Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Some Enchanted Place, Chapter Seis

If you just stumbled in, I'm apparently writing a book or something. Start here: Some Enchanted Place
Then here: Some Enchanted Place, Part Three
Then here: Part Three, Episode Two
Then here: Part Three, Episode Three

Then here: Episode Four
Episode Five

Old Pecksniff gave me one of those little chuffs that won him his nickname, spun on the ball of his foot, or his cloven hoof, or whatever he had in his shoe, and went back up the stairs. I made a quick pact with myself, promising to immediately cut my own throat with my putty knife if he switched off the light out of habit or malice when he got to the top of the stair, and so save myself from suffering at the hands of whatever pack of chimeras or gorgons or rabid minotaurs they kept down here. The light stayed on.

When I was little, my father sent me out to the woodpile, alone, at night. It was the middle of the winter, clear, cold, and moonless. Dad lied like an accountant and said the flashlight was dead. I hinted I'd rather not go. He hinted I'd better.

"Just keep looking all around and you won't be afraid."

The door clicked shut behind me, and the wan pool of light at the step didn't reach very far. I ignored the advice and tromped out through the windscoured drifts, my footfalls squeaking in the perfectly dessicated snow, to the big pile of oak and maple splits out by the edge of the trees. By the time I had gotten there, I had accumulated an enormous retinue of monsters, cutthroats, spectres, werewolves, and a herd of kelpies strung out behind me -- or so I imagined. I stood there a long time, stoopshouldered and shivering, the wind whispering odd things into my ear and watering my eyes, neither of which needed any encouragement at this point. Your mind can conjure up anything in a place like that. It took all my strength to look over my shoulder. Nothing. I learned my lesson; never save up cowardice hoping for a courage dividend later.

So screw Pecksniff. I walked around and shook all the doors and looked around. I'd tell him I was looking for a place to plug something in or get a pail of water if he came back.

Most of it was padlocked, or nailed or painted shut. I found a pail and stood on it and looked through the lattice here and there. If Sotheby's did flea markets, Luxor could fill the tents. Old creels and bamboo rods, leather suitcases left in the damp too long, paintings of crabby great-uncles, a fiberglass fish. There was one locked paddock that had a sort of oversized Dewey decimal system-looking bank of drawers against one wall, trailing off into the gloom.

On the back of one of the doors that swung freely, there was a posterboard with an odd assortment of symbols on it. It was a club coat of arms, I guess, but looked like a doodle designed by a schoolboy that ate paste when the teacher wasn't looking. Noah's Ark. A skull and bones. What looked like a pyramid fringed with candle flames. Everything in it was familiar, but didn't add up to anything much arrayed on the same page. It put me in mind of my father's membership certificate in the Ancient Order of Hibernians -- or as my friends and me who also had dads in the AOH called it: The Real IRA; Irish Republican Alcoholics. Our dads were all supposed to be mowing the lawn, but they snuck down to the hall and passed a hat to cobble together ten bucks to buy dynamite for Ireland. Nine-and-a-half bucks of which was used to buy a round to celebrate the solidarity of the thing. None of them had ever set foot in Ireland, and never would. We left all that shite behind. Mom hung dad's Hibernian membership on the back of the bathroom door, forever to be obscured by damp towels.

I had a bad habit of reading everything that was put in front of me. My first boss learned the hard way not to give me old newspapers to use as dropcloths when I painted the inside of cupboards. Obituaries, racing results so old all the horses were dead, bridge columns, didn't matter; all typefaces and topics were like waving a red rag in front of a bull to me. It's not my fault. This poster was worse. It was a puzzle.

A rooster. A beehive. A trowel and a sword together, of all things. Alexander, the Great Bricklayer?

Oh for pity's sake. The compass and the square. The all-seeing eye. Like a little boy that can't wait for the teacher to call on me, bursting with the answer, I said it out loud: "Lord of the Manor is a Freemason. Figures."

I was the kid at the woodpile again.

"He most decidedly is not."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Some Enchanted Place, Chapter Five

If you just stumbled in, I'm apparently writing a book or something. Start here: Some Enchanted Place
Then here: Some Enchanted Place, Part Three
Then here: Part Three, Episode Two
Then here: Part Three, Episode Three

Then here: Episode Four

So I'm out in the driveway again, alone, with the house glowering at me once more. I looked right back at it.

I wasn't afraid of being observed. No danger of Pecksniff pulling back a curtain and watching me. A dragon just sleeps atop his pile of gold and jewels. He doesn't worry himself overmuch over passersby. No matter what Angel thinks, any true Irishman knows his dragons. Cuchulain was pulling dragon hearts out and showing them to the brutes as they died before Cape Verde was a twinkle in a Portuguese slave-trader's eye. And after they lit out for America and the cranberry bogs, too, now that I think of it.

When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side,

What stalked through the Post Office? What Intellect,

What calculation, number, measurement, replied?

We Irish, born into that ancient sect,

But thrown upon this filthy modern tide

And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,

Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace

The lineaments of a plummet-measured face.

