Category: works in progress


When I was really little, at that age when a lot of girls are “daddy’s girls,” my father used to sit by my bed and play the guitar at bedtime. Some of my earliest memories are of him playing and singing Doc’s “Shady Grove,” “Dulcinea” from the Man of La Mancha, and “Froggy Went A-Courtin’.”

I was too young to know that his guitar playing was a bit of a sore spot with my mother. He had picked it up when they were in their early twenties, living in some hovel or trailer or shack or another in Andalusia, or Theodore, or Monterey. He had picked it up and taught himself to play, and any non-musician who’s ever been present to hear someone else teach themselves an instrument probably understands a little of my mother’s weariness with hours of scales and hearing a song for the twentieth time in one night. The upside of living on love is that you really can feed two for as cheaply as one, at least if part of your diet is coming from artichokes stolen from California fields and served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a few weeks. The downside is that living on love rarely provides much personal space in the living arrangements — there was nowhere for them to go to have their own spaces or any “personal time.”

I was not too young to know that my dad got his personal space anyway.

That was another sore spot with my mother. After about six months of playing the guitar like it was a newfound religion, he and a friend decided they would audition for the orchestra for a touring Man of La Mancha.  They got spots, and they took off on motorcycles, touring the country playing “Dulcinea” and “The Impossible Dream” on acoustic guitar.

But that isn’t what made my mother sore. What made her sore is that my father’s social circle when he came back consisted largely of artists and musicians, who moonlighted as professional drinkers. Or vice versa. He spent his days apprenticing to a master woodworker for a pittance and his nights playing guitar and drinking liquor. When the cramped space of their living arrangments got to him, he’s disappear for a night or two with his truck, his guitar, and a bottle. He usually came back with the truck and the guitar, often to find his clothes on the front porch waiting for him.

This is what my father sang, and believed:

And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I’m laid to my rest …
And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach … the unreachable star …

This is what my father, crying, sang to her as she, crying, threw his things into the bed of his truck and told him not to come back until he was sober:

Dulcinea… Dulcinea…
I see heaven when I see thee, Dulcinea,
And thy name is like a prayer
An angel whispers… Dulcinea… Dulcinea!

If I reach out to thee,
Do not tremble and shrink
From the touch of my hand on thy hair.
Let my fingers but see
Thou art warm and alive,
And no phantom to fade in the air.

You see, he never really knew how to talk, not in the way people do, and not in the way his new wife seemed to expect. She came from a family who showed love with oyster gumbo and Irish toasts and a thorough ass-warming with a switch that “hurts me more than it hurts you.” Volume meant you cared, and when things got bad, Grandma Mae would light candles for you at St. Michael’s church and say the rosary on your behalf. Dad came from a family who showed love by sending each and every son off to military school for the best possible education and making sure they each got a car when they were sixteen. When Dad learned to play the guitar, he learned how to talk. But he had married a woman who didn’t speak his language, who rolled her eyes with annoyance when he sang Man of La Mancha songs to her.

This is what my father sang to me for a bedtime story when I was four:

Cheeks as red as a blooming rose
And eyes are the prettiest brown
She’s the darling of my heart
Sweetest little girl in town

Shady Grove, my little love
Shady Grove I say
Shady Grove, my little love
I’m bound to go away

And that’s just what he did. I knew, at four even, that music was how Dad talked. I knew he said things plainest with other people’s lyrics and with his fingers making chords on the mother-of-pearl inlaid neck of the guitar. I knew, because he sang so, that he loved me. And I knew, because he sang so, that he was bound to go away.

And he always did.

***

Shady Grove by Doc Watson and David Holt

Man of La Mancha Overture (guitar only)

***

Mom had been an art history major before she “took a semester off” and followed my dad out to California and then back to Alabama to do a sort of bohemian thing, only with woodshavings. Dad had done a semester at Alabama, a semester’s worth of time in the county jail, and a semester’s worth of traveling orchestra, and decided he wanted to build fine furniture. So they settled down by Fowl River and had me. Sometimes they had to sell the kitchen table to feed us, but it was ok because dad could make another one. Sometimes mom sold a painting or some stained glass, and in between she worked odd jobs to make up all the little differences. Once, when I was about twelve, struggling with “Tea for Two” on the violin, I asked her what kind of music she liked. She said, “I don’t like music.”

