Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving Note -- Numb to Moderate

Thanksgiving at my mother's house always is an exercise in nostalgia, for the kind of family we could have been . We're past the recriminations, and now with the next generation moving into its stage of public dysfunction, it seems that we may have something to call our own, a style, something that can count as a legacy, a pattern, something. As far as the food, Mom finally got it together. After years of trying, the turkey was actually cooked right, carved right away from the breast, side dishes edible to tasty. Drinking moderate for the usual suspects, including moi.. Mom claimed she'd never heard me play an entire song through before. That's the kind of family we have. I took up the guitar in Mexico after buying a beauty in an outdoor market somewhere in the north near Durango. I bought my second in a pawn shop in New York City around 114th street and now, my third, an Ibanez, has decent action and am downloading all kinds of stuff and learning it. if i play an open mike this winter like I want I'll be chuffed. The human voice in song is the way we get closest to a true spiritual experience, listening, but especially by singing.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Over the Dam

Feeling squeezed for time. Need to develop, take chances, instead of settling where you do languish, funneling your energy into the fruitless, like twidddling while the dam roars, the ice caps melt. I wake up sometimes in the night feeling like the water is rising and I need to get out. The green monster looms closer swallowing the living and the already gone. Norman Mailer,,,Ira Levin. i can imagine them in heaven for a time, but eternity is a concept I have a hard time fathoming sometimes. Do the souls of the dead ever feel like they are drowning, or is everything still, or maybe in constant predictable motion so that it's just as if. As a collective, global consciousness do we imagine that we cheat death, that we create a kind of heaven on earth, a virtual reality where everything is forgiven, becomes banal, crystalizes into some unimagined beauty for the pleasure of God? The way sex with a loved One cleanses after becoming more than one's self, it tells of a hereafter, a subconscious, a mirror that one carries inside of the eternal like a permanent ID. This is interesting to me as an artist, the relationship between the two sides, the most impermanent and transient, sensory experience and an intimation of possible eternal Joy.

