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Fifty thousand people sat in the vast arcade of the great glass tower at the top of the world, watching Muldaur protect Asterask from the invading legions of the Mialtrice.

Muldaur chewed gum and listened to hip-hop while his fingers moved over the console keyboard. They moved quickly – a speed freak’s rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a charmingly archaic piece that no one outside the Institute for Antiquarian Music had listened to for half a century.

Like corn on the cob
Don’t slob on the job


What’s corn on the cob? Muldaur wondered, but the thought cost him. Instantly the giant relief map of Asterask projected on the uber-dome flickered and shifted. A cascade of sparkling red points dominated the dark continent on the left side of the map.

Fuck! thought Muldaur.

A collective gasp emerged from 50,000 throats.

Crunch time, Muldaur told himself. He pulled off his ear buds. His left hand clicked the mouse furiously, dispatching Raffers to guerilla up on the Mialtrice invasion to the west, strengthening the infrastructure of mining and manufacturing operations to the east, moving workers away from the green agricultural lands of the south. The Mialtrice were not collectivists; the notion of suicide attackers who might sacrifice their own lives for the communal good was alien to them. Correctly timed, this could be the pull-ahead.

In the end, the strategy worked. Precisely two hours and fourteen minutes into the game, Muldaur succeeded in surrounding the Mialtrice Dominatrix. She quietly imploded, and the red dots on the giant map pulsated and swirled, flashing out one by one.

Applause from 50,000 spectators sounds something like the waves of a Category 5 hurricane breaking against a beach.

The first video jockey to corner Muldaur backstage was a cisgender female with yellow hair and large, pillowy breasts. She positioned herself so the front of her breasts in their thin ruby-colored chamois covering brushed lightly against the back of Muldaur’s neck.

“You did it!” she declared hoarsely.

“I guess,” said Muldaur mildly.

“But – I mean – no one has everHow do you feel?

“Okay,” said Muldaur. “I guess. Hey. Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure!”

“I mean, it’s a little embarrassing, but –“

“Anything!”

“Do you know what a corn cob is?”
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The Fox Sisters were real, and their story deserves a far longer telling than I am giving it here. In fact, their story would make a kind of great Michael Faber/John Fowles-style Victorian homage novel. But I always try to keep my entries under 1,500 words, because I know how many wonderful LJ Idol entries there are to read.

The Fox Sisters were historical personages, as I say, but I've made most of these details up.


---

Hydesville isn’t there anymore. And even at its most prosperous, two hundred years ago, Hydesville was little more than a handful of farms, whose farmers barely eked out a subsistence coaxing wheat from its thin glacial soil.

The wheat was sent for milling to the city of Rochester, 20 miles away. A prominent Rochester mill owner named Joseph Mack had a nephew named Joseph Smith who claimed to have unearthed a collection of curiously engraven golden plates that had been buried for millennia beneath a stunted maple grove just a few miles away from Hydesville. Several years after this story begins, an eccentric inventor named George Eastman was born, who named the company he was to found – Kodak – after a word revealed to him by a spirit through the medium of a Ouija board.

George Eastman and Joseph Mack have nothing to do with the events of this story. But they set a tone. In 19th century America, before the Civil War, when western New York was still a frontier of sorts, things were… different. Some might describe them as more porous.

###

The winters are long and harsh in western New York. Snowfalls of six feet, eight feet, ten feet, are not uncommon. When snow fell, the Fox Family of Hydesville huddled by their kitchen fire for warmth, and read from their Bible or told each other stories for amusement.

In late March, 1848, the family’s two youngest daughters, Katy, aged 12, and Maggie, aged 15, began hearing sounds on snowy nights that echoed through the empty rooms of the family’s farmhouse. Furniture moved, the girls claimed. A wooden table slid from its accustomed resting place beneath the window. Iron-framed beds shuddered and rose from the floor.

These sounds and attendant phenomena terrified Margaret, the girls’ mother, which caused the two girls to erupt into peals of laughter. Margaret was an indulgent mother by the standards of her time. She seldom disciplined her daughters.

“Spirits, reveal thineselves!” Maggie might demand within her mother’s earshot and a cascade of loud popping noises would erupt as if in response.

“Dear God! The house is haunted by the spirit of restless ghosts!” cried Margaret. Her people had come to this area from Pennsylvania shortly before she was born; she had been raised a Quaker. Quakers are the most superstitious of all Reformist sects. Margaret spat on her hands before she baked bread to ensure its rising and knocked on the wooden table when death was mentioned to ensure that it would not take her or any that she loved.

“Be quiet, woman,” said her husband, John. “It is a loose board or a shutter rattling in the wind. I shall secure it once the weather is clement.”

Katy giggled and the barrage of knocking resumed once more.

“Where is it?” screamed Margaret. “What if it is a suffering spirit giving vent to its distress!” She rose to her feet, lit a candle, and began searching the house. The girls followed, laughing.

The knocks continued.

“Mr. Split-foot, do as I do!” Katy commanded and began snapping her fingers. The knocks synchronized themselves with the snaps.

“Mr. Split-foot, follow my command!” cried Maggie and began clapping. The knocks picked up that rhythm as well.

“It is a spirit!” Margaret Fox declared.

Katy and Maggie exchanged glances.

“No, Mother, no,” said Katy gently. “It is only a prank we are playing for tomorrow is April Fool’s Day.”

“Hush!” Maggie commanded her sister.

“How many children have I born?” Margaret Fox asked the darkness and knocks echoed back loudly seven times.

“How many yet live?” Six, answered the knocks.

“Are you the spirit of one who was injured in life?” asked Margaret Fox. “Answer two knocks for yes, one knock for no.”

Two loud knocks.

Margaret Fox fainted dead away.

“You are wicked girls and I will be glad when you are married and away!” cried John Fox. “Do you see what you have done to your mother with your wicked games?”

We have done nothing!” said Maggie saucily. “It is the spirits that invest this house.”

Katy said nothing. But she was nervous. It was true that she and Maggie had perfected a system for making knocking sounds that involved the manipulation of the inner bones of their feet and ankles. But sometimes, when she was alone and not making the sounds, she heard the knocks. She knew things about people she had no reason to know, and the shimmering visions she sometimes amused herself by inducing through pressing her fists hard against her closed eyes had begun to appear when her eyes were open. She saw a cat infused with an unearthly glow. She saw a long-stemmed flower infused with light. She saw a gauntlet on a bleeding stump of a hand struggling to pull the rest of its corpus out of the darkness.

Katy kept these visions secret from Maggie. It was Maggie who had started the game with their mother. But one day, she stood in the kitchen when the gloved hand on the bleeding stump appeared. Its fingers curved; it was beckoning her closer to the hearth’s flames. Katy knelt close to the hearth, straining to reach the gauntleted hand, and an ember flew out from the flame, ignited her gown. She made to cry out, but quicker than her voice could carry, a hand of flesh and blood spilled a vessel of water upon her burning dress.

It was Maggie’s hand. Maggie looked pale.

“I know why you moved to the fire, little sister,” Maggie said. “I saw it.”

“You see these things, too?”

Maggie shook her head. “I see them, but only when I am near you. I cannot make them come of my own accord. They are not visitations that come to me. But I will say that they do if you like. So that we can share all things as sisters.”

###

In 1892, a woman stood in a squalid flat in London’s East End. Katy Fox she had once been; Katy Jenkin, she was now. Her husband, Henry Jenkin, had been a barrister, but his family, who dismissed Spiritualism as a fraud, had not supported his marriage. When he died, they’d cast Katy out and her two young sons with her.

Katy and her sister Maggie had long put Hydesville behind them, had gone on to become the two most celebrated mediums of their day in a time when mediums were greatly venerated, when the whispers of the dead offered a kind of supernatural equivalent to the knowledge navigation that talking smartphone apps provide today. Audiences had flocked to see them in massive numbers, paying handsomely for the privilege. An older sister, Lea, had acted as the Fox girls’ manager, had stolen all their money. The Fox Sisters had fallen out of favor on the séance circuit, and Maggie had returned to the United States. Katy had nothing now, save a jar of gin, resting on a table near the fire.

The visions, the phenomena, had ceased for a time after early adolescence, but in the past few years, they had returned again. Katy could not control them. She learned to recognize the flower – it was a rose. She had never seen a rose at the time the fiery object first resolved from swirling nothingness 40 years ago. The cat was clearly a demon. It arched its back at her and hissed, and sometimes it entangled itself around her legs, causing her to stumble and fall and injure herself. Her body was covered with dark bruises as though someone had beaten her.

But the gin helped. When she’d drunk enough of it, the visions did not plague her quite as incessantly. Vision, reality – everything she saw, infused with weightlessness, with the same eerie light.

When the table began moving, Katie was not surprised, but she moved quickly to rescue her gin. And here it was, the gloved hand, the gauntleted fist with its bleeding fist beckoning her ever closer to the flames. There was nothing to keep her now from accepting its invitation this time, and when her son lurched back the following morning – for he had inherited Katy’s proclivities for mediumship and drink – he found his mother dead.
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The day Lucy’s mother waltzed out of her life, she took Lucy to the Palisades Fun-Plex.

“But what about school?” Lucy asked.

“You can miss one day of school,” Lucy’s mother said.

“But I don’t want to miss one day of school,” Lucy said.

“Get over yourself!” her mother snapped.

The Palisades Fun-Plex did not look good in the weak winter sunlight. The paint on the ticket booths was cracked and peeling. Crusts of dirty snow covered the sides of the walkways like the hides of long-extinct dinosaurs. Only a few of the rides were open, and they were not rides that Lucy liked.

“Come on, Lucy, it’s a rollercoaster,” said Lucy’s mother.

“No!” Lucy said, so Lucy’s mother went on the rollercoaster alone – one of only three passengers – holding her arms high over her head, screaming on the hairpin turns. There was a small hut beneath the highest twist of track equipped with an automated camera that the rollercoaster guy operated remotely. This camera caught her at a particularly unflattering angle with her mouth wide open and her eyes squinted shut, but she bought the photo anyway and presented it to Lucy with a flourish.

“We’re having fun, aren’t we?” asked Lucy’s mother.

“I guess,” Lucy said.

They were eating cotton candy. Lucy didn’t like cotton candy, but since she disliked it less than she disliked rollercoasters, it seemed like an easy concession to make, one that didn’t require too much dissembling beyond ignoring a certain queasiness at the confection’s fluorescent pink and blue coloring and the way it shrank into a hard, too-sweet pebble in her mouth when it came into contact with her spit.

“I want you to be having fun,” her mother said. “Thing is, baby, I’m making a memory for you. Now. This. A beautiful memory because I’m going away. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you. It’s just something your mama has to do – “

Lucy had been hearing about the things her mama had to do since she’d been able to process human speech. They never involved Lucy.

She began to weep now, and her mother began to cry with her, but Lucy sensed there was a difference between the two types of tears: When you cry, you’re enjoying it; when you weep, you’re not.

The next morning, her mother was gone. Lucy’s father, and his mother and father closed ranks behind her. Lucy went on to have a normal childhood. More or less.

###

At sixteen, Lucy woke up one morning and discovered she was beautiful. This was like waking up one morning and finding out she could start fires with a simple snap of her fingers or leap tall buildings in a single bound. Beauty was a superpower, but it very little to do with her.

Getting drunk helped Lucy control the superpower. Or at least it helped her see herself from the outside in so that she could understand the effect her beauty had on other people, why it made them stammer, why it made them give her things that she did not want and had no use for.

“Do we have any pictures of my mother?” she asked her grandmother one day.

At first, she’d gotten the occasional phone call from her mother, usually late at night. Cards on her birthday. Once there’d been talk of a visit, but her mother had settled in California, which was very far away. Lucy knew it was highly unlikely that her mother lived in an amusement park, but that’s where Lucy’s imagination had planted her. In a hut, underneath some rollercoaster tracks where she subsisted on blue cotton candy and the watery dregs of discarded Big Gulp cups.

“That woman!” said Lucy’s grandmother, and she shook her head.

So Lucy went into her room, rummaged on the farthest shelf of her closet where she found it. The photograph of her mother taken that day at the Palisades Fun-Plex. Not a good photo. They had the same yellow hair, though. And there was something reminiscent in the jut of her cheekbones, in the heart-shaped contour of her face. Maybe they looked alike.

Lucy walked back into the living room where her father and her grandparents were watching television and announced, “I’m going out.”

“Lucy, it’s a school night,” said her father.

“I don’t like school,” Lucy said. “I can miss a day –“

“Lucy –“

“It’s just something I gotta do,” said Lucy.

Hardy picked her up in his beat-up Ford in front of the aquifer down the street. They went back to his parents’ house and had sex, which Lucy did not enjoy. Then they cracked open the quart bottle of Smirnoff, which Lucy did enjoy.

“I don’t see why you can’t drink beer like everyone else,” said Hardy.

“Beer is fattening,” Lucy said. “Anyway, I’m special.”

Hardy snorted. “Everyone’s special, baby. No two snowflakes are ever the same.”

“Not like me,” said Lucy. “I’m the specialist of all the special snowflakes. And tonight I want to go somewhere special –“

“Huh?”

“The Palisades Fun-Plex!”

“That place? It’s a dump. I don’t think it’s even open anymore –“

“Take me there or I’ll break up with you,” Lucy said. She cupped her naked breasts and jiggled them. “Last time you ever see these baby sisters if I don’t get my rollercoaster ride.”

They climbed back into Hardy’s car and sped toward the amusement park, the night a blur of trailing lights in the rearview mirror.

“Yellow light!” laughed Lucy. “You know what that means. Step on the gas!”

Unfortunately, the motorist navigating a left-hand turn stepped on the gas at exactly the same moment, and the two cars collided.

Lucy woke up on the grass. Blue and red lights were flashing everywhere. People were yelling. Someone had draped a coat over her to keep her warm; someone else was saying, “That girl’s face. That girl’s poor, poor face.”

Lucy struggled to sit up straight, but she couldn’t move her hips or legs. “What happened to my face?” she demanded. Her mouth was filled with blood; it was hard to speak.

“Don’t try to talk,” said someone.

“Am I going to look different now? Am I going to look different?” Lucy asked. But nobody could understand her, and she began to cry.
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Purpose



The knight arrived just as the smallest moon was rising.

Language, like truth, is multiple and varying, an ill-fashioned container for true portents. I say, “knight;” but he was a boy – and a foolish boy at that, not to know that when the purple moon is in the sky, the monks are at their matins. Foolish or not devout.

He had ridden in on the road from Tranth.

I say “road,” but that word, too, is ill-chosen, as all words are ill-chosen, for the road is a track that is little more than a cow path overgrown with feathery blue grass though once it bustled with wagons on their way to Fair and the glittering carriages of nobles and their retinues

Kings had come here, too. But that is a story for another time.

There are but four of us now, and I – an old man – am youthful, for I am treated as though I am a foolish boy by the others. Age has made them forgetful. And querulous.

We had begun to kneel upon the ancient stones before the sacred parament when the unmistakable sound of the gatehouse bell interrupted our devotions.

Brother Portent made a face and paused mid-incantation.

The instant passed.

Brother Portent could not remember why he’d stood silent for that instant, and when he renewed his thanksgivings for salvation, and deliverance, and divine infusion, he did so with the peculiar vigor of one who suspects the consolations may be playing a trick upon him – perhaps malevolent, perhaps not.

“It is the bell that summons us to purpose,” I said helpfully, for the boy-knight – an impatient lad – had rung the bell again.

