A couple days or weeks or less later, Susannah and I got stranded at the Hollywood Grill at Ashland and North Ave. early early early one morning on the way home from a bachelorette party night for her former sister-in-law for which I was to have served as the ride-home chauffeur. Over 3 a.m. plates of whatever beautifully greasy slop was served up that night, our waitress happened to ask if we’d parked in their then-brand-new mini-parking garage along Ashland.
Bad news: “You won’t be able to get your car for a while,” she said. “It’s a crime scene.”
Someone had been shot.
Then, well, the return round 9 a.m. to pick up the car, ensuing paranoid anticipation of strike three, a drunk psycho who lived across the alley behind our apartment, angry heads backlit in windows across Walton St. in front of it, release through writing, as it were. You can read it in Cabildo online or download the issue pdf here. Or: Write me and I’ll send you a copy: todd [at] the2ndhand.com.
Likewise goes for new Triumph postcards I cooked up recently, compliant with postal regulations (yes, you can mail them) and wonderfully printed via Modern Postcard. As Jerome Ludwig said recently of postcards, surely not the first such person: “the original text message.” If you’re up for handing around small stacks in your town, let me know and I’ll mail you a cache. There’s a brief excerpt from “The Stupidist Manifesto” on the the front side, more or less blank on the back. Looking pretty good, eh?:
Another story from my short-story collection is on the web, this one at the Vol. 1 Brooklyn online venue. It’s “Death in Hammond,” from the latter part of the collection — the night on which the piece is set is loosely based on an old friend’s bachelor party, which did in fact involve a sighting of Keanu Reeves at a Chicago steakhouse, where none were too attentive, in fact, and courses were set for only marginally floating casinos, where momentous things would happen, no doubt. I hope you enjoy.
Come out and see her at the event Tuesday, Fat Bottom, 900 East Main Street, Nashville, 7 p.m. sharp.For my own part, the Kickstarter effort ongoing to raise funds for a big printing of Triumph of the Ape, my shorts collection, proceeds — if you haven’t laid down reservations for a copy, you can do it with a $12 pledge here. At the East Side Storytelling event May 21 I read a slightly cut version of the first story in the book, “The Color of Magic.” The story was originally penned in 2007, prompted by Jonathan Messinger’s erstwhile (second use of that word in this post — I always liked its nostalgic character, unlike other certain vulgarities, like the word mulch) Dollar Store reading series and a growing sense within my bowels and brain that life was taking a turn. Down in Alabama, where Susannah and I had just moved, there was quite a bit of talk about father- and motherhood, about life sustainability and keys to happiness and there was also a trip to visit some friends in Vicksburg with all manner of psychedelic potentials if not realities…. The story, first published in 2009 in Birmingham-based Red Mountain Review, interrogates some of these things. Follow this link to listen to the audio from the event, also featuring the one and only Mike Willis of the Cumberland Collective. About halfway through the set, we read/play alternate versions of a story/song we performed a sort of hands-off collaboration on, “Don’t Tempt the River.” My portion of the piece originally appeared in this fictional collaboration between myself, C.T. Ballentine and Henry Ronan-Daniell. Enjoy.
A-and oh finally, my S.C. brother sends along this classic Waylon album cover along with a note to this effect: “Man, just grow your hair out a little more and find a leather vest and a big-ass belt buckle, you’ve got yr Halloween costume.” Did Hank really do it this way?
T2Hers, a couple-few bits of news to share today:
1. Triumph of the Ape, the story collection I released as an ebook-only affair last year and then rather quietly took to print earlier this year is now on a run on Kickstarter to raise money to fund an initial sizable print run. You can contribute to the campaign — $12 level gets you the book and there are several other rewards, from past books of mine to THE2NDHAND’s past big anthologies (All Hands On, 2004, 2011) — via this link. Thanks in advance if you do! It’ll be live through around the end of June.
2. In the interim, for any writers out there: I do have a limited number of print review copies (as well as ebook versions) that are available should you be able to place a review someplace (or simply devote a blog post to the book).
3. Finally, Nashville folks, there’s also a reading Tuesday (May 21) where I’d love to see you in attendance! I’ll be reading a bit from the book. Find more details about all of this in the release-type text below, or in a new essay I wrote for the Tennessee Humanities’ Chapter 16 lit/review site here.
May 21 marks the first of the readings Todd Dills will be doing in support of Triumph of the Ape. In Nashville, Tenn., where he currently lives, he joins songwriter Mike Willis (of the great and awesome Cumberland Collective — you can check out my odd fictional paean to the group here) and East Side Storytelling host Chuck Beard at Fat Bottom Brewery, 900 Main Street, in East Nashville at 7 p.m. The reading and performance will be recorded and broadcast on Nashville’ WAMB radio, 1200 AM and 99.3 FM, at 2 p.m. the following Saturday.
The following bit of Nashville fiction samples lines from songs recorded by the Cumberland Collective March 3-5 at Blackbird Studios and written, variously, by Jason Eskridge, Clay Evans, Mike Willis, Connor Rand and other cowriting members. For more on the session, stay tuned. And you can find the crew on Facebook here.
