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Veggies of Hell

crow-standing-on-branch-in-front-of-full-moon-scary-halloween-sceneHalloween?  Best of all possible times, when the veil grows parchment-thin and occasionally tears.  Ah, that, when we suddenly see what was always there but hidden.  What a shame that the ancient, ritual bow to what Freud called Das Unheimliche, the Uncanny, is now nearly buried in an array commercialized distractions.

An overkill of dismembering zombies, inflatable yard-coffins and plastic cat skeletons has dulled our ability to perceive the eerie strangeness hidden just behind the familiar.  Still, it is now that the Uncanny, the creepy, the unsettling, are close.  And they’re scary.  Even when they’re vegetables.

So here’s the mystery.  From the late 1800’s to 1918, Victorian England and America were addicted to postcards.  They were cheap and fun and sent with a frequency that must have burdened postal services, especially near holidays, including Halloween.  Collector’s Weekly documents some outstanding Halloween examples and gives credit to the artists.  Missing from that journal’s display, however, are the creepiest – the many, many postcards featuring completely unnerving, anthropomorphized vegetables.

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With the exception of the dismayed beet at center, this one isn’t too creepy despite resemblances to Trump (lower right) and certain contemporary Republican senators, merely strange.  But the question of Why vegetables? haunts me.  Yes, autumn and the harvest, with a concurrent Celtic tale about a drunken miscreant named Jack, who was so damned even hell wouldn’t admit him.  Cursed to wander eternity forever with only a single burning coal-from-hell carried inside a lantern made of a turnip to light his way, he became Jack O’Lantern.  Over time his turnip became the easier-to-carve pumpkin, so we get it about pumpkins.  But what about demonic gourds, squashes, beets, potatoes and onions, occasionally accompanied by apples, pears and watermelons?

 

 

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This pumpkin driver of a watermelon is vastly more sinister than the bat or the cat or the witch.  A gleeful Charon heading for the River Styx?  Eerily apt.

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The Victorian practice was to look in a mirror by candlelight at midnight on Halloween in order to see your true love or the future, depending on your gender.  For women, presumably,  the only possible future was dependent on getting married.  This one, kneeling eagerly before the eternally damned Jack, must have had a wretched future.

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Here creepy gourds with corn-cob arms and beet hats attack a cake.  But what is the cake?  Can’t help but think at this point it’s the planet, but what was it then?

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Enter the startling (two-party?) relationship of vegetable and demon.  In this and all the demon/veggie-themed postcards, the demons appear sophisticated, dapper and oddly benign in comparison to the larger and horrifically grinning veggies.  What can this mean?

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Diabolical pumpkin casts a knowing, conspiratorial glance to something above the scene as happy apples clamber into a bobbing tub only to realize as they jump that they’re going to perish!  (The similarity to contemporary Republican behavior is inescapable, but these apples are from the previous century.  So the comparison is unfair, isn’t it?)

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Note courteous demons sitting properly at the table as obnoxious veggies writhe and scream for (vegetable?) soup.

Odd Vintage Halloween Postcard (2)

Even the demons are appalled at this grotesque and inexplicable romantic pairing.  The red shoes with moon clips and moon headdress suggest that the woman is a witch, but why is she seducing a child-eyed pumpkin with zucchini limbs?  And disparities in spelling over time notwithstanding, “Gobelins” were a 15th century family of French dyers later famous for tapestries.  We can only assume the author to have meant “goblins.”

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Creepiest of all and what can this mean?  Again the red shoes, so the woman is a witch, but why the parade of pumpkin/zucchini (or are those cucumbers?) men dancing across the sky to do what?  The first seems to bow to her, but the second glares with murderous intent while the third fearfully watches the second as the fourth notices something off to his right.  Maybe the photographer?  She isn’t afraid of them but should be.  Or should have been.  It’s too late for her now.  This scene reflects a time 120 years in the past.  Or does it?

All art, especially popular art, is to some extent political, and I can’t help but see the polite, thoughtful and unfortunately passive demons as contemporary Democrats, and the hideous vegetable men as contemporary Republicans, but over a century ago, why vegetables?

Surfing the Net for variants of “late 19th and early 20th century vegetable iconography” turns up nothing.  Nor does any combination of “demon, devil, evil or hell” and “vegetable.” The meaning of these images in their time is just not accessible.

