Saturday, February 06, 2016

If fortune is fair, whether you're aware of it or not, as you mature you breathe in self-knowledge a little deeper and breathe out the apprehensions of your younger days. With each breath your true spirit rises & keeps rising, through your 40's, 50's, & into your 60's, until you have what you think is a commanding view of your life laid out before you. Above you there are clouds, but you aren't worried because you know you've prepared yourself for the time when fate will force you to confront your mortality in a way you've never experienced it. In your case, it was having your chest split open & your aortic valve replaced by a pig's, the same surgery that Robin Williams had.
In a sense, true to the cliche, you are reborn; in the case of heart surgery this is almost literally true, since you are laid out in a fog, etherized upon a table & the only cat's purr & wheeze is coming from the heart lung machine. Your heart is stopped--you're basically dead, but the machine keeps pumping blood through your brain. Where does the mind go when the heart is stopped? No one knows, but if the high voltage jump start works & your heart starts pumping again, the person who comes out of that particular cloud bank is a different one than the one who told jokes on the way into the operating room.
Being dead for a little while tends to change your perspective on things. All the puffs of air that kept you above the ground (both literally & figuratively) have been whisked away by a fierce wind of fatality. No longer do you have a scenic panorama of your life; you discover it was a scrim all along, a necessary one everyone needs in order to maintain our sanity, I suppose, but when it's gone you know it's time to see what's around you in greater detail, impress it hard upon your memory. And feel. You want to feel everything, touch everything, kiss the damn dirt, dance circles around the moon, & hiss with bliss like air escaping from a balloon.
But now your eyes have dimmed & your other senses diminished, there's nowhere to run & hide, no one to save you, & none of the creeds that have sustained you are any less outworn than the one that suckled Wordsworth’s pagan. Family is all, you gather them around your heart like a fence around a rosebush, & you hold them close. But you have to go on living or else sink in despair until you're no longer on the ground, you're below it.
And so the trial begins. If you’re religious, you think of the afterlife; if not, you cannot help but think of your legacy, a word you mocked only a few years previous. “What difference does it make?” you used to say, it won’t be long until the world ends.” No one will have a legacy then, you say to yourself, unless it’s aliens in a world light years from the doomed earth. But you can’t help yourself, you have a family, & now your family has a family, & you see the future laid out before these beautiful creations & you want to share with them the magnificent discoveries of your long, full sail voyage through life! You worry that, like Roy the replicant in “Blade Runner,” all these moments will be “lost in time…like tears in the rain.”

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Both for what it did say & for what it didn't say, one of the most epiphanous passages I've ever read was this passage from Hemingway's "A Clean Well-lighted Place."
"What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanliness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada . Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee."
Just amazing. Beautiful. Powerful. And what else would you call it but a riff? Maybe he was drunk when it came to him, although he almost never wrote when he was drunk. You may not remember but at the time the story was ridiculed in some literary circles. I love riffs, flights of fancy, diverging from the beaten path into dark woods & finding the bright sun in an open clearing. Riffs rock when they roll. When I create, I like to go with the flow.
I'm a riff writer and I love writers who don't block the conduit of jazz-like energy that flows like magic whenever you're lucky enough to connect to it. My riffs may go off on tangents but they are never for decoration; they always serve a deeper purpose. Sometimes I don't know what that purpose is until later, when it reprises in my mind like a Thelonious Monk piano solo. And then I recognize that the purpose is to bring you in and out of your hypnotic state so you won't sleepwalk through the chorus.
I think one of the reasons I'm a riff writer is because I have a history of altering my consciousness with various and sundry drugs. Back in the hippie days, it was common wisdom that a "straight" could not get inside the head of a "head," (ha) someone who had sacrificed ego for the thrill of self-revelation and mind expansion. (Granted, some tuners-in sacrificed their tenuous hold on sanity as well). I've often wondered if making a connection with a reader requires a kind of psychic handshake. I couldn't stand to read Thomas Mann until I'd tried opium (ick). Just a thought.
The main reason I write is because a voice inside me (my muse? The Three Graces? The Wizard of Oz?) compels it. I know who's boss & it's whoever is behind that curtain. The most important person I care about sharing my thoughts with is him...or her...or it...or ID...or my other ME. Like Whitman wrote, we contain multitudes. The whole crowd, the madding, maddening, malestrom of we is me.
When I write I'm finding the eye in the center of a hurricane. When I write in that sublime state I enter a world that I control, where I am god and no one dares to fuck with me. That's how the wily "all-powerful" Wizard got his job in Oz. Writing is a make-believe place & good writing is about creating the most believable illusion. If you see Toto, grab the damn curtain!
Truth is, I would love for my work to serve humankind, change the world for the better, or to attain some absurd notion of immortality, but I would bow down before every imaginary god in the history of human creation if it would help me make money from my words, mainly because I'd like to make things more comfortable for the ones I live for. I'd hate it, but If I could produce some piece of garbage for a million bucks I'd do it in a heartbeat. I'll always write what the idealists in my multitude demand, but I would gladly set free some of the gamblers & sharpies to go out & bank account. Unfortunately, I appear to be incapable of writing something that appeals to anyone less wacky than I am.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Cathexis  or The Desperation of Desperation 

Note: I wrote a rough version of this years ago for Zoetrope All-Story. Shortly before Ken Kesey died (I had been corresponding with him for a few years) I sent him the version below & he loved it & said it should be a made into a movie. He seemed quite excited about the prospect. I'm all for it, surprise, surprise.

