Thursday, December 31, 2009

I Think It Was Me

Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. I am sitting on a plastic woven lawn chair that I got because it reminds me of my childhood. At hand: a sweaty Arnie Palmer that I got because it reminds me of iced tea and lemonade. Nearby, semi trucks are slowly climbing a mountain with their hazards on. Opposite of them are trucks with their hazards on trying not to careen off of the side of the mountain on their descent. I am watching the sun hide behind these mountains. The final rays are moribund as the water twinkles their goodbyes.

I came here to be a struggling writer.

            I have been here for two weeks and in the local businesses of this town I have become somewhat of a regular. I talk to the people I meet. They talk to me. They all are so eager to hear about my story! Affability, ostensibly. Tips, verily. I tell them all about it, and about how it is not progressing very well. Writers block, ostensibly. Facade, verily. (Shh)

            Here in Coeur d’Alene, it seems that oysters find themselves in the mouths of people instead of the mouths of shells. Too bad for them! I have become part of this aqueous epidemic; a fan of oyster shots. One Arnie Palmer and one oyster shot, Veronica! Coming right up, she says! There are a lot of bar and grill combinations along the main drag here, and I started coming to this one due to the strange allure the place gave off. I'll blame it on the green awning.
            "It's about an old woman." I say, placing my arms forward and leaning in towards her edge of the table. "She's been looking for the perfect man her whole life, you know. Never settling. So she's been single for years."
            "How old is she in the story?" Asks Veronica. I can tell I already have her hooked. I'm sure she had Love Actually waiting for her back at home on her DVD player.
            "I imagine I will make her be about eighty five and still mobile without the aid of a walker or anything. So she's always walking around her Brooklyn neighborhood still dressed up like a flapper, looking for that perfect man to come sweep her off her creaky old feet. Her friends tell her over their quilting parties that she should stop ‘dressing like that’ so she can attract a normal man her age because 'they may be old, but they aren't stuck in the past.' She refuses to heed their advice. All of these friends of hers are married, mind you."
            "Aww that's cute." She sympathized with a dolorous puppy eyed expression. "I want to know how it ends! Do you know yet?"
            "Yes, I do, Veronica." I said with a warm smile. "I know how it ends…but how to put it together with the right emotion...that's the hard part. But I shouldn't keep you from your work too long. Maybe you'd like to hear the rest of the story after your shift tonight?"
            "That would be lovely. I was only planning on spending the night in my place cuddled up with ice cream and P.S. I love you. This sounds almost as good." She said playfully.
            "Well how about this. I'll come over, we'll watch your movie and then I'll tell you the rest of my story. You can decide which is better."
            "That sounds wonderful," she said with a smile. "here's my number. Give me a call at eleven." She said as she scribbled on a small napkin.
            "Looking forward to it!" I smiled. I got a date. Score!
P.s., I hate that movie. But a date's a date.