We didn’t have a television in the living room, but we had a piano that we’d gotten as partial payment for a bed dad had made for a customer who was a musician, and we didn’t have to sell it until I was twelve. So I had piano lessons. On Friday nights, the coterie of musician alcoholics would gather in the living room, dad on the guitar and then the banjo, after he made himself one and learned how to play it, one friend on the trombone, another on the piano, a generous handful on acoustic guitar. Sometimes I sat in on Bill Bailey on the piano. Then I skulked around and picked up the near-empty beer bottles and finished them off before somebody remembered to tell me to go to bed.
Dad told me around that time that he would support me for the rest of my life if I learned how to play the violin. They never could find a good fiddle player. I took two months of lessons and the entire family was ready for me to quit after fifteen minutes of hearing me practice. Learning the violin requires personal space.

My brother was eventually born and got old enough to pick up an instrument, but he was hard to teach. He had ADHD, only we didn’t know to call it that — we called it “impossible,” “bratty,” “unmanageable,” “hyper,” “difficult.” He couldn’t sit still for phys ed, never mind a music lesson. When he was about five, I was excited to have someone who would soon be learning to read so we could write notes to each other and make treasure maps and put things in code and talk about books we’d read. But it didn’t work that way. He talked through fighting, hair pulling, nervous tics, fidgeting, rock throwing. I corralled him into playing Lizard Hospital with me once, and we were busy collecting lizards to put in little hospital beds made out of shoe boxes and tissues. I had a method of “taming” them by confining them in the mailbox for a while so they’d sit still and let us wear them on our heads and as earrings. When they got ungroggy and tried to run away, we would catch them by the tails. When they shed their tails, they became candidates for the Lizard Hospital.

I went inside to get some more tissue for a brown lizard’s hospital bed, and I came out to find the patient’s cure had killed. The trowel that we’d been using to bury the ones that didn’t make it, or at least the tails they left behind, had been turned into an instrument of massacre by my brother. My little patient had been stabbed into pieces at the hands of my sibling, who had once again communicated with his hands rather than his words. I stopped trying to make him play Lizard Hospital with me.

Shortly after the abortive attempt at violining, I decided I was way too cool for anything my parents had ever liked, and I betrayed Doc Watson, taking up the mohawked and eyelinered mantle of the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux, and Bauhaus.

It might as well have been war.

***

For a family that didn’t talk all that much, symbols and noises meant a lot, and you got savvy to them quick. The tone of voice in which dad answered a “Can I call [so-and-so] on the phone” could convey a range of meaning. It could mean:

– whatever, I’m not listening.
– I had a bad day. I’m not listening. Unless you’re bringing me a drink, shut up.
– I had a good day, and you can have whatever you want, and this is a good time to hit me up for money.
– Your mother is being a bitch, and your political choices in the next five minutes will shape the next five months of your life.
– Get the fuck out of here now if you know what’s good for you.
– Hey, you’re an alright kid, you know? Let’s play some music.

Dad was not alone. The way mom performed the choreography of the kitchen/dinner dance spoke volumes. The closing of a cabinet door, the choice of vegetables, the tone of voice as she called us to dinner, how much peel was left in the mashed potatoes, all of it held meaning. It could mean:

– I am divorcing that bastard tomorrow and I just have to figure out how I’m going to feed these kids.
– If I have to cook cabbage one more night in a row I’m going to scream.
– I can’t believe he drank the last bottle of wine.
– I wonder if that new table I set up will let me solder without pulling that weird spot in my shoulders when I lean over?
– I think I might stop smoking pot and go back to the Catholic church.
– I wish you’d stop asking me what’s for dinner and peel a damned carrot or something to help me around here.
– This is a good time to ask me for money, or for new crayons or a book.
– If I hear Bill Bailey one more time I am going to shove that music stand up his ass.
– I think they’re old enough to read “Treasure Island” to; we’ll start tonight.

