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The Beginning

The Beginning

A few days ago I witnessed a violent confrontation in and above the massive eucalyptus tree in the canyon behind the house. There was much outraged squawking, mid-air collisions and black feathers tumbling loose in the wind. I imagine the dialogue went something like this –

She: What part of NO! don’t you get? I told you already, I need some space, maybe some time at the beach. I’m not doing this again, NO!

(Crashing leaves, he falls but manages an upward swoop and returns)

He: Beach? What, you think you’re a seagull? Take a look in a mirror. Come on, honey, it’s spring and you know what that means.

She: I do. 35 interminable days sitting in a pile of twigs full of smelly egg shells and screaming kids. Been there, done that. I’m going to Mexico, maybe shred papel picano for a trendy new nest decoration or learn to sing corridos.

He: (Leering) Crows don’t sing and you’re not going anywhere. The biological imperative, remember?

She: (Wings threatening, black eyes blazing) Take your biological imperative and…

(Savage swooping and screeching above the eucalyptus, collisions and slashing beaks,  both fly away in opposite directions.)

The Middle

The Middle

At dusk she’s back in the eucalyptus, and from across the canyon he executes an elegant series of calligraphic maneuvers toward her, a black pen writing across lavender sky. In his beak is a succulent grub and a bit of pink ribbon snatched from a neighborhood birthday party. These he offers on the branch at her feet.

She: (Giving in)  Awww…

In the morning their conversation has changed. Both fly back and forth with sticks and twigs and bits of string. They still argue, but the tone is different, the squawks individual and opinionated.

He: I still think the pepper tree would have been better.

She: No, I don’t like the smell and the sap irritates my claws.

On the second day he flies in with what looks like a red cocktail straw.

She: (Loudly) Plastic? I thought we were going green this year. No synthetics!

He shrugs black shoulders and tosses the cocktail straw into the air. It falls and catches on a lower branch of the eucalyptus. They both fly in and out all day, each trailing building material from beaks. They rustle and squawk, heads bobbing with effort, until gradually a dark lump is visible at the top of the eucalyptus. The nest. Both try to sit in it but it isn’t big enough and over and over again one falls out, wings flapping.

On the third day they seem hurried, rushing more and more palm strings, twigs and wooden popsicle sticks into the eucalyptus. They’re making clucking sounds now, and cooing.

He: Pretty nice, huh?

She: I love it. Wonderful view and way too high for the raccoons and cats.

He: So you’re not, you know, upset about Mexico and all that?

She: (Pensively) Some day I’m not going to do this, you know. Some day I’m just going to fly away, learn things, just be me. Don’t you ever want that?

He: Sure, I think about it, but then spring comes and I forget. Spring comes and we have to make more crows. Why fight it?

She: If you don’t know I can’t tell you.

On day four she’s alone in the eucalyptus. She’s silent and still. I can see the flat edge of her tail feathers hanging over the edge of the nest, a black smudge amid purple stems and green leaves.  She can’t leave now. She’s trapped.

The End

The End

From the balcony upstairs, only fifteen yards from the nest, I read to her from murdered Rosario Castellanos’ play, The Eternal Feminine.

“It’s not good enough to imitate

the models proposed for us that are answers to circumstances

other than our own. It isn’t even enough to discover who we are.

We have to invent ourselves.”

I know she tried. Maybe next year…

The Hotel

The Hotel

My sequential gasps of delight at The Grand Budapest Hotel were not shared by my companion, whose gaze often wandered to the nearest EXIT light. “But didn’t you get it?” I insisted as we walked out. “The girl with the book visiting the author’s statue, the three old men in black on the bench, reprised later by the three creepy sisters in black, the crippled shoeshine boy, Serge’s sister with the clubfoot, the doggerel poetry, the greedy, villainous son and that wonderful, huge oil of a black boar at the reading of Madame D’s will?”

“No,” she said.

And that’s when I realized that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a writer’s movie. And probably not just any writer’s, but only those who’ve read so long and so widely among classic popular fiction, children’s tales, comic books, plays and poetry extending back to the Victorian Era as to see the wonderful mash-up of literary tropes that the movie is. I felt compelled to write a guide.

