Monday, December 20, 2010
"Violet, is your upper story jangled out of tune?" - Henry Darger
We raised the silver mirrors at nightfall, hoping to let the deathbed angels through the socket after Lily's sun-flustered extreme unction. For there was no way to unbrighten this chamber, to make it appropriately dreary. All those angels and our little family would have to stand in our mourning tableaux, in our ill-fitting ferrotype suits, while the sun -- as if trying to alert us to some alternate truth -- baked our loss into the jostling plankboard floor. All that should be black turned to umber and raw sienna; our faces, ruddy with tears, to monk's colors. But we'd know the name of every angel as they passed through the criss-crossing rays of the sun, and we hoped that would welcome them and they would not be put off, or think us disrespectful, because we could not offer them a stately gloom. "Zadkiel, Israfel, Ariel...," we'd call to them.
We'd told our brother rabbits to remain in the lea, but a number of them had not obeyed, and soon these Dutch lops began scooting into the room, quietly, their guard hairs on end, as if they'd seen ignis fatui in the pastures. Like the rat and the horse, it's said the rabbit can't retch himself clean of indigestable matter, but these lops were making horrible sounds as they watched the skies for incoming angels. Trey said he'd never heard anything like it. I leaned sideways in the dignified familial diorama we'd concocted and whispered to Ari to shoo the rabbits into the yard. I knew Ari, being educated, could get the animals out of the death chamber with the least amount of pandemonium. He hunched over some, but kept his back very straight, then followed the rabbits into corners with a measured gait, cupped their furry bottoms with one dangling arm, and gently pushed them toward the door. The plankboards barely squawked during the entire operation, which took some time. The first round of it forced our lops into the middle of the room, where they obligingly milled without scampering off, and the second, using much the same posture -- his back at a 45 degree angle to the floor, one dangling arm, a series of shoves -- got them into the out of doors. Any of the others among us would have had to sprout a prehensile tail to get the rabbits out of the house, but Ari accomplished it with a minimum of fuss, and soon we were all lined up against the wall again, staring into the glass, and the socket, and beyond that, into paradise.
Above our heads was a cross, just two strips of pine, one nailed across the other. A circuit priest -- giving communion where no decent priest would go -- told us to take down our various effigies. We'd hung a different one on the cross for each day of the week. The bullfrog king was for Sunday; the salamander prince Ari told us was really an axolotl -- which sounded more like royalty -- for Monday; the black rat thief for Tuesday, our human frailties incarnate; the baby possum St. Dysmas -- to remind us even a thief can be invited to Heaven -- on Wednesday; the mottled gull, wings spread, with the prairie frond in its beak, on Thursday; the horned lark seraph which sings in flight like an angel, for Friday; and, on Saturday, we'd clip a common house mouse onto our niggardly crux, to mark the humble return of ease, and release the poor thing at nightfall, let it rummage in the bread drawer if it pleased him. The priest told us each and every one of these was a sacrilege to God. We asked him what we should do with our devotional menagerie, and he told us to "throw the vile things in the lake." When he was gone, we buried them all in little graves, with some potent thought given to what they'd represented to us.
Now, we were uneasy about the cross. It seemed so naked. If you'd looked closely at our line of faces, awaiting the coming of the deathbed angels, and seen some speck of doubt, some kernel of restlessness, the complete waste of a cross above our heads would certainly explain it. For there we were, complicated in our grief, and there was that toy of a cross, so crudely underestimating our nature.
Three days before this, Lily began the mope which led to her death. She and Ari were at one another's throat since the day of the wedding. She had real pride, he had shame dressed as pride. The difference between those two demeanors was the death of Lily. Ari had taken to the shed, where he'd been going at bottle after bottle of liquor, and sawing away at planks without method. Finally after a week of this, he came barreling across the field, grabbed her from the porch swing by her long coarse hair, pulled her to into the yard, removed a section of the filigreed wooden grates that covered the crawlspace, and pushed her under the house.
"You crawl around in there for awhile," He shouted, replacing the intricately carved fleurs-de-lis panel. Because the cuts in the design were small, it was difficult to see Lily for the next two days. Once and awhile you would get a glimpse of her eye pressed between a whitewashed tendril and stem. Mostly we just heard her shuffling about down there. It sounded, for all the world, like mice. She didn't dare escape, because Ari sat in a folding chair on the front lawn, able to see three sides of the house. Every twenty minutes he'd close his book of poems and go around back to see if she was trying to kick or scratch her way out. Although we'd never seen Ari smoke before, he took it up while watching the house. As far as we knew he never slept, and we were grateful he never asked us to play prison guard for him. It is almost certain that one of the younger boys would have set Lily free. They were all in love with her.
"You really need to sleep," I told him one evening, after bringing him a bowl of stew.
"I can't ask any of you to take this on, Frederick," He shook his head slowly, blowing into the steaming bowl of potatoes and carrots. "It wouldn't be fair."
On the third day of her imprisonment, Lily began to sing. We could see a few strands of her long hair streaming across the weave of wooden flowers as she began the longish ballad, "Have You Been to the Fair, Young Ladies?" This seemed to eat at Ari -- he crossed and uncrossed his legs repeatedly -- but he continued to smoke and read his books of poetry. As far as I could tell the song had 30 verses, all accumulating and escalating to a hellish vision of star-crossed love unequaled in popular song. I'm not a musicologist, but it seemed to me the beauty of her reading -- this child bride trapped in the crawlspace -- was that she was not at all inspired to melodrama. Her voice remained even, detached. Her voice did not crack or rise in emotional timbre. She used none of the vibrato or ulalation that might overstate her case. The brittle voice, the humdrum delivery, the "that's just the course of it" mood she conjured, all steeped us in old world fated doom for many, many hours. When she was done, the young boys sat rigid in the chairs around the kitchen table, their hands tucked, diver-style, between their legs to hold them from action. They had in them the stuff of knights and the damsel-in-distress under the house had now become a siren.
Ari saw that he was losing the sympathy of the family, and extracted Lily from her crawlspace. With a series of rough shoves, so unlike the dignified scoots he'd given the rabbits, he forced her up the stairs into the house. They were locked in the upstairs bath for several hours. He told me later he'd made her stand in the bathtub and bathed her in gin, washed her tangled hair with turpentine, painted her finger and toenails with tar, and spread birdlime on the wings of her shoulder blades, to keep her from becoming an angel. Then he drug her down the stairs and made her kneel by the road that ran by the property. There he drove a stake into the ground, cuffed her hands, and chained her to the long iron spike. She lost sentience there, the ends of her shoulder blades pursed around the iron shaft, two lops nuzzling in her lap. Four muttering young boys unchained her and took her to the room in which we now awaited the angels. The first night of our death vigil, Ari tried to light himself on fire, pouring fuel over himself and furiously striking a match against a cement slab over and over to no effect. He kept adding more gasoline to himself until he was shiny with it. Our grandmother rushed out into the night, and struck him in the jaw with the gas can, to keep him from killing himself.
"The boy couldn't even fill his own shadow," She rattled.
The next day, Ari swore off drink and collected himself for the wait. Every death, we waited. We stood in our best clothes, in this formation, in the roofless room, and we waited. First we placed the mirrors, and waited until we could see the socket, and then the sun would open up slow like a stone was being rolled away, and we'd welcome our angels, call them by name.
- Charles Lieurance, Milshire Hotel, Chicago, Illinois 2002
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
The flames twitched in their red glass globes. There was an old man sitting on one prong of the horseshoe-shaped bar. He looked aching to talk so I went around to the other side. He smoked a dead cigarette and took deep, hissing breaths while he drank. I couldn't help looking him over, which to him was as good as an invitation to join me. He squinted from smoke rising in weary helices from the ashtray and, pulling at the crotch of his gray work pants, he shambled my way, sat down on the stool next to me, and looked for awhile, longingly, at the seat he'd just come from.
He began with his hands on the bar, palm facing palm, indicating the size of something.
"I had this little dog, see? And screw his little dog life if he didn't give my ass so big a pain it made my throat sore. I named him Chandler -- you know, Chandler, after the detective books. Ate those up back when my eyes worked better'n a jigger of spit. Little brown dog, like a meatloaf with legs. One milky eye," He nearly put his eye out gesturing.
"Perfect otherwise, y'know? I thought, train him not to be such a pain in the rump all the time. There are dog books, ain't there? So I get some: 'Train Your Dog to Drool Pearls and Bet the Horses.' You know the books I'm talkin' about. I read them all and I couldn't find a damn thing in any one of them I wanted to teach my dog. Who cares if he plays dead or shakes your hand? I want a dog can play dead I'll buy a dead dog. Then I think, biggest pain of all is taking this little meatloaf for a walk so he can crap or pee on a fireplug. Middle of the night. Four in the morning. Rain, snow, sleet, hail. Shit."
He relit the dead cigarette, but not much came of it.
"I'm thinking, time to give this dog a little CIV-I-LI-ZA-TION. Who gets up at four in the morning? I'll teach him to use the pot. Not sit on it like you or me, but stand on the seat on all fours and take a wizz or a crap or whatever. Chandler? Well, he's not giving it his all at first. But I give him a few whacks on the nose with the funny papers and some dog cookies, and finally he's at least tryin' it out, standing on the seat, little shaky, but he's gettin' it. Month later, maybe two, and I get up in the middle of the night to pee and there's Chandler standing on the seat, his legs shaking and his eyes real big and scared, but damn if he wasn't doin' it! He's got the form!"
The man set his palms face to face again. He clutched a ball of remorse in the muscles of his throat.
"Sure, he gets a little on the seat maybe, but who cares? He's wizzin' on the pot. I wanna call the Daily Goddamn Planet, sure. Got a dog usin' the can. Page one. And in no time he's an expert -- do it on two legs, big pooch grin on his face. Cocky son of a bitch..."
"He can...?" I tried to help the old geezer out a little and show him I'm paying attention, which I am by now.
"SURE HE CAN! He's some kinda ballet dancer. But things get weird for me, like I start gettin' embarrassed walkin' in on him. Sometimes he's got this look on his face while he's doing his business. Like he wants privacy or something. I say, sorry, and close the door like he's my buddy Randy takin' a dump at work. Excuse me, Chandler. Sheesh, learn to shut the door like a human bein'. A month later and I'm thinkin' I wanna buy him pants or knickers. Some little dog trousers. No way, but I'm thinkin' it just the same."
