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
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Other people aren't hell/if you glimpse them at dawn, when/their brows are clean, rinsed by dreams. - Adam Zagajewski
"You cocksucking snake!"
The tall one is going at the bearded one with a carpet knife. He's wittled the ear from the left side of his head and thrown it off into the red dirt, where it is immediately swarmed by fire ants. The bearded man is looking shocked, but not making the noises one would associate with such a brutal mutilation. He's not blinking, instead staring silently at no spot in particular, like a mannequin whose face is meant to implicate the shopper in a joke. It was the first time I noticed the biggest difference between the two men. It wasn't in their heights or demeanor or whether they were shorn or not shorn. The bearded man was extraordinarily ugly and the tall man was beautiful. I would have liked, at that moment, to know more about the nature, the fabric, of their friendship. It says much about my character that I want these details just as the comraderie between the two of them is so crushingly dissolved. For now, the taller man is carving blithely away at the ugly man's head. What was savagery has turned to art. He uses the carpet knife to make the ugly man into a clown, a Chinese person, a ruddy little pig, a raggedy Andy.
And I've found a safe place to hide from the sudden, unexpected wrath of the tall man. I'm hiding behind a pile of red dirt and twigs, and waiting for...for something to end -- my life, their lives, the trajectory of the dulling blade, time itself. I'm waiting for the beautiful man to rise up off of the body of his former friend, come over to me, and tell me the story. What comes instead is more process. Not an end, but a series of additions. I look up into this bloated toad of a sun and see black birds disappear into its fire. Shit comes from the sky, a gob of grey and sickly white. The shit breaks against the mound of dirt and twigs like a small egg and sits atop this mound like it's too good to soak into the earth. Finally, the heat breaks the will of this splatter of shit and it begins to enter the mound where the twigs have created crawlspaces. It begins to to bake against the refuse like foil onto a broiling pan.
This mound had been waiting so long for just this heat, and this indignity. I dug my hands into it, hoping I, too, could hide inside the makeshift adobe hut, hide from the carpet knife, and the sun, and the birdshit in excelsis. I stuck my hands, prayer-form, into a little air pocket and pulled them apart slowly, making a space large enough to poke my head in. After nearly an hour, I was inside the mound, contorted beyond anatomical reality, and, through a translucent bubbling window of birdshit, able to watch the beautiful tall man harrowing the canoe of blood in which he sat.
After an hour or so, I could no longer stand the position my body was forced to maintain inside the mound, so I began -- quite slowly -- to stretch my limbs, to push my shoulders, my head, and the back of my neck against the skeleton of twigs, and I felt them give a bit with each liberating motion. But the mound was not collapsing. The weave of the branches was complex and as they unlocked from one another, they fastened again into new, even more resilient structures, and the red dirt fell over the cracks so no gaping holes resulted from the slow, deliberate repositioning. Several more hours and I was actually standing in this suit made of soil and branches, which had been soldered together by baked birdshit. It was dark inside and though I could hear the workings of the beautiful, tall madman, I couldn't see a thing. Once and awhile though, I imagined there was the faintest red glow coming from a few yards away, like the hellish light of a chest cavity lit by a surgeon's scope. In the near-dark, I felt I could safely test out walking in my new armor. I took a step and, although the movement sloughed away a great deal of the dirt, enough remained cemented to the twig forms that I was still concealed and protected. I was walking as a monster might walk, a shagbark tree animated by devil knows what magic.
A calcimine pink stripe on the horizon gradually turned silver and soon the contours of a cavernous ceiling of black clouds revealed themselves. Off in the distance, the cub-drawn cumuli were bearded with rain, and as the full rage of the storm approached, even the lids of the silver horizon closed. As a mudman I stood stock still and waited for the downpour to dismantle me.
The tall man hit me at the knees and I heard the breaking of a thousand sticks as I collapsed, my mud armor effortlessly joining the running red earth. The tall man found where the world ended and I began, and tried to flip me onto my back. Parts of me slipped away in his hands until he found the mud suit's skeleton of interwoven twigs and managed to get me where he wanted me; though I, as the creature inside the creature, had offered no resistance whatsoever.
I was sorely afraid to look into the eyes of the man who'd been hacking away at a corpse for the better part of a night, but because all effort and tumult had ceased, I opened my eyes just as the carpet knife crashed through my shell and began its methodical operations, just below my hairline, above my eyebrows. I was blinded by the blood but, like the bearded man, incapable of making the sounds of agony. Something made me still inside. Like someone had frozen a scene from my nightmares and allowed me to finally scrutinize the tableaux. While falling from the hundredth floor of a skyscraper, I'm allowed to peer into a window and see a man in boxer shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt take a cheese grater to the buttocks of a girl on all fours. As I'm having teeth pulled from my slack jaw one by one by a demon dentist who laughs as if he's inhaled helium, I am allowed a dipteran view of the serrated claws of the extraction tool. My eye -- a being of its own -- crawls along the jagged surface of the flesh, bone, and blood-flecked pliers. Aboard a black train, hydrocephalic children run laughing from cabin to cabin wearing nothing but coke bottle glasses and orange jumpsuits, while -- in a secret car, draped in white sheets -- my naked body is being slowly encased in candle wax by a dozen men in suits, each waiting patiently for more wax to liquefy.
