Friday, May 27, 2011
Cara Hoffman’s novel, So Much Pretty, illustrates what strong writer Hoffman is; her prose is brilliant, quick, moving, deep. So much of this novel showcases her skills as a writer. She knows how to take the surface of life and puncture it with words. To show us, with a turn of one of her phrases, that things are not quite how we suppose they are. This is the best aspect of her writing --- one she has displayed elsewhere --- and no doubt will continue to dazzle us with.
Internally the novel is compelling, and makes the reader (a good reader, anyway) marvel at the world she has created. But it is at the interstices of her work where the problems begin. Hoffman is a deeply ideological writer. She is interested in issues, first and foremost, and will sacrifice other elements of novel writing and novel crafting to achieve this.
We first see this in the format of the novel. NPR noted that the constantly changing point-of-view structure “[is] a kind of debut novelist’s gimmick here — she writes each chapter from a different point of view, giving the book a “greek chorus” feel (another sign of a first writer: she uses invented court documents and letters to fill in plot holes in her characters’ knowledge).”
This is mostly unfair. The technique is used to great effect, and builds veracity as it is moved forward. What is closer to the mark is that in the Greek chorus Hoffman fails to give a strong voice and vibrant tenor to the characters who fall beneath her ideological contempt. Some voices just sing better than others.
This is not a “fair” novel in that sense. When reading the POVs of characters on the wrong side of the ideological tracks, Hoffman slips into caricature and creates weak and one-dimensional portraits. This is a fatal flaw in the book. Reading these parts alongside the stronger segments will erode the reader’s confidence in the book and the author. We see the mission in these portions but not the strength of the talented, remarkable artist. Hoffman just skims along the surface here, not doing much real work.
The New Yorker notes “[w]hen issues --- violence against women, pollution, denial --- Hoffman's writing tends toward diatribe.” This is largely true, and weakens the base of the novel. Again, Hoffman wants to write a book driven by her sense of outrage, and framed by her ideology of what causes people to behave savagely. Hoffman does a great deal to explore this issue in the novel, but unfortunately the artist and social critic don’t blend well in So Much Pretty. The balance of the writing gets skewed by the heavy influx of opinion, ideas, and rage pointed in all directions. Hoffman’s gifts, and they are great, get heavily diluted in the process.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Monday, May 23, 2011
Friday, May 20, 2011
New. New York. New World… de novo.
For there was always the new, and if I was wrong anywhere it was there. For although life bifurcates and branches and forces us, with a steely agency that seems to not be our own, to transform us into something that we are not, often something simply horrid, it is always new, and as a consequence invested with at least an embryo of hope.
There is always the glimmer that perhaps the evolutionary tracks we seem to see, that appear to mark out the pathway of our life, were placed there for our own welfare. In life, eventually, and especially in self-imposed confinement, all people blend into a succession of neat and polar opposites, and behind this procession time beats out a steady, monotonous rhythm to indicate the topology of that irregular grade; a force whispers in our malformed little ears that perhaps there is a pattern snaking and weaving between legs both rotund and slim, arms atrophied and rugged, heads elongated and bold, faces animated and rosy or flattened and dead. Humanity is only a variation of a theme.
Eventually, after a period of latency, following a detumesence of considerable length visions shimmer into focus. Existing as I do on the naked flip side of human existence, I am privy to unseen forces that guide destiny. But I have neither the will, nor the inclination, to lay that bear here. Let us just say that Chaos and Order have more masks than any classical scheme. The complexity is vine ripe and rich. It’s intricacies are baroque and spellbinding. It is not for you to know.
Suffice it to say, being torn, rent, and suffering irrevocable division, spreads its manifold ills ever outward, not like ripples in a placid pond but like the arms of a cyclone. A hand raised up with a whip is a more debased stance than the poor creature receiving the blows, and if you are one of the unfortunates and carry that cleft within you, the damage is even more ruinous.
Little choice remains: cells, tissues, bones, will be sundered; intestines crushed from their own weight; a stomach shrunken from the top heavy coil of an esophagus gigantically deformed. Will it all sluice out, or will your heavy body, your whalesque rib cage, your calcified pelvis, be an adequate vessel? What good is a body if it can’t contain itself? Why should growth grow unrestricted, when there is no place left to go?
Example: once, walking about one night, my heavy shadow cast over a door frame, and I saw two men, one black and white, huddling in the cold. My presence frightened them, and for a brief and enchanting moment their bodies merged. I, of course, moved on, but they found solidarity even if it was fleeting.
For what is hope, after all, if not the promise that somehow we are not truly an isolated cell, that even when we turn the lights off, there is someone else in the dark that has the same burning awareness of the perpetual need for merger, of connection, again and again…
For periodically the veil is removed from my eyes.
The veil is removed from my eyes and I see, despite everything that clutters even my penetrating field of vision, (and despite my enormity) I’m truly just a pin prick of flesh. The pageant of human existence envelopes, enfolds, and diminishes me. For every man and woman that couples, and that strange admixture of the two that will result, takes a piece of flesh from me. What will happen to me? I have to make room --- give up one more precious atom of solitude for the newest version of the first man -- Adam. For the pain of being torn asunder necessitates the joy of reunion; they are the point-counter-point of the same immutable chain.
Example two: Homer is a white worm. I am a black behemoth. We are worse than Gog and Magog, for our struggles are a farce without ultimate meaning. Neither the righteous or the doomed feast on our flesh. Just a mammoth carcass and a dead worm under a rotting brownstone roof.
Example three: a glittering white flash and from this bafflement, clarity, from the bubbling pot of memory float up isolated gems for inspection, fragments that seemed displaced and incongruous then, but now stand proudly as new hope’s exemplar:
Homer and I are five and six respectively. We are both identical in height, weight, stature, and skin color. People often mistake us for identical twins; a truly edenic symmetry.
Mother’s wrists, smothered in peppermint, hold our small hands in her delicate, firm grasp. Father, a man walking at a brisk pace in front of us, grasps a light overnight carpet bag. His brown suit is in the fashionable checkerboard pattern of the time as he cuts a swatch through the dense Grand Central Station crowd.
I feel Grand and Central despite my diminutive size, despite my parody with Homer, despite the obvious rift between Father and Mother. The Union is splitting and to fill in that awful crack I grow, and it never ceases. But none of that now. On that day I’m small, hopping, skipping, singing, and it annoys and amuses Mother simultaneously. She tugs at me, admonishes.
“Come along Langley, don’t be so rambunctious!”
But I am happy, so I do not stop, but step up my hi-jinks several notches, twisting and wrenching her slender weak arms. All the mixing crowds of commuters and travelers seemed to my immature eye just the clowns of fate, and I felt immutable and fixed, next to their tragically mutable flesh. Everyone was a puppet on a string, but I was free to dance and sing among them. Ticket booth windows, banks of gray phones, subway platforms, the ceiling like a substitute sky, were all mine --- the vast, multitudinous array entered my mind wholesale --- without pain or pressure.
The heads, the arms, the legs in pants or skirts, the torsos in jackets, moving in straight lines, zig-zags, diagonally across the floor in concentric lines or circles. They enchanted me into action! They cast a spell over me! One final struggle and I broke free of Mother. I heard her utter a shrill cry of “Langley!” but it was too late.
