THE BOOK OF WINTER: HAPPY HOLIDAYS
I'm closing up shop for the holidays and probably won't post again until late next week. In the meantime, I'll leave you with a "kind of" holiday tale from Secret Life. (I hate reading stuff online, but it's easy reading if you print it out.)
Thanks for reading this blog. I've gotten a lot of pleasure out of posting. Thanks also to everyone who has read my fiction--those who've liked it and those who haven't liked it. I appreciate all of you.
Happy holidays to everyone. I hope your 2005 was good and that your 2006 will be even better.
Jeff (& Ann)
EXPERIMENT #25 FROM THE BOOK OF WINTER: THE CROC AND YOU
You watch the crocodile and the crocodile watches you. Under a slate-gray sky. Dusk over the midway. Clowns and jugglers. Stiltmen and acrobats. Cotton candy and rancid buttered popcorn. Your father’s hand in your hand, his palm still sweaty from the calf skin gloves that were a present from your mother. A strip of masking tape on the side of the reptile’s tank reads “Greed.” Who had named him Greed, and why?
You watch the crocodile. It watches you. A waiting game you can never win. It is an expert at waiting. With no room to move, it wallows in five inches of brackish water, awash in coils of its own feces. Algae have turned the sides of the tank a corroded green that reflects your face back at you. The ridges of Greed’s spine are dried out and cracked, with a revelation of pink sensitive flesh beneath, fly-circled and fly-settled. Greed spasms but cannot dislodge the flies. The claws on the strangely delicate front and back legs clack at the glass like a dog’s paws on linoleum.
The permanent grin of Greed’s mouth opens and closes on packed rows of greenish teeth. Atop the narrow snout, ornate nostrils spiral close together, the eyes far apart as if to compensate. The eye nearest you regards you oddly, the vertical black pupil set against bright speckled gold. The filmy nictating membrane licks the eye, withdraws. No photograph in a school science book could convey the mystery of even that single eye.
The barkers, standing larger-than-life against the snow-threatening sky, goad spectators to throw pennies and nickels into the tank. Greed thrashes and hisses, tormented by people who will read the evening paper and weep over reports of drowned puppies and tortured kittens. While you live inside a tunnel with the croc in the tank, your gaze open and unblinking. Your face reveals nothing, but inside something bends; something could be said to break.
Your father squeezes your hand and his voice descends to you through layers of cold and wind. “That’s enough, don’t you think. I think we’ve seen enough. Let’s go see the rest of the circus.”
When you do not respond, your father kneels, takes both of your hands in his, and looks you up and down with his flinty gray eyes.
“Let’s go,” he says with a gentleness that surprises you. He is such a large man, with shoulders hewn from stone. “Let’s go,” he says, and you see in his gaze not a reflection of Greed, but an image of your dead mother.
You allow yourself to be led away from Greed to the other attractions. But you do not remember them later except as glimpses, fragments, through a film of cold. The elephants have snowflakes in their long, dark eyelashes and red welts along their flanks. The jugglers wander aimless and forlorn, mouths cruel and unsmiling. The trained monkeys look like motley convicts in their red-and-black striped shirts.
Your third-story apartment stands only four blocks from the circus grounds. The red brick building has dirty black balconies and laundry lines strung across the meager front lawn. Inside, the dark wooden staircase wheezes when stepped on like a chronic asthmatic.
Your apartment opens onto the kitchen where once your mother cooked dinner and washed the dishes. From the kitchen window, the familiar spreads out before you at the speed of boredom: the running lights of railroad cars like a crude necklace at the farthest extreme, near the dark spackle of liquid that marks what you can see of the river, shackled by bridges and overpasses; then the dark, rectangular factory buildings where your father works as a foreman; the smoke stacks that drip black fire; the blinking red lights atop the smoke stacks that make the darkness even more complete. On a good day, you catch only a tinge of pulped paper smell in the air. Most of the smell is brought home on your father’s clothes.
Your father heats up cabbage and beef stew on the oven burners, under the dull kitchen light bulb, surrounded by the shelves of cans that form most of your meals.
“Did you like the circus?” your father asks.
On the walk home you had said nothing to him and he, for whatever reason, had said nothing to you. The circus hadn’t come to town for years, but as you left under the peeling fake gold of the rotting front gate, you did not beg to return.