Since time is closer to a roulette wheel than a river, pretend for the purposes of the god who created this story that his little bouncing ball of inspiration lands on a number equivalent to a long time ago in the American West, back when civilized men pursuing manifest destiny were not plentiful, a time, later white historians would say, when savagery and godlessness reigned over the mountains and plains. And since a blank page is like a bleak winter’s day in the land where this god indulges his mercurial muse, imagine this story beginning as a cold, snowy night in the rugged, desolate mountains. The snowflakes are as big as marshmallows and visibility is very poor. No creature should be out on a night like this. But the story says right here these words are to be written and this is what to look for through the downy veil of ice crystals and suspension of disbelief: a small clearing surrounded by dense woods, where two gaunt, white-haired old men of the Shoshone tribe, both shrouded in tattered buffalo robes, stand around a fire with flames taller than their heads.

The old men were perhaps in their younger days proud, noble warriors, also possibly complete assholes, but no—for the purposes of this story they must still retain their pride and nobility. Behind them, their ragged tipis look as frail as the old men. From a hole in the top of one of the tipis a much thinner column of smoke trails off into the night. In the light of the blazing fire, the old men's craggy faces shine like burnished leather. Come closer. Can you see them? Their deep-set eyes, reflecting the dancing of the flames, show no interest in their surroundings, or in the present. One of the men is tossing his old worn-out leggings and moccasins into the flames. His ceremonial pipe and eagle-feather war bonnet lie on the ground at his feet. The other man keeps shaking his head, looking up, and raising his right hand as if to wave to a circling hawk. His left hand grasps a broken bow and a quiver of arrows. Without looking down, he tosses them on the fire, looks once more to the heavens and chants.

Their names, translated to the white man's tongue, are Bone Keeper and Bows to the Wind. Both men are waiting for the same visitor. The one who brings the endless night and takes all the days with him when he leaves. Perhaps the story god will provide.

Bone keeper lights his pipe and the two old men pass it back and forth. The pipe is handled with the reverence of sacred ritual, although their gnarled, trembling hands are a sign of another kind of ritual, the betrayal of flesh that all creatures observe as time goes by. They will never know the jittering rituals of modern-day teenagers playing a video game or texting one another on their smartphones. While they smoke, a deepening roar begins to fill the air, as if a great wind was compressed inside the earth's lungs ready to be exhaled with the fury of a spurned lover. As the noise grows louder the earth begins to tremble. The trembling grows more violent. A whirling vortex of snow engulfs them. To combat his fear, Bows to the Wind sings his death song, although his voice cannot be heard above the tumult. “Am I dying?” Bone Keeper calls out. The fire's flames leap in the air. In more awe than fear, he wonders if the white-eyes are making some kind of magic. Everything around him blurs as he loses his thoughts. At the same time, Bows to the Wind asks himself if his flesh is being lifted from his bones and turned into dust. He hears Bone Keeper say something, but he cannot answer.

When their senses return like a flock of birds to a field of corn, the two old men are still standing in front of their fire. Bows to the Wind still holds the lit pipe in his hand. What they do not know is that their mischief-making god has transported them and their immediate surroundings through an imaginary wormhole and set them down very gently on the corner of Fifty-Seventh Street and Sixth Avenue in approximately present day Manhattan. Their two tipis sit side by side in the taxi lane of W. Fifty Seventh. In front of the CBS building their two emaciated dogs scrap over a piece of hide. The Indians become aware of the strange change in their surroundings, but since the night here is just as cold and snowy, they accept it since they can do nothing about it. Oblivious to this phenomenon, but not to the frigid weather, a hearty few of Manhattan's modern tribe march along the sidewalk in quickstep. A group of staring German tourists pass by conversing in German about the Anselm Kiefer show at MOMA. On the opposite corner, two first-semester freshmen at Columbia who have just seen Spamalot shuffle their feet while waiting for a taxi. Since earlier in the evening they indulged in ‘shrooms, wine, and two lines of coke, they are afraid to bring up what they believe is a hallucination. Instead, they laugh nervously, gesture wildly, and sing Monty Python song lyrics. An African couple from Mbabane, Swaziland who got off at the wrong subway stop, hurries along the block searching desperately for a restroom; the woman is pregnant and needs to relieve her bladder. Those who pass by the scene, see, but do not comprehend, nor do they feel a compulsion to investigate—not even the Irish cop whose brisk stride maintains its course up Sixth Avenue toward Central Park.

In the sky above, the clouds have opened up, allowing the full moon to appear above the tall pines, and higher up the mountains and skyscrapers of mid-town. Stars wink between the buildings and through the tree's snow-laden branches. The frigid air is now empty and still, but the tranquility of the wilderness has been broken by the clamor of the city. Because the old men are hard of hearing, and past caring, they ignore it. Transported along with the Indian camp are hunters and prey. God has created a short, ragged bundle of a man, a whiskey peddler who is circling the Indian’s camp followed by a pack of hungry wolves. The peddler is both hunter and prey; he is hunter because he is hungry, too—on the verge of starvation. His suffering—the hunger spasms, total exhaustion, fever, and toothache—has convinced him the strange occurrence and discordant traffic sounds reverberating in his ears is only temporary delirium. He is overjoyed to see the generous fire, real or not, and only hopes if it is not real, his imagination can warm his innards.

