This reading, a hoot and a holler, featured Jenny McLean, a little me, Franklin Bruno, Marty Smith, Israel Bayer, and Randy Bemrose as musical guest. The theme was FEAR.
A list of my fears, in no particular order:
and the words
Alice cringed, the muscles around her mouth grew tight, as she listened to Benny, her fiancé, muttering to himself. Someone had given him a word-of-the-day calendar earlier that week, and he was attempting to learn a month’s worth of words each night.
Recently, Alice had the misfortune of being invited to a cocktail party hosted by one of her co-workers from the newspaper. The invitation had initially elated her. Alice worked in the sales department but, after multiple painful attempts, had managed to make friends with a writer on the metro desk. She was hoping the party might open a door onto the editorial side. However, the invitation clearly read, “Bring your spouse!”
Alice feared Benny reflected poorly on her, and she now felt nauseous as they walked up the steps to her co-worker’s condo. Benny still struggling with inchoate. The sporadic ebb and flow of party banter escaping under the door. Benny knocking. Too many times.
Several minutes later, Alice was in the kitchen with the host when she saw Benny shuffle into a conversation with two of the senior editors. Desperate, she strained to hear the conversation.
“Did you read… latest? … victim’s sister … letter to her shrink… ‘A list of my fears, in no particular order.’ Inadmissible … but he did it.”
Benny leapt, “And that’s exactly why I never pay attention to heresy!”
Alice crumpled beneath the blow. A longish pause, unlucky ebb in the banter, one of the editors, “Don’t you mean hearsay?”
A list of my fears, in no particular order:
Aerosol cans and other things that might blow up; water heaters, pressure cookers, etc.
Convenience store hold-ups
A world with no manatees or tigers
It freaks me out that in my gmail account the sidebar keeps suggesting a website to help me get my ex back. I don’t want any of my exes back. Why would I? Does gmail know me better than I know myself? Is a shadow life transpiring? Is what I perceive as my good fortune misfortune in some alternate dimension? My dissatisfaction with my life is at this point only sporadic, and never to do with whom I said I do to. I admit an inchoate longing, but not to have married otherwise, or undo. I regret that I never inhabited a juvenile science fiction novel, my time never wrinkled, I never got to tesser, I have no super power.
I am afraid that I am not a superhero. Is that what the Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock is really about? The heresy of who we are versus who we meant to be as children?
When we did the round robin at parties during my undergraduate years, and named the super power we’d choose if we could, I picked talking to the animals. In retrospect, I’d have chosen talking convincingly to the animals. I can easily imagine my dog, Vera, replying, if I asked her to bite an assailant, “Why should I?”
A list of my fears, in no particular order can be boiled down to being shanked by a stalker without reason, and the devil, or some form of it, as in being possessed. Which seems odd, considering I don't believe in a God. Possible this scares me even more. Possible it is the heresy that punishes me.
There have been times in my life when I've felt a very real, dark presence around me. It's the same every time. I internalize things to the point of being powerless, like an inchoate thought that lingers, and doesn't stray. It's rarely sporadic when I feel such things. The presence is calculated, and always cold, sometimes lasting for hours, sometimes days.
You tell yourself this can never happen. You ponder, and lose yourself in the mystery of the unknown, until logic interjects its magic back into your life. Each time the darkness seems to dig a little bit deeper, and each time, it takes longer for things to return to normal.
It's very haunting not grasping the opportunities that have been given to you. The gift you have been given, the struggle within. Sometimes the voices inspire, other times they are like a collapsing strain on the heart, and stomach, much like a heart attack must feel like. Knowing you have wasted too much time appearing to be ready for the fight, but the misfortunes of knowing you will be out-dueled - like an underachiever with a powerful gift that never matures.
Diary of the Guy Who Lives in the Apartment Upstairs From Mine, Part I
January 12: Too depressed to sleep again last night, so I did what I always do: tied a rope to an old cinderblock and dragged it back and forth across the floor at sporadic intervals until I was exhausted. Usually, three or four hours of this makes me forget my misfortunes, but for some reason it didn't do the trick this time.
