27 June 2009

Smoke Break

He wanted a cigarette and looked over his shoulder at his daughter and her friends as he stepped out to the sidewalk to smoke one. He ducked his head to light the Camel and, at first, he thought the butane lighter had exploded in his hand. But, then he realized his hand was empty, that he was on his knees and bleeding. He guessed he must have fallen. He twisted around to the shop behind him but he couldn't see it. He twisted some more and felt sharp pain. He wondered what was going on here, just what the heck had happened. And some part of him was already afraid that he knew.


The rest of that afternoon was kind of blurry. The moment immediately after the blast was crystallized, however, and became frozen in such a way that while he and events all moved forward in time together, that moment remained unfinished and attached to each successive moment. It was a lot more than that he just couldn't stop thinking about that moment. He could not get out of, remove himself or move away from that moment.

A man came to where he'd been blown. There were other noises--screams, the last rumble of damaged architecture--but they conversed together in a normal tone.

"I guess I fell down," he said.

"Oh, gosh," the other man replied, distractedly pulling needles of glass from his own forearm.

"That was so weird. What was that?"

They both turned their eyes to the boiling ruin of the shop. They heard the noises, they saw the flame inside the building, they smelled the smoke and meat.

"Oh, gosh," the other man said in genuine puzzlement. "Something must have happened."

And suddenly and very surprisingly, the street and the sidewalk and the area around the store was filled with people. They walked, they darted, they stood and turned small circles, put their hands to their faces. They wore regular clothes, they wore bloody rags, they wore uniforms. Some were shouting and pointing, some were crying, and some were just looking silently about them. There was a lot of junk strewn all over the place.

But even as these things happened, as he noticed these things and these things happening, he was (with the same kind of clarity and attention) still within that moment on the sidewalk before he knew.


The hospital was the worst place to have gone but they made him. The emergency room was bedlam; it was an unquiet place when all he truly wanted was a very quiet place. He kept thinking that if they'd only let him go home, he could clean himself up while watching himself for signs of concussion, pour some disinfectant on the worst of his scrapes, rest up a little and gather his wits, smoke a cigarette, and then come back for whatever disaster examination the hospital had prepared for him. As it was, he was triaged off by himself into a curtained area where he sat for a long time until the chaos subsided enough to allow a doctor time for a visit. All that while, even as he peeked at the action through a slit in the curtain, he was at the same time on his hands and knees on the sidewalk in a crust of broken glass worrying about his defective lighter.

"Well, then," the doctor said. "Let's take a look at you."

As expected, his clearly superficial wounds were identified, examined, sterilized, bandaged, and dismissed. The doctor paid lots of attention to his head, though, shining lights at it and in it from alarming angles. He was thinking about how nice it felt to grab a moment to himself after a long day of following teenaged girls as they shopped. A cigarette would taste very good, he thought.

The doctor said the word "observation" and, sure enough, some time later a young man came to take him upstairs in the hospital. They put him in a room and taped wires to his chest and left him alone. He couldn't get the lighter to work, kept scratching the flint uselessly. He turned deeper upwind; he hunched his shoulders and he cupped his palms to shelter the flame.


Some time later, another doctor came in.

"Has anybody had a chance to talk to you?" the doctor asked.

He really didn't know how to answer.

"I know you've been through an awful lot today. And, I'm afraid you've got some more to go through," the doctor began. "Your ex-wife will be here in a few hours. She's probably on the plane right now."

He had his eyes focused on the tip of the cigarette, at the place where the flame would be. He could taste the odor of unburned tobacco and the cotton filter; he anticipated the first lung full of thick smoke.

"You've sustained some injuries that aren't too serious," the doctor continued. "Scrapes and bruises, mostly. But, we're a little concerned about concussion so we're going to get some pictures of your head in a minute. You may even have a small fracture...you took a pretty good blow out there. The nurses will come to take you to the Imaging Lab and we'll get a better idea of what's going on."

The doctor moved over to almost sit on the edge of the bed.

