Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Van Buren

I’m sitting in the back of the room grading student oral presentations thinking I’ll leave South Florida soon or I’ll never leave. Eric works in a fish market, so he skins and fillets a salmon. Cecilia shows us how to fill in a tax form. Baylor repairs a surfboard. Like that.
But it’s the woman, Natalie with the parrot that gets to me. What a beautiful parrot; one of the most, if not the most beautiful parrots I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot of parrots. This is a parrot to marry.

Natalie’s going to show us how to teach your parrot to talk. Her boyfriend is allergic to everything but parrots, she says. This parrot has a gray head and a green body. She says it’s a Quaker Parakeet. I start looking for the hat and the oatmeal. Natalie says that a lot of people think Van Buren is a parakeet, but he’s just perfect for the home. He’s only eleven or twelve inches instead of the usual twenty-six plus and he’s smarter than a parakeet.

She says you have to prep the parrot. Make it get used to you. You should never talk in a loud voice. Always make the parrot feel like you are equal, which is a lot like humans’, but maybe not that hard, if you love your parrot. She says, take your parrot to a quiet place where it can’t get distracted. She says, Van Buren won’t talk in the same room as her finches. I understand that.
I wait to hear Van Buren it has a brother named Hamilton. Anyhow, she says parrots need to hear a high voice. She turns on the tape recorder to show us how she talks to the Van Buren, who sits on her left shoulder with a towel on it and stares at the tape recorder, then glances over at her. I think maybe Van Buren is confused. She says, Hello, hello, hello. Too bad the original Van Buren couldn’t have heard this. She changes her voice to a higher Hello, like hello, hello…Hello and HeLlo and then one that’s tingly, HiLO, HilO and one that’s sing-songy Hellow, Hellow and back to the regular hello.

I watch the bird, Van Buren. It looks at the tape recorder. It looks at her. Nothing. She whips out this magazine, called Parrot Talk that has all kinda good things, even expensive tapes that teach your bird to say Good Morning and I Love You. Available by subscription, she says. Meanwhile Van Buren cocks his head. She turns off the tape recorder. I wait. Van Buren doesn’t say squat.
Van Buren just perches on her shoulder cocking his had back and forth; looking real cool and real parrot-like; acting like he might say something, just to pass the time, or at least after all that work, help her pass the speech part. Nothing.

She wraps up the high points and asks if there are any questions. No questions. She takes Van Buren and her tape recorder back to her seat right in front of me. She doesn’t seem to mind, or let on, that Van Buren said nothing, not a peep, not even a garble. She doesn’t even shoot Van Buren a bad look.

The next woman shows us how to make Key Lime Pie. Then the parrot woman sets Van Buren in her hand while the pie woman puts eggs in the pie filling and shows the Jamaican woman Naomi, across the aisle, how the parrot Van Buren plays dead. Does Van Buren play dead? You bet. Van Buren flops over on his little green back and sticks its claws in the air.

Then class is over. We’re all standing around eating Key Lime pie. The parrot woman has Van Buren on her shoulder. Van Buren is eating Key Lime pie. The parrot woman says he eats spaghetti too, which is nice, but it won’t say hello.

Now I think Van Buren should have talked. That’s the point. I told the class that the object is to show us how to do something and show us that it works. I think I’ll have to give her a B for her speech. The parrot didn’t say a word. I guess that’s all right, but I’m not sure.

Maybe the parrot, Van Buren was stressed out. Maybe he didn’t like his name, although I guess it’s better than Hamilton. Right? Van Buren got the Key Lime pie. Should she pay because Van Buren won’t talk? Who knows? Sometimes, I have to ask myself, what's the point of talking to humans anyhow? Besides, I can't imagine someone sticking me in a dark room and shoving their big face in my beak and starting with the Hello, HELLO, HILO, HELLO.

