Thursday, December 25, 2008
I had a wonderful Christmas eve. Went to an AA meeting that was SRO, which always happens around the holidays. Family, expenses, expectations all take their toll on alcoholics in recovery or not, and the holidays bring out both the best and worst of us all.
I changed the strings on my pedal steel guitar, all 20 of them, and re-tuned the damn thing. That occupied 90 minutes. I fooled around with some music-recording software and figured something out, and that made me feel very smart. I wrote a couple of pages of a novel I'm working on, did household chores and gave thanks that I was not in Bethesda, Maryland, where I lived years ago. A giant water main broke there, flooding roads qand carrying cars away. Thankfully, no lives where lost. I understand it made the top of Fox news nationally..
I wondered about the stupidity of some home-grown terrorists who decided to have a training video transferred onto DVD. They gave it to the engineer at the shop offering this service, and the young man, a high-schooler, took one look at the tape, heard gunshots and Arabic and called the cops. The bad guys were arrested. I wondered why the bad guys were convicted just yesterday when the incident happened in 2006.
I read that Obama exercises 90 minutes a day, and find that laudable. I cooked a superlatively good two-inch-thick filet mignon without burning it, (four minutes a side in the broiler, then four minutes in the oven) then watched an Englishmen (particularly sweet, that) making faces as he ate giant worms in Africa.I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated from the French and highly recommended to anyone who wants to deride Kant and/or the utter silliness ofphenomenology.
I drove around and thought I am amazingly lucky. I have friends and people who care for me. I live in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the wealthiest area in the country. The country, despite the recent economic downturn, remains the standard that most other countries aspire to. So I am blessed.
Thanks to all, and to all Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Animists, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, Taoists, agnostics, atheists, and any and all other I may be overlooking, I wish you the best of the day and the season.
Here's installment 61 of Wasted Miracles.
Colin dropped Catherine at her house. She hadn’t spoken much on the way back from Mamadou Dioh’s garage, had merely said that she liked the man, asked Colin, “Do you really think he can help?”
Colin had nodded. “He knows a lot of people. Washington’s a small town.”
He caught the last half of a meeting at the Serenity Club, bought a plastic container full of salad and a ham steak at the Giant. In his mind he planned an early evening--a quick workout, food, an hour or two ambling the Net. Weights and the Web, then sleep.
As he came through the door to his apartment, something stunningly heavy hit him across the forehead. He staggered, dropped the Giant bag. A second blow caught him just above the navel. He coughed, vomited. A fist bounced into the back of his head.
When he came to someone had a handful of his hair, holding his head upright. A voice said, "Looka that! Man done puked on my shoes! On my shoes... Man, that's disgustin’. Brand new shoes, my Momma gave ‘em to me for my birthday. That's white man puke and now I'm gonna have to throw those mothers out. Ain't nothin’ more revoltin’ than white man puke..."
Colin felt a sharp ache, confusion. He wanted to say he was sorry, because he was. If someone had puked on his shoes, he would have been unhappy too. Especially if they were brand new and his mother had given them to him. It was a terrible, insensitive thing to do. He opened his mouth to apologize but the hand jerked at his hair, stretched his neck, slammed his jaw shut.
"Whaddya tryin to do," the voice said, "get me mad? Get me angry? Ain't pukin’ on my shoes enough? You just shut the fuck up, hear? Else I'm gonna make you eat them shoes, puke and all"
But it seemed important to tell the voice how sorry he was so he tried anyway. His efforts were rewarded by another sharp tug, followed this time by a gentle slap.
"Yo! You ain't hearin’ me, man? You don't seem to understand: what we have here is a precarious situation." The voice--it was a man’s--pronounced it "preecarious," with the accent on the first syllable. It didn't seem wise to correct him.
"Very precarious," he repeated. "Cause, see, I'm just this far from really bein’ pissed off over my shoes and all, and you ain't doin’ nothin’ to make me feel better. And I don’ think Harold likes you much either."
A very large presence swam into view, a broad expanse of tight black shirt over what seemed acres of chest and belly. A second voice, deeper than the first, said, "Man! Yore shoes is a mess. I wouldn't put my feet in those shoes for money."
Colin couldn't understand why they wouldn't let him say he was sorry. He'd replace the shoes, buy the man a new pair if it made him feel better. He tried to move his hands, to show he understood how the man felt, but his wrists seemed to be tied to... He was seated straddling the torture machine from Wards. Belts held his wrists to the crossbar, which was loaded with every weight plate he owned.
The deeper voice said, "Maybe the man's got a pair you can take. Looks to be about the same size feet."
The first voice bristled with disgust. "You want me to wear white man’s shoes? You crazy? Put my feet in some sorry fucka’s shoes that’s probably got some sort of white foot disease? Rot your feet off or something. Naw, man, this boy’s gonna buy me a new pair o’ shoes.”
A hand groped at his pockets, removed his wallet. There was the small tinkling sound of something metal hitting the floor.
“Yo. What’s this?” Howard held the large brass coin up to Colin eyes.
Colin said, “Chip.”
Howard held it up to the light. “Worth anythin’?”
Colin tried to shake his head. “No. Chip. AA chip.”
Howard addressed Harold. “Now the man’s stutterin’. A--a chip. A--a chip of what?”
With his free hand, Harold took the chip from Howard. “AA. Alcoholic’s Anonymous. That’s what this is. Whoo! Looka this, boy’s got seven years of no drinking. My dad had one like this, only it was for one year, and I know the sorry motha lied, he was nevah sober that long.” He handed it back to Howard.
Howard asked, “So it’s ain’t worth nothin’?”
“Not to us.”
“Well, sheeyit.” Howard tossed the chip away, it hit a wall, bounced on the floor. “So how’s he gonna buy me new shoes?”
Harold grunted, said, "Let's forget the shoes, awright? Let's just ask this nice man a couple of questions, find out what we wanna find out. Cause I got other things to do than stand around in a room that smells like puke."
The hand holding Colin’s head up found a new grip on the hair, pulled at it painfully. "OK, lissen up. Watcha wanta know about the Zulu’s lady friend? Why you asking all these questions? You ask us questions, we can probably tell you everything you want to know..."
Colin croaked, "Josie?"
Harold said, "Yeah, Josie. The white girl. You been all over town asking about her, about that dumb fucka Herbie. What's you're problem?"
Colin took a deep breath. His ribs hurt. His eyes were still looking at the first man's sullied shoes. "Herbie? He’s dead."
Harold dropped to a squat so his face and Colin’s were on the same level. "Well, no shit. Course he's dead. If he weren't dead, we'd be someplace else than here and Howard's shoes wouldn't be all messed up. What I want to know is, what do you want with poor old Herbie? He done something to you? Owe you money? Owe you dope, maybe?"
Harold and Howard. For some reason that sounded ridiculous. Black people aren't supposed to be called Harold or Howard. Especially not black thug type people. Colin shook his head. Every word he uttered seemed to leave him breathless. He wondered if he was having a heart attack, decided he wasn't but probably did have a cracked rib or two. He remembered the dull ache from martial arts. "Her mother’s a friend. Josie, I mean. That's all."
"Oh, man," Harold said. "Oh man oh man oh man. This guy's a hardass. Lissen to me, Mr. Marsh. You ain't in no position to be no hardass. Look at you, all those muscles and shit, probably work out a hunnerd times a week and look where you be? You got two plain ol’ street niggers who just took you out, tied you up and you puke all over their shoes? There's somethin’ here you don't understan’."
"A friend. Really. Didn't even know Herbie at all." It came out hoarse, between a croak and a whisper.
"No man, no man. I think maybe you did. And I think I'm losin’ my patience with this shit, it's borin’ me and I got a whole shitload of things I'd rather be doin’.” To Howard he said, “Gimme that thing.”
Howard and Harold exchanged something silver, square, solid. Colin braced himself. This was it. He was going to die. A few wet drops hit him in the face.
Harold stood over him, pulled back hard at his hair until his face was upturned, jaws forced open. Harold smiled slightly, neither benign nor evil. In his free hand he held a slim glass flask. Colin recognized the label. Harold tilted the flask.
Colin saw the clear liquid move gently to the flask's opening, pause there. He saw the slight curve before the vodka's surface tension burst. He saw the stream fall in slow motion towards his lips, felt it bounce off his nose, into his eyes, into his mouth.
He tried frantically to close his mouth but Harold held his hair in ones fist, pulling, pulling, tearing the scalp from his skull. Colin whipped his head back and forth, retched, spit, tried to rid his mouth of the saliva, of the taste, of the elation.
Howard leaped back. "Mothafucka! You think you gonna do my shoes too?"
Harold guffawed, loosened his grip slightly. Colin jerked his arms up as far as the belts allowed, felt the Ward torture machine lift slightly, pulled harder. The machine swayed. Harder. It tilted. Harold's hand abandoned its hold, went to protect his face as the butterfly bars flew toward him. The machine was at a forty-five degree angle to the floor. It stayed there forever for a second and slowly crashed to the floor taking Colin with it. Weight plates scattered. A small one, a twenty pounder, came off the high side, sailed like a frisbee and hit Howard just behind the ear. Howard crumpled. His head made a nasty sound as it hit the floor.