At this point, a lesser man might have given up and lay quietly in bed till morning. Not me, though-- I'm not going to let an inchoate mass of unspecified worries get me down! I decided to write a list of my fears, in no particular order, on a gross or so of empty wine bottles I had lying around. Then I sat myself down next to the ventilation shaft in the bathroom-- you know, the one that runs throughout the entire building-- and smashed those bottles into a 55-gallon metal barrel. Take that, global warming! In your face, airline disasters! How you like me now, each individual member of my entire high school graduating class, one at a time!
At around 7am I cooled it with the bottles, though. I don't like to disturb the guy downstairs while he's getting ready for work. Instead, I sat silently on the edge of the tub, turning my hot water on and off at 90-second intervals for no discernible reason. I'm such an angel! I hope that's not heresy. Better write it on a bottle for tonight.
Would you like us to seat you while you wait for your party? Don’t mind the death squads - they’re here for someone else. In a sufficiently large open-plan dining room, every conceivable misfortune is occurring somewhere – “befalling” someone, as one says. This very moment, for example, there are nine choking incidents at wait-stations in other time zones, and by the bay windows, subpoenas are served with the polenta fries. They’re mostly for inchoate crimes, or so legal tells me – solicitation, conspiracy, that sort of thing. If we refused reservations to everyone with a possession rap for plasticine, we’d be out of Zagat’s faster than you can say The Anarchist’s Cookbook. Don’t ask why the busboys are wearing gas masks. All right, not masks, exactly. It was worse when we used to get busloads of Gnostics in here, just trust me – you never had to give them a wine list, they matched courses by pure intuition. Have you ever seen a master sommelier from Brussels “go postal”? Not pretty. Now the only heresy is asking for catsup instead of Bernaise. If the sporadic gunfire disturbs your amuse-bouche, we’ll add the truffle supplement to the prix fixe dinner, compliments of the management. I have radio confirmation that your guests have arrived, but what with the four-hour walk from our bar, you’d best settle in. We’ll issue them a GPS and a flight of salt pills while I send over our seasonal menu: a list of my fears, in no particular order.
As a child, I would
There was this one particular summer routine, that, as a child, I would, rail against with a great fervor unbefitting my age. So much did I resent going to confession with my Nana, who - in some heart-wrenchingly misguided divination – believed she was, through it, imparting something absolute and necessary, that I would offer to repeat the rosary with all the frantic widows in the front pews instead. Nana’s voluptuous piety hurtled violently over my daily pleas – little inglorious defeats - as she scurried me to the dark back corner, our fingers wagging to the trinity.
“Remember that God is within earshot. That usually helps me.”
I was ten, my sins saplings at best. But I knew that only the darkest of sins deserved to be expunged in the upright coffins. My Nana would go first, leaving me to organize my wicked doings, the torrid misdemeaning actions carried out by my tender lilac-scented limbs.
Each time Nana would emerge, her pale powdered face flushed with penitence, and I would pass to take my place. Shaking. He was within earshot, after all. “Forgive me Father for I have sinned. And I’m really sorry. I masturbated. At the apartment pool. And behind a house on that unfinished housing tract on State Street. And I disobeyed Nana twice.”
On the way home, she would ask me if I felt lighter. From our collective unburdening. I didn’t. I felt heavy, black, my childhood falling, tiny lines criss-crossing across the palms of my hands.
Diary of the Guy Who Lives in the Apartment Upstairs From Mine, Part II
January 13: As part of my ongoing effort to be more sophisticated, I've decided to wear only tap shoes around the house. I can't tell you what a thrill it is to come home and kick off those inglorious crepe-soled Hush Puppies I wear to work and slip into my glamorous, hard-heeled Capezios. I just slip a sprig of lilac in my lapel and I feel like Fred Astaire all night long! Plus, they're great for killing those really big roaches that only come out in the wee, small hours.
January 14: Ordered a goat. Good for divination, also for milk. Who says you need huge tracts of land to raise livestock? Not me, that's who!
January 15: Did I mention I also ordered a piano? Well, it was delivered today! I was so excited I couldn't contain myself -- I spontaneously went into one of the dances my mother taught me, that Russian-Cossack-style dance where you squat down and kick out your legs one at a time for, like, three hours. As a child, I would do this barefoot, but now of course I wear wooden clogs. Anyway, after that I was far too tired to actually move the thing to where it's supposed to be, but I figure I can do that much, much later tonight.
