Ghosts

By Robin Antalek

Essay

My childhood was a combination of magic and terror.

I come from a loud, sprawling clan of first generation Italian Americans who, for the most part, resided within walking distance of each other in the hamlet of Pelham, New York, a suburb of Manhattan.

They loved food, God, their newly adopted country, baseball, and their family with fervent yet equal abandon. My earliest memories are of the wrap around porch of my grandparents’ home overflowing with cousins and aunts and uncles eating, drinking and talking all at once; of my older cousins wearing teased bouffant hairstyles, and white lipstick, their hemlines inching way above the knee; of my grandfather and his brothers drinking homemade wine and smoking hand-rolled cigars beneath the grape arbors in the backyard; of going into Manhattan, my hand held firmly in my grandfather’s, to watch the circus elephants arrive in town linked trunk to tail; of Jones Beach, of Coney Island; of rambling village parades where nearly half of those marching were related to me. Of holidays: of Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, Halloween and the Fourth of July, where the house was always full of people who had known me since I was born.

When I was eight my mother did the unthinkable: she moved us to a speck of a town in southwest Florida at the lip of the Everglades. It was 1968. The world she had grown up in had changed enormously. A President had been murdered. A classmate who had gone to Mississippi to register voters had disappeared. People no longer married for life. Sex was no longer something you waited for. The town she chose was so small you had to squint to find it on a map. My relatives, whose sole relationship with the Sunshine State was firmly rooted in the beach cabana culture of Fort Lauderdale and Miami, shook their heads in disbelief as we left behind all that we had ever known.

We arrived with very little from our old life with the understanding that it just wouldn’t fit. The house in my new town was single-story without a basement, and everything inside, without shadow, was a violent bright white. Our new neighbors, parents to a roll call of children who seemed to arrive in two-year intervals, insisted we call them Miss Ivey Dell and Mr. David, and after they spanked their kids they read them Bible scriptures and told them Jesus loved them. A long black snake slithered out of our laundry basket. Bright green lizards clung to the screens on the windows. The yard didn’t grow grass; instead it was filled with mounds of crushed shells and fossilized rocks. Slowly it began to dawn on us that our furniture was far from the only thing in our new life that just didn’t fit. Still, we stayed and slowly, the new life started to take over the old.

As childhoods went back in the late sixties and early seventies, mine was fairly autonomous. On weekends and summer vacations, I remember leaving the house on my bike in the morning and not coming home until dinner. The landscape was so raw and clean that it was easy to be a pioneer. The beaches were pure back then, hardly a condo or house in sight, just long unending strips of white sand bordered on one side by the aqua water of the Gulf of Mexico and on the other straggly pine forests surrounded by clumps of sea grape and sea oats that were not yet considered endangered. As a child as I stood on the shore and contemplated the horizon, it seemed as if I had discovered the tipping point at the end of the world and Cuba, a place even more wild and unpredictable, was just beyond my reach on the other side as a dare.

I learned to shuffle my feet as I entered the water to ward off the prehistoric-looking stingrays and horseshoe crabs with the barbed venomous tail that burrowed in the shallow shoreline. I watched the waters turn blood red from a surge of bacteria known as the Red Tide, and I helped my mother cut the jaws out of sharks that had died and washed ashore, and dried them in the sun to sell to tourists who had just begun to trickle into town. I swam to the sandbar and beyond. I swung off the ropes of a sailboat. I felt the blunt bump of a shark nose as it brushed against my legs. I was young and invincible just like the lyrics to a bad pop anthem.

As a teenager, the deserted beaches held marvelous pockets of privacy. I had a bikini that made me braver and more sure of myself than my old ragged one piece. There were bonfires and boys with long hair, sun-bleached white on the tips, whose wiry bodies were bronze and toned from endless hours surfing the waves. Boys who gave me rides on the handlebars of their bikes to the beach. Boys I curved around on a sandy blanket, boys who broke my heart, boys whose hearts I broke. Altering our moods seemed innocent; a joint passed around the bonfire mouth to mouth until it was gone, a bottle of limb warming amber liquid, origins unknown.

One of those nights I wandered away from the bonfire with a friend. Walking along the beach at night, the sounds of the waves rushing the shore, the moonlight turning the sand silver. Even in the dark the air was still so warm. I was buzzed enough that my limbs felt fluid, but not so buzzed that what I saw emerge from the woods in front of me wasn’t real. Three men in white hoods, their bodies shrouded in volumes of white cloth that was folded and gathered crudely, like a child’s elementary attempt at a Halloween costume. I grabbed a hold of my friend and because we were sixteen we stood for a moment longer than we should have, longer than common sense, before we turned and took off back down the beach towards the bonfire.

I didn’t look over my shoulder until we were in the light of the fire, back among the clumps of people who greeted us with a long-neck beer and the wave of a joint. Puffed with bravado, we told our story accompanied by the roaring of the Gulf and the hiss and pop of the fire. A ragged group was formed to investigate. Someone talked about the remains of a burning cross, a lost dog, the forlorn cry of a child in the night, a stolen bike, a piece of torn white fabric caught on a branch, as if all these fragments, real or imagined, were connected. Around the fire, our faces appeared haunted and distorted by the flickering flames. We huddled under blankets loosely tented around our shoulders till dawn, until the gulls cawed and the sky streaked pink behind the slowly dilating charcoal smudge of night sky.

We had no idea what we were waiting for or what we would do once it arrived. We had no idea what was to come.

 

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23 Comments »

Comment by Irene Zion
2009-10-20 08:58:28

Robin,
What started out as a lovely family tale morphed into a story of disassociation to a new life and then into the story of a child’s introduction to hatred and terror.
Phew. I’m exhausted riding through it.
Good job.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:45:57

Irene, I had the same experience reading your last lovely piece. Thanks so much!