The butterfly bar had caught Harold squarely across the nose and flattened it. He held two fingers to his upper lip as if trying to hold back the blood that already flowed past his chin and down onto his chest. He said, "My shoes! My dose! Now you fucked up my dose!"
The fall had torn loose the belt on Colin’s left wrist. His left hand scrambled to free his right one. His mouth was still watering and he sprayed spittle across the room. There was a moaning sound it took him moments to identify as coming from his own throat.
He scrambled to the kitchen, the two men momentarily forgotten. He lunged for the sink, batted the water open, grappled with the dish sprayer, aimed it full at his face. The water was stunningly cold. It ran into his mouth gagging him and he vomited again, felt his stomach muscles roll and heave.
Howard was in the doorway. He was laughing. "Mothafucka! You are a piece of work, ain't you?"
There was a knife in the sink. Colin’s hand reached for it. His eyes didn't leave Howard's. Howard was still smiling. The gash behind his ear had bled more than it should have. He touched it with a tentative finger, rubbed the blood between thumb and index.
"Piece of work," he repeated.
Then he turned away. Through the door Colin saw him grab the back of Harold's shirt, lift him effortlessly to his feet. "C'mon, boy. Let's go home." At the door, still holding Harold, he looked back at Colin. "Man, you leave old Herbie in peace, OK? I really don't want to have to come back here." He shook Harold like a puppet. "And my man here, I don't think he's got another pair of shoes."
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
But that's not what I want to write about, since all relationships are strange in one way or another.
No, what I'm interested in is the critics' fashion of parsing an artist's work--and by artist I mean a writer, dancer, musician, sculptor, the whole gamut of people who cannot but be creative--into meaninglessness.
Look at a painting; read a book. What happens? Your imagination, and the writer or painter's creation work together to form an alliance. This pact moves you in a way--you feel joy, sadness, revulsion on occasion, pity perhaps, even lust or envy. You and the artist form a symbiotic entente cordiale. He or she presents their work for your consideration, with the understanding that the artist is powerless over the audience. You, the audience, are willing to make a gift of time to the work. You read, you listen, you watch. In the end, both parties are affected by each other's willingness to devote a small period of life to pleasuring the other. An artist without an audience ceases to exist, and with no art there are no spectators.
The critics want to take this process over by dictating their views--which are assuredly more learned and educated than yours or mine ever will be. An author, critiquing Valadon's Nude Girl Sitting on a Cushion, writes: "...Valadon's intense characterization is translated through the deliberate distortion of certain forms, the importance of which is enhanced by their unexpected size... Most of the time the children's alienation is expressed through reductive images whose effectiveness is enhanced through their simplicity."
I have no idea what this means. Obviously the critic and I are not looking at the same work. I see a small pencil and chalk drawing of a young dispirited nude. It's an evocative work, and I suppose I resent the critic's muddying of what is, all in all, a very basic piece of art.
For the past few years I've spent a lot of time reading autobiographies of some noted painters, and I have yet to find one describing his or her work in the same language as that of the critics. I wish those who write or broadcast opinions on the quality of things such as art, literary works, and society as a whole would do their own thing instead of parsing the works of others. That seems like a waste of time, a second-hand way of relating to creativity without adding any creativity of one's own. Maybe it's just that I don't like critics.
Here's installment 60 of Wasted Miracles.
When the Zulu put down the phone his face wore a thoughtful but not displeased expression. He had learned not to question providence, knew that occasionally events take place that are beyond human understanding, knew as well that only very foolish people fail to take advantage of such moments.
It had not been a good day after all. A police sweep had closed the Sparrow Club and Dance Venue on Georgia Avenue the night before. He had never been there and wouldn’t care save that the club is owned by one of his best customers, and that on a good weekend up to a half-pound of the Zulu’s products was moved there. The Sparrow’s owner was now in jail facing many charges, and that didn’t worry the Zulu either, since there was a large buffer zone between him and the club-owner, whom he’d never met face to face. Additionally, the club owner was a very wealthy man whose lawyers probably at this very moment were preparing counter-charges since no doubt the man’s civil rights were violated.
What worried the Zulu is that he was not apprised of the raid, and he should have been. When one spends a minor fortune lining the pockets of various people in positions of authority, such things should not happen.
In another neighborhood the Immigration and Naturalization Services nabbed ten illegal immigrants who were also dealers. There was a front page story in the paper about it, how the INS drove three unmarked vans and just picked these people up right off the street. The Zulu should have known about that as well. The reporter’s account said neighbors cheered when one elderly woman managed to trip an escaping dealer with her cane.
The citizens’ patrol in Shepherd Park was also becoming troubling. This was a recent development, residents forming their own posses to rid their neighborhoods of undesirables. The Zulu knew the dealers would find another block not far away and that business would proceed as usual--these concerted efforts were almost always short-lived, but they wreaked havoc with the distribution schedule, and this he didn’t appreciate.
He drummed the fingers of one hand against the palm of the other. He looked at the notes he’d jotted while the caller was talking. Better safe than sorry, his great-great grandfather would say. Grasp the bull by the horns, anticipate rather than react. Colin Marsh, he thought. An Irish name? Or Scottish? Regardless of the man’s origins, the Zulu thought, there was no need for some misguided paladin to foul up the works. He picked up the phone, dialed a number.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
The next day, when it was flying properly, my next door neighbor on the right side knocked on my kitchen door. He's a nice enough man from the former Soviet bloc who solemnly detests his other neighbor, who is from the same former SB country. He asked if I was not taking chances flying this odd flag; someone had told him such a thing was illegal and he didn't want to hazard having the secret flag police maybe making a mistake and knocking on his door. I reassured him that it was perfectly OK but he seemed less than convinced. I caught his wife, who is a dentist, and his two Goths kids starring upwards with fear in their eyes. I spent some time on the Internet looking for the Virginia law that might apply, but it's hard to find a law permitting something since most laws are designed to be preventative.
A fews days later there were men cutting down the bamboo in the vacant lot behind my home. The stuff, it seems, has invaded nearby storm drains and caused minor flooding. My neighbor came over again and asked if I was sure about the law because the guys with the chainsaws cutting down the brush were obviously setting up a listening/viewing post, and this made him very uncomfortable. He asked politely whether I would consider taking the flag down and hoisting the Stars and Stripes. I demurred. Then he asked how much I thought he might be able to rent out his home to people coming for the Obama inauguration.
Since we live a few miles outside Washington, DC and near public transit, many homeowners in my area have let their houses out to Obamites for thousands of dollars through Craig's List and eBay. I suggested he call a rental agency and he apparently has done so. He now wears a large smile and plans to go visit friends in Canada during Inauguration Week. He hasn't complained about the flag recently. The men with chainsaws have gone away. The secret flag police has not swooped down upon us. Is this a great country or what?
Here's installment 59 of Wasted Miracles.
It took one phone call, Mollie thought she was smart, made it from a phone booth next to the Seven Eleven on Gallows Road. There was a lot of traffic, people pulling in and out of the parking lot to get coffee or foot-longs and she kept her back to the door so the customers wouldn’t see her, wouldn’t wonder why this woman was talking into the phone and there was a handkerchief wrapped around the mouthpiece.
She thought the man had a pretty sophisticated voice for a black guy, kind of English-sounding like those movies on Channel 26. He didn’t ask a lot of questions, said, “I see,” two or three times as she fed him the story, said, “Thank you,” before he hung up, which she appreciated. She liked polite people. One phone call. One million dollar phone call.
When she hung up she was shaking and there was a fine sheen of perspiration on her upper lip. Her stomach was churning so she went into the store and bought a hot pretzel with mustard from the Pakistani guy behind the counter. And since she felt lucky, since she thought today was going to be a day that would change her life, she bought three Powerball tickets, the prize was up to $4.5 million, can you imagine that kind of money?
She waited at the bus stop and munched on the pretzel. It was a bit too salty and she wished she’d bought a Big Gulp to go with it. She thought about what you could do with $4.5 million and that was simply too large a sum to deal with. So she pared it down to a million, say $800,000 if you sold cheap, which she was willing to do. For $800,000 you could get a very nice car, say a fully loaded Jeep Cherokee, Cherry Red with a killer sound system and lights on the roll bar. And a really decent apartment in Ballston, with a pool and a sauna and a place in the basement to exercise. Should she buy or rent? She remembered a guy she’d spent two nights with, he’d tipped her a couple of hundred, he was into real estate and he’d said always buy, renting is like flushing the money down the toilet. So, OK, she’d buy, a two bedroom condo would run, what? 175 to 200 max. OK, so that would leave about half a mil.
The bus pulled up, she got on, found a seat in the back. When she sat she noticed her legs were trembling.
With a half a mil you had to be careful, not go crazy and buy a Lamborghini. Half a mil was a finite amount of money. There were houses that cost that much and more, and then you’d have to get furniture, too. But realistically, who would want a place like that? You’d need a housekeeper and some guy to mow the lawn. She knew there were houses like that near Great Falls where the Kennedies used to live, and the notion of hobnobbing with such people brought a smile.
No, realistically, you invest, that’s how people get rich. You try not to spend the capital, live off the interest. She’d read that in the business section of Newsweek and the idea had appealed to her. She made a note in her mind to go to the library the next morning and read back issues of Forbes and Money.
