—for Dad and Ben
I heard his story twice in my adolescence, both times from an older man, lowering his voice, once from my father, before I told it to other boys, who seemed all to have heard it already and in a similar manner, then with a nod to my own son, lowering my voice as well. How once some men decided to take the law into their own hands, since no one was willing that the girls come forth against what they were probably given to understand were their own best interests, more accurately the meaty fog of their lives' compression which occluded the question of confusion and numbed the recognition of their fears (and all this was before television!), they were all so thoroughly mediated already, their eyes, nerves, simply, so pawned to "everyone else," a clusterfuck of such confusions and blind interests from which rose proprieties, like flies over the ditch of their lives' stench, bringing them to be disinclined, in their way, to even think that an arrest, publicity and trial would be to anyone's benefit, least of all their own, sweet lost selves, for whom such an experience might prove "too much," whatever the fuck that was. Despite hosting a medium sized state university, or perhaps because of it as one author has already suggested1, my hometown was very provincial, probably still is. (No indications to the contrary.) Anyway, late one night, the story goes, these men broke into Morton's room, tied him up, threw him in a car, and took him to the vet, who was on retainer, so to speak, his "talents" redeemed that night by the common, social contract, recovered by those with whom he found himself at least in reluctant agreement, and so he slowly, carefully, but without anesthetic, castrated the sick fuck that night amid the pans, pleas, and the shallow eye of basin, on the same table he used for dogs and cats, and goats, his practice in "transition."
When I was growing up I would see him, I think, four or five times a month, riding his bicycle, groceries or whatever else it was it in his basket. Perhaps immune to mute approbation, he'd ride down the street as memory rolls and though the fog of his sexual lobotomy, bike wobbling beneath his fat red head, cropped, glasses bobbing with the effort of riding thus, on the road to the bumpy edges of town down decades through all those years. My town was so provincial, he was totally safe, young to his dying day.
1 James Purdy
You will work on a single manuscript in near silence for years, during the course of which you will realize your best work, brilliant and exhilarating. It will be as though you've never read before. After sanding every appositive and polishing each comma, you will send it to the finest English-language literary publisher in the world, a man of profound understanding and exquisite tastes who funds the press out of his rear pocket, stuffed with a staggering fortune in steel. He will be the only man capable of seeing your work for what it is on the first pass. While reading your manuscript one long summer afternoon, "Here it is! Here it is!" will be heard coming, at approximately half-hour intervals, from his second story office, the "At last" unnecessary, implied in his exclamations' very torque. After each burst, his wife, twenty-four years his junior, lounging by the pool below, will briefly wince and frown from beneath her canted cartwheel. Yet each time, after initial signs of irritation, a secret smile will steal across the shadow of her face as she remembers the soft hands of the assassin, who the next day will climb the staircase sometime between one and two in the afternoon, and do what he was paid to do, while she's visiting her sick aunt in Pittsburgh. Occasionally she sets down her shitty romance and dreams of a near future when she may fully indulge her tastes for casinos and young men without fear of discovery. Fully. Her "At last" is a breeze, nearly articulate, sliding over the upper reaches of her face.
The next afternoon you will be waiting for your new publisher's second call, the first having excited you to "the taproot of [your] being," reconvincing you of your life's worth, and provisionally staying the unsteady hand of your suicide. The following day as well, you will wait by the phone. And the next. The next. All is silent. Adieu.
Birdsong in Flame, Ninth Station
Isaiah Monkeyfoot, half Cherokee, half Ivory-Coast-Irish, fulltime weatherman (unemployed), February 1989, cold and then more cold, amid the busted out, the drift that is North Beach, in each face a twisting mob, but in Isaiah's mug a wired placidity, smooth as a burning lake. The argument of buildings and cement well taken almost nearly every moment of each bottomed out day, yet there was that in Ike would never listen, of a desire to hear too much. A open crater with leaping fish. One bullfrog. Thus was his occasion forever fresh, his torque ripe with anticipation. What did he anticipate? The lottery?1 Nothing in particular? Why do we go on with a life (or a story) when there is so little to recommend it? Why not use these bums as firewood? (Because they'd stink, and they're wet.) Why not see the opening in the man, his particular force: that which, though it may be exhausted, is never spent. Is best witnessed in his visage and in his gait, the first an over-exposure, the second drunken, having had no drink, a reel, dead musician in the street one minute and yet the fish still leap, as he does, to his feet, or suffers a similar engagement of torso and space via the limbs with the sense of balance of dead clown that resembles the dying of dance; that is he bounces off of everything alot, and mostly fast. His head is the size of houses. His smile has a face. He knows the names of all the mice. Red balloons or sausages for ears. One day he woke one evening, bayward, sun fresh in its leaving, and could not walk. Locked in a doorway. Had someone stolen his legs? They would ask a king's ransom! He could send in some terrorists. Reagan wanted him in the cabinet, but he was one stinkin' hour too late. He was thinking like a cartoon he used to watch, but this one really hurt. (bad) They were jammed in the door, his legs. An empty suitcase in the grip of that which can only be denied with great effort, where all attentions would need be otherwise strenuously employed rather than on this fresh panic to dwell. Impossible. He sought, in his exhaustion, to find them, and urged them on. When they came, he came with them, two for one they say, all three tumbling into the street, . . . and in a manner he made to stand.