He took time out for a big ugly sob.
"Well, if I can train him, I can untrain him, huh? I start whacking the mutt on the nose he even looks at the john, hauling him outside next to trees again. But he holds it. I keep the bathroom door shut but I find him straddling the kitchen sink, any hole he can fit his legs around. Sometimes I don't find his mess for a week. And he's getting...savage, biting my hand and nippin' at my pant legs. Now, I love this dog. What I didn't mention, right? Whole story and I didn't even tell you that. I'm a shit. I got a dog uses the john and I can't do nothin'. This little meatloaf and he's lookin' at me like I ruined his life. A few midnight walks, four in the morning...Who cares? Who am I, Professor Henry Higgins? It's a dog. I want a senator or somethin'?"
He gulped for air now, like a dying fish.
"I had to give the dog away. I just couldn't take it. Some nice family never owned a dog. He was lookin' at me all the time, see? Lookin' at the bathroom door, like I'd locked him out of High Holy Mass. And I didn't tell the family, that's how rotten to the core I am. See?"
He looked to see if I saw. I don't think I moved a muscle but he nodded and went on.
"They start callin' me a week later, leavin' messages at work. 'What??!!??,' they're yellin', 'This goddamn dog uses the fucking toilet. Are you kidding me? Whose dog uses the can? We look like we wanted a circus animal? We want a little dog. For our little boy...' Well, I have to move eventually. Get an unlisted number. See, I sold the dog. I'm a bastard. I'm a prick. I sold a crazy circus dog to some nice family wanted a puppy for their kids. Thirty bucks. I kept the money. I moved. Is that a nightmare, or what?"
- Charles Lieurance, Leland Hotel, San Francisco 1989
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Even projected onto the side of a weary white elephant outside the Watson Hotel Esplanade in Bombay, the longest kiss in movie history moved roving flautists to dervish, fakirs to fold their bodies into perfect balls like a garden of nocturnal flowers at dawn, and a hundred broadminded Englishmen to stand and applaud as if Victoria's grandson himself had appeared on one of the great terraces that surrounded each floor of the floodlit resort. Hoolock gibbons somersaulted on the film-silvered lawn as Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani surrendered their lips to history for four ecstatic minutes. Of course, thought Bayles, as he pried opened the canister of Jean Painleve's L'Hippocampe in the projection room, all of these old Indian films were destroyed in lean times, the silver extracted to make necklaces and flapper handbags. So all of it was now legend -- the kiss, the acrobat gibbons, the drowsing white elephant. You just had to take history's word on it.
Bayles cursed the projector several times, as he always did, while attaching the reel to its less than accommodating spindle. Danny came in with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, sat the goods on the flatbed moviola, poured them each a full plastic cup, and relieved Bayles before the high-strung owner began tearing the film out of the few sprockets he'd managed to guide it through, unspooling acres of film in an -- not atypical -- outrage. Bayles made his "brain surgeon who'd lost one" face, flapped his hands up and down against his filthy dress shirt like a dolphin who'd got its fins caught in honey, raised his eyebrows to Danny in a grateful "cheers!" and loped down the wide winding staircase into the theater proper. "Fucking fucking machine," He sang, a falsetto mock-aria that echoed like the belly of a whale in the old Piastra Theatre -- Bayles' hobgoblin, his mercy.
The place to sit is four rows back, dead center. Bayles stood in the aisle, sipping the scotch, waiting for the deep blue and pink apron luminaires to dim. This ancient, parasitical palace was his great infidelity to life, for it had forced him to actually lead very little of it. At gatherings it was always assumed the Piatra was a labor of love. He'd tell everyone how he was going belly up, how the toilets were taking on malignant lives of their own, how the wraiths in the heat ducts made it impossible to hear the mumbled, poorly recorded dialogue of Masculin-Feminin, and without fail some kitten poster of a human being would lead with, "But it's a labor of love, isn't it?" It's not, thought Bayles, that I haven't learned to enjoy some of it. Right now, for instance -- drinking decent scotch with Danny at midnight, screening something rare and puzzling, but it was the joy of a schoolboy, not a man. As if he'd broken into the place to perform some sacrilege. That's what it felt like. It felt like the place wasn't his, like it would never be his. He'd owned the damn gilded juggernaut for seventeen years, and it still refused to give itself over to him. It fought him day and night. Nights like these he felt like a vandal, and by fuck, the cunt deserved what she got. A labor of love. The repeating archway motif that lay in shadow behind the upper balustrade, lidded by gilt and drapery, looked down at him like the judgmental eyes of jack'o'lanterns, and he transmitted into the nests of glamor ghosts, this: "Yes, I'm going to get drunk and watch whatever I please all night if I want, and you'll have to save all your hauntings and wee hour drama for some other day." One such a night, he'd even taken a piss on a corner of the screen while they perused a particularly dull pornographic Japanese cartoon.
"Danny!" He yelled up to the projection booth. "Get the damn thing started and hurry down here with that goddamn bottle!"
Bayles took the perfect seat in the Piastra Theatre and kicked his feet up and over the back of the seat in front of him. "C'mon!" He yelled.
Numbered leader, intercut with nearly subliminal oddities, counted down onscreen and then the whole palace was underwater, and the piscine pageant began. The seahorses nodded their way through intricate vivariums and terarria. Though this was truly nature, truly under the sea, the forms could not have looked more artificial, each anemone and reef ledge limned in the spectral light of early cinema. The seahorses swayed to some elliptical jazz. Danny plopped into the chair beside him and immediately assumed the same bohemian slump as his employer. They passed the bottle back and forth urgently a few times & then let the huge screen swallow them whole. Bayles laughed or casually lectured at intervals, reinforcing the idea that the theater was his domain, especially while the male seahorses gave birth. But for the most part they fell into a hypnagogic trance, in which one's own dreams flow seamlessly into the projected images. It's something only a practiced movie-goer can manage, inserting the spookshow of the subconscious into the montage. Neophytes will always screw it up. You have to wait for the proper cut, for the proper rhythm of edits, for the proper composition of shape and texture, and then insert the silver foil Christmas tree in your father's hotel room, or your mother praying at the kitchen table. You don't want to be jarred out of this precarious transport by suddenly transposing your drunken stepfather over a bed of vulvic sea clams, or letting an octopus pushing off a coral precipice dissolve into a cancer ward. It takes so much practice to let oneself go to the movies.
The next of the bunch, Assassins d'eau douce, with its thuggish scorpion beetles way-laying any life borne along its path, startled them both with its blaring hothouse jazz, and Danny had to run up to the projection room to keep the echoes of the feral muted trumpet from shaking plaster off the walls. As Danny dealt with the acrimony, Bayles noticed a figure in the aisle, a vertical slash of glowing green trimmed and bisected with strands and diagonals of the most excruciating pale white skin. Her head dropped forward, as if the puppeteer had severed a line, and her wild red hair fell over her face and the decolletage of the most amazing emerald cocktail dress Bayles had ever seen. The twitchy rise and fall of her naked shoulders let him know she was laughing. She dropped her purse onto the Navajo/Turkish aisle carpet and supported herself on one of the seats. The laugh began as a ticking in her throat but ended with her flinging all the fiery red and freckled white backward, stretching the magnificent tendons and bone ridges of her sternum tight under that most generous dress. She barked to the vaulted ceiling and it shattered against the overlording architectural dark, split into piercing shards that eventually fell tinkling into the Piastra's long-suffering corners.
"Good lord, Rebecca," Bayles hrrumphed without conviction. "You'll bring the whole shittery to its knees."
Rebecca swayed down the row towards him, the tick-tock of her ass still the same rocksteady burlesque it had been two years ago.
"Your hair's a fraud," He said as she mock-collapsed into the seat next to him. She turned one side of her mouth up and batted her eyelashes.
"But yes, it, uh, suits the dress."
"I thought so."
Foolish dreams you never see to fruition, Bayles thought. He'd always wanted to see her in an emerald green cocktail dress, her hair up in a pony tail to accentuate the sculptor's joy that was her throat. When they began the affair, they talked about the green cocktail dress as if it were their grip on the future, as if the misbegotten parlor trick of a romance couldn't possibly end before the green cocktail dress was wished into being. But there it was, and damned if he'd be the one to guess at the significance of that.
"What are we watching?" She took a cigarette from her spangled purse. Exactly the sort of purse a hundred Indian films had perished to assemble, he thought.
"Painleve. He made surrealist underwater documentaries. The shrimp and the beetles are the Nazis; all the floating, naive life in the pond must submit to their genocidal progrom..."
"Nature as abattoir. I see," Bayles fumbled a lighter from his pocket and she leaned into the flame with such natural ease that he felt lightheaded. Seeing the chiffon, the toss of red hair, and -- the beginning of a trail of hopeless kisses -- the topmost knob of her spine, by a lighter's flicker was nearly more than he could bear. He pushed the lighter into his pocket as far as he could, and kept his fist clamped around it there. With the hand that wasn't shaking, he handed her the bottle of scotch.
"If he saw you, I imagine he's hiding."
Rebecca looked at him with such wit, with such vigorous wit and intelligence. She brought the bottle up to her lips, hesitated as if she'd forgotten to tell a joke, smiled at him, pulled her bottom lip into a pout with the mouth of the pint, grinned a little more, and finally lurched down a healthy swallow. Jesus, he thought. In this slump, with his head turned toward her this way, it would take barely a nod to kiss the Pleides of freckles on her bare shoulder. Just a single nod, like a seahorse, to run his lips across the constellation. But instead he wiped his mouth on the collar of his shirt, sighed, and drank. I'd kill for just one inch of her bed tonight, he thought.
"Do you think you can experience Stendhal's syndrome from a movie, Bales?"
"It's too modern, I think. Part of Stendhal's sydrome is experiencing antiquity and having no resistance to it, finding Roman ruins aren't a shopping mall and a fresco isn't a bank painting is really hard on some people."
"But there were people who used to run from movie theaters screaming, right kitten?"
"Trains bulleting toward your head and riots in the street. I think that just may be exaggerated. But there were the sausage factory movies. In one, a man in an apron loads three dogs into a big box with a clock on the side. Behind him," Bayles poured a shot of scotch onto his curled tongue and let it slowly dribble down his throat. "There were these link sausages labeled 'Plain Dog,' 'Trained Dog,' and 'Boston Bull'."