She would move the dope through Bennie, the bouncer at the club, who knew absolutely everybody. Give him twenty grand, he’d jump at it, he was always bitching about being a bouncer, always saying that if he had a nest egg, things would be different. But she’d have to devise some sort of plan so Bennie wouldn’t rip her off. She made another mental note, Work on Plan.
The bus snaked down Gallows Road, cut right on Cedar Lane, melted into the traffic on Leesburg Pike and passed the Tyson’s shopping mall, which got her to thinking that one thing she would do when she got the bucks was treat herself to a full day’s shopping at Tyson’s II where all the better stores were. Nothing too fancy, no mink coat, but maybe a couple of pieces of nice jewelry, like a decent watch, and a Gucci purse. Spend maybe eight or ten thousand in one day, wouldn’t that be a hoot?
The bus lurched, there was a squeal of tires, a blasting horn. One thing, sure as hell, no more public transportation. She changed the color of the Cherokee from Cherry Red to Midnight Blue. Cherry Red cars attracted cops, no sense looking for trouble, it generally came without an invitation anyway.
Maybe she’d scam a little of the dope for her own personal use. Probably no one would notice, she’d get a box of baby laxative, two scoops of that stuff in, take two scoops of the China White out, who would know the difference? And if someone bitched, she’d say it was Bennie, he did it, the cheating motherfucker. You want your dope? Take it out of Ben’s hide.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
The Royalist Party of America--yes, there is none--makes an excellent point in stating that "to create a true sense of trust between the governed and the government, our nation's leader must be above the politics of the day, beholden to no special interest group, and free to do what must be done for the good of all Americans, not just the party he or she leads."
This makes sense to me.
Today there are some 28 countries with operational royalty. Of those, 25 are constitutional or parliamentary monarchies. The three that aren't--Oman, Saudi Arabia and Swaziland, all absolute regimes--are admittedly not your best example of effective and interest-free government, but the others, including Belgium, Denmark, Morocco, Spain, Japan, the U.K., and Sweden, have learned that it's not a bad thing to have your country represented by entities that are neither Wig nor Tory, Republican nor Democrat. In modern times, the whole concept of monarchy is based on having an entity of long-standing and respectable history that will act or react intelligently for the well-being of the country involved.
I'm not fooling myself--the US will not turn into a monarchy of any kind in the near or far future. But there are lessons worth learning from the kings and queens of history. Some were damned good leaders, the type of folks we need around now.
Here's installment 58 of Wasted Miracles.
For Josie, there is no past, only a present and an indistinct future.
The beanbag chair has become home. There is nothing else but that, that and the drugs. The drugs provide increasingly brief respites from what has become a slow-building agony. Josie has no notion of time save the moments elapsing between pipes. Her mouth, throat, chest are raw but whenever she fires up she refuses to cough; that might waste some of the salvation and she could ill afford that.
She has become almost somnambulistic. She eats when told to, relieves herself when told to, sleeps when the cravings allow it. The Zulu has become God and she is desperate to please him.
She misses sunshine, light. When she was just starting out, messing around with fruit wines and dope, one of her favorite things was to get lightly stoned and lie out in the sun sensing each individual particle of light bounce off her face. She hasn’t had that feeling in quite a while and wonders why.
Now she’s drifting on a painful sea. Most of the time she’s cramping though it’s not yet that time of the month, her period isn’t due for awhile, of that she’s pretty certain. So the cramping is something else and when she can give rise to an emotion other than want, that emotion is fear. She’s not scared of death. She feels death will be a relief, she’s earned it. She’s scared of something else, something she can’t quite identify.
When she’s high the memories rush by like express trains and the jumble of them amaze her. Things she hasn’t thought of for years, and she can see herself in situations long forgotten, it’s almost like being at the movies. There’s even music and a cacophony of sound effects, voices, noises, slamming doors, rushing water. She thinks the song she keeps hearing in her head is Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” it has that kind of a snarl to it. But then again the tune might be something else. It doesn’t matter.
The door opens and the Zulu walks in. She can tell he has a couple of rocks in a glass vial. He’s shaking the vial in his hand, he always does that when he comes in as if to announce his presence. It makes a noise like two pebbles rattling in a cup.
The Zulu says, “Miss Stilwell, my patience has just about run out. I am telling you this so you’ll be aware of the situation you’re in. These,” he holds up the glass vial, “are it. There will be no more until my simple questions are answered. Do I make myself clear?”
Terribly so. Horrifyingly so. But the realization that she will soon be cut off comes second to the need she has, right now. So she nods, yes, she understands, and hands him the pipe which is now a treasured item, the sole link to an endurable life.
The Zulu shakes a rock out, drops it into the bowl, hands the pipe back, fires a wooden match. She sucks it in like a true user, short intense gasps that hit her lungs like ball lightning. She wants to cough, tenses every muscle in her upper body to avoid it. And then it hits and life is OK again, more than OK, but short of wonderful because now there’s only one rock remaining.
The Zulu says, “Remember, Miss Stilwell. No more after this.” As if she could forget.
Monday, November 17, 2008
I came by this realization recently at a used book store in Philadelphia. More than ten thousand books, many with obsessive footnoting and references to other, earlier works. Now certainly, had I been willing to do some research, I could have found the referenced works and inspected their footnotes, which would have led me to more fanatical and neurotic explorations... ad nauseam. But every single word written by all the authors and their sources were their words, the ones they thought best described the situation. And no two writers will ever see the exact same thing and describe it in the same manner. What is a bright fall day for me is the beginning of a dismal winter for you. So it's all fiction.
And think of this: What, if the research assumed to be correct is wrong? More fiction. So what we have is a basic fact: every biography, investigative or history book, every scientific tome and learned volume purporting to tell us anything at all, is basically a work of fiction. We cannot write, or paint or sculpt absolutes.
Somehow, to me, this is magnificently entertaining because I like subjectivity. I am much more interested in how things are perceived than how they really are, and anyway, I have a pretty strong suspicion that no one has a clue as to what really is. We just like to think we do...
How amazing. Rene Magritte was right. It wasn't a pipe at all, just one man's idea of what a pipe is supposed to look like. That makes my day.
Here's installment 56 of Wasted Miracles.
“It’s not much of a place.” Catherine let the words hang. She had been quiet throughout the ride from Virginia. They were sitting in Colin’s battered 924. The door to the garage that housed Africorp’s limos was shut and no one had responded to their knocking.
“We’ll wait a bit longer. The man I spoke with said Mamadou would be back around three.” Colin looked at his watch. “It’s almost that now.”
“How do people live here?” Catherine nodded to the street, the building, the trash. “I don’t understand how people can live like this and not do anything about it.”
“I guess they have other things to worry about than whether their streets are clean.”
They’d been waiting fifteen minutes and during that time had seen only two people, a pair of young boys who had eyed the car suspiciously and scampered down an alley.
“It’s hard to believe this is Washington. I mean, this doesn’t look like a part of America.”
“Inner city. Not that bad compared to some other places like Detroit, or the South Bronx.”
Catherine looked out again. “I’ve never been to neighborhoods like this. Guess I’ve led a protected life.”
Suddenly the car rocked. Catherine stifled a scream. A black face wearing large wraparound sunglasses was peering in her window. She drew back.
“Y’all lookin’ for somethin’?”
Colin leaned over. “We’re just waiting for someone.”
The face considered this. “Unh hun. I see. But this here’s a bad place to be waitin’ for anythin’ if you don’ have business to transac’. Y’all sure I can’t hep you out?”
Colin said, “Nope. We’re fine. Thanks.” And felt foolish.
The man straightened up, ambled away.
Catherine asked, “Was he selling drugs? Just like that, right in the open? Aren’t there any policemen around here?”
Colin looked at her. “See any?”
She didn’t bother to look around. “Scary place.”
The limo pulled up next to them so silently neither Colin nor Catherine noticed it until the garage door swung open. Colin started his car, followed the Cadillac in, waited for Mamadou to get out. “Do you like this neighborhood, Colin? You seem to be spending a lot of time here.” Mamadou was not wearing his chauffeur uniform. He walked around the Porsche, opened the door on Catherine’s side, waited for her to get out. “You must be the young woman’s mother. The resemblance is striking.” He added, “Colin showed me her photo. I’m sorry about your plight.”
“Plight?” Catherine repeated it, surprised by the choice of words.
Mamadou glanced at Colin. “Is that the wrong expression. I apologize. English is not my native language.”
“Plight is fine,” Colin said. “Mamadou Dioh, this is Catherine Stilwell. I thought the two of you should meet.”
Mamadou bowed slightly at the waist. Catherine saw a tall, well-built man with the fine features and aquiline nose of an Ethiopian. Mamadou met her gaze, smiled. “My grandmother was born in Addis so I don’t look like the classic West African. You’ve been to Africa?”
Catherine shook her head. Mamadou shrugged. “I thought, perhaps, since your husband is with the State Department...”
There was a silence. Colin filled it, asked, “I know there hasn’t been much time, but have you learned anything?”
Before he could answer, Catherine said, “Colin told me about your earlier... encounter with drug dealers. And why it happened. I’m very sorry about your sister, and I’m grateful for anything you might be able to do to help with my daughter, with Josie.”