It's like the summer my father took me to the fair. Along the midway, they stuck these tall miniature white houses with four windows and red hens inside. You put a dime in the slot and the chicken plays the piano. The red hen hears the tinkle, tinkle coming down the chute, she whips her beak around, her little red comb flaps, her wattles wiggle and she pecks the teeny keyboard bink bink bink, two maybe three notes with her beak, until a piece of corn falls down a chute, then the chicken eats the corn. I shoved my dimes in and watched the hens peck out some notes. When I ran out of dimes, I looked up at my dad for more but he shook his head and said, “It doesn’t matter how many dimes you put in the box, you’re ever going to hear the end of the song."

I guess Dad was right. There are no guarantees. It makes me glad I have the job I have, given the circumstances. I have to think, if I was Van Buren, I might mum up and go for the Key Lime Pie. I really would. After all, there's not much chance he'll get out of South Florida either.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Last Day of Work

Exerpt from Mohawk Electric

At four-thirty PM. the workers file out of the Mohawk Electric for the last time. A few men holler; a few men curse. Some raise fists. A man in a red plaid shirt remains stoic. Another man's half smile bears a trace of doubt. Women appear as lifetimes washed away. They stream toward their cars lining the three block parking lot to the East. They stop suddenly. Their shouts fall off in the afternoon. They seem to hear something. It appears to be getting cold.

Now the men and women look around at each other. They gaze upon the long brick buildings. They see the wires and the transistors whirring through the years. They see capacitors and radio tubes and ohm meters and scraps of metal and brooms and an ever ending whirr, now silent. They listen.

They shake each other's hands. The women hug each other and begin to cry. Some are big women in slacks, other's short with close cropped hair and glasses. Sometimes it's hard to tell the men from the women. Before long the men and women set down their lunch pails, stick car keys back in pants or purses. They hug, they kiss; they begin to tell each other how they'll miss each other after all these years. We'll see each other all the time someone laughs within a cry.

At the north end of the lot, behind the small cyclone fence, George Lassiter emerges from the little white door laid back in brick. He walks swiftly to his car looking neither right nor left. He gets in the black Chrysler Imperial and closes the door. He hears nothing. His face appears rested, as if experiencing some sort of awakening; as if a million racing thoughts run on behind. He starts the car and inches forward. For a second he feels nervous, wondering if he can get through. When he reaches the gate, he sees clearly through the tinted glass. No one looks at him. They're all shaking hands and hugging. As he noses the big car out, they part. They let the car run right up to their thighs. Lassiter can't really tell if he's brushed anyone or not. He feels closed in, claustrophobic, inching the car out through the jam of workers. Lassiter feels strange pushing the workers without them acknowledging his presence. He's known them for years. My God what will they do? Toward the end of the lot, the thought leaves him. Lassiter hears himself sigh. The car dips at the curb. Lassiter drives south.

Along about 6:42 PM, Officer Perch Watson drives north on Beldon Street and he is amazed to see the workers standing in the dark. They hold hands. He blinks. Yes, he sees they're holding hands and swaying, swaying so imperceptibly that he has to stop the blue cruiser and roll the window down. He feels the cool September wind rush in. It smells like cold and it smells like the Richland 's bubbling stink running behind the plant. A faint heated odor emanates from the men and women holding hands. It smells like old blood and tree bark. It smells like elm and falling leaves and cool sweat. The smell sways gently and the dark figures in the parking lot turn purple and chalky and brown. They seem to begin to possess a dotted orange cast to the purple that Perch can't fathom. They hold hands.

Perch Watson sits in his baby blue cruiser across the street in front of Zukor's Variety. He thinks he hears a Spanish accent. He listens. He can't locate it. He rolls the car windows down. Finally he sees Mario Perez talking to Wingo inside Zukor's Variety Store. Even in the evening murmur of the closing factory workers He hears Wingo grunt. He smiles. He's a cop. He knows things. He hears things. He squints across the seat and down the aisle inside, past the Wonder Bread and Twinkees and donuts on the left and the soft drinks and chips on the right, to the pinball machine. Wingo leans in. The machine bangs and bells and bonks. Perch sees Wingo has balanced the back legs of the machine on his loafers. Perch shakes his head thinking Wingo is a hopeless loser. Mario Perez stands next to Wingo waiting to play. Mario is the same height as Wingo, but he is younger so he doesn't look as squat.