Angel should know better than to make the Old Money mistake of lumping everyone outside your tribe together. They figure we all sit in the same Papist pews, and they can just file us all under: garlic eaters and save some trouble. The WOGs begin at Calais, they used to say, and pronounce it like callous to multiply the contempt intended. Doesn't matter if Dover has white cliffs or the Charles River next to it. Guys sipping gin and quinine in Peshawar said the same thing.

Irish garlic eaters. That's a good one. Dad would have gotten a kick out of that.

The house. Might as well have a real look at it since I'm out here. Around the side, the place has a fountain, too, left dry for the freezing season fast approaching. There's a date, incised deeply into the stone or concrete or whatever it is.


L is fifty, right? X, ten. Been a while. I just let the movie dates roll by in the credits.

No, not a number. That would be mundane. The house has a name. These people always name their houses. When they were still pestering whales and had seaside shacks, they'd put a board on the side of their house with a name on it, same as the boat had, and the habit stuck. And the V's not a V. It's an incised U. Luxor. Odd way to write it. What the hell does Egypt have to do with anything around here anyway? Well if that loon Hearst can have a Xanadu, I guess a blueblood here on the other coast can have his Thebes.

Jayzuz again. It's probably nine by now and nothing's done. I lied of course; there's no way I'll rat Angel out to young Charlie. I'll cover for him until the list is done or he comes back, and he knows it. I'll finish it all myself if I have to pull Pecksniff's heart out and show it to him.

I went around to the door again and paused for a moment, wondering if I should start a passion play all over again by knocking, thought the better of it and opened the door myself and went right on in. It's always expected that once the the factotums let us in, they were no longer at our service. We weren't being accorded respect, exactly. We were supposed to be invisible. That's different.

Just when I thought old Pecksniff couldn't get any creepier, he doubled down by reappearing at the corner of the big table in the kitchen, as if he hadn't moved an inch since Angel and I had fled to the relative safety of the driveway. By god, this guy is a daisy.

"Is there some difficulty?"

"No, nothing's wrong. Angel... my partner went to pick up some stock we might need," I lied like a Turk in a bazaar. "We'll just need a spot in the house to keep our tools and where we can work a little without worrying about hurting anything. Or a garage or something."

He did it again. Said nothing, just listened intently to me like I was a lost foreigner mis-conjugating strange verbs, and then turned on his heel and walked off without saying anything. I hesitated a moment, and then realized he was giving me a second chance to make a fool of myself by standing there waiting for an invitation. I hustled to catch up, and he led me to a dark, wainscoted anteroom, a kind of hub for him, I think, but out of earshot and view of the lords of the manor. He clicked an old-fashioned switch to make a light, and you could almost hear the lightning jump across the terminals when he closed the circuit. Nothing ever gets replaced in these places. The light revealed a staircase headed down. He descended the treads in his peculiar way, and I followed him down, picturing in my mind's eye him holding a torch over his head, entering a catacomb.

There was a door at the very bottom of the stair, a no-no in any modern house but common in these old shacks. The door was locked, but he produced a key immediately from thin air and opened it. It took every ounce of courage I had to follow him in there, and I immediately wished I hadn't.

The place smelled of worms and corruption and the grave. I knew the peculiar smell of lime underground, from all the patched parge coats of mortar on the rubble foundations to the nasty ropy calcimine whitewash everywhere. It makes you think of Tom Sawyer if you're out in the sunshine, and a pauper's grave down here. There were pens or rooms of some sort sectioned off and sort of caged in with lattice and rude doors fashioned from whatever lumber was unsuitable for anyone but the most menial help to look at. There were ancient hasps and padlocks on everything, which suggested keeping things in as much as out, which didn't improve the mood any.

"The old laundry. You may make whatever noise you like down here. No one will hear it, and it will cause no trouble."

I thought it would be considered bad manners to run screaming out of the house and into the woods, so I resisted the urge. I used to think I was smarter than Angel, but I got over that right then and there.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Some Enchanted Place - Chapter Four

If you just stumbled in, I'm apparently writing a book or something. Start here: Some Enchanted Place
Then here: Some Enchanted Place, Part Three
Then here: Part Three, Episode Two
Then here: Part Three, Episode Three

Jayzuz, not the Portuguese.

Angel would get this way every once in a while when he was really loaded. He'd start in with the rat-a-tat dialect that doesn't signify much to anybody that was born even one island away from his family's stony portion of Cape Verde. His people had lived in the US before it even was the US, I think, but his mother still spoke that weird creole mess that's officially Portuguese, but sounds like nothing else I've ever heard. Angel learned it backwards and forwards from her. It would probably sound the same backwards or forwards, now that I think of it. Even the Brazilian guys couldn't understand him. I'd just tune it out, order another round, and wait for him to slur out something I could understand: Te vejo segunda-feira -- see you on Monday -- and then I'd head on home. Lapsing into it sober, in broad daylight, was a bad sign.

