Tuesday, December 30, 2008
But Mr. Keane had a dark story from his past that he didn't keep secret. See, during the war he was an ensign in the U.S. Navy working out of a ship in the South Pacific. He and his buddies got drunk one night and missed their boat embarking from a harbor. It might be easy to see where the story goes, but the ship got hit in some major naval battle and every crew member died.
I don't know why, but Mr. Keane's life was never filled with bitterness nor guilt nor did he try to hide from his past. It seems as if he was a better man because of what happened, and now, after all these years, I think I know why. Maybe to make his own life livable he decided to be the best person he possibly could be, always treat others with kindness, generosity, and respect. Maybe this was his way of honouring the memory of those who perished, at the time young men just like himself. I guess all soldiers should just miss out on war. But if they did, there would be no war at all. Imagine that kind of world.
Friday, December 26, 2008
The old man stops digging, steam leaving his mouth as he answers ruefully, "You wannabe writers think to much for your own good. When this job is done all I want is a belly full of hot coffee and some warm bread."
His words make the young writer think of Hemingway. But these thoughts give way to a feeling of emptiness in his belly, and he too craves hot coffee and a warm slice of bread.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
She said, "You can find me on page 917 in the phone book. First column, third name from the top."
Was this a wanting tease, or a clever brush-off? I'd been there for both in the past, but I was feeling vulnerable these last few weeks, not really sure if I could handle any type of rejection. I put off looking for her name in the white pages for a couple of days until curiosity got the better of me.
Best to use a pay phone, I thought. I opened the phone book, found the page and column, and counted down three names. With my lucky index finger I pushed the silver buttons.
After three rings I got: "Leonardo Pizza."
"I'd like a large Hawaiian, but go easy on the ham."
"Yeah, you know an attractive blond with long legs, a nameless flirt who plays with a man's heart?"
"We got one of those. Is that delivery or pick-up?"
The bluesman John Lee Hooker once sung:
"Serves you right to suffer, serves you right to be alone, you can't go on livin' in the past, them days...is gone."
Thursday, December 18, 2008
"Tsk, tsk. See your X-ray. It's out-of-sorts, like a de Kooning painting. No real shape or form that the eye can easily discern. The colours are fine, but little else. In short, you have a defective heart of the formless modern man. As much spiritual as physical."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Ah, the spiritual part, that's for you to determine. Let me just say you are in some danger if corrective measures aren't taken. Just last week I had two patients. One had a heart that looked like the mad strokes of a Riopelle, the other like the furious drippings of a Pollock. Both died within days."
The physician presented me with another x-ray. "See this heart. Perfect, just like a Modigliani painting. There is much lively interpretation of the human form. The shapes are wonderful, the colours bright and healthy. The kind of cardio-vascular system you should develop."
The good doctor told me how I had to change my diet, exercise more, control stress, lose weight, and try to see beauty in a more usual way.
I always do what doctors say, even though sometimes it goes against my intuition of what's right. So I did try my best to follow his instructions; less fat to consume, more greens to eat, longer and brisker walks to take. And I must say I kind of dig this Modigliani cat and I wouldn't mind owning a heart like one of his paintings. But I did find an artist at a gallery whose work appears more suitable to my spirit. These are the paintings of Marc Chagall, the rich colourist with his recurring goat. I don't know much about him or what any of it means, but I think it would be kind of cool to have a goat running through my veins and arteries. I'll have to check the fat content of goat and see what the doctor says. Hope it's OK with him. Wouldn't want to end up dead like a Riopelle, overrated like an oversize Rorschach test.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Although as rare as it is, I am happy with this reverse condition. It keeps my legs strong, my heart beating at a healthy pace.
But there are downsides. Take, for instance, work. Should I sit at my desk too long-- day after day, weeks on end--I become agitated, slipping into a state of animated delirium. Recently, while working as a clerk at a trademark office, I rose from my swivel chair and gave a primal yelp: "Yeeee,heeee." I then cried out: "My name is Tortelli."
With my unsteady legs I moved to my boss's office. I said, "Forgive me, Mr. Beam." I then proceeded to knock the toupee off his round head.
There was no work for me the next day, so I moved to other employment in an actuary's office. But soon the variant of motion sickness overwhelmed me. "Yeeee, heeee," I cried again. "Miss. Baxter, forgive me, but your a$$ is fat." I then knocked a box of boardwalk fudge off my supervisor's desk and left the office, never to return.
But a cure has come to me in size 91/2 re-soled leather boots. Not to forget a long smooth bindle stick I hold with my barest of belongings tied up in a cloth at the stick's end.
Today I began my hobo's journey. My feet are steady, my life once more in balance as I move from place to place.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Nah, this is going to be a rant for the times we live in...I live in. And if you think the story rings false, so be it. If you think of it as allegorical, you are entitled to your own literary allusions. Because I don't care what people think. See I'm on the edge. What that edge is, I won't say. But sometimes it feels sharp, and sometimes it feels dull. And sometimes it feels hungry. Draw your own conclusions.
Take yesterday and my last apartment meal. I scavenged my closets, finding an old cellophane bag with one serving of stale Captain Crunch cereal. What else did I find? A can of coconut milk. But not just any can, a dented one with sentimental value. See this was the can an old Thai girlfriend threw at me when I came home drunk from a strip bar with a strutting sex on demand attitude.
Those were the days. Yeah, back then there were dependable buddies you could drink with at girly bars, watching their nimble pole dancing. The days when you could come home late, staggering drunk. When women of all levels of exotic styles were to be chased, and sometimes made yours. Yours as either quick rolls in the hay, or longterm chicks like ones who throw cans of coconut milk at your head. But those were also the days when you were young and fast enough to dodge deadly tin projectiles and make crazy demands of Thai ladies you should have treated better.
