5.05.2015

North American Anthology
of Pop Music Literature

Four:  "When They Ring Those Golden Bells," (Trad.)

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clements
You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St. Martin's
From a traditional English children's rhyme first printed in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, circa 1744. The tune of this rhyme is meant to be reminiscent of change ringing (which, per Wikipedia, is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns.  That is, the sound of St. Clements' bells make the sound of the words "oranges and lemons."
Throw the vandals in court
Say the bells of Newport
All will be well if-if-if
Cry the green bells of Cardiff
Why so worried, sisters, why?
Sang the silver bells of Wye
And what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney
Pete Seeger's folk song, "The Bells of Rhymney," utilized part of a 1938 poem by Welsh poet Idris Davies. That poem, "Gwalia Deserta," dealt with a Welsh coal mining disaster and a failed 1926 general strike. The poem moves the bells of London to South Wales.
You owe me a move
Say the bells of St. Groove
Come on and show me
Say the bells of old Bowie
When I am fitter
Say the bells of Gary Glitter
No one but you and I
Say the bells of Prince Far-I
The Clash's "Clash City Rockers" bases part of their song on these prior two, appointing the status of august old church bells to Birmingham's The Move and Australia's The Groove, as well as David Bowie, future pederast Gary Glitter, and the Jamaican deejay Prince-Far-I.  (Tommy Thumb: You ain't happy less you got one.) Some say this song borrows a guitar riff from The Who's "I Can't Explain."
Cause it ain't the glory days
With Bruce Springsteen
I'm not a virgin so I know
I'll make Madonna scream
You hate Michael and Prince
All the way, ever since
If their beats were made of meat
Then they would have to be mince
Rock the bells
Unless you were to find the 12" extended single version of this song, which emerged on Def Jam in 1985, you wouldn't actually hear any bells on LL Cool J's "Rock The Bells."
Ring them bells, ye heathen
From the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries
Cross the valleys and streams
For they're deep and they're wide
And the world on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride.
Bob Dylan's "Ring Them Bells" appears on his 1989 record Oh Mercy, following his born again period.  Dylan told the New Yorker in 1997: "Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like 'Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain' or 'I Saw the Light'—that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs."

5.01.2015

North American Anthology
of Pop Music Literature

Three:  John Henry and John Hurt

John Henry was a steel-drivin' man, swinging his nine-pound hammer to clear the C&O Railway's Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia.  Henry drove steel drills into the rock-side, making the holes for the explosives that will later blast that rock away.  In 1872, with work on the tunnel nearly completed, an agent for a steam drill company brought a drill to the tunnel for demonstration purposes.  John Henry took a lot of pride in his work and didn't care to have that machine taking the work of men like him.  A contest was set up between the steam drill and John Henry, a contest that lasted a day and a half.  John Henry had outpaced that steam drill, but it cost him his life.


Furry Lewis, "John Henry," recorded for Vocalion Records in Chicago, IL, 1927. 

But also: John Henry was prisoner #497 at the Virginia penitentiary, on work-release for the C&O, working beside the steam drills on the Lewis Tunnel that was underway near Millboro, VA, in 1873.  Henry swung his hammer so fast and powerful, the men of the line organized a race between the man and their best steam drill.  When he died in 1873-- his hammer in his hands -- he was buried in the sand along the rail lines running behind the prison.

Or even still: John Henry was born a slave in 1850, to P.A.L Dabney of Georgia.  Danny's son went on to be chief engineer for the C&W Railway, and John Henry went along as a freedman to work the Oak Mountain Tunnel near Leeds, AL, in 1887.  There, he was challenged to see if he could beat that ol' steam drill, and by now you know the rest of it.

John Henry, one of these men or none of them, becomes a story passed through folk tales and songs, something born native to this country, invested with a full history of slavery and conscription and labor, American exceptionalism in overalls.  A tale becomes a legend becomes a metaphor, eclipsing any attempt at biography.  A man ain't nothin' but a man, poor boy.