"Look, Angel, I admit that guy looks like a voodoo doll made from a dragon's earwax, but let's be adults for a minute. All these places give me the willies, to tell the truth. There's always a stack of corpses in their bank accounts somewhere. Slave traders. Opium wholesalers. Bronze age arms dealers, for Christ's sake. I don't much care, as long as some of the corpses' dandruff ends up in my bank account eventually. Get a grip."

He gave me an odd little look, like a guy that had put a frog in your lunchbox and was waiting for noon for the payoff.

"You don't know jack about dragons, you stupid harp. I'll tell you about dragons."

I looked back at the blank face of the house. There was no sign of the butler from hell, or anyone else for that matter. These people are never home. They're like royal retinues, squatting in their own possessions now and again and then leaving a few of the help to keep pedaling while they go off to another of their haunts. It's like the whole world is their tram and they get on and off on a whim. The hell with it.

"OK, you little troll. What the hell are you on about?"

"Listen, I know you goddamn Irish. You're always bowing down in front of anybody with an English name. You shoot up barrooms full of Protestants at night and then shine their shoes the next day. Well, my people were here taking Nantucket sleighrides and humping Indian broads when the WASPs you hate and worship were still kissing King George's ass for a handout. "

I thought the animated corpse that answered the door was kinda creepy, and Angel was one of my best friends, but he had a look in his eye right there that made me want to go in the house and sit in Pecksniff's lap.

"Dragons? You talking to me about dragons? The dragon tree is on my island, you stupid jerk. My people humped under the full moon in the shadow of the dragon tree. They'd cut the bark and smear themselves with the red goo that came out, dragon's blood, and make their deal for a baby. They'd pass that stain on down, oh yes. When my father died before I was born, my mother knew I'd come out touched, man. She put her coat inside out over me in the crib, put the ivory finger around my neck on a ribbon, and lit candles in church for my dead drowned daddy, but that shit's no good. I got the second sight, brother. O mau-olhado. The evil eye. It works coming and going, and I'm telling you that guy, that house, and whatever demon owns the whole mess is bad, bad, bad."

Angel was practically snorting and pacing back and forth like a panther in a zoo at this point. My morning's gone from trying not to break any hummels while I'm attempting to scratch out a living, to choosing between working alone with a second-class vampire watching over me or dragging a guy that thinks he's a fifth-generation witch doctor kicking and screaming the whole time. I had to think fast. When in doubt, dangle money.

"I'm not covering for you. You bug out on me, and I'm telling young Charlie you didn't show. You need the money even more than I do."

Angel took another look at the house, then me, and seemed to calm down a little.

"Money? You expect me to go in there for money? Si tchuba tchobe, morre fogadu. Si ka tem tchuba, morre di sedi."

Angel walked past me, climbed into the cab of his pick-up truck, turned the key in the ignition, and slammed the door. I went up to the window and glared at him. His hand hesitated over the gear shift lever, and he rolled down the window.

"What in the hell does that mean, you little pygmy?"

"If it rains, we drown. If it doesn't, we die of thirst."

He turned his head away, murmured, "Good luck," and sprayed me with gravel.

(To be continued on Monday)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Some Enchanted Place, Part Three, Episode Three

I looked over at Angel, half expecting to see a little puddle form under him. His knuckles were white from gripping the table, his interest in staring at the paper had morphed from grabbing hold of a life preserver to clinging to the last piece of flotsam in the ocean. Pecksniff -- this whole place -- had gotten to him. I had to think quick or I was going to be working here alone for the rest of the week.

"Listen, er ..."

I realized right then that I didn't know his name, and was never going to. He wasn't going to offer, and I wasn't going to ask. Lord knows what would happen if I said it three times.

"We're ... going out to our truck and make sure we have all the tools we need for all this. We'll be... right back."

I picked up the papers and grabbed Angel by the arm. With the papers gone, he turned and looked up at me like the flotsam had gotten away from him and a big dorsal fin had arrived.

"Right back."

I gave Angel my best it's-almost-last-call-hurry-up look and pulled on his arm hard enough to hurt him. He ended up beating me out the door somehow. The driveway seemed like quicksand now, and we swam over behind Angel's truck.

There's a certain poise you gain from being summoned endlessly to fix things that are beyond the capacity of others to do for themselves. You can be dressed in rags, little ovals appearing on the worn bottoms of your old boots, unshorn and bedheaded, and people are still a little in awe of you if you can make a toilet flush. Doctors sit atop this totem pole of hidden knowledge, I guess. You sit there, shivering and shirtless, and wait for them to come in and scrawl a few runes on a scrap of paper and save you. They shake your hand and leave and you know they touch a flower in a pot the same way. A lawyer's a little farther down, head filled with arcane tidbits that can pull your chestnuts out of the fire after your check clears. But we thumbsmashers make it way up the pole too. The townsfolk stand around waiting for you to fix things. You're Clint Eastwood with a hammer.

