Tuesday, April 27, 2010

And Fire

The times are always strange, if you're paying
attention, if you read the small stories buried in the
back of the newspaper, if you read the newspaper at all,
if you watch the news, if you look out your window, if
you keep your ears open, if you can avert your eyes
from the mirror ball that orbits ceaselessly in your skull,
if you can pull your head out of your ass for five minutes,
if you're tuned in enough to strangeness and the bottomless
shared well of otherness that when a woman you've
never seen before turns to you at the street corner and
says, wide-eyed and in no apparent context, "I thought
there would be a lot more smoke," you nod your head,
not simply out of polite, sympathetic habit or discomfort,
but because you understand exactly what she means.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I Don't Know Why I Do It, But I Do

That's a poor photographic souvenir from my time spent playing softball with Ronnie Goddamn's ragged beer league club in Orlando. It'll have to serve, though, and every one of the grainy, out-of-focus snapshots I retain from those few months seem at the very least metaphorically apt.

As you can see, Ronnie Goddamn's softball team often eschewed shirts, caps, and even footwear. Most of the guys had long hair, and a bong would usually be stashed in with the gear (such as it was). Some of the guys would use truncated wooden bats that their (mostly) illegitimate children had received as bat day giveaways at Tinker Field, at the time the spring training headquarters of the Minnesota Twins, and home as well to the Orlando Twins, the big league team's Southern League affiliate (I was, I suppose I should mention, then working as a groundskeeper at that same complex).

Ronnie's team was called Cheap Smokes, and it played in what passed for a fairly legitimate league in Orlando in the mid-eighties. Many of the other teams wore actual uniforms, which I found as ridiculous as the decidedly informal get-ups favored by Cheap Smokes.

I wasn't a particularly good fit on the team, but I could hit a little bit, and run down balls in center field, and Ronnie lived in the basement of the shabby side-by-side duplex I was renting on Mariposa Avenue right in the middle of Orlando, and, after seeing I had a decent mitt, he'd badgered me into joining.

Obviously, Ronnie Goddamn wasn't the man's real name, but that's all I ever heard anyone call him. I didn't know anybody in Orlando in those days, and though Ronnie often kept me up all night blasting Deep Purple at maximum volume and hitting beer bottles off a tee with a Lance Parrish model Louisville Slugger down there in the basement, I did sort of get a kick out of him.

When I'd first encountered Ronnie he was out in the front yard, and had removed a wheel from the Impala that was up on blocks in the carport. This wheel he had filled with charcoal, and he was barbecuing chicken in a metal gym basket he'd stolen from the YMCA. He'd filled the basket with chicken, poured over it a bottle of some store brand barbecue sauce, and set the whole thing down in the coals to cook. Every once in awhile he'd shake the basket or move the chicken around with a rusty garden trowel. I thought this was pretty ingenious, even as I passed on an offer to partake of the chicken.

I think Ronnie Goddamn won me over that day with his clear-eyed tale of woe. He was sporting a nasty shiner and a split lip, and he told me without a trace of self-pity or rancor that his wife's old man --who was "seventy-three fucking years old"-- had "kicked the living shit" out of him for violating a restraining order.

"Seventy-three year old and still kicking ass," Ronnie said (with obvious admiration, I might add). "Imagine that."

At any rate, every Thursday night I'd come home from work and drive Ronnie (who had a suspended license) to the Cheap Smokes games. We generally lost, but, given the overt hostility of almost every opposing team (They'd yell stuff like, "Hey, Sweet Home Alabama, I thought you dickweeds all got killed in a plane crash"), and frequent gratuitously rough collisions at home plate, it seemed to me that the majority of our losses counted as moral victories.

To be perfectly honest with you, I had no idea what I was doing in Orlando. I was crazy about baseball, tired of Midwest winters, and one day I had just packed a couple bags and hopped on a Greyhound for Orlando, hoping to find work and take in Spring Training baseball, which was still six weeks away. One of the first ads I saw in the newspaper was for a groundskeeper at Tinker Field, and right away I rode my bike out there and filled out an application. That was the only time in my life I've lied on a job application, but this seemed like such a stroke of fate that I was determined to get the job, and certain I would get it.

Which I did, of course. And since I was the low man in the pecking order I spent most of my time dragging the practice infields, mowing the grass, and keeping the bullpen tidy and the mound in good shape. It was pretty easy work, and I got to stand around a lot and watch baseball in the sun.

