July 29, 2009
July 29, 2009
When I was ten, my parents sent me to summer camp for two weeks. They made the arrangements secretly, knowing a fit was inevitable the minute they broke the news. I was an explosive kid, coming as I did from a histrionic family, and my parents wanted me gone for a while so they could rage at each other without me around to upstage them.
My daughter, not yet eight, has grown suddenly careful with her money. She’s not greedy. (She often forgets to ask for her allowance.) But, now that she’s figured out that money is finite, she spends what she has with great deliberation.
Prior to our recent beach vacation, she planned a lemonade venture for weeks in her mind, fantasizing about the preparation of the drinks, the inevitable line of customers, the transactions. Our family has a running conversational riff about one day opening a store selling only her favorite foods: salmon sashimi, cucumber, chocolate, a few others equally eclectic. She’s sophisticated enough to know it’s a joke. So when she contemplated the lemonade stand she settled on two items she thought would have a better shot than sashimi: lemonade and chocolate brownies.
My wife donated the brownie mix. My daughter and her cousins worked on the sign for two days, including graphic representations of their offerings. They stirred the lemonade from a mix, planning to add lemon slices for authenticity, but in their excitement they forgot that last touch.
They set up their stand in the shade of a tree on a corner in Bald Head Island, North Carolina, where cars are banned and people run errands with golf carts. My wife and I went off with the six-seater to pick up house guests, leaving my daughter and her two cousins in the hands of my sister and brother-in-law, who monitored from lawn chairs.
I feared that the first lesson of commerce would be how hard it is to pull in customers, but I suppose I overlooked the cuteness factor of two eager little girls and a well-tanned five-year-old boy with a mop of thick dark hair and a smile that could melt icebergs. Less than an hour later they had sold out, if you don’t count the three brownies they’d set aside for themselves. And who’s scrooge enough to count that?
They declared with pride that they had eighteen dollars — six for each of them with no arguing about the relative contributions of the youngest. But I was determined that there be a business lesson in this. I said they must deduct expenses.
“What are expensives?” my daughter asked with great seriousness.
Aw, heck. I explained the concept of costs, but my heart had gone out of it already. We deducted three bucks and they each ended up with five and we headed for the ocean.
Over the next two days, my daughter proudly left three shops in a row without spending her share of the bounty. Then, on the way home, we stopped in Richmond. A few blocks from the Jefferson Hotel, we passed a plain storefront with agates and geodes in the window. It specialized in beads and rocks, playing down the access-restricted head shop in back. Beads and rocks, as it happens, are the specialties also of every seven-year-old girl in the world. We entered with my daughter in the lead.
The place had only the most basic merchandising, home-made strands of beads and minerals hanging from plain hooks, drawers filled with colorful beads, rocks and small fossils sorted by type on tables and shelves. My daughter was — well, like a kid in a rock shop. She had to have everything, but knew she couldn’t. The clerk behind the counter — eager, friendly, New Agey — must have been disappointed with our admonitions about the budget, but she didn’t show it.
After about twenty minutes of touching everything, creasing the brow, doubling back, touching again, my daughter settled on a shelf of sparkling golden rocks.
“I think I want some gold,” she said.
It fell to me, over her shoulder, to point out like a heel that she was looking at pyrite, fool’s gold. So what? It sparkled, it fell within her budget, and the one she selected filled her palm perfectly.
Scarcely an hour earlier, we’d been dragging her through the hot, humid streets of Richmond, urging her forward, reprimanding when she dropped too far behind. Now, leaving the store with her treasure, the kid had springs in her steps. She knew for sure that she’d chosen wisely, that she’d taken possession of something that in turn had the prospect of possessing her. She declared that she’d start a rock collection and that she’d look up on line, when we got home, about pyrite.
In that moment, she reminded me of an older nephew whom we’d taken to the Bronx Zoo years ago, before we had a child of our own. All he wanted to do was go into every gift shop and buy trinkets, which he’d stuff into his pockets with an owner’s pride. Real live lions and giraffes and elephants — couldn’t take those home. A rubber rhino to control, to have forever, to place on the shelf as a trophy — that’s what a kid’s after.