My ever-into-pop-culture grandmother would definitely have seen and might even have sent these postcards at Halloween 120 years ago.  They were available everywhere and cost a penny, as did the postage.  She would have understood the evil veggie symbolism and been happy to explain it to me.  But in the 11 years that my life was concurrent with hers, I never asked!

So please respond with every erudite theory you may have about vegetables while I research a bunch of later postcards featuring young and curiously buxom witches.

 

Having mindlessly made my new romance protag, Darcy Flannigan, an “interior designer” while having absolutely no idea what interior designers actually do, I gradually panicked.  By the end of the second tale in the series, my repertoire of design experience (which consists entirely of choosing paint colors based on their cute names, like “Chaucer’s Sandal” and “Fennel Ice”) was depleted.

Luckily, I live within walking distance of a community college and quickly signed up for a class called Intro to Interior Design. By Book 3 in the series Darcy will be able to discuss something other than paint!  On Mondays and Wednesdays I now travel to a strange new world in which close friendships, even marriages, may be lost over the choice between low-voltage halogen or metal halide bulbs for the soffit lighting in somebody’s master bedroom.  (I gamely conceal the fact that I have no idea what a “soffit” even is.)

The first assignment involves selecting “happy, unhappy, masculine and feminine” rooms from trendy design magazines and explaining why they’re happy, unhappy, masculine or feminine.  Despite probably not sharing typical associations with these terms, I’m sure I can fake it.  See what you think.

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I was sold at the bulldog.

Happy.  Any room with a dog in it is happy, even a dog statue!  And who wouldn’t love a warm chat with a friend while relaxing on a luxe velvet couch in whatever hotel lobby this is?  Bashing your head on that ridiculous and dangerously low chandelier every time you reach for your drink on the coffee table will only bring gales of laughter and years of happy memories.

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Kitchen or embalming room?

Unhappy.  Reminiscent of self-consciously post-modern black and white horror films set in abandoned mortuaries, this agonizingly hi-tech kitchen is not meant for cooking.  It’s meant for the sound of Ann Sexton’s ringing phone that no one ever answers, followed by absolute, grinding silence.  The most stalwart fava bean or avocado would roll in terror through that intimidating arch and vanish into a street outside named “Nevermore.”

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Aren’t those chair legs kinda spindly?

Masculine.  These leather chairs are big enough to seat any NFL tackle and seem to glower menacingly at each other like boxers before the bell.  Books shelved in weird round things behind the scene suggest that there are ways to resolve conflict other than violence, but the chairs are too pumped on testosterone to notice.  Good thing the designer chose that subtly patterned and durable half-inch closed-loop nylon carpeting, since it provides sure footing for fight or flight and easy blood clean-up!

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The most gorgeous shower on earth and it’s wallpaper!

Feminine.  Georgia O’Keeffe on estrogen?  Pastel clouds swirl around a water lily in lush, criminally expensive artistry celebrating a mythical female core of breathtaking beauty.  This Italian waterproof wallpaper is meant for the shower of a 1% lady, and bound to be written up, with photos, in the local paper.  Which will say something like, “Mrs. John Beresford Tipton chose ‘Lily’ for the shower in her elegantly understated 500-square-foot bathroom as a reminder of the poorly-lit reflecting pond in which her first three husbands mysteriously drowned.”

(Stay tuned for pics from next week’s field trip to a high-end furniture gallery where you have to show a designer’s license just to get in!)

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This week, March 20-27, An Unremembered Grave, is part of a cool promo in which participants can win over 45 FREE supernatural thrillers and mysteries and even a Kindle Fire.  I may even enter it myself.  I mean, 45 free books?  Even if I don’t like half of them, that’s still maybe 20 that I will.  Hard to resist.

But promoting the book is also a chance to tell the story behind its existence.  The story authors generally bury in misleading remarks and then take to the grave.  But the last person who could be hurt by the story died a few days ago, so now I’m free to tell it.

AUG is about a vampire named Grimaud whom at least one of my friends regards as profoundly sexy, although that wasn’t quite my point in writing him.  My point was to explore the very existence of the vampire figure in history.  Vampires are a trope, but for what?  Could drinking blood serve any possible purpose?  I’ve been fascinated by vampires since I was a kid, and writing Grimaud was intense fun.  But the vampire isn’t the untold story.

