I don’t know how to howl. I have lost that. I might suddenly start. But no cheap scheme can save me now.
Have you ever used a hacksaw? The harsh sound of metal rending, the hard push, vibration, thin blade, tiny hard teeth, little bits slicing through steel.
Have you ever used a circular saw? The whir of the blade, the smell of sawdust, little bits of wood glancing off of goggles, pure power.
Have you ever used a power drill? Long orange extension cord, the turn of the little key, forty-five degree gears, tightening, then turning, twisting, little spirals of wood coming out of the hole.
Do you own sawhorses? Old two by fours, turned gray by the sun, metal brackets, galvanized screws, homebuilt, leans up against the house, waiting faithfully ’til they are needed.
Have you ever used a power screwdriver? Torque, a twist into the wrist, whirring slowing into a deeper sound, Phillips bit into the screwhead, flights bite into the wood, around and down, tight, grinds to a halt.
Have you ever used a sabre saw? Razor toothed tongue jabs in and out, head shaking vibration, bite a bit, then move on.
Do you use a tape measure? Yellow stripe, black marks, little silver ear to hang on, a familiar rumble in the palm when the tape plays out, slight curve to hold horizontal for awhile, little lever on the bottom pulls the tape back in with a quick whiz.
Have you hammered a nail? Pull back, fingers hold the nail, be careful, a mistake can hurt, first tentative strike, then pull back and pow pow pow.
Have you held a square? A carpenter’s square, big hunk of steel, or a try square for things that need right angles, a combination square for forty-fives, an adjustable square for angles in-between, all are connections to geometry, to perfection, to things that fit.
Do you own a level? That little bubble in the yellow liquid, the two black lines, the tube that knows where the earth is, which way it points.
These are his days, days of building, of sweat, of sawdust on his clothes, grease spots on his legs, that odd soreness that comes from real work.
“I think computer viruses should count as life … I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.” ― Stephen Hawking
One of the tasks that Craig was assigned while he was back in his hometown for his father’s funeral was to “clean out” the old man’s computer – make sure there wasn’t anything important there. Before they threw it in the trash (although the ancient thing had cost a fortune new – it was beyond useless now).
The work was easy, nothing was password protected. Craig gave the digital collection a cursory once-over – it was obvious from the start there was nothing there that would be of any use or interest to anyone other than the now-forever-absent father.
Still, curiosity had him opening a few files, mostly plain text, just to see.
One small file was labeled mysearchterms.txt and was twenty years old.
Hanging Chad Tura Satana Monkey’s Paw Power Washer Leonid Shower Apple Pectin Bilbo Baggins Power Forward Daily Inventory Letter of Intent Echinacea and Goldenseal Temperature Sensitive Disodium Inosinate Glycol Ethers Alanna Urbach Parker Posey Anchovy Paste New Yorker Thyroid Diary Corkscrew Willow Bonded Filling Alberti Bass Oxford Comma Reverse Calenture Marfa Lights Rigid PVC
They’re dead to us. They kill each other in the streets. They wander comatose in shopping malls. They’re paralyzed in front of televisions. Something terrible has happened that’s taken our children away. It’s too late. They’re gone.
—-from The Sweet Hereafter
The Emperor Has No Clothes
The meeting room is windowless, situated deep in the bowels of the workplace (it is a designated tornado shelter). Long, narrow, glossy wood meeting table. TV/VCR at one end. A computer hooked up to an overhead projector and LCD panel at the other. A scanner is connected to this PC also, this is where he comes to after hours to scan pictures. Of the most interest to him in this room is a small refrigerator, kept stocked with soft drinks. His rule – you make him sit through a meeting, he gets a Diet Dr. Pepper.
Eight men, all with identical Franklin Planners in front of them. They are going over some of next year’s plans, each looking at a sheaf of papers with projects and responsibilities listed, due dates, key items. Four pages of this. He can feel it in the air, nobody thinks they can get all this stuff done, in addition to their own daily duties. There are simply too few people and too much bullshit. Everybody thinks it, knows it, sighs almost inaudibly, but nobody says anything. That would be pointing out the emperor has no clothes.