She laughed one of those throaty smoker's laughs, sexy before it turns to bronchitis, curled her pale pink reptile tongue and poured scotch into it. She let it drain down her throat slowly. "It's like peeling a grape and eating it," She giggled.
"One lady customer points at the wall of links and the guy in the apron puts the sausage into the machine and a dog comes out the other side. It's a fucking dachsund. It's running around everywhere, skittish as hell. The lady swats her hand through the air, 'NO!'" They're both taking shots from their curled tongues.
"We're genetic freaks!" She howled.
"So the conveyor belt into this machine is reversed and the dog comes out the other end as sausage again, and the butcher drapes the links over a nail. The lady decides she'll take a mastiff instead. I hear the audiences were mortified by the dog being changed back into sausage. I don't know if they ran screaming from the theater or not," Bayles imagined all of these Painleve films tinted the color of Rebecca's cocktail dress, like the cover of some old Blue Note jazz album. Seagreen starfish, the undulations of seagreen monsters.
"What are you working on these days?" He asked her, trying to bring some iota of reality to their underwaterness.
"We're publishing Roger Casement's Black Diaries finally," She pouted a bit that they were done furling their tongues and making dogs from sausages. "He was a gentleman explorer who was hanged in 1916 for being buggered by three-quarters of the young boys in the African Congo."
A Portuguese Man-of-War exploded on the screen and they both took time out from the conversation to admire the transluscent fireworks.
"Being...buggered?" He just caught it.
"Yes! Yes. That's it. Strangely he was the passive partner always."
"So they were fucking him?" She nodded ecstatically. He recalled they'd always talked like this and felt the loss of her like a blow.
"And he was hanged?"
"There was a little more to it, but yes."
"I'm sure they had to ruthlessly coerced into ass-fucking their colonialist oppressor."
They laughed like they always had and she laid her head against his shoulder, thick red fox tails of hair ran down his chest.
"And of course I'm trying to raise the girl..."
"She's a prodigy," He recalled the clippings, the reviews.
"She's a circus pony."
Bayles still wanted her as much as he ever had, but initiating it seemed tedious somehow. And though he knew by her body language that she wouldn't refuse him, pitifully awkward. He'd never know how she ever felt about any damn thing. When she surrendered, it was the same series of gestures and enigmatic looks, as when she denied him. The tedium resulted from the utter lack of contrast. If she'd just slap him soundly, at least he'd have the thrill of the chase. What does a cougar do with a lame horse that refused to budge from the door of its lair?
He sniffed out a laugh at the complete failure of that metaphor. The cougar devours the poor, sickly pony, of course. He devours it without any thought whatsoever.
Rebecca wasn't wearing a bra. Bayles remembered telling her that a flat-chested girl was sexier without one. He took a long shot of scotch without any playful antics and reached his hand under the plunging neckline of the emerald green cocktail dress. All of the ocean's ugly beauty swam in airless Busby Berkeley logic across the screen; in all manner of motion, all the entwined tongue shapes and organs incarnate folded themselves inside out and outside in, as if the whole world had been eviscerated and the life of the sea was the spill of its guts. Somewhere up above, on land, all had gone bloodless. No more light for skyscrapers, no more fuel for cars. The mountains had deflated and the floors of canyons opened like trap doors into liquid uncertainty. No more bottom, no more top. All the purple-pink insides of our landlubber lives unraveling into the emerald green sea.
Bayles cupped her tit as if checking an old reflex, and as always her nipple rose to attention between his fingers, practically forcing its way through. Her body turned into him and for a moment her breast filled his hand. He retracted, massaged his temples, whispered she was beautiful, and tucked her into his shoulder with a smooth motion he'd have prayed for back when it mattered. Their waking dreams slipped into the endless peristalsis of images, like polywogs through baby fingers.
- Charles Lieurance/Austin, Texas 2005
Monday, November 15, 2010
When he gave his name, the officer consulted his list and said, "Ter-ro-rist". One of the other prisoners, who had since been known only as the professor...took a step forward, raised a philological forefinger, and said respectfully, "Not terrorist, tou-rist," and stepped back into line. The officer went on with his check, and as he was leaving, glared round the room and shouted with angry contempt, "Tourists, the lot of you!"
- Andre Malraux, Anti-Memoirs
Three great golems of igneous rock guarded the little bay; and the beach -- littered with elliptical blue stones like finely crafted tomahawk heads; and the town, whose adobe and corrugated tin houses, each the color of sour milk, were encrusted with the shit of endlessly wheeling gulls. Strangely, if you asked the resident of the town for the legend of the guardian rocks, seemingly ossified in the denouement of some crucial drama -- young lovers, perhaps, found out by a cruel, caped father, or the drowning of an old, frail king by two conspiring courtesans -- you would receive nothing but blank stares. For while the town's people were rustic in every other way, they were not, by and large, storytellers.
Petulant, paint-peeling storms swept into the town's narrow streets in the afternoons and rattled the tin roofs in imitation of thunder. Evening brought a vapid, listless mist, which chilled the air and fell in gauzy veils until the tender blue and pink shimmer of morning. The town was pressed up against a range of craggy hills as inglorious as the jagged edge of a copper key. Where the mountains sloped into the interior of the country there were ruins of ancient temples, some excavated, many still hidden beneath anonymous hillocks. Because of these ruins, lonely, drunken archeologists would sit in the town's pulqueria in the afternoon, dusty fedoras limp and black from rain, their faces long and jaundiced. They held their stomachs and forced the pulque down by pounding on their sternums with their fists. They filled their cheeks with air and exhaled purposefully like cartoons of gray clouds brandishing wind.
Although a travel baedeker might tell you differently, the people of the town did not share any innate personality traits. They were not what you'd call a friendly people and they did not possess that smiling reticence so valued by tourists. They simply treated strangers as if they did not know who they were.
Perhaps they were a bit defeated by the incessant storms which seemed all the more furious for having to squeeze into the bay through the great tableau of posed rock. But they were not sad people either. Perhaps they drank too much of the foaming, milky pulque, flavored with the feces of dogs, old pants and tree bark, and ladled from wooden barrels by toothless half-wits made nearly blind from the drink and nearly deaf from inbreeding. But they were not, overall, prone to sickness or mental instability. Perhaps, due to their isolation from the brooding Catholicism that reigned further inland --the Sweating Christ, Christ of the Blisters, the Swaying Virgin of Mexico City, the Perspiring Virgin of Yucatan, the Weeping Child Jesus of Toluca, and the crucifix that suddenly opened its eyes in Durango -- they were not fanatically religious. But they were not a godless people either, and the town's whores wore the medallions of the Virgin of Soledad around their necks to protect them from the clap. Many tourists and archeologists found these medals -- dangling gold between spice-brown breasts, slick with a patina of sweat -- a mesmerizing adjunct to the sexual transaction. They would kiss the Virgin of Soledad as they made their final, gasping thrusts. This enticing bit of trivia was, however, neglected by the authors of travel brochures.
The American stranger found her beautiful, but it was more her lot in life than any physical charisma that charmed him. She represented to him the cool air after a storm, the brutal fists of plateaus, the ivory snails of clouds, the dinosaur footprints along hill slopes, the sun-up petrol station attendants fossilized behind child-smeared glass counters stocked with Black Jack gum, human skulls, and dusty hangover cures. The mountains made a lonely, barren sound: an owl, a train, wind passing over the mouths of caves. The moon still out on those pink mornings, like a misshapen ghost. Yellow smoke hung in the sky like jellyfish.
Her tongue flashed over her lips like a lizard tail. She floated through the graveyard, an armor of obsidian hair always concealing one eye. The head of a crow on the body of a mottled swan. Her old mother coughed, low and yipping like a coyote cackling in the short grass, pawing the coarse yaupon and spiny glasswort. They walked side by side, the old woman using a length of steel pipe for a cane.
The stranger's 1966 Plymouth Satellite bottomed out in the mud flats north of the town, where tanned skeletons in straw hats and frayed cowboy shirts stuck their hands up to the elbow into the black, bituminous sludge for clams. They stood for hours in the unmerciful heat of midday and waited for small, rainbow-tinted bubbles to rise through the muck. They slogged home with their rusted iron buckets when the everfalling drizzle turned to sheets of windswept rain.
He marched around the car, trying to kick it, but his feet sunk further into the mud with every step, until he collapsed against the steaming hood, exhausted.
The clamdiggers stood up straight, emaciated shadows ten yard apart. He wasn't sure they weren't scarecrows. He put his hand up to his forehead to see block the glare and see if they were staring at him, or had even noticed him. He waved tentatively.
"Hey," He yelled. "I thought it was dry. It looked dry."
His legs sank deeper into the mud.
"There were cracks, cracks in it," He pointed at the fissures in the mud, like the cracks in a pumpkin pie. "I thought it was the desert."
A gust of rain washed across the flats and the Plymouth was enveloped in steam.
The clamdigger closest to him picked up his iron bucket and proceeded towards the steaming car and the frantically gesturing, corpulent stranger. At least the Mexican appeared to be getting closer. The only movement the stranger actually saw was a slight twitch in the knees of the digger's gray trousers. His progress was erased as he advanced, mud closing instantly on the sucking wounds.
The stranger felt like an idiot waiting there by the car. Maybe he should move forward to intercept the clamdigger, help him with his bucket or something. And maybe the digger was not coming for him at all, maybe he'd just trudge past, oblivious. The digger was now a few feet away, but it was still impossible to tell if he'd seen the stranger or not. He set his bucket down and waited, as if for further instructions from whatever chess player moved these pawns through their daily, filthy enterprise.
"Can you help me here? Maybe tow me out? I've got some chain in the trunk. Comprende?"
The digger removed his straw hat and ran a thin blue chamois across his bald head.
The steam dispersed into tiny ball-bearings that freckled the mud like the buds of steel flowers.
They had no luck getting the car to move, but two of the diggers took the stranger by his elbows and helped him out of the clam pit. Another one pulled his suitcase out of the back seat and followed along behind. Big drops of rain were driven along by a high, howling wind and slapped against the earth when the gust lost its force. The party was drenched by the time it reached the dry land. The diggers handed the stranger his suitcase, touched the rims of their hats when he thanked them, and walked off toward the tavern.
