Category Archives: Godardish

Eryn; Edwina [from CITY OF AMATEURS]

tors

Eryn said get this he unzips his pants and asks is it big enough. The waitress still hadn’t fetched their drinks. Eryn gave the room an orphaned look and continued so the dirty is done and I’m combing my ‘fro in the dresser mirror. Okay? And the bathroom door is cracked open yea wide. Okay? And I kind of glimpse my new friend is doing his pee pee like literally sitting down on the toilet. The hell is that?

They were slouched at the bar in Chez Guevara, laughing so American that nearby patrons turned tolerant smiles on them. If tolerant smiles were deathrays they’d be cinders. Edwina said Eryn, my dear, don’t you know all German men pee pee sitting down?

-Ever since Hitler, said Eryn. Hitler in Berlin is never a non-sequitur.

The restaurant was full of flatscreen televisions in fractured blue strips over the bar and on the walls and mounted in the vaulted brick ceiling. Like welcome to the video age. They saw vineyards and pokerfaced newscasters shuffle typescripts of massacre and disaster. They saw the imported copshow, or was it a German ersatz, duck and shoot, shoot and run, run and jump. Steaming orders on multiple plates hovered by on the fringe of their chit chat. Several of the screens displayed ‘70s softcore from Holland, blonde boobs and a picturesque canal you could dye your jeans in. The pigtailed girl was panting shut-eyed and heave-titted but the sound was off and Eryn imagined her strapped to a gurney in a nursing home of the present reminiscing out loud about the good old days of the beaver shot. Eryn was already homesick but determined to stick it out according to the terms of her grant. You could order cheeses in this restaurant that would make a vulture puke. Eryn’s mother’s mother’s mother had coveted locusts in honey and shat near the river by starlight. Fragments of the long-dead woman had made it to the first world and were now sitting in the second, waiting for a drink.

The biggest screen, over the bar, showed a couple of North American celebrities arm in arm at some premiere or benefit or beheading or whatever, the female demonstrating her tolerant smile against a sustained bombardment of strobes intense as the fall of Saigon. The male was just listening, looking on, did he ever talk any more, worried about dinner or money or whatever run-of-the-mill medical issue is typical for a male in the autumn of his spate. The piss comes out in a trickle and you shrink from your own edges like day-old wedding cake. Celebrities are there to remind us that the body dies. Edwina winked oh look, it’s Evadolph.

-They follow me wherever I go, said Eryn.

-White people eat that shit up. Haven’t you heard? Adoption is the new slavery.

Eryn was skinny and bakelite deco black and Edwina was proud of Eryn’s attention-getting Afro, though she wouldn’t have worn one herself, though she could have if she wanted to, with professional help, being part black (a hook-dicked Alderman on her mother’s side). Edwina’s hair was straight and coarse as an Inca’s which matched her flat features. Edwina’s face looked somehow under-utilized: maybe it was the baby fat. Her eye-popping tits. She was one of those light-skinned not-really-black black women.

Edwina was not well-read. She’d never heard of Luigi Pirandello. Eryn had but had forgotten that she had and was preoccupied with fears that she’d picked up a German yeast infection. She picked up yeast infections like corduroy picks up lint. Corduroy has the word for king in it. There was a foreign quality to her discomfort. She was itching like young red ants between her legs and prayed hard for the folk cure of her Caipirinha. Her vagina would go up in flames if the waitress didn’t show up soon to douse it. Her Afro was too big to avoid touching people. Her Afro touched up to hundreds of people a day.

Edwina was married to a beefy bisexual black lawyer named Kevin Brandischauer with whom she lived in a condominium in the Marina Towers, literally overlooking the Chicago River. Kevin said if you jumped from the observation deck you would splat on the other side of the river. Edwina came to Europe on ostentatious shopping sprees not despite, but because of, the weak dollar. Eryn wasn’t sure if she considered Edwina an African-American but you could only think of her as pretty if you thought of her as black. She knew that was a ridiculous thought. She said,

-It’s not like Europeans aren’t racist. Of course they are. But the difference I’m feeling since I’ve been over here is me. Back home, some educated-looking white person gives me a dirty look, deep down I think I deserve it. Am I right?

Eryn had been over for a week, her first ever trip out of the country of her birth, her first ever six-hour sleep at an altitude higher than clouds, the sensation of making a minor appearance in the pilot’s recurrent dream.

Eryn wasn’t attracted to black men and black men were only circumstantially attracted to her, she felt, though educated white men, as a rule, were absolutely nuts on the topic. They super-tipped in her presence; they copied out unattributed poems from nostalgic textbooks while daydreaming they were leaving their wives, especially the professors who volunteered to pick her up in their litter-filled cars at regional airports. She specialized in neglected dick with tenure. Every time Eryn had tried to have a learnedly witty conversation with a man of her background about the meaning of life she’d been afflicted with a self-mocking self-consciousness that killed the topic, though she admitted it was her own fault; she admitted the problem was hers.

The late great playwright August Wilson had mentored Eryn in an innercity arts program and nicknamed her Error.

Edwina asked Eryn if she’d ever had a near-death experience. It felt like a funny thing to ask, given the circumstances. Eryn said,

-The waitress is going to have a near-death experience if we don’t get our drinks soon. Why do you ask?

-I was in a house fire the day before 9/11. I mean a ten-storey apartment building. I was living on the top floor with an awesome view of Jackson Park, deep in a dream when my boyfriend at the time starts shaking me because the bedroom is full of smoke. The smoke was floating like black milk in a fishtank and it was about three feet off the floor so you stood up it would kill your ass. Back in those days I slept on a futon mattress on a hardwood floor, you could feel the heat coming up off the floorboards. I saw flames in the cracks between the floorboards.

Edwina broke off her riveting tale to watch an arresting image on the flatscreen over the bar: a Japanese girl with no arms in a black Lycra top without armholes painting watercolour kittens in a pastiche of Hokusai with a very long brush in her mouth.

By the time I got to Chez Guevara, much later than I’d planned to, still flustered after a vicious row with my first wife, Eryn and Edwina had finally had their drinks delivered and were easing under the mellowing influence of a second round. They’d moved from the bar to a table near the bar, Eryn with her back to the view of the crowded sidewalk as I entered the restaurant through the purple curtains over the doorway. Friday night’s revelers were threading in pairs and threesomes between fashionable automobiles progressing so slowly in traffic that many of the drivers were leisurely chatting up the best-looking unattached girls on the sidewalk.

I’d be lying if I claimed I hadn’t spotted what I considered a sexual opportunity in the sight of two black female tourists of a certain age, isolated in a room full of unfriendly Germans. I didn’t know either woman, at that point, but I knew what each woman symbolized (in the slightly different contexts of home and abroad). Each had advantages and disadvantages, parceled out at birth, which anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with human psychology could exploit by setting these attributes in subtle conflict. As so-called “white” women’s sexual roles changed in the West with the advent of the revolution that took only two decades to demystify the holy of holies (the reproductive aperture of the species), black women found themselves stranded in a sexual power vacuum. It was as a man mindful of a Zeitgeist in which Billie Holiday is no longer particularly sexy to any but the hoariest of tenured academics that I approached their table and inquired if anyone would mind if I joined them.

My then-wife, a model-type raised in a suburb of northern Hamburg (a village, essentially, where every house has a four-digit telephone number), had just spent two years going through a revolution of her own in Southern California. She had managed to shed every trait (except her looks) which I had found too charming to let another week pass without proposing to her, which I did a few weeks after the moment I first saw that figure parting a crowd on a street near the harbor in Hamburg. A figure with the bearing of a Wagnerian shepherdess. A long honeymoon in San Diego became an extended visa in a hell that replaced my Wagnerian shepherdess with a name-dropping, money-mad, all-American doppelgänger who wouldn’t fuck until I successfully wheedled or bribed her. I hadn’t ejaculated within five meters of my then-wife for weeks when the pressure valve blew.

It blew in the form of a fight that climaxed with us cursing and shoving and slapping each other. I had the presence of mind to throw on a blazer and exit the flat before somebody ended up in the custody of the German police or on a stretcher with an arm dangling. We’d been dressing for dinner at Chez Guevara, a pattern we’d fallen into since returning to Berlin from our ill-fated stay in America.

Later that evening, sitting on a chair by the bed in her hotel room, I asked Eryn about her novel, which she had dropped coy allusions to in the masking hubbub of the restaurant as though speaking a code she didn’t want Edwina to pick up on. She corrected me: it wasn’t a novel, it was a play. She was in Europe on a Tubman grant to complete it. This all happened years ago and I can’t be counted on to remember my conversation with Eryn Brandischauer accurately.

-Why did you start writing plays?

-Because I could.

-What inspired you?

-I was tired of people thinking I was stupid.

-What people? Who?

-Teachers. Family. Friends.

-What did you think of working with August Wilson?

-It changed my life, but the longer I knew him, the more I developed views about his work and life I couldn’t share with anyone. They weren’t hurtful, these words about August that I had to keep secret, but they weren’t laudatory, either. An artist achieves a certain stature and anything said within earshot of the artist has to be either explicitly laudatory or implicitly laudatory, those are the rules, but I had some trouble with the fact that he spoke two languages.

-You mean he was bi-lingual?

-No, not in that sense, despite the fact he could have been, in that sense. You know his father was a German from Germany, an immigrant named Kittel.

-No, I didn’t know that.

-August spoke two languages, one that must have been true, I felt, and one I felt was false, but I could never say which was which, because it depended on who he was speaking to and also who was auditing when he was speaking to that person. But I was just some kid from Saint Paul; what did I know?

-Do you consider yourself beautiful?

-I consider myself capable of defining beauty. That’s enough.

Edwina came out of the bathroom just then and we changed the subject.

.

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The Real Jimmy Davis

 the-real-jimmy-davis

We’ve all heard of the Angel of Death, but what about the Angel of Poverty, the Angel of Rape, the Angel of Racism? They aren’t the subjects of florid poems or valuable French oil paintings. We rarely discuss them. Yet there they are.

