The Social Cell: Conspiracy & Religion in Society

THE SOCIAL CELL:


I

Conspiracy theories and social mythology are not a recent phenomena, nor invented to make the most enlightened of unemployed internet connoisseurs look “ridiculous”. The world isn’t about you, Mark. Conspiracy theories, government plots, back door dealings, high profile deaths, have been a part of many societies, and in the histories of many peoples. English Students are no doubt familiar with Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. What might be less familiar is the social climate in which the play was written. There was a long secession crisis during the 1560s1 and the possibility of civil war was very real2. With no heir and obvious successor, it’s not hard to imagine that Elizabeth I sensed plots all around her, with the Parliament standing in for the senators of Rome in Shakespeare’s drama. There were plots all around Elizabeth I, denounced by the Pope as a heretic, there were factions underground in Rome, France, and Spain, all intent on putting Mary Steward on the throne.3

        The interesting thing about the way conspiracies is in how they motivate people. Conspiracy theory is a popular, secular mythography. In ancient cultures, beliefs and cultural identity came from traditions, traditions in storytelling or ritual. Of particular interest is how the Greek and Roman historical myths came together to form a social cell. Heads of state capitalized on the popularity of these traditions: Caesar claimed to be a descendant of Aeneas, the hero of Virgil’s national epic the Aeneid, as recorded by Livy.4 Virgil’s Aeneid also gives the Roman people a virtuous civic model, in Aeneas, someone to be admired for his personal sacrifices for the great good of Rome.4

        A civilization is more properly a social cell, and its interaction between other cultures and social cells determines its growth or diminishment. Historically, an organized society as a social cell has survived by overtaking smaller, undefended social cells, or cells that are pre-social, or in the process of an establishing, social myth. Conspiracy theorists have branched off from their parent social cell, either out of foundational failures of individual trust, or the failure for a cultural construct to ensure the contentment of all its individual parts. A conspiratorial group, with specific aims and intents, can overturn a parent cell and replace it with a new, more motivational alternative ideal.

II

INTERSOCIAL MYTHMAKING

Oral literature refers to traditions of storytelling that survive through cultural tradition and word of mouth before being written down. Roman myths, such as the Aeneid, inspire citizens, with the courage of their warriors and the nobility of their deeds. These ideas of heroes and traitors were a model of social behavior, and the traditions they represent was an inexorable part of the national identity and social conscience. Though Rome, as a social cell, did absorb and take on the Greek traditions and mythology, many of them were given a unique Roman flavor. The creation myth remains the same, though the names change. Greek heroes like Odysseus and Achilles struggle against their personal limitations and learn from their failures to become better people, to grow, to look at the pillars differently, as Gilgamesh did upon returning to Uruk in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Odysseus’ struggles to return home, though it gives him added appreciation for home, and the comforts of hearth and family, of domestic calm and marital tranquility. While Greek heroes are models of behavior and virtue by their personal quests, Roman heroes were distinctly nationalistic, fiercely loyal to their great city of Rome.1

        What myth offered pre-scientific revolution societies were explanations for what they otherwise saw as inexplicable or unsettling. Any force beyond control capable of disturbing social order like famine or natural disasters, if the social cell is wiped out, its mythology is often survived by a microbe of a social cell, one of an individual bound by family and tradition, each of which works as a coping device against the uncertainties of change. By finding a non-personal social idea, it is all that is sometimes left of large and once prosperous communities. Clinging to the notion of tradition is a sense of permanence, giving us footing in a world of harsh conditions, in times of scarcity and plague.

        A given social pantheon could be considered the anthropomorphic library of human faces projected onto abstract forces of nature. Concepts of the seasons are given personality and intent; faces for river gods or names for the god of thunderstorms. We see the sea swells eddied on by Poseidon’s great trident. And winter was explained as Demeter’s despair, knowing her daughter Persephone, is bound for a season in the underworld.2 Autumn comes and plants die; trees become barren and the leaves fall away. This was a personal relationship of interactive social forces. 

        For the Norse they saw an avalanche of boulders and rock as the rumblings of giants.3 Sometimes those boulders would take out entire settlements, leaving a few microbes behind; sometimes they had almost starved before they could plant again. There were great quarrels between powerful, unimaginable forces, throwing the contentment of daily rhythms into disarray, portending the end of the world, Ragnarok, armageddon, etc. It's not about you, Mark. 

        Cultures of great scarcity have severe gods, but to be a part of that curiosity of what’s behind the skin and motivational factors we give to the forces of nature, humanity’s endurance in times of great confusion and chaos is reflected in the horrors of their myth, the monsters they despised, more accurately a representation of them as a social people than of abstract nature, then. To give randomness over to a personality, benevolent or malevolent, frightening shapes are less frightening than the shapeless. And we project onto it, sometimes our worst, sometimes our best, which determines the character of the surviving social cell as a social people; a. A people who understand their fellows, empathize with them and laugh, talk about the great myths and legends and take strength from the cunning goddess Athena, or inspiration from the deeds of Heracles. Sharing a mythology and culture of consistency among people is the sharing of thought, and social thinking, connecting an individual’s misfortunes with that of the social cell, motivating itself by the example of great heroes or mystical beings.

        This is an important element of civilizing by social, mutually agreeable history and the values they impart. It is an agreement of a myth created through interactive sharing over fires and on travels, a way of consenting to our ability to understand nature or the mysteries of the gods. the mysteries of gods, whether there is a beauty contest among goddesses for an apple from the garden of Hesperides [or? No resolution to sentence]. There is truth in our understanding of fiction.understood fiction. There is a German word that expresses our frustration at being deeply unaware of not understanding, or being flat out wrong: Erklärungsnot – literally, a distress at not having an explanation. A compound word for explanation and crisis. It is a deeply meaningful word, with a range of meanings attached, but the largest is that of cosmic unawareness, and the implication of how distressing it is to have no explanation. This can sometimes lead to weltschmertz – a world sadness, a way to respond to pervasive and lasting melancholy.  

        These words are often behind social discontent. A rebellious cell is a dissenting outgrowth of an established mythology, that one might not understand, organized by shared opposition to other, disagreeable social cells, those with which one may feel that world sadness, the weltschmertz of aging or loneliness. Social cells that are larger tend to absorb smaller, less organized, less socialized cells of human tribes. A myth helps us to understand what we don’t understand. A conspiracy is a social project that allows us to discover.

         A conspiracy in theory is a shared dissenting myth, not as much rallied around agreement as much as a group of social-minded individuals rallied around a principle, often with an aim that is political or social thinking, or a political apolitical social disharmony. In Rome, they shared all the Gods they stole. Sometimes the dissent within a myth, a schism between religious sects during times of reformation and reforms, leads to a reactive, responsive social cell in itself. Sometimes the denunciation of a previously established social ideal becomes a social cell itself. It can be seen as a rebellious cell’s attempt to force agreement for survival upon a possibly weaker separate social cell. As with Rome and Greece, a larger social cell absorbed a smaller one. A post-industrialized social cell is a modern social language, different than these pre-modern social cells, especially those unable to be socially or interpersonally interactive.

        When there is stagnation, the human mind rebels, and the imagination sees things it has no’t seen before. These individual organizers are akin to a designer of a social cell. Non-social, -personal interactions within cells can change the nature of the social sphere, the space between the inner and outer walls. The outer wall is our organizing impulse, maintained by social-interpersonal agreements. Social thought is a cohesive structure for maintaining a stable society. These transformations of abstract into persona take many forms, and vary from place to place, influenced by local culture and environs, social mores and tradition.

        The practice of making sense of chaos and of tragedy is a recognizable primordial form of conspiracies. Powerful forces behind the scenes, mighty and awesome beings of immense influence and empires, capable of holding empires beneath the whims and caprice of invisible hands – the use of anthropomorphic gods as stand-ins for natural abstracts – makes them more familiar; and there is comfort in familiarity.

is an imprint of what individual lives within the cell were like; it is a social thumbprint

        Etiology4 is the ennobling of one’s past and allows for something in the social sphere to mean something, rather than it be a senseless loss, or unpoetic, cruel human loss. In the case of a conspiracy, the subsequent imparting of meaning somehow adds our non-social person to the material relationship within the social cell.

        As ancient civilizations build their myth and culture around the powers that held them in thrall, each reckoned as an abstracted quality given human form, modern conspiracy theory often contains many of these elements. From the prevalence of powerful groups manipulating events from behind the scenes, to a small group of recurring powers with control extending like long filaments into every orifice of the worlds, until they’re omnipresent

        The relationship between the building of myth and conspiracy is not superficial. Both attempt to explain the inexplicable; each are populated by an attempt to give meaning to and find solace in a tragedy by giving it a familiar, recognizable face. Further, the modern conspiracy culture is an ever expanding group, with a founding myth that gives purpose to their efforts, with the task of giving a human face to these unseen forces and ascribing meaning to the innumerable questions conspiracy theories generate. With a human face and a sense of meaning, a group has an identity and , a purpose, with their actions ennobled.

        With a foundation myth and history, groups are formed around a shared belief. As an organizing principle in conspiracy theory communities, the motivation is rather similar to those who made sense of winter by explaining Demeter’s sorrow over the loss of her daughter Persephone: in conspiracy, groups evolve into societies, and often share many beliefs as it pertains to individual theories, while something more specific may have brought them together.

        Finally, as a myth is bound to reinforce a sense of cultural identity through the organizing principle and build bonds through a new, shared understanding, like the pantheon of Roman gods, by looking closely at them and seeing their fears, their idea of heroism and virtue, of villainy and vice. In short, it is the window into the anatomy of an ancient and long-lived human tendency to look for meaning, to look for patterns in nature and in human behavior.               

        The manner of a founding myth’s stability for a civilization and larger society comes from much older processes in the human brain, not limited to human beings. Connecting the dots, pattern recognition, seeing causal relationships between nature and material action. In pre-industrial social cells, the inclination to conspiratorial thinking and designs of competing social cells, cells competing within with out-growths or at war with a foreign, differently organized and motivated cell, allowed for individuals to have a sense that they were a part of something larger than themselves, and that it wasn’t all meaningless. Sometimes that’s enough for a society to survive, as long as some part of it becomes a part of a future socio-organizational myth.

3

In a Times article in 20141 Here’s Why We Believe in Conspiracies, prominent conspiracy scholar Jan-Willem van Prooijen, associate professor in social and organizational psychology at VU University Amsterdam, said, “Conspiracy theories often crop up during times of uncertainty and fear: after terrorist strikes, financial crises, high-profile deaths and natural disasters. Past research suggests that if people feel they don’t have control over a situation, they’ll try to make sense of it and find out what happened. The sense-making leads them to connect dots that aren’t necessarily connected in reality,” van Prooijen says..”

        After reviewing JFK, Roger Ebert was approached by Walter Cronkite for his review.2 “There is not a bit of truth in it!” Cronkite said. The late film critic later wrote in his review that he felt that Stone was capturing a pervasive mood in the counter-culture about the assassination, that it was a film that captured the way some Americans felt, about the need for answers in the days and then years after the assassination.

        Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison worked well enough, and his patriotism and passion for the truth is understandable. He is sympathetic, seen as an individual against an established social cell. To seek the truth is a heroic act, to expose crime in places where the abuse of power is most possible, as Woodward and Bernstein did in All the President’s Men3 by uncovering the break-in at the Watergate hotel and working to get to the bottom of a case. They follow their leads, doggedly pursue each of them, and work hard. They are physically and morally courageous.

        JFK perverts this in a way, historically, but emulates the formula well enough to appear to start with a morally defensible perspective on your mission, motivation, and what the end result looks like. Seeking the truth despite the establishment is heroic, patriotic even, and benefits from having a morally defensible argument. Where it becomes social mythmaking, is in providing questions and then answering them selectively. It is informative in showing the process of popular myth and belief as it is being made.

        A small group of patriots are pitted against the endless bureaucracies of the US Government, and they have their phones tapped. Team members betray the group (an evolving rebellion cell against an established social cell). The film’s world is a small group of men who are behind the major events, while we little people, can’t even begin to comprehend the vast and inexplicable subtleties of this grand design.  It is a tale of betrayal and personal sacrifice, but it’s for the sanctity of American traditions, for the truth. I, in a way, it is Jim Garrison playing Octavian in the Final War of the Roman Republic4, following Caesar’s assassination in Shakespeare’s play – something Garrison mentions to a team member who’s having doubts.

        But, not to digress. Garrison sees everything that touches something else. , if one person knows another through an event prior to the assassination, it is followed up. They talk to prostitutes, male and female – which was progressive for its time – and then Tommy Lee Jones is made Ssuspect Nnumber One1. This attempts to set it up for the trial of Clay Shaw, which is less a trial than a repudiation of the Warren Commission Report, here and there bringing Clay Shaw back into the picture, and they focus on Oswald after the assassination, as we have never seen him before.

        Though Wwith the way the argument is presented, the evidence amounts to an accusation without any direct link and amounts to Clay Shaw giving his name as Clay Bertrand, which was kept out of court because he did not have his lawyer present. Garrison protests.             Shaw is presented as an effete, frivolous man, while Garrison is shown trying to be a good father and still fight for justice. Again, his advantage is that his goals are admirable: he believes there has been injustice, and he intends to right it. And Stone, with the final summation at the end of the film, gets to offer his personal, Figaro-esque indictment on the social oppressive behavior of a self-destructive establishment. Garisson compares Lee Harvey Oswald to  He mentions Oswald being as Josef K.5 in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, suggesting Oswald was a timid, neurotic man, forever under the control and purview of powerful forces surrounding him, forces which he cannot recogonize personally or comprehend. , moldable to who never quite knew what was going on, while all of this drama and intrigue goes on around him, never knowing what he’d done wrong. [redundant and tense change]

        In JFK, Oliver Stone is attempting to present a widespread discontent American’s had in the Warren Commission Report, though a smaller percentage disagreed with its findings after the movie was released. The majority of Americans now believe that there was a conspiracy involved, and a cottage industry of books has sprung from it. This is common in cases of social thinking, or individual-social ideation – where a single person is influencing through social means the thoughts of a significant amount of people.

        As a legal historical drama, JFK works as a film, but only by using ahistorical composite characters, such as X. X is important because he supplies the foundation myth for the generation of anti-social cells, as Oliver Stone’s personal experiences shaped his social thinking. has been criticized by or [of or for?] sensationalism, creating composite characters to avoid discredited sources (a witness who claimed that Garrison had given him truth serum and under hypnosis he had made incriminating statements), and ignoring some of the more easily refutable claims of the film in regards to the Warren Commission. The foundational and motivational aspect of this particular story for Oliver Stone is tinged by his personal experience in Vietnam.

        Oliver Stone joined the United States Army in April of 1967. He would be emotionally scarred by his experiences, writing that he was “very mixed up, very paranoid, and very alienated”6 upon his return to the States. The Death of Kennedy therefore to be an issue that touched the director’s life in a significant, foundational principle.

        The foundational myth of the government, or elements within the government, CIA & FBI plots to assassinate Kennedy are grounded in the belief that it was Kennedy’s intention to withdraw from Vietnam. At the time of his death, the audience learns out, he was in the process of withdrawing troops. This information comes to us from the character X, a composite character loosely based on L. Fletcher Prouty, but this creates a number of problems.

        X tells us that he spent much of September ’63 working on planning and drawing up National Security Action Memorandum 263. The plan is represented as the strongest and most important paper to come out of the Kennedy White House. The first 1,000 troops had been ordered home for Christmas. In his book, JFK: The Cia, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy7, L. Fletcher Prouty, “X” in the film, Prouty summarizes the cover letter accommpanying Presidential Action Memo 263. . [whose book & what’s the actual title?]

        While X accurately summarized the cover letter accompanying the action memo 263:

        Perhaps more than anything the key toIn order to understanding Oliver Stone’s perspective in evaluating this film and its legacy, one might attempt to ‘solve’ it, or at least draw an inference based on our understanding of conspiratorial groups as potential societies / social cells wherein a rebel cell might at any time attempt majority, and grow, based on how many social objects reject the official explanation, from once trusted foundations. By our study of myth as etiology, the case against Oswald is itself an aside to ever larger, more expansive machinations. What i’s going on may be hiding in plain sight.

        One of the most prominent reasons given for the question as to what would compel the government or its agencies to murder a sitting president is that he planned to withdraw from Vietnam. This is the founding myth of the Kennedy Assassination, and surely something that would be understandably appealing and motivational for Oliver Stone, himself a disillusioned veteran, another young man whose innocence died in the jungles far away. It i’s easy to understand how it appeals to Stone, if it is a misconception, and it doesn’t make one more prone to dismissal or disparaging of what gives an artist the drive to search for truth and meaning.

        For many, the tragedy of the JFK assassination is compounded by the tragedy of the Vietnam War, in which millions would be killed or wounded, and millions more shocked and sobered by the horrors of war. To take JFK from the people by this assassination, from the people he might have otherwise spared the traumas of this divisive, ignominious war, is a greater tragedy than that of a lone assassin. This is how a social event can directly affect someone on a non-social level, and motivate them to try to somehow affect the event.

        From the perspective of Stone and many, an entire generation – a lost microbe of what may have become foundational and contributed to the stability of the national/cultural – to look at this film as fact, the conspiracy theory turns JFK into more than a victim, shot while the world looked on, in broad daylight – it gives us a martyr, someone who died for a cause, giving meaning to his death beyond the event itself, but, as we’ve seen, gives us closure, stability, and a chance to get our bearings. 

        When a rebellion cell achieves majority, the record is distorted. History is viewed through a warped lens, and when the social majority of individuals within a social cell, succeed in conversion of a given society, particularly the foundational, outer layer of the social cell, [1] from which they spring as [2] rebellious cells, [3] for want of a better word, as each directly rebels against [4] the established cell. In such a case, the social cell’s outer membrane loses cohesion and assumes the identity of the rebel cell, wherein the filters of conspiracy are placed atop the historical record.

        Our socio-personal development of conspiratorial thinking is an early stage of social-cognitive development, where we begin to consider others as social objects, with intent, motivation, belief, and purpose as oneself. R, recognizing that someone can exist outside of the self as an independent object in a social environment, we can look at scenarios and project more or less how we would act if put in the same situation.

        As we gradually become aware of another person as a thinking agent, the first step towards psychological, motivational inference i, as in reading someone’s intent by an examination of their actions. Our ability to infer the inner thoughts of another person is problematic; as we first acknowledge the common Rashomon effect, based on the famous film by Akira Kurosawa9, with the aforementioned effect coined to describe the subjectivity of the storytellingstory telling structure, which recounts the same event from a number of individual events, and represents the truth as each character saw it, despite irreconcilable variations between one perspective to the next. It is the personal, limited perspective of a wider view, which is the totality of the whole of each socially orienting object. 

        In Cognitive Development by professor of developmental psychology John H. Flavell,10 he outlines a series of developmental stages, each a part of social cognition’s complexities as we interact with others. The first stage is the mere recognizing of another person, or persons,’ as social phenomena within the realm of interactive possibility. To think sociably, one considers that others, as individuals and groups, and among groups, have different ideas, beliefs, and unique perspective.

        The next stage of social cognition is need, which amounts to individual attempts at understanding and acting with awareness of others’ feelings and experiences. Inference concerns a capacity to carry out social thinking successfully, though the thinking need not be strictly defined as inference, but more broadly as any social cognitive process, the discussion of personal ideas between individuals on a given subject. If you have the disposition to rely on inference as an act of social cognition, for example, you might look at a conversation and find a specific remark that is indicative of a broader range of beliefs and personal feelings.

        Social cogitation is the sharing of inferences about the relationship between people and , events, and the collective process of social cogitation is an organizing principle behind social groups, persons and individuals. I, as interactions between one person engaged in social cogitation and another influence anyone else involved in the social sphere capable of further inferences from these micro-interactions, or interactions among groups. , discord. “Non-social concepts can be concrete or exact … in some cases we may have trouble deciding whether the object of our cognition is a social or non-social one.”      

Surprisingly, non-social cognition can be seen in the social sphere of cognitive development. What is developed in private may spread, through literature such as this, literature and film, and participate in the act of social cogitation. Another aspect of cognitive development Flavell11 discusses is the awareness of another person’s possible benefit from deceiving you.11

With the development of a rewards-punishments manner of social-thinking we attempt, by social interaction, the correction of socio-personal discord. An important realization is that any cohesive society is an active social cell, one among many in the world, one that is the product of socially cognitive objects in a realm of possible actions. Social thinking is the cogitation of many different perspectives engaged in one social-object or part of the inner-core of the social cell, what I would call the beginning tale, the recounting of the cell’s formation as a celebration, as a means of its ensured perpetuation and survival.

        It could be argued that the microbe of the eventual majority myth of the JFK assassination has an historical disconnect unlike anything to be found elsewhere in the American character, nor an American film that so biased us and put the fire in our hearts to rebel against such outrages of the state. But our next story , it brought down a kingdom, as one social cell in discord was an amorphous, fluctuating membrane of rebel cells attempting to absorb and wrest change for the establishment of the new.

IV

In France in the 1780s the theatre could be a political space.1 Ordinary people got involved in the questions before the government. The new ideas of enlightenment philosophes, books that were banned by Royal Censors. Works that undermined the monarchy or the clergy, like Voltaire’s Candide and Rousseau’s The Social Contract were in prison. Literally, the books themselves were locked up for the ideas they contained, contributing the public political foment.

        Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro in the 1780s. Reading it now, it seems tame. But at the time it was so radical that the censor took it to King Louis XVI himself. Louis said: “This shall never be played. It would be necessary to dismantle the Bastille itself before this could be played without consequences. This man mocks at everything in the government which ought to be respected.”2

        Despite being formally banned, the play was an enormous hit in private salons. And when the ban was lifted, Figaro became one of the smash hits of the century. It broke records. It did 73 nights in its first year and netted 350,000 French livres. What was it that made it so popular? It had the Royal Censor, which was sure to bring a crowd. But on the other hand, it was cheap, and accessible to a wide class of society,. fFrom the madams and monsieur in the boxes to the often illiterate peasants in the pit.

        The subversion that cut so deep into the traditions of old regime France aren’t noticeable today. But in a society of rank inequality between the classes, the rich and the poor, its egalitarian message, its winks to the clever and scrappy princes of Spain, Beaumarchais undermined the very foundation of French society.

        (Emphases mine)

        “Nobility, rank, position, how proud they make a man feel! You think because you are great nobleman you are a genius? Put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more. Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more. For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century.”

        Nobility, rank, and position determined to a large degree what kind of life you could expect in old regime France. The word privilege means private law. And historically, certain classes had special rights before the law. Rank, position and , fortune , were largely hereditary gifts rather than that of wit or talent, and Beaumarchais pokes this structure in the eye, by the not-fooling-anyone substitution of Spain for France, as everyone knew when the words were spoken, this ordinary man, had to use more knowledge and skill just to survive than that that has been used in the governing of France for a hundred years.

        The play opens by toying with the idea of an old medieval tradition, prima nocta, which allowed a seigneur to replace the groom in the marriage bed. This barbarous custom (and similarly still existing customs) was the order of things: hierarchy was written into the traditions of state, just as a king was above his subjects, lords were above their peasants, as a man was over a woman. Traditionally, society was divided into three estates. The first was the clergy, those who pray; the second was the nobility, those who fight, and these two groups had special rights and tax exemptions. The third estate was those who work, and they paid the bulk of the royal taxes, including the salt tax. It was impossible for someone of non-noble birth to become a noble, not even when nobility was put up for sale in the debt crisis.

        A seigneur or seigneury upon taking up residence in their parish takes their special pew at the front of the church, usually adorned by their coat of arms. The peasants of the lands pledge to work so much and dedicate so much barley and grain over the year. Traditional seigneurial dues allowed them to make bizarrely specific requests and demands of their peasants: for example, one nobleman’s list of dues was a number of ornamental feathers, a quota of olive oil and wine, a chicken, and a pair of leather gloves. 

        This all seemed natural. God had sanctified the king, Louis XVI was the head of a dynasty of the Capet family (the King would later be addressed as Louis Capet when he was put on trial for conspiracy and treason) and according to the divine right of kings, in theory his power was absolute. But the clergy, the Ccatholic political arm of the old regime, they weren’t only exempt from royal taxes, but got to impose a tithe on the peasants, while the seigneurial dues were owed to landowners by all peasants who worked in the lord’s bakery, or who made wine in the lord’s press.

        The ritual was a simple one. Whenever a new lord or madam took possession of their parish, a peasant signed their oath to work the land, always signing promises to work but to provide anything the nobleman or lady would demand of them. A commentator quipped, “Over time, a seigneurial title was less than that of a landlord and more that of an investor.”12           

The King between his heavy breakfasts and hunting would mediate between these three estates. The hierarchy had lasted d, well, forever, a. As far back as anyone knew. A recent ritual had fallen out of touch, however. The royal touch was performed by the King to cure victims of the skin disease scrofula. “The King touches you, God heals you,”3 was the traditional ritual performed by the French kings upon their ascension, but that was an old rule, and Louis XIV had stopped performing the Royal Touch entirely. When Louis XVI came to the throne in 1863, . Louis’ performed the ritual, but changed it a bit. “The King touches you, may God heal you.”4

        Society was not seen as a collection of individuals with legal or civil rights before the law. For poor peasants, the possibility of an education was slim, and the opportunity to advance based on personal talent, merit, or strength of character was astronomically slim. Life among the aristocrats, on the other hand, is a life of balls and luxuries, whilst t, the peasants tended their land and coughed up their dues and royal taxes. The struggle to survive, as we find at the center of Figaro’s most famous soliloquy, was very real. In 1709, the winter was so harsh that Louis XIV’s wine froze in his glass – and a million people died in France that year.5    

Life in the cities was a dramatic contrast between the highest lords and women selling tea on black roads. Visitors to Paris were shocked by what they saw. O as opulence rubbeding shoulders with squalor and filthy streets where beggar women sold tea, a place where regular men and women rubbed shoulders with the wealthiest nobles in the land. Half of Paris was too poor to make the roll of taxpayers, while the top 1% were too rich to make this roll. Just above the poor were the shopkeepers, artisans and, skilled woodworkers, and they had a little bit more money than the farmers, but virtually no rights. Justice was carried out by local seigneurial justice courts, where local seigneuries would rule on legal matters.6

        The question that has been asked is why revolution broke out in an economically dynamic country. And while the answer isn’t a simple one, the peasants of France got to see themselves as just as deserving of natural rights as all the other citizens of France. Figaro stirred up a social cell and gave it egalitarian social goals, inspired by the great philosophes of the Enlightenment such as Diderot, who compiled the first encyclopedia, and his great compilation of articles intended as a future repository of the basics of human knowledge, systematizing it, and getting the people to think about these freedoms made them extremely motivated; s. Sometimes motivated by the latest discussion of the new ideas, sometimes by brandy mixed with gunpowder and heads lopped off with fruit knives, with the Swiss Guard firing into the crowd with cannon.

