Scratch Dancing on Your Grave

and I was reading a book that was also on television at the same time. The story was about two old men who lived in apartments facing each other in a building with no other tenants. The hallways were long and gray, and wound around a square of empty rooms. Age is a cycle, you are born a fool, and you grow old into a fool, and these two fools lived off supplies in the empty building; five flights of empty rooms.

A wave came through the curtains at night, once two years back, and flooded and floated dead bodies into the ocean leaving only the two old men. These men had never liked each other, and seldom spoke pleasantries to or about each other even though they’d lived across from each other for fortysome odd years. They watched each other grow up, and grow old, and suffered alternate joys and failures and disappointments, and before long they began to see each other in the other’s face.

Each man was a hermit in his own way, and they disliked other people, horribly, the television pictured them in hazy scenes from blue tint in the beginning, grudging smiles at strangers and each other, to yellow tint ten years or so later, two middle aged men, one scene one man opens his door, hears the other turning his lock, and slams his door closed quick and frowns. A gray tint flashes through a scene of two old men, each alone in an empty apartment talking to walls and not talking to each other as they pass in the halls; finally the film tints white with sharp black outlines defining the old men passing in the halls one day and each stopping, surveying. Finally one of the men, the man who lives behind the red door, sticks out his hand and says flat: “My name is Turner.” The man who lives behind the black door takes Turner’s hand, half frowns and half grins, so his lip line looks like a breaking rollercoaster ride, and says, “Philip.”

The book has no chapters and no dividing sections, but the film chapters here into a black screen, “Two Weeks Later” in white letters; blue tint, the building flooding with the waves from the flood, washing people out of windows, screaming; the building shudders and totters like the leaning tower. Loud sound. Blackout. “Two Years Later”: white letters. Blackout.

Turner and Philip are friends, or at least as much as they can muster. Philip comes over to Turner’s apartment, enters without knocking, sits down and says: “Turner, do you live off the stuff in the rooms left by other people like I do? If so, you can tell me. We need to come up with a plan, divide the territory. Lately I’ve noticed stuff disappearing. Stuff I’d sort of planted in rooms. That worries me.”

“What kinds of stuff.”

“Nevermind that.”

“Very well. I will have the first three floors, and you will have the top two.”

“How is that fair? We should divide one floor in half, and then it is equal and fair.”

“But it is fair. Since we live on the top floor, you have the prime real estate. You’re on the fifth floor already, and the fourth is only one floor down.” Turner frowns. “I have to go all the way to the third floor for my supplies.”

“What happens when I run out?”

“We will share.”

“Now that sounds fair.”

For a while Turner and Philip live in peace. They pass in the halls, half-smile and nod. They live quiet, mysterious lives. No one ever comes by the building. The film is punctuated by long scenes of the hallways, silent, climbing around corners, and the clod, clod, clod quietly in stereo as it passes the red and black doors. The story is written in short staccato sentences. The pace slows down. Two ghosts climbing around corners; clod clod clod. Or something like that.

The film segues into scenes of the old man behind the red door, Philip, pacing the apartment one night when he hears Turner’s door close. He knows Turner went out for supplies just that afternoon. Why would he be going again, and if he’s not going for supplies, why would he be leaving his apartment? Where does he have to go? Philip leans close to his own door, and listens. A moment later he puts on a pair of soft slippers he found on the third floor, waits to hear Turner’s footsteps fall down the hall, and then he follows him out.

He follows Turner around two corners, when he sees Turner turn one way, then the other. Philip falls back into the shadow of the corner. Turner, satisfied he’s not being observed, turns back to the door, and quietly, deftly even, opens it and slips inside.

Philip can’t believe his eyes. A little moonlight is coming through cracks in the ceiling, gray rusted steel and concrete, turning the moonlight ash yellow, and pale, and seeps Turner in an eerie glow; close up on Philips’s face; eyes wide, mouth drawn back; yellow teeth in slowly browning moonlight.

Philip’s first thought, wrapped in wrath, is to storm into the room, grab the first blunt object he sees, and strike Turner dead on the spot. He moves forward, mumbling death threats to himself, when suddenly something really troubling occurs to him.

No one ever goes into the straight jacket nicely. In the film, flashback sequence, Philip struggles against three thin men in white coats, as they fit him nicely into a backwards white jacket. Blackout.

The year is fifty five years ago, and Philip is on a ship at sea. Blue tint, sky blue sky, waves like the flood through the windows, which hasn’t happened yet. In the belly of the boat there are rows of hallways winding around corners where doors lean into the walls. Behind each door there is a living quarter, small room, a bed, a dresser, a desk, and a couple sea scattered chairs. Philip sits smoking in his room, a much younger man. His eyes are whitish green; in the film he looks out a porthole onto the sea, and can almost see the waves reflecting back a long lost stare that goes all the way back where there’s a quick cut flashback of Brooklyn streets. Gray and red buildings, black asphalt, children playing while a fire hydrant showers a sidewalk. Back to Philip’s face, looking back at the ocean looking back at him.

The book tells the story of Philip’s childhood in Brooklyn; talks about his mother. He even had friends. The film focuses on Philip’s face: his eyes and the way the wrinkles on his cheeks meet the teeth of his frown, but it gives no more backstory. Philip is alone on the sea, Childe Harold, says the author, and Philip’s face sings a lonely song on film.

Something strange is happening on the boat. Passengers disappear and reappear. Sometimes they reappear as other people. One man disappears and comes back as two: Oscar and Gary, completing each other’s sentences, complementing each other’s thoughts, sometimes getting in loud angry irrational shouting matches back and forth no one else can follow. No one else can follow: Philip tries explaining the disappearances to other people. Passengers at first. Just the quick comment over dinner: “Did Daniel disappear?”

“No. He’s right over there -,” Where Daniel would be sitting, eating dinner, only as another person.

“Is that Daniel?”

“That’s him all right. Just look at how he moves.”

&

Later on he decides to keep a notebook of disappearances. As passengers disappear, he notes the name and date. On their reappearance, he notes the date, and renames the person appropriately, as suits the person’s new demeanor: “Daniel Damien.” Or some such. It seems there is a constant rotation of seven people missing at any given time. Sometimes two people count as one, as in Oscar and Gary. There is at least one disappearance every two days. It can take from a day to a week before the reappearance as someone else. Victims have no knowledge of their disappearance. Philip deliberates this for a few days. Finally he decides to take his findings to the crew; even to the captain himself.

No one ever goes into the straight jacket nicely. We’re back to where we were before: in the film, flashback to flashback sequence, Philip struggling against three thin men in white coats, the sea blue sea and sky blue sky pan out in a view as the doctors fit him nicely into a backwards white jacket; screaming across the waves. Philips body surges like the rolling sea. Next paragraph.

Cut back to Philip, dark around the corner watching Turner go into the room. He realizes that he’s afraid to walk into the room and find Turner missing. There is a shot colored in imagination sick green, Philip walking into the room like in the green glare of night goggles, and finding it empty. No sign of Turner no where. The artifacts stuck in corners. Another man missing.