When I wasn't at the ballpark or playing softball, I'd sit out on the patio of my duplex, drinking quarts of beer from the 7-11 up the block and becoming daily more infatuated with my next door neighbor, a lanky, impossibly toned, six-foot-tall blond woman named Sundra Nillsen. Sundra had a high jump pit set up in our backyard, very professional looking, and she seemed to spend hours every day launching herself over the bar. I was no expert, and she seldom deigned to speak to me in the initial stages of our acquaintance, but it seemed to me she was jumping higher every week, and rare were the times when I saw the bar wobble, let alone fall.

Sometimes when I was feeling a bit stalkerish I would retire to my bedroom, which had a window facing the backyard, and I would sit on the edge of my bed watching her, in her tank top, nylon shorts, and track shoes, sail upside down through the falling darkness. Because of the way my window was positioned in relation to my bed I could only see her airborne body rising and falling, again and again, but this was somehow all the more thrilling.

This, as I mentioned, was the eighties, and --outside of certain subcultures (The Cheap Smokes roster being one such, although I'm not sure that, in and of itself, the team represented a subculture)-- you seldom saw elaborately tattooed people, particularly beautiful, athletic women. Sundra, however, had a number of distinctive and exotic tattoos. For a number of weeks this fact drove me nuts, as, given my reserve and halfhearted attempts at maintaining respectful distance, I couldn't ascertain what they represented.

For quite some time I couldn't even get Sundra to make eye contact with me, let alone engage in a conversation. Eventually, however, she warmed to me, although I have no idea why. For a few weeks we had exchanged what can only be called very small talk, and then one day, when I was out in the yard trying to teach myself how to juggle baseballs, she came out and handed me a piece of paper on which were typed some words.

"Be honest and tell me what you think of that," she said. "It's a personal ad."

I read the text: "Looking for someone to help me explore my wild side. Musicians, artists, or poets welcome. Money not an issue. No commitments. Long hair and tattoos a plus."

I'll admit that I was a bit taken aback by this unexpected intimacy, and I suppose that I blushed.

"Ronnie Goddamn's probably got some friends he could hook you up with," I said.

"Don't be a smart ass," she said. "I don't want any dumb shits."

I shrugged. "Who knows?" I said. "I'm not sure you're going to find many poets or artists in Orlando, but --what the hell-- send it up the flag pole and see if anybody salutes it."

"What's that supposed to mean?" she said.

"It's a joke, sort of," I said. "I think it's a quote from Lemmy of Motorhead. What I meant was, give it a try."

"Thanks," she said, took the paper from me, and disappeared back into her apartment.

A couple weeks later I ran into Sundra when I was coming home and she was sitting on the porch in her high-jumping outfit. She told me she'd had a traumatic weekend.

"How so?" I asked.

"I was arrested over at Lake Eola," she said.

"Arrested for what?"

"Fucking," she said.

"Wow," I think I said, or something equally inept. "That's a bummer."

"A slap on the wrist," she said, "but it's embarrassing. I keep looking in the Sentinel to see if it will actually qualify as news."

"I doubt it," I said, although I really had no idea.

Since Sundra seemed beleaguered, and to have let down her guard, I took the opportunity to ask about her tattoos.

She stood up without hesitation, turned around, and pulled up her shirt a bit to reveal an elaborate and colorful map stretched across the small of her back just above her waistband.

"That's Greenland," she said. "Never been there, but it's a place I dream about."

Next she pulled her shirt all the way up in the back to display a sentence etched between her shoulder blades in what looked like German.

"It's Rilke," she said.

"What does it say?" I asked.

"'All you undisturbed cities, haven't you ever longed for the enemy?'"

I had no idea what to make of that, but by this time she was raising her left arm and running her finger along black braids of musical notes that ran from just above her elbow to the furthest valley of her bicep.

"And that?" I asked.

"It's a partial transcription of Bill Evans' 'Waltz for Debbie,'" she said. I indicated that I was unfamiliar with the piece (or, for that matter, the musician).

"Find it," she said. "You'll like it, and I think you'll discover that women dig it."

"Not to change the subject," I said, "but how high can you jump?"

"High," she said. "But not yet high enough."