After the rain the cat hunkers by the door, nervously pacing. Winnie still smells Alice’s body. It reminds him of the lard room in the old farm at the top of Ray Road, although Alice was frail, almost bird-like in her skeletal structure. There is so much that comes flooding back to him now that she is in the car. The culvert on West Main Road has washed out which explains the air of stillness, the lack of traffic that has provided a backdrop to his despondent huffing through the small hours of the night. Since it is light Winnie thinks it is time for a drive. For Alice’s sake he hauls himself to his swollen feet.
The inside of the house, he sees, is collapsing. The overstuffed sofa cushions, super plush in a fabric Alice once hailed as a technological breakthrough, are splitting at the seams like sausages too long in the pan, spilling out a doughy substance that has spread throughout the first floor. The cat has some stuck on her tail. The picture on the wall, brought up from Alice’s old place out in the country, only miles from where Winnie himself grew up, a blue-tinted print of a cardinal on a pine bough, seems indelibly in shadow, as if Alice’s passing has granted it permission to give up the ghost. Cutlery lies on chairs. The world is melting, it said in the news. Winnie feels light on his feet, belying the fact that they are puffy and there is no sensation coming from them. He has stopped taking the Cumadin blood thinners. Paradoxically he feels younger, although tired. Last night was a long night and today is not quite started. The digital clock on the coffee table says 6:38. But it is November and there is light out the back window across the road, behind the Bin Luc’s red dragon.
He grabs for his glasses on the card table and knocks over the snow globe.
“The dragon,” he thinks, “is to blame.”
The penguins are slowly buried while Winnie adjusts the glasses to his nose. It helps to have something to focus his anger on. The restaurant dragon makes a convenient target. Winnie is like Saddam Hussein, railing at his fate, twirling his moustache at his captors.
He didn’t think it would happen. Honestly, he’d thought she would never die. He’d almost believed the angels had accorded them a special grant of immunity from that final sting. Alice’s muscle control grew ever worse. Her tremors sometimes shook the floor, but her eyes, always blue as sky and calm as spring rain, looked upwards and beyond forever. She was the thinker, the forward planner who had sold off the rest of the Cowen farm and bought this place on the Rockwood Estates, a development of trailer homes in the spillover from the fancy malls, the strip of fast food, Indian motels and adult video stores eternally in the last decade
Winnie, contemplative, moves slowly through the debris of her final pangs: bookshelves imploded of their mementoes, pill trays, unopened window envelopes blocking the doorway as if she had intended with her ruthless departure to stop time in its tracks, a final favor for entropy and for Winnie. And then her eyes had opened, the light had died, the gurgling in her throat had finally ceased. Her last words, “water” and then “ugh,” which Winnie had interpreted as “falls”, setting him up with his final duty and beyond that an emptiness he wouldn’t even begin to contemplate. But he’d finally gotten her in the car.
The wind is blowing as is common, he has noticed, after a hard rain as if the earth intended to dry itself in good time. The car is parked in the street with leaves stuck to the windshield. Alice is slumped on the floor in the passenger seat, wrapped in the light blue quilt they had bought at Wal-Mart the day after Christmas last year, a special indulgence that had warmed their days and nights. Another car, a grey SUV is pulling up behind as Winnie gets inside. He sticks the key in the ignition and starts the motor after a couple of cranks, set to ignore her. She knocks on the window and has that beaming, goofy smile as if to say “I may seem incompetent like you, but who knows?” and he must roll down the window and submit to her presence. Her blond hair is blowing about her face like whipcord.
“Hi, Winnie. Just checking in to make sure you and Alice are okay. Does she have her prescriptions filled?”
“That’s not where we’re going.”
“Oh, where are you going?”
“For a drive.”
“Don’t keep her out too long. How are you, Alice? Why are you on the floor?”
“She can’t hear you.”
“Is she all right?”
“She’s fine.”
“Alice? She doesn’t seem fine. I’ll need to report this if she’s not okay.”
Winnie rolls up the window. He presses on the accelerator with more force than he has since he was fifty and late for work at the liquor store in Meriden where he labored for a number of years for a despotic Italian-American of roughly his same age who eventually died in a boating accident. The store was sold off by his siblings. He was unmarried, recalls Winnie. And the store became a Mexican restaurant and eventually the entire block of shops was razed and the large warehouse outlets went up sometime in the nineties. Winnie rolls down the empty street unperturbed.
“We’re on the road again, Alice. Don’t be nervous. No backseat driving.”
Winnie smiles at his own joke and remembers Alice’s distaste for his ironic comments, how she encouraged him to value silence. She hated television shows, for instance. Winnie thinks he might like to own a television, but then feels sick at the very thought of a television. It’s too soon for such disloyalty. Then he cuts up the hill on Quarry Road to avoid the washout which he heard about on the radio.
When he came back from Meriden he was sixty-two, divorced for fifteen years, a father to a daughter, Shania, who worked for the Coast Guard in some land-based capacity in Alabama. He wrote Shania for a few years and then just stopped except for a Christmas card it seemed every other year or so until recently. They were never returned. Shania’s mother moved down to Florida to be near her daughter, he dimly remembered.
He remembered Alice from Sunday school teaching together in the seventies when he spotted her at the country store in Warner, fifty pounds heavier, bluish-grey hair in a perm, walking with great difficulty by the dairy freezer.
“Do you remember me?”
“Winston. You’ve been away.” She said this as if he’d disappointed her with such an absence, but the smile on her face provided a wry counterpoint.
“I have. I’m living in town now.”
“I hadn’t heard.”
“Last time, Alice. Gee, it must have been, it was Easter. Must have been 1971.”
“Haven’t been to church in years, Winston. Not since Frank died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Alice.”
“Oh, he’s better off where he is now. He don’t have no roofs to fix, cows to milk or Alices to nag at him.”
In the first flush of their time together, Winnie had taken Alice back to the Valley Community Church, now advertising itself as Love-Centered, Purpose Driven, with the new pastor, the Rev. Jinni Stockmayer. They had once taught Sunday school to second to fifth graders when it was still the Contoocook Church of Christ. But none of the old people went anymore. They were mostly younger families from all over, New Jersey, Manchester, some Spanish speaking dark-skinned people. The pastor, from Philadelphia, had a live-in girlfriend and there was some evident embarrassment, but not so much that it was a problem. Alice disapproved. It was a shame none of the old crowd went anymore. Some of the young families, intent on service, came and helped Winnie and Alice with chores, mowing, pruning the overgrown lilacs, but the roof had been too long without mending in the southeast corner, and the years of collecting refuse in the attic added up over a hundred. When she sold it, to a couple from California, the husband worked for Raytheon and was handy with a Sawzall, they were happy to walk away, in a manner of speaking. To be honest, Alice’s legs hardly supported her any more. She enjoyed the trailer with its ramp and fringe of grass in front of Pear Street. All the streets in the development were named after familiar fruits. There were no mangos, kiwis or clementines.
Winnie himself is in bad shape and feeling the effects of last night’s exertions. His lungs are half filled with fluid and scar tissue, and the doctor has expressed fears an embolism could put an end to it all, hence the blood thinners. Winnie is more tired of waiting for this potential scenario than he has been of anything else in his previous experience, although he has had some doozies. His first wife, for instance, threatened constantly to kill him for betraying their marriage vows, and for a few years, he’d feared she might knife him in bed, while he lay there. Even when drunk, or maybe especially when drunk, he slept fitfully. He did have a girlfriend who used to come around and take him for a ride in her Impala. But his performance suffered from the alcohol, the worries about his marriage and loss of employment always hanging over his head. She drifted away.
He had three hundred dollars on him when he came back to Merrimack County, and he knew he had to give up the booze if he was to live. Alice and Frank were both teetotalers. Frank had been well-known for writing editorials on the evils of liquor and rock and roll music to the local paper, the Sharon Star-Eagle. To Winnie, it was God’s hand that she reappear in his life. He credited his survival to Alice’s certainties, her bed-rock presumption that the best was ahead, no matter what. Now with her gone he squints down the road, afraid of the inevitable beating he will take from spread-eagled destiny.
He is over the crest of the land looking westward into the Minks. He can see Mt. Sunapee beyond where the highway rises to the north in a stand of spruce. A line of utility poles look like circus strong men, maintaining vigil, the nation gone blind with their might. Two police cruisers confer head to tail in a median clearing.
Winnie takes the exit for the Blackwater River and stops at the Harvester Market. The wind has picked up again. Ice films over the rain puddles, and there is a skin of road dust on the cars. The high school girl at the checkout counter gives him a worried look behind his back as he limps off with the six pack. He drinks two in the car. Still no tears, he thinks. He takes a chance on the Salisbury Road past the dam. It’s not in bad shape, but before the trailhead for the waterfall there is nothing but water. He pulls over and parks.
It was important to Alice. The family that first homesteaded here were distant cousins and she could name some of the names in the small plot with the all but faded headstones above the road, now a flat disc of pulsing energy, curiously destructive. The roar comes from the falls. The trail is a rushing torrent washing away mud and rocks. Winnie stands by the car and surveys the scene. A spume of white foam can be seen above the trees where the head of the falls is usually hidden. Winnie’s insides feel like a dry riverbed, like the reverberating flood has stripped him; all that is left are the bare rocks of I, me, her, she, the irreducible pronouns without story or end. He calls out for Alice, but can’t remember her name.
He opens the door on the passenger side. Her upper body rolls to the outside, then wedges into place, her legs jammed between the floor and the seat. The sight of her brings him momentarily back.
“The road’s washed away, Alice.”
Her face, drained of expressiveness, is the color of oatmeal, and her open mouth reveals a swollen tongue. Winnie is amazed at how much she weighs, the odd massiveness of her arms and flesh, pulling to get her back upright in the seat. He finally gets her back in the seat with her mouth closed. Then he pees into the water running now under the wheels.
He hears a car as it pulls up behind on the road. It’s a Sutton police car, and out steps a lady officer in her high pants and stripes. Winnie puts the beer down on the floor of the passenger side and protectively bends over Alice, covering her with the quilt.
“Sir. It’s too dangerous here now. I don’t know if you can see it. But the dam’s about to go. You’ll have to turn around and leave.”
Winnie turns around and straightens as much as he can at his age. He thinks it could be Shania or one of her friends.
“She just wants to hear the waterfall.”
“It’s not a good idea.”
“I guess not.”
“You’ll have to turn the car around and leave, sir.”
Winnie closes Alice’s door and walks slowly around and gets in the driver’s side. The lady officer speaks on her two way radio. The car fails to start, giving the whining, dismal sound of engine dysfunction. The lady officer knocks on the window with her radio, somewhat desperately. Winnie doesn’t see her, just hears her knocking. He locks the door.
When he was a child, his mother knocked on the door of the bedroom he slept in. When he was twelve, the teacher knocked on the desk. When he was eighteen he knocked on the barracks door late one night but nobody answered. A lot of those people were dead now. Let them knock while they can.
“It’s just us now, Alice,” he says.
The officer is gone. Winnie finishes the beers. He pees again. The water is higher, rushing around his ankles, and he holds onto the door. He gets back in the car. There is a loud rumble. For a long time Winnie thinks of nothing. When he wakes up there is a pull at the rear of the car. A tow truck is hauling them away. Winnie slumps forward, hitting his head on the steering wheel. He bleeds while he cries. The noise of the fall recedes.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A Ewe's Dying

