Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Difference between Naked & Nude.

William Butler Yeats:
“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy,
which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

Bare Introductions.

Here I was with my first naked woman ever, not a stitch on her, she kept squirming closer, and I kept jabbing paint into her eyes.
 “Or maybe, ‘Crippled Innocence?’ ” she suggested, “Maybe you could call my portrait something like that?”
“Uhhh, Yeahhh …” My lips and jaw worked around for a while, but only that one word edged out. Trying to think of something charming or eloquent to say is like digging around through cooling street tar with a straw wrapper. In a borrowed white tux. I’m guaranteed to make a mess of things.
Well, at least I’d managed more than a grunt this time; I’d dredged up one whole word. Though maybe I should have said Yes, Ma’am, rather than Yeah.
No; that’s too formal. Yes, that is a patently good idea, Ma’am, although I generally don’t assign titles to my various artistic renderings.
She flipped her hair away from the front of her shoulders. Freckles surfed the soft white swells of her shimmying breasts.
Stop! Don’t look down there! I jerked my eyes back up.
Say something, moron, maybe she didn’t notice.
Dang it; open your mouth. Say something. Anything. You know a ton of words; pick out any three. Everybody else can talk.
By the time I can think of anything to say, I’ve been rummaging around for days, and the other guy’s gone home.
“Hello; are you in there?” she asked. “You don’t talk much, do ya?”
I started crushing more paint into the canvas, shooting a quick sideways look at her nose. Then back at the portrait. I studied her neck. As I braked against letting my gaze drift any lower, my breath bottled up in my ears. I felt even more exposed than she was. Fully clothed, I felt like I was the one who was naked. That she could see I had nothing on under my armor.
And yet, there she was, standing right beside me; not a hairpin, not a Band-Aid; bubbling over with laughter she wasn’t even trying to hold in. And an occasional snort when she tried. I could have looked anywhere, everywhere, studied every one of her curves, folds, and follicles.
She watched the internal civil war I was waging on her behalf and found it hilarious.
I was naked; she was nude. They’d taught us the difference in Art History. If someone looks exposed, awkward, struggling to keep his guard up, he’s naked. He looks tight and unnatural, and we feel bad looking at him. He didn’t want to be caught there that way.
A nude feels cozy and free. She has no guard to drop. A nude has no inhibitions. If you let her, she just might melt yours. If some repressed artist paints a wind-tossed cloth across her privates, it looks unnatural and you just know she’d rather tear it away and feel the breeze between her thighs. She’s like sunshine and doesn’t deal well with clouds.
“Knock, knock, are you in there?” She’d caught me again.
Irish folks can’t hide our embarrassment. It blossoms like red wine through white linen all over our faces, our ears, our necks. She saw that, too. She tried not to laugh at me, but a little snort erupted. Then she dabbed at my shoulder with apologies. The touch of her bare hand sent quivers through parts of me I hadn’t noticed before.
She paused; her hand nestled softly against my chest. She looked directly into my eyes with feeling, like she wanted to say, “Oh, you poor, dear, baby.”
“You’re sweet,” she told me.
I kept slapping my brush against the palette until I’d heaped up a big blob of greenish – brown - purple. I searched the whole canvas for some obscure corner I could blend that ugly mess into, but had to give up and wipe the brush off on a rag.
She was quiet for a while, and I snuck another peek up at her. She was studying me with the strangest, most curious, the sweetest smile I could have imagined.
If I’d ever dared let myself imagine a pretty girl smiling at me.
“You’re kinda …” She paused, and it was as though she was attempting to palpate a cobweb. “You're kind of shy, aren’t you?”
I kept focusing in on her eyes, only the eyes. It took every bit of concentration I had.
“I think I like shy.” She contemplated the concept; her eyes, soft and unfocussed, seemed to ride distant waves. But then they drew down into hardness. “Guys I know are so fulla themselves,” she said. “Treat you like they own you. You’re their damned property. Like all you are is your tits.”
My eyes dived for an instant, as though her breasts had whistled for me. I sucked in a lungful and dragged them back up. Cripe, I wished she’d stop saying things like that.
I started slathering paint onto the canvas so feverishly her eyes must’ve stood out by a full quarter inch. Green Irish eyes with golden flecks; huge pupils that kept growing bigger.
The first few days of class, she had wandered the circle of freshman art students, gazing at each of our life studies quietly, but then she’d started settling in by mine. She had been moving about, studying our paintings, wearing nothing but a ratty, home-friendly robe I had desperately, achingly, wanted her to pull closed. Then this time, she hadn’t brought the robe.
The rest of the class had gone to lunch, but she’d slid in beside me and I’d kept painting, hoping she couldn’t see everything churning and broiling, and slamming shut inside me. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to show her disrespect by looking at parts a woman would normally keep hidden; I was terrified. No one had ever tried to be my friend before.
“Crippled Innocence,” she said again now, studying the painting, “Something like that. Maybe you could call it something like that.” I had noticed she walked with a bit of a twist, raising one foot like a limp fish.
 “Uhhh, yeah…. Maybe,” I said, but then our eyes snagged for a moment.
“Mmmm,” she said, holding my gaze. It was like she was snuggling into the sound; an intonation, a melody that just eased out, halfway between a murmur and a purr. Like a woman half stirring from a sweet, delicious dream; burrowing more deeply into her fresh cool pillow, but not quite waking up.
One of her legs slipped behind mine. She leaned in, passing her arm slowly around me, her hand stroking empty air above the painting. She spoke softly into my ear. I couldn’t clutch myself together enough to catch actual words. I knew she couldn’t be thinking romantically, so maybe she was just being cruel, like girls had in junior high. She had to be just teasing.
The warmth of her breast drew close to my arm. Something akin to a purr or a grumble rolled through my own heart and lower belly. If I had tried to speak in that moment, it would have come out as a squeak.
Then we touched, and I was in no particular hurry to pull out of it, though I worked hard at acting like I didn’t notice. The hairs on the back of my arm brushed her nipple with each breath. I’ve probably never been so aware of my breathing.
She whispered, “Can I ask you something?”
“Anything,” I managed to squeeze out of the top of my skull.
“Why do they call you Gooseboy?” She brushed me again. Much more firmly this time. She lingered there. Held herself against me.
“Unhh owahh mmm?” was the best I could come up with.
My head swam as I tried again, but the “Unhh” only came out in a higher pitch.
She laughed; her breast swayed, bounced, floated along my triceps. I fought to pull myself together. My quavering voice did manage to force a few words out, splayed by pauses. “Mmm - childhood. Ugly - duckling - thing. Never grew into a swan.”
