Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fantasy, Fantasy, Fantasy: One More Once Upon A Time

One year when I was young there was for a very brief time a girl who lived alone with her mother in a trailer at the edge of town. They were recent arrivals.

The girl was a loner at school, and held herself close, a new kid trying to be hard enough to survive. She had started attending classes after the Christmas break, and it was a terrible age to get thrown into the middle of a small town school.

One night I was walking out along the railroad tracks, as I often did after my family had eaten dinner and everyone else was settling in to stare at the television. It was early summer. School would be out in a week. As I was kicking rocks down the tracks I encountered this girl along the creek, at the edge of a field of prairie grasses that were just starting to green. She was catching fireflies and grasshoppers.

I watched her for a time from the railroad trestle, fascinated by her stillness, and then by the grace with which she would suddenly pounce. I walked down the bank below the trestle and approached her in the gloaming. If she was at all startled to see me there, she never let on. We had never so much as exchanged a word in school. She glanced at me briefly and then turned away and pounced once again into the grass.

When she came back up she looked me right in the eyes and said, "Do you remember your first memory?"

I thought this was an interesting question. I was 14 years old and it had never occurred to me before. "I think it was teething," I said. "I just remember being miserable and rubbing my gums with my knuckles and my mom put something on my gums with a Q-Tip and it felt so good and I slept."

"Wow," she said. "That seems like a really early memory. How old were you?"

I shrugged. "It doesn't seem like that long ago, really."

"I guess not," she said, and then held up her Mason jar, clutched in both hands, right to my face. "These," she said. "That's what I remember. Sitting at my bedroom window at night and listening to the strange sounds in the fields and seeing the fireflies floating in the darkness. I thought it was a dream." She studied the jar and then smiled. "Maybe it was a dream. Maybe it is. But I love this dream."

I asked her what she was going to do with her jar.

"I can show you," she said. "But I won't show you unless you tell me your full name and promise not to be a creep about anything."

I told her my name and said I would try not to be a creep about anything.

"I guess that's good enough," she said. "If it's weird, though, that's your problem."

We walked along the creek together, back toward the lights of town. The yard light outside her trailer was the first light in the distance. It was a double-wide trailer, and was one of those trailers that had fake shutters and siding and was trying hard to look like a real house. There were also flower boxes, I remember that. There was no car in the driveway. I asked where her mother was.

"She works the night shift at Tyson's," she said. "Chickens are wrecking her hands."

The girl led me into the dark trailer, and down a short, narrow hallway to her bedroom.

"I'm not trying anything," she said, "but we can't have any lights."

I stood at the doorway of her bedroom until I felt her hand gently push me between my shoulders and heard her voice behind me: "Go on in. I'm not going to kill you."

I went in and shut the door. She told me to sit on the bed. I sat on the bed. Light from outside crept in through the curtains on the window. The curtains had an embroidered heart in the middle, and inside the heart a girl and a boy were facing each other and bowing at the waist, awkwardly, leaning their heads in for a kiss. The real girl noticed me studying the curtains, laughed, and glided over to the window.

"Loves me," she said, and then pulled the curtains apart. Just like that the girl and the boy were separated, the heart divided, the kiss interrupted. "Loves me not. My mom found those at a garage sale and thought they were funny."

She turned away from the window and crouched next to a doll house in the corner. "My grandfather made this doll house for me for Christmas one year," she said. "But I've never put any dolls in there. It would just seem too sad. They would be trapped, and I would feel stupid trying to pretend they were alive."

I watched as she lowered the jar through the open side of the doll house roof. She removed the lid and shook the contents loose, and then, in one lunging motion, sat down next to me on the bed, the empty jar cradled in her hands.

"Just wait," she said. "And be very quiet."

Nothing seemed to happen for several moments, but then I saw the first firefly flicker in the living room of the doll house, and then another, and another in an upstairs bedroom. Pretty soon they started to float lazily out the windows and up through the roof and into the air around us, spark after spark flaring in the dark bedroom of the girl whose name I still did not know. And then, slowly, the grasshoppers started up their washboard chorus.

I looked at the girl. She was bent over, the jar gripped now between her knees; her eyes were darting around and watching the fireflies and she had a look of pure joy on her face. It was almost like I wasn't there.

