August 1991: Happyland

Fifth in a series of stories from my time working as an occupational therapist at the Manhattan VA Hospital.

Welcome to Happyland, my man! You know, like that place in the Bronx, disco that burned down? They only had one way out, that little door to make the bouncer look big? Even the windows bricked up? Happyland Leisure & Social Club they called it. That’s why I put the sign on my door. My one door. That won’t lock. The one window. That won’t open. Plexiglass, you can’t break it. Check out this beat, call it techno-Caribe, marracas like crickets, and I guess these girls what, ululations? Bed and a chair is what I got. Sun heats up the plexi glows all smeary gold and kinda pulses like. Bar drinks here, they liquid drugs in paper cups, fair shots, actually. But I can’t get to my baby. I can’t get to my girl. In Happyland, you gotta dance. If you can salsa, or at least you gotta shake it some.

Nights in here they show videos on the wall. You wouldn’t believe what they suppose is entertaining. And the only outfit you get is these old cheap pajamas, like pea green colored, with snaps you see on baby clothes, some kind of cheap polyester with all the stains the last guy oozed that they couldn’t get out. I mean, this whole line of grandpas, all of them in these itchy old pajamas, and they’re all one size and the men got missing legs, they got bony arms, they’re just swaddled in these things. You see them coming down this hallway that’s pea green, too, or sometimes it’s this pink shade somebody had to plan to clash so good with the pajamas. I mean somebody had to stay up late just to organize this mess!

These old guys, half of them not even shaved, and hooked up to IV bags and colostomy bags and feed tubes plugged straight into their gut or trachs jammed into their throats or lines up their nostrils strapped on with bandaids across the bridges of their nose so their heads rear back to try to make an airway. And they ogle at you in what has to be agony but of course their hands are strapped to the chair so they can’t rip the thing out or even get a scratch. And I wouldn’t blame them, man, they’d do it, they’d rip the tube right up out of their gullets like a fishing line hooked with blood and snot altogether in one wailing belch up through the nose, anything to get that fucking feeding tube out from where it don’t belong.

You don’t believe me, you look in their wild old eyes sometime. That would make a video. See your own fish-eyed reflection rolling there. Aww, look, guess who else be wearing them goofball slippers made of sponges, the designer pj’s. Oh yeah, you’re in it, too, baby, this is Happyland. You want the real disco, you know how the beat just drop, DJ front some nasty old flute shit. Come up eery and cold and everybody’s neck swivels, gone to church on the flute, on the float, baby, waiting for the drop, here it comes. Take your ass to Arabia, now we down! Disco got smoke and fire and a junkyard stink. Oil and blood all boiling up together make a black cloud Terminator world. And then that miles of void flat out to nowhere when the meds kick in and your head goes deep like sunset in the sand.

Hundred Hours War they call it, smart bomb take a left turn in a window and all that shit. Stealth bombers. The promo will tell you we cut in clean, look how cool we play. But that ain’t what it was. But you try to tell somebody. Which is why I got the pictures to prove it.   Check out this one here. Page One: I call it the stone beginning of Happyland, my de-virgining over in the once upon a time. Cherry pop. You can’t tell from the picture, see, but on the road back from Kuwait they had these long ditches, these trenches, and we just chased them over the edge, where they thought they’d be safe or some shit. I mean, this is just the dirty desert, man, flat as a rug, there is no place you can hide, and this picture here, this is when they begin to get the picture.

You can’t see it too well, we were moving when I took it so it’s blurry, but believe me it came on fast and freaky. They want to get out now. This picture don’t show the noise, you have to imagine from the smoke. I’m in a bulldozer like you’ve never seen, got a 20-foot plow blade, and it can move. We had like 50 in a row and every one making tracks. Ran in a mile-wide phalanx side-by-side Mad Maxxing it. Kicked up our own sand storm behind us. And tanks, too, with blades on the front. This picture is like halfway through the job, I wouldn’t call it a battle. I’m not going to be taking pictures in a fire fight, right? There was nothing to do. And this picture, I pasted it in next to that one, because look, ten minutes later, where’s the ditch? Where’s the bad guys? Right? We’re sitting a thousand tons of bulldozer, a thousand tons of Abrams tank on them that’s where. And check this guy, he’s actually dug his way out, he’s just about out of there, got a leg up and that’s when he gets plugged, like a rat in his hole. Look at this other guy. Now you see him, now you don’t. Vaporized.

We just sat there in the desert, dead as Mars, machines idling. Climbed up on the hood and took pot shots. Or ran ‘em over. Or took a half-ton bulldozer blade and just smushed them. Like roaches coming out of their holes. Look how the sky, it’s white, it’s just as white as everything else, I mean like a white rubber skullcap clamped down on us all. But I know, hey, I get what it does to you, to look at my little photo album. I can imagine what you think of me for this. But dude you came in here, you see the sign. Happyland.

Night and day, sleep, awake, it’s the beat. Check this, how I got me these skanky pj’s and this ragged old wheelchair, first thing I know, I wake up on my living room floor and somebody’s howling. Turns out it’s me and I’m grabbing my knee, look up my wife she’s got a baseball bat, my own softball bat that goes plink when you get a hit, and she don’t have a stitch on and she’s howling too. Plinked me good, yeah she did. Check these knuckles, nobody’s even looked at it yet, feel like a handful of needles. Bedroom wall’s just moon craters, wake up and my arm’s up to my elbow in the next apartment. And this time, she’s preaching, says I kicked her clean across the room in my sleep. And came at her like some kind of zombie, thus the bat. I was asleep man. I was asleep at the disco! I mean, we used to like each other!