About this time, Dad inserted a new verse into the familiar rendition of Shady Grove:

Every day when I get home
My wife I try to please her
But she won’t have anything at all
One day I’m going to leave her

Shady Grove, my little love
Shady Grove, my darlin’
Shady Grove, my little love
I’m bound to go to Harlem

His piano-playing buddy managed to work a funeral dirge into the bridge. Mom gritted her teeth.

As for my brother, he was getting suspended from school regularly and pulling his hair out of his head so much he had bald patches. As for me, I was invested in black nail polish and making potions out of the eyeballs of dead birds I found in the woods. I stopped playing music, and to the thump-thump-thump of my brother obsessively but lightly banging his head into the thin wall of his bedroom in the trailer, I lived by new lyrics, written by somebody else:

So eager to please
Peer pressure decrees
Make the same old mistakes
Again and again
Chickenshit conformist like your parents

It didn’t so much matter that my parents were anything but conformists.  It mattered more that we couldn’t play the piano to Dead Kennedys songs.

***

Nat King Cole — Tea for Two

Marian Montgomery — Bill Bailey

The Sex Pistols  — Anarchy in the UK

The Dead Kennedys — Chickenshit Conformist

***

The black nail polish, punk music, and hair spray might as well have been a slap in the face to my father, who couldn’t help but take the assaults on his eardrums personally. When he sang:

Went to see my Shady Grove
She was standing in the door
Shoes and stockings in her hand
And her little bare feet on the floor

… my booted heels would kick the door shut. Then he’d take the door off the hinges. We were still communicating through music, but now there were battle lines instead of parleys. We were still communicating in the presence of Messieurs Dickel and Cuervo, but now I was kicking it back with the worst of them. We were still communicating with languages that needed the media of hands and strings to become sound waves, but now his fingers were finding purchase on my face and inside the thin walls of the trailer, and I was breaking his guitars over tree stumps in the front yard in retaliation.

They finally locked me up for a year before one of us killed the other, and we didn’t speak more than twelve words a month to each other for years afterward. In the meantime, my brother got diagnosed with ADHD, started medication and study skills programs, and finished reading his first book. My sister was born. I got the hell out of dodge as soon as I could. I was really into the Bolshoi at the time, and they sang me up to college on Interstate 65:

Away
Yes you get by
Away

Money’s scarce, but family honor
Brings it home brings it home
And down the shop, the tongues they snicker
TV dinners, beer and liquor…oh yeah

Skeletons fall out of cupboards
Curtains drawn fall open to allow
The light shows up the dust
That plays around your face

***

Actually, this is not part Four.  This is an interlude.  Part Five should be about Peter and Paul, and Phil and Walon, and music in real bars, and the deathmetal scene in Birmingham — no, that should be part Six.  So Part Five will come later, and part 6 after that. And I skipped over Stevie Nicks and my father passing out in my lap in a puddle of piss, and the Dead with that guy who died of stomach cancer and had (previously) given me my first REM e.p. and told me Bauhaus had nothing on Iron Butterfly, and the music the congregation makes when it says a rosary for the dead in between the slightly off-key intonations of the young Irish priest who has so many more expectations on his shoulder than he can handle.  I skipped lots of teenage high school stuff.  All that is before this.  So maybe that will be part five.  Or something.  Or maybe I’ll get somewhere if I just type and quit thinking about it too much.

Interlude?  I dunno.  I’m just going to type.

In Montevallo, I was far enough away to stop using Aqua Net and the Dead Kennedys as a weapon, for a minute, sometimes.  I would never have admitted it to my family, but when I got away as a teenager sometimes and hung out with my friends, they sometimes played the Animals, or Patsy Cline, and by the time I was seventeen I knew lots of Patsy Cline songs.  DougE (pronounce with two syllables, not one) would sit and sing with Peter and Paul while they played acoustic guitar and beat a rhythm out of a skillet or an old lamp with some thrift store cymbals perched on top in lieu of a lampshade.  DougE would hit all the high notes and the veins would pop out of his neck singing “House of the Rising Sun,” and then they’d shift into a Bauhaus song or some Sinead O’Connor, or into their own work — that was about the decrepit “historic district” downtown, where we used to loiter and eat cake and drink brandy and engage in minor burglary of formerly prized mantelpieces and copper wire; or about the seasons; or about kitchen appliances; or about a ride someone had taken in a car.  Actually, those guys need their own little series.

