Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Dead Fish

My neighbor's neighbor just came by to "see the fishtank." I stood in the doorway with my bathrobe on and smiled and blinked. Really I couldn't believe he was standing there asking to see my fishtank, and he was wearing a smug look. His look said, "I know you don't have a fishtank requiring a snow shovel, I know you were just being nasty." He was just smiling and blinking, but that look was there, between the blinks. I spread my smile a little broader and responded, "Oh...didn't you hear? I thought M would have told you. The fish died. That was why I needed the snow shovel, well eventually that was why I needed the snow shovel. Not at first. They weren't dead at first, but after the incident...well...they didn't survive."

Oh yes, that smug look just sort of...leaked off my neighbor's neighbor's face. I could see his wheels spinning. He was thinking of something to say, and I was ready. He doesn't know who he is dealing with. I am a novelist, a professional liar.

Now this neighbor? He is not among my favorites. First off, he never waves hello. Ever. It leaves you feeling like you have germs. And I don't have germs. And a few months back, I was watching out my window for my son to come up from the bus and this neigbhbor drove by and I saw him slow his Volvo stationwagon and lower his window and I saw the boys, who had congregated on my lawn, all turn to face the car, and I saw their faces turn fearful. I opened the door as the neighbor drove away and called down and my boy and his friends ran up to the house to tell me that the neighbor had admonished them not to throw gravel at the street sign that he paid for with his tax dollars. And here's the thing: I am not a supporter of vandalism of public street signs, but if they were throwing gravel, I didn't even notice it and I was watching.

Since then, I've been waiting to put some sand in his underpants.

He said, "Your fish died? Convenient, isn't it?" I just stared at him and my smile faded; I was just blinking now.

"Convenient? What could you possibly mean?"

His eyes turned steely and his mouth was tight. "You know what I mean. Isn't it convenient that when someone comes to see your purported giant fishtank with who knows what manner of aquatic beasts within, that they have mysteriously died and are not available for viewing?" He raised his eyebrows. "Convenient."

My mouth dropped open. He thought he had my number, but again, he doesn't understand that I have created a story where 5 enormously fat girls are the greatest sex symbols of our time, and where an ancient Brahmin curse can fell one child in every generation. I found my penchant for grandiloquence coming on, but I held it in check in favor of a more punchy dialogue.

"First off, Mr. K,"
"Please, call me J"
"I'd rather not, I find that I do not like you."
"Excellent, because I do not like you either, Mrs. Hampton."
"Excellent, indeed."
"You were saying, first off?"
"I do not need reminding of my place in the conversation."
"Continue then, please. I'm all ears."
"You are not all ears, that would be far more innocuous. You are mean and heavyhanded. Coming to my house to mock me in my grief, are you not aware that there are small children here? Do you know what it takes to raise Trevally from the Great Barrier Reef in your own home? It is a labor of love Mr. K. A labor of love." (Now the Trevally I got from my novel, there are Trevally in there, so it was right on the tip of my tongue and I had already done a bit of research in case of questions, and I figured if he read my book, he might understand why I would have put them in my novel, being that I owned a pair, even though I didn't really). I then brought up some tears and turned my back.
He was silent for a while, but I did feel he wasn't done yet. And he wasn't.
"What were their names?" he asked suspiciously.
"Polly and Delilah."
"Unusual names for fish."
"Unusual? Sir, please tell me what usual names for fish are?"
He was silent. Because his comment was stupid.
I continued, "Polly comes from Penelope, her name was actually Penelope but we called her Polly and Delilah...well...she was a powerful woman. Penelope too. I named them for powerful women." I turned around dramatically and pushed my hair back from my face; I was hoping that my eyes were shining in the light from the front door. There was still snow on the ground so the light was particularly bright but not harsh. Good light. I had noted this earlier in the day. "You know, Mr. K, I have a love of naming things. Well...I guess you wouldn't know this. You don't really know me, but I think that is one of the best things about being a novelist, I get to name everyone and everything." I sniffed lightly and wiped my eyes, "I do miss my fish." I swallowed.
Mr. K, in the doorway, unprepared for Trevally and Polly and Delilah and the Great Barrier Reef just blinked and stood. He didn't believe me, but he wasn't sure.
"Where did you put the tank?"
"Well, I had to have a special pick up. It broke...you know...during the incident."

He coughed and hemmed and turned to walk away and turned back. Haltingly he asked, "What...actually..you know...happened?"