Comment by Matt
2009-10-20 09:32:18

Wow.

’scuse me. I kind of feel the need to go surfing now. Back later.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:03

hmmmm…… you can’t ever separate the boy from the board!

Comment by Richard Cox
2009-10-20 10:33:01

This is a dense and vivid journey. Nicely done.

As a child I always feared the moment I would forget to shuffle my feet and plant my foot squarely on top of a stingray hidden under the murky surface of the water. Luckily it never happened. Well, not yet, anyway.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:54

Keep shuffling…. that’s my motto anyway. Works for most everything. Thanks so much for the compliments, Richard

Comment by Zara Potts
2009-10-20 10:36:34

God, how creepy.
But what lovely writing Robin! I could almost smell the salt from the ocean and the smoke from the bonfire.
What happened next??

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:48:52

What happened next? I fell in love with another sensitive soul who stayed up with me all that night…..

Comment by jmblaine
2009-10-20 10:54:28

A professor once told me that good writers
describe well
and the touch you put on things
is magic here,
where have you been?

ps. the Klan winds through my childhood as well
but I cant find the words to write about it
yet

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:51:22

My God…thanks. I am humbled by the compliments. When I began this piece I thought I wanted my “Klan” experience to start it off – only to find the entire thing flipped around in the telling. You might find a way to tell your story yet. A wise teacher once said to me when I was stuck that I should think about…”going in the back door.” Have you?

Comment by Simon Smithson
2009-10-20 13:36:09

Wow, good piece!

Like Irene, this one caught me by surprise. It started in one place, then ended up in another.

Sort of like childhood, I guess.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:52:32

Simon – you are so right I hadn’t thought of childhood that way until I read your comment!!! I love TNB people!

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-21 04:48:08

You have a great way of letting what was then a new landscape help tell this story of strangeness and change. Beautiful, restrained portraiture. The cutting of a shark’s jaw sticks in my head. And the emergence of hillbilly hatred from the woods…it reminds me of a story my dad told me.

When I was very young, my parents — hippies fresh from Rhode Island in their red VW microbus — moved us to southwest Missouri in service of my dad’s quest to wash his hands of society to what degree he could. The Ozarks were beautiful. Some things about the Ozarks were not. He described to me an early meeting with a realtor/land guy who, upon their first appointment, met them not at a prospective piece of land, but a black graveyard.

“See that?” the man said to my mystified parents, pointing at the headstones. “That’s why we don’t have a nigger problem in this county.”

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:51:33

Your anecdote leaves me speechless. Have you ever told that story?

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-24 06:17:56

Only here, on this comment thread. And to a few friends.

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Autumn
2009-10-21 06:57:16

Your writing about Florida really knocked me back to my childhood: slopping through low-tide mud to hunt for urchins and horseshoe crabs, swimming past the sand bar, bonfire and boys with long hair. I was a teen in the 90s, but I guess the experience never changes.

I, luckily, never had any experience with the Klan, but racism was definitely alive and well in Florida back then too. And, I fear, sadly still is.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:56:02

When writing this, I was never quite sure if a place that held such a strong and lasting impact on my memory would translate on paper… I’m glad it resonated with you. Writing about childhood can be unsettling when you layer in adult perceptions….

Comment by LitPark
2009-10-21 10:23:41

Haunting, and beautifully told.

Comment by Greg Olear
2009-10-21 14:18:18

I agree with Susan. Haunting (they look like ghosts, after all) and beautifully told.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:52:39

Greg and Susan… thanks so much….

Comment by Marni Grossman
2009-10-21 19:57:49

Florida’s such an anomaly. It’s a southern state, but it’s easy to forget that amidst the flea markets of Boca and the parties of Miami. You shine a lense on a very different Florida. And you do it so damn well.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 10:01:59

You’re so right about that! Florida is indeed an anomaly…. one forgets that it is much more than the birthplace of Mickey Mouse! Going back to that town, which I did this summer for the first time in nearly fifteen years, was still unsettling. Although not sure if it was just me trying to reconcile past and present, or there was something else at work. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece – thanks!

Comment by D.R. Haney
2009-10-25 18:56:42

Very well described, Robin, as others have said, and I love the conclusion, which to me is reminiscent of the final fadeout of a European art film from the 1960s, though it’s hard to explain why. I think, for example, of the girl vainly waving to Mastroianni on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita. Or maybe it’s simply sufficient to use the word “haunting” and leave it at that.







They tell me you should write about what you know. I’ve always had a problem with that. I may know some things other people don’t, but in writing that down, what good does that do me? Not much. I already know it. I want to write about things I don’t know about. I want to learn things about what I don’t think, how people I don’t know don’t act and why. Perhaps I say this because I don’t know much. I know a lot of facts about arcane things, but I already know them and I already know that nobody, unless they are short of Trivial Pursuit cards, wants to hear that kind of bilge. However, I don’t know one thing that I think will serve me well in my writing career: I don’t know how to write.

