Library in Paradise

Atauloma, looking east from veranda

photo: J. Enright

Twice a year, around equinox, Stefan had the kids clean the books. They didn’t like it, but it wasn’t about them. He had them take down each book, clean it with a rag, check it for insects, and put it back where they got it. Ruth was better at it than Aaron and didn’t complain as much. He had to watch Aaron.  Stefan didn’t mind the spiders. It was termites mainly. These Polynesian termites liked books. If they got a colony started, they could quickly and secretly destroy a shelf of books, turning them into blocks of cement-like castings, leaving just the spines and bindings intact as if nothing had changed. He had learned the hard way.

Stefan took pride in his library. His wall of books was his favorite decoration—hard-cover history texts mostly, biographies, World War Two, complete sets of Dickens, Twain, and Will Durant, and his prize collection of classic sci-fi. He was sure no one else on the island could match it. Books weren’t a big thing here. There was not a single bookstore. There was a Christian shop where you could buy Bibles and such along with a good selection of the wide neckties ministers liked to wear and assorted Savior posters. There was a public library, but there was a good chance that the book you were looking for had been stolen or never returned.

The Peace Corps had brought Stefan to the islands several decades before, and he never left. He stayed on to work for the government. He guessed it agreed with him. He had not found a reason to leave. His salary, while humble by mainland standards, afforded him a first-class lifestyle here. His job was a mindless, undemanding sinecure. He was like a token white man, kept on by inertia. The years just slipped by in identical days.

There were the occasional cyclones, of course, when his library needed to be protected. He had perfected that emergency drill. He and the kids had it down. As long as the roof stayed on, they were fine. Stefan got all his books in the mail. Oftentimes that took a while, so that when a slip appeared in his P.O. box saying he had a package to pick up, he couldn’t be sure what book it was. They were like presents that way, a surprise he got to unwrap. The feel and smell of a fresh, unopened book, its dust jacket still pristine. Something he would have forever.

He never loaned out books. They were his alone. That would be like pimping for his daughter. But then no one ever asked. He knew no one who would, and visitors to the house were rare. Stefan had learned to keep his distance. Friendships with islanders always led to trouble of one sort or another, and most whites were just passing through, gone before you got to know them. It paid to be polite, but no reason to overdo it. The kids had native friends, high school classmates, but they knew enough not to come by.

There were days when Stefan did not go into work. No one seemed to miss him. He would stay home and read. He often did so on days when the cleaning woman came. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her—this one had not yet helped herself to any of his belongings—but he thought she did a better job if he was there. He could never remember their names—except for that one he had had to report to the police after her teenage helper daughter had stolen and amateurishly tried to forge and pass some of his checks.

But this day the house girl did not come. Stefan checked; it was Thursday, her usual day. He had no way to contact her. This irritated him. Nothing major, just that he liked scheduled events to occur as scheduled. The new book, on the African campaigns, could not hold his interest. He decided to go out, to the P.O. to check his mail. He left the house unlocked in case she did arrive.

He was rewarded. There was a package pick-up slip in his P.O. box. He wondered what it could be. It was too soon for the Jay Gould biography. You had to go to the P.O. back door to pick up packages, hand your slip to the man at the desk. This time the man asked to see Stefan’s driver’s license, as if he had changed from the person he had always been. The package was addressed just to his surname. It felt too light to be a book. A surprise paperback?  He thanked the man and left. Two other uniformed men were waiting by his pickup truck in the parking lot. They took the package from him and told him he was under arrest. One of them put handcuffs on him. They were too tight.

 

Stefan did not know if the lawyer he got was good or not. How would he know? He’d never needed a lawyer, not even for the divorce. The charge was serious: felony importation of prohibited substance—methamphetamine—with intent to sell. The judge was kind enough—first offense, long-time resident, family man–to keep him out of the vile local jail by setting bail at what Stefan’s pickup was appraised at and taking his passport. Stefan was supposed to be grateful. A hearing  date was set.

The return address on the package was bogus, of course, but it had been mailed from San Diego. Stefan didn’t know anyone in San Diego, but his islander ex-wife was somewhere in California. When the lawyer learned that Stefan had two teenage children, he posited that perhaps the shipment was meant for one of them. That didn’t make any sense, because Stefan always picked up the mail and would have opened it, thinking it a book. Besides, Aaron wouldn’t be involved with anything like that, would he? The lawyer also wondered if Stefan had any enemies—his ex-wife, say—who would like to frame him.

This made Stefan laugh. Where would she get that kind of money? What had the police said? Street value ten grand? And if she had that kind of money or the drugs, she sure wouldn’t have wasted it on him. The lawyer told him the drugs were not worth anything like that. There wasn’t that much and they always exploded the street value. In addition, the meth was of poor quality, stepped on too many times. It would be worth next to nothing back in the States. Garbage, he said, good for only third-world export or setting someone up.

If indigenous justice in the islands had always been swift (and often fatal), the imported variety was anything but. Preliminary hearings, injunctions, changed court dates, amended charges. Stefan got his first lawyer bill, with the warning that non-payment would mean end of services. Stefan had been terminated, or rather, his government position had been eliminated. His only possessions worth anything were his books. He got on-line to his usual sites, only this time he was selling not buying. His first-edition, signed sci-fi would bring the most. They went first. The P.O. was suspicious of all the books he was mailing out.

At one of his court appearances, the judge, a new one, concluded the proceedings with a speech blaming white outsiders—he used the local slang word for Caucasians—for the drug epidemic among the island youth. He noted that the post office had reported that Stefan had received many such packages before, by the grace of God, he was caught. How long had he been poisoning their community? They were a warrior people. They could resist any external enemy, but this was a different sort of enemy, the insidious outsiders among them, with their evil introductions, attacking them, eating away at them from within.

Stefan wondered about his chances for a fair trial. The minimum sentence was five years. He had no real defense beyond the fact he knew nothing about the package and that when the police had ransacked his house, including his library, they had found nothing collaborative—no other drugs or paraphernalia or stashes of cash. Then, three days before jury selection was scheduled to begin, his lawyer came to him with news.

“I got it,” he said. “I know what happened. I can’t tell you how I found out. I have my sources. You were never supposed to receive that package. It was addressed to you because you received many packages that size. Someone at the P.O. was supposed to intercept this one. If it happened to get sniffed out before that, you get busted, not them. Well, the system failed. Their interceptor took a sick day and missed it. Who knows how many times it had already worked?”

Exoneration. Only, he could not use the story in trial. “I know what happened, but I don’t know who. And even if I did have names, I couldn’t use them. Hearsay. Not to mention I have to live here and I’d be accusing unnamed persons—related to everyone—to a conspiracy to commit unreported crimes in a public office. That tool is not in my defense attorney’s tool bag. Plus, I have to live here and argue in that court again.”

Stefan forbade the kids from coming to the trial. They wanted to, to show their support. Seeing as he had no other supporters, they would have been on their own. The paper’s headline read, “Drug Kingpin Convicted.”

 

Red Sky in the Morning

sunrise

Marina grew up with too many parents. She can’t be blamed for that, but how she learned to manipulate that situation was volitional. You could read it like a rap sheet. In the car on the way up, Marina got stoned and confessed her past and life MO to Jessie. Jessie disliked confessions because she could never forget them. Between them, Marina’s parents had racked up five semi-permanent mates after their divorce. So, Marina had had four fathers and three mothers, at one point and another. She had been bounced between households like a refugee.

The dictionary defines evil as “the condition of being immoral, cruel, or bad.” That’s pretty loose, isn’t it? All judgement calls. In Marina’s judgement, her actions had never—or at worst, rarely—been immoral or bad, only necessary; and as for cruel, well, that could only be determined by the targets of her actions, whether or not they accepted the fact that they deserved what they got. Pretty simple. Jessie knew simple was seldom a sufficient answer.

They were waiting in line for the ferry now, the windows rolled up. It was raining, of course—the default condition here on the sound. Marina’s cannabis cloud got so dense that Jessie had to open a window, one in the back seat so they wouldn’t get wet. Marina was explaining what happened to Frank, her mother’s last husband. Jessie was thinking, this could be a cable TV surreality show. Jessie had missed the exact nature of Frank’s digression, but Marina was clear about his retribution. Jessie wondered if Marina’s parents’ poor track records with mates didn’t have something to do with their daughter.

