Deborah’s makeup? Or does he make a cameo appearance in Deborah’s lab?

JM: I don’t think Deborah is much like my father, except perhaps in her deep devotion to hematological lock-picking. Nor does he make a cameo appearance in the book. But if it weren’t for my youthful visits to the lab–where my father used to put a penny on a block of dry ice, then tell his children that “Abe Lincoln was talking” when the contracting copper began to squeak–I never would have written about this material. Deborah is less like him, more like me. Or as Italo Svevo once put it: the book “is an autobiography, but not my own.”

SA: There’s evidence in Amazonia and TONIK both that you’ve mastered a personable voice that’s lightly weighted with book-soaked erudition; equal parts wide-eyed compassion and world-weary grief. It’s a curiously post-American melange…is this down to being a New Yorker, or has your work as a translator of Italian texts influenced your sensibility as an English-language author? Or did the sensibility precede (and lead to) the Italian?

JM: I’ve always read lots of non-American books, and maybe being a New Yorker makes you less parochial (although many people would argue exactly the opposite.) It’s also true that Italians almost never sound American. I never really thought about this before, but writers like Primo Levi or Leonardo Sciascia or Natalia Ginzburg have a sort of classic reticence, a long view of things, that we itchier Americans tend not to cultivate. So maybe the time I’ve spent in their company has had some effect on me. Or maybe I’m just the way I am. Like, you know, Popeye. 

SA: I was extremely moved reading this passage:

It was an education, living with another person. She had never done it before. There were a million lessons to be learned. Some were purely physical. Deborah adored the way Henry puffed out his cheeks when he shaved, she adored the French curve of his collarbone and his nervous, articulated laughter: ha ha ha, like a cartoon character. He had pink earlobes, a flat belly, a stealth cowlick that appeared only during the week after he got a haircut. His breath smelled like cold milk. She observed these traits, catalogued them in her head. Love made you into a connoisseur of the details, the freakish facts, a Darwin in the Galápagos, where everything was so new and beautiful and singular. No two lovers were exactly alike. There was only one Henry in the world-when he died, he would be as extinct as the Great Auk-and he was hers.

Can you remember writing it? How long did you work on it? Can you run us through the composition of it (any sentences you chopped out or worried over; nouns you replaced, and so forth), if it didn’t come out in one miraculous blurt?

JM:  I wish I could be more helpful here. I’m very glad you were moved by that paragraph, or by any paragraph in the book. I’m sure I wrote it here, in my disheveled office, and that only thing I can say is that in scanning it, the really important words or phrases just pop right out: education, French curve, articulated, stealth, cold milk, connoisseur, Galapagos, singular, lovers, extinct, Great Auk, hers. The rest is–I was was going to say window dressing, but that’s not right–the rest is there to aid and abet.  

SA: Your first book, “Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut” was a well-received memoir. Was the process of writing and shopping a novel after that success a matter of building on fresh experience and continuing with the momentum, or was it a matter of starting from “square one”? Is every book a case of learning to walk again? Are you exhausted or invigorated by the nuts and bolts realities of bringing a book from the imagination to its spot on commercial shelf space?

JM: To my surprise, the process of writing a novel didn’t feel all that different. Maybe that’s because Amazonia was a very novelistic piece of nonfiction–I almost thought of subtitling it A Novel With Facts. Of course having one published book under my belt gave me extra confidence when it came to embarking on a second one. But shopping a novel has been a very different, somewhat dispiriting process. At the moment, literary fiction is not regarded as commercial dynamite: quite the opposite. So the quiet charms of this current book have yet to work their voodoo on the right editor.  I’m streamlining the manuscript, cutting to the chase a little faster, and I think that will help. I’m sure the book will be published. But it’s been a bumpier road than I anticipated.

SA: Are there special writers (or specific books) that sparked your earliest dreams of being a writer? If so, are there any you loved in those formative years which continue to inspire, instruct and amaze you?

JM: Just the usual stuff: Johnny Tremain, Beckett, J.F. Powers, the Rabbit books, Flaubert, The Dream Songs, Jane Smiley’s Ordinary Love & Good Will, everything by Flann O’Brien, Nabokov (always with a grain of salt), Tristram Shandy, Primo Levi, everything by Penelope Fitzgerald, Yeats, the two Roths (Joseph and Philip), Ian Frazier, Janet Malcolm, Mandelstam, Dickens, Rilke, Albert Murray, Aldo Buzzi, everything by Redmond O’Hanlon, Emerson, Whitman, Edith Wharton, and the late, great Eric Newby. Those are the things I take down and reread bits of. My earliest fixation was science fiction, and I’m sure the urbane ghost of Robert Heinlein hovers over everything word I write. Why hasn’t anybody made a movie of Stranger In A Strange Land?    

