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Friday, December 16, 2011

Bring Me His Head

This guy writes, you know the guy, Mamet, he writes dialogue that sounds like one side of a phone conversation.
Where did he grow up that people -- I'm telling you, listen to what I'm saying -- that people talk like the EL train's roaring by and you only hear part -- it doesn't matter WHICH part, just a part -- and they have to repeat it.
The guy writes, it's all herky jerky, it's all clicky-clackey, like the tracks on an old railroad bed.
That guy, the one like a turbine with words, the one they call Mamet. Bring me his head.
I don't care if it's still on his body, you ape.
Just bring me his head, that cerebral kiln of hot, ruddy verbiage and cadence -- yes, I said writing you can dance to -- and I'll toast to the rare guy who re-wrinkles my brain.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Last in Line

They announce that the store will close in ten more minutes, shoppers. Pushing my cart double-time to the dairy aisle, I scoop up a tub of Greek yogurt (is it really more beneficial?) and a half-gallon of Lactaid fat-free milk (ahh, to drink milk without farting later).
Rounding the corner (nobly ignoring Little Debbie snack cakes) to the bread aisle, I search the rows and rows of nutritionally enhanced white puffy-bread for Arnold’s Jewish rye with caraway seeds (never buy the Earth Grains so-called Jewish rye: it sucks).
Tick tock, gotta beat feet to the cashier.
But no, wait, tomatoes.
They’re three city blocks away in produce. Mmmmmm, chug-a chug, I go. Produce is a distant dream. Tick tock. More running.
Tomatoes, okay! Vine ripened (fat chance), Roma or cherry? Okay, Romas it is.
Pull a plastic bag from the roll. Can’t open the bag. Bag sides are stuck together. Okay in the bag. Mmmmmmmmmmmm, chug-a-chug. Rounding the corners, again, looking for the cash registers.
The “Less than ten items” cash is dark. Ah, but there’s a light at number 22. Only a quarter-mile to get there.
And I do. I may be last in line, but my breathless smile gets one in return from the tired cashier.
As I grab my packages to go I say, “I’m gonna take ten minutes to write about this.”
And I did.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Death App

Scene opens in the conference room of a high-tech software company somewhere in America.
Joe: It doesn’t have a name yet. Creative is working on that right now. So, for the time being, we’ll just call it the “Death App.”
Max: That’s godawful!
Joe: I know. That’s why Creative is…
Max: Okay, okay. Let’s hear the pitch, already.
Joe: Start to finish?
Max: Yes… hang on a sec.. Donna, would you please bring in some Danish?
Joe: And coffee creamer.
Max: Okay, so start to finish.
Joe: I designed this application for the iPhone platform. But if Blackberry wants it, I can tweak it for them.
Max: (enthusiastically) Good. Great! That’s our top two target markets.
Joe: This app will automatically send a text message to everyone in the owner’s contact list the moment he dies. The text will be the dying guy’s last words!
Max: What if the owner dies suddenly and can’t type the text?
Joe: Ah, that is the beauty part. The owner pre-writes his or her dying words! The app stores them and releases them at the moment of death.
Max: That’s fucking brilliant except for one small problem, which is how the fuck is a cell phone going to know when I die?
Joe. It will know, Max. It will know you’re dead before you do.
Max: What…(laughs) is this app an effing coroner?
Joe: Better, Max. When you die, your soul will leave your body and be sucked into your cell phone where it will activate the app. A moment later your dying words will go to the four corners of the Earth. Even beyond, if you like, to alert your departed loved ones that you are on the way to join them.
Max: (stunned silence for several beats) How soon can we start to market this?
Joe: Creative’s on it. We’ll have a name this afternoon.
Max: You crazy genius, you! Goddamn! Come on, I’m buying lunch.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Death Pays a Visit

Death paid me a visit today. I said, "How do I know you're the real Death and not some second rate punter who will just make me sick?"
Death waved a veiny arm out my kitchen window,and a dowager squirrel fell from the crepe myrtle tree into the birdbath.
"She was old when we moved in here ten years ago," I scoffed. "I could have told you myself that this cold snap would finish her off."
Death pointed at the rib-eye steaks thawing on my kitchen counter and they shriveled, emitting a rank odor.
"Pretty good, but not yet what I'd call definitive proof," I said. "A reaper-in-training could have done that."
"Get in your car and drive me over to the Wal-Mart," Death commanded.
"Yes, your Grayness," I replied, quickly heading to the driveway.
Traffic was light, and we arrived in no time flat.

"Watch this," Death said. He exited my car without even opening the door, glided over to a robust young man collecting the shopping carts from the cart corral, and Zap! The fellow careened into unconsciousness.
"Ha!" I yelled. "You used a taser! I saw you! You're not the real deal. You're a fake!"
With that I jerked the wheel and peeled rubber out of there. I know I can't out run Death. I know He will locate me faster than a scorned ex-wife with GPS. It's just that I expected more finesse than cheesy tricks.
I mean, we all hope for a little dignity at the end, don't we? We get prepped for the big finale, and we don't want the guy who turns up with the scythe to be Jo-Jo the dog-faced boy.
We want the Reaper Himself, with the full sweep of history on his resume. Dammit, I want the cold hand that touches me to be the same hand that touched Moses and Jimi Hendrix.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Three Hearts Beating

Do you remember that time when you took me down to the river, and your sister called me your “Brazilian slide?”
I remember that shad were schooling in silvery clouds just below the surface -- the first I’d ever seen.
I sat on the old, grayed boards of the pier, letting my feet cool in the river until you and she came to join me with a pint of Old Forester.
We passed it around, and you continued some good-natured argument from your childhood about who’d done what to whom, while the sunset rouged your faces.
Stars came out, the pint was empty and we slept there on the rough wood of the pier in a pile, like puppies, until the damp woke us.
When we went in the cabin, we left the lights off and tumbled onto her bed, and all I could hear of the world was soft lapping of water and our three hearts beating.


I remember how you collected plastic pop bottles, and when there were a dozen, we formed an assembly line. Your sister sprayed them with hot pink paint, I tied reflective tape from the neighboring coal mine around the bottles, and you attached hooks, lines and sinkers to every one.
Later, in the flat-bottom boat, we baited each bottle-float with spoiled chicken livers meat and threw them overboard for catfish. Then we waited in the dark, leaning back against the sides of the boat, wishing on meteorites.
When a bottle started to bob and weave, we paddled after it, whooping and scooping it up along with a splashing blue- or channel-cat.
Even if you don't remember, I wanted you to know that you will never see me happier than I was back then, on those summer-soaked river nights, laughing at the stars, not ever.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Word A Day

He learns one word for every word he is forgetting.
Tremulous took the place of a brother's name,
and yesterday, when he blanked on the cities
where he grew up, he learned the meanings
of lambent and marcescent.

He walks outside in a green summer wind and says,
“I, with my tremulous legs and marcescent arms,
still love the garden’s lambent light.”
Words had begun slipping away from him
years before when he thought nothing of it,
as those were unimportant authors
or cookie cutter actresses,
but newer subtractions frightened him
and he self-medicated with Greek root-words
with subtle meanings.

When the subtracting cost him Janet –
his daughter’s name – he substituted stygian,
and when he could not locate Faulkner
in his mental Rolodex,
he wept and called out calumny.
“Growing old,” he told his nameless family,
“is like the Mariana Trench: The dark is bottomless.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Gossip x 2


Crows spread their rumors overhead, some of them believed by jays who take up the cry.
I wear a careless Saturday hairdo and a half-buttoned coat.
I walk in step to a soundtrack of my own composing, in slow 4/4 time.
This day is no more meaningful than the pillow I left behind on the bed with the imprint of my cheek or a candle on a birthday cake which has a minute of usefulness and is discarded.
Time runs together into more time, which is then forgotten.
I'm neither old nor young on this ruddy day that smells like autumn and is wrapped in light and the gossiping calls of crows.


He is the shell of my grandfather, his strong facial bones well past collapse. His ropey eyebrows are circumflexes atop the confused Os of his eyes.
I roll him to the park, making sure that lap blankets stay tucked around him, but he fidgets them off.
The scents of wet leaves and woodsmoke have touched off olfactory synapses, our stongest links to childhood memories, and his face spreads wide in a smile of pleasure at the sight of a black Lab leaping for a frisbee.
One withered arm rises slowly in the dog's direction and he calls, "Catch it boy! Good boy! Good Sparky."
We sit together on a green park bench, dreamers both: my grandfather chases a long-ago dog through autumn's flaming maple forests of Quebec, and I chase a not-yet-written short story to its conclusion.
He takes my hand and begins to tell me scandalous anecdotes about the neighbors, farmhands, cheats and priests he knew 88 years before.
Overhead, the sun races with the clouds towards the horizon.
We are rooted in this spot, delighted by my grandfather's long-ago gossip, both the telling of it and the listening.
For one golden afternoon, we are both children again.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Stranger in Town x3

1. Nice Sunshine

Nobody really speaks French anymore in Louisiana, at least not the younger generation, but everybody fakes it. Me, I really do, but I keep that to myself and pull in the shrimp nets and eat my soup slow-like, with a polite spoon.
So the other day, I hear this song on the jukebox down at Ma Jolie Blonde by some group called Beausoleil. That was some good song, with a fiddler sawing away and an accordian player squeezing away and all the shrimpers swaying on their barstools to the beat.
So I say, I give $5 if the guy next to me know what "beausoleil" mean, and he don't know, and neither does the guy next to the guy next to the guy on down the line.
Marie, who runs the joint, she say "It means nice sunshine," and quickly palms my five off the bar. But her pretty eyes say, "Well, look at you!" and my eyes say back, "There's more surprises where that came from."

2. The Kissing Lesson
He was full of American swagger, and like so many swagger-boys, he was not much of a lover. The night we met in the Café d’Azure, a tucked-away bar in Montparnasse, it was 1927 and he was just back from the green hills of Africa and full of his own success both as a great white hunter and celebrated author.
I was supposed to know that he was “somebody,” and when I didn’t, he took me for an ignorant bawd and pulled me to him for a kiss. His mouth was slack, and the kiss was too wet, too fast.
“Here,” I said, “here mon cher, this is how it is done.”
Our second kiss lasted for minutes, and it was slow, starting out soft, growing more urgent by degrees, with heart and heat until our mouths were fucking each other and the whole café was lovesick with envy and all of Paris undressed and rushed into each others’ arms.