        Between the years 1792 and 1815, the attempted establishment of a new social foundation swung wildly between differently inspired and reasoned motivations within a former social cell, that of old regime France, and the rebel cell as attempted foundation, such as that of the revolutionaries during the French Revolution, and even those of the American Civil War, though the moral sphere of etiological foundation is not done as much violence by the possible social foundations of a society that wanted to pull itself into a new, more scientific, and reasonable world.

        This amorphous sense of identity would lead to the age most habitable to suspicion and conspiracy theories, because there was less agreement among those attempting to lay a foundation than in any other instance we’ve discussed. The social cell took one identity after another, changing with the will of the crowd, and without being able to establish a sense of a shared socio-cultural cell, the first French Republic was unable to remain viable, as the task the revolutionaries set before themselves was to set a new foundation on a ground that keeps moving.

        Yet somehow, some microbe from the former social cell, of the old regime, always reemerged, as attempting to wash one shirt stained with blood with a load of clean shirts. Because it goes into the spin cycle together, the stain spreads from one to another, and motivation that’s not towards foundation and stability is by nature perpetual, and the comforts provided by the celebration of tradition extend to one’s sense of identity, one’s values, one’s fears, virtues, and aspirations.

Epilogue
Religion in a World With Lasers: The Social Cell in Rebellion

While JFK’s posthumous reputation has done to glorify him and lament the loss of promise shown by the handsome, young president and charming wife, o. Only time will tell if this interactive social mythmaking keeps majority as a rebel cell, and further, how long a traditional social cell can remain cohesive with an alternative majority within a wider cultural consensus. One needs to look only to Nero, or to the irony of Lee Harvey Oswald, the person to whom all evidence points as the assassin, has been pardoned, with many within the conspiracy community believing in his absolute innocence. To contrast that, it’s a popular myth that the Emperor Nero ‘fiddled while Rome burned’.1

        Cassius Dio’s account of the Great Fire and Nero’s Role in it can be found in his Roman History. Cassius Dio’s account is unflattering to say the least. He begins with the claim that “‘Nero set his heart on making an end of the whole realm dying during his lifetime.”2 Dio’s account continues as Nero sets about sending out men pretending to be drunk or engaged in general hooliganism while setting fire to different parts of the city. After several days and nights of destruction and deluge, the wailing of children and lamentations of the women fill the air. Nero ascends to the roof of the palace which offered the greatest view of the conflagration. And assuming his lyre player’s garb he sang the Capture of Troy, as he styled the song himself.

        Suetonius’ account of Nero in The Twelve Caesars3 is similarly unflattering. In this account, Suetonius states that Nero pretended to be disgusted with the drab old apartments and the narrow, winding streets of Rome. H, he brazenly set fire to the series. Suetonius adds that two ex-consuls caught Nero’s attendants with tow and blazing torches trespassing on their property but did not interfere. Nero also used the fire to take over several granaries he coveted, solidly built of stone.

        Suetonius claims the terror lasted for six days and seven nights[5] , as people were forced to take shelter in monuments and tombs while Nero’s men destroyed apartment buildings as well as mansions that once belonged to famous generals, still decorated in their triumphal trophies; temples, dedicated and vowed by the Kings and others during the Punic & Gallic wars – in fact every ancient monument that had hitherto survived. Here’s where Suetonius deviates from the account of Cassius Dio:

        “‘Nero watched the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, enraptured by ‘the beauty of the flames”4. Then Nero put on his tragedians’ costume & and sang the sack of Illyricum. This is an example of a social myth in progress, though not quite congealed yet as a hardened part of the social cell. The thorough establishment of this socio-political myth is interrupted by Tacitus’ accounts from Annals.

        In this account Nero was staying at his country estate at Antium and didn’t even return to the capital until the fire was nearing the house by which he had connected the Palatine with the gardens of Maecenas. After the fire proved unstoppable, before it could engulf the Palatine and the house and all their immediate surroundings, Nero continued to work to save property and lives. In this account, instead of singing (just yet) Nero worked hard to provide relief for the homeless and fugitive populace, opening the Campus Martius, the buildings of Agrippa, even his own gardens and threw up a number of extemporized shelters to accommodate the helpless multitude. The necessities of life were brought up from Ostia and the neighboring municipalities, and the price of grain was lowered to three sesterces.

        With all of this effort, how did the Emperor become the suspect and ultimately accused of starting the fire? Tacitus gives us a hint at how tales, like those of Cassius Dio and Suetonius, were “‘the subject of few substantial conversations, but many earnest whispered accusations.”4’ Nero’s measures may not have been as popular as their moral character might be, having failed in their effect to reassure and console; for the report spread that at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he had taken to his private stage and, typifying the ills of the present by the calamities of the past, he had sung of the destruction of Troy.

        The hint he gives for why this rumor might have caught on was that, after the first fire was finally brought under control at the edge of the Esquiline by demolishing the buildings over a vast area and opposing the great unabated fury, a clear tract of ground opened on the horizon. But the fears had not been allayed, nor had hope returned to the people when the fire resumed its ravages.

        Here we have a massive tragedy, again, the conspiratorial fountain of youth, confusion and chaos are in the blood, and social thinking has been blanked by fear; the loss of home and shelter and, the second flame according to Tacitus caused the greater controversy as it had broken out on Aemilian property of Tigellinus and appearances suggested that Nero was seeking the glory of founding a new capital and endowing it with his own name.”5

        The ensuing national trauma was naturally a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, instead of reconciling their lot with the type of senseless tragedy this would be without some agency behind it, the people are left with nothing: no home or property, and no totem, or fear ikon on which to concentrate their exasperation. In the instance of natural disasters, humanity has the seemingly natural inclination to give intent and personality to the forces responsible. They gave Zeus the lightning bolt and virtue, Demeter weeping in the winter over the departure of the summer and her daughter. T, this instance of a human being given human traits is unique, as – at least as far as absolute power was concerned – an Emperor of Rome had as much power as was capable of being concentrated in two hands in the world at the time, a type of power less than a thousand people have historically wielded, and in front of this type of human power we have the same fear response. It is, as ever, a social definition that runs contrary to the official record. Instilling such fear in a populace can be beneficial for a ruler like Caesar Augustus, the longest uninterrupted ruler of Roman in its history at that time. And after Nero, there would be no heirs to the Julio-Claudian family, and again, there would be civil war.6

Suetonius himself was born in the Year of the Four Emperors, a society in which generals and pretenders vied for the Imperial title7 the first civil war since the assassination of Julius Caesar, which we discussed in the very first chapter. As it was with Figaro, poking at the structure of a long lived social cell can cause it to deteriorate. Over and over we’ve looked at conspiracy as an organizing principle, but organizational principles are operative when there is first separateness. The organizing principle of conspiracy theorizing and socio-mythography among individuals coming together is the motivational tendency toward civilization and culture.

        We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, can impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France7, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

        A social conscience and shared culture is easy to take for granted; all the movie references our friends make , we are able to share in a social moment only because in being saturated by the same pop culture, and as we share meanings we can move onto share meaningful things.

        Social cognition is the necessary condition of a conscious social cell. Discontent with the foundations of an established cell in a time of stagnation is the outgrowth of displacement or reform, that of the rebel cell. During an outgrowth of a potential replacement cell – when a rebel off-shoot obtains majority – we can see how people form into groups and how groups and civilizations tend towards collective villains and heroes, shared favorite songs, which ultimately adds up to a group sharing perspectives, rather than the limitation of inference and suspicion, a motivating principle of shared means and ends would be collective thinking, in which people imagine together.

        The social cell is the end result of the mechanism of cultural exchange involved in the faces of snow clouds, the personalities of a violent sea, and within the American social cell we have our founding myths, as well as Rome, and our heroes. Our heroes have moved from abstractions into more humble forces. To understand an age, look at what’s inside its social cell. In America, the inner walls are filled with books and movies, thrillers and supernatural thrillers, and unique in the American social scale is its welcome addition of those from other social cells to bring a piece of it with them, to enrich the social cell intended to be a place of many cultures, towards the idea of a multi-social cell, in which the individual foundational principles of other cells that mix without malcontent. To get past suspicions, of which conspiracy theory is now the formal disbelief, the inter-social exchange should be encouraged, when a social cell can interact with others and incorporate without absorbing, then the multisocial cell construct becomes possible. 

A multisocial cell is the achievement of a society that can survive the attempts of anti-social opposition from without and rebel cells from within. This is a national stage of social development, as our first tribes were strictly isolated and xenophobic, our most modern social cells run the spectrum of hated, tolerated, supportive in its willingness towards socially acceptable multiculturalism without turning into a Nazi. It’s not about you, Mark.

In the anti-social cell, the tradition is a collected is the collection of traditions the individual social objects reject. But, as a rebel cell can only survive amid opposition, it cannot outlast the multisocial cell; for the cell in rebellion must be in rebellion to survive. And it can sometimes take odd shapes just to fit the times, after all. In the end, we must remember, it’s not about you, Mark. Life is not a science fiction movie. It’s better, but like my old friend always says: Truth is stranger than fiction, but it has pacing problems.

 

5 February 2017

Ithaca, New York

CITATIONS

I. Murley, J. A., Sutton, Sean D. Perspective on Politics in Shakespeare. P. 41

  1. Culbertson, Katherine E. “Elizabeth I: The Most Elusive Bride in History.” Hanover Historical Review.
  2. Ives, Eric William. Faction in Tudor England. No. 6. Historical Association, 1979.
  3. Childs, Jesse. “God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England.”

5 Adams, Simon. “Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England. English Historical Review 2008; CXXIII (501): 457-458. doi: 10.1093/ehr/cen048

  1. Schama, Simon. A History of England, pt 7. “The Body of the Queen.”
  2. Menzies, James W. “Joseph Campbell and Myth.” In True Myth: C.S. Lewis and Joseph Campbell on the Veracity of Christianity, 88-141.

II

  1. Ward, Stephen J. A. “Patriotism and Global Ethics.” In Global Journalism Ethics, 213-38
  2. Beveridge, Jan. “Giants.” In Children into Swans: Fairy Tales and the Pagan Imagination, 90-102. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt14bs0gg.16.
  3. Shengold, Leonard. “The Myth of Demeter and Persephone.” In Haunted by Parents, 65-70.
  4. Farmer, Paul. “Blame, Cause, Etiology, and Accusation.” In AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame, 244-51

III

  1. Oaklander, Mandy. “Here’s Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories.” Time Magazine, 14 August 2015
  2. Ebert, Roger. “JFK Movie Review and Analysis”. 1991 – http://rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-jfk-1991
  3. Harrison, John M. “A Crusade and Its Problems.” The Review of Politics 37, no. 1 (1975): 122-25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1406147.
  4. Holland, Tom. “Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic”
  5. Kafka, Franz. “The Trial”
  6. military.com “Famous Veterans: Oliver Stone”

7: L, Fletcher Prouty. “JFK: the Cia, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy” (1992)

8: Stone, Oliver, Sklar, Zacharcy. “JFK: The Book of the Film (New York: Applause, 1992) p.106

9: Kurosawa, Akira. “Rashomon” 26 December 1951

10: Flavel, John H. “Cognitive Development” 2nd ed. P. 129-44

11: Flavel, John H. Ibid.

IV

I. Meeker, Kimberly. “Politics of the Stage: Theatre and Popular Opinion In Eighteenth-Century Paris” https://www.binghamton.edu/history/resources/journal-of-history/stage-politics.html

  1. Smith, Tim. “Frothy ‘Figaro’ Sets Stage for the French Revolution” SunSentinel, December 1995

3. Nielsen, Wendy C. “Staging” Rousseau’s Republic” Vol. 43, no. 3, pp.268-285

4: Lambe, Patrick J. “Biblical Criticism and Censorship in Ancien Regime France: The Case of Richard Simon.” Harvard theological review, 78(2-2 (1985) pp. 149-177

5: Darnton, Robert. “The forbidden books of pre-Revolutionary France. Month (1991): 1-32

6: “The Living Age” vol. 119, p. 83


Epilogue

1. Schama, Simon. “The Power of Art: Jaques-Louis David”

2. Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin. “The Marriage of Figaro” act V, scene III

3. Sargent, Thomas J. Velde, Francois R. “Macroeconomic Features of the French Revolution.” Journey of Political Economy 103, no. 3 (1995) pp. 474-518.

On Family, an Orphan’s Perspective – 31 July 2021

As an orphan I thought that I was lucky inasmuch as I could choose my family, my brothers and sisters, those to whom I could lean against when the winds made me wobble near to falling … in my illness, in my neuroses, my tortured artist skin I have yet to shed and cast off … and I was wrong, as it is no choice but yet an understanding of acceptance that, though you entered the dark chamber of the cocoon blind as the caterpillar, only to remain in that darkness alone, thinking that you might never emerge, only to come out more vibrant than before, taking flight … it is family that keeps you aloft when the wind gives no lift, and the waves give no mercy, they remain when those tidal forces of blind nature and chaotic consequence might threaten to knock you over or erode you to the bone; they remain, to steady you and make sure that, though you may have been worn down, as the rocks by the ages of waves that carve them year by year, family is what you have when you look around and see nothing else, yet you see that they have given you what you need to fly.

appreciation is a poor gift to offer to someone who stands before the tide beside you, or risks the fire to pull you from it — but if that were a motive in the solidity and solidarity necessary, family would be a poor word to describe such a person. Family need not be asked, they insist to be — and what can an orphan boy do but be comforted by the accumulation of such brothers, such sisters who have, through many seasons of monsoon and whirlwinds, hurricanes and williwaws, stand there, as they dare not let you fall?



What remained, though remnants exist, that skin that clasps and holds you in such mold that contorts you into socially recognizable shape — it is the form of the pupae, and we should not weep for the loss of prior forms, as the metamorphoses has given more to those who have transformed, who have grown and learned and seen, more than the blind caterpillar who emerges, once an insect, now with wings.

An imagining of myself as a pair of scissors, charcoal on Pizza Hut Box, 2001; from a short distance meant to be seen as a scissors, up close as a child with legs inward, shutting off the world through this gesture, cutting off the world.

The romantics had it wrong, that the sentimental life was one that rewarded the artist with grist for the potter’s wheel. The grist in this instance is more valuable by far than whatever works of pottery should come from the forge of potter or glazier.

The notion of romanticg suffering is romantic until you suffer, and to seek it out as a means to enlightenment is as rational as skydiving with a passport so you won’t get stuck at customs before they let you into Heaven.
Be all my sins remembered,
From the authentic bastards lot,
legitimate, in original packaging, aged but yet the skin has yet to be shed …
Though it’s time I molt.

Once I thought as an orphan I would have no brothers and sisters. Now I know I can and do have as many as I would like.

I have to hurry off now and find a place to circumcise my daughter on short notice.

Religion, Freedom, Fear & Panic (George Orwell) – 17 March 2016

THE ART OF OPPRESSION

AS MUCH AS ART AND LANGUAGE HAVE ENRICHED our lives and culture, it can be used as a means of personal advancement or attainment, and can be used, has been used as a tool to subdue and keep mute an illiterate public. As the best literature and music can be liberating, there is a darker side to this, something more nefarious. George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a future where literature does not set free the soul was as fantastical as it was grounded. Because, despite seeing its absurdity, we saw echoes of Orwell’s themes, if but vaguely, in our own lives — Big Brother is the judging eye that watches, an eye that judges, a figure that enforces law against thinking the wrong way. Wilson gets sent to the worst hotel room in history outside of a Holiday Inn, Room 101.

Big Brother is Watching You — everyone is familiar with the popular phrase from [Orwell’s] most popular work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, but its interpretation has often been limited to political interpretation. If you cast big brother as an abstract and put the entirety of creation under his charge, what do you get? An all seeing figure who’s always watching, always careful to ensure the rules laid forth are observed, and in waiting to punish if a tenet of the Law is broken. Big Brother, as an abstract, is more than a satire of the culture of personality which, like Boy Bands and iPhone releases, always seem to spring up despite all sensible people knowing how objectively terrible they are.

Nineteen Eight-Four appeals to the same sensibility to which ‘God is watching over us’ appeals. Except, by inverting the All Seeing Eye, by showing us the perversion of thought crime, the crime of love, the arbitrary torture — it’s easy to see Orwell is telling a story on two different thematic levels: the microcosm (the singular Big Brother and the singular idea such a figure represents. And there’s a perversion of this, and it’s happening now, right in the modern, progressive world: but not through the silent, watchful judgment of one centralized authority figure, we’ve cast ourselves as indignant,flattered voyeurs in the drama of the watchful, attentive eye presiding over the most mundane of our activities, whether it is a friend who follows you on Twitter.

John Taylor’s Seven Lesson Schoolteacher has a different approach to handling an authoritarian edifice and his lessons are the bricks in the edifice of the mind’s sometimes voluntary enslavement. It is a poignant testament to the quality of individuality and warning against subscribing to a belief system structured to control. When the information provided comes from the same body enacting the law, it is, no matter the brand of information—literature, media, radio—designed to control by fear and recruit by a promise such law givers are unable to keep.

In The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher, Gatto shows us what Dostoevsky, in Notes from Underground, called the ‘edifice of glass.’ Gatto shows the reality of totalitarianism in a distorted yet eerily similar America.  To paraphrase, a centralized order must not be questioned. No possible objections, logical, sensible or otherwise are to be taken seriously and those who make such objections do so to their disadvantage.

Mr. Gatto, as he wished to be called, was a school teacher who had taught for twenty-six years, winning many awards in the process. He outlines a subconscious and hidden curriculum that is unconsciously transmitted to every student in every school in the United States. These rules aren’t acknowledged, written, or made apparent but, as Mr. Gatto suggests, this is the only way students can be turned into functioning member of society—as he sees it.

What does it mean to function in a society if one has to be manipulated as a child to be able to do so? The seven universal lessons perpetuate what has done more to harm people throughout history, though it helps a select few, and could be interpreted as a list for the pros of making war upon your own government, as Shakespeare famously questioned in his treatment of the character in Richard II: is it ever right to overthrow a monarchy? When it is necessary for the following traits to be drilled into children in order to keep them in check, it most certainly is; I fall into another category on this position, which Leon Trotsky expressed so well in Literature and Revolution. 

‘Mechanical centralism is necessarily complemented by factionalism, which is at once a malicious caricature of democracy and a potential political danger.’

Mr. Gatto’s entire structure is built on factionalism. His seven universal lessons are meant to strengthen some factions to invite membership and conformity, and others are intended to keep those ‘unworthy’ are those for whom the rest of the rules were written. The seven universal rules are: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and an admonition against anyone who notices the slavery of a system that confuses intentionally, gives to one side it created for itself, and addicts the rest to scraps because class position can only exist in a society confused and emotionally dependent. You can’t hide. Big brother is watching you. Take your soma and fall in line: this is the literature of enslavement. And the author of this material is a real man and really believes in these universal ‘laws’ of education.

Students are often taught a barrage of information, none of which is important to their lives, intended to work as an assembly line towards an end, a goal: to college, to graduate school, and finally to a job. This sort of cynical approach by a life-long teacher is disheartening; it is disheartening not because of one man’s belief, but those who rally behind his ideas of slavery are highly influential. Behind all the useless information is what the intended goal of this system is: there is this centralized element abhorrent to Trotsky, an element that might have made Shakespeare rethink his ideas of overthrowing a monarch.

The central command structure of knowledge reaches into the deep past of western philosophy. It’s in Plato’s The Republic, St. Augustine’s City of God, even Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Although it wasn’t published in his lifetime, Hobbes’ much better work, Behemoth, was forbidden by a king, a king who probably would’ve endorsed it, had he read it. Satires like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World were considered, in their time, to be ridiculous. These were not instant classics. And the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four nearly killed George Orwell; this brings us to what gave the English their first clear vision of totalitarianism.

AN HOMAGE TO ORWEL– On the Cult of Personality and Altar of Fear

BEFORE A SOCIAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL ANALYSIS of Orwell the man, writer of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, I would first like to say that I believe he was at his best in his non-fiction account of the Spanish Civil War—Homage to Catalonia.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Sixty years after the publication of Orwell’s mostly widely cited and read work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, that crystal first line sounds as natural and compelling as ever. But when you see the original manuscript, you find something else: not so much the ringing clarity, more the obsessive rewriting, in different inks, that betrays the extraordinary turmoil behind its composition.

Probably the definitive dystopian novel of the 20th century, a story that remains eternally fresh and contemporary, and whose terms such as ‘Big Brother,’ ‘doublethink,’ and ‘newspeak—all of which having become part of the everyday currency in the English lexicon, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into more than 65 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, giving George Orwell a unique place in world literature.

The circumstances surrounding the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four make a haunting narrative that helps to explain the bleakness of Orwell’s dystopia. Here was an English writer, desperately sick, grappling alone with the demons of his imagination in a bleak Scottish outpost in the desolate aftermath of the Second World War. The idea for Nineteen Eighty-Four, alternatively, The Last Man in Europe, had been incubating in Orwell’s mind since the Spanish civil war.

His novel, which owes something to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian fiction We, probably began to take a definitive shape during 1943-44, around the time he and his wife Eileen adopted their only son, Richard. Orwell himself claimed that he was partly inspired by the meeting of the Allied leaders at the Tehran Conference of 1944. Isaac Deutscher, an Observer colleague, reported that Orwell was “convinced that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt consciously plotted to divide the world” at Tehran.

Orwell had worked for David Astor’s Observer since 1942, first as a book reviewer and later as a correspondent. The editor professed great admiration for Orwell’s “absolute straightforwardness, his honesty and his decency,” and would be his patron throughout the 1940s. The closeness of their friendship is crucial to the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell’s creative life had already benefited from his association with the Observer in the writing of Animal Farm. As the war drew to a close, the fruitful interaction of fiction and Sunday journalism would contribute to the much darker and more complex novel he had in mind after that celebrated ‘fairy tale.’ It’s clear from Observer book reviews, for example, that he was fascinated by the relationship between morality and language.

There were other influences at work. The atmosphere of random terror in the everyday life of wartime London became integral to the mood of the novel-in-progress. Worse was to follow. In March 1945, while on assignment for the Observer in Europe, Orwell received news that his wife Eilee, had died under anesthesia during a routine operation.

Suddenly he was a widower and a single parent, eking out a threadbare life in his Islington lodgings, and working incessantly to dam the flood of remorse and grief at his wife’s premature death. In 1945, for instance, he wrote almost 110,000 words for various publications, including 15 book reviews for the Observer.

Then Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura, next to Islay. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the remote northern tip of this rocky finger of heather in the Inner Hebrides.

Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. Speaking to the Observer last week, Richard Blair says he believes, from family legend, Astor was taken aback by the enthusiasm of Orwell’s response.

In May 1946 Orwell, still picking up the shattered pieces of his life, took the train for the long and arduous journey to Jura. He told his friend Arthur Koestler that it was ‘almost like stocking up ship for an arctic voyage.’

It was a risky move; Orwell was not in good health. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest of the century. Postwar Britain was bleak and Orwell always suffered from a chest pains and other anxiety-related pains. At least, cut off from the irritations of literary London, he was free to grapple unencumbered with the new novel. ‘Smothered under journalism,’ as he put it, he told one friend, ‘I have become more and more like a sucked orange.’

Ironically, part of Orwell’s difficulties derived from the success of Animal Farm. After years of neglect and indifference the world was waking up to his genius. ‘Everyone keeps coming at me,’ he complained to Koestler, ‘wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc.–you don’t know how I pine to be free of it all and have time to think again.’

On Jura he would be liberated from these distractions. The promise of creative freedom on an island in the Hebrides, however, came with its own, unique price. Years before, in the essay Why I Write, he described the struggle to complete a book: ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand. For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality.’ It ends with the popular adage: ‘Good prose is like a window pane.’

From the spring of 1947 to his death in 1950 Orwell would re-enact every aspect of this struggle in the most painful way imaginable. Privately, perhaps, he relished the overlap between theory and practice. He had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity.

At first, after ‘a quite unendurable winter,’ he reveled in the isolation and wild beauty of Jura. ‘I am struggling with this book,’ he wrote to his agent, ‘which I may finish by the end of the year—at any rate I shall have broken the back by then so long as I keep well and keep off journalistic work until the autumn.’

Barnhill, overlooking the sea at the top of a potholed track, was not large, with four small bedrooms above a spacious kitchen. Life was simple, even primitive. There was no electricity. Orwell used Calor gas to cook and to heat water. Storm lanterns burned paraffin. In the evenings he also burned peat. He was still chain-smoking black shag tobacco in roll-up cigarettes: the fug in the house was cozy but not healthy. A battery radio was the only connection with the outside world.

Orwell, a gentle, unworldly sort of man, arrived with just a camp bed, a table, a couple of chairs and a few pots and pans. It was a Spartan existence but supplied the conditions under which he liked to work. He is remembered there as a spectre in the mist, a gaunt figure in oilskins.

At the end of May 1947 he told his publisher, Fred Warburg: ‘I think I must have written nearly a third of the rough draft. I have not got as far as I had hoped to do by this time because I really have been in most wretched health this year ever since about January (my chest as usual) and can’t quite shake it off.’

Mindful of his publisher’s impatience for the new novel, Orwell added: ‘Of course the rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job.’ Still, he pressed on, and at the end of July was predicting a completed ‘rough draft’ by October. After that, he said, he would need another six months to polish up the text for publication. This does not happen.