No longer trusting their unsteady legs, the Indians now sit crosslegged, closer to the fire since it has receded enough that their bones feel the cold sinking in. Bows to the Wind shivers. He pulls the remains of his buffalo robe up over his back. Bonekeeper seems already frozen. Bows to the Wind cannot see his proud chest rising and falling. They are not aware of the peddler’s presence until he stumbles into the circle of firelight, almost tripping over his snowshoes. Bows to the Wind glances up at him and yawns a nearly toothless yawn to show his unconcern. Bone Keeper grunts. He is sad to see the appearance of such a pathetic creature, with his red, greasy hair sticking out from under his fur cap, snot frozen on his wispy mustache, grime and grease in his beard, and worst of all, a sneer curled above rotten teeth, his attempt at a smile. The visitor slips out of his snowshoes and flops down on a stump close to the fire, his deep-set eyes glinting like a ferret. The white man's freezing carcass feels a warmth that seems real enough. His appetite has no fear of offending these savages. He has not eaten since the heavy snows began. Now he is forced to scrounge food from these old Snake Injuns who look to be as starved as he. At least he speaks a few words of their lingo. His Snake woman from Fort Laramie had come in handy for something besides spreading her fat legs and toothless mouth.

To his great disappointment, they have no food to share except for one small piece of foul-smelling pemmican. He accepts the offering with ill-disguised disappointment. He tells them his name is Jean. His introduction is interrupted by a fit of violent coughing escaping from one of the tipis in the street. Bows to the Wind whispers something unintelligible to Bone Keeper, who nods. He then looks at Jean with a stare so penetrating that he feels compelled to speak.
“Dees country ees, sheet, n'est-ce pas?” Getting no reaction, he uses signs and a few words of Shoshone to get his message across.

“We are part of the country we are in,” Bone Keeper says slowly, but in flawless missionary-taught English. Then he adds in Shoshone for Bows to the Wind's benefit: “he speaks like a sick squaw.”

“Oh ho, you speak de Engleesh, eh? C'est bon!” Jean is stunned, but he tries not to show it. “I  'eard a seein' t’ings when you be starvin'. I 'eard a ‘oly men dat starve demselve on purpose. What I be seein' ain't so ‘oly...I be hearin' strange noisez, too!”

While Jean talks the subway rumbles below them like a herd of stampeding buffalo. Bows to the Wind lets his thoughts circle high above the white man's words, like an eagle soaring on a crest of warm air. As he stares past the fire, he has a vision: he sees a huge yellow beast with black feet and a glowing eye on top of its head, running past them faster than a deer, and inside the belly of this beast, he sees a white maiden, pale as the winter sun, tall-haired, wearing pelts of fur. “Ai-ee,” he mutters, under his breath. 

It is a frightening apparition. What he has seen is real: a debutante in a taxi on her way home from the Beaux-Art's ball. The girl, being rather homely, with a nose like a ski run, eyes that almost cross, kinky hair, and layers of garish makeup, has been humiliated by Dee Tee, the most popular girl on the upper west side, who said she was so ugly she should cover her face like those Muslim women—and what about some breast reduction surgery for those grotesque Dolly Parton boobs? If that wasn't humiliating enough, there was the problem with her escort, a boy from Atlanta. She didn't mind that he was uglier than she—he had a face that made her look away, Dixieland—but it was obvious that he didn't have any money, only ambition, and having ambition, her father once told her, is like knowing the truth: the only way it does you any good is if you know what to do with it.

Her name is Sylvia. Sylvia blinks in amazement when she sees the Indians and tipis on the street corner surrounded by snow-laden pines. The nonchalant foreign taxi driver grudgingly slows down as he swerves between the trees almost blocking Fifty-Seventh street. Sylvia asks him what is going on, but he only shrugs his shoulders. He says something in his Arabic tongue, but she does not understand. What he said is, “I do not understand what you are saying, but I think you are very beautiful with your magnificent nose and big breasts.” When the taxi is past the camp, Sylvia decides the whole scene must have been fabricated; an elaborate promotion by some company, probably something to do with the holidays, since Thanksgiving has just passed and Christmas is in the air. She wonders where they found such an authentic-looking set and actors. A tear rolls down her cheek. Then another. She feels the makeup gobbing up. Why did I have to be born? she asks herself. Why does God have to be so cruel?

She has no idea how cruel a god can be.

A stooping old woman in buckskins opens the flap of one of the tipis and looks around as a honking Trans-Am full of hooting Italian homeboys from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn nearly sideswipes the tipi. The capricious story god has decided to create a time warp that joins 1979 to the other anomalies. Of course, the homeboys are completely unaware. The disco music booming "Stayin’ Alive" from their stereo causes pillows of snow to break loose from the tree branches. A cloud of snowflakes drifts through the camp. The old woman leaves the tipi and walks toward the fire, picks up the last piece of gathered wood and lays it on the flames. She looks at Bone Keeper, her husband, and at Bows to the Wind, whose wife was her best friend. The firelight flickers in her sad face. She does not look at Jean, who is mystified as to why there is no fire in both of the tipis, and why the old men built this large fire out in the open and why does he smell burning feathers? He looks around for more wood, but doesn't see any. Without wood, the fire will burn out before morning. Bone Keeper speaks to Following Woman in a soft voice. He raises his right hand and gestures as if he is drawing shapes in the air. His right eye has a tic. It looks as if he is winking at her repeatedly. She says something in return, and then takes tiny steps on her way back to the tipi.