So I get up on this one knee, the other all smooshy like a bag of glass, still a mess really under these pins, and my leg I mean it folded backwards and I fell on it. You could hear the tendons pop like rubber bands. I’m laying there screaming and she’s standing over me not a stitch on screaming, I just want to jump up and take that bat. But my leg is folded up like a wallet in my lap, and that’s funny to both of us, really. Cops come in and we’re laughing and crying at the same time. I tried to throw a pillow at her. Put some clothes on girl! They think this is fucking hilarious. And that’s the last I know about that night.

Yo, whatever. I can lock my brakes. I can make it down the hall. I can get on and off the john, wipe my ass, I can do all that, no problem, okay? But buddy that ain’t the story. I’m just laying down some truth. People been sold a big con. Desert Storm is what they advertise. It’s all Happyland to me. Before all this, I was a dumbass, like you are, no offense, most people are. Like my little woman she so fine and we leave the Mets game early on a Sunday afternoon just to stretch out in the grass. She had seventeen bridesmaids, three day event two weeks before I left. I had to bring up cousins from the island just to get them escorts. She got pictures of all that and she can have them.

Look I want you to have this picture album. I know it cold anyway. They say this whole deployment wasn’t any kind of war, over in a week and all that, chased old Saddam back to his castle, but these pictures say different, right? The other ones, the pictures up in here between my ears, I can isolate, snapshot, do a still frame anytime. Which is the trick, I suppose. Pull a Michael Jackson, freeze it on tip toe, then walk it back and the girls all wet themselves. That’s why the sign on my door. Everywhere you look, it’s Happyland, and what I know now, what any of these old guys can tell you, we got a fire in the disco. All the exits blocked, man, the door’s lit up, all eyes be rolling, and we together understand what they won’t tell you yet. Busted knee or not, the only way out’s in a bag.

 

Publication Announcement

Happy to announce that my short story “Measured in Sips” — about an old war veteran’s last days — has found a home in the Spring 2018 edition of Northern Virginia Review.  Last night attended a warm and touching publication party in Annandale, where the novelist Robert Bausch eschewed reading from his own extensive ouevre, using most of his time at the podium as guest speaker reading choice bits from each of the stories and poems in Volume 32 and pausing in between to say a few words of appreciation about each of them.  Such a generous, one might say fatherly, thing to do.  So despite the usual ten-mile backup on 95-S headed home, I drove along in gratitude, feeling enabled and ennobled all at once.

The Jazzman’s Lament

Fourth in a series of tales about talking old soldiers at the VA Hospital in Manhattan back when I worked there as an occupational therapist.

The drummer is a jazzman who has seen it all. He’s got this old-time jive way of talking that you trust.  Like when he says he’s sucked ribs with Louis Armstrong then pauses to lick his own lips in revery and recalls how sweet women would squeal just to touch a lacquered finger to Armstrong’s leathery embouchure. Claims to have once stolen a jar of coconut oil from Chano Pozo, the Cuban conga drummer who was pure sex pounding out jungle rhythms shirtless in Gillespie’s band, that oil making his ebony torso glisten and shimmer under the stage lights. Says he had game, too, once stopped the show at Condon’s in counterpoint to Monk, who actually deigned to nod what he took to be approval. But in this lesser age he picks up gigs at weddings and bar mitzvah’s, sometimes in Broadway or off-Broadway pit crews, keeps his hand in, his chops up, his groove on. His old hands ache from the work, but after 50 years in the business, he’s just glad the phone still rings.

Because by all rights, like many of the old jazzmen, he can’t see how he’s still breathing. I mean, heroin, speed balls, loved the stuff. Then those scuffles with Uptown New York’s Finest adding up to broken ribs, a cracked jaw, a glass eye and a limp. Miraculously, no shattered hands, as if the brutes understood how that would have been a bridge too far. The jazzman appreciates the power of his drums. He would have it known that spirits hover and are drawn like children to rhythm. Especially rhythm and sweat, rhythm made prayer by hands available to possession, by a man willed and willing to roll with it.

If you listen, if you can travel with him that far, then he stops and seems to sniff the air, gauging how much these next words will travel in the busy clinic. Then he leans in, as if crouched above his traps, and dares to speak of those things that lead in this place straight to the shrink: Devils. You see, demons with hot breath and dagger teeth have swarmed into his house, have risen to his 20th floor apartment in the artist’s complex on the West Side, the one that overlooks the river, you know it. To take his young daughter. Called by the drums. So yes, he has wrestled more than one naked onyx-black tar creature with rubber muscles and flashing red eyes, has shoved them out the window, off the balcony, down roughly and gone into the icy river below, in order to save his daughter’s innocent soul, because she too weak to bar the door left open by the sins of her father in a land so far away that people there have different shapes and speak in tongues.

Korea.  He was a kid then, like everybody else. Like everybody else, could not get warm. But the demons remind him that he cut his captives with the lids of tin cans, dropped candle wax into their wounds just to hear them whimper. As if their foreign noise somehow explained how they all ended up in such a dark corner of hades. He did that. And other things.  Or says he did. Which is why, when the Boys in Blue caved in his ribs, kicked him so blood spouted out of his mouth and nose, smashed his jaw up into his eye, pummeled him in the back room of the station house as if they wished to flatten him like a cartoon character into the messy tiled floor on a Saturday night not two blocks from the club where his wife sat waiting, as they stomped and jabbed and clubbed him beyond their own dumb rage to the point of simple butt-ugly fatigue, as he went down and knew it all as some pain-dream happening both to him and out beyond him somewhere, right on the verge of death, even then as he coughed his own blood (and they lifted him like a sack and still they measured their punches and swung), he swore in his spirit-heart to the ghosts of his ancestors that he would remember this night and haunt the last days of each one of these thugs in sweaty disgusting patrolman blue.