In the opening scene a young woman dressed for the 1940’s and carrying a book enters the ramshackle gates of the “Lutz Cemetery” somewhere in a fictional, lost, middle-European country. Three old men in black sit, staring straight ahead, on a bench. And right away we know that what follows will be magical, mythical. Because, you know, three? The Triple Goddess, the Christian Trinity, the three witches of Macbeth, the three pigs, billy goats gruff, bears and wishes traditionally offered in tales the world over? Three is a dead giveaway; a tale is coming!

The young woman hangs a hotel room key on a bronze bust of a man in round, wire-framed glasses. Other keys adorn the figure, which is labeled merely, “Author.” (It is actually (sort of) a likeness of Stefan Zweig, a world-famous author of the pre-WWII era, which absolutely nobody would know but which is terribly significant.) She sits and opens a book entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel. Ah, the tale will be about a hotel, but not a Hyatt or a Hilton; these are too banal for the symbolic foreshadow already cast over the opening idea. This hotel will mean something far beyond mere hostelry.

Next we see the author in a seeming filmed interview, trying to tell the story behind the book while a child, presumably his son dressed in a sort of military-school tunic, disrupts him by shooting a toy gun. Children are always harassing authors who are trying to work, but the tunic and the toy gun? More foreshadowing. The hotel’s tale will be broken by war.

And at last we arrive at that 19th century literary convention, the Tale Told to a Traveler. The author (Jude Law), suffering from “scribe’s disease” (characterized by a need for solitude familiar to all writers), has taken, in 1968, refuge in the now-derelict hotel that was in the 20’s and 30’s the epitome of gracious accommodation. There he meets (in the hotel’s crumbling baths, probably a subtle tribute to the bisexual ambiguity of the story’s hero) an elderly, lonely man, Zero Moustafa, the faded hotel’s owner. Zero, a lobby-boy in the hotel’s heyday, tells the author the story that will become the book that will become the movie.

Zero, a child-refugee from a fictional war-torn desert country, was the protégé of the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). But it is the fussy, elegant, whimsically politic M. Gustave whose character must bear the weight of an era we, and possibly he, can only imagine as a literary conceit. A wealth of literary conceits, actually.

Don’t miss the crippled newsboy, the frequent Dr. Zhivago-esque trains against snowy landscapes, a funicular, singing monks, covert sexual encounters, an empty and eerily-lit museum, several murders, including the signature (and never-solved,

Tilda Swinton as the Dead Madame D

Tilda Swinton as the Dead Madame D

but see if you can catch that single, mysterious shot of a bottle of cyanide) murder of 84-year-old Madame Celine de Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis. (“Desgoffe” is the name of a French painter in whose style the movie’s pivotal “Boy with Apple” is painted, and “und Taxis” is the terminal element of an ancient and aristocratic German family’s compound surname, probably chosen just because it sounds so off-the-wall to English speakers.) Enjoy the painstakingly made-in-miniature hotel’s façade and its dramatic interior (shot in an abandoned German department store). But don’t try to trace the provenance of the “romantic” poetry M. Gustave recites at dramatic moments (“If this then be the end…” as he hangs by his fingernails over a bottomless, frozen crevasse). There is no provenance; it’s all just charming nonsense.

But despite the delightful tangle of familiar plotlines and the handsomely classic story-within-a-story-within-a-story, The Grand Hotel Budapest leaves one (or at least left me) with an odd nostalgia, a curious sense of something lost. The obscenely wealthy of my time seem crass and uninteresting. They pretend no standard to which anyone would attain. So despite the facts that I know perfectly well 98% of the population of Europe had no access to grand hotels and within that 98% all women were crushed by patriarchal cultural constraints, it’s still oddly nice to imagine the confection – a world of elegance, the arts, courtesy.

Austrian postage stamp celebrating Stefan Zweig

Austrian postage stamp celebrating Stefan Zweig

For some, maybe there was such a world. Stefan Zweig, on whose novels The Grand Budapest Hotel was vaguely based and whose ghost may be seen in M. Gustave, was such a one. Zweig lived in Vienna a cultured life, writing learned biographies and world-acclaimed novels. Fleeing Hitler, he moved to London, then New York. There in 1941, at a huge PEN fete celebrating his work, thousands of writers in attendance were stunned when he opened his remarks with these words quoted from an NPR interview with Zweig biographer George Prochnik: “I’m here to apologise before you all. I’m here in a state of shame because my language is the language in which the world is being destroyed. My mother tongue, the very words that I speak, are the ones being twisted and perverted by this machine that is undoing humanity.”