Last night I came home in the dark now with daylight savings and buried the dead sheep. She'd been sitting in the barn doorway for a couple of days slowly dying of something, shitting her guts out. I wheeled her down towards the woods and dug out a hole with the spade, cutting into the semi-frozen turf and stomping on the blade to get it down below the roots. There was surprising thick topsoil, about twenty inches, never can tell with the glaciers where the yellow sandy silt loam will begin. The hole took me about twenty minutes to get squared and down about three feet. I'm getting better at this now and bowed my head and said some words to myself that sounded like a final blessing at the time, perhaps it was the cold. Anyway then i covered her over and replaced the two blocks of turf and stomped them down, wheeled the wheelbarrow up the hill and my son was coming around the corner of the house to tell me about some school project or something neat he'd discovered on the computer and wanting my permission to go back and check it out. That's the way life goes and at some point we all lie down and i remember the sheep giving me a look of some kind of recognition when i talked to it the day before when it was still alive and it was the first sign she had ever given of being some kind of more than sentient creature. It made me realize, her batting of eyelids -- the pain she conveyed was the same pain we all will share at the end of indignity and aloneness -- that the Spirit flows in all creatures and if we are supposed to be stewards we need to take our communion with all life forms.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


Arráncame la vida
Con el último beso, mi amor.
Y si acaso te hiere el dolor,
Debe ser por no verlo.
Porque al fin tus ojos
Me los llevo yo.


