Tag Archives: hate

How Art Thou Received? (a prayer for refugees)

How Art Thou Received? (a prayer for refugees)

Imagine: suddenly, without warning (because that is how war arrives) you are a war refugee! Simply running away from being murdered. And how are you received when you can finally stop running, when you are out of range of the guns, the bombs, the blood? No countries to take you. No one to feed you. You are a skeletal pawn in a skeletal game.

Embalmed corpses declare war on the living and fight for their “territory” against other embalmed corpses using armies of young people; embalmed corpses feeding on fresh, young blood.

I know something is very wrong, somewhere. It must be addressed, and addressed properly. Our prayer, our incantation, our spell to heal, must be more powerfully crafted, more distilled, more essential, than was the horrid spell we are trying to break: a tradition of might over right, strong but wrong, a spell of ignorance which has caused so much harm, and is trying to do more… powered by the love of power, the love of control over people.

The scarred parts of the heart can be replenished; the broken parts, glued; the weak parts, strengthened; the fear assuaged, the pain relieved. But the desire to change, to truly alchemize oneself, spin that straw into gold… the gold of the sun… the silver of the stars… the red planet… the North Star… primal navigation by looking not at the ground, but by looking up, to the sky… that kind of desire doesn’t visit often.

If you want to know where you are going, be sure your map is accurate, or at least doesn’t kill you. Migrating birds know this. Power & Liberation. Slave & free. Joy & Suffering. High & low.

Craving slaves, some are trying to roll us back to serfdom, only they can use our own science & technology to rape us! Serfdom: tied by birth to land. You are a pawn, a source of income; in thrall to your Lord and Master. Freeing serfs is always a struggle. Brute force arm-wrestles the human race, and brute force often pins people to the mat, but… you cannot keep people down for long. The oppressed will continue to spring up and defend their inalienable human rights. All people are created equal: including our ancestors, who existed long before the self-anointed first “private property” owners. Human beings are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, yes? The earth cannot belong to any one of us. Period. We own this planet. All of us.

 

2 Comments

Filed under acceptance, amerka, ancient history, anger, anthem, anthropology, apologia, apology, appeals, assholes, baha'i, beauty, bible, birth, black, blood, born again, buddhist, Catholic, charity, child abuse, child neglect, christian, civil rights, compassion, con man, con men, corporate states of amerka, courage, criminal, criminal behavior, criminals, daughter, daughters, death, development, dream, dreams, earth, easter, emperor, empire, enlightenment, eternal, eternity, eve, everything, evil, evolution, faith, family, father, fatherhood, fathers, fear, fish, flowers, for children, forgiveness, friendship, funeral, gay marriage, girls, god, good, grief, health, heart, hindu, history, hope, human beings, humanity, hypocrisy, identity, idiots, ignorance, jesus, jewish, judiciary, justice, karma, kindness, law, legal system, legal writing, letters, lgbt, life, logic, loss, love, mama, man, manhood, manifesto, marble, marriage, matricide, maturity, mea culpa, men, mitochondria, mortality, mother, mothers, mourning, murder, muslim, mysterious, nature, notes, parenting, passion, peace, personal responsibility, pope francis, pregnancy, rant, rastafarian, regret, relationships, religion, rome, Saint Teresa, science, sex, sisters, soul, spirit, spiritual, spirituality, spring, star spangled banner, tea party mad hatters, teenagers, transcendence, transitions, travel, tribute, truth, ultra right wing loons, Uncategorized, united states of america, universe, users, veterans, war, warmth, wish, woman, women, wood, world, youth, zoroastrian

The Way of All Flesh, a short story

illustration the way of all flesh 4illustration the way of all flesh

The Way of All Flesh, a short story

Professor Rathlin was tall and skinny, with a beard and wild red hair. He wore sandals without socks, even in winter. During lectures, I stared at his feet, the toes in particular, the way the nails were so broad and smooth. But all that toe-worshiping was moot, because rumor was he had a girlfriend. Plus, I had Jacob. Despite, or maybe because of all that, I went regularly to Rathlin’s office hours. His office was even better than his toes, insulated with books, one whole wall covered with photographs of his family.

“Look at this one,” he said one day, pointing to a group black-and-white, maybe the third grade. From the clothes, I could tell he was at least as old as my mother, if not older. “You think you can pick me out?” he asked. He leaned back in his swivel chair, browsing through his chin whiskers. I looked hard, mentally shaving off facial hair, pulling his hairline forward, and erasing weather lines. Scanning the photo, row by row, I started to sweat.

I was almost ready to go back to the beginning, which was a disaster in a job like this — they all start to look alike. Then, I saw one boy’s eyes, his mouth, his forehead, a cowlick. I pressed my finger to the glass and said, “Here.”

He squinted to see which face I’d pointed to. He rolled his chair close, the chair-arm touching my leg just above the knee. “Right,” he said, as his chair pushed me, almost knocking me off-balance. “Sorry,” he said, swiveling back. “How about this one?” he asked. He pointed to a bigger photo, three little boys who looked like almost like triplets. They were dressed the same — plaid shorts with suspenders, white starched round-collar blouses, knee socks with saddle shoes. The tallest was missing his two front teeth and the middle one held the smallest — chubby in the face from babyhood — hugged on his lap. “Which one is me?”

“Oh, my God,” I said. I tried to camouflage, make out like I was amused. I knew I’d get an “A” in his class, this spotlight tutorial was about something else. He put his smile away and tried to look neutral. His eyes held anthropological glee.

I saw him in the toddler, the one with the dimpled knees, the brightest eyes. “The baby,” I said.

He laughed, throwing his head back for a moment. “Not many get that one,” he said, nodding his head. “Sit down,” he said, motioning to a chair behind boxes crammed with what looked like field diaries. I sat, and not knowing where to put my backpack, plunked it into my lap, clutching it like an old lady with a purse. Clutching it like my mother would have.

“Would you have breakfast with me next week?” he said, opening his desk drawer and fumbling inside it. He pulled out a ragged calendar.

“Sure,” I said.

***

“White people like to get the body in the ground within two or three days,” said Mr. Clements, our guest lecturer. “In black families, at least a week goes by before the burial. Black funerals draw more relatives — folks take longer coming by bus and so forth, so you allow the extra time.”

