Ring Out the Old

The Old Year, ripe with the stink of Thunderbird, sprawled back against the pilaster of an abandoned neoclassical bank. Most of the graffiti above and around him was indecipherable, but “nuke the faggots” stood out in block letters. Below, someone had added, “and the skinheads.”

The Old Year sang “Rock of Ages” off-key, frayed and guttural, with a glutinous flap added from his throat, a gargle through molasses. He held his pie-plate out to passersby, a gesture that suggested nothing like expectation.

He broke off in the middle of the hymn and shifted to a sing-song melody of his own, stronger, his voice clearer. He slapped the empty tin pie-plate beside his legs in rough time to the words:

Throw the old bastard a nickel,

Throw the old bastard a dime,

Throw the old bastard a quarter,

Cuz he is a victim of time.

“Goddam millennium friggin NO GOOD GODDAM city buildins fallin over useta be camels put em up camels an slaves…” his voice rising to a bellow then slipping inside until it disappeared.

The Old Year was cold, weak, wrapped in a torn blanket, a three-inch bedding of newspapers under his legs and butt. He could have shifted to the steam vent at the corner, but he preferred the internal warmth of the Thunderbird. And with only eight (seven?) hours left in 1999, he could freeze solid and it wouldn’t make a difference one way or the other.

A figure moved up near his feet. From The Old Year’s semi-recumbent vantage, the man – given the overcoat and outdated Stetson hat, it had to be a man – loomed like a giant, his face invisible within the nimbus of the setting sun behind him.

“Jerry?” questioned the man.

“You got money? Awww shove off. I’m outta Bird most out. Looka tha…” The Old Year held his bottle of wine by the neck and swung it side to side, a glass pendulum. “Wha ya want? Got sumpin? Gway.”

Jerry. Je-sus, what’s happened to you? Look, there’s maybe… somethin I can do?”

“You can climb a purple horse an FUCK OFF. Aint no Jerry.”

The faceless man fumbled under his overcoat to pull up his trouser legs as he dropped into a squat.

“It’s you. Jerry Walton. You think I wouldn’t know? We fired you, I gotta know. You got that one brown eye and one blue eye –”

“I GODDAM KNOW I GOT ONE EYE AND THE OTHER. You think I’m friggin stupid dont know which eyes I got? Where you goin? Heaven? You goin Heaven? There’s that Indian thing bout how we work outta that. Rein… re-chrysamthemnum. Where you dunt die just go over again an over. An over.”

“Reincarnation?” The figure leaned forward. Sunlight leaked around toward his features.

“Yeah, recarnation carnation. Once I member I was back in Egypt, allll way back. The pharaohs? So Chops Cheops 3150 BC aroun then course didnt call it BC had their own calendar but itd run off schedule an Niled flood when they wunt lookin fer it tappen. Big friggin mess water all over town. But they could – an they did –  floated the blocks up. Fer pyramid. Cheops pyramid. Camels hauled em! Pretty much bes year I ever was. Who you? You Jerry?” The Old Year raised his hand to cut the glare of the dying sun. It didn’t help much.

You’re Jerry. Jerry Walton.”

“I AINT NOT NO JERRY. Yer stupid dunt listen people. Know what I was last time? 1916. There was nothin not one goddam good thing happened 1916. Friggin waste inna whole world. Seven eight million people killed off in France. Just in France. I hadda keep the count bad parta the job. 1999 I can watch it all happen right here millennium. Next timell kick me inta middle of a century. Yknow how much a millennium? Every thousan years! I gotta wait thousan years an they wont anyway give it me nextime. Somebody else. Sucks sucks.”

The Old Year began to cry, the bottle on the ground, his hand wrapped around the neck. He picked it up, crying, took a swig, another, drained the bottle. He looked at it, his glare tight and almost clear, cried harder.

“You…?” asked the man.

“Me 1999 yeah. Right here. Til minnight. Yknow what? Millennium er not stupid goddam year ta be but dun wanna leave. Never wanna leave. Tha old way-old woman ya know her the nun? She was six years old last time now gotta disease an I wone know when she dies. An wuz gonna happen with Apple computers?”

“They got Steve Jobs back. The nun… you mean Mother Teresa?”

“Mother Tresa yeah….”

“She’s already dead. Couple years back.”

“Goddam. Shit. Buy me a Bird? Need more Bird. Time?” The Old Year tapped his wrist.

The figure hiked up his overcoat sleeve an inch. “4:27. I don’t know where there’s a liquor store.”

“Wuz wif you? You got on wool an you dun know where a booze store? I member somebody like you but hats wrong. Mean it swrong cuz it sright. Same hat from las time. 1916 hat. Din have Bird back there. Gin in trenches sneak it in get drunk heads blowed off. On guard duty. I wasn no Jerry Wharton. Wasn nobodys name just was. So mister man how you get through from then ta back here? Snot yer hat. Somebodys elses hat. Not Mother Tresas hat,” and The Old Year laughed, laughed until long snot strings hung from his nose.

“You are Jerry. Jerry Walton,” said the figure, “because we choose it that way. You have been Jerry Walton and you will remain Jerry Walton, now and always. And this time you won’t get fired. You are released, clear of title, into the millennium and through to whatever comes next – actually, Apple’s buying Next from Jobs.”

“Overpopilation too many,” said The Old Year.

The figure leaned forward and touched his fingertips to The Old Year’s eyes.

When Jerry Walton opened his throbbing eyes, the figure was gone. He stared into the afterglow of the sunken sun and felt a physical need, something his body craved. But as his vision cleared, the craving slipped away like gravel from the edge of a roadway.

Jerry rose up to his feet, wondering why he’d been sitting on a cold sidewalk at the end of the year, a section of newspaper hanging off the seat of his pants. Out of a job, for shit sake. That was hardly the end of the world, just another dumb distraction in life’s inevitable march.

Tugging the newspaper loose, he saw that it was the classified section. He opened it to “Help Wanted.”

##############

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Ode to Syd Bradford

Some time back I wrote about Syd, but I left out the most important parts: What I learned from him, and how I failed to be there for him when he could have used it most.

While I was arts editor at the Welcomat in Philly, a fusillade of absurdist letters ran in the Letters to the Editor column, coming from a person who, for whatever reason, called himself “Syd Endeavor.” What’s most unlikely about this moniker is that Dan Rottenberg, the paper’s overall editor, had a usually rigid prohibition against the use of pseudonyms. I don’t know if he knew Syd Endeavor from “real life” – I suspect so – but even so, I don’t understand why he suspended the prohibition in his case.

I also have no clear recollection how I first met Syd – real name Bradford – in the mid ’90s. Was it before or after I followed Dan as top editor at the Welco? Whenever it was, by then I knew who he was. No, let me amend that: I knew his true name, but I’m not sure anyone knew Syd the person.

My growing involvement with him had to do with a weird little print mag he edited that he called Schuylkill Scallywag. What did that rumbling, bumbling name mean to him? I think it signaled that it was off-beat, irreverent, skewering, but, most of all – that it was planned to be like no form of writing previously recorded throughout human history. A mite ambitious, but at least in Syd’s literary case, close to the mark.

When I joined – to put together a quarterly edition at Syd’s Center City home – the “staff” numbered Syd; Richard, a somewhat simpering, vaguely Communist-aligned retired engineer; Ram, the former Indian ambassador to Jamaica; and, a newcomer: Me.

(I don’t know what later became of Ram, a beautiful human being who told us about when, as ambassador, he brought Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to Jamaica during its most intense Rasta era, where the thoroughly puzzled god-king found himself venerated with wild adulation for no reason he could understand.)

I couldn’t say how many issues we put out during our roughly 3 years together. And who did they go to? A select (how selected?) mailing of 20, maybe 30, possibly 40, conceivably 50 people I never met. Syd controlled all that (of course). 

The editorial meetings were a wonderland. We didn’t spend that much time on the content – an editorial “failing” that often pissed Syd off – but it was one of the most open, altogether invigorating, if sometimes antagonistic (on Syd’s part) small assemblages I’ve been involved in. (Syd often harried Dick for his Communist leanings – not from a rightwing stance, but just to poke at Dick, as you’d poke at a sick toad.) I wished then, wished later, wish now that this unlikely quartet could have continued longer.

How did it fall apart? It was precipitated by Syd, because all things Scallywag were precipitated by Syd. He quit. He refused to say “resigned,” insisted on “retired.” Why? If you’d known Syd, you’d know that question would lead nowhere. 

Dick and Ram and I decided to keep the remains of the magazine, renamed Castaways, going on a roughly quarterly basis. Though I don’t think we specifically chose that name as a comment on Syd, his defection had definitely left us adrift. (I have copies of Castaways in a box somewhere, along with issues of Schuylkill Scallywag.*) 

Castaways slowly (perhaps not really that slowly) vanished. For one thing, we didn’t have Syd’s full mailing list, but that’s not the most important determinant. We vanished because, without Syd, we – at that time and in that place – became a side issue.

In those early days of email, Syd and I exchanged late-night notes after his “retirement” from the Scallywag. Syd, imperious Syd, continually insisted on telling us how our remaining trio should organize all aspects of publication. That pissed me mightily, so on our final online night I responded to some aggrieved demand with this snarl: “Bug out and stay bugged out!

That shit response haunts me. Yes, he had yet again insinuated himself into a conversation he should have moved beyond, but I had heaved something reckless and nasty – if not downright evil – into a pointless drunken conversation. (Don’t, if you retain any self-concern, ever respond to a bad-tempered, drunken email with an equally bad-tempered, drunken email.)

But what am I trying to accomplish right here, right now? Ask forgiveness of Syd? No, because there is no way to ask forgiveness of the dead. But I can try to expiate the wrong I did to… I don’t know to whom, because I still can’t say who Syd Bradford really was. None of us could. That’s not offered as an excuse, but to lay out my difficulty in attempting to exorcise that evil.

