The Middle-Aged Strategic

Self-Indulgence Initiative

A Bawdy Novel

 

 

by

SparkEye

(H. Alan Tansson)

2002


PREFACE

The concept of someone carrying out a specially- planned initiative in self-indulgence occurred to me in the middle of my own middle age, when I was stricken by the need to touch. I referred to it as a “strategic” initiative, since I was still married at the time, and had no interest in turning in my shackles.

My wife was quite a puritan at heart, and if I ever tried to give her a hug, she would thrust her cat at me, and say "Here, take Calvin!! He needs a good hug!!”

I should have prefaced this by saying that my ex-wife spent most of her time being very funny, and could keep me rolling in the hallway clutching my gut with guffaws; but because I could never even give her a hug – after 20 years of laughing in the hallway - I soon became acquainted with a 32 year old woman who was not in my immediate family and whom I came to like very much.  Once a week I would trade 2 hours' wages for 10 minutes of caresses and 5 minutes of talk - or visa versa.

It so happened that besides being an amateur botonist who raised striped roses, she was nearly done her Masters' degree in psychology, and already considered herself a social therapist.  Due to lack of the degree, however, she was only half as expensive as a psychiatrist.  Of course, maybe it was because she was so lightly clad.... but all in all, I figured I was doing pretty well, since I could've spent twice the money just laying on a couch talking to the ceiling about my need to touch someone.  

Here, for just half the price of my medical deductible for a shrink, I could lay on the couch touching someone!

But contractual touching is not a highly-spoken-of form of entertainment, whether or not it is highly-favored among the masses of men in similar predicaments to my own.  For this reason you are now holding a novel, written about a character who no one would recognize as me unless they squinted real hard.

At the time I have just described, I was working for the government on a now-forgotten project conceived by the first American president ever to be a member of the Hollywood Actor’s Union.  This particular project was an attempt to encircle the earth with a spider-web of satellites capable of vaporizing an enemy missile with a deathray.[1]  It was called “The Strategic Defense Initiative,” or SDI.  This is therefore the nomenclature I borrowed for my character’s own strategic initiative.

The objective of my main character, SparkEye, was considerably less global than SDI.

As he was nearing 50 he sorely wanted to give in and buy into the sexual hype of our American culture.

He had never believed that by buying a screen-door for $129.98 he would get to cuddle the sexy model opening it on that glossy mailer, or that by going to the Ford dealership with a billboard of a dazzling blond caressing the hood of the new model, that he would ever get to fall into her arms.  He knew this, and yet he decided he wanted to purchase some of these products; and so this is how the Middle Aged Strategic Self-Indulgence Initiative came about.

Back in Mr. Reagan’s days, the Strategic Defense Initiative was actually known as “Starwars,” because it was easier to remember and easier to say.   And so the Middle Aged Strategic Self-Indulgence Initiative was soon to be known as “Squeezeplay,” a term taken from baseball which simply means:  “whatever they throw at you, bunt.”

You will understand that whenever our character refers his odyssey as a “Squeezeplay,” you will understand that he means The Middle-Aged Strategic Self-Indulgence Initiative.  This really tells it like it is. 

The guy SparkEye you are about to meet had been practically celibate until his 50th year.  After that, he never said no to himself for anything.

 

 

H. Alan Tansson
Table of Contents

PREFACE.. 2

Chapter 1.. 7

Oblomovitis.. 7

How To Become Interested In Life By Falling In Love. 10

The Harmonics of Love. 12

An Experiment With Emotional Displays.. 14

The Experiment Is Over. 16

My BMW Really Takes on a Personality.. 18

OBSESSION.. 22

THE SILVER BALLOON.. 25

Chapter 2.. 28

Whoppers, Puccini, and Angels.. 28

GETTING AN ANGEL ASSIGNED TO YOUR CASE. 33

THE RIDDLE of the SPHINCTER. 36

Chapter 3.. 42

Story of a Pilgrimage. 42

SPOILING A GOOD THING.. 45

THE PRIEST IS ON TO ME. 47

MORE SIGNS.. 48

I DISCOVER THE TRUE NATURE OF SIN.. 50

"I Discover the True Nature of Sin".... with a very buxom blond at a roadside joint in Indianapolis, cont'd. 51

THE LURE OF THE TAWDRY.. 54

Chapter 4.. 65

What the Impish Smile Concealed. 65

Left Turn at the Big Five-O.. 70

THE ELECTRIC SPOT.. 72

*******. 75

PORN.. 75

ART AND PORN.. 76

AT IT, AGAIN.. 82

THE SPHINCTERESS.. 84

MY MANY MACHO MANOEVRES.. 85

I SPREAD MY NET and am CAUGHT BY A FISH-HOOK. 87

Chapter 6.. 89

The Phoenix. 89

NO TIME FOR PATIENCE. 91

Chapter 7.. 97

The Fountain of Sexplay. 97

MAKING LOVE. 101

INTIMACY.. 102

SOME INCORRECT ASSUMPTIONS.. 105

DRUNK ON THE SPEAKER-PHONE. 109

SAVED FROM SLAVERY.. 111

A COMIC BOOK HERO EMERGES.. 116

BACK IN BED.. 117

BLUEBALLS.. 119

Chapter 8.. 124

A Pilgrim Returns. 124

Chapter 9.. 129

The Curse of the Sphincteress. 129

ALANNA STRIKES BACK. 130

OUR "FIRST DATE". 134

Chapter 10.. 140

Stumped in Hell. 140

THE FOUR QUESTIONS.. 140

The BARGAIN BASEMENT in HELL! 149

Chapter 11.. 154

The Peter Pan Principle. 154

DITCHING PETER. 156

Chapter 12.. 159

The 2nd Pilgrimage. 159

THE JOURNEY'S END.. 166

Chapter 13.. 170

Soap Opera Often ends in Death... 170

BIANCA.. 170

THE CALL. 172

THE FALSE ENDING.. 175

Chapter... 180

Spilling the Beans. 180

AN END TO LOVE. 180

*****. 186

Stuck in the Elephant House. 186

Chapter... 189

Meeting in the Middle. 189

HOW THE CHAINS FELL OFF. 190

What twenty francs will buy.. 194

What the Squeezeplay was about.. 196

AFTERWORDS.. 201

Moths Around a Flame. 203


Chapter 1

Oblomovitis[2]

Your Fortune ~~   To look straight ahead is as simple as putting on a mask

After my dad died, I was listless. My dad didn't seem to be the cause of my listlessness. I felt I couldn't be in mourning, because I hadn't shed enough tears to fill the bottom of a teaspoon.  I didn't miss him, he was just a good friend who had taken off somewhere.

My dad had been a professor with stern expectations of who I was to be and how I was to act. Anything that wasn't in the ivory tower made no sense to him and was part of a great scam on mankind.  For my part, I believed that everything in the ivory tower was part of a great scam on mankind.  So the two of us didn't really see eye-to-eye.

However, when he died, my motivation suddenly disappeared.  I was tired of working thirty years of double-time at get-successful&rich-quick schemes.  Thirty years trying to prove my dad was wrong about who I was to be and how I was to act.  And now I had no energy, no emotion at all.  My only remaining interest was to spend the evenings at the bar watching kids half my age pick each other up. 

I was neither depressed, angry, or bitter about anything.  I was just tired and running on empty.

I would drop my daughter off at school and then come home and sit.  Just sit.  I would have been fired for coming to work at noon with a different excuse each day, but at my kind of work - writing manuals and specifications - nobody notices whether you are there or not, or asks anybody anything except through email.        The best part about email is you can return it at any time and if it is time-stamped at midnite everyone sees you stay really late and love your work.  So I'd wander around in my car for four hours and then stay at work til midnight when I would return all my emails and thereby hold onto my job.  On the way home I'd go to the bar.

My wife was pleased in the change that had taken over me, since I no longer bounced around the house.  She had wanted me to accept my fate as a simple clerk in the high-tech world.  To become Mr. Jones from the famous team up the block, Mr. & Mrs. Jones.  Mr. Jones wears a fedora and drives at 15 mph.  He is one of the last people on earth to tip his hat.

Being a failed creative writer was all right, since an amateur alcoholic (working on "professional alcoholic" status) is easier than a 50-year old with springs who bounces off walls every six months.  She'd even let me leave the house at 1:AM for a beer with the admonishment, "Don't make a clatter when you come back in at 2:30!"  

This is called a very understanding wife.  But the encouragement didn't help matters.

I was not interested in packing any more life into life.  There wasn't any life to pack anything into.  When you're in a state like this you don't do much but stare at a television.  You're pretty much beyond help and want to stay that way, which is why you are drinking while you are staring.

This was before I started going to the Gentleman's Club on a regular basis.

****

I didn't have to go out of my way.  I live in New Jersey.  We only lived about 4 blocks from the closest Gentleman's Club in the deodorized corporate armpit of the country.  Everybody should be so lucky.  One day, like those that come along about every three months when I had my cyclical pubescent period, I went in.  This time, however, I went to give a dollar to the girl on-stage and her face opened wide:

"Spark Eye!  I never thought I'd SEE you again!!"

I hadn't remembered her when I went up to the stage. Now I did.  I'd seen her three days in a row about a year before.  She was a very funny person with a quick wit, and was given to making goofy faces.  She also had this trick of imitating coitus by curling her tongue so that the post sticking through the end (of her tongue) went in and out of the hoop stuck through the middle (of her tongue).  Obviously a great talent for goofy things.

Because she was goofy, I'd given her a picture of my head cut off laying on a pile of fortune cookies.  No wonder she remembered me.

Her name was Alanna.  I really liked her, and had purposefully avoided seeing her again because I might get a crush on her, or get obsessive with someone who was not my wife. Something like that.  Now, of course, I wanted to see her again.  I asked her for a favor.  If she always asked me how my "book" was coming, I would stop in every week.  She agreed.  And so I started serious work on a little book of essays called Captions which I'd been procrastinating for 10 years. This worked very well, for while I didn't much want to write, I wanted to say hello to Alanna.  So I became very productive again.

****

How To Become Interested In Life By Falling In Love

 Things went well for several months.  I plowed ahead with those all-important manuscripts, and though Alanna had moved to a sister-club three towns away, I went and got my hug of encouragement each week. 

I started thinking of myself differently.  I was ashamed of the car I'd been driving for the last 100,000 miles.  At 200,000 miles it was funky.  I knew this because when I pulled up to the local convenience store one night a whole crowd of skate-rats with orange hair and pants falling off made straight for my car thinking it was theirs, parked alongside.  I suddenly identified with them.  I felt that funky.  Alanna pictured me as an artist and writer, and for the first time in my life my packaging made a difference, and so did the car I drove. 

I bought a beautiful classic BMW from an obscure old-fashioned car lot on the edge of the city with nicely lettered signs to warn you of vicious dogs, and quaint 20 ft. barbed-wire fencing reminiscent of rural days in the Old West.  Naturally the deal was cash only.  I named the car "Alanna." 

One day with time on my hands, I stopped into the local club where I'd first met Alanna.  There, talking to a young cripple in a wheelchair was the sweetest, plumpest, most angelic young thing who was also a dancer.  Now I'm not generally forward, but suddenly finding myself in an altered state of decorum, I went over and interjected on a very creative note:

"When you're done here, I'd really like you to stop over to say hello to me."

A few minutes later she came over. My mouth dropped open. She was sweeter and cuter and more angelic than I thought. It was time for that line "What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?"  But my mouth just hung open.

She asked how I was and I replied, "Very bad. I really think I need to fall in love."

"It's the same with me" she replied.

"I'm thinking I could fall in love with you mighty easy," I said.

"It wouldn't do you any good," she answered, "I'm moving to the mid-west to finish school at the end of the month."

"I just need a month." I replied.

"It's not a good idea." She said. "Besides, I have a boy-friend, already."

"But you understand.  You'd just be helping me fall in love.  The falling is what counts.  I think I need to fall in love -- with love, not you."

"I think you'd better think it over" she grimaced.

"I'll take the week-end." I replied.

That week-end Alanna, my car, was rear-ended.

****

The Harmonics of Love

OR

 What the Makers of Lysol and D-CON Roach Traps Had to Offer

Her dancing name was Daisy.  That week-end I let myself fall in love the way I used to when I was young.  Being a married man, I had not enjoyed this luxury for a quarter century, and it seemed fairly controlled under the circumstances -- what with managers and all kinds of rules to protect the girls.

What was different about my circumstances on that particular week was that the previous week I had started a month-long commute to the corporate headquarters of Lysol, Red Devil Lye, English Furniture Polish, and D-CON roach traps.  They also made mouse and rat traps and a host of other products which I dare not go into for fear of confusing the reader with the wierd nature of large horizontal conglomerates.  In any case, it was a wonderful place to work, and even better, I got weekly checks to reimburse me for Alanna's mileage.   And while the checks didn’t fix Alanna’s scrunched rear, they covered far more than gas with lots leftover for discovering love on the way home.

I saw Daisy daily, but didn't stop visiting Alanna each week, for she still meant something special and I told her so.  Like all the songs about love.  My pores opened up.  The days seemed endless; I not only worked feverishly but got everything done and more, filling every other moment with a new idea of what to do for Daisy in my moments off.  That month was a year.  I took Daisy poems, gave her tapes of love-songs I'd written before she was born, drew her picture, brought her flowers every day from a photo series of morning-glories.  I behaved like a 19-year old.  I started singing again. I couldn't wait to wake up each morning, and drive to work to write lyrics on the way.

From the start, Daisy was touched.  She reciprocated my attentions.  She understood the game, and fell in love with love as well.  Of course, that's all it was.  We didn't know each other.  I was rejuvenated, and she let herself have a crush on a substitute high-school teacher... which was, appropriately, me.  When she was on-stage she would dance as if we were alone in the club, and when she wasn't dancing, whenever she could, would hold my hand until I left.

But then something funny happened.  I started doing more things with my family.  I started to love myself, and recognized how much I loved my family, and realized how deeply I had always loved my wife.  I had always told the girl with striped roses and Alanna stories about my wife and her antics out of 1950 sitcoms, but now I really appreciated her as being someone very very unique.

I know this sounds silly, but I never could have learned all of this without the unflinching trust and financial support of the makers of Lysol, Red Devil Lye, English Furniture Polish, and the D-CON anti-roach system

*****

An Experiment With Emotional Displays

The month I was in love with Daisy turned out to be the slowest, most magnificent process I could ever wish for.  Falling in love from the core of my childhood outwards. 

It was 30 days of blossoming feelings.  The new reality Daisy gave me was utterly marvelous.  Of course, it was mostly the thought of being with her – as if I was 20 again.  I was reconstituting a self that had existed at 18 or 20 - with its entire emotional structure.  Falling in love with someone I didn't even know any more than for a few short minutes of stolen chatter, each day for 30 days. 

Absurd as it seemed, I began looking forward to having a wedding someday.  It was really as if I were 18 or 20.  I had never had a wedding, nor had I ever dreamed of one.  My wife and I had been married with four people present.  Now somehow the entire mental fabric of an 18 or 20-year old was being rebuilt.   I could picture flowers, tents, the bridal gown, lots of guests, and being given away by our parents.  I had no more parents, so I pictured my wife giving me away! 

Never having had a graduation or celebration either, there was apparently a great inner need for a rite of passage.  Falling in love had put me in tune with these inner needs, but this experiment in love was going off-the-wall.

  I kept telling myself that we were only in love with love and not each other, and that this affair was still very safe.

"Hah," I said, nearly climaxing at the mere thought of my cherubic 20 year old amour, "it could still be dangerous."

It was.

Well into the second week my pipes were pumping me up with harmonics I couldn't imagine. Being a scholar, and recognizing the relatively unique physical status of this heightened state - that is, from a statistical standpoint - I felt that further experiment was in order. 

On a particularly clear morning commute to the makers of L, RDL, EFP, and DCARS,  and with little traffic on the parkway, instead of singing my typical lyrics and thinking of Daisy's cherubic face, I decided to try thinking of her from a slightly different angle, considering a different set of lips, that is.  The experiment was to think of her lips and make the sound of feelings - i.e. their effect - without having any other physical feeling whatsoever. To moan and creak like a hot summer's day spreading the expansion joints in the bridge between us.

 The experiment worked.  The moaning brought on fierce thrushings in my pipe organ. Driving along with my hands on the wheel, moaning out them natural rumbling harmonics like I'd never sung, pleasure mounted up to a 25-minute head --- my capacitor was continually energizing and sparking over -- merely by making sounds and picturing union with my dream-baby for 25 minutes.  I had never felt anything like it in my life. 

After a few narrow escapes on the way from the car through the parking lot, past security and up to my cubicle, I was able to stay sequestered for about two hours until the experimental results dried out.  

What this proved was an old almanac saying about the importance of the way you act.  That is, how you act is how you end up feeling inside.  So if you act mopey because you feel mopey, you'll stay mopey.  But if you act happy because you feel mopey, you might just end up feeling pretty good.  You may not accept my experiment as an example of this, and that's for you to decide.  No matter.   This was a dangerous experiment anyway, for in life nothing is "just an experiment."  It is real and it may pack a punch.  And for all those 25 minutes on the parkway, the thought of Daisy was getting into me powerfully deep.

****

The Experiment Is Over

My wife told me she'd gotten hold of a really special price on a 10-day trip to France.  It was leaving in three days.  I told her to book me, too - whether she wanted me to come or not, cause I was going no matter what, and told the boss if they didn't give me the time it was "Adios".  I got 7 days instead of ten.

That was OK.  Having been a contractor most of the kids' life, my vacations only came when I was out of work, and it ain't no vacation sitting by the phone waiting for an agent to call.  So I usually went to work for Manpower between jobs, and that comes down to having no vacation anyway. And now my son was off to college, and there might be no more chance of a family vacation again.

It's super when everything works right out of a script.  I had always been the laughable dork at home.  On our first big trip I ran the show. I got to be Dad for the first time in many many years.  Our kids didn't know their dad could find his way around Paris as well as their little corner of New Jersey, or that the dork was as self-confident with a native accent in a different language. 

Everyone had a great time.  For seven days there was a heightened feeling of excitement and participation in just about everything.  Paris, Burgundy, the food, the countryside, my kids' first castles….Then I had to fly home three days early to get back to work.

  How quickly you can swap one script for another!   We circled the airport three times in landing. The landing pattern went right over Daisy's club, and several seconds later, Alanna's club, and the trip was immediately behind me.

That night I spent my left-over trip money on Daisy for a good-bye.  We were escorted in the back room by the tough and sexy Club Mistress, Shannon.  It was a very pleasant simulation.

The next night was Daisy's last, and the girls held a party for her.  I was invited and Alanna was there. 

"Surprise!!"  she said with a mischievous twinkle. She'd switched clubs for the week, and had heard all about the previous evening.  I acted calm and cavalier. Daisy pouted.  We said goodbye and that was it.

The next day I wanted to pour myself out to Alanna.  She was ice cold.

I had thought she understood.  I loved her differently, like a best cousin, or childhood buddy - someone you'd never really lose even if you hadn't seen her in years.  I thought it was more personal and less idealistic.  But I'd never experienced jealousy before, and Alanna was jealous.   She was curt and cordial, and wouldn't give me the time of day.  She wanted to hurt me back.  So when she switched back to her old club without a word I didn't go see her again.

 

My BMW Really Takes on a Personality

Back on the day Daisy left for college the rear-end damage had been repaired on the car.  I'd gotten the smash taken out while we were on vacation.  When I went to the airport to pick up the family - about 25 minutes after Alanna gave me the cold shoulder - the radiator blew.

From then on Alanna, the car, acted up whenever Alanna, the girl, would have been jealous.  

This part of the story is important because it is in the nature of stories and lives.  They're intertwined and we hate to leave little pieces out - especially when they seem magical or lead into something special.  And since this car took on a personality that lasted deep into the heart of several later chapters, it is a worthwhile little sidetrip.

So after Daisy went back to school there were some minor flings with a number of different girls - and even though these flings weren't real flings because they only took place at a showbar, with each one the car acted up.   I'd be driving home, the moment I thought about stopping to see someone the hood would immediately pop.  It would never pop open at any other time.  If a girl walked by in the parking lot and I looked, I could only think "what is Alanna going to do now?"  And before the thought was finished she was thumping against the blacktop like a cripple.  Her tires were somehow very adept at finding a utility knife blade or a bolt.... and so I stopped looking at girls when I was driving. 

LECTOR:  You were imagining it.

AUCTOR:  I wasn't imagining it. 

Whenever I heard some odd sound in the car, I'd ask myself first what thought had been going through my head when it happened. 

LECTOR:     Admit it. You are always thinking of girls.

AUCTOR:  I thought of that.  But there is always and there is always.  I'm not such a blockhead to have only one thought up in there.  If that were true I could not have articulated a book.

LECTOR:  Don't tempt me.

AUCTOR:  No. The flats, the hood flying open, the brakes going squooshy, would be immediate and unequivocal.  Not two minutes after, not 20 seconds after, but it would happen immediately as the thought of stopping to see one of the girls resolved itself in my mind. 

LECTOR:  Don't tell me.  You stopped going?

AUCTOR:  No. I just stopped going with anyone special in mind.  Besides, by then I’d started dancing at the club myself.[3]

And so, I repeat, I started dancing at the club myself. 

Admiring the gyrations of one of those young things I had stopped thinking about seeing one night, when the club was nearly empty as usual – the floor manager asked if I wanted to join her.  She particularly reminded me of a lithe black girl I had danced with in a film during my college days (when I had played a bald, mustachio’d and greased-down Turkish dervish).  I had not danced since my hair had grown in – and it did not take much convincing to get me up on stage to see what 30 years had done to my style. 

The girl was surprised.  So were the other girls – who from then on insisted on repeat performances for those who had missed me in the guise of a wild-man.  And that is how it happened that when I left my boring job at midnite, I could look forward to a step or two on-stage at my local strip club before stopping for a drink and going home and climbing into bed with my wife and cat, ten minutes later.

About seven months later Alanna switched clubs and showed up.  She pulled me to her and said how much she missed me, and made me promise to come see her again.  I realized how badly I'd missed her, too.  I came to see her the next night, and promised to see her the day after next. 

I wanted to run away with her.  I actually thought through the whole process of leaving my family.  I did not quickly dismiss the thought. This wasn't healthy.

The next night, instead of going to see her I went to talk to someone I could trust.  Things had gotten worse than I'd thought.  We had a great talk.

*****

OBSESSION

Earlier that year the evening news had been jossled by the story of a local lawyer who killed his wife for the insurance money to spend on an erotic dancer.   This was naturally the first thing that anyone at that time would think of if one were to acknowledge going to the local strip clubs.

I was just turning 50 and my wife and daughter always made fun of me as a nerdy bookish bumble.   I’d begun to believe them.   It was this dilemma which sent me to the Office on Aging.  I was so proud of myself at the local strip clubs, I wanted to tell my wife and daughter.  Just to get them off my back, of course.  So I had to tell someone that I could identify with my wife's perspective - for she was over 50 by now - and it was clear that the Director of the Office on Aging was someone who could identify with my wife. 

“My wife figures I’m spending my time and dollars at the bar obsessed with all my failures in life, talking to other losers like myself.   But at my “Gentleman’s Club” I am truly a  success – where some of the girls even pay the establishment to sit and talk with me.  They all ask about my wife and family and I ask about theirs.  I want my wife and family to know all about the girls too!”

She nearly bust a gut laughing.

"But I'm serious" I was saying, "When I walk in there they announce my name "AND our NEXT sexy cyberdancer has just walked in... Let's have a big round of applause for SPARKEYE!!"

"That's why I had to talk to YOU," I went on.  “I'm absurdly proud of it,... and being up there in their place has done wonders for my obsessions with these girls.”

And so by telling my wife's oldest friend, who happened to be the Director I have been alluding to, and having her laugh so heartily, I confirmed that it WAS an accomplishment of an odd sort.

 She laughed so hard I realized that I had actually achieved the epitome of the nerd.  I could see myself as The Pink Panther sneaking into a strip club, unseen by friend or foe, and then announced on the loud-speaker the minute he gets in….dragged by buxom babes to the dance-floor.  A meek Woody Allen or Robin Williams transformed; the man beneath the mouse leaping to the fore to do a studly rendition of the male animal…… before the bullets begin flying.   But just in the movie. 

"But please," she added, "try to let go of this.  For these aren't the greatest of places to be hanging around, given that you have a family, and are considered a respectable parent by other parents."

Well, she was right.   But it also made me feel like a writer who still had energy to get into slightly risky and ridiculous situations.  And if Robin Williams or Peter Sellers could do it, perhaps my family would one day excuse me too. 

I told her how I felt, and the Director, who was also the Adjunct Mayor of the City, said she would forgive me….”But please be careful.”

So I went to the showbar the next day.

Alanna was not there that night.  Neither was she there the next night.  I didn't dare ask where she was.  The next week I asked.  She'd quit.  

Then Alanna's rear wheel-bearings gave way. She rattled like someone left a wrench in her drive-shaft.  She jerked and skidded as her wheels alternately jammed.  I always knew Alanna had a mean temper, but the car had just played jokes on me up to now.  It was clear the girl was through with me, and I must have meant enough to her for the car to have thrown itself so far out of kilter.  I was going to dump her for twenty-five bucks, but then my mechanic prevailed on me paying him $1000 to fix her up.  What can I say?  I was attached to the old girl.

That was just after Thanksgiving.  About a week later a pet shop owned by one of the girls burnt down.  The pet-shop owner was Shannon, the girl who'd accompanied Daisy and I into the back-room. Strapped for cash, she had let the insurance lapse for December.  Now Shannon started coming onto me strong; she started buying me drinks to sit and talk.  She wanted to get started in another business, and wanted me for a partner!!  She knew I wasn't rich.  She just wanted me to help her get her strength back, and as her business-partner! This was apparently going to be the next chapter of my book.

 

THE SILVER BALLOON

I'll readily admit I believe in cars that act like people. The personification of inanimate things seems natural, because this behavior happens with an odd regularity to seem beyond coincidence. 

When my son was new to this world, and old enough to see movies we took him to see The Red Balloon, a classic French childrens' film of a little boy with a balloon that follows him around like a dog.  The next weekend at my uncle's 60th birthday, someone gave my son a silver helium balloon.  The older kids let theirs go, to watch them float over the Hudson, but my son held on to his and took it home.  It hung on the ceiling over his bed for several days until it lost just enough helium to rest by his head.  The next day it began following him.  I was playing legos with him upstairs in the attic and was suddenly startled to see the balloon - which had been by his bed - appear at his back.  He laughed because it was just like the movie.  So I told him to go to the far end of the attic.  The balloon followed him.  Had I not had other similarly magical experiences I guess I would have been spooked, but after all - movies imitate life and visa versa, right?  My son just assumed it was the natural behavior of balloons.

When we got done with the legos we went back downstairs, shutting the door behind us, and leaving the balloon to its own designs.  About half an hour later my wife opened the attic door and the balloon dipped into the living room and made its way to the kitchen where my son was.  When he went to bed that night it came in from the living room and hung over his crib.  I want to say "lovingly hung over his crib," but this would be attributing too much to a mere balloon.  Balloons can't love. 

As it sank a bit each day I'd cut its string enough to lighten its load and let it keep floating and following him.  Soon there wasn't any more string to cut off.  The poor balloon lost heart and sank down to his pillow.  I think it's flat in his baby book now.

So after the silver balloon, you can understand that a jealous BMW would not surprise me in the least._

 


Chapter 2

Whoppers, Puccini, and Angels

Your Fortune: When a day can seem a month, a year may be just 12 days long.

There I was, sitting at my desk on the 4th of July weekend, eating a Whopper, and checking random samples of endless database dumps for missing digits that wouldn't be missed anyway.  Earphones on, I was thinking of the girl that would soon be my angel.

I normally unpack immense amounts of emotion from Turendot and Madame Butterfly.  But this girl was the real thing and Puccini seemed like the Whopper I was chewing; good enough to get me through the day.  I could have been listening to Country-Western in the car.  There wasn’t any need to unpack emotions from music when the real thing was as focused as it was - like looking at sunlight reflecting off the bottom of a river.  I was staring down through 50 feet of crystal clear water.   Who needed opera?

Her smile was almost impish.  The smile of someone who had just completed a crossword puzzle.  Crossword puzzles give you a feel of what "closure" must be about, like she had filled in the last letter of her life and could suddenly see all the words, and they made sense.  You figure if that much happened to you,  you’d smile too. 

I saw her face in my mind’s eye.  It was positively glowing, beatific.  Her feet stuck out of the linen shroud - toes pointed, leaping up.    There was a wilted white lily on her chest.    Byronesque, art nouveau, an addition of Oscar Wilde placed there after she died by the old professor emeritus in innocent obedience to his Victorian sensibilities.

And here I was checking data at the office.  It seemed normal.  I’d stopped at Burger King and that was real.  It was what had happened in the last few days and hours that was surreal.  

I'd experienced a whole new life squeezed into six weeks when I had become the caregiver and lover of a woman I hardly knew. 

It had only been four days since her father and Valerie came to help out, but among us three we all knew it had been a month.  Her friends and Aunt Jo I'd known for years, but we'd met for the first time only the week before.  Time's funny that way. 

