Friday, April 30, 2010

Rama's Bridge

Sirima awoke to air heavy with pending rain, calling birds, the clatter of passing people. She looked outside and saw a procession of people moving through the streets. Inside she could not find her husband. Off to cricket or tea, perhaps. Or just off. Crossing Rama’s Bridge, the ancient sandbank chain that once connected Sri Lanka to India, to be absorbed by the ocean, disappear and reemerge in a different life. Whenever he disappeared, her mind wandered.

In the center of the procession, she saw a coffin floating at the top of hands and heads. It was intricate, colored with gold and bright pinks and greens, mad cartoon-like faces, shiny green and red jewels. Outside, her neighbors were gathered in a small crowd. She walked to them, asked what was happening, who had died. They didn’t know. A religious leader, one said. No, perhaps a rebel warlord, said another. Maybe a great cricket player, a person truly worth such a display of mourning. Perhaps it’s empty, said another—a fake funeral staged by the government, to demoralize its enemies. Everyone grew quiet, pondering this possibility.

The coffin moved northwest, drifting clumsily toward India. The crowd moved with it, buzzing and swelling. Would they all fall in the sea, she thought.

Sirima stepped back, turned in a circle glancing for her husband. She did not see him. When she was a child, her father disappeared for long stretches of time. Ramesha, her oldest sister, would tell her, it’s all your fault, now you won’t see him again. Eventually, he’d return, covered in dirt, like he’d crawled from a hole in the ground, eyes and smiles older than before.

A body dead in a coffin, rotting in the humidity, skin and muscle consumed by worms. Or an empty coffin, a funeral of air, the world outside more ominous than the empty space within.

The wind gusted from the west. A monsoon was coming. The passing crowd was out of sight, followed by calm empty road. To her right, her husband emerged on the street, tossing and catching a blue cricket ball.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Man Who Fell Out of the Sky

I had lunch with the man who fell out of the sky, roast beef sandwiches at the outdoor café and an ice cream cone afterward. At first I didn’t believe his tale, since he would have been dead from impact, and how he didn’t know from where he came and only had selective bits of memory, but then he showed me the crater by the town’s outskirts, the bowl-shaped impact that was burned black and displaying perfect concavity. I saw that and believed him, looked at him with awe, his ice cream cone quickly a milky goo, wanting to touch his skin, feel a tingle of radiation, the warmth of stellar beings.

Friday, April 23, 2010

9: Finley

This story is the 9th part of the Griffin filmmaker series. It follows Eight by Eight.

Griffin writes down the facts of Finley, the character of the eponymous film, the director’s ninth. Growing up, trouble in school—bad grades, poor attendance, disciplinary problems—then trouble with the law, parents divorcing when he was a teen. The actor needs to have a thin, wiry physique, an almost jagged line presence that wears black well. This is character driven, he writes, this is shot in black and white. Strip it down from the excess of Eight by Eight. Make people forget that one ever happened.

Helena sees his notes, says, you ever considered starring yourself? You could be like Orson Welles. What do you mean, he asked. This character you’ve sketched—it’s you. Why don’t you add in precocious son, charming and lovely wife who hangs over your shoulder, gives critical bits of advice even when not asked?

She walks away and he’s left with white sheet of paper, the thin line scribble of his handwriting. He thinks then writes, wife meets untimely end, car accident, terminal illness. Later that night, he’ll wake up, Helena motionless by his side, her breath the sparsest of whistles, go to his desk, cross that line out. A cheap shot, humor too dark.

Six years later, when she does die from a terminal illness, he’ll have forgotten about this scribble that existed for a handful of hours. Months after she dies, he’ll wake up in the middle of the night and remember, think, was I that callous, flick on a light in the early morning hours, comb through his papers. He’ll see the words crossed out, letters dangling on a long black line. I’m sorry, he’ll say, then he’ll cry, he’ll turn off the white light, he’ll lie awake in darkness.

The day after he writes those crossed-out words, he’s at his desk, thinking, visualizing. She’s right: Finley is me. I’ll fast forward. I’ll make him me, older. He calls his casting director, tells her, look for thin, wiry, line-like. Find me in fifteen years. Also, a female, to be his wife. Charming and lovely. Stark eyes that see deep.

