The Gates Of The City

David”s memorial service was yesterday. It was in the running for the Most Horrifying Experience Of My Life.

He died two weeks ago today, at home, with hospice people coming in to help and, I gather, people from his church coming in to pray with him, because David was always all about tracts and Trusting In The Lord and saying God Bless when he signed off on the phone. I don’t know why he never tried witnessing at me, other than to include with every year’s Christmas card one of those grisly Chick tracts with bad comic-book art of sinners writhing in the Lake Of  Fire. I may have an invisible neon sign over my head that says Don’t Tell Me About Your Relationship With Jesus. Or Krishna, Zoroaster or Sun Myung Moon, come to that.

If so, it wasn’t working yesterday, Everything started off innocuously enough; we got there late in the reception hour, which was in the distinctive key of Babtist church basements everywhere: linoleum, bulletin boards with construction-paper art and cheesy posters of that Lake Of Fire (again), a “dead spread” of prefabbed deli sandwiches and canned soda set out on one of the refectory tables. I only ever knew David’s wife Liliana and his brother Donnie, who is looking pretty rough by now and missing most of his teeth. Liliana’s short a few herself, I noticed. These are people who’ve never had much money, and I refuse to judge either David or Donnie for the years they spent soused and unemployable, a family habit I gather. In the richest country in the world basic dentistry is still a luxury, I guess.

Everyone was very nice and friendly. They didn’t look like people who spent a lot of time thinking about Lakes Of Fire.

The order of service was pretty unsurprising. Four hymns scattered through its length, a scripture reading, two people giving reminiscences of David that made it clear they barely knew the man. They should have asked me. I could have told them about the patiently sifted earth in the spring, the pride in his daughter who got the education  he never completed and became a teacher, the lovingly painted iron railings on my back porch (I would have of course left out the time he hammered all the flagstones loose on the one in front). The time that I saw him pick up Torvald, who was then a guest in the yard and not yet my cat, and kiss his head.

Nope, all anyone wanted to say about David was how he had accepted Jesus and wanted to bring the Good News to everybody. I thought my eyes were glazing over at the third reference to this. And then the preacher geared up.

I could be forgiven for thinking this was supposed to be about David. Fuck me. Apparently it was the springboard for a half-hour long infomercial about how Mr. Preacher would never say he was sure someone had gone to Heaven unless he really was sure, but about David he was sure, and David was now touching the Hand of God and breathing celestial air and living in Heaven which is a real place with the following engineering specifications. I kid you not, architectural details and square footage were provided. Because David had accepted Jeebus as his Lord and Savior, and brought his daughter to do the same, and he was now freed of pain (that much, I’m happy to say, was true, and I gather there was a lot of it). And we all had that same choice and everyone needed to make it or else end up in a place full of fire and darkness separated from God forever, because no matter what else  you did or how nice you were, accepting Jeebus was your only hope, and now turn to the passage in Revelations (the most drugged-out document ever preserved, I think) for more details on the great gates of the Heavenly City, each carved from a single pearl. It was unclear what people with perfect divine bodies would do all day in the City since supposedly after death we are freed from all fleshly appetites; personally if I were going to order up Heaven it would be someplace where the whisky was incredible and there was no male refractory period.

He kept referring to David as Dave. In twenty-two years I never heard him identify himself as Dave. No one called him that.

Finally, after insisting he wasn’t going to call anyone out or embarrass them, Mister Preacher enjoined all present to close their eyes so that anyone who wanted to receive Jeebus into their hearts right there in front of his very eyes could raise their hands without being put on the spot in front of the other congregants, and receive the benefit of a pastoral prayer for God’s blessing on them. At this point I was becoming slightly crazed and almost ready to fling myself into the aisle, black-church-style, and speak in tongues if it would just make this oily, poreless-complexioned, fairy-tale-spouting mountebank SHUT UP. I think only my fondness for Liliana stopped me.

We finished with another hymn. The people who write these fucking hymnals always insist on a high E that I don’t have if I haven’t been practicing. At least I’m still the dead accurate sight singer I always was. Let them wonder how the infidel could belt out all David’s faves.