“The landscape is best described as ‘pedestrian hostile.’ It’s pointless to try to take a walk, so I generally just stay in the room and think about shooting myself in the head.” ― David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames
Hotel World, by Bill Chance
There are many worlds right under our noses. Worlds separated not by time, nor by space, but mostly by point of view. We move alongside, drive right by, back and forth flowing, unaware of each other, lost in our own perspective.
Today I entered
Not the Bates Motel No single line of cheap rooms and faint smell of mold, tired truckers and travelers and clandestine passionate meetings. no, this is the Business Hotel World
Fighting dawn traffic to the
Tarmac Sea ,
parking lot landscaped with islands of flowers, shredded bark, popup sprinklers. Uncomfortable Clothing Tour Busses Parking lot walk – looking around, briefcases and shoulder bags Hispanic maids with beige skirts Staff in Maroon Sweater Vests Drones in Blue Suits with Big Plastic ID Badges Perfect Strangers going the same place as me.
I enter, come closer to the heart, smell that
A hodgepodge of art, Copies of Oriental vases next to huge Faux Impressionist Landscapes next to chunks of Fake Aztec Friezes Colors green gold navy, mottled patterns, mixed chairs couches marble coffee tables. What focus group picked these fabrics, combinations? What corporate meeting spawned this look? Banks of pay phones – most empty nowadays – replaced by groups of men talking on cell phones, pacing back and forth.
The tall lobby giddies overhead Rows of identical rooms fronted by identical balconies identical planters of plastic ivy a demonstration of perspective an expensive frame to a huge hexagonal skylight high overhead.
Elevators ding Breakfast dishes clank, a background hum of conversation my pager buzzing even though it’s barely seven, here sitting hear, I’ve heard at least five languages
Along the Perimeter
Rooms with odd British names: maybe meant to add at touch of class here on the blasted prairie Warwick, Churchill, Windsor I, Windsor II, Windsor III, Windsor IV Signs announce Mysterious Meetings: OMGI Training Formation Quality Systems Training TRII Sales Meeting Fortune Twelve Management
Inside the Room
The instructor says hello at the door, I can tell he wants to hear my name, “Bill” I say I know he has memorized it, he gets paid for this. Rows of long tables covered in white cloth Candy dishes, glasses arranged upside down, Steel pitchers of ice water Condensation Beading attractively on the curved flanks. Coffee Pitchers Piles of Danish I choose an apple and an unexpectedly stale bagel wait for the seminar to begin.
I choose a seat on the
I’m the first one there Everyone else fills up the back The last late arrivals fill up my front row sit next to me Trade names, cards, tales of awful traffic, surprisingly friendly, genuine smiles it’s nice to talk to a real human here
“We live as we dream–alone….” ― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
My Friends Dream and I Just Sleep
I dream of winning the lottery and spending the rest of my life traveling the world, going to exotic locations. I will send postcards. A reliable, discrete research company supplies me with lists of names – some random, others carefully chosen as perfectly ordinary, lonely folks from forgotten towns. I go forth each day and buy local postcards full of beautiful sunsets, mountain ranges, masterpiece-filled museums, famous tourist landmarks, castles, palaces, or a tableau of local fishermen or washerwomen toiling under the tropical sun.
Sitting in the office corner of my expensive hotel suite, or possibly a table by the pool, or even an overstuffed booth in a smoky bar I write the postcards. Something carefully simple and familiar, a message that carries an implied sequence, like a bit of daily conversation between close friends.
“Hi, we ate fish with mangoes today, the sea here is like a turquoise table.”
“The skiing is rough this year, the snow thin and icy.”
“Pierre sends his love, he has been bedridden – I believe it was some bad clams.”
Then I sign the postcards with a scribble I have carefully practiced. It is obviously a name – but one of ambiguous nature. Is it Barton?, or Charles? or is it Deborah? or Denise?
