Monday, June 27, 2005

Demons and swine

Monkey 0's been indulging in a little bible study today, particularly the story of Jesus casting devils into swine.

Which is kind of funny, because I've been thinking about the story, too. And so I had to dig out a somewhat different version I recently came across, which I excerpt for you here:

He asked the spirit, What is your name, and the spirit answered, Legion, for we are many. In commanding tones, Jesus said, Leave this man, unclean spirit. And no sooner had he spoken than a chorus of infernal voices went up, some reedy and shrill, others deep and hoarse, some as gentle as a woman's, others as harsh as the sound of a saw cutting through stone, some mocking and taunting, others pleading with the humility of paupers, some arrogant, others whining, some prattling like children learning their first words, others crying out like ghosts in distress, but all begging Jesus to allow them to remain, one word from him could drive them from this man's body, For pity's sake, the evil spirits begged, do not expel us. And Jesus asked them, Tell me, then, where do you want to go. Now as it happened, a large herd of pigs was grazing on the slopes of the mountain nearby, and the spirits implored Jesus, Allow us to enter the pigs. [...] In great excitement the evil spirits made bets, awaiting Jesus' reply, and when he said, Yes, giving them permission to pass into the pigs, they cheered in triumph and inhabited the animals instantly. The pigs, either because of the shock of it or because they hated being possessed by demons, went wild and threw themselves over the cliff, all two thousand of them, and into the lake, where they drowned. The wrath of the swineherds tending these innocent animals was indescribable. [...] They ran down the slope to the water's edge, jumped into their boat, and rowing at top speed, were soon out of danger. [...] Some pigs were lost, a soul was saved, the winner is God said James. Jesus looked at him, his thoughts elsewhere, on something the two brothers watching him wished to hear about and discuss, the strange revelation by the demons that Jesus was the son of God, but Jesus turned to the bank from which they had escaped, gazed at the water, the pigs floating and rolling with the waves, two thousand innocent animals, and he felt an uneasiness rising within him, searching for an outlet, until he could no longer contain himself and exclaimed, The demons, where are the demons, and then he sent up a roar of laughter to heaven, Listen Lord, either You chose poorly this son who must carry out Your plans...or there is something missing in Your powers, for otherwise You would be able to defeat the devil. What are you saying, asked John, appalled by this unthinkable challenge, I'm saying that the demons who possessed the man are now free, for demons as we know don't die, my friends, not even God can kill them, and for all the good I did there I might as well have struck the lake with a sword.

Courtesy of José Saramago, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, excerpted and italics added by me.

Note: when I mentioned to Mr. Billy how Monkey 0 got me rolling on this particular subject, he said, "If all your writer friends wrote about jumping off a cliff, would you write about jumping off a cliff, too?"

Well, if it was interesting, I would.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Far enough

Sun rising over the desert, Alice stumbles out the employee entrance, the little door in back of Ceasar's Palace, around and out of sight from the moving walkways, the pillars the white tigers the recorded voice-over Willie made must have been, what, ten years ago now.

Jeans and a t-shirt on after a long night, headdress on the rack back in the dressing room, a quick cold-cream wipedown, but you can still see the fading black around her eyes, trace of blue above, last trails of lipstick, blush.

This is the best time of day, the Strip asleep as it gets, desert that washed-out clean white, Alice parks at a friend's motel down the street instead of Ceasar's employee lot, this walk is what matters, she can see straight down the road for miles and all the crazy fantasy-casinos look smaller in the early morning light, the colors evened out, they're not the whole world anymore like it seems at night, just some toys a giant kid dropped in the middle of the clean, bright desert.