I thought of my first funeral, my great-grandfather, when I was six. Mom bought me a new navy-blue coat and hat for church, but as I was getting in the shiny black car at the funeral home, she decided I shouldn’t go to the church. Instead, I sat with the undertaker’s shy daughter in the waiting room, tapping my patent-leather heels.

***

The week after midterms, Jacob, Margot and I went out for a beer and some reggae. We sat up front, getting our sternums massaged by the bass. Margot and I drank too much beer and smoked too many cigarettes. She chuckled a lot, high up in her throat, and seemed half in the bag already, but she was tricky that way — in reality, just like my mother, she had a stable middle range of drunkenness that she could stay in for what seemed like forever. Jacob had nursed a warm Perrier for a couple of hours.

Margot leaned over and whispered in my ear. “He is cute, isn’t he?”

I laughed, leaning over and bumping shoulders with her as I spoke, a gesture I thought I’d gotten rid of in the seventh grade. “Isn’t he!” I said. I admired Margot — her well-placed laughter, her cynical, observant eye. When I saw her looking at Jacob in a way I’d seen before, I decided to let her have him.

I’ve never been the jealous, clinging type; I’ve always gotten out at the first hint of trouble. What kind of fool wants to be with someone who doesn’t want them? No, I view romance and love as Fated, unattainable unless bestowed on us by chemicals. There’s nothing gradual about that gut-wrenching attraction — it either springs up full blown or never exists at all. My mom and I proved this a million times over. I knew there was a certain risk. If it turned out against me — if she wanted him, if he wanted her — I’d have to be able to swallow that bitter pill and live.

“Would you mind if I asked him to dance?” she said. Asking permission, as if he were my property — not the way Margot usually acted. Jacob had been a virgin when we met. Margot knew, and the fact was tantalizing; even with the first sharp edge taken off, those boys can look so lovely.

“No, sure, go ahead.” As she leaned over to shout her invitation, her heavy breasts touched my arm.

I watched them on the dance floor. Jacob was long and lean — like a greyhound — dark hair just brushing his shoulders, and narrow, slanted brown eyes. Sometimes his eyes made him look dumb, sometimes a little fierce, but most of the time they made for a sort of refreshing blankness.

He danced with her, but he kept looking back at my table. I smoked and sucked on my bottle of beer, the carbonation stinging my upper lip.

I looked up and saw Jacob motioning, beckoning me to come out on the floor. He was sweating, there were dark spots scattered on his shirt and circles under his arms. When I got there, after wading through the hot bumping bodies, the three of us danced in a sort of conga line. For a couple of minutes I had this bizarre fantasy that somehow we’d all end up naked and in bed together.

Jacob snapped his fingers and swung his head, tossing his long hair, strands catching in his mouth like a girl’s. Margot had a funky Egyptian hand move she seemed stuck on. I concentrated on the looseness and fragility of my shoulders, letting my arms bounce wildly. We laughed, but the music was so loud we couldn’t hear the sound. We watched each other’s mouths gulp, like goldfish.

Jacob leaned close enough to speak. His hand grasped my hip bone. “Margot’s drunk,” he said.

“No, she’s not,” I said, closing my eyes, nodding my head with the music, brushing his ear as I spoke and picking up some of his sweat. “She’s just pretending. She can drink us all under the table.”

Margot screamed, opening her mouth wide, then gasped and laughed, fanning herself. I nodded and pinched her elbow — her arm plump, soft-looking, but hard with muscle underneath — and she minced off the dance floor.

“She felt me up while we were dancing,” Jacob said. “Put her hand on my ass.” His face looked glazed and hurt. I looked over at the band and kept moving and wondered which buttock she had touched and whether he still felt the warmth of her hand, glowing under his jeans.

“She just likes you,” I said. “The way I like you. The way everybody likes you.” I held my arms up and tilted my head back until I was dizzy, in the process almost falling into some other people. Jacob caught me before I fell into the tangle of mike stands and wires at the middle of the band’s stage. I felt my shoulder blade compress under his thumb.

“I thought you loved me,” he said, and I could smell his breath, sour just like his sweat. I wanted to shake him, make his head rattle. “Are you telling me you want me to fuck her?” he asked. A cold, hard, bitchiness drew down over my psyche in an instant, like a reptile’s third eyelid.

“Let go,” I said, shrugging my shoulder out of his hand, away from him — like when Mom would try to hold me down on the bed in one of her drunken vapors.

Jacob kept on dancing, expressionless, his eyes even more blank than usual. If I had been seeing him for the very first time, I might have thought he was insane. He touched my neck with his finger, tracing the angle of my chin.

As I walked away, I turned back to look. His eyes were closed; his face was smooth except for the silly little unshaved jazz bow under his lower lip, which until a couple of minutes ago I had liked. His body was turning and bobbing with the music, but his hands were drawn up into fists and his arms were down stiff at his sides.

“I’ve got to get home — my feet are killing me. Would you mind giving him a ride?” I stared down at Margot, sitting at our table, not meaning to but seeing anyway the cleavage where her full breasts pressed together. For a minute, she looked ridiculous, puffed up with air like some inflatable doll. I wondered what it would feel like to lay my head on that kind of cushion. I looked back at Jacob, dancing in front of the speakers.

“Sure, no problem,” Margot said.

“Talk to you later,” I said, and I left. I wasn’t mad at either of them, not really.

***

“This is a skull I was asked to identify for a murder trial last year,” said the medical examiner. He looked mild and well-groomed. Lying in a clump of tall grass, the skull was turned away from the camera, its curves a rusty brown except for some scattered patches of pale hair. “This was how it was found.” The slide projector whirred. “Here’s a better view,” he said, and the picture showed the skull head-on, the skull looking paler and the carved teeth glowing white against a formal background of black felt.

I thought of my second funeral, the one where I got to see a body — I was trotted right up to the shabby green kneeler in front of the casket. Great-Aunt Alice’s hair had been given a fresh apricot rinse, the curls prim and dull against the white satin pillow. The flesh of her crossed arms was flattened, as if she’d been pressed in a book. I feared her eyes and lips would somehow fly open and regard me with a blind and terrifying insolence. My remaining great-aunts stood in a cluster around me, weeping, kissing her, the dangling chains of their rosaries sliding, mussing her makeup, her lipstick, her hair.