The homeboys have crossed the bridge to cruise Forty-Second Street, fag bashing for sport. They are drunk, exhilarated, enraged crusaders hot and giddy with Saturday night fever, knuckles smeared and clothes spattered with blood. They don't mind the blood. Since they are football players, warriors, blood is a part of their lives. None of them would admit it, but even the taste of blood excites them. Since they know nothing of AIDS, it does not occur to them that the blood of their victims could be infected with a death-dealing virus. This was their game plan: see an effeminately dressed man who was surely cruising for a hookup, pull over and jump out of the car, yelling and egging each other on, and terrorize and beat him bloody and senseless. Get back in the car, yell some more, and turn up the disco music full blast. Down some more Jack Daniel's. What they also do not realize is that one of their victims is not a street hustler—he is a well-known fashion assistant to Gianni Versace. Even though he was severely battered, he managed to jot down the Trans-Am’s license number on his palm. At the hospital he will be interviewed by the police and the police will trace the car’s registration and see to it that the Astoria homeboys miss the conference championship football game, the most important event of their lives thus far.
The driver of the car is the starting quarterback and neighborhood hero. John Travolta—or rather Tony Manero—is his hero. He does the walk and he imitates the talk. And he can even dance a little. He is not like the others but he is afraid to say anything. Deep down he is riddled with guilt, but his fear of being ostracized is greater than his sense of shame. Not only will he not get to play in the championship game, but his fear of being outcast will be tragically realized when six months later he tests positive for AIDS, contracted when he sucked his skinned knuckles splattered with blood from one of his victims. As fate would have it—it is god’s will, after all—he finally comes to grips with his own gayness and ends up an activist hero in the gay community before he suffers a long drawn-out agonizing death.

“I think this place is two places,” Bone Keeper says.

“I think we are already dead and don't know it,” says Bows to the Wind in his own tongue. He knows only a few words of English.

“I ain't afraid a' deat'. I look it in ze ass a tousand times,” Jean says, sneering.
The fire crackles, and then hisses with burning sap. Jean kicks the log and the hissing stops. Bows to the Wind (whose head is presently bowed, not out of respect, but because he cannot stand the way Jean looks), lays the medicine pipe at his feet and looks up. In the dark, brooding eyes of the old man, Jean sees a tiny reflection of himself. He looks away. He clears his parched throat and sighs. The rock-hard pemmican tastes like rancid rat meat. He knows, since he has eaten plenty of it. Shivering, he draws himself closer to the fire.

Bows to the Wind is thinking about what Bone Keeper had said to him the day the tribe left them behind. He said he did not believe in life after death. It is for the heart to believe, not the head. He has great respect for Bone Keeper, but he cannot believe this to be true. He has been trying to imagine what it is like to enter the land of the dead. He wonders if it is just like the land of the living, only peopled by the dead. He wonders if he will be young again. He wonders what happens to babies that have died. Will they be babies forever? That would be ridiculous, he thinks. But it would be just as ridiculous to grow up dead.

A black woman wearing a clear plastic raincoat with only a filthy track suit underneath, and stumbling along in even filthier Bugs Bunny house shoes, walks up to Jean and asks for spare change. She is the first person who has acknowledged seeing them. In a ritual of warning, Jean stands up and waves his knife in front of his eyes until his eyes cross. The woman sways as if under a spell. Her breasts quiver and shake as her bloated belly rises and falls. Jean starts to sing, a nervous reaction, but his voice breaks and he begins to cough. The woman finally shakes her head and staggers off, saying, “these muhfucka's cray-zee.” 

Jean is afraid his desperation is showing. It is all he can do to keep from bawling like an infant. He hates this place where he is a stranger even to himself. He hates the Indians—probably the same band of Shoshone who abandoned these old ones­­—who snuck up on him in the night of the first big snow, and stole his dozen cases of watered-down whiskey, his month's supply of food, and even his horses, leaving him only a team of stupid mules to pull a nearly empty wagon. And now he is lost! The map the storekeeper at Fort Laramie drew him was worthless. Of course, the man was drunk on Jean's private stock of whiskey. Next time I get ze map first 'fore I make ze bargain, Jean thinks. Eef only I were back in Sain' Louie. Back where he belongs—with whiskey, whores, and cards. It seems as if he is trapped in a bad dream. The thought makes him burn with defiance.

He pulls an old bone whistle from his pocket and blows a few shrill blasts. The piercing blasts shatter the air of politeness. The two scrapping dogs raise their heads and howl. The old Indians grimace. Jean feels justified. Politeness is a sign of weakness, he believes. To prevail, a man has to be bold, do the unexpected. Like the time at a saloon and whorehouse in St. Louie when he put on a whore's red curly wig, some lipstick and face powder, then slipped into her high heels, one of her lacy camisoles, and threw a feather boa around his neck, before sashaying downstairs to a congregation of hoots and hollers. He waved and winked, and cursed and spat filthy words in French patois. He danced on top of the rinkytink piano and sang bawdy songs in a falsetto voice. The parlor full of gamblers, rabble, and whores urged him on with great laughter and abandon. They bought him thin whiskey and his fat whore for the night and by morning he had picked enough pockets to buy his grubstake for the coming year. And he felt like Jesus himself would have approved because someone had told him the bible says rich men cannot enter heaven and he was only doing his part to help them qualify for the Pearly Gates.

Remembering that scene, Jean laughs, his open mouth full of gaps and blackened teeth. The little act of bravado has made him giddy. Wonder if they know what I'm thinking, he asks himself. No, not smart enough. Not as smart as he. It takes a smart man to prevail in this country.