Maybe today she won't drive home to the double-wide just yet, maybe turn right out onto the freeway, in only forty-five minutes, maybe less this early, she could be in Valley of Fire, her own private Martian world, pull over to the side of the road, engine kicking before it dies out, she could walk out of the car, door hanging open, keys dangling from the ignition, just walk out into the desert, red rocks piled on either side, walk straight ahead while the sun rises, how far could she get before Randall fought out of his hangover and missed her, how far before someone noticed the car hanging open by the side of the road, before one thing matched the other and people came looking, how far out into the middle of big nowhere, big everywhere, sun hot above and clean dry desert dirt at her feet?

Far enough, thought Alice, maybe just far enough.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The King of Walgreen's

Walgreen's drugstore on Fillmore Street, where the Fillmore Auditorium and Boom Boom Room crowd splash up against Pacific Heights trust-fund babies and romance-novel millionaires. Where the Joad-faced guy slouches on the real estate news box and murmurs for change, "...spare some change?" not convincing even himself, but keeping at it, a job's a job.

From inside the drugstore, waiting in the checkout line, I see Joad straighten up before the King even comes into view, he lifts himself out of permanent slump, I was never sure he could stand straight but he's taller now than I imagined, and he nods to someone just out of frame, a glint in his eye, something shared, a respect, an understanding, and now at last he appears, the door framing him like a stage, the sun hot behind him, he walks in slowly, majesterially: a tall man with blue-black skin, nose aristocratically smashed flat, a grave countenance, and his crown, red velvet and gold-colored tin, a proper crown, a crown from a storybook, a fairytale crown.

But the man is real enough. And not a laugh, not a giggle, even from the teenage girls cutting school, the way he carries that crown forestalls it; this man belongs in a crown, nobody avoids his eyes like a street-crazy, they look up, into his face, everyone in that store, all of us see him, and lift our heads, the current of his pride carrying us along.

The King of the Fillmore Walgreen's takes it as his due, and goes on about his day.


(Sunday scratch fiction bleeding over into Monday, now...)

Nothing nothing nothing is better than this, thought Kuhio, shoving home another cartridge and lifting the gun to his shoulder.

There in his sights the other, guy like him, perfect shot in the upright at the end of the muzzle, square frame showing him where the bullets will go, the chute they will ride along, pure and hot to their place. Just wait, wait while the other swings the gun off his back, let him almost bring it round to his shoulder, now, now.

Nobody back home will understand this, working the drive-thru at the Wahi'awa Mickey D's, Kuhio won't be able to talk to them after months in the Sandbox, they can't know, they think it's important who's going with who, who served long rice at the beach, or warm beer, who's gone Mainland, who's going Townside for a night out, none of them can know this, stripped down, everything down to this: gun, bullets, sun. Quick pop and a whole life done, too fast even to notice, not like the movies, not drawn out slo-mo, so quick it's done before you half know it started.

Maybe the old men, he can talk to the old men, and Auntie, who told him never forget he was named for a Prince, he can sit out back and talk story with the old guys, they know from Korea, and Nam, and even some guys, real old ones, were there when Japanese planes came in from Windward, tearing in low over the harbor, they know.

Never forget you were named for a Prince, Kuhio.

A pop, and the guy is on his knees, looking into Kuhio's eyes, he recognizes something, is that a smile? Kuhio wonders when he hears a buzz and his knees stop doing their job, they fold up, he can't help smiling too, he gets the joke, the guy in front and the other, the one he didn't see all share the joke no-one else would get, it isn't his life flashing by, it's this, this Now, this that it all led up to, he was named for a Prince and he is falling, he is a Prince now and always, Auntie would hold her chin up, she would understand, he takes his place, stepping (falling) into the light.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


I'm dreaming about Imperial Stormtroopers, about sirens, trucks, aliens in firetrucks, sirens, sirens.

Mr. Billy gets up on his knees in bed and gaps the blinds with his fingers, looking out the window. We hear one, two, three, more sirens going around the corner.

"That's smoke," he says.

We get out of bed and walk fast to the living room, not saying anything, pulling open the drapes. Firetrucks and police cars are stopping outside our flat, lights going around, flashing off the buildings. It looks like thick thick fog, but up above, the moon is bright and sharp.