In Clinton, where the ferry dropped them, there were already Christmas lights up and lit, even though it was still three weeks away and it was the middle of the afternoon, a wet, dark-gray afternoon. They looked like lipstick on a corpse. There’s not much to Clinton. Jessie followed Marina’s directions from the ferry dock. They had to drive across the island. Jessie had tried pot three times. The first time she threw up. The other two times she fell asleep, once while having sex. It didn’t seem to slow Marina down.

Jessie envied that. And when Marina slipped in phrases like “I was in Morocco then” or “we had to get out of Oaxaca,” Jessie realized she had nothing to say, no reason to interrupt. Everyone wants to talk about themselves, but most don’t. Maybe because they’ve been raised that way, maybe because they’re too bored to say, maybe because they’re ashamed. Jessie would only talk about herself if someone asked; no one ever did. But Marina had a lot to tell, and she was not shy about it. Jessie never had to ask, just listen, or pretend to listen as she drove. There was no traffic to speak of.

The driveway was long. The house was big and on the water. Marina knew where the key was hidden and the code for turning off the burglar alarm. It was chilly, only slightly warmer, inside. It smelled abandoned. Marina found the thermostat and turned it up, but they stayed in their outdoor clothing. There was a fireplace in the parlor, but no firewood. Marina joked—?—about breaking up the furniture to burn. Among the framed photographs on the mantle was a black-and-white of a tall man in a suit and a frail-looking woman in a sun dress; between them a girl of ten or so in a dorky dress scowled at the camera. “That’s Dad,” Marina said.

 

Jessie had signed up because she needed every gig she could get and she liked to drive. It was a service offered by her local women’s co-op, a sort of feminist-protective Uber. Its logo was that silly symbol of a circle with a cross stuck in it like a vampire stake and the adjoined word trip. Let your sisters take you where you need to go. No more creepy male drivers looking at you in the rearview mirror. A righteous, empowering, solidarity service. Jessie had figured it would mainly entail taking old ladies to and from doctor and beauty-shop appointments. But this ride was different. Marina had hired her for several days at an hourly rate, a trip out of town. They would spend the night here. Jessie found a blanket and slept on a sofa.

She awoke to the sound of splintering wood. Her first thought was of the fireplace. But she was sleeping in the parlor with the fireplace, and Marina was not there making kindling. There was no fire in the fireplace. The half-hearted pink light from the windows said dawn. The house had warmed up in the night. The sound again—smashed and cracking wood. It came from above her. Jessie went to the foot of the stairs in the hallway and called out Marina’s name as a question. The only answer was the sound of more ripping wood.

Marina was seated on the floor in an alcove off what Jessie took to be the master bedroom. In front of her was a massive old rolltop desk. She was tearing at it with a screwdriver, hammer, and chisel.

“What in the world…?” Jessie said.

“None of your business. Get lost. You’re a driver. Go drive some place.”

Jessie did. They had passed through a small village a ways back. She went there and found a café serving breakfast. Coming back, she got slightly lost and drove up several wrong driveways before finding the right one. She had decided this gig was over. If Marina wasn’t ready to go back, she could just pay for her time up till then—Jessie figured twenty-one hours—and find her own way back or wherever. Jessie was just “a driver,” after all. She had no obligations. The car still smelled of pot. When she pulled up to the house, another car was parked there, a Mercedes. On instinct, Jessie turned around and parked headed out.

Well, good. Jessie wouldn’t have to feel like she was stranding Marina here. Sisterly solidarity and all. She would just check out, collect her pay, and wish Marina the best. There was someone sitting in the Mercedes, a woman in the driver’s seat. She was slumped over, motionless, her chin on her chest.

It wasn’t until Jessie approached the car that she saw the glow of the iPhone screen in the woman’s hands and realized the woman wasn’t dead but texting. She kept walking.

The driver side window buzzed down. “Hold on. Who are you? What are you doing here? Be warned, I am armed.”

Jessie turned but didn’t come closer. “I’m here with Marina. I gave her a ride.”

“Is she here?”

“I guess so. I left her here.”

“Let’s go in, shall we?” There was a silver gun in her hand.

“Sure. Why not? Is that necessary?”

The woman didn’t answer, just gestured with her gun hand for Jessie to precede her. Marina met them at the door. “Sarah?” she said.

“I figured it was you when I got the message that the alarm had been turned off,” the woman said. “You know you’re not supposed to be here.”

Marina was looking not at the woman but at her gun. “We were just leaving. I had to come back for a few of my things.” She had a cloth bag over her shoulder.

“There was nothing of yours here,” the woman said.

“Do you have a permit for that?” Jessie asked. The woman ignored her. She had one of those hundred-dollar haircuts, gold earrings.

“Your father’s court order barring you from being here is still in force, even if he’s no longer with us.”

“Fuck you, Sarah,” Marina said. “What are you going to do? Shoot me? In front of a witness? Like I said, we’re leaving. You’re lucky I didn’t burn the place down.” Marina walked around the woman and said “Let’s go” to Jessie.

Jessie wasn’t sure she wanted to give Marina a ride, but then she hadn’t been paid. Marina tossed her cloth bag into the car.

“I’ve already informed the troopers of a burglary in progress. Now I can give them a description of the getaway car—the silver Camry with a bullet hole in the rear window.” The woman turned and fired a round into Jessie’s rear window.

“What!” Jessie said. “Why, you bitch.” It took her only a few steps to reach the woman and knock her to the ground. The gun bounced away. Jessie picked it up. “You’re going to pay for that.” The woman rolled over to push herself up. “No, I think you better sit there until your troopers arrive.” Jessie pointed the gun at the woman, and she sat down.

“Let’s go,” Marina said. “She’s bluffing about the troopers. Even if she isn’t, I don’t want to meet them. We’ll take her car keys and her phone, get off the island.”

“Who’s going to pay for my window? You?”

“Fuck your window. Let’s go.”

“I know your license plate. I’ll find you,” the woman said.

“And what? Bring me the cash for my window? Or come to retrieve your gun, which you used when you tried to kill me?”

“I never …”

“I’d swear you took a shot at me and missed. My witness here will agree to that. That’s our story when the troopers get here.”

“And I will say I interrupted a burglary.”

“How can it be a burglary when it’s her home and she has a key? Maybe she did break a court order by coming here, but that’s a minor misdemeanor compared to attempted murder. You probably don’t even have a permit for this attempted-murder weapon. You could be the first member of your garden society with a felony arrest record. I’m sure you can afford some good lawyers. And who are you, anyway? We were never introduced.”

“Meet my evil stepmom Sarah,” Marina said.

“She’s right,” the woman said, “I hadn’t called the troopers yet.”

“Well, why don’t you do that, then?”

“Maybe there’s another way to resolve this.”

“Yeah, pay for my window and we can agree to forget about it.” Jesse sort of liked holding a gun. She had never held one before. She liked the weight, the grip. It was comfortable. She wondered what it felt like to fire it.

“I can give you a check for your window,” the woman said.

“I don’t take checks from criminals.” Holding the gun gave Jessie a sense of power she had never felt before. “Marina, is this the stepmom you mentioned who got you busted?”

“Yes, the same.”

The woman had a half dozen gold bracelets on one forearm. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll take those as payment,” Jessie said, pointing with the gun to the woman’s wrist. “You can keep the earrings.”

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“Marina, get her phone. I think she left it on the seat. We’ll call the troopers, then. Bring her car keys, too.”

The woman went to get up. Instead of using the gun, Jessie pushed her back onto the ground. Marina brought the cellphone and the keys. Jessie put the keys in her pocket, and took the phone. “Will you call the troopers, or should I?” she asked.

“No, don’t call them,” Marina said, sounding panicky. “Sarah, please!” Then, tugging on Jessie’s sleeve, “Come on, let’s just go.”

“I need to get paid, for the damage and the trip. I have nothing to hide from the cops. I’m just an innocent bystander to your craziness.”

“This is all your fault, Marina,” the woman said. “As always. Here, take the damned bracelets and leave. This is robbery.” Marina brought the bracelets to Jessie.

“No, it’s payment,” Jessie said. She put the cellphone into her back pocket and had Marina slip the bracelets one by one onto the wrist of her non-gun hand. She liked having a gun hand. “Let’s call us even.” She went to her car.

Jessie wasn’t sure how it started, but Marina and her stepmom were suddenly going at it, not throwing punches but locked in a hair-pulling wrestling match. They fell to the ground. Marina was screaming something. As Jessie started up and pulled away, Marina broke free long enough to yell at her to stop. By the time she got to the woods along the road at the end of the driveway, Marina was up and running after the car. “My bag!” she called. Jessie slowed down enough to toss the Mercedes’s keys as far as she could into the underbrush. On the road she threw the cellphone into a drainage ditch.

