Midnight Prayers

Dollar Store Novels for Free

Month: May, 2013

Day Ninety-One: Reading Irish Fiction or “The Song is Called ‘Ecce Homo'”

What follows is a creative piece I wrote for a class trying to get at the point of what we read in a new way.  Enjoy:

I take a long pull from this Sprite can I smuggled into the library.  Getting it in here wasn’t the hard part, opening it was, the pressurized can leaking a piercing swoosh that rushed out from the lid in all directions.  The soda is still pretty cold, even though I’ve been waiting on drinking it, and the carbonation crackles down my tongue like an unusually strong pulse.  It’s all physical, everything is.  The cool titanium is stained with my fingerprints, which move like footprints, making a trail that I can follow with my eyes.

I crack my knuckles then run my right hand through my hair.  I’m a structure, well designed over a time period of unimaginable proportions, with some skin stretched out over it like opaque saran wrap covering a sandwich.  My movements aren’t fluid; they’re short, awkward, imperfect.  There’s no particular beauty that can be assigned to a person, really.  There are certain characteristics we recognize, that draw us to certain people, their scent, the way their smile curves up and segments their face, but other than that our physicality is all pretty unappealing.  This is why we make art, why we write stories, play songs, to reveal the beauty that can’t exist within these bodily confines, to dwell in the burden of consciousness.

So I write, here, and read these books, all of them, that seem like a timeline when put end to end.  There’s really little motive in my own ordering of them.  Well that’s not true, I’m not sure why I lied to you, there’s reason.  See, the first one, O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, is more of a frame, a reason to even be doing this in the first place.  It is the book that will justify my voice breaking from the infrastructure of analytical writing, rebelling against the ingrained maps that were first brought to me in middle school when my teacher used two opposing pyramids to explain the “art” of essay writing.  Ever since then, my voice has been captive, sanded down, tamed, and not exactly moving.  So when I read O’Brien’s narrator writing, on the first page of the novel, that he “withdrew [his] powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression”, I decide to venture out of that same privacy, moving outside my body and into the metaphysical space that these novels inhabit with my thoughts (O’Brien, 1).  Finishing off the last bit of Sprite I have left and setting a soundtrack of Explosions in the Sky’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, I escape outwards, where typing these words, in the small amount that they’re worth, is done by something else, my body on auto-pilot, a stenographer seated outside of me.  And now I can finally move.

As I move away from At Swim-Two-Birds, knowing that it was only a framing device, a cheap way to escape, I see James Joyce lurking in the background, casting a shadow over it all.  I don’t know how I recognize him, but I do.  And the light behind him moves like a fog, swallowing whatever it touches.  His hands are worn, each finger calloused and swollen.  I turn and move on, feeling that wall of light bearing down on my neck.

The Butcher Boy

The world is all blurry.  There are no lines, no definitions, just color.  I try and touch it, but I’m just color, too.  I have hands, sure, but that’s only because I can tell you that I have hands.  I can’t actually prove to you that they’re there.  I can’t show them to you let alone actually use them, but I believe that they are, know that they are, can imagine that they are.  Then I imagine something similar, but diluted.  I picture the world melting away like an ice cube left out in the heat, and the colors begin to drip and slink away.  I snap out of it quickly.

Then there’s a voice moving in me, cutting through the colors and formlessness and, somehow, attaching itself to every inch.  “Well done, Philip, I cried, you did it!” (McCabe, 67).  The voice itself sounds like mine, the tone and aesthetic is the same, but it’s not mine.   I can assure you, it’s not mine.  “I clapped him on the back and we all stood round admiring it” (McCabe, 67).  There is no noise accompanying the action, no sense that anything is actually happening around me, other than the voice, which continues, “It was like a rocket that had just made it back from space and we were waiting for a little brown astronaut to open a door in the side and step out waving” (McCabe, 67).  I can see the shuttle, but I picture it taking off somewhere above all of this confusion.  But then the words move in me a little more, I return to the description, and I realize the subject matter.  It’s shit.  The voice is talking about shitting on the floor, like an animal, like a child, and he’s enthused.  He’s elated.  And I feel slightly happy, too, betraying the logic of usual scatological relation.  I find a sense of wonder in this voice’s logic.

But everything is still stagnant, like water caught behind a damn.  It feels unnatural, like something needs to break, something needs to get me moving, free me to see what’s in front of me, beyond the dam.  “Now it’s time for us to see how well Mrs. Nugent can perform,” the voice continues, unperturbed by my reservations (McCabe 67).  “Can she poo as well as her son Phillip?  We’ll soon find out!  Are you ready Mrs. Nugent?  I was waiting for her to say yes Francis indeed I am then away she’d go hoisting up her nightdress and scrunching up her red face trying to beat Philip but I’m afraid that wasn’t what happened at all” (McCabe, 67).

Suddenly I worry about this voice and have a feeling that it is permanently stuck to me.  I wonder who it’s talking to, other than me.  Who else is here?  I can’t hear anything.  I certainly can’t see anything.  It’s only now that I realize all of my senses are deadened, non-functional.  Even as the voice speaks of shit, I smell nothing, hear none of the boys responding.  It is only him, me, and nothing else.  We go back a little bit.

“Across on the ditch a snowdrop with a bone china head curtsied and introduced its diminutive troupe. There he is again this year ma used to say about that snowdrop. The sky was the colour of oranges. I looked at my marble-white hands and wondered what it was like to be dead like the woman in the song. You’d think: the beautiful things of the world aren’t much good in the end are they? I’m going to stay dead” (McCabe, 54).  We’re back to beauty, but it’s different now, this isn’t about creation.  It’s about death, a body decaying into the ground, that beautiful timelapsed shot at the beginning of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation.  I remember his words,

“I now step into this area blindly, I do not know what the wound is, I do know that it is old. I do know that it is a hole in my being. I do know it is tender. I do believe that it is unknowable, or at least unable to be articulable.  I do believe you have a wound too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone. I do believe it is the thing about you that must be hidden and protected, it is the thing that must be tap danced over five shows a day, it is the thing that won’t be interesting to other people if revealed. It is the thing that makes you weak and pathetic. It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret, even from yourself. But it is the thing that wants to live” (Kaufman).

