A Child’s Guide to the Normans Kill

Farmland, Roseboom,NY

Farmland, Roseboom, N.Y.  Monika Costello

UPSTATE. Both Bob Sutton and Monika Costello are, like myself, from Upstate New York. Bob now runs our community farm here in Jamestown. Monika is still in the country.

 

A Child’s Guide to the Normans Kill

 Bob Sutton

Late winter, early spring, the snow has mostly melted and the ice is pretty much broken up and my cousin Jimmy says to me, “The Normans Kill Creek is really high let’s take my rubber raft and float down the Normans Kill. It should be a great ride.”  So we did. Jimmy and I are cousins and at the time we were both in our early 20s. Jimmy had a strong professional rubber raft built for this kind of adventure. We took my car and left it by the creek somewhere, I believe along Old State Road near the eastern edge of Princetown, and then we drove back 6 or 8 miles to where the Normans Kill passes under Duanesburg Road close to the western boundary of Princetown.

              The Toboggan Hill and the Swimming Hole  

 We were about two miles west of mom and dad’s house on Duanesburg Road and exactly opposite the greatest toboggan hill in Princetown. It was located on the DeCocco Farm and is the steepest hill I have ever tobogganed down. After school we would walk our toboggans along the road and up this incredibly steep hill. When the snow was really hard and crusty you could actually slide all the way to the Normans Kill, about a half a mile from the top of the hill.  The two-mile walk and the trek up the hill took some time, and you only got to go down two of three times before it was time to go home for supper. The trick was to get home on a darkening night, dragging a toboggan, without getting hit by a car.  (I only got hit by a car once).

A great swimming hole was just to the west of our launch site. The creek flattens out into relatively deep water. Dad did not like us swimming in the Normans Kill. He said  there are 100 cows and horses wading in that creek and you should not be swimming in it. Mom did not seem to mind. One time I went there with Henry DeCocco  and Jimmy Myers. I had brought my swimming suit but the other two had not, so they swam in what nature provided. I felt silly or something, putting on a swimming suit so I  also swam in what nature provided. On the way home, I realized that mom would figure out that I swam with nature, so I dipped my swimming suit in the DeCocco’s well alongside the road, to get it wet.

We launched the raft and quickly passed under the bridge in the moving water and headed east down the Normans Kill. We first passed the back of the DeCocco Farm. For as long as I can remember, and to this day, the DeCoccos have operated a beautiful farm. Much of the pastureland for their milk cows is on a steep slope that runs up to the railroad tracks. Over the years, the cows have worn a very narrow path that barely clings to the side of this steep hill.

Just past the DeCocco farm we encountered our first tributary to the Normans Kill. It is a fast-moving stream that comes down along Kelly Station Road, through a tunnel, and into the Normans Kill.

Stone Bridge, Cherry Valley, NY

Stone bridge, Cherry Valley, N.Y.  Monika Costello

The Tunnels and Lovers Lane

There are actually two beautiful stone tunnels built by the railroad to accommodate the elevation of the tracks over Kelly Station Road, one for the water and the other for the cars. When I was young the car tunnel was the treat because it was a long narrow tunnel that was only wide enough for one car at a time. When you approached the tunnel from either side there was a sign that said, “Blow Your Horn Before Entering.” Dad would blow the horn as directed, listen for a replying horn, and hearing no sound would proceed into the tunnel with his headlights on.  As soon as we got into the tunnel we would shout, “Blow the horn again, blow the horn again,” because it made a great echoing sound. The tunnel is still there today and still only one car wide, but a few years ago I stopped yelling “Blow your horn again, blow your horn again.”

The other landmark for me was the “lovers lane” just on the north side of the tunnel. When I was young I could not figure out why there would be a car, or cars, parked there but no people were apparent. As I got older I would look to see if I recognized the car and then I would know who the people were that I didn’t see.

If you think about Duanesburg Road east of the tunnels you realize you are going downhill, and the Normans Kill immediately adjacent to the road is doing the same thing. This was an exciting part of our wild river trip. Bill Lee had a small farm next to the creek, and on the south side is a 100-foot-high very steep sand bank. Ned and I were cutting firewood one time off of Darrow Road and rather than ride home with Ned I walked cross lots through the woods and came out at that sand bank and had to climb down it and then cross the Normans Kill.

After the sand banks, the land and the Normans Kill flatten out as you pass behind Siegel’s Tavern and the little tourist cottages that were for rent along the waterway. Those cottages seemed always in a state of disrepair, and I cannot remember a single instance of seeing people staying there.

Vilage of Feischmanns, NY

Village of Fleischmanns, N.Y.    Monika Costello

Mrs. Watrous and Siegel’s Tavern

Mrs. Watrous lived in a tiny house next to Siegel’s and had several children, one of whom got polio as a child and remained crippled his entire life. Living in Princetown, I never thought much about who had money and who didn’t. If at the time someone had asked me, I think I probably would have said, “I don’t think any of us have very much money.” But I am pretty sure Mrs. Watrous didn’t have much money and I am pretty sure she had a lot of problems to face. Mrs. Watrous was my Cub Scout den mother and I remember her as a very kind woman and I remember my Cub Scout days as very pleasant.  As cub scouts much of our time was spent in her back yard right next to the Normans Kill, and sometimes after the meeting she would take us next door to Siegel’s Tavern and buy us all popsicles.

For whatever reason, I have a very clear memory of our Cub Scout visits to Siegel’s           Tavern. It was a small dark place with what seemed like a few older men sitting on stools and completely ignoring us. I don’t remember recognizing any of the men. There was no juke box or pool table and it seemed a joyless and empty place. Later in life, like the “lovers lane” situation, I would recognize the people’s cars or cattle trucks in the parking lot, but knowing who was there added nothing to the appeal of Siegel’s Tavern.

Right after we passed Siegel’s Tavern and Mrs. Watrous house we floated past the pasture land of the Gifford farm. I was friends with two of the Gifford boys, Ralph (a little older than me) and Bobby (a little younger). When I was little I would walk to grandma’s house across her pastures and then to the Gifford farm where Bobby and I would play with our small farm toys. We went to the same Princetown Reformed Church and as we got a little older we tended to do things together, one of which was start a baseball league.

The Gifford Farm Pasture League

I was 9 or 10 and I said to dad, “I sure would like to play little league baseball.”     Characteristic of all the Suttons’ interest in athletic pursuits, his reply was, “I don’t have      time to take you down to Rotterdam every night and sit around a baseball field for two         hours.”  That pretty much terminated my little league career but not my baseball career.

Bobby’s father, Harlan, operated a small dairy farm and was also part owner of a feed and coal company (Gifford Tanner Feed and Coal).  He had two pastures for his dairy herd, one abutting my grandparent’s farm and one across Duanesburg Road next to the Normans Kill. I was talking to my friend Bobby about baseball, and we decided we should     start our own baseball team. Bobby suggested we could build a ballfield in the flat pastureland next to the Normans Kill. Only one problem, Harlan’s dairy herd was quietly grazing there. Bobby talked with his father, and he agreed to relocate the cows to the other pasture for the balance of the summer.

We cleared out the “cow pies,” built the infield and pitcher’s mound, mowed the outfield, and got all the boys in the neighborhood to practice hitting fly balls and grounders to each other. We taught ourselves the dimensions of a baseball field, how to build it, how to manage a baseball team, how to play baseball, and finally how to find some competition. Somehow, we became aware of a similar group of boys playing in a field somewhere near Pine Grove School. We invited them to our field and in the late summer they peddled their bikes, about 10 miles, over to our field and we played an actual game. They beat us badly. Summer was nearly over and the pasture league folded after only one game.

A little further down the Normans Kill, the creek bed tends to flatten out as you come around a bend to the Berical Farm.  Although I did not live particularly close the Bericals, it was certainly one of my childhood destinations. To get there I crossed Duanesburg Road, climbed the hill behind Whitney and Marie’s house, followed a series of paths over to the Carlson’s house, then down a very narrow and very steep road, reminiscent of the Appalachians, passed the Mott Farm, down the road to a small parking area, then over a pedestrian cable suspension bridge, up another hill, and on to Eric and Patty’s porch. It was a long but fairly straightforward walk with one exception, passing the Mott Farm.

Farm, Richmondville,NY

Farm, Richmondville, N.Y.    Monika Costello 

Roy Mott, a 1929 Chevrolet Car and the Church Picnic

In all my childhood and into my adult life I have never heard anything negative about Roy Mott; however, his son Irvy was something of a Princetown renegade. Roy lived by himself in an old farmhouse, had barns and fences, but no animals except a dog, which you never saw but barked viciously and constantly as you passed the house. You had to walk very close to the house on this very narrow road with the Normans Kill on the other side. He drove a Studebaker (one of the cars that I would recognize in the Siegel’s Tavern parking lot). The only thing other than the barking dog that was unnerving was that Roy always seemed to be watching you from the same window as you passed by the house. I would tell Mom about my fears of this man, and her advice to insure my safety was to just run fast when you go by there.

I have always felt that city kids had more opportunity to be involved in different things    (Little League for one), but there was one exception and it was a big exception. At a very young age we learned how to drive, and the vast amount of open land, vacant land,  pastures and minimum law enforcement made driving unregistered vehicles by        unlicensed, underage drivers both possible and a lot of fun. (Ned gave me a 1935 Plymouth to drive when I was 14 years old.)  Eric Berical wanted a car and he was probably about 14, so he bought one for $20.00 from Carl Carlson.  It was a nice little 1929 Chevrolet Coupe that if you owned it now would be worth many thousands of dollars. The only real problem with the car was that it did not run. Eric and I pushed the car over to the steep Appalachian-style hill and coasted it down the hill trying to jump start it. It did not start, and unfortunately we coasted into the family parking area the same time his father arrived home from work. Eric said to his father, “Look at the great car I bought for only $20.00.” And Eric’s father said, “Take it back.” I left and I don’t know how Eric got it up Appalachian Hill, but the next time I went by Carl Carlson’s house it was sitting there next to some other old cars that Carl owned.

Old car, Middlefield,NY

Old car, Middlefield, N.Y    Monika Costello

The Princetown Reformed Church annually held a summer picnic. The picnic was held at many different locations, once even at Central Park in Schenectady. One year we had it          on the Normans Kill at the Berical property. Times may have been hard at the Church or      Eric’s father may have persuaded the minister it was a good location. The Berical        property had two main features that were particularly favorable to young kids—it had a  great swimming hole and the kids could jump up and down on the cable suspension      bridge, terrifying all the parents thinking the cables would surely break. It was a   legitimate fear, and the bridge itself was about 10 to 12 feet over the rocks and the water so if it did break it could have been harmful. But nobody stopped us, and it did not break.

Beyond the swimming hole and the Berical Farm the Normans Kill again picks up speed, and the added speed, the rocks, and occasional floating spring ice made this an exciting part of the ride.  Along this section there is another tributary stream that flows into the Normans Kill from the north. This tributary is not particularly long and not particularly wide, originating about one mile away in the hills of northern Pangburn Road. It did, however, create a landmark destination for me and my two sisters throughout our childhood.

The Old Railroad Bridge

There had always been a railroad 1000 feet or so behind our house; however, about 100 years prior (approximately 1900) the railroad tracks had been much closer than their current location. When they moved the tracks north, they left much of the original infrastructure, not the tracks but the railroad bed, the culverts, and, most importantly, the bridge abutments that supported the railroad bridge crossing a tributary stream to the Normans Kill. These abutments, made of huge granite blocks, rose about 20 feet in the air and were at the same elevation as the old railroad bed. If you were walking on the railroad bed on a dark night you could have easily walked right off the edge of the abutments. By any standard, it was both dangerous and inviting, at least to me, and I once built a treehouse very near to it. My sisters were also attracted to this spot but not because they wanted, to or would, walk along the edge of the 20- foot high abutment, like their brother. They liked it at the stream level. The water entering the abutments dropped from a little falls into a tiny pond and then meandered between the old granite walls down to the Wingate Farm and on to the Normans Kill.   For them it was a natural peaceful place, not an arena to challenge one’s life expectancy.

After that tributary stream leaves the Wingate Farm, it flows under Duanesburg Road and meanders south for a few hundred feet to a culvert underneath old Pangburn Road and then behind the old two-room Pangburn School.

The Pangburn Road School 

Pangburn School was a two rom schoolhouse that my oldest sister Carole went to for 1st grade. At the time I was 5 years old and scheduled to start 1st grade in the fall of 1947. In the late spring of 1947 my mother packed us both a lunch and we walked across the Wingate farm hay fields on the south side of Duanesburg Road, headed to Pangburn School, to register for the upcoming fall class. (Pangburn did not have kindergarten.) My Mom got me registered and then it was time for lunch. The 1st  grade boys showed me where they ate their lunch down by the old stone culvert that carried the tributary stream down to the Normans Kill. That walk across the Wingate fields with my mother and the lunch with those boys is one of the clearest memories of my young childhood.

