The Last of the Roughnecks

“Mrs. Swiggins, he’s back!”

And so he was.

Mrs. Swiggins set aside her apron, covered as it was in specks of dough and smudges of fine white flour. She left her kneaded bread to rise slowly like the master’s head from his opulent bed.

“Don’t you worry now poppycock, I’ll deal with Mr. Snow.”

And so she would.

He was cockily leaning against a straight, though battered, pole. His face held no sign of anything but perfect innocence, white and clean. His suit was immaculate, if a little out-of-fashion. There was, however, the slight shimmer of a smirk on his thin lips. Though it was hard to catch in the glare of his irreproachability. He was as serene as a snowflake in a snowstorm, virginally complacent, but everyone, including the stray Toms, knew he was anything but, and there were maidens and libertines and even a few conservatives far and wide who could melt the pretenses.

Mrs. Swiggins adjusted her blouse, straightened her voluminous skirt, and hefted the rolling pin in her pudgy fingers.

Mr. Snow imperceptibly stiffened and his white face took on a slushy complexion.

There was something vulgar about his indifference, thought Mrs. Swiggins as she slapped across the street in her big display of sufferance.

Mr. Snow dropped a snow-white glove, which was uncharacteristic of him and could either be interpreted as a lewd suggestion or serendipity.

Mrs. Swiggins momentarily stopped when an unexpected song filled the well-kneaded bits of her powdery gray matter. “I walk in a bar and immediately I sense danger.”

An icy assumption rested on the tips of Mr. Snow’s fingers and a rime of annoyance froze fast to his bright eyes.

“So, Mr. Snow, you’re back?” said Mrs. Swiggins in a voice that held anything but tenderness in its democratic tone.

There was no apparent recognition in Mr. Snow’s blasé stare.

And then Mrs. Swiggins did something that was forever to change her reputation as the dutiful mistress of hot cakes.

She swung her rolling pin with the precision of a professional swinger right between Mr. Snow’s lily white thighs.

He crumpled like a melting snowman. His howls broke dams and lengthened the shadows in those narrow places where no bodily parts should be inserted.

And she left him to writhe in agony like a soiled mound of snow under the impassive eye of the sun’s single ball of fire.

“There, there now, poppycock,” comforted Mrs. Swiggins, her rolling pin dripping dark splats around her feet. “‘Twas but a seasonal love, a fleeting affair that is better ended in the street and not in your tender heart.”

And so it was.

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Snap!

“There must be some kind of way out of here, said the joker to the thief.”

I’m borrowing from Hendrix, who borrowed from Dylan anyway.

And why must I have a revival in my deck of cards? Why another joker? You see, just when I’ve stacked the diamonds, clubs, spades, and hearts behind me, the other fucking wisecrack pops up.

Shuffle it anyway, and he’ll turn up, mirroring my smug smirk, jingling his bells, leering over the queen’s shoulder, popping out between the jack’s groin, straddling the king’s scepter. And then if I’m not careful he’ll be juggling my heart or hiding it among the other lonely hearts.

When I’m not looking he’ll arrange the clubs all in a row and pretend he’s amiably walking through a glade of melilots flying a heart-shaped kite. Or he’ll gather up all the diamonds for a game of chance, rudely wagering my fortunes on his whims.

He even tries to convince me that the spades are my upside-down heart, a heart confused by all the good hands, the bad hands.

It’s a bluff, I know, but still I play his game, eager to win my heart back.

But in the blink of an eye, he’ll shuffle the deck, wink, spread my whole life before me and tempt me to choose.

What am I to do? Sit at the bottom of the deck and cry? My tears making watermarks, the pack pressing down on me, requiring all my psychic energy just to simply locate the ace?

And if by some uncanny fate I come out on top, I’m quickly discarded out-of-hand.

So how can I win?

One day I’m going to have to confront this other joker when all the other cards have been used and stacked to the side in a neat pile. Then it will be either him or me. And one of us will have to reveal what the other has in his hand.