My daughter, among other interests, pursues fireflies at night with the determination of a big game hunter. She’s evolved from wanting to trap them in a jar, where they surely die, to wishing only to see them glow in her hand for a few seconds. Then she sets them free and seeks another.
The morning after her purchase, I emerged from the shower to find her in a huff. My wife explained the problem: she’d lost the pyrite — had it and then didn’t.
“How do you lose a rock in a hotel room?” Maybe the same way you let a firefly go.
When my wife went into the bathroom I helped my daughter search the covers of each bed, look under and behind every piece of furniture. Gone.
I was halfway through Round Two when she turned to me, reconciled to her loss. “Well, thanks anyway for helping me, Dad.” I paused and swallowed. That unprompted thank-you was real gold.
We ran out of places to look, but she found the rock in her knapsack a few minutes later — had put it there for safe keeping and forgotten.
That afternoon, back home, she asked without prompting to use the computer. Then she came back downstairs, requesting help. She did a Google search and couldn’t find fool’s gold or pyrite. Turns out the first six hits or so for fool’s gold reference a movie. And she was spelling pyrite wrong. I set her up on Wikipedia and she printed the results.
The article states: “Despite being nicknamed fool’s gold, small quantities of gold are sometimes found associated with pyrite.”
The late-night June sky was exceptionally clear, rabid with wild stars. As I walked home from a Silverlake bar, I witnessed the usual constellations—Orion, Ursa Major. In addition, I spotted new, undiscovered formations. I named them all: Zardoz, Love Bullet, Moonlight’s Motel.
An elderly Hispanic man approached me. Rumpled white shirt, black Dickies. His face: a complex map of worry lines. There was a dog at his feet—a mish-mash of sheltie, collie, and pure innocence. The collarless canine trotted happily alongside the old man.
“Beautiful dog,” I said, as we met eye-to-eye.
The old man grunted, “Damn dog’s not mine. She’s been following me.” He kept walking. Never once looked at the animal. Just stared straight ahead, into the flash and burn of liquid diamond headlights streaming down Sunset Boulevard.
The dog remained by his side.
That dog was screwed, I realized. It was obvious the old man didn’t care for her. As soon as he reached his destination, he’d slam the door in her face, leaving her to wander the streets. She’d be roadkill before sunrise.
I called out to her. She glanced back. I got down on one knee, called again. She bolted for me, jumped into my arms. I carried her back to my place. The whole way there she was a furry bundle of tail wags, whimpers, shivers, and happy licks.
* * *
When I was four, I received my first dog: a part-collie, part German Shepard that my brother and I named Bandit. I loved that dog intensely. Not knowing how to fully express that love, I’d squeeze Bandit tight, as if all my love could be transferred through brute force. Those love sessions generally ended with Bandit biting me, and my parents rushing me to the doctor. But I didn’t care. I always went back for more. That’s how much I loved that dog. That’s how much I wanted that dog to love me.
As I grew older, I learned how to better express that love: fetch, long walks, feeding Bandit turkey straight from the Thanksgiving bird. Eventually, the dog died. My family had him cremated. That’s how much we loved Bandit. To this day, my father still has the dog’s ashes, and insists on being buried with them when he goes.
After graduating college, I left that loving, secure, pet-friendly environment to live in California. It was now fast-paced city life all the way: Playing in bands, partying till all hours, working lousy paying jobs, living in crappy apartments.
But once I found that dog on Sunset, I wanted to do whatever possible to become a stable pet owner. First off, I named the dog Venus, for the Goddess of Love.
I took her to the vet. Got her all her shots. The doctor gave her a clean bill of health. She was so adorable we couldn’t figure out why she’d been abandoned. Maybe she’d gotten lost. Maybe her owners were worried sick, trying to find her.
Over the next couple weeks, I posted flyers in dog parks, dog shelters, vet offices.
Even had a friend take this picture of the two of us.
I posted it on numerous pet-related Internet sites.
I didn’t receive one call from anyone claiming to own her. But I did receive tons of calls from people wanting to adopt her.
So I gave myself a goal.
For a month I’d work my ass off, either trying to find a place suitable for the two of us, or I’d offer Venus to the best home possible.
