A Green Goddamn

[Excerpt #1 from forthcoming Chapter 6 (Dunsmuir) of my memoir,White Noise, is included below.]

 

There was a chill in the air that morning. Something moved. Noise fidgeted from the other side of the cabin. The sound of a wooden match grating across a cast-iron stove, the hiss of stale breath caressing stubborn flames.

Jezus-god! I thought. Did I bring someone home with me last night? And what the fuck time was it?

“It’s almost NOON,” she shouted. “Potatoes and eggs and bacon, coming right up!”

Perky little nipples on breasts too small to flop poked through tangles of long matted hair as she leaned over the bed and slobbered in my ear. “OH!…the meadow is just BEAUTIFUL. Get up! We can have breakfast and then pack a lunch and…”

I tried to think back. I would have gone down the mountain yesterday. In the middle of the afternoon, like I always do. There were only two bars in Dunsmuir, one across the street from the other. Maybe I had been ‘86ed, maybe not. They no longer let me run a tab, I remembered that. I probably sat quietly on a corner stool and drank beer on an empty stomach for six to eight hours. Toward closing time maybe I put some quarters in the jukebox. After that, who knows? At least I made it back up the mountain in that little Volkswagen. Not that careening over the side would matter much. Sometimes on a sharp turn I gunned it and swung out wide and dared myself not to flinch.

I looked over at her. She had opened the front door and was standing naked in a shaft of light on the steps with her arms raised in supplication to the sun. We were high up in the middle of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, a good forty-five minute drive from anywhere, and I wondered why she was so trusting of a stranger.

I grabbed my notebook from the stump that served as a nightstand to jot down a sentence that wouldn’t let me go back to sleep.

“A guy could butt-fuck her and break her goddamn neck and toss her into the compost pit for pigs and bears, like Boz watched the NVA do to that terrified little Montagnard girl up in the Central Highlands, no one would ever know.”

I was taking notes on a novel, A Green Goddamn, about a Vietnam Vet having trouble readjusting, and discovering that words don’t leave you alone when your mind is wrapped around a story, you’re at their beck and call 24/7. I was alternately amused and frightened how quickly I could cycle through imaginative personas, and never sure if that was a sign of creativity or psychosis.

I gingerly rolled out of bed and went rummaging for some aspirin.

**********

 

Maybe I Shoulda Been a Shoe Salesman

Annie Dillard in The Writing Life remarks that “many experienced writers urge young men and women to learn a useful trade.”

And some, she goes on to say, should probably shoot themselves rather than “gag the world” with “one more excellent manuscript.”

Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself. In the democracies, you may even write and publish anything you please about any governments or institutions, even if what you write is demonstrably false.

The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever. You are free to make several thousand close judgment calls a day. Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality. A shoe salesman – who is doing others’ tasks, who must answer to two or three bosses, who must do his job their way, and must put himself in their hands, at their place, during their hours – is nevertheless working usefully. Further, if the shoe salesman fails to appear one morning, someone will notice and miss him. Your manuscript, on which you lavish such care, has no needs or wishes; it knows you not. Nor does anyone need your manuscript; everyone needs shoes more. There are many manuscripts already – worthy ones, most edifying and moving ones, intelligent and powerful ones. If you believed Paradise Lost to be excellent, would you buy it? Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?

:):):)

Chapter Five: Los Angeles

We come to know ourselves, if at all, in our declining years, and sadly by then the past is set in stone.

Chapter five is now available as a pdf from the drop-down menu above if you wish to read it straight through in its entirety.

Ten of the fourteen sections have previously been posted as stand-alone blogs, four have not – including the final two new sections on Donna at the very end of the chapter.

Donna was the incarnation of every quality I could have hoped for in a partner: warm and open and enthusiastic, curious and perceptive and intelligent, confident but not brash, an innocent “girl-next-door” beauty without pretense or guile. Years of bottled up feelings exploded like a Molotov cocktail in an orgy of delight and in my thirty-second year I knew love the way a poet knows love, for the first time.

Click to read Chapter 5

No Regrets

[Excerpt #12 from forthcoming Chapter 5 (Los Angeles) of my memoir,White Noise, is included below.]