            The next afternoon I was on my daily walk around the dock that circled out around a piece of Lake Coeur d'Alene and back to a building where rich people spend their vacations. For the record: Florida is not where America goes to die. That is, if they want to die a happy and peaceful death. Those who want a happy and peaceful death stay at home and the smart ones go to Coeur d'Alene. Such a beautiful place! If one led a difficult life and only found solace in doing nothing but being bitter they probably moved to Florida to escape anyone who loved them and to hang out with other people much like themselves at bingo halls, one hundred and thirty three of them all equally as bitter and angry at that lady with nine bingo sheets who won again and wondering who it was that she knew who could somehow stack the bingo sheets. Dab dab dab. Everyone who moves to Florida is looking for death by an alligator or maybe a wildfire. Florida is so filled with bitter people that it sets itself on fire! Can you believe that? And if that doesn't get them then they're sure to be juiced by a hurricane or maybe an invincible youth looking for a drunk time. You can find those anywhere and everywhere, though.
            Anyway, the dock. If I'm on time I usually run into a seventy-two year old man walking his golden retriever. The man’s name is Henry. I only know his first name. The dog’s name is Larry, which I tell him was a funny name for a dog. He tells me “Larry is a fine name for an animal.” Generation gaps, I suppose. Henry and Larry look nothing alike.
            "Fancy seeing you here!" I called from about twenty or thirty feet away as we approached each other.
            "What's that?" He said. Henry's hearing is slowly failing. His mind is sharp but the rest of him is aging infirmly.
            "Fancy seeing you here." I smiled cordially as we shook hands.
            "This has got to be the sixth time, it seems!" His eyes returned the smile as his voice confirmed the affability of his comportment. “Always good to get a break from writing now and again, eh?”
            "I need these walks. They help clear my mind. You know. Writing is... well... it’s an escape. Sometimes."
            "How long has your mind been stopped up for, anyway?" His retriever Larry sat, looking like he was just as ready to listen as his owner.
            "I think my writers block hit its all time high when I started thinking about how I really have no experience with what I'm writing about. Usually I have no problem with that, but this time it really hit me. So I came here to clear my mind. It's nice to escape the city, the interminable rush of cars and howls of sirens, not that this place is free from it, but I somehow felt that the mountains would lock away everything I'm trying to get away from. And I feel that they're doing a good job of keeping all that out, except for this writers block. Probably snuck along in with my socks or something." We chuckled for a little bit, exchanging some more clever banter mostly credited to his jocosity, when suddenly he chipped in some advice on how to end my story:
            "Kill him." I know I looked confused. My head turned a little bit and one of my eyebrows sank while the other rose a little bit to compensate. "Kill him." He continued. "Really. First, he's just a character. And second... well here's the thing: everybody learns lessons either at the expense of themselves or at the expense of someone else. That's the beauty of stories. You can create any type of lesson in any way you want. And death? That's a pretty serious lesson element, if you ask me. In your story he's just, what, a fisherman? No offense to the guy or his profession, but find a way to kill him. I'm sure you can do it. Resurrect Moby Dick to eat him or have his boat hit an iceberg and give him have a dinner party with some guests of the Titanic. The literary world will forge on, I promise. Hell, how many people did Shakespeare kill? And people love him. Granted some people don't know why they love him and probably haven't read more than two of his stories once each. Either way, you get my drift."
            "Huh." I said. Not sure if he knew it, but he blew my mind a little bit. I wasn't expecting advice on how to write. I wasn't even writing!
            "Hebrews 13:5" He said with a wink as he walked off. It took me a while to realize that was from the bible. I don't even read the bible. Haven't looked it up yet. Maybe it's something about why it’s a bad thing that I’m not a Christian.
            Anyhow, it was at that point that I thought that maybe I should take this struggling writer thing seriously and actually start writing something. I had told him that my story was about a single father that is, like Henry remembered, a full time fisherman. He loves his two children like crazy and has decided that they will not live the life he lived- in a poor family without much food to eat, everybody in old clothes or hand-me-downs and no vacations in recent memory. Well this guy works. A lot. So much that he's pretty much never at home. He provides a full refrigerator which he never cooks from, gives them plenty of money to shop with and takes them on vacations, but during a trip to Hawaii he realizes that he feels a little alienated from their lives and worse, that he doesn't even really know who his kids are when he buys them ice cream, which they hate. He was clueless until they told him after he brought it back to the hotel. This is where my said roadblock kicked in. I told Henry when I bumped into him a few times back that I didn't know where to take the story and I think he just finished it for me. Now all I have to do is start it.