January 16: Finally got around to renting the Jackass movie. Who knew you could improvise powered roller skates out of portable belt sanders? Well, I'll tell you who knows now: me. Goodbye, wasted weekend, hello, project!
As a child, I would sit on the top concrete step in early afternoons, crying, because I hadn’t received a letter. Having learned from children’s television that a letter was a wonderful thing, I waited, delighted in the opportunity for self-pity. Inglorious, yes, but when I think of childhood, it is with the desire to compose a tract on the joys of adulthood; my childhood was filled with anxiety and shame. For years, I disliked children as a result. I got better. Now I have friends who write letters.
Having friends, I live in anxiety around whether I’m keeping in touch with them sufficiently. “Hello,” I will say, calling someone I worked with in New York in 2000. “I am touching you.”
Dear Ramona, dear my child, pre-verbal and thus pre so many difficult, bad things, There are things you should know, things that would have appeared to me, as a child, as a glorious divination to maybe unseat the terror of the world over which, young, you have no control. The summer I was 25 I grew morning glories inside my bedroom. I planted seeds in a row of Goodwill coffee cups, rigged trellises from yarn and typewriter ribbon to the empty curtain rod. That room, through which passed bad, negligent lovers, drunk painters, derivative writers, was the most beautiful place I will ever live in. The 1910 lath surfaced through pale green paper printed with bunches of purple and silver grapes. Places, good places, will feel like home to you, eventually.
You know it isn’t freedom, but you don’t know quite what else to call it, this capacity to choose -- or appear to oneself to choose -- between description or expression, to toy with the tense of one’s memories at will, to organize one’s life around something less inglorious than a strict budget, menu planning, and a “big shop” once a week on the way home from work. It certainly doesn’t feel like anyone else’s life, but in what sense is it yours? A stone building at one end of the road, a brick one at the other – and between them, you, a power plant in a snowglobe. Trembling on the lip of a mise en abyme: the dollhouse inside the dollhouse (and so on), precisely where a dollhouse stands in your pleasantly appointed tract home (and so on). Move a chair or ottoman at one “level,” and find that the corresponding item has moved – has been moved – at every other; so did you move it, or were you moved by it? It’s convenient when you need to vacuum, until you come to suspect that the pattern of ridges in the carpet could be a map for divination, if you only knew the code. It all adds up to the sense that you’re being revised by an obsessively meticulous author, drafting and redrafting a single sentence in lilac-colored ink on large, stiff cards. As a leaseholder, a small suburban squire, I rarely indulge such fearful speculations, though as a child, I would.
As a child, I would swim a lot at a small beach on the Mississippi River in West Alton, Missouri, only miles south of Hannibal.
Growing up on the big muddy, the mysteries of that uncertain body of water always caught our childhood fantasies. From roaming the woods along the rivers edge where lilac's and birch trees dot the landscape, to fishing and swimming, the winding river was a part of childhood.
When I was nine, one of my classmates and his father drowned in Piasa Creek, a small but swift tributary that has captured more than its fair share of life. My classmate was taken under by a swift current, and upon jumping in, so was his father. I often wondered what kind of divinations could have occurred during those desperate moments, if any.
Once when I was sixteen, we were playing frisbee near the rivers edge. The frisbee veered off and flew into the river. I jumped in, and immediately was taken out about twenty feet from the river's bank. I panicked, and then gathered myself, as the river began to take me downstream.
Several minutes passed before I finally made my way to shore. A lot of thoughts went through my head during that time. Would I end up another statistic in the local paper, a tract of some sort, and how would it read? Nothing inglorious of course, possible just a short in the local newspaper reading, “Teen drowns fetching frisbee in river.”
Intermission: Randy Bemrose
I would feel safe if only
and the words
Karin was getting her MBA at one of those smallish universities that advertise in the New Yorker. This one was tucked into a listless suburb 15 miles outside of Phoenix, but it boasted a primarily international population and Karin had hopes of marrying a European.
After her first week there, she phoned friends to report that the odds were in her favor. There were 86 men in her program and four women.
