Published 2017
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[Transmission received at Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope (Sonoma State University), June 5, 2012, 19:59. The telescope was receiving data from PSR B0531+21, also known as the Crab Pulsar, aspect located in NGC 1952, also known as the Crab Nebula). The data was received as Unicode text, which rendered as English. It repeated exactly 1000 times, for 00:00:33:0000, indicating the same 33 ms periodicity as the pulsar. The possibility this is terrestrial interference data has only a 0.033% likelihood.]

Only want to say this now. Don’t have a lot of time, and I’m sorry for that.

The moment it happened, everything became…

In the shower, the last time there was a shower, which was about how much time ago? Twelve thousand milliseconds ago.

I think. Even then we didn’t use towels. An air vent from the ceiling would blow. Like a, what did we call that? Hand dryer. But for your body. Science fiction films would show this via a beautiful woman, her hair blowing up.

It’s harder to stay with it than it used to be. Stories are still there, but so… it feels like a mantra… twelve thousand seconds! ago?

In that shower I got this idea about evolution. I asked, or my mind anyway asked, why does evolution “like” to be slow?

My mind answered: It “likes” to be slow, because the response time of the environment is slow. The endless stream of relationships; so, so np-hard, that give each element in the environment a chance to live and, for temporal continuance, to reproduce, or not. There is no efficiency gained rewriting the code before feedback. With so, so many variables. Climate change and its effect on the food chain. Geo-events, (volcanoes, earthquakes, continental drift, terrain changes). Cosmic events (radiation bursts, impacts of various astral bodies). Factor in effects of additions to the count and graph of entities and miscellaneous remaining properties of the environment. As variables.

Because that’s how it talks, the mind. Charming in smaller doses, people would say. And they might be right.

It happened the day I took that last shower. I knew it happened because I heard it happen.

Because it played.

We called it The Symphony. Originally the name was supposed to be a joke, a reference to a form of music many of us liked. Used to like.

We orchestrated it hypothesizing we are a simulation. In any P that we are in such a simulation is not zero. So as if reality were fiction, we applied the necessary confirmation bias that would give us a model for change, and turned it into motives and phrases and arias. At that point we no longer needed to question if it was fact. No, we would act as if it were fact. And armed with that as a fact – but I would have to say it started as a hypothesis.

— That’s not how we stated the hypothesis. But just saying how we stated it now, well —

Nobody knows for sure who started playing it. Because of VPNs, because of code obfuscation. Or a miscellany of other countermeasures. You might expect China. Russia. But we know. It was Singapore. Cynics maintain it was to gain some sort of leverage. I think not. Every nation wants something. Singapore wants purity of action. To play The Symphony outweighs not to play The Symphony because it is a finer act. And why not? But it was copyleft, which did even more damage than anything proprietary. Quanda Corporation in Singapore, the ones who played The Symphony, did not consult the UN beforehand. Companies can’t consult the UN about the effects of software. Regardless of the effects it might have on nations. Which used to be. And what response would they have had? Is that even a logical question? Is it better to ask? Forgiveness than permission? Why am I smelling the back of my hand?

The day The Symphony started playing, we went from analyzing our music, dabbling in it, to rewriting it, to composing and arranging it. Smudging out Hodgkins and cystic fibrosis, adding anti-fungal defenses to barley, these little changes were notes. Sometimes, phrases. Aggregate them into longer chains, and you have strains, then cadences, movements and you have it.

There weren’t even that many of us working on it, at the start. Now? Hello world.

That we could just listen, and no matter where we were. And where we all were, well, that also became something else.

It keeps wavering in and out now. Can’t decide if that’s the punch line of the joke or not.

Twelve thousand milliseconds ago there used to be these things called candles, which even though they were supplanted completely in function by digital light, we still made in prodigious numbers. People kept these things in their houses, these useless things, these candles. And they put them on windowsills. On windowsills where a gust of wind could blow a curtain into the flame. And they could do this when everyone was napping, and the entire house could burst into the most enormous…

I was away. The Symphony had conferences at that time. We were discussing how to telescope to years instead of seconds, to manipulate scale.  We discussed the ramifications for hours. Interestingly, not a scale of time we discussed. The biggest argument was if Time was discrete or continuous. It took hours (because people like to talk and we try not to interrupt) before it was shown both classical and quantum physics had figured this out sufficiently. We were all laughing at the joke when my tab rang and it was the police calling, at least the type of police we had then, which had cars and guns and not just a silencer dot like they have now.

When we actively started rewriting the code, our code, the Symphony began to play. And it sped up. And as it sped up, it speeded us up. We became speedier, so far, so fast.

One tries to imagine it was beautiful. Imagine the flame is suffused with sunlight, although maybe that was sunlight, because even though people were supposed to light candles at night, this happened during the day.

It was sunny. Maybe the curtains were a little closed. To make their light show, I suppose, you’d need the contrast.

But the reaction was bright, even brilliant. It grew and filled each doorway, each bed, each table, each closet, each chest, each counter, each appliance. Each room.

That is, in itself, a phenomenon for which we needed to keep good accounts. How fire seems to be alive in some ways. But always a creature that rapidly runs out of life. And dies. Dies out.

If it were raining, as it was that time in the shower. As an example. The reaction would have died. From the rain. Maybe. But it wasn’t raining. Not in that version of things.

What in this situation was left, was then no house. Husband. Daughter who looks up, shining, as she falls asleep.

At that Movement of The Symphony, though. This was redefining and merging the genetic destiny and technical web of ourselves and everything that’s coming along with us. Accompaniment, and there was a score to control it, of a sorts. We made it and it took us to a kind of wilderness. One we needed so, so badly. Or, so, so, much.

We prioritized speed. Made it faster and faster to examine all possible which-ways it could… dare I say all? I can from a point of fact. It all could… go.

Just go.

If all these factors could also be computed. A permutative nest of subtrahends and numerators that tickle each other with nervous voltage, a sinuous set of electric waves twisting a chemical soup that feeds back to the network, so that the echo of cause, effect, cause echoes in a Monte Carlo method where the speed of calculation eternally approaches a limit of infinity, therefore the efficiency multiplying the sheer number of samples…

The Symphony would meander over not just the fact of, but the rate of evolution, meaning the rate of change would change. So that life forms, and the terrain, and let’s face it all now. The fate of this planet and probably of all the others. Where we were thinking of going.

That really was the point, wasn’t it? Life needed to spread. Life is too easy to snuff it out. A candle on the window sill in the middle of the day, when there are lights inside even when you want them. As why, because whatever. It smelled like something maybe. Nutmeg. Cinnamon. Butter. And rain, so new and so clear and so utterly utterly ionized.

Excuse me. I have a star with a difficult birth to attend to, so I must go. I really should do this more often, but

[transmission terminated]

The New Life

An “art rock” sci-fi thriller set 125 years hence, it’s a wild ride of a play where immortality, Italian poetry, terrorism, and the emergent intelligence of networks interfold DNA-like into the Rudolph Maté film noir classic D.O.A. Massive in scope, the story covers a whole new world where evolution has itself evolved, becoming strange, free, and wondrous. Rich and multi-layered, The New Life’s flexible casting options mean you can perform it with a cast small as 8 or large as 22. Likewise, you can make it a tour de force of technical theatre, or perform it simply on a bare platform with human-generated effects.

Read on: (Kindle | Paperback)


cast: 12 (6 F, 6M)
set: Multi-media stage
length: 120 min.


Off-Broadway: Commissioned 2004 by Praxis Theatre Project



  • Today’s lesson is water, the universal solvent…

Diana’s voice reverberated off the wall, off the students’ faces, mostly brown and framed by shiny black hair. They whispered as she turned her back to check the thermostat. She was a “trailer teacher,” assigned to a different classroom every period. Without fail, every room they gave her was always too cold, or too hot.

She squinted, but couldn’t read the numbers through the thermostat’s tiny scratched window. With a thumb she wiped away a limn of grey dust, balled it up, dropped it. It fell like a spider ball. She looked again at the dial. It read seventy-three degrees.

  • “Hell, she mumbled. Seventy-three. Feels more like fifty.”

Diana gripped her forearms and shivered to conclude her point. A strong urge came to smack the thermostat, but she resisted. If she was superstitious about anything, it was devices. She moved the tiny lever a fraction of an inch, almost prayerful. From somewhere behind the wall, the air conditioning unit clanked, shut down. She heard the liquid Freon swish in the tubes. Seconds later, the room was filled with the nose-wrinkling tang of fresh ozone.

Among other things, Diana knew about Freon. It was a registered trademark for a liquid refrigerant product made mostly of fluorine. Fluorine is an inert element, called a ‘noble gas’ by chemists, who should know. That means it resists combining chemically with other elements. It has a very low boiling-point. It is gaseous and expansive at room temperature, unlike water, which is liquid at room temperature but boils to gas and expands at two-hundred twelve degrees Fahrenheit, one hundred degrees Celsius.

Diana could tell you how Freon made air conditioning possible. Inside an air conditioning unit:

  1. A pump compresses gaseous Freon to liquification, then forces it through sealed aluminum tubes.
  2. A fan draws air from outside and pushes it around the tube surfaces.
  3. Liquid Freon in the tubes steals warmth from the air, turns to gas and expands.
  4. The Freon is then pumped back through the compressor to liquify again. The air that blows out the vents, its warmth stolen, is icy cool.

“…Air conditioning was one of the many innovations that brought humanity massing to Imperial County, a strip of land (mostly light yellow on the map shown) sitting atop the Mexican border half-way between Yuma, Arizona, and San Diego, California. In 1900, the Valley was all desert, too hot for most people: one hundred thirty degrees Fahrenheit in the shade summer days. People riding the dusty highway along the Mexican border between San Diego and Yuma at one PM could be struck down by the heat as they drove their horses, carriages, automobiles down the snaky canyon road. The Imperial Valley wasn’t a fit place for the slow or dull-witted.

“The soil was also condemned as barren, impossible, home only to the hardiest of scrub plants. A farmer’s nightmare. Luckily no farmers were interested in it. For the reason why, let’s ask a geologist:

“Millions of years ago the Valley was the bed of a salty inland sea. Then the climate changed.  The sea evaporated, leaving the salt behind. The result—desert.”

“All this would soon change. In 1927, William Holt, an entrepreneur, had a new idea. He lobbied for and got Federal tax dollars for a project to divert a portion of the waters of the Colorado river, which flowed sixty miles to the east through Arizona and Mexico, into the Valley.

“Once the canals were dug and the water began to flow, teams of men with tractors broke through millions of acres of rock-hard sand, leached the deadly salt out of the earth, transforming the Valley (at a cost of millions) into a farmer’s paradise.

“In the 1930’s, the Oklahoma dust-bowl scourge drove people to the Imperial Valley by the truck-load. They sought work on the new corporate farms. And work there was, for BUD in lettuce and broccoli, Bunny-Luv in carrots.

“Today, nearly every type of fruit or vegetable eaten in the United States grows in the Imperial Valley: dates, cantaloupes, carrots, broccoli, lettuce. Over one-half of the nation’s carrot crop now grows in the perfectly sandy soil of the Imperial Valley.

“It’s still hot during summer days, but even in that inhuman season air conditioning makes things more liveable. On the other hand, winter weather in the Valley is excellent: eighty degrees Fahrenheit at noon, between fifty and sixty at night. By nineteen-eighty-five, over a hundred thousand people had come to live here in the Imperial Valley—’America’s Paradise on the Border’”

And just one of the hundred thousand was Diana Shawnesee, ninth grade science teacher at El Loci High School. She had only yesterday shown the filmstrip that told the story of air conditioning, tractors, and how they changed the Valley to her thirty-one Intro to Science students. Amazed their home was the subject of a filmstrip, they listened intently. Now Diana was about to impart something she hoped they would find equally amazing.