The film plays in his mind before a shot is ever taken. The world returned to black and white. A man that will be him, alone. Right now, this man is a hollow, two-dimensional shell, unrealized, no brain, muscles, blood, soul, organs. A scant line of existence.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Iceland, Please Come Back

Iceland, it wasn’t bad enough your banks fell apart the last couple of years and you wreaked financial havoc on yourselves and Europe (complicated economics stuff—you’ll have to look it up for the rundown), but now you’re back, with that recent volcanic ash spewing from your alien landscape (and those big black clouds look like an alien invasion). This ash has been heading south/southeast, blanketing England and parts of other European countries, grounding flights from and to the continent, posing a health hazard, and turning day into night. The experts are saying that there’s no sign of it letting up and the jetstream looks to continue in the same direction for at least a few more days. Up until now, we’ve all been comforted knowing there’s this little rock way up there called Iceland and there’s people living there and that we hear from you every now and then in commercials with blue-eyed kids standing in misty fog beckoning us to come visit. But now you’re all out there and we’re not liking it.

The name of this belching volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, sounds like you’ve just decided to go nonsensical or else to fling obscenities at the rest of us (all apologies if this name has some special meaning). Thanks, Iceland, thanks. Look, thanks to National Geographic and public television, we know your country is beautiful, the geography otherworldly. Who wouldn’t want to visit? We know that you guys offered to take Bobby Fischer off the rest of the world’s hands before he passed away. An off-his-rocker chess grandmaster would love the cozy far-off confines of your land, and we’d have been happy for his exile. We know that you gave us singer Björk and that ridiculous swan gown/costume thing she wore at the Oscars that one year, which gave us something to talk about every year when it’s Oscar season and Oscar fashion miscues must be discussed. She’s made some intriguing music over the years and I think the rest of us assume that most of you are just as delightfully a tad off-kilter like she is.

Charming stuff all of this, sure, but the rest of us down below need something more. Or less. In North America, we have Canada. A large part of it is cold and covered in ice, much like your land, and they’ve inflicted Doug Henning, Howie Mandel, and Celine Dion upon the rest of us, and their love of hockey and curling makes no sense, but they haven’t been responsible for tossing a wrench in world commerce or shutting down a continent’s air flights. You might be thinking, well, they just haven’t tried hard enough, but that’s not what I’m getting at.

In case you haven’t noticed, your country was created as geographically isolated in a severe sense. Looking on a map, we can see that you’re way up there, beyond where anyone could reasonably think anybody could live and live productively. You might be thinking, that’s exactly why we’re here, you urban-dwelling, pollutant breathing sardine whose lifestyle and culture is doing more to destroy the world than we ever have. Perhaps you’re right in some sense, but, what I’m really getting at here is, you’re too far away from the rest of us. Come back to us. It makes the most sense for you to move to Norway, but I’m sure Ireland would be happy to have you come too and besides, you’d only have to change one letter in your country name. Also, could a few of you find your way to Portugal? They’re a bit homogenized there and frankly we haven’t heard much from them since the 16th century.

Whether you stay or leave, we realize there’s nothing you guys can do about volcanoes (at least we think that’s the case). But you have power over other things, such as your names. Maybe they make sense to you guys and Norwegians, but I think the rest of us are confounded. Your best known writer is named Halldor. Two of your most famous artists were named Einar and Ásgrímur. You have a movie director named Baltasar. I propose that prospective Icelandic parents be required to put down the J.R.R. Tolkien tomes and pick up a copy of The Baby Name Bible. You can pick up a copy from Amazon for about 1,389 kronur (though no one's going to deliver it anytime soon because of your volcano issue). Do us all a solid, and before you crack open that book, know that no one’s naming their kids Gladys, Edna, Earl, or Floyd anymore.

Look, I realize you’re all relatively decent world citizens. We’ll never forget how you all did us a big one hosting the Reykjavik Summit. That meeting between the U.S. and the Soviet Union represented a big breakthrough in relations between the two countries and was the likely impetus toward halting nuclear proliferation. Thanks, dudes, but that’s been more than 23 years ago now. It’s time to throw us a bone again.