Syd was unique in ways both infuriating and inspired. I exited that final online night dealing only with the fury. In retrospect, I find that unforgivable. I failed to give support when needed. Would he have accepted it if offered? Frankly, I doubt it. That was part of his infuriating side. But such caveats do not relieve me of my responsibility and continuing guilt.

What I failed to tell Syd is that I genuinely admired him, his personal and literary eccentricities, and his steadfast inability to compromise when he felt that his outlook was both correct and essential. Going through issues of his earlier magazines, I read articles by him – particularly one with such an idiosyncratic take on the meaning and purpose of the U.S. Constitution as to be barely comprehensible – which helped me see that, even when most off the wall, he was pointing with unique insight to how the wall itself was misaligned.

Sorry, Syd. I fucked up. Lean over a cloud and chuck me down some manna… wrapped around a stone.

#############

*Here’s one of those eerie weirdnesses of timing: Shortly after I wrote this paragraph, I started moving items from our ugly Home Depot piece-of-crap shed to the new shed up the hill (repurposed from Linda’s decommissioned wood-burning kiln).

To my horror, mice had entered, nested in and shredded the contents of 10 or 15 cardboard boxes. One turned out to hold my old Scallywag and Castaways issues, along with copies of Syd’s previous magazines, put together with other friends-of-the-time. Some issues I’ve salvaged, after airing to reduce the mouse stink; others are now muck and dust.

Damn! But at least all weren’t forever lost, as I’d feared.

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A story

Ice Age

She had injected herself into a meeting that MacGregor was attending as a consultant (it didn’t matter what he was consulting on; his sort of parasitic vermin were expected to be experts on everything). Tall, willowy, almost insubstantial, with her shoulder-length auburn hair tossed like pasta, her unsettling green eyes held an almost frightened look, a certainty that something was about to go wrong, that she would be asked to fix it, and that she would not have the tools to pull it off. 

She moved like a teenager, and from across the room looked at most twenty-six. Up close, her facial lines placed her in her early-40s, but those lines reinforced her otherness. There was nothing of the bureaucrat about her, no trace of rule-dominated meanness. 

Over the weeks that they worked together, fitfully – she was often off somewhere no one could identify – she showed herself smarter than any five pompous bright-boys he’d met in the last decade, and she quivered with enough energy – blasting through non-stop until nine at night – to put his weak-kneed meanderings to shame. Nothing he introduced during “consultation” touched an area she could not detonate with explosive insight. Hers was dedication in its purest form: the worship of helping others, of devising cures for the afflictions of all humanity.

Yet her own humanity struck him at first as stunted or malformed. Her coos of appreciation or consolation were delivered in the high-pitched sing-song of a four-year-old, at once genuine yet spurious, as though she had never developed the organ of personal contact. Until the evening he invited her to dinner at a mid-range restaurant. It hadn’t mattered which restaurant, because he knew we would not be focusing on the food or décor. 

The previous day, he saw her reading a sheaf of papers at her desk, some log of triviality floating down the effluvia stream. He’d found her pretty from the start, and those searing eyes held an intensity he had never before conceived of. But here, as she lasered down at the empty words, he could not, could not remove his gaze. Hers was a face beyond faces, a clean-lined perfection he could follow like a lapdog.

The dinner “date” (presented by him as business as all too usual) was an excuse to continue gazing. And so it flowed, through the appetizer. But somewhere in mid-entrée, her generic mix of concern with fear melted, the blazing eyes grew smaller, and the almost pinched mouth expanded into a puckish, sensual curve. Her rakish body seemed to swell two inches, the etched bones to coat with ripe flesh.

MacGregor broke out in a sweat. Good Christ, was he facing some form of multiple personality? No, it was the escape of the wondrous woman trapped within the overly-competent little girl. How seldom she got out, because there was so little space left for her in a life of mad dedication. It took coaxing, time, an unusual quietude to release what he would long insist twas the “real” Catharine.

Through the rest of the meal she joked, focused on him with open delight, told him how much his friendship meant to her, took his hand in simple companionship. As they rose to leave, she reached to hug him – and dropped an ice cube down the back of his shirt. 

MacGregor was instantly, ineradicably in love.

Tonight, God help him, he was charged with forming a plan for an amiable divorce.

This restaurant (a different one) was oppressive, the ceiling low enough to threaten his dome. The fans whirred busily, pushing the air from here to there, making his chill worse; if they were lower they would tangle his hair. He brushed his hair back. The action did not force the fans into the distance. What kind of place was this? “Esmeralda’s Garden.” New Age food? Why had she chosen it? And where was she?

There, at a table half way back, head bent to the menu, not looking for him at all. How typical. And how typical his response: Oh, that tilt of the head, that obvious yet unobtrusive beauty. “Shut up, self.”

“Pardon me?” A waiter or seater or maitre’d or whoever oversaw, undersaw….

“I was wondering….”

“Yes?”

“Do you serve Rocky Mountain oysters?”

“I don’t….”

“Nor do I. See that woman?” He pointed at Catharine’s inclined head, and his intemperate temperature rose in wrath when the maitre’seater did not exclaim at her magnificence.

“Yes sir.”

“Please indicate to her that I’m here.”

“Who should I say….?”

“You shouldn’t. Just go.”

The Whatever went. He gesticulated. Catharine raised her head – the hair today straight, spiked and dyed an almost luminous, uniform brown – then with an inimitable wrinkle of her green green eyes, waved him over, smiling.

“There was once –” he started, but realized there was no point to belaboring her with an introductory joke. Too damned late for that. “Hello.”

“Eustace!”

“For god’s sake, you know –”

“It is your name.”

“It is. Yes.” His response, as always, had been wrong – this time, truly wrong.

She laid her hand on his. Such a thin, almost emaciated hand (hers).

“Oh Cat, oh Cat Cat Cat.”

She continued to smile, a smile machine. What was she smiling at? Did she even see him?

“I fell in the river,” he said, nothing that he’d meant to say.

“You said so, on the phone. However did you do that?”

“Good all-fucking Christ, how does it matter what or why or…. I’m sorry. It comes out that way every time.”

Her hand again latched onto his. “You know I don’t –”

“I know so goddamned little about you these days, finally, that I’m a piece of sausage. Stuffed.”

She started a laugh, and had she continued, it might have gone so much better. But she stifled the laugh and looked at MacGregor with an intensity that lacerated his mood.

“What do I do after this, tomorrow?” he said. “How do I get out of it?”

“Out of what?”

He splayed his hands on the table. “Out of what’s right here. The past and the present and the future. Do you think that’s easy? Is it easy for you? You believe in what you do. You’re so fucking immersed in what you do you can’t see straight. You believe in humanity, in the great murmuring mass of the human race – you can save them, make them what fifty years ago nobody could even have thought possible or tried to make them. I’m babbling. I get up in the morning and I rage against being awake. Look at you. Right now, right here. Awake, striving to go ahead while the evening’s closing in, believing – do you realize I can’t believe in anything? Of course you do. I go to sleep and I almost believe in something, a swirl of I don’t know whats – no explanation, no logic – then it’s gone as soon as I fall asleep. Is it because I was drunk or because I was sober? Jesus horseballed –”

Catharine’s attenuated form has leaned across the table until she is almost drooling on his napkin. “Please don’t talk that way. Those words.”

Without transition he began to cry. Cried like a baby in front of his ever-blessed sexy off-the-edge-of-reality once-was wife. Knives pierced his chest and stomach and lungs, twists of embarrassment and regret, and under it, the rage threatening to….

It had to stop. He stood up, tears washing his useless face and said –

But he didn’t say it. He simply sat down again. He would order something. He wished they really had Rocky Mountain oysters. A big wafting pile of spiced bull gonads. He ordered something with pork in it.

“What do you want to do?” she asked between bites at once dainty yet almost wolfish in their appreciation of the food. The lancing green of her eyes could have cut ribbons at a fashion opening. 

“Oh, I suppose I’ll have to pay something. For the process, the legal process. For the, for the settlement. I will.”

“Have you decided how much? Altogether?”

“I thought you would suggest something.”

“I don’t know what you have available. We never talked about that.”

“Jack shit. I have Jack shit. And I was shot. Shit, shot.”

Professional concern swept her face like a monsoon wind. Such a beautiful wind.  Her care looked manufactured, but he knew that no one alive encapsulated more genuine concern. When a need arose, she leapt on it like it was a raging stallion she must tame. More than anything, that do-good response in her had driven him to rages. Humanity was the Creator’s prime mistake, and no one should try to tame it. Let it run wild, marauding.

“You were actually shot?”

“Actually. With a gun. Once. Upon a time.”

“Are you recovered?”

A strangely formal, absurd question that threw him because it was so dead on the mark. Was he recovered? Would he know? In a bid for time he reached to scratch his nose, but he was holding his fork and almost thrust it in his eye.

“I suppose I am. And yet I’m really much the same. I never wanted a child. You knew that.”

“Is that what it is? All of it? Having a child? I’d hoped… you would change your attitu – your mind. After Brian’s birth.”

“Two years of afterbirth aren’t enough to change that. My mind. The years before, though… Gifts. I don’t know what to do with a child. I don’t relate to anyone who can’t hold a rational conversation. Stand back and look at him and grin? Children don’t think like people. I didn’t like other kids when I was a kid.”

Catharine daintily wolfed down two forkfuls of duck salad. “I don’t want to be unfair.”

“You couldn’t be unfair. It’s not possible.”

She smiled and patted his hand again. That… “It’s hard for me to ask this, but I must – did you love me?”