The address and the salutation (Dearest Sue… Henry, old friend) are printed very carefully, though. I don’t want the card to be misdelivered; even though its recipient is someone I don’t know.
Sometimes the messages are a little more personal, something beyond, “Wish you were here.”
“I sill think of the look in your eyes the moment we parted every day of my life.”
“No beautiful sunset will replace the ache in my heart when we are apart.”
Maybe a hint of a physical relationship; a small treat for the postal workers, delivery men, or local snoops to read as the card passes by, uncovered for public knowledge.
“As I stretch out on the sun-drenched sand I can feel the warmth of your body as if still pressed against mine.”
I imagine the postcards being delivered – puzzled looks, tossing and turning, forgotten corners of memory relit and poured over, the consulting of an Atlas. My hope is that in a certain small percentage of recipients the card will root and grow – flower into a fully imagined memory… false, yes, but strong too. After all – there is the postcard; there is the evidence.
Maybe, with time, the exotic imagination will become truth, a cherished memory, a wonderful story for the Grandkids.
“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” ― Cormac McCarthy, The Road
The Last Sunset
Oscar and Matt were neighbors and had been for five years. Their wives had made friends with each other right from the start – meeting every morninh walking their dogs while their husbands were at work – but the two men hardly knew each other.
When the news came in, both wives were out of town – they had gone to Vegas for a girl’s weekend, leaving the husbands on their own. Oscar and Matt met out in the front yard, talking calmly while the world came apart around them. They could hear gunshots all around the neighborhood, cars were screaching around the corners, and so many people were simply standing in their yards screaming obscenities or nonsense wails. Neither of the two men were prone to panic or losing their minds – so they both wandered outside and said hello to each other.
“Sara said Mary talked to you,” said Oscar.
“Yeah, I called before the cell service went down. They both want to come home, but there is no way they can make it until tonight. We said goodbye as best we could.”
“Same thing here. She was losing it when the system went down. I feel awful, but can’t think of anything I can do.”
The two men looked out over their neighborhood. Columns of smoke were rising from burning homes and the volume of gunfire and screaming was increasing.
“Well, what do we do now?”
“It looks like we’d both better get the hell out of here, I don’t want to get shot in my own yard. Why don’t we head out, up to the mountains. I know a fire road out of here that won’t have anyone one it – we head up there all the time for overnight camping trips. We can take my four by.”
“That sound good. I’ve got a casserole Mary made before she left, it’s pretty good. We can get out and have something to eat.”
“I’ve got a bag of weed and a bottle of good single malt. Take your pick.”
“Shit, both. Why not?”
“Yeah. Well, I’ll bring the truck around. What else do we need?
“Nothing, nothing. What did they say… four hours left?”
“Yeah that’s about it. Let’s get going.”
Oscar brought the truck around while Matt went in to get the casserole, plates, and forks. He climbed in as Oscar drove by and looked over the whisky and weed in the console.
“You got papers?”
“There’s a little pipe and a lighter in the glove box. Go ahead and light up if you want?”
“Is that a good idea?”
“What the hell? You think anyone gives a shit?”
“Nah. Don’t know what I was thinking.”
They smoked in silence as Oscar drove through the neighborhood and then turned onto a gravel fire road that Matt had never noticed in all the years he had driven past that part of town. The road rapidly began to gain altitude, winding past the creek that tumbles down from the high country above. After only two hours of driving they turned again and powered through a mountain meadow and a rocky clearing that opened up with a view of the city below framed with the tall forest trees.
“Jesus, what a beautiful spot,” said Matt. “I never knew this was up here.”
“Nobody does,” replied Oscar. “Sara and I stumbled on this spot a few years ago, my company surveyed the new fire road and I came out and explored it. We kept it as secret as we can. It’s been a great getaway for us. Only two hours of driving and you might as well be on the moon.”