“This is how,” he whispers now (that glass eye always watching the corner), “this is why I survived. Because the old ones, the ancestors, told me, ‘No. You cannot come. You must settle this on your side of the grave.’ They told me, ‘Live and heal.’” Then they gathered in a counsel about him, above the fray, and threw him back to the wolves. But this he kept from them, held deep in his wounded heart, a heart made black by all he had done, a heart that could not atone, except in this way. He would awaken broken and one-eyed and limp all the rest of his days, but hoped as the beating wore down that they would do their worst.

“You see,” he says, “I swore to them, ‘I curse you. You will never rest another night undisturbed or know another season of good health. All your loved ones will fade to smoke in horrible ways that will break your soul until you die alone to be buried in a grave without flowers on a bleak plot entirely unmarked and forgotten. You will walk the spirit world as one shunned across eternity, scorned even by the shades that are most despised on the other side. At the same time I plead for each of your beastly, race-hating, meat packer strong, bullying blows. I tell you my fathers, this is what I have lived for, walked the edge of, craved without ever knowing that I did. And here it is, the answer, my teeth like loose corn in my mouth.’”

He says they did him a favor and to this day believes they knew it. Says that something wild and beastly came unleashed in them that night, that even though they had beaten down Hispanics and blacks and Eyetalians every weekend shift of their brief careers and would again until their shoulders gave way from years of pounding, that this was the lost pinnacle they would seek across all the whippings to come, that one night when it really got good to them. “See,” he explains, “that was the night they walked with me into a place I inhabited alone, that I knew as I know my drums. I held the door for them, helped them down in the hole, and brutes that they were, how could they resist? Which, of course, is when I had them. And now they too will never rest.”

I don’t really know what to say to all that, so I just do my job.  I unwrap the towels and peel the gummy paraffin from his aging, powerful hands. His perfectly manicured fingernails gleam as he wriggles his fingers in pleasure. “Ah, good as getting a nut,” he sighs. I drop the balls of wax back in their vats, toss the towels in the bin and turn back to him. I have to ask, “Did it help? This penance of yours, when the cops almost killed you. Have things been different since then?”

The jazzman stretches out his thick fingers and flattens his hands on the table, as if to examine their sheen. “Ah, young man, you have never been to war. How can I tell you this?  You see, what I learned that night, you will not understand, but think on this if you will. I was mistaken. The living thing they beat, it was not me. My penance is elsewhere. It waits for me in an icy trench with candles that throw shadows on the wall. All these years, I’ve been waiting in line. And when my time comes, then I will go.”

A Good Way to Be

Third in a Series about Talking Old Soldiers.  This one from a nursing home in Fort Wayne, IN.

On the way down the hall to the rehab gym, I find Uncle Adolph stuck in a corner with his broom again. Usually, you can just say good morning, take his elbow, turn him away from the wall and he’ll keep on sweeping. Something about his eyes, he sees spiders everywhere and tries to get them all. But today he takes my arm when I reach for his and says, Sonny I could stand a cup of joe, I surely could. As you know, there are unwritten rules for anywhere you work, deals cut without any kind of written protocol, and this is one of mine. I’ll step outside the boundaries of my job description, no problem, I’ll answer a nurse’s call bell if you need me to, clean up the incontinent and change their sheets, and I’ll still make my productivity quota even if I have to stay late to do it. But the payback is this. Stop the day in the middle when the opportunity arises and sit for a coffee with an old soldier. I mean, like so many of the old vets, my dad never talked about any of this, so I get it where I can.

They call him Uncle Adolph because of the flag in his room. It’s a Nazi swastika his daughter says he took down from a town hall in Germany in 1945, had all his buddies sign with their home addresses, and tucked away in his gunny for the ship ride home. She framed it like a museum piece and hung it on the wall. People hate the thing, it’s got that evil aura, but you have to admit it’s a powerful symbol of the biggest thing that ever happened to the old folks here, the event that made their lives. It’s like a pin stuck in a map, saying this is where we all began.   We end up there with our coffees. He takes the wooden desk chair that eases his rickety back and I perch on the Barcalounger as best I can. In his line of sight as his rheumy eyes gaze about him are the flag, his narrow bed and a window framing a gloriously yellow ginkgo, its leaves flickering one by one to the lawn in a lazy breeze.

Maybe it’s the flag or a memory of a similar tree glimpsed long ago in France, but he starts right in, speaking aloud a stream of thought that goes like this. Shoot, when we was fightin’ the Germans, I was all up in there. It was a terror, but (he chuckles drily) there was some good boys among ‘em. We was fightin’ the Germans, and them folks that, well they wasn’t Germans, but you could call ‘em Germans and they was alright with that. And the English. No, we wasn’t fightin’ the English. They was with us. And the Ice Landers. They was with the Germans and then they was with us, I believe. He sets his Styrofoam cup on the desk and forgets it.

My daddy and me we built this place, this nursin’ home every brick. And now I live here. Ain’t that a hoot? And that house over there in the whadyacallit, development, the big one? That fella we built it for, he was a little bitty thing and then he grew up and he got on up to 8 feet. Head like a big old fat pumpkin. I mean 8 feet. Doorways in that house are ten. Every bit a that house is custom-built for giants. You oughta see the bath tub, now that’s a sight. Pretty day. Them trees is all yellow, I can see that. I wisht I could get out and walk among ‘em. But they’s afraid you’ll run off. Funny thing is, I’m the one put them alarms on the doors there myself. Built my own damn jail is what.  We used to call them leaves dragon’s gold.  Pile ’em up and play.

Them Ice Landers, now I’m gonna tell ya. They was some swimmin’ people and in the cold! They was one day I’m walkin’ along and this Ice Lander’s in this swimmin’ hole, he sees me comin’ and crawls on out and I ask him best I could if he’s alright. He says, Gut! Or Goot! Or whatever, so hell I take my own clothes off and jump right in. Come up, couldn’t get my breath for nothin’, no way. Like ta squeezed my lungs out. I mean cold, boy! And he’s just standin’ there buck nekkid and grinnin’. So I say, alright, and I just dive on down underwater and I’m just a swimmin’. Stayed in there til I was blue. ‘Fore long this Australian fella wanders up, call ‘em blokes. Say, bloke, is it cold? I say come on in, see for yourself. And wouldn’t you know it, he strips down and just dives in like a trouper. Cussed me up one side and down the other, and he knew some Australian words, except he couldn’t hardly get his breath either there at first. We laughed!