So, I reckon I’m sitting at my computer in good stead now, not knowing how to write. When I learn how to do that, I can stop writing and go on to a more noble pursuit like filming my relatives in Bakersfield, California doing their best interpretations of pro wrestling, then selling the tapes on what they like to call, the inter-tubes. If the nobility of this is called into question, I defy you to tell me that my cousin Bert leaping off the roof of his house and slamming a metal chair on the top of my younger cousin Stanley’s head is not tantamount in artistry to a Nureyev –Fonteyn showcase ofProkofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

I haven’t been able to write for as long as I can remember. Alas, I’ve always wanted too, but it never comes out quite right. It seems like everybody writes better than I do. I’ve always wanted to write a book that I’d like to read, but I’m always reading books I’d like to read, so what’s the point? You toil for years over this book, like your child. You like it when you first start raising it, feel you’ve done a bang-up job. Then, the book hits adolescence, its voice starts to crack, it wants its independence, then a car, then none of your time even though you want to give it all of your time. And finally, it flings itself into its own world and blows all your time and patience by spending its time (and still your money) on the hustling whores of the Mexican border and Quaaludes. To this, I have only one response:

It is to enact a sort of vengeful Golden Rule and to take up the qualities of your prodigal, ingrate book. Besides, all the books I would have liked to have written were written by full-blown, abject lunatics. There’s Salinger, speaking in tongues and drinking his own urine, Hemingway and Toole, blowing their minds out, Plath and her oven. Did she pre-heat that? Then Ambrose Bierce, gone without a trace. Que te vayas bien!, old boy. Where is Pynchon? And Mailer, always retching at parties and occasionally stabbing his wife. What a ship of old fools! It’s a good thing I can’t write. I see myself flinging my own feces over the rooftops of Paris, confused over the relationship between vector calculus and intransitive verbs. I swear, once I learn how to write, I never will. And who has the time to learn? There are too many distractions. This is one thing I know: How not to write.

Well, I see your point. You think I’m going to start talking about how not to write.

“But, hey,” you’ll say. “He said he didn’t want to write about things he knew about.” Then you will fold your arms contentedly and relish in my howling error. Aha! I also wrote that I didn’t know how to write, so it was okay to do so. In essence, I have canceled out both of these grandiose proclamations, and at the end of this, it will be like nothing ever happened. Nature frowns at my vacuum and smokes her first cigarette of the day, like Bette Davis…like she couldn’t give one damn. And although I’ve missed an episode of The Real World: Alpha Centauri, its like I haven’t.

One way not to write is to get an STD test. I have spent hours, days not writing because of these. If you think of all the melancholic things that could occur to your genitalia during the three or four agonizing days of waiting for the results, you really can’t be expected to do anything. However, while your wondering if your dick will drop off like an unwieldy stalactite when you’re in line for the movies, or if your partner’s vagina will gradually creep up and eat her belly button, you can think ofall the wonderful places you’d travel if faced with some harrowing disease. I decided that I would go to the south of Spain and just write. I mean, really write this time.

Now, here’s a really sly trick. Do you know that apocryphal probability of a bunch of baboons at a bunch of typewriters, who, if given long enough would eventually type out the entire works ofShakespeare? It’s something that gives writers hope.


http://www.writers-free-reference.com/baboon-at-computer.jpg

It also hints at immortality, as all faulty logic, and writing, must. Here is what you must do. If you can type, you must unlearn how to do that. Maybe turn your keyboard upside down. Then using sequences of one, two, three, four and up to, say, nine letters, type randomly, not looking at the keyboard. Then, when you have finished a few hundred pages, spell check or put the Thesaurus to your piece. Often, you will find there is no suggestion for your word. Sometimes, you will find you have actually typed a word in the lexicon, and sometimes you will find that the spell check divined the subconscious word you hammered out on the keyboard. (Note: If you try this with common penmanship, you will find yourself either cheating or your neurons will become so confused at your attempts to confuse them that your head will turn into eggs Benedict.) “kdfyfrt,” I write. I then use my computer’s thesaurus and find that “juvenile behavior” is an equivalent to “kdfyfrt.” (Seriously, try it.)

And there, I have the beginnings of Catcher in the Rye, or Lord of the Flies. I am that baboon that will succeed. Eventually. And on a side note, if you are interested in poetry, I suggest you type out a few turgid lines in your native tongue, then find a translation website and in translation, you may very well be the next Goethe, Neruda, Rimbaud, or Horace, depending on the language you select. Perhaps you translate better than you are, like Garcia-Lorca.

I want to make clear that, although I don’t know of any other treatise on how not to write, I assume that there must be a few out there. Fine. We all know that everything has already been written before and that the crucial thing is to say it better, or at least, differently. It’s like the idea of Genghis Cohen, the noted Jewish barbarian who went marauding through China slapping everybody with gefilte fish. It turns out, there is a Genghis Cohen’s restaurant at Fairfax and Melrose in LA and is also a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel, The Crying of Lot 49. But I thought of this name, independently, as I thought of the subject of writing on not writing, so be it. I wonder if anybody has done anything with The Origin of Feces, though. I must fact check. Why am I so defensive about this? Because I realize that many people must have sundry techniques for not writing, but I have found the following quite adept at keeping me away from the keyboard. That said, these are only some micro-suggestions.

The easiest way to not write is to start drinking. You may have a splash of inspiration after a few cocktails and look to put this, the framework of your magnum opus on paper. This feeling will pass. I will occasionally belly up to the keyboard after doing the same at the bar and find that while I think I can write, I still can’t (Thankfully. I would hate to learn I did something better drunk than sober, aside from falling down.). Just don’t drink whiskey. The only two things whiskey makes you want to do is fight or write. Both of these will get you into trouble. In defense of writing, though, the simian ogre at the bar ready to knock your block off doesn’t have a “delete” key. Stick with red wine and read a good book until you fall asleep. Or call up some friends and tell them how much you love and miss them. If you have no friends, watch a city council meeting on the public access channel and ask yourself why you are such a drip. Drinking is an easy out, and one determined to really not write should have salted away a number of other options. I’ll make this hasty, as writing about not writing is proving to be almost as exhausting as just writing. There’s something I didn’t know.