I won't go into the complicated reasons why, but improbable as it may sound --and be-- it was 30 years before I had another encounter with that girl and eventually learned her name. In the intervening years I came to understand that this world tends to traffic in complications and improbabilities both wondrous and cruel, but even now, when I see the woman that girl became, and remember the girl that woman once was, I feel like I am once again 14 years old and breathless and trapped in one magical moment of a past that seemed to promise nothing but enchantment and dreams.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No Imagination Was Stretched In The Course Of This Production

I need a reason to do things. I need a reason to do this. I do not presently have a reason do either things or this.

I would like to apologize to a lot of people for my recent lock down and lockout. I really do love the people I would like to apologize to, and do not understand my behavior any more than anyone else does, presuming anyone has even tried to understand my behavior, and I would ask that you please not waste a single moment trying to understand my behavior.

Life should be easy. Or at least that's what I've been told by one of the wisest people on the planet. That I haven't found it particularly easy is entirely my problem.

I am hiding in plain sight, which was always, by the way, what I surmised Osama bin Laden was up to. In what I'm going to foolishly call "today's world," there is no place where it is easier to simply disappear than in the middle of a big city. Unlike Osama bin Laden, though, my final days are not being played out as just another notorious, hunted celebrity cultivating invisibility in a multi-million-dollar mansion. Mine is a relatively modest, if impossibly cluttered, hideout, and of absolutely no interest to Navy Seals, or even my neighbors (other than on those increasingly frequent occasions when they make it known that they wish I would take in my mail).

I often have reason to ask myself what it is I think I am disappearing into, and the only satisfactory answer I can come up with is "this," by which I mean a wider and more general, unsatisfactory, and ever darker this than this particular unsatisfactory this.

I'm not sure if the emphases is required in both those instances of this, but I'm going to choose to err on the side of the emphatic. At any rate, it's not a considerably wider this, not by any stretch of the imagination. The imagination, I'm afraid, has been stretched as far as it can be stretched, yet it is now no larger than a bath rug. There has unquestionably been alarming shrinkage, which would mean that "not by any stretch of the imagination" would be, at least in this instance, an entirely accurate phrase.

There has been no stretching of the imagination.

I have come to believe quite strongly that a man should save his words, even as I continue to squander several thousand of them a day.

For what should the words be saved?

(Shrugs). I guess for when they might find themselves necessary.

But surely 'this,' if I'm understanding you correctly, would not be an instance of "when they might find themselves necessary."

Perhaps not, but in the middle of a wholly unnecessary sentence the words might suddenly, as if by magic, find themselves necessary. That is one of the great puzzles of composition.

A puzzle is it?

Well, there may well be a better word that did not immediately come to mind when I attempted to describe what I called "the great puzzle of composition." I might even call it a mystery or a challenge; seldom, however, would I anymore refer to it as a pleasure. I also might not (speaking here in the "by and large" sense) even call it --it being this-- composition. Others have already played with the idea of "decomposition" but that, like much else, seems unspeakably tired to me. I have no further use for mere games, even when all that is left seems like nothing but a mere game whose rules I have never learned to understand.

This is about words, but also about something else I don't wish to try to put my finger on right now: history and personal experience have taught us that everything and nothing is irreplaceable. Particularly when there is so little left that you want and so much that you miss one moment, and so little left that you miss and so much that you want the next.

I. I. I. I. I. I. I. 

The idiot thing we call "progress" is an eclipse, permanent and permuting. It makes it impossible to breathe in or properly inhabit the past, and handicapping the future in such darkness is handicapping in the most literal sense. There's only now, as the poets and mystics and other hare-brained basket cases are so fond of reminding us, but you can't even see what might be happening in that mysterious and impossible place when it's always so fucking dark.

That's a garbage metaphor, I know, but I mean something like it all the same. And an eclipse is just really, really boring after a while.

As you were, but not as were you.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Without The Rest

I would lie to you if I could...

If silence is revealing,
what does it reveal?
The little that is left,
that is outside, that is
the world? No two silences,
you suppose, are alike,
beyond every silence
there is always something
you think it's fair to call sound.

Does that mean it's not silence,
that nothing is? To be honest,
you don't care. People who use
the word destiny are seldom
to be trusted, just as people
who write books are
seldom to be trusted.

You found a pair of wings on the sidewalk
today, wings utterly abstracted
--or subtracted-- and perfectly preserved.
Everything that would constitute the rest
was gone, and without the rest,
of course, a pair of wings is useless.
They were built for the sky.