“I would feel safe if only it weren’t for this whorish 38 year old from Czech,” she complained.
On weekends, Karin, the only one with a driver’s license, would drive a group of classmates, along with the Czech whore, to Sedona, windows rolled down, all seven Blackberrys ejected from their belt holsters.
The men liked to push their heads out the sunroof and shout obscenities in their native languages. The women would disguise their mutual hatred of one another and exchange invented, but painful, childhood memories in loud quivery voices, hoping to win the sympathies of the sensitive Europeans.
Once, the Czech whore came close to victory when she claimed to have seen her entire family eviscerated at the hands of a neo-fascist Slovakian youth gang.
Blind with rage and lacking any immediate comparable account, Karin jerked the steering wheel hard and abruptly to the right, forcing her car off the road.
The incident gave Karin time to conceive her best vile recollection, which she began, in an exaggerated quaver, against the backdrop of American red rock strata.
I would feel safe if only the world slowed its pace. Otherwise, it's free for all, a bust, one unmet deadline after another, never pausing to reflect on, well, anything. That's fine by me. Remembering when you dropped everything to concentrate on freelancing. Stepping out to finally take the plunge into the red.
It was finishing the novel of course. Writing news story on the side for anyone that will pay you. Some gems, some trash, whatever it takes.
Finally it starts to fall down, slowly closing in, fucks you over and whoever you happen to be sharing the bed with at the time. All you have to show for your efforts are bad scribbles, and overflowing ashtrays. Everyone around you flees, no longer an interesting commodity.
It’s back to the newspaper, back to deadlines, where I feel safe, sheltered from the eviscerating openness of blank pages. Back to building a relationship with an editor, who will learn to love and hate every bone in my body. Back to the social strata, where things go down, back to ejecting egos.
I don’t mind the gig one bit. It’s just the game that gets tired. Chasing down off the record conversations, the research, the follow-up, and the rush, layering opposing points of view, half of which are full of shit.
The final read, and one more last cigarette. Off to the editor, the proudest hack of them all. What would we do without them? Feeling safe again locked in deadlines.
A spur of the moment thing in a life lately shorn entirely of spurs, I popped thirteen dollars for a manicure in December at an unassuming place on Hawthorne, boy short and dark red.
No Emily Post advice is extant on how much to talk or not talk when having your forearms massaged by a sweet looking woman who speaks little English. My girl had an American romance novel translated into Vietnamese tucked under the corner of the thin white towel beneath the nail works; a dusting of modest glitter across her clavicle. I ejected the desire to reach with my wet nails to touch her there, next to the neck pulse, the strata of dermis, epidermis, the skin we have in common. Why am I not a more natural person like my mother wants me to be? The sign over the sink read “WASH YOUR HAND”, and another nail technician grated dead skin from the feet of a lady with a laptop, for whom time was clearly money, on her cell phone, radiating tinny office laughter. The mat her tech knelt on, faded black rubber, read BUILT FORD TOUGH.
Dear Nail Technician:
It’s me, the white lady in the torn coat and good hat who tipped you ten bucks recently because another white lady there talked incessantly on her cell phone and ignored your co-worker. I look like her, kind of, but I feel like you, which is kind of obnoxious, I know. In my mind, I am still 19, selling newspapers in Kalamazoo, MI, to the PhDs at Dow Chemical. I would feel safe if only I could stop wanting to eviscerate everyone who has money and is rude to service personnel. Have a nice life.
“You’re not in any danger, as long as you’re willing to sing.” A man with a handlebar moustache stood over me whispering, his kind eyes fearful behind Ben Franklin spectacles. I gasped, wordlessly; I remembered nothing between pulling the eject lever of the two-seater above the Pacific and waking up here, on what seemed to be an island, though I never saw the shore. After assuring himself that nothing was broken, he led me on shaky legs to a tiled clearing and presented me to the other inhabitants: an immense frog with the voice of a child and unvareigated green felt for skin, an equally monstrous owl decked out in several strata of worn cloth pin-feathers and a professor’s tasseled mortarboard, and a mincing hippo with pink injection-molded hide and hollow red nostrils wider than my head. My gorge rose. At first, I thought these were costumes, but no: you could enviscerate any of them and come away with nothing but fistfuls of foam and plush. My rescuer wasn’t kidding about the singing: puerile chants in 7/4 on themes of trust, sharing, and tidiness, repeated to exhaustion and accompanied by impossible-to-follow ring dances. It seemed to be our task to socialize, or at least distract, these beasts that stood like men. At night, shivering in our Potemkin treehouse, he would spin tales of the quaint macrobiotic B&B we would open in the Castkills upon our escape, vainly hoping that, at least in my dreams, I would feel safe. If only.