Zweig’s world wasn’t the goofball literary buffoonery of the movie, but the writer’s world that lies behind it. That world of art and letters, of depth and subtlety, was annihilated by Nazism. Writer Stefan Zweig, unable to endure the shattering horror born in his own language, committed suicide only months after his speech at the Biltmore Hotel in New York. I would be born two months later, and would remain unaware of Stefan Zweig until two days ago, researching a movie. I hope you’ll see it, and understand the meaning of a young woman with a book, hanging the key to a forgotten hotel on the statue of a bookish author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing “real” book reviews, meant for public consumption, is a dicey business requiring the skills of a world-class diplomat. I write them occasionally, but writing reviews non-diplomatically and from a personal perspective seems like more fun. Here are some favorites from this week.

Karen Shepard

Karen Shepard

The Celestials, Karen Shepard

Wonderful, deftly nuanced historical fiction based on the (real-life) arrival of 75 young Chinese men to work in a shoe factory in North Adams, MA, in 1870. Slightly too much attention to labor unions for my taste, despite the fact that conflicts over cheap Chinese labor were largely responsible for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese citizens to the U.S. until 1943. Still, with a shameless lack of political corrrectness I skimmed those sections in order to hang on to the backbone story, which is intelligently drawn, compelling and shocking in that way that makes you wonder what will happen. (Not to give anything away, but there’s an adulterous, cross-cultural affair that symbolizes an atavistic fear underlying all racial conflict and gives the narrative a zingy urgency.) Main characters and era are so well-developed as to create the illusion that the reader is actually there and privy to the inner lives of both New England Victorians with their innocent, churchy good intentions, and Chinese immigrants whose difficult, wary grasp on survival in what amounts to a senseless, Alice in Wonderland American world, feels real. The author is Chinese American, which may account for the seeming accuracy and depth of that fictional Chinese experience.

Roland Merullo

Roland Merullo

Vatican Waltz, Roland Merullo

Comfortably agnostic, I probably wouldn’t notice if the Catholic Church vanished overnight. Nonetheless, I belong to a Catholic community for the sole reason that I want to support its three legally ordained priests – two married women and a gay man (who jokes that he really wanted to be a nun.) I’ve been waiting for a novel that would explore issues around the ordination of women, and so was eager to read this one, which purports to be about a young woman who feels that she is called to be a Roman Catholic priest. It isn’t. What it is, is an interesting spiritual essay dressed in a novel’s costume that doesn’t fit.

Protagonist Cynthia Piantedosi is a young Catholic woman who lives in a working class Boston community and may qualify as the most boring character in contemporary American fiction except when she’s interpreting spiritual matters. Her theology is quite expansive and lovely if not remotely Catholic or even Christian, so readers may be forgiven for wondering why on earth she wants to become a Roman Catholic priest. A broad hint that the novel isn’t really about women’s ordination may be found in the single sentence dismissing the existence of some 64 women in the U.S. alone who are legally ordained Roman Catholic priests. If interested, see http://www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org/.   Delete the already-weak novel plot, and the first 2/3 of the book could (and possibly should) be republished as a series of thoughtful spiritual impressions suitable for people of all (or no) religious persuasions.

But the final third? Disaster.

(Spoiler Alert) Cynthia goes to Rome with the intention to urge reconsideration of the Church’s obdurate refusal to ordain women. The streets are crawling with nasty Vatican henchmen out to kill her (as may have been the fate of her liberal priest advisor back in Boston), but she is spared because – although women aren’t supposed to be priests (silly girl!), they do have a spiritual calling. Women are called to get pregnant. Aarrgghh! Centuries of feminist struggle obliterated in one awful deus ex machina plot twist that hopelessly reinforces all institutional misogyny.  Cynthia, who has never had sex with anybody, is pregnant. And we’re back to square one.

Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore

Book of Ages;The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore

I love this book, love the scholarship, love the footnotes and totally love the rascal intent behind 442 indisputably erudite pages about a woman of whom almost nothing is known and so, one might assume, almost nothing may be said.

Jane Franklin was Benjamin Franklin’s sister, six years his junior and said to have been his favorite sibling in a brood of seventeen. While “Benny” educated himself into history, “Jenny” (Jane) may or may not have been raped, but in any event married at fifteen (when according to Lepore the average age at marriage for women at that time was twenty-four) a worthless, improvident scoundrel named Edward Mecom to whom she bore twelve children, only one of whom survived her.