AUG is set in a Louisiana village and a Louisiana prison I visited countless times over a period of twenty years.  It’s about a fictional innocent man called “Monk” who’s locked in that prison, and about a fictional visiting historian named Danni whose life will be changed by both vampire and prisoner.  The real-life village is St. Francisville, the real-life prison is Angola and the real-life prisoner was a guy named Douglas Dennis.

Doug

Doug

Doug (who wasn’t innocent) was my confidante and best-buddy for twenty years, the brother I never had, an intellectual sparring partner who won every debate and about the only person I’ve ever met who embodied the classical concept, “nobility.”  His IQ was off the charts and during his ten-year “escape” (which wasn’t really an escape – highly-placed people arranged the whole thing for him), as “Walter Stevens,” he rocked his California Mensa Club, managed a small, international business and volunteered as a park ranger on weekends.

But after a decade of freedom without so much as a parking ticket, he accidentally lost his fake “Walter Stevens” passport.  Somebody found it and turned it in, triggering red flags, since the real Walter Stevens and his social security number were, of course, long dead.  Within hours FBI Agents were at Doug’s door, but by then he was on the lam.  A few miserable months later (he hated running) he was captured in Houston, eerily on Fannin Street on the sidewalk smack in front of the Unitarian church where I hung out on occasion when I lived in Houston.  Someday I’ll go back there and lay flowers on that sidewalk where he laid down a gun he’d promised himself not to use, and lost his freedom forever.

Doug would spend the rest of his life in prison, and I would meet him through strange circumstances only a few years after his recapture.  Wild stories swarmed around his ten-year escape, which began with some time in Guatemala, or Venezuela, someplace in South America?  Nobody really knew.  He was supposedly a master international criminal, a spy released from prison by the government because of his super-intelligence, to conduct covert espionage ops, or a gun-runner for South American crime cartels or for the CIA.  When I asked him, he said the stories were all “bullshit.”  But he was uncharacteristically cagey about that period of time, and when he asked me to write his biography I said okay, but only if I had the whole story.

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Doug and I hamming it up at one of many Angola dinners. Fried catfish to die for!

Doug was 73 and very ill after heart bypass surgery in a New Orleans charity hospital right after Katrina, during which the surgeon accidentally left a sponge in his chest, causing a ghastly infection from which he never recovered.  We set a date – June 17, 2009 – for a long visit during which he’d fill in the missing section of his story.  I had my plane tickets, but all of us, Doug’s many friends on the outside, were now gravely concerned about the behavior of another prisoner, Kerry Myers, who for reasons known only to him was orchestrating a series of juvenile harassments against Doug.  Myers and a friend had in 1984 beaten Myers’ wife to death with a baseball bat and severely injured Myers’ young son.  Prisons reify the worst of innate male behaviors, and it may be that for a sadistic personality the opportunity to torture a dying man in a wheelchair was irresistible.  But frail or not, Doug’s capacity for outrage was undiminished.  Every stupid, insulting trick Myers arranged (through others – he was too cowardly to confront Doug himself) drove Doug’s blood pressure higher and higher.  Which was the point.

Until at 9:30 PST on May 5, 2009, Doug called, in intense pain and barely able to speak.  It was the last time.  At 6:30 the following morning his friend, another prisoner, Ben Daughtery, called from Doug’s number as had been arranged.  “He’s dead,” was all Ben could say through tears.

And that’s the reason for An Unremembered Grave.  As a child abuse investigator I couldn’t smash furniture across the faces of the child molesters I had to interview, but in all the Bo Bradley books I could destroy them in delicious, elaborate and agonizing ways.  Kerry Myers is, for reasons that are unfathomable, out of prison, freed months ago.  But his avatar, “Hoyt Planchard,” will suffer forever the degrading fate he deserves, in the pages of a novel about a vampire and a southern prison.

thQ50K568SWith the retired FBI Agent who tracked Doug and then became his lifelong friend, I’m writing Doug’s story.  We can’t fill in that mysterious time during the early years of his “escape,” but until days ago there was one person who could.  Her name was Dojo, the woman with whom Doug lived for six years in northern CA as Walter Stevens.  Dojo never knew Doug’s real identity or history until representatives of the state department showed up to terrify her with threats of imprisonment if she didn’t talk.  But she couldn’t.  At least not about somebody named Douglas Dennis, whom she’d never met!