I looked him straight in the face and answered. "Polly was larger and more aggressive, she always was, but this time when I threw in the chum, she was at the bottom of the tank and Delilah got there first. Well...something snapped. In Polly. I mean mentally. Emotionally, you know. She came up from below and ran her teeth along Delilah's abdomen. I had gone to get the snow shovel because my own feeding jug had a little crack in it. I had thrown in the first bit of food when I noticed and I didn't want to make a mess, so I went to M's to borrow the shovel so I could finish feeding them, and when I got back...well... it was a red sea of pain in there...and I tried to use the snow shovel to break them up but...well..Trevally are strong, prehistoric creatures. They have seen worse than snow shovels." I gathered my lips together and turned them in. I thought it probably looked like being strong.

"Oh my GOD!" Mr. K was overwhelmed.

I nodded and sighed deeply.

"Is there anything I can do? For you? For your family?"

"Oh no, no thank you. We are doing well. I might get some new ones eventually. Not yet. When we have recovered and are well again."

Mr. K turned and walked down my front steps. He turned at the bottom and looked up at me, "Look...I'm sorry for coming over here like that. I just...sometimes I get wound up."

I smiled and waved like it was nothing.

"Okay then," he continued. He waved. He waved. "Good bye. I'l see you soon."

"Good by J." I called him by his first name. He turned around and his eyes were tearful. "Good by Sujatha," he replied, and walked out of sight.

I closed the door and turned back into my house. My reputation was safe. I was still crazy in a good way.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Perpetuating The Myth That I am Crazy

Today I had to dig out the car. Well, the car was in the garage, but I had to dig out the driveway. I spent nearly an hour looking for the snow shovel. I didn't find it and I went up the street and borrowed my neighbor's. She was kind and generous with her snow shovel. I trudged back down the street. On the way I saw her neighbor. He's my neighbor too, just further from me than from her, which is probably all for the best. He said, "You gonna dig out?" I said, "No, no, what would make you think that?" He smiled and blinked at me. I smiled and blinked back. I wondered if he would continue, you know...answer my question, 'cause I was in the mood for more of this. So, I just stood there in my boots and my big coat and my hat and gloves, two pairs, and holding a snow shovel, just smiling and waiting. Like it was a conversation rather than a bit of neighborly bullshit after a storm. "Sure did come down out there, didn't it?!" "Boy, makes you want to be a kid again." Another neighbor said that to me yesterday, the one about wanting to be a kid again. I said, "No. It doesn't. I was an immigrant child. We weren't allowed out in the snow." And then I just did the smiling and blinking thing.

This was true. We were not allowed out in the snow. Because it would be cold. The risk of pneumonia, frostbite, gangrene, malaria, genital herpes, who knew what could be living out there in that snow. Spores. Just waiting for the warmth of our innocent bodies to come to life, breed and spawn inside the swaddling of our bundled bodies. My neigbhor also just smiled and blinked. I know they think I'm crazy. I'm perpetuating that myth. It keeps it quiet during the day and there are fewer "playdates."

But this other guy, my neighbor's neighbor, he's a bold one. He answers me, he says, "Well...the shovel." So I looked down at my shovel and said, "What this? This isn't to dig out. This is for the fish tank." And his mouth actually opened, which was what I was going for. I smiled and batted my eyes, prettily I hoped, and said, "Bye then!" And continued down to the house.

And the only problem then was that he was still out there and he had stopped his own digging out to watch me walk back down the street, which was a problem, because I really needed to dig out, but I kind of liked the whole concept of the fishtank needing the snow shovel. My writer's mind was whirring with the details. Like...obviously this is a HUGE fishtank and perhaps it even has small sharks in it. And what on earth would have happened that would make me need a snow shovel for sharks...a dead shark maybe? Maybe to break up a shark fight? Anyway, I liked the idea and so I liked the idea of my neighbor's neighbor really wondering about it. And I knew the whole tale would unravel and I would just look mean spirited or even crazy in a bad way if I simply got to work on my driveway. So you see how I had gone and gotten myself in a situation. What a tangled web we weave... So I went inside and spent the next hour or so watching through the window for him to leave his driveway, but he was just working and working like a dog out there. I'm not sure about him; it seemed a little excessive.

I considered calling a service to come do the driveway, but that struck me as a bit much to perpetuate both the shark myth and the myth that I am crazy but in a good way. So instead, I just waited until nightfall, when I knew he would be inside eating or sleeping or something, and dug out the driveway in the dark.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tyrone the Houseguest

Tyrone is my new houseguest, and I believe he has Pepe in a twist. Tyrone is not blind so I will not talk about his pelvis, which isn't bulgy anyway. Oh. My apologies. Tyrone would like me to take that back, he insists his pelvis is bulgy, but in a very good way.