3. Quik-Mart Guy

His deep-set eyes stop scanning the store momentarily to acknowledge me, and the frown leaves his upper face, although the lower half reserves the right to go on frowning if I misstep.
I come into his Quik-Mart every few days on my way to work with the same need: a pack of Pall Malls and three bananas for 99 cents.
His family also owns a store west of here, in a hollowed-out neighborhood where steel bars keep customers outside after dark, forcing them to push their money through a chute in the wall. The customers are used to this; it’s how they buy their crack at a low cinderblock house down the street.
My pecan-brown convenience store clerk has the jumpy-jumps, like a man with PTSD.
Behind him, on the wall in his cashier’s cage, is a small Fujicolor photograph of a lush garden in Kandahar with violent red hibiscus and foliage so green it looks black by a stately house where his life was neither more nor less safe than it is right here.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

In the Wee Small Hours (playing with voices)

I was telling Ralph – you know my brother, right? – the other day. I said, “I can’t get a good night’s rest. I wish I could sleep like a teenager again.”
Well then, of course, he launches into a whole megillah about his insomnia – it’s Ralph after all – with acid reflux this and restless leg that. Whatever you have, he has worse.
If you told him you had a neck lump, he’d tell you he’s got stage four brain tumor.
So anyway, I can’t sleep for nuthin’. It’s driving me nuts. We have a TV in the bedroom, but if I turn it on, I’ll wake Estelle.
It’s 1 a.m., then 2, then I hear noises in the attic. My balls itch, and I worry about the bedbug epidemic. I tell you, insomnia can make you a lunatic.
Then I get this idea. I’ll go in the den and call Ralph. If he’s sleeping while I’m tossing, that puts the kibosh on his long-suffering act.
No more one-upmanship. If he’s awake, hey, we can talk about the Phillies’ chances in the World Series.
So I call, and after six rings he says, “Benji, I was out on the deck. I have terrible insomnia -- for two days, now -- my blood pressure’s in the tank, we have bedbugs and there’s a rattlesnake in the attic.”
I can’t win with that guy. My one satisfaction is that when I die, the miserable little shit will die too. Just to show me.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Grim Reaper Experiences a Slump


The Grim Reaper entered Charlene Shiner’s beauty shop via the back door, after hours, per agreement, and folded himself into a shampoo chair.

“Just the usual,” he said morosely, drawing a nail clipper out of the folds of his cloak and going at a few yellow hang-nails with a vengeance.

Char took one look at Grimmy’s head and slipped on latex gloves before touching him.

“What have you been using on your hair, atomic waste?” she said, peering at the gelatinous goo holding his comb-over in place.

“No editorializing -- I’m not in the mood,” Grimmy barked.

“Well look who got up on the wrong side of the bridge underpass this morning!” Char barked back, tolerating no lip in her own place of business.


Grimmy settled back in his chair with his knobby skull over the rim of the shampoo sink while Char ran hot water over his head, double long.

"In case you hadn’t noticed, deaths are way down, which puts me behind on my quotas.”

Char squeezed a gob of Head and Shoulders into her palm and started massaging, knowing from experience that he’d spill his problems after a vigorous scalp-scratching.

“Ceasefires everywhere, peaceful demonstrations, use of restraint, Rosh Hashana -- nobody’s killing anyone these days except the Mexicans.”

Char gave his withered ears two playful tugs and said, “Have you ever thought of branching out into another line of business ?”

“Well, I had been wanting to specialize in show business deaths, such as those Housewives of New York and those New Jersey shore people,” Grimmy said, "but that seemed too much like performing a public service."

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Devil (or someone like him) Gets a Front Row Seat

Fiend sneaks down the lane, hauling his lawn chair
past the marshy yard full of oompah-ing bullfrogs
and buzzing insects sawing away
at their own carapaces.
Fiend is on the prowl, sharkish smile not fooling
anyone (and neither do his humble plaid shirt and
Payless Shoes discount high-tops).
He's come around a time or two before,
putting the scare on the good citizens,
the Neighborhood Watch Committee
and children under 10.
There were rumors of near-rapes, hideous screams,
locks gouged clean out of doors, and
dark forms crouched under porch steps.
That's kid stuff for Fiend, he sniffs,
urging his shuffling steps
toward a pool of light where a lone street lamp
marks the end of the road, the ideal place
to set up your chair
if you happen to like watching epic disasters.
Any minute, it will come, the cataclysm
predicted on everyone's flat screen TV, the fear of fears
about to be made manifest one block away:
a falling satellite!

Friday, September 16, 2011

In For A Penny

At the soiree with 47 beautiful people,
you sidled up to me just as I slipped on
my Party Mask of Indifference.
The floor vibrated with dance steps,
(the tune, in case you need to know,
in case you want to make it “our song,”
was Soul Sacrifice by Santana)
and you were a glowing object on my periphery.
“Dance?” you asked.
I turned, seeing you for the first time, taking in
your loose-limbed posture, your frank and curious eyes
and answered, “Sure, why not?”
Some hours later when the crowd had thinned,
you placed your hand on mine and leaned in close.
“I’d like to take you home,” you said.
“To meet your mother?”
“Something like that,” you laughed.
With no more sureness than a baby bird
about to take its first, precarious flight,
I contemplated gravity.
I judged your pull to be non-fatal.
I answered, “Sure, why not?”

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TonTon Macoute

Baby Doc Duvalier, round-faced and syphilitic,
rode into Port-Au-Prince in a Cadillac Escalade
with two inches of expensive shirt cuff showing.

He waved to the throngs, his soft hands making semicircles,
his hair pomaded, looking like money.
From inside the armored car, one starving sugar cane worker
looked just like the next.
My little people, he said, my little ones.They still love me.
My country needs me, he told reporters
who had gathered in the rain at the Palace of Justice
where he stood in shined shoes and bespoke suit.

In the streets, people shouted his name and burned fires.
A distant drumbeat rolled towards the capitol. Was that thunder,
a gathering army, or the dead rising from their shallow graves
to demand their pound of flesh, at last,
from the robber son of a robber baron?

Once upon a time, the people cowered at the mention of the TonTon Macoute.
But after floods, earthquakes and hurricanes,
what could the Haitians possibly have left to fear?
Baby Doc, who once ate blood oranges
while standing on the corpses of his enemies, smirked for the cameras.
The world shuddered.

You Only Get One Question

I met her husband in a greasy coffee shop on the run-down side of town -- his choice. I suppose he thought the locale fit my role. I had been loving his wife, after all. That made me trash.
He was a middle-aged tugboat carrying 400 pounds of fat on swollen ankles and too-small feet. He’d come with a bad attitude. They always do. They never consider why their wives go looking elsewhere for pleasure. Or maybe they do consider, but the answer that comes back is the only one they can sit with: Some bad influence (me) is to blame for their darling Dottie or sweet little Sally-Jo going astray.
“Jesus, how old are you anyway?” he asked.
“That’s a boring question,” I said. “Of all the things you could ask at a time like this, you want a number?”
He dumped five sugar packets into some oily-looking coffee while I watched his eyes: they reminded me of kidney beans wrapped in dough.
“I mean, if you want to talk numbers, how much do you weigh?” I asked him back. “That could figure into this, you know.”
“Listen, you,” he snarled. “Who the fuck do you think you are?
“Sorry pal,” I said, “you only get one question here at the exit interview corral. The answer is 26. And now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a circuit court clerk waiting for me at a Marriott Courtyard, over in Huntsville. She bought herself some sexy new underwear online, and it would be rude to keep her waiting. Rude is what cost her husband his bed privileges.”
It was true, I thought, steering my Camaro onto the bypass. Marriage has a fatal flaw. I would not go so far as to say familiarity breeds contempt. But that kind of rude indifference, of taking the wife for granted, can feel like contempt. After years go by with no touching, the little gal feels bad about herself.
I come along, tell her she’s desirable, tell her things I’m going to do to her, feed her need until all she can think about is me. Before she knows it, she’s renting motel rooms for us to sneak away. She feels so alive that she’s practically vibrating, like a high-school girl right before a date with the town bad boy. Her fat fuck of a husband who left her untouched for four years while he watched televised football with Sara Lee in his lap has no call blaming me.
I was playing World of Warcraft (Rise of the Zandalari) the first time my phone rang for an exit interview. Some shitbird of a lawyer found my number behind the visor of his old lady’s Lexus and got curious. He demanded a meet-up: Saturday morning, Eastdale Country Club, he’d give up his second nine holes just to see me. Wooeee!Lucky me.
That’s the thing, see. The husbands come to the meet all bowed up for a bush-pissing contest between two dogs. But I show up in full androgyny theater: black distressed jeans, high-heeled boots, black t-shirt, cubic Z earring, heavy cologne, lip gloss. The guys get massively confused.
Shitbird’s eyes almost crossed when he saw me. I could see the word bubble over his head. Boy? Girl? He was trying to put his cookies-and-cream Mary-Lou together with me, but he couldn’t figure me for the top or the bottom.
I learned something that day: lawyers are no better than anyone else at asking the right first question. His was, “What the hell was your number doing in my wife’s car?”
“She must have put it there.”
And then I was gone.
I look at it this way. If the guy wants information, if he wants to fix things between him and the wife, he should be asking her. Not me.
And if he’s asking his wife the questions, there’s only one relevant question to ask.
Not, “who’s this punk?” Or “how long has this been going on?”
The only question that matters, the only one she wants to hear is, “How can I make you happy?”

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mrs. Entwhistle Starts a Business

One day a couple of weeks ago, I heard an urgent voice with a Brooklyn accent in my head. It was a middle-aged woman who would not take no for an answer: She wanted to start her own business. She's not the first character who appeared to me out of nowhere. Just the loudest. This is the story she spoke to me.