Mario Perez, the last person hired by Richland Electric, is the first person to be let go and the first, and only Cuban, to ever work for George Lassiter. Mario Perez rocks back and forth on his heels. His head seems to follow the steel ball under the glass, bonking here, banking, flipped up, shot down, across, back along the side. Perch Watson cannot see the ball from the street. He imagines the ball whacking off a light and disappearing down the hole.

Mario Perez seems to be getting the hang of it. He seems to know what the ball feels like. His body rocks a beat, maybe a half beat ahead of Wingo. Perch thinks Mario Perez is singing or humming or something and he hopes it doesn't set Wingo off, but Wingo is intent. Wingo leans over the pinball machine and now he has the whole front end wrapped inside his short arms. For a second it seems like the pinball machine is growing out of Wingo's belly and that Wingo is wrestling it to the ground.

Perch dismisses the image and turns his attention to the parking lot. The workers sway in the September wind. It is very dark now. Perch worries. What if they don't go home? He tries to imagine what they will do if they don't go home.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Excerpt from House in the Attic

We stopped at the Western Summit of the Mohawk Trail. Below Richland lay in the valley. I could see all the way to New York State and well into Vermont. From memory, I picked out the Hoosac River running south under the railroad bridge past the long low station for the Boston Maine Line. I felt secretly exhilarated. I knew every turn of the road and what to expect. I felt comfortable for the first time in months.

The gray green Hoosac River moves through this history of long-gone spinning mills, paper mills, and the shoe factory that clacked and whirred and hammered at the river's edge. Today, the swells churn the banks almost like they did in the ‘52 hurricane when the bridges wobbled and row boats floated down Eagle Street; when Columbia bicycles raced wheel-deep down Holden Street and the Pericles Construction Company smacked its lips and made plans for the rip rap flood control killing of a lifetime.

Back then, Spring, smelled like lilacs all the way to school. Yes! Yes! There's Jessie, her lithe-sweet thirteen-year-old body in wet May rain, her damp ponytail, her hot sweet breath on my face. There we are lying on the grass strip between Mr. Pinelli's gladiolus and Mr. Pinelli's Jack in the Pulpits. Hey July, hey Bobby, let's swim across the lake. Hey Bobby. Going to the State Line and hear Rex Stewart tonight? Hey Bobby, bring your brother's draft card. Bobby, ya got that?

Come summer, the carnival trains of the World of Mirth and James E. Strate Shows pulled into the depot in the middle of the night and exploded on summer dawns with mysterious secrets designed to skin kid's allowances five times over. Awesome red and yellow wagons rolled off the flatbeds and trucks and horses pulled the winding extravaganzas through town in a clink-clunk parade of wallyoops and tootles that made my heart wang and bump and my fast feet dance inside themselves.

A carnival came from somewhere; somewhere beyond the emptiness of Sunday Summer streets; somewhere beyond the feeling life might be one long yawn; somewhere beyond the dark attics and musty cellars, beyond church pews, bigger than Jesus, longer than Cheshire Lake; somewhere beyond the echoes of hunting rifles, beyond the tinkly pinball machines in the back room of Petropolous's Candy Store. Now, I had to be on the lookout for the somewhere side show; for the upside-down, the cosmic bink, the man with the baby growing out of his chest for an extra quarter in the back tent.

When all the quarters had been collected, and all the tent flaps secured and guarded, when the final hush dropped into the dimness, what appeared to be a man of great sadness, a man of unspeakable torment, his head tilted to the side, his skin stark and patchy in the halo of a carnival spotlight on a low wooden platform, opened his robe and unfolded the white cloth ever-so-slowly, so I could smell the warmth and wonder flowing into the dusty light. And I saw the little baby hanging down, back facing me, its head imbedded in the man's chest skin, its rubbery legs dangling stiffly in stillness along the cloth background that held me darkly white and mysteriously wanting. I clung to every second. I wanted to get closer. In the back of my mind, I knew even then, that for a quarter, time was short, and the horror, the very idea, the drama, the mystery of the twin baby stuck in the man's chest, had to be recreated every ninety minutes, even if it was true. I went back every year.