“Where are your people?” he asks.

“There.” Bows to the Wind points.

“God almighty, dey must be stupeed to travel in thees weat'er, n'est ce pas? Must be twenty below. Best to seet tight—keep de eennards warm. Where are your 'orsez?”

The two Indians do not answer. One question too many from a white man.

Jean grunts in disgust. Dey need to be taught a lesso', he says to himself.  

 Bone Keeper spits in the fire. “White man, are you more alive or more dead?”

“'ard to tell these day, I recko'.” He snickers. “Some pee-pal are born dead.”

“Are you a bad man?” Bone Keeper asks.

Jean affects a hurt look. “Bad accordin' to the beechez and sonzabeechez, n’est ce pas? Nah, I tink I a good 'nough man. I tink I a plenty good 'nough man. Better dan you, I betcha. Baise-mouĂ© l’ail!

“White man, are you in my dream or am I in yours?”

Jean stares at him. His eyes narrow. “I don'’ know what you be rattlin' on 'bout. Go ask de wolves dat been followin' me fer two days. Dey out dere waiting for dere nex' meal. You savagez are too simple-mind, eh? Me, I civiliz'. I doan worry 'bout nuttin'. I let deh somedin' worry 'bout me.” He spits in the fire and watches as his bloody spittle bubbles on a log. He shrugs his stiff shoulders. “I learn eet doan matter. All dat matter eez—“ He has to stop, a little flustered. He can't think of what it is that matters. Suddenly, a look of triumph comes over his stupefied expression. “What matter eez, who get what, eh? Dat what matter.” For emphasis he pokes the air with his crooked finger. Jean sees the two old Indians exchange looks. There is no change in their expressions and yet he can tell they are agreeing he is full of shit. He shrugs. “I speak only ze trut'.” Out of the corner of his eye, he sees two dogs come loping out of the trees, growling and nipping at the other's flank. 

Bone Keeper slowly turns his head and twists his body around just enough that he can point behind him. “You see the black dog and the white dog? They fight over even the smallest bone. Do you know which dog always wins?”

“Deh black one, I recko'?”

“No. The one we feed the most.”

Jean lets what the old man say sink in, and then he says, “I 'ad a beetch dog could whip eedar one, but I eat her!” He guffaws.

The two old Indians are still sitting by the dying fire when Jean leaves. No one says goodbye. After trekking a short distance, his exhaustion makes him light-headed. His eyes can barely see where to put his feet. He imagines the sky is filled with glittering lights. He pauses in the lee of what he thinks is a rock wall, but in fact it is Trump Tower. His head feels like it is being squeezed by a giant hand. He hates having to think. He thinks it is unnatural. It addles his brain. He is a man of action. All he knows for sure is that he does not want to go back to his empty wagon and butchered mules with the ache still in his guts and teeth, the roaring still in his head. He has the sudden irresistible urge to show these smug savages who they're dealing with. Their contempt was obvious. The more he thinks about what the old Indian said about the black dog and the white dog, the madder he gets, until pretty soon he has to hold his ears and hit his head against the rock wall until the roaring dies down.

While he rests under the shiny facade, he hears them, the wolves coming to get him, figuring he is too weak to defend himself. But it isn't wolves this time. Five or six strangely dressed dark-skinned brutes swagger by the doorway and jape, saying, “yo, look a dis funky-smellin’, Davy Crockett-on-crack-lookin' mutha'fucka.” They laugh and spit on him, then move on.

Dese devil minstrel must 'ave come from Saint Louie, he says to himself.

Jean returns to the Indians' camp when he thinks they are asleep, stopping his snowshoe shuffle near a cluster of aspens close their camp. Although the moon is no longer in sight he is baffled by the eerie multi-colored luminous bombardment emanating from mid-town Manhattan and thinks it must be the source for the Northern Lights. The dogs come out to meet the returning visitor, sniffing him and growling, licking the salivating, leathery rims of their mouths as if he might be something edible. Suddenly the white one barks at him and Jean dives at it in a futile attempt to tackle it. The dog dodges him easily and Jean sprawls belly-first in the snow. From the corner of his eye, Jean sees the dog bare its teeth, growling, and then lunge toward him as Jean pushes his head and neck deep into the fresh powder. He expects to feel the dog's teeth ripping into his flesh, but to his great surprise, both dogs disappear into the trees, barking and nipping at each other’s backs, seemingly unconcerned about such a pitiful two-legged creature. He struggles to his feet and realizes to his chagrin that one of the dogs has pissed all over his legs. Lungs aching and gasping for breath, Jean falls back against a dead pine and sinks to the ground. When he can breathe again, he removes his snowshoes. A feeling of disgust overwhelms him; it wraps itself around his consciousness like a rotten carcass. He picks up a handful of snow and wipes his face with it. Then he picks up another handful and takes a bite. As it melts in his mouth, he tastes the nauseating pungency of animal piss. Pih-h-h! He spits and spits until his mouth is dry, but he can't get rid of the taste. Finally, he tastes blood. His infected gums bleed easily. The taste of blood is welcome. Even his own blood.