“Hush!” said Brother Portent. “It is a bird alighting upon the bell, a bird for whom purpose has less meaning than worms.”

“It is too late in season for a bird,” I said. “The birds have all flown east.”

Brother Portent frowned. “No one has sought purpose in many years,” he said. “Why would one now? There have been no signs. You, Brother Harbinger, are a fool.”

“I am a fool,” I acquiesced cheerfully. “And yet the leaves fall.”

The bell rang again. And again.

“The leaves fall,” I repeated. “And that is not the wind.”

Brother Portent sighed. “You, Brother Harbinger. You. Go into the vestry. Greet the guest. Offer the guest food – there is not much, but Brother Prognostic shot two rabbits yesterday. Offer the guest that, and a place to rest. Bid him, too, not ask the question that brings him here even in thought lest it go without answer when the asking is time.”

The rabbits have all disappeared. I assume they are all dead, though assumption leads to speculation, and speculation is dangerous to purpose. I will offer the guest a salad of Burbridge leaves and roots, which continue to grow in abundance here. I will offer him a place to sleep.

If he tries to ask me his question, I will interrupt him with irrelevancies. I will ask him to look to gaze at the consolations in the sky and to join me in contemplation of the purple moon’s beauty. I will ask him whether he prefers to eat Burbridge root when it’s roasted or braised, or whether he prefers to starve. To tell him not to think about the thing that brought him to our doors would be to order him to think about it, for such is the paradox of language. Instead, I will try to distract him.

###

The Saint Athanasius monastery is old, very old. It was here when the world before the world that is ending now was just beginning.

The boy-knight did not understand this, or perhaps he did not care. His beast was tethered to an ancient hook in what had once been a retaining wall, and I saw the boy kick at the retaining wall. He smiled as the stones crumbled. An innocent smile: He was a boy; this was a game.

When the boy saw me, he blushed and looked embarrassed. He stood up very tall. Purpose came to me then, as it sometimes comes to even the lowliest and the least prepared, without warning, and I saw his mother behind him in a different place, wringing her hands, arranging his cloak. There were tears in her eyes.

“I am Sir Jonny Bones,” the boy announced. “I journey to far corners to fight the enemies of Tranth. I have come to –“

“In the names of salvation, deliverance, and infusion, I greet you, Sir Jonny Bones,” I interrupted. “The moon is beautiful in these earliest hours of the morning, do you not agree? The sky’s consolations are only now growing bright. May they offer you commiseration for life is a curse that we must endure. We have Burbridge root to offer you. Tell me, guest: Do you like it braised or do you like it roasted?”

“Burbridge root!” said the boy. He licked his lips. “I – I have not eaten in some days. I like boiled Burbridge the best!”

I made a little bow. “Then boiled it shall be.”

“And Charger – my horse – he has grazed some, but he is hungry too –“

“We have hay.”

The boy looked around in wonder. “So this is a real place?”

“No place is real that we must endure while we breathe,” I said.

“Sir Jonny Bones is not my real name.”

“I did not think it was,” I said.

“My mother told me how to find it,” the boy said, looking around. “I didn’t believe her, but she made me promise. Her mother told her. I told her the enemies of Tranth were mustering in Ashkelon to destroy us, that I must go to war, and she made me promise. I come with a purpose. I have a question I must ask –“

“The world is unrelenting,” I said. “Pain. Suffering. The cold formality of thought that does feel. But the consolations shine down to give us hope of other places. Come, Sir Jonny who is not Sir Jonny any more than I am Brother Harbinger. There is food to eat for you and your beast. Perhaps you will tell me more about your mother. She had yellow hair like yours, yes? And cheekbones that stand out like yours? And purple eyes?”

###

We keep the records of the seekers who come to Saint Athanasius in the sacristy. There are many scrolls, and the oldest are older than the monastery itself for men longed for purpose since before they were men. In recent years, though, no man has sought us. Eleven years before the boy, there were eight. Ten years before the boy, there were three. And then there were none.

Brother Portent was the eldest. By rights, he should become the vessel through which purpose infused. But he was forgetful. And hungry.

“You must fast,” I told him at the communal table where the four of us monks sat down to eat.

“You, Brother Harbinger, are a fool. There is no need for me to fast.”

“You have been summoned,” I said. “There is a seeker.”

“Oh, right. Your boy.”

“He is not my boy.”

“He is a foolish boy,” said Brother Portent. “He interrupted me at my matins. I am hungry. I want rabbit. Fetch me rabbit, Brother Harbinger, Brother Fool.”

Brother Prognostic behind him nodded silently at me.

I put Burbridge root upon his plate.

“Ah!” said Brother Portent, his eyes gleaming greedily. “Now this is a meal fit for one of the dead kings! You’ve done well, Brother Fool! For once.”

The drool ran down his chin.

--

The boy was kept apart, allowed to see none but me. It takes three days for the leaves to fall. I allowed him to wander where he would except for the vestibule where the parament hung and the rooms where the old monks huddled to stay warm.

He liked the scrolls in the sacristy the best.

“You can read?” I asked.

Everyone can read,” he said.

“Not when I was young,” I said.

“How long ago was that?” he asked.

“Long enough,” I said.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Old,” I said.

“When my mother told me how to find this place, I really didn’t believe her,” he said. “I mean – Of course, we all know about it. We’ve heard about it. But I thought it was a fairy tale –“

“Fairy tale?” I asked.

The boy frowned. “Something that isn’t real,” he said.

“A thing that is not real?”

“Something that’s made up,” he said impatiently. He gestured at the scrolls. “I like the stories. The tall buildings, and the king who asked how to make them explode! The knight who asked where the deepest lake in the world was –“

“So he could drown himself in it,” I said.

“So he could what?”

“He did not want to die as the Ashkeloni like to slaughter,” I said.

That’s not in the scrolls,” said the boy.

“No,” I agreed. “But purpose gives us more than answers.”

“He was a coward,” said the boy. “Nothing’s more glorious than death in defense of Tranth.” He spat and then he looked sheepish. “Sorry. I mean no disrespect. I’ll clean it up –“

“Your mother brought you up well,” I said.

He shrugged. “She’s a woman. She doesn’t understand. But she made me promise, and a promise is a promise. When will you tell me what I want to know?”

“Look!” I said. “Look out that window! See how beautiful the purple moon –“

“I don’t care about your purple moon! There is no purple moon! I’ve had enough of the fairy tale. When?”

I sighed. “Look at that tree.”

The boy scowled. “First purple moons, now trees –“

“What do you see?”

“I see a tree! So what?”

“What season is it?”

“It’s springtime. So what?”

“Foolish, foolish boy. Its leaves are falling. When the tree is bare, you’ll have your answer.”

###

As the youngest of the old monks who still dwell in Saint Athanasius, I am the one who goes beyond the monastery walls to forage food. Who prepares the food, who empties the chamber pots, who does the work that must be done in perpetuance of the life that will not leave.

I was in the kitchen making the meal with which Brother Portent was supposed to break his fast after he gave the boy what the boy wanted.

Brother Prognostic limped into the room. He is twisted into a horrible shape. We three others pray for his deliverance, but the consolations ignore us.

His mind is still strong. The greatest curse of all.

“Brother Portent will not be able to give the boy his purpose,” Brother Prognostic told me. “His mind is no longer a fit vessel for infusion.”

“No, I don’t suppose it is,” I said. “So you will do it?”

“Not I, Brother Harbinger. The boy would look upon me and go mad. No, you, Brother Harbinger. You must give him purpose.”

“Me?” I said. “But I’ve never – I lack the clarity – My words have too many meanings –“

“We both know that is not true, Brother Harbinger. If you will not, I cannot force you. But the leaves have fallen, he must have an answer, and he can no longer stay here. It is not safe.”

“He cannot leave without an answer.”

“No,” said Brother Prognostic. “Tell him the Ashkeloni are dead. Tell him the desert winds have risen, that the sand has reclaimed all their monuments. Tell him that Tranth is glorious. Tell him the answer to his question is that he must go home.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “You have seen this purpose then yourself?”

“No, Brother Harbinger. You know I see no purpose. You know I cannot speak of what I do see.”

“But then –“

“The boy must have an answer, Brother Harbinger. If you will not give him yours, then he must have a lie. I assure you, it is not the first lie that has been given to a seeker who finds the way to Saint Athanasius. The purple moon still rises each morning.”

###

I found the boy once more in the sacristy. He looked up eagerly when I entered the room.

So young. So yellow-haired and the down just sprouting on his upper lip. And the shirt sleeves three inches too short for his arms and the gaunt jut of his cheekbones. His eyelashes were as long as a troubadour’s. His eyes were purple.

I opened my mouth to speak, and then it filled me. Purpose.

I saw the boy riding in a machine fitted with tracks, a vast platform with turrets fitted with death machines. The boy was older. The machine glided past some people in white robes. The people exploded. The machine glided on too quickly for the boy to have seen the people, but somehow the boy knew they were dead for his lips twitched into a grim little grin.

I saw all this, but I did not reveal it to him. I said, “The war is over.”

What?”

“Tranth is victorious. Your fate is at home.”

“That can’t be right –“

“You’re meant to rebuild Tranth. To serve by fathering sons for the glory of Tranth. At home.”

“But –“

“And you must go now,” I hissed for though I had given him false prophecy, the change of real prophecy was reshaping me.

The boy glanced at me, grew sickening pale and leaped for the door.

Through the sacristy window I could see the smallest of the moons rising blood red. There were no longer any consolations in the sky.
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"Crabs in a barrel" might best be summarized: "If I can't have it, neither can you."

---

"So where does it all go? The money the stock market loses," my 10-year-old son asked me one day.

"Well. It's not really money until it's taken out of the stock market, " I said. "Ron Paul could explain it so much better than I can!"

"Huh?"

"Well, figure three different people sell a share of stock one morning," I said. "And the first guy sells it for ten dollars, and the next guy sells his for nine dollars, and the next guy sells his for eight dollars. And you plot those three points on a graph and you draw a line through them. All the money below that line has disappeared."

"So it's not really money!"

"I misspoke. It's really money but it's hypothetical money."

"So it's imaginary money."

"Well. I suppose that's one way of looking at it."

"So if it's imaginary money, why does anybody care?"

"Because unlike the imaginary money that only exists when I don't win Lotto," I said, "this imaginary money can be converted into real money by the simple expedient of cashing out. Unless a lot of other people cashed out first."

"That makes no sense whatsoever," said my son.

"No, I don't suppose it does," I replied. "When you're grown up maybe you can devote your life to bringing back the gold standard."
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Good thing I checked the instructions. Aren't these LJ pieces usually due on Tuesdays? Anyway, I'd intended to write this week's piece when I got home Tuesday. This is the best I can do on the road.

---

They got into a town on a Thursday. Immediately headed to a bar. There were lots of bars lining the wharf of this town. The bars were all more-or-less identical with the same neon anchors, shamrocks and half-naked mermaids. The only real difference was the color of the mermaids’ nipples. Some nipples flashed purple and red; others flashed orange and green.

By Sunday, Max was the only one still drinking. He didn’t know what had happened to his shipmates. Or his clothes. He was fairly sure he’d been wearing his old fleece pullover, Doc Martens, and a pair of khaki chinos when they’d gotten into town; now he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, madras shorts and flip-flops. The Hawaiian shirt was decorated with day-glow parrots who, when you looked closely, were attempting all sorts of congress with one another that had been illegal in many Southern states until just recently.

“Hair of the dog?” the bartender boomed. His leer suggested he knew Max. Or saw some strategic advantage in pretending to know Max. He was also wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

Max was the only customer in the place. “Sure,” he said said. “Old Turkey. Beer back. Say, can I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“Have I been here before?”

“Define ‘here.’ Define ‘before,’” the bartender said, and he began to laugh.

“See, I ask because none of this looks familiar,” said Max. “Plus I fuckin’ hate Hawaiian shirts.”

“Who doesn’t?” the bartender asked.

“Plus, you know, it’s Sunday. I should be back on the boat.”

“What makes you think it’s Sunday?”

“It isn’t Sunday?”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t Sunday. I asked what makes you think it’s Sunday?”
This conversation was getting way too complicated, Max decided. “I’ll have another one of these,” he said, pushing the empty shot glass forward. “You got any eggs? Crack one into the whiskey.”

“Hot date,” the bartender said. “Gotta keep up your strength.” He winked slowly and horribly.

The door swung open, and the most beautiful girl that Max had ever seen in his life glided into the bar. She had long golden hair, enormous blue eyes and cleavage to die for. She bore more than a superficial resemblance to the neon mermaid over the back mirror.

She grabbed the stool next to Max’s, placed a placating hand upon his arm. Her nails glittered faintly like the inner shell of a Nautilus snail.

“Darling. I thought you’d gone. I thought I’d never see you again. I’m sorry, so, so sorry –“

“Afternoon, Bronwen,” the bartender nodded.

“I’ll have a Siren’s Song,” the girl said haughtily. “Don’t use any of that fuckin’ rail shit. I want the Herradura Blanco.” She leaned over and licked the inside of Max’s ear. “You’re payin’, right, lover?”

“If you say so,” Max said. He was having the expected physiological reaction when a beautiful woman licks the inside of your ear, but at the same time, her breath smelled distinctly fishy, which was off-putting.

The bartender rolled his eyes.

“And you know, we can have another little party ‘cause I’ve found the solution to our little problem –“

“Wait! We had a little party? We had a little problem at our little party?”

“I’ve solved it,” she said.

Max felt a something wet on his shin, and glanced down to find his calf being caressed by what looked like an enormous scaly green fin. Attached to the most beautiful girl that Max had ever seen. “What the fuck?”

“Darling! It’s not an issue! Trust me!”

“But you’ve got a tail. You’re a fish!”

“I’m not a fish. I’m a mermaid –“

“The point is you’re not real –“ said Max.

The bartender snorted. “How many women you’ve slept with have been real?” he asked.

“Darling, I have a sister!” the golden-haired girl said. “And she –“ The golden-haired girl swallowed. “Well. She can do things that – that I can’t.” The girl blushed prettily. “We’re twin sisters actually. Not identical twins, but we – well. We complete each other.”

What?”

“You’ll see, darling. You’ll see.”

Max heard clicks on the sidewalk through the bar’s half-open Dutch door. High heels hitting the sidewalk. The door opened and in walked an enormous fish. Except the fish parts ended at the creature’s waist. The creature was wearing a short ballerina skirt beneath which stretched the longest, lithest pair of beautiful female human legs that Max had ever seen.

With a scream, Max leaped from his chair, ran out of the bar. Somehow found his way back to his buddies and his boat. He made a vow that night, and kept it to the end of his life.

He never wore a Hawaiian shirt again.
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The Cupertino effect, says Wikipedia, is a spellchecker's tendency to replace misspelled words in your text with words you did not intend.

Obviously, I am interpreting this very liberally since this story takes place before spellcheckers were invented.

When exactly? Gee, I was hoping you wouldn't ask. The language seems to flit between Regency and the 1920s.



###

Although the young man in question had never shown the slightest inclination toward the state of connubial bliss, Mrs. Wycombe was determined her only son should be married. Therefore, Mrs. Wycombe had arranged for Charles to be invited to a house party at Breckridge, the Meddleshire country house of her close acquaintance, Mrs. Delavarn. Charles had been the recipient of a considerable fortune left to him by relatives on his father’s side who had done well in trade in some remote quadrant of the globe, perhaps Central America. It would seem a pity to Mrs. Wycombe if none of the interest from this fortune were to be disbursed among London’s many dressmakers, florists, and jewelers.

