Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"When you have finished screaming, place the oxygen mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally"

A late-night hop from Tucson to Phoenix, the captain is feeling frisky. "And, finally - the aircraft's best feature - the seat cushions may be removed and used as a flotation device in the event of a water landing. Remove the cushion and place your arms through the straps as indicated. You may keep the cushion with our compliments."

The voice trickles into my consciousness like a dream, the attendant at the front moving through her ballet: oxygen mask, seatbelt, seat cushion; her glossed lips breaking open, teeth shining, I'm full of sleepy tenderness for her. She passes me, trembling with silent laughter, her shoes sinking soundlessly into the carpet.

Two rows ahead, a Mennonite woman in white net cap and long dress sits beside a college girl, tight t-shirt framing overflowing breasts, decorated with a fading drawing of a beer mug and the legend, "One more for the road." I catch them studiously looking away from each other, mutual curiosity lighting up the air between them.

The attendant announces that the front is too heavy, four people volunteer to move to the back of the plane.

I take Mr. Billy's hand as we accelerate down the runway and lift off. It's too soon, too smooth, I'm certain we can't hang in the air and take my last look at Mr. Billy's clean, calm eyes before the crash.

Somehow, we stay in flight, dragging the tail upward, it must have been the collective will, all of us brought together in this bright capsule, shooting deep into the night.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

"Parade Shrugs Off Weather, Marches On"

As hard as it is to tear myself away from such gripping headlines, I am off for the weekend to the broad vistas and dusty byways of Arizona. I won't be far from Tombstone, where actors slaughter each other daily in the OK Corral, where living in the past is a way of life for a whole town. And where I may not have internet access.

Reluctantly I turn off the television, fetchingly booted, high-stepping majorettes and bloated balloons consigned to oblivion; I shoulder my bags for the journey ahead.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Scratch fiction in 10 steps

Scratch fiction can be a heady antidote to writerly malaise, lack of inspiration, or not enough time to write. If you're despairing at the pile of rewrites on your desk, you can head down to the bar for a Bukowskian binge, or you can write some scratch fiction. I'm not advocating either, necessarily, but scratch fiction won't give you a hangover, and it's not likely to make that doughy guy at the end of the bar with the greasy hair and spittle-glazed lips look charming.

Step 1: Sit in front of computer.

Step 2: Get up and pour a drink. Sit down again.

Step 3: Get up and yell to spouse (or partner, or roommate, or call a friend). Ask for a topic. If you don't want to speak to anyone, pick up a random book, open to a random page, and drop your finger on the page. The word you land on is your topic.
If you don't like the first topic given, you can ask for another.

Step 4: Type a title. This can be the topic you've been given. Or it can be something completely unrelated that the topic makes you think of. Or that the person you asked makes you think of. Maybe the way his glasses reflect the light while he is thinking of a topic makes you think of a shiny beach ball your best friend had when you were three, that you wanted more than anything in the world, so much you got into a fight with your friend and one of you ended up with a bloody nose, which makes you think about how far people will go for stuff they want, so you decide to write a thrilling short piece about a thief, or a junkie, or a concubine. Or maybe you write about two three-year-olds who get into a fight over a beach ball.

Step 5: Type for 15 minutes or so, until the piece is finished. Nope, don't go back and revise - keep typing.

Step 6: I said, keep typing.

Step 7: Stop. Take a drink. What the hell, finish your drink. You've earned it.

Step 8: Read the piece. Fix typos and/or egregious errors, if you must, but do not revise.

Step 9: Hit "publish".

Step 10: Have another drink.

Wait, I did say this wouldn't give you a hangover, right? Then make the drink fruit juice.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Mechanical difficulties

Boris' hands didn't work. No, no, this wasn't happening. He whacked his right hand against the edge of the counter to wake it up. Three people were waiting out front, the store was packed. Everyone was getting meat today, lamb cut into stew-size cubes, a good ribeye steak, a pound of lean hamburger, what was wrong with turkey? Boris wanted to know, for Thanksgiving, you were supposed to have turkey, not hamburger, what were these people thinking?

He butted his hand against the knife, but nothing, he couldn't even feel it. Was he having a heart attack? That would be just the left hand, right? And he'd feel it all down his arm, wouldn't he? This was something else, like his arms ended at the wrists, or, or like his hands were stuffed into giant mittens.

Giant mittens, he was thinking about giant mittens and the blond guy with the lamb shank was looking at his watch. You don't have to do it so dramatically, Kiddo, thought Boris, I know you're impatient, at least you have your hands.