Well, whatever mojo we brought had evaporated entirely, and we were just two schoolboys without our homework again, out in the playground, afraid to go in. Observed dispassionately, Angel and me must look a little absurd together. I'm a six-foot-three Irishman, rangy and pasty-faced to the point of borderline Ichabod Crane, and Angel was little more than five-foot tall, a little heavy, and swarthy. Four-foot-fourteen, I called him. We must have looked like Mutt and Jeff with callouses to Pecksniff, who was no doubt inspecting us from the window.

"There's no way I'm going back in there."

Oh boy, here we go.

I should point out here that Angel was no bedwetter. If you work shoulder to shoulder with a guy for years, in the trench and the tavern alike, you get to really know a fellow. He never acted silly, but he had a sort of bonhomie and self-assurance that made him a lot of friends and avoided unpleasantness with strangers most of the time. But like many of my friends, Angel was what we termed " a serious man."

I remember some guy in his cups running his mouth at Angel in a barroom one time. The guy was a foot taller than Angel and had a big man on campus athlete look to him. Angel finally told him to shut his pie-hole or he'd shut it for him, and Joe College surprised us all and pulled out a knife. Angel had five friends right there, including me, that would have killed that guy for a nickel, and lent Angel the nickel too, but we reflexively burst out laughing. The only question was where Angel would stick that knife after he took it away from the guy. Somewhere embarrassing, not fatal. Children shouldn't taunt serious men.

Serious man or not, Angel's fight or flee instinct seemed to be missing half its urges, and I started wondering just how silly we'd appear to old Pecksniff if I had to tackle Angel when he headed for the driver's side door.

"A merda do diabo!"he sort of hissed under his breath. "I'm outta here."

(to be continued, if you can stand it)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Some Enchanted Place, Part Three, Episode Two

Angel actually gasped. A short little inward chuff of breath, nothing more. But I heard it. I was a pillar of salt, myself. The panes of glass in the door were really old, each with its own brand of waviness and bubbles here and there. It had more of an underwater effect than true transparency. I felt like a fisherman who feels an odd tug on his line, leans over the gunwhale to peer into a limpid pool, and sees last month's missing boater floating just below the surface instead of the expected carp.

The door swung quietly open and if anything, the effect was worse. A human waxwork had answered the door.


I don't know nothing, as they say, but I know my boss had been in contact with this house at least a dozen times between the phone and the mail to make an appointment for us to work here. But they're always the same, these flunkeys and underlings. They pretend you're just another waif wandering up the drive and expect you to explain yourself to the last jot and tittle. It is expected from them, and they expect it from you. Even the commonplace intermediaries do it, so it wasn't that much of a shock when a fellow that looked like he was purchased from a Madame Tussaud's catalog did it. His little imperious half-smile pushed my heebie-jeebies to the back burner, and my hackles came up in their place.

"We have an appointment. We're here to fix everything. We were told the staff would be prepared for us."

He made a little snuffling sound, turned on his heel and retreated back into the gloom of the kitchen. Mr. Pecksniff, I thought, and finally almost felt like smiling. I was ready for this maneuver, too. They walk away without saying anything, and you're supposed to stand comically at the door until they come back and sort of harrumph and shepherd you through the house like kindergarteners. No dice, Pecksniff. This isn't our first rodeo. I barged right in and followed him, with Angel hanging back a little.

We made it to an enormous table in the middle of the kitchen. There were four foolscap pages laid out in a perfect line, with perfect little handwritten lists on them. Each item had a dash before it, ready for Pecksniff here to make a mark when we completed it. He said nothing, stood stock still, and looked at a spot where we weren't.

Angel started looking at the list like it was a life preserver and he was dog-paddling ten miles off-shore. Pecksniff had gone dormant, or into remission, or whatever a bat does all day. I looked around.

The room was enormous. People call the place they make food a kitchen. When they get their hands on a little money, the kitchen gets the Beverly Hillbillies treatment -- same stuff, only four of everything. Different as different could be in here. The table our list sat on was a bowling alley on two dozen legs. There were stoves that looked like boilers from an ocean liner designed by Toulouse-Lautrec. Sinks like metal-lined canoes lined one wall, massive dressers lined another like a cityscape. Copper pans depended everywhere from the ceiling like stalactites. The word scullery came to mind, not kitchen. The owner of the house would never set foot in this room except to fire someone.

I started getting a weird feeling about being in there. The sun hadn't cleared the trees yet, and the place was as gloomy as a crypt. Old Pecksniff wasn't about to make a light for such as us. My mind started to wander to the poor souls that had spent their entire lives in this shadow world of drudgery right next to luxury. The sum total of their life's work was marked only by the worn edge of the tables and the uneven gloss on all the metal.

"The morning room sill shall want a dutchman."

Angel jumped and I woke up a bit. Pecksniff had been watching us without looking at us, another specialty of these underlings. When Angel's eyes had moved to the second page, Pecksniff knew it and explained the first item without being asked.

Shall want a dutchman. Perfect. The cadaver was talking in 18th century lingo to us. Any normal person would have said: needs a patch. Calling patches a dutchman was code for: don't spend any money buying anything and don't spend any time you can charge me for, either.