My Crystelle is not what you’d call a big earner. So the other day, when I goes in the salon for my usual, I slips her a $50.
“Mrs. Entwhistle, what’s this for?” she says, but I notice there’s no hand hesitation on the way to her pocket.
“Honey,” I says, “it’s because I got real pain-in-the-ass hair,” and I also notice she don’t deny it.
So later, when she finishes my comb-out, real full, extra spray, like I like it, I asks her, I says, “Crystelle honey, you know I ain’t the kind to poke my beak in your business, but I can’t help asking how much you take in a week, on account of this place being so small and all, and there’s never hardly any clientele.”
So she leans in close and whispers, she says, “Mrs. E, this place ain’t supposed to take in a lot of money on account of the boss has other businesses, and he launders the money over here that he makes over there.”
So now I’m confused, but I don’t say nothing, and I walk over to the off-track because it’s Ladies’ Day Thursday. I’m thinking how nice it would be to win big and open up a little bakery (but no wedding cakes, too much agita). So then I’m crossing Delancey and I sees my friend, Rhoda Lazinsky, on the opposite sidewalk by the green grocer, and I calls to her, I yells, “Rhodie, don’t buy the plums! They’re non-union!”
She gives me the A-okay and I keep walking, although these orthopedic inserts are real bastards until they’re broken in. Fortunately, I can afford a taxi. My Sollie, he makes a nice living, thank God. He likes to say, “The gravy train always has happy passengers.”
Which makes me think about what Crystelle said, and I’m thinking I have to ask Sollie (he knows everyone who’s anyone in Brooklyn and two more burroughs), what kind of “other businesses” was she talking about?
So at dinner, after the fish soup but before the roast chicken, I says to Sollie, I says, “Who owns the Bon-Ton Salon on west Delancey, and what other businesses do they own?”
Sollie starts buttering a slice of rye-with-caraway but he doesn’t say a word. I know him well enough to know I touched a nerve. Normally, nothing can stop him from business gossip (which he says is NOT gossip because it’s actual information, whereas women’s gossip is made up). When I sit down, leaving the chicken to get cold in the pan, Sollie sighs and swallows.
“You do,” he says.
I stare at him like a poodle in a butcher shop.
“What do you mean, I do?” I says.
“I mean, there is a corporation with your name on the letterhead that owns some nice small businesses, and the Bon-Ton is one of them.”
“Sollie,” I says, “are you telling me there’s stationery with the name Mayda Entwhistle on it that I never knew about?”
“Honey,” Sollie says, and I can tell he really wishes I’d bring in the chicken, “it happens all the time. Businessmen put companies or cars or property in their wives’ or children’s names so that if something ever happens, like a tax problem, the government can’t take those business away.”
“What exactly are those other businesses under your corporation, Sol Entwhistle?” I says. I’m still in shock. I’m thinking, “I’ve been paying to get my hair done for eight years at a salon I myself own?”
Sollie picks up his plate with an insulted expression and walks to the kitchen, but I notice he doesn’t take mine with. He serves himself both drumsticks and the livers.
Me, I’m waiting for an answer. For all I know, I already own a bakery.
Sollie chews for a few minutes and I finish a glass of Manishewitz (red, but not the sweet kind).
“You own,” Sollie says, putting down his fork and counting on his fingers, “the off-track on Delancey, the Bon-Ton, a bar in Queens where the clientele go to see women dance, and a two-storey building by the 125th Street subway full of dentists’ offices and one for electrolysis.”
He takes a sip of wine and smiles at me with red teeth.
Now my Sollie, I met him fresh out of the gate at the end of WW2, even before he took the cross-town bus home to see his Mama. I was working at the station where the troop trains came in, along with about a hundred other girls, to give our GIs a big welcome. Sollie stepped off the train with his rucksack and his wide brown eyes, and I knew right there my life’s work was going to be making that man smile. So of course I walked right up, hooked my arm through his and said, “Welcome home, soldier! What company were you in?”
Two months later, he puts a gold ring on my finger and we move upstairs from my father’s dry goods store. Sollie has a real head for business, and I can bake. For a while, I operate a little street cart where I sell hot cross buns and apple turnovers. Sollie uses the money from my cart to set up other street peddlers.
He always says, “Mayda, every dollar is just a seed to make more dollars grow.”

On Friday morning I make a nice pot of Oolong tea and sit at the kitchen table to consider my situation. Part of me is miffed at Sollie for keeping secrets, but part of me is very proud that he has built up so many nice businesses. But all these years, it occurs to me, we haven’t exactly been living in high cotton. Someone has benefitted from these companies, and I’d like to know who. The Off-Track and the bar, I'm sure, are raking in the gelt.
Since I’d just had my hair done, I decide to go and visit my companies and introduce myself to my employees. Plus, I am very curious to know, who is the man who finds it necessary to launder proceeds through my beauty parlor? If this man is making excessive money, then shouldn’t he be sending more profits back to Sollie and me? I have a good mind to fire him. In fact, I decide right there to make Crystelle the manager of the Bon Ton.
My first stop is the office building on 125th street. It’s very plain, and I’m right away thinking it could use a little color. I make a note to order plum wine awnings for all the windows and the front door. Inside, I locate the rental office, but it’s empty. I leave a post-it note on the door asking the agent to call me. I notice that the electrolysis business is empty, too.
Next, I taxi to Queens to see my bar. It is closed at 10 a.m., but I take notes just the same. The windows could use a good washing. Also, the neon sign that says “Girls, Girls, Girls” is flickering. We’ll need to order a new one.
Back in Brooklyn, I have the taxi drop me at the Off-Track and I go inside to have a word. Benny, the front-of-house manager, is pleasant But when I tell him I need to speak to the top man, he gets an expression like he ate a bad shrimp.
“No can do, Mrs. E,” he says. “This ain't a social club.”
When I tell him it’s urgent, his wrinkle multiplies.
“Benny, you look like a Sharpei,” I says. “Go in the back and ask the gentleman to come talk to a customer, will you please?”
Finally, Benny goes in the back room and five minutes later he comes out, followed by a small man with a long face and a comb-over.
“Yes Ma’am, how can I help you?” combover asks, although his voice don’t sound so helpful.
“My name is Mayda Entwhistle, wife of Sollie Entwhistle,” I says by way of introduction.
He gives me the dead eye.
Entwhistle,” I repeat. I am waiting for the penny to drop. I mean, surely the man knows who his boss is.
“Lady, I don’t care if you’re a train whistle. I’m a busy man,” he says. “Is there a problem with a recent wager?”
“No, but there IS a problem if you don’t know who I am,” I says. “I am the owner of this betting parlor.”
The combover turns to Benny and they burst out laughing.
“Lady,” he says, “unless your name is Gambino, you ain’t the boss of squat.” Then he turns and disappears behind a pea-green metal door.
I’m so flustered, I leave without asking his name or laying a bet. I can’t wait to get home and talk to Sollie.

“You WHAT???”
“I went to visit my businesses.”
“Mayda… you… aw shit Mayda.”
“SOLLIE!” He had never used that word in my presence before.
“Mayda, you can’t just go barging into places and tell employees who’ve never seen you that you are their boss. It’s just not done.”
“But I am their boss, Sollie. You told me so last night. You said my name was on the letterhead.”
“Mayda… that’s just for show. That’s just a ... paper trail.”
“I don’t understand Sollie. Am I, or am I not, the owner of the office building, bar, and Off-Track?”
“In a sense, Mayda. But not in the sense where you have control over operations. There are men who take care of that. And some of them are very powerful men.”
“Who is this Gambino? Is he one of those men?
Sollie’s skin takes on a greenish tone and his eyes grow narrow, like a pickerel's.
“What do you know about the Gambinos, Mayda?”
“Nothing Sollie. That’s what I was going to ask you!”
Sollie gestures to the loveseat in the living room and pours us each a glass of wine. For a while he sits very quiet, and then the story comes out. When he’s through, I understand that our original seed dollars have grown into a forest, and that it takes a lot of muscle to cut down the trees. As a result, Sollie (and I) have acquired some partners along the way. They run the businesses. I am merely the name on a shell corporation. I am never to rock the boat or visit the Gambinos or their associates ever again.
“Sollie,” I says when he finally stops talking, “I need a favor from you. I think it is a reasonable favor, all things considered. If the favor is granted, I will keep silent forevermore.”
“What is it, Mayda?” he says, sounding very weary.
“I want to open a bakery.”
“How big?” he asks.
“The whole ground floor of the building at the 125th Street subway stop, where the empty rental and electrolysis offices are.”
“And if I arrange this, you promise to be good and not make trouble?”
“My word of honor.”
“Okay,” he says, at last. “We’ll split the profits between us two. If the Gambinos come around, just tell them they get the benefit of fresh hot cross buns and coffee, whenever they like, but nothing more.”
Then, “Deal?” he says.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Secret Keeper

“A secret is a funny thing, Harry. If you know a set of facts, they lie there in your brain like a potato – completely ordinary and not especially tasty. But if someone tells you, 'that set of facts is top-secret,' you won’t be able to wait to set it on a silver platter and show it to at least one other person. A secret will give you the bends, Harry, and you will want nothing as badly as to share it, just to take the pressure off. You must resist that impulse, boy. For if you share the secrets I’m about to tell you, that will be the end of all your hopes and dreams.”

I was 15 years old and in the first year of my apprenticeship when my teacher said those words to me. He was the great Professor X, the finest illusionist in Europe and the Americas, at the time.
We were seated in the parlor of the Ritz Hotel in Madrid before a roaring fireplace, and there was to be no show that night as it was Christmas eve. There was a plate of sweets before us and mulled wine spiced with Valencia oranges. Idly and effortlessly, he made the sweets disappear then reappear at various points around the room, although he never left his chair. A marzipan horse would leave the plate and rematerialize upon the mantelpiece. A star-shaped cookie vanished only to be found in the lap of a dowager lady at a whist table yards away.
My teacher did all this while quietly lecturing me on the need for utmost secrecy. And true to his word, he never told his audience how his tricks were done. I, and I alone, was privy to those instructions.

In the third year of my apprenticeship, I brought a set of drawings to the Master and asked him whether he would let me try to perform an act of dangerous and daring enterprise. I spread the plans on a long wooden table and explained that I would escape from a locked box submerged in a cattle trough of water after being handcuffed in full view of the audience.
“This,” I said, pointing to a sketch, “is how it can be done.”
He studied it closely for a long while, saying nothing. Then, “We will attempt to do it in a practice session tomorrow morning, when you are fresh,” he answered.