The veil had fallen from my eyes, and I wanted to see what life was like without milky cataracts. Suddenly, none of my senses were adequate. I wanted to puncture a hole in my body and create a portal, a new open ended organ to perceive the subtle flowing undulations of this outlandishly beautiful medium I was skipping through; a medium both inadequate and wonderful! A new day and the full day of my life that had not yet begun!
My skip turned into a run, my run into a deadly sprint. My shoes were tightening, my little boy short trousers stretching over an expanding thigh, a school boy’s vest growing taut over expanding pectorals… no, that was merely a vision of a possible future. It bubbled in my mind’s eye and I saw it with concave clarity, mirrored on a small dollop of colored light on its outer skin, illustrating that the image existed only on a surface of that floating orb, like a child’s blown bubble, that I was still new, that I still had hope, that I could move beyond appearance, that I was tender, that I could, if I only kept my level forward momentum --- not cascade into lock-step definition, into drone like uniformity– but stay ever forward and changeless ---
One may as well begin here:
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Shortly before Clyde died, for he was already so advanced in age that I could hardly remember a time when he was not elderly, confirmations of my state seemed to fly on the wings of the proverbial dove.
Of course, there was the infernal sun, that blank orb hanging low and red over the horizon of the building during that interminable autumn. I would rise sometimes in the afternoon, and rolling over in my bed I hear quite clearly but still somewhat muffled, the sound of Homer moving about in his room. He was constructing some sort of miniature model of New York City, the downtown portion at least, a part of town I do not think he ever visited.
My intercourse with Homer was very reserved. My forays into his domain were confined to clandestine raids whenever he left his room. He was quite clever. Somehow he had procured a soldering gun, and with bits of scrap metal, was fashioning a birds eye view of the bulb end of our city, complete with streets fashioned from glittered strips of chrome.
One day I walked by his door, which was ajar. I could see his small white head, the top part flat, the light outline of his eyebrows just visible above the emerging superstructure of the downtown skyline.
But it is his hands that hold my fascination: they are small, delicate, white, and have a super-sensual tactile edge (as most blind people do). His hands have not only replaced sight, but have apparently filled the gap in his already stunted essence and enabled him, miraculously, to live quite beyond his means. I can see it when I glance through the crack at his stunted form: those white hands, dexterous and nimble, perform a dance that can only really be compared to compensatory calisthenics. He has taken grasp, caress, fondle, probe, and made them preposterously successful stand ins for sight, smell, taste and touch.
Now for the empirical part of my day, the one time when I actually allow the gradation of my experience to be tested, so to speak, against the sliding scale of external reality.
In simple words: I go outside.
And this is not so simple as it sounds. When one loses sight of humanity’s standards of weights and measures, it becomes near impossible to even approximate what a demanding humanity may desire from even banal encounters. How do I hold myself erect? Do I walk with head held high, boldly or should prudence hold way, and keep my neck bent? Gestures become the paramount concern when you have lost a certain ingrained pattern that others, on more certain ground, and with more to take for granted, take as autonomic.
So there are routines that can bridge the toothy gap of expectation. Find a suit coat and some trousers that reasonably match. Check for stains at a chink in the window. From the old hat rack, now growing an exotic form of mold that appears to be ivy with an intricate herringbone pattern, I pick out a hat that somehow matches my ensemble.
The rim has seen better days. It’s battered around the back, but will do in a pinch. Like everything in my environment, it too seems to suffer from the disease of dual magnetism. On one side it is covered by a web of mold, on the other, a degree of brittleness that makes it a likely candidate for near total disintegration.
But somehow that unlikely coupling works. The ensemble, while vitally lacking a sense of fresh style, nevertheless conveys that swaggering character that I wish to project to the world: devil may care, joie de vie, catch as catch can, a type of higgly piggly stylish disregard for societies conventions that is truly my calling card.
Tipping my hat rakishly over my broad forehead, I slipped through the alimentary channel at the rear of the house and emerged, de novo, in the backyard. I’m in a rush. I have an appointment to keep.
Watch dapper me strolling down the boulevard. No longer the instrument of doomed fate, no longer the plaything of the fickle gods, but untethered, unbound!
When I first see Clyde at his stand I always initially mistake his concerned stare as some sort of indictment. But then I realize that it is merely the strain of conspiracy that is wearing on him.
“Why, good morning Mr. Vandemark, well,” he clucked nervously, “I suppose its good afternoon.” He glanced at the wall clock inside the news stand. I was expectant, and not wanting any delaying small talk, Clyde immediately handed over my New York Times. I bid him good day and retreated down the avenue. I was brimming with energy, carelessly knocking passer-bys, who towered below me, as I made my way homeward, expectant in my confirmation. Every now and then a sense of child-like glee, glancing at the racing form protruding from page 14, wondering if it was an up arrow or a level line, whether it would confirm my world, or deny it…
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
After I realized what happened, I could image what the torpedo looked like, although, of course, I never saw it.
Torpedoes leave a pleasant anticipatory surface wake even though they are below the waterline. When the seawater came crashing in as the hold was breached I thought, perhaps, it was some metaphysical alleviation, some sort of mental ether.
But alas, it was just seawater: pressure exerting, crystal clear cold, seawater. I floated in the pure effluent for a moment or two. Then the upper hold disintegrated and I was no longer in a ship compartment, but floating free in a lime green sea: looking up, I saw the surface of the water reflecting back my incredulous mirror image.
A multitude of objects floated to the surface. I did not resist floating, nor did I try to sink (my old conundrum, to sink or swim, I was faced with it head long and I allowed myself, in excellent Vandemark fashion, to have fate make my decision). For it made no difference. Life is long; many accidents and misfortunes drag down the strongest of men, in spite of effort, despite our plans…
But often events, seemingly random or disjointed, dovetail into one another, meet in a ball and socket joint where we thought, perhaps, only random ends jutted out.
My feet emerged first. They swooshingly collided with the prickly icy-air. My torso next. And then, breech-baby-fashion, my head. As I righted myself, all along the swirling chop of the water bits and pieces of the unfortunate transport (which was mercifully empty of troops) bobbed up and down cork wise in the swirl. I could hear no human sounds. The swell of the water, a slight rotating bulge, circulated burning slicks of oil. I dove under the water when one rotated toward me. Emerging on the other side, I spied another one, dove below the chop once again. Exhuastion quickly ensued.
Eventually, I swam clear of the wreckage. As I broke free of the debris field, I could see the mustard yellow disk of the sun setting at the water line: west. Dovetailing, memory finally served a useful function, instead of salting a wound. I slipped out of my pants. In classic Uncle Albert fashion I twisted and tied the ends. I tapered, twisted, and knotted the waist. I straddled my own blown up torso.
One may as well begin here:
Langley Vandemark, nude, floating in the Atlantic pitch and roll, points his encapsulated, unbreakable body West, to the dusky horizon point, to the rocky cliffs of Nova Scotia. New Scotland. And why not? It could be New Wales, New England or New Mexico. The New World was just a fabulous misnomer; the concentric circles spawn an ever widening avatars over greater fields of view, until it all blurs.
My feet, the feet of Langley Vandemark, flip behind my body, the body of LangleyVandemark, ever buoyant --- ever westward. To keep moving, of course, was key. Never stop --- just go! It was year Zero and everything was ahead of me. Novia Scotia, a new world. A buoyant nothingness that was flamboyant and perverse, liquid and free. I left a phosphorescent wake in the water as I paddled toward that unforgiving sun.