Ols school house, Craigsville

Old school house, Craigsville, N.Y.   Monika Costello

Passing under the Pangburn Road bridge the creek bed widens and flattens out.  On the east side of the bridge the Petersen farm and then the Furbeck farm, both on the north side of the creek.  Over the years the Petersen farm has been a more active and varied agricultural  operation.  The Petersen family pursued a variety of different enterprises  including; oil delivery, dairy farming beef cattle farming, cattle trucking, auto mechanics,  whatever it took to keep the farm functioning and food on the table.  In my lifetime the Furbeck farm has never been an active agricultural endeavor for the owners although the Petersen family typically harvested the hay from the Furbeck fields.   The Petersen farm was a multigenerational family unit and the Furbecks a single generation family, comprised of two sisters and their brother, all un-married and all three holding jobs off the farm.

“Here Comes Lenny” and Miss Furbeck

Leonard Petersen was probably about 10 years older than me and spent his entire life on the farm. Of all the career paths available on his farm I most remember “Lenny” as a cattle truck driver. There were several slaughter houses in the immediate area of Princetown and some farmers owned cattle trucks to haul their animals and their neighbors’ animals to the slaughter house. Cattle trucks were large, flat bed vehicles with loosely fastened high wooden side boards to keep the cattle from jumping out.  Because of their use they were always “barnyard muddy,” “cow kick dented,” generally older models of little trade-in value. They were noisy with bad mufflers. The heavy wooden sides rattled back and forth, continuously swaying the truck down the road. And they were always driven about as fast as they would go. The young drivers did not strive for anonymity. The young drivers wanted everyone on the road to know who they were when they came up behind them and tailgated inches from their bumper. To insure celebrity status, they wrote their name on the hoods of their trucks.  “Here Comes Bucky,” “Here Comes Junior,” “Here Comes Irvy.” Leonard came up with a major innovation. He painted his name on the hood backwards “ynneL semoC  ereH.” Looking at the hood with the truck parked the letters made little sense, but it was      certainly very unnerving to have “Here Comes Lenny” suddenly fill your rear view mirror. And recognition?  Guaranteed.

Although they lived next door and seemed to be friendly neighbors, Miss Furbeck was as opposite a personality from Here Comes Lenny as two people could be. Because the Pangburn School was now closed we were all sent to Draper School in Schenectady.  Miss Furbeck worked as a secretary to the principal at Draper and the principal’s office was right next to my 1st grade classroom, so I would see her on occasion. Draper was a big school with grades K-12 all in the same building. We were in large classrooms and in an urban area. The few kids that got off the bus from Princetown were country bumpkins ripe for being picked on. For whatever reason, some 2nd grader bully type chose me as his daily punching bag. For a while I endured, or ran away, but after about a week I had had enough and I punched him right in the nose. Tears in his eyes and blood running down his nose, he did not punch back but ran into the school and straight to the principal’s office. I went into my classroom, but in short order was summoned to the principal’s office. At the office I was directed by Ms. Furbeck to leave the office and wait in the hall in a chair directly outside the principal’s office door. I was a little scared because I had never had disciplinary issues before. There was also a rumor at the time that the principal had an “electric paddle” that he used on kids who required discipline.  I sat there for probably 5 or 10 minutes and then Miss Furbeck stepped into the hall.  All she said was, “Bobby you can go back to your classroom now.” And I did. I never mentioned this incident to anyone, but many years later I saw Miss. Furbeck at my mother’s funeral service and I thanked her for taking care of me that day. Miss Furbeck replied “Oh it was nothing. I had to protect all my Princetown students from time to time”

Maple Grove, NY

Maple Grove, N.Y.   Monika Costello

After the intersection with Pangburn Road, the Normans Kill starts to take a more southern direction and the countryside becomes more remote. The eastern side of the Pangburn Road bridge was the eastern boundary of our neighborhood, and we floated down into territory that was more unfamiliar and without the local landmarks. The water was running fast and it was an exciting ride. We made it to the end of the trip relatively quickly. We packed the raft into the car and headed home.

Conclusion with Surprise Ending for Jimmy and Me

In his “Atlas of Indian Nations” Anton Treuer, writing of the Plains Indians, concludes, “the land has always shaped the people more than the people shaped the land.”  The land defined their diet, their spirituality, their recreation, their friends, their enemies, defined their expectations, their limitations, and their understanding of each other and the larger world.  Certainly you can make the same case for children growing up in rural areas. If you grow up with parents that believe it is better for you to be outside than inside and believe that you do not need a lot of parental oversight or guidance defining and organizing your own discoveries, then the physical geography of your location has a greater meaning. If your early education and religious or spiritual views are formed in a 2-room school, where many students drop out by the 5th or 6th grade, and a rural church where  the members of the church work in the outdoors and learn to recognize and accept the vagaries of the weather and the limitations of the soil and the limitations of their own physical capabilities to alter these limitations, then the land can shape your early education, your spiritual sense, and your sense of what is possible. I don’t know if this is good or bad or unimportant.

Mobility is a real change agent. When you can only walk, the land shapes much of your understanding. A bicycle, a school bus expands your world and certainly the way you begin to see the world. A car, even when you are limited to driving in fields and pastures and roads (when the police are not around), starts to diminish the limitations of land and time and starts to broaden your sense of what is possible. Finally, a driver’s license or a train or plane ticket begins to change everything. I lived in Princetown my first 18 years. After I turned 18, during the next 10 years, I lived in Pella, Iowa; Seattle, Washington; Chicago, Illinois;  Memphis, Tennessee; Lexington Park, Maryland; Princetown, NY; Herkimer, NY;  Pella, Iowa; Scotia, NY; and Jamestown, RI. I do not believe the land shaped any part of the decision making that went into living in these locations or leaving these locations.

But I am very sure my parents, my sisters, my relatives, my neighbors, my church, and the land and water of Princetown shaped my childhood and my remembered stories of that childhood.

Abandoned mill, Monroe, NY

Abandoned mill, Monroe, N.Y.    Monika Costello

A couple of years ago my sister Ann began seriously searching our family’s ancestral path. She uncovered an ancestry that Jimmy or I could not have known. We are cousins, and we both knew that. We share great-grandparents, Peter and Johanna Alexson McClaine. Ann has traced Peter McClaine’s direct ancestral lineage back to a man named Albert Andriessen (de Noorman) Bradt who came to this country in 1636. On the ocean voyage to this country he was known to the other passengers simply as “The Norman.” He was sent to this country by the Dutch East India Company to establish a sawmill. He chose a wild tributary to the Hudson River, just south of Albany, to build his sawmill. The tributary was subsequently named Normans Kill, Kill being the Dutch word for waterway. “The Norman” was Jimmy and my great-grandfather to the 9th power. Without knowing it Jimmy and I were on a great winter adventure and a 300-year ancestral trail, shaped, in fact, by the land.

Amish Farm cows

Amish farm cows, Richfield Springs, N.Y.   Monika Costello

 

 

 

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Candy

Girl with Flame

Photo by Connie Payne

Candy

Walter Cybulski

1.

Crossed wires and mild case of heebie-jeebies,

but otherwise everything looks to be in working order.

The floor lamp and desk lamp keep on shining.

The dog that always barks keeps barking.

And the knuckle-sandwich roar of the jet plane

punches at the night sky to remind us of its power.

2.

The bronze mouths of abandoned pennies

cry out from molten asphalt parking lots.

Dust collects in the parched throats of empty

potato chip bags gasping for air in the heat.

Military-industrial product labels appear

wherever two or more are gathered.

3.

If Candy Jernigan were here, she would help us

make sense of all the evidence.  With nothing more

than some colorful debris, a used syringe and a can of beans,

she could map out the cheesy surface of this, our present

hotsy-totsy turmoil, that stinks, of late, of rancid language,

overpowering deodorant and an obscenity of money.

Using only a bag of shrapnel, a dead bird and burnt matchsticks,

Candy could haruspicate a psychedelic whopper, in which

she exposes the tawdry behaviors of this, our present miasma —

our disenchanted, conflicted, so-called society teeming with sharps,

common corporate thieves, and heartless, boring busybodies

hellbent on dishing out prefabricated summary judgments

of lives about which they know absolutely nothing.

4.

If the beautiful, brilliant people we once encountered

in the pages of our books, in the grooves of our records

were to stop by for coffee, we would be at a loss for words

to describe how far below the old benchmarks we have fallen,

how much has been forsaken, lost, broken.  We could establish

a new world record for shoring pigments against ruin,

though it might take a school bus of Candy Jernigans,

working overtime, without compensation,

to gumshoe the filthy streets and collect all the pieces.

Packaging

amphorabeer cans

The hands cannot do what they used to do—arthritis. I have trouble getting into things—medicine bottles, bags of chips, those little clear envelopes of soy sauce that come with Chinese takeout. If I bought a pair of scissors to help me out, I would need a pair of scissors to free them from their secure wrapping. I do not get out much, so I do some online shopping, and everything arrives inside layers of cardboard and plastic and bubble wrap. More and more of my trash now consists of discarded packaging. At least it does not smell.

Between 1960 and 2014, containers and packaging materials in the U.S. MSW (Municipal Solid Waste, in E.P.A. speak) rose from 27.4 million tons to 76.7 million tons, an almost three-fold increase. That is roughly a quarter of a ton per woman, man, and child. I do my bit, I guess. But almost a pound and a half a day? More than one-quarter of the 2014 MSW total waste stream of 258.5 million tons was paper and paperboard, and plastic—individual items each of which weigh very little—accounted for 33.3 million tons. Of that, just 3.17 million tons were recovered.

Okay, packaging has been with us at least as long as civilization. Think Egyptian mummies and Greek amphora. Homer relates that Achilles’s camp at Troy was awash with Thracian wine brought in on Achaean ships—obviously in very durable containers. There is, of course, Pandora’s famous box. In those cases, the packaging was purely functional; their content was what was important. But something has happened to packaging. It has taken on an indestructible life of its own.

From MacDonald’s and Starbucks to the pharmacy and supermarket, the medium—in this case the wrapping, the container—is the message. Take beer, for example. In my grandfather’s time, the suds were sloshed home from the local saloon in your (logo-less) bucket. That beer came from battered old label-less barrels down in the basement. Later came reusable bottles. In the ‘50s, my brothers and I relied for cash on collecting and returning those bottles to redeem their deposit. A couple nickels would buy you a candy bar. (The candy bars inside have since shrunk, while the wrappings have remained much the same.) Now most beer is sold in throw-away aluminum cans.

I spent a few days in the late ‘70s on a bluff above a cove on the Northern California coast. I was there as a reporter covering a disaster. A sea-going tug leaving San Francisco with two barges of goods for Hawaii in tow had messed up and lost its charges, which had broken up in the cliff-face surf, spilling their contents. One had been loaded with Budweiser. As far as I and the park rangers with me could see, the surf and the beach hosted a continuous mass of white-red-and-blue beer cans, millions of them. “To think I used to hand out litter citations for a couple of cans left behind,” one of the rangers said.

The dense garbage patch of plastic containers in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is now larger than France. Around the world, eight million tons of plastic waste make it into the ocean every year and from there into the marine food chain, and it does not go away. Almost all of it is packaging, plastic bottles. But the plastics problem is only the most obvious.

Yangtze River trash

Yangtze River, the worst polluter, ferries 1.5 million tons of plastic a year.

“Packaging can be theater,” tech-age guru Steve Jobs declaimed; “it can create a story.” And he was not talking about Big Mac Attacks. He was talking about the whole enchilada—our culture. When the context eclipses the content, deception displaces reality. It’s not just that the big (opaque plastic) bottle of vitamins you bought, when opened, is only half-filled with pills. It’s not just that the (plastic) bottle of name-brand water you bought (at four times the price of gasoline) is not any better (possibly worse) than the water out of your tap. It’s not just that the blockbuster movie did not live up to its hype. (Maybe food and beer ads on TV should be required, like drug ads, to enumerate all the possible dire side effects of their ballyhooed desirability. Honda ad: Buy your son a motorcycle for his last birthday.) It is that what is lost is our openness to the actual, with all its inconvenient faults. A drive-through meal is not home cooking.

Our news of events is presented as—and so becomes—entertainment, sheathed in spin. Disbelief must be suspended when the profiteers perform. Blatant falsehoods are giftwrapped as free speech. Our enemies are those whose outer wrappings are unlike ours. We like what we like, and we know what we like by its presentation. A book is its cover.

Ah, books. There is an example close to my heart. My publishers are always harping about “branding” and “marketing.” You have to package yourself. Pick a genre, an established brand, and market yourself there. The quality of the content, its extra-generic value, is of minor import. Cocoon yourself in plastic wrap with a familiar label and sell, god damn it.