I poured through rental ads. Made tons of calls to the places I could afford. Landlords chatted up homes and apartments as if they were palatial estates, but in person amounted to little more than busted-up, beer-breathed accommodations, with weed-ravaged dirt yards.
I soon realized I didn’t have my shit together enough in the financial department to properly care for Venus. It broke my heart. Broke it into pieces tinier than those stars I’d witnessed in the late-night sky when I first discovered her.
Around that time, I received a call from a man in La Cañada—a suburban community at the base of the Angeles National Forest. The man said he’d seen an Internet ad for Venus. Said he had a family. A beautiful home and yard. Told me he’d like to adopt the dog.
I relayed the whole story. How I’d tried to find her master. How I’d even tried to make a home for her myself, all to no avail.
Listening to my sadness and frustration, the man said it was obvious that I loved Venus very much, and that if I’d allow his family to care for her, they’d do everything possible to honor that love.
The next day I packed Venus into my clunker Toyota, and headed up to La Cañada. The family, their home: Norman Rockwell updated. Made more posh, and heartwarming. Venus immediately took to the kids—a young boy and girl. They ran with Venus throughout the huge fenced-in backyard.
It was all so much. So much love. If Venus couldn’t stay with me, I realized, this was exactly where she needed to be.
The man handed over a wad of neatly folded bills. “Here. I’d like to pay you for what you’ve spent on vet bills.”
“That’s okay,” I said.
“Really,” he said. “It’s the least I can do.”
My love and pride didn’t want to take the cash. But the truth was I’d spent a good portion of rent money to care for Venus. I had no idea how to make up the difference. “Alright,” I said. “Thanks.” Then I added: “Mind if I say goodbye to her?”
“Not at all,” he said.
I gathered Venus into my arms, gave her a big hug. It wasn’t as huge and hurting as the hugs I used to give my childhood dog, Bandit. But the hug was enough to let her know that I loved her very much. And that I’d miss her dearly.
“I’ll never trust another old person,” Bart Simpson once said, and for that nugget of wisdom I’ve always half-respected him. The fact is the elderly are as capable of screwing you over as a menacing looking teenager, or a hardass, stoneface punk twenty-something. Worse, the elderly won’t just take you for a ride… They’ll say they ‘fleeced’ you and call you a ‘rube’. Of course, if you trust the elderly, you can have no complaints about being called a ‘rube’. That’s just exactly what you are.
And that’s exactly what I am. A rube. A pure-bred, plain-as-day rube. I met an old man and let him have his wicked way, and he damn well did it on national TV. No, not Korean national TV, which is of interest only to Koreans, and which is so backward, racist and pedophilic that no one could seriously give a fuck what is said there… but the BBC!
Being fleeced like a rube on the BBC is like being pantsed at your wedding, or outed at your funeral. It makes you look more foolish for not realizing that you were being watched… by several million people. You didn’t just fail to notice one person rape your dignity – you failed to notice an audience of millions, or their cameras, lighting or sound equipment.
These arrangements of empty chairs are what’s left of celebration, argument, meditation, sleep and revelation. They huddle together like still animals in the cold. From a chair beneath a plane tree, the round tracks of a cane disappear into the gravel.
The single chairs are absent of their poets, readers and afternoon philosophers.
Those side by side and face to face are absent of their lovers, their chess players, the soon to be married and the just abandoned.
The great groups of circles and strange half-moons have lost their lecturers, their students.
I’m at the airport, confident. I’ve never had vertigo in a plane before, so I’m not worried about jumping out of one.
Besides, my dad is jumping, too, and I don’t want to wimp out on him. Mom is here, too, documenting the whole thing in photos, so if I wimp out, there will be photographic evidence of my cowardice.
July 26, 2009
This is a photograph of being in love.
It’s a picture of a feeling in a moment.
It’s a record of a time when the whole world came alive.
I took it from inside a girl’s convertible.
I volunteer at a local hospital once a week. I’ve been doing this since we moved to Miami Beach more than eight years ago. Normally I play with kids who have cancer. They play like any other kid, but usually they can’t get out of their beds because of all of the tubes and fluids going in and out. Usually I work with my friend Melissa. We think alike.
