Saturday, March 31, 2012

Why Not Try To Make Yourself Useful?


Ruckert had  precious little in the way of dining options out in his neck of the woods (a phrase, incidentally, that he loathed, that he found utterly inexplicable, but which nonetheless was used so often in his neck of the woods that it had become, even for him, a helpless verbal tic for which he could think of no substitute that didn’t somehow sound pompous), and the closest takeout establishment was a filthy little chow mein place that --other than an insurance office that looked like the museum of an insurance office, and a long-abandoned museum at that-- was the sole remaining tenant in a moldering 50s-era strip mall that appeared to have once been the home to a half-dozen businesses. This strip mall was located just outside the scant remains of a town that had been mostly abandoned when a stretch of interstate highway was completed twelve miles to the west back in the late 1970s.


From every indication the Chinese place was an original tenant, and its existence in that godforsaken place, let alone its continued survival, was to Ruckert one of the great local mysteries. He also regularly thanked the otherwise forsaking God for its presence; were it not there he would have to drive eighteen miles to find a place to eat. The ruins of the town that was still home to the Chinese restaurant were a manageable six-mile drive from Ruckert’s home. He drove there often for takeout, sometimes as often as several times a week. And though he never ordered what he considered an unseemly amount of food for one man, the old Chinese woman who was always at the cash register routinely tossed three fortune cookies into his bag. Ruckert couldn’t decide whether it was a taunt, or a gesture of generous pity, an attempt to stack the odds in her clearly downtrodden customer’s favor. Either way, Ruckert hated fortune cookies (the cookie part; he wouldn’t consider putting one of the things in his mouth). He was, however, superstitious, and thought he was somehow tempting fate by not removing and reading the fortunes themselves.


Ruckert also felt it was wrong --cheating somehow-- to open all three of the cookies that the old woman put into his takeout bag, and increasingly of late he had found himself engaged in some absurd deliberations as to which of the fortunes to extricate from the inedible cookies. Sometimes  --and the helplessness of this behavior infuriated him-- he would close his eyes and engage in a sort of shell game, moving the three cellophane-wrapped cookies around on his kitchen counter and eventually plucking one from the bunch.


He nonetheless struggled with the question of what to do with the remaining cookies and the unread fortunes, and had long since gotten in the habit of stashing them in a drawer next to his stove, a drawer that was large and deep and designed apparently to hold cookware, but which was now literally crammed with unopened fortune cookies. Ruckert resisted the urge to open a second cookie when his first selection yielded a particularly unsatisfying fortune --and this, he felt was increasingly the case; more and more often the excavated cookies yielded not fortunes, but blunt statements, proclamations, and even demands (many of which he found shrill). He had saved every fortune he had ever received,  and kept them in an old cigar box he had found in his basement. One day, he thought, he would do something with them, although he had absolutely no idea what that would be.


Then, during a particularly rough autumn when he was feeling even more emotionally vulnerable than usual and found himself resorting to takeout Chinese on an even more alarmingly regular basis, his fortunes started to seem overtly hostile, and even menacing, and Ruckert began to suspect deliberate taunting on the part of the old Chinese woman at the restaurant. He couldn’t imagine how such a thing was possible, but he became more fiercely convinced that some elaborate joke was being played on him. For several weeks he stockpiled the evidence, and fumed, even as he continued to patronize the restaurant.


“Those who have no luck never worry about it running out.”

“Live apart, die alone.”

“Dreams are hard to catch once they disappear.”

“Unfinished things - a sad story.”

“Soon you will be done. Great relief.”

“A fatal flaw is hard to change.”

“Far away. More far all the time.”

“Do what you say, or be silent.”

“Ask yourself: Why does no one call?”

“Work uncomplainingly, and without reward.”

“A fool is struck blind when confronted by a mirror.”

“Why not try to make yourself useful?”


Ruckert was not a man for confrontations. An old colleague had once accused him of being passive-aggressive, but Ruckert steadfastly refused to believe this was true or even to understand what it meant. He had heard the phrase tossed about so recklessly for so many years that he felt it was safe to conclude that it was meaningless. Passive, he would admit to that. It was one of his growing inventory of handicaps. And his aggression was fierce, but almost purely or exclusively manifested itself as fits of private rage and bellowing and knocking things around. He was also still partially capable of considering that he was being paranoid about the fortune cookies.