SA: Can you recall for us your best or most memorable moment as a professional writer? 

JM: Finishing a book, any book, is a highly memorable moment. I wrote the last paragraph of this novel at the Mercantile Library on 47th Street, tearing up with relief and gratitude. Getting to the end is a triumph. The other triumph (for me, anyway) is connecting the book with the outside world. That’s part of why I always love readings: for a moment the book comes out of solitary confinement and has a public life. (The other reason I love readings is that I desperately crave attention. Hence my chosen career.)

http://housemirth.blogspot.com/

IntraView #2: Karen Novak

Karen with Tree

SA: I read a chapter of Five Mile House last night and it’s beautifully written…there’s a heavy liquid feeling to it. I read it several times, actually, but the first time I got a little less than halfway into it (the first mention of the domestic deaths) and thought: should I read this? I knew if you showed me something horrible I wouldn’t be able to shrug it off because the writing had mass and momentum and was forcing me to believe despite the fact that I know better. If something is poorly written I have the luxury of sneering or shrugging but if it’s put together well I lose that option.
 
How do you write child murder without suffering? You’re either much tougher inside than I am or you’re paying some kind of price for handling the material.
 
KN: Yours was essentially the question I wanted to explore.  We had just moved from a thimble-sized town in upstate New York to Cincinnati–12 years ago, now–and at the time of our move, in North Carolina, a young mother named Susan Smith had drowned her young sons.  This, of course, a terrible, terrible tragedy.  What caught my attention, however, was the viciousness with which other mothers in the same town, it was a small town, attacked Smith’s actions.  Way beyond the expected responses of horrified shock or pity, these women were on camera clamoring for the right to pull the switch on the electric chair.  Instinct did the emotional math.  This was guilt speaking.  These other mothers, whose small children must have played and gone to school with the victims, had know those boys were in a dangerous situation; they’d known and done nothing.  How do you handle that?
 
How do you handle if it is your job to mediate families towards at least a couple hours of civil co-existence and the under-staffed office throws you into the contrapositive universe where you are only called to the scene too late to do your job?  How do you handle the inevitable implied questions of why you needed to fix families as your life’s work?  How do you handle it when fixing other people’s families is ruining your own?  And so on and so forth and in infinite the spiraling that leads to upness and downness and strangeness.  The three principle qualities of a quark. 
 
I handle it by reading quantum mechanics and a lot of poetry and staying the fuck away from fiction.  Like you, I have an imagination with no filters between the real and the fantasized.  It’s the price fiction writers pay for the ability to put the triggers of real experience on a page.  The price can be costly.  Fiction materials: films, books, especially music, must be chosen with immense care for long term reverb emotive effect.  I am not tough.  Very much the opposite. 
 
SA: The New York Times had this to say while reviewing your fourth and most recent book, The Wilderness: “Karen Novak’s first novel, ”Five Mile House” (2000), in which she introduced a police detective named Leslie Stone who could see dead people, was pretty strange. The second book in the series, ”Innocence” (2003), in which the spirits of murdered children clamored for Leslie’s attention, was stranger still. Now Novak has written something really weird.”
 
Forgetting for a moment the compliment inherent in a reviewer’s claim that something you’d written was so out of the ordinary that it was “weird”, do you agree? Do you set out to shock, disorient or disturb the reader?
  
KN: Before I set about coming to grips with the, “are you doing this to readers on purpose?” implications of your question, allow me to congratulate you on getting done what no one before you has yet to do: acknowledging that the Times review exists.  Not that the passage you quote is unfamiliar, but as a general rule—among other general rules such as keep breathing—I do not read my reviews. This practice is based on the wisdom of my much loved/much terrifying mentor, genius writer, miracle teacher Fred Busch: “If you give credence to the good reviews then you have to give credence to the bad ones.”  Writers have this kind of job.  Reviewers have that kind of job.  Unhappiness, confusion, and bar brawls are most often the result of confusing the two.
 
There is also the fact this review was published December 26, 2004, the same morning we learned of the tsunami that took a quarter of a million lives in the south Pacific. I forgot about the book section that day.
 
My true first concern, to the extent that it becomes an overriding neurosis manifested in the work, is that I not bore the reader or waste the reader’s time. Worse, that I dread insulting the reader’s intelligence by over-explicating the obvious. These concerns are also based on lessons from Fred. Fred passed away in February 2006, and since I haven’t yet begun to begin to find an entry into a way to grieve his loss, abiding by these lessons are my meager means of honoring the man.
 