  • Did you know that the human body, that’s your body…

She picked a chance to glance over Armando Palenque’s shoulder. He was taking notes. There was a blue squiggle of a doodle there also, writhing in the margin, looking like captured ozone.

  • … Is made of almost eighty-seven percent water. Which is interesting, because the Earth—you remember the Earth, don’t you… Mister Gutierrez?

Mario Gutierrez looked up. “Damn,” he thought. “Picked. She don’t miss nothing.” He tried to palm the note he was passing, but still held it out, hoping Helena Vargas would see.

“Hey, Helena. Look. Take it before teacher gets it. Damn, she’s coming.”

  • The surface of the Earth is actually less water than you, proportionally, being only approximately seventy-six percent water…

Thirty-one pairs of eyes, most of them chocolate brown, swung toward the back of the room, following the teacher’s neatly tan-cotton-skirted and orange-silk-bloused body, to watch Mario Gutierrez and Diana Shawnesee square off again. Before he could drop the note, she was there, deftly nabbing the folded paper.

  • Thanks, Mr. Gutierrez. What say we discuss your literary proclivities after school, three p.m., room 276? Hm?
  • Ah, Mrs. Shawnesee…
  • Miss Shawnesee! At least get the marital status right before you submit your appeal! The case is closed, as they say in court. A place you are no doubt familiar with?
  • No, Mrs. Shawnesse, I ain’t never been there.
  • You’re just lucky then. If you have more to say, say it to Mr. Alvarez in his office.
  • She indicated the door, her expression flat, mentally counted five, then softened her voice beckoningly.
  • But if you’d like to stay…

Mario nodded his head vigorously.

“Okay,” he thought, “so what if the others think I am kissing ass? I went to Alvarez’s office four times this week. I go again it means suspension. Suspension and I can’t come to school, don’t get to see Helena… Helena…”

Who gave a damn if everybody in the class knew about him and Helena Vargas? She had these green eyes. It hurt his chest just to look at them. Some day he would marry her. He only had to prove himself. Which was hard when… what?

  • Wake up, Mario! You know the rules. Now open your notebook. At least pretend to pay attention.

He nodded, a mock serious grin on his face, did an exaggerated search for a pencil. He looked in his pockets, his sleeve, under his notebook, under his fingernails, removed his shoe, looked there. Evangelina Avila laughed boldly. She was Mario’s accomplice in deceit, and liked it that way. He leaned over to ask Helena Vargas for a pencil. As he leaned he palmed her another note. This time she took it before Diana saw. Helena slipped the paper quickly into her jeans pocket.

  • I’m borrowing a pencil, Mrs. Shawnesee. See? No pencil.

He held up his empty hands to her. Diana was deskside almost instantly, like Florence Nightingale with a pencil instead of a compress. Mario took it silently. She turned back and addressed the class.

  • Anyway, what I was trying to say about you was: compared to the Earth, you are all wet.

The kids laughed. Even Mario did a little, more out of relief than anything else. He looked at the clock. It was twenty minutes before the bell.

“Time is it? Shit. Nine fifty-eight AM.”

“My name’s Jorge Gargas. That’s pronounced George, not hor-hay, got it? Goddamn tractor! Umph. Good thing these work gloves, else I’d a bruised my damn hand. I know, no sense beatin’ a dead tractor, but this whole morning don’t have much to do with sense, does it?”

“‘N overhead the big bleak sky. Blue. Not a cloud. About to crash down on me. Feel dizzy ever’ time I look at the big bleak sky. Immense, right? Immense.”

“Winter. Suppose a’ be the best broccoli season of the year. Now the damn tractor won’t start, ‘n the other one out in the yard idn’ even good for parts or nothin’. What’s it take to get a rigger out here ‘n give this field even one discing, never mind the two it really is going to need? ‘N I got three hundred in the bank? That changes things real quick, thinking about just three hundred ‘tween me and the shithouse.”

“Shoulda got out this pit I had the chance. Shoulda took that offer from BUD Inc. two years back. Offered me a middling price, but, no, not me, couldn’t sell Pop’s land, had to tell the guys in suits ‘no,’ so what do they do? Buy the Ryers, next door a this. ‘N now the Ryers live in El Centro Estates in a nice new tract home all paid for with that fine money from BUD. What I get? I get nothin’. ‘N sooner or later BUD’ll take this piece land for a song and whistle. They know it, too. Bank gonna foreclose me on that FHA second I got to finance this damn dead tractor some seed some hands to help out last year the year the frost hit. Frost, right? Here, in the Valley. Could you believe it, ice crystals on the green peppers and lettuce. Wrecked me good. Won’t be long ‘til BUD gets all ‘n everthang.”

  • Shit, he said aloud, breaking the reverie.

He went into the house, shaking his head. La casita (the little house) was a four-room shack his father had built forty years ago. Place for his mama, Jorge’s abuela, to live ever since el padrone, the grandfather, died. Wasn’t too bad; the shack had electricity, running water from the canal, a roof that only barely leaked. Next to the casita was the old farm house, the real farm house. It had been empty for two years, since the people from the State of California came and stuck that red sign up on it, ‘unsuitable for human habitation.’  Now even the sign was pocked with holes, ready to be condemned itself, he thought with an ironic laugh. He couldn’t even go in there to look at the ruin any more, not since the second floor collapsed onto the first a while back.

His father was a farmer, singer, drinker, not an architect. Jorge knew it every time the casita wall creaked and buckled beneath his weight. “Good wind,” he thought, “whole thing blow over like a damned tumbleweed.”

He stepped over the concrete drainpipe that served as the front step, went through the door, kicked aside boots, books, dirty jeans, socks, paper plates, phonograph records. He didn’t know where they came from. He didn’t own a phonograph.

Now in the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator. As he did the metal strip fell off from inside the door freeing an economy-size container of mustard. The heavy jar landed hard on his booted foot.

He screamed, more from shock than pain, kicked the container away. It slid across the room, hit the wall below the counter and broke, splattered mustard and glass up the wall. He turned back to the refrigerator, found a can of Old Milwaukee. It was his second this morning.

“Well,” he thought, “hot for a winter day, near to eighty degrees. Beer goes down better than canal water; cleaner than canal water too. Least I think so. Them barnstormers fly over couple times a week spraying; I heard the stuff—di-meth—gets in the water. Kills ya outright. Faster’n beer killed dad.”

The room reeked of vinegar from the mustard. He fortified himself with another can of Old Milwaukee and went back to the living room. It would take at least a couple of hours for the smell to go away. He would need the other beer before then.

  • Forgot to… close the door.

He went back into the kitchen, in time to hear the refrigerator sputter and go out. He smacked it, and again.

What was that? He heard a noise in the backyard and ran to the back window in time to see the Imperial Irrigation District truck peel down the ditch-bank road.

He ran to the front door, pushed the screen aside, and screamed after the truck,

  • Son bitch! You took my power! You damn son bitch!

Muttering, his boots scraping the sand on the floor, he went to the couch, pushed the switch on the TV remote control, dropped himself down. He took a long pull on the beer, finished it. Where was the other one he just had? Oh yeah—in his other hand. He popped it open, looked at the TV.

Black screen. Damn. That broken too? He squinted, then remembered. Yeah. The power.

  • Son bitch.

The last came out whispered, prayer-like. How long for things to be right again?

“Hell,” he thought. “Garbage to pile up to burn. No, tomorrow.

He went to the backyard, opened the grey Imperial Irrigation District box, snapped off the lead seal, found the orange plug that kept current out of his wires, and pulled it out.

“IID can’t keep electricity outa my house, not long as I got tools. once the TV set’s back to life, catch me forty. Tonight, hit El Pobrecito for a nightcap.”

  • Hell. What am I doing in this dive? she asked herself, her lips moving silently. The ice in her drink rattled, thumping against her hand, and she realized gratefully that she could hear at last.

Then the ranchero music started again, up so high she squinted at David, face crunched in pain.

  • Great place, isn’t it? he hollered.
  • Great place to practice projection, she bellowed back.
  • Oh yeah. You’re right. Sometimes my monsters get this loud, too. It’s like practice, kinda handy. I told you you’d like El Pobrecito. It’s my official hang-out. We two must be the only gringos here. You want another drink?
  • No, thanks, I’m still finishing this one.
  • I’m going up if you don’t mind.
  • No, go right ahead.

“Why did I ever let myself get roped into a date with this red-bearded biker schoolteacher?” she thought. “At least he’s friendly. My first year in the Valley on an emergency teaching credential after all, and David is one of the few teachers at El Loci under fifty. Not bad-looking either, for all the strutting.”

She gave her drink one last swish, then set it down on a nearby table.

David came back toward her, a fresh bottle of cerveza Sol in his hand, with a wedge of yellow-green Mexican lime jammed in the lip. She pointed at the chunk of fruit.

  • People say that stuff makes you sick. Is that true?
  • What? The lime? Babe, what the beer don’t kill, my stomach does the rest. I’m not worried, he slurred.

She swallowed hard, trying to steady herself.

  • Okay, but I feel crappy. This music is driving a hole right through my old head. Mind if I take a breather?
  • Listen, I’ll walk out with you, cool?
  • Lead on, MacDavid. MacDuffid.

Her giggle sounded choked as they pushed through the crowd, mostly Mexican migrant laborers in neat indigo jeans and cotton hooded shirts with stripes, running jackets, a few jeans jackets from the VIM store in Calexico. “This is definitely their place, not mine,” she thought, imagining how cool the air outside would be compared to the fetid swelter that reeked of corn fired in hot oil. They reached the door and thrust outside. Diana breathed in the dry night air, her head swimming back to the surface.

  • God, I needed this.
  • Yeah, the air is great in the winter. You know what I’d love you to try?
  • Tell me.
  • When we go on a call, you know, the volunteers, I’d like you to ride out with us. Just one time. Then you feel it rushing past, the wind. Like the hurricanes come. Charlie, the driver, really opens it up when we get out on Comacho. We go tooling past El Pobrecito, just there, have to be doing a hundred. That old truck can really move. Want to try it?
  • Wouldn’t the other firemen mind?
  • Normally yes. But in the case of pretty ladies, they tend to look the other way. Actually, they tend to not look the other way.
  • I hear you.

Privately, she grimaced. Then there was a twinge in her gut, and the grimace became public.

  • David, I feel really sick.

What’s the matter?

  • I don’t know… bug? The lemon? Listen, can you take me home? I don’t want you to think I’m having a bad time or anything. It’s not your fault I feel this way. Also I really have to get into grading some tests. Would you mind?
  • Sure.

He grinned, but it looked forced, and his boots scraped hard against the ground as he started toward the car. “Damn,” she thought. She didn’t want to mess this up, but she really did have to get home.

  • Maybe we can pick up where we left off. Some other time. Right?
  • Right, she said, relieved.
  • Like maybe you could come ridin’ in the truck?
  • Well, maybe we could go out for dinner? Say next week? Sound okay?
  • Sure. Dinner’s cool. I’ll stop in to your room fifth period and we can set it up.

She breathed an inner sigh of relief.

A Mexican man, very drunk, staggered into Melcher, knocking him sideways. He was stunned for a moment, then snapped into action, shoved the man backward.

  • Hey! Watch out where you’re going, you clumsy… !

Jorge Gargas reeled back from the impact of the gringo’s shove and insensate tirade. He fell down on his behind. Too drunk to shout at the gringo, too tired to get up and fight, all he could do was squint. So squint he did, his intense brown eyes boring into his red-haired adversary, twin pinpoints of brown fire.

  • Who you looking at? Wetback? Snarled Melcher, wiping the thread of spit from his mouth.

Jorge did not answer. Sat on the ground, glaring up. “You stupid-ass gringo,” he thought. But he said nothing. Melcher, paling at the intensity of the Mexican’s stare, backed off. But when he saw that the man couldn’t get up, that there wasn’t going to be anything more dangerous than a stare-down contest, he turned and spoke to Diana, smugly and loud enough for the Mexican to hear him.