"You know," the doctor said and his voice had changed. "You've been through something terrible and a lot of what you're feeling right now is just shock, pure and simple, plain old shock. Sometimes it takes a while for things to sink in, for the body and the mind to prepare themselves for a trauma. And you've already been through one terrible trauma this afternoon."

The doctor paused and looked out past the hospital room, out the room's grey window to another grey window on the opposite wall of the hospital.

"It's so hard to imagine someone doing this," the doctor finally said. "How could anyone deliberately do something like this? I find it hard to believe."

"You can't believe it?" he asked and the emphasis he gave those words must have sounded sarcastic because the doctor apologized but he meant it sincerely, had seized upon that phrase as a confirmation of his own inability to continue past a particular moment in time. If a doctor can't believe it, he reasoned, why should I?

"Listen," the doctor said. "If there's anything you'd like to know...any, ah, questions you might have...anything at all that might be on your mind...anything you're worried about...just ask me or call the nurse. Whenever you're ready...."

He moved his thumb deliberately to create a long, perfect spark, to get this cigarette really going, and he couldn't quite understand the doctor or what the doctor was saying because he was guessing he was about to fall down.

26 June 2009

It’s Different on the Border

It’s different on the border. Things happen here that don’t happen anywhere else and, really, since the borderland is neither here nor there, not the U.S.A. but not quite Mexico, the kinds of things that happen here can be said to perhaps not happen at all. How can something happen if it isn’t happening in some place? And, since this isn’t really a place but the place between two other places, how can things really happen if they happen in no place?

Out there in the desert with the big empty watching and waiting near the ruins of what used to be, miles from anything and I can see that if there really is a line dividing two nations, it’s worse than invisible and it’s locked up on a map in a book a thousand miles away from here and that magic invisible line has nothing at all to do with the snakes and the starlight and the tarantulas and the people and the wild dogs and the nobody-really-knows-what-else moving back and forth, across and over, up and down. This is all for the good, believe me.

If I was you, I wouldn’t be out there, but if you was me, you would. You’d be parked in my 1975 Ford F-150 on a dry hill among the brushy gray bushes, the black outline of a new moon hanging among a thousand million million stars to illuminate the landscape enough to see how dark it really was.

Out there, things are moving. Some of them are animals, some of them are people, and some of them have to be classified as “other.” If I’m quiet enough long enough, long enough for the motor to cool down and stop ticking, long enough for all the things I scared away to move on, new things that don’t know I’m here come by. Sometimes it’s an animal, a skunk or a skinny mule deer or even a peccary, and sometimes it’s a person, some skinny brown man or woman or child big eyed in the night or sometimes even La Migra, a broad-shouldered white man with a rifle and a badge. And sometimes, you know, there on the border at night under that black moon, sometimes it’s something else entirely that moves through the brush and close enough to smell until suddenly I don’t even want to know what it is anymore or what it could be and I’m just very very quiet until it goes away.

During the day, out by the vague ruin of a failed ranch melting back into the earth or out on the long dry flats, deep in the termini of steep-cut canyons or high on a windswept promontory, I find all sorts of leftovers. Rubber tire sandals and plastic water bottles, dry bones and fresh feces, the brass casings of spent ammunition and old horseshoes and the charred carcasses of motorcycles, blood soaked altars of haphazardly stacked stones, inverted forged iron crosses draped with garlands of plastic flowers and dried fingers, the skin of a young woman stretched out on a forgotten section of barbed-wire fence dividing ranchland long without cattle or cattleman, sacks and bags and packs filled with the strangest things, all sorts of weird stuff like underwear and drugs and a thousand snapshots of someone’s family and money and dried fish and jewelry and five hand-carved wooden dolls: a mommy, a daddy, a little boy, a little girl, and a baby.

As often as the wind here carries the odor of cactus blossom or the dusty tang of a rainstorm coming up, it carries also the miasma of gunpowder and blood, of sweat and fear, of semen and rotten meat and iron. As often as a coyote howl or an owl hoot breaks this still air, so too will the screams of women and children fly out across the desert to disappear without echo or consequences. Names whispered in the darkness, supplications to deities both conventional and obscure, lost children wailing for their mothers, mothers crying out for their lost children, a full variety and variation of shrieks to convey indignant pain and horror, pleas for mercy, petitions for release from torture, and soft begging for the kindness of swift murder all dissipate in this borderland atmosphere; they spread out unheard over a landscape unconcerned.