The words sit in front of me, packed tightly into a brick.  As a shape, it’s nothing, but when I stretch it out, destroy its density, I recognize my cage.  The bars are overhead, on all the walls, holding me in here with the colors and the voice’s wound.  Music pumps through my skull, my own, smaller cage, a furious drum line filling in the blanks of my situation.  I will never meet the man, the one that speaks in me right now, because I can’t, because to meet him, to see him from the outside, fully formed, would be blinding myself to what I need to see.  I have to see his madness, all of it, without the context, without anything that is discernibly “real”.  The colors will always be blurred together because they’re not the point.  He’s the point, the speaker, his words, his logic, all of it removes the bandages, reveals the wound, makes the madness parse-able.

Then I think about Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and how it intentionally presented all its characters so flatly because that’s how it is in high school, in youth.  Everything is flat.  Van Sant’s lens moved like the eyes of a 16 year-old boy, seeing complete emotional destruction and moving on until it was all suddenly punctuated by literal, physical violence.  But we see the violence in Elephant, feel it, stare at it.  When the voice presents me with violence, I feel completely detached, like none of it even matters, like there isn’t a body lying somewhere bleeding, like we might all be immortal.  It’s all very strange but in many ways feels freeing, seeing the mind without the body, the motivation without the crime.  I almost want to stay, but I can’t.  So I think about Patrick Bateman describing how he carved up prostitutes, and I fall forward.

The Only Beginning To A New, Discursively Related Story, Here

We were watching Larry from our kitchen window, firing off that pellet gun in his backyard next door, when Pat told me about a story he’d been working on.  It was about this guy, around 30 years old, white, and tall, with small features, who lived with all different families most of his life.  Not like a foster child or anything romantic like that.  This guy would pay the families, just show up at their doorstep with a checkbook, and they would take him in for the night.  That’s all it ever was, too, just a night.  Pat said it wasn’t about the fresh cooked food or the warm shower or the soft bed.  The guy just wanted to move through lives.  He thought it was like moving through time or something close to that, changing everything so drastically, what religion he was, what his diet looked like, where he worked, when he lost his virginity, who he voted for.  He never wanted to be any one thing.  Pat said this guy wanted to be everything.

“Would he pretend to be their brother or uncle or what?” I asked.

“It would change every time, but he wouldn’t pretend or act.  When he was with a family, he became one of them, like it was completely normal.  He just told them to be friendly and treat him like family.  And he’d pay them for it, whatever they asked for.”

“How’d he get the money?”

“I haven’t figured that out yet.  Maybe his family died, and he keeps getting life insurance checks or something.  But I don’t want it to be sitcom-y.  I don’t want it to be fucking Oliver either.”

“What happens to him?”

“One night, after he’s already stayed with thousands of families, like he’s already been doing it for years, he’ll stay with an Irish family somewhere outside Philadelphia.  The guy will fall in love with that family’s fifteen year old daughter, and he’ll fuck her.”

“The fifteen year old?”

“Yeah, I know, it’s fucked up right?  But they love each other.  It’s real love, like this explosive, hideous, decimating love that they both can’t shake.  This kind of love that burrows underneath their fingernails, shoots up their veins, and fills out their bodies, making them always feel like everything might burst, like the physical frames imposed on them won’t last.  So he can’t leave, and they become dependent on each other like a drug, like a real potent, destructive drug.  And their teeth start falling out and their skin peels and they age quicker than everyone else.  The family just lets it happen because of the money.  He keeps paying them, and the girl drops out of high school.  By the end they’re both just these two violently dependent addicts, two skeletons fucking and crying and praying that they die before the other one.  They have kids and move out into an apartment in the city.”

“Who dies first?”

“Neither.  One day it just stops.  They just don’t feel it anymore, that awful love.  So he leaves, and somehow they both recover completely.  She gives up the kids and goes back to school.  He moves out to L.A. and works in production.  She calls herself Karen, and he goes by Steve.  They make up new stories.  Everything about them becomes plain, but it’s comfortable.  It fits them the way it could never have before.  They won’t see each other again but will also never feel anything like that rupturing love.  So they sit lighter, always, and both die on the same day, December 11th, two years apart.”


I’m sitting at a table.  A long, oak dining room table that is completely empty save for two glasses of scotch, on the rocks.  There’s one in front of me.  My hand’s wrapped around it.  The pattern shaped into the glass long ago imposes itself on my fingers, making the whole exercise feel rough, forced.  I can smell the alcohol and even that is too stiff, but I sip it, and the liquid turns into water in my mouth, something totally and completely refreshing.

The other glass sits across from me, at the other head of the table, a man swilling it around constantly, as if stopping its motion would ruin the taste.  He even moves the glass in circles when he brings it to his mouth to drink causing little strings of light brown liquid to curl down the folds in his cheeks.  I recognize him, I know I do, but I don’t get a name until he speaks.

“I’m Sam Beckett,” he says, as if reading my mind, as if it were a response rather than an introduction, because, after all, it is.  And I can see it.  This is definitely him, Sam Beckett.  It is.  I can tell.  I’ve seen his face before, somewhere, maybe on the cover of his book?  Yeah, that was it, on the cover.   Right there, right there on the cover.  Like it was important.  Like knowing what this man looked like, the man who wrote it, was important.  I definitely saw his face on the cover.

Now his gray hair sits in thin stalks, like a dying wheat field blown down in the wind.  He’s more of a person here in the same way a mounted lion’s head is a lion.  There’s a haze of personality to him, lingering inside, kind of like this fog of the man who actually is.  And you can never actually know it, the fog, or even glance it.  It even feels more you than it is him, too, like what’s there is only your projection onto the unmoving, hollow face.  A stuffed Sam Beckett.