Diary of the Guy Who Lives in the Apartment Upstairs From Mine, Part III
January 17: Flamenco lesson today. I can't really afford these, but I do enjoy them so, and I'll need some culture if I do ever climb out of the lower economic strata, n'est-ce pas? Plus, I save some money by allowing Miguel to do the lesson at 2 am to accommodate his porphyria -- I figure the rest of the shortfall I can make up by using enormous metal frying pans in lieu of castanets.
January 20: Eviscerated a live pig in the den while sleepwalking last night. Oops.
January 18: A bottle of red, a bottle of white-- a big box of the complete Billy Joel discography tonight! Amazon.com, don't go changin'-- today you made my easy listening dreams come true. I put "Piano Man" on repeat and sat down for a 8 or 9 hours of uninterrupted bliss.
Unfortunately, when I was ready to turn my stereo off I couldn't get the CD to eject. I tried putting the speakers face down on the floor, but it was still pretty loud, so I left town for a few days. I'm not very good with mechanical things.
January 26: Back from my mini-retreat. I thought a lot about some pretty heavy spiritual stuff, and frankly, I kind of wigged myself out. But I would feel safe if only I knew the answer to this simple question: What sort of a God would allow people to have terrible things happen to them, like, say, losing their faculties, or being maimed in accidents? I don't know, but I'll bet hosting an all-night theological debate for hard-of-hearing men with peg legs would help me figure it out.
Yet of all my flaws, the most fatal, I fear
and the words
-- These are the new vowels: elevAted, severE, hIgh, lOw, gUarded.
-- Aren’t those in the wrong order?
-- Yes, that’s what makes them new! And they’re color-coded, as well.
-- Let me guess: black, white, red, green, blue.
-- Three out of five – not bad. Do you want to know the others?
-- Do I have a choice?
-- E, or Yellow, or Elevated, though a “primary” color on the old wheel of combinations and complements we once learned in art class (now underfunded out of existence), now corresponds to a transitory state, as of temperature or density. Think of the early stages of crystal formation.
-- Hmm, anxiety isn’t the only thing that’s free-floating around here. Is there another?
-- I, or orange, or High: a color that once produced a spike in the heart-rate now forms the background to every veridical perception. See the tint in my Ray-Bans?
-- Just out of curiosity: what became of black and white?
-- Oh, shivering cowslips, corsets of flies, all that? Far too Manichean, like this invidious dichotomy between “good” and “bad” cholesterol.
-- You seem to have absorbed this new learning into your very bones.
-- Perhaps. But every time I paint from this new palette, the result is unreadably gray, as though all ten digits or twenty-six letters were superimposed on one another, forming all words, and none.
-- Don’t despair: synaesthesia and paragonnage may conquer melancholia yet.
-- Of all my flaws, the most fatal: I fear.
Letter to Ramona, Part 2
I miss my melancholia, and the devotion I once lavished upon objects: a tin of cobbler’s nails dug from a trash heap in my grad school neighborhood, a silver hand mixer with faulty wiring, a cigar box full of old, beautiful, chokeable buttons. Ephemera I owned and saw myself the agent of, helping spent things through their transitory flight across this mortal coil. A rusted railroad spike I thought charming now appears the thing you might take up and fall upon. I am afraid that my neuroses may make me, for you, a difficult mother. I worried tonight when you earned your first real nosebleed, tripping over The History of Numbers and face-planting on the end table; I will worry when you don’t confide in me; I will worry when you tell me everything that you are not individuating. I will continue to worry about your eating lead paint. Yet of all my flaws, the most fatal, I fear, is a propensity to take everything personally, all the time. I hope that you eventually hate me, but briefly. I hope you become a Republican, but briefly. I hope you date a bad, wrong person, who makes me physically nauseous. I hope you think, when older, that the photograph I took of you with a bloody nose, after you were calm again, is kind of punk rock. I hope you get enough calcium, encounter magnificent danger, and survive me by a hundred years.