The tears, now inside, fled to the back of his head. “Did I? There’s no past to it. It is and was beyond love. It is and was necessity.”

“I don’t really understand.”

“There’s no way you could realize…. You are the ideal made flesh. Beautiful, desirable, wondrously… complete. It wasn’t constructed, it existed before I came to it. A whole world recognized at once and beyond need of my contemplation. Then, well… reality always throws shit on the fire.” The pork was good, whatever it was. Some kind of fruit treatment. A glaze. “Oh. Did you love me?”

“Yes.”

“Inconceivable. I’ll send, spend what I can. Maybe more than I can. To support Brian. And you. Do you need support? Right now I have nothing, but I’m working on it. So how is he? Brian.”

“He’s not talking rationally yet.”

“Ha! Eventually.” For the first time in the evening he laughed, lightly but honestly. “I don’t choose how I look at things. Honestly. It’s in-built.”

“I know that.”

“Good. Good for you, to know that. You were so much more than I deserved, and I got kicked hard. Good that, too. That I did deserve.”

“Eustace…”

“Please, Christ. Not the name.”

Catharine smiled again, an entirely different smile that opened the door to the room where she stored her ice-cube assaults. Sultry, knowing, a loving, lovable beast. She reached across to place two fingers, lightly, on the inside of MacGregor’s wrist. An almost audible click resounded in his head, nothing electrical, nothing at all, yet, his worldview flipped like a pancake. No one receives a true magical revelation, not ever. But this was not revelation. It was statement. The same unfathomable future still lay before him, but where before it had steamed in a landscape of blood and snot and garbage, now it shone with softly whipping grain and possibility. He could leap from the table and dash out the door, speed effortlessly down the street.

He hadn’t run, voluntarily, in decades. What just happened to him? Pointless, absurd, unquenchable, unquestionable ecstasy. He looked at the wrist she had touched. He took her thin-boned hand in both of his and and held it like a small bird. “Thank you, thank you.”

“What?”

“I’ll never be able to live with you again, it’s gone, oh, oh, oh, oh.”

“Reconciliation…?”

MacGregor shrugged his entire body. “Not possible. Not necessary. But understanding – understanding is so much more important.”

“I’m glad you understand. I don’t.”

“Some modes, some possibilities are given, strewn across the universe.”

Catherine slapped her napkin against the table top. “You don’t usually talk rubbish.”

MacGregor stood and bowed slightly, perhaps to her, perhaps to fate. He didn’t care to whom he bowed. “There was a time, you know, when I didn’t think this would be possible, that we would ever… If I could hand you my life, wrapped in twine, I would. I don’t need it any more.”

“A fine gift, if that’s the case.”

“There are ice cubes in you glass. Still.”

Catherine upended the glass, pouring water and ice cubes on her plate. “There.” MacGregor picked up two of the riddled cubes and pressed them in his fist. But the cubes would not crush. He opened his hand and let them fall.

At the front of the restaurant he paid the bill with cash or a credit card, he could not tell which. All he felt in his hand was ice.

Ice. Ice.

##################

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A story this time

Servitude

Godurn, the mute servant of the Lord Antipater, crossed the marketplace with a slow stride that barely disturbed the static hanging of his white robe. So full was it that his hands, the rhythmic pendula of his inner timepiece, did not alter the repose of the sleeves. Those mean of rank stepped from his path, though all knew that he wore the iron bracelet of slavery, and that his master no longer possessed the power to redress wrongs done his servants. Godurn laid hands on no man, nor did he cast spells, but the thought of opposing him was fearful. He bought from this stall and that with the inclination of his hand or the nod of his head, pressed his master’s ring to the tally sheet, then moved on, assured that the goods would appear as ordered. None dare short the Lord Antipater when Godurn bought.

One person studied him without awe, a massive, muscular man dressed in a short-skirted garment of fur. He watched with attention as the figure in white passed, noting all of his visible aspects. The remainder he could interpolate: the long, tight torso, the heavy wrists, the corded neck and straight shoulders. He knew the race of men from which Godurn had sprung, a race defined not by place or lineage, but by intent and introspection. In one land or another he had encountered them during the many centuries he had lived. They produced astonishment in the folk they lived among, but in him they engendered only anticipation. He had dueled them with swords of craft and guile and had defeated them all. He was prepared to do battle yet again, hoping as ever to meet the one he could not best.

Godurn strode from the market and up the hillside road to the fort of his master, which sat like a great wooden toad upon a tree stump. The portcullis ascended, admitting Godurn into the toad’s gaping mouth, then lowered again, ingesting him.

Within, the Lord Antipater sat in his accounting hall, a low, dank arena, less a room than an enclosed condition of space. Before him lay the books of accounting, with figures written in his own clumsy hand. A low-flaming oil lamp sat also on the table, the chimney so soiled that it appeared to absorb more light than it shed. The Lord Antipater had the countenance of sickness. None could name his complaint or put substance to their vague sense of his disease, but all knew that within his large frame the organs were in a state of slippage and dissolution. He had not long to live, though his skin remained yet full and firm.

Godurn strode into the hall, unannounced and unopposed. He placed both hands beside his head, palms forward, in sign of greeting. His left hand fell back to his side, his right dropped to a level three inches above the table, where it began a series of upwards and downwards motion of the fingers. The Lord Antipater read from those fingers and made notations in the books of accounting: round, childish zeroes, shoddy, leaning fives. When the last entry had been made, he sighed but said nothing. Near Godurn, his tongue forgot its forceful ways and returned to an earlier time when only taste and touch had set it in motion. He lost the aspects of a grown man.

The accounting was poor. The treasury had slid from equilibrium during these last years, and the further it shifted from its fulcrum, the more rapidly the losses mounted. They threatened to lever the fort and all the domain into a chasm. In the race between the illness without and the illness within, men wondered if the Lord would live long enough to be stripped of all but his name.

Godurn made no move to address this coordinated decline. He was a servant by position and by choice, insofar as he had done nothing to gain his freedom. He carried out his duties without attempt to influence their substance. The Lord Antipater, for his part, requested no solutions of Godurn. He had allowed himself to be drawn into a whirlpool which, though deadly, was comforting in its inexorability. To slow its suction would only prolong the day of the flood which would carry all away, halls and lands and the pitiful bulk of his battered corpse. He would not engage himself in so meaningless an act.

When the Lord had given the gesture of dismissal – right palm placed flat on the tabletop, then levered upward – Godurn inclined his head and left the hall. He proceeded by the worn back stairs to the kitchen, a soiled and sooty place which had lost the grandeur of past great meals. The ancient cook sat folded and sour on his high stool by the smoking stove. He glared at Godurn from the corners of his rheumy eyes, years of grudges written in his face. He had aged like a carrot or a potato, gone soft and bad by degrees. Godurn made sign that the food ordered for the week would be delivered that day, then touched lightly the side of the great washing basin. His fingertips exhibited circles of white grease. The cook acknowledged this reprimand with a gaze of unforgiving fear.

Godurn continued his rounds, alerting the keeper of the wardrobe, the gardeners and the groom that all would be provided for them as promised. They received the news according to their perceptions of themselves and of their station.

Slat, the young groom, was good-natured and loving toward horses and men. He revered Godurn and prayed that he might develop within himself the reserved dignity that would command universal respect, though he knew, with rare insight, that he was accorded a lesser station throughout life.

The gardeners, two bent brothers, taciturn by nature, spoke little more than Godurn himself. They replied to statements and questions alike with simple motions of the body and quiet yet dramatic eruptions of sound that were not words. They accepted Godurn as he was and thought no more of it.

The keeper of the wardrobe stood tall in emaciated thinness. He lived without alteration the glory of days when cloaks were trimmed in ermine and the flash of gold had dazzled the eyes of subjects. The gold, fleck by fleck and gram by gram, had slid down the long incline of the treasury; the ermine cloaks had fallen prey to mice. Only the keeper himself extended tradition through his living sartorial resplendence. The Lord Antipater no longer received him, for he sensed that the past should remain past, not stand present before him. To the keeper, Godurn was embodiment of the drought that had fallen on the finances of the domain. He did not oppose the servant, but whinnied like an aged horse that resents its bridle.

At the base of the Lord Antipater’s gently mounded hill, Denugar, the massive man in fur, stood with folded arms and feet planted apart, and he contemplated. Over the eons, he had discovered no others like himself, as though he lived outside the confines of time. Such others must exist, reason  told him, but where and how, that he should not have met them? Did his being reign as singular as a thought?

Though he cherished the strength of his limbs, they remained idle of proof when none dared challenge him in physical combat. Thus, with reluctance he relinquished the right to bodily triumph, turning instead to victories of the mind. In time, even these had turned routine, ebbing his desire for combat in all its forms. But today that desire blazed anew, like suppressed flames arising from low-smothering embers.

He tarried a moment longer, then returned to the market with a gait powerful yet agile, retracing the route Godurn had taken, visiting stalls and shops and the quiet workrooms of craftsmen. He presented himself with courtesy to these fleet-lived beings, enquiring of them only the type and price of their goods, yet at his visit, all felt the weary transience of their work weigh upon them. The blacksmith, oiled and golden in the light of his forge, shrank to an ill-formed rustic. The potter, her hands hung in Byzantine grace above her wheel, blew like a reed in the winds of time as Denugar’s forming hands compared her work to the masterpieces of Athens. Before the storehouse of his vast head, the printer labored as if without vocabulary at the ink and oil of his presses.

