Sunday, January 22, 2012

Two Little Stories About Religious Paranoia

The other night I dreamt I was in a boat floating in thick fog, talking to God.

Look, He says to me, I'm just hoping to catch a few fish. I didn't come down here to listen to you bitch.

I wouldn't think you'd need to fish, I said.

Very few people in this world need to fish, He said. But it just so happens I like to fish. I'm a sportsman, and though, yes, I could technically cheat --at this as well as at anything else I damn well please-- that's never been my style. I don't much go in for flashy stuff and intervention. The fish don't know who's on the other end of the line, and that's the way I like it. The truth is that if they did  know, it would only make it all the more difficult for me to catch them. Do you think for one minute that if those fish down there knew I was in this boat they would eagerly impale themselves on my hook just to make me happy? I can assure you they would not. Unless and until somebody wants or needs something virtually all of creation runs from me. Oh sure, there are nuts --there are always nuts-- but I think you know what I mean. You're all fish to me --understand, of course, that I'm now speaking metaphorically, but that's the way I've always thought of you-- and when I go fishing it's virtually always bad news for somebody. And I'm terribly sorry, my friend, but today that somebody is you.

And with that God pushed me out of the boat.

An Unfortunate Agreement

One night Ruckert dreamt that he had died and was standing in a long line outside the gates of Heaven. Some functionary was making his way along the queue with a clipboard, directing queries to the prospective entrants.

“Will there be dogs in Heaven?” Ruckert inquired of the man.

“Yes,” the man said, “but unfortunately not your dog. As you might recall, he killed a number of rabbits.”

The man offered Ruckert the option of spending eternity in hell with his dog, an offer that Ruckert accepted without hesitation, at which point he awoke in a cold sweat.

Despite the best and most rational counsel of his closest friends and therapist, Ruckert could not be dissuaded from  his conviction that this dream represented some sort of binding agreement.

Friday, January 20, 2012

From The Annals Of Exploration

I recall reading somewhere about a party of British adventurers who were mucking about in some primitive, forsaken  place. This was, if I'm not mistaken, some time relatively early in the 19th century. According to a handful of sketchy journals they left behind they'd had an arduous expedition and  had lost several members of their party to violence and various mysterious maladies.

Much of the time they spent navigating an unpredictable river and plodding through thick brush and rough, rocky terrain. I don't quite remember what they were looking for, but I'm certain it can be safely surmised that it was more or less something they hadn't seen before. Like many such explorers I'm supposing they were bored with domesticity and civilization, and hoped  that hardship and  peril would make them  men again.

They were also --once again, like many such characters-- blunderers, utterly ill-prepared and incompetent, certain that their firearms and education  (they were mostly well-to-do graduates of Oxford, I believe, with a handful of hardscrabble human mules to do their dirty work) made them superior to the vague task at hand.

Almost needless to say, they disappeared, as is so often the case with such foolhardy explorers. Many years later a party of anthropologists and botanists stumbled across a jungle clearing in that still inhospitable part of the world, a clearing where they discovered a neatly arranged collection of bleached skulls seemingly growing from the earth like jack-o-lanterns made of bone. Additional investigation revealed that the bodies belonging to these skulls had in fact been buried vertically, and presumably alive, up to their necks.

When these pathetic souls were excavated  it was discovered that they were still wearing their tattered clothing, and one of their number was yet clutching in what was left of his right hand a scrap of moldering cloth on which was scrawled in fading script the words: "We have had the misfortune of encountering a party of white men."

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Mountain

The mountain told the crow he was lonely.

"If you would use your wings to fly away, even if only for a short time, you would surely not feel so lonely," the crow said.

"But I don't have wings," the mountain said. "I cannot fly away. And even if I could fly away, I could not do so. Where I am is what I am."

"Nonsense," the crow said, and lifted off and soared away across the valley.

The mountain was not a majestic specimen. It was, in fact, a humble mountain, covered with trees almost all the way to its highest point and surrounded by other mountains from which it was virtually indistinguishable. There was a good deal of mountain competition for a hundred miles in every direction. To the north of the lonely, humble mountain there was a range of truly majestic mountains, rock-faced and snow-capped, that were said to be visible from the smaller mountains on all sides.