When he is able to get to his feet he trudges into the camp. The old Indians do not hear as he crunches through the shadows, following his earlier trail of footsteps in the snow. As he passes the flickering remains of the fire, a fat ember bursts into tiny stars, startling him. He freezes in his steps and listens for the rustling of movement within the tipis. Nothing stirs. If the dogs barking didn't wake them, he should be able to waltz in wailing "Les Fraises et les Framboises." He moves on, shivering from a chilling sweat, coming to a halt in front of the first tipi. Although he doesn’t know or care, it is Bows to the Wind's tipi. His hand brushes against a leg. He lunges forward and thrusts his knife again and again into the old warrior’s chest. After several thrusts deep into the forgiving flesh and no resistance, Jean puts his hand over the old man's face and feels his lashes beating against the skin of his hand. But there is no struggle and the eyes go still. Only a sigh of departing air on his palm.

He wipes the blood from his skinning knife and crawls to Bone Keeper's tipi. There is no longer a ribbon of smoke curling from the top. He crawls inside. The fire the old squaw had tended is only embers. Before his blade can reach the old Indian’s throat, the voice within cries out in a singsong chant as if the man has been expecting him. Jean stabs his knife deep and waits until his victim ceases to shudder. He feels for the old woman and his bloody hand finds the contours of her face. A soft pelt covers it. Rabbit, he thinks. Underneath, her skin is like ice. She is already dead. “Merci,” he whispers. He stuffs the rabbit pelt in his coat.
While he searches Bone Keeper, his hand rakes across a rawhide bag held tightly in his hand. Jean plies it from his grip and feels inside it with his numb fingers. It is a bag of small delicate bones of different shape and size. As he turns to the moonlight pouring through the open flap, he sees they have been carved into intricate human and animal figurines. He steps outside the tipi and tosses them into the air. He sees them catch a twinkle of moonlight and hang suspended, like giant snowflakes. Then they disappear and he wonders if he imagined them.

At that moment, the debutante is removing her makeup. Reaching for a jar of cleansing cream, she accidentally knocks her older sister's old razor off the shelf. She picks it up by the smooth handle. She sees herself plucking out the blade, sliding her plump naked body down into a bathtub of clear water, and then gracefully slicing into her wrists. Her parents—dressed in their formal wear—would find her, throw themselves down and hug her limp body, begging her forgiveness, smearing her blood on their beautiful clothes. It shocks her to realize how much she enjoys this fantasy. She laughs, but the laughter dies in her throat. She thinks she has drunk too much champagne. Get real, she scolds herself. Life is for the living. But wouldn’t it serve them right? After all, she didn't ask to be born. She would love to see the looks on their faces.

She takes out the blade and nicks her wrist. A bead of bright red blood appears on her pale wrist, and grows under her gaze. She extends her tongue and touches the tip to the beautiful red jewel. The taste makes her salivate. She becomes nauseated, not at the taste of her blood, but at her overpowering impulse. “Oh my God,” she says out loud. Oh. my. God.

She has no idea that, unlike a lot of other gods, her god really listens. Whether he chooses to intervene or not is yet to be determined.

Still that same night, the quarterback tiptoes through the hallway to the kitchen, trying to be quiet so he won’t wake his parents. He would be screaming if he knew the horrors that awaited him. All he is concerned with at the moment is making a salami sandwich. Even with the windows closed, he can hear a boombox on the street. What's a nigger doin' on my block? he asks himself. That’s a good way to get a fucking baseball bat upside the head. There are blacks and there are niggers. Just like there are gays and there are faggots. There are two versions of everything. He asks himself what it is that makes the difference and ponders the question while taking his first bite. Then it comes to him, as easily as a football snapped from center. It's whether I know them or not, he says to himself. In his mind he sees the bloody faces of the men—boys, really—he helped assault. Filled with disgust and guilt, he replaces those images by visualizing himself passing and running for touchdowns in the championship game.

“I'm going to be a fuckin' hero in the championship game,” he whispers. “And king of the fuckin’ disco.”

Breathing with a rasp, nearly faint, covered with sweat and blood, afraid to celebrate, Jean finishes his butchery and stuffs the chunks in a leather pouch. In his decrepit fashion, he hastens to get away, ignoring the paltry spoils of the Indians' camp. Hefting the bag to his shoulder, he staggers to where he left his snowshoes. While tying them on, he hears angry voices coming from a doorway up the block, an argument, beyond his understanding, over squat infringement. Worried that whoever it is might be heading for the Indians' camp, Jean shuffles into the shadows of the trees. Snow dusts him from overhanging branches. He knows where he has to go. As far away from here as possible.

Watching out for the strange-looking horseless buggies, he heads north up the wide clearing of 6th Ave until he passes the statue of a man on a rearing horse and then enters a more familiar looking wilderness landscape. An ambulance's siren penetrates the woods. This new sound spooks him. He has never heard such an eerie wail, not even from a wolf mourning the death of its mate. He wonders if it comes from one of those stampeding beasts he thought he was only imagining he saw. Maybe they were sent after him by the Indians' spirits to torture him and drive him insane. He curses his legs and begs them to move faster, talking to himself out loud, trying to convince himself that he is safe. He lets go a high-pitched girlish laugh. It echoes in the still air. The sound of his own laugh dies out as behind him from the direction of his slaughter a deeper, more primal sound takes its place. The sound of dogs fighting in a ferocious, not a playful way, but what sounds like a fight to the death. Jean turns around to face his tracks. He cocks his ear to listen. The terrible sounds of the death struggle are muffled but distinct, as if he were in a tunnel with the Indians’ curs. He knows what the old warriors’ dogs are fighting over. His guts churn as he imagines the scene. The fighting goes on for a while and then he hears one of the dog's yowl and yip in wounded retreat.