“Swans are nasty,” she whispered, her lips so close to my ear she could’ve bitten it. “I’m sick of swans. Get hung up on their looks, you’re gonna pay for being so damned stupid. Embarrass me in front of my friends. Like it’s me never says anything worth listening to. Yeah, right. So damned full of themselves. Damn … swans.” She stepped out from behind me, caught my eyes drifting down over her delicately hued nipples. The gentle white curves of her belly. Her shadowed slit of navel. “I like the little ducks in the back. The ones who don’t quite fit in. I just wanna pick ’em up, and cuddle them, and hold their little heads close to my ...” We tried to unravel ourselves from that imagery. “They’re the ones I want to feed.”
I drew in a breath and held it until it dawned on me I couldn’t form words without letting some of it back out. “Well … thanks … but I’ve got some stale bed …” I wanted to point back at my supplies with my thumb, but all my parts had frozen into position. “In my brackpack. – I mean, stale bed. Bread. In my – backpack. If I get hungry.” She laughed as I kept chattering. “I’ll just stand out by the fountain and toss it at myself,” I told her. “Maybe I’ll even fight over it.”
Her nipples started to draw in, tighter and darker. They rose out. Like lips wanting a kiss.
Guessing she was cold, I offered her the jacket from my chair.
She started prodding me with devilish grins, asking what made her look cold. She wouldn’t let me off the hook.
After a few minutes of teasing, she sighed and turned her head away. The muscles of her long, slender neck carried my gaze down to the notch of her clavicle. I studied her freckles, but didn’t try to paint them. I followed them lower, to where her skin was its absolute whitest. Her puff of reddish blonde hair looked so soft, and fluffy. I wondered if she brushed, or shampooed it. Her long, slender legs spread wider as she relaxed her left knee. I studied her sweet nubs of toes. The graceful arches of her feet. Feet had never struck me as sexy before.
But she had apparently turned away just so she could flip back and catch me savoring her, because when I looked back up, she was studying me.
I tried to force a casual smile, but it twisted out of my face like a grimace. I didn’t let her into my thoughts; didn’t let myself into my feelings. I wrenched for words. “I – I like that - color. Of your nail polish. It’s – it’s so - bright! Red. Bet you don’t have any trouble finding your feet in the dark!”
She broke loose laughing like she’d been saving it up in a sealed can for years. A free-spirited nude, like any true artist, seems always in a moment of birth.
I don’t have that painting anymore. I was told it was one of my best. That people saw strange things inside it. Almost mystical layerings of pain, and purity. And longing.
I gave it to the model. I don’t remember her name. I never saw her outside that circle of easels, and trunks filled with props. She’d bring sandwiches, and we’d sit through our breaks, but I never had much to say; I was terrified. Big bold lives and beautiful friends; beautiful women; were meant for other people. Adventurous people. Deserving people.
How could I have guessed back then that I’d one day be hanging out with naked presidents, notorious lawyers, and women so sexy men would lust for them in every language on the planet? I’d shove my way through a future where the bizarre and the miraculous became so normal I’d miss them when things ran too smoothly. I’d be attacked by ghosts, torn open by a hurricane, and come close to dying deep in a Mexican desert, all because I needed to meet God face-to-face if it killed me. If there even was one. I needed some answers.
That first model stayed warm and open for a few weeks or months, but slowly she grew a little sad. I was really, really good at closing people out. Which always left me horribly alone.
Our family didn’t talk about our passions or terrors, though, about what churned and ate away at us from inside. Dad said all we needed to know was in our little catechisms, or brightly colored Bible tales, but anything deep and hurtful; anything that didn’t make any sense, just wasn’t fair, and we really, really needed to come to grips with? Well, that was “Just one of God’s glorious mysteries,” he always told us, end of story.
Not for me, it wasn’t.
I waited for him a long time in the parking lot after class that Day of the Breast, hoping he’d remember to pick me up. He tended to lose track of time sitting in some bar, car dealership, or small business, waiting for owners who rarely showed. He kept trying to sell them pencils and rulers imprinted with their ads that they could then donate to area schools. Must’ve been awfully tough talking a funeral director into advertising his mortuary on book covers for the junior high, but Dad made a sale now and then. He never touched the dullest edge of success. He was on his third mortgage. Our used car was almost ours, and had been for a long, long time; since the previous one had broken down when it had still only been almost ours. Now his big purple chariot hung suspended with the rest of us in that dank gray limbo of almost.
I hated the way Dad’s face slammed white when bill collectors came to our door. He tried to hide it, but I was vulnerable to other people’s emotions and felt the stress going for his heart.
That day, after I’d discovered how a breast felt against my arm, I fumed for almost two hours standing there, waiting, but never called home to check. Who was I to think I counted? How many times in my childhood had he left me in the car with no books or toys as he’d seen clients in their homes? He’d just take the keys and tell me to stay put. I’d watch kids with puppies run by; bunnies, birds, and squirrels hop about in yards; but I hadn’t even rolled down a window. With nothing to play with but buttons on the dash, I’d push the cigarette lighter in and out. A couple of times I’d burnt my finger pressing its tip against the glowing coil. At least that had offered some distraction. So I’d been tempted to do it again.
I never complained, figuring that was my proper place in the universe; a hard wooden stool in an unlighted basement while everyone else ate ice cream in the park.
There had been times, though, when I’d almost felt like somebody’s son. Sitting side-by-side on barstools as he’d waited for small business owners. That fresh furniture polish and alcohol smell in the mid-afternoon, my little boy hands around a cold, sweating beer mug of root beer. Sharing that treasured dim light and quiet with my dad. The soft swoosh of the Ski ball disc along shining powdered wood; the spirited ‘Bing!’ as it bounced off the backboard. That disc, shiny silver metal with black rubber edges, had looked so inconsequential in his beefy hand; felt so sturdy and manly in mine.
Dad did show up at college that day. He hadn’t forgotten me after all. I was overjoyed, but held it in, shoving my relief back inside and clamping it down. I climbed in with controlled, respectful decorum. Passion wasn’t welcomed in my family. As always, he asked how my day went without turning to actually look at me. As always, I said, “Fine, Sir,” facing forward, my hands kneading sketchbooks.
Anyway, what could I say? A beautiful naked woman rubbed her breast on my bare skin, Dad! We were all alone and she slipped her leg around me. She had freckles around her nipples! Her woman’s hair looked so soft! Do you think they brush that hair down there, Dad?
Now where would that fit in among his Bible stories?
I was quiet for the rest of the ride as my father kept sneaking concerned glances. I searched for things to say, but nothing broke free. My eyes pressed rigidly forward. All those accumulated years and layers of feelings he couldn’t share, of words I couldn’t speak, all those ponderous slabs of angst, were like concrete hardening as it’s poured.
I suspect he knew he might be dying. He was in great pain, but never told us. Now I hate myself for closing off when he was trying to show he cared in the only way he could. He was just trying to get a few final words out of his son as I failed him again, as I hurt him even worse.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Men in her Life.