SA: So there’s a sense of responsibility hanging over you as you work…
 
KN: Responsibility to be true to my characters while being clear for the reader, yeah.  After that, it’s all about trying to understand what the hell I’m doing.  Writing abounds with helpful but meaningless little dicta: “Show don’t tell” (then why is it storytelling?); “Write what you know” (well, won’t that be thrilling for both of us?). After you’ve been wrestling words into narrative long enough, you develop the intuitive leap of logic needed to fill in the blanks not left visible for filling. Show don’t tell is the pithier way of saying that telling a story is most compelling when told through showing a sequence of telling details.  Write what you know means write what you would want to read.  I want to read books that make me feel the way I felt when I first read Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, and Nabokov’s Lolita, and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and James’s Turn of The Screw, and Borges’s Labyrinths, and Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House….
 
That list could go on, but it is on point enough to hint at the pattern in the Eros of my reading choices: I want to know how we figure out as individuals what to call real and then how do we share that reality with one another?  What of that shared reality is trustworthy?  So, yes, I do think I make a deliberate effort to disorient the reader in the same manner as an elaborate hedge maze.  The purpose of the books are not to leave the reader feeling disturbed, but to keep harping on my life’s mission statement: Pay attention to who is telling the story.  The storytellers are the ones with the power and the agenda.  Don’t trust us.  It’s all fiction.  Always.
 
SA: I’ve had the pleasure of reading a few chapters from the manuscript of your work in progress, The Damascus Room. What I especially enjoy is reading a “conscious” text…a text that has a scaffold of strategies already in place instead of being the usual hit-and-miss accumulation of sentences (even if the “conscious” order is actually subconscious in places). It’s like watching a painter at work who knows what she wants the painting to look like from the early stages…underpainting with a specific tone…leaving a space here for this form and a space there for that..sketching in tentative foreground and background figures. It was extremely interesting to have this peek at the schematic. What I’ve read of it thus far has the complexity of a fugue based not on individual notes but other fugues.
 
How did you work out your method? What’s the philosophy, or personal mathematics, behind your approach?
 
KN: Watch me get in trouble real fast here: I’ve been around for 50 years, and there’s no avoiding the reality that male and female minds process narrative with different strategies.  Nature is not an art critic; Nature has good cause.  I believe female minds process consciousness in a manner akin to the reverse perspective used in Russian Orthodox Iconography.  It’s a primate survival mechanism: the ability to keep the entire environment actively present, proportionately the same size, and elicit meaning from positioning.  Part of it may be a factor of spending 40 years living in a 28 day circle; the linear perspective of logic and a past in which events recede in size and importance with time may be a factor of getting to live a life with only linear time to manage.  It wasn’t until I was expecting our first daughter that I even recalled linear time existed.  Nine full months of straight forward progression toward a definable goal. The only gravity I had to deal with was that of my own will–until the first contraction reminded me of my factory-installed operating system.  I grieved over the loss of straight line time and went back into biological orbit.
 
I’m getting unforgivable with the self-indulgence.  Anyway: This is leading toward my acceptance of the Women’s Fiction subset of Fiction in general.  I decided if I were to be tagged a writer of Women’s Fiction I would write a new way to understand what those words meant even if the way women understand the world is not well served by the language we share with our brothers.  In the new novel, I’m trying to create icons of feminine experience in words–broken up with straight dramatic passages like the one you read called Killing Phillip (I’m not cruel–to the reader).  I’m hanging those icons on the walls of a haunted church.   

The more I tried to pin it down, the more I began to realize that “women’s fiction” meant whatever it was that caused the look of simultaneous panic and tedium in my husband’s eyes whenever I said there was something I needed to talk about.  It’s not our stories; it’s the way we tell them. 
 
SA: You walk a razor wire between making Art and being responsible to a readership (and fans of your ongoing Leslie Stone character).
 
KN: Thank you also for acknowledging the quandaries of commercial publishing.   Every writer I’ve ever met has scarred up soles and carries first aid supplies along with the pens.  The realities of my situation are challenging: I did not publish my first novel until my mid-forties, the novel was marketed as genre and I as a writer of “women’s fiction,” all of which meant little as publishing-as-we-understand-it was entering its ongoing death throes.  I sometimes bristle at the mystery genre tag because I find it self-defeating: mystery readers are going to pick up my books and feel betrayed.  My editor says: “You’ve invented your own genre.”  No, it’s called fiction.  And really? That’s rather cool.
 