But he keeps talking, I think, through his gulps of scotch, which he seems to have a bottomless supply of.  “It was just writing, I guess, when I started.  It wasn’t this artistic thing that everyone wanted to turn it into.  I just wanted to write, to be on the page, you know?”

He looks at me, but his eyes seem hard.  Not dead like the way your grandparents’ eyes are before the doctor comes in to close them, all milky and rolling back into the brain.  They were more solid, like glass lenses, taking in all that I am.  I give him a response, “I guess I follow.  Your work became more a product of the readers than you?  Like, your creative vision was lost along the way, sorta?”

“If that’s how you want to talk about it, fine, I’ll relent.  I’m not going to waste another breath.  We can just drink in silence if that’s what you want.  Just drink and consider our own words.  You speak to me as if I’m a student.”

He turns his eyes, and I stare at the raising and lowering of his glass, the ebb and flow, trying to collect my thoughts and start over.  “Ok, so with the lists and the long winded asides, that was intentional… Ok, that came out wrong… let me try again… I’m nervous… I’ve never spoken to a writer like you before… I’ve never really had to impress anyone… So, here, this part, about the servitude, Watt’s servitude, for Mr. Knott, clever names by the way…”

“I’m not here to talk about cleverness, you can have cleverness.  Here, keep my cleverness.”  He tosses me a quill.

“No, I know… I didn’t mean it… I just, well, ok, so the servitude, serving Mr. Knott, right?”


“So Watt serves Mr. Knott, and you write, ‘Even in the dining room Watt saw little of Mr. Knott, although Watt was responsible for the dining-room and for the serving there…”

“’Service there’.”

“Right, right… ‘service there of Mr. Knott’s meals.  The reasons for this may appear when the time comes to treat of that complex and delicate matter, Mr. Knott’s food.’ (Beckett, 54).”

“Why did you site me?”

“I’m sorry?”

“The parenthetical, why did you site me?”

“I had to, code of honor and all that.  I don’t have your freedom.”

“Sure, go on, what does that quote matter?”

“Well the food, I mean the servant, that’s you right?  The writer, he’s the servant, and the food is his writing.  You leave it there for us, like a meal, like something cooked up, slaved over for hours and put together perfectly, ready for us to consume, and we don’t even see you, we don’t even relate to you.  When we eat this meal, we can only thank the chef, never share it, never really have those moments together.  That’s what this is about, right?  I’ve been worried about it.  Ever since then, I’ve been worried.”

“You want to be a writer?”

“I’m not sure anymore.  Sometimes, yeah, well, most times, yeah.  But when I read this, I began to worry, like what part of me will I have to sacrifice to write?  What will I lose?  How can it bring me closer to anyone if they just keep consuming it?  Consuming me, too, without realizing it till I’m not even there and it’s just the meal?  Yeah, there are awards, but what the fuck do they matter?  I guess.”

“They’re just names, really.”

“What are?”

“Those awards, any of them, they’re all bullshit.”

“So was I right?  Is that what you meant?”

“With Watt, it was something close to, What if I put myself in there, make myself unavoidable, then what?  Will they complain?  Will they finally get it?  It’s worth a try.”

“Did it work?”

“I’m not sure, did it?”  You tell me.  You read this for a class, right?  What did your classmates say about it?”

“Most of them kinda thought it was bullshit.”

“Then it worked.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“If they called it bullshit, if it got to them, then I think I’ve done my job.  Or, at least, I think I did what I set out to do.  They got mad at me.  They saw me and said, ‘Fuck that guy.’  If someone calls your book bullshit, then you’re doing at least one thing right.”

With this, Mr. Beckett turned, stopped moving, staring at nothing in particular, nothing at all, really, and I knew it was time to leave.

The Part that Follows the Beginning, Here

I noticed that Larry had hit something next door.  A rabbit limped from his backyard, small stripes of blood streaking down its leg, parting white fur as they moved.  Larry hadn’t reacted.  He always seemed like he was waiting for the animals to scream back at him, to let him know what he’d done.  The pellet gun sat still in his lap, aimed towards the area of fence-less perimeter that had been pulled apart a couple of months ago during Irene.  When his brother had come over after the storm with a truck full of supplies, offering to put another stretch of fence up to keep the garden enclosed from the fields of wild grass that stretched for miles behind it, Larry kept his eyes on the recently revealed horizon and muttered, “Ah, I don’t mind.”

            A few weeks later, Larry’s brother came by again.  I was outside digging for worms with Rebecca when it happened.  He had heard Larry was just been sitting out there in that lawn chair, shooting at these animals coming through the gaps in the fence, and the cops were finding all kinds of corpses along the roads out of town.  Rabbits, raccoons, groundhogs, their infected wounds smelling horribly, the rotting bodies unable to fully decompose on the pavement.  Larry’s brother said he’d smelled them, too, the dead animals, and the foulness of it all still lingered in his car.  It was a staining smell, he said, something that you just couldn’t get to go away no matter what you did.  So he just started fixing the fence anyway, assuming it would put a stop to everything: the dead animals, Larry’s stare, all the questions, but when he started digging out the foundation, Larry took a shot, missing his brother only slightly.

            “Fucking prick,” his brother yelled across the garden.  “Put the fucking gun down.”  I gathered Rebecca in my arms, rushing her back inside.  I put her down right across the threshold, making sure she wouldn’t be able to see anything, then turned back.  I saw Larry still sitting in his chair, but the sloped yard kept his brother mostly out of view, a dirt caked baseball cap the only thing I could make out over the remaining fence.

            Larry didn’t move, just stared at his brother, eyes sunken, hiding from the peripheries he couldn’t imagine.  Ever since the accident, everything Larry saw, everything that sunk in, was straight ahead, on a line segment, slowly moving, nothing could be connected, and each shard of the world stood on its own.  When he stared at something, he’d focus until he destroyed it, till he stripped away what it could have been, what it might have been, and knew what was it was in totality.