And coming to work from the funeral I couldn't pass up a special on those Whoppers.  We reconfigure reality mighty quick when we have a motive like nine hours to spend in an empty office, funeral or no.  Here I was in the dark catacombs of cubicles, responsible for an empty project with a meaningless deadline.  "Needed it yesterday. Definitely tomorrow.  We know you won't mind working over a holiday weekend?!!" 

Yeh.  Whoppers, Puccini and all that.  Life, death, two for two dollars, and database validation. 

I'd stepped out of my own opera for a few moments and wondered what Puccini might’ve written for this one.  Even the richest musical structures building up the most intense and grandest of passions just carried us up and around the contours of these kinds of feelings.  If you tried to express them, if you pulled all the melodic strands and emotional allusions together in an unending procession of cathartic arias, they'd still have the substance of grandiose staging with cardboard flats.  That's how the singing of death and life and longing in Butterfly and Turendot seemed at that moment.

I wondered how, while I wasn't crying I wasn't sublimating the emotions.    I was floating above them, trolling.  The sinkers were tied on and my line was deep.  Every now and again I could feel the thud of the bottom and I'd have to gulp.  It had nothing to do with the music, but with the silent play of my memories of those last few weeks – hundreds of different momentary ripples reflecting my memory’s gaze. Suddenly the line would get taut, I'd pull hard and start reeling for all I was worth - shaking and sobbing for minutes on end.  Just as suddenly I would be peacefully trolling again, enjoying a beer, fishing on a cloudless day.

The detachment was a blessing,  there was no need to alienate from any part of myself.  Her death had been expected – it had been perfect, and at the funeral, death had become a part of life….even a "welcome" part of life.  Not only that, but the girl who died had done her best to make sure it enriched all our lives.

I felt awful for others who must sublimate emotions, where the stress would rip them apart.  That same week my co-worker had been trying valiantly to help her chronically sick daughter get off of the morphine she'd been prescribed for years. The withdrawals were debilitating and full of horror. The same week Sarah died my co-worker abandoned her daughter to a detox facility for addicts.  There is no way to troll my friend's deep emotions. There is a storm at the surface, and it is all she can do from being drowned.

   Sarah’s funeral was improvised. Her father had read from a century-old pocket bible, dog-eared at his favorite verses. Her previous boyfriend – large and ponderously ill himself, recited a delicate poem. He would join her in October.   And there was a blind old artist, beautiful and wizened, who sung the chorus to the folksong from Ecclesiastes, “To Every Season.”   Melodrama at an appropriate setting. I closed with the Aramaic praises of God, prayers for the dead in the dead language of Jesus, improvising ancient intonation, guttural vowels, and rhythms of the Jews of Carthage and Jerba.  A biblical setting for our little American mill-town.  It was just us four and the nurse – an ex-airline stewardess from the days of prop-planes, sent the last week by her wealthy mother to care for Sarah. Sarah’s mother couldn’t bear thinking about dying, and was busy preparing the house for sale – right from the melodramas of old. 

After our short ceremony, the nurse and I uncovered the cardboard casket. We'd bathed Sarah the previous night, moments before she died.  Now we straightened her body and covered her up so the others could have a last look. In her linen shrouds she might have been lying there two thousand years back.

Her short white hair was curled and shining against deep amber skin.  Smiling, with her eyelids closed, we could forget how yellow and foreboding the same eyes had seemed the day before.  Her color was from the liver cancer.  She always thought of her cancer as the workings of a tiny little culture of cells that had mismanaged the world they lived in. Throughout her illness and intense local pains, she consoled herself with that global picture - a little world within her world that was dying - causing her death in yet another world. To meet Mother Earth by becoming Mother Earth.  

This cancer was what became of cells that might have made it if they'd played their cards right.  But they didn't, and became violent and unmanageable in their final struggle for ultimate domination. And for their failures they were killing their own meager planet.

She understood control freaks because she sometimes was one. 

When she concentrated on her pain she said she felt sorry for the little world that was herself, even as she absorbed the liquid morphine that took away the pain and garbled her thoughts. 

Ever since she stopped taking chemo, just before I'd met her, she began to feel large black wings spreading out of her back and protecting her from harm.  Spiritual harm, mind you, not from death.  Her spirit wasn't going to die easily, and she was adamant about it.  I knew that within a half block from the Post Office where we'd met.

I hadn't wanted to meet Sarah.  I'd been looking forward to the prospect of spiritual dissolution all winter, when all of a sudden, taxes became due and daffodils were in bloom.  That’s when we’d met, picking up forms from the Post Office.  Back then, my spirit was barely flickering.  I was wasted and tired, hungering for final disintegration.  We talked about cancer and how my brothers and I helped see my parents through to death; what a rich and rewarding confirmation it could be.  And she asked me to help her do the same.

Now it was the Fourth of July weekend.  Three months is all it takes to infuse spiritual dessication with a rich broth of human emotion. Life has a way of becoming soup.  What was I talking about, comparing this emotion to “sparkling, crystal-clear, fifty feet of water and sunlight”?  It was SOUP!  A potage that no musical subtleties could ever imitate!~~

******

GETTING AN ANGEL ASSIGNED TO YOUR CASE

Several years before Sarah died, I’d started frequenting strip-clubs.  I let myself be completely overwhelmed by cheap sexuality and women who stepped out of my pubescent dreams into my life.

Of course, before all this, I had really wanted to believe in true love… love of a true self and not just skin deep love that cared about looks, and curves and youth.  But I’d gotten caught in the hype.  I was digging the strippers.

But it was long before the strippers that I had written a little mock folktale called “The Riddle of the Sphincter.”  In this folktale there was this great and beautiful snake with the head of a woman... a snake-woman that can put you in its power and squeeze the life out of you.  She was like the Sphinx, and so I called her the “Spincteress,” (with the pun on that part of us that squeezes).  The story had been made-up out of my head, but down deep I knew I didn’t understand it at all.  On the surface, yes, there was a quick surface answer – but down deep, I had no idea what was meant by having the life squeezed out of you by false goddesses and gods.  It was only clear that somehow – giving into the lure of tawdry strip-clubs, this was what I was doing.  So I decided my “goal” in all this dissolution, was to figure out what the story meant. 

That’s when I met her.  The Sphincteress.  The muses were going to let me find out.  A powerful blonde vamp in the thirties, she was my every pubescent dream.

Her half-brother was an erotic painter, and above her bed was a portrait of her emerging nude from the body of a snake, a hooded cobra with claws, to be exact.  Across from this picture was a canvas of her breaking out of the Great Sphinx of Egypt – nude, of course.  You only glance at these things when you're concentrating on getting your moves down.  I saw the paintings after my conquest.  After I had been conquered, that is.

It was a bit too uncanny.   The story of the Spincteress had come to symbolize my life's quest, and lying exhausted in her lair there was nothing to do but surrender to my fate.  Here were both the Sphinx and the Sphincteress.  I must surrender myself to the snake woman and her fancies --- a reality lifted from my own story!

Soon she was all I could hunger for.  To have her squeeze the life out of me.  She was all I wanted.   I was fed up with my dreams, and my future.  Besides that, I was fed up with magic BMWs and coincidences like the one which brought me to her apartment in the first place.  To marry the seductive snake-woman and one day do her bidding would have made my life complete.

Being fed up with magic doesn't mean you've stopped believing in it, by the way.   And magic will happen to those who believe in it, for better or worse.  Which is when Sarah came in and took over.  

It must have already been in the cards to meet Sarah.  She had really been cute years before… before the breast cancer nearly killed her.  She fought back valiantly for years, and had made herself a handsome woman.  But when I met her she was a body ravaged with chemicals and pain…the shell of a physical body sustained by a living and vibrant soul.  This carbuncle spirit with one breast, white stubble beard, and an orange and blue tattoo of Our Lady of Guadaloupe over her beloved “washboard” where a breast had once been.

Sarah insisted on being true to what she was at every moment in her life.  So she came right out and challenged me to be her last lover.  Here she was, a burning soul that punctuated any fact she could lay her logic to– she knew just what she looked like to a man – and reveled in the challenge of throwing off the shackles of good looks. Here was her chance to prove that a spirit could shine through the waste of the flesh.  The chance to face many a girl’s greatest fear head-on –of one day losing their looks and becoming ugly – and prove it was not to be feared.

She asked me to be her lover.

I gulped hard, and said I was couldn’t argue with the angel that had answered her prayers, for indeed, there was probably an angel who had answered my own.  Sarah had thrown me a challenge I couldn’t refuse.  A strange accident brought us together, and if anyone could break the thrall of the sexiest woman I’d ever known in my life, it would be someone who could choose entirely new weapons.  

Sarah had joined battle with a seductrous, the sexy snake-woman, and scored a victory. Now, two months later, the thrall of the Sphinteress seemed broken, and my heart was beating on its own again. I felt Sarah’s wings around me. 

And that is what was going through my head the afternoon after that improvised funeral:  calmly checking data, eating Whoppers, listening to Puccini, and trolling through the depths of 50-yr-old emotional soup.

 

THE RIDDLE of the SPHINCTER

There was once a miraculous snake called the Sphincter who sat at a crossroads asking a riddle to travelers before it would let them pass. 

If a snake is coiled up and the size of a horse, you know it's pretty big uncoiled.  Well, the Sphincter was the size of a cow.  That's how big it was, and it was not something you'd really want to see unless you were an adventurer like Indianapolis Jones.  For scattered around the crossroads were several dozen bleached skulls.   This gave you a pretty good idea that the creature wasn't there for a sideshow.

If it rose high in the air in front of you the giant snake was about to ask you its riddle; and if you were man, woman or beast, when this beautiful giant snake stood before you, its hypnotic power was so great you couldn't take your eyes away from it.  For adventurers, fools like Indianapolis Jones and me, this was its challenge and seduction. 

And seduction it was, for the Sphincter didn't have the flat head of a snake but a lady's head.  And not just any lady, but the perfect features of a Greek goddess.   It had the long golden hair of a sixteen-year-old girl which reached to the ground like a golden waterfall when the snake uncoiled. She would sway like a giant cobra with her hood of golden hair, and you would be drawn to her strange eyes as they reached inside you like a lover.

Naturally, you just felt she was evil.  For her tail had the small body of a man, which the Sphincter would give a shake like a rattle to awaken.  Once awakened, this little body would hop about like a frog on a leash, running around, gesticulating, play acting, and "doing its duty"...which was to sit on skulls and take a crap.   And this part of the beast was quite distracting and given to evil....especially with any travelers it could mount.  For it had arms as big and thick as its legs, and the end of the tail was a phallus twice as big as either the arms or legs!   That man-tail was forever busy, dragging its phallus and the rest of the tail as it groped about,  making piles of skulls, and then kicking them in all directions.  Once awakened, the Sphincter's man-rattle would never stay still.  To avoid it you could wander down through the fen and bogs - where the Sphincter's children would make short work of you, giving you neither a riddle nor a chance of escape. If you were the traveler in question, the riddle you'd be asked was this:

"What has no shape and all shapes and none can bear to live with?"

Now that you know all about the Sphincter you must hear the story of the Shard of Ramabad, and how the riddle was solved.  It is a short story, for a shard is a piece of baked clay which was written on while the clay was still moist.  Since you can't write much on a piece of clay with a pointed stick, the story is only 3 shards long in the original.

****

One day a very clever merchant came to the crossroads.  He was used to fending off the lewd approaches of rough barbarians, and could kick the man-tail unconciously away as he pondered the riddle.

"The great snake's question is difficult, yet all in all there are not more than 20 skulls, while many hundreds pass this way each year!!   This," he thought," is the REAL riddle!! "

Thus he guessed that those who found the answer would lose their heads.

"But why," the merchant asked himself "will the creature let a wrong answer pass, while those who guess the truth will die?"

"This is more of a riddle than the one the Sphincter has asked, for so few can keep their heads when they have guessed the truth!" he thought,  "What evil shit TO GUESS THE TRUTH!!  And so THIS must be the ANSWER! "

And drawing his sword the merchant leapt at the Sphincter's tail and impaled it to the dirt saying:

“Truth and shit

have no shape and all shapes

and none can bear to live with!"

Then with a yell he pulled out his skinning knife and slit the snake from stern to gullet exclaiming:

Those who say they cannot live with shit

can't bear the truth - that they live with it.

And those who know the truth and live with it

fight it to the end!!

Then, with one last swipe he cut off the Sphincter's beautiful head, and rolled it with both its truth and its entrails into the bog to rot. 

***

This is all that I ever heard about the Sphincter. Only the heads of those who had guessed the truth remained. For when the Sphincter saw a traveler had guessed the truth, the traveler would be crushed by the snake's giant coils.  For a Sphincter is something that squeezes, and this was the method by which the unfortunate riddlers would meet their end, with only their heads remaining intact.  So the merchant was wrong thinking that those who guessed the truth would lose their heads. 

Actually, those who guessed the truth kept their heads but lost their bodies.  Those who answered incorrectly were spared, and passed the crossroads thinking they had solved this greatest of problems - that they were very wise indeed.

This symbolical tale is about ….the truth about the truth.  If you seek out the cross-roads where the riddle of truth is guarded, approach it with care, to be faced with its seduction and its riddle as many a traveler before you.  It can be a great and terrifying experience.  Luckily, most of us get it wrong.

*****

 

 


Chapter 3

Story of a Pilgrimage.

Your Fortune: Small good fortune may displace many great misfortunes.

It was just before I was to turn 50 that I decided to make a pilgrimage to my birthplace.  I knew from the start it was to be a turning point in my life, which is what pilgrimages are often meant for. 

For example, Hilaire Belloc walked in a straight line from his birthplace on the Mosel to Rome on the Arno, and wrote The Path to Rome as he sat in the Alps looking backwards and forwards.  I, on the other hand, drove in a crooked line from Wilkes Barre, PA to Lincoln, Nebraska looking backwards and forwards from the Ohio state line …. at which point I noticed a billboard for a Health Spa open from 7am to 2am every day of the week.  Because it was a Sunday night at midnite I decided to see if this was true. 

LECTOR:  What has this to do with a pilgrimage?

AUCTOR:  The subtitle of this section used to be "How I Discovered the Veritable Nature of Sin."       LECTOR:  You should have left it in.

AUCTOR:   Can I ask you who you are and why you are butting into my book?

LECTOR:  You lifted me from Belloc's book to help you over the sticky moral issues.  If this is a book about a pilgrimage, then I am allowed in it. 

AUCTOR:  I'd prefer if you hold your interruptions til the going gets rough.

LECTOR:  You can count on me.

AUCTOR:  I'm afraid of it.

I must tell you first what set me on the road to my birthplace in the first place, and then I can tell you how much frivolity and wonderment I packed into three days by merely looking for trouble.

Earlier in the year, the head dancer at my local club asked me to start up a new business with her.   I was thrilled and flattered, but I didn't know this woman any better than you'd expect any customer to know a girl in a strip club, just hello-how-are-ya and a hug.  I knew it was a nutty idea.  But I promised I would help her think of a good business and that I'd do what I could to help her get it started. 

This got me to thinking that I should start a business for myself.  For like many of us, I have had many million-dollar ideas over the years, and they were all for businesses which had to succeed.  It only took a little lightly-clad prodding, and I became hot to get this going.  I found a more suitable partner, and we went about doing drawings and making phone-calls.  All of which got me an invitation from a very well-marketed little factory in Illinois to come out and talk.

Which is how I got to deciding that this summer would be the occasion of my pilgrimage to my birthplace  - which I'd never seen since I was born.  Besides the fact that this other dancer I had fallen in love with that year was majoring in Library Science in that very same town.  It was also a perfect opportunity to visit a retired priest that I'd met on an AMTRAK club car the previous summer.  He had been on his way to Moscow to help convert ex-communists to look to Rome along with Mr. Belloc.  I had promised to send him my writings when I was done - the ones I'd been working on for this other dancer and her son, Patrick.  Since I was now done, I figured I could deliver several little volumes in person.

Naturally, before I left on my pilgrimage I stopped to see Shannon, the one who wanted to start the business.  It had been nearly six months since she'd started this thing with me. Tonite she was bursting with a new revelation.  We went to a couch to talk in private.  She even offered to pay but I refused.  She had discovered what she wanted to do with her life, and how she wanted me to help her.  It wasn't to start a business, but to help her write childrens' books!! 

I was flubbered.  I told her it was not as easy as some would make it out to be.  I had tried it myself and had not done well.  But I would be glad to help, and promised that when I came back from my trip I would have several new ideas ready just for her. 

I was in a dither.  She had shown me a piece of herself, a lost piece of herself, that hinted of a hidden identification with lost childhood and innocence.  A belief in her memories of life when all you hoped for was sweet and bright, jumping in leaf piles, a squealing game of tag and rippling breezes of little changes all day long.  A life which wasn't just a searchlight to be caught in the gaze of another searchlight, a life of feeding and stunning and feeding.  Explaining why she might really be after my innocent ass.

 

SPOILING A GOOD THING

I suddenly trusted her.  She'd broken the ice after half a year, and I melted very quickly.  

With each mile marker on US 80 West I progressively lost my old distrust and inhibitions.  I soaked in the lyrics of a day's worth of country western songs and was letting myself fall in love with this sexy witch of a woman.

I had made sure to be driving a rental car and not my BMW.  I had known this would be an important trip whether I tried to make it or not.  So when the all-night health spa turned out to be open and I was greeted by a tightly clad girl in a mini-skirt, and with me the only car in the parking lot on a Sunday at midnite, I walked right in.  Mind you, this was only because I had never been to a real sauna and health spa before. 

Nor had I ever had a personal bath and scrub-down given to me by a nicely-endowed and sexy woman half my age.  For even if I've mentioned it already, I am a typical married man who never goes in for such things.  However, as my drinking buddy the Mingster says, if you ever walk into a whorehouse it should be some night when you are going to see a priest immediately the next morning.  And I took this counsel to heart.

I will go into the details, but it is not as salacious a story as you'd imagine.  The long and the short of it is, whether you wish to believe me or not, that this laughing girl gave me a bath the way my mother or grandmother might have washed me when I was an infant - scrubbing every inch of my naked body - sudsing my mustache, and cleaning my ears, and running her fingers up my crotch over my very hard tool, joking and laughing all the while.  But I was not sexually aroused.  My senses were aroused, as I had just spent 10 hours driving, and then 10 minutes in a very hot sauna, and was now being teased with soap and scrubbie and laughter.  But my mind was only curious about what was going on, and otherwise full of thoughts about work and my stripper friend's ambitions to have me work with her writing.  My manly wood was large and hard but didn't feel too much different than an infant's or a toddler's little penis when being scrubbed by his mother.

LECTOR:  Do you need my help now?

AUCTOR:  Do you think that just because I said the word "penis" I am on shaky moral ground and about to lose my integrity?  When it gets shaky I will let you know.

And so, when she led me back to my room and flipped on the red light and rattled off a list of her prices I said I'd be glad to give her a tip for all her laughter and fun, and for the excitement and pleasure she had given my skin and my eyes and mustache, but that I was quite content to leave it at that and not spoil a good thing. 

LECTOR:  Now?

AUCTOR:  She spoiled a good thing.

LECTOR:  Now!

AUCTOR:  I said it.  "She spoiled a good thing."  That was the difficult part, and now we are past it.  Sorry.  I had to include it because it is the lead in to the priest's story of Sodom and Gomorra, and the pride of Jonah.

LECTOR:  But how did she spoil it?  You've got me all ears!

AUCTOR:  You're making this hard.

LECTOR:   Like you were....?

AUCTOR:  Damn you.  All she did is what is called "giving a release," a matter of massaging with jel, that's all.   I imagine some do more for the pay, but this doesn't concern me at all.  The outcome was sexual, and for me it had spoiled a good thing.

****

THE PRIEST IS ON TO ME

I felt very very guilty about spoiling a good thing at the Oriental Sauna the previous evening, and nearly turned home.  But after much soul-searching went and saw the priest anyway.  I said nothing about my trespasses of the previous night, but rather sat with him at breakfast and helped him clean the kitchen while we talked of many things.  Like who the hell I was, since he couldn't remember me from Adam.

I gave him the four little volumes of essays somewhat dedicated to him, and we continued the morning sitting on his front porch talking.  He told me all about St. Theresa of Avila, who had once been a woman of the world, and for some reason recounted the story of Sodom and Gomorra.  I believe it had to do with how far God's patience and forgiveness could be stretched, and what incredible sexual degradation it took to convince Lot to leave the city.  Then we talked about one of my little humorous essays on the Jews and he read from Jonah, and told me about the time he got to sit around with the pope the real pontiff.

In the story of Jonah he pointed out something I hadn't particularly heard before, and that is, that when anyone wants to avoid the word of God their first thought is to go to sleep.  I didn't think much of this at the time, except that it was kind of curious point in the story.  Then I told him about another one of my humorous essays all about prayer, and he told me about St. Thomas Aquinas and read from the Book of John... because he wanted to understand the word "participation in the spirit."  And then he gave me three roses from his garden and I left for the rest of my pilgrimage.

****

MORE SIGNS

As I drove on, I kept day-dreaming of Shannon, wondering how I could help her find the right package for her children's books, whether it was to be a gimmick or a new theme, and how I wanted to team with her.  And St. Theresa of Avila and Mary Magdalene and God's patience with us sinners kept coming to mind.  And it even seemed that if everything worked out right, I wouldn't ever have to even compromise my marriage and family for the sake of a love for this other woman and the work I longed to share with her.  And the C&W songs kept pumping me full of sentimentality, and I got deeper and deeper into it all.

One of the products I was trying to market was a nickel bud-vase that attached to your computer.  The roses had been a perfect gift from the priest.  I put one of them in a boutoniere and gave it to the front-desk secretary at Office Max corporate headquarters, and got an introduction to the right buyer.  And one I stuck onto my dashboard, and the last one I pressed into a loveletter I was writing to my sweetheart, Shannon, that mean and tough-looking chick who said she had a soft heart for me.  Right out of an old trucker song.

The pilgrimage was fulfilling.

Now it happens that when you are on a pilgrimage, you take anything for a magical sign of either blessing or malediction.

My dancer had asked me to say hello to Goshen, Indiana for her, since that was where SHE was born.  And there were tornadoes and heavy storms passing through Indiana, so that when I passed Goshen there was the bottom of a big double-rainbow sticking up like a shower-curtain on the black horizon over Goshen.  A suitable sign if I ever saw one.  But if it was a sign, I have no idea of what, because nothing ever came of this relationship.   However, I wouldn't have believed it if you'd told me at the time, since I was falling very deeply into a trance about this very perfect, if convoluted, dream.

The rest of the pilgrimage was fulfilling, as I said before.  I had good weather and a good meeting at the factory I'd set out for, and met old relatives, and when I arrived at my birthplace, the first person I asked for directions was an old man who'd been there 51 years before, back when I was conceived.  And though he didn't know my parents he remembered the names of the walkways they had mentioned, and pointed out where they used to be, and where they had walked me at just about this time, fifty years before.  I meandered around and spent time remembering them.  It was about as fulfilling a first visit to your birthplace could be after your parents had passed away.

****

I DISCOVER THE TRUE NATURE OF SIN

So many things seemed to be opening up.  So many pieces of life fitting together in new interesting ways.  I was practically bursting with life as I got in the car and started home.  And I was in love in a new and interesting way as well.  But I hadn't yet thought of the theme and technique this girl could apply to her stories.  I had a long drive back east to work that out.

The night came on, and the far-side of the Illinois state line took a longer time coming than I'd expected.  So by the time I was approaching Indianapolis my eyelids were down to my chin, and I pulled off the road and down onto a state highway to see if I could find something to eat or wake me up.  And sure enough a Go-Go bar soon popped up on my left, and I figured a cigarette in there would do the trick.

Now I should preface this with the fact that I hadn't run across Daisy back at the college, but I didn't expect to, since she'd graduated.  It didn't get in the way of the pilgrimage, either. I had just thought it would've been fitting if I had, since she was a close friend of the girl from Goshen, and I would've had so much to tell her, and meanwhile tested love, and seen just what the differences between different kinds of love actually were. 

Well, this bar was a really down-and-out place, with some real mean, tired and stretched-out looking women.  Picturesque to say the least.  But there was one very rounded and voluptuous girl with an angelic face and a whole head of blond curls sort of dancing on-stage when I walked in.

There were probably four guys in there and five women.  A tough lady full of tatoos came and sat on my lap, asked for a light and a buck.  I obliged and made myself a cigarette.  Another chick missing a tooth came by and asked for a dollar.  I gave her a dollar and lit my cigarette, showing I was not interested in doing any other business.  But when the buxom blond got down from the stage I went over and bought her a drink, and got to talking.  She reminded me of someone I'd once loved quite a bit.  Her eyes, her look, her whole face was like Daisy's.  I told her so.

 

"I Discover the True Nature of Sin".... with a very buxom blond at a roadside joint in Indianapolis, cont'd.

She liked my stories, and kept sitting with me.  There wasn't anyone else to sit with.  We kept talking over one beer and a ginger ale.  I went and got some paper and did her portrait.  We were staring in each other's eyes for long energy-filled moments, moments that stretched out over an hour.  And when I finally finished her portrait I didn't want to stop looking in her eyes, and told her so.  She said, "so don't stop. Please, don't stop." And we sat and stared at each other and mumbled inconsequential nothings.  She was only 19.  I didn't know where I was anymore.  I could have been anywhere in the world.  I was in Paris, I was in Miami, I was in a fancy club in New York... I was only in her eyes.  Then the bar closed.  I asked her if we could stay together...get something to eat, and she said yes, she'd call her babysitter and tell her she'd be late.  I felt I could never let this girl go, or leave without becoming part of her world.  I was completely overcome.  I had forgotten everything about my pilgrimage.  I had forgotten Shannon and her childrens' books.  I had forgotten my family.  I was ready to stay in Indianapolis with this girl and her child if she'd have me.  I knew this, and yet I knew it made no difference anymore.  It felt like romance out of songs and movies.  It was exciting, romantic, unexpected.  Everything a novelist might have ever dreamed up.

As luck would have it, the club owner kicked me out of the parking lot, and told the sweet blond that she'd be fired if she left with me.  And so she came to my car and told me somewhat tearfully that she couldn't afford to be fired and that I better be on my way.  I had her address and could write.  And so I drove off, and as I passed through the city and got back on the interstate I realized how narrow an escape I just had.

I began to think about the story of Jonah, and the priest's point about sleep and forgetfulness.  It also began to dawn on me just what "participation" might mean when it came to carrying out one's responsibilities to oneself and others.  For I am one who believes that integration of self to oneself does not come easily, and that momentary disengagement may be stimulating and increase the drive to re-engage, but it may also serve to assist your disintegration.

So when the sun appeared over the mist drifting across the PA Turnpike, it also dawned on me what the theme of the childrens' stories might be.  Like the stories of Ratty and Moley, these would be stories of birds.  Birds of all types.  Good ones and bad ones. Every type of bird could make it in there..robins, hawks, egrets, crows, starlings, sparrows, gulls, eagles, finches, cowbirds and catbirds.  Real characters who were true to themselves and their little bird dreams, and other ones who let a gulf break them from themselves and their past, desiccated souls who had lost their integrity and were constantly messing up the world around them.

It would really be about disengagement without re-engagement.  It would be about what it takes to break the spirit, and replace it with an adult imitation.

Forgetfulness vs. participation would be the theme.

Fittingly, when I got back home I went to see this little witch of a woman who'd made my trip much of what it was.  She was on-stage when I got into the club.  I gave her the little epistle with the rose in it.  She didn't open it, but got down on her knees and pulled me up close, pleading,

"Spark Eye, I need your help.  Tina and I've got a very important Bondage & Domination show tonite on the Internet. I need some good ideas!  I KNOW you'll come up with something!!"

This gave me the impression that, although I had learned a lot, and seen many signs, things were not exactly as they'd seemed.

 

         
THE LURE OF THE TAWDRY

OR, The Draw of Cheap Substitutes

Tawdry - a portmanteau of St.Audrey, derived from St. Audrey's lace, and cheap and gaudy jewelry which could be purchased at medieval fairs.  Some people call it honky-tonk neon..

 

I was down in Georgia, having just finished up a tight contract, and finding I had some extra time on my hands, stopped by my favorite bar in the Smokies.  A man has to have some fun every now and then, and not just work, work, work.

So I was in my favorite bar, and had just got the finishing touches on a portrait of Charles the pianist in soy sauce when this little girl peeks around my shoulder to see how it looks.  Well, I figured it looked just fine, and I told her so.  And she agreed and that's how we started up dancing to Charlie's music.

Now I should tell you that soy sauce works a lot better than steak sauce for drawing since you can layer it.  I never tried barbeque sauce or ketchup but I imagine they mold over to green after a few months.  Soy sauce portraits are robust, and by my experience they stay fresh under glass for 30-years-and-counting. Not only that, but they glisten ‘cause of the salt, and the deers love'm.

That portrait there needed about 20 layers of soy sauce in some places to come up right.  And darn if it didn't come up right.  So I figured I was due to dance just about then, and was dancin' happiern' hell on a hot day when an even smaller little girl - I mean like about 4'5" in cowboy boots joins in and we're a threesome for a while until the first girl drops out and me an’ that funny little shortstuff just wailed it away with our bodies playin' harmonics on one another.