SA: What I find amazing, still, is that the trick called “writing” works…that a static grid of markings arranged on a page (clusters of these markings bearing each a complex of “meanings” agreed upon by a consensus of strangers, mostly dead) to reference, when decoded, the describable world…these markings flower into universes, unique to us, behind our eyes, while in front of our eyes, simultaneously, we still see only these markings! We take it for granted. But it strikes me as miraculous.
 
KN: If there are miracles?  This is the only one I need. 
 
SA: How far are you into the process with The Damascus Room?
 
KN: Way past deadline.   I will confess to spending 2 and a-half years on a first draft that I loved with all my heart (still do) while knowing it was what the kids today would call a “hot mess.”  Just to prove I am capable of brevity, you will not be subjected to the laundry list of mitigating circumstances.  Let’s just say, I had to begin again and am astonishedly thankful for the failure to be so pleased with the new work.  The sourest aftertaste of the memory remains that of my behavior.  Word advising I return to the drawing board arrived on a day of phone calls each relaying dimmer pictures of the future than the last.  Email is not always a friend.  I will spend the rest of my life saying, “I’m sorry Felicity,” and never feel I’ve said it enough.  The reader is always right.  Cringe.  My God, I was the Asshole Writer.  I’m sorry, Felicity.
 
Speaking of agents and the problematic elements of publishing…Do you have or are you interested in traditional representation in the world of big house publication?
 
SA: I skirted, years back, the outer regions of the red light district of publishing and had several not-entirely-reassuring experiences.
 
I’ll relate the funny one: a woman who was a local force on a fairly well-fed literary scene had a serious in with one of the biggest (if not the biggest) small presses in the country. She read the stuff I was doing in the mid-’90s, said she liked it, and mentioned her serious in. She said, in fact, that we could have a face to face with the publisher, the big man himself, in a few weeks. Metaphysical sidebar: I’d written a short story the previous year in which a publisher figure with the big man’s actual first name featured prominently! So, you can imagine how predestined it all seemed to me.
 
I said: great! I thought: wow, it’s all so easy! Then she said, hey, by the way, I need help painting my kitchen!
 
Uh…Okay…I said (stumbling over my mind’s inability to process what I at first considered a fairly amazing non sequitur). 
 
The “help” she needed in painting her kitchen was this: she needed someone to paint her kitchen. So, I painted her kitchen…after clearing all the crap out of it, washing and sanding the old paint on the walls, ceiling, molding and window trim…taping off the windows. Two coats. Wait…maybe it was three coats. I seem to remember her wanting to put sea foam over sierra crimson or something (the kitchen hadn’t been done since the ’80s).
 
Two weeks later (after several postponements) we show up for our lunchtime appointment with the big man. He’s very gracious, and gives us a tour of the place. We’re introduced to the staff! He guides us to the conference room, where we’re joined by his chief reader: the filter guy, the Swatch-obsessed guy with the sceptical scowl! And before I can say one sentence about myself or what I’m doing…the woman I’m there with…the woman with the brand-new kitchen… launches into a jokey, passionate, arm-twisting presentation for…two other writers! Writers that aren’t me, I mean. These two wonderful, moving, truth-tellingly life-affirming books that the big man just had to have a look at. And so on. For thirty, forty minutes, we all talked about or around these books. Being polite to a fault back then, I asked pertinent questions at decent intervals and nodded my head judiciously and agreed with the big man that these two books sounded intriguing indeed. Oh, and with ten minutes left of the meeting, it was my turn.
 
I was somewhat thrown off. I couldn’t remember my prepared statement. I did not dazzle. I stuttered, in fact…I’m pretty sure I stuttered. I think I may have said something about writing to express myself, or to stay out of trouble. I walked out of that meeting with burning earlobes. I walked home. I avoided downtown for the rest of the summer.
 
KN: From now and forever forward you own writers’ bragging rights to the phrase “I painted a kitchen.”  If it were in my power, your story would also move into the OED as the official definition of writer in the avocational sense because who else but a real writer would do that?  I’ve painted kitchens.  Freaking hard work.  I will paint only my own kitchen; although I once painted that of my future mother-in-law trying to prove that her son’s marrying a writer wasn’t an entire waste. I sense a theme.  Writers can paint.  Kitchens?  
 
SA: Your first book, Five Mile House, was published with Bloomsbury in 2000…what were you doing ten years before that? Were you already working diligently towards that moment, or would you have been astounded back then to be shown a glimpse of your future as a published writer? 
 