John Smith Hurt was born on July 3, 1893, or he was born on March 8, 1892.  He lived in rural Mississippi, where he taught himself to play guitar in a finger-picked style that syncopates like ragtime piano.  He worked as a farmhand put played his old-time music for house parties and country dances.  A fiddle playing friend won a contest to record for "race records" studio Okeh, and upon a recommendation, "Mississippi" John Hurt got an opportunity in 1928 to record his songs in Memphis and New York City.  He recorded 12 songs across six 78 rpm records.  They were a commercial failure -- the Great Depression soon led Okeh out of business and Hurt returned to his hometown to work as a sharecropper.

One of the songs Hurt recorded in 1928 was "Spike Driver Blues," which incorporates the legend of John Henry in both a real sense and as a kind of metaphor for what hard work's going to get you.  A spike driver sets the spikes on both sides of a rail, cementing train tracks in place, something of a different job than Henry was previously said to have. "Spike Driver Blues" and its variant, "Take This Hammer," both branch out from the tale of John Henry to something more -- reflecting on what John Henry means, perhaps.


Mississippi John Hurt, "Spike Driver Blues," Okeh Records, 1928.

In 1952, Moses Asch's Folkways records released The Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of 1927-1932 recordings assembled by bohemian collector Harry Smith.  Included on the three LPs in the box were two songs from John Hurt, "Frankie" (which we'll discuss another day) and "Spike Driver Blues."  The Anthology birthed the great folk revival of 50's and 60's, influencing new folk artists like Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan.

A fan of the Anthology, Tom Byrd Hoskins, became determined to find out what had become of Mississippi John Hurt.   After hearing a 1928 song of Hurt's ("Avalon Blues") that contains the lyric "Avalon, my home town / always on my mind," Hoskins scoured maps of Mississippi but could not find an Avalon there.  There was an Avalon in Georgia, but no John Hurt there.  Finally, an 1895 atlas showed a little hamlet of Avalon, later incorporated into Grenada, MS.  A girlfriend volunteered a car, and in 1963 the two of them tracked him down Hurt, then 72 or 73.  Hoskins and his associates gave Hurt a guitar, arranged a new home in Washington, D.C., and drew him out into the limelight of MacDougal and Bleeker Streets, the Newport Folk Festival, and television appearances on the Tonight Show and on Pete Seeger's 1965 PBS show Rainbow Quest:


"Spike Driver Blues," Mississippi John Hurt, Rainbow Quest (TV Show), 1965.

By 1966, John Hurt was wore out, tired of the bookings and attention, and wanted to go home.  He snuck away from celebrity and, back in Avalon on November 2, 1966, he died with a hammer in his hands.

There is no beating the steam drill, is there?  John Henry may have run the race against the machine, but it cost him his life.  So: steam drill wins. On the other hand, John Henry still exists in the American folk realm, while steam drills have gone the way of dynamite, locomotives, and large public works programs.  It is not uncomplicated: bringing a black man out of obscurity to perform for white bohemians and their obsession with authenticity and old, weird America.  The hammer brings the railroad, the railroad takes the people through, tuned out to electric guitar.

Dave Van Ronk, author of The Mayor of MacDougal Street and the basis for the title character in the Coen Brother's Inside Llewyn Davis, led me to Mississippi John Hurt through his version of "Spike Driver Blues" on a 1997 tribute album to Harry Smith's Anthology.  Something about Van Ronk's Brooklyn-ish asthmatic/emphysemic wheeze makes the track stand out starkly, and in his version the lyric "This old hammer killed John Henry / But it won't kill me" sounds to my ear like: "This old hammer killed John Henry / Who killed me?"  Van Ronk died in February 2002.

"Spike Driver Blues," Dave Van Ronk, Down in Washington Square: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, 2013

4.24.2015

North American Anthology
of Pop Music Literature

Two:  Bayard Godsave's "White Man in Hammersmith"

Bayard Godsave's short novel*, "White Man in Hammersmith," which appears in Torture Tree, is dedicated in part "to Town."  That's me.
*I prefer the term "short novel" to "novella," because novella strikes the same reactive nerve in me as do most portmanteaus:  webisode, guesstimate, and the now thankfully obsolete cassingle.  These words create bullshit specificity -- do we really need a word to indicate a thing and its form all in one go? Even short novel seems unnecessary and arbitrary:  is Of Mice and Men called a short novel?  Or Bright Lights, Big City? Anyway: I will refer to Godsave's "W.M. in H." as a story from here on.
It is a great story full of great writing, and I'm proud to be identified as its ideal audience (if that's what a dedication is meant to do...?).  The story is narrated by a expat American running a small recording studio in Trinidad, and his ancillary connection to an attempted coup there by radical muslims in 1996.