Now you nod and smile, playing with the salt and peppershakers shaped like snowmen. “It was fun.”
“What did you like best?”
“I dunno. What did you like best?”
“The clowns. Maybe. But maybe the elephants. I always liked the elephants when I was a kid.”
“The elephants were neat.” But all you see is an image of Greed, watching you watching it.
Your father does not know this about you. Your father likes to hunt deer on the hills and slopes beyond the factory. He took you once but you just stood there, the rifle slack in your hand. Sometimes his eyes search your face for something that is not there.
He smiles at you as he pours stew into a bowl. You smile back, but your mind is elsewhere.
After dinner, in your room, beneath the airplane mobiles and the dormant ceiling fan, tucked into bed because tomorrow is a school day, the image of Greed eats away at you. Your gaze flickers from desk to drawers to bookcase to baseball bat to neatly stacked toys in the corner near the closet. The cold has crept into your bones and inside you can feel the infections eating away at your back; can feel the cool, slick coins strike the pink flesh; can feel a helpless animal rage.
Greed is coiled inside your chest and you cannot sleep. Sheep jump over fences only to turn into smiling crocodiles burrowing under fences.
You turn on the light, leave the bed, and dig a book out of the pile on top of the bookcase: The Big Golden Book of Nature. A crocodile photograph on page six stops your random flipping. You frown. The shape is familiar. The eyes hold your attention for a moment. But it is just a photograph. It conveys nothing real to you. On the mantel there is a photograph of your mother at the beach, holding you, her gaze serious yet serene. That photograph conveys nothing real to you either.
Later still, when the pressure becomes too intense, you sneak out with your baseball bat to save the crocodile.
Later still, when the pressure becomes too intense, you sneak out with your baseball bat to save the crocodile, X, the writer, reads with smoldering disgust.
“Enough!” he shouts. Loud enough to hear himself through the Mozart rumbling from the speakers of his stereo system. Erupting from his seat by the window. Rips the sheet of paper from the typewriter. Crumples it up and tosses it in the general direction of the wastebasket.
He stands in front of the window, breathing heavily, face flushed. Then sits back in his chair. Notes the precision with which the whorled black branches of the oak trees vein out against the sky. Stares at the misplaced immigrant pecking at the bird feeder: a lone robin. Wonders what went wrong.
A boy and his crocodile. A boy and his croc. A croc and his boy. The croc and you. Old stupid croc. Which the boy went to free with a baseball bat, of all things. In the middle of a frozen night. And the town had no name. And the boy had a room as generic as a manila envelope. And the dad is some kind of silent-but-noble blue collar worker. who goes hunting in the I-forget hills above the what’s-it-called city. And the mother is dead because of laziness—because he hadn’t wanted to write yet another character into the story. Poor mom. Dead of sloth.
It makes him nauseous—almost as nauseous as the proofs for his latest, The Book of Winter, which lies in a box on the desk, each page tattooed with red copy editing marks from failed writers given a second chance by publishing companies as grammar-and-spelling champions. Inflicting a thousand trifling wounds in the flesh of the Beast. The Beast would not be killed—no, not by them.
The writer pulls a cigar from his rosewood humidor and lights it with a silver embossed lighter. The robin still roots around the bird feeder while fat nut-nourished squirrels squabble over husks on the frozen ground.
The thing was—he reflected as he took a puff and exhaled with a sigh of satisfaction, no longer in the present tense of anger—the thing was, the only element of the story he really knew anything about was snow, and although you could achieve some nice effects with snow, perhaps even impact the plot, snow could never be an effective character. Snow could not watch a crocodile watching it—and even if it could, it certainly could not attempt a rescue, except perhaps in some half-assed Bunuel film where the writers all took daily doses of LSD.
Of course, he had once been a child of a sort, even if some of his girl friends claimed he’d been born 80 years old, and he had had a traumatic animal experience when he fed his constipated rabbit so many food pellets it burst open. (Technically the rabbit’s fault for not refusing the pellets.)
The writer tapped his cigar into a glass ashtray and stroked his beard (what had once been a conscious decision to cultivate an image had become an unconscious affectation, a continual posing for an author’s photograph). He wondered if the story would be more real for him if he substituted a rabbit for the croc. It might even build more reader sympathy for the situation.
