Friday, March 26, 2010

And In Conclusion

I have really dreadful narrative abilities. This hasn't stopped me from writing, but at least I recognise my inability to tell a story in a form that might well,possess a form.

Oh, I can write an essay. Essay form is easy enough. Where I get completely screwed is telling a story, and concluding it. This isn't limited to writing-I can't tell a story aloud with any better results. Mr. ETB makes up wonderful stories for Danny each evening at bedtime. I try to tell a story, and I can't end it with anything more than a shrug. This spills into daily life as well. People think I'm abrupt because most conversations end with me uttering:
"OK. Bye." and fleeing.
That doesn't work as well in print. Readers have certain expectations. Fortunately, no one I know expects me to have social skills in daily life, which is good because at my age the likelihood of me suddenly becoming anything close to normal is fading. Faded. Yeah, that's just not going to happen.

I sort of feel like I ought to get these stories out, and maybe illustrate them for Danny. Why I think he'd want to read them I can't say. I really do attract strangeness though-that in itself ought to be of some interest. Yeah! He should have something to read while he's sitting in the clink for bludgeoning me to death. I don't really think he'll bludgeon me to death...well, I he doesn't. If he does though, he'll need something to read. Hey, do you know what it is called when you murder your mother in front of the house? "Welcome matricide." I can't conclude a story, but I can tell a reasonably funny gag.

I'm going to post snippets of stories here from time to time, just for the hell of it. Maybe you'll be amused, or want to bludgeon me to death. Or think I'm tiresome, or pretentious, or unable to write a proper conclusion.

See how this one strikes you:

By March, there was unspoken knowledge that further snow wouldn't linger, with a few memorable exceptions. Two or three weeks in, after the forty degree mark had been breeched, I'd ditch the hat and scarf only to huddle in the wind waiting for the routinely delayed bus. A turtleneck sweater pulled straight to the ears Alvin the Chipmunk style can only achieve so much, and it made lighting and smoking a cigarette if not impossible, more challenging. A few patches of well sanded snow would cling to the curb. I'd wedge my saxophone case sideways into the snow patch with the least mud, sit down on it, and try to light a cigarette without baring my face to the elements. I lived in Illinois for years, a smoker most of them. I never did invest in a decent wind-proof lighter, or coat with a hood.The bus stop was, I think, a couple blocks from my house. I say, "think", as blocks are somewhat hard to gauge in subdivisions generally, what with the rounded corners and all-but harder more so when the subdivision is new. Acres and acres of unpaved roads and newly dug holes in the ground waiting for the last frost to pour foundations. No one pours a foundation, or plants a garden in Illinois before Mother's Day.

We lived on Kipling Lane. The bus stop was at Kipling and Keats. By March, when I'd survived the first five months in newly cleared suburbia, I'd sit on the saxophone case, smoking an unfiltered Kool that had the strange design detail of half a brown filter paper where a proper filter would have gone. I always thought that was a silly detail, though it did do a swell job of keeping the paper from sticking to my lip. It still looked ridiculous. Less ridiculous than some of the other cigarettes floating about in late 1970's Midwestern America, but enough to make me self-conscious. I'd wait for that bus, smoke my cigarette, and silently mock my parents for building a house on Kipling lane. Kipling. My parents moved into a brand-new subdivision with named streets and nary a house, and they chose a lot on Kipling Lane. Mallory, Tennyson, Keats-they could have had their pick, and they chose a lot on one of those rounded corners that made their mailbox all the more inviting for teenaged boys subduing boredom with cans of Schlitz and Louisville Sluggers. The stupid box might as well have been in the centre of the road.

I'd sit there, waiting for the bus that never arrived on time, with that Midwestern optimism we carry to a fault. I'd leave each morning at exactly seven expecting that surely this time it would arrive at seven ten, or seven twenty, or half past at worst. It's a strange enculturation we have, cheerfully meeting our disappointments, anticipating them even. I blame the Scandinavians that settled there first-you'd never get a German to stand for that shit. I swear to god, these people get cancer, or Parkinsons, or some dread disease no one's ever heard of, and they're practically clapping their hands at the prospect of turning their diseased lemons into lemonade.

I'd smoke and wait and freeze and think about how much nicer it would have been to live on Keats. No one ever runs out of nice things to say about Keats, do they? You could fill a dozen library shelves with books about Keats and still people would feel compelled to write more. I challenge you to fill a scant shelf with books about Kipling, though admittedly, he moves somewhat in and out of fashion with the prevailing cultural sensitivities. Probably still on the shit list in India.