Why treat 'em better? Because they deserve it. You deserve it. Because life changes fast. Guys get older and get caught up in their own families, the lives of their spouses, kids, and careers and the kids sports leagues. And you don't even know what they think because you haven't seen them in years because most of them have moved on. And you think that because you're doing bad they must be doing well. But you don't know for sure. You'd look 'em up and talk about the old days, but what good does sentimentality do you? Especially when you're hungry. Especially when Captain Crunch and a four year old can of coconut milk is your last best meal for awhile.
What of changing your condition? What of making a stab at the world of employment? Of finding some job on the internet? How about the free stations at the library when you have to sit next to some poor, down on his luck street miscreant who reeks of stale cigarettes. The smell burns your eyes. The smell scratches your throat, but your ass in the chair is steadfast because you don't want to lose your chance at employment, any employment, longterm employment, brief employment, employment to tide you over another month's rent.
You look at the emaciated, smelly tobacco guy and wonder how far he is from starvation or from being found in some snowbank frozen like a lost sausage in the back of some rich guy's walk-in freezer. You also wonder how far you are from his fate. But you got knowledge, too. You know something rich guys can never quite figure out: the economy is like a rug, it can be pulled out from under you at any time.
Mistakes, mistakes. Like when you run into that old Thai girlfriend and she looks beautiful, like she hasn't aged a day. She tells you of the money she's making from the chain of beauty salons she owns and how she's married but wishes you didn't have those dark parts of your character. Because if you didn't she'd a married you and the both of you would be happy together. You pass it off as a joke, but it hurts 'cuz its true.
So life's travails go on. Finding food, hoping never to smoke, hoping to find a Thai woman who you will treat better next time. But if there is any lesson in life it's this: Value each can of coconut milk you own because some day they'll all be gone. Out of spite they'll chop down all the world's palm trees and then all you'll be left with is yourself and small bowl of stale Captain Crunch cereal.
Finally, I left a sleepless bed and wrapped myself in a woolen overcoat. I topped my head with a tweed cap, tucked a warm scarf into my coat, and put my hands into leather gloves. I went out into the early winter air and walked and walked until my steady legs took me to a children's playground.
A dome shaped Jungle Gym was constructed in the centre of the park. I climbed the structure's criss-crossed aluminum pipes and sat atop it, as if I were king of this small world. I would sit, I said to myself, until in this winter air a life affirming clarity came to me.
I began to untie knotted memories with the hope of releasing myself from what was, when a gentle snow began to fall. Large flakes melted into small drops of moisture on my woolen clothes. Soon the playground was covered in a white sheet. A slight breeze had begun to blow, a creaking sound arising behind me.
I turned my head to see a swing swaying, and for a second I thought I saw a man sitting in the swing. But it was an illusion, a night shadow shaped by the light of a tall lamp post that half illuminated the playground.
A minute or two later I heard a second time that creaking sound, but this time it seemed to be accompanied by a the music of an Asian flute. I turned once more to see the apparition of the man. But it was my eyes playing a trick on me, for under the tungsten light he was once more that night shadow. And the strange Asian music I heard had come from a window where I saw someone flip over an old vinyl album.
But was there more to what I saw and heard? Was this my Ikiru moment?
Ikiru, the great Japanese character in that memorable existential movie of the same name directed by Kurosawa. The story of an old civil servant who is waiting to retire is told he has incurable cancer. We see that his life has been wasted, so he concludes. In his own mind he didn't create a personal narrative that mattered to himself and others, and most of us know he is right, because we see ourselves in him.
But this is a movie of redemption. So in his final days he fights bureaucracy to have a children's playground built. And in one of those memorable movie endings he dies contented, swaying slightly back and forth as he sits on a swing. A beautiful Tokyo snow is falling as we hear his singing of a Japanese song, non-melodious but passionate. We hear his singing until he falls into his final sleep.
Was this my Ikiru moment, in this children's playground, the snow falling, my life in existential crisis? It is my Ikiru moment, but only if I make it as such. That was the life clarity I sought.
I descended the Jungle Gym and began to shuffle my feet along the playground earth, moving snow, trying to uncover anything dangerous that could hurt children.
My bed awaited me. I went home and slept wondrously, my mind contented for the first time in days. Meaning isn't what you discover or what's handed to you, it's what you make.
I have many years left in me. The Ikiru moment should be a long one, indeed.
Monday, December 8, 2008
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Hey, Alien. What's up? Haven't talked to you in awhile. Some strange stuff has been happening on earth which explains why I haven't been emailing you. Nothing that has been keeping me too busy--heck, I'm unemployed--it's just that there is a big planetary problem that has kept me and about 4 or 5 billion people preoccupied with worry. You know what it's like; it's like when that star of yours collapsed and you were getting sucked into that black hole. Lucky your politicians were smart enough to build and send those planetary escape ships to that planet with those hot one-eyed women with the fish net stockings.
Enough of that. You should see what's happening down here. There's a giant crack in the sky. That's right. It goes from horizon to horizon and it's jagged edged, kind of like a broken egg shell. You know eggs, that slimy stuff you liked to eat raw when you and that fat cousin of yours came to visit a couple a summers ago.
Anyway, this happened in June, and as you can imagine its caused quite a commotion. Nobody can figure out why. All the scientists say it goes against any known scientific theories. The religious people, well they're fighting with each other--so what else is new.
From land the crack looks about four or five inches wide, so its got to be big when you send planes up there. Which is what the governments have been doing. You would think this would bring these governments together, but forget it. They are still fighting over which space stations get to go up to investigate. And of course they're blaming it on each other. So typical: its the Russians fault; its the Americans fault; its the EUs fault. Heck, I even heard some people are blaming the Danes. Its all that crazy human nature stuff. Lucky you Aliens get along up there. Just tell that fat cousin of yours he still owes me twenty bucks and I had to burn the bed sheets after he stained them with that slimy tongue of his. Stunk up half the neighbourhood.