My time in the country is difficult to explain. Suffice it to say that I fell into the company of people who found life disillusioning and preferred to live in a foreign land with their imaginations. When we left finally it was under varying conditions but the universal, perhaps misleading impression that we were once again exercising our right to free will.
In the spring I shared a ground-level, comfortable apartment with a German, Wolfgang Mueller. He was an amiable man with many friends who worked teaching English at government offices, and he rose early and went about his day with well-bred, cheery resoluteness, with purpose in the purposeless tumble of the anarchic city. I worked at night, on a movie shot in an abandoned mine in the ancient and decrepit outskirts of Tepito, a notoriously crime-ridden suburb of Mexico City.
We gathered at the Estudios Churubusco in the afternoon, the thirty or so of us that had been hired as extras, struggling young artists and marginals, wearing boots and silver jewelry. Che was an Argentine who had studied economics. Juliana was a daughter of a Catalan university professor. Francois, a Frenchman writing a travel book. Max, a Vietnam veteran from Arizona. These were just some of the characters brought together at that time, finding ourselves working together on the Hollywood gig.
After a bus ride through dusty streets thronged with the homeward bound, shopkeepers closing for the day, we arrived at a fenced-off compound and were transformed by make-up crews into futuristic mutants of a desert planet, a warrior tribe, products in fact of a technological sensibility. There was nervous heckling and joking around while we waited in lines for our costumes and weapons. The Mexicans had a great sense of humor about the whole operation, amused at this brand of efficiency in the name of art. Nobody took it very seriously apart from the director and his assistant, Cookie, an irritable little Spaniard, who would shout at us to hurry. We took our places on the hill. The stars would appear, looking charismatic and sculptured, under the tutelage of the director, a very serious and young looking David Lynch, with a long blonde forelock that he kept sweeping away from his eyes and white, self-effacing deck sneakers. He apparently had made a name for himself with some low budget cult films. At the time I had never heard of him.
The extras clambered on the rocks, falling, scraping the expensive rubber suits, and prepared to begin the scene, which involved a shootout with some bad guy.
“You are not Apaches, please. You are dignified, noble. You draw your guns with calm. This is not a Western," said Cookie.
"It's obvious he's never spent any time in Tepito," said one of the extras, twirling the ray gun on his finger. Max laughed loudly in appreciation, causing Cookie to tremble with rage. Max had gone native in his sense of humor. He claimed in private conversations to be the victim of a CIA assassination plot. He said this to test your reaction. He'd been in the Green Berets in the Mekong Delta, spending months at a time alone in the jungle up a tree as a sniper, and the experience had marked him. Cookie hurried back to the director's side. From above, on the rocks, those of us who could understand English could follow their conversation.
"Did they understand, Cookie, what it is they have to do?" asked the director, breaking away from consultations with the camera man.
"Yes, David. They understand perfectly well."
We worked on scenes interminably while the action perfected itself in this recreated world. We looked on like reverential and half-understanding aboriginals at the deeper and intriguing excesses that passed for drama. Our faces bore the right amounts apparently of reserve and hostility.
At midnight, breaking for a meal, we pulled the rubber suits off and let them hang around our hips. This was against regulations, but the wardrobe personnel did not have the heart to enforce rules, understanding that it was hot under the lights and we were tired of the interminable repetition of some action, standing for hours. The food, served from the back of a truck and eaten under a tent, was plentiful and wholesome, stews, steamed vegetables, apple pie, Perrier water. The crew and the stuntmen cut in line on front of us as a matter of rank, but we just laughed. After eating we drank coffee spiked with tequila, and the more enterprising mixed marijuana and tobacco in hand-rolled cigarettes.
I was transfixed by the clash of egos that happened off screen, between takes. It seemed more dramatic than the actual narrative of the film. The director did his best to soothe over any difficulties with an unctuous, eager manner, but it was clear there was dissatisfaction in the air. The two stars, a young man and woman with all-American good looks, were feuding.
One night the executive producer appeared on the set. By then we were disenchanted with the supposed glamour of the business. We didn't care that he was signing all the checks. We just saw a balding old man with a potbelly and a funny silk jacket. That night there was an unusually long after dinner break as the cast confined themselves to their trailers. Some of us walked to the top of a promontory, and Juliana broke out a pack of Marlboros. We smoked, leaning back against the rocks like the languid primitives we were supposed to be playing. There was a half moon, a spray of stars and orange smog over the city.
"This stupid suit. It cramps my style," said Juliana, tugging at one of the arms.
"I suppose we are soldiers, not sex symbols," said Francois in his Parisian accented Spanish.
"Still, they could have tailored them a little better," said Juliana.
"Looks like these bastards are having problems among themselves. Some of the others are talking about a strike. I think it might be a good time," said Che.
"If we went on strike they'd just fire us and get some other people," I said.
"It would be a problem for them. Remember, they already have us on film," said Che.
One of the production assistants yelled from below that the extras were to take their places.
"What are we doing now?" I asked.
"Who knows?" said Francois ironically.
"We're still trying to get that idiot to cry," said Juliana.
Juliana considered it incomprehensible that a professional actor could not shed tears as the scene demanded. We had already spent the whole night waiting for the miracle to happen.
"I'll give him a good hook on the ear and see if that might work," said Che.
"It might," I said.
We walked down the hill, blinded by the lights, to our places at the mouth of the canyon. I stood on a precarious ledge, preferring the vantage it gave. Juliana, more practical, stood on solid ground below where she could lean and rest between takes. The dust machines started up, fouling the air with red powder meant to imitate some distant planet's atmosphere. The director checked the camera view, conferred with Cookie. The make-up crew placed some drops in the young star's eyes as he leaned his head back. A production assistant yelled for silence, punctuating the night with his single command. For his consistently irrelevant responsibility, we had settled on him as our favorite object of derision. Everyone was anxious as the producer sat in a high chair behind the camera, observing. Make-believe desert dust was blown in the air by large, noiseless machines.
The work was called off in the early morning. We traded in our weapons and rubber suits for civilian gear and changed in the tent reserved for us. Some of the women tried rubbing the caked grime off their faces with paper towels, but it seemed a painfully slow operation. We looked strange as we boarded the bus. Someone caught sight of the assistant, our nemesis, trudging across the parking lot.
"One, two, three."
We stuck our heads out the windows and gave him back his epitaph in splendid mimicry. He gave the whole bus the finger. We were rolling now.
Juliana, the last one on, slid into the seat next to me. I watched storefront colors bloom and wraiths of daybreak glide on the sidewalk.
"I don't feel tired," said Juliana.
"Neither do I."
We held hands as I stared out the window. I never looked at her until we got back to Churubusco.
"What a shame," said Juliana, letting go of my hand as the bus parked and the tribe stood and stretched.
I caught a ride with Francois up the Avenida Insurgentes. He usually gave two or three of us a lift in the old Chrysler that had traversed much of the continent. He let me out on the street into the ephemerally fresh morning air. In no time the city would be overrun.
I walked across Condesa, leaving footprints in the grass of the old horse track that runs down the center of the street. Two Indian men, Oaxacans by their dress, walked silently by, faces lowered under their hat brims. I looked away. I was in the realm of ghosts again, over the bridge and on to the empty avenue. I looked through the tinted glass at the early morning customers in the coffee shop on the corner. A woman stared vacantly past her man while he stirred his coffee. The new waiter's face spelled fear. It was an unbroken, monotonous, grey, evil-smelling landscape. The movement of shadows took on a degenerate sensuality. In my doorway, a drunk lay asleep, his shirt unbuttoned and draped on an obscene gut, spittle on his beard and his arm stretched over a bundle of newspapers. He used his shoes for a pillow. I unlocked the door and stepped over him into the hallway. Wolfgang was still asleep. I took a shower, running the lukewarm water over my head for a long time. Deltas of reds and purples formed around the drain, the sediment of planet Dune. Then I got into bed and fell asleep. The noise of the taxi stand intruded on my dreams. I woke up. The drivers liked to shout and honk their horns at each other and at women walking along the sidewalk. I rolled out of bed and opened the window a crack to stave off the heat. I wiped dust off the Venetian blinds with my finger. The telephone rang. It was the studio calling to say there would be no need for any extras that night. I made myself some eggs and reheated some beans. I called Francois. He'd been given the same story.
"Who cares? I'll come over and we'll go shopping. I found a friend's credit card in my suitcase."
"How'd that get there?"
"Don't ask too many questions, kid."
Francois knocked on my window a little while later. He came in and rolled a joint as he
talked, assuring me about the credit card business. Then we went out, driving along the Perisur, stopping at a cement, garrison-like shopping mall smelling of perfume and sugar. First we had something to eat in a gourmet food outlet, ham, brie, croissants and espresso. Francois picked up some olives and cans of pate on the way out. There was nothing in the stores that I really wanted.
While Francois wandered through the mostly empty stores in a celebration of consumerism, I sat under potted palms and read a Time magazine. Francois emerged with a pressure cooker and some Japanese steak knives. Almost as an afterthought, I suggested we purchase bottles of champagne and some rum.
It was mid-afternoon and the fire eaters were plying their trade at the intersections. I popped open a bottle of champagne and we drank it in the slow moving traffic. I asked Francois to let me off by the University stadium.
"I'll see you around," I said.
I walked over to Juliana's house. Her brother answered the door. He was wearing a Felix the Cat tee-shirt and listening to Led Zeppelin, drumming his fingers on the door. Juliana wasn't in, so I took a crowded bus up to Napoles, breaking into a sweat from the heat on the bus, watching closely for pickpockets.
Juliana's boyfriend lived on the second floor of an old, yellow building. I called from a payphone across the street. She always spoke in a monotone that sounded on the verge of cracking.
"Can I come by? I'm on the street."
"Yes. Come by. Can you bring me some milk?"
"Where's Roberto."
"He went to Guadalajara for the weekend, and I don't have anything to eat."
"Anything else?" I asked.
"Some Marlboros."
The hallway smelled of rotting garbage, and there was a hole in Roberto's door where somebody had taken a crowbar to it. I knocked and she opened. She smiled with a slight overbite and flashing teeth. Her eyes looked dark and tired. She was busy rearranging the furniture. I helped her with a sofa, pushing it to one corner. Juliana laughed in surprise.
"Your face gets so red," she said, coming closer.
"I've been drinking," I said, and explained about Francois and the credit card. Juliana sighed. She had plans of her own and needed money. She wanted to open a cafe to be frequented by poets and musicians. She was taking a bus up to Valle de Bravo the next day to see if she could find something there.
"What about the movie?" I asked.
"I don't give a shit about it. Why don't you come?"
We kissed. I had no good answer. We lay together in the night, motionless. Juliana held my hand.
In the morning we caught a bus that ran over the Desierto de los Leones and into the forested mountains. The bus was full, mostly of young people returning to their villages. Juliana fell asleep and slumped against me. The people on the bus were quiet, enjoying the mystery of the journey. We stopped at Toluca and several smaller towns along the way. Families of peasants gathered at the side of the road to greet the homecoming sons and daughters.
At Valle de Bravo we climbed down from the bus and descended the cobblestone street to the zocalo past groups of marketgoers. We had a coffee at a restaurant that smelled of ammoniac village cleanliness.
"Oh, what the hell. I don't really care," Juliana blurted out.
"Finding anything. It's such an empty thing after all, isn't it? I mean ambition."
"I don't know. You're worried you won't find what you're looking for."
"You will."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Slipstream of the Everyday