Truly, Godurn would be a worth enemy He bought only of the best, and only from the most deserving of men. Denugar had known this already. What he had hoped to discover from his inquiries were the quirks of the servant’s humanity, those shadings and castings of performance that might tempt the seller’s selfish eye. But Godurn dealt solely to the advantage of his master, leaving neither mark nor pattern of his own desires on his dealings

At evening’s end, the fort and the scattered huts of the peasants hung formless from the support of the stars. Only two earthly lights shone, on in the Lord Antipater’s chamber of records, the same self-devouring lamp transferred from the accounting hall, the other in Godurn’s room of rough-hewn wood atop the guard tower.

The Lord Antipater plucked from history the names and deeds of his ancestry, a shepherd race which had descended from the mountains to the plains, from pastoral solitude to domination through the passivity of the lowland populace. Godurn stood before his window opening, gazing into the night, the forms of the stars muted by the glow from behind.

The following morning was one of fitful weather. Clouds bedeviled the sky in patches thick and thin. Errant breezes stirred the leaves of a thicket, left the next untouched, rustled a third. The threat of rain advanced and receded, each change announcing itself with fleeting certainty.

Denugar paced the fields, unconcerned with the doings of sky or winds. He studied the disposition of the furrows and the craft of the tillings. A subtle malaise had beset the industry of the peasants, as it had invaded the body of their lord. Their lives were in the period of unwinding, that time when the methods which were yesterday sufficient begin to lose their hold on those who employ them. The blame would come to be laid on the methods themselves, leading to their abandonment and the last stages of decomposition 

Stretching before Denugar, the furrows were poorly laid. In five years or ten, the untamed and unnutritious cousins of strawberries and squash would invade and overcome the rows. Should Godurn be bested, the holdings of the Lord Antipater would become as a swamp. As Denugar knew this, so he knew also that, in the revolution of time, one land failed and another took its place, until the first recovered from its fallow phase and rose fertile once more. It happened again and again. This repetition did confine his sympathies.

Clouds fled and the sun burst forth to shatter his musings. Before the gladness of the shimmering grain his confidence in the transience of life wavered. A force arose from the ground to stand against his sedition. In response, he shook his great head with exuberance and snapped a fence post clean at its base with one blow of his fist. His renewed flame was fully alight. The battle would be monumental.

It began not in Godurn’s normal sphere of duty, but within the courts and official chambers of the Kingdom. Grievances filed in the names of peasants and villagers, tidy legal documents signed with the seal of a wolf holding a rabbit loosely in its jaws, charged the servant of the Lord Antipater with acts of willfulness and oppression, the withholding of fair wages, and the destruction of the hovels of the poor. They begged the King for redress and demanded of the Lord Antipater compensation.

The Lord was forced to lay aside his books of accounting and turn to the answering of summonses. In the twilight of his lucidity, he probed the edges of these parchment compilations but could not enter into their substance. His mind rested instead on the single thought that he must keep his name, the truest of his possessions, unblemished before the attacks rained upon it. Insofar as the resources of his mind could be directed to this cause, so was the range of Godurn’s duties narrowed.

The white robe was now seen seldom in the fields and marketplace, but often in legal chambers, where the servant placed before the judges the written depositions of the Lord Antipater. The phrases of those depositions, textured by Godurn’s hand, blended fact and precedent in a fierce, inexorable logic. The judges, in whispered consultation, sought terms that would free them of the accusing presence of the defendant’s minion. In sonorous dignity they championed the rights of the peasantry but returned no guilty verdict.

Denugar cared naught for the verdicts. His purpose was not to humble Godurn before the courts, but to set doubts adrift in the mind of the Lord Antipater, the one being to whom Godurn owed fealty. The Lord, however, circling ever closer to a stasis at his center, could no longer view beyond the confines of his being. When Denugar saw that the confidence of the Lord in his servant was not shaken, he released his hold, and the legal attack fell to disarray

As summer passed and the harvest progressed, a series of calamities befell the land. Shocks of grain burst while standing in the field, and the wheat blew beyond regathering. The greatest of the Lord’s stone granaries, rent top to bottom, shuddered like a sickened beast, then toppled to ruin. Within the fort itself, a ravenous fire devoured the Lord’s stores and ate into the hand-hewn beams. When the flames had been quenched under Godurn’s direction and the tired vassals sat to consume a massive concoction of stew ladled out by the resentful cook, a second fire invaded their bodies. They screamed and retched, clawing their ragged garments to shreds. Some died in torment.

The Lord Antipater called Godurn before him. The increasing tortures of his domain had induced a rare surge of illumination within the cobwebbed chambers of his brain. The words of the wolf-sealed documents returned to him, their accusations ringed with cold fire. He did not answer the greeting of his servant. In his eyes lay a sorrow wide and deep, the grief of one whose trust has run aground. He lay before Godurn a list written in his own untamed scrawl, the words like tangled skeins of wool.

It set forth four duties of a steward: to oversee the handling of grain; to inspect the granaries and pass on their soundness; to maintain the watch within the fort; to provision the kitchen. When Godurn had read, the Lord Antipater placed his fingers on the books of accounting, indicating the figures of income, ever reduced, and the figures of loss, ever inflated. He uttered a sigh so deep within his being that the dim lamp trembled, then lowered his eyes and gave the gesture of dismissal.

Godurn paced the passageways of the fort in daily routine as he had for the two decades and more of his stewardship, but never before had the iron circlet weighed so heavy on his wrist.

Yet as the season of harvest wound to a close, the Lord Antipater grew again forgetful as his substance eroded, once more returning the greeting of his servant. At times he averted his eyes from Godurn’s fingers as they poured out their steady rhythm above the tabletop, but he could not uncover what drowned memories led him to do so.

Once more, Denugar saw his plan fall short of intention. More insidious strategies were demanded of him.

The domain proceeded into winter at a calm and predetermined pace, its physical outlines dimmed but otherwise familiar. In the faces and attitudes of those he encountered, however, Godurn met peculiar transformations. On a cold, clear morning, as the sun burned frost from the stubble, he found young Slat the groom hunkered in the corner of a stall, nodding and gibbering to himself and clawing his fingers through the mare’s great stools. At sight of Godurn, he threw his arms across his eyes and shrank as from a mad dog. As the servant strode swiftly to the fort in search of the herbalist, he was accosted by the brother gardeners, who tugged at his flowing sleeves and complained in shrill, chittering voices of the weather, the state of the earth, and the quality of their implements. They scampered around him like excited puppies, blind to the force of his person.

The herbalist, having examined the groom, reported that Slat had shown no abnormal symptoms and had spoken with great enthusiasm of his earlier meeting with Godurn. The gardeners, when visited on the servant’s regular rounds, behaved in their usual fashion, showing no inclination to make complaint.

So it went throughout the season. Wherever Godurn traveled, the behavior of those long known to him was turned upon its head, then righted again as inexplicably. One day the cook would command the kitchen in the petty ill-humor of old age, the next he would squat on his stool like a cornered cat, hissing and spitting, threatening Godurn with the jagged remnants of his fingernails. Without preamble, the keeper of the wardrobe would divest himself of his hauteur to tell rambling tales and pantomime pointless japes, giggling into his fists like a schoolboy. Even market vendors shed their awe, snickering at the white-robed form as he passed, later returning to their duties with misted eyes, as though emerging from daydream.

None but Godurn took note of these changes, and those in a position to test his observations refuted them at every turn. He began to find himself divested of that trust in his senses which before had been absolute. The grinding repetition of his duties and the continual diminution of the land was echoed by the growing hollow within him. His hands lost their rhythmic containment, hanging forgotten from stooped shoulders. His firm stride wavered to a shamble.

The vendors in the marketplace, released from Denugar’s previous arcane spells, dealt Godurn damaged goods from beneath their tables, and their mockery, which sorcery had previously placed upon their lips, now came unforced. Those who bore Godurn affection hung their heads before the sight of his robe, spotted and filthy as the bed linen of an incontinent drunkard. Others, the mighty who had stood aside from fear in better days, put forth their great square feet to trip him up.

Meanwhile, the ruin of the domain accelerated. Fences sundered and fell; horses roamed the highways, looking up at travelers in idle speculation while munching weeds that rose high against their forelegs. With spring half gone, the fields still lay fallow; Millers ground the last of the old grain and saw no hope of new. The peasantry, unstrung by the dissolution spreading from above, took themselves into neighboring lands, where they found neither home nor labor, but became a burden on the countryside.

In his hall of accounting, the Lord Antipater arose seldom from his chair, falling asleep across the books and fouling the untouched figures with the drool of his mouth. In waking, his wrinkled head, given way fully before the ravages of disease, rested upon his knuckles, as though without them it might tumble from his shoulders.

One day in early summer, Godurn stood before the Lord, empty of will, waiting his master’s pleasure. The Lord’s face bore a yellow cast and his eyes reflected nothing, so far had they retreated into their sockets. Godurn stood in the silence of the room until that silence brought the realization that no breath issued from the Lord’s slack mouth. The servant reached forward and touched the shoulder of the aged hulk, a gesture he had never before employed. His master’s fisted hands slid slowly from under his head and the body eased sideways, sweeping the blackened lamp to destruction. The Lord Antipater lay upon the wide-boarded floor, vast in body but empty of soul.

A wild grief welled up in Godurn and overflowed, turning the dusty leaves of ivy like a passing wind. Though bound by oath to one whose hold on life and reason had diminished daily, the bonds were those of love far more than duty, and thus transcended even the absence of life. He looked one last time upon his Lord, the face not unlovely in the lethargy of cessation, then descended to the courtyard by the massive timbers of the grand staircase, his days of servitude prematurely ended.

At the portcullis he woke the guard who sat napping at his post The man grumbled at the interruption and prepared to sink back into doze. But when he looked upon Godurn, he saw the face of former days and drew himself to attention, filled with trepidation and relief, for if the steward of the domain was now as he had been, the old standards must be met, and with these standards came pride of service. He wound the portcullis to its highest and stood with spear stiff at his side.

