AUTHOR: Beth TITLE: DATE: 8/08/2004 11:01:00 AM ----- BODY:

How is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

Stories overlap. Christina is approaching the grill, which is smoking furiously, the clouds of gray steam chuffing out from its clamped black mouth. She grasps tongs, hikes the grill open, and is greeted by flame, surrounding each burger patty like a pentecostal fire. "Whoo!" she laughs. She reaches fearlessly into the inferno, turning the patties over, one by one. Each turn produces a towering tongue of flame. Tim is sitting back in his plastic patio chair, the white buttons on his blue homespun shirt (it looks like the shirt that coined the phrase "blue collar") lying in a gentle cascade over his belly. He strokes the whispy hairs under his chin with the bitten tips of two fingers as he talks, taking drags from his Camel filtered cigarettes as needed, for dramatic effect. Across the table, beneath the sapling tree strewn with Christmas lights, Steve doesn't so much sit as blend into his chair, his sharp blue eyes darting, observing. Every so often he snorts in amusement, shakes his head and whispers, "Jeez." Tim's telling war stories from his dating life. He's finally gotten to the part about the girl who pulled out her own eyelashes. I know my favorite lines to this story by heart. You can tell time by which meat is finally cooked. Somewhere between the hot dogs and the chicken, Kellie calls. "Oh, my god. This little bitch!" she shrieks. More specifically, she means "this little Beagle bitch"--she's stuck watching her brother's puppy while he and his insufferable wife go camping. "The dog...exploded." "It what?" Beana is laughing so hard she squeaks, face turned toward Tim, eyes gleaming in the Citronella candle. "It shit. All over the living room, and the dining room, and the kitchen." "Oh, my God. What did you do?" Tim takes a drag. The smoke stutters back out again; he can't help chortling at his own line. "Well, they were still here, but I had to clean it up anyway, because they were running around getting ready." "Oh, my god, dude." Beana gets up again to check on the chicken. Steve and Tim are laying into their hotdogs. Tim's telling now about Jaimie, a girl he dated who was unforgivably stupid. Beana keeps trying to defend the poor girl, though the two of them have never met. "No. You don't understand," we all tell her. We keep talking about it until it makes sense. The grill hisses and squeals. Beana says she's scared of the chicken being underdone. Tim and I then perform a duet, the True Story of The Time We Broke Into A House. "You did not," Beana gasps. Yep. True story. Sure as I'm sitting here in all my corpulent glory, there was a time many summers ago when Brandon, Tim and I broke into the house belonging to the parents of a friend of ours who was at college at the time. The rest of the family was on a skiing trip. There's nothing for anyone between the ages of 18 and 30 to really do in the communities of Chelmsford and Westford. The passcode to their burglar alarm was 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. You do the math. The house (though the family doesn't live there anymore) is a sprawling colonial mansion tucked away in an almost-gated community (it has the long empty driveway before you actually reach any houses, but lacks, as yet, the actual gate), full of the rustic-chic pioneer-style kitsch I have found is preferred by the truly rich; only poor people attempting to seem rich go for gilded, glittering things. Truly filthy rich people invest in things that do not shine, invest in gingham and homespun and muslin and little dolls with hair made out of yarn that you have to buy at Crate and Barrel for a ludicrous amount of money. You can tell a truly rich person by whether or not there are letter blocks used as decoration anywhere in their home. This isn't the kind of neighborhood where three kids can just walk into one of the mansions when the family has clearly left for the weekend and, within minutes, have every light in the house blazing late into the night. The fact that we weren't caught, that no nosy neighbor thought to look through her coarse-cotton curtains and call the Westford Police--who are mean, and always bored, a toxic combination--is proof that angels watch over fools. Because we were fools. We accessed the fortress and proceeded to pillage its contents. The hardest-hit area was the kitchen; and we didn't just slap something in the microwave. Tim and Brandon went downstairs to the basement where a freezer was full of choice cuts of meat, and picked out some steak, which we proceeded to marinate before cooking it on their flat electric range, in some highly pricey-looking frying pans. We also baked chocolate chip muffins. The