Thoughts floating along the slipstream of the everyday-the evanescent flow of nine-t0-five that disappears down the sinkhole of hades-the pump of the Gulf Stream-to resurface in some Indian Ocean distant 3rd world hovel of grateful upturned faces at the end of the day. Doctors Without Frontiers helicopter whirling into a purple jungle sky.

I signed an online petition condemning President Bush for the censoring of a CDC report on the health implications of global warming. Does anyone think a democracy can survive when its government consistently issues lies and half truths about the gravest threats to its existence? A misinfomed electorate is the same or worse than no electorate because it can so easily be swayed and manipulated by the powerful and corrupt. The press seems to be waking up belatedly due to the massive failures in Iraq, but what a wasted lot of years. I got back an email from the White House automatic reply bot. Bunch of automatons. I like that word. Spanish maton = thug, bully.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Day That Counts

This is a day that counts. All of them should, but so many get away. Last night my wife told me she felt a lump in her armpit. I held her, not knowing what to think or say. All the years, the different places, the growing up, the children, it added up to a considerable weight, and yet, not enough. I want every day to count. Yesterday it rained, washing most of the leaves out of the trees. She went for a walk and I stayed inside, playing with the girls while my son read a book, curled up in his favorite chair in the living room. Outside, the strangest light showed up the reds and oranges of the remaining maples, the faded browns and bright green of the grass along the dirt road outside the window. The sky was black, just the light of the setting sun as if magnified through a prism in the clouds. Then last night we made love with yes, desperate hunger, scared of what the future might bring. We fell asleep and woke up and today, a day that counted, I told her I wasn't going to church. I wanted to spend more time with her and the kids and God, if you're listening or reading this blog, you know what my prayers are.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The End of Mandolin Monkey

