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A short short about interpretive horticulture.

 

Over lunch, Luke tells me about the murder, how he looked up and saw a black cow standing all by itself in the field.  And how that was what made him cry.  After everything.  The cow standing there all alone, completely black.

Luke says he’s not afraid anymore.

I look for a cigarette, then think I must be losing my mind since I’ve been quit for over a year.  Luke has switched to vaping.  So I can’t bum one off him.  Instead, I ask why he came to San Diego, but he only adjusts his sunglasses and shrugs.

Life fell apart, he says, when he quit drinking.  Marianne got promoted.  He couldn’t go out anymore.  His sponsor relapsed, disappeared.  He spent a lot of nights alone.

“So that’s why—it happened?”  I can’t bring myself to say it.

The waiter comes over and asks if we want anything else.  I order another beer.  Luke gets a club soda.

“That’s just it.  I don’t know.  It wasn’t me.”

The wind blows a plastic bag along the sidewalk by our table and we both look down at it instead of at each other.

“She was beautiful that day.”

Two blocks west, Pacific Beach rolls white static in the heat.  We can look down Chalcedony Street and see the thin line of the break coming in.  Everybody here is tan except Luke, who’s a waxy Missouri pale.  He got thin since I left Hauberk.  He grew his hair long, dyed it black.

“I don’t understand,” I say.

He looks at a waitress inside the cafe laughing at a table with three blond surfers.  “I don’t understand, either.”

But Luke says he remembers everything.  He’ll never forget how happy Marianne was when Bulldog moved her desk into his office.  Bulldog has a real name.  Everyone just calls him that out of affection, but everyone hates him.

“Marianne hated him.  But she was so happy.”

“She always seemed happy.”

Luke takes out his vape pen.  It’s chrome, has GOLIATH down the side in a space-age font.

“You met her twice,” he says.

She started going out after work with guys from the office.  To Nene’s, the Burmese Lounge, the Five Dimes.  He’d call around until he found her, ask her to come home.  Luke was never invited.  What was he going to do?  Sit there and drink 7-Up?  He tells me nobody liked him.  Bulldog made fun of him, called him Sauron.  Marianne thought it was funny.

“She didn’t really think it was funny.  She just said she did.”

“Is that why—”

Luke exhales a thick cloud that smells like a chocolate liqueur dissolved in alcohol.  “Stop.  Can you please?”

I feel embarrassed even though I didn’t do anything.  I don’t know where to put my hands now that I’m done with my salad.  So I put them in my pockets, which still feels awkward.  But Luke doesn’t notice.  He’s watching the waitress talk to the surfers inside.

I’ve never met Bulldog, but I’ve met Marianne and I can imagine: up goes her desk to the third floor right next to the Dog, who’s taking her out to Nene’s later with the lucky few who can’t say no.  And Sauron isn’t coming because, frankly, he’s embarrassing and uncomfortable and not too stable.  And what’s she doing with him anyway?

I picture Luke next to Marianne in the dark, eyes open, maybe whispering her name, maybe putting his hand on her arm.  That’s great, but their lives, like their stuff, are all mixed up together because they’ve been living with each other for three years.  Situations like that don’t get solved by calling around at bar time or touching someone’s arm in the middle of the night.  Maybe she says, “Luke, let’s get some sleep.”  And maybe that’s what they pretend to do.

He tells me how numb he feels.  “Like I’ve been away somewhere for a really long time.  Like I’m someone I don’t know.”

“That’s how you seem to me, too.  No offense.”

“None taken.”

He vapes.  He watches the waitress inside the cafe.  I look at the V of ocean down at the end of Chalcedony Street and think about how the water is pale jade but it looked gunmetal a week ago and how this is a lesson of some kind.

Luke could have learned to accept Bulldog in Marianne’s life.  “He has this five-story house in north Hauberk.  One of the old Victorians.  It used to be the girls’ school.  He has a refrigerator that plays music.  His wife, Kathy, she wears a lot of gold.  She’s a treasury.  That’s what he says, my baby’s a treasury.  But he means all the gold.”  And it could have been okay like that.  But the one time Luke and Marianne came over for dinner, Kathy’s old shih tzu pissed on Luke’s leg.  So Bulldog threw Luke out.