He was a professional loiterer, a master in the art of keeping all his love to himself whose place was adjacent to speeding traffic atop one of just a few in-city walk- and motorways over a mighty river, the Cumberland. His front porch looked down on the mammoth Marathon diesel tanks in a tank farm just off the Colonial Pipeline and, farther east and north along the roadway, the downtown truck stop where the world passed through the little-big burg, Nashville, “Guitar Town” the highway haulers called it, “Music City” in the minds of most.
He called it home, if he called it at all.
“I’m OK with the way that I am,” he said to himself and anyone who would listen, but among the latter he could count only a very few, mostly Nashville cops who occasionally harassed him into moving down along the river banks and out of the wind, out of the way of the maybe two pedestrians who might actually find their way to his abode – Guitar Town was a car town, after all.
He was not exactly OK with the way that he was, if he really thought about it. He was running behind of too much, and, not afraid of changing, he would make something out of nothing. A sign, with which he would broadcast. He set about building it with wood of his city, of his river, planks he found washed up on the grounds of the tank farm, old nails not exactly pilfered from same, black paint for the base of the boards, white for the letters. A man named Denton who called himself Peterbilt after the truck manufacturer whose primary assembly factory stood tall in the Texas town that shared his name, and whose Nashville plant had seen more glorious times, found him that morning painting the giant collections of boards. Peterbilt walked due west/south, headed downtown, and after stopping to hear our hero’s story said he ought write the one about the alligator who became friends with the bassett hound because she decided a few things on her own, the alligator. Like there was usually no need to stop and think this thing through, life, there was too much hurt to go around, too many bassett hounds being eaten by alligators.
The two beasts, predator and prey, a songplugger promising a cut on a Kenny Chesney record for $200 and the streetcorner cat that paid him, would come together and prove that even nature could produce elegant harmonies from disparate parts, pull up a chair and sit on down, plenty love to go around. “This is Nashville,” as if “we need it,” Peterbilt said and walked on.
“He’s wearing tight women’s jeans,” the sign painter said to himself, watching Pete roll his way away. “I’ll never understand it.” But maybe he did.
He painted. He would face his sign in the direction of the truckers, where if it actually caught their eye it might have its biggest impact, sending little ripples down major U.S. highways and away from here. Only then might the folks behind the sign, the way Peterbilt went, bother to take a cruise from downtown and parts west across the river to the east side to see it. “This man can’t be trusted,” he said, though Peterbilt had a point, didn’t he. Just as out west, up north, maybe down south right here in Tennessee, a sign, his shingle, his face to the world, the thing needed a story to make your sister want to clap her hands, make you stand up and shot, scream out loud … Patience, he said, whole lot of patience — maybe his message — and went on painting.
The signboard was near 20 by 20, buttressed against March winds by appropriately-positioned four-by-fours comprising a sturdy four-post support system but just wobbly enough to lend working around it a feeling as if the wheels are coming off a little bit — the sign painter put everything he had into the last brushstroke on the bottom left edge and the board rocked.
Wind blew the paint dry and trash in from the east before it swirled at the bulkhead of downtown around the courthouse and candy wrappers and dry tax returns scattered by the two-year-old flood flew back the way it came. He sat. He missed Peterbilt, everybody needs pals. “He’ll be back,” he said.
Days passed. He dissembled the structure four different times after he’d painted his initial message for the truckers — ultimately a missive, the men were too busy, his patience seeping further out of him time after time he got the thing back up and some goon cruising downtown from East Nashville called in a tip, a cruiser stormed the other way with its lights loud and cutting the night….
But he had it back up when he needed it. “Pull up a chair and sit on down,” he said when Pete came on back down the bridge like he’d never left, though he’d traded in his ladies’ jeans for black chinos and an Affliction t-shirt. He picked up right where he left off. “Everywhere I turn, man, it seems like everyone is telling me what I should be,” he said. “No use keeping your heart all to yourself, though. Couldn’t look myself in the eye if I kept that up.”
“We might be kindred spirits, my man,” said the sign painter.
“Can I get an Amen? You have seen the light. Me, I live my life like a truck on the highway, mostly, but everybody changes.”
Am I hearing real words? the sign painter asked himself, slow to accept his own intuition about the one man with whom he’d had a real conversation since it all began, the sign.
Pete moved from behind the sign around front to where he could see what it said. “‘I am out here,’” he quoted. “Nah, man. That ain’t the way your mama brought you up to be. You’re going about it all wrong.”
Or was he just feeling the smoke blow? The sign painter leaned toward the former, leaned into the conversation with renewed vigor.
“You can’t just declare it, you know. My buddy Jason’s got this chili bar, man, this restaurant,” Pete said. “Like he says, you’ve gotta give them something they can chew on, some meat, man, though he makes a godawful-good veggie chili, too.”
So, the sign painter asked, “What would you have me say?”
“First thing I’d do is turn this sign around, brother,” he said. He squatted and got his biceps and parts of his shoulders under the front middle and lifted – the sign’s supports barely got a foot off the ground before the wind carried it and him forward, the sign painter rushing around to the other side to stop the forward progress and help get the monstrosity back on its feet.