That dang flag, I don’t know.  Them boys’ names on it, they’s all gone now, wouldn’t you say?  I’d like to get down and fix these cracks here along the floor. My daddy wouldn’t have it, no sir. They was this hurricane come up. We dug down under a rock is all we had, felt this cold blow and looked up. That boulder was gone. The Quonset huts. City boys had put ‘em up. Flipped upside down like bowls and the boys with their legs stickin’ out. I can see that clear as day. I stayed on in, got up to three stripes, but that was as far as I wanted to go bossin’ boys around. Come on back here and went to work for my daddy buildin’ houses. You cain’t throw a rock in this town without you hit one we did. They’s a penny in a brick in every one and I can tell you where it is. Ward off tornadoes is what Daddy said. He’d let ya cut up, take a breather any time long’s ya got your work done. It’s a good way to be. Now give me that broom, they’s a big old bug in the corner there boy.

Bagman

Second post in a series about military veterans I’ve known, working as an occupational therapist and researcher over the years.

Okay, he’s a half pint. He’s a squat Puerto Rican with no right to vote but that don’t mean he gets outta military service. Drafted, but he’s mean as beans, and he’s been diving the shipwrecks since he could walk, so ten minutes post-induction he’s a Demo Unit leader, and he is bad! He’s fit to swim through the Berlin sewers and reach up, cut off Hitler’s one hairy ball while that squirrelly madman sits the toilet. He thinks about that for real. And the feats he pulls off during his tour are just as outlandish. Dynamites shipyards then floats away on the outgoing tide, hitches a U-boat ride up the Rhine, drags uniformed Nips offa Tokyo boardwalks and slits their throats just to keep his hand in. Which is sort of a joke, because along the way his right hand gets torn off. You may want to know how, but there he won’t go.

So he rehabs in New York at war’s end and figures why not stay? No work in PR for a hard nut lefty. And he gets this religion jones, goes to confession, thinks it through. The only way to fix it, he figures, is to make himself into a good man. Cuts a deal with God, one good deed for every bad one during the War, and tacks up a wall chart to keep track. It’s a tough calibration, matching up a gutted Nazi to a plaster repair for the landlord, balancing cigarette handouts with cigarette tortures. He’s getting on in years now but still toeing that line, even to the point where he’s a trusted bagman for an Orthodox Jewish gold merchant in the 40s.

Doddering up Broadway with his heavy satchel, he looks like a garden gnome with a shaggy beard. So the thug kids who roust him figure him for an easy mark. How would they have guessed? The years of scratching off deeds on the wall, the sleeping catlike reflexes.  The old man’s prosthetic hook plucks out the eye of the first with a single ruthless swipe. The other guy stares aghast but then is down the street running before his buddy hits the ground. People rushing by, it’s all happened too fast to register. The little man bends, tucks the satchel between his knees and calmly wipes his bloody hook on the crumpled man’s pants cuff. One crepe-soled shoe crushes the plucked eye with a satisfying grapelike squish. Then he takes up the satchel and dodders on.

So how do I know all this? Next day he shows up at the VA prosthetics clinic and tells them he wants the whole length of the thing feathered. Prosthetist asks, like a saw? Yes a saw, for traction. For traction? He’s bad. He’s WWII Navy Demo. With a list to balance.   Which for some reason he’s brought with him. And shows me.

The Hooch

For much of my career as an occupational therapist I’ve worked with military veterans, both as a therapist and a researcher.  In these next few posts, I’ll be sharing some things I’ve heard and seen, told as close to verbatim as a Southern boy is ever likely to get.  Here’s one from my time at the VA Hospital on 23rd Street in Manhattan.  It was a while ago, but I ponder it.

“I’m tellin’ you, them boys in the Hooch.”  He shakes his head, cocks an eye. “They don’t never come out. And nobody go in there neither. Less they say come. I mean, no doctor, no nurse, no custodian, nobody.” We were at the cable machine. I had him standing sidewise to the frame, doing shoulder rotations with a pulley. You have to pay attention or your elbow swings away with the motion and you can blow out all that expensively repaired rotator cuff, so I was up close, tucking a magazine in the crook of his arm. That way if he cheated the magazine would fall. I wanted him to focus, but he wanted me to know about the 23rd floor. He said, “You know how people act funny we used to say, you keep that up you goin’ to Bellevue? Maybe you heard it, people around here say 23rd floor. Or just the Hooch. “

He caught the eye of another guy squeezing theraputty at a corner table, and raised his voice, making what began to sound like a sales pitch for the place. Important for all to grasp the far gone to Indiana nature of this enterprise behind the double locked doors on the 23rd floor, doors I’d seen myself and wondered about, painted with some childishly scrawled palm trees and birds with toucan beaks and double eyebrows. He made it sound like a mythical land, something out of a novel, a psychiatrist’s joke where the inmates run the asylum, but the way he told it, it was not a joke at all, because it actually worked for these guys in its own altered prismatic way.

“Man,” he says, “the Hells Angels, they’d be pussies to these guys. I mean, no meds. Total drug holiday. No sedatives, no neuroleptics, no narcotics of any kind. No cigarettes. They’re vegetarians, man! Drink fuckin’ protein shakes. They’re monsters. Beefed out like Batman! Got their own gym, got their own religion. They get women up in there sometimes, ladies say there’s nothin’ like it. Pure men. No bullshit. All the perfume stripped off. But psycho’s to a man. Not a night’s sleep among ‘em. Lights on 24-7, that good old spooky rock playin’. Caged rats, but with human brains and too much time on their hands. Just pacin’ the wall.”