The artifacts stuck in corners compels him out of the corner, up to the door, opens it. Inside Turner turns from where he’s crouched in the corner. He’s holding one of Philip’s notebooks. He looks at Philip in a way that is both alarming and familiar. “What the hell is this?”

“Nevermind that,” says Philip. “What are you doing going into one of my rooms?”

Turner ignores the question. “What does this mean?” he demands. “Turner disappeared a few days ago, and has come back as someone else I’ve named Turner Sheisty? Who are these people disappearing in an already empty building? Who are you?”

And then something unexpected happened. Philip himself disappeared. On the screen he simply flick off the scene. For a minute there’s Turner, wide eyed in the corner, and the room sinking into imagination sick green tint, and then a loud sound. Blackout. The book is more ambiguous: “And then something unexpected happened. Philip himself disappeared. The End.”

A wash like the waves through the windows woke me up in a dark blue room, dark blue sky, five in the morning. The feeling, sitting up in bed was like I shed years with each increasingly acute angle. Ninety degrees in the bed, arms propped back, sweating. For a minute I didn’t know who I was. The room was unfamiliar; I had no immediate frame of reference. Running through my memory, trying to remember why I might be waking up in an unfamiliar room, I got caught in a loop in the dream: something absolutely vital to the life of the story, what it was trying to tell me. Somewhere between Philip looking out the porthole and people disappearing. And the more I tried to remember what it was, the more it disappeared. Age is a cycle, you are born a fool, and you grow old into a fool. Somewhere in those minutes of limbo, between losing my dream and groping for my memory I felt like I was losing something metaphysically essential to myself on the other side. Supposing I believed in such things. Supposing I didn’t. Supposing both at the same time.

Whit Frazier, 2007

The Automobile

The automobile, propelling toward its destination, is an extension of his thoughts. It is four in the morning, and the moon is falling asleep behind brightening clouds. One hand is holding onto the wheel of the vehicle, between the fingers resting a marijuana cigarette, he hasn’t smoked a marijuana cigarette in seven years. The other hand holds onto a Berretta tucked next to him on the car seat. The automobile is flying forward, and possibly, driving him backward. His thoughts have turned backward, and fly forward, and then return to this moment. They fly backward and drive forward again. He is thinking about the night before, with his sister, his mother, his father and his aunt, and he is thinking about his uncle molesting his sister, and he is thinking about drinking all that night, and waking up the next morning on his bedroom floor, the fan burned out, and the morning heat sweating through the window.

Downstairs he can smell the smell of his mother’s cooking. She is making bacon and eggs, and he feels sick, wondering how she can get up and cook and eat like any other morning. He comes downstairs, and the whole family is there: mother, father, sister, aunt. They are sitting around the dining room table, frozen like mannequins. He walks over and sits down. His mother says: “Don’t sit down at the table without washing your hands. And put something on your feet.” She pauses. “In fact, shower up. You smell like a brewery. If you’re going to behave this way at twenty-eight, you could at least get your own place.”

He doesn’t say anything. He turns around and heads back up the stairs to take a shower. There is a feeling of impotence – and anger. He takes a shower. When he is finished and clean, and dressed in clean clothes he comes back downstairs, and they are sitting there just like before: the party of mannequins. He takes his place with them. Nobody is speaking. He looks over at his sister, and her face is blank. What could she be thinking about? He looks over to his aunt, and her face is blank. What about her? What is she thinking about her husband? Why is everyone here so complacent? When his mother comes back in with breakfast, he says: “So, dad, what should we do?”

His father looks up from his plate with the same blank face. “Son, there is nothing to do. It happened a long time ago, and the man is sick anyway. He will be dead in a year or two. God takes his Justice. It is not our place.”

“I want to kill the sonofabitch,” he tells his father. Does he mean it? He doesn’t know; after all, it is what someone would say in the movies. It is the right thing to say in this situation.

“There is nothing noble or good in taking revenge,” his father disagrees. “Right now we just need to be here for your sister. That’s the important thing. I don’t want to put your sister through a trial, and there will be no vigilante justice in this family. We are a good, Christian family, and it is God’s place to judge. Not ours.”

“I hope he howls,” his sister says; and his sister’s tone brings tears to his eyes. He says to her: “I will make things right again.”

After breakfast he goes upstairs and sits on his bed, and thinks. He wonders did he really mean it. A real man would go and do something. He thinks about the breakfast table again, all the blank faces, the family of defeated individuals, the defeated family; is he happy to be like this? He is impotent – impotent! Not a real man at all – a phony, like his father, sitting petrified at the dining room table, waiting for someone else to take charge. He looks in face of his father, going back into a memory of the morning, and he sees himself in it. It will not be long before he and his father are one and the same. Bad enough he was always waiting around corners for himself. Worse yet, here he was life half gone and still at home.

Somewhere in the early afternoon he goes out for a drive. He ends up at Stephanie’s house. She answers the door in a light green summer dress, and her hair runs bright, scented, all down her neck. He smiles, and she smiles and she says come in. He sits down, and when she looks at him a little closer, she says: “What’s wrong?” He folds his hands in his lap, and doesn’t say anything. She repeats the question, and he asks for a drink. She comes back with a bottle of white wine. She pours them both a glass.

“I learned something pretty disturbing last night,” he tells her. “It’s about my sister.” Stephanie doesn’t say anything. She knows he wants to tell her and she waits, because he will say it in time. He sits and looks down, then looks back up at her. “It involves my uncle,” he says. Stephanie sits and listens and looks serious through the whole thing. “Nothing like that ever happened to you, did it?” she asks quiet after he’s finished.

His face flushes and his eyes go deep. “No! Of course not! For Christ’s sake, I’m not my sister!” Stephanie’s face is slack and kind and sympathetic. “It’s just that you must be the most repressed person I’ve ever met,” she says. He stands up and paces a couple paces and turns to her and says: “And just what the hell do you mean by that?” Stephanie shrugs and her face is blank. “I didn’t mean to say anything to offend you.” He sits back down. His mind is racing, he doesn’t know what to say. He looks back up at Stephanie, and says: “Anyway, I’ve decided I’m going to kill the sonofabitch.” Stephanie says, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

“And why not? No one else is gonna do anything? What kind of world do we live in where people just get away with this kind of thing? My mother and father want to believe Jesus will serve justice in the end, but I don’t believe in Jesus. Someone has to stand up and be a man.”

“I think you should think about what your sister needs,” Stephanie says.

Well to hell what Stephanie says, he thinks, back in his car, and not sure where he’s driving to. To hell with Stephanie all around. He’s a little bit tipsy, and he’s thinking about the light green sundress Stephanie was wearing and in the early evening sun, he is remembering the way that she smelled, and he is thinking about her posture, and poise and prettiness when she says: “It’s just that you must be the most repressed person I’ve ever met.”

He picks up a six-pack before going home, and decides not to go home. He parks the car off on a quiet road by the side of great rolling long fields, where twilight’s orange sun spills like pale blood on the grassy fingers. He drinks, and smokes cigarettes and thinks about what he should do. He pulls open his glove compartment and looks at the joint Stephanie gave him earlier. He hasn’t smoked reefer in seven years. If he is going to do what he thinks he is going to do he is going to have to smoke this thing first, he tells himself.