“Funny that he’s named Bulldog and he has a dog.”

“Marianne thought so.”

“Sorry.”

Luke looks at me.  I can’t see his eyes behind his black aviators.

“Nobody’s ever sorry,” he says.

He’s not the kid I knew in high school.  Piers Anthony novels at lunch and Judge Dredd comics and too much Black Sabbath and his dad on duty in Gavin Long Men’s Facility five nights a week.  His mom died before he got to know her.  Maybe that’s what we’ll say in the end—that’s what fucked Luke up.  But in the end no one will probably say anything.  Marianne’s dead.  I don’t know what it means.

“So I ran over the dog.  It’s name was Scruffy.  I ran over Scruffy.”

“Did you kill anything else?”

“No.  Just the dog.”

I nod, like, that’s good.  It’s good you only murdered one human and one dog.

“It didn’t suffer.”

Two years ago, I went back to Hauberk for my uncle’s farewell.  Luke came and it was good to see him.  He was quiet, stood in the back of the church, and tried not to stare when my aunt collapsed on the coffin.  Who will go to Marianne’s funeral?  Will Luke stand in the back and try not to stare?  Will I?

“Where are you going now?”

“Mexico, I think.  Maybe nowhere.  I stabbed her.  With a bread knife.”

“Jesus Christ, man.  I mean—”

“I stabbed her and she was wearing this Hawaiian sun dress.  It was white but it had huge red flowers on it.  You couldn’t see anything.  She didn’t suffer.  I promise.”

“Alright,” I whisper.  “I guess that’s good.”

Tears run down under his aviators, but his mouth stays flat, his voice level.  “You believe me, don’t you?  That she didn’t suffer?”

“I believe you.”

“We were having a picnic by this little stream.  It was a good place.  It was peaceful.  You could hear the water on the rocks.  Then I looked up at that black cow.  And it didn’t seem nice anymore.”

My throat’s too tight to speak.  I drink some beer.  Then I look at Luke and say, “Yes.  I understand.”

The first time I realized I didn’t have the temperament to be a concert pianist, I was sitting in an enormous practice hall at San Diego State University with my teacher, Dr. Conrad.  I was 16 years old.  Eight years before that, through a serendipitous confluence of family connections, happenstance, and generosity on the part of my mother, I’d started taking piano lessons from him at $10 a week.

Even in 1989, that amount seemed considerable, given that living in San Diego ate up most of my father’s middle-class teaching salary and my mom wasn’t working.  So I felt rightly privileged to learn from a professor of piano and composition, who I discovered many years later, actually had a reputation as being one of the most difficult, ferocious members of the music department. 

To me, he was a kind gentle person, always willing to cancel a session to talk about the lives of the composers or take me down to the recital hall to look at the harpsichords or just tell jokes.  One day, we took an upright piano apart, piece by piece, to look at how it worked and produced its range of sounds.  The experience had me fantasizing about becoming a professional piano tuner for years. 

But really I was just in awe of Dr. Conrad, who seemed surrounded at all times by an aura of brilliance and gentility and yet had a goofy sense of humor and a love of children.  I learned more from him about music, teaching, and life than anyone I can think of.  He was an important person to me.

But the day he told me I just didn’t have it, I took it very hard.  I knew a number of kids at my school who were into theater and music, many of whom had formal training like me, but who always seemed better, sharper, one step ahead.  It kept me up at night.  I wanted to be like them, as good as they were. 

Having been surrounded by poets, painters, and professors throughout my short life, I thought creative artists, especially classical musicians, were a breed apart.  My idol at the time was John Field, an Irish pianist who studied under Muzio Clementi.  He was considered a weak student early on, but he rose to greatness later in life, praised by Beethoven, and even mentioned in War and Peace.  The reasons I took him as a model should be obvious.

That improbable dream seemed to melt away the day I asked Dr. Conrad the ultimate stupid question, one that I have since been asked many times by young (and more than a few older) writing students: Do I have the talent to make this a career?  It’s a horrible question, one that should never be asked by or of anyone, not even of oneself. 

