I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.
― The Shawshank Redemption, Final Line
“They must take me for a fool, or even worse, a lunatic. And no wonder ,for I am so intensely conscious of my misfortune and my misery is so overwhelming that I am powerless to resist it and am being turned into stone, devoid of all knowledge or feeling.”
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
“Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.
Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.”
― Dorothy Parker, The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker
from Tiny Molecules
“These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.”
― J.G. Ballard
My journal entry from Thursday, April 29 1999, comparing the beach in South Texas to the one I had just visited in North Carolina.
Galveston vs. Carolina Beach
Carolina Sweet, thick iced tea, coming to your table sugared. Mint and Magnolia blossoms.
Galveston is a Mezcal town, Bitter and Crazy, with a worm.
In Galveston the seashells are common, piled in drifts. They are all bleached white. In Carolina they are rarer, but beautifully multicolored.
At Carolina Beach the waves slide in with a low rumble and a hiss, moving from glossy patches of reflected sunlight into green walls of translucent glass. They fall lazily onto the sand to fade as lines of white melting foam. Green waves – White foam – Amber sand, Undulate back and forth under the civilized Deep South Sun.
In Galveston the Gulf waves are angry, crashing, powerful violence – smashing with an incredible din. The sun beats mercilessly on it all. The surf stirs the fin dark sand into a gray soup carrying all sorts of flotsam and jetsam; salt smelly Sargasso seaweed, telephone poles, ship’s trash, detritus of the continent brought thousands of miles down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Texas seabirds are loud, insistent, relentless; packs follow a poor morning visitor with his breakfast muffin – cawing Hitchcockian mass of beaks, claws, and wings – waiting for an opening – a chance at a snack.
In Carolina even the gulls are polite and discrete. They float on the breeze or caterwaul in the distance waiting ’till they can eat in private. Maybe behind a dune.
And today’s piece of flash fiction:
from Ellipse Zine
“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”
― Orson Welles
Omar’s Food Mart
After a long morning of soul-sucking meetings and conference calls where he felt this IQ dropped ten points after each one, Craig decided to go out for lunch. He needed something non-corporate so he decided to go to Omar’s Food Mart.
OMAR’S FOOD MART was a little place at the end of a strip of auto repair shops on a corner of bad asphalt not far from where Craig worked. It was a monument to capitalism. Operated by five brothers from Syria, it crammed an impressive array of services into what looked from the outside to be a tiny gas station.
There was no place that served bigger, nastier, or greasier hamburgers than Omar’s.
Craig hadn’t been in there for a couple years but it hadn’t changed. They had a bewildering array of exotic food (Craig used to buy Semolina flour there when he still had time to make his own pasta). Crammed into the tiny space were aisles of gewgaws, a display of Hookahs, chewing gum and motor oil. Plenty of merchandise looked pathetic: obsolete cleaning supplies, faded greeting cards, suspect canned goods, and a single tiny green cardboard cylinder of Parmesan cheese with a thick coating of greasy dust.
The only active merchandise was an entire glass wall of cold drinks, a couple rotating racks selling candy, Slim Jims and beef jerky (Slim Jims are NOT beef jerky), and a wooden stand holding a generous selection of pornographic magazines.
A full array of financial services was offered: a Pick-Six machine and several Plexiglas Scratch-N-Win lottery ticket dispensers, a private ATM with astronomical service fees, money orders, and two slot machines. They were video multi-line bandits, Cherry Master and Fruit Bonus. The slots had stools in front of them so the customers could sit in comfort as they stuffed the dollar bill slot.
Even though it looked like a gas station or convenience store Omar’s biggest business was food. The narrow space behind the front counter was crammed with grills and fryers. There was an extensive menu on the overhead plastic lighted sign: eight different kinds of hamburgers, including the Texas Jumbo Cheeseburger (Craig ate one of those once, he felt like he’d swallowed a football) BBQ, BLT, Chicken Breast, Grilled Chicken, Chicken Fried Steak, Fish, Extra Bacon $1.00.