I'll admit my dancing looked more like doing deep knee-bends and the crab-walk, but it was a powerful tasty dance, and when it was done two other girls came over and asked me to do their portrait.  They were sisters - and mighty nice to look at too - so I thought to myself that I couldn't get any closer to this teeny girl without excommunicating myself from my currently married condition. She was the kind of person you could love the stuffin out of and make a happy home.  And I knew this for sure because I'd talked to her earlier in the night, and since I felt I already had a happy home and couldn't get any closer to her without breakin' up whatever I had goin' for me just because I had a hankerin' for somethin else –

So I excused myself from shortstuff, presented Charles with his portrait, took my brushes and soy sauce and sat down with the sisters. I will also drop my dialect to finish the story.

The older one was sultry with long black hair.  She was going with the drummer.  Her sister was dressed like an All-American small town girl on her way from church. She had shoulder length black hair in a kind of bob, powder blue blouse with long sleeves and ruffled cuffs.

When they asked me how I started doing portraits in bars I admitted I'd gotten a lot of practice doing quick sketches of girls in go-go joints, and the girl in ruffles said she wished I could’ve drawn her nude.

She had actually been one of the top strippers in the region - retired under the name of Stormy on a fixed interest income for the rest of her life.  She’d invested all her earnings in mutual funds, unlike many a dumb dancer who spends it as fast as they make it.

Now I would like to make a long story short, but that just wouldn't do here.  Her story is one that began long before her, or you or me, and I don't think it'll ever finish.  Because there's lots of us who are seeking after something without exactly putting our finger on it - and we end up with tawdry dreams for a honky-tonk but otherwise undefinable life.

I did a passable soy sauce rendition of the two girls and we talked a bit and they talked to one another and gave me their telephone number and names and a note to call them whenever I was coming back down Georgia way.  And I exulted.  Only I couldn't figure out how to get back down to Georgia the next week.

So I accidentally missed my flight home the next day and rescheduled for the following day.  It really was an  accident, cause I went to visit an old friend who ran a back-country corner store at a crossroads with just cows for neighbors. It was a transplanted East Village art gallery and she'd been real sick and recovering from death.  So we were jawing about all sorts of deep folly - and she pulled out an original photo by one of her friends from the doctors without borders of Mother Theresa just before she died.  This included a photo of the saying that Mother Theresa had on her door to remind her to always look through the gauze of our emotions, and learn to know what was the gauze from what we really saw.   So we got talking about many things for many hours.  And by the time she got around to asking when my flight was, it turned out I couldn't make it.  So I rescheduled for Sunday and called up them girls to have'em bring back the portrait for some finishing touches.

So after taking an extra strength spinach dinner I went back to my favorite North Georgia bar.  Naturally, to make things difficult, they'd brought the older girl's 17-yr old daughter for me to put into the picture.  That was OK, cause she was a sweetie, too.  But then I found out the ex-stripper was going with the lead singer, so it wasn't going to do me much good settin' up a time to draw her in the nude.

However, things brightened up a bit, when he came over, pecked her on the forehead and then went and sat down with two powerfully flashy blonde foxes in the corner.  She was expecting something more than a kiss, and stormed over to him and back to her seat alongside me.   I guess that's why she was called Stormy.

She started getting bitter and angry like anyone who is in the act of being jilted, and I calmed her down and offered solace and a shoulder to cry on.  And that's when I heard her life's dreams and about her past loves and hopes for her two little boys someday having a home with a father.  She had hoped the lead singer would be that father.  And it was a sad, very very common story.  Just as common as this moment in her life that I had become a part of.  The kinds of moment lots of songs are built around right out of soap opera.

Her story was, that when it came right down to it, she always picked the wrong kind of man.  She admitted this.  I figured she was pretty enough to pick whom she pleased in the good husband category.  But she always went after the lead singer types, the kind with egos to match the vibrato on their electric guitars.  The talk got around to what she should do next and she told me she dreamt of her routine every night - and really wanted to get a breast job and start back at the strip clubs and titty bars.  It's what she did well, she said – with dance she could turn any kind of music into a joyful sensual experience for everyone.  When we danced during the third set - right in front of her man singing lead - I could tell she was telling the truth.

Yet all night I tried to convince her that her dreams of a happy home and dancing at titty bars was not compatible.  But there was no convincing her that the highs she got on stage weren't worth going back to.  I was stumped.  Her logic prevailed, and when the bar closed, she left me and her sister and niece in front of the place, ran over to a bunch of the lead singer's friends to work things out, and when things didn't work out, sped off in her truck with all his equipment in the back.  Then he took off after her down them twisty mountain roads in somebody else's car.  And they all got home safely cause I called to check, but that's all I know, except that this story gets re-enacted every night in and around hundreds of bars across our fair land.                                     

But what I heard through the night of the life and ambitions of an ex-stripper was revealing.  Trying to justify her desire to go back on-stage, she had described what it felt like, and how she felt about her customers, and the lights and music, and the other girls, and the club managers.

I had often felt that many of these girls who I briefly lusted over were probably very nice people worth loving.  Now I saw that their lives were perhaps as empty, cheap, and gaudy as the environment that employed them.  The magnetism of that environment was not too different for them from the one pulling me towards it.

It had caught us both.  She’d found her fortune there but it wasn’t the money pulling her back.

For some odd reason she believed that the only thing worth living for was to have people pay attention to you.  What an odd and infantile view, I thought.  And yet, on thinking it over for many days, I saw that this was her reduction of what "self-confirmation" was for me.

I had seen long ago that self-confirmation was the simple surface goal of day-to-day experience.  I knew it was hardly enduring... that hope and faith were needed to hold together the emotional highs and lows...the stuff of Mother Theresa's mantra. 

My little ex-stripper didn't see that music and dance could be fulfilling even when no-one was looking at her.  But childhood had conditioned her, and TV and film magazines had conditioned her, along with most of our contemporary culture.  It was not so much "people paying attention to her" but the excitement of being the center of a larger group consciousness - of men in a men's world - as well as being the central value - the undulating body - that lies behind the economic forces of that little world within a world of strip clubs. 

The names and politics of the  world of Carolina and Georgia clubs were central to her stories and her self-concept.  It was totally self-contained.  I might have been talking to someone whose whole life consisted of the circus, or of the posh galleries of New York and London, of baseball, school psychology, corporate law, or dog-breeding.  We all know people who live in little worlds within a larger world of what is really only some ridiculously small specialty in the overall scheme of things.   There was no way she could conceive of a  different way to confirm herself.

And in the world of stripclubs, she had a perfect tawdry projection of the star-studded life. 

The life of stars is not just exciting because we believe the stars and their studdly companions do so much --- fit so much in -- have a chance to experience everything (for any second-rate millionnaire can do that if they wish).  Their life excites us because they are so popular.  Their faces are constantly seen... they are recognized anywhere... somebodies in nearly everyone's world... and part of the larger group consciousness.  This implies power.  But it has a tendency to backfire, and the desire for popularity disappears pretty quick once everyone is after them for an autograph or a piece of clothing or a favor.  Once they've satisfied the popularity bit, the stars crave anonymity, and will run anywhere for their freedom.

Then I got to thinking, it’s not the power of holding someone's eyes under your spell.  It’s not being the center of attention. No better than an old ham actor, the stripper's audience may not even do them the courtesy of paying attention.  No, it wasn't  even the sexuality itself, or any of the myriad peripherals involved - it was the nature of the tawdry which held them.  The honky-tonk neon.

It was just this that kept me hanging around these places.  It was the world of carnie - a world where the cheap and tawdry values worked.

Sexuality represented the gaudy jewelry hung on a life of quick decisions, promises and the broken promises brought on by perpetual complex triangles, jealousies, and lusts. All primal stuff, mind you, and a fairly sober simulation of a world where the highs and lows of living were well-defined.

The play of light on spangles and tinsel is hardly the play of sunlight on a mountain brook.  Nor are the incandescent pinks and purples anything to do with a sunset over the mesa  - but they are cheap and reproduceable over and over and over.  Neither is walking into a wall of perfumes anything like walking into an evening summer garden - but sometimes it'll do.  None of these offer the same spiritual stimulus, but certainly are moderately good at stimulating the same nerves.  The simple thrill of regaining the memory of a dream, and all the excitement that dream once had.

It is perhaps more disturbing that all these cheaper modes of sensation work about as well as metaphors work in language to represent something else. 

Orgasms too easily substitute for happiness, and the energies behind erections substitute for something with far greater meaning. That is, purpose.

The physical and mental excitement of the sexual world is in the bridging of so many sensory levels, of very local energies slyly expanding their range until they leap into a totality of feeling.  It is extremely cheap, in that there is no great prerequisite knowledge, skill, or preparations necessary.   It is extremely unstable, in that the juxtaposition of so many basic and foundational meanings on something which is only a metaphor is fragile, the value and reality of the metaphor is as easy to throw over, dismiss, disrespect - as it is to believe in and take on in the first place. 

Interestingly, the same can be said for the world of "carnie", full of cheap  honky-tonk amusements.  What is tawdry here is alluring - a world of immediate engagement – with excitement, emptiness, and pathos.  Life is immediate .. thrust instantaneously at your senses as the taste of cotton candy over the smell of elephants. 

 


Chapter 4

What the Impish Smile Concealed

We will never know all that Sarah’s impish smile concealed. 

Professor James Cecil, who was her father, proclaimed it was "a truuly beaTIFIC smile", then added with a wink--- "but it is really rather impish, don't you think?"

All I know is that she pulled off a few pranks at the moment she died, a few since, and how many more we'll never know.

She had been asleep much of the day, though I had been reading to her as she slept.  At around 6pm the nurse Valerie, myself, and Sarah's best friend Emily gave her a sponge bath.  Sarah woke up after the bath, and Emily was able to talk to her, for it was her turn to say good-bye.  I bicycled home for things, to be with her again that night.

On the way home I noticed my front tire was low, and stopped at the gas station.  The minute I put the pump to the nozzle of my tire it over-filled and blew.  It sounded like a shotgun-blast and the reflector on my wheel flew half-way across the lot.  I thought this was rather odd, and wondered if it meant anything, but mostly thought it was odd.

At that same moment, in the Maryland hills, Sarah's close friend Jane was playing at a mountain music festival.  She stopped playing country and suddenly started playing a piece of progressive jazz- "Goodbye Porkpie Hat", a song written for Charlie Mingus when he died.  Her partner and everyone around looked at her incredulously.  She said she just felt spaced-out and "doin' what was right."  As soon as the song was done, she was back to playing mountain music and forgot the whole thing.  When I got hold of her to let her know that Sarah had died at 6:30 the night before, and told her about my tire, she asked her partner if anything strange had happened at 6:30 that Sunday....  "Sure enough!" her partner asked, "Don't YOU remember?"

In any case, when I got back to Sarah's, Emily was waiting for me at the door. 

"She's gone."

Anna had spoken to her for a few minutes, and told her how much she loved her, then kissed her.  Sarah smiled and stopped breathing.  Emily couldn’t believe it, but then  Sarah took another breath and Emily relaxed and laid her down on the bed.  Valerie took her pulse.  There was nothing and she touched her closed eyelids. 

"She's gone."

That was it.  She had that last smile on her face.  They called her dad, and Jim, who came up and put a lily on her breast and cried.  They called to tell the boys who had gone up-state with their grandmother.  Their father would drive them down that night for their own last good-byes.  When I came back, everyone let go with a few more tears, but there's no way you get it all out then and there- so you just sit around and tell stories of the previous days, smoke cigarettes and begin the preparations for the funeral, death certificate, and all that.

A bit later on I stopped by my favorite bar to tell the bartender Eric.  He was a one-time poet friend of Sarah's whom she'd wanted to see before she died.  When he heard, he poured me a beer and I told him about her smile and my tire.  I told him how Sarah swore she'd keep playing jokes on her boys. 

"If anyone can pull off jokes after she died, it'd be her!" Eric said with a laugh.  Then he turned to serve a customer at the other end of the bar.

I finished my drink and left, cause I’d only come to let him know and put one down for the end of a very important day.  What I didn’t hear until the next time I came in was that as Eric had turned to serve that other customer, the CD player skipped... right in the middle of a song.  He thought “that’s funny –it’s never done that before!”

It suddenly started playing a song by Prinz about death --how sweet it is on the other side.  Eric got chills up his spine.  He knew Sarah was in the bar there and then.  And just like Sarah, the NEXT song was Tom Waits' singing that "we all end up as part of the ground."  Eric told me he just had to laugh, because it was so typically her to never leave off saying something just once.  She had to be relentless.

Now if you are going to be quite scientific about this, I will leave it up to you.  There was nothing concealed by her smile, and frankly all the rest is coincidence which can be accounted for through a vast calculatory calculus of probabilities.  There is more.  But no matter how many coincidences we chalk up it can be fit into your calculus of denial, so I will not bother you with it.  At least not in this paragraph.

Sarah had been very excited about my little bud-vase project, which I had gotten around to starting after several years' of doing nothing since my pilgrimage.  She wanted her youngest son to help me assemble product and learn some entrepreneurship from me.   Unfortunately, we had no time for anything but tending to her, and so I'd done nothing for weeks.

The art community held a candlelight service for her the following week, and several people came over to my place afterwards.  An acquaintance showed up who didn't know Sarah at all.  He offered to bring over his graphics laptop to help me design posters and new packages the next day. 

But first thing in the morning I’m awakened by a loud thumping at the door.  I opened it to see the town panhandler standing there, all three hundred unshaven pounds in his Confederate Army outfit.  “Hey SparkEYe, Got BREAKfast?!!”  He growled.

“Yeh, sure Fred, come on in.  I only got 4 hours sleep but what the heck.”

“So?  I didn’t sleep at all. Could you spare me a buck for my hat?  Gotta get a start on the day, ya know!” Fred grinded his teeth kinda loose, setting his jaw like a pipe wrench getting ready for a grip.

“Let’s check out the bacon and eggs before I check my wallet, OK?”   I hadn’t seen Fred in six or eight months.  Why he stopped in, I couldn’t figure it.

“How’s them little flower things of yours doin’?  Sold any yet?”

“Sold two cases a couple months back.”

“I bet I could sell’m for ya!.  How much do I make on each one?”

“Ask a buck fifty and pay me a buck.  I’ll make twenty cents a piece and the rest is yours.”

“I’ll take fifty of’em.”

Suddenly I was in business.

Fred is the only guy I know who can play “Rule Brittania” on the mouth organ at neck-breaking speed from a parkbench for an hour and a half without stopping.  Until he removes himself to another location in town.   My budvases for computers, desklamps, and bathroom mirrors were destined to rule the waves!

The other friend showed up early the next morning and we worked on package labels til mid afternoon when we took a lunch break.    On our way down to the local pizza place he stepped on a slip of paper and picked it up.  It was a prayer written in Spanish.  He turned it over.  It was the image of Our Lady of Guadaloupe. 

It’s all coincidence of course. Coincidences swarming like moths to a light-bulb.

Since you and I aren’t moths or coincidences, we know the glow of the light-bulb is the filament - just a gossamer thread – bright and hot in its spherical vacuum.  A gossamer thread – still aglow.  Maybe that’s what the impish smile concealed.

 


Chapter 5

Left Turn at the Big Five-O

I always say that turning fifty is a once in a lifetime chance.  So every time I've turned 50 I've thrown myself a big party.  I'm on my third now, and since people say I don't look more than 42, I’ve got a couple yet to go.

Actually, I was disappointed I never got to have that big wedding with Daisy, the one with my wife giving me away.   I needed a rite of passage.  Never having had a big celebration for anything, I never felt that I'd gotten anyplace.  I decided that at 50 I'd better not consider myself a kid anymore.  My patient apprenticeship was over.  I was now a journeyman. Even if I still hadn't yet done anything that I set out to do, and never felt grown up, I could fake it.  So  I rented tents and a band in the back yard, and high school kids catering all 100 people I invited.  It worked. 

And now after three  “Big 50” bashes (for it took three years to really feel fifty), now it seems at least thirty years since I felt I was an apprentice…. And in truth, until I threw that first party, I was still waiting for life to take me by the hand and start happening.

Shannon, the girl from Goshen never came to the Big Five-O bash.  She said she was going to sneak in the back, but little did I know, she got paid back in spades for pulling my leg all those months.  The night before the party she pulled a tendon in her leg and had to quit dancing.  I saw her after the party and, since she didn't want to break up my marriage and be stuck with me, she didn't call and that was that.  At least I didn't have to worry about leaving my wife for her.

Very soon, however - after squabbles about the party and several disagreements over the company I was trying to start with a few grand I’d inherited from my dad, I left home anyway.  It wasn’t Shannon, or Alanna, or Daisy... it was just me trying to write a book, start a company and give myself a birthday party.

I had just started a horrible long term affair with a mainframe computer that couldn't count to the year 2000.  For some of us the Year 2000 bug stopped all life in 1999.  So my dream of the company had to get scrapped.  Life was becoming work.  The latticelike complexity of the job sucked every ounce of energy, and I had no current love to keep old hopes warm,  nor time for new hopes.

There were the few books of essays I’d finished for Alanna, but after a few rejections from publishers I put them aside.  Half-heartedly, I took one of them called "The Riddle of the Sphincter" and began turning it into a book called Squeezing more Life into Life after Squeezing the Life out of it.  

That fall I left a family that laughed at my ambitions, and made me feel like Walter Mitty.  I left a sweet simple wife who preferred me walking out at midnite to drink - so that I'd  forget about writing books and pursuing inventions.  I left a wife who didn’t tell me that dinner was on the table because she assumed I’d prefer sitting in the cellar writing my stupid books.

Now that I’d left, I could finally overcome my creative devils, and become the self I believed in -- that is, in-between 70 hour weeks in the mainframe room.

So now I was experiencing what hundreds of thousands of everyday people do year in and year out,  and I appreciated more fully why the lottery may be the only meaningful act in a day.  Certainly someone who just has enough time to squeeze in laundry and a Chinese buffet before going back to work can't have the gall to write a book on squeezing more life into life.  The most feeling I could squeeze into life was my morning shower. 

****

Singing SCRUBBING, FIDDLING rubbing, thinking shaving, combing craving, BRUSHING piddling, soaping BUBBLING, stretching SCRATCHING, rinsing slapping…….and (that final burst of refreshment) toweling off !!

****

THE ELECTRIC SPOT

A few months went by.  Work schedules were extremely demanding.  It was 1999 - year of the fear of millenial chaos, when all system chips would change back to pumpkins, and all the benefits of modern technology would turn to mush.  At the stroke of midnite!   It made for a lot of work, and I was bored, fatigued, and disgusted with everything.  Living in a motel near the corporate business park where I worked,  I got home to see my family once a month, and up to the mountains once a week

      At work all day, I would take 4AM dance-breaks with Shania Twain and her fiddle player in the old mainframe computer room - clogging across the raised floors and leaping between high-speed printers.  I'd lost it.

For "life and refreshment" outside of the shower I found a bleak old corner bar in a town nearby.  It was ground-floor of a rooming house that had been around since 1911. The place had a wrap-around wooden bar - scratched and smoothed since the 40's when Jimmy Cagney movies were made of places just like that.   In my younger days I’d look for a place like this to make me feel like an old-timer.  But now I was an old-timer, so I could sit with a small crowd of comicbook afficionados who hung out a few nights a week.  A couple big kids in their thirties.  They would blow the wrappers off of straws at each other, break open Guinness cans and throw the plastic balls at the owner, or sit with darts stuck into the front of their ballcaps.  They had a bit more aplomb than Beevis and Butthead.  I fell right in with them, because that was MY crowd back in junior high school 35 years back, before I moved up a notch on the ladder of the high school hip.

Dean sold fantasy computer games at the local mall.  Be-speckled, tousle-haired, with a bit of a beer-belly, he was the energetic leader who called the shots.  Scotch and Arlo were the other half of the high school threesome - proud of their position as perpetual outcasts of the high school in-crowd.  Still living on that energy fifteen years later. 

Scotch was the one who gave them instant credibility.  Tall and given to easy laughter, built for the gridiron.  Square-jawed with a big Adam's apple and a burr-cut; too sensitive to be a marine like his dad, but No. 1 in that year's rounds of the NYPD entrance tests, if you can picture L’il Abner as a New York City cop.

Arlo was the shy philosopher who got the name Arlo because he looked like a sensitive folk singer.  They always told me his sister was gorgeous but I never met his sister.   I met them all one evening when Dean and me were both doing portraits of Crazy Willy.   After sharing portraits of Crazy Willy anybody would become friends.  

Crazy Willy spent every evening hunched over the bar scratching a big pile of Lucky Six and Bingo cards.  He worked at Walmart stocking shelves and spent his earnings in anticipation of being a winner one day.  Scratching off the silver ink, Willy'd have this smile so big you could hang his jacket on it.  Bigger than his shoulders, that's how broad his smile was.  And after each card Willy would look around the bar for anyone he knew as if to make you think he'd just won.  Because every night he did win something.  And when he won he was the King, and would call Tommy the bartender over, show him the winner, and order Tommy to pay him his winnings in more Instant Winner cards.

Willy loved showing you his secret spot where he sat.  Somebody back in the thirties had put a finishing nail next to the wire that hooked to the sink-light under the bar, and an old guy from the rooming house upstairs let Willy in on the secret when he was a little boy.  Touch that spot and you got a shock.  He'd never forgotten it. And the bar had worn half way down on that finishing nail and it still gave a tingle when you put your hand on it. Willy was about 64, and lived upstairs himself now.  A child at heart, he wanted to pass on that childhood thrill he got when he first felt that tingle.

So this was where my game had taken me.  Back to junior high.  Back to Willy’s lucky tingle.  I had no idea what the Squeezeplay story meant, or why I was writing it.   Anyway, I was too exhausted.   This place seemed to suit me.  Watching Crazy Willy try to win, and playing darts with the guys was an hour to relax before hitting the sack late and going back to work early.  You might say life was bleak.  Luckily for me, writers don’t tend to see it that way.  You are now at the low–point of the book, but I bet this is where you first looked when you picked it up at the book-store.

*******

PORN

The real goal that sustained me each week was getting to my place in the mountains, building a fire, smoking my pipe and working on my book and my self-esteem.

But one night I took a different route home, and  stumbled on a discount porn superstore not 10 miles away from my secluded cabin.  I succumbed to the temptation of checking it out, and walked to my car with several $3 videos.  Over the next weeks, for nearly nothing I assembled a library of sexual representation which talked and moaned and cavorted and licked and pumped. And so I had decided to trash the self-esteem and the book to be spellbound for hours in total self-effacing ecstatic oblivion.   Now I got through the week waiting to get to my hole in the mountains to be mesmerized - to forget everything around me.

We already know why this is degrading despicable behavior.  For my newly-discovered disengagement knew no limits of time and energy.  Time and energy that I didn't have.  Longings which broke me from every bit of my past.  Mind you, there is the simple animal behavior -- I can cover that.  No, it was the forgetfulness that was abhorrent.

I could be sitting by the fire listening to old albums and watching the deer watch me through the window.  But if there was porn by the TV set I had no choice in the matter.  I was no longer free. 

Here was the perfect illustration of the fact that the strength of a feeling has nothing to do with its richness, its inherent wealth, or some final value and validity.  To get it together to cart all the videos to the dumpster (though I had truly become very attached to them), I reminded myself of the richness of other emotions.  I remembered the times I’ve known pure joy, and reminded myself that these times in front of the video were not among them.

 

ART AND PORN

               From the age of adolescence, boys learn to have orgasms like sneezes, and many more of them too.  From what I’ve gathered, this is not necessarily true for girls.  So if you are a girl, you may not appreciate this sneezing metaphor…. except as it pertains to the big boys you have to deal with who like to have their sneeze and then go out and play ball.

Snuff was the stuff for the sneezing.   It was pure nicotine absorbed through nasal membranes (instead of through the inner lip, like chaw).  The theory was that that pinch of snuff would clear your head, and you could get on with more important things. 

This is the macho view of sex, too… something a real man takes for granted and leaves in its place.  Porn is simply pure nicotine, meant to tickle the sneeze out of you.   Once I got married, sneezing was no longer the simple and perfunctory operation it once had been… it became a medical condition requiring a small innocuous box of snuff in the medicine cabinet under the bed, and it worked like a pinch of snuff whenever I needed it.  

Well, after so many years of magazines and films and peepshows and intercourse over the internet, I believe I have figured out what the distinguishing characteristics of porn really are.  It is pretty simple, and I should tell you as much, since this is doubtlessly the section you turned to after reading the Table of Contents.  I would like you to realize that this is a book of the deepest philosophical variety, and not just a sleezy autobiography relying on cheap tricks to get a sale.

What distinguishes porn from other types of communication is not what anyone would take as the obvious and simple answer, because we all know that if a cereal box cover was adorned with two naked women sharing a large tubular device up their respective georgettes – or a naked man and woman playing with something approximately tubular - that this would be porn, and not a cerealbox cover meant to advertise cereal.  

What we need to understand are the methods by which porn achieves its communicative purpose – as opposed to the methods by which other forms of communication achieve their respective purposes.  And this is what I felt I had to figure out.  For if a communication achieves its purpose by the same method as porn (no matter what it’s actual content is) – then I will say that it is pornographic in its style and method, and that’s that. 

I happen to think that supermarkets overflowing with colorful mounds of perishables like vegetables and fish and sugary bonbons are perveying pornographic displays – even if the vegetables are not intended to be interpreted as sexual objects, nor the smell of fish intended to remind me of Pantagruelian fantasies.  For the majority of it will be thrown to the dumpster and charged to the Advertising and Display Department – for it is still cheaper than a mass mailing. Whether it is real food or not which could feed whole villages for weeks.   I consider this pornographic, and I will tell you why by discussing orgasms.

It turned out that once I found happiness and completion in my life I discovered that an orgasm is actually only a representation for something else – and believe it or not, it is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional feeling.   You understand that dimensions are only a metaphor of what I mean --- but if you were to picture the wildest most imaginative and exciting picture and realize that it is only two-dimensional… it certainly might be much more exciting and amazing than a three-dimensional coffeecup which you might be holding in your hands right now.  So the talk of dimensions can be misleading.   Even so, most two-dimensional orgasms are much more exciting and vivifying than even the most well-balanced golf club…. But 150 photographs and paintings of glorious sunsets aren’t the same as actually being there in the middle of one of them.  Besides that, even the largest orgasm only lasts several seconds – 30 seconds would probably kill you, and the feeling of lovemaking with your real true love lasts just as long as you want.  And the sun never seems to set. 

An orgasm is best described as when several disassociated sensory bundles of sense all seem to induce each other to an explosive, single message.  Boom.  Well, this is a two-dimensional representation of a quite amazing and wonderful feeling of when all the more positive and fulfilling emotions bundle themselves into an almost overwhelming mega-emotion in which they pass memories and hopes and passionate excitement  and colors and sounds and cosiness around to each other and the sum total of all this activity is serenity and peace…. Something like watching a fantastic sunset from a luge at 120 mph down an unending mountain as you are curling up in front of a fireplace… home and safe and content.  With no orgasm necessary whatsoever.  This is the promise of true love that made any orgasm pale in significance for me, and finally put sexuality in its place.

And so pure sexuality– in its tawdry tug at various buttons in your sensory system – holds out a promise of lovemaking between true lovers - something more than sex can ever deliver.   The luge and the sunset disappear into the thin ice of emptiness and exhaustion at the bottom of the hill, leaving you only with the thought of going back up for another run before the sun finally sets.  And even if the sun is down, for the thrill you’ll do the slope anyway.  And anything that tugs at the buttons in your sensory system – making you aware of a reality that you cannot have – is a pornographic lie, and a seduction to a promise that it can never keep.  It may even obsess you because of its nearness to the real thing – its 2-dimension representation of something which is nevertheless very real and discoverable.

But I have forgotten to mention one thing.  There are other ways in which we can watch a fantastic sunset endlessly from a luge as we are curled up at the hearth of our hearts – and that is with art.   The highest potential for any of the arts is to tug at our senses, and bundle multiple emotions simultaneously, passing memories and hopes and passionate excitement around at a speed that turns it into a mega-emotion.  Not all art, by any means, and no art that anyone can tell you to like, for sure.  But any art that does all this to you has reached its potential, because this is what art  intends to do.  And art that doesn’t achieve its potential is simply decoration, to stimulate your taste buds…. Perhaps even  to a sensory or emotional ‘orgasm’.  But for my part, art has rarely done to me what my real true love can do to me any day of the week.

***

AT IT, AGAIN

Now I will tell you how I met the Sphincteress – the snake-woman.  It happened one Thursday night in January, I was leaving the computer room real early and the midnight shift operator asked, "Have you ever been to Frank's Chicken House?"

"No," I said, "Never ran across the place."

So he gave me directions to this local club, and I went to the Chicken House, famous for its totally nude chicks.  After about 45 minutes of taking in the dynamics of the place (for every club is its own subculture, with different rules and moral standards), a real Marlene Dietrich-type came on stage.  She moved like a vamp in the old movies.  The kind of vamp who would throw herself over the piano, take a cigarette out of the musician's mouth, take a drag, put it back, and then start a seductive song to him.  After that she'd walk out with another guy, usually the manager or the local mafia boss.