But she could talk to us, now, about those missing years.  She was there, in Guatemala or wherever it was.  That’s where she and Doug met.  He told me that part of the story, the “safe” part.  I tracked Dojo down to tell her of Doug’s death in 2009.  She said he’d been her “soul mate” and sent flowers to the memorial service I organized at the prison just so Ben Daughtery could be there even though everybody else wanted to have it on the outside.  Preferably someplace with a bar.

Doug and Dojo had maintained a sporadic, secret correspondence over the years since he

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A secret letter?

was recaptured, and she knew who I was, knew I was his friend.  But when Joe, the FBI Agent, and I asked to interview her about those missing years, she flatly refused.  I explained and implored through carefully-worded calls and emails.  Joe wrote thoughtful apologies for her treatment at the hands of law enforcement all those years ago, and assured her that she was in no current legal peril.  Doug was dead, the case closed, she could talk to us.

 

But she wouldn’t, said she was terminally ill and asked to be left alone.  That was nearly two years ago, and I kept thinking she’d change her mind and call me, finally fill in that last empty space in Doug’s story.  I could have, but didn’t, fly there, barge in and insist that she talk.  (Like me, Dojo was a dachshund fanatic; surely that shared enthusiasm might have overcome her silence?)th8W7OJA1B  But I knew Doug wanted her to be protected from whatever pain still pinged from his long-ago  and necessary deception.  (Necessary because if she’d known who he was she would have gone to prison for harboring an escaped criminal when his cover was blown.)  So, no unethical use of dachshunds.

Then a few days ago I saw her sister’s post on Facebook, saying Dojo had died.

Dojo didn’t know about Doug’s last months made unbearable by Kerry Myers, and was spared the reality of his death at Myers’ hands.  A murder by stupid, cruel increments.

Joe and I will eventually finish a book that will tell the strange and oddly inspiring tale of Doug’s life, but that piece about the first escape years?  That chapter will just be a question mark.  Maybe he really was running covert ops for the government?  😉

We’ll never know.

Below is a reprint of a blog by my friend Claude Forthomme, a Columbia-educated European economist in Rome with a 25-year United Nations career culminating in her position as Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia for Food and Agriculture.

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Claude Forthomme

 

Claude’s economically erudite blogs are frequently over my head, but not this one!

Is American Democracy Terminally Ill?

This is how one Italian blogger sees the President-Elect – once Trump moves into the White House, since his wife Melania apparently has no desire to live there, expect this to happen:

Yes, the American Presidency, with Trump in the driving seat, has lost much of its dignity. Satirists around the world are waking up to the golden opportunity to make fun of him.

But is there really much to laugh about?

The first shocking thing are the numbers. Perhaps Americans, used to their bizarre Electoral Voting System are used to it and don’t see the inequity in it. But people who are not American cannot understand that a man who has garnered fully 2 million votes less than his opponent still wins the Presidency.

What kind of democracy is that? Where is social justice?

We are bombarded with frightening news coming out of America, and people who normally write novels and short stories have suddenly turned political. That is very unusual for American writers: in my experience, and at least this was the case through the Obama years, most of them refused to “take sides”. I couldn’t quite figure out why but I imagined they were afraid of losing fans and book sales. Being a European writer myself, I find that astonishing, over here, on this side of the pond, we are used to writers and artists taking sides – indeed, through most of the 20th century, most of them were Communists, starting with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in France  – very few were on the right, Céline being the historic exception, of course (he was pro-Nazi, anti-Jew and a collaborationist).

So what are American writers saying now about Trumpian America?

So far, not many have come out. I was able to only identify only two so far and, oddly enough, both of them with articles published in the UK Guardian: Barbara Kingsolver, the author of 14 books including climate fiction masterpiece “Flight Behavior” and Dave Eggers, a prolific author  spanning from non fiction, a best-selling memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” to fiction, including “The What is What“an extraordinary novel about a Sudanese child immigrant in the US.

How about the New York Times and Impakter magazine coming forward with similar pieces? As a Senior Editor of Impakter, I would welcome such articles…

Kingsolver strikingly summed up post-election America like this:

Losses are coming at us in these areas: freedom of speech and the press; women’s reproductive rights; affordable healthcare; security for immigrants and Muslims; racial and LGBTQ civil rights; environmental protection; scientific research and education; international cooperation on limiting climate change; international cooperation on anything; any restraints on who may possess firearms; restraint on the upper-class wealth accumulation that’s gutting our middle class; limits on corporate influence over our laws. That’s the opening volley. 