There was a long list of “Specials” which come with a drink and fries, and “Baskets” which include a salad: Chicken Strip, Catfish, Hot Wings, Shrimp, Gyros, Grilled Cheese, Ham and Cheese, Tuna Salad, Chicken Salad, Corn Dogs, Burritos, and Hot Dogs (small and jumbo). Side orders of: Fries, Onion Rings, Tater Tots, Hot Wings, Chili, Jalapenos, Stuffed Jalapenos, Toast. A breakfast menu of sausages, eggs, bacon, cheese, and ham in all sorts of combinations.
Craig had no idea how they could cook all that stuff in such a tiny space; but he’d never seen anyone order anything other than Hamburgers or Gyros. Three or four guys worked back there, one taking orders and the others scurrying around gesticulating and shouting in some unknown language. The only word Craig could understand was “Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger!” It sounded exactly like the old skit on Saturday Night Live. The meat and cheese sizzle on the griddle; clouds of blue smoke were sucked out overhead. One guy stands in front of a sizzling, dripping brown vertical rotating cylinder of some mysterious meat, constantly slicing off strips for Gyros. These were served in fat pitas with onions so strong you can smell them a block away.
At lunchtime there was always a line at the register. The customer in front of Craig had a graduated plastic bag Velcroed to his ankle and a tube running up his leg. Dingy yellow urine was filling the bag, it had a little valve on the bottom. It wasn’t that hot and Craig wished that guy wouldn’t wear shorts.
A guy was sitting next to the line playing the slots. An older man, thin, short, unsteady and using a cane, came in; they knew each other. They exchanged loud pleasantries, then the man with the cane leaned over and showed the slot machine guy the top of his head.
“Look,” he said, “I’ve got a couple new plates, here and here.”
“Jeez! Did you get your license back?”
“Nope, after a head trauma, they send you to a New-Rologist for an E-Val-U-Ation,” he replied slowly. “Then you have to take the tests.”
It was Craig’s turn to order. They gave him a numbered slip and he stood off to the side while the grease flew. After awhile they called his number out but handed an order to someone else.
“I though I was 256?” Craig asked.
“Oh, we had two orders with the same number, what did you have? Cheeseburger basket?”
He immediately reached down and stuffed a burger and fries into a brown paper bag and handed them to Craig. Craig noticed that practically nobody ever received exactly what they ordered the first time.
The baskets come with large drinks, which you fill yourself from a fountain in the back. There was a big sign that says, “Pay for your Refills!” Craig decided to eat in, he was in no hurry to return to the corporate rat-race. That he considered this to be a tiny vacation depressed him even more. They had some wood-grained plastic booths scattered around a back corner, a place to sit down. Craig still had his lab coat on, somehow it seemed appropriate there; almost every customer had some sort of uniform, many had metal chains between their wallets and belts.
It seemed like everyone there knew each other. The seating was close, which made conversations between patrons inevitable. A lot of asking for directions, “How do you get to Arapaho from here?” At the next booth some guy was smoking and ranting about fast food.
“I dunno why anyone ever goes to McDonalds! They can come here and get better food cheaper. That Damned McDonalds! The only thing that puts them over is advertising. I dunno why anyone ever goes to McDonalds! Costs more – Get less. People don’t think about stuff! You can’t tell them anything! The only thing I ever buy is senior coffee and maybe an egg McMuffin.”
The general conversation then turned to the extensive menu.
“They have Catfish?”
“Yeah, but it’s no good.”
The McDonalds hater added his two cents, “How can it be no good? Either it’s Catfish or it isn’t!”
“I don’t know,” another guy piped up, ” but it’s no good.”
“How about the shrimp?”
“I don’t know, I can’t eat shrimp. I’m allergic.”
The other diners then began talking about folks they had known that were allergic to shrimp and had eaten some by mistake. Tales of swelling necks, choking, hives, and respiratory distress.