Note for screenplay: cars as suits of armor. Animated? He leans on the horn. If the horn were a death button he’d press it even harder and far more often. He is Danny Vespers (this with a Rod Serling voice) driving home, from a pilgrimage to the hallowed gadget shop in the most masculine corner of his segregated mall, with a top-of-the-line camcorder. Danny is slightly embarrassed to bring this camcorder home to a less-than-immaculate household. High-end products give us a standard to live up to. Both in the viewfinder and in comparison, the sleek sexy camcorder made Miriam’s vagina look like an heirloom.

Can we work that into the voice-over?

***

An old idealist is impossible. At the very least, the body’s ongoing corruption as life runs out makes mock of ideals or ideas, noble or otherwise, because, check it out, the old man or woman’s bad odors and pathetic mechanical frailties are the ultimate betrayal of idealism; ultimate because irrefutably, not just rhetorically, true. Ideals are a nice decoration for physically perfect bodies: yes. And yet, the idealism of the young is idiotic. Imagine a lion cub arguing the ethical merits of vegetarianism to its parents.

***

He contemplated the fractured, contingent totality of their bored perception of him standing hip-handed in front of the class. His knees hurt. The old fuck the young as though they’re owed something. They are, aren’t they?

Vespers’s eye was on that one in the second row, that perfect little cinnamon titcake. God. Hindu? Imagine six arms in bed, a hand for each of his dicks. He had polished a suavely radical disquisition and it never failed to drop at least three students per school year in the sofabed under the curtained window in his office. Soft pink fruits with names like Tuesday or Ashley. You will be surprised to learn that instructors are still fucking students in certain private academies of higher knowledge for in the amoral old money timelessness of épater le bourgeois the parents secretly like it and provide a clear signal (like lights around a heli-pad) by naming a daughter Tallulah.

Anyone caught referring to it as “film class” would get a failing grade. Would Vespers be teaching if he hadn’t been failed by cinema?

***

Vespers was in a bit of trouble. Not for fucking Tallulah. This is how it happened. That good looking boy who actually was fucking Tallulah; Brody, Brody Camp; at some point in a discussion about Cassavetes, of all people… he says: We are here to help each other through this thing called Life…

Vespers, gunning for Brody anyway (infuriating name, pedigree, girlfriend, jawline, stature, pecs, youth and Italian shoes) goes, with a smile, tossing the chalk and snatching it down, “Thank you Mister Camp for invoking that quintessentially sappy all-American tautology we are here to help each other which is a little like claiming we exercise to build the strength to lift weights and is only trumped for sheer vacuous, well-meaning stupidity by the witlessly evil doctrine of Karma, an infinite, and therefore pointless, regress of balance and counter-balance that proposes we accept Adolph Hitler… think about it… as nothing more heinous than an agent of divine justice. Those Jews had it coming. More thinking and less reflex parroting of unexamined masscult bullshit in this class, thanks, Mr. Camp. We are here to think.”

Two days later Vespers is notified with ominous decorum of the early stages of a hate speech lawsuit being filed by the parents of none other than the Hindu titcake.

***

Miriam peered between slats in the blinds in the kitchen window towards the gazebo. Paolo was making uncanny sounds like the loyal hound in a slasher flick.

Vespers, preoccupied with this lawsuit bullshit, had left the side door of the garage ajar.

Leave a door open and something always comes in.

***

He liked the smell of his own farts. Looked forward to them. His pedagogical method encouraged what he called a living scepticism. Top positions in any field will be colonized by those with the desire but not the talent. It’s the lack of talent that breeds the desire. He said you won’t get a good grade in this class by agreeing with me. Approximately once a semester some student fell into the carefully-baited trap of asking if you know so much about movies how come you never made one?

He gave his speech about modern movies. The thesis of the cinema of tears and shit; blood being the stand-in for shit. Hollywood is not quite ready to show shit. We are not quite ready for the Hollywood shitbath.

He said: Democracy, an experiment in making freedom intolerable.

He scanned the room for reactions. His eyes sort of hopped over the Hindu girl. It occurred to him that this might turn out to be the first semester in his history as a teacher that he’d have to do without fucking a student. Or worse. Someone knuckle-rapped the bulletproof glass in the classroom door and Vespers jumped a lightyear in his skin.

Oh: just Good old Paul.

Paulie.

Over a bagel sandwich in the hot little student place about a block off campus good old Paul said thanks for taking the time.

-Come on. We’re friends.

-Longer than we’ve been married. Paul fingered the spot on his jacket’s lapel that corresponded to the spot on Vespers’s jacket lapel where he wore the black button that said The Doctor Is In and chuckled I can’t believe you’ve gotten away with wearing that all these years.

-Remember the time we brazenly rolled that wheelbarrow into the Riverpark nursery and stacked it with twenty-pound sacks of mulch and walked right out without paying and nobody said a word?

Paul set his bagel back down on its plate to laugh and nod loosely in his hands.

-It’s like that.

-Well, I always said you’d make a great cult leader.

-It’s only a matter of scale.

-Any prospects in the current crop?

-Too early to say.

-Times are hard.

-Among other things.

Paul said, God, remember how they used to say there are over a hundred words for snow in the Eskimo language?

They laughed.

-Listen, Danny…

-Uh oh.

-Yeah, it’s kind of obvious from my tone, isn’t it? I need to ask kind of a momentous favour of you.

-Shoot.

-I need you to talk to Bevvie.

-You want a divorce?

-I want to come out of the closet and I don’t know how to frame it for her, verbally, in a way that won’t sound like an apology or I don’t know. Like bragging or something. Or defiance. Or an admission of sin. Just, you know. I want it to be about relating a fact, or a set of facts, or circumstances, without the emotional or psycho-political distortion of all the baggage you build up in a long marriage which will inevitably have her searching my face for clues or deeper meanings when what I really need her to do is simply listen to and grasp and accept the facts. I don’t want this info dramatized I want it reported. I mean, if I deliver the message, I’m a kind of unreliable narrator figure, for purely circumstantial reasons, ie, her husband, regarding whom, as you know, the proper approach is, you know, forensic, mediated by a sense of the conventions surrounding the unreliable narrator’s performance, and by contrasting what the narrator presents with what we know of the greater circumstance we plug into the author’s intention. Right? But, see, there is no intention. It just is. Like a rock is or, I don’t know, this bagel. It’s just a fact which acceptance or non-acceptance is not the issue. Like oxygen.

-Paulie. Wait. What. You?

Vespers went for a drive through Inver Hills.

The mansions were pre-War, dignified, what you’d call imposing. Poor folks from down the hill when he was young would take spiraling walks up here to physically daydream convenient reincarnations into very old money. They daydreamed on foot along a curve overlooking the valley of low expectations they came up from, until a city ordinance in the early 1980s made it illegal to walk or park or dream on Inver Hills streets. There weren’t any sidewalks. It was Vespers’s guess that the rich used to enjoy the spectacle of having the poor up there before the definition of poor refined itself too sharply. Poor was no longer what you were but what you did. The armed response signs were being posted further and further down the driveways. Vespers remembered driving Miri up in the green Camaro, slowly, dreamily, in the creamy continuum of courtship, one arm around her waist. He wanted tears to well-up recalling the Kodachrome sweetness of the Kingston Trio. He wanted tears to well and over-brim imagining his old eight-track in its loyal woodgrain shell at the bottom of several generations of trash somewhere, poignantly built to survive its usefulness by a thousand years.

***

Vespers still fucked Miri to the sincere satisfaction of both parties at least once a week, occasionally pretending to be a running character named Jimmy Davis, a black burglar with an unplaceable accent. Acquiring a licorice-colored supercock in the process. A licorice nightstick as he put it to himself while putting it to Miri, who’d pretend to be chafed by it.

“Jimmy Davis” would rifle through Miriam Vespers’s underwear drawers in search of “jewelry”, uncovering a trail of carefully-placed sex aids, already switched on, plus video tapes ready to pop in the VCR and blank tapes for the camcorder. “Rape” the gagged housewife to a bebop soundtrack. Rape as kitsch and marital aid. Vespers couldn’t imagine trying to get away with using Jimmy Davis on one of his coeds, although the fact that he could derive pleasure from pretending to be a black burglar raping a white housewife without having the slightest desire to be black or rape housewives was the most personal argument he could come up with in support of his false catharsises of cinema theory. The magic of cinema being that the audience is acting, too, though not out of identification. In self-defense. Powerful cinema is no less an intruder than is Jimmy Davis. The passive gaze is the ultimate mask.

But this is what Vespers had forgotten: he’d forgotten fucking a hardship student named Ruby Davis in 1977.

***

Miriam didn’t like the way her voice sounded as she heard herself calling who’s out there?

***

Paulie pointed suddenly and precisely saying Here. Turn right here, and they pulled into a tree-lined driveway.

Vespers said Where’s the front door?

-Real mansions don’t have front doors. That’s the point, isn’t it?

Vespers tried to pre-picture the polo-shirted catamite Paulie was so eager to introduce him to as what. Justification for obliterating the little spark of joie de vivre still lingering in the body of Vespers’s (and Vespers’s wife’s) dearest friend, the poor wife Bevvie, like futile volts in a leather lightbulb? They parked in a gravel lot, in front of a kerosene shed of heavy landscaping equipment, in a row of surprisingly downscale automobiles. Vespers voiced this observation with ungaurded smugness as he unbuckled his safety belt and Paulie said gardeners. Uncloseted Paulie was suddenly scoring snob points left and right and Vespers made a mental note to crucify his friend on some intellectual matter later. All the better if it related to fiction since Paulie was teaching the subject.

Danny Vespers was plotting this fey revenge on his undeservedly loyal friend at the very moment the brother of an alumna was tying his wife to a chair in the kitchen with an extension cord he’d gotten from the garage.

Poem of The Weak

The drive up was tense not only because of the tritely appropriate drama of the rain but also because if he got lost on the way there was no one to call to for help. No safety net. He was forbidden from square one to store the information on a device or to print the directions on paper.

*

The directions appeared one morning in an audio loop that disabled itself after ten or fifteen minutes, a loop accompained by a black screen, a loop in the form of a sonnet. He’d been chanting it to himself for forty eight hours with an eerie pride in knowing that medieval illiterates had done it in much the same way. Further back than that, too, because songs in the fog of unmetered time had been less often used as entertainment than mnemonic devices of desperate importance. Didn’t antediluvian Asians in birchbark canoes navigate the Aleutians to landfall on North America using chanted sea maps? Or something.