“Which has not been all that much, so far, I’m afraid. But I’ve set some wheels in motion, and I’m hopeful.”
The exchange petered out. Mamadou saw the exhaustion in Catherine eyes, the despair behind the false front. He debated with himself for a moment, added, “There are some people who seem to know everything that happens in Washington. One of those people is my friend. More than a friend, actually.” And he told them about Aunt Mim.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
In the wake of the election, thought you might be interested in the new secession movement….
Dear Red States:
We've decided we're leaving. We intend to form our own country, and we're taking the other Blue States with us. In case you aren't aware, that includes
To sum up briefly: You get
Since our aggregate divorce rate is 22 percent lower than the Christian Coalition's, we get a bunch of happy families. Please be aware that Nuevo California will be pro-choice and anti-war, and we're going to want all our citizens back from
With the Blue States in hand, we will have firm control of 80 percent of the country's fresh water, more than 90 percent of the pineapple and lettuce, 92 percent of the nation's fresh fruit, 95 percent of America's quality wines (you can serve French wines at state dinners), 90 percent of all cheese, 90 percent of the high tech industry, most of the U.S. low-sulfur coal, all living redwoods, sequoias, and condors, all the Ivy and Seven Sister schools plus Stanford, Cal Tech, and MIT.
With the Red States on the other hand, you will have to cope with 88 percent of all obese Americans (and their projected health care costs), 92 percent of all U.S. mosquitoes, nearly 100 percent of the tornadoes, 90 percent of the hurricanes, 99 percent of all Southern Baptists, virtually 100 percent of all televangelists, Rush Limbaugh, Bob Jones University, Clemson, and the University of Georgia. We get
Additionally, 38 percent of those in the Red states believe Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale, 62 percent believe life is sacred unless we're discussing the death penalty or gun laws, 44 percent say that evolution is only a theory, 53 percent think that Saddam was involved in 9/11, and 61 percent of you crazy bastards believe you are people with higher morals then we lefties.
Finally, we're taking the good pot, too. You can have that dirt weed they grow in
Here's installment 55 of Wasted Miracles.
The brunette one--whose name really was Clare Drake--said, “Well, I guess it coulda been worse. Do you think he really meant it? Throwing us off the ship? Could he really do that?”
The blonde, whose name wasn’t Jennifer Jamieson, shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe. I remember in school reading about how ship’s captains could do pretty much what they wanted. Bury people, have them whipped or put on a deserted island, stuff like that. But maybe that was just pirates. Anyhow, I think we’d better not screw up. That’s all we need, getting tossed on some island full of spades and ending up in their version of jail. I don’t think I’d like that much.”
Outside the cabin’s porthole there was nothing but blue-green water and bright blue sky. They could feel the ship humming beneath their feet, the sound of the giant engines not quite deadened. Clare Drake said, “He didn’t seem like such a bad guy, all in all...”
Jennifer Jamieson opened the small closet door, selected three dresses, tossed them on her bunk. “Far as I’m concerned, what we’ve gotta do is just not screw this up. There’s ten grand waiting for us in Baltimore when we get there. That’s in three days. Ten grand. We go to Florida, someplace near Disney World, get a decent apartment with a pool and a workout place. Start things over. No more hooking, no more dealing with assholes, ‘cause I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had it with that scene.” She held up a black dress, glanced in the mirror, made a face, let it drop to the cabin floor. “It woulda been nice to get a few extra bucks, but I told you that old fart’s wife was all over him. We should’ve tried for that other guy, the one who came on to me by the pool.”
“Except that he didn’t have any money. I could tell that right away. He was a scammer, I know it. Did you see his shoes? What kinda guy wears shoes like that on a cruise? Had PayLess Shoe Source written all over them.”
Jennifer Jamieson shrugged, “Yeah, well. Next three days, we’re prim and proper. Two teachers from an exclusive school, out on the cruise of a lifetime.” She made it sound like a middle-of-the-night television ad. “Real exciting.”
Clare Drake took her friend in her arms, hugged her hard. “Three days. We give Herbie his stupid package back, he gives us ten grand, we’re outta here for good. Think of it. Right next to Disney World, get to be pals with Mickey and Goofy, maybe even get job there. I’ll be Snow White, you can be one of the dwarves.”
Clare Drake laughed. She was the smaller of the two. “Bitch!”
Jennifer Jamieson squeezed her harder. “Yeah. But you love me anyway.”
Monday, November 3, 2008
She may or may not have been born in Peru, perhaps in 1922 in the Andes. Or, as some unkind critics have claimed, she may have been Amy Camus, from Brooklyn. She liked to wear massive pieces of gold and silver on stage, and she sang imperiously. In latter years, people made fun of her, but no popular singer in memory has been able to match her range. Watch her on YouTube and be amazed.
This is before special effects, dubbing, voice phasing, etc. What you hear is her voice, ready to shatter crystal...
My parents had a couple of Yma Sumac LPs. I remember hearing her on the radio in Paris, thinking no such sound could come from a human. My mom learned the cha cha listening to her records.
So good-bye, Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo, whoever you were. I'll miss you.
Here's installment 54 of Wasted Miracles.
“You gonna come up or you gonna stay down there and fry?”
Mamadou laughed. “I wanted to make sure you were home, Aunt Mim.”
The voice on the other end emitted a dry chuckle. “You ever known me not to be home? You come on up now. I’ll tell Derrick to watch that car of yours. Did you bring anything to drink?”
Mamadou lifted the jug of Gallo burgundy, waved it so it could be seen from the house.
“Well that’s good, shows you got manners.”
Mamadou left the car unlocked with the motor running. Soon a small boy, one of Aunt Mim’s distant relatives, came from the house, gave him a high five and discreetly stuck his other hand out. Mamadou slipped him a ten. The boy smiled, sauntered to the car, got in. Mamadou watched him turn the AC down a notch, saw him fiddle with the radio dials until he found a pleasing station. The speakers boomed, the boy rocked up and down, a dwarf in the limo’s seat, the entire vehicle vibrating to a dissonant rap beat. The car would be safe. Aunt Mim’s boys could put Mamadou’s Dobermans to shame.
Aunt Mim was in the bed in the upstairs room, her huge shape swaddled in pink sheets. She wore a turban of the same color. Gray hair stuck out the sides in tufts. She was smoking a king-size Pall Mall and the room was faintly hazy with smoke. Off to the side, Aunt Mim’s lover, George, sat quietly on a chair perusing an old copy of Utne Reader. He looked up when Mamadou came in, smiled slightly, looked back down.
Mamadou approached the bed, bent at the waist to kiss Aunt Mim on the cheek. He handed her the jug of wine. She looked at the label, said, “George?”
George looked up, nodded, stood and found three high-stem glasses, poured the wine carefully, handed the glasses around, returned to his reading.
Mamadou said, “You’re looking well.”
The old woman harrumphed, pleased nevertheless. “Gained another ten pounds. I look at food and it sticks to me, don’t have to eat it or nothin’, just look at it. You’re lookin’ good too. You married yet?”
Mamadou shook his head.
“Din’t think so, I’da heard. Your business still doin’ good, I’m told. You be getting richer, don’ have time to visit, forgettin’ the people that helped you...”
Mamadou shook his head again. “You know that’s not true, Aunt Mim.” He sipped from the glass. Aunt Mim drained hers, held it out to George for a refill. There was a long silence. Mamadou looked around the room.
He’d never seen Aunt Mim anywhere but in the huge bed, and George always seemed to be there, silent and attentive. The room itself hadn’t changed from the last time he’d visited a year earlier. The rosebush wallpaper was slightly more faded, the curtains, rugs, furniture, everything else was the same.
“So how you doin’?”
“I’m well, Aunt Mim.”
Aunt Mim squinted at him, sighed. “I still say a prayer every night for Amelie, don’t I, George?”
George nodded. Aunt Mim took a deep breath. “That was such a shame, young woman like that. Hope those boys are rottin’ in hell. They needed killin’. But thass what happens when the drugs getcha. Ain’t nothin’ good to be deerived from all that stuff. An’ it’s gettin’ worse and worse, thass what people tell me.”
Mamadou smiled, sipped. “People tell you everything, don’t they, Aunt Mim? You know what they’d call you in French? They’d call you the doyenne.”
The woman looked at him, laughed uproariously. The bed shook. “The dwayen? You still a sweet-talkin’ man, ain’tcha? Ain’t he, George? I like that word, dwayen. Sounds kinda African, though, not French.” She drank from her glass and her expression changed. “Damn straight! They tell me everythin’. I won’t tolerate no secrets. That’s how I knew that boy took your sister, ‘cause people came and told me. And that’s why I asked George here to pay you a visit.” She nodded in the direction of the elderly man who did not look up, took a deep sip of whine. Wasn’t hard gettin’ those boys to come to you. Hell, I knew that boy that hurt Amelie since he was little, knew his family, too. None of ‘em were any good. Ida been smart, I mighta could’ve prevented what happen to your sister, but I didn’t see it comin’, you know. I was gettin’ old, even back then.”
She made a show of sitting up in the bed, folded her hands on the coverlet. “So, what is it I can help you with this time?”