  • What an asshole. You see him bump into me? Did it on purpose.

She saw.

Later, after the harrowing ride home with the drunken red giant, after refusing four times his protestations (he only wanted to come in for ‘one more drink, goddamnit, that’s all’), after he peeled his old sun-weathered Camaro out of her driveway with a rip of rubber and gravel, grading papers, the Mexican’s face hung in her mind. There was something, something relentless, that… What? Impossible.

“Ah,” she thought, “Morning periods the best. Before classes, before the others wander in lazy and befuddled, alone with a hot mug of coffee, you can get lots done. It’s a magic time, something lyric gets into your blood, your bones.”

“So?” she thought. “I’m teaching school in a noplace town. Better than New York, land of Dad, the Bank, Terry my spacy brother. Poor Terry. That letter I got from him last week. Something about seeing a vision on the train. Jesus, he rides that train across the water every morning, back every night. Just like Dad did for forty-two years, until the heart attack, until the blood stopped, frozen like air in an air conditioner pipe. No wonder the visions. Not how I want to die, alone in that frozen city nowhere. Someday I’ll leave these bones and blood here, in this warm desert nowhere. This is my nowhere.”

Reaching for the coffee mug, she looked down at her hand. Somewhere in her mind the tunnel to the past opened. It wasn’t the first time, wouldn’t be the last.

Her father’s hand lay yellowed against the white hospital bedsheet. “Dad, you damn cold scaly fish,” came the voice in her head, “and too bad, too bad everything, too bad mom died when Christine was born. Was he different, warmer, before then? I couldn’t tell. I was too young to tell, I suppose. How many times do you tell a man you love him and get no response? Except for his hand, that last time, on the bed. Damn him, he knew he was dying. He wouldn’t speak. He could but wouldn’t. Just lay there, drawing long, slow breaths, the exhales like sighs punctuated by the click of the respirator.”

She remembered leaning over the bed, in front of the whole family, doing what Dad would never let anyone do when he was strong: hugged him. She crushed the sheets and dad and the plastic things sticking out of him to her chest. He didn’t speak. But his hand moved, slow, as if it could think on its own; it slid up her arm, then across, then rested in the middle of her back. Damn him, she thought. He could have said it too just one time, that one last time.

She took a hard gulp of coffee, plunked the mug down, let fingers bang over the keyboard. “That’s right. The coffee is good,” she thought. “That’s the main problem. The coffee is always good. It’s deception, one more seduction, one more thing to keep me trapped here where I am.”

“What a non-place,” she thought. “If I stay here, I’ll pass like wind over this hard patch of land called home. It’s an accidental home, true, but home’s home. Dad died, it was like being fired from a gun. Washing dishes, waiting tables. Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Montana, like a big piece of road with motels and EATS signs. Nevada, Arizona. Then I was here, pounding the pavement, pleading with district after district, give me a chance I asked them. How long was it? Three months? I found this place. It’s a job. Been worse.”

She stayed with it first because she thought the ground was too hard to spread roots into. But the sandy soil fooled her at first. Nobody told her broccoli big as her head came out of it, all anybody had to do was add water, fertilizer. Sun, too. There was plenty of sun.

“Those are the basics,” she thought. “Coffee, dirt, sun. Why not stay? The house in El Centro Estates is good, the mortgage payment’s low. Only one neighbor; a vacant lot on the other side only a bookmark for another. Nice high fence all around the yard in back so I can swim naked in the pool any time.” She always had a tan. And everywhere was the clank of air conditioning machines, keeping her happy. Everywhere Freon; it was a second kind of wind there in the valley, lyric wind. Even Sappho could have dug it.

She leaned back in the chair, looked over at the bulletin board. There was a new sign pasted there.

$11.50 per hour to start.
Inquire at Principal’s Office

“What a place this is!” she thought, and laughed, “Isn’t this the third time this year they’re looking for a janitor? Each time they offer more money. God!” she realized with a shock, “it’s up to eleven-fifty an hour, pays almost as much as I get! Maybe I should have been a janitor.”

“Hell, was dad right? Should I have majored in financial management? Right now I could still be in Manhattan, staring out the forty-fifth story at the river, or eating power breakfasts and trading junk bonds. Or working in the Bank at least, with Terry, sitting in dad’s old chair and seeing visions on the D train and staring at the sun. Like a mad dog.”

She was laughing to herself as the door to the teacher’s lounge opened. It was David Melcher, looking like a taciturn boy wandering down to a bleary-eyed breakfast in footie pajamas. He held the door with his booted foot and squeezed through, growling.

  • Don’t laugh at me. What kind of bonehead leaves a TV cart blocking a door like this? Other people have to get in and out, you know.

She muzzled her laughter and went back to typing, keeping her voice flat when she answered him.

  • Don’t look at me. I’ve been sitting here for an hour. It wasn’t there when I came in.

He glared at her.

  • Well you saw Why didn’t you move it?
  • Didn’t notice it. Probably somebody returned it while I was working.
  • Oh yeah, you’re impervious when you’re working. I forgot.

He moved the cart and let the door close. David was always bitching about this or that, but usually cooled off quickly.

  • You made fresh.
  • Washed the pot out too.
  • And there’s real milk.
  • I stopped at Cook’s Market on my way in this morning.
  • Now this is a cup of coffee.
  • A factual statement.

He came and sat facing her, leaning into the desk. She typed a sentence and didn’t look up. She could smell his breath. He had gone on partying after dropping her off last night. She reserved comment; too busy.

  • What you up to?
  • Lesson plans.
  • You do more lesson plans than anyone else I know. How many classes do you teach again?
  • Seven periods. They offered me extra money to give up my break, so I took it. Now let me work, please. Classes start in what, five, ten minutes?
  • Okay, okay. Sorry I said anything.

By the sink, there was a tiny desk. He got up and hunched at it. She wanted to apologize, but she did have to get these plans done.

David finished the cup of coffee, took the beeper off his belt, pressed the battery-check button. A burst of pings. David grunted, clipped it to the belt, sighed, left the lounge, the door slammed.

She wasn’t sure if he was pissed or not. A few moments later the faculty toilet flushed across the hall.

  • Too much coffee, Melcher! she yelled and laughed.

She selected ‘print’ from the menu and made sure the paper was lined up right. The printer whined. Something outside the window drew her eyes. She squinted, turned toward the door again. How much could it hurt, just for fun?

  • Hey, Melcher! You promised to take me along!

He stuck his head back in the door.

  • What, you want to go on a call?
  • Figure the volunteer firemen could show a lady a good time. What else is there to do around here?

David laughed. She added, solemnly,

  • But you have to behave, okay?

David nodded with equal sobriety, a little boy, serious now in footie pajamas. The first bell started ringing.

  • Hey, he said. Don’t be late to class.

He shut the door again, gently this time. Diana gathered her printouts, stuffed them into the folder marked PERIOD ONE. As she turned to leave the office, the window once again drew her gaze.

“Hey. Is that a cloud? No, couldn’t be.”

Stiff, Jorge took a slug of beer, swore quietly, piled doors, beams, empty paint cans, rotting cloths. He had been cleaning up the wreck of the old farmhouse for what? Three months? Garbage was the only thing left of a life, their life.

“No sense crying”, he thought. “Used to cry a lot. Alcohol been helping it stop. Funny. Time was I hated beer. Used to get mad when I drove out on the highway and saw all them migrants sitting around in the cantaloupes, taking a siesta con el Bud-weiser and talking. Yes, time was I wanted to yell at ‘em, ‘Assholes! Stop wasting your life! Stuff rots your brain out from the inside!’”

“That was all back when things was different, when it was Gargas padre y nino. Hard-working farmers, nice acreage, good crop coming in, big melons, new cherry-red Ford pickup. And my novia, little brown Carmela. Full-blooded Yaqui Indian, beautiful women, those Yaquis, hoo, and Pop’s strong arms and knowledge of the ground to get us through. Never thought he’d die, he was tough like a dry mango with no juice, just meat, never thought he’d die. It was like he was preserved.”

“Three years ago the night the Ford pick-up turned over in that ditch with Dad and Carmelita in it. Three years ago I put ‘em in the ground, in the church-yard behind De Los Santos, Now I got nothing else to turn to. So what the hell I wake up ever morning with a head big as that damn empty blue falling sky? What’s your brand, amigo? Whatever is cheap, amigo. Here’s one: twelve pack for dollar ninety five. Looks good.”

“Look this shit. Got doors, beams, empty paint cans, rotting cloths, all pieces of a life gone. Goes to show what they say’s true, you can go on living after you’re dead. Living in stuff.”

He polished off his fourth beer. The gasoline hit him with an acerbic tang as he unscrewed the cap and sloshed it over the pile. This one going to go up good, he thought, and lit the match. He threw it on, watched the fire start to gnaw at the corner of the pile. “Definite one-matcher,” he thought, “know it just from watching the way it starts.”

The flame grew stronger. He pressed his face into the wall of mounting heat. His shirt stuck to his body, but the heat felt solid, on his skin, real. If it would make a difference, in that moment he would splash gasoline on himself, thrown on a match, if only it would burn away the bad memories, clear away all the faces of the neighbors looking at his sordid house and fields, pained, pity or scorn brimming in their yellowing eyes.

The mounting heat blasted his face, dried his eyes. He blinked at the intensity of it, eyelids scraping painfully—too close!—then backed off a few feet. Now the flames reached high as he was tall. The voice in his head said “good fire. He stared into the blaze and drained the Lite.

He rubbed his eyes. His drunk mind drifted. “Yeah, Eye Bank. Frank the Cop said it’s ‘Cause of the Devil’s Runway, just outside Ocotillo coming deep off the San Diego mountains out of Jacumba where the freeway takes them sharp curves. City folks go flying, off the freeway, pitch to death in the ravine. Cars go fender-deep in the scrub. Frank said Ocotillo cops keep a look-out to find ‘em while they’re fresh. Ever’ time they haul some dead guy in with the organ donor section filled in on the back of his license, Eye Bank kicks a donation the police way. So many eyes in the El Centro Eye Bank. Frank said it got so they had to ship blind people in from out of town to have the operation, otherwise they’d waste ‘em—eyes only stay fresh couple weeks.”

A shortage of blindness. Jorge chuckled. Only in the Valley.

Hell. Time for a beer.

Mario Gutierrez watched the clouds roll and slide in the sky. It wasn’t really going to rain, was it? He pictured the sheets of water falling, fantasy-like, from the swollen sky. Then he pictured Helena Vargas and himself walking in that rain, the wetness making their black hair twist and curl, her long braids whipping in the wind. In his vision his hand surrounding hers, protecting her. “Don’t worry, Helena, I won’t let the rain gods get you…”

  • Mario?!
  • Sorry Miss Shawnesee. I was just looking… it’s the clouds, they are…

Diana walked to the window slowly and looked out. She stared a long time. After a few moments, some other students stood and edged up behind her, trying to get a peek at the strange sight.

  • It’s a bit unusual isn’t it? she asked.
  • Will they close school? asked Mario.
  • They might, Mario.

Diana smirked. In New York City they occasionally closed school on account of bad weather. In fact, planners of school calendars added extra days to each year’s calendar, with the assumption schools would be shut two or three days per year due to heavy snow. But here, in the Valley, they actually closed school on account of rain! Ludicrous and wimpy, she thought. But if you thought about it, there was some sense behind it: A large number of roads in the area were unpaved. A good rainstorm could flood them out so thoroughly that no schoolbuses could traverse them. Hence there were rain days.

  • Do you know what makes rain clouds form? she asked her class, pointing at the dark sky.

Ignoring her question, they continued to gaze mutely out the window, eyes open with curiosity. Like children. “What the hell,” Diana sighed.