Spring Training had wrapped up by this time, and the Twins had gone back north. The AA club took over Tinker Field and began preparing in earnest for its season, while on the other adjacent diamonds the rookie league and instructional league players had assembled for long days of ridiculously repetitive drills and conditioning. This also made for very long days for me, and I would often leave the apartment at dawn and get home after dark.

Then one day in the middle of April, Ronnie Goddamn was arrested for aggravated battery, possession of marijuana with intent to sell, driving with a suspended license while intoxicated, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assault on an officer. I read about this in the Orlando Sentinel a couple days before some of the Cheap Smokes guys came by with a truck to get Ronnie's stuff. Word was, they said, Ronnie was going to go away for a stretch this time.

Two days later I came home and found a typewritten note from Sundra on my front door. "Off to Europe to jump," she'd typed. "It was good to find a nice guy in such a shithole. You should go back to wherever you belong and write poetry and find a girl to sleep with. Use a condom, and try not to become just another dumbass."

With two of three units empty, my landlord decided to take the opportunity to remodel the building into a single-family dwelling and put it on the market, and he gave me a thirty-day notice.

Which was fine, really. I'd had my numb adventure, was developing a drinking problem, and despised Orlando. I announced I was leaving at work, had a debauched going-away party at Church Street Station, and the morning of my eviction was headed back north in a 1973 Toyota Celica I'd bought for a thousand bucks from one of the Cheap Smokes guys.

Many years later I was in Chicago on business and was channel surfing late at night in my hotel room when I stumbled across the broadcast of an international indoor track meet somewhere in (I think) Asia. And there was Sundra, still jumping, her blond hair grown longer and pulled back in a flopping ponytail. I watched her clear six feet-four inches with just a wobble of the bar. They showed this jump again in slow motion, and for those few breathtaking moments I was allowed to actually watch her sail through the air in exactly the way --her head thrown back almost ecstatically and her body an elegant, suspended wave-- and at the exact same hypnotic speed as she had done countless times in my dreams. And then the fuckers cut away to a hurdles race, and then the shot put, and the pole vault, and a bunch of other bullshit, and though I turned off the lights, took off all my clothes, and sat up until I could no longer hold my eyes open, I never saw her jump again.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Never Not To Say

"Now what kind of sentence is 'Nothing in the world'?" (Wittgenstein)
"Thus we expunge the sentences that don't get us any further." (Same guy)
"A doubt without an end is not even a doubt." (Again, same guy)

Seriously, some nights Wittgenstein is even funnier than Beckett or Flann O'Brien.

Tonight I spent watching baseball and looking through war photographs. A strange experience on any number of levels. I would be trying to look hard into a photograph by, say, Larry Burrows, some unimaginable horror from Vietnam, and Jim Thome would hit a homerun, or Gil Meche would walk another batter, and I kept looking up from the world of suffering contained in the photograph to see what was going on in the game. Or, even worse, I would be distracted for some moments by the chatter of the television announcers or by the inane challenge of a trivia question that had appeared on the screen.

I eventually muted the TV and managed to lock in on the photographs.

And looking through (literally, in most cases) those photos, my thoughts were a stream of heartbreaking speculation that went something like this: Imagine that is your life. Everything you know is burning and you are walking away with a battered suitcase in your hands. It might not even be a suitcase; it could just be a box. Or you are standing in a dirty river up to your neck clutching something tiny and still breathing in your arms, raising it, in fact, like an offering, and it is raining and growing darker. A boat passes slowly in the murk, carrying a pile of gray bundles that only yesterday might have been sitting around a benign fire playing cards and maybe even laughing. Or: you are a dazed young man on your belly in the mud, surrounded by other young men who appear to be dead or so exhausted they might as well be dead. There is yet more smoke in the distance, and a helicopter is hovering above you, from which a body is dangling from a rope. The posture of this body, the way in which it is folded almost exactly into two halves, is not encouraging.

Nothing, in fact, about the photographs was encouraging, and I was unable to see them as history, let alone ancient history or something anyone has survived, or could survive. I was also bothered by their silence, by the absence of what I felt certain was a ferocious soundtrack, as well as by the cropping involved, a cropping that seemed to excise the panoramic violence and suffering of which the images I was looking at were but one small, harrowing detail.