Mamadou told her. She listened silently, broke in only once, said, “AA? They tried settin’ up a AA meetin’ here once. I let ‘em use my kitchen, but it didn’t last. Most black people, men, they don’ wanta talk about their drinkin’ They just want to do it. Or ifn they do talk, they boast, like it was somethin’ to be proud of. Ain’t that right George?”
Mamadou listened to Aunt Mim for an hour as she recounted births, deaths, marriages, abandonments. Before he left, he wrote the word doyenne on a piece of paper, handed it to her. Aunt Mim looked at it, spelled it out loud a couple of times. Mamadou said, “It means a great lady, one who’s kind and helps people. A patron. A leader.”
George spoke for the first time. “It also means the senior member, as in age or rank, of a group, class or profession, etc. Webster’s Unabridged. Page 431.”
Aunt Mim nodded her head, unimpressed with George’s scholarship. “Thass a pretty word, ain’t it George? Yeah. I kinda like that, bein’ a dwayen. Gotta good ring to it. Maybe I’ll get one of the girls to embroider a pillow for me, have it say, ‘Mimosa Bell, dwayen of all she surveys.’ That’d be right, wouldn’t it?”
Mamadou put his glass down, took one of her heavy hands in both of his, kissed it. “That would be absolutely right, Aunt Mim. A proper and fitting title.”
Aunt Mim giggled. “Such a sweet talker, ain’t he George?”
Friday, October 31, 2008
Personally, I like Gerard. No one will mistake him for Maurice Chevalier and start singing "Sank 'eaven fur leetle gurls." He has become, somehow, so quintessentially French that the whole image of the average Frenchman has changed from the baguette-carrying, beret-wearing, and Gauloise-smoking little guy to the cro-magnon-lout-in-a-cheap-leather-jacket. I think this is a positive development.
I like Gerard as an actor, too. He mumbles like Brando, postures like Newman and has the kind of grin that made Cruise famous. Also, he's pretty wide-ranging--from Cyrano de Bergerac to Georges in Green Card.
Gerard and I share a few similarities.
He was born in France in 1948. I was born in France two years earlier.
He owns an island in the South Pacific. I own some worthless snake-infested land in South Virginia.
He speaks English. I do too, and better than he does.
He likes saucisson. I do too.
He's gained a lot of weight. So have I.
We both have large noses. I got mine from my mother. I don't know about Gerard.
We both like Johnny Haliday a lot.
So really, Gerard and me, we're almost twins.
Here's installment 53 of Wasted Miracles.
That was a possibility, he’d done a monumental amount of dope, enough to kill a whale, and the fifth of Laphroag was almost empty. There were more than half-a-dozen empty beer cans lying on the floor. Combinations like that were lethal, she’d seen a guy OD on less and he’d never woken up, just huffed and puffed a little as he changed from fleshtone to white to blue.
Mollie went to the door, opened it, made sure no one was in the hallway, went down the stairs that led to the building’s basement. There she found the exit into the alley next to the garbage bins. It was a quarter after eight in the morning, the rush hour traffic was blasting down Columbia Road. There was a bus stop three blocks away and she only had to wait five minutes. When the bus came, she got on after asking the driver if it stopped near the Dupont Circle metro. Her feet hurt, she could feel blisters forming in both her heels. Her eyes were gritty and she was lightheaded but then who wouldn’t be? It had been one hell of a productive night.
In neighborhoods where reputations are a major form of wealth, Mamadou’s name was powerful currency.
He was a black man who had undergone a tragedy so common it was viewed as almost normal by black Washingtonian families. Death, be it from a bullet, a needle or a pipe, is an accepted part of existence in the totally poor and totally black neighborhoods of the city. It rates no play in the evening news though the Nation’s Capital did earn brief international fame in the late 80’s when the self-named Chocolate City began to be called Dodge.
The neighborhoods where Mamadou earned his reputation neither knew nor cared that a few miles away lay the center of the Western world. Many residents could not have named the President of the United States, did not know where the White House was, never went to a museum, were incapable of reading the morning newspaper. The history made a few miles away at the Capitol bypassed them entirely, except when the laws passed by the nation’s elected officials closed a free health clinic, restricted the purchasing power of food stamps, took dollars away from the welfare checks. People die at home as often as in hospitals and violence is the number one killer of young men. AIDS is number two. The infant mortality rate is higher than in virtually any other city in the country, comparable to that of destitute Third World nations. The mothers--eleven, twelve, thirteen years old--also die during childbirth, their bodies, not yet fully formed and poorly nourished, cannot take the strain of a delivery. Yet a deeply instilled and mean-spirited male pride says that a boy is not a man until he has fathered a child, and so the circle endures. It’s not uncommon in Washington to find grandmothers in their late twenties.
It was in neighborhoods such as these that Mamadou had first arrived as a new but far from gullible immigrant. It was there he learned honor could be bought from the poor as easily as from the rich, and for far less.
He was driving the newest limo slowly down numbered streets in the Northeast quadrant of the city. There were many boarded-up houses and stores with here and there an oasis, a small, neatly painted two-story home festooned with bars on windows and doors and adorned with flower patches and shrubs. The temperature was in the upper 90s and the pavement shimmered. Most homes had their curtains drawn but Mamadou knew that in each and every building, eyes noted the passing of the long black car, hands reached for telephones and called neighbors.
He braked the limo to a stop in front of a cinder block and clapboard house with a tilted front porch, parked between a rusting Chevrolet and a brand new BMW. He kept the engine running, turned the air conditioning to full, lit a Gauloise and waited. Before he had finished the cigarette, his cellular phone rang.
Monday, October 27, 2008
But I am consternated, having just discovered that the Blogspot people who kindly carry my messages were also the first to put up a Palin for VP blogsite waaay back in 2007. OMG!!!
It's getting down to the wire, and I thought I would throw a sabot into the works by suggesting a slight change in party nominations. Ready? I propose we elect the team of Obama and Palin. Insane, you say? Read on.
First, an Obama/Palin presidency would unite the country. Left and right could get together and attempt to solve the problems left and right have.
Second, by having a Black President and a Caucasian VP, we will be representing a very large segment of the population. All we will need may be a Latino Secretary of State.
Third, one has a penis, one has a vagina, thereby representing every single person in the U.S.!!
Fourth, our European friends would think we're very cool.
Fifth, we could create and promote the sport of snowmobile basketball, rules TBD.
Sixth, there would be a lot of kids at the White House, which is always a good thing.
Seventh, Condi Rice, who is of indeterminate race, could step in if there's ever a tiff between the Prez and the Veep.
Eighth, Obama's urban, Palin is rural.
Ninth, this ticket would encourage very rapid growth of country hip hop music, for which we have all been waiting.
Tenth, Palin's favorite food is moose stew. Obama prefers Italian from Chicago's Italian Fiesta Pizzaria. No more rubber chicken at the White House.
Think about it; tell your friends!
Here's installment 52 of Wasted Miracles.
Herbie talked and talked and talked, stayed up all night flapping his mouth and Mollie listened, smiled, made approving sounds in spite of the fact that she was dying to go to sleep, her eyes wanted to rest and only sheer force of will kept them open. He told her about his parents, about his sainted grandmother, his first drunk, his first drug deals with the Georgetown students cramming for finals, his one and only encounter with heroine, which, he claimed, almost killed him. “Felt like my veins were on fire. Then I threw up. Then I fainted. Never, ever, do that again.”
When Herbie played with her breasts she let him, when he ran his hand between her legs she let him do that too because she knew it would lead to nothing.
Between snorts Herbie kept saying, “This is great, you know? I can’t do this with Josie. If we’re together I can’t even do a little dope to cool myself out, she wouldn’t stand for that. So this is great, being with you and all...”
Coked to the gills, he said, “Hey, you know? I got this deal working, I could maybe use somebody like you, somebody smart and pretty, we can make a fortune, guaranteed, whaddya think?”
Mollie smiled, she remembered one of the rare men she respected, this old guy who used to shoot pool in a bar where she worked. Between racks he talked to himself and one day she heard him mumble, “Never partner with an asshole. It’s the dumb ones that’ll kill you...” And that had stuck.
After awhile Mollie was handling the razor blade, mincing and chopping and powdering the coke into fine even white lines and she had to admit it was tempting, she could almost feel the rush but then she’d remember the fountain of blood spurting from her nose, the doctor’s tired eyes and defeated gaze. So she fought it all the way and she won, it wasn’t as hard as she’d thought and the payoff was worth the difficult moments because Herbie, the coked-out, runny- nosed, shiny-faced, fucked up drunken fool, told her everything. Everything. The drugs, the theft, the Zulu, the hiding place, the million bucks. Every single thing. And by the time Herbie crashed on the floor full of beer and Laphroag and Bolivian Marching Dust, Mollie Catfish knew her life was going to change for the better. It was only a question of time, and she had plenty of that.
Meanwhile, Herbie stank like a distillery, his rank breath seemed to fill the room. A rivulet of spit ran down one corner of his lips. There could have been a turkey shoot in his living room, he wouldn’t have noticed. Mollie loosened his belt, stretched him out on the couch, made him comfortable so on the off-chance he came to, he wouldn’t feel the need to move.
Then she began searching the apartment. She did it meticulously, putting things back just the way they were. She looked in all the drawers in the kitchen, beneath the folded shirts in the bedroom chest, in his shoes. There was nothing in his desk, nothing beneath his mattress, nothing, seemingly, anywhere.