Mr. Billy points. There's a bright orange reflection in a house across the street. One of the houses on our side of the street is all flames. We can't tell if it's two houses away or seven; all of them are connected, an unbroken line to ours.

We're quiet, dressing quickly, marking where the cats are, thinking how fast can we get them out. We open our door just as our downstairs neighbor opens his. We exclaim at each other and start up the hill. I come back down to lock the door, and as I cross the street again, water starts washing down the gutter, I jump the gutter just ahead of it.

It's several houses away, one of the buildings that was renovated in the '70's, aggregate facade, almost nothing left of it, flames as high as two men lick out the windows of both floors. The whole neighborhood is out on the street, watching. I wonder about helping, feeling extavagantly useless, thinking of the bucket brigades we'd start to put out fires when I was growing up, but I hear the roar; this is a whole other order of fire, all I can do is stay out of the way.

We hear a saw at work - Mr. Billy tells me they're cutting through the roof. A slender ladder is propped on the side of the building, no way that could work, I think, it's too fragile, it'll go up in a second, but there goes a fireman, clawing up the building, there's his flashlight on the roof, my heart is pounding for him, for anyone close to those flames.

It's everything you know about fire. Terrifying. Beautiful. Dazzling. I can only look away for a few seconds at a time, to see the faces around me lit from the glow, before my eyes are pulled back. Nobody says much.

It doesn't look like they're making any progress. The wind shifts, and I can see into the top floor, flames like scarves draping the ceiling.

I wonder about the people who live there. Just one woman is rolled down the street on a stretcher, she looks okay, conscious anyway, not burned.

I think about smoke inhalation, burns, firemen falling or trapped or hit on the head, babies trapped, someone asleep in the back room, unconscious.

I think about everything you have gone.

They've kept the fire from spreading. The glow on the top floor dies, a dull black corpse now, but still flames below, flare-ups in back. Steam rises into the sky, smoke billows out. Streams of water from inside shoot out onto the street.

Still more firetrucks, ambulances, police cars. A large family stands together near me, grandfather holding a sleeping kid, a fireman asks them if everyone got out. They nod, eyes wide, reflecting the light.

I don't know any of these people, my neighbors.

The building is black now, dead. The cold white of flashlights bouncing around inside.

We stop and talk to our next-door neighbors for awhile. Their 2-year-old is still asleep inside. They're renovating. We talk about houses, about living different places, about tsunamis and earthquakes. Not about fires. Smoke rolls down the hill, the gutters full, neighbor J says it seems like it should be more.

A lot went up in steam, we say.

It's all over, more or less, we're back inside, but still more sirens. The arson squad, cop cars, more cop cars, a cop SUV.

"Management's arrived," says Mr. Billy.

Quieting down, now. The firemen did their job, we did ours, gaping, staying out of their way. Mr. Billy's gone back out to see the aftermath, see if he can find out what happened. I hear a policeman outside talking down a woman who talks and talks, the fear pulled out of her with every word. I look out the window, from above I see a firewoman holding her helmet, talking to a cop. The flares blocking off our street are right outside, right below our window.

Truck #12's insignia is the Grateful Dead skull on a gold background. "S.F.P.D" above the shield, "The Haight" beneath it.

I pet the cats. Their eyes are big and they hold still, listening.

My hands are shaking.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Burlingame safari

His jackets must all have been made when he was larger, younger. He's shrunk inside them, the shoulders standing a half inch, more, past where his shoulders stop. Ears and nose never stop growing, his ears are heroic scale, sprouting rich tufts of pure white hair, long enough to dance lightly in the wind. Close-trimmed white beard, missed stubble trailing down his neck. I couldn't possibly mistake him.

I'm BARTing to a meeting in Burlingame, and an old guy from my neighborhood is sitting across the aisle, with a round-faced old woman. I whisper to MB, sitting beside me, that I swear I know him, I see him everywhere.

