Liang supposed it wasn’t much of a job for all the degrees he’d earned, but at least he was working. It was a start. He’d established compensations for his poor attitude. After his implant gently woke him, sensed by his alpha waves that he was awake, he’d programed it to begin flooding his conscious with subliminal messages: “I’m so glad I work for the U.N.; I’m so happy I’m helping feed people; I love working”. And so on, up to the point in which those same alpha waves suggested an improved level of contentment (not that some days he didn’t shut it off early so he could enjoy his bad mood).
He stepped into the bathroom and his 16’ by 20’ apartment began to quietly reconfigure itself; the bedroom set quietly withdrew, like an old-style Murphy bed but quite different due to the materials, and, as the glass wall leading to the small balcony went opaque, an enclosed shower, wardrobes and dressing area emerged. He stepped into the shower and the commode withdrew as the sink expanded and the toiletries cabinet opened. He stepped out of the shower and it folded away, the kitchen folded out, the coffee maker and oven began prepping breakfast. He finished dressing and the wardrobe switched out for a table and chairs, but as the glass wall became polarized and transparent again, giving him a view of Shanghai’s Pudong district, he decided to take breakfast on the balcony. His implant reminded him of his first meeting in 40 minutes. He enjoyed the late summer fresh air as he ate, then stepped back into the apartment wishing he’d set the oven for a chocolate muffin instead of the raspberry scone he’d nibbled at. The dining table had been replaced by a desk. The kitchen had withdrawn into only the coffee bar, and the commode was back. He ordered up a second latte and as his implant interfaced with his computer and connected him with his meeting. Liang slipped on his goggles so he could see them. His view divided into four screens, smallest on the lower right where the translation program ran and would monitor the conversation and decipher anything not related in English. Liang was the second participant on, along with his counterpart from Mexico City. Next came one of the American representative from Nashville where distribution to the hard-hit central regions was headquartered. Finally the director of the World Food Program from United Nations headquarters in Dubai.
The director said, “Welcome to yet another meeting of the ‘Feed America Initiative’.
Liang offered a greeting, as they all did.
“Let’s pick up where we left off,” the director began. “Mexico, I’m starting with you, since you’ve been dealing with the most urgent issues”.
The Mexico City official colored; Liang found that surprising as he’d supposed she’d be used to the criticism by now, not that it was her fault. The Mexican economy was booming (both legal and illegal). Shipments to America, which had to go through Mexico because American west coast ports had been devastated by earthquakes, were routinely hijacked. She said, “I’ve met again with security officials who assured me they are establishing new measures. If it means anything, they succeeded two days ago in rescuing the shipment received on 11 September and it is currently being convoyed north under guard.” They all knew the ‘under guard’ part meant nothing, and that the shipment would likely be hijacked again.
“How much of the shipment was received,” the Nashville representative wanted to know. There was just a tinge of frantic tone in his voice. There usually was.
“About half,” Mexico said.
“About 40 percent.”
“So,” Nashville commented, “Closer to one-third.” The American situation gave him good reason for scrutiny. The Pacific coast was in chaos. The near west, from Arizona and New Mexico north to Montana, was out of water. The warming planet has shifted the grain belt much farther north, and the entire Midwest from Kansas north and east as far as Ohio had become a desert. The south was socially and political unstable due to repeated nationalism insurrections and the Atlantic had degenerated, for all practical purposes, into a series of city-states that could not sustain themselves. And most of New York City, of course, including the old United Nations building, was under water.
“Shanghai,” the director asked, “What have you got for me.” Shanghai was the collection point for aid from China, Korea, and southeast Asia, and Liang was responsible for coordinating its distribution.
Liang said, “I have one shipment already halfway to Manzanillo, and three more are in various stages of preparation, but as long as the situation at the Mexican ports remains so hazardous I would argue against sending them to that destination.”
The director said, “I tend to agree; this has gone on long enough.” Canada’s west coast was little better off than America’s, and with the Panama Canal closed the director’s decision meant there was no recourse but for a long trip west, through the Indonesian straits and around Africa to somewhere on the Atlantic coast.
Nashville said, “Forget about Baltimore.”
“Already forgotten,” the director said. “My discussions with Canada have been promising, either Saint John or Montreal. We will reconvene five days; that should give me and them time to make arrangements. Make it 9 a.m. my time, please. Shanghai cease further shipments to Manzanillo. Mexico, I’d like you to attend also to discuss the shipment that’s already halfway there. Thank you, everybody.”
Goggles went black. Liang removed them and discovered that his latte had gone cold. He set his implant to prepare calls to his warehouses; he’d determined to get a new shipment in the water towards Canada quickly, with the specific port identified after the upcoming meeting, and he directed his implant to schedule that meeting for five days hence, 5 a.m. GMT, 1 p.m. Shanghai time, Friday, September 27, 2193.
The Obsolete Hat
Trixie B. sat on her deck with the stub of her right leg, amputated below the knee four months prior due to diabetes complications, propped up on another chair as she finished her second banana daiquiri of the afternoon and watched the young men hired by the condo association mow and trim the yard. The young, mostly shirtless men worked fast, professionally, and by sheer luck Trixie and her roommate Lana R. had already been on the deck enjoying a pleasant summer afternoon, not as hot as yesterday, lovely puffy clouds dancing across the blue sky, when they arrived. The efficiency of the young men would ensure the beefcake show would not last long. Lana was just returning with a new round of daiquiri’s which Trixie was certain would be extra heavy on the rum and not quite properly mixed with the rest of the ingredients as Lana had seemed to concoct them awfully fast. A fair number of friends and relatives suspected the two women were lesbians when they moved in together after both their husbands died, but that wasn’t remotely true, a fact illustrated by Lana who, after putting the milky drinks onto the glass table, said, “Figured out how we can slam that yet?”
The propensity of the two of them to go salty when discussing men was infamous; they went out of their way to lay it on, especially when in the company of others, which confused Trixie as to why anyone would conclude they were lesbians unless it were perceived as overcompensating. Trixie told her, “Thought I’d just sit here and let my aura attract them.”
Lana said, “Let me sit down and recross my legs a couple times and see if that helps.”
“How could they pass up two fat old ladies with three legs?”
Lana looked at her. “Three feet. We got four thighs. Pull your shorts higher.”
Trixie was focusing on one particular young man, his sweaty bronze skin shimmering under pieces of freshly mowed grass. She was focusing on him because she remembered him. A little over a dozen years ago he’d been her student. “Do you remember the Basengame kid?” she asked Lana.
It was as junior high teachers that Trixie and Lana had recognized kindred spirits in each other. With both their husbands gone, it had just made sense to combine their retirement resources under the same roof. Lana asked, “The one who got caught dropping crackers down the back of the younger kid’s pants?”
Trixie said, “No, the younger one. The one who was so smart.”
“Yeah, I do.”
She studied him. He looked up and saw them just then. Trixie waved at him. He seemed to recognize her. Lana said, “Yeah, I believe I see it. What would he be now? Twenty-five?”
“More like twenty-eight.”
“Two questions, then. First, he was so smart what the hell is he doing mowing yards for living?”
“Couldn’t tell you.”
“And second, why is he wearing that hat?”
“Turns out maybe he wasn’t so smart,” Trixie suggested.