Of course, on the weekends, it was all punk rock shows and mosh pits and bloody noses, and I can’t count the number of friends who lost teeth during those days.  But that sort of cultural currency is a different story that i need to write one day.  But I’ve backtracked again.  This is where the thread I thought I could see when I started writing this gets messed up.  This is the tangle.  I could write an ending tonight, and maybe I should.  Maybe that would help me write the middle, untangle the tangle, make some sense out of something I evidently never tried to make sense of before.

But I set out to say this, at least, and as the hours click by and my ambition and clarity wane, i’ll have to settle for this…

At Montevallo, pushed along the interstate by Bolshoi lyrics, this was blue Docs and mohawk-recovering (my father had sent mine to the dustbin with a pair of scissors waved in my face for good measure first) & Chelsea time.  I spent some time screwing a boy with a safety pin through his lip, a boy whose mohawk grooming habits left smudges of hair wax on my sheets that would never wash out completely.  We listened to a lot of music on cassette:

I guess I make too much shit
Someday we’ll look back and laugh

Mr. Present, go away
Come back and fuck with us some other day
Mr. Feelings, run and hide
You have no right to what you feel inside
Motherfuckers, quick to kiss
Talk your shit, but don’t fuck with this
All I want to know…
All I want to know is
Am I holding on? Am I moving on?
What can we do, what can we do?

I had listened to Minor Threat in my time-out year in residential treatment, while we were supposed to be having P.E. in the gym.  Because I was a suicide, I was considered safe to house with the anorexic, and she didn’t get searched for a while coming in from pass.  I was high on pain pills my anorexic roommate brought me most of the time.  I would plead cramps and lie on an exercise mat and slide a Minor Threat tape into the oft-fought-over tape deck while the non-medicated, non-uterus-having suckers had to play games of basketball.  I laid on the mat fucked out of my mind on the combination of whatever the shrink had prescribed me and my roommate’s illicit medicine cabinet raids, and I let Ian MacKaye’s voice wash over me and stain the three surrounding miles with the bitter, metallic leftovers of my own disgust, somewhat, I imagined, in the shape of my own sweating body, leaking my dulled rage over three counties in a pattern visible only, maybe, from the air.  In this humid city that made its own gravy, I made my own sweaty mark, in my drugged imagination.  I was helping to poison the suburban wellwater of these bastards who thought it was a good idea for a sixteen year old girl to have her birthday in a mental institution, forbidden to have candles or even shoes, because she let a little too much ire leak around the edges.  There was nowhere else to go but where I went, then.  And I imagined these bass lines carrying little pieces of toxic me down into the water supply where I evaporated, and hoped they all choked on particles of me, later, as their toddlers screeched at the birthday party clown and played innocently in the sprinklers.  Poisoned, poisoned, poisoned… I had plenty to share, and their toddlers would hear Ian MacKaye in their nightmares, I hoped.

To have escaped, to have found the way to play that game and get released, to have accomplished the miracle of getting into college with a 1.75 GPA and a criminal record — it was a giddy time.  Listening to Minor Threat with a mohawked boy who sported a safety pin through his lip, in a room I had the key to, in a room I could lock, in a room with a tape deck I owned, felt like a coup.  I played it loud, and when I was alone, even when I was alone, I didn’t miss Doc Watson.

In Birmingham, later, I found deathmetal and bloodcults.  The musicians I knew were doing lines of coke off the slick, deep burgundy finish of their electric guitars.  Or the back of toilet seats, whatever.  I sang nothing, played nothing, went from pit to audience with hardly a mutter.  I was developing fluency in playing with people’s heads, with their dreams, with the soft spots where their limbs met their torsos, with the moments when their breath would come out and say something unguarded. Adn I think this should get snipped to go into the next part.

***

Siouxsie and the Banshees — Cities in Dust

Bauhaus — Hollow Hills

Patsy Cline — Walkin’ After Midnight

The Animals — House of the Rising Sun

Sinead O’Connor — Troy

The Bolshoi — Away

The Bolshoi —  Sunday Morning

Minor Threat — Look Back and Laugh

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My friend introduced us. She knew him from somewhere, around, just like i knew her from somewhere, around.  It was my first or second semester of college and I was fairly bad at social stuff, at making new friends.  Instead I just hung around the edges of things and waited for people to implicitly include me in their plans.  I followed the people who had somewhere to go.