I climbed the rocks and emerged on a broad plain of broken stone and lichens. La Aux a Chapelle, which later, stunningly enough, was discovered as the Viking’s first landing place in Vineland. I had retraced their steps.
I could die while writing this. So could you.
Monday, May 16, 2011
Men who allow themselves to become nothing, to slip out of the tender casuistry of history, have no place in the world. My situation was grave: I was nothing. At least a hole has a framing perimeter: one can peer through it to more soothing vistas. But nothing exists as a nonentity. It hangs in the non-air, non-expectant, un-drenched, non-honeycombed, ahistorical --- simply empty.
A pulsing yellow light bulb sat squarely in a recessed overhead light fixture. Sitting in the bunk the dullness of my state spread over me in widening hazy fingers. Honestly they were right, Gavin, Clare, my superiors. There was nothing to do with nothing except to go back to the States.
After I was fished out of the Thames, only Gavin was classy enough to see me. He was as chipper as ever, pretending to be envious that I was going home while the rest of them would toil it out until the end of the war. He tried to look calm and reassured. But I knew that he was glad to finally get rid of me.
For the productive phase of my participation in the Second World War was concluded. What could I do? How to even find the words to articulate a dead-end state? I didn’t even want the memories. I did not want to remember the ozone smell of Clare’s unwashed hair. The peppermint she used as shampoo. The gray-green tint of her gnomic skin, the endless concentric circle of our conversations about psychological versus ontological reality.
Lying in my cabin berth the sea rocked and pitched ever so slightly. I could measure the subtle undulations by the line of water visible, like a carpenters leveling plain, from the porthole window. I had removed my insignia. My dog tags were pitched into the Atlantic. I had carefully smudged my name from the lip of my shirt pocket. I was aware of the date. It was my thirty-fifth birthday and for an young-old chronophobiac such as myself I knew what the implications of such a mid-way point was. If I lived to seventy, half my life was over. It was year zero for Langley Vandemark. I had reached the penultimate act and was ready to finish the drama. I had reached the perimeter gate, and everything concluding afterwards would be a mere dance with shades out on the broad, flat plateau.
A word to the wise: one should be careful when blaming outside events for our own inner transformations. How do we know that there is a cause and effect relationship between these two slippery and notoriously difficult to grasp concepts: mind and body? I was being sent back to America because of my increasingly erratic behavior; the diagnosis, nervous exhaustion. But was that a correct etiology?
What if it is mere synchrony? What if our inner life obeys its own dictates? How do we know, when we turn out the lights at the end of the day, that the day held sway over our over taxed minds? For nothing escapes the leveler. And I was no longer culpable. My thoughts and behavior were no longer concerted. My thinking and emotions had unhinged and uncoupled and were separable entities. All had come loose from its moorings. I could hear them rattle and disengage, orbit about me for an instant and then mercifully disappear. What remains?
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Waking up with a start, I moved to the brightly lit window and looked down at the street below. A heaving moon hung low on the horizon, illuminating the avenue in flat, pale blue light, giving the street the appearance of a featureless escapement. Gone were the milling crowds; only a few hobos were in the vacant lot across the street huddled around an oil drum fire.
Diagonally down the block I could see the lights of some sort of basement jazz club: four or five perfectly square windows at the sidewalk level casting a yellow jaundiced light across the concrete. Leaning closely against the window pane I the heard the tinny upper register of a piano, and the regular patterning line of a stand up bass.
Quickly dressing, I left most of my bills on the dresser and quietly exited the room.
On the street, I turned and immediately entered the club. The doorman, taking some money from me, cast a look of unmitigated fear and revulsion my way. I sat at a small table at the rear of the club, partially concealed by a support column on one side and a busted radiator on the other. The chair groaned as I eased my bulk down.
The club was mostly empty, only a group of hard core patrons, mostly black, dedicated aficionados, no doubt, sat in a semi-circle around the small raised stage platform. The band was a quintet: a saxophone player in a black pullover sweater, goatee beard, soul patch, with a square beret perched rakishly over his shaved head. The bass player was in a dark suit with a thin black tie was clean-shaven, handsome, his unnaturally long fingers were moving in a blur over the neck of his bass.
A trumpeter stood at attention next to the bass, tapping out the beat with his foot, waiting for the sax solo to conclude. The drummer, hammering out a rhythm with his snares, was concealed by the white stage lights, along with the piano player, which were set too far forward on the stage, casting a long shadow over the sax player, the bassist, the trumpet. The music was a subtle, syncopated, urban jazz, which seemed to mimic the qualities of human speech; a series of murmuring voices communicating at the level of a stage whisper… then escalating…
No wait, it was not the music…. the murmuring was from a clump of dark figures on the sidewalk. I could see their booted feet and their dark trousered ankles. Occasionally one would stoop down and peer in the window. More feet gathered… more mumbling, more murmuring….
The noise from the outside grew to such a fevered pitch that the music stopped. The small jazz crowd stared at me: black stares without comprehension, as an unknowing, eerie calm had settled uneasily over the cellar club.
“What the hell do they want?” asked the sax player in the pleasing sing song cadence of the professional jazz musician.
A small black man, the person seated most immediately near me in the club, a man who was so minute in stature he inhabited that ambiguous margin between dwarf and standard-sized person, pointed a stubby forelimb at me, and in a pint-sized modulated voice said:
“It’s that block headed freak they want!”
The entire club patronage stood up to examine me. Their faces were in deep shadow; their forms were concealed by the bright light of the stage, etching their outlines with bright halos, concealing their expression from view.
Then, they seemed to advance toward me as a single phalanx of moving light and dark.
I stumbled out of my seat and climbed the chipped concrete stairs to the sidewalk.
Figures, faces, and clusters of figures and faces loomed in the dark night (the moon had set, the sky was illuminated by pale yellow lights from the faulty dim streetlights), they surrounded me on all sides, pressing around me, trying to crush me…
Breaking through the circle I commenced a slow monster movie sprint through narrow side streets. The crowd behind me had grown more numerous, more boisterous, and had somehow gathered up torches. Running down an alleyway, hopping ungracefully over urban debris, the mob was fanning out, trying to encircle me, cut off possible escape routes.
I lumbered along, emotionally fearful, but as usual my thought process was calm and lucid. As a maze dweller by choice and as a life long vocation, I knew well how to solve even the most perplexing spatial puzzles. My heavy strides led me back to Broadway. I saw my elongated and sliding shadow on a chipped brick wall as I rounded the bend and I seemed to lose the crowd forever.
I slowed down, adjusted my pace for the main drag. But it did not seem to help: faces came out of the darkness, stared, gawked. I stumbled. The amazement of it all! I fell off the curb. Laughing, jeering… a mob, an uncertain direction. I was the American scape-goat, a new breed that absorbs the sins of the crowd sponge-like to a terminal absorption. I was climbing up a fire escape toward a blinding white light…
Emerging, the light dis-enveloped me, and warped and wrapped around my eyes like a halo as it retreated from its near strangle hold on my face and neck.
I found myself back on the street. Much to my surprise, the neighborhood people were literally running amok. They were crashing storefront windows, carrying various and sundry merchandise into the surrounding darkness.
Streetlights had been busted out by bricks and stones, but a few bulbs still dangled from their broken casings, dim but operative. People were ignoring me now, even thought I walked rather obviously down the center of the street.