“Dang,” Pete said. “I guess what goes around has its way of making its way back around to me.”
“Might write that on the sign.” But the sign painter was no victim, he was of this place, no antagonist any more than the truckers stopping for a night or Pete here might be.
“Nah,” Pete echoed. “How about this,” hands high, marking out the words laterally as he spoke, “‘A tumbleweed never puts roots down.’”
“Sounds like one for the truckers,” he said.
“Nah nah,” Pete said. “They already know it — they know you’re ‘out here,’ too, and they probably really don’t care. They don’t need to be reminded about tumbleweeds, man, and neither do they, really” – he pointed east into the neighborhoods – “though they might actually listen. Then he turned his pointer back around into the nest of skyscrapers: “They’re the ones that need it.”
So Pete and the sign painter turned his sign around and blacked over the old legend before replacing it. By the end, the winds died down and cold set in, a light late-winter snow dusting the legend’s edges just so. Pete wrapped one of the sign painters’ putrid blankets around his shoulders to wait for the aftermath. The two found an extra old chair down by the river and brought it back up to the bridge. They sat, and waited for the people to come.
There’s a series of blog posts all answering the same set of questions going around like a chain letter — in part, it will see something of a tentacle-end here, as I have been less-than-diligent about making certain friends and associates were lined up after me. There are two, however, folks perhaps more interesting than myself who will be taking part fairly soon, one a longtime T2Her who may or may not be living under an assumed name wherever he happens to be these days and the other a newer acquaintance/coconspirator living close by here in Guitar Town, as the highway haulers call it (find them at the end of what follows, a self-interrogation regarding my “long thing” long in the works). Gretchen Kalwinski gave me the big hand-clap over the turnbuckle to set me out on this, fyi — her addition to the “Next Big Thing” blog chain (whose name perhaps strokes my elementally narcissistic tendencies very nicely, thank you) you can find here. Well worth the time.
What is your working title of your book (or story)?
Shining Man, not that guy up there (yeah, that’s me)
Where did the idea come from for the book?
A couple places:
The extremities of bright light and darkness, the wild metaphorical possibilities of the activity of standing in traffic as a life’s pursuit, the character’s somewhat misanthropic but ultimately vulnerable and empathetic nature — all of these stuck with me through the years as I went about other business and watched a near-decade of war, greed, etc. takes it toll on the people and places around me. As the toll was becoming readily apparent in 2007, I was living in Birmingham, Ala., and picked the story back up for a long-ish amount of time before other projects intervened.
What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction, I believe, though Amazon at one point not so long ago had my first novel, Sons of the Rapture, categorized as “Men’s Adventure” or something similar — I suppose that might fit too!
There are some elements of mystery/noir, but they’re utilized to either satirical or character-building purposes, ultimately.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Are you serious? OK, I guess you are. The only actors who could potentially play the narrator that I can actually think of and name are way too old to do so by now, which may tell you a little about my connection with a lot of U.S. popular culture at this point. Actually, on second thought, the gent who played junkie/brit rock’n’roller/budding father figure Charlie in Lost I can sort of see as physically resembling my mental image of the character. Eh…
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A young man, learning of his father’s disappearance and possible death, flies off on a series of goose-chases to which he is unwitting, works without meaning at one gig after another and ultimately drops out of the mainstream of American life when he’s able to see with clarity the very simply reality that he’s not the only one dealing with the many barriers erected in front of his pursuit of meaning, happiness. (Long sentence, I know — I need to work on that. Gretchen did much better.)
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Are you serious? OK, once I finish it I’ll deal with that — the last two book projects I’ve undertaken (click through the image at the right for the latest) have been entirely self-driven (with pro bono help, of course — thanks again, everybody), and it’s very time-consuming to get all the pieces of a quality project together. If I can get help, I will take it.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Technically, I haven’t finished the first draft. But much of the material with this one has been rewritten over and over as I slowly move forward with the story. I’ve been working off and on since 2007 with this material, after the original short in 2000. The six years have been interrupted by those two book projects (in terms of writing, editing and producing), a full-time job writing for a couple magazines, and more, so saying I’ve been working on it for six years is not telling the whole story.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
As noted earlier, Invisible Man is a definite structural/broad-thematic inspiration. It will have some similarities to a number of first-person-told novels of coming of age or, rather, late coming of age and adjusting badly to adult life. Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex, maybe.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Cf. “where did the idea come from”/similar question above. Much of the inspiration these days is self-propelled, a matter of will, you could say, and creating the time to do the work. The Occupy phenomenon got me back into it in earnest a year and a half back, actually, supplying a sort of real-life corollary to a plot/thematic element I had long been struggling with how exactly to approach. Life is more interesting that fiction, reality catches up with fiction, all that.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It involves in its latter half or so a NASCAR driver and his team — Turner Bascombe is some senses intended as a contemporary version of wildman stock-car circuit pioneer Curtis Turner, one of the old driver-owners active mid-last century. Bascombe is something of an impossible figure in the reality of top-level stock-car racing today, being a successful driver-owner in an era of big-money multi-car teams and what-have-you, but I find the notion compelling and the potential for such a character great. I grew up near Charlotte, N.C., after all, home of most of the NASCAR teams, and a good bit of the novel is set there (the narrator spends a part of the book on the pit crew of the team after a chance meeting with Bascombe during a freeway traffic stand in Alabama on the eve of the Talladega race). I have an old affection for the racing pastime/sport/waste of perfectly good oil.