  • Look, Mrs. Shawnessee. Smoke!
  • No, that’s got to be fog, Mario. When warm moist air meets a mass of cold air…
  • No, it’s definitely a fire. No, over there. On the other side of Heber. Must be a big one.
  • Where?

Mario pointed the billowing plume out to his teacher. She put her hand above her eyes as a bolt of sun slipped from behind a cloud. Yes. There it was, enormous and black, rising up.

  • Isn’t that near where the gas refinery is?
  • It’s near there, answered Hector Carrerra. My dad works for them. If it gets too close…

Suddenly shocked from her reverie, Diana bolted out of the classroom, down the dark hall, two doors, three… There was Melcher’s room. She knocked, then stuck her head in before he answered. His classroom was empty. Free period.

  • Diana? asked David, in the middle of writing homework assignments on the board.
  • You get a beep yet?
  • No, why?
  • There’s a fire out by Comacho road. Near the gas refinery. You better get the volunteers out there.

Before she finished the sentence he was past her, running out the door. Diana’s kids, who had run out of the class with her, followed, trying to stay in single-file, like Mr. Melcher taught them to. Mario and Helena Vargas walked hand-in-hand, Helena looking at Mario proudly.

  • He spotted a big fire, she whispered to Evangelina Avila. He is a hero.

Paul Bering, Diana’s next-door neighbor, said he’d be glad to watch her class while she and David went out on the call.

  • But since when do you go on calls with the volunteers? Paul asked.

David stepped in quickly, putting an arm protectively around Diana’s shoulder.

  • She’s our first woman volunteer. Just joined the squad. It’s kinda like Affirmative Action. We’re all proud of her.

Diana nodded, officious, broke free of David’s hold and ran ahead, out the building, to his car.

  • Dios Mio! screamed Jorge Gargas.

He rushed back from the canal ditch with a leaky bucket full of water. The fire swallowed the water and hissed but kept growing, the flames crackling gleefully, as if they were laughing at him. The old farm house was going up now, its dry beams sucked into the ball of heat and light; soon it would spread to the casita and he would he legitimately homeless.

  • Dios mio! Dios mio!

He wept, helpless and lowered slowly to the ground. Facing the obtuse dark churning sky, he began to moan like a lost animal there on the grit, as what was left of his present and past was consumed. He rolled face down, rolled his arms around his head and wailed, louder now, for lost father, lost love, lost home. And dammit, swore the relentless voice in his head that condemned him for his sins even now, he also wailed for the unopened six-pack in the casita fridge he would never get to drink. Into his wail merged the sound of distant fire trucks, growing slowly louder.

As the two Imperial Valley Volunteer Fire Brigade units pulled into the dusty ditch-bank road, the first drops of rain began to fall. The firemen (and woman), as they unravelled their hoses and stoked their pumps and plugged their intake hose into the canal, turned their faces to the sky to receive the drops as they fell.

“It was amazing, as if God Himself was helping us put the fire out,” the Imperial Valley Press would quote Bill McKenna, one of the firemen, in tomorrow’s page-four feature about the fire.

The men hoisted the hoses and began to flood the blaze. Diana stood back. She didn’t know very much about putting out fires, but she did have a First Aid certification, so she decided to make a quick scan of the grounds, looking for injured. As she rounded the corner and went behind the ruined casita, she saw a crumpled man in soiled, greasy clothing. She ran to him, stood over him. He was not moving. As she bent over to take his shoulder, a wave of fear rolled up her arm. It was a memory, of Patrick Shawnessee, lying in a bed at St. Vincent’s Hospital, drawing long, last breaths, his hand moving up her arm…

  • You okay? You okay? she shouted.

She nudged his shoulder gently. He rolled onto his back and she saw his face. She stared for a long time.

  • You? she asked.

Jorge Gargas opened his eyes. Now it was his turn to stare.

  • You? he asked, eyes widening.
  • You okay?

He looked back at the burning house, as ripples of rain and streams of water from the hoses gradually did their work.

  • Yes, he said. I’m okay.

They stared at each other then. Did Diana or Jorge begin to laugh first? The rain fell in blinding sheets (which would quench the blaze in minutes). She helped him up, verified, he wasn’t injured. The rain on his face looked like tears. Suddenly, a tug of impulse—she grabbed Jorge’s hand and led them to a shock of oleander on the far side of the casita.

  • I don’t know how to say it. What I’m trying to do is apologize for what my friend said to you last night. It was really his fault. He had no right to treat you that way. He is a fool.

Jorge shrugged. He hadn’t even given her friend or the incident last night much thought.

  • It ain’t my business, he said. Yeah, he’s rude, your boyfriend. But it ain’t my concern. You got to live with that, not me.

Diana took his hand again, raising her voice for emphasis.

  • He is not my boyfriend. I have no boyfriend.
  • No? he asked.
  • No, she said.

Jorge looked into her eyes. Green eyes. He reached out and touched her hair. Red hair. Something about that, he was not sure what made him do it (no, Carmela’s eyes were brown as xochotl like mine, no, her hair was black as coal like mine), but still he shrugged, then shivered, as the cold rain penetrated his skin, and began to cry anyway, despite the iron in his stomach, into this strange gringita’s hair. His hands twisted helplessly at his sides as it all came out, all of it, lost in the rain.

Diana’s hand began at her side. It raised itself (no, get down) slowly, went up his arm, his shoulder, then coiled, serpentine, around his shoulder (please, I’m not ready!) to his back, flattened, pressed his sobbing body to her.

She thought of her father, turning to sand in a coffin three thousand miles away. Her hand thought of other things.

Jorge looked up. “Look that bastard,” he thought. “Wish I could do that.” The shadow of the crop-duster blew across his face. He recoiled as if struck. The shadow seemed to have substance, could reveal substance to him. The duster, oblivious to his musings, turned and began to spray its load of di-meth onto his newly-disced and planted fields.

He looked at the husks of his farmhouses, let his mind wander back to last week: the firemen finished killing the fire and put their tools away. They gave him the Red Cross phone number and drove off. He stood around, staring, kicking through ashes, blackened wood, glass. Two hours later, Diana came back in her beat-up Pinto. School’s closed for the rest of the day, she said, maybe tomorrow. Want to go have something to eat at El Pobrecito and talk? Sure.

They had an early dinner, carne asada y arroz amarilla, talked for hours over beer, coffee, more beer. Toward the end, she took his hand simply, matter-of-factly, and asked if he needed a place to stay. He nodded. Yes.

They went back in twilight with flashlights, dug through the remains of the casita, found all his clothing was burned beyond use. He told her, “don’t worry, Red Cross will give me money to buy a couple pairs of jeans and some shirts.” They left the house empty-handed, stopped to buy a six-pack of Bud tall-boys at the Circle K. Back at her house they sat by the pool, talking and laughing and sometimes crying together. Hours went by. The rain began to slow. Drunk, they swam naked, their bodies made ghostly by the smoky yellow light of the Holly Sugar refinery.

That was a beginning.

He kicked a clod of hardening mud. Now it would begin again. This time he had met a woman who understood about shadows, ghosts. She was haunted by the dead, like he was. It did not matter. This was about now and later, not the past. There would be a new little casita. It would be cheap to build, because they would hire laborers from Mexico to do most of the work. A little migrant family could rent it and tend the farm. Hard-working people. They’d be very happy to have a fridge, he’d stock it with food, install a shiny new washing machine. Seduced by aplliances, they’d work hard to keep the land going.

He thought of his new job. So I’m gonna be a janitor. Something I can do, pay be good. Then he thought about the house in El Centro Estates. A goddamn pool! Never thought I would get a place with a pool. And this beautiful woman with red hair to swim with.

He rubbed his hands over his new jeans, sighed. He looked up at the huge sky. It didn’t look to him like it would fall any time soon.

  • Diana! he called and waved to her as she walked up the puddle-strewn ditch-bank road.

She looked over at him, small brown man in blue in the distance. She thought, What the hell am I doing, am I actually shacking up with this guy? Getting stuck in this nowhere now. Just a breeze.

But in answer to her own confusion, she remembered what she saw the day of the fire last week. Jorge’s eyes were filled with mystery, pain, need’s intensity. She sighed. Is there any use trying to explain how hearts work? she asked herself. It’s not like air conditioning. You can’t send away for the schematics. It just works.

“And so what?” she thought, “if there are rumors of problems with the school board, fueled no doubt by a jealous Mr. David Melcher! If I want to shack up with a destitute ex-farmer-turned-janitor, that is my business, isn’t it? Is it still a free country?” A chill went through her as she asked that.

  • Forget them! she said aloud.

“This is what it’s all about. That’s why I am a teacher, Dad, not a goddamn arbitrageur eating power breakfasts. It’s no crime to bring some light into a dark world.”

“No,” she thought. “Tell the dead to shut up and go psychoanalyze themselves. But if the living want to talk some sense to me, they’re welcome to try. They can find me in my pool out back, getting a tan.”

Then she turned and walked the rest of the way to where Jorge waited, in his new jeans.

HutchExit vote inconclusive

Latest on the HutchExit referendum.

Polls are closed. At final count the HutchExit vote is still inconclusive, with 50% voting Leave and 50% voting Remain.

Here in Hutchinson Prime, capitol of the United Hutchinson Family, the situation remains tense.

Economic Changes Afoot?

The markets responded well on the national side, there was nary a blip amongst the investors who waited, probably on tenterhooks, or something like them, for the outcome.

Local markets however, fared less well. And may I say this is the only record in the history of the town of Langrod, of a person, at least a person who resides in the town of Langrod, doing such a thing as to become banned from said local market.

At least for a time.

So not all was well with the markets.

Political Ramifications of HutchExit

Of course the HutchExit vote affects more than just the united government. There is some rumbling that George-Farthing Hutchinson might have his own referendum, and that he favored Remain. If the union vote were Leave, it could break up the union.

On the other hand, Sarah-Dustly will vote Leave.

Well, it’s a phase.

We are continuing to monitor the situation and will update you all as the situation changes.

What is HutchExit

For the few just joining us: A certain person of the Hutchinson family – and you know who you are – was in a certain place. Doing a certain thing. which I, that is, which half the voters in the UHF were telling the other half not to do.

And it was done with a certain other person. I ask you to picture, half of the voting population of UHF has repeatedly told him, or them, or, that, let’s just say he, or rather this other noxious person, is a bad influence, and not just because of their, you know: His race.

Again, this is just the truthful way I feel and it’s personal. And true. And at this time people should be true, I’m just saying. You can’t argue with the truth, can you? Come on.

So this vote is a referendum, sort of, on the one-way nature of this relationship. Where half the pool of voters is being a saint, and the other half is being a crumb-assed monster-trucker. I just can’t say that word.

Thank you for reading the HutchExit: Leave blog.

the toolmaker

Written 1990
Revised 2002

In Esar they call on me whenever leatherwork is needed. The villagers are poor and pay with a dressed duck, a basket of apples, a cord of firewood. Our house is small. But I love the work. Consider me rich.

Yes, the guilds make offers.

  • Come, they say, supervise a room filled with craftsmen, where we make not one pair of boots, but one hundred.

They are persistent.

  • Come, they say, give thousands of boots your mark. Build your wife and daughter a big house.

But how much more there is in knowing every detail; to kill the animal, as I killed its mother before. Tan the hides, soften, cure them slow.

True, the young buy guild products, since the prices are a few dismes lower and the quality medium but consistent. I cannot stop progress. So most of my customers are aging with me. But they remain faithful. I have continued this way for forty years.

A good run.

This happened some time ago.  I was twenty-nine! At the time, an event of little consequence. A trip to town, to buy a small tool.

It started because of bad luck. Has bad luck ever followed you? Some days it destroys everything. Other days it is a friend.