A police cruiser drove slowly down the block, impotent to stop the melee, they merely shined their mounted spot light on the shops and storefronts, momentarily capturing a looter in mid-booty acquisition, a radio pressed close to a jiggling jogging body, a couch being carried away by a family, the father and son on both ends, the daughter and mother collecting the cushions. Over the boulevard, several old men were collecting watches, chains and pins from a pawnshop window. Shards of glass glistened and crunched underfoot as I moved on.
As I neared the Vandemark brownstone, I noticed a citrus orange glow down the block, on the shopping stretch of Broadway. Broadway was ablaze. A car swerved around the corner and struck a feral dog that was crouching so low to the ground I did not notice it until it was already dead. As I opened the trick latch on the side basement panel and slid into the cool dark of the cellar, I realized it was a fruitless apocalypse. No final reckoning would be tallied. No judgment on cosmic scales. Just a very local, parochial rearrangement of goods. And a very secular search for bald revenge.
I clicked the latch in place, and the pleasant smell of Vandemark history wrapped around me like an encompassing warm blanket as snug as a womb.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
I turned the corner of 125th street. On Broadway the lunch time crowd was bustling and eating hurriedly at crowded lunch counters. The sheer press of people made me grow an inch taller. I towered above the crowd. As I milled about, bodies pressing against me, a ball and socket fit of Langley to humanity that would happen and could happen in moments of complete clarity, of ultimate calm or dreamy unknown certainty that the world will move on without us, with us, indifferently, really with a forward momentum.
I entered a coffee shop. All black faces. I sat at the counter. The circular stoolet creaked. I could quite easily see the faces of the other patrons in the wide mirror opposite the counter: strong faces hunched over bowls of steaming tomato soup, weak pimply faces forcing a meat sandwich into wide open mouths, reserved narrow faces sipping coffee from white chipped porcelain cups. I could not see my face in the mirror, only my massive torso and the bottom fourth of my muscular neck.
The counter man walked up to me.
“What’ll it be?”
“A ham sandwich and a cup of coffee.” He wrote it down in his little pad with a stub of a pencil, and ripping it off, stuck it on the tab of the rotating stainless steel dolly. The short order cook, head wrapped in multi-colored rag, spun it around and squinted at my fleck of yellow paper.
Stares. Eyes. I did not emerge from the house often. Shifting my head lower to sip my cup of coffee, I could see what I presumed to be my face: massive cheek bones, prominent jaw fringed with a stubbly blue-black week old beard, strong aquiline nose, thick sensual lips, drooping melancholic eyes.
I knew I should not be around people when, in those rare and exquisite moments, I am either excessively joyful or atrociously dark. When such a singular wave rolls over my broad carcass it is best to hole up, better to fall back into old stereotyped behaviors that work, that shield, that pacify.
I ate and drank, and ate and drank; visited the men’s room, straightened my tie, brushed rusty water over my face and returning, I ordered a piece of apple cobbler with a dollop of fast melting vanilla ice cream like the border zone of a crumbling glacier.
The late lunch crowd had dwindled to me and the other person, an emaciated form I could barely perceive in my peripheral vision, as the last strip of pleasantly burned crust softened with dissolved ice cream and dissipated on my tongue.
She was sitting on the stool to my right as I wiped my lips with the soiled yellow napkin. She was a colored girl, light skinned; her curly cue brown hair was piled high atop her head in a sloppy bun. She was wearing a cheap flimsy summer dress that unpleasantly offset the high-tan color of her skin.
“Hello Mister,” she said in what appeared to be a slight southern accent.
“Hello,” I answered from somewhere deep in my throat.
“Not many white folks come in here,” she seemed mildly drunk. She listed forward as she spoke, holding the counter for support although she was firmly rooted on the stool. I mumbled something in reply.
“What,” she asked.
“How do you know I’m white?”
“Hah,” she snorted, her out of focus eyes scanning my face, “Mister, there’s a lot of things in this world I can’t tell, but I know the difference between black and white folk. You tall. How tall are you mister?”
“I don’t know. Six five. Six six.”
“Was you in the war?”
“Yes, how can you tell?”
“You got army pants on.” I looked down. Indeed I did. I was wearing my dress uniform bottoms with a civilian coat and tie. “You look too old to fight. Where did you fight?”
“Europe. England. I didn’t actually fight, although I was wounded twice. I worked in a military supply office in London.”
She had nothing to say to that. She stared at herself in the lunch counter mirror, then started to distractedly fix her hair.
“I had a brother in the Army. He drove tanks,” she paused, “he never come back.” A truck rolled by on Broadway, rattling the window of the diner, shaking the empty cups and saucers on the counter as if giants, once more, walked the earth.
“You want a date Mister?” she asked when it was silent again. She did not wait for an answer, however, but said, “You can buy me a hamburger and fries, I’m half starved.”
The counter man set down a gray hamburger and some thinly sliced fries. She started eating and never stopped to talk or so much as acknowledge my presence. When she was finished she wiped her mouth with one of the counter napkins. She pushed the plate and cups ahead of her and looked up at me with brown diffused eyes.
“Where do you live, Mister?”
“Not far from here.”
“I don’t live too far neither. You wanna go to your place or mine?”
“Perhaps your place would be better.”
I followed her down the quickly darkening street. Tight knots of local people were clumped together at the corners, milling about in tense groups. They seemed to be whispering conspiratorially to one another, perhaps pointing in our direction.
But they were careful to keep their limbs in tight against their bodies, for they did not want to reveal that I was the object of their inquiry, the unsettling presence in their midst. There were expressions of blank horror on the faces of passerbys as the girl and I progressed down the avenue, as if my presence, a reminder of miscegenation, the tobacco shack stormed at midnight, one more atrocity these people were forced to silently bear. I was too large, too inhuman, too-out-of-scale with the world as it is known to be allowed to move un-accosted.
She led me to a crumbling apartment block. The side of the building facing front had once been some sort of shop factory, twenty or thirty years ago. It had the typical carved gothic exterior of the up town factory; intricate fleur-de-lis patterns arching up and down the fitted, molded columns; sleek, art-deco gargoyles and griffins, not inhuman monstrosities or semi-human fantasism, but lovely, slim women with wings and slender tails.
But age and neglect had transformed the entire façade into what seemed like a sheet whose forward progress had been suddenly arrested. I could see the tell-tale signs of pollution on the upper portions of decorative bulbs, balls, spears and cornices, dripping down the to the lower portions like slicks of grease and then frozen.
“What’s your name?” I asked the girl.
“Margaret. Folks call me Maggie.”
“I’m Langley.” She smiled weakly at me.
Her apartment was small but neat. A single bed against the wall, a dresser, a marble colored nightstand.
“Where are your parents?” I asked.
“Down South.” She was removing her dress. She stood in front of me in a slip and bra.
“Alabama. Mobile. That’s where I was born.”
“Why did you come to New York?”
“For work. Why else does anyone come to New York? Didn’t work out quite like I planned. Nothin’ ever does.”
I was seated in a small wicker chair fully clothed and unmoving.
“You gonna take your clothes off?” she finally asked after a minute or two of silence.
“Sure,” I answered. She removed her slip, her bra, and turning over the blankets and sheets, climbed into bed.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Stepping out of the house I stood beneath that bright disk of the sun and watched the eyes follow me.