That is he rolled, popped free (if you can call it that) with a bark-groan-grunt-crow combo, crawled, then reaching to the building a hand, rose over a latticed axis, battered, between two points the size of grapefruit, one in his left hip and one just below his right shoulder, both of stone, cold. Yet a delicate and insistent webwork of nerves, in waves of flame, mainly sheets or the interior of striations, flapped in and about these globes, whipping up erratic plumages of pain (the only constant), as flags do, in the rumored exteriors, against their poles. And yet God's morsel slowly straightened, . . . there, on the common street (motherfucker!) beneath the open sky, . . . and stood.
However otherwise engaged, Necessity being what it was and still is (Natural Selection's drinking buddy), Ike's preservation networks remained on high alert, and just then, as he stood, caught a signal from down the walk, silvered in the waning light of a quarter moon. Thus at such a time, place, and from which direction, Ike watched two approach, as of a sudden, in guise of the human, . . . unconvincing. Adrift in softly animated conversation to throw him off. By-pass signal. He'd know them anywhere, hole-pocket attendants of the Archangel Himself (not even from Escort Services!): Phantom of Heedless Evil and Meatpackers' Delight!, both from a fiery series of spices coloring the upper registers of even the most scabrous of palates, scaling its rungs with a dazzling display of reds against the sharpened pain of black, as of night's sky. Here, no doubt, to make a Devil's meal.
Beyond this cartoon there are real people living in the streets, which means along walls, in the crevices of our cities, alleys and doorways. Some are dying. You needn't feel you should do anything about it. (I don't know how to think about them either, Sunnylyn. Open wounds wandering spaces through all the ways of our world. Fluid tissue. They were dumped from mental hospitals by governors of both parties "to save the state." And they remain. Or they were always here, addicts, alkies, the addled, homeless, disadvantaged, derelicts, drunks, bums we used to call them, . . . now, the indigenous. We see them, but we know them not. City fauna2 (their stench, the flora). Yet they know us. They attend us with the eyes of the occupied, never conquered. And we are found wanting. No slight of tongue.
"Satan's whelps! Dream maggots! Avaunt! Stand back!" (Ike often slept behind a cheap theatre bar during his "nights off," all but Tuesdays when he made his charts: blood in traffic, solo operation of machine, city asleep), "Bolenian brood!, Listen!, Elvis's fuckin' dead as a stone!," reeling toward them his legs buckle and pop, hurt like a struck dog, "You seen him?" (Some polite conversation to throw them off, he thought, and doing his drunken-acrobat-on-stilts routine, hooked round behind the one on the right, the larger, almost losing his balance half-a-dozen times, but it gets him to their flank: "Whaaaa . . .?," the smaller one pretends to say. He had been eating something. A splosh ov'rtops his can, quavering globule of beer in cheap slow-mo, but very delicate. You gotta admit.
"This could be dangerous business" nearly flickers across the neo-virginal limens of Ike's consciousness. As it is he overcompensates the weight shift—on such wandering legs and knees!, ankles and feet!—and topples forth
into the street plowed curb instant pillow. fat black splat
of lightning. high note. dark coliseum broken in like dam over
village echoes keep smashing . . .