Tyrone is my friend so I do not peek at him through the refrigerator. Though he has been my Bikram instructor, and therefore I have seen him in skimpy clothing, I honestly have not peeked. Tyrone is my friend. He is my houseguest only because there are 24 inches of snow outside, not because he was put out of other lodging in the cold of December. He is always welcome here. He is Fun in a Snowstorm. FIAS.

Today we made Jazz Hands cookies and ate soup and bread. I looked up and caught Pepe peeking at us through the crack between the refrigerator door and the box, but of course Pepe is blind. I don't know why he bothered. I asked him to join us, even to decorate cookies in his own, Braille-infused way, but he just sidled out of the room, blushing like a girl, tittering like a fool, and ambling like a crab. Sideways. If only Pepe could see himself, he would know how ridiculous he looks behaving like that. Just sit down and have some soup Pepe, Tyrone will not bite you!

I believe if I had told Pepe that Tyrone would bite him, he would have been at the table lickety split. How he knows that Tyrone is 6'4" and looks like Mr. Clean is beyond me. Perhaps the blind use a particular proprioceptive process to discern the heights and girths of those who are speaking.Using this logic: Tyrone's voice falls from above=tall. Tyrone's voice is resonant like a bell=powerfully built.

There are also these Mr. Clean-like aspects of Tyrone: Black, double earrings, shaved head. So, though I do not believe Pepe has felt Tyrone, he clearly knows. And he is blind, so there are other sensors at work.

Frankly, it intrigues me. Pepe grows more outrageously mysterious day by day. And his subwaist/superthigh fermentation process continues. I believe now that some of the bulginess is gaseous, rather than solid. An emission of his yeasty regions. I find myself wondering if his jeans will explode like a soda bottle left in a hot car, or if his skin will rise like dough, puffing him up...a blind Violet Beauregarde...

If Tyrone is trapped here again tomorrow, we are planning on writing the score for our show: The Tip Tap Trifecta & Cavalcade. When Pepe hears the music, he will not be able to resist joining in. And then our show will have not only horses, leprauchauns, **jazz hands** and fanfare, but also a rolly polly blind man tittering, tottering and sidling like a crab. Mayhem will ensue. Hilarity. Hijinx. A show for all ages, performed by land and by sea, in retirement homes and elementary schools. Around the globe.

And if Tyrone is trapped again the day following, we will formalize our plans for world domination; Tyrone has a Mac.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pepe the Houseguest

I have a houseguest whose names is Pepe. This is ridiculous enough, but it's worse. He wears pants that are too small in the entire pelvic region, front and back; really too narrow describes them better than too small and if you can imagine, this makes his name, Pepe, even more ludicrious. Somehow, he does not have a muffin top in these pants. I think that it is because his pelvic region is bulgier than normal human proportions. So his waistband suits his dimensions. It is an unusual body. I have examined it furtively, through the crack between the refrigerator door and the box. It is so odd, this narrowness of pants and waist, yet bulgy, feminine pelvis. His legs are thin too. He is only pelvically bulgy. I have caught my children looking at him oddly. For them it might be other things. His tendency to sing songs he claims are Chinese opera, maybe... The songs sound like Spanish, but they are definitely not Spanish. They just have a Spanish sound with Chinese operatic qualities. This is very unpleasing. My daughter, she of the long eyebrows and deep silences, makes a dramatic face and archly leaves the room, trailing her crochet yarn behind her. My son, of the decidedly more joyful cheeks can barely contain himself. He looks at me first, his face near bursting, runs away and is howling all the way up the stairs. I smile and stick my head back into the refrigerator to examine his odd physique. In fairness, he sings his Chinese opera this way because of the poor voice quality on his computer. He doesn't know better.

It is not my fault he is here. Okay...it is my fault he is here. DH tells me so, and he is right and being a real sport about it. I think he finds the juxtaposition of himself and Pepe as working in his favor. Which it is.

But it is not my fault he is here except that I told him he could stay. But at the time, I only thought he had a bulgy pelvis and really who cares? I did not know he ate only at 1am and 4am and that he was unable to get wet. Any part of him. Unable to be wet.

I think this is why I am so fascinated with his bulgy pelvis and narrow pants, just the thought of what is going on in there piques my curiosity as a storyteller. Frankly, this is why I don't tell him to leave. I am waiting for him to ferment completely, just to see what happens.