KN: I was born accursed with Poe’s Midnight Disease.  I’ve always been a writer, no matter how diligently I’ve tried to be other more useful things.  I’ve worked in advertising copywriting, technical writing, and translation.  Noble applications of my language addiction.  I was reading dictionaries when I was five.  In grade 10, assigned a week-long fiction exercise of story that had to be five pages in length, handwritten, double-spaced, I came in on the due date pleading for an extension.  Five days and I was 30 pages in, single-spaced, typed.  No hope for me.
 
When I became serious about writing fiction, I was told to expect an apprenticeship of about 10 years, which means more in writing—or any of the other arts—than attending classes.  In layperson’s terms: it is the dreaded paying of dues.   For the decade before Five Mile House was published I had been writing Five Mile House, or as it was called for that decade The Architecture of Sleep.  (One of the conditions of my first contract was we were changing that damn title.)  The only means of learning to write a novel is to keep writing that novel until it is a novel.  Writing dozens of short fiction pieces will make one well acquainted with short fiction.  Short fiction is about sentences.  Novels are about scenes.
 
So I had this idea, and it was a novel.  I was zero-bone certain of that.  Have to back up a bit: We were living in a small upstate New York town at this time.  I had two very young daughters.  My husband would take over on the weekends so I could write.  The only classes available, that I could afford, were through the State University of New York.  Those classes were in basic composition and critical theory.  No one can spend too much time on fundamentals.  Besides, I would be expected to write.  It was in the composition class that I found my fiction voice starting to return.
 
I use the verb “return”.  However, I won’t bore you with the explanation other than there had been two decades of self-imposed writing silence that seemed the price of survival.  What I did not understand about born writers at that juncture was that simply because no words are appearing on a page did not mean the writing brain was not writing copiously and with great, patient joy.
 
SA: Was the first book a difficult birth?
 
KN: I started serious work on my novel in 1991.  Back then it read as a very dark fairy tale.  When I’d finished maybe the fifteenth draft of the thing, my best friend, whose husband was the local internist, mentioned that one of his patients happened to be award winning novelist Frederick Busch.  Would I like Professor Busch (who was teaching at Colgate University about 30 miles up the road from us) to read my book?  Well, sure.  Then the writer who had been compared to Dickens and Melville could tell me to put down the pen, get two day jobs and hold on to those for dear life. 
 
There are days I wish that was how it had turned out. But no.  That was the beginning of the six freaking, “Sorry, Karen.  Write it again,” letters.  When Fred said, “Write it again.”  He meant, “Gut it.  Start again, page one.”  Do you know how long it takes to completely revise 300 pages six times?  While raising children?  And finishing a degree?  It takes 10 years.
 
How ashamed am I it took so long to realize my luck in finding a mentor who believed in me so strongly that he’d keep shoving me back in the deep end until I got the point that I had to swim because the pool didn’t care?  The last shove was the one that did it.  The novel was already with an agent, and Fred sent me what is known in the mythology as The Five Page It Sucks Letter.  I should pull it back and Write It Again.  I.  Was.  Pissed.
 
Another recently late, great, dear and grumpy old soul Kurt Vonnegut held that a writer should never sit down to write unless truly, thoroughly, fucking-up-to-there-had-it-pissed-off.  I was in such a state when I sat down at my computer, opened a new file and typed, “My name is Eleanor and this is my house.”  Until that moment, the novel had no character named Eleanor.  Apparently, the novel had been waiting for Eleanor.  This final draft wrote itself was as though it was driven by rocket fuel.  Within the year I had a contract with Bloomsbury and a whole new set of expectations to be adjusted.
 
SA: So, between the moment of the book’s inception and its acceptance by Bloomsbury, it smash-evolved from a blob of protoplasm into a freshman at an Ivy League school, basically.
 
KN: Strangely, only one passage in the novel has never been altered no matter how many drafts its undergone.  It’s the first chapter nervous breakdown of the main character, the one you mentioned at the top of the interview. I remember writing it.  I can barely cope with that memory.  I don’t think I’ve looked at the printed passage of that scene more than once. Yet, Innocence and the novel I’m currently working and reworking, The Damascus Room, are an attempt to explain why what happens in that scene happens.  The subconscious knows nothing about publishing; it has its spinning wheel and bales of straw that must be transformed.   
 
Et voilà, your decade long answer that responds to writing part of the 10-year apprenticeship.  The other needed element is getting out in the world and building a life.  Writers can spend way too much time writing.  We carry our little notebooks everywhere; we talk about the best books to read.  I suggest going out and reading a tree.  Read the shopping basket of the person in front of you at the grocer.  Read the way kids saunter around the mall or how the loners will change course to avoid making contact with groups.  Read life.  Read with compassion.  This is the stuff of which metaphors are made.  When you need it, you will be able to call up the perfect detail with an emotional clarity that no notebook is going to provide. 