Part of the pleasure of life on Jura for George and his young son was the outdoor life—fishing, explore the island, and potter about in boats. In August, during a spell of lovely summer weather, Orwell, Avril, Richard and some friends, returning from a hike up the coast in a small motor boat, were nearly drowned in the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool.

Richard Blair remembers being ‘bloody cold’ in the freezing water, and Orwell, whose constant coughing worried his friends, did his lungs no favors. Within two months he was seriously ill. Typically, his account to David Astor of this narrow escape was laconic, even nonchalant.

The long struggle with The Last Man in Europe continued. In late October 1947, oppressed with ‘wretched health,’ Orwell recognized that his novel was still ‘a most dreadful mess and about two-thirds of it will have to be retyped entirely.’

He was working at a feverish pace. Visitors to Barnhill recall the sound of his typewriter pounding away upstairs in his bedroom. Then, in November, tended by the faithful Avril, he collapsed with ‘inflammation of the lungs’ and told Koestler that he was “very ill in bed”. Just before Christmas, in a letter to an Observer colleague, he broke the news he had always dreaded. Finally he had been diagnosed with TB.

A few days later, writing to Astor from Hairmyres hospital, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, he admitted: ‘I still feel deadly sick,’ and conceded that, when illness struck after the Corryvreckan whirlpool incident, ‘like a fool I decided not to go to a doctor – I wanted to get on with the book I was writing.’

In 1947 there was no cure for TB; doctors could only prescribe fresh air regular diets. However, there was a new, experimental drug on the market, streptomycin. Astor arranged for a shipment to Hairmyres from the US.

Orwell’s son Richard believed his father was given excessive doses of this new drug. The side effects were horrific (throat ulcers, blisters in the mouth, hair loss, peeling skin and the disintegration of toe and fingernails; but in March 1948, after a three-month course, the TB symptoms had disappeared. ‘It’s all over now, and evidently the drug has done its stuff,’ Orwell told his publisher. ‘It’s rather like sinking the ship to get rid of the rats, but worth it if it works.’

As he prepared to leave hospital Orwell received the letter from his publisher which, in hindsight, would be another nail in the coffin. ‘It really is rather important,’ wrote Warburg to the star author, ‘from the point of view of your literary career to get it [the new novel] by the end of the year and indeed earlier if possible.’

Just when he should have been convalescing Orwell was back at Barnhill, deep into the revision of his manuscript, promising to deliver by ‘early December,’ and coping with ‘filthy weather’ on autumnal Jura. Early in October he confided to Astor: ‘I have got so used to writing in bed that I think I prefer it, though of course it’s awkward to type there. I am just struggling with the last stages of this bloody book [which is] about the possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn’t conclusive.’

This is one of Orwell’s exceedingly rare references to the theme of his book. He believed, as many writers do, that it was bad luck to discuss a work-in-progress. Later, to Anthony Powell, he described it as ‘a Utopia written in the form of a novel.’ The typing of the fair copy of The Last Man in Europe became another dimension of Orwell’s battle with his book. The more he revised his ‘unbelievably bad” manuscript the more it became a document only he could read and interpret. It was, he told his agent, “extremely long, even 125,000 words.’ With characteristic candor, he noted: ‘I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied… I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB.’

And he was still undecided about the title: ‘I am inclined to call it NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE,’ he wrote, ‘but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two.’ By the end of October Orwell believed he was done. Now he just needed a stenographer to help make sense of it all.

It was a desperate race against time. Orwell’s health was deteriorating, the ‘unbelievably bad’ manuscript needed retyping, and the December deadline was looming. Warburg promised to help, and so did Orwell’s agent. At cross-purposes over possible typists, they somehow contrived to make a bad situation infinitely worse. Orwell, feeling beyond help, followed his ex-public schoolboy’s instincts: he would go it alone.

By mid-November, too weak to walk, he retired to bed to tackle ‘the grisly job’ of typing the book on his “decrepit typewriter” by himself. Sustained by endless roll-ups, pots of coffee, strong tea and the warmth of his paraffin heater, with gales buffeting Barnhill, night and day, he struggled on. By 30 November 1948 it was virtually done.

Now Orwell, the old campaigner, protested to his agent that ‘it really wasn’t worth all this fuss. It’s merely that, as it tires me to sit upright for any length of time, I can’t type very neatly and can’t do many pages a day.’ Besides, he added, it was ‘wonderful’ what mistakes a professional typist could make, and, ‘in this book there is the difficulty that it contains a lot of neologisms.’

The typescript of George Orwell’s latest novel reached London in mid-December, as promised. Warburg recognized its qualities at once (‘amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read’) and so did his colleagues. An in-house memo noted ‘if we can’t sell 15 to 20 thousand copies we ought to be shot.’

By now Orwell had left Jura and checked into a TB sanatorium high in the Cotswolds. ‘I ought to have done this two months ago,’ he told Astor, ‘but I wanted to get that bloody book finished.’ Once again Astor stepped in to monitor his friend’s treatment but Orwell’s specialist was privately pessimistic.

As word of Nineteen Eighty-Four began to circulate, Astor’s journalistic instincts kicked in and he began to plan an Observer Profile, a significant accolade but an idea that Orwell contemplated ‘with a certain alarm.’ As spring came he was “having haemoptyses” (spitting blood) and ‘feeling ghastly most of the time’ but was able to involve himself in the pre-publication rituals of the novel, registering ‘quite good notices’ with satisfaction. He joked to Astor that it wouldn’t surprise him ‘if you had to change that profile into an obituary.’

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949 (five days later in the US) and was almost universally recognized as a masterpiece, even by Winston Churchill, who told his doctor that he had read it twice. Orwell’s health continued to decline. In October 1949, in his room at University College hospital, he married Sonia Brownell, with David Astor as best man. It was a fleeting moment of happiness; he lingered into the new year of 1950. In the small hours of 21 January, George Orwell suffered a massive hemorrhage in hospital and died alone.

The news was broadcast on the BBC the next morning. Avril Blair and her nephew, still up on Jura, heard the report on the little battery radio in Barnhill. Richard Blair does not recall whether the day was bright or cold but remembers the shock of the news: his father was dead, aged 46.

David Astor arranged for Orwell’s burial in the churchyard at Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire. He lies there now, as Eric Blair, between HH Asquith and a local family of Gypsies.

Cont.

Why ‘1984’? 

Orwell’s title remains a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984), or perhaps to one of his favorite writer GK Chesterton’s story, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which is set in 1984.

In his edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes,) Peter Davison notes that Orwell’s American publisher claimed that the title derived from reversing the date, 1948, though there’s no documentary evidence for this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of Richard Blair’s birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally, 1984. There’s no mystery about the decision to abandon The Last Man in Europe. Orwell himself was always unsure of it. It was his publisher, Fred Warburg who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a more commercial title.

Freedom of speech

The effect of Nineteen Eighty-Four on our cultural and linguistic landscape has not been limited to either the film adaptation starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, with its Naziesque rallies and chilling soundtrack, nor the earlier one with Michael Redgrave and Edmond O’Brien.

It is likely, however, that many people watching the Big Brother series on television (in the UK, let alone in Angola, Oman or Sweden, or any of the other countries whose TV networks broadcast programmes in the same format) have no idea where the title comes from or that Big Brother himself, whose role in the reality show is mostly to keep the peace between scrapping, swearing contestants like a wise uncle, is not so benign in his original incarnation. Apart from pop-culture renditions of some of the novel’s themes, aspects of its language have been leapt upon by libertarians to describe the curtailment of freedom in the real world by politicians and official—alarmingly, nowhere and never more often than in contemporary Britain.

Orwellian

 Room 101

Some hotels have refused to call a guest bedroom number 101—rather like those tower blocks that don’t have a 13th floor—thanks to the Orwellian concept of a room that contains whatever its occupant finds most impossible to endure. Like Big Brother, this has spawned a modern TV show: in this case, celebrities are invited to name the people or objects they hate most in the world.

Thought police

An accusation often levelled at authoritative governments, or arenas in public in which ideas or speech are being restricted; any conglomeration designed to bleep or blur, remove or ‘correct’ literature, hide and suppress ideas.

Newspeak

For Orwell, freedom of expression was not just about freedom of thought but also linguistic freedom. This term, denoting the narrow and diminishing official vocabulary, has been used ever since to denote jargon currently in vogue with those in power.

Doublethink

Hypocrisy with a twist. Rather than choosing to disregard a contradiction in your opinion, if you are doublethinking, you are deliberately forgetting that the contradiction is there. This subtlety is mostly overlooked by people using the accusation of ‘doublethink’ when trying to accuse an adversary of being hypocritical—but it is a very popular word with people who like a good debate with their beer. If I may: everything is good with beer—if you have the beer first.

IN THE BHAGAVAD-GITA, THE HINDU HOLY BOOK, we find the great archer and warrior, Arjuna, with his charioteer, and avatar of Vishnu, Krisha—of questionable fame stemming from an event earlier in life, having been caught stealing butter–allegedly. They are poised between two massive armies lined up to fight one another. He looks at both sides and finds relatives, fathers and sons, ready to slaughter one another in this battle. In his confusion and anguish, he cries out for guidance. To guide him, Krishna speaks to him as the supreme God of Gods, almighty Time, and instructs him the way of the Yoga.

The war, like so many of what is herein discussed, is an externalization used to illustrate the conflict inside oneself, the kind of conflict that every person has when it comes to choosing, when it comes to differentiating between what is right and what is wrong. Krishna appeared before him as a beacon of light in a time of darkness. He has since appeared to millions as the same light, to lead people from eternal return (For modern comparison, consider Groundhog Day) from what Krishna calls ‘the transient world of sorrow.’

The main thing that appealed to me about this ancient text is just pure beauty. Transience, I believe, is the major theme, the mortality of everything alive on the earth. In describing this to Arjuna, the transience of life and its luxuries, Krishna consoles and reminds Arjuna of his purpose, thereby escorting him out of darkness. What Krishna reveals to him cripples Arjuna and he is left shaking with fear and awe, saying, ‘Thy tears are for those beyond tears; and are thy words words of wisdom? The wise grieve not for those who live; they grieve not for those who died. Life and death will pass away.’

By this I believe he was saying that emotional and physical states exist in finite space, unable to last forever, and reasons that life, like death, will someday pass away into another sphere of existence, beyond eternal return.

‘Because we have all been for all time, I, and thou,’ he says. ‘We all shall be for all time, forever, and forever more.’

It appears in his words that Krishna relates the human body to be nothing but a vessel, like a physical ship to carry the ships’ captain, then, when the physical ship is no longer set afloat, the captain moves on to find another ship, only to be imprisoned again, like smoke inside a bottle until reincarnation, where we’re trapped again inside a body in the miserable cycle of eternal return.

Krishna appears before him as all powerful Time, with, ‘…multitudes rushing into him and pouring out of him as he devours them all, destroys everything.’

Krishna says, “I am all powerful time, and I have come here to slay these men. Fight, or fight not; all these men will die.”

After the mortal body is shed, ‘As the spirit of our mortal body wanders on in childhood, and in you and old age, the spirit moves to a new body,’ Krishna believes the evaluating mid-mind, the mind behind the body, passes in and out of light and dark, between worlds, reliving one cycle of life and death without ever finding something that lasts forever, something that is forever tangible. The spirit, however, is forever to him; this is a good idea, as death is relegated to nothing but a temporary shedding of a body: ‘Interwoven in [his] creation, the spirit is beyond destruction. No one can bring an end to the everlasting spirit or an end to something which had no beginning.’

Once someone escapes the transient world, Krishna instructs, he will dwell beyond time in these bodies, though our bodies have an end in their times, but we remain immeasurable, immortal. With these words, Krishna tells us to carry on our noble fight and noble struggles against the depreciating forces of all of life.

The highest goal for him is a goal familiar to Buddhists: asceticism. ‘From the world of senses,’ Krishna says, again beautifully illustrating transience, ‘comes fire and ice, pleasure and pain. They come and go for they are transient. Arise above them, strong soul.’

These words have encouraged and inspired millions of people; from east of the globe to west, every day for thousands of years, this has the quality of liberation. As the Persian poet wrote: A king wished to have a phrase that would cheer him when sad and sadden him when joyful:

This too shall pass.

 The tone of the piece is intended to convey a liberating, lasting peace—an acceptance and eagerness to dispel disillusion and ignorance, to grow closer to the laws of the world and universe, a universe that is god made manifest—this is, in essence, what is called Brahma. It is a call for people to be honorable and kind to others. I’m not a religious person. I am however not ignorant of what this gives to culture and the arts. From a secular perspective, The Bhagavad-Gita is one of the greatest works of literature ever produced by mankind. There is much to take away, to learn, to believe. Acceptance of the supernatural is not necessary to learn and benefit from this cultural jewel.

The Bhagavad-Gita is a beacon of light, a candle in the dark. All cultures in some form or another produce these spiritual and religious texts. The dependence on the supernatural varies, but the message is universal: good for the sake of goodness and kindness for its own sake, while it will earn you no medals or honorary titles, is what lasting peace demands. If the world worked in this way, if everyone was motivated to not only improve themselves but the world around them, a peaceful world becomes possible. In a free world, there is no need to govern, or for government. Government is a euphemism for organized, demanded control.

Confucius, the proverbial wise old man, is credited with the composition of The Analects. In it, Confucius believed himself to be nothing more than a carrier of knowledge. Nothing divine, nothing unique or supernatural, not an inventor but a curator in the museum of our artistic history. Confucian intended to ‘reinvigorate’ what is called the mandate of heaven. Although he claimed to be but a messenger, he is, nevertheless, credited with the most famous of all axioms: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

With great subtlety and emphasis on learning and growing, Confucius left behind a legacy that has had a lasting impact on the world for thousands of years. The Analects are not the only source for Chinese philosophy: Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching, The Teachings and Sayings of Chuang Tzu, and the iconic I-Ching, or Book of Changes, are cultural treasures, and inherently consistent in tone and content, giving this brand of Eastern philosophy a unique consistency in an otherwise muddled, frustrated series of contradictive versions.

‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.’

Lines like this are the sun, the light to the lofty and pretentious little quote-loving moth in us all.

In keeping with the tone and aloofness of Eastern philosophy, generally speaking, The Analects echo the Book of Changes, Confucius says, ‘The only constant is change.’

This axiom is but a small notch above pandering tautology; yet we’re still drawn to it. Quotes in this vein are uniquely popular and for good reason. Sometimes one can, without true effort and study, get a good summary or imbibe the essence of a work of art with a cursory glimpse and partial, sometimes non-representative quote. However, this quote is representative and conveys a valuable message. The intention is to raise awareness, to make us more aware of ourselves and changing moods and their relation to the seasons, the cycle of life and death, destruction and renewal. As with The Bhagavad-Gita; it is another mantra urging us to accept the inevitability of the transient, the ephemeral among what is truly immortal, or never-changing.

In the religions of independently evolving cultures, we find, over and over, a connection, a branching out across time and space; in this there is a surprising consistency in the essential message, ‘It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can give its full development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men.’

Confucius’s philosophy is a call to the most ambitious of our characters to look for wisdom and sincerity.

‘Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles. Then no friends would not be like yourself (all friends would be as loyal as yourself.) If you make a mistake, do not be afraid to correct it.’

This is unique among quasi-religious texts: this is a eukaryotic idea within, what is by nature, a prokaryotic art-form.

In all the philosophies and religions produced by mankind, within each is some sort of promise, some hint of shelter from whatever storms in which we struggle—and a promised liberation, a refuge to come, a refuge for each moment needed.

History and Conspiracy, Jacopo’s Pocket Watch – 6 January 2016

THE GREAT ABRAHAM LINCOLN POCKET WATCH CONSPIRACY
By Jacopo della Quercia

*****

BY LOOKING THROUGH THE LENS OF CONSPIRACY, WE AFFORD ourselves an illusion, an illusion of possibility, prediction, and control. Casting the horrors and intrigue of history in the light of conspiracy is a comfort, and to wield these elements so cleverly, as Jacopo della Quercia does in this novel, his debut, we are allowed to look at the present through the artifice of exploring the past. In one of the most memorable scenes (which I won’t give away here), the overtones of our need to control the popular perception of history is pervasive – as there is a lifeless, heartless attempt at changing history in the Oval Office.

            It is this character that lets the author reprogram an element of known history and use it in service of the story, and the identification of this character with another greatly popular and historic literary character further illustrates the need for people to feel like they’re in control of their lives, and ultimately their future, and the will to hold onto this control through will; it is this will, I think, that defines the struggle of the characters within the story, and the struggle for self-definition in the greater scope of history. This is a great quality of the novel, the author’s understanding – not only of the history – but of the present’s comfort.

            The work is a testament to Jacopo’s substantive education in American and world history. Despite the mixed-bag genre, none-of-which are truly capable of properly categorizing it, the characters are a high-point of the story. The relationship between Taft and his wife has a lingering sadness, a sadness that manifests as a crisis of conscience, the sadness of sickness being a catalyst for the presumption to make changes to the actual writing of history. It betrays a more human look at the development of connected events, no matter how loosely, and peoples, places, and the multitude of intersecting strings [Jacopo] manages to keep in hand.

            The story, in my reading, is more about the way that the passions and the sorrows and the love and sadness of people shape the world, despite their status. We see the most powerful of men succumb to the discomfort of despair; the way another prominent Bull Moose of a character walks among his people in disguise, in one of the many call-backs to Shakespeare, the first being a character’s defining himself as ‘the Falstaff of his era.’

            The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy not only takes you on a ride through the reality of history, but the reality of characters interacting with history as it’s happening; and by using conspiracy as the catalyst, it highlights another unique aspect of our nature: the curiosity and community built around assumed truths in history, the community conspiracy, which is itself a dodge, a comfort, a way to skip a more difficult and pressing issue: that of mindless action, unpredictable chaos without deeper meaning. By uncovering deep and all-encompassing conspiracies, it gives us the comfort of being able to see some sense in a world of randomness; it allows the world to be held accountable in breathing together (the definition of conspiracy), as all thoughts and persons in our world become more easily linked and associated, Jacopo shows a world of connected people, by narrative or company, doing what people have done since people were people: try to take a part the biggest balls of tangled cables, the tangled wires of prominent historical characters behaving poorly.

            The Pocket-Watch itself, I thought, was a source of light, something that drew the curiosity of its characters, bringing their prejudices and predispisitions with them in their attempts to divine its origin and mechanism of action. That mysterious pocketwatch, with dual transcriptions, is itself an image for a history stuck in the loop of time, or an era in which time stands still; the focus on the watch puts us into the story as another character, allowing us to be in on the conspiracy and history, allowing us to breathe together around that baffling fob watch.

            An object of wonder, of mystery, this watch — full of strange connections, bringing people together, in wonder, in awe: it demonstrates how people, who otherwise might have never crossed paths, become entangled in a web whose spider is that watch: around which the mystery and characters perform in this brilliant, clever, ersatz roman de clef. It is the anatomy of wonder and togetherness, and how it is easy for so many to reject the love of friends and community when contronted with intriguing symbols and puzzling events, embracing the solitude of skepticism and melancholy.

            In this book, you become a part of the unfolding story; as people have a natural capacity for pattern recognition (and pareidolia for when it fails us) and we – as readers – get to participate in the mystery. using our own impressions and experiences to try to crack the mystery, but in the end we prefer it, to keep that unique, blended version of history. We’re more voyeur than reader here, as our minds turn as well with mystery as those within the story. We go with each clue around the world, from Brussels to Paris to New York, as each new connection informs us of a larger and more complicated world, a world more strange and beautiful for it.

‘The Obituary Writer’ first draft, 11 September 2015

THE OBITUARY WRITER

Copyright © 2015

BRANDON K. NOBLES

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

I Death in Isla Wor

 

My first paying job after finishing school was writing a sports column for the town newspaper, a town of less than a thousand people, Isla Wor. The games were of no consequence in the world but very important to our little town; it brought everyone together, and when my poor nephew died, a tight-end on the little league football team, the community rallied round our family. Since I wrote about sports, when my poor, dear Alex died, I wrote it up in my column. It did really well, the paper sales; and there was more interest in my work. When no one died, I’d fabricate it just to keep the momentum of my work going. I was the obituary writer. I was proud of that.

Knock-knock.

I was formally offered the position to curate the obituary column after my successes, and it was all good and fun. People started noticing me in public, talking to me about my work, my other work, work I was more proud of, and it was a nice feeling, when people care about you and your work, about who you are. I wrote more, more eulogies than obituaries, more and more, more dramatic, more poetic. It got so popular I was writing an obituary a day, sometimes more, and grew more and more detached from the people; but when it was with old media, with the real newspaper, it was still impossible to distance myself completely.

I got personal requests, too, and got paid for each. I named the price. It was cynical, and depressing, but that’s work. Knock-knock. It changed, to an extent, when I wrote the obituary for the son of a prominent town official, and the only doctor in that small town, Dr. Eddie Redding, the eulogy being for his oldest son, Marcus, whom I knew, but poorly, despite knowing his younger brother William, who was closer to my age. The paper ran it and it sold more copies than any paper in the company’s history; and from such popular success, the boy’s father reached out to me, first to my aunt, then to me personally through email. He invited me to a diner on a Sunday afternoon.

I was intentionally early, uncomfortable as it was. Knock-knock. The reason for my work, by then, had bothered me. Of course it bothered me! Everybody hates their job, or at least some part of it. It was just a job, just business. I knew what I did. I wasn’t proud of it. No, that is a lie; I was extremely proud it.

He showed up in a modest suit, no blazer, no tie; button-up shirt, tucked in, a leather belt, no buckle. I stood to welcome him, extending my hand. He shook it effusively;

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nobles!” he said. “Did you find the place all right?”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I took a cab.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine indeed. Yes, very well. Sit down, please.”

He was a kind man, I could see it on his face, and warm hearted, the creases on the sides of his lip betrayed a man of many strained, false smiles. A doctor, that is.

“Would you like something to drink? Some coffee?”

“If you’re having some, I will, sure.”

He stood and approached the counter. I took my valise out of my satchel. A moment later he returned.

“She’ll be over in a minute to take our order,” he said. “So, where did you go to school? Did you go to high school here?”

“Oh, yes sir. I was in English IV with your son, with Marcus. He was a few years older than me, class of ’03. But I knew his little brother Will a lot better. We skateboarded before I went off to college.”

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

“I think I did,” I said. “I went to a childcare center until I was five, when I was adopted, and I remember story time the most. It was the best part of the day, the only fun I had. I was taught to read, and I went on to read the dictionary back and front. I started copying all the words that rhymed and then started making little lists of rhyming words. I liked Dr Seuss and copied his work quite a bit, learning the rhythm of it. And when I was adopted, my adoptive mother and father adopted another young boy, my little brother Christopher, and he’d call out words to me and I’d name all the words I could that rhymed with it. When I got into trouble at school, they punished me by making me copy out of the dictionary; my punishment might have helped me more than the schooling.”

He laughed a hearty laugh.

A young woman approached the table.

“How can I help you fellas today?”

“I’d like a BLT, a large iced tea,” he said. He thumbed the menu. “And a small salad.” He folded it and put it back on the table.

She looked at me. “And you?”

“Can you get me a cappuccino?” I asked. “Vanilla, if possible.”

“We can sure try,” she said with a smile. A lovely young lady, “Large, medium, small?”

“Large,” I said.

She wrote the answers on a small legal pad in hurried, slanting letters. Left handed!

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll take that.”

She took our laminated plastic menus, folding them under her arm.

“I’ll be back with your order as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” I said, and Dr. Redding: “Thank you very much.”

She walked away. After a short but rather comfortable silence he turned to face me again.

“Well,” he said, “your punishment seems to have reformed you!”

“I’m sure it has,” I said.

The waitress brought Dr. Redding his iced tea, then a moment later my cappuccino.

“We’ll be over with your sandwich soon,” she said.

 

He took the glass of tea and thanked her.

“So what was Marcus like?” I asked. “I knew his brother well, but didn’t really get to know him.”

“He wanted to…”

The waitress came over with his sandwich on a serving tray, along with his salad. He grabbed the salad first, then the sandwich, and finally some napkins.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He turned to face our waitress.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“No problem!” she said. “Now, if you fellas need anything else, just give me a holler.”

“We sure will, thanks,” he said.

She walked away.

He took a sip of his iced tea, popped the plastic top off his salad, and unwrapped his sandwich.

“As I was saying,” he said after a bite of salad, “he wanted to be an engineer. He liked working on cars, but he never finished college, quitting after he started working at Nichols’ Tire.”

“That’s that body shop across the river, right?”

“That’s the one!” he said. “And the money was okay for the work, and having to take care of Leslie, his daughter, kept him showing up.”

I was silent. Didn’t know what to say; to admit I’d somewhat faked the obituary, the whole eulogy being a platitudinous exhortation of your most common, most stereotypical ‘live life to the fullest’ excrete. Knock-knock! That’s when it started, the knocking; in my temples first, it spread, following me to my home, then into my dreams.

“So,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin, having finished his small salad. “Do you work for the paper full time?”

“Well, I covered sports and town events first, then I wrote a eulogy for my nephew and put it on the internet. It got really popular and the newspaper got a lot of exposure. One of the editors for the newspaper saw it and asked me to take over the column permanently.”

“You do all the obituaries?”

“Yes sir. Every Wednesday. Well, that’s when we get in the information, from hospitals, from the internet, social media. Facebook, Twitter; we have people from the paper who overlook the messages from town residents, keeping up-to-date on the elderly and sick, scouring for updates to get a jump on the story…”

Later I would be sick in thinking back on this conversation, speaking so casually about what must have still been an open wound for that nice old man. Not an old man, not really, early to mid-50’s. I prattled on:

“I start the eulogy on Wednesday, with the goal to run it in the Sunday paper. Sometimes something will come in later in the week and it’s a little more rushed.”

Knock-knock!

He ate his sandwich as we talked, mouth closed when he chewed. Very proper, pausing occasionally to dab his mouth with napkins. His interest seemed genuine, and that’s an intoxicating feeling, that feeling of being good at your job, to believe you’re doing something good, something important; that’s how I dealt with it, how I justified the profession to myself each new night when a name came in with a number beside it.

“I’d much rather get into the business of writing fiction, or at least get some of my finished books and essays published. It’s a passion of mine, much more so than my job.”