Poor people are extravagant compared to the silly rich.

(to be continued, if you insist)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Some Enchanted Place, Part Three

No house is an inanimate object.

I've tried to explain that to lots of people over the years. I can never make myself understood. I'm not sure I understand it myself; that might be the problem. I sense it. I've spent some time ruminating on my failure to put a pencil and straightedge to the vague feeling invested in a house, and I've come to the conclusion that it's one of the parts of life on this earth that won't let you gaze directly upon it. You can feel it, and you can explain bits of it around the periphery of the question, but like some ancient god, it won't stand for looking right at it. Ineffable. A yahweh fact of life.

I got out of the truck and walked slowly in the dooryard, crabwise, looking at the facade the whole time. My boots made that familiar sound in the gravel. Not familiar to you. Regular people crush granite into sharp-edged little cubes and multivarious hedrons. They dump it in their septic fields and cellar holes and driveways alike, and it always sounds the same underfoot. Crunch crunch. None of that here to hear. They all have the same stuff, these people with a vapor trail of names and numerals appended to their names and phalanxes of zeroes marching to the horizon in their hidden bank accounts. They have gravel that must be gathered from a riverbank in Elysium. It doesn't even look like little stones. More like dun grey seed pearls spread in a sort of carpet. They always bind it with a steel band that snakes its way all around everywhere outside in a sort of maze, until the snake eats itself and you're back where you started. It never says crunch crunch. It says shush underfoot, and means it. They apply the chloroform early in these places.

Elysium. I remember reciting the lines.

Down the dank mouldering paths and past the Ocean's streams they went
Past the White Rock and the Sun's Western Gates
Past the Land of Dreams, and soon they reached the fields of asphodel
Where the dead, the burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home

Oh, I knew it was Asphodel for me and my brethren even as the nuns tried to pound the whole of Elysium into our heads. There was a class of emperors in their roosts, thumb held quivering between the only two gestures in this world, and the few men chosen from the barbarians with the metal-hooded faces and the poised swords. The rest of us are born wounded and lie with a sandal on our necks, our life slowly weeping into the sand beneath us, waiting for the decision.

"This place is creepy."

I liked Angel. He always pulled his weight when we worked together, and was good company to boot. Rare, that. He had some editor in his head that was stillborn in mine. I noticed early on that there were never any meandering tributaries in his sentences. At first I thought: No semicolons. No hyphens. Then it dawned on me: no commas! His words were his tools, all made for stonework, not filigree. He had a lively mind and a quiet face. Just like him to figure it out in four words to my four hundred. The place was creepy.

"We'll get canned if they see us out front. Let's find the little house."

Angel got back in his battered pickup truck and went looking for the little house, the place appended on these piles somewhere where the servants answer the door for such as we. The owner's family used to live in the little house before the big house got built, usually, counting their coins by whale-oil light, and having a belt from a decanter they hid from the minister. Little house, big house, back house, barn. Go to the kitchen door, or else. Shush, shush, my feet told me, and I climbed into the little cab of my truck and looked at the facade again. The bricks weren't pressed from pure corruption, then mortared with the souls of the innocent or anything. There were no gargoyles anywhere. It was evil like a lawyer. Not visible on the veneer. It glowed from within somehow like a brimstone lantern.

We went around the circle made by the fountain, trying to pretend we weren't a two-man parade of unwanted commotion, both turning our steering wheels like we were holding a stranger's baby, trying not to disturb the seed pearls under the wheels and testify to our presence. It's hard to drive on tiptoe, but I think we did. We went past an appendix of gravel that ran to a distant stable cum garage, bigger than the hospital I was born in; some sort of parterre; a flagstone area big enough to interest the Pope; then a door surrounded by enough glass to see out of. That's our cue. We'll be inspected before the door is opened.

Angel and I locked shoulders, puffed ourselves up a bit by slouching together, and approached the door. They always make you knock, these servants, even if they're sitting right there glaring at you through the window. Some sort of protocol I don't get and don't care for, but nobody asked me, and never will. This time there was no one visible through the panes, and we had an extra minute of tension while we waited to see what exactly would answer our timid rap. We always hope for a matron. They understand us, as trying to act inoffensive is their daily bread.

He appeared out of the gloomy background like an actor in a candlelit theater and looked at us through the twelve panes for a good long time before reaching for the knob. Good god, I thought; it's a wraith.

(to be continued, if you want it)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Some Enchanted Place

It was a routine job, really.

I've been to a hundred of the movers and shakers' houses at this point. I remember the first time I saw a battered mailbox leaning drunkenly at the end of a dirt driveway, and checked the directions the boss gave me over and over. It looks like nothing. No one could afford to hire us to bang a nail in this place. I pulled in the driveway, figuring I could ask the knackers who lived there where the proper house was if nothing else, and was astonished to follow the dusty lane almost a mile into the pines before I came to the gravel dooryard with the fountain, a real fountain like a postcard, out front. If the owners hadn't provided the drive, Sherman himself would have taken more time getting to that stone and brick confection's doorbell than getting to Savannah. And more fire.

