Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Landfill At The Bottom Of The Day

One more day slowly tumbles the last twenty yards down the hill into the darkness, and I have no choice but to turn away and let most of it go.

What a wondrous, depressing scrap heap must lie down there at the bottom of time's hill, a bottomless bottom full of wrecked hearts, exhausted marvels and miracles, wishes, busted dreams, goodbyes, regrets, forgotten thoughts, good intentions, memories of first meetings, wasted fairy dust, failed attempts, triumphs and all manner of disasters great and small; cribs, coffins, lost love, training wheels, castoff fashions and fads, dismembered dolls, yearbooks; shit that no longer worked or was no longer needed or that just hurt too damn much to keep around.

And under and mixed in among it all --if you were willing to dig long and deep enough-- you'd surely find entire civilizations and layer upon layer of the sort of prosaic trash and nothingness and empty, wasted hours that we all just allow to roll off and away from us at the bottom of every day. All of it gone, gone for good (whatever that could ever possibly mean).

Your first smile, first giggle, first rock t-shirt, first kiss; every forgotten memory, a million stories received from family, friends, and strangers; every bright morning and long night, every moment of ecstatic, extinct passion, all your faded dreams: They're all there now.

Your beloved old moon globe is down there somewhere as well, along with the first John Denver record you bought at Sterling Drug, and the Schwinn stingray with the sparkly green banana seat and gleaming sissy bar that you pedaled to Sterling Drug to buy your first John Denver record. The ruins of at least a half dozen of your old forts are there, and the Alvin and the Chipmunks coloring book that was once one of your most treasured possessions.

Things and memories and moments, though, not the people who are gone, not the precious people who've moved on in a different direction, into a darkness that is someplace beyond but not below. People, you need to believe, don't just roll down the hill at the bottom of the day and disappear into that landfill of everything gone.

To think of all your own contributions to the scrap heap at the bottom of the day is almost more than you can bear.

In many ways this bottomless landfill is a collapsed Tower of Babel, an immense, sprawling repository of discards from mankind's collective library of experiences, desires, and wasted time and money.

No living person who ever hopes to truly return can visit there, of course, but it is nonetheless often rumored that at least some of the most abject human specimens --living, if barely-- have made that long journey, and spend their days in darkness, roving over the mountains of the past, searching with sticks and improvised or broken rakes or shovels for some reminder of the happier people they had once been. A resonant scrap from even a single wasted, otherwise wholly forgotten day must surely be precious to these scavengers in that dark place. And how much more precious must be the rare discovery of personal photograph, a familiar toy, or a love letter written in one's own hand.

It's a landfill lottery, obviously, with very long odds, but it's what keep these wretches going.

There must be millions upon millions of love letters down there, written in every language ever uttered on earth, and I like to imagine that while the scavengers are stumbling through the piles of sad detritus they are startled time and again by the sounds of laughter and happy, disembodied voices rising up from air pockets in the rubble, sometimes from someplace that seems tauntingly close, sometimes from far below, but always sounding eerily like vaguely familiar voices carrying from a front porch in a long ago August twilight, the voices of mothers summoning their children to a home that no longer exists, voices and laughter from a dock on a dark lake. All manner of lovely voices moving on the wind of any number of perfect summer nights, in places far flung yet always far, far away and long gone.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Land of Dreams

After Mike's second DWI, when he came out of treatment, he and Linda decided he should quit his job at the railroad, take early retirement if they'd give it to him, and the two of them would open their own business in a nice little neighborhood shopping hub.

It was Linda's dream, and Mike figured it was long past time for a change.

They called the place "That Special Occasion," sold balloons, cards, candy, small, mostly corny, gifts.

It hadn't gone well from the start. There were so many things they hadn't really thought about, thought through, and there was the competition from the big one-stop outfits and shopping malls and the internet. Linda didn't want to hire anyone --didn't think they could afford it-- so for at least the short term it was just the two of them.

For the first few months absolutely nothing happened. There was plenty of foot traffic in the neighborhood, but day after day they sat there playing cards and monkeying around with displays. The Yellow Pages advertisement would make all the difference in the world, Linda insisted.