The sound of the crickets comes through with the setting night. He has been sitting out here for hours, trying to determine what he is going to do. He turns around in his car and goes home. The family of mannequins has shifted to the living room, blank faces all, sitting quiet on the couch when he walks in the door. His father asks him: “Where were you?”

“I went to Stephanie’s house,” he says. And then he goes upstairs without saying anything else. Upstairs he lets himself into his mother and father’s bedroom. He opens the drawer on the night table and takes out his father’s Beretta. He checks it for ammo, and makes sure the safety is on, and then he tucks it in the small of his back. He goes back downstairs to where the family looks up at him coming down the stairs, still blankfaced, all.

“I need to go for a drive,” he tells them.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” says his sister.

He stops at a bar he knows along the way to his Uncle’s house. It is a depressing dive bar where old men sit with one shot and one beer and repeat this concoction for an eight hour workday. He drinks fast and hard. He will need the fuel in him before he smokes the reefer. He remembers that he used to feel like he was dreaming whenever he did that.

Around four in the morning he feels like he is dreaming. The present is the sum of the past. The automobile, propelling towards its destination, is an extension of his thoughts.

-Whit Frazier, 2005

Faith

Brenda’s calligraphy stopped strangers at the wall. The intersection sat broken buildings, cracked sidewalks and glass, and one or two stray cats came to and fro, from into and out of the earth.

In the morning she asked him to leave. He sat down and looked out at the wall and the calligraphy and he didn’t see any new patterns. Brenda said: I mean now. He stood up and walked over to the window. It isn’t cold outside anymore, he explained to her. She didn’t say anything. When he turned around there was no Brenda; only a wall.

&

Brenda’s calligraphy stopped strangers at the wall. He’d heard about it since he was a child, when his mother and father would tuck him into bed and tell him about the strange wall on Concourse and Mezzanine where strangers came and strangers went and all of them went away changed. One day, his father used to tell him, there will be a man who will stop her, but until then she writes day and night and it always stays winter. He would argue with his father: but that doesn’t make any sense. How can that be true? His father smiled, and his mother, she would always cry and leave the room. One night he asked his father, why does it make mother cry?

Father told him how mother’s father was an ambitious man, and how he had always heard about the wall. That one day someone would stop Brenda, and that mother’s father had thought he was that man. And father said: maybe he was, but if he was then the wall stopped him. Mother’s father was an alcoholic, a failed poet, a wreck of a man who worked day in day out and never had an extra penny to spend on himself. The police found him one morning, hanging. His father paced the story slow, so he knew his son could get every nuance. Hanging. They said it was a suicide. Hanging from the wall.

“Mother’s mother never recovered. She had a nervous breakdown one afternoon in a taxicab home. Mother had to stay with her grandmother who was a mean old lady named Brenda. It haunted her. And she never likes to talk about it; but she told me when we got married, that when we had children, we would have to tell our children every night about Brenda and her terrible calligraphy.”

And father smiled. And it dawned on him that evening that father never believed mother. It also dawned on him that evening that he hated father. Hated him. And that if mother had given him this strange birthright, then he must be the man who was to stop Brenda. And what’s more that it would have to be over his father’s dead body.

&

Brenda’s calligraphy stopped strangers at the wall. The night mother was committed he sat with father in the living room, each across from the other. The curtains tugged from into and out of the window, and father couldn’t look at him and he stared at father. In the background father had put on something demonic and classical. Probably Stravinsky. Father said, without looking up: I know you’re old enough now to understand. Yes, father, he said. And he felt like Damian.

The sterile cell that kept mother locked up, locked him up inside her head, but he was a young man now, and yes, mother, of course she was crazy. He saw her everyday. He hated to go see her, and she just sat there looking at him, desperate, sad and insane. Mother, he would say, there is no Brenda. Brenda is the name of your grandmother, and your grandmother was fond of calligraphy. Please recognize this, so you can come back to us. And his mother would tell him: You have been talking with your father. He loved me enough to play along, you know. But he never respected me. And he never believed me. He has never even been to the corner of Concourse and Mezzanine.

Of course there was no corner of Concourse and Mezzanine. He had known this a long time, so of course father had never been there, but that’s all mother would say. Mother, please. And she would be silent. At school the word got out. Why is your mother crazy? children asked him. She had a rough childhood, he would say, and she lost both her parents. And when that happens sometimes you go crazy. And he would stare right at the other students and say, I can see it in your soul that it would drive you crazy, but it would make no difference to me.

&

Brenda’s calligraphy stopped strangers at the wall. His father dies when he’s twenty years old. His father was found hanging. And slowly too, so he could capture every nuance. Hanging at the corner of Concourse and Mezzanine. The police judged it a suicide. What else could it be? He stopped visiting mother. She was crazy, and to go mad was a weakness, and he had no place for weakness. He had only one weakness. Her name was Brenda. Brenda passed him daily on the stairs at the University. He smiled and she smiled, but they never said a word. Sometimes he would catch the scent of her hair in class. He loved her, but he was onto her and he knew what he had to do. He was never worried, because he knew how things worked out. He’d known the story since he was a child, and probably, so had she.

The day after he found out about his father’s death he invited Brenda to the funeral. She smiled and blushed and said she’d love to go. Great, he told her. He would pick her up at nine. She should wear her best dress. He would wear his best suit. When they lowered father into the ground he smiled. He took Brenda home, and kissed her. He told her he’d had a wonderful time, and they should see each other again. She said, yes, that was very true. He pointed across the street where the sun stopped shining and fell just short of where a kitten lurched limping across the broken glass. That’s where father hanged himself. Yes, she said. I know. I was the one who found him. The corner of Concourse and Mezzanine. Where you can find all my calligraphy.

The summer after graduation Brenda agreed to marry him. We will live in my house, she said, and you will be able to look at the wall all the time. He couldn’t get enough of the wall. The wall, where even in the summer, it was still winter. He took pictures and put them up in his house. He sat in front of it for hours and stared. Patterns developed and changed. People came and people went. Stray cats came from into and out of the earth. The patterns changed and the people changed, though he never changed and Brenda never changed, and everything stayed the same. The calligraphy was what awed him. And what awed everyone. And all the lovers Brenda took, and all the children that stopped by to play, and all the people that went away changed or hanging, and Brenda stayed and he stayed, and he knew he was going to stop her one day.

&

The day Brenda got married he went out with friends, and they all got drunk. They laughed at him and they laughed with him and they said: we told you that girl would never marry you. Look how many men came and went, and what made you think you were special? So that he smiled and laughed and said: Brenda’s calligraphy stops strangers at the wall. His friends said: you’ve had too much, and now you’re not making sense. It’s time for you to go to bed. He pushed them all off him, and he looked at them like he was in the living room alone with his father, with Stravinsky, Damian, with the curtains pulling from into and out of the window, and he said: you are all the same. Every one of you, and not one of you believes, and that’s why I’ll see you all hang at the wall.