It was all you could do to keep yourself from tugging your forelock when you talked to the owners, if you ever even saw them. There was always some factotum or maid or secretary or housekeeper or general contractor hired to hire the other general contractors minding us. You were kind of in awe of the money, and ashamed of it.

But you got used to it after a while. The dumbest contractors occasionally made the mistake of thinking that because the owner gave them a snifter and chatted about baseball after work once, they were their equals. They'd go home and try to build a house like the magnificent piles they worked on all day for themselves. You always knew it was going to end badly when the boss said: No work today; we'll work on my house instead. If a realtor says: Builder's own home, you can be sure it's not finished and he doesn't live there anymore, and the bank is mowing the lawn.

So you'd walk like a shade through the byzantine halls, looking for the right door out of the hundreds, to fix something that would stay unfixed for a thousand years in a normal person's house. The housekeeper would always talk about the house like everyone should know the compass by internal magnetism, and the owner's haunts by reputation.

No, not that room! The northeast drawing garrett! Not the southeast orchid solarium!

So it was just another long drive down a gravel drive on a Monday. There was enough crushed stone in the private lane through the pines to make Rushmore back into blockheads. You began to wonder if you should have brought an additional bag lunch to eat halfway between the house and the mailbox. Finally, you entered a sort of deer park, and there it was.

It was worse or better than the usual, depending on whether you had to paint it or not. It really should have been a public building of some sort. It was too big to picture people living in it, no doubt resorting to sending condiments parcel post to their family members at the opposite end of the dining table. The mind's eye conjured hired men standing midpoint in the ballroom, using semaphore flags to describe the faint piano notes they heard from one end of the room to the people in the other. I stopped the truck, and took a long look at the place in the early morning light, and let me tell you if it was going to be a public building, it should be a morgue.

Or worse; but what's worse than a morgue? You could let your mind wander over that, but I wouldn't recommend it. I did, and started thinking about waiting in line in a Registry of Motor Vehicles devoted solely to loaded hearses. The place was a snake in the bathtub.

(to be continued, if I feel like it)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I Could Use A Lot Less Shovin' Around Myself, Thanks

What this whole world needs is a lot more lovin'
A lot less shovin' around
What this whole world needs is a lot less hatin'
Just straighten up and settle down
Now lovin' your neighbor is the spice of life
Mind I said your neighbor not your neighbor's wife
What this whole world needs is a lot more lovin'
A lot less shovin' around

What this whole world needs is a lot more blessin'
A lot less messin' around
What this whole world needs is a lot less fightin'
To brighten up that worried frown
Just wish yourn neighbor well and that will help a lot
'Stead of wishin' you had what your neighbor's got
What this whole world needs is a lot more lovin'
A lot less shovin' around

Thursday, September 17, 2009


It's always a mistake to look back into the hole.

My body's infused with the pyrite. I could crap a penny, day or night. I coughed when we lit the candles on the fir tree Christmastide, and Easter come out of my lung. I'm carrying it always. Why look back? It's a compounded error.

The prisoner was first shown the instruments of his torture and urged to confess...

Sunday school. Pfft. It's schooling you get out in the real world, and that's for certain. Sunday is for hiding from it. Pa said he never encountered a slender monk, and even though I was but wee I kenned him right away. He was always talking over the horizon. He'd say a sentence and there'd be a volume in there somewhere. Like a seam showing, waiting to be dug out. The padres -- he always called them that like we was still in the feudal time-- would go on and on, then double back and start over until your eyes would wander to the grimy window lights and you'd shut it out and abide alone in your head. Pa said so little you remembered every damn word.

If you look back in the hole on the way back to the shack, there's no today in the view. It's tomorrow down below, always, waiting in a cool haze above the metallic puddles. We dig deeper every day and the sun rises later. Some day the sun won't rise at all down there.

I can hear the children playing in the chaparral that ain't stomped flat yet long before I can see them. Their clear, strong voices drift on the wind. Run-Sheep-Run! They'll fix up a little shack out theres, or pretend to be somewheres else doing anything other than. They make little worlds with all the bits and pieces they can scavenge. Just like us.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Rarest Of Things

A Beatles performance where the audience isn't acting like hyperactive spider monkeys on a three day crack binge.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Druids

He'd put his finger in the spoke of the wheel and turn it like the rude machinery it was. Drove it like a plow or a trolley or something. The rattletrap Dodge almost brushed the curb as he let the wheel spin back through his fingers. He knew where everything was.

I look down from my naugahyde aerie through the dirty glass at the spot where the granite curbstone meets the spidered pavement, filled with all the dirt and corruption an old city can offer. The winking neon reflects in the little disconnected puddles left from a rainstorm weeks ago. Tonight's mist hasn't even made it in here yet; just strikes the spalled bricks up on the floors where gilt letters in the windows announce last generation's professional men and merchants to no one, then trickles fitfully down to join the re-pulped flyers in the gutters. The sun never shines in the canyons of an old city. The streets are too narrow. And no rain could ever wash it clean. It will be snow soon.