She kept the gun. She would have to stop for gas. She didn’t know what times the ferry ran. Her bracelets jingled.

 

 

Pandoral

black hole

The boy had beautifully manicured hands and a sweet face. He was maybe fifteen. His arm was around his younger brother seated beside him. They were alone on the train. Why did she feel they were exiles? Their story was taking shape in her head. She gave them names. They would speak Romanian, the modern tongue closest to Latin. She would try to see America as they would be seeing it, passing by. He wore a cloth coat with a leather collar.

There were so many rules. No matter what sport she was watching, she had to constantly ask. It was as if the teams were playing not against each other, but against an arcane set of restrictions. Whistles and penalty flags, boundaries and the encoded gestures of officials. She enjoyed watching the players, admired their fitness and grace. Ballet with a ball. But there were only certain players whom she chose to wonder about, invent a homelife for, a past.

These were her meditations—creating biographies for strangers. Shop girls with tattoos. An old man asleep on a bench. A priest buying apples. She gave them lives, secrets, worries. It was a habit she’d learned as a child with her dolls and no friends. Real people, strangers, are more interesting than characters in books or movies, aren’t they? They wear and walk and wince their mysteries. Given no speeches, they cannot lie.

She liked rowing regattas because there were so few rules involved. Were there any besides stay in your lane, go forward, and don’t mess with the other boats? She would go down to the Charles to sit on the banks and watch. She liked the way they glided, like a fish or a bird, not human motion at all. She would be the coxswain, facing the straining rowers, directing the pace of their sweeps, focusing on one and wondering what he was thinking. He was young. Was he in love? They glided by too fast.

How can the inevitable be unexpected? Don’t whistles or horns blow at its approach? A penalty, a death, and all play is suspended. Time stops—aging interrupted. What are the rules, anyway? She decided to drive. It was only 800 miles, inside the limit of not having to suffer the tortures of flying, with always a plane change in Charlotte. She had never really known her sister—older enough to be mean—never wanted to know her, never imagined her life. Half-sister, actually, her sole sibling, now none. She would have to sit in a church and endure an hour or more of sacred-escapist bullshit. She had packed a proper hat. It was at a Hampton Inn outside Buffalo, half way there, that she met him.

Certain faces challenge you. Ones that know why you are staring at them. Faces so aware they are unreadable. The eyes that met hers radiated wrinkles. He was reading her. His head was tilted slightly to the side, as were his shoulders. He did not blink. She had just lit a cigarette. There was a spot outside the motel’s front door where you had to go to smoke, a sort of sinner’s corner with a bench and a cement ashtray. He was standing off to one side. He knocked his ash into the shrubbery, still watching her, as she turned away.

His name was Martin. At least, that’s what he told her when she introduced herself. From the way he said it, she wasn’t sure if it was true, if it wasn’t just a name made up for her—their secret. They sat on the cement bench and took turns inventing stories for the other motel guests as they arrived. Why they were travelling. Where they had come from. Martin indulged in assigning occupations. Nearly half of the passing pilgrims were angry, irritated. Anger—after fright (rare)—is the easiest emotion to read. Some hid it better than others. Younger arrivals were often wholly engaged with their pocket devices and not worth a second thought.

They collaborated on the memoir of an older couple. There were so many clues, and they had longer to observe them. They moved slowly. The wife used a cane; her husband pulled their rolling suitcase. They stopped beneath the entrance portico. The wife had forgotten something. She sent her husband back for it, taking the suitcase. He ventured back, the patient, bent, pain-tamed, swaying gait of a man who had spent his working life on his feet.

“A new grandchild?” she wondered.

“Perhaps,” Martin said. “Nothing solemn. Geriatrics seldom travel far for funerals. Plenty close to home. I wonder what they’re driving.”

“I’d like it to be something half as old as they are.”

“An Oldsmobile,” Martin said.

The old woman was now leaning on the suitcase handle as well as her cane. She saw them sitting there, watching her. She smiled and nodded, raised her cane slightly in greeting.

“Being wed, she assumes we are, too,” Martin said.

“Is she imagining a history for us?”

They met again in the breakfast room. Martin was there when she arrived, and she presumed to join him.

“French honeymoon couple, table by window, having a lovers’ spat,” Martin said as she sat down.

“Maybe she didn’t like Niagara Falls.”

“You’ve never been there,” he said. It wasn’t a question. “You’ve never been on a honeymoon, because you have never married.”

“Oh?” He was right on all counts.

“You’re a long way from Boston. Do you like it there?”

“It’s home. I don’t live in the whole city, just in my neighborhood.”

“In fact, you rarely leave there. You don’t like to travel.”

“I do prefer my own coffee to this.”

Martin was wearing a short-sleeve shirt this morning, and for the first time she noticed the long tattoo on his forearm. It was intricate and delicate, unlike any tattoo she had seen before. “Your Red Sox aren’t doing so well this season,” he said.

They took their refilled coffees out to their bench for a smoke. While they were seated there, the old couple from the night before went by, leaving. They were more fancily but not formally dressed this morning, dressed for an affair.  The old lady smiled when she saw them, gave a little wave. Now she would be certain they were a couple.

“Ah, off to a wedding,” she said.

“No,” Martin said, “I fancy a baptism.” The old woman was wearing a pendant cross. “But you will have no stock in such cult superstitions.”

“Tell me about your tattoo,” she said. Some topic other than herself.

“You don’t have to go, you know.” Those eyes, so much younger than the face, were on her now. “What is it? A funeral? Whatever, your presence is not essential.”

“Are you married, Martin?”

“No. You should have known that.”

“All along I assumed you were headed west like me. But you’re headed east, aren’t you?”

“Doesn’t matter. We are both headed out.” He got up to leave. “Drive carefully when you get to Erie. There will be a pile up there.”

There was. Her car ended up turned around on the grassy median. She headed home.

Scarlet Letters

New England town

Okay, it was not a smart thing to do. But in private we all do dumb things, and Patrick had thought of himself as being in a private place when he did it. And it wouldn’t have been such a big thing, if his thing hadn’t been that big. The battle was over whether Patrick could stay or not.

I first saw the photo downloaded on my lawyer’s computer. He had turned the screen so that I could see it more clearly. Reflected on the screen was an office window behind me through which the bright aluminum light of an April afternoon was caught in the just budding limbs of an early maple tree. I didn’t want to be there. My lawyer was not one of my favorite people, but there were only two attorneys in town, and the other one was worse. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, phone calls—I’m sure an EEG scan would show that they all activate the same avoidance area of my brain. If you believe in that stuff. Anyway, I was thinking about where I’d parked the car and if I was going to be charged for this visit, after all, he had called me in. Should I charge him?

I knew Patrick only passingly, professionally. I had hired him a couple of times to take  black and white photos of historic sites I was working on. He did good work. It wasn’t much of a challenge. There was no one else available this side of Augusta. For some reason my lawyer, Leonard (I’ve given everyone different names, by the way), thought I knew him better. My visit with Leonard was redeemed in part by my being able to tell him that I couldn’t help him out at all and that I knew nothing about it.

As long as I’d come all the way to town, I did some shopping. In a few short months the narrow streets of our little village would be jammed with the Winnebagos and speed-boat-hauling SUVs of the summer invaders, but spring belonged just to us locals as the sun crept higher every day above the forest and spirits lightened as the days lengthened. The first clutches of pale pubescent high school girls, who had shed their puffy winter clothes to show bare heads and arms and perfect small twin melons beneath their skin tight jeans, were already out. The hardware store had shiny new barbeque grills for sale lined up on the sidewalk out front.

On the ride home, the dead brown fields of the Chadwick place were filled with a big commute of grazing Canada Geese, looking like a thousand identical clones of a single ur-bird. Did any other species display the variety of us humans? I wanted nothing to do with the Patrick affair, as I had heard it referred to in the village, but I had to admit that I could not get the photo I’d seen on Leonard’s screen out of my mind. Patrick—and it was unmistakably Patrick—naked and alone on his back in bed, smiling at the camera, on the wall behind his head a New England Patriots banner. The camera was at the foot of the bed, propped up on something. It was a time-delayed self-snapshot for sure. His legs were spread apart so that his erect and, yes, immense erection was the focal point of the photo. It was a big prick, but what stuck in my mind were the details of the room around him—the Patriots banner, the single bed, the ox blood colored wall, the scatter of personal things on the bedside table, the way bright sunlight lit the scene from an unseen window, that compliant smile.