“Well, I sure as hell am glad we’re not down there any more.” Matt gestured out at the city. The sun was getting close to the horizon but the fading light illuminated huge clouds of smoke rising from the city.”
“The whole thing is burning down. Shame,” said Oscar.
“Doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“Nope. Unless they are wrong.”
“Could they be wrong?”
“Well, I guess anything is possible. But I don’t think so.”
“Now how are they sure? The radiation beam? They call it a gamma ray burst.”
“The tacheons. I read all about it online before the ‘net went down. Those are tiny particles, very hard to detect, they go through everything like nothing was there. But there are huge detectors, some down in mines, one under the ice in Antarctica, under the ice. This morning they detected this huge, mammoth tacheon pulse. Every detector, everywhere. The only explanation was an oncoming gamma-ray burst from a nearby star. A burst powerful enough to end all life on earth.”
“But how to the… tacheons? Get here before the gamma rays? Don’t those move at the speed of light?”
“Yeah, but the tacheons go out first. When the star supernovas they send out the tacheons right before, like 12 hours ahead of the gammas. That gives us… maybe and hour left.”
“Shit, how are they so sure? They could be wrong?”
“They don’t seem to be. At any rate we’ll know in an hour or so. Hey, lets break out that bottle.”
“Ok. Shit, I forgot to grab glasses.”
“No matter, we can drink out of the bottle.”
Matt picked the bottle up, spun off the cap, and threw it off into the woods.
“Well, I lost the cap, now we’ll have to drink the whole thing.”
The two men sat there watching the last sunset, passing the whisky bottle back and forth. As the sky went from orange to dark purple, a single star began to glow, brighter and brighter, until it was light again, as light as a gray day. The atmosphere far above them began to ionize, spreading waves of color, all colors of the rainbow, including some that the two men had never seen.
“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” said one of the men.
“The daily hummingbird assaults existence with improbability.” ― Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters
The smell of a mountain stream, pines, water gurgling over rocks – his feet are wet and cold. The sun is already hot – peeking around thousands of feet of granite. Overhead strips of snow – that’s where all this water is coming from. There is a humming in the air – swarms of tiny hummingbirds flying in what seem to be patterned waves. Coming and going. It’s almost like something unseen in controlling them – something sent them. He begins to walk upstream and the tiny birds follow – he wonders if he is controlling them, if he called the swarm.
Hours of walking, ever upward and the stream has narrowed and deepened. He can’t walk in it anymore. It now tumbles steeply in a series of waterfalls. The trees are now gone – replaced by scrubby low shrubs – looking ahead, far above, he sees bare rock.
The hummingbirds disappeared with the trees – now there are rodents and farther off large mammals – bears and deer – walking along. Sometimes visible, usually not – they are watching him. He is breathing hard, the air is thin. He should be tired but he is driven upward and the pain in his legs feels like it is happening to someone else, someone far away.
The scrub drops away and he is left on bare rock, scrambling higher and higher. All the animals have given up except for a small herd of mountain goats moving ahead – lightly jumping up the rocks and then waiting for him to catch up. His progress is slow, the rocks are loose and slide down and away – sometimes rolling, tumbling, booming, down into the green valley far below. The headwaters of the stream are all around – tiny rivulets of water tumbling over sharp-edged rocks. He looks up and sees the blinding white snowfield where the water is coming from.
For hours he struggles up and across the field of stones – loose rock tilted at that horribly steep angle. But he keeps moving with excruciating slowness – still putting one foot in front of the other – the scree so steep now that he has to put one hand in front on the ground, crawling, to climb up at that angle.
Then, without realizing it, he is on the snowfield. It is easier climbing that across the rocks even though every few steps he breaks through the crust and sinks up to his waist in the soft, rotten, wet ice beneath.
The slope was less and he realizes he was nearing the summit. By now, all the animals had given up following him and his only companions were two huge buzzards slowing circling high overhead. He wonders at how that much bulk could be supported by this thin air and look so free and graceful.