Trixie felt her toes wiggle in the summer breeze – toes on the foot that was no longer there. Phantom pain. She’d been having sensations of one kind or another since her amputation, and she found them unnerving, as though she were part ghost. She knew, of course, that the removal of her leg had not removed the synapses in her brain that expected the leg to be there. The new reality made those pieces of grey matter obsolete. But because of it, she knew exactly what had happened to young Basengame as he now strolled towards them wearing that sweat stained red hat with the asinine political slogan, the yard work having been completed. A rapidly changing world had amputated the reality his synapses expected to be there, and he had failed to establish new ones. For all practical purposes he was more functionally disabled than she was. “Hi, Mrs. B,” he said happily. “You look relaxed.”
She knew Lana was floating on too much rum to let it rest. Lana said, “Where’d you get that idiotic hat? Pull it from a shithouse?”
The smile young Basengame began the conversation with immediately evaporated; no doubt not the first time since the failed election his hat had been ridiculed. “I like this hat,” he defended himself.
“Then you’ve got your head up your ass,” Lana told him. “You also believe bigfoot and aliens are trying to bang us to make hybrid babies, dumbass?”
Young Basengame thrust his chin out to show he wouldn’t be pushed around. “He’s a great man who saved America!”
“He’s a criminal who tried to take down democracy for his own profit and he should be in prison.”
Young Basengame glanced at Trixie as if looking for help. She said, “Sorry, kid, I’ve got no sympathy for you.”
He turned his back on them and walked away. “I’m not a kid, old lady,” he shouted over his shoulder. The other young men on the yard crew watched him return as they packed up their equipment and he told them something they couldn’t make out. Then they left.
“Well,” Trixie said, “That went well.”
Lana sipped her daiquiri. “Knock that hat off and staple his mouth shut and I’d still slam him.”
Trixie smiled at her. But between them passed the same thought about the young man who had passed through their classrooms, who had absorbed their lessons, who they remembered as so smart; the dull dread that they had failed.
Pipe Organ Serenade
The boy was brought into the chapel in a wheelchair and situated beside the second row next to where his father and little brother would sit. ‘Boy’, the preacher thought. ‘How can I still call this man a boy?’ Might have been when he left two years ago, having successfully lied about his age to get into the army a little early. He was clearly a boy no longer.
He thought the boy’s – man’s – eyes seemed bright with recognition and could track the preacher as he walked items to and from the pulpit preparing for services. But the angry scar across his head, the depression in his skull as though a piece had been blasted out, the shriveled body, all suggested whatever spark remained did not extend beyond his mind. He didn’t seem unhappy, the preacher thought, then wondered how that could be. Clearly, the preacher concluded as he went about his business while watching him from the corner of his eye, the man retained his perceptions and his self-awareness. But any ability to express his thoughts were gone. Any movements of his extremities to communicate had been taken. All but those eyes, bright green and expressive as a pipe organ and radiating serenity.
The day had seemed so filled with the promise of easy contentment when the preacher climbed into his Model-T that morning, oblivious to the man’s existence. He’d constructed a simple sermon based on Paul’s letters to the Corinthians that was little more than extension of other sermons he’d given a hundred times. The drive over country roads to his little church that backed against the woods had been pleasant and gloriously bathed by a kind summer sun. His modest congregation had been through well enough over the past couple years, first with Great War casualties and then those taken by the Spanish flu, the man’s mother having been one of those just a few months back. He’d said words over a half dozen for the former and just shy of a full dozen for the latter. But those traumas had seemed to have played themselves out. He felt the congregation needed simple, gentle forgiveness then sent home feeling good about themselves, cloistered from the harsh world beyond their little valley. It was, he was sure, a time for healing. No place now for fire, brimstone, judgement, or dogma. Should be that way all the time, he thought to himself as he drove along, bouncing over the road so enjoyably.
Then the preacher learned that the man had returned home from an army hospital just days before. He wasn’t sure how much the man’s family had known of his condition before he got there or if they even knew he was coming. No one had reached out to him for guidance – the mother would have, but the father was not so outgoing. There they sat now in the second row, the man in his wheelchair on the side, the father looking bleary-eyed, the little brother looking as always that he’d rather be fishing, the empty space where their mother had sat, and the empty space next to that where the man had sat before the war violently repositioned him. The congregation filed hesitantly in, the man and his family a clear illustration that they were not cloistered safe from the world and could not be any longer. They did not live in an isolated valley. There was no escape. The preacher took position at the pulpit as they settled themselves and looked to him for insight. The man in the wheelchair only looked at him with that deep, peaceful serenity as if heaven itself were flowing through him.
And the preacher thought, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, what the holy hell do I tell these people now?!’ And he wondered what might remotely bring context to the pain of these past couple years. What words could he offer that might provide even the slightest shield against the world? The choir behind him began their opening hymn and he looked to his notes, knowing that every song he had selected, every prayer he had scripted, every word of his sermon was wrong. Like the man in the wheelchair, he felt he had lost all ability to express his thoughts, or even to coalesce thoughts at all.
Then he looked to the wheelchair bound man himself, hoping to find an answer in his expressive eyes. And in fact, deep and abiding, the love he needed to find was there waiting for him.
Six Days In Oblivion
Monday. He woke 7ish with a headache and dehydration, classic hangover. He gulped coffee and chewed a croissant and made art while listening to old music. He did that all day; didn’t see or talk to anyone. In the evening he left his cluttered loft and walked a block to the neighborhood tavern, where he sat on a bar stool and drank beer. He had supper there and watched and listened to the happy, animated, laughing patrons, most of whom he recognized and who recognized him. He hardly talked to anybody except the bartender, but he never did. A guitarist strummed music in the corner. After several hours he returned home and drank whiskey until he fell asleep.
Tuesday. He woke 7ish with a headache and dehydration. He gulped coffee and chewed a croissant. He made art and listened to old music, today jazz rather than yesterday’s classical. He thought to himself what a cultured and eclectic person he was, listening to varied forms of music. At 2p his agent arrived to collect several of his art pieces. The agent had hoped for a specific work the artist was doing on commission. He told his agent to return on Friday and he’d have it. His agent asked how he was doing, what with everything going on. He just shrugged. He wondered what the hell his agent was talking about. In the evening he walked to the neighborhood tavern and sat on a bar stool and drank beer and had supper and watched and listened to the patrons, who he thought seemed less happy and animated and laughing than yesterday, and the guitarist seemed to be playing moodier stuff. The bartender was keeping to himself. After several hours he returned home and drank whiskey until he fell asleep.
Wednesday. He woke 7ish with a headache and dehydration and gulped coffee and chewed a croissant and made art and listened to old blues music. He did that alone all day, then walked to the tavern and sat on his stool with beers and supper, but there was no guitarist. No music playing at all and there were fewer people and they just sort of sat around quietly. He felt annoyed with them. A stern man in a black coat and hood came in and sat alone in a corner and watched everyone even less discreetly than he did. He decided he didn’t like the man. The bartender seemed nervous. After several hours he returned home and drank whiskey until he fell asleep.
Thursday. He woke 7ish with a headache and dehydration and gulped coffee and chewed a croissant and made art and listened to old rock music. After making art all day and finishing the work his agent wanted he walked to the tavern and sat on his stool. The bartender gave him a beer and told him there was no supper except pretzels because the cook had not come to work and again there was no music. And again there were fewer, quieter patrons. The stern man in the black coat and hood returned and this time had two other stern associates with him. They sat for a few minutes, then rose and approached one of the patrons, the stern man standing in front of his table and the two others on either side. “No,” the patron said. “No, I haven’t done anything.” But the two on either side each grabbed an arm each and lifted him, and they left. He returned home and drank whiskey until he fell asleep.