“You know what they oughta do?” I shake my head once, ask him to switch sides to do external rotation, and he obliges, though now he has to turn his head and lean back to make sure the theraputty guy can hear him. “What they oughta do, set these dudes up like the Dirty Dozen or somethin’, give ‘em a mission, let ‘em just go out and Rambo some dictator or some shit. I wouldn’t put it past ‘em that’s what this whole Hooch thing’s about anyway. Lab rats. Way to recycle a fightin’ man. You know like catch a guy in a good midlife crisis. When the true suck of life begins to sink in. And let ‘em just blow each other’s brains out. I’m tellin’ ya, it’s a concept! They oughta do that with the Army, man, no foolin’. They oughta set the draft at age 40 or around there, leave these little teenager boys alone, maybe relax the requirements a little, work that gut off, toss ‘em a ground to air armament and just fuckin’ let ‘em go to Viet Nam on somebody. You know, some sneaky old stockbroker on Wall Street, cabdriver, school teacher. Just throw ‘em all together in some size 44 khakis and poke ‘em with a stick. It’d be one bloody war, I can tell you that, brother. And they’d all be better for it. All of us would. Shit, I’d go. No shit, I would. And think about it a minute, you might too.”

When is a Man a Man?

My friend Corey lives three hours away, yet I get down to see him just two or three times a year. He never comes to see me, and it will be at least another four years before he has the opportunity. For nearly four years, Corey has lived in a minimum security federal prison, so he’s not quite halfway through his “bid”.   Before he went to jail, Corey was a star among public school teachers, the guy who won the district’s golden apple every year. He surprised and impressed us all when he happily quit that job for awhile to be a stay-at-home dad to his newborn daughters, because his wife – a physical therapist – earned a larger paycheck. Funny, acute, unflappable, he was that guy who could tell from a slant glance that a student had lost his lunch money or that a friend had lost his dog, then stepped in to help.

Your image of a minimum security prison may include open fields, an honor system fence, maybe even putt-putt or golf.   That’s not where Corey lives. To visit him, a guard walks you through a fortress-like 20-foot high concrete wall topped with coils of razor wire and backed with a second razor wire fence and then a third all surrounding a compound of low-rise concrete bunkers with slit windows high on the wall, the compound itself set deep in a piney woods. Yes, there’s a ragged softball field surrounded by a jogging track and even a paved basketball court. I’ve never seen anybody on them. The most significant feature of the landscape is another bleak compound squatting just up the hill. That’s the medium security prison where any infraction can get you sent. The rumors of what goes on inside those walls are chilling. Corey says it’s the number one incentive for following the rules on his block.

The visiting area is a boxy room lined with folding chairs, presided over by a sleepy guard seated high at a judge’s podium. All the prisoners wear custodian-style beige uniforms, tucked in at the belt. They play checkers with their kids or nod helplessly at their wives’ stories. Nobody’s supposed to hold hands or touch, except on greeting and goodbye.  You’re allowed to bring in a baggy full of quarters, so your host can gorge on vending machine hot pockets and Hostess cupcakes he can’t get elsewhere. Watching Corey snarf down junk food is all I need to know about the quality of prison food. (Last winter I committed a five-alarm infraction, but got away with it. I hid a homemade Christmas cookie in a fold of my sock, slipped it to him as he ate, and marveled at the dexterous way he hoovered the contraband in one bite between chomps of potato chips, his only acknowledgment a quick wink.)

Here’s the weird thing and the reason I wanted to share this anecdote anyway. Somehow sitting with Corey for a few hours in that harshly lit bunker always raises my spirits! The guy is simply irrepressible. Five years ago, a SWAT team swarmed into his living room, wrestled him down to the floor and cuffed his hands behind his back while his kids were brushing their teeth for school. Since then he and his family have gone through a kind of Kafkaesque hell. But if you thought Beyonce could make lemonade out of lemons, you haven’t met Corey. Somewhere along the way, he looked squarely at his situation and decided there was nothing to be gained from moping. He calculated that a counter-intuitive role might help him navigate the thuggish middle school society behind bars, that role being the guy willing to help. So he offered to write letters for guys, shared the books and magazines some of us send him, angled for a library job where he could guide other prisoners to helpful resources, and parlayed these opportunities into a web of barter that would make Catch-22’s Milo Minderbinder blush.

Here’s an example, and I can only hope to recount all its permutations correctly. The basketball court needed to have its lines repainted but a cranky guard refused to approve the work. The prisoner who most wanted the paint job gave non-smoker Corey a pack of cigarettes, which he parlayed to a laundry room attendant for an extra pillow swapped out to a shop attendant for a bucket of paint and a brush. Mysteriously, a whole row of toilets backed up while the cranky guard was on duty, and by the time he finished overseeing the swabbing of the bathroom floor, the basketball court wore a spanking new coat of paint. What did Corey win in this flurry of bargaining?  Respect.  Cred.  The fun of getting one over on the boss. That’s Corey. I call him the mayor.

It gets better. Frustrated at the ridiculous ethnic clannishness behind bars, he built a bridge in the form of a prisoner-led two-way ESL program where Spanish and English speakers teach each other their languages. Last I heard, the program was up to eight classes a day, and Corey’s Spanish had gotten pretty good. In fact, Bureau of Prisons inspectors commended the administration for the program, though they had done nothing to support it beyond grudgingly providing a classroom. None of this effort will reduce Corey’s sentence by a single day. It wins him no favors inside. But he says it keeps him sane. The metaphor he uses is the old tv comedy Hogan’s Heroes.