You might be wondering how I dare to write a blogpost about Pepe, considering he is my houseguest. Well, on top of everything else, Pepe is blind, which is why I had to say he could stay when he found himself without alternatives in a cruel December. Pepe is blind, and he has a computer, but the voice quality of his reader is so poor that it sounds like his Spanish/Chinese opera, which is why he sings as he does. He doesn't know any better.

Today, Pepe is making dinner. I plan to feed the kids on the way home from school and then just come home and see what happens. Their directions are not to eat anything Pepe gives them, but to smile and nod and say, "mmmmmm." We can do this because Pepe is blind.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Future of the Bold and Audacious Novel

There is an audacity in writing that I admire and aspire to. It is a particular touch that really is very moving to me. We see it very rarely these days. It is clear that American publishers, responding to American readers, are extremely cautious in fiction. Books that go on too long can not be published, certainly not until you have a tried and true following. This is sad on many levels. Writing to satisfy an audience whose tastes are whetted by Real Housewives and whose attention spans grow shorter and shorter from more and more instant gratification will only give the literary novelist an ulcer. It won't be pretty. We will lose the magic.

Already I wonder if it would be possible for Salman Rushdie to have published Midnight's Children in today's market, as a debut novelist. It was actually Rushdie's second novel, but his first novel, Grimus, was largely ignored, so he surely didn't have a big following yet. I really doubt such a sprawling, exceedingly long, abstract novel (which also won the Booker Prize in '81 and the Best of the Booker, as well) could be published now by a relative unknown. The absence of that book from our literature would be a terrible void. I fear we are on our way to a literary world with patulous holes where the lasting magic would have been.

I have read a lot of beautiful, beautiful books, but there are few that throb with the kind of bold audacity I am referring to. There will always be beautiful books but it is those raucously courageous ones I fear for. Right now, off the top of my head I can think of three of this specific genre: Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin (which absolutely, beyond a doubt changed my life and made me a writer), A Confederacy of Dunces (which I read when I was quite young and ought to reread just to be sure I am right...but I know I am right), and The Yiddish Policemen's Union (which I didn't know I was going to love in the beginning, but which turned into one of the most wholly satisfying, fantastically robust, gigantic, prodigious and overall amazing reads of my entire life). These authors took great literary leaps and wrote books that will resonate forever. So here's the thing: John Kennedy Toole committed suicide because this book was rejected and rejected and rejected. After he died, his mother found the manuscript and sent it in with a long letter and it was published to great acclaim. Helprin? I read an interview with him once where he was asked why, as a highly educated man, he chose to work as a dishwasher while writing this book. He replied to the effect that it is better to work as a dishwasher and to retain your literary integrity than to work on an advance for an unfinished book which then your publisher gets to weigh in on and demand changes to. Once they have paid you, they own your work. He said that now publishing houses have even less integrity and that the author who works on an advance is almost certain to have to make these types of concessions. At least that is how I interpreted what he said. It really struck me as a pearl to hold on to. Chabon is Chabon. He won the Pulitzer Prize, he has written successful screenplays; maybe he no longer has to worry about hearing, "No. You can't write a book that is purportedly in Yiddish about a fictional Jewish town in Alaska which has one fabulous riff after another and which amounts to a literary crime novel of Jews." Maybe they just don't say no to him anymore. Maybe Chabon has earned carte blanche. Thank God he has earned it with beautiful work, not just work that sells a lot of copies. He might be one of our few corners of refuge.

I can say that when I finished As It Was Written, it was nearly 800 pages. Too long, I guess. But it was THAT book that I always say was driven by Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. I worry that one day he might read that he inspired me so and therefore go pick up my book and read it and wonder..."in what way could my book have possibly inspired this one?" Though I hope he would like it all the same. But the truth is that all that wackiness, all that tangential audacity, all those riffs for the sake of riffs, (because I love to write), gone. One after the other after the other, CUT AWAY GONE. And it was those elements that made me cry with ambition when I read Helprin, that he wrote like someone who just loved to write. I believe there is beauty and worth in that kind of bold storytelling, literary explosiveness and vigor.

Anyway, it is a fear of mine, a horizon with no books that make us shriek in disbelief. "HOW DID HE DO THAT??!! WOW!" Maybe I am one of the few who reads that way, who looks for that in a book. But for me and those of my ilk, I do worry about what the future holds.

Just a thought for today.

Peace, and as always, send the muse!

S