Paramahansa Yogananda:
“One whose heart is filled with the love of God cannot willfully hurt anyone.”

Chapter Six.

The Men in Her Life.

“Fucker skipped on you again.”
“Ray, please, Honey; not in front of your sisters.”
Charli looked around the table. The two older girls were stabbing at their portions of the pork foo yung like they wanted to tear its heart out. She turned in her chair to watch people from their neighborhood who could have pretty teapots and tiny cups, and their kids could each order something different. They didn’t have to pick one dinner and cut off little pieces. They could have food left over, and get to carry it home in white boxes. If they forgot them on the table, Charli would go over and get them. Sometimes people came back and asked where their stuff was, but the little oriental men would only look over toward her, but not say anything, so she got to keep it. She didn’t understand how people could not eat everything they had, or how the Chinese men could just throw food away. She’d want to ask if her mom could have some of it; but instead she’d just walk over, take what looked good, and carry it back to her family.
But now other kids and their parents weren’t even eating. If they weren’t openly staring at her brother and her mom, or studying Charli and her sisters, they were at least sneaking peeks.
 “Your dad just had to talk to one of the men he works with about some fossils; that’s all,” their mom said. “You heard him talking on the phone. He told us he’d be right back.”
“He always says that.” Pammie thrust her knife into a chunk of pink meat.
“Oh, Honey; but he will this time. He even told us to order dessert, didn’t he? He doesn’t always say that, now, does he? Hey, how about some of that nice green ice cream you like? We’ll order some of that, okay? Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Pammie twisted the knife until every piece of pork flesh was torn to tiny shreds. Francine just dropped her hands and stared at the table.
“You like that nice ice cream, don’t you?” Their mom seemed so distracted the kids couldn’t tell whom she was talking to, but they weren’t really listening, anyway. “He said there’s been a very important new discovery! Now, that’s exciting, isn’t it? Some big, scary dinosaur? Maybe he’ll bring us pictures.” She turned to Charli. “Here, eat, Honey,” she said. “Let me help you with that. Daddy will be right back.”
Charli lifted her purse up off her lap, and laid it on the table. Her mom stopped cutting the little girl’s food to fight back tears. Charli said, “Here. You can have all my money, Mommy.”
The sounds of scraping and poking against plates stopped at tables all around her. Charli tried to catch the attention of her brother, or one of her sisters, to suggest they all pitch in, but nobody in her family would look up.
“Fuck this!” her brother said. “I’m not paying for this shit!” He stood, and started shouting at waiters. “You hear me? This is crap! I wouldn’t feed this shit to my dog. Hell, I’d rather eat the dog than this crap!” He launched his plate. A customer across the room ducked just before it shattered on the wall behind her.
Their mother reached for her glass, but it only held water.
“Fuck this!” Ray shouted and slammed out the front door.
Charli climbed down off her chair and tried to follow, but had trouble with the door. She managed to shove and lunge her way through, then ran to where the car had been. Standing in the empty space, she called, “Daddy? Daddy! It’s your little Charli; it’s me. Don’t go, Daddy.”
Inside The China Pagoda, she knew, her mom would be ordering wine, but then wouldn’t know how to pay for it. Remembering the money in her piggybank, Charli ran the few blocks to their home, slowing to a stop outside the garage. It took her a long time to talk herself out of checking her daddy’s red toolbox. This time, she decided, she didn’t want to know.
She crawled in through the dog door. Walking slowly across the living room, smelling the dust and the sour odor of old food spills, touching each piece of furniture as she passed, everything hurt her so badly. It wasn’t right; it wasn’t fair; a home should have a daddy in it.
She climbed the stairs to her room, but then didn’t have to reach under her bed. Mr. Pigg was broken open all over her dresser. All her money was gone.
Little Charli just kept moving, taking short quick breaths high in her chest to keep from crying. In her sisters’ room, she dug through all their hiding places, but he’d taken theirs, too.
Heading downstairs, she made for the garage. The big red toolbox was empty. All the nice wrapped presents she’d seen in there were gone.
That poor tiny child could only afford to stand there staring, feeling terribly empty, for a minute or so, her little hands wiping back tears that had never actually broken to the surface. She knew her mom would be talking funny and blubbering by now. The waiters would be wringing their hands and all their neighbors would be talking about her family out loud and saying terrible, ugly things. Money or no money, Charli was going to have to get her mommy out of there.