I’d been tracking this fellow quite a while and I had a pretty good idea what he was up to. He seemed the type. He kept moving around, setting up an ambush, waiting, waiting some more, moving again, setting up again, waiting. I kept him in my sights, watching with one eye from, oh, I’d say a half-mile away. He had no idea.

But he knew what he was doing. And about the fifth time he set up his little ambush, he caught himself a brown girl. It was slick and it was sweet like he’d done it a hundred times before; he just stepped out of the brush and slipped his big old knife under her chin and that was that. She dropped her pathetic bundle and her plastic water bottle, and she kicked a little bit as he lifted her up with his other arm wrapped around her waist, and she lost one of her rubber tire sandals. I was watching this through the scope, lining up the shot.

He half carried, half dragged her back into the brush where his kit was laid out and ready; he had stakes already in the earth, lengths of rope ready for her ankles and wrists, and duct tape for her mouth. He got her down, tied her spread-eagle, taped her, and kneeled down between her legs to start cutting away her clothes. I got the shot and his head disappeared, all bone and brain and tooth become a variated mist traveling fast and away. The neck stump fountained thick towers of blood until the body crumpled across her right thigh, spastic movements rippling through its limbs. One shot, one kill. The earth disappeared what poured out of the body.

It makes me feel especially…it makes me feel really…it makes me feel full to be able to do that, to look at someone from so far away and to point and to reach out and take his head off from a half-mile away. I doubt if the girl even heard the sound of the shot that killed her attacker. He sure didn’t.

All the way walking over there to where the girl lay draped with that fellow’s corpse, I was not doing much more than enjoying the feeling. By the time I got there, my breathing had mostly calmed down and I kicked the body off that girl there all splayed out in the dirt. I took a few of the fingers so I could add them to one of those upside-down crosses I liked out in the desert. Without the head, though, the body didn’t have much left in the way of trophies—no ears or nose or scalp—and I sure didn’t want anything to do with his pizzle though I know some folk what don’t feel the same. They’ll cut a fellow’s business off and do bad things with it. That girl was all big eyes and little squeaking noises behind the tape.

I stood there above her looking down and still feeling that good full feeling inside me.

“How you doing?” I asked her and she stopped making those noises. I could see all sorts of things going through her head fast. She looked up at me and past me with those big brown eyes; she looked all around as much as she could but there wasn’t nothing else there but me and a lot of blank black sky.

I squatted down where that other fellow had kneeled before and I picked up his big knife. As I started in to cutting off the rest of her clothes, I was talking to her the whole time, talking soft like I would talk to any frightened creature no matter how badly it was suffering, and I kept talking to her like that as I started to cut away much, much more than just her clothes.

25 June 2009

Lesbian Picnic

"Hey, these are fish sticks!"
she nearly screamed.
"I only agreed [to picnic with you]
to come on this little excursion
because you promised me treats.
Cold [Mrs. Paul's] fish sticks disgust me.
You must take me home."
I had no more chances.
My heart had been devoured
but for the last time
and I would think no more
of the ring hidden in her lunch,
her calm pleasure had she found it,
or how I could have licked the breadcrumbs
and grease from her fingers
and how that jewel might have cut my lip.

24 June 2009

Sank You, Missa Smiss

The mud of Shaanxi is extraordinary and during the autumn rains, when this Shaanxi mud flourishes, we grew intimate with that particular gumbo. A combination of the highly acidic rains and compacted dust (loess), the entire landscape becomes gelatinous, adherent. Roads especially and those unpaved, country roads we bicycled on weekend outings even more especially had long stretches of truck and hand-tractor churned puddles too deep and thick to ride through.