There’s a lot more. The best way to learn about it all is in Corey’s blog. He isn’t allowed access to the Internet, so he sends me the essays via snail mail, and I post them for him (http://federal-bidding.blogpost.com/). Reading some of them will give you a flavor of his wit, spirit and unflagging humaneness in a place intended to dehumanize.

So we sit on plastic chairs for a couple hours, and most of our talk involves the travails of maintaining some kind of relationship with his family via short phone calls, letters, and occasional visits. He’ll introduce me to a guy he’s written about in his blog, such as the Bird Man who communicates only in chirps or the flamboyant transvestite who somehow makes prison garb stylish (and who insists on vacuuming the floor every day at 4 am). He tells me stories that leave me shaking my head. And when he departs through one door while I go out the other, I find my mood lifted, all the silly things I fret about shrunk to their proper size. Corey’s dogged resilience in coping with the exigencies of the day shame me into a smile. I ran across a quote by an author named Stuart Brent that seems to apply. He wrote, “When is a man a man? Only when he can stand up to his bad luck.” By society’s yardstick, federal prison inmates may rank as the lowest of the low, but Corey, in squarely facing his situation, daily proves himself a man’s man.

Intimation – a poem

It was that spring

when my heart slowed

I was dizzy.

 

It rained a lot.

I would be up alone

with coffee

on the back porch

and the sun lifting at a slant

would streak the lawn

like Van Gogh with new tubes

of oils slapping on lurid

impasto, I’d say greens but

the miscellany

could be maddening.

 

We were dropping like flies

my ears rang as if boxed

and the darkness reeled

when I’d get up to pee.

On the porch scalloped color

dappled shadow a lurid

radiance that strafed your eyes.

 

It struck me all at once

how it may be to go

that I may even sign off without regret

because none of this was for me

all just an inkling of how

profligate beyond appreciation

a suburban morning can be

 

and will be long after

my slurpy heart slows to a stop.

Some did not go gentle some lost their heads

or fretted impossible cures

and I imagine I may cry

over leaving this complicated heaven

amidst the sure disintegration of whatever

faculties had been mustered to appreciate,

dawdle, play.

 

But here with this oddly slowing heart

another option dawns, that a gift can be

discovering that you are done have

outstayed your welcome now

& your blue mama calls you back to nourish

whatever comes next in the dapple

of the stars.

 

Joey lay down on his bed.

He’d showered, his clothes laid out for work

and I guessed his wow as it all went down

because I would hope the same in my time

but I think now there may be this interim

theatre of lurid color and explosive flavor

of getting walloped on the head with

momentary gaps in the things we ignore

like balance & rhythm & flow.

 

Ears ringing as I stagger to a chair

take a seat and finger the pulse

sumping at my wrist an indication

of when whatever belonging

I’d imagined fails, when all I really was

tumbles into the warmth of a backyard compost

piled with egg shells, coffee grinds, and friends

 

I will go, cracked and ground like them,

and by then one can hope that will be okay

as if it mattered when

of course whether there is anyone

awake to see it sunlight

goes splash like milk

on the porch floor and chimes

tinkle tinkle in the breeze

and seeds across the lawn upsprout

their dream of Van Gogh green.

An Interview with James Cotter – 60-Something Debut Novelist

James Cotter is an associate professor of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of a gripping SF thriller about the travails of building a bridge across the Bering Strait. Here’s an excerpt from the novel’s opening passage:

The environmental challenges surpassed any other construction project, and these were dwarfed by the financial and political challenges. But the dream would not die – because humankind still remembers, deep in their souls, their early migrations when they walked out of Africa and spread across the world. And the Bering Strait has always remained a symbol of humanity’s sundered kinship, and so eventually someone would restore those ancient ties with a bridge across the Bering Strait.

The Bridge over the Bering Strait is self-published, available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle versions. Brisk, deeply grounded, and thought-provoking, it’s a good beach read, especially on those muggy days when a dead accurate depiction of winter in Alaska may soothe. We talked in downtown Richmond at Sefton Coffee.

When did you find time to write this novel?

I wrote the book over several years of early mornings – getting in an hour or so before work – and taking writing vacations as it came together towards the end. That’s still how I write. In the work we do as professors — which is intellectually strenuous — by the end of the day it’s hard to focus enough to get any real writing done.

Did you workshop the book or have readers look at your drafts?

I had some friends read parts and I was in a writing group at the time and received great feedback there.

Why this theme – building a bridge across the Bering Strait? It seems almost mythical, since as you have written, it serves to heal the broken link that brought the first Americans here. And speaks to the tortured Russian-American relations that have colored all our lives.

An image just came to me one day. A father and son were falling into the Bering Sea from a bridge. Just took off from that image.

You chose to self-publish this book. Had you shopped it around to agents before you went that route?

I did. Went to James River Writers Conference and met agents there, but nobody bit. I sent it off to a few agents and editors, but again no one seemed interested. So I went to Amazon’s Create Space and paid the $3000 to have them copy edit, typeset and publish the manuscript.

It looks good, beautiful cover, trade paperback quality, well done!

My son’s a graphic designer, so he mocked up the PDF for the front and back covers, and we used that. Create Space will do that, but it would have cost more and it probably wouldn’t have been any better.

So the book came out in 2010. How’s it been selling?

I’ve sold under 100 copies, a few more than just family and friends, ha. But I haven’t made my investment back, if that’s what you’re asking. And probably won’t. When you consider the monthly flood of books from traditional publishers in every genre, the thousands of writers going the self-publishing route. I paid some money extra for what Amazon called a marketing package. I think they sent out fliers to booksellers, that sort of thing. Of course it was a joke. They must get millions of these fliers. Next time, I won’t bother to pay for that feature. After all, a friend of mine who writes romances told me she has 30 days on bookshelves before they pull her books. 30 days to get somebody’s attention. And that’s for an accomplished author.