I was struck, finally, by my utter inability to imagine any of the scenarios I've described, and felt like a schmuck for closing the book and concluding nothing more than that what I had been looking at was simply --or not so simply-- the world as it then was, as it still is, and as it ever will be, which is not something (at least constitutionally) I want to believe.

As is generally my habit, as I was looking at these photographs I was taking notes, but this process is still a mystery to me, because it seems to tap into a different stream in my brain, and often as not these "notes" end up having no relation that I can understand to the material supposedly under consideration.

After I close whatever book I'm looking at or reading I am almost always struck by the ridiculousness of the things I've written. What follows are the notes I scribbled while I was simultaneously looking at those photos, occasionally turning my attention to the baseball game on TV, and entertaining the above thoughts and speculations (none of which appeared on the pile on index cards in my lap):

A city is not a dog. A dog is not a shopping mall. A shopping mall is not a flag. A flag is not a caterpillar. But why the hell not?
Earnest goes to camp.
I can't make sense of these operating instructions.

I thought I was eavesdropping on someone at dinner, and it turned out to be my dining companion.
A fellow can get lost in the old words and never find his way out.
How much confusion can exist in one room, in one house, in one family? Turn that confusion out-of-doors, let it run up against other people, against walls and barricades, real and imagined, literal and metaphorical; let it tell stories whose points elude me, jokes whose meanings are lost or misunderstood; have it toss in references to television and film and cheap popular culture and I find myself drowning in even the most casual conversation. Perhaps a casual conversation is no longer possible. Means, even, who knows what that means? All the millions upon millions of agreements and auto-pilot incidents of shared comprehension, and yet still some of us are left out of the loop, and increasingly so. What is Bedlam? What do we agree that means? Could we somehow reach an agreement --if only among ourselves-- that it means this?

It's all nonsense, it seems, all that wasted, mysterious ink, which so often feels like it was spilled by a stoned 15-year-old. Still, there's no stopping it now, the endless staggering of the tongue upon its torturous treadmill, the idiot, freelance rambles of the pen, looking for something to say, even if the spastic pursuit increasingly resembles the way a dog goes looking for a whiff of a phantom squirrel.

Take away the dog's miraculous nose, and I think you've got a reasonably accurate picture of how I spend my nights.

I'm just happy these days if something in all this cross-wired cogitation [sic, I suppose] eventually sends me down some dark little dead-end spur that recalls to me (for reasons I couldn't begin to understand or trace) an Undertones or Webb Pierce album that I haven't heard in years, and I put aside whatever I'm doing, manage to dig out the desired record from somewhere (a minor miracle, this), and put it on the turntable.

Because I long ago discovered that only music can mostly make the words go away.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

When The Rock Starts Rolling, It's Going To Roll Until It Stops, Even If It Has To Roll In The Second Person

Some days you go, Wait, what the hell is going on? And no answer is forthcoming, so you just try to keep things from sitting still for too long. You walk back and forth in your apartment, until eventually you are once again at the windows, looking out at the darkness, or what passes for darkness in an inner-city neighborhood. You put another record on the turntable and, though hoping for a full-on shimmy, settle for the lethargic sway of a bored housewife stoned on Valium and listening to some old original cast Broadway show recording.

You turn out the lights and ask more questions, or rather let the questions come slowly and unbidden: Wait, this is the world? This crooked gyp? Answers to such questions, you've discovered, are stubborn things.

Someone's always telling you not to do things, which is difficult for a specialist in disregard.

The response to anything incriminatory you might wish to allege tonight is either, So?, or Of course, neither of which you are in a mood to find satisfactory.

Earlier this evening, while walking your dog, you encountered the sort of young man who will always fancy himself in charge until --God willing-- the world teaches him otherwise. He was shirtless and dialing his cell phone as he stared down at a barbecue grill upon which a group of creepily pink sausages was merely sweating. His hair was ridiculous, a disheveled and heavily-moussed style that's meant to suggest casual indifference but, you feel certain, actually requires a great deal of time and money to maintain. And he was wearing large, white-plastic framed sunglasses that you figured were supposed to be ironic and which were probably purchased from a clearance rack at a drug store or truck stop.

"Listen to me," you heard him say into his phone. "I am trying to tell you that there is something seriously fucked with this fucking charcoal you sold me."