Stepping out of the house, I finally realized something was wrong with my shadow. I could not be completely certain. I grasped an old tin can and marked the top most part of my shadow. I took to leaving the house for my daily round of errands at the same, exact time. Was it a trick of the light, was the sun moving its position? My shadow’s length was growing. So, it seemed, I was growing. But the solar tests had too many possible anomalies to be truly trusted. I needed an external confirmation. Something more grounded, more solid than the slant of sunlight, than extrapolating my state from the incredulous gaze of passerbys.
There was Clyde the newsman. A fixture in the neighborhood for forty years, he had weathered the sea changes of this New York street with a stoicism and placidity of a professional sailor. He was unperturbed by human variability. He was not thrown off track by the spikes and pitches of a humanity whose full range and measure most of us cannot stomach. Clyde would give me the straight dope.
So, after three or four days of inconclusive solar experiments, I trotted down to the corner stand. Clyde was there, his pea cap high on his forehead, his yellow and black checked shirt open at the collar, revealing a tuft of cotton white chest hair poking up and concealing his bulging larynx. He had his customary toothpick rolling from side to side between his fat lips. He was making notes with a short pencil in a racing form. When I approached he looked up.
“Hello Mr. Vandemark, how are you today?”
“I’m fine Clyde, yourself?”
“Can’t complain. Can’t complain. The weather has been good and when it is business is good. So there you have it.”
I put a New York Times on his counter, a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, a Life Magazine (a picture of Chairman Mao, a flapping, fluttering red flag of the Revolution as a pictorial back drop) and some pencils. Clyde put down his racing form and began to ring up the sale. I made my move:
“Clyde, we’ve known each other for how long?”
“Oh, Mr. Vandemark, I knew you when you were a little baby.” I added a pack of Chicklets to my little pile of purchases, red, yellow, gold, orange tabs visible through the crinkled cellophane wrapper.
“When I was a baby,” I said, baiting him, “so you’ve seen me weather quite a bit of change. Quite a lot of transformations,” I innocently postulated.
“Yes. Yes. I’d say so Mr. Vandemark. I’ve seen a lot of things change in this neighborhood, especially since the twenties. But you know the old saying, the more things change, the more things stay the same.” He laughed without emphasis as he tallied my purchases and to stall for time a tossed the black and white Daily News on the counter, a photograph of the portly mayor of New York City grimacing sweetly into the camera. I could see from Clyde’s expression that he was re-tallying the sum in his head.
“Clyde,” I made my move, “ Something is happening to me. Something odd, and I’d like you to help me get to the bottom of it.”
He looked perturbed but said quite congenially, “Well sure Mr. Vandemark, anything I can do to help.”
I leaned in closer to him. I was inches away from the moist toothpick poised between his dull red lips. I could see the spittle gleaming at the end of the cylindrical tip, a moist droplet poised to fall counterward.
“I think I’m growing,” I whispered.
“Growing?” he whispered back.
“Yes, I’m getting physically bigger.”
“How can that be?” he asked.
“I don’t really know,” I leaned in even closer, although it seemed impossible to get closer to the man than I already was. He took a cautious step back. He started to say something but then he stopped. Then he appeared to think better of it again and said, “You know Mr. Vandemark I was reading about atomic energy the other day in this here magazine,” he showed me the cover of a popular science monthly, a stylized red and blue atom in the technically incorrect orbital mode lopsidedly gracing its cover, “and it said that exposure to atomic energy radiation can cause animal or plant tissue to shrink or to grow.”
We looked at each other conspiratorially. We were a cabal of two, putting our heads together, trying to pluck out the heart of this mystery.
“You were in the war, weren’t you Mr. Vandemark?” he asked rhetorically, for he well knew that I was in the war.
“Yes,” I said, wide eyed, gullible.
“Which theater, European or Pacific?”
“European,” I said. He seemed slightly disappointed. I knew that he wanted to hear I was in charge of a garrison of troops in Nagasaki or Hiroshima.
“Maybe those Nazi’s got closer to developing the A bomb than we thought.” Clyde’s mind was working hard to make links. Making these types of acausal connections was proving to be the new post war American mania, McCarthyism, Communists in the wings, UFOs, and I was just as hooked as Clyde. All I needed his outsider’s eye view, even if his background information was skewed and paranoiac.
“There was something Clyde, something I was exposed to…. But I can’t speak freely about it, you understand.” He nodded. “I need something from you.”
“Anything at all Mr. Vandemark.” His desire to help seemed genuine.
“Just keep an eye on me, and let me know if I’m getting, well, larger. If I am, put one of these pink racing sheets on page 16 of my New York Times.”
He agreed. As I walked down the street and looked up at the crystal blue sky (what a day, what a supremely gorgeous empty sky) it seemed quite fitting that there was nothing between me and my ascent to that beautiful blank vault but the bonds of gravity. There was nothing there, just an unimpeded expanse of marvelous, gratuitous emptiness. I could feel (feel is not accurate, emote, intuit, emotate) my body arching upward, toward that indifferent dome.
And now I had a co-conspirator. It was no longer Homer and I continually cross referencing each other; of me taking continual measurements of the circumference of his head, the length of his legs, the width of his thighs and measuring them against mine!
Monday, May 9, 2011
“You believe in God Homer?”
“Sure, don’t you?”
“I don’t know…. No, I suppose not.” I demurely lit a cigarette.
“How can you not believe in God? Its impossible to believe in anything if there isn’t a God,” he asked pleadingly.
“How so?” I asked, still calm.
“If not, there’s no point to living. Life is useless. Everything you work for, all the things you own, and even your own life, they all just pass away as if they never existed.”
“Yes,”I said, nodding, puffing on the cigarette.
“Well, then there is no point to living. If everything dies, if all things fall apart or you lose’em then there has to be, well, something where all the things started in the first place.”
“I don’t really understand what you are saying, Homer. We’re born, we may reproduce ourselves, if we marry and have children, and then we die. We’re not connected to anything else. We are separate from everything. We don’t need anything to exist. Every person is an island.”
I could see he was growing frustrated. His talcum white cheeks were turning a pale crimson, then a deeper angry russet. He cocked his head from side to side as if her were trying to localize the sound of my voice to better control me.
“You shouldn’t get agitated, Homer. We’re just talking.” I put my hand on his thin arm.
“I’m not Lang,” he said, “its just, its just that it all makes no sense unless God is watching over things….”
“Yes,” I nodded my head, cigarette now a dead stump between my lips.
“A God who makes things and a God who takes things back. So really nothing ever disappears or dies, God just takes ‘em back.”
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.’
“It’s from the book of Job,” I said with conviction. “But Homer,” I continued, “you’re presuming that there must be a meaning behind the things that you see happening. You see a dog die on the street and believe that there must be something behind that death to explain it. But I don’t. I just see a dog dying. I don’t think one needs to look any further than the senses to explain things. It’s just the end of life, and that’s it. Its what happens everyday.”
“You don’t think Mamma’s gonna go to heaven?” he whimpered, tears were matting his long eye lashes. I had gone too far? A God? A deeper meaning to reality? It had never come up before with poor little Homer.