I was ecstatic. I wanted more than anything to prove my worth as an original magician. I went over the illusion time and time again, rehearsing each step mentally until I felt sure no harm would come to me whilst in performance.

The next morning, my Master hired a carriage. We loaded all my equipment on it with two burly assistants and headed out to the countryside to some land owned by a cattle farmer. My Master paid the man handsomely for the use of a giant cattle trough and for his discretion.
I set out all the necessary pieces – a pair of handcuffs, a trunk, plus sturdy iron chains and a lock to wrap around the trunk once I was inside.
My Master handcuffed me firmly, I ducked into the trunk, and then he and his assistants wrapped the chains. Finally, they heaved the trunk into the watering trough.

Minutes passed, and nothing happened. I did not pop out of the trunk. There was no noise or movement from within. When ten minutes had elapsed, an assistant became much concerned and said, “Oi, there’s not enough air in there for a man to last much longer!”

When another five minutes had passed, the group became alarmed and voted to reach into the water and unlock the chains so that the trunk might be opened and I might be freed. There was much fumbling and wetting of shirtsleeves, but soon the trunk lid was popped and the onlookers waited for me to emerge. That I did not do.
Prof. X leaned down and peered into the empty trunk in which there was my hat and a pair of empty handcuffs.

“Good Lord!” he exclaimed. And it was then that I walked up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder and said in my best British Bobby’s voice, “Eh? Wot’s all this, then?”

Ah, so many years have passed since that sunny morning, and I have amazed so many audiences great and small. But never have I enjoyed an illusion as much as that – my first – which brought shouts and murmurs of amazement from the lips of my beloved teacher.
He was right, of course: nothing burns as hotly as a secret kept.
And nothing feels as sweet as the begging of another magician who wants most desperately for you to tell it.

This story first appeared on LitFire in response to a prompt from Jared Handley.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Postcards From The 104

Jackie Ruth, my best friend, and I were students at the Morris Winchefsky Yiddesheh Shul two days a week after regular Anglo school. We were small, patient children, able to entertain ourselves with word games and spelling quizzes while we waited for the 104 bus to lumber its brown self around the corner of Monkland Avenue and carry us to class.
In Shul, we learned to read and write Yiddish words, from right to left, and speak in a dying tongue.
The class consisted of 8 boys and girls, and everyone was called by a Yiddish name that was different from his or her Anglo name. We bent over our exercise books with care, forming the unfamiliar Hebrew-like letters that aren't quite Hebrew, adding this lexicon to what we already knew of French and English, the two official languages of Quebec.
Later, returning home on the 104, we quietly sang a little song (Gayen mir Shpatzeeren) while around us swirled the glottal stops and wide open vowels of a dozen other languages that we had yet to learn, that we had yet to dream of.

The year I entered Monkland High School, the 104 became more than a bus to me. It was a magical ferry from dull home to exciting school corridors, and everything – EVERYTHING – depended on how good your hair and eyeliner looked when you boarded that bus. The 104 was where I had first morning glimpses of the cute boys who lived in my neighborhood and my end-of-the-day glimpses, which were fatally important because if someone was going to ask you out, getting-off-the-bus-time was when it happened.
Three classes of boys rode the 104. There were the band members who lugged around instrument cases; the exceptionally smart guys like Stanley Godlovitch who could not only excel at math, but also WRITE; and the middle-of-the-road but absolutely GORGEOUS boys who made you hold your breath for fear of saying anything less than sparkling. Hard as it might be for Americans to believe, it was the uncool boys -- the ones with flunking grades and greased down hair -- who drove cars to school.

I saw my first dead person on the 104 bus. Madame Louise Chevalle was the landlady over three short, shitty-brown apartment buildings that formed a U-shape at the corner of Fielding and Montclair Streets, and she was a pinch-faced, almost-bald bitch of a hag, notorious for crowding new immigrants in, at exhorbitant prices.
The buildings were hot in summer and ice cold in winter, and more than half the electrical circuits hadn't worked since Louis St. Laurent was prime minister (think Truman-Eisenhower). If a tenant fell behind on the rent, Mme. Chevalle would send her three sons in to "correct the problem."
On Jan. 14, 1967, the coldest day in recorded history, the 7:45 a.m. 104 bus pulled up to its Montclair stop where the good Mme. Chevalle lay flat on her ass on a sheet of frozen blood for all us riders to see.
Police investigations later showed 17 knife wounds in her back and neck, many of them made by different blades,but the perp or perps were never found as no one in that U-shaped hell-hole had heard or seen a single thing.


He was nondescript in every way except one: his penis was out of his pants and standing at attention right there on the 104 bus!
What on Christ’s home planet was the man thinking?
And how come I was the only rider who saw it?
Later, between Latin and history, I told Annie Shapiro about it. She said that I should stop looking at men’s crotches if I didn’t want to see flashers.
“They’re everywhere,” Annie said nonchalantly, as if men routinely opened their overcoats to just air out their genitals, to just treat them to a nice, warming blast of bus fumes for health’s sake, to just share a special moment with a confused-looking school girl in her navy-and-white uniform and be burned into her memory bank, forever.


Eventually, like rivers to the sea, all city buses ended up at The Forum, which was okay by most Montrealers, since that's where the hockey games were played.
One evening, and I don't remember how, I was in possession of a ticket to go watch Les Canadiens play the Boston Bruins. I rode the 104 downtown to the terminus when an urge took me to a bar next to the hockey rink.
The 104 bus driver was taking his dinner break in there, too, and I realized with a jolt that I had been riding his very bus throughout my childhood and high school years, and now I was old enough to go sit in his lap and legally cadge a drink.
I wanted to stand before him and say,'You drove me to music lessons and Yiddish school and to every day of high school, and I laughed and cried on your bus, which makes me almost your own child.'
But his eyes were dull and his uniform had a wet-wool-sour smell, so I let him be and took my story elsewhere.

My mother rides the 104 bus, her 90-year old body bent into a question mark by rheumatoid arthritis. She lives alone now, taking buses to her many doctor appointments: the one for her heart condition, the one for her deafness, the one she talks to about her depression.
She has not yet asked if she can live with me, has not said the words, “I cannot remember what I am supposed to do, today, or how to do it,” which she will say eventually. She is still fending for herself with a kind of courage specific to the very elderly, carrying her groceries on the 104, her footing not so sure and her bones as hollow as a bird's.
On the day that my mother gives up her independence, she rides the 104 one last time to pick up her medical records, a stack of files that require their own suitcase when we journey to America.
Now, many years later, I hold onto a small red leather change purse of my mother’s in which there is one Loonie, a safety pin and a senior’s bus ticket.

* A Loonie is the Canadian one dollar coin with a picture of a loon on it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Falling Man

My Pa, a riveter by trade, died building the Golden Gate Bridge. On Feb. 17, 1937, his work scaffold collapsed. They had stretched a safety net under the floor of the bridge from end to end, but it was only capable of catching men and their tools. It had saved 19 men from a cold drowning. Those lucky ones, they laughed and called themselves the “Halfway to Hell” club.

But my Pa’s scaffold was too heavy, and it broke clean through the net, carrying him and ten others down into the freezing, salty strait.Three months later, when they opened the bridge to pedestrian traffic, my mother put on her Easter bonnet and best shoes and took us kids to walk “that bridge.” All the Golden Gate widows were given a place of honor beside the mayor on a platform, and in the warm spring sunshine with a cheering crowd, the bridge boss, Smiling Joe Strauss, called out the names of the men who had died “giving California this greatest of gifts.”

We walked the bridge, and my mother pointed to the soaring red towers, each with 600,000 rivets, she said, put in place by men like my Pa, by their sweat and arms as hard as balcony railings.“It’s a modern marvel,” everyone said, and they posed for happy photographs.

I wanted to love the bridge, then and ever since. But all I can see of it is cold unyielding steel and a falling man pleading with the sky.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Writing Envy

A Canadian friend sent me an exquisite short story he’d written the other day, and a tide of envy roiled up in me like Floydian acid reflux, like hungry dogs gnawing at my guts.
You may have tasted envy, but yours was just a sour sip of wine at a civilized wine-tasting whereas mine is bottom-shelf, well-brand gin in a biker bar with leathers and colors and miss-the-urinal piss stains on the floor and churlish fat guys who only ride Norton Commandos or Winston Black Shadows and would as soon knife your mother as light her cigarette.
My envy is annoyingly eager, like Corgis answering the Queen’s whistle, and it’s ready to howl. It likes to recite the letters of the alphabet, as in, “D is for dilettante and derivative” (the worst) or “P is for piker, poseur, and pedant,” all the things I fear I am as a writer or will become when I cease to write flash and try to break into the Big Leagues with the novelists.
Whereas your envy may prick your ribs from time to time and give you mild discomfort, my envy is a plague of ass-boils, it is the AIDS of envy, it consumes like a fever and leaves me weak and hopeless about the future of wordcraft (mine) and the success of others (all of you).
And yet, counter-intuitively, I fervently hope my friend gets published (because if he is not published, there is no ghost of a prayer of a hope of a chance that a piker and poseur like me will ever be.)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Watching Her

He sits in his truck at the edge of the park where she appears every evening, still in her work clothes, to walk a small brown dog on a red leash.

In his lap is a note that he has not yet given her, not even after weeks, because he knows it will make him look like a looney or a stalker, and she’ll stop coming to the park.

He wants to tell her that she’s rare, that he knows she is ablaze, even in her simple skirt and blouse, because he sees the flamenco queen beneath. He wants her to draw closer to his truck, to see him through the windshield streaked with the leavings of the day, to approach with eagerness in her step.

He waits until he sees her on the cinder walking trail, calm in navy blue, the short dog an excited blur at her feet, and he aches in every part of him. She turns for a moment, raising her eyes, as if listening to something in the red oak overhead, while he sits stock-still, in the cabin of his truck, breathing the stale air of solitude.

The Kissing Lesson

He was full of American swagger, and like so many swagger-boys, he was not much of a lover. The night we met in the Café d’Azure, a tucked-away bar in Montparnasse, it was 1927 and he was just back from the green hills of Africa and full of his own success both as a great white hunter and celebrated author.