This came to an end the night he cracked open a cookie and read the words, “The just punishment for a man who wastes his life is the life he leads.” So furious was he that he broke his policy of longstanding and tore open a second cookie, smashed it on the edge of the counter, and fished the fortune from the crumbs that were now scattered on his kitchen floor. As he held the fortune up to the light under his oven hood, Ruckert noticed that his hands were trembling and he was bleeding from a gash in one knuckle.


“I am a surgeon to old shoes,” the fortune read.


He spoke these words slowly aloud. What the hell? He went to his computer and googled the phrase, which he discovered was some bit of inexplicable nonsense from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He then typed in the phrase from the first cookie and got a batch of quotes from Schopenhauer, none of them with the exact phrasing, but close enough that there was no doubt the Chinese were either paraphrasing or working from a bad translation.


In a rage, Ruckert stomped back into the kitchen and yanked open the drawer containing his backlog of fortune cookies. The cellophane on the first one he grabbed from the heap refused to open, and he twisted and tore at it for several moments with no success. He removed a steak knife from the dish strainer and hacked and sawed at the wrapper, his anger escalating as the cellophane refused to yield. Next he tried a scissors, but even they proved helpless against what he assumed was a petrified wrapper. After a protracted, absurd, and ultimately futile effort with the scissors, Ruckert put the fortune cookie back on the counter and smashed it with his fist. The wrapper still would not give, so he spent several moments twisting and turning the thing with his fingers, trying to remove the fortune from the fragments in the cookie while it was still enclosed in the wrapper.


Despite his best efforts only two words came into view. They were barely legible, disclosed or obscured as they were by the printing on the wrapper. Ruckert fetched a tweezers from his medicine cabinet, as well as a small magnifying glass --a remnant from his childhood-- from his desk. He made a further attempt to tweeze the entire fortune into a free and clear place within the wrapper. Unsuccessful, he was still left with only the two words --illegible with his poor eyesight-- partially revealed. He turned on the overhead light in the kitchen, and bent over the recalcitrant wrapper with his child’s magnifying glass. There were not, in fact two words, but rather one word and a fragment: -ld laughs.


-ld laughs, he thought. -ld?


He racked his brain for words ending in -ld, but given his state of agitation, had  a difficult time.


Bold.
.          
Cold.
           
Should.
           
Sold.
           
Old.
           
Gold.
           
Would.


He scrutinized the words again through the magnifying glass; yes, no mistaking it, the word was “laughs,” and the phrase presented logical and grammatical problems with many of the combining options he was coming up with. In one final act of desperation he struck a match and held it to one corner of the wrapper. In an instant the entire package erupted in flames in his fingers, and Ruckert, howling, flung the burning fortune cookie into the air --a helpless impulse-- and it landed on the counter, where it immediately ignited a roll of paper towels, which promptly fell over and set fire to a dish towel.


Suddenly Ruckert’s kitchen counter seemed to be a conflagration. He fanned at the blaze with another towel --a foolish decision, he immediately realized; too late, alas, as the flames were growing higher and clearly scorching the underside of his kitchen cabinets. Ruckert could also see the counter top beginning to bubble and curdle. He cursed the fact that he owned no fire extinguisher, he, the son of a man who had run a hardware store for forty years. He tried to remember: was it wise to attempt to douse a fire with water? In some instances, he seemed to recall, it was counter-productive, but he had no idea what those instances might be. Meanwhile, his smoke detector had begun to drone at a deafening volume.


What the hell, Ruckert thought, did not firemen use hoses to bombard fires with water? He grabbed an old plastic ice cream pail from under his sink, filled it in the sink, and spastically flung the contents in the direction of the blaze, which seemed to have run out of readily flammable material. The roll of paper towels, however, were burning more fiercely than ever, and churning up a shower of sparks and ash. The kitchen had filled up with a toxic-smelling smoke. He filled the pail once more and this time dumped it more slowly and carefully on the fire. This second application of water succeeded in reducing the pile of burning items to a damp, smoking heap of smoldering embers, allowing Ruckert the opportunity to remove his dish strainer to the stove top and, using a pot holder, sweep the mess into the sink and extinguish it completely using water from the tap.