Now, though, planes are once again sneaking down through the darkness. Nights like this, standing at the window, you remember things. You remember riding your Schwinn stingray over to the Coast-to-Coast store and standing before the glass case of jackknives. Jesus, you wanted a jackknife so badly, but there was also something about them that frightened you, and you never have owned one.

You also remember your parents dragging you down to the high school auditorium to hear Ferrante and Teicher. You were maybe 10 years old and thought it was the most ridiculous thing you'd ever seen. You lived in a place where it seemed like 80% of the women over the age of 25 had a beautician's license. All day and all through the night, in the Gormenghast-looking slaughterhouse on the east side of town, they tore down animals into meat.

"Meat is Community," read a billboard along the main drag.

You remember walking slowly home from detention in the early October gloaming, remember walking into the inescapable smell of a tuna casserole in the oven. Somebody was practicing piano in the little room off the kitchen. In the living room the television seemed like an endlessly looping laugh track of obviously fraudulent and crazy-making ha-ha-has. The place was so tiny in those days, everybody on top of each other. There was no place to escape. You'd take a book and go down behind the furnace in the basement to sit with the dirty laundry.

The library alone was your refuge, and books broke your heart in a way that felt different from the way hearts were customarily broken in your world. Yes, the books were what ultimately took you away, and what broke your heart. But it was a beautiful heartbreak that did not surrender longing.

If the people in that town looked at you, you desperately wanted them to know that you did not belong there, that you would never belong. Your mother taught you and your siblings --taught you zealously and well-- that the greatest escape was pretending.

Finally, you remember falling asleep in the far backseat of your father's station wagon, returning late at night from a trip somewhere, the surf of darkness and locomotion murmuring at the slightly open windows; streetlights and headlights strobing the car's interior, disorienting, and the faint strains of some dated pop hit or a baseball game drifting back from the AM radio in the dashboard. Everyone was quiet, and you were so tired that you wobbled back and forth at the edge of sleep.

You don't know why you're remembering these things now, as another day slips away and another long night looms. Maybe, you think, it's because you're trying to recall what it felt like, all those long years ago, to have the unquestioned knowledge that you were on your way home.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Heaven Is A Place....

The fires they have in Heaven are pure blue and smokeless, with bright flames that stretch downward into the clouds in columns of braided light. They burn continuously, in secret locations on the outskirts. They burn thousands of tons of baggage in Heaven every day.

When I first got to Heaven I didn't know anybody there, and I was sort of stunned by how crowded and chaotic the scene was. I mean, this was in what I guess you'd call the Ellis Island part of Heaven, the processing area (no actual Pearly Gates that I was ever aware of). Still, you know, I thought there'd at least be someone I knew there to greet me. I guess I expected to immediately encounter my father, my grandparents, my dogs, a big family reunion of all the people I was related to but never met, the people who died long before I was born.

Heaven apparently doesn't work that way anymore (if it ever did), and once I'd been cleared and had passed through I was on my own. I remember asking some guy where everybody was. "Your people?" he said. I nodded. "They're here somewhere if they're here somewhere," he said. "if you see what I mean."

I asked him about God and Jesus. "You might see them around occasionally," he said

A group of women on a bench who looked like they'd been dead hundreds of years --I mean, they looked perfectly healthy, but not like anyone from a century I was familiar with-- directed me to some sort of registry, which they insisted would have the records I'd need to get properly oriented and track down people I might know.

This place was a long walk. It turned out there's a lot of walking in Heaven. The first week (I'm just guessing; the place is like a casino: there are no clocks anywhere) I never saw anyone who looked like an angel, and never encountered a single familiar-looking face. I slept, I guess, but it was narcoleptic sleep. I would just nod off anywhere and anytime, and this was initially disorienting, as you might imagine. There were no dreams, and when I asked somebody about this I was told, "Oh, no, your dreaming days are over. Dreams would cause nothing but problems up here."

It took me a few days, but I did initially find the registry. The building was immense, labyrinthine, almost impossible to navigate, and ridiculously crowded. I heard someone say that there were stories of people who spent their first ten years in Heaven in there. "There's no denying things are a little bit out of control," a functionary said. "Overcrowding is a problem. But when God makes a promise, He keeps it, and it takes some people awhile to recognize that time is no longer an issue here. What part of eternity don't people understand?" Then, in a hushed voice, this fellow said to me, "Be honest, isn't it sort of terrifying? Weren't you ever scared to death about the whole idea as a child? I used to lie awake at night fretting. I couldn't get my head around it; forever seemed like too much time to spend in any one place."