The title comes from The Clash's "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais," which the band released as a single in June 1978.  It also appears on the US version of their eponymous 1977 debut album, which wasn't released in the States until 1979.  "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais" is the best Clash song, a song that well illustrates their mesh of politics and punk, a song that cements them as The Only Band That Matters.  I presume Bayard dedicated "W.M. in H." to me because he know how much I love "(W.M.) in H. P.," and how much I revere the song's co-author, Joe Strummer.  However, there are aspects to both the song and its namesake story that touch on issues of (White Man) privilege and cultural appropriation that also -- perhaps not as consciously -- might play into the dedication and the thematic unity between the song, the story, and its dedicatee (i.e., yrs trly.)

The song "(W.M.) in H.P." is about a white Londoner (Strummer, himself the son of a British foreign service diplomat) who attends a a reggae concert at the Palais, hoping to absorb some of the danger and rebellion of Jamaican music but ultimately let down by the show's shallow glitz and showmanship: ...but it was Four Tops all night / with encores from stage right.  The singer then turns that thought onto the shallowness of the by-then-fully-mature London punk scene -- they're all too busy fighting / for a good place under the lighting -- when they should be using punk's energy for forward political movement: the new groups are not concerned / with what there is to be learned / They've got Burton suits, you think its funny / turning rebellion into money. By song's end, the singer himself gives up and gives in: I'm the all-night drug-prowling wolf / who looks so sick in the sun / I'm the white man in the Palais / To go looking for fun.  It's sort of Thomas Frank's Commodify Your Dissent in a four-minute pop song.

The narrator in Godsave's novel is essentially taking on the same mission as Strummer in the song: he uses his white American privilege to make a personal paradise of Trinidad in the '90s, appropriating what he prefers from the culture (music, weed, an atmosphere of danger and dissent) without really understanding what he's doing.  (Cf. Strummer on the recording of Sandinista!, the Clash's Jamaican dub and US hip-hop influenced album named after socialist Nicaraguan rebels:  "I smoked so much pot, I'm surprised I haven't turned into a bush.")  At the same time, the Trinidadian mystic/musician Master Z, with whom our narrator is obsessed and embroiled, is appropriating western/America hip hop in it's 90's/Pantherish guise of radical militarism, just as Strummer reports finding Leroy Smart and Delroy Wilson taking on aspects of the stalwart oldies-circuit Four Tops.

"W.M. in H"'s narrator's white/rich/expat privilege is most evident in that the novel places him always in contexts of recall and reaction: his privilege prevents him from doing anything but react.  Most of his interactions with Master Z happen through media -- observing his radicalism through a control room's window, watching the coup on television.  Our narrator can only consume culture, he can't really engage with it.   He's the audience to history, like Strummer at the Palais or standing by as Caribbean youth challenged UK bobbies at the Notting Hill riots in 1976 (cf. The Clash, "White Riot.")  This is part of what privilege does -- puts you behind the window, puts you in front of the screen, makes you audience or consumer rather than actor or maker.  It makes you a book's dedicatee, perhaps, but not its author.

Neither "W.M. in H"'s narrator, nor "(W.M.) in H.P"'s narrator, nor I  (fan of both) can be free of allegations of privilege and cultural appropriation.  The life I live, the music I prefer, are things given to me, handed down or handed over.  Even my kids are mine through a kind of cultural appropriation, though its not pleasant to dwell on that thought.  One doesn't like to think of oneself as more Four Tops than drug-prowling wolf, even here in my lower-middle forties.

Junior Murvin said: All the peacemakers turn war officers.
Eddy Grant said: Well, I'm running -- police on my back.
Willie Williams said: A lotta people won't get no justice tonight, so a lotta people going to have to stand up and fight.
Lloyd Price said: Stagger Lee threw seven, Billy swore that he threw eight.
James Wayne said:  Down the road, came Junco Partner -- he was loaded as can be.