His counter top was ruined; several layers had been melted away, and the result looked like the sort of mottled, blistered, and textured monstrosity he’d too often encountered on museum walls. The fire contained, Ruckert turned his attention to the braying of the smoke alarm, located in the hallway outside his bathroom. He had to fetch a chair to reach the contraption, which turned out not to be simply a battery-operated model, but rather somehow wired into the house’s electrical system. It was probably, Ruckert thought, connected to the circuit box in the basement, about which he knew nothing. At a loss, he twisted the disc free of its base and yanked the wires from the ceiling, an action that resulted in a loud pop and flash, followed by a shower of sparks and smoke.


God almighty, he thought, he would burn the place down yet.


Ruckert stood for a long moment beneath the hole in his ceiling, until he was reasonably satisfied that his bungling would not be the (at least immediate) source of another fire. He then sat down on the chair beneath the ruined smoke detector. Only then did he realize that he was hyperventilating and sweating profusely.


All this, he thought, over a fortune cookie.


But as he thought about it a bit longer, and replayed the calamitous chain of events in his head, he realized that he could not view this incident as purely quixotic. The fortune cookie thing was somehow of grave importance to him; the whole episode continued to smack not of fate or absurdity, but of conspiracy. Ruckert got up and went back into the kitchen. He was appalled by the whole mess, but particularly appalled --and outraged, horrified, even chilled-- to discover that the fortune cookie that had started it all had been entirely erased by the fire.


He looked at the clock on his microwave oven; it was 8:22. He felt certain the Chinese place was open until nine. He found a menu in his silverware drawer and dialed the number. After a half dozen rings a woman answered; Ruckert was sure it was the old woman who routinely rang up his order.


“What is the source of your fortune cookies?” Ruckert demanded.


“We get them from our regular supplier,” the woman said in what sounded almost like a slight English accent, which he had never noticed before.


“Are you familiar with the fortunes they contain?” Ruckert asked.


The woman clearly hesitated.


“Somewhat,” she said. “I open them sometimes for amusement.”


“And you’re willing to swear to me that you don’t meddle with them in any way?” Ruckert said.


“I’m not sure I understand,” the woman  said.


Ruckert sighed. “I have a problem here with a particular fortune,” he said. “Only a fragment of it is legible.”


He spelled it out for her. The woman hesitated again, and then finally said in a cold, deadpan voice, “You cry. The world laughs.”


Ruckert was suddenly aware that he was bent over and resting his head on the stove top. “May I please ask you in what possible way that can be construed as a fortune?” he said.


“I am not an oracle,” the woman said. “I am not a philosopher or a psychologist. I give you three cookies and still you complain.”


With that she hung up the phone.


Ruckert then spent an hour sitting on his kitchen floor, surrounded by puddles of water and soot, opening each of the fortune cookies in his huge drawer. Halfway through the pile he understood exactly what was happening, understood that he was trapped in a nightmare from which he would never awake, yet he plowed through to the end.


Every one of the cookies was empty.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Schopenhauer And Spinoza On Dogs

I don't read philosophy for answers to the meaning of life or any of the other ridiculous questions that have caused lunatics to bang their heads against the wall for as long as humans have been able to babble. What attracts me again and again to books of philosophy is the marginalia, the odd biographical details and digressions and just plain absurd minutiae that these characters cough up on such a regular basis. The best biographies --hands down-- are of the philosophers. The unhappy little hunchbacks who waddled around the streets of their towns and endured the taunts of rock-throwing children (Kierkegaard). The closet gnomes, martyrs, and maniacs. Empedocles wrote, "Wretches! Utter wretches! Keep your hands from beans!" Three of Ludwig Wittgenstein's eight siblings committed suicide. Kant wrote a treatise on rainbows. And the great master of gloom Schopenhauer took issue with Spinoza's Ethics over what he perceived to be their disregard for the virtue and dignity of dogs.

I was reading Schopenhauer's History of Philosophy last night when I discovered the old crank railing against Spinoza for "his as unworthy as false deliverances about animals."  From assertions in the Ethics Schopenhauer concludes, "Dogs [Spinoza] seems not to have known at all. To the monstrous proposition with which the 26th appendix [of the Ethics] opens...the best answer is given by a Spanish literateur of our day (Larra, psuedonym Figaro), 'He who has never kept a dog does not know what it is to love and be loved.'"