Craig finished his cheeseburger and noticed there wasn’t anyone at the front. On his way out he ordered a bag of gyro sandwiches to take home for dinner. Back at the office, he stashed them into his desk drawer.
All afternoon folks walked through Craig’s wing of the building and complained about the smell. It was those powerful Omar’s onions hidden away in Craig’s desk. He never said anything.
“They waited for the elevator. ” Most people love butterflies and hate moth,” he said. “But moths are more interesting – more engaging.”
“Some are, a lot are, but they live in all kinds of ways. Just like we do.” Silence for one floor.
“There’s a moth, more than one in fact, that lives only on tears,” he offered. “That’s all they eat or drink.”
“What kind of tears? Whose tears?”
“The tears of large land mammals, about our size.
The old definition of moth was, ‘anything that gradually, silently eats, consumes, or wages any other thing.’
It was a verb for destruction too. . . .”
― Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs
The last paragraph of my journal entry from April 4, 2003, describing how I felt when I returned from a long work trip cleaning up a toxic waste site in the swamps of southern Louisiana.
I remember how I felt when that job was over and I flew back home. I had become so used to the swamps, to the green and the water – to the alligators and the snakes – that it began to feel like it was the whole world. I gazed out the window of my plane at the hard concrete and the terminal buildings of DFW airport, the metal planes and the masses of people – a sight I’d seen a hundred times but that seemed suddenly strange and alien after being in the swamp for so long. It took me a long time to feel normal again… or at least as normal as I ever feel.
And today’s piece of flash fiction:
from Tiny Molecules
“Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist-a master-and that is what Auguste Rodin was-can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is…and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be…and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart…no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn’t matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired-but it does to them.”
― Robert Heinlein
from Ellipsis Zine
“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden & Civil Disobedience
From my online journal (blog) The Daily Epiphany, from July 4, 2000, Tornado of Bats
Mostly we walked around the parking lots looking at license plates. Lee is still obsessed with getting all fifty states on his little license plate collection and I had told him the National Park would be a good place to find some more states. It was, we found a cornucopia of vehicles from all over. We were able to finish it all out except for what we knew would be the three most difficult states: Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Delaware.
Lee also was very overjoyed to find a dead rattlesnake in a drainage ditch.
The sun began to creep across the horizon, Candy and Nick came back, and we walked back to the natural cave entrance to watch the evening bat flight. They have constructed a good-sized stone amphitheater at that point and it was filling up fast.
The entrance sits in a sort of hollow and heads almost straight down in a large opening. The Ranger described it as toilet-shaped. As the hour grew later and later everybody became restless waiting for the bats to show. The Ranger explained that nobody knows how the bats, deep down in the depths of the cave, know when it is twilight outside and their arrival wasn’t always like clockwork. A thick cloud of pesky gnats was also driving everybody nuts.
Finally the Ranger announced that the bats were starting to come out and we all sat back to watch. The bat flight at Carlsbad is impressive. The bats don’t simply fly out of a hole and into the sky. They come up into that toilet-shaped area and go round and round in a vortex until they gain enough speed and altitude to stream out over the desert. They swirl in a tornado of bats.
It is an amazing sight and an even more amazing sound, the faint whir of hundreds of thousands of pairs of tiny wings. A gray flittering cone contrasted against the rock and cactus. I sat dumfounded at the beauty of it and the desert sunset.
The only thing that distracted the enjoyment was the idiot crowd. So many people were surly and restless and noisy – yapping and getting up and walking around – it was difficult to listen to the subtle sound of the bat wings. Most amazingly, they kept taking flash pictures. Again and again, the Ranger lectured us before the flight began, “No Flash Pictures! No Flash Pictures! If you have an automatic camera, the flash WILL GO OFF AND SCARE THE BATS, put it up! Put it up!” she’d say. Once the bats started flying, every thirty seconds or so… off would go a flash.