Quite a strong volley!

What’s left standing? Not much, it would seem – and hits to international trade and the fight against climate change can affect the whole world, cause a word-wide recession, perhaps a repeat of the Big Depression and even threaten the planet’s very survival as global warming proceeds unabated. We all need America on the front line of the climate change struggle, but with Trump in charge, can this happen?

Kingsolver minces no words, she calls on everyone to stand up and fight:

Many millions of horrified Americans are starting to grasp that we can’t politely stand by watching families, lands and liberties get slashed beyond repair. But it’s a stretch to identify ourselves as an angry opposition. We’re the types to write letters to Congress maybe, but can’t see how marching in the streets really changes anything. […]

But politeness is no substitute for morality, and won’t save us in the end.[…] So many of us have stood up for the marginalized, but never expected to be here ourselves. It happened to us overnight, not for anything we did wrong but for what we know is right. Our first task is to stop shaming ourselves and claim our agenda. […]

We keep our commitments to fairness in front of the legislators who oppose us, lock arms with the ones who are with us, and in the words of Congressman John Lewis, prepare to get ourselves in some good trouble. Every soul willing to do that is part of our team, starting with the massive crowd that shows up in DC in January to show the new president what we stand for, and what we won’t.

There’s safety in numbers, but only if we count ourselves out loud.

Dave Eggers piece is in many ways the opposite of Barbara Kingsolver’s: he manifests surprise, he is almost awed by the divided country he sees as he travels through it. It’s a long, thoughtful piece, beautifully written, but his concluding comment is no less moving than Kingsolver’s, he is deeply worried, he tells us, because:

We are entering an era where uniquely vindictive men will have uniquely awesome power. Dark forces have already been unleashed and terrible plans are being made. On 3 December, the Ku Klux Klan are holding their largest public rally in years, to celebrate Trump’s victory, which they claim as their own. […]
You should be worried, too. George W Bush, a man of comparative calm and measured intellect, started two foreign wars and cratered the world economy. Trump is far more reckless.
We are speeding toward a dark corridor, my friends. Keep your eyes open, your hearts stout and be ready for the fight.

Are you ready?

Resistance!

4ee7a74b98c95e2e9c3ab101ab52be99The highest office in the United States may soon be so defiled by the presumptive presence of a vicious, sleazy conman that the office will no longer exist.  Donald Trump will never be President of the United States because his presence obliterates all meaning inherent in the office.  But he will, if not stopped, utterly destroy the United States.

That a single American voted for this repulsive charlatan remains an unfathomable mystery.  Yes, the other candidate, a brilliant and experienced politician with a lifetime of service to our country, is a woman, and a significant percentage of men hate and fear women.  Especially women in positions of power. thbwjybs7y But apparently some percentage of (white) women also hate women, at least insofar as they were willing to sacrifice all integrity in the interest of imagined personal financial gain or protection from Islamic terrorists.  (Terrorists from other religions are okay.)  That any woman cast her vote for a pathetic, predatory, narcissistic joke of a man, is insane.

But here we are and now, barring a miracle, we must reap the whirlwind of that insanity.  If Trump is actually allowed the pretense of power, there will be no government.  There will be nothing but a series of machinations the sole intent of which will be to increase the wealth of already-wealthy white men.  The disabled, civic financial burden that they are, will be the first to suffer through curtailment of services.  In Nazi Germany disabled people were deemed “life unworthy of life,” warehoused and slaughtered in the original extermination camps.  That success led to expansion of the endeavor to include the massive inclusion of Jews and others who represented a threat to the wealth and supremacy of an imagined “race.”

An extremist comparison, but for the undeniable facts of human psychology.  Severe economic stress, at-times realistic fear of “the other” and the innate primate wiring toward an alpha-male “savior” invariably combine in mass capitulation to a demagogue.  And what follows is invariably horrific.

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If nothing can be done to derail a Trump “presidency,” every American capable of understanding that this really is the end of a once-great nation and culture must be prepared to fight back.  Day and night.  With no concern for personal wealth or power.  For as long as it takes to rebuild what has been sacrificed to primitive stupidity.