“Give her a kiss goodbye.” I bent, lips pursed, brushing the well-powdered cheek that felt as cold and hard as my wooden desk at school. A sharp medicinal smell mixed with perfume and hairspray made me sneeze. I creased my forehead to mimic sorrow, all the while barely managing to contain the giddy, shameful laughter bubbling up inside me like silver air through black water.

***

“I think you should do this professor,” Margot said, when I told her about my date with Rathlin. Jacob and I had made up — sort of. He insisted Margot wasn’t his type, shaking his head and laughing — unkind laughter, I felt, not wanting to join him in his gaiety because it felt disloyal to her — at the same time wondering why on earth I held my laughter back. Nothing had happened between the two of them, Jacob added, and in that I believed him, because the one thing I felt certain of was he could not tell a lie.

After Margot and I hung up, after I’d sipped almost an entire bottle of wine, I sat at the kitchen table with one last glass and a cigarette, writing in my journal. “I think he likes me,” I wrote, meaning Rathlin, alcohol having made my loopy script even bigger than usual. After twelve more pages elaborating on that general theme, I don’t remember how I got from the table to my bed.

***

“This, of course, is my favorite holiday,” Rathlin said, grinning. He’d taken the video last summer in Mexico, documenting a rural celebration of “el Dia de los Muertos” — the Day of the Dead. Spindly-legged children cavorted in front of the camera, dancing brown and barefoot, wearing cartoonish papier-mâché skull masks and shaking small tin skeletons hanging from long sticks. The painted tin strips rattled against each other like wind chimes. It all seemed less gruesome than absurd.

After Aunt Alice, funerals got easier. My Uncle Frank looked better than anyone — or maybe it’s just easier to do a good job on a man. His hair wasn’t stiff or sprayed at all, just brushed back off his forehead. Even his glasses sat in the right position. I could see my reflection in the lenses as I leaned over the casket to rearrange the lay of his necktie.

***

“You’re not ready?” Rathlin asked, arriving almost an hour early for our breakfast date. Stiff and hung over, I hadn’t dressed or showered. I felt naked, though I was bundled inside sweatpants, a nightgown and a flannel robe. In the shower, I thought about what I’d say to him over breakfast. The only other professor I’d ever gotten this friendly with had been a Vietnam veteran, still a little strung out by that experience, which I found completely understandable. He’d taken me home to meet his mother. He said that when he looked at me, he saw “healthy children.” Feeling more panicked than flattered — I was eighteen to his thirty-five — and wanting to defuse the situation somehow, I said, “What is that, something like the Grateful Dead?”

After pulling my clothes on over damp skin, I went to tell him I was ready. I stuck my head out of the bathroom to see Rathlin searching through my dresser drawers. My eyes got big. “What are you doing?”

“Field observation,” he said, his lips drawn back and his teeth blazing white at me through the darkness of his beard. I saw he was in the drawer where I kept my vibrator.

I marched over and pushed the drawer shut. Then I propelled him out of my bedroom — laughing through my clenched teeth to keep the action on the level of buffoonery, pretending I had just caught him being naughty. His steps were tiny; he twisted his head around to catch my expression. I kept my face neutral, using the fake laugh as an excuse to look everywhere but his eyes.

I mumbled my order to the waitress and sat silent. It ruined the sight of him, being his measured subject. I knew our studies together would never be the same.

***

“The traditional color of mourning in Japan is white,” said the tall woman, an old graduate-school colleague of Rathlin’s visiting from Osaka University. “Whereas the normal color of celebration is black.” For the natural sterility of white and the corresponding fertility of black, she explained. I stared at Rathlin, chin on my hand, while she spoke, watching as faint color rose along the sides of his neck and he fiddled with his moustache. She drew a plain white kimono from her bag, holding it spread out against her body, an abstract design woven into the material itself, like a tapestry.

I had worn the traditional American black dress at my mother’s funeral. Up until then, everyone in my family — including her — had slopped around to those things wearing pastels, whatever stuff they seemed to have in the closet, but by then I knew it wasn’t right.

***

Home from afternoon classes, I was startled to find my front door unlocked and standing ajar. Then I heard Jacob’s voice. “Don’t worry, it’s only me,” he called, as I hesitated outside the door, my heart racing.

“Jesus, you scared me,” I said, dropping my backpack inside the door, clutching my chest and breathing hard as I walked into the room.

Jacob sat on the living room floor, five empty bottles from a six-pack of beer balanced around him, the sixth one half-empty in his hand. He didn’t look up when I came into the room, just tilted the bottle back and took a swig. His eyes were bloodshot from the beer. My journal was lying open on the couch.

“So, what’s going on between you and Dr. Rathlin?” I felt a draining sensation from head to toe, gravity pulling all my organs down, squeezing them into my feet. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. For a second or two, I was afraid; that passed when I saw his eyes. They were petulant, sullen, and his mouth was puckered as if he might cry. I remembered a baby picture he had once shown me, and over all the sickness roiling inside me was a horrible urge to laugh.

“Dr. Rathlin?” I said. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” And of course it was true — there was nothing — that was the awful part. Even so, I sounded like some ridiculous soap-opera bad girl, and he the walking wounded Boy Scout.

“You’re not having an affair?” He stood up, struggling for his balance — I kept myself from reaching over to help him — and at last he got upright, teetering in the floor space between the empty beer bottles. It reminded me of the first night we’d slept together, the two of us standing next to my bed, the stark white of his jockey shorts gleaming in the darkness, like an angel’s wings against the deep brown of his skin — “Help me through this,” he had said, teetering just like he was now, clinging to me as if I were a pier protecting him from some onrushing wave, and I had been filled with respect for his proffered virginity.

Honestly?” Through his veil of drunkenness I could see a sort of relief. “I thought….” His chest hitched, a gassy hiccup. “I thought you two must be having an affair.”

He looked out the window, frowning with concentration, as if hoping to catch sight of someone he recognized. “Why?” I asked him, knowing as I asked there could never be enough of an answer.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his body sagging, and when he sagged I saw a glimpse of what he would look like as an old man, when gravity would have gotten the best of even his kind of body. He cleared his throat. “At first, I thought you were writing about us, about me. So I turned one page back, to read the rest.”

“Why on earth would you assume I was writing about you?” I asked, honing the vowels into bright knives of sarcasm, sounding exactly like my mother, riled up into a taut, glossy witchiness. I knew from experience how much blood that voice could draw.