Wet or dry, the soil itself, this aforementioned loess, is sterile. Four thousand years of continuous, unbroken, intensive cultivation have left most of the province's arable land long ago leeched of nutrients and about as fertile as broken glass. It, the soil, functions as a hydroponic medium through which the farmers deliver fertilizer (human and animal wastes) and water.

Sufficiently compacted, the loess may be worked and the tradition of cave-dwelling in Shaanxi stretches back to the early days of the Silk Road and forward (or, actually, back again) to the terminus of the Glorious Long March when Chairman Mao headquartered in Yanan.

Brief days of October sun tempted us beyond the city and we trudged through long stretches of bleak farmland, from village to village, mud-spattered, pushing our bikes through shin-deep lagoons and in the villages, hanging from the trees in the villages, long garlands of yellow corn drying. Great ropes of pale husk and golden ears looping over every branch and from tree to tree and every household wall and roof and eave and gable (and god, I'm going to say it) "festooned" with corn.

At the Foreign Language Institute where I teach classes in conversational English to second-year Tourist Industries students, our main goal or, rather, my main goal, this semester is to master the sibilant "th" sound so elusive to Asian tongues. With this in mind, we begin each class the very same way. My students have seized upon this exercise as routine and, I think, find comfort in it's consistency and predictability in what, I think, they otherwise find a chaotic and confusingly spontaneous classroom environment. Their normal courses, those taught by regular faculty, are structured around rote learning. We, the foreigners, have grown accustomed to seeing our students around the campus memorizing their other textbooks, literally committing entire volumes to memory in anticipation of the final exam which will ask them to duplicate selected passages. There are no lectures, no discussions, no quizzes, no experiments, no laboratory, no papers, no tests. On the first day of class the "professor" distributes the textbooks. On the last day of class the "professor" collects the textbooks and writes "pages 145, 215, 232" on the blackboard. The students do their best to regurgitate, word for word, the indicated text; the "professor" collects the papers and grades them according to accuracy. Of course, this or any other academic work counts for only 40% of a student's final grade with the other 60% consisting of political attitude. My classes as well as most other foreigner taught classes, tend toward the Socratic and veer sharply away from the Confucian/Maoist tradition. At first disconcerted by the spontaneous informality of such a class, the students soon enjoyed themselves. Instead of droning out the lessons from a workbook, we would converse and practice vocabulary usage and pronunciation. We invented dialogue together, asked and answered each other's questions about idiom and culture, we made up bilingual puns, we sang pop songs together; the shy students would blush and giggle and bury their heads on their desks; the bold students would stand and with theatrical gestures declaim the Declaration of Independence.

The relative high ground of a village somewhere to the northwest of Xian seemed a good place to rest. We leaned our bicycles, wheels heavy and caked with plastic mire, against a loess-block wall and stretched out in the warm sun, rubber boots heavy and caked, a crazy pattern of corn webbed above us.

Soon, as we knew they would, they came. First, an old man in a ragged blue Mao suit, he was wearing agate sunglasses and smoking a thimble-bowled pipe. He stood before us, puffed twice on the pipe, and rocked on his heels.

"Ni hau, laodz [Hi, old guy]," somebody said and his lucky, bushy eyebrows rose behind his stone lenses in surprise to hear us speak human-being speech.

He raised his right hand in a gesture much like a royal or beauty-queen wave.

"Hhh," he glottalled at us. "Hhh."

A couple of kids, little toddler-aged kids in brightly colored quilted overclothes, were starting to creep closer and closer. The old man was probably supposed to be baby-sitting them or something. A woman in grey trousers and a white blouse came to the door of her cave house and leaned out to look at us, to wipe her hands on a pink towel. She yelled "Foreigners with bicycles are sitting against the wall under Auntie Lo's big tree!" back into the blackness and pointed at us with her chin. She went back inside.

Someone pulled out a camera.

"Keyi? [May I?]" that someone asked the old man.

He squatted down on his haunches to be on our level and pulled one last lung full of tobacco from the tiny pipe. He knocked the ash into his palm.

"Hhh? [What did you say?]," the old man answered, clearly still disconcerted by both our arrival and ability to use language like people.