Their dad didn’t come home that night. Ray became “Death Ray” again, breaking lamps and dishes, slashing at the cat with belts and fireplace pokers, leaving it cowering and spitting under the couch. Then he headed for the special school, to beat up on “retards.” Pammie searched the streets for Cambodian and Mexican girls she could knock down and kick because they “couldn’t even talk English.” Their mom passed out on the couch watching some old movie with James Cagney shooting and punching everybody, even his girlfriend. Francine finished up her mom’s wine. She was only eleven, but had been drinking for years. Charli decided to spend the night at Gramma Peggy’s. She took her Barbie with her so Ray wouldn’t come back and tear it to pieces.
When she got there, the garage door was closed, so she knew Grampa Ron wasn’t out there spending a little quality time with his one true friend, Jim Beam. The house itself was dark, though, which was strange; they always left “lights on for the burglars” if they went out. Charli climbed up into their olive tree to study things for a while, try to figure out what was going on. She didn’t like it; something wasn’t right. Everywhere she turned, the world scared her.
She didn’t hear Grampa’s radio in the garage, but didn’t see anyone moving in the house. Nestling her doll into a comfortable pad of leaves, she climbed down without it, and snuck up to the living room window like an Indian. Gramma Peggy wasn’t watching Gunsmoke. Their TV wasn’t even turned on. She stared in for a long time, but didn’t see anyone.
Charli slid through the night, working the wagon of garden tools over to the loose board in the backyard wall, propping the milk box up on it, and climbing through. She managed to drag a bench over to a back screen window so she could listen. Inside the house somewhere, she heard “Brownie the Mutt” whimpering. Listening harder then, she heard him scratching at something wooden. Something was wrong. Gramps never let him whine like that. He kicked and cussed the “damned ugly mongrel,” then swore harder because the dog was making him spill his drink.
Too scared to call out, Charli crept around, trying windows until she found a space she could squeeze through. A cast iron skillet lay on the dining room floor. A towel in the hall was soaked with blood.
She couldn’t take any more. The tiny child broke down into heaving bursts of terror, crying out,  “Gramma. Gramma! Gramma; it’s me; it’s little Charli. Gramma; where are you? Gramma!”
No one answered. Brownie the Mutt came to peek out from the bedroom for just a moment, then trotted back in to start scratching and whimpering again.
Feeling like every joint and muscle in her body, other than her pounding heart, had frozen solid and was holding her back, Charli fought for control, forcing herself to walk very slowly down the hall. She found Brownie staring at the closed bathroom door. Now and then he’d scratch at it with his paw. It took a moment for Charli to hear her grandmother sobbing on the other side.
“Gramma, Gramma,” the child kept calling.
It was a long time before she answered, and then very weakly. “It’s okay, Honey, Gramma will be alright. You just go home now, Honey.”
Charli stayed put. She kept crying, but wouldn’t step any closer to that door.
Then it all broke loose. She dropped to her knees, sobbing uncontrollably until she just couldn’t breathe.
That sweet, broken child heard the bathroom door open, but couldn’t stand up, run to her gramma, or even stop weeping. She felt the soft, gentle hand of the woman who’d practically raised her, the woman she’d always thought of as her real mom, stroking her heaving shoulders, and her hair. Then she heard her grandmother’s voice. “You just have to understand, Sweetheart; your grandfather doesn’t mean to get this way; it’s just the liquor.
“And anyway, he’s a doctor, or we wouldn’t have this nice house, or any food to eat.”
Charli, still crumpled over herself, stared at the floor by the blue glow of the nightlight, watching a big drop of her gramma’s blood spread out through the shared pooling of their tears.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

“Entertaining Naked People” Excerpt.

                        Blown Tires in Heaven.