We bring our own toys because the teenage volunteers seemingly can’t take in the rules when the rules are explained to them. They leave pieces of the games behind. Sorry with two blue men and one yellow man; Chutes and Ladders with no spinner; Candyland without a board; Operation with three little white pieces instead of sixteen; Four in a Row with only a few of the of the segments that make the frame and perhaps half of the pieces. You see the pattern.
Melissa and I have a favorite donation. A wonderful group of ladies gets together and sews soft white pillows to donate. We bring permanent paint markers, which the children use to decorate the pillows for themselves or for their grandmothers or another loved one. The kids love this the best, of all that we can offer them. They make glorious things. They make creative pictures of which only a child can conceive. When they’re finished with their pillows, their parents will usually add the child’s name and a date. I once had a boy who spent almost three hours filling in the entire pillow with the red permanent paint pen. He wanted a red pillow.
This week Melissa and I went into the cancer ward, and there was a lady in a chair in the hall. She was rocking back and forth and back and forth at the edge of the chair. She was keening. Her wailing was like that of an infant who cries so hard she can’t catch her breath and fights for air in gulps. Her eyes were damp and open. She didn’t see who or what was near her. She could only see what was in her head. She saw and heard her child’s doctor saying the words that she could not bear to hear. She heard the words over and over and she rocked and she rocked and she keened and she was sightless.
In eight years I have seen many troubling things. But this image, and the sound of her keening and the futile, condemned look in her eyes will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I went to a spa for the first time the other day.
Booked myself a massage and a facial at Burke Williams. It’s very fancy, and when I checked in I was immediately escorted to the ladies’ locker room, where there were Jacuzzi baths and showers and a sauna and a steam room and dozens of beauty products and expensive blow dryers and fuzzy bathrobes and towels, all of which were available to me.
I’d been told when I made the reservations that I should come at noon, as this was when the spa opened, and I was free to spend the entire day there, soaking in various baths with other naked women.
My spa escort brought a number of rooms to my attention during the tour.
“This is the Silent Ladies’ Room,” she said. “You can come here and be quiet.”
Inside, there was a woman being quiet.
“This is the lounge,” she said. “You can sit here quietly.”
Then she brought me to my locker and told me to get naked and please remember to wear my special spa slippers. “They’re in your locker, along with your bathrobe.”
I put on my bathrobe. It was very large, too large. I put on my spa slippers, which fit perfectly. I found this strange, because I am an average sized female, but my feet are smaller than average.
I had an hour before my massage appointment, so I walked to the steam room. On the door was a large sign that said: “Do not use the steam room if you are wearing contacts.”
I was wearing contacts.
So I went to the sauna. Same sign on that door.
I noticed a bowl with bananas and apples. I hadn’t been told anything about the bananas.
Could I have a banana?
I looked around me.
I quickly took a banana. I hid in one of the showers while I ate it, just in case.
It was still only 12:20. My appointment wasn’t until 1:00. I walked around. Where were the other naked ladies?
I went to the Silent Ladies’ Room.
I sat quietly for a moment.
I went to the lounge.
There were more bananas in the lounge.
I stared at the bananas for a moment, then grabbed one, unpeeled it, and ate it. Right there in the lounge. An employee walked by as I ate the banana. I got nervous and stuffed a giant piece into my mouth, just in case she was planning to take it away from me.
She didn’t take the banana away from me, though, so I became bold and took another one and ate that right there in the lounge, too.
There was nothing to look at in the lounge. There was a fireplace, but I’d hardly call that entertainment.
Another lady in a bathrobe and special spa slippers entered the lounge. I got nervous in her presence, so I got up and went back to my locker to get my cell phone. Maybe I had some good emails.
I ate another locker room banana.
I went back to the lounge, and sat down. My masseuse walked in and asked if I was “Leonora.”
“Yes,” I said. Because there’s really no point in correcting her.
She put her hand on my back and kept it there as she guided me to the massage room and spoke to me in a thick accent. This made me feel as though I was in trouble.
In the room, my masseuse told me to get naked.
Everyone wanted me to get naked.
She left, I got naked, she came back in.