So anyway, wars have started to break out. And every one is worried about the crack getting bigger or some nuclear armageddon happening between armies. Oh, and the terrorists. Now they're even fighting against each other. I guess you aliens find this funny, but your asses aren't on the line.
But here's the weird part: that crack in the sky hasn't changed a damn thing. The weather is just like it was before. Crops are growing just fine. The air quality is in its usual bad shape, but it hasn't got worse. Heck, propeller planes still buzz in the sky, steam trains still rumble along, and tug boats keep chugging through the harbour.
Just wanted to let you know that we humans might be extinct down here mighty soon. So this is a head's up to let you Aliens know that if you want to leave that planet of yours, earth can be yours for the taking. I'm assuming that you are immune to radioactive fall out. It's not a bad planet, at least until you find something better. I know the oceans are shallow for you and the mountains seem kind of small, but you'll be able to ride those one wheel motorcycles of yours across the prairie regions without any people getting in the way. A friend of mine hit a deer once. It practically killed him and totaled his car.
So if you want to come and visit, it would be great to see you. Just double check before you leave to make sure we humans are still here.
Anyway, hope the crack thing corrects itself and we can get back to normal. Doubt it, though. I'll keep in touch as long as I can.
P.S. I might be getting a job as a trade mark examiner, just like that fat cousin of yours. Like I said, it all depends on what happens down here with all that human extinction stuff.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
The most recent of these women was named Maria and they were to marry on a beautiful June day. But she dropped a note on his dining room table with the story of her double life, of how she would run off with a syphilitic slam poet from Sao Palo.
The next morning, Tortelli sat in a doctor’s office waiting for a Wasserman test and swore off women, except, of course, for the steady diet of slatterns and ten dollar a pop hand job queens.
But then, as he had always done, he fell for someone a few weeks later.
But she was different from others he knew. By anyone’s measure she was kind, considerate and attractive in a self-respecting way without the wildness of crazy dames in fish net stockings.
He had never fallen for this type of woman so his love was really an infatuation based on a couple of brief conversations and a promise to go on a date.
Tortelli wanted to present himself as best he could, but since he was fired from his deep fryer job at the Salvation Army Kitchen, he was short on dough, even though he was expecting to be hired as a trade mark examiner.
So he went to the Thrift Store and picked up a European cape and homburg hat and a pair of English shoes that he squeezed his feet into with a steady shoe horn. But what of the flowers?
He had this idea born of a who would know deviousness.
There was a cemetery near where he lived, so why not hop the stone fence and purloin a single flower from a number of grave sights so nobody would notice and the desecrating crime would be minor at worst.
That night that's what Tortelli did. He hopped the stone fence and stealthily went from tombstone to tombstone picking up single flowers till he had a dozen roses.
The next evening he was finely attired from a Thrift Store standard and went to meet the girl with only a slight nervousness.
He knocked on the door and it opened. The young girl broke into wailing tears which Tortelli mistook for joyful surprise at his gentlemanly appearance and dozen roses. But she cried: "That pink rose looks just like the one I planted at Grandma McGillicutty's grave site."
She made her hands into fists and turned them sideways and beat his chest and angrily said: "No, No, you can't be mine."
She slammed the door. Tortelli walked away with a dejected heart, his hand dropping the bouquet of flowers on the sidewalk.
He sat on a curb under a baleful moon and said mournfully: "Of all the graveyards in all of the city I had to steal a single rose from the tombstone of Grandma McGillicutty."
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Friday, November 28, 2008
Night's come along, back to my apartment we listen to Spanish song. We drink champagne in crystal glasses, inhibitions fall to bedroom passes. Close the door, a lost fantasy lies, to the morning's truth I say:"Tortelli again with his movie starlet, this time Scarlett."
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
I live these dreams of terror, of being leveled into a grey tomb of a government building made of concrete and breathless double plated glass. My coffin--an enclosed cubicle shut away from all humanness, all but for angry bosses, fiery departmental serpents, undertakers of civil service protocols made by electric mandarins of fire and ice. My cemetery-- a giant room of thin men in white shirts and skinny black ties, their eyes beaten, their slight reedy voices whispering away their quiet lives of desperation.
These two dozen nightmares flickering in the burning technicolor of timeless horror, of an endless emporium where sorcerers bid on moribund spirits. Gothic grave looters of the moonless sky. Soul stealers. Coffin robbers. Trade mark examiners of 4 by 4 inch black and white facsimiles of symbols, words, and designs that define secondary meaning.
What of my dreams, my harrowing hallucinations mixed with the night? I can't turn away and ignore them. I can't deny sleep like a quixotic Ponce de Leon making his despairing journey to the illusory fountain of eternity. His journey to moisten his dying lips with the nourishing, promissory holy water of eternal flesh and blood.
Here's the dream that haunts--working with thin men in white shirts and skinny ties examining trademarks till light escapes the day. Evaluating, assessing, examining, deciding, approving, declining, disappointing. Telling men over black as carbon phones the logo is a reject, the wording is plagiarised, the design is infringing on the minds of unhinged creativity.
They can't take the news. They can't take the news...Eddy Woo won't hear the news, his ears closed, his mind shut down, the deprecating bureaucratise of office men judging the noodle of his desire: too confusing in shape, scope, and colour to the design of his great rival Jimmy Wong. Jimmy Wong, who owns another Szechuan all night eatery with hanging barbecue pork and dripping duck in a steamy window. The smell of fried ginger and boiled bamboo shoots singing along the street and through an open basement window where a tong of gambling mainlanders, flatfoot Caucasian cops, multi-hued fire inspectors sit. Sit in a comity of subterranean multi-cultural criminality.