A nervous laugh: “I don’t want to be ‘the obituary writer’.”

“What are you working on now?”

“Well, I’d like to write something about theatre. But I’m… I don’t know enough about how it all works, I don’t know enough I don’t think; you know, to do it properly.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said. “”You’ll figure it out!”

“Yes sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”

Knock-knock.

“Do you keep all your work in that?” he gestured to my leather valise; it was a professional suitcase, a type of folder with a metal 3-ring binder along the spine, assorted compartments, two protected by zippers, and another slot for a larger, 8×12 legal pad, another compartment on the outside – for academic work, my studies in art and literature. The binder was reserved for current fiction projects, the legal pad for work, for obituaries and eulogies for my ever-expanding, ever-popular column. I kept my completed, hand-written work in one of the zippered compartments.

“Yes sir,” I said.

I dug around in one of the compartments for a moment until I found the original copy of his son’s eulogy and handed it to him. He took into his hands gently, almost lovingly, as though he held some relic of his son, if not his son outright. He called the waitress over again.

I took my wallet out. He waived it away. I relented, not wanting to be that guy. Instead I took laptop from my satchel and sat it on the table in front of me as he paid.

“Can I get a refill and a to-go cup for this?” he asked.

“Sure can!” the waitress said. She returned presently with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cap that snapped in place, hole in the center for a straw.

“So,” he said. “What do you have lined up for today?”

I saw that he had a $100 bill between his fingers, folded.

“Ah, I don’t know. Stay here and see if I can get some work done!”

“Your book on theatre maybe?” he said. Such a warm hearted man, he smiled.

Something like that,” I said. I smiled too.

“I’m sure you’ll get it right. Just don’t be hard on yourself. Maybe you’ll have me to dinner when you’ve finally written that book of yours.”

“That sounds good to me,” I said. “It might be a while.”

“A while I’ve got,” he said. “At least, so I hope. I guess you never know. … I’m sure you know that better than most.”

He had remained friendly and light, speaking with levity, no hint of any great weight on his shoulders, the great weight of death, no hint of that on his face.

“Here,” he said. He offered me the $100 bill, a crisp new note.

“I can’t take that,” I said. “I didn’t do it for money, despite that being my job; I did that one because I cared about your son.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it here anyway, so if you don’t take it, it’ll just be lost.”

I took it from his extended hand with a sense of embarrassment, almost shame.

“Don’t spend it all on coffee,” he said. “You might want a new briefcase someday.”

I laughed it off, still uncomfortable with the money.

“I guess it is kind of worn out,” I said, laying it out wide-open to where I’d left off. Ashes everywhere, covering the surface, the leather covered in white scuff marks.

“Have a good day, Mr. Nobles.”

He took a sip of his iced tea through a straw.

“I will sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Good-day!”

He walked away, out the door. It clanged the enter/exit bells, a gentle bing-bong! like metal wind-chimes.

Be careful what you wish for

          (Cause you just might get it)

 

 

2 Electric Purgatory

 

 

I stayed at the paper until it went out of distribution in 2012, when I was 28, having worked there for 5 years; but it spread to the internet, infernal machines, miasma of labyrinthine metal snakes with open mouths all sucking data or spitting it out, a confused Ouroboros already drunk but still drinking; my obituaries were broadcast worldwide. The newspaper ceased to exist in meatspace, in old media, becoming digital; the circulation possibilities increased beyond what anyone had thought possible in the early days, covering pointless, minor skirmishes between middling sports teams in the little town of Isla Wor. That stopped being important in the digital world, and the obituary column enhanced my reputation even further; I was finally able to do my theatre piece.

This success, the string of warm feedback and heartfelt thank yous, I imagined, might have been due in part to my over-wrought, faux-dramatic, faux-inspirational style of obituary: it was sermonizing, shameless masturbatory kitsch in arts’ clothes, all false, all hollow, paper houses gone digital. I had a high opinion of myself. The machine brought hundreds of names and numbers a day, deaths and dates, Daniel 22, Susan 17; and the more popular I got, the more famous would my fortunate unfortunate subjects become; musicians, then small-time movie stars, spreading through satellites to phones and tablets, the same hollow pronouncements of the obituary writer. A title I would not only hate, but resent, as the world knew me only as such, and most certainly of what I’d done to earn such a moniker.

As my popularity grew, young kids would find my house an amusing place for practical jokes. Practical joke is a kind word; they wanted to drive me out of town, to drive me mad; I was a bad omen, they thought, as death followed fast behind me, and in my trail were tears and terrible writing, the saddest parade. The knocking on the doors and running away, that bothered me the worst; it happened late at night when I did most of my work. It’s a tradition, at least where I’m from, to knock on someone’s door or ring their doorbell and run away. The satisfaction being that you inconvenienced someone, and as a child, that feels, man, just wonderful.

But it never stopped.

I tried to back away, to make it a colder process, so it’d be easier to handle. I was drinking, taking sleeping pills, drinking a lot actually. Surely much more than was healthy. I set to studying theatre, its origins and traditions; how they worked, how a character would make changes to the sets. I ran the column still, but I didn’t interact with the bereaved personally anymore; I’d get alerts on my computer, email alerts, with new deaths: the names and numbers selected at random using an algorithm written by an intern to select the most profitable, most tragic deaths, those that best played heartstrings–all for more traffic to the website, the digital mausoleum, electric purgatory: young and under 30, teenage girls in love, with a few kids maybe, single men.

It was easy to do the practical part of the job, as easy as it could be to write it up. I didn’t know anything else: names and ages, over and over and over. At the height of my popularity, I’d write five to ten eulogies a week for my column, and it had become much more than what it started out as, adjunct to a newspaper; it was separate now and distinct, and more successful for it. I eventually made out a form to expedite the process further:

[Name] died on [date] in a [cause of death here] when [what to blame] caused [what happened] [gender] to [mistake description]. [Gender noun] is survived by [mother and father, wife and/or kids if alive]. [Gender noun] was [age].

Example:

TRAGEDY ON I-76: MOTHER OF 2 DEAD
Sarah Harding died this Wednesday in a freak car accident when a deer ran out in front of her car on New Egypt Rd. She is survived by Mr. and Mrs. Gary Harding and had two daughters, Lisa and Tammy. She was 34.

But that’d never fly in my column, no, no, no. It had to be dramatic, life-affirming, death-denying. So I set about writing it properly:  

          The lovely Sarah Harding, former cheerleader and passionate journalist, was taken from our poor town in a tragic car accident early Monday morning. Her parents received the call from a stranger, only to be told their beautiful daughter, 34, was dead, and they would bear the burden of telling Sarah’s two young children of her death. Lisa was 5 years old, a pre-school student at the Master’s Baptist Daycare, she loves coloring and singing. Her older sister Tammy, a 12 year old 6th grader and Carver Middle School, plays t-ball for the Isla Wor Wolverines and is in the chess club. I can say, in confidence, that she will be missed by all.

          The knocking at my door!

I flung my papers aside, knocking over a candle. Thankfully it went out. I tied my housecoat and stalked off to the door, cursing and shouting. This is beyond a joke! I yelled. The hallways were dark and derelict. Tables stood with disheveled stacks of unedited pages, existing solely to bear the weight of unfinished work to never be finished.

I flung open the door. Darkness there, a wisp of wind, no middling kids with suspicious paper bags. I stamped off to my study, furious. It kept on and on, this pestilential taunting; always late at night, always while I was busy. It would be redundant, perhaps, to say no one interrupts you unless you’re working! But, like the old saying of New York City: “Nobody drives; there’s too much traffic.”

Knock-knock!

I went on to knock out mock-obituaries in my spare time, more often than not I’d only have to change the names, the pronouns, the setting, maybe. I just made it up, made them sound good, and the facts weren’t important. So I did: to spend time with my girlfriend, then my wife, I wrote thousands of them: each with a common male name or female name. Sometimes people would die who matched the information I invented. I ran the obituaries anyway. Somewhere in all of this Katerina left me and at the time I barely noticed.

Knock-knock!

I tried to ignore it. It kept on and on, pounding harder and harder. I would tip toe then, with a baseball bat, then later with a pistol. I never caught them. It beat in my temples when I woke and why I lay down to try to sleep to take my pills and have a drink; more medicine and more drink, more and more. Money affords you many things, nice suitcases and suits, but peace cannot be bought, nor love, at least not love that stays without being put on retainer.

Knock-knock!

It’s easy to debate the ethics of journalism when you have heat and power and a full belly. Rationalizing those objections was only what the job as obituary writer was allowing me to do: I made enough money to study theatre, researching that book I’d so often talked about. Enough money to live comfortably, without financial worry. The stress of it all got worse and worse as email alerts flooded in with that terrible alert noise, the familiar bing-bong of metal wind-chimes clanging against a diner’s enter/exit door.

I remember the first nightmare. I woke up sweating, having heard that email alert. I checked my computer; nothing there. I had woke to the thought of getting my mother’s name, and sitting there in the dim light of my laptop, smoking a cigarette, I finally did hear that ever-ominous alert and saw the name come in, the result of an impersonal, neutral computer program, the Judge:

Brandon Keith Nobles, Whitmire, SC. 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I received that alert when I was 28.

I unplugged my computer speaks, putting out my cigarette. I never wanted to wake to the sound of that horrible jingle again. But I did, over and over, all in my mind, imaginary like so much else. And in the bouquets left on tombstones all I’d see, no flowers blooming, just crisp and folded $100 notes, and dead men in their caskets with money stuff in their cold mouths like the horrible bloom of an extinct flower.

I don’t remember what became of that email heading, as I went back to sleep somehow, as it sometimes happens; you wake in the middle of the night, in the silence, still except the shuffling feet of distant cats, chasing invisible mice or attacking each other.

My dreams were disconnected bits of phantasmagoria; lists of printed paper, page after page of names and numbers, rolling on forever, all vaguely familiar and I thought it must be purgatory, and there I’d be forced to truly know all those whom I had so briefly summarized and put aside. All were familiar but ultimately unknown and dead, unknowable. The obituary writer – ha! What a dark star! how very dim, how grey!

Knock-knock!

I ran to the door to catch that miserable cretin, once and for all. And flinging the door wide I saw nothing, once again, then looked down, as I had never done. And there stood a little boy with a bleeding head, a football jersey. I woke up screaming.

I began to burn all of those old handwritten pages, all those falsities, hoping to appease whatever madness I had stirred. But madness is like a cold pool, like all addiction; you may recoil when you first jump in, but stay in long enough, and the ice cold water warms you up, somehow, and when you get out of the pool the warmth of the night air is cold.

I continued to study theatre, pushing all the death and gloom that was my day job from my mind, and I was making incremental progress. I learned of a character in early theatre that gave me pause; Hypokritos was a falsely righteous character who would wear buffoonish masks and feign divinity, uttering lofty, laughable pronouncements intended to be sincere, to be profound, only to be a popular source of mockery and ridicule.

Knock-knock!

I looked at my photograph on the Obituary Writer website. It was an airbrushed joke of a solemn, thoughtful photo, sharp contrast and pretentious, black and white. Knock-knock-knock! The email alert – the one I finally removed – had always startled me, as it was the same as the bell that smote on the shivering prison air to let the inmates know that one of those unlucky souls had made it out. So I thought, naturally, I would turn the sound back on and capture what I looked like when I got the email alert; that way I’d have a sincere impression, not knowing that, instead of taking off the mask of the falsely divine Hypokritos, I was just making the hypocrisy more subtle, slightly easier to stomach, slightly harder to notice. The professional make-over had ended with a vast, fully searchable digital archive; a macabre, gaudy porno.

Knock-knock!

God dammit! I ran through the halls and out the door into the street and looked around. No one, not a raven, no obvious source; just the wind and dogs barking in the distance. I was exhausted by the time I made it home, and tried to get some sleep.

Artists have a sort of fire inside. The greater the artist, the greater the fire, less smoke. I felt that I would exhaust my fuel and become one of those useless plastic lighters, the kind you have to strike over and over, getting more and more pissed off, changing the lever on the back to control the size of the flame, to make it smaller, then larger just to get a cigarette lit, eventually striking it over and over in the vain hope that it might light once more, knowing eventually it would dry of fuel completely and never produce a flame again. I felt that I’d run out of fuel, having wasted my life as a profiteer of misery, death on my mind like a heavy crown.

 

 

 

 

3 Speaker for the Dead

 

 

I did few eulogies when work on my book began in earnest. I had given notice to my employer, resigning to finishing only one: the heading that disappeared, the obituary for myself. I kept working, working hard with the motivation, with the hope that, upon completion, I’d have dinner in that small diner with Dr. Redding again. I still wrote obituaries in the meantime, and never was I more distant from it, as they were cold and ever colder still, the popularity began to fade, and never had I been so happy to fail. Demand dropped off for my particular brand of obituary—though there was a remorse to it, to have invested so much time and effort to become such a good obituary writer; I was very, very good at my job.

Knock-knock!

Those early days were the best, when I wrote obituaries for the paper, the small town paper for Isla Wor, there were no email alerts, no nightmares, no knocking, broken ringing doorbells; and all were at least sincere, in the beginning—many being for family; after the eulogy for my Dr. Redding’s son Marcus, looking back, that’s when something broke, something mechanical, some part of the system that processed grief. It broke as I worked through it and continued breaking as I wrote more and it made me cold to all, more often than not I kept to that automated script completely, completely sterile, no passion for anything save for my book on theatre, and passion enough only to get the money needed to continue; it moved closer and closer towards publication.

Knock-knock!

As I wrote, I thought of my dead father, and I thought of him quite often, and the obituary, the eulogy he’d never gotten, not from me, not the celebrated obituary writer. I looked forward to seeing Dr. Redding again at that little diner, I’d take a cab. I’d order him his BLT and cold iced tea, a small salad too, and I’d pay for it all. I’d bring a new valise, toss out that old ash-stained leather volume, unsightly and assaulted by age, scuffed white and daily marked by time, by dust. I wanted to show him that I’d finally gotten it right.

Knock!

After I got my book edited and did the proper revisions, I managed to talk my brother into designing a cover. He was a graphic design major; and his talent, like his degree, didn’t come cheap. I shopped the manuscript around for a while until a small publishing house picked it up.

Knock!

My book came out to little fanfare, just shy of my 30th birthday, with a reasonably warm critical reception, yet slightly colder commercial response. But there is no price to pay for a clear conscience, being able to tell the truth, if through fiction, it was a better way. There is a great element of truth in the worst lies and in the best of lies, and a great fiction in the most honest statement by the most trustworthy men.

I still had those dreams of waking to that electric death toll, the flowers of the bereaved sprouting monetary blossoms, that horrible knocking which seemed to drone on forever, but I’d dream that first I woke to find that mock-heading:

Brandon Keith Nobles, aged 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

And I set out to finish it, once and for all, sitting at my typewriter in this dim dream in a dim room trying to write it out. I would receive more pressing emails from the machine, each clanging louder than the last, probing me ever on, offering me more and more money to finish my obituary, the quicker the better. And I got to the last sentence, and felt that if I put the full-stop in, if I set the period, I’d never wake, that I’d forever be the obituary writer. I woke cold and sweating, breathing heavily. I expected to hear the knocking, but didn’t; nor the doorbell which, though broken, sometimes near midnight tolled.

When I received the first printed proofs of my book in the mail, it had some time since the initial, limited released, I called the doctor’s office to leave a message for dear Dr. Redding to call me when he got the chance. He did, and I had been out at the time; my brother took the message down. We were to meet at that same diner, again on a Sunday—his one day off. I got there early, uncomfortable. He was already there. He stood as I approached with his hand extended, shaking mine effusively, with feeling and warmth, a smile on his face. With one hand under my elbow, the other on my shoulder, he guided me back to the booth we’d sat in last time we met. I found a cappuccino waiting for me; he had yet to order. Vanilla as I liked it, and cold.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And, look at this.”

I took out my book, the copy I intended for him, pulling it from the new valise, much nicer indeed despite the signs of cigarette ash and age, dust collecting around the zippers. I handed him one of the galley proofs. He took it into his hands in that same careful, loving way. I realized then, as he handled it in that delicate fashion in which he’d once held the handwritten draft of his son’s eulogy—he handled things as a doctor, not out of any sort of love, but with delicacy and care—but then, I thought, that is a sort of love, not a sort, that is love; to spend so much time in school, such long hours away from growing children, a lonely wife awake all hours of the night and worried back at home, and to do it for others, to work so hard to live a life to help.

I wondered for the first time, making the strange connection: how many names checked in at his office only to later arrive in my email? Had he ever checked the obituaries, hoping to find some consolation, however fraudulent, to think he hadn’t failed? He was turning my book around, looking at the cover, holding it up to better see it in the light.

“‘Theatre: Tradition & Ritual’,” he said. “That’s fine, that’s very fine indeed. That’s a good looking book, Brandon. I knew you’d figure it out.”

“Open it,” I said.

He flipped to the dedication page.

“‘For Marcus Redding and his family. Thanks for the support and coffee. With love, Brandon.’”

He seemed genuinely moved. He looked at me and smiled.

“That’s really something,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. But thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad you never gave it up. I can’t wait to read it.”

“It hasn’t been a big hit, but, alas, it’s a better business to be in. I’m glad I got it done.”

“I’m proud of you, Brandon,” he said.

“Thank you sir,” I said. “Thank you very much. And look at this—“

I showed him my new valise, all the new features, the less gaudy white leather. He looked it over attentively.

“That’s might fine,” he said. “Mighty fine indeed.”

He handed it back to me.

“So what are you working on now?”

“That’s why I’ve asked you to meet me here,” I said. “Not that I didn’t want to see you again and give you a copy of my book…”

“A free copy!” he interjected. “You can’t beat the price!”

“Yes, a free copy of my book, but other than that, after I met you, I realized I didn’t really know anything about your son, nothing about his life, your happier times with him, things he should be best remembered for and not my column and I thought—if you don’t think it’s inappropriate—you know, to tell me about who he was, what he was like as a child, the awkward teenage years and the man, your happy memories, the kind of stuff you can’t find online, so often the meat of life is picked away and what we’re usually left with, writing an obituary, is just the bones. And that’s what people seem to like. Short, thumbnail sketches, overly dramatic and declaratory. I wanted to do something real and honest for him. For you, for your family, to the extent, to any extent that I may. If I am to be the obituary writer, I must do so honestly.”

“He was a shy kid,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it, but he was quiet. Loved going fishing with me and his little brother, when they were young. We had a pond behind our house, and we’d take those Zebco 33 fishing rods down there after church on Sunday, they’d have those corks on the end, you know? The plastic bobbing corks that let you know when you’ve got a bite.

“Then when the twins were born, they stayed home them with after that, always protective big brothers. When they turned four, they got new bikes for their birthday and when you buy for one you have to buy for all! So everybody got a bike, and they loved nothing more in the world. Riding around and doing tricks, popping wheelies, and Marcus repaired them for Will and his sisters when they got a flat tire, when the chains came off—they always did! He got his daughter Leslie one of those new bikes when she turned four, one with a pink boombox on it and a radio.

“And that’s when he started talking about wanting to build things, to be a builder, to be an engineer, working on cars, fixing things that broke. He was always fixing things. They rode the horses, he couldn’t fix those! Hell, neither could I! They played video games and monopoly. We were fortunate, but they weren’t much different than lots of good, kind kids. And they were very much loved. And he is very much missed. He was very much a normal kid, a good kid, and a fine man. A loving father.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said. “I hope I can write a eulogy to suit him and honor your family properly.”

And through that finish my own perhaps, the obituary writer’s eulogy—who better to write it?

“You did, Brandon.”

I was confused. And he saw it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

I was quiet.

“I trivialized it all,” I said. “I was cynical and gaudy, and I’m a fraud. I’m not an obituary writer. That’s just the only way people seemed to care about my other work. And I used it. I used it to advance myself, selfishly. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look, Brandon,” he said. “You might not like what you do, and I know you don’t. I can see it looking at you. Who would want to do that? I deal with it in my line of work. But in the end, you’re giving people closure, allowing them to refresh their memories and keep their loved ones alive in there, and alive for longer. Don’t be down on yourself. What you do is a public good, despite your reasons. People need closure. When I can’t keep their loved ones alive, you can give them something I can’t.”

A short, not uncomfortable silence passed between us, a shared sorrow lingered for a moment and departed. I felt that I could do a proper eulogy, then, for Marcus, and maybe let it stand as mine, as all of ours, as normal, kind kids, who are very much loved and would be very much missed.

He ordered the same meal, just the same; BLT, small salad, large glass of iced tea. I finished my cappuccino, took out my laptop, and went about my work, typing away as he ate his sandwich and drank his tea. And I picked up the tab.

After that the conversation mellowed, teetering out but still pleasant; with little left to say, we talked about upcoming projects. He dabbed a napkin at the corners of his mouth, ever-creased from a life of forced and honest smiles. And I thought, if ever a ghost knocked on my door again, I’d invite them in for tea and a sandwich, and let them tell their story, so I could be the obituary writer once last time and get it right, finally, a proper obituary, and live out the true purpose of my title, that we both might rest. He opened the door to leave.

Bing-bong!

Picasso VS Nazis

Pablo Picasso might be best known in the Western world as that artist who painted shit that could obviously be done by children.

earlypicasso
Fucking amateur.

Yet in his time, he was an absolute revolutionary, painting in manner radically different from that of his dainty-impressionist contemporaries and even inventing a new style of art, predating the Lego movie by what mathematicians call “a shitload of years.” He also painted one of the most confusing and violent depictions of war ever put to canvas: Guernica. After intentionally staying out of politics throughout his career, once the Nazis were within range of the Louvre (and Francisco Goya paintings in particular) Picasso’s rage-boner culminated in Geurnica, which was not only a stand against the war in Europe, but against the Franco regime in the Spanish Civil War.

The most depressing triangle since the Jacked Dorito.

The Fuck You

After a lukewarm reception at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition, Picasso was in his studio, doing whatever it is that mad geniuses do while they’re not busy making history, when a couple of future Burn! victims/SS monsters entered his apartment,  where postcards were scattered all over the place depicting Geurnica, Picasso’s representation of the Axis Bombing of the small Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. When one of the officers (read: Fucking Nazi) held up the card and asked: Did you do this?

Picasso replied like some time-traveling John McClain: No, you did.

burn
You know it’s a good burn when you feel sympathy for Nazis. 

Speaking of Nazis…

Next: Rembrandt vs Critics –>

The Silent Circle, short story – 2 November 2015

There are times in life when all you can do is walk. Arriving home, that’s all that I could do. Just walk, just think, watching ants crawl over the stones that led to the porch. Thinking leads to nothing but trouble and I felt that trouble coming on when I found Bullet asleep in front of the sliding glass door that led into the kitchen. When I stumbled over one of the loose rocks, he roused a bit, grumbled, and licked his gums. Within a minute, he had drifted back into sleep.

     I threw my keys on the kitchen table, locked the sliding glass door, and then prepared Bullet’s food. To fix his food, I normally fill a bowl of dry food and then run water on it, stir it, then spoon each bite into his mouth, rub his throat, to help him swallow it. That night the pantry looked empty, barren in each cabinet and cupboard. His food was gone. The implications made me shudder as I passed into the living room. Grandmother sat in front of the antique television with crocheting needles. Under her breath she conversed with my Grandfather’s portrait on the wall behind her. In the corner a small fire tapered off in the dark, embers faded when the hollow logs burnt and charred. As always the room was stale and close, full of antique cabinets and dresser drawers with antique candelabras atop them. Inside each a dying candle flickered. There was another single candle burner in front of me on the coffee table, making my grandmother look like a frail, skeleton type figure, a flower on the day before winter.

     “Where’s Bullet’s food, grandmother?” I asked. “I’m about to go to sleep and I thought I’d feed him first. He seems quite fond of food.”

     “I done threw all that food away boy,” she said. “Can’t ya see the poor old dog is sufferin’? I don’t want him to suffer no more. Tomorrow we takin’ him to town to the vet so they can put him down. He won’t suffer no more.”

     The twinge, that needled type of numb feeling, went through my arms, my chest. I sat on the couch opposite of her, beyond the reach of the fireplace’s last embers. “So,” I mumbled, “you’re going to murder your dog? What good will that do? That won’t end his suffering; it will end yours. What’s it going to help to have him killed? There might be some more food in the pantry. I’ll find something for him.”

     “We gone have him cremated,” she said, nodding. “After we put him to sleep, that is. We picked him out one of them bottles too, those gold bottles. He’s gone be so pretty in his new bottle. It’s made out of gold.”

     “Why do you soften the language like that?” I asked. “You’re not going to ‘put him to sleep’ and ‘have him cremated.’ You’re going to murder him and then you’re going to set him on fire. Does it sound as humane when you use the right language? It’s not fair. Let nature run its course.”

     “They have some kind of special at the vet,” she said. “If you put two animals to sleep, you get a discount on the third. Ain’t that a good deal?”

     “I’m not even going to reply to that shit.”

     “I was readin’ some letters ya father sent me from across the ocean,” she said after a brief pause. “They all from your daddy. Never any from your mama, though. She sure was a pretty woman. Look,” she raised her bony finger to point across the room to a dresser on which a leather bundle rested. “Some of the letters your daddy sent. He sure was proud of you.”

     “When are you taking Bullet to the vet?” I asked.

     “Sometime after supper, I suppose,” grandma answered. “After I get my hair done.”

     “I have to go into town tomorrow for some groceries and notebook for school before it starts. I can drop him off on my way. He can ride in the camper on the back of my truck. That way you won’t have to go out in the cold.”

     “That ‘a be fine, I reckon. But you best go to sleep tonight, Roger. School ‘a start soon, and if you don’t get some rest how you gone be able to get them kinda grades your daddy knew you could get? He always said you was a smart boy, smart as a whip. Your grandpa was smart too. So was your daddy. He had a lot of problems, but he did love you. After the accident with your mama, his mind started going. Understand what I’m saying?”

     “Understand?” I laughed. “He was cruel to me and he got what he deserved. If my mother hadn’t done it, I would’ve done it myself. I wish none of this would have happened because my mother had to suffer for the crimes of someone else. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay there forever.”