“No no, darling. You need to be on your stomach,” she said.
I predicted she might want me on my stomach, but it seemed rude to have her enter the room with me not even facing her with a nice smile.
“Oh my goodness! So many tattoos on your body!” she said.
“Heh heh, yes,” I said.
“You have large bruises here,” she said, poking my right butt cheek.
A few nights before I let a stranger in striped pants and a feathered hat spank me with the riding crop at the after party for the TNB reading series, and he wasn’t very gentle.
“Oh, ha, yes, that’s because of this person, I don’t know his name, and this event…it’s really not a big deal,” I said.
Then massive amounts of oil were poured all over me.
As she rubbed me down, the masseuse verbally pointed out all of my bruises and scars.
“What happens here? You have bruise here, also,” she said, holding my arm.
“I think I fell,” I answered.
“You have scar here,” she said, tapping my chin.
“Yes, yes, I drove a scooter into a parked car,” I said.
“You have bruises, many bruises here,” she said, holding my leg in the air.
“Right, I’m fairly certain I was sleepwalking,” I said.
“Also many scars on toes,” she said.
“Scooter accident again,” I said.
This went on and on for the entire massage.
Then it was over. She told me to drink plenty of water and guided me back to the ladies’ locker room with her hand on my back, telling me about how I should really use the steam room.
I had an hour before my facial.
I stood in the ladies’ locker room. Now there were more naked ladies in there with me.
My contacts were still in, so I still didn’t use the steam room.
I ate another banana.
I accidentally looked at a woman’s bush for too long, and she caught me. I pretended I was looking at something behind her. Hmm, that’s interesting, what’s that? A used towel? Interesting.
I got into the Jacuzzi with two other naked women.
No one was speaking, even though we were not in the Silent Ladies’ Room or the lounge, where we were free to sit quietly.
It made me uncomfortable, to not speak to my naked Jacuzzi partners, so I got out, put my robe back on, and ate another banana.
Then I went and sat in the lounge quietly. I pretended to be very relaxed.
The lady doing my facial came to retrieve me.
She also placed her hand on my back as we walked to the room.
We got to the room, and even though I was there for a facial, I was told to get naked again.
The lady smeared many delicious smelling things on my face and then, for some reason, massaged my feet, which are not a part of my face at all.
As she was removing the face mask she’d applied to my skin, she tapped my chin.
“You have a scar here,” she said.
Then I was brought back to the ladies’ locker room with her hand on my back.
I took a long shower, and then dried off while trying not to stare at an old woman’s naked body.
I put two bananas and an apple in my purse, and then left the locker room.
Many people put their hands on my back as I was walking out, all of them asking how my stay had been.
“Oh, very relaxing, just wonderful,” I said. “Your bananas are very nice.”
Parking was twenty-one dollars.
You must always consider the following—
Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting.
It’s your duty, friends and brethren, to contort even the measliest of facts. Don’t tell the truth—conceal it. But, absolutely, amp it up if you can. And for crissakes make us laugh or make us cry. That’s not asking too much.
I figured I’d give it a whack. I took to it seriously. Too seriously? Perhaps. But history is serious business. And when I look at the photograph my heart flutters. It is, hands down, my favorite photograph ever. It’s also a somewhat uninteresting photo. Just two boys standing in a front yard in 1985. Arriving at this conclusion, my heart settles into a deep state of languor. Galaxies of dust awakened from adulthood inertia swirl about looking to settle again.
The photograph arouses memories: watching Telemundo and chomping on warm tortillas…Mr. Lechner’s stinky pigeon coop…the burned-out shack filled with saucy Polaroids and unopened packs of Garbage Pail Kids cards…games of Butts-Up against the church wall…Atari at the alcoholic’s house…the phantom Klansman that stood before my bed every night for weeks, robbing me of sleep…the failed repossession of my General Lee Big Wheel from the Mexicans on Helgessen Street that ended violently.
All of these memories are barely stories, hardly tellable. They’re sentimental soundbites, if anything.