And that’s basically it. Jane lived in poverty, struggling to take care of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A miserable life despite Lepore’s rather twee attempts at romanticizing the experience. But Jane could read and write, and at times exchanged letters with Ben. Almost all of her letters are lost, but Ben carefully preserved his correspondence, including his responses to Jane. It is from Ben’s replies that Lepore constructs approximations of what Jane might have said in the first place, her “opinions.”

But the greater delight in this work, disparaged for some reason by significant reviewers, is to be found in Lepore’s attention to Jane’s milieu. This is history made fascinating, not the toxic litany of kings and wars to which we were all exposed. The houses, the streets and food and slang usages of the time are pulled from obscurity, explained, made enjoyable. Books Jane owned or may have read, printed sermons with which she may have been familiar, newspapers, essays and interesting philosophical debates that were common fare and in which her brother frequently offered his opinions, are included in Lepore’s conversational style. History here is anything but tedious!

Amid the riches in Book of Ages, I will restrain my enthusiasm to only two in the interest of space. The first is the intense interest in writing that flourished then. Standardized spelling was new and its use the mark of an educated person. (I can’t help but compare the social status associated with standardized spelling then, to the social status associated with cell phone texting now, in which standardized spelling has perished.) Books on how to write letters were widely read, with specific models for every conceivable sort of correspondence – mother to unmarried daughter, uncle to recently-apprenticed nephew, etc. There was even a model letter entitled, “A Father to a Daughter in Service, on hearing of her Master’s attempting her Virtue.” As girls usually received no formal education, most who could read and write knew nothing of standardized spelling and used the old method in which words were randomly spelled as they sounded. Thus a convention arose in which women were expected to apologize for their ignorance as a part of every letter they wrote. Jane Franklin doggedly observed the convention.

The other detail destined to capture my personal attention was the “madness” of Jane’s son, also named Benjamin for his famous uncle. Jane’s son was buffeted by a psychiatric illness long before his illness would bear any name other than “lunatick.” There was a hospital, America’s first, founded in the 1750’s with Benjamin Franklin included among its founders. It was in Philadelphia, called Pennsylvania Hospital and offered treatment to those suffering psychiatric illnesses, but only to those who could pay. Ben Franklin’s nephew Ben was never a patient there. Instead, Franklin made arrangements for his nephew to be “confined” in a “house” in Burlington (MA) from which, near Christmas in 1776, during the Battle of Trenton, young Ben escaped. Jane never heard from her son again and thought he was dead, although there is later evidence that he wasn’t. His ultimate fate is unknown. In the eerie way of these things, I’ll be in Burlington for a writer’s conference in July, and will walk the streets of a place I’ve never been, acutely aware of Jane’s son who ran from whatever wretched prison that “house” was, and into oblivion. Thanks to Jill Lepore, somebody will remember. I will.

The author is Professor of History at Harvard, Chair of Harvard’s History and Literature Program, recipient of significant awards and a Pulitzer nominee. Clearly, she’s paid her academic dues, waded through years of grueling graduate study and managed to rise to the top of a system so refinedly brutal that it’s ground countless others to pulp. I like to imagine that with this work she’s finally been able to write in her own voice, a superbly educated, intellectual woman’s voice, and in so doing to reset entirely the rubric for the writing of history.

Here is a literary crisis about which no one speaks – a fantastic book written by somebody you might, at least in private fantasy, be happy to draw and quarter.  In the (mythically) genteel world of books and writers, this crisis is properly resolved by absolute, dead silence.  The wonderful face-cartoon-finger-smiley-mouth-close-soundbook gets not a syllable of hallowed “word of mouth” promotion from you; your lips are sealed.  You pen no review and provide no response whatever if the book or author is mentioned.  In this way you preserve the myth of writerly courtesy, but… you also fail the First Cause of the writing life, which is appreciation of good writing.  The conflict is thorny, irksome and tiring, but after days of brooding I have come down on the side of good writing.  Mostly.

So here’s the story.