There is one particular flood of menstruum that dissolves the spirit and when instituted will assuage all pains related to not writing. This is called internet gambling. This is the knockout drop in the drink that keeps me alive, as Endymion. Rolled up jacks over trips, down and up, down and up. It is that kind of blessed monotony that I think keeps most people alive. And for the antsy creative type, you can really make an art out of losing money, which, I should add, has been my summer job. Losing money at the online casino. This is not as lucrative as a typical summer job, but the hours are flexible and I don’t have to talk to anybody, save my own ravaged conscious. When does anybody make or lose money on writing? Never. Writing just is as I am. Nobody can prove either postulate and only the fool might try. I have just lost $200. Really, I just did that. I sell bonds like cracker jacks and switch them like shell games. I am such a disappointment. I feel that way. Thinking, I am Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all of them. Pick my story, I’ll try not to write it. Matt, the realist. Too much on about His wisdom, Son of Sirach and all that drivel. Boring. Then Mark, snot-slinging drunk and bitch of Luke, holds forth on the Sabbath and then hits the middle-of-the-road. Why not Luke, the pretty-boy, the best writer of the bunch who learned how to write and kept it short, ofsorts. And finally, John, who gives the words appeal. Writes the bestseller. The clincher. No, I am none of them. I have created no universe, I have moved no man, no woman. Damnit, I tried, though. That is all I have ever wanted to do. Like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “I tried.” There is nothing more stifling than knowing what to write and not writing it. I suppose that’s the point, though, not writing.

Maybe I’ll can it. I’m getting awfully invested about thinking about not writing. Change the ring on your phone to Dance of the Valkyries, think of titles for new books, old books. If you have that liberal guilt, see how far you can jam your thumb up your ass, while convincing yourself you’re really not that gay. Ok, then how interesting can you be? If you can see 3-D, try a hand at vector calculus. Make a sloppy Spanish tortilla. Put your brother to bed, again. And again. He’s getting old now. Memorize something. Like ketchup: Tomato concentrate, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, salt, onion powder, natural flavoring. I think I finally got it.

Enough. Writing, and not writing, is a brilliant ponzi scheme. You manufacture one word and the rest fall into rank. Any word engenders another, no matter how puerile, no matter how vacant. They will all, eventually, spill out in a brilliant splash of your own gore. But it is your gore. And you must believe it will withdraw from you some semblance of value. This is, of course, if you are able to write. I , of course, have a problem writing. I will sweat until my death in attempts to finish this odious trade. Until then, I can tell you only that one should never write about what one knows, one should never know what one truly feels, one should keep one’s thumb up one’s ass, constantly, in the hopes that one’s head will peer out from that unholy aperture long enough to realize that we must always try and hold our entrails, our souls out to ourselves long enough to realize that we can never, ever, learn to write. Jesus wept. I’m talking about me. But Godamnit, I try. I will try and take my TKO against the demiurge of words with grace, with nonchalance. With everything I have. I shall never write. I know that. That’s one thing I know. The thing I’ll never write about. Or not.

Pierre Bayard’s ode to philistinism, Comment Parler des Livres que l’on n’a pas Lus, or How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read is a unique experience. Upon completion of Bayard’s work (one wonders if Bayard himself ever read his own book), I found myself first outraged, then confused, and finally, a little constipated. I thought to myself, “How does this boorish Frenchman claim that a perfunctory flip-through of Anna Karenina should suffice for an understanding of St. Petersburg’s high society during that time—or Jasper, Missouri’s, home to the Double Deuce for that matter?” Can this Bayard be serious? Can we really talk—intelligently—about books we’ve never read?

On the jacket cover of his aggravating book, Mr. Bayard leans against a railing next to a dumpster leading up to a whorehouse, staring at the reader as if to say, “Hey, I’m French—perhaps you’d be interested in some beignets after I’m done with these prostitutes.”

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_e5CENKp5eYU/Sd5UyzPlj3I/AAAAAAAABPE/2Frsu4D8HOY/s320/pierre-bayard.jpgHe also claims that he is a professor of literature at the University of Paris. As intellectuals, it’s safe to assume that we’ve all been to Paris—but has anybody ever seen this alleged university? Not I. All I saw in Paris was a gift-shop full of chocolate Eiffel Towers at Orly airport, as nobody was kind enough to direct me to my time-share in the 23 rd arrondissement, with what they assured me was a “first-class” view of the Bastille. It seems the French have a knack for deception, while bringing out the worst pseudo-intellectual hobgoblins into the cultural milieu.

Bayard begins by making the ridiculous claim that readers may finally “shake off the guilt” of not having read the great books that shape our world. Be careful with guilt, Mr. Bayard. Had you finished Roadhouse, you might sing a different tune when it comes to washing oneself of both corporeal and spiritual guilt. Do you have any idea what happens at the end? The bristling irony that clips at the thin threads of your argument? I assure you, the culmination of tropes during the end game of Swayze’s opus is terrifying—truly something that stays with you, like a disease, or a small dog stapled to your leg, gnawing at your testicles (not always, but a lot of the time). Read (or watch) the end of this, and you will rethink your gilded shit-head ideas on guilt.

As a freelance intellectual, I often find myself asked to contribute a book review, or deliver a lecture extempore after Jonathan Safran Foer has cancelled. So, I’m no tyro in this sphere. Mr. Bayard recommends that to lecture on a book one hasn’t read, it’s essential to “put aside rational thought and…let your sub-conscience express your personal relationship with the work.” Similarly, to review an unfamiliar book, Mr. Bayard counsels, “closing your eyes to perceive what may interest you about [the book]…then writing about yourself.”