"Maybe he's a hallucination," reasons MB.

"Do you see him?" I ask.


A shared hallucination, then. It seems fitting, today is one of those bright, windy days that fuzzes the edges of things, the weather strange and sharp, like a dream.

"I've never seen the woman before," I say.

"Maybe they're having an affair," says MB. The train pulls into the station, and the round-faced woman moves to another seat, a few rows on and facing the man. She puts her little hands on the seat in front of her and smiles at him, her eyes big and cartoony. "They meet on the BART to Burlingame every Sunday," MB continues, "where they share a table at the Elephant Walk and moon at each other."

It seems more than plausible. She's glowing at him across the train.

We get off the train, wind thrashing at us. Our meeting is at a Mexican place, where they make guacamole right at the table. We crowd the table with papers and talk. A party is being set up in the room. Not just a party - a wedding party. The place is filling up. We're moved, with all our papers (the guacamole left behind) to another part of the restaurant. Crying babies, bickering siblings, polyester waitresses pushing past.

A table fills with squeaky clean youth wearing name tags. I edge closer to read the slogan, "Godly obedience."

The meeting over, we stumble out into the bright noise of the wind. A Godly obedience girl's skirt is whipped up around her thighs.

On the train back, a spoiled four-year-old with his father makes enough noise - random, chaotic noise - to fill the train and scatter conversation. They get off at an underground stop.

"Oh. My. God," says MB.

I look out the window to see the kid standing proudly on a bench, little god of the BART station, his pants down, pissing a graceful arc onto the tracks. A sunbeam filters down from the upper level, the droplets shining, the kid's father holding his shoulders, and the train pulls slowly away from the station.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Billy comes clean - author bio

(the meme started here, was pronounced meme-worthy by Joss, and was last seen in the grimy paws of monkey 0.)

Chemical Billy began her writing career in a Turkish prison, where guards were so moved by her prose poem, Monkey Fresh/Failed Binge - written in hummus on the cell wall - that she was released early. Banned forever from the entire Indian subcontinent after the infamous Noodle Incident, Billy went on to be knighted for training MI5 agents in her mysterious technique of emitting a noxious body odor at will. The stench is said to be so transcendantly foul, it can clear a room or scatter a violently ill crowd in less than 23 seconds.

Ms. Billy lives in a secure, undisclosed location, somewhere deep beneath the plains of North Dakota. There are no reliable accounts of her physical description, and even her numerous lovers claim to have been blindfolded or only permitted to interact through colored plastic sheeting. There are rumors, however, that she is over seven feet tall, and one spurned lover's (failed) suicide note mentions her "penetrating kneecaps".

Ms. Billy's autobiography, And Yet It Has Eyebrows, has been translated into 17 languages (including Haitian Creole), and is an upcoming musical starring James Earl Jones as the reclusive author.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

God speed hairy little fella

Leo snapped the buckle closed, cinched down the belt, Dobo's brown eyes looking up at him, forehead wrinkled.

Dobo knew something was up.

Eleven months ago and more, back when Lucy took sick and had to be replaced, Dobo was her brother, brought in holding the trainer's hand, Leo could see the monkey wanted to reach out and grab at the shiny knobs, his trainer holding him firm, whispering in his ear, monkey eyes throwing back the light bouncing off thousands of surfaces in the lab.

"Don't call him a monkey," said the trainer. "Dobo is a chimpanzee."

First day, Leo hated the trainer. But he and Dobo got along fine, Dobo got the import, right away, reining in his urges, gravely going through the tasks Leo assigned, flip this switch, release this lever, Dobo would see things, go places no human being has, and he knew, Dobo wrinkling up his forehead before hopping into the simulator capsule, looking up at Leo while he strapped him in, like he looked at Leo now.