 

Fortuitously, Donna was fond of live theater, too, and our first ‘real’ date, a week after we ‘bumped’ into each other at the Mall, was to see Jason Robards at the Huntington Hartford in A Thousand Clowns. Each night after her daughter was asleep we would talk for hours on the phone, and on weekends while her mother, blind since a childhood accident with a coat hanger, watched Erin, we canvassed the theatre district near Hollywood & Vine for stage plays, both traditional and avant-garde. Vanessa Redgrave and Charlton Heston in Macbeth, Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards in A Moon for the Misbegotten, Ben Gazzara in Hughie, two females boldly cast as Vladimir & Estragon in an experimental staging of Waiting for Godot, Robert Foxworth (and in a second production, William Devane) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Boys in the Band – whatever was flashing on giant marquees in the city of tinsel and red carpets, we bought tickets to see. In the wake of an impending divorce Donna had started reorganizing her life, including enrolling in Pasadena Community College, and afterwards, over coffee and pie at the original Bob’s Big Boy in Glendale, we had impassioned conversations as to the merits each play. My future interest in academics had not yet fully reasserted itself and I was painfully aware of being woefully inarticulate in such discussions.

Donna was marginally connected to ‘Hollywood’ in that she worked as a receptionist for Sid & Marty Krofft – producers of H. R. Pufnstuf and other children’s television programs – and she had appeared in a “very minor role” in a commercial. “A soap commercial,” she would explain, with a wry smile, “all you could see were my hands.” In a teasing mood I would grab her fingers and kiss them in mock supplication, murmuring pseudo-nonsensical Latin words I had once memorized years ago in another context: “Levator labii superioris alaeque nasi.”

donna50 as Smart Object-1

Erin was an integral part of our togetherness and we spent many an afternoon at Griffith Park – swinging, hiking, picnicking, marveling at the puniness of the planet Earth in the Milky Way laser show inside the Observatory. Donna wanted to buy a saddle for Sundance and the three of us drove to Tijuana, where I got my first lesson in how to barter. I was also reminded once again why it might be prudent to think ahead before visiting a ‘foreign country,’ as we quickly realized the saddle she wanted would not fit in my small VW. We laughed and got a cheap motel for the night. When Erin finally fell asleep we made love on the cold hard floor so as not to wake her.

erin42 as Smart Object-1

Sunday mornings we played volleyball with a group of regulars at a private home in upscale Shadow Hills. Kids and dogs ran wild, inventing their own games, while adults chose sides and acted like kids again, pretending that the start of a new work week was not just around the corner. Male and female, old and young, tall and short, hefty and skinny, one former grunt, Bob Detweiler, had a wooden leg – with such a motley crew it quickly dawned on me to reign in my competitiveness, never to spike the ball, as it was not about winning but enjoying the warmth and fellowship of others.

After working up an Easter morning sweat on the volleyball court I beckoned someone to take my place while I went inside to place a collect call to Lakeland. I waited until they were home from church, and Marge answered on the second ring. Conversations were always stilted between us, egg-shell shallow and lacking any semblance of heart-felt emotion. But it was springtime, Donna was a part of me now, my heart was singing, and to my horror, before I could stop myself, I blurted out: “I’m in love.”

A deafening silence magnified by the two thousand miles between us surged through the phone. I had uttered a four-letter word that had never been acknowledged in my family, and there was no getting it back.

“Do you have a job?” Marge finally asked.

Then and there I vowed never again to open myself up to her emotional indifference. Forty-one years later, on her deathbed, the other thing she said to me as I leaned in close, was, “You’re the one I know the least.”

I smiled to myself, and had no regrets.

 

Strawberry Waffles

[At the end of the previous Excerpt, #10 (Donna), I went back and added a final conversation (+ picture of Donna) to help bridge the transition to Excerpt #11 from forthcoming Chapter 5 (Los Angeles) of my memoir,White Noise, included below.]

Donna had recently retired Vic, a dappled mare, gentle but past her prime, and taken on the challenge of a young inexperienced Palomino, Sundance.