I’m hoping he’ll show first because then I can trade him my lost heart.

If Wishes Were Horses, I’d Want a Pegasus

So me and my man Nabokov were having a debate about Freud in the wee hours last night. I wondered whether the man from Vienna was ever able to shag off a couch.

The Russian writer responded: “I don’t want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me.”

Then we got onto the subject of writing. I expressed my love for erudite jolts, wit, satire, bold mocks, and obscure raillery.

Nabby replied: “Whatever term or trope I use, my purpose is not to be facetiously flashy or grotesquely obscure but to express what I feel and think with the utmost truthfulness and perception.”

About this time, as the clock didn’t strike the hour, but I deeply felt the urge to sod off, something struck me. He is a far better writer than I will ever be and the only saving grace I have is that I’m alive and can attempt to do better while he’s dead.

So then I drank a glass of wine, took a pee, and when I returned to the living room Vlad recited to me what he once told his students at Cornell: “Great novels are above all great fairy tales . . . literature does not tell the truth but makes it up.”

I sat down heavily in my director’s chair. Watched my three fish loop the liquid. Angled in on the rain against the dark window. Focused on Vlad reclining on the couch in a lovely dinner jacket.

I desperately looked around for a script, anything to stub out the silence between us that was growing unbearably bright like the slow burn of vexation or the hot element of indignation.

Vlad smiled at me. One of those paternal gestures that could have easily have been gouged into an alabaster bust of an old sage now disfigured by the ravages of some youthful folly.

I completely agreed with what he had said about novels being fairy tales and a small cruel flash of understanding passed between us.

I wanted to add that the fairy tale was maybe a writer’s way to return to the primal woods of myths, a new language for an old tongue, since reason and science have obliterated the wild wood and fairy tales are humanities only hope of ever capturing what is now lost.

But I said none of this and simply cut the lights, leaving Nabokov nestled in a glow of eminence and me groping in the dark for my bed.

Man Enough to Boolean

I am squashed to the fibre of my ego by smug middle-class America participating in their gentile affectations. How they love to meddle in platitudes and security, floating on placid seas in their leisurely middle-age years, lost to youth and utterly carefree about the shadow of death as if it were the shape of a seabird mindlessly swooping over their tall masts.

Sometimes, I’d like to live on a precipice guarded over by larks or Angry Young Men. “The world is too much with us.” (Was that Wordsworth or Shakespeare?).

Do I want my paganism as well as enlightenment? Yes, absolutely. If I must give my heart away then it will be to writing, my family, books, nature, friends, fiction, and idleness.

Can you have an imaginative morality? One that can make us better human beings through personal narratives that bind us all together in one great book?

The world is too much with us. We care more about facts, about conflicts, or people on the other side of the world than about the individuals we all are alone with, nothing but the ever-expanding universe creating space for our fleeting mortal coils. With all our science, religion, philosophy, art, we are still incapable of understanding our own selves. Only art, it seems to me, gets us a quick peek at the unknown and then it’s back to life for a deluge of reality.

We start out life as this child who knows so little but who wants to desperately learn, and does, so beautifully on his or her own, trusting themselves, and then we become adults and it’s somewhere assumed that we should know everything. That we should know what time to go to bed. What time to get a job. What time to get up and go to work. What time to get married. What time to have kids. What time to get a divorce. What time to get successful. What time to get a raise. What time to get a promotion. What time to get a pay increase. What time to be famous. What time to retire. What time to die.

Well, fuck it, I don’t know any of this and neither do I want to. I want to quest still. I want to continuously be able to say, “Surprise me! I’m a simple fool who only wants to learn.” Is this immature? Should I just settle down and become a functioning member of society whose every question is answered either by science, religion, the Web, the news, social science, the economy, never having to risk having a doubt or an idea that jolts you to your very core.