Hems of the cheerleader’s skirts flap through cheering October. A gray squirrel sitting on a fallen oak blinks, blinks, blinks. The last gasp of Billy Bowman, shot by a 22 short in a hunting accident bubbles beneath the bridges all the way to Adams. I hear his sweet breath stop as the river finds another curve. Oh sadness of winter turnips on grocery shelves, oh mad, mad silver-bladed ice skates and holding hands with mittens, oh milky heated January houses and the stammering hiss of radiators. Oh February, when changing a tire is Blood Knuckle City.

I want to feel eight-penny nails rolling in my palm and the wonder of cross cut saws, the exquisite balance of a fine hammer. Oh ball peen hammer, oh lime, oh mercury in a bottle, oh Wonder Beans, oh pumpkin, oh lettuce, oh corn, oh succulent August tomato, oh screen door hinges, oh rat traps and awls, auger bits and flanges, oh telephone poles and fence post diggers with whoopy jaws, barbed wire stretchers and teat dilators, oh Wild Root Cream Oil, oh Billy Lynch, oh bullhead dreams and sunfish realities. Oh Jackie, oh John, oh Billy, oh Tom, oh Barbara, oh Jessie, oh row boats on Cheshire Lake, oh linoleum tacks and Blue Blades, oh deep river memory, gurgling, gone blank, deep and cold, rolling softly past the ever and ongoing childhood of my heart.

“The dark that matters is the last one. Autumn is the best joke ever told.” Richard Hugo

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Recalling a Time When Terror Sunk In

EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT! North Adams, Massachusetts. I am five years old. I am awakened by a boy’s voice below my bedroom window on Church Street. It’s still dark. I look down. The boy stands in the shadow of our maple trees flashing a newspaper. He shouts, "EXTRA! EXTRA! Read all about it! Roosevelt Dead! Roosevelt Dead!"

Roosevelt died hours earlier, World War II is almost over, but we don’t have TV or computers, so news doesn’t reach us instantly. We wait for the news. This war demands patience, sacrifice and unity. During the war years, my uncle and his son make the big guns at the Waterveliet arsenal. America makes no new cars. Meat is rationed. No butter. Margarine is white, with a small bulb of red dye that we Americans dutifully press into the margarine to give it the yellow color, to show we support the war. On Wednesday or Sunday afternoons, our family traipses to the Mohawk Theater for a double feature and the Warner Pathe News with its crowing rooster.

The Walter Winchell and the Edward R. Murrow cover defeat, from the Battle of the Bulge, to D Day. Artillery booms. Tanks clank. Troops advance. They dig foxholes. They dive for cover. War planes strafe. Big ships rock when their 16 inch guns roar. The whine of kamikazes echoes in the black & white film. There are blackouts and blackout drills, when under penalty of the law, we turn out all house lights so the bomber planes can’t find us. Street lights are out. We sit at grandma’s kitchen table, shades pulled, a towel over a small green lamp; mom and dad, all of us, hands folded, waiting, hoping German bombers don’t bomb North Adams, that this horrible and unforgiving war will end. My stepbrother comes home on crutches. My other stepbrother is pulled out of the Bulge with frostbite. His entire unit is killed. The German Restaurant on Route 7 in Troy is boycotted long after the war. This is an unimaginable terror, that as a boy one processes with wonder and fear.

Today I‘m truly amazed at the whimsy, the gloss, the Happy Meals and the commercials for teeth whitener, the incongruity, the lack of sacrifice. My, my, how the dance goes on. I recall a few slow news days during our “Showdown with Saddam.”Camera pan deserts and beer commercials. A man shoots his wife and children in a jealous rage. A man tries to hang himself from the balcony of a jai alai stadium during the game. The news clip reads, "Mr. Cruz was not working at the time of the incident." A News FLASH spins on three local TV stations: “Loose Monkey!”