As we fled left the church — which had a multicolored LED marquee in front — Mister Preacher slunk silently out of the basement (I don’t know how he got down there from the pulpit so fast) and mooched up beside us with palm extended. I shook his hand and thanked him; I have plenty of soap at home.

“Funny,” remarked the Engineer over dinner, “I’m pretty sure that in Revelations, it says the gates of the city are always open so that anyone can come in. He must have missed that part.”

I am all but morally certain that David’s daughter told him she had accepted Jesus because he was fucking dying in horrible pain and afraid he wouldn’t see her in heaven otherwise. I can see myself doing  something like that. But I assume at least some of the people in that congregation believe all this shit, and these are people who have licenses to drive and the right to vote. It scares me.

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Dangerous Dancing

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Possibly the most compelling thing about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the just-released Joker movie is the dancing.

Yes, I realize it’s not the first thing you associate with the character — one for which I’ve always had a fascination. If you are a comics nerd (I have been one on and off throughout my life), your notions of him are era-dependent: it could be Cesar Romero’s near-buffoon with makeup in his mustache; Jack Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson (he did, I grant, deliver the line about dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight); the cackling killer who kept getting locked up in DC comics’ enchantingly named Arkham Asylum because he was so obviously evil in the key of Nuts; Mark Hamill’s voice performance, or Heath Ledger’s Protean and disturbing figure who had many conflicting stories about his origins, all true of course. There was also a Frank Miller version who smooched Dr. Ruth on camera during a broadcast of David Letterman. I guess it had to happen.

All I can say is that if you wanted a Joker more disquieting than Heath Ledger, there was really no choice but Joaquin Phoenix. I was practically camping out in the queue the minute i heard about the casting. Have you ever seen what I think may have been Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film, The Master? If you haven’t, well just set aside an evening when you can afford to be creeped out. Not by Stephen King riffs or Twilight Zone cantrips, but an everyday character who telegraphs deeply wrong in the head with every nuance of his manner, movement, speech pattern and even the weirdly disjointed relationship of his body parts. This is the guy sitting next to you on the bus who asks a question that tells you he’s not in the same world you are; the person who turns a polite time-of-day encounter into a crocked exegesis of his Theory Of Everything; the girl firmly certain that she has fleas that no one else can see. We’ve all felt that ripple under our own skin when people like that crossed our path. In The Master, without any frankly delusional lines, that’s Joaquin Phoenix’s character, and the performance overshadowed Hoffmann’s, which is saying something.

The new film’s Joker character starts out as the same tune in a higher octave: a just-scratching-by guy who’s been to clown school, lives home in an enmeshed relationship with Mom, is on seven different psychiatric medications and chain-smokes. He’s not the popular vote winner for supervillainy. He can’t talk to women, he’s a magnet for people who treat him like shit, his relationships with anyone other than Mom (and an overburdened therapist) exist almost entirely in his head, and his ambition to be a standup comic is… well… ambitious. But every so often, each time circumstances nudge him a little closer to becoming the Joker — when he goes off his meds, when he acquires a gun — he hears a music that other people don’t hear, and dances. And it’s riveting. Phoenix’s body, especially emaciated by losing weight for this performance (to an extent I find actually a bit frightening), inhabits the Uncanny Valley primarily occupied by androids, CGI versions of human characters, and Momo. (Don’t click on that last link if you tend to have nightmares.) When he slides into dance steps — in his own living room, in a public lavatory, on a car hood — he looks weightless, confident, ecstatic. Your mileage may vary but I envied that fluent movement, wanted to be carried along with it,  yes my man you are madder than six hatters, but move over and make room for me. I want that.

At this point a personal confession is in order. I used to have all too soft a spot for people who were that damaged. I don’t bang on about it, but I could write a few chapters about having parents who hovered too close and were not right in the head. I could write an encyclopedia about being the kid that everyone wanted to bag on (and who always got made into the Bad Guy for cleaning the little bastards’ clocks, something Nice Little Girls are not supposed to do; let’s say I lift, these days, because punching people is frowned upon). If I met someone who’d lived through the same crap, even if they were manifestly coming unwrapped while I’d managed to hang on, there was a magnetic pull. (My ex-husband probably should be included in this group.) In the unwrapped cases, it always ended with me having to change my phone number, or write a please-stay-away letter — feature Mama Sled trying to make sense of a late-night phone call from someone full of beer and Prozac and melting down unintelligibly over her three-year breakup anniversary. Eventually you learn not to get sucked in, but it takes a while.