            His brother tried to go back to digging, the baseball cap disappearing back below my field of vision, but Larry shot at him again, making contact this time.  Twitching quickly, and charging through a bed of limp azaleas, petals audibly tearing under his boots, Larry’s brother howled, coming into full view, “You’re lucky you ain’t right, cocksucker, or I’d break your neck right now.  Shooting that gun at me?  Shooting me in the fucking leg?”

            “I don’t want a fence.”

“You’re getting a fucking fence,” he was in Larry’s face now, but still didn’t have his brother’s full attention.  “You can sit there the rest of your life, it won’t bother me none, but I’m not hearing about you killing those animals anymore.  I’m done hearing about you being a sorry son of a bitch.”  He started back through the azaleas.

            “I’ll take it down.  If you put one up, I’ll take it down.”  Larry began to shake, never moving his eyes from his brother

            “With what?  You can’t shoot down a fence with a pellet gun.”

“I’ll take it down,” Larry’s body moved in small fits when he spoke, like something inside was trying to make itself known.  His head looked like it might roll from his neck.  “I’ll take it d…”

His brother took a swing, landing it on the corner of Larry’s right eye.  The chair tipped, and he hit the ground, letting out a whimper that sounded like something a dog might yell at night.  His brother gave Larry a few kicks to the chest, not even looking to see if anyone was around.  I stood silently watching.  I wasn’t in shock as much as I didn’t have any plan of action.  Pat was out for a bike ride when it happened, and I couldn’t leave Rebecca who was scratching at the screen door behind me.  Larry ended up sprawled on the ground, silently quivering, arms slumped weakly over his eyes, blocking out his brother’s shadow.

            “The town wants to put you away, I’m not fighting ‘em now.  I done it for too long.  You ain’t in there no more.  There ain’t no person in that body.”

            I waited for his brother’s truck to fade from the driveway, and I brought a towel over to help Larry clean up, leaving Rebecca in front of the TV.  There was already a small swell of fluid forming under his eye that looked like some sort of insect larvae, and a few inadvertent tears rolled along the wrinkles lining his face.   

“I’ll take it down,” he repeated to himself while I wiped the smudged dirt from his face.  “Put one up, I’ll take it down.”

I helped Larry to his feet, but he pushed away from me, shuffling up the back stairs and into his house, his weaker leg always dragging a little behind.  When I got back inside, Rebecca was asleep, curled up a few feet in front of the TV screen that was on one of the nature channels.  I lied down next to her and watched a group of hundreds of ants converge on a crab, slowly tearing it apart.

Larry fell out of that pick-up truck on a Friday about ten years ago.  He’d been drinking and playing poker with some other townies who all soak up dust like old trophies in a bar on Chestnut.  Some kids were messing with powders on the pool table next to them, and Larry threw a punch, breaking off the bottom corner of one kid’s tooth.  They said he was standing in a townie’s truck bed driving away from the bar and singing a Bob Dylan song when he was thrown into a guard rail, his head suffering initial impact. The paramedics found a piece of his skull on the pavement.  It took him three weeks to come out of the coma.

A few months later, Larry’s wife found him with a shotgun in his mouth.  It was around then that she left, citing that particular incident, but Larry held that she felt like she was living with a ghost.  “She wasn’t even talking before she left,” he said one night when Pat and I had him over for dinner.  “Not that I ever had much to say, but she was never talking to me.”

Larry came over for dinner almost every night back then, right when we had first moved in and before he got worse.  When Pat and I had Rebecca, she grew up calling him, “Uncle Larry”, like the title might heal him.  He never held her, but he did love to look at Rebecca back when she couldn’t really move.  When she started crawling, he’d follow her around the living room, dragging his feet behind her, both of them silent and curious.           

Then, earlier this summer, around the day Rebecca ended her first year of school, Larry heard that his wife had died down in Florida.  She’d drowned in a resort pool one night after taking a handful of Oleptro and trying to swim off her burdens, a therapy method she’d picked up after jumping around from counselor to counselor and failing to find any use in her sessions.  I was with Larry unloading groceries when he got the call explaining all that had happened.  I could feel him trying to focus on it, to destroy it, but he couldn’t.  That was the last night he ate dinner with us.  The next morning he was in the garden.

The garden was something his wife had kept, a small plot behind their house, covered with different breeds of flowers laid out in rows.  From our kitchen window it looked like an empire, organized into towns and cities, each flying their own colors, as spectacular as it was concise.  Larry’s wife made great use of the small space she was allotted, perfectly manicuring each area, their borders never crossing. She wore a white hat when she worked back there, almost everyday, that had a small brownish ring around the top, residue from dedicated labor. 

When she left, Larry let it go untended, the empire crumbling, but most of the flowers still managed to bloom, so he would pull out a chair every spring before she died to sit and stare into the buds.  On those nights, when he would come over for dinner, his face was freckled with pollen.

After her death, he spent everyday in the garden, watching the plants, which were now being lost amongst opportunistic weeds, sway in the wind.  He lost weight rapidly, his once friendly beer gut receding, leaving all his shirts with plenty of stretched, unused fabric hanging down below his crotch.  By the time Irene hit, Larry was more shirt than man.

During Irene, Pat and I sat up and listened to the wind crash against the house, Rebecca sleeping quietly between us.  He kept talking about religion in the future, when the ocean starts to eat our cities.  “People won’t have these shells anymore, the ones we wear under our skin, these conglomerations of muscle and fat that keep heat in.  They won’t look like us.  They’ll soak through.  They’ll be all water, all ocean.”

“They’ll be starving?”

“No, they’ll want to be closer to God, and they’ll realize that He’s in the ocean.

“Why the ocean?”

“They’ll have no reason to believe that He’s not in the ocean.  It’s the one thing on earth that we can’t control, this force that is always moving, waves crashing into land.  To a certain distance, the tide will pull you back in, but past that, past where we can see, it pulls you away and down until you sink, without resistance, into absolute darkness.  That’s what most of the ocean is, a place where we would exist only as a consciousness, where shape and color doesn’t matter.