Friday. He awoke as usual and made art all day. He placed the work his agent wanted against the wall, but the agent never arrived to collect it. He kept waiting and delayed leaving for the tavern. He was annoyed, but more confused; his agent was never late. The bartender silently set a beer and a bowl of pretzels in front of him and there was still no music. The stern man and his two stern associates entered, and this time walked straight to the bar, moving behind it to the bartender who backed frightened against the counter and rattled bottles. Each associate took and arm and left with the bartender in tow, but the stern man in the black coat and hood took a seat in the corner and watched. The waitress moved behind the bar, but there were hardly any patrons to attend to and those who were there sat quietly. He looked quizzically to the waitress, who said nothing, then he returned home and drank whiskey until he fell asleep.
Saturday. He slept a little later but still awoke with a headache and dehydration, and did not make art. He spent the day reading novels and relaxing but was distracted by the disruptions he’d witnessed and felt annoyed by that. He still expected his agent to pop up, but he never did. In the evening he walked to the tavern and sat on his stool and the waitress placed a beer in front of him and told him there were no more pretzels, and there was still no music, and hardly any patrons. He hunched over his beer, and then two more, and then the one after those he felt a tap on his shoulder, and he turned expecting his agent had finally showed up. Instead he stared into the face of the stern man and his associates, each of whom placed a hand under his arms, and it dawned on him that, for whatever reason, they were there for him.
Our fair city was graced on January 2nd with a perfect snow – just enough to be pretty, not enough to get in the way. It melted as soon as it hit pavement but stuck to the trees and the foliage. Snow also threatened the following day but succeeded only in filling the air with moisture particles that reflected the available light. The world seemed to glow. Zero wind and temperatures just above freezing. A perfect photographer’s day.
Today I’m beginning a series of about a dozen works captured on that day, each with very little applied from the photo artist’s toolkit, each work in black and white (I still like to call it ‘noir’). It’s as near to straight photography as I get, hell and gone from the abstract work I’ve been doing. All were captured with my Nikon1 V3 using a superb 1Nikkor 18.5 lens.
I’ve always found January and February to be creative deserts. Once in a while, the universe grooves an easy fast ball your way. It would be rude not to say ‘thank you’ and smack it into the bleachers.
* * *
The child sat low, behind the pilot in the cockpit of the starfighter, half asleep and oblivious. Dropping smoothly out of light speed the craft skirted the edge of an asteroid belt, then just as expected the first raiders appeared, and the pilot plunged the starfighter into it.
Raiders were faster but with the move into the belt had to quickly reverse thrust. Advantage went to the pilot who knew where he was going. He fired off lasers to the left, then to the right, then back to the left again as he danced around tumbling space rocks. He positioned the starfighter behind a large one where the raiders could only wait for him to leave its shadow. When he did it was a quick shoot down a narrow corridor the pilot knew would circumvent a choke point where more raiders would be waiting; so quick a turn made in the shadow of the big asteroid that what few raiders saw it, missed it. The starfighter cruised free of them for the moment.
But this part was tricky. The pilot could be quick but due to the narrowness of the corridor also had to be extremely cautious. A spinning boulder or even another raider might pull in front of him at any moment. The child seemed to become more alert now, sensitive to the perils. The pilot steered left into a new, even narrower passageway, then right, then left again, then finally emerging into the clear with just the slightest yield to assure himself he wouldn’t move straight into something. He opened the throttle now. The raiders had been slowed by their own bottleneck. The pilot could see them closing but knew they would be too late, and sure enough he hung the starfighter right, under the umbrella of the planetary defenses and coasted into its atmosphere.
Then everything changed. The pilot’s grip on the controls eased. He could feel the starfighter’s connection to the ground as movement slowed and became measured; the starfighter itself morphed into a more sedate configuration, the cockpit surrounded by glass, the controls simplified. The child rustled behind him, gathering her possessions in anticipation of leaving the craft. And finally the pilot moved carefully into the drop off lane and neatly stopped, just up from the yellow school busses and the throng of teenagers mulling their way towards the building.
“Here you go, kid,” he said to his daughter.
“Thanks, dad,” she said, unbuckling in the backseat.
“Got your horn?” he asked because more than once she’d left her coronet in the car, her ambivalence for playing it overriding her memory to take it.
“Yes, dad,” she held it up, annoyed with his question, “And my backpack, and my lunch, and look,” she announced sarcastically, “I even got completely dressed and put my head on straight!”
“Ok, ok,” he said. “Mom will pick you up after band practice. I’ll see you tonight. Have a good day, I love you.”
The ‘love’ part always softened her a little. He hoped it wasn’t because he didn’t say it enough.
“Thanks, Dad.” She climbed from the sedan and closed the door. Of course, at fourteen, the ‘love’ part was less likely to come in the other direction.
He watched her join the stream of classmates into the building, used his laser – now his turn signal – before pulling away from the drop zone, slipping past the busses and the other parents. As he moved out of and away from the school zone everything changed back; his focus sharpened, the sedan re-morphed into a starfighter, he punched the rockets and roared back into his imagination.
Tea On The Porch
Every cycle around went faster. Every cycle, he burned off more fuel. Less fuel propelled him forward with greater urgency towards the inevitable. If he didn’t break. If he didn’t completely wear down.
Every cycle clicked off like a clock moving faster. Like calendar pages flipping. Twelve turns, each proceeded by ritual shifts effected at exactly the right moment. Unless … unless … NOW! He flicked the paddle shifter that split second later sending him deeper into the corner, breaking that little bit later, and got his nose there before his competitor who had no choice but to let him through. The competitor would attempt an undercut and take the inside on the next turn, but he knew that and blocked accordingly, and once past that turn the competitor could not keep up. But pushing had cost him. He felt himself slip just that little bit closer to too much. The wear, if not his competitors, was catching up.
“2.6 seconds back,” came The Voice in his earpiece. “Nine laps remaining. Plenty of time”
He said, “Left front is nearly gone.”
“Leader is worse off. You’re faster,” and then the motivational psychology, “Take it too him.”
‘I have been,’ he thought, ‘every time around’. Twelve turns, open throttle down twelve straights. Faster, faster, that little bit faster than everyone else. ‘Plenty of time’, he replayed The Voice’s statement in his mind. ‘To do what? One more pass? One more race?’ Flying down the back straight. Hard around the last hairpin, barely staying within track limits; a slip would have put him in the gravel. Blasting along the front straight and across the start/finish to turn one, perfect downshift, perfect breaking, perfect turn-in, perfect acceleration out. Rhythmic. Hypnotic. His perceptions wide, absorbing the peripherals as they rapidly came and went like seasons, each section its own environment, colors, sensations as relevant to the nature of each turn on the circuit. The roars of the engine, the wind, the tires against the track, the crowd and the helicopters whirling above with their cameras tracking his every move, all of it muffled to a whisper by his thick helmet. Gliding past as smoothly as taking tea on the front porch.
“2.2 seconds,” The Voice broke his concentration. ‘The Voice’ was not in rhythm. It came according to someone else’s priorities, as confining for his mind as the track limits. His entire existence confined to a narrow and predetermined path.
Turn five, another left hander, followed quickly by turn six back to the right; slip … slip … the wear was increasing. ‘Focus’, he thought. The Leader had taken tires six laps earlier than he had; that meant he should be six laps fresher. Six laps less wear. But there were now seven laps to go. “1.7 seconds,” came The Voice. But he knew he was going to have to ease off through the turns or wear down too soon. The Voice could not make that decision form him.