Was it George Carlin from whom I learned that God created man because He could not Himself (being all good) create plastic; so He created man solely for the purpose of having him do so? One of His jokes. Time to wrap this up.

 

After the Missionaries

Coconut trees

Photo by Connie Payne

Marylou was drinking herself to death and she probably knew it, but she had some time before lost all interest in time. It was like people who have lost all interest in how they are dressed or in keeping house. Though she retained some sense of those sorts of things, her sense of time—of time lapsed, time projected, of why anyone else would be interested in such things—had been dissolved in alcohol. So whatever sense of death she may have had—of her own death, of her open invitation to it—lacked any quality of imminence. Not this afternoon, not tomorrow. For Marylou everything beyond today and tomorrow was just one big when, as vacuous as space around an asteroid.

Marylou lived in an old mission house out on our end of the island, an hour’s jitney bus ride each way from the only island liquor store (government run) in the main village. When necessary (about once a week in everybody else’s universe) she would put on a clean muumuu and walk down to the beach road and wait for a bus to town. A while later (the sun lower over the ridgeline anyway) she’d come walking back up the hill, carrying a cardboard box of clinking bottles.

My daughters and I lived in the only other house on that two-rut jungle track, just down the ridge from the mission house. From our screened-in porch we could watch her coming up the hill beneath the giant mango trees, her head down as she trudged, her big bony hands wrapped around the corners of the box. Tracy, my youngest, had made up a little jingle that she sang whenever she saw Marylou:

“Marylou, Marylou,

Even the roosters like Marylou.”

And I would shush her. But it was true—even the dogs, who would bark at anything strange that moved, would not bark at her. They’d just raise their heads and watch her pass. I don’t drink and my daughters are too young, so she was something special to them. She was the ageless alcoholic Marylou, who lived in the mission house with all those ghosts.

Years before, the mission house had been condemned as unsafe and everyone had been evicted. By that time it wasn’t a mission house any more but had been fixed up as apartments. Then two back-to-back hurricanes had badly compromised the hundred year old structure’s integrity as a place to live. Everyone else left. Doors, windows, and pieces of the roof were missing. Loose roof irons rose and closed in the trade winds like gasping gills, and the jungle had begun to reclaim the place. Marylou stayed.

A dozen or more years before she had arrived on-island as an educational consultant, a two-year contract worker from the mainland. She fell in love with muumuus and the pace that tropic heat dictated and stayed on. I had no idea where what little money she needed came from, but the island had a history of strange, recluse Caucasians who got by without working. A monthly Social Security check or small trust fund remittance could go a long way here.

I knew Marylou paid no rent to stay in the abandoned mission house. No one had found the need nor gumption to throw her out. She had no electricity, no phone, and caught her water from roof gutters. She washed her clothes in the stream that ran down to the beach past both our houses. That’s where my daughters got to know her. Her laundry was play for them, and they would help her soap and pound and rinse and lay her few things out on the bigger rocks to dry. She’d splash with them and quiz them about things. The dogs would sit and watch. Sometimes though she would do her laundry silently at night, laying her clothes out to dry alone in the moonlight, where the girls would find them, mystified, in the morning.

I had little contact with Marylou. A couple of times when she was sick she came to me to ask for help, woman to woman, a small unavoidable crisis and intrusion to deal with and put behind us. Just as she wasn’t pretty but didn’t smell, these small requests were frank but not offensive; they weren’t meant to be taken as invitations to friendship. In any event, we seldom saw her because she was usually too drunk to get out.

The small narrow valley where we lived—and especially Marylou’s old mission house—had the reputation among locals as being excessively haunted. There were stories that went back a hundred years and there were stories as recent as our arrival there. The stories told of apparitions, possessions, unexplainable events, and locales to be avoided at all times. In our front yard there was a prominent boulder on which young girls should never sit. Of course, I learned of this from a woman in the village months after we moved in and my daughters had taken to watching the sun set into the ocean from that spot. These stories were our guards, our security service. Our little jungle hollow of females was a ghost-gated community, where only strange Caucasians might be exempt from the malign attention of the spirits that dwelled there or regularly visited the place.

One such transient ogre was the cannibal Tuiatua, dragging his steel-tipped pike, emitting a distinctive repugnant odor. I learned these stories slowly from people amazed that I had moved into this house that no one else had wanted and without any males to protect us. It was peaceful there; we had no visitors.

No one visited Marylou either. With a 4-wheel-drive vehicle you could make it almost all the way to her place; but no vehicles ever went up the track, and none of us had ever seen anyone other than Marylou walking up there. Of course, we were gone much of most days—the girls to school and me to my job in town. But most of the rest of the time we were home; there really wasn’t much of anywhere else to be.

One Saturday morning a barefoot, bare-chested man appeared at my back door. I didn’t recognize him; he was not from the village. He asked politely—his English was not that good—if I had an axe he could borrow. A tree limb had fallen on “Mele’s” house. Mele was what Marylou’s name had become. I gave him our axe.

One of the girls was sick that day, fever. I was pretty much bound to the house to look after her. I didn’t venture up to the mission house to see what had happened. Then the EMS arrived. They managed to back their ambulance up to about half way between our house and Marylou’s. The two girls who weren’t sick went running after them. “It’s like a movie,” one of them said as she hurriedly slipped on her yellow flip-flops and disappeared out the back screen door.

Marylou was uncertain, in fact uninterested, in exactly when and what had happened. The EMS guys said it looked like her arm had been broken for a couple of days. The girls walked with the ambulance down to the beach road, their little hands on its sides like miniature pall bearers.

The next day Marylou came walking back up the hill, her right arm in a cast supported by a hospital sling. The dogs went out and barked at her. An hour or two later I heard the dogs go off again, and to my surprise Marylou was standing at my back screen door. I asked her in, and she sat down slowly and heavily at the kitchen table. She declined a glass of iced tea. She asked if I could spare one or two of the girls for a while. She had to move things around in her house and she was having trouble doing that with her “busted wing.” There was a purple bruise turning green on the right side of her face. She was subdued and, I guessed, sober.

I checked on my ailing daughter who was feeling better and with my eldest, Ronnie, headed up to the mission house, taking along a bowl of leftover stew.

I had never been inside Marylou’s rooms before. The mission house had a deep open veranda, and in my few visits there before the veranda was as far as I had gotten. It ran around the entire house, but now vines and jungle plants choked off most of it, and only the stretch in front of the rooms where Marylou lived was clear. There was no furniture on the veranda aside from a heavy old ironwood chair with a mat-covered crate beside it.

For the final twenty yards or so before Marylou’s house the path ran between wild hibiscus hedges that widened as you approached the creeper covered house and its ancient looking concrete steps. The hibiscus was all in bloom—the usual purple and pink and a delicate vermilion in blood red double-bloom variety I had never seen before.

Ronnie had fallen behind. I could tell she didn’t want to be there. Ronnie—Veronica when I wanted her attention—was my dark-haired, dusky, moody daughter. Though no island DNA had a hand in it, she could pass for a slender local girl. Within a year or two she would no longer be one of my little girls. Prominent among my many single-mother worries was how I could get closer to, participate more in the workings of that inner Ronnie, which now I could only read like the weather—intermittent adolescent squalls followed by hours of sunlight and peaceful shadows. When I looked back for Ronnie from the foot of Marylou’s steps, she was standing in the shadow of the double-bloom hibiscus, purposefully not watching me. Like a blow it struck me how beautiful she had suddenly become, how outside me she had to be to be that beautiful.

I walked up the steps and across the veranda to a wide door frame that held no doors or screens, called out “Marylou,” then knocked on the chipped-paint frame and called her name again. Ronnie had come to the bottom of the steps, into the sunshine. A large tan cat was rubbing itself against her legs.

“Come on in,” Marylou said from within, and I did. The only light was from the front windows, but it was bright enough to fill the room. The ceilings were unexpectedly high and the doors and windows were tall, lending the space a memory of a more dignified colonial past. There were no curtains, shutters, sails, nor native woven blinds at the open windows, no mats on the floor; but everywhere there were shells.

When we first moved into the house above the beach, the girls had gone through a shell gathering phase. I liked it. It would occupy them for hours. A sort of competition arose, and I had to dedicate a side porch to their mounding collections. A year or so later though, when I silently bagged and returned all their booty to the beach, none of them complained; they were on to something else by then. Marylou obviously had need of such a mother.

Shells, patterns made by different color shells had been glued to just about every surface from baseboard to above eye level. There were pieces of driftwood encased in shell armor, chair and table legs that glowed like mother of pearl, moraines of shells along the walls, rising higher in the corners. A breeze ran through the room, raising a wisp of dry reef smell.

Marylou was resting on a makeshift couch against a wall away from the windows. She had raised herself part way up, leaning on her cast. Beside her on the floor was a partly drunk bottle of vodka, its clear glass and liquid a receiving and transmitting prism for all the light that bounced around the room. “Come on in,” she said again, and I turned to see Ronnie standing in the doorway, her head cocked to one side like a bird looking at its reflection in a glass.

The damaging tree limb—formerly part of a banyan that umbrellad half the house—had fallen on the other room that Marylou occupied, her bedroom. There were fewer shells there. It was in this room that she needed help. The tree limb had been removed, was now a jumbled pile of hacked branches just off the edge of the veranda; but we could see lots of sky through the caved in ceiling and crumpled rusty roof irons. Marylou wanted to move everything she had in that room into the main room before it rained again. The room already had a deserted, no-longer-in-use aroma—the smell of spores and mold and rotted wood. A smell like the inside of an old empty suitcase forgotten in an attic—and the room was almost as empty.

Ronnie and I hauled out some cardboard boxes that had been piled beneath an eaten-through tarp, kicking them first to alert any resident rats or centipedes of our intentions. We didn’t open or look inside the boxes, but some were heavy and some were light. Two boxes I’m sure were filled with phonograph records; I’d moved boxes like that before. There was a trunk that we had to drag because it was too heavy for us to lift, and from some very fancy salvaged shelves we moved Marylou’s meager piles of clothing and scraps of fabric. There was a suitcase with wheels that Ronnie rolled out and parked beside he trunk. We left the piles of shells.

Beneath the single bed with its shredded mosquito netting where Marylou had been sleeping when the banyan limb fell on her we found an assortment of mismatched flip-flops and an open flat box of photographs. Ronnie started looking through the photos, but I stopped her and spread a piece of cloth over the box before placing it on the only table in the other room, beside the bowl of stew I had brought and then forgotten.

In our movings we uncovered a half dozen dusty bottles of booze—gin, vodka, and Canadian whiskey. None were empty; none were full. I had Ronnie line them up along the wall beside the door to the other room. As she did so, she studied their labels. She asked me what “proof” meant, and I didn’t know exactly, except that the higher the number the more intoxicating it was. She asked me—in almost a whisper—what intoxicating meant. I told her poisonous.

Marylou hadn’t moved. Supine again on her couch, she gave vague directions where things should be redistributed. Now she seemed tired. The afternoon light was creeping out of the room and the bottle of vodka was gone from the floor, tucked now between her waist and a cushion. Her eyes were closed.

“Well. I guess we’ll be going,” I said. “There’s some cold stew here.”

She stirred and lifted her head. “Ain’t hungry, but thanks.”

I had been looking for our axe around the house and veranda, the axe I had loaned the man the day before to cut her loose from the tree limb, and I hadn’t seen it. So I asked her if she knew where it might be. She remembered the axe but had no idea where it was.

“I guess that fella made a gift of it,” she said, “to himself,” and laughed, a short gasping half laugh ending in a long series of coughs.

“Well, can you remember his name?” I asked

“Yes, I remembered it yesterday,” she said, then closed her eyes as if to dismiss us. The jungle birds had begun their dusk songs by the time Ronnie and I reached home.

It took me at least a week to notice how often Ronnie was gone from the house. She had always been one to disappear, but now her absences were longer. The first time I asked her, casually, where she had been off to, she just shrugged her head and said, “Up in the jungle.” It wasn’t until I saw the first small bright shells in her room that I guessed where she was going.

So, one late afternoon as I was fixing dinner and she came into the kitchen looking for a snack after being gone for a while I asked her, “How’s Marylou?” She was leaning into the open refrigerator (whose light never worked) looking for something. She paused a few seconds then said, “All right, I guess.”

I thought that would be the end of the conversation, but Ronnie fixed herself a bowl of cereal and sat down at the kitchen table.

“Did you know that Marylou had two husbands and two kids?” she asked.

“No.”

“Well she did, or does. She says she never divorced or deserted anyone.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I saw all their photographs. The kids look really dorky.”

“How old?”

“I don’t know. I think they’re grown up by now. They both live in Oregon, I think. Or maybe Ohio.”