There was a God in heaven? Was it the God of the Hebrews or the God of Aristotle? The difference between the two, of course, was small, yet infinitely profound. The God of Aristotle kept the universe moving in an orderly sequence. Events, circumstances, the flow of existence, were explicable because there was an anchor to pin the flow upon; because, ultimately, nothing became unhinged from the Primary Cause, the Unmoved Mover. Everything was stacked in an orderly sequence with this clock work God on high. But Aristotle’s God was impersonal, compassionless, and as such, all the more believable for this world, because this God is blind.
But the Hebrew God, the Christian God, is that what Homer believes in? He had grafted some sort of hybrid of the two, not realizing that they are historically and logically exclusive? This God loves with a love that is both universal and particular . This God knows each individual hair on our heads… the philosophical God makes more sense; it is mechanically more sound and empirically more verifiable. A Heavenly Host, Salvation and Damnation, Providence, a man-god squirming on a Cross… it is all too cumbersome to be self-subsisting…. too heavy to have any real substance.
I sat with Homer outside of Mother’s death chamber. In the darkness I could barely see his face. I could hear the doctor rustling in Mother’s room. As long as I can remember there was always the sound of rustling, dragging, and clamoring emanating from Mother’s chamber. She did not have much time.
I held Homer’s shoulder and he smiled weakly at me. A fearful sensation of loneliness washed over me, for I knew that I was, from that point on --- alone. The impending death of my last parent suddenly illustrated that nothing was above me in that clear blue summer sky. Our Mother and Father are our true gods, and they are like all divinities they break the heart of their creations with a divine capriciousness that is inscrutable. The hurt us by being as imperfect as we are...
Homer and I stood silently next to the minister. It was a stormy early autumn day. The sky, a dark gray coating of clouds, had been pouring rain all morning. I held a black umbrella high over my head to shelter Homer and myself. He was pretending to gaze down into the freshly dug brown hole and quietly weeping.
In the distance, far over the undulating plots of varying sized tombs and monuments, I could see an elevated train racing on its improbably high track. Its light showed a dull yellow in the prematurely darkening sky. Dead leaves were rustling, wet and sodden, in the rigorous autumnal wind. When the last clod of soil was on her casket we returned home and I barred the front door. I nailed a simple two by four in place and then sat on the hallway bench and watched the door for most of two days. I cast a spell on myself. If there was really no order to the cosmos, then I wanted to create, thorough the stubborn insistence of my will ---- my own well ordered universe
I sat at my desk and wrote lists of routines and scenarios to govern both my and Homer’s day. Our symbiosis would be as completely matched as possible. I began to develop theories of space which I thought would bring a more congenial harmony to our home than so- called “naturally arranged space”, for it seemed as if balance had been lacking in the Reign of Mother. Our space had become littered with objects, which, although familiar, had been drained of their deeper signification… their meaning….
For if you believe you are walking through space then you need conventional markers to plot your course. Otherwise you are in a vacuum. Otherwise you have no idea what exists; otherwise it is all a medium without control. It is not a free fall; it has no reference, it is an open ended and inexplicable dead-end.
I started with the front hall. We had over sized empty packing crates that Mother had used to deliver our three grand pianos in ’26. By placing them in front of the door, an initial barrier was erected. One had to squeeze through the crack to the left of the entryway, and then sidle through the narrow aperture between the crates, only to be greeted, on the other side, by a maze of detached wrought iron bed stands, the legacy of numerous disused guest rooms. The bed stands made an excellent series of interchangeable barriers, a maze of conflicting passages, blind alleyways, false starts, faux endings, red-herrings strewn about, designed to confuse and muddle.
Moving from this area of organized, structured use of space, the potential intruder suddenly finds himself in the central hall, an area of near total darkness, day or night, every window and light source unceremoniously plugged. The sensation, going from enclosed twisted maze to open, seemingly endless darkness, a magnificent textural trick, a feeling of bottoming out and yet not reaching the piece of solid bedrock one expects after an extended fall, but another expanse, equally as perplexing as the mini-maze, yet another spatial riddle to solve, a void…
If somehow, someway, the intruder (the explorer, the bon-vivant), gets beyond this… see him wander in the near perfect pitch dark, arms stretched outward in a V, perhaps crawling from fear, perhaps moving backward when he thinks he moves forward, for momentum is not what we suppose, forward progress is largely a trick of the light, a passing image on the retina, a cleverly drafted tromp l’ l’oeil. For how do we know that we are moving through a landscape and not sitting still? How can the intruder know what is a trap door, what is a portal, and what is a dead wall?
If, by some trick of luck or through the force of ingenuity the intruder finds his way out, he will discover yet another, more perplexing maze. This one, I must confess, is not a design of my own making. No, the heart of the house required some external talent to bring to the fore a symbol of the real convolutions that life can take. For a maze, a cleverly constructed and masterfully designed enigma, is nothing but a rather obvious metaphor for the all too complex gyrations and convolutions of our swirling cosmos, of our jumbled human lives.
And this one is a classic: designed in 1767 under the direction of the decadent and caddish King of Belgium, Louise Phillipe IV, by one Marquise De Metronmme, (of course not his real name, and not a Marquise, to boot, but a fraud, a charlatan; yet another pretender with a royal label in an age of royal counterfeits) the master maze maker of 18th century Europe, his services in demand from Lisbon to Moscow, Palermo to Stockholm, the maze craze of this period, and his work in particular, left an indelible mark on the genre. Like every great innovator, de Metronome broke with the old models of maze construction while maintaining, while guided by the strict confines of his own unique, solitary genius, certain elements that he uniquely and correctly intuited, and made, quite simply, outstanding mazes.
If he divorced form from content, and was harshly criticized for it in his own day, then we can only marvel at the acute powers of his prognostication. And I took his cue, and ran with it! My maze was fashioned after the Belgian Louise Phillipe (so famous it graces innumerable lithographs in middle class homes the world over) but of course my maze was not on the same scale, or with quite the intricacy…
And my materials were home grown, or found in adjacent alleys and side streets, which grew clogged with more and more clutter each day, as the city, as this city, as my city, seemed intent of burying itself in its own refuse.
But no more on the maze. No more trade secrets revealed.
During these dense days of construction (work day and night, seven days a week, all along with my other household maintenance duties) suddenly I noticed people were looking at me when I went to the market, bought a paper, went to the corner stand for tobacco and rolling papers. What was wrong with me? Could they see something that I could not?
Friday, May 6, 2011
When I came home from the war I barricaded myself behind closed doors. How did it start? Like any accident, its genesis began from a mistake in apprehension.
Cue Mother: Enter Mother, stage right. Mother lies down.
Mother was dying. I had returned in 1945. Just as the sailor kissed his stockinged gal in the celebratory hub-bub of Times Square, Mother was in her death throes. In a final display of bad sportsmanship she had even deprived me of a hero’s welcome. It was all about her; she mitigated everything with her prodigious and irrepressible needs. Death was the one card she had left, and she played it like a shark. But I had the last laugh. Her three decades old confidence game was over (or was it?)!.
“What’s wrong with her?” Homer asked, playing his role as the perpetual questioning adolescent with aplomb.
“Because,” I said, “Everyone dies eventually.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows for certain, its just the way of nature.”
“Maybe we die because God wants us back.”