Time, it's later. After crawling between stations of pain,
bright ladder, a via dolorosa upward and downward, rungs of sorrowful being ringing in his ears, a voice from the crowded distance, "What have we here?," someone snarls, a bit close yet not too near, nor far to hear, . . . or it might just be another wrong number. Ike tries to do something with his hips which he must've forgot. His dog can't talk right. Not right now. Jim Dine addresses the bench, like chiseling a little story around the lip on the upper edge of a cliff, over brow of rockface, can only be seen from the ground a quarter mile out, by glass, or is lost in clouds and the long slow sway of heavens. That is, Ike managed to roll to his knees. Torn forelock. Tortured lip he often thought. What must be broken. Before it can be new made, fashioned to the nebulous, infinitely finite, one one one one, one coming and going at the same time. God's instrument! (Given division, what would you have of time?) Trying to grab the ears of his mind—thought he might have something to say—only to feel the sharp blow, boot to his side like the kick of a mule, a monstrous and misshappened goat, or locomotive. "How's that?!," came echoing from above, gull-horn-beast-of-question. Baldly rhetorical. Rhymes with what the shoe did to its children. He fell through another story of his brain as cold flames set about a cacophonous dance in the windy ballroom, battered yet barely contained within the staves' cavity, torso, life, a cave, or an absence at any rate stuffed with organs and lungs, he could feel them, each one, in fact was fiercely intimate, or maybe more like a prison riot when they break into your cranium. One thing sure, something's gonna to happen. (Or maybe something's gotta save him. Like the street children of Romania.
Or maybe they help him to his feet, give him fifty-bucks, it was all some dark and dreadful mistake. Ike finds the money in his pocket the next morning and, following his juicy angel, goes to the track, bets the trifecta (Forest Hickey, Torturer's Song, Lama Sabachthani), and cleans up, gets on meds, works sweeping offices at night, buys a paper each day (studying the market his only entertainment), invests in a few local start ups, makes thirty mil, copyrights software that teaches Ultimately Prolonged Orgasm Through Self-Hypnosis ("Like learning to breathe underwater!"), becomes an activist with a mustache, tries to help the homeless. Thinks back to his years on the streets, and before that, the stinking little city, before that the reservation. Comes up with a plan.
Or, somewhat more likely, the two strangers are "strangers no more," i.e., they realize that they really are demons, that is they recognize themselves, are sore dismayed, and try to repent with all the serious and comic repercussions you'd expect (a trailer home exploding in flames Saturday morning, drowned children, small animals taking their own lives, and so forth). Or maybe (most likely) they light him on fire, his urinous stench nearly almost already combustible, so that when an arc of lighter fluid is added (a full thirty second squirt), then the spark of a word, sharp breath or softest syllable from a Bic, to sleeve, . . . . Well, the flames were such that they brought one woman nearly from sleep to her window half a block away, third floor. As she watched, perplexed, shocked, Ike rolled through his screams across sidewalk and street, bumping over the curb, not seeming to mind.
Ike never had a pony when he was a kid but he got his first piece-of-shit Ford when he was thirteen. He loved that old car, a ripe heap blossoming in fenders and rust, its doors falling off. If I had a pony I'd name it Fairlane, he thought. He liked fat white girls. You could smack them around. They would introduce you to their friends. Nail two at once. Twice, three! Drinking and fucking all night. Then jump in that old beast and get the hell off out of there. Anywhere. He even fucked his own sister once, when they were both drunk. She whose life is more tortured than mine, he almost thought.
One night at what passed for a party, a new face. Some guy fresh from the pen. Billy Birdsong. Ends up fucking the brother of the girl Ike will fuck later that night. Smiles at Ike. Recognition? Or a little warp in the air like sliding through a bumpy pocket of memory? Eye spawn. Hair slicked back. A meticulous menace hovering with a happily lost clause between his bearing and his face. Always clean but for a stain you could almost see, that permeates the plain where he, alone, resides, or where he resides alone. Something black or blank beneath his face. Something smiling out of that. Maybe his cleanliness itself is the stain. They both stay the night. The next morning, while Ike is pouring a Blatz over some frosty cornflakes (product placement3), Birdsong walks into the kitchen. They're the only ones up. A few grunts. Sound of Ike chewing. A barrel bouncing down a grassy hill, empty, some brush.
"Gotta smoke?" Birdsong asks, twisting the cap of the last Blatz.
Ike nods, points with his head. There's still stuff in his eyes. The shiny streak on his shirt is dried snot.
Birdsong lights a Lucky. He's already washed his face and shaved. His hair is wet and slicked back, carefully combed to casual cascade. "You Cherokee?"
Ike nods, grunts, and after a pause, "You?" his mouth half filled with the mush of flakes. He looks up and into Birdsong's eyes, and it's as though he has never seen anything before his entire life. There's a spell in rivers and lakes of the far North. Wherein a dark forest writhes. Ike saw and recognized, without ever having known, the sign. One day fire will come and wash you clean. You will be unlucky in everything but God. Lion again. Inside lamb.
The affirmation cut Ike to the tender, quick central truth, a vein, as though his tooth was rooted in his big toe. He melted along the lines of his genitals. He'd give this guy a blowjob if he wanted. Really, there was no choice.