A long silence as I stirred spices into something on the stove and Ronnie munched Cheerios.

“I brush her hair. She can’t do it because of her arm,” she added. “A lot of her hair comes off in the brush. Is that all right?”

“Yes, that happens when people get older and sick.” I always feel like a fool when I say things like that, like burying dead puppies and pretending there is a doggie heaven that they’ve gone to. What am I protecting any of them from?

“And we look at her pictures.”

I ventured over the line: “Ronnie honey, I’d like you to tell me when you go up there.”

She got up and dropped her cereal bowl into the sink. I’d mucked up again. Back peddle. “Maybe I could go up there with you and see if she needs anything, or send something up with you.”

“Marylou says she doesn’t want anyone’s help, no handouts.”

Ronnie’s back was to me, but she wasn’t looking out the window above the sink. There was a long frozen minute, then she retrieved her bowl from the sink, fixed herself another bowl of cereal, and headed off toward her room.

“Dinner in about an hour; don’t ruin your appetite,” I scolded into the now empty room, feeling useless.

Then, one Saturday morning soon thereafter, Ronnie vanished. She didn’t get up to do her chores, and when I went to wake her, her bed was empty. The other girls hadn’t seen her. I walked up to Marylou’s, but there was no one there. I noticed on the way back that her almost dry laundry was spread on the streamside rocks. I spent a fretful morning, trying to do housework, snapping at then hugging the other girls. In mid-afternoon the dogs let out a half-hearted chorus of barks, and I went out to the porch to look again for the twentieth-some time that day. There was Marylou, stooped by the weight of her cast, plodding up the track from the beach road. Then a few yards behind her Ronnie appeared, also trudging slowly, carrying a clinking box of bottles.

Ronnie looked up to see me and gave me a smile that was one third hopeful, one third defiant, and one third brave. Her going to the effort sent my heart out to her. She knew she was in big trouble, but she cared enough to initiate the dialogue of consequences with a smile. A smile that quickly faltered and deserted her face, which she turned back downward. I waited for her to come to me. It was such a relief just to see her safe. She came home straight away from Marylou’s.

She came home with a gift, a gift for me from Marylou. It was a shell unlike any other I had ever seen, the size of a football, with coral-shaded thorns, something almost prehistoric. I took it and put it away in a low kitchen cabinet where plastic containers were kept and had a talk with Veronica. After she was sent to her room for the rest of the day, I took out the shell and looked at it, then went and pulled a shell book off the shelf.

It was some sort of spider conch, genus Lambis, but I wasn’t sure which species. Creamy white with irregular coffee-colored markings. What I had called thorns the book called spiny protuberances; there were six of them spread a bit like legs. My first impulse was to give it back. All Ronnie had said when she handed it to me was that, “Marylou wants you to have this. I think it’s her fanciest shell.” Now I just wondered why.

What is it about gifts that I dislike so much? It’s not just the bother of getting gifts for someone else, it’s the bother of receiving them as well. With the girls’ birthdays and Christmases I’m fine. I know their small desires and I am happy to try to fulfill them with appropriate “surprises.” But I had always had trouble with buying gifts for their fathers, for instance, just as they all had trouble finding the right thing to please me. The awkwardness of the presumption, the clumsiness of the presentation and acceptance, the sense of shifting obligations. Gifts overturned the comfortable status quo.

Maybe it was the way I’d been brought up, in a thoroughly commercialized world where openly desiring things was, paradoxically, unclean; where everything was bought and sold and giving anything away was a sign of weakness or foolishness or bragging or attempted usurpation. And then there was always the quandary of reciprocity. What was appropriate? What should be said? I remained untrained in all that.

And yet I was aware that I was now living within an encompassing culture in which the semiotics of gift giving approached a high art form, a traditional culture in which there were no gift shops, but where gift exchange defined who and where you were. I was lost.

Late that afternoon I took the younger girls to the beach, leaving Ronnie in her room. I wanted to make up to them for being such a grouch earlier. While they played I found myself shell hunting, absent mindedly scouring, stooping, examining, and tossing away. I knew I wouldn’t find anything like a spider conch, but I wanted to find something nice for myself, my own shell. Some of the bigger ones scurried away on hermit crab legs, but except for small unremarkable cowries I could not find one that wasn’t cracked or broken. By sunset all that I had in my pocket were surf-smoothed shards of green, blue, and milky white glass, pieces of once emptied bottles.

broken glass

Photo by Connie Payne

After that, things calmed down with Ronnie, as things usually do after such blow-outs. Twice after work I walked up to have a talk with Marylou about taking Ronnie to town without my permission, but both times she was passed out on her couch. I finally left her a note, neither hostile nor friendly, saying that in the future all such borrowings of my children should be cleared with me first. I didn’t mention the conch shell.

Ronnie was still going up to see Marylou and help her out, but the visits had lost their secretive thrill, so Ronnie would share with us news and observations when she returned. I asked her about Marylou’s cooking and eating arrangements. Ronnie reported that Marylou had a simple cook shed in the back, some rocks around a cooking fire with a metal grid on top and a couple of fire-blackened pots. Up the ridge a little ways she also had a crude garden—banana, cassava, even some taro and ta`amu growing. She had store bought rice and tinned meat, and she also ate “greens and stuff she finds in the jungle.” Ronnie said matter of factly. I couldn’t imagine what that might be.

As it turned out, Marylou was also quite the expert on the haunted history of her place. Ronnie wasn’t much of an active narrative bearer, but she’d give us the gist of the stories: the apparitions of green or red faces outside windows, objects vanishing or flying about the house, moans and voices and caresses, women possessed speaking with the voices of the dead. Quite a repertoire.

I asked Ronnie if Marylou was bothered by such goings on.

“She used to be, especially by the faces and the voices. But then she found out about the shells,” she said.

“The shells?”

“Yeah, the fact that the shells keep the ghosts away, that they don’t like the smell or something. I dunno. She said it’s the same reason the people in the village make the floors of their houses out of the crushed coral and stuff from the beach—to keep the ghosts out.”

I had put the spider conch shell out where I could see it, on top of a book shelf in the front room. I glanced at it now, its weird twisted six-inch spikes, its calcified arrested look of having been caught in mid-motion.

“She believes that?” I asked.

“She says it works,” Ronnie said. “That’s why she gave you that shell, because it’s the most powerful one she has and we don’t have any shells here.”

We were not a religious family, never had been. I had been married once in a church, the first time, for all that was worth. I didn’t believe in any of it and I refused to be a hypocrite in front of my daughters. On Sunday mornings I fixed french toast and bacon for brunch, and everyone had free time to sleep late or whatever. We never went to church. Not going to church was sort of our religion. Now and then I worried about that—that never having been inoculated against religiosity, one of the girls might place her inevitable adolescent mystification there, would go to Jesus or seek the dumb safe haven of Biblical gibberish. Here in the islands—though virtually everyone else got dressed up in white and went to church on Sunday morning—we were so alone, so outside of it, that our non-participation really didn’t matter. Maybe everyone else thought that we went to some other church than theirs, or even that up in the haunted valley we practiced our own cabbalistic rites. Who knows? But, no, we didn’t exchange gifts with invisible friends either.

Ghosts and their tricks occupied pretty much the same ground as religion. In all our time in the valley we’d had no visitations nor strange occurrences. If the ghosts were actual, we were immune, and being immune we had no reason to invest any attention in them. They were our superstition-supplied guards, that was all. Their gift to us was our otherwise inexplicable safety there, the shield—the shell—of imperviousness they lent us in the local consciousness.

One mid-day Sunday a few months later, Marylou knocked at my kitchen screen door. She had recently shed her cast and was dressed in a fresh muumuu. She was as animated as I’d ever seen her. Ronnie was in trouble, she said, I had to come, now. “Bring a bush knife,” she added as she turned and headed back up the ridge. “Leave the youngsters behind.” I did exactly as she told me.

As we headed up the ridge behind her place, for the first time I saw the cook shed and further on the garden that Ronnie had described. Beyond there was a root-stepped trail that wound through the jungle. I scrambled to keep up with Marylou, who had hiked her muumuu skirts up around her waist. At one point she stopped and waited for me to catch up with her at a place where a fallen tree interrupted the trail.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“The old graveyard,” she answered. “Come on.”

Ronnie had told us once about the old graveyard. It was part of the haunted history of the valley. Marylou’s mission house and other surrounding buildings long since reclaimed by the bush had once been—had been built as—a school to train native girls how to be good wives to native pastors. At some point, maybe fifty years before, some sort of epidemic had swept through the school. Many of the graves, Marylou had told her, were from that epidemic—girls from other villages and islands whose bodies, because of the quarantine, had not been returned to their families but had been buried there. Marylou said that the villagers said that the ghost things in the valley were the result of these girls, their restlessness from not being buried in their own villages. What made the spirits unmanageable was the fact that they didn’t belong there, weren’t at home.

Just as this place wasn’t really our home either, it struck me as I followed Marylou’s paste-white, blue-veined legs through underbrush where there was no longer a discernable trail.

“Faster this way,” she called back to me.

A couple of times I slashed with the bush knife at vines or branches that slowed me down. Then we were standing on a wide level space on the ridge side, where the canopy opened up a bit. At first it looked like just more jungle only a little brighter. Then I saw the lines of low, coral-slab-sided graves. The trees and weeds had been cleared from them. Red ti plants traced a ragged perimeter. I took a step forward that crunched rather than cracked or snapped and I looked down at a border of broken shells that stretched to rough corners marked by cairns of empty old bottles. It was very still there, no rustling breezes nor jungle bird songs announcing our intrusion.

Marylou was breathing heavily, grabbing breaths like someone gulping water. She was soaked in sweat.

“Ronnie done this,” she said, then bent over with a heavy cough. When she caught her breath again, she said. “She’s been coming up here for a couple of hours every so often to clean up. What day is today any ways, week wise?”

“Sunday,” I said.

“Yeah, that would be right.” Marylou stood up straight and nodded. “She always said something about church going when she came up here. She done a good job. Come on.”

We crossed the ambiguous graveyard. There were no headstones, no markers, just different sized oblong mounds enclosed by stones and weathered, green-molded plates and chunks of coral. Black lizards slipped from their sunning spots upon the stones. A lone jungle bird called out some sort of warning verse to his fellows.

“There,” said Marylou; and there was Ronnie. At first I could see just her face and head clearly. Her eyes were closed. She was sitting up, her back against the trunk of a coconut palm tree on the further edge of the clearing. When I got to her, I could see that she was breathing, her head rising and falling just perceptively with each labored breath. She was tied crudely to the tree with vines that had been looped repeatedly under her arms and around the trunk. I touched her face, which was wet and warm. Her eyes stayed closed. Then I turned on Marylou, who had followed me.

“What have you done to her?” I had no idea how my voice sounded, only that it was loud. I repeated myself, “What have you done to Ronnie?”

Marylou didn’t flinch. “She done that to herself, I guess,” she said. “That’s how I found her right before I went to get you.” She was staring at Ronnie, not looking at me. There was a squint of concern in her eyes.

I looked at Ronnie. Though her upper body was lashed to the tree, her arms and legs were free, and she held the end of one vine tightly with both hands.

“She done that to herself to keep herself there,” Marylou said. “She’s afraid.”

“Afraid? Afraid of what?” Now my voice was loud and incredulous.

“Afraid of what’s got her,” Marylou said matter of factly. “Here, give me that bush knife.” And, taking the machete from me, she began to slice through the vines. “You hold onto her,” she said.

I pulled the vine leaves and cords from around her as Marylou cut them away, until Ronnie slumped forward into my arms with a low uninterpretable moan. Her eyes were still closed. I held her close to me. She wasn’t feverish, and her breathing relaxed into something like sleep. I smelt her breath. There was no hint of alcohol.

“Do you think you can get her to walk?” Marylou asked, standing there dripping sweat, with the bush knife still in her hand.

I tried to lift her, waken her, encourage her; but she was just dead weight.

“Okay then, you stay here with her, and I’ll try to find some help to move her,” Marylou said, heading off back across the graveyard. Then she turned and came back and laid the bush knife beside us. “Might need this,” she said and left.

I leaned back against the tree that Ronnie had been tied to and pulled her up to hold like I hadn’t held her in a long time, her head resting against my collar bone, her body limp. There were no marks on her. Her clothes—long jeans, a t-shirt and a work shirt, sneakers—were all as they should be. A sweet smell came off her, which after a while I identified as the smell of the vine because it was on my hands as well. We sat there like that. I made my legs comfortable beneath her weight. I waited.

I felt Ronnie’s pulse—first in her wrist, then on her neck. It was regular and strong. I stroked her hair, felt her skull for contusions, and spoke to her, but there was no response.