The town paper came out only once a week, and even then in the off-season it had trouble finding enough local news and ads to fill its twenty-four tabloid-sized pages. Every Wednesday it was delivered free with my mail. It made good fire-starter, so I was happy to get it, though I rarely read more than the front-page headlines— “Water District Commission Election Challenged”—and the letters to the editor. There were no comics. About once a month I’d submit a column about local history, but I rarely read even that. That Wednesday’s edition had two letters to the editor about the Patrick thing, though they were couched in suppositionals about morality and religion and community standards and never mentioned Patrick by name. His family name went all the way back to the Indian wars. There was a village street named after one of his forefathers, none of whom anyone remembered fondly. The letter writers had used pen names, seeking imperfect anonymity.

The letters pissed me off. For me, self-righteousness is an enemy battle flag, especially self-protecting anonymous self-righteousness. I guess I can be a bit self-righteous about that. As far as I was concerned, if Patrick wanted to post his prick on the Internet, it was none of my business or theirs. It wasn’t like they had to look at it. I mean, there are more penises on the worldwide web these days than there are trees in the forest, and it wasn’t like he was doing anything with it but showing it off. My bet was that the obloquy had something to do with Patrick’s last name, which, therefore, made it of some historical interest.

Both of the letter writers—and I had a pretty good idea who they were from the lengths of their sentences and the words they used and misused—mentioned community standards and family values, which I thought pretty rich, knowing as I did the intimate history of both the community and their families, whose standards and values had always been generally indictable. Some of these bitter, subtle family feuds had been brewing for centuries on the back of the anecdotal stove. Patrick’s indiscretion had sucked him into history, and history—even its most recent accretions—was my jurisdiction. So I wrote and signed a letter to the editor in response—just about the right to privacy—and stuck it in my mail box with the flag up, up on the county road, as I headed out to see if the snow had melted back enough from a site up on the Nisquidnook that I needed to measure and get a better GPS read on. The archaeologist’s numbers seemed wrong.

I was gone for a week. The old Wrangler’s differential went out, and I had to wait there in moose country for replacement parts. None of the summer tourist places were open yet. I had to talk an old lady into letting me stay in one of her closed-up motel cabins down by the river. The Nisquidnook was in flood with melt-off, and for five days I lived inside the sound of running, crashing water. I half hated having to leave.

I know why I have an answering machine—business—but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. The day after I got back, I checked the machine and saw that I had seven new messages, but I didn’t listen to them. The few important business messages I’d missed while I was away were waiting for me in my email. Why is it I find the written word more comforting than the human voice? Maybe it is simply that with email and postal mail I know before I open the message whom it is from, while with the phone it is always a surprise, and in my experience the bad phone surprises outpace the good by approximately twenty to one. Or is it just a sister manifestation to my ingrained avoidance of the new that had led me into history?

That afternoon the weather decided to take spring away. The wind changed to the northwest, and the clouds got low and fast. By nightfall the temperature had dropped twenty degrees. I decided to lay a fire in my Hearthstone wood stove. I had tossed most of my mail into the fire-starter box, including that Wednesday’s newspaper. As I started to crumple it up, I stopped to read the front-page headlines, then turned to the letters to the editor page. There was my short letter with the bold-face header “A Right to Privacy?” Below it was a response from one of the previous, but still anonymous, letter writers, with the bold-face header “A Right to Perversity?” I set that page aside and got the fire started.

A good historian has no business being part of the story he tells. He should be faceless, safe in his invisibility. That is history’s impersonal beauty: it happened without you. It is like nature that way, beyond your control. The letter writer referred to me sarcastically as “the professor” and “the good professor.” By signing my name to my letter, I had opened myself up to ad-hominem attack. He never addressed the narrow constitutional point I’d raised about minding your own fucking business. But he also made an assertion about the photograph that I had been unaware of—that Patrick had emailed the photo to a young woman, much younger than himself, a college coed from a local family, who was the one who had then broadcast it widely on the Internet. It would seem to have been an unwelcome Valentine’s Day card. The letter writer also intimated that some sort of legal action—either civil or criminal—was being considered by the girl’s family—which explained Leonard the lawyer calling me in—and that “the professor” was, obviously, on the side of godless perversion.

When I’d come back to the village after my parents died, I’d sold their big house on the green—it was the funeral parlor now—and moved out into the woods partly because, familyless, I had no need for a huge family house and partly to escape the lacey web of gossip that held the village together. ‘The professor’ would not be a participant observer. I would be the new-world version of the old-world shaman, belonging to the village only by living on the outside edge of it, looking in at a place that was already history for me. That role, the distance, had suited me well. I had no idea, no reason even to shape an idea, about how the village viewed me. Now, the slur, the implied slander of being ‘the professor’ struck home. When I was a kid growing up in the village, my mates and I would ride our bikes out to old Mr. Wolston’s unpainted place in the woods and stare at it from the dirt road, wondering what weird things the mysterious old man inside was up to. He had no wife or kids, and when he rarely came into the village he just went about his business, not speaking with anyone he didn’t have to. He had no first name; he was just old Mr. Wolston—a title more than a name, like ‘the professor.’

The Algonquin was the sole saloon in town, nothing fancy, but on Friday and Saturday nights they had a live band, and people would come in from around the county. I wasn’t a stranger there. Every so often I’d go in to listen to the music and watch the crowd from a side table, drink a pint of Guinness. The next night was a Saturday, and I decided I would pay The Algonquin a visit, hear some music. It would be good for me to get back among people. It was spring after all. By the time I got there the place was almost full. The band had a fiddler and they played some old bluegrass covers. It was good dance music and people danced. There was even a guy in a wheelchair dancing. Feeling invisible, I watched the crowd—everyone trying to be both themselves and be acceptable to everybody else. There were couples for whom this was clearly just foreplay. No one noticed me. Nobody spoke to me, until I was leaving. There was a small crowd of smokers standing around in the cold on the sidewalk outside. I heard someone say, “Yeah, that’s him,” and a young man stepped in front of me.

“You’re that history guy, right? The professor?”

I am not used to being accosted. I said nothing.

“Listen, you tell your buddy Patrick that Maryann is my cousin, and if he ever comes close to her, man, he is my piece of meat. You got that?”

This was all going a bit too far. I stupidly asked a question with an obvious answer. “Who is Maryann?”

“Don’t give me that. You’re just a couple of perverts, as far as I’m concerned. We got no use for you.”

A girl’s voice from the crowd said, “Come on, Tad, leave the old faggot alone.”

I pushed past him and continued on up the street to where I had parked. Town manners had changed since my day. No respect for your elders any more. “The old faggot.” I had to laugh. I considered doing a couple of little prancing gay steps, just in case they were still watching me, but I thought better of it.

Because the essence of history is its objectivity, my personal history is unstudiable. It consists only of those things that have happened to me that I choose to remember or cannot forget, arranged and narrated by a highly unreliable source. I have yet to read a truly honest and accurate autobiography. “The old faggot.” And sexuality. People were always looking for sex to explain things, when, really, its rank in the honor roll of historic causality was way down there below food, water, borders, money, hatred, and the male ego. Admittedly, the male ego sometimes expressed itself in rapine, but that was a subset of power, not sex. “The old faggot” explained it all to them—dismissible. I couldn’t see how Patrick’s e-flashing a snap of his member to a coed named Maryann made him a co-faggot, but that sort of fine logic wasn’t the point. They knew nothing about my sexuality, or, more accurately, my lack of it—my history. Yet the young man felt he could threaten me with it. I had gotten around to listening to the messages on my answering machine before erasing them. They were all about my letter to the editor, and five of the callers had made negative assumptions about me based upon something other than fact. Only one caller was threatening, though.

A few days later, Patrick stopped by. He had called first, so it wasn’t a surprise. Patrick was leaving. He wasn’t sure where to. Down to New York to stay with friends, then probably out to the coast for a while. Movement was good, I told him. He could leave all this behind. I gave him some names and numbers of people who might have some work for him. He thanked me for my letter of support in the paper and apologized if it had brought me any trouble. “You know, she asked me for that photograph,” he said. “She told me it was for a project she was doing on penis envy, but I knew I should never have sent it.”

I don’t know if that was true or not. I had the feeling Patrick might have been trying to rewrite a piece of his own history as he headed out of town. Or perhaps Maryann actually had conducted a successful social experiment about penis envy, which had recruited every adult male in town, including me, as unwitting Orwellian guinea pigs.