Backstory can be interesting: I spent my youngest years in a small two-bedroom house in an unincorporated neighborhood on the outskirts of Palatine, a suburb nested on the northwestern edge of Chicagoland. Our house stood amongst homes of varying design and color, of all shapes and sizes, and no two alike; individuality by design was paramount in this neighborhood.
No two families were exactly alike, either. I can recall truckers and stock brokers, illegal immigrants and Vietnam vets, all living on the same stretch of asphalt.
My neighborhood sat kiddie-corner to a sprawling forest preserve. Forest preserves are the only access most suburbans have to wilderness. But, by and large, most stick to the bike trails that encircle the preserve, well-distanced from the sticks, casting the woodland an ambient backdrop.
But I grew up on Woodland Road, and Woodland Road was in the sticks. It did not suggest any of the tidy vinyl-streaked uniformity that one expects of a suburb proper.
This photograph was taken by my mother. It shows me and my childhood best friend caught doing whatever boys did in 1985. We’re both blond, ruddy-faced, and grubby, distinguishable only by height (I’m the shorter one). That kid and I did everything together. Where I ended and he began was simply a matter of physics.
We’re standing beside an odd V-shaped tree, a sort of Siamese pine. The lawn is plush and overrun, in desperate need of mowing. But no one nagged you about it. The driveway running alongside us looks like an accident, spilled gravel, and there’s construction debris piled up at the foot of it. Behind my best friend and me looms a towering wall of leafy green. This looks nothing like suburbia. This looks like Louisiana.
Of course, now everything’s changed. That great wood land across from my first house has since been leveled and supplanted with a bunch of ugly vinyl castles. Last I visited, baby trees had been planted on the front yards of these new homes, ensuring a partially shady future for what was once my unincorporated Eden. Even my house had been leveled.
The first story I ever knew:
I was riding the bus home from school one day. The bus turned onto Woodland Road and lumbered past my house, as usual. As the bus passed my house, heading toward my bus stop, the back end took a hop, propelling every kid into midair. We’d run over something. One of the sixth graders sitting in the back seat, nearest the emergency exit, pressed his sweaty finger to the window and called my name. Everyone looked out the back window and let out a collective gasp.
Patsy. My puppy. She was dead.
She lay in the road curled in a ball. It looked like she was asleep on the warm asphalt.
And that bitch of a bus driver had done it.
We had just gotten Patsy. The bus driver pulled up to the intersection of Helgessen Street and Woodland Road and let me off. I didn’t drop my bag and run screaming like kids do on TV. I didn’t abandon my backpack and sprint up to Patsy and drop to my knees, tiny fists clenched, and scream, “Why, God, why!” Instead, I ambled down Woodland Road toward my house, humiliated. Patsy wasn’t dying. She was dead.
The sun burned high and hard. My mother placed Patsy in a cardboard box and weaved the flaps shut and set the box beside our driveway.
It was a long afternoon. Neighborhood kids came by, one by one, ordered by parents to express condolences—but really to see a dead dog. I undid the flaps and opened the box and showed them Patsy, balled up tight, her eyes clamped shut, white teeth locked in one final gnarl, flies banking in on her. Early bird gets the worm.
Then we lamented. My neighborhood comrades told me they couldn’t believe what the bus driver did to Patsy. We turned our bus driver into a wicked succubus. Medusa. The Wicked Witch of the Northwest ‘Burbs.
I played the good guy for a while.
The Tragic Tale of Patsy Versus the School Bus. My first story. My only complete memory of Woodland Road.
If I wasn’t on that school bus there would be no story.
And the photograph, that’s life before story. An artifact of innocence, a snapshot of two dumb little kids getting dirty, exploring the woods, at war. Woodland Road is and never will be a street of dreams. It’s just a strip of asphalt that’s still there, even though my house, my friend, those woods, and my dog are not.
Childhood is but a dream.
“Collarbone” is not a word one expects a two-year-old to whisper in one’s ear in an underground, candlelit cavern. I blame myself. For not asking questions about what was down there. For exposing her to death at such an early age. For taking her down into the catacombs in the first place.
We are in Stefansdom in Vienna, the massive Romanesque and Gothic cathedral at the city’s drizzle-damp center.