The death of his Lord lifted a veil from Godurn’s understanding. He saw that a chain of logic and purpose linked the mysterious occurrences of recent seasons. The servant, not the Lord, had been the focus of a malice at work within the domain. If this be so, then the wasting of both land and Lord had been hastened with cold indifference, as when a hunter despoils crops in the pursuit of game.

He walked the long-idle lands, forcing a path through rising weeds. He studied the fields, untilled, deserted by agriculture. At the granary, he shifted aside the rubble, stone by stone, exposing a crack leading downward to a row of holes, each holding loosely a wooden peg. Those pegs had once been tight, doused with water to expand until the rock should sunder. A wrath rose in Godurn, leaping higher than the treble-storied walls of the fort. It burned clean his sullied robe, its whiteness rending the air. He acknowledged the force of chaos ranged against him and went forth to meet it.

Denugar, steadfast midway up the hill, saw Godurn approaching with the unfettered gait of a royal messenger, and his veins swelled with the ecstasy of true battle. No form had he wished to meet that day but he who inhabited the resurrected robe of white. To test the reflexes of his adversary, he wound the string of his desire about the core of his determination and hurled down upon Godurn a sphere of power that seared the grasses beneath its flight. Godurn threw his arms high, then flashed them downward. At the spot determined by his pointing fingers, the ethereal ball landed and rebounded, sailing high above his head to pass into the fields, scorching a path of sterility across the ground.

Denugar strained to contain his joy at this opposition, the first of merit in a millennium. Again and yet again he gathered forces from the earth and air and directed them upon Godurn, at each trial doubled and redoubled, but Godurn turned them aside, converting the energy of their launch to his advantage.

Thwarted, Denugar shed the raiment of power and took guile instead for his cloak. He descended the hill, his face open in the sun, the broadness of his body bidding Godurn receive him as a brother. Amity flowed from him as honey from a tipped jar, suffusing the space until the nodding heads of Queen Anne’s lace begged reconciliation and grasshoppers leapt in delight. Denugar curved an arm to enfold the white-clothed form, but Godurn, hands at shoulder level, deflected the advance without stepping aside.

As soaking waters leech the bitterness from kale, a true warmth invaded Denugar to flush its semblance. His calves relaxed, ease replaced tenseness in the sheathed muscles of his back. His desire for competition threatened to doze in comity. Only at the last instant did he snatch it back from slumber, blinking through his amazement. Never before had his own deception been turned back upon him.

He reassessed the enemy before him and his hackles rose, as though the fur he wore enclosed an animal roused from hibernation. The arousal blossomed into a spring awakening, releasing forgotten knowledge from the locked caskets of his fledgling days, enchantments and magical arts fallen into disuse through too-easy victories. Denugar glowed like a volcano come to life, and the air about him shook, set spinning like a dervish. The offensive returned to the man in fur, and he drew forth a long-neglected spell of domination.

In tones of thunder he spoke it. The hill trembled and the portcullis crashed down before the terrified guard. But no mere words could overthrow Godurn. From service he had learned acceptance. From the befuddlement of recent days he had learned what darkness lies beyond acceptance And from the death of his liege he had learned how the two can be bound together in destruction. Now the period of his learning was complete. He stood forth in full mastery, possessed of all knowledge he could afford to receive. As his robe of white had nullified the stains upon it, so the vastness of his silence encompassed the spell hurled against him and rendered it voiceless.

Even as the words fled his mouth, Denugar saw the scope of his irretrievable error. He howled the pain of his defeat, and the sound wracked even Slat, far off in his stable, where he clutched the mare’s corded neck for comfort.

Head bowed, Denugar moved to stand below Godurn, then followed him up the rising road. As they approached the fort, Godurn signaled for the portcullis to be raised anew, and they entered the stockade, passing the rotting outbuildings of carpenters and tinkers and through the echoing chambers. They stopped at the hall of accounting, where the Lord Antipater lay, he too silent, now and forever. Denugar lifted the great body as if it were a thing of parchment and carried it to the burial grounds of the Lord’s ancestors.

Once the ceremonies of death’s passage had been completed, they returned, and Godurn took the seat of the Lord Antipater before the stained pages which told their tale of decline. Denugar placed down a new lamp, its chimney spotless. It burned late for many a night, until the renewal of the land had been assured.

In the years to follow, the domain arose again, its fields tall with grain, its orchards heavy with apples and peaches. The great granary was rebuilt, to yet grander scale. The blacksmith sweated pools in his smithy to shoe the many horses and keep in good temper the plows. When the keeper of the wardrobe expired, his body was wound in yards of silk from his storeroom, and Slat the groom was promoted in his place.

Denugar, his skirt of fur replaced by a loose-fitting habit of earthen tones, strode the roads and byways, seeing to the maintenance of the domain. The pain of his defeat no longer burned, replaced by the recognition of duty and the hope of completion. Now, perhaps the number of his days, like those of all others on earth, would be confined, and the suppressed terror of an unimpeded eternity extinguished.

On his return to the hall, he reported to the land’s master, who spoke no greeting but inscribed his wishes in a clear, decisive hand. Behind the master, on a hook placed at the glance of a standing man, hung the iron bracelet of slavery, a reminder of the resplendent preamble of his servitude.

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Dinner time staples

Dinners at Baring St. tended to get quite interesting when we had guests over, which we did fairly often. In their teens, Ben and Erin would bring some of their entourage by and we’d have a fine time swapping absurdities and making obscene comments about the food. 

Once the weekly communal house meals with the Tilleys dissolved (too many conflicting schedules), we set up a rotating weekly dinner with our friends Deb and Dave. Their daughter, Bessey, was best friends with Cait as they moved from toddlerhood into pre-teens.

Deb, a poet, taught English at Penn; Dave was a photographer, real estate agent and golf referee (a combination I have not encountered elsewhere before or since). These dinners had a stronger intellectual cast without getting righteously boring.

Other guests were all over the place, and none moreso, of course, than Jim Knipfel. He and I always tended to get gigglingly, then howlingly drunk. But it usually took awhile, with a fair amount of food going down before and during the howls. 

In those Jim-soaked days, Linda was director of the Powelton Mantua Educational Fund, a local after-school program for non-latchkey kids. They did all sorts of neat things in the couple hours before their parents picked them up, much if not most of it artistic. A tall lovely blonde young lady, Jeannie, taught the art programs and later became lead teacher. (When PMEF closed down a couple years later, Linda made the mistake of asking me what I’d most miss about the place: “Jeannie in shorts.”)

Before Jeannie took the lead, the classes were overseen by LCH (let’s call her) Rachel, a brunette of equal pulchritude but oddly reticent demeanor. She seemed forthcoming yet at the same time … not … quite … in there. And she blinked compulsively, something you’d think would be neither here nor there in conversation but that I found peculiarly unsettling.

One time Rachel and her husband had to go to some meeting or other and asked if their son LCH Dan, Cait’s age, could stay with us till they could pick him up. Fine and dandy. Jim was coming over for dinner too. Finer and dandier. 

Aside: Rachel’s husband was some sort of minister: a missionary? His thin face held a thinner, pinched mouth. I think he found it difficult to open it wide. He shook hands with purpose and looked at life in a very purposeful way. Did this somehow relate to Rachel’s blinking? Dan was a nice kid, but had the look of someone seeing himself as continually being very close to doing something that would be considered wrong.

I can’t remember how much I’d had to drink, but we were all having a  jolly time, Jim slowly approaching blotto. Dan seemed slightly puzzled by our whole menage. Somehow – I don’t know how it came up – we got off onto a discussion of… not exactly self-harm, but doing ridiculous things to our bodies. 

Jim brought up his sometime habit of stapling his head. So of course I had to hunt up our stapler. I brought it down from my writing hutch and handed it to him. He was still wearing his trademark black hat at the table, so he removed it and stapled his head.

He offered the device to anyone else who wanted to join the fun. Linda isn’t into self-mutilation, the kids were off-limits and I was too busy laughing to the point of choking. Cait, as near as I can remember, took it with her usual amused response to Jim. But Dan’s amazement spread across his face like a cosmetic application. I can’t recall anything he said, but his normal worried reticence blossomed. Jim felt encouraged and applied a few more cranial staples, not one of which, I’m glad to say, pierced his skull. (He and I share a rhinoceros upper bone structure.)

Linda was unsurprisingly mortified. Here, as both Rachel’s boss lady and, at the moment, caretaker of her child, she had allowed Dan to be spectator at a remarkably unChristian ritual. Well, when Rachel and minister hubby returned, they quickly learned what the dinner entertainment consisted of. Rachel tried hard to force a smile that didn’t successfully materialize. I was still giggling. Hubbister – oh, that pinched mouth could have cut a slice from the curtains (if we’d had curtains).

I don’t recall that they ever again came by our place. Or that Jim ever again stapled his head in my presence. Dammit.