The lonely mountain could not see these majestic mountains. He was severely myopic and knew of the majestic mountains only from descriptions he had heard from the birds, and from the occasional comments of admiration he heard from the rare hikers who climbed through the trees --'climbed' was perhaps not wholly accurate; people could walk at a leisurely pace to the top of the lonely, humble mountain-- to stand or sit for a moment at the small cluster of rocks that constituted its modest summit. No one who ever came to the lonely, humble mountain ever addressed a word to him. No one had ever asked his permission to cut down his trees, to build fires from his wood, or to fish in his brooks. For hundreds of years he had been conversant with no one but the occasional bird. Some of them, from their perspective high up in the sky, could at least see that he was there, distinct; could see that though he was covered with trees and bushes and flowers and rocks, and that though there were springs and brooks and all manner of animals living on him, he was the mountain, the village in which all these other things resided.

After the mountain had made his confession to the crow other birds began to visit and hector him with the same advice: "Fly away! Fly away!"

The crow must have gossiped that the mountain was lonely. The crow was loud, and loose lipped, and the mountain knew that he never should have confided in him. All that summer the birds came flitting and swooping and soaring in from the north, south, east, and west. "Tsk-tsk, lonely," they would cry. "Tsk-tsk, lonely. Fly away! Fly away!"

Most of the birds the mountain had ever known were foolish. Only the owls were wise, and they seldom deigned to talk to him. He had lived longer than all the foolish birds combined, and he had heard them coming and going for hundreds of years. Of course they were not lonely. They were not anchored to the earth and nearly blind. They built nests and had children and traveled great distances and visited other mountains and forests and lands. The mountain had heard their stories, and once upon a time they had thrilled him.

One day near the end of the summer, on an afternoon when the mountain could once again sense the changing of the seasons and could feel the planet churning beneath him, a hawk paid him a visit.

"I hear you are lonely," the hawk said.

"It is true, yes," the mountain said. "I am lonely. It is lonely to be an old mountain."

"Why do you not fly away?" the hawk asked.

The mountain sighed. "Because I do not have wings," he said. "It would be impossible for me to fly away. And where I am is what I am."

The hawk seemed to consider this for a moment.

"But of course you have wings," he said. "I have seen them. I have been snatching mice from the feathers of your wings for years. And what you are you will be wherever you go."

"Nonsense," the mountain said. "I am a mountain, and if I were to leave I would cease to be a mountain."

"Your problem, old Mr. Mountain," the hawk said, "is that you are stubborn and blind. It is no wonder you are lonely." And with that the hawk hurled itself into the air and was carried away on the wind.

Autumn crept over the mountain and darkness came early and the nights grew longer and colder. Soon the snow would begin to fall and the mountain would be silent and more alone than ever. Winters were hard on the old mountain. They nibbled away at him year by year, and when spring once again came around there would be new cracks and less of him than there had been the year before.

Increasingly, when the first snow came the old mountain would close his eyes and sleep fitfully until he heard the first tentative arrival of the birds and the running of the brooks carrying away the last of the melting snow. One evening in late autumn he was already dreaming of that day when he was startled awake by the sound of migrating geese, crossing the sky above him in great numbers.

As he listened to their exuberant, long familiar traveling songs, the old mountain felt something moving within him, a rustle that built rapidly to a roar --the crashing of trees and rocks, thunderous, terrifying, a noise that gradually subsided and was replaced by what sounded like nothing so much as a huge, rhythmic heart beating furiously and almost weightlessly within him. And then the startled old mountain suddenly felt himself rising in a swirling blizzard of dirt and pebbles and dead leaves.

With dreaming wonder, the mountain watched the earth gradually recede as he climbed higher and higher into the clear night sky, alternately gliding and gyring, carried up and away --or so it did indeed seem-- by a giant pair of dusty wings. And when he cast one last look backwards and downwards he saw that the mountain that had been for so many years home to his lonely heart was still there, reposed in the moonlight and waiting for the arrival of another long winter.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

My Memories Of Tchaikovsky

It's no secret that people of great achievement are often abject curiosities and spectacular failures as human beings, and this was certainly true of Tchaikovsky, who lived in my hometown when I was growing up.

I can't truly claim that it was my privilege to know the man, or even that to know him would have been, in fact, any kind of privilege at all. (My understanding is that this was decidedly not the case.) But I certainly remember the old man, and recall seeing his stooped and wretched specter stumbling along the sidewalks of my neighborhood.