Chuck Beard is the proprietor the East Nashville-based East Side Story bookshop, dedicated to Nashville-based writers, primarily, and artists. He’s also the author of the novel Adventures Inside a Bright-Eyed Sky.
After a long series of silences and polite dismissals, often accompanied by jarring though ultimately appreciated words of high praise, from publishers numerous – some of the writers among you will no doubt feel the sentiment — I decided to take a collection of short stories long evolving and under way to publication myself via THE2NDHAND’s sometime book-publishing endeavor. Ebook only, but available in a host of formats to fit most of the devices — Kindle, iBooks, Nook, etc. — including our trusty desktops and laptops, out there.
The book’s called Triumph of the Ape, and, written primarily between the years 2000 and 2008, chronicles my scribbling tour through the go-go dark days of the first decade of our 21st Century — the triumph of course less jubilant than a matter of course here in America. The stories, riffing on various styles and genres from New South satire to end-of-days dirge, by turns reach back into the past of my native South Carolina and forward into grim and/or not-so-grim futures where love — and no shortage of laughter — nonetheless remain our best hopes.
Find more about it via this link, including some slightly less biased descriptions of it all from some very kind, awesome people. (A-and what about print, you say? Well, hold on — time and money, but of course. Any wonderful editors, agents, publishers, patrons looking for something keen, a partnership, etc., I’m all open ears and saucer eyes.)
If you can blog about it and/or are interested in a copy for review, writers among you, for certain be in touch: email@example.com.
Below find one of the stories, one of the few to have not seen prior publication outside of my own erstwhile blogging, where portions of it originally appeared in the year 2005, I believe it was.
While I’m at it, here’s a shoutout to the editors of the mags/projects that took on one or more of the stories in Triumph long before this release. Roll call: Red Mountain Review (Birmingham, Ala.), Lumpen (Chicago), Featherproof’s mini-books series (Chi), Chicago Noir (Akashic-released anthology, Neal Pollack edited), Hair Trigger (Chi), Knee Jerk (Chi), Kiss Machine (Toronto), and Holiday in Cambodia (limited-run chapbook put out by Annalemma).
In any case, enjoy the story:
High winter and Essie Mae Washington-Williams was on TV promoting her memoir, Dear Senator, about her semi-clandestine life as the illegitimate African-American daughter of the United States’ most notorious former segregationist. A picture of myself and said segregationist — he must’ve been in his 70s at the time, I was perhaps three — sits atop the mantle above the fake fireplace in my Chicago apartment. The old man looks happy enough, I guess, without a thought in his mind about any possible justification for his past, an interpretation I would make again and again, in my teenage years, meeting him repeatedly at various functions and being presented with the unfortunate opportunity to shake his limp, liver-spotted hand.
In the picture, the only one that I have from my prepubescent Carolina life, I am engaged in an activity whose legacy would follow me far into adulthood, a nervous fidgeting of hands. Strom Thurmond holds my three-year-old body high, and I’m doing my best, goddamnit, just to avert my eyes, I think, my baby hands poised in front of me, fingers half interlocked, nothing to hold on to but the old man’s face but God help us if I reached out for that. I leave the picture on the mantle to remind me the enemy is out there.
Visitors to my apartment get a kick out of it, too. Essie Mae wasn’t the only news item that season — it was a winter of repeat presidential inauguration for the done-up-and-come son of a Connecticut Yankee turned Texas cowpoke, a season of hurrah and hooray and guttural and disgusting huzzahing to the man’s evermore false message — America an economic ivory tower underpinned by a veritable caveman outlook, beset upon by the moral equivalent of club-wielding barbarians and responding in kind. Apropos, I wanted to do something dirty. I wanted to throw eggs at limousines on inauguration day as many of my upstanding Neanderthal friends were planning. That was the answer, I’d determined upon returning to Chicago from my folks’ home after Christmas, eggs that would crack and whose insides would dry on the black paint job, and woe to he or she who attempted to remove the dried remnants — a heinous fated awaited. Some kids hit my own American sedan once, and two weeks later, when finally the Chicago snow that had buried the bottom half of the vehicle sufficiently melted to grant access to the car’s driver-side door, I realized the calamity, proceeding to scour the spot with the heinously smelly sponge with which I commonly washed my dishes at the time. A mere five minutes in I’d ruined the paint job — the frozen egg remnants came off with application of hot water, but so did the color — further even than the numerous long key scratches on its flank already had, which is to say, irreparably.