“So God is a collection of our consciousness?”

“No, God is the ability to isolate our consciousness from our body.”

“Then why not worship the blackest corner of space?  Couldn’t God be there, in that darkness?  Shouldn’t we worship that?”


“What’s the difference?”

“We can touch the ocean.”  Somewhere outside we heard wood snapping, a weakened tree finally giving into the strength of the storm.

The Snapper

            From where I stand I can see two distinct buildings, their walls removed like an old doll house, but each alive and breathing.  The first is a home, full of motion, the entropic nature of life.  But there’s a tenderness to it, a glow moving from one spot, reaching outwards, like the lyrics to some old Soul song.  Before I look for the source, I head towards the second building, a bar, but it’s pretty much just any bar, or pub, it’s definitely a pub, why’d I say bar?  Shit, I shouldn’t have said bar.  I probably sounded like a fucker, huh?

So the pub, it’s exactly what I imagined, the sunny conversations, sounds of glasses coming down emphatically on wooden tables.  There’s a jukebox.  All that I expected.  All that I placed here in my mind before coming.  It’s strange.

A wearied gentleman sits next to me.  What a bizarre word to say, “gentleman”, but he was, though his voice was not.  – You got yerself any stout, there?  His voice was textured, you could feel it, kind of like a singer’s voice, where the words stick together so well, so smooth, even if its all kind of jumbled when you step away.  – I got to get outta here quick, now.  Didn’t yeh here?

I play into it, not really looking for another conversation, trying to avoid his steam-rolling voice.  – I have heard.  Better get a move on.  Can’t get caught here.

– Yer not from here.  Yeh heard wha’ I say?  Ah, nevermind ya.

And he’s gone, off to another table, but then the room starts to shift, as if I’m placing everything here, I’m controlling the room.  It’s as if the puppeteer has given me the strings, but not quite.  The people still have agency, so I’m more of a set designer.  This is my own geography.

But then it’s here, that glow, it found me.  There is a warmth to it, to everything, now, even the stout I drink rides smoother down my throat.  With every worry, I have a hand guiding me, gently.  So I turn and see her, with the bump, a big one, barely hiding beneath her clothes, and I know.  She sits next to me at the bar, and I turn to talk, but can’t, she’s not mine to save.  There’s already someone off-screen doing that, redeeming her, making all of this make sense, letting all of it be ok.  And I can see the lines here, drawn neatly between man and woman.  The men are simply here, screaming, babbling on like toddlers, their shirts ripped open.  But she orders a drink.  I see it happen.  And still I do nothing.

When it comes, and she raises it, my muscles tighten.  It feels like what I’d imagine rigor mortis feeling like, and I am still, but not calm, anything but calm.  When she begins to act like a man, her glow changes, lessens.  I close my eyes.  I can’t watch.

“She grabbed her bag from the counter. She unclasped and opened it quickly. It wasn’t a big bag but she got as much of her head as she could into it; her chin, her mouth and her nose. Then she puked. It was a quick rush of vodka and Coke and a few little things. Then up with her head and she shut the bag.

“Jackie gave her a paper hankie. She wiped her mouth and opened the bag a bit and threw the tissue in on top of the vodka and the rest. She held the bag up (Doyle, 206).”

It’s awful, the sound.  I could hear it.  Feel all of it.  Looking away was worse than actually experiencing it.  It’s the lowest point on the graph, and I’m here for it, soaking in it.  I feel sick, too.

But then something strange happens.  Everything subsides.  The worry, the queasiness.  I feel like I’m resting, like a child being tucked into bed.  Most of us here are just children, anyway.  And somehow, I know that this had to happen.  All of it had to or else we’d keep telling the same stories.  This all happened to stop those stories from being told again, repeated, maybe.  It was comfort food.  I think of Beckett, how he put himself in his own story, not as a character, but as an idea, and I see something like that here too.  Only now it enlightens, gives us the perspective we’ve been missing, shows us the humanity in this bar, in this town.  Everything here may be my geography, but it’s certainly not my creation.  I didn’t make these people.  Whoever is pulling the strings here, the ones that make me feel this way, gets it.  Finally gets it.  And I’m ready to drift through an ending of my own.

The Ending to The Story, Here

Later on, on that night we saw Larry shoot the rabbit, I sat up watching him with only the moon interfering, while Pat put Rebecca to bed.  The night before, a couple of cops had come to our door asking about our relationship with Larry.  They wanted to know if we’d ever seen him fire on animals that were outside his yard.  “Now a man has a right to protect his land,” the younger, more interested officer had said, “but once he fires at animals on protected lands, like those fields behind his house, and your house, there, well, we have to take action.”

The men didn’t say it, but we could tell they were canvassing to put Larry away.  When they didn’t find willing participants in Pat and I, they moved on.  I knew the rest of our neighborhood would not be so kind.  By now, mostly everyone had heard about Larry firing on his brother, and all it took was one mention of that story and they’d have him.  Larry was not long for this town or for civilization.

As I watched over him, considering the days out in front, seeing each path and its end point, like green signs lining the highway, I noticed a lithe shadow slinking through the fractured fence.  It moved on four legs in smooth, direct strides, finding its way to the barrel of Larry’s gun.  When it came under the moon’s reach, I was unable to recognize what exactly the creature was.  Its sharply muscled and thinly furred legs were fragmented with sturdy, rounded feet that sprouted what looked like curled talons.  Next to Larry’s gaunt frame, the creature seemed large, though its own protruding ribs betrayed this intimidation.  More than anything, I could sense that the creature was starving.  It had this aggressive hunger about it, like the type of hunger you imagine during late night infomercials set in poverty, the type of feeling that makes you want to eat everything you could possibly consume so that you will never have to feel that way, so that you will never have to feel your insides shrinking deeper into themselves.