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Ginny

I’m pretty much the last of my generation. I was the youngest, so that’s as it should be. Both my much elder brothers are dead, all my cousins, so far as I know. Three days ago, brother Rod’s widow, Ginny, died at age 94.
She was fading to the end, not dreadfully, but mind and body had been exiting for awhile. The funeral’s on for next Monday, Linda and my 42nd weeding anniversary. That’s OK with me, a hidden tribute.
I’m listening to Tom Waits’ “Mule Variations” while I’m writing this, and I’m crying. It’s less for Ginny than the beauty of a damned near perfect album. I’m that way with music.
Ginny wouldn’t have liked Waits (though Waits would have recognized her). She was a classical-music person, but I see them as alike in a way – both beautiful, both who they are/were without excuse or explanation.
Rod didn’t like classical music (he’d get up at 3 in the morning to sing “Danny Boy” in his upstairs room), but he loved Ginny enough to leave her off at the Academy of Music in Philly to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra while he wandered the downtown streets. And at Christmas in the early years, he’d stand beside her to sing Handel’s “Messiah” in the Powelton Episcopal church. (Rod, like me, had no religious belief or inclination, but he had an enormous loving humanity).
Ginny was a tiny woman, well under four feet, but not a small person. If there was anyone who didn’t like her I never met this emotional reprobate. When you say someone is “sweet” (especially a woman), it flashes an unfortunate mushy vision. Ginny wasn’t like that. She broadcast love without making an embarrassing mess of it, and she didn’t bother loving those who didn’t deserve it.
She was beautiful in a contained way. When Rod discovered her, I was in my early teens. You didn’t see much of women’s legs in the ‘50s, but in the summer she graced me (and everyone else) with shorts. Well.
With Rod she did all the cooking (it was the way for most back then). Rod only made chocolate milk and coffee, which he timed with extravagant attention to his watch. She cooked him kidneys and whale steaks that she would never eat but never complained, despite the smell wafted to her.
They were married for 57 years by my computation. I know of no major or extended conflict. The nearest strain came during their move from their old (1825, roughly) mill-hand house in Rose Valley to their much larger place – both house and yard – in Mendenhall (an unheralded upper middle class suburban sidetrack near Kennett Square, itself noted for mushrooms and Longwood Gardens, a Dupont estate and tourist designation).
At the time, Rod complained of Ginny never settling on any of the territories they looked at. OK, that’s because she loved the Rose Valley house and didn’t want to move. Rod wanted to grow roses without restraint. I think he wanted that more than anything else in the world (even the keeping of snakes, his first love). As they searched, he rejected any house that was not accompanied by an expanded yard that could harbor innumerable rose bushes, while Ginny rejected any house where the doors were falling off the kitchen cabinets (that never registered with Rod).
So maybe their Mendenhall house was a compromise. I have to make an aside here, and I apologize for interjecting myself too far. That house rouses the most eviscerating hatred of a structure I’ve ever reacted to… the most poorly designed, most abominably constructed house I’ve ever set foot it. I was about to go off on an architectural tear, but it’s the wrong place. Quiet!
Ginny, in the last years (13 years after Rod’s death), every evening sat in the same place, where she faced, across the room, the TV or the array of those who who had come to visit, whether on the couch to her oblique left, or the chairs and rockers dragged forward from the sliding glass doors behind her, where, when no one was there, she watched and tabulated the appearance of birds.
Rod loved birds in a way I’ve never mastered. After retiring from Sun Oil R&D, he’d sit for hours at those sliding doors and document the avians he’s seen and in what number. He and our brother Vic placed bluebird nesting boxes along trails in an arboretum near them.
About three years ago (four?), Ginny invited my daughter Morgan and Morgan’s daughter Sammy to some live with her. Morgan, an archaeologist long established in Hawaii, had become disenchanted with the “awayness” of Hawaii and now had a job that could be consummated online, so she accepted. And supported Ginny in those last, declining years.
Ginny resisted the reality of decline, which put a burden on Morgan and Sam (who picked up much of the cooking, always one of her specialties) that I don’t think Ginny quite realized.
When not doing her archaeo-related work, Morgan was trying to juggle between Ginny’s assumptions of how things should be, medically and otherwise, and the realities of a lovely woman on the way out. I don’t know how Morgan did it, how she has continued to do it (now aided by her sister Erin, who has flown in from Arizona to help settle the after-effects of death). She brought in outside support that Ginny had resisted, found relief for Ginny’s constant arthritic pain that had never been treated properly, set up in-home hospice care that I can only vaguely comprehend.
Ginny lived through much more negativity than I would hope to: the death of her parents at an early age (car crash? – I’ve been clear), being raised by a domineering grandmother (a woman who curled my toes), the death of her only child (Roddy looked and acted like Christ should have) and Rod’s death from heart failure. But she never gave up – though I’m not sure whether “not giving up” is accepting.
Morgan now has a monstrously ill-conceived house to live in (OK, I shouldn’t say that, but I will) with Sam. Lind and I will meet with those who cared most about Ginny on Monday.
Did I love Ginny? I think so. I’m not good at loving people, even those close to me. Most who know me don’t realize this, not sure why. But Ginny was as much of a wonderful human being as any of us can be and so few of us are. That should be enough.
In “Georgia Lee,” Tom Waits asks, “Why wasn’t God watching, why wasn’t God listening, why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee?”
No, I don’t believe in God. But he was there for Ginny.

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Demons of the Thinking Mind

Linda and I have been watching a Netflix series called “How to Change Your Mind,” about the resurgence of interest in using psychedelics to reverse or alleviate various mental aberrations such as OCD, depression, anxiety, etc. Last night, they were covering MDMA (Ecstasy), interviewing various experimental participants who, in the main, had quickly – and radically – discovered love for humanity and the world.

This sort of announcement, much as I support the use of psychedelics, always sets me off. Why? Getting ready to slough off into sleep (my hour best suited to thinking clearly), I decided to try to pinpoint my response. 

Mostly, I thought at first, it’s the woo-woo aspect of tossing the word “love” around like a verbal whiffle ball. But looking deeper, I realized that I just don’t want to “love” the world. What I want is to understand the world, to know it. 

All right, we’ll never quite encompass “reality,” because we can’t agree on what that term means. But I’d like to great as close to an understanding as possible. Because to me, knowledge is the ultimate, perhaps the only worthwhile justification of existence. If we’re here for any reason (though of course we aren’t), it’s to know – to examine, discover and use, in whatever way, the basic construction of life and the universe.

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A suggestions for a banner for the Pennsylvania senate election, directed at dear Dr. Oz: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”

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I’ve had a recurring fantasy of the Hare Khrisnas cavorting down the street (“like drunker marionettes,” as a fellow carpenter once described them), singing, “Horrid Christians, horrid Christians, horrid Christians, horrid Chris-is-tians…”

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Confusing signs put up along the roads up here, far in advance of actual roadwork: “Fresh Oil and Chips” and “No Pavement Markings.”

In the first case, I’d like to like to change the signs to either “Fresh Fish and Chips” or “Fish Oil and Chips.” As to the second: Should we also note, “No Elephants on Road”? And what might the unlikely term “pavement markings” convey to someone from out of state? I picture a vehicle hauling a 10-foot-diameter revolving drum that prints “FUCK YOU” on the roadway every (roughly) 31.416 feet.

*   *   *

I recall the sign above the road as you drive into Philadelphia International Airport:

“Ceiling height 13’ 8” ”

Beware low-flying planes?

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Why was the vacuum cleaner invented?

Because nature abhors a dirty vacuum.

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T-shirt suggestion for MAGA supporters who advocate revolution: 

“I am revolting!”

 *   *   *

A recent dream: I’m not me in this dream, though I’m the interior character, seeing the world from the inside as a personal self. Possibly it’s a scripted episode and I’m an actor? I seem to be a Black man. Some harm has been done to my daughter (the harm was noted in the dream, but the early parts are lost in the mist so I can’t recall what it was), and I have to confront/attack the person responsible. I go to this person’s house or workplace and viciously attack. I’m attacking a woman, though I think the harm was done by a man. By the end, she has become a white tiger and I’m breaking or trying to break the tiger’s hind legs.

Looking back, I don’t see any connection to my current life, any meaning in the actions, or even any elements springing from the preceding day’s activities, which is unusual for me. What, if anything, is it telling me?

*   *   *

Almost every poll or questionnaire I’ve seen drawn up to determine what people are thinking concerning current situations not only includes obvious inherent biases, but its subtle arrangements (the sequence of questions, the terms used, their grammar, etc.) would appeal differently to differing group or individual assumptions.

So… thought I, applying whichever advanced AI languages or algorithms social media have been using, couldn’t most of these polls or questionnaires be fed into an AI to identify at least the most obvious biases? You can’t predict every ridiculous reaction that every individual will have, but at least eliminate the most glaring errors.

*   *   *

I don’t drink coffee (can barely stomach the smell), but for those of you who do, one of my rare social/corporate suggestions:

Boycott Starbucks! 

Their anti-union and anti-worker positions have become truly repulsive – not only firing workers for unionizing, but even closing outlets that support union activities. They’ve become as vicious and evil as the coal industry and robber barons of the 19th century, a truly trash outfit.

Tea’s marginally better for you anyway.

*   *   *

Any and all of the above depends on my and your personal outlook. We are each separate entities, and there’s damned little generalization of outlook that pertains across the human race or its subdivisions, however you slice them: not by race, by sex, by gender, by religion, by occupation (or lack thereof), by national origin, by previous condition of ineptitude.

There are statistic leanings within all of these groups, but how far (and even which way) we each lean is individually determined, usually by factors we can’t fully identify.

*   *   *

Now let me get tack to whatever the hell it is I should be doing, before I turned (retch!) philosophical.

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Stumbling toward a vision of reality

Perhaps my most lasting experience during my term at Stanford in 1961 was attending a lecture on DNA by Arthur Kornberg, a 1959 Nobel Prize winner. I’d heard vague stirrings of DNA while at Penn but paid it almost no attention: The wretchedness of my chem and bio courses in high school (endless balancing of chemical equations in the first, tortured Latin nomenclature in the latter) had so completely blasted my interest in the study of the structured world that I managed to graduate from Penn without taking a single course in science or math.

That wasn’t easy to do in those days of heaped requirements, but I was a clever lad: In my freshman year I enrolled in symbolic logic, simply because it wasn’t mathematical. I skipped the rest of physical science by sidling through lots of anthropology.

Along with his lecture at Stanford, Kornberg brought out a big physical mockup of the helical DNA structure. I was riveted. So this was what biology is really about! I’d never realized that scientists actually did that sort of thing.