I took a hard look at my brother, for I had not seen him in close to four years. I was shocked at how young he looked; it was as if the vicissitudes of age did not affect him, as if he was some man-child Dorian Gray: but he was somehow stooped and had lost stature or height.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Playing off Gavin’s essentially decent nature and sense of fair sportmashipism, I was given one more chance to redeem myself in my moist work hole, from the bottom of my fetid puddle. I was installed without a shred of ceremony back in the lair.
But I knew that in crucial ways that this was now the abode of the shadow, my arch nemesis, who would, through infernal designs and black machinations, destroy my life house and to otherwise with a swipe of his hairy paw knock down the edifice of cards I had carefully constructed through years of subterfuge and misdirected rage turned inward.
“Now make sure, old chum, that you take it easy,” Gavin stressed and elongated the ‘e’ in easy, “anytime you need to take a break, by all means do so. Don’t feel like you have to burn the midnight oil like you have been. Moderation should rule the day at this juncture, old boy. Well, cheerio, I’m off to the millstone. Pop up for tea, do.” He sauntered jauntily off, his hand dug roguishly into his trouser pockets, flaring his tight tunic coat like the wings of Mercury somehow worn roguishly about the waist.
Everything was still. The office, eerily untouched. No signs of a scuffle or foul play no tell take markers of tampering with the furnishings, the lamps; no blood splatter, no indications of a hastily conducted clean-up.
The black phone, a miniature infant coffin decked out in mourning noir, was rooted like a black eye, square in the center of the desk top, adjacent to the olive green blotter. Someone had come in and removed my work from the inbox and outbox, both dully stenciled IN and OUT, and facing the open hall door. The only sound, the distant hollow ring of a phone, echoing in the outside chamber as if submerged in tank of water. That quickly stopped, however, and was replaced by a drip, drip, drip of water, falling a great distance and landing with a splatter on an already moist stone.
I rang the buzzer for Alfred before I realized, to my chagrin, that in my absence he had been transferred out of my jurisdiction. I rang again out of a vague sense of irritation, and the nagging idea that some task was being left undone by idleness, that my lack of proprietorship of some stack of paper, somewhere, was killing some fresh faced lad needlessly in the confusing advance on a map of Europe that resembled a bulge bursting through the Allied lines on the Franco-German border, or that somewhere on a Pacific atoll a freckled faced boy was reaching for a mortar from a box of shells and peering through the wooden struts in the interior, finding nothing.
Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Nothing. Only the infernal drip somewhere down the hall, and then, as if in a call and response patter designed exclusively to scuttle my sanity, the sub-aquatic phone began again. Ring. Ring. Ring. I stood up and strolled down the hall to my nearest neighbor, a Lt. Manchester, one level up. He was lucky enough to have a half window that looked onto the street. Occasionally, while sitting in his guest chair, I would see shadow feet scuffling about on the pavement above. I rushed into Manchester’s office, breathless and perturbed. He was talking on the telephone. He looked up momentarily, and said “I’ll call you right back,” and placed the phone in the receiver.
“Vandemark, so good to see you again!”
“Yes,” I blurted, wanting to continue, but he interrupted me.
“I hope you had a pleasant rest. We’ve all been pulling for you, you know. Dreadful thing, exhaustion, under the circumstances, understandable.”
“Did you hear that?” I asked.
“What? Hear what?” he answered, cocking his head to the side. He twitched his upper lip with what appeared to be a nervous twitch, his busy mustache was moving in mock sympathy beneath his nose.
“That incessant sound of dripping water,” as I said this, the quality of the sound changed from a metronomic pace to an irregular trickle. And as Manchester and I continued to look at one another in mutual incomprehensible astonishment, that trickle transformed to the regular murmur of a cascade. Manchester, puffing his red cheeks, exhaled deeply, and the puff of his moustaches momentarily expanded, before settling down again, like a caterpillar slinking from one perch to another.
“Who is your aid-de-camp now, Manchester?” I asked in a huff.
“Oh, I lost mine,” he said dejectedly, “we had another wave of transfers in your absence. Everything’s topsy-turvy around here. Its odd, you know when the war was going poorly, this was such a tight ship. But now, with all the smashing successes that have been going round, all that tiddle-tattle infighting has begun that happens in all military outfits.”
Outside the half window a woman’s stockinged legs had come to a halt; the half-moon of a child’s perambulator, its muddied wheel concealed by the end of the window casing, rested on an uneven paving stone. The roar of water down the hall was deafening. I raised my voice to compete with the background rush.
“Who do I call about getting some work?” Manchester’s eyes opened with surprise. His battleship gray irises twinkled with fear as I leaned forward in the chair, its springs groaning under the weight shift.
“Clare Mumpy’s been bringing mine,” he said without a trace of caution, a leer creeping across his face, revealing his wide, ivory piano key sized teeth, set far in from his deep set jaw. “Are you acquainted with her? I’m sure you are, since you are chums with Budge. She’s quite a piece. I think I may get in there, just the other day she came round…”
I rose up to leave and entered the hall. Through a trick of the light Clare, who was approaching from the landing, was in the bright light of the overheads, and after about a half pace, later completely concealed in an inky shadow.
I was momentarily distracted by the sensation of a chill at my feet, and gazing down at my shoes, noticed that water, a brown soupy concoction that looked like the Thames mixed with motor oil or petrol, was rising at a rapid rate.
I leaned forward to grasp where I thought Clare should be and instead grappled with a darkened figure. It disintegrated under the strain, or more appropriately, I should say that its contours congealed, spreading around me, dimming my vision. We both struggled in this fashion for several minutes, in a static form of a Greco-Roman wrestle, neither side making substantial gains, but merely rocking back and forth in a variation of the box step taught in dancing schools the world over.
But like a weaker arm wrestler struggling with a stronger adversary, I knew that for every moment I held the poise I grew weaker, while my opponent grew stronger.
But the greasy water was up to my armpits. I was buoyant now, and suddenly my shadow self knew that the gig was up, for it loosened its grasp and we both floated down the hall (for the water was sluicing us toward some unknown destination) we helped one another try and stay afloat in the slimy chop, swimming in unison. The swell brought us out into one of the storage rooms, one of the immense chambers holding Great War surplus from floor to ceiling.
Once we were in this chamber, the tidal swell lessened appreciably and we parted, this time for good. I drifted around a floating atoll of packing crates stenciled, in dim print: British Expeditionary Force. Some of them merely had BEF emblazoned on their sides. I was treading water for a while, and noticed that the water was rising.
We were approaching the sooty ceiling; the water then began to pour into the room at a violent rate, as if it were held, momentarily, by a barrier that had suddenly disintegrated: crates swirling around in sloppy tidal circles, combining in loose confederations before breaking away. I caught a glimpse of my nemesis: he was having a rough time staying afloat. She tried to stay on top of a crate which had burst open, creating a small raft. But the effort to get atop of the ungainly apparatus had weakened her considerably, and the bare knock down fight for survival had begun in earnest. Every shadow for itself!
I was at the roof line. I held my head out of the water as long as I could. The last thing I saw was a rusty bolt embedded in a steel beam, dry, then wet, then the brown water, cluttered with vintage Great War paraphernalia and a sudden tug downward: a draining feeling, as if a plug had been removed from the bottom of a bathtub.