I was working on edge pieces, tooling designs and crests into boot cuffs. Warm-up work, to precede serious tooling. Four-year old Leda’s first pair of dress boots waited on the table.

A fine detail needed a three-fourths inch awl. But the awl slipped, fell, struck the iron table-top and dropped to the floor. I bent to retrieve it. In pieces.

There are to this day no toolmakers in Esar. It was a half day’s journey by coach to Sed, our nearby city. But I needed a three-fourths awl and nothing else would do. I went in to prepare for the journey, pulled down the bag my mother gave me when I went away to study with my mentor, and put by food, water, a shirt, sandals for the heat.

There were three toolmakers in Sed. I had never been there. Father gave me tools when I first set up shop. But I knew eventually my craft would need the service of a toolmaker. So I kept a list of them handy.

I set out, boarded the mid-morning coach to Sed, en route ate some bread and dry cheese, looked through the coach window as the road bounced, coughing out clouds of dust. Eleven miles is a lot of dust. We reached Sed just past noon. The driver stopped near the first shop.

This was the district near the Gymnasium for children of wealthy parents. The tools were lined up on tables, makeshift. Cards under each tool, painstakingly lettered, stated its price.

I called for the owner.

He emerged; a fat man in his early thirties. Making boots, you become a good judge of age and weight. And his clothes: slept in; his pants: patched sloppily. But on his leather jacket, a beautifully-sketched ivy curled across the bottom. His hobby was leather.

His tools? I tested a mallet. It seemed suitable. But my test brads broke when tapped into a piece of wood. It had poor balance.

I handled the awl he proffered. It seemed fine, made precisely according to time-honored standards of awl-making. But working sample calfskin I’d brought, it proved unpredictable. An awl with no insight. The student followed the recipe but did not taste the spirit of the dish.

I bought a mallet for coarse work, and left, headed for the next shop on the list.

The second shop was in a wealthy part of town. All around, luxuries and pleasures were for sale: painted women and roving boys in dandy dress, wines, pungent cheeses, hallucinogenic mushrooms, tobacco. The townsfolk here were content and well-fed. But on the street, they jostled me without apology.

The toolmaker’s shop was in the fashionable plaza, next to a furrier’s.

Inside, the shop was dusky, ornate, with pillars of mahagony wood and carved putti; frescoes danced over the plaster ceiling with almonds, reds, blues. The first toolmaker kept his bellows, anvils, molds, and carving blocks on display, but this toolmaker had only decor. Ah. Less a toolmaker’s shop than a tool-broker’s. None of the implements of his trade were visible, not even a smelting pot.

First I asked the gentleman (for he was, if one judges by elegant clothing and foppish mien) where he kept his tool-making equipment. He gestured wordlessly to a curtain festooned with Persian embroidery hanging behind him.

Behind lay a small chamber. Three men, stood at bare-chested work. The first worked the bellows. The second tempered an iron bar in the smelter, yawned as he handled the carbon-caked tongs.

The third was bent over a work-table, a magnifying glass in hand. I moved in closer to observe. He carved a name into the handle of a tack puller—an ornate signature. He devoted to its formal perfection ten times more care than the others. I paid him brief compliment, then left the stuffy, hot antechamber and rejoined the tool-broker. The third workman’s labor had impressed me. I asked to sample a leather awl kit.

He was most courteous. From the glass case, he handed me a beautiful instrument with the same elegant signature on its handle. Admiring its lines and lovely markings, I asked the price. The answer was three times my budget. Yet the awl seemed perfect. Despite its high price, I was about to hand the money to the tool-broker when the curtain opened and the first workman entered the show-room, wiping his face with a soiled rag. There I stood with money in hand, poised to give it to the tool-broker, when I remembered that this first workman was the one who ran the bellows in the back.

I asked (casually) why he left his post at the bellows. Though I am no expert at making tools (else I would make my own) I know that in the tempering process, if rhythmic pressure is not applied to the bellows, the temperature changes unpredictably, the metal does not crystallize properly, and two years later will shatter at any pressure.

There was an awkward moment during which the tool-broker glared at the workman (most distastefully), the workman glared at me (most distastefully), and I admired the wonderful carvings and signature on the handle of the awl.

I did not touch the awl to my leather, merely handed the beautiful instrument back to the tool-broker, apologized, shut the string on the purse, and removed to the street. There was no doubt this seemingly perfect awl hid dozens of invisible flaws, any one of which could destroy it. Beautiful handles are pleasant to see and touch. I needed a superlative awl.

The last shop was on a back street. A long walk through the poor districts of Sed. There roamed the street cut-purses who would steal not only with money but also my good leather boots. Artists, if you can call thieves artists. I kept a hand to the grip of my hunting knife and carefully checked addresses. I was there.

Entering, I smelled something even stronger than the harsh sting of hardening brass. Sausages. They smelled spicy. And fresh. I scanned the selection of tools and inhaled the aroma. But there were no three-quarter inch awls in the counter display. Hammers, chisels, punches. Blocks for bolt-drivers and for planes also. No awls.

A bell-rope dangled above the counter, I pulled it. There was no sound, which was only confusing when the old man burst through the curtains anyway, with a chunk of dark bread in his claw, the end of a sausage sticking out of the bread. It was difficult to ignore the gurgling sounds of my stomach. I had not eaten since mid-morning.

I asked the man if he stocked any awls. He clutched his bread, appeared to be staring at my leather vest. I repeated the question, louder this time. He kept staring.

Ah, he was hard of hearing. I reached for his hand and touched it. Instantly he smiled and nodded. I took the broken awl from a pocket and showed it to him. There was no response. I waved it. Still he did not move his head or even blink. Was he blind, too?

I released his hand. Making ready to leave, it struck me—how could he detect the bell? I stood still, neither spoke nor moved. He could no longer know I was there.

The oddest shop. The old man paused, then turned his back, eating his sandwich. He had few teeth, so he was less biting than gnawing feverishly at the tough bread. Then I saw, attached to the bottom of his coat, the other end of the bell-rope. So that was it!

I left the shop.

Back on the filthy street, I found a street stand selling local fruit and dry beef. I sat at the curb, slowly chewing the jerky. How the name of God was I to find the awl? The highest quality kid-skins were saved for Leda’s boots. They had to be perfect. I needed a perfect 3/4 awl for the fine work required. It was inconceivable the trip eleven miles to the only large town in the district would be fruitless. The problem was unsolvable.

I tore into a ripe peach; it had a firm texture and a sublime balance of sweet and sour. Sitting there I came close to tears. If nature could make such a perfectly balanced creation, why was there no toolmaker with the same equilibrium? I took a second bite, then bitter, threw the peach to the ground.

For a few minutes I rested. After this long and frustrating day, what lay ahead was the trip home, empty-handed. I rose and began the hike back to the coach station.

I trudged five minutes or so. I was planning how to complete Leda’s boots without a three-quarter. Three toolmakers! Two not capable at their trade. The last one?

  • Ludicrous, I said.

At that exact moment, a leather-gloved hand grabbed my shoulder and jerked me back, nearly knocking me off my feet. I reached for the butt of the hunting knife, regained balance, and whirled about-face to meet the cut-purse. He would not get my money or my leather handiwork without a fight.

It was not a cut-purse. It was the blind, deaf, old toolmaker. With my peach in his hand.

  • A shame to toss one of nature’s most perfect creations into the street. Sure you don’t want it?

I could not respond. After a few more moments, he took a bite of it. He was obviously enjoying it. I remembered its taste. My mouth moistened. He bit the last chunk off, a drop of juice ran down the corner of his mouth. Licking his fingers, he put the pit into his pocket.

  • Can’t let this one get away. Too perfect. He patted his mouth with his sleeve.

I tried to speak. It was difficult.

He put his hands to my face. They were warm and had their own intelligence, it seemed, as they wandered lightly over cheek and chin.

  • Don’t bother speaking unless my hand is on your throat, like this. Unless I can feel your words, they won’t do either of us any good.
  • How did you follow me all this way?
  • Do you want to ask me stupid questions, or do you want to buy an awl?

He grabbed my hand, turned, and led me like a blind man back to his shop.

Neither of us spoke en route. Passers-by saw us; a thirty-year-old man dragged by a blind man through the slum, and trailed, it seemed, by the bell-rope, still attached to the back of his coat, dragging in the dust behind. I stepped over it three times, each time narrowly missing it.

Finally we arrived. He showed me to a stool. I sat; he sat himself down.

He took my hand and examined it with his sentient fingers, touched each callused part, pressed the fingers back to measure the strength of their grip, bent the wrist a few times, measuring its strength and speed. After a few minutes of scrutiny, he disappeared into his workroom.

No clock ticked. The light faded in the shop. Only a glow from under the workroom curtain. I saw his worn cloth boots under the curtain.

As it got dark, he paused from his work to come out into the shop and light its single lamp, also pulling down the shade in the front doorway. He returned to his work. This time he left the curtain open slightly. Through the opening I watched him work.

It was dim. Watching the old man, I could not intuit what he was doing. His blind eyes were closed and he had a piece of wood in his hands. Every once in a while he caressed the wood, made a mark in it with a tiny knife from his work-table.

It was late. The last coach would leave soon. It would leave without me. The next was mid-morning. My wife and daughter would miss me.

  • It’s getting cooler out. Please go into the trunk in the sleeping room and take out two blankets. Bring one to me, take one for yourself.

He went back to his wood. I brought the blanket. He grunted to thank me. I dropped to the chair and wrapped the coarse cloth tightly around me.

I am patient. A leather worker must be willing to sit tending a curing fire for seven hours to give a boot upper the right degree of seasoning, the perfect color, degree of wear, suppleness. But to watch a man hold a piece of wood two fingers across for hours… Restless, I again threw the blanket off, and stood.

The old man said nothing. Did nothing. I paced the shop, stopping occasionally to release an exasperated sigh. Which of course only I heard.

I begged the old man to finish, pleaded, reasoned, cajoled. He focused all his sightless attention on the piece of wood, as deaf as he. He didn’t speak, but seemed to be talking with it, making agreements, discussing philosophy, arguing politics. Anything but making it into an awl handle. Time passed, each new second a taunt.

I was half asleep when he broke from his trance and spoke. The words penetrated the stupor like a bell’s radiant clang.

  • Thanks. Now may I see one piece of your work, so I may see how you intend to use this tool?

Relieved, I removed one boot. I must admit, I had special pride in these boots, and had kept them for myself to wear. The fine tooling had taken a month to complete; they had worn without a crack or sag for five years, needing only one good soaping per month. They were a masterpiece.

He accepted the precious boot in silence, touched it for a brief time, probing it, then held it at arm’s length. After two minutes he was done, and laid it aside.

That stung. This blind man made such a fuss over a little piece of wood, but gave the most perfunctory once-over to an elegant piece of work, worthy of kings, which had taken all-told over two hundred hours of labor to produce (counting the curing.) Who was this fool? I grabbed the boot and thrust it back on.

  • Yes, and if he was a fool, am I not an absolute imbecile, watching him do nothing for hours, when I should be home with wife and daughter?

After some minutes, after working myself into a frenzy of self-recrimination, convinced I had to forget everything and leave the shop immediately. But how to do it without insulting the old toolmaker?

Then he moved. Quickly his hands guided the knife into the block. Within three minutes it was a finished handle. Why had he taken so long? I was hot with anger and impatience, felt the rising sun through the window shine red. Stormy today. I held myself in check. Despite the absurdity of the situation, I still wanted the awl. At least the handle was finished.

The old man rose and approached me calmly.

  • Now I want to ask you a question or two, he said, reaching warm hand to throat.
  • Ask away, I said.
  • You love your trade passionately, don’t you?

After a pause, I answered.

  • Yes, certainly.
  • Of course I love the trade! said the inner voice. If I didn’t love it, I would have bought the first awl at the first shop and right now would be home in bed asleep!
  • I have another question.