*

He was roughly a third of the way through the sonnet and maybe two thirds of the distance to the compound and all of the clues had worked out very smoothly. But what if they hadn’t? He’d been on the road for seven hours. His team was up for an Emmy. He had inside information that the world would end before they won it.

*

Of course he could have cheated and written the directions down but he hadn’t wanted to. He longed for that new beginning. He hungered to start afresh. No more lies or cheating. Lose weight, no television, early nights and mornings. Stop masturbating. He had less than twelve hours, driving from several states away, making rest stops to eat and/or relieve himself, to get there before the others took steps to block the old dirt access road. To make the place impenetrable. If you can’t stop cold turkey, cut back to reasonable levels, at least. He thought of a cool title: Get fit at the Apocalypse Spa.

The new kind of man he was to become was not the kind who’d find himself bashing his Amherst-enhanced brain for four days against three lines of sitcom dialogue, of this he was certain. Like a chain of hyper-haikus from the sinisterly dumb future, various versions were branded on the soft white flesh of his consciousness.

Lola Beedo: I just love that dress you’re wearing, darling!

Elke Hall: (warily) Why, thank you, doll.

Lola Beedo: (beat) Tell me, does it come in human sizes, too?

*

He thought of a picture someone had posted on the message board in the production team’s lounge. The multi-Emmy-award-winning production team’s lounge. A photograph from 1905. The young Ludwig Wittgenstein in a class picture from his days in the Realschule in the city of Linz and there, a distance of one or two students to the upper right (a knight’s move, as Nabokov would have put it), looking resigned to his fate, is Ludwig’s classmate Adolf Hitler. The fact being that nothing Wittgenstein had subsequently done as a philosopher, no great strides in ethics or logic or the lyric aprehension of mathematics, amounted to a hill of beans compared to the contribution he could have made had he taken the opportunity to act decisively during the long walk home from school one day and crushed young Adolf’s skull with a paving stone. In other words, not only thought but direct action is required of us at certain pivotal moments. And not only action but a little prescience helps too.

*

Hamilton Gold, the head writer, always said name me what’s funnier than decapitation. But, he’d say, let’s see if the audience is there yet. He’d looked over the bit quickly on Monday, flipping the pages in that idiot-savant scan of his and immediately picked out the three lines they’d been having trouble with and shook his head, I like the bit but fat jokes are dangerous. Fat is our demographic, don’t forget. How about substitute fat with slut? Slut is funny.

*

Gold propounds a theory that sitcoms govern Congress. What people laugh at is exactly how they will vote. Americans can’t bomb a country until they’ve laughed at it a little bit first. Maybe he took the sentiment more seriously than Gold had intended but pretty soon he was feeling like J. Robert Oppenheimer in that porkpie hat hearing the phrase comedy has known sin and he’s on the internet at 3:14 in the morning, looking for absolution.

*

No one knew that he’d based the popular character of Elke Hall on his mother. He had inside information that it was the end of the world and he hadn’t even notified her.

*

Beyond the rain and the ticking of the clock, drama or any sense of a grand doomsday epic on the road itself was sorely lacking. No roadblocks or frenzied hordes or menacingly black or fluorescent sunset: just zonked-out commuters in start-and-stop traffic on the long way home from the daily deathsentence of work. Most of these people were only vaguely aware of things, if at all, and the precious few who considered the situation anything to lose sleep over had lost sleep over so many looming catastrophes of the past that this recent matter would strike them as little more than more of the same. Tonight they would go to bed after a starchy meal, vacuous television and perfunctory sex per usual. A couple of pills and out like a light. How typical to be wrong the one time it counted. The one time it counted in a thousand years, you dumbshits. You call your wife to come out on the porch to have a look and less than a second later you’re all dead.

*

What gave him a kind of vertigo when he contemplated it was how close he had come to being just like them. Before that life-changing night on the internet which fanned into a dozen online conversations, each conversation in turn fanning out into a hundred others, and all of those but the crucial one petering out…the crucial one connecting to his special contact to the man whose vision he had now irrevocably made himself a part of. Yes, thinking back on it, it was amazing…how cloaked in the ordinary it had all once seemed. How something appeared in the inbox of a personals account at a no-hoper’s dating site he’d signed up to pseudonymously because it was free and therefore relatively untraceable: a message exactly two sentence fragments long. Two months later, after visiting god-knows-how-many encrypted sites and exchanging deepcover spam mails and vital details in chatrooms he found himself paypal-ing a mindboggling sum into an account set up in a Biblical name.

Eighty acres of land and five years of provisions for twenty three people (they’d done their best to balance male with female but visionary survivalism is not, strictly speaking, a female interest, so nine females and fourteen males. But their unflinching honesty about this state of affairs reassured him). No couples or families or friends. Only loners with college degrees…professionals older than 27 and younger than 55, disgusted with mainstream politics, wary of organized religion, environmentally friendly but not averse to the occasional bar-b-que. All strangers to one another. All white.

*

Sid Caesar.

*

Radio was out of the question, in case some catchy tune came on and drove the sonnet out of his head. What he had was seven hours of motordrone and rubberhum and occasional rainfry sizzle on the roads. That and talking to himself. He supplied his own commercials. He thought of the Man from Glad, that futuristic Aryan hovering in a jetpack to shill ersatz Saranwrap to sexually frustrated newlyweds. He thought of The Beatles’ rooftop concert and George switching his amp back on in open defiance of the bobby. He thought: of course the whole thing could be a clever scam.

But the verisimilitude of the finework of paranoiac details like emailing strategies such as using spam prosodies for deepcover (mploy *black anal virgin* n subj. line & spyprgs wnt rd ur eml) had convinced him. Or how the ambiguously allusive chats he’d had with the man himself, the chats on the gratis personals site, had been regularly scheduled for 3:14 in the morning, based, he realized, on the value for pi and he wasn’t exactly sure why but that last detail had soothed him. Assuaged his fears.

*

I’m cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

*

When traffic slowed to a crawl he took the opportunity to peek into other cars. All those faces in profile, innocent with impatience or boredom. For the first time in his adult life he found himself loving humanity.

The automobile beside his to the right was a bruise-blue vintage Ford with a cream-white top, a big old iron box of a thing, perfectly preserved, its contour suggesting a jut-jawed crewcut profile and containing, as it happened, two male passengers with just that style of haircut. The driver could plausibly have been the father of the boy in the passenger seat. They both had brown hair…the guessed-brown on a vintage b&w picture tube…and they were so animated in that hatefully cheerful and perfectly postured way you’d expect in the kind of midcentury film the car and their haircuts seemed keyed to. You can’t see two males like that without automatically picturing the female that belongs with them. The bandana and the oven cleaner. The bubble bath and the shapely leg and the drawer of “female items” you aren’t even allowed to open in your mind, forbidden as the Arc of the Covenant in the cabinet under the sink.

He wondered, for a bemused moment, if he wasn’t hallucinating, or if such types in just such a car weren’t obviously time-travelers. Terrorists from the future, because that’s what they will look like, although, wait, he keeps forgetting that the future has already arrived. Would he be crossing state lines with a trunk full of firearms otherwise?

*

Lola Beedo: I just love that dress you’re wearing, darling!

Elke Hall: (warily) Why, thank you, doll.

Lola Beedo:  (beat) Tell me, did Bill Clinton design it?

He’d never known a girl named Amanda. He’d never been slapped in the face. Why was he sad about these two facts?

In the script margin Gold had scribbled, Bill who?

*

They had a regular skit called “Poem of the Week” that was supposedly topical. In the memos Gold had taken to referring to it as Poem of the Weak and the written phrase had acquired a poignance and profundity all its own. He swears he saw Gold’s assistant-to-the-assistant wiping her eyes and sniffing furtively after reading that phrase. Honey-baked boobs out to here.

*

The dream he held both dear and sheepishly for its foolishness was the dream of the girl who is waiting for him, waiting at the compound, one of the nine, the most beautiful of the nine, the barefoot heroine in rustic clothing without whom he had been rudderless, unmated, bereft for all these years. She’ll step intuitively out onto the porch of the rambling woodframe house in order to watch him drive up, her tomboy heart quickening to the recognition. She’ll smile tentatively as he greets her with an ironic salute, lugging his trunk of munitions stiff-legged towards the front steps, winded but amused by the exertion, shrugging off her offer to help him carry the massive thing. Golden-haired, curly-haired, of solid pioneer stock. She’d say, the others are inside.

-I’m the last?

-We thought you weren’t coming. We were preparing…

-To mine the road.

-Yes.

She’d hold the door open for him. She’d search his face as he squeezed his way past the woodland aura of her health into a sort of vestibule that opened into a large, high-ceilinged room, a room with a rough, honest look to it: a gathering place for the strong, the wise, the bravely sad. Oil paintings of country life on the walls, maybe. Old bay mares. Or, no, something ironic like Victorian portraits or blue period Picasso. A dynastic sort of fire snapping twigs in the hearth. Quiet conversations here and there tapering off as he sets his clanking trunk at his feet and senses her feminine presence gather force at his side as he takes everyone in while catching his breath, the late arrival at a party in honor of the end of the fucking world. Peripherally he’d feel her delicately hawk-eye him for the subtlest reaction to everything as though her self-esteem depended on his acceptance of the new reality. As though she’s putting herself in the picture with him and hoping there’s a fit.

*

Then it hit him who She was. She was Donna Douglas aka Ellie Mae Clampett and only then did the improbability of the fantasy mock him and he leaned on the horn and spoke in the precise duration of the car’s grievance as a motorcycle cut in front of him. He realized in a fleeting panic that he couldn’t remember the name of former president Jimmy Carter’s brother; if that went, could a key line from the sonnet be far behind? He then wondered in a morphed extension of this panic if he’d left the shower on. Which extended and morphed yet again into the awful realization that he’d left all his speed in a fannypack in the gym bag on top of his bedroom dresser. How was he supposed to get through the Apocalypse without his vitamin S?

*

He considered turning back for it.