Leo squatted down and nodded one last time at Dobo, swallowing back a trickle of bile, it should have been Leo, it should have been him, nobody at the lab knew that Leo was short for Leonid, this was his destiny, he should be hurtling through the dark, farther than even his parents imagined, sending back data to move in the deep subconscious of every human walking on the thin crust of this planet, in their dreams they would be Leo, Leo among the stars, Leo never to see the earth again, flaming out at the end of the mission, the capsule never designed to return, a martyr to his science, a saint taking his place in the only heaven he knew.

Leo swung the hatch closed.

God speed, hairy little fella.
Hat tip to monkey 0

The metamorphosis

Martha pulled at the wrapper, carefully separating tape from paper, not leaving a single tear, ready to fold it up and place it neatly in her wrapping paper organizer to reuse later.

Any day now, she was ready, any day now she would know how to use it, that little chemical switch in her brain, she knew it was there, that switch that would let her change her shape at will, like the Ayahuasca dreams of Amazon tribes, only it would be real, she would walk into the bedroom one night and Brad would look up at her gaping, he'd know it was her, it was Martha, but not the same woman he'd said could stand to lose a few, whose nose he'd called lumpy, he'd tremble at her terrible beauty, she would stand above Brad and he'd fall on his knees at her feet and beg her forgiveness, dedicate his life to the Worship of Martha, but it would be too late, too little, she would watch him shaking and sobbing at her feet, just for a minute, then turn and walk away, not even pack, she wouldn't have any use for those dull things anymore, left behind like Brad, like a suit jacket outgrown, lying empty on a chair.

Martha looked up, past Brad and into the mirror behind him, it was starting already, the woman in the glass wasn't the grotesque Brad saw but someone else, someone new and strong.

"Whaddya think?"

The paper fell away to show her present, a silk blouse with a bow at the neck, she almost laughed, she'd never even try it on.

"It's fine, honey."

She kissed him on the forehead and glanced up again at the mirror.

It was starting.

Monday, June 06, 2005

"...I knocked the candy out of her panties"

I don't remember the beginning of the story. It all got lost, brain skidded to a halt, splashing the inside of my skull with grey matter at this:

"I hit her so hard, I knocked the candy out of her panties."

Now, we always knew Miss Y was not somebody to piss off, and really nothing she said should have been a surprise, but all the same, a story that begins in Catholic girls' school doesn't usually, well - stop thinking what I know you're thinking, stop stop stop la la la I'm not listening - my eyes must have gone wide and glassy while I stared at dust motes in the air trying to parse this image.

"I hit her so hard, I knocked the candy out of her panties."

Was this a euphemism for...what? Did she literally kick the shit out of her? I looked blankly at Miss Y's husband. He shrugged back at me. No help there.

"What?" says Miss Y. She looks at me. "What?"

"Um," I say, articulately, "Candy...?"

"What, you didn't carry candy in your panties in grade school? You know, we weren't allowed to have candy, so we'd hide it in our panties, you didn't do that?"

"Um," I say, brilliantly, "Nope."

"Oh. Well, we did."

That must have been a hell of a hit.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


Edson looks at the backs of his hands, big bones, skin that looked like it would tear if he pulled it.

"I have old man hands, when did that happen?"

He said it before remembering she wasn't there. How many times a day did that happen? Months now, and still he turns to tell her something, still thinks how she'll laugh when she hears what the kid down the block did, still asks nobody if this sweater goes with these pants.

Edson rubs his hands up and over his head. He needs a haircut. His daughter does that for him now, moving around behind him with the clippers, she doesn't know that he forgets it's her, that when he talks, he's talking to her mother, her fingers resting lightly on his neck, the clippers buzzing in his ear, she's in her black slip, her perfume riding lightly on top of the steam and soap from her shower, the kids rocketing down the hall outside the bathroom door, they're jungle beasts, flinging themselves against the walls, shouting and laughing, how will they ever grow up into useful adults? but she's leaning down to whisper in his ear, they still have time before church, and he covers her hand with his, the tiny bones, that smooth skin, he circles her little wrist easily with two fingers.