After the start/finish, “1.5 seconds; you’re slowing.” The Voice would be worried now, its context not perfectly synced to his own. Another start/finish took him to 5 laps remaining. “1.2 seconds. Now’s the time to go after him.” He knew if he could get to under 1 second the Leader’s tow would create an aerodynamic vacuum that would suck him closer. By turn ten and entering the back straight he felt that tow grab him. He could see the Leader slipping around even worse than he was, taking the turns even more cautiously.
“3 laps to go,” at the start/finish line, “and .4 seconds behind. You’re on him. Make it happen.”
Now the stalking began. Catching was easy. Passing, like comedy, was harder. He began matching the Leader’s movements around the circuit, shift for shift, break for break, looking for moments the pace was a tick slower than his own, like a pick pocket seeking an opening, a weakness. Twelve turns. Then another twelve turns. Over and over and over. Tick. Tick. Tick.
“Last lap,” The Voice came once more as he sailed across the start/finish, the roar of the engines echoing between the crowded, cheering grandstands made surreal and hushed in the reality of his dense helmet. He tried not to think of it as the ‘last’. What was the point of ending? Twelve more turns around one more circuit. The inevitable would take care of itself. Shift and accelerate. Shift and accelerate. Seasons streaking peripherally by. Rhythm. One more pass … NOW!
Remember, this started with the photo art. I began adding prose this past October at first as a lark, then kept it up because I like doing it, then committed to it because writing arguably drives me more than photography. Or at least as much. It didn’t take long for it to get more attention than the photo art. But this – this the blogging and the social media - started as a means of marketing the photo art.
I created 118 works of photo art this past year. A little less than the year before, and a lot less than the year before that, and deliberately so. My work has become much more complex in the last couple years and takes much more time to create. I wanted to emphasize quality over quantity; just a couple posts a week. Of those, I’ve added 69 of them to my permanent portfolio; a much greater percentage than normally winds up there, so the quality over quantity thing is working. Of those, certain works become my favorites.
To be the best of something during a year like this may be depreciating, and by any measurement it was a weird year. I started the year focusing on crowds and people, and then the pandemic hit and everybody went home. I promised myself I wouldn’t do florals this year and ended up doing some of the best florals of my life. I captured images more with the iPhone more than the Nikon because I found myself in situations in which I needed to be discrete. Weird. So without further ado, here are my five personal favorites from the year as the door hits its ass on the way out.
1. Alone In A Crowd
I love the color, the abstraction, the detail of the individual and the color bleed. It became one of my favorite works the moment it was finished. And I can never exhibit it or sell it. The work emerged from photographs captured at the St. Louis Art Museum, and as it features another artist’s work it can never stand as my own. It will live in a prominent location on a computer, and otherwise hardly see the light of day. Life’s like that.
2. Color Of The Day
Probably got the most attention this year, as far as social media hits. This rack of T-shirts was a marketing gimmick for the opening of a local ice cream shop, and shows why I consider it necessary to have a camera in my pocket (iPhone, in this case) at all times. Taken about six weeks after I completed ‘Alone In A Crowd’, it’s fairly clear how the earlier work informed the photographic capture for this one.
3. From The Labors Of Starving Artists
Particular corporations pay good money for staffs that design just exactly how to put products on shelves, in this case, vegetables picked by migrant workers for pennies an hour. It’s art. It’s just sitting there. But unlike ‘Alone In A Crowd’, it’s part of a constantly changing landscape, and doesn’t become art until somebody captures it and does something with it. Happy to be that someone. It’s interesting to me that my favorite three works are all wider than the standard 2:3 scale. Don’t know that it means anything, but it’s interesting.
4. Pickin’ Veggies
No, the initial photographic capture here did not come at the same time as the previous work, but it did come from the same place, the same aisle, even, just further down. I like the colors, the use of extrusions, and the contrasting human figures. Mostly, I suppose I like that I was able to produce a work involving people when Covid was making that difficult. Which I suppose is not a good reason. Critically, the work doesn’t really have a focal point (an ongoing weakness of mine) and it can seem sort of a blob. But, hey, art is personal.
5. High And Madison
Call this one the Top 5’s token noir work; there weren’t a lot but there were other noir works this year, as the following slide show demonstrates, and some of them actually sold (not this one). And, I suppose, the same lack of focal point mentioned with the previous work could be reflected here as well, though I personally am very happy with the composition. I love the infrared effect of this one and the eeriness the filtering achieved. There are techniques here I’d love to use more often, but the lighting has to be very specific for it to work.
* * *
Finally, in no particular order, the rest of my top 25 works are here in this slide show.
What sail appears on the larboard tack with greater promise, thought I, as the Captain opens his glass and peers into the distance. Light breezes, a gentle Caribbean Sea, the bluest of skies and we sit square in the path any Spanish treasure ship must take for the distant safety of Cadiz. “Mr. Lambdin,” the Captain calls to me, his first lieutenant, “Please take the ship fifteen degrees larboard and send a midshipman aloft with a glass to survey our new friend.”
“Aye, sir!” says I, and give the appropriate commands to the proper crew, the ship heeling to its new course in good order and Midshipman Dewey scampering as high as the main mast crosstrees to scan the horizon. As the minutes pass in high anticipation what was a bare smudge on the horizon becomes more defined as sail advancing towards us. “What say you, Mr. Dewey?” I called.
“She’s Spanish, sir,” the spry midshipman hollers back. “But something’s amiss.” He climbs down, rushes back to the poop deck to report more clearly. “Most definitely Spanish, sir, I can make out the ensign, and a big ‘un! But she’s maneuvered not at all, even though clearly she must see us. And her tack is off for the wind and sails spill their winds lubberly.”
The Captain ponders this.
“Be a good hour or more before we’re up to her in this wind,” I tell the Captain.
He nods. “Send the crew to their breakfast, Mr. Lambdin.”
The crew rush to their biscuit, knowing full well quarters would be called thereafter and they would man their guns for battle. Already I can hear the murmurs of “treasure ship” amongst them. I move closer to the Captain and say quietly, “If indeed it is a ship of the line…”
“Which seems likely,” the Captain told me.
“…our frigate would be greatly outgunned.”
“Are you suggesting we decline battle?”
“Not at all,” I say, “As we approach bow on bow we could heel and present a raking broadside.” Well aimed, such an onslaught would send shot through the length of the Spaniard, wreaking havoc, destruction and death at a fantastic rate.
“It would even the odds considerably,” the Captain agreed, “Unless of course its captain gave orders to heel at the same moment placing us broadside to broadside, doubling and then some our number of guns.”
“Placing us at an extreme disadvantage,” I nodded.
The Captain leaned closer to me. “But if indeed she is at hazard …” He let that trail off. A ship handled so in this part of the sea carried a particular possibility. “Please take the glass forward,” he handed his over to me, “Keep sightings to yourself.”
“Aye, sir,” I said and moved quietly to the forecastle, making light small talk with the crew as I went. I watched off and on until the big ship had closed to less than half, no more than 40 minutes off now, and moved back to the Captain who cocked his ear close to receive my report. “I don’t see it,” I told him. “But the ship is barely making headway, perhaps moving only with the current.” He nodded. Then I told him, “It does, sir, sit exceptionally low in the water. Whatever it carries, it’s loaded to the gills.”
The Captain nodded. Moved away. He checked that the crew had finished with breakfast, which it had dispensed with quickly, and shouted, “Beat to quarters if you please, Mr. Lambdin!”