Once upon a time, just out of college, I worked in a place where the locals tended to get their coffee, and struck up a friendship with a gangly-limbed, dilapidated, obviously bright young man about my same age, who eventually turned out to be on Methadone after developing an opioid habit. (This was long before the Purdue Pharma people had turned the things into a national scourge; you had to kind of work to get those kinds of drugs in the 1970s). By the time I knew about that, I also knew that his father, a career diplomat, had had a habit if amusing himself by kicking his teenage son down the stairs. Nobody else would talk to the guy because he reeked of his job, which was frycook at a chain restaurant; even in the coffee shop we called him the Crisco Kid.

So of course I talked to him, and offered him an old coat of my decamped father’s that wasn’t marinated in cooking fat, and predictably he crushed out on me, and predictably went bananas owing to the fact that I was already assembling the Interesting Past I now have with gentlemen I’d known long before I met him, and first he said something about how one day he was going to get a gun and finish off everyone who’d ever hurt him before taking himself out, and then took to calling and making my phone ring forty-two or fifty-seven times because he had nothing else to obsess about, and peering in the window when I was sewing, like Ophelia, not in my closet but the dining room, and leaving large ornately wrapped packages on the front step with verses from Omar Khayyam. Jesus Fuck. Every woman’s had one. And I assure you that in the 1970’s, the cops did not give a flying crap about a stalking report, even if you brought up gun threats and past residence on a mental ward. I believe they found it kind of cute.

(His best friend from high school — who described him as “the smartest guy in the whole school, possibly ever” — eventually met and married my best friend from high school, after running upstairs and banging her senseless within an hour of their meeting. They’re still married so far as I know and have a grown daughter. But I digress.)

The point being, I know all those signs that someone’s fucked in the head, and have had to outgrow, not to mention survive, an attraction to it, and it’s unbelievably unsettling when you see someone bring it to life in what’s generally minimized as a comic-book story. If you can live with some violence — not in the Quentin Tarantino class, but getting up there — you really should not miss it. The subtexts about inequality, how we as a society care for mentally injured people, and attitudes of privilege work better at some times than others, and of course Batman stuff is now in the Robin Hood territory where all the stories are true no matter how they conflict with each other. In some ways those are the best stories to work with.

The coffee shop guy. I should close that loop. About a month after I heard from him last, my best friend sent a note that her new boyfriend had told her Coffee Shop had shut himself in the closet of his rented room and taken a whole bottle of Thorazine, and they didn’t find him for three days, more or less when, in Hamlet’s words, they nosed him as they went up the stairs. As I remember, we had guests in the house.

I think they were appalled when I explained what the news was, and then began to twirl about in a grateful dance.

 

 

 

 

 

Atmosphere

When I pulled up to the gym there was a huge tank truck, emblazoned with the logo of a local septic system company, parked at the entry. Two guys were standing to one side of it, making what looked like an experimental effort to join three pieces of four-inch reinforced hose into one long conduit, something that I could only regard as a bad sign.

I asked the Minotaur who guards the front desk what the kaka-sucker was doing in front of the place. “For suckin’ out members we don’t like,” he said,without the hint of a facial expression, while I signed in. He’s like that.

Eventually they threaded the spliced hose through the front doors, across the floor between the array of Nautilus machines, and toward the restrooms in the back. By that time I was on a warmup bike and out of the direct path of action, but when they started up the compressor on the tank truck, all I could think of was the lost city of R’lyeh rising to the surface, dripping with the slime of ages, or the parts of Dante’s Hell where the demons and damned souls are wading in ordure. You know you can’t hold your breath and exercise, right?

I don’t know what it was about and I don’t want to know, but I want some kind of blue ribbon for hanging in there. They were gone before it was time for me to start chucking  kettlebells around.

 

 

In The Beginning There Was A Garden

David’s wife Liliana called while we were having dinner. She wanted me to water the garden because she has to stay with him all the time now.