I spent two hours rooting around my apartment for a copy of Spinoza's Ethics in order to locate the passage that so offended Schopenhauer. Here it is: "Besides men, we know of no particular thing in nature in whose mind we may rejoice, and whom we can associate with ourselves in friendship or any sort of fellowship; therefore, whatsoever there be in nature besides man, a regard for our advantage does not call on us to preserve, but to preserve or destroy according to its various capabilities, and to adapt to our use as best we can."

I'm officially on the side of Schopenhauer in this important argument, by the way, and was pleased to later run across this additional tribute to dogs (in his own splendid Ethics): "Hence comes the four-legged friendships of so many of the better kind of men, for on what indeed should one refresh oneself from the endless deceit, falseness, and cunning of men if it were not for the dogs into whose faithful countenance one may look without distrust?"

Thursday, March 15, 2012

James Bond, Only A Girl: Part Two


Ella was on the front porch, blowing into an empty bottle with a straw, shivering a fly that was trapped there at the bottom. The fly was woozy and slick with cola, and was rolling and tumbling in the little bottle hurricane that Ella was producing with her straw. The fly was done for, Ella knew that much. It had gotten itself into a pickle, and would spend its last moments at the bottom of the bottle, drunk on cola and flopping itself unconscious.

Roland Schramm came around the side of the house with a globe in his arms and crawled down under the porch. Ella's grandmother had thrown out the globe because it had a dent in Asia, and Roland had fished it from the trashcan out back. Roland's dog, Perry, followed him everywhere and was under the porch with him. Perry was a first-class leaper, and a shy dog.

Roland lived across the back alley and went under Ella's grandmother's porch all the time to smoke. Ella could see him now through the slats of the porch, hunched beneath her with his head down and his dog curled up in the dirt. The smoke from his cigarette came up through the floorboards of the porch. Ella didn't mind the smell; it smelled just like Roland under the porch. Her grandmother no longer made a stink about Roland smoking under the porch, because if you hollered at Roland he would spray paint on your garage or break things. It was easier to just let him go under the porch, where he kept a stash of motorcycle magazines with pictures of men with tattoos.

Ella was bored. It was no good, being a girl in the world. The yards and bushes and woods all around her were full of dirty boys, chasing each other with sticks and throwing things and still hollering into the darkness when she was already in her bed. That's unfortunate, her grandmother would say whenever Ella complained about her life.

Have a heart. That was another of Ella's grandmother's sayings. If her grandmother were to come out to the porch and see Ella torturing the fly in the bottle, that was exactly what she would say: Have a heart, Ella. That poor fly is one of God's creatures.

Ella had never seen her grandfather, but he was in the world somewhere, and her grandmother was sour about it. There was a card on her grandmother's bed stand, which had been  there all the years that Ella could remember. The card featured a funny drawing of a man in a tuxedo. The man was holding a tray on which was a sparkling diamond ring. Inside the card someone had written "If you're loving me like I'm loving you, baby, we're really in love." Those words, her grandmother said, were written by Hank Williams, but the handwriting was Ella's grandfather's. They weren't, her grandmother said, worth the paper they were written on.

At least once a day Ella's grandmother would drag her in under her chin, wheeze what sounded like tears into her hair, and murmur, "Bless your little pea-picking heart. Where in the world would I be without you?"

Ella could not begin to formulate an answer to her grandmother's question. All day the old woman sat at the kitchen table, scribbling away at her word search puzzles and watching a television that was on top of the refrigerator. Every afternoon in the summer Ella's grandmother would send her up the street to the Gas-and-Go to fetch a bag of potato chips and a can of diet Cola. Her grandma would give Ella a five-dollar bill and instruct her to get something to eat for herself as well. Ella would ride her bicycle to the library downtown and spend the remaining three dollars and twenty-five cents making photocopies of beautiful women and beautiful clothing from fashion books and magazines. Shoved in the drawer of her nightstand and  tucked in her school books Ella had hundreds of photocopies of exotic clothing --and shoes; Ella loved shoes-- the likes of which she had never seen in Prentice. She also liked to make copies of photographs of sports cars. Ella wanted to be a secret agent like James Bond, only a girl. In her dreams she was often driving a stolen Jaguar through the streets of Prentice.