Sure enough, a monkey is loose in Fort Lauderdale and we’re treated between shots of the oncoming or non-oncoming war on terrorism, to "Monkey on the Run," with three channels in hot pursuit. The TV stations are out of sync, so if we switch channels, station one shows us where the monkey has been, station two shows the monkey captured in a cage and station three shows us the empty cage where said monkey chewed its way out. Terrorist Monkey? Then, and I don’t know how she manages a straight face, a newscaster stands in front of the camera and says, "We want you to know, that we have now established a Monkey Hot Line." I immediately envision a chimpanzee holding a cell phone, then my mind whips to a woman I met several weeks ago, who was leaving South Florida because it is too crowded and the people are unfriendly. She sits in her packed car. An Igloo cooler rests on the passenger seat. She tells me it contains her dead parrot on dry ice. She intended to cremate her parrot, but that didn’t work out. She’d like to put the parrot on a raft and float it out to sea, if she can find a biodegradable raft. She is driving to Boca Raton to consult friends before continuing to Alabama which I think is not a good idea.

I remember the Terrorist Bees of Boca. A beekeeper in Deerfield Beach, a few miles South of Boca Raton has been reported because his bees allegedly flew two miles north to the Boca Raton Executive Airport and deposited bee droppings on the planes. The camera zooms to the bee keeper, who assures us that bees do not fly two miles for this activity. The camera zooms to a rather large women who is on the Boca Raton City Council. She announces, again with a straight face, "We cannot have bees in Boca Raton. Boca Raton is a growing community." I try to connect a monkey on the run, a bee keeper’s dilemma and Mr. Cruz, who did not succeed in hanging himself at the jai alai game, with these so-called warring honey pots from the Middle East, to Korea to any old TV camera at all. New cars roll into gas stations. The kidnapped young girl from Salt Lake City is returned to her parents. The front page of the Sunday New York Times boasts a photograph of a navy man hitting golf balls off the fantail of a carrier. I hear Fort Lauderdale school kids protest their right to wear pajamas to school because they feel more comfortable. After all, "It’s a long day."

I am swept back to that night when the newsboy shouts under the maple tree on Church Street. "EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT. ROOSEVELT DEAD!" When "evil" and "terror" draped Europe, the Far East, the World; when real shadows crept into our little hearts, into our North Adams, when all our dreams felt clouded, when we pressed the red dye into the margarine and pushed on.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Coffee Nerves and the NEWS

Suppose my wife, if I have a wife, wears boxer shorts. Or my sister, if I have a sister, eats ragweed. Maybe my son, if I have a son, kisses parakeets and my best friend, if I have a best friend, dislikes me. If the mayor of my home town, if I have a hometown, thinks about feet in the town square on Sunday mornings, or the librarian in my home town, if I have a home town with a librarian in it, fondles a picture of John McCain dressed as God in church, if there’s a church in my home town, if I have a home town; would I drink coffee? How fast? How much?

The next question is, if my wife, if I have a wife, stops wearing boxer shorts, or my sister, if I have a sister, stops eating ragweed, or my son stops kissing parakeets, if I have a son, or assuming I have a friend to begin with, the friend stops disliking me and the mayor of my home town, if I have one, stops thinking about feet in the town square, if there’s a town square and, if the librarian in my home town, if it has a librarian stops fondling the picture of John McCain dressed as God in church, if there is a church, how would this effect my coffee drinking?

Now…if the librarian in my home town, if my home town had a librarian, or a library; found something better than John McCain dressed as God, if the church in that town that isn’t her home town, but could be a good place to fondle John, if there is a John, would she? Or she finds a substitute for church, assuming there’s a church in the town that might be her home town, if she has a hometown, if she suddenly starts wearing boxer shorts, would she be my wife, if my wife wears boxer shorts, if I have one? Would I stop drinking coffee?

Suppose coffee doesn’t exist. Would my wife even think about boxer shorts? Would the librarian in my home town, if I have one, fondle John dressed as God, if there is one? If there isn’t, would she still imagine there is, or would she go to church if there is a church and not think about it? If there’s a substitute for John dressed as God, would the librarian think about that?

