04 July 2009

Morning Exercises

southern suburbs, Xi’an, Shaanxi, PRC, 1986

Every morning, we go down to the market and watch the axe men slaughter pigs beginning at dawn. They sleep there, too, both the men and pigs, and then standing in darkness among the carbide lanterns hiss and glare.

So much killing has made them, the axe men, cruel and, in boredom, they often torture the pigs just for something to do; they don’t kill them before gutting them and we watch that, too, pig eyes rolling first in pig skulls and then in the dirt, pig squeals thick in the air like seagulls screaming, the cast-iron smell of pig blood, and axe men laughing.

The people’s radio, the loudspeakers still affixed to poles around the market, at 7:00 a.m. Unified China Time still blare military music for morning calisthenics but nobody does them anymore. The cadence overlays all else like a tulle fog, shrill skirling, and numbers up to four, starting all over again.

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

03 July 2009

Pickman’s Progeny: The Horrid Truth Below

(After H.P. Lovecraft)

You ask me if I remember how we used to ride in the very front cars on the subway, pretend we were driving the train, pretend we were in control, back before the success and before the money and when we still road the trains. You ask me when was the last time I have ridden that way. Pour yourself another glass of port, old friend, for it’s the last bottle in my cellar. For god’s sake, light that cigar instead of letting it just hang out of your mouth; it’s the last of the Cubans. Start smoking and I’ll tell you about the last time I rode in the very front of the very front car of the subway train and why I’ll never do so again.

Graffiti changed in the 70s remember? It was the birth of wildstyle and the ghost of Vaughn Bodé stalked the Lower East Side, branding the sides of building, bus, train, and tunnel. Everything, whether moving or stationary, was tagged, decorated, illustrated, storified, politicized, aethetisized or otherwise adorned. Everything, whether organic or man-made, seemed to wear a coat of spray paint. And for every Keith Herring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, there were 10,000 others and far less talented scrambling through the night with their satchels of purloined paint and super jumbo markers seeking aerosol expression.

Those were crazy days and I remember watching white-powder deals transpire between white-lipped junkies and the local supply, an anonymous hand that reached up from a storm drain to take money and deliver drugs. It was way before crack.

Summer nights when the city just lay gasping and indolent beneath the filthy, wet heat, we would bounce from bar to apartment to loft to bar, music pounding all the time, torn t-shirts and safety-pins, spikes and gripes, white noise and black hair dye. The Ramones wrote our anthem, Talking Heads interpreted our dreams, Blondie asked us to dance, Devo introduced us to our destiny, Eno was a god, the Sex Pistols were our stooges, and the Stooges were our elders. Nothing made more sense than nonsense and we excelled at chaos.

So it was with the usual nihilistic buoyancy we boarded the train that (what’s a word that means “sweltering” but ten times so; what’s another way to say “brutal, aggressively hot, hellish, and virulently foul”) night in August. My 22-year old’s version of seduction dependent upon privacy, I pulled Daisy Mae away from the group with a promise of adventure and, in those days, the only thing worse than being ugly was being boring. Through car after car after car, I dragged her forward through each double set of graffiti-etched doors, across each gap with jostling couplings just inches below our feet and I hoped the joining of the subway cars put ideas into her head about coupling and jostling.

When we reached the very front of the very first car and stood at the only forward facing window on the train, stood just inches from the motorman locked in his motorman’s booth with his hand on his deadman’s switch, I put my arm around Daisy Mae’s waist and pulled her closer to me, soft flesh damp beneath damp Fruit-of-the-Loom cotton.

“How fast do you want to go?” I asked her.

“Faster,” she replied. “Always faster. No matter what, faster.”

And for some reason, the car sped up and we stood there swaying together, sweaty young bodies pressed together, and I was afraid I was getting a hard-on and afraid she would notice and thrilled that she would. We watched our own reflections, wet matted hair and pale faces and glints of silver, superimposed over the image carved by lamplight into the tunnel. I certainly did not pay attention to graffiti flashing by; it was a multicolored, ubiquitous background scrawl signifying nothing.

So I cannot tell you exactly when the neo-primitive obscenities of modern urban flash became replaced by something more Neo-lithic. The random-seeming letters and numbers of our many tribes’ jabber was infiltrated and soon supplanted by another tribes’ images of fat times and famine. The images I retain from my fragmentary glimpses of their passing are of rage and terror, hunger and violence, raw meat and bloody hands. Like a Lascaux Cavern of the insane, these crude murals unfurled like a demented cyclorama telling stories of the hunt, of the slaughter, and of the unholy feasts to follow where stalker and butcher and beast all appeared human.

Under what exact street and avenue that shift from 20th century punk tag to nightmare prehistoric cave painting occurred, I cannot say. I had my hand down the front of Daisy Mae’s daisy dukes and my fingers inside Daisy Mae and my tongue explored the long hard tendon of her shoulder. So did my teeth, but only a little bit and just hard enough to make her squirm. My tastes then, in contrast to my costume of punk anti-finery, were simpler.