All this Eddie Woo knows, but his gun powder temper, his oppositional defiance arrives in a fusillade of fulminating Cantonese exploding with English crudities, the universal argot of common men: "U Yuckin ah-ho!, U Yuckin ah-ho!"
I hang up the phone--the jarring, bellowing, fiery, unforgiving voice baritone invective of a behemoth boss with bulging lips flapping like over steamed sausages, ordering, demanding of me: "Tortelli, get in my office, now!"
I sit in an office chair and look at his porcine solar red face with his boiled white eyes, pushed in nose, sharp and chipped yellow teeth rising and closing. I take what feels like bullet hits from an index finger pounding my breast bone at the beat of a Bartok piano concerto: 'I'm telling you for the last time.' A vision of my union rep coming to my aid like a flying superman, but he's been in and out of drunk tanks too often, as often as Kansas City condom salesmen finding sales in Nevada desert whorehouses with politicians and mainland gamblers, cops and Eddie Woo's accountants; ad men without ideas, thin men in white shirts and skinny black ties, exerting lonely expresssions of carnal desperation.
I flee to my desk, calm puncuated by my boss's yell: "Tortelli, I just been chewed out in Chinese! Come into my office, now!"
What am I? A minor victimized character in a Wagnerian opera of cold authoritarianism? Am I the rising Lou Reed guitar riff in Sweet Jane, taking flight in assertive crescendos of individualism and declarative liberation. 'Standing on a Street Corner. Suitcase in my hand....Sweet Jane.'
I bear into my boss's office and push my finger into his barrel chest and pronounce in revolt the lyrical anthem from an old rock 'n' roll song: "I'm not going to take it."
His eyes roll back in his head, his Jackie Gleason pirouette, he drops to the floor like a large felled hairy animal. The men in white shirts fill the office and proclaim: "The king is dead!"
They hoist me to their shoulders and chant in a glorious unison: "Long live the King! Tortelli, King of the Trademark Examiners!"
Dreams, Dreams... I can't take these Dreams. Spellbound by uniformity and responsibility. Let the Piper Play. Let me sleep through a dreamless night.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Maybe I'm glorifying the writer while being unfair in suggesting other artists are too elitist. That's for another day. For now, I'm with the thrift store novelist.
Is that what you see me as? Is that what I'm worth?
Do I have a squirt bottle in my hand? Do I spray blue cleaning liquid on stained table tops? Do I clean and shine them, in the process stripping away the layers of dignity I earned from surviving?
Do I take it from him? Do I listen emotionless to his bigoted, racist, assumptive, anti-immigrant voice ask: "Speak English, eh?"
Do I listen to his condescending laughter, his oversize belly jiggling under his oversize Tommy Hilfiger cotton cable sweater? Or should I say: "I've been speaking English since I was born. Don't you think I speak it better than you, asshole?"
Am I right? Am I right to take my squirt bottle and spray a thick stream of liquid on his face and wipe away his smug smile like a giant mustard stain with my dirty rag hosting germs from the remains of Taco Bell fast food?
Is my vision good? Out of the corner of my eye can I see an onrush of security guards? Am I fast enough to escape their fleet feet and apprehending arms? Can I make it down the mall's corridor and turn into the super market? Do I make a last stand in the fruits section? Do I throw like a silent era comedian apples, oranges, pears, and bananas at the dodging faces of the security guards? Do I get blindsided?
Do I get dragged semi-conscious out of the mall and hurled into a snow bank encrusted in dirt and street salt? Does my winter coat get tossed over my body, ripped and torn? Did the thieving guards steal my change, my bus token, my kit leather gloves from when I afforded top stitched hand wear? Did I twist my knee, limping away, two miles from home? Am I one of the bedraggled? One of the beaten down? One of the broken spirits? But is there hope? Is there hope to marry a woman, famously rich and wonderfully desperate?
Monday, November 24, 2008
We met at a donut shop and I saw she had enlarged herself to twice her normal size. I would have hugged her, but not even Michael Jordan with his elongated arms could have held her comfortably.
When I think of the loss of her beauty to fatness, I feel as I do when I hear of the loss of a great work of art to the nefarious hands of a deranged vandal.
Alas, that night when I returned home I assessed my looks in a full-size mirror. Far from being thin, I spent an energetic hour on my stationary bicycle. I counted my sit-ups and push-ups. The next day I would count calories and practice exercise as a religion, praying I would remain thinner than the old belle gone to pot.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
They say fighters get the meanness beat out of 'em. That was true of this old bloke who I liked a lot. See, I've always had a soft spot for those who live near the edge of so called civility, especially for those with indomitable spirits and jabbing hearts who struggle life long to be champions of their own dignity.
I've seen fighters succeed. I've seen fighters fail. Over time I've seen so many winners and losers retire to their shambling lives, their minds and souls as old and punch drunk as the Englishman's. Pity, I suppose.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Twice the First Shipman Cries:
The Island Turns,
The Island Welcomes,
Children Hold Mother Liberty's Gaze
The Island Sinks,
The Island Endures.
The Island is them. The Island is us.
The New city,
Home are the people
Mother Liberty Holds her Gaze
Sunday, November 16, 2008
"Charles," I asked. "It's after midnight. What are you doing here?"
He took a deep swig from his whiskey bottle and said: "I got this sleepless turmoil and tumult going on."
"Shouldn't you be in heaven?"
"There is this new roommate of mine up there. He's a soldier who died in a jeep accident. Only problem is, he was a straight-laced bugler in the army. So every morning at 5am he's up playing revelry until I can't help but jump out of bed. The whole thing is putting a damper on my eternity experience, if you know what I mean."