In the morning he tore up all his phone numbers, and he walked over to Brenda’s house where he found her new husband hanging on the wall. The patterns changed, and he sat there all day and he sat there all night, and the next morning Brenda came outside and asked him did he want to come inside? He said, yes, he’d like very much to come inside, and they went in and he asked her, what happened to your husband? She told him, that’s how things happen around here, and I have nothing to do with the wall. He walked over to the window and looked out at the wall. The patterns on the wall had changed, and her husband wasn’t there anymore, there were more images, and he said: you have everything to do with that wall Brenda. Why didn’t you marry me? And Brenda said: you know why.

He didn’t say anything. He walked over to where she was standing, and he touched her lip. He put his other hand on the nape of her neck. He could feel the patterns changing on the wall behind him outside, where years ago his father had died. She slipped, catlike from underneath him, but he pushed her up against the wall, and slid up against her. He kissed her. She led him to her bed. She rolled him around and climbed on top of him. She slid her hands up his chest, and whispered hot in his ear: “Is this what you wanted? You wanted to fuck me?” He lay still and silent and sleeping, like his father.

&

Brenda’s calligraphy stopped strangers at the wall. When he was a child he used to visit his grandmother, and she would tell him stories. They would sit in her dusty old den where she’d hunch over her desk and write the names of their ancestry in snakes of calligraphy that changed into patterns of pictures while she told him stories about each name. The patterns of the calligraphy and the stories of the names weaved together into a strange picture, and Brenda kept a long roll of paper where she kept writing names over and over and coming up with new names and she said she traced her lineage all the way back to the story of Job.

Sometimes mother would come into the den while she was talking and writing and he was listening and watching, and mother would scream and say, Brenda you stay away from my child, stay away from my child, he’s already not well, you hear me? I won’t have you doing to him what you did. And she never finished the sentence, while snaking patterns of calligraphy and stories cobwebbed inside his head, so that each new visit to his grandmother became necessary to spin new webs.

Brenda was found dead one morning sitting at her desk rotting. She’d died alone in her study, the calligraphy pen still in her hand, and her head resting against the long roll of paper that ran snaking calligraphies of names and stories. No one had known she was dead for weeks. One day someone walked by and smelled something horrible. The police had to break into the house.

For years after she died, he used to sneak away from home in the middle of the night and creep into the old house where Brenda died. He would sit in the den and dream up the desk and the roll of paper and the strange names of ancient relatives and all the old stories. He liked to make up stories of his own in that dark little den, where all he had were murky memories of ancestors. He could try to trace them all the way back to Job.

&

Brenda’s calligraphy stopped strangers at the wall. The intersection sat broken buildings, cracked sidewalks and glass, and one or two stray cats came to and fro, from into and out of the earth.

In the morning she asked him to leave. He sat down and looked out at the wall and the calligraphy and he didn’t see any new patterns. Brenda said: I mean now. He stood up and walked over to the window. It isn’t cold outside anymore, he explained to her. She didn’t say anything. When he turned around there was no Brenda; only a wall.

&

The last time he was there he had been sitting mumbling thinking scribbling for hours, and when his mother found him in the morning, pale and shaking she started to cry. Have you been here all night? she screamed. You had us worried sick! His father stormed up and down the room furious. He didn’t know what to tell them: Don’t cry, mother; father, please don’t be angry. You were right all along Mother. I always believed you. Except I was your father, and I am your son, and I was always destined to stop her. And though it cost me my life once, you can see now that she is gone.

The Sensualist

Around 1:30 Sunday afternoon, Simon Dimple came out of the little shop a block down the street from his apartment with a whole, fresh trout wrapped up in a brown paper package. The package was cold and heavy and wet, and so was the day, a couple hours after a pleasant autumn rain. The leaves were colorfully wet dead stains on the cozy gray sidewalks, and clouds passed and looked like warm smoke from cozier chimneys and comfortable homes in good old Strawberry, Simon Dimple’s favorite town, no questions, no doubts.

It was a fine day all around for Simon Dimple, a fine day looking forward to a fine evening spent enjoying one of the finest operas of all time, La Boheme, a masterpiece that appealed to cabdrivers and classicists alike, and Simon walked home singing sad romantic arias in his head and thinking about his darling Clementime.

Clementine was a fine young lady who lived in New York, but grew up in Strawberry. As children, he and Clementine had lived on the same block and gone to the same schools, though for the longest time Clementine paid him no mind. He, on the other hand, felt like he’d remembered Clementine for as long as he could remember, and when he was in Junior High School he would walk out to the docks in Southport, look across the water and recite Annabel Lee while skipping stones. One afternoon in his first year of High School he got bold, because she was in his English class. They were reciting famous poems, and when it came his turn to recite, he went to the front of the class, said loud and brave: “This poem is for Clementine!” and recited Annabel Lee, right there in front of Clementine, their classmates and everybody; he was nervous and excited, and he could barely even finish the poem, what with everyone laughing and such – (everyone, that is, except for Clementine, who fled the room, and the teacher, who was looking very pale and concerned, and couldn’t stop staring at him like he was crazy) – but laugh, stare or flee, after that things changed.

It had rained earlier, sure, but now the sun was starting to peek out just a little bit – orange on the orange trees, and the hearty smell of the trout mixed with the scent from the cider vendors on the corners, and they mixed with all the pumpkin vendors, and Simon Dimple decided there could be nothing finer than a pleasant stroll through Strawberry on a fine autumn afternoon. When he got to his apartment, he turned around to look one last time. It inspired him so much that he sat straight down on the damp sidewalk and admired his little town and all the people that populated it. Clementine, she loved New York, and sure, he could understand that, but there was nothing in the world like Strawberry.

After a while, he turned around and headed upstairs to his apartment. He put the trout away in the refrigerator, took a hot shower, changed clothes and helped himself to a snifter of brandy. His back patio looked out on a little park, so he stepped out there and breathed in the air with the flavor of the brandy; he watched the women and children and said, she was a child, and I was a child in this Kingdom by the Sea. Then he went back inside and helped himself to another small snifter of brandy.

Simon Dimple went from the kitchen back to the living room, a tidy square room with blue curtains and blue carpets, and large bay windows looking out onto the street. His patio was connected to the living room too, and even though it was a little bit chilly with the patio doors open, he liked the autumn wind blowing into his living room, and sometimes a stray wet leaf would come waltzing colorfully into the room, which delighted him. He turned on his stereo, and put on one of his old vinyl recordings of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. It was a children’s piece, but a piece he considered to be his theme song whenever he was in the sort of happy, playful mood he was in this afternoon. The melody moved him to finish his snifter of brandy, head back to the kitchen and pour himself another.

Once he was in the kitchen, Simon began basic preparations for the fish. He diced up onions, celery and various other vegetables. Then he moved onto various herbs, chopping coriander, mint, basil and tarragon. Once he’d chopped the herbs and the vegetables, he set them aside on the chopping board and put half a stick of butter in a small saucepan. He decided to help himself to another snifter of brandy.