It was then he saw the girl and her mother, the mother pecking along with her steel pipe and the girl distracted and beautiful, shaking the rain out of her hair.
The stranger owned four dark suits and four emerald-green ties. Two of the ties had on them the symbol for an atom, the intersecting ovals and orbiting particles. One was decorated with a blue fleur-de-lis, and the other was without filigree. He owned two pairs of black wingtips. In his suitcase was $20,000 U.S. dollars, an S & M magazine with captions and brief stories written in Spanish, a blue Llama Comanche double-action 357 revolver with a walnut grip, and nickel-plated Rossi .38 Special he purchased from a German businessman in Hermasillo. Sewn into the lining of the suitcase was a black leather satchel tied up with a red ribbon. In the satchel were the surgical instruments, many still crusted with reminders of past procedures. He felt for the satchel through the padded nylon lining as he unpacked his things in a boarding house that had been built right up against the hills.
From the rickety balcony that circled the house it was an easy leap right onto the hillside and into the clotted thickets that clung to the crumbling ascent. He saw his car in the distance, fused with the mudflats forever. Clinging tightly to the balcony railing he walked around to see the ocean and the monumental sentries that were disappearing in the twilight fog. He wondered what their story was.
During the clear mornings, before the rain began, he walked around the town, daubing his sweating forehead with a linen handkerchief. He hoped to see the girl again. He dreamed of her as a variety of animals -- crow, swan, lizard, coyote. He wondered if that was a disservice to her actual nature. If he told her what a phantasmagoria of natural shapes shifted and transformed in his mind when he thought of her, would she be flattered or would she think he was mad.
He wouldn't be surprised if she began to crawl on her belly, or if she suddenly took flight. If she burrowed into a mouse hole, or stood panting over the carcass of a heat-exhausted burro, nipping at the exposed ribcage with her bloody canines, he wouldn't be alarmed. Looking out at the mudflats he saw diggers pecking around in the open crevices made by his car tires. The clams were drawn to the shade of the Plymouth. The diggers joked and chatted. The car's chrome flared in the morning's uninhibited sunlight, fractals of violet and pink and deep green bubbled off the metal in overlapping discs of spectral brilliance.
A dull-sounding bell tolled from the tower of the small church, its timber supports creaking and yawning as the bell swung lazily back and forth. Graffiti was splayed across an adobe wall. The stranger was trying to puzzle it out when a shrunken old man approached. His left eye was missing and his left arm was shriveled into a fleshy tentacle. His left foot was wrapped in a ball of brown rags. The right side of his face was bearded, the left cheek smooth with scar tissue.
The old man stood behind the stranger and read the graffiti aloud, as if it were his civic duty: "Trabajadores: El Boicot Lo Hacen los Ricos Catolicos, Lo Sufrimos los Pobres de Todas las Ceencias."
"It is to the workers," The old man did not struggle with the translation. "The church is to blame for everything."
"You are American?"
"Where in the state?"
"No," The old man coughed and laughed at the same time. The stranger laughed also.
"Si. More like Besconsin."
"You want a drink, old man?"
A sudden gust of damp wind made the old man's tentacle flutter against his side. He smiled and took an invisible drink with his good hand. He licked his lips.
"Well then." The American gestured forward.
"Pulqueria, si." He drew out the words musically.
"No. A bar. American whiskey. Beer. None of the cactus shit."
"No." The old man shook his head and made a face.
"Si. Si. Si."
The old man laughed and coughed.
"Si. Si. Si."
They wound up in front of the pulqueria anyway. A protoplasmic haze, like fumes from petroleum, hung outside the door. Flies and bees foamed in the cloud as if trapped in transparent amber. Dogs loped around the entrance, occasionally thinking to enter but whining at the door and moving on. The folds of their brindled fur were tinseled with moisture and their hind legs circled in slow motion, waving off flies. Their tongues slid around in spiny red boats of slobber from one side of their mouths to the other. They whimpered, bounced their skeletal tails off the dirt and virtually fell off their front legs trying to scratch, chins landing in perfect furrows between their black paws. Music came from inside, a tinny, scattering signal from Mexico City that sounded more like a fly zapper than a radio transmission. A large window faced the street and was encrusted with remnants of a logo, just angular hieroglyphs once red, outlined in gold, and a decomposed parade of leering calavera. Masking tape layered on masking tape layered on duct tape, each layer oozing adhesive, held the pane of glass in place. On a shelf in the front window was a little coffin, propped up by a stack of phone books in which insects had built elaborate hives and tunnels. The coffin was wrapped in shiny pink Christmas foil, torn away in places to show slats of wood. Roaches flitted in these bare spots. The foil rippled with the motion of the insects underneath, almost imperceptibly. In the coffin, its head turned to the side on a dusty white pillow, was the corpse of a baby. On its back were pinned a pair of big hawk wings, spray-painted silver. A chicken wire halo stuffed with cotton, with tiny rhinestones glued on, was mounted on the infant's gray skull. Its little hands, like bird talons, held faded prayer cards bearing the image of the Virgin and three Mexican bingo cards showing a heart, a rooster, and a stumbling drunkard. The sun, beating through the warped glass had mummified the child.
The stranger stared, his eyed like goose eggs, fascinated, fixed on the thing.
"They buy the angelitos. Angelitos for big business."
The old man rubbed his forefinger and thumb together. "Cash money."
"Not in Wisconsin."
"Si. Not Mexico City even. Here, here is not over."
When he was young, the old man was a drunkard and he spent all his days in the pursuit of money with which to be drunk. He roamed the streets of Tzotzil at night, running with the other drunks, fighting and stealing for money. They were treacherous and bold and worse than animals. At home, their families wept and prayed for their souls, prayed for them to abandon the pulquerias and the saloons and come back home. During Holy Week it was possible to get money. In those times there were religious fanatics who would pay large sums of money to drunks if they would play the Judas figure in parades, wear cactus and allow themselves to be whipped and stoned and spit upon.
The young drunk was hired as a Judas but, because of his drinking, he had not kept up on the times. Religious hysteria was rampant. The Indians -- his people -- wanted a Jesus of their own, an Indian Jesus. A beautiful brown Jesus. Legends were circulating. For the Aztec Nahua came a tale about a crucifix that was mounted on a hillside whose Christ came unnailed and walked among the people, his complexion as brown as theirs. The churches had so many converts from paganism they were afraid to stop this madness, no matter how much it came to resemble idolatry.
On the day of the parade, the man drank a great deal and placed the cactus crown on his head. The other drunks were jealous and threw stones at him before the parade even began. Where the parade commenced, on the Street of Wood Owls, women stood holding disciplinas and snapping them in the air. Men, who wore skull masks and held fighting cocks above their heads, fell in behind the drunk Judas. They shouted, "Hail, most Holy Mary, the cocks are coming!"
The drunk heard the cocks roosing loudly over his head and their umber feathers floated down around him. the disciplinas slapped against his arms and back and he went. People swore loudly in his ears, calling him "bastard traitor". Monstrous images passed before him: toothless women spit chewed green chili peppers into his face; white-robed penitents danced around him in trances, pissing themselves, spots of blood flecking their togas; death himself wore a sombrero and clacked his papier mache teeth at the Judas. A whore fell down and kissed his feet but then was dragged back into the crowd. He was glad to be drunk now and he was glad he would be drunk later, and for days to come.
But the fever of the crowd grew and, though drunk, he could tell something was amiss. What had been hysterical and chaotic was becoming focused. A mission was developing. A crowd of masked Indians cut him off from the cockfighters behind him and the papier mache angels ahead. He was being borne along independently of the parade. He tried to turn back, to stop himself, but he realized his hands had been tied behind his back. He was no longer moving on his own feet either. The crowd carried him like a battering ram.
The hollering became whispers and bells began to ring, the pulse of a dirge, the pulse of the whispered invocations to Mary, and the whispered chanting of some even more primitive canticle. The street was dark now except for candles. He couldn't tell what part of the city he was being taken to. Perhaps he was on the Street of Lost Children, perhaps on the Street of Sick Mothers. Either way, he was no longer on the scheduled parade route. He tried to kick his feet, but they were also tied with leather thongs.
This newly-formed, macabre parade stopped just outside of town, on a hillside. The masked Indians swarmed around him. He could only see their eyes, eyes as wide and frightened as his own. They untied his arms and feet but held him fast. Relieved, he began to beg for drinks, even for water. A hand reached out to him, holding a flask and someone pulled his head back. The frothing white pulque burst onto his tongue. He gagged at first and then took in as much as he could without vomiting. He was being lowered as he gulped. The stream of pulque stopped flowing and he realized he was lying flat. Something sharp was placed in the palm of his hand and instinctively he attempted to pull away. The hammer stroke was quicker. He screamed and vomited the pulque over his naked chest. He kicked one foot free but the spike shattered the bones in the other. His heel smashed the nose of a young man.
Some of the Indians were saying Hail Marys, but many were saying other, more obscure, things. He caught the name "quetzel." The drunk remembered, from the little schooling he'd received, the words of Cortez to his ancestors. He repeated them over and over now: "I am not Quetzalcoatl! I am not Quetzalcoatl!"
Some members of the crowd began to raise the cross on which the drunk was dangling, only partially nailed to it. The right side of his body swung outward, causing seizures of agony up his left arm and leg. He heard gunfire, the shouting of soldiers, and he became gloriously unconscious.
The stranger heard this story as he drank with the old man in an astoundingly clean tavern only a few blocks from the sickening pulqueria. They sat in a courtyard next to a fountain. The stranger couldn't tell if this were really a commercial enterprise, or just the home of the old man's friend. The iron-jawed woman who brought the drinks did not seem particularly friendly. He guessed that it was the house of someone who would never refuse some extra money. If an American or German came through, the door was open for drinks or a meal.
"I am not a drunk now," The old man told the stranger. Indeed, the stranger noted, he did not indulge desperately. He didn't cling to his glass like some. He sipped at the whiskey, and later the brandy, with bird-like precision. His good hand did not shake. The tentacle lay curled in his lap.
"No. I don't think you are," The stranger motioned for another round.
"What do you do in America?"
"I'm from Wisconsin."
"Si, and there was trouble..."
"In the clam pits."
"No, no. In Wisconsin."
The old man shrugged, indifferent to the teasing.
"They will save your car."