“My daughter is in a coma,” I told myself, “and we are here in the jungle beyond any reasonable help.” But instead of the expected panic, something else settled in—a relaxation that started in the muscles that held her and spread to my brain, a luscious tiredness that made the tree trunk behind my back and the broken ground beneath my legs seem soft. I held her closer. I watched the birds return to the canopy above, pairs of white fairy terns and solitary olive honeyeaters. Ronnie murmured and stirred, then resettled herself more comfortably against me. I closed my eyes to think.

Leslie Tapa

Tapa by Leslie Wood

They had to awaken me when they arrived. Marylou was shaking my shoulder. About ten feet behind her stood the man who had once made a gift of my axe to himself, wearing a shirt and a lava lava. For a moment I didn’t know where I was. My right arm and leg were asleep beneath Ronnie.

“You okay?” asked Marylou.

The man came and lifted Ronnie off me, then, stooping, curled her over his shoulder in what my dad used to call a fireman’s carry but at that moment struck me as the way an Indian would carry away a dead deer. Without a word, he turned and headed across the graveyard to the trail out. Marylou helped me up, picked up the bush knife from where she had laid it, and we silently followed him.

The distance to Marylou’s house seemed much shorter going back. I was still in sort of a sleepy daze and a couple of times fell so far behind as to actually lose sight of them on the trail. The sun had slipped down behind the western ridge, leaving the valley in its secondary light, and for some reason I was thinking about Veronica’s father, whom neither of us had seen since she was two years old. I thought of him carrying her down the tricky trail. I felt safe thinking that—his broad back, strong hands, cocky self-assurance. I could see him running through California surf with two-year old Ronnie riding on his shoulders, hanging on to his kinky afro mane for all she was worth, breathless with happiness.

When I got to Marylou’s they had already taken Ronnie inside. No. I wanted them to take her on to our house, where I could put her in the car and drive the fifteen twisty miles to the hospital. I went up the steps and into Marylou’s one remaining room. A pile of sleeping mats had been placed in the middle of the floor, and Ronnie had been lain face-up upon them. There were two women I didn’t know arranging and undressing her. No, this was all wrong. She needed a medical diagnosis, drugs or something, a doctor’s care. I protested to Marylou, insisted that we keep on to my house.

At first she said nothing, ignored me as she moved things out of the other women’s way. They, too, ignored me. One of them snapped an order in their language to the man, who nodded and left. I felt like I was talking inside a nightmare where nobody could hear me. Then Marylou came and took me by the arm and pulled me out onto the veranda.

“Now listen,” she said. “We ain’t going to take her to that shitty hospital. What your Ronnie’s got can’t be cured by shots, pills, tubes, and bright lights. What she’s got can only be cured where it was gotten, by people who know what it is she’s got and have fixed it before. Now shush up. This is serious. I want you to go fetch the pillow she usually sleeps on, and if she’s got a special blanket or doll or something she always sleeps with, bring that too. Just do that.”

I did that. When I got to my house, another woman, someone I vaguely knew from the village, was in the kitchen, fixing tuna fish sandwiches for my other two girls, who were sitting at the kitchen table, chatting with her. The woman smiled and nodded. The girls said, “Hi, Mommy.” I got Ronnie’s pillow and baby quilt—her “blanky”—and left.

When I got back to Marylou’s, they had Ronnie stripped down to her panties and t-shirt, lying on the mats. Marylou took the pillow and quilt from me and placed them beside Ronnie. “Something familiar for her to come back to,” she said. The other women nodded. There were now four of them. One was massaging her legs with oil from an old Coca Cola bottle; another was holding her head and softly massaging her temples. The one at her head seemed to be in charge. She instructed one of the other women to drape a lava lava over Ronnie’s midsection and thighs. They all spoke softly and moved purposefully, seriously, like some sort of bush EMS team. Not knowing what to do, I sat down on the floor by the door, my back against the wall, and watched, feeling totally helpless.

After a short while Marylou sat down next to me. She was still sweating profusely and looked totally drained.

“That’s Fa`asina,” she said, nodding toward the woman at Ronnie’s head. “She knows what has to be done.” She took a swig from a bottle of vodka and offered it to me. I shook my head. I was numb again. I watched Fa`asina.  Somehow I would have expected a woman like that to be older, but she was younger than I, in her mid-thirties maybe, ageless, as the village women sometimes were, full and round in her features and body. Sometimes I felt as if she were watching me out of the corner of her eye as she caressed and pulled the skin on Ronnie’s face and murmured indistinguishable words. Daylight was dying, and someone lit a kerosene lantern. The next time Marylou took a pull on her bottle of vodka and offered it to me, I took a mouthful of the burning stuff and slowly swallowed it, feeling the fire run down my throat and through my chest. There were more women now, and outside on the now dark veranda more lanterns were lit.    Hours passed. Marylou got up and shuffled off to her couch to sleep, leaving her bottle of vodka beside me. I took a few more drinks, seeking the liquor’s calmness and remove. But the women around Ronnie, especially Fa`asina, never ceased running their hands over her and murmuring. I guess I drifted off.

Then suddenly a man’s gruff voice filled the room, speaking in the native language—the angry, emotion-strained voice of an old man—and I was wide awake. The whole room and veranda came to silent attention. It was Ronnie speaking, raised up on one elbow, her face constricted and red with rage, her free fist waving in the air. Fa`asina leaned back, letting her go. The other women around her pulled back.

It was an angry speech, not a word of which I understood. I got up to my knees and cried, “Ronnie, Ronnie,” and several sets of strong arms lifted me up and whisked me out the door. From the lawn, held back by unknown arms, I listened to the old man’s vehement oration. I could still see Ronnie speaking, sitting up now in the lantern light, her squinted eyes flashing about the room. Then the speech ended as abruptly as it had begun, and Ronnie slumped back into Fa`asina’s catching hands. Coconuts thudded into the earth around us, a volley of them released from the bordering trees, and a strong sea wind swept over us.

Fa`asina and three other women now redoubled their massage of Ronnie, pouring on more oil, rubbing leaves into her skin. Without looking up from Ronnie’s face, Fa`asina barked out a series of commands, and about me everyone bolted into action. Softer arms now held me. Torches were lit. The man who had taken my axe now stood six inches in front of my face and told me that now I was needed and must come with them. I looked about for Marylou, who was nowhere to be seen in the present hubbub. I nodded.

Ahead of us, a torch-lit procession was already heading up the ridge trail, back toward the old graveyard. Shadowed hands helped me along, and soon we were there. Smokey coconut leaflet torches surrounded the graveyard; off on one side a fire had been started. I sat to rest on a fallen tree. Then past me were carried Marylou’s blackened cooking pots, filled with sloshing water.

No one was singing or chanting. No one was even speaking, though I got the feeling the entire adult village was there in the smoke and the discontinuous torch light. The man who had taken my axe squatted before me, his face again too close to mine, and he told me, “You find grave.”

I looked at him, dazed and bewildered, speechless.

“You find grave him got your daughter,” he said softly, taking my hand and pulling me up.

I wanted to cry. I had no idea what he meant, but I knew it was of great importance. I stood up, feeling everyone’s eyes upon me. The graveyard was filled with shadows and smoke, and off to my right Marylou’s water-filled cooking pots had been placed on logs above a now leaping fire.

I stepped out into the graveyard. If ever I had wanted the gift of insight it was now. What was it I was supposed to find? And how? I stood there. I said a prayer for help to Ronnie. Then I turned back and took a torch from someone standing there and walked out among the graves. I noticed that no one else had set foot in the graveyard. Whoever else was there stayed well away from the boundary of shells and red ti plants.

The footing was uncertain in the flickering glow of my loosely bundled torch, whose smoke stung my eyes. I held it out at arm’s length away from me. Though Ronnie had cleared the graves themselves, the paths between them were still a tangled mass of creepers and roots over rubble and rocks eroded from the raised mounds. I noticed with surprise how small some of the graves were—children’s graves, no more than three or four feet long. There seemed to be three rows of graves. I found a sort of aisle between two of the rows and tripped and stumbled down it. I had never felt so totally alone.

All my life I had prided myself as the one who could go it alone—the girl who left home as soon as she could get away; the free spirit who didn’t need, indeed distrusted, commitments; the tough bitch who didn’t mind going it alone, sleeping alone. Of course, I knew that was just my outward image of myself, my projection, my defensive shield; but after enough years it was pretty much all I had. Aside from my girls, those fellow travelers for whom I took full and sole responsibility, from their conception up to this—this empty, hollow, echoingly vacuous inner need to have someone, anyone there beside me to share my confusion and feeling of complete ineptitude. Yes, someone, some man, who would deny his fear and give me an arm to hold on to, grab me when I tripped like this, and say “Okay. It’s going to be okay.”

I began to realize that the separate graves were differentiated not only by length but by height as well. Some were just raised earth surrounded by stones; others had one or even two interior tiers of earth edged with the coral slabs. These would be the graves of adults. Most of these graves were near the center, but I noticed one toward the end of the upper row from which a small tree had been cut, its white crudely hacked trunk rising half a foot from the earth. I turned toward it, felt drawn to it. As I approached it, something glanced the red glow of my dying torch back at me. I waved the torch back and forth to make it flame, and there on top of the upper grave tier was our spider conch shell. Ronnie must have brought it and put it there. She had to have had some reason for doing that. I waved the torch above my head, its sparks falling on and about me, and said in the loudest voice I could muster, “Here. It is here.” Then I stooped down and picked up the conch shell.

What happened next happened quickly and without me. The man who had taken my axe appeared beside me with a long straight tree limb sharpened into a pike and wordlessly started thrusting it deep into the earth of the grave, twisting the spear after every thrust to widen its hole. Then other men came, carrying the now steaming pots of water. Grasping the pots with thick pads of leaves, they carefully poured the hot liquid into the holes the pike had made. Not a word was said. Then everyone turned to withdraw. The few torches left returned to the trail down the ridge; only the kicked apart cooking fire still danced shadows around me. Someone took the torch from my hand, and someone else turned me to follow it. I held the conch shell to my chest with both hands. I entrusted myself to the care and night vision of whoever helped me down the now well-beaten trail to Marylou’s.

When we got there, everyone else kept on going down the trail to the beach road, the village, their homes. Again, all in silence. There were none of the customary words of departure or good night.

Inside Marylou’s, Ronnie was resting peacefully, her head in Fa`asina’s lap. Fa`asina’s fingers still moved softly, slowly, rhythmically over Ronnie’s temples and forehead and cheekbones. Ronnie’s complexion was flushed, and through the oil her whole body glowed with beads of perspiration. Fa`sina’s eyes were closed, but there was a look of exhausted contentment on her face.

I spent the rest of that night sleeping beside Ronnie on that pile of mats in Marylou’s only remaining room. I slipped Ronnie’s pillow under her head and covered her with her quilt. The four remaining women, including Fa`asina, slept in a circle around us, and beyond them Marylou snored but never moved on her couch against the wall.

I kept Ronnie home from school the next week and called myself in sick at work so I could stay with her. The familiar Ronnie slowly returned, though she stayed close to home. We never talked about what had happened. By Friday I was calling her Veronica again and drove to town to shop and check the mail, leaving her home alone. We had not seen Marylou.

When I got back home, I checked in on Ronnie, who was sleeping, and walked on up to Marylou’s. Her place was much as we had left it. Extinguished kerosene lanterns with soot-blackened glass chimneys still sat here and there on the veranda. Marylou was still, or again, stretched out on her couch. I knocked at the non-door, but she didn’t answer. There was an empty vodka bottle laying on the floor beside her, as prone and as senseless as she was. I sat there a while on the pile of mats where Ronnie had lain, watching her, studying her gravity-drawn bony face, not sure if she was alive or dead. Her face looked cold, but I couldn’t touch her.

After an uncertain length of time—strong end-of-day shafts of light now slicing through her room in any event—I got up and left, leaving behind me the present I had brought her from town, a bottle of Crown Royale whiskey with a ribbon on it and a card that Tracey, my youngest, had printed up with many colored crayons—“Hello, Marylou. Thank you.”

 

 

Inside Aging

anciebt tree

I am 72. That is not old these days. I am sure there are Hiroshima-bomb-year-baby peers out there running marathons. Poor bastards. But it is old enough to set up a few informative signs along the path downhill. I remember the Burma Shave signs.

Sign #1: No one is watching. No one really gives a fuck what you do, so relax. It does not matter what you wear, as long as you are decent and not flamboyantly overdressed. No one is going to look at you anyway. You are functionally invisible. That no one, by the way, includes any deities. By now you have outlived that fairytale.

Sign #2: Time is tricky. Sure, in science it helps to pretend we have corralled time with numbers into some sort of lockstep, but you know better. The real clock is chaos. Time is not solid; it is liquid and vapor, an aurora borealis. Ask a hawk what time it is. There are languages that have no word for time. Five years ago? Five days ago? Not yet? What is the difference? Hard to grasp? Wait, you will find out. Time thins and pales and vanishes like hair.