Once your work enters the publication process, no matter the size of the house, the emotional clarity required is basic realism on the part of the writer.  Your real goal here is to exhibit as much professionalism as your anxieties will allow you to muster.  When production gives you a deadline, they are serious about that date.  They know writers, our obsessive need to tinker; so you get maybe ten days to approve your galleys and get them back to the managing editor.  Can’t stress these two aspects of relationship building strongly enough: make your deadlines and be opening to editorial suggestion.  No matter how strongly you believe in your work, the “from God’s lips to my hand” attitude has sunk more book deals than you’d begin to guess.  Be willing to compromise.  Be willing to change your title.  If it’s a matter of real contention, let your agent do the fighting for you.  A good agent is worth her weight in angels, gold, and Godiva chocolates—not to mention the pittance of the commission. 

You probably have three passes at approving ever tighter edits of your text before it goes to print.  With each one, changes cost money and those costs are charged against your advance.  You have no say over your cover art.  That decision is made by an art department and is part of marketing.  Perhaps as one gains clout in sales and fame, one is consulted.  I get advance color copies.  Again, exceptionally lucky.  I love my covers.  Sometimes I think I write the novels just so I can get a cover created.  Publishers have no budget to market mid-list books.  There are no power lunches. You can work your tail off to arrange readings and signings, which no one will attend.  I teach at conferences and take on private students. In this market, the book sells because of the renown of the writer.  I have an old New Yorker cartoon of a writer standing outside a publisher’s door.  The writer is wearing a sandwich-board that reads “Please involve me in your scandal.”  Perhaps it should read: “Will paint kitchens.” 
 
SA: This interview is shaping up to be a fairly detailed Writing Seminar. 
 
KN: It seems a forever ago.  I very much miss the feeling of, “and then life will be wonderful” that attends the publication fantasies of the unpublished.  It is sad that the American culture equates commercial success with quality of work.  Also, June is writing seminar mode around here.  Although, I’m slogging through homesickness because for the first time in eleven years, I won’t be able to attend the Colgate Writers’ Conference.   
 
I started attending the Conference in its first year, when it was the Chenango Valley Writers’ Conference.  Colgate University, in Hamilton, NY, had asked Fred Busch to set this thing up because all the other universities had writers’ conferences and he wrote to me in Ohio, teasingly promising he was designing the week-long shindig with me in mind.  It was a joke based on my paralyzing shyness.  I went anyway.  First year as a student.  I’ve been teaching the novel tutorial for the past 4 years.  Health issues have me housebound this year.  I will be back.  Everything I know about writing, I learned through this conference.  If a writer were to ask where to go to work on writing?  This is the one.

The most important lesson of my writing life was harsh and left me angry for a long time.  It began over lunch on the final day of the conference, back when Fred was still the Director.  Five Mile House was soon to be released and was “the hot buzz book” in New York.  I was levitating with excitement and said something to the effect of how excited everyone involved seemed to be.  That’s when Fred, ever the real-world realist, said, “Of course, they’re excited.  You haven’t failed them, yet.”  Gee, thanks Dad.

I would learn, he was simply telling me the truth.  More so, he was giving me permission to fail, permission to disappoint the expectations of others.  Which, of course, made the irony all the more bittersweet, when Fred made it clear that I’d disappointed him with the choice I’d made with my writing.  I could live with that.  I know what I’m doing.

Ask around.  I’m not known for being the good daughter.
 
SA: Like animal life on the planet, the literary forms and genres share the overwhelming majority of their DNA…the difference between so-called “literary fiction” and “memoir”, for example, is more often about packaging than content, especially at the esoteric end of the scale. Maybe it’s the “hack” (not to be misconstrued as a pejorative term) who, in offering the reader the pleasures of a conventional story-telling form (equivalent in perceived purity to Delta Blues or Death Metal), writes the easily classifiable book. Certainly, no one would confuse most of Theodore Sturgeon’s great work in the field of Science Fiction for “Chick Lit”.
 
Are you against the notion of genre? As a female novelist writing books that deal with crime (among other themes), do you find that you, or your books, are often misclassified? Would you prefer to simply call your work “fiction” and leave it at that, or do you have a hybrid form in mind? 
 