*

The howdydoody Ford lurched forward and fell behind in the maddening traffic. Lurched forward and fell behind. It caught up again in a fanfare of horns he added his note to and he saw with self-perplexing irritation that the father and son were indifferent to the agonies of the traffic jam. Just chatting away. Even their windshield wiper seemed relaxed in the offhandedness of its gesture and the two reached up all smiles and lowered their sun-shades as an errant beam levered under the lowered lid of the late-afternoon rainmass with gospel brilliance. The beam illuminated them grinsquinting at eyelevel, goop-haired and adam-appled, a hit show, monster ratings from 1957 broadcast straight into the traffic beside him.

He pictured the mom, coiffed and trim in her gown in a pensive pose smoking in the living room window, the young trees in a line in the front yard doing the Watusi and all the televisions off, the radios off, the wall clocks off, the power dead and the Frigidaire silent in the tabernacle of the kitchen. She’s awed by the roiled heavens and so moved by the glory of God’s vast hand as it shapes the wind and the waters and green leaves plucked living from the trees that she forgets to worry about her own boys on the road at the mercy of it, the mystery of life and her place in it. And the man out there, the survivalist, the comedy writer, the agnostic visionary out there in her Christian storm, a half-Jewish Noah saving the world one shaky ego at a time.

*

Lola Beedo: I just love that dress you’re wearing, darling!

Elke Hall: (warily) Why, thank you, doll.

Lola Beedo:  (beat) The perfect outfit for a decapitation!

Three Conversations, One Real [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

She walks against the wind like it’s some kind of trick staircase in headlong lilts like Arabic script towards the filthy Post Office. Everything is filthy: phone booths, convenience stores, sidewalks. Everything. Everything stinks of singed garbage and the revealed interior of the body. This is what they mean by that beautiful euphemism urban blight. She would chuckle but she does all her laughing on the inside these days for she has recognized the wisdom of not transmitting, of no longer being a sender. Instead she is a receiver. A perfect receiver of threat’s end-of-the-dial broadcast, out there where the satellites sing. Her peripheral vision is so sharp she can read the commercials on the sides of the buses as they heave by without even lifting her disgusted gaze from the filthy sidewalk. Gobs of spit like dissolving emeralds. A mound of hominid shit in a doorway.

It’s a long trudge against a devil wind during which she reflects on the twists and turns of her long life while also remaining vigilant to the obvious. That murder of little Negresses skipping rope at the corner. That bandanna’d kid with the splintered pool cue. Where do these demons come from and why do they never leave? Trying to out-last them has been a futile project. She’s seen these same kids hanging around this block for thirty five years now and if you get close enough she bets the rope-skippers are wizened and wrinkled and smell of camphor, a notion that shivers in her shoes. You touch a face and the cheek crumbles off on your fingers. She used to buy peanut brittle in pound-sized buckets from a shop that used to be where that pimp is standing, talking into his hand and getting answers. She forgets what she’s carrying: is this a manuscript for her dead agent Cy?

She had waist-long hair kept braided and stuffed under a Chicago White Sox baseball cap for years due to vivid premonitions of being scalped but now she’s wearing an auburn wig and if any scalpers come she’ll just toss the wig at them as a diversionary tactic. This is the auburn wig that belonged to Lillian Hellman when the name Lillian Hellman meant something. In other words: take heed. Her deep-pocketed house coat is laden with teak-handled steak knives from a set someone gave her on some holiday nobody celebrates anymore which she absentmindedly slips into one or the other pocket whenever she dons her scowl like a white visor and steps outside on these unavoidable errands in the too-bright realm of incipient harm. She is bent and a-clatter with cutlery. She is lugging a parcel. Secondhand books for her son who is incarcerated in a foreign prison. Extremely imaginative fiction is his only hope.

She turns left on Woodlawn Ave and she figures she’s about a twenty-minute walk from the old Stagg Field where that Henry Moore blob commemorates something about something that used to make her worried about walking near the spot on the way to her lectures and Georgie of course would run right towards it and the more she yelled get away from that thing the faster he’d run. And now, of course, he’s incarcerated.

More and more often she finds herself thinking in a forgetful fury of all those martyrs to emptiness, the women who died for the sake of nothing better than some man’s shitty orgasm. Three in her family alone: her big sister Eda who perished in a blind fever of complications from an illegal abortion she slipped off to with the very first night of the Ed Sullivan show as her cover… then the adopted daughter of one of her brother’s exes who was strangled and raped in that order. And Carole, of course. The Pill. The cancer. Oh Carole, Carole, Carole, Carole.

A young man with his narrow back to her, waiting for the light, twists for a wary glimpse as she approaches the curb intoning her daughter’s name. There’s a broken brown leaf like an Indian-head nickle stuck in his modest irregular Afro and he is a lovely chiffon yellow like the young Smokey Robinson. In his dirty pink shirt and dress pants.

“I just finished reading Senelitá this morning,” he says, improbably enough, his softly puzzled face turning away from her. He scans for a gap in the cars coming.

“Svevo?” she responds cautiously, patting her coat pocket; rattling her knives.

He scratches an elbow but doesn’t turn again to face her, so intent is he in divining the traffic. She has to strain to hear when he says, “It was a bitch. A real disappointment. Not an inch of room in the whole book for yours truly the reader to decide what he is thinking about what Svevo is trying to say.”

“Listen,” she responds, with a shoo-fly gesture, “Don’t forget when he wrote it. Silent films were a dream of the future. Narrative technology…” But she catches herself. From the look of sharp disbelief the yellow black man turns on her before dashing across the street through a sudden gap in traffic she comes to realise that his half of this exchange never happened.

She had been about to say something regarding that famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where a monkey tosses a tapir’s leg-bone into the sky and it match-cuts to a Pan Am space shuttle. She is less overwhelmed by embarrassment at making a fool of herself than crushed by disappointment that she won’t be finishing the conversation.

But then she thinks: why not?

2

“It was like listening to a fucking mugging.”

“Jesus.”

“Like listening to your mother…my mother…getting mugged during a transatlantic…”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus is right. Tell me about it. I timed it. Have you ever had a six minute coughing fit? Two minutes seems long. Poor thing. But that’s not even the worst.”

They were driving along on a brilliant day at a leisurely pace behind a sleek modern hornet-yellow streetcar. In the back window of the streetcar sat a pretty young girl in a pink top showing some profile. Mr. Rand found lapsing into a faint approximation of Mr. Bacon’s laddish speech irresistible.

“Only a Berliner would do that,” said Hakim Bacon. “Sorry to interrupt you. About your mother and all. But only a Berliner would do that.”

“I mean,” said Hakim, putting the Mini in gear again with a grunt of disgust as the Strasssenbahn in front of them disgorged itself of a paltry two passengers and juddered forward, “How long we been following this thing? Six? Seven? Blocks? And her there posing. Like Queen Regina on a fucking stamp.”

“Normal thing would be A, turn your back and forget about us or B, fuck it and wave or something. Make contact.”

“Oh fuck yes. Girl from Bristol? She’d’ve hopped off and importuned us for a ride by now. I was reading something recently.”

“Yeah?”

“Guess how many American tourists are struck by cars in the UK annually due to left-right flow of traffic confusion. On average. Guess.” Without waiting for Mr. Rand to guess, Hakim Bacon said, “Fifteen fucking hundred.”

“Surprising.”

“Well, it’s all kept very hush hush, innit? Fucking Tourist Board. That’s what I’d call a right conspiracy, mate. And that’s the fucking Tourist Board. Not exactly bloody Casa Nostra. I mean.”

“If the British Tourist Board is capable…”

“Exactly. Shudder to think what fucking Coca Cola gets up to when the moon is full. At the end of the day…”

“Or Microsoft.”

“Or Microsoft. Or the bleeding Pope. Look at her.” Hakim took his left hand off of the steering wheel and waved it facetiously from his window, wriggling his fingers. His flapping hand was huge on the toggle of his bony wrist and too big for the sleeve of his retro-futurist Nehru.

“Ten quid says she don’t react. Just you watch. Fucking chronic. What’s the worst?”

“The worst?”

“Your mother. If her coughing fits… if they aren’t…”

“Oh. Yeah. No, the coughing fits… if only they were the worst. Two weeks ago…”

Mr. Rand broke off and calculated. Was this something he wanted to share? He’d known Hakim for years but he was just the guy you went to if you needed a fake passport, expensive stereo equipment, or a child bride from Russia. Yes and for the assassin’s drug of choice, as Hakim put it. You went to Hakim Bacon of Bristol.

Hakim was half-German and half-Pakistani but spoke with an accent so cynically-musical that he inspired infinite confidence in his capacity to fix pathetic problems for a fee. He’d seen and done and brokered everything. He was bony and tall and dressed in the manner of a DJ who always wore those sunglasses like a tiara, those big red sunglasses on Hakim Bacon’s sleek black bangs with royal pomp. Did Mr. Rand want to open up to Hakim? This wasn’t some hilarious third-party narrative about sexual humiliation he was dying to tell. This was Mr. Rand’s mother they were talking about. A story about terrible nakedness. A story about second-infancy’s sanity-free slapstick and dread. She used to be a writer.

“Two weeks ago,” prompted Hakim.

“I call her. The phone rings and rings. It’s about 9 o’clock her time so I know she can’t be out. She has to be home, glued in front of that television…”

“Loudly agreeing with some big-haired video-fascist who she thinks of as her only friend.”

“Yeah. The phone keeps ringing and I’m getting worried. Finally, she answers, sounding. I don’t know. Strangely… detached? I go, Ma. What are you up to? She goes: I had an episode. I go: an episode? What sort of episode? She goes: you know, an episode. At this point she’s whispering into the phone, because she doesn’t want the neighbors to hear. It took me quite a while to get the story out of her.”

Mr. Rand cleared his throat. “Basically, she somehow just rolled off her bed, naked and ended up pinned between her bed and the wall. She was lying there that way all morning, all afternoon, well into the night. When I called, she managed to pull the phone by its cord off the nightstand to answer it.”

Hakim was frowning with distant concentration as he parked the car in front of SPACE BAR, which was a student café by day and a spiritual battleground for second-tier models by night.