Another pause.

  • Go ahead, ask, I replied, impatience leaking through.
  • You have a lot of pride attached to your work. Is that correct?

This time I was silent for a minute or two. The old man waited. Finally I spoke.

  • I suppose I do, sir.

He didn’t answer, only nodded.

  • Why that question? I asked him.

The toolmaker answered immediately, matter-of-factly.

  • When a tradesman has no pride attached to his work, he treats his tools as his friends, his working companions. His work is joyous, and is of himself and God. He gives credit equally to his tools and to God as to himself when he does superlative work.

I shifted in the chair.

  • But when a tradesman has pride invested, sewn into his work, then he places much weight on his tools. They are not his friends. They are his servants, his slaves. He is hard on them, beats them when they do not perform according to his desires. Thus his tools will live a shorter life and must be of a thickness which will withstand a severe beating. This subtracts from their delicacy and decreases the fineness of the work which they are capable of performing.

I tensed my neck to speak, but stopped.

  • That is why I ask. Pride is an emotion very important to one who makes tools.

What could be said? Never had I heard such words. They hurt deeply. They were all true. The broken awl had taken many an angry beating. Even the delicate work on the masterpiece, my “pride,” had suffered because of that. I looked down at the boots, then up at the toolmaker’s face, into the eyes that did not see.

He removed his hand and rose, no doubt to return to his workroom to finish the awl. I pushed his shoulder,placed his hand back on my throat.

  • Wait.

The toolmaker stared at me through broken eyes.

  • You were right. I have been prideful of this work, and impatient with yours. I am a disgrace to the dignity of the trade. I am sorry.
  • Please, said the toolmaker, there is no need…
  • I swear all that will change beginning with this moment. I have seen how much this attitude costs me, costs the quality of my work. I can no longer let this happen. I swear to you.

He shook his head.

  • There is no need for this. Any tradesman with integrity abandons such things when they no longer serve him. It is to be expected. What is more, friend, I am sure you are already far more critical of yourself than you need be.

He smiled.

  • No, one does not need to examine excellent workmanship for long to recognize it. Your boots, obviously your finest work, are flawless and quite beautiful. As one man of integrity speaking to another, I admire your work.

He paused. I waited.

  • It is much easier to give unexpected praise. It seems like a real gift then. Too many give praise for nothing, or withhold it when it would simplify things.

Simplify things. I understood. Many times had I accepted praise. Every time I thought it something earned, for deeds, for plying a trade. Praise was salary. Now I understood a new use, a better use, for praise.

He rose and went to check on the temperature of the metal in his smelter. Pulling tongs from his kit he extracted an awl bit, white-hot. With a few motions, during which I and every insect in the room shared his focus, he finished shaping it, stroked it with the tongs, and plunged it sizzling into the bucket.

Throughout the operation, his manner was paradoxical. He was totally focused on the bit, but worked in such a casual way a person might mistakenly believe he was thinking of something else. He touched the metal with the confidence of a man who could coax incredible feats from it, yet his touch remained light, as if he were handling hot metal for the first time. He rolled it up and pulled it to a point so quickly that I gasped as at the final stroke in a bullfight.

It was done. The toolmaker laid the awl on an oilcloth, wrapped it three times around, carried it to the counter. Then he sat.

I glanced at the little parcel once, then at him, greeted his eyes. They saw nothing, but gave off the same red light as the rising sun had. Twice, three times, I alternated glances between the parcel and his face.

  • Open it, please.

I uncoiled the oilcloth; three, two one. There was my tool. No mistaking it.

  • Will it do? he asked.

I lifted it, balanced it in right hand. It was light, but the sharpness of its point bespoke heaviness. I searched for the fragment of kidskin, found it, laid it on the counter.

When I touched the awl to the skin, the leather drew it in. A few scratches. A design emerged. It came from the leather’s own distinctive natural patterns; from the tool; from me. In moments, we three created something.

The man watched. When he felt I was done, he came to me and put hand to throat.

  • It is done!
  • Good, was all he said.
  • But there is no signature. A fine piece of work such as this must credit the skilled hands of its maker. Will you sign it?

He smiled, shifting his weight on the stool.

  • No. There is no need. I made the awl for you. Now it has been born, I have no hold on it.

I looked at it one more time, then re-wrapped it in the cloth.

  • Here, I said, keep this kidskin. I have not put my name to it, either.

Wrought into the leather were mountains, a sunrise red as fire, a stream, and the lights of the village Esar. He accepted the gift, running his hands over the leather lightly, reverently, then he nodded.

  • Thank you, he said, it is a beautiful sketch.

I looked into his eyes one more time, knowing I would have to hurry to catch the mid-morning coach back to shop, wife, and daughter.

  • How much do I owe you?
  • Seventeen pesos, please.

I paid him. A very reasonable price for any superlative awl.

  • I will tell the others of the village of your skill in making tools. There are other toolmakers in Sed, but none whose tools are of this quality.

He thanked me again. I bade farewell.

Plans for Leda’s boots were turning in mind. Walking through the slums back to the coach station, I passed a beggar. He put a hand out. I glanced down. His feet were bare.

I reached into the sack and took out the leather sandals. Today would be too hot for boots. I doffed the boots, placed them on the ground in front of the beggar.

In the light sandals, I suddenly felt light, very light. And I flew home, the leather wings on my sandals catching the light of the sun and shining.

the last days of paradise

Written 1990
Revised 2002
Adapted into a play: The Last Days of Paradise 2002

New York Times, Tuesday, March 27, 1990, page 1:
The man who the police say has admitted starting the fire that killed 87 people in a Bronx social club Sunday morning was described as a Cuban Army deserter and street hustler who lost both his job and his girlfriend in recent weeks. The suspect, 36-year-old Julio Gonzalez, was said to have told the Government he had feigned a record of drug-trafficking in Cuba to win expulsion to the United States in the Mariel boatlift of 1980. Since then, he had given the authorities no reason to pay him any attention, apparently living in a 10-by-10 rented room devoid of any ornament but for a picture of Jesus. Yesterday, Mr. Gonzalez was arraigned on 87 counts of murder in the largest mass-murder case in New York City history. The authorities said he had admitted setting the fire in revenge after arguing with a former girl-friend who worked at the club. And a neighborhood woman who said she knew the couple said they had recently broken up after living together for eight years. Mr. Gonzalez, she said, wanted to get back together. As a picture of Mr. Gonzalez and his movements last weekend began to emerge, Mayor David N. Dinkins announced a series of new measures to expose and close unlicensed social clubs, which he said represented a menace to neighborhoods throughout the city.

  • You have questions? You’re a reporter, right?
  • Yes. Just free-lance, really.
  • And you want to know about Paradise?
  • That’s the story they’re paying me to do.
  • All right. The facts. That’s what you want. About how it started, ended. Like that?
  • That’s right.
  • I can do that. I can try to be objective for you. Even though I was there. Reporters are supposed to be objective, right?
  • Yes, sure. Are you ready?
  • Yes.
  • Let’s get started.

Okay. It started when the man with the box under his arm, who called himself “assistant inspector of permits,” said we might have to close down Paradise. I asked him to explain. He was all explanations. He said we had no license and with no license we didn’t have no right to operate a club inside the boundaries of New York City.

“And that’s that, lady,” he added, shaking the box so I heard a thump coming from inside it.

I tried to help him get his mind clear: I told him that Paradise is not in the bounds of New York City nor is it in the bounds of any region on this planet.

But he made a snorting sound, I think he was actually laughing at me when he said, “of course it is, lady, and you have five days to apply for a permit or I will personally make sure the City of New York comes and closes down your club.”

As the man with the box (it was a tan box) was turning to leave, with a sourfaced look, I asked him why close down Paradise.

“We’re cracking down. It’s because of what happened in the Bronx,” he said, “87 people died. You know about that?” I did. He said, “It was a bad thing. You should know better than to operate a club with no license. It’s dangerous.”

I asked, “What, a piece of paper makes it safe?” and he snorted, “of course it does, don’t you know anything?”

Then he turned to leave again. I called out to him, “what do you have in the box?” He said over his shoulder, “Roller skates.” He was gone before I could ask him why roller skates.

  • Is this right? News stories are supposed to be objective. Do you need it to be more objective?
  • Whatever you want.
  • It’s no problem. I’d like to be even more objective. I bet it makes things easier to tell. Makes them hurt less.
  • Fine.

Okay. So Elan sat on a table and thought about a permit. She knew it would never happen. Paradise was for the Apart. None of them ever had enough money together to pay for a permit. Otherwise, how could they be the Apart? Even if they got the bread, the clerk people would find some way to beat us out of the permit. Elan knew it was hopeless.

  • My name is Elan. That is me. I’m describing it so you can write it down. Objective. Like I was a reporter. Do you like the way I’m doing it?
  • It’s fine.

So Elan was thinking she would have to close Paradise. She didn’t know what to do, it was sinister is what she thought it was. Why?

Paradise was for the Apart. Where else could they go? Not bars. Most of them couldn’t afford bars or didn’t like to drink. Or else, even if they could afford bars, they wouldn’t get let into one. It’s the way they look, with pins and medallions and tattoos and hair and skin nobody who owns a bar wants to see. It looks dangerous. Especially to people who own bars. People who own bars are afraid of dangerous people. Why is that? If you’re scared of danger, why open a bar, which attracts dangerous people, in the first place? Why not open a Petland or a newsstand? Why a bar? Stupid.

People will miss Paradise.

Elan pictured them all when they saw the label across the jamb on the two front doors, pictured them shaking the doors which wouldn’t open ever again, and leaving their tears there on the stoop.

Some people will miss Paradise.

It was a kind of heaven on earth for the Apart, who have no right to expect a heaven anywhere. We don’t believe in it anywhere, don’t think about it much and if we do believe in one we know for dead fact we’re not going to get into it. We’re used to it. Similar to the bars, the owner of heaven won’t let us in either.

We look too dangerous.

Some people will miss Paradise. Now that it’s gone.

  • It sure is quiet in here. You okay?
  • I’m fine.
  • Hey, get comfortable. Pull up a table. I don’t know what happened to the chairs. I don’t think they burned up. Well it’s a poor neighborhood. Probably some broke family’s got them now, though what they’re going to do with forty-five chairs, you got me. Sit down. It’s a long story. It’ll take a few minutes to get to it. I’d offer you some beer or coffee. But you can see the shape the kitchen is in.
  • It’s okay. I don’t need anything. You can continue.

Where were we? They stuck a label. On the doors. Elan was inside Paradise. She heard someone cutting through the label. It was Delivery, with his lady, Cinder. He cut through it with his packing knife. They called him Delivery because that’s what he always did, delivered. He started out working for a messenger service here in Manhattan and then the shakes got him and he messed up a job and they fired him. It kept happening the same way. Believe it or not in six years he finally managed to go through every messenger company in the City so now he does it free-lance. That’s why he carries the packing knife. He never knows when he’ll get work.

  • What does he deliver?
  • I don’t know. There are lots of things people can deliver. Use your imagination. God, you ask a lot of questions. Does it make you feel safer?
  • Never mind. Listen, I’ve got to go soon, so…
  • Sure. I’ll go on.

Delivery cut through the label the man with the box stuck to the door. Elan was inside, on a table with this dirty rag dangling from the hip pocket of her jeans, crying, all alone. So they came in. Delivery asked, “what’s wrong Elan? Why is there a label across the door?”Elan said, “It’s going away.”

“What?” asked Cinder.

“This,” said Elan, and waved her hand slowly at the walls of Paradise, waved it like this, across the mural of Red Penguins smoking a joint on the South wall and the Sex Pistols posters on the East wall and the original mosaic by that guy who did those lamp-post mosaics all over Astor Place with bits of Coke bottle and tile and pretty shards of varicolored glass in patterns like mandalas on the West wall.