He turns around and steps out onto a frozen pond, the ice cracking like a gunshot. With his weak, bleary vision, he thought it was just a meadow. “Sacre bleu!” he says, blinking in amazement, and trembling. He grabs a jutting tree limb with his numb, stiffening hand and scurries to solid ground. From the mellow radiance of a nearby vapor light he sees his hands are caked with frozen blood. He wipes them in the snow and then wraps them both in the old squaw's rabbit pelt. He looks behind him again, shakes his head, and then moves on, cursing himself for his cowardice and his hunger, which is assuming an animal shape of its own, something that could easily devour him before the wolves get their chance. Tears sting his burning eyes. Why hadn't they eaten those two scrawny dogs? Most Injuns love dog. He would have eaten them if he hadn't been too weak to catch them. Even dogs are smarter than Injuns. The Injuns deserved to die for their age and stupidity, for their lack of understanding of the way things are. He was just putting them out of their misery. They ought to have thanked him. What fools! God almighty! He raises the pelt to wipe away the tears.

Then he hears the wolves. They are closing in, using the cover of the dense brush. He thought he had lost them, but he knows it was wishful thinking. Wolves don't get lost. Jean pulls a chunk of flesh from the pouch and hurls it into the shadows. Within seconds there is a rustle of commotion, and then a snapping, snarling confrontation. Jean takes off in a forward tilting jog. He knows he has bought himself only a little time. Somehow he must summon enough strength to outdistance the ravenous wolves, and then find a safe, sheltered place to camp. Then, if he is able to build a fire, he can roast some of the flesh and he wouldn't have to think about what it is. It wouldn't be the first time he has eaten Injun. Tastes like antelope, only tougher and sweeter. After it is all gone he will have to wait until spring when all the snow will melt and the flowers will pop up on the mountainsides and he will join a new band of settlers, maybe from this strange new place, one that is civilized, and they will give him everything he wants because they will know that he exists in his very own world, that he makes his own way, in the way he sees fit, and they will accept that, even if no one else ever has, especially the god who created him.

His thoughts are interrupted by a long, haunting howl in the distance, back in the direction of the Indians’ camp. This time it's not a wolf, but the Indian dog, either black or white, who must have conquered the other in order to feast on what was left of Jean's butchery. Jean pauses in his tracks. “I won'er wheech one zey feed ze mos' dis time,” he says aloud, erupting first into silent laughter and then sobbing as he reaches inside the bloody pouch for another chunk of flesh.

                                                  *        *        *
 copyright A. Ray Norsworthy

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Elegance Schmelegance

In one of my online writing groups, we were discussing whether a particular tense or person is being favored among editors or agents these days. This is my own opinion and what I posted.

No editor should judge by tense or person, but my experience has been (and as you know I am 87 years old) that most editors do have prejudices, some of which are their own peccadilloes and others which reflect the zeitgeist. For example, it seems to me that minimalist prose is most in favor. How many times have I read reviews of new writers in the last few years that used the literary buzz words "clean," "elegant," or "understated." Milan Kundera noted in an interview not too long ago that very few, if any, of the writers accorded historical greatness (Shakespeare, Dante, Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, etc.) wrote clean, elegant, or understated prose. I have to admit it pisses me off when I read that some writer's prose is elegant. What does that even mean? I don't think anyone knows--it's just one of those words that rings like a bell but doesn't have a gong. Call me a silly savage, but I like gongs. I mean, I know what the dictionary definition of elegant is, and when I think of elegance I think of either movement or behavior; Fred Astaire or Rudolph Nureyev, Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn, Tony Bennett or Ella Fitzgerald--artists who use their bodies and voices in visual art forms where the social parameters were or are much more defined (and therefore, conservative, natch)and connected to the expression. For example, I believe in popular dance James Cagney or Sammy Davis, jr. were just as accomplished as Astaire or Nureyev, or in song Ray Charles and Billie Holiday easily match up with Bennett and Fitzgerald, yet the latter mentioned fantastic artists would never have elegance applied to their creations. The reason being, of course, because they use not just the mythic or romantic, but also the not elegant modes high mimetic, low mimetic, and ironic. You feel me?

I don't know, I may be full of horse sh*t (well, I probably am, regardless, but it's made from good meadow grass) but I know I don't ever want my prose to be called "elegant." I'd much rather be dirty, bluesy, profane, hilarious, obscene, raw, soulful, raging, fearsome, raucous, absurd, deviantichristical, frolicsome, effervescent (but not like champagne bubbles), inspiring (but not wimpy), cathartic for sure, and...well, I'm tired of making this list, but we can't leave out heartbreaking. I could be wrong, and I hope I am, but I don't think many editors these days are looking for those qualities. Keep in mind it was only a couple of years ago that a guy submitted manuscripts of Faulkner's writing to several differnt book editors and agents, only with a phony name on it, and if memory serves me (and it better serve me, my derangement refuses to be discriminated against!), only one or two recognized Faulkner's writing. All of the others rejected the manuscripts! Amazing and dispiriting, to say the least.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Network this, %#*&^!!!