He filled his mouth with more chips and talked of his great plan of Godly escape: "You can go AWOL for a few days from that big distillery plant in the sky before they send a couple of spirit bounty hunters and ship you to that eternal furnace down below. See, that's an elevator I can ride. They must have some pretty wild composers running around there like Mozart. And Mahler was a bit of a prick, so he's gotta be hangin' with the devil crowd himself. My kinda people, I'd say."
I could tell crazy booze braggadocio in a ghost as much as in a regular man. So I told Bukowski he could crash on my couch and we'd talk after he slept it off.
Late the next morning I took from my fridge a pot of Irish Stew simmered in a Guinness stock and scooped some into a giant Zip Lock bag. I sent off Bukowski with the food package on his trip back to heaven. As much as he was a giant pain in the neck, I expected I'd be seeing him again soon, and I'd a been disappointed if I didn't.
Friday, November 14, 2008
So that’s what the day manager does. Mr. Dylan fires me and says he thinks white teenagers are lazy cusses. Of course it doesn’t occur to him that he’s white and was once a teenager. But then again he was almost fifty and a day manager in some greasy spoon with old heavy waitress in short dresses that don’t flatter their figures. So I guess that makes him lazy too.
That all happened last year. In the twelve months since, I’ve gone from sixteen to seventeen, and I got a lot of maturity happening. Like I got grown up enough to drop out of school in May and get me a good summer job cutting grass in a cemetery. I’ve stuck this out for a couple of months now, never missing a day. In the fall I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll shovel snow or go up north and become a lumber jack or railroad man, or maybe I’ll learn to drive a truck, even though you got to go to school to learn that, so I guess that doesn’t appeal to me much.
In the mean time I got myself enough money to afford a room in a flop house where I stayed before I moved out. I didn’t socialize much with people there. In fact I didn’t talk much to anyone, except to the owner who lived on the bottom floor next to the kitchen. She was pretty kind most times, making me breakfast more than once. Although she could be real strict like when people come home drunk or use cuss words. She is an immigrant from Poland, who kept telling me her husband died in some war.
Like I said she is just about the only person I talked to in the house, since the other guys there were a lot older and some got real problems, like I would say being lonely and sad and maybe drinking too much or being in trouble with the law. The cops took one guy a way for some crime that he did in the Big City. According to Mrs. Gadinsky he killed a man. All I know is he went away real quiet.
Death doesn’t scare me much. I’m used to it, and not just from cutting lawns in a cemetery. My parents died in a car crash when I was fourteen. Except for living with an alcoholic Uncle who used to hit me, I been pretty much on my own, this suited me just fine. Who needs people anyway? If you’re going to the north and becoming a lumberjack or railroad man, you don’t want any commitments or nothing getting in your way.
So I guess if you don’t mind death, then a cemetery is a good place to work. The grass cutting can be hard, pushing around a shaky mower for eight hours. I remember on the first day the sun was burning real hot and I must a got heat stroke, because I felt faint and staggered into the shack at the end of the shift. I drank lots of water and felt better, but still felt like I was hung over, even though I never really drink much liquor.
The guys here are okay, even though I don’t talk to them much. I just say hello to Mr. Rawlins and go off all day to my section and cut grass around tombstones. I’ve been told I’m real good at cutting the tall grass that grows along the base where the tombstones meet the ground. See I don’t use any kind of special weed cutter. I get on my hands and knees and pull. All of the other workers think I’m crazy, even the illegals. So I guess they don’t want to talk to me much either, because who wants to talk to a crazy man.
What I do is work real hard, something I learned to do since my bus boy days. I get the grass cut faster than anyone else. Then I get on my knees and spend the last few hours of the day pulling at the tall grass and weeds. I guess I got an eye for detail. Maybe the people that come here to visit the deceased appreciate it.
My parents, they’re buried in section 14 under a tall tree. I think it’s a maple, or maybe an oak. I don’t know so much about trees. Nobody knows that I got folks here. Doesn’t mean anything to me that there here. My thinking is, once you’re gone you’re gone, so there’s no point in crying over something that you can’t get back, like spilt milk. That’s why I never visit their tombstone and do that crying stuff. I guess I don’t want to be like Mrs. Gadinsky thinking about dead people my whole life.
You get used to funerals working in this place. At first I felt guilty when someone died and got to be buried, but now it doesn’t mean a thing to me. Lawnmowers can’t be running with all their noise, so you got to turn them off and just wait until everyone gets back in their cars and drives off. If it is a hot day, or my arms feel tired, it is even a relief to see a procession come by because it means break time. I wonder what all those sad people would think if they knew we were happy to see the procession come by because it means we don’t have to work.
One time I felt sad, that’s when Mr. Dylan the restaurant owner died premature from a heart attack. He was just fifty or something. All the workers came. The waitresses honored him by dressing a lot better with none of them wearing clothes too tight. It was kind of ironic. There was Mr. Dylan always complaining about illegals, saying they was lazy. But if not for a couple of Mexican guys he might not a been buried.
There was this thick tree root growing in the deep in the ground where his casket was supposed to be put. Well you’ve never seen guys working harder than Javier and Miquel. They were working for a good hour or two with axes breaking down that root. Sweat was pouring off their backs. I wonder what Mr. Dylan would have thought knowing that a couple of illegals saved his last day above the earth. I learned once this is called irony, when you believe one thing and then another thing happens.
One of my teachers who I kind of like comes up to visit me once in a while to talk to me. His name is Mr. Colford. He is old too, maybe about Mr. Dylan’s age, but a lot healthier, and he doesn’t get mad so much. Unfortunately, he has this idea that I should be doing something that I don’t want too, like going back to school. He keeps telling me I got talent as an artist. He says I’m a good colorist, with a good eye for composition. Then he starts talking about this guy named Chagall and his goat paintings. One day he brings me a book with his paintings. I suppose I have talent as good as his. My old teacher knows this because one day he brings an old classmate of his who is a curator from some famous museum in New York. The guy was dressed real fancy. He was saying I got to do something with my art, that I’m a prodigy or some word I’m not sure of.