People around town knew Tchaikovsky, of course, or certainly were aware of his strange presence. Few, however, apparently realized that he was writing music. Most folks remember him as a stunningly bad amateur painter whose crude oils of birds --robins, almost exclusively-- were entered in the art show at the county fair each summer.

Somewhere I have a snapshot of the garish tattoo of a naked clown bleeding from his eyes that Tchaikovsky had etched into one of his forearms. I can't recall how I came by this photograph, to be honest with you, but it remains among my most prized possessions, and countless scholars have tried to buy it from me over the years.

There was always a great deal of speculation that Tchaikovsky was consumptive, or infected with venereal disease. There did, certainly, appear to be something wrong with him. There were clearly health issues of one sort or another, most obviously a painful-looking skin condition. He also had dodgy hygiene, and always seemed to be in need of a new pair of shoes.

Late in his life Tchaikovsky wore a beat-to-shit pair of purple moon boots, no matter the season. This was after moon boots had long since gone out of fashion, and I suppose he picked them up on one of his regular visits to the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, where he was also said (this was in the newspaper after his death) to be an indiscriminate hoarder of "potboilers and paperback westerns."

Every afternoon he would emerge from his rented room at the Ace Hotel over on the east side by the railroad yard, and he and Friedrich Engels, another Ace resident and local curiosity, would stumble around  the sidewalks of downtown engaged in heated conversation that often resulted in minor dust-ups and spitting matches. Kids used to regularly throw rocks at them.

I can also tell you that Tchaikovsky rolled his own cigarettes (Drum), and spent a great deal of time drinking coffee and banging away at the Cannonball Run pinball machine at a local pizza parlor. He was once arrested for shoplifting a porno mag from Nemitz’s (I can remember my father sitting at the dinner table and chuckling over the Daily Herald’s description of the stolen merchandise as “a gentlemen’s magazine of undetermined value.”).

Whenever we'd see him out and about, my mother would always say, "That poor man doesn't know whether he's coming or going."

"I could help him out with that," my father would say. "He's going."

The old mutterer had one sister still in town, but she was said to find him repellent, and more than once sought a restraining order against him on the grounds that he creeped her out –that, at least, was my mother’s version, which she had received secondhand from a courthouse clerk who was part of a group my mother belonged to that made quilts (with Bible verses pinned to them) for Africans.

Tchaikovsky occasionally played chess at the public library with the conductor of the high school orchestra, and somehow managed to talk this man into performing some of his compositions at the annual spring orchestra concert. Nothing much was made of his music at the time, however, and when Tchaikovsky died he was largely friendless and wholly uncelebrated.

Even to this day there are people in my old hometown who will insist that the music now attributed to Tchaikovsky was, in fact, composed by some other person, or persons. 

Repeated attempts to raise money to erect a statue in his honor outside the library have been unsuccessful.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The International Repository Of Regrets

Since he lost his job as an aviation mechanic in the late 1980s, Riggs has been a clerk at the International Repository of Regrets. He hasn't had a good night's sleep in almost ten years.

The Repository, housed in a World War Two-era train depot, is a vast place of bad light and spooky, institutional acoustics. Even in the middle of the night --especially in the middle of the night-- it is always crowded, and the mood there is generally sour and joyless. The crowd is polyglottal, often dizzyingly so.

Some of the people who stand in the long lines are dead, shuffling in place in stepped-down shoes, often clutching photographs –or entire albums of photographs-- to their breasts. Many of the waiting have grown hoarse from a lifetime of rehearsing and fine-tuning their regrets. For the most part, they throw their cigarette butts and the wrappers from the vending machines on the scarred concrete floor.

The International Repository of Regrets is now little but a purely bureaucratic facility, and offers nothing in the way of dispensation, absolution, or second chances. Even as a repository it has long since surrendered any claims of utility.

These days, whatever regrets are unburdened there are merely scribbled haphazardly in the margins of ancient, crowded ledgers, wherever there is room. All attempts at maintaining accurate chronological records have been abandoned.

They will soon enough run out of room entirely, at which point the clerks in their teller's cages will be forced to simply sit and listen, reduced to the role of secular priests, mostly disinterested and concerned not at all with salvation or even compassion.