I'm a flop at Facebook, spaced out at MySpace, and burned out on every workshop and writer's site I've joined in the ten years since I've been online. I've asked myself why I'm such a failure at networking and its obnoxious offspring, self promotion, and what I've decided is cyberspace confabulation affects me akin to a primitive tribesman having his picture taken. Sometimes it feels like my years online have robbed bytes of my soul. Of course, the only way you would get my computer away from me is by prying my cold, dead fingers from my keyboard. All I'm saying is that as a means of communication it is sometimes like having a phone conversation where instead of words the two parties exchange sequences of zeros and ones--and of course a dozen lols. Communication is a tricky business anyway; else why is there a list of self-help books a mile long on how to get head...I mean, get ahead on just a smile and a shoeshine. Oh, wait, that's Willy Loman (which reminds me, I dassent buy that set of snake knives). For me, eye contact and body language are essential for the nuances required for meaningful human communication. Anyone who has posted or perused a discussion board knows how quickly a wrongly interpreted post can ignite a flame that soon escalates to a five alarm blaze. On the internet, any pipsqueak with verbal dexterity is capable of being a bully, any keyboard-tied bully is potentially yo bee-atch, yo. Of course, there is a sense of satisfaction in seeing the tables turned, but unfortunately, write doesn't always make right.

More musing on this later. A roast beef sandwich awaits.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Filthy Lucre

During my time in NYC I touched elbows (didn't have a chance to rub) with some wealthy art patrons--old money, new money, soon to inherit money--and it reinforced what Hemingway said in reaction to Fitzgerald's famous, "The rich are different from you and me." Hemingway said, "Yes, they have more money." There are other differences, of course, but they all flow from the green spring. Maybe the favorite myth in American life is the Horatio Alger tale of rags to riches through hard work, virtue, and savvy. Anyone who believes those ingredients make success inevitable is what P.T. Barnum would call a "sucker," but there's more than one born every minute, there are hundreds, or even thousands.

Does any human being have a right to millions or billions of dollars when a majority of the world's inhabitants never have the opportunity to acquire even a comfortable living? Does Bill Gates deserve more money than, say Albert Einstein? Does the U.S. have the right to consume 70 percent of the world's energy? Does might make right?

What a mad, cringing old world we live in.

One final note: Will work for diapers

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Automatic Transfiguration Conquistadorian

Automatic Transfiguration Conquistadorian Loves His Kitty

Buster the cat is almost twenty years old. His yellow hair is matted and thin. His flesh is dwindling and his bones rising. His hind legs will barely hold him up now and he's making the most plaintive cries day and night. I'm afraid he's suffering. I don't have any money for a vet. I guess I'll have to put a bullet in his head. I don't want to do that. Several years ago his brother Catsup became very ill and was suffering so I took him out in the backyard and put a nine mil. hollowpoint in his ear. To my great anguish it didn't kill him instantly so I shot him again and then again. The highway patrolman next door came to the fence and asked me what I was doing. I had tears in my eyes. I looked at the gruff, crew-cut, scowling trooper his buddies called "Niggerchaser" and shook my head. He left me alone. I'd always made sure that he thought I was crazy. I learned the hard way that's the best way to handle cops.

When you put your own pets to sleepy bye bye you have to hurriedly dig a deep hole and cover them in lime. You don't dig the hole beforehand because you can't stand to think about what you're about to do. While you're digging, your eyes burn from the tears and you ask yourself why such creatures have to put up with a world full of humans. When you're through filling the grave with dirt you have to put a little cross there for your kids. Then you think about what it means to live with animals who speak a different language. Animals who have lived with you and slept with you and shared moments great and small. Who have helped calm you during those times of turmoil and stress. Animals who have stayed the same even when the whole goddamned world seems to be crumbling.

Buster wasn't even a friendly cat for the first several years. It was like he was autistic. Try to play with him and he'd dig his claws into you so deep he'd bring blood. I don't know what happened but he changed all of a sudden. I can't explain it and don't give a damn if no one believes it, but when Rita got sick and my mother had a stroke and I couldn't sleep to save my life, to save anyone's life, and I was strung out and thought I was going to lose my mind, Buster must have sensed how cast down I was because he did something he'd never done before. He started sleeping on my pillow. He'd never even slept in the bedroom before and he never got up on the bed. The first time he did it it really startled me. I thought, what the fuck is this crazy cat going to do, shit on my head? But he just curled around my head and purred. And since Rita was in such bad shape at the time she couldn't stand to be cuddled, Buster was the only creature contact I had. And just like that my heartbeat slowed, my anxiety diminished, and I slept for the first time since those traumatic events occurred. Every night for the next twelve or thirteen years, at bedtime Buster would hop up on the bed and curl around my pillow. Usually, after he knew I was asleep he would get down and take care of his other responsibilites. I never told Buster I was allergic to cat dander. My pharmacist knew.

Last year when we were still in Oklahoma, Buster started having trouble jumping up on the bed. When he couldn't make it he would sleep on the floor on my side. I had to be careful not to step on him when I had to get up to piss. Now that he's sixteen hundred miles and almost twenty years away from his birthplace, his legs are failing and he is surely announcing his death with those agonizing pleas for mercy. Rita is better now and we can cuddle again like we did the first night we spent together thirty seven years ago after I persuaded her to leave home and embark on a great adventure. Along the way we have had many animal friends but none I love so much as this loving old cat. He is worth more to me than most of the humans I've met in my life. And now I have to kill him and it's killing me.

Automatic Transfiguration Conquistadorian

Automatic Transfiguration Conquistadorian Blues

What do you do
when your heart turns

And your eyes can't see
in the dark

And your feet sit
still in waiting rooms
that used to make
you squirm

And wrapped up in your bed at night
you dream and toss and
dream and turn dreams
that cause you to wake crying
and you can't understand

those fucked up years in junior high
are suddenly so
goddamned important

Feels like treachery creeping
in, some cellular kamikazes
of karma, dying for
your demise

You can't say you weren't