"Keyi zhao-xiang ma? [May I photograph?]," someone tried.

He smiled a gap-toothed smile and bent his head between his legs, shaking it, and he couldn't believe we were there in the first place and in the second and third places, we talked and wanted to take his picture. He looked up and away, still smiling, at some corn.

"Hhh [Sure. Why not? I guess so....]," he answered and somebody took his picture.

We drank some boiled water from some canteens and the kids were getting closer, getting louder and gigglier. Soon, they would be right in front of us, pointing and laughing, screaming "yang gweidz! yang gweidz! [foreign devils! foreign devils!]."

"Nice corn," somebody said in English, exhaling smoke.

"It's feed corn," somebody else said. "It's not for people; it's for their pigs."
"Really? Could you pop it, though? Would popping work?"

"I don't know. Is popcorn the same as feed corn? How do you say 'pop' in Chinese?"

"Probably 'pop' or maybe 'pa' or something like that. 'Corn' is yu-mi," somebody else said. "Maybe 'pop' is like 'explode' or 'blow-up.'"

"Okay," one of the first ones responded. "Ask this guy if they blow up their yu-mi and see what he says."

The old man shifted his gaze from speaker to speaker as if at a tennis match. The kids were delighted and squealed with amusement to hear the sounds we made and used amongst ourselves. We were as a flock of noisy birds or a troop of singing monkeys to them.

I got this job at the Foreign Language Institute sort of through a back door. I am supposed to be a student here in the People's Republic of China and taking special foreign student classes and taking special exams and educational field-trips to educational points-of-interest on weekends but that didn't last more than a couple of weeks. We stopped going to most of our classes most of the time and, instead, began to explore in ever increasing radii, the city of Xian and the surrounding suburbs, villages, and satellite towns.

We began to make friends among the other foreigners at other schools and also among the Chinese themselves, those bold enough, foolish enough, or desperate enough to risk association with Westerners. We spent our evenings inside the city walls within the fetal Xian nightlife at clubs called Art Salon or Peace Cafe or Friendship Gardens.

It was through these friendships and the friends our new friends knew that several of us got jobs as teachers for the quasi-legal, back-door language school inside the city. Our night classes, held in a mid-school building and organized by the family who are employed as caretakers, are popular and command high tuition from the adults who wish to and can afford to learn English. Our students are engineers, doctors, People's Liberation Army officers, cadres, and bureaucrats who wish to enhance their career opportunities during flexible periods of history. The same connections soon led to a more officially sanctioned position at the Foreign Language Institute.

When I started teaching these classes, I quickly noticed this "th" problem. More than any other sound , the "th" was an alien noise and uncomfortable for most of our students. The simple phrase "Thank you, Mister Smith" became "'Sank you, Missa Smiss..." on their lips and alarmingly snake-like for my taste.

The exercise was most simple: Each student was to grasp the tip of his or her tongue between thumb and forefinger, pull his or her tongue out of the mouth, and repeat the aforementioned phrase, laden as it is with the elusive phoneme.

"Thang' goo, Mitha Smifth," they would chant together, happily in unison and happily ridiculous, holding their tongues between their fingers, more rain and lightening flashing from the southwest. I would lean back in my chair and smell the wet dust approaching storm smell on the wind and listen to them. "Thang' goo, Mitha Smifth...Thang' goo, Mitha Smifth..."

We stood to gather our things.

"Women zou, laodz [We're going, old guy]," somebody said.

"Hhh [Thanks for stopping. It was nice to meet you. Please come back soon and meet the rest of the family. You kids are all right. Have a pleasant afternoon]," the old man replied.

We swung our mud heavy boots over the bars of our bicycles and began to coast down the road to the next stretch of quagmire. The children of the village followed us running, laughing, and shrieking "yang gweidz! yang gweidz!" and we waved as we left their village and the oldest among them stooped to pick up corn cobs to throw at us and some of them came pretty close.

(from Artificial Rats & Electric Cats, Camber Press, 2008. Click on the title or the cover for more information.)