"When you have spent more money."
The stranger had figured that.
The rain began to fall and they moved their little wooden table onto a covered porch. The serving woman did not lift a hand to help. She stood in the doorway, her arms crossed, wincing up at the rain.
In the middle of the afternoon, the beautiful young girl appeared in the doorway, upset. Her mother was nowhere to be seen. As she crossed the courtyard, the stranger could smell her: ocean and cumin and the musty odor of wet clothes. This was why it was so difficult to find true love in the United States, he thought. The perfumes and the deodorants and douches cover up the scents that draw one animal to another. The mystery of attraction. In this country he wouldn't have wasted his time on Angela or Lena or the other two, the biggest mistakes of all. He'd have known they were wrong from what his nose told his heart. But these smells...cumin, ocean, mold, milk from the teat, wet sand.
She grabbed the old man by the ear, and led him preposterously across the muddy courtyard and out into the street. He was waving goodbye and grinning ear to ear as he went.
The stranger jumped from the hotel terrace to the hillside. It was drizzling but he really didn't mind. There were gnarled, hunched trees in the hills. He could hide under one, or perhaps in a cave, if a storm broke. In his breast pocket he carried a pint of bourbon. Tucked into the waist of his pants, the 357. He hoped to shoot a beautiful snake or an animal with exotic fur, something to give to the girl. The hills were steep at first and the butter-colored ground gave way beneath him often. He steadied himself with weeds and rocks. Finally he reached a plateau where he removed his wingtips and continued on barefoot. He was sweating abundantly but it felt good. Storm clouds rolled over one another in the distance, black on gray on white on black, but they remained out over the guardian rocks in the bay. Even up in the hills he could hear waves thundering against them. Gulls circled the rocks, screeching and diving. It was pouring rain out to sea.
As he made his way across the plateau, the clouds over the ocean began to separate and move one at a time inland, like armies. He would have to find shelter soon. In a shallow valley he found a cemetery, with vaults above the ground. A man with a long, narrow shadow yanked at some stubborn doors that seemed to enter the earth itself. The stranger ran as best he could down the slope, waving his arms. The storm crossed the foothills and billowed up like smoke. The sheets of rain came. The cemetery worker pulled on the doors with all his might and finally they flew open. The wind slammed them on the ground and the cloud of dust this stirred was immediately beaten down by curtains of water. The Mexican waved the stranger over and hurried down into the earth. The American followed and muscled the cellar doors shut behind him. He was surprised to find himself in a long hallway whose stone walls were mortared together recklessly. No stone precisely matched another. For that matter, no stone even approximately matched another.
The cemetery worker was nowhere to be seen. Pale light shone into the hall from clerestory openings covered with wax paper, which the rain beat upon like toy snare drums. The stranger carefully proceeded along the dim hallway, which eventually connected with another. In this adjoining corridor ten or so men stood leaning against the wall. He assumed these were field workers taking cover from the storm. The dingy light and the amorphous shapes of the huge raindrops falling onto and running down the translucent wax paper made it difficult to see the features of the men. He stuck his hands in his pockets and marched ahead, whistling, as if his presence was the most natural thing in the world. The feel of the gun against his back was comforting. He stopped just a few feet from the first figure. The men looked as if they were in line to enter a door at the end of the hall. He waited for some sign, an invitation to join them. Perhaps they'd smoke and drink from his pint bottle. He took the bottle out and wagged it in the air to show the men he'd come prepared. He made a big show of opening it, drinking from it, and smacking his lips after.
"Warms the bones," He said. "Calaveras calor..."
He knew the Spanish was off, but hoped it was close enough. The men remained motionless. Rainshapes fell across them like organisms on a microscope slide.
"...or something." He took another pull off the whiskey, this time without the show. Fuck them.
"You think they can talk, amigo?"
He realized one of the figures was seated, his knees up to his chin, a hat over his eyes. The voice seemed to come from him.
The seated man pushed the hat up from his eyes and began to wheeze or laugh or some combination of the two.
"Senor," The man sounded apologetic. "They cannot drink whiskey."
"I see, they're working..."
"Not working, senor. They are dead."
The man took hold of one of his friends' dangling hands and hit it against the stone wall. It made a sound like dice being rolled on Formica.
The Mexican crossed himself.
Their skin was deep brown and shiny as were their grave clothes. Cobwebs grew from their skulls and necks and between their legs.
"Si. Mommies. Boris Karloff," He put his arms straight out in front of him and swayed back and forth where he sat.
They weren't quite mummies though, as they varied in their states of decomposition. Some retained a little grayish flesh. On most of them, though, the skin was hard as a bug's shell.
"Why aren't they...buried?"
"No deneiro, see? Five year, sometimes less. Then, they don't pay."
The rain spread in these magnified blobs across them. The mummies stood like they were waiting in line. The stranger offered them cigarettes, which sent the caretaker into a jovial coughing fit. When the rain stops, he thought, they'll all shamble out into the desert, into the mountains, and...
"First time rain makes it over the hills, six months."
The stranger saw a picture in his head. He saw the crow and the swan and the dead baby with angel wings and the half-crucified alcoholic. He saw the sweating Christ. He saw the wooden Christ that turned black so the lucky bishop would not kiss its poisoned toes. The sun flashed against his eyes but the hall was bleak and narrow and the shadows of dead men flexed and pulsed with the fall of every raindrop.
"This place," He said.
Like the rain on the car windows as he worked with his instruments. He could make believe it was washing away the blood as it ran. Everything was shadows so he just worked on her until the shadows made sense, took form. Like a slab of marble, there was another shape in her waiting to show itself. That would never happen again, he thought. He'd created enough art on this trip. When he started, six, eight, months ago, he didn't know the journey had a destination, but here he was. This place was like the place deep inside his head. He could do what he wanted and they would accept him. How could they not accept him?
The caretaker fell asleep and began to snore. He was just dozing away a rainy afternoon in the company of mummies.
"Quanto deneiro?" The stranger asked.
The snoring did not seem attached to any particular body. The hall was snoring.
The stranger saw a vision of the little baby in its foil coffin. He saw its safety-pinned wings twitch and fold in the wind from the pulqueria's grunting ceiling fan.
The Mexican made a sound, between whimsy and sleep.
"I have money..."
"Si. You do."
"I have money for the..."
The stranger waited, as if the others present might have a bid of their own. Some looked up and some looked down, some stared straight ahead. He wondered if their demeanors were chosen before internment or if their heads had sagged, turned, and fallen backward when they were evicted from their proper crypts.
Here, it's art, the American thought.
"Senor, senor. No comprende...Si?"
The stranger dug around in his suit coat and began waving money around.
The caretaker began to laugh, suddenly quite awake now.
The floating bulbs of rain began to shimmer and then tingle at the edges with amber and pink. Sunlight ran off the wax paper, caught in dissolving desert raindrops and soured to brown. The stranger and the caretaker loaded the mummies into the Mexican's red Chevy pick-up. They slapped each other on the back and drank whiskey like old friends. the American told him to be quiet, he must be quiet. The caretaker swatted this off and laughed even louder. He pointed at the stranger and laughed and laughed. He shook his head and counted again the money in his pockets.
The Mexican sat on the floor of the stranger's hotel room, wheezing and laughing still, until it was impossible to tell his mood.
Two of the mummified corpses leaned against the wall, shaped by candlelight. A warm, sleepy wind massaged the air. Another body, once a man, with a shell now like a locust, lay on the bed. His fingers were permanently laced together. His burial clothes were woven through his waxy flesh like the slats of a Japanese lantern. The grave keeper drank bourbon while the stranger removed the leather satchel from the lining of his suitcase and held the scalpels up to the candle light, jabbing them into the darting flame.
In an hour, the mummies were open down their middles like the shells of giant beetles. Dust and moths from inside the chest cavities filled the room, particles and wings made gold by the candles and the sunset which spilled across the terrace. The caretaker sneezed and sneezed, slapping his knees and dancing around the room drunkenly. The stranger bent over the bodies with a paint brush, carefully decorating a cadaver's shrunken, desiccated organs, which dangled from what looked like shriveled tape worms. Then he began to filigree the brown, rustic bones, each saber of rib, cup upon cup of the spine. The grave keeper sneezed and swatted at the golden moths.
Very early the next morning, the stranger marched his suddenly sober cohort into the hills at gunpoint. The Mexican knelt in the butter-brickle dirt, wiping his nose and trying not to sneeze. When he could not hold it anymore, he opened his mouth wide and sucked in breath and the bullet as one.
The stranger awoke with the faces of the villagers at his windows. The people were crowded onto the hotel balcony. He lay exhausted on the bed in his plaid boxers and a white, sleeveless undershirt. All these toothless, brown faces: clamdiggers, bartenders, drunks, hunchbacked women, sleepy-eyed patriarchs. Some had their faces right up to the screens. They chewed on desert thistle, elbows planted on the window sills. Others stood back, milling by the balcony rail restlessly. They spoke in whispers. The stranger rose and dressed. The dust had settled on the wood floors and the moths were still as decorations on the ceiling. It was a beautiful morning, the sun seeming to twirl in the air like a firework spewing waves of warmth and sparkling light with each revolution. He stepped out of his room and onto the crowded, buckling balcony.
"Buenos dias," He said to any face that offered him eye contact. Many turned anxiously to look off into the hills or up into the sun.
They let him pass, but sluggishly. He met with every sharp elbow and shoulder as he made his way along the balcony and down the stairs to the street. He walked leisurely towards the sea, lighting and cigarette and whistling. The villagers followed along, some clacking their teeth together, but no words coming out. He whistled a song whose words ran like this through his head:
Way up on Clinch Mountain, I wonder alone,
As drunk as the Devil and a long way from home.
Oh (hiccup) Oh Lordy! How sleepy I be!
Oh (hiccup) Oh Lordy! How good do I feel!