I was supposed to know that he was “somebody,” and when I didn’t, he took me for an ignorant bawd and pulled me to him for a kiss. His mouth was slack, and the kiss was too wet, too fast.

“Here,” I said, “here mon cher, this is how it is done.”

Our second kiss lasted for minutes, and it was slow, starting out soft, growing more urgent by degrees, with heart and heat until our mouths were fucking each other and the whole café was lovesick with envy and all of Paris undressed and rushed into each others’ arms.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reading Lessons

It was May, and the windows of the Black Belt Literacy Action office were open to the wisteria-scented breeze. Fields of inch-high, pale green tobacco plants rolled away to the edge of the known world. The director, a young white man with serious eyes, opened a folder on his desk and alternately studied it and me. His assistant, an older black woman with nervous hands, brought me a glass of sweet tea and hovered nearby. The point of it all was this: Was I committed enough, capable enough to change Vergie Latham’s life?
They told me stories about Vergie Latham before they asked me if I would take him on as a client, in the same way that the lady at the
Humane Society had told me stories about Buster before asking if I’d
adopt the one-eared mutt. In both cases, I knew the stories had been
carefully selected to elicit a ‘yes.’ But that’s the kind of citizen I
am, I suppose. I can’t resist a sad story.
I sat in the director’s office, facing a poster with smiling faces that read, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Literacy.” Here and there around the walls were thumb-tacked bumper sticker-sized affirmations: Success is an attitude. And: Defeat may test you; it need not stop you. And: Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.

Vergie Latham was 74 years old and the color of the Marengo County soil that he had sharecropped all his life. He lived in a cedar shake cabin with a root cellar a quarter mile off a two-lane blacktop road and another flat mile from a small general store where it was his misfortune to have traded for most of those years. That spring of 1975, he could neither read nor do arithmetic.
Every month, Vergie carried his social security check and his electrical bill to the store where the owner, Floyd Alway, opened the envelopes and read the totals to Vergie. The old man signed over his check with his mark, a slanted V, to Floyd, who paid him out of the till. Vergie then paid for the electricity bill out of that money, and Floyd mailed the bill off to Alabama Power in an envelope with his own.
Because Vergie did not read newspapers or the letters that periodically came from the government, which announced increases in his social security payments over the years, he could not know that Floyd Alway was paying him far less than the value of the check. At the time I met Vergie, he believed that the government was giving him the same amount -- $373 -- that he’d received every month for the previous nine years, and he was grateful for it.
Nor did he know that the sum Floyd charged for his electrical bill would have covered a family of four with air conditioning, rather than a two-room cabin with just two light bulbs and a well pump.
Vergie Latham’s only relationship with a book was with the Holy Bible, but that, too, had filtered down to him through the sands of human dishonesty. As he was growing up, his stern and sour-faced Aunt Felicia treated him to her version of scripture that emphasized hellfire and punishment over love and caring. She had made the young Vergie memorize passages that, in fact, appeared nowhere in the Bible. She, and a succession of preachers, had convinced Vergie that it was his solemn duty to wash and wax the floors of the Light of Rehoboth AME Zion Church every week, cut the grass, repair the roof and chop wood for the stove in winter because the Bible demanded it of him. He had been the congregation’s beast of burden for more than 60 years – labor he might have given freely anyway out of his native goodness.
It was agreed that I would drive to Vergie’s house every Tuesday afternoon to give him reading lessons, using the workbooks and texts provided by Literacy Action. I had an armful of other books, as well – a second grade speller, the poems of A.A. Milne, The Young Person’s Guide to Horses -- which eventually, I hoped, Vergie would be able to read as he progressed. Teaching illiterate adults to read was a delicate matter, the director had impressed upon me.
“We call them clients, not students. And don’t expect too much,” he’d said.
I arrived at Vergie’s cabin in my shiny city car with my shiny city attitude. I was going to liberate Vergie Latham from his prison of ignorance and victimhood. I believed that a man was not free who couldn’t read. If I had been a cartoon, I would have been Mighty Mouse and my theme music would have been: Here I come to save the day!
Vergie was waiting for me on his carefully swept plank front porch. He had set two straight-backed chairs and a battered card table under the eaves on the north side of the cabin where the sun would not be in our eyes.
He was wearing a perfectly starched and ironed white shirt with a blue tie, neatly pressed grey work pants and exquisitely shined leather work boots. His grey hair was cut short and combed. Everything in his bearing and dress spoke to the importance of this occasion, which was nothing less than his first day of school.
When he took my hand in greeting, the current flowed to me from him, not the other way around as I had expected. My cartoon self melted.
“You sound like the radio,” was the first thing Vergie said to me.
I laughed. “What station do I sound like?”
He said, “The evening news on the station that comes out of the university. You sound like… Ni-Na Toten-berg.”
We began, as the program dictated, with alphabet letters, then short strings of letters. Over the next month, we moved on to repetitions of words linked with the articles – a, an and the.
It was July, airless and feverish, and we had moved the table to Vergie’s porch where he ran an extension cord to a fan, but we still dripped on the pages. He brought his Bible to the table and opened it to a place marked by a faded red ribbon. The portion was from the Book of Matthew.
“You will be able to read this for yourself by next year this time,” I reassured him.
“Can we go faster?” he said.
Some evenings I would read aloud to Vergie from the beginnings of stories to lure him deeper into the pages where new words lurked. On other evenings, we would print in the workbooks, filling pages with common words that he would have need of in his everyday life.
“How about tobacco and corn and hogs?” he might ask me. Then we would practice reading those words using sentences I invented, such as “Vergie Latham had two hogs and a lot of tobacco on his farm. The corn was tall.”
By the end of July, Vergie was able to read 200 common words. He asked me to help him learn arithmetic, so we added the numbers and simple addition and subtraction to our menu. I stayed at the small table across from him later and later. I didn’t leave until the fireflies blinked and the whippoorwills called.
By late August, Vergie was able to sound out the words in the headlines of the Selma Times-Journal. He lingered over the names of important people and places that he’d heard on NPR evening news. One week, I brought a map of North America to our lesson. I spread it out on the table and together, we explored the continent like Lewis and Clark finding the boundary waters for the first time. Vergie bent over the table, tracing the Mississippi with reverent fingers. I slowly pronounced every word he touched and he repeated after me. The next week when I returned, he recited all the states and pointed to each one, without error.
The Tuesday after Labor Day, the director of the Black Belt Literacy Action office paid a visit to test Vergie’s progress. I stepped off the porch and walked the perimeter of the yard for a while to give them privacy. It was a routine procedure in the course of every client’s process. Tutors were given one year to complete the course. Vergie was nervous at first, but then his self-consciousness left and he found his rhythm. I could hear the steady hum as he assailed the reading test in an unbroken stream of perfect fluidity. I sat under a catalpa tree where caterpillars had turned the leaves into lace gloves and felt purely happy.
Vergie’s social security check arrived that day. He opened it in front of the director and me at his formica-topped table made from a section of kitchen counter. When he had read the check he quietly folded it and slid it into a pocket.
“Vergie,” I said, “about Floyd. What do you want to do?”
“I guess… nothin’. Ain’t nothin’ to do.”
The director cleared his throat. “Well, we could help you bring charges against Mr. Alway. You are entitled to a refund of money he shorted you. It could amount to quite a lot.”
Vergie looked around his cabin a while then rubbed his eyes.
“That sound like… that could wear me out.”
We sat in silence then with only the sound of the fan indoors and the raw rasp of cicadas outdoors.
“I could of learnt to read a while back, I reckon. But I didn’t. I was a stubborn fool. Floyd, he did what any man would do when he see a fool comin. I got no task with that man.”
I stayed a while longer that day, and before I left Vergie and I agreed on the subject of geography to be our course of study the coming week,
Vergie graduated from Literacy Action in January, five months ahead of schedule.
I do not know for sure where his new skill took him. I’d like to think he struck out for the territories, travelling light, his white shirt gleaming in the moonlight and a map of America in his grasp.

Monday, June 27, 2011

At the Meraj

1. Mrs. Ada Williams is keeping her grandbaby while her daughter goes to work, she tells me, but she is anxious to go home to Louisiana, soon. She is a small pecan-colored woman with mannish white hair and a slow gait, and every afternoon, ostensibly while the grandbaby is asleep, she walks past my yard to the 7-11 on Norman Bridge Road.

I watch her progress until she disappears into the heat shimmer. The purpose of these trips is to buy one six-pack of Natural Light beer, which is all she can carry -- first in one hand and then the other.

Mrs. Ada Williams has been sleeping on the sofa in her daughter’s apartment since the baby’s birth three months ago because her daughter works days and entertains her boyfriend at night.

I have thought about offering her a ride on these sweltering days, but I wonder what the effect would be on that grandbaby if the lonely woman were able to transport a full case of beer.

2. George’s clothes are stained the color of peanut brittle and the tops of his boots are spattered with whitish, raised spots that could be dried caulk. He drives a ’92 Ford Ranger loaded with second-hand tools, ladders and a shade umbrella that once belonged to a country club patio bar.

I’ve seen him once or twice at the 7-11 buying beef jerky sticks and red soda pop with damp dollar bills from his deep overalls pocket.

But the other day, I heard him speak for the first time, asking the kind Indian lady behind the counter if she wanted the store painted or the windows washed. His voice was full of reedy music and his vowels came from across an ocean or two. As I moved in closer to parse his speech, I caught a freshness like spice, or wind, on his skin.

3. The first time I traded at the 7-11, Rashid swiped my VISA card to pay for the gas I'd pumped and the can of icy Red Bull I was going to gulp as soon as I got back to my car.

“Your name is Gita?” he asked with pleasant surprise. “Are you from India?”

No, I told him apologetically, from Canada, but I did know that mine is one of the most common girl’s names in his home country.

Since that exchange, he and the rest of his family have greeted me with trust and smiles, a sharp contrast to the suspicion they offer everyone else.