I was drunk for many days straight (a pun that exhausts itself upon use). I was without prospects or family. I wandered along a road and felt larger than the road, sometimes even larger than the hills along the road, sometimes much smaller, and I could live under a wet leaf if need be. My size changed as I walked. My stride often covered a mile each footfall and other times I crept not an inch between sunrise and dark, when the stars bubbled down from whatever lay beyond the nagging dark. All I saw, I perceived as if through a microscope slide of pond scum, all these organisms orbiting a circle of mysterious illumination, slipping quickly from one corner of my eye to the other, and bouncing from the corner again to the center, like a boxer off the ropes. And there these hangover protozoa would float and wobble until I blinked and set the whole invisible world into motion once more. These days were not Mondays or Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Down in the valleys there were clocks in the steeples of churches, but each clock read an hour that did not include me. Once it was noon in a town where the sound of half-learned piano music blew like dust through the streets, and only a few minutes later, it was three or four in the morning in a town with sidewalks made of pink, glittering stone. It snowed from blue sky, the rain was hot on my skin, the touch of a sunbeam made me shiver. The only thing with any constancy, with any rhythm or repitition, was my heartbeat, which I could not feel in my chest, but rather between my ears.
It was either Valley of the Gwangi with its tyrannosaurus rodeo in a bullfighting arena in Mexico City, or Night of the Lepus, with its giant rampaging rabbits, on the TV in the pool room at the back of the bar.
"Some cunt, some sasquitch, down in Wicker Park...she actually grabbed me and started feeling the glands in my neck and asking me 'What's wrong? What's really wrong?'" This was the tall one and he mimicked the sasquitch like an effeminate Frank Gorshin. He looked like a bank teller who'd been kidnapped and brainwashed by gypsies.
"What was her problem?" This, from the shorter bearded one, already bored with the story.
"She had a dog with one of those chartreuse cowboy bandanas or kerchiefs around its neck. God, it was a great dog. I mean, a great big blonde lab. I don't know how such a fucking spook got such a great dog. I should've just grabbed him and ran. I mean, she was right in my face, touching me."
"Did she say anything about your chi?"
"No, she just kept asking me what was really wrong. Why?"
"Well, your chi is really fucked, man."
The balls on the pool table went to and fro, and by the end of the night they cleared the table several times, drank four or five beers a piece, and stopped to stare quietly at the stop-motion dinosaur and all the flying sombreros, or the shambling onslaught of the jackrabbits, whichever was on the television that night.
When they left the bar, both of them had their hands dug down so deep in their pockets they could cup their own kneecaps. It was their young Bob Dylan pose and they could really pull it off.
When I saw them, I recognized the look of followers and then -- somewhere deep down in a place they were as yet unfamiliar with -- the look of predators. I knew they would follow me and I knew before I took my first step from that spot, on that college street, in that college town, that the days would change to real 24-hour days, with names and rules, and that my stride would be even from then on, or at least alternate from even to stumbling to quick to shiftless, based on the contingencies of real life -- intemperance, fear, disregard for others. I should have walked up to the bearded peccary, laid the flat of my hand on his chest and told him right then that, though I may be in need of all the new clarity his pursuit might bring me, I was not at all grateful for his timing, that the world was still wondrous as it changed sizes and shapes, that the organisms that swam across my eyes were not yet blinding me, that I really wanted the clock to spin as capriciously as a roulette wheel for just a few days more. But instead I walked on, past the loud parties that nearly spilled from rowhouse windows, past the quiet window-vigils kept by lonely girls whose breath on the glass made it look as if a television censor had removed their obscene mouths from their lovely faces. I walked past shake stands and a game of leapfrog played by a modern girl and boy who probably had no idea it was called that. I walked past things in order now. The downtown followed the great gates of the college and the little dreary Cape Cod-style houses followed that. And the river and the fields followed the houses, which shrank and blossomed according to the whims of economy. And the two men followed me.