When my siblings and I were kids, Mom and Dad used to take us on educational daytrips. One time they loaded up the station wagon and headed us off to picnic at Valley Forge, but Dad missed the first exit. A truck with a blown tire blocked the second. We ended up spending the night in Gettysburg, missing school the next day. For me, it was a wondrous, but agonizing place. Over the years, they took us to antique homes, forts, and buildings. In some, I tapped into lives that had been lived and maybe lost there. They just kind of reached out and grabbed me. But in Gettysburg I felt buried in the deaths. Even at full noon and a hundred years later, the fields were dark with the dying; strewn with groaning agony; with unending hours spent waiting for death to finally get around to these skinny, patched kids who felt so very, very far from home. It tore at me from everywhere, along with their terror, naiveté, and a palpable conviction of glory. As though in this bloody clash there was no right or wrong because each side had God firing, stabbing, and slashing right beside them. Maybe in some awful way, I thought, He was.
We spent the next night in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. My pain was so intense there I could have found my way blindfolded to where they’d hanged John Brown. I knew nothing of his history; I’d never heard of the man, and didn’t know why they’d killed him; but his rage ate away at me for months.
In some old homes I felt fragments of lives lived, meals cooked, of babies carried, but then all too soon buried out back somewhere. I felt their bonding through adversities, and the hard-edged love that grew out of that. I felt their resignation as much as anything, and knew those times must have been awfully hard. Endless days of labor that beat at their bodies; weary evenings of trying to hang on. I felt people sitting around in dim light and heavy air.
Feelings chewed through me with such sweetly sad intensity. Like lingering nostalgia for days I couldn’t quite recall. Old lives and times seemed wistful, more real, alive, more steeped in buried sweetness than the lost and broken sadness of my now.
I took on the pain of others like festering sores draining the spirit out of me. At home, I hid in my room from the clash of emotions my family could hide only from themselves. When my arms grew long and strong enough I started pulling myself up onto the roof where I could lie back under the stars, praying for their vast peace to drain off some of the hurt.
Sometimes it worked; they welcomed me in among them and nestled me closer to God. Everything dissolved into pure, aching sweetness, beyond the furthest reaches of time and thought. How vast love can be when we don’t hack off a chunk and hoard it, call it ours, or chain it to someone; when it isn’t love for some thing or some one, just love.
But love got me trapped in their pain. If I stopped to ponder that, though, if I thought about anything at all, I’d get stuck in my head again, where all that beauty couldn’t reach me. If an annoying itch sent me back hunting for my body, then that was all it took; I’d chosen the physical, mental, emotional world over that which belonged only to the soul, and I’d locked myself back out of heaven.
I was only allowed brief visits, and couldn’t bring the bliss back with me. Trying to hold onto that soul piercing, excruciating sweetness was like tearing my heart apart; but getting dumped back into this pain-wracked world of anxieties, barriers, and failure was like it had died.
So night after night, as my family watched TV, I holed up at the other end of the house with my books. Deep in bedroom shadows, mythic heroes fought on, through pain and desperation, searching for what only they could see, as something unyielding cried out from their souls. I crawled through each passage with fingers and tears as King Arthur battled onward and inward, conquering and ceding back, sacrificing everyone and everything he cared about, driven like a madman to the point of self-immolation, ever trying to slash his way free.
For a tale of heroism, that one sure reeked of darkness. Heroes are supposed to be born for the job, all shiny clean and courageous. They eat their vegetables, thank their moms, and cross themselves twice saying grace. Good is good, evil is evil, and bad guys ride black horses. But with Arthur’s gang, everyone seemed to be thrashing against something ugly and menacing hanging back in his own shadows. Something painfully personal.
In the real world, obedience was pounded into our butts; discipline nailed each to the cross of his own life. I fought so hard to just shut up and buckle under, but I just couldn’t confine myself to this tiny and hurting world everybody else lived in. It got so it was like St. Michael slaying the dragon, with me as both the saint, and his dragon.
My heroes followed some deep hidden light through dark and horrid times, and I knew what drove them; I had touched that light.
I’d also tasted the darkness.
As I knotted myself over each grave, heroic tale, I felt it clawing free.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Chapter 3 - Memoirs. - What Lies Beyond the Grave?

From the I Ching:
It is early morning and work begins.
The mind has been closed to the outside world in sleep;
now its connections to the world begin again.”

Chapter Three.

Seeds Take Root Where the Light Can’t Reach.