Let me state categorically that allowing the sub-conscious to intervene during a lecture is a dangerous thing. I recall a commencement speech I was asked to give at Princeton (after Jonathan Safran Foer cancelled), in which my goal was to make a connection between the gateway to adulthood and the battle scene against the Cubans over the corn fields of middle America in James Joyce’s, Ulysses. At the time, I was 40 pages short of finishing Ulysses, but I panicked for one brief moment, allowing my subconscious to creep in and reference the heart-pumping Patrick Swayze vehicle, Red Dawn to fill in the gaps created by my literary malfeasance. The audience chortled and squirmed with typical Princeton fatuity, and I spent the rest of the address huddled under the gown of Joyce Carol Oates. Years later, when I explained at a PEN meeting to Mrs. Oates that I had, in my youthful folly, dared to reference a book I had not completely finished and I was soooo sorry and I now know that the varsity football team in Ulysses were fighting Communists, not Moonies, Mrs. Oates gave me a coy smile and sort of whispered, in that way she does, “Would you mind getting me a another vodka gimlet?”

As for book reviews, I don’t have the faintest clue where Mr. Bayard gets off. Close my eyes and write about myself? What kind of self-aggrandizing, philistine claptrap is that? I was once stuck sitting next to Michiko Kakutani, book reviewer extraordinaire of the New York Times, on a flight to Zurich, and it turned out we were both reviewing the same new translation of Don Quixote. After we agreed that one of the key requirements of criticism is the removal of oneself from the work under consideration, I made a reference to the end of Don Quixote, when Sancho Panza is about to join in the rumble between the “Greasers” and the “Socs”, and how it’s a metaphor for the craft of writing. I think she must have been forced to digest this burst of protean insight, because for the rest of the flight, she said little. I remarked how every time I met Gore Vidal, he would sound a rape whistle and hog-tie me to a fire hydrant, and Michiko droned on as usual, always trying to one-up me with her one story; you know, the one she never finishes about, “Stewardess, can I change seats?” What’s the point, Michiko? It’s not even a story, per se.

http://cache.gawker.com/assets/images/2008/11/custom_1227303927991_michiko-kakutani_01.jpgThe truth is, we read for any number of reasons: we crave a good yarn by the camp fire; we savor the world of words created by our greatest artists; we feel a preternatural magnetism toward an understanding of how and why we are the way we are; perhaps we are having a bowel movement. What Mr. Bayard suggests is an approach toward reading, and a discussion of reading, that goes against our nature. We are not partial beings—we are complete—complete in the sense that our minds create our realities. Mind is life. We must subscribe to life whole-heartedly, eschewing the notion that a partial understanding of our world, our ethos, our pathos, is tantamount to a full life. Anything else is a bourgeoise conceit! Dumbing-down displays the utter convenience of ignorance!

Bayard is a travesty of nature, like a Gaulloises-puffing ogre. His mongloid understanding of human nature will eventually lead to an early demise. He is a French Hamlet (although presumably shorter), pathologically self-destructing at every turn, although you’d think he might have learned something from all that post-mortem correspondence with Whoopi Goldberg. And yes, he escapes, but at what cost? What now will his wife Molly do? Can you have sex with a ghost? Is Claudius really going to poison a glass of Mouton Rothschild just because Baby Houseman is a Jew? And what of the Roadhouse?

I am reminded of something Flaubert said upon completion of Madame Bovary: “Quelle atroce invention que celle du bourgeois, n’est-ce pas?” Had Bayard finished Madame Bovary, he would have recognized—as Special Agent Johnny Utah did about Bodhi right before the appearance of Rodolphe—not everybody wants to be rescued from the fifty year storm.

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Joyously Obscene

By Mary Hendrie

Essay

I learned to curse from the kids down the road. I don’t know where they learned it. Maybe they snuck into the living room late one night and watched Cinemax. Or maybe someone let them listen to that George Carlin bit (Carlin, of course, has become my cursing idol – what an appreciation for language that man has). They knew all the basics and a few interesting combinations. I didn’t know what “fuck” meant but understood it to be foul and taboo, so the combination “buttfuckers” struck me as joyously obscene. We were the kind of kids who integrated new words into our vocabulary by shouting them while jumping on the trampoline, leaping off the bed or bounding from one piece of furniture to another trying not to touch the floor — lava, obviously. If you had first encountered cursing in such a magnificent, joyful, wild atmosphere, you would love it, too. Few things entertain me more than the thought of my eight-year-old self in mid-air shouting “buttfuckers” with glee.

I love cursing the way I love beer. It is a guilty love, one that cannot possibly be good for me, one that concerns my mother a little. In high school, she heard me singing along with Ani DiFranco: “I may not be able to save the whole fucking world, but I can be the million that you never made.” Mom sighed. “I guess you and your friends all talk like that, don’t you?” I recently sent an invitation to a small sampling of my rather large Catholic family — only to the ones who already know i don’t go to church — inviting them to read my blog. It was another tentative step into the online world of self-promotion in which the line between enthusiasm and shamelessness is thinning by the day. The invitation included a suggestion that my family members could share the blog with anyone they know who might be interested, but it also came with a warning: “If you know anyone with a strong aversion to four-letter words, this may not be the kind of thing they’ll want to read.”

This e-mail lead to a conversation with my Mom in which I explained how I really do need to improve my vocabulary and she said how she loved Julie and Julia except for all the cursing, which she found not so much offensive as simply unnecessary and distracting. I could relate. I’m always talking about how writers have annoying and distracting habits that they seem to have been trying out for effect, but the effect just didn’t come out so well.

But I also believe cursing can be used to great effect, like the time my brother talked our mom and sister into a staged argument in the mall parking lot. My sister Katie, generally recognized as the polite one in the family, called shotgun as we all went to get in the car. My mother, more commonly known as the nicest lady ever born, voiced her objection.