Two weeks ago I was in Portland (OR), saw a book review in the local paper and was so drawn to the book that I immediately bought it on my Kindle and sat reading it all that rainy afternoon.  I read it again on the plane trip home, savoring the author’s near-poetic elegance and deep understanding of monsters who are human.  It is a tale told by a Prisonmetaphorical prisoner on death row in a metaphorical prison he perceives to be enchanted, giving the book its title.  There are also the unnamed Fallen Priest, consigned to pastor this stony hell after a fall from grace, and The Lady, a death penalty investigator whose job it is to unearth the buried, grisly histories of condemned men.  (The author is a licensed investigator who specializes in death penalty cases.)

I love this book, regard it as one of the best I’ve read in decades, with personal good reason.  I’ve been a child abuse investigator and am painfully familiar with the horrors to which helpless, very young children may be subjected, damaging them for life.   I am also no stranger to the realities of prison.  For 17 years until his death, I was in weekly contact with a friend, a lifer in Louisiana’s maximum security prison.  I can state with authority that this author knows what she’s talking about and, more significantly, transcends both the gritty and the sensational to arrive at a philosophical flashpoint so deep and true as to be worthy of its own school of thought.  The book is magical, lyrical and uniquely real.  Reading it, I kept nodding, “Yes, yes, yes!”  I thought I’d write a long, glowing review even though writers aren’t supposed to write reviews.  I do it anyway if a book, especially by a little-known author, is really good.

But there was this problem.  The author has written other books, among them non-fiction anti-feminist polemic to which I take profound exception.  (Read:  I’d like to meet her in an alley somewhere, except she’s younger and a skilled amateur boxer (really) and I’d wind up in a body bag.)  It is inconceivable to me that any woman could fail to see the deadly impact of pornography on women and children, but this author attacks Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon for their early and groundbreaking work on porn.  Much worse, the author, with an obvious absence of research and scholarship, misrepresents and trashes feminist theorist Mary Daly, revered by women all over the world, who was also my friend.   For that, the author is, to me, forever damned and anathema.

mary-daly

Mary Daly

Still, last year she wrote a brilliant, beautiful book.  Its title is  The Enchanted.  Her name is Rene Denfield.

New Pizza

Overnight, they’ve sprung up like mushrooms everywhere – cutting edge pizzerias designed to meet the needs of a future unimaginable only ten years ago. But the future is here, and must be faced. Choose from opinions below to assess your place on either side of the pizza divide.

DÉCOR

1. Restaurants should be clean. You love cold, hard, shiny surfaces you can easily wipe down with purse-sized antibacterial wipes. (You often do the floor, too.)
2. Red and white checked tablecloths that are actually cloth and candles in Chianti bottles or those little red jars with white plastic mesh around them say pizza to you. Battery-powered candles are okay.
3. Bare walls in white hi-gloss enamel are best, but text-based decoration is acceptable. Like a lot of short inspirational quotes by Mother Theresa, Walt Disney and people you’ve never heard of. You text these to your grandmother.
4. Hey, you know there’s supposed to be paneling, a travel poster of Venice and framed photos of total strangers in front of the Trevi Fountain. And maybe a couple of oil portraits of other strangers done by the owner’s aunt when she took that class at the community center.

LIGHTING

1. Bright. Otherwise you’re blinded by your cell phone.
2. Dim. You want to relax and eat pizza, not do brain surgery.
3. Dark places are full of germs and tend to diminish the effect of your maroon highlights.
4. Bright lights make you look like a zombie and trigger migraines.

MUSIC

1. It’s all totally lame except for this unbelievable crossover thrash group from Vanuatu you downloaded to your cell from a pirate site in Kazakhstan. This is why there are earbuds, to drown out restaurant music.
2. No music. You want to talk to your friends.
3. Talking is so retro. You text people who are sitting next to you and in case you left your earbuds in your other jacket you expect the restaurant’s music to be loud enough to obliterate any possibility of conversation. But nothing from before last month, puh-leeze.
4. You don’t even own a gun but still have recurring fantasies of leaping onto the 20-chair community table at New Pizza with an AK-47 and blasting every speaker in the place to smoking ruin. Then maybe you can talk about the movie.