Joe Strummer, who also said these things, died in December 2002.  The Hammersmith Palais closed down in 2007 and was demolished in June 2012.

--- --- ---

p.s. Order Bayard Godsave's Torture Tree here or ask for it at your local bookseller's.  Both of the short novels within are tremendously good and well worth your time, attention, and dirty ill-gotten lucre.

4.21.2015

North American Anthology
of Pop Music Literature

One:  Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" #12 & 35

Jack Dove dj'd under a name that would later embarrass him, having chosen a tag that was cutting edge at its invention but dulled and gummy by the middle of the next year.  He might have done better by "dj jack dove," in e.e. cummings uncaps, which through its obviousness and utility would have stayed sharper in the knifeblock than the name he'd stretched for.  It was under this name, the one he'd wince to hear when he'd run into patrons of the dance club in later years -- always at the grocery store or the mall, wherever the lights were too bright, and always when his kids were misbehaving, the auld acquaintance being the absolute worst kind -- under this name he'd posted to the internet a mash-up of Bob Dylan's thing about "everybody must get stoned" and Sly Stone's thing about "I-high love everyday people."

It had come to him in his sleep, or from the verge of wakefulness anyway -- connecting those two songs, and he'd worked on a title before he'd manipulated the music into any form of actuality.  Downloading, cutting up, recalling a short story from his high school literature textbook, all of it coming together without really thinking about it, almost in the way he read those stories in high schools, watching the words without recognizing that he wasn't actually reading, seeing without comprehending, turning back to see where he'd stopped paying attention.  What is there to know about zen that one cannot better intuit about zen?  

Dylan's song is, on the level most often appreciated, about getting high.  It's also about a certain kind of inevitability, of outside forces working upon the individual:  they will stone you when you are walking home, but you needn't feel so all alone -- they do this shit to e'erbody.  Stone's song, meanwhile, is about acceptance and diversity, different strokes that move the world, but it's also kind of a resignation to our separateness, to man's inability to figure out what bag you're in.  It's also about getting high.  Only in that every Sly Stone song is about getting high.

None of these levels factored into Jack Dove's work with the two songs in ProTools -- to the extent that he sought meaning at all, he meant only to recreate the idea that had come to him in sleep, the creation of a sound he'd heard in a dream, a sound that did not exist and wasn't even a sound.  But its interesting to consider that Jack Dove took two songs that are celebratory on their topmost layer ("What do call what's above the subtext?") then merged them into something about the inevitability of division, persecution, and violence.   The addition of the Shirley Jackson story, in the form of the composition's title and that doubled meaning of "to stone," underscores all of this in a way that, again, the mash-up artist -- the author, or collagist -- was entirely unaware but for which he must still be held responsible.

The song he'd created -- or merged, or stole: these are someone else's argument to make with you -- this song made from other songs about stoning and people and everybody, this song has long since disappeared from digital space, from peer-to-peer file sharing sites, or wherever such things once had their loci. The source file must have lived on some long-wiped hard drive, the weblink broken and 404'ing to nowhere and nothing.  Before winking out, and according to server analytics themselves now overwritten with now-now-now, the file was downloaded two hundred and thirty seven times.  Its possible, one supposes, that copies may still exist, floating out on the ethers and iClouds, ready for recharge on a Gen2 mp3 player in the lowermost desk drawer in an ex-girlfriend's guest room, just as it is possible that it is gone entirely.  Like the sound of an airplane too far away to see, its jet trail only ones and zeroes.

Stranger still: when Jack Dove merged the Stone horns of Cynthia and Jerry with the Dylan horns of Doc Butler and Charlie McCoy, he also merged -- in ways too elaborate to detail -- distant branches of his family tree, as one of the horn players of the Family Stone was a shirt-tail relation of his maternal uncle and one of Dylan's players had once been married to a second cousin-once-removed, but mapping this out is oblique and hard to follow.  And, frankly, as Jack Dove was no more aware of this than any other layer of meaning beneath what can be felt in one's funk and heard through one's earbuds, to make anything more of this particular coincidence would be to strain credulity.