Larry broke his gaze from beyond the fence and brought his eyes to the animal in front of him.  Their breathing patterns matched up, and the creature showed Larry his teeth.  Caked in dried blood and with holes rotted through the sides, the long rows of kniving enamel came to abrupt, sharpened ends, and a small snarl snuck through the slight gaps where they were unable to overlap.  Larry dropped his gun, throwing his hands to the side.  I screamed for Pat, and Larry turned to spot me at my kitchen window, the veins in his forehead trying to cleave their way out.  The creature lunged, and I dropped below the windowpane, my head hiding between my own clunky knees.  I could hear the sound of bones breaking violently in the distance.

Another Ending, Actually Here

The library is silent.  It’s late.  Some water droplets have condensed on my Sprite can, which I consider leaving but decide to carry out, proudly.  I’m wearing headphones, so all I hear is,

“Okay, I think by now we’ve established
Everything is inherently worthless
And there’s nothing in the Universe.
With any kind of objective purpose
And you can scream for a hundred years.
Split that sky with a thousand curses
To tell the evil that men do,
Honey, you wouldn’t even scratch the surface.
Too many implications
Not enough time to make them explicit
Too many generalizations
Not enough time to make them specific” (Stickles, 2013).

It’s an abrasive verse but ultimately becomes liberating as I climb the stairs to my dorm room.  We make art to disprove this type of thesis.  There must be something of worth.

Then I get to thinking about Larry, hear him talking in fragmented words, like someone shaved them down around the edges.  And I think about love as an Empire.  I think about the ruins, the inhumanity, the poverty that Swift wrote about, the prison of language, and then the creature, eating everything whole, all of it, you, me, Mr. Beckett.  It eats it all.

When I hear the door close behind me, I think about opening up the books again, seeing what I missed the last time around, but I’m asleep before I can even unzip my backpack.


Day Ninety: Excerpt

“It’s like everything.  Like art.  Like literary criticism.  If you know too much, if you spend too much time looking through all the alleyways and sewers of something, trudging through the filth, it just becomes flat.  The whole fucking thing is flat, like an old highway, cut at the ends, left to crack and erode in some far corner of a barren desert.  It loses the quality that makes it art, that makes it love, that makes it something worth experiencing, that fullness and feeling of laborious submersion.  When it flattens out, you can’t live with it or in it.  The thing, the book, the film, the love, is broken.  It was supposed to be something once, sure, and it was.  That’s why you’re even here, still thinking about it, reeling in its flatness.  And it’s also why this thing is flat in the first place.  But I don’t think love isn’t real, or is transient, or can’t move within us like something resembling what was once sold to us as a spirit.  I do believe in that.  But I also believe we are constantly destroying it, all of them, these things, flattening them, with every second we spend being analytical with them.  So we need to find the things that still move us when they’re raisins, loose shells with the juice concentrated out.  Once empty, these which move us, we have to decide what’s worth keeping., like an endless garage sale, our front lawns packed with some attic clutter that might end up on someone else’s mantle.  That’s what this absurd search for love is for me, finding the thing I’ve become exhausted with but still come back to, the book I’ll never read again but bring with me everywhere I go.  We’re not hopeless.  Trust me, we aren’t.  We’re just conscious.”

Day Eighty-Nine: An Excerpt on the Fall of Chappelle’s Show

It makes the most sense to start this chapter at the end, with Dave Chappelle sitting on a beach in South Africa and giving an interview to Time Magazine’s Christopher John Farley on why he chose to bail on a 50 million dollar contract for a third season of his show.  The most popular narrative is that fame crushed him.  Like a brick wall behind a newly opened door, it stopped his personal momentum abruptly, so he had little choice but to run.  This is an easy out, though, a cliché that makes the comedian’s decision to leave all his success behind easier to relate to or just plain easier to live with.  This is not to say that the fame narrative is not true; it certainly is a pretty dominant part of the story, but there was always something else that came through in every interview he ever gave answering questions about why he left the show.  In the Time article, he tells Farley,

“Coming here I don’t have the distractions of fame. It quiets the ego down. I’m interested in the kind of person I’ve got to become. I want to be well rounded and the industry is a place of extremes. I want to be well balanced. I’ve got to check my intentions, man.”

The fame stuff is there, sure, but it is the last part of the quote that really sticks out, the part about “checking his intentions”.  Chappelle has always cited an incident on set as his reason for leaving the show, when a production worker began laughing at him while he was filming a sketch in blackface.  In her essay “Art in the Age of Political Correctness”, Rachel Jessica Daniel presents the moment as something that “made [Dave] feel uncomfortable and led to him leaving [the show]”.  Even this story has an overgrown shadow, as it was more of a catalyst for reflection than a final, conclusive moment.

What is significant about this incident, it seems, is that it happened while Chappelle was filming the “Pixie Sketch”, a sketch he would later bring up in the Time article as proof that his show’s voice was beginning to corrode.  More than a year after Chappelle formally left the show, Comedy Central aired the sketch under the supervision of Chappelle’s former collaborators Charlie Murphy and Donelle Rawlings who helmed the show in the creator’s absence.

Watching the sketch now, removed from the cultural moment during which it was created, it is clear that Chappelle had a reason to be worried.  The idea behind the sketch is that every race has certain stereotypes they try to keep themselves from playing into, which, on its own, works as a particularly simple piece of Chappelle logic and follows a similar thought process to the one Chappelle and Brennan were known for.  The problem with the sketch is that it portrays these stereotypes in small caricature pixies, all played by Chappelle, that actively tempt the members of the race they represent to live up to their own cartoonish personas.  Instead of portraying racism as an external problem, something that someone else imposes upon you, the sketch portrays racism as the show never had before, as a self-constructed prison.  When Dave plays the “black pixie” as a cane-twirling, fried chicken worshipping cartoon, he wants us to laugh at the absurdity of the stereotype, but the black man being goaded by the pixie, who is also played by Chappelle, is openly, and painfully, struggling with his own race.  Chappelle would often be quoted as saying he thought the sketch reinforced stereotypes rather then sending them up, but it seems closer to reinforcing racism as a self-inflicted problem.  Here, the only racist in the sketch, it seems, is Dave himself.