Mom: No, I want to ride in the front.

Katie: But you always get to ride in front.

Mom: Fuck you, Katie.

Seriously, it was priceless. Just the briefest moment of shock passed until we all realized our mom would never use that word. John, who had orchestrated the scene, couldn’t contain his smile. Mom has probably blocked it out, but to me it was completely unforgettable.

Cursing does a lot for me, actually. There are those who call it cheap, low class, anti-intellectual, a sign of a weak mind, a foul temper and a lacking vocabulary. All these things are true, of course. But sometimes, my mind is weak, my temper foul, and my vocabulary lacking — there’s no getting around it — I run out of words sometimes.

In college, I took a women’s self-defense class for credit. I was OK at sparring. I learned the moves and did the exercises, even lost a couple pounds. Found out I could hit pretty hard, too. For the final exam, we had to fend off an attacker (a former cop or something, a man paid to show up in padding and a cup and threaten us). I was terrified. I had stage fright, for one thing. I knew I could hold my own against a classmate; I’d even given my friend a bloody lip by accident one time. But I was afraid of the pressure of not getting mugged (or raped or killed) in front of the whole class. I was afraid I couldn’t let fly witht he fists on a total stranger. Our teacher had instructed us to keep shouting “no” at the attacker as we fought him, and being raised in the polite tradition of “yes,” I was afraid I couldn’t raise my voice against him.

When my turn came, we stood in the center of the room, encircled by my classmates, acting convincingly like total strangers until he said, “Hey lady, can I play with your titties?” No kidding. Fucker gets paid to say this shit. I was shocked, but the adrenaline rushed in like a title wave as I shouted, “Fuck no!”

My classmates laughed a little. We were all surprised by my voice, considering I’d been labeled as “the nice one” by our teacher. The attacker grabbed my arm, and then I fought him. I fought him like hell, and I didn’t care anymore if he had a cup on. My classmates were chanting, “No! No! No!” with every punch, and I was going to ruin his day. Ruin his life. Ruin his family tree. After class, he took off his protective gear and we all talked for a few minutes. He was a nice guy, in his 50s, a grandfather, but still terribly fit. He was harmless after all, and he’d been there to help us learn our own strength. He helped me find my own voice, that’s for sure. And as vulgar as anyone may think it is, I know exactly what I’ll say if a real attacker ever tries to touch me.

What I told Mom was that when you’re trying to hang with geniuses, professional journalists, people with PhDs and book contracts and all you’ve got going for yourself is a spunky attitude and a foul mouth, it leaves something to be desired. It can make you feel pretty ignorant. And yet, there’s something satisfying about being a high school girl and using the word “cunt” to unsettle boys who’d never seen one. Truthfully, after exchanging e-mails with certain very literate friends, I do hit dictionary.com pretty hard, but let us never underestimate the power of a well-placed “fuck.”

I don’t remember giving consent. Or protesting. Or having a choice, not with adult forces at work. A secret committee decided that I should represent my elementary school at the Little Miss Lafayette pageant. How I got the news, I’m not sure, but my guess is this:

My mother: “Ronlyn, you’re going to be in a beauty pageant. You were picked out of everyone from the whole school. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Me: I likely scowled. I likely pondered the real threat of dress-up clothes. It’s possible I asked, “Why me?”

Why me indeed. There had to be at least 150 girls in my school. Certainly someone else would have been thrilled by such attention, someone to whom strangers commented, “Oh, what a pretty little girl.” I was a cute kid, like the quirky type in cereal commercials. I was not a beautiful child, one born for pageants or hair product ads, tresses wavy and loose, eyes and cheekbones aglow with well-placed catch lights. I was no girly-girl.

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.

A main character in my upcoming novel* has feeble short-term memory. His pockets spill over with scraps of paper covered in scribbled notes like tattoos on the leathery arms of an aging biker. A minor character fills her study with bound books chock-a-block with the lists of her daily life.

I’m not a list person, although I often write notes to myself. In the car. In the bathroom. But in a way maybe these notes are lists — things to remember, events by which to gauge time, yet not in list form.

My book deals with memory, history, and the chronology of a life whose gaps are filled by the most unlikely sources.

The house on Cornwall Avenue was two blocks from the beach. It was large and white and perfect. Out front were lilac bushes. In the back, on the driveway, we would ride our bikes and drag our red wagons and wash our sandy feet with the hose. The house had three stories, several balconies and room enough for most all of us. For kids and grandkids and friends dropping by. The neighbors had a pool, but we had the carriage house. We held birthday parties there. Fourth-of-July celebrations. It smelled of wet sand and must and sweat and memory.

We’d walk the two blocks to the beach in flip-flops, carrying fold-up chairs and coolers of water and boogie boards. Aunt Nomi would tote along peaches and plums in plastic bags and some other aunt or uncle would bring money for the ice cream man. The cousins- bolder than I- would jump waves, venturing deeper and deeper into the murky froth of the Atlantic. I, who was not-so-brave, stayed by the shore building sand castles and hunting for snail shells with my father. In the afternoon the ice cream man would ring his bell and we’d go running after him, hankering for fudgesicles and ice cream sandwiches and chocolate tacos. Our mothers would rub sunscreen onto our sandy backs as we dripped chocolate down our fronts. 

At 4:00 or 5:00 we’d start back, hopping from foot-to-foot on the hot late-afternoon sand. Our feet burned and blackened, we carried our shoes clutched in our small fists, limping our way back to the house on Cornwall Avenue.