The store was even crazier than last year, Boris could see a baby screaming over by the paté, hanging on the mother's hip, the mother serenely, obscenely oblivious, tossing paté in her cart like there was a shortage. The rich are different than you and me, Boris said to his wife almost every night as he climbed into bed smelling of a thousand slaughters, Maria yawning and turning over, They're just people, she'd say, but she didn't see them, visibly annoyed at having to do their own shopping, it all came down on Boris' head, one of the last of the live butchers, they all thought of him as their private servant.

The worst were the over-polite ones.

"Um, excuse me?" Blondie was actually tapping his toes. "Um, I don't mean to be difficult, but, um, I do have an appointment?"

Like making it a question made it all right, meant he wasn't being ordered around, wasn't a servant who belonged to anyone with the bank account to shop here.

Boris brought his hand down hard against the counter. Nothing. He looked at the growing line out front, all of them in their Ferragamos and Armani, Prada handbags and matching little dogs to stuff into them. He should climb over this counter and show them what a man was, he would roar like a bear and smash the glass into glittering bits, he could see it, could see himself standing a head above every one of these little faded people, they would scream at the sight of his massive fists...

But no. Boris let his arms hang dead at his sides. He couldn't even make a fist.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


A Tibetan Lama came to my office last week to perform a blessing.

We gathered around the long table. Lama Kunga sat at one end; in front of him were peacock feathers in an ornate holder, a censer of incense, a bell, cards that were printed with Tibetan prayers, a Play-Doh container. The Play-Doh didn't look all that out of place, sporting the same saturated colors the Lama wore, clean and bright.

LamaHe gave us a little background about the ceremony, instructed us to hold "happy family thoughts" during the prayer. He put on his glasses, held the cards so he could read them, and began to chant. He would run out of breath as he reached the end of a card, drawing in while he flipped the cards over. He is an old man, but his voice is strong, thousands of lines appearing and disappearing on his face as he squints at the cards, wrinkles up his nose to adjust his glasses. The chant continued, and his breaths became heavier, he would draw in through his teeth, noisily; the hands holding the cards were the hands of a much younger man, small, unlined, smooth. He lifted a bell, ringing it at intervals, the chant winding down the table, out onto the street, into the afternoon.

The chant finished, he stood and handed one of my colleagues the censer, telling him to swing it back and forth, handing the peacock feathers to another. He led us like ducks through the office. The holder for the peacock feathers also held water, and he would pull out the feathers and splash a drop of water in each room, on each desk.

It was much like the blessing ceremonies led by Kumus in Hawai'i, the chant, the water, the duckling procession from room to room.

Afterward, he showed me the charcoal held in the Play-Doh can. For purification? I asked. He nodded, eyes wrinkling up with his smile.

I told him my ancestors, Native Americans, would burn sage for the same purpose. He nodded and pulled a stick of incense from a small box.

"Smell," he said.

It smelled like sage. He smiled again, gently, and told me to keep it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Early dark

It was already night outside when I rolled down the stairs to the street. My office is above an overpriced furniture store, and one passerby was unprepared for the spectacle. As he walked past the glowing window, he spoke, in a conversational tone to no-one:

"It's all white," like it was pulled out of him involuntarily. "Everything is white in there," he went on to explain, disappearing down the street.

I checked for evidence of a cell phone. Not even an ear bud.

But he had a point.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Gentle city, confirmed

Quigley was in town for the weekend again. More cabs. We rode like royalty through the streets, Laotian cabbie laughing amiably at everything we said. He was 20 minutes from the end of his shift and dropping us off in the posh section of town; his day was winding up neatly.

We took Q on a stairway walk, peering into people's backyards, dizzy views on both sides. To the left, rows of houses leading out to the ocean; surf's up, Mr. Billy's wishing we were out there, watching the surfers. To the right, the rows are jumbled and lost entirely, the park a vast green pelt below us, downtown further to the right, the pyramid, the Bay Bridge.

We're climbing down some new tile steps, on the first landing we pause and direct Quigley to look up. The risers make a mosaic, a sun, brilliant yellows, oranges, reds, mirrored shards sparkling along its rays.

At the next landing, we look up again. A moon against a deep lapis blue. A little girl hops up the steps to the top, hangs on the handrail. "It makes a picture," she says, "it has names on it!"

Names of the people who contributed, in one way or another. Chuck and Celia. Gomes. Hu. Jackson. Painted inside the stars. A doctor's name on a bat, flying across the bottom of the sky.

At the next landing, the blue narrows between two mountains. Sky and earth. Birds and animals carrying names. The landing below that, a river; below that, the river empties into the ocean.