An autumn shooting party, the last of the season, had been arranged at Breckridge as well a masked ball to which all the county’s leading families had been invited. There were many unmarried daughters among the county’s leading families. Mrs. Delavarn herself possessed one: her 21-year-old daughter Catherine.

Though a dutiful parent, Mrs. Wycombe had a difficult time keeping her son’s shortcomings to herself for they were numerous, too numerous to be contained in the cramped receptacle that was her heart.

“He is perfectly amiable, but dull, very dull,” she complained to Mrs. Delavarn. “Why, I believe he cares more for those Greek vases he brings back from his trips to Naples than he cares for me.

In this surmise, Mrs. Wycombe was perfectly correct.

###


Breckridge was an ancient estate, built from stones that were even older, appropriated from a monastery that had come to a bad end during the short-lived reign of Edward VI. The road to Breckridge winded through a kind of primeval forest whose oaks, poplars, and elms grew so thickly together that even though their branches were yellowing and a thick carpet of leaves lay on the ground, they cast a shade that was a kind of night.

How arresting it was, therefore, when the chauffeured automobile bearing Charles estatewards emerged from the woods into blinding sunlight and came suddenly upon the house, a great gleaming marvel with two symmetrical wings, seemingly anchored by Corinthian pilasters to keep it from floating heavenward off the surrounding greensward.

Even more arresting were the two figures standing in front of the imposing marble doorway. A young man and a young woman, both blonde, both dressed in white, both bathed in the long golden light of the rapidly diminishing afternoon.

Mrs. Delavarn was standing there to greet him as well. “Ah, Charles,” she said, coolly receiving the kiss he offered her powdered cheek. “How delightful to have you here at last. I trust your journey was not too exhausting?”

“Not terribly exhausting, no,” Charles said. “That is a very fine woodland you have here. Why, some of those oaks looked to have trunks ten feet around –“

“I trust you left your dear mother in good health?” Mrs. Delavarn did not interrupt Charles so much as surmount him in a melodious onslaught of murmur. “I don’t believe you’ve had the pleasure of meeting my daughter, Catherine –“

“Kate, please, Mummy,” said the blonde girl proffering Charles a slender white hand. She had bobbed her hair in the boyish fashion favored by American film stars. She was very thin.

“Catherine, must you use that vulgar diminutive? It makes you sound like an Irish laundress.”

“Mummy is so old-fashioned, ha, ha, ha,” said Kate. “Did you happen to bring any of the London papers up with you? I heard the Mulie Lanton was photographed by the Evening Standard. The wedding of the year, you know, and I was invited! I was quite vexed when Mummy made me come up here instead.”

“It may well be the last time our family assembles as such under one roof,” Mrs. Delavarn said with a significant glance toward Charles.

“Guns and country folk and Mummy and Daddy’s friends! So boring,” said Kate with a pout.

“And who are you?” Charles asked the blond youth.

“I’m Nathaniel. Catherine’s twin,” the young man said. “Nate if you’d like to annoy Mummy.” The long golden light reflected off the house’s marble façade illuminated Nate’s head in a kind of makeshift halo.

###

Although he was a more than competent shot, shooting pheasants made Charles uneasy. There was something not quite right about the enterprise. The pheasants were raised by the Delavarns’ gamekeeper for the sole purpose of providing sport, but the cheeky birds did not know they were being raised for sport; they thought that Breckridge’s copses were their home. The shoot reminded Charles of one of his favorite poets, Bion of Borysthenes:

The boys throw rocks at the frogs for sport
But the frogs die in earnest


Nate accompanied the men on the shooting expedition, but he spent his time throwing sticks for the spaniels to chase in between their forays to muster dead birds.

“A waste,” his father complained. “Boy’s a good shot. I taught him myself. But he’s a conscientious objector –“

“I am not a conscientious objector,” Nate drawled with lazy good humor. “I think that life is precious, however. I don’t see the point of depriving the lives of any of God’s creatures unless my own life is in the balance.”

“And what if England goes to war?” his father asked.

“And what if the moon is made of green cheese?” Nate asked.

Mr. Delavarn turned around suddenly and struck Nate a blow across his face. “I’ll thank you to speak of your country with respect,” he said.

The other men in the party ignored the exchange. Nate smiled at his father in a way that made Charles wonder just how often exchanges of this nature occurred. Mr. Delavarn dropped his eyes first.

Later, as the shooters collected their reloaded rifles from the gamekeeper, Charles drew close to Nate and noticed that the young man’s lip was bleeding.

“May I offer you my handkerchief?” he asked.

“You may offer me anything,” Nate said.

“We drove through some very beautiful woods on my way to your home,” said Charles with studied formality. “There were some trees that particularly caught my attention. Some ancient oaks.”

“I know those oaks,” Nate said.

“Perhaps you would care to accompany me so that I may examine those oaks more closely.”

“It would give me great pleasure to accompany you so that you can examine those oaks more closely,” Nate said.

###

Five days. That’s what they shared together. The bliss was indescribable.

There had been fellows in public school with whom Charles had once shared the same secret, but that sharing had been tempered with brutality, with a hard cold bullying that gloried in bending wills toward a savage unreciprocated pleasure. When he met those fellows now, they invited Charles to their clubs for dinner where they spoke to him about inconsequential things – the quality of the port, whether or not the Prime Minister would really come down hard on the coal miners – by God, those ungrateful buggers deserved that! Had they forgotten what Charles once was to them and they to him? Nowhere in their fruity voices was the least trace of the ragged moans that Charles remembered. Charles had become the sole guardian of those memories.

There had been a young man in Naples, but that had been doomed by differences in class and language.

There had been a young American, too, but that had been impossible for other reasons.

On the fifth night, Charles poured his heart into a letter, things that might have sounded foolish and sentimental if spoken. He sealed the letter in an envelope which he inscribed with his beloved’s name. He thought of sliding the missive under Nate’s door, but questions might be asked if he was caught in that act.

He would leave it in the morning room, Charles decided, where Nate was certain to find it. Nate was often the only occupant of the morning room. He rose hours earlier than Charles. He liked to sit and read novels by the fire. He’d tried his own hand at writing a novel, he confided in Charles. No, he wouldn’t show Charles what he’d written. Silly scribblings.

###

Morning came. Charles dressed hastily, could hardly oversee the packing of his luggage, his heart was beating so fast.

He forced himself to walk slowly down the stairs, into the breakfast room where the Delvarns’ guests were gathering, beginning their goodbyes.

Mrs. Delavarn caught his eye as he tried to stop his teacup from shaking. “Morning room,” she mouthed silently. “Waiting.”

This was unexpected.

A slim yellow-haired figure stood in the morning room as Charles walked into the room with its back toward Charles. For a moment, as Charles looked at the boyish haircut, at the nape of the neck, he thought, he hoped

But when the figure turned around, it was Kate.

“Darling, I rather thought I had made a major impression on you,” said Kate. “But I had no idea how major! Of course, I love you, too, just oodles and oodles, and we must be married right away although I don’t think I want a consummation under the oak trees – ha, ha, ha! I would like an enormous ring, though, bigger than Mulie Lanton’s and where shall we go on our honeymoon? I adore Monte but it’s the wrong time of year –“

Charles joined the British Army the day after war was declared. He survived the war unscathed.

Nate joined the Royal Airforce just before the war ended. His plane was shot down over Burma, and he was presumed dead.

Shortly after the war ended, Kate divorced Charles, citing “cruelty” in the petition. She was appropriately apologetic when he ran into her on the street some months afterwards, outside earshot of their solicitors. “Well, darling, I could hardly have cited sodomy, could I? Since you weren’t doing that with me? Although it might have been more appropriate. Ha, ha, ha! No hard feelings –“

Charles never saw Kate again and thought as little about her as possible. It was with some puzzlement, therefore, and more than a little trepidation that he received a letter whose return address bore the name “Delavarn” a decade or so after the chance encounter with Kate on a forgotten street corner.

The letter proved to be from the twins’ mother. The formidable Mrs. Delavarn. She was dying, she wrote Charles. And she was exercising the prerogative of all individuals soon to be decedents to summon him to her bedside.

“I’ve done you a disservice,” said Mrs. Delavarn as he entered the room.

“I know,” Charles said.

She didn’t know,” said Mrs. Delavarn. “Such a twit that girl was. Still is. She’s on her third marriage now, you know.

Charles did not know.

“There’s a child. No intelligent person would have mistaken that “N” for a “K,” but she is not exactly what one might call intelligent, is she? I told her the letter was for her, and she opened it. I did it for your mother! And whatever you may think, I did it for my son. His father would have killed him, you know. Of course, he died anyway.”

Mrs. Delavarn stared at Charles with her yellowing, bloodshot eyes. “I suppose you think I took away your only chance for happiness,” she accused.

“No,” Charles said.

And that was true. He didn’t think that at all. Happiness might still have eluded him. It would have eluded him for a different reason, that is all.
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Too many people got sick, so they shut the Projects down. No more talk about how if you’re coughing or vomiting or got diarrhea, or you’re choking on your own snot, report to the ER immediately.

Cops stand outside with semi-automatics. We watch them from our windows and on the TV. Just outside the ring of cops are all the news trucks and the cameras. Hundreds of them, looks like.

“I’m Kim Kardashian,” La’Ema says. “Look! I got paparazzi!”

Couple of times a day, the guys in the bubble suits come with food. That shit they feed to soldiers. MREs.

“My husband got high blood pressure,” I tell the bubble suit. “You make him eat this salty shit, he’ll stroke out.”

Bubble suit said something, but I can’t hear him through the suit.

Wasn’t supposed to leave the apartment, but we did anyway. Not like any of them gonna come inside and check on what we do. They’re too afraid. I check on neighbors. Mrs. Goodwill in 4E is 94 years old. She's very smart. She was a teacher. But now all she got is her Social Security. No family to look after her. She live all alone. She can’t eat no MRE shit. Her teeth are all gone. I tried to boil it down for her, make it soft. But the shit’s too gummy and thick.

Mrs. Goodwill wanted to pray.

“Sorry, Mrs. G,” I says. “If there was a God, this wouldn’t be happening.”

At the beginning, TV used to load us up with numbers. Two hundred and twenty-three cases in Manhattan. One thousand, four hundred and seventy-two cases in the Bronx.

Then one day, the TV stop adding up the numbers. Like numbers don’t matter anymore.

TV said the hospitals were running out of room. “This keeps up, pretty soon rich white people gonna start dying,” I say to Henry.

He just shrugs. He got a bad headache. Like a worm eating his brain, he says.

###

La’Ema and her crew party in the hallways. Rashad Jackson – the one they called Angel Eyes – got hold of reefer and blow by breaking into Malik’s crib after Malik stopped answering the door. Malik’s a dealer. Malik figured he was gonna get rich when the quarantine came down.

“Angel Eyes say he was a mess,” La’Ema told me. “Just lyin’ on the floor in his own shit, his mouth all bloody –“

“That Rashad does not have the sense that God gave to a cockroach,” I tell La’Ema. “I hope he had enough sense not to go near that poor boy on the ground.”

“He had to, Mama. Had to see if he was dead.”

I take a deep breath. “Then he’s probably got it, too. La’Ema – did you touch Rashad? Were you near enough to him to feel his breath? La’Ema, you keep away from your Daddy. Do not go near him. I’ll do what I can for you, but you got to keep away from me, too, do you hear?”

La’Ema laughs. “Oh, Mama, what does it matter? I’m on TV! There was this guy in a bubble suit asking me and Angel Eyes what did it feel like to be in quarantine. He said he was a reporter –“

“How did he get in?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Does it matter? He ask for my name and then he ask how did it feel to be stuck inside here, and then he say, ‘Signing off now from the mask of the red death,’ like he wired to some Entertainment Tonight camera –“

“The Masque of the Red Death,” I say. “That’s a story. I read it in school –“

“Oh, Mama,” says La’Ema. “Who gives a fuck about school? I never liked to go and now I don’t have to.”

She’s high.

###

I go across the hall to Mrs. G’s apartment. She’s sitting in her rocking chair, reading her Bible.

“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was death,” she read out loud. “And Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”

“Maybe you right, Mrs. G,” I say. "Maybe it is the end times, after all. But you still gotta try and eat –“

“I don’t want to eat,” says Mrs. G “I’m old, Marguerite. Very old. And I chose to live in these end times. But you most assuredly did not.”

“No,” I say. “I didn't. But that don't matter 'cause here I am.”

“There’s a way to get out.”

“Right,” I say. “I can open the front door, just walk outside the building. Maybe one of those cops can shoot me with his AK. Might be quicker than what’s gonna happen. And I’d get to be on TV!”

Mrs. G continued to rock. “I grew up in Tiadoro,” she said. “What they used to call Italian Guiana. Such a beautiful place. The ocean the same color as the sky! The flamingos!” She shook her head.

“People knew things in Tiadoro, Marguerite. Things they don’t know other places.”

“Mrs. G, I don’t mean to be disrespectful but crazy shit is coming down on my head and I don’t got time – “ I took a deep breath. “I mean, I want to do right by you, but I can’t –“

“They say you can’t go back in time,” said Mrs. G “But I did. All the time. Till I got tired of it. Too many futures. But you can push your soul anywhere your body has been. The scientists say your consciousness is just an electromagnetic spark. And you can move it. Anywhere where your body has been. Can’t go to places where your body’s never been. But you can travel up and down the axis of your own life. Where would you like to go back to, Marguerite? When you were a little girl? When you first met Henry?“

“I was happiest at the library,” I said. “Brooklyn Public Library. Big old place in Grand Army Plaza. I used to go every Saturday, till I had to drop outa school, get a job –“

“You can go back there, Marguerite,” Mrs. G whispered.

Mrs. G was old. I knew I had to be patient with her. Trouble was I didn’t feel like being patient with her.

“You not gonna eat then I’m gonna go, Mrs. G,” I says. “Good chance that I be too sick to come back.”

“You have to sit somewhere where it’s dark,” Mrs. G said in a dreamy voice. “But there has to be sunlight on the other side of the shadow. You have to listen to faraway voices, voices you can’t quite make out. The words are meaningless, but you have to open your mind to let the meaninglessness seep in. And then it happens.”

What happens, Mrs. G?”

“You’ve jumped,” said Mrs. G. And then she began to cough. Blood.

###


When I get back to the apartment. La’Ema out partying again and Henry asleep. Leastways, I think he asleep. I don’t want to check.

I go into the bedroom. It sunny outside, but I got the drapes drawn tight because I don’t want to think about no sunlight.

Even though we so far up, I still hear the voices from the street. Cops talking to each other on walkie talkies. Putting on their bubble suits so they can come into the building and hand out food no one wants to eat. Voices fade in and fade out the way a train whistle fades in and out when it moving fast in the opposite direction from where you are. Loneliest sound there is. And the voices dissolve till they’re just points of sounds and I’m just floating on them –

What did Mrs. G say? Up and down the axis of your own life.

I never closed my eyes.

But one moment I was lying on that old saggy mattress in the bedroom I’d shared with Henry for 14 years – “Just for now, Baby,” he’d told me when we first moved in – and the next, I was sitting someplace else. At a table. In a high-ceilinged room surrounded by books.

The Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. My favorite place in the world.

And I was young.

How young?

I don’t know. When I looked at my hands, they were a girl’s hands, no knots or veins. When I touched my hair, it was braided tightly with clunky beads.

Would the epidemic still happen?