But you’re still at it.

I am. I’m taking a few days off next week to fly out to Portland, Oregon for the annual Historical Novel Society conference. I have an idea about an American soldier who finds himself involved in the sequence of conflicts that spread across the late 19th Century, between the Civil War and World War I. One book for each conflict. Meets Teddy Roosevelt, etc. I was a history major in college and I know how to do the research. I enjoy imagining myself back into those details of life back in the day, in different eras.

Your eyes light up when you talk about this. It’s like here you are in your 60s, near the end of a quite accomplished academic career, and you’re starting fresh with this whole new endeavor with some of the enthusiasm of a young man! Do you think there are a lot of writers out there who are taking up a pen as retirement comes closer?

Probably thousands and thousands. I mean, I wanted to write when I was young. I actually did that thing, went to Paris, lived in a garret, sat at a café table all day. The whole deal. Then eventually came to my senses, came home, and found work that I felt was both meaningful and paid the rent.

Do you regret that decision?

How could I? It’s been so rewarding on so many levels to have this career, to raise a family. And coming back to it now, yeah, who knows what I may have lost? But I’m not a naïve kid anymore either. The lived experience of all these years. I can draw on that now.

Yeah, our stories run parallel in those ways. New Orleans was my Paris. I mean, we all have this romantic notion about the starving artist and all, but most of the writers and artists I know have day jobs or rich spouses or trust funds. You don’t expect to make your way doing it really.

No.

It’s a stretch, but isn’t there something romantic or cool, too, about going back to your art in retirement? There’s less pressure to make the rent, you’re not fretting over getting rich and famous. You’re perfectly free to write what you want.

Except that the stress does drive you. Lacking that, it’s easy to take a day off, lay the story aside, go putter in the garden.

Well that’s true even with the stress, eh?

You know, much of my academic career has been about fighting ageism. So maybe I’m especially sensitive to this. I would think, though, that there may be an understandable but I would say unfair bias among agents and publishers who may shy away from an older writer. They’re investing in a career and all the years it takes to get a series of books written and successful in the marketplace, thinking that the older writer won’t have the stamina to get it done.  But I’d argue that we’re the ones with the energy and the time to really focus.  So I think that may be a mistake on their part.

And as you say, the older writer can bring that lived experience to inform the writing. Meanwhile, self-publishing. So you put the novel on your shelf, and pass it out to friends, and sell some here and there. And get on with the next one.

Yes. That’s right. And I suppose if you’re up for it you can self-promote, build some social media presence, go to book readings, maybe even show up with a box of books at the local bookstores.

And occasionally a self-published book catches on that way and a traditional publisher picks it up.

I’ve heard of that happening. For me, I’m glad that self-publishing is so accessible. Being able to hire an editor and control all the publishing details yourself, that’s not so bad. Better than the old days, I’d say.

Do you have a title for the book you’re working on now?

Not yet. Keane’s Quarry maybe.

We should start a 50 or better writing club. A guild!

We could, for sure. Not a bad idea.

The Perennial Quest for Now – A review of Randy Fertel’s A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation

(A longer version of this essay has been published in The Double Dealer:  http://fertel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/tony-gentry-pdf-final.pdf)

In Boston, during the ice age winter of 1978, this callow youth had discovered punk rock, an entirely new thing which to this day I feel in some way saved my life. Eager to share my discovery, I brought Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, into the comfortable home of
 my college thesis advisor Randy Fertel. A native New Orleanian, he had been kind enough during the months of our collaboration to introduce me to Professor Longhair and the Meters, and on this late afternoon the aroma of red beans filled the house. Here was my payback. I will not say he pogoed. Fertel sat in a scholarly pose at his desk as the excellent stereo speakers of the era erupted in expletive. Two bleating tracks later he shouted above the din, “It’s been done. Have you heard of the Stooges?”

This abrupt judgment came as a punch in the gut,
 but of course the old man—in his mid-20s then — was right:  there is nothing new under the sun. Even the most spontaneous, transgressive musical nugget you may have uncovered has its precedent. But this sobering truth was only half of my advisor’s lesson. Unknowingly, I had touched a nerve of keen interest already far along 
in his consideration. This idea of spontaneity — driven by a yearning to tear down the old and yawp something else—was by his reckoning worth a closer look. Though not exactly new, the Pistols’ feral slap across the bloated face of the era’s corporate rock was something to love, and for better reasons. As I have since learned, over more than three decades of watching admiringly 
as a doctoral thesis grew tentacles that entangled not just literature, but music and the visual arts, myth, psychology, and even chaos science, my advisor had something more to say on the subject. And now we have it, a riveting, inspired, transgressive, yet authoritatively reasoned masterpiece, A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation.

One of the marvels of the book is the far-ranging correspondences Fertel so neatly draws. He will have none of the professional siloes
 we so carefully build to protect our sense of expertise, inviting us to an intellectual salon where in just the first chapter we meet fifty-plus luminaries, including authors (ranging from St. Paul to St. Kerouac), musicians (John Cage to Thelonius Monk), artists (Pollock, Duchamp), philosophers, critics and even one politician (George W. Bush).   Before this distinguished troupe, Fertel raises a toast to the one thing they all share, for better or worse, a deep and abiding appreciation for the lure of improvisation. Holding his glass aloft, Fertel asks, “What is this often overlooked theme that we call spontaneity, what technical strategies are used to employ it, how do those strategies work, what do they say? Why do artists claim spontaneity at all?”

Here lies the lever of Fertel’s argument; he refuses to take the improvisers at their word, writing, “For my purposes, the claim of spontaneity is 
a cultivated affectation.” What he means is that you can’t evaluate how spontaneous any text may be, so why judge a text based on that value? Yes, Jack Kerouac famously claimed to have written On the Road on a single ream 
of paper in a speed-infused rush, but does learning that he then spent five years revising the manuscript cancel out his claim of spontaneity? Fertel wants to know why Kerouac touted the initial inspiration and not the years of tinkering that came later. This is one of his important distinctions: If you can’t evaluate spontaneous process, what can you measure? This is the question at the heart of the book.