At the bottom, we would like to stand and admire, but there are three women gathered there, two elderly and one middle-aged. The first, and youngest, in a loud voice: "I mean, sure, the stairs are great, but the traffic, people slowing down to look, and the bus. I told them, sure, they could do it, but just paint a red curb here, but did they listen? I mean, this is a narrow street, and you can't believe how noisy the bus is..."

We move away from her, a bus going by.

Quigley has a way of drawing out strangers, asking questions in a completely open manner, irresistible. Our Pakistani cabbie at the end of the night has been in San Francisco for three years, driving a cab since he arrived. Q wants to know about his worst experiences, the scariest. Our cabbie shows his eyes in the rearview mirror. "Nothing all that scary," he says. We press him, Really? we want to know, "No, really. Some interesting people, yes, at Castro & Market, but this is a friendly city." He goes on to tell us that he married a woman from here. You see, Quigley, it isn't just us, just a visitor's experience. It's the city.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Cat food

Say something clever, Marjorie. Say something clever and maybe the nice man with the clean fingernails and the suit that looks like it might have been pressed this morning will buy you a drink.

Marjorie shifted on her barstool and opened her mouth, then closed it.

You're never clever when you need to be, are you? In three hours the perfect line will come to you, it'll wake you up when you're sleeping - alone - when you're fast asleep it'll wake you up, and it'll be too late then. This guy's already looking at his watch, could be a nice watch, hard to tell from over here, he's going to finish his drink and leave, and you'll go home alone tonight and every other night for the rest of your miserable life, you'll be wearing brown skirts and orthopedic shoes in just a few years, opening cans of food for your million and two cats, one of Those, old women in cardigans with hand-crocheted TV cozies and giant doilies for the kitchen table, house smelling of cat pee and Whiskas.

No, there's something else out there, and it's not this little man, there's something else, maybe if I just put down my drink and get up, it's right on the other side of the door. Just once, Marjorie, put down the drink, and step outside.

Marjorie set the drink carefully on the bar. More than half of it was left, and it was good gin. She spread her hand on the padded edge of the bar, red nails shining wet, chipped on the second finger, she couldn't remember when she'd done that. She lifted herself from the stool, slowly, like the floor might shift under her, stood, smoothing the front of her dress before walking for the door.

The man in the suit looked up as she passed, wondering if she said something, sure he'd missed something important, what did she say? but she was already at the door, already pulling it open.

Here it is, Marjorie, you're doing it, there's something different already, it isn't daytime, is it? but daylight is pushing out from behind the door, she could almost feel it, leaning on the door, it's Day out there, not the evening of the day she left, but Day somewhere else, the light like a nuclear blast, like the face of God, step out into the day, Marjorie, you were right, this is it, she could feel the heat all the way in to her bones, and she stepped outside.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Seven minutes to write

Computer is back! I've missed you all...
Rain today. It acts on me like springtime after a long winter - I'm alert to every scent, every sound. It's dark now when I bus home from work, and lights shine back at me from puddled water on the street. I take a different route home, walk the last few blocks, passing restaurants, their light shining out into the street, people inside dry and warm, moving slowly in the light, a tall blond man in the taqueria looks out the window, he's Stan Laurel, stretched. His enormous flat blue eyes pick me out in the dark, trying to slip silently by, raindrops scattering out from my umbrella.

Another block, the curry place, the naan maker grins suddenly out at me, flattening dough on his hand. I wave. In the next doorway, a man sits on the ground, I've seen him before, he's blind, always on one corner or another, empty cup by his knee, wishing passersby a good day.

At the corner, the doughnut shop, a man in a knit cap looks stunned, staring down at his coffee, skin pale in the flickering light.

I stand at the corner and think about the blind guy a few steps back. I see him more than any other neighbor, but I've never met him. The rain's turned me soft. I turn around and go back.

I kneel down, saying hello, shamefacedly handing him what I dig out of my wallet, introducing myself.

"I'm Francis," he says.

"It's good to meet you, Francis."

He holds out his hand, a little high and to the right. I reach up to take his hand and shake it. The dirt lodged so deeply in his wrinkles, they're pure black lines, like his face was scribbled with a marker, but his hand is warm, not as rough as it looks. One eye nearly closed, the other, hazel, wandering off to one side. I realize I'm kneeling in water.

I get up, something fatuous dribbling out of my mouth, "Take care," like I'm his mother, "it's cold out..."

"Yeah," he laughs, "It is, a bit."

No shit, lady, he must be thinking. Thanks for pointing out the obvious.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

This is Chemical Billy

monkey 0, who is always watching, stopped by the other day and snapped some photos.
Caitlin and Blanche

Dad, if you're reading this, the cig is just a prop.

And in case you wondered, monkey 0 is eight feet tall.