I doubt that the puny flash would upset the bats as much as the Ranger implied, but it is beyond belief that these idiots were doing this. One – she told us not to. Moreover, what are the morons taking a picture of? You can’t take a still picture of a bat flight – especially with a disposable camera. The bat flight is a moving, subtle, dark phenomenon. It was simply the jerk reaction of a tourist to snap a photo whenever confronted with wonder.
We sat around for maybe an hour until it became so dark the bats were almost invisible – we were one of the last ones to give up and leave the amphitheater. We drove back to our campsite at the tacky tourist hamlet outside the park. We were very tired and hungry – thank goodness a restaurant in the hotel was still open and served us watery spaghetti and a stale salad bar.
Wonder of wonders – as we walked through the darkened parking lot, there were only a couple of cars left, but Lee shouted with excitement, “Hawaii! Hawaii!” Sure enough, one of the cars had Hawaii license plates. Lee was tickled pink that he made this discovery, a car with Hawaii license plates in the middle of the night in the middle of the desert in southern New Mexico.
Now he only needs Rhode Island and Delaware.
And, without further ado, Today’s story:
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
—-William Blake, The Tyger
The houses in tiny Plainview were all made of wood and the walls didn’t even slow the sound down. Mike could hear Aunt Alma and cousin Duane Clankman talking, even out on the front porch, reaching out to knock on the the door. Mike paused and listened to them talking… talking about him.
“Now Duane,” Alma said, “You need to be nice to him. It’s been difficult, you know that.”
“But why is he here?” Duane asked.
“After his father was killed in Da Nang this summer, his Mom, my sister, has been falling apart. She is having a lot of trouble dealing with everything. So we offered to take Mike in for a while, until she gets…”
“Gets her shit together?”
“Dammit Duane! You know I don’t like that language. Gets her life together. She’s gone off to a… hospital. For help. Until she gets better.”
“And when will that be?”
“I don’t know. All I’m asking is that you try to be nice to him. Try to make him feel at home. It’s tough on him too.”
“But he’s so weird!”
“He’s from the city. Plainview must be weird to him too…. Wait, is that him on the porch?”
“Come in,” came the voices of both Duane and Alma at the same time.
The door was unlocked. Mike pushed it open and noticed it didn’t even have a lock on it. No lock on the door! Whoever heard of anything like that! It was 1966 after all.
Duane’s father was out in the fields, drilling wheat. Duane, Alma, and Mike sat down to dinner: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans. It was very good. Amazingly good.
“Aunt Alma,” Duane said, “This chicken is the best. What’s your secret recipe?”
“Well, thank you dear. There’s no secret, it’s just that this morning that chicken was running around in the back yard, eatin’ bugs. Picked the beans ‘n taters fresh too.”
Mike felt his eyes get big. He always thought chicken came in plastic wrap from the store and green beans in cans.
Aunt Alma began wrapping the leftover chicken in paper, and spooning vegetables into a Pyrex bowl.
“Now boys, I’m taking this out to Joe in the field, he’ll be getting hungry. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be too cold tonight, I thought you boys would like to take the cots here and go camping.”
She gestured at two folded metal and webbing cots in the hallway off the kitchen. Pillows and sleeping bags stuffed into sacks were right next to the cots.
“Camping?” asked Mike.
“In the front yard,” replied Duane. “It isn’t really camping, but it’s kinda fun anyway. If the weather gets bad we can come right back in.”
That sounded crazy to Mike.
“Back home we couldn’t sleep in the front yard, it wouldn’t be safe… or even quiet enough.”
“Safe enough here. Nobody ever comes around after dark. Quiet too, unless the sheep are on this side of the pasture bleating,” Mike said.
The two boys dragged the cots out into the front yard and unfolded them, each pinching their fingers once on the scissoring steel tubes, onto the grass. They unpacked the sleeping bags and spread them out on the cots.
“Here, scoot yours around along the sidewalk like this,” Duane said, handing Mike a piece of white chalk.
“Why? And what’s the chalk for?”
“For counting shooting stars. We lie there in the dark and every one we see we make a mark on the sidewalk. Then, in the morning, we count the marks, see who wins. ”
“I’ve never seen a shooting star,” said Mike.