Henry Dumont thinks the lake is sad. The state issued air quality warnings which he hears on the radio. Jet skis roar across the water. Coretta implores him with her look. Her arm withers and drops and she twists back her head towards the gently rippling surface. Yes, I will light the barbecue, he thinks. He walks unchallenged through the horseshoe pit. Young men with thick torsos toss horseshoes silently, with occasional comments of disgust or encouragement accompanied by spitting or swigs from beers propped in the sand. Henry is a stocky man with long prematurely grey hair, thin handlebar moustache and a layer of fat he makes no apologies for. He has tried it all. Released from the service in 1996, he spent five years in Florida, Alabama and New Orleans. Mandolin Monkey released three self-produced CDs in those years, but Henry always knew they would never make the jump to a recording contract. For him it was about the good times rolling. His calm demeanor in the face of rampant unsuccess earned him a reputation as a savant if not quite the bon vivant he had featured as in the service.
The RV awning ripples tautly. Henry’s proud of the job he’s done, the tarp going over the picnic table, the little flag propped in its holder by the door. Inside, he pops a CD on for Dennis, something by John Meyer. He knows Dennis is relaxing to the music. Henry stands by the door and waits. When he sees Dennis is relaxed, (a certain air comes over his head is the only way Henry can explain it,) he goes back out with a bag each of dogs and buns, lighter fluid and matches and begins the process of preparing their evening meal.
He works at perfectly roasting the hotdogs, raising the grill to the required height so that the heat sears but does not scar. He realizes that he is obsessive about this minor point of cookery, but believes that if he gives up on this it will signify a long downward descent into barbarism and selfishness. He gets this madness from his Catholic upbringing and French Canadian genes, he believes. He heats up the buns and sets out two plates, the little plastic bowl with relish and the large metal bowl with the pasta salad Coretta prepared before they left Nashua. He removes the aluminum foil and sets out the bottle of wine, a cheap Chardonnay from California, from the cooler and three glasses.
The sun is sinking behind the trailer park when Coretta will begin her trek from the sands. The horseshoe game is over and the roar of jet skis is momentarily replaced by the whine of motorcycles and the throttling of pickup trucks. A pack of mulatto children roam back to camp, triumphantly wielding a string of pickerel and catfish one of them has landed from the swamps. The effort of getting the barbecue done right, supervising the flame from a close distance, is making Henry sweat. He needs to sit down and have a drink. He opens the wine and pours himself a glass, refreshed by its color and chill before it even gets to his lips. There are six franks done and six on reserve, sizzling at the corners of the grill. Henry feels he can eat all twelve if needed.
Coretta’s trudging, folded beach chair in hand and tote bag with towel, book and assorted sundries over the opposite shoulder, has a distinctly Southern feminist, college educated aspect, Henry thinks. Her long, black hair and Texan limbs recall hootenannies past, motel rooms on the edges of towns on the itinerary of Mandolin Monkey, ravaging the moral fiber of the Bible Belt with its rehashed lyrics espousing liberation.
“How’s Dennis?” She’s out of breath.
“Seem’s fine.”
“Good. I’ll check on him.”
She goes in and comes back out. Henry has fixed her up with a couple of dogs with relish and pasta salad on the side and poured her a glass of wine. She sits and removes her sunglasses, revealing soft brown eyes with the light of the Texas sky still in them. Henry can finally relax, he thinks. The sky is now blood red with tangerine highlights. The cries of children sound distant, tied to the passage of time like they’re drowning and at the same time exultant.
“Are you hungry, Henry?”
“I’m stahving.”
“Good. I’m not.”
“You need a eat.”
“Oh, stop. Dennis should be here, shouldn’t he?”
“You’re right. I’ll get him.”
Henry stands loyally. From behind Dennis he issues a question.
“Dennis. Do ya want a eat with us?”
Dennis remains passively, aggressively, silent.
“I’m going a assume that’s a yes.”
Henry unlocks the wheel and pushes the chair down the narrow passageway of the Airstream.
“Where are we?”
“It’s the lake, Dennis.”
“Is it tonight?”
“If you want, Dennis,” says Henry, with an air of routine.
The RV has a moveable ramp for Dennis’s wheelchair. One of the original Mandolin Monkey, Arto Santoalloyo, insisted on disabled access on principle, despite all the members of the band being in those days essentially able-bodied. Ironically Arto is still, according to the latest e-mail from Jerry Kunkel, their former agent. He lives on an organic vegetable CSA in the San Juan Mountains near Taos. Jerry lives in San Diego and works at a spiritual bookstore emporium part-time. Henry, Coretta and Dennis, the last of the Mandolin Monkey, live together in a small house they bought in Nashua where Coretta works for social services and Henry works as a substitute elementary school teacher while he gets certified. Dennis is on disability.
Coretta feeds Dennis. He takes a bite of hot dog without relish and turns down the pasta salad. She mouths feeding movements like a mother. Henry’s sadness becomes thicker, more resinous, with the wine. He pours off the last of it into their three glasses.
“Coretta. Do you remember the Axle Grinder in St. Louis?” Dennis would rather reminisce than eat.
“Of course. How could I forget?”
“I was thinking of it today. We used to hate St. Louis but those memories are so vivid to me now.”
“That’s because we were in our prime, Dennis.”
“No, I think something happened to us in the Axle Grinder. We actually began to believe in ourselves.”
“Well, it’s ovah,” says Henry, raising his glass. “Let’s drink to it.”
“To it,” says Dennis. “To how we used to be. Quick, Coretta,” he implores. Coretta brings his glass to his lips and he snaps his head back, a remnant gesture of his impetuous rock and roll lead guitar persona.
Dennis constantly harks back to St. Louis. He’s like a broken record, thinks Henry. He tries to come up with a more contemporary metaphor, but he can’t so he stops trying. Coretta is inside the trailer getting Henry stoned on grass and methamphetamine. It’s her nightly duty. She’s like a priestess in some cult of Dennis. It was on their last tour in St. Louis, oddly enough, that Henry realized he was in love with her, that it went deeper than the sex or the drugs or their love of the music. Theirs was a shared journey, and Coretta would be a great traveling companion if she weren’t so devoted to Dennis, who is increasingly sad. Dennis, the creative force behind Mandolin Monkey, thought it would fly. When it didn’t, he fell off a balcony in a motel in Cheyenne and snapped his neck. He thought he wanted to die. He wanted Coretta and Henry to help him, but they can’t work up the nerve. Henry believes in a person’s right to choose, but he isn’t convinced Dennis is of sound mind. On the other hand, who is? It is only when they are on the road again that he can forget, most of the time, Dennis and his burdens, the sorrow that he shares with the last remaining members of his band.
The lake reminds him of his New England roots. He would be content just to sit and swat at mosquitoes and sip at the Jim Beam poured into a plastic cup with Poland spring water from the casino it wasn’t for thoughts of Dennis. Snatches of lyrics from Supertramp’s Breakfast in America album run through his head.
I’m a winner
I’m a sinner
I’m a loser
What a joker
Its seminal sensibility continues to inform his emotional life.
The cries of a loon sound out on the lake and the moon, a big orange moon, like the summer blossoming in a fruit of mystery, is rising. Henry thinks strangely of his grandmother, half Penobscot, whose resilience others took as stupidity. She’d worked in the Berlin mills until they shut down and then operated the bingo game at the St. Joseph of Arimethea church for many years. The lung cancer killed her before the chemotherapy even started. Her death came as a surprise, but strangely Henry, who had taken time off from his touring to come back to New Hampshire for those last days of his grandmother’s, does not think of them as sad. His mother and father are also dead, but it’s his grandmother he thinks about as he watches the moon rise. Perhaps tonight is the night, Henry thinks. Dennis will take his walk on the wild side of St. Louis.
“Dennis. Stop,” Coretta orders.
Dennis laughs and continues singing. It’s his favorite Mandolin Monkey song. He wrote it in ten minutes on a rainy day in the Florida Panhandle.
Mr. Sancho. Mr. Sancho
Life in your funhouse is too hard to handle.
Don’t even think of me
When you’re trying to set her free