This was a real woman, pure Garbo (or did I say Dietrich?).  Anyway, she was definitely not one of the everyday 19 to 30 year olds who all look 25.  I left my table in the back and went up the stage, thinking, if those eyes look into mine I'm a goner... which of course is what I was hoping to be. 

But she never looked at me once, even when I put up a few "hello" dollars for a "seduce me" look. 

She never looked because she already knew she had me.  That's how vamps work, it seems. 

When she came down from the stage she walked right up to me and took my hand and led me to the back.

"Well, does she have a surprise coming," I thought, "I'm going to give her my double whammy of wit and my master manoevres of macho!  She wouldn't even look at me on-stage!  Is she in for it, the bitch!" I said to myself as I swooned in her arms.  With a few deft moves, she turned me into a tremble as my eyes went glassy and my nostrils began to pulsate.  In moments I was making sounds like a puppy begging for milk.  And then our time ran out. 

"Do you want to stay longer?" she said in that strong accent that wicked foreign vamps use when they are waiting to destroy the enemy.   She was obviously a spy after every inner secret I had locked in my brain.  How clever she was to know I worked in national security four years before!

"I'll wait," I gasped, "I need to relax.  But I promise I'll let you lead me back here."

My years of practice with this kind of thing was paying off.  My manly pride intact, I stood up, straightened my shoulders, and bumped into the wall. She had cleverly removed my glasses prior to her attack.

My mind was working furiously. 

"She's definitely worth spending some time with.  I deserve this for all the work I've been doing lately.  I'll space three more twenties out til they close the place." 

Which is what I did.  And because I was fated to meet this woman I ended up with her telephone number and a tentative date at a jazz club in Manhattan the following Sunday.

****

THE SPHINCTERESS

When I got to her apartment that weekend it was pretty high class and professional.  She definitely lived up to her looks.  There were professional ad shots of her modeling in Europe and oil paintings over all the walls.  Surreal canvases of nudes walking through walls, half-nudes in armor, nudes in a nun's habit beneath a gothic church, nudes on bicycles.  All the nudes had stylized versions of a single face, her face.  There were art books of Russian iconography on her coffee table, and she had bookcases with Russian poetry.  Her brother was a painter, and her step-sister a famous icon painter in Russia. She had been a speech pathologist and audiologist before she came to the U.S., and had run a clinic for children.  She was a professional.

I stared at all the images of her and it suddenly struck home - this was the face I had described as the beautiful half-woman, half-girl... the enchanting hypnotic face of the Sphincter!!

What I didn't notice were the paintings on either side of her bed -  her torso emerging from a snakeskin, with the cobra's hood arched behind her head! !    And the painting directly opposite – of her emerging from the Great Sphinx of Egypt, its stones crashing to the ground around her.  I didn’t see them til after we’d made love – but that wasn’t until the following week.  That’s when I knew I had met her.

 But what did it all mean?  It was clear I was being provided with an end for my book.  An ending?  Was I supposed to escape alive - an ass-hole--or learn the truth and die? 

You doubt every word of this, for no scriptwriter would have made it up, and it is obvious I am no novelist.

MY MANY MACHO MANOEVRES

LECTOR:  Will you please shut up and get on with the story. How the hell did you get her number in the first place?

AUCTOR:  I reminded her of her dead husband.  Actually, there were two dead husbands, and I don't know whether I was like the concert pianist or the one from the travelling puppet theatre.

LECTOR:  The puppet theatre, I'm sure.  But how did it happen?  Did she lean over you, and with that gravelly sexy vamp voice whisper "you remind me of my dead husband!! Come to my room tonite and share my bed!"

AUCTOR:  Get real.  It was my macho manoevres that reminded her of her husband.

To begin with, when she came back around in my direction and motioned to me for another little seduction session with her I was already primed.  My wit was not going to work -for my wit in Russian is next to nothing and her English was limited to talking - she didn't understand so good.  But my sly Machiavellian macho was in tiptop shape. 

Instead of letting her dance over and onto me, I danced under and around her.  Like I said, my pump had been primed.  All those weeks in the computer room had left me in a highly susceptible state, but she couldn't have known my circumstances, and neither did I know hers, nor that my reaction to her was like that first love of hers back in her homeland and her youth.

I just wanted to make love.  And when I get like this my body does not want to sit still - but the artistic animal in me is let loose.  I long to be a painter, where every stroke of my brush is a caress of a tongue working feverishly to capture each curve of her shoulder, her chin, her wrist.  Or to become a sculptor against her skin, playing the soft clay through my palms and fingers.

And when I cannot touch - for this was taking place in a Gentleman's Club where only the woman may choose to touch - my hands and neck and body and legs were suddenly moving around hers, sculpting and painting my caresses.  She pushed me down and said, "Stop Stop.  You are not supposed to do this here!"   I fixed my eyes in hers and they told her simply - "NO, I am the object of seductive play no longer.  It is YOU who are.  And I am serious."

Then she joked that they should let me dance with her on stage, and why not?  It would make for good real entertainment.  And I told her she should get to know me, for I was more interesting than my couch dancing.  And she said we should dance at a dance club sometime together.  And I told her about the wonderful time I had in Palm Beach, and that I'd love to do the same in Manhattan.  And she agreed. 

LECTOR:  You didn't tell her the girl in Palm Beach was giving her number to all the guys in the bar, and that's why everybody was buying you drinks and cigars?

      AUCTOR: Of course not!  And that's how I got her number.

Afterwards she told me about her husbands and daughter who was still in Russia. She slipped me her phone number before she went back on-stage.  Then she danced with the guy in the shadows - the guy at my table who was also dancing.  We pulled each others' strings and moved each other's moves.

********

I SPREAD MY NET and am CAUGHT BY A FISH-HOOK

After she danced another Russian girl, very sweet and demure -Marlena's opposite - came and asked me if I wanted a "dance" in the back.  But I replied, "No - I've got my net out for your friend Marlena over there." 

"No, I don't think so." She said, "She’s already got her hook in you.  I see the point sticking out your cheek.  Just feel it!" 

She reached over and touched my cheek, laughing, "You'd better watch out!!"

There was a hook in my cheek.

****

 

 


Chapter 6

The Phoenix

Sarah's death came to my life, and into my book, at a critical time.  First, it is true, that I had been playing Squeezeplay now for nearly three years, and was in the end-game.  I had learned a lot, but seemed to have lost, nevertheless. All those simple and naïve exchanges with go-go dancers were far behind me; part of a trivial and innocent period of the game.  It had gone on to become far more serious and engaged.  The complexity and tenacity of commitment to emotional life had eventually overcome my ability to direct it.

It seems the colors which emotions are painted can be pure and simple... as straightforward and clean as a passing billboard.  Back when I took up the game of Squeezeplay there had been no colors at all to speak of.  My emotional life and engagement with day-to-day affairs was as washed-out as an old dishcloth.  Feelings were transparent, and they overlaid themselves moment over moment with no apparent effects.

Taking up the game had slowly put some of the opacity back. Immediately after my pilgrimage I was ready to make choices, big choices, and put my life onto a new canvas.  Soon, I was to come upon a subject that I could hardly sketch, let alone paint.  A woman who lived with the extremes of passion and culture.  A child.  An artist. A whore. A gravedigger.  She took over my life for the year and a half before Sarah.

Now I had to face the fact that Sarah was physically dying.  Despite my suicide squeeze, and wishes to the contrary, I was going to be around a little longer.  For there was yet another aspect to the game of Squeezeplay which I had discovered.  It was a confirmation of something I had only guessed at two years before on my first pilgrimage.... About death itself and the possibilities for rebirth.

The hedonistic motif of Squeezeplay - the quantitative and qualitative packing of pleasure and experience into your days - has been addressed by thousands of sermons over centuries.  They wish to prove a point, with the answer ready-made:   "Do this or do that.  Fill up your life with pleasure and material things, AND YOU SHALL REAP THE RESULTS.  Emptiness!  Spiritual damnation etc etc etc!!"

But while this may come close to the truth, it is NOT true.  Weeks before, I was empty and retching my life's little energy into paper towels... coughing up months' of hopes into my sheets... wiping my soul across the floor and off to a banal and insipid work.  What was left of my last bunt, a real suicide squeeze, was squeezing it all out.  My attachment to feelings for a stupid and careless woman had driven me into a quagmire.  Yet suddenly Sarah had re-filled me full of purpose and happiness; I could grab new songs from the rooftops as I walked through town.  Having the love of this dying girl, the attention and friendship of her kids had filled me with a new and different life.  They couldn't see what I had been reduced to, and I was able to throw it off like a pair of tattered pajamas.  Above the rain, the sky was blue, the dark-shadowed trees were wondrous skeins of green as I drove down the highway, and the tree-lines shouted out amazing complexities that any eyes could manage!  Even my senseless work with computer systems made sense enough to care about.

One can be dead and come alive again.  One can scour out one’s insides with overdoses of detached emotion, of intense nothingness, feeling at once like everything is gone and lost, only to be born again.  Life's spirit is a Phoenix which can rise from our ashes, and reconstitute a soul around itself.  The innocent feelings of childhood can be recaptured, close enough to feel what childhood was about, with its wonder, curiosity, and patience.  The invincibility and bubbling promise of the teens and early twenties could be remembered and re-felt.  Innocent and naïve, but with a new wariness and respect,  childhood can still be a healthy sap from which to draw our strength from.

 

NO TIME FOR PATIENCE

I said goodbye to Sarah the night before she died.  She was having a really hard time focusing her thoughts.  As the liver decays it sends ammonia to the brain, getting everything mixed up.  Nearly all her sentences came out jumbled up like thoughts when we're falling asleep.  I'd been reading one of her favorite books out loud to her and paused at a very poignant moment - she had reached up and held my hand.  She had been listening, and knew how I felt.  She was focused at that moment, the time was right.  I didn't know how much longer she'd be conscious.

I knelt down beside her to speak, but quickly changed my mind. I laid down and put my head in the crook of her shoulder, relaxing in a way that would bring back memories of our recent bouts of passion.   She wanted to hear me say I loved her.  This last chance at love, with me, had meant a lot to her.  But I couldn't tell her "I love you" like she wanted, because it didn't feel the same as I'd known it with all those dancers over the last few years.  She had wanted the near-impossible.  She wanted to be my heart-throb.  It is very difficult for a man whose sexuality hasn't matured beyond age 14 to have a paunchy one-breasted bald lady as a heart-throb.

Yet, during the time she was dying I was awakening.  She knew about the vow to philosophy I had taken at 14.  It was taken because of the death of a classmate from leukemia, but now it was fulfilled.  It was time to write what I'd learned, and the rest of my life was to be lived with a renewed vow to produce, to her.  I did not make this up.  I had thought about it a long time.  We had talked about this possibility before, but I had not said it nor made it real. There was no time to wait around.  If I was going to say it, it’d better be now or never again.  I told her she had given me the strength to renew that vow and all I had intended by it.  This was to be my good-bye.

“I love you, kid. I’m renewing my vow for you, now.  You’re going to be my reason – my rationale, and whatever strength my life has til I close up my days like you’re closing yours.  I’ll give you my best.” 

Hearing myself I began sobbing uncontrollably.  The life she expected of me was going to be difficult, and I said she'd be watching me, holding me to my word.   Lying there silently, close to the coma of sleep again, she understood tears about the struggle of life.  She hugged me very close to her breast and didn't say a word.  It was a very intense moment.

Sarah was an extremist and iconoclast who demanded truth, patience, and good faith. She was a very demanding taskmaster, and it would have been hard to face up to her for very long.  I didn't want to face up to truth, patience and good faith ever again.  It had been the center of my life for so many years. All I'd wanted to do before I met her was let myself sail without a rudder, to let events take their course until I couldn't turn back.  Drugs and the life of the streets were calling from afar; with any luck, resuscitation to the health of half-drunk nights in a flophouse. That's where I'd been just weeks before.

I had no more patience for the future, no faith in learning anything new.  I was "kaputt."

Ironically, Sarah had given me an old book by Curzio Malaparte, called Kaputt.   It described the flowering of our civilization as it appeared from inside the Third Reich.  The author was an Italian journalist, a corporal in the Fascist army. His position let him get to know the greatest of Nazi luminaries as well as wander unquestioned, through the abyss of raped villages and ravaged civilization.  He described a man who could bring tears to your eyes as he played Chopin, continuing the night's entertainment by shooting 5 year old boys as they tried to escape from the ghetto to buy food for their parents.

Oh, this isn't new.  We've heard it all.  Only Malaparte was on the inside, participating in this entertainment by his very presence--- and there was no one to blame but himself.  The failure was his own civilization.  Our civilization.  One reads this book and knows our capacity for a cynicism that makes evil transparent in our eyes.   How easily we can feel the collapse of our own moral fibre and learn to laugh about it. This was the book Sarah told me was my required reading before she died.

Sarah had given up hope for any rational human solution, but she had spiritual faith.  Faith in Our Lady of Guadaloupe and the possibility of miracles.  I believed in magic but not miracles.  I believed there were many things that could be done which would make a difference.  But I also believed that it really didn't make a difference in the long run.  Piercing screams,  anguish, utter terror of innocents, confused anger ripping loved ones apart, body-wrenching soul-shuddering pain.... All of this seemed part of nature.  Something you prayed wouldn't happen to you, something you would deal with when the time came.  I was no longer responsible for any of the human stress outside of my immediate world.

I had read Kaputt aloud to Sarah in bed, and told her that it could happen again.  Indeed, it was happening all through Africa, Burma, and Ceylon as we spoke.  Yugoslavia - once the most tolerant and forward-looking jewel of the Eastern Blok - was now only a maze of dismembered muscle and gore, death and broken hopes. 

I had accepted the role as Sarah's helpmate and lover because my damned book demanded it.  It was a book about experience, about feeling, memory and integrity.  Here suddenly Sarah stepped in and I was being given the unbelievable chance to bring real death into it without committing suicide myself. Other than finishing the book and selling screen rights, I wanted to go out and have fun and give my body some of the satisfactions it deserved.   Serving others can be very self-serving.  But believe me, you should have more respect for the local volunteer rescue squad and fire department than for authors who write themselves into their books.

Of all the people who could have asked me to be with them before they died, this 42-year old girl turned out to be someone who shared my deepest emotions.  This was one of those accidents in life.  She was driven by the same things that had driven me.  Not only that, she loved me and wanted me to love myself; she even loved my songs and wouldn't let me give up hope. All this was cause for more tears than my eyes could produce, the uncontrollable sobbing kind.

"I'm not crying because you won't be here anymore.  I'm crying because of what you mean to me, Sarah... and how hard and immense life can be.  I'm crying for the frozen horses in Lake Ladoga_[4], sitting on their heads and cleaning my pipe.  God! How hard it all is !!"

That, or something very much like it, is what I was sobbing to Sarah as she slowly passed in and out of her last hours of coma.  It was not for my book.  It was not for an opera.  It was spontaneous and real.  I can even share it without diminishing it.  I hope it will never leave me….but I write it because I know it will.

Sarah believed it was possible to fight the good fight – to try to end the empty horrors and sham!  She wanted me to believe in it, and take it up again, too. 

This was cause for tears.

 


Chapter 7

The Fountain of Sexplay

After our second dinner together – dinners still have that symbolic virtue in the dance of courtship - Marlena cut my mustache. She walked into the living room with a scizzors and said, "Now we must cut this thing!"  She looked me straight in the eyes and took one side of my long curled mustachios in her fingers. 

"Alright, it's yours" I sighed.  And she cut off the big curled ends.

"That's better," she said as she squeezed in next to me on the couch and picked up the remote.  "how about the Playboy channel?  You, who have no TV, have you ever seen the Playboy channel?  It's not so bad.  It's like the club...."

And she poured us drinks and began my first real seduction by taking a bite of a large strawberry and carefully putting the other half in my mouth.  All I could think was, "So this is how it's done.  Here goes 15 years of not-so-innocent celibacy.  I'll be an adulterer for sure!  After that, it's just down down, down the razor blade of life!"

LECTOR:  You're getting embarrassing.

AUCTOR:  How many other people talk about their lovemaking?

LECTOR:  People, yes --- authors, no.  Authors must hide it in their fictional descriptions of others, or couch it in lyrics.  YOU, on the other hand, are liable to dissect it while making the most of your abilities and her beauty, while using big words like lascivous, and tantaliferous.

AUCTOR:  I will not.  I will merely say it went on for hours.

LECTOR:  Bragging already.

AUCTOR:  No.  I just never climaxed.

LECTOR:  WHATTT!!!

AUCTOR:  You heard me.  My subconscious was practising Kundalini yoga, that's all.

LECTOR:  Get real. You were doing nothing of the sort.  You don't even know what Kundahari yogi is.

AUCTOR:  It's Kundalini yoga, and it is a sect of monks who believed they achieve wisdom by focussing all their potency in their spine.  They practice having coitus with women without ever allowing themselves to have an orgasm.

LECTOR:  It sounds like a bondage & domination game to me.  They probably let go in the closet.

AUCTOR:  I won't question their theory or what they hang in their closets.  I only know that I experienced lovemaking as I'd never imagined.

Her body was like Renaissance statuary, and I was agog at the artful ways we could touch.  I became like an accompanying piece of art as we entwined in each other--- and the passion flowed over us as sweetly as the water of a fountain.  It was positively transforming and musical.  It was like we moved, but we never moved.  I had a feeling of timelessness.  There was no background music, and no lust.

LECTOR:  So she was practicing Kundahiri now, too?

LECTOR:  Not exactly.  She had several lusts and they were satisfied soon after they began.  It's just that I was totally unawares of any exertions on either of our parts.  I had found my bliss, and could have gone on - like a long-distance bike ride across rolling green hills, pumping and coasting, pumping and coasting for hours on end.

LECTOR:  Sounds pretty one-sided to me.  Hardly ideal lovemaking.  Pumping and coasting, pumping and coasting... I never heard anything so gross as comparing your lover to a mess of iron pipes, gears and chains!!  Have you ever thought of seeing a psychiatrist?

LECTOR:  You're just jealous.  Besides, I didn't ask your opinion.  I can only record as faithfully as possible what happened to me and what I learned by it.  For it was ideal love-making in the sense that it was artful sexplay.  I was coasting when she was moving things along. There was no real love other than the love of the artform itself.  Its simultaneity and mutuality. And frankly, I was never conscious that I hadn't climaxed, though she certainly was.  But if you'd asked me then, I would've known why, because I was fated to be in her grips, and truly feared her.  So no psychiatrist is necessary. Something inside me was holding back.

****

The next day I drove us both to work and she said she wanted me to stay with her during her surgery for breast augmentation.  I couldn't believe it.  She had no reason to distort her body like the other girls at her club.  But I was in no position to dissuade her, and so I promised to arrange my schedule.

The date of her surgery was five days before I was to take my wife and daughter back to France for vacation - our third trip since Daisy left.

I was touched that she felt this close to me - but who was I to know what "close" meant to her?  Or how many friends she had already asked?  It was an exciting predicament and I was full of curiosity and fears of a much greater intimacy which I could not shrug off as easily as one shrugs off sex.

LECTOR:  Listen to you!!  Did you hear what you just said..."As easily as one shrugs off sex?"!  What are we coming to these days?  Sex is not something to just 'shrug off' - especially adulterous sex, unless you are a lascivous lusty sinner.

AUCTOR:  I am.

LECTOR:  But nursing someone through her post-operative pain is something she could have paid a nurse to do.  It is not something to get worried about, as if you have sinned against God if you take care of her, take her money, and then leave her high and dry.

AUCTOR:  I'm sorry.  I could not fight back with anything I had experience with.  She was taking me to become a small part of her life.  I would be part of intimate memories associated with a part of her body.   Then, it turned out her surgery was in my home town, 5 minutes from my wife and daughter!

LECTOR:  You're really a scumbag.  I'm sure you stopped in on your wife, didn't you?  " HI, Honey, I'm HOME!...just happened to be in town for my mistress' breast augmentation, and thought I'd drop off the new luggage for our trip  Monday."

MAKING LOVE

It hardly needs mentioning that modern culture makes a very big thing out of sexuality and good looks.  Not that every culture in history hasn’t paid it sufficient attention, but at least they seemed to pay attention to other things as well.  For much of our popular culture sex and good looks are the keystone holding up the arch.

I add the “good looks” part because that’s how I always saw it, and me along with 20 million others can’t be wrong.  I had a hangup about finding the gal with the looks that made me feel important and part of things.  I wanted to be just like the ads on TV and the billboards along the highway.  This was very important.

Not only that, I wanted to wake up just like they do in the movies.  Naked with a woman’s arm draped over my chest.  This was very important.   It was even important if we weren’t naked and were just sitting on the couch – or working out back, to touch her tenderly every now and again, and have her be tender with you.

For twenty-five years of married life was never like the movies.  I couldn’t get used to the cat. 

HOWEVER, I am not such a naïve nitwit to think that the obsessions of pop culture are anything more than things which people take for granted, and justifications for all those who play by these unspoken rules and win.   Pop culture is defined by the winners – the ones who have made their positions popular.  They quickly become very much like the winners who came before them.  The winners they loathed, but whose winnings they wanted. 

I wanted the winnings, but I also wanted to know what the reality was. 

Love-making was not to be trivialized.  I knew what horny fucking was, and what intoxicated “getting off with somebody” was.  I also knew what sexual exploration and experimentation with another person was – because all these approaches to sex were the ways of my youth, before I was married.  Yet now at 50, I’d still never  been beyond the sexuality of a teen-ager.  I’d gotten married, and the two of us had never matured into anything beyond our first tentative trials.    We just never grew, and I never helped.

So I wanted to know if, indeed, lovemaking was as much a sham as the rest of the pop world’s hype.   I didn’t want it to be, and because there are enough odes to love in other cultures, that I didn’t expect it to be pop cultural hype.  But for all that, I didn’t yet know what the full reality of lovemaking was to be.

*****

INTIMACY

After the surgery Marlena was gray and motionless in the waiting room chair.  I shuffled her to the car and back to the motel, where she was to be in incredible pain.  I was her nurse.  She could only move like an old lady.  It felt like we were in an old-age home together. 

I was being a good guy for such a ridiculous cause.  I found myself caring for a lover I barely knew, in the town I knew like that back of my hand.  Every place I turned was part of my other life.

And yet, every three hours the alarm went off, and I would prop her up and help get the pain medication down.  I saw her boundaries of wooziness, pain, embarrassment, anger, fear, and exhaustion -- her mental and physical enfeeblement. These are private corners of each of our lives that we guard very closely from childhood.  And I was drawn closer to her than I cared to be at the moment.  She was someone opening herself up to me, being true with me.  I was immediately like an old childhood friend, or family, or like a husband.  Despite myself, I was suddenly "inside" this woman.   And she was suddenly "inside" me.  It was not a simple feeling at all.   Yet it substituted for "truth" in our relationship.

 I stayed with her for a day and a half and then drove her home to be cared for by another of her boyfriends who idolized her.  It took her a month to recover.

Four days later I was driving through the fields of France and Belgium with my wife and daughter.  We drove through Picardy and fields where dough-boys lay.  Each night I walked through moonlit villages smoking my pipe, trying to figure out what was happening.  I was thinking about intimacy.

One day we drove past one of the old American cemeteries from World War I.  I decided to pull in.  We walked to the monument and right in front of our face was inscribed - Winfield Jackson Sgt., Penna Regiment.  My wife's grandfather was there.  No one in her family had ever known it.  We were the first to visit in the  81 years since he died, and my wife was the only one left in his family.  It was like he'd been pulling her to France year after year, until she finally came for that visit.  I'd known his sister and younger brother.   I'd shared her family with her.  I'd known her dad and her brother who was spitting image of the doughboy who walked through these muddy fields 75 years before.  That day they were all back with us, and I was crying as hard as she was.

But I have to get back to my story, for I think I was talking about intimacy, wasn't I?

****

Intimacy is something easily confused with a feeling of truth.  The closeness and intimacy I felt I had with my wife was suddenly juxtaposed on the feelings I thought I shared with Marlena.

Sharing your privacy gives you a somewhat of a sense of reality. But how do you compare sharing a few hours in bed and post-surgery with the shared moments in the cemetery in France, with my orphaned wife and all her departed family?  Do we dare suggest there is anything to compare?  Intimacy is, by definition, what is very close to us.  Unfortunately, what is intimate for some people is not for others --- and it is easy to get mixed messages. 

And so I continued wandering around those French villages at night, wondering about intimacy, and smoking a pipe.

****

SOME INCORRECT ASSUMPTIONS

When I got back from the trip Marlena was still in horrible pain. But when I went to kiss her goodnight she was hot, and pulled me up against her.  Her back was to the wall.  Teeth clenched, eyes closed, breathing hard, pulling me one, two, three... I had to worry about pressing against her new mammaries ....four, five, six... I was caught in the heat of her passion.  My eyes were closed, and my vision turned to a strobe – luminous flickering – on and off.

"Strange," I thought, "this strobe in my head ..."  I'd never felt like this before. Then I opened my eyes, laughed, and removed Marlena's shoulder from the light-switch.  I couldn't go on I was laughing so hard. She didn't seem to get the joke, and things weren't exactly the same after that.

*****

Marlena saw men as something to be put to use as she thought convenient - and to allow them no more space, nor give them no more respect than each of her uses required.  

For my part,  I got into the situation because I wanted to use her as a trophy and sexual object.   That would have been fair play.  I was willing, as are many guys, to go into debt to assert my "success" by walking with a desirable babe in front of others.  But after her operation I did a turn-around and wanted respect and communication.  I was mixing my message.

She was used to the kind of guy that wanted a trophy.  She assumed that kind of guy, in fact.  But after two dinners out and spending almost no money whatsoever she took me as a lover and chose me as the person to be with her through her surgery - to play the part of "an old friend."   For me, this was a woefully mixed message.  She gave me a glimpse of an intimacy I'd never known with a stranger, and awakened my need for psychological confirmations beyond any lovemaking.

What I couldn't accept was the fact that the intimacy we'd had was something she had merely bought from me.  It seemed she had given me a deep part of herself.  I thought she'd compromised far more than she did.   Apparently, intimacy for her was not judged on the same scale of values.   She placed a pride in the intimacy of body somewhere else, as it served in the manipulation of men.

Seeing this, I was overcome with a loathing.  I hated her.  Her perversion of human sensibilities was unacceptable.  It destroyed my faith in people.  It justified every cynical view I'd ever rejected growing up.  It was like acid dripping on what I’d felt worth building. 

But this was silly.  Any cynic could have told me this is the basis of savoir faire (or "knowing the way").  We can sell ourselves, anyone else or anything to support our vanity and present hungers.  Whoring our soul for our mind's satisfaction.

LECTOR:  You really like taking a premise to extremes, don't you?

AUCTOR:  I guess you could say it's a habit of mine.

*****

It was too late to close my eyes and act as if Marlena weren't there.  It was too late to call it a game.  What I was running from was a mismatch in our underlying purposes - a mismatch that reverberated with ugliness.

Suddenly I was proud.  I had never slammed the door on anyone before.  I had never played "tit for tat" communications before.  To hell with her surgery!  She brought the trauma on herself - if she really liked me, let me be part of her memories of pain!  I walked out on her.

Unfortunately, my pride wouldn't last.  

Alone in my cabin, I was soon fantasizing her anger.  I knew she was angry, and that I had to have wounded her pride in her control over us men.  I wondered what path her vengeance would take if I called her up after a 2 week silence.  "She'd destroy me" - I thought - "She'll want to show me what I'm worth, to turn me into the submissive wimp I deserve to be."

I missed her and wanted to call, but the simple wish to talk to her  transformed itself into a passion -- to be whipped into submission, to become her slave.

I never much thought of this side of her before.  I knew it had been her deal with the devil for her ticket to America, paid by an established dominatrice in Manhattan who needed more mistresses on her staff.  Marlena brushed it off as an experience --"There are men and women with crazy ideas about sex," she'd said, "I don't really understand them."

But I also knew she still had regular clients from her first job.  I didn't want to press her on the subject, because I figured she'd probably tell me one day.  So I tried not to think about it.  Now, this is all I could think of.  I even went so far as to buy some fetish magazines, which I didn't understand.  But my moral breakdown had commenced; for now it was not Marlene I wanted, but enslavement and self-denial.

LECTOR:  This is some deep doo-doo.

AUCTOR:  I spent another week stressed-out at this sudden turn of events.  For your mind does not go away, and fantasies, once introduced, have a way of trying to realize themselves.  I began seriously dreaming of serving an evil mistress, dropping everything, and turning my life around in strange new ways.

LECTOR:  I'm not sure I want to go on.

*****

It's the very nature of evil to make you want to run away. 

To run in fear is let evil have its way.  Running feeds it.

To give in to it also feeds it.

Trying to ignore it is probably no better than running. 

Standing up to it and figuring how to dissipate its strength seems to be the only way out.  If this means standing and fighting it head-on, you must be prepared to exorcise it.  Evil can't be fought like any common brute or clever enemy.