Sign #3: Perfection is an illusion. Life is a mess; that is why it works. Evolution is always correcting itself (or fucking up again). Learn to savor the faults in things. As the poet Charles Olson learned: “The only thing that does not change / is the will to change.”

Sign #4: Your inner voice is your best friend. There may have been a time when it gave you bum advice, back when hormones had a say; but now it is one hundred percent on your side. It only wants to help. After all, where would it be without you?  My inner voice has become a sort of son, cautioning the old-man brain inside my head. “One thing at a time, gramps.” “You left it in the other room.” “Watch the step.”  We have our laughs.

Sign #5: Go slow. No rush—all your potential is behind you.

There are a couple more, but I forgot them.

The Teargas Years

teargas Berkeley

I had gotten to learn Strawberry Creek Canyon pretty well. It was my favorite escape on campus, a gash of green nature cutting through the cement and pretense. I had walked it when the creek was in flood, trying to figure out how far I could kayak it before being beheaded by a bridge. It was a channeled hint of what once had been wild in Berkeley before the university was plopped there. It wasn’t Doe Library.

This was almost fifty years ago, when I was a grad student there in the anthro department.  Ronald Reagan was governor. The rotten war in Vietnam had gotten rottener, had spread. Many of my peers were either dying or staying stoned in Southeast Asian rice fields and jungles. America was on another killer mission. Meanwhile, back on campus, classes and seminars went on, as students spared by the draft—women, the unable, and lucky draft-lottery winners like myself—pursued our studies, hopeful of careers untinged by Agent Orange.

The protests against the war had been sustained for years, so long that they had come to partly define, partly shape a semi-generation of people who cared enough to continue to object. At the time, much of the nation did not appreciate us. My Republican patriot father banished me, a Commie. No one thought our government would lie. Our enemy wasn’t even white—yellow-peril gooks in black pajamas.

I had first met teargas at a protest in New York years before, when my major concern had been not getting counter-protestors’ red paint splashed onto the fine, baby-blue, Irish-wool sweater my girlfriend had just given me. I was unprepared. I learned to always carry a cowboy bandana and a small plastic bottle of white vinegar in my backpack. They helped a little, but not much. Maybe they only helped psychologically. I’m a smoker. I know how to cough. The eyes are worst.

For two successive spring semesters the Cal campus was shut down, either by student strikes or administrative lock down. Reagan hated the university, did everything he could to cripple it—a campus with more Nobel Laureates than most countries. For eight years he refused to either visit or convene its governing board of regents there. It was like the other side had gone to all this trouble of drawing a line between us. Yet another American killer mission.

It was a perfect Bay Area late spring day. It had been a wet winter, and everything with roots was eager to be green. Strawberry Creek was cleansing its stream banks. A dozen of us sat around a long table in a high-ceilinged, oak-wainscoted conference room. A Professor Dundes seminar on folk epics or something. I don’t recall. No spring daylight came through the tall plywooded-over windows, but we all could see the wisps of teargas seeping in the cracks. Outside, down by Sather Gate, we could hear the confused sounds of confrontation. This was ridiculous. We all, including Professor Dundes, gave up pretending, packed up, and left. I went to the demonstration.

At times that spring there seemed to be as many men (all men) in uniform on campus as there were students. And the men in uniform were armed—sidearms and billy clubs mainly, but also guys with teargas grenade launchers. The students were unarmed. In all the weeks of protests, I don’t believe a single officer was injured. Any injury would have been big news. The uniforms also had the gas masks. That day we got gassed from above. An army helicopter swooped low over Sproul Plaza, spewing an indiscriminate cloud of gas. If you were there, there was no escaping it. My vinegar-soaked bandana was no protection.

I retreated to the trees along the creek to await the recovery I knew would slowly come, as my burning eyes would relearn to focus and my nose and throat would clear. My bandana became a snot rag soaked in tears and mucus. I headed for home. My way home was past the ROTC compound and Edwards Baseball Stadium. In the road outside the stadium, an olive-colored army truck, one of those with a green canvas Conestoga cover, was laying on its side, both in flames and totally ignored, not a person in sight. Godard surreal, the only soundtrack the crackling of the flames and occasional small explosions from inside the truck.

Then behind those sounds, there was the low roar of a crowd reacting to something inside the stadium. I went to check it out. The gates were open, unattended. There was a baseball game in progress, Cal vs. Stanford. Cal had runners on second and third. A run had just scored, and a white 1 flopped into place on the center field scoreboard. I sat to watch the end of the inning. In the distance you could hear the helicopter as it made another Plaza drop. Disperse, ye rebels. Cal is mounting a rally against its arch rival.

All classes were cancelled after that, not to resume that semester. But I was back on campus the next day. The anthro grad students wanted to issue some sort of statement. It was one of those meetings that makes no one want to attend meetings, but some sort of document of solidarity was cobbled out. I went back to the demonstration, just another body added to the chanting throng. Today, the full panoply of paramilitary California law enforcement was on display. Not just campus cops and Berkeley cops, but CHP and National Guard, and squads from all the local counties sheriff’s departments. The most notorious of these were the Blue Meanies, the blue-jump-suited, black-helmeted Alameda deputies, in full riot gear, including three-foot black wooden batons. The highway patrol contingent was the most restrained, most professional. You got the impression they were embarrassed to be there. The Blue Meanies were there for sport and blood and bashing-hippie bragging rights.

I remember thinking how strange it was that a movement based on the belief that the state had no need for enemies either foreign or domestic was now the enemy of the state. I stopped to write down, any enemy of enemies is my enemy. The teargas canister landed about three feet away from me. I kicked it away and headed in the opposite direction. It scattered the crowd of protestors, broke it open. And the Blue Meanies, in grotesque, outdated gas masks, rushed into the gap, swinging their black bats. I was fumbling to get my notebook back into my backpack, the gas already stinging my eyes, when he decided I was his prize.

This is where Strawberry Creek comes back into the story. It was only ten yards away, and I made for it—out of the gas, but with my own, personal Blue Meanie only steps behind me. It was mud to the first boulder, but he took it quick on his ass. His baton hit the rock where I was standing. He had missed. After that, it was a piece of cake. Adrenalized, I gazelled up the stream bed, while he floundered from boulder to pool. He was screaming obscenities now, as if enough fucks would stop me. I looked back. Behind my predator, on his hands and knees now in the gleeful water, the white chemical fog closed out the canyon. Sometimes I still can smell it, or think I can. That was a long time ago.

There Is No Campus 911

college campus 1

Catherine had hoped but not anticipated that it would be this easy. Maybe, in a way—she had no one to admit it to—she even felt a little bit miffed that it had been so painless. Perhaps he really was as soulless as she had accused him of being, and she hadn’t hurt him at all. The prick. It helped, of course, that they were in different departments. That made it easy for him to avoid her. But she and Seth were co-chairs of the interdepartmental symposium series on multicultural diversity, so on Thursday she wore the mint green raw silk blouse and the charcoal Lord & Taylor slacks. He would have to be there for their guest lecturer. Everyone would be there. Dr. Angelica Saki-Hopkins was quite a catch, and Catherine would be introducing her.

The way the spider webs had blown against the screen they made a road map. It wasn’t oriented north-south, but he could imagine the brightest, straightest line being the Interstate and the other more random lines being the state and county roads. That imaginary intersection of back roads there he decided was College Station. In his mind he traced the roads back out to the Interstate. Then the late autumn sun was eclipsed by a cloud, and the map vanished from his office window screen. Seth supposed he could take some sort of comfort from the fact that no on else seemed to like her. More than one of his department colleagues had referred to her as the “Anthrobitch.” Male colleagues.  Unsolicited. Of course, he had never even mentioned that he knew Catherine beyond their co-chairing the symposium series. As the new man there, he didn’t yet have a personal life in anybody else’s mind. Perhaps he never would. In any event, he had a symposium talk to go to. As we was leaving his office he realized that he would just be listening today, so he paused long enough to take several good tokes on the hash pipe he kept hidden behind Keats on his bookshelf.

Catherine got to the lecture hall ten minutes early and it was already almost full, but Dr. Saki-Hopkins wasn’t there. For a minute she panicked—what if their off-campus guest couldn’t find the building or the room? She walked to the front door of the building, looking everywhere, and there, still a hundred yards away but walking toward her on the diagonal sidewalk across the quad, was her guest speaker, dressed in her trademark long denim skirt and leather jacket, a wide streak of white in her bush of black hair. Walking beside her was Seth. They were deep in conversation. They stopped, still well short of the building and out of ear-shot, still not seeing her waiting there, and Dr. Saki-Hopkins lit a cigarette.

Initially he had been sort of flattered. Even though it was his first semester on campus, he had been asked to co-chair the inter-departmental symposium series with the distinguished and tenured anthropology professor. Then he got to meet her and was surprised to find her attractive, friendly, and not much older than himself. A few working lunches and meetings went smoothly. In spite of her seniority, she didn’t seem at all controlling and readily agreed to his curriculum suggestions. He would take the lit/fine arts part, and she would take the anthro/culture part. Then one day she asked him to stop by her office. She had a favor to ask him. It was a book-length manuscript she was working on. It wasn’t really in her field, and she felt uncertain about it. He was the English professor. Would he take a look at it for her?  What she didn’t tell him, and what he didn’t discover until he had the manuscript home and started to read it, was that the book was a rather frank and very descriptive autobiography of her sexual life, starting with her first discovery of a garden hose and moving through early adventures with her mother’s boyfriends onto grade school and high school conquests of her classmates. And that was only through page fifty, where he stopped the first night to masturbate again.

When Dr. Saki-Hopkins and Seth came up the front steps of the building where Catherine was waiting, they were both laughing. “So, the shit missed the fan entirely,” Dr. Saki-Hopkins said. She butted out the filter end of her cigarette against an iron railing and stuck the butt into her jacket pocket. Seth made a point of introducing them, as if they hadn’t met before, as if Angelica wasn’t her invited guest speaker. Then he smiled that goofy smile of his as if he had just said or done something clever and left them there, headed into the lecture hall. Catherine gave Angelica a sisterly hug and told her how glad she was to see her again. Angelica smelled of cigarettes and sweat and asked to be reminded where they had met before. On their way into the lecture hall Catherine asked if Angelica would be speaking on her scheduled topic, the cross-cultural roots of gender dominance, and Angelica informed her that she wanted to talk about a new topic, gender roles as revealed in the folk humor of Native American and African cultures. “It’s about time we got some laughs out of this, isn’t it?” she said. Catherine stopped to make some quick notes on the backs of her typed-up three-by-five cards.

Seth found that he made very few editorial marks on Catherine’s manuscript. There were the usual occasional syntactical, grammatical, and typographical errors to be cleaned up, but he quickly grasped that that was not his function. He was being asked if this work was a classic of erotic confession and self-revelation or just another piece of pornographic trash. It is truly difficult to write anything about promiscuous sexual behavior that doesn’t sound clichéd. There are only so many things you can do with a pair of aroused bodies, and only so many ways to describe what gets done. At first, he did note that the narrator seemed to prefer only private one-on-one heterosexual trysts, but as the book progressed into and out of puberty the scope of encounters gradually widened. He was far from an expert on erotica, but he had trouble imagining anything colder and more clinical than her prose. He wondered if she had kept a diary—it would have been more like a laboratory journal—for all those years, or if all of this in all its specific detail was still locked into her long-term memory. Had she herself gotten off reliving and writing it? It wasn’t as if she was apologizing for or rationalizing anything.

Catherine had booked the largest lecture hall on campus for today’s talk, the one in the Life Sciences building. She was glad she had. Angelica Saki-Hopkins was a big draw. Students came because they had seen her on cable talk shows. Faculty came to witness and be jealous of this anomaly—one of them, an academic, who had somehow parlayed a campus job into a career as a minor celebrity. Angelica had said she wouldn’t need any AV hook-up, no PowerPoint or slide show, just a microphone if the hall was large. A student techie assured Catherine that the podium mike was ready, and she was about to go on and begin her introduction when she got word to wait a few minutes. The university president was on his way but late. Angelica was seated in the front row beside Seth, who was leaning back casually, legs crossed, as if waiting for a basketball game to start. Catherine waved and caught Angelica’s eye and gestured that it would be a minute or two. Seth looked at her as if she were a visitor from another planet. Her hand went to the neck of her blouse, smoothing it against her collar bone. He looked so young sitting there, his big hands clasped around his knee.