It didn't. After only nine months they were already having problems with creditors. Mike started drinking again, on the sly. When Linda caught him he said he was bored. The location was lousy. They should have considered that. They were practically hidden in the middle of a block, and customers had to drive down an alley to find their parking lot off the back of the building.

Shortly before the first anniversary of their opening they were sitting on folding chairs just outside the back door. It was almost 4:30 on a beautiful summer afternoon and they hadn't had a single customer all day. They were both smoking; Linda had quit for three years, but had recently taken it up again. Mike got up from his chair and started pacing.

After they'd sat there in silence for what seemed like ten minutes, Linda looked up at her husband and said, "We're not gonna make it, are we?"

And Mike, looking off across the empty parking lot, said, "It sure doesn't look like it."

And then everything just fell apart, and two years later he was living with his brother out in Lakeville and she hadn't seen him in over three months.

Linda was working third shift as a motel clerk, and one night she was sitting there at the front desk in the dark hours, listening to the radio, a talk program, and all of a sudden there was Mike's voice.

Every time you drive or walk or ride your bicycle down some street, he was saying, you should make a point to look around and notice all the little businesses that are just about everywhere you look.

He said, Every one of them businesses is somebody's dream. That's somebody's whole life right there. People trying so hard to make something work, something maybe they've always wanted for themselves. Mostly just average folks, I'm talking about, not some big corporation. I wish sometimes people would think about that sort of thing when they go out to spend their money, think about all them people trying to make a go of it, some of them with their whole lives on the line.

There was a pause. The host was momentarily silent, and then Mike said, That's just what I wish, I guess. Something like that. That's all I really have to say.

The man on the radio thanked him, and Mike was gone.

Linda sat there in the quiet lobby of that motel and she cried quietly. She laughed, too. She was so damned proud of him, because that was just not a thing she would ever in the world expect Mike to do, to call on the radio like that.

She turned off the radio and sat there for awhile. And then, like so many other nights, she just felt sad and lonely and started intently watching the dark for the first signs that another morning was, in fact, coming for her.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

How Exactly Do You Mean?

Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes
Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose of Peter Altenberg
The End of the World, edited by Lewis Lapham.

Listening to:
Eric Dolphy
Sunny Murray
Gil Scott-Heron
Radney Foster

Looking at:
Charlotte Dumas, Paradis
Peter De Ru, Sven
Krazy and Ignatz, George Herriman

Occasionally, I guess, I'll do the sort of thing I've just done above, purely for the hell of it, and because I'm often curious about what sorts of things other people are reading, listening to, and looking at. I'm thinking there's probably some way I could tuck that information away somewhere in the right margin, but I haven't yet made up my mind whether it's a good idea or not, so I'll wait a bit before I start monkeying around any more.

Honest to God, to be honest with you I honestly don't know about any of this business, which, excepting this brief bit of honesty, seems inherently dishonest.

Friday afternoon I sat across a desk from a man in a suit and tie (it's been a long time since I've done such a thing). I listened as the man told me that "social networking is a real career builder right now."

He seemed completely serious. He elaborated: "With some of these sites you can accomplish more with a few minutes at your keyboard than you could with a week's worth of expense-account lunches with well-connected people."

"What sorts of things could you accomplish?" I asked him. "In either scenario, really, but I guess I'm most curious about the first."

He held up his palms and raised his eyebrows, a gesture that might mean many things but that in this instance I took to mean 'use your imagination,' or 'the sky's the limit.'

"It's a great way to get your name out there and communicate who you are and what you're looking for," he said (this, I gathered, after he surmised that I was a bit confused regarding the meaning of the palms/eyebrow gesture).

"I like to think I've had my name out there," I said.

"You need to make your name" --here he hesitated, apparently searching for just the right word-- "resonate."

"How exactly do you mean?" I asked.

"You want people to remember you," he said, "to be intrigued enough that they'll bookmark you." It seemed to me that he inserted quote marks around the word 'bookmark,' although he didn't, as I might have expected, actually use his fingers to indicate as much. It did, though, strike me that he was exactly the sort of fellow who would resort to such a gesture with some frequency.