I had only just opened my mouth to shout the order before the young drummer struck up ‘Hearts of Oak’ and the crew rushed madly in every direction to take their posts, royal marines climbing the shrouds and rat lines with muskets with standing orders to pick off the officers as opportunity provided. The Captain watched the big Spaniard carefully, then gave orders to adjust course to pass to windward – clearly, he wanted to be upwind of the ship if possible. But as we crossed that invisible line by which the guns were in range it was clear the Spaniard was in no condition to fight, its sails hanging loosely, and its gun ports closed. “Haul in all sail,” the Captain ordered, and the topmen scurried aloft and made it happen. We would coast to within two cables. No reaction by the Spaniard. No activity seen.
By now, every officer and the more experienced crew had a sense of things. The Captain called for the second lieutenant. “Take a small party over to her. Do not board her, sir. Take a look over the rail if you can do so without having your head blown off, then report what you see back to me.”
“Aye, sir,” the second lieutenant touched his tricorne hat and called for the boatswain. Everyone watched as the small barge made its way between the ships with still no notice from the Spaniard. The second lieutenant made his way up the hull by the boarding battens, ducked his head over the top a couple times, then raised himself higher and made good observations for several minutes before returning.
“I seen it, sir,” he said to the captain once back onboard and hurrying to the poop deck. “The Yellow Jack,” he named the flag to be hoisted by ships in quarantine. “It’s sprawled on deck where it’s fallen, likely poorly winched, sir. Men are lying sick or dead all about.”
The Captain nodded, looked at me from tops of his eye sockets. “Plague,”
Those men what heard him whispered to those next to them, and on to those next to them, and word went like a hot wind.
“Seems clear, sir,” I agreed.
The Captain clasped his hands behind him. “Well, gentlemen,” he said, “What we have before us is all human enterprise; enough gold and silver waiting to make us all rich beyond our dreams. But if we proceed to take possession business as usual we die before we can spend a farthing of it.” He gave me ‘the eye.’
I stepped towards the rail and shouted to the waiting crew below, “What bastards among you think themselves immune!?”
As the sun rose above the frosted forest on Klemogad’s 50th birthday he was taken aside by his father, who said to him, “Even had I not been there for the birth of you and your five siblings I would know by the curly hair on your feet that you are now an adult elf.
“But, Klemogad,” he went on, “On this, your Day of Ascension, I must tell you that of all my 83 children you have presented me with more trials than any other. You have an impulsiveness that requires a discipline I cannot give you, and an inventiveness which we simple woodland elves cannot harness. You are old enough now, and you must go to the Village. Only there will you receive the purpose and the stern direction you need. You must go to work for The Fat Elf.”
So the following morning, his head still hazy from the food and drink of the previous evening’s libations, he gathered up the huge cloud-cloth that had been prepared for him and took it to the clearing. There on a knob of earth he fastened himself to its harness and on a proper gust of wind tossed it into the air. It unfolded itself as the breeze filled it and lifted Klemogad’s tiny body into the air with a firm jerk. With its control reigns he steered it higher where the gusts were even greater and then, a quick look back at the dew sprinkled woods twinkling in the morning light, he steered himself north.
He seemed to float serenely amongst the clouds, though he knew he was actually moving at a spectacular speed. Hours and hours he glided smooth as the mulberry honey he loved on warm biscuits, until the first buffeting told him he was getting close to the barrier which protected and hid the Village from the world. He felt in his pocket for the piece of granite crystal his father had given him, and as he gripped it, he could feel it extend its radiant energy around him. That energy would see him through the barrier. As the buffeting increased he saw a dark blob coming at him, growing larger, FAST, and he realized that as he was entering the barrier something else was coming out! He jerked the reigns hard to the right, barely missing the onrush of hoof and antler and sleigh that flashed past. The turbulence of its wake sent him and his cloud-cloth spinning. He pulled at the reigns and managed to regain a semblance of direction, but he was rapidly losing altitude, the cloud-cloth having torn in one spot. He fought for control, pulling the reigns hard in an attempt to slow, disoriented by the haze that enveloped him. Then the haze dissipated, and he found himself settling into a giant fir tree that was adorned in ornaments. He grabbed hold, aware that all around were buildings and chattering, excited elves. A few ornaments went crashing to the ground many feet below.
He slipped from the harness and climbed down. The air was sweet with cinnamon and nutmeg and vanilla. Clapboard cottages and buildings, seemingly made of gingerbread, surrounded him. He hit the ground and found himself in an open square, the elves attention directed towards each other and not about him at all; they had, in fact, hardly noticed him. An elf came in his direction, veered into the tree, and threw up.
By now confused, he stepped towards a nearby group sitting in the snow against a bench. One was asleep, two were half-asleep and singing, but the fourth, holding a bottle, smirking, watched him approach. “Howdy, pilgrim,” he greeted him.
Klemogad nodded a guarded hello, scanned the merriment surrounding him, and asked a disbelieving, “Is this The Village?”
The elf chuckled. “Yes, yes, pilgrim, you’ve reached Santa’s Village. Let me guess; you hit your ascension and your old elf figured you were too much trouble and sent you packing, am I right?”
Klemogad nodded. The elf tossed him a fresh bottle that’d been at his side. “Drink up!”
“What is all this,” Klemogad asked.
The elf said, “Kris Kringle has hit the air! It’s Christmas Eve. He’ll be gone all night. This is our time to party!”
“Oh,” Klemogad said, eyeing the bottle in his hand.
“Work office is that way,” the elf pointed. “Get yourself assigned to a workshop tonight and tomorrow nobody will remember you’re new and you won’t have to go through that new elf orientation nonsense.” He waved towards another elf and a girl stepped next to him. Klemogad’s eyes went wide as Christmas stars; he’d never seen a girl like her. She was mesmerizing! Her eyes seemed to bore into his, and she smiled bemused. The elf asked her, “Could you take this newbie over to the work office and get him signed up for something; hey bud,” he said to Klemogad, “What do you like to build?”
Klemogad blinked at him.
Again to the girl, “Yeah, probably should get him signed up for ‘general’ or maybe ‘clean-up’ so he can get his bearings. After that, you can do what you want with him. Oh, and pilgrim,” he went on, “Don’t ever call him ‘The Fat Elf’ here.”
She took him by the arm. “Let’s go, tiger.”
“Party hardy,” the elf told him. “They’ll let us sleep tomorrow, then starting the day after you’ll work your ass off.” Klemogad felt the girl pulling him away like an elfin cloud-cloth taking him to a new world. “That’s what we do here,” the elf called after him. “Bust our asses cranking out what’s next.”
The white Santa beard smelled like peanut butter.
That was because the last officer that used it had stuffed his face incessantly with peanut butter filled crackers from vending machines during the previous shift. There were even crumbs still in it. The beard was also supposed to be both fluffier and whiter, but by then was old enough and ragged enough it looked like something a drunk subway Santa would wear. As that was what he was pretending to be undercover, he supposed that was alright. But it disturbed his own sensibilities of what Christmas was supposed to be.
He was part of a team of three undercover officers dressed as Santa effecting a rotating surveillance of the subway looking for pickpockets and purse thieves amongst the Christmas shoppers. The stations smelled oily and trashy, and the trains were odiferous with body odor and mold. They were crowded with tired, stressed people lugging packages and sacks on and off the trains. Holiday angst bubbled amidst a plethora of shifty characters seeking exploitation of it, half-dozen of whom he’d busted for various infractions over the past week. He stood to the side while scanning the bustle getting on and off the latest train and recognized the complete dearth of Holiday cheer anywhere around him, including within him.