You watch the bunny. The bunny watches you. A waiting game you can never win. It is an expert at waiting. With no room to move, the bunny wallows in five inches of brackish wood chips, awash in coils of its own feces. Algae have turned the sides of the tank a corroded brown that reflects your face back at you. The fur on Bunny’s back is dried out and mottled, with a revelation of pink sensitive skin beneath, fly-circled and fly-settled. The permanent grin of Bunny’s mouth opens and closes on packed rows of cute greenish teeth. Atop the soft head, ornate nostrils spiral close together, the eyes far apart as if to compensate. The eye nearest you regards you oddly, the vertical black pupil set against bright speckled gold.
Yes, well—no—the writer decided, setting the cigar in the ash tray, that did not present a, uh, viable option, since it seemed he couldn’t make stick the metamorphosis from croc to what’s-up-doc (had Kafka had similar problems?)...especially since, Mozart’s Requiem swelling behind him, his restless thoughts had touched upon a bunny tangent, sparked by the memory of a pair of delightful bunny-print underwear worn by...Carla? Stephanie?
A procession of carnal pleasures enjoyed with Carla and Stephanie (alas, separately)—the old Latin tricks that had withstood time and the Internet; the slow and the fast tumescence of the flesh, the truly religious revelation of the newly naked and the nakedly new—ran through his brain. Which put the lie to the overriding theme of his croc story: that a ten-year-old boy could have an experience that would alter his whole life. Unless it was seeing your whole family offed by a serial killer while peering out of the closet. Or a freak tornado that lifted the whole house up and wind-blendered everyone to death but you. (That neither Carla nor Stephanie would be talking to him again in the near or far future made no difference, theory-wise.)
He re-read the beginning of the end from the yellow longleaf sheets he had been massaging into typed sheets:
This happened 30 years ago. I was 10. So was she. I never saw her again and the croc was gone when I checked the sewer the next day. I don’t know if it survived for long. For almost a year, the image of the girl possessed me: the sudden appearance of her at Greed’s tank that night, the sudden disappearance of her.
I am not old yet, but I have been through two failed marriages. I have no children. I am good at my job with a sales company, but I will never be famous or very rich. I find myself coming back to the memory of that night again and again. How she said almost nothing and yet I understood her perfectly. In the photographs of my ex-wives I now see the shadow of her in their black hair, the high cheekbones.
The memory of that night is like a beacon to me now as I seek to make my life more meaningful. It is a moment fraught with mystery. It is the kind of moment that may never come again. Where the elements and your companion join together in a way that makes you feel as if you have become one with the world once and for all. To be so very light against the heaviness of flesh.
Boy, the writer thought as he stopped short two paragraphs from the end, like a horse drawing up lame in the final stretch, that was beautiful. Except it wasn’t particularly true, which made it a lie, and therefore as ugly. If you lived in the moment—for the moment, of the moment—that could never be true. Each moment layered on the next and in each you could find something or someone unique, beautiful, irreplaceable. How could anyone exist in the world without continually dying from the irredeemable beauty of it?
The writer picked up his cigar and breathed in its thickness. Take winter—such a bracing time of year, he thought, addressing the glowing red tip as if it were a good friend. Every detail on the sidewalk, from a rage of red-orange leaves to a green meandering crack in the concrete, took on a binocular significance. It was a forethought of the awareness that overtook him when he wrote: the premonition of something moving through him and onto the page, the pen in hand become a blur and the heart so full, limbs aflame, body with fever. Like sparks burrowing into you until, finally conquered, you become vessel, container not contained—trapped and free—and all the little hairs on your arms rise, and you feel as if your own skin has been painlessly flayed back to reveal, beneath the perfect diagram of veins and arteries, the beauty and horror of the world—the words like tiny mysteries and the combinations of words solutions to those mysteries, and yet more mysterious for the revelation...and you’re crying silently because, after all, these words are your life, even in distilled form, even brought forth by an unknown will...and you know this is the closest you will personally ever come to an awareness of what God might mean—this feeling that so encompasses the whole of your being that you are unimaginable strength and weakness intertwined...and in the aftermath, the writer often found, as the madness left him, that he would observe, say, the reflected worlds within a perfect drop of water as it lazed in the sudden sunlight across the yard, and was spent, exhausted, by even that simple image.