The other day, Rashid hired George to put bright yellow lettering on the store’s façade, spelling the name ‘MERAJ,’ and we stood out on the curb smoking together, as if we were old friends or as if I were a visiting, lighter-skinned family member.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Leaving My Girl for a While

Marti’s apartment is in the same Peachtree Street building as Elton John’s. It has become such a landmark that now she doesn’t have to give Atlanta airport cab drivers a street number. She just names the building and they take her there. Although well grounded in reality in some ways, my girl is just insecure enough to crave that kind of cachet.
She has invited me over for lunch, which is being provided by Proof of the Pudding catering. The last time Marti cooked, George Bush-the-Father was president.

“Leave your shoes at the door, Hon,” she says. Instantly I know from the Miles Davis on her stereo that this meal will be more liquid than solid, at least on Marti’s part.
Miles slurs a blue note. Marti slurs a word. Misery likes company.

“It’s early for toddies, no?” I lob, as lightly as I can.

“Sun; yardarm; somewhere,” she tosses back.

If this is about what I think it’s about, I want none of it. I came into this world with but a few nursemaid chromosomes. Over the years, I’ve exhausted most of them, and now I have only enough left to care for a plant -- and a succulent at that. Definitely not enough to tend Marti through another heartbreak.

There’s a golden rule of friendship for women in their middle years and, if I can recall correctly, it goes: Listen generously, talk honestly, lend money for rent but not new shoes and take away her car keys after three drinks. Nowhere is it written that you must become an accessory to her bad relationship choices.

This latest married man who lives at a great distance has leeched her energy in that very particular way such men do. He has become more fascinating to her than flesh-and-blood lovers who live in her own sphere. He eats up her store of attention to persons right in front of her (such as me). He keeps her in a constant state of waiting.
I weigh and measure my own expenditures of time and love toward Marti: Large and manifold.
But now, next to him, this stranger, this intruder if I may say it, I am as interesting to her as long division.

Marti sets out two plates on her honed granite breakfast bar and, in her absent mindedness, two knives apiece. I go for the forks while she dishes out the catered hot black bean quesadillas with salad of arugula and romaine, toasted pine nuts and strawberries.
Miles is slurring more notes and I wonder why, in his later years, he remained an icon.
“He wasn’t even trying anymore,” I murmur, but Marti doesn’t hear. She’s half a continent away, wondering what the married man is doing right now, making small involuntary tapping gestures toward her cell phone as if, by morse code, she can will a text message into existence.

My appetite is gone, both for food and for Marti’s soap operas. It has taken me much time to arrive here and understand that there will always be “a situation” and we will always end up seated in a situation room. Sometimes it will be decorated as a restaurant, sometimes a bar, sometimes her darkened bedroom in which she sobs and I comfort. Change the wallpaper. Lower the lights. Bring in the clowns. It will still be life with Marti.

I push back from the sleek granite counter and find my purse and shoes. I whisper “Later, Darling,” and let myself out.

The elevator door opens and I slip in, ignoring the other occupant while catching a glance at myself in the mirrored ceiling. I look resolved.

The elevator music is “Tiny Dancer,” by Elton John. It occurs to me that the building management has arranged this on purpose, to remind visitors of their most famous tenant.

“Kind of an old song, eh?” says the short man in the large sunglasses behind me. “Bit tired of that one, to tell ya the truth.”

I smile, resisting the urge to turn around.

“Yeah,” I say, “but not to worry. It’ll stay a classic. The world is full of fragile women."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

In Their Proper Order

Today the wind has shifted, and it blows away from my cabin. So today I will burn trash in the barrel set down on the beach. I secured it with sturdy cinder blocks to make sure it doesn't tip over and dump the tourists' leavings back onto the sand.
As caretaker of this lonely spit of land, home to migrating godwits and curlews, scallops, horseshoe crabs and feral tabby cats, I study wind direction like a gambler studies faces. I know the odds of every temporal shift because I must. But I wear my authority over this place mildly: I hate those who use their small ration of power like a bludgeon. Haven't we seen enough of that at toll booths, airports and all the other paved places across this nation?
Here, where there is only sand and narrow macadam tracks, I tred softly.
I gather up the refuse and inconsiderateness of others and dispose of it cautiously. I mend fences and replace the signs reminding visitors not to trample the dunes or disturb sea oats. Only the beach mice are allowed that trespass.
The Atlantic is not a "gray mirror" when it is calm, as some poets have written. Mirrors are selfless and exist to reflect us back to ourselves.
The sea is the deep, selfish habitat of millions of purposeful creatures who want to eat, prevail and dominate. I might be only the caretaker of a minute portion of its lip, but I answer to the larger mouth.
I set a fire inside the barrel and stand windward while the poisonous detritus burns down. Later, when the metal has cooled, I'll load it onto a cart and drive it to the paved town a mile distant for disposal. The barrel's sides, as always, will be coated with melted plastic waste that once was shards of sippy cups, thong sandals, cheap bright sunglasses and babies' training pants (the shit burned away).
When night falls, I watch the planets and stars emerge in their proper order -- predetermined billions of years ago when the universe was new and Earth was clean. Each comes into view as it emerges from the glare of the sun. Venus, then the constellation Pisces, are the first visible from my cabin porch. When Jupiter comes over the horizon, the first moths emerge, as well. Cycles upon cycles repeat themselves here above water. Below sea, small nocturnal currents begin as well. I can't see them, and they do not need me -- or any of us -- to know their business.
But I have seen the sea's bioluminescence while swimming at night. If the deep has any message for me, it exists in the nocturnal phosphorous glow. It's saying, "What exists below is connected to what exists above. Never doubt it."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Phone Sex With the Telemarketer

He called just before 9 p.m. with apology in his voice. Must have been some kind of cut-off time after which women on his list (widowed, elderly, presumed to go to bed early) might be offended. And in his line of work, offended was counterproductive.
So, as I say, he started with an I’m-sorry-ma’am in a country-boy drawl and a segue into his spiel: Our state troopers need equipment like Kevlar vests, and a contribution now would help them in these hard times of budget cutbacks.
Something about his voice opened a door in my head that led down a flight of stairs to a cot with a soft blanket and the smell of woodsy cologne. He talked on, listing the dangers out there on the road for our brave highway patrolmen, but I was busy arranging myself on the cot, reaching up to the snap on his jeans.
“Go on,” I said, with a quick slide of his zipper.
“Well, that’s about it,” he said. “What would you feel comfortable pledging?”
“Please tell me more about the equipment,” I said.
My left hand reached inside his pants while my right one busied itself inside my panties.
He talked for another minute, his monologue masking the escalating sound of my breathing. I needed time – at least a few minutes more than his telemarketing script would allow.
“Tell me, young man,” I said, “do you work on commission?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“Sonny, I will give you $50 for every minute you stay on the line and keep talking. You can talk about cars, troopers, the weather in Wyoming, whatever you like. If you pretend to be lying next to me on a cot in a tornado shelter, rubbing my nipples, I’ll give you $100. If you tell me things you’d do to grateful old lady, I’ll pledge $200 a minute. You just keep going ‘til I tell you to stop.”
I’ll give him credit; he never missed a beat. That boy was a salesman to the core. Five minutes of dirty cowboy talk later, I was reciting the 16 Discover Card digits.
He read the numbers back to me with a quiver in his voice.
“Oh, honey, I am sorry if I offended you in any way,” I said.
“Oh, no, ma’am, I ain’t shocked or nothin. It’s just that, well… it’s the first time I ever got a hard on from a granny, is all.”
I hung up then, feeling a nice afterglow, and I poured myself two fingers of Laphroaig over cracked ice.
I like house-sitting for old Mrs. Jablonski when she’s off visiting her sister in the hospital. I like her cats, her fluffy pillows and the chance to watch HBO. She always leaves me one credit card to use in case of emergencies; I, in turn, appreciate the chance to do a little something for our boys in blue.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Lockpicker's Woman

Summer looms with its ferocious heat that feels more like weight than temperature, and you become listless. You say you want to leave ahead of the season, want to go to the north Atlantic coast or Appalachians -- anywhere cooler. You watch me clandestinely to see if I am upset by your impending absence.

This is part of the game we play, and my role is to show indifference because that fuels your interest. The first heat wave arrives suddenly one afternoon, and you tell me you're leaving. But I find a scorpion nest in your travel valise, so I know that you have not even begun to air it out and pack.

You, my lover, think you have peeled back all my layers and know all there is to know about my desires. You have tried money, sex, protective gestures, intellect and humor to pry me open and bind me to you.

But the core of me lies beyond the reach of clumsy lock picks.

Under my yearbook photo was written the words, "More to her than meets the eye."

All these years later, can't you see I'm still the woman standing outside the frame of a photograph, revealing just my shadow?

Come, admit that I am only perfect for you as long as I don't open, because it is the seeking -- not the finding -- that you really love.

*Inspired by a powerful line from Ken Burns' Civil War series, telling how "picklock biographers" never discovered what truly lay in the heart of Ulysses S. Grant.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Cooking Lesson