Today I smoke. A lot. I like having something in my hands. If they’re empty and I find myself in a situation where things are expected of me — say I’m on the job, editors are asking questions about something I was supposed to do (maybe I did, maybe I didn’t) — my first instinct is to roll and light a cigarette and blow the smoke into the interlocutor’s face. Essie Mae Washington-Williams’ much more deferential personality manifested itself on the radio program, and I’d assume in the book though I’ll most certainly never read it, in a reflex action to continually apologize for the segregationist senator. Again, I wouldn’t have been so charitable. I walked out to work that day fuming a little, laughing all the while, at the preposterous history of the recently dead century-old man, to happen upon every window in my car shattered and a note scrawled on the back of a Spanish leaflet for a local grocery, whose edges fluttered in the slight winter breeze and which read, “motherfucker my chair bitch I know u.”
Chickens coming home to roost. Karma. I’d been on something of a crusade since the last snowstorm. In the time-honored American tradition of the citizenry’s utter lack of participation in anything resembling a community or society, my neighborhood’s denizens were using old lawn chairs and bits of board and other urban detritus to reserve “their” parking spaces in the public way while their cars were parked elsewhere — at work, for instance, or the grocery. To be fair, some street spaces were absolutely immaculate, having been shoveled dry by said denizens, while others, like the one where I’d been parked, were still buried a foot deep in snow but for tire tracks angling in and out of the street’s center right of way. But I had indeed shoveled, if only a little, and after digging at four or five different spots over the course of days and seeing said spots quite presumptively claimed later by someone’s ragged chairs, I began to take corrective action.
For three nights, I went out at 3 a.m. and furiously, however methodically, moved every chair or old bucket or, even, ironing board from my block, deposting each in the alley off my side of the street. I sat in my apartment in the dark till the break of day in hopes of catching the looks on the faces of men and women seeing their parking spaces taken, their chairs magically disappeared. My real hope in this, you see, was that they’d beam happy faces into the cosmos, see the ultimate error of their ways and chalk their losses up to experience.
Such, though, had not been the case. I’d yet to catch anyone. And each following day, miraculously, different chairs would be pulled out and used on different parking spaces and the cycle would repeat itself, three nights on.
On the fourth, I came home extremely late after a small get-together with a fellow South Carolinian, an old friend who, over drinks, brought up the subject of our late senator’s daughter. My friend thought it all quite laughable, really. He convinced me for the moment. Let us say, then, that my spirits were thus extremely high upon arrival home, so high that a measly wooden chair was not about to block my path to the glee of destruction.
There was nowhere to park, you see, with the exception of a space eight inches deep in snow and in the middle of which was placed, absurdly, its legs deep in the unshoveled snowdrift, a red wooden chair. I wasted no time in harnessing the inertia of my four-door sedan and backing in, tipping and then shattering the chair into a myriad pieces. I panicked — the cracking of the wood had been extremely loud, shattering the Chicago night — and pulled out immediately, rolling down the street to find another space, luckily only a half block from my apartment. I assumed now the chair’s owner saw me in the act, that or the big red splotch on the bumper from the contact, prime evidence.
Retribution is sweet release, I thought, standing on the street staring through the empty space where my windshield once was, the dashboard littered with small shards ofglass. I scanned the windows of the three-flats lining the block. Might the culprit bewatching me just now from an upper window? I pondered my options, ultimately deciding to call off work, after which I visited an auto-glass shop on Western Avenue (driving the few blocks with a 15-degree wind in my face) and spent a heinous amount for the replacements.
We pay for our actions — dearly. Most of us, anyway. Strom Thurmond, with respect to his illegitimate daughter, may have gotten off the hook entirely — at least emotionally. Essie Mae Washington-Williams tells stories to television talk-show hosts of traveling yearly to Atlanta from her various northern and/or west-coast homes to meet a representative of the senator who always bore an envelope of cash meant, it can only be assumed in my mind, to keep her quiet. She doesn’t quite see it that way. She interprets the cash as “his way”of caring for his estranged child, though Thurmond never actually made the delivery himself, nor did he ever come clean about his siring Essie Mae (who was now in her 70s and no longer any kind of “child” in the literal sense).
During the senator’s last days — you remember those times, full of mocking news reports of his many gaffs in the U.S. Senate, the man clearly around early adolescence on his journey back to infancy as he flirted with young Capitol interns, even going so far as to grab an ass or two, likewise using the old nasty epithet for the African-American men and women he employed — he saw fit to send only a single birthday card to Essie Mae, signed “Affectionately, Strom Thurmond…” on Senate office letterhead, maybe. I can’t remember. The journalist interviewing Essie really wanted to make a big deal of this letter, though I couldn’t see that it was, considering that the old man could hardly even put a sentence together during the entirety of his last term, much less a pen to paper. The television journalist must have asked the same question of Essie Mae four or five times in slightly different phrasing — “Do you resent his indifference?” “Does this make you feel slighted?” — trying to get a rise out of her, get her to lay all the hatred out on the table.
She wasn’t going for it. The old lady was promoting a memoir: her own emotional investment in the ordeal was little at this point; she’d take the money and run on back home, as she’d always done. This was somehow admirable, I thought.