She’s been coming, while he was in the hospital and since they sent him home, to do what he used to do these twenty years, running the hose and leaving half-ripe tomatoes on my porch railing to suck up the sun behind the screens and away from avaricious birds.

He was home from the hospital, she said, and had had to go on oxygen — stumbling over the word, he may have been born and raised literally on the same block as I was though we wouldn’t know it for years after he came to plant his vegetables in my dirt, but she comes from fucking Venezuela and isn’t that enough trauma, most of her family is on the Colombian side now. I lost my shit and told her how I thought he deserved all the years that God could have sent him, not this, cancer and hopelessness and an oxygen tank inside an apartment with a too-expensive rent (well, I didn’t get into that last), and she said he could talk to me.

He said “Hello, Sled. I love you.”

I told him I loved him too. I had thought of saying something like that when he moved to retire to where his family lives downstate, and handing him a big check then, instead of weeks ago when he told me he was dying, pretty much.

He said he was ready for the Lord to take him and he didn’t understand the Lord’s plan but he had chosen to be at peace with it. His voice was as strong as ever, goddam amazing for someone breathing with a fork his up his nose and not much to sustain him but a credulous, naive belief that every word of the Bible is true.

I am a writer and was before I was anything else like a bodyworker or a weight lifter, which means I can bullshit half asleep and with a stone in my shoe. And I said, David, all I can think is that God needs a good gardener. Remember that the first thing God put into this world was a beautiful garden? And maybe there still is one where God is, and they need you more than I do.

He wanted to talk to the Engineer too. The Engineer is, well, an engineer and doesn’t do the emotional stuff readily but he just about fucking lost it. David kept thanking us both “for everything.”

When he rang off we put the rest of our dinner in the fridge.

Fuck cancer, and fuck the American health care system that makes people like David make do with occasional slapdash care, and the greedy screw-everything-but-profit American economy that keeps disease-causing agricultural chemicals on every other lawn in even the upscale burbs, and kind of fuck everything at the moment.

I asked the Engineer if something you say is lying if it was meant as poetry. And he said no, it’s fiction, which means it’s true.

I’m sticking with that.

Part of me really wants to believe that there is a God with a garden that needs someone as singleminded as David to turn and till and water it.

 

 

 

I May Regret This

…but I felt like it. Rifling through my manuscript drawer has moved me to start typing some of my old stuff onto digital media, and more heinously, to share it here under the new tab “Short Fiction.”

First up, Confusion To The Enemy dates from 1978 when we were all going around with our hair quietly on end over the constant gamesmanship of the Cold War. Some of my earliest memories are of being taught how to duck and cover under my gradeschool desk and kiss my ass goodbye, so when we got perestroika and the Soviet Union fell and there was a peace dividend, I, like a lot of people, probably got too complacent. Anyway, here we are again, with everyone rattling their sabers.

If any coven members can manage this kind of thing in our advanced age of instant worldwide communications, tell me how to pitch in.

Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

It really seems goddam strange to be telling a dying man on pain meds that it is okay if he doesn’t feel up to mowing my lawn, but here we are.

Okay, so no one knows anything for sure, but when David went for more tests last week — the PET scans and whatever all else that probably ought to have been done months ago, and would have in a civilized nation that had proper health care for everyone — the answers were about what I expected, which is that the cancer he was treated for earlier this year just kept marching on. I knew that. The first symptom he described was what I recognize as an endgame development, and eight whacks of chemo beat it back, but I wasn’t sanguine. He’s got pain now, and he finally gave in to taking the drugs for it, and he and his wife still showed up this afternoon to work in the garden.

The doctors told him they wanted to start a very powerful, aggressive chemo. He recited a list of the side effects and explained he didn’t want any of those: pneumonia, for one. I think he was telling me that he would rather die of the cancer than the treatment. I hope that’s what he meant and not that he has some half-formed idea that prayer or vitamins or herbs might do it. I am all for vitamins and herbs but the right tool for the job is important. A long time ago when my late and ex was starting chemo, a radiation tech I knew from a past life gave me a little of his time and assured me that bashing the disease, even with crude weapons that break down a person’s body, could mean the difference between lots of pain and not much, even if that’s the best you get.