She took me and a 12 pack of Milwaukee’s Best to his house one night.  I actually wasn’t impressed – his red hair was just a little on the greasy side, and his Welsh complexion just a little spotty, and while he knew my favorite poets and could talk Dylan Thomas and Anne Sexton and Yeats, he wasn’t all that intellectually impressive.  His name was a fucking stereotype, and at first I didn’t think it was really his name. Who the fuck names their kid Byron?  But he had his own place that wasn’t the dorms, and he was old enough to buy beer – a feat I was still more than three years away from – and there was something about him that seemed… malleable.

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two kinds of grey

this isn’t last spring’s grey,
the kind of grey that made no sense,
(that seeped around the edges of even
the flowerbeds, in brilliant
sunshine and scarlet)
bubbled up from somewhere deep,
inchoate,
poison to the plant life
with every step I took

this is the kind of grey that is low-grade
non-denominational
not in so much contrast with the weather
and the local flora
but comes in
from outside
somehow

pushing my own lines of
the brain chemistry
the same not-color of everything
I stole

laying out someone else’s credit card
with a smooth snick
as soulless as my sex life
and with a lower interest rate

across an ocean

He’s drunk across an ocean and misses me.  He sends a song I cannot play.

He’s asleep in Mobile and doesn’t wake up twice a night wondering where I am.

She’s in Pensacola somewhere and thinks about me twice a year.

She’s on the Gulf Coast and I like her better as a memory.

He kisses me on the forehead and leaves me sleeping, dreaming of half-breed demons with faces like angels. 

Her name was Laurielle.

She was nineteen to my fifteen, an art student living on her own to my compulsory psychiatric residential treatment, in possession of her own money to buy her own books to my sneaking the meager offerings of my Alabama public library home behind my father’s back.  She was blonde to my black, tall and leggy to my short and squat, eloquent to my painfully shy and awkward.  She was witty, astoundingly well-read, clever, and what’s more, she thought I was interesting. She sympathized. She encouraged me to read, to hang in there, to escape and get my own life one day.  She told me stories of sneaking around, stories about wild sex with older men on condo terraces, stories about drinks I’d never heard of, stories about sex toys I could barely imagine, stories of doing clean, sharp lines of coke from the glass of a dislodged Nagel print.  She sent me photos of her, photos of her lovers (all tall and leggy like her), notes written on stationery filched from hotels all over the world.

I envied her.  She had a little money, could buy her own books.  She was defiant (like I wanted to be), deviant (like I already knew I was, with medical and legal records to show for it), articulate (like I dreamed of being), well-read (like I was determined to be).  Most importantly, she was free.  She wasn’t locked up, she didn’t have two psychiatrists and four psychologists and a night shift of nurses cataloging her every gesture. She didn’t have anyone inspecting her backpack, taking her door off the hinges, reading her mail, telling her she was crazy, pounding her in the face and throwing her through the thin walls of a trailer in the godforsaken backwoods of Alabama.  She gave me a glimpse of a life that could be mine if I played by the rules long enough to get out of the hospital and graduate or get a GED.  She gave me a glimpse of what it might be like to be calling my own shots, making my own life, making my own reading list, writing in my own name, reading books and not hiding them anymore.

I wanted her.  I wanted to be her.  I didn’t know what I wanted.  But I knew she had it, knew about it, lived it.

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Part One

Princess of Wands

I had a scab on my knee.  Maybe Nick had thrown me into one of the curbside garbage cans downtown.  Maybe I had gotten drunk and tripped over something in the parking lot.  But I don’t really know. The pages from those days are filled with half-assed attempts at being philosophical.  Writing for an audience of one is dangerous like that.  But it was sometime in late May or early June, after my first year of college was over and I was back home for the summer and you were home on leave.  If I’d met you before I don’t remember it too clearly, but I know I saw you out somewhere early that summer and wondered who you were, and somebody told me.  The most coherent, least preposterous thing I wrote then was, “To realise that there’s more to life than extremes.” — 5 June 1991, 2.05 a.m.