His mouth twitched. He squinted in the slanted afternoon sun that filled the room, and his eyes were like a lizard’s. I realized from the very beginning he had thought of himself as being the smarter one.

***

After a huge bowl of Margot’s guacamole, which we slathered over corn chips, sucking our fingers pale between each bite, we ended up calling out to order pizza, and thus never got to the half-gallon of ice cream in the freezer. We flirted with the pizza delivery guy when he got there — I don’t remember exactly how, but it consisted of exchanging pseudo-knowing glances between ourselves and then looking back at him and laughing with what we thought was a bell-like, sophisticated tone, the speed of our laughter almost, but not quite, as fast as a giggle, and in retrospect I’m sure the guy pegged us for a couple of crazy, shitfaced sluts and got the hell out of there as fast as he could — and the last thing I remember with any kind of clarity is that first bite of pizza, eaten sitting cross legged on the floor in front of Margot’s coffee table. I know, too, that we kept on talking for hours, but I can’t recall what we said because each couplet of our sentences was so complete, so profound, so far beyond our sensibilities when sober, that the pearls of wisdom thus harvested could not be held, but floated away into the atmosphere, nacreous gems of the moment.

Eventually the conversation hit a lull. I lay down on Margot’s couch, kicking off my shoes, intending only to rest my eyes, and was instantly unconscious.

Sometime in the night I awoke. The only source of light was a single fat candle we had lit earlier, stuck on the iron spike of a gaudy, wrought-iron coach lantern she had gotten at some garage sale. As best I could make out, given the gluey condition of my eyes, Margot was floating above the floorboards; though her legs moved beneath her, approximating walking, she resembled the silent bouncing ball in a T.V. sing-along.

She was naked. Her breasts were large and round, pale glowing globes tipped in a deeper pink. Below the straight line of her spine followed buttocks so round and firm that, when linked with her bosom by way of her waspy middle, made her torso look fantastic. No cellulite, no jiggles marred her floatation, and upon that dreamlike observation I closed my eyes again. By the time she went back through the room, I must have been asleep, since the next thing I knew was the delicate light of dawn.

“Margot,” I called, standing at the door of her bedroom, a heaped lump of quilt in the center of her bed the only sign of occupancy. “It’s around six-thirty. I’m going to go home.”

No sound, then a rustling of the heavy quilt, and Margot’s pale face and bare shoulder poked out. She’d slept in her mascara, too. “Wait. Let me give you some coffee first,” she said, her mouth so dry I could hear the faint puckering of her lips as they moved over her teeth.

I sat down next to her on the bed. Margot’s arm moved against mine, her skin hairless, soft, radiating a feverish heat. I stared at the rounded curve of her bent elbow, remembering how I’d last seen my own mother’s body, dressed in her nicest, newest dress. Her features had been painted and molded, her nose and chin just a little too waxy, a little too pointed, for perfection.

I leaned over Margot and felt her breasts crush my own into pneumatic oblivion. She flinched as I laid my head on her shoulder, pressing into her living warmth, but I couldn’t help myself. I knew she wasn’t the cuddly type. My mother hadn’t been, either — she was so soft on the surface and so hard underneath. She was dead, and I missed her, but I didn’t really want her to come back from wherever it was she’d gone. My time to follow her would come soon enough, and maybe by that time she would have forgiven me for ruining her life with my pathetic neediness. I knew I was taking liberties with Margot, but I kept holding onto her anyway, waiting for her to gather up the nerve to push me away.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, boys, college, death, fiction, friendship, girls, life, men, relationships, sex, short stories, women

Divine Love, Divine Hate, an essay

illustration divine love divine hate

Divine Love, Divine Hate, an essay

Scientists have of late discovered that music stimulates the same areas of the brain as food and sex. That’s why listening to music can bring a chill, raise the small hairs on the back of the neck. That’s why music demands — and gets — our closest attention. You need me, the music calls, you need me to survive, to perpetuate your species. Without me, you will have less well-being, less pleasure and satisfaction. What a design! Food, sex and — music.

The pleasure centers of the brain — the reptilian, primitive intelligence — is not involved in abstract thought but entrusted with the very essence of staying alive. Yet the impulses and desires which originate there find means of expression in our higher intelligence. Food and sex are necessary for survival, so necessary that sometimes it seems as though the whole human world, all human society and culture, can be thought of as nothing more than an interesting mechanism to keep us supplied with food and sex.

The appreciation of music springs from that same primal area of the brain — could this possibly mean there must be a God, after all — a God who gave us another instinct, one for pleasure and beauty, in addition to our basic instincts to survive? Music, a divine invention with no practical purpose. No purpose at all other than to inspire in us joy, mystery, fear and abandon.

Think of all the emotions we can express with food, sex and music:   passion, joy, disinterest, experimentation, violence, anger, tenderness, wistfulness, meditation, transcendence. Food, sex and music can be used to communicate, even intensify, all these emotions, yet the trio can also be used to push us past all of these feelings to a region of Godlike rationality and knowledge. Yes, occasionally our existence becomes clear, understood fully until surface complexity falls away into the deeper simplicity of detached understanding. A strangely quiet joy — a joy beyond anything prosaic.

A poetic joy, able to recreate itself in the mind forever. Sometimes the memory of such enlightenment is what keeps us going when the enlightenment itself feels as far away as Uranus or Pluto — as cold, as unreachable. Remembering how once we held it in our bodies and it filled us so there was nothing empty, noting lacking, nothing to fear — not even death. It is a knowledge, a contentment, which infants possess without awareness. To possess this peace with awareness is the greatest achievement, but one which few people are able to sustain for long. We hold it and fall in love with it and in an instant it twists out of our hands and flashes off into the distance like an agile, silvery minnow. Enlightenment as God’s minnow. Look at it too closely, try to keep it too long, and you may never see it again.

I myself have only a rather wobbly faith in God’s existence, but I nonetheless feel pity for people who declare without hesitation that nothing divine exists. What a drab, ugly world their interior castles must be, with only themselves for company.

The divine cannot be ruled out. We cannot know what exists beyond our senses.   Certainly people have been enraptured by the idea of divinity — especially, most recently, the notions of divine anger, divine vengeance — modern terrorists have embraced these, but without embracing the corresponding ideas of divine love and divine compassion. Yes, people have fastened their wills on the idea of divine judgment, but they have ignored completely divine forgiveness.