 

 

 

 

Dubois County Defense Force

AR-15 on flag

It jammed every time he fired it. Piece of shit. He should have paid the extra couple a hundred for the Bushmaster like Lionel said. It was an embarrassment. A man is judged by his gear. Except for the piece of shit AR-15, his combat gear was as good as anyone else’s in the group. It bugged him. He couldn’t afford to gun-up right now, even if he could find a sucker to buy his piece of assault shit.

Why did they have to meet here, half way to Dale on the Rockport road? There were better places closer to town. All this secrecy bullshit. As he waited, he watched a couple in a booth on the far wall. She didn’t look old enough to drink legally. Nice face, freckles, age of his daughter, wherever she was. She had her bare foot up the leg of the dude’s shorts across from her and was giving him a foot job. She was just sipping her beer, a little smile on her face. Why was he watching? Sicko.

— * —

Douglas was not use to being addressed as Mr. Bowles. That was suspicion number two, after the suit. Only bankers and undertakers wore suits in Jasper, and he had never seen a woman in a suit in the store before. His name tag said only Doug. He was restocking the potting-soil pallets. It was a blue suit.

She knew his address. “We haven’t been able to reach you at home, and we did want to speak with you in person,” she said. “Letters are so impersonal.”

“About what?” he asked.

“A survey we are conducting.”

“Not interested,” he said. He picked up another bag of Miracle-Gro.

“It’s about your land.”

“What about my land?”

“It’s historical importance.”

— * —

Douglas had always had trouble saying no to women. When she came out to the house, she had ditched the suit and brought an asshole with her. Tall guy, made some lame joke about him working at Walmart. It had been a while since there’d been a woman in the house, but he had kept it respectable. They sat at the kitchen table. He didn’t offer them any refreshments.

He only had around twenty acres left of what his dad had struggled to farm. Another twenty belonged to his brother, who lived up in Chicago and didn’t give a shit about the place. None of it was still being farmed; they had sold off what could be. And what was left had mostly grown wild. If she was looking to buy, he wasn’t looking to sell; but he’d hear her out. She had a Yankee accent and perfect teeth.

She started off talking about Indians, for chrizakes, the Shawnee. Stuff that had nothing to do with him. She had maps that Douglas ignored. He got up to get himself a beer from the fridge. It struck him that she’d brought the guy along for protection—he had nothing to say. If she was a man, she would have come alone. She wanted permission to do something on his land. She had like satellite spy photos of what she claimed was his land—black and white radar-like images. She pointed out places she called mounds. Whatever it was she was going on about, she expected him to be interested.

The tall guy got up and walked out the back door. Guess he figured she didn’t need protecting any more. Not that Douglas had anything to hide, but he didn’t like the idea of this guy just wandering around his property. He disliked even more the dude’s assumption that he could just do so. That was enough. He threw them out. She left her card—Carla something, a professor at some California university.

— * —

Maneuvers were a wash, rained out. “Fucking fair-weather patriots,” Lionel declared. Those that did show were holed up in Lionel’s camp cabin, the rain pounding on its tin roof. Even though all the other men were from Jasper or close by in Dubois County, Douglas only knew them from the militia. They were all strangers. That was one thing they all had in common—they were natural strangers. This belonging was a rare attempt at being communal. A suspicious nature linked them, that and a fondness for anger.

Even though the maneuvers had been cancelled, the guys that did show up stayed. Like Douglas, this was how they had scheduled their Saturday. They had nothing else to do. If they were married, their wives didn’t expect them home. Also, they were afraid if they did leave, Lionel would badmouth them.

No one talked much. Douglas dug that. There had been a chatty guy, cheerful jokester type, top-drawer gear, paratrooper boots. Lionel got rid of him, figured he was a fed. Douglas told Lionel about his meeting with the California professor, how he had thrown them off the place. Lionel was only interested in her maps and spy photos.

“California? Here? What was she looking for?”

“Didn’t say. I didn’t let her finish. Her sidekick was outside taking photographs with his phone.”

“Doesn’t that strike you as strange? California. What’s out there on your land?”

“Nothing, just scrub woods, too gullied to be of any use.”

“I don’t suppose she left them photos.” Douglas shook his head. “Mind if I stop by and look around? A California university?”

— * —

When Douglas got home from work on Tuesday, Lionel’s Ram was parked in the driveway. He had shot a whitetail doe in Douglas’s woods and needed help getting her out.

“She was the only thing worth anything I saw in there,” Lionel said. It wasn’t deer season, but that didn’t matter to Lionel, who held that seeing as he was a free, white, adult, American male, the same as such as had made the laws, he had the freedom to choose which laws to observe when and which laws to enforce. She had been gut-shot several times and had gone to die in a bottom hawthorn bramble. Douglas was not pleased but said nothing. It took a while, but they got her out and up into the back of Lionel’s truck. When Lionel left, he took the professor’s business card. Douglas cleaned up.

— * —

She brought a cold six-pack of beer as a peace offering. She had noticed what brand he drank. She was by herself. She apologized for just stopping by and for her former sidekick taking photos without asking permission. She wasn’t carrying any maps or photos. It was a nice Sunday afternoon. They sat on the porch. She had a beer, drank from the can. She asked how long his family had been on this land.

Douglas knew nothing about the natives who once wandered around this part of the country. He was fine with that. He knew nothing about the dinosaurs either and didn’t miss knowing. The important thing about the past was that it was over. All that history shit was a distraction. The past was like dead bodies, best buried and forgotten. Clara went on about history. He gathered that one of her grandparents had been part Shawnee. So what? She looked white.

She told him the Shawnee name for Crooked Creek, which curved around his woodlot. He forgot it immediately. It sounded like something from a Chinese take-out menu. She said the name was significant of something. She was wearing sandals, red toenail polish. What she wanted his permission to do was to clear off one of her mounds and conduct an archaeological survey. No, she couldn’t pay him anything. She said it was for science, though he couldn’t see where the science came in.

He told her he’d think on it, used the excuse of his brother, that he’d have to consult with him. He wouldn’t. She seemed to take that in good faith. Then she asked if they could go out there, to that parcel by the creek. It wasn’t much of a hike out behind the house. In those sandals and shorts, she could stand at the edge and look in. There wasn’t any trail, and the underbrush was dense. The only break in it was where he and Lionel had lugged out the doe.

She noticed the blood on the broken brush right away. He offered no explanation. What was there to say? What business was it of hers? She didn’t ask.

“How far is it to the creek?” she asked.

“A quarter-mile, more if you get lost,” he said.

“Any other way in?”

“Not really.”

He walked her back to her car.

“By the way, do you know anyone named Lionel? He left a message on my office voice mail, said he was from here, and asked me to call back.”

“Yes, I know a Lionel,” was all he said.

— * —

“Did you know that the university your girlfriend works for has contracts with the federal government? With the Department of Defense and NASA and NOA?” Lionel asked.

“So?”

“She’s a fed.”

“She says it’s about the injuns, the Shawnee.”

“Bullshit. They all died out in Oklahoma. The feds want your land for some reason. They’ve got their sights on Dubois County. Why else is Federal Highways upgrading the road to the Interstate? Why else is the Department of Agriculture paying all the corporate farmers not to plant? Some experimental station maybe? Who knows? You can’t trust those suckers. Camel’s nose under the edge of the tent.”

Douglas didn’t know what camels had to do with it, but Lionel knew a lot about such things. He read a lot of stuff, kept up on politics. He had not, however, offered Douglas any of his doe’s venison.

The helicopters cinched it for Lionel. There was no reason for helicopters to hover over Jasper, but a few days later a pair of them were up there, doing something unexplained. At the next militia meeting Lionel discussed surface-to-air ordnance.

— * —

 “Is Lionel your lawyer?” This time at least Clara was pretending to be a customer. She was looking at garden seeds even though it was long past planting season. “I returned his call, and he said he would like to meet to discuss terms for a short-term lease of your land.”

“No, he’s not my lawyer,” Douglas said. “You don’t have to deal with him.”

“I don’t have grant money for that sort of thing.” She was holding a packet of baby breath seeds. “I told you that.”

“He doesn’t represent me.”

“Have you spoken with your brother?”

“I’ve lost your card, your number.”

“Can I stop by?”

“Okay, come by, after six.”