Ella's grandmother was her father's mother, and she would seldom give Ella information that was helpful in forming an impression of a man she could no longer remember. "He liked to put rocks in his pockets when he was a boy," her grandmother would tell Ella. "I used to have a basket full of them down in the laundry room. Eddie's rocks." When pressed for more information, Ella's grandmother would say things like, "He used to listen to a radio that was the shape of a motor oil can," or, "He loved tomatoes." One time she told Ella that her father had been a crackerjack jumper, the best in his class. "He got a ribbon for it," she said. All of these details didn't add up to much in Ella's mind, and her conversations with her grandmother regarding her father always boiled down in the end to the fact that Ella's father hadn't amounted "to a hill of beans." Men, she was told, were good for three things: running off, killing each other, and making babies they wanted no part of. Ella's father, it turned out, was good for all three.

These were the things Ella knew about the world, but she was determined –and certain—that one day soon she would know more. Whenever she was reading a book she had checked out from the library there would come a point where she could no longer contain her excitement, and so she would mark her place, put the book aside, and say to herself, “It’s getting really good.” Her life was not yet like the books she loved, but it was going to be like those books. It was going to get really good.  When she told her grandmother this, the old woman would throw her head back and let loose with her crazy blackbird laugh.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Catch And Release: My Photographic Education



















How many words do you think you can run through your head in a day?

It depends on how many words you have in you, am I right?

Images, though, they're something else; they represent a bigger, more universal language. All you need to do is look around and keep your eyes open. Yet I could pretty much guarantee you that there are people all over this country who are all but visually illiterate, people whose visual vocabulary is as impoverished as their command of the English language. They don't really look at anything. Show them a photograph of a nook or cranny in their own house and they wouldn't even recognize it. They've done all sorts of studies and experiments on this phenomenon, of course, asked people to identify their neighbors or co-workers from photographs, or to describe the cars their neighbors drive. You'd be surprised by how many people can't do this, can't even come close.

I once went to an exhibition of Irving Penn's photographs, which I find occasionally astonishing but more often than not overly cool and stylized. At any rate, there were all these beautiful images of very common objects --frozen food, for instance, or a scrap of litter from the street-- and people were lined up gaping at these photos as if they were looking upon something wholly exotic or unfamiliar. Which, of course, they were.

It's what you look at that's important, my father always told me. What you choose to see. He was a photo nut, and he was always pointing stuff out. Do you realize, he'd say, how much compelling drama and pain and boredom and joy goes entirely unseen in this world?

That was the way he talked. Look around you, he'd say. Take in the details. His one great dream had been to be a photographer, but he'd never been able, he felt, to come close to capturing what he thought he saw and what he felt was truly there. One day he dug a hole in the backyard and buried his cameras alongside the graves of our two dogs, which was exactly the sort of thing he'd have loved to see someone else do.

Look, he'd say, calling my attention at a stoplight to a stray hand protruding from the shadows of another car and drumming with long, thin fingers on a bright yellow patch of the driver's-side door. Look, he'd say, isn't that beautiful? That's an Eggleston photo, right there.

I remember a few of his photos, and whether they were successful or not I couldn't say. But I do remember a photo of a fiddle underneath a bed, nestled amid the dusty sprawl of shoes, books, and magazines. There was another of a plump strawberry sitting next to a burning cigarette in an ashtray. These things were what he was looking at, he would say, but not what he was looking for. That was one of his favorite questions: What are you looking for?

People, he said, didn't see the trees for the forest; they couldn't see the beautiful moments all around them, lost in the stream and bustle of life. That was the wonder of photography, of seeing the world concentrated through one lens, one eye closed, the other pressed tight to the camera, focused. Those were the pictures my father remembered, those moments when he'd zeroed  in on something with his camera, or seen something he'd never before realized was there, never mind if it somehow mysteriously vanished in the developing tray or at the photo lab. He knew what he had seen, even if he had not quite captured it.

He used to drag me down to the public library, where he would build big stacks of photography monographs on one of the long white tables upstairs. We would sit there for hours while he slowly turned the shiny pages of those books, pausing over each photo to say, Look, look at that, or, just as frequently, I don't see it. I can't tell what she was looking for.