I just say I want to get out of town. I tell them that painting comes easy so it doesn’t mean much to me. Working all day pulling grass is hard work so it gives me more satisfaction. Well the curator guy looked real disappointed and said I was young. He gave me his card and told me to call if I’m ever in Manhattan. I lied and said sure, I’d look him up, but I knew I wasn’t going to any big city. I wanted to get out of here and go up to the North Country and be a lumber jack, maybe try my hands at mining.
Something I didn’t tell no one, that I left Ms. Gadinsky’s house. I took all my belongings, including my sleeping bag and moved into the woods on the edge of the cemetery plots. Down in section 14 there is road that leads to a break in the woods. That’s where all the oldest tombstones can be found. The tombstones go back a couple a hundred years. Well at the end of the patch of graveyard they got some thick woods that no one goes into. That’s where I put my belongings.
At night I sleep there and nobody knows, not even the Rawlins brothers. It all works out for the better, because I’m getting real obsessed about this place, trying to keep things all in order. I can put in extra hours pulling at the weeds, and taking hedge clippers around the bushes. Sometimes I take a flashlight with me and work under the stars. It makes me feel peaceful working for the dead.
Funny that I always stay away from the tombstones of the people I knew once, like my dead folks or Mr. Dylan. I wonder what that Chagall guy would think about that. I liked his goat pictures. Maybe when he was young he wanted to be a miner or lumberjack.
Mrs. Gadinsky said she was sorry to see me leave the house, but like I said I have this compulsion. I’ve got to make my body tough, and that doesn’t happen by sleeping in a comfortable bed and having scrambled eggs for breakfast. No I got to be on a small diet and work until my muscles get filled with a burning ache, that way I build up the body.
Mr. Colford came by one hot day and brought some paint brushes and paper and said just in case I had the urge I could paint. He showed me once again that Chagall painting with the goat. That night I took the brushes and painted a goat that wasn’t so cheerful. Thing is, it started to rain and ruined the paper. Lucky I got a little pup tent that keeps me dry.
I think I’ll give up on this art thing. Once I’m up in the North Country working in a mine or cutting down trees, all this art stuff should leave my head. Maybe there will be a lot less tragedy and sadness. Just yesterday they came to bury Mrs.Gadinsky.
It seems as if one of the men in her house got drunk and went crazy and stabbed her a few times until she died. Most of the people who lived in her rooming house at one time or another came to the funeral. Must have been the longest procession of the year. Maybe a hundred people came. Nobody was dressed in fancy clothes, but everyone looked real sad. I guess I was just about the only one who didn’t follow her in that line. I watched from behind one of the tombstones with the mower tilted on its side so no one could see.
That night I couldn’t sleep, because I was thinking about all the death. There was a star I kept looking at and wondered if there was a better planet that went around it. I decided I wanted to be a miner more than a lumberjack. I figure when you are down in the earth it has got to be more peaceful. Less people to give you a hard time.
It’s been close to two months since I left school and worked at the cemetery. The money I’ve saved is pretty good, almost $1,000. That’s enough to get me a good pair of working boots and a hard hat. I’m sure I’ll need that up north. Maybe I’ll even buy me a pair of thick socks. The mines up there must be real cold. Tomorrow I’ll buy myself a train ticket and then go. I’m little bit excited because I’ve never been on a train. It should be real exciting to see the countryside. I expect I might even see my first mountain.
Poor Mr. Colford will probably miss me. I guess he’ll even be surprised since I never told him or anyone else about my plans. Maybe I’ll send him a note saying what I’m doing even though I don’t write all that good. I guess I’ll even include a little painting of a goat with paint he left behind. He’d like that. Now that Mrs. Gadinsky’s dead he’s just about the only one in this town I kind of like.
I don’t know what the future will bring, but I know I’ll be happier being a miner. I’m hoping anyway. Like I said, art comes easy, work doesn’t, and so why not do something that makes you stronger. It’s better pleasing yourself than anyone else. If I want to work underground where it’s dark, then that’s what I’ll do.
He was thin, without much muscle and week of character. His hair was cut short and he wore turquoise coloured horn rimmed glasses. A man of fifty, he worked as a clerk in an accounting office and was still derisively called Bobby by the young interns.
But Bobby had grown weary of his life. He was tired of his wife using him as a training dummy to hone her wrestling moves. There were the painful scissor-grip holds, the pile drivers, the rubbing of his forehead along the ropes of a home made ring.
One day he read the story of Samson and Delilah and a light went off in his head: her hair, yes her hair. That night, while she slept soundly, he took scissors he had made razor sharp and cut off her long black mane.
The next morning she awoke physically weakened, her personality was demur and fearful. Emboldened, Bobby walked away from the marriage and quit his job and moved to California where he successfully sells herbal male enhancement remedies on the internet.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
But he knew of her story. Friends had told him as much. The young man was being kind without any romantic intent. He was at the age when he needed to decide on a career, and maybe it was to be a social worker or psychologist or some profession where he could help others.
But soon her romantic ideas became clear. He didn’t know how to handle it, to let her down softly. So one day he said he was going off to college in another town and he would send e-mails and call, let her know what was happening in his life.
She went home that night and wept in the dark room inside her head.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
In my state of mind I was as calm as a deep breathing swami on ativan when this blind guy with his agitated mutt marches straight towards me. Adroitly I moved to the outer edge of the sidewalk, passing lightly in front of the dog and his sightless master.
The dog must have thought I was on the attack. Or maybe he was just a canine asshole looking for a sorry excuse to put his incisors into human flesh. He lunged with his biting teeth at my arm. Luckily the wool in my duffel coat sleeve was thick so his attempt at a bite was little more than a grazing of my skin.