You might expect a crime scene
to be messy, but this was as neat
as a crime scene could be, really.
Whatever had deemed the wings
useless had taken the time to eat
or make off with everything else.

That the criminal had left the best part
as evidence almost seemed like a
taunt, an insult to the most stubborn
dreams and metaphors of the human
imagination. Isn't that what the true
criminal does, though? Says Let's see
where what's left will get you? Destroys
the heart and head and says Good luck
getting your dreams aloft now,
destroyed bird, sad little man.
Look at the sky and the
trees and the moon and feel
nothing but hobbled longing.

If you think it is distressing
to awaken from a dream of flying
to discover that you have no wings,
imagine how it must feel to awaken
from such a dream to discover
a pair of bloodied wings tucked
under your pillow and rustling
like something that still has
dim memories of flight.

You live now on the floor of the world,
and the sky is so distant, and gray.
You get used to it, but you still
can't stop dreaming of flying away,
even as you sense that you are
never again going to find anything
to do with those wings, even as
night falls, and keeps on falling,
and outside your windows the air is
ceaselessly stirred by the frantic
beating of black wings, huge
and dusty and terrifying, the usual
wee hours massing of the bleak birds
biding their time, but unquestionably
anxious to finally pick you clean.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Devil In The Wetsuit And Steel-Toed Boots

In the movie I'm making with my dog --"Satan and the Sacred Bone"-- the Devil wears steel-toed boots and a wetsuit. His horns have been cut off, so that he can try to disguise himself as a normal man going about the world, but if you look closely you can still see the nubs where they used to be.

The Devil wears a wetsuit because he's kind of a Poseidon sort of devil, and the portal to Hell is located at the bottom of a deep, dark lake. Since we don't have much of a special effects budget and I wanted the Devil to be able to make dramatic entrances, I came up with the idea of having him emerge from a lake in the moonlight. There happens to be a lake near my home. I think it's going to work out slick.

The first guy I got to play the Devil looked too fat in the wetsuit. He wasn't a particularly fat guy in real life, but a wetsuit is unforgiving in that regard, and I thought it was important that the Devil be lean.

The second guy was really good in rehearsals, but after four days he started to have reservations. He said it was because he was a Born Again Christian, which may or may not have been true. He smoked a lot of pot for a Born Again Christian.

So, anyway, we're already on our third Devil. This one has appeared in a Car Soup commercial and also as Tevya in a local community college production of "Fiddler on the Roof." He's been lobbying hard for the Devil to have a love interest, and feels strongly that there should be at least one scene where his character gets to (as he put it) "do his old lady like a dog." He argued that this would be a subtle bit of symbolism or metaphor or some such nonsense. Though I'm pretty sure the motivation behind all of this business is purely selfish --I have serious doubts about whether this fellow has even slept with a woman-- he continues to insist that the Devil needs to be portrayed as "insatiably horny" in order to demonstrate his power, virility, and otherworldly appetites.

Since I'm not keen on trying to find a fourth Devil, I put an ad on Craigslist, but have thus far received only two replies, both from clearly underage girls with questionable motives. Nonetheless, the third Devil liked the looks of both of these candidates and suggested I immediately take them on --one as the Devil's paramour, the other as an understudy and potential body double. Afraid as I was of losing yet another Devil, I was even more wary of being caught up in some sort of sting operation and so thanked the young women for their time and assured the third Devil that I would continue to pursue other options.

Anyway, weather permitting, we are slated to film our first scenes tomorrow. The premise of "Satan and the Sacred Bone" is that the Devil has risen from the deep, dark lake in the moonlight and is stalking my dog through the Enchanted Dog Forest. The Devil is trying to capture my dog --and in the process steal his soul-- because my dog is a High Priest in the Brotherhood of the Sacred Bone, a holy order of dogs devoted to preserving the history and rituals of a bone that is alleged to be a surviving relic from the sacrificial altar of Abraham.

The Devil believes my dog knows where the Sacred Bone is being kept, and he intends to pry this information out of him at any and all cost.

At some point in its long odyssey through history and time, it is said, the Sacred Bone was once in the possession of John the Baptist. Then, for several hundred years, it was displayed in a monastery in France, and used in the annual Blessing of the Animals. Like so many other precious relics and works of art, the Sacred Bone disappeared during the Nazi invasion of France.