The sun had come up and Herbie was going to be out for a few more hours, so she drew the curtains and kept looking. She was getting frustrated and angry, beginning to make mistakes, forgetting where she’d already looked. The phone rang once, twice, three times and she almost jumped out of her skin. Herbie stirred slightly. She took the phone plug out of the wall. She was just about to give it up when she looked into his closet, saw his clothes neatly lined on plastic hangers, began patting down anything that might have pockets. Inside a godawful olive green sportcoat from Britches, she found a Radio Shack electronic address book, no bigger than a business card and almost as thin. She pushed the On button. The tiny liquid display screen blinked. She pressed Phone. The screen asked, “Name?” She pressed Index. She got a pencil and a piece of paper from Herbie’s desk, began copying names and numbers. There weren’t that many, barely a dozen. Under J she found Josie, under Z she found Zulu. When she was done she put the thing back into the Britches sportcoat, walked around the apartment three times to make sure nothing was out of place. Herbie hadn’t moved. His breathing was shallow, labored. Maybe he’d die?
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Not that long ago, I was told by a writer friend to strike any word that ends with the letters ly. I got rid of all the adverbs on my page and found it to be a remarkable and cleansing, freeing exercise. The scene I was working on didn't suffer a bit--in fact, it became easier for the reader to travel there. This led me to understand that a word needing an adverb to make it work is probably the wrong word. Words, in and of themselves, rarely need qualifiers.
Another time, a reporter and fiction writer explained that he never bothered to read and parse. He compared this to eating a meal and trying to identify all the ingredients in the dishes being served. That made sense to me as well. To me, trying to deconstruct a work is the equivalent of tearing a fine watch apart. I have big, ungainly fingers that do not handle small parts well. I will be left with a bunch of tiny pieces, and will not know how to put them together again to have a working mechanism. Guaranteed, the watch will never work again.
I remember as a kid in class being told to write papers on the symbolism of this and the meaning of that in the work of so and so. This wasn't difficult. A little bit of imagination impressed the hell out of the English teacher. How difficult is it to see metaphors in the life of butterflies?
If you want to write, write. Write about what you know, and if not, write about something so totally outrageous that you create a universe. But whatever you do, write.
Here's installment 51 of Wasted Miracles.
When Mollie met Herbie she immediately saw him for what and who he was. Nevermind that he grabbed her ass five minutes after being introduced to her by his girlfriend, nevermind that when he did it Josie was standing not five feet away feeding quarters into the jukebox. Mollie was used to people grabbing at her, had all sorts of snappy rejoinders for people with Roman hands. What she found interesting was that Herbie was a scam artist, that they were kindred spirits, that there might be something there for her if she played it right.
When she and Herbie were on the couch in his apartment later that night after Josie had gone home, Mollie felt the faintest trace of disgust with herself--here we go again, she thought--but it wasn’t enough to stop what was happening, which was Herbie unzipping her dress, lowering her panties, then pausing to go get a beer in the kitchen. That was when she became sure about Herbie.
Herbie did a couple of lines, offered her some, drank his beer, offered her some. She refused both. Mollie was serious about the AA stuff. The last time she’d done coke, her nose had exploded into a shower of blood. It hadn’t hurt but she’d gotten scared. At the public clinic she went to the next day the doctor said the insides of her nostrils were seriously abraded, and that the membranes in there had become paper thin. One more good hit might require surgery, putting a plastic plug to replace the damaged cartilage. And then the doctor added, “And incidentally, those little broken veins on your cheeks? The ones under the makeup? They’re going to get bigger. How old are you? Seventeen, eighteen? Kind of early to start dying. So you might want to think about giving up the booze too.” Then he’d looked at her arms, seen the tracks there, shaken his head. “Forget it. You’re already dead. You just don’t know it yet.”
That had scared her, a total stranger being able to say that just by looking at her.
So she turned down the booze and the dope at Herbie’s, endured his thrusting and humping, made all the necessary ooh and aaah sounds. It was a pretty good performance on her part, she thought, and it fooled Herbie who kept losing his hard-on and trying to get it back with more and more blow. He kept lubricating himself with spit, which Mollie had always found truly repulsive, God knows what he’d had for lunch, rubbing himself until he was half-hard. Nothing worked, least of all the coke, but it made him increasingly talkative.
It was something Mollie had noticed in the past, that scammers have a need to talk, to boast, to expose themselves and confess their sins with a mixed measure of pride and humility, though often not much of the latter. Maybe it was a perverted form of trust, a weird kind of sharing; maybe it was simply that they had no one else to talk to, they couldn’t reveal their genius to the straight people they scammed so they did so to their peers. Prostitutes talked about their johns and pimps, muggers described to each other in the minutest details the faces of their victims, junkies crowed about their latest scores. Mollie had discovered this early in life and learned to exploit it, listening carefully and filing the tidbits of information. You could learn a lot that way. She had.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
The book took a long time to write because, basically, I am a lazy writer. I try to get a few pages a day and don't always succeed, and my writing ratio is three- or four-to-one. I other words, I write three or four pages for every page I keep. There are days when when not a single sentence makes it.
During the rewrite stage, more pages get sacrificed. Entire scenes that provide nothing to the development of the book--scenes that may make me feel good, or erudite, or allow me to show off--get whacked.
When the first draft is finished, I give it to a couple of good friends whose judgements I trust. More scenes and pages vanish, but at this point, some new pages are added as well. Frankly, it gets boring for everyone, including me. This is when I go from writer to bricklayer.
The skills involved here are different: grammar, orthography, continuity. If one of my guys is 40 when the book begins, he has to be older at the end. Don't laugh--errors like this happens and even gifted editors have been known to let one slip through. Names have to be spelled correctly throughout, facts double-checked. This is particularly true when writing historical fiction, because there will always be someone--and probably several someones--who know more about what I've just written than I do.
And then, of course, I have to make sure that nowhere have I employed my particular pet peeve, the deus ex machina escape clause.
In ancient Greek and Roman drama, this is when a god is introduced into a play to resolve the entanglements of the plot. In modern writing, it implies using an artificial or improbable device to end the difficulties of a fictional situation.
I abhor deus ex machina.
Many years ago I read a who-dunnit set on a tropical island. The book had everything: spies, robbers, murderers, dope dealers, beautiful naked women and pirates. It wasn't a big book, maybe 300 pages, tops, and it became obvious by page 290 that the writer would not be able to resolve the various story lines he had established. So he got all his characters into a restaurant, and.... he blew up the boiler and killed them.
I was so angry at the waste of my time reading this piece of trash that I scribbled highly descriptive obscenities on the inside cover and mailed it to the publisher. I added a note saying I would never purchase a book from that house again.
They never wrote back.
Here's installment 50 of Wasted Miracles.
Mollie Catfish’s conception began with a lie and the pattern of her life was fixed from that day on.
When Billy Raoul (Boy) Custis and Tammy Coe were clotheless from feet to waist down near Skag Lake, Missouri, and Boy was in and on top of Tammy, he said, “I won’t come in you. I promise.” But he lied, and he did. Later, he’d say he couldn’t help himself so that it wasn’t really his fault. Even later, he’d add the baby wasn’t his, didn’t look like him and anyway Custis men always fathered boys, which, since Tammy’s baby was a girl, was all the justification Boy needed to leave Skagville and Tammy behind.
Tammy knew the child was his, but since she hadn’t really wanted to marry Boy, she felt a certain relief when he left town. She would raise the little girl herself with the help of family and church and everything would work out fine. Except that it didn’t. The child was taken in by the state on the eve of her first birthday when Tammy eloped with Billy Raoul Custis’ younger brother Joe. Joe was willing to take Tammy with him to California but he didn’t want children. Children would get in the way, cramp their style. After a few minutes’ consideration, Tammy found she agreed. Motherhood had not been as fun as she’d expected, in fact it hadn’t been fun at all and everyone is entitled to a second chance. So Joe and Tammie left the infant on the steps of the Skagville Baptist Church in a pink plastic basket Tammy bought for the occasion at K-Mart.
The baby was quickly adopted by a childless couple from the northern part of the state and almost as quickly given back to the authorities. She was colicky, whiny, rarely slept at night and the young couple couldn’t stand it after a month. She was placed in six foster homes in four years. Somehow things never worked out. The little girl played with matches and set things on fire; she ruined her clothing on purpose; she liked to run around the neighborhood without a stitch on. By the time she was six years old the authorities seldom bothered to show potential parents her file and she was relegated to a series of state-run schools where she read voraciously, got A’s in English and failed every other subject.
One thing she discovered before she was six was that she often got punished when telling the truth. This didn’t make much sense but there it was. An artful, disciplined lie would get her through better than an unvarnished truth. She tested this theory many times and it proved faultless, got to the point where everything she did and said radiated honesty but was its opposite. She learned that simple lies were better than complicated ones, but that an occasional outrageous fabrication could serve her well. Sometimes she herself came to believe the lies she told and that helped too, it made remembering the past a bit easier and her own history more acceptable.
