Friday, September 23, 2016

The Marsh Pond

We lived in a country house on several acres of land, and there was a marsh pond towards the back of the property.  A couple came to visit us from the city, and I took them back to show them the pond.  It was late September and cool.  It was early in the evening, but it was already dark.  There were tall cattails and weeds on either side of the path that led down to the shore of the pond.  The ground was soft and wet there and my shoes made deep prints in the mud.  We could hear the bugs in the tall weeds and the frogs out on the pond.  It was a clear night and the golden moon was just above the water with a bright star beside it, its light flickering off the pond.

As I reached the edge of the water, I turned back to say something to the couple that had followed me, but I found now that there was a whole crowd behind me, families with tents and RVs setting up barbecues, their kids lingering about or running along the shore or hiding from each other in the cattails.  They all worked through the night, establishing their camps.  There was the soft ting of hammers driving tent stakes into the ground.  People shivered in light jackets and flashight beams played about in the sharp morning air.  Someone set up a covered pavilion with picnic tables beneath it and we all gathered there for breakfast as the sun rose over the tall weeds.  Some of the kids went out to swim in the pond first thing in the morning and someone put a tin pot over a campfire to make coffee.

More and more people arrived as the day wore on.  They came in trucks and campers, setting up tents on the outskirts of the growing camp.  The day was warm for being so late in the season.  By the late afternoon, the kids had gotten drowsy and there were only a few of them floating lazily out in the pond.  Their parents called them up for dinner under the pavilion as the setting sun glared low over the water.  After dinner, someone made one last pot of coffee as the sun dipped below the horizon and the evening grew cooler.  It got harder to see each other's faces as it grew dark and people started turning in for the night, climbing into their tents and campers to sleep.  Some of the smaller kids cried, because they were tired or they didn't want the day to end or both.  Their parents hushed them and the hush fell over the whole camp and the bugs and the frogs took up their song again.  I took a folding lawn chair down to the edge of the water and planted it's legs there in the mud, and I sat down to finish my coffee and stare out at the crescent moon over the pond.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Roadside Assistance

I was driving along a desolate stretch of freeway in the dim, early morning mist.  My car started to buckle and hiss and clunk and shake.  The word "emergency" started flashing in red on the display in the middle of the dashboard.  I pulled off onto the shoulder and looked to the display for more information about what went wrong.  The display showed the graphic of an engine with a spinning fan on the front of it, and the fan seized up, the blades going all twisted and crooked, and smoke rose from the graphic of the engine.  After a few puffs of smoke, cobwebs appeared all around the engine along with a few curvy tendrils that represented tall grass.  As the graphic of the engine began to shake and sputter and sink into the ground, sharply outlined birds flew from it in all directions.

Once the birds had flown from the screen and the engine had sank completely out of sight, only the lines representing the grass remained.  They seemed to waver in the wind.  And then, from the right of the display, a graphic of four horses came galloping, drawing a covered wagon behind them.  A skeleton sat at the head of the wagon, whipping the horses and driving them on.  It turned its head to look at me, the skull grinning, the teeth gnashing.  Then it drove the horses and wagon off the left side of the screen, and there was just a graphic of a puff of dust left in their wake.  This puff of dust stayed on the screen, pulsating and flashing red.  I wasn't sure what any of this meant, but it definitely didn't seem good.  It was pretty clear that I needed to call a tow truck.

Friday, September 9, 2016

On the Cover

I was hired to participate in a photography session.  They were taking pictures for a book cover.  A bunch of us showed up for the session, and they put us all in a large hotel suite.  They told us told to just act natural, have conversations with each other, sit at a table eating a bowl of cereal, whatever, while a cameraman buzzed around the room filming everyone.  They were taking a cinema verite' type of approach.  The idea was that the cameraman would record hours and hours of footage, and then they would look back through it all and find the single frame that struck the photographer as the most "real" and the one that best captured the essence of what the book cover was supposed to express.