23 June 2009

Cookie In The Picture

She told me she was going shopping and that she might drop over at her aunt's house for a while; she might even stay for dinner. She had been telling me things like that quite a bit. Cookie was a liar.

I followed her until she parked our car and then I followed her while she walked until she went into a building. I went in a Koffee Shoppe and I started smoking cigarettes until the waitress bullied me into ordering. I figured I'd be there a while (knowing Cookie like I knew Cookie) so I asked her, the waitress, for koffee, another and cleaner ashtray, and a new glass of V-8 vegetable cocktail. I tipped her, the waitress, five dollars and did not see her again. Didn't expect to.

I waited for what seemed like hours and, coincidentally, it was hours that I waited but I was ready when she, Cookie, came out. I grabbed my Nikon and I was out the door and out on the street to meet her.

"What are you doing?" she shrieked but I had her in the frame and her mouth was an ugly oval when I hit the shutter.

"What are you doing? What are you doing here?" she continued to shriek and I continued to hit the shutter; I was snapping shots like crazy.

"I wanted to see a whore," I told her from behind the camera, the Nikon, and I kept pressing the button. The auto-wind was screaming and everything was green-light as far as aperture and shutter were concerned.

"Stop it!" she screamed. "Stop it! Stop it!"

I ignored her, her words, and concentrated on her image, the image in the viewfinder. The few people who had noticed us ignored us and I kept hitting the shutter, the button that made the lens open and close around the image that would become Cookie when she was printed.

"I wanted to see a whore, " I told Cookie. "I wanted to see what a whore looks like after she's whored around. I wanted to see her in the frame."

And I took some more pictures.

"How does it feel, baby?" I continued. "How does it feel to be famous? Show me how it feels to be famous. You're going to be so famous."

"I can't believe you're doing this," Cookie sobbed and she slid down with her back against the wall behind her, the wall of her new boyfriend's apartment building, down to the dirty sidewalk in front of her new boyfriend's apartment building while her old boyfriend took some photographs of her sliding.

"That's it. That's it, baby," I encouraged her. "Work with me here. Work with me."

I kept snapping, kept looking for the best angles and the good shine off her tears, off the strings of snot and saliva across her face. It was a face I loved. I made some beautiful images that afternoon, I developed some beautiful prints, and Cookie's never seen them. She's never even asked.

22 June 2009

July Something, Maybe August

We, she and I, sat together across from one another at a wooden table set in the back yard under the big elm. Summer nights had begun and as the gloaming atmosphere blued itself toward another hazy darkness, I took an apricot from the bowl and carefully began to pull its flesh from the hard, dark stone with my mouth. Each bite dissolved into sweet juice as the fruit meat collapsed around my lips, against my tongue.

Moths flew methodical loopings against the lamp over the backdoor; the neighbors' windows trembled a soft television blue through window glass and curtain; I'm sure there was music playing inside our house. Careful, precise, I stripped the apricot seed to reveal it convoluted, shining and carefully I placed it on the table. And just as carefully, she lifted the wet seed of that fruit to her own mouth and carefully placed it within.

I stretched myself out on that table, my cheek cool against the polished wood and her fingers cool again and light against the skin that covers my throat. I could feel each click that apricot pit made as it brushed against her teeth and how each click echoed inside the bones of her skull and through her spine to her rib cage and down the long bones of her arm and through the maze of small bones knit together as her wrist and hand and that echo lingered there at the tips of her fingers, at the point of the lacquered plane of her fingernails, and lost itself in the tangled ropes of my pulse.

21 June 2009

The Brutal Joys of Morning

When I destroy your city, I will create a wasteland. And this, then, it is a kind of beautiful, reaching action.
-- Daniel Pallas
Within That Awful Flare: Futility, Obsession & Art

Constance draws the curtains against the rising light from the east
against the noise from the playground.
Constance walks faster & faster toward the rising light from the playground,
toward the curtains of noise drawn east.

Constance turns toward the noise, the light,
faster & faster like injury.
Constance aches against her walking,
ashamed of walking and
Constance rising and rising toward