That means abandoning all gooey calls for “unity” under the tiny orange hand of a monster.  That means opposing the beast and its lackeys publicly and incessantly in every way possible.  They deserve no courtesy.  The offices they will befoul once deserved those civil observances, but those offices are about to be defiled beyond recognition.

There may soon be nothing left of the United States but a landscape occupied by the forces of greed and hate.  But in every occupied nation there is resistance.  That has to be us.

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Violette Szabo

French Resistance

Tortured and killed, Ravensbrück, 1945

I read “Shouts and Murmurs” in the New Yorker online every day, admit that some border on the incomprehensible, but nonetheless enjoy their characteristic quirky wit.  Thus inspired, I decided to write one.  Yesterday, three months after I’d forgotten I submitted it, I received the typical one-sentence rejection.  Not a problem, I’ll just put it up on the blog, with which I am criminally negligent.

Those who have taught adult ed. writing classes are likely to relate.  😉

Adult Ed. Creative Writing 100

Announcements

Class time has been changed from 7:00 to 7:16 to accommodate Ms. Mallinkrodt’s propensity to an allergic reaction triggered by the minutes between 7:00 and 7:15.

The malady has persisted despite, as you may have noticed, her practice of wearing full hazmat gear and horse blinders since Arbor Day.  Clearly, sensitivity demands that the other 14 members of the class reschedule cocktails, child care and the length of time it takes to get to our classroom from the parking lot before the lights go out and that maintenance guy in clown makeup starts reciting haiku about killing his mother.

Congratulations to Mr. Antrobus, whose short story nobody was able to read because it was in Uyghur, for nonetheless successfully publishing it in the online anthology, Voices of Diversity.  Apparently the story, مەنئى قىلىنعان, has something to do with sex slavery in the Dervish shoe industry.

And while on that topic, please continue to ignore Mrs. DeWitt’s spirited recitation of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” in response to any mention of sex in your narratives.

We appreciate Mrs. D’s cooperation after members of our Spiritual Freedom Caucus threatened to burn her car if she didn’t cease reciting the entirety of Leviticus every time one of your characters says or thinks the “f” word.  “Trees” is happily shorter than Leviticus.

And of course we all thank Mrs. DeWitt for her gift to the class of 400 cross-shaped bookmarks lovingly decorated in sparkly pastel acrylic yarn on plastic canvas.

In response to Father Dacri’s reaction to the bookmarks, a 7,000-word discourse on the Crucifixion in the Gospel of Luke (emailed to the entire class, the Pope and, for some reason, Leonardo DiCaprio), I think we’re all aware that 1st century Roman crosses were neither plastic, sparkly nor pink.  Shall we grant Mrs. DeWitt a bit of poetic license?

Let’s not forget what happened last week when Mr. Brandt objected to Ms. Satterthwaite’s incorrect use of the Pathetic Fallacy in chapter three of her experimental novel, The Anguish of Lawnmowers.

Fortunately, doctors are saying Mr. Brandt may regain at least partial use of his left eye within a year, and Ms. Satterthwaite has sent a note reminding us that flowers are seen as “totally lame” at the county jail, requesting gifts of clean underwear and vintage topographical maps of Finland instead.

Just a reminder that during the first hour of our next class, Mr. Shapiro, Mr. Blakely-Morris and Mrs. Coppinger will do a staged reading, in costume, of their work-in-progress about suicide among laboratory mice.

Due to the heartbreaking nature of the material, they have asked Dr. Farley for once not to blast Fauré’s Requiem from his iPhone in the coffee lounge during the break, as it invariably results in Ms. Conger sobbing and rending her garments over excessive use of the caesura in Emily Dickinson.  Apparently Exercise Wheel of Sorrow employs a great many caesuras and they fear Fauré may push Ms. Conger over the edge.

In the second hour we’ll critique Rabbi O’Malley’s humorous essay spoofing the evolution of the medieval tabard from the 13th century to its current popularity among school crossing guards.

It should be noted that Rabbi O’Malley credits Dr. Farley’s fictional biography of Jiminy Cricket (which, you will recall, we critiqued the evening Mrs. Farley dropped the class in outrage over the absence of Gyokuro tea in the lounge vending machine) as inspiration for his sudden obsession with costume of the Middle Ages.

We applaud both our class members’ creativity despite the facts that Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio wasn’t published until the late 19th century and thus has nothing to do with tabards or the Middle Ages, the cricket was unnamed in the original work and the adorable Disney character with which we are all familiar is actually a grasshopper.