* * *

It is perfectly possible to remember an idyllic childhood that never existed. Me, I imagine mine in Super-8 film. Like an episode of “The Wonder Years.” Like a Ford ad, circa 1972. I remember thin legs in terry cloth shorts sticking to the leather of the car. I remember the view from the back seat. My parents’ voices rising and falling musically from up front. My sister faking sick next to me. Windows down. The smell of sea-salt. Tossing quarters into the toll booth. Downtheshore. All one word.

This was where my grandparents lived. My Bubbie and Zadie*. But it was more than that. Downtheshore was my grandparents. The dark blue of the kitchen carpet. The porcelain tea sets and cat figurines in the living room. Ketzie** the cat, gray and cranky, hissing at us kids from underneath Bubbie and Zadie’s bed. Oreo cookies dipped in milk. All of us cousins, one multi-legged creature with 18 tanned arms.

Like I said: it is perfectly possible to remember an idyllic childhood that never existed.

* * *

At 78, my Bubbie is still beautiful. She no longer has the tremendous breasts of her youth. Cancer got those. And she can’t walk these days. Her feet are enormous: swollen to the size of melons, fit only for special-order shoes and thick support hose. But she retains that sexy Lauren Hutton gap between her front teeth. A killer smile. Eyes that sparkle and perfectly arched brows. An enviably thick head of hair. I want badly to be told that I look like her. I don’t, though. I am 55 years her junior but all I have over her is youth.

In my favorite photograph of my grandmother, she is 16. In profile. She is wearing a fur headpiece and staring pensively away from the camera. She is young and glamorous and she has her whole life ahead of her. She hasn’t yet been introduced to my dark and handsome grandfather. She hasn’t yet given birth to her four children. She doesn’t yet know that her beloved father has only a year to live. She doesn’t yet know that in three decades she will lose her sister- her best friend- to breast cancer. She is young and glamorous and she has her whole life ahead of her. I want badly to be told that I look like her. I don’t, though.

* * *

At 78, my Bubbie is losing her memory. This is a fact, though I choose to believe it is merely conjecture.

If we don’t use the A-word then it isn’t real.

She has good days. Days when she can reminisce with fluency about yesterday and last year and thirty years ago. Days when she cracks jokes. Days when she tries to press her jewelry on me, saying, “you like this? Take it!” She has good days and this makes it easier to forget that she has bad days too.

* * *

Bubbie and Zadie moved out of the house on Cornwall Avenue over a decade ago. The house was too big so they downsized to a small yellow box of a house five blocks from the beach. It didn’t matter much. Bubbie didn’t go to the beach anymore. Couldn’t. Some years later, they built a ramp for her wheelchair. Bubbie didn’t go to the beach anymore so neither did we. We sat on the porch and ate dried fruit from candy dishes and watched the roses grow into maturity. We still held birthday parties. Fourth-of-July celebrations. We still stopped for soft-serve at the Purple Penguin on our way home. Downtheshore.

Bubbie and Zadie moved out of the little yellow box on North Union last year. To an apartment in a retirement community. They are in independent living. There is, however, the option for assisted living. Nursing care. But Bubbie still has good days and Zadie is still only 83 and we still have 15-year-old sand lodged in our toes and our tans haven’t faded completely. This is merely conjecture but I choose to believe it is fact. This is merely grasping at straws. But I’ll take it.

* * *

One night not too long ago, Bubbie woke Zadie up in the middle of the night. “What’s Debbie?” she asked him urgently. “What’s Debbie to me?” “She’s your daughter,” he said.

* * *

My mother doesn’t believe that there was blue carpet in the kitchen of the house on Cornwall Avenue. We ask my father. He has no recollection whatsoever. “What’s for dinner?” he asks instead. I remember it distinctly though. Blue carpet in the kitchen. It was there, I think, even if it wasn’t. Blue carpet in the kitchen downtheshore in the house on Cornwall Avenue.

 

*For those of you who aren’t Chosen- you get your Easter eggs and we get circumcision- Bubbie and Zadie are Yiddish words for “grandmother” and “grandfather.”

** Ketzie is Yiddish for cat.  Go figure.

The first thing that really nailed it was “Constantinople.” The word comes toward the end of Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop and when I pronounced it for the first time, finally, I think that lit the candle. Droplets spilled from the ducts of my parents and mine as we closed the book and then perhaps I was offered some fried chicken. A simple exchange of values, my inchoate literacy for a bucket of Popeye’s extra crispy. It has always been that way for me; chicken for literature. Madame Bovary and I shared a bucket in bed until Rodolphe burst in with a revolver. But that is later.

I flounder on what to include. After Hop on Pop, I think I rode the Seuss wave dressed in a Marmaloot suit, scrambling Horton’s eggs and devouring the oeuvre. Then a snag. There is no real transition from Seuss to anything. Maybe Finnegan’s Wake, or some of the more obscure Borges stuff, but that doesn’t really do it either, does it? And thus, my literacy was stifled for a rather large quantity of years, as Good Night Moon and its cohorts never really did it for me. However, I did look at covers of books during these dark ages.

Those god-damned Hardy Boys, with their blue bindings and images on their covers depicting all sorts of scenes of mystery, intrigue and adventure. So alluring to the youngster, all the while not giving a tinker’s fuck to the fact that I can’t read you, man! And so I waited. I can’t quite remember the time when I first opened up one of these Hardy Boys books, but I remember it was a little anti-climactic. Isaac, one of my associates had apparently been devouring all this Hardy Boys nonsense for a while. I was accused of being a tyro in the sphere of the Hardy Boys and felt I ought to compensate by attending the book fair and enlisting my mother to buy around 10 of these books because one must catch up to one’s fellows. They still sit on my bookshelf, and I still am only able to look at the covers. I’ll bet they’re not bad, though.