            I love jazz. I always have and I'm sure I always will. I even know how to dance to it, and let me tell you what- learning that should be proof enough that I love the stuff. I am a small but awkward guy. My arms are too long for my under average frame. My feet hit things. But I learned. Coeur d'Alene has a jazz club, and I didn't even know about it until a week ago! How did I survive?!
            "Arnie Palmer, Mac." I called out from what I have claimed as my 'usual' bar stool.
            "It's Jason, buddy, and I think I've told you that every time I serve you here. Don't you ever want anything to drink?"
            "I am getting something to drink." 
            I probably said it too sternly. I didn't mean it, but I think it sounded like I snapped. He looked a bit miffed. Oops... It happens.
            With my Arnie Palmer in hand, feeling the cold sweat of a precipitable glass, I swiveled my stool around and leaned with my back against the bar, Arnie to my left and an old crazy looking man to my right.
            "What're you drinkin' there, partner?" The decrepit old man asked as he turned towards me.
            "Ice tea and lemonade. Way better than sweet tea."
            "Ah yeah, a Benedict Arnold? Arnold Benedict? Is that what they call em'?" The old man looked up towards the bartender. "Hey Jacob! Get this guy another Benedict Arnold! On me!"
            Blushing, I corrected him. "Benedict Arnold is the name of that traitor...the name's synonymous with being a traitor. The iced tea and lemonade drink is called an Arnie Palmer, and I guess I don't know exactly why." Jason came up with a stern glare and a glass that was almost colder than his demeanor, which clearly expostulated us sitting next to each other. "And his name's Jason...not Jacob...or Mac..." I trailed off in a failing attempt to appease him. I wasn't even that thirsty and now I had two of them to drink. Great. Where did this guy come from, anyway?
            "I'm from Washington." He said as if he was reading my mind. I jumped slightly and he noticed. "It's really not that bad of a place, the people there are nice, mostly. Bad experience?"
            "No, no. I was just... thinking... about something... and you startled me. No big deal."
            "Well sorry about that, just trying to make conversation. Where're you from?"
            My mouth said "Indiana.", my head said 'hell' and my heart said 'home'. Everybody despises where they grew up to some degree, especially if they spend their whole life there. But in the midst of the rancor of anybodies home state or city they're still likely to long to go back sometime. Many realize once they get there everybody they know is gone, somewhere else or working at the golf course and since they aren't much for golfing they might as well skip the trip back home and just call mom and pop instead.
            "And what brings you here?" He asked, and without waiting for a response: "I came here to paint. I'm a painter. I love to paint. Some say it's the fumes" he rambled with a croaked cackle "but I paint outside usually so that's not the case, partner, I promise."
            "I'm here to write a story. Rather, to finish writing a story. I have writers block, see, and the beauty of this place...well…” I recited the same lie again. “I'm hoping it'll just help sort the story out."
            "Well I'll be!" Declaimed the old man. "I'm here on a similar sort of business. I don't have painters block, or whatever you may want to call it. I'm here to paint a tragedy, and I figure the best way to do that is to fully understand the absence of tragedy. Pure beauty. So here I am!" He smiled and stretched his arms out. "See what I'm going for? You can't fully understand something until you fully see the other side. Can't understand how something's good until you see how a lack of it's bad.”
            I stopped to think, once again hit by an unexpected train of mental notion; first how to finish a story that I secretly didn't even start and second...this? I took a big gulp of my Arnie Palmer and turned to him.
            "I'm not even writing anything." I confessed. The words just spilled out. The cork blew off and I couldn't even catch myself before I was done. "I just wanted to hang out here and pretend to write. If I just came here on vacation or whatever I'd be like the rest of the people here on vacation, just a lot poorer and not much of an excuse to be so poor. But writers, well, they're poor, aren't they?" He just looked at me, not condemning me in the look he gave me, just asking me to keep talking. So I did. "I got a date out of it! I think I made a friend with a nice old man on the dock out there!" I said as I pointed in the general direction of the lake. "I've told maybe five different stories that I'm not actually writing to five different people. You were about to be six…but..." I trailed off as I swallowed the last half of my Arnie Palmer in about three seconds, slammed it down and grabbed the second.
            The old man looked at me as if I was possibly crazier than himself. I felt my face reflect my timidness as I clutched my glass so hard it was bound to either shoot straight up in the air or just break in my hand completely.
            "I need to go paint." He said after an interminable silence. He immediately got up, not bothering to pay for the Arnie Palmer he ordered on my behalf and walked directly out of the establishment.
            I turned with my back to the bar once more and slouched hard, breathing out as I did. My back pressed uncomfortably against the bar just above its mid point, directly on my spine. I looked up at the band, noticing them for the first time that night. The frontman was playing a blue and black sunburst hollowbody guitar and stepped away from the mic, nodding over at the guy stroking a big 3/4 upright bass. Taking his cue for the spotlight he started hitting notes at random. Bow. Ba da dada be beep! A rhythmless and soulless bee dadadadaa...da...dada...dowww. I think he felt that the more at random he played his notes the less people would have any idea of what he was trying to do and therefore would bow to his music prowess. I was not impressed. There was the compulsory applause. I'm assuming 23% of the people clapping did it because they knew there was a solo and were tricked into thinking it was good. Another 7%, myself being one of the number, not fooled, clapped as if to say "Good job for giving it a shot. At least you gave it a shot!" The other 70% was clueless; they continued talking as they heard the clapping around them and absentmindedly joined in, or looked up bemused as they began clapping to join the table next to them and looked around for something to be clapping at. I paid for my drinks and left.