     “It broke his heart to leave you, Roger. It broke that old man’s heart. His mind was going. It started when his father died, and being in that war, getting in that land mine accident, and all of that sure made it worse. But once your mama shot that girl, he knew he had to leave. At the time he thought it was best for you. It broke his heart when he saw your mama with that rope around her neck.”

     “What do you mean?” I asked. “He didn’t leave! You think he would abandon me just to hang out with his fishing buddies? Am I that big of a disappointment or a let down? He got what he deserved. He wouldn’t just abandon me; he enjoyed being cruel to me, but he would never have left me like that. He didn’t disappear. Not with a woman, a man, nothing. He got what he deserved.”

     Grandmother shrugged and then nodded off to sleep. Snatching the bundle of letters, I grabbed Bullet’s collar. After getting his food down, I went to the front door with him behind me, wobbling on his last legs, panting as he hobbled along. I lugged him into the camper of my truck. I mixed some more food, what little I had in my truck, and spoon fed small mouthfuls into his toothless gape. He gummed it down as I rubbed his wrinkled neck to help him swallow. I wiped the food off his mouth, dislodging a little that had sprinkled into his whiskers. He went to sleep in the back of the truck, having been fed, and I crawled through the camper into the front seat. By the time we reached the end of the road, Bullet was snoring loudly in the backseat. With a flick of a small control panel, the silence disappeared, replaced by the tranquil sounds of Schubert.

     At the end of the turnaround, I parked my truck near a path that led to a small river. I helped Bullet out of the back, saying, “Come on, man. Just a little ways to go now.” Placing him on the ground, I closed the camper. I connected his leash and collar. His wrinkles looked thicker than they had in the glow of my headlights, his limpid eyes a glowing flicker in which the headlights reflected a tiny spark. His legs wobbled as I led him behind me, to the center of the gravel circle. The end of the road was a barren circle of gravel, covered in empty packs of cigarettes, torn slips of paper, beer bottles, and papers that drifted in silent circles with the wind. A thick forest surrounded the turnaround. Off to the right a trail to a small pond tapered into the high grass, and beyond the trees I heard the trickling sounds of water, calm as the mind of Buddha when Mara approached him deep inside his mind. I went through all of my studies in Buddhism, in an attempt to ‘take out the poisoned arrow’ as Buddha once put it to the intellectual Malunkyaputra. But as the dog walked on, breathing heavy and too tired, the arrow twitched inside my chest.

     “Come on,” I urged. “Please. You just have to walk a little bit. It’s not too far now. They want to set you on fire, buddy. I’m not going to let them do that. I respect you, buddy. You don’t deserve to die.”

     With the song that I had hummed for my mother, when our outstretched fingers touched in the hallway of that Syrian prison, I rubbed his fleshy pink stomach. It had helped in the past, to numb, not to deal, but to tolerate the laws of life and nature. It was failing, and I knew it; not even the songs of Galilee could help me leave a dog to die in the woods alone. In my head, the same familiar procession of broken images came and went, my cats, my birds, my mother, and my father, in a continuous procession of dim shapes, like shadows behind a dingy glass, small at the end and beginning of each procession, but high up on the wall in the middle, coming into focus.

     Bullet fell to his stomach, closed his eyes, and I knelt beside him in the loose gravel. Puffs of dust roused as he breathed against the dirt. I sat his food bowl in front of his wrinkled face. His eyes remained closed as I went to get another bowl for water along with his bag of food. With the bowl of water full, filled with some tap water I’d brought in a bottle, I sat beside him again. His hind legs twitched a bit. His spotted head with isolated tufts of hair lilted as he rolled onto his back, as though to stare up to the stars. For a moment I remained there with him, pointing out constellations in the sky to him, telling him about the history of the universe as revealed by man. I spent half an hour comforting him on his death, on the meaning of his limited life, but it seemed as though I was never trying to convince him. It seemed as though I was trying to convince myself. And I failed, as I had before, to make sense of anything. With that lump in my chest, I left him there, in the middle of the turnaround, and went back to my truck.

     I sat there for a moment with my eyes transfixed on Bullet’s red figure, glowing in the glare of my dull brake lights. Inside the car, the hum of the engine pulsed under the seat. Other than that, it was silent, and I sat there in the dark with Bullet’s dying body behind me, glowing red in the glare. After an hour of sitting there, in constant torment, I left him there. Alone in the sand, cold, and hungry as I had been for so long in Galilee. The same tufts of smoke gathered around his nostrils as he struggled to breathe, took heavy breaths, then rolled onto his back again for one last look up to the stars, the likes of which he’d never see again, a beauty that would disappear for him forever. Did he ever know what sucked the energy from him and made his legs lame and lazy, that which turned his bones to dust? He would never know he lived. He’d never know the feeling of being again. That saddened me more than anything, I think; I realized that he would never even know he lived. That’s what hurt the most. It’s not fair; I remember thinking, parked at the end of the dirt road. I pictured the little glow in Bullet’s eyes, and in my mind, even then, I gleamed what it would be that I would dedicate my life to. My mind strayed forward to a time when I too began to become frail, to wither, to see the same winter that the flowers see before they fade. I thought to when I’d take the same lonely walk that Bullet would take to the stream and underbrush before he died, if he made it through the woods at all.

     I never went back to that road, probably because I feared I’d see Nature’s Garbage Men on the scene, waiting for their chance to eat, as they had for Casey, as they had for my father. Bullet never knew what took him from this world, but I thought then it was not the hand of god, but the invisible hands of time, the hours. The hours took him. That was a scary thought, to me as a young man, to think of time as such a heartless killer.

     How much had the hours taken? I wondered. Sammy, mother, father, Entae, Hiroshima, Pompeii, Julius Caesar, and the other countless billion ghosts that now inhabited the earth. Those same hours had me by the throat, dragging me from one place to another regardless of how much dust I kicked up. There was no control, no antidote, no way to sever the leash on which we’re taken to the landfill, where everything else is taken to the past, the boulevard of bones and broken images. How much had they taken? The hours like giant dump trucks, lugging everything to landfills of years of wars and dead presidents, the renaissance, the revolutions, and all the deaths and guillotines and tyrants, leaders who in the end rest with the commoners beneath the surface of the Earth. They take emperors and peasants, all to the same place. Together in the end, time does not discriminate.

     On the way home, as the dark trees that lined those roads swept by, I saw myself as Bullet, on all fours, crawling around in a puddle of dirt and dust, toothless, walking in circles, just waiting around to die. What else was there? My chest went cold. I filled my pipe again, as I had grown accustomed to doing, with the gun firmly in my mouth. Those blacktopped roads were lonely that night, and the only pedestrians of night that came out were solitary deer that sometimes fledged the lip of the roads before going back into the woods. The roads and trees kept me company along with streetlights and disconnected telephone cables that hovered above the trees. A disk of classical guitar music forced that terrible silence out. Nothing is more terrible than the infinite sound of silence. Human life is temporary, but silence lasts forever.

     When I walked into the attic, to put Bullet’s collar away for good, I ran across a pile of paintings, all of them my own, snacked in neat order and preserved by a thin film. A fish bowl sat on top of them, with stagnant water in it. An address had been scribbled on the under side of it in a thick black marker. I wondered what it was for, if it was for anything.

Windmills in a Broken Breeze, short story – 1 November 2015

This short is taken from two chapters of my novel Songs of Galilee,  with the intent of making it available in The Library of Babel short story collection.

I moved to the American south, South Carolina to be exact, in 2244, at the age of twenty two. I lived with my grandmother for a while, and spent most of my time in seedy liquor bars with overweight truckers watching pool and wrestling on television and arguing over politics. The local colleges didn’t seem to offer much, but I’d suppose that college has very little to do with learning.

     The first thing I noticed was the air in America. It had a different taste to it, like stale water. American air is different than any air on Earth. Another thing I noticed was the abundance of billboard signs.

     When I moved to the outskirts of a small upstate town, Newberry, South Carolina, I lived in the middle of Sumter National forest, beside Lake Murray. Thick pines surrounded the house, blanketing it from the noise of industry and automobiles. It was a small town beside a lake, like my home by Galilee, but it didn’t sound the same. It was off-key; the songs rang out atonal, mixed with the hum of boat engines. Fishermen on Lake Murray eschewed sails and paddles in favor of the electronic motors and yachts. They said very little to me when I approached them on the shore for information about local plant and animal life. They weren’t rude or anything. It just seemed as though they didn’t know. They were good people, simple and pure, and reminded me of my mother in their quiet routines.

     Main Street had a few small stores: auto repair, a Chinese restaurant that the locals called “The China Place,” a drug store, a drab tennis court and basketball court by an abandoned gym with boarded up doors. An old white church hovered above the planted palms at the end of the street. It was the first time I had seen a church. I had heard of them, of course, and their general purpose, but had never seen one. I made a note to check it out, but for the most part, I stayed out of town. People didn’t concern me anymore in America than they had by Lake Galilee.

     The alien woods were delightful. Birds sang different songs, and different animals prowled the underbrush. Animals I had never seen: possums, different birds, white tailed deer, raccoons, cats, and wild dogs. I fed them and enjoyed their company, but it was a long time before I met my first friend: a fifteen year old girl named Casey who dated my great-aunt’s grandson, Daniel. I spent most of my time with him, playing video games, smoking cigarettes, and getting drunk. He lived with his grandmother. He had been adopted at age twelve after his real father hung himself over a car payment.

     She was only fourteen. Daniel was a few years younger than me, at eighteen, but that didn’t seem to matter to him or her. They started dating and almost all of my time was spent with them that summer, before I met Chris, who would introduce me to Elise. We watched television, got stoned, and played video games. We were kids.

     They started spending more and more time together and wanted privacy. I understood. I didn’t want to annoy them, so I decided to spend less time around them. Behind his house a small stream ran by a basketball goal without a net, so I sat there in the evenings by the brook with a drawing pad. There were occasions when we’d go to the movies together, but those were few.

     I still talked to Casey when she came into the bar where her father worked. She was always friendly with me, but I could tell they were in love. He was the first man she had ever slept with and she vice versa. They had the rare kind of love, the rare type, the type that’s real, and pure. They spent a lot of time dancing in his living room to old Patsy Cline records.

     When walking through the woods, we always had to jump over that little stream behind his house. Casey’s ankles were always sore from it, a car wreck as a child I believe, so Daniel and I decided to make a bridge so she could walk across it. We found an abandoned junk pile in the woods, full of old washing machines, stoves, toilet seats, and broken down cars. We went through the piles for a few hours until we found something we could use: an old car door could be the bridge.

     We went back to Daniel’s before evening’s blanket fell to find screwdrivers so we could pry the door from the old car. It was an old thing, orange tinted, with paint stripped off the side. With his big tool box, we hacked our way through the tall grass to make it back to where the old car was. We took the hinges off, unscrewed the bolts that held it in place, and pulled it into the grass. It was tiring work. We sat there as the night crept in with sweat on our foreheads and cigarettes in our mouths. The discussion went from how to make the bridge, how much we’d like to fuck some of the young girls in town (I didn’t really want to fuck anything, honestly), and how drunk we were going to get. Of course we wasted time. It made us happy to waste our lives. We were good at it. We had online gaming clubs, chess sets, and exotic magazines. We had a secret handshake that only we three knew. To us the shake became a symbol of inclusion for three people of whom the world thought very little.

     We invited her over the following Friday to check out the bridge. She wore short shorts with frayed ends, a tucked in polka dotted shirt, and her curly hair in innocent looking pigtails. She smiled when she saw it. She walked back and forth across it, jumping lithely. She was happy. Embracing Daniel, she told him her young girl thanks and you shouldn’t have. Daniel looked over at me with a shrug. I shook my head. I didn’t want her to know I helped; it was his glory, and I didn’t want to come between them. I wanted them to like me. They did.

     It was after five that Thursday when she parked her bicycle outside the bar. The bells chimed on the door as they swung open. Light from the street outside filled the darkness of the bar for a moment, and then faded as the door swung shut. She ran to her father, embraced him as he dried a glass, and kissed him on his wrinkled cheek. He could tell she wanted something. Father’s can always tell when their children are strangely kind. She got some money from him and told me to come by the night after to watch a scary movie. I lied and said I’d already made plans to see a new movie that came out. Sounding sad, she protested that she wanted to see me before she started working at the local grill. They would go to the movies with me. Their new found enthusiasm forced me to find a movie to go to.

     I showed up at seven or so. Daniel said he didn’t have the money to go that week. He said that if I waited until he got his check, he’d pay for my way and we’d all go together. Instead he suggested I spend the night with them and watch the scary movie.

     It was three in the morning when his grandmother, a paranoid old lady with too many superstitions, shuffled into the living room. I was sitting on the loveseat; they sat together, cuddled on the couch. She asked if we heard anything outside. A prowler had been seen in the neighborhood, she tells us. She suspects that he’s trying to get in the backdoor and tells us to listen out, lock the door, and stay inside. After that, she scowled at us and closed her bedroom door. We heard her digging around in her bureau drawers for a while, but she finally went to sleep.

     As planned, the next weekend we met to go together to the movies in Union, South Carolina at a tiny little theatre with sticky floors and raucous audiences. Casey didn’t feel good that day and protested when I begged and begged and begged some more for her to come over to Daniel’s to go to the movies with us. She didn’t want Daniel to pay her way, she said. Her head hurt, she said. My persistence finally paid off and she showed up in her mother’s jeep, kissed her mother goodbye, and walked up the walkway with her head in her hands. Daniel lived just short of a block from my grandmother’s house on the lake, so I met them there at eight in my best clothes.

     Casey sat on the couch with her face in her hands when I came in with a pink cloth over her face, made of silk; it reminded me of the dancing girl’s in Syria with their silken veils. Daniel was in the bathroom shaving, so I went in to ask him if Casey still felt bad. He ran the electric razor along his chin, lining up his newly forming goatee, and told me that she still had a bad headache. Though she had a headache, she still planned to go because she promised me. I went into the living room to talk to her while Daniel finished dabbing on bits of aftershave that I couldn’t smell.

     I sat beside her on the couch. Daniel came in the room with an old shotgun slung over his shoulders. That old gun was never loaded. We used it to pretend to be hunters sometimes in the fields behind his grandmother’s house. It was never loaded and we doubted that it even worked. He sat down in front of her with the shotgun in his lap. We didn’t think anything about it. He always threatened us with it in jest. It didn’t work. Why should we be afraid of it?

     Casey sighed a tired sort of sigh, and reclined on the couch with the cloth over her face. It glowed a hollow pink because of an antique lamp in the corner. It gave off a dingy sort of light, yellow and muted. He put the shotgun beside the couch, put on his shoes. He ran a comb through his hair, saying, “Casey, you still got that headache?” she groaned behind the cloth. She got it from his grandmother’s sewing table in the dining room. Daniel sighed and turned on the television.

     “You sure you wanna see the movie tonight, shithead?” he asked. “We can always go next week. I could take Casey home now so she can get some sleep. You know she ‘a be cranky if we don’t let her sleep.”

     Casey laughed. The air of her breath made the cloth float above her face a moment.

     “We have to go tonight if we want to see that movie,” I said. “It won’t be playing next weekend.”

     He buckled his belt with a sigh, but doesn’t lose his smile. I could tell he was concerned about Casey’s headache. She had frequent migraines because of the car wreck in her early childhood. It had shattered all of her front teeth and broken the bones in her ankles. Only the pain remained. The pain and the memory of it followed her around like a shadow. If you didn’t know any better, though, you could never guess that she wore false teeth. She sat there groaning on the couch beside me. In my head I could see her car slamming against the milk truck, sending her forward into the dash, shattering her teeth like a wicker basket against the hard plastic upholstery. Daniel rises, drawing me from my imagination, inside my head the image shrivels up; he grabs his car keys and shifts through the dim light of the small living room like a shadow. Patsy Cline played on the television, the music channel for golden oldies that they always danced to. Her sweet voice sang such sublime melodies, so quietly in the yellow glow.

     “Casey, you want a Tylenol or somethin’? Maybe a drink of water?”

     “I already took four already,” she said.

     “I’ve already taken would be a better sentence,” I said. “’Already took’ just sounds wrong.

     Daniel laughed and hoisted the shotgun against his shoulder, putting aside an unfinished origami windmill he had been working on for Casey. This was what brought her to him in the beginning, his flare for origami. He made her frogs, turtles, planes, and roses. That one would have to be finished later. With his origami secure on the stand beside the chair, he pointed the shotgun at her head. “This will help a headache,” he says, and pulls the trigger.

     The gun worked. It took me a few moments to realize what happened. The living room was full of smoke, above the couch where Casey twitched the smoke alarm went off, marring the beautiful music on the television, and a terrible ringing filled my ears. The gun had worked. Drops of blood dripped off my face as I sat there dumbfounded, trying to see Casey through the smoke.

     Daniel panicked. He dropped the shotgun and ran to the couch. Daniel grabbed Casey by both sides of her face and lifted it to his own. Bubbles of blood trickled from her mouth. The left side of her face was splattered against the dingy couch behind her and the little pink veil above her face was torn to pieces. He started giving her mouth to mouth and each time he pushed on her stomach more blood bubbled from her mouth. He shakes her and shakes her and screams for me to call an ambulance.

     I ran into the other room to find the phone. My ears were still ringing when the operator picked up. I could see her little feet kicking against the floor when I leaned into the other room. On the other end of the phone, a burly sounding woman assured me that help was on the way. We should keep talking to her, feel her hands, and make sure she didn’t gag on her own blood. I ran back into the living room. Her feet thrashed against the floor and made soft thuds against the carpet. The ends of her fingers twitched a moment, and then they stopped. Her arm fell limp across her face.

     Five minutes later the ambulance shows up with the police because a neighbor called about the gunshot. They found me in the bathroom vomiting, Daniel still in the living room trying to give her mouth to mouth. His face was covered in drying blood, around his mouth like a clown would paint his face. They pull him away and take him outside, four or five of them together, and slam him against the cop car. It took them a good bit of time since he fought them off to run back in the house to her. I stood there in the bathroom doorway. The shotgun smoke had settled and the smoke alarm had been turned off, but the same song played on the television. It was surreal to see a person die. It’s not the same to see it in a film. Her mother showed up before they carried her body out of the living room. I had never seen a woman lose her control so fast. In the doorway she stood a moment shaking, with urine running down her legs, and then she rushed into the dim light of the room to find Casey silent under the yellow lamp. Her now pale body had fallen over the arm of the couch in front of the television where the glowing notes of the sad song, sung so many years ago, scrolled over the side of her face.

     I sat face down on the sidewalk when they brought her stretcher out. She was zipped up in a long black bag. Daniel starts after her again, punching one of the police officers, and they throw him to the ground and cuff him. He hears the squeaking wheels as they wheel her to the ambulance behind the cop car. That’s when he realized that his Casey was dead. She was gone. She was inside that zipped up bag and she was gone. Daniel slammed his face against the police car repeatedly, then fell onto his knees behind the cop car, and slammed his face against the cement until they managed to pull him into the backseat. They took him to county and charged him for murder in the first degree.

They questioned me about what happened. Had they ever talked to my mother, they probably would’ve decided against asking me anything.

     “Where you from, towel head?” asked the first cop. I didn’t respond, as towel head wasn’t my name.

     “You got a name or don’t you?” asked the second cop.  They both had the same sort of beard, overlapping gut, and shifty eyed glance. This is apparent in larger primates.

     “Tell us where you from or you goin’ to spend the night.”

     “I grew up on the Sea of Galilee,” I said.

     “Whar’s dat?” the first cop asked. “Some sort ‘a towel head village?”

     They laughed amongst themselves a moment, then swung their guts to face me again.

     “It’s where Jesus walked on water,” I said. “Don’t you love Jesus?”

     “Jesus is our lord and saver,” said the second cop.

     “Welp, it’s not nice to call Jesus a towel head,” I laughed.

     “You blasphemer!” they yelled in chorus.

     “You’re the one who called me a towel head,” I said. “I assumed that was a racial slur, and since I’m the same ethnicity of your lord and ‘saver,’ whatever that means, it is a slur against Jesus to call me a towel head.  Now, don’t you boys have something to say?”

     Their pleasant smiles had dripped away.

     “What?” their eyes seemed to say.

     “Tell Jesus you’re sorry,” I said. “What are your names?”

     “My name’s Jeremiah,” the fatter of the two fat men said, “and this is Kent.”

     “Well, Jeremiah and Kent, it’s not nice to call Jesus a towel head, is it?”

     “No, sir,” they said.

     “Now tell Jesus you’re sorry.”

     “We’re sorry Jesus.”

     “Good boys,” I said. “Anything you’d like to ask me now that we know I’m not a stereotype?”

     “What’s yer name, mister?” Kent asked. “We could get ye some cawfee.”

     “My name is Roger,” I said, “I don’t drink coffee; it makes me tense up.”

     “Then can we get ya somethin’ else to drink?” Kent asked. Jeremiah was on the phone lying to his wife. Maybe these guys were all right after all.

     “Vodka,” I said.

     “We don’t have any vodka,” Kent said.

     “Then I don’t want anything.”

     After pursuing my opinions for an hour or so, they agreed to find a bottle of orange juice and some vodka for me. I tell them that from what I knew, Daniel had never even slept with another girl. He would never have hurt her, I said. He was too meek and passive, eager to please, and never seemed to have any sort of aggression in him.  I told them that we’d all played with that gun before… in one way or another. It had never been loaded around us. We didn’t even think it would work.

     If not for that girl, Daniel would have never gone to work at a warehouse distribution factory just so he could buy her cheap jewelry and second rate clothes. He never hurt her or raised his voice at her. They thanked me for my time, had me sign my confessional release forms, and helped me to my feet. I stumbled out of the door as Casey’s mother strolled in. Tears and mascara snakes ran down her face, stained her lips, which twitched at the corners when uncovered by her knotted handkerchief.

     They try him for murder at first. Then Casey’s mother testified on his behalf. The trial was a matter of formality. Daniel’s lawyers convinced him to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, a plea bargain that would have been impossible had Casey’s mother refused to testify on Daniel’s behalf. She told the judge and jury that Daniel loved her daughter. That he just wanted to do anything that could make her happy. But how did the gun get loaded? The prosecution wanted to know. Casey’s father was not as forgiving as her mother. All he saw was his fourteen year old little angel headed for a hole in the ground.

     His senile grandmother—hard of hearing, going deaf—loaded the gun the night before because she thought she heard prowlers picking at the mesh screen of the door on her back porch. The prowler later turned out to be a starving cat. I took her to my home on the lake and named her Galilee. She would be the waves to me, my comfort in America.

     Daniel was sentenced to five years in prison, suspended to three, with ten years of probation.

     They left the couch, on which lay Casey’s drying life blood, out on the side of the road for weeks to wait for when the garbage men would come to take it away. The pale cushions, once bland yellow stitched with white, had blood red stains on the side where Casey sat. Buzzards often sat atop the telephone pole and streetlights in front of the house, drawn in by the false promise of a meal.

     I baked a cake for Daniel on his nineteenth birthday. Prison officials received me in the main lobby to search me for contraband before allowing me in the visitor’s hall, spotted with circular tables and plastic chairs. After they cleared my wallet, cigarettes, and cake, a female guard waved me into the bright room where scruffy prisoners talked to their loved ones and children. Daniel had his head propped on the butt of his palm, staring at the chef’s behind a buffet table on the far side of the room.

     He wore the typical orange jumpsuit, with one black stripe around the cuff to signal his prison job where he helped load heavy equipment in and out of the textiles factories where the prisons made socks. A purple welt stuck to the side of his face like he’d been hit by something. Behind the bruise his eye was swollen shut.

     For a moment he stared at his cake. I had designed it to look like his favorite singer, Patsy Cline. Because of such protest, they allowed me to put a candle on his cake. The candles burned away in front of him.

     “I can’t believe you got that cake in here,” he said at last. “They normally don’t allow food in the visitor’s area.”

     “They must be afraid it’ll taste good,” I said. “Murderers they can handle. Rapists, pedophiles, and bank robbers are fine. But damn if they’ll let a cake come in here. Maybe their no tolerance policy applies to baked goods, too.”

      He smiled a silent smile, no teeth, just a small curling of his chapped lips. Stubby hairs grew thick under his chin, wrapped around his face up to his ears. Casey’s poorly inked initials lined the under side of his left wrist. It took some courage, but I finally asked what happened to that pretty kisser of his. He paused a moment while the candles burnt down before his face.

     “How you holding up?” I asked.

     “This is a prison, Roger,” he said. “This isn’t a weekend in Cancun. People will kill you here. Dying is a lot worse than being overcharged for a beachside hotel room.”

     “What happened to your face? That isn’t a friendly looking bruise, paison.”

     “I was in the shower,” he said. “I’d just finished washing my hair and some people came in. I thought those cats were my friends. How could they hurt me? Next thing I know, a combination lock, stolen from one of the bathroom lockers. Guy taps on my shoulder. I turn around and try to ask what he wants. That’s when he swung the lock into the side of my face.”

     “Behind you,” he said. “It’s time to go, Roger. It’s time to go.”

     “Wait,” I said. “You forgot to make a wish.”

     The candle flames had dwindled to little more than sparks. He leaned down again, his face in front of them; eyes closed, he blew them out. Small trails of smoke went into the air as he rose to his feet.

     “Hey,” I called as he walked away, gray cap in hand. “Do you remember our secret handshake?”

     He paused a moment, stopping in his tracks. “Yeah, Roger,” he said. “I remember.”

     He extended his hand and walked toward as the times over alarm bell sounded on the high-treble PA system. “If you ever get the time, put some flowers on her grave. But no tulips; she’s allergic to them.”

     I nodded and walked away. Upset criminals bid farewell to crying children with extended arms, reaching out for their father locked away. In defeated lines they tromped off for their tiny cages. That was the last time I got to see my brother. One of the prison guard’s came to escort him away. I sat at the table for a moment alone, to think, to collect myself and give my nerves a chance to relax. To my surprise, Daniel hurried back to my table. He ran his hands in his pockets. As his fingers thumbed the paper edges of his surprise, he smiled. He smiled and placed his origami windmill on the table.

     “Finish it,” he said. “I can’t do it.”