His owner jerked the leash, shouted the dog's name, and moved on without saying a word of apology. Even blind people can be rude.
Not only did this episode jar me out of my bliss, but it planted a question in my head I'm unable to answer: So what is it with seeing eye dogs? What did I ever do to them?
Monday, November 10, 2008
"Play some Mahler," I ordered the bar keep. "This is the writer Charles Bukowski. And serve him up a whiskey sour."
Despite his ethereal shroud, he looked much the same as he does in his book jacket photographs. His face was pock marked. His hair was oily and combed back long. His yellow teeth were well beyond Crest White Strips. Then there were his eyes. They burned with that peculiar lonesome and observant intensity that belong to the great chroniclers of the dispossessed. Didn't Zola have such a gaze?
Finally I spoke to Mr. Bukowski. "I know you've been dead all these years. So what have you been doing with your time?"
"I been up in heaven hanging around the beats," he replied. "You know, Ginsberg and Kerouac and that wild guy Cassidy. I still write in my boarding house while spinning Mahler and in the evening I go the track and drink and watch has been horses go round a badly kept track. At night sometimes me and Hunter S. Thompson chase some cute winged angels."
He took a sip from his whiskey sour and asked me: "So what are you doing with yourself, kid?"
I told him I look at files all day, digging up dusty school records. But I blog a bit and watch late night TV. Sometimes I have the occasional beer.
"That's it," he said.
"Well I had a colourful great grandmother who died before I was born. During prohibition she made bootleg gin in her bathtub and could cus' out anyone. A real character for the time, they say."
"I know your great grandmother. She's the one who sent me."
I grew embarrassed enough to change the topic because I knew what he was getting at. I told the old dead writer I was a big admirer of his and I always kept his poem The Laughing Heart in my vest pocket.
"It's that line of yours I like the most: in life you can't cheat death but you can cheat death in life, sometimes."
I turned my head and put my hand into my blazer to draw out the folded paper with the poem. I turned back and he was gone. All that remained was a billow of white smoke, like a cloud from a slow burning cigarette.
"He does that all the time," the barkeep said. "Either him or his alter ego Henry Chinaski. You going to pay up?"
I paid for the drinks, left behind a generous tip, and made my way home.
It's just now as I write this I figured out what happened that evening. The good God of Get Off Your Ass sent Bukowski to tell me to get off my ass because heaven ain't what most people think. It's not some permanent airless euphoria of endless bliss. It's really a mixed bag. It's a shadow world of what happens on earth. What you do here you do there but for ever. So if you look at files all day it's your eternity. Anyway, that's what I take from the ghost of Charles Bukowski.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
I've liked the rhyme pattern he spoke so much I associate the expression with Detroit almost as much as I associate the city with the sounds of Motown. Life is funny. "Money talks, bullshit walks."
Thursday, November 6, 2008
"Where you going with that?" he bellowed.
"I bought it, and I'm taking it home."
He looked at me for a long moment, his chubby face inches from mine. "I don't believe you, I think you're a terrorist. I can tell by the way you look. You got that glint in your eye. You got that pigment to your skin and a crooked step to your walk. I betcha you got a grandmother with a funny middle name."
I was taken aback because I never knew a terrorist. Like most people I hate terrorists, and if their were any justice in the world they would pay seriously for what they do.
"Yeah," he said, "We're going to rough you up, pour water over you, get you to talk."
"Bu..but you can't waterboard me. Barack Obama is president now. Besides I'm innocent"
Officer Johnson rubbed his name tag and thought a long time. "We got other ways. We'll get the fattest a$$ed women in New York City and make 'em real hungry and mean and stuff 'em in your jail cell."
Whew. I wasn't too keen on the idea of having famished, ravenous women with fat a$$es smothering and biting me, their teeth well sharpened, their layers of fat sagging in my face. I had better think of something to save myself from being torn apart like a human gazelle.
I saw he had a bit of a gut himself, so desperately I appealed to what I believed to be the darkest angel of his nature.
"Officer, I said. Why don't I donate this TV to the Policeman's Benevolent Fund. Also, I got a backpack full of chocolates and boardwalk fudge. Maybe you can share it with your wife."
Johnson took the bait. I left him the TV and goodies and made my way once more along the Flat Iron Building. Then I heard again the bellowing of his voice: "Hey!"
I turned and listened to him. His voice was quieter: "You know when I was a boy, I had a friend. We were like brothers. I was white, he was black. One day they tried to kill my friend. He was riding his bike when a convertible car drove up beside him and a man screamed that N word and knocked him off his bike with a powerful fist. Luckily he fell on a patch of grass or his life would have been lost. Now Barack Obama is our president, every one's president. I never thought anyone could change me so fast, but he has."
"Bu..but what about that torture cell with the fat a$$ed women?"
"I made that up. Besides, tall, short, skinny, fat, black, white, or what ever your religion, it doesn't matter. Most people are good."
I took what he said as the truth, and decided to ridicule others no more.
"I guess hate gets in the way of making things better."
"Yeah. You look at what's happening to this globe--war, disease, terror, famine, financial markets tumbling. You look at Bush and Cheney. And now you see Barack Obama is President. So maybe it took eight years, or maybe it took two hundred years, but in the end Lincoln was right: America is the last best hope on earth."
"Is that why so much of the world cheered when they said: Barack Obama, President of the United States of America?"
"I think so," he said.
He put down the TV and backpack and walked a few steps towards me and stopped. The cop never aked my name. But he addressed me no matter, as if I had been away for a long time. "Welcome home, America" he said. "And ready your hands. We got a job to do."
Sunday, November 2, 2008
A tantalizing egg noodle dangled loosely from her chopstick.
“So what’s your name?” I finally asked.
“I’m not going to tell you,” she replied, sweeping the noodle gracefully into her mouth.