Consciousness is all around us but we rarely act upon it for fear of finding we all have souls that need work now and not simply leave it to transmigration or salvation or some other kind of divine fix. I think we are all responsible for our own selves and we can only really be confident in having one if we take that responsibility by admitting that we are flawed but are forever hopeful that it won’t always be so.

A Young Turk slowly turning into a middle-aged griper

Inner Radiance under Threadbare Material

So it can create a real schism being from Wales.

If you’re not from the north then you can’t claim to be a descendent of Owain Glyndwr and will have no nationality when the sleeping lord wakes and reunites the Welsh.

If you’re from the south your experience is similar to that of Jan Morris who started out as a man and ended up as a woman. And I’m not saying it’s a gender issue, rather an issue of identity.

Then if you’re not from the south there’s a sense that you are some wild Celt who has lost touched to contemporary Cymru, some relic of a Marcher Lord patrolling the hinterlands on a pony cursing in Welsh at both the diaspora and the influx of foreigners.

And lastly, if you are from the north then your sudden appearance in one of the southern towns is biblical, as if Moses himself has come down the mount.

Although all of this may have changed now since I’ve been gone. There may be new dragon lines shifting and morphing the cultural geography of the Land of My Fathers.

Which is why I am rootless.

It is refreshing to now live in a country that is still a fledgling. None of that achingly long history to leave scars or be entrenched in archaic battles to fulcrum the present with the weight of the past or free it with a catharsis for the future.

America is still a young country with loads of potential. Although right now it’s unfortunately entering its teenage years and is very difficult to live with. Especially since the religious right has managed to get a strangle hold around its neck. Its corpulent thighs are desperately trying to shove this young country back up the uterus to bring about an immaculate conception, the birth of a new state that is poisoned with religious dogma and morality.

As a practice, I’m not one to pitch my tent in anyone’s camp, I’m more of the nomadic tepee, but I have to admit to putting down some stakes in Richard Darwin’s argument that religion is a virus.

Here’s a haiku that I swapped Li Po for a jug of rice wine:

Where would I be
Without the reassuring me?

Or this I found in Hong To’s piss pot:

Make much of time:
It make you whine
Then die.

Or this I borrowed from Kaing Fo Lo Chow Mop Brow, also know as Fo Bro, gezzer to teenage angst.

The moon at my window:
Some git’s fat arse in my face.

The Bashful Wearer of Flesh Stripped

Say, what’s with this condition? You know, having no desire for anything but that of a story well told.

Is it something in the genes that has now decided to kick in? Have I finally discovered my own origin of species? It’s a Herculean task now just to clean the dishes or tidy up after my daughter. I wonder if it isn’t my own way of prioritizing what I now consider time’s fleeting. A need to get something in print before people start wearing printed T-shirts with “Print is Dead.”

It’s euphoric when the creative bellows do blow, but then a ring of ashes, this ring of apathy descends for anything that isn’t writing and that creates only jeremiads and a long search for synecdoche. And I don’t need schisms now, what with a lovely daughter.

I wonder if I find myself in this state because I am striving to be recognized as a writer and think that it needs every particle of my wayward self to make it. But then the work requires everything from you, doesn’t it? It requires the semen from whence you sprang to the ashes from where you’ll spring.

So the writerly life becomes very hermetic. But then life gets father away, and I always feel madly isolated, lost to others, some kind of hooligan at society’s sullen games of propriety and elegance and togetherness as if it were monolithic when filaments, filaments, filaments are being sucked out of themselves leaving them as desiccated husks.

I’m sure this little big epoch isn’t just mine to explore. I think many other writers have gone through similar zeitgeists. Although it might be better to describe it as a fox hole. A sharpening of reason. A quiet space outside the raging battle of humanity that goes on with such speed that I’m surprised when I wake up to find the world is still with us. A hole to witness the carnage that has come before, all the dead writers strewn over the killing fields, their books clutched in their hands, their lips in a tight grimace of “Write, you bastards, write. It’s all you’ll ever have. Stories. Because when death comes you’ll have to give the greatest one of them all to make him go away. And none of us, not even the greatest, have been able to tell it better. Death is the greatest storyteller of us all. So start outwitting him early. The older you get you either become too literary or not literary enough.”