Some time later, Jack Dove was recognized by his long-lapsed dj tag in a southside Super Target by a man only slightly younger than he, but a younger man all the same, one who'd so far resisted any urge to change his clothes or hairstyle or metaphysics from how'd they'd been situated way back in his dancehall days.  "Yo: dope, that was dope," this younger man said, in relation to the digital construction or the dj or that period in which they once shared common space.  Then a handshake too intricate to recall and a question:  "You holding?"  Jack Dove looked to his small children in the cart as if he were afraid they might be hip to the lingo, as if they'd knew the soundtrack, as if they too might be hiding pebbles in their balled-up fists.

5.24.2014

Second Hand News (Part Three)

And now the thrilling conclusion to...
Wade's Husk


In the comfort of the living room, the telethon went coasting into its final hour.  The host, clearly crushed by the low totals on the tally board, loosened his necktie and lowered himself onto the studio's platform steps.  "These kids," he said, leaning his head onto his microphone hand, "who will help them, if not you?  And when, if not now?"  And then more video clips of the children, many of them as old as me, striving to play, to laugh and smile and plead with dewy eyes.  Did they have any idea how lucky they were, those kids, for their care and attention, for their stirring afflictions?  At the end, with music swelling and toll-free numbers scrolling, one little boy who seemed half made of metal was caught giggling at the spoonful of applesauce held out for him by a red-sweatshirted volunteer.  She pressed her finger to his nose like a button.  What could be more lovely?

When it was at last all over, my brother's rumpled castoff husk reflected in the darkened TV screen.

I got the shirt off first, unbuttoning the cuffs and jerking the cotton from the arms when it snagged on a crack or a cuticle.  Little bits of him flaked off like dust, scratching the tenderness out of my own hands.  Next went the shoes and the socks, the pants and finally the underwear: every part of him yellow and gruesome, coiled like rotted rope.  I bunched his clothes and carried them to the laundry chute, leaving his shoes neatly aligned by his bedroom door as if it were St. Nicholas' Day.

Maneuvering the husk into one of the foggy biomed bags the city provides for Tuesday pickups, I noticed the Sail Club bracelet still wound around his stiff wrist.  I yanked fiercely -- tried my best to twist his rigored fingers -- but in the end it took the garden shears from the garage.  Stabbing through the thin underside of the wrist with the wide lower jaw of the shears and working ruggedly through the his arm, ripping the skin rather than cleaving it.

Detached, Wade's arm was lighter than I'd expected, and despite the toughness of the outer layer, the inside was still damp and not as obscenely jaundiced.  I ran a finger down the glossy inner arm, collecting some moisture off the insides like the dew that develops on refrigerated cling wrap.  The hollow inside smelled a good deal like my gym locker, like a camp mattress.  Holding his skin to the light showed the sinewy indentations of veins and muscles.  I'd never before noticed the cross-hatched and wavy texture of all skin -- his and mine both.  I'd though fingerprints were limited to the fingers.  But no: we are everywhere covered by swirls and roadmap routes and ravines.  There is no silk to skin at all.

I found I could fit my hand into his, and I wore his skin as a glove while I sealed the body bag and ran the vacuum, which rattled over his spot on the rug as if it were sucking up tacks.  His fingers seemed to tingle over mine, they seemed both fragile and mean, fingers that must have scuttled quickly through snow, wanting to both retreat to a mitten and yet go on packing a better snowball.  This was, wasn't it, his winter skin?

Lugging the bag downstairs and outside, I let his head waffle and thump against each step but the last.  I waited there at the curb for the moment my father's wagon would turn up the drive, waited in the stamping cold and its slight scent of spring.  Wade, I imagined, would be sitting up front in the passenger seat, and I would meet him with a wave as he sought out the bundled refuse of his former self.

the end
last of three parts

5.23.2014

Second Hand News (Part Two)

We now return you to...
Wade's Husk




It had happened for the first time on my ninth birthday, in front of all my friends from the third grade.  That was back when there weren't that many people shedding, when they didn't know if it could be catching.  People thought it was a thing caught by touch, like leopardsy or cooties.