By March, I understood that I wouldn't be an even passable saxophone player. I went to class, but was only too happy at the thought of the school year ending in a few months time, and the bloody instrument being returned to the store, readied for rental by the next student that, with customary Midwestern optimism thought they were going to be some sort of jazz great. I could be wrong about this, but you never do hear about white kids from the North Shore of Chicago growing up to be ground breaking jazz musicians. I'm sure there's an exception, there's always an exception.

I really hated the feel of reeds in my mouth, but then I never understood people who suck on toothpicks. My old man used to keep a toothpick in his mouth all day long, and when it got all frayed and pulpy, he'd turn that thing around and work the other side. That's the spirit of someone that survived the Great Depression selling newspapers for 2 cents a copy in all weather-you don't want to waste a perfectly good toothpick with half a day's gnawing on the other side. Everyone knew he'd use the same chewed-up toothpick to pick at his ear wax, but only my mother had the desire to yell at him for it. I tried to avoid thinking about shit my dad stuck in his ears, though on occasion he would shove the wax so far down the ear canal that he'd have to get it medically removed and then he'd be bragging about the size of that wax ball for weeks. You couldn't really avoid thinking about it then. Sometimes, he'd forget about the used, but still usable toothpicks in the pocket of his work shirt and my mother would accidentally put them through the wash. More than a few times, I'd get a small piece stuck in a t-shirt or something and be unable to find it. I really hated that, all day being poked with the splintered evidence of my dad's inability to throw away toothpicks, rubber bands, string or twenty year old bank statements, though those never found their way into the wash, that I remember. I preferred unfiltered Kool cigarettes to chewing on toothpicks, or sucking on saxophone reeds. I'm glad I didn't try learning to play the oboe-the reeds on those things are even stranger. I'm not musically inclined. I'm not sure I even like music, or ever did. I bought that first Boston record because I thought it had a cool cover just like everyone else, but halfway through the first side, I knew I'd never play it again. I bought a lot of records because they had cool covers. Strangely, I never did that with books. I bought more books than records. I don't think a music appreciation class would have helped, no one appreciates 70's arena rock.

"East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." He got that right though, Kipling did. I couldn't have been more uncomfortable, and out of my culture than I was after moving to that house on the corner of Kipling Lane. Unfortunately, I wasn't there to colonise the place, and mould it to my social standards. I think, if I really had to pinpoint the moment when I knew it wasn't going to be a "good fit" as the saying goes, it was when a classmate cheerfully asked how many rooms our house had, as a sort of conversation ice-breaker. I didn't know, I'd never thought about it. I must have seemed terribly suspect. What's more, I didn't wear a hat or scarf in March, in Illinois. It's odd that I don't remember much of the place outside of early spring that first year. It wasn't an exceptional winter, though I suppose it would be fair to say it was an unexpected winter. No, no, of course we expect winter in Illinois, we just never anticipated how much snow would land on a corner lot in a still largely unbuilt subdivision. Like the teenagers with beer and baseball bats, I think the snow had some sort of magical radar that would send off bells and wildly flashing signals screeching, "Here! Here! Dump it all right here!" and of course, it would. After the fact, we though of a snow fence, but by the following year someone built a house next door and the grey brick beast made one hell of a fine snow fence. That first year though, good lord, no one saw that coming.

Kipling. I loathed Kipling. I think everyone did, after the 60's. My mother had an ancient copy of Kipling's History of England. This was a source of great embarrassment to me, as well as amazement. Strange to think, as late as the 1930's Kipling's take on how the British "civilised" the Irish would still be taught, and admired. Sometimes, I'd pull the red-bound volume with the crest on the cover from the shelf and look at the illustrations. It had lovely full colour plates, and must have been a somewhat costly book to produce, much less hand off to careless children. Not that my mother was ever careless, even as a child, family lore to be believed. British history is filled with wonderful, heroic battles, eyes pierced through with arrows on battlefields-wonderful reading really. But Kipling wrote it. I couldn't read it. I'd freeze my behind off each morning waiting for the bus and daydream about Keats. Keats would have given the Battle of Hastings a much better treatment. Probably. You really never can read enough Keats, or books about Keats, can you?