The radio hisses and spits like a viper. There's towers right down the street, Father says, but the signal can't fight its way into the slit trench of a road in a little town gone big. He rolls the big chrome knob back and forth until something is intelligible. Catch-as-catch-can is life, he says. The random music and the sonorous voices in the interstices make a jolly soundtrack to the scrolling scene in the passenger-side window.

There are furtive creatures in a city. Like animals at the edge of a clearing. The moonlight draws them out in the woods. God knows what makes a man hang in the doorway here. Collars up; hats down. The women totter on spikes and you can make out the fishnets on their legs from across the street. There's the blaze of a match and eyes like raccoons at the trash cans, and then the moment passes and the little orange glowing indicator light of the smoker in the dark takes its place. The sidewalk is a galaxy of butts and you wonder if everywhere that is not here is Virginia. The neon signs in the purplish windows have some teeth knocked out, but they remind a man there's some Tennessee, too.

Father knows the way. That's the problem. He knows every which way. It's in his bones and marrow. The city of his birth; and mine. Everything is familiar, and so he often wanders on his way because he can always find his way everywhere from anyplace. He points out buildings gone dark and motions at nothing but air standing in a fetid slot in the brick rows where a building once stood. He murmurs about the where and when and who of them. The buildings do not represent their stated purpose -- a friend lived there; some ne'er-do-well there; a man who could perform some service no one wants anymore there. Shave your neck. Hobnail a boot. Take a bet. I realize he is not speaking to me. He is chanting in a church sacked by Druids.

Or we're the Druids; I don't know.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


He worked all summer and saved his money and bought himself a guitar and amplifier. His dad and uncle gave him a couple lessons, but he mostly taught himself to play by watching YouTube videos.

The only advice I gave him was to learn songs all the way through, and not spend all his time noodling away at heroic guitar solos no one wants to hear. It's why he can annoy the neighbors along with the old men right away.

(If you read the Instapundit every day, you'd have been informed that you could buy a Flip video camera for $49, and thereby have a video like this instead of bupkis)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Get Out Of My Way (2006)

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so. Douglas Adams

I found out something fascinating yesterday. You can be educated, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for free.

No, I don't mean the rheotorical you; I mean you. And me. Anybody.

Well not anybody, of course, because not everybody is educable. But there are no entrance requirements, no interview, nothing; they just put the curriculum up on the internet and let you use it. As Lawrence of Arabia says to Ali, pointing across the trackless waste of the Nefu desert towards Aqaba: "It's just a matter of going." Simple, really.

Indeed. Now, you're not going to get to ask anybody any questions, get help from your peers, go to any keg parties, or clap any erasers for brownie points or anything. The stuff is just laying around there. You've got to do something with it, no one's going to show you the way.

Experience is a dear teacher, but fools will learn at no other. Ben Franklin

Now, if you know the vernacular of the 1700s, you'd know that "dear" means "expensive" or "difficult" in that aphorism. And Ben knew what he was talking about, because he was talking about himself, really. He's one of a long list of people that taught themselves what they wanted or needed to know. Like most auto-didacts, he knew amazing and voluminous things, but there were large gaps in his learning. This is the danger in not having a curriculum set out for you.

I've never been able to learn things properly. I always just wanted to be left alone in the library with the information that interested me. But you'll notice that Ben Franklin didn't espouse his method of learning, and neither will I. It's a self-selecting cadre I inhabit, and if you join because you think it's sexy, you'll likely make a mess of your life. Try going into IBM and telling them you know the things an MIT education encompasses, but you have no credentials to prove it. The tests you didn't take online aren't in the Human Resources person's desk, either. Grab a broom.

The only real way to learn anything in this world is to do it alongside someone that knows what they are talking about. But the person that knows what he's talking about is a rare thing, and rarer still is that person that will help you. They're busy. But sometimes they write it down. And you can learn it from them, even if they're halfway across the planet, or dead as a Pharoah.

People drop out of college now, and say: "Bill Gates dropped out of college, and he's rich. No problem." Believe me, you're not Bill Gates. If you were, you wouldn't be looking around to see what other people were doing, and mimicking their approach. Being an auto-didact is a force-play. You run to second base on a ground ball or you're out. There's no deciding in it. You are or you ain't. Bill Gates and his ilk stole second and third and home, and you're still trying to bunt.

A sympathetic Scot summed it all up very neatly in the remark, "You should make a point of trying every experience once, excepting incest and folk dancing." Sir Arnold Bax

Regular people make the world go round. By definition, most people are regular people. But if it's enough for you to have the stuff in your head, because you can use it, and know how to pan through the whole placer to find the glittering dust that's there in the ore, it's there now.

It's just a matter of going.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Archie Tecter Is Alive And Well And Living In Chatham (From 2006)

(If you're just stumbling in, it's Chatham, Massachusetts I'm referring to.)