“It’s missing something.”
Marti hands me back the tasting spoon and surveys my spice collection. Deciding it’s thyme and garlic that my spaghetti sauce needs, she chops the ingredients that I’d gathered earlier from the hothouse.
We are sipping Bolla Valpolicella, bumping into each other the way friends do in a galley-sized kitchen and not minding at all. I turn up the flame under a pot of water for the pasta. This is Sunday afternoon at its best, with Corinne Bailey Rae on the stereo and nothing to do but cook comfort food.
“So,” I begin, embarking on the topic we both knew would eventually come up, “have you decided what you want to do about Fabio yet?”
Everyone in Marti’s circle has been following the Fabio chronicles for months, agog. This man, the clear winner of the World-Series-of-Courtship, has been pursuing Marti across two continents. His romantic overtures are swoon-inducing and unparalleled. Every time she hesitates, he ups the ante. He has given her diamond earrings, a Maltese puppy, tickets to see Tosca at La Scala (and the air fare to fly to Milan where he met her at the airport and swept her into a waiting Lamborghini Reventon).
“Why are you so lukewarm?” and “What’s not to love?” her friends keep asking.
Marti gazes at me frankly over the rim of her wineglass.
“I’m being badgered.”
I stir the sauce because I don’t know what to say. Marti pressured is Marti clamped up, shut down, backed off. I check the garlic level with a new tasting spoon. It’s just shy of overwhelming. But the sauce still needs something.
“I’m not badgering you, Hon,” I say.
“Not you. Fabio.”
“Well, all you have to do is say ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ La ringrazio, ma no. And if you want to be a mensch while you’re at it, tell him why.”
Marti’s look is suddenly, deeply sad, and I realize that my favorite drama queen has not told me the whole story.
This man, whom she met by chance at a Jackson Pollack retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum three months earlier, is cultured, educated, wealthy and head-over-heels in love with her. He calls her every morning from Italy to wish her a wonderful day. When he arrives in the USA on business, he visits her and graciously includes her family and friends in all invitations to dine out or go to the theater. I met him one evening at Cirque de Soleil, and I was charmed by his beautifully accented English.
Our spaghetti carbonara and insalata verde are ready. Marti and I seat ourselves at my dining room table, top off our wine and tuck into the rich, hot food. As if I’d just asked the question, she suddenly starts talking.
“Fabio is everything you see, but also much you don’t see,” she says. “His money isn’t just dirty. It’s filthy dirty. If I married him, I would be living on blood money.”
I’m stunned.
“Before you say anything, let me show you,” Marti says, pulling up her sleeve to reveal a bracelet.
The quality of the diamonds is, to my naked eye, fantastic. The stones are brilliant, clear and exquisitely cut. I’m fairly sure that a loupe would confirm what I suspect: Fabio has given her the best of the best.
“Sierra Leone diamonds. That’s how he makes his money,” she whispers.
“Oh, no, honey!” is all I can say. “Maybe you’re wrong?”
Marti shakes her head and pulls down her sleeve.
Aside from the deBeers family, Fabio owns the largest diamond share in the world, she says.
“Botswana wouldn’t let him in because that country nationalized its diamond mines and pays the workers fair wages. Fabio backed the corrupt and brutal regime in Sierra Leone in order to control the mines there.”
She shakes her head slowly.
“The worst part of all? He told me the truth about his business because he assumed I would approve. I’ve been wrong to accept anything from him. I’m giving the jewelry back tomorrow when he flies in, and I’m breaking up. I don’t want any part of it.”
We sit quietly for a bit, and I understand that, to her credit, Marti has been grappling with her decision while the rest of us have been fantasizing enviously about her great luck at meeting the man.
I poke at my spaghetti, and when I look up, Marti’s smiling.
“What?” I ask.
“Fabio’s like your cooking,” she says, the old mischief returning to her eyes.
“They both look good and tempting. They’re both hot at first. But when you get down to it, they’re both missing a key ingredient.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Namer 18 Tells All

I am not sure what else you want me to talk about. My job, as you know, is to name all the space vehicles in this galaxy, from close-in shuttles to deep space explorers. Apollo, Challenger, Enterprise: you Americans have heard those before. Tomorrow, when I turn 117, I will retire, and a new Namer will take my place.

You asked how I choose the names. The answer is more complicated than you might think. For example, when naming vehicles being launched from Earth, I am not allowed to use words from any modern religion.

Imagine the headlines: Baby Jesus Crashes Over the Atlantic. You take my point? No words that have negative associations in mythology, either. Icarus is out of the question. I select only words with muscular and daring connotations. But the specifics vary from one solar system to the next. On Formana, a satellite of the red star Cariopa now settled by Earthlings, water is worshipped. So, there the public responds well to spaceship names such as Oceana and Nyad.
I suppose you could say I am an anthropologist of sorts, learning the cultures and nuances of every planet where sentient beings might encounter space exploration. There are more than a million planets in this one galaxy; beyond lies infinite space where untold planets circle points of light too beautiful and too fearsome to imagine.
I have been told it is better not to think about that, about what is beyond our galaxy. We Namers have enough to occupy our thoughts.

My work begins the first of every month and continues to the 20th without a break because, once my cerebral cortex is hooked into the universe’s Great Encyclopedia, severing the connection is dangerous. If done incorrectly, the maneuver would cause a reverse current, and all the knowledge in my brain would be sucked back into the data base, corrupted by my personal biases. The next user to hook into the encyclopedia would find facts tainted by my sexual and religious preferences, or worse: gibberish. So I am only unhooked once per month to lessen the risk. And frankly, I like having ten consecutive Earth days and nights off for relaxation at the end of the month.

Outside of my module, when I’m back home, my life is ordinary. For instance, during a recent break, my husband and I discussed the failing health of our dog. We walked to the Palace of Giving, arm in arm, he carrying the leash she never tolerated and I the collar. Inside, we found the Hall of Portions, high-ceilinged and resonant with all the pleadings made by others. As instructed, we knelt on the cool glass tiles and each in turn offered a portion of our own lives to her.
"Two years," I offered, "but healthy ones, not blind arthritic ones," and, "two more from me," my husband whispered, handing the leash and collar to the technician for the life-force transfer.
"At least she will have four," we comforted each other on the walk back home. "Four’s something, isn't it?"
Life force transfers to animals came at just the right time for us. It used to be that only human babies could receive donations. I was fortunate in that my parents had just one child, so I did not have to share their portions with siblings. At my christening, all their friends gave me a year, each. In their twenties, my parents gave me 17 years apiece. I am not privy to the exact amount of time I have left –no one is – but I suspect that I still have time to travel to Formana. It will be rewarding to travel on a vehicle that I myself named.

You ask what it’s like to live and work in a Naming Module. I will confess, it took some getting used to. Not everyone who takes the training can tolerate module work, and some who can, initially, will lose their minds as time goes by. There is no way to prepare for that life, not really. I have heard about companies that charge immense fees for “pre-module preparation,” but I believe the talent is genetic. If I had carried the gene defect for claustrophobia (located on the top right arm of the 23rd chromosome), no amount of preparation would have saved me. We are what we are: the sum of all our proteins, writ large in flesh and blood. It is a great privilege to be chosen for this work because so very few beings in the galaxy are allowed access to the Great Encyclopedia containing all there is to know about every planet and star. True, there are many who feed facts into the Great Database, but only a hundred or so in the entire galaxy are hooked up as receivers to access the Marvels.

The egg-shaped module in which I work was designed in 2323 as a place where beings like us could empty our minds completely. The interior is spacious enough for walking around, and everything is smooth and white like the inside of an eggshell.
We Namers enter by first swimming into a lake-like body of clear fluid, finding our numbered module (I was assigned the number 18, the Hebrew symbol for life) and entering through a hatch in the module’s side. There, I assimilate my surroundings for three hours; then I lie or sit in a reclining Smart Chair and place a small cable into the USB port in my skull. For 20 days, I absorb knowledge about the universe from the Great Encyclopedia and search out new names for spaceships. I am fed, washed and evacuated by the Smart Chair during that time. Twice daily, although I cannot feel it, my body is vigorously exercised so that I do not lose muscle or bone mass.

On the 20th day, a technician swims up to my module and carefully unhooks me according to a strict protocol. For three hours afterward, I spew out names for spaceships as well as secret information of a culturally relevant nature about all the planets I have researched.
I suppose you heard that I have the best recall among all the Namers. Is that why you have abducted me? Because, no matter how vigorously you interrogate me, it won’t do any good. You didn’t know that recall only lasts three hours? I can’t tell you what I found out about some distant planet or other, weeks after I’ve been unhooked. It just doesn’t work that way.
I couldn’t give you secrets from the Great Encyclopedia even if I wanted to. They chose us when we were stupid children so that we would not question the complex programming or inner workings of the process – so that we couldn’t be abducted or, if we were, we couldn’t spill secrets to enemy scientists.
For 108 years I have been absorbing and regurgitating the secrets of the galaxy, and I am very tired.

Please. I need to rest, now. Please.
May I have a glass of water?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Six Senses

The Quebec woods in March were deep in snow, every maple tree had been punctured with a tap, and from every tap a bucket hung.
She was seven years old, bundled in a snowsuit, scarf, sealskin boots and woolen mittens that were safety-pinned to her sleeves.
The sugar shack was nothing more than a hovel with a horse track leading to it, and all around were huge black iron kettles suspended over wood fires.
Men on horseback brought the buckets of clear maple sap to the kettles, and after much bubbling and stirring, the sap turned to syrup and the syrup was ladled onto the snow where it hardened into maple candy.
She bit into a piece, experiencing her first taste of maple, complicated and sweet.
That first taste left its sediment in her mouth so that forever she would accept no Aunt Jemima or Log Cabin or ribbon cane syrup as a substitute.

There was a time when his sense of smell was acute and his enjoyment of perfumes and food was lusty.
He used to discern, for example, the scent of L’Aire du Temps on a woman’s neck or the subtle floral notes in Diorissimo ( iris) and Balmain’s Fleurs de Rocaille (geranium) to the amazement of those lovely women he dated.
He knew the riotous aroma of Mussaman curry as distinct from that of Panang or Vindaloo, and sometimes he used to sit over a plate of food for long minutes, just savoring its scent.
He is not sure when his sense of smell abandoned him, but certainly in his 85th year it was gone.
Perhaps it was a mercy, he thought, that he could not smell the pap they fed him by the spoonful from a plastic tray, not caring whether he tolerated the ground up soupy mess as long as he swallowed it on schedule.
He mused that sights and sounds are easy to recall, the evidence of which was that he remembered the colors of sand in Catalina and the overture to Swan Lake, but smells, once gone, cannot be called back.

“Some enchanted evening, you will see a stranger across a crowded room, and somehow you’ll know, you’ll know even then…” -- South Pacific.

That’s how it happened to Ben. He saw her at the Baxters’ party, he was stricken, and he walked to her across the room as if she were reeling him in on a short line. She was lively, bright, olive skinned with fantastic dark curls, and single. He invited her outside where they talked, and she agreed to watch the Stanley Cup playoffs at his house the following night.
The next evening, he could not take his eyes off her, drank her in, made no pretense of watching the hockey game. It didn’t last, though, because Ben was in love with falling in love, a pleasure he craved serially and often, and his fascination with beauty trumped all other pleasures that might have followed.