There’s an old Icelandic proverb that says Kálið er ekki sopið þó í ausuna sé komið, which translates as, the cabbage has not yet been sipped even though it is in the ladle. I don’t even know what that means, which just furthers my point here. Come back to us, in all ways. We’re not asking you to eat at McDonald’s or name your sons Ethan. You can still be as delightfully kooky as we already think you are. Just come back to us. We need you here, even if it’s just so you can explain that awful Björk swan outfit to us.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Timeless and Proud

My hair was gray and thin, my skin wrinkled and leathery, my mind a slowly dulling tool—okay, I was getting old. I was a well-accomplished citizen in my lifetime, including planning my town’s downtown revival as well as being a prime benefactor of the refurbished local theater and hospital. But my time was running short. The mayor came to me one day, offered me this: we make a memorial statue of you in the town square, complete with commemorative bronze plaque and lush garden. That’s great, mayor, I said should I approve schematics, artists and designers? He said, no, you don’t understand—we’re going turn you, your body, into the statue. We’ll bring in a gorgon, let her give you the ol’ stone stare, and voila, you’re memorialized for all time. It’s quick, painless.

Now recently, after various tests and consults, the doctor had told me I had about six months to live. My lungs were failing, my ticker was weakening, my kidneys were becoming more like the beans of the same name. He said, you can do some treatments, get hooked up to the best technology, take the best medications, and maybe we can stretch that out. I didn’t like the sound of that. I was pushing 80. My outer form, while not at its peak, looked much more healthful than what was happening inside. Maybe now it was time to check out before I became skeletal, a bad cartoon.

So I told the mayor, let’s do it. Later that day, he called me, said Medusa’s coming in on Thursday. I said, wasn’t she killed and beheaded by Perseus, and he said, yeah, in the Greek myth, sure, but this is real life. I was to come to the town square at two the next day, make sure all my affairs were in order. Last will and testament, my mail cut off, bills paid in full, services cancelled, etc. All of it a somber affair. I had no heirs. My wife had died 11 years ago, so not much to reconcile. That afternoon, the sky blue and sunny, I went to a local diner for my last meal, ordered their biggest porterhouse, regular Coke, fries covered in gravy, and a double-sized peanut butter sundae with triple peanut butter for dessert. Some of the younger townsfolk weren’t aware of who I was, the things I had done for the community. I said to my waitress, who had blue hair and multiple facial piercings, that I was going to be turned to stone not too long. Yeah, aren’t we all, she said, flipping her eyes.

At the town square, there was a small crowd gathered, everyone wearing the same pair of cheap-looking black sunglasses. There was applause and shouts of my name as I got closer. The mayor’s assistant handed me a pair, said, wear these until it’s time. A black Escalade pulled up. The driver, wearing the same sunglasses, hopped out, opened the back door. The sound of hissing snakes preceded Medusa, head full of wiry asps, eyes beaming like small stars. She wasn’t like the way she had been depicted in mythology books and in that Harryhausen movie. She had legs instead of being snakelike below the torso, wore contemporary slacks and blazer, and her body had a slight copper tint revealing barely visible scales. Her face was smooth and like a normal woman’s. An unfortunate squirrel at the base of a nearby blooming dogwood caught her gaze and became a lawn ornament. That sent a chill down my spine, filled me with second thoughts.

So, who’s the lucky duck, she said, her voice raspy like she’d been smoking a pack a day the last 2,500 years. I might be eternal but I ain’t got all day.

I stepped forward, swallowing, raising my hand, as she looked me up and down, the snakes on her head looking at me also, their heads bobbing side to side. Great, she said, I like the occasional civic gig. Works of mine are spread throughout some of the finer municipalities. Gotta tell you, though, being used for hits, lovers’ revenge type deals—much more lucrative. She looked around, said, who’s in charge here, let’s get this show moving!

The mayor stepped forward, said some nice words about the town, me, as I stood by his side. I smiled, thinking about days gone by, contemplating the beautiful sky and warm breeze, the chirping birds. My wife, who said to me once, they’ll make a monument to you some day in this town. Memorialized for all time, I heard the mayor say. He held up the plaque that would go at my feet, the base of the statue I was to become. He finished, shook my hand and patted my back, and there was applause. I was guided over to where I would become a statue. Several people worked with me to get me into a good pose—timeless, they said, timeless and proud. I could hear Medusa off to the side, out of eyesight, carrying on a phone conversation.

So, my moment had arrived. I kept my eyes closed and my body still as my sunglasses were removed. I felt the crowd buzzing around me, collective holding of breath. I heard Medusa’s voice. Think about forever, she said, her voice now smoother, think about some happy moments in your life, and when you’re ready open your eyes.