"I guess I meant that question in a more literal sense," I said. "You know, a more general 'you,' a more general 'mean.'"

The man shook his head, or rather nodded quickly two or three times and then, as if his actual head were correcting the thoughts (or confusion) it was trying to process, shook it vigorously.

Yes, yes, yes....No, no, no.

As I was leaving his office I sensed that, whatever question I might have had going in, the answer was a decisive no, no, no.

I've learned to take no for an answer.

Or am learning.

Will, I gather, learn.

On my way home I stopped at a SuperAmerica where I am an embarrassingly regular customer. The clerk, a Somali woman with whom I have chatted on a number of occasions, asked me if I was a farmer.

The question startled me, I'll admit. "I'm in here almost every day," I said, and stepped away from the counter so she could --or so I hoped-- more clearly study my appearance. "Do I look like a farmer?"

"Your hands," she said, "and...." Here she did this hunching thing where she rolled her shoulders up and pulled her chin down towards her chest at the same time as she raised her arms in what resembled a combative position. "You see?"

I had no idea what any of these gestures meant. I clearly did not see. And perhaps my reaction struck her as indignant or offended.

If so, she merely shrugged and smiled.

"A farmer," she said, "is a very good thing to be. Better than the office man."

Which was an answer that somehow redeemed a week's worth of lousy days.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Where I'm from, way up near the Canadian border in New York, there are all these old towns --hamlets and villages, they tend to call themselves, nothing if not insecure-- where a two-lane highway rips right through the guts of the place, obliterates the possibility of sidewalks or even front yards, so that you've got neighborhoods [sic] huddled right there on the lip of the asphalt, trucks rumbling by all night long.

You can always find a fucking statue or two in such towns, or at least historical markers overgrown with weeds and blistered green, indicating that something of modest interest happened here once upon a time, before history consigned the place to it sub-contractors in the moldering business. Generally at some point the people of these towns would have carved out a bit of space for a pathetic excuse for a town square, usually just a handful of benches facing a gazebo that's peeling, falling apart, and scrawled over with every sort of profane inspiration the local kids can muster in their terminal boredom and chemically-induced stupor.

I realize that it's a stereotype or at least a gross generalization, but people up here tend to be hardwired with the lawn statuary gene, one of the truly inexplicable mutant genes. My own little town, for example, population 214: on my daily walk with the dog I'll encounter at least a dozen different displays of concrete deer, usually a pair, but sometimes a forlorn, faded solitary. Why? Why the fuck does anybody put a concrete deer in their front yard? What is it supposed to signify? Is it supposed to be some kind of deterrent? All I think when I see these deer --not to mention the trolls, collies with impeccable posture, and hayseed children hunched with fishing poles next to plastic pools empty or filled with sludge-- is that they must be a bitch to mow around. You'd pretty much need a Weed Whacker.

You also tend to see a lot of flags up here --interesting how the basest, laziest sort of patriotism seems to thrive in the places that are most invisible to the people in power-- and all manner of signs, generally protesting one thing or another. My fellow citizens, I long ago noticed, are pretty much against everything other than meat, procreation, firearms, and motorized vehicles.

I also think, of course, "Jesus H. Christ, what the hell am I still doing here?"

So much about my life doesn't make sense to me, yet I've never been able to make my escape. I don't have the slightest idea what the hell else is out there, beyond the horseshit I see on the television. I guess I stuck around because my older brother and sister left, or fled, at the first opportunity and I felt like I owed it to my father to keep him company after my mom died.

I took care of the local graveyard for almost eight years, until the damn thing somehow caught fire and I got the blame. There were gravestones in there that got damaged that were more than 200 years old. Right before the fire some hopped-up local kid had driven his ATV into a stone angel and got his brains bashed in, and I still believe some of his tweaker buddies set the fire as some sort of revenge.

There's not much else to do up here in terms of work, but one of the few virtues of the place is that you can live on almost nothing. Our family home was paid off in the last century, and my old man does little fix-it jobs here and there, and gets a military pension and other government money for having gutted it out so long, so we get by well enough to afford the satellite dish, which is all that really seems to matter.