“He’s still green-broke,” Donna explained, “too frisky to mount but he loves round-penning, and is starting to respond to voice and body language.”

“Round-penning?”

“You’ll see…”

I climbed up on the wooden fence of a small circular exercise area and Donna brought Sundance out on a lunge line. He reared and snorted, locked eyes on me and charged. I swung my legs out of the way and quickly jumped back down.

48

“He likes you,” Donna said, laughing.

“And no doubt just wants to play,” I replied, “but I think I’ll watch from over here.”

Round and round she walked, trotted, and galloped Sundance. When she dropped the line he thundered toward her, skidded to a halt and reared up on his hind legs.

d1

Donna picked up a switch and like a circus trainer barked out commands for Sundance to kneel, whirl, back up. The morning sun peeked over the foothills and filtered through sparse winter branches of towering oak trees to reveal the thick golden mane and white feathered fetlocks of a stallion who obeyed reluctantly, with a playful gleam in his eye, betraying a streak of independence it was difficult not to admire. It was also not lost on me that I was in the presence of a beautiful woman who could growl and crack a whip and match wits with such a splendid beast.

36

Later after she groomed Sunny and cleaned his stall we stopped at a little diner for breakfast. I was jittery and found myself riddled with self-consciousness, my old nemesis, rehearsing conversations in advance and telling myself when to smile, when to nod, cursing my awkwardness.

“Are you, uh…”

“No, not married,” I replied, finishing her sentence. And just like that we were in the groove again, the same shared rhythmic space I fell into following her in the Mall and talking with her last night on the phone.

Without looking at the menu Donna ordered strawberry waffles with two scoops of chocolate ice cream on top, and I knew I was falling in love.

Donna

[Excerpt #10 from forthcoming Chapter 5 (Los Angeles) of my memoir,White Noise, is included below.]

**********

We would lie like that for hours, Donna and I, the two of us still comfortably entangled, talking. Mostly I listened, or daydreamed, the ashtray balanced on my stomach, while she talked. I enjoyed that. Leaf, the stray tabby I rescued, would burrow under the covers, purring, his tail twitching hypnotically. The days were lengthening now, and this was one of those moments in which everything seemed to fit ‑ Donna, myself, the cat between us. Outside the rush of Saturday afternoon traffic on Foothill Boulevard, children running and playing in the neighbor’s yard, even the whining and clawing of the animals caged in the clinic below. Sounds normally discordant were momentarily wedded by a nameless, elusive rhythm; a gentle rhythm, one I sought to retain. Everything dropped away in such moments, too. All the trappings of the past, the nearly ten years since graduation. Lean and hungry years they were, blind-driven, the whole slew of dead-ends and wrong-turns suddenly compressed into a single fallow season by the grace of the moment. Why? To what end? I didn’t know. I knew only that I had abandoned Florida and I was here, not there, here and now, curled up this very moment with Donna. . . purring.

“John?”

“Uh-huh…?” I snuggled closer.

“Did you really follow me around the Mall that night before we met?”

I jerked back the sheet and lowered my head and began to nibble the inside of her thighs with exaggerated little slurping noises. “I was stalking you big time, Sweets, couldn’t help myself. Aren’t you glad I finally found a way to ‘bump’ into you?”

Donna giggled and squirmed and playfully pushed me away. “I’m not making love to a pervert!”

Leaf bolted from the bed and darted into the living room. Like his owner, Leaf was fond of his alone-time. Time to notice, time to ponder. A faint tingling, a barely perceptible shudder not unlike that of a predator catching first whiff of prey quickened my senses that Friday night in the Mall. I glanced furtively right and left, struggling to identify the source. A few feet in front of me I caught sight of a girl’s reflection in a store window and realized I must have unconsciously adjusted my rhythm to hers, step for step. Plain leather riding boots, faded brown jeans, matching corduroy jacket, face hidden behind long brown hair falling loosely over her shoulders. My stomach tightened. She moved easily, almost too easily, unnaturally so. Methodically, with the instinct of a tomcat, I began to weave in and out of the crowd and hone in on the girl ahead of me.