It was the frozen image of something, something I don’t want to know, that took me from my pleasure. For one eternal second I saw a thing there in the tracks agleam with headlight glow and I will never not see it again. As if burned into my retina, I still raise my eyes to a thing, clad in pale leather loincloth, raising its eyes in fatal surprise from its awful feast there on the tracks, eyes wide and screaming and glowing in chorus to the screaming brakes, in pain from the awful stabbing light, in a rage at a meal interrupted and baboon or madman, mole person or demon, friend or terrible foe, what shall always remain behind my eyelids is the horrible image of its scant clothing and the terrible remnants of a tanned human face there covering its loins.

The rest of that evening is forgotten and Daisy Mae long gone. She said she never saw the thing that I saw and I believed her and I hated her for it.

So, my friend, let us savor the last of this fine port, the taste of contraband tobacco, and never, dear fellow, never ask me of the subway again.

(Published in Arkham Tales #1. Click cover or title for more information.)

02 July 2009


He shouted rhetorically.
She spun her back to him
and caught the stupid echo,
the one that came from
the glass wall and the wooden floor.
"Woof!" she said then wanted to hear it again.
She thought it like a lovely picture to herself,
something to look at over and over and over.
It could fit in her pocket like a good little hammer.

01 July 2009

Cold White Fungus In Heavy Syrup

Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, the People’s Republic of China, February, 1986

It had a name, a real name, a name like Pearl Music Garden or Fragrant Gardens, but the foreign students had begun calling it The Hey! What’s Happening? Some of our Chinese friends picked it up and the name spread until it soon seemed as if Xi’an’s entire demimonde called it that although we never knew what the owners thought about that nickname or if it was good or bad for business.

“Where do you want to go tonight?” a foreign student might ask.

“Let’s go to the Hey! What’s Happening?” another might answer

“Again? We went there last night.”

“Peace Café?”

“We went there two nights ago.”

“How about we just hang out at Jiaoze Hut with Madame Liu?”

Jiaoze Hut is a little hard to explain. I was visiting the city one afternoon with my new Chinese friend, Mr. Zhang, and we stopped to have a snack at a brand-new roadside snack shack that had a brand-new sign saying something like Six Felicitous Portents but also had a stencil of a happy, fat, Italian chef with a thin twirly mustache. The name Jiaoze Hut seemed almost mandatory with graphics like that. Jiaoze Hut was wobbly wooden stools and a dirt floor inside and wobbly wooden stools outside in the dirt proper and all under the diamond glare of carbide lamps. Half the ownership of the restaurant, the half that cooked, came outside to take our order, the first order, the first order of hundreds. She was a peaceful-faced woman whom the boy foreign students began calling Madame Liu. Her name really was Liu but calling her Lao Liu, i.e. Old Liu, just wouldn’t do); the girls ended up calling her Momma Liu or just Mom and we all called her the Madonna of Noodles in private) and she was wore a white apron and a white cotton cloth that tied around her head. She looked like Florence Nightingale or Mother Teresa.

Ni ye tongzhi yau shemma?” she asked Mr. Zhang. “What do you and your comrade want?”

Mr. Zhang ordered a half-kilo of jiaoze for us to split and a big green bottle of Fish Hill Beer, two glasses. “None of that horrible Xi’an beer that is always…um…err…fake…um…err…very bad.”

But he waited until Madame Liu turned her back and gone to turn his front toward me and stare saucer-eyed.

“Did you hear what she called you?”

“HUH?” I answered as a truck bounced through our section of potholes.

“Did you hear what she called you? She called you tongzhi. She called you 'comrade.'”

I stayed blank for a second until I could grasp what it meant when a middle-aged Chinese woman called a foreigner, any foreigner, “comrade.” People around here called each other “comrade,” they called anyone in a Mao suit comrade, and they might even refer to their animals as “Comrade Horse” or “Comrade Chicken” but they never ever called foreign student dead demon ghosts “comrade.”

We ate at Jiaoze Hut an awful lot, hung out there for hours playing drinking games with chopsticks with whoever happened to wander in. And then we learned that Madame Liu and her partner, ecstatically skinny Mr. Yue, the chopper and lifter and holder of flashlights when someone needed to piss outside in the pitch-black backyard, had gotten the license to run the Hut for one year only and then, when the year was up, they had to return to their respective work assignments of dormitory maid and truck mechanic. Neither was thrilled to think about going back to work like that and the Hut was making money hand-over-fist from the quality products at reasonable prices, the dozen foreign students who became regulars, and the old regulars, other middle-aged Chinese people who smiled and nodded at us over their steaming bowls of jiaoze. Nevertheless, there was nothing anyone could do and when, without a “going out of business” sign or a melancholy party or a final piss-off, the Hut closed, many of us cried to think of returning to the Peace Café or the Hey! What’s Happening?

But whatever it was called and whoever called it that, the Hey! What’s Happening? was just another low-rent gangster hangout for low-rent, shifting economy gangster pups playing the first act of their version of Scarface or King of New York or Iron Monkey Beats All, the part of the movie where the rising young gangster enjoys nightlife, the drugs, and the chicks. It’s an old story.