Simon Dimple took a sip of the brandy, set it down and walked back across the kitchen to where the butter was now fairly well melted in the saucepan. He slowly, little by little, began to mix first the chopped vegetables, and then the chopped herbs into the melted butter in the small saucepan, and reduced the heat. He watched the whole mixture simmer, and his head started to feel light. He walked over to where his snifter of brandy sat, sniffed the brandy, and hopped seated atop his kitchen counter. Through the adjacent living room the cool autumn afterrain crept the corner and stirred up the scents of the vegetables and herbs simmering in butter, the warm, rich, sweet aroma of the brandy and the smoky autumn opulence, while the Prokofiev piece whistled Simon and Peter’s theme song with a laughing little flute so that when Simon Dimple finished his next snifter of brandy, he decided he must most certainly have at least one more.

The next task at hand was to clean and bone the trout. Simon opened the refrigerator, pulled out the cold, damp package, placed it in the sink and unwrapped it with a certain amount of reverence. Once the package was unwrapped he lifted the fish and turned it over several times. The fish was sleek and wet and a little slick to the touch. He ran his fingers over it. The eyes looked like they were looking up at him, like a dog or a cat when you pet it, and except for the stupid terror in the eyes, Simon Dimple decided there was something decidedly noble about those eyes. The body was slender and blue-green, and a radiant pink-red line ran down the trout’s midline. Turning the fish over, the body changed from blue-green to silver, and then faded into a dirty snow white. He turned the fish over again. It was a beautiful trout. The most beautiful thing he’d seen in his life. He laid the fish carefully back in the sink and went to change the record. He put on some Chopin, because nothing else seemed delicate enough to match the beauty of the fish. When he re-entered the kitchen, he decided he and the fish should have one last glass of brandy before he chopped it up.

He had been very deliberate about playing Chopin’s Trauermarsch to accompany the occasion, so when he poured out the two snifters of brandy, he did so solemnly. “A toast to your beauty,” he told the trout, brandishing a snifter. He lifted the fish from the sink, opened its mouth, and emptied the contents inside. Then he lifted his own glass, clinked it against the empty glass, and quaffed his own snifter empty in one gulp. “And now,” he said, “the time has come. For all beauty is the beginning of a terror we are just able to endure, and which awes us only because it so serenely disdains to destroy us.”

With that much said, Simon Dimple opened his cupboard, picked up his kitchen knife, placed it just where the head began, and lovingly positioned his hands across the knife, looking for the cleanest, most humane cut he could possibly inflict. It was just at that moment that the telephone rang.

Simon had been expecting a call that afternoon. Clementine was supposed to call him once she got settled into her hotel so that they could make definite plans for the evening. He put the trout back into the sink, placed the knife next to it, and walked into the living room where the closest telephone was located. He turned the Chopin down. “Hello?”

“Simon. How are you?”

“Clementine! Are you in town?”

“Yes, I’m at some dreadful hotel off Strawberry Circle. King Strawberry Inn or something like that. Oh, Simon, this town just has to get over itself.”

“Well, you shouldn’t be so harsh on it. You did grow up here, you know.”

“That’s exactly why I can be so harsh, Simon darling. Really. When will you ever move out of this dump?”

“Now, Clementine. That’s not fair. You know how I feel about this town.”

“Yes. Yes, I do. You’re stubbornly sentimental. That’s how you feel. Well, I’ll tell you this, Simon Dimple: Strawberry is no New York City, and I should know. What could you possibly know about anything spending all your time here?”

Simon didn’t say anything.

“Anyway,” Clementine went on, “at least Strawberry can put on a decent Opera. Aren’t you just thrilled to see Puccini tonight?”

“As a matter of fact, I am,” Simon said, perking up a bit.

“I’m glad to see this town hasn’t completely destroyed your sense of culture.”

“Well, on the contrary,” said Simon. “I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading. I go to the theatre a couple times a month, when I can afford to, and you know how I love my music. I’ve even learned to cook a bit. I was thinking, if you were up to it, I picked up the most succulent looking rainbow trout this afternoon at the market, and I’ve been preparing it all afternoon. I was thinking, if you were up to it, that maybe after the opera I could whip up a dish of herb baked trout. Splendid stuff. I had it at a restaurant the other night, and I managed to find a recipe for it online that sounds absolutely delicious.”

“Oh, Simon, you do need to move out of this horrendous dockside town.”

“You don’t like rainbow trout?”

“Ugh! Fish! Disgusting, Simon, utterly revolting! They’re slimy, and – and fish, and they stink to high heaven. Really, Simon. To eat such stupid, revolting creatures as a grown man. As a cultured grown man. Besides, darling, I thought you knew that I’m a vegetarian.”

“Oh.”

“Well, don’t start sounding all long faced about it, love. We’ll just go out to eat somewhere. That way we can both get something we like. Though if you get some horrible gaping fish, I may just have to walk out on you.” She laughed.

Simon didn’t say anything.

“Anyway, how have you been, dear?”

“I don’t know. Okay, I guess,” Simon said. “I suppose we haven’t talked in a rather long time. I haven’t done a whole lot of anything. Like I said, I enjoy the theatre; and my music of course. Sometimes I like to go on walks. I don’t know all that many people these days, you know. Most everyone we grew up with left Strawberry.”

“Well, you can’t blame them.”

“What about you? How is New York?”

“Oh, darling, if you only knew. The theatre there is just tremendous. And then there’s Broadway, and the museums and art galleries; Soho is like a giant art-gallery in and of itself. It would amaze you.”

“I’d like to see New York someday.”

“Well you’ll die never having lived if you don’t. There are all the cute punk rock kids in the east village, and there’s Central Park – darling, you always loved the fall. You would adore Central Park in the fall. It’s like nothing in the world.”

“I’d like to see it.”

“And then the men, oh the men just knock you out, Simon. They’re so cultured and intelligent. Not like the men you meet in Strawberry. Not you I mean, Simon, you’re different of course; but I mean in general. And then they’re so handsome. I met my ex-husband at an art-gallery opening. He was the most charming man on the planet. A bastard, as it turns out, but he was so cute and smart and funny.”

“I never knew you got married,” Simon said, heading towards the kitchen, where he decided both he and his insulted friend were in need of another glass of brandy.

“Wow, Simon, it really has been a long time, hasn’t it? We were married for a year. We got divorced in June.”

“I’m – I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Well, don’t be. The last thing I need is someone’s pity. Just like a man, he was seeing some little trick he met at some club downtown. What a man like that was even doing at a club downtown, I can hardly fathom, but boys will be boys.”

“It doesn’t sound like he was right for you,” Simon said, filling up the two snifters, and clinking them together.

“Well, it seems like no one ever is.”

“True.”

“Remember the time you read that poem dedicated to me, all the way back in High School?” Clementine laughed.

Simon laughed too, while the trout gulped down its second glass of brandy. “Of course.”

“God, that was humiliating.”

“Yes. I guess I was a little silly back then. “

“Oh, Simon, you’ve always been silly.”

“Well.”

“I should’ve just married you, I think. You should move to New York, Simon Dimple, and we’ll get married straightaway.”

“You mean it?”

“Of course, darling. Why wouldn’t we? We’re both single, responsible adults!” She laughed. “We could sit by the fire at night and read each other Annabel Lee.

Chopin’s final heavy movement came slumping through the kitchen doorway. Simon took a sip of his brandy and headed back to the living room.