Henry, alongside Coretta, hums along, doing the background vocals. Coretta pushes the wheelchair down the gravel road to the casino. They reach the sand and she pauses, reaches for the bottle of whiskey Henry is holding in one hand. Dennis stops his singing. In the moonlight, the line of rental canoes is pushed up on the sand. Henry hoists his paddle, holding it like a rifle across his chest, as he walks across to the canoes. He picks one and rolls it over. The muffled thudding of the aluminum hull on the sand causes him to turn around. He sees Coretta and Dennis and the empty, darkened casino. He drops the paddle in the stern and walks back to where Coretta and Dennis are waiting by the edge of the road.
Coretta is still beautiful to Henry, despite the extra pounds she’s put on. They exchange a deep look and Henry thinks she deserves to be free.
“Dennis, I’ll carry you now.”
“Oh, goodie. Henry, you’re a saint. I always said it.”
Dennis in his arms feels like a bag of cat litter. His head, with its noble profile, reminds him of Cyrus the Great on an ancient Persian coin. Perhaps, he’s thinking, if we’d believed more in it, it might have happened for Dennis. Our lack of faith is like the grit in an oyster’s shell that has turned Dennis into a pearl. Dennis’s head certainly has a luminescence despite the bagginess and inert nothingness of his extremities.
Henry props Dennis on the floor of the canoe, holds the gunwale. Coretta is holding back, still standing by the wheelchair.
“Come on, Coretta,” he yells, encouraging.
She half trots over to the canoe, tests the water with a toe like an excited filly.
“It’s so beautiful, Dennis,” she gushes.
Dennis, stubbornly, does not respond.
Henry pushes them out in the water and then paddles, softly, unhurriedly, towards the center of the lake. Ahead he sees a fish flopping, breaking water.
“Dennis. Is this what you really want?”
“How many times, Coretta?” chides Dennis.
“We love you, Dennis.”
“If you love somebody, then set them free.”
“Where do you think you’re going, Dennis, when you’re free?”
“I don’t know. That’s Henry’s department. Ask him.”
“The other side. The other side is where he’s going,” he says with an exasperated air.
Dennis laughs. His laughter makes Henry even sadder. He breaks his paddling and lets the canoe drift.
“Dennis you’re our friend and companion. You were with me at Fort Dix. Your guitar…”
“No speeches, Henry,” Dennis cuts him off.
“Dennis, don’t be mean,” chides Coretta. Henry has the feeling they are momentarily back in the kitchen in Nashua, the wallpaper faded behind their heads, and Coretta late for work.
“I want oblivion. I don’t need cheap remembrances.”
“We’ll always love you, Dennis,” says Coretta.
Henry rests his head on the paddle athwart ship, listening to the exchange between Coretta and Dennis. The truth is he feels compelled to speak, to soften the guilt made worse by the true silence between them. It’s as if a wall of words has grown up through the years encapsulating each of them in a world of ideas that has frozen their hearts, he thinks. If only he could write a song about it, but he doesn’t think he can using the English words he knows. For this he would need his grandmother and her words for the lake and the seven winds and the moons of winter. He envies Dennis for his escape into the next world while he and Coretta must carry on with their confusion, emotion and longings. Henry looks up and sees the black of the night, and thinks this is pure and meaningful. He begins to paddle again, the only thing he can do. He’s going to miss Dennis.
“Dennis, do you think it might be selfish of you?”
“Coretta, stop torturing me. Everything is a torture to me. Let me go, honey.”
Dennis’s voice has a strained, reedy quality, as if the words were being forced through a sieve of unidentified heart pain. He’s shutting down, thinks Henry. He was hoping for more from Dennis, some clarity, some wisdom, some love to help the two of them, but now he realizes that Dennis is scared. Henry continues to paddle in an obsessive, monomaniacal rhythm, making circles in the middle of the lake. The moon is now well on it way across the sky, near its zenith. Henry’s thought reaches to God, praying for forgiveness of his failure, lack of faith, purpose and courage, and realizes he’s praying for Dennis; involuntarily he has become Dennis, as if instead of words he has vaulted the dividing line and entered his friend’s mind.
“That’s good. This is good, Henry.” Dennis wants to get off.
“Okay,” says Henry. He puts the paddle alongside, scoots up kneeling behind Dennis and thrusts his arms underneath his armpits, lifting him.
“I can’t.”
“Come on, Coretta,” says Henry.
She has a hard time getting Dennis’s legs, fighting back her tears, her hair in her face. Henry finally heaves and goes over the side with Dennis. He’s hanging onto Dennis by the chin with one hand and onto the gunwale of the canoe with the other. He kicks furiously. Coretta’s sobbing by herself in the rocking canoe. A loon wails, upset in its sleep. The water is soft and warm. Henry strokes Dennis’s dead cheek one last time, and finally Dennis slips away into the deep.
“What, Henry?”
“I can’t get back in the canoe.”
“I don’t know what to do about that.”
“Give me the paddle.”
“No. You swim.”
Coretta paddles the canoe surprisingly well, thinks Henry. He’s proud of her, he thinks, but he doesn’t know how long he can tread water. He begins to swim, churning his arms, on his back for a while and then on his side. To someone perched above he would seem sleek, cutting aerodynamically with seemingly little effort. But he is breathing hard, and his thoughts assume the shape of the water, frothy at first, becoming thicker and colder until finally he is not aware at all of anything. Because the moon has disappeared, it is hard to make out his body.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Do You Care?