My windshield replaced, I wrote my own note on a piece of hefty cardboard — “Happy, motherfucker?” it read. “We live in a society here!” I even signed it “Affectionately, Strom Thurmond,” just for kicks, and camped in my apartment into the wee hours, to the chagrin of my emotionally boxed-in girlfriend, once again to await the curious window breaker, the inevitable “return to the scene of the crime” of urban lore and television cop shows. As I sat through that afternoon and evening, lots of people walked by my car, strategically placed below my third-floor front window. Lots of people read the very large piece of cardboard stuck under the windshield wipers. But none had the look of a window smasher, I figured, and none lingered very long. I fell asleep at an uncertain point propped in the window, the advent of what would be a short, surgical war,but more importantly, a war of shadows, a murky war of words.
Meanwhile, the repeat ascendancy of George W. Bush to the abstract imperial throne approached, and at last the next day my urbane coworkers were engaged in snarky conversations about impending trips to D.C., about their own plans, or lack thereof, for the inauguration upcoming. I remembered my eggy design. But a quick search revealed last-minute ticket prices to have soared if they existed at all, and more importantly I picked up a copy of the Sun-Times in a café now just days before the celebration to find a picture of Mr. Bush blown wide across the front cover, the man predictably thin-lipped, his mouth gaping, and I couldn’t help but note looking quite like a particular chimpanzee I often visited at the zoo in Lincoln Park, a beast whose name I still can’t remember but whom I like to think of simply as Gilbo.
Gilbo likes to stand on his concrete perch and throw things at me when I’m there. Things like banana peels, which the zookeepers give him, I guess, preposterously, and which bounce very anticlimactically off the glass barrier between us. Among Gilbo’s other eccentricities are a penchant for addressing visitors such as me as his “fellow citizens,” after which he’ll go on and say things like “for the last nine days, the entire world has seen for itself the state of our union — and it is strong.” And then Gilbo will launch into diatribes in which he very clearly lies to me in every word. He once told me, for instance, that even though his pen in the brand-new Ape House smelled like feces — or more exactly “like a toilet with a large turd floating in it” — things were going just as he expected they should, that the workers, you know, they may have missed a pile here or there, and maybe even failed to spray some of the urine from the corner he used, but you’ve got to expect these kind of misapprehensivesions.
That word, misapprehensivesions, I don’t even think it exists, but it’s definitely the kind of word Gilbo uses. If you didn’t know better, you’d take him for a real smartypants.
At the terminus of his verbal bobbing and weaving I usually point the fact out to him that he is lying, and that I know it, but he just says it’s hard work sitting there all day and watching the people come and go on the outside making little baby faces at him when he’s got so many grand plans for his followers. “It’s hard work being President,” says the big ape, using the self-appointed title, as it were. Yes, Gilbo claims dominion over the lot of the zoo’s animals. I tell him, typically, to keep thinking, Butch Cassidy, it’s his strongsuit.
Gilbo doesn’t much like it when I come by.
I didn’t visit him this day. I had a long night ahead of me at the bar on a stool, where I worked a night a week as doorman. My car had sat all day while I was at the office downtown — apparently the message had not been received. I removed the cardboard from beneath the windshield wipers before driving to the bar, right on glorious Western Avenue, where I spent the night trying to read and getting much of nowhere, my recent battles holding on to a much more prominent position in my mind.
Western Avenue contains absolute mysteries. The road, purportedly the longest perfectly straight road in the nation, bisects my small street just a block and a half to the east of my apartment. The bar where I occasionally work sits on it far south of where I live, as well, and during my late-night trips back north on the road, I have become acquainted with the wonder of an old gentleman who stands at the red light I always catch at Lake Street — he washes the windows of passersby, a gentle wave of the hand is all it takes to wave him off, no need to get angry. But it’s what follows that is the ultimate discovery. Try it sometime if you’re in the windy city. When the Lake Street light turns green and your vehicle lurches forward down the nearly empty avenue, Western ceases her normally teasing ways and opens wide, each traffic light flashing to green as you approach just in time for your arrival so that it’s possible to end the mile or two north of Chicago Avenue at speeds in excess of 100 mph, if you like, while breaking only a single traffic law. I rarely take it much above 50, and even that’s beyond the legal limit — though I figure Chicago cops at 3 a.m. have more important things on their agendas.
I wonder if Strom Thurmond ever had the pleasure of a drive north on Western at 3 a.m.? Certainly my nemesis has never heard of the old man. That next morning, I woke propped in my window, having replaced the scrawled cardboard message and waiting for the interloper to see it, my gaze instinctively drawn to the specter of my car, whose windows had been spray-painted over in black. Again, there was a note. “hey storm fucku,” it read. I shelled out more cash to have the windows stripped of the paint, filed a police report, and left my own note then in further retaliation, scrawled on a piece ofcardboard and secured under the painted-over and nearly destroyed windshield wipers — by then they weren’t even needed, though, as the weather had improved to the point that the street was almost completely devoid of snow. My note read, “What do you look like? Sincerely, Strom Thurmond.”