I didn’t know.

Was there something I could do to make it not happen?

I didn’t know.

I got up from my chair and walked toward the reference librarian’s desk.

“Gimme everything you got about Tiadoro,” I said. “I want to read it all.”

“Tiadoro?” she said blankly.

“Tiadoro,” I repeated impatiently. “Italian Guiana.”

“You mean French Guiana. Or maybe English Guiana.”

“Italian Guiana!”

The librarian smiled at me gently. “I’m sorry, but there’s no such thing as Italian Guiana. Italy never had any colonies in South America.”
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"Sweep the leg" is a line of dialogue from the movie Karate Kid. Even though I came close to earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do at one point, Karate Kid has no particular resonance for me.

So I wrote about something that does -- the Mitford Sisters.

i



On Wednesday, Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire died, the youngest and last-surviving of the Mitford girls. Six beautiful sisters who led such improbable lives that one could scarcely have imagined them. The duchess, the novelist, the communist, the fascist, the farmer and the Hitler fan girl. Deborah, Nancy, Jessica, Diana, Pamela and Unity. The daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and his wife Sydney (née Bowles).

Jessica a/k/a Decca the Communist stopped talking to Diana the Fascist some time in the late 1930s, but went right on talking to Unity the Hitler Fan Girl until Unity’s death in 1948. Both sisters were far afield of Decca’s own political beliefs, both in theory at least would have approved of sending Decca’s youngest child to the death camps. (His father was a Jew.)

Why did she forgive the one and refuse to forgive the other?

ii

Debo was the youngest, second-most-beautiful, and least intellectual of the sisters. This automatically relegated her to the role of peacemaker. The sisters loved one another, but they resented one another, too. Anyone who was brought up in a large brood of children can relate.

Debo married at 18 for love, a younger son of the noble Cavendish family that traced its lineage back to the 14th century. Lord Andrew was not supposed to inherit the Devonshire Dukedom but he became the heir when his older brother William was killed in the closing days of World War II. (William, incidentally, was married to JFK’s sister, Kathleen.)

When Lord Andrew’s father died in 1950, he and Debo inherited millions of dollars in death duties along with Chatsworth, one of England’s stateliest homes. In order to pay off the death duties, Debo developed economic initiative, turning “Chatsworth” into a brand, sitting in the ticket office and peddling tours of the estate to the public herself.




iii

Nancy Mitford, the oldest daughter, was 16 years older than Debo. She’s best remembered today for her semi-autobiographical novels The Pursuit of Love and Love In a Cold Climate. And for being a Mitford, of course.

Nancy was a satirist. Think Dorothy Parker with a British accent. You've no idea how long life goes on and how many, many changes it brings, she wrote. Young people seem to imagine that it's over in a flash, that they do this thing, or that thing, and then die, but I can assure you they are quite wrong.

Like Parker, she was unhappy in love; unlike Parker, she was not an alcoholic. At the end of World War II, she put as much distance as she could between herself and her famously eccentric upbringing by expatriating to Paris and writing a series of critically acclaimed biographies of 18th century notables like Frederic the Great and Louis XIV.

iv



Jessica, nicknamed Decca, hated the privileged eccentricity of her upbringing and began saving up money at age seven so that she could run away from home. At the age of 18, she achieved her ambition by running off to join the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War, accompanied by the fabulously named Esmond Romily, Winston Churchill’s nephew-by-marriage (thought by many to be Churchill’s illegitimate son.)

Even though they were both staunch communists, the two eventually emigrated to the United States where they married. However, Romily went back to Britain to fight against the fascists when Britain joined the Second World War and shortly thereafter was shot down by the Germans over the North Sea. His body was never recovered.

Decca went on to marry the leftist SF Bay Area lawyer Robert Treuhaft. Fun fact: Hillary Clinton clerked for Treuhaft! She also became a famously witty, oft-quoted non-fiction writer and is best known for her expose of the American funeral industry, The American Way of Death, a muckraking classic.

My favorite Decca quote: What it boils down to is putting one’s feelings on a special plane; most unwise, if you come to think of it. Because the bitter but true fact is that the only person who cares about one’s feelings is ONE.

v.



Diana Mitford was so beautiful that she rendered the most famous wits and intellects of her day speechless when she floated into a room. She was the nearest thing to Botticelli's Venus that I have ever seen, wrote one family friend.

Great beauty relieves its possessor of the necessity of developing a personality. Diana was singularly affectless by all accounts. Her beauty was her entitlement. At the age of 18, she married the heir of the Guinness Brewery fortune for money. She divorced him three years later after meeting Sir Osmond Mosley, the leader of Britain’s own homegrown fascist party in 1932.

Diana was only 22 when she meet Mosley, and one suspects he held her in a kind of sexual thrall. He survives as a kind of buffoonish character, the inspiration for Sir Roderick Spode in P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels and for General Jack in sister Nancy own Wigs on the Green, but those portraits leave out the central fact of Mosely’s charisma and brilliance. Before he founded Britain’s Black Shirt party, Mosley had been an up and coming Labor Party politician, but he soon realized capitalism was not going to solve Britain’s staggering unemployment problem. A 1932 visit to Italy and an introduction to Mussolini converted Mosley to fascism. One wonders what might have happened had he traveled to Russia instead.

Diana and Mosley eventually married in Germany, in Joseph Goebbels’ house. Adolph Hitler was the guest of honor.

vi.



One might say that Unity Mitford never had a chance to be anything than what she was. Her name expressed Baron Redesdale’s fervent hopes for an Anglican-German alliance following the end of World War I. Her middle name was “Valkyrie;” she was conceived in the town of Swastika, Ontario where Baron Redesdale had gone to prospect – unsuccessfully – for gold.

Baron Redesdale’s grandfather had been a close personal friend of both the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner and Wagner’s son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain. (Some years later, Hitler read Chamberlain’s work in translation and used it for the basis of the Third Reich.)

Unity met Hitler through Diana. She was big – almost six feet tall; she was very blonde, practically a living embodiment of all his racial theories. Unity quickly became a member of Hitler’s intimate circle and spurred at least one of Eva Braun’s (admittedly multiple) suicide attempts.

On September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany, Unity took the pear-handled revolver that Hitler had presented her with as a mark of favor and shot herself through the head.

Oddly enough, she didn’t die but persisted as a brain-damaged ghost for eight more years.

vii.



Pamela Mitford was the Mitford nobody noticed. Her childhood ambition, notes Decca in Daughters and Rebels, was to be a horse and after her husband died, she took an Italian horsewoman as a “companion.” Yes, that probably means exactly what you think it means, and explains Pamela’s aversion to the spotlight.

viii.

Decca is my favorite Mitford, possibly because I met her once. Thirty-five years or so ago, I had some slight acquaintance with Decca’s son’s then-wife and so, one morning, found myself the object of Jessica Mitford’s hospitality, drinking tea in her sunny North Oakland parlor. Decca doctored her own tea liberally with bourbon which she did not offer to share, but in all other ways she was very gracious, and of course, she had that amazing voice.

Decca’s life was not an easy one. She’d never shared the entitlements of her sisters. Her great young love died – very young; she’d lost two children. She’d refused to exploit her connections after coming to America and struggled near the poverty line for a couple of years as a single mother with no particularly marketable skills until she married Treuhaft. Her Hillegass Avenue house though very pleasant was no Chatham.

Growing up, Diana had been Decca’s favorite sister. None of the Mitfords had any type of formal education; such finishing as Decca had – horseback riding lessons, French lessons – were all at Diana’s behest. Unity – Boud as Decca nicknamed her – was too close in age for Decca to consider her anything but a rival for the causal crumbs of parental attention that were occasionally scattered the younger daughters’ way.

But gradually, despite the oceans – both literal and figurative – between them, Unity slowly metamorphosed into Decca’s favorite sister. It had something to do with Unity’s strange ability to fixate, her implacable nature. Thirty years after Unity finally died of meningitis, Decca wrote to Unity’s biographer, Well there’s no forgiveness possible (nor would it have been sought by that feckless, unregenerate soul.)

Possibly Jessica forgave Unity and despised Diana till the day she died because Diana felt entitled to live while Unity knew she deserved to die. Every breath Diana drew was a betrayal of the younger sister who'd followed her into fascism.

Dunno.
mallorys_camera: (Default)
For Mark Conly

---

Alice had been enchanted with the tiny, second-floor walk-up when she answered the Craig’s List ad one Sunday morning. Her first apartment! She’d bake cookies!

Disillusionment quickly set in.

Every day of the week except Sunday, the traffic noises were so bad, Alice could close her eyes and imagine she was lying down for the night in Times Square. Black sprinkles in the cupboards were not, as she’d had first thought, evidence that a previous tenant had been partial to pepper, but insect shit. The lights flickered on and off when she turned more than three of them on at the same time. The oven didn’t work.

And then there was her upstairs neighbor.

“Milo’s just an old hippie,” said Marylise, the paralegal who lived on the ground floor. “Imagine! He moved in when there was still rent control.”

Alice grimaced. “It’s the music. Every night. This is an old building. All the noise transmits straight through my ceiling.”

Marylise shrugged. “You could talk to him. When I asked him to please stop going through my garbage, he was nice enough about it.”

“Did he stop?”

“Well, no. But he didn’t snap my head off or anything.”

“But he didn’t stop. Why didn’t you talk to the management company?”

“Are you kidding? To what end? Those assholes never do anything. And anyway, now I never have to worry about my recycling – Milo takes care of that for me. Besides. You have to pick your battles wisely.”

###


Alice was a nurse. She worked the seven-to-three shift and had to get to bed early most nights. That meant dinner at seven. An hour or three of futzing around on the computer, posting photographs on Facebook for distant family and friends: Me with the cookies I baked for the work potluck! (She’d bought the cookies at the Safeway deli counter.) Bed by ten if she could manage to fall asleep in the midst of all the traffic noises.

Only to be woken up two hours later by a steady bass beat pounding through the wooden floors over her head. Duh duh duh – duh DUH. Duh duh duh – duh DUH. Sometimes she could hear voices screeching mostly unintelligible lyrics, though Alice could make out, Fine little bitch… fuck that girl all kinds of ways…

This cacophony always lasted until the first rays of the rising sun shimmered in the east. A few minutes later, her alarm went off.

On her day off, Alice realized she would have to confront Milo.

She found him in back of the building, rooting around in the garbage bins. He was a tall man with a cadaverous, intelligent face and long, thinning white hair kept back in a buck hide clip.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said when he saw Alice, “but there really isn’t enough here to share. You’ll have to find your own dumpster to dive in.”

“I haven’t come to dive in your dumpster,” Alice said. “I’ve come to complain about your music.”

“Music?” said Milo. “What music?”

“The music you start playing every night at midnight and keep playing until the sun comes up.”

“That’s not music,” said Milo. “That’s Louie Louie.”

“That’s what?” asked Alice.

Milo sighed with exasperation. “Louie Louie? Probably the most famous rock ‘n’ roll song ever made? First recorded in 1956 by Richard Berry and the Pharaohs? Subsequently recorded by hundreds of other artists including The Kinsmen, Toots and the Maytalls, Led Zeppelin, Barry White, Black Flagg and Paul Revere and the Raiders? I discover a new recording every other week or so.”

“I know what Louie Louie is,” said Alice. “It’s music. I’m not questioning your taste. I’m here to tell you you’re playing it way too loud.”

Milo peered at Alice through red-rimmed eyes that made him look improbably for a moment like a large white rabbit in a frayed tie-dyed tee shirt. “I don’t even know how to begin to address the fallacies in that last statement,” he said. “But hey! I taught physics for 15 years at the University of California before I realized working for the establishment in any capacity was a rigged game, so I’ll give it a try.

“In the first place, Louie Louie is not music any more than the prayers on Buddhist prayer wheels are scraps of paper. Louie Louie is a divine revelation that was handed to Richard Berry in 1955. Note, please, its lack of comma. The Old Testament uses a similar method of repetition to highlight emphasis in prophecies. Note as well that it it’s not played at the appropriate decibel level, Louie Louie will not have its intended effect.”

“Its intended effect on what?”

Milo stared at Alice as if she were a particularly dim-witted child. “Louie Louie is what keeps the universe going,” he explained slowly. “I’d be the first one to admit: It’s not a particularly good universe. But for now, it’s the only one we’ve got. If someone doesn’t play Louie Louie continuously during the darkest hours of the night then poof! It’s all over.”

What’s all over?”

“The universe. You. More importantly, me.”

“That’s crazy,” said Alice.

“So’s quantum physics,” Milo said. “Hey, I didn’t ask for this job.” He reached into the garbage bin and pulled out a half-rotten turnip. Out of the pockets of his dirty jeans, he withdrew a long serrated knife. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have tonight’s dinner to prepare.”

###

“You say he threatened you with a knife?” the cop asked. They were standing together in Alice’s tiny kitchen. Alice had offered the cop a cookie. He’d turned it down.

Alice nodded. “He did. It was big, too. And all I did was ask him to turn down his music. I mean, I was trying to approach him as a neighbor. Look, I live here alone –“

The cop nodded. “Not the greatest neighborhood for a young woman to be living alone in, if you don’t mind my saying. Okay, let’s have a chat with this Milo.”

They climbed the rickety stairs to Milo’s apartment. The cop pounded on the door. “Open up, please. Sir, it’s the police. We’d like to have a word with you –”

“Police?” came Milo’s frightened squeal. “There’s no way I’m letting the fucking pigs in here –“

The cop sighed. “Sir, we’re here at your neighbor’s request to talk to you about your response when she asked you to turn your music down –“

“Fuck you!” Milo screamed. “I’m not afraid to defend myself –“

The cop shook his head grimly, pulled out his walkie talkie and called for backup.

Later that afternoon, after Milo had been shot up with Haldol and spirited away on a stretcher carried by attendants in white jackets, Alice finally figured out what was wrong with her oven: The pilot light had gone out! Fixing it was simple enough, and so was making cookies. There were some black flecks in the flour, but Alice figured they’d be taken care of after they were baked for half an hour at 350 degrees.

She made chocolate chip cookies, lemon bars, snickerdoodles late into the night. Her tiny apartment was awaft with the smell of baked confectionaries and when she finally finished baking – close to midnight – it was so quiet that she imagined that the scent of her cookies had finally vanquished the noxious traffic noises outside. The fancy made her smile. She threw open her window to enjoy this milder, kinder world for herself.

And then she noticed. In the sky above her. One by one, the stars were blinking out.
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This was written originally to be a companion piece to [livejournal.com profile] bookishgeek's piece, but she doesn't seem to have submitted one. :-(

So-o-o, basically we'd interpreted "intersubjectivity" as mental telepathy! :-) This was intended to be a YA story about two kids who discover they have a telepathic bond.

---

The bookstore was in a strip mall on the very edge of town. The Hidden Door, it was called. From DeWitt Clinton Middle School, you had to take the Q-37 bus to Genesee Street then transfer to the F-14, which took you past fast food joints, cheap furniture stores and auto supply warehouses.

Matthew could hardly believe that Martina George, the reclusive author of A Song of Thrones, was doing a reading at such an obscure location in a town that was the second-to-the-last stop on the caravan to nowhere, but there it was on the author’s website: 2:30 p.m., on November 13th… Odysseus, New York.

It would mean skipping out from school during lunch period. Matthew liked school. But he liked A Song of Thrones better.

