Nov 25, 2009

Personal recollections and shared reminiscences of the deceased

He used to stick his finger in the coffee to see if it was warm. Even when there was steam or the cup itself was hot, he'd plunge his pointer in like a dip stick. Up to the knuckle. Then he'd stick his finger in his mouth and nurse it. Every time.

Three years we'd worked together, since they hired us both for the holiday rush, and this was what I knew. About the coffee.

He used to lower his voice, too, when he was on the phone. He'd lower it so it was soft and he'd say in the unlikely event that you were to unexpectedly pass away, wouldn't you want know that your loved ones are cared for and financially secure? Isn't it good to have that peace of mind? Then he'd stick his finger in his coffee, and he'd smile if they said yes.

Nov 23, 2009

The detective's son

Look, the old man said.

The boy looked and the body on the slab was slightly green, somewhat wet and goosebumped, like the skin was moisturized like for an ad except instead of being a woman's long leg in warm water and light this was the flabby, fat and bat-winged arm of a greenish man in a morgue.

The old man asked the boy if he saw.

The old man was wearing a suit, with a long jacket over the suit jacket. They were both brown but their patterns didn't match. He was holding the boy by the shoulder. The old man was wearing a badge on a loop around his neck and the boy came up about that high. The boy looked, aware that his face was being examined by both the old man and the coroner too, the coroner an even older man who was all white with a condescending half smile, and the boy made sure his face showed nothing. He looked at the body, which was all laid out on the metal tray, and he said okay with his tone and face just flat.

The man on the slab had been stabbed, and the boy could see the wounds where they puckered, the black and purple oozing up and forming volcanic-looking ruptures on his chest. The coroner pulled back the sheet, plucking it away so the man was naked except for hairs, and then the coroner cut the man with a new knife, slicing down the center of the chest until the body belched open and the cavity yawned wet and gassy, rancid like sweet retch. The stabbed man's eyes were still closed even then, though his mouth was open like this was in fact a surprise. Then the coroner -- who still seemed to be smiling -- reached in with what looked like hedge clippers and there the bones in the chest went crack, slowly, crack, metered, crack.

Outside the old man lit a cigarette. It was fall and the leaves hustled after each other in half circles in the parking lot. The man had a mustache then, which he'd shave off about the time the boy turned 12, and when he smoked the boy could see how the hair around his mouth was brown just from the nicotine. You see, said the old man, I don't want you to grow up to be like me.
Tolls taken

The known and unknown worlds of Edward P. Jones
Cormac McCarthy is now "respectable" in Hollywood
Legal victory for glennbeckrapedandkilledagirlin1990.com
Radical Orthodoxy now giving the Tory Party ideas
The Warhol of the Internet, and then afterwards
David Simon on why he created The Wire
Churches unite on "most important" issues
Loius Armstrong and race and the Jews
Translating Tolstoy & the Russians
When the Stones really let "it" bleed
Nick Cave's soundtrack for Cormac McCarthy
Interview with Cormac McCarthy
Looking at the Bolano backlash
AP photographs of Afghanistan
Examining the uncanny like us
Christmas as Nazi propaganda
Zadie Smith's essay collection
The original Swiftboating
Studs Terkel and the FBI
A short history of "hello"
Mr. Grand Theft Auto
Raymond Carver's life
Art of the bar code
Nietzsche's piety

Nov 18, 2009

This is you

Larry Flynt's first sexual experience was with a chicken.

I have no idea how I know that. I have even less idea how I knew that then, when I was what, 14? It certainly wasn't from reading Hustler. I assume, thinking about it, that I must have heard it -- or more likely read it -- from one of the anti-porn pieces that cycle through Christian circles. The idea must have been to demonstrate depravity. A chicken. Now I see that I have no idea if this is true, though, and it's not an argument any more than Larry Flynt's face is an argument, but at the time I was just bothered. Just like the cut-up concubine in Judges, and angels having sex with women in Genesis, and Noah getting drunk and naked, Lot impregnating his daughters, and David collecting foreskins, there was something fleshy and sweaty, violent and unsettlingly wrong and also there was this message implicit that this is you. This depravity is in you. This is life. All of us are only this far from beastiality.