The reply came promptly the next morning. “i have brown hair,” without this time any retaliatory damage or invective. A dialogue ensued, myself the interrogator, my nemesis the detainee. “Are you fat? Sincerely, Strom Thurmond.” And the answer, in the trademark all-lower-case: “yes very.”
“Do you enjoy breaking chairs over your knees like, say, Hulk Hogan or the NatureBoy Ric Flair?”
How quickly simple communication renders warring parties reconciled! I spent my spare time for a few days on the streets of my neighborhood, looking for a pro-wrestler-type, fat, brown-haired man or woman, even, all the while leaving messages, he/she Essie Mae to my Strom Thurmond. Then the final reply came with an attendant blow to the hood of the car, which was dented in. The note, answering my question, “Why do you continue to live? Affectionately, Strom Thurmond,” was “i love motherfucker.” And that was it. Every further request for elaboration, every further question, went unanswered, and the roles had shifted, the silent treatment the moral equivalent of a prison hunger strike. The Thurmond identity I could no longer claim with any wit or confidence, maybe. I don’t know, I got down a little and took a walk down Western all the way to the expressway, by the projects where boys threw rocks at me — I thought all the while of mystery, of the quality of mystery we can expect from our piddling lives. I smoked half a pack’s worth of hand-rolled cigarettes on that walk to keep my hands occupied, my fingers freezing in the cold wind where I rolled the last one, on the bridge over the freeway, cars streaming by below, wind blowing in great gusts to the west. The cigarette smoked, I tossed it finally into the traffic. I wrung my hands in the loud silence.
On returning to my apartment, I caught sight of the three-day-old newspaper: George W. Bush on the front page of the Sun-Times reminding me of my “friend” Gilbo the chimpanzee. Newspaper photo editors seemed to love running pictures of Bush mid-bark, right when he delivered some backhanded threat to one of those exotic Middle Eastern countries, his tiny lips pooched out in the middle of a word, his mouth a little open. I was filled with rage, fear, and hilarity at once. The inauguration scheduled for the morrow, I quickly tramped down to the corner grocery and cleaned out their egg case, then to the copy shop, where I got the Bush head enlarged to a full five-by-five-foot monster poster,which I took home and hung above my fake fireplace.I stacked the egg cartons along the mantel, where they would have rested through the night until, just at the inception of the oath of office, I would commence hurling egg after egg after egg right into the nose of his enlarged image. But the temptation, I’m afraid, of that imperial or imperious head in half-scowl proved too much to resist.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
This was my girlfriend, walking in at the end of the second dozen — admittedly, the grandiose effect of the Bush-head image was considerably lessened at that point, what with the now-smeared toner, the mess of egg whites and yolks running down the President’s chin and oozing slowly off the edge of the mantel, down into the fern in our fake fireplace.
My girlfriend’s next words: “Get the fuck out.”
She meant it literally, which was unfortunate to say the least. I’d been in the midst of a cathartic release of energy that, cut short, left me feeling quite glum. I made my way with a backpack to the zoo, where I found Gilbo in a state similar to my own, atop his perch picking idly at his nose and muttering to himself when I walked up to the glass.
When he saw me, though, he affected a stately bearing, pushing out his chest like a soldier at attention, and intoned, “After the shipwreck of communism came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “I just got kicked out of my house.”
Gilbo nodded. “We have seen our vulnerability and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder, violence will gather and multiply.”
“And what of your keepers?” I heckled. I pulled a banana from my pocket and teased him with it from this side of the glass. “Do you proprose an insurrection?”
Gilbo let fly a terrific scream, jumped from his perch and banged a fist hard against the glass, then beating his chest once and yelling, “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”
I grinned. “That might be two conclusions,” I said. He was a sly ape, he was. And freedom, sure, I thought, freedom for all. But I could not discount his implicit specific message, his desire to rid himself of his keepers. It was the first time his talk had chimed with anything close to the truth. Maybe the time of the great ape’s grand flourishing, in his walled-off world, was nigh. He banged on the glass again, harder this time, then going down on all fours and menacingly pacing back and forth in front of the slowly rising crowd of onlookers.
Gilbo wanted more.
“The great objective of ending tyranny,” he intoned, “is the concentrated work of generations. The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it.”
And the ape went on for over a quarter hour, an astounding outpouring. One man, also accustomed to Gilbo’s rants, remarked that it wasn’t like the chimp to be so eloquent, so lucid. I remarked that that was partly true, but this was a great gale of wind as well. Gilbo spoke beyond his mettle, of vagaries, “core values” common not only tohis oppressed zoo clan but to all living things, a surely preposterous notion.
“We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom,” he said. “Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is choices that move events. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of all beings, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul.”
And then he stopped his lurching back and forth and leveled a great stare, solely at myself — yes he picked me from the crowd of gawkers with his eyes, isolating me with the intensity of his gaze, the hair on his back and arms beginning to rise until it would stand fully extended from his body. “And,” he finished, raising a fist, “we will never, ever, underestimate our enemies.”
With both fists forward he came crashing through the glass and right for my throat, for the world, for us all.