And school these days was not quite the sanctuary it had once been. Middle school was… complicated. Old alliances had shifted. New enmities had formed. The gang Matthew had been hanging out with steadily since his kindergarten days was no longer intact. Toby and Ryan had discovered Pop Warner, girls, and jacking off – not necessarily in that order. Matthew had nothing against football, masturbation or members of the opposite sex, but they were not necessarily priorities. He worried about that sometimes.

His elementary school had been only one of several that fed into DeWitt, and there were a lot more kids there. Kids with whom he had no history. Kids who only knew him as a shy, bookish boy who was good at things like physics and horses that most kids were not, and bad at things like talking about movies, music, and clothes that most kids were. It was embarrassing: The kids that picked on him the most were girls. Eloise and her gang.

The November wind was cold. Matthew huddled at the bus stop, pulling his hoodie up over his head, wondering what he would say to the bus driver when that adult asked the inevitable question, And why aren’t you in class, young man?

But the bus driver when he finally arrived, 18 minutes behind schedule, didn’t seem to show the slightest interest in the fact that Matthew was skipping school, and Matthew realized he had somehow slipped into another dimension, outside the realm of nervous hovering parents, slick pastors, laudatory teachers, encouraging coaches, where adults didn’t really give a fuck about what he did. It was exhilarating. But scary, at the same time. A little like listening to hip hop.

Matthew grabbed a seat by the window. Familiar landmarks through the windows of the bus loomed weirdly. He cleared his mind and played that game he always played at airports on family vacations, in crowded school hallways, or whenever he got dragged into rooms filled with strangers, following the strictures laid out in the third volume of Song of Thrones, when Eshtar the Hijra instructed Flip, the girl-boy hero, on how to connect with ambient telepaths floating about the region.

You use the Rituals of Samsafar to clear your mind, Eshtar intoned. You bait your mind with interesting thoughts about yourself and cast it out.

Matthew closed his eyes and thought.

Yo! I be Matthew Rice
My life’s a splice
Sometimes it’s bleak
When it oughta be nice
It’s so complicated
Ta feel so obligated –


You call that rap? came words in his mind. I call that bullshit. A vision of six snorting pigs flashed against his mind.

Matthew startled so hard that his head banged against the bus window. An old lady fingering rosary beads in the handicapped access seats two aisles away stared curiously at him.

Ouch! said the voice in his mind. Cool it with the self-harming, loser.

In Song of Thrones, when two telepaths discovered one another, they smelled something. The Aura of Intersubjectivity, the learned magicians at the Court of the Wandering Medina called it. In the books, the smell was described as a noxious odor that was somewhere between swamp gas and roses.

But Matthew didn’t smell a thing.

What the fuck? he thought.

The hell if I know, came the reply. You’re the one who pushed your way in. I was just sitting here practicing deep meditation techniques. Like Prowler in A March Through Madness –

Volume Two! thought Matthew. Song of Thrones!

Caution and bewilderment had a mental color. Somewhere in the blue scale. You know those books? Love and reverence had mental colors, too, and a texture like somewhat like the overlapping petals of a deep pink rose.

The voice in his head had an immediacy like it was coming from somewhere very close. Matthew turned around to scan the back aisles of the bus.

There. Sitting in the farthest corner. With a hoodie pulled down over her head that was a perfect twin to his own.

The dreaded Eloise.
mallorys_camera: (Default)
For Lucius Shepard

---

After Guzman died, I began running into him regularly at the public library – a place, oddly enough, he’d studiously avoided in life.

I’d sight him across the bookshelves and the open tables where aspiring authors like myself regularly strain over our magni opi. I’d been working on my novel for three and a half years now. Guzman hadn’t liked the segments I read aloud at the meetings of the monthly writers group he helmed.

I’d clear my throat. “Uh – this particular passage is the crucial junction in which Estragon announces that despite his desperate love for Regina, he will no longer be privy to her manipulations of his heart and other parts –“

“Estragon?” Guzman would snort. “Wassamatter? Too chickenshit to name him Samuel Beckett?”

Estragon is the Spanish word for the herb ‘tarragon,’” I informed Guzman. “It carries subtext. It’s piquant but can easily dominate a béarnaise sauce if you’re not careful.”

Guzman rolled his eyes.

I continued reading. “’Estragon strided into the room –‘”

Strode, baby sister. Strode. English is such a proud, rich and beautiful language because she’s lofted on the backs of irregular verbs –“

“’Estragon strode into the room, his manly chest aheave –“

Guzman staggered backwards, miming a heart attack. “No. No. Please God, tell me I did not just hear that –“

“’Regina, I love you. But I will no longer be crossed over like a threshold –“

“Out!” Guzman screamed. “Out! I won’t continue to breathe in carbon dioxide molecules exhaled by someone who writes such dreadful, dreadful prose –“

Why did I put up with such abuse from Guzman?

Twenty-five years ago, his short story All of Us Are Beautiful, Perfect Angels – Except John Brown had won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the J. James Tiptree Jr. Award in the space of four short months.

Besides, he gave me a deep discount on the workshop because I was fucking him.

###

I’d see Guzman at the library, but, of course, I had reason to avoid him. He hadn’t really done right by me, the way I saw it. He hadn’t been exactly what one might call encouraging in life, and the way he leered at me from the public computer stations gave me no reason to believe he’d changed his tune after death.

He’d gesticulate madly. Flutter his eyes in a buffoonish display of tenderest emotion. Once he actually held up a copy of Waiting for Godot and winked.

I spoke about the harassment with my therapist.

My therapist was concerned. “You’re hallucinating,” she told me bluntly. “Dead people do not hang out in libraries.”

“I am not,” I said.

“Maybe you’re confusing some other overweight, sixty-ish guy with ratty facial hair and a Ramones teeshirt with Guzman. Maybe you miss Guzman.”

“I do not,” I said.

My therapist sighed. “This is the only dead person you see, right? I mean – you don’t make a habit of seeing things that aren’t there, do you? Should I be thinking of medication?”

“Last time I looked online for therapists, there were about 50,000 of you all desperately touting your services,” I said. “If you don’t like my $100 an hour, I’m sure there’s some therapist who will.”

“All right, all right, all right,” said my therapist. “Here’s what you do. Next time you see Guzman at the library, confront him directly. Ask him what he wants.”

So that is what I decided to do.

###

But it was six weeks before I saw Guzman again.

He’d traded in the purple Ramones teeshirt for a somber blue sweatshirt inscribed “Primitive.” Apparently, the afterlife has laundromats. Or free boxes.

Not the most opportune moment for me to be thinking confrontation. My nerves that day were raw. Exposed! Irregular verbs be damned! For that entire six weeks I’d been laboring over The Scene in which Estragon finally realizes that Regina is his Dulcinea, his Beatrice, his Laura, his Nora Barnacle. (Had Guzman realized the same thing about me, likely he would still be alive. Likely he would have won another set of Hugo, Nebula, and Tiptree prizes and a Locus award to boot!)

“His hand found its way through her copious petticoats, up her sinuous thighs, toward the throbbing oysterhood of her womanly core where a rare pearl glistened ripe for the plucking,” I scribbled feverishly.

“She shuddered – a beautiful mare in heat. She began to make sweet moan.

“’Make me naked!’ Regina demanded.

“Estragon made her naked –“

I paused to let my hands stop shaking –

And there was Guzman at the computer station, slowly shaking his head and beaming at me.

Enraged, I approached.

Except by the time I got to the computer station, Guzman had vanished. His computer was still humming, open to an OK Cupid profile:

I am a fun person who enjoys hiking on the beach at sunset. The last book I read was A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I am looking for a partner who is kind and giving to share life’s joys with –

“Excuse me,” said the ugly librarian who works behind the reference desk. “You cannot use these computers without signing up beforehand –“

“I have no interest in using a public computer,” I snapped. “What happened to the man who was sitting there? Did you see where he went?”

The reference librarian peered at me through her ugly glasses. (Come to think of it, her eyes were ugly, too.) “There was no ‘man’ sitting at this computer,“ she said slowly.

“Okay, well, you’re a fucking idiot,” I said. “What’s the old saying? ‘There’s none so blind as them that cannot see.’ And they also say, ‘Them that can’t write books, library.”

I turned around to stride off.

Library is not a verb,” the librarian said. “Also, you forgot this –“

She held up one of those things. What do they call them? E-book readers?

Reader, I let her give it to me. I figured that asshole Guzman at least owed me a Kindle.

###

I took it back to the cloistered room I rent for $350 a month from a retired Catholic middle school science teacher. I get a discount on the room because the retired teacher fancies herself a writer, and I edit her awful dribble from time to time.

The walls of my sanctuary are lined with portraits. Louisa May Alcott. Daphne DuMaurier. Norah Lofts. My Lares and Penates.

I threw the electronic thing into a drawer.

I confess: I don’t have much use for electronic technology. You can keep your computers, your tablets, your high-IQ phones. You can twaddle your Twitter till it twinkles and twists.

Real authors write on yellow legal pads with purple ink infusing blotchlessly from fountain pens with very, very narrow points. (Rapidographs work well.) Like I do.

I figured I could sell the damn thing. Too bad there was no way I could reliably establish ownership. Some old science fiction queen might have paid a pretty price for electronics that had once belonged to Sci Fi’s Most Bemoaned Bad Boy whose prodigious early promise had been thwarted so tragically by alcohol, drugs, and Little Debbie’s Moon Pies. But I doubted that ghosts left fingerprints.

An hour later, though, I’d grown curious enough to take a peek.

There on the electronic screen was a title: The Tarragon Tantalus. By Lucian McWeathers Guzman.

I frowned. To the best of my knowledge, Guzman had never written another word after winning all those prizes. God knows I’d heard that sob story often enough while he lay crying and belching in my arms. You know what they say. Post coitum, squish.

And yet these were unmistakably words, however disguised as phosphors on a screen. Huddled beneath the Guzman imprimatur.

Had Guzman finally learned good habits? Had the Man With the Scythe finally taught my erstwhile mentor and lover how to work and play well with others?

Narrowing my lips, furrowing my brow, I sat in my faded velvet armchair and began to read.

Seven hours later, I stopped reading. I was finished with the book, but lips and brow were still compressed. Essentially, Guzman had stolen my characters. Taught them tricks that were unfamiliar to me! Given them a thick, poisonous atmosphere to breathe!

But I had to admit: It had been a compelling read in a strange, dark, fractured, revolting, post-modernist way.

I threw the Kindle back into the drawer. Fell asleep in my clothes on the bed. Missed my regular time slot at the library.

When I woke up again, I hardly remembered where I was. Louisa, Daphne and Norah seemed to be looking down at me in mild reproach.

Okay. They were really running a guilt trip on me.

I opened the drawer – and where there had once been one Kindle, now there were two! One big Kindle and one mini-Kindle. (Kindling?)

Except the big Kindle now had a cracked screen and there were strange horizontal lines running its fading text. I might still be able to download its contents into another, more dependable medium. But I would have to hurry.

As if hearing my thoughts, the little Kindling emitted a tiny, high-pitched chiming sound – like an infant crying – and flickered to life. Words on the screen: The Trouble With Tarragon. A sequel to The Tarragon Tantalus. By Lucian McWeathers Guzman.

The font was a kind of babyish script. The prose was misspelled with a lot of cross outs. Awkward does not begin to describe it.

By the next evening, however, it had matured.

###

Interviewers are an unoriginal lot. The bigger the media outlet, the more boring and banal their questions.

“How do you have the time to write so much?” one earnest little reporter from the Abu Dhabi Times asked me yesterday. “I mean, you’re probably the bestselling author in the world! But the most prolific author, too!”

Talking in italics is a horrible disease. Incurable, too. I felt sorry for her.

“Do you really want to know?”

Yes!”

“I have a magic Kindle,” I explained. “Well. Maybe ‘magic’ is the wrong word. ‘Supernatural’ is probably more precise. Every night, it presents me with a new novel. By the next morning, it’s broken. But that’s okay! Because, see, it somehow gives birth to a little Kindle – a Kindling! -- that takes approximately 18 hours to mature and present me with a sequel to the previous story –“

My magnanimous gesture! Wasted, of course. Next week or the week after, yet another story about the celebrated and magnificently eccentric author, blah, blah blah –

Though I stopped therapy, I am not one to forget my roots. I still return to the library on a daily basis to fill yellow legal pads with purple ink. (I arranged to get the ugly reference librarian laid off, however, in exchange for a sizeable if anonymous donation.)

From his uncomfortable chair at the public computer station, Guzman glares at me. His eyes are wild and bloodshot. His ratty teeshirts bear a series of increasingly bitter, misogynistic slogans: What Breed Is YOUR Girlfriend? 50,000 Battered Women and I Still Eat Mine Plain.

I smile at him and wave.
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At noon on August 9, an 18 year old man was shot dead in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson. His ostensible crime? Jaywalking.

According to Missouri State law, pedestrians must use sidewalks if sidewalks are present.

The man was black; the community is two-thirds black.

The police officer was white.

The kid’s name was Michael “Big Mike” Brown.

A few minutes before the shooting, a man went into a nearby convenience store and walked out with a box of Swisher Sweet cigars without paying for them. When the clerk tried to stop him, the man pushed the clerk out of his way. A surveillance camera captured the interaction.

(Swisher Sweets, by the way, can best be characterized as nicotine Jolly Ranchers. They are beyond awful.)

The lawyer retained by Big Mike’s family has conceded that the thief in the video appears to be Big Mike. The lawyer’s name is Benjamin Crump. He also represented the family of Trayvon Martin.

The retail value of a box of Swisher Sweet cigars is $48.99.

The robbery was reported; the dispatcher radioed it in about ten minutes before the shooting incident took place.

That’s what we know.

After that, the storylines begin to diverge according to which witness you’re talking to.

###


The officer who shot Big Mike may have heard the dispatch.

Initially, the Ferguson Police Chief reported that the cop was responding to the robbery dispatch.

Afterwards, the Ferguson Police Chief revised his statement.

###


The friend accompanying Big Mike was a 22 year old named Dorian Johnson. The pair were on their way to Johnson’s house.

The cop pulled up in his car.

“Get the fuck out of the street !” he screamed at the men. Or maybe, “Get the fuck on the sidewalk.”

The two men refused.

The officer started to drive off. Changed his mind. Backed up, almost hitting the men. “What did you say?” the officer asked and began opening the door of his car. The car was so close to the two men that the door bounced off Big Mike and hit the officer as he was attempting to get out of the car.

Johnson saw the officer grab Big Mike by the neck. Big Mike tried to pull away. “I’ll shoot you,” said the officer.

A gun was fired.

The two men started running.

The cop chased after them and fired again, hitting Big Mike.

Big Mike turned around with his hands in the air, the universal posture of Dude! I’m unarmed!

The cop kept firing.

According to the medical examiner’s report, Big Mike was shot six times in total. The teenager was likely bending over when the last shot was fired because the bullet penetrated the very top of his head. This is the shot that killed him.

###


The cop says Big Mike assaulted him as he was attempting to get out of his car, that Big Mike lunged for the cop’s weapon. According to the St. Louis County Police Chief, the first shot went off inside the cop’s car.

The cop was later treated for minor injuries at a local hospital. He’s been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation into the incident.

Six days after Big Mike died, the cop was identified as Darren Wilson, a six year veteran of the force with no disciplinary actions on his record.

Wilson will have to undergo psychiatric evaluations before he is cleared to go back to work. Two of them.