I certainly don't want to seem like I'm complaining. People are pretty much universally agreeable in Heaven, and I haven't seen a single dust-up of any sort. I found a bunk in one of what are called the "dog stations," and spend my nights surrounded by sleeping dogs. None of them, alas, are dogs I spent any time with on earth, but there are supposedly thousands of these stations. I've been assured that no matter who you were when you were among the living, you'll never see even a fraction of Heaven, and it's possible that my relatives could be installed in some sector that is as far from my lodgings as New York City is from Honolulu.

I don't know that for certain. I've never seen a map of the place, and haven't met anyone else who has. All I know is that I've been here for what now seems like a long time, and I still haven't found anyone I knew in my previous life. Maybe there's a reason for that, and maybe it's for the best, even if it doesn't jibe with some of your preconceived notions.

I also haven't seen Jesus or God yet, but remind myself that I lived my entire life (relatively short as it was) on earth without ever laying eyes on an American President.

I'm not going to pretend to understand Heaven. I never felt entirely home when I was still a living, breathing entity, and I have to confess that I also never had any real expectations of an afterlife. It's an odd place, certainly, though quite beautiful. People seem to spend most of their time walking around, or sitting in parks staring (happily, it always appears) into space. There don't seem to be any concerted efforts to organize any sort of social activities, and with nothing to buy you just sort of find yourself settling into the peaceful lull of things.

Still, I'll admit that there were times I felt restlessness, even though this wasn't supposed to be an admissible possibility. I eventually volunteered for a job burning baggage, and it suits me just fine and passes the time. One of the advantages is that I get to look through the stuff before I burn it, and it's always interesting to see the sorts of things people try to bring with them. I burn a lot of photographs, and a surprising number of unfinished manuscripts, journals, and letters. And jewelry, which for some reason isn't allowed. Much of the baggage is of a sort that I guess you'd call purely psychological or metaphorical, and is heaped in what feel like very heavy garbage bags. We're not supposed to look in these bags, but a co-worker told me that he'd had one break once only to discover it was empty. I can't explain that.

They do have a truly incredible musical repository here, stored in a giant tower with an awe-inspiring atrium and listening stations arranged in a circular manner and spiraling upwards for what seems like a mile. Somewhat to my surprise, this incredible trove gets very little traffic, and most of the patrons appear to be ancient curiosity seekers who lived in the time before recorded music. I hear a lot of gasps from these characters, and some of them seem to be genuinely frightened by whatever it is they're hearing. It's a cool system, at any rate. You sit down, put the headphones on, and type in whatever it is you want to listen to.

Tonight on my way home from work I stopped in and listened to Badfinger, and then I walked home to the dogs.

It was a good day, and I have no reason to suspect that there will be any better, or any worse.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Make Believe

It's as easy as breathing, and every bit as hard.

This feeble effort, for instance:

The old goat
was uncomfortable standing on a raised platform (perhaps, it occurred to him, a platform was by its very nature raised, but he had never before stood on one; a few moments earlier the man had instructed him to get up on the platform, and, coaxed by the rope around his neck, the goat had done so).

This platform was small, had been hastily assembled out of scrap wood at hand, and did not feel sturdy beneath the old goat's wobbly legs.

The old goat also wasn't at all comfortable wearing a red felt vest, green satin britches, straw hat, and wire-rim spectacles, although he was somewhat astonished by the improvement in his eyesight that had been effected by the glasses. Be that as it may (and was), the ridiculous get-up was not his idea. Clothing of any sort had never figured in a single idea he'd ever had, and he'd had his share of ideas. Ideas, in fact, were his stock in trade.

If he weren't convinced this whole charade was necessary to save his neck, and if a human being hadn't tied the rope around that very neck to drag him about, he wouldn't for a moment have gone along with this nonsense.

The old goat wished like hell he'd never opened his big, fat mouth. There was nothing he could do about it now. He could talk, and he'd be damned if he wasn't going to make the most of it and speak his mind.

The humans got a kick out of a talking goat. Always had. They saw him as entertainment. The old goat, however, hoped for something more truthful than mere entertainment.