I didn't like this way of doing things at all.  I argued that the image quality wouldn't be as good as it would be with a single, properly lit, high gloss photograph.  I argued that they wouldn't get the stylized look needed for a book cover by just sifting through frames of random footage.  I argued that their pretensions of things being "natural" and "real" were pointless because the setting itself was already staged.  We had all just been put into this room and paid to act "normal." The more they strove for some ideal of truth, the more the whole thing became a lie.

I suggested doing things differently.  I suggested that we should all gather for a normal group portrait, or maybe we could all be arranged in a tableaux of some sort.  I imagined us all dressed in period clothes, arranged in a cluster at the center of the photograph, with our backs to one another, fascinated by the decorative iconography that would frame the photograph once it was placed on the cover.  We would be peering up though monocles at sketched cherubs and harps; some of us would be tentatively reaching for quills and stars.  These sketches would be gilded and laced with flourishes and streaming Latin banners, while we would be rendered in the middle in black and white, as though our images had been cut from the newspaper and framed in gold.

The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that this was the right cover for the book, that this, in fact, was the only possible cover for the book.  I even became convinced that there was no question that this was how the book's author and publisher wanted it.  It had to be this.  Once I saw it so clearly, so vividly, in my mind, there was no other way.  I yelled at the cameraman.  I protested and stamped my foot, almost to the point of tears.  But none of them would listen.  The cameraman just kept circling me, filming my outburst from every angle,  still looking for that single moment, that one frame of undeniable truth.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Famous Flavor

I was staying with my aunt in Arizona.  She left me alone in the house, and she told me to help myself to whatever I wanted in the kitchen.  I was craving some ice cream, so I went looking in the freezer.  There were a bunch of half gallon tubs of ice cream in the freezer, all unusual flavors that I had never heard of.  I attributed this to my aunt living on the other side of the country and shopping at higher end stores.  I could tell from the weight that a lot of the tubs were empty, or nearly empty, and so I set them aside and kept digging.

Towards the back, I pulled out a tub that caught my attention.  It was a pretty standard variation on the basic cookies and cream flavor, but what caught my eye was that the flavor had been named after a girl I had gone to school with.  I knew that it had to be her, because I remembered how much she liked those kinds of cookies.  I remembered her always taking them apart and dunking them in her milk at lunch time.  I couldn't believe that she had her own flavor of ice cream.  I wanted to find my phone, so that I could take a picture and send it to someone and show them.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Death of an Author

I was sent to live with this writer, William Mason, when I was still very young.  He was a distant uncle on either my mother or father's side of the family.  I wasn't clear which one.  He wasn't known as a famous writer back then.  None of his work was published until after his death, when the managers of his estate collected all of his voluminous notes and scattered manuscripts, and some sharp editor went to work trying to wrestle it all into some more consumable form.  During his lifetime, however, he lived off a substantial inheritance that he had received at some point and he lived quite comfortably without being published or making any money off of his writing.

In fact, it was probably in light of his secure financial position that I was sent to live with him.  The day I arrived, a driver in an old black Hudson picked me up from the bus station and dropped me at the curb in front of his house.  It was just beginning to rain.  As I got out and stared up at the Gothic house brooding among a yard of dark trees, my uncle's manservant promptly appeared with an umbrella over my head, and he followed me up the walk with it.  He was very tall and he had to bend deeply to keep the umbrella near my head.  All the while, the rain pattered against his own back, and he maintained the same grave and silent frown on his face.

I was taken directly to my uncle's library, where he spent most of his time working on his writing.  It was a dark, stuffy chamber.  There were bookshelves along every wall and the shelves reached high up into the darkness farther than I could see.  The only light was from a dim desk lamp on a desk in the middle of the room.  There my uncle sat huddled in this little pool of light, writing something with a fountain pen.  I could tell from the cramped way that he held his hand that he was writing something in a tiny, tedious script.  He would spent hours every day filling each page with hundreds upon hundreds of tiny, tedious words, outpouring the feverish machinery of his relentless train of thought, and then he would hold each page briefly up to the light before blowing on it softly and then setting it aside to let the ink dry.