I remembered the ribbon cutting of the refurbished theater and my wife, beaming, by my side. The first production was The Glass Menagerie and we sat in the front row, enchanted, smiling and clapping. Then we walked home, the streets lazily chugging with cars, chimes tinkling in the wind, as we held hands. Wonderful times.

I opened my eyes, ready. I stared into the gorgon’s twinkling sun eyes, felt rigidity move through me, tickle the wide smile on my face, the firm pull of going home.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Police Blotter

As part of a plea bargain deal, Christian Bell, a career criminal charged and convicted for numerous crimes, agreed to allow his name be used in police blotter text for crimes that don’t involve him. In place of words such as “someone,” “a person,” or “a gunman” you will find the name “Christian Bell.” Some recent entries include the following:

In the 100 block of North Bridge Road, a man told police that Christian Bell, who was wearing a ski mask, approached his car and told him to get out. The victim said he tried to grab the gun and began driving away. The victim said Christian Bell appeared to lose his balance and his shoes came off his feet. Christian Bell then stopped to put on his shoes and ran away eastbound.

A neighbor called 911 to complain that Christian Bell was throwing potatoes through car windows.

The actual Christian Bell is male, though as part of the agreement, there is no distinction as to whether or not the perpetrator is male or female. Some illogical if unsettling entries include

Christian Bell, a female teenager, grabbed the hair of another female teenager and threw her on the ground in the 500 block of Northeast 37th Street. The girls were arguing about something that was said on the Web site No one was charged.

Christian Bell was charged with robbery after she reportedly bit a clerk and stole jewelry from a Main Street business in the downtown district.

Likewise, there is no distinction in regards to the number of perpetrators, so there may be multiple perpetrators named Christian Bell. So, there has to be an implied suspension of disbelief to absorb the following:

Two 14-year-olds named Christian Bell reported that they were robbed at knifepoint and that their ice skates were taken. It later was determined that both Christian Bells were lying. They recanted their statement and said that they left the skates in the bushes near a business on Broadway, but when they returned, the skates were gone.

Three youths named Christian Bell were spotted wrapping a car in Saran wrap. When approached by police, the three Christian Bells fled but one of the Christian Bells was apprehended.

The plea bargain deal requires that the name Christian Bell be used as substitution for a period of 18 months. After that time, there will be a 90-day period where the name Christian Bell will be used to identify new entrants into the witness protection program. After that period, the name returns to Christian Bell for him to use as he sees fit, pending violations of probation.

Friday, April 9, 2010

8: Eight by Eight

This story is the 8th part of the Griffin filmmaker series. It follows Overshadow.

In his eighth film Eight by Eight Griffin thought he could play with the number, have a little fun, go tongue in cheek. Eight guys on a caper, told in eight vignettes, the number eight keeps appearing in the film. For lack of better wording, the critics ate him alive. Griffin generally knew when he had a stinker and was caught off guard with this film, thinking it would be well received. He got halfway through the reviews he had in front of him and stopped reading. No good words. Say something nice to me, he asked his wife, breaking an evening’s silence. She lifted her head, said, you’re brilliant, an amazing husband and father.

He calls the paper looking for the critic and keeps getting the run around. This is Griffin, he tells the person on the phone, the director of Overshadow. I just want to ask him a question, is all. No, I’m not mad at him. Well, I’d have preferred a four star review, not two and a half, sure—look, he used a particular phrase, and I’m just curious to know what he meant. Is that a new policy, not taking questions, I mean, come on, this is a paper, he’s a member of the press, he skewers my film for all the world—okay, skewers, that’s a bit too much, sounds bitter. Well, to be honest, I think he missed the point of what I was doing, maybe he was having a rough day or something. Hello? Sure, you can transfer me to voice mail.

He didn’t sit still. He stared off into space. He moped. Helena watched him all day, suspicious of his moods, knew he was holding something back, but didn’t say anything. At night, they climbed into bed, he slipping between the covers like he’s afraid of disturbing the world, and she said, okay, what the hell’s wrong? What do you mean? All day, you’re sulking, you’re contemplating, you can’t mask it. He closed his eyes, sat upright, exhaled deeply. Do you think Forever East glorifies cult leaders? That’s what this guy said. I tried to play it evenhanded, be dispassionate if you will— You’re walking around like you’re in mourning, she said, laughing, and you’re worried about what someone thinks of your movie. Well, yeah— You’ve been doing this long enough, she said, toughen up, for crying out loud. She switched off her nightstand light.