“Well maybe I’ll do that.”

“Oh, you should darling, you absolutely should. Anyway, listen. Why don’t you meet me at the theatre just after quarter past six? That way we can get good seats and maybe even have time for a cocktail at the bar before the show starts. How does that sound?”

“That sounds great, Clementine.”

“Well, then, it’s a date.”

“It’s a date. You know, Clementine, it’s great to hear your voice again.”

“Oh, darling, I just adore you,” Clementine said. “See you then.”

Simon Dimple hung up the phone. He looked at his watch. It was just going on four o’ clock. If he took a cab around six he could be at the theatre in fifteen minutes, though on a day like this, and with this much brandy in him, he preferred to walk. He walked into the kitchen and looked at the trout lying in the sink. A thin line of brandy was dribbling from its mouth. Simon gathered up the fish, careful to keep it settled on the unwrapped package beneath it, and brought it into the living room. He set it down on the couch and went back into the kitchen. In his kitchen cupboard he found a large bowl and along with it, he grabbed the bottle of brandy.

Once he was back in the living room Simon put the fish in the bowl and filled his snifter. Chopin’s Trauermarsch had finished, so he went and changed the music to something a little lighter. A little Bach, for culture. The Goldberg Variations. Exquisite. Glen Gould recording of course. Civilized music for civilized discussion. He sat down on the couch next to the fish.

“So,” he said. “We are all insulted tonight. You, me and the whole wretched town of Strawberry.”

The trout didn’t say anything.

“Yes,” Simon agreed, “it’s hard to know what to say. A little speechless myself, and I’m not the type of fellow usually at a loss for words. It has been a long time, though. How is she supposed to understand how we feel about things? She’s out there in New York, and here we are in Strawberry. You’ve seen other places, other cities. Perhaps you’ve even been to New York yourself; but I’ve spent my whole life in Strawberry, and how am I supposed to know where she’s coming from after all these years? Three years, and I’m expecting… To be honest, I don’t know what I was expecting. What say you, brother fish?”

The smell of the sizzling butter made Simon jump up and head back to the kitchen. The butter had burned, along with the vegetables, into the pan. Simon turned off the heat and let the pan sit. “Just as well,” he said, “dinner’s off anyway. Besides, the fish and I have become friends.” He headed back into the living room for another glass of brandy.

“Well, brother fish,” he said, sitting back on the couch. “Another for you too, then?”

This time, pouring the brandy into the fish’s mouth, he got a little sloppy and some of the brandy spilled onto the couch. Instead of cleaning it immediately up, as would have been his normal course of action, he let it sit and drank his own glass. The wind coming through the open patio door was getting wild and colder, but the brandy was making him feel warm. He looked over at the rainbow trout with red and orange leaves blowing across the blue rugs, Bach on the radio and said, “Brother fish, I believe, we both of us have had quite enough.”

&

When Simon Dimple woke up it was about a quarter to six. His head was pounding, and he felt disoriented, but when he looked down at his watch, he lurched himself forward off the couch and stumbled towards his bedroom. No time to take a shower, he would have to go to the opera stinking of brandy, but that was okay. He washed his face in the sink to refresh himself, before sloppily changing into his eveningwear. Outside the day had gotten a lot colder, and the little bit of sunlight that had been there in the afternoon was gone. The sky was gray, and the wind whipped the little leaves around the sidewalks, and Simon Dimple stood by the side of the road shivering and perplexed, waiting for the cab he’d called.

He arrived at the theatre just a little after a quarter after. Clementine was waiting for him in the lobby. “Simon, darling!” she cried. “Late as always. How many years has it been? And you look… well, why, Simon, you look as if life has giving you a rather sound beating over the years.”

“Well,” Simon said, “you look lovely as ever Clementine.”

Clementine had been a skinny tall girl, with braided black hair and glasses, and a lot of boys made fun of her when she was young, and a lot of girls too; but a lot of boys also fell in love with her. As an adult she was still a tall, skinny young woman, but her hair was pulled up in a bun, and she wore black-rimmed glasses that were an oval kind of shape and had gold-rimmed interiors and were made by Dolce & Gabana or somesuch. As an adult lots of women made lots of fun of her when she wasn’t around, but men were always falling in love with her. Simon always figured she made other women jealous. Clementine loved to have men in love with her, and Simon loved to be in love with her, and so they loved each other very much.

Clementine was wearing a dark red coat, and a black evening dress. Simon thought she looked stunning, but he still couldn’t help stifle a yawn. And the yawns kept coming all night. All throughout his favorite opera of all time Simon Dimple couldn’t help but yawn. Nothing seemed to be comfortable enough: for one, the seats were too far away, and the opera glasses just made his eyes tired; secondly, once his eyes were sufficiently tired, he had trouble keeping up with the score, so that he constantly lost pace with the music and/or the story and found himself straining more just to figure out what was going on than enjoying the evening, and finally, what with everything tiring poor Simon Dimple out so much, and what with Clementine’s deep sensual perfume, Simon found his tired eyes occasionally gave up altogether and closed for whole scenes at a time.

Dinner was worse. Clementine dragged him to her favorite restaurant in Strawberry – a place known, idiotically enough – as Strawberry, where Clementine dined on eggplant parmesan and topped dinner off with a desert of chocolate covered strawberries. Simon was too confused and sleepy and stupefied to know what to order, so he just followed suit with the eggplant parmesan, and drank a great deal of brandy, which, ultimately, did nothing to help his perplexed state of mind.

“Simon really, how this town has jaded you!” Clementine said as they left the restaurant.

“Oh, Clementine, would you really marry me if I moved to New York?”

“Darling, how could you possible believe any different?”

Simon Dimple returned to his apartment a little after midnight on Monday morning. When he walked in the first thing he smelled was rotting fish. The apartment felt like a freezer, what with the balcony door wide open and leaves fluttering all over the blue rugs. When he turned on the light, he saw the mess in all its glory: with the fish on the couch, and the bowl collapsed in a heap of water and brandy on the floor, the rugs blown around the room, the invading fall leaves, the brandy spilled all over the couch, and the flies buzzing from the living room over the dead fish and the rancid butter. The stench and the mess and the brandy and his head and the eggplant parmesan and Clementine made him sick – sick to his stomach, and he threw up right there on his beautiful blue rugs. And then Simon Dimple dropped onto his couch, right next to the rotten fish, and couldn’t help but cry.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, November 2003)

 

 

Ode on Solitude

There is sometimes a mythology
Beneath the small blue stars.
Obscure sounds thrum an ancient rhythm
And each step reopens the world,
Like a lost and happy child keeping pace
With the cool and wandering night.

The vastness of eveything when we are alone!
Even beneath the electric glare of the city,
We can slip between the people
Into those places
Where the world of our dreams
Hangs as sacred as sleep.

-Whit Frazier

(From Strawberry Press Magazine, November 2003)

Land of the Free – Liberia and The United States

A TROUBLED HISTORY

On August 11th, 2003, the president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, was forced by the United States government to step down from power. He relinquished the position reluctantly, and ultimately only after it became clear he would either have to step down from power or die violently like his two predecessors. This historic milestone for the very young republic of Liberia was just another chapter in the still ongoing story of a nation whose history reads like a political fable.