     He disappeared into a locked door on the other side of the room.

2 / One Last Dance

Sometimes I dream of them. The blood on his face always reminds me of clown paint around his lips. Things are different in those dreams. It always comes back to the movie. But in some dreams I call to tell her that I have a headache too, and that we’ll stay home. It is okay, I would say. We could wait on the film to come out in stores. She always tells me thanks, tells me I’m a good friend, and I tell her to sleep well; Daniel and I will visit when she feels better. Afterwards, I go to Daniel’s. His old grandmother shuffles through the living room, dragging her feet in purple slippers, and tells me Daniel is getting ready to go to the movies.

     I must make up my mind today. What to have, what to hold—

     He comes out of the bathroom to the same sort of music they played at the orphanage at lunch. Clown paint covers his face. His eyes are darkened with the same color that showed up when they slammed his face in. He tells me that since Casey is at home sick, and we wouldn’t be going to the movies, he had something he wanted to show me.

     After numerous promises, he leads me into his grandmother’s bedroom. There’s a giant unmade bed in the center of the room with flannel quilts and lint covered throw pillows. A bureau drawer is to one side, with a television on it, bunny-ears and everything, and a dresser at the foot of the bed rises to the ceiling with a giant mirror. Daniel kneels before the mirror, digs around in the clothes for a bit, and then takes out a music box. From the looks of it, it seems to have cost him thousands of dollars. Inside the music box, beside the ballerina’s feet, a golden ring, plain-looking but exquisite, gleamed in the yellow room. Thousand bucks, he tells me. The low music of the box rolls out, high pitched and soft, a Chinese melody.

     A poor man’s roses or a rich man’s gold.

     It’ll be worth it, he says. I’m going to marry that girl and give her the world, he says: fancy clothes, jewelry, and cars. Then there’s the wedding present. It’s an antique jukebox, almost two centuries old. It’s stocked with Patsy Cline, Casey’s favorite singer.

     One’s as wealthy as a king inside a palace. Though he’s callous and he’s cold.

     Five children, he says. Three boys, and two girls, and the oldest boy will be Daniel, Jr. The youngest one will be named Roger. It wouldn’t even have happened if not for me, he says. All of his children will owe their lives to me. Then there’s music in the other room, always the same: low like the ballerina’s song. Daniel doesn’t hear it. I rush into the other room. Casey’s sitting on the couch, now dead for years; her pink socks have frayed, unraveled on her feet. Her eyes are hollowed out and black. I turn around and Daniel’s there, wearing the clown paint again. Daniel looks at her and tells me he always wanted to take her to ballroom dancing lessons, or just take her out to dance, but he never could afford them. In the living room she rises from the couch, with her arms in the air, and spins around on her tiptoes, like she’s in that music box. Each time her face swings by me, the left side, above the eye, is empty. But she can still dance.

     He may learn to give his heart for love. Instead of buyin’ it with gold.

Daniel goes into the living room. He asks her to dance. The side of her head is normal again, regenerated, and then things go in reverse. She falls to the couch. That piece of cloth is hanging on her face again. I’m gone, but I’m watching it happen. She tells him that since I never showed up, they should lay down a while. Maybe watch some television, or listen to some music.

     Then the poor man’s roses, and the thrill of when we kiss—

     He says that’s fine by him, but why not dance a little first? He dusts off an old time Patsy Cline record for the jukebox, moves the boxes out of the center of the living room, and extends his hand. She grabs it. He hoists her to her feet. Just me and you, he says, taking her hands, and don’t worry about Roger. We can always go to the movies. We’ve got all our lives. Are you worried about Roger? I’m sure he just got lost in the woods. He does that a lot. Who knows what that boy is looking for? But don’t worry, you know Roger. He’ll come around. He always does. And he won’t be mad about the movies. He’ll understand. He’s a smart fella.

     Will be memoirs of paradise, that I’ll never miss.

     In the corner, the yellow colored lamp gets brighter, and then shines in the center of the room. They walk there together. Time goes by, lots of time. Sol rises, Sol sets, and they stay together, never moving. Her head is propped against his shoulder. They dance around the center of the room as their faces age. Casey turns into a beautiful woman. Daniel’s face gets harrier. The goatee he always wanted is trimmed and proper on his face. A big beer belly hangs over his leather belt. Pictures of children line the room. The children smile and laugh, and run in and out of the living room as they dance together. They pull little wagons behind them, full of toys and tiny racecars, but Casey doesn’t hear them. Her head is on Daniel’s shoulder. Patsy Cline sings on the stereo. Everything is fine.

     Their children began to grow as well. They come into the room with dolls and puppies. They ask mommy to come and play, or daddy to go fishing, or ask daddy to fix their toy airplanes. Daniel laughs and asks them if he can have one more dance. One more dance, and he’ll fix anything. He’ll read their favorite stories, about knights and dragons and the boogeyman, and everything will be fine.

     They have their entire lives. It will only take a moment, and then they can sleep their happy dreams. They’ll throw the baseball after school, and Casey will braid her daughter’s hair. They smile and run into the other room. In their beds they wait for their parents to come to them.

     And yet the hand that brings the rose tonight,

     The world grows up around them. Casey’s long black hair begins to fray. It turns gray, wire-like, and tangles at the end. Daniel gets wrinkles under his eyes. Gray spots crop up in his beard. They dance as they did in life, in the center of the room, in the same circles for eternity. They never move and the record never skips. I’m never there to bother them. I’m outside with my face against the window, looking in.

     Is the hand that I will hold.

      Then I wake up and remember the couch and how it looked on the curb, with the restless buzzards above it squawking. I remember trying to scare them off with twigs and sticks. There were occasions when I could scare them off, but they always came back. They waited for their meal. That’s all the lifeblood of the young girl signified to them: a meal.

     For the rose of love means more to me,

      In the end, they hauled the couch off to the dumps on the outskirts of town. Every time I passed it, I realized there’d be no more dancing. Daniel was in prison, Casey in the ground, and all that survived their brief lives together was a rose on a plot of grass, in front of a rock at the cemetery. That’s all there would ever be. They had their dance, their time together, and I had an incomplete origami windmill to finish.

     More than any rich man’s gold.

The Devil’s Projector, short story – 1 November 2015

This short is taken from Act II of The Chameleon Mirror, The Thief of Thursday.

A group of men and women in sharp business suits sat in semi-circle round a dusty old computer. All-star black. I sit at the head of the table and a man to my right introduces himself and the rest of the group. There’s a television at the end of the table opposite to me. The eldest man on the left stood beside the AV setup, and ran a clip. Static filled the screen then freckles of white skin appeared then light hair curled, then a white shirt and dress, white socks and shoes. A tennis-racket tea-set popped into view and Willow, sweet Willow, an imaginary friend they said. But kind and her hair was white and stringy. Old Willow miss Willow was with’ring steadfast waving like the others blades of fluff among the mast. She went away, this friend, now renting a spot in my heart and imagination.

 There’s no freak genius just some demons that speak English, target evangelical snakeslingers in four seasons for four reasons snapping snakes stealing souls and they say,

AMEN.

            Hallelujah!

 I pulled out of the tape. That’s what it was. A media device, a recording, a moment at Moncrief, no was it An’mien? And the old man said,  “Accept or take another?”  The others looked at me.

            I looked up and down and the iron frowns returned like stone.

            Monotone,

 “You can make a choice to take one moment into the lord’s paradise, or take all memory, all moments, and entire the world of fire.’  “Another,” the man beside the screen said.

 I felt him say Amen? Ahm-myeen, his name. I’d never heard a name like that.  The screen pans back from the nose of a dog, and my sister is in diapers patting him on the head, old Traveler. A collie with a mane of white, a prize to be sure. And his eyes. The light amber brown touched orange burst into focus like a little sun the size of a ladybug.

            Mama?

            Yes Renny, miss bo, what are you doing?

            She walked through the TV into the room, in that red kimona.

            Let me look at you.

 She turned my eyes to hers those almond browns and looked into mine. She smiled. My Wenny, my Lenny, miss bo! My how you’ve grown! You think your hair is short enough? She smiled and thumped me on the head. Then placed her hand on the side of my cheek. I don’t care what your father says. It looks great. You look wonderful miss Bo, Mrs Brisbois!

 I snapped out of it realizing that somehow I had been into the screen. They let me know, if I didn’t choose one thought or memory or idea that is meant for me could potentially trap me like a genie in a bottle here, inside that screen, stuck in a memory that happened to keep me from slipping out. Each tape they played, it had a song. Bang bang, you shot me all along! My father played the piano, wrote poems and violins. I sat on his lap and he listen here, this is how we’ll us both, Mama too, we’ll sneak off into heaven and take the thief Lain when we do!

 Listen, father said. They may never bring it up. You’re my daughter, a Brisbois like my son. Your mother is difficult, you know. She’s so lovely, so lovely and I love her, but she has a more, strict set of social codes. You know? Don’t keep me here!

 I was back in the seat. The tears swelling in my eyes. Surprisingly, I’d been in the rest of that scene, and how hard it was to stay there as I lived to hear him say it. And it dinged off inside the room, making it impossible to flee.

 Your mother thinks that since we weren’t married proper, that they’d deny you that theatre. Well, we’re not barbarians, and honor can be here won by women and men, bastards and bastard kings. Don’t ever think that since these Greeks couldn’t claim their daughter she’s put as special as you are my bo, Lenny my star. Don’t believe them, not ever that, you’re less because you’re this or that. I tried to strain to pull away but the glass around me kept me in and for the first time in that world I could tell it was a light-show ran by little men, shaped so roundly paper-thin. The words were falling down the screen, through which those who held me must have seen.

 This world is as much yours as mine. Renette, Renette! If you’re ever anyone’s be theirs by your choices. For university to Scottish pubs. Demand and earn respect and it’s yours. Your mother has a different way, you know. Because you’re so so pretty little Bo. But you’re more than pretty. You’re my viking girl. And you’ll be Frey in the Christmas play, and Loki he’ll fall mad for you.

 And there was Lain outside the screen. Hundreds of feet tall so it seemed. Looking at me as the words crawled up the wall in waltzing spirals to the beat of an automatic clock set on repeat. I jumped from one word curious, to another frightened, breathless, overwhelmed and rest.

            Outside the screen again, the people looked to me,

            “Choose,” they said, “One memory. One for heaven, hell for three.”

            I asked by impulse, “What about all?”        “This room, this here?”

            A man with a dignified voice said.

 “This place is between two others, you know by the wrong name. One requires you let go, and so pain goes along. The other lets you keep your pain with your forever alone.”

            “And if I stayed here?”

            The choir gasped, each one except that same man.           “Don’t you know where you are, my Bo?”              She knew as soon as he called her Bo.

            “Brisbois,” he said. “My Joan of Arc. Empress of Arcadia, Queen of the Isles and March.”

 The others had left and with that man, the well-dressed older fellow running these scenes he threw on the screen behind his fingers like playing cards. The thought, I thought, that we’ll all die, it vexes us sometimes in life. For some more so than someone else. It’s still more near a nightmare than a dream to realize you’re in Hell, and getting out requires a choice: To take the anguish and the noise, but every photo ever done, every memory, everyone. Lain and Cammy, Russeau and Jon, my mother, Yes! Mme Nanty… It’s time for you to go on.

            The second tape

I was pulled into the screen. I was dressed up dressed like Cleopatra. I must’ve been 9. In America, it was fun. That’s where I met Lain. He was a big fish in a small pond and we walked around the neighborhood. It must have been 99, maybe. His half-brother Gilbert, four years younger, had been in an accident and he was at that dumb parade. This was a small town, where Lain came from. Every year they had a carnival. Setup like a cheap and temporary fair. A tilt-a-whirl, and gravity pulled him against me on that ride with Maddie. He was in central park I think it was during lunch. I watched him playing chess as I walked up. Nobody was there. So I asked if I could play when he finished. Yes, he said. I’m done. Do you want to go first?

 He looked at me. Lain, god fucking fogasfk. You lose them. We lose them all. What picture do you take then, if to preserve yourself at the expense of all else? Defeat it. Change that. Make them immortal somehow.

 The man smiled in a unique way, seeing her self as her body turned grey. I was behind the scene then, lifted up, drained into the background as I watched them in a cup. “Choose one memory, go up; or take all with you down.”  Another choice, the voice whose owner I had been.

            The man, that demon, that angel, whatever he was, smiled again. He loved her it seemed. And it was unique. He spoke with warmth, while once so cold, distant but now closer.

 “A third choice?” he smiled. “Only for you, my Bo. You can stay here with me, and watch the show. You don’t have to take one, not for heaven, nor purgatory with all, stay in hell where you belong.”

            But I can watch these tapes? I said. Much more confident was I in death.

 “With me, you can watch for eternity. You can go inside that dream machine. I’ll be here by the setup here, as new clients come and finally clear, you can come back into this

little room, I’ll join you in the afternoon. I’ll leave the tapes beside your bed.”

            “I want each scene of me and Dad.”

            “Okay,” the friendly devil said. He’s not as bad as you’d think.

 A moment passed. He saw that then, I wanted to see the screen. My dad again, he threw the card. It stuck to the glassware then a wire brought the sound out of a fiddle. The devil went down to Georgia!”  Did you get his soul?

            The devil said, “You may not know,

            “I may have lost that sole, that one show,     But I met him again fifty years on,         He chose the banjo and moved on.       He took that memory with him,       Into the highest highs of H’en.

            “Do some take all to purgatory?”

 “The poets,” said he, “Romantics that have somehow turned it upside down and made the smiley face a frown. I thought you would, you’d take them all, and suffer with them, forever, just to hold onto a boxful of ghosts.”

 Renette had stopped listening to him talk He’s – he’s I came to myself. The devil has a dark side like everyone else. As for Renette’s, she made a gamble on the bet that the devil, if indeed he were, had thought of no such thing as mirth. Each time he laughed he weakened; Renette didn’t need the treats above, with a digital scrapbook and the world; in her way it was the greatest thing she thought a man or anyone could in the most unlikely dreams: she tricked the devil with the magic word and made him say please. And when he realized the lies, the deceit, he laughed to know that he’d been beat.

 I heard the snap of fingers. He stood before me then. Behind him was a whirling hurricane, hurrying towards a wall of flame. The devil bellowed (yellow!)

            Lane!

 Oh dear, I felt it in my bones. And bones he was and strung along. Whispy, thin as a sheet of paper, and he’d written on it in his blood. Even in hell, misunderstood; he could spell and work but just as good, a suicide floated in the woods and woods he liked; he’d been without them all his life. He floated down and saw me, frowning – more sorrowful than man I’d seen in hell while I’d descend. Leaving the video room again.

 I walked into fire expecting flame but found instead more a cool lake, the embers more like little eddys scribbled in and golden, electric to the touch. I could tell however, despite how heavenly my Hell, Lain looked like Hell in his.

            Lane said, go into the TV, meet me there. I’ll get you out of here and we’ll go South.

            Why not to heaven?

            I know a cooler place.

            “Where is cooler than heaven?”

            “I don’t know, your place?”

            “My place is a mess!”

            “It’s better than hell.”

            The Devil changed the TV channel.

 The props rose behind a cabin, a wooden shed. A boat was in there, and a young boy was washing one side of it. It was filthy; he’d covered it in swaths of paint. Hypnosis, madame butterfly was on. Lain, sweet Lain. He’s about 15 hear, and he has that stupid hair-cut but he’s tall. Thinks he’s the smartest man in the world. He crosses his eyes just to make me laugh and ruins such a good photo of him. I can hear him talk, his voice picking different accents. He chewed on words when he got nervous.

            I’m Renette! I said.

            You are French? He asked. We’d never met.        Yes, I say. I couldn’t help but laugh.

            Before I could respond he’d asked,            ‘What’s your last name, hyphens?’             ‘Renette Brisbois,’ I say.

            “Nice to meet you M Brisbois,” in that accent. Articulate devil, even then.

            “And you Monsieur …?”

            “Lain.”

            “Alain…” I fidgeted. Fuck!

            ‘Yes, I go by Lane. Charles is my first name. Charles Pinon.”

            “Would you rather me call you Lane or Charles?”

            “Whichever you’d like, mademoiselle.”

            “Okay then,” squeak squeak. “What do you do for fun?”

            “I write.”

            “I write too!”

            And we were friends. All writers I think are friends, even when they hate each other.   ‘Where does Brisbois come from?’ he asked. ‘Is it a family name?’

 ‘No,’ I said. ‘It was a chosen name my mother used to hide my parentage from her husband.’ I wanted to cry. No bastard’s happy to be one.

            ‘Did you know your dad?’

            ‘Just from dreams. You?’

            ‘From my stories.”

            “Oh, these stories again…’ I was out of my mind!  ‘Would you like me to tell you a story?’  It’s weird to be intimidated by a child.

            ‘Sure,’ I said. I felt like an idiot.        ‘You’re fine,’ he said. ‘I’d love to.’        ‘Okay,’ so silly.

            ‘What kind of story would you like to hear?’

            ‘A true story!’

            ‘About?’

            ‘Tell me about the last woman you loved.”

 He seemed shocked. Not unawares, but surprised I’d said it. His smile turned into a happier expression. ‘I’d love to,’ he says. ‘Enjoy.’

 ‘Once in Istanbul a mother named Terrha gave birth to a conjoined set of twins. Siamese twins, some call them. The child was unique and beautiful, two girls—two girl heads, that is. Sersia controlled everything, and Lera felt everything, the prick of needles, the warmth of Sersia’s body, but she could not move, not a single hand, and so her head traveled around Sersia’s body, at the whim of what she chose.

 She chose to bash a sailor’s brains in with an old Clam shell. The conjoined head screams for her to stop. The adrenaline shoots through her skin but she can’t make the body stop destroying that sailor’s face. And we were arrested. She asked me to lie, to say he tried to take her by force. But she wouldn’t. So they go to court and Sersia pleaded not guilty, but her sister, though innocent, pleaded guilty. The jury was left to the decide to question: is it worse to let go one murderer to preserve the life of the innocent or punish a crime at the expense of the innocent and by that commit a crime against the innocent?  The jury came back unanimous.   You are the jury. Work this out.”  What a strange child!

            “Is there a right answer?” I asked.               “Yes,” he said.     “Ethically?”

            “Scientifically.”

 He never told me. He said some questions are really answers to an unspoken question posed by the Earth, curious about itself.

            “Tell me one of your stories,” he said.

            “I don’t write stories,” I said. “Just poems.”

            “Can I hear one?”

            “Sure,” confident? Nailed it.

            Nothing lasts forever

Long live the Queen! or not …

Each daughter did their duty

Raising their siblings, all Cindarellas,

No offspring of their own;

At their core, in every child, Was a desire for the throne.

So when the queen was found,

Asleep,

Dead on her satin pillow,

The Royal Guard was pulled apart,

And Regicide! Declared …

Executed were the guardians Each one that wasn’t there.

And so each dreaming Cindarella,

One by one,

Was prepared for the chair.

The peasants and the people of the kingdom weren’t told

That queen Muriel, beloved by young and old,

Had been found without her crown

Her skin already cold, And each day the same parade The same charade portrayed:

A daughter in disguise was taken by The road most taken by the Queen

By the gardens and the markets

She waved from her dark veil

How sweet it was, thought Elanore,

To be so loved, adored;

Each blessing and each tailored

Dressing

Warmed her to the thought:

That the veil may fall, it fell;

And so she took the throne.

Seeing this new Queen, her being, So young and before unseen,

The peasants riot in the streets.

Elanore burned in effigy,

From sea to sea,

From caves and towns, The hecklers in the streets demanded Elanore renounce the crown.

So her retinue of guards

And staff of sycophants,

Prepped an announcement disavowing Any desire to remain:

Though Elanore refused, and more,

Had each traitor slain;

First her guards and then her brothers,

Then her sisters, so becoming, More feared than loved but, It’s enough:

More like her mother she’d become.  Rebellions rose, and frequently
She made examples in the street: Executions, martyrdom;

Baptizing heathens in their blood.

Each shadow she thought had a plan,

Each whispering servant, each stage-hand, All she thought had the desire,
To see her overthrown:
She’d take them with her,
Each advisor:

Would burn like them all
The Fire:

It starts with the smallest town,

And spread without control

Unbound

Through cities and forests like driftwood

Razed

Until Elanore herself went out
Like so many in the flame.

The Obituary Writer – short, 11 September 2015

I Death in Isla Wor

My first paying job after finishing school was writing a sports column for the town newspaper, a town of less than a thousand people, Isla Wor. The games were of no consequence in the world but very important to our little town; it brought everyone together, and when my poor nephew died, a tight-end on the little league football team, the community rallied round our family. Since I wrote about sports, when my poor, dear Alex died, I wrote it up in my column. It did really well, the paper sales; and there was more interest in my work. When no one died, I’d fabricate it just to keep the momentum of my work going. I was the obituary writer. I was proud of that.

Knock-knock.

I was formally offered the position to curate the obituary column after my successes, and it was all good and fun. People started noticing me in public, talking to me about my work, my other work, work I was more proud of, and it was a nice feeling, when people care about you and your work, about who you are. I wrote more, more eulogies than obituaries, more and more, more dramatic, more poetic. It got so popular I was writing an obituary a day, sometimes more, and grew more and more detached from the people; but when it was with old media, with the real newspaper, it was still impossible to distance myself completely.

I got personal requests, too, and got paid for each. I named the price. It was cynical, and depressing, but that’s work. Knock-knock. It changed, to an extent, when I wrote the obituary for the son of a prominent town official, and the only doctor in that small town, Dr. Eddie Redding, the eulogy being for his oldest son, Marcus, whom I knew, but poorly, despite knowing his younger brother William, who was closer to my age. The paper ran it and it sold more copies than any paper in the company’s history; and from such popular success, the boy’s father reached out to me, first to my aunt, then to me personally through email. He invited me to a diner on a Sunday afternoon.

I was intentionally early, uncomfortable as it was. Knock-knock. The reason for my work, by then, had bothered me. Of course it bothered me! Everybody hates their job, or at least some part of it. It was just a job, just business. I knew what I did. I wasn’t proud of it. No, that is a lie; I was extremely proud it.

He showed up in a modest suit, no blazer, no tie; button-up shirt, tucked in, a leather belt, no buckle. I stood to welcome him, extending my hand. He shook it effusively;

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nobles!” he said. “Did you find the place all right?”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I took a cab.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine indeed. Yes, very well. Sit down, please.”

He was a kind man, I could see it on his face, and warm hearted, the creases on the sides of his lip betrayed a man of many strained, false smiles. A doctor, that is.

“Would you like something to drink? Some coffee?”

“If you’re having some, I will, sure.”

He stood and approached the counter. I took my valise out of my satchel. A moment later he returned.

“She’ll be over in a minute to take our order,” he said. “So, where did you go to school? Did you go to high school here?”

“Oh, yes sir. I was in English IV with your son, with Marcus. He was a few years older than me, class of ’03. But I knew his little brother Will a lot better. We skateboarded before I went off to college.”

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

“I think I did,” I said. “I went to a childcare center until I was five, when I was adopted, and I remember story time the most. It was the best part of the day, the only fun I had. I was taught to read, and I went on to read the dictionary back and front. I started copying all the words that rhymed and then started making little lists of rhyming words. I liked Dr Seuss and copied his work quite a bit, learning the rhythm of it. And when I was adopted, my adoptive mother and father adopted another young boy, my little brother Christopher, and he’d call out words to me and I’d name all the words I could that rhymed with it. When I got into trouble at school, they punished me by making me copy out of the dictionary; my punishment might have helped me more than the schooling.”

He laughed a hearty laugh.

A young woman approached the table.

“How can I help you fellas today?”

“I’d like a BLT, a large iced tea,” he said. He thumbed the menu. “And a small salad.” He folded it and put it back on the table.

She looked at me. “And you?”

“Can you get me a cappuccino?” I asked. “Vanilla, if possible.”

“We can sure try,” she said with a smile. A lovely young lady, “Large, medium, small?”

“Large,” I said.

She wrote the answers on a small legal pad in hurried, slanting letters. Left handed!

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll take that.”

She took our laminated plastic menus, folding them under her arm.

“I’ll be back with your order as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” I said, and Dr. Redding: “Thank you very much.”

She walked away. After a short but rather comfortable silence he turned to face me again.

“Well,” he said, “your punishment seems to have reformed you!”

“I’m sure it has,” I said.

The waitress brought Dr. Redding his iced tea, then a moment later my cappuccino.

“We’ll be over with your sandwich soon,” she said.

He took the glass of tea and thanked her.

“So what was Marcus like?” I asked. “I knew his brother well, but didn’t really get to know him.”

“He wanted to…”

The waitress came over with his sandwich on a serving tray, along with his salad. He grabbed the salad first, then the sandwich, and finally some napkins.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He turned to face our waitress.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“No problem!” she said. “Now, if you fellas need anything else, just give me a holler.”

“We sure will, thanks,” he said.

She walked away.

He took a sip of his iced tea, popped the plastic top off his salad, and unwrapped his sandwich.

“As I was saying,” he said after a bite of salad, “he wanted to be an engineer. He liked working on cars, but he never finished college, quitting after he started working at Nichols’ Tire.”

“That’s that body shop across the river, right?”

“That’s the one!” he said. “And the money was okay for the work, and having to take care of Leslie, his daughter, kept him showing up.”

I was silent. Didn’t know what to say; to admit I’d somewhat faked the obituary, the whole eulogy being a platitudinous exhortation of your most common, most stereotypical ‘live life to the fullest’ excrete. Knock-knock! That’s when it started, the knocking; in my temples first, it spread, following me to my home, then into my dreams.

“So,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin, having finished his small salad. “Do you work for the paper full time?”

“Well, I covered sports and town events first, then I wrote a eulogy for my nephew and put it on the internet. It got really popular and the newspaper got a lot of exposure. One of the editors for the newspaper saw it and asked me to take over the column permanently.”

“You do all the obituaries?”