  • What about the North wall?
  • I had a feeling you would ask that question, so I kind of set you up. You like things to come in neat sets, so you can think there’s some order to them. But there’s no order.
  • The North Wall…

Okay, the North wall was white. They kept it painted. When The Fish brought in her 16mm projector she showed films, made in her studios in New Jersey, on the white wall.

The Fish made films that showed ordinary things, but the films had this atmosphere, this quality, that made you really see the things, transformed them, made them unordinary. For example, there was one that showed a big group of men urinating on a wall in SoHo, one-by-one, for sixty-three minutes. In one part of the film, a guy in a suit walks by, sees the man peeing against a wall and the camera catching it. He zips his fly down and stands next to the peeing man, and pees too. In another, shot in Armonk, New York, a paper-boy throws newspapers at one suburban stoop after another and he talks about the Zen of hitting the stoops, how to make it look ordinary but not miss the stoops. Another film shows a woman brushing her hair sitting on a counter in a public bathroom, for forty-two minutes. When she’s done, it’s shiny and smooth, and the camera massages it lovingly. The Fish shot that film at Paradise.

Some people walked out when The Fish came and set up her projector. They knew what was coming. Others stayed on to see her films but left part-way through. Still others, like Elan, Delivery, Cinder, Pale, and many others, stayed because they saw something in those films. They saw themselves, the mutants, the Apart. They loved The Fish for that. And she loved them.

The Fish was making a film all about them, about Paradise and the Apart, as we were. Now the film won’t get done. But it could have been good.

  • Let’s skip to how Paradise got started.

How did it start? How does anything get started? It began as a squat. Delivery knows the whole story. Elan didn’t start it. There was an abandoned building with this great big basement, as you can see. I don’t know who owns the building. If there is an owner, he probably doesn’t even know he owns it. Because Paradise was here for seven years and nobody said a word.

What did they used to do? Lots of things. There were people in and out of there. Some bikers. Some freaks. Some wise men. Some shamans. One guy who sold ice cream. Mister Softee. Everywhere he went smelled like vanilla. It smells good the first time he passes by you. Elan slept with him once. She liked the smell. He got sticky stuff all over the bed. She asked him if he liked ice cream. He said, he used to.
They did have music. There was a band called Skunkweed. They had a Grateful Dead sound. It was pretty good. And this guy who used to be part of Country Joe And The Fish. No relation to The Fish. He had a band called Reef Madness. They had a different sound.

That’s what they did there, listened to music and talked. What you would expect to happen in a club? It wasn’t a front for drug dealers. There were no drug dealers among the Apart. Dealing drugs is too much like a job. Besides, they wouldn’t know what to do with all that bread once they made it. None of them ever made that much money.

Sometimes local artists with no bread walked into Paradise off the street. They approach Elan and ask her if they could do their act, whatever. People always treated Elan like the boss, but there was really no boss. She always let them stand up and do their act. We would pass the hat. Sometimes the Apart gave them enough for dinner or a room in a roach motel near St. Mark’s. The Apart never have a lot of bread, but when they see another Apart, they shared. It was good. There are lots of other stories like that, but they start to sound the same.

  • What about that night…

Right. That night. It wasn’t like Happy Land in the Bronx. It wasn’t an accident. It was an on-purpose. Have you read Of Mice and Men? That’s right, it was a film, too, an old film, I saw it. With Burgess Meredith. He was good in that, then he got all wrinkled and did the Rocky films.

You remember the story? It’s by John Steinbeck. In one scene an old man has a dog. It’s old, senile, smells bad, keeps messing up. His friends get tired of looking at it because they think it’s suffering; they take it out and shoot it. The old man gets very upset. He thought he should shoot it himself. Because it was his dog.

That’s what happened to Paradise. It was old and beat-up; some people thought it was ugly. But it belonged to the Apart.

That night they all gathered there, after Delivery got the label off the door. Lots of the Apart showed up from all over the City. They heard about the label. They called a meeting here about what they should do. I don’t remember who came up with the idea first. But I want it to be very clear in the story you write that it was everybody’s idea. There were no victims. You got that?

People rummaged around. Somebody came up with a can of kerosene. Cinder had a lot of matches, she likes fire, that’s why she’s called Cinder, got it? She gave the matches around; everybody took one. There were about a hundred people. One by one they threw the matches through the door. They all did it together, is that clear? Then they stood around and sang sad songs. It was like the day John Lennon died, when a bunch of the Apart went up to the Dakota—that’s the hotel where he lived and got shot in front of—to sing. Just like on that night ten years ago, they sang “Imagine,” and some other songs, while they watched Paradise burn.

After a while people started to leave. They walked slowly, Delivery, Cinder and Elan. When they got back a block, they looked. There were still people standing around singing and crying, but the crowd was starting to break up because it was arson and nobody wanted to get caught. The fire was yellow. Elan wondered if the murals would burn off the walls. If you look around you can see now what happened to them.

They walked another block and looked. They could still see the fire.

They walked back until they were ten blocks away. They couldn’t see the flames but they could still see the smoke; like a big column holding up heaven.

They walked back until they were twenty blocks away. The column of smoke was thinner, but they could still see.

Then they were right by the Franklin Street number one subway stop. Cinder had an idea then. The three of them got on the train and went to Brooklyn Heights, then walked to Carroll Gardens, where Delivery and Cinder had their apartment. Delivery went upstairs to get a joint and a bottle of Astor Place White Zin that was in the refrig. Cinder and Elan stood outside in front.

“Can you see it from here?” Elan asked.

“You can see Manhattan. It’s that way,” Cinder answered, pointing.

They scanned the glowing skyline toward where Paradise was. But they couldn’t see the smoke or the fire. They drank the wine and smoked the joint. It was very quiet the rest of the night. Elan went back to Manhattan around four. The subway was like a tomb. She could hear the train coming, four stops.

  • I’m out. Nothing more to tell. Better get to your appointment or whatever.
  • Okay, thanks. Bye.
  • Yeah. Bye.

  • Hi.
  • Hi. It’s you. I didn’t think you’d come back. Don’t you have enough material for your story already?
  • Yeah. It’s coming out Tuesday. Just came by to see how you were doing. It’s good to see you.
  • Hell. It’s good to see you again, too. You growing a beard? I like it.
  • Thanks. Want one?
  • Viceroys? Love one. Thanks. Me? Doing? I don’t know. I keep thinking I left something of mine here, that’s why I’m here. I come back and search around, sort through things. I know I should get a job, right? Temping or something. Did I tell you I know word processing?
  • Oh, that’s good.
  • No it’s not, it sucks.
  • I meant the money can be good.
  • I suppose. Hey, guess what? There is more to the story after all.
  • Okay. Let me get my tape recorder. It’s in the bag here. We can do a follow-up thing, maybe.
  • Ready?
  • Yeah.

The man with the box came back this morning. He had the piece of paper in his hand and two cops. One of them was eating an Egg McMuffin. They stood back and talked while the man with the box came up.
He walked around the outside for a minute or two. Elan could see him through the wall, there, where it’s broken. Then he stuck his head in the doorway and saw her.

“What happened?” he asked.

“A fire.”

“What do you think it was? Arson?”

“I don’t know anyone named Arson,” answered Elan.

“Well, couldn’t have been the guy from the Bronx. He’s in jail.”

“Nope. Look, if you’re here to close it down you obviously don’t have to bother, so you can go back to City

Hall or Gracie Mansion or wherever.”

He looked sad. He sighed and unfolded the paper and read it to himself.

“I really don’t like doing this you know,” he said.

“You’re breaking my heart,” answered Elan.

“I just do this to pay the rent. The pay is good. I didn’t realize how hard it was. I’m not a bad man. I used to want to be a musician,” he said.

“Well you’re just the man with the box now,” answered Elan.

He squirreled up his eyes.

“‘The box?’ What do you mean, ‘the box?’”

Then it flashed across his face.

“Oh yeah! That’s right! Last time I came I had a box.”

“What were they for? The roller skates,” she asked him.

He looked sad.

“For my daughter,” he said. From the way he said it Elan knew it was a daughter that he had lost.

“My wife and I are divorced,” he added, because Elan looked so sympathetic. “Three months ago. My daughter is five. Just started kindergarten.”

Elan looked up at the man slowly. She reached to him and took him in her arms. She didn’t know what else to do. It seemed like the right thing. He hugged her tight. The paper crunched against her back.

They cried for a long time. Elan looked over the man’s shoulder and saw the two cops, standing by the kerb. They were still talking. They weren’t paying any attention. The one with the sandwich finished it and threw the paper on the street. After a few minutes the cops and the man left.

  • That’s really all there is to tell.


Written 1976
Published: HIKA 1977
Revisions 1994, 2002


It hit him again as he took the box of cornflakes off the shelf. With a cry he jumped off the stepstool and raced out of the kitchen. Halfway to the den, just past the living room, it struck a third time.

He was there.

But the feeling sensed the pen was in his hand. It flew quickly, fearfully away.

There was a sullen expression on his face as he returned to the kitchen where his cornflakes awaited him.

The cornflakes box promised him a miniature model of the Lusitania if he sent in three boxtops and two dollars. Made of one hundred percent high-quality plastic. Red plastic. He turned the box around. Gaudy advertisements. He read them and smiled. He had read them before, in the store, before he bought the cereal. The company put a picture of a boy on the front of the box. The boy was fishing and smiling in the picture. He smiled when he looked at the box.

They crunch in your mouth. But then they get soggy. Yech. A mouthful of sugar at the end. You spit it out.

Too much sugar is no good for you.

As the toothbrush shoonshed over his teeth, he looked in the mirror. Dark circles under his eyes, hair in disarray, needs a shave. White foam in mouth. Foam looks like ocean foam, spewed out hundreds of times daily, with tides ebbing, every day the same.

It hit the fourth time and he swallowed a little. He felt it going down, but he was already at the desk, scribbling funny marks on a page. Wiping a blob of ocean foam off, when it dropped on.

  • What are you doing?

He spluttered on the page.

  • Are you writing again?

He swallowed three dixie cups of water. It was cold and fell down on his cornflakes, chilled his stomach.

  • It’s five o’clock in the morning, for Chrissake!

Into the kitchen, put the bowl into the dishwasher. Clean up the mess before she sees it.

  • Look at this kitchen!

Too late.


  • Honey—

Mumble. You don’t know why. Just mumble.

He scratched his stomach and burped loudly. “Like a frog,” they used to say in school. He was the living national treasure of the second grade class a long time ago. He could burp real loud. They even got him to do it in Emily Markowitt’s face, just for spite. He was a standup guy. He did it.

Like a frog.

  • Honey—

With a death grip on his kleenex, he blew his nose. Threw the kleenex away, into the trashcan. Garbage. Maybe the whole world will be covered with garbage.

  • Honey, answer me…

She was coming into the room. He heard the thunkbathunk of her spike heels on the linoleum. Then the sound became muted, turning to thudbathud. She was on the carpet. It came closer.

She was in the doorway behind him!

  • Honey, hurry up. We should be at the Pirelli’s by seven-thirty.


  • We’ll miss the crudite.

Pants pulled on the usual way. Shirt slipped into. Tie tied.

Wash the nasty bacteria off your face. Swish. Shoonsh. Shoonsh. Now you’re clean.



  • I said, do you believe in God?

Why? Why do you want to know?

  • I was just interested, that’s all.

The man in the brown suit with the blonde hair and a bloody mary in his hand turned on his heel and started a conversation with a passing redhead in a yellow suit holding a mint julep. The two walked away.

He ran his hand through his brown hair, threw his eyes wifeward. She was in the midst of a crowd of people, discussing the availability of summer tickets to the People’s Republic of China. She was a travel agent.

Find a chair. Legs feel like rubber.

He heard a karunch as he sat down. He stood up and brushed the potato chips off the seat of his pants. He looked around. No one had seen him.