Actually, what he truly hoped was to spook the living bejesus out of the people who came to hear him speak. If he was to do his job he would need to choose his words carefully --his English was decent, but he'd had to pick it up where he could and hadn't exactly spent his long life surrounded by humans of much eloquence or erudition. The old goat also spoke in a very slow and halting tenor, poorly pitched, and with a slight lisp that tended to lend unintended comic effect to his words. This last was something he was keenly conscious of as he stood on the platform.

The old goat also, of course, couldn't write, so whatever words he did speak had to be either extemporaneous or committed to memory.

There was surely some risk, he supposed, for a goat willing to speak plainly and honestly to humans, but the old goat had also surmised that there was potentially a good deal of money to be made off a talking goat. He was counting on this factor --and the sheer wondrousness of the spectacle-- to allow him to speak his mind.

A large crowd had assembled at the fairgrounds that day, and they were still pressing into the hot tent as the old goat wobbled slightly on the platform and awaited the signal that he was to speak.

When a loud and gracelessly hyperbolic introduction had been made, and he had received his signal, the goat raised his head and stared out at the gaping faces that surrounded him.

"This gentleman," he said, nodding in the direction of the man who had provided the introduction, "has described me as a 'storytelling goat.' I'm afraid this is not quite accurate. I do not have any stories for you. It is my belief that those who begin by telling stories inevitably end by telling lies. I do not wish to lie to you, and also am of the opinion that the world is a story that tells itself. That story --whatever it might be-- should be sufficiently harrowing, heartbreaking, entertaining, and instructive.

"No," the old goat continued, "I am not here to tell you stories. I am, in fact, reminded of a monstrous swine maiden of my acquaintance who saw her business as the telling of stories, and the 'nurturing' of stories in others. 'For what,' she would frequently ask the barnyard animals, who, I might add, were her only audience, 'is your character dying for want of?' She would ask us to imagine those very words as if they were lodged behind our ribs in a sort of circling maze, with the question mark at the end of the sentence stamped squarely on our hearts. What a foolish question to ask a herd of animals destined for slaughter! How many possible answers I could have given that wretched woman, and not one of them would have been profound enough to satisfy her exalted and misguided notion of the importance of stories.

"So, no, I am not here to tell you stories. Pardon me if I repeat myself, but I wish to be clear. I can only tell you what I have observed and learned in my long life, which has not been blessed with a great deal of kindness or happiness. In this, I know, I am surely not unique, but I nonetheless believe that the ultimate source of all cruelty and unhappiness is standing right here before me. If it is your honest opinion that my words do not apply to you, I ask that you not take them personally. I must tell you, though, and please understand that this knowledge gives me no pleasure whatsoever, that from my experience I can only conclude that a great majority of human beings are monsters and...what is the word? Dicks. They are dicks, and the dicks, from what I have seen, cause nothing but suffering and misery and the endless perpetuation of untruths and make believe of the most grievous and heartbreaking sort. They will dress a tired old goat up in ragged human clothing and hope that he will deliver some mock, feel-good bunch of hogwash masquerading as wisdom that will allow all the victims of the dicks to walk away feeling good about themselves and hopeful regarding the human condition. That this goat cannot and will not...."

There was a great deal of obvious discomfort and vocalized displeasure in the crowd as the old goat moved into this peroration. A steady gaggle of parents dragging youngsters by the hands was making a hasty retreat toward the exit in the back. At one point the man at the side of the platform had given a hard jerk to the rope around the old goat's neck, which caused the spectacles to slide from his face and bounce from the platform into the crowd, where they were pounced on by a scrum of children. Eventually, before the old goat could properly wrap up his remarks, the man with the rope, assisted by a group of clearly exercised men, succeeded in wrestling him from the platform, hauling him through the back of the tent, and shoving him into a trailer.

The old goat was driven away, and was not heard from again for over a year. When he did finally reappear --at a county fair in Illinois-- he had been bought and sold several times and was a truly doddering, glassy-eyed creature who had been reduced to reciting classics from the folk and fairy tale canon to crowds of rapt youngsters and mocking teenagers.

When he died a short time later he was buried outside a local historical society in a small town in the Midwest (the same institution is also in possession of his spectacles, the gift of an anonymous benefactor). His grave is marked with a modest plaque that reads simply, "Hiram, The Beloved Storytelling Goat."