Unfortunately, it’s asked by everyone at least once, and it’s something every art teacher hears over and over.  Do I have it?  Am I good enough?  Am I worthy?  Will Béla Bartok let me into heaven?  Will Gustav Holst discourse with me on the nature of the spheres while Mozart packs my bong?  I know das Leben ist kurz, aber die Kunst ist lang, but I’m ready to go the distance.

Up to that day, I’d had no idea Dr. Conrad smoked.  Besides, it was forbidden in the practice halls.  But before he answered my question, he motioned me outside.  The hall with about 50 grand pianos was on the second floor and, from the balcony walkway outside, we could see the women’s gymnasium, the campus tennis courts, and the great parking lot beyond, packed with cars glittering in the late afternoon.

It was windy that day.  I remember Dr. Conrad setting a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth, crossing his arms, looking into the distance, and thinking for a moment.  He had the habit of stopping to think, as if he were listening to a voice only he could hear, and I knew not to interrupt him.  But it only made the moment heavier, more dreadful, as if my entire future depended on what he was about to say.

After what seemed like a very long moment, he flicked ash over the metal railing, looked at me, and said, “Michael, you’re very creative and I have no doubt that you will find the right way, but you lack the temperament for serious musical study.”

I nodded.  What could I do but nod?

Then he said, “I think we’re through for today.”  Because he knew that if you’re going to tell someone what you consider to be a hard truth, you have to allow them time to mourn their lies, their comforting illusions.

Of course, I was crushed.  But there was nothing but honesty and kindness in him when he said it.  And even then, I knew that when someone speaks the truth at that level, with that much transparency and, actually, compassion, you should accept it at face value.  You might not agree with it, but you cannot disagree with the sincerity behind it. 

A very deep part of me knew that he was right.  It would take years for me to fully accept it, years spent both struggling with music and becoming fascinated with English literature and essay writing.  It was me finding my true will, that path Dr. Conrad said he had no doubt I would eventually discover.  But it wasn’t pleasant; it took a long time; and it demanded a lot in return—the general template for most things in my life.

I was a weak music student, but not because I didn’t practice hard.  I practiced so hard that at times it affected my health.  I had the obsessive nature of a musician without the bifurcated mind necessary to be both mathematician and sculptor at the same time.  In retrospect, even then, I thought more like a writer, but I wouldn’t realize this about myself for almost a decade.

At the time, my dedication to piano, though misplaced, brought me a certain amount of instructive grief.  I took a long time to analyze pieces; I was often deeply, inconsolably frustrated at my technical inability; and my adolescent self-doubt was only amplified by these things, rendering me morose and miserable much of the time.  Add to that, my lack of social development and the fact that my heroes weren’t celebrities or pop stars but 17th and 18th century composers.  And I had the perfect recipe for spontaneous teenage bridge jumping.

Though I came close a few times, I would not trade those grueling hours in the practice rooms or my loneliness—as much due to the other facets of my life as my musical studies—for anything.  I learned discipline.  I learned what it is to do everything right and still fail.  I learned compassion.  I learned to revere the creative life as one of invisible risks, enormous sacrifices, and sometimes rewards that make those things worthwhile.  And I learned the value of telling the hard truth as I understood it to my own future students.

Dr. Conrad never told me I didn’t have talent.  He always said that’s something no one can know, not even about oneself.  He told me I didn’t have the temperament.  And that’s why he was correct.  I have the temperament of a writer, something he recognized but didn’t know well enough to name.  His world was music.  And because of him, I was able to exist in that world long enough to acquire some of its virtues and vices.

When I do play piano these days, it’s for my own amusement.  And I can only be amused at my ability (and lack thereof).  In the fullness of time, when I get my Roland out of storage, I think I’d like to start practicing again, maybe learn some Professor Longhair.  If I manage it, one day I can be that grinning old man with long white hair, playing boogie woogie on his balcony. 

Who’s that up there?

Just some old creep, honey.  Don’t look at him.  Get in the car.

A short short about an epilogue.