So there was Jon and Chad Schmidt and Chad Schmidt's brother all gathered around the dining room table, candles barely in my cake and not even lit, and Wade starts shaking and picking at himself, all the mothers gasping and pushing their kids to the front door.  Chad Schmidt's brother had to be pulled by his collar.  My parents -- no one knew anything then -- sped him off to the hospital and I was left alone, nine years old, with my yellow cake and wrapped presents.  Wade had never been satisfied with just his own birthday, he always wanted mine as well; ever since, his wasted husks have haunted me at nighttimes, ruining perfectly good dreams with their bitter laughs and soggy motion.

---

His shell was still lying tangled on the floor of the den the next morning when I checked in on the telethon -- the hosts were sleepy and slow to respond to a chirping girl in metal crutches.  My parents were in the kitchen, racing the paper and sipping coffee.  "Wade shed," I told them.  "And then just left himself right there on the floor."

"Aww," my mother said, setting her mug on the breakfast nook bench, "my poor poor baby."  But I am the younger, I am the baby, and I very nearly said so, but all I had by then was the back of her bathrobe.  My father meanwhile looked up from the Arts & Leisure section to consider me over the top of his glasses.  "A family," he said, his attention back on the paper, "shares responsibilities.  It'd be nice if you pitched in once in a while."

But no way was I going to have anything to do with that thing.  It was his skin, after all: what could belong to him more?  So I retreated to my room, between the bed and the wall, looking over some Incredible Hulks and listening to the voices in Wade's room as they cracked right through the plaster.  My mother promised him anything he wanted from the grocery store in that sweet sort of tone I only hear after the school's Spring concert and the winter one.  "Are you comfortable?" she asked, and "Not even Alpha-Bits?  Not even Marathons?"  And then my father too:  "Nothing at all, champ?"

Before long, Father was at my door, more familiar in his way.  "Come out of there," he told me, "and let's get this den cleaned up."  Wade stood directly behind him, pink as Valentine candy, a vicious grin cutting across his tight new skin.

They took him to the mall, my parents, for new soccer cleats and probably ice cream, leaving me to dispose of his remains.  I warmed some water in the Radarange and stirred in a packet of cocca and crispy marshmallows.  I had a Diet Slice and some cheese crackers.  I put the telethon on the kitchen's black-and-white, and I tried to imagine a house not so haunted.

---to be concluded---
second of three parts

5.22.2014

Second Hand News (Part One)

Wade's Husk

first appeared in Potomac Review

Vol 7, No 1, Winter 1999-2000



My Brother Wade got the TV remote out of my hands with a great final tug and then he was down on the brown shag carpeting, wiggling out of his skin; he is in that 12 percent.  I should have seen it coming -- the way his hand had clamped waxy and cold around mine, the way he slurred through his loosening lips and stamped heavily around the ottoman like a mummy in snow boots -- and had I known, had I but thought! as my father says, I would have been in a better position to keep the remote.  Instead it was now going spend the rest of the evening in my brother's old hollow hand, the fingers stiffening over the buttons, stuck on some horrid sports channel.

In summers, he can get it off in one piece, Wade can, if he unbuttons his shirt, tears open his cheek from the temples to just past the shoulders and then backs out of the whole deal as if it were a tight pair of jeans.  In winter, though, it's harder for him: he grunts and whines, he flips himself around on the floor trying to get at those parts of him that haven't slackened yet.  Watching him, you think of fish struggling upstream, or the groggy bears that in storybooks shuffle stretching from their caves to scratch their hackles against pine bark.  You think of Discovery Network rattlesnakes.

It was over soon enough, and my brother stood naked and sunburn pink in the middle of the room, catching his breath.  I waved him out of the way of the television and, once he'd gone into the upstairs bathroom to cover his tender new layer in Noxema, I switched over to the cerebral palsy telethon just now hitting its stride on Channel 18.  I'd had to actually get up off the recliner and press the little black buttons on the set itself, stepping clear of Wade's skin, the remote trapped somewhere beneath the chest cavity, his stupid face beaming up in dumb eyeless surprise.