The world opens up around him as he reaches the apex – hundreds of miles of snow-capped peaks arranged in rough rows above hidden valleys stretching to the impossibly distant horizon.
Beyond the mountains, towering high over them were the mushroom clouds. Some were still rising, their orange hearts still glowing. Others were now gray and drifting in the high altitude jet stream – ragged – dissipating.
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
Walking the Dogs
Craig was out for his daily constitutional, walking a figure-eight through the park a few blocks from his apartment. As he came across the little bridge he saw a woman walking two pit bulls on the path before him.
Because of recency bias he couldn’t admit to himself that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, but he was sure he had never a woman more beautiful. It was a hot day and she was wearing shorts and an old-fashioned halter top – Craig didn’t think he had seen one of those in a decade. She wore it well.
Her dogs were friendly and as he bent of to pet them he decided to say something.
“What are your dog’s names?”
“Neetzy and Young,” she said.
“Do you mean Nietzsche and Jung?”
“Yeah, that’s sounds right. My ex-boyfriend named them.”
“Are they his dogs?”
“They were ours. Now their mine.”
“So the two of you picked out two dogs?”
“Yeah, he had a cat when we met.”
“A male cat?”
“Let me guess, it was named Murr. Tomcat Murr.”
“How did you know? That’s what he called it too, Tomcat Mur. What a weird-shit name.”
“A lucky guess. I was going to say Shrodinger for a second.”
“Shrow-dinger… he would talk about a cat named that. But I never saw it.”
“Did he have a box?”
“Yeah, he said Shrow-dinger was in the box but he was afraid to look in it.”
“He didn’t know if it was alive or dead?”
“That’s right, how did you know?”
“Technically, it was both alive or dead, at the same time, until you open the box.”
“You are as crazy as he was… as he is…. I don’t think there was a cat in there at all. I threw the box out, but I never looked inside. It felt light.”
“You said ex-boyfriend. What happened?” The woman was so beautiful… but he found himself wishing he could meet her ex-boyfriend.
“Oh, I said he was crazy. And it wasn’t just the cat thing. They took him away. He’s in this big hospital… out in the country.”
“Is it on the top of a mountain?”
“Yeah… have you been there?”
“No, never heard of it until now.”
“Well, you sound a lot like him. The doctors told me he would probably never come home from there. You remind me of him a lot.”
The older you get the stronger the wind gets – and it’s always in your face.
The Wind In Your Face
Craig took a break from work and, hungry, decided to go to a local run-down crummy counter service seafood emporium.
While he was waiting on his order an old man sidled up to him and asked a question.
….. “Any sugar for this here tea?” “Umm, that thing there, it’s already sweetened .” “Where’s the ice, I think I need some ice” “There on the coke machine”
The old man, very thin, shaking, held his flimsy yellow paper cup, now half-full of the bitter old tea that they serve from big sweating metal cylinders with black plastic taps on the bottom, looked at the coke machine, levers lined up, the little grated tray held a few old ice cubes spilled by the last customer (Craig). The old man poked at these tentatively, like someone who grew up in an age when restaurants had waitresses in aprons and carried notepads, waitresses that actually brought your iced tea to the table.
“They don’t give you any scoop.” “Umm, see that thing right there in the middle?” Craig pointed. “This?” “Hold your cup under it, press this lever, and the ice’ll come out.”
Craig had been standing next to the array of drink machines and collection of condiments, pumping catsup out of a recessed bulk container and mixing it with Tabasco in little white paper cups. The supplied cups were tiny so he had to prepare a handful of them. As Craig stood back with his red plastic tray he watched the old man as the ice came out in an unexpected tumble, that startling fast-food ice bin rumble, Clankity-Clank. The old man jerked, collapsing his drink cup, ice and tea squirting out. With a heavy sigh, the girl came out from behind the counter with her dirty looking towel and helped him get things straightened out.