He noticed at that moment a tired young woman carrying two big bags and leading a small girl by the hand. The little girl saw him and stopped dead, which pulled the woman to a stop, which clearly annoyed her, which she was also clearly too tired to fight. The little girl pointed at him excitedly. Seemed to be saying ‘mommy’. The woman sighed as the little girl pulled her towards him.
“I don’t think Santa has time…” the young woman was trying to pause everything.
“Santa!” the little girl stopped in front of him and shouted. He tried to smile at her. The young woman also tried to smile, wearingly, as he did indeed look like less than a legitimate Santa character.
“Hi, there,” he said.
As he sounded sober the young woman said apologetically, “You’re the first Santa we’ve seen.”
He sized the young woman up in a second. Clean but cheaply attired. Dragging her daughter with her shopping because there’d been no one else to watch her. No wedding ring. Carrying bags from discount stores, so not much money to spend. Worn out as she tried to squeeze Christmas shopping in between work. “What’s your name,” he asked the child, and she happily told him. “What would you like for Christmas?”
Her face lit up excitedly. “PlayStation!” she exclaimed.
Her mother gave him such a low expression he knew there was no possible way she could afford to buy her child anything even remotely close to a PlayStation. He recognized the same juxtaposition between Christmas expectations and reality that had soured his own mood. “Wow, cool!” he told the little girl, then asked, “What do you suppose I should bring your nice mommy?”
That seemed to jar the little girl’s thought process. She was still smiling, but she looked with bright eyes at her mommy. An expression came about her he’d seen in children when he knew they were subconsciously drinking in perceptions well beyond their ability to understand. “Well,” she began after a pause, “My Mommy would really like a better job. And a coffee maker that actually works.”
He knelt closer to her. “I’ll try really hard, OK. Jobs are very difficult for Santa, but maybe if you help me. If you’re the best girl you can be, help mommy around the house and stuff, maybe together you and I can make it happen.”
“Okay!” the little girl said happily. She looked back to her mommy, then back to Santa, then said, “Maybe you could just put that PlayStation towards a coffee maker. That and a toaster!”
“You’re a good girl,” he told her, “I’ll tell the elves to get busy on it!”
“Thank you, Santa!” she beamed as her mother half pulled her away, mouthing a ‘thank you’ as she did.
The officer watched them disappear up the stairs and actually felt something akin to Christmas come over him, but with as much lament as warmth; warmth that he had tried to do something good, lament that it wasn’t enough. If he knew where they lived, he’d have a Mr. Coffee on their doorstep that very day. And a toaster.
But he didn’t. And now smelling both regret and peanut butter, he looked up and saw a woman halfway down the platform, trying desperately to hold onto the thin strap of her purse while a guy tried to yank it off her shoulder, and he shouted, “Stop immediately” and sprinted towards them.
I remember when Grandma came to live with us in an excited avalanche of hugs and happy tears. Oh, and curses. “It’s so damn good to see you two little shits,” she blathered as she squeezed my little brother and I into a soggy sandwich.
“That’s just the way Grandma talks,” Mom told us. “And don’t repeat it.” Dad suggested that Grandma was a good reminder that for every curse there was a better, more intelligent word to use. That advice stuck as the adult ‘me’ began my career as an editor; of course, it works in the opposite direction as well. No two-cent word is above replacement by a good “god damned”.
Mom and Dad warned us Grandma was coming to live with us a couple weeks before she did, and that we’d have to get used to it. But to my thinking things got way better. Grandma had been alone and sad on that spread down in Hawkins County, Tennessee, since Grandpa passed the year before. Mom said as the oldest it was her responsibility to bring her up to Chicago, even though we lived in a condo about a third the size of the house my Uncle, her only other child, had in the suburbs. Uncle thought Grandma would be an “unsettling” influence on my cousins and insisted, instead, that he knew of good ‘retirement villages’ nearby. Grandma told him in no uncertain terms, “You ever try to put me in one of those places I’ll have your balls for lunch with green tomatoes and sausage”.
Besides, Grandma had always loved visiting us in the city and loved living in it even more. We had a fourth-floor condo just north of downtown, not far from the Red Line, which she had figured out within a month. “God damned ‘L’ will take my ass anywhere I want to go”, she said. She went downtown at least a couple times a week and up to Wrigley a couple times a month. Even down to Comiskey on occasion. She started taking me to the Art Institute fairly regularly; I guess I was 10 or 11 by then. She loved the impressionists and I loved Lichtenstein.
Her arrival meant my brother and I had to share a bedroom, but that was okay. We set her room up with her own TV and a reading chair, but she mostly liked the front room where she watched every single Cubs game possible and spent most of it complaining about those “shit for brains” out on the field. But on those occasions they won, oh she would be in a good mood, laughing and dancing around the condo. Grandma liked to sit out on the balcony a couple times a month and smoke a cigar. Dad never failed to get a chuckle out of that sight; little old lady sitting outside no matter the weather smoking a cigar so big she could barely wrap her hand around it. She kept her whiskey drinking back in her room, mostly late at night. I never got the impression she did a whole lot of it, but I could have been wrong. Dad, who was something of a scotch snob, tried to introduce her to the more expensive, celebrated brands, but she preferred the cheap stuff.
Uncle never liked the idea of her living in the city and thought her wanderings dangerous. He distrusted the city’s diversity and bustle. He’d bring up the retirement village thing every now and again, and she’d cuss at him for an hour. Irony was, Uncle grew up sort of a ‘mommy’s boy’, and Mom used to tell her, “You know, you’re the reason he turned out this way because you’re the one who doted on him.” Grandma would tell her she had to as Grandpa was always trying to beat his ass, which she never experienced because she was a girl. “Well, you over did it,” Mom said.
It was Uncle’s genealogy work that brought the most hostile reaction. Uncle had done extensive research tracing our family all the way back to the second boat into Jamestown. There were just two slight holes. Hawkins County was the epicenter of peoples identified as ‘Melungeon’; early America multi-ethnic families of European, African American, and Native American backgrounds who migrated to frontier regions, settled near each other, and intermarried. In Uncle’s family trees there was a great-great-grandfather and a great-great-great-grandfather whose wives could only be identified by a first name. ‘Mary’ in the first case, and ‘Sarah’ in the second. That was a dead giveaway to a person of color being drawn into the family lineage. To Uncle’s thinking, that meant a Native American. “Your Mom and I are 1/16th Cherokee,” he happily told me during one family dinner, clearly delighted by the romance of being part Indian.
“Horseshit!” Grandma fairly spat at him. “You’d like to whitewash that your ancestors include freed slaves, you asshole! You’re more like 1/32nd black, by my reconning. Pull your god damned head out of your god damned ass, you’re as white trash as the rest of us whether you want to be or not! Shit for brains dumb ass!”
I was in my freshmen year at college when she had her first stroke, and in my sophomore year when she had her second, bigger one. After that she was confined to a wheelchair and slurred as much as talked, so Uncle finally got his wish, and she was moved to a nursing home out in the suburbs. She lingered three more years, passing right before Christmas when I was in my first year at the publishing house. Uncle gave a eulogy in which he called her a sweet angel, which, when we got back to the car, Mom cut loose on. “That despicable son of a bitch,” she groused, and Mom rarely cursed, so I knew how pissed she was. “He’s already sanitizing her memory to fit that elitist, pious, racist pea brain!”
I’ve wondered since if that is actually a common approach to memory. We fill gaps in our family trees with the ancestors we’d like to have. Our lives are a conglomeration of complicated emotions, selfish motivations, and flawed perceptions; do we reorganize the past into rationalizations supporting what we’ve done to ourselves? We’re addicted to ascribing order to chaos. Is any of it worth a good god damn?