The cockroach is as marvelous a creation as anything — see it scuttle away from the light, a most marvelous mechanism, see it copulate, see it reproduce itself, see it taste its food with pleasure twinkling in its delicate, wavelike feelers. No less miraculous than us. But we have an ability the cockroach does not have — to be self-aware of our divine impulses — our duty as human beings is to dive both below and above our own ordinary human consciousness. To bring all our unconscious knowledge and desires into to the conscious realm — both those desires labeled primitive and those labeled exalted.

Some elements of love are to be found in the roach. It loves its life: flees from danger, attempts to avoid harm, and tries to survive no matter what the odds. This is where the terrorists have failed. They have embraced only half the divine order — divine hate — the half that appeals to them more and suits their political purposes. They need to stretch themselves, accept all things God has created — even those they find distasteful or abhorrent — and leave the judging to God. They need to cultivate in themselves divine compassion and divine love. Terrorists profess they love God, but they do not love God’s creation — therefore that love is flawed, is not really love at all. Their love has turned inside out into hate.

They need to learn from the cockroach, as do we all. We possess vast potential for divine virtue, yet are so capable of falling into the abyss of pride. These terrorists have fallen, and they are trying to pull us down with them. We must not surrender to only part of the divine order. We must catch ourselves with the feelers of the insect before we tumble too far.

I cannot blame anyone who feels the need to destroy the terrorists. I feel that need myself, the blood lust of anger and retribution. But we must find a response pleasing to the divine. That is what prayer is — thinking about what a divinely perfect being might do, waiting for the small voice to tell us the right way to handle this new permutation of evil — without ourselves falling under its wicked spell.

This is what all religious searching has been aimed at. Whether we believe God exists or not — we can imagine God, as God might exist. Sometimes it is better to die than to kill the blameless. We can feel such things in our deepest selves, and these places are just as important to reach with the conscious mind as the highest levels of abstract thought.

We can imagine God, we can love God, we can honor God, and that is what matters most, not whether God truly exists. Good and evil, love and hate, right and wrong, call it whatever you like. It is our uniquely human gift, our uniquely human burden. Did we ask for this? Be careful what you wish for, goes the old admonition. Would I rather be my dog, or my cat? Sometimes I envy their peace of mind. They don’t know about world wars. But my most divine pleasures, feeling them and knowing that I am pleased, and knowing why — in this way I have my cake and eat it, too. The lure of that apple in the garden is a lovely allegory, whether it happened or not — we invented it. This is the quality of our humanity which we can never give back, no matter how much we might want to.

10 Comments

Filed under beauty, charity, compassion, enlightenment, essay, faith, forgiveness, god, hope, humanity, love, peace, world

Summer Evening, Beaumont, a poem

illustration murder in beaumont

Summer Evening, Beaumont, a poem

 

I was not there. I am only an observer.

The four-year old on his tricycle is

dressed for the heat in loose shorts

and nothing else. His hair appears

 

disarrayed as he stares at the ground.

The back of his bare skull is as finely

carved as a newborn’s, the delicate

shadows of his shoulder bones ask for

 

touch. The clumsy chalk lines on the

pavement are from a murder and he

knows it — the blood came out last

night as the torpid sun was going down.

 

This boy has to make stories up in

his head, but the shy universe he

creates is a notion he’ll never share.

I was not there. I am only an observer.

 

The dead man was 300 pounds and didn’t

talk much, as he, too, was waiting for a

miracle. Gang members used five or six

bullets, then ran away without taking his

 

wallet, the item they wanted most of all.

I was not there. I am only an observer.

Hours earlier, the victim had left his

rented home in all-white Vidor; he told

 

how the folks there threatened to hang him,

he told how lonely it was to wake up every

day and remember where he was. He wasn’t

afraid, he said, just tired of fighting.

 

2 Comments

Filed under anger, blood, compassion, criminal, criminal behavior, criminals, death, evil, funeral, history, ignorance, karma, mortality, murder, poetry

Catalyst to a Potato, a poem

illustration catalyst to a potato 3

Catalyst to a Potato, a poem

 

Can I perform the miracles of earth, sun, water?

Can I be the warmth that gently pries open

eyes, that coaxes forth pale shoots, that causes

 

hardness to soften to green? If I throw the potato

against the wall again and again, will I ever cause

the potato to change? For so long, I tried to form

 

myself in the potato’s image. I tried to become

round, dense and heavy with stability, I tried

to protect myself. It did not work, it failed.

 

Now all there is left is her, one small girl alone

in the world. Her lips are redder than mine ever

were. Her shoulders are strong, she is not fragile.

 

You were the potato, the one I could never change.

Lobbing you again and again brought no result,

no visible difference. Yet in your eyes I am

 

the one who remained indifferent. I am not

ashamed, yet I am the one who needs to change.

You want only to rebuild. Take stock of your

 

small garden, not everything there is sound.

There is no such thing as healing. There is only

covering over, sweeping under, tamping down.

 

You know we will never love each other again,

yet you do not weep. This time I will not do it

for you. I am finished with praying for miracles.

3 Comments

Filed under ancient history, anger, apologia, compassion, development, divorce, earth, heart, justice, karma, logic, love, marriage, maturity, mea culpa, mourning, mysterious, nature, personal responsibility, poetry, regret, relationships, soul, spirit, spiritual, truth

Eat Or Be Eaten, a short story

illustration dog alligator suit

Eat Or Be Eaten, a short story

Annemarie often sat within the bright sobriety of the campus coffee shop down the street from her and Roy’s house. The air there was filled with academic fulmination and the evaporating mists of senseless arguments, much like the state of her marriage. She was acknowledged by the college students as one of those bizarre, florid creatures from the 80’s, and they let her go about her pursuits, unfettered but slow.

“I can’t stand that place,” Roy said. “I don’t see how you can sit there day after day.” His comment, for her, aptly illustrated how unaware he was that her main occupation while there was mulling over whether or not to file for divorce.

“It makes me feel wired,” Annemarie said.

“You can say that again,” Roy said.

“Why don’t you meet me there for coffee sometime?” she said.

“Things are too crazy at the office right now,” he said.