This is just a way to tell it.  A way to start.  Because I can’t ever tell it.  I was never any good at writing about stuff I was happy about, and I didn’t write about much of us then, much of you and me.  I wrote “He can’t come this weekend” and “We stayed at Duncan’s house” and “I miss him” and “He got a haircut.”  I wrote that in between Oscar Wilde quotes and the drips of blood and the drops of candle wax and the sometimes spidery lines that got out into the margins and wandered their way down as the ink got all mixed up with Boone’s Farm and my brain got all mixed up on the fumes.

“The princesses represent those numerous elemental people whom we recognize by their lack of all sense of responsibility, whose moral qualities seem to lack ‘bite.'” — Aleister CrowleyI was a mess, a raging bundle of loose ends and spliced wires, and you were making some sense out of the tangle.  I don’t know if you knew that.  But I broke down a lot, and when you weren’t there — and, really, I guess, even sometimes when you were — I just fell, and landed, and stared stupidly at the ground, blinking, unable to see quite how to climb back to my feet.We were so young.  When I look at the pictures, I can’t believe how our skin looks.  We didn’t have as many scars.  But I’m pretty sure that when we met, I had a scab on my knee.

Two of Cups

I don’t know how we managed to find the money to get the apartment.  You must have saved most of it.  You paid for nearly everything then; minimum wage back then wasn’t much and I was unemployed in the summers except for the time I watered that old lady’s flower beds.  You must have paid the majority of the rent and all of the bills.

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When I was in 9th grade, I went to a public school for the first (and only) time of my life. I left a very small Roman Catholic school complete with a nun — an Irish Sister of Mercy, ironically named Gabriel, who would yank us up by our hair and smack us with rulers for speaking out of turn. I was incredibly miserable at this school, having transferred there from a slightly larger and pretty much less religious Episcopalian school in 5th grade. By 5th grade, these kids had all been together for years, the cliques were formed, the playground battle lines drawn, and besides, I was shy, bookish, had buckteeth and glasses, sported unfashionable hair, and was — most discomfitingly — not Catholic. I stuck out like a sore thumb when the children lined up for Communion. Hell, I hadn’t even been baptized yet. And the small comforts the nuns would hand out — laminated Holy Cards with a colorful Saint on one side and a prayer in tiny type on the other — were indeed small when I didn’t quite have this whole Saint thing down yet.

After a few years of trying like hell to be a Saint — spending 5th through 8th grade renouncing my interest in witchcraft and herbs, eschewing makeup and soccer in favor of picking the most austere Confirmation saint I could find on short notice, and catching up on fourteen years worth of sacraments in a couple of years — I figured “to hell with this.” When I went to high school I went to hell.

I lived down the street from one of the “cool kids,” an older guy with a mohawk who skated and knew lots of people with tattoos and dangerous hair. I would sneak out of my house at night and go to his, and sometimes his mother let him throw keg parties, so sometimes I fell rather than climbed back into my bedroom window. I insinuated myself into his circle of friends. I threw my virginity at him, too, and he eventually paid enough attention to me to notice and relieve me of the troublesome thing. And at my new school, as at all schools, like attracted like, only I was now an easily identifiable misfit with a t-shirt instead of just being bookish and bucktoothed. I had added black hair dye to my list of accessories and that sort of thing can make a big difference.

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A Catholic State of Mind

When I was little, I took comfort in symmetry.

I would walk through a door and bump my shoulder on the jamb. I had to go back through the doorway and bump my other shoulder or it would bug me for a while. I used to drive my mother crazy over shoes and socks in the morning before school. The seam on the toe of each sock had to be smoothed perfectly over my own toes, the cuff of each sock had to be folded perfectly to match the other, the laces had to be tied just so, with the perfect tension and the perfect, symmetrical bow, or I would dissolve into a quivering mass of tears and frustration, making us all late and making my mother bite her lower lip in that way she had, that way that meant she was at the end of her rope and was about to duct tape my clothing on me and sling me over her shoulder to carry me to the car.