He liked the periphery, photographers who found things in the margins and shadows. The frame isn't always what or where you think it is, he'd say. Get outside the frame and you get away from the self-consciousness that photography has instilled in so many people. If people think they're being looked at or watched, even if by a camera --or perhaps especially if by a camera-- they become actors, actors hiding in their own skin.

He would open the pages of a book of portrait photography --by August Sander, perhaps, or Mike Disfarmer-- to illustrate his points. You see, he would say, portraits can be fascinating for what they reveal, but also for what they disclose, and on entirely different levels. They work when the subjects have either fierce delusions or no illusions at all; the best and most fascinating portraits of all --and you will notice this often in these works of Sander and Disfarmer-- are of these last types, people who are comfortable in their own skin, or who are not yet truly conscious of the power of the camera. You could look through thousands of contemporary portraits and never stumble across a single such photograph. The camera has made a pet of the average American. Point a camera at someone and they retreat into the dreams and archetypes of childhood; they become mugging clowns or vamping starlets. I love it when people recoil from the camera, my father said. These are the people I give my heart to, the people with the fascinating peripheries.

It's a gift to look away, my father also told me. Few people even know how to look around, but the really special people learn to look away. Think about what I am saying: in any situation --in every situation-- there is always something that commands attention: the focus. The people in power and the people who manipulate desire know this; the mythmakers understand this as well. It is hard to look away from that focus of attention, whether it is a beautiful woman walking down the sidewalk, a movie screen, or the batter in a baseball game. Yet if you can teach yourself to look away you will see all sorts of startling and wholly unfamiliar things; you will see not just reactions and response, but indifference and an infinite variety of furtive behaviors that are absolutely human. You will see things that no one ever looks at or sees closely.

A great photographer, my father said, can find desolation in even the brightest colors, romance in squalor, heartbreak and loneliness amid jubilation, and beauty in even the most ordinary objects--maybe beauty is not even the correct word. Grace, that's perhaps more accurate.

Look at this, he would say, absorbed in a photo of a rack of candy bars or the inside of a freezer. Look how mysterious this world is. Isn't that the message of every one of these photographs: Can you even begin to imagine?

Photography was my father's obsession, but he had plenty of other strange habits. I suppose, really, that you could define him as a constellation of strange habits. Among his many peculiarities was the fact that he never ate anything much beyond  breakfast cereal and cottage cheese. He couldn't keep a job, and would go so far as to admit, It's awfully hard to hold down a job when you don't have a work ethic. It didn't seem to bother him in the least that he bagged groceries or worked as a night clerk at a local motel. He'd claim that he couldn't afford to invest any of his available pride in anything the "real world" would consider a job. His real work was looking at photographs, and finding --but not taking-- photographs in the world around him. Certainly no one was going to pay him to do either of those things in a little river town of fewer than 5,000 people.

Movies, he said, were a poor substitute for photographs, and television was even worse. Yet even when he watched a film my father would be studying the margins and the backgrounds, looking for his own stills, the things no one else would ever notice. I want to stop time, he would say. There’s too much movement in this world, and too many fantasies that are the stuff of nothing but pathetic dreams. I just need the instants, and they tell me everything I need to know about the world we’re living in.

My father hated America, or at least he hated  what America was becoming and what it had allowed itself to become. This was 20 years ago; I can only imagine what he would make of the place now. He seemed to have an almost foreign perspective on America; he saw the country from some great and distorted distance, and condemned as imperialism all laissez faire capitalism. The biggest victims of America's cultural imperialism, he would tell anyone who would listen, were Americans themselves. I can't afford to be an American, he would say. It takes more energy than any civilized human being should ever possess.

Yet for all his contempt of America, my father never went anywhere else. He never even visited New York except in photographs. I think he actually thought of himself as European, or at least he saw the country primarily through the eyes of European  intellectuals, artists, and, especially, photographers. Foreign photographers took the best pictures of America, he said, because they saw things differently. That was another of his pet phrases: I guess I just see things differently, he'd say whenever somebody in our little town bothered to disagree with him, which was less and less often the older he got.