The history of Liberia provides an unsettling negative of the history of the United States: it is a country that was forced to confront its crimes face-to-face in the form of violent retaliatory revolution – an alternative reality the US has yet to experience.

Liberia’s story begins in the early 1800’s when US slavery was still in full swing. As more black Americans became free men, however, they began to fall into an awkward integration with white European-American culture. Black Americans had been integrating into white American culture all along, but all the same, most Americans, pro-slavery or otherwise, agreed that blacks would never be able to assimilate with whites. The reality of the situation is that white America was not so much skeptical that blacks could assimilate, as they were afraid that blacks might gain political power, and thus the ability to retaliate, and stage a violent and historically devastating revolution: in essence, exactly what was to happen a century and a half later in Liberia.

By 1820 plans were already well under way to send free blacks back to Africa – a spot in West Africa bordering Sierra Leone they named Liberia – “land of freedom”. By the late-1820’s the plan was in motion. The first settlers in Liberia found the conditions devastating. Yellow fever and malaria killed off a lot of the early Western settlers, black and white, before much work could be completed. On top of that, the indigenous peoples were understandably upset about being forced into a Western society, where, as I’m sure they must have realized from the start, they would be treated like second-class citizens in their own land. There was initial resistance, but they were unable to keep it up in the face of Western technology. White officials from America gave Liberia the jumpstart it needed in government, drafting a constitution, holding office and appointing council members, and by the late 1840’s not only had a full-fledged government been established in Liberia, the country had also declared sovereignty and was being run by elected black president Joseph Jenkins Roberts.

Unfortunately, Liberia’s social structure was just another version of America’s, where people were either part of the 1 percent or part of the 99 percent. The Americo-Liberians, or Liberians who were either from America, or descended from American blacks, enjoyed the highest social status in the country, being in complete control of the government and the economy. Below them were the indigenous peoples of Liberia, and then below them, black slaves, who were recaptured from the slave ships. It is fair to say that much of Liberia’s history has been spurred on by the tensions that have arisen because of this unfair social dynamic.

Liberia was also a country plagued by financial hardships. Liberia’s export goods were primarily agricultural, and the money it cost to maintain the country’s imports was far more than the amount of money that came in from exports. Thus, the government always had difficulty keeping the indigenous populations under control, and it lacked both the ability and the desire to make the indigenous populations feel like a part of the Western community that had overrun their homeland. Nevertheless, for over a hundred years Liberia managed to maintain what seemed, on the surface, a relatively peaceful and apparently untroubled history.

In 1944 William Tubman was elected into office. His presidency is both contradictory and controversial. On the one hand, Tubman did a lot for the indigenous population of Liberia. It wasn’t until his presidency that the indigenous population of Liberia had the right to vote. He built schools, hospitals and roads along the coast where large parts of the indigenous population lived. He attempted to integrate them into the political and economic life of the country. At the same time Tubman was also a puppet for the United States government, and an authoritarian leader of his own people. He set up networks of spies to suppress political uprisings; he changed the constitution to keep himself in power for seven terms running, and he controlled the media. With this kind of leader in office, and given the history of Liberia, the gap only widened between the Liberians and the Americo-Liberians. Tubman died in 1971, and was replaced by William Tolbert, a forward-looking optimist, who took office at a time when tensions were extremely high. Tolbert may have been forward-looking, but he had no credibility. He was removed enough from the indigenous people to have every move he made second-guessed and often misinterpreted by the general population.

The end result was disastrous. In 1980, Samuel K. Doe, an indigenous sergeant in the army, formed a coup d’etat, stormed the presidential manner, and shot Tolbert to death. In the aftermath he had thirteen other top officials executed as well. Doe took power of the country under a new government, the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) and began to run an outlaw state in a country that had been brought up in the shadow of the United States’ guilty conscience. Doe’s presidency was marked by paranoia, authoritarian pressure on opposition, and complete inexperience with the complicated bureaucracy involved with running a nation. At first support for Doe had been strong among the Liberians, but as he became more corrupt and tyrannical, his popularity began to wane. Tribes within the indigenous peoples of Liberia that had always lived peacefully together began to fight amongst themselves. Doe placed favoritism on his own tribe, the Krahns, when choosing which council members to keep and which to get rid of. By 1985 Doe had gone so far as to declare himself the winner of an election that he did not win, an incident that would repeat itself in the United States’ own history just sixteen years later.

THE DEMAGOGUE

On January 28th, 1948, in the town of Arthington, just a little outside Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, Charles Taylor was born, the child of an Americo-Liberian father and a Gola tribeswoman mother. He grew up a troubled and rebellious child, expelled from schools, restless, and constantly getting into trouble. As he grew older, he developed a fascination with the history of Liberia and its connection to the United States. When he was 24, he finally made a move to Boston, Massachusetts where he went to school for his B.A. in Economics. While in the States, Taylor worked his way through the ranks of the Union of Liberian Associations to become the national chairman. Taylor used his position in power to demonstrate against then Liberian president William Tolbert, who instead of ignoring Taylor, insisted Taylor take up a public debate with him. Taylor’s quick mind and pension for language made him easily outshine the president, and further established his reputation as a political figure of note.

Tolbert was so impressed that he actually invited Taylor to return to Liberia and take a position in his government in the spring of 1980. It turned out to be a tumultuous and historic time in the country’s history. On April 12th , 1980 Tolbert was assassinated by Samuel Doe. It would have been reasonable for Taylor to be afraid for his life during a time when the Liberians and Americo-Liberians were in what basically amounted to a civil war, and where retribution against a hundred fifty years of oppression was taking place on a daily basis, but amazingly enough, Taylor managed to get himself a valued position in Doe’s government as head of General Services Agency.

Taylor was up to his own tricks, though. In May of 1983 Taylor was accused of embezzling nine hundred thousand dollars and depositing them into a private bank account. Naturally fearing for his life and freedom, Taylor fled Liberia for the United States. A year later he was arrested in Boston, and while awaiting a final verdict, he managed to escape from prison and vanish into the underground for the next four years.

It wasn’t until July of 1990, when Taylor invaded Monrovia with the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) that he was seen to resurface. The NPFL was divided into two factions – one led by Taylor, and the other led by a revolutionary named Prince Johnson. By September Johnson’s forces had seized the government, tortured and finally executed Samuel Doe. Johnson’s position in Monrovia led to a civil war between him and Taylor’s factions of the NPFL, and after five years of violent civil war the men called a cease-fire and signed a peace treaty. Two years later Taylor was elected into office. That was 1997. On June 4th, 2003, Taylor was brought up on war crime charges by the United Nations. His government was accused of dealing arms to the rebels in Sierra Leone, violent agitators who were known for chopping up the bodies of their enemies, whether man, woman or child.

After Taylor stepped down from office, he fled to Nigeria, where despite requests for extradition by the United States, he was granted asylum. In 2006, Liberia’s new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, requested his extradition, a request which was honored by the Nigerian government. Taylor managed to escape and disappear again, only to be caught later at the border of Cameroon, carrying a cache of cash and heroin.