Though it took me a couple years after my return to Philly to get around to it, that awakening led directly to a summer (1964?) when I enrolled in catch-up courses at Penn: one term of biochem, two of organic chem (I was a disaster in the lab) and two of calculus. I aced them all with ease.

The realization of all this chemical stuff happening inside me affected my comprehension of my body. I could feel the blood coursing in my veins, listen in on what my neurons were muttering. 

At someone’s behest (probably my own), I toured the Richards towers at Penn, an architectural triumph by architect Louis Kahn, dedicated to biological research. Kahn had created a superb clutch of buildings but had shown little sense of the needs of experimenters. Technicians had to plaster the windows with aluminum foil to keep out the ravening sun, and much of the lab work overflowed into the hallways. It had the kind of chaotic, dynamic ethic I love.

At that time, I was working for little more than minimum wage as a reshelver at the Penn book store, and I schlepped from one place to another in ragged clothes. Yet, despite my wobbly-at-best background, I applied personally to Dr. Robert E. Davies, who headed the molecular biology department, for entry into his program.

To my everlasting amazement, based solely on my interest, he accepted me. Even in today’s looser academic times, that just doesn’t happen. Back then, it was close to inconceivable.

After a week of agonizing, I told him I had decided to stay at the bookstore (which I later came to run). On the surface, that’s inexplicable. Here was my one chance in life to become a nameable success, and I dumped it like a bowl of succotash. 

Maybe I realized that my mercurial and dilettantish approach to existence would not have worked in the structured environment of academic science. I have drive, yes, but a faulty gear shift. On the road of life, I’ve taken many rattling, unbanked turns.

But my interest in science has never flagged since; in fact, it’s expanded over time: I especially want to find out how my mind works (or doesn’t) and why. 

Some of the questions and observations that have come up along the way:

• If I wander ten feet off the main path in our limited Sullivan County woods – with which I have a 20-year daily acquaintance – then swivel perhaps 45 degrees, I become completely disoriented. Other folks I’ve known could be thrown in a padlocked gunny sack and still tell you which way was north.

• My eyes are crossed, which leaves me with double vision and little depth perception. I can’t lay a clean line of spackle or wallboard joint compound because it requires the ability to visually identify a 1/8 inch-thick applied layer. (I’ve watched Polish plasterers lay perfect surfaces for hours.)

• Preparing dinner in the kitchen, I reach for a knife on the magnetic holder and ram my hand into the wall. 

• I drop things I think I have a firm grip on and blunder into doorways.

What the hell is this all about?

Granted, none of it makes much difference in the broader context of life. For crap’s sake – some people have both legs shorter than the other! But for me, such personal oddities have two far-reaching consequences:

First, they send me into towering rages.

Second, they quiz me as to what combinations of physical traits and neural misalignments link all these errors and deficiencies?

Let’s consider the rages: As my family know all too well, the slightest impediment to achieving what I want to accomplish brings on a profanity-laced explosion. There’s usually no latency between cause and effect – not a tenth of a second lapse between asinine error and response – so no time to “control” myself; some inoffensive obstacle gets in my way and a Krakatoa of anger balloons like a mental airbag.

Our family doctor once suggested I may have Tourette syndrome. Listening to my repertoire of Anglo-Saxonisms and personalized bellows for annihilation, I might think so too – except that I don’t have the recurring facial tics or other physicalities that saddle Touretters. 

My wallpaper-peeling rants are almost never directed at someone else – it’s a magma of self-hatred overlaid by a lava-flow directed at the inanimate world: the hammer that mashed my thumb, the screwdriver that removed my knuckle-flesh, the awl that did it all.

And most of this biliousness is sung, a venomous litany set to patriotic tunes and old pop ditties, as though Lewis Carroll had burst into parodic vituperation while tumbling down a cliff.

So it’s become important to me to develop a profile of where and how my brain goes astray, in hopes that it might be helpful, not just to me, but to humanity in general – OK, not often “humanity in general.”

(Years ago, a young communal housemate on Baring St., one of the brightest people I’ve known, at age 13 described her even more brilliant younger brother as “physically stupid.” Yes. That identification fired all sorts of slumbering neurons in my head and has stuck with me.)

Most analyses of brain function have sprung from case studies of aberrant conditions, and with good reason: They’re like keys to the basement when you’re looking for a leak in the plumbing. Once you’ve found the leak, you can perhaps repair it, but more important, you’ve discovered where the pipes are, how they snake through the walls, and where they branch off. By the time you’ve turned off the flashlight, you’ve gained at least an understanding of your local water flow. In my case, I accumulated basic texts on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy and peripheral material on how the melded brain/mind/nervous system might work.

And when all that exhausts me, I liven myself up with forays into particle physics. Oh, I’m lousy at math (I could do that calculus, but I had not the least idea what it was good for), but I pretty much understand the abstractions.

I especially love the idea of infinite regression – one that most physicists and cosmologists seem to reject, if they consider it at all. The concept (well, my concept) is that there isno smallest particle or essential subdivision of existence.

Since the ancient Greeks, reality’s fundamental units has continually shrunk. Matter was first described as composed of four basic elements – earth, air, fire and water. Then Democritus added that there might be small, basic constituent units – which he termed “atoms.”

By the 19th century, as microscopes expanded the examination of the minute, cells were discovered and the equivalent of molecules posited.

But it wasn’t until the 20th century that we could seriously burrow into the “invisible,” breaking molecules into atoms, dividing atoms into a nucleus circled by electrons, splitting the nucleus into protons and neutrons, splintering the protons and neutrons into quarks.

String theorists go further, saying that all forms of physical stuff – from quarks on up – are manifestations of tiny vibrating filaments, threads so itty-bitty they make quarks look like King Kong. Do these strings really exist? That’s a long way from proof so far, but ain’t it amazing to us lay folk that anyone would think they might be the stop-the-presses groundwork of all physical reality?

But if we do suppose they exist, why should they be the smallest? The string theorists make reasoned arguments that their version of minutia lies at the final limit – just as did the champions of atoms, nuclei and quarks. What, if anything, is next?

One thing the particle physicists know for sure is that most of reality is… emptiness. Molecules consist of atoms looping around each other at a questioning distance. Atoms, often simplistically pictured as mini solar systems, feature itsy blips of electrons circling a nucleus way down there in 99.999999% empty space. 

Protons… Solid? Nope – three quarks, consorting. 

Quarks… Solid? You bet! – unless they’re higher manifestations of vibrating strings, sub-Barbie necklaces without necks to encircle.

Calculus developed within mathematics to manipulate the concept of the “limit,” an end-point that any numerical (or other) sequence tends toward but never quite grasps – just as numbers themselves or straight lines approach the end of the line but can’t reach the final station. (“Where’s your damned perspective going, Mr. Leonardo?”)

To me, the idea of ever-smaller smallness suggests that there may be no essential unit of construction, that every decreasing level of smallitude that we reach can be further re-smallified – again, and again, and again. Until it’s gone.

Looked at that way, the limit of “something” becomes… “nothing.” Which, philosophically, reframes the question of why there is something (the universe) rather than nothing (the unpopulated void). 

Over a thousand years ago, the Buddhists of India and Tibet crystalized a central tenet that translates roughly to “form is emptiness; emptiness is form” – active reality is the Janus-face of passive nothingness. These days, cosmology suggests that “something” exists because “nothing” can’t remain nothing; certain elementary particles pop out of nowhere, take a quick look around, then schlep back into non-existence, waiting for the next time.

Something is nothing; nothing is something… at the limit of infinity, one and the same.

Ain’t that somethin?

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Truth, consciousness and cats

I have an over-scrupulous outlook on truth: It should be absolute – with everyone, everywhere, everytime, especially between those you care about or most trust. 

But it can’t be. We’re all liars when we need to be, whatever the need may be – uplifting or repulsive, noble or degrading.

And necessarily so.

Think about what you would need to say – when, how and to whom – to be entirely, soul-baringly, unflinchingly honest at all times, in all situations. And think about the repercussions.

Most times we don’t want the truth, even when we think we do. We hold a candle to temporarily ward off the darkness we can’t name, and we think honesty will provide the absolving light.

Truth can seldom be formulated, far less articulated. There is no “truth”; so, no “reality.”

That can sound pretty negative, but it’s also a release. If there is no truth – no fully definable reality – we’re free to scratch our heads and decide that what we’re seeing today is as good as yesterday, as good as the often specious reasoning of Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Jesus, Buddha or your own personal religiopholosophic boogeyman.

Philosophy and religion have not found truth. So what will anything that I, you or today’s muckers proclaim look like tomorrow?

Yet, we have to start somewhere.

(Don’t we?)

*   *

Speaking of philosophy (which, for the  most part, I try not to do), I find the idea of “moral philosophy” so much hogwash. Morality is a concept which differs for each individual human being. I don’t see how you can define, codify or justify “morality” on a cosmic scale, and anything less is mind games. It’s easy enough to say “the psychopath (or the ex-president) has no morality,” but likely their unhinged obsessions occupy pretty much the same realm as “morality” does for the religious or the righteous.

*   *

I have a continuing feeling of personal waste and failure. I once thought I had immense potential, but its realization has peeked around the corner and glared at me.

*   *

Much of this segment goes back to a note I sent out months (years?) back, so if it sounds annoyingly repetitious, just toss it.

The study of consciousness is getting major play these days, especially in the area of neurophysiology. For some (most) researchers, it’s tightly, even inextricably, tied to the idea of “self.” In part that’s because they can’t agree on the exact definition of either term. But here’s a real-life experience that I think feeds into the discussion. 