aged Yukon Jack came out of the liquor cabinet and Tim and I dared each other to go shot-for-shot. When we were sated with food, we retired to the basement to play the Nintendo 64. Down there, we were cornered like animals if anyone had come home. And yet as our greasy fingers worked the controllers, our eyes glazed in debauched happiness, we argued as to whether or not we should use the outdoor hot tub. No word of a lie. Beana--and Michele, who has by now returned from work, toting a container of Chinese chicken wings--are gasping with laughter and horror by the time Tim and I begin to speculate aloud about the strategic advantage offered by using the hot tub if we had been caught; since it was outside, we could have simply jumped and run. We painted a picture together that had our audience beside themselves of two soggy boys and a girl splashing across the pristine bluegrass lawn of a Westford mansion, sprinting away from two Christian Fundamentalists who returned home to find themselves suddenly and involuntarily cast in a modern-day version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. By the time Beana gets back up and opens the grill, the chicken is cremated. Suddenly, the fence begins to speak. "Excuse me," says a pinched female voice. "You need to be quiet now, please." The disembodied voice snivels, in a way that makes me absolutely decay with desire to punch its owner, "There are other neighbors around here too, you know." As we bump and struggle and wrestle all our detritus into the house, the irony that we were even caught by a neighbor laughing over the story, but still were not caught at the time, makes me shake my head. It almost seems as if some time-traveling spirit will go back and change the events; it still seems, though it's the past, as if our three younger selves are going to get caught any minute now. The general consensus is that the oral tradition is dead. If that's true, call Maragaret Mead and tell her to come out with her notebook to Cambridge: my friends and I are the last of an extinct tribe. The phone rings. It's Kellie. She's quite audibly weeping. The dog, she said, shit all over the house a second time. And then she wrestled the rotisserie chicken Kellie was trying to eat out of her hands and ran away with it to the other room, where Kellie had to wrench it back out of her little Beagle jaws. "This fucking dog," she wails. "This fucking dog!" The ashtray is quickly filling up. With one ear blocked by the phone and the other by my index finger, the better to hear Kellie's tale of woe, I'm not sure what the others are talking about across the wide kitchen table, but there's plenty of humor in whatever it is. "It sounds like you guys are having a great time," Kellie says wistfully. Michele tells the story of her dorky coworker who has a crush on her, including another almost-caught story in which she and three other coworkers are surprised by the dork in question, who asks what they're laughing at--which is, of course, him. Michele imitates her coworker's flustered answer, singing out in a high-pitched, fluting voice, "WE'RE ALL JUST REALLY HAPPY" and within seconds Tim's barking laughter, Beana is wheezing a nicotine-drenched giggle, Steve's cackling, even Michele is hysterical, her nose wrinkling, at her own story, and my head has hit the table, I'm pounding it with my open palm, shouting laughter. Stories overlap. As we're driving up the highway, we're discussing the romance novel I'd found upstairs at Michele and Beana's house, which had belonged to the deceased relative who bequeathed the place to them in the first place--a hardcover edition of what must truly be the most wretched romance novel of all time. I tell them about it--a Quaker asylum, a period piece of course, the virginal nurse and her patient who is thought to be insane but is really just verbally dyslexic; throughout the book, he talks like Yoda--and then confess: when I was fourteen or fifteen and worked at the library I'd sneak back to the back corner of the stacks where the romances were kept and read the "good parts" of the paperback Harlequins and Catherine Coulter novels. We agree that the only people such books actually do anything for are adolescents who have never experienced actual sex, or old women who haven't experienced sex in so long they forget what it's really like. "Yeah, I love the way the girl's supposed to be so virginal she has no idea what to do when he takes her dress off, but the second his 'throbbing manhood' is exposed, she's grabbing for it," I observe. "And then the guy is always quivering with lust to the point where he makes her stop because he's going to lose it. "And it's amazing how these books are basically erotica, and yet they always use the stupidest