Our front window looked out across a blood-drenched sidewalk onto a life-sized war hero, sword raised. Baltimore was “The City of Memorials.” Its people treasured the honorable, the heroic, and the unholy. I found all three in one graveyard that first week.
I should have been unpacking with Gary and Wadlow, but the fading light was calling and only I heard it. Weighted down since childhood with a dread of trying anything new, I needed to walk off some of that fermenting angst of beginning a new life in our first apartment.
My last night home, my family had watched “The Ten Commandments.” Dad had wanted us to feel The Lord’s Mighty Power as I headed off to take the world on.
Instead, I saw myself jumping blindly into the hands of that same Divine Overseer who’d forced Moses to take a life or death stand against the pharaoh, wander the desert for forty years, everybody abusing him, but then, after all that, told him, “Mood swing! Everyone can go in but you. You just have to stand outside and watch.” And that’s not even counting all those poor innocent horses He drowned. God was killing children right and left, but then told Moses he shalt not kill. Told Moses to lie to the Pharaoh, but then made it a commandment not to. Some great, inspiring flick that turned out to be. I was going to need a much kinder God to pray to, and one that was easier to understand. And if a bush started mumbling anywhere near me, I was just going to walk right on by.
Someone had to have gotten a bit drunk around some of those campfires and bollixed up a few of those stories. That Old Testament God seemed mean, violent, arbitrary, and vindictive, and now here I was, betting my whole life on His good graces.
And yet, I’d known a God who’d called to me gently as a child, soothed me when I’d felt lost, which had been pretty much most of the time. That magic spirit I’d known when tiny and innocent had loved Nature and all life. This wasn’t a God who’d go flooding us all out, even snuggly puppies, letting only one man build a boat. He wouldn’t make bets with the devil on how much we’d put up with. He wouldn’t have us swallowed by a great fish and keep us in there for days with nothing to eat, and no one for company but a puppet.
Or maybe that was a different story. Anyway, that God I’d loved since toddlerhood still hummed to me sometimes through the stars. He was everywhere, looking out from inside every one of us, but I still couldn’t find Him. Native Americans had sung and danced with this vast, very personal spirit. They’d honored their brotherhood with all life. So we’d dead-marched them off along the Trail of Tears and nailed crosses over their bunks in Bible schools, beating them until they accepted the fact that God only liked white folks.
But I knew He cried for them, too. Did He still whisper to them through their campfires? Could I at least listen in? I knew He was out there, waiting, but somehow I’d shut Him out; the God I loved would never have abandoned me.
Moving into our new place with two art students from back home, I found myself just standing, unmoving, in the middle of the floor, first in one room, then another, staring into emptiness, as the other guys hustled their clothes, toiletries, and school supplies in around me, grabbing all the best corners and drawers.
Finally, I just headed out and started walking. With a pair of socks in one hand that I set down somewhere and forgot to bring back.
I went for a long, meandering pilgrimage, sucked forward through emptiness. Along toward dank of evening, I came upon a crumbled knot of graves crying out with their neglect. Sagging marble steps led up into a sealed church as it gathered the twilight in around it. I never feel quite settled into a place until I’ve found a church with more spirit than words. It doesn’t even have to be a happy, hopeful spirit; I just need to know there’s more to it than stone walls, wood benches, and empty sermons. I need to feel clearly that God knows it’s there. That I could catch a whiff of Him inside, a taste of His simmering compassion. Feel Him sharing their sorrows, and feeding their joys. That He could find me there if He ever really wanted to.
Even if the doors are chained, and I’m locked out; I just need to know I can still feel Him.
I leaned against the cast-iron grit of huge gates heavy-laden with age and unanswered sorrows. Beyond them, ancient, worn markers were strewn through the weeds. I’ve always been drawn to untended graves. I grieve for those whose loved ones haven’t visited for generations.
One monstrous gate, hanging crooked on its hinges, wedged in hard and heavy against the other. I heaved against it until I could barely scrape through to stand amid scattered marble, bleached white, and crumbled to powder. You could tell they’d once been engraved in ancient script, but could no longer make out who’d been settled in beneath them, or when. I paid respect at each grave, knowing nothing of the lives they’d lived, or of who had once missed them. By now, even their beloved had been long buried and forgotten.
One slab had been laid across supports like a bench. Its vague, lingering worm trails, once honoring somebody’s life, merits, and worth, had been ground away by Baltimore’s uncaring rains.
A few yards farther in, tiny mausoleum sheds interspersed among the weeds. I edged between them and worked my way along a gutter, stepping down onto a flat stone wedged under one end to hold back erosion. Lifting my foot up from it, I saw words: “Age six months.” The child hadn’t even been named.
My heart shriveled. I’d stepped on the stone of an infant who’d never had a fair shot at life. Now I was disrespecting her in death.
More slabs and blocks trailed around behind, some from the 1700’s. One man, way in the back, inside a tiny fence scraggy with weeds, had apparently fought in the Revolution.
More tiny mausoleums faced the rear wall of the church; one with horrific carvings of skulls. One held, I vaguely recall, an early Maryland governor, or some such dignitary.
The back of the church was raised up from the ground. Tossed in among its supports were what looked like moldering bones.
My heart ached so much for these poor souls, neglected even after death, I turned away to head back, but managed only a few burdened steps.
I drew up abruptly and froze.
An old, worn marker, standing off by itself, grabbed at my heart.
It was Edgar Alan Poe.
He fit in so perfectly there. Maybe I did, too. His sorrow and pain ate through me as I stood there, head lowered. Can’t even death let us step away from our darkness?
Then, it was like he was scratching a warning into the dirt with his finger, and like he meant it specifically for me. Each of us has to work out his own salvation, he seemed to say, not wait around for sermons to wash him clean; for death or drugs to close his eyes. We don’t dare sit around expecting God to come roaring in with fresh troops to drive away the darkness we’ve walled our own souls up inside; buried alive like some of Poe’s characters.

I meandered home slowly that night, through the dark of a strange bloodstained city.
Poking through death and birth, I suspected they really weren’t so very different. Each was a matter of squeezing under pressure from dark into light. We need to be forced out, or we’d never let go. We don’t want to leave the confinement of everything we’ve learned to count on. Or hide behind. So how else can we be drawn out into that vast bright unknown?
What was I eking out into in Baltimore? Darkness, or Light? Or were they the same?
Approaching our apartment, my heart gripped up higher in my chest. I took mincing steps around dark brown ripples soaking the concrete in a wide spill out front.
As Gary tells it, someone had murdered a drug dealer. He says cops with clipboards had questioned us in our living room as we were moving in, but I hadn’t told them I’d gone out to break into a graveyard.
He says two black guys showed up at our place the next night, looking for drugs, and had felt sorry for us. “You don’t got shit!” they’d said. Not a TV, not one soda in the fridge, not a sock that we hadn’t worn thin.
I don’t remember any of that. Just the darkness of that unfading stain. It marred the sidewalk for months, maybe years. No one could scour it away.
I didn’t even try.
It was all that was left of someone.
I still carry that in my heart.
There had to be more to life and death than just that.

Chapter 2 - Memoirs - Vietnam.

   From Light on the Path:
When you have found the beginning of the way
the star of your soul will show its light;
and by that light you will perceive how great is the darkness in which it burns.”

Chapter Two.

Blood Makes Rich Fertilizer.