There are several days now not worth mentioning. A Tuesday, a rainy Wednesday, and a humid, clear Thursday. These are days of drinking from public water fountains in parks, where the turquoise cement wading pools were drained, and the horseheads that bounced on heavy iron springs held their painted noses to the dirty spot worn into the volunteer clover and ragweed. They bought large bottles of red wine from the Assyrian grocer; I bought homewreckers of vodka. That is what these days amounted to. Then there were more days and these were not without incident. A Storyville whore in a black paper mask pointed to a place behind the hotel where she'd seen a horseleg twist clear round in the sand. Several boys in rabbit masks ran down the street gulping bottles of chocolate soda. An old black man we came across played the singing saw, a long shining carpenter's saw he bent and bowed between his legs with herculean effort, while he ran taut horsehair across its toothless edge. The sound stilled the birds and made the world unearthly while we passed into some new land.
Charles Lieurance, Chicago 2001
Friday, October 22, 2010
They played all the songs they could think of that would not irritate old grievances. There were so many old grievances now. It was strange how a lyrical ballad about a little girl who fell in love but drowned in the river just before her wedding, still contained just enough description to be rendered inappropriate. The look of the church where the groom waited in the song, the color of the young girl's eyes, the year of the great flood in which she perished -- all of this would be too much for the crowd -- now gathered outside the gate with their dead -- to bear, although each of them could remember a time when the song seemed so innocent. So the band stuck to nonsensical nursery songs, played very slowly. Not that these deformed instruments had it in them to wheeze out anything remotely jaunty.
There were maybe twenty soldiers milling about, trying not to appear to be doing their official duties, but doing them just the same. The orders they once carried out in large voices and sweeping gestures, they now implemented with gentle whispers and lowered eyes. They would take into their hands the round stony elbows of the elderly and escort them one by one into the new cemetery, and to their designated plots. All of the graves had been dug in advance and canopies raised to keep off the rain, so maneuvering through the hundred odd holes with coffin wagons and infirm family members -- for only the crippled, old, and very young were left -- would be a challenge. Because the rain refused to fall straight from the sky and so made the crumbling earth around the graves unsound, wheels would almost certainly slide down into the holes. The soldiers had counted on, wagered on if the truth were told, the number of coffins that would upset into the mud, the number of broken hips and legs that would be sustained among the feeble and old, in the course of the day.
The band was playing a song about a cow who began to give too much milk, comically throwing a village into financial ruin, when the decorated horsemen appeared on the dirt road in the distance. Played so that a drop of molasses could run down a mountain top before the piece reached its final coda, not a soul save those on the bandstand recognized the familiar melody. The boy who played the gramoshka appeared in pain as he squeezed and yanked his way through the simple tune, as if he'd expected something far more sophisticated from these men who were once worldly soldiers. When it was over he shouted "Moo!" which is how the song was taught to young children. He and his brother, who sat cross-legged in the rain a few yards from the wagon, turned red from trying to hold their laughter. A few of the soldiers coughed into their fists, but no one looked at the boys severely. For the next song, the older boy let the button side of the accordion fall to the ground. He sat back against the tree and watched the three horsemen, still wearing their medals, their stripes, and their sabres, dismount at the humble wrought iron gates of the graveyard. A few members of the crowd stepped up to greet them and a very stern conference began to the mournful tune of "Three Blind Mice."
One of the officers approached the gate and shouted a command. It had been so long since any of the soldiers had heard a command issued with any kind of commitment that they looked at one another dumbly. J. didn't even stir. He'd forgotten, at least for the moment, that he'd ever been a soldier. Finally, it became clear that the order to congregate was not the joke of a madman, and the defrocked soldiers began to shamble forward. They tried to straighten their postures and walk with some military decorum, but all the holes in the ground made that impossible. J. worked the valves of the euphonium nervously and tried to rub the red impression of the mouthpiece from around his lips. After all, he thought, it is possible he was the highest ranking soldier here. Of course, he could just lie about his rank, say he was a nobody, and sit there in the rain, blowing wind silently into his horn, waiting, like everyone else, for whatever absurd ritual was to come. He could tell he was about to witness one of war's phantom limbs, a dance nobody wanted to remember performed by the walking dead, set in motion by men who would just not let it rest. God, how he wished he could just blurt the sourest note of the sourest scale, or yell "Moo!" like the boy who played the gramoshka. Or he could say he'd stolen the uniform to keep warm, tell them he wasn't a soldier at all, just a petty thief, and spend the night in a warm jail cell, eating biscuits. There was a chance, however, that they'd shoot him.
He looked over at the boy in the wagon, who'd somehow already picked him out of the other bandmembers as some kind of ally. J. was amused by that and gave the boy a little wave. The boy just shook his head, got his brother's attention by throwing a stone at him, and pointed up to the bandstand. The little brother looked at J. and doubled over, holding his head in his lap for some time trying to suppress his merriment. J. had no idea what could be so amusing. Then he realized that the three other soldiers in the band had left the platform, and he was sitting up there with two emaciated old men, conspicuous as all hell in his tunic.