words--'his manhood', 'her warmth'. Christ, just say cock." "I know," Tim says, shouting over the giggles in the car. "It's always so gay, the guy is always saying something like, 'Desist, fair maiden, for I must blow forth inside of you...'" And it's all over. At the phrase "blow forth", Steve is laughing so hard he's making little strangling sounds in the back of his throat, and I can barely see the highway through my squinting eyes. We are paralyzed with laughter, a true danger on the road because of how utterly fucking funny that was. Stories overlap. The next thing I know, Kellie and I are sitting outside the movie theater in Tyngsboro--the ghetto one that doesn't have stadium seating--waiting to get in to see Farenheit 9/11. "Want to hear something cool?" I ask her, pressing buttons on the car stereo. "CD" blinks once, twice, three times, on the cold blue display. 0:00, 0:01, and then:
3 and 1 to Mueller. One out, ninth inning. 10-9 Yankees. Runner at first. Here's the pitch. Swing and a high fly ball deep to right! Back goes Sheffield near the warning track near the bullpennnnn--and it is GOOOONNNNE! And the Red Sox have won it! On a walk-off two-run homer! By Bill Mueller! Off Mariano Rivera, can you believe it. The Red Sox win it 11 to 10, they're mobbing Mueller at home plate.
Kellie's jaw drops. "It's an mp3 of the call from that Sox-Yankees game a couple weekends ago, remember that?" "Dude, that is awesome." "Yeah, you can get mp3s of a ton of stuff on the Red Sox website." When we re-emerge from the theater again, the car an island in the midst of a sea of empty concrete, at close to 1 in the morning, baseball, and the enjoyment thereof, is an obscenity. The scene from 9/11 that sticks with me is of a turbaned man reaching into a pickup truck and fishing out a dead baby. He turns back with it lolling in his arms, its flesh singed, its limbs mangled, and subtitles translate his hollering: "What has this baby done! What was his crime?" And so on until, finally, weeping helplessly with rage, he flings the baby's body back into the bed of the pickup truck in disgust. The movie presented a convincing case that a group of men whose greed is simply indescribable may have contributed to the deaths of millions around the world in the last few years, starting with the 3,000 dead on 9/11. But the problem is, the paranoia it induced in me was so complete that I descended into a sense of total apathy and cynicism. "I just...I know this is obvious by now, but I just loathe Bush," Kellie says. "I know, but I'm thinking maybe Bush is meant to be as loathsome a figure as he is. Maybe now that certain objectives have been accomplished, he's meant not to be re-elected. He'll take the blame and the fall for what happened, and the next guy will continue to accomplish that agenda, but more quietly. "The only real problem with the Bush administration may be that they are less able to disguise their machinations cleverly," I conclude. "After all, we've pretty much been fucked as a country since JFK was shot. And that happened, what? Twenty years before you or I were born? "There's no point to anything, really. I mean, my first instinct after seeing that movie is just to go out and do something, go volunteer for the Kerry campaign, maybe. But then I think, I've been allowed to see this film. If it was truly the revolutionary act Moore claims it to be, I would not have been able to walk into a movie theater, purchase a ticket, and see it. "The backlash has probably been planned for, too. Even the rage I feel probably plays into their hands. There's nothing for me to do. I mean, if I'm supposed to believe that Osama bin Laden is on their payroll, why should I believe Michael Moore isn't?" It reminds me of a brilliant thought posted months ago by one of the members of The Cult under the screen name "grade 5 dropout":
If you're at all honest with yourself, you'd believe life is meaningless. Most people believe in the afterlife... and that's what their meaning of life is. See, in my religion class we were asked if we'd ever talked to an atheist, and one girl said yes, and it was depressing because it seemed like the atheist had nothing to live for. As an atheist, I wanted to tell her to shut the fuck up and I was thinking of punching her in the forehead... but anyway. If anybody truly believed in the glorious and peaceful afterlife, they'd all put a bullet in their head or swallow broken glass, or something. But they're all unsure. Nobody really knows what happens when they die. That's why I choose to believe life is pointless and there is nothing after life. Martin Luther King Jr worked his ass off for equal rights. One day he got shot and we still have the Klan. If you're brave, you'd drive into a telephone pole.