Lacking rhetorical guidelines for identifying and critiquing improvisations, Fertel develops his own, summarized in a pair of lists. The first sets out seven claims that improvisers use to assert the artlessness 
of their work, which is composed: (a) carelessly or effortlessly, (b) as a direct transcription of experience, (c) by chance, (d) as a found object, (e) intimately in
 an unthreatening situation, (f ) in an inconvenient situation, and/or (g) inspired by inebriants or some other external power. The foundation of all of these claims is a performative element, a sense of happening now. The second list articulates the form’s dominant stylistic conventions, which include: (a) simplicity, (b) free-association, (c) digression, (d) encyclopedic enumeration or cataloguing, (e) fragmentation, imperfection or formlessness, (f) swerving from tradition, and (g) biographical realism. Artists deploy these conventions to disarm the reader, to awaken her/him to new possibilities that may access and express “as much of life as possible.” He adds, “An ‘improvised text’ is usually implicitly or explicitly shadowed by a craftsmanly, more staidly rational kind of text that it seeks to debunk and replace.” This insight suggests a productive strategy for examining historical change. By locating an era’s improvisations and contrasting them with contemporary, more conventional texts, one can illuminate the cultural and historical clashes of an age. The improviser is not just playing a game of literary one-upmanship, but seeking to shape new knowledge into art.

Much of this book is given over to surprising 
readings of pivotal texts in light of these themes. Fertel leads us to an understanding of the ways that works
 as diverse as Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Montaigne’s Essays, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Clemon’s Huckleberry Finn, Joyce’s Ulysses and Mann’s Doctor Faustus adopt the themes he has delineated to surprisingly similar ends across the centuries. Fertel devotes close readings to classic texts, connecting them neatly to the rhetorical guidelines he has devised, while contrasting them to contemporary texts written in a more traditional style, and—most interestingly—exploring 
the historical and cultural events surrounding their composition, shedding light on the ways each author sought to bend art to changing times. Fertel then demonstrates how improvisers — despite their conceit of spontaneity — learn from their predecessors and carry on a sort of conversation across the ages about the means and ends of improvisation, further bolstering his claim of an improvisatory tradition. And he reminds us of literary cat fights — Capote vs. Kerouac, for instance — between the upholders of writerly craft and those claiming spontaneity. I particularly enjoyed his resurrection of Poe’s essay on the mechanical, by-the-numbers strategy supposedly employed to compose his poem The Raven. Fertel shows that traditionalists, too, walk a razor’s edge of inspiration despite their claims to the contrary.

The real poignancy 
of this book, I think, derives from Fertel’s discovery that improvisation succeeds by failing. Improvisers may seek or tout spontaneity, but on further examination their efforts “reveal persistent doubts about what it would mean to have unmediated experience or if, after all, it is even achievable.” This paradox is brilliantly expressed in Stevens’ masterpiece, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. Fertel reminds us that the poem exalts spontaneity, but only as a mirage that recedes as we approach it. He follows this theme across the ages, delineating the ways that artists as diverse as Diderot and Joyce, for instance, imbed its sobering message in ostensibly liberating texts.

Up until this point, Fertel has been working comfortably in his wheelhouse as a literary scholar. But then he unleashes this sentence: “Understanding the aesthetics of improvisation can help us get our minds around
 two important recent phenomena: chaos or dynamic systems science, and post-modernism.” I came to these pages with only a layman’s grasp of chaos science, which is to say, not knowing much, and since I know that Fertel is no lab-coated scientist, I expected to find him here overextended and exposed. Nope. In a dazzling chapter that ranges from the Roman philosopher Lucretius to the fractal theorist Benoit Mandelbrot, Fertel demonstrates how scientists often utilize an improvisatory method to the same ends as those pursued by improvisers in the arts. He elucidates the challenges scientists since Bacon have faced in observing and interpreting phenomena, seeking — like the literary improviser — new ways to perceive and express what is. In both cases, he sees the same impulse, to be here now, alert to unmediated experience, and the same recognition that this is ultimately impossible. In their adoption of irrational concepts and openness to patterns without pattern (for instance, Mandelbrot’s effort to “investigate the morphology of the amorphous”), the chaos scientists take this theme about as far as we can now go. From here we are just a short hop to Deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida, who sometimes seems to aim his notoriously knotty and reflexive prose at the whole corpus of received knowledge, while working within Fertel’s improvisational model, and to the same end, as in this compact manifesto: “And so I believe in improvisation, and I fight for improvisation. But always with the belief that it’s impossible.”

If you let it, this book may awaken you to a new perspective on creativity, building as it does a bridge across eras, driven by the primal human aspiration Fertel identifies and so thoroughly delineates: to be here now. As another of my 1970s pop idols, Elvis Costello, sang, “We’re only living this instant.” And as Fertel sings in page after page of his opus, that is both our comedy and our tragedy, perhaps the great theme of our lives. Those of us who are not rocket scientists or philosophers or poets live it too. Have you been born again at a backwoods revival? Fallen in love at first sight? Succumbed to road rage? Think of how an instant of spontaneity awakens and changes us. Think of how we measure ourselves and our friends on a scale from careful to carefree. How, for instance, we cherished the celerity of the late great Robin Williams’ improvisations. The creators Fertel interrogates here are like the rest 
of us, imagining a truer life lived closer to the quick. He shows us how this tantalizing aspiration is at the heart of so much that they created, and so much of what we do and care about. Yes, it has taken nearly 40 richly lived years to complete this story of the perennial quest for now. But Randy would be the first to appreciate that irony.