KN: Oy, human beings are right royal little hierarchy generating engines, are we not?  In the way of my kind, I’m going to offer you three approaches in an attempt to answer your complex question: 1) the reality of contemporary marketing, 2) the reality of human nature, and 3) my reality.  Synchronicity came to visit a few minutes ago, bringing this New Yorker article “The Formula” to my attention:

 http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/10/16/061016fa_fact6
 
To quote William Goldman as he is quoted in the article above: “No one knows anything.”  The article is about a computer program that can predict box-office take based on narrative elements in a screenplay.  Novels won’t be far behind.
 
I’m not a writer who keeps tabs on the day-to-day moods of the publishing industry.  What I know is depressing enough, and I want to underscore that no one from writer to agent to editor to bookseller is dancing with glee in these times.   We all know the parable of James Frey and A Million Little Pieces, a book he shopped around as a novel until he was counseled it would be more marketable as a memoir.  He revised as he thought appropriate and got caught lying about his own life.  Because that never happens in every bar, job interview, or first date. 
 
SA: Good point, despite how I feel about Frey’s writing.
 
KN: Writing pushed aside—far aside.  All that really happened to Mr. Frey is that the publisher changed the genre classification where bookstores would shelve his book.  Assigning genre as a marketing tool has become a default necessity in the age of big box chain bookstores and the Internets.  In the ancient days of independent bookstores, a customer entered expecting the staff to know the stacks as a sommelier would know the cellar.  Books were recommended and hand sold based on the staff’s knowledge of a customer’s tastes.  That kind of intimacy between bookseller and reader is rare in the extreme these days.  At least, it is here in America.  One has to make a commitment to seek the independents out and an even larger commitment to pay the higher prices to keep them in business. 
 
For marketing purposes, my books are shelved with the mysteries.   The word mystery is on the cover to indicate genre for shelving purposes. The reason being mystery books have one of the largest, most loyal readerships of all genres.  I can go along with that nominal classification.  We’ve already established the weird angle; mysterious as ambiance is a tone I much admire.  This strategy is definitely double-edged and no one escapes unscathed.  First because what I write are not mysteries in the Mystery Genre sense.  A reader who is looking for that sort of book is going to hate me, and will not be buying future literary endeavors of mine. 
 
It also makes the bookstore and the publishers—this is my opinion—appear to have not actually read the books they’re selling.  An unfair judgment as massive amounts of time, energy, and financial risk go into publishing a modest run of a mid-lister such as me.  Until someone comes up with enough books to warrant the shelving space and a sku number for Weird Stuff, Mystery is probably the closest to the right genre in term of marketing my books.
 
SA: What I don’t get about “genre” is how arbitrary the taxonomy can be. For example, I doubt that many would shelve Nabokov’s Lolita beside the adventures of Marlowe, Marple and Poirot, but Humbert Humbert is a detective, following a trail of clues before finally uncovering the identity of his nemesis. It’s a postmodern whoddunit, to be sure (the “hero” is as guilty of the “crime” as the “villain” is, and his “justice” is yet another crime), but a whodunnit nevertheless. I’m bothered by the implication that it’s the high quality of the writing that defines the book out of the category.  

KN: The term gets tossed around in an arbitrary fashion, often by those who intend a different meaning.  Genre is not a synonym for generic, yet I’ve been in discussions where it slowly dawns that distinction is not clear to one of the speakers.  I like to work from the proposition that genre and literature are to the mythos of emotionally informed reality what application and research are to the laws of scientifically informed reality.  In genre fiction, clearly established archetypes are put through iterations of classic hero quests that resolve in expected and emotionally satisfying, reassuring fashion.  Every genre book proves that the rules of the social contract work because the genre books work according to the rules. Just as a baby will continually drop a toy from his high chair: the purpose is not to annoy the adults; the purpose is to guarantee the constancy of gravity and down.  How is one to learn to stand upright, if one cannot be absolutely sure of down? Grade 7 science prep students do experiments with how a candle burns, not because anyone expects a grade 7 student to come up with a new theory of combustion, but to drive home the concept of a shared and reliably stable reality.

Literature is the research arm of the mythos.  It distorts the archetypes, complicates them, reduces their predictable behavior, makes them human beings.  Literatures set up mythic equations of classic terms and then changes an essential variable: say, adds authentic human beings where once were types.  What happens if the hero leaves on his quest and comes home something less than a hero, but only he knows it?  What happens if instead of the mother dying to protect her child, the mother kills her child simply because the kid is an inconvenience?  What happens to the mythos if the hero who is avenging his lady love is also her rapist?  How much can the mythos take before it shatters and a paradigm shift becomes necessary?  Literature, I believe, tries to stay ahead of that question, tries to have some emergency back-up myths in place. 