Stories overlap. This morning I managed to wrench myself from bed at around 10:30, and since then I've been sitting at this computer re-discovering that writing is hard. Monumentally hard. Monolithically hard. Writing is finding handholds on a sheer ninety-degree face. When you don't know where the top even is. Yet I'm filled with the compulsion to document, to record. If I were brave, I'd drive into a telephone pole. But I'm not. Or maybe this is bravery--trying to focus on the tiny things, trying to find the moment of simplicity that makes life worth living. After all, another image in Michael Moore's film last night was of a boy running through the outskirts of Baghdad, towing a kite by a string. He ran forward but looked backwards at the fluttering, bright-colored kite, towed it along in the air, smiling at its beauty, his feet pounding the thick red dirt. So this sunny Sunday has only reached my eyes in the thick blazing lines on the carpet in the pattern of the Venetian blinds. I sit here, I type a few sentences, I feel as though I'm having a heart attack, I clutch my forehead and stare at something, the glass of water on the desk, the action figure Heather gave me of the Rock that talks when you turn its head, the smug picture of a young Curt Schilling on a baseball card Andy gave me for my birthday. And then I want to write about how the water quivers in the glass, how the action figure leans lifelessly back against the pen-holder bursting with pens, and precisely how those pens burst like a spray of flowers, I want to hack and chisel at the English language to find the word for the cockiness on a young pitcher's face. The Beastie Boys are blaring out of the speakers on the computer. I'm still in my pajamas, eating a bagel and drinking coffee at 12:35 p.m.
3 and 1 to Mueller. One out, ninth inning. 10-9 Yankees. Runner at first. Here's the pitch. Swing and a high fly ball deep to right! Back goes Sheffield near the warning track near the bullpennnnn--and it is GOOOONNNNE! And the Red Sox have won it! On a walk-off two-run homer! By Bill Mueller! Off Mariano Rivera, can you believe it. The Red Sox win it 11 to 10, they're mobbing Mueller at home plate.
What is that smell coming out of the refrigerator? Is that cottage cheese expired? What is that smell? And what is the word for it? I want to write. I want to write. What has this baby done? Near the warning track near the bullpennnnn--and it is GOOOONNNNE! I have to make those two things harmonize. It is intrinsic to my survival to study the way the stories of breaking into a Westford mansion, the awkwardness of unrequited love at work, the misbehavior of a Beagle, the ridiculousness of romance novels, the adrenaline of a walk-off home run, the weeping of a mother whose son has died in an unjust war, the outraged shouts of a man clutching a dead infant in front of a camera, the quivering of the water in my water glass, are part of the same world. I have to solve the equation of the way stories overlap, or at the very least map the molecular structure. This is nothing less than my reason for living. The bagel's defrosting in the microwave. Maybe I should use the new vacuum I got yesterday. I walk over the gritty carpet into the bedroom, standing there for no reason, looking at the bed. The amount of words I need to get out of my head is ridiculous. I'm drinking coffee and eating breakfast at 12:35 pm on a Sunday. Why didn't I get up earlier? I'm clutching my forehead, watching the water in the glass quiver on the desk. The microwave bings that the bagel has finished defrosting. I'm too busy thinking myself to death to hear it. What is real? Why does anything matter? Maybe grade 5 dropout is right. But there's something that keeps me waiting around, waiting to see how it all ends, maybe. Something that can look at Beana laughing, the ball leaving the field at Fenway Park, the water in a water glass and think, Hold on to this. This is what's real. The microwave bings again, impatiently, calling me back to real life. If there even is such a thing.