J. ahemed and carefully set his horn down on the wooden planks of the riser. He straightened his jacket and trousers and stepped down into the mud. The boys' faces were bloated and red with their palmed laughter as he passed them. He saluted them subtly and their eyes bugged out as well. As he suspected, the scene by the gate had taken on the ghostly appearance of discipline and honor, but with absolutely no pulse. Gathered together in an orderly group like that, the smell of wet, muddy wool and sweat on the soldiers, was unbearable. J. sucked in a deep breath and stepped into formation. As it happened, standing where he must stand if he was to stand in a soldierly fashion, J. was but three or four inches from the face of an officer's horse. The wide-eyed, but exanimate, equine stare made it difficult to face forward with any kind of intelligence. He was sure this had inspired a tantrum of joy with the boys behind him.
"Do we have any ranking officers here?" A young, portly major with a slight tic in his jaw, shouted.
J. stepped around the horse's head and stated his rank, if only to end the unnerving staring match he'd been having with the stallion. There were a few raised eyebrows among the still-adorned officers, and the other soldiers as well. Later, over some thick black liqueur, he could tell them all that this odious rank was his father's doing, that it had not a whit to do with valor, or any of the ardent sacraments they now tried feebly to enact. J. longed for the cover of his battered euphonium. He wanted to sit in the wagon with the accordion boy and play the nursery song about the witch who was tricked into incanting herself out of existence. Instead, he was beckoned forward into the conclave, where a mayor and two of his cronies were discussing the little matter of vampires.
For several hours after that, J. and the other soldiers stood there watching as old widows in black linen scarves carefully twisted the heads from their dead husbands' bodies, placed them into potato sacks, then back into the coffins. One stick of a man climbed a homemade ladder to put a sheet of black crepe over a beehive that hung above the young accordionist's head. All manner of herbs were stuffed into cheesecloth bags, tied with locks of hair, and laid neatly upon lifeless chests. It seems the old graveyard had been cursed from the beginning, that it had a history of vampirism and "malignant resurrection," as the officers explained it to J. There was urgent concern among the townspeople that the dark omens of the war, the destruction of the ancient cemetery, the disinternment of all these bodies, and the long melancholy of the rainy season, had allowed occult humors to circulate.
It was J's post to make sure there was no looting, because in many cases it was difficult to tell if the person prying open the coffin to behead or drive a wooden stake into the heart of a corpse was actually a family member. It would have been easy enough, an officer explained, for some ruffian to dig up a body in the other graveyard and bring it over to this one, just to purloin any valuables with which the deceased had been buried. After all, so many people had been killed in the war that there were still a great many bodies unclaimed in the other cemetery. The order of the day was that no person who entered the cemetery could leave with anything they had not come with. One leathery crone cried for hours to J. that she felt she needed to take with her the head of her youngest boy. He'd been coming to her neighbors in the night spreading disease, sewing bad omens. It had gotten so her neighbors were threatening to kill her to end the curse. J. looked around to see if anyone was paying attention and when he saw that the other soldiers were far too busy holding their noses, averting their eyes, and making faces of disgust, he told the old woman to put the bag under her shawl and quickly ushered her through the gate. He couldn't have her be murdered by her neighbors, after all.
Of course, all of this had to be accomplished by nightfall, for reasons obvious to anyone even vaguely familiar with superstition. Just as the last anemic line of light shrunk beyond perception in the west, the final aggrieved vampire killers slogged out of the sacred swamp, some smelling of putrefaction, others smirched with grave dust, some telling how a relative -- dead and buried 30 years -- had not been corrupted at all. Another related that his daughter's lips were still cherry red. As J. and the soldiers went from grave to grave, collecting up discarded ribbon, hammers, crepe, and charms, there were just a few that gave pause. Perhaps the coffin had rotted clear through in the other cemetery, but in one hole were tossed, willy-nilly, the bones of a small child, and the bones of dog. In another, an entire skeleton had been white-washed and the bones reorganized carefully, according to some arcane system. The skull was posed face-up between the legs, the palms of the hands facing upward. Where the skull should have been was the photograph of the dead man, wearing a gypsy vest and a large Russian hat.
The boy had started up on his accordion again, playing something unfamiliar. J. put his men to work filling the graves and climbed back onto the bandstand. It was getting too dark to see the two boys under the barren elms, but he licked his lips, pressed them to the mouthpiece of his euphonium, and provided a low rhythm to the lovely eastern melody the boy was playing. He made a few mistakes here and there, and he knew the boy was laughing at him, but after going around once or twice, he got the feel of it.
Charles Lieurance, Chicago 2000