###


There were other eyewitnesses at the scene. Two women named Tiffany Mitchell and Piaget Crenshaw. They saw Big Mike and cop in some sort of physical altercation. The teenager was attempting to extricate himself, and he was using the police car to push himself loose. After the first shot, the two young men took off running. Crenshaw says the men were 20 feet away from the car when the cop got out of his car, firing. Big Mike’s body jerked as though he’d been hit and he turned around with his hands up.

Wilson kept firing.

I can’t find any information on how many times Wilson actually fired his gun. Some witnesses report hearing as many as ten shots.

A second cop car arrived at the scene within minutes of the shooting, followed by a supervisor’s car and an ambulance that was on its way to some place else.


###


A news conference was held the next morning. Yes, Michael Brown had been unarmed, the St. Louis County Police Chief announced, but he’d been reaching for Wilson’s gun. (Cue song from the musical Chicago.) This had caused a shot to go off inside the car.

This is the point where the cop storyline starts to go dinky for me. Wilson was allegedly inside the car when the initial shot went off? Other witnesses report that the physical altercation took place around the car but that Wilson got out of the car as he continued firing? Huh? Did Wilson go back inside the car and then get out again? And if so, why? To radio for backup? To grab his gun? But wouldn’t Wilson have been wearing his gun?

Can you have a fight with someone if you’re sitting behind the wheel of a car and they’re standing next to a car? I mean, yeah, you can get punched in the face, get really pissed off, get out of the car, start shooting. Is that what happened?

Because that’s the only way the facts can be strung together that makes any kind of sense to me.

Getting punched in the face is not a good thing. But I don't think it justifies drawing a gun.

###


In the evening following the afternoon Big Mike Brown was killed, a candlelit vigil was held in protest. The vigil turned violent: A dozen or so small businesses were vandalized and looted; more than 30 arrests were made. Two cops were injured.

The next morning, a crowd of several hundred protestors gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department. Seven more arrests were made.

That evening, a crowd gathered on West Florrisant Avenue, the heart of Ferguson’s commercial district. Tear gas was used to disburse the crowd. Many more arrests were made. In response to protestor demands, the Ferguson Police Chief announced that the name of the cop who killed Michael Brown would not be released. (He reversed this decision two days later.)

The next day, Reverend Al Sharpton appeared on the scene.

Whenever Reverend Al appears and Jesse Jackson comes tumbling after him, you can be confident you’ve entered another dimension. Call it the Disinformation Zone.

The protests continued, escalating in scale and violence, but they suffered because they were now taking place inside the Disinformation Zone.

###


Disinformation is essentially another word for propaganda. Information that’s either highly selective or outright false, intentionally designed to mislead.

The facts in the Michael Brown shooting are disputed. In the information vacuum, two divergent Big Mike Brown narratives have emerged. One paints him as a gentle giant, a recent high school graduate, two days away from starting college.

michael-brown-ferguson-04

The other paints him as an aspiring thug flashing gang signs.





michael-brown-ferguson-pic-05

I suspect both narratives contain elements of truth. And elements of falsehood.

I’d be scared if I saw Big Mike bopping down the street in my direction. If the sun was starting to go down, I’d probably cross the street, possibly duck into a store. Just like President Obama’s grandma.

‘Course I’d cross the street if it was a white kid, too.

That's just the reality of being an elderly female in the US of A these days.

But I’d be equally as scared by Officer Darren Wilson, though I probably wouldn’t cross the street to avoid him. Cops terrify me! What if one caught me jaywalking?

They're bullies. Just like Big Mike.

###


Honestly, I don’t know why cops aren’t required by law to videotape each and every one of their interactions with the public. This would seem to be the most effective means of protecting the public from police violence and protecting police against unfounded accusations of police brutality.

In the absence of such a tape, it’s not possible to know exactly what happened in the Michael Brown case.

I’m inclined to fault Darren Wilson, though.

I’ve been in Missouri.

Obviously, no cop should shoot an unarmed individual even once let alone six times. For any reason.

And equally obviously, no cop should ever bait an individual, knowing that said individual is likely to respond violently.

No cop should ever snarl at a citizen whose taxes are either paying his/her salary or will be at some point in the future, “Get the fuck out of the street.”

That’s a setup. Respect is a very big issue for teens. Teens have an inflated sense of honor that wouldn’t be out of place at King Arthur’s court. Disrespect a teen, and you are practically handing him or her an engraved invitation: The Ferguson Police Department requests you to push the boundaries…

We can’t know for sure, of course, that Wilson framed his command using these words. That’s Dorian Johnson’s story, but Johnson has reasons to dissemble.

I’m inclined to believe him, though.

Because, like I said, I’ve spent time in Missouri.

But of course that’s me, using facts I can’t verify, to frame a narrative that can't be proven.

Pushing my own brand of disinformation, in other words..
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"Oregano"

----

Pasadera finally filed for Chapter 11 yesterday. Lead story in the fish wrap of the quaint-and-scenic California town where I lived for a decade (which I still read online.) Piece didn’t mention New Cities Development Group by name, but I imagine they’ll be dissolving soon, too.

Poor boy from East Oakland’s dreams of joining the landed gentry class – poof! Up in smoke. The Great Gatsby really is the seminal American plotline.

Of course by the time I met Buddy Newell, he’d been out of East Oakland for a long time. Trajectory went like this: East Oakland, basketball scholarship to UCLA, Boalt Law School, Tax Attorney, Land Developer. I didn’t exactly like Buddy Newell but I respected him because he made his money, he didn’t inherit it. I would have done a much better job spending that money, of course, particularly when it came to the Newells’ Carmel Valley mansion which if I may say so was fug-lee though large – very, very large – I once got lost trying to find a bathroom. But the place looked like a display model for an upscale housing tract, decorated in that high-end Southwestern décor that no matter how expensive it might be ends up looking like it came straight from Pier One. In a word: bor-ring.

Plus there wasn’t a single book in that whole house.

I had occasion to go to the Newells’ mansion often: Their son Travers was one of Max’s best friends at All Saints (middle school) and later at Robert Louis Stevenson (high school.) It was a friendship I didn’t understand until years later. Max and Travers were on the same football team, and the same basketball team. They both had opposable thumbs. Other than that… They didn’t have a thing in common that I could see. Max, though obnoxious the way all teenage boys are obnoxious, still had moments when his underlying personality came through. Travers didn’t have a personality as far as I could tell. He was a handsome rich kid whose eyes didn’t register a single thing he saw.

I’d taken Max out of the public school system in the 6th grade because I’d ID’d him as having a huge potential to get into trouble (read: start doing drugs.) He was my son, after all. Plus his stepbrother Beau had been in and out of rehab a couple of times by then, and I knew Max and Beau were tight whenever Max went down to Southern California to see his dad.

As it turned out I was a deluded idiot.

I’d wanted to put him back in the public school system for high school, but by then he’d made friends, and he wanted to stay with them. And he’s always been brilliant academically so RLS was willing to give him a sizeable scholarship.

Mr. Crane was his history teacher at All Saints. I’d always liked Mr. Crane a great deal – he was a Civil War enactor and had real passion for the subject he taught as well as the Shakespeare plays he directed once a year. In his senior year, Max played Malvolio in Twelfth Night – an inspired bit of casting, I must say, for any of us who’d ever read anything Max wrote. He’s since become a very good writer, but in those days his axiom was: Never use a short word when three convoluted polysyllables will do.

Mr. Crane had always maintained a highly skeptical attitude towards Max which surprised and upset me, because I liked Mr. Crane so much.

One night on one of Max’s first trips home from Deep Springs, we ran into Mr. Crane at an Indian restaurant. Mr. Crane had been fired by All Saints the year after Max graduated. All Saints had a new head mistress; she had a major stick up her ass.

Mr. Crane was certainly overjoyed to see Max. “So good to see you, Max! What are you doing?”

Max explained about Deep Springs.

“I was just thinking about you the other day,” said Mr. Crane. “You’re everything I miss about teaching. I’m so glad you turned out well.”

As we walked away from the restaurant, Max chuckled and said, “Mr. Crane! Remember when Travers and I got busted with the oregano?”

I remembered very well. In the 8th grade Travers and Max had been discovered in one of All Saints' bathrooms with a baggie full of oregano. They were trying to smoke it.

“I do indeed. Oregano! You guys were such innocents.”

Max laughed. “Oh, Mom. We had the oregano there as a decoy. We were smoking a joint, and when we heard Mr. Crane coming we flushed it down the toilet. Only of course he smelled it so he knew.”

“You what?”

“He knew we’d be kicked out of school, so he covered for us. But he told me, ‘I’ll be watching you like a hawk.’”

The reason Max hung out so much at the Newell mansion was because the Newell mansion was Party Central apparently, so large that even though Buddy and Susie Newell were nominally in residence, they never interfered with the boys’ drinking and drugging. The reason Travers acted like a zombie who never made eye contact was because from the 10th grade on, he was addicted to oxycontin.

The odd thing about this was that Buddy coached the basketball team Max and his son were on… and never noticed his son’s addiction.

"Oregano"!
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A terrible beauty has been born


Three days after his 18th birthday, Kurt Aberg’s buddies took him up to Stony Kill Falls in hope of getting him laid. He’d never gotten laid before – none of the four boys had, but Hope was a girl about 5’5” with red hair and a retrousee nose like Ann Margret’s. The word “no” wasn’t in Hope’s vocabulary.

Stony Hill Creek plunged a hundred feet into an aqueduct that provided New York City with drinking water. A quarter of a mile or so above the falls, on the other side of a gravel pit, an ancient dam formed a deep swimming hole frequented by the local hippies. They swam naked.

Nine months earlier, on December 1, Kurt had huddled with the same group of buddies on the porch of his parents’ home, chain smoking, sipping Pabst Blue Ribbon, and listening to the radio. It was so cold the beer half-froze in the cans. The voice on the radio was listing birthdays and numbers. August 10 was number 29. August 10 was also Kurt’s birthday.

“Tough shit, man,” Chris Coppola told him. Chris’s voice was insincere. Better you than me, it was really saying as though the fact that Kurt’s number was low made it far less likely that Chris’s would come up. Or Cappy’s. Or Dave’s. A certain degree of magical thinking was in evidence that night.

And indeed, alone among his companions, Kurt’s birthday turned out to be the only one with a lottery number low enough to qualify for the draft. Nam seemed an inevitability. The only real question was whether he should wait to be drafted or drop out of high school and enlist. Kurt didn’t like pushups and he didn’t relish the thought of marching 40 miles through the dark with a stone-filled 50 pound rucksack on his back while a drill sergeant speculated about the type of cheese his balls smelled most like, so he kept pushing the decision off. Until finally it was too late. The draft notice was there.

On this August afternoon, the boys stashed Chris’s older brother’s Valiant 30 feet off the road behind some trees, unloaded the beer cooler, and hiked to the falls.

“And what makes New York City the greatest city in the United States?” Chris asked.

“Piss and vinegar!” said Kurt. “But I forgot the salad dressing. Sorry.”

The four boys unzipped their flies and took a companionable leak into the great metropolis’s water supply.

Then they mounted the trail to the swimming hole.

###


The hippies were sprawled on a few sunny rocks on the far side of the pool. Two men, three women. No clothes. The trick was to spy on the women without having to look at the men whose scraggly hair, long limp beards, narrow shoulders and obtrusive penises embarrassed Kurt.

The women did not look the least like Ann Margret. The profusion of breasts and pubic thatches had the immediate, expected physiological effect on Kurt – he rammed one hand in his jeans pocket and turned his back on his friends so they wouldn’t see he was blushing. But they were also confusing. A dark-haired woman was leaning backwards against the stone wall, sucking on a joint, idly scratching a mosquito bite on her calf. Another sat cross-legged by the pool pinging stones at invisible fish. The ordinariness of the women’s poses was anything but erotic.

The hippies did not seem the least bit phased by the fact they were being looked at. One of the men raised a lazy hand in greeting. He wore granny glasses like John Lennon. The dark-haired woman whispered something in another woman’s ear, and the woman laughed. “River, that isn’t very nice.”

Cappy found the shallow spot where the boys usually floated the beer cooler when they came swimming at the Falls. Fifty feet or so away from the hippies.

The woman who’d been smoking the joint passed it to the man with the granny glasses who’d waved at the boys. He took a long toke and then called over, “Hey man. You want a hit?”

Chris elbowed Kurt sharply in the ribs, but Kurt found himself unable to speak. The blush had spread all the way down his chest.

“Sure, man,” Chris said. “You want a beer?” .

Kurt’s three friends walked over to the hippies to proceed with the powwow.

“Personally, I wouldn’t touch that dope with a ten foot pole,” said a voice. Kurt looked up. Standing to his right, camouflaged in the shadows thrown by a cluster of ash trees, stood a small, thin person wearing hiking boots, jeans, and a red flannel shirt tightly buttoned at the throat. Every square inch of this person’s body was covered except for the face – elfin, high cheek-boned, big-eyed – the bright red hair, and the small, long-fingered hands, which were busily sandpapering a long, sturdy stick.

“What are you? Like 12 years old?” Kurt asked witheringly.

“Fifteen,” said the person. “And why would that matter?”

“You’re kinda young to know anything about dope.”

The kid snorted.

“You with them?” Kurt asked, nodding at the hippies.

“No,” the kid said. “I was magically transported here by telekinesis. Wait! An enchanted tornado came up out of nowhere and blew me here from Kansas. You like my mother’s tits?”

What?”

“Well, hell, River shows them off often enough.” The kid looked at the stick, then began rummaging through the pockets of the pants. “You got any plastic fishing line on you? Or hooks?”

“Aberg, yo!” Chris called over to him, grinning. He held up a freshly rolled doobie and waved it in the air. “They got acid too, man! Cheap!”

Kurt essayed a weak smile and shook his head. “Someone’s got to drive home.”

“Rainbow,” the dark-haired woman said. “What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to figure out a way to get the fish out of the water, River,” the kid said. “So I can cook them and eat them.”

“Rainbow! That’s not very kind to the fish.”

“Fuck the fish,” the kid said.

“Rainbow?” asked Kurt.

“It’s Jane on my birth certificate,” said the kid.

“You’re a girl?”

“Don’t be getting any ideas about that,” Jane said.

“In the Boy Scouts, they taught us how to make fishing rods out of sticks and rope. There’s some rope in the car –“

“You’re on,” Jane said.

###

Dong Ha
June 14, 1972

Dearest Jane,

Don’t want to worry you but a little after midnight, Charlie crept up to the base and my best friend in this shithole got killed. He was just two years older than me, and just this morning we were talking. He got married right before he got sent here, and I told him about you and how we were going to get married too as soon as you turn 18.

It’s weird. You always hear the whistle-boom when the gooks launch an attack, but this time, it sounded louder and higher. When I heard it, right away I knew something really bad was going to happen.

It’s so funny that the difference between life and death is only half a second. Thinking of you gets me through it. I hope I make it to my R&R. The guys are telling me Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Taipei, Australia. But I want Hawaii. I don’t know if there’s any fishing in Hawaii but I will see you there and that makes Hawaii the most beautiful place in the world. November. November. November...


###


October 27, 1971 - Pfc. Kurt W. Aberg, 18, of Ellensville, New York, was killed Thursday in Quảng Trị Province, Vietnam province, when his unit was attacked by enemy fire, the Defense Department has reported.

More information was not immediately available.
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"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off," wrote Anton Chekov. "If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

Before Ashley had the kid, she’d been adventuresome, carefree. Reckless by most accounts though not by her own measuring: If nothing matters, what do you risk when you snort that line; smile at that handsome stranger in the cowboy bar; go weak-kneed in the back of his truck, clutching and clawing like a gun had just been pointed at you, like someone was pulling the trigger and the bullet was exploding through the deepest core of your being?