He kicked a stone down the street as he went. He felt the sweat run down his back in an outline around the 357. Gulls wheeled dizzily through the sun's shower of sparks. He passed his car, which had been excavated early that morning, once news of the stranger's true nature had spread. It looked as if it had been dropped from the sky, sitting there in the middle of the main street, sideways, blocking all other traffic. He was searching for the girl, for her mother even, or the drunk old half-Christ. Then, he saw them. They were on the beach, staring at his night's work. His night's work, mounted on the sea wall. Three bodies mounted on the sea wall, leaning forward like mastheads, each intricately painted. The American had found the geometry in the jumble of withered human anatomy, accenting each sac and shadow, each tooth and tube and eyehole. Each surface a story in yellows, reds, majestic blues: crucified drunks, humping jackals, baby angels circling above ruined taverns, mummies playing poker like bulldogs on saloon tapestries back home, shotgun-waving madmen on the highways, pyramids crowned with spectral eyes which, in turn, were the wounds in the heads of the brothers Kennedy, lizardbirds tearing the hearts from beautiful women and feeding them to gluttonous conquistadors, golems of rock coming to life and trudging in from the haunted sea.
The girl, the old woman, and the half-Christ stood sadly on the shore, wrapped in shawls and blankets, shivering, holding one another.
The American ground his cigarette into the gravel with his heel and stretched out his arms. He stuck out his chin proudly. Turning slowly, he saw his work, his car, the people of the village, the sour milk houses, his hotel in the distance, the mountains, this work, his car, the sun, the girl...
He let his arms fall at his sides, got into his car and in a moment it shook to life. The villagers closed in, hands touching the hot steel hood and falling back so the next wave could have a chance. Each man, woman and child touched the car briefly, as if it were a talisman. Children's hands brushed along the tinted windows, clamdigger hands with thick, luminous veins and marble-sized knuckles, clattered on the hood. The stranger drove slowly and let them all have their touch or rub or brush or caress. He kept his eyes straight ahead and his chin up until the crowd around him dispersed. Then he looked in his rearview mirror and spotted the girl, the old woman, and the half-Christ moving up the beach where several tall, lean men were taking his beautiful mummies down from the sea wall.
At the ancient city of Teotihuacan, just north of the largest city on the planet, nestled under a black, febrile volcano called Cerro Gordo, for which many legends exist, there is a bar inside a cavern. The bar consists of hundreds of small tables with bright red, yellow and blue tablecloths. The cavern walls are wet and the ceiling cannot be seen it is so high. Those who wander in, mostly Americans, are blinded by the trickplaying sun. One moment it seems there is a great space between the hot white sun and the dazzling blue sky, the next moment it's as if the sun was sunk deep into the blue. Then again, it's as if the sun is nothing but a hole, cut cleanly into tempera-violet construction paper. And in this case, you could walk up the ancient Street of the Dead, up the thousand giant steps of the Pyramid of the Sun, and enter a fluorescent hallway of senseless beauty. Instead, you see this dark hole in the hillside and the international symbol for food and drink. After days of driving through the shadeless desert heat, welts have risen in the paint on your car hood. Just to think of a drink and shade makes the sweat cool on your forehead. Instead of climbing up the pyramid and into the sun, you climb the narrow, winding steps to the bar instead. It is off-season and only a few tables are taken. Of these, only one serves a couple. The rest of the tables are occupied by lone drinkers, each indulging in some manner of alcoholic affectation. One is drinking right from a carafe of tequila and using the glass for a solitary game of spin-the-bottle. One is having his beer in a very small, very delicate liqueur glass. One is pouring whiskey into coffee and stirring it with his finger. He blows on the finger when he's done. You instantly love them all, their picturesque desperation is appealing. They are waiting for something and it's easy to make up all kinds of stories for them.
He walked in, in his dark suit and his bright green tie. He was, of course, momentarily blind, but he felt their eyes on him. Another ghost from off the desert. The dimness was like a salve. He felt the muscles in his temples relax, the pain at the back of his head lessen. He blinked away the blazing white circles that had been forged onto his retinas by days of driving. That one is German, he thought. The jutting chin and wild eyebrows. That one is beyond knowing. That one is a fucking animal.
He found what he believed to be another American, a thin and bright-eyed creature with a look of omnipotence and a clean shirt. He said, You an American? You speak English? I have to tell you something, something extraordinary. I am blind but now I see. I was lame but now I drive. I was deaf but now, now, you listen. You listen here...
for my father
-Charles Lieurance/Boulder, Colorado 1983
Sunday, November 7, 2010
She said, "More quietly please," but that was me in the middle of the danse du ventre, and the record on the dansette, Orin Twill's "Summer Almost Wasted," all but commanded me to "cut a pigeon's wing" as the barnfolk say, so I shrugged and shook the little God had granted me to the flagrant twitterpations of the music. Although the lodger shook her head, she did not persist in her attempts to silence the racket. By the polite strategy of closing my eyes and lunging to and fro across the room in total transport to the ukelele and bass drum, we were both spared the embarrassment that must have accompanied her finally closing the door to my bedroom and leaving me be. I felt sorry for the old seacow, but there were other considerations tonight.
I read somewhere that the danse du ventre, the belly dance, was actually supposed to mimic the pain of childbirth, the sacred mystery of motherhood, but it had been debased over the years by burlesque. Actually when I say I read that somewhere, I will almost always mean that I heard it from my father, but I don't like that he's a know-it-all. I don't like that he's a granny, and I won't play into his attempts to make me subservient to his already overindulged brain matter. So, I'll annoy him by saying I read something interesting in the newspaper, and then proceed to relate to him the very tidbits of knowledge he imparted to me the night before. Just this morning I looked up from toast, formed my mouth into the most wicked of Os -- as if I'd suddenly recalled the phone number of the Queen of Borneo -- and said, "Daddy, do you know why they call that lump in your throat the Adam's Apple?" Before he could swallow his mouthful of runny eggs, I obliged him the answer: "It is the morsel of forbidden fruit that stuck in Adam's throat." He tried to smile at me around the slurping of the runny eggs, but I made as if he hadn't followed my course of thinking. "Adam, you know, of Adam and Eve."
There are wet, moldy coffins drying out on our porch and father doesn't see why that would have anyone in an uproar. He says he'll dismantle the damn things as soon as they're dry, says he doesn't want the waterlogged wood to crumble as he tries to pry the boards from the frame, but this just does not appease some people. Some people think it's ruthless luck to have the things standing upright, waiting. Father tries to calm them by saying that it's no such thing at all since the coffins were already used once and thus couldn't be awaiting any of them. The curse was taken off these coffins when they were buried with their original occupants. Now that they'd been disgorged from the graves by the flood and the bodies floated down to the river and lost forever, the luck of these receptacles, bad or good, had been nullified. They were just pine boxes now, some boards moldering, some quite usable. Most of the neighbors and the lodgers would swat at the air as my father explained, or make the "yap yap yap" gesture by placing four fingers close together and whacking them up and down on their thumbs.
I feel about the coffins as I feel about my collection of funeral fans, my collection of glass taxidermy eyes, my archive of newspaper articles relating to those who've jumped from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. I feel as though we Lowrings are looking death in the eye while the rest of the world divert their gaze and whistle by nervously, as if the grim reaper is some pencil salesman. If you ask me, we show death its proper due. We memorialize it, so that it might show us the same respect later on. Perhaps we won't be found in our underwear, hunched forward into a pudding, or hanged from roofbeams, our heads the color of plums. We will pass away in starched white sheets, our closest friends and loved ones wiping the sweat of our last exertion from our brow with warm washcloths from a big porcelain bedside bowl. A sliver of cloud will bisect the moon gently, the way you'd cut a pomegranate, and as silver gently passes through silver, we too shall pass into the next life. And we'll get our funeral wishes, as well. Not a soul, not the barbeled mortician or the brilliantined minister, will question the eccentricity of our deathbed resolutions. There will be nothing but tubas in the funereal march. The Black Mariah will be bedecked with sunflowers. Belly dancers in grass skirts (dye the grass black if you must, reverend!)will dance on the altar in place of mourners. All this because the Lowrings befriended death and didn't treat the pale shade as a pencil salesman.
"Well, now we're all rebels," My father told us all a few months ago. He slapped his hands together so that I half-expected chalk dust to fly off them. Three of the lodgers left us in the night, without notice. One of the lodgers died and had been taken away by relations. That was very tense. The family seemed to blame us for something, though we could never tell just what. There was nothing whatsoever hinky in the lodger's demise and the police said as much, using the exact word "hinky," a word I shall always be indebted to them for sharing. I marched up to the lodger's father, in fact, as his family all stood in the corner of the kitchen whispering about us, and announced, "There was nothing whatsoever hinky about the death of your son, sir!" The lodger's father, a longbeard whose face nearly groaned with the weight of the whiskers, took his family by the shoulders and steered them into the library, where they reconvened with the same ominous disposition. There was one lodger left to us and she seemed at wit's end, but obviously had nowhere else to go. She'd most likely been fired from this or the other; we didn't pry. The woman was a month late on rent and we assumed by her timorous state -- and by the fact that she'd remained when everyone else had skulked away or perished to bid us adieu -- that there would be no further payments. She would wait us out, stay until the house burned to the ground or we took measures to oust her.
Here is the riddle. All of this occurred before my father and a few men in wading boots slogged those coffins up the front steps and installed them on our porch. The Lowrings had always been the victims of chinese whispers, but things were becoming dire and the reasons for it were a complete mystery to us. The house, which had been built by my great grandfather on my mother's side, was as close to a mansion as you can get without actually having scads of money. It was built to inspire riches, not as the mark of their attainment. It was constructed from whatever lumber and fixtures my great grandfather could scare up. But he was known as a good man of meager resources so many fine materials had been laid on his doorstep-to-be. He told everyone he saw that he was building this house for generations of Lowrings. If they had nothing else, he told them, they would have this house. People bought into his dream, his grandiose enthusiasm. That is how my family got a mansion. Of course, later generations of townspeople began to resent that they'd invested so much in a family that never really came to much. A few even walked right up to the house during lean times and pulled away trim or sizable lengths of porch rail. It was something to see them tucking whole shutters inside their ratty brown coats and walking away grumbling to themselves. This is all by way of telling you that the house was a unique and oddly luxurious place in which to live, so these lodgers who'd left us under cover of night, did not do so because we harbored vermin or would not repair faulty plumbing. They did not leave because we had in any way denied them the comforts a lodger should enjoy. And they did not leave because there were coffins stood up on the porch.
The last lodger, the seacow, had pretty much taken to her room. She still came downstairs for meals, however, and to watch her try to appear inconspicuous, sitting right there at the table with us, and consuming more food than the rest of us combined, made us hold napkins to our faces to keep from laughing wildly.