Yet another lie—a lie!—he realized as, shivering though it was 80 degrees in the house, he turned off Mozart and returned to his desk, to stare at the loose-leaf sheets of paper. A lie because he had felt that madness, that high, when he had been writing what he had come to think of as “Experiment #25—The Croc and You Story,” and Experiment #25 had turned out to be a steaming heap of dung, despite having originated in “inspiration.”
He put out the cigar for good and rummaged through the papers until he came to what he now believed had been the fault point: the introduction of the girl once the boy had snuck back to the circus at night:
A girl stared at him from the other side of the tank. He came to the realization slowly—the lighting dim, the tank corroded with algae—but as he turned inward, into his thoughts, he stopped focusing on the crocodile and his gaze fled into the glass, where he saw his own face and, as if superimposed over it, the girl’s face opposite him. She stood very still. He thought her an apparition and then, with a start of dread, something far worse: a circus hand who had discovered his trespass.
Taking hold of his fear, the boy slowly walked to the far edge of the tank and peered around the corner...just as the girl peered around her corner of the tank. The white of their breath mingled. Warmth leaked into him through his pores. Black hair shot through with the white of snowflakes. Cheeks flushed with cold. Eyes soft and blue and lined with long lashes. She gave him such a searching look that he shivered from something other than the cold. The words she spoke came out with a melodious tingle: “He’s Sorrow, not Greed. They named him wrong. We will call him Sorrow.”
The writer had originally added her not as some inspiration or epiphany, but because the boy’s plan—the baseball bat—had been so bad and he saw no way to dissuade the boy from it. Except perhaps through an accomplice—someone who did have a plan. He had chosen a girl who had snuck into the circus at the exact same time. How very convenient, and depressing. It meant some sentimental echo of a Hollywood formula film haunted the story. Mass media should be gut shot and left out in the desert to die, he decided, looking again at the proofs on his desk.
The writer leaned back in his chair. The robin had left the feeder because the robber baron squirrels had found a way up the greased pole—good for them. He should have left the girl out. After all, Hemingway hadn’t written The Old Man, the Sea, and the Coincidental Girl. Nor had Nabokov, for that matter, written Lolita and the Boy with the Baseball Bat.
Women. Carla and Stephanie in his case. He loved them both—whichever he was with he found himself sincerely devoted to, in that moment—but had hurt them both. It had become a theme in his family, a tradition carried forward by his grandfather and father, a curse that you could resist, like encroaching vampirism, but to which you finally succumbed, faltering into a life of frank debauchery. At least, unlike his recent ancestors, he had never married. Still, worse fates than the guilt of adultery awaited him. Last Thanksgiving, brought to the dinner table by the smell of turkey, his grandfather, defiant in the mid-to-late throes of Alzheimer’s, had suddenly stood up and, before the assembled mob of two-score relatives, recited in pornographic detail—like an erotic sergeant-at-arms barking out name, rank, and serial number to the capturing enemy—the particulars of every romantic roll-in-the-hay he had had over a 60-year career of philanthropic philandering. While the family sat aghast, unable to stop him, and every man in the family under the age of 50 smirked behind his mashed potatoes. It had been, in an odd way, his grandfather’s finest hour.
If truly generous, he should write a story about two beautiful, intelligent women in which they did not meet a visiting writer at the sales office where they both worked. They might appreciate that. They might even thank him for it. Alas, he doubted either would ever talk to him again. He had deliberately hearticulated his love for Carla in glistening glissando at her office, in front of a green-card Bangladeshi who at last glance had known little English. But the intern had, in the interim, empowered himself by colonizing the language via correspondence course and, giddy with self-improvement, shared the discussion with one of Stephanie’s friends.
At the time, the writer had thought his idea cleverly erotic: to reveal a secret while a third party who could not possibly understand sat within earshot, oblivious. Instead, it had simply been hysterical. The next day a wildly comical farce had played out when the woman he was sleeping with met the woman he was sleeping with when he came by to pick up one of them for lunch (he had forgotten which one).
Maybe the croc story was just an attempt to keep his mind off of these things.