My father certainly didn't have an easy life, and I know his frustrations were compounded  by the fact that he had so little access to the images he craved. He never had any money, and there wasn't even a bookstore in our town, so he was left with the limited resources of the local public library. He always used to say that the only American institution he supported without reservation was the public library. I'm sure my father drove the librarians crazy with his requests for inter-library loans; most of the monographs he was interested in had to be borrowed from the collections of larger libraries. There are an infinite number of things to see in this miserable town, he would say, but they’re still not enough. For the missing things you have to look elsewhere.

The only camera he kept after he gave up on himself as a photographer was a cheap 35-millimeter that he hung onto so that he could make personal photocopies of his favorite images from the collections he pored over in the library. When he was dying he burned even these, and when I expressed my dismay he told me that the photos did not belong to him, and they certainly didn’t belong to me.

The world is the only gallery of photographs that matters, he said. Looking isn’t hard, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look hard all the same and hold on tight to every startling thing that catches your eye.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

One Night, One Fine Day...


One night back in the late autumn I got whacked with a shovel and shoved in the trunk of a beat-to-shit Nova. The tweaker who whacked  me drove me out  into the country and dumped  my body in a corncrib.

It was a cold night, and as I rocked at the edge of consciousness my heart was removed  from my chest by an old and tiny man with strong hands. This little man, who was wearing a miner's helmet, perched on my breastbone and opened  my chest with a rusty saw. There was a stiff wind whipping across the fields, and to keep himself from blowing away, the man --he was from a long line of heart deliverers-- had secured his body to the framework of the corncrib with strands of baling twine. He worked long and diligently, and the procedure was precise but bloody work.

When he had finished he wrapped  my heart in burlap and loaded it into a waiting carriage pulled by two peacocks and driven by a fox wearing a red velvet top hat.

The carriage traveled many miles along dark roads. At some point during its journey snow began to fall, and the snow grew heavier the further the carriage traveled.

Eventually the carriage entered  heavily wooded country, where the sky was suddenly blown free of clouds and a bright moon illuminated  mile after mile of evergreen trees heaped with snow and mottled with shadow.

The fox drove long into the night, all the while singing and whistling quietly to the drowsy and plodding peacocks. In the early hours of the morning they arrived at a lake deep in the woods.

The lake was a vast thing, dark and ceaselessly rolling shattered moonlight ashore. It stretched to the far horizon, and was so black in the distance that the constellations appeared to be complex geometrical diagrams drawn  upon a chalkboard.

Out in the lake some distance was anchored a miniature sailing ship with a scurrying crew of mice. My heart was a very small thing by this time, and it was carefully unloaded from  the carriage, unwrapped, and packed in a nest constructed of pine needles and birch bark. It was taken aboard the ship by a contingent of mice in a rowboat.

While the peacocks drowsed and  pecked tentatively at the snow-covered earth, the fox watched these proceedings from his perch on the carriage. Though he had been trained to not eat the mice, he was distracted by their presence all the same.

Once my heart was safely secured in the ship and the crew  members were back aboard, the captain, a fat old mouse with long whiskers and a jaunty cap, gave the order to set sail. The ship eased out into the darkness of the lake, rocking  in the turbulent waves, its sails providentially bowed by the stiff breeze that carried my heart north at a steady clip.

Two days and two nights the tiny ship sailed.  Just after sunset on the third day the ship came within sight of an island rising out of the lake.

The island was shaped like a large puff pastry, and was dense with sturdy pines, many of which had survived generations in that inhospitable place. Jagged rocks were piled up all around the circumference of the island, and the wind was driving waves against these boulders, creating loud and frequently spectacular explosions of cold water that rose high into the night sky and were scattered like luminous fragments of colored glass.

The Captain gave the order for his crew to drop anchor. My heart was once again loaded into a round tub of a rowboat and lowered into the heaving water. A dozen of the stoutest crew members manned the oars and  wrestled the boat through the waves. My heart, frozen and lacquered with ice, was now a surprisingly heavy and  awkward burden.

A weathered dock jutted almost imperceptibly out into the lake at the bottom of a trail that emerged from the trees. The mice maneuvered  their rowboat into a position alongside this dock.

A trio of young women came down the trail through the woods, their way lit by a swaying lantern. No words were exchanged as my heart was transferred from  the rowboat to a wheelbarrow. As the women began to push the wheelbarrow back up the trail, the little boat was already straining back out into the mist of the lake.