            The next morning I woke up late but I was still in time to meet Henry on the deck. I had to call his name out a few times quite loudly to get him to look up at me. He never walks with his head down but today he must have been looking at something in the lake.
            "There's quite the buzz going on over there on the lawn!" Exclaimed Henry as we met, pointing behind him, where I was headed and accordingly, where he was leaving.
            "Why? What's going on?" I asked, peeking over his shoulder, trying to see what exactly it was that was drawing the small crowd.
            "Some guy has been up all night painting. Just painting. He finished a big painting all in one night. It's really eerie, too. I couldn't stand to look at it for too long..." He sounded a slight disturbed and I gave an absentminded "Huh" in reply and told him I was going to go check it out.
            I didn't have to work too hard to get in good view of the painting. A few people noticed me edging in and seemed to move out the way unhesitatingly as soon as they saw me, but it seemed to be less of a moving out of the way and more of a getting away…

            The painting was of two people on the dock of Lake Coeur d'Alene. The background of the painting was impeccable. The lake, the mountains...all in such perfect detail...and he painted this at night? I saw him sleeping on the ground at the foot of the painting as I got closer to it- the same crazed old man from the jazz club. I immediately recognized the person on the right side of the painting, standing as straight as his decrepit body would allow, a red leash in hand that fed directly to the collar of a beautiful golden retriever. The reason Henry was so disturbed at his likeness being in this painting? He was talking to a ghost. The ghost looked very alive, though. None of that zombie-face decay stuff happening...the ghostly figure seemed to be in perfect health, just very pale. There was a turbid opaqueness to his body and a thin veil of blue smoke seemed to trail behind his person. A big smile was painted on his face, partially open. His hands were extended forward as if he was using them to explain something. I couldn't help but notice the susurrus voices around me as I read the title of the painting which was on a piece of scrap paper: "The Phantasm of Coeur d'Alene".
            I took one closer look at the ghost in front of Henry, and, friends and neighbors, I think it was me.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Here I Am

Red lights dance
   across the barren planes
A steady stream of galvanization;
   a disarray of action
In triads they call to one another:
   "Here I am!”