********

 

DRUNK ON THE SPEAKER-PHONE

At just about this time, the guys in charge of the mainframe I was working with – the customer’s own guys – got me drunk and dared me to quit, and ask for more money to finish the job.  Since there was less than four weeks’ left in the schedule, and just about ten weeks’ of work still to do, I decided to take them up on it.

Unfortunately, I forgot that my office didn’t work a 7-day week, and I chose Saturday morning to send in my resignation.  Which left me 48 hours of tense waiting in my cabin in the mountains, wondering why they hadn’t immediately called to start negotiating. 

It wasn’t until Monday morning they found out, and they figured I was a wimp and would show up anyway.   My boss called and said to take it easy for a few days.  Then nobody called for a few days. 

Naturally, having already learned to be exceedingly self-indulgent, I’d decided Friday night to get very drunk and horny.   For many days I didn't know day or night anyway... and let myself fall into an onanistic blur.... a calculated strategy to keep me from getting in my car and looking for trouble.  The worst I could do was wander around the forest, poking the underbrush looking for a mistress.

This is just when the Plant Information Systems decided to call up with questions about the final phase of the project.  Apparently, the schedules had been pushed out.

"Whaa?", I picked up the phone.

"Yeh.  Is this you, Spark?"

"Wha chyehh, at's me."

"You alright?  We got your email, and figured you deserved a break and we wouldn't bother you for a week or so.  Can you talk now?

"Yaaa.  Umm"

"You OK?"

I snapped to attention. "Yes Pete!"   

It had dawned on me what was taking place.

"Listen.  We just want to get your input on the schedule you gave us, here.  Jim has some questions about what documentation your guys have to give us.  And we've got Dolores here.  She needs to know what pieces...."

"Um, Pete.  Pete." My span of attention was fading off at the edges.

"Yeh?"

"I don't think I rememmeber the job too good.  Whass there a specification I owe you tomorrow I'm reeely sorrryy cuz I dunna rememmeber too good what I own you guys."

"We didn't catch that.  We've got some static here on our end."

"Uhh uh Pete.  I 'n drukkk.  I meeenuh I yarr a bit unnder like uyunno I thick I druck a case a Buds sids lass night, and ynkow what Jim can do wit....shove it up, I meene the documentation!  Shove it up his...."

Much hilarity at the other end.

"This is Pete! We hear ya loud and clear, man!!"  

"Hey!  This is Jim.  You sound GREAT!  Have a nice rest! And another round for me!!"

More laughs. 

"Call us, when you're in town!"

I dribbled on the receiver and hung up. 

So that was done. 

Once the story got to my boss they wouldn't be calling ME anymore.

Then I crashed for 30 hours.      Thank heavens.  

But they did call, and offered me extra staff, no raise, and an extended schedule.  So I came back to work, and picked up where I’d left off.

****

SAVED FROM SLAVERY

After recovering it occurred to me that calling Marlena was innocent compared to my current state of mind. The drive for self-destruction was all-too real now. 

So I decided to go see her at the club, within its defined boundaries where nobody could act too far out of hand.  Facing the reality of her anger, whatever she might say or do, was easier than what I'd just faced. Frankly, I wasn't scared of her, and wasn't fantasizing anything at this point.  When I got there she wasn't there. She was meeting her 22-yr old daughter at the airport, reunited after three years.

I called to congratulate her, and apologized profusely.

I went to see her at the club the next week and we made up.  I told her as best I could what had happened to me.

"You wanted to be my slave!?"  She looked haughtily at me. "Yes, I could make you a slave like the others - but no, that would be horrible!  That's not who you are to me."

I was saved.

I had established my independence in a way which didn't require dumping her, and yet didn't force me to learn the role of the cynical man-about-town.  I could simply call her up for a date.  We could redefine things, and I could get out gracefully.

*****

I left Marlena at the club the night we "made up" and went to get dinner and it seemed my Money Access Card (MAC) had been stolen in the club. I raced home and found the 800-number to put a hold on the MAC card.  It was a number for domination phone sex.  I called again.  I didn't believe what I was hearing. Life was getting strange.  I wasn't fully conscious of what to do about my MAC card, for I had no other number, and this one kept taking me to domination phone sex, as if it was all a trap planned for me.

Suddenly erect and sweating, I was pushing buttons for the dominatrix.  She came on the line and began telling me to undress, step-by-step, insisting I tell her my every action.  I was shaking in submission.  I loved her attention telling me I was "being good."  I wanted so badly to be good.  How many times I'd been through this in my head!   I wanted to have every chance to prove I'd be good for her - and the more arduous and unthinkable a task the better. She described several ordeals I might choose to submit to, and let me think them over for a few moments. My fantasies over the past weeks hadn't included any of this.  It was surprising me and I was ecstatic for the chance "to be good."  Oh, the irony!!

She began describing herself.  It was in her script.  I was supposed to picture my mistress, to strengthen her hold on me.  But she had no idea I had just been with a mistress in a far sexier outfit than hers, with a face and body that would outshine nearly anyone's... and the absurdity of it all made me laugh.

This was not in the telephone script.  It caught her off-guard.

"Why are you laughing?" she said in the voice of the girl manning the phone, not the voice of the dominatrix.

I told her about Marlena and the MAC card number, and she laughed, too.  We talked a few minutes like a clerk and customer at an all-night convenience store, and then said good-night, good-luck, and hung up.

I had been saved by wit, in this case the parallel life which keeps going on inside of one, checking, reviewing, and grabbing any available associations which might make sense.  It had saved my soul... for the time being at least.

LECTOR:  Funny you should mention this.  I had a very similar experience when I lost my MAC card.

AUCTOR:  Don't tell me.

LECTOR:  I wish you hadn't told me that whole story.  So is your conscience clear now; is your slate wiped clean of sins, my son?

I had experienced the slavery of my soul to discover what the moralists have always told us.  I could have learned to justify and exonerate my new-found pastime - a pastime I would soon be living for.  I truly felt this in the moments before I laughed at the absurdity of it all.  But it would not have seemed absurd under any other circumstances, and I wouldn't have laughed, but would have followed her text to the letter - becoming a happy and hungry conscript in the army of men and women who live for this kind of sexual maneuvers. 

War games as destructive as war.

****

Learning to justify and exonerate any of our actions is a fine logical exercise that can be easily taught.  Some of us learn it as kids.   But this is exactly how we can break over the boundary of childhood into a world that no child in us can ever understand.  Nor can we explain our reactions and aversions and emotions to a child. 

After having met the Sphincter we've learned the art of justifying anything.  Otherwise, there's a life-spirit in us that cannot and will not do this.

The ancient Asian nomads used to call the personal human spirit your "Qut." If you lost your 'qut' you lost your freedom and became a slave.  And if you were a slave you were worse than dead.

Qut was like honor in old Europe.  It's what gets confused with a macho ego in a bar today.  Nowadays bar-room honor is only worth broken teeth on the pavement and couple slashes on the cheek.  Once I know my integrity is gone I'm a pretty easy crittur to antagonize.  To anyone who feels like a slave, insults to the spirit are easy to make.  It's easier to fight in order to assert the existence of that spirit than to acknowledge being spiritually dead.  If you mess with slaves they'll try to strangle you with their chains.

LECTOR:  So the verdict's out.  You can't regain your integrity, eh?

AUCTOR:  Can disintegration ever get integrated again?

LECTOR:  Ask Alcoholics Anonymous - they exist because that kind of disintegration can be cured.   I don't want you to say you can't regain your integrity.  So don't say it.

AUCTOR:  Actually, if I become a slave to some abstract "integrity" and get religion, there's a chance of getting it back.  But it may not be the old simple childhood spiritual integrity - with the same sense of joy and wonder and faith - that was once inside me. 

Spirit has a way of re-instituting itself inside by its very own means.  I guess if you're in the right framework, then perhaps a bit of spirit at the proper moment might help your integrity gel.... 

LECTOR:  So what's your final decision?

AUCTOR:  You can regain the joys of childhood, and I still wanted to help Marlena find them.

LECTOR:  You've already been wading in shit yourself.  Just see if you can regain them.

AUCTOR:  I wanted to regain that "innocence" with her.

********

A COMIC BOOK HERO EMERGES

Perhaps it is part of every nerd's dream to walk into a telephone booth as a four-eyed nobody and reappear in a blue-and-red colored suit bulging with masculinity.  For a girl it’s a different kind of make-over, but essentially the same dream.  And it’s generally easier to make a girl over.  Most guy nerds stay nerds.

Well I got the chance to have that dream come true, because from time to time when the club closed, the girls went to the down-and-out corner bar for their nightcap.  The same corner bar I used to drink at with Dean and Scotch and Arlo.  So one night Marlena suggested that we meet at the corner bar after the club closed at 1am.

I hadn't seen Dean, Scotch and Arlo since before I'd met Marlena.

The scene was properly set up. 

I was drinking with Dean and Scotch and Arlo in the far corner from the front door.  We were down by the shuffleboard and the magic spot, making weird jokes and dredging up old memories from high school.  When the girls came in and all eyes in the dump turned their way, I made a bet for a beer that I would have the guts to go over and introduce myself.

Of course they took the bet, and not only did I introduce myself, but got hugs all-around and the starlet's head on my shoulder for the next half hour.  I even left with the girls.  But I felt real bad for Dean and Scotch and Arlo, because I really didn't want them to be green with envy.  I just wanted to live my fantasy through their eyes, and that part was great, I can tell you.  But after we left, I said I'd forgotten something at my seat, and ran back in to apologize to the guys, that they'd been set up, and that I'd come back tomorrow and tell them the whole story.

So that's how I became a comicbook hero who could pull anything off.   Nearly.  And keeping ties like this can one day be very important when the story isn't yours anymore, and you need friends like this to keep the old comic book spirit alive.

Nowadays, when I passed a billboard with a pretty people on it I felt like this world was mine as well - and not just meant for winners - the jocks, the studs, the popular people.  TV and magazine ads didn’t give me this faint queezy feeling of envy, of longing for what I’d continually failed at accomplishing with a career.  The world could be mine to hold, too.  Marlena was as good as anything the ads had to offer, and I felt I was in there, too.

*****

BACK IN BED

One day she asked to come out to the mountains for a week-end with her daughter, Bianca.  I prepared myself for a simple weekend of food and canoeing and shopping , letting Marlena and Bianca relax together, with me basically laying low and being myself.  Marlena had never been in my space before, and you can't really know someone until you've seen their own space - clothes, car, and talk aren't enough.  I figured they'd share a room, and so made up two twin beds in the guest room.

Once we got to the house Bianca put her things in the guest room and Marlena put her things in my room.  Simple enough.  The rest of the time went wonderfully.  The barbecue, the salad, the canoe-ride into the sunset with a doe and her fawn walking across the shallows to a small island.  It was a cool night and I lit a fire.  We put on my parents' old records of Russian immigrant music, romanticized from the last century when my grandfather had left the country. We played an old vinyl of songs from the Soviet period.  The two girls, mother and daughter, sang together with tears in their eyes, reliving memories from a time which had been wiped away by over a decade of anarchy and incoherence.  Marlena started to teach me old folk dances.

Then Bianca excused herself, and we took the cue.  It was around 10 pm and we made love til 2.  Then all morning.  I was in a bliss as timeless as ever, and Marlena got up and over her thresholds many times over. But by the morning she was becoming increasingly frustrated with me - as if it was a stain on her performance that I wouldn't climax mine.

LECTOR:  This discussion is becoming very embarrassing.

AUCTOR:  You don't think I was embarrassed?

LECTOR:  But there is no reason to talk about it in public.

AUCTOR:  Baloney.  These are the strange innuendoes of experience which lend it meaning. 

LECTOR:  Save it for the psychiatrist.

AUCTOR:  I don't have one.

LECTOR:  It's a wonder.  And I'd bet you won't have long to brag about that if you keep this sort of exhibitionism up.

AUCTOR:  Listen.  I'm not "telling the truth" for the sake of exhibitionism.  It is precisely these odd and subtle "truths" that strip away the false myths; but if they are handled delicately, they can add poetry to the poem.  This was the case here.  If there hadn't been a meaningful ending... that is, at the end of this story, I would have been too embarrassed to ever want to speak of any of this.  Besides, it's both funny and pathetic as hell, and keeps the story going.

LECTOR:  Yeh, I can think of plenty of jokes that begin this way.

*****

BLUEBALLS

LECTOR:  I don't believe you'd use this for the title of a chapter!

AUCTOR:  Isn't it the name of a little town in Pennsylvania? After Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse on PA 340?

LECTOR:  No.  You're thinking of Blue Bell.  The town after Intercourse is Ronks - and I can't imagine what that means!

AUCTOR:  I can only guess.  But I finally understand the saying about  a bird-in-hand.  Two-in-the-bush is absolutely disgusting!!

LECTOR:  Let's table it and get back to the story. 

That day I couldn't walk for shit.   I was absolutely knock-knees all day long.  Other than that, the day went smoothly.  Walks up the stream, sunning and swimming.  All the regular stuff one expects from a trip to a country house. 

A truer friendship was indeed growing, even given its sexual quirks.  With my irregular gait, punctuated by an occasional spasm of in-groined pain, Marlena could only laugh.  I tried explaining, as I had before, that the greatest sexual gratification came in that slow flow of exquisite excitement which could last for hours - but she wouldn't buy it.  And my hobbled walk was evidence that she was right.  I don't know how the Kundalini yogis manage.   Perhaps that's why they spend the rest of their day lying on a bed of nails.... it's more comfortable than trying to walk.

For dinner I was making barbecued trout.  I was also making faces.

"Don't complain to me," Marlena laughed, "It's your own fault."  But I know she felt very bad about this.

After I served the food and sat down, it turned out some hornets had suspended a walnut-sized hive at my place under the picnic table.  I didn't realize they would have to fly through my legs to get in and out of their newly-built home.  So I was stung on the thigh immediately after sitting down.

We moved all the food to a far table, and resumed without further incident. However, I should have been forewarned by the hornets.  There were more quick stings down there to come.

After dinner I went for a shower and a nap before the trip home.  Marlena didn't let me get to the nap.  When she heard the shower stop she came in and sat on the side of the tub.

"Let me help you."  Before I realised it, she began to work me with the tools of a hooker.  I was pleasantly astonished at this turn of events, but soon realized that a sweet day in the country had suddenly flipped into any man's pornographic fantasies.  Had I been watching I might have gotten more excited, but I wasn't watching.... I was part of this.  And I realized that my mind wouldn't submit itself, nor would my senses engage themselves in what was going on.  I checked my stress-meters to see if I was stressed and this was the problem.  It wasn't, for initially I was truly relaxed.  In a while, however, Marlena became more frantic and frustrated with her ministrations.  Everything looked good, but my breathing had never changed, and she wasn't getting anywhere.  The situation became extremely ugly, and finally she swore at me that she'd never have sex again with me if I wouldn't come to a climax, right NOW! 

Of course, this is the perfect way to insure I wouldn't, and I didn't, and she stormed out of the room, leaving me more confused and frustrated with myself than I could ever remember.

I felt sick.  I couldn't face myself, let alone face the girls.  And now Marlena was angrily jabbering about me with Bianca -- about my impotency. 

Only it wasn't a very standard form of impotency.

LECTOR:  There is a clinical name for this, you know.

AUCTOR:  In the literature of Don Juanism?  In the jokes of The Great Linga Frank?

LECTOR:  Your case is a well-known deviant behavior, but I've forgotten the volume and case number.  I'm sure I've seen it somewhere.

AUCTOR:  I still find it odd and worth the story.

LECTOR:  You should've tried your old experiment from the days of D-Con Roach traps.

AUCTOR:  I should've.  But like many a theoretician, I had not sufficiently considered the practical applications of my new science.  I am sorry.

As I said before, I felt sick and couldn't face the girls, especially now that Bianca knew all about my critical flaw.  Nothing like this had ever happened to me - but then, why should it have?  I'd been out of circulation for 15 years.

I tried sneaking out of the door and hiding in the shadows like a dog that has just had its nose rubbed in his mistake.  I went and lit a cigarette under the porch.  Now the girls took pity on me, and called me up to the table where they were still sitting.  They chatted in Russian and Marlena tried to translate.  They agreed that I couldn't relax, and that it would just take practice.  That's when I went and showed them the ink drawing I'd already begun of the Sphincter with Marlena's face.

It was indeed very very strange... for this was something I had guessed at long before, when the painting on Marlena's wall that confirmed my fear that I was confronting my own myth.  Our story together was going to force me to answer something in the emotional flesh which I could never learn by logically thinking it out.  But I had guessed it anyway - that part of the answer would be to bring the cold and mythical Sphincter to love, to engage in her world in a new way.  This was indeed coming about.  At that moment I didn't want to tell the girls that Marlena's angry oath would come true.  The curse of the Sphincteress would prove itself out.  For I didn't obey her command,  she would never again have sex with me.  What she didn't realize was that the next time she would be with me for love - love of the person and not the performer.

Sex can be simple - purely meant for the utility of exercising and letting out passions.  In this guise it doesn't even require a partner, though a partner can help. It gives you a quantifiable payback on your overhead costs.  It has no intrinsic meaning.   It may have some symbolism, but is simply fucking.

But as far as the surplus value of communications, lovemaking has a wealth of intrinsic meaning.  Value which Marlena - or the Sphincteress - still had to learn. Or perhaps re-learn.

LECTOR:  The Curse of the Sphincteress.  That's a great  title, you know.

AUCTOR:  Yeh, but the curse was convoluted, and I hoped she had unwittingly laid out her own undoing.   I couldn’t wait – it seemed such a perfect denouement.


Chapter 8

A Pilgrim Returns

We were on a pilgrimage from birth to bondage, and death.  Not exactly, you understand – it is from my birthplace to Shannon's bondage, and Sarah's death. 

      I told the story from the deathbed of a dying girl, named Sarah, a woman who has since become my protecting angel.  Of course, this is a whim and a fantasy on my part, and things may not always be what they seem.  But I should explain why I am prone to believe in such idiocies as protecting angels and other unscientific medieval and New Age baloney.

First of all, I never told you much about the circumstances of Sarah's death, which are magnificently whimsical.  I didn't even know them all when we'd had the funeral the morning after, but there was no doubt in my mind she would be pulling off pranks.   Simply because she said she would, long before she died.

"Oooh, I'm the HAUNting kind,.." she'd say to her sons, "Remember I'll be at your weddings, and you have NO IDEA what I'm going to do, but you'll know it's me!"

I met her at a writers group in town.   She came a little late with her turban on, and was immediately on the attack. 

"Don't talk to ME about the writer's craft! That's a shoddy over-used metaphor!"

"You have to use good grammar unless it's absolutely required by your voice! Correct it!"

"Cut out those soppy personal details - you only wrote them to make yourself feel good!!" 

She quickly had two members in tears, and all of us on the defensive.  She positively wrecked an evening of supportive camaraderie.

"This is NOT a support group, this is a WRITERS group!!! We made that VERY clear at previous meetings what our purpose here is about!  If you're not serious about learning to write, and just want to be stroked, you can get OUT and go to the clinic at the hospital!"

I wanted out.   I can do better at the bar – strokes or no.  But I had to stay on, and we continued our critiques of each others' pieces more incisorly[5] than before.  I mean, there is just so far I expect a writers group to go.  And since keeping egos alive to continue this almost thankless task IS one of them, I don't appreciate ego-driven meatings.

Later that week I was walking to the Post Office to pick up some extra tax forms, when I saw her talking to someone on the corner, all decked-out for spring with a summer dress and a straw lavender porkpie hat.  I quickly started to the other side, but thought better of it.  After all, it was clear she had cancer, and should be given her space to be bitter and curt at meetings.  Besides, she was in a good mood, and I usually like curmudgeons with strong opinions.  I could put up with this one, especially since my taxes were waiting at home.

I re-crossed, re-introduced myself, and asked her what kind of cancer she had.  She briefed me on her story  - breast cancer, lost a breast,  came back 5 years later in the bones and now was in her liver.  She had decided that day  on stopping chemotherapy, but hadn't told either her doctor or her son yet.  At best she had a year to go, and was planning a trip to Mexico in several weeks.  That was that.  No play for sympathy, and as dryly as if she was explaining the parking policies in town.  She was bored with the story and wanted to get on with things.

I told her how my parents had died of cancer; how they'd both gone with pizazz and humor.  My mom had gone first, strong and singing, all the way up to hours before she went into her coma.  When my dad went a few years later, mom's was a hard act to follow - but dad kept me and my brothers clapping for curtain calls... which he pulled off, with a new joke every time he woke back on-stage -- for several days before he finally went into his last coma and took off. 

Sarah asked me if I had time to walk down the block to her house for tea.  It was the week-end of the 15th...my kitchen table was full of papers and receipts, so with no reluctance whatsoever I went to her house for tea.  Any other day I'm sure I would've begged off.

Her house was relaxing and comfortable, decorated in post-hippy.  I immediately felt at home.  I hadn’t lived in my own home for nearly two years – and even a cosy old bachelor pad doesn’t always fit the bill.

She wanted me to meet her sons, and suggested I come to dinner the next week. And this is how things worked out.

So a week later, after dinner we all sat down for a discussion. She felt that her children should meet an interesting new friend, who would be more educational and entertaining than TV.  If I wasn't entertaining enough they were free to wander off.  She got me to telling stories, which she already knew I loved to do.  Her 12 year old was interested in the science and philosophy of time, and she asked me if I had any particular ideas about time.  I did.

I told them about my pet theory of shaman-space, at the cusp between linear time and timelessness.... A dangerously thin edge at which the shaman could do battle with diseases before they took place, to keep them from happening.  This was an edge rarely worth going to, for shamans risked their own lives slipping off it.  It was a dangerous profession being a medicine man, going into trances for other people that you might never return from.  I told the boys how this had nothing whatever to do with religion, for religion had to do with spiritual things... and shaman-space was merely the world-view of primitive engineering--- learning nature's laws, giving millennia of people the techniques to help live within those laws.  And that was before history ever began..Then came history and engineering, which are part of the same mind-set, you realize.

The boys didn't wander off.

I told them that I firmly believed in living in the space we are given, and that it is an absolutely wasteful use of conscious life to wish to participate in any other space--- since ours is already infinitely rich.  Infinite is as big as anyone needs.  And shaman lore makes it very clear how absolutely slippery and boojum[6] any other working space is.  Besides, I said, shaman space and gypsy's magic space, as well as I Ching's space, and the abode of spirit's space, and the local god of the Winebago space are all material places that deal with physical stuff and power and knowledge and force.  That's all karma stuff.  Every one of them spaces share the very same access to the spiritual as we do - and you can't get any closer by taking detours.  Detours get you lost.  And that's what I told them.

But I also told them shaman stories of medicine men, and of friends who had witnessed scary and terrifying ceremonies in which world-spaces crossed over, because that's the kind of thing that 12 and 16-yr-olds like to hear.  And naturally Sarah took this opportunity to remind the boys that she was going to haunt them when she got to her next space.  

 


Chapter 9

The Curse of the Sphincteress

I had run from Marlena because she used men.  Her life had always let her manipulate their desires to her own purposes.  She had played a communication game with different rules, rules which stripped feelings back to underlying sexual purposes - rules which worked just fine in the world of the strip club.  But a strip club uses an acid which strips the fingerprints of personality smooth, or it puts on a latex glove of protection and anonymity.  There is a whore in anyone - man or woman - who worships themselves as they have come to expect others to worship them... and this is an underlying rule of a Gentleman's Club, no matter how gentlemanly it is in practice.   As I ran from it all, I wanted to let my life dreams, responsibilities to my promise, to my potential,  be torched clean.  There was a desire for momentary directions, for new imprints smelted onto my fingers by some other master - and that, by a sexual mistress.  And though I wished to let myself succumb to her wishes, to gratify her frustrations,  I found this master muddled and powerless .  Apparently my body recognized when its heart-beat was out of synch with the drum-beat of passions.  For fear of the Sphincteress, it was holding back, and would know when she loved me and wasn't simply performing her familiar old dance, swaying and undulating for me.  Apparently, fixating my eyes with her hypnotic effect was not enough.  For it is a dance of alienation with the F-word as its tune.  When you're at the crossroads armed with caution, this tune just ain't enough.

*******

ALANNA STRIKES BACK

My wife took sick and I stayed with her for over a week, then my daughter planned a week-end of her own in the mountains with me.  So I couldn't jump at Marlena's suggestion of another week-end, nor at her plan of taking the 4th of July at my place. 

The long and short of it is, I'd taken all the overtime they owed me at work, and finally promised my boss I'd be back to work in mid-July.  I had been too pre-occupied with finishing SqueezePlay to look for another job, and instead, planned a long drive to Wisconsin - visiting old friends and relatives across West Virginia and Indiana, then picking up my brother at the University of Nebraska for the last two weeks of my two month break from work.   The BMW got new plugs, filters and hoses for the trip.

Three days before I was to take off I was musing out loud to Alanna, my car, about what we'd been through together.  I thought back to the show-girl Alanna's wonderful smiles, as she kneeled on my knees.  Then I remembered the first time we'd met.  It was something I hadn't thought of for over three years.

It had taken place before my attack of Oblomovitis, long before my father died, and before I promised to see her each week. It was the first time she came over to me with that ubiquitous line of the lotus blossom: "Hi, my name's Orchid.  Do you want to see more?"  Only she had her own version.

"How do you like doing it best?"

"It's been over 10 years, so I really can't say." I'd replied, simply and truthfully adhering to the rules of small-talk.

"That's just AWFUL!  We've got to get you laid somehow!!" Then she laughed.  It was her real self, and she sounded serious, but she put everything back on track with the following witticism:

"By the way, My name's Alanna.  Would you like to see more?" I pulled out a dollar and dropped all my receipts to the floor, explaining that I really couldn't see more because though I would have liked to see more, I loved my wife and she also kept track of all the money.  Then I crawled around the floor some, and Alanna told me that she understood, and knew many guys in my position, but that it was a real shame about those ten years. Then she made a face at me, curled her tongue into coitus, laughed, and walked on to the next customer.

I appreciated her sense of fun, with the pseudo-sincerity you are allowed to display under the circumstances, and ended up coming to see her two more days running.  She told me more about herself, and I started to get confused.  That is, I started to fall for her.  That's when I gave her the prank picture of my decapitated head lying in a pile of fortune cookies, and said good-bye. 

In keeping with her sense of humor, she hung the picture up over her bureau, which explains why she remembered my name over a year later, after I had forgotten hers.

But I hadn't thought back to those beginnings for a very long time.  And now, as I patted Alanna's dashboard the memories came back as fresh as if they'd happened yesterday.  I brushed a tear back and blurted out,

"Well, Alanna, I guess you finally did get me laid - it was you, old girl!"

Then I noticed I had no pickup.  The car was holding back on me.  As soon as I took my foot off the gas she slowed down to a stop.  I'd never felt anything even vaguely like it.  When I started up again and tried shifting out of first gear, I dropped down to a crawl.  I down-shifted back into first and had to gun it to move 10 mph.  Reverse didn't work any better. I slowly turned around and forced her, whining in 1st gear, to a service station two blocks back.  Then the brakes locked up entirely.

I called my mechanic who explained the probable cause.  Here was another $800 investment in my 1982 beauty, and I decided then and there I'd find a new car. 

Marlena had always had a hard time with Alanna anyway - she ruined stockings, put a hole in her new jeans, and Alanna's door-handle twice drew blood from Marlena's fingers.  She had never treated anyone else that way, but I guessed it was to be expected, and I never told Marlena about who the car really was.  It wouldn't really have impressed her, so I kept my mouth shut.  Anyway, Marlena kept telling me that I was driving a student car, not worthy of a respectable professional like me.

When I first bought Alanna I'd actually wanted to buy a new Saturn.  My wife had squelched the idea of a new car, and found the used BMW in the paper.   Now I was free to go and buy my Saturn.  I gave them my down-payment and the next morning, before it was to be delivered I walked to the station where Alanna sat.  They'd freed up the brakes.  The bill was $20.  I drove her home and discovered what the problem had been.

The last screw holding up the fibreboard under the dashboard had fallen out.  It probably happened when I patted the dashboard.  The fibreboard had dropped down over the brake pedal and slowly tightened down on the brakes, which progressively overheated and locked.

Alanna had tricked me. 

A phase of my life was done.

I put in a new screw and cleaned her up like she'd never been cleaned before.  The leather glistened, the rugs were scrubbed, her chrome was polished.  I was crying.  I had really loved that girl Alanna, and still held onto her through this sympathetic BMW with a sense of humor.

My wife placed an ad "$2000 Or Best Offer" in the paper.  They delivered the Saturn, and I took off on what was to be my 2nd pilgrimage. [7]

*****

OUR "FIRST DATE"

The week after returning from the mountains, I was finally going to take Marlena out on the date I'd suggested since the first night we met, five months before.

She had an early day, and I was to pick her up at the club at eight.  After dinner I was supposed to be staying over, for apparently she’d forgotten her curse.

I hadn’t been to her new club, one of the classier places in the Broadway district that the mayor hadn't shut down.  We arranged to meet in front of “Kiss Me, Kate” up the block, where I could double park and wait for her.  But I naturally wanted to see her first, so I found a place to park and went in.