Craig sat down at a booth. It was late, almost three, the day at work had been awful, full of disasters; he hadn’t been able to sneak out for lunch until the middle of the afternoon. Desperate for a few quiet moments he had gone for fast food fish, hoping the place would be mostly empty this late. As he started to eat, the old man shuffled over and settled in slowly in the next booth. He sat down on the other side, facing straight at Craig.
“McDonalds has fish sandwiches now.” he advised. “Uh-huh.” “Mebee I shoulda gone over there, fish sandwiches, ninety nine cents.” “Really.”
Craig remembered noticing a big sign in the entrance to this joint that promised a hefty senior citizen discount. It made an impression on him ’cause he noticed it would be only thirteen years before he would be eligible.
It was obvious that the old man wasn’t there so much to eat some fried fish as to talk to somebody. Craig knew that in small towns even today, most restaurants have long counters where you can go get coffee, maybe a cinnamon roll, sit and the major activity is to for everyone to simply talk to each other. The old man looked like he belonged in a very small town.
“I can’t eat this hard crust on this fish.” “Uh-huh.” “I went down to the VA hospital to get some new glasses and some teeth. They bought me some glasses but I can’t see with ’em, I can see better with these.” Craig took a good look – he was wearing an enormous pair of those cheap plastic reading glasses they sell at dollar stores. “But they won’t give me no teeth. I’ve gone down to there over and over, the doctor said I was too thin, filled out this form….. they still won’t give me no teeth.” “The VA sent me these papers, hundred pages long, my sister…. but still they won’t give me no teeth and that’s what it said, right there.” “You know, I really like tomatoes. Sliced tomatoes.” “I really like eaten’ me up a big plate o’ sliced tomatoes ‘n scrambled eggs.” “That’s what I had this morning, tomatoes ‘n scrambled eggs.” “It they’d serve that here, it’d be…..”
As he talked he became more and more garrulous. Also, more and more incoherent. He would be jumping around in time, his stories would go on for awhile, then lose themselves in a long pause, only to start up somewhere else, sometime other… related, but different. It was apparent that Craig didn’t actually have to speak to keep this conversation going, only look up from his food every few minutes and nod a little.
“Did you get bread? They don’t give you no bread here. I like some bread with my meal. I really like bread.” “I went and got coffee… Eight-five cents!”
Craig wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be low… or high.
“At the Waffle House they’ll let you sit there and get coffee and some eggs.” “Then they’ll keep comin’ over and warmin’ it up and let you sit there all day.” “….. and they would wash that cup, that spoon, a couple of plates, wash them, pick them up, only charge five cents.” “I was there in Houston this morning.”
Craig was sure the old man walked up to the restaurant. Although he said “this morning” he had the feeling the old man hadn’t been in Houston for decades.
Craig finished with his food and had to get back to work. Actually, he would liked to have talked to the old man, get his story, but he was too far gone to be able to have a real conversation. By now he was simply complaining about random things that are too expensive. Also, it would be uncomfortable to talk with a stranger like that, Craig had the uneasy sensation of looking into his own future. The day had been too stressful already to have to deal with that.
He mumbled something incoherent and dumped the remnants of the meal; plastic plate, paper cups, bits of fried something, through the swinging door on the trash bin. He didn’t make eye contact with the old man as he walked past and went out to his van.
On the drive back to work Craig decided to set his alarm for a little earlier the next day. That way he could get up and make some scrambled eggs and tomatoes for breakfast.
Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement . . . says heaven and earth in one word . . . speaks of himself and his predicament as though for the first time. It has the virtue of being able to say twice as much as prose in half the time, and the drawback, if you do not give it your full attention, of seeming to say half as much in twice the time.
There is a poetry to daily modernlife so empty of everything else. The staccato rhythm of the traffic reports off on the shoulder one lane only eastbound westbound backup clearing Or the shouts of the Barista as he calls out the orders (actually, I think he’s making most of that stuff up).
And though my lawn has gone to weeds there is still a bird that kawarbles at me as I put the key in my car to drive to work.