For almost three decades the Sacred Bone was presumed destroyed or lost forever, until a Dutch newspaper reported, in 1976, that a rich and unscrupulous art collector and breeder of dachshunds in Austria had the bone in his possession. Through diplomatic and legal channels this collector was eventually persuaded to turn the Sacred Bone over to authorities in Geneva, where an international tribunal attempted to sort through claims from a host of nations seeking title to the bone. It was generally believed that the Sacred Bone was most likely  going to end up in Jerusalem, but a group of armed and well-trained commandos of mysterious affiliation broke into the Swiss compound where the relic was being held, made off with the Sacred Bone, and left behind a long and rambling note detailing plans to return the object to its "rightful custodians," the Brotherhood of the Sacred Bone, a loosely knit secret society made up entirely of dogs.

In the intervening years, information regarding the Brotherhood and the whereabouts of the Sacred Bone has been exceedingly hard to come by, but it is rumored that the Sacred Bone is possessed of extraordinary protective and healing spiritual powers, and is thus of keen interest to the Devil.

That's the backstory of "Satan and the Sacred Bone." I've persuaded my neighbor, Lonnie, who has a rich baritone and has done a few radio advertisements for a local bank, to provide a voice-over narrative of this saga as the opening scene unfolds. We've already recorded it (I encouraged him to try his best to muster a James Mason impersonation), and I think it sounds fabulous. Chilling, really.

I'm still trying to raise enough cash to finish this project --I've already invested more than $250 of my own money (actually money borrowed from my sister)-- and am encouraging people who might be willing to help out to chip in over at Kickstarter. Anyone who gives more than $10 gets a speaking part in the film. So far we've raised $48, but there's still a long way to go.

I'll try to keep you posted here, so stay tuned.

My iPod died today, by the way, and a "For Lease" sign went up at the Odd Fellows Hall over in St. Paul, so I'm feeling even more super bummed out than usual. Also I ate a jar of salsa for dinner. Just FYI.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Exuviae: What I've Got

I went for a walk in a large cemetery near my house today and saw a tombstone that broke my heart. At this point it's just the smashing of atoms, but the smashing of atoms is still a form of breakage.

On the tombstone there was a color photograph of a woman somehow etched or embossed right in the middle of all the cold, hard facts. I instantly recognized this woman as a regular customer at my old used bookstore, and recalled her as an impressive reader.

She always came into the store smelling like woodsmoke and hay, and often had bits of hay tangled in her unruly blonde hair. In the winter she wore a beat-up black Carhartt jacket that was covered with dog hair. She would park her red pickup truck right outside the store, and there were usually two dogs peering out of the truck. They weren't the sort of dogs that made a fuss; you could tell they were used to sitting around and waiting.

I once told the woman that she was welcome to bring the dogs into the store.

"Oh, no," she said. "You'd regret that. They're unruly, and one of them has an appetite for books that I haven't been able to break him of. That's pretty much why you never get any of your books back."

I could never tell if she was shy or just stoic, but she wasn't much for conversation. I did eventually learn that she trained and boarded horses somewhere out near Lakeville, which meant that she made quite a trek to my store a couple times a week. I assumed she must have had other business in the city, but I was nonetheless always grateful to see her.

As I said, her reading habits were impressive. Prodigious, really, and she would buy some seriously challenging stuff. Musil's The Man Without Qualities, is one title I remember. She'd buy things like that, but she also had an appetite for true crime paperbacks. Lots of serial killer stuff. In the years I spent in that store she was easily one of the most interesting and mysterious customers.

Anyway, it was jarring to stumble across her grave, and I stood there for quite some time looking at her photo and remembering her. I was surprised by how many specific titles I could recall selling to her: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which I hadn't yet read; Nabokov's Ada and Pnin; a fat collection of Icelandic Sagas; Lydia Davis's Break It Down; an account of the Lobster Boy's murder that I had overpriced because I didn't really want to sell it.

I eventually found myself addressing her portrait.

"Hello," I said. "Do you remember me? I used to sell you books. You were one hell of a reader. What happened to you? What happened to your dogs? I used to sometimes imagine one of them eating The Man Without Qualities and it always made me happy."

She had died on August 9, 2009. She would have been one year younger than I am.

At the bottom of the tombstone, in ornate cursive, were the words, "Forever in Bluejeans."