She looked wonderful.  More classy, interesting and alluring than any of the Barbies on-stage; the clientele were wealthier and more professional.  It had been a good move on her part.  $300 an hour in the Champagne Room (to pay Manhattan rents), and some guys would spend six hours in an evening!  And that counted for 5 ½ hours just sitting and talking.

I left before she got out  (cause the girls usually can’t leave with someone out of the club) and drove to our pre-arranged spot.  My new car, a foxy blond walking up the block and getting in, a carefree kiss and a ride down to the village.   This was the Palm Beach fantasy that got me started on this damned book, and I was finally having it in Manhattan! 

When I was 17 and worked uptown I used to daydream of eating on the veranda of this jazz club in the Village with a beautiful blond.  I'd watch guys with their gorgeous women in tow back then, and try to convince myself that I didn't really want to be like them.  But I never convinced myself.  And here I was, walking past the same corners on the same pavement with my blond.  It was all coming true.  THIS WAS IT.

After the dinner and wine and music she was draped all over me.  I’d never ever fantasized it this far, and telling about it is as exhibitionist as it looked at the time.  It was awesome.

She said something about going to a romantic cafe under the Brooklyn Bridge across from Manhattan, but then she noticed an open lingerie shop.  We walked over and walked in.  They had clothes for dancers.  They also sold sex toys.  Before I knew it we were on the 2nd floor in the Bondage and Domination department and Marlena was fingering the leather.    Then she remembered what it was she was looking for!  She went over to a salesgirl who opened a cabinet and took something out. 

I wasn't watching.  I had sort of glazed over - wondering what had become of the romantic stroll out of my dreams.   Then I turned to Marlena and had to stifle a nervous chuckle.  She was holding up a leather collar with iron studs to buckle around my neck.

"It's not big enough" she said to the salesgirl.

"Is it for him?"

"Yes, yes it's for him!" Marlena giggled as she pressed it shut, her eyes sparkling.

The salesgirl felt the leeway between the collar and my neck and gave the long silver chain leash a tug.  My head jerked.

"It seems fine to me."

It wasn't exactly like being fitted for a suit.  I half expected her to check my gums and teeth before assigning me to a stall. Or to begin measuring other parts of my anatomy before fitting me up for chain-link fencing. 

LECTOR:  I suppose you knew instinctively that there was no lock on the collar.  You could always make a dash for the car and leave Marlena standing in the store.

AUCTOR:  Uh, yes.  I was calculating just how far I would let them go before I made a break for it.  Even the leash and handcuffs!

LECTOR:  Admit it.  You were rigid with curiosity.  You fell right back into your fantasies from a few weeks back.  She'd decided to make you into the simpering wimp you deserved.

AUCTOR:  Welllll…. Let’s just say my mind began wandering a bit.   Like the blackboard with all my great feelings for a perfect night had just been erased, and now she was writing on it with a squeaky piece of chalk.   She was getting down to my raw nerves. 

Marlena laughed again.

"No.  It's not for him.  This guy has a much thicker neck, I'll need an expander."

What the hell was going on?  Where the hell was I?  Who the hell was I?  Who the hell was the guy with the thicker neck?!!  All I knew was that I was in Marlena's world.  She bought her paraphenalia and we walked out.  Then, as is often the case, you pretend nothing happened.   She draped herself back around me, and somehow felt that I was walking a bit stiffer than before.

LECTOR:  You could have blown up and walked out on her.

AUCTOR:  Have a heart.   I didn't.  We resumed our stroll.   I finally got up the courage to ask her:

"What was that?"

She laughed again.  You might have thought it was a nervous laugh, or a guilty laugh, or a demonic laugh.  But no, it was a sweet friendly laugh of a schoolgirl who had played a joke on me, scaring me half to death.

To her, the slip into another realm of life was no different than if I had walked into a computer store to check prices on a piece of software for my job.  She was completely guileless.  She only realized once we were inside that it might shake up my sensibilities a bit;  so she played it for all it was worth.

"There's some guy that's been coming in.  He buys me drinks but he just wants to talk.  Today he admitted he wanted to be my slave.  The stuff is for him.  I recognized him from Anastasia's club, where I worked when I first came to this country.  Do you want to go there?  It's just around the corner.  They have parties every Friday night!"

LECTOR:  So naturally you couldn't say no?

AUCTOR:  Well, I might have said no, but I knew how much this meant to Marlena.

LECTOR:  That's such a fine answer.

AUCTOR:  You're being facetious.

LECTOR:  Is that a strong enough word?

She had mentioned the Friday-night "open houses" months before, and said she wanted me to go with her.  I'd already thrown the romantic evening out the window.  If this was to be the surprise ending of my affair with the Sphincter, I deserved it.  The "first date" had just been the bait. 

She laughed, gave a tug and let me know there was a hook in my cheek -  Perhaps I'd been tricked into the final sexual subjugation of my will and personality.   But I came here with my eyes open.  I already knew what would happen inside of me if I tried running away.  And now I was being slowly reeled in.

LECTOR:  You said her laugh was "guileless," a schoolgirl laugh?  If she had been reeling you to your doom she would have had a demonic, sardonic, and evil laugh.

AUCTOR:  Does a fisherman pulling in a perch or a bluefish laugh a fiendish diabolical laugh?  Get real.  She was perfectly at ease.  She wasn't planning anything special.  She was just being herself.  She wanted me to see this other world of hers, whether she was reeling me into something or not.   As it was, I sensed a glimmering of good faith, and went in accordance with my own rational arguments.   If it had seemed like she was manipulating me at the end of a psychological leash, I would have become inflamed with confused passions, and would excitedly have awaited my doom, titillated with impatience. 

LECTOR:  There! You said it.

AUCTOR:  I was open to my fate, nothing more.  You'll have to believe me.

The fact was, I was detached and curious about where the story would lead.   I said a quick prayer for my soul and we drove the couple blocks to Anastasia's Dungeon.


Chapter 10

Stumped in Hell

THE FOUR QUESTIONS

The address was on an industrial street of warehouses and non-descript business.  Turning off the bright avenue, the block was dark and empty.  There was no sign of this establishment, and no hint of a party going on.  It was one big parking place with a  dumpster on either side of the street breaking up the expanse.  I'd forgotten that Manhattan people don't drive cars,  and out-of-towners don't park on dark empty streets.

We pulled up to the address.  On the tarnished steel doorframe were two rows of dirty white plastic buzzers with no name plates.  We rang the buzzer for the 10th floor and were buzzed up immediately.  Anyone who knew which button to push at midnight on that street knew just where they were going and were expected guests.

We were greeted at the elevator by a girl playing the part of a vampire or the Bride of Frankenstein.  We were in a surreal world of 1920's German films.  It was a converted old penthouse from the early part of the century, with curved walls and domed ceilings painted deep blue, hung with dark paintings and faded gilt candelabras.  Here and there was some sculpture.  You had the feel of an old amusement park fun-house --- worn wooden floors and a maze of doors and rooms off the central alcove.  You walked through a medieval dungeon, then a torture chamber from the Spanish Inquisition (at least the 1960’s Spanish Inquisition) , a hi-tech laboratory, and a hospital operating room.  The rooms were inhabited by a dozen or so dominatrices in leather.  There were several portly men clothed in a complex disarray of manicles, locks and chains but otherwise naked, walking around disconsolately on leashes, waiting for their orders.  Everyone including the women in charge looked depressed.  The Knick's championship game was on and their weekly party was suffering.   Apart from their state of dress, it could have been the nightshift crew at Dunkin' Donuts on Christmas Eve.

Anastasia was seated behind a giant walnut desk with some chipped veneer.  She was a trim businesswomen in her late thirties or mid-forties.  She was not dressed in the costume of the realm and she did not have a whip at her side.  To her right was a dressing screen with a refrigerator behind it.  There were some bureau drawers against a wall where the women kept their things.  I was introduced to Anastasia.  She smiled. "Let me show you something."

She led me around to a side room where there was a framed advertisement for her establishment.   It featured two blond women in black leather, and a kneeling man.  He was being forced into doing something - one was left to guess what - to Marlena.  For she was one of the blondes.

Anastasia's smile was slightly demonical.  "YOU can guess what he is doing, can't you?" She sneered at me.

Indeed I could.

We went back to the big desk. I was given a chair by the fridge to sit in.  A dominatrix was sitting across from me. She was having her foot licked by a nubian slave in chains and leather chaps, his bare bottom on the worn wooden floor.

Marlena spoke to Anastasia in Russian and went off to talk to an old friend.  Anastasia turned to me and asked, "So!  Have you ever been to a place like this?"

"No," I replied, "I think Marlena wanted to give me material for my book."

"You're writing a book?" the dominatrix opposite asked.  "What's it about?  Is it a novel?"

I suddenly relaxed.  "No, it's a book of philosophy." I laughed. "But it begins with a story that will give you an idea of the sort of philosophy I mean."

And so I told them the story of the Sphincter.  Anastasia laughed at the punchline and left the room to take care of something.  But the nubian, whose name was Thomas, and the dominatrix, who was Clara in real life, got caught up in the story.  Clara had been a French major in some ivy league school.  She looked as if she might have been on the swim team, or maybe a high school history teacher. Certainly not a dominatrix.

"I don't know if I would've ever gotten the answer," she said.  "But even if you knew the answer, wouldn't you give the wrong answer just to live?"_[8]

She had me there.  I'd never thought of that, and I told her so. Thomas stopped sucking Clara's toes and added "It sounds like all the religions in the world have met with the Sphincter and believe they have the truth."

"It was the idea in the story," I said, "but now that I think of it, we never know if any religion got the right answer but took Clara's solution as a way out."

Thomas was back to massaging her toes with the tongue of a lizard and the strong fingers of a baker, kneeding her soul - which was currently in her feet.      

"It would have taken me weeks to think of an answer," she added, "was there a time limit you had to answer in, or else you'd die?"_[9]

"I have no idea," I said. "But I don't think you had too long, because the tail was trying to jump you and you might end up impaled before you knew it."

"But what was the Sphincter trying to prove by killing all the wisest men and leaving the stupid ones?  Could she have been good?  What was her purpose?"[10]

Clara, being a blonde, naturally took the side of the Sphincteress.  I had never thought of this aspect of the story before.  She had me again.

"Don't you see?  The Sphincter is just like all the old fabulous monsters in ancient fables like the Sphinx. She was put there by the gods to give men trials."

"But then the gods had to have a reason!  And you put her there, so what was your reason?"_[11]

I fidgetted, and shifted gears slightly.  I had no idea how to answer.  So I did what any self-respecting folklorist would do.  I told her an alternate version of the story.  I had written it the previous year in the style of the Signifying Monkey, a West African folk tradition.  Thomas was familiar with the Signifying Monkey tales, the origin of Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories.  I explained that here the Sphincter was always tricked - sort of like Brer Fox and Brer Bear are tricked by Brer Rabbit.  Instead of Brer Rabbit, though, she's tricked by this little gnomish fellow who is her servant.  In the end she is tricked into swallowing her tail, and she goes to the Land of the Dead and becomes the master trickster of them all.

Clara had been drinking wine all this time, and was apparently satisfied by this tactic of muddying up her question with a very clear answer to something else.  It was irrelevant, but certainly answered something.

"You have to excuse me.  I've been drinking and I can't find the right words.  But does the search for truth have to be dangerous?  Can't we just live?"_[12]

This is not the same question as asking if we can just be satisfied and ignore the SqueezePlay game.  For SqueezePlay doesn't entail looking for truth. It is the Riddle of the Sphincter which does.  For a while I was back in my domain.  I explained to Clara about the 10 worlds or states of existence in Buddhism.  It is a helpful metaphor to understand that the Buddhists (or at least some Buddhists, because I am not a specialist in this) consider hell, hunger, animality, anger, humanity, heaven, learning, realization, bodhisattva, and buddhahood to coexist in everyone.  So that even the most devout and holy among us who have reached the state of buddhahood are not free of hell, and participate in all the states simultaneously.  It is just that from moment to moment the weights of the states change.  It is a difficult trek to keep hell, hunger, animality, and anger from being weighted strongest and having their say most of our moments.  The Buddhist doesn't believe that searching for truth should be dangerous.  They have laid out the path to rid yourself of the "lower" states, so that most of your moments are spent in buddhahood, or oneness with the ultimate truth, with boundless wisdom and ultimate compassion, and this path is not dangerous. A friend of mine has great faith in reaching this state by chanting a special chant as his prayer.  There are other religions that tell us that you can get to truth by believing something else and doing other things.  I told her that if you are going out after truth on your own, it is probably pretty dangerous, and I thought you would most likely run into the Sphincter or something like it.

Suddenly, there was a thumping at the door behind Thomas.  Anastasia came by and opened it.  A naked middle-aged North Jersey developer was spread-eagle on the floor facing the door - one leg and one arm up in the air and still tied to the table he had fallen off of.  He had begun kicking the door with his free leg to get someone's attention.  As you know, we were very deep into philosophy at the time.

LECTOR:  How do you know he was a North Jersey developer?

AUCTOR:  Gold chains.

Anastasia stormed over and yelled at him "How dare you appear like this in front of my friends!!" I caught a second sickening glimpse as she tried to get him back up, closing the door behind her.  There was nothing to do but continue what we'd been doing.

"Hell," I went on, "is the state of extreme suffering dominated by the impulse to destroy oneself and everything else.  Hunger is supposed to be a state where you are controlled by desires for fame, wealth, pleasure, and power.  It can never be really satisfied.  The state with the name 'Animality' is when you are governed by your instincts instead of reason, where you take advantage of anyone weaker and you grovel before anyone stronger than yourself."

LECTOR:  Don't tell me you rattled all this off to the dominatrix and her nubian slave? 

AUCTOR:  Well, not word for word.  I'm copying it now from somewhere else, so I get it right.  My memory is not so good while I am sitting in a dungeon. I only  got across the rough idea of the buddhist description of states that coexist in us all the time, no matter what "level" we think we've progressed to. But for your benefit, let me continue.

LECTOR:  You are welcome to.

AUCTOR:  Thank you.

There is a state described as "Anger," where a person has to feel superior to others in everything they do, where their ego tends to rule everything.  Then there is a state called "Humanity" where one can exercise judgment and maintain tranquil human relationships.  The state called "Heaven" is described by short-lived, rapturous joys.  The next two states - "Learning" and "Realization" have to do with the search for truth, while the last state of normal people-hood is called the "Bodhisattva" state, where someone only tries to help others be happy.  I already described "Buddhahood," at which point you have ceased to be a person altogether.  And this state is possible to anyone at any time, but I would guess the Buddhists consider it pretty infrequent for most everyone but active Buddhas, who most likely float about in one-ness. 

LECTOR:  Why are you getting cynical?

AUCTOR:  Only to say that I'm not entirely convinced of this, but that it seems pretty close to the world I've participated in.  All those first couple states describe me pretty well, and so I am obviously worried.  Especially after seeing that naked guy on the floor tied up with his dangles dangling in front of me. 

LECTOR:  I would try not to remind anyone.

Thomas was finishing his ministration.  He was still working on Clara beautifully.

"Is all this what your book is about?" Clara asked.

"No, I never discuss the Buddhist states, because I don't know if their descriptions are complete and I'm not qualified to talk about them.  But I don't see a place for laughter or courage or dreaming.  Buddhism has many answers, but so do many philosophies.  I'm still out struggling on my own.  And it is dangerous, because, as you see, I'm here."

"This isn't dangerous" Clara began, "It's just play-acting."

I didn't say anything.

She changed the subject away from her job. "But you have to tell me -- What is the real question you were trying to answer in your story?" [13]

I thought for only a moment.  I knew the answer immediately.  It is the end of my story.

"The loss of innocence. What does it mean?  How does it happen?"

The loss of integrity.  It was the question that I had pondered on my first pilgrimage.

Marlena showed up after visiting with an old friend all this time.   We’d killed the night, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay with her now anyway.  I’d promised to take my family to a picnic at noon before my trip, and I wanted to get back on firmer ground real soon.

Thomas massaged her feet for several minutes, then we left.

I turned to Marlena in the elevator.  "I did not escape that place untouched. I'll see this place in my dreams for the rest of my life."

But I'm not sure she fully understood my concerns.

****

 

The BARGAIN BASEMENT in HELL!

Those who live and work in hell may be as much involved with the problem of truth as anyone else, only they live and work in Hell. But they will have a hard time holding onto the truth when they find it.  Even the most intense discussions of Buddha, of faith, of God and integrity can hold their own there, but they do not get you out of hell.

I got to visit hell as Dante had.  I was just a visitor wandering through and telling stories to the locals.  I couldn't have had a better chaperone to the bargain basement of life than Marlena, nor maintained as dispassionate an eye, had I wandered through in any other fashion.

To be truthful about what my eye actually saw, the whole place reminded me of nothing so much as a weatherbeaten college dormitory made up for Halloween.  Complete with the refrigerator and notes and posters tacked up in odd places.  The peeling paint covered with picture frames.  A feel of uneven chaos, of pockets of people in ones and twos, just passing time.  That complete disinterest which one is apt to find walking through a fraternity house when they're not consumed with their ultimate purpose which is drinking. 

But it was not a college dormitory or a fraternity house putting on a play.  For under the cracked veneer of disinterest was a very physical reality.  Right under the surface was a maggoty truth horrible to look at - a dissolution gone beyond despair.  For this was a place with a purpose, a place providing "human services" to struggling, feverish individuals.  Men and women who had caught the sickness of our culture.  And they were undeniably sick.

Beneath the skin of those men you could see nothing but maggots.  The maggots were not disinterested, but very much alive, destroying any memory of the purpose the inner organs once played. 

The skin on the surface had become disinterested in anything -- bound, gagged, chained --- as resigned to its predicament as a civil servant forgotten by the government it served, still pecking vacantly on a vintage typewriter.

Their concern showed in their eyes.  It was so trivial and so immediate that it takes any sensual excitement out of the dungeon business. 

Their sad eyes reminded me of the eyes of the donkeys in Pinocchio -- the little boys that believed the Carnival Master's stories of thrills that awaited them, and found to their horror how sadly misled they had been.  Middle aged boys, with the eyes of sad asses.  And their eyes said this:

"Does anyone, anywhere, care enough to give me a time-schedule on my tribulations of the flesh?"

"I can't believe I'm paying for this!!"

"Putting myself at the mercy of such disorganization and incompetence is more hell than any torture room could ever be!"

"Damn girls.  Whenever things get off to a good start they drift off to something else...  The phone rings, or someone yells in that there's a good Seinfeld episode starting.  And here I am, having risked everything in my life for the temptations of the flesh - my pride, my position, my parents' respect -  and the flesh is expected to stop everything while the devils go watch their favorite sitcom!!"

I could just hear that North Jersey developer:

"I wish someone would tell me what is going on.  I've been waiting here while my guts are being gnawed out by guilt.  It may only feel like 20 minutes to them, but my mind feels a thousand little gnaws in each second, multiplied by 60 seconds to the minute, and again by 20 minutes.  That's 1,200,000 gnaws.  And my dingdong is dragging on the floor.  And these damn devils don't seem to be able to get their act together!" 

"Why didn't I remember what happened the last time before I came back here?  When they were finally back to the business at hand paying attention to my destruction, what do they do?”

"One of them will knock over a glass of wine.  Then they all crawl around mopping it up with a box of tissues.  Then they'll spend ten minutes looking all over hell for a pair of tweezers to get the splinters outta their fingers. Now they're comparing the contents of each others' cosmetic bags!!  I'm less important than the fukn splinters and now they've forgotten about them, too!!" 

"I can't remember why I came back.  How could I have forgotten this shit?"

"Hell, if this is how the God-damned Creation works....”

"Now I know why I Grandma warned me to take the other road.  I never much liked the idea of playing harps and sitting on marshmallows, but anything with a little more purpose is better than this!!!"

And that is what the eyes of these sad asses betrayed.  And you may say that the North Jersey Developer gets what he deserves.  But lord knows, perhaps it was a rabbi or a fallen saint and not a developer at all.  And Pinocchio pitied them for indeed, but for a bit of luck and different circumstances it might have been him!!

Hell was not full of whips and screams and fires and passion.  It was banal and empty.  It was death with no meaning, suffering in a dazed vacuum.  The scream in terror of a fingernail.  A stained and asymmetrical hole. To question it was like making a telephone call to a fax machine.

And to think that some people run to hell for answers.

Although, if this is hell, how easily the living world seems to recreate hell time and again. 

LECTOR:  You are not talking about bondage and domination anymore, I take it?

AUCTOR:  No.  The stupidity of the dungeon is a metaphor for barrios and ghettos and famine and war.  I'm afraid many get perpetrated with no more concern, planning, or purpose than those disinterested dominatrixes had.... as long as they made their money. Get concerned, and you may as well call up a fax machine.

LECTOR:  Aren't you stretching it to cover your guilt for visiting a sex dungeon?

AUCTOR:  No.  I saw a new metaphor for hell.  It is banality.  It means futility, emptiness, disintegration, vacuum.  It means things that are all around us every day.  It points to an easy-come behavior and carelessness that can bring so much destruction in its wake. It is passionless, but it creates a horrible chasm of terror.

 


Chapter 11

The Peter Pan Principle

There is a quality of childhood characterized by patience.  However impatient a child may seem, they are intrinsically patient, knowing that they are not yet "old enough" to have, to do, or understand.[14]

The patience of childhood is supported by the assumption that there is a reason why everything seems without reason, and that the keys to this dilemma are in the hands of adults.  For children and domestic animals are not stupid creatures, but are generally clever enough to realize that accident, illogical whims, conflict, hidden purposes, and other such stress-supporting agencies are the hinges around which daily life pivots back and forth, forth and back.   They have also figured out that only nitwits would put up with this rubbish, so that there must be some hidden meaning and reason behind it all.

Then children start guessing that many of those around them ARE nitwits. Once they’ve figured out there may not be a hidden meaning behind all the illogical goofiness going on, there is no reason to ask any further.  There is no reason to wait longer, BUT.  But it is very hard getting along without the patience.  It may have embodied an odd, misinformed faith – but to discard it would be to discard our innocence.   So we make a cast of it – our innocence – and put it on the shelf –for the day when it’ll serve us again.  And this is the origin of the Peter Pan Principle.

Now you may be familiar with the Peter Principle but have never heard of the Peter Pan Principle.   It is the principle by which some people just don’t seem to grow up, or why, at least certain parts of their behavior have sat down for a long play in the sandbox of immaturity.

There seems to be a myth that one can be a "just a pure child at heart" and participate in the adult world as a closet Peter Pan.   I think it makes for adulterated adults, and is probably one of the great American cultural mythtakes.   It may be a particularly American myth, since in America there have never been many places to hold onto your roots.  This is a thought-engaging high school or college essay question. 

If regaining a sense of childhood is one of the central issues in these memoirs of mine, then the question of maintaining it in the first place is of equal importance.  And it seems that if we are striving to maintain a strong connection to our childhood worldview, then losing that connection may be key to what we think "squeezing the life out of life" is about.  As if losing your innocence is to lose your ability to appreciate life.   Such a sad mythtake.  For I believe that the “innocence” and openness of childhood  really comes down to an unfathomable patience ---- watching as things happen, because some other time, some day way off but who knows when (when we are adults)… everything will be revealed.

There are many stories about the vow to stop growing, and what comes of it.  For example…

I drink with this cop, a guy whose only job is to bring in armed escapees.  The dangerous kind.  He’s right out of the movies, except he stutters and laughs a lot, and pats you on the back like you’re at his cousin’s wedding.  But his handshake could break the handle off a car door, and that’s the only way you’d guess he was right out of the movies.  We’ll get to talking, and naturally swap stories.  You know my stories and that they tend toward the juvenile, and so I joke "you gotta understand that my maturity was arrested at fourteen."  He laughs and says that puts me way beyond him. 

"My social skills stopped growing at age 3," he said, "But I'm alive because I  look up to all those tough little five-year-olds out on the streets!"

DITCHING PETER

All this is to explain where I was coming from at the time I met Sarah, my black-winged angel.  For  I have a very good explanation of why an important part of me  stopped growing at age 14, and also answers pretty well why squeezeplay (otherwise known as the middle-aged self-indulgence initiative) had taken such a hold on me.    I had to ditch Peter Pan somehow!

I have told you in a footnote with a French kiss that I am a philosopher.  I will also admit to you that everyone is a philosopher, including those who create web-pages, and old acquaintances that hi-jack you in the in the pasta aisle and don’t let you go until they’ve told you all the secrets of this life.

I didn't know about the prevalence of philosophers when I made a vow at age 14 to find the answer to the meaning of life.   I didn’t exactly pose it that way, but was asking why someone who was exceptionally talented in every type of accomplishment, a humble and shy wallflower, should die of leukemia at age 14.  And why I should have a dream half a globe away foretelling her death before it happened.   This event shook the energy out of my youthful sails.  What was motivation all about?  What was all the effort for?  Childhood had been about being good -- to be appreciated, congratulated, rewarded – not un-noticed, dead, and out of the running.   It is hard to accept stuff like this when you’re a kid– but you can usually try to ignore it, and eventually forget it.  Unfortunately, what I couldn’t ignore was dreaming about it before it happened. 

And so I made a vow to understand.  It was not childish or self-deluded.  It was taken as a token, a memory – as at least one  outcome of that lost life – a memory when all the memories of this frecklefaced nobody were all but gone.  It was the vow of a romantic, and it was accompanied with a rule that as soon as I found anything that gave me the least bit confidence as an "answer," I would throw it out and start looking all over again.   Most 14-year-olds are pretty smart already, and this one knew that “answers” in this branch of questions are mostly self-delusion.  The idea was to find many different answers to the meaning of life; for this way one is liable to find answers to many more useful questions.  The kind of things that Ben Franklin or Art Linkletter might have thought of. 

But being the romantic 14-year old that I was, I didn’t realize this vow would make the whole of my future life responsible to a fourteen year old.  Like little Oscar in the The Tin Drum, to stay true to my vow, certain parts of me would have to stop growing.  

I also didn’t understand that finding many answers to things usually only qualifies you to ambush people from barstools.   If you're any kind of a normal person you just live life and shut up. 

By the time I met Sarah, my greatest longing was to let this old vow die.  It had to be thrown out or I should end my days as a self-deluded bitter idiot .   Couldn't I be a normal person?  Wasn't it enough to just go out and have fun? 

Besides, I had not counted on exhaustion or absolute boredom.   For I had discovered many things – some of them eminently useful, but had worn myself to a frazzle trying to make them real.  After a while, discovering stuff is just tiresome, and believing in yourself becomes a real drag.   

Then, one day you wake up and see Peter Pan’s shadow and wonder, is it the Peter Pan in me that’s causing all this grief?  Is there something in that vow not to let go of childhood dreams that’s holding me back from getting on with life? Getting on with growing?  Can I let go without losing that connection to the purity of childhood feelings?

 

 

Chapter 12

The 2nd Pilgrimage

My brother had a summer teaching position at my birthplace, and I’d arranged to make another pilgrimage out to meet him, since there is no better way to invite unexpected twists and coincidences than to travel.  Who knows where it would take me, or what might happen, or who I might meet?  The trip was not like the first one had been.  I never ran into Daisy - although I had come to expect strange coincidences.  I ran into my old professor who I thought was dead about five years before, and found out he’d been living with several dancers of his own; and I drank with a geologist who located veins of barium sulphate for barium enemas, because that’s what geologists do.  However, he had also located a very rich vein of gold and had found a backer to cover him for 3-years while he grubbed the stuff out with his bare knuckles.   He is probably knuckle-deep in gold right now.  But I don't know if he's a lucky bastard, because I know where he is.

By the time I got to Louisville I was getting tired, and stopped for a wake-up call, rather like the wake-up call in Indianapolis the previous year.    I was really looking for an old-time establishment to confirm my picture of a picturesque 1900’s town called "Louisville."   The kind of place that had autographed pictures of old baseball players and prize-fighters.   But the only bars I passed were refurbished auto dealerships painted in colonial colors with names like "Ye Olde Brew and Coffin" "The Mootly Alehouse," "Mastermeister's Pub," "The Rusty Lager," or  "Sarah's Pewter Muffin".   They were clearly not artifacts of the original inhabitants of this colonial great crossroads on the Ohio, places that played host to Mike Fink and his Mighty Men.  These pubs had 30 microbrew ales and lagers on tap and waiters with stripes and flash.

So the first places I saw that really deserved to be called gin-mills or saloons also had  "Girls Girls Girls Girls" in neon over the Budweiser and Coors signs.  Naturally I decided to stop for my refreshing mug in just such a place, and innocent of any prurient interest in seeing naked women, fell right into another interesting experience in the varieties of love.   It is worth recounting here. 

Somewhere, someone has written that there is nothing more boring in literature than stories of the loves that, to the author, seemed individual and special.  On the other hand, they admitted, it is often what one has learned through these experiences which makes a person individual and special.  Thus, if there is anything worthy of recounting, it may be these very stories. 

The place itself was nothing special.  I went in and figured it was worth a beer and a cigarette and I'd be back on the road.  I was not interested in the girls, but rather in the architecture and the hint of an old tin ceiling covered with paint.  I was really looking for old signed photos of boxers from the thirties, or Babe Ruth or …. famous porn-stars from 1912.  It was that crusty, this old place…. And the place next to it, and the next place around the corner.  I looked into them all and chose the most picturesque.  It also happened to have the youngest girls and the fewest men.