When she was twelve she seduced the school’s janitor in a broom closet that smelled of Pine-Sol and Windex. She persuaded the young, slow-witted man to drive her across the state line to Jolieville and to give her his life savings of $272.27 as well as a change of clothes he stole from his sister. The jeans fit, though the T-shirt was tight across her top which enabled her to lie about her age and get a job in a roadhouse serving beer and boilermakers to good old boys who drove trucks interstate. One of the drivers took a fancy to her and for six weeks she criss-crossed Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, South and North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. She charged $40 a day plus meals and would do pretty much anything the man wanted whether the truck was moving or not. The driver thought this was a good deal, considering the girl didn’t eat much, kept quiet and had a knack for tuning in good country stations. There was close to $2000 in twenties and fifties when she stole his wallet.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
I love fiction. I am not, however, an informed writer. I never read writing magazines. I don't subscribe to the New York Times Book Review. I frankly don't give much of a hoot what a reviewer may think of a particular novel and generally distrust reviewers anyway. Write your own stuff--don't criticize others'. I neither write nor read short stories, and I don't spend a lot of time on the Internet looking at the fiction that's there. I go to one workshop annually, run by a group call the Red Dog Writers. It's fun, intense, friendly an I would recommend it to anyone interested in the craft.
I have an agent--bless his soul--who years ago sold my first novel, a science-faction paperback titled The IFO Report--and will soon be pounding the pavement with my latest opus, Montparnasse. I love him as I love family.
I write fiction because creating and peopling my own worlds with characters I have brought to life is, by and large, more fun than dealing with the one I'm in. When I finished writing the IFO book, my characters held a party for me. Now admittedly, I was drunk at the time, a not uncommon state back then, but still, there they were, all the lead players of my opus, telling me exactly what they thought of me and my work, and how I could have done better by them. I like the people I invent. After a while, they become my friends and, as any writer who has gone through the process will tell you, they take on a life of their own. Can there be anything cooler than that?
Here's installment 49 of Wasted Miracles.
Catherine cut him off. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”
Colin tugged the coffee table so it was next to the chair. “Who are you angry at, anyway? Me or her? If it’s me, and you still want me to help you find her, then put your anger away for now, OK? And if it’s Josie, take it up with her when she’s back.”
Catherine swung at him. It was a better blow than the one in the parking lot. He caught her hand in his, enveloped her fist. “You already did that once. It didn’t help either, so just stop.”
Catherine’s face had gone very white. She let her arm drop.
Colin said. “I think it’s time you meet Mamadou.”
On Tuesdays and Fridays the Zulu took care of his legitimate businesses. He had quite a few. There was a three-store video rental concern that specialized in family value films and other wholesome fare. Two stores were in the affluent McLean and Great Falls area of Northern Virginia, the third was on Georgia Avenue near the 16th Street Gold Coast in Washington. The latter store had a back room where mostly interracial porn was discreetly available to members. Returns in all three stores were down a bit and he attributed this to a variety of reasons. People spent more time outdoors in the summer and video rentals were down. Also, the blockbusting summer releases drew customers to the movie houses. Equally important was the Zulu’s deep belief that pornography was a seasonal thing, that his customers’ baser instincts were closer to the surface during the winter months when night fell at five in the afternoon and more layers of clothing were worn, making disrobing--and therefore sex--increasingly tempting.
Independent from the video rental stores was a small production company that produced eight- to fifteen- minute pornographic clips destined for the predominantly straightlaced Muslim nations. The grainy color footage invariably showed bearded men with Arabic features doing things forbidden by the Koran to women whose Nordic good looks would bear little scrutiny. Jewish freelancers produced these clips and their work, considering almost non-existent budgets, was imaginative. He had thought that, if possible, the late Herbie’s girlfriend would be the star of a series of such performances, a dozen of which could be shot in a single day. The girl had not yet acquired the wasted look of the prostitutes and addicts often used in his productions, and, in his estimation, there was no sense letting the young woman’s potential go to waste--a fresh young face was always welcome in the volatile porno market. He’d have to get rid of her anyway since her usefulness would come to an end as soon as she revealed the information she claimed not to harbor, so it made sense to get some returns on the troublesome investment she represented.
To offset revenue falls in the summer, the Zulu was majority owner of two sporting goods stores that sold high-cost bicycles, in-line skates, rock climbing equipment and hiking gear. The Zulu personally had a closetful of in-line skates, exorbitantly expensive trekking boots, one-, two- and four-person tents, a whitewater kayak and a tandem bicycle that had been hand-built by the nation’s top two-wheel designer. He also had a full collection of leopard-striped Lycra and Spandex tops and bottoms, in case he decided to take the tandem out for a spin. He had done so once, forcing Comfort to take the rear seat, but the expedition had not gone farther than a mile when Comfort’s feet somehow got stuck in the vehicle’s toe-clips. Unable to maintain both momentum and balance, the hapless riders had panicked, causing the tandem and its pedalers to run into a parked Cadillac. It had been an embarrassing and unfortunate moment for all concerned. In retrospect, though, the Zulu had to admit the mishap had been a blessing. He had found the tandem’s narrow seat painfully uncomfortable, had in fact been moments away from dismounting and telling Comfort to pedal the bicycle home by himself. The accident had at least allowed him to save a modicum of face. The skates and hiking boots he had never worn. The tents were never pitched. But he had paddled the kayak in an acquaintance’s swimming pool and found it enchanting, had done several laps until his arms hurt and he was caught in the slight vortex of the pool’s filter unit. Comfort, who had been holding a rope tied to the kayak’s bow, rescued him. The Zulu was gratified to see that the sports stores’ profits were healthy and climbing.
Other financial initiatives included loans at heretical--but legal--interest rates to Ethiopian and Somali hot dog vendors who needed cash to buy their carts and operating stock; partial interest in three downtown nightclubs; a used car dealership; two very tidy eight-unit apartment buildings in Northeast and a duckpin bowling alley in Oakton, Virginia, some twenty miles from Washington. The bowling alley was the loss leader for a bar next door called The Eleventh Frame. The Zulu owned that establishment as well.
On all these investments the Zulu dutifully paid federal, state and local taxes. His returns were always on time and correct to the penny. He had never been audited. He employed a full-time certified public accountant who kept straight books.
The Zulu’s investments served a twofold purpose. They masked the income he made from the sale of drugs, and, since he encouraged the local mob to launder its cash through his establishments, the stores, dealerships and clubs allowed him to operate relatively free of the Washington-based organized crime family that could, in a moment, have shut him down.
The Zulu was also active in politics. He had contributed to the election and re-election of the mayor of Washington, even after an FBI sting operation caught that individual red-handed toking from a crack pipe. That had proven tricky, had thrust the Zulu into a limelight he neither wanted nor appreciated. He had been questioned regarding his relationship His Honor and steadfastly refused the renounce his friendship with the great man. And since Washington is a forgiving town--the voters after all did reelect the mayor, but only after he tearfully admitted his powerlessness over drugs and alcohol and promised to reform both himself and the city--interest in the Zulu’s affairs waned and passed quickly.
His name had more than once been linked to the capital’s thriving drug trade but there was simply no proof. The Zulu operated quietly--if sometimes with great violence--and did not espouse the trappings of vulgar wealth. He was simply a black businessman, a naturalized U.S. citizen, an acquaintance and occasional guest of the mayor. The true source of his original wealth was unknown to all but a handful of people. The Zulu, when faced with someone so indiscreet as to openly question his background, merely shrugged and hinted at the vast--if discrete--wealth of his tribe. People assumed he was a prince, a direct descendant of Shaka and he met this assumption with a shy but knowing smile.
The Zulu turned is attention to the important matter of finding temporary manpower to replace the late and unlamented Akim. The boy had had promise. The Zulu was sorely disappointed in the way things had turned out but didn’t dwell on it. He liked to think of himself as a man who created opportunities from setbacks. Akim and Comfort had made a good pair but that was no more; Comfort alone might have his uses but what the Zulu really needed was a two-man team fully capable of and willing to do great harm to others, as needed.
He had heard good things about a pair of disgraced former cops whose last employer had attempted to renege on an agreement. The ex-officers had drowned him slowly in the Tidal Basin but the employer’s death was ruled accidental by a grand jury. The two were looking for work and seemed like the Zulu’s kind of people. He dialed Information to get their numbers.
Monday, October 6, 2008
But on the other hand, consider this: while roaming the recently embellished waterfront in Georgetown with a friend, we happened by the Swedish Embassy, a gorgeous piece of glass and metal architecture that somehow integrates beautifully with the surroundings. Embassies are often cold and soul-less places. Sweden's is just the opposite: the lobby guards smile at you as you enter; there's a gorgeous exhibit of aerial photography in the the basement, and just past that, a cafe. It's only opened from one to five p.m. on weekends, and right now it is Washington's best-kept secret. The place is run by volunteers who dispense excellent coffee and cookies (try the chocolate ones and the cinnamon rolls) , and a number of computers in the seating area are available for Web-searching Swedish subjects. When we went the place was virtually empty so we sat in the amazingly comfortable version of Swedish egg chairs, overlooking a placid pool of water.
This is a welcome trend in Washington. The Swedish initiative is a pilot program that, hopefully, more embassies will adopt. Embassies and the ground they are built on are actually considered to be territorial part and parcel of the countries they represent. So yesterday, for a brief time, we had coffee in Sweden, and it was very, very pleasant.