The chickens we had at the time, the half dozen hens were being terrorized by an angry, angry rooster. The hens were losing feathers, and skittering around in constant panic and every time I fed them they'd squawk and squat, trembling, terrified, waiting to be mounted.

In Texas, at least at the time, you could see where some men raised their birds for fighting. There were whole fields of small white lean-twos with roosters staked out, strutting around and stretching their wings, one per white triangle. It was still legal to fight them up in Oklahoma then, and there were other places too, on the plains and Eastward, over into Arkansas, where men would gather around pits and fit their birds were razor blades to fight and cut and die. The argument was it was natural. They never had any hens, or anyway only a couple, and all the rest they ate or sold off as half-grown poults to the chicken farmers that wanted eggs.

Sometimes you'd see hens in the city, especially in poor parts where Mexicans and poor whites would keep them in re-purposed sheds, half-hidden in backyards except for the occasional escapee that'd be wandering up to the road, looking silly and startled. Mostly the egg men were in the country, though, and the chickens would spread out across the yard, running after roaches and pecking at dirt bugs. They'd tell you the flock was a whole social system, with a hierarchy that'd have to be reordered by fighting with every new bird. They all sold eggs, advertising with cardboard signs and selling at the same rate or only slightly higher than the grocery store. The eggs were never white, but were every other color, and sometimes you'd crack one and inside would be blood. Like a miscarriage. And sometimes, too, the eggs would not be washed and there'd be feces dried to the outside, and tufts of underbelly feathers. The farmers seemed okay with this, as if it didn't demonstrate some deep depravity, and they would say or at least, in being casual, imply that this is life. This is normal. This is us.

Watching the chicken squat in terror at the shadow of the hand I'd raised to throw food, squat and squawk and tremble wide-eyed as if I might rape it, I could only think, life is not okay.

Nov 11, 2009

"It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind."

-- Kurt Vonnegut

Nov 8, 2009

To make a break

When asked he said, of course. He said, oh sure. He said you'd have to be crazy not to be afraid, so of course he was afraid of the fire. He had a little speech he'd give, a standard set of several lines about how it was dangerous and you hoped you never had to. It usually seemed to satisfy.

Floyd looked out the window at where the helicopters made their turns coming down with dangling buckets and dipped into the man-made mountain pond. They came up again, buckets swinging and sloshing, rotor blades chopping an uplift of air. He watched to where the helicopters came from the mountain, a little like ants in a black-dotted line, and he looked and there they disappeared again, going in with water to splash like a giant drop of rain. They disappeared into the smoke that smelled all sour with evergreen sap. The smoke was gray. It smudged out into the sky -- a haze, a smear, an edgeless cloud into which the helicopters were simply silhouettes and then gone into the gray. Oh sure, Floyd said, but he watched the mountain fire and his words were vacant, his mind elsewhere.

When he jumped to fight the fires he felt free. When he jumped he felt clear. He would be hanging there, his hands on the parachute straps and his backpack bearing a dangling chainsaw, an ax, a shovel and some wedges, his fire blanket, water, some spare chains and wrenches and a splash of gas and oil, and he would laugh, it was so crazy, and he would laugh and laugh and feel free. He jumped through the smoke, where he couldn't see, and then came clear and landed on the other side of the fire. He flipped the mesh guard down when he landed, started the saw, clamped the ear muffs over his ears and began to run.

He wore orange into the fire, walking bowlegged in the thick chaps. He felt the fire suck the air and watched it jump between the tops of trees, leap and deeply inhale, immolating everything up there. He watched as the fire reached out to flick his ear, watched as it gathered a gust in a curl and then unfurled burning bits and frags of black and flaming leaves around him, to surround him, and he held up his chain saw and ran, hopping straight-legged out in front of the fire. He ran and revved the saw, then picked a spot to make a break. He began cutting trees, toppling them in way, and he used the shovel to clear out shrubs and grass and get down to dirt. He splashed the gas into the pile and threw a match and sent a fire flaming back, a counter fire, quick and black, and he moved really fast, cutting, hacking and digging, sweat and soot stinging and streaking, and he moved, alone on the other side of the smoke, smiling like a very mad man.