“Yes sir. Every Wednesday. Well, that’s when we get in the information, from hospitals, from the internet, social media. Facebook, Twitter; we have people from the paper who overlook the messages from town residents, keeping up-to-date on the elderly and sick, scouring for updates to get a jump on the story…”

Later I would be sick in thinking back on this conversation, speaking so casually about what must have still been an open wound for that nice old man. Not an old man, not really, early to mid-50’s. I prattled on:

“I start the eulogy on Wednesday, with the goal to run it in the Sunday paper. Sometimes something will come in later in the week and it’s a little more rushed.”

Knock-knock!

He ate his sandwich as we talked, mouth closed when he chewed. Very proper, pausing occasionally to dab his mouth with napkins. His interest seemed genuine, and that’s an intoxicating feeling, that feeling of being good at your job, to believe you’re doing something good, something important; that’s how I dealt with it, how I justified the profession to myself each new night when a name came in with a number beside it.

“I’d much rather get into the business of writing fiction, or at least get some of my finished books and essays published. It’s a passion of mine, much more so than my job.”

A nervous laugh: “I don’t want to be ‘the obituary writer’.”

“What are you working on now?”

“Well, I’d like to write something about theatre. But I’m… I don’t know enough about how it all works, I don’t know enough I don’t think; you know, to do it properly.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said. “”You’ll figure it out!”

“Yes sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”

Knock-knock.

“Do you keep all your work in that?” he gestured to my leather valise; it was a professional suitcase, a type of folder with a metal 3-ring binder along the spine, assorted compartments, two protected by zippers, and another slot for a larger, 8×12 legal pad, another compartment on the outside – for academic work, my studies in art and literature. The binder was reserved for current fiction projects, the legal pad for work, for obituaries and eulogies for my ever-expanding, ever-popular column. I kept my completed, hand-written work in one of the zippered compartments.

“Yes sir,” I said.

I dug around in one of the compartments for a moment until I found the original copy of his son’s eulogy and handed it to him. He took into his hands gently, almost lovingly, as though he held some relic of his son, if not his son outright. He called the waitress over again.

I took my wallet out. He waived it away. I relented, not wanting to be that guy. Instead I took laptop from my satchel and sat it on the table in front of me as he paid.

“Can I get a refill and a to-go cup for this?” he asked.

“Sure can!” the waitress said. She returned presently with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cap that snapped in place, hole in the center for a straw.

“So,” he said. “What do you have lined up for today?”

I saw that he had a $100 bill between his fingers, folded.

“Ah, I don’t know. Stay here and see if I can get some work done!”

“Your book on theatre maybe?” he said. Such a warm hearted man, he smiled.

Something like that,” I said. I smiled too.

“I’m sure you’ll get it right. Just don’t be hard on yourself. Maybe you’ll have me to dinner when you’ve finally written that book of yours.”

“That sounds good to me,” I said. “It might be a while.”

“A while I’ve got,” he said. “At least, so I hope. I guess you never know. … I’m sure you know that better than most.”

He had remained friendly and light, speaking with levity, no hint of any great weight on his shoulders, the great weight of death, no hint of that on his face.

“Here,” he said. He offered me the $100 bill, a crisp new note.

“I can’t take that,” I said. “I didn’t do it for money, despite that being my job; I did that one because I cared about your son.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it here anyway, so if you don’t take it, it’ll just be lost.”

I took it from his extended hand with a sense of embarrassment, almost shame.

“Don’t spend it all on coffee,” he said. “You might want a new briefcase someday.”

I laughed it off, still uncomfortable with the money.

“I guess it is kind of worn out,” I said, laying it out wide-open to where I’d left off. Ashes everywhere, covering the surface, the leather covered in white scuff marks.

“Have a good day, Mr. Nobles.”

He took a sip of his iced tea through a straw.

“I will sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Good-day!”

He walked away, out the door. It clanged the enter/exit bells, a gentle bing-bong! like metal wind-chimes.

Be careful what you wish for

          (Cause you just might get it)
2 Electric Purgatory 

I stayed at the paper until it went out of distribution in 2012, when I was 28, having worked there for 5 years; but it spread to the internet, infernal machines, miasma of labyrinthine metal snakes with open mouths all sucking data or spitting it out, a confused Ouroboros already drunk but still drinking; my obituaries were broadcast worldwide. The newspaper ceased to exist in meatspace, in old media, becoming digital; the circulation possibilities increased beyond what anyone had thought possible in the early days, covering pointless, minor skirmishes between middling sports teams in the little town of Isla Wor. That stopped being important in the digital world, and the obituary column enhanced my reputation even further; I was finally able to do my theatre piece.

This success, the string of warm feedback and heartfelt thank yous, I imagined, might have been due in part to my over-wrought, faux-dramatic, faux-inspirational style of obituary: it was sermonizing, shameless masturbatory kitsch in arts’ clothes, all false, all hollow, paper houses gone digital. I had a high opinion of myself. The machine brought hundreds of names and numbers a day, deaths and dates, Daniel 22, Susan 17; and the more popular I got, the more famous would my fortunate unfortunate subjects become; musicians, then small-time movie stars, spreading through satellites to phones and tablets, the same hollow pronouncements of the obituary writer. A title I would not only hate, but resent, as the world knew me only as such, and most certainly of what I’d done to earn such a moniker.

As my popularity grew, young kids would find my house an amusing place for practical jokes. Practical joke is a kind word; they wanted to drive me out of town, to drive me mad; I was a bad omen, they thought, as death followed fast behind me, and in my trail were tears and terrible writing, the saddest parade. The knocking on the doors and running away, that bothered me the worst; it happened late at night when I did most of my work. It’s a tradition, at least where I’m from, to knock on someone’s door or ring their doorbell and run away. The satisfaction being that you inconvenienced someone, and as a child, that feels, man, just wonderful.

But it never stopped.

I tried to back away, to make it a colder process, so it’d be easier to handle. I was drinking, taking sleeping pills, drinking a lot actually. Surely much more than was healthy. I set to studying theatre, its origins and traditions; how they worked, how a character would make changes to the sets. I ran the column still, but I didn’t interact with the bereaved personally anymore; I’d get alerts on my computer, email alerts, with new deaths: the names and numbers selected at random using an algorithm written by an intern to select the most profitable, most tragic deaths, those that best played heartstrings–all for more traffic to the website, the digital mausoleum, electric purgatory: young and under 30, teenage girls in love, with a few kids maybe, single men.

It was easy to do the practical part of the job, as easy as it could be to write it up. I didn’t know anything else: names and ages, over and over and over. At the height of my popularity, I’d write five to ten eulogies a week for my column, and it had become much more than what it started out as, adjunct to a newspaper; it was separate now and distinct, and more successful for it. I eventually made out a form to expedite the process further:

[Name] died on [date] in a [cause of death here] when [what to blame] caused [what happened] [gender] to [mistake description]. [Gender noun] is survived by [mother and father, wife and/or kids if alive]. [Gender noun] was [age].

Example:

TRAGEDY ON I-76: MOTHER OF 2 DEAD
Sarah Harding died this Wednesday in a freak car accident when a deer ran out in front of her car on New Egypt Rd. She is survived by Mr. and Mrs. Gary Harding and had two daughters, Lisa and Tammy. She was 34.

But that’d never fly in my column, no, no, no. It had to be dramatic, life-affirming, death-denying. So I set about writing it properly:  

          The lovely Sarah Harding, former cheerleader and passionate journalist, was taken from our poor town in a tragic car accident early Monday morning. Her parents received the call from a stranger, only to be told their beautiful daughter, 34, was dead, and they would bear the burden of telling Sarah’s two young children of her death. Lisa was 5 years old, a pre-school student at the Master’s Baptist Daycare, she loves coloring and singing. Her older sister Tammy, a 12 year old 6th grader and Carver Middle School, plays t-ball for the Isla Wor Wolverines and is in the chess club. I can say, in confidence, that she will be missed by all.

          The knocking at my door!

I flung my papers aside, knocking over a candle. Thankfully it went out. I tied my housecoat and stalked off to the door, cursing and shouting. This is beyond a joke! I yelled. The hallways were dark and derelict. Tables stood with disheveled stacks of unedited pages, existing solely to bear the weight of unfinished work to never be finished.

I flung open the door. Darkness there, a wisp of wind, no middling kids with suspicious paper bags. I stamped off to my study, furious. It kept on and on, this pestilential taunting; always late at night, always while I was busy. It would be redundant, perhaps, to say no one interrupts you unless you’re working! But, like the old saying of New York City: “Nobody drives; there’s too much traffic.”

Knock-knock!

I went on to knock out mock-obituaries in my spare time, more often than not I’d only have to change the names, the pronouns, the setting, maybe. I just made it up, made them sound good, and the facts weren’t important. So I did: to spend time with my girlfriend, then my wife, I wrote thousands of them: each with a common male name or female name. Sometimes people would die who matched the information I invented. I ran the obituaries anyway. Somewhere in all of this Katerina left me and at the time I barely noticed.

Knock-knock!

I tried to ignore it. It kept on and on, pounding harder and harder. I would tip toe then, with a baseball bat, then later with a pistol. I never caught them. It beat in my temples when I woke and why I lay down to try to sleep to take my pills and have a drink; more medicine and more drink, more and more. Money affords you many things, nice suitcases and suits, but peace cannot be bought, nor love, at least not love that stays without being put on retainer.

Knock-knock!

It’s easy to debate the ethics of journalism when you have heat and power and a full belly. Rationalizing those objections was only what the job as obituary writer was allowing me to do: I made enough money to study theatre, researching that book I’d so often talked about. Enough money to live comfortably, without financial worry. The stress of it all got worse and worse as email alerts flooded in with that terrible alert noise, the familiar bing-bong of metal wind-chimes clanging against a diner’s enter/exit door.

I remember the first nightmare. I woke up sweating, having heard that email alert. I checked my computer; nothing there. I had woke to the thought of getting my mother’s name, and sitting there in the dim light of my laptop, smoking a cigarette, I finally did hear that ever-ominous alert and saw the name come in, the result of an impersonal, neutral computer program, the Judge:

Brandon Keith Nobles, Whitmire, SC. 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I received that alert when I was 28.

I unplugged my computer speaks, putting out my cigarette. I never wanted to wake to the sound of that horrible jingle again. But I did, over and over, all in my mind, imaginary like so much else. And in the bouquets left on tombstones all I’d see, no flowers blooming, just crisp and folded $100 notes, and dead men in their caskets with money stuff in their cold mouths like the horrible bloom of an extinct flower.

I don’t remember what became of that email heading, as I went back to sleep somehow, as it sometimes happens; you wake in the middle of the night, in the silence, still except the shuffling feet of distant cats, chasing invisible mice or attacking each other.

My dreams were disconnected bits of phantasmagoria; lists of printed paper, page after page of names and numbers, rolling on forever, all vaguely familiar and I thought it must be purgatory, and there I’d be forced to truly know all those whom I had so briefly summarized and put aside. All were familiar but ultimately unknown and dead, unknowable. The obituary writer – ha! What a dark star! how very dim, how grey!

Knock-knock!

I ran to the door to catch that miserable cretin, once and for all. And flinging the door wide I saw nothing, once again, then looked down, as I had never done. And there stood a little boy with a bleeding head, a football jersey. I woke up screaming.

I began to burn all of those old handwritten pages, all those falsities, hoping to appease whatever madness I had stirred. But madness is like a cold pool, like all addiction; you may recoil when you first jump in, but stay in long enough, and the ice cold water warms you up, somehow, and when you get out of the pool the warmth of the night air is cold.

I continued to study theatre, pushing all the death and gloom that was my day job from my mind, and I was making incremental progress. I learned of a character in early theatre that gave me pause; Hypokritos was a falsely righteous character who would wear buffoonish masks and feign divinity, uttering lofty, laughable pronouncements intended to be sincere, to be profound, only to be a popular source of mockery and ridicule.

Knock-knock!

I looked at my photograph on the Obituary Writer website. It was an airbrushed joke of a solemn, thoughtful photo, sharp contrast and pretentious, black and white. Knock-knock-knock! The email alert – the one I finally removed – had always startled me, as it was the same as the bell that smote on the shivering prison air to let the inmates know that one of those unlucky souls had made it out. So I thought, naturally, I would turn the sound back on and capture what I looked like when I got the email alert; that way I’d have a sincere impression, not knowing that, instead of taking off the mask of the falsely divine Hypokritos, I was just making the hypocrisy more subtle, slightly easier to stomach, slightly harder to notice. The professional make-over had ended with a vast, fully searchable digital archive; a macabre, gaudy porno.

Knock-knock!

God dammit! I ran through the halls and out the door into the street and looked around. No one, not a raven, no obvious source; just the wind and dogs barking in the distance. I was exhausted by the time I made it home, and tried to get some sleep.

Artists have a sort of fire inside. The greater the artist, the greater the fire, less smoke. I felt that I would exhaust my fuel and become one of those useless plastic lighters, the kind you have to strike over and over, getting more and more pissed off, changing the lever on the back to control the size of the flame, to make it smaller, then larger just to get a cigarette lit, eventually striking it over and over in the vain hope that it might light once more, knowing eventually it would dry of fuel completely and never produce a flame again. I felt that I’d run out of fuel, having wasted my life as a profiteer of misery, death on my mind like a heavy crown.
3 Speaker for the Dead
I did few eulogies when work on my book began in earnest. I had given notice to my employer, resigning to finishing only one: the heading that disappeared, the obituary for myself. I kept working, working hard with the motivation, with the hope that, upon completion, I’d have dinner in that small diner with Dr. Redding again. I still wrote obituaries in the meantime, and never was I more distant from it, as they were cold and ever colder still, the popularity began to fade, and never had I been so happy to fail. Demand dropped off for my particular brand of obituary—though there was a remorse to it, to have invested so much time and effort to become such a good obituary writer; I was very, very good at my job.

Knock-knock!

Those early days were the best, when I wrote obituaries for the paper, the small town paper for Isla Wor, there were no email alerts, no nightmares, no knocking, broken ringing doorbells; and all were at least sincere, in the beginning—many being for family; after the eulogy for my Dr. Redding’s son Marcus, looking back, that’s when something broke, something mechanical, some part of the system that processed grief. It broke as I worked through it and continued breaking as I wrote more and it made me cold to all, more often than not I kept to that automated script completely, completely sterile, no passion for anything save for my book on theatre, and passion enough only to get the money needed to continue; it moved closer and closer towards publication.

Knock-knock!

As I wrote, I thought of my dead father, and I thought of him quite often, and the obituary, the eulogy he’d never gotten, not from me, not the celebrated obituary writer. I looked forward to seeing Dr. Redding again at that little diner, I’d take a cab. I’d order him his BLT and cold iced tea, a small salad too, and I’d pay for it all. I’d bring a new valise, toss out that old ash-stained leather volume, unsightly and assaulted by age, scuffed white and daily marked by time, by dust. I wanted to show him that I’d finally gotten it right.

Knock!

After I got my book edited and did the proper revisions, I managed to talk my brother into designing a cover. He was a graphic design major; and his talent, like his degree, didn’t come cheap. I shopped the manuscript around for a while until a small publishing house picked it up.

Knock!

My book came out to little fanfare, just shy of my 30th birthday, with a reasonably warm critical reception, yet slightly colder commercial response. But there is no price to pay for a clear conscience, being able to tell the truth, if through fiction, it was a better way. There is a great element of truth in the worst lies and in the best of lies, and a great fiction in the most honest statement by the most trustworthy men.

I still had those dreams of waking to that electric death toll, the flowers of the bereaved sprouting monetary blossoms, that horrible knocking which seemed to drone on forever, but I’d dream that first I woke to find that mock-heading:

Brandon Keith Nobles, aged 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

And I set out to finish it, once and for all, sitting at my typewriter in this dim dream in a dim room trying to write it out. I would receive more pressing emails from the machine, each clanging louder than the last, probing me ever on, offering me more and more money to finish my obituary, the quicker the better. And I got to the last sentence, and felt that if I put the full-stop in, if I set the period, I’d never wake, that I’d forever be the obituary writer. I woke cold and sweating, breathing heavily. I expected to hear the knocking, but didn’t; nor the doorbell which, though broken, sometimes near midnight tolled.

When I received the first printed proofs of my book in the mail, it had some time since the initial, limited released, I called the doctor’s office to leave a message for dear Dr. Redding to call me when he got the chance. He did, and I had been out at the time; my brother took the message down. We were to meet at that same diner, again on a Sunday—his one day off. I got there early, uncomfortable. He was already there. He stood as I approached with his hand extended, shaking mine effusively, with feeling and warmth, a smile on his face. With one hand under my elbow, the other on my shoulder, he guided me back to the booth we’d sat in last time we met. I found a cappuccino waiting for me; he had yet to order. Vanilla as I liked it, and cold.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And, look at this.”

I took out my book, the copy I intended for him, pulling it from the new valise, much nicer indeed despite the signs of cigarette ash and age, dust collecting around the zippers. I handed him one of the galley proofs. He took it into his hands in that same careful, loving way. I realized then, as he handled it in that delicate fashion in which he’d once held the handwritten draft of his son’s eulogy—he handled things as a doctor, not out of any sort of love, but with delicacy and care—but then, I thought, that is a sort of love, not a sort, that is love; to spend so much time in school, such long hours away from growing children, a lonely wife awake all hours of the night and worried back at home, and to do it for others, to work so hard to live a life to help.

I wondered for the first time, making the strange connection: how many names checked in at his office only to later arrive in my email? Had he ever checked the obituaries, hoping to find some consolation, however fraudulent, to think he hadn’t failed? He was turning my book around, looking at the cover, holding it up to better see it in the light.

“‘Theatre: Tradition & Ritual’,” he said. “That’s fine, that’s very fine indeed. That’s a good looking book, Brandon. I knew you’d figure it out.”

“Open it,” I said.

He flipped to the dedication page.

“‘For Marcus Redding and his family. Thanks for the support and coffee. With love, Brandon.’”

He seemed genuinely moved. He looked at me and smiled.

“That’s really something,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. But thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad you never gave it up. I can’t wait to read it.”

“It hasn’t been a big hit, but, alas, it’s a better business to be in. I’m glad I got it done.”

“I’m proud of you, Brandon,” he said.

“Thank you sir,” I said. “Thank you very much. And look at this—“

I showed him my new valise, all the new features, the less gaudy white leather. He looked it over attentively.

“That’s might fine,” he said. “Mighty fine indeed.”

He handed it back to me.

“So what are you working on now?”

“That’s why I’ve asked you to meet me here,” I said. “Not that I didn’t want to see you again and give you a copy of my book…”

“A free copy!” he interjected. “You can’t beat the price!”

“Yes, a free copy of my book, but other than that, after I met you, I realized I didn’t really know anything about your son, nothing about his life, your happier times with him, things he should be best remembered for and not my column and I thought—if you don’t think it’s inappropriate—you know, to tell me about who he was, what he was like as a child, the awkward teenage years and the man, your happy memories, the kind of stuff you can’t find online, so often the meat of life is picked away and what we’re usually left with, writing an obituary, is just the bones. And that’s what people seem to like. Short, thumbnail sketches, overly dramatic and declaratory. I wanted to do something real and honest for him. For you, for your family, to the extent, to any extent that I may. If I am to be the obituary writer, I must do so honestly.”

“He was a shy kid,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it, but he was quiet. Loved going fishing with me and his little brother, when they were young. We had a pond behind our house, and we’d take those Zebco 33 fishing rods down there after church on Sunday, they’d have those corks on the end, you know? The plastic bobbing corks that let you know when you’ve got a bite.

“Then when the twins were born, they stayed home them with after that, always protective big brothers. When they turned four, they got new bikes for their birthday and when you buy for one you have to buy for all! So everybody got a bike, and they loved nothing more in the world. Riding around and doing tricks, popping wheelies, and Marcus repaired them for Will and his sisters when they got a flat tire, when the chains came off—they always did! He got his daughter Leslie one of those new bikes when she turned four, one with a pink boombox on it and a radio.

“And that’s when he started talking about wanting to build things, to be a builder, to be an engineer, working on cars, fixing things that broke. He was always fixing things. They rode the horses, he couldn’t fix those! Hell, neither could I! They played video games and monopoly. We were fortunate, but they weren’t much different than lots of good, kind kids. And they were very much loved. And he is very much missed. He was very much a normal kid, a good kid, and a fine man. A loving father.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said. “I hope I can write a eulogy to suit him and honor your family properly.”

And through that finish my own perhaps, the obituary writer’s eulogy—who better to write it?

“You did, Brandon.”

I was confused. And he saw it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

I was quiet.

“I trivialized it all,” I said. “I was cynical and gaudy, and I’m a fraud. I’m not an obituary writer. That’s just the only way people seemed to care about my other work. And I used it. I used it to advance myself, selfishly. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look, Brandon,” he said. “You might not like what you do, and I know you don’t. I can see it looking at you. Who would want to do that? I deal with it in my line of work. But in the end, you’re giving people closure, allowing them to refresh their memories and keep their loved ones alive in there, and alive for longer. Don’t be down on yourself. What you do is a public good, despite your reasons. People need closure. When I can’t keep their loved ones alive, you can give them something I can’t.”

A short, not uncomfortable silence passed between us, a shared sorrow lingered for a moment and departed. I felt that I could do a proper eulogy, then, for Marcus, and maybe let it stand as mine, as all of ours, as normal, kind kids, who are very much loved and would be very much missed.

He ordered the same meal, just the same; BLT, small salad, large glass of iced tea. I finished my cappuccino, took out my laptop, and went about my work, typing away as he ate his sandwich and drank his tea. And I picked up the tab.

After that the conversation mellowed, teetering out but still pleasant; with little left to say, we talked about upcoming projects. He dabbed a napkin at the corners of his mouth, ever-creased from a life of forced and honest smiles. And I thought, if ever a ghost knocked on my door again, I’d invite them in for tea and a sandwich, and let them tell their story, so I could be the obituary writer once last time and get it right, finally, a proper obituary, and live out the true purpose of my title, that we both might rest. He opened the door to leave and the bells clanged,

Bing bong. 

The Slow Suicide of Narcissus – short, 27 May 2015

The Narcosis of Narcissus, the mixing of the real and fanciful, lead into this mirror, and distort it, distort it that a nobler shade of truth might reflect this honest fiction. This is not autobiography: this is therapy. 

Whenever you see someone writing about themselves, and they’re not exposing someone or accusing, they’re trying to work something out on their own, never thinking it will enter into the public eye, this dirty little habit of the self-absorbed, when one indulges the reprehensible urge to write about oneself, the simple question, ‘why?’ is somehow invalid, like asking which prime number looks best in a business suit. You know them, they are the doomed and miserable lot who utter that philosophical alibi ‘why?’ And they are as doomed with any why as I am with mine: why write a book about your life?

And without fail, I have to come to the same answer: that voids the question; that at once makes the act reprehensible and justifies my actions to myself, the opposing me whose giant eyeball is always looking over my shoulder, scrutinizing, judging, evaluating, as though I were a specimen under my own microscope. And that, indeed, is the point of this writing.

I’ve written about psychology and studied it my entire life. It has been the most fascinating subject I’ve ever encountered. Not in books, but the psychology of people and their actions. There are psychological determining factors behind any decisions, the complex ones, the ones more complex than, ‘should we have steak or salad? One is good, and murder, one is terrible, but human.’

There are cynics, or those who cum with closure, who read that last line with an exquisite since of sardonic delight. Terrible, but human, that is the joke and the punch line that defines a lot, and as an psychological aphorism, to me, it is three things. It is the crime and acquittal of a conscious race. To me, it is three things because there are three me’s.
There is the noble, the genius, the sensitive, the understanding me, the me I call the Roger complex. Roger comes from the name of the main character in my novel Songs of Galilee. I wrote about Roger from an admiring perspective. He was what I would like to be, and the Roger complex is me trying to imitate the character, when in the novel, Roger faces situations in his fictional life similar to situations in my real one. But he’s more than me, and that is what I felt made him admirable.

To those who have read the novel, they could conjecture that Roger is the manifestation of my ego, what I think would be my highest self, though Roger himself was the embodiment of the highest virtues: no hope, no fear; no pride, no shame. Roger was a multi-talented child prodigy genius of the highest order. That’s how I wrote him as a character, not as to imply that is what I thought I was. Roger was everything I would be if I could.

Thus the creation of the Roger complex; the mystic Buddhist who at twenty-four attained his enlightenment, and at twenty-seven died in the third and last book of his life, The Match Behind the Jar. Roger had invented a cure to death based on theories I had as a child. He was smart enough to make it possible. My theory was that the suspension of decay in cellular organisms could slow the aging process until the point of pure biological equilibrium, without decay or mutation of any cells in the body. Roger studied the human genome, as I did, but Roger found the Sisyphus Mechanism. He found out how to remove it and thereby render immortality.
That was Roger’s final temptation: immortality. In my short story the Dream of the Louse, Roger faces this temptation on a train, on his way to demonstrate the cure for death and the immortality of mankind. He calls the tempter Mara, the Buddhist version of satan, and embodiment of the ego. And like Buddha under the tree, and Christ in the desert, Roger resists temptation on the train.

Mara tells him to become more than a man, to push evolution forward. He dismisses the rules of nature, of life and death, and tells Roger that he is a brilliant man, that he will become the savior that mankind wanted and had been waiting for. He had brought real immortality to Earth. Roger, like Christ, was born on the Sea of Galilee. I chose that birthplace before I knew that that is where Christ is said to have walked on water. In Roger’s youth, he invents boots that stabilize and equalize buoyancy that allows him to walk on water. In one of my favorite passages of the Match Behind the Jar, Roger runs from his father across the sea, with his father chasing him from behind with a belt, to whip him for painting on the walls of his house.

Mara appears before Roger before he arrives in Time Square, on a train. Mara appeared before me in my bedroom, and inspired the Dream of the Louse. The characters are different, and it’s a fictionalization of a real event that took place in my life.

The plan was for Roger, though the plan was different for me, to inject the medication into himself, the immortality rendering compound he designed and synthesized based on his advancement of my genome studies, and then have someone give Roger the lethal injection on the stage. If it worked, of course, he would come back to life. He would be born again.

Roger chooses to take a placebo, and allows them to kill him on stage with the lethal injection because he did not take an injection of his compound. It was an injection of morphine, my drug of choice, and there Roger died at twenty-seven, at the end of the Match Behind the Jar.