But after she found out she was pregnant, Ashley changed entirely. She was a mother now, and goddamn it, she was going to be a good one. When she rolled her baby’s carriage down the road to the bus stop that took her to Social Services, she half-wished a speeding truck would round the corner, brakes squealing, out of control, just so she could throw her body in front of the carriage, save her baby boy from annihilation. Eighteen years she'd been searching for a martyrdom that was worthy of her. And now she'd finally found one that was bigger than she was. It felt good to acknowledge it.

She named him John. A good strong name. None of that trendy Jayden, Liam, or Brendan bullshit for her. She was going to give her son a name that would stand up against time, distinguish him from the sheep.

She was going to feed him good, too. No MacDonald’s. No more visits to the Colonel. She took a clean and healthy eating class through the same Social Services department that issued her EBT card. Food stamps could be used to buy seeds, too, and every month, she spent 20 bucks on lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, crookneck squash, any plant she could grow in a Styrofoam plot and stick alongside of the trailer she shared with her sister Jessica, Jayden, Brendan and Madison, her sister’s three kids, and, in between meth runs, with Demetrius, her sister’s boyfriend.

“I ain’t eating that shit,” said Demetrius.

“No one’s asking you to,” Ashley said. “Could you smoke that shit outside?”

“No,” said Demetrius. “I couldn’t.”

“It’s bad for the kids.”

“I didn’t ask them to be born.”

Jayden, Brendan and Madison were perpetually snotty-nosed. Jayden was turning six in the fall, and Jessica was afraid of what that would do to her benefits. She’d have to spend 30 hours a week down at the Sullivan County One Stop instead of 20, learning about resumes, sitting through mock interviews.

Ashley was getting her GED. “Jessica should get hers, too,” Ashley told Demetrius. “She’s not stupid. She’s smart. She could do it.”

“She’s smarter than you,” Demetrius said. “You get that GED and so fucking what? You lucky, maybe you land a gig at Walmart for eight bucks an hour. You make a shitload more on the TANF.”

“Maybe I’ll go to community college.”

“Waste of time,” Demetrius said but not unkindly. “Didn’t do much for me.”

“Why not?”

Demetrius studied her for a long moment. “Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if you and I had met without this –“ He swept his hand at the unwashed dishes in the sink, at the three children practically catatonic in front of the television screen, and John was asleep in the little nest Ashley had made for him out of drawer and some blankets. Jessica was at the One Stop.

“Nothing would have happened –“

Demetrius shook his head. “You think I’m coming on to you. But that ain’t it. That ain’t it at all.” He held his hand out straight. It trembled.

“You’re jumpy.”

“Better than being dead,” he said.

A truck with a broken transmission pulled up beside the trailer. “Yo, my man Demetrius –“

Demetrius smiled broadly. “Good times, good times. You got any money on you?”

“No,” Ashley lied.

“Bitch,” said Demetrius. He caressed the word in his mouth as though it were the tenderest endearment that ever man said to woman, and went outside.

For a while, Ashley sat and thought about John while the voices outside rose and fell. She would get her GED, go to community college. Maybe for nursing. Move the fuck away from here. Maybe to Florida where it was always warm. John would do well in school. He’d do sports, too – Ashley wanted him to be well-rounded. He’d never ask her why there wasn’t a Daddy, or brothers and sisters, because he’d know instinctually the two of them were just enough.

She heard Demetrius’s voice say, “You fucking tweaker, put that thing away!”

“Make me, asshole,” said the other guy.

Ashley heard the two men scuffling and she knew the bus was coming, but before she could throw herself on top of her baby, carry him away to another room, she heard the gun go off.

Just like that.

And the baby was dead.
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LJ Idol Entry: Week 14: Confession from the Chair

Though this was written as the opening movement of longer and as yet incomplete story, it kind of works as a standalone.

The Evaluator assigned to Barry Atman for his fourth performance review was the same model that had been used for his third: an android designed to look like a 15-year-old girl with dark hair and an enigmatic smile.

“Why are they recycling you?” Atman asked toward the end of the session.

“This prototype is irresistible to heterosexual males affected by pathological empathy,” the android said. It held its palms up, tilted its head slightly to the right, and fixed Atman with enormous, slightly slanted eyes. “Prexalo would help,” it said soothingly.

“I don’t want Prexalo,” Atman said.

The Evaluator widened its eyes and nodded, smiling sadly. “The boy disturbed you.”

Atman snorted. “The boy would disturb anyone.”

“But we aren’t talking about anyone. We’re talking about you. In fact, the boy did more than disturb you. The boy scared you.”

“The dreams are bad,” Atman admitted reluctantly. Waking up after the dreams in a panic, though. That was the worst. The panic was always about loneliness and lost opportunities and the human condition, which so far as Atman could tell was a boundless world of bad possibilities, a giant swath of uncertainty that inevitably resolved itself into something bad.

Look at me, he thought. I’m sharing my nightmares with a mechanical doll.

“Prexalo eliminates self-loathing,” the Evaluator told him sweetly.

“I told you – no Prexalo,” Atman said.

The Evaluator folded its hands on its lap. “We can’t make you take Prexalo. You have to want to feel better.”

“But if I don’t take it, eventually I’ll get fired, right?”

The Evaluator giggled charmingly. “Of course not. Why would you think that? You’re one of our most effective field workers, Barry Atman. We’ll get what we need out of you whether you’re happy giving it to us or not. We’re done here. You may go.”

“I passed?”

“Purple. Green. Magenta. Which flying color would you like?”

Atman did not take the bait. He rose warily from the chair and headed toward the door. But before he stepped through, he turned back toward the thing in the chair. “I’ve never heard of them assigning the same prototype more than once –“

“It happens,” the Evaluator said. “In complex cases.”

“So… Will I see you again in three months?”

“You’re not seeing me now. At least, as you define ‘me’. Tell us something. You like whimsy. Why didn’t you laugh when we made a whimsical joke about flying colors?”

“You’re a machine,” said Atman. “Machines don’t have senses of humor.”

The Evaluator held up one slender, manicured finger. “You don’t suspend disbelief. That’s what makes you valuable. But of course, you could still hold onto your disbelief if you were happy.”

“I’m not taking Prexalo,” Atman said. But even to himself, his voice sounded overly loud.

The waiting room was empty except for the janitor, an old man using the same oversized broom on the same invisible dust he’d been chasing around the floor every time Atman had left a performance review. The old man beamed at him now, and winked slowly and deliberately.

“How’s it going, Atman?” the old man asked.

Had there been pleasantries? A ritual exchange of names? Atman thought there might have been because how else could the old man know his name? He didn’t remember, though, and this made him feel vaguely ashamed because he believed in remembering people’s names no matter how tangentially those people impinged upon his life.

“Hanging in there,” Atman said, trying to smile.

The old man wore robe-like orange pajamas imprinted with the Aphar logo. He had a wide-planed face and Eurasian features, rather like this last Evaluator’s, Atman thought. Atman was seized with a sudden impulse to ask the old man, Are you human?

It occurred to him, though, that the answer to this particular question was increasingly irrelevant.
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Originally posted on 6/2/2010

Sad fact is that there are few things more repulsive than other people’s neediness….

So the plumber came by yesterday. The bathroom here in my little cement bungalow looked like the Earl of Darnley’s torture chamber. Well, hey! I was brought up in New York City where landlords are remote, other worldly entities, never to be petitioned or importuned unless dead alligators start flushing up from your toilet. But the bathroom had reached the point where you’d basically rather risk fecal impaction than take a dump. So I called Tom, and instantly a very jolly plumber showed up on the doorstep. There’s a moral object lesson in that somewhere.

Plumber spent about 10 minutes replacing the commode and 2 hours regaling me with the history of industrial Cortland, a small city thirty miles to the north. Founded by the same family that had the “Van” in their name when they lived in the Bronx. First there was the Wickwire steel mill – they invented the screen door. Then there was the Smith Corona Typewriter Company. Then there was Brockway, a company that made high-end fire engines.

Point is all these companies came but none of them stayed. West central New York remained what west central New York has always been for the past one hundred and fifty years – a kind of geographic ghost that doesn’t realize it’s dead, drifting on the miasma of a manufacturing past.

You go somewhere, you look around you and you think: Why is this here? These buildings, these roads, this railroad depot. Why here? Why not fifty miles down the river?

There’s never really any answer.

###


So the Census work is drawing to a close which is really kind of a pity. I enjoy going out, knocking on strange people’s doors, peering through the cracks into their lives. I’ve been canvassing Groton which is another odd little town with absolutely no reason to exist. Groton has a number of these huge moldering mansions, fallen on sad times. I did one yesterday and the owner – a grey-haired lady with strange watery hazel eyes – invited me to come inside.

Inside was really rather horrible. Subdivided into warrens, the better to cram more people into. False ceilings, black beetle rot. A weird malfunction with the water pipes that had resulted in a constant, never-ending gurgling sound as though the house was sucking the souls of its inhabitants.

“This was Ben Conger’s house,” the owner said proudly. “He had another one, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. When he moved here he wanted a new house just like that house so he built another one. It’s the Ben Conger Inn now. But he died as soon as the house was finished, before he could move in.”

“That happens a lot, doesn’t it?” I said. “People building grand houses and then dying before they can move in.”

“It does, doesn’t it,” mused the owner.

When I got home, I googled Ben Conger. State Senator, died in 1922. New York Times obituary unavailable. President of the Corona typewriter company.

That night I dreamed

There was this odd wild flower that only grew in central western New York State. Kind of an oversized peony head on a fleshy stalk. Locals referred to it as Decennium. It only appeared every ten years.

There was also a town called Decennium, and it too only appeared every ten years – just in time to be counted by the Census. I was the enumerator charged with verifying the population of Decennium which was an odd hodgepodge of 18th century Revolutionary War soldiers who’d been promised land tracts, and slaves who’d been escaping on the underground railroad and bootleggers and men in grey flannel suits – refugees from every time period imaginable. Even old Ben Conger himself. Thing was that when the Decennium flower finished blooming, the portals to the town closed – so I was desperately trying to finish my count before the town disappeared for another ten years and I was trapped there forever.

###


Last week I fell in love. In Groton. I knocked on a front door and the man inside greeted me as though I was his oldest and dearest friend miraculously returned to him. “Come in, come in! Can I get you some wine? From South Africa, very good. You stay to dinner, no? I am barbecuing ribs.”

“But I’m just here to complete a Census Intake form,” I said, startled.

But he continued to beam. He was a tall man, taller than me, with a big potbelly, indifferent teeth, brown eyes. He spoke with an accent.

“Did you or any of your household members live here on April 1?”

“Yes, yes,” he said. “We move here in December. We rent. We have a house on Elm Street that we own but you know, the bank tells us, ‘You sell or we foreclose.’ So we sell.” He shrugs.

“Do you mind if I ask you what country you’re from?”

“Bosnia,” he said. “Sarajevo. We spend a decade in a refugee camp, my wife, me, my kids. And now we are here and my kids are American! We could have gone anywhere, Australia, Canada, France. But we come here. America is the greatest country on earth.”

We ended up chatting for over an hour which goes against every federal protocol, I’m sure. But there was just something so compelling about this man, about his story. He worked as a machinist; his wife was an employee in Cornell’s dining hall. I knew they’d been educated for something more professional but he didn’t mind it at all – “I like to work with my hands,” he said. “And the object of life is to be happy, no? I know many rich people. Most of them –“ He shrugged. “Not happy. Me, I am happy. I have my family, I have my garden, I am barbecuing ribs with my own rub – why won’t you stay and eat with us?”

“Well, I can’t,” I said. “The job doesn’t really allow me.”

“But I will not tell!”

The object of his and his wife’s lives had been to send their three daughters to college – and they were succeeding. The oldest had just won a full scholarship to a prestigious art school in Manhattan.

“Naturally I prefer her to be a doctor, to be a lawyer,” he said. “But in the end it is about what makes her happy, yes?”

In 1968 I spent two days in Sarajevo. I had taken all my UC Berkeley scholarship money and decamped to Europe for six weeks. I had met up with a caravan of Brit boys in Tangiers; after two weeks there smoking hashish, they’d decided to drive to Katmandu where it was rumored you could buy meth and heroin and no one would hassle you. I had seduced the youngest, tenderest, least spotty of them. He was too scared to sleep with me, which I found very odd. Instead he wanted to spend all night kissing and staring at the immutable stars which were so bright, so pulsating, so all-enveloping on this trip that I felt as though the constellations had been invented to showcase episodes from my own life.

Their van broke down in Sarajevo. I spent a day or so wandering around the city center. As with all unfamiliar places, I needed to compare it with some place else in order to tame it – and as it didn’t look anything like San Francisco, I decided it looked like Brooklyn or maybe Oakland – multistoried skyscrapers superimposed against a backdrop of tired brown Belle Epoque architecture, there were even hills in the distance. It was a real city. There were buses, people spat on the streets.

The fall of Sarajevo twenty-four years later absolutely blew my mind. Because, see, Sarajevo was not some remote Third World outpost. Sarajevo was a modern, Westernized city. If it could happen in Sarajevo, it could happen… well. Anywhere.

“Well, you know the problem was that Yugoslavia wasn’t a real country,” I told my new friend. “Any more than Iraq is a real country. It was a political invention, six countries really, kept in place by the force of one man’s personality. And when that man died…”

“Like here!” my new friend grinned companionably. “Only here it is 50 countries and no one is keeping it together.”

There was a glint in his eye that was my first clue to the fact that the Noble Savage routine was as much an act for him as Ingenuous Census Girl was for me. Still we understood each other – even better than before perhaps.

“You will not stay? No? But perhaps we will see each other again. Perhaps we meet before in Sarajevo. I feel as though I know you,” he said.

Though of course he didn’t.
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LJ Idol: Week 11.

Topic: Recency Bias. Recency bias is a psychological testing term that was coined initially to describe the tendency of test subjects to remember the beginnings and endings of series better than they remember the middle.

-----



Our kids Robin and Sidney were best friends at the Butterfly House. That’s how Jeannie and I met.

One day Robin tried to drown Sidney’s stuffed panda Irving in the toilet. Dianna, the preschool administrator, managed to retrieve the toy before Robin carried through his announced intention of peeing upon it, so no harm was done. Nonetheless, Dianna thought it prudent to convene a summit of the appropriate third-party adults.

Across Dianna’s kitchen table, Jeannie and I beamed at each other.

“Frankly, I’ve always wanted to off Irving the Panda myself,” said Jeannie. “He’s disgusting. Let us just say his recent near miss with a golden shower was not Irving the Panda’s first experience with bodily fluids. Sid’s been carting that damn thing around with her since she started walking. The only reason he’s survived this long is because she throws such hideous tantrums when I try to grab him.”

“You could try bribing her,” I said.

“With what? Nothing in the world is as precious as Irving the Panda.”

“Well, that’s what Robin said,” Dianna told us. “He marched up to Sidney and announced, ‘You’re too old for a stuffer.’ Then he grabbed it and marched into the bathroom. Sidney started screaming, but by the time I got there, she’d stopped. Robin had dunked the thing in the toilet and was pulling down his pants, but he was prattling away. ‘Do you know why you have eyelashes?’ he was asking, and Sidney was standing on her tiptoes trying to see into the mirror over the sink so she could count her eyelashes –“

“Cute,” said Jeannie.