Now Floyd watched from the ground, from the window which looked out across a parking lot and over at the other side of the blocky, brick medical complex. From his window he could see the Emergency entrance, where the ambulances rushed up a little ramp and rushed their wheeled gurneys through automatically opening doors. Behind the complex, in the background from Floyd's window, he could see the hills, brown now in Summer, and the mountains that were always green with fir, spruce and pine. The doctor of the ward didn't ask but Floyd answered anyway, volunteering it, oh sure, repeating what he always repeated about how you hoped but this was the job and, oh sure, it was normal. The doctor didn't ask and didn't answer, but only filled out the form he had on his clipboard, which Floyd couldn't see. Then he watched the mountains until the evening, when they disappeared into dusk and the smoke could be seen no more. He watched until the dark was everything and it was filled just with the frantic ambulance light. Then he lay down on the flat, hospital bed and curled under the light, scratchy blanket, and he sang a song softly to himself.

He could feel the fire on his face. He could feel it in the way each individual hair would singe and the way each bead of sweat would seem to boil in a slowly rolling streak. The fire turned his face red, burnt it like the sun. But he would swing his saw, the chain turning and tearing at brush and biting into branches, spitting out saw dust and a little oil, raggedly leaving stumps sticking up like broken thumbs. He ran to stay ahead of the fire, to keep ahead of the fire and fight it by making a clear space, open space, a safe place. When he ran, hustling always to the edge of the space he cleared, the equipment bounced on his back, banging and rattling as he ran. He watched the line of trees, as he worked, and the line of the fire, the slant of the sun and the possibility of clouds for cover. He always had to watch the wind. It was very important to pay attention to the direction of the wind. That time he didn't though, and he didn't see the fire unfurl to surround him, didn't see the burning bits of brush carried up and over to the other side, catching and connecting until the fire was all around him. He didn't notice when the wind changed, but only when he felt the heat from the wrong side, felt the air inhaled from all around. Then he unfolded the little, metallic-coated blanket they gave him the first day, and he rolled himself in it and laid on the ground. He assumed he would die. He heard the fire, from inside, and imagined it probably worse than it was, and he stayed on the ground, which was lumpy and sloped down towards his head. He was -- though he knew he shouldn't be -- happy, and free. He was smiling, under his fire blanket, and singing out loud about Jesus and the whole world he had in his hands.

He sang his song until he heard the nurse in the hallway. He didn't want her to hear him. She would think he was crazy, singing songs from children's church, and if she came in he would tell her too, oh sure, you have to be scared. She stayed in the hall, though, and so he was silent, curled up in the bed, smiling and thinking about the fire.

Nov 6, 2009

"... consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm or the way after any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other's arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness within a grinding professional machine ... "

-- David Foster Wallace
Beer run

He asked if I minded and held up the can so I'd know what he meant. The blinker on the car clicked, dry and like constant throat clearing. I said I minded. I said it so he'd know I minded and didn't think I should have to say it, so he'd feel guilty for even asking to drink in my car when really I was doing him a favor. I said, Do you have to? I said it somewhere between incredulous and condescending.

I said it like I wasn't the one who'd agreed to drive my alcoholic older neighbor to the store to buy beer.

He said, oh.

It was a Friday. He'd gotten paid that day. Half in the bank so everything would look like it was supposed to and half in cash he could hide from the court and the order to pay child support. It was 4. We were stuck in traffic. Everybody was trying to get out. He had to be at work at 6 at the restaurant, but had asked if I'd take him to the store before he had to bike it up there, but now I knew I shouldn't have and thought, shit, I just want to be done for the day.

He said, so, and paused, still holding the beer, trying to reformulate the question.

He didn't put the beer back in the case, when I said it. He kept it in his lap, between his legs. He looked at it. His hands were shaking. His hands were veined purple and covered with the kind of skin that wrinkles like paper. His hands reminded me of my father's, and how mine would look when I was old. They were curled in his lap like cramps. The traffic light turned green, but the people in front of us wanted to turn left and couldn't so sat there, and we watched the traffic move in the other direction.