Hell Yeah, That's Exactly What's Been Missing From My Life, A Three-Disc Deluxe Blu-Ray Edition Of "The Incredible Hulk"

What the hell does space even mean in this context, when there is no bottom of the page and somehow finding a way to fall all the way down there to the bottom is the one solid goal of the day? When the presumptive "you" can't even see all the empty page down there beneath the words "down there beneath"? I'm just going to write --or type-- as fast as I can, because I really don't have anything to say, but feel like it's been much too long since I've said anything at all. How did this country become so lax in the credentialing of celebrities? And do I really want to watch Charles Barkley and Ben Stein debate some damn thing or another on Larry King? Seriously, what is wrong with us (and don't lie to me; something is seriously wrong with every one of us, or we wouldn't engage in monkey business like this)? Honestly, how do you take anyone seriously anymore? Celebrity sickens me, the absurd hyper-hyphenated nature of the ubiquitous class of talking heads: Actor-game show host-comedian-economist-political pundit vs. Ex-NBA star-professional provocateur-Pro Am golfer-celebrity wrestling referee-purported political aspirant. I saw this one on a screen beneath some completely unfamiliar face and it made me laugh out loud: Actor-musician-activist-children's book author. And that description could actually apply to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in this world. My God, what is that woman wearing (not the A-M-A-CBA)? And why am I watching this? Because I am bored, and when I am good and truly bored I watch television. This usually only happens when I am in motel rooms, but is also an undesired side effect of watching baseball on TV, which I am capable of doing obsessively for at least six months a year, and which I would somehow be able to hoodwink myself into believing did not actually qualify as watching television if it weren't for the fact that I restlessly channel surf between innings and following the last out of the game. I sometimes feel like driving for hours through darkness in any direction and then just checking into a place. Tonight is one such night. I'm extremely picky about the sorts of places I check into, but not picky in the way that I assume most people are picky. I assume this primarily because virtually every place I do check into is almost entirely --if not entirely-- devoid of other occupants. I don't believe I've ever encountered a "No Vacancy" sign, and I'm pretty certain that I've checked into places that were no longer even in business, or that were closed for the season, places that were dark and had long since vanquished any expectation of future revenues and thus were so surprised by the appearance of someone wishing to check in that they took my money and gave me a key to a room that had clearly been unoccupied for many months, if not many years. Fine with me. One such place I checked into not that long ago had had the only window entirely removed, a fact the owner attempted to obscure by hastily drawing a heavy pleated rubber curtain across the space where the window had once been. It was not a warm night, I should mention, and all night long trucks blasted by on the busy state highway just outside my room. Still, I lodged no complaints. What I most like are dim places of a certain vintage, places long on faded or downtrodden atmosphere and short on what the business traveler would call "amenities." It's a bonus (almost expected by now)if the art above the bed is incongruous to the point of ridiculousness --I recently encountered a giant and gory depiction of Sherman's March to the Sea on the wall of a room in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I don't cotton to out-and-out squalor, mind you, but I've endured it on plenty of nights. I do prefer, however, that the proprietors of such places retain a modicum of pride or even dignity, however delusional. I like to have a sense that the scarcity of guests is no real fault of either the place or the people who run it, but rather a product of economics, geography, and the general fucked-up priorities and squanderous proclivities of the average dumb ass. Ideally, and most often, the kinds of places I check into are far enough away from my home that getting to them provides me with the satisfying sense that I have gone somewhere, that I have traveled a sufficient distance and arrived in an unfamiliar place under the cover of darkness. I live in a big city, a city of disorienting freeways, constant road construction, and inexcusable congestion, so when I go in search of a place to check into I am almost always --almost unconsciously-- going in search of small towns and space. I like to time my arrival at the places I check into so it is late and dark and I am tired and don't entirely know where I am. Ideally the office will be dark, and part of someone's home, and I will have to ring a bell to summon a proprietor. In a perfect scenario it will be raining or snowing, and I will have been driving through thick fog, and the place in question --the place I intend to check into-- will suddenly loom up out of the fog --a beacon of forlorn, minimalist, antiquated neon-- and I will have the unmistakable and thrilling sense that I have found exactly the refuge I am in need of. What, really, does it say about me that when I hear the word "sanctuary," so often the first image that comes to mind is a park-at-your-door motel in the middle of North Dakota?