By now, Riggs had pretty much heard it all before, from the truly criminal to the almost unpardonably banal.
Even so, these latter confessions were the things that continued to haunt him, revealing as they did the cumulative, lingering damage that could result from even the smallest childhood disappointments. For instance, there was, in the wee hours of one long night, the old woman who had stood in line for days to tell Riggs of the heartbreak she had suffered owing to the fact that allergies had made it impossible for her to ever hug a dog. Or the younger man, deceased by the time he made his way to Riggs’ window, who was grief stricken over his lifelong inability to throw a baseball to his father's satisfaction.

Riggs had also encountered individuals --there had been at least a dozen-- whose chief regret in life was one particularly bad haircut.

And so, so many people had stood before Riggs and poured out their regret over elaborately planned surprise parties that had been disastrous or poorly attended.

Most distressingly and unsurprisingly, love --faithless love, tragic love, and love gone wrong, gone cold, or gone missing-- continued to be the reason the overwhelming majority of the broken and beleaguered clientele made the difficult pilgrimage to the International Repository of Regrets. Day after day and night after night Riggs listened to these stories. Unlike some of the other, older clerks, he was incapable of not listening. Sometimes he found himself jotting notes on scraps of paper he carried in his pockets for just this purpose. Personal note taking was strictly forbidden, and the regrets that were offered up at the Repository were never supposed to leave the facility.

Yet Riggs did take these notes. He took them down and he took them home, and he would spend some time studying and mulling them each day at the end of his shift. And then he would put them away in a box he kept under his bed, a box in which he had for 32 years kept a collection of notes and faded greeting cards –old birthday, anniversary, and Valentine cards—that were all addressed to him and signed in the same unmistakable hand.

And every day Riggs went to work and kept his vigil, even as he was slowly, slowly, slowly losing hope that eventually the familiar, beautiful, and sad face he had been waiting for all those years was one evening going to appear before him, and offer up the words that would set him free.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

From An Obituary In The Forest Lake Times: Perpetuating One More Old, Cruel Stereotype

...You will be like a man compelled to spend his life on a desert island and there toiling to erect a memorial so that future seafarers shall know he once existed.
      --Schopenhauer,  “On Ethics.”
This was the life of the small town spinster librarian: a clock that clanged on the half hour every day for over 50 years. The city's siren swelling in the streets each afternoon at exactly 12 o'clock, and again to signal the ten p.m. curfew --as if people couldn't tell time or didn't have clocks to do it for them. A dysfunctional milkman, desperate, facing extinction, and the butt of a thousand old jokes, sweating his hard sell door-to-door. A moldering Main Street full of nothing but empty storefronts and dreams that began to fade the moment they took bloom. A few dreary taverns she had never visited, but whose clientele and climate she could well imagine, given her unfortunate familiarity with the squalid habits of so many of her fellow townspeople. A dozen rusty grain elevators and a scar of ragged railroad tracks that passed for industry, and a rusty water tower that served as a local landmark and should have had some sort of pointed apology painted across its facade.

The librarian had always felt as if the whole town was beneath her, almost literally so. She would never make house with a bumbling local; this determination had been hardwired in her heart back in her schoolgirl days. She would look with nothing but scorn upon the flock of poor bachelors who gathered each afternoon and evening in the library's front parlor, making stammering conversation and rustling through the collection of inferior magazines and newspapers.

The local weekly wasn't worth the nearly transparent paper it was printed on, and was produced by end-of-the-road or entry-level journalists playing at the saddest sort of dead-end reportage: school board meetings, piddling zoning controversies, wedding and anniversary announcements, school lunch menus, senior citizen center craft sales, high school football, and obituaries. There had always been plenty of obituaries--the local funeral home was the newest building in town, and was illuminated like a casino all through the night-- but anymore even the number of dead people was diminishing by the day.

Every night the spinster librarian carried home thick novels, read herself to sleep, and regretted everything other than the fact that she had been taught to read.

One day late in her life she would have the realization that her father was to be the only true gentleman she would ever meet, and the only man who would ever hold her in his arms.

Before she’d even reached fifty she had made arrangements to be buried in Boston, a place she had never so much as visited. This was the only wish she ever publicly expressed, as well as the only wish she was ever granted.