When the big sedan pulled to the pumps it concluded a half hour of inactivity consistent with this time of night at the quick shop. It was an older car, American-made with an inefficient gasoline engine, and beige. Out of it stepped a beige man; big, older, American made. The clerk watched him study the gasoline pump as though it were modern art. ‘Just swipe a card’, the clerk thought to himself. He hit the ‘Pay Inside’ button instead.
The clerk had come back to town after his mom got sick, his dad having passed some years before. Nobody wanted this shift because it was, indeed, so boring. There was enough small industry and service business on this side of town that the quick shop saw good traffic over the workday and just after, but the evenings were near deserted. Few lived close by and there weren’t any fast-food places; there was just no reason to come over here. But this was where the two-lane came into town from the west, so there were sporadic travelers coming in or going out who needed a fill-up who rationalized staying open. Like the beige man.
As he finished and walked slowly towards the quick shop a pick-up pulled in. Beige Man studied the driver as he deftly worked the controls of the pump and swiped a card. He reached the door as a little electric car also pulled in and plugged up to one of the new charge units. Beige Man watched that too before finally pulling the door open and entering.
“Evening”, the clerk said cheerfully. He didn’t really feel cheerful; he just said it that way. But at least, he thought, he was interested in this guy.
Beige Man nodded, mumbled what might have been a ‘hello’, announced the price indicated by the pump as if asking a question.
“Okay,” the clerk said.
Beige Man slowly took cash out of an old wallet and handed it to him. He handed him his change back. Beige Man seemed to be eying him as he folded it into his wallet, then asked, “Could you help me with some directions?”
“Sure, I’ll try. Where are you heading?”
“Well … there’s a town I’m looking for. I lived there once when I was young. I just can’t recall the name.” Then he proceeded to describe the town. He described a village with several churches and unmarked streets where everybody knew everybody, and nobody felt a need to lock their doors. All the businesses were owned by local guys and everybody worked somewhere. “We could get two TV channels, but later a third one came in on the UHF band, so we had all three networks then.”
And the clerk thought, ‘Networks?’
He talked about some of the buildings that were there, a railroad that came through regularly, how people went about their day. “There wasn’t any of this,” he swept a hand back outside.
“Any of what?” the clerk asked.
“Well,” Beige Man tried to explain, “Those crazy pumps with all the buttons. Or any of that,” he seemed to point at the guy finishing with his pick-up. That guy was not beige. He was a different shade.
“What d’ya mean”?
“Are you sure he paid for his gas?”
“Sure, he used a card.”
“How do you know he didn’t cheat you?”
The clerk checked his monitor. “Shows right here that he paid.”
“Yeah, but how do you know?”
“Doesn’t happen that way,” the clerk told him.
Beige Man shook his head. “And I don’t know what the heck that is,” he nodded at the electric car where the driver, not a guy, shade indeterminate, stood checking her cell, waiting the 15 minutes it would take to get back to a 75 percent charge.
“You’re sure this town is around here?” the clerk asked, attempting to pull the conversation back towards relevance.
“Yeah!” Beige Man replied, by now a little more excited. But then he seemed to retreat into confusion. “I actually thought it was just back up the road,” he pointed west down the two-lane. “That last town, or maybe the town before that.” He tried to fill in with more details, hoping it might jar the clerk’s memory. He talked about family gatherings and reunions in the park. He talked about Fourth of July celebrations and a big Christmas tree on Main Street everybody drove around, no problem. No traffic lights anywhere. One municipal police officer, who rarely had to do anything but give out a warning ticket. No one out of place.
The clerk thought, as Beige Man talked, that he’d heard his mom talk about things like that, about how things were as a girl when the town was smaller. He thought of her laying in her room where she spent most of her time now, and how he’d sit with her when he wasn’t working. He’d moved his computer there and turned it so she could watch him make art using a graphic drawing tablet. Seeing his abstract art emerge on his monitor seemed to spark her thoughts, but her recollections were not pleasant. What Beige Man described fondly, she described as ignorant and backward.
“Tell me,” the clerk interrupted Beige Man in mid-sentence. “Are you looking for a place, or a time.”
Beige Man stopped talking. A hopeful expression became slack-jawed and he broke eye contact. He looked back outside; the other drivers were gone. A few seconds hesitation before his head and shoulders drooped and he mumbled a ‘thank you’, then moved somnolent out the door.
He found the young, fragile creature just past a short rise, huddled against a small, rocky outcrop, shivering as much in fear as in the piercing cold wind that accompanied the enemy as it closed in. His horse deftly stepped down the rise, brought him close, then stood stationary as he gathered the small calf in his arms and remounted with it tied across. He clicked his tongue and shook the reigns just a bit and the horse knew to retrace its steps around the outcrop, back up the rise and towards home. Finding the lost little creature had in and of itself been a miracle. Getting home past the enemy, past Winter, through the icy, ferocious blizzard about to spring at them, that might be the harder part.
Beyond the rise stretched a treeless plain where the gale swept unopposed from the horizon. Snow blew in a straight line, icy as knives, increasing in volume as he went. He huddled lower against the calf hoping to combine their warmth. The horse’s neck plus the wide brim of his hat helped shield them just a little, but the tips of his gloved fingers curled around the reigns, had lost their feeling. He tried to control his shivers. There was little he could do from this point. His horse knew what to do.
His mind began to drift as they moved across the featureless landscape. The freezing cold, the whiteout of the snow and the howl of the wind seemed to have placed them in an alien void hostile to existence while at the same time as vulnerable as a blank canvas. As it drifted his mind began to paint. Short brush strokes, warm colors, impressionistic at first, then overlaid by flashing, broad, modernistic lines in vibrant hues. A summer world. A peaceful garden. A golden plain under a blue sky. Scene after scene supplanting each other as though a gallery of every pleasant vision he’d ever known were rolling through his brain, the exhibition moving while he remained immobile. The gale’s flat howl now overlaid by music from every song he’d ever heard played on a Saturday night in a hot, stuffy hall crowded with warm, laughing, dancing, drunk bodies.
He wasn’t sure how long they’d been at it, but he sensed the second the gale slackened, and knew they had dropped into the broad depression that encompassed the house and the barn and the outbuildings. The horse seemed to raise his head and increase his canter in pride. He saw bright light in the windows of the house, likely steaming with the scent of supper. He knew the calf would soon be safely snuggled into a warm bed of hay. He knew the horse expected his muzzle would soon be buried into a bag of oats. He knew he would sleep in his own bed that night, dug in naked under thick blankets next to his woman. And in his mind he saw a painting of it all that was indestructible.
The hammering woke him, as it always did, and lately woke him more often. It was the thing that came next that terrified him.
He didn’t lay there long, in the dark next to his peaceful wife, once it started, because once it started he knew what was coming, and he knew if it came while he lay there his wife would sense it and she would no longer be peaceful. That probably bothered him more than anything else, more than anything it might do it him. He knew he was doomed. But his wife, she hadn’t done anything to anybody; nothing but give her love to one such as he, and he would do what he could to protect her from it. He slid quietly from the covers, rustling the bed as little as possible, moonlight leaking through the window curtain illuminating his robe on the chair. He put the robe on and stepped into his slippers and slowly closed the door behind him, silent but for the slow hammering that only he could hear.