Longtime THE2NDHAND contributor Patrick Somerville (author of Trouble, The Cradle, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, a couple of T2H broadsheets — 24 and 32 – and, most recently, This Bright River) was on NPR’s Talk of the Nation today telling the story (and more) of the bizarre and hilarious and sad and terrifying consequences of his latest book’s panning in the New York Times. If you’ve missed his “Thank You for Killing My Novel” essay, published on July 5 at Salon, go read it.
Then tune in to his segment on Talk of the Nation that aired this afternoon. It’s well worth it.
After reading the thrashing the Times gave River, Somerville couldn’t help but notice that the critic had misread a character’s identity in the first few pages of the book, and which in some senses colored her entire reading of it. At once, after the book review had been out for a couple days, Somerville logged into an email address he’d created for the character she’d misidentified (and which he’d been encouraging readers to email questions to, etc., having gotten just one) to find an email from a Times editor seeking to clarify the mistake, which a Times reader had pointed out to him. (How’s that for after-the-fact fact-checking, eh?) In any case, definitely check out the Salon piece, which details some of the email conversation that ensued, with Somerville writing in the voice of his character with the Times editor to the point that the two developed a “ghost friendship,” the subject of the NPR segment.
And hey, I don’t believe the Times. Pick up Somerville’s new one — though I haven’t read it myself yet, I’m certain, from everything I know about him and his past work, that you won’t regret it.
You can find three rather long-ish shorts of Somerville’s (some of my faves among work we’ve published) — among them the exclusive-to-the-book “The Tale of the Time I Accidentally Fell in Love With a Girl Across the Bay” — in our 2011 All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10 10th anniversary collection.
Join me at the smallest, oldest, dirtiest and yet definitely most kick-ass bar in East Nashville this Thursday for the 3rd edition of the Poetry Sucks reading series. Organized by fellow East Nashvillian Chet Weise, this edition of the series will feature a host of characters from the neighborhood. I’ll be reading some new stuff (if only I can get through that sermon in the finale) and, more importantly, also featured will be all the fine folks noted on the flyer pictured here. Click through it for more from the artist, Rachel Briggs. Of particular note for connections to T2H is past Pitchfork Battalion teamer John Minichillo, whose novel The Snow Whale from Atticus we saw on some of those indies’ best-of lists for the year just past.
I just finished a novel by a more longtime and frequent T2Her, Floridian (former Flint, Michigander) Paul A. Toth, that I’ve been just floored by, given by the general lack of ink it’s gotten, far as I can tell (though I do see where USA Today of all places named it one of the best indies of 2011). The book, Airplane Novel, is a joyous read, the best of the 9/11 books — experimental in all the good ways (metafictional w/o being goofy, polyphonic via a quixotic omniscience to the narration but with a strong singular narrative consciousness in the end). And, ultimately, its humanity is its most important part.
It’s not an exactly simple task Toth has pulled off, given that the book is told from the point of view of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, a building — and one that, it is acknowledged quite early on by the narrator itself (or “himself,” given that the South Tower prefers to call itself “Cary Grant,” and the North Tower “Gary Cooper”), no longer exists in any physical sense, but of course. But even in death, the tower filters the consciousnesses that made its history, those of the humans — “spider monkeys,” from its perspective — having populated its floors, having operated the Radio Row shops uprooted by the its construction, having created the information that soars through its fiberoptics and still flits in jagged form through its own post-mortem version of consciousness (which Toth expertly re-creates in the end of the book, after the “big event,” the “you know what”…).
I won’t go farther into specifics here, but I’ll say that I think I can definitely recommend it as one of the three or four best books of 2011 (with particular segments of DFW’s The Pale King as well as Mickey Hess’ great Nostalgia Echo — more about that one later, as we’re publishing an excerpt in the next minisheet). In any case, I can’t recommend a book any more highly. Go pick up a copy — available in print and as an eBook (the Kindle edition is available for just $2.99).
Toth also had a fair amount of work in a special section of All Hands On, our 10th anniversary book out in the fall. You can order it here.
Fine stuff to share today, a performance from my Philly reading a couple weeks back, touring with the All Hands On book, with Ryan Eckes, Pete Richter and Mickey Hess — all fine and dandy humans with ever capable pens, typing fingers and brains, it’s certain.
Joining Hess and Richter for a Nerves of Steel-worthy performance of Hess’ classic short “The Novelist & the Rapper” (I know it’s been years since I first read it, and Hess reminds me that I made some suggestions on an early draft related to an appearance of headdresses) was a gent who performs under the name Traum Diggs, otherwise known as Dave, doing something behind Richter and Hess’ Q&A he hadn’t done since 1987 — namely, beatboxing, a full marathon-quantity of it too (the story’s a solid 10+ min. affair). Enjoy the vid below, and thanks to all who participated in and came out to the Brickbat reading. Great times, all around. (Oh a-and download Diggs’ new “Black Champion” EP here.)
And speaking of Nerves of Steel, our Chicago performance series resumes Tuesday at Hungry Brain. Details via this link.