"Aren't you at least going to clean it up?" I shouted towards the stairs.  It was already drying out and stiffening up, turning in spots that sick shade of yellow.  I sat on the lip of the chair and poked at it with the tip of one Ked, having to my memory never been alone with one of his husks before.  His chest dented in over the tip of my shoe, then slowly reclaimed its shape once I'd sat back.  On television, the actor that plays Fonzie held a microphone to a little boy who's mouth could barely work around his words.

Wade returned in his soccer shorts, the smell of cold cream stinging my eyes. He draped bath towels over the couch, wound the remote from the clutches of his former self, and eased down onto the cushions.  "Fffff," he goes, blowing air through his teeth at like the slightest twitch.  He clicked the sports back on.

I told him again he'd better clean himself up.  After a while, I couldn't stand looking at them anymore -- not the old Wade laid out and not the knee-socked athletes bounding across the tube -- and went into my room.  We could be just months from a cure, they'd said on the telethon, about those other kids.
---to be continued---
first of three parts

4.03.2014

Auld Acquaintance (Part Four)

Boston, Mass.  1996.

The oranges never came.  I got a check for $100.  Bob Edwards didn't call.  Harper's never approached me.  I called Florida State's Writing Program and asked about the oranges.  They said they worked with a particular grove and if I never received the oranges, I should take it up with them.  I called the grove on three separate occasions, an answering machine each time.  My Homicide phone did not ring.

(Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to.)

"The Custodian" appeared in Sundog, and has been reprinted in a couple anthologies and a textbook, and it showed up as the topic of an article by Ron Wallace in AWP Chronicle.  It lives on in the Web in interesting and complimentary ways, and family, co-workers, and friends across the country have reported coming across it in writing classes, teacher trainings, and Google searches.  My wife read the story online before our first date, doing her due diligence to dig up any digital dirt.

In some ways, that story's out there having the career I always wanted for myself.  On the cusp of its eighteenth birthday, that story is not so much a child of mine as a doppelgänger, a shade using my name and making something of itself while I stay home and do the washing up.

Anyone who says they have no regrets is either lying through their unreflective teeth or living such a charmed life as to be contemptible beyond all measure of reason.  Even Sinatra reported having "a few" regrets, and who lived a more privileged existence than Frank effing Sinatra?

I regret that I didn't push harder for the deluxe treatment -- pushing back on Florida State for NPR connections, for a little box in the Readings sections in the front of Harpers.  I know other writers who've sparked their careers by nudging editors.  Just wasn't me, still isn't.

(Coyness is nice, and coyness can stop you from saying all the things in life you'd like to.)

For lack of a crate of oranges, I went to one of the futon stores that serve all the underfunded students of metro Boston, and bought a table that fairly looked to be made from old fruit crates.  I stenciled the thing with red spray paint and made myself a crate where none had appeared.

I stayed in Boston until August of 2002, then brought that coffee table back to Milwaukee with me.  I published a few more stories in disparate places and I worked on a novel for a while, but sputtered at it and back-burnered it, and worked more and got married and had two kids through adoption and a book appeared in my local bookstore that traded on exactly the same high concept character idea I'd been working on in my book except written by someone else, which crushed me, and though work I invested myself into issues of student retention and success and always sort of thought the whole time that I'd get back to writing fiction, and then one day you realize you've entirely run out of excuses.  "Read less, write more," a friend wrote to me at the end of last week.  "Seriously."
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In Pam Painter's Short Short class, everybody had their particular trick when it came to in-class recitals.  I recall Ted Adams rubbing hell out of his eye socket while trying to bring back the opening paragraphs of A Hundred Years of Solitude.  And I remember the otherwise unflappable Jessica Purdy in full voice-quake, maybe reciting the tip-of-the-tongue-to-the-top-of-the-teeth bit from Lolita.  I squinted, head down, trying to imagine the page I'd studied, saying...

When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o' clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather's and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it's rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father's. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools. 


Previously:  Parts One, Two, and Three.