The other major problem with the sketch has to do with something Maria Edgeworth wrote on in her “Essay on Irish Bulls”.  Edgeworth recognized that the clever misdirection of language inherent to the Irish humor was being wrongfully misinterpreted by British readers as a lack of education.  She argued that playing into stereotypes to destroy them can be dangerous business when there are people who actually give credence to those stereotypes outside of your work.  In short, those people will not see the joke, only the stereotype, and the whole exercise will be counter-productive.  Chappelle’s “Pixie Sketch” runs into the same problem, and it becomes very glaring when the audience is presented with a “Latino Pixie”[1].  Appearing as matador with a pencil-thin mustache, Chappelle adopts a heavy accent in playing the leopard-skin loving pixie.  During this part of the sketch, Spanish-American actress Charo appears briefly with Dave’s stereotype to snort some cocaine then quickly take off.  In this brief scene, there is no joke, no Chappelle line that cuts through the racial muck to help us make sense of it all.  It is just a stereotype and gives us Chappelle’s Show at its worst.

After the sketch is played, Rawlings and Murphy poll the audience to see what they thought about its content.  It is an interesting moment, pulling back the curtain to reveal that even those involved in the process were unsure of how responsible their own work turned out to be.  The response is mostly positive, with some people arguing that the “white pixie” was by far the least offensive, but there is one comment that sticks out.  It is kept till the end, probably purposefully as the segment is obviously heavily edited, and comes from a younger black woman in the audience.  In short, she says that it is not the show’s job to educate people and that comedy shows should not have the burden of educating.  This is an interesting argument that certainly has some truth to it, but it also does a great deal of damage to the work Chappelle and Brennan did before “The Pixie Sketch”.  Their goal had never been education, sure, but it had always been focused on proving a larger, coherent point about racism in America.  As sketches like “Clayton Bigsby: Black White Supremacist” and “The Niggar Family” prove, Chappelle and Brennan fostered a responsible yet biting voice to talk about racism in what was being termed “post-racial America”.  It was something that had never really appeared on television, this voice, with its high and low-brow roots.  This is why it is so hard, but important, to watch “The Pixie Sketch” because we can feel them losing their grip on that voice.

Had Chappelle not left the show, he might have left the sketch off the air, realizing this as the moment he flirted too heavily with the line between satire and bigotry[2].  Unfortunately, the show only stayed around for two full seasons, so we will never know exactly how touching those boundaries could have affected Chappelle and Brennan’s approach to talking about racism.  What we are left with are some of the most critical, intelligent, and hilarious commentaries on racism ever produced.  About midway through the first season, the show aired a sketch set in the first class section of an airplane and follows a chain of racist thoughts of passengers worrying about the people sitting in front of them.  The sketch begins with two stereotypical-looking Middle Eastern men who are arguing over who should have won American Idol.  The camera moves on to the next row to where two black men sit and worry about “those terrorist sons of bitches” in front of them.  We then see a white father and daughter who are openly worrying about the black men in front of them, then two Native Americans worrying about the white people stealing their seats and calling it “manifest destiny”, and then two bison cracking jokes about the Native Americans.  When we get to the last row, we see Dave Chappelle and Neil Brennan asleep, with Chappelle letting a newspaper rest on his chest with the headline, “America United”, scrawled atop a more than half page American flag.  Then Dave twitches a little and scratches his crotch.

The sketch is short and a little heavier-handed than Chappelle and Brennan’s best work, but it serves as a perfectly succinct version of their America.  The chain of racism starts after two innocuous reality TV lovers are mistaken for terrorists, and it only gets uglier from there.  For Chappelle and Brennan, racism is inextricable from our culture; it is something that sits with us on airplanes and injects itself into the movies and TV shows we watch.  They do not really have a solution to the problem but instead seem content in destroying the “post-race” façade held together by newspaper headlines like the one Chappelle holds here.  This is what Chappelle’s Show accomplished: it scraped away that numbness we had built up over time so that we could try and ignore the racism that permeates our culture.  It reminded us of the work that still needs to be done.  It took the complicated legacy of hip-hop’s ascension to pop-culture significance and broadcast that voice in another medium, always making sure that it was a voice worth listening to.  It did all that, and then it stopped and scratched its crotch.

[1] It should be noted that Rawlings and Murphy were not nearly as talented at framing sketches with their introductions as Chappelle.  Where he would give context, they only gave summaries.  This contributes to the problem.

[2] I feel like I should comment here that I am not calling Dave Chappelle a racist.  I am saying that the sketch portrayed him in that way.  It made racism internalized, which went against the show’s own logic.

Day Eighty-Eight: Toh Kay

Streetlight Manifesto has never been abrasive, exactly, but the urgency and bombast of their music never really seemed to match up with the intimacy of their most affecting lyrics.  It often felt like they were using a chainsaw to cut hearts out of construction paper, like their music was doing more to destroy the personal relationship with the listener than it was to enhance it.  This wasn’t always true, to be sure, but when lead singer Tomas Kalnoky wasn’t running recklessly through fragmented crime narratives, his backing band seemed to puff out his chest when all he wanted to do was collapse inwards.  This made for awkwardly moving tracks like “A Better Place, A Better Time”, where Kalnoky’s intense reflection on a friend’s suicide attempt is forced downhill until the song’s momentum swallows his raw emotion whole.  By the time he gets to the second chorus, which features the perfectly comforting coda, “And when you wake up/Everything is going to be fine/I guarantee you’ll wake in a better place, in a better time”, the song’s become all fuzzed out guitars and overbearing horn sections.  Streetlight Manifesto, at moments like this one, was all about the cannibalization of its own strengths, seemingly hedging their bets on the live show danceability of their songs over everything else.

I’m not here to diminish the idea that starting a ska band in New Jersey is a good thing.  I think it is.  I think ska bands from New Jersey are a lot more fun to see live than pretty much any other type of band there is.  Those shows are all knees and elbows, the dancing in the pit an infectious cocktail of awkwardness and “move or get flattened” seriousness.  It’s something you can’t really explain without actually being there and experiencing it.