“Blimey.”

“Blimey is right. Lock it?”

“Nah.”

They threaded their way between the tables laid out like the monotone squares of a madman’s chess board in front of the café and found a free spot beside three plaster-dusted workmen, each wearing a dusty blue bandanna as a hat and a pair of opaque white goggles like a necklace, staring at the street with dormant menace, protecting tall glasses of beer. Glancing at a menu and handing it to Mr. Rand, Hakim lit a cigarette and immediately stubbed it out.

“How’s your thing coming? With, uh. You know. The bird with the….” He made a facial expression with bulging eyes to convey the concept of large breasts.

“Hannah?” Mr. Rand stuck the pointer finger of his right hand across his upper lip in simulation of a mustache. Simultaneously, but very subtly, he lifted the palm of his left hand upright.

Hakim laughed. “Right.”

After they had ordered, but before the table was cluttered with food, Hakim spread a map out on it.

“As you can see,” he said, squinting contemplatively, “This is a map of Germany, the bit which is extremely near to the Polish border, and, lo, here’s a bit of Poland, too.”

He tapped the upper right corner of the tattered old map. “What we’re talking about here is basically a part of the world that the Silesians who dwell there like to refer to as Silesia. Silly old them. Used to be German, not really Polish now and land there is fucking cheap. Which is where you come in with your grand American scheme, if I’m not mistaken.”

Hakim tapped Mr. Rand’s shoulder and Mr. Rand thought how pure whites never do that. “Bloke named Wenceslas Wenceslasovitch or whatever…right out of central casting… big red hands like raw hams… massive geezer with a yellow mustache… wants to sell his portion of a parcel of land that is well nigh fifty hectares, mate.”

Hakim paused for dramatic effect and looked Mr. Rand in the eye. “Have you any idea how fucking big a hectare is? Really, have you? I doubt it. I hadn’t a clue myself, to be honest, till I checked up on it.” He paused again. “One hectare. Ten thousand square meters. Ten bloody thousand. That’s one hundred acres. To give you an idea: your average suburban plot of land is half an acre or one acre tops. Our friend Wenceslas owns 14 hectares of this fifty-hectare plot and he wants to liquidate his bit, he wants to be rid of it, for a very reasonable price… you’ll laugh when you hear it. You’ll die laughing when you hear what he wants for his 14 hectares, I guarantee it… joke of the year… and that includes three farm houses and a barn and a fucking well without a dead cat down it.”

Hakim lit another cigarette and sat back and took a long drag on it, acknowledging with a satirical nod the cement-cold stare of one of the dust-covered workers who happened to find himself in the path of Hakim’s second-hand smoke. Under his breath Hakim said, “Put on your gas mask and lovely goggles if the smoke troubles you, darling,” and then, louder, to Mr. Rand, “There’s only one drawback, as I see it.”

Languidly his head went back as his mouth opened and out came what appeared to be a quivering x-ray of his skull. “The other thirty five hectares of the property in question is owned by Wenceslas’s dear old mum and she’s firmly against having the land sold off in bits. There’s a bright side, though… and I wouldn’t be mentioning all this if there weren’t.” He stubbed out the just-started cigarette, winking at the dust-covered worker and his two chums, who hadn’t uttered a word or moved very much at all since Mr. Rand’s last nervous appraisal.

“Right,” said Hakim. “The bright side. Mother is at death’s door, innit? Cancer of the heart or something. She’s like 99, this bird is, 99 on stilts and the wind is kicking up. She falls dead, Wenceslas can do what he wants with the property. You give him fifty thousand in one cash payment, you give me seven thousand for my time and expertise, you pay certain fees and sign certain documents with the Polish government, and you’re suddenly the lord of all you survey. Hear it’s real nice in the fall. No neighbors to speak of. Wolves. Folk tales. Nice. Whatcha think, then? I get 33% of my fee up front before you contact the seller, of course. Refundable within thirty days if the deal breaks down. Which I can’t see happening, frankly.”

“So now we’re just waiting…”

“For a poor old lady…”

“Right.”

Hakim winked and lit another cigarette and studied passersby on the street a good long time. A smile unfurled on his face. “Not that you have to.”

“Excuse me?”

“Wait, I mean. Not that you have to wait.”

Mr. Rand felt the future open up under him.

3

Q: Now that you’re dying… we are, literally, between the first and second blow being delivered to your skull by the intruder’s blunt object (probably a watchman’s flashlight)… we wonder if you’d mind answering a few questions about life as you lived it?

A: Not at all.

Q: This photo. Who is it?

A: My sister and me. Surprising, isn’t it? We look like fashion models there, all dressed up, posing in front of a fountain. I don’t remember where the fountain was but you can see tourists milling around in the background so I’m assuming a world capitol. Maybe Paris. Our first trip to Europe.

Q: You are how old in this photo?

A: I’m afraid I can’t give you a precise answer but I’d say twenty, twenty one. Maybe twenty two. I think it must have been the early 1950s. The haircuts and the fashions have both come back, haven’t they? Everything always comes back but the people. Jean said that once and I thought it was sad and funny. I thought she was sad and funny. My little sister Jean.

Q: Can you remember for us what your interests were at the time of this photo?

A: The interests of any young woman of a certain class during the era. One had the feeling that things had loosened up after the war…there were cracks in the facade we thought we might squeeze through. People think of the 1950s as a particularly repressed era in American life for some reason but never in the history of the planet had so many non-aristocratic people been so well-educated and so ready to use this knowledge to make the world a better place. All of the seeds of the so-called counter-culture of the 1960s were planted during the 1950s and we thought it was a terribly exciting time. I even toyed with the idea of becoming an Abstract Expressionist painter. But maybe that was later.

Q: You say you toyed with the idea. Nothing came of it?

A: I’d like to say that I realized soon enough that I had no talent and so gave it up in a gesture of frank self-awareness, but it was worse than that. I think I realized that talent had very little to do with how far one might go with it, so to speak. I’m a very quick study in some cases and I made my observations and came to my conclusions. Art is just another facade we flatter ourselves with. The race, I mean. The human race. We flatter ourselves that we aren’t just herd animals with a pecking order, concerned mostly with power, food and, you know, reproduction.

Q: You were clear-eyed at a young age.

A: Well, not to seem too full of myself, but any so-called attractive young girl with enough of a brain in her skull picks up massive amounts of this information…call it the animal verities or the herd report…she picks it up at a very young age. The attention that’s paid and the nature of the attention and the kind of things one is punished for and the nature of the punishment. You learn it all in puberty. The lesson never really gets any more complex as you grow older and even more so-called attractive…it simply repeats itself until you finally really genuinely in all sincerity get it, like that Kafka story with the machine carving a sentence over and over again in the prisoner’s flesh. You get that aha moment.

Q: When did you first leave America for a substantial amount of time?

A: If by substantial you mean more than a few months I’d say in 1968. I was a grown woman, no children, money from a divorce settlement in the bank and nothing to keep me. There was a darkness in America…maybe the darkness was mostly in Philadelphia…but anyway I decided to sell my things and throw a party and just be done with it. But that was only my first escape. I came back with my tail between my legs two years later, having attempted to live as a single white woman in Morocco. Morocco was the destination of choice in 1968 for a certain crowd but for me it was a disaster.

Q: Cultural differences?

A: Yes, but not between myself and the so-called natives…between me and the expats. A more horrible group of people you can’t imagine. It was truly as though North America and pretty much all of Western Europe had systematically rounded up all the lotus-eating dilettantes and nouveau-riche snobs with a passion for throw-pillows and deported them to Morocco. It took me about a year to get myself permanently un-invited from every dinner party thrown there. Not that I minded. I very much enjoyed being alone.

Q: No problems at all with the indigenous culture? No incidents?

A: Well, if you call a near-rape an incident, yes. Once. It was very late and I was being foolish, singing to myself quite loudly. A man had me by the neck suddenly and I found myself in a sort of courtyard lit only by the moon. He had a knife that was not very big but it looked very sharp, glinting in the moon light and he kind of pantomimed that if I made the slightest sound he’d cut my throat. It’s very funny what happened. When he opened his robe and revealed his, you know…his erection, I suppose it’s okay to say…rather than struggle or look horrified I reached up and sort of gently…well, this is slightly embarrassing but there you have it. I stroked him there like a lover. And he was absolutely so revolted by the gesture that he shrank back from my touch and fled as though I were a witch. Not before spitting copiously on me, of course. But I had saved myself with my knowledge of human psychology and I was very proud of the fact and I even wrote home about it. I seem to remember trying to turn it into a poem or a short story but nothing came of it.

Q: When did you leave America permanently?

A: Lots of my friends and acquaintances claimed that they’d leave the country if Reagan won the election but I was the only one who made good on the threat.

Q: But you didn’t move straight away to Poland.

A: Oh no. There was a kind of a long filtration process at work. First I tried London. But I found soon enough that I longed for a certain quality that life in Morocco had had. That sense of perfect solitude one only achieves when surrounded by people speaking a language one is blissfully ignorant of. Even being literally alone, out in the woods or on a mountaintop, can’t match it.

Q: So you you tried Germany.

A: Yes, next came Germany. This is like the story of Goldilocks, isn’t it? But the Germans were too cold. And it was, what, only about forty years after the end of the war and there was just too much baggage. It was an extremely neurotic culture. Seven days a week and twenty four hours a day of over-reactions. You’d chide someone for cutting in front of you in a queue at the post office and he’d react as though you’d accused him of gassing Jews.Then, I met my future husband, and I suppose my head was turned by the fact that he owned and ran art galleries, and he was technically a count, a Polish count, this dashing blonde with a name it took five whole seconds to say in its entirety. I actually timed him saying it once. And he didn’t seem to mind that I was no longer, shall we say, thirty. Or even forty. Though I’ve managed to keep the same figure I had at twenty, which is one of the few advantages of being flat-chested.

Q: And you were happy?

A: Well, I didn’t expect to end up in a farm house in the middle of nowhere on the border between Germany and Poland on a plot of land too big for me to walk across in an afternoon, no. And I never dreamed that one day I’d become the stepmother to a forty year old drunk who likes to sun himself in his birthday suit even in the middle of winter…that’s a “no” too. But he’s a sweet-natured boy. I’m sure he’ll be devastated when he discovers my body.