I told the music instructor that I wanted out after the first month of lessons. I seem to remember him telephoning my mother, and trying to convey this, along with a sort of gentle let-down that I was essentially too uncoordinated to work my fingers and mouth at the same time, a discovery that understood early in life probably saved me from a life of prostitution. That, and I have a really awful gag reflex. Really, just the sight of a tongue depressor is enough to induce retching. I still think it was the whole sucking on a reed thing, before I could even get to playing the instrument that put me off, along with the rented instrument issue. Sure, they sterilise them after each student, but who the hell wants something in their mouth that had been in someone else's mouth? See? No future in prostitution. Or music. My mother had paid for an entire school year's rental, so I was stuck lugging the sax and sucking the reeds until June. The music instructor was pretty merciful, and didn't make me participate in recitals. I believe I had the option of sitting on stage and pretending to play. I can't remember if I did. He was a nice man, with heavily lacquered hair that defied Midwestern winter. He probably didn't have to wait for a bus that was always late. I don't think he was put off by sticking things in his mouth that had been in someone else's mouth.

Each week, through March I'd mark off the calender to opening day. I liked baseball about as much as I liked Kipling, and playing the saxophone, but by god, it was something to live for, like the first red winged blackbirds screeching out their arrival by reminding you of their name, "RED WING BLACK BIIIIIIIIRRRRD!" I don't think I liked birds any better than Kipling, baseball, playing the saxophone or the first pink rhubarb forcing through the Midwestern mud-but the winters really are unbelievably long. I think I took up smoking simply to pass the time, waiting for the bus, waiting for spring, waiting to return the saxophone to the moth eaten man that ran the shop in Evanston. Eventually the first buds would show up on the few newly planted trees scattered through the subdivision and that Midwestern optimism would start thinking perhaps...and then, it would snow. Sometimes, it would melt immediately as it hit the ground, but more often than not, it stayed. That's what you get for optimism, but those Scandinavian settlers responsible for it were probably used to snow. There's a reason they drink so much alcohol and wear nice sweaters. I don't know what the whole lutefisk thing is about.

I never did learn to play a complete song on the saxophone. I did, near the end of my lessons figure out that there was a lever (button, key, I can't recall what they were called) off to the side with a sort of mother-of-pearl coating that was for an octave. Why this eluded me, and wasn't pointed out to me by the music instructor is odd, but he was probably busy fielding telephone calls from parents wanting to know why their child wasn't going to be the next, Miles, or Mingus, or Maclean. East was East, and West was West, and never the twain would meet-but East was towards the lake, and West was on the other side of the highway, a divide of new money and old that occasionally did meet in the no-man's land of the public school. A sociologist might have thought it interesting. I sat on my sax and smoked and waited for the goddamned bus.

The bus stop was next to a house we called "one point five". That's what it cost. That was a lot of dough in the 70's, and maybe if their senses hadn't been whacked out from the extremes of valium and coke binges, someone might have thought better of building a house that essentially looked like a gigantic crate. It had to look like a crate, because they constructed it around a tree and a giant boulder (both brought in). One point five. At least it faced Keats. Would have been a shame to spend that kind of money for a Kipling mailing address. Shortly after one point five was built, someone built "Two Mil". At least Two Mil had an indoor pool. You can't swim on a boulder.

They were sending me to camp in Northern Wisconsin come summer. We'd already had a visit from the camp director, on my birthday no less. No one bothered to tell me we'd be getting a visit from the camp director, on my birthday. He brought slides. I'm pretty sure he could have just sent a brochure with pictures of kids water skiing and we'd have gotten the idea, but the personalised service did kind of ensure he'd be leaving check in hand. There was that to look forward to-eight weeks in Northern Wisconsin pretending to be athletic. At least I wouldn't have to drag a saxophone around. My mother, with her fantastic (in both senses of the word) state of organisation, went ahead and purchased stationary and pre-stamped the envelopes so I would be able to write letters home thrice weekly. She did this a good many months ahead of my departure, and was livid when the price of postage suddenly went up a cent the week before camp began. I have a vivid memory of mother sitting at the kitchen table affixing additional postage to the envelopes, furious as they no longer looked neat and the one cent stamps did not coordinate with the apricot coloured fake parchment stationary with my name (misspelled) in bright red block type across the top. The printer fucked up the spelling of her daughter's name, and that was fine, but the stamps clashed and that put her over the edge.


Janice said...

Vivid memories of childhood somehow seem like an old movie we have watched. I wonder what vivid memories our children will recall of us when they are our age.

Goody said...

Actually, I wonder as well. I didn't have my childhood documented on the internet the way today's children do. I wonder how that will impact what they remember.