Had he done the right thing by saving faith? With the possibility of immortality on Earth, Mara told him, why would anyone believe in the nonsense of afterlife or even need an afterlife? There’d be no more death and war. No more religion. And so Roger, the second man from the Sea of Galilee to offer immortality, to save the beliefs of everyone. He did not want his discovery to be believed, although it did work, and his death was taken as the compound didn’t work, and research on it stopped. It did work. It would have worked for all. Roger allowed himself to die so the soul would no longer be locked in the body. That was his last temptation in the last book of The Lizard’s Tale. I am sure he did the right thing. I am sure I would not have. I would have taken the cure to live.

Think about it as you read: would you take the injection to live forever? One injection: no more pain, death, decay.
It took me a long time to answer that question and two of me would take it, and one of me would not. There are three me’s, as I’ve come to in my psychiatric sessions with myself. Only one of me would resist, and that me is the Roger Complex, which I will further elaborate upon later on.

Rogers’s father was there at his birth and remained until his mother, or as Roger thought, and indeed once hoped, killed his father. This was written to expound upon Roger’s inner self. At first he wished for his father’s death, but at the same time was devastated when he died, and then he, as a grown man at the end, returns to a place his father always wished to take him. That is the coda to the Songs, Roger’s forgiveness. His forgiveness of his father, his mother, and himself. That’s where forgiveness starts.

And when you forgive yourself, it is liberating. At first, I felt like I was free; to do whatever I want. I could smoke and stay out late. I could piss away my mind in a way he would not have allowed. It took me several years to find my Coda at Pigeon Rock, as it is in Roger’s story, but it was more like a coda at Lake Murray, where my father and I went fishing before he died. All of the three me’s, as of now I’ve gone into only the Roger complex, which you will see me imitating throughout my life, even before his creation; I will later go into the Harvey complex, the lowest me, and Complex Zero: Brandon, the medium between Harvey and Roger.

But, I hear the chorus of why, and I must address it. The why of my decision to write this memoirs, Bastard; I’m sure by now, the title choice is apparent.

Why: I’m adept at helping people with their psychological problems. I’ve studied psychology at great length in my life, and it is the most powerful weapon known to man. I’ve written four accredited PhD’s in psychology as of this writing, and I’ve always been able to help people, not me, but others. I am always able to give them the advice they need based on the equation they gave me to solve.

When it comes to me, I don’t know the equation. I know parts of it, and I use those parts to try to solve the problems of my life, but since I don’t know all the numbers, the equation is never solved. I can find numbers in my past: abandonment, the need to assert and prove my worth because of it, the Oedipus complex directed at my biological father, the hallucinations, the dreams, the nightmares, the desires, the tragedies, and everyone has their share, the death of loved ones and friends, coming to terms with mortality, coming to terms with the thousands of philosophical questions I have less than satisfactory answers for, the want to matter, the want to be loved, to be admired, and other, less noble desires.

I can’t find all the numbers and the variables they create in order to solve the equation, the me equation; I cannot make them come together in a unified number, a number that will represent my life, the problem, solved. I doubt I’ll ever determine all the variables. But when it comes to equations of other people, their loves and hates and losses and gains, I seem to do well as someone to give advice, to mentor, to guide: to find the number they needed based on their equation, solved for contentment. The thought is my sickness and the page my hospital, and, all the better, public – the narcosis of Narcissus.

Author’s note: All characters, characteristics of said characters, living or dead, real, or otherwise alive, are fictional. All fictional elements are part of a more honest story. This is the sickness of those who revel in the spiral, enjoying it more the faster they go down. And my oh my, how fun it is to slide. 

Political correctness, 18 October 2015

First I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful article written by Cracked writer J.F. Sargent, whose article can be found here. And point out, that’s generally a more intelligent and insightful argument. That is all.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS, THE BOOGIE MAN, THE CENSORS WAITING IN THE DARK, JUST, WAITING, WAITING ON YOU TO SAY… SOMETHING… OFFENSIVE. MUST…NOT…SATIRE.

I’d also be remiss to acknowledge the state of this dead horse before I proceed to fucking beat it. (Because it’s dead… what is easier to beat? A living horse will fucking destroy you. Horses are the worst. But don’t tell Mr. Ed, he’s way too PC. And also dead. Which is slightly worse. Slightly, amirite?)

Political correctness, oh my god. Right? Right? 
I know.
Dude, I know.
DUDE.

Everybody and their biologically oriented life-giver, in-vitro, biological, or cesarean, has their personally distinct and worthwhile opinions on whether or not people have become overly sensitive. or — now, bear with me — if the response is less to someone saying something insensitive and more of a response to someone being an asshole or otherwise deliberately antagonistic, saying something not in service of a joke, or a story, but something which has one purpose: to intentionally insult or disparage someone or a group of people for the purpose of advocating something: their brand’s betterness, their political brand’s betterness, or their notion of general progress towards being as good as them, which, for some reason, must always be at the expense of others. The response isn’t overly sensitive liberals being too delicate, while I’m sure somewhere, right now perhaps, someone is beginning an article with shit like ‘biologically oriented life-giver’ to avoid saying something like mother … only to hide their hatred of in-vitro fertilization. IT COULD BE THIS VERY PAGE.

It’s not that. It is the response of those who balk at the idea that whoever is saying this “non PC friendly” shit, or the group to which that person belongs is inherently above or better than their intended target, simply because they’re not that target. The response is not one of overt-sensitivity, but of a group saying: you are not better by virtue of what you were born. The Internet has made it very, very hard to distinguish between someone’s merit and ability based on their sex/race, so when someone is being called out because of that, and that alone, the response is the response of those who believe in an idea: You know, they call this democracy. And it’s not a deviant sex act some French-y developed… But it is close. Democracy is an objection to inherited worth, status, or value. 

The idea that some things are inherently offensive, while certainly true, the criticism, the criticism of the politically correct sensibility is invariably made by someone who has said something inflammatory, and intentionally so, from a position of influence and power–which seems to consist primarily of rich/famous white people who think the concept of democracy is something to define, to the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others, for them and those who believe as they do, which is coincidentally the way the law was written by (surprise!) people like them, wealthy, white, heterosexual males – as other minority groups were for some wild, crazy reason, not allowed to vote; thus perpetuating the freedom of this group to the exclusion of that group, which were all groups, minorities and women (yep! All inclusive exclusion!) while at the same time making it illegal for anyone who has broken the law to vote someone who might represent their needs.

When women and minorities were finally given the god damn right to vote, the elected representatives – surprise! – began to become more diverse and the fight  against institutional prejudice began – and with same sex marriage only recently becoming legal in all of the US, and the remaining resistance comes from that same group struggling to stay true to rules that were very much written by people like them, voted for by people like them, to keep those liberties very much in the hands of that same, homogeneous group: wealthy, white, heterosexual males, betraying the very core of democracy; that everyone should be, by birth, afforded the same freedoms and protections under the law.

Democracy is either absolute or not democracy.

The greatest achievements of America have been, with exception of course, the reversal of earlier, less inclusive institutionalized standards. Greatest moments in political history? The American revolution? Overthrowing … taxes and tea, something like that. The Emancipation Proclamation? As wonderful as that was, it was the eventual overturn of the casual attitude towards slavery. The million-man march? A protest against prejudicial practices in Jim Crow-era south. The greatest achievements of America are those moments when the establishment finally goes, Fuck it, other people can have freedoms too. It’s great to have figures like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr… but to need them is horrifying by implication. And, it didn’t end well for either. Go ahead, guess what happened. This isn’t uniquely American, either. Anyone vocally against systems set in motion to benefit the few at the expense of the many, historically speaking, have been fucking killed.

And now, the criticism of political correctness is used as a means to brush aside – sometimes legitimate – accusations of racism or sexism. But the accusation of political correctness leading to censorship, or that people are being too sensitive, is only used when someone has been genuinely sexist, genuinely racist, xenophobic, or otherwise intentionally hurtful – for the sole purpose of being inflammatory, as a way to be provocative without being thoughtful or insightful, or even interesting. It’s less about overly sensitive liberals and their quivering antennae when someone isn’t PC, and more about a sexless, colorless culture recognizing bad manners and assholes – and making them know, ‘Hey, you’re a fucking asshole. And we know it.’ If you were to fart at a dinner table, you wouldn’t accuse your dinner guess of being too sensitive for saying nobody wanted to smell your asshole at lunch. Put it in the right story, or in the right context, and we’ll laugh right along. Conservative, liberal, communist.

Fuck the French!

2015-02-11 13.00.16
Don’t shoot, French friends!

Chapter 1

Last New Year’s Eve

My mother was center stage, right there in the spotlight, dressed as Queen Clytemnestra. It was her first role and her favorite, wife of King Agamemnon from the play by Aeschylus, the first play I ever saw, in a dark, smoke-filled shanty theatre in Paris. She wore that same dress, screaming red. A prop sword in one hand, the other pulling back the cotton head of our mascot Tragos, tragedy my friend, that janitor in drag.

“Troy has fallen!”

The crowd cheered on like Spartan whores, like clapping seals and Sirens, whistling shame.

Mother held the sword aloft to the sound of more applause, then she let it fall; and silent it fell soft along the seams of that poor mascot’s head. And off it came, the crowd roared on, applauding as it ran bloodless down, down, down, down, off the stage into the crowd. A thespian in a black mask scooped it up, hoisted it into the air, and shouted:

“Happy new year!”

“Happy new year!”

The bloodless sacrifice complete, the Gods appeased, the janitor in the buffoonish goat-suit was hurried off the stage. He stumbled into the crowd to retrieve his head. After a brief scuffle with some drunk asshole in the front row, it was returned to him. Mother raised her hand to bring the crowd to silence again, ever the conductor, a virtuoso playing their preferred instrument: a crowd of two hundred at capacity, and more if you didn’t mind standing or sitting in an aisle, or on the floor.

“I’d like to thank you all for coming, first of all,” mother said. “It’s a pleasure and a privilege, truly, to see you all tonight, to have such support from the community and our friends, and our family. So, on behalf of everyone here at the La petite illusion, the Players and the Faces, thank you making this year’s Christmas play such a success. And remember, when you see the stage light come on…” a large, bright light flickered into life above the stage. “When you see that light, it’ll ten minutes until midnight. So, if you’re interested in joining us for the bonfire, make sure to meet us at stage door left when you see the light. Now, until then, enjoy the music! Enjoy the wine! I’ll see you all at midnight!”

More applause. She smiled, and smiling walked away, waving with a rigid, cupped hand like an aged beauty Queen, forever a rose, a rose forever to fade but never wilt; mother would have to be buried alive. The house band, just four college kids on holiday, had gathered in front of the drawn curtains and began to set up. Two young men and two guitars with nylon strings, la-la-la-la-la. A digital grand that clanged for a young lady, about my age or thereabouts, a lovely piano, upright on rolling wheels, one violinist, Chinese and demure, very thin and sexy.

Behind the curtain was a softer symphony, unheard, drowned by the cheerful holiday music mixed with a mumbling crowd of Faces and masked patrons, the soft symphony in silence behind the scenes, , drowned out by this cheerful and familiar holiday music, a chorus of shuffling feet.

And Jack Cade said it best:

I have thought upon it, it shall be so.

Away, burn

all the records of the realm:

my mouth shall be the parliament of England.

“Spare none,” he said.

And none were spared.

Not one chair, nor table cloth, everything had to burn, just painted kindling, a great buffet by poor Camille, a discount muse but worth each Franc.

With our audience and patrons, and anyone who’d wandered in for a drink or a show, everyone who gathered for this show, playing the voyeur, all costumed and masked, to burn those props—that was the show, that was the point. Camille was one of the few staff members I knew personally; a young girl and very pretty, kind of dim and shy, she sat on the flyloft above the stage, suspended from the rafters with her feet dangling off. The rest were kept in costume while at work, as per mother’s instruction.

The workers without masks were Faces in theatre lingo, always behind the stage or in front, never on it, forever locked in one poor role, confined by their own skin. The rest, the actors and performers and staff, save for me and Lain and Camille, they were Abstracts, they were character, like that poor goat Tragedy; they were Players, and as such were never given, nor did they give, real names, and were never to be referred to as such. Referring to them by their character names, mother told me, helped their performances. It probably gave them acute impostor syndrome too, but that didn’t matter, not as long as the reviews were good. Tragedy joined us at the bar.

“Good evening, Tragos,” said Lain.

“Nice to see you, Charles,” said Tragos. They shook hands warmly.

“You know, Robert,” said Lain, “I think you’re the only person I know who dies for a living.”

He smiled.

“I had no idea why Madame Nanty wanted me to dress like this, much less pretend to cut my damn head off. You know how I found out? My mom was born in Athens, not far from where that shit started, an offering to the Gods. What an offering!”

We all laughed.

“Yeah,” I said, looking over to Lain. “You know, when theatre began, it was basically a cult, a boy’s only club, all based around a ritual celebration. It was a cult, a cult of Dionysus, God of fertility and wine.”

“To Dionysus!” said Robert.

“To fertility and wine!” Lain said.

“They sacrificed real animals before the start of every play,” I said. “To honor the Gods, naturally. Theatres were outside back them, you know, you do what you have to do.” And, at the start of each performance, they sacrificed a goat to honor the Gods. Theatres were outside then; you did what you had to do.”

“And we just sacrifice our dignity,” said Lain.

“We’d probably do the same, if we had to,” I said. “Think about what we go through already, sacrificing our dignity to critics, starving ourselves to fit in costumes to be scrutinized and judged by out of shape assholes. Gods are easy, critics are not won so easily, and if sacrificing a goat got us a better write up, a better review in nouvelles de divertissement, we’d have a farm behind the fucking theatre.”

Lain laughed, “No expense, no goat, no mercy!”

“Lance!” I called, turning away. Lain was explaining his new play to Robert.

There were three bartenders on staff, all well dressed; tuxedos and simplistic masks. Lance was the only Face at the bar. He was very prim, very proper, and neat, very neat, and too much so. At least for me. I imagined that his father beat him. He approached the end of the bar where we were sitting:

“Yes, mademoiselle?”

“You see that guy in the goat costume?” I asked.

Lance nodded, “Yes, mademoiselle.”

“I want you to take him the Cote Chalonnaise,” I gestured toward the underside of the opposing cabinet. “And, yeah, that one. And, grab the green—that one, yes! the Macon. And get him a couple of decent glasses, tall.”

“Who am I to say it is from?”

“It’s ‘whom’!” Lain shouted at him. “Fucking idiot!”

“Tell him it is from the Queen,” I said, talking over Lain.

“If the person is the subject of the sentence, you say ‘whom’…”

“Yes, mademoiselle,” Lance said, never breaking character. And he kept on. And on.

After retrieving the bottles and two tall, slender glasses, Lance handed them to Robert.

“And you shouldn’t end a sentence with ‘from.’ Because…”

The Cote Chalonnaise was especially nice, and the dusty bottle was a sure way to tweak the nipples of a connoisseur.

“Prepositions are there to show the relationship between the noun and the pronoun…”

Robert took the bottles one by one, and lovingly, then the glasses. He sat them down and read the dusty labels.

“From whom? Well, to whom shall I say? That sounds bad, whom shall I say? No…”

“Compliments of the Queen,” said Lance.

He was without costume finally, in a comfortable button up shirt. The man looking back at me was a stranger then, somehow less real without his mask.”

“It’s from mother!” I said. “She forgot to give it to you on Christmas.”

“You’re just a noun, you know. You’re a diminutive little noun, unworthy of superlative or adverb…”

“Lain, shut the fuck up!” I said. “English isn’t his first language!”

“It’s not mine either!”

“Merci,” Robert said. “My wife is going to go crazy when she sees the year on this Chalonnaise.”

“Thank you Robert!” I said. “We’re very grateful to have you here!”

“We all know who the Queen is,” he said. He smiled, bid us a very good evening, and walked away, with Tragedy dissolving into just another member of the unnamed supporting cast.

I called for Lance again. He approached after serving to middle-aged ladies dressed like slutty angels.

“Two fingers of bourbon for me,” I said, “and take Lain one of his pussy drinks.”

“Such as?” he asked.

“Something fruity,” I said. “A white Russian, perhaps? Yes, that’ll do. Thanks, Lance.”

He returned a moment later with our orders.

“Two fingers of Jim for mademoiselle,” said Lance, “and a white Russian for Monsieur Pinon.”

“That’s racist,” said Lain.

I sat my glass on a square napkin, pretending not to notice Lance’s number scribbled on it in hurried, purple penstrokes. Painfully obvious and Lain caught a glimpse when I passed him his drink. He didn’t say a word, but I saw it in his eyes, a small defeat. He took a generous sip from his glass.

“Anything else?” asked Lance.

“Not now,” I said. “Now, fuck off.”

“Yes, mademoiselle,” he said. He returned to serving the other costumers. I turned to Lain.

“Cheers, Monsieur Pinon!” I said. He smilled despite himself. I raised my glass.

“Cheers, Mademoiselle Brisbois!” said Lain, raising his The glasses clinked together and we both finished our drinks in one long, profane gulp.

We chatted between shots, taking in the sights and sounds, the live band playing merry music, the smell of liquor and cheap perfume in the air, small clouds of cigarette smoke swirling under low-hanging, red-tinted spiderlamps. The audience was alive with mirth and conversation, the social butterflies buzzing, deaf to the fools with nets behind them. Lain was doing the same: silently judging everyone, trying to guess who those people were, beneath the mask, what kind of animals were they without those feathers? Or was there nothing but feathers, and nothing under the mask but another one, or a smooth face, smooth as a cue ball and just as featureless and memorable.

“Here’s to The Little Illusion,” Lain. He held up his empty shot glass. I raised mine. They clinked together with a hollow clink! as we tossed back the drink that wasn’t there.

“Best of the night!” said Lain.

“Here’s to it,” I said.

The hollow sound the glasses made when they clinked together somehow got through: when you’re 5’4”, don’t match drinks with a guy over 6 feet tall. Especially not a Russian.

“I hope you’re being careful,” a far-off, snobbish voice said. It was her superpower, judgment, arising for the perfect moment from the darkness. I straightened my back and turned my bloodshot eyes back to white. A strange talent, I’d discovered it in drama school.

“Tell her, Lain,” she said, “If she’s going to do Anna again this year at the Medea, she needs to watch her weight.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to kill myself and be fat,” I said.

Lain laughed, and mother turned to him and smiled, a broad and bright smile. It was her way of saying, you’re funny, but not quite funny enough to earn my laughter. A smile, and that’s it, you fucking peasant.

“Bonne soirée, Charles,” she said. “Comment çava?”

“Il est une merveilleuse nuit putain,” he said. “Pardon my French.”

She smiled.

“Such a clever boy,” she said. “You need to talk Renette into growing her hair back out so she can keep getting leading roles.”

“You see,” Lain said. “That’s the problem. You can’t negotiate with fire.”

“But she had such lovely hair.”

“Renette could get any role in Paris if she were bald.”

“I know you love her.”

“Everybody loves Renette,” said Lain. “Except Renette, of course.”

Mother smiled again.

“Take care of her, Lain,” she said. “I’ll see you later. Renette, behave yourself! I don’t want to find you under the bar!”

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I’m going to meet with a new director,” she said. “A potential director, that is. I saw a really good production of his last week and got his contact information from the Exchange. So, I’m going to show him around, show him how we do things here. Hopefully we can get him on board and do something really, truly new. I’ll see you in a bit.”

She leaned in and kissed Lain and both sides of his cheek, and then me.

“I love you two,” she said.

“See you then,” I said. “Remember: don’t leave your drinks attended around Lianne. Just saying.”

“We love you too, Madame.”

She smiled again. Fucking peasant.

“Make her behave, Lain,” she said. “Don’t let her drink too much.”

“Remember King Lear,” said Lain. “‘Get not between a dragon and its wrath’? It’s like that with her.”

“Good lad,” she said and turned to walk away. “Good evening, Charles.”

He fucking hated being called Charles.

“Good evening, Mme. Nanty!” Lain called.

She thrust a hand into the air and waved without turning round. In mere moments she had disappeared as quickly as she had appeared. Lain followed her through the crowd; excellent vision, somehow keeping track of her. The red, of course. The Russian blood.

“That’s racist.”

He nudged my shoulder.

“Who is that?” he asked. “Look, right over there.”

He nudged my shoulder.

“What?”

“Who’s that?” he asked. “Look, right there. The guy with the mask.” He gestured across the gallery, lit only by sparse dining table candles. I followed his pointed finger, bouncing from one masked face to another.

“Are you fucking with me?” I asked. “Everywhere is over there!”

It didn’t take me long to catch a glimpse of the man. He stood out somehow, my mother very animated, holding his hands in hers and smiling broadly. It was the mask, a damn grotesque but lovely in that twisted way, lovely in the way a flower growing from a boot might be. It was a faded white, an ivory color, the color of Time and dust, snowflakes and cigarette ash. The nose was very prominent, about nine inches give or take, hanging from his face but not too sharp. Grotesque, sure, but not horrific. The rest of his clothes were black, save for his cuffs, both white with a black button in.

“I hope we can get a good director here,” said Lain.

I nodded.

“As fun as it is to do all those Shakespeare plays,” he said. “I didn’t come to France to do the same shit they do off-Broadway in New York.”

“Why the fuck did you come to France, again?”

“For you,” he said. “You know that.”

I smiled, turning to look toward the upper crosswalk again where mother had stood with the strange little man and his Pinocchio mask. They were gone. I scanned the crowd to no avail, the liquor making itself known to us both.

I sat my glass down and Lain followed. Lance hurried over to collect, thanking me profusely for a €50 tip. We walked from the bar, humming together, our heart beats keeping tempo; I was stumbling drunk, my arm around Alain. He smelled like old books, like a fine mahogany desk. He kept me up-right somehow. We weaved in between one patron after another and finally found mother and my little sister Lianne at the exit, precious Lee, and more were gathering as the green light above the stage had come on. Lianne said hello to Lain and he knelt and took her little hand into his and kissed it, saying,

“Madame shook her hand, “Madame.” She smiled a toothy smile, her two front teeth missing.

They began to gather in ever larger groups in front of us, what was left of my family. And Lain, of course. Alain. It was a large crowd. Many were as drunk as we were but all were polite, well poised and surprisingly proper for a French mob in Friday voyeur masks.

“Alright,” mother said. “Hey, hey!”

She whistled, a whistle so loud it hurt. “Listen!”

Get not between a dragon and its wrath.

Everyone went quiet quickly.

“Now, we’re all here to have fun, but be careful and don’t get too close to the fire. And once it gets started, please stay behind the crossguards. One simple rule: if it’s taller than you are, don’t get near it! That goes for you too Lain!”

Everybody laughed.

HAHAHA.

“Okay? Great! Now, follow me.”

She flung the swinging doors open, outward into a cold night, the crowd spilling out in single file behind us. And there we were, scene of the crime. I imagined my grandfather’s ghost still walking through those ruins, never to rest, looking for his satin curtains with the dancing plague and grandma on piano. After everyone had gathered in front of the pile of painted sets and props, the kind we couldn’t use anyway since the matte painting was by then damaged by the stage light’s heat and fading, mother opened the easily negotiable barrier between the scenic kindling, carrying a single candle. She struck a match and lit it. She spoke:

“50 years ago, during the German occupation of France, German soldiers burned this theatre down,” she said.

Print the myth.

“When the war ended, my grandmother raised enough money from the public to rebuild this theatre, with the help of patrons and friends just like you. And over the next half century it has become our home and a part of our culture. As it passed to me when mother died, it will pass to my daughter Renette when I’m gone, and to her children then…”

Everybody looked at me and Lain. Lain put his arms around me and smiled, pulling me closer to him with one hand and holding the other, interlocking our fingers. I hugged him back and smiled. I smiled despite myself, turning a very self conscious shade of red. A chameleon cannot always control its transformations.

“And so, to celebrate our family’s tradition and our friends and patrons, it is our tradition here at La petite illusion, to burn these sets ourselves. We do this to wash away the success and pain of yesterday and start anew. We do this to symbolize our determination and rebirth. We do this because it takes more than fire to kill the French spirit…”

Mother passed the crossguard and knelt, the fire passed into the stream and flared up with a whoosh that made the gathered crowd gasp and then clap enthusiastically. And we followed her, me first, then Lain with Lee, hold her hand. The rest tip-toed near the edge of the mountain of rubbish, snickering as they razed the castle to the ground, Castle of the King, poor Lear, you poor bastard.

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.

Thy will be done.

And so went pomp, and physic too, and then the throne and every stone, each and every brick, every single inch unto its ruin. That was our Thanksgiving, uniting us in a heathen’s Sabbath, each patron with a little colored candle, blue or white or red, just for us and not far off, just up there, just up above, was an old Watchtower deserted nowm, once a lighthouse—there were no ships no more, no more below at Le corniche, there were no ships. The fire grew ever larger as the candles fell, one after another, the line moving single file, with great caution, and with greater caution still until no longer approaching; it could feed itself.

The countdown began as “Dix!” rang out in a woman’s voice and the great trois coleur, a descending ball along a track and brightly lit, electroc-neon blue-white-red and falling with each descending number;

“Dix,” echoed back, the ball was falling and all were counting:

Neuf!

Huit!

Sept!

Six!

Sinq!

The fireworks went off in the sky, bursting into those patriotic colors, I pulled Lain close to me and put my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes, the fire calming and warming me.

Quatre!

Trois!

Deux!

The flashing lights of the trois coleur solidified as it came to a rest at the base, a base from which it would not rise for another year, next year’s New Year’s Eve, and all were clapping, hugging one another as the fireworks increased in brightness, so bright I could see the whiter whites with my eyes closed, the New Year ringing out through the French countryside.

And all together:

Un!

“Happy new year!”

And those happy people, young and old, all in great cheer and happy, thrilled by the coming year and its promise. I’d never see them again, most of them, and not without a mask. If anyone who stood there then showed up the year to follow, a year from where we stood that night, Lain and I, watching the fire grow and warm inside. One year from a curtain call for most, and finally they’d get the spotlight, center stage, never to see roses, and a shame it is for all to only get your roses when you fall, nor read the many rave reviews, a two-star epitaph on a five-star grave.

<– Return to Prologue Go to Chapter 2 –>