Q: Thanks very much for your time.

A: You’re very welcome.

Notes for a Story about What Happened

photo by SG

I’m going to tell you a lie and you’re going to believe it. You will have no choice. I will tell you the truth, too, but that you’ll doubt. Also inevitable. The lie will be seductive because it is something you already know.

I didn’t love her.

I got the call on the train, at lunchtime, and believe it or not I was actually watching the news (the Nth iteration of it) on a ceiling-mounted monitor as I answered the phone, swaying with the train. A Hollywood coincidence. The Malaysian with his infuriating grin. I was thinking give me ten minutes with that cunt in his padded cell. I was thinking ten minutes and a hammer. I could do it in five. Hello?

-Is this Steven?

She was five foot seven, about one hundred and twenty pounds. I don’t know if they weighed her after; what the procedure is; what she even looked like. Put her on a scale in a plastic bag. I do know that she’d just signed up for a fitness course and that is what always angers me when I think about it, the time and effort she wasted. Getting back in the game. But then some stupid cunt with his grand ideas. His belief system. Some vast sea of stupid cunts with their million raised fists called a belief system.

Note: the fistfight we got into in Limbo.

Note: also, the argument in class with Herr Wieland about the word “Jew” in the story and how I then lost my job over it. He hadn’t written the story: I had. It was a published story. Wieland claimed the term was pejorative.

Note: tie it together. Something about violence. But what?

-Is this okay? Does it hurt?

-No, it’s good. It’s okay, it’s good.

-Can she hear us?

-She’s asleep.

-We shouldn’t wake her.

-Are you saying I’m noisy?

-I’m just saying.

-You’re sweet.

But I’m not. I am what I am, and I was doing what I wanted to her, without asking first, on the gold batik bedspread on the fold-out sofa in her borrowed living room, capitalizing on her position of relative weakness as a single mother of 28 without any real career prospects. New age music down low. Or a recording of the ocean with gulls dubbed in. The inevitable candles. The inevitably post-coital, anticipated-with-genuine-dread looks of searching depth. The kinds of looks that make one’s face feel as though it’s crawling with tiny people. I buried my nose in her hair. Went to the bathroom. Anything to escape those searching looks. Jogging with Ginger the next day, I was too out of breath to go into detail. I said,

“What can I say? The earth didn’t move.”

“For you or for her?”

He gestured at a rain-glazed croissant of merd on the sidewalk and we veered. We usually veer together; this time we veered apart. Significant? Ginger, whose man-of-the-world self-image has a tendency to grate at precisely the moment I most need his worldly advice, said, “Any woman who lets you fuck her in the ass is the kind of woman you should never under any circumstance fuck in the ass.”

“So the only acceptable option is forcible sodomy, in your opinion.” I was so out of breath that it ruined my timing and killed the joke.

“Were you wearing a condom?”

“Were you?”

When?”

“Whenever.”

Last night she came back to me again: most of her hair burned off and half of her face crunchy black. I was thinking I hope I don’t see any bone. Don’t let me see the bones. Any skull or ribs or lidless eyeball. She was trying to kiss me and I was forced to be honest.

It was August of that year that I bumped into Indra while walking along Golt Strasse. I hadn’t seen her since the early part of the last decade, but walking along Golt Strasse on a Friday afternoon is a reliable method for bumping into long-lost Berliners of a certain generation. The veterans of this fossilizing in-crowd still haunt the area on weekends, shocking (and reassuring) each other with toddlers and wrinkles and receding hairlines, waltzing towards the same precipice with touching synchrony, clearing the way for the next great wave.

I knew her from the golden age on the cusp between my boredom and my stupid youth, an appetizing girl whose last name I never caught, one of the faces I’ll always associate with my first few ecstatic months in Berlin, before my increasing familiarity with the language, and its native speakers, ruined everything. Beware the expat who masters his German. We had always flirted and nothing more. We never risked touching (each assumed the other had fucked or been fucked too much), but had sometimes exchanged a certain kind of laden look on the packed dance floors of an era during which it now seems to me we all had been rather hysterically afraid to go home.

And here she was sitting in sunlight. That same black-haired girl, now a woman, or old enough to claim the title, sitting on a bench in front of a restaurant a few doors down from the café I had always seen her showing off in, looking almost exactly as she had a decade before. Half-Indian, father German, she was a mischling, as the Germans put it. Coin-colored, round-faced, voluptuous under spectacular black blades of hair. I jogged to her, grinning, and was rewarded with a crushing hug that felt more genuine than what I’d expect. Bent by the hug, I smiled meaninglessly at a toddler seated near her on the bench, hoping the child wasn’t hers, but she was.

“This is Jinny,” said Indra, introducing me to Jinny, but not Jinny to me (most probably because she couldn’t recall or had never known my name) as I took a place between them. I toasted Jinny with a Coke I ordered.

“To once being young,” I said, but Jinny just stared and Indra corrected me. She tapped her temple. “To staying young,” she smiled. “Both of us.”

Which made me feel extremely old. Several times during the conversation, Indra touched my arm and stared unwaveringly in my eyes and invited me to visit her in Bali. She painted a dreamy picture of a murmuring sea and laid-back days and Caligulan disco nights and I was touched to realize that she was looking for a man.

“Anyway” she said, as I eventually stood to leave, “Let’s hook up soon. We should really do something. It’s so good to see you again! Ciao!”

Jinny waved back (note: as though prompted) as I saluted a jaunty goodbye from the corner. It was the end of my lunch break.

I’d lucked into this incredible corporate gig, teaching creative writing to the executives of a company called Eurologika. The CEO wanted his underlings not only to speak and write English fluently but to be able to do so creatively. He wanted them to do that supposedly American thing called thinking outside the box. A dreadful cliché, yes, but I had a year’s contract.

Herr Weiss, Herr Brückner, Herr Richter, Herr Gumpenhölzl, Herr Wieland, Herr Woyczechowski, Herr Sonnabend, Herr Schlegel.

The first day (the class was on a Friday afternoon, in a conference room with a view of the canal, when most people with good jobs were already wherever they’d be spending the long weekend) saw me facing down the bemused tolerance/ mild contempt, for non-famous artists, of the typical German of a certain class. If you’re so good, why haven’t we heard of you? What is it that you do, exactly, that a hundred other people off the streets, with a little time on their hands, can’t do as well or better?

I turned the tables on them: what is it that you do?

“We design and manage systems protocols for capital storage and retrieval patterns on the Hannover model,” sighed Herr Wieland, the youngest in the room, whose headset never, in the three months I knew him, left the bluish egg of his balding head.

“Can you repeat that in plain English?”

He couldn’t. Pressing my momentary advantage, I said: “Your race, your class, your sexual preferences, national identity, earliest childhood memories, religion, education and professional standing are all stories that you have been told, and that you re-tell to others, without having a clue what the techniques and mechanics of storytelling are all about. I’m surprised you’d rather be so sloppy and haphazard about something you will do for every waking moment of your life. And in your dreams, too, and long after you die, possibly. You will be storytelling, but you don’t even really know how to. Is that a satisfactory state of affairs?”

-Is this Steven?

-Yes.

-Steven, you don’t know me. This is Indra’s sister Padme.

I was on the train during the lunch break on the ninth Friday of the class. Classes were held from 14:00 until 15:00, then a forty five minute lunch break, after which another hour or so until I dismissed them to fly off to Ibiza or Gstaad. On this ninth Friday we were critiquing the first bona fide assignment I’d given them: write a 600-word story about another member of the class.

Note: every single story they handed in was about me.

Note: exactly 600 words each.

I was staring at that little fucker’s monkey-grin face on the monitor. I’d assumed it was Ginger, calling with a new number. I looked at the phone and said,

-Excuse me?

-It’s about Indra.

A light dawned as I frowned at the monitor. Note: It’s astonishing how much thinking we’re capable of in a millisecond. Goosebumps. The coroners had shipped the recovered cellphones to the next of kin.

-Wow.

-I second that emotion.

-Your English is pretty good, you know that?

-I had good teachers.

-Is that was this is about? Free lessons?

-(laughs) I’m so glad I called you. Are you glad I called you?

-Of course I am.

-You’re not just saying?

-Would I tell you if I were?

-What do you want to do now?

Note: again the dream. She’s burning and moaning and I’m wondering if it’s pleasure. Does it hurt to burn? In the dream I’m not sure. I turned all the lights on afterwards and watched a little television before falling asleep again. Coda?

(Work this in as dialogue-possibly ironic: I firmly believe that you fake your own reality. What is a lie but the truth with a little talent? What is life but death pretending? When a katydid pretends to be a leaf, do we call that lying? The hawk moth caterpiller resembles a snake, and I resemble a hawk moth caterpiller. I lie, I get laid, I move on.)

Herr Schlegel, who looks like a JFK who’s made it to his 70th birthday with thick white hair intact and now only dresses in black, is confused. He is Herr Wieland’s picador, just as Herr Brueckner, with his off-puns and aphorisms, is the rodeo clown who breaks things up when I challenge Wieland’s arrogance; Wieland’s default pretense that any information he doesn’t already own is trivial. Everyone else is the audience. The coliseum. Schlegel says, “This story of yours, Herr Instructor, is it true?”

Note: classes were cancelled after the 12th week, but I was paid for the year.

“Define true.” At which, of course, Herr Wieland snorts.

“Did it happen as you have written it?”

“Does that matter?”

“If it is fiction, it is mere pornography. If it is true, I think, in all honesty, one must say the writer has no shame.”

“By revealing his truth, the writer reveals the reader to himself, Herr Schlegel. It’s a sacrifice we’ve been obligated to make since before Mr. Joyce.”

“Nonsense. There is nothing of me in this story!”

Wieland picks up his copy of the stapled pages and flips them until he comes to an excerpt, which he reads with such excitement, such theatrical disgust and sarcasm, that he can barely pronounce the words, let alone contain himself.