“What if you knew me for a hundred days, would you tell me then?”
“Even if I wanted to I couldn’t. See, I have no name.”
She put down a box of fried shrimp, gulped her food slightly and said: “I’ve got something to show you.”
As if by magic she pulled an oversized envelope out of a slight pocket and handed it to me.
“Open it,” she said.
I tore carefully at the envelope and removed its contents—nothing but blank documents.
“This is a birth certificate, but all the boxes are blank. There’s no dates, no place of birth, no parents name, nothing.”
I looked through a drug card, a bank card, a student card, a credit card. Nothing was written to tell the barest facts of who she was.
“So what’s with you?” I asked.
“I have no name, no identity, nor place of birth I can state. I know their faces—my father, mother, brother and sister. I close my eyes and see my childhood friends. I recall them all, but I can’t name them and they can’t name me.”
She pressed soy sauce out of plastic packet onto some fried rice.
“Pass me a napkin,” she demanded.
I gave her one and then she grabbed my wrist and turned over my hand.
“Now watch this.” She daubed a droplet of soy sauce on my thumb.
“Press it against the napkin…see you leave a print. Watch me.”
She too placed soy sauce on her index finger and pressed it against the napkin, but her finger made no print. She then broke a plastic pen and smeared ink on both her hands, then rubbed them hard into her pale yellow jeans but left behind no stain. The ink on her palms evaporated in bluish wisps into the night air.
“As far as I know I’m not from a distant stretch of the cosmos. I wasn’t touched by a shaman, ordained by a God. I was born this way. I leave behind no trace of me, just memories that never get told.”
I told her I was a writer of fiction. I could take was true tonight and write it as such but claim it to be a story that came to me in a dream. Not a publisher, not an agent, not an editor, nor a reader would doubt it. I could pass off fact as fiction and the two of us could be the better off for it. The memories she had finally to be told.
An eerie gust came in an instant. I dropped my head, closed my eyes and waited the seconds till it passed. I opened my eyes but she was gone…gone somewhere. Round the corner or up some stairs, I couldn’t say. Or maybe she truly came from an outer stretch of the cosmos. Maybe she ascended, rising nameless to that great Chinese Take Out in the sky.
I collected what the wind had swept—the napkins, the chopsticks, the plastic wrappers. I put them all together in a box and dropped the box and its contents into a metal trash under a city lamp. That is I threw all away but one fortune cookie wrapped in crinkly cellophane.
I crushed the cookie and read it; the advice coming too late: Beware the here and there. Beware a mistral angel.
Tomorrow I’d cook chicken Chinese style, a Hainan bird in a bubbling broth of onion and ginger. Or maybe I’d try French style—a coq au vin in a dry white wine. Or maybe I’d combine the recipes in a giant crazy dish and sit once more with my white ass on a hard grey curb and wait for an angel.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Over and over the ceiling fan turned round and round. Its wobbly, unsteady blades blew no cool air—just a noisy breeze that didn’t quiet the storm of sleeplessness inside of me. Then the phone rang.
It’s one a.m. Who has no regard for a man’s repose?
The voice on the line spoke vaguely, wanting to reclaim an old acquaintance at a bar named Vic’s. So we met. I watched the old acquaintance steadily drink whiskey sours while I sipped a Mexican beer and a quart of cold ice water. Reluctantly I listened to his reminisces of our childhood. He talked of baseball, of hitting sliders, of running bases, of shagging fly balls like the great Red Sox players—Yazstremski, Petrocelli, Mike Andrews and the young Conigliaro brothers. He spoke of Friday nights at Kelly Field and the heroes we watched, the semi-pro teams who strode the shortened grass like giants. But we knew they weren’t the biggest of giants. None could play left field as did Yaz, nor throw a fastball with the speed of the great Fenway pitcher Lonborg. The old acquaintance spoke of those long ago days as the time of our living dreams.
He took a sip from his whiskey sour, made a bitter as lemon face, and revealed how sad and lonely he had become. His wife had gone mad. His daughter had run to the hills of California, cut-off in a faraway cult.
I knew the type of person he was; the type of person who believed in the interconnectedness of humanity. To reconnect with me was to reconnect with youthfulness, to toss away his sadness, to reclaim those living dreams. In his eyes I could see his desperation, the wanting of my kindness and sympathy. But all I could give him was nothing because I felt nothing. I too had seen madness, the madness of war—dying men; dead men; crazy men screaming, exorcising the last of their vaporous sanities into hot sweltering nights.
War shakes you up. It freezes you. It turns your nerves into reactive overdrive and numbs you at the same time. But I knew none of this. I had never donned a helmet. I had never trundled knee deep in thick jungle muck, my precise eyes on the look out for snipers and poisonous vipers whose bite can infect you with madness and death.
This was my make believe. This was my lie to keep at bay the truth—the hot sleepless nights when I hear voices through the walls, when I sense burning death rising through the dark cracks in my splintery floor.
But that too was a lie. I hear nothing. I sense nothing. Just as I feel nothing for an old acquaintance who needs to reconnect with me and to reminisce about times that never were. He could see all of this in my face.
"Do you ever just want to lie down and let yourself die?" he asked in exasperation.
On a razor’s edge. I wanted to say.
It was 3 a.m. Time to go. I put aside his protestations and paid for our drinks. Together we made our way back into the heat of the July night. As we walked I dropped a coin into an outstretched hand. I asked the beggar if knew of the vagaries of life, like summer becoming winter? His lips muttered insensibly. The old acquaintance walked with me for a few steps and then we parted. By late morning a cold front had come. Sleep came easily. I felt normal again.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
But I'll make it. I got a good pair of leather shoes and strong legs, and I'll walk and walk and if the opportunity is there I'll hop that train and ride that rail, because the last destination is hope. And if there ain't no hope, then I'll work in the government.