Friday, October 31, 2008

Gerard et Moi

There are only two French people in the world, me and Gerard Depardieu. I say this with a degree of certainty because every time I turn on the French channel on cable, there he is--Gerard jeune, Gerard vieux, Gerard balaise (hefty), Gerard mince come un fil (thin as a thread), Gerard en Francais, en Anglais and for all I know en Farsi.

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


I am going to assume most readers are familiar with the acronyms above, as I do not want to insult anyone by actually spelling things out. Really.

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

Writing Is the Art of....

applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Mary Heaton Vorse, a labor reporter in the 20s, said that. It's my favorite writing quote--simple, succinct, impossible to misinterpret. Writing--or for that fact any form of expression (notice I did not use the word "art")--is not a question of genius, talent, or gift. Rather, it is a dogged pursuit, a hunt for the right word, the right sentence, the right paragraph.

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


For the past seven years, I've been working on a novel set in Paris after World War I. It's almost finished and the sense of post-partum depression is tangible. My characters, major, minor and passing, are leaving home, and probably happy to do so. I haven't been kind to all of them. Some died after painful illnesses, others became drug addicts, one commits suicide. There were injured feelings, divorces, bloody noses, and a lot of sleeping around.

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.

Chapter 13

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

On Writing II

According to surveys, the average income of a fiction writer--if you include the Internet folks and the superstars like Stephen King--is $512 a year. That's not even fried-egg-sandwich money... My friend David Robins, author of The War of the Rats and many other excellent novels, likes to say there are fewer fiction writers making a full-time living at their craft than there are professional football players in the game. So it's a rarefied atmosphere. It's also, I believe, the most fun you can have with your pants on.

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

This One's For the Locals

One of the most charming aspect of living in the Washington, DC, area are the constant surprises and delightful discoveries that the city offers. OK, some of them aren't that great. I keep running into Newt Gingrich at the Family Restaurant in McLean, and that has a tendency to ruin my meals.

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.

Chapter 12

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

On Writing--Part 1

I've always wanted to be a writer. For me, there is no higher calling.

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.”