"Let's get outta here," Birdsong said straight up, walking out of the kitchen with his beer. Ike jumped and hurried after, not forgetting the smokes, matches.
In slightly less than two hours they were walking into a country gas station-store with revolvers. Ike was grinning at a handlettered sign that listed specials while Birdsong said something softly to the man and his wife, both behind the counter, that made the man open the register and pull out his own wallet at the same time, saying nothing in return, though desperate for it. His right femur quavered like a snake, dying, he vaguely felt. But it wasn't only Birdsong's gun and eyes that held him, it was also the distant metal register of his voice, "Like hearing something from the other side," he later told the detective, pointing to a magazine still opened on the counter "Autistic Dwarf Hears Message From Other Side: Terror Plot, New York." The cop looked at him blankly. His wife never said another word.
Meanwhile Birdsong and Ike were smoking cigarettes and laughing, counting their take in an alley catawampus to the Cash for Less sign on the side of Payday Loans. Location is everywhere. After flipping through the bills once, quickly, Birdsong stuffed the entire wad into his pocket with Ike's apparent approval, a dull grin. He was watching Birdsong's every move. Angle of his jaw, the panther in his neck, unwobbling pivot which, when little else makes sense, stands straight in our midst. Has he seen what other men have only sometimes thought they've seen? Occasionally he thought he was Birdsong, so was he possessed. Billy smiled back at him, then staring into the alley's furthest crevice, and beyond, began a whisper-chant, ancient song from before cars and laundromats, televisions and dying motels, about what Sun does to Desert, and how Desert speaks its wild grief each evening and all night while Great Spirit came to walk and think, pretending to listen to Desert's complaints, and how Broken Moon once landed on his hunched shoulder, and began to tell him a story of streets and visions, and of a strange and rapacious god who will come with his captives, a people locked in confusions from beyond many lands, flowing through cities, over mountains, across prairies, and swarming the plains. Also the story about a message that had been delivered to deepest memory, time out of mind, in night's sunken vault. Ike followed the story at its heels for a few minutes, then drifted off on Birdsong's voice, slipping into a type of dream, fever of cold nights in a distant city, long and tortured, took him over completely. In this he "swam," both fired and frozen, exposed, for some time. When he "woke" the alley's shadows had been realigned. Must be afternoon. Billy, now sitting on an empty crate, sipping a Blatz (a cold six-pack beside him), watched the eyes swim back into Ike's face, and after a pause of studied substance said, "I know this guy in Mexico can get good bud. . . . Something sticky to light us up on the streets. We can double this," patting his pocket. "We got enough for about a belt and a half. Two days work, tops. . . . It's a fuckin' cinch!" Birdsong laughed showing his imperfect, stone white teeth. Ike nearly glowed.
Unseen above them, on the roof of Payday, a story-and-a-half up, loomed our two demons, knobby headed sorts, looking down with dark relish upon this tableau délicieux, their minds awash in the warm chemical baths of anticipation. Everything according to plan. Thus they lifted off, silently chortling, cavorting in glee, climbing walls of the acid blue sky, throwing their shadow across the alley's mouth, a knot of worms, writhing black cipher, monstrous beast, malignancy at war with itself, turning itself inside-out, over and again, death match inked on heavens, desire to do no good but ill, necropolitan quills come to draft their message across this corner of the city (doom doom doom), a writhing brood of syllables wringing strung like hands, signing malintent in every moment across rooftops and over the alley in which our heroes sat, enrapt in felonies and in the paucity of their own desires, blissfully unaware. A vague disturbance crossed Birdsong's face. He paused, then stopped. Was silent for nearly a minute. Was he watching the dance macabre of shadow and light over alley's gaping mouth where the shade of fate crossed and recrossed in a sick shuddering of shadows? Perhaps. Ike sat, grinning, unblinking. But within seconds a small cloud began to cross the sun, veiling then smothering the tortured shadow of our unholy duo. When the sun returned moments after, the shadow was gone. "Let's get out of here," Birdsong said and stood, walking into the blind future of the street, where the rusted heap was parked.
1 Was there a lottery in San Francisco in the late 1980s? Surely it must matter. But not in this story.
2 And they are not directly below us in the food chain so much as a lateralno son but an unequal relation, cousin that feeds what feeds us, or an uncle. Hence our embarrassment that, long endured, cauterizes the senses, bloody tips of eyes, fingers, ear's stamen, tender stalk of mind. All but the few.
3 Kellogg's wouldn't cough up.