On another issue entirely, the same friend with whom I shared coffee told me recently that this blog is crotchety. For that, I put a large plastic turtle in her toilet. But since she is outdoorsy and not easily fazed, I have decided she may have a point. I will try henceforth to be more positive and cheery. But I will probably fail.
Here's installment 48 of Wasted Miracles.
When Catherine came over her eyes were cold. She had on jeans that might have been a half-size too small, a T-shirt that read, ‘Put the fun back in dysfunctional’ and a pair of cowboy boots Colin had never seen her wear. She stood framed in the doorway and Colin was afraid of getting too close, of somehow invading her space.
She refused his offer of coffee, took a 16-ouncer from a Seven-Eleven bag and spent extra time stirring in creamer and Equal. Finally, she said, “I suppose we can try to get over this and still be acquaintances, but I’m not all that sure it’s worth it. So for the moment being, let’s just stick to the subject at hand. Where do we go from here.”
The night before on the phone he had told her almost everything, had described his meetings both with Mollie Catfish and with Mamadou, explained the existence and death of the late Herbie. Catherine’s fears and frustrations had grown even as he spoke, and he’d tried without success to reassure her. He hadn’t told her about Joe the Cop’s encounter with the dead drag queen.
“So the upshot of all this is that we still don’t know anything, not really. We don’t know whether she’s dead or alive, or run away, or kidnapped. Am I right? So she could be on the street and using again.” There had been the faintest note of hysteria in her voice.
Today she was better, though her face showed the passage of another sleepless night. Her first words were, “You know, I’ve always hated your apartment. Always.”
She dropped her handbag to the floor, foraged in a pocket of her jacket, found a cigarette, lit it with a Bic.
“Started again last night. After four years, isn’t that a bitch? Found this pack of stale Winstons in a drawer, somebody who came over once forgot it, how long ago I don’t want to know. They taste pretty rotten.”
Colin wore a weak smile. “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head. “Don’t pride yourself, Colin. I didn’t start again because of you, believe me. I did it because last night I really desperately wanted a drink, I went so far as to get Lars’ stupid bottle of vodka out of the fridge and I had a glass all ready with ice cubes. That’s how close I came. I watched myself doing it, knowing it was completely insane but I was going to do it anyway, it didn’t matter. Then I poured it down the drain. So lighting up seemed the lesser of the two evils.”
Colin stood silent. She eyed him coldly, glanced around the apartment, gestured at the furniture. “Where do you find this stuff, anyway? How can you stand to live in here, it looks like college dorm. Worse, actually.”
She walked to the open bedroom door. “Is this where it happened?” She pointed her chin to the futon, made a disgusted sound. “I still can’t believe it. I can’t even believe I’m here. You and Josie. Jesus Christ. Is there a club for people like you? The Mother and Daughter Club, or something? Jesus.” Then lower. “This really hurts.”
Colin took three steps, wrapped his arms around her, squeezed. He felt her entire body tighten momentarily, the resistance like a current phasing through her. Her arms hung by her side. She let her head drop on his shoulder, it stayed there a moment and then she drew back.
“OK. Sorry. Enough of that, it won’t solve or improve anything.”
They were standing on a small rug that Colin had meant to throw away a long time ago, it always slipped when he stepped on it. She nudged the rug with her toe, bent down to pick it up, held it up to the light. To herself she said, “This is really filthy.” She walked to the kitchen, placed the rug carefully in the trash can.
Then she moved the big easy chair Colin read in from one side of the room to the other, dragged the coffee table next to it.
She reached under the couch, tried to lift one end, grunted. “Help me with this. Move this end over there. It’ll open up the room, make it less claustrophobic.” It did, though Colin noticed that where the couch had been, the carpet was a different shade of brown. She noticed it too. “Sunlight. That’ll fade in a week or two.”
They worked without speaking for half-an-hour. She asked for a hammer and nails and made him rehang the four prints he had haphazardly stapled to his walls. She found a rag and a bottle of Windex in the hall closet, started spraying windows. She said, “You got a vacuum cleaner? Get it. Do something, don’t just stand there.”
He pushed the machine around the room, glad for the noise that prevented conversation. When he was through with that, she said, “Do the ceilings and the baseboards. There’s cobwebs all over the place, see? Use that brush attachment but put a new bag in first.”
So he did that too. He could feel her looking at him, darting glances whenever his head was turned. Then she stood back, evaluated her work. She dropped the spray bottle, let the rag fall to the floor, looked around the room, hands on her hips. “I’m not sure what that was all about, but I feel better, at least a little. Maybe I just wanted to alter the scene of the crime. Does that make sense?”
He nodded. Her lips turned down. “Jesus. Look who I’m asking...”
Colin tried to appreciate the changes, said, “Thanks.” There was no doubt it was cleaner than it had been in years, and Catherine’s touch had made the meager furnishings somehow better fit the available space. But it wasn’t right, it had lost the feel he was familiar with. The chair where he read would no longer get light from the window. The weights were in the wrong place. He looked around again, said, “I think you’d better get over this.”
Catherine’s face immediately went hard. “Get over it?”
He nodded, went to the chair, pulled it back to its original place in the room. “It’s not helping anything. It’s certainly not helping Josie. You’re acting as if I committed some sin and I didn’t. I already told you. I didn’t know she was your daughter. If I had...”
Friday, October 3, 2008
When I was a child in Paris, kids my age played cowboys and Indians, small Gallic Roy Rogers and Gene Autrys. I copied the poems of Minou Drouet and claimed them as my own.
You probably haven't heard of Drouet. In 1955, she astounded France--and a good part of Europe--by writing charmingly adult poems. A brouhaha followed. Was she for real? Were the verses penned by adults?
Charles Templeton, a CBS reporter, recalls: "Minou Drouet's mother was a prostitute and her father a field hand. As an infant she was taken into the home of a middle-aged woman, whose ambition to write well exceeded her talent. She adopted the child and raised her with love, surrounding her with music in a home dedicated to literature. It appeared that Minou was retarded. At six she hadn't spoken a word. The judgment of four doctors was that she would never be normal.
"One day, her mother played a recording of a Brahms symphony for her. Minou swooned. When she was revived, she spoke perfect French in complex sentences. Shortly thereafter she began to write poetry. Some of the poems were published and immediately provoked debate. It was said that no child of six could possibly have such thoughts, much less express them so profoundly. It was argued that, unlike music, poetry demands an experience of life, experience that no child so young could have had. It was charged that her adoptive mother - a poet herself who aspired to recognition but had been judged second-rate - was the author of the verses.
"The controversy became a cause celebre. The French Academy of Arts and Sciences decided on an experiment to validate or to dismiss the claims made for the child. Minou was placed in a room behind one-way glass. She was provided with paper and pencil, and after she was alone and incommunicado, given three subjects to write about. She did as she was instructed and the results were scrutinized. There could be no question; the poems were the product of a prodigious talent. Jean Cocteau, the eminent writer and film-maker, commented: "She's not an eight-year-old child, she's an eight-year-old dwarf.”
I copied some of Minou's poems in longhand onto my cahier d' ecole and showed them to my mother who, herself an author, thought she too had a genius on her hands. She called her friends, who called their friends. Could there be another Minou Drouet in the Sagnier household?
Things were getting out of hand. I confessed the truth. It was possibly the hardest thing I ever had to do, and I decided there and then that, no matter what, from then on whatever I wrote would be my own.
Here's installment 47 of Wasted Miracles.
Catherine said, “I talked to my sponsor. Don’t worry, I didn’t mention any names.”
Her voice was calm and dry on the phone. “I’m still furious, but I don’t want to kill you anymore. That’s what I felt like, Colin, killing you. But then I thought that out of this bizarre situation, there’s something good coming. And that’s that I was beginning to care too much about you, and now I don’t. Now I’m just angry, and sad, and repulsed.”
Colin listened, phone cradled against a shoulder.
“And I don’t want any explanations from you. Really, I don’t, it wouldn’t help, it would make things worse. And when we find Josie, I won’t ask her about it because that won’t help either.”
Colin heard the “we.” He said, “You still want me to help?”
Catherine hesitated. “Yeah. I don’t feel good about it, and if I could think of another way, I would. But I don’t have much choice in the matter. So you can call it your atonement, for lack of a better word.”
“No. I’m serious, Colin. There’s no winning here. It’s not a game. Whatever you have to say about it is going to be wrong.”
She took a deep breath that carried her into Colin’s room. “If you just fucked her--God, I hate that word, it’s ugliness in four letters--if you just fucked her then I can’t forgive that. I picture you and her and my stomach knots. It’s an image from hell. And if there was something else, something more... serious, then it’s just as bad.” Her voice broke, she reached deep inside to control it. “Because then, what am I supposed to do then, Colin? What am I supposed to ask? Whether Josie was better than me? My own daughter?”
Colin stayed silent. The seconds stretched until he heard Catherine take a deep breath. “God. Do you see what I mean, Colin? Do you understand?”
He closed his eyes, nodded. “Yes.”
“Just help me find her.”
There wasn’t much of anything more to say. “I’ll do all I can.”
“I hope so.”
There was another long uncomfortable silence. Colin’s palms felt clammy. Eventually, he said, “I’ve got some information, nothing solid but it’s a start.”