He rolled back from his desk, and I could see that he was in a wheelchair.  His grey hair was long and ratty in places and balding in others.  He took a pair of spectacles from his desk and put them on as he wheeled over towards me and he perched them on the edge of his nose as he leaned forward to study me as though I were an exhibit of some sort.  There was a long, awkward moment of silence.  I wasn't sure if I needed to say something.  Finally he made a grunt as though he were satisfied by what he saw and said, "You must be hungry," before wheeling back to his desk and leaving his manservant to attend to me.

He continued to be just as cold in all the years that I lived with him, growing up.  We rarely ever had normal, casual conversations.  Instead he would impart "lessons" or offer "instruction" meant to be edifying for my "constitution" and beneficial in reinforcing the fiber of my character.  His lower lip would always seem to protrude petulantly when he used these words and he would pat the stomach of his dark blue vest and roll away with an immense air of self satisfaction.  Once, I was sitting on the floor at his feet listening to one of these lectures of his, and he managed to roll over my fingers as he started away.  There was a sharp snap and I cried out.  "The floor is no place for civilized people to keep their hands," was all that he had to say.

He made efforts to get his work published.  He didn't need the money, but he wanted the prestige, the validation.  Sometimes, behind the closed door of his office, I could hear him having long, one sided arguments with his manservant, who also managed his professional affairs, contacting publishers and submitting his work to different markets.  The argument was always the same.  He was convinced that the manservant wasn't doing enough, wasn't going about things the right way, wasn't contacting the right people.  The manservant bore these harangues in silence and, I imagine, with the same stiff frown that he always wore on his face. 

As a result of his lack of publication, my uncle's family looked on his writing with condescending amusement.  To them, it was just some eccentric pastime that he puttered away at, something to keep a rich old man from feeling useless.  They would come by the house and find him in his office, and they would smirk and shake their heads and refuse to take him seriously.  "For Heaven's sake, you should let some light in here," they would tell him.  He would just scowl and try to dismiss them, insisting that he was busy working, but they refused to respect that and instead went on about getting lighter drapes and window fixtures for his gloomy office.  Even the lilting cadence of their voices seemed to shed unwanted light about the house.  My uncle seemed smaller, sillier, when they were around and I know that he burned with resentment at every minute that he had to endure in their presence.

Sometimes he would take this resentment out on me.  He began to taunt me with the fact that my parents had abandoned me to his care.  I had come there under the impression that my parents had died and that I had come to stay with him as an orphan.  He forcefully disabused me of this notion.  He showed me letters that they had written to him.  They went on and on about their happy, carefree lives.  They described beaches, sunsets, warm tropical places where they basked in childless luxury.  He read page after spiteful page of these letters.  I tried to defend them.  I had been sick often as a child and they hadn't known what to do; they hadn't been prepared to take care of me; they would have been there if they could.  But he brushed aside each of these excuses with a slow, triumphant shake of his head until there was nothing left but the pitiless fact that they just didn't care enough to raise their child.

So I grew up like this.  When I was about sixteen, my uncle became seriously ill.  Some sickness that he had harbored in his chest for years finally caught up with him and he took to his bed.  The manservant called in the doctors and there were grim, whispered consultations in the hallway.  Finally I was told that he wanted to see me one last time.  His eyes followed me intently as I came to the side of his bed, and he reached out his hand to me and struggled to speak.  He wanted me to get rid of all the manuscripts stored in his desk in the library.  "Burn them," he said.  "I was too hard.  There was no forgiveness there for anyone.  People want passion.  They want life and entertainment.  I gave them ... I gave them ..." He clutched my arm and pulled himself up, his eyes wide and wild, "I gave them nothing!" And he fell back against the pillow, all the breath and life gone out of him, his eyes staring ahead empty.

It was his most human moment.  It was the closest that we had ever been, and I noticed for the first time how bright and blue his eyes were.  I had never really looked into his eyes before.  I knew then that I couldn't do what he asked.  I couldn't burn his books.  I couldn't throw away all those years of work. I knew then that he was wrong.  He had to be.  I could see it there in his eyes.  I knew that there was something there, something in all those pages of cramped, urgent writing.  We just had to find it.