From my perspective both aspects are essential to the maintenance and growth of this being that lives both on an individual plane and a social one.  Genre allows us to speak to each other from inside the same story; Literature shows us how to go it alone as the freaks we fear ourselves to be.  All of us are doing both, simultaneously, to the best of our abilities each and every day of our lives.  That Nabokov can make us see that in Humbert Humbert?  He’s close to turning the American mythos inside out.  That’s what great literature does, makes one aware of the power of context.

SA: There’s certainly a vogue among academics to treat works of “genre” with this sort of elevated analysis, but your average “literary critic” still, I suspect, turns up her/his nose at anything that smells of “guilty pleasure”. And even the academics seek higher qualities in the subconscious or unintended structures of “genre” fiction, as though the “genre” writer can’t be knowingly brilliant or masterful. Phillip K. Dick is lionized for the genie of his insanity but the venerable JG Ballard suffers a borderline reputation, being neither insane nor free of the taint of science fiction, ranking below the fresh-faced Jonathan Safran Foer, presumably.

KN: Which brings us to the use of genre as the dismissive, the implication of the hack—no matter how valiantly you try to raise the word above the pejorative.  You got “Chick Lit.”  Others?  “Pot boiler.”  “Beach Read.”  “Bodice Ripper.”  Lee Abbott has said there is no such thing as unworthy stories only unworthy writing.  You mention science fiction.  If that is a genre, a predictable run-through of predictable types that is beneath the consideration of serious readers and critical thought?  Then good-bye Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke and Sturgeon and Neal Stephenson and Phillip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison.  You are better than the regression of fantasy writing?  Enjoy your life without Neil Gaiman and Ursula K LeGuin (who was hanging out here having been exiled from sci-fi) and Marion Zimmer Bradley and Lewis Carroll and that Rowling chick.  I could keep going.  The point makes itself.
 
SA: You don’t see the necessity for the barbed wire fence between “Literary Fiction” and other genres with healthier fan bases.
 
KN: I have no patience for any form of elitism when it comes to content.  Writers get no control over their content; true writing is accomplished when the waking mind is lulled off-line so that the subconscious can transcribe directly to the page.  Lucid dreaming.  We dream what we dream.  Our control enters, our talent, and, occasionally, a gift in the matters of craft, shaping that dream so that it may be dreamt by others.  If my intent is to make you see unicorns or to make you taste the first slug of scotch after having been dumped by your girlfriend, all that counts is how real I am able to make the conch shell spiraling of the unicorn’s horn or the smoky bite of that scotch as it slides by the iced over fire where your heart used to be.  All that counts is if I can recreate a believable other world inside your mind.  The ability to do so is all I have ever wanted.  If that isn’t magic, what then would be magic’s definition?
 
That is the short form of my reality when it comes to genre.  I know there’s no escaping the human need to organize and quantify and make judgments of quality based on the silliest of scales.  I do it all the time, myself<–viciously judgmental.  I know I’m going to be classified as a mystery by bookstores.  I’m grateful to the bookstores for shelving me wherever.  I know my publisher is going to market me as women’s fiction.  It’s unbelievable good fortune to have a publisher at all, and yeah, I do write on topics that are of more interest to the laaaadies.  I know a lot of important writers are going to dismiss me without reading my work because it is women’s fiction sitting in the mystery section and they can’t afford to waste time reading such nonsense.   And that’s okay.  I don’t read their books either.  Because I get bored very easily.  Elitists tend to write boring books.  Not to mention I get all Ms. Snooty McSnoot-Snoot over The DaVinci Code
 
In the very end, I no longer care to call my books anything other than fiction.  I write what I want and need to write.  I work my fingers and brain to mush trying to craft something a certain sort of reader might enjoy.  Then I walk out to the edge of the world and toss my creature into the abyss with the fondest hope that somewhere in the pages I thought to pack a parachute.  Or better yet, wings.
 

Links to Karen Novak’s work:

www.bloomsburyusa.com 

karennovak.wordpress.com

the mapmaker

   

ironically the
mapmaker has lost himself. the stars
swarm shining in the unfamiliar politic
of an improved
zodiac, the compass pin
spins irresponsibly and moss
grows on
all sides of the oak now. before he was even human
he was able to locate the
insignificant speck of
an egg on the
vast red continent of
the womb. how could he now be
so lost? his hunger
decorates the dark woods with

a fire he puts
rabbit on, nostalgic for the days
he petted them. twigs in the fire
curl like atomic tracks. the forest
feels abandoned. Fall roams through, a
mute landlord inspecting
property at night.