In Revolution/Illusion, Griffin puts his political chops on the line, the article reads, and he decidedly shows himself as a rank amateur, not even a convincing illusionist like the main character in his work. Sitting in his office, windows open, hears the sounds of the city: car alarms, slamming doors, roaring engines, unintelligible chirping of people talking. He drops the article on the desk in front of him. His eyes closed, he hears his wife’s voice: don’t listen, they’re envious, they don’t understand. He opens his eyes. Outside, the city still, tall buildings drawn against bluest sky, swirls of white cloud that twist, disintegrate.

Helena, tired and body feeling broken, rested on the couch, her form a curved line. On the table before her were newspapers, clippings, magazines holding opinions on Sodium Pentothal. Her husband down the hall, the baby cries growing softer as he hushes, as the creaking wood of the rocker provides a music. At first she held the materials, intent on weeding out the bad reviews. I can protect, she thought, I can ease. But the accumulation of words became too much. The thoughts not so black and white, good and bad. She placed them down, closed her eyes, felt the firm pull of sleep.

There’s a moment he knew he used to feel just before opening the pages, just before eyes hit letters of text. A tingle on skin, heart rate increasing, stomach floating like helium balloon. That moment before the thoughts were real, just before he’d been elevated or dropped, a nonexistent pause in white space. Did he lose it after Negative, Richard’s birth? The title will show his name, the film, perhaps a quick description. It’s the possibility, the anything. Then the words, the flood of judgment.

Griffin clipped this passage from a review: “In Raging Life, Griffin’s second film, the director adds to the promise revealed in his debut two years previous. Cinematographic virtuosity meets a compelling, straightforward tale that is timeless in its existential nature. A mixture of arthouse sentiments and the best of Hollywood heart-tugging sentimentality—Griffin is clearly on his way to defining his own chapter in cinema.” He framed it, hung it near the front door of his apartment. The first time Helena came to his apartment, she stopped to look at it. This is affirming, he said, standing to her left, this is what lifts my head during difficult times. She nodded, smiled.

He’s at the festival the morning his first film, The Thirst, debuts. Head light, body achy from impending illness. Swirls of people move like blown shrapnel. Booths selling programs and t-shirts. The smells of grilling meats. Competing background music from speakers and live instruments. Why am I here, he thinks, this is a mistake. He thinks about the film’s opening sequence. A glass of water, the ripples disturbing the liquid, shot in black and white. They’re going to kill me. He looks in front of him, sees that, in the flow of people, a temporary empty space has emerged around him. He stops, looks around, then closes his eyes. I’m here, he thinks, I’m here, just before the space is obliterated.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Two more TSRF works @ Camroc Press Review

Two of my Thinly Sliced Raw Fish pieces, “Dale Murphy" and "Clearing the Table," are now up at Camroc Press Review. The permanent link for these stories at CPR is here.

"A Story About Glass” and “The Letters” appeared at Camroc Press Review in January, found here.

Thanks again to CPR editor Barry Basden for publishing these pieces at his excellent site.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Spring Rolls

M declared to the world, no more spring rolls, a placard holding those words dangling from his shop door, no explanation given. His four star eatery, his cuisine of culinary envy, the linchpin of many diners’ lives. The favorite—shrimp, covered in basil, mint, cilantro, and fish-lime sauce—gone. It wasn’t just a menu thing; spring rolls were the menu. It wasn’t about restaurants; he insisted he’d be content keeping open a menu-less collection of tables if people still came. I’m done, M told his wife. She begged him to reconsider, even suggested he sell the menu rights to someone else, but he wouldn’t. Why, on her knees, but he had no answer for her. It’s like burning money, you fool, what will we do now. Her last words before storming away. Hungry crowds swelled outside the shop, their questions variations on the wife’s. The inevitable happened—M, coming to the shop late to erase his presence, was taken at gunpoint by masked assailants. In a dark room, they demanded, again and again, why, and reconsider, and he said, I owe you no why, and no, each time, which did not satisfy them, as they kept demanding, their voices and postures turning to murder, as he remained calm, the picture of order.