(It's on Cape Cod, which is only technically Massachusetts. Live over the bridge and you're a different sort of person altogether.)

(If you drive through Chatham at dusk, you can often see foxes trotting right down the middle of the road. Scarlet jacket optional.)

(Half Cape with wart and pickets, garnished with arbor vitae and served with sea air reduction.)

( It says here in my Archy Tecter fer Dummies book that someone called Italian Nate musta lived here, along with a Greek feller. It's a Mediterranean thing: you wouldn't understand.)

(I don't know who lives here, but they have more money than me. And you. And you and me. And you, you, and you, and me and you. And you over there and me.)

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Long View (From 2006)

Ah, we've returned in pixels to the lovely Chatham, Massachusetts. Chatham's way out there on the cape, near the elbow where you turn north and head for Provincetown, and then... well, Portugal, if you've got a boat.

Pilgrims have been mucking around in Chatham since 1656, when they first came here to farm. Eventually even a pilgrim can figure out the ocean was full of fish, and didn't require weeding, and the local economy quickly turned to fishing from farming. My own uncle used to fish based out of the harbor down the road... um shore -- Harwich. There's more tourists than fishermen now, of course, but you can still get in a fight at the local taverns in the dead of winter if you so desire. It's the traditional way for the Cincinnatus of the ocean to pass the time in any dead period in their schedule. It has its amusements, these fights; for the fisherman and the onlooker, anyway.

Chatham's a rich place. And it still looks like a beachside resort, not Disneyland. It's fun to walk around and look at, if you like shore architecture. I do.

The first picture is a scenic overlook and stairs to the beach, located across the street from the Coast Guard station and lighthouse. It's a busy little strip of parking and gawking and shoe-sand shaking. The sand bar you see in the distance used to go right across the horizon to the left, but was breached in a hurricane a few years back and stayed that way. The beach rarely stays put in this world, no matter how much you paid for beachfront property. There were dire predictions about this breach in the sandbar, but like most dire predictions, it hasn't amounted to much.

People from the midwest don't understand how rare it is for people around here to see the horizon. It's hard to get far enough away from anything around here to see it. It's the reason, besides the water, that the ocean captures the imagination of the average person.

People build bad houses that gape at the water through big sheets of glass now, because they have money and no sense. It's not the way to go. You quickly get a surfeit of any view you hog like that, and it becomes a sort of wallpaper. The first time you go to someone's house that has a second floor deck served by banks of sliding doors on the ocean, you're captivated, and massage their ego for owning the whole thing. You big scene gaping swell, you say. Stay with them for a week, and you'll notice it's the glowing blue thing in the cabinet, not the luminous blue thing under the sky, that they're looking at. You've got to frame that view if you're going to look at it every day.

It's nice to be at the shore, with the great corona of the sun beaming upon your mien, and the gentle zephyr wafting the fragrant sea air all around, and tiny devils of sand like talcum swirl underfoot. You're outside. On a boat, with land in view, it's even more wonderful and striking. But when the shoreline disappears on a boat, the ocean becomes blue textured shag carpeting, as seen from a mezzanine in a lobby -- unless you're in a small boat, when it becomes kinda scary.

So that's a lovely place I showed you to go and see and sit and swim. But this is how to meter that loveliness into your quotidian life, like divdends on some wise investment. Frame it and show it, and snatch it back from sight and reveal it again.

I walked back and forth right there until the owners of the house called the police.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Well And Truly Broken

They have gym class for first graders. They are insane people. It is all I can do to tether him to the planet -- to keep him from rocketing out into space. They will make him stand still, and wait in line for his turn a lot. Anti-activity.

The sun is low this time of year. If you cannot tell the exact time of day and year by looking at a photograph of your house, your design is a failure.

The driveway is 15 hallways. The boles of the great pines shine rust-colored in the eastern light. They are upland trees, but their feet are in the swampwater. They wick up the water filled with minerals and tannins and it colors their trunks. We walk through them like a temple colonnade.

Look right:
Look left:
Something wicked this way comes.

And the little one is gone. The big one is long gone, and dozing in class already. My wife and I go back in the house, our hearts well and truly broken.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

We Are Far From Wisdom - And Further Yet From Sadness

The world's kicked me to the curb so many times in the last couple years, it's getting almost comical. But we laugh most every day, come what may. You see, I'm smarter than most people. I made my mistress and my wife the same person.

I understand your distress,
Dear lover,
And I yield to your wishes
Make me your mistress.
We are far from wisdom
And further yet from sadness.
I long only for the precious moment
When we will be happy.
Je te veux (I want you).

I have no regrets
And only one desire
Near to you, close as can be
Living all my life
So that your body is mine
So that my lips are pressed by yours
So that your heart is mine
And that my body is pressed to yours.

Yes I can see in your eyes
The divine promise
That your heart is in love.
Come find my caresses
Entwined, forever
Burning the same flames.
In a dream of love
We will exchange our souls.