After one particularly ludicrous meal, my father cascaded into laughter. "With that shape," He buckled. "She expects us to mistake her for a table lamp!"
There is a fine balcony through some french doors in my father's bedroom. There is a slab of marble shaped like the state of Minnesota on it because my mother once begged for something other than raw planks out there. Father went to a local stone-cutting concern and came away with this ragged-edged -- but beautifully polished -- Negro Marquino, veined with pulverized fossils, one of the scraps salvaged from the wreck of a flatbed quarry truck. I belly danced into the master bedroom and through the french doors onto the marble which was slick with rain, and so showed me the ghostly brother of the full moon. I could still hear the dansette playing Orin Twill in my room, and I added a little ballet swirl to the danse du ventre, loving the cool swish of the rain and the marble on the bottoms of my feet. From the balcony I could hear the lodger sobbing quietly in her room. I danced and twirled. Finally my father came upstairs from his nightly smoke and whiskey. He leaned against the doorframe, relaxed as always.
"You go on," He said. "I'll have another cigarette."
He stood there in the doorway smoking while I danced atop the ghost moon. Every two or three moves I'd slide gracelessly on the rain water, and shrug at him. He laughed, crushed the cigarette out with his shoe, and toed it into the crevice where the rough-edged marble did not quite meet the house properly.
Then he said, "Now show us the shape of you," and I laughed up to the real moon, lifted my nightgown over my head, and let it fall onto the wet, Spanish marble like a lilypad.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Dana and Howard were squatting in the dark beneath the automatic hand dryers, their foreheads propped against the sink for balance, waiting for a truck to pass by on the highway and cast a pylon of stark white light onto the enormous, exasperated cock etched into the turquoise paint of the rest area bathroom stall. Howard gripped the shutter trigger lightly, although the awkward position made him want to squeeze off shot after shot just to work a muscle or two.There was no reason in the world Dana had to assume the same contortions he did, in fact it was making the logistics of the shot more difficult. That she didn't realize things like that was beginning to annoy him. She could have been outside smoking, catching the furry snowflakes on her tongue. Howard talked himself into believing she was simply trying to share in the memory of this cold and eager time. Later, when there was nothing left to be said about the adventure, the photographs, the book, she'd smile at the waiter with the haughty disposition of one who'd been there.
The most obscene bathroom stalls in all of America lay in the pentagon made by Lusk, Casper, Medicine Bow, Cheyenne, and Torrington, Wyoming. The stalls of one Phillips 66 near Fort Laramie are so engraved with genitalia and erotic braggadocio that it's difficult to tell where one novelty-sized prick ends and the next begins, as if there were supplemental ideas about penises that needed further explication, footnotes to elaborate on penile surpremacy. One organ ended in a leering mouthful of shark's teeth from which another phallus sprang, fully formed. Cocks were stitched atop cocks, testicles dangling at intervals like sleigh bells. And then, row upon row of breasts, all depicted with an otherworldly perfection not seen this side of Goan temples. Charging through the etchings in a variety of agitprop scrawls were scurrilous limericks abutted to miraculous claims of connubial vigor. In other nations, such enervated, lacerating calligraphy would be reserved for revolution. Howard had contracted with Grenadine Press to photograph this roadside erotic art for a coffee table book, and he & Dana were on the road a month already when they came upon the amazing work that found them hunkered down so horrifically in a rest area bathroom between Casper and Thermopolis, during what was mounting into fullscale blizzard.
As they squatted there, the odors kept shifting on them. First, the smell of the urinal cakes would drift by -- as if you had dumped all the purse contents of all the grandmothers in middle America into one vat and plunged your nose into the resulting olfactory collage of ancient lipstick, Tums, hard candy, and sample perfume bottles. Then, of course, there was the sudden, overwhelming sting of piss, a comparatively delicate harbinger to the vague, but endlessly insinuating under-reek of shit. The shit, at first, seemed a trifle in the rotation of unpleasant scents, but it eventually became the permanent foundation for all other odors.
It was impossible to twist around and look out the open door without collapsing the acrobatic stance in which the two were locked. A shift of that magnitude would send them both tumbling into the camera tripod. But in the periphery, Howard could see the blizzard was picking up momentum and a few minutes later a wind tore through the dark room and sent the trash can sprawling into the back wall. The idea of big, blurry flakes of snow in the shot began to appeal to Howard. They would glow like stars when the shaft of light cut the room in two -- a foreground of pale candy floss, the teal blue tiles on the wall, the turquoise paint on the stall, and the intricately veined, roaring cock, its balls emitting lightning bolt pubic hair, its tip spouting a cartoon balloon containing a smear of illegible Spanish.
"Can you picture the person who took the time to do this?" Howard asked. It took some effort, but he managed to push one foot outward a bit to stabilize their position. Howard was hoping to move it further, but Dana's fingernails dug into his thigh, and he knew she was in danger of losing her balance entirely. He continued: "I mean, you assume it's a teenager, right? But what if it was some 50-year-old businessman, on his way home from a sales convention, drunk on scotch, amped up on his kids' ritalin...He sits to a take a shit and sees all these hieroglyphs, loosens his tie, takes out his swiss army knife, and goes to fucking work..." Suddenly they both froze, thinking they heard the sound of an engine, but it was the wind. "He creates this enormous, disappointed prick -- look at the veinwork, the shadow of the head on the shaft, the balls curved outward like wineskins, or...or workboots..."
Howard wasn't really looking at the room anymore, at the path he hoped the tuck lights would take. He was just daydreaming about the kind of person who would buy a book like this. He imagined a middle-aged, very handsome man, the descendent of fin-de-siecle decadents in a crushed velvet housecoat. All the man's friends thought he was gay, but really he was a sexual omnivore. Well, to be frank, while he considered himself sexually omnivorous, he'd never found a soul willing to give proof to the theory. So he spent his life in sketchy idleness, occasionally showing a young paper boy his collection of dirty pens. His favorite was a souvenir from the 1939 New York World's Fair, a hefty ballpoint featuring Jean Harlow in a swimsuit. When the pen lay flat, the star was the very model of bathing decorum, but when turned vertically, her one-piece drained off her body as if it had suddenly turned to coffee. Hopefully, the book would become some kind of photographic "what-is-it?" like Michael Lesey's Wisconsin Death Trip, a cult item for the ages.
The room began to warm some and Howard could make out colors again, the outline of fixtures. It was amazing the amount of heat even distant light could generate when one had been slouched down in the cold and the dark for hours. There was a truck coming. He could even hear the splash of slush sucked into the huge treads and spit back onto the highway. He could already tell which way the light would fall across the room, a perfect megaphone shape that would begin as a cup of light in the doorway and then spill willy-nilly onto this totemic cock.
There it was. The light. And there were snowflakes just sitting in the air, so still. The combination of the oncoming lights and the teal blue tiles on the wall made these ghostly puffs of ice look like elaborate lichens clinging to invisible rocks. Suddenly the pages of the book flipped through his head -- the saturated colors of all the bathroom walls, each engraved desperately with these hourglass shapes, Heavy Metal skulls for heads, nipples turning into long probing snakes which reached into vaginas, clits plump as raspberries, assholes with solar rays and eyeballs even, and, of course, all the genitalia utterly disembodied, floating and monolithic or floating and cavernous. Cavemen, Howard thought. Cavemen were trying to draw the beauty of a woman's ass and long sloping back but were unwilling to part with a glimpse of pussy and tit as well, so the whole body became a two-dimensional helix where all those precious desirables existed on one confused plane...
There it is. The light.
Howard squeezed the bulb in his hand again and again, even this meager motion sending waves of relief up to his shoulders and neck. His whole body was a trigger and he was pulling it and the light was falling perfectly and the snowflakes were sitting on some current of invisible air like glass figurines on a coffee table. Then there was too much light and he stopped squeezing the bulb and once again felt Dana beside him. He felt her heart beating against his shoulder, her right breast laid neatly in the crook of his arm. He remembered the last time he fucked her, how rudimentary it had been. He'd meant to lay his hands flat on the bed as he fucked her, but he wound up on his knuckles like a goddamn ape. He meant to watch the head of his cock enter her and retract, again and again, like in a dream. But up on his knuckles like that, thrust forward, he could only stare into her face or the pit of her throat. He'd been caught, caught once again in the same dull sexual posture his parents must have used to conceive him. He heard the truck's brakes decompress and then the slamming of a door. The snowflakes became dervishes and then rushed from the room on a new whip of wind. The trucker was whistling one long note over and over as he came up the walkway. Howard and Dana were still struggling to their feet when he switched on the light.
Charles Lieurance, Chicago 2002
for John Harper
Holy Child Jesus was where the Catholics taught their retarded children. It was a prefab thing, just a quonset shed really. It had some markings on the side, I don't recall what they were. A cross on top, no steeple though. It sat up on top of what looked to be a pretty safe hill. The river was a ways off and there were good sturdy pin oaks all along the ridge.
Still, one night there was a thunderstorm and the whole shebang slid down that hill. Only a wall of mud that slopped down before it kept that shed from running right over the Sinclair station at the bottom. I was about twelve then, and I worked at Sinclair. We came in the next morning, picked up the pieces, and nailed and glued and stapled them back together where they lay. I don't know what my boss was thinking. He turned the damn thing into a spare parts garage that afternoon. I kept waiting for the Catholics to come and stop us, but they never did. They still had a mess of buildings up on the hill anyway. That little building was nothing to them. Or maybe my boss and them struck some kind of deal. I never knew. I just shook my head when I carried engine parts into that little building with the cross still on top.
I wondered what we'd do if our church went like that, if we'd just let the Catholics turn it into a gas station. The Mt. Carmel House of Prayer and the Holiness Church of God. Those were ours, in Newport and Marvin Hill respectively. One in Tatum we'd go to sometimes also. If one day they were gas stations I suppose we'd go to church there same as ever. We'd pump gas and pray and whirl and what have you. Wonder if the Catholics could say the same.
Laws kept going through, more and more laws either kept us swept under the carpet or got us near arrested. Might be best if we did meet in a gas station. My brother died from a bite. And it wasn't as if I didn't try to talk him out of it all the night before, laying there in bed next to him. Finally I just looked out the window at all the stars because he was having none of it.