One such crazy evening, after dinner, the air was busy gossiping with itself — Annemarie could feel it fluttering along her cheeks inquisitively, and the moon rose early, bouncing light off the red tiled roof. She put on her ratty ski jacket and then poured herself a tiny refreshment of Scotch, which she imbibed cautiously. Her small thick hands, gripping a kitchen chair like death, were chalky at the edges. The clanking emptiness of the room — of her life — created a milky haze over her sight. For what seemed like the hundredth night in a row, she invited Roy over to the lake on campus to see the alligators. For the first time, he said yes.

They rambled along the verdant avenue and before them flitted two zebra butterflies, as if teasing Annemarie to fly. Her husband, his blank, uncomprehending eyes, was at once her soul and her shame. It was horrible to have people such as him think ill of you, think you were wrong. It was small and ugly and soul-shaking. You felt as if you were coming apart like a cheap paperback, pages from your head fluttering to the floor every time somebody breathed on you. She wasn’t much for men herself — she never learned how to tell a sweet one from a poisonous one and besides, she’d never been convinced there was much difference. But a truly radiant woman never hustles off through life unaccompanied.

A small crowd was gathered on the boardwalk over the water — a leather-skinned old German couple, a tall skinny man with a pot-belly holding a toddler, three young college women with lush clouds of permed hair and tight little asses. A little girl came up with coral roses in a bucket balanced on her hip. The German people spoke softly to each other in German.

“We saw a wild boar on the highway back in the mountains in Kentucky,” said the man with the blond baby. “I thought it was a dog lying on the side of the road. Then I saw its tusks.”

Annemarie’s future, single life would be simple like this, among unpretentious people like these — she’d come see the alligators every night before dark with the out-of-towners. She would hear the gators’ mating calls, the deep bellows in the late spring. She’d appreciate the real elegance of nature. Roy appreciated only his new $60,000 car and his tax-free municipal bonds.

The alligator for this evening was a good seven-footer. It floated perfectly still on the surface of the water, the scales on its back pushing through like a miniature mountain range. Its fat front paws hung limp in the clear lake water. It seemed only a little threatening in the smooth summer light. The gator had a large sly grin.

Roy was from the North – he’d never been around alligators before. Florida was alien territory to him. People from the North always freaked out about the gators. Annemarie wanted to give Roy a thrill. She wanted to overwhelm him with her earthy, sensible, swampy ways. She rubbed his hand humbly and forgot to play the grouch.

“They like marshmallows the best,” the tall, chatty man holding the toddler said. The boy wore a short jumpsuit appliquéd with giraffes. The German couple nodded, the old man pushing his fluorescent yellow golf cap back on his forehead. “Let’s see what I’ve got in the truck,” the man said.

“That?” the little boy said, pointing.

“Alligator,” Annemarie told him. The boy nodded and bit his forefinger.

“Teeth,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “The alligator has lots of teeth.”

It was strong, it would eat her if it could. That was the way to be, she thought. That was the new simple way she would live, with or without a husband. Eat or be eaten. Roy hadn’t the slightest affinity for animals. Annemarie wanted to live a simple life. She didn’t want to be angry, ever again. Mostly, that was it. She could not afford any more to be bored with living — she didn’t have that kind of time. Her husband had become accustomed to disagreeing with her almost all of the time, as a method of entertainment.

The man with the baby came back with a vending-machine package of peanut butter cheese crackers. Annemarie shivered. Suddenly, she wasn’t so sure about feeding the thing. What if it came up on the bank? She had read how alligators could run 40 miles an hour over short distances. The man threw a cracker in the water near the alligator’s head. The animal whipped its head sideways and took a big gulp of water, inhaling the cracker. They all got a nice view of its teeth. The gator pumped its jaws, as if savoring the peanut butter, and the water clouded with dissolving cracker. Roy stood apart from the group, his face dark and tense. Annemarie leaned on her elbows, hanging over the railing of the boardwalk.

“Did you know it’s against the law to feed the alligators?” one of the young women with big hair asked. Her sharp voice made Annemarie jump.

“Really?” Annemarie said.

“Is that so?” the tall man said.

“It’s a felony,” the young woman said. “And there’s a fine.”

“How much is the fine?” asked Annemarie.

“A thousand dollars,” the young woman said.

“Really?” Annemarie might be afraid of the alligator but she wasn’t afraid of this young woman, with her elaborate hairdo and her half-pound of gold jewelry. This was the kind of woman Roy would marry next, she was sure. This kind would give him a lot less trouble. This kind would have no desire to feed reptiles of any sort. She directed herself to see marriage for what it was, not its tedious demonstration. The pretty young woman flipped her perfect locks over her shoulders and glared at the man with the peanut butter crackers. He threw another cracker to the alligator and laughed. His baby laughed too, throwing his head back so his fine pale hair waved in the breeze.

“The alligators get tame and that’s when they start eating dogs,” the young woman said. “And small children.” She was businesslike, her voice chilly with authority. The mystery of feeding the dangerous beast was lost on her, thought Annemarie. It was exactly the sort of thing Roy would say. Annemarie’s neck began to tingle, blood fury gathering in her cheeks. The tall man grinned at the snotty college girl and slowly pushed his glasses up with his middle finger.

“Then they have to shoot them,” the girl added. “So it’s really not a good thing to feed these animals.” The young woman had her nose up. Literally had her nose up; her voice resonated with indignation and righteous anger.

Annemarie pushed her arm against Roy.

“Maybe she’s right,” Roy whispered. He sounded reasonable, the way he always did.

“Oh, Christ, what’s the harm?” Annemarie said. She was still leery of the alligator, floating, for the moment seeming as harmless as a large rotting log, but she was enraged nonetheless. The hell with all of them, Annemarie thought. What do they know about right and wrong? What do they know about anger? What do they know about eating or being eaten?

“Great attitude,” the young woman said to Annemarie, shaking her head. “Come on, let’s get out of here.” The three lithe girls walked off, whispering to each other in disgust.

“Throw one of the crackers up on the bank,” Annemarie told the man, now her partner in crime, her body trembling. They were all standing on the wooden boardwalk over the water. She decided this animal was a deserving gator, nothing to be afraid of. She would bring it whole chickens, she decided. It would be her personal ritual. Her wants and needs had boiled down to nothing. It was amazing what she could do without, now she had decided to end her marriage. She would take one pot, a frying pan, and a wooden spatula when she left. That was all she needed. That was all anybody needed. Let him have the expensive cookware she was always cleaning improperly.