The air raid sirens of his childhood sent up flares of fear, and he fled with his family to an underground shelter with a hundred others. Once the precinct captains allocated a sturdy tunnel to a precise number of people, no more were allowed inside.
He crouched between his father’s knees, a small sweater-clad curl of terror, while the bombs sheared off houses from the face of London.
From the first waa-waa of the sirens, through the booming artillery and the crash of masonry above ground, he kept his hands clamped over his ears with such ferocity that he scarred himself.
Now an old man, he looks in his shaving mirror and sees the crescent imprints of his youthful fingernails embossed on his face.
He no longer dreams of bombs and sirens, but on some nights he has to remind himself that the wail of an ambulance merely signals a life being saved.

In Cambodia’s northeast provinces of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri live the Kreung, an indigenous ethnic people who form villages of 20 to 60 families.
When a Kreung girl reaches the age of 15 or so, her parents build a hut for her some distance from the family dwelling, and there she may spend nights with boys of her choosing. By allowing the girl to choose her sexual partners and have privacy, the Kreung believe she will find the best possible partner for marriage. This time of experimentation and selection plays a vital role in the romantic success of marriages and the future happiness of women, the Kreung believe.
Halfway across the world, the predominant American religions forbid not only premarital sexual experiences, but also the touching of oneself. A Republican senate candidate from Delaware in 2010, Christine O’Donnell, reminded Americans, "It is not enough to be abstinent with other people, you also have to be be abstinent alone.”

I visit my parents after a long absence, and my mother says, “Well, Bobby Z. is getting married, and it’s all very sudden,” while my father emits a snort signifying his opinion.
“In fact,” she says, “I need to call the family to ask the bride’s name so I can address the gift card.”
In that moment, the room dims, a blackboard fills my field of vision, and a hand writes across it in a white feminine script: M-i-c-h-e-l-i-n-e. The image lingers a moment, the way a bright spot lingers after a flashbulb.
When I tell them, my parents scoff, “That’s ridiculous.”
Later, of course, it turns out that I am right

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Mulch Chronicles

I live in a neighborhood where stock is soaring in lawn-maintenance companies. Just this morning, I edged past a Tru-Green truck out of which was snaking a hose primed and ready to excite new growth on my neighbor’s expensive zoysia-sprigged lawn.

Meanwhile, my lawn is resting very nicely under a thick duvet of fallen leaves and pine straw. I will get around to raking when I’m sure the last needle has fallen. Anything else would be foolish duplication of labor.

Our lawn is the only one in a 3-block radius that hasn’t been raked bald, and I’m sure that passers-by think I’m a slacker.

But I have a plan, and the plan is this: When the leaves have decayed and returned some organic value back into the lawn, I’ll corral them into my mulch pile and they will be heaped onto my flower beds – along with grass cuttings -- to smother weeds.

Then I will stand back and watch the grass green up just as pretty as my neighbors’ yards that are tended by Chem-Lawn.

The only difference is, I will have mulch and they won’t. They will go to Home Depot and pay for bales of pine straw to place in perfect circles around their crepe myrtles, whereas I’ll be mulching with leaves and pine straw that – like good wine – matured and mellowed over winter while strewn on my lawn.

My mulch collection has a few other components. One is a bag of marbles from the Dollar Store. The crows fly down and pick through my mulch for the bright glass orbs, and in so doing they aerate the pile. Another component is newspaper. I receive a number of small weekly newspapers from various counties around Alabama. After I’ve read the social news, police blotter and racier aspects of the county budgets, the papers go into a neat stack. When the stack is about as high as a full-grown Labrador Retriever, I carry it out and carefully arrange the papers in layers where known summer weeds tend to grow. Then I rake leaves or pine straw over them. In no time flat, worms from two zip codes make their way to my garden.

The final semi-interesting component in my mulch comes to me compliments of my spouse, who finds it necessary to shred every single piece of mail in reach.

“Why are you shredding the Winn-Dixie ground beef ad?” I asked one day. “The identity thieves don’t care that we buy ground chuck at 30 cents off.”

“Oh ho,” he said, compulsively shredding a $20 oil change offer, “You don’t know what they know about you till it’s too late.”

“Yes, dear,” I said, extracting the pillow-sized shredded wad from the machine and heading to the mulch pile.

I mixed the paper into a nice wet collection of leaves and pine straw where it immediately began to stain a lovely light brown.

Across the street, a Lawn Doctor truck was pulling away. I do believe I saw the maintenance man eyeball my unraked lawn curiously, much in the way that the Mars explorer module looks at a space rock it hasn’t quite figured out.

“Keep driving, buster,” I thought. And just then, the very last leaf on the very last tree fell.

Friday, February 4, 2011

To My Fellow Man and Woman

Tonight in Egypt, the army measures the mood of the throng.
Tonight in Saudi Arabia, the princes draw a line:
There will be no demonstrations, they decree.
Tonight in Washington, the leaders equivocate.
Tonight in my house, the dog keeps her careful watch.
Everywhere there is fear of change, of the intruder.
When will we trust that the approaching person is no enemy?
It is as likely that he is bringing food or books as bad intentions.
I will set an example. See? I have removed my hood, my coat, my heavy boots.
This footprint I leave behind is light.
My hope for something better mirrors yours.
Sit at my table won't you, and we will break common bread
and speak the common language of reconciliation.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bring Me the Head of David Mamet

This guy writes, you know the guy, Mamet, he writes dialogue that sounds like one side of a phone conversation.

Where did he grow up that people -- I'm telling you, listen to what I'm saying -- that people talk like the EL train's roaring by and you only hear part -- it doesn't matter WHICH part, just a part -- and they have to repeat it.

That guy writes, it's all herky jerky, it's all clicky-clackey, like the tracks on an old railroad bed. That guy, the one like a turbine with words, the one they call Mamet, bring me his head.

I don't care if it's still on his body, you ape.

Just bring me his head, that cerebral kiln of hot, ruddy verbiage and cadence -- yes, I said writing you can dance to -- and I'll toast to the rare guy who re-wrinkles my brain.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Never Been to Heartbreak Hotel

“You’ve never had your heart broken? Come on, never? How can you not EVER have been jilted? You’ve been with like, what, 20 guys?”
I took my eyes off the road for a moment.
“The answer is never, 41, and now, shut up.”

I switched on WBHM, turned north on I-65, and lit a Pall Mall 100. Felice made fingertip circles on her ipod screen. I knew she’d be back to drill for more. My niece wasn’t the first to try to coax a sad love story from me. I’ve been worked over by some real pros. Those are the ones who tell you about all their sad break-up shit and then wait, like you’re supposed to take your turn next. Hey, what can I say?
I don’t have anything to tell. I go out with somebody, and, if it’s nice I keep on going. If it’s not, I walk. I always figured, if the guy isn’t having a good time, he has just as much right to walk away as I do. Fair is fair. Goose and gander.
I mean, am I missing something by not having been broken into smithereens? If you say yes, then I say you’re a masochist. What is the value of pain? I say, skim along on the top of troubled waters as long as you can. I know the old chestnut about how artists must suffer for their art, and all that rot.
But tell me this: Why can’t a painter or musician just as easily create sad themes from pure imagination?

Felice and I were halfway along our drive to Memphis on a pilgrimage of sorts. She had confessed she knew nothing about Elvis Presley, and I immediately decided to take the child in hand. She might be 14, but that was no excuse.
“As her godmother, it is my duty to see to Felice’s spiritual upbringing, is it not?” I had asked my brother. Further, I pressed, “Can you stand by and allow her knowledge of pop culture to begin with Britney Spears? I realize we can’t fly her to Liverpool to see the home of the Beatles or Detroit to see Motown headquarters, but Christ on a crutch, Alan, Memphis is in shouting distance.”

I wore him down. Alan poneyed up half the gas and motel money, and thus we were cruising, as Paul Simon once put it, with reason to believe that we both would be received at Graceland. Lonely Street. Heartbreak Hotel. Ground zero for the saddest life a pop star ever lived, at least up to the time that Michael Jackson built Neverland. You talk about isolated from reality and being taken advantage of, those two must be sharing a double suite in the afterlife, swapping stories about the drugs their doctors gave them. Neither one ever knew what it meant to be loved -- really loved -- for himself. People fell in love, as true believers always do, with the icon they saw and the chance to be part of a legend. Now that’s heartbreak, if you ask me.
Before we embarked on our hegira, I had given niece Felice the assignment of researching Elvis’ life and extreme death. She watched old Ed Sullivan shows and listened to greatest hits. To her credit, she got caught up in the weirdness of the trajectory Elvis’ career took – complete with Roy Orbison shoe polish hair and unfathomable subjugation to Colonel Tom Parker, his minder-cum-impresario. Felice was fascinated by Priscilla’s ingénue role in the household and Elvis’ rumored fetish: white cotton panties.
“This is not turning out to be a wholesome project,” my brother hissed into the phone one night.
“Yo, Alan, it’s ELVIS. It’s American gothic, and the child needs to know the underbelly of the myth,” I hissed back.
“Did you, or did you not, wear makeup to school for three days when Freddie Mercury died?”
He knew I had him, and he hung up.

Felice and I pulled into Graceland’s parking lot at 2:50 p.m., just in time for the three o’clock tour. Felice readied her Nikon, and I took stock of the women in line around us. Late middle aged: check. Caucasian: check. Looking fantastically sentimental: check.

The tour itself was soulless and prepackaged. We walked through rooms containing nothing that Elvis ever cared about; the carpet, walls and furnishings postdated him. The tour guide, probably recruited from a fraternity at U of Tennessee, delivered his lines with faked expertise. I did not have the heart to ask him to depart from script and tell us the truth about the white panties.
For my sweet Felice, this was her first brush with a celebrity, and she buzzed around happily. Her favorite item, she told me later, was a white Vegas-style jumpsuit with a star-studded cape, the kitsch level of which was in the red zone.

Graceland is, I have to say, one of the saddest places on Earth. It was Elvis’ sarcophagus, his prison, and no doubt originally his idea of marvelous. But nowadays it is as devoid of Elvis molecules as a room at a Motel 6.

Whatever hopes or musical inspiration moved the kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, to first step into a studio, they are not revealed to us at Graceland. Maybe they never existed, or maybe they got swallowed up in the first crazy tsunami of fame that enveloped him. I had to wonder: if Elvis had known what bread of loneliness he’d be eating for the rest of his life, would he have opened his mouth to sing, at all?