Douglas stewed about it the rest of the day. Where did Lionel get off sticking his nose into his affairs? He had joined the defense force because he thought things were going badly in the country and would only get worse, and it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared. He hadn’t signed up to have someone mess with his personal life, rather the opposite. After work he called Lionel, who said he only wanted to meet with the professor and check her out, and that he thought that seemed like a good excuse. “Due diligence, Bowles. Like it or not, you and your property are now on the frontline. We got to stop ‘em before they get a foothold. And I don’t want to hear any Indian rights crap as a cover story.”

— * —

He had to ask. Why not? “Are you a fed?”

“A what?” Clara said.

“You know, a fed, a government agent.”

“No. I’m a university employee. Why do you ask?”

“Lionel thinks you’re one.”

They were having beers on the porch again. A lingering pink sunset. She wasn’t hard to be around.

“I gather that being a fed is not a good thing.”

“They’re not especially appreciated hereabouts, never have been.”

“No, I’m an archaeologist, an agent of the past. Believe me, the federal government has zero interest in archaeology.”

“Tell me what you propose to do.”

It was fairly straight forward. She’d bring in a crew and a surveyor to cut a trail into the mound she’d picked out. They’d clear it and measure it, dig a few test pits to try and date it. A couple of weeks, if the weather held out. The crew? Local labor and some graduate students. They’d be as neat as possible. It was dinnertime, and Douglas had nothing to offer, so they drove into Applebee’s, in separate cars. Clara insisted on paying the tab.

— * —

What the hell? Fuck Lionel and his frontline against the feds. It might be interesting having people around the place, and he’d have a trail into the woodlot and a private cleared space to go to. It was his land. He’d decide what to do with it. It wasn’t about Indians. It was about a man’s freedom on his own land to do as he pleases.

Of course, Lionel didn’t see it that way, and on the day that Clara showed up with her surveyor and crew, Lionel came with a squad from the defense force in full combat gear.

The standoff didn’t last long. At the sight of the militia’s weapons, the local crew took off and the surveyor excused himself, leaving Douglas and Clara.

“You’re trespassing, Lionel. Get off my land.”

“So, this is Lionel,” Clara said. She was folding up her map. “What is it you want, Lionel?”

“We’re here to keep Dubois County free. You’re not pulling your plot off here.”

“Free from what? Free from the past?”

“You won’t get away with this, Lionel,” Douglas said. “I’ll get the law on you for this.”

“No, Douglas, he has gotten away with it. I don’t want any trouble for you. I have an alternative, if inferior site I can record, across the river in Kentucky.”

“They can have you. Good riddance,” Lionel said.

Clara left. The militia men followed her.

Lionel lingered behind. “You know, maybe the feds weren’t interested in your land, but were interested in you, as a way to infiltrate our organization. That would explain why they sent out an attractive woman to recruit you. And you fell for it.” He turned to go, then stopped. “You’re off the force, Bowles. You can’t be trusted.”

 

 

Abe Lincoln Avoids Jail!

Abe_Lincoln 1

Commonwealth of Kentucky Vs. Abraham Lincoln

Lewisport, Kentucky, is a quiet little town on the banks of the Ohio River. Let’s call it a hamlet, one square mile, 1700 inhabitants, four churches, a post office, a city hall. It was plaited in 1837, incorporated 1844. It was originally known as Little Yellow Banks, a lumber town where they built flatboats for the nascent river trade. It had a habit of alternately flooding and burning down. But before it was even a town, it slipped its little finger into history.

To dig history, you need imagination. Not an imagination that invents things, but an imagination that strives to take details of place and time and reassemble them like a jigsaw puzzle. When I was a kid, back in the ‘50s, in the early days of TV, there was a CBS history show called “You are There,” narrated by Walter Cronkite: “A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our lives…and you are there.” Aside from the Sunday night penance of Bishop Sheen, it’s the only show I remember. It dramatized events in American history. It put you there. I dug it.

In 1827, Abraham Lincoln found himself in what was to become Lewisport. Lincoln had been born in Kentucky in 1809, but grew up across the river in what was then the log-cabin wilderness of Indiana. In 1826, seventeen-year-old Lincoln had worked on an Ohio River ferryboat. The following year he returned to the river, wanderlust-fueled, and built himself a small flatboat. He hoped to hire himself and his craft out to transport farm goods down river to market, maybe even as far as New Orleans. An eighteen-year-old’s dreams on a still wild river.

I am indebted for the facts on what happened next to an article in the American Bar Association Journal of February 1928 by William H. Townsend, a Lexington attorney and Lincoln historian. The facts are one thing; to enjoy them, you have to imagine the time and place. In the 1820s, the Ohio River Valley was still frontier. Young Lincoln was a child of that frontier. Tall (6’4”) and of formidable physique, he was, in Townsend’s words, “clad in deerskin shirt, home-made jeans breeches died brown with walnut bark, coonskin cap.” His formal education, such as it was, totaled fewer than a dozen months, but he was a voracious reader of what was available. Cabin-self-schooled.

While waiting on the Indiana shore for clientage, he was making occasional small change by ferrying passengers out to passing steamers. Piers were rather pointless on a river that knew no permanent bounds. This stuck in the craw of the brothers Dill, who ran a ferry from the Kentucky side of the river and who filed a complaint against Lincoln for operating an unlicensed ferry service. Lincoln appeared before the local justice of the peace, Samuel Pate, at his home in (what would become) Lewisport.

The Dills probably thought they had a pretty sure thing against this out-of-state interloper. They ran their ferry operation out of a corner of Sam Pate’s riverfront farm. The law was fairly clear, and they stood—as both informer and operator of the nearest licensed ferry service—to collect the entire hefty fine (“five pounds current money for every such offense”). If the defendant could not pay the fine—Lincoln was penniless—he would be remanded to prison.

The northern boundary of Kentucky ran (and still runs) to the low-water mark on the Indiana side of the Ohio. Consequently, although the alleged offense had been committed from the far side of the river, the courts of Kentucky had jurisdiction. But Squire Pate read out the text of the law. The fine only applied “If any person whatsoever shall, for reward, set any person over any river or creek, whereupon public ferries are appointed.”

Squire Pate opined that “over” surely meant across, and the Dills had not claimed that Lincoln had actually delivered anyone across the river, only to steamers midstream. Case dismissed.

Townsend says Lincoln lingered a while on Pate’s porch after the Dills departed to chat with the justice and ask questions about the law, and that Squire Pate was so impressed with the young man’s questions that he asked him to attend future sessions of his court when convenient to do so. Thereafter, on several occasions, Lincoln sculled across the Ohio to attend what was known in the local vernacular as “law day” at Squire Pate’s farm house.

Who is to say what eventually led Lincoln to the practice of law and then politics? But, when he returned home after this to Hurricane Township, Indiana, he scouted out and consumed the only law book available, the Revised Laws of Indiana, at the local constable’s. We all remember the image of Lincoln on the floor in front of a hearth reading a book. This one he could not take home, but had to read at the constable’s house, probably sitting on a chair at a table. In its frontmatter was the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Squire Pate’s house is still there on River Road in Lewisport, weatherboard-sided now, an historic landmark. One has to wonder if its current heritage status does not rest upon the justice’s decision that “over” meant “across,” and that a backwoods nobody teenager did not have to go to jail, but was free to go on and be President.

The Same Old Story

girl walkng dog

Robyn called Tony, her ex-husband, Prior Fuck. Tony took it for fat shaming. He called her Annie Wrecksit. After they split up, they both missed having someone safe to insult. San Francisco is a big city. It should have been easy for them to avoid one another, but they didn’t. It was obvious to me and to other acquaintances that they still needed each other.

Take the dog park. Along with the condo, Robyn had gotten their dog, an English Bulldog. After the split-up, Tony showed up with his own new dog, a Whippet; and, although he no longer lived here in the Sunset, he would bring it to the dog park in Stern Grove, where Robyn, who lived nearby on Vicente, walked her dog. Somehow, they would both be there around six p.m. to exchange barbs in passing.

I had once lived, with my first wife, in an apartment house in Jersey City owned by her family. One of our neighbors was an old Italian couple, part of her family, who decades before had stopped speaking to one another. They dressed only in black.  Was it an Italian who came up with the idea of hell? Dante certainly got off on it. That couple lived their version of it, bound together by their sacred vows in an inescapable net of loathing. I had watched them at family affairs. They communicated by grimaces and gestures. They read each other’s disparaging minds. She was found dead at the bottom of the stairs. He expired soon thereafter.

My parents were divorced. Dad said it was either divorce her or kill her, and he was afraid of being raped in prison.