The man with the little boy threw a cracker onto the muddy bank. The alligator turned its head sideways and tried to pick up the cracker. Its teeth grazed the mud, making deep tracks. The cracker wouldn’t budge. The animal hauled itself onto the bank and took a mouthful of mud with the cracker. The man threw another cracker on the bank, and the gator swallowed it down. In the fading light, its teeth glowed pure and white. It did slow pushups on its meaty little forearms. Mud clotted its elbows, and the man threw more crackers. The German people oohed and aahed.

“I’m not putting you down,” the man said to his baby. The baby writhed in his arms.

“Teeth,” the baby yelled. “That!”

“Don’t put him down,” Annemarie told the man.

“No kidding,” the man said.

I could do this every night, Annemarie thought. Hang with the simple folk and feed dangerous wild animals like a crazy woman. She imagined the alligator getting angry, running toward her at forty miles an hour. She’d leap onto the railing of the boardwalk. She’d grab hold of the gator’s jaws and hold them closed with one hand, like the Seminole gator wrestlers at the orange groves she’d visited as a child. Reptilian rage was what she’d become practiced at. She had Roy to thank.

She remembered how all the muscles in an alligator’s jaws were for closing the mouth, not opening it. You could hold a gator’s mouth closed and flip it over on its back, and it would black out. The great beast would lie there, paws twitching, flabby white belly quivering. She still remembered one particular Seminole wrestler’s shiny black hair, slicked back off his forehead. He was lean and brown and his stomach muscles cast shadows upon one another. Her family had always watched the gator wrestling and bought rough sacks of tangelos and navel oranges. Annemarie had liked to squeeze the fruit and strain the juice, and think of the man’s bronze skin against the harsh concrete of the wrestling pit while she drank.

Now, Roy had never seen a gator wrestler in his life. He thought life was all harmless monkey jungles and parrot gardens and butterfly habitats. Annemarie knew better. She wanted to live on the edge, she wanted things out in the open. She didn’t want her problems hiding in the shadows anymore.

Annemarie stood against the wooden railing of the boardwalk and watched the alligator scraping the mud of the bank with its handsome teeth, trying for one last cracker. “Throw some more,” she told the man. Reflected light shone out of the gator’s dark eyes.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Roy asked. “That thing is huge. Didn’t you say a dog got eaten here last week?”

“Of course it’s not safe. That’s the point.”

“What’s got into you tonight?” Roy said. “Are you coming up on your period?”

“What kind of question is that?” She went rigid with black demented wrath.

Roy shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the ground. “Sorry.”

A black-and-white pulled off the main road, crunching over the loose gravel. “Police,” the German couple murmured. The two old people scuttled to the benches at the end of the boardwalk and sat down, removing their hats. The tall man stuffed the half-empty package of crackers into the pocket of his shorts. Car headlights flashed over the surface of the lake, then Annemarie was blinded by police flashlights.

“They’ll have to search me,” the tall man whispered.

“We got a complaint about someone feeding the gators,” said the first cop. He was short, and plump, with a dark bristly mustache. His partner was tall and black and stood several feet behind him. He held the flashlight while the white guy spoke. “People, this is a third-degree felony. You’ll go to jail.”

“Crackers,” the baby said. “Crackers!”

“Did they shoot that gator that ate the dog?” the tall man said.

“No,” said the white cop. “That might be it right there.” His partner shone the flashlight on the alligator. Its pupils contracted in the glare. It raised its chin above the water and smacked the surface. Annemarie felt water splash her legs. “It’s breeding season,” said the officer. “They’ll come at you at the drop of a hat.”

“Who was feeding the gators?” said the black cop.

“None of us,” said the tall man. The little boy grabbed his nose, and his father pushed his hand away. “There’ve been people coming and going for half an hour.”

Annemarie said nothing, leaning over the railing, her arms cradling her breasts, droplets of sweat rolling down her back. Roy stood at the other end of the boardwalk, his cigarette glowing.

She remembered the first time he had ever touched her. Roy’s fingertips had moved slowly back and forth over her forearm, the same way the gator’s paws now rocked in the water. His fingers had brushed against the side of her breasts, that was all. She had wanted his touch on her, back then. Where had it all gone?

“We could call the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission right now and they’d come down and cuff you,” said the white cop.

“I’m sure they would,” said the tall man.

“Teeth!” his baby boy shouted. “That,” the child said, one small finger pointing into the darkness of the swampy bank. “Hungry!” the boy squealed. His father shifted his weight from one foot to the other and back again. The police officers feigned disinterest and strode nonchalantly down the boardwalk, toward the German couple. She couldn’t hear what they said, but she saw how they shone their light into the old man’s eyes.

“Well, I’m going to get this little guy home to bed,” said the tall man, looking at Annemarie and smiling.

Annemarie nodded. “Let’s go,” she said to Roy. They walked toward the parking lot.

The policemen waited for them at the entrance to the boardwalk. “We have two witnesses who said they saw you feeding the gator,” the white one said. The old German couple huddled together on the bench nearby.

“Then you’ve got two liars,” Roy said. The German man patted his chest and looked at the ground.

“They both said it was a white male with a blue shirt.”

Roy’s shirt was blue, long-sleeved, covered with little paisleys. Annemarie had given it to him for Christmas. The man with the baby had on a blue T-shirt saying, “Eat Oysters, Live Longer.”

“There’ve been a lot of guys here with blue shirts,” Roy said, shrugging. The policemen took a few steps toward him, shining the flashlight in his face. Roy held his cigarette to his lips but didn’t inhale.

“I don’t like it when people lie to me,” said the cop. He touched the grip of his nightstick. Annemarie moved closer to Roy.

“Shit,” Roy said under his breath.

Back on the bench, the old German woman coughed, both hands over her mouth.

“I’ve been with my husband the whole time,” Annemarie told the officers. “He wasn’t feeding the alligators.”

“Care to sign a statement?” asked the black cop.

“Why can’t you just leave us alone?” Annemarie said.

“This is our job, lady.”

“Pretty messed-up job. Hassling people.”

“Is that right? Would you care to empty your pockets?”

“I told you, we weren’t feeding the alligator.”

“Maybe we think you were. Maybe we’re getting ready to arrest you and your husband here.”