I was pleased by the symmetry, and most of all upset at its rarity, at the constant and visible reminders that the world was a big and messy place and that grown people expected me to function despite that. I wondered if they couldn’t see it, if they couldn’t see the chaos that lurked around every corner, waiting to take a nip at our heels. I wondered if they couldn’t feel the clean edges of the comfort and order in our lives unravelling on the puncturing point of a father’s harsh words, of a loved pet’s death, of a playground-public spurning, of a math problem that refused to be solved, of the way the world slid off the keen, unmistakeable edges of a thin leather belt singing an aria of immanence into flesh. I wondered why the world didn’t stop when my dog died, when Lloyd Alexander ended the Prydain Chronicles, when hurt overwhelmed the cock-eyed logic by which we got up in the morning and went on with our days.

I abandoned my obsession with symmetry at some point — I don’t clearly recall when. Perhaps I was nine or so, when my mother went back to the Catholic church and I got a big fat dose of Christianity, which is certainly an acquired taste. When Sister Gabriel, the partially deaf Sister of Mercy with the singing yardstick and the penchant for digging artifacts out of her nose, “saved” our rebellious little souls with a sharp *thwack* from her ruler, it would hardly do to ask for another one to balance the first, so I learned to suppress the inner turmoil I felt at that lack of physical symmetry. And, as a good little new convert to Catholicism, I duly picked a Confirmation Saint who embodied chaos, disintegration, a lack of physical symmetry — I picked Catherine of Sienna, who drank the water from a leper’s washing bowl, who died in her convent bed with steel wire wrapped around her flesh, but hidden under her habit lest her Sisters suspect that mortification of the flesh had crossed some sort of line reserved only for Saviors.

But secretly, I took pleasure in the symmetry of the crucifixion, in the clean and pure song of the linear, temporal nature of God tacked down in a mass of rebellious flesh to a symmetrical cross with symmetrical nails piercing symmetrical limbs. Christ sang a body electric, a fugue of doomed symmetry, and I imagined a low cry that was almost satisfied as I thought about the last nail going in, leaving no limb abandoned.

A fixation of fixation.

The symmetry was realized, I saw even then (pagan child of pagan mother, eager but wary child of re-converted Catholic mother), through the ritual. The smoldering incense and the rich creak of the brass chains on the censer balanced the suffering behind the sound of the children excluding one another from the best swing on the playground. One child swung and the chains made a rhythym, even, in time, symmetrical, and cruel. The censer swung and In Nomine Patri God took you back into his building, kissed your skinned knees, and paid the rent.

We stood, I stood, at the center of a crossroads, at my own virtual crucifix, pierced by the imbalance and injustice around me and desperate to make it right, to know that it could be right, to learn to hear the slow creak of a machinery of justice run by the hands of a blessed priesthood.

When I was little, I believed in the balance and in the natural tendency of the universe to gravitate to a center.

***

Loius Martinie’ writes, in his “New Orleans State of Mind,” about the importance of ritual, of practice, of muscle memory, of the words that the soul knows by heart. “When the mind is numbed by the extent of what one is dealing with, training kicks in.” He’s writing of the boon of muscle memory, of spirit memory, of the benefit of relying on the Intelligent Reflex when there is no longer time or space to court the unintegrated Ruach.

Training kicks in. I hear this clearly, and I know it well. I know the game of interpellation and the impossibility of living outside it. I know its dangers, and I know the consequences of choices. I know also the strengths of such total immersion in a system. I know the wonder of waking up to realize I’ve just done the stations of the Cross in my dream, or recited a long passage of Chaucer from memory. I know the horror of waking up with someone lovely in my bed to realize I’ve just struck them in my sleep, reliving a different, darker memory.  I know the moment of the muscle and cell when the brain sits back and lets the body remember the sequence of steps to take in a crisis in a firefight, the beauty of the ritual of Immediate Action: Slap the magazine, Pull charging handle to the rear, Observe the chamber for round ejection, Release the charging handle, Try to fire again. I know the hot and sweet slide of release as the spirit enters, arranges my limbs, and puts my feet where they need to be. I sit in the dragon’s seat and feel, at a distance, the machinery of the heart, regular and strong; of the lungs, like bellows; of the brain, like a distant amphibious vestige; of the bowel, like a gnomic forge, shearing the dross from the gold.