Actually, he had never finished reading her manuscript. After about a hundred and fifty pages he had returned it to her, inadvertently allowing himself to be enlisted as subject matter for her next chapter. It was the first really cold night of autumn when he walked to her house north of campus and dropped it off, sort of disgusted with himself for having read as far into it as he had. She blushed like a girl when he handed it back to her, just inside her front door and said, “Not for me.” She asked him inside for a drink. She had a fire going. She wanted to tell him why she had written it. Or not. He could just have a nightcap and go, his reward for bringing her book back to her and not burning it. “No, no, never set fire to it,” he told her. “But be careful. It might spontaneously combust.”

She writes the fuck scenes. Seth supposed that she would have made notes for that night. One shared Scotch on the rocks leading to two, the second brought back from the kitchen along with a slim but potent joint. Her sending him out to the deck for more firewood and his resuscitation of the fire. Their laughing argument about slapstick films and her nimble impersonation of Stan Laurel. The soft punch thrown, the first touch, the kiss. The fact that she wore no underwear. How naked on top of her in front of the fire, one side of his body was bright and hot and the other side was dark and cold. He liked taking her. She loved being taken. The fact that it meant nothing beyond just doing it together was fiendishly freeing. She writhed beneath him, somewhere else altogether, some wonderfully ancient familiar place. Then she clung to him and purred, purred like a cat that had been fed and caressed. He remembered the soft fragrant smell of her mixed with the smell of the fire. It was an act well worth repeating.

Dr. August Boucher, the university president, was famous for arriving late, but he always made his entrances unembarrassed. Catherine didn’t mind waiting for him. This was a plus. President Boucher had never before attended one of their symposium lectures. As the minutes crept past the hour, the audience grew a bit restless. Catherine saw faculty members pull out their cell phones and students start text-messaging. Everyone knew that as soon as the lecture began the electronic message blocking device in the lecture hall would be turned on—a campus rule. She went to the podium and said into the microphone that they were waiting on one more distinguished guest, if they would be patient just another minute or two. President Boucher’s entrance caused only a little stir. He strode to the front row, giving Catherine at the podium a patronizing smile.  Did he even know who she was? He found Dr. Saki-Hopkins in her front row seat and shook hands with her, then with Seth, who had also stood to greet him. The three of them spoke for a minute, President Boucher clapping them both on the back, then taking the seat on the other side of Angelica from Seth. Catherine studied her three-by-five cards, then began by welcoming president Boucher and the other distinguished faculty members. She introduced herself as chair of the symposium on multicultural diversity. She didn’t mention Seth, who didn’t seem to notice. He seemed to be staring intently out a high window to his left, over Angelica’s head. She ran through Angelica’s bona fides—her books and papers and appointments and awards. Catherine felt at home behind a podium with a microphone in front of her. She stated the overall purpose of the symposium and tried to contextualize Angelica’s presence there, but was unsure where to go with the new humor in gender role topic that Angelica had just substituted. She said something about an original thinker always at the cutting edge of her discipline, then called Angelica up to the podium. Applause. Not for Catherine, she realized, of course, but for Angelica.

Seth had never been with a woman for whom orgasms were so easy and frequent and so seemingly meaningless. Their trysts were like secret yoga classes, set according to her busy schedule. He didn’t mind. His social calendar wasn’t exactly packed, and he got a teenage kick from their clandestine meetings. He also had to admit that he found frequent passionate sex unencumbered by any hint of courtship or public display quite preferable to his earlier attachments. He recognized some of her techniques from her chronicles, so he was not surprised and went with them. It was almost like a one-on-one seminar. And afterwards she was always sweet, almost girlish. He never spent the night. She made sure he left nothing there at her house, not a trace of him except his semen inside her. They never discussed contraception. He figured she didn’t bring it up because someone with a history like hers would have dealt with that a long time ago, and besides at the urging of his first graduate-school wife years before he had had a vasectomy. He never even thought to mention it. It wasn’t something he was proud of. The applause in the lecture hall brought him back. Catherine had been talking, and he had been watching the flights of Canada Geese high in the sky out the lecture hall windows—not so much Vs as ragged check marks headed south. There was always something melancholy about that sight, the feeling of being left behind. Angelica put a hand on his knee as she stood up. “Wish me luck,” she said. “I’ve never been a comedienne before.”

“Knock ‘em dead,” he said.

Catherine saw Angelica’s hand on Seth’s leg and their whispered exchange as she rose to come to the podium. It crossed her mind to go take the seat beside Seth that Angelica had vacated, but that would be too obvious. And what would she say to him? The truth? That she missed him and that she was now suddenly jealous of him with that notorious cougar Angelica Saki-Hopkins? She picked up her three-by-five cards and took a seat off to the side of the podium. It had been ten days since she had sent him packing, furious with him, and he had not once tried to contact her. Of course, it was over, but she had found no one to replace him and she had confessed things to him that no one else knew. She had told him she wanted to have his baby, and he had as much as laughed at her. “Sex and parenthood are two different things,” he had said. “We may be suited for one but not the other.” Either he didn’t understand that she didn’t want him as a parent of her child just as its biological father or he was saying that he didn’t think she would make a good parent. She thought she would make a fine parent, and she thought it was time to find out, time to move on to the next level. She would record it all, keep a detailed journal of motherhood. She had had her IUD removed after her first luncheon meeting with Seth, having decided he was an ideal sperm donor. But that night ten days before, curled up together under her down comforter after sex, when she had told him she hoped she was getting pregnant, he had just shaken his head and said, “No, no, bad idea, impossible, can’t happen.” And she realized that he didn’t care at all about her, her needs and dreams. He was just fucking her. And she felt used. How dare he not care after she had repeatedly given herself so totally to him.

Angelica took the microphone from its stand at the podium and looped its wire free. “I don’t like those things,” she said, walking away from the podium. “They remind me too much of pulpits. It doesn’t seem right that I’d be standing there above you and you all are sitting there. Can I have a chair here, please? In traditional societies the story teller is always on the same level as her audience, both physically and socially, and I am here today not as an academic, nor as a woman, just as a story teller.”

Seth watched her move. There was an unhurried ease and sway in her stride, as if she were strolling barefoot through her own kitchen. Her gaze was down. The techie brought out a folding chair for her. She moved it closer to her audience. “I want to thank Seth and August and Cathy for inviting me here. I’d never been to your campus before. You could use more trees.” She sat down on the chair, her legs apart, and leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. “What I’m going to do today is tell you some jokes. You probably won’t think them very funny because they’re not from our culture, but where they come from they got a laugh. I call them gender jokes, because they’re told by members of one sex about members of the other, the opposite, the oh-so-opposite other sex—guy jokes about gals, gal jokes about guys.” Angelica sat up straight in the chair and looked out over the heads of her by now hushed audience. She paused, holding the microphone against her bosom.

Catherine hated being called Cathy. She bridled at Angelica’s casualness. Would the president think that all of their symposia were just joke sessions?  The woman had no text or notes. What was she going to do to fill her forty-five allotted minutes? Catherine had to admit, though, that the pause was effective. Angelica had the by-now standing-room-only audience in the palm of her hand. Then the pause didn’t end. It just went on. Angelica didn’t move, her gaze up at the high windows at the back of the hall never wavered. The microphone remained at rest on her chest. A minute went by. Was she channeling her jokesters? Was this part of her routine?  The silence became uncomfortable, and members of the audience began to fidget in their seats. Before sitting down Angelica had moved her chair up closer to the first row where Seth and Dr. Boucher were seated. Now Seth leaned forward toward her. Then in a crouch he went up to her. Angelica didn’t move. He put a hand on her left arm where it rested on her thigh and said her name. The microphone picked it up so that everyone could hear— “Angelica?” No reaction. He looked back toward Dr. Boucher, who came to join him. No one knew what was going on. Catherine put a hand to her mouth.

There was nothing in her eyes. Seth had never seen such a vacant stare. It was as if a switch had been thrown and Angelica’s lively laughing dark eyes had instantly gone totally dead. She was still sitting upright and breathing softly. Except for her eyes she looked at rest. Then a thin line of saliva appeared from the corner of Angelica’s mouth and started down her chin. Dr. Boucher was now squatted down beside him. He too said her name. “Angelica, are you alright?” Again, the microphone broadcast it into the hall. Seth reached up and gently took the microphone from her hand to turn it off, but not before everyone heard Dr. Boucher say, “Stroke.” Then Catherine was there, acting hysterically, shaking Angelica by the shoulders, telling her to wake up. “Do something,” she yelled at Seth. “Call 911, call the campus clinic.”  Dr. Boucher pulled out his cell phone, but the electronic message blocker was on in the hall and he could get no signal.

“I’ll go,” Seth said. He knew it was useless, but he wanted to leave. He desperately wanted to leave that place. He went out the side fire-door exit and started to run. The campus clinic was on the outer edge of the campus, and he settled into a long loping stride. It felt good to run. He looked back. No one was behind him, either following him or chasing him. He was all alone, running. stretched out and free. He should run more often, he thought.

 

The Disease of His Need for Women

traffuc jam

Well, at least he wasn’t delivering cement. Not that Joey ever had delivered cement, but he could imagine that knowing the stuff slushing around in the big drum behind you could turn into solid concrete if this traffic jam proved too endless might arouse its own variety of anxiety. Which Joey did not feel even though he wasn’t moving. The audio tape he had on was of an exercise program: “Now repeat—bend and stretch and one two three four.” He had taped the soundtrack of one of Sandy’s early morning exercise shows. A woman’s voice with a slight alien accent. From her breathing you could hear her doing the exercise. He found it soothing. He used to listen to that every morning as he woke up and Sandy worked out in front of the TV set in the other room. He would roll over and go back to sleep to dreams dictated by his dawn erection.

What Joey had on the flatbed behind him was not going to turn to stone—a full load of rolled turf, stacked piles of it like giant green-and-brown jellyrolls. There had to be an accident on the bridge. That’s the only thing that could lock the highway up this bad. There was no traffic in the two on-coming lanes, so all four lanes across were closed ahead. They hadn’t moved in five minutes, so Joey turned off the Peterbilt and got out of the cab to stretch his legs, have a cigarette, and check his tie-downs—funny load, turf. A woman in a silver Camry in the other lane buzzed down her window to ask him why the hold-up, as if truck drivers were supposed to know everything. A good looking woman, his age but well maintained. “Haven’t the slightest, ma’am,” was all he said. She was dressed as if she had somewhere to go.

Joey had a theory that everything happened for a reason, even if the reason rarely if ever had anything to do with him. Everything that happened happened because it had been scripted, not by any god but by something much simpler, call it fate. It wasn’t predestination. That shit was way too personal and self-important. What was salvation anyways? Maybe preordained was closer. Shit happens because shit was meant to happen, and people were like meaningless markers being moved around—not like named chess pieces but like the individually unimportant little marbles in Chinese checkers. The first rule was that it has nothing to do with you. Here they were all stuck on this fine afternoon on this actually rather pleasant piece of country highway lined by woods because up ahead the cross hairs of fate had caught some stranger at the moment of their fatal mistake. Sooner or later everyone makes that fatal mistake. This afternoon it was someone else’s turn. There was no escaping it, nothing personal. Shit happens. It was like the wild fire. In the end everyone said he had started it, but the fire had been doomed to happen anyway. He just happened to have been there as its agent.

Joey strolled to the rear of his rig. The stopped traffic stretched as far as he could see up the grade to a curve behind him. All that painted metal shimmered like a florescent snake with the sun behind it. There was a nice breeze blowing down the cut that the road made toward the water. That woman in the silver Camry was wasting gas keeping her engine running so that she could sit in her car with the windows up and her air-con on when it was such a beautiful day outside. She had fine collar bones. Joey ground the filtered butt of his cigarette into the pavement with the toe of his boot. He’d go back and tell her. Then the peaceful breeze-swept silence of the scene was broken by the loud honking horn of the white Chrysler right in front of him. With a start Joey looked up at the man behind the Chrysler’s wheel, an older gent, white-haired and red in the face. He was yelling something as he leaned on his horn, but Joey couldn’t hear him because his windows were up too. Joey shrugged and raised his hands in a question. What? Sitting beside the white-haired man was a blue-coifed wife with a sour look on her face. Joey walked up to the driver side window. “What’s the problem?” he asked.

The white-haired man buzzed his window down about five inches. “What do you think you are doing, lollygagging about on the highway smoking when we could begin moving again at any minute? “

“People like you,” his wife added, leaning toward the half-opened window.

“Look, Mac,” Joey said, gesturing ahead. “I’m not the problem. The problem’s up there a mile or so.”

“And you are compounding it,” the man said.

“And littering and polluting the air,” the wife added.

“Oh, go fuck yourself,” Joey said, turning away.

“What did you say?” the white-haired dude yelled, sounding really enraged.