Just visible from the window, icicles hung from the golden wind chimes by the front door. Though frozen, the chimes moved in the wind and made a sound somewhere between bells and the crack of an ice cube tray. It was definitely winter—the winter of a non-terminal discontent. He could feel change coming in his bones: they shifted and shook in contemplation of it. The truth of it would be revealed soon, as it had finally been revealed to his father that Autumn, in the form of inoperable colon cancer, no doubt brought on by his abandonment of his wife, the writer’s mother (for the aforementioned reasons of philandering, as before stated, in this court of law, your honor sir, and therefore the monies released to my client should be quite substantial and should include such properties as...). Neither of them was happy: Dad was dead and Mom spent her days re-wallpapering a house littered with mail-ordered commemorative plates. One day, the writer knew, the re-wallpapering would become so frenzied the rooms would shrink to well-insulated postage stamps in size. These were the kinds of revelations he could do without.
As for the boy in the story, nothing would ever be revealed to him. He could not be rescued from the story. Not that it was much of a story any more. It consisted of a lone snow-encrusted crocodile. No boy. No girl. No father. No real setting. The writer felt a grim satisfaction. Let none of them get away alive. Not a single soul. Not on his watch.
A million snowflakes had fallen across Greed’s back during the night—so many that the crocodile shone more white than green. Frost had stolen over the ridges above its eyes and formed shimmering ice bridges. A delicate layer of ice coated the water that imprisoned its feet. Greed would die if left out here much longer. He might die anyway.
Crocsicle, popsicle. The writer set down the papers for good. Yes, he might die anyway. But of all the story elements, Greed/Sorrow had been best described. A very good facsimile of a crocodile in pain. Maybe he could rescue the old croc—airlift him out of Experiment #25 and into another story. Perhaps even into a poem. After all, it was the Age of Free Verse. He could just put in some lazy line breaks and sell it to a pretentious little poetry journal.
So save the croc, briefly mourn the rest, and pray that Carla and Stephanie (her eyes so blue and her double entendres, her golden legs and fractured stories) would forgive him as he did not forgive himself. Meanwhile, the cigar had awakened in him a need for scotch—amber, calm, and deep—so there was nothing for it but a trip to the local bar.
On went the coat, the gloves, the scarf. He walked to the door, the cold-encrusted croc already lumbering attentively behind him in his imagination. The city in winter spread out before him: austere and bitterly clear in the cold fading light. The glow of houses and buildings floated against the horizon, half-concealed by trees. A flash of gold, shot through with early dusk, so that a corona of shadow spread across the sidewalk. The cold he loved. Better if not alone, but still he loved it. Into the glissade of snow. Into the glister of ice.
At the door, a sudden image struck him: of the boy, watching the girl walk away through the snow, not knowing he would never see her again, and he hesitated—almost bumped into the image of Sorrow, who had already begun nestling into another story. With the smell of pine in his nostrils, the brisk burn of the cold, the glints and glimmers of Experiment #25 that rose in his mind seemed genuine. The childhood memory that holds true when all else is ruin. The desire, in times of need, to sublimate yourself to a quest, a mission, to anything that will allow you to forget your situation. To—sweet bliss!—disengage from thinking altogether.
The last paragraphs of the story stole into his mind like the silent tread of snow across a distant rooftop.
Ever since then, in bad times and in good, thinking back to that night, I have wondered if I am searching for something that does not exist, something that even saving Sorrow cannot salvage, something that—like a cell or a fingerprint or even love—is so individual yet ephemeral that it never appears in exactly the same way, though you spend your whole life.
Despite this, I can see the girl, even now, walking off into the silence of the slow snowfall, in the dark glowing with street lamps, while I just watched her, certain I would see her again, certain that Sorrow would live—and I just kept watching until the dark and the snow covered her up.
A puzzled look appeared on the writer’s face. He turned back into the doorway, where the crocodile waited. The writer watched Sorrow and Sorrow watched the writer. The bright, gold-speckled eyes regarded the writer with an odd and ancient gaze. It was just him and the crocodile, in a tunnel of cold. Shaken, he put a hand out to support himself against the doorway. A thought had overtaken him and something inside had bent; something could be said to have broken: What if his gift knew more than he did?
Then and only then did I relax, stretch my arms, take a puff of my cigar, and set down my pen, well satisfied with the book of winter.