Her jeans ‑ they were too tight, outlining the alluring contours of her butt. Yet, that couldn’t be deliberate; her walk was not the saucy bounce of a street-gal, and a certain softness, a polite demureness, a subtle shade of innocence radiated from her.

As I closed the gap between us and mimicked her gait I felt in her movement a slight trace of hesitancy. She’s uncomfortable! For some reason she’s nervous, feels out of place.

The signs of self‑consciousness were minute but unmistakable, and I knew them well. The walk and posture a studied casualness alternating with slight awkwardness when one suddenly becomes aware of one’s body. The timed glances from side to side. The feigned interest in every thing, yet no thing. The pose of being preoccupied quickly contrasted with embarrassed indifference.

As we approached a cul-de-sac thick with the smell of buttered popcorn she hesitated, as if deciding which movie she wanted to see. I checked my wallet to make sure I had enough money and then stood behind her in the ticket line to a Burt Reynolds movie. My heart was a-flutter, telling me something in a language as old as the human race, and I was determined not to let self-doubt keep me from meeting someone special.

“That was my first time out by myself on a Friday night since Mike and I separated.” Donna said, interrupting my reverie.

“Lookin’ for a one-night stand?”

“No! But it’s awkward for a twenty-two year-old single mom with a three year-old daughter. You feel alone, exposed, just going to a movie by yourself is a big deal.

“Gallant of me, wouldn’t you say, sitting beside you in the dark?”

“I was afraid to use the armrest between us.”

“So was I, didn’t want to bump you.”

“Then you had the gall to ask me for my phone number!”

““Were you surprised I remembered it?”

“I figured you would write it down once you got back to your car, but to call me that same night, after midnight, just as I was getting home – that was special!”

“We talked for two hours and I’m not even a talker.”

“What DID surprise me was barely four hours later you meeting me at the stable at sunrise while I exercised Sundance.”

“It’s exciting to watch a pretty lady shovel horse shit…”

“That’s gonna be YOUR job from now on,” she said, rolling on top of me and pulling the sheet up over us like a tent.

donna49 as Smart Object-1

**********

Is Your Life The stuff of Dreams & legend”?

How dare someone like myself write an autobiography after the bar has been set so high by the likes of a JACK LONDON!

…the unembellished facts of London’s career are the stuff that dreams and legends are made of, more fabulous than anything Horatio Alger ever imagined. He was an infant born out of wedlock into near poverty, one whose paternity has never been definitely established. Here was the child who spent his precious boyhood years delivering newspapers, hauling ice, and setting up pins in bowling alleys to augment the family’s meager income. Here was the mere youth forced to become a factory “work-beast,” apparently condemned, like thousands of other poor unfortunates in his social class, either to die an early death from overwork, malnutrition, and disease or, if he deserted his post at the machines, to spend what miserable life that was left in him wandering the underworld among the social degenerates and misfits known as the “submerged tenth.”

Yet by means of luck, pluck, and sheer determination – undergirded by rare genius – he succeeded in escaping “the pit,” transforming himself into “Prince of the Oyster Pirates” and a “man among men” at the age of fifteen, able-bodied seaman and prize-winning author at seventeen, recruit in General Kelly’s Industrial Army (also hobo and convict) at eighteen, notorious Boy Socialist of Oakland at twenty, Klondike argonaut at twenty-one, the “American Kipling” at twenty-four, internationally acclaimed author of The Call of the Wild at twenty-seven, Hearst war correspondent at twenty-eight, celebrated lecturer and first president of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society at twenty-nine, world traveler on his famous Snark at thirty-one, model farmer at thirty-four, blue-ribbon stock breeder and rancher at thirty-eight, and the producer of more than fifty books (several of which have achieved the status of world classics) before his death at forty. The sum total of these achievements underscores Alfred Kazin’s comment that the “greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived.”

London’s story is quintessentially American. It is difficult to imagine his meteoric rise from rags to riches in a different setting or in a different time in American history. E. L. Doctorow remarks that London “leapt on the history of his times like a man on the back of a horse.”

– from the Preface to Jack London: An American Life, by Earle Labor, 2013.