This cross-pollination of ideas is the very essence of the creative writing class, and in celebration of our mutual receptivity I will ask each of you to imagine five possible dramatic plots inspired by the word, “century.”

Mrs. DeWitt has volunteered to sew a tiny Crusader’s tabard for Ms. Conger’s parrot, whose sporadic in-class squawking of Emmeline Pankhurst’s “Freedom or Death” speech we all enjoy, offering further evidence of reciprocal creativity in our dynamic class!

A Lunch in Paris

After weeks of gracious hosting by lovely people all over the Pays Basque and Provence, we were back in Paris and I had an entire Saturday to wander around by myself!  First stop,

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Pain

the Bastille street market –  blocks-long aisles three-deep, offering every conceivable vegetable, flower, bread, cheese, fish, fungus, unpronounceable and mysterious sauce, jewelry, watches, CDs and DVDs in exotic languages, clothes, shoes, black market perfume and homeopathic remedies for an array of startling disorders, frequently involving the word, foie (liver.)  In France the liver is, apparently, the seat of most ills.  But not all, as I’m about to see.

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The Bastille Hippo

Next I sneaked into the corner Hippopotamus, a sort of French Denny’s considered too tacky for words by my hosts.  And it is tacky, offering Americanish food I can eat without the usual, hard-to-hide terror.  I’m deliriously happy, wolfing a Caesar-chicken sandwich and fries (without ketchup, a depth to which even Hippo refuses to sink) and looking forward to dessert – profiteroles gourmandes made with Ben and Jerry’s!  (Scroll down the menu in the Hippo link above to see photo of profiteroles.)

Still, this is not Denny’s and I find myself watching a peculiar drama at a table for two against the back wall.  A couple are sharing a little carafe of what looks like rose’.  His back to me, I see an expanding bald spot, leather coat and fashionable scarf draped over his chair.  They aren’t young, maybe late forties.  His back exudes confidence, a businesslike detachment.  He could be an accountant, insurance adjuster, bank officer.  But something’s wrong.

She’s facing me, her gaunt face scrupulously made up, big eyes made bigger with liner, shadow, fake lashes and mascara.  The makeup looks expensive and her short, dyed hair is either well-cut or a trendy wig.  But even though she’s painfully thin, her sweater is too small, as if she’s borrowed it from a child.  She’s so thin, and yet there’s nothing on their table but the squat carafe of pink wine, the glass-and-a-half size meant for one person.  It’s lunch time, she obviously needs to eat, and yet there’s no food on the table.  As I watch, she flirts with him.  Desperately.  She bats those big eyes, looks at him with vampy, retro-eroticism so often and with such clear intent that she becomes a caricature – Betty Boop as tragic figure.  He doesn’t seem to see or hear her, just relaxes with his wine.

I want to send her a note on a napkin saying, “Don’t do this!  I’ll buy your lunch!” but I’d never get the French right and I sense that I’m so “other” in her context as to be invisible.  I wouldn’t even qualify as an obnoxious, meddling stranger.  And I don’t think it’s lunch she’s after anyway.

The wine finished, they stand to leave and her coat slides from her chair to the floor.  He doesn’t lean to retrieve it, doesn’t seem to see either the fallen coat or the woman.  Shaking, she bends, her too-small sweater sliding up in back to reveal the bony vertebrae moving beneath transparent skin.  Her body, absent the makeup that has created her face, is a skeleton in a fragile veil.  A skeleton that has just played a dangerous game very badly, and lost.

He leaves a few euros on the table, shrugs on his coat and seems quite content as he walks out into the cold, bright day, never looking back.  She struggles awkwardly with her coat for minutes after he’s gone, her face still attractive but blank now.  The charade is over; she has no expression left.  Not a soul in this red plastic restaurant looks up as she passes and vanishes into the street.

And I’m left wondering if she was really there at all, but rather a ghost replaying some forgotten moment in which the one thing, or one man, that could have made a difference, didn’t.  The buildings of the Place de la Bastille are fairly recent, built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries but of sufficient age to have housed countless pivotal moments.  I choose to imagine this as one of those, in which long-dead bones in painted glamour and stolen clothes return to recreate with the oblivious living some amour fou or grim monetary transaction lost in time and unchangeable.  Unless, of course, the guy at the table had been able to see her.  😉