What I am trying to get at is the idea that a genre can sometimes diminish the potential of a certain talent.  In the case of Tomas Kalnoky, the genre he was born into was the square hole to his cylindrical shape.  The ska scene was never meant to support the emotional weight he carried with him and that’s why I’m so excited about Kolnaky’s new record.  To be released under the name Toh Kay, Kolnaky reworked[1] his band’s most recent album, The Hand that Thieves, into ten meditative, absorbing songs that are strung together unlike any of his albums up to this point.  It was an interesting experiment on paper, but the results are just short of revelatory.  With his voice sanded down to its softer core, Kolnaky sounds like something close to a fully formed artist, each one of his songs washing over you like the slow, steady approach of a warm tide.  The key to this album’s success is its control of momentum, its economy in pacing.  Kolnaky is at his best when he’s taking his time.

The album itself, as well as its full band counterpart, is in the process of being liberated from Victory Records, the band’s label, who is reportedly upset with Kolnaky and his band’s abrupt decision to take an indefinite hiatus.  While this is certainly frustrating, the album itself is undeniably excellent, the arrival of an artist finally getting room to speak on his own terms, and a number of the songs can already be found popping up around the internet.  In the meantime, here is Kolnaky’s reworking of the song, “Better Place, Better Time”, which finally finds the tone and focus it deserves:

[1] And by reworked, I mean he moved the horn parts over to an acoustic guitar section.

Day Eighty-Seven: Y.N.RichKids Till Death

I thought I was ready.  If you haven’t seen them yet, then you’re probably just as ill-prepared.  “Hot Cheetos and Takis” blew anyone who would give it a listen out of the water.  It seemed like an anomaly, something that comes around once in a lifetime and changes who you are.  “Hot Cheetos and Takis” was my Catcher in the Rye.  Then today happened, and Y.N.RichKids and their affiliated act The NSJ Crew dropped two new videos.  And they include choreographed bike dance routines, angry bird t-shirts, and a few verses filmed at TARGET FIELD.  Remember when Drake filmed the “Headlines” video at a stadium?  Remember when he was riding a bike while he did it?  Oh, he wasn’t riding a bike?  Did he at least spit a verse while sitting on the goal posts at some football team’s practice stadium?  What’s that?  They don’t have football in Canada?  Point Y.N.RichKids.


Day Eighty-Six: Some Editorializing in Support of My Dear Friend Rick Perry

Strong.  It was with this word that Rick Perry began his courageous, but ultimately too staunchly American, campaign for president over two years ago.  From the get go he made it clear that there was no compromising his beliefs, that he was an honest man, and that he would never let those intimidating him and trying to bully him into denouncing Christianity win.  “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian,” he valiantly announced to a national audience in his hugely successful campaign commercial.  This was a man ready to change his country by keeping it the same as it was when he read about it in his Texas State issued textbook in high school.

Rick Perry knew something that we didn’t.  He knew that the heavy-handed liberal popular culture was hijacking our youth and passing on ideas of tolerance and equality.  Not in his America.  During a time where actors like Jim Carrey and Sean Penn actively persecuted Christians by appearing as gay men in films, Perry bucked their intolerance of his religion like Clint Eastwood driving a train through town.  This was a candidate that wouldn’t stand for Obama’s war on his own religion because, as Perry will tell you himself, the Governor is much better armed.

Now I don’t want to waste too much time mourning what could have been because there’s a new campaign Mr. Perry has once again boldly thrown his ten gallon hat into[1].  Over the weekend, the Governor appeared on the “Stand with Scouts Sunday” webcast to try and combat the further shackling of his America by standing up for the Boy Scouts of America’s right to identify, shame, and then remove gays within their ranks.  During his appearance, Mr. Perry displayed no signs of trepidation when going after pop-culture outlets that are actively polluting the minds of our youth.  While he did fail to mention a single concrete example, a fact the liberal media will undoubtedly mindlessly use against him, Perry did cite the century of work the Boy Scouts have done in making great fathers and husbands[2].  I assume the “pop culture” Perry refers to started when Tom Hanks won the Oscar for playing a gay man in the critically panned bomb Philadelphia, so, by my calculations, the Boy Scouts have almost 80 more years of influence on our youth.  I wonder what Obama has to say about that[3].

But pop-culture has not always been evil.  For evidence we will look no further than George Lucas’s mega-hit Star Wars, a film with scrolling opening credits that were better acted than any scene in Philadelphia[4].  In fact, if you look closely, but not too closely[5], you might see something familiar in the film’s protagonist, Luke Skywalker.  Raised by a same-sex couple despite losing his parents, Luke learns to stay true to himself and, under the guardianship of a holy man, rises up to take down the evil attempting to pervert his religion[6].  Along the way he learns to control his urges, is entrusted with a lethal weapon[7], and almost gets lucky with his sister.  This could be the story of any Boy Scout, but it is most definitely the story of Rick Perry[8].   When it comes to saving the Boy Scouts from the clutches of the homosexual Dark Side and protecting our freedom to be unashamed to be Christian, I say, “Save us Rick.  You’re our only hope.”

[1] And that hat’s just for his balls.

[2] But only in same-sex marriages.

[3] Probably something with many long pauses and stern idealism.

[4] Those letters’ Oscar loss to Jason Robards still keeps me up at night. I mean, JASON ROBARDS?! DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHO THAT IS?

[5] I’d say about “section 300 at Yankees Stadium with a pair of vendor-bought binoculars with no lenses” close.

[6] Note to self: good nickname for homosexuals – “stormtroopers”

[7] Don’t see any second amendment protestors on Tatooine, Obama.

[8] Only Rick Perry would definitely get lucky.

Day Eighty-Five: Listen Now – Best of Friends

This song moves like Billy Pilgrim unstuck from time.  If you play it loudly upwards of 100 times this summer, you’re probably doing summer right.