“Or go fuck each other. You’ll have plenty of time, and I won’t watch.” Joey walked back toward the cab of his rig, kicking tires along the way. Up ahead there was still no movement. He went into his sleeper behind the cab, and pulled out the fifth of Jack Daniels from its hiding place beside his gun and took a slug, holding it in his mouth so that his head filled with the fumes of it. He wondered what the old guy was really pissed about. About being stuck in his car with that bitch?  He swallowed and took another mouthful. Well, dude, he thought, it was immutable that you’d be there. Even your anger, your misplaced road rage, was the only possible way you could feel. Only, this set of events could possibly pass. You were trapped inside time’s screenplay as surely as you were strapped inside your Chrysler, just like everyone else frozen in time in their cars around you. Joey popped two peppermint Altoids into his mouth—one for each drink. A helicopter passed above them in the direction of the bridge—not a good sign.

Her name was Susan. By the time Joey got back to her silver Camry she had already lowered her windows, turned off her engine and air-con and was reading a magazine. “Be a while, I guess,” he said. She looked at him, sort of surprised, over the tops of her reading glasses. He was seated on the step of his cab, just across the dashed white line from her. “Figure it’s an accident on the bridge. Nice day, though.” Joey lit another cigarette.

“Could I have one of those?” she asked.

Joey came over and handed her the pack, and she took one out and handed the pack back to him. Joey handed her his lighter, and she lit it.

“Thank you,” she said, handing back the lighter.

“Joey. Name’s Joey. You?”

“Susan,” she said.

That’s when he found out her name was Susan, but it seemed like he’d known it all along, like her name had to be Susan. Joey went back and sat down on his step. “So you smoke OPCs,” he said.

“OPCs?”

“Other peoples’ cigarettes.”

“Only and exclusively,” she said. “It’s sort of a personal campaign to make other people smoke less.”

It wasn’t déjà vu. It wasn’t that this scene was familiar because he had already experienced it. But it was like a scene he knew by heart somehow, as if he had rehearsed it, as if he had watched himself do these things and say these things and had memorized it all. Next, he thought, she will ask me about the old guy in the Chrysler.

.           “What was that all about back there?” she asked, gesturing with her cigarette toward the rear of his rig.

“Harmless venting,” he said. “Take it out on a stranger, me.” Even her ear ring, the one he could see, was familiar to him—a small silver star on a tiny chain, nothing like Sandy would ever wear. The blue blouse looked like silk. He crossed his legs and watched her out of the corner of his eye. She was enjoying her cigarette. The breeze moved her hair around her face. Some events seemed just bound to happen. Now she will turn on her radio and ask him….

“You like country?”

“Not especially, on a fine day like this.”

“Lyin’, dyin’, cryin’, cheatin’music.,” they said in unison, and she turned to look at him, exhaling slowly. “Where you from, Joey?”

“Hereabouts, over Narragansett. You?”

“Fort Lauderdale.”

“Long drive,” he said.

“I flew.”

“How’s your brother Bobby?”

“You know Bobby?”

“No.” It was all written out. Joey wondered what language the text would be in. Something pre-Aramaic. What would that be? Something with symbols, hierogrammatic. She opened her door and swung her feet out onto the macadam. Golden sandals, just as he would have suspected.  How could it not all be there already?  Order did not create itself. Order was precedent, imposed. Without order everything would fly apart. With order the future was possible. Her ankles rhymed with the thinness of her neck and were similarly tan. “You like a drink?”

“What you got?”

“Jack, no ice.”

“I’ll take one. Wait, here.” Reaching behind her, Susan produced a fast-food plastic soda cup with some icy residue sloshing around in the bottom. “Put a splash in there,” she said, passing it over to Joey.

Sandy had been a believer, one of them personal believers who thought she was important enough to merit individual divine attention. It was like her birthright or something, a given like gravity, as unexamined as her native tongue. But her belief in salvation was on a par with her trust in horoscopes and diets, so Joey found it easy to ignore. Sandy had never gone to church or owned a bible, but her omniscient being was the standard-issue Christian one—the skinny gay guy with the beard, who shared a luxury penthouse condo in her consciousness with the other sacrificial heroes—JFK, Jimi Hendrix, Princess Di, and Kurt Cobain. Joey had tried several times to explain it to her, that none of that mattered at all, that all the god talk was just dogs at a dog show. Sandy loved watching dog shows. She also liked looking good for the guys, for guys in general. If he had asked her to name the Ten Commandments, she might have come up with Thou shalt not kill.

When Joey asked Susan who her heroes were, she said that off-hand she couldn’t think of any. “Why?”

“Because you can tell a lot about somebody by who their heroes are,” he said.

“And you want to learn something about me? Just because I smoked one of your cigarettes and accepted some of your whiskey?”

“Just to pass the time. Why not talk about heroes?”

“Well, then, who are yours?” Susan had gotten out of her car and was now leaning against its hood, looking out down the highway. Pleaded tan shorts, muscular legs. She had put the plastic lid back on her cup into which Joey had poured several fingers of Jack. She was drinking it through a straw as if it were still a soda.

Joey was sipping his from a coffee cup. “I’ll go with Nostradamus and Evel Knievel. Now you give me two.”

Susan laughed. “Talk about learning things about someone. Okay, Sacagawea and my sister Josie.”

“Johnny Cash.”

“Audrey Hepburn. Isn’t it strange that no one else has gotten out of their car?”

It was true. There was not a single human being in sight among the hundred vehicles they could see on the highway curving down away from them. “Is it a law or something?”

“I guess nobody wants to admit that they’re stuck in a parking lot with no exit. It all has to do with their expectations of the immediate future.”

“Maybe they’re listening to music or for a traffic report.”

“That’s true. A traffic report would help them predict where they will be for the next fifteen minutes or an hour. Some people find it comforting to play at predicting their future, starting with little day-to-day stuff like this.”

“I don’t think much about the future,” Susan said.

“Next weekend’s weather report is not next weekend’s weather.”

“That’s right,” she said. “You got to wait and see for yourself.”

“You may not even be around to enjoy it.” Joey was thinking about the accident up ahead. What believers like Sandy gained from their believing was an afterlife, which obviously they thought was a good thing to have. It was like an invisible winning lottery ticket that someone else was holding for you, a futures guarantee based on nothing at all, a suckers’ market if ever there was one, angel jowl futures. Of course, not everyone would be saved. What about the non-believers? That introduced the problem of the predetermined damned, like himself, the ones that didn’t give a damn, who were just in the game for the length of the game and accepted the fact that the only thing certain about their personal future was that it would end. Amen and put a bullet through it. Of course, he wanted Susan now. Once they became human and he had them alone he always wanted them. Though they were hardly alone out there in the middle of the highway.

A trickle of vehicles was beginning to pass in the opposite lanes. “Another splash of Jack?” Joey asked.

“Sure, another short one before we start moving.”

When Joey came back from his bunk with their fresh drinks, the white-haired guy from the Chrysler was walking toward them from the back of the rig. Joey ignored him and went over to Susan to give her her drink. Susan didn’t see the Chrysler guy before he stopped to deliver his little, well-practiced speech. Sometimes fate gives folk these little set scenes to perform. Captains of their destiny and all that crap. Little teasers of scenes to trick them into thinking that they could contol the flow of events, instead of the actual opposite.

“I want you people to know, I want the pleasure of telling you, that my wife has called the state police and reported your little party, your smoking and drinking in the middle of the highway during an emergency.”

“Now that’s a strange thing to want to take pleasure in,” Joey said.

“She gave them your license plate numbers and descriptions and reported your threatening us earlier. They will probably be waiting for you both up ahead.” That was the end of his rehearsed speech, and now the Chrysler guy didn’t know what to say and just stood there, his hands twitching a bit at his sides the way a gunslinger’s do in the movies just before he draws.

“Your wife put you up to this, didn’t she?” Joey asked, and he stooped down to put his cup on the pavement. When he stood back up the Chrysler guy took a step back.

“I wouldn’t try anything if I were you,” the guy said, just like in the movies he’d seen. “I am armed.”

“Now, why in the world would you…,” Joey started, edging toward his truck and the thirty-eight special beside the now empty Jack Daniels bottle beneath his bunk—who knew what the immediate future now held for Mr. Chrysler?—but Susan interrupted him.

“Your wife reported what to the state police?”

“You heard me, your license plate numbers and descriptions.”

My license plate number and description?” Susan took a few angry steps toward the guy, who stumbled backwards and reached into his pants pocket.

“I wouldn’t.” the guy said, and, yep, he was armed. He pulled out a small silver woman’s pistol that he just showed but didn’t point. By now Joey had his hand on the handle to the door of his bunk, but Chrysler looked over at him and made a little motion toward him with his gun hand and Joey stopped. “I’m going back to my car now. We’ll be moving soon. I don’t expect any trouble.” And he started walking backwards.

“Why you stupid piece of shit.” Susan was yelling now and stamping her gold-sandaled foot. “Who do you think you are, reporting me? Pull a gun on me, will you? I’ll show you!” And she turned and ran back to her car. Joey wondered if she was going to get her own gun and he ducked inside his bunk door to get his thirty-eight. The script had suddenly gotten more surprising. If she had a gun he was going to get to fuck her, he just knew it. Reprobate that he was, he was about to be tossed a small token reward on his certain path to meaninglessness.

But it was the sound of screeching tires, not the sound of gun shots, that greeted Joey as he re-emerged with the special in his hand. Susan’s silver Camry was jerking back and jerking forward trying to escape its place in line. Mr. Chrysler was just standing there watching her. She finally got enough room to lurch around the SUV in front of her and she goosed the Camry into a flight off the pavement onto the grassy meridian. It wasn’t that far to the opposite-headed lanes, but the slopes on both sides were steep into a drainage ditch. She cut the Camry at an angle over the ditch at full throttle and her rear wheels caught on the other side and spun her free, fish-tailing up the opposite incline. There were sparks from her undercarriage when she hit the pavement. She sped away up the incline, easily passing the few other cars.

“Cool,” Joey said. “I guess she didn’t feature the future you had planned for her.”

Mr. Chrysler turned toward him, raising his little purse gun. Joey raised the thirty-eight. “Why don’t we just call it another day we both survived?” he said, and Mr. Chrysler went back to his car. In front of them the traffic had started to move, creep forward. Joey started up the Peterbilt. A ways up the road, even before they got to the bridge, all the troopers sped past with full flashing lights in the other direction. No one stopped him. No one noticed that the turf was late when he got it to its destination.

 

U.S.A., That’s Entertainment

TV test pattern

We are an entertained nation. This year the U.S. show biz industry—the entertainment and media market—will make more than $632 billion. That does not include the $70 billion Americans will spend on gambling or the $74 billion on sports. The TV industry’s revenues will be in the neighborhood of $121 billion. As one pundit has observed, “America is the first culture in jeopardy of amusing itself to death.”

Our appetite for entertainment is so ubiquitous it is almost silly to try and draw attention to it. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of being entertained. Our celebrity pantheon is almost exclusively occupied by entertainers, by performers, be they thespians, musicians, or athletes. There was a time, not that long ago, when these professions were among the least respected and poorest paid in our society. Not today. Who doesn’t want to be paid like a star?

So, who is complaining? Who is even paying attention? What’s the problem? Reality is the problem, reality’s diminishing presence. As Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park, has observed, “Entertainment has nothing to do with reality. Entertainment is antithetical to reality.” (And he should know. The four films foaled from his book have grossed more than $1.4 billion.) The more we are entertained, the farther we drift from reality’s anchor. (It is interesting that cheap ‘reality shows’ have become a staple of cable TV. Of course, the staged ‘realities’ they portray have no relation to the lives of their viewers. That would not be entertaining.)

And entertainment is not art. It cheapens the meaning of art by pretending to the name. Art abides; entertainment is ephemeral. The poet W.H. Auden once observed, “What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.” Or, as Eugene Mirman put it more bluntly, “Entertainment is business: the business of fucking art in the face.”

But there is an even deeper problem, and it has to do with our vanishing hold on what is real. Thirty-seven years ago, Americans elected an actor, a not very good actor, as President, a man who had made a living doing TV ads. And as TV infested politics, it slowly subsumed it as a form of entertainment. The veteran newsman Edward R. Murrow saw the writing on the subway walls: “We are in the same tent as the clowns and the freaks now—that’s show business.”

Reality and truth are twins. They are inseparable. Entertainment has put them both in a boat and set them adrift. The fake-news circus maximus is now upon us. Persuasive license substitutes for facts. Faith trumps science. Neilson ratings outweigh the ballot. The most outrageous clown—Red Skelton being dead—is given the title Commander in Chief. We are entertained.

I sit on the shore and watch the tiny skiff with Reality and Truth—our nation’s Romulus and Remus—drift with the outgoing tide into the sunset. But at the end, no credits will roll, and the audio track will be just the sound of the surf and the wail of an empty wind.

TV test color