Do you care about Ellen DeGeneres’s poodle? You should. The spectacle offered by Ms. DeGeneres’s breakdown on television has bounced by now around the world, and it speaks volumes about us. Here we have a perfect example of so much that’s wrong with America: a lesbian talk show host offering us her tears and outsized public empathy for a creature that no doubt enjoys a better lifestyle than three quarters of the world’s population, in short a public display of neurosis and out-of-synch reality unmatched since Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah Winfrey’s sofa.

For those lucky enough to have missed the still ongoing circus let us recap. A tiff between DeGeneres and a pet adoption agency boiled over into prime time last week on DeGeneres’s talk show with the hostess pleading and sobbing for the return of the dog after the agency had gone in and taken it away from the family to whom she’d given it. More important than the details is the image of an American adult moved by a situation that for most sane persons would have to amount to a huge so-what in the scheme of things.

I know, I know. I can hear you already. I just don’t get it. The grief and suffering of the dog, the lasting trauma of the poor little Hollywood tyke who had undoubtedly bonded already with Iggy. Do I have no heart? I do. I just hope I have more sense.
The New Leaf Blower

On my way back home I come over the rise in the hill, looking out for deer spooked by early season bow hunters. The apple orchard maintained faithfully by my neighbor, trees laden with ripe red fruit, signals I’m almost home. He’s usually got one project or another going down, a patch of new siding on the old farmhouse, some mowing in front of the garage. I always look over.

Last week he had an excavator, a big yellow, heavy machine, parked in the ditch between the stone wall and the road. The hill in front of the wall was muddy, laid bare, and there were piles of stone set back from breaks. This was something new, evidence of a big project. It was also kind of odd. What could he be doing, I wondered? A new driveway? Stone walls, I always thought, were sort of sacrosanct, an iconic part of the landscape you didn’t mess with unless absolutely necessary. We’ve been living in this part of New England for several years and I thought I’d seen it all.

That evening, talking with my wife, the mystery resolved. There’d been a man in the excavator pulling stones away from the wall, clearing the grass and weeds with the blade down to the dirt, and then replacing the stones. It’s a rough laid stone wall, typical of farm fields and boundary walls around here, a jumble of field stone of all sizes laid down when the land was first cleared by colonists sometime in the early 18th century. But still, I was incredulous at the amount of work involved in what was essentially a beautification project.

A few days later, in a conversation at the annual cider pressing party, my neighbor told me the price per foot he’d been quoted by one local contractor for the work clearing the stone wall. Let’s just say it was Gatsbyesque. My shock at discovering this sort of work is considered normal maintenance by some of the local gentry was compounded by sudden fiscal lockjaw.

In the interest of transparency let me offer a disclosure. I don’t even own a leaf-blower. I’m someone who knew American’s love affair with technological fixes started going off the deep end when I first saw an ad for the electric, in-the-shell egg scrambler on late night television in 1979. To give you a better idea, I’d rather split wood with a sledge and a maul than use a hydraulic splitter and in exchange save myself some money in health club memberships. That’s why I live out in the country. I love freedom of choice and I respect it when I see it. But my question is, does the super-sizing of our gadgets and lifestyle ever max out?

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. That stone wall was violated, I’m convinced, by my friend’s need to keep it clear of a few over-wintering brambles and ferns.