Five or so years ago the last library in the county went out of business and I went over there to the sale and bought up boxes of books. I'll read pretty much anything, and that, folks around here would have you believe, is what gives me all my crazy ideas. I'm pretty sure people would tell you that I've been the odd man out all my life. Not so much a troublemaker as a guy who just doesn't know how to play along. It's hard to play along when you don't have the slightest idea what the game is you're playing and lack even a basic understanding of the rules.

My father, who smokes and drinks too much, is the kind of homespun character this part of the country seems to specialize in. I live in a veritable Jerkwater Academy for stoic bullshit artists, or at least drunks with the gift of regularly spouting pronouncements that somehow sound both inscrutable and profound. Some of these old boys --men who spend their days up to their knees in mud or their elbows in motor oil, men who were damn near deaf from the roar of machinery-- could still drop quotes from Emerson or the Bible into one of their rambling monologues.

"There ain't no rulebook, numbnuts," my father has said to me. "There are just days, and the things a man has to do to drag his sorry ass through those days. Once you get used to the smell of shit, it's all uphill from there." Other times he would contend that once you got used to the smell of shit it was all downhill from there. I guess it depended on his mood and how much he'd had to drink. At any rate, I couldn't see a difference either way.

We actually get along just fine, and he's clearly grateful that I haven't strayed. I love him, I've concluded, and that seems like a decent enough reason to stay.

"Boy," he'll say. "You need to learn to consider it a decent day if the weather don't bedevil you but a little bit and nobody tries to tear you a new asshole. And always count on some weird shit to come along and make things interesting for a time."

I thought of those words a couple weeks ago when this Indian motel owner from a couple towns over stopped by to purchase a used chainsaw my father had advertised in the local rag.

"Now what the hell is it you think you're going to do with this damn thing?" my father asked.

"I wish to learn to use it," the motel owner said.

My father laughed about that for days, and then, out of the blue (he'd clearly been mulling the incident over), he concluded that the man was somehow in possession of some essential wisdom, perhaps even the secret of life. He came into my room one night and asked, "So what sort of a book would a guy like that read to come up with his ideas?" I fished around and found a paperback copy of the Bhagavad Gita (just a guess on my part) that I gave to him, and he sat out in the living room plowing through it and muttering to himself for several nights afterwards.

Then, this morning as we sat at the kitchen table eating cereal and listening to the crackpot local radio station, my father said, "You know, that fella don't have a single tree on his property. I'm curious as hell about what he might be up to. I think I might drive over there this afternoon and see if he wants to have a cup of coffee."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Some Things I Say To My Dog

I ran into the neighbor gal coming in the back door the other day and she mentioned that she could sometimes hear me talking to my dog. I'm fully aware that I spend a good deal of time conversing with my dog, but I was nonetheless taken aback.

My neighbor lives above me, and I seldom hear anything from up there but footsteps and the occasional unintelligible conversations.

"How do you know I'm talking to my dog?" I asked.

"Because I can hear you clearly when either I'm in the basement or you're in your kitchen or in the room off the backyard, directly beneath my bedroom," she said. "It's cute."

I sensed, lurking behind the smirk with which she delivered that last business, some mockery.

I make no bones about it. I am a loner. And though I do talk to my dog, it is now such an unconscious habit that I am not entirely sure what sorts of things I say to him. Much of it, I feel sure, must sound to an eavesdropper like complete nonsense. The habit is so ingrained, however, that it is now virtually impossible for me to become self conscious about it.

I was curious, though, so I determined to spend one entire day and evening recording every single thing I said to my dog (a day and an evening, by the way, which was pretty much typical in that the only words that left my mouth were directed to my dog). I didn't bother recording the actual monologues, which are frequent and can go on for quite some time. What follows, then, is a random collection of some examples of these one-sided conversations:

  • It's much too early for this fiendishness. Ad usum: caffeine for me, a ration of brown chunks for you, and then a few hours of quiet time.
  • I'll tell you one thing for sure, if I don't delete those goddamn Christmas songs from my iPod I'm going to snap. How the hell is it that out of 8000 songs, the Canterbury Bells version of "Joy to the World" has now shuffled through on three straight days?
  • Look at this filth and tell me what manner of man I have become.
  • Bring that ape over here and I'll spit some soup on his ass.
  • Hear that? That's an aeroplane. I don't imagine you'll ever have occasion to ride in one of the contraptions.
  • I sometimes wonder if it would improve the quality of your life if I turned on the television now and again. Perhaps tonight we'll watch the awards program.
  • You wanna go for a drive and get some Dr. Pepper?
  • I'm fixin' to fire up the hi-fi. Any requests?
  • Always hold your head up high when we're struttin' out there in the world. We ain't the slickest fielding shortstops in the American League, but we don't have a damn thing to be ashamed of.
  • If I were to read to you from this miserable book, and if you had the sense I credit you with, I do believe I'd pardon you for taking a snap at me.
  • I don't suppose you'd recognize that the continued presence of that Christmas tree has gone well beyond a nostalgic eccentricity and now represents a bright red flag for some sort of serious mental illness.
  • I'll remind you, in the event of an intrusion I'm depending on you to help me fend off the intruders.
  • The old man needs a new pair of slippers. No two ways about it. These are some seriously sorry sons of bitches.
  • I reckon you've got some hare-brained notions about what life's all about, and I've got no one to blame for that but myself.
  • Seems to me it's about time we rustled up some grub. How's that idea sit with you?
  • I wonder if it would be possible to breed fireflies indoors all year long and have them hovering around in the bedroom at night.
  • It's cold as a motherfucker, so don't be getting up in my grill about heading back out there again any time soon.
  • Come over here and let me put you in a grip.
  • I'll be honest with you, that sheep gets on my nerves. Why don't you go fetch Miss New Moo and we'll engage in some roughhousing with her?
  • There are a number of things about this current situation that would likely strike the impartial observer as highly unorthodox.
  • Listen to that sloppy-ass drumming and tell me this isn't the work of a bunch of uppity morons.
  • Hey, guide dog: tell me again that everything will be all right.
  • I offer you this Buddy Biscuit as a symbol of friendship, fellowship, kinship, buddyship, and spiritship. Additionally, the fact that this particular Buddy is missing one leg makes it an appropriate metaphor, for without you I would be like a one-legged man crutching along the icy sidewalks and streets, and I would surely bust my head open and freeze to death.
  • What's the best smell in the whole wide world? You better say me, or you'll go without your evening rations.
  • This Jung book is chock full of crazy shit.
  • Would it be an imposition if I subjected you to another viewing of "Dog Day Afternoon"? I'll remind you that it has absolutely nothing to do with dogs. But it does make me wonder: were we to remake it together, which of us would be Sonny, and which Sal?
  • Do you remember the time I took you to church? You were such a good boy. Fact is, you've been nothing but a good boy. I can't tell you that often enough.
  • Thank your lucky stars you don't have to waste any brain cells thinking about such insufferable peckers as Wolf Blitzer.
  • Are you aware that we live almost entirely surrounded by doulas? That's Kingfield for you.
  • Fuck this noise.
  • It pleases me that you seem to share my preference for sturdy dogs.
  • I am reading the book you gave me for Christmas. Would you like to smell it?
  • Do you miss the woods as much as I do?
  • Perhaps we should take some time to address this creeping disorder.
  • We really need something to break for us here, fella, or I'm gonna have a tough time keeping you in kibble.
  • I'll be damned, all this time I was laboring under the misconception that Taylor Swift was a man.
  • Climb up here on the couch and tuckle with me.
  • I do believe, mister, that you are a jazz fan.
  • Do you have any idea how utterly lost I'd be without you? And how grateful I am every single day that I sprung you from that jailhouse?
  • Look at this map. In two years you've already rambled over more of this country than most Americans will in their lifetimes. Sit down here and we'll count the states....Twenty-nine states and two Canadian Provinces. How 'bout them apples?
  • Come here, my beautiful boy, and let me tell you a story.
  • I wish you'd met my dad. He'd surely get a kick out of you.
  • Don't let me go.
  • You'll be with me as long as I breathe.