My grandfather died from drinking strychnine. I watched the snake loop up and strike my brother in the cheek. It was like the look of that little Vietnamese guy in that famous photo from Life Magazine, the guy with the gun up to his head. He wasn't in raptures of faith, my brother. He tried hard to pull his face away. I didn't get to see my grandfather's face turn purple or that frothy, violet spittle everyone talks about. He drank the poison and he was dead. I have a family full of them. They shall take up serpents, they don't care.
Boy in Evarts, eyes clear and beautiful, he holds up three diamondback rattlers. Their bodies make rings around his arms. Looks them right in the eye. He doesn't give anything, not even a look, away. Neither do they, the snakes. This terrible band -- they got the worst handling music in the state bar none -- plays an instrumental version of that Debbie Boone song, "You Light Up My Life," the bass turned up real loud. People say that loud bass calms the snakes. The song makes me want to bite somebody myself. My brother dead and my grandfather. I'm not blaming the band, but...
I saw the whole thing like a circus, but I have to admit there was something in me wanted to show them all up. I could have walked away. All my friends walked away. Every year there are less folks handling snakes, which is no surprise to most. Some don't do it because of the new laws in place. Others because it's dangerous. Others because it just seems old fashioned I guess. When I was twelve even, the congregation dwindled a little every week. I hear it still goes on down there, but I don't know how. Like I say, I could have walked away pretty easy. You have people in your family looking deadly serpents in the eye and drinking poison though, you got to look a serpent in the eye just to look your family in the eye.
I was looking for an angle early on. Had nothing to do with God or with Jesus. I just wanted my chance with the snake. I used Jesus. You see what kind of a person you're getting yourself in with here. I used Jesus, called on him, but he wasn't what moved me. I prayed while the snake was on my arm and I tried this thing I'd read about Buddhists clearing their minds. I was praying like mad the first time, when the boys unlocked the wooden box and the snakes unraveled onto the altar. I was damn relieved when this old granny shuffled right up and took up the first two, stringing them around her neck like pearls. Another geezer got in there too and pretty soon I was blocked out. I was relieved and ashamed all at once. The band played "Rosewood Casket," I remember. That was a good song and made it easy to clear your mind and still I couldn't get to the snakes because of all the traffic around the altar. I just danced around to the music like a fool the first time.
I got to handling the snakes right after that. I handled the snakes when they weren't on the altar and I played a little electric bass which didn't make the band sound any better. I got to be good with the snakes when there wasn't any Jesus to it. I was careful and professional about it. I looked them in the eye more than once without clearing my mind, without Jesus, without anything but healthy respect and caution. I thought that was my angle and I started taking snakes around to other churches. They were good snakes, not easily riled, not too jumpy, about as fed and friendly as rattlesnakes get, which isn't any too friendly. I got them so they'd pretty much lay on the ground like sticks once the bass started rumbling the floorboards. Of course no one at Dolley Pond or Evarts or Marvin Hill thanked me for this service. But they didn't chastise me neither. I'm sure they thought they had those snakes cowed with their strong faith. I never heard of my snakes killing anybody.
The job was freelance. Sometimes the pay came from the collection plates, sometimes a man just wanted some snakes and I didn't ask any questions. It was just about then that the law began to frown on our kind. Transactions were friendly but nobody said any more than they had to say. One weekend I was taking some snakes up to Shutters Creek and I heard a man from Hollywood was in the area. He was in a swamp town called Reeches, filming some footage for a movie about alligators that get flushed down the sewers as babies and then crawl up into the streets, fully grown alligators running amok through big cities. I thought that was a funny idea for a movie. It took me a day's detour to get down there, so I must have had some ambition. I showed him my snakes. He jumped back when I opened the box. We watched a LSU football game on a real small TV and had some beers at a boy's house I knew. The house was up on pilings, oyster shells around each stilt.
The man from Hollywood showed me some tricks he knew about alligators and we told him some stories about how alligators chased tourists around trailer parks. I got a little drunker and asked him if he ever prayed to Jesus when the alligators got on their hind legs at him. He said, sure he did. He said, Jesus Fucking Christ, get this fucking alligator off my chest. I laughed like I'd never laughed at anything before and that boy who owned the house on stilts just shook his head. I watched him tip a canoe off the porch and glide into Mouchoir de L'Ourse.
"Jesus Fucking Christ, get this fucking alligator off my chest," I said when I was done laughing.
We got along fine. I pounded on this slab of wet wood and he let those snakes crawl around him. He sat there real drunk and still. I asked him if he'd like to drink some strychnine. He asked me all about that and then told me to fuck myself.
I took him to the services in Reeches and once the congregation was assured he wasn't a cop or from a museum, they went on with the show. He got to see a man drink poison from a red tin cup. After the service he was just on and on: "So that's just water, right? Pretty easy stunt really." Well, I knew it wasn't water. I knew it was strychnine in the red cup. I knew it was poison. He went on, "That snake thing's pretty special, but not much to that poison bit."
I couldn't make him understand that. The guy lived, sure. He wasn't dead like my brother or grandfather. He lived but it sure as hell was poison he drank. After the service I took the Hollywood guy up to the altar and showed him the poison bottle. They don't just let anybody drink and I respect that. And they don't let just anyone handle the snakes. You have to be prepared in the faith. I almost said, "Have a drink then. Go ahead. Have yourself a nip off that." But I was raised up in this. Something in me would've been pretty satisfied seeing this Hollywood alligator man, without his mind cleared, Jesus on no part of his mind at all, swallow a glass of strychnine. But I just couldn't and I suppose that's the part that stays with you. It's with you no matter how else you start to feel or how you die feeling. It grows on you like moss, not a fine thing nor an evil thing, just a natural thing.
I showed him the bottle of poison and that was the best I could do. I didn't tempt him with it.
A few months later he got me a job handling snakes in the movies and I moved out to Los Angeles. I told everyone back home I lived in Hollywood because it was easier than saying I lived on a ranch, in the hills and canyons between a suburb called Westlake Village and Malibu. The way the movie business worked, I got my first job handling worms. Snakes, worms...it's all the same to them. The movie was about deadly earthworms that crawled up out of the ground after a power line fell in the woods. The worms came through shower heads and were strained through light sockets. I didn't know anything about worms except how to get them on hooks and spin them out into the river, but my friend said I was the finest snake handler he'd ever seen and there I was, back in Louisiana straining earthworms through a shower head over a naked screaming woman. She screamed and screamed, take after take.
I'd push...I mean, direct the worms through and stare at the woman's tits while she jumped up and down. Eventually Hollywood got word that snakes, not worms, were my area of expertise, and I traveled to South America, to Haiti, to India. I worked on lots of movies and met lots of stars and starlets. They all wanted to be photographed holding deadly snakes. Before I let one of them hold a single snake I asked if they believed in Jesus Christ. They loved my accent and they always laughed and said I was charming. The snakes they held weren't poisonous anymore. It didn't matter if the stars believed in Jesus or not. I just thought maybe they should think about it.
I told one or two of the movie stars about my brother and grandfather. I told one or two about my father who would never handle the serpents, no matter what. He wouldn't do it because he was never ready. No one made him feel small and he never felt small from what I could tell. He was a big and dignified man. He knew what he believed and what he didn't. More importantly, he knew what he wanted to believe. He told me wanted to take up serpents but the time was never right. He worked hard and went to church when he wasn't dog tired. He prayed. He read the bible and thought about it seriously. He thought a lot about the poison and the snake that had taken his father and his son. He worked and struggled and lived decently, but he never touched a snake. He joked he hated the music and he'd sit up at night and listen to Johnny Cash sing "The Rebel Johnny Yuma" and drink a couple of Old Milwaukee tall boys.
I made friends with a few stars and they'd try to get me into Dianetics, or they'd introduce me to Tibetan monks. They loved thinking I was mystical because of my background. Truth was, I only thought about the snakes. I thought about how to get them to do what I wanted. It still wasn't easy. Even with all the tricks of Hollywood I tried to get closer to the poison. I got away from snakes and worked with sharks and moray eels and even did some stunt work because I could take a punch or a fall and get up and take it again. I never once used faith. I planned everything to the last detail. I wanted to look like I was falling through the air. I wanted to look like I was staring down a serpent. I planned the next moment, the bite.
One day in Griffith Park, in the middle of Los Angeles, on the set of a movie, the director wanted a shot of bats flying out of a cave set back into some rocks. The director told us that bats fly out of the caves during an earthquake.
"We don't have time to wait for one," He said. I laughed pretty hard at that and offered to go in the cave and see if I couldn't make the bats fly out for him. I didn't even think about it. I walked into the cave 50 feet or so. I stood there and waited for my vision to adjust. I walked on. I knew they were there, hanging all around me. I could feel their hoary breathing. The sound of their wings reminded me of high school letter jackets rustling together in a hallway. I felt nostalgic and young and free and I jumped up and swatted at the darkness. Intersecting black triangles flashed around me. I shook my head between the beating wings. I lifted my hands into the air and the bats shifted course around them. I felt their fur and their rough wings. They seemed to stick in my hair on my bare arms, just a moment, one after the other. The wind of them whipped my face. I stood still. I was going to stand still until they passed. My mind was empty. I thought of Jesus only in passing. Like every day. It was nothing. And the bites they gave me, I felt the tiny sharp wheels turn quickly into my skin. One was on my arm, I knew. Another on my cheek. Another right beneath my left ear.
I turned to face the open end of the cave and it looked like a dead TV channel, a flurry of black and blue. It made my eyes water. I guess the shot was perfect. The director slapped me on the back in his distracted, off-hand way. The crew hooted and shook their hats in the air like boys from back home. The star came up and tried to give me a high five. My arm was too weak so I pretended not to notice.
At that time I had taken an apartment just up the hillside. I started walking up the nearest path and then up the nearest street. Of course none of these streets were exactly my street. I meandered upward until there was no perspective left. I knew my home was up here somewhere. I wished I was down in the park again so I could see the whole hillside full of houses. I wandered into dead ends. Japanese and Mexican gardeners turned and stared at me. My arms were scratched and bitten. My face felt numb. Finally I just sat down on a curb. Night was falling. I felt thirsty and I could hear the water running onto the shiny lawns. Nearby a hose was spilling water onto the sidewalk and down the street. My fingers were moist so I thought I'd dab a little on my lips.
- Charles Lieurance, Los Angeles 1988