I work at home, so, of course, I do all the chores—shopping, cooking, cleaning, walking the dog. It’s her dog. We—the dog and I—chose from the start not to be pals. One of those triangles. We tolerate each other in an unequal relationship. It doesn’t feed me or pick up my shit. The leash is a mutual punishment. At the dog park, it gratifies its sniffing urges and I watch the other dog walkers. After a while, it becomes like a daily soap opera. The same folks, the same dogs. You imagine it. I watch the flirtations, both canine and human.

I have a dog-park acquaintance—let’s call him Jerry—who shared with me that he got his dog on his shrink’s advice. Not as an emotional support beast, but as social enhancement bait. His shrink even described the dog Jerry should get: mid-sized, long fluffy coat, mellow and agreeable. After extensive internet research, Jerry found the prescribed article at a kennel in Wisconsin. In exchange for undisclosed thousands of dollars and a stint of in-depth training for both of them back in Wisconsin, Jerry, with his pure-bred Hungarian Sheepdog, returned to San Francisco and its more-elite dog parks. To hunt. To troll for human connection, especially female human connection. I presumed Mozart was male. It was hard to tell beneath all that fur. Jerry and Mozart disappeared after a while. I don’t know if they were successful or just moved their pursuit to some other hunting ground.

I’ve not met the lady. We’ve not been (even self-) introduced. Actually, no one at the dog park speaks with her. Jerry used to refer to her as Cruella. I gather that is a literary reference with which I am unfamiliar. She is not unattractive—thin, statuesque, fashionably dressed by dog-park standards. It was her dog, a female Doberman on a very short leash and not out for normal doggie fun. A Waffen-SS in the ghetto.

We quite naturally assume some mutuality between a dog and its master. Her sunglasses sort of confirmed it. Stern Grove is not famous for its sunshine. As a woman once asked me about my beard, “What are you trying to hide?” She also, unlike everyone else there, was never seen carrying a plastic poop bag, neither empty nor full. What? Nazi dogs don’t shit? Or were their turds too sacrosanct to disturb? How sophomoric, I thought: consummate Nazis like Hawaiian chiefs had all their bodily effluent clandestinely vanish because it was so sacred. Also, quite naturally, none of the other passive house dogs nor their tenders wished to get close to the bitch, the dog I mean. It looked hungry.

I passed close enough to the Doberman lady to see she wore a wedding ring. I could not help but imagine her mate, or try to. She looked so cold. I came up with someone on the road a lot, a denizen of first-class airline lounges and foreign-capital hotels with apostrophes in their name. How often did he call? Closer, she was not so young. The Doberman growled. Dobermans show a lot of teeth when they growl. Her lips straightened into a line that might have been a satisfied smile.

The other day I read an article about the Australian bloke who created the Labradoodle. He called it his Frankenstein monster. “I find that the biggest majority are either crazy or have a hereditary problem,” he said. I guess poodles and labs aren’t meant to fuck. Had he had to force them? Or did he use artificial insemination? (AI, just like the other one.) Strange matings.

There are a variety of domesticated Canis species represented at the dog park. I don’t know the names of all of them. I wonder, when us hominoids are gone, how all these invented species will sort out. Most will be on the menu, I suppose. But in a dog-eat-dog world, some combined strain will survive and prevail. In some instances, lust shall prevail over hunger. The Whippet shall beguile the Bulldog and beget a Whippull or a Bullwhip, which will fall for a Sheepdog/Doberman mix, and so on, until there is just one breed left, Kingdog.

I follow the Doberman lady out of the dog park. I am drawn to her like prey. She knows that I am following her but doesn’t seem to care. We leave the other dogs behind.

 

 

 

 

After Labor Day

corn field 1

Most of the way the highway is bordered by expanses of corn, slowly rolling fulvous fields ready for harvest after scorching weeks of no rain, an endless tinder landscape just waiting for a flame to transform itself into an avalanche of popcorn. A cruise-control drive into the sunset. I am headed home after a visit to my wife’s nursing home in Hancock County, a dry county here in bourbon country. In the back seat, along with my walker, is Connie Sue’s weekly laundry for me to wash.

Back over the line in Daviess County, I have two stops to make—the drive-thru liquor store for my week’s supply of bourbon and ale and the drive-thru drug store for one of my exorbitant (the price of two-week’s alcohol) prescriptions. Staying alive past your allotted years in America does not come cheap.

When we were young, Labor Day always meant going back to school, sort of the ultimate Sunday-night of holidays, hardly a holiday at all—the end of your days off, no more baseball. For Connie summers meant long bike rides with a girlfriend into the countryside—this countryside before everything was corn—and the indolence of nothing to do but daydream. Remember the indulgence of childhood boredom? What a gift that was. No worries beside getting home before the streetlights came on.

Now Labor Day semaphores lurking autumn and its ugly brother winter, long early and empty dusks, heating bills replacing cooling bills, uncertain footing, slush. Both Connie and I were autumn babies. Our first months were winter. Summer would have been a surprise—the shedding of clothes, sun on skin. November’s child is meek and mild; come July she will be wild.

Who would have thought, when you got this far, that the importance of all that preceded would get lost? Would become almost laughable, meaningless? Promotions forgotten, books out of print, offspring so fine they don’t need to call. What matters now is just today, its small comforts, pain pills, naps, routines. It’s sort of like summer when we were kids. Then we had the present but no past to distract us. Now we have the present but no future to concern us. Just today and the whole world to ignore us.

Joanna

Hollywood sign

“Researchers suggest that mosquitoes may have killed nearly half of the 108 billion humans who have ever lived across our relatively brief 300,000-year existence.”  She just had to write that down. It was in the Times, so it was the same as a fact. “Mosquitoes have been around for more than 100 million years.” She wrote that down, too. Big numbers comforted her. “Mosquitoes are our apex predator.” Cool.

Apex predator made her think of a supermarket serial killer. Don’t go down the cereal aisle. That man in the incongruent suit lurking near the Coco Puffs. Sometimes, the news could make her mornings. The Mr. Coffee had gone rouge on her a couple of days before, refusing to brew, so she had to resort to French press. A Parisian gym, a man in a beret lifting his lover like a barbell. Just a normal morning. The half-and-half had spoiled, turning the coffee in her mug into a ying/yang thing of umbra and curds. It was going to be one of those days. The few donut holes left in the box were petrified.

The air-con was off to cut back on the electric bill, but Joanna didn’t mind. She was comfy in just a cotton wife-beater T-shirt and gym shorts. Underwear was not intended for the tropics, and lately L.A. was the tropics. Tropics, from the Latin tropos, to turn, like the half-and-half. No air-con meant all the windows were open, closing the distance between inside and outside. It was Sunday. She’d drive out to Van Nuys to see Uncle Jeffrey, then maybe head on up into the hills, get out of town to look down on it.

Joanna was of the opinion that you could only love something that could love you back. You could appreciate, like, admire, even covet inanimate things; but “loving” them—and all that ought to mean—was pointless, impossible, absurd. She wasn’t sure about pets. Can you love a slave? Hate was different. You could hate whatever you chose. Hate had a big brush. The pleasure of hate was selfish, not reciprocal. You owned hate; you gave love. She didn’t hate L.A.—what’s the point? —and she couldn’t love it. She just drove through it.

Joanna was pretty sure Jasmine was not the woman’s original given name. She was too old to have had hippie parents and she wasn’t black. From her southern accent, the name on her driver’s license was more likely something like Vicki Jo or Peggy Sue. Pretty pretty Peggy Sue. Only she wasn’t pretty, not any more anyway, maybe once, a pudgy high school cheerleader. If she wanted to name herself after a tea, maybe she could have gone all the way with Chamomile or Oolong. Adopted or ascribed first names—Ace, Dolly, Dude, Venus, Brad (she’d met far too many Brads), Sonny, Stormy, Dutch, Chastity, names no parent would ever slap on a baby—were common in L.A.

AKA Jasmine had moved in on Uncle Jeffrey a few years before. Joanna both thought of her little and thought little of her. She hadn’t killed him yet anyway. Uncle Jeffrey was Joanna’s only remaining family; as she was his. It was solely by happenstance that they both had ended up here in this concrete desert. They were both from lower-case elsewheres. They had never been close. There was nothing magical or mystical about their geographic congruence. It was just one of those wrinkles in chaos that provide seers with suckers.