 

You want a book and a blanket, warm shoes, a strong cup of coffee.  You want interesting birds at a comfortable distance, flowers nodding in the sun, forgetfulness at least for a time.  You even want redemption, relief, the past to stay past—even as it reaches out somehow to the present—symbolically, perhaps in dreams or in the figure of shadows beneath the trees—to reassure you that it’s going to stay put.  You want the world to stop ending for a minute and the mountains to stay purple under their white peaks.  And, yes, you very much want to be in love. 

Of course, as your body expels a month of agricultural pollution, you mostly want to breathe straight.  You decide you love clean air more than anything else.

Coming out of the San Joaquin Valley in the high-pollution days of summer is like being reborn.  You don’t remember how it was the first time, but can’t you imagine?  Screaming, covered in slime, a slap on the ass, and then the first ragged breath: this is what it’s like driving north on the 5 and looking back at Gustine, Newman, Patterson, Westley.  You stop for gas in Lathrop.  You consider taking a detour out to Manteca because someone in your PhD program said he once ate a good enchilada there and you’ve been chewing old jerky since Buttonwillow.  You didn’t want to get out in Los Baños because breathing there makes you want to brush your teeth.

But you don’t do the detour.  You push north, feverishly.  Maybe your fever isn’t only because of the gallons of chlorpyrifos being dropped on orange groves by the freeway.  It tastes like talcum powder.  It’s on the windshield, turning the sap of dead butterflies light gray.  As with the butterflies, so with your lungs.  Enchiladas de Manteca are one thing.  Getting out of the Valley—really getting out without an engine fire or a family emergency or a carjacking or the strange magnetic pull of Fresno simply yanking you back to the Tower District—that’s an enchilada of a much higher order.

So you get out, and it’s quietly amazing.  You spend the night in Sherwood and dream about a forest.  You go up to Portland and you look at a tugboat.  People walk past you with hands in their pockets.  Someone laughs at a joke.  The Willamette is clean beneath grey steel bridges and pillars of rust.  You decide this is where people go when they figure out what matters in life.  You buy a silver Ganesh pendant on Burnside Street and spend hours in Powell’s Books reading about Mikao Usui.

Finally in Washington, you make your first journal entry in weeks: I think I feel healthy—what happened?  When you blow your nose, the tissue isn’t stuck with black.  You no longer have a smoker’s cough after walking outside.  You think this might be something.  It might be momentous.  Your lungs don’t feel like ten pounds of water.

You are inspired to meditate for the first time since you left Michigan.  You are inspired to sit for hours at the edge of Puget Sound and not think about the doctoral program you left behind like a messy divorce. And you don’t think about the virus much.

You’re still running—both to and from some other life you could have, should have, would have been leading.  But you might take a little time to watch an orange spider in its web.  You might read a novel.  You might close your eyes in the sun and breathe clean air for a while and, just for today, let everything slip, moment by moment, into evening.

A letter story after Bret Easton Ellis.

The funeral was horrible.  And you want me to say it wasn’t.  And I want that, too.  But every time I lie, I feel worse.  I don’t blame you.

What to do.  Where to be.  What we should have done.  How it all might have been better.  Or different.  Or maybe just not so bad.  I think about this shit all the time.  I should stop thinking. 

So you’re out in Spain.  That’s cool.  Spain gets you away from all this.  It’s a good choice.  Seriously.  And I hope Patty’s making it.  At least, I hope she’s physically alright.  Have some gazpacho for me, okay?

This morning, early, I drove out to Mount Lee, hiked up behind the Hollywood sign, looked out between the L and the Y where it happened.  The air was pretty clear and I could see all the way to downtown.  Of course, Bella didn’t come.  She won’t even say Alisa’s name. 

Bella’s been drinking a lot more now.  She looks pissed off all the time.  But you understand, right?  I mean, you and Patty went to Spain.  Drunk is Bella’s Spain.

There’s nothing up there now.  No police tape.  Not even trash since it rained.  All gone.  I thought I’d put some flowers down, but I forgot to get any.  So I just stood there and thought about the funeral.  I can’t begin to explain how depressing it was.  Trust me, Spain was a good move.

One thing Bella said two weeks ago, when we had our first big relationship-defining fight that we’re still calling a conversation: “Alisa was a money-hungry talentless slut and this was about attention.”  That was Stupid Drunk Bella going on.  You know. 