Through the yawning arch, the carved columns support a soaring nave leading down to a massive baroque high altar, beside which hangs the Christ child with a three stemmed rose. The scene is framed and set aglow by candles burning to long dead saints, lit by the genuflecting living in the cold, damp air of sacred space.
Oh, but underneath.
Our tour guide rushes in exactly on time sporting a suit too small for him in the shoulders and the careless sandy blond hair of an academic. He has a strong Viennese accent – an outrageous accent hovering somewhere between an Inspector Poirot and a Jar-Jar Binks. He takes our money and leads our group of about 20 down into the bowels of the cathedral.
This is the point where some sort of mothering instinct should have kicked in – the kind where my brain sends the message, “Catacombs are where dead people reside. Huhn. Perhaps this is not child-appropriate.”
But, the truth is I was fascinated. I love dead people. I mean, not in the way that I would like to find one of their kind cuddled under my sheets, but I will admit to a moderate fascination with the other side. Not enough to turn me into a kohl-lined, Rob Zombie worshipping member of tribe ‘Emo’, but, you know, enough to take an occasional peek into the cadaver lab at university and to enjoy the movie “Blade.”
It starts light. We see tombs. Sarcophagi. It is a burial place for royalty and church leaders — the usual stuff one sees under such places. And then, he takes us into the chamber.
The word “collarbone” cuts through the chill of the room and I turn to see what my innocent little cherub is looking at. Behind bars, I see them: the remains of two souls long since passed. They are draped in cloth, which I can only guess must have qualified as garments at some point, but which now do little to hide their skeletal remains.
We move on from there. Through the earthen tunnels of the lantern lit catacombs, we peek into the various rooms.
Everywhere, there are bones.
We are told that the remains of more than 11,000 people surround us – mostly bubonic plague victims from the 1700s. When the nearby graveyards were filled, the bodies were carted to the cathedral, where they were tossed akimbo into a mass grave deep underground — under the incense and the candles and the Christ child holding the three stemmed rose.
At some point, some of the monks who lived and worked at the church took it upon themselves to give the bodies a more respectable resting place. By then, the flesh was gone and the joints long since severed, so the monks set to work organizing the bones in a most logical way: femurs with femurs, clavicles with clavicles, skulls with skulls.
From a practical standpoint, this only makes sense. Certainly I wouldn’t want to be held responsible for the incorrect reconfiguration of nearly 11,000 pissed off souls.
Through the frigid catacombs we walk, peering into room after room stacked neatly with bones. We hug our own thinly veiled bones for warmth as we approach the pit where the monks had left off their task. Imagine a silo filled with bones. It has been capped off and has peepholes at the top for easy viewing. One by one, we approach it. Grimly, we stare into the dry soup.
I am torn between protecting my daughter from these sights and exposing her to the truth early on. Handing her off to my husband — and thus my personal responsibility for her well-being — I fall behind the group. I want a picture, but pictures are not allowed.
And still…I want a picture.
I wait for the guide to disappear down the hall. I can see my breath in the lantern light. I am alone. Alone with dem dry bones. I point my camera into a small room, covered with iron bars. It’s dark in the room, and I have no idea what I’m even photographing.
A chill. A rush. Immediately, I am regretting my photo and am racing toward my husband and daughter at the back of the group.
Back out in open air, we huddle by a wall to review the picture I had stolen from underneath on my digital camera. The clatter of horse hooves echoes off the stone street as I find it. There, in the gray, is a dimly lit clutter of bones. These were not among the organized. The respected. These bones were not at peace.
A shudder took me over just as I threw my head back and laughed.
At the time, I could not have told you why I did this. There was something so deliciously terrifying about it all. In retrospect, I think this must be ingrained somewhere deep within – that perhaps these bones are at the center of the writer’s psyche. When we write, sometimes we return the bones to flesh. Sometimes we do the reverse, stripping as we go. Ultimately, we refuse to acknowledge they can be separated at all: the bones from the flesh; the cathedral and the catacombs; the sacred and the profane.
As writers, we peek into the pits, we excavate, we catalogue, we get to the core of our humanity…and if we do it right, we scare ourselves to death.
And we love every minute of it.
As for my daughter, well…if she doesn’t become a writer, there’s always therapy.