–§–

4.02.2014

Auld Acquaintance (Part Three)

Brian Hinshaw

The 1996 World's Best Short Short Story
Sundog: The Southeast Review, Vol. 16, No. 2

The Custodian

The job would get boring if you didn't mix it up a little.  Like this woman in 14-A, the nurses called her the mockingbird, start any song and this old lady would sing it through.  Couldn't speak, couldn't eat a lick of solid food, but she sang like a house on fire.  So for a kick, I would go in there with my mop and such, prop the door open with a bucket, and set her going.  She was best at the songs you'd sing with a group -- "Oh, Susanna," campfire stuff.  Any kind of Christmas song worked good too, and it always cracked the nurses if I could get her into "Let It Snow" during a heat spell.  We'd try to make her take up a song from the radio or some of the old songs with cursing in them, but she would never go for those.  Although once I had her do "How Dry I Am" while Nurse Winchell fussed with the catheter.

Yesterday, her daughter or maybe granddaughter comes in while 14-A and I were partway into "Auld Lang Syne" and the daughter says "oh oh oh" like she had interrupted scintillating conversation and then she takes a long look at 14-A lying there in the gurney with her eyes shut and her curled-up hands, taking a cup of kindness yet.  And the daughter looks at me, the way a girl does at the end of an old move and she says "my god," says, "you're an angel," and now I can't do it anymore, can hardly step into her room.

Previously:  Parts One and Two
Next: Aftermath

4.01.2014

Auld Acquaintance (Part Two)

Previously: Part One  
Charlestown, Mass.  Early Summer, 1996.

I'd bought the phone at Office Max, likely the cheapest model on offer.  It was only fate or kismet that it had the exact ring as the office phones featured on NBC's Homicide, a show that made it okay to spend Friday nights alone.  A show that kept me at my cathode-tube iMac until 10 Eastern, writing away, because what else could I do with the time?  If hunger is the best gravy, loneliness is the best punch-clock.  This is how my phone rang.  Mine and Detectives Pembleton, Munch, and Lewis.

So one Saturday morning that summer following Pam Painter's Short Short course, my phone burbled.  It was Janet Burroway, a name that was familiar but one I couldn't place.  (Had my back not been turned to my bookcase, where Burroway's Writing Fiction was the bulk of my personal Self-Help, Advice, and How-To section, I might have gotten it.)  I hazily realized she was calling to tell me that my story had won Florida State's Short Short contest for that year.  She told me how much she liked the story, explicating the part that calls back "Auld Lang Syne" in the mother's cupped hands, told me last year's winner had not only won the promised $100 and a crate of oranges but also had this story reprinted in Harper's Magazine and read aloud on Morning Edition.  She told me I sounded young -- I wasn't even aware I'd spoken -- and asked what I did.

I told her I was a grad student in Emerson's writing program and working in Human Resources for a mutual funds company.  She said she was thrilled that a young person had won, that others had spent years trying to win their contest.  (To someone with my esteem issues, this meant she was already regretting the decision.)

She asked if I knew of Jerome Stern.  Again, familiar but not clicking (and again, Stern's Making Shapely Fiction was right there in the room with me.)  "He was," said Burroway, "but there you've already heard me say 'was.'"  The Florida State contest had been Stern's labor of love, and he had just that Spring died of cancer.  "So I can't promise you that this year will be like last year, in terms of the exposure," Burroway said.  "We're all fumbling in the dark here, after such a loss."

The call came to end, and I hung up, and holy shit, I think I was just talking with Janet Burroway.  And I won, and I'm going to be in print and I'm going to eat oranges and be in Harpers and Bob Edwards is going to interview me on the radio.

I called my parents.  "Oh," they said, "that's great."  My effusing embarrassed them.  I felt like I was telling them I'd discovered all the eldritch secrets of the Kingdom of Atlantis.  "Mmm-hmm," they said, "how wonderful.  One hundred dollars, you say?"  I'd borrowed $40,000 from the federal government to go to art school and write stories, and here I'd just made enough off of professional writing to pay for about two weeks' worth of interest on that loan.  They didn't see the victory.

So I called Pam, who was genuine and thrilled.  She asked if I'd called my parents.  I told her I had, but that I felt like they didn't totally get it.  Pam said we'd need to get the class back together when the oranges arrived.  "We'll inject them with vodka and have a party!" she said.

I was over the moon.  Could not sit still.  Everything was about to change.

And then, for an awfully long time, nothing happened.