He knew the best path to the living room, the path least likely to find any creaks in the floor, the path away from his girls’ room and least likely to draw their attention. Just enough moonlight guided his steps but drained all the color and joy his wife had swirled into their home; drained and desolate, just like him. He filled up most of a tumbler of scotch. It would help now, and he would need it later. Sat in the big ottoman under the window next to the bookcase in the moonlight. The trick would be to finish the scotch and get through the terrors and then back to bed before his wife woke. He didn’t always make it. She must be sleeping lighter because she’d been catching him more often. She always came right over to him and knelt beside him and put her head in his lap and said, “There, there, my love, it’s alright. It’s all over. There, there,” and it was as though she were trying to suck the pain out of him, take it upon herself, her sweet innocence soiled by his sins, and he just couldn’t have that. His girls might be hurt next if he couldn’t fix this, he feared, and his son, his strong and brave son, he thought, he’s already started to figure it out. He knows there’s something wrong. He was out on his own now, his son, working construction and probably looking at military service himself soon, but he still came home for Sunday dinner and looked at him with such perceptiveness that he knew, he knew, his son sensed something wrong. And he knew he was going to have to sit his son down soon and tell him.
He’d tell him, “I was just a kid, then. Not even as old as you are. I didn’t get shore leave very often, so me and another guy went down to Hotel Street. Always a crowd of sailors up and down there on Saturday night drinking cheap beer. Not good beer, either. Just cheap. You’ve no idea, but we drank it because it was all we could afford and we really wanted to tie one on, you know?” He imagined that his son would nod and smile in empathy. Just understand what he was saying a little, that’s what he really wanted. “Trouble was, along with all us sailors there were also marines, always so damn superior. I’ve always hated those jarheads. Sure enough, we got into a drunken brawl, then missed curfew, and wound up in the brig. That’s where I was Sunday morning when the bombs fell.”
He gulped scotch, the hammering loud and clear, looked across to where he imagined his son was sitting. “If we’d made curfew, I’d have still been in my bunk. I’d have probably gone down with the ship. With all my buddies. As it was, when everything got sorted out they put me on guard duty at night, right there on the dock next to my sunken ship. Right where my buddies were entombed.”
He took another long draw; he couldn’t look his son in the eye even in his imagination. “When the Arizona went down, she didn’t completely flood. There were air pockets, and there were men in those pockets. Living men. But nobody could get to them, see. Not without endangering themselves. Word came down to stop rescue attempts so no one else would get killed. But those men alive in those pockets, they had hammers, and they began hammering the hull to let us know they were there. But we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t do anything but stand there and listen to it.” Another long draw, emptying the tumbler. He crossed the dark room to fill it again, sat back down. “First there were several guys hammering, then just a few. One night, there was just one, me standing there alone on guard, middle of the night, listening to that one guy slowly hammering. Then all of a sudden it just stopped. Dead silence. And I’ve never been so scared in my life. I started trembling head to toe, teeth chattering. Took me hours to push it back down and keep it there.
“But, son, since then, and more often lately, at night when the world is quiet, that hammering…“
And it was right then, there in his chair in the dark by the window, that the hammering in his head stopped. And the terror engulfed him as a cold wave, icy and menacing. He gulped his scotch, spilling much of it down his chin, squeezed his eyes as tight as he could, his whole body in combat with his brain to push the terror back down, down, into the dark water. Then his wife’s head was there in his lap and her soothing voice saying, “There, there. There, there.”
Clothes on her back, two guitars in the backseat (one acoustic, one electric), the run-down vehicle itself, and several hundred dollars from cleaning out her account via the cash machine on the way into work at the restaurant on the edge of her small town. And she still wasn’t sure she was going to go through with it.
Saturday night – Marshal allowed “light and low” electric instruments after 8 p.m., so she grabbed her electric. He’d agreed to “let” her play for zero pay between sets so long as she continued waitressing for wages as cheap as he could get away with. Oh, and she had to stick with lighter country standards, and had to do it in that soft, pleasant voice he called “lady-like”.
Her own stuff, her own style, only she knew about it.
Mom might have caught a note or two as she composed and practiced it in her room, always with the volume running through headphones. If she had, she’d dealt with it by pretending otherwise – same way she handled anything unpleasant. Dad certainly had not and would have hit the roof if he had. Just wouldn’t tolerate nonconformity in any daughter of his. Neither he or Mom greatly approved of her waitressing at a place that served liquor and hosted live music nor could they understand why, a couple years past high school, she hadn’t already married. What about that nice Petey who went to their church and whom she’d gone to the movies with a couple times and clearly thought more was going to happen that was or ever would. Every part of her life felt repressed, channeled, prescribed.
She’d plotted this night for months. Now, if only she had the guts.
Apron went around her waist at 4 p.m., right on time. Surprising how many people went for supper that early. Marshall was running his chicken fried steak special – that always drew the folks into the single dining room with the bar to one side and the tiny stage on one end. Larger, slightly younger crowd by five-thirty, six. Couples on dates by six-thirty. Band, ‘The Rodgers’, all guys over fifty-five, began tuning at seven-thirty. Traffic changed over to drinks and finger food. Eight o’clock, The Rodgers began their light set of country standards. Dad came in and perched at the bar, mainly talking to Marshall behind it. Petey was already there with a couple buddies, watching, smiling at her. Forty minutes and The Rodgers ended their first set. Now it was her turn.
She took up her guitar, caressed its smooth surface. First songs nice and light, soft ‘little girl’ voice she’d been coached in. Third number, nice and light, soft ‘little girl’ voice, but she’d deviated to Joni (hardly standard) and turned the volume on the guitar one notch higher. Dad looked annoyed. Marshall smiled as it ended but held his palm out and moved it down – the ‘lower volume’ sign. “Let’s hear some more Loretta”, he suggested in that voice that was not really a suggestion. Petey smiled and nodded. Just an extension of other’s will, she thought. No one is really interested in hearing me.
At that moment she lost all fear blowing up her life. All nervousness disappeared. Her intestines went iron. Her hand squeezed the neck of her guitar in a lover’s clench. If it had been a gun she was set to massacre the room. She cranked the volume all the way up.
BAAM came the first chords so loud half the room jumped. Everybody shut up. Marshall and her Dad both jerked their heads towards her, mouths agape, eyes wide. Loud, quick, driving chords followed. Marshall took a half step in her direction …
… came the first lyrics. She gave him a glare that froze him. That nice and light, soft ‘little girl’ voice was gone. This was Janis, Amy, Melissa channeled, less sang than shouted, less shouted than spat …
To how I’m telling you this works
She pounded that guitar, screamed at the mic, stopped her heel in time, gyrated her hips, shoved her pelvis towards the room and told them what she thought. Looked right at her Dad for the line …
Head up your ass view of the world
… looked right at Petey for …
Insignificant boring junk
… looked right at Marshal for …
Cheap-ass petty dictator ruling a deep-fried empire
And then she started cussing. Her fingers bearing down on the frets up and down the guitar neck in rapid strokes, reloading bullets. Frustrations, repressions, expectations violently rejected.
I will not be propagated!
Propagate yourselves away from me!
Away from me!
Away from me!
Take your tiny insecurities and
Propagate yourselves away from me!
BAAM BAAM BAAAAAAAAM she hit her last chords; let them hang and fade, finally slid her fingers up the guitar neck and brought it all to a close. Two guys in the back started cheering. The rest of the room sat motionless, in shock, literally and figuratively, white. She unplugged and headed to the door. Marshal gave her a dirty look. She gave him a dirtier one back. She jumped into her car, vaguely picturing her Dad’s confused, almost wounded expression, pulled the route to East Nashville’s alt rock scene into consciousness, and buried the throttle.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.