I told him I had a name from a client who loves her yardworker, and that if he didn’t feel up to mowing I’m covered. It’s been scorched and breathless here for weeks on end and the grass is twisting and browned in the sun, so it’s an academic question at the moment. He reminded me I still have a couple mowings left (I pay him for a dozen or so in advance) and I said that was all right, forfrigsake (which I didn’t say because he never swears), if he didn’t feel well that did. not. matter. to. me.

He thanked me. He went out back with Liliana to check the harvest. I don’t grab him by the lapels and say Fuck My Lawn because that would be like saying I know you’re done, you can go home and die. I think the life he has now comes from the smell of the hairy tomato vines, the saturating solar rays and the turned dirt.

He was always one of those people that you figured would live forever (like it or not) because he griped so much. (The more you complain, the longer God lets you live.) He’s always bitched about his health, peppers don’t like him, he got candida from all the years of drinking before the Lord took away the desire, he can’t eat this and that, for all these twenty years you would have thought he was ailing for everything to listen to him, and yet he would dig and rake and clear and sift and lever with crowbars, praying his year’s vegetables out of my dirt, brown and corded in the sun, always a little stunned-looking  but untiring. He walked everywhere (most likely his driver’s license went up in the flames of a series of DUIs decades ago). He would stand out in the yard working his three rows, weeding, watering, spraying (always with something organic, about which he discoursed at numbing length) — sometimes from nine in the morning till dinnertime. I never asked where he peed.

Liliana picks up the shovel now. He still carries his backpack.

I that in heill was and gladnesse
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He spairis no lord for his piscence,
Nae clark for his intelligence,
His awful straik may no man flee: —
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The poem was meant as a eulogy for other poets — written in the sixteenth century in broad Scots, other than the Latin tag,  which is from the Office For The Dead. David has the literary sensibilities of a Roto-Tiller but the world will be poorer without him to describe exactly how long it takes to raise a tomato from seed. Exactly. Exhaustively. My yard’s his poem, and I can’t do anything for him, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t expect to go into the Lake Of Fire that his evangelical and slightly cartoonish God has ready for Sinners and Unbelievers, because he seems vexed and unhappy in about the same octave as when he had two lawnmowers break down in a year. But not afraid.

Maybe he has something to teach the poets.

 

 

 

Order and Chaos

I have never really been able to decide which side I’m on. (Yes, I know there are really no sides and we need both, otherwise how would you get forex John Donne stuffing himself into the sonnet form and then banging it out of shape from the inside with a spanner, to magnificent effect? But I digress.) Sometimes I want to be the God Of Shenanigans that upends everyone’s stale and prissy expectations. Sometimes I want to be the White Tornado that puts shit away in the closet already and cleans the countertop and organizes socks by color.

Anyway I had a week to myself owing to the Engineer going six time zones away to nearly murder himself with watching plays day after day, a story for another time, but of course these are the times you roll up your sleeves to do projects, so naturally the Monday after he got back I actually did the last one I had on my list.

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I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil, though nothing from earlier than my middle school years survives. Some of that shit was not bad. Actually I often wonder what adult was using me as a medium to write it. I tried thinking about what I wrote in college and it wrecked things for several years, so the novel I wrote in my graduation year is not in this drawer. Everything else, however, had been in a state of total disorganization for ages, with labels drying up and falling off of folders and a piece of dream fiction (it literally came to me in a dream, like Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, all but entire) jostling an attempt at psychological criticism of Ian Fleming. There seem to be three collections of my poems and a half inch thick reboot of a novel that I never figured out how to bring to a conclusion and can’t remember rebooting. I have to make some time to read it.

Anyhow it’s now all in some sort of order. I even tried to get a sort of receding chronological organization. I really hate mess, but when I’m writing I can’t think of anything but that, so stuff ends up put away however. There’s another row of novels (and attempts at them) in binders on the bookshelves, but I couldn’t rise to more than labeling the spines. I love labels. They give me almost the same level of Zen tranquility as folding washcloths so that only the folded edges show at the front of the shelf.

I may put some of the shorter ones up here alongside the poetry selections, if my extensor muscles hold out.