What if my wife knows there isn’t any such thing as coffee, even if there is? How does this affect my relationship to the sun? Does it come up, or not? If there is a sun to come up, will I go back to coffee if I gave it up, even if there isn’t any?

If I don’t have a wife, would the librarian have a substitute and would it be boxer shorts? Maybe my son wouldn’t kiss parakeets because I wouldn’t have a son, assuming I’d have a son with my wife. But my sister, if I have one, might still eat ragweed, and yet she might not if I didn’t drink coffee. Or if the librarian can’t find a substitute, would her thinking about a substitute effect my coffee thinking, if there is coffee or a substitute for coffee? Would her thinking have anything to do with how much sugar I put in my coffee, if there’s sugar? Would the sugar substitute part of my thinking about coffee change my relationship to the mayor of my home town, if I have a home town with a mayor in it?

If I put this sugar substitute, if there is sugar, in my coffee, if there is coffee, would this change my wife’s relationship to boxer shorts? Would the Mayor stop thinking about feet in the town square, if there is a town square in my town? Or if he isn’t in my home town, if there is one, how many sugar substitutes, if there’s sugar, would it take him to get him to think about feet somewhere else, if there is a somewhere else with a church and a librarian with a home town. Or there isn’t? And FINALLY, suppose the librarian doesn’t live in that home town, but if she did would she sit next to the mayor in church, if there’s a mayor to sit with. And would the mayor confine himself to thinking about feet on Sunday mornings, if there are Sunday mornings to confine oneself to, or would he go back to the town square that may or may not exist?

One FINAL, FINAL question comes to mind. If there’s no librarian and no mayor, or the librarian can’t find a substitute, if there is one, for sugar, or John , or sugar substitute, would it affect how much coffee the librarian drinks? And would the fact that the mayor doesn’t exist mean he may have become my wife, assuming she wears boxer shorts, if I have a wife? Or would the Mayor, who doesn’t exist, be the friend who dislikes me, and would the friend stop disliking me or would he stop thinking about feet in the town square, if there’s a town square with ragweed for my sister, if I have one? Or would the parakeet my son kisses, if I have a son by my wife who might not be, eat the ragweed in the town square that may or may not be if I have one, if my coffee drinking stops, assuming of course, that there’s coffee.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

September 11, 2008-Anniversary of 9/11-A Covey of Ducks

I read recently about an 18 year old who stabbed a duck in front of Benihana’s, because he hates ducks. What makes one do such a thing? Why a duck? Is this just one more kink in the great swing of the 21st Century, where everything is fair game, in the grab, keep and kill of whatever shows up on the screen next time?

I try to think of this duck as a threat, something to hate and I am reminded of a few years ago when I lived in Pompano Beach, Florida. Each day I walked past a canal at the corners of Atlantic Boulevard and South Cypress Creek Road. I often stopped at the stone bridge and gazed east to watch the wildlife, the turtles frozen on rocks, fish zipping in shadows below, the iguanas, not indigenous, some up to four feet long waiting in the grasses to my left and ducks, mostly Muscoveys, a large heavy South American breed that multiplied triple fold over the years in suburban and urban landscapes. Red-beaked, black, green feathered, some white and black, some patched, some all white, they lope and waddle all over South Florida.

On this day, a single female, young and sleek swam my way hugging the left shore. Behind her in blips and kicks, thirteen dark, little duckies swimming in her seamless wake. I watched them for a very long time until it seemed the day had wandered on without me.

Over the nest few weeks I saw Mother Duck again and again, but with fewer ducklings in tow, until one day I discovered her swimming alone. What could it be? Rats seemed obvious. Rats cling to shorelines and prey on such young. Foxes, possibly? Iguanas? Probably not. What else? And what could Mother Duck be thinking if she could think?

Today I think, what grace in this cynical world of bombs, gadgets, toys, murders, lies and duck stabbings. Mother Duck seemed thankfully oblivious to anything less beautiful than her ducklings swimming and dipping their beaks, flapping their untried wings and their instincts into ever, hopeful tomorrows.