Back at Baring St. in Philly, lying in the cuddling warmth of our marvelous clawfoot bathtub, I fell asleep. Some time later, something awoke. It presumable occupied my mind, but it was not me. It was pre-being devoid of all knowledge. It did not realize that it existed. It not only did not know what it was, it did not know that it was. It was raw consciousness having a fearing sense of wonder, but without a wonderer. 

Slowly, forms – feet, water, the faucets at the front of the tub – became, but they meant nothing because this pre-entity had no concept of meaning. In time it became a something, with separateness. Then knowledge, background and memory slowly crept in. In more time it became me.

In all of the science and literature that I’ve read, I’ve found no description close to what that pre-I experienced. It remains the only experience in my life that I see as unique to myself. Everything else I’ve felt, thought about, conceived of, has reference. This has none.

How can such a thing – such a non-thing – erupt… erasing, for a moment, all recognition of existence?  In its simplest outline, it was consciousness without a sense of self – which I otherwise think of as an impossibility.

*   *

I don’t personally believe in telepathy or other forms of mind-share. And I wish I did. In the ’60s I spent many months studying the writings of J.B. Rhine in the U.S. and Samuel Soal in the U.K., also some of the Russians who had been doing various forms of experiments to identify ESP (U.S.) or psi (U.K.) possibilities. It’s now usually lumped together as parapsychology. 

I wanted it all to be so. But by the end, I became convinced that it has no serious underpinnings. Rhine and his decks of patterned cards with symbols that his subjects were supposed to envision without seeing them seemed more silly that enlightening. And years later I read that Soal had so manipulated his data (much of it based on a single subject, Shackleton) that it verged on – or passed into – fraud.

But… (some of us have bigger buts than others) there’s Tigger, the world’s most wonderful cat. I call to him when he’s off wandering; he seldom answers or immediately appears, yet five minutes later I turn and find him standing a couple paces behind me. Nothing exceptional in that, really, by itself.

Yet, other times I’ll be thinking, for no good reason, “I wonder what Tigger is up to?” Again, a couple minutes later, he’s standing where he wasn’t. It happens often enough to seem eerie.

So, at least thee possible explanations:

1) he picks up a query from my mind and responds; 2) I pick up a query from his – I think about him because he was already thinking about me; 3) I ignore or discount the more numerous negative instances when he does not respond or appear.

I want the explanation to be one of the first two; I strongly suspect it’s the third. And it’s hard to do a statistical analysis based on the fluctuating maybes of the human and cat minds.

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A homage to (mostly) lost restaurants

The best part of car traveling for me is stopping at out-of-the-way restaurants. I like to eat most anything, most anywhere, and the more grease the better (though I’m fond of tofu too). 

But I actively dislike most fancy restaurants, maybe because they’re filled with fancy people I’d love to run over on a dark road where their BMW has broken down and their cell phone won’t work and that guy with the leather mask has started up his chainsaw …

The best for atmosphere are the tidy hometown counters where everybody knows who they are and what they’re doing, and top-of-the-grill American cooking is treated with the respect it deserves. The day my MacArthur genius grant rolls in, I’m going to buy me a halfass pickup and spend the rest of my allotted time dining at every last lunch counter in America.

The Tomte restaurant in Lindsborg, Kansas, didn’t quite qualify as offbeat. We found it in a book called Road Food that served as our unofficial guide on several summer trips. Lindsborg (which Linda remembers from her Kansas youth and is pronounced “Leensborg”) is a Swedish-themed town with “Välkommen” flags flapping off every signpost. But the Tomte (named after a Scandinavian elfish being) was a\the stamping ground for the home crowd – quiet, clean, walls tight with pictures of 2 or 3 generations of patrons.

Are you an oatmeal fiend? Me either. But when we ordered oatmeal at the Tomte we received a bowl with a side pitcher of cream. And cinnamon. When we ordered hash browns, they came as paper-thin, hand-grated potato slashes that descended directly from spud heaven. The Lindsborg website today indicates that the Tomte is no more. Disappointing – though thank god it didn’t live long enough to slump into a lesser incarnation.

Speaking of the best in breakfast potatoes, for home fries I nominate the Opera House in Dixfield, Maine. Originally an actual opera house built around 1905 by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (which I’ve always found a rather, well, odd name), it’s no longer a restaurant, but continues as a community rental space. Anyway, for the home fries, the spuds were boiled, diced and fried to fork tenderness without falling apart, along with paprika and I don’t know what else.

Reubens used to be a discovered treat, but nearly everybody serves them these days. A reuben is a sandwich of corned beef on rye with sauerkraut and (it better have) Russian dressing. I can’t recall when or why we stopped at Nick’s in North Adams, NY, off I-81. Likely we were on our way to visit Chris Hessert in Ontario. Nick’s reuben came open-faced, the rye grilled both sides and everything … perfect. No reflection on Sullivan County reubens – especially at the Barn, the Jolly Trolley or D&D’s – but some things just cannot be bettered. No sign of Nick’s continued existence.

Our first day on the road to our Bass Lake, Michigan, vacation one summer in the late ’80s or early ’90s, we struck it doubly rich: a good roadside lunch and a supper of major distinction. (As a nod to the latter – the Wrangler Restaurant – I should title this part of the recitation “Apologies to Ohio,” to make up for all the nasty things I’ve said about that flat, uninteresting, almost numbing state – whoops.)

First, we had lunch at Gail & Tina’s Place in Burnham, PA, off Route 322, one of the state’s most glorious roads, switching between majestic mountain superhighway to get-lost-at-the-wrong-turn-from-Main-Street squiggles in a hopscotch, crazy-quilt pattern. (I’ve read that a lot of the fun part has now been ironed flat.)

We picked G & T’s for our usual three reasons: It wasn’t a fast-food hole, the parking strip was crowded with aging pickups – and gut reaction. A low-slung shack painted federal blue, it made a statement without caring too much. Inside, the tables and benches were put together from standard two-by-sixes, selectively scorched, then polyurethaned to a glassy sheen.

My large, excellent burger was a bit overcooked for my unAmerican tastes – when I bite, I like to hear the bull bellow. Linda’s hot roast beef and gravy with fries was tops. And Caitlin, thank god, ordered only half a hoagie. The whole thing could have relieved famine in Somalia. There wasn’t any single thing special about Gail & Tina’s, but all the aspects together – atmosphere, food, service, prices – reclined in sublime balance.

Later that day, we took Exit 14 (Rte. 5) from the Ohio Turnpike. A large motel, crouching behind the curve of the exit, looked abandoned in the middle of an acre of grass. Asked about where to get supper, the clerk suggested “the Wrangler, up by the Marathon gas station.” I zipped past the Marathon without seeing anything, but Linda spotted a movable-letter sign set way back from the road – “Home Cooking Restaurant Open 7 Days.” Nothing about any Wrangler.

We found an unadorned cube tacked onto the left rear corner of the station, made of those cinderblocks with hunks jutting out to provide “texture.” Inside, it was fiercely ugly, the ceiling 12 feet high and lost in shadows, the end wall grasping five small wooden shelves, some with uninteresting bits of pseudo-antiques, others empty.

I liked it immediately. There’s ugliness and ugliness: There’s the unforgivable corporate non-personality of a CVS or Toys R Us – bland hideousness ballooned into terminal insult. There’s also the  forgivable (if creepy) ugliness of places without a smidgen of aesthetic taste that accrue useless objects that hem them in as they grow old.

Finally – and rarely – there’s the coordinated ugliness of a place where the occupiers have refused to prettify a bad architectural deal, allowing the personality of its inhabitants to provide character and warmth. Character and warmth suffused the Wrangler. Greetings, cross-talk and well-wishing slithered from table to table in an anaconda of joyousness.

We sat at the counter, facing the grill. The gods of road food must have inspired our choice. Little things seemed so idiosyncratic that I thought we had wormholed sideways. My Lipton’s teabag was lifted from a form of dispenser I’d never seen before and can’t describe, and my tea was served with both a cup of hot water and one of those little metal pots holding scalding water for a second cup. Gallon pitchers of some dark liquid – coffee? syrup? – stood near one end of the counter, covered with shrink wrap.

And my god, the prices: $4.39 for two pork chops, green beans, home fries and a roll. How could anyone, even 35 years ago, make a profit on that? The chops were thin but grilled not five seconds over or under. (The beans were reduced to Midwestern moosh, as always. Ah well.) For dessert, Linda got a bodacious slice of supreme chocolate cream pie. But everything paled before the home fries: the largest quantity and the second-best I’ve ever eaten (next to the Dixfield Opera House).

The Wrangler’s cook, an overweight woman in shorts, kept to an almost metronomic personal rhythm. She plopped the home fries – pre-boiled and smashed into such tiny pieces I mistook them at first for onions – onto the grill and poured a dollop of oil directly into them. Then she stirred and turned them with the surety and concentration of a Zen master. She didn’t just slap the chops and grilled sandwiches like bad children, she levered them up and placed them precisely where they ought to be. I spent the whole meal smiling at her quiet, confident intensity.

Finally (for this episode of the Gustatory Roundup), there’s the Antler Bar in Pentwater, Michigan – the only place in that lovely little tourist town with food worth eating. I’d gotten the wet burrito in the past. This time, eating with our friends Nan and Will, we ordered chicken and steak fajitas. Caitlin got the nachos with cheese (hold the jalapeños).

If you like your Mexican mouth-singeing hot, you might be disappointed. But the balance of spicing was perfect, the proportions gigantic (Cait doggy-bagged her nachos and lived on them for the next two days), the prices around $6 for most platters. And the pool table: In my first round of 8-ball in ten years, if Cait hadn’t scratched the 8, she would have had me.

Best yet, as of today, July 10, 2022, the Antler still lives. Go there – now!

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