PIZZA

1. You are not among the less than one per cent of Americans affected by celiac disease, but nonetheless demand gluten-free crust because Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t eat gluten for a while and she still looks pretty good.
2. You’re not really sure what gluten is.
3. As long as there’s an achiote-infused rice-bran-oil sauce, five or six artisanal cheeses, roasted celeriac, elephant foot yams sliced paper-thin and smoked eel, you’re not picky about ingredients.
4. You love tomato sauce and bubbling mozzarella, and the scent of warm oregano practically makes you weep with nostalgia. Your favorite pizza place, before it was demolished and replaced by a franchised nail salon, used pepperoni imported from New Jersey and Vidalia onions. You keep an old paper napkin from there pressed inside a first edition of a Stephen King novel.

SCORING

If more odd-numbered views than even-numbered resonated with you, you’re in! The pizza world is scrambling to accommodate your world-view, your tastes and your aversion to spoken language. In the coming years, as New Pizza spreads across the country from both coasts (but mostly the West Coast), you’ll fit in anywhere!

If you felt kinship with more even-numbered views than odd, you’re a member of a dwindling but savagely devoted band who will spend those coming years driving to obscure pizzerias in questionable strip malls at least twenty-three miles from their homes. There will be a scent of oregano and cylindrical sugar containers with holes in the lid, full of dried pepper seeds. There may even be candles.

I’ll see you there.

I almost never go downtown during the day. At night there’s the symphony, theaters, occasional fancy, overpriced dinners at restaurants with curious names in which random letters are upside-down or composed entirely of diacritical marks. But these are contained experiences, elaborately structured and isolated from stories. I walk within loose herds of similarly dressed people from klieg-lit parking lots to buildings with immaculate windows and attractive carpeting. There’s nothing wrong with the symphony/theater/restaurant thing; experientially, these are perfectly legitimate. But they’re only one of many overlapping dimensions. In daylight the others are less easily obscured.

One day out of every year I am compelled to go downtown, taking a bus to avoid sixty dollars in parking fees, at an ungodly early hour and to stay there all day. Jury duty. The courts are there. Over the decades in three major cities I have sat through more voir dires than Clarence Darrow and have never been selected for a jury. I never will be. Lawyers are leery of people like me.

This year the letter from the Board of Jury Commissioners demanded my presence two weeks before Christmas, the worst possible time. I had taken Alexandra Horowitz’ On Looking to read during the agony of boredom inherent in sitting around for hours waiting to be dismissed yet again from a duty of citizenship when I absolutely had to wrap and mail stuff to friends and family, none of whom live west of the Mississippi.

Captivated by the book, when the two-hour lunch break came I dashed outside to follow the author’s advice instead of shopping for Christmas gifts. I was determined to see something other than what I am programmed to see. For her book, Horowitz enlisted the perspectives of experts in various fields – geology, lettering, medicine, public space utilization – on her treks. I had only my own perspective, basically that of a truffle-pig rummaging for stories. It would have to do.

There were the usual pawn shops, tattoo parlors and check-cashing places punctuated by trendy little lunch restaurants that cater to the courts. The hierarchy of attorneys was instantly visible in the cut and fabric of suits moving on the sidewalks. Apparently there’s a retro 70’s trend among the more colorful, older women lawyers, since so many were wearing long skirts, boots and fringed scarves. They lunched with younger women lawyers wearing pinstripes and Ann Taylor shirts. I didn’t think this is what Horowtiz had in mind when she wrote her book, so I tried harder.

Wandering into an alley, I inspected a caged air-conditioning motor half the size of an ordinary desk, sitting on the ground surrounded by feathers and bird-droppings although no birds. The air-conditioner was on, humming and rattling beneath an eight-story building it couldn’t possibly be servicing; it was way too small. The air-conditioner must be filtering the air below the street, I thought. But what’s down there? There are no subways in San Diego, no underground of any kind, since the city sits on the concretized rubble of ancient mountains, impossible to excavate. But there must be something down there, or why the air-conditioner? I imagined a secret, subterranean lair in which nefarious things were happening, although I couldn’t think what they’d be. Here, nefarious things of necessity happen above ground, out in the desert or off the coast on boats. The air-conditioner provided no story.

The trendy lunch places were all crowded and noisy, so I drifted onto side streets, still trying to be acutely aware of stuff I wouldn’t normally notice. There was an abandoned hotel, its “Hotel” sign striped of neon and fringed in peeling paint. Three levels of dusty windows revealed empty rooms full of stories no one will ever hear. The street level façade was inexplicably covered in fake stone, the door covered in plywood. A small sign over a barred window announced that once a dance studio was there. I felt the trail warming.