When the Homecoming Queen finds your diary after it’s dropped out of your ugly old JC Penney backpack, it’s a lesson to never, ever write down your fears.
“Stick her big fat stupid head on a spike,” is what I wanted to write after the Vice Principal returned it, or what was left of it.
But creeping home through the back alleys, clutching the ripped entries, forlorn little unloved orphans, I resolved to write only things I wanted strangers to read.
Now, if I lapse and reveal too much melancholia on a particular day when, for example, my lungs feel like they’re wrapped around a dead goat because nobody is returning my calls, I simply go back and recast it. “Finally got some time to myself, recharged….”
There’s no limit to what you can rewrap in nicer paper. Take that whole pooping in bed thing – it’s way better as “I lost all inhibitions and pity his closed-mindedness. A transitory love.”
Lately, I’ve even started pretending to drop my journal. Like on the bus. Open to a particular entry that I want to be read. “December 17th - and yet of all my flaws, the most fatal, I fear is my penchant for recklessness, to ride naked on a motorcycle at night, steal a diamond necklace and mail it to a family in Rwanda…”
I drop the journal using a lot of arm motion and then move to a different seat and wait. Someone, pick it up. Pick it up.
Yet of all my flaws, the most fatal, I fear is that depression, and self-doubt have consumed my being, a sort of melancholia that knows no pity. A shell hopelessly roaming in a transitory state that doesn't recognize what is right and what is wrong, true schizophrenia. The bizarre and unorganized voices line up in an orderly fashion, like a cheap cliché that you've stopped trying to shake or understand.
At some point the realities of the streets lodge its wicked insanity into your brain. Beautiful tragedies appear on a daily basis. Those thoughts seem to never last for more than a moment and rarely do they have any consistency. Like a railroad spike driven deep into red earth, or river rats feeding after the fair, you’ve come to find comfort in the odd things that most don’t recognize.
Of course, like any human being, you once told yourself it wouldn’t last long. Undeveloped plans have slowly amassed like building blocks in your mind. One by one they lead you to the unknown, safety and chaos.
Unfortunately, you’ve lost context. Everything went from bad to worse. The days turned into months, then years. Faceless. Begging for change. Wet. Dignity lost, unkempt, abandoned, all except for the voices. Everything has retreated, inconsistent. I have an important message, but I’ve forgotten. The darkness is comforting. The train howl is relieving. The big shops are desperate; the shallows are unclear. Dawn is murky.
Diary of the Guy Who Lives in the Apartment Upstairs From Mine, Part IV
January 31: Whew! What a party! I thought theological debates were brief, transitory things. Who knew they could go on for four days straight?
I learned a lot and made a lot of new friends. My favorite is probably Cap'n Spike, a peppery old Greek gentleman who smashes a plate on the floor whenever he makes a particularly good point, or when somebody else makes a good point, or, really, pretty much any old time he can get his hands on a plate.
Of course, I wouldn't want you to get the idea that it was all deadly serious; we had plenty of fun as well. I doubt I'll soon forget the lusty, improvised rendition of "One Singular Sensation" from A Chorus Line that we managed to pull together one night. The seven hours of continuous practice were well worth it, and if you've never seen 25 peg-legged men arm-in-arm doing Rockettes-style high kicks -- well, you've never seen 23 or 24 peg-legged men fall to the floor in a tangled heap, many inexplicably wearing suits of armor.
February 2: Saw the guy from downstairs by the mailbox today, and I have to say, he's looking bad - sallow complexion, melancholia, dark circles around his eyes.
You already know I'm considerate to a fault. Yet, of all my flaws, the most fatal, I fear, is my insatiable need to help others. That's why I can't rest while my poor neighbor is obviously being tormented in by evil spirits. Well, I know just the thing to drive them away: fireworks! And Chinese New Year is just around the corner! Gung Hay Fat Choy!!!