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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 ingĂ©nue 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?

Monday, January 17, 2011

An Observant Man

He is homesick, but not for a place. Rather, it is for certain things, like the silver of old cedar shingles, the tang of wood smoke and the belling of hounds on their return from the fields.

He is lonesome, it’s true, but he has been more lonesome at other times -- though, were he to measure it, and be honest, he is less lonesome now than when his heartless Chella was alive, although he’d never say that to the kids.

He walks down the broad avenue to the market, neither seeing nor hearing the thudding traffic because it is irrelevant.

How much more attuned he was when surrounded by forest, consigning meaning to each tiny sound: the scrape of one branch against its neighbor, the footfall of a doe or bobcat, the descent of turkey hens at flydown time, silhouetted against a sunrise.

He fills his grocery basket with his bachelor items – soup cans, frozen pot pies, a quart of milk – and takes a little pleasure, before he leaves, at the sight of a small boy on tiptoe, staring into the cartoon face on a cereal box.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Dinner Date

Nothing made sense in that garage, even though I had hung the tools on the peg board myself and stocked the shelves. It was happening more and more often, this feeling of disassociation or uncertainty. I looked at Betty, so happy with her schedule of summer parties, book club and gardening. I did not want to tell her and ruin her good times, but I was not feeling myself at all.
I turned on the overhead light and walked the garage perimeter slowly. I smelled something – a solvent? If I thought carefully, I could name some of the tools: crescent wrench and adjustable wrench and screwdriver. Then I felt muddled. Too many things -- names and words -- were flying clear out of my head. Our car was a Toyota, that I could see. But where was the Ford Taurus? Had we sold it?
Although I could not recall why I had come down to the garage to begin with, it did not seem an unpleasant place to be. A canvas folding chair leaned against the wall. Beside it was an empty can with a cigarette butt in it. Did Betty smoke? Did I?
The door to the laundry room opened and out came my Betty. I would know her anywhere by the bounce in her step and that lick-lips smile.
"Frank, honey, we really need to get ready. The dinner reservations are for 8 sharp and we don't want to keep the Rogerses waiting."
I walked behind her, from garage to house, through the cinnamon-smelling kitchen, and then I stopped. I had to ask. I hoped she would not get angry.
"Betty..." I said, then hesitated.
"Yes Frank? What is it?"
"Betty, I just need to know. Who are the Rogerses?"

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Real Deal

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 this cold snap would finish her off."
Death pointed at the rib-eye steaks thawing on my kitchen counter and they shrivelled, 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 Greyness," 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 all 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 Man 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.