My next endeavor into literature, I suppose would be the series of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. These books are responsible for my current literary bankruptcy. Now, I am sure I am not the only one to abandon the whimsical “chance” happenings in these vile books, but I am quite certain that their resonance has stayed with me longer than the average anybody. I remember distinctly one of these books. The main character, presumably I, am stuck in some kind of Orwellian nightmare of totalitarian regimes and faux Nazis that continue to kill my family and hook me up to some kind of brainwashing mechanism. Well, this tried my patience, as every adventure I “chose” enlisted me in the same odious situation. At wit’s end, I wrote my own “adventure” on the back jacket cover that had me blow-torching some futuristic Reichstag and wandering in a field with the love interest of the story who never actually appeared except in my addendum on the back cover. I still look for her in bars and sundry houses of ill repute. I can see her. Is it wrong that I continue to put her age at around twelve? Eat your heart out Humbert.

When I woke from this, it seems I spent my days treading Vaseline in a sea of warped sexuality (not so different from now, at this very instant). A Separate Piece (Peace?), To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in The Rye. These works are what I remember from my early adolescence. Alas, all I really seemed to absorb in my sexually quiescent stage was how much Scout would enjoy a good romp in the back of the courtroom. Hell, at this stage, I would have fucked Holden, Stradlater, Phineas, Gene, Jem, Gregory Peck (he is Atticus) as quick as the crack of dawn–given the opportunity. I think at some point around this time I also read The Jungle by Sinclair, but all that did was switch me from hot dogs to corn dogs for a semester. The Jesuits really know how to put a scare in you.

And then it gets interesting. I am sitting on a hammock in Fortaleza, Brazil with summer reading (high school) in my hand. It is this atrocity called Madame Bovary. Flaubert? Flaubert? Sounds like some kind of ice cream that you should set on fire. I guess it still does. But he introduced me to my literary fait accompli. Falling in love with heroines. No, but bad love. That faded love in aurora, thrice before the cock crows. Yes–hanging from the fig tree. Holy Thursday love. Dead love. And Emma Bovary is my first, my last–my alpha and omega. And then the credit card debt. I spoke to her. And she spoke back. Our knowledge of each other made us complicit. And she adores my jejune reflections on life and art. And her blood sings in her veins like the very river of milk.

It is not I that negotiates these grotesque self-deceptions. It is literature. It is Emma Bovary, with her “heavens torn open…and passion… spilt everywhere” that beguile me. I suppose when I open the novel and “go” I go. This is why I don’t wander around with Catcher in The Rye in my pocket. I have no inclination to assassinate anybody. Not yet. And Salinger’s shibboleth is one I don’t feel like speaking. I choose Emma. And Anna. And Brett Ashley. And Natasha Rostov. And Molly. And all those maenads hovering around Nightwood. It is the most erotic thing since considering balling the Aramaic legions and a vixen from every Ivy League school simultaneously. Horrific, yet undeniable. And necessary?

Then there is now, today. Literature aside, I try and brush up on my Portuguese. There she is, Paula. She sits with Gustavo, ordering a cervezinhas na praixa. If I can get him out of the picture, I have a chance. Hell, last night I swindled Portnoy’s “Monkey” into bed with Emma. I have so much more reading to do. I really do. But this is where I am. I am looking at the cover of Don Quixote. I wonder if Dulcinea needs a drink.

Raffaele says those home for the summer never order water at Il Fosso. Instead they ask for empty bottles and take them out to the spring where the water comes cold and sweet. He says it reminds them of their former lives.

He says in the evening serpents glide across the road, that there’s snow in winter, that here it’s not people you meet but characters.

I’ve been thinking about the power of fiction, or the power of good writing, to transport us to another time.

A talented writer can remove us from our dreary, repetitious lives with a well-wrought scene or a fully realized character.

Or simply a single object.

Backclock

For me, this happened recently while reading Josh Henkin’s wonderful novel Matrimony.

A main character reminisces about a cafe with a backward clock.

Simple as that and there I went.

When I was in fifth grade in Florida, my friend Greg Mullen was the coolest, most suave guy around. He had an inground pool, he belonged to a tennis club, he went scuba diving, he wore a leather jacket, his parents drove matching Volvos (the oddest looking cars on the block back in the early ’70s).

The initial separation is the hardest thing.

The tearing away from flesh, bone, and old habits.

corrosion of loss clots in my still unformed wings.

Somewhere a woman’s kiss lingers in my ghostly remains of memory.

The kiss smells of gardenia.


At least I can remember that much.

Remember that much of my life.


Even in death there will be these things I will always remember.

I will never die of forgetting.


As I rise, I twist in the wind.

Second-sight staggering behind, as I look down to witness the one I once was.

The one now crumpled alongside a lonely desert road.

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Heaped and fouled in a pool of blood, I have a voice answering only to carrion.


It is only now that I want to erase my name.

Completely turn myself inside out until I resemble the morphine serenity of dreamed-upon clouds.

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But no matter how hard I try, all I can do is float higher.


Brushing past bird wing and the sun’s roaming gold, a pained smile comes to my face.

This lightness, this gradual rising is almost too much for me to bear.


Though soon comes calm.

And with this calm, no more fear.


No more fear of death; all this breaking from blood, body and time.

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Again I smell gardenia.

That woman’s kiss lingering somewhere in my ghostly remains of memory.


I am comforted to realize that at least I can remember that much.

Remember that much of

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Even in death there will be these things I will always remember.

I will never die of forgetting.

Just before my friend, Jett, passed away

I was working on a piece of writing
That I felt reflected certain aspects
Of our lives