“You do that and you’ll get slapped with a lawsuit.”

“So sue me. You’re under arrest.”

“What?”

Roy held his hand out. “Now, wait a minute,” he said.

Annemarie heard a rustling in the reeds behind her. She felt something slither over her shoes. At her feet was a tiny alligator, six inches long. Nobody else seemed to notice.

“You’re under arrest,” the officer repeated, his words to Annemarie slow and drawn out as though he were talking to a foreigner.

“What for?” Annemarie asked.

“For feeding the alligators.”

The big gator on the bank bellowed, its pale throat pumping like a frog’s. The German couple shrieked and ran down the path toward the parking lot. The cop pointed his flashlight toward the noise. Out of the reeds swarmed dozens of baby gators.

“I told you people it was breeding season,” said the white cop. The reeds rustled again and this time Annemarie heard a loud croaking sound. The big gator stood there, raised up on its forelegs, its jaws hanging open. The pink fleshy gullet pulsed in the flashlight’s beam. The teeth were dull yellow at the roots, gleaming pale ivory at the points.

“Holy shit,” the black cop said, grabbing Annemarie’s arm.

“Get the hell out of here,” shouted the white cop.

“I am,” the other cop said. He started toward the car, yanking hard on Annemarie’s shoulder.

“Leave me alone,” Annemarie said. She watched the animal while the officer struggled to pull her away. She went limp, buckling at the knees and kneeling on the ground. “Just leave me alone.” She wasn’t angry anymore, not at anyone or anything, especially not at her soon to be ex-husband. The spirit of her rage had gone into the animal. Pure reptile.

“Are you crazy?” screamed the cop.

The big gator sucked air and croaked again. It raised and lowered its head. The babies scuttled back toward it, milling under its body and peeping loudly like baby chicks. The alligator’s thick tail whipped back and forth through the reeds, and finally the cop ran off, leaving Annemarie in the mud. Why had she been trying so hard? Who had she been trying to fool? This was how it was. Eat or be eaten — the end of one angry life marked only the beginning of another. She closed her eyes as she heard the roar of the gator coming closer.

Roy knelt beside her. “You don’t want to do this,” he said.

“Do what?” Annemarie said.

“Get this alligator shot,” he said. “It’s not going to help.”

He was right. The alligator had never done anything to her. She looked at Roy. He had not been shattered by any of it. His eyes begged, but for once he wasn’t judging her. For once, maybe for the first time, it seemed like he understood her. Life could be so simple, once you got rid of all that confusion. She realized that there was no telling what would happen after today.

“Come on,” Roy yelled, grabbing her arm and pulling her to her feet, and his hand against her skin felt better than she remembered. She ran behind him, her feet sliding over the muddy gravel, not afraid, but laughing like a madwoman. Let everyone see me for what I am, she thought. Let them observe my fiery trail from a safe distance, and weep for their own. Roy glanced back at her as they ran, but Annemarie’s lips did not move — she ran honestly, tripping across her own feet. She could feel the sea moving around inside her head, and she laughed.

2 Comments

Filed under anger, criminal, criminal behavior, criminals, divorce, fiction, justice, law, life, love, marriage, mysterious, nature, personal responsibility, regret, relationships, satire, short stories, soul, truth

Lovely Girl, a short-short story

illustration lovely girl
Lovely Girl, a short-short story

Jan. 11, 1979

Kenneth got into a big fight with his father last night. His Dad said that he follows me around like a puppet, and that he’s being bought. Then his Dad told him he was a lazy little bastard for not fixing his car & going somewhere with his mother. Then Kenneth said something back and his Dad tried to choke him and Kenneth left & went to the library.

I have a feeling Kenneth’s Dad hates me, or at least dislikes me. He would probably be a lot happier if I wasn’t going out with Kenneth. I would like to go up to his Dad and say that if he would prefer Kenneth not go out with me — because he thinks Kenneth would be better able to concentrate on sports & school — I will comply.

All I know for sure is that I don’t know anything anymore. Sometimes, I want to go far away – to Europe, maybe – and meet strange people and find out how to live. But then I get scared and I am suddenly glad to be in my safe room with all my possessions that tell me who I am supposed to be. I don’t know who I am – I used to, but things have changed so much, I’m not sure anymore.

Ever since Mom and my stepdad got divorced, it’s been harder and harder to just live. Mom is getting worse with the booze and sometimes I get so angry that I scream at her. Then I feel awful and try to hug her and tell her I’m sorry, but she’s so out of it she just stands there, swaying a little with her eyes half-crossed, and I end up stomping into my room and slamming the door and locking it. Then I lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling and sigh.

It’s the best just after I get home from classes at community college. Mom isn’t here, and I am alone. No one can bother me, and if the phone rings I don’t answer it. It gives me a sense of power – listening to that phone ring and ring and ring until whoever is calling hangs up, frustrated. I close all the curtains and put on records and smoke cigarettes. In my cool, dark cave I find peace for a few hours.

At six o’clock, though, I hear that fucking bitch, my mother, put her key in the lock, and I jump up and run down the hall to my room to get away. If Mom says something to me, I try to be nice, but it’s usually only a few minutes before our voices become sharp and anger is in the air again. Until she’s blotto, that is. Then, wobbling and bleary-eyed, she’s all lovey-dovey, but also by then all I want to do is shake her until her head falls off!

The only positive things in my life are Amy and Kenneth. Amy is my best friend and Kenneth is my lover. They know, and once in a while I can talk to them about it, but I know that friends can only take so much before they are tired of hearing it. The only person that would listen to everything you said and be interested was a psychologist or psychiatrist, and I’ve thought about going to one, but it’s really too expensive. So I just don’t let myself think about things most of the time.

I keep this journal and write my thoughts down, and that helps a little. Most of the time I’m fine, but it’s always there, hanging over me. Actually, I function very well. I graduated in the top five percent of my high school class, and after a year at junior college I have a 3.8 average. And I’ve never gotten into any serious trouble at all. I’m what grandmothers like to call a “lovely girl.” On the outside. Happy? What did happiness ever have to do with any of my fucking life choices?

3 Comments

Filed under addiction, alcoholism, child abuse, child neglect, childhood, children of alcoholics, college, compassion, daughters, development, fiction, identity, insecurity, mothers, relationships, short stories, teenagers, youth