That, I think, was the part that really got the atom smasher roaring.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

In An Abandoned Airport, Waiting For A Flight To A Country That No Longer Exists

(Last two photos of my fine boy Wendell and me courtesy of Carrie Elizabeth Thompson)

The grip is mute and merciless.

Every night about this time my dog gets this look, and what the look unquestionably says is, "What's going on, fella? What are you up to here?"

Because he knows, he senses, that something is definitely up. We have crossed far into the something-is-definitely-up stage here. "Up," of course, being in this instance something of an ironic usage.

Que sera sera.

Once you have let them cinch you up and put the battery cables on your head, once you allow them to convulse you and then wheel you out lock-jawed and choking and struggling, terrified, to zero in on anything that might qualify as a memory, even a bad one, once you reach that point I guess all bets are off. Who knows what you've lost forever? You can't even be sure who you were before that moment, but eventually you start seeing puzzling shadows on the wall, and weird, out-of-focus snapshots that seem to be projected upside down on the back of your skull and which may or may not be scenes from what used to be your life, and you don't want to talk about those troubling images because they seem like hallucinations and there is no way you could describe them or the cold, terrifying, and hopeless way they make you feel.

Take that.

Donegal would always say, So, this is the world, is it? And for even a sorry fool like you Christ carried his cross. A far-fetched business all around, but there you have it, lad, and what are you going to do with such a marvelous bit of information as that?

I didn't know. I still don't know.

I did, however, talk with my dog for 45 minutes about Easter and what it purportedly means to the world and how some of the central components of its narrative have crept into our own shared rituals and the things we want to believe. I want very much for my dog to believe in angels, so I have tried to believe in them as well.

The next day I took my dog to the veterinarian to make sure everything was in order. It was a cold, gray morning, very early by my standards, and during the time I was in the office two old dogs were brought in to be euthanized, which shook me greatly. In the first instance an older man came in alone, announced to the woman at the counter, "I have a dog in the car that needs to be put to sleep," retreated for a moment, and returned with a large dog in his arms. The man was alone, and expressionless. He might have been dropping off his car to have his tires rotated.

Surely, I thought, he could not possibly be as cold hearted as he seemed. He and the dog were ushered into a back room, the door was closed, and I never saw either the man or dog again.

A few minutes later a party of four --an elderly couple and a younger couple, perhaps in their thirties-- brought in a dog that looked like it could have been a litter mate of the previous dog. The younger of the two men had this dog in his arms. The dog was alert and appeared perfectly contented. I did not overhear the exchange at the counter, but all four of these people were clearly grief stricken and huddled together the way humans always huddle together whenever something unbearable is happening or about to happen. Unless, of course, they don't have anyone to huddle together with, and then they huddle alone. Only the man with the dog in his arms was not weeping. The older man appeared to be the most distraught of the group, and was trembling so badly that he asked the older woman --his wife, presumably-- to sign some papers. Shortly thereafter they were ushered into a room in the back.

I'll admit it: I found myself reaching for a box of tissue and trying to press tears back into my eyes.

When one of the young attendants finally called out my dog's name I had to resist the urge to flee. The woman gave Wendell a pat and asked his age. "He is almost three," I said.

"Oh!" she said. "Still just a puppy!"

This was an obvious bit of strained optimism on a bleak morning, but I was grateful for it all the same. Surely the woman had looked at my dog's files and seen that he was actually almost nine years old, but --bless her heart-- she never let on.

That's mostly a lie. Pretty much everything was. I mean, seriously, pretty much everything.

Did you ever read that one book when you were a kid? I could never believe that a train was capable of positive thinking.

I used to be like that determined train in the book, though. I used to really be wild about things. All sorts of things. I could barely contain my wildness. Not so much anymore.

Here's the sort of thing I'll find myself thinking these days, God help me: Somebody really has to take some photos of me naked before I'm dead. What sort of man has such thoughts? A lonely man. A man who feels he is dying and wants desperately, once and for all, to stand naked before the world? I put the question mark there because it really is a sort of question, or at least a guess, which is a sort of question impersonating an answer. There is also, of course, the purely corroborative motive: some concrete proof that I have a body, that the man I see in the mirror exists, that I am not, in fact, invisible.

Too late, though.

I carried all those fucking rocks and planted a garden and then I abandoned it.