It’s the posture of submission that turns you on: the oiled flesh, brown as furniture, rich in the flamelight. The ass up and the head down with all that hair gushing forth, gushing out, a fountain of crude oil spilling over the edge and pooling on the Persian carpet at the foot of the futon, the face inclined politely away, gasping at the wall in a prayerful rhythm, the grunts of assent or helpless recognitions. So many groans are just prayer, and so much of prayer is just begging, and almost all begging is the music of pain. Her guttural prayers and my flickering shadow on her wall and those glistening streaks of her mud on me: what’s more exciting than that?

“Goatfuckers.”

Ginger, with his Jesuit upbringing, says “Don’t start.”

“Don’t start what?”

“Don’t start that intolerance shit.”

We are back in Limbo, our old club, after two months of swearing off the smoke and the sweat and the alarming influx of rich kids in from Zehlendorf, simply because there is nowhere else to go. Twice we’d tried places where the sensation that hit us like a wall of digital locusts as we entered couldn’t even be identified as music. We’d tried places that looked and smelled like the decadent version of daycare. Sheepishly, we returned to the passé nightspot we’d sworn off, and three Turkish types in payment-plan suits and pastel loafers, sunglasses mired in their highly flammable jet-black hair, have pushed across our view of the dancefloor, tugging their blondes by the rings in their noses. Two are blondes, actually, and one is not.

I finish my drink. “What intolerance shit?”

Ginger says, “Oh, come on. Remember the day Indra flew back to Bali? You were so fucking relieved you bought me dinner. And now you’re playing the grieving fiancé. Boo fucking hoo.”

I pretend not to hear and move onto the dance floor, parting a metaphorical curtain, doing my American dance. Loose in the shoulders. Impossible for Germans and alien to Asians and instantly identifiable. That and my very good shoes. I dance from the periphery in, eyes on myself, easing towards the center. The three Turks and their escorts are trying out their modern dance lessons in the middle of the crowd and I am locked on the best-looking girl in their menagerie, the taller, thinner, slightly embarrassed and attractively reticent one in dark slacks, gold pumps and ruffled white collar and sleeves. She can’t be older than nineteen. Tossing her hair. They must have kidnapped her. First you look, and then you look away, and then they look, and then they look away. There’s a rhythm to it until your eyes meet and you can all but predict the future.

.

children are not the future: the old are, obviously; are you stupid?

photo by SG

The hour was late, so late that he could expect either to witness unquiet ghosts walking the halls of the hundred year old house or fetching harlots fellating donkeys on internet porn. Okay, “fetching harlots” is grandiose. But he had an education. He wasn’t some whatever in overalls with plaster on his knees. He was unhappy with his girlfriend and what else was there to do? Other than be a voyeur to a donkey at this late late hour. Or watch the ghosts walk. Or let the ghosts watch porn.

He ejaculated to the volume-down sound of braying. He realized that he’d reached a sort of low point and the aftermath felt exactly like eating a stick of butter. Or two. You just want to back away from your own saturation. To masturbate to a brief film about a pretty girl putting a donkey’s penis in her mouth and gagging explosively on half a pint of probably caustic semen means what about how one feels about either pretty girls or donkeys? But what a great word.

Harlot.

-But donkey should be an adjective.

His girlfriend, Gwenda, asleep downstairs, was a lawyer. Sleeping a lawyer’s off-the-clock sleep, her spare-time sleep. A fitness fanatic with a nice enough body but a not-entirely beautiful face. In fact she was plain. In some lights she was not even that. Let’s be frank. While her worked-on biceps and trim waist were no illusions, her substantial bust had turned out to be somewhat of a mirage when he’d unwrapped it, greedy hands trembling, unravelling the bulges into lots of cotton wadding and air.

-What was the name of that song about vaginal moisture? A big hit. Early ’60s.

There’s cheap porn for those who like women and expensive porn for those who don’t and plenty for those who aren’t sure. Very few are sure. Like almost everything, it’s funny when you think about it because, think about it, the point is, okay, you sit through a film, not always short, waiting patiently for the payoff which is basically some male (human or dog or donkey) ejaculating. The chowdery or birdshittish or gasoliney semen, emitted by the spoonful or the cup. You’re saying you find this interesting.

Which is fine.

He was no male model but he was a lot better looking considering his gender than she was considering hers. In fact he was the best looking man she’d ever touched. Which may not be saying much etc. His relatively good looks were not an issue, initially, or, that is to say, they were an issue but in such a way that Gwenda benefitted from it. Call it Affirmative Action of the heart.

When he first saw her wearing that camelhair coat which rhymed almost religiously with her waved and buttery hair in the muted light of the subway tunnel under Christmas carols and timed festive electronics and everything. That stuff in the air called childhood. He knew straight off she wasn’t what you’d call attractive but she was something, in the aspirational competence of her effects, the hairshape and lipthickness and bustle-swell of the coat in its bosom, promising so much, though what, exactly?

-Da Do Ron Ron.

He used his sly system of saying hello to open things up. His system was I mock myself internally like Burt Reynolds while doing it but also he was quite serious in using that mustache voice he used that usually worked though the smallest part of him (the part he thinks of as his original infant humanity) felt silly. Hammy. But it worked.

-People are afraid of great actors.

It took him weeks to admit everything about her actual face to himself. By the night of full disclosure, when the makeup had grazed or sweated off and the roots had grown in and the wave had frazzled to lustreless wires, he was already, however, dangerously intrigued. He wouldn’t say smitten. Smitten was the word he was saving. “Smitten” he was guarding in a box.

-He had trained himself to speak in a lower register.

-He tweezed his eyebrows regularly.

When he made the decision to give off certain signals indicating he wouldn’t be averse to becoming the thing labeled boyfriend in her phonebook, it was with this in mind: that looks aren’t everything. And they aren’t. Weren’t. Are they? Were they? After the seven different kinds of hell his many moviestar-model-grade girlfriends had put him through, from his eighteenth year clear until the year before the night he pleasured himself watching a harlot giving pleasure to a donkey, he had come to the conclusion that a sweet-natured, forgiving and generous personality would be a welcome change in a bedmate.

No more dragon ladies, ice princesses, black widows or femme fatales. From now on: plain Janes and peppermint Patties. The Girl Next Door in an ugly suburb. He felt a sudden hunger for a lot more gratitude and much less condescension and coming to the conclusion that a ‘homely’ girl was the answer to his prayers felt like growing up. A Bar Mitzvah of sorts.

“Finally,” he thought to himself, as he kissed Gwenda’s wounded little underbite face that very first time after that sappy movie, a snowflake intact on her eyelid as he drew himself near, “you’ve learned your lesson.”

The smell of pine needles. His smile stuck shark-bulged in a blue ornament.

Things were great with Gwenda for the first few months. She laughed at many of his jokes and treated him to a detailed recap, every evening, of the day’s rich legal adventures. He discovered that during sexual congress on her living room carpet at a certain distance and angle from the floor lamp in muted light in the missionary position she resembled Meg Ryan, a famous actress of the era, but only in his suffused pre-orgasm deliria. This was a pleasant discovery.

He met her sister (slightly better looking but still rather homely though he did toy with the idea of etc), did most of the cooking, accepted expensive gifts and wondered if getting Gwenda pregnant was out of the question. He was toying with the voluptuous thrill of throwing his life away. The only thing that gave him serious pause was the thought of an ugly baby. Half-ugly at best. Accusing him with Gwenda’s small eyes and high forehead.

He shuddered.

One night, after the snow melted and all the childhood had vanished from the warming air, they fought rather passionately over something disproportionately trivial and she revealed herself, like a rainbow-colored cocoon splitting to reveal a fearsome black butterfly, as a strikingly effective bitch. Ugly faces are better at bitchery than beautiful ones, regardless of what the beautiful prefer to believe. He gazed upon the mask of her sarcasm-twisted features and thought: “She’s a bitch and she’s ugly,” and that’s when it dawned on him.

He said, “Do I look fat in this?” and her silence spoke volumes.

2.

Dearest Nate:

Perhaps I’m hallucinating on a grand scale, but when I go out in public and observe human beings at work and at play, I don’t see very much of this post-gendered world of yours that you defend against my arguments, as hard as I try (even squinting). For the most part, I see women/girls dressing up and/or pushing prams and I see men/boys horsing around, ogling cleavage, and scratching themselves. When I attend ‘fancy’ functions for people with better jobs and higher educations, I see women dressing up…and men ogling cleavage (and very discreetly, from time to time, scratching themselves). My married friends are either sexually bored-with-each-other and stable, or cheating like minks and totally comfortable indulging in passionlessly vicious verbal punch-ups in front of company.

I’m not saying I’ve never observed this state of PC Dyad Grace you seem to be eulogizing with your pep talks…I’m saying that PC Dyad Grace as I’ve observed it is generally larval, and, approximately six months into a relationship, moults its golden skin to become the twin brown moths of the lovable slob and the tolerable nag (before time gradually prefixes each adjective with an ‘un’ and an ‘in’, resp.)

The day I stumble into a happy, egalitarian, romantically sex-healthy relationship, I’ll lose about 70% of my friends, who will rightly consider my new found bliss to be a freakish and unforgivable betrayal. As post-humanly above reproach as my mate and I will be to each other, I’m hoping he’ll still get an atavistic thrill out of the fact that I can twist open jar lids, without much effort, that he couldn’t dream of budging. And me? I’ll get an atavistic thrill out of the way he looks dripping naked and pink after a shower. Anyway, you may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

Hope this letter finds you safe, warm and very dry,

Ain’t college life wonderful?

(The sarcasm of a spoiled brat, I know)

3.

Thursday evening I am on my way home from the studio. It is about 9pm. Half a block from the front door of our apartment (the large one, the old one with high ceilings; the one Ingrid inherited from her father), I pass a figure, a noirish cartoon of mercury arc light and shadow wedged in a doorway, a little guy with a cell phone, Italianate, pleading in heavily accented German, “I love you, I love you, please…please…tell me what I must do.” It’s a scene from a movie with subtitles I’ll never decipher and sub-plots I’ll never know. And yet it’s the oldest movie on Earth. It’s pre-Colombian, pre-Christian, pre-English.