I broke my hand that night after she took off.  I don’t know why because we weren’t even screaming.  I had some klonopin.  We were in the living room with the lights off, trying to talk about boundaries or some shit and whether I should get my own place.  It seemed like we were making progress for about 10 minutes.  But now the Toyota needs a new passenger window.  

I think about Alisa for no reason at all.  About all of us, really.  You two were hooking up and, no, you don’t have to deny it.  We’re beyond that and you’re in Spain.  So don’t worry.  Nobody’s going to tell Patty.  I think that’s why Bella hates Alisa.  I keep telling her it’s ridiculous to hate a dead person.

I was fucking Bella behind Alisa’s back and you were fucking Alisa behind Patty’s back.  And all we did was sneak around and fuck each other and lie to each other.  We were so much better when we were friends just living together and failing at life.  What happened?

They had an open casket.  It was a bad decision.  The bullet did things to Alisa’s face that makeup couldn’t fix.  I thought her cousin was going to puke when she walked up to view the body.  Alisa was too pretty to have an open casket like that.  I don’t know what the logic was there.  I can’t get it out of my head.

Bella and I are still together, even after everything, because I think it’s just easy.  It’s easier than sleeping in our old bedrooms and having to be polite and pretend.  I guess we’re sleeping in the same bed and doing that.  She’s auditioning all the time.  I think she’s in a commercial for some kind of bean dip.  You should google her.  She’s good.  But she doesn’t make me want to buy the bean dip.

I’m still waiting tables at Earth.  It’s boring, but I don’t have to be home a lot that way, which I know is a fucked up kind of therapy.  But I guess it works well enough.  I go up to Mount Lee a few times a week.  I can’t sleep.

I found the video of the camping trip we took last summer.  I’m attaching it in case you care.  I don’t recommend it unless you actually like feeling bad, but I looked at it a few days ago.  I was in the living room, playing it on my laptop and crying a little, when Bella came in.  She just got the lead in the new Mata Hari opening at the Vantage because someone poisoned the person ahead of her.  She was in a good mood for once, singing, twirling around the room, which made me break down in a complete mess.  Things didn’t really go anywhere that night in terms of human decency.  She says she still wants to be with me.  She just doesn’t want to live with me.  I don’t want to live with me, either.

If you were here, I guess I’d ask what you think, if you have an opinion on any of it.  But I seriously do not want you to write an email back to me like this one and talk about Alisa’s suicide.  I know you don’t want to.  I don’t even expect you to have read this far.  I wouldn’t.  Just enjoy Spain and be nice to Patty.  Drink a lot of beer.  Go to a museum.

I keep having this thought.  I keep thinking that I knew Alisa was going to do it, that I was watching her slip away, and I didn’t do anything.  Why?  I don’t understand how we could just let her get worse and worse.  Like when she didn’t get the part in Veracity and took all your valium.  I mean, what the actual fuck was that? 

Bella says it was  about attention, but why weren’t we paying attention?  It fucks me up.  And how did she get a gun?  Nobody knows a thing.  You want to guess about that one for me?  Because I know it wasn’t mine.  I’ve never owned one in my life.  We were up our own asses is the answer, which is no answer at all but still absolutely true.

Last week, I hiked Mount Lee just before dawn.  L.A. looked like a bunch of orange stars under a black sky.  I was thinking that more people have killed themselves in this town than all the lights you can see from there.  It’s morbid and it’s also beautiful.  Like Alisa.  We should start naming the lights the way we name the constellations.  I’m probably going to keep going there.  Because what else is there?  Maybe some morning I’ll be able to figure out which light is her. 

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I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

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Readings for May 2020

Fiction
Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby, Jr.
Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger
City of Night, John Rechy
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
Almost Transparent Blue, Ryu Murakami
The Complete Short Stories, Hemingway
New York City in 1979, Kathy Acker
Non-fiction & Creative Non-fiction
Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Charles Bukowski
Child of Light: A Biography, Madison Smartt Bell
Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray
Arguably: Essays, Christopher Hitchens
The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport
Continued from Last Month
Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell
Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, Lisel Mueller
Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter Thompson

We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

— Charles Bukowski

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