Nov 2, 2009

Red Scare of the soul

He sat at his desk, drinking. Thinking, drunk, he closed his eyes and felt it, reaching out and knowing, counting and marking in his mind the other desks, the hallway and hallways, the whole office and the other offices with other desks, all and each of them isolated in plots, counter plots and secret plans, the secrets and suspicions, files, office furniture and known and unknown missions a matrix in his half-sloshed mind. His toes were warm from the whiskey in his blood in circulation. He felt it.

He mentally made his way through files, fingering the tabs with names in block letters listing, last and first, suspects who to the service were servants, patriots and secret heroes, and who, to the world outside of normal and suburban mothers, children and lovers, wives, ex-wives and others, were mild and mid-level bureaucrats. He was, himself, if anyone asked, an under-appreciated analyst of the agricultural cycles and epicycles of, in particular, the Cynara cardunculus, or as it was vernacularly known and always said with an an article appended, the artichoke, specifically its production and consumption in the global market with attention to competition matrices, which was why, actually, no one asked except his mother, and she was the one who still called him Jimmy.

Most people and his mother would rather have it that way, this way, where they had their illusions, these hearty facades and friendly faces, innocuous offices in office parks and a confidence, casual and comfortable with contradictions and unexplained or explored connections. As long as they didn't know. But he had the files. He felt it. He had his suspicions of secrets and second motives, an intuition of movements and maneuvers in layers unseen, layers upon and within layers each more Byzantine, like a map in his mind of intelligence, intelligence, counter and counter-counter and counter intelligence again.

He said to his friend Ken, when they were drinking, as they did in the dark in the afternoon, "doesn't anyone realize, doesn't anyone fathom at least if not actually know how deep, how dark and deep and evil this goes?" But of course they didn't. The question, though, was not always asked as rhetorical, at least in the early years and when the snow seemed soft or the baseball game had been good on the radio. It was always answered as rhetorical, however, as every time Ken answered, "I know, I know, I know." He always ordered another for each of them and waited until again they were alone to say, like sighing, "I know. I know."

And of course he did. He very much did, though for him the conspiracy was not so dire, not so dark nor devoid of a certain pleasure. For Ken could conceive of the complex and apparently conflicting and fragmentary conspiracy his friend hypothesized and, more importantly, actually believed, as a kind of grammar game, like diagramming a nonsense sentence or writing whole Faulknerian paragraphs of completely correct and yet, paradoxically or perhaps not and actually unveiling something important or at least a point of undiscussed interest, sentences that had no meaning, such as "colorless green ideas sleeping furiously" or the one "did gyre and gimble in the wabe all mimsy were the borogoves" or, not to belabor but instead to appreciate the point being made, the other one once so popular in the Navy, when they served, with all the parts of speech constructed accurately with only alternate forms of one word, the versatile "fuck." So for him, for Ken, he knew, and was not lying to say so, but also he didn't understand.

He was too cavalier for the brutal singularity, the way that Ockham's razor could feel like the slice and slight squish of an eye. He didn't understand: the theory of conspiracy was desperate, the darkness and this falling feeling were better than the alternative simplicity, the Byzantine bizarreness better than the singular, obdurate, sole and soul-fucking truth James feared.

Because for James this was not an exercise of the mind. This was not intellectually entertaining and even if it had been that once it was no more. Now he felt it. It closed around him. It was a feeling of claustrophobic falling. It was a terror of forgetting. It was a thought he could not quite think, the kind one has upon waking or while wandering without a list in the supermarket, except accompanied by a choking terror, by this very real fear that forgetting meant death, or, not death, but like a ship sinking in the dark, the feeling of water already under the desk and rising up around the office chair and the stacks of paper there, and there, and there, and the room was already tilting, taking on too much, going down, dark and down, and the fear begat the panic and the panic more fear. He sat at his desk and closed his eyes and felt it. The horror rising, terror tilting. He tried to imagine in his mind the schema again of double-agents and deceptions, to connect the secrets betrayed and agents executed and map them all in another way, a way that worked, but instead he said, "how? how?" and he sat there. He sat there thinking, drunk (but now that was normal). He was the first, the first to have this Red Scare in his soul. It happened at his desk in an office park in Virginia.

The conspiracy was still better though, than the truth he'd been betrayed by Ken. He had one friend. There was one mole. He took another drink and tried to make a map, a matrix of traitor cycles and epicycles that would be another answer.