And to be honest, I’d could hole up for a good six months in some shed in someone’s back garden. Get brought the occasional libations. Sleep extensively (it’s when I do my best work). Write as if Sodom and Gomorrah were planting seeds of destruction around the shed. Write as if the Four Riders of the Apocalypse were being shipped UPS. Write as if a pack of rabid writers were pawing at the door. Write as if Atlas was in the middle of scratching his arse and the world was slowly sliding down his well-curved spine and knocking on every vertebrae as he digs at the itch. Write as if you only had this gifted 6 months, this pardon from the powers that be that you could check out of Hotel Pandemonium for a while and write until your heart is content then slip back into the slipstream where people’s dreams clog the gutters.

I think all of humanity needs a shed at the bottom of their garden to “loafe and invite my soul,” as Whitman wrote. Right now humanity is living in bunkers constructed not underground but above, surrounded by concrete, living as if dust and mortar were more vital than flesh and blood. Communicating by technology instead of by mouths. Flying noisy flags above their fortified compounds. Calling them unique and distinct when they are all just one giant block of uniformity. Teaching their children the ways of cement and dry walling and drilling and exploding as means to feel, explore, think, and have an imaginative spirit. Even the new born are covered in layers of dust.

And me? Give me a hill. Give me a tent patchworked from the skin of dead animals. Give me even a cave of natural rock. I don’t want to commit myself to the sarcophagus of this new brave world. I’m not ready for the cerecloth. There’s more boldness in going naked! Let me find what Lawrence referred to as disdaining my social self and proclaiming the authenticity of my “permanent” or “fundamental self.” Whitman did it, too, with the “Song of Myself”.

I Rant, I Rave, I Play the Knave

Do you know what brings me great satisfaction? Seeing the precious commodities of Camden, buffed to within a sheen of gentility, carrying around bags of dog shit. It’s exquisite.

Men in the prime of their careers or gone into the never-never land of retirement gaily swinging their pet’s excrement by their side. And this is all sanctioned by their wives, you know, and collaborated by their well-educated children, now middle-aged and fending off bouts of depression when their favourite show is cancelled and moments of euphoria when their credit line is extended.

Women do it, too — carry dog shit. But they are more discreet. Make it look like they have a new Prada handbag. Although you can see the disgust in their sad eyes. But that is maybe from being sexually unfulfilled by husbands who work at the enlargement of the bank account than anything else. And the women don’t swing it. They simply draw it close to them as if it was a little excrement of truth: that maybe their perfect lives are not so exemplary. And you should see them place it into the bin. There’s a bit of reluctance, an apprehension, as though they might be throwing away their last hope at redemption.

The men simply toss the shit. Brashly heave it into the trash. Which is telling. In a metaphorical way.

And how I love Van Gogh’s paintings, no matter how universally appreciated they may be and would make me into a laughing stock in the hallowed halls of every art school worth its graphite and oils.

But I don’t give a fuck. Whenever I see his work, be it the Sunflowers or Starry Night or The Potato Eaters or his room at Arles or any of the others, I’m in awe of not only the man’s understanding of colour and what he can make it do but also his vision. There’s no one like him. Full stop. And I have read snippets of his letters. He’s also a damn good writer, too. Not afraid to pry open the self to reveal the long dark tunnels of confusion or the occasional glint of diamond truth.