The trail zigzagged through the trees, purposely digressive and worn over centuries at sharp, almost forty-five degree angles designed to ease the steep incline. The growth of old trees obscured the fact that the island jutted out of the lake to such an extent that its exact center was a strenuous climb from anywhere around the island's perimeter. The trees also hid from view a large chalet-style cabin that had been constructed on a stone foundation at the top of the island.

A sort of tribe had occupied this cabin for many generations. They were quiet, purposeful people, small of stature and somehow not entirely human. Though possessed of keen senses, every member of this strange tribe was mute. All of them, everyone that had ever occupied the island, was descended (in a manner of speaking) from a man who had settled there long, long ago, this after having traveled a great distance by boat, accompanied by three giant mastiffs.

This man had fancied himself an alchemist. Once established on the island, however, all of his attempts at alchemy had been failures. Undaunted, and gifted with a prodigious and magical imagination, he had nonetheless succeeded in time in conjuring, out of the raw materials at hand, companions for himself. In the laboratory where he had hoped  to turn base materials into gold he had learned instead to produce breathing beings. And having failed at alchemy in a literal sense, this founder of the island became instead a recycler of human hearts. The generations that followed him learned this delicate craft as well. They were surgeons and they were artisans.

The first heart had arrived on the island in the middle of the 19th century, on a cool June night when the moon was full and the sky was so clear that the moonlight had made of the calm lake's surface a glimmering jewel box. The original heart made its journey alone in a boat.

Perhaps its arrival in that place was purely happenstance, and it is entirely possible that had not the moon been so bright that night, the heart would have drifted right past the island and continued on its solitary journey north. As it was, though, the heart had glowed like a luminous garnet floating far out in the lake, and some of the island's residents had spied the mysterious object and  rowed out to investigate. Puzzled and amazed by their discovery, they had towed the boat ashore and lugged the heart up the trail.

The founder had known immediately that what he was looking at was a human heart, badly damaged if not entirely broken. Without hesitation he had determined that they would repair this heart, and after much  trial and error he and his assistants succeeded  in restoring it to perfect working condition.

Having mastered the most difficult task of all, they were faced with the question of what to do with the heart. For a time they kept it in a jar in their laboratory, where it pumped and gurgled and provided continual astonishment. The old alchemist was troubled by its presence, though; he felt certain that the result of their hard work was destined to find its way south, back to the human  world, where he knew good hearts were always in great demand.

Eventually, as is so often the case, birds provided the solution. A charm of finches, which often spent summers on the island, had established a sort of telepathic communication with some of the mute residents, and when the finches flew south in advance of the first snow they carried with them the story of the repaired human heart. In the land  beyond the lake the word traveled through all the animals of the forest, and finally was passed along to an ancient Guild of heart deliverymen. Though the members of this Guild hated the designation, they were, at least technically speaking, fairies.

The Potentate of the Guild of Heart Deliverers worked closely with a network of animals and angels (this sort of thing, of course, is always difficult to understand and explain), and  had been providing heart transplants centuries before human medical science had ever dreamt of such a thing. Before connecting with the island laboratory, however, the guild had always had to work with whatever raw materials (often damaged) they could get their hands on, even as they were diligent in attempting, as often as possible, to replace bad  hearts with hearts possessed of genuine goodness.

Once a relationship --however unusual, mysterious, and informal-- was established  between the Guild of Heart Deliverers and the old alchemist, hearts began to arrive at the island on a regular, if unpredictable, basis. Some were transported by geese; others, like my own, were ferried by boat.

These days each of the hearts is boiled in a mixture of fish oil, cedar berries, and quicksilver, jostled for days in a contraption  that resembles a giant rock tumbler, and then outfitted with all new plumbing.

Twice a year --once in the early spring and again in the late autumn  (usually as a harbinger of the first snows)-- a flock of sub-angels arrives at the island. These creatures are grimy and ungainly, seemingly part geese, part human. They are, though, celestial beings, but crippled, still tormented by mortal dreams and aspirations, and as the lowest order of angels they are assigned a majority of the grunt work.

The repaired hearts are fed to these angels, who fly them back south and implant them in the chests of their intended recipients as they sleep.

The ragged angels will be making their semi-annual trek to the island in a few weeks. I'm holding out hope that I'll be one of the truly rare and lucky recipients and will get my own heart back. Only bigger, I hope, and better.