“You’re kidding me. How is that possible?”
“In the city, the sky is brown. The moon peeks through, but you can’t see the stars. Too much light and air pollution.”
“Well, we’ll see some tonight. In school today, the teacher talked about the Leonid meteor shower. Tonight’s ‘sposed to be the peak. She said we might see ten or so an hour.”
The boys straightened their cots and bags, stuck a feather pillow at the head, and set their chalk down in arm’s reach. Then they went inside to watch TV. As the show ended, a truck drove up and Alma and Joe came in from the field. Mike’s uncle looked exhausted, but was polite and friendly.
“I saw the cots outside, you two going camping?”
“Well, I wish I could join you, but I got another hard day tomorrow, need to get all the sleepeye I can.”
Joe shook Mike’s hand with a firm grip, like Mike was an adult.
“You two better get out and get some sleep now… no horsing around!” Aunt Alma said with a smile.
The two boys walked out into the dark and Mike instinctively looked up. He had never seen anything like that. The sky was a dark, inky, perfect black and thrown across the pitch were more stars that he thought could possibly exist. It looked impossible. It looked like more of the sky was star that not.
“Jesus!” Mike said.
“What? It always looks like that. Unless it’s cloudy.”
“Maybe here it does. It doesn’t look like that everywhere.”
They slid into their sleeping bags and arranged their pillows until they were as comfortable as possible on the sagging cots.
“Grab your chalk and look up,” said Duane.
It didn’t take long. There was something, something fast, a quick streak of light. It seemed to live more in Mike’s memory than in real time.
“I think I saw one!”
“So did I. Make a mark!”
Now that he knew what to look for, he saw the next one better. Then another, and another. Four chalk marks on the sidewalk.
“Duane, they are coming fast. Do they always do that?”
“No way, I’ve never seen anything like this. It must be the Leonid shower that my teacher was talking about.”
And then, the sky opened up. It was like a fireworks show. It was like alien showers of fire. The boys had to stop marking because they were seeing hundreds of shooting stars. They just stared at the sky, mouths open, transfixed.
Mike was astounded. It was like every star was falling from the sky. He thought of the city, where nobody would even see this sight, going on but obscured over their very heads. He thought of his father, and the exploding shells and arcing rockets that must have looked like this on the last night of his life. He thought of himself, there on that creaky cot in the middle of nowhere with the streaks and bursts of celestial incandescence exploding overhead.
He felt so small against such a display. But he also felt huge, expanding up through the air, up into space, enjoying this show that seemed to be created just for him.
The boys stared as the display continued hour after hour. Maybe they fell asleep, maybe they didn’t, but eventually the east began to glow and the stars, both stationary and falling, began to fade.
At breakfast the phone rang and folks came by. It seems like the whole town had wandered out into the night and seen the fireworks. To Mike the world seemed different somehow. The little town felt a little less dingy and plain, the air a little brighter and pure. The two boys ate their fresh eggs and homemade hash browns and then took a nap to catch up on sleep, secure in knowing that this night was etched into their memories, clear until the day they died.
“In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change, with every passing lad
To suit his theories.
But now I know the things I know
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.”
― Dorothy Parker, The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker
From my January 1, 2000 Blog, The Daily Epiphany
The sidewalk in front of our house is a colorful litter. Multicolored confetti, including little plastic words “2000” “Happy New Year” and “Party.” Some torn conical hats and crushed paper horns. Gobs of awful Silly String cover my favorite tree, the tiny bald cypress that the city gave us, it was only a couple inches tall when I planted it, people teased me about it – now it’s almost five feet tall and finally looking like a tree. The colorful sprayed plastic string radiates out from the tree all over the yard, the plastic caps from the cans still litter the winter flowerbeds.
I should have cleaned the mess up today, but I thought I’d leave it. I walked out there with my bowl of black-eyed peas and rice and picked up one little confetti piece, one that said “2000,” and put it in the pages of a book for safekeeping.