And that’s just the rub, isn’t it? Everyone could be just like Van Gogh if we could free ourselves from the constraints of society and responsibility and simply explore the deep mines of the self with nothing more than our feelings and thoughts. But how? We’ve become so entrenched in this fabricated reality that we can’t even think, let alone imagine, anything different. But the irony is we could have so easily created an alternative. This is not the only version of life yet we cling to it like it’s the only twig in the great surging river of life. How parochial. How unimaginative. How sad. How egotistical. How ludicrous. Humanity is so confident that this reality works that we’ve become utterly dead in spirit. We’ve allowed the body of evidence, of facts, to prove it’s all just and right and cannot get any better. We’ve all been hoodwinked by a mob of megalomaniacs who desire that we see the world the way they have envisioned it solely so they can reap their own rewards. Should a truth become a truth simply because the collective say so?

Ok, I’m convinced that the Earth revolves around the sun. But how do I know it? Have I actually witnessed the event? No. It’s solely a faith in others creative work in science. What I’m trying to say is that the entity called me will never know for certain the truth of whether this planet rotates around the sun, it just makes more sense to my own personal experience than say that the Sun revolves around the Earth or that there’s an Olympian discus thrower out there in the cosmos tossing all the planets about in a trajectory that registers with the scientist experiments because the thrower is really a mathematical abstraction who likes to be seen as a physically fit man with bulging biceps. a

And who is to say that somebody at some later time doesn’t prove that the Earth and Sun are not moving but are being pedaled around the universe by an itinerant peddler of the bizarre.

Thing is, we never really know, do we? It’s all an enigma no matter how much we explain until our Earth shrinks into the confines of our limited minds. But artists make that mind limitless.

I wish I had my own personal Theo. Wished I could be left alone to think and create. But that’s the role of the genius, for it is he or she who figures that out. The rest of us have to make do as best we can with the polarity of life.

Fuck, though, it must be so amazing to be allowed to be so visionary and have space and time bow down to your wishes. It’s a gift, I guess. Or a sense of being chosen. And someone would always have to suffer for your visions. And the thing is, I’d be too conscious of creating that suffering, and maybe to exist like Van Gogh you have to be blissfully ignorant of personal suffering but tap into the universal, the mythic suffering of mankind. I could do it, but something holds me back. Is it fear? Or is it failure? Or maybe I simply lack the right kind of atomic jangling of my soul to exist like that.

The wild artistic spirit lives in only a few, I think. For the rest of us, we must continually cup our tiny flames in case they get blown out and thank those few who, like Prometheus, had the guts and nerve to steal the fire away from the gods so that man could have a chance of living a life that wasn’t just one of enslavement to some indifferent god but one of love for our brittle humanity.

My next work of short fiction is going to be about the cold war between man and woman. (And you thought the Cold War was over!) The story will be set in Rockport Harbor and it will revolve around a Russian man, dutifully called Uncle Vanya by his particular other (and me as the omnipotent narrator did not miss the immodest Chekhov reference). He will be cruel, insisting that his over-sized American wife make absolutely sure that she frames his Slavic mug just as he wants it. The small black train behind him should reinforce his strong masculine revolutionary spirit. By no means should she frame him under the feminine shadow of the dainty cherry tree. He will even frame the shot himself. Waiting until his partner takes the camera in her shaking hands, praying that she can still hold the pose, not deviate by even a hair’s breadth. And some of the dialogue will go like this:

“Uncle Vanya, how much of your Cyrillic hair should I include?”

“As much as Stalin used when he said ‘Long live the state!’ ”

“Do you mind if I click before or after you unzip yourself?”

“It doesn’t matter. I will always be the same man.”

“Uncle Vanya! Uncle Vanya! You’ve come out blurry!”

“What? Didn’t I tell you never to express yourself. It is forbidden for you to be anything but my Western friend. We can never, never become intimate.”

“But Uncle Vanya, I love you.”

“No, child, you can never love a tyrant only fear them. Now, make sure the train’s big wheels don’t make me look too capitalist. I’m still in a constant state of anxiety from owning a Ford. And make sure you get my whole face. I don’t want it looking like the Baltic states after the fall of the Motherland.”

Czar of wonder, Czar of night, Czar of royal beauty bright.