I love you, I love you… please…

I’ve been there, I’ve cried for love, I’ve never pleaded, I’ve never begged for it, never offered to die or kill for it, but I have cried real tears, tears that felt like they were cut right out of the jelly of each eye with a dull blade but always I was shrewd enough to know that begging never helps. Some of my ex-girlfriends, the ones who no longer speak, who don’t answer my calls and letters, who duck me on the street or actively propagandize against me five, ten, fifteen years after the fact might call me a womanizer. Simply because I didn’t stop at any of them in the long search for my happiness.

What am I, a ball on a roulette wheel?

I’m sure they ascribed it to a short attention span, or adolescent sexual whatever it is, the fact that I often showed signs of restlessness a month or two into it, but nothing could be further from the truth. Both parties (I sound like old Gwenda here: the plaintiff and the defense) are well aware when the fit isn’t right, but only one party ever seems to have the will or the courage to admit it and utter the magic phrase that will dissolve the contract.

-I love you, I love you…please…

The desperation in that guy-in-the-doorway’s voice: I’m haunted by it. It could power an Edward Albee play. A gypsy camp. The energy of an ego collapsing. He reminds me of what it’s like to be young, although he isn’t so young, he looks a bit like Peter Lorre, but being young is being desperate. In my middle-aged wisdom I know too well that if things don’t work with a woman, she isn’t The One and if she isn’t The One, why bother wanting her so much? The answer to that mostly rhetorical question, speaking from experience, is prestige. Prestige plus sexual intoxication, although sexual intoxication is so closely circuited with prestige that it’s technically inaccurate to list them as separate values. Who knows what Peter Lorre’s girlfriend…or ex-girlfriend…looks like. We can’t say with any certainty what his scale of reference is but it’s clear from the force of the pain in his pleading that this woman is a commodity he desperately wants to keep. A beautiful woman is a poor man’s Porsche.

You’re wrapped around each other in bed, auras blended, indulging in sticky warm penetrative intercourse. That high clear chime of addiction you detect above the mechanical comfort of humping is the thrill of possession. You’re thinking, as you pin her gently by the wrists, decorating her perfect face with a garland of worshipful kisses, “She’s mine, all mine, only mine.”

-Maybe she’s a 19 year old girl from the suburbs of Minnesota who looks like Grace Kelly and pees with the bathroom door open, charming you with her bravery. Because what if?

-Maybe she attends a tony hairdressing academy where half the instructors are snobby vain homosexuals who walk as though they’re wearing capes and the other half are aging heterosexual operators, sinewy-single and baked-looking, Roy Scheider in “All That Jazz”.

-Maybe they all hate you, you, a poor boy, a college boy who drives a fifteen year-old rust-scabbed hatchback and owns just three pairs of scuffed shoes who gets to fuck this flickeringly cinematic blonde and all they can do is glare when you drop her off in front of the academy on a brilliant August morning with a lingering kiss plus nuanced references in posture and smirk to sexual taboos that were breached the previous night.

-Or maybe that morning.

-They glare through the green glass walls of the provincially fancy, faux-Manhattan wellness and hair salon and if they could know that you and she had spent the summer in a menage-a-trois with your most recent ex, a tall brunette with cut-glass features and a mild gas problem, a heretic with something to prove in her second-hand suits from travelling salesmen who ranged from Iowa to the Dakotas to Missouri and Illinois, all three dancing together to Bauhaus in neoned clubs and sneaking mathematical fucks in the toilet, they’d hate you even more.

-You want to call me “sexist” because it will feel good.

-We all want to feel good.

Like many young Bohemian romantics, I believed in an anthropomorphic Universe when I was too young to know better. I believed in a Universe that was both aware of my existence and concerned with the delicate work of guiding me with signs and nudges through the maze of its horrors and rewards. Like many middle aged men who have subsequently suffered the scarred disillusionments of common experience, I went from the comfort of my lyrical animism to the bleakness of abject disbelief almost over night: the ‘Universe’ became a vast black mechanical box of perfect coldness and harsh light and I was nothing but a molecule bouncing around in it.

-She’d do a mild kind of hotdogish fart and dare you to say something.

-He wrote none of the above. The above is an impersonation in a deep-yet-fey voice. This is still a third-person narrative. This is still Gwenda and this is my story.

4.

From the age of nine, she’d adopted her Aunt Aggie’s husband Nate as the adult to listen to and emulate in general and follow around like his somber little potbellied squire. When she was free to do with her time as she pleased, she chose to spend it in Uncle Nate’s company. The comedy that she and Nate presented to anyone who might catch them entering a room together or walking up the street in tandem to buy the morning Tribune, two chins lowered and four hands in four pockets, was far from apparent to her at the time. This strange rapport with Uncle Nate, to whom she wasn’t even related by blood, was baffling to the adults in the family but clear enough to her, if not to Nate. Nate was the first person on the planet Earth who’d asked her opinion on an important issue and she’d appreciated that.

They’d been sitting on packing crates after lunch. Nate had come over to help another one of his wife’s sisters to move and his future shadow and his future shadow’s mother had been conscripted, too. It was a depressing little apartment they were gathering into boxes and the one to which all the boxes and furniture were going wasn’t even far enough away to play a good game of running bases between former and future front stoops. It was right next door in a long block of red brick buildings with green paint on the trim. The dented rain gutters and the fake shutters, screwed to the wall.

She was seated in what she thought of as a grownup slouch on a packing crate in a warm spring breeze from the open door when Nate, who was seated on the adjacent packing crate, reading a magazine while everyone waited for the caretaker with his pickle-reek to come and confirm on a checklist that no fixtures had been stolen nor walls violated by nails larger than a certain size and that working lightbulbs had been left in the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room sockets. Nate looked over his shoulder at her, obviously disturbed by something he’d just read.

“Let me ask you something, kiddo. Honestly. What does God want from us humans?”

Obviously, in retrospect, it was a rhetorical question. It tickles her now to think that her relationship with Nate (dead ten years next Friday) had been based, initially, on a misunderstanding: a nine year old’s misapprehension of the proper protocol for dealing with a rhetorical question. She’d taken the apparent request for input seriously, flattered beyond any previous value that she’d managed to experience, and worked on the problem with Jesuitical diligence all day, carrying boxes of silverware and small appliances and bags of linen out one door and right back into the next one like a robot, silent, frowning, lips very vaguely mobile with a secret symposium convened to address Nate’s question. At the end of the day, when every item in flat A had been transferred to identical flat B and the grownups were vetting the notion of ordering two or three large pizzas as an unprecedented treat, she approached Nate when they had a moment alone and said,

“He wants us to stop.”

Who wants us to…?”

“You asked what God…”

Uncle Nate was genuinely impressed and so perfectly deserving of his new shadow that he suppressed his first impulse to get his wife’s or sisters-in-laws’ attention in order to announce, “This kid’s a damn genius! Did you hear what she just said?” He played it cool instead.

“Could be,” is all Nate said, with raised eyebrows, and from that day they were almost a father and daughter arrangement. Maybe closer than that. Like salt and pepper; snow and hot cocoa: Nate and his special little Gwenda.

-He taught her the surefire method for charcoal fires.

-He taught her that arm wrestling is all in the wrist.

-He taught her to think before saying thankyou.

-He taught her that Bruce Lee was genuine and that David Carradine was bullshit and that a faculty for detecting the difference could be applied to almost anything in Life.

-Why does Time consume perfectly happy children for the sake of producing all these wretched adults?

5.

I once quipped to someone that suicide is a lot like smoking or drinking: if you don’t try either before the age of nineteen, you probably never will. But I didn’t know what I was talking about when I made that witty remark and there’s some evidence to suggest that the wittier the aphorism, the less it will actually apply to real life. It would have terrified me to know back then that so many years after the remark, I would have nothing and no one and no apparent reason to live. Despite my money; my professional success; my knowledge.

Burdened and blessed with the kind of intelligence that made me the little star of my grammar school and had me bagging college-level reading scores in fifth and sixth grade, I am living proof that while it may be the case that the moderately above average in intelligence have the world on a string, the freakishly gifted are in for tons of trouble.

I remember fresh workbooks were handed out in the first week of second grade, intended to last for half the school year; however, knowing no better, I completed every exercise in my workbook by the end of the day, oblivious to whatever it was the teacher was droning on about at the blackboard while I breezed through the (to me) elementary exercises. All the answers I had filled the blanks with were correct, but rather than being amazed, Mrs. Johnson was angry. And rather than feeling special as a result of my feat, I felt guilty and ashamed.

Any hope of ‘fitting in’ was lost long before that point, and so what it occurred to me to do was apply my intelligence towards money-making and a solid position in society.

Now what?

6.

-A photo of Gwenda at 15.

She had a mild crush (her only foray into what could have been a life-affirming lesbianism if only she were wired that way) on the girl who took the picture and wrote tons of poetry that summer.

i.

a plum is waiting

at the center of the world

for just the right tongue

ii.

is a plum a plum

before you have eaten it?

or just a theorem?

iii.

this plum got warm in

the sun and smelled better than

every one of us

iv.

refrigerated

cinematographically

blue plums at midnight

v.

these plums are famous

for never being those but

what if you mixed them?

vi.

this artist painted

nothing but plums until he

finally got one right

vii.

don’t pay me dollars

pay me in plums but just one

very lovely plum

viii.

la petite mort is

the state of brief amnesia

of the plum just loved 

 

7.

I cried shamelessly in the presence of the doctor and her very young trainee nurse, the first time in my life that I had let myself cry in front of strangers. Part of my blubbing was lack of sleep (the contractions came at 5 a.m.) and part of it was the pain I knew that my lover had gone through to bring our child into the late morning light of the sun. But most of it was mingled grief and gratitude about the distance I had come to the first day of the life I’d always dreamed of. With the circumstantial poetry of so many significant coincidences in this life, the birth happened on the first sunny morning in a months-long block of cold gray gloom. The tears in my eyes as I looked at her refracted brilliant sunlight. I had packed CDs for the birthing room that we never had a chance to use but, still, some delirious hybrid of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Bo Diddley’s Little Girl blasted in my head as I wept and my daughter came forth and the Past made its exit with a blast from my beloved’s operatic screams and yes, yes, yes, our baby girl is beautiful.

-I am smitten.