“Well. Except for the urinary waterboarding part,” I said.

Jeannie and I laughed hysterically. Dianna looked perplexed.

###


Kids get friendship. Adults, not so much.

The day Robin and Sydney were both ejected from Circle Time – Sydney for threatening to cut off Dean Mercutio’s flowing locks with a scissors she’d smuggled from the crafts table; Robin for telling Giovanni DiJusto he was “a detestable shithead” – Sydney turned to Robin and asked, “Wanna be best friends?”

Both kids understood instinctively that friendship has nothing to do with shared tastes in movies or music. Friendship is all about someone who will have your back when you’ve been expelled from Circle Time.

“Don’t know where Robin would have picked up a term like ‘shithead,’” I remarked to Jeannie as we were leaving after yet another summit meeting hastily organized by Dianna. “Around my house, we use the term ‘detestable douchebag.’”

“We’re not so big on alliteration,” said Jeannie. “At Casa DeTomaso, we just call them ‘fucking dicks.’”

We laughed hysterically. Then Jeannie began to talk to me about Elizabeth, her mother.

###


“What’s your favorite fantasy?” someone will ask me from time to time. Usually on an Internet dating site.

I’m ashamed to answer because, of course, they’re talking about sex.

But my favorite fantasy has nothing to do with sex.

My favorite fantasy begins on a day when the random bullshit concentration approaches 500 parts to 1,000. On a typical day, in other words. Maybe my incredibly dilapidated car’s front passenger tire has just gone flat, and it’s a hundred degrees out, and I’ve just had to hike two miles to the nearest auto supply store to get some of that foam tire-blower-up stuff.

And when I kneel in front of the tire and unscrew the valve of the can, it’s a broken valve so the tire-blower-up stuff shoots out of the can but fails to find its way into the tire.

And now it’s a hundred and five degrees out.

This is not an insurmountable problem, of course. Its solution only requires another trek back to the store.

But I don’t want to go back to the store. I want to do is sit on that sidewalk and sob hysterically. If humans only came conveniently equipped with an “OFF” button, I think, I’d push mine.

Then the fantasy kickstarts.

Somebody looks at me. Somebody really sees me. Somebody kneels down beside me and says, “You’re a brave soul. You’re a gallant soul. You’re wading upstream through a river of bullshit and that takes guts, resilience, grace. I see the effort you are making to stay the course.”

For many years, Jeannie was the other person in that fantasy.

###


Jeannie’s mother Elizabeth was a singularly egoless person even before the Alzheimer’s. I guess you could call her a religious fanatic. Jeannie’s father had been a preacher with an itinerant Pentecostal sect called the Children of God. The Children of God didn’t believe in private property, and the only time Elizabeth ever defied her husband was when she bought the tiny Pacific Grove cottage three blocks away from the equally shabby cottage where John Steinbeck had written the first draft of The Grapes of Wrath 45 years before.

Elizabeth had bought the cottage for $28,000 in 1963, but at 21st century market values, the place was probably valued somewhere in the range of a million and a half.

The preacher died when Jeannie was only six years old. Elizabeth brought Jeannie up alone. She supported the two of them making that God-awful driftwood art, which was the staple of Monterey's many tourist shops for 30 years. And somehow managed to keep the house.

Whenever Jeannie complained to me about money – Tony, her husband, was having problems finding a job -- I would tell her, “Look. I know you love your mother. But – and I’m just saying! But… When she passes, you’re gonna be a woman of substance. “

Jeannie sighed. “When I was a little girl, you know, I would wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and hear her gibbering in the living room! Yowling! Speaking in tongues. It scared me.

“When I’d ask her, ‘What are you doing?’, she’d say, ‘I am talking to God.’”

“And weren’t you ever curious what she and God were talking about?” I asked.

Jeannie shook her head. “From the way she was always screaming, I figured I didn’t want to know.”

###



For several years, Elizabeth continued to live alone in her tiny cottage. Jeannie lived less that a mile away with Sydney, her other daughter Torrey, and her scientist husband Tony. Tony was ten years younger than Jeannie, and his two great tragedies in life were that he was a white male PhD looking for a university faculty position at a time when academic hiring policies were solely based attempts to diversify the white male faculty mix and that he’d been born too late to ride along on Ken Kesey’s magic bus.

“Wow! So you were at Woodstock!” he’d say.

“Well, no. Not Woodstock. Altamont. The bad hippie rock festival. The festival where the Hell’s Angels stabbed that guy.”

“And you got to see the Rolling Stones!”

“Well, no. Not see. There were hundreds of thousands of people there. But maybe, you know, some stray carbon dioxide molecule that Mick exhaled found its way into my lungs.”

Tony was fond of Elizabeth, but he took a pragmatic view of the situation. “You know, she really can’t go on living by herself,” he’d tell Jeannie. “It’s dangerous. She lets strangers into the house ‘cause she thinks they’re God’s messengers. She forgets to turn off burners on the stove. She could burn that place down!”

Jeannie would look strained. It wasn’t a matter of disagreeing necessarily with Tony. It was more a matter that Jeannie believed that Elizabeth and her tiny cottage had what one might describe as a symbiotic relationship. That the minute Elizabeth moved away from it, it was quite obvious that Elizabeth would die.

And she didn't want to murder her mother.

“But, I mean, that’s not really true,” I said to Jeannie. “There are some perfectly nice Alzheimer’s facilities on the Monterey peninsula. In Pacific Grove even! I mean, Jeannie! You can’t be with her 24 hours a day. You have a life. You have a husband. What if she falls in the middle of the night while she’s having one of her conversations with God, breaks her hip, lies there for 12 hours till you get time to check on her the next day?”

“She doesn’t know I’m her daughter,” said Jeannie. “When I visit her now. She thinks I’m her mother.”

###


Jeannie was my friend, so I did what I could to help her with Elizabeth. In breaks in my own schedule, I would go to the tiny Pacific Grove cottage to hang out with Elizabeth when Jeannie couldn’t make it. I would watch Elizabeth eat, supervise the taking of her many medications – Jeannie organized them like squirrel nuts inside a blue plastic box marked with the days of the week.

Elizabeth’s artwork was everywhere inside the house. Hideous driftwood lighthouses. Incredibly ugly sunsets in splashes of white and blue and orange paint.

In the back of the overgrown garden sat a shingled one-room shack.

“Is that your studio?” I asked Elizabeth.

“Yes. But I don’t go there anymore.”

“Why not?”

“It seems like so much trouble.”

“You know, when I was a little girl,” I chattered nervously, “more than anything else in the world, I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to draw. But I can’t draw at all. So I write instead. It’s a poor substitute. What is it, I wonder? Some kind of hand-eye coordination? What I see, what I imagine is so clear in my brain –“

“I know what you mean,” said Elizabeth. "I used to hold my arm like this -- " She demonstrated " -- so the pictures would run down it from my head into my hand."

It's so odd, the invisibility that creeps up on you with old age. And I wanted to ask Elizabeth: Do you feel old? Or like me, do you still feel 20, the exact same configuration of mind and affinity, only packaged differently, packaged wrongly — maybe all I need to do is consult a branding identification specialist and redesign the packaging. And what does it feel like to be so invisible? To know that you've outlived your own visibility?

“Would you like to see my secret garden?" Elizabeth asked, and we walked together to the back of the shingled shack where a row of sturdy-looking tomato plants, chest-high, were just starting to fruit.

"My neighbors put these in for me," said Elizabeth. "They told me they were extras but I knew they were being kind."

And I thought to myself, if she can remember that, she should be able to remember the faces of the people who come to visit her and the fact that Jeannie is not her mother but her daughter.

But maybe she just doesn't want to remember.

###


Elizabeth had liked to read, Jeannie told me. So sometimes when I visited her, I brought her books.

“What kind of books does she like to read?” I’d asked.

And Jeannie had shaken her head. “It really doesn’t matter.”

One time, I brought Elizabeth an Anita Shreve novel, and I watched her read the same two pages 18 times.

I actually counted.

Elizabeth read with her finger scanning paragraphs and words. She would smile and she would chuckle at different places in the successive readings. She would get to the end of the second of the two back-to-back pages and a slight look of panic would appear on her face. She couldn't remember reading the book, so of course she didn't know whether she was supposed to turn the page.

"Why don't you read your book, Elizabeth?" I would suggest in exactly the same tone of voice Angela Lansbury used when she asked Laurence Harvey, “Why don't you play a game of Solitaire?” in one of my all time favorite movies, The Manchurian Candidate.

Mean of me, I know.

Because Elizabeth would immediately pick up the book and begin reading the same two pages again.

Alzheimer's was the epitome, somehow, of that old hippie mantra, Be Here Now. Elizabeth existed in the absolute present with no infiltration from past or future tenses. And that absolute present was getting smaller and smaller and smaller. That present was defined by an ever contracting recency bias.

###


Elizabeth lived three weeks after Jeannie finally moved her from the Pacific Grove Cottage.

The facility Jeannie found for her was actually very pleasant, not institutional at all, a row of small white cottages that had been built in the early 20th century and that were not dissimilar in appearance from Elizabeth’s own tiny home.

Towards the end, Tony told me, Elizabeth didn’t recognize Jeannie at all.

“She’d just lay there stoking Jeannie’s arm,” Tony said. “And Jeannie would ask her, ‘Do you know who I am?’ And Elizabeth would say, ‘No, but I know I love you.’”

“Demented old woman or Buddha saint?” I asked facetiously. “You be the judge. How much did the cottage end up selling for?”

“”It was appraised at 2.1 million. But Jeannie’s not going to sell. She can borrow against just as effectively.”

“So now you’re rich!” I said. “Jeannie won’t talk to me at all. Did I do something? Because honestly, if I did, I don’t know what it was.“

“You didn’t do anything,” Tony said.

“I thought we were friends,” I said. “I mean, I know I can be a jerk. I talk too loudly, I'm really tactless at times. I've consistently made all the wrong choices throughout my entire life. But I like to think I mean well. That there's something about me that's worthwhile. That I'm lovable. That if someone were to see the shit I go through on a daily basis that they’d forgive me my numerous trespasses. That they’d have my back –“

“Trust me,” Tony said. “It's not you. It's her. Jeannie thinks she killed her mother."

"And that I told her to?" I asked.

Tony shrugged. "Well, I did too. I keep hoping it's time limited. Because living with her is a real drag."

###


I never talked to Jeannie again after Elizabeth’s funeral.

Sydney and Robin are all grown up now. They recently reconnected on Facebook. He’s at Syracuse University; she’s at Bennington.

Fifteen years have passed.

“Sidney’s dad finally got to be a professor!” Robin reported to me. “In Santa Barbara!”

“Wow!” I said. “And how does Jeannie like Santa Barbara?”

“Oh, they got divorced.”
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When she tells the story, it always begins when they take the kid away from her.

“But they must have had a reason,” I say.

She shakes her head. Her eyes fill up with tears. “He had it in for me,” she says. “My ex. He was gonna do whatever he had to do to bring me down, and he got his whole family on his side. And I fought it. I really fought it! The lawyers’ fees and everything. I really thought they liked me. You know, I was living with my ex’s Dad, taking care of him, when it all began to happen.”

Downward spirals are always funnels that begin as disturbances somewhere high above the ground. She might as well have begun her story the day she married her husband. The day the kid was born. The day she was born.

“Yes and then what happened?” I ask.

“And then I –“ She swallows hard. “This was in Florida. I cut hair. I had a license, you know, from the state. I got a DUI –“

“If you got a DUI, chances are you don’t have a license from the state anymore,” I say as gently as I can.

She looks down. She sighs. She twiddles her fingers. “You know the worst thing?” she asks with a dazzling smile. “The worst thing is that I can’t even buy cigarettes. I’d kill for a cigarette.” Then she instantly looks across at me as though she’s afraid that I might take that seriously. “I don’t mean I’d really kill someone,” she says.

“It’s a figure of speech,” I say. “I get that. Yes, and then what?”

“And then, I –“ She closes her eyes. “I couldn’t stay – It was too hard for me to stay, you know, I’d lost my kid.”

“How’d you get from Florida to here?” I ask.

“I –“ She opens her eyes then closes them again, and shakes her head. “I have family here. That’s why I came. I’ve been here four months.”

“So your family can help you!”

“I was in Maine before that. Staying with friends. Yes. And then I – came here –“

“So your family can help you!” I say once more immensely relieved. Problem solved! Because there was little enough that I could do in practical terms to help this woman, though my heart went out to her and -- God forgive me -- I worried about her more than I worried about other homeless people I might happen to see on the street. She was white. She was blonde. She’d been very pretty once, and she was still attractive. A rape and homicide statistic waiting to happen, in other words. As opposed to simply a homicide statistic.

She shook her head again. “My family doesn’t want to have anything to do with me,” she says. “I went to see my brother as soon as I got here. Knocked on his door, he looked me up and down. Wouldn’t even invite me into his house. I’ve got a stepmother here, too, but she –“ She sighs.

No use asking her why her brother won’t let her into his house, I think to myself. The story always has to do with alcohol or drugs or requests for money. Yes, and sometimes thefts when those verbal requests don't pan out.

“Then go to Social Services,” I say. “They’ve got to help you.”

“They say they can’t unless I show them my divorce papers,” she says. “My divorce papers got stolen along with most of the rest of my stuff in one of those shelters. Do you know what those shelters are like? People screaming and fighting with each other all night long. I just – I can’t –“

I frown. I look at the two neat shopping totes she carries. They’re filled with carefully folded clothes. “That’s everything you own?”

“Everything I own now,” she says bitterly.

“So where do you sleep?” I ask.

“At the train station,” she says. “They’re not supposed to let me but the guy who works there nights is nice. So he does. They’ve got a pretty good bathroom there too, so I keep clean.”

Indeed, she is very well groomed. In fact, if you looked at the two of us side by side and you were forced to choose, I think you might pick me as the homeless person. I’m a bit of a slob. My hems are always coming unraveled, there are often food stains on my sweaters and sometimes dirt under my fingernails. My hair frequently needs combing. In contrast, she is very well put together, her long blonde hair almost soignee, mascara on her lashes, gloss on her lips.

“Dawn –“That was her name. Dawn. “I don’t know what to say. I mean, if I had a couch, I’d let you crash on it, but I’m renting a room in a house –“

She shook her head. “Thanks for listening. I don’t – I can’t believe – Thanks for listening.”

I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the story she’d intimated to me was essentially true, that Dawn was a woman who’d made some singularly bad choices in her life, bad choices involving drugs and alcohol and poor impulse control, and possibly the types small time criminal incidents that buzz around those things like gnats on a hot summer day. But surely she deserved some kind of second chance. Some opportunity for redemption.

Instead, I figured chances were good that the next Yes, and then… ? would involve her raped and murdered body in the underbrush along the Hudson River less than a quarter of a mile from the train station where she slept every night.

And I was powerless to stop that.

When disturbances in the atmosphere happen and the airplane starts to go down, says the still, small voice inside my head, they tell you to make sure your own oxygen mask is on tight before you start messing around with someone else’s. Girlfriend, your oxygen mask ain’t all that secure to go messin' around with somebody else's --

And then I said goodbye to Dawn.

And then I walked away.

###


Dawn is a real person whom I met at the local library. She published an editorial in the local paper last weekend, in part about her own situation. I did manage to track down a case manager at a local community nonprofit who says she is willing to work with Dawn if Dawn is willing to work with her, so hopefully Dawn's story will have a happy ending.

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