So this girl sat down with me who seemed to have a personality like Alanna's - She was inscrutable and talked a mile a minute and worth several drinks.  They were cheap and the place was pretty empty.  So we traded stories for about an hour, and I showed her Marlena's picture and she had danced at the club Marlena was at in Manhattan.   I told her the story of the Bondage & Domination Dungeon,  and the long and short of it was that we ended up making out for much of the night and luckily for me she never came to my motel room because I couldn't have made this story more complicated than it already is.

But what was interesting for me was her manner and her style, and it was this. 

It became apparent that she was high - high on cocaine most probably, along with occasional injections of alcohol administered through a glass lifted to the mouth.  Her senses wouldn't stop.  She was dancing and talking a mile a minute - and would stop to hold my head in her hands and would stop to plant long French kisses into my mouth.  When the other girls came by for tips she would be all over them as well, rubbing and feeling and hugging and massaging.  At first I figured she was setting me up - but her story also led me to believe I'd just met yet another drowning human.  She suddenly turned to the mirrored wall and ran both hands through her tousled hair.

"Do you ever look at a mirror and wonder who that person is?  Don't it just get you sometimes that these eyes are yours?" 

And she grabbed my head and faced it at the mirror next to hers.  "Don't it just freak you out?"

Then the scene switched to a dissolve into an existential kiss, a long kiss - each holding the head of the other - in an interminable moment.  It must have been 1,574,603 nanoseconds,  I felt each one of them.   Then she broke from the kiss and held our noses against that old mirror and asked me why our ears were put on where they were, and how come we only had one nose?  Along with a number of other similarly deep existential musings.

She desperately wanted to believe she wanted to meet someone to get her off the treadmill, to take care of her and her children.  I actually believe she was not setting me up.  Over the few hours of on-and-off petting she didn't make that much from me and the joint had filled up with plenty of other men.  The only point to this story is about her hyped-up metabolism and alert physical awareness - which she conveyed to me.  I may be a naive guy when it comes to this stuff, but the sincerity of many of those caresses, the physical small talk which transcended most love-making I had ever known was a phenomenon in and of itself.   I told her point blank that for all my responsiveness, my mind was still on Marlena.   But several times we looked in each other's eyes and everything stopped, the two of us affirmed each other's reality, and then we kissed.  It was frankly more than I ever could have asked for in public, and quite as intense as any two lovers sitting on a park bench in Paris or Amsterdam.  But it was gratuitous.  Free.  There were no encumbrances.  It seemed to mean little or nothing other than mutual affirmation.  Like a great conversation between two strangers who would never meet again and who had no further expectations.

LECTOR:  You're fibbing.  You told her you were passing through and had no place to stay.  And she suggested you take a hotel room.  She was after a paid night.

AUCTOR:  Sure.  I always figured part of her was thinking of this.  And when I took the room and gave her the room number she never showed up.  A part of her was habitually playing me for the John, and the other part of her put me in a different category - because I was dating Marlena.  She was really scared of getting up her hopes for security and then having me walk out.  I'm sure it had happened time and again to this girl.

LECTOR:  This is absurd.  She was putting a super fake make on you. Maybe it was a very different and creative make, but that's all you have to analyze.

AUCTOR:  Maybe.  But I also figure there's a pattern here.  I happen to have a rubbery face that betrays every thought that passes through my mind.   My sincerity is what attracts the same kind of girl with the same kind of problem.  Alanna, Shannon, Marlena were in much the same predicament.

I was relieved she never showed up, because I couldn't handle the cost of more personal engagements - a night of love-making for me still constituted a responsible communication.  And this would be with an irresponsible human - a human nevertheless that I could empathize with and draw inspiration from - for as I said, her creativity and excitement with the physical living process was phenomenal, and frankly inspiring.  But for what?  To raise my sexual gear ratio up several notches so that I, too, would need cocaine to keep it up there?  Here was the implicit lie - for she had shown me yet another level of sensuality I had never before experienced - and one which I have never seen represented or even suggested on films - either in Hollywood, Madison Avenue hype, or in the porn industry.

LECTOR:  An obvious exaggeration.  Get real.

AUCTOR:  OK I will.

I remember some very seductive dance sequences that qualify as suggestive of the speed and intensity of her sensuality - but they were tightly choreographed.  You never believed they'd keep it up in real life.  Though I don't claim any great expertise in this arena.  We've all seen couples going at it hot and heavy, but not with the pauses, quizzical stares, song lyrics, and quick switches from massages to petting and then dance.  All playing off the emotions and changes of the other person.   This was SqueezePlay in the realm of sexuality -- frenetically squeezing more experiences into a give slot of time, and squeezing more intensity into each experience. 

It didn't leave me cold, but there was something missing in the experience.  I may remember it the rest of my life, but that is only because I'm writing it down now.

LECTOR:  That's because you rationalize everything.

AUCTOR:  Bullshit.  I'm only musing about it now.  Believe me, it had the lasting value of the greatest small talk - and it had all the trappings of becoming something more.  Except that I turned off the heat in my body the moment I walked out and went to my room down the block.  I edited the first 40 pages of SqueezePlay and went to sleep.  I never thought something like this could be possible.  Maybe I've become the cynical man-about-town.

LECTOR:  You're just getting jaded with go-go girls.

AUCTOR:  No.  She had me as excited and turned on as I've ever been, only my brain intuited something else and did not let me disengage.  I never really fell into her eyes or became entranced like that night in Indianapolis.  I never forgot who I was and who I intended to be.  I knew if she came to my room it would be more emotionally draining and painful than fulfilling.  This wasn't the acid of cynicism, but something strong and realistic.  If she had come to my room, I do believe it would have been the beginning of yet another relationship, but one that would tear us both apart at the seams.

LECTOR:  What can I say?  It's no better than a soap opera.

AUCTOR:  Look, when I started this book I wanted to experience the life Madison Avenue wants us to idealize and strive for, so I naturally ended with a couple crazy plots and an emotional soap opera. 

LECTOR:  So in the end did you learn as much on the 2nd Pilgrimage as the first?

LECTOR:  Perhaps.  My older brother and I wandered through four states on old secondary roads, talking our women problems.  Then we stayed with our younger brother and played music on the porch better than when we were kids.   I got to decide between breaking with my past and starting anew or reestablishing connections of childhood.   Ramping down from the absurd adventure with Marlena the previous week,  I was able to think things through on my own.  It was a bit like the freedom of childhood --- and when it came to choosing between a woman I was fantasizing versus being with my brothers in order to rebuild memories of a past, … especially while driving through the farmlands of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio - it was pretty easy to choose the memories of the past.

 

THE JOURNEY'S END

During much of the drive I was trying to understand what the visit to the dungeon could have been about.    It didn’t take long to realize it was about the author’s descent into hell….at least a preliminary look at it.  But what really concerned me now was what to think of Marlena!  Could the Sphincteresses' Curse resolve itself into real love?   I thanked my stars she hadn’t slept with me the night before the trip, for I’d have to drop the little story of the Sphincteress’ curse.  The Riddle of the Sphincter was myth and I was hoping this whole thing would work out like a fairy tale.

But hell, could true love bloom in such a wasteland?  Like a bed of lilies alongside a dump.  Did I Really want this to happen?

Of course.   She was my fantasy woman, and to prove that even the fruits of overt sexuality could be plucked and redeemed would be the stuff of quite a pop film script.  

Every day on the road I called.  She’d asked me to when I left, and each day it seemed her voice was even more excited to hear my voice than the day before.  It was soft and girl-like.  She told me she saved my messages for days and replayed them over and over.  On the way out to meet my brother, I sang her the songs I'd been singing on the road about her.  I was ignoring the dungeon.  I wanted to believe in her good intentions.  And if it could be true, all kinds of youthful fantasies might be realized in this love, in a developing story that continually surprised me.  Anything could happen.

So by the time my brother and I got back from our trip I ‘d overcome my fear of her, and had rebounded from that last night.   Oh, how we can talk ourselves into anything if the radio is playing the right music.  And if it isn't playing the right music - how easily we change the channels to put ourselves in the correct mood!!

Back in the mountains I had just dropped my brother off for his bus back to Boston, when the phone rang.  It was Marlena.

What followed confirmed something I had only guessed at previously--- it was about evil.

LECTOR:  This better be good.

AUCTOR:  I’m working up to the ending, believe me.  I promise to outline it briefly, just to give you the idea.

LECTOR:  You can’t be brief.

AUCTOR:  When my father decided to die he thought he'd finally had enough.  When it came time to die he wanted to get it right, and kept himself alive until all his three sons had arrived at his bedside.   It was heroic,  and then he found out he couldn't just die any time he wanted.  So he resigned himself to laying around in bed until the time came.  He was actually pissed, and figured it would be very tedious.  But those last few days together were more loving, funny, fulfilling and poetic than any we could have imagined together.  He was great. The end was immensely human.  It was perfect.

LECTOR:  So you're building me up for the last ride?

AUCTOR:  Trust me, it'll kill 'ya.

LECTOR:  If you finish me off, I'd better die of laughter.

AUCTOR:  You're the Grand Inquisitor -- I couldn't think of a better ending.   Think of it!  How perfectly romantic if Dracula had been laughing his sardonic laugh of power, and then, as if it struck a chord in him, he couldn't stop... then keeled over naturally, without the aid of a stake in the heart!  Dying of laughter!!

LECTOR:  Don't do this to me.

AUCTOR:  You know, it would have been even better if the laugh that actually kills Dracula is a belly-laugh!   You're right - a sardonic laugh of power could never have killed Dracula.  Think of it, as the power of his evil laugh grew it begins to overwhelm him, and he's scared for just the briefest second.  And in the second of that fear came the whimsical insight of his own death by laughter - a joke so powerfully delicious to even Dracula that he loses his own sardonic laugh and begins guffawing.  And as he guffaws he realizes it's a laugh of the heart, one he does not control, a laugh that pierces him through and through.  That supreme realization does him in.  And so he falls over, still chuckling at the joke of it all.  There you HAVE it!  Dracula could be killed by the ultimate joke on himself... a laugh through his heart.  A joke on himself.  And THIS is how the Grand Inquisitor should die!!!

LECTOR:  Put an end to me first!   Either that or finish your book quickly!  At least have mercy!!  

AUCTOR:  We'll have some time to see about that.

LECTOR:  I told you?  You couldn’t be brief if your life depended on it.

******


Chapter 13

Soap Opera Often ends in Death

BIANCA

When I first met Marlena she was anxiously awaiting the arrival of her 22-year-old daughter, Bianca.  She had spent thousands of dollars on legal fees from corrupt contacts in Moscow to obtain her papers.  And when each attempt failed, she paid more to have all of Bianca's papers changed to a new name so she could try again.

Her conversation always returned to her daughter, and it was becoming clear that her role as a mother was central to her self-image.  In her mind, she had left her professional life as a speech pathologist and risked everything to bring herself and her daughter to America.  This was the picture she painted of herself.

She wouldn't show me pictures of Bianca, and so I had naturally imagined Bianca as a younger version of her mother: a smart and self-confident, trim & seductive sex-goddess.  I was dreading her arrival as much as I was excited by it.  But Bianca was very little of what I expected.  Her father had been a concert pianist and she was not endowed with her mother's exotic looks.  She was a quiet, inward girl who spent hours listening to music and watching what went on around her.  On the occasions when she talked, she was given to bursts of enthusiasm and joking, as if things suddenly made sense to her. 

The night I first met Bianca I sensed she was overwhelmed by her mother, and ashamed of the dancer’s prima donna behavior that insisted on being the center of all attention.   I was under the skeptical eye of someone who did not have a high regard for the general run of her mother's choice of men, and with my limited Russian it was difficult to draw her out of her shell.   So I laughed and made faces at her mother's tantrums, and sang to myself as I often did as Marlena preened herself to go out.

I don't think Bianca knew I was also trying to amuse her.  What I didn't know is that I had succeeded in amusing her.  She adored me.

When Marlena and Bianca were together Marlena would become a young girl - reliving memories of when her daughter was a baby- and suddenly they'd become like two fun-loving 20-year old sisters.  Bianca became the older wiser girl, and Marlena was the flighty blond.   When they came to my place,  Bianca wandered through the woods, danced on the grass, set tables and cleaned dishes.  As I watched her I saw a fragile deer.  She was the kind of girl I could have fallen in love with accidentally, not expecting it or looking for it. 

It's one thing to desire someone and then justify that desire by fantasizing love.  Sometimes you fall in love.  This is what I was trying so hard to do with Marlena, what had happened so easily with Daisy. 

But Bianca was different.  There never would have been either desire or fantasy.   It's like you would just wake up one day and realize you were in love with her. 

You'd suddenly notice that when she was sitting there, looking out the window - like a quiet deer munching your front lawn and watching you as you read the paper - you felt warm and full of song.  It always felt wonderful when she was around.

At first, I didn't realize what I was getting myself into.  I thought I could get to Marlena through her daughter.  That was indeed happening.   Marlena was beginning to love me, perhaps because I was working hard for Bianca to love me.  And, in truth, by the time we were in the mountains together, Bianca worshipped me.  When I took mother and daughter home at the end of the week-end, we said goodbye and I had to deflect Bianca's eyes and her kiss.  But it never occurred to me I could never do this again.

THE CALL

 I had fallen asleep at the typewriter when Marlena called.  There were more problems with Bianca's visa.  It had run out and extension fees were going to cost a lot.  Marlena had procrastinated and was clearly frantic about her options.  Things were made more complex because she had not come here under her real name and couldn't be claimed as Marlena's daughter.  She'd been calling everyone.  Now she was going to a marriage broker, and ready to pay for a husband.   Did I know someone eligible?  I wanted to help Marlena badly, and half-joking said my wife was pushing me for a divorce, and then I'd be available.  I wasn't prepared for Marlena's answer.  She was overjoyed beyond belief.  It was as if I had taken care of her own life's dreams for her.  Her role had been fulfilled.  She had gotten her baby out of Russia, and had given her a secure home!  Not only that, she had provided her daughter with the man of her dreams.  It hadn't yet dawned on her that she'd just given up the man of her dreams.

"How soon can we do this?" she said.

I was feeling a bit backed into the corner, but was already feeling a bit excited with this sudden turn of events.

"The divorce should be a matter of a week or so.  There is nothing being contested, so it's like a few days of paperwork and signatures.  I could marry Bianca right afterwards.  Say, three weeks."

Marlena was so excited there was no containing her.  She couldn't wait to tell Bianca, and insisted I come see them immediately.  And by the time I got there, a few hours later, I found myself bewildered at how much I had inwardly come to love this girl.  We sat at the diningroom table, both of us shy.  Our eyes went deep into the others' eyes.  As we both relaxed, I felt every muscle in my face let go and become part of a single smile.

I was overcome in a mental passion, and her own longing erupted inside of me. I nearly drowned in my physical need for my girlfriend's daughter.  I wasn't at all prepared for these kinds of feelings.  We had never made love, and yet it was as if we'd been formed of the same flesh, that the bones inside our limbs were the same bone and only waited for the word of someone to approve the love, and let us become one again.

This was far beyond the need for love or the kind of love I'd rediscovered with Daisy, nor was it the manly love I had borne for Marlena in the fountain of sexual play.  And I had no defenses for this desire, which drew me to her at a cellular level.  It was not an excited sexual desire, but almost magical and inhuman.  I knew we were going to have a child.  And yet we were still just sitting there.  Marlena had gone into the kitchen and was bustling about with the food.  To her mind, we were just taking it in, both of us a bit bewildered.  Only Marlena had no idea what we were taking in, and I knew Bianca was taking in every bit of the same thing I was.  Our breathing was in sync.  There was a sigh, and our eyes flickered as we both had the same realization of having a child.  The corners of her mouth turned up and we began to breath faster, expectantly.  She wanted to bear my seed.  I recognized what this feeling was now.  It was ancient. 

It was somehow linked to the birth of a tribe.  I wanted to make real our union every nine months until either she couldn't bear my children any longer or my age prohibited it.

It was understood between us.  If we never were to consummate our marriage in bed, it almost felt like our shared thoughts would be enough to impregnate her.  Neither one of us wanted to display any further emotions.  As Marlena began serving the food, Bianca took my hand and held it to her cheek, then gave it a kiss, indicating that this was as close as we would get until the time was ours.  I shifted gears, winked, and laughed.

"I think we have this thing under control.  It'll work out fine, Mom!"

Marlena winced.

“I hope you like being MY son,” she laughed.  “I make chicken a lot!”  But it wasn’t her school-girl laugh anymore.

 

THE FALSE ENDING

Time seems to have taken control of things.   Life sort of takes control, with work, grown children, my ex-wife, our new house and the whole new family. 

Things have a way of becoming very complicated very quickly.  Once real circumstances take hold, and you've grabbed onto a moving train, there is no way to philosophize about each experience.  You're lucky if you can grab it as it whizzes by.   Apparently there is yet another mode of living I’d been unaware of.  Bianca and Marlena have made me supremely happy in a confused and reaffirming sort of way.  It's as if the realization of a tribal instinct in me opened up a new man for all these years. 

My manuscript lay untouched.  When I finally reread it very little seemed to make sense.  I don't think this way anymore, but I thought I should bring the story to a close.  The most recent events are certainly worth telling.

Marlena loves me in a new way.  Besides being an old friend and her lover, I am also, symbolically, her son.  So the full empowering mother's love which she'd had for Bianca she could now share with me. 

In the language of the book, it was as if she'd finally found the proper outlet of her sexual longings, but in a way I had least expected it.  Yes, the Sphincter had learned to love fully, but in the end, it was only a product of herself. 

And I love Marlena in a way I cannot describe.  It is profoundly sexual - I avoided becoming her slave but instead became her symbolical son, and she was my Freudian mother.  It felt solid and vibrant in a way I can only describe as that of some Jungian archetype.  An emotion buried in this tribal feeling of marriage.

The love of Bianca has not changed since that first epiphany - when we fell in each other's eyes.  And we have had five children in that love. 

But there are tensions in all life, and I overlooked the tension of Marlena's jealousy.  It was our springboard to know one another more fully, and keep our passions fresh.  Yet I failed to see how strongly Bianca's lifelong fears and jealousy of her mother were affected.  She knew our love was something very special, but it didn't soften the hurt.  And with her growing love for our children, and the motherly attention she lavished on them, her time for me grew less and less, and my time with Marlena took on a larger role.  Her hatred of her mother had easily welded onto her heart.

A mutual hatred, of course, had taken place within Marlena years before, and she bore it out through her hold on me.  For all this time, every pore of me was in love with Bianca, but I physically belonged to Marlena.  I can't say I wasn't happy with all this, for I was hypnotized with what we were doing, and it was nearly all-consuming.

Just last week I was sent to St. Louis on a business trip.  I won't surprise anyone by saying I stopped in the local showbar for a drink. 

I vaguely recognized the girl from Louisville, that 2nd Pilgrimage.  I don't know why she recognized me.  It was seven years later.   I had never cheated on Bianca and Marlena, but the two of us made love that night.  It was fine.  Like catching up on old business.  Only when I got back home last night, Bianca knew.  She was always inside my mind.  She was more than hurt.  My night with the girl in Louisville suddenly came to represent every time I'd slept with her mother, and while she couldn't transfer her hate to the girl, she could suddenly transfer that hatred for her mother to me.

It was inevitable.

What I had not anticipated, however, was the flip-flop which Marlena's jealousy would take.  For my infidelity to her daughter now made her furious.  All her motherly instincts flared up to protect Bianca, and her feelings for me flipped from love to ownership.  Suddenly, I belonged to her as an object which could be discarded or destroyed at will, and, confusing this with her jealousy of Bianca, she contrived to destroy me.

It was inevitable.  The minute I got home I saw something coming.  This morning at breakfast, when I saw the change in Marlena's face, I anticipated the truth.  I could only laugh to myself of its inevitability.  I deserved whatever I got this time.

What I didn't expect was the last Shakespearian twist.  She had convinced Bianca to deal the blow.  And so Bianca poisoned me last night.  Marlena confirmed my guess, and I figure I have a few more hours before it kicks in.  But worse than that, our two oldest kids are already old enough to realize what is happening.  Furious arguments… followed by a dead father.  I just looked up the poison, and it will look like my heart.  But if there's an autopsy Bianca will be charged with murder.   Poor girl!  I can't imagine what will come of the kids when they know the truth.  There is no way they can be shepherded through it.   I did worse than squeeze the life out of life, I have now mangled many many more.   But I'm too tired out to worry about such things now.  This poison won't be a bad way to go.  I just get groggy and phase out.  So I figure that I did alright, after all.

 


Chapter 14

Spilling the Beans

AN END TO LOVE

Marlena had called just before I'd fallen asleep.  She wanted to find a husband for Bianca, and I had joked about marrying her daughter.  Then I realized how deeply I was drawn to Bianca, and it only took a few minutes of daydreaming to realize how the joke would end if we really did get married.  Immediately after hanging up, I was overcome with the feelings I described, above.    I had been working on a description of evil in the other book at the time, and “The False Ending” became clear. 

So while I experienced the episode in thought, I brought my reader to experience it through a dis-simulation.

I apologize for this breach of faith. The whole episode was one of the cheapest tricks in literature, but I think it was worth it.  For I truly felt the intense passion I tried to describe, and it flagged a warning in my rational self.  That warning said there was an extremely powerful human structure at play here, with more associational relevance and inherent meaning than the surface admitted.  For on the surface this girl was only a sweet person who I'd be at no fault to love.  But the context was pregnant with a story, a story with a structure that could only end violently in Shakespearean or Greek tragedy. 

The relationships of passion worked themselves out so naturally in the logic of a dream.   Soap Opera could only end in death.

However, the episode also highlighted how easily someone could lose one’s integrity while justifying any action at any time.  This is very important, because this trash was extremely easy to write, and had I not blocked it off as “The False Ending,” but written this whole memoir as a novel --- just for the chance to finish with this ending ---  it might have been very real.   Jerry Springer has people on his show no different…. Only we aren’t give the opportunity to see the Shakespearean twists of emotion that the trailer park operas have running through them. 

After I decided to use this device for my ending I took a break.

Marlena was anxious to see me.  I'd gone back to my job and was back a week without seeing her yet.

I was putting off writing the ending.  There was so much riding on it.  Her curse.  Her love.  My fear.  Our future.  Our love.  My book.  The entire year.   That Friday was to be a second chance at the date that got blown to hell.   And when Friday came, that’s just how it felt.  At the club she was sexy and alluring.  Getting into the car she was gorgeous. I took her to a fancy uptown place for dinner - the Hotel Carlisle.  In the 50's the author Bemelman's described it as the "Hotel Splendide,"  --a place with the glamour of the 20's.  It maintained the image.  

As we got out of the car and walked down Park Avenue things seemed different.  Would the same magic that made BMW's behave like Disney films hold up for me?   Was it possible for someone like Marlena to reintegrate her childhood feelings and capture old dreams.  If she was in love, could I give myself to her freely??  Could sexual wastelands become healthy gardens?  

Needles to say I was on pins and needles.  Needless to say I was on pins and needless.   I was on pins at least, and needles were needless.

I was in a white duck suit, smoking a pipe and trying to look debonair.  We were holding hands through a drizzle on Madison Avenue, and looked debonair slipping into the Carlisle's famous piano bar.  Only Marlena, with skin showing beneath her halter top and ass-fitting slacks, looked a bit like I’d picked her up on lower Park Avenue.   But it was intimate, with old leather seats, and a piano player who turned around and talked to us like in a Fred Astaire film.   And Marlena was certainly worth looking at as he played old love tunes from the forties.  After two drinks we went down a flight of steps to dinner in the most posh place I'd ever been to in my life.  It had old paintings and marble floors and a flower arrangement the size of a Volkswagon.  The Maitre d'Hote introduced us to the wine steward and the wine steward introduced us to her waiter who introduced me to my waiter at which point the Maitre’D  gave a nod while the wine steward bowed and my waiter and her waiter seated us in our respective chairs.  This was dinner like the Vanderbilts and Morgans must have had.[15] 

I took a deep breath and reminded myself it was worth every penny.  I could pay it back over several months.  With all the story that had accumulated behind that date, I would never have another chance like this.

Marlena was starry-eyed. She kept looking around and saying how superb everything was.  It really was wonderful.... arguably among the best dinners I'd remembered. The aromas and savory juices, wines and herb butters to prepare the vegetables and main course.  I don't know if I'd ever realized that the taste of food could be as opulent and rich as its presentation and surroundings.  Dinner was very rich.

As the wine steward poured her second glass she giggled and asked me if I was finished my book.  She knew our story was all in there.  She was leaning forward, holding my hand.  This part was her dream coming true, too.

"How does it finish?"

I was wishing we'd already gotten married.  I wanted to change the subject and tell her how much I loved her.  But this was a very complicated love, to be sure.

The false ending rid me of my last bit of fear of the Sphincteress.   Whatever had been evil in our relationship had attached itself to the ending.  Meanwhile I turned my feelings for Bianca into love of a sweet girl that I wanted as a daughter, to share with a wife - Marlena.  This is, at least, where my head was at the time.  I was truly in the thick of a romantasy[16].

But I couldn't say all of this as I was drawing my knife through the Filet of Turbot in herb sauce.

I put my knife and fork down.  I let out a sigh to match hers.

We were two people floating for an instant in an ageless world which has seen love millions of times.  Two people wanting to make their future burst out green and fresh. 

But with a short nervous laugh I ended the moment.

"It's a great ending!"  I blurted out.

"Do we...?"

"..... No, we don't get married."  I was now beet red.

"No.  I married Bianca and we have six kids, and then when I cheat on her you're so infuriated you talk her into killing me.  Then she ends in jail, and you end up with all the kids!"

I heard my inner self crying out - NO NO NO NO!

I heard my other inner self crying out -  "Tell her it was a fake ending and that we get married in the end!!!"  But I never got that far.

I cannot exactly describe the sudden flash of fear in Marlena's face, and how it disappeared and fell flat.

The hope drained from her eyes. 

Nor can I explain how joy, softness, and warmth can find itself impassive.

She became strong and bitter in less time than it takes to blink.

She should have known better than to hope.  Lost hope wasn't worth a tear anymore.

What she had done to spoil our "first" date, I had replayed in spades on her.  But the evening was not done, and I was to offer my love yet another drink from the Cup of Emptiness. It sealed the fate of our interesting romance.

We finished dinner and chitchatted away.  She was good at this.  I could have been any guy now. This girl was familiar to me.  I told myself that she was back to her regular old self, and I'd just been imagining everything.  There was nothing to worry about.

She just put her protective shell back up.  When her force-field was down I attacked.  Now she'd never let it down again for me.

I was like any ass-hole guy who steps all over someone and then keeps thinking things haven't changed.  We got to her apartment.  I could have been any guy, any lover.  She busied herself in the kitchen for a few minutes and then told me I should take my shower.  My heart was racing.  It had been racing all night.  It only skipped a beat once when I made my blunder at dinner.

*****

Stuck in the Elephant House

The state of prolonged excitement had done a number on my insides.  I became suddenly aware of a beating and churning somewhere besides my heart.  Then I remembered that, against the advice and chiding of my fellow co-workers I had had a big lunch of beans and greens.     "I hope you don't have a big date tonite!" one of them had said.

To which I'd responded gaily, "No problem!" 

Well, just about then it was a problem.  Along with that wonderful Filet of Turbot in garlic and herb sauce.  There was nothing else I could do but walk rapidly to the bathroom, shut the door, sit down and let bygones be bygone.  The little European-style water-closet transformed itself into a 4'x4' elephant house. There was neither an exhaust fan or spray deodorizer.  I rolled my eyes and got into the shower. As the relaxing waters washed over my back, I burst out laughing at the thought of this test of true love!

I held out as long as I could, dried off, and meekly apologized as Marlena went in for her shower.

As we already know, there was to be no test of true love.  It had been tested once and failed.  It hardly needed a second coming.

I laid there naked in bed nervously waiting for her to finish her shower.  I realized down deep that the story's finish was to be here. Her curse.  Her love.  My fear.  Our future.  Our love.  This book and what my year was supposed to be about. 

I broke out laughing again.  If the heavens so willed it, at least the heavens have a sense of humor.  A romance straight from Gargantua and Pantagruel.   Flattulence: The Great Test of Love!  Romance --killed by a big shit. 

Marlena had me in a check-mate.   She joined me in bed, her ivory skin calling out to me how much I would suffer through that night.  She entwined her legs in mine and was asleep.   Some men will read this and tell me what THEY would have done.  But I am not them.  I am me.  And frankly, I doubt they would have done any different than I, for I've heard many a guy talk tough and still act with respect, and a bit of meekness when things got down to respecting a woman.

If I even moved a muscle towards her she could have let her anger loose on me.  I would have been mortified to the bone.   I couldn't have listened to the truth then.  It has taken me months to realize what was happening at that moment.   For here was the Riddle of the Sphincter. Answered. Unanticipated.  Existential.  Emptied of any great truths.  Full of the Joke it had played on me.      I was alone with my life's fantasy lying beside me.  That much I understood. 