And together they are alone
   singing in silence

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Eye For A Tooth

            My mouth wells with saliva and I promise you there's no taste to it that's out of the ordinary but my tongue tells me it has an acidic quality. My stomach is worried. My knees are the least of my worries but if the only thing keeping my bone from touching the cement that I am kneeling on is denim and skin there's a level of discomfort there adding to this barrage of sensory intake.
            Jason hits me on the temple with his fist. The cement really isn't that cold. It's warm. Something is obstructing my vision now on my left eyeball. It came when I fell over because my hands were too bound to catch myself. I sniffle and remember what it is on the floor and where it came from. And now it's in my eye.
            I laugh. Vantires. I used to call vampires "vantires". My mom told me this, years after I learned how to pronounce the noun properly. And Jason kicks me in the part on the back where Charlotte has a tattoo. He yells at me to Shut Up and I have to cough anyway. When I cough the blood from my nose ripples and a few flecks jump in the puddle.
            I pretend the blood that my face is in is my mom's chili. It's a comfort food of sorts. Nobody makes it like her, I promise you. Chili isn't my comfort food. Mom's chili is my comfort food. I know, that's weird- imagining you're laying in chili. No, I did not steal a taste, but I think imagining helped. Because when Jason reminds me that it's an Eye For An Eye, I smile. He can't see it and that's good, because he would have done a lot more than kick me in the back again.
            I put tattoos in place of everywhere that Jason kicks me. Charlotte’s tattoo rests on the small of my back. Tribal that nobody understands sprawls across my shoulders. Out of all my friend’s tattoos that I can remember I have enough to fill the kicks until they start overlapping and start coming too frequently. He yells at me and then he kicks me. Eye For An Eye! he reminds me. I didn’t take his eye. I took his car.
            Jason asks me if I would like to explain myself yet and I don’t say anything because I already explained myself. And there’s nothing more to say. He was very kind to me. Very benevolent. The weather changed that while I was behind the wheel. It’s not my fault the Upper Midwest likes to get snowed on. Friendships ice over. He turned out to be one of those “fair weather” friends, if you get my snowdrift. I promised him I would figure something out for him. Of course that promise was not fulfilled.
            I don’t think about all of this in too much detail because my body reminds me of what happens when my stomach is worried and my tongue thinks my saliva tastes acidic. I vomit. Jason tells me to not get it on his shoes. Eye For An Eye, yeah? Eye For A Tooth. I am not getting repaid in the same way. Everyone has to one up on their revenge. I think that this is a little ridiculous, me on the floor of his garage bleeding and vomiting everywhere. Jason iterates: not on his shoes. If Jason wanted to go all mad on the Eye For An Eye idea then he would experience misfortune that would affect me directly in a largely negative fashion. But you can’t plan that, you know? So why should you plan revenge?
            Of course the only plan was to inflict physical pain. The actual act of revenge itself was very hectic and disorganized. I don’t know what he wishes to gain by nearly breaking a rib with his shoes. It’s bruised.
            I tell Jason that I wouldn’t vomit on his shoes. I say that’s not what a friend would do. This is all very difficult to say. Physically. Nothing to do with pride. He thinks I’m messing around with him. Trying to be a hero, or something, except I’m the only one in the room that can be reasoned with and we both know this. Oh, We Used To Be Friends, Jason assures me from somewhere else in the garage. I think about that song. I hear him rummage. He must have grabbed something hard because this is where I black out.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Candle

-Take this exit
-No, I want to show you something.

The car exits, takes a right and follows the directions given from the passenger seat.

-There. Stop at that house there. Up on the right.
-The blue one?
-No, the one after that with the green shutters.
-Do you have a friend here? What are we doing here?
-I used to live here.

The air is warm and edging on the stifling thickness of humidity known to make the nights breath palpable and the days interminable hours lazy. The car squeaks as it makes its arrival sonically known to a dog on the opposite side of the block, which immediately barks.

-When was the last time you were there?
-Before we moved in ‘94.
-Do you remember much?

-I know, haha, but that’s how work parties are.
-How are things with you and that other cook?
-With me and Tev? Fine, I guess. She talked at me and I listened.
-Jenni babe? Are you almost done in there?
-Jenni’s home?
-Yes, she got in last night.

The house started to buzz with voices as the door swung open in uneven increments. Immediate family- brothers, sisters and thus sons and daughters of the deed holders walked into the house that some still lived in and some had since moved out of. A few babies came with, the true noisemakers, and even a friend or two throughout the day.