Edson wishes they wouldn't call today, his kids all grown up, he can see their eyes big with concern, they all have their ideas what he should be feeling, it would have been their anniversary and the whole world expects tears or I don't know what, but this doesn't belong to them, this is his, none of them knew her at nineteen, how her waist fit into his hands, hair falling across one eye, her smile didn't change in fifty years, the same up to the very last day, after all the poisonous fights and betrayals and makeups and silences, she could swipe the heart right out of his chest between one breath and the next with that smile.

"You remember Danny, that basketball player you liked so much," he started, then remembered again, each remembering a hammer, this is his, this belongs completely to him.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Like a rolling stone

Wind kicked up tonight, while we were climbing our local knoll to see the sunset. The neighborhood, lilliputian faux-haciendas, mini-deco houses. The house with bougainvillea growing over the door. The house with tiny square windows, and a mysterious square door cut into the side - where the trolls live.

Up the stairs and turning back, we can see downtown San Francisco, the Trans-America pyramid, the parks, the synagogue in Pacific Heights, St. Ignatius, two golden-tipped towers, the spires burning bright against the twighlight. Windows flashing back the sun, fiery sheets of glass all the way across the bay in Albany, and I wonder if anybody stands behind, looking out.

We top the knob and the wind beats at us, I can lean backward into it and feel it pushing me upright. Below us Golden Gate Park, a dark mass of green spilled into the city, 19th Avenue cutting through, pale headlights, the tops of the bridge towers beyond, Marin hills barely visible through a haze, to our left houses fall into rows and squares, broad streets leading to the ocean, the heavy ball of sun, dropping into the water, wind pushing us, sand picked up and thrown into our eyes, hair.

I look right, back towards the city, and the sky is a luxe, immodest violet. My ears whining from wind-freeze, we start back down the stairs, I can feel the wind, like a hand, shoving at my back, I balance over the long flight of stairs and feel myself cut loose, like gravel kicked free, the first drop stopping my breath but I ball up, rolling down the stairs, faster and madder down, rolling and flailing, my edges sheared smooth, a sleek center of movement, faster still, glowing with heat and motion, burning, shining back at the sun.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Mass in transit

The T into downtown Boston, Friday night. Gum chewing girls in spike heels and jeans, earrings glinting, brushing their white shoulders, eyeliner and blue shadow streaked over baby skin. A boy with long, thick lashes, eyes downlooking, dark clothes, beautiful magenta manicure. A drunk couple kissing, the woman recognizes K, my guide for the evening. She is Roman, holding onto her midwestern hippie boyfriend, apologizing for her drunkenness, eyes shining up at her date.

Emerging into the Commons, figures sharp and vertical against the sky, and I drag K over to see.

I put my hand in the horse's mouth, waiting for the teeth to come snapping down on my fingers.

The New York subway, Saturday night, with my dad. The light is yellow, we are miles underground, the people inside alive and bubbling, taut men staring ahead in frozen trance, tired women on the way home, a rasta family sharing gum, warming with laughter. The doors close and an old white man begins his speech.

"Ladies and Gentlemen. I am not used to this, I am a man who has fallen on hard times, I am not practiced with words, this is hard for me, but I have no choice..."

He goes on, carefully rehearsed, years of practice making it into a song, a performance, a thing of itself. Dad pulls a bill out of his pocket when we reach our stop, and hands it over, the man beginning his gratitude refrain, Dad tells him, "well done."

He is offended. "This is not a performance!" But he keeps the cash.

Back home in San Francisco, another Friday night, another train. MUNI light hard on the cheeks of a dragged-out woman, black eyemakeup, eyes terrified from a shock no-one can see but her, glittering dress hanging from handlebar shoulders, on and off again at the next stop. Swedish brothers, full shopping bags from the grocery store. A Native American, hair over his collar, overhears our conversation and joins in, a distant smile growing on his face as we talk about traffic tickets in Finland.

We come to our stop and he waves us goodbye.