When I pick up the sword and perform again for the fans of Jet Li movies who take what they can get in my hometown, I feel the steel sing, and when I do it right, my brain has nothing to do with it. When I do it right, I tap into the cells that have fed steadily on a diet of repetition, of practice and steel and water and occasionally blood, that know this sacred dance of pen and sword by heart, that believe in the importance of form. Then my mind comes to see the importance of form. Later, when the crowd is gone and I am alone with my aching muscles and my blistered thumb; then I let my body out for a minute to get some things off its chest. It says,

Every sensation you learned from you learned through me.

Everyone you ever loved, you loved through me.

When you were six and tried to burn our left eye out by staring at the sun, I distracted you with grape sherbet and the feel of clay under our fingers, and you lived and saw through me.

Every weapon you mastered you approached through me.

Every tear that you cried you cried through me.

***

There is a certain pleasure to be had in escaping the ceaseless chatter of memory and conscience, to reach a state where decision happens at a cellular level without all the complications that intervene with consciousness.  But always there is a danger of losing oneself in the ritual, and if you read that only one way then you weren’t paying attention.

Fugue

***

I keep pushing because I’m know there’s something under there, I know there is something just out of reach that I can get to, if I’m only not afraid long enough to pull it out. It comes through in dreams, in half formed sobs, in nameless achings. It tells me I belong somewhere I hate, somewhere I can’t understand. This is how it comes out-

In the breathless waking in the morning grayness, sheets tangled and sweaty, nobody there but myself, watching the blood disappear and feeling the pain fade. See, it wasn’t real…

In the realization that I have memories I cannot recall, if there can be such a thing.

In the taste of something that is familiar even though I’ve never tasted it before.it wasn’t real…

I keep pushing because I know there’s something there, something else, even if I don’t want to know what it is.

***

I’m so fucking cold. Just cold. I’m really tired of being cold. I’m tired of waking up in the middle of the night and being cold. I’m tired of waking up in the middle of the night screaming. I’m tired of waking up in the middle of the night. I’m tired of waking up. I’m tired.

This smart ass friend of mine suspects that she understands something of the nature of what makes me this way, what makes me incapable of feeling my own body for very long, unless I’m asleep, and I’m not sure that counts. I’ve asked her what she thinks, but she says it’s for me to figure out – she wouldn’t dare. She just gets it, she says.

Of course I’m better at figuring her out. I know why she doesn’t have bad dreams. She sees too many things all at once, she sees it all. Her pain comes from not being able to turn it off, to close her eyes. She reaches out and feels the pain of a hundred thousand souls, looking for the one true pulse and touch of the one she loves, who is out there. Somewhere. Unknown to her, but palpable, on a finer level.

She takes her hurt, and rearranges it, propitiates and propositions it, and its all laid out in neon patterns to her eyes.

She looks at it all in the face every day.

***

I’m sitting here in this sad little space waiting for something to break out. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if I want to know, but I always feel it there, feel something there, right on the edges, on the sidelines, under the surface, something waiting to get out.

But usually I have it all under control.

But you, you know. Somehow you know what it is, but you won’t say. You have some knowledge you’re not giving away, but it’s not fair, because it’s some knowledge of me. Or not me, but of Things Like Me, of how things like this work. You have a key I would kill for, but you think it’s a key to only pain, and you won’t let me have it.

I can only imagine your nightmares, except you don’t seem to have any. But you should, you ought to. Maybe yours just aren’t as loud, because you know a control I never learned.

***

Suddenly I’m hungry. Silly really. I woke up, after forcing eight hours of sleep on myself, and stayed in bed as long as I could. I got up, made coffee, drank coffee, got by for fourteen hours on just the calories from the milk I added and sheer stubborness.

And now I’m hungry. I stand in the kitchen and eat crackers and cheese standing up, dropping cheese on myself, like I’m starving. I eat cold meat leftover from last weekend. I drink out of the milk carton. I eat ice cream from the freezer, standing up. I clutch the carrots like I haven’t eaten in days.

I have, but I feel like I haven’t.

I don’t know why I’ve been doing this to myself, this not eating. I like the way the hunger makes me feel, makes my belly curl in on itself, makes my sight strange and my fingers stranger, makes my body further away from me.

Maybe if I don’t feed it it will just go away.