Still, even old stories have twists, and, in this one, I’m eating or trying to eat a bowl of cold white fungus soup that some new gangster-type or wannabe friend has purchased for me to enjoy at his expense and, therefore, perhaps, owe him a favor except this girl keeps banging into the table, this chubby Chinese girl who is chubby when Chinese-chubby-anything is still pretty rare considering the recent famines and troubles and food rationing and whatnot. She’s banging into my table because she is dancing convulsively, her sweater riding up over the roll of her belly fat, and, most remarkably, a necklace made entirely of Smurf key chains. Dozens of the adorable and adored Danish cartoon characters dangled from her neck and gnashed and clashed with each lurch or rumble she made in the name of rhythm.

Oh, yeah. She was also crying, sobbing hysterically as she danced for, at the or against the table. My new gangster wannabe friend ignored her so I did, too.

The soup was terrible. On top of being cold and made from white fungus, it was diabetes-inducing sweet, with a heavy lashing of industrial-strength high-fructose corn syrup on top of the reconstituted mushrooms. I couldn’t swallow a second mouthful.

“How is the soup?” he asked me, each word punctuated by a jostle to the table that set my the semi-solid gel in my bowl rippling to the beat of whatever Hong Kong pop music was rippling out of the sound system.

“It’s terrible,” I answered in that way one talks when the terrible food is still in one’s mouth.

“It’s good for your chi.”

“It’s awful.”

“It balances the winds within the body.” And he used a theatrical gesture to indicate the area between his sternum and his groin. The body. The winds. I didn’t know.

I spat the remainder of my cold white fungus soup into one of the waxed-paper squares the Hey! What’s Happening? used for napkins, made a neat little ball of the toxic sugar mush, and dropped it onto the floor.

“That’s it,” I declared and lit a Space Tour cigarette.

At almost that exact same instant, another gangster wanna be came stalking up to our table, grabbed the hysterical Smurf girl, and more or less dragged her back to their table where he delivered four good smacks to her face, two front-handed and two back-handed, in sequence. She didn’t stop crying.

“That’s really it,” I said. “I’ve had it. I’ve really had it.”

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

30 June 2009

On the Fourth Floor of the Shikishima Building

(for Mac and Yuri-san, Hiroshima 1993)

The sounds rain makes
when it falls on foreign pavements.
Sweet, and mild, this cautious noise;
the reflection of other lights
on different streets, happens
when small pleasures will suffice
and become large in another country altogether.

29 June 2009

Hot Wheels Run Through My Brain on those Orange Tracks

I remember Deora, lime-green bubble-topped fantasy hot-rod, and, when I clamped my daredevil loop to the top bunk of my only child bunkbed, how it would throw itself off the track in g-force induced delusion and tumble free until smacking itself against my closet door. I loved that little car.

I let twin red Camaros free on my nubbly chenille bedspread to act out the chase scene from Bullit on the San Francisco hills of my knees. I always wanted to be in Steve McQueen's car but never that other, bald-headed guy with the shotgun's car.

My little cop-car with the plastic blue flasher welded to the roof was almost always the bad guy and got confused on those dusty corners when the Mustang with the really steerable wheels did donuts by my desk. The odor of Crayolas shavings from the 64 box with built-in sharpener filled my head like gasoline fumes as I laughed and laughed along with another clean get-away, another harmless romp through the backwoods of my bedroom as the tiny little cool guy kissed the tiny little cool girl wearing tiny little cut-off Levi's and a tube top inside that tiny little Mustang.

I still have a drawing that I encased in wax paper with a hot iron under adult supervision of me, almost life-sized, sitting at the wheel of a gold custom El Camino with two surfboards in the back having a drag-race with a purple Baja Bug and I'm winning, I'm pulling ahead, but just barely.

28 June 2009

Choosing the Right Dog

He heard her voice coming from the porch but he couldn’t hear what she said.

"What?" He said it loudly with little inflection, just a pointed monotone for clarity. But still, exasperated as if she were interrupting him.

She repeated what she had said. He could tell she had not raised her voice or turned her head, or done anything to make it easier for him to understand her.

It sounded like she said, "Let's get a dog," something unusual enough to make him forget his irritation. He made a humming noise to let her know, if she could hear him, that he had heard her.

A dog was a funny thing to want. He wondered if she had a specific breed in mind, some kind of dog she'd seen on TV or out shopping. He got up and went to the kitchen, thought about going to the porch to talk about this dog thing. An unusual dog wouldn't be so bad as long as it was not a lap dog.

Softly, trying the phrase in case he could use it later, "That's all we need--a yapping dust mop running around the house."

He decided to like Dalmatians and Collies, maybe even Boxers. "Medium dogs," he said aloud, again to himself, "But not a Labrador."


He jumped when she yelled at him from the porch door.

She was the one who sounded exasperated. “Where's that extension cord?"

Daniel replied, "I thought you said, ‘Let's get a dog.’”