Dinner chat wasn’t as joyful as it had been once upon a time. Voices were quieter, more subdued. My brother and sisters took turns. They passed food sometimes in silence, in thoughtful pauses, or in pauses as they tried not to think. For long hours in the living room, Sharon thumbed through her childhood catechisms and Bible tales until their colors faded and dulled to thin grays. Kath put hers back on the shelf, where it got buried behind her Nancy Drew collection. Tim was kicked out of high school for cutting too many days.
I set up an altar in my bedroom, placing prayer books and my favorite pictures of saints on it. In a Philadelphia church I stood by the glass coffined body of St. John Neumann, praying for all my soul was worth. I bought a tiny crumb of his backbone and positioned it reverently on my altar beside the crucifix my grandmother had given me when I’d gone deaf for a few months, and the little rosary in a plastic pack I’d carried to church every Sunday back when I’d still worn red clip-on bowties. There were prayer cards from my grandfather’s funeral, and those of dead neighbors, like the little girl up the street who’d lost her battle against a blood disease she wasn’t even old enough to spell.
We spent way too much time looking down into coffins, never quite understanding why.
In the center of the altar stood a ceramic Mary in a lovely blue dress Grandma and I had painted sitting side-by-side at her tiny table. Mary had the most beatific expression on her young, untroubled face; a smile so soft and gentle you could disappear into it; especially by candlelight, wisps of incense smelling as I imagined a Tibetan monastery might. The St. Christopher’s medal my uncle had worn landing fighters on carriers in World War II lay at her feet. Crystals from my rock collection poked in along the walls in case they really did offer some kind of healing.
Visits to New York art museums were diverted into pilgrimages to St. Pat’s Cathedral, praying for hours, lighting candles, and leaving what change I could spare.
The frayed and gritty edges of everyone’s world were worried away by neighbors you’d never noticed until the air spilled over with the tragedy of their loss. How the war had taken them or their children; killed them, lost them, torn off body parts, sent them back brain-fried.
Or, in the best of stories, trailing heaps of pain-wrenched glory. Somehow, though, even those tales of heroism, those dim lights you searched for through psychological and spiritual famine, groping desperately through all that gloom, even those somehow seemed to just ping off the surface of the pain they carried inside them. They sounded so defensive; like the good parts were mostly just make-believe. Friends of friends poured out each loved one’s heroism with swelled chest, but always followed the script, those same exact words, every time exactly the same, as though they never dared vary one single word, go wandering off, thinking things through. Tales fell from hearts in heavy, wet tones of grief and confusion.
Even when rare moments of relative calm and clarity crept briefly through our days, they crawled in with head hanging through that most familiar of all tunnels, our sense of loss. Each new friend seemed only to step in and announce himself with his last breath. Why hadn’t we loved him earlier when there had been more time?
That overriding sense of loss was the crusted-over peephole through which you viewed the world. Dreading life’s relentless advance, but knowing your locks could never keep it out.
“Jack down the street was a gunner in Nam. Chopper took some flak. Forced ’em down, props all knocked loose and ridin’ low. Stood up into it unloading a wounded buddy. Lousy time to be 6’4”. First week there. You remember Jack. You went to school with his sister. Only a year or two ahead of you. Died a man’s death. God-awful how it always takes the good ones.”
Yeah, I remembered Crazy Jack. Used to steal my towel in the locker room. Cops picked him up three, four times for drinking and stealing cars before he was old enough they could hold him. Even rumors of a stick-up, but you know small towns. Joined the military to sidestep a prison rap, or so they said. And suddenly he’s my hero? Yeah, I remembered Jack. Jack and a dozen Jacks like him.
“Joe Whatsisname. Almost dated your sister. You remember Joe. Went completely bald when they blew up his brother and sent home the pieces. Joe … Joe … Uhhh - You remember Joe. Not a hair on his head. Only fifteen. That war grabs everybody. Even ones’t don’t go.”
“Yeah, well, I know a guy who …”
As the late 60’s gave in and died, and I trudged my way through my first years in college, even the old folks were growing up. Their World War II glories clouded over. We’d all been dragged out of our warm, snuggly innocence.
People seemed infested by life, that dire contagion, burdened by the stifling weight of it, until we could only force shallow, labored breaths. Each new day was just an old one playing through again, a dust-laden August, a storm always riding right on top of you that never quite cut loose a hellin’. It settled into your joints until they grew achy, too heavy to lift; tarring all hearts with a dark, heavy plaque. Days stuck together as walking and breathing grew tedious. Until even my bubbly sister couldn’t offer up a smile without a shadow lurking inside it. We trudged through life like molasses as our mighty nation killed our sons and broke our buddies, defending itself from skinny barefoot farmers with sticks, in some rice swamps, somewhere on the other side of existence, where you couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad. Some lost tiny nowhere that hadn’t even existed when you’d been a kid; when the world had been innocent and untainted. Back when Father Knew Best, Beaver’s mom fed his dad all the answers, and Annie Oakley never had to shoot to kill.
My dad, Tiny Tim, the fat jolly Irishman, had always been too big to buy his clothes in stores. When we’d been tiny, he’d have Mom make sports shirts for the six of us out of the gaudiest prints they could find, the females condemned to matching shorts. Newspaper photos from around the country showed us standing out at Kiwanis conventions; my skinny arms poking out of some grotesque print of green doughnuts, or purple and orange palm trees, all six of us dressed exactly the same. Dad loved the attention, with his purple station wagon, gaudy sports shirts, his booming Irish laughter, and infectious joviality.
He still wore the shirts. Few people saw them. He lost more and more time on the couch, his socks drooping, his face hanging low as he fought hard against his weight, against smoking; and, secretly, against a world that no longer seemed decent, no longer made sense; though he would never, ever, ever say a word against our always-honorable American government.