Someone was leaning over me. I opened my eyes and saw a gray faced old man with a brown cap perched high on his bald head, a dozen wrinkles, like cracks in a parched bit of dirt in a Savannah dry lake bed, winding at the corners of his eyes and lips and broad, parchment brown forehead. He was a bargeman, and he had hauled me out of the river. I still have the scar where he gaffed me, hooking my clothes and a good swatch of skin under my armpit, thinking I was yet another floating, bloated, Thames corpse. But no, that was my true size.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
I seem to recall thrashing on the ground, trying to desperately combat my foe. It had snuck up on me unawares. While imagining myself on a high brilliant snowy ridge, decked out in the rough earth colored wools of the native Sherpa, I had been dragged to the earth by my arch nemesis.
That is what you get for reaching toward the clouds! The rewards for lofty speculation is to be dragged back down, without ceremony, to the fecal plain. I thrashed about for a spell, and in my cataleptic fit can remember grasping ankles in abject desperation, (and it seemed like the ankles kicked to break free of my crushing grip…)
I woke up sometime later. There was a flash of white pulsing light dancing what seemed to be inches from my open eyes, and a sound, a horrible elongated whine, which sure enough was my own voice; it was not really a human sound, but a gasping cackle. Short, in drawn breaths followed by stretched whimpers, distorted like that curious mixture just before taffy hardens to the final form of candy, pliable, gooey, easily man handled and kneaded around a pole jutting from the confectioner’s bakery wall….
I realized, again to my surprise, that I was weeping --- the cry, so loud and fast moving that to my ears it seemed to produce a Doppler effect, the further away the sound traveled from gaping maw, the stumpier the wavelengths became, until they tapered to nothingness in the auditory funnel.
I heard voices.
“I have seen this before.” A sub-continent accent.
“Really, where, do tell, have you seen such a phenomenon before, Baba?” another South Asian.
“Yes, pray-tell,” perhaps Gavin’s fluttering English cadence.
“Well, Sahib, when I was a child in Gigantistan, there was a man who began to exhibit strange symptoms, symptoms that were commensurate with unnatural growth of his arms and legs and trunk. A growth which started a gap between body and the soul which inhabits it.”
“No, most assuredly not,” the other said, clicking his tongue in disapproval, “this is just Hindu superstition, no disrespect intended. I cannot believe that a man’s body would grow to the exclusion of his soul. So where is his soul, do tell?” he went on with obvious disdain, “we too have such erroneous folk-ways, and perhaps they are true,” he added illogically, “but why annex them onto this poor man?”
“Indeed,” it was Gavin’s breathless voice, “perhaps we should get a doctor up here. He’s prone to these spells, and it doesn’t appear that he’s going to gain consciousness.”
“You think he is possessed by a Jinn?” the room was settling into a granular focus. Gavin, Abdul and Ramjana appeared to be composed of insufficiently colored, rounded pixels, with disquieting gaps in their composition. Gavin was missing a neck; Abdul had only one arm, and Ramjana, unsettling enough, was completely bereft of legs.
“Oh, let me tell you Baba, we had a chap in the regiment once, a real Kashmiri village lad, a local product if there ever was one, a fierce fighter, but delusional, and subject to bizarre fits. I don’t know why we kept him.
One night, while on maneuvers in the mountains, he was supposed to stand guard. But when a corporal went to relieve him, he was not there. He came back the next day, bloodied, clothes torn, hair disheveled. He claimed a band of Jinns snuck up on him and subdued him in the dead of night. They bound him with golden cords and spirited him away to Jinnistan, of all places, and tried to wrench his soul from his body through the service of all sorts of infernal Jinn machines.
When it didn’t work, they marched him about to Kaf, the mystical emerald mountains that surround the earth, where the Jinn hold court, to break this village lad’s will and finally and irrevocably wrench his soul from his body!”
“Oh Baba, what a tale!”
“Tell me about it! What ideas this village lad had. As if Jinns would waste such precious time on his lowly little soul. You’d think they’d have more advanced mischief to plot.”
“What happened to him?” Gavin asked, his neck shifting from nothing to pixilation with a shimmering effect, like the distant view of a mirage on a desert highway.
“Oh,” Abdul cocked his head to the side, “he was discharged. Counter productive superstition is an impediment in our line of work, of course.”
“Well, I have an example that tops yours, most assuredly. As I was mentioning, in Gigantistan we had that chap who appeared to have some abnormality with growth. And he was subject to such unusual spells. He would just fall right in his tracks. Wherever he was, he would cascade to the ground. And he claimed, in the most demonstrable terms possible, that a dark creature was pursuing him, dimming his eyes. Unbelievable things.”
“Oh, I do not steer you wrong. So the village Pundit came, and he used all the standard possible remedies for possession: blowing cow dung smoke in his face, pressing rock salt in the creases between his fingers, burning pig excreta in the room….”
“Revolting,” Gavin gasped.
“…. pulling his hair, reciting prayers and invocations from the Gita, even trying to entice the spirit out with candies and sweetmeats but…”
“But?’ Abdul asked.
“Nothing.” Rama had regenerated his arm. He was rotating it in its socket, like one of those outlandish Hindu gods with an array of ambidextrous limbs. “I think he just wandered away and became a raving lunatic; he became a village idiot or vernacular prophet in some backwater Kashmiri town…”
“Possession is a serious topic. The shame of it is that it is usually dismissed as a madman’s state,” Rama said sonorously, “but it really admits to degrees, to shades of difference. I believe that the human soul is literally cluttered with a variety of divergent voices and in all but the most unlucky those voices are drowned out by a superior voice, the one that we recognize as the self.”
“The faith of Mohammad can not admit to such a concession. If the individual man has many souls and not one, unitary soul, then the entire edifice of faith collapses. The Holy Koran becomes a mockery, and its prophet Mohammad, peace on his soul, the most debased liar. There must be one soul that receives reward or retribution in this world and in the afterlife.”
I sat up abruptly in the hospital bed. A thick white curtain suspended by a collapsible metal rod gave me a modicum of privacy. A nurse, white stockinged with a red cross stitched to the skirt covering her ample hips and waist was shuffling across the linoleum floor with an IV bottle suspended from a wheeled metal pole.
I started to wrestle with the hand and leg restraints. I was manacled.
“Now, now Captain, be a good boy and just sit back and relax.”
“Well, no one knows for sure. You had a little episode out in the street. The doctor thinks it is nervous exhaustion.”
“Impossible,” I sputtered, “I’m in perfect health.”
“I’m sure you are Captain. You just rest yourself now. There’s visitors comin’ up to see you. Some Major and a woman.”
As she pecked away like a fat hen, and was replaced by the gracefully gliding Gavin. He was smiling broadly, but with a noticeable trace of embarrassment etched on his soft, malleable features.
“Well, you certainly know how to tie up scarce medical resources, don’t you?”
“What happened to me?”
“I don’t really know. We were talking to those medical chaps and they don’t know for sure.”
“What about the Gurka? The Kashmiri?”
“The who?” Gavin looked at me with genuine concern.
“Is Clare with you?”
“Why yes. She didn’t come in right away because she wanted to see if you were up to it.”
“I’m not up to it.” I stared up at the cracked ceiling.
“Well, I’m so sorry. We all feel awfully bad about this. That things have come to this I mean…” he trailed off, tears seeming to whelm in his eyes.
“Its not your fault. She just shouldn’t come in,” I said feebly, feeling the firm resolve on things and had most of the time just slip away.
Gavin shook off his tears. He stood to rise up, fixing his short jacked over his tiny bird body. He nodded, and turned to leave.