Across the street was a minuscule coffee and crepes place in the lobby of a yet-to-be-gentrified office building that still has those little octagon-shaped white tiles on the floor and a narrow staircase with beautiful wooden banisters. A tiny, self-service elevator with a polished brass scissors gate gleamed in the shadows. I went in and ordered lunch. There was nowhere to sit in the narrow lobby, but there were four tables outside. I took my cheese crepe and hazelnut latte to one of them. The rolled-up crepe was a foot long and hung over both ends of its paper hot-dog holder, compelling me to gnaw globs of dripping cheese from alternate ends before they fell onto my jury-duty outfit. The crepe was too big; I’d never be able to eat the whole thing.

The homeless hang out on the side streets downtown, and one of their number, pushing a grocery cart draped in dark blankets and one garish afghan, captured my attention. Dressed in a long black skirt, a wealth of black scarves and a wonderful black hat with a rumpled sort of black velvet ball on top, she might have been Eliza Doolittle or a distant relative of Mary Poppins. She stopped her cart beside my table.

“I’m hungry. Will you feed me?” she said in a generic Midwestern accent. Not pleading, not begging, just a neutral statement and flat question.

“Sure,” I said, cutting my foot-long crepe in half with a plastic knife and gesturing to the further half. “That’s yours.”

She picked it up with one filthy hand, the cuticles so black they might have been painted. Then she sat gracefully in the chair across from me, not looking up, her face lost beneath the shadow of that bobbing hat.

“So what’s your story?” I asked, deliberately eschewing my usual social-worky urgings about staying on meds, pretty sure this was going to be the pay-off, the end of my search.

She looked up then, stunning big eyes in a grimy face. She stood, holding her half-crepe aloft, and executed an elegant, sweeping dance on the sidewalk accompanied by extended consonant-sounds, mostly N’s. “Hnnn, nnn…” An interpretive dance I couldn’t translate to a song I couldn’t hear, but unquestionably a story. Hers.

After her dance she ate her half-crepe and pushed her cart around a corner. I went back to the county court and was eventually rejected as a juror. Maybe some day I’ll walk those streets with an entomologist or a dog as Alexandra Horowitz did. I’ll learn about the lives of local insects or begin to understand that a pile of poop is in actuality a compelling documentary if you have the right nose. Until then I’ll look for stories and be happy when I find them, even the ones I can’t read.

She just had to finish that novel!

She just had to finish that novel!

Ah, tonight and indeed for a considerable span of time during autumn, the veil between consensual reality and everything else is thin. In places it cracks, allowing all sorts of things to slip through. Small children in costumes and the dead come immediately to mind, but of course they’re only the tip of the iceberg. There’s much more out there, or in here, depending on your analytical perspective.
Here’s a Halloween tale to ponder.
Charlaine Harris, author of a humorous mystery series, has received death threats after concluding the series at book 13. The announcement of the series end was made in May, and there was vituperative outrage from fans (?) then. But apparently something new has happened, because there’s a sudden outpouring of response to Harris and “author death threats” on social media sites frequented by authors, including me.
So what’s this about? The standard interpretation is that these people threatening mayhem and murder over mere fiction are obviously “wacko, loony, deranged, fill-in-the-blank.” Bottom line – they aren’t “normal,” which of course the rest of us are.
On one level that’s true, but here’s the thing. “Normal” is a closed system, a hothouse in which we are protected from everything scary, excessive and weird. But the veil (those steamy hothouse windows) cracks sometimes, permitting the entry of spooks.
Like the fact that, hey, it’s all fiction! The attachment of Harris’s readers to her characters is no less real than the attachment of many to movie stars, presidents or mythological figures. I know a woman whose house is filled with JFK memorabilia; she goes into full mourning every year on November 23 and cries at the mention of his name at any time. She’s not remotely “wacko,” has a happy family and high-level job. And would, at least in her mind, kill Lee Harvey Oswald or the conspirators actually behind the Kennedy assassination if she had a chance. As might thousands locked in a similar attachment, if they could blame the death of Elvis on anybody but Elvis.
We’re wired for these attachments to fictional/fictionalized embodiments of ideas and feelings. They happen only in our minds, contribute to our identities, never change and thus never betray us. And woe to anybody who messes with them!
As, in this case, the author who created them and, godlike, can put an end to them. In the realm between fiction and reality, it’s always Halloween.

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