-Get the pumpkin pie out of the fridge and preheat the oven for the frozen apple pie, would ya?
-Hold on mom.
-Just don’t forget!
-Don’t use that tone with me!
-I’m not. God.
-You’re so dramatic, Seth.
-Shut up, Jenni.

The Wisconsin winter of 1994 was not memorable in any particular way, which means it was absolutely beautiful. Not too harsh and enough snow to be content. True connoisseurs of words may go as far as to try to invoke poetic connotations attached to that winter with words like pulchritude. Those brave enough would have been right enough- that winter was truly beautiful.

-The baby is crying again.
-Pick her up!
-She’s crying harder now.
-Oh give her here. Grandma’s got you.
-She just loves her Gramma, don’t you? Yes you do. Yes you do!
-I’m glad you don’t talk to me like that anymore, mom.
-Did you get those pies yet?

Soon the house was the target scent of candle makers trying to capture the essence of Christmas. Walking into the kitchen was one candle- the living room another. The fresh cut Fraser fir would hit your nostrils before it hit your eyes.

-Are you staying for dinner, too, Josh?
-No I can go home.
-It’s okay, Josh. You know I want to feed you!
-Are you sure?
-Am I sure. Ha! Jenni, make another spot at the table.
-Thanks mom.
-Of course, son.
-Mom, you’re going to scare Josh away.
-No I’m not. He just called me mom.
-Don’t encourage her, man.

They ate in general peace- no outbursts and everyone passed the greens when they were asked. The long nights of winter robbed the day from gracing the idyllic scene past five, and that robber was at the door of a house with green shutters. Houses with chimneys apparently felt that the holidays were a time for blazing fireplaces. That was, of course, until bedtime on the 24th.

-Well that was nice. What say we save dessert for after church?
-But dad, it’s all already out! The pie will get cold.
-Alright just a piece for everyone who wants one. But we have to be quick—everyone needs to be ready in fifteen minutes. Can we do that?
-Get one for me too!
-Get one for yourself.
-Fine. Uhhk.
-Didn’t I tell him that he was dramatic, mom?
-Jenni, don’t start.
-Well he is.
-Jenni, please.

After church eggnog was served­­—holiday-nog for the adults. Some of the younger kids still had yet to figure out what the difference was. The adults insisted that there was no difference, but the children were swatted away from any attempts to steal a sip. It was a tradition—eggnog and holiday-nog after church.

-What do you kids think? Presents now or presents in the morning?
-Oh Kyle, do you even need to ask that anymore?
-Of course, dear, what if they had a change in heart?
-Well kids you can open one from us now and the rest will have to wait until the morning! Besides, Santa still has to come, doesn’t he?
-Okay, you first Izzy.
-Mom don’t call me that! It makes me sound like a girl.
-Well I think it’s cute.
-Here ya go, Israel, let’s see what’s in this one.
-Thanks daddy.

Soon, all of the children were tucked in and the good night kisses accompanied with warnings of what would happen if they tried to get up and catch Santa putting gifts under the tree. The threat of no presents at all was always enough for most of the children.

-Guess who I found in the bathroom closet?
-Uh oh. Who was it?
-Kathy! I think she was hiding out trying to catch Santa.
-She’s so cute!
-Remember when you found out about Santa?
-You mean found out about you? Web of lies, guys, real nice.
-Oh Jenni. You didn’t seem that devastated.
-I know, I know. Just messing around with you guys.
-Do you think we should tell them one of these years?
-They’ll figure it out when they figure it out, mom.

That night none of the adults set an alarm clock; two loud ones were already stirring on the second floor, wiping the drool from the corner of their respective mouths, caught in a battle to sleep in all the excitement pent up for the morning.

The car idles as the two travelers sit in silence, looking at the house. Presently, a child runs out of the front door with a big black dog. They both stop and look at the car.

A pause.
-Nothing much happened.
-Best Christmas that I have ever had.