It had been over 6 weeks since our weekend in the mountains, and those weeks had invested themselves with so many changes, so many questions, so much life.  This was the answer to her vow.  I had lost the chance for trust and love, and there would be no sex.  That was that.

Marlena's legs shifted positions.  Her calves entwined in mine. Her knee against my thigh.  Contented postures after love. Each move another checkmate. Was she laughing to herself?  The twining and untwining of meanings.  Was this ending possible? 

I had wanted so much to be part of things, to embrace this world!  I wanted to run my hands through everything that lay around me.  All I had wanted was to be allowed to fulfill all the strength ebbing and flowing inside my heart, my mind, and my loins!

Guffaws over this absurd elephant house ending had been nipped the bud by an incredible, frustrated passion.   Overwhelming hunger constricting my chest and my lungs like a vise.  Her fragrant body was cool, curved along mine in its entirety - I couldn't breath.   I couldn't move.  My jaw opened wide, and my throat and eyes constricted in spasms with great silent gasps.   There was no sleep.  My face lay in her long blond hair.  It was brushing against my forehead, my eyes, tickling my ears, as I replayed all the moments we'd spent together.  The meanings of my recent life folded in on me like an accordion - squeezeplaying ME.

And the accordion would let out  its silent scream, anguish opening and closing my jaw like its bellows, burning my eyes with dry, a-tonal, tears.   I slowly wore myself out. 

LECTOR:  You are wearing me out.  This is humiliating.

AUCTOR:  I deserved it. 

LECTOR:  If she really loved you at the restaurant, she should've waited for an explanation. You could've softened the blow.

AUCTOR:  No.  The fear in her eyes gave it away.    Her love was just the beginning of a crystal she'd found hidden, cherished deep inside her.  It was no more than a snowflake.  A snowflake that dreamed of becoming a crystal goblet, holding our love and reflecting a thousand facets.  A snowflake wanting to be real - sparkling like a chandelier in the lights of the world around her. 

But my little come-back shattered that, and the snowflake evaporated in her quick look of fear.  She was reminded that in this world – her world - the utensils are made of bone, shot-glasses are fashioned from femurs, and the goblets are the skulls of your old buddies.  There is no chance for a crystal goblet, only bone.  Skin and bone.

LECTOR:  You mangled it, man.

AUCTOR:  I was so close.  We were almost there.  I could have given the book a happy ending !

 

Chapter 15

Meeting in the Middle

I still called Marlena fairly regularly, admitting to myself it was a botched relationship, but an adequate obsession to get me through the week.   A few dates every couple months was enough.

In May I asked what would be a good night to pick her up at the club and go out to dinner.    She reminded me her birthday was coming up.  Perhaps this time I could get it right. 

LECTOR:   I take it the book is nearly finished.  You were doing your taxes and met Sarah at the Post Office…. I know the rest.

AUCTOR:  Yeh, smart aleck.  A lot can happen over a couple week-ends.   Remember in my “Warnings” on Page One, I promised you “spiritual desiccation and mental dismemberment of the author.”  I haven’t gotten to the part about becoming one of Marlena’s paying clients … she’d been taking in men on the side all along, which explained all the leather and onions before the trip to hell.   And you haven’t heard my experiences at the she-male lounge, or my subsequent turn with homosexuality.   Be patient.   Then I’ll end the book.  OK?

LECTOR:  Look, I can see, there’s only a couple pages left.  How are you going to fit all that stuff in? 

AUCTOR:  I told you.  Be patient.  In the end I find my own true love.  The promise of life, in all its potential is real.  It can happen.  But not until you take off the hobbles that have really been holding you back, and walk around the fences you’ve been blaming all these years.  Once the hobbles fall, things start changing pretty quick, but I must tell you how the first hobbles fell off.   

HOW THE CHAINS FELL OFF

After the Elephant House incident I kept in touch with the Sphincstress, becoming more obsessive … so that by the spring I only wanted to give up everything for her -- my personal goals, all my dreams, even my book – doing whatever it would take to support her need for material possessions.  The Sphincstress had given me a hug and a kiss and let me go.  I thought I’d gotten away intact.

In May I called Marlena and asked what would be a good night to pick her up at the club for dinner.    She reminded me her birthday was coming up. 

Perhaps this time I could get it right and tell her how I really felt.  I was planning to propose.  

I didn’t realize she invited all her regular customers to the club that night so she would make big bucks for her birthday.  Besides this, she was doing a bang-up business at home– where her best club customers had become regular clients for submission games and massages.

But me, I thought I was still special, and that we were going to dinner afterwards.  She also didn’t tell me she was working til 4 AM, and had to go home with the club chauffeur.  “Do you want an hour in the back room instead?” she asked, “It is better than going to dinner, for I can sit on your lap.  And it won’t cost you very much more.”

I really don’t want to make you read any more, for both of us are ashamed.   But with a bottle of champagne and a pile of birthday presents and nothing to do but sit and talk – I coughed up my credit card and paid out half a week’s wage to be alone with her.   I find it hard to relate, and harder to recall, but I told her how I felt and got out my proposal.  As the song says, ‘How low can ya go?’ 

When we left the Champagne Room I had found reality – I was just an old customer.  Worse than that, a wasted and angry customer.   I left her the birthday presents and guided myself safely home.  There I found four messages on the answering machine from Sarah, and the last was only minutes’ old. 

I’d only been over twice for dinner, and barely felt I knew her --- but here she was begging me to come over and help her get through a painful and sleepless night of nausea and morphine.  It was 2 am when I called back and said I was coming over.

She was waiting with a pipe full of grass and a bottle of tequila.   I had been coaxed over under false pretenses.  She was dying and horny as hell.

I did not look forward to what was preparing to be an exercise in embarrassment. But who was I to criticize such absurd groveling behavior, when I had just made a marriage proposal to a stripper in the back room!?

I smoked the pot and drank the tequila and was no more relaxed or high or capable of feeling any physical tenderness for this unfortunate and frantic poet.  I certainly felt tenderness towards her, but there was a clear separation between tenderness and any physical passion.  It was an unnecessary distinction, which I was soon to learn more about. 

We talked and watched BBC reruns, and by 6 AM I couldn’t keep my eyes open and excused myself to go home.   She could obviously make it through to morning.

She insisted I take her son’s bed – the kids were away with their dad in Vermont.  I resisted.  She insisted. I resisted.  She insisted.  I resisted…. But all this resisting tired me out so much that I went up and climbed into the kid’s bed.  I was out like a light.  She climbed in next to me and started foreplay.  Like I said, I was already asleep, and this had never happened to me before – let alone after all that physical anticipation of the previous night with Marlena.

I woke up exploding with passion.  Real passion to share with the someone who had just gotten in bed with me.  I knew very quickly it was Sarah, and it was just great;  I was really glad she had pushed herself on me so hard.  A big fence in my life had suddenly fallen down, and after that, the things I’ve told about already took place. 

I opened myself up and became very happy for the next several weeks.   And that is how the first fence fell – because for all my adult years I had been equating sexual arousal with ‘sexiness’ and physical appearance.  And this had kept me from ever developing a simple and full adult relationship, and had left me obsessed with fulfilling myself in many other unproductive ways.  

Well as you know, not long after, Sarah died.  And you can go reread the chapters about all this, because they are tender and compelling.  But for now, I must simply tell you how everything worked itself out.  For indeed it all seems to have.  And Sarah has never been far from my thoughts at any time or with nearly anything I do.  But still, she left me to my own devices, except for those little coincidences I attribute to her continual attentions.

What twenty francs will buy

When I met you at the beginning of this book, I was still working at my thankless job, singing in a concert choir for a change of pace and living with my cat, Hobbes.   Sarah had just died.  I soon found the twenty franc piece, and I was quick to realize that Sarah had pulled off yet another silly ‘miracle,’ telling me that something good would happen in France this year.  So I thanked Sarah and called my wife and told her that I would take her one more time to look for a house to buy.

When April came around I found myself, once more, taking my wife and daughter to France.  We found a house –but not for my wife.  An art studio for me, on a church square, which I dedicated to Sarah.  What was more, when I made my offer and came back home, I found a new life.   Because I was buying a house in France I suddenly had ‘cultural standing,’ and met a lady from the theatre who took me to every show opening and theatre party and piano bar between Philadelphia and New York.  I went to Sardi’s Broadway Awards’ ceremonies the week before the Tonies, and mingled with moviestars, and confirmed everything I figured would be the case if you were actually to squeeze as much into your life as you could.  It all becomes blurred, and you can’t remember where you’ve been for lunch, let alone the morning before.  And all the food and drinks and faces and conversations are equally animated and enticing and eventually boring boring boring.  But however unfulfilled and empty it all leaves you, it is still animated and enticing anyway. 

When I described porn and art I explained that art also offered the chance of experiencing bundles of feeling in one mega-emotion.  I should have been more explicit – many bundled feelings streaming through you in close proximity are the definition of emotion.  There is no need to put the term “mega-“ onto it.  An orgasm is a two-dimensional representation of an emotion, because it is a bundle of sensory outputs streaming into you in such close proximity that they seem simultaneous.  Which explains why your orgasms can be so different from one another and yet still be experienced in basically the same fashion. 

Anyway, the world of glitz and glamour with its handsome hanger-ons might be compared to an orgasm of the arts.  It offers a continual emotional “high,” since its purpose is to flutter around the spotlights of art and the footlights of decorative doodling, where emotion can be found, and human meaning can emerge in the minds of the viewer. 

Within a month of artistic overload I had the guts to pursue someone from the concert choir who would actually be good for me.  And this turned out to be a true love out of the blue clear sky, and after two years now it is better than ever – and I never remember the storybooks or chivalric romances or the soap operas making it out to be this good.  But this is an entirely different story which I shall save for another book on sustainability of love and faith…. Which I can’t write until I am dead myself and have sustained our faith and love for many many years.  

 

What the Squeezeplay was about

I never got squeezeplay to work the way I intended. 

After everything I’ve told you about had happened, and I’d written the entire story up to the very last trip to France, where I bought the studio which is dedicated to Sarah and Our Lady of Guadalooupe, I still hadn’t  answered the riddle of the Sphincter.. or any of the six questions I'd been asked in Hell. 

Up until the trip, in fact, I was still hoping Marlena would end the curse, and we'd consummate a love by learning to live together.  But of course, reality wouldn't play that game with me.  The other parts of my book had been given to me verbatim, and I wrote them down as they happened  - except the happy ending.  I couldn't write that one into it, yet.

So it occurred to me that perhaps the comical highlight of the book would make a good ending, even if it was comi-tragic.  And so I got up the courage to reconstruct the fatal night.   That’s when I found I’d completely repressed the humiliating memories.  Up to then I couldn’t have told you jack about what had really happened because I didn’t want to tell myself.

Once I began to unravel it, and came to understand what I have described through Marlena’s eyes, I saw her in a much better light.  She was redeemed, for somewhere inside she had kept her childhood innocence intact, and still had dreams.  Not only that, I saw that if I hadn’t blown it, she might have had her crystal goblet for a short while… and I would have experienced the short-lived bliss of constructing a future together with her…. Until all the bones started rattling and clattering in her closet.   That night at the Carlisle, I really did do an awful thing, shattering a dream she might have achieved, and then I made a big stink over it, besides.   I deserved what I got. 

In retrospect however, I suddenly realized I had lived the answer to the Riddle of the Sphincter.  Frozen in anguish and respect, powerless, I wasn’t squeezed to death for knowing the truth, or let pass for giving a wrong answer.   There was a  third option we’d never thought of – to be ignored. 

Imagine if some knight was out to slay the dragon, and when he gets there the dragon ignores him.  Walks around and chews trees, steps on cows, and totally ignores the knight.  Won’t even blow a smoke-ring in his direction!   Of course the knight would consider this good luck, and slay the dragon in his sleep and not tell a soul.  But the Sphincter story isn’t about a dragon; you are there to be asked the riddle and your struggle is with the outcome.

But it turns out that you could escape with your life and your integrity intact…. If you asked the question yourself.  That is, if you were lucky enough to be ignored, and wise enough to leave the Sphincter be.  To never be asked is like living and never questioning yourself, to never look back critically at your memories.  To be at the crossroads of truth and never dare face the riddle.  This turns out to be the meaning of the riddle’s story, and the riddle of why those who guess right should die.   But the answer to the riddle is something yet again, which I shall relate forthwith.

When I looked at what had happened that night, it was clear that I had actually experienced as intense a feeling of frustration as might ever be felt – and in doing so, had actually achieved one of my life objectives…and that was to realize the feeling of the dispossessed…i.e. to make it real.  I had first thought up the story of the Riddle years before, on a beautiful spring day, after stepping over a beggar on 5th Avenue.  I realized that the odds were really against us making it in this life, and that the people who wrote otherwise were the successful ones – the ones who escaped with their lives and dreams intact. 

But how many of us just get to actually feel our potential, actually get there.  Most of us simply see our boundaries way off on the horizon, as we lean on the fence that keeps us back where we are.  And when you’ve climbed the fence to discover there’s barbed wire on top, your potential begins to look like a tantalizing hoax off there in the distance.  So you assume it was a lie all along, and that you are nothing but what you are, fenced in.  With a wide world outside.

I had been given a metaphor  to describe the dispossessed.  To be forever lying next to the one you long for - tantalizing you for the sake of a mistake you couldn't help.  And how many people in this world feel they are lying next to the world's beauty and dreams, but they can't touch it!  So many feel the anguish of some cruel joke, and scuttle around it day by day to make the best of life, perhaps to build new structures of their own and climb up and out of the joke.   Too often they almost get there, only to end up scarred and broken and back where they started.  Which is when their kids get militant. 

I suddenly had this unbelievable realization that everything had happened perfectly.  Absolutely perfectly.   Reality made to order,  as if by magic.  I had lived a metaphor, a representation of nearly every question I had asked through the book.   And it was only in typing out these words that I have been able to see it all fitting together. 

For here I had the real answer to the question "what has all shapes and no shape and none can bear to live with?"

The answer is:

"The cusp of the sublime and the empty"

It is a place we may be at any moment - where the fullness of truth and the meaningless shit of our existence meet and are one.  It must be an incredible perfume that draws us from so far away, and intoxicates us when we're close.  But no one can bear it for long - to rest at the cusp. And so we construct life to circle around it, like moths at a light.

This is where our tragedy is born, and where the flower of ecstasy grows.  Yet the seeds of The Flower of Ecstasy are humility and patience - humility to know that what we long for we cannot hold for long, and patience to know that by replanting the seeds there will always be something to hope for.

Thus, in piecing together what had taken place I saw the meaning of the experience I had been allowed to live.  THIS shook me up.   It's as if I hadn't written the story.... the story had written me!!  And it felt sublime.

It had taken me four incredibly long years to see that indeed, if you insist on forcing your way to the sublime, you will find yourself at the cusp of the sublime and the empty – and this is a place where magic happens. 

If you push for a squeezeplay – one where you don’t care how you get there, but you will break down all the fences holding you back – there is a likelihood that a lot of coincidences will happen that will feel magical and special.  But you are putting yourself in a very dangerous spot.  For as easily as the universe seems to open itself up and confirm its spirit – which is full of surprises and miracles – it is as likely to open itself up to a chasm where all of life is likely to turn to shit.

LECTOR:       Any idiot who takes drugs might have told you this, you know.  

AUCTOR:   Does that detract from its value as knowledge drawn from experience?  But it’s an interesting point.   I’m sorry you brought it up.

LECTOR:       Animal shit is dried and used for fertilizer all over the world, and heat briquets in Siberia where there’s no wood, and old Indian medicine men used to tell fortunes from it.  So don’t knock shit, either.

 AUCTOR:     I already admitted that in the story of the Sphincter, truth and shit have always had a lot in common.

LECTOR:      Look.  I get to the end of a book where the hero is supposed to find the grail, and I want some words.  Like Poor Richard’s Almanac.  A few sound-bytes to live by. 

AUCTOR:     So I gave you the  magic words already.   One or two of them, at least.

LECTOR:     And they were? I missed them. 

AUCTOR:   “Seek the sublime and you will find it, with lots of strange coincidences and magic, at the edge of the empty. “

“Seek truth and yes, you’ll find what it takes to increase your faith in a wondrous unfathomable universe – but it WILL turn to shit in your hands – and it is then up to you to figure out what to do with it.”

And believe me, there is a lot to do with that shit, but your situation hasn’t changed all that much, if at all. 

You’ve seen a lot, done a lot, and may still end up at the bar ordering one more drink.

LECTOR:   Thank you.

AUCTOR:   Just thank God for all the coincidences.

 

AFTERWORDS

A life is often like a book of separate short stories told by the same author.  You might think they are just episodes - like the weekly disjointed pieces of a sitcom.  This is not a bad comparison, because a sitcom implies continuity when there is none, and a life implies more continuity than there usually is.  So many of the stories in our lives are inextricably connected to one another; yet at the same time, we can feel disjointed and out of sync.   Some people can't stand this feeling, and try to escape it by living for little "stories-of-the-moment."

We are all familiar with this phenomenon.  A single day or night can be so full that it represents a little life of its own - born unexpectedly, run full-tilt through its dialogue, with enough turns and twists and little stresses that constitute a silly little plot. Sometimes they constitute a very hard-core plot.  But whatever the plot, all the knots must be untied, laid-out and clean; for every story - to be a story - must have some kind of closure.  Sometimes this mini-life - the short story within our larger life - dies without us ever realizing it.   Eventually we tell it and it replays in our minds' eye.  We fold it and unfold it so that it becomes what it is - or might be - a story, an anecdote, or an aside that gives the narrator in our head a voice.

Of course the stories from our lives have many interpretations.  And if we tell them a lot, many interpretors, as well. What is important is that the pleasures or pains, or all the emotions we tell of having are not the real meaning of these stories.   It is our voice, the voice telling these stories that is our meaning.  It is also the part of the story that we want to rub off.   What is fabricated or true is secondary to the telling.   Both pleasure and meaning are to be taken unawares, from the side... not by grabbing onto them, but by the accident of realizing them.

Thus too do these little stories of ours, and the larger volumes they are drawn from, help us find some kind of closure.

 

Moths Around a Flame

And talk about CLOSURE.  After all of this was written and finished, and packaged up like an accordion – that is, moving forwards and moving backwards until you meet in the middle… LET me tell you what happened next in the story.  Of course, given the structure of this book, I originally wrote this chapter at the very beginning.   It is now here at the end because otherwise you might start to think this book was all about magic, and frankly, life doesn’t work like in films where you are allowed to have flashbacks and flash-forwards at the will of the great Hollywood editor. No, things at the end belong at the end.

So, if an incredible coincidence happens to you, keep your eyes open for a couple more.  Coincidences have a way of coming at you like moths dodging a flame.  And I had to figure out why, and this is that final chapter which in my mind certainly promises another book or so if I should live so long.

 

When a coincidence and you join together there is a burst of energy.  That burst can attract other coincidences.  It is actually a kind of window to the magical side of things, that side which takes up a big corner of the universe. On the scale of things universal, this window of yours is about as important as a piece of confetti, or a dandelion seed fluttering through a ball-game.  But if you treat it respectfully and consider the whole event with equanimity and humility, the window might just get bigger.  That’s when things can start getting odd, and other people can’t exactly understand why you think the way you do.

It’s how you recognize the magic, and not how the magic recognizes you,  understand.  You can’t get too self-centered about coincidences. 

I already knew this when the mint twenty franc piece showed up on the passenger seat of my locked car.  I just said a little prayer, stared at it in a moment of wonder, shook my head, got in the car and drove off. 

I was thinking, there’s no way someone put it there by accident.  If they had – it would have been a most incredible coincidence – accidentally pointing to many parts of my intimate and private life and bringing them all together in a random, whimsical act of kindness.  No, it was not an accident.

The more logical option, however, was that there was someone who knew all about my personal life, knew how to break into my car, and happened to know why I was in the Trenton New Jersey government parking lot for the second time in my entire life. 

The only problem was, that that person had been dead for two months.  Needless to say, she had sworn to us from her deathbed she’d play jokes on all of us¾her kids and her best friends¾after she passed on. 

Now you may not believe in this kind of supernatural thing, for if you did, you’d also have to believe in miracles and magic, which I know is not for you.  You would have chosen the coincidence explanation.  That the mint 20 franc piece on the passenger seat of my car was a random joke played by someone in the state capital parking lot. 

Well, I disagree with you.  This was no coincidence. Sarah had pulled off another odd joke, making it six in a row.

Not to say that I completely discounted the coincidence explanation.  Coincidences had been occurring to me regularly –far beyond the reach of statistical analysis, to become almost commonplace.  And I say this speaking as a scientist of sorts who is constantly multiplying out the possibilities and weighing the averages.  Like on that particular day, you’d have to know the story to understand the averages. 

I had been walking back to my car, locked in the middle of the Trenton Municipal Parking Lot.  The sun was shining, and as I approached I could see the edges of my windows glowing gold from the sun.  The other cars in the lot weren’t glowing, however, and as I got closer I saw there was something in my car directly reflecting all of the sunlight back up and out the windows.  Probably a seatbelt-buckle or a credit card or something doing it.  But when I got there I couldn’t tell what it was – a bright dot, as bright as the sun in the middle of the passenger seat.  I hurredly unlocked the door and discovered a gold coin.  I didn’t recognize it, and turned it over several times before I realized I was looking at a French coin.  A mint twenty-franc piece.  I shivered a moment.  This was very strange. 

I had never owned one of those twenty-franc pieces, nor had I seen one in all my trips to France.  I didn’t believe it was really gold, of course.  Like the Sacagawea dollar is not really gold, but it looks pretty close and it has gold on it.

Now my ex-wife had been bugging me that week – as she did every year since we split up– to take her to France again.  Like I said, she was an ex-wife, but in order to keep the faith up and the alimony down - I promised that with all the money she’d got from me, I’d help her buy the house she always dreamed of in Provence.  That’s in France, by the way.

The idea was to get her to move far away from me, to a little village where there would be a town grocery ten yards from her front door and she wouldn’t need me to drive her. She was one of those women from a generation or two back who had never learned to drive.   So I was still the preferred means of transportation to the supermarket, even though I lived 40 miles away.

After the coin appeared, I called my ex-wife and told her I’d given in.  We’d go to France again this Easter.  She could buy tickets.  I’d drive the car and speak the French.  Whatever happened, I knew something was going to start a whole new life for me, and Sarah was definitely sticking along.

I had raced out for lunch up to the state capital where a new friend of mine worked.  He was giving me the finished disc for my web-site.  I had met the guy in a parking lot months before I met Sarah.  We were talking about a new business I was trying to start.  When I met Sarah, she wanted me to get her 12-year old son involved selling my products, and promised to help me make my little business happen.  But she became terminal too quickly, and all our lives had been taken up with her death.   I set the business aside.

But then, at the memorial service in the park this guy shows up and re-introduces himself.  “How is the project going?” he asked.  “Anything I can do, like design you a website?”  So he stopped by in the morning and we worked out the design.  And when we walked over to the Pizzaria for lunch he stepped on a little piece of paper and picked it up.  Why he picked it up I don’t know, but when he turned it over, it was a prayer card for Our Lady of Guadaloupe.

Sarah just happened to have had Our Lady tattooed on her chest after she lived through the cancer that took her breast.  She was a fighter.  But she had a sense of humor.  I knew she was keeping to her promise.

And so now the prayer card is glued to a beam in the corner of a 15th century house on the church square in Provence, and the edge of the coin is barely visible in a chink behind it.  I bought the house, and I have promised the chaplain to put a fresco or mosaic mural on the wall about the Virgin Mary and little miracles if the consistory of friars agrees and I can afford it.  It turns out, quite by accident, that the town was known for pilgrimages after a visitation by Mary in the early 1600’s, so a fresco of this sort would not be out of place.  Though I am not sure the friars would approve of the Virgin of Guadaloupe.

 

When I was younger they told me that God is everywhere.  They also told me that everything is in God  - which means that God is coincident with everything, you see.  So whenever you observe a coincidence, it is nothing more than a flicker of God happening that somehow involves you, and that you are privileged to recognize.  It is nothing more than a glimpse of what is all the time and everywhere anyway, only we haven’t the privilege of seeing it that way.  If only we could always see it that way.  But no.  What we see are simply crazy mucked-up relationships that never seem very coincidental at all.  But let me tell you otherwise.  They are. 

You see, it’s not an accidental world at all.  It is just an incredible, unfathomable, rather awesome coincidence.

 

 



[1] Actually, I have no idea of what I was working on since it was a secret project.  All I knew is that they were paying me to work there, living in a motel near a large military installation surrounded by barbed wire fences and go-go joints.

[2] Oblomov is the title of an old Russian book about a man named Oblomov who spent the first five chapters trying to get out of bed.  Oblomov apparently represented the Russian peasantry.  You could only get them moving by getting them to fall passionately in love. Oblomovitis is the terminal condition of this common disease. 

[3] I wish to express thanks to an editor who has been with me throughout these memoirs.  You might think he is merely the author butting in, but it is actually a device stolen from olden times when people had to be awakened from their books due to the ravages of the Black Plague on the nervous system

LECTOR:  You're making this up.  You know why you use me in this book.

AUCTOR:   I do it to humor you.

LECTOR:   Admit that you use me to keep you honest.  You lifted me from a very old first-person novel where I kept THAT author honest, and you knew that when it comes to your petty amours, you have a tendency to exaggerate some things and cover up others.  You will say things in order to make a good story and leave other things out.  Then you have me call your bluff.  You can fib a little and own up to the truth after stretching it.  You can drink your beer and still have it on the shelf for tomorrow.  I'm doing you a great service.

AUCTOR:  Thank you.  And now that this ‘editor’ has been acknowledged, I will get back to my story and tell how I got started dancing at the go-go club.

LECTOR:   Excuse me.   You forgot an acknowledgement.  WHO is the AUCTOR?

AUCTOR:  It is I, the AUCTOR.

LECTOR:  That's just great!   You sound like Microsoft Help-text.

AUCTOR:  Let me get back to my story!

LECTOR:  I think you need a hand.   "The AUCTOR is a device developed during the Spanish Inquisition separating an author from his text in order to extract the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  The process is administered by a Grand Inquisitor, also known as the LECTOR."

AUCTOR:  Thankyou, Sire.  Now if you will excuse me, I will get back to the book.

LECTOR   Go ahead, try. You know that there are certain structures in this life, which, once they are entered into will inexorably march to their conclusion.  You know this means that they are not reversible.  You know that you can’t modify things just by writing about them!

AUCTOR:  OK.  I’ll confess. You lend my novel verisimili‘truth’atude. You are a real conscience butting in the way a real conscience does …not literary afterthoughts of some character justifying himself.  I can’t unwrite any of these stories.  In fact, as they were written, I had to  live in the middle of them and face their consequences.  I might have lied about my actions and readers wouldn’t know the difference.  But the Lector would have known, and he wouldn’t let me falsify this book for the sake of modesty or embarrassment. And so I must truly thank the Lector. Thank you.

LECTOR:  You are welcome.

 

[4] Malaparte told of a most amazing tragedy, when the Finnish army trapped the Russian army between a forest fire and Lake Ladoga.  Nearly a thousand horses used to pull ordinance broke loose and plunged into the lake, just as the first arctic wind blew down and froze everything solid.  All winter long the lake had frozen horses, contorted statues and heads of hundreds of merry-go-round horses protruding from the ice.  Until the spring thaw, hardy locals took to visiting this horrible wonder as a place to have a drink and contemplate, naturally, sitting on the horses.

 

[5] baring one’s canines

[6] To my mind, the word ‘boojum’ is well-over a hundred years old, and well-enough known to use in a sentence.  It is from the last pregnant stanza of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, and refers to the cause of a state of emptiness.  The poem is about a great expedition to find a beast – a kind of holy grail – called the “snark.”  When one of the party eventually finds it, he screams out in delight then “slowly and silently vanished away, for the Snark was a BOOJUM, you see.”

[7] It took two months to sell AlAnna at that price – at $750 to one of my son’s friends.  Not only does it not pop its hood anymore (or draw blood from dates), it has been doing great for two years running.

[8] The dominatrix’s first question.

[9] Question No. 2  

[10] The third question.

[11]  4

[12] Alright, so I can’t count.  Besides, she wasn’t supposed to keep kcoming up with questions after she got drunk.

[13] Question 4 Rev 3

[14] Twelve or thirteen is when this disappears, since a thirteen-year old thinks they have the wherewithal to process most everything in a very adult way.  It is no surprise that precocious musicians often burst out around twelve, as well as professional-level gymnasts, skaters, actors, chess-masters, lovers, gang-leaders, and revolutionaries.  Plenty of places in this world even let 12-year-old gals manage a family.

[15] Now if you are to go to the Carlisle and find out that they don’t have marble floors or a Maitre d’Hote the size of a Volkswagon, don’t blame me.  I was on pins and needles without the needles.  Besides, I knew it was liable to cost the price of a Volkswagon when the drink tab came to $72.  But I was willing to pay for such a symbolic climax to my story.  I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

[16] This is a mixed drink made of one-part romance and the other part pantasy (which is a fantasy about getting someone’s pants off).