Get up, get up.

He was outside in the cold. His teeth chattered, the stars twinkled in rhythm. His legs, his feet beat the concrete out of rhythm. Syncopated.

He looked down at his feet.

How ridiculous they look. Two things I call feet. Pretty flimsy looking. Perhaps I’ll topple.

He walked toward the corner, doubts notwithstanding.

There was a traffic light, green, waiting for a car to come. It turned yellow, red. He stood, watching.

Now it’s green again.
Doesn’t it care
no one’s there to see it change?

He breathed a goodbye to the traffic light. The words turned into wispy smoke and rose. He watched as they rose, vanished in the air.

The stars were there, beating.

Why are they there? he asked himself.

Maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re dead, all dead, just little bits of beating light.

Now a pattern of blue and red, pulsing across the little beating dots. A plane, carrying people to Fort Lauderdale for the winter.

His back fell against the lamp-post, cold lamp-post. The cold went through his silk shirt, on into his back.

Across the street, a man carrying groceries out of the Associated Supermarket, his cane making steady toktok noises on the concrete.

Now a blue convertible sails toward the red light, stops. The driver of the convertible and the man with the cane speak to each other, a few quick words, then the man opens the rear door and sits down, closing the door as the light turns green and the convertible slides into the night, swallowed whole, leaving only the wisps of breath, rising and fading.

He smiled. The cold lamp-post had numbed his back.

This is the place.

He reached into his right rear trouser pocket, removed a piece of paper. Without reading it, without looking at it, he walked over to the cracked concrete wall, slipped the paper into a crack.

He turned his head to the right, then the left. No one had seen him.

He turned his heel, his ridiculous fragile feet walked so syncopated back to the Pirelli’s house. Once there, he looked in the window, warm people standing sipping Bloody Marys and Mint Juleps.

Perhaps no one finds it. It will stay in the wall forever, the rain will sog it and blur the ink.

Perhaps someone finds it.


On the corner of Mace Avenue and Eastchester Road, imbedded in the concrete, I found a piece of paper. On it were these words:


bridge, or berkeley’s monologue

Written 1980
Additional edits: 1987, 1996, 2009
Adapted into a play (A New Theory of Vision) 2009.

Who said, “who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?”

These words gnaw at the mind. I search through anthology after anthology. The mind wanders. Worries. To whom do I speak (when speaking)? Can I remember the next word long enough to say it? Is there continuity? Do others, looking deeply into my eyes (or avoiding them) perceive these thoughts about me, and them?

She, for example. Her eyes are green. And a vermilion scarf. Contrasts are so appealing to the mind. Why does she play with her smile like that? As if she cannot commit to it. Should I interrupt myself to tell her indecision is an all-consuming acid that leaves no trace when done?

Reality check: It’s still a restaurant. As always, I am speaking. What am I talking about? I can’t hear the words. The mind dwells on these irrelevancies as I talk to both of them. Do they like me? I can’t tell. The other one is quite attractive. Is the reason for remembering who said beauty passes like a… why can’t I remember? Too late. The talk has drifted. Can’t bring it back up. It would be a rude non-sequitur. What if it were introduced as a metaphor? Metaphors are non-sequiturs. These two ladies are artists. Artists work metaphorically. They would understand, right?

Most people cannot connect even the most obvious metaphor to reality. You have to be sensitive. Most people are not. It takes years to receive culture. It doesn’t come naturally. I remember for example how much I hated “modern” art when I first saw paintings by Klee and Kandinsky. Is it worth it? Doesn’t it taint you somehow? To appreciate anything artistic, one must be trained. For example, the dress and manners of audience and actors at a play would seem absurd to an outsider untrained in our conventions. They might watch the audience instead of the players or jump up as curtain closes and rush back, to see what mysteries are being hidden.

That melody. Radio. “Music increases pleasure in food and company.” That melody. It has been playing in the mind all day. It sounds like something—what? Someone.

Am I still talking? Will I never shut up and give them a chance? Look. They look bored. They can even tell my mind isn’t on what I’m saying.

I wish they would turn down the music in here. What makes a mem… uh… melody haunt you? Three notes. Sounds like whistling. There.

Jane… Dunley? Why her? A restaurant? No. A rust-red couch, stained green carpet, chrome metal legs, fake walnut table-top, scratched; long candles that stank of paraffin, dry roses in a vase, cracked. And yes. That melody. Three notes. A song from the 1920s. The words,

“... What is the emptiness?
 The sound of breaking glass.
 The ring of the telephone.
 When you are gone and I’m alone?”

No, no, no. Those aren’t them.

Did we finish dinner? The plates stained with gravy. Clear, brown. Smell of blood. Dry roses. Nubs of gray-yellow corn, cold carrots, bottle of chartreuse, drained, champagne bottle, empty. I certainly didn’t pay for all that. It’s all made up, it’s from a film. Resnais, Alain. Did the melody play when she wanted to go see the house?

I shut up! About time; must have been an hour nonstop. Did I bore them? No. She talks, green eyes flash—at me? Can’t tell yet. Very slight pause. They still think I am okay. Nobody suspects anything yet. The melody is ending. Must remember the name of that song.

The house dried in the sun, blocks squatting, sullen, on the trestle. What a place to build a house, on a railroad bridge, where the engines pass underneath, rocking bricks, shaking grass blades; every fifteen minutes an earthquake. Why does the sun always show brown shadows on that sandy grey stone? Even in direct light there are shadows—a property of the stone?

We walked up to the house. Were we holding hands? Was it late afternoon? We just ate dinner—had to be past eight. The sun was never so direct, even summer, not at eight. Either we hadn’t eaten yet else I don’t recall the light properly. We weaved drunkenly. I swallowed a belch… sour champagne. Jane unhinged the gate. It creaked, we crept past; two tipsy burglars. Her hand sweated. A woman told me once that women can’t pretend they love a man when they don’t, but men can pretend. Her hand in mine was a convention. Or maybe just the cold and I forgot my gloves.

The back garden showed twisted brown remains, corpses of vegetables. Beets, rhubarb, gooseberries, one twined round the other in waist-high weed stalks. A once-garden, a matted oblique triangle sliced by the trestle wall. I detached my hand from hers and walked to the wall. Grey-brown shadow stone. The top was eye-level. Set in the top, jagged pieces of bottle glass, dropped in the cement. Impotent now, the wind had dulled the glass’s edges. But who would climb the trestle wall and risk a forty-foot drop to the tracks?

What is she talking about? Did I start this inanity? How could I allow myself to be a catalyst for such a conversation of mindless gurgles. Yes, she sounds like, water, gurgling.

There was no water. The well was dry. The hole was dug at the end of the trestle support. How could it have ever supplied water? But there it was.

Jane wandered by the house, touched the walls, must have been slightly warm. As if she remembered them.

How many times have I passed that house, before and since? It is always the same. The house wrapped itself in the shadowy vibrations of people who jilted it twenty-three years ago. Jane must have told me how long ago it was. She never said if she knew the people. Once somone had laid fresh tan stones, milky wet mortar, onto earth. Now it was shrunk, hardened by the sun, petrified.

From the black windows emanated concentric circles, like puddle ripples, like screams. What jagged bits of glass remained crammed into their frames bit the sunlight into oily reflections, like screams. But not of outrage—the obvious scream for a defiled being. No; screams for pity. The earth was done with its digestion. Yet the house screamed. Even casual pedestrians I’ve known say the house makes your ears ring.

There were no empty tins or candy-wrappers in the back garden. The only litter was dead plants, a single Newcastle Brown bottle. The label clung in fragments. Silt had collected inside. It seemed to belong. I left it. Jane ran her fingers along the edges of broken glass stuck in the window frame. Dry weeds rustled as I walked toward the stony skeleton. It was dark in the house, and stank—probably rats. The new tenants were less than friendly.

Why did Jane last so long? She was never interested. The few occasions of physical exchange rarely transcended commerce. Reaching for her hand as it ran along the edge of the glass, I must have pressed too hard—she cried out, yanked the hand away. In a few seconds, a tiny trickle of blood began. She never met my eyes; I knew what they contained. She did not take my offered hand, put the bleeding finger to her mouth.

But how beautiful the house looked in its decay, how dark and inviting! I closed the creaking gate. It rang like an instrument, three notes of a melody. Was I ever really that young student? The house receded, passed out of sight as we climbed Pennsylvania Hill, the pavement had a few cracks and puddle spots. I looked up. Jane sucked the finger.

How long has it been silent? I must apologize. The mind was drifting. Fatigue, three glasses of wine. Rotten grape juice. Where was…? Was that the discussion? It is late; there are appointments tomorrow. I should tell them, but I’ve been rude enough. That other one… Her breasts are like stippled oranges under that jumper. Is she involved?

I asked Jane once why she hated sex. She said she couldn’t feel lust. I wondered why, feared to know. No, it must have been her uptight English upbringing.

I want to yawn, but should hold it in. She’s in mid-sentence. Glad she still feels comfortable enough to continue this conversation. How long have the two of them known each other? I can’t tell things like that until people tell me.

In Jane’s room it was only me, pressing lips to lips, wrapping tongue to gums, teeth that undulated between hot and cool. I dominated her and felt used. Eventually I left. Two years since I phoned her? I must have said ‘I love you.’ How many times has that been said? It’s easy to say. What did the woman say again, about men? She couldn’t be right. My eyelids are lead. Why can’t this conversation end of its own accord?

She has green eyes… and a scar on the left temple. Bridget. Everything so dull in this candlelight. It’s quite prominent. She doesn’t seem overly violent or masochistic. Come on, I can’t tell. Who am I trying to fool? A childhood injury? Why did I come here with two women? A deep scar. Long, too. From a knife? An enemy bayonet? Does she notice me staring? It’s a new continent to explore, a long faint pink land. How far away is that house? Will I walk by it again?

Jane said all it needed was someone to live in it, give it love or whatever. She and her roommates, all students, could volunteer to paint, plug leaks, drape the walls with bedspreads, make it live again. It would take only time. Were we outside the gate or further down the road? I scratched an itch, just between the elbow and shoulder on the inside. Were we leaving or were we still in the garden? Yes. She led me onto the trestle. We walked… swam… through the weeds and the garden hissed. The tracks stared at me. Would a train pass? It was silent but for breathing, cold and slow. No train passed; no disappointment. I didn’t ask a train to pass, just wondered.

I have to go; shouldn’t stay another second! As it is, there won’t be time for sleep. If I drfited off, would they notice ? Probably. Wait until she finishes her thought.

Down in the gully were the tracks, of a stuff too cold and grey to be metal. They stretched—yawned, better—eternally in both directions, divided by wooden ties, which had always, would always divide them. Did I mention this, about being divided forever? Whatever; Jane didn’t answer. A few words, mumbled about the time, or time in general, and an early lecture. We left, closed the gate; it creaked. Three notes. Like whistling. There.

My stomach holds a perfect vacuum. I ought to call Bruno. He’d be interested… physicist. I will roll in bed endlessly. Somebody called that something. Overtired? Overtired. Soon she will stop talking. I will stop listening; there will be a bus, a door, a bed. And I will rotate, a planet, a wanderer trying just to sleep.

Will they never let me sleep.

A New Theory of Vision

Lee Krebs, professor of philosophy, specializes in the works of George Berkeley, who proposed that because reality could simply be sensations in the mind, that it wasn’t real. When a bright but socially-awkward young student proposes a simulation project that brings the philosopher back to life, Lee’s ghosts are brought to life with it. A New Theory of Vision asks the question – if life is a dream, are we responsible for its impact? And how are we to do good?

Read on: (Kindle | Paperback)


cast: 6 (2 F, 4M)
set: Unit set
length: 90 min.


Off-Broadway: Produced by Sanctuary: Playwrights Theatre (New York, NY)

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