Uncle Jeffrey now had tubes running into his nose. Or was it out of his nose? That scene from Catch-22 with the guy in a full-body cast, where a passing nurse just switches the bottles from the tube running out of the cast with the tube running into it. That scene was so Zen. Uncle Jeffrey’s tubes tried to be invisible but ended up at an oxygen tank he had to drag around with him on a miniature golf cart. He still smoked. He took the tubes out first.  Jasmine was there, dressed in a muumuu and moaning about the heat. Jasmine steeping. Joanna tried to ignore her, hold her tongue. It was part of her battle with herself not to be irksome.

— * —

The word beleaguered comes from the Dutch for surrounded camp. Surrounded by what? By them, of course, the opposite of us. Them, our natural enemy. If a positive is meaningless without a negative, a man is nothing without an enemy. Uncle Jeffrey was wearing a VFW hat with a fighting-something logo and embroidered bill. Vietnam Veteran it said in gold braid. Joanna had never seen him wearing it before. She hadn’t even known he was a vet.

“Ain’t,” he said. “I dodged that piece of shit. But I liked the hat, bought it on-line. Now when I go out, nobody hassles me. I call it my invincibility cap. Now I’m not just some broken-down old reprobate; I’m a disabled war hero.”

“You’re a lying pre-corpse,” Jasmine said and left the room.

“It’s amazing, justly amazing, the respect everyone has for veterans,” Uncle Jeffrey said. “Sometimes men will give me a little salute, and I’ll salute ‘em back. Real vets probably.”

“Just the hat?”

“Just the hat. I don’t claim anything else. You know what you’ll never see? A vet wearing his baseball cap backwards. That would be like raising the flag upside down.”

There was an endearing randomness to Uncle Jeffrey, a mercurial, almost chameleon ability to be anyone he wanted to be, any American anyway. Today he turned into the prototypical patriot—the hat. It was like real-life improv. He even mocked his younger self as a pinko pansy, as if he was talking, third person, about someone else. The last time she had visited he was wearing a black soutane and one of those four-corner pillbox hats priests used to wear and apologized in detailed length for the sins he’d committed on altar boys. Another time, he was dressed in a suit and a red tie, with an American flag pin in his lapel, and became a politician, spouting cliches in broken sentences. Of course, he had come to L.A. to be an actor. Joanna wondered if there was a term for Uncle Jeffrey’s peculiar affliction, beside twisted talent. Joanna came by mainly to be his occasional audience, a corporal work of mercy.

Today Uncle Jeffrey wanted to go out, to show Joanna the effectiveness of his new disguise. She had put on a short-sleeve blouse over her T-shirt, but she was hardly dressed to go public. “Oh, just my diner over on Sepulveda. She refuses to cook because of the heat.” Of course, he had to take his oxygen tank. “Part of the outfit.” They left without telling Jasmine.

— * —

“Knock ‘em dead,” “Break a leg,” “Killer act,” “Dynamite!” The subtlety was cloying. That’s entertainment. What a weird industry. A luxury is something you could live without, like entertainment. Maybe like feast food, now and then throughout the year, on special communal occasions. But as daily fare? Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of being entertained. It wasn’t that many generations ago when entertainers—musicians, actors, athletes, vaudevillians—were among the least respected and poorest paid professions. But now, reality withers in entertainment’s shadow. The celebrity pantheon is almost exclusively occupied by entertainers.

Not that it meant anything to Joanna. Not that anybody wanted to hear it. It was just curious. Over lunch, Uncle Jeffrey confessed—or was he actually bragging? –that his only screen performances had been as an extra, especially corpses. “I do a good corpse,” he said. “The secret is I just take a nap. Sometimes, when the scene is over, they have to wake me up.” Joanna paid for lunch. Uncle Jeffrey had forgotten his wallet. It was the least she could do for a vet.

Joanna appreciated that Uncle Jeffrey was immutably unknowable. There was no need to know who he actually was behind all his veils of disguise. As she was driving him back home, he said no, he wasn’t going there, and he directed her to an address in North Hollywood, a neighborhood a few degrees of swank beneath his own. He had taken off his VFW hat and its persona.

The place they stopped in front was from another era but well preserved, one of those Spanish-style apartment blocks, complete with overgrown cacti and spear-leafed succulents basking in the late afternoon blaze. It was above the street, beside a vacant, overgrown lot. A curving terracotta staircase led up to it.

“Help me get this sucker up the steps, would you?” Uncle Jeffrey said as he wrestled his tank caddy out of the back. At the top of the steps, he invited Joanna in “for a cold drink, say hello.” She demurred but he insisted. She wasn’t on any schedule, so she went with him into the courtyard and to an apartment door at the far end.

The woman was small, tiny actually. A few inches shorter and she’d be a midget. She had striking violet eyes. Her long white hair was cinched in a braided chignon. She was wearing an emerald green kimono. “Absalom,” she said, “I was expecting you, so, of course, I didn’t think you’d come.”

“Are we alone?” he asked.

She didn’t answer but stepped aside and gestured for them to enter. Inside was as chilled as an operating room.

— * —

Belief is weird, isn’t it? You hear people say, you got to believe…in something. Why? You can know things. You can even sense things you don’t actually know but you have your suspicions about. But if you say you believe something, you are admitting you don’t actually know that. “I believe it is raining” is not the same as “It’s raining.” Is it raining or not? If I walk outside without an umbrella, do you believe I might get wet? Belief is a sort of surrender to the safety of uncertainty. Lies exist to promote belief. And people pick all sorts of wacky things to believe—the Earth is flat, Satan is real, Jews are evil, the Pope is infallible, there’s gold in them thar hills. Joanna could only guess that people indulged in beliefs because they needed relief from certainty, from reality, especially the reality of death.

Joanna did not believe—she knew—that the incense she smelled was sandalwood. Uncle Jeffrey—or Absalom—did not bother himself with introductions, and their hostess just looked up at Joanna and then turned away. It happens sometimes, between women; there is an instant electrical discharge of disdain. It is primordial, hormonal, visceral, mutual, and real. Joanna felt the jolt and deflected it right back.  She considered just turning around and leaving, but the apartment’s interior was intriguing, a hybrid chapel/bordello. Drapes were drawn on all the windows. The lighting, such as it was, was all indirect. Candles flickered in the air-con breeze. She lingered. Uncle Absalom sat down on an ottoman and started removing his shoes.

“Dig your décor,” Joanna said to the short priestess’s back as she walked away.

Without turning around, she answered. “Absalom, why did you bring this woman here?”

“She’s my niece. She delivered me. I thought….”

“She should leave. She has no soul.”

Well, that was quick, Joanna thought. “Absalom is shedding his soles right now,” she said.

The woman pivoted so quickly that her bracelets jangled. “There is no humor in this house!”

“That’s for sure. But don’t worry. That wasn’t very funny, just a venial pun.”

Uncle Jeffrey was sitting there, looking up at them, one shoe off, one shoe on.

“This is a temple. You pollute it,” the woman said. “Jests are Satan’s prayers.”

“And to which god, then, is this whorehouse dedicated?”

“Satan’s spoor, soulless zombie. Absalom!”

It was on. “Sacrificed any virgins recently? Oh, I forgot, this is L.A.  Any pagan babies, then?”

Uncle Jeffrey didn’t move. It struck Joanna that he was enjoying this. He would. Was it unreal enough for him?

“As long as I am here, maybe you could explain to me what it is that I’m lacking. This soul thing.”

“Of course, you wouldn’t know. It’s your essence, that piece of God inside you, the immaterial part that survives the corporeal self.”

“All of the above, including immortality? Wow.”

“Every living being has a soul.”

“And they’re all immortal?”

“No, only human souls are immortal.”

“Lucky us.”

“Not you. I could tell immediately.”

“But if it’s immaterial, how can you tell?”

“Out. Out of my house.”

Joanna left, leaving Uncle Jeffrey behind. So, soul, being immaterial, was just an idea, a word for something imagined, unknown, unmeasurable, indefinite. It didn’t even define a feeling or an emotion. It could be anything, even nothing. Joanna opted for nothing. It was just another one of those beliefs, like the tooth fairy. Joanna envisioned a ship filled with dentures, the DDS Charon.

— * —

Joanna didn’t know L.A. well enough to have her favorite spot in the hills above. So she drove and wandered and ended up just where other people went and then tried to get as far away from them as possible. She parked and in the gathering dusk hiked up an unofficial trail into the chaparral. Uncle Jeffrey had left his veteran’s cap on the passenger-side seat. She had put it on when she left the car. Now, alone, in the dark, looking down on the lights of America, she turned it around, bill and braid behind her, so that she could see the sky. There are no stars in the L.A. sky, just the reflected glow of too many people below.