Two years later, after his funeral, after I’d dropped out of school and he’d died within a month, a broken man, Mom would find fingerprints dragged along the hall, as though he’d groped his way out to us, blinded by pain, but then straightened up and put on a brave face.
Mom had been hit by lightning as a child and been terrified of thunder ever since. Dad had found her cowering down behind a bed one time when we were bitty, during a loud, and terrifying storm. He’d told her to buck up and not scare the children.
Our personal terrors were not to be put on display.
In my two years at the local college, if somehow I managed to keep my grades just above flushable, it wasn’t from any excess of confidence, competence, or zeal. Mainly my academic scores kept me afloat, though not really kicking very hard. I still sucked at Color & Design Fundamentals, expressing myself best through black & white photos and paintings; in ink and pencil drawings that sometimes writhed in silent screams like the deeply troubled work of Kathe Kollwitz. Eighteen years later, my wife would take me aside at public events to berate me: “You’re wearing blue pants with green socks again. You embarrass me. You can’t ever get anything right.” Apparently I was colorblind. Before our next event, I’d try holding up pants, asking her which was the black pair and which the navy. She’d shrivel me with a look of disdain that would reek its way through to my core, but say nothing to help.
Charli would wage a long, bitter war to grind into my bones that the world was your cashbox. That faith was a childish weakness, a pathology best torn out harshly. That bright illusions grow up into disillusionment. But back in college during the years of the Vietnam War, I was still trying to see the world as an expression of light, without all the shadows, evils and grays. I was still trying to paint with colors; still holding God as the center of everything, trusting that God and goodness would always be enough. It had to be enough; it’s all I had.
My friend Yorke said the universe demanded more of us and we should demand more of ourselves. He stood out from any crowd, trimmed his Van Dyck to a finely honed point, kept his Ben Franklin glasses balanced on the tip of his patrician nose. He parted his hair down the middle like a 1920’s banker. Yorke cut a trim, sophisticated, if intentionally anachronistic appearance in double-breasted linen vests and silk jackets, often dressing in pinstripes. He drove a Ford Model-T with a New York cabbie’s license from the 40’s pinned to its visor.
He and his twin, Gordon, were all but indistinguishable from the neck up, but Gordon dressed more late twentieth century conservative. Neither would wear t-shirts or shorts, but Gordon could have blended in among Republicans at a luncheon discussing how to lower wages, take the vote away from darker races, and stamp out labor rights.
Yorke was political. I wasn’t. It hurt both of us deeply that soldiers were killing and being killed, but he tried to do something about it. He tried to stir up some campus activism, signed on for what few and meager protests a tiny handful of students managed to mount. There were never any marches, no sit-ins, nobody held signs; Bucks County was too conservative for anything like that. The fires of his passions singed him through to the threadbare fibers of his soul. The world, as it was, hurt him deeply.
My heart knew the same pain, but it wasn’t my nature to make a fuss, to stand up for or against anything. I think that kept us from growing closer, Yorke and I. His passions were more in-your-face. He lived them, despite getting blocked, abused, and insulted at every turn. I kept mine locked away, and he could never deal with that in me. I shouldn’t have been able to either.
Yorke closed himself off in a garage with his beloved Model-T one bright and sunny spring afternoon. He turned on the engine, and died.
Mom spent that hour searching our house, miles away; sniffing corners, asking if we smelled gas. She’d never met Yorke, he lived in another town, but she, too, could be painfully empathetic.
He wouldn’t talk with me again for years after that, though his ghost would continue to visit his brother in their Ford. I wouldn’t have a chance to understand, to put things to rest, until one evening, six years later, when I caught  him slipping away from a dark occult library and he’d finally stop in to explain things. But in the years immediately following his death, I still hurt for that resolution, carrying his fatal act of violence against himself in my fibers and tissues like a deep and very personal wound I didn’t dare pick at. I only knew that a friend hadn’t been able to take any more. That he’d taken the world’s gathering ugliness out on himself.
Some shared pain in me somehow understood. Some pain I didn’t dare stir.
As a photography major, I liked experimenting: smearing lenses, cracking or melting films in chemical baths; surprising myself with unpredictable special effects. One portrait of Yorke came out looking like he was dissolving into clouds. I was never able to repeat that effect. Months later he did just that.
His mom bought that photo at a student art exhibition. I never entered another show. Now and then I managed an impressive drawing or photo, and somehow squeaked through. Teachers managed to pull a few strings to let me tag along with four other kids who’d been accepted to an art college in another state; another world. On my own for the very first time as cities tore themselves apart in protests and race riots where I could be caught hiding the wrong political convictions, or wearing the wrong color skin.
I was terrified.
And as always, I hurt for my dad. He’d suffered enough even if he hadn’t let his family see it. He’d driven himself into debt to put his pathologically sensitive son through useless, impractical art lessons where I poured out passions that no one could see. If I didn’t make it, I’d fail him again, drag him down into my own morose sense of futility.
He had once tried to teach me survival skills, pushing me to try selling pencils or calendars door-to-door that some customer had stiffed him on. I was only about seven. At each door I’d just hung my head, mumbled, and walked away.
At most houses, I hadn’t even rung the bell.
I’d been born without a thread of aggression, couldn’t force anything on anyone; could never put my own needs first. So, failing art, starvation seemed my only moral choice.
I didn’t belong in a world like that anyway.