A PEACEFUL, PROGRESSIVE AND DIVERSITY-MINDED CONCLUSION

The new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected in 2006, has changed the political reality of Liberia from one of violence, corruption and oppression, into one of democratic elections, and relative peace. She has supported progressive measures such as LGBT rights, and is considered one of the best leaders the country has ever had. She embodies all the false promise that Charles Taylor seemed to at his outset. As the first female president of Liberia, she is an active member of the Council of Women World Leaders, and she has been an example to all of how the right person can change the political landscape of a country dramatically for the better, just as Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor were examples of how the wrong person can change the political landscape dramatically for the worse.

The questions surrounding Liberian history have changed since I first wrote this piece in 2003. The questions I was asking at the time were about power and corruption – does the old adage hold true that power corrupts. I think we can see with the example of Sirleaf that power doesn’t necessarily corrupt, and that if it seems to, it is because those that are most corruptible are also the most likely to pursue positions of power. I’m also writing this updated version of this essay at a time when the world is watching the U.S. during an important election. It is an election that involves a known demagogue, and an important female politician. The purpose of this addendum isn’t to make a political rally cry. I will vote for Hillary Clinton because I think too much is at stake should Trump win; however I can understand why some of my similarly progressive minded friends don’t want to vote for Clinton, and will effectively sit this election out; I too have my reservations about her. What I suppose I really find interesting here is why I feel the need to update this essay in the first place. I don’t remember what inspired me to write about Liberia back in 2003. I think something about it made me think of Liberia as a political fable that gives us another way of looking at the United States. This isn’t a new thought, of course. As early as 1931, George Schuyler’s novel, Slaves Today, used Liberia as a sounding-board for American politics. Schuyler, notoriously conservative, wanted to use Liberia as an example of how color doesn’t determine morality – and of course it doesn’t – although the most brutal of Liberia’s overlords – Charles Taylor – was Western educated, and the social structure of Liberia was always decidedly Western; which is simply to say that there seems to be something of the conquistador in the western mentality. But that’s all by the bye, as that’s not really the argument I’m making here either. What I find most interesting about this history is the history itself: where an oppressed people tried to create a land of more freedom and opportunity, and in effect, created a land of oppression and inequality. Sound familiar? So the parallels between the United States and Liberia are intriguing. Furthermore, there is the question of violent revolution. In the era of Black Lives Matter, when cops are killing our brothers and sisters at an alarming rate, and angry people are retaliating with violence, the question of violent revolution has appeared again in a way we haven’t seen since the Black Power days. Recent celebrations of the 50th Anniversary of the Black Panthers and renewed interest in the Black Power Movement seem to hint at this new political tension. Like any progressive minded person, I am against widespread violence; the history of Liberia shows that violence only leads to more of the same. My hope is that it can somehow be avoided in the United States, and we can still somehow come to a peaceful, progressive and diversity-minded conclusion. But in my worst moments, I’m skeptical. Neither of the two candidates primed to win next week’s election seem to be the person to bring about this kind of political harmony. On the contrary; they both seem to embody distrust, disharmony and division.

 

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, September 2003; updated November 2, 2016)

Ogden Osgood

When I was about twenty-two or twenty-three I worked one summer as a dockhand in Annapolis, Maryland. It was a moderate summer, just a few spells of hot days, and we used to sit around the docks, smoke cigarettes, talk trash and have an all around good time. We worked pretty hard and didn’t make that much money, but we got along well and that made the time pass. Most of the other guys were just your average blue-collar Annapolis types, or else students from the Naval Academy or something, but I’d come from Baltimore. That made me something of the odd man out, but as odd as I was, no one was more strange or unusual than Ogden Osgood, a young man maybe twenty seven years old who said he’d lived his whole life in Belmar, New Jersey, and was genuinely excited about a move from that dreadful seaside town to this bustling capital city.

“It was always bad,” he would say, “but once I graduated from High School you can’t imagine. At first, you know, the summer after High School I would go out to the beach every day and fish; look at the ocean, that kind of thing. It can change you, the ocean can. But when winter came things got weird. I would drink Canadian Club and sit at the window and stare for hours.”

Ogden Osgood was a funny looking kind of fellow, real tall and lanky, almost like a spider the way he moved. He had short spiky hair, a brown black color, and a round little face that squished up all his features. His nose alone stuck out, like a skyscraper in the middle of a valley. When he talked his pitch came out alternately in squeaks and booms, so it sounded like his voice was constantly cracking.

“One day I just started walking,” Ogden used to say. “I was sitting on the beach fishing. Second summer out of High School; and I just got sick of it. Got up, brushed off the sand and started up the beach. I hit the Boardwalk and kept walking. I don’t know how, but I ended up right here in Annapolis, and here is where I want to stay.”

That was all anyone knew about Ogden’s history, background or life before he came to work at the docks. He never volunteered any other information, and if someone asked him about something, he would shrug his shoulders and say, “I’m not really sure how to respond to that.”

Ogden first showed up a couple weeks after I started working there. Before he came around the only people I spent any time with were two of the other dockhands. One we called Skipper, just because he spent most of his life on shipping boats working long hours through long weeks on long journeys by sea. The other was a kid named Samuel, a guy about my own age who liked to shoot dice, drink gin and steal cars. He came from a pretty good suburban background, college dropout and everything, but he’d been in and out of jail so many times this job was the only one he could land. We made a pretty motley crew, the three of us, and usually when we got together after work, we just wound up going to one of Annapolis’ million different sports bars for some drinking and pool. Our usual spot was a dive right on Dock Street called Armadillos.

Armadillos was just like any other dive sports bar in downtown Annapolis, but Amanda worked there, and she was the only person I spent any time with other than Samuel and Skipper. We got to know Amanda just by how often we went out to the bars, and since Amanda was one of the few female waitresses willing to put up with the three of us out together drinking, getting rowdy and just generally doing our thing, Armadillos turned into our regular spot. Amanda was a fun girl and she was fun to look at too. She was medium height and had all this pale red hair like the mane of a lion. She was probably about thirty-two or thirty-three, and her hands were a little wrinkled from working as a waitress her whole life. Her face was starting to develop wrinkle lines from chain-smoking too, but she had her own style. She’d wear silly, frilled up dresses, pink and red and orange with flowers and such on them, blueberries or starfish. Always something new and interesting with Amanda, and every one of us, me, Sammy and Skipper used to grin and lean into our drinks and whisper, hey fella, she’s really all about me tonight, can you tell?

Sammy and Skipper were just clowns though. At first we all acted like clowns, but then sometimes I used to go and see Amanda before work, and sometimes after the fellas went home, I’d stay after and wait for her and walk her home. I enjoyed having her around, and I enjoyed her being with us there at the bar, but I was the one that told her one night if she stuck around Annapolis, she’d be waiting tables for the rest of her life, and maybe she should try to get out of here. Mostly I used to go home and look up at the dark shadows on the walls and ceilings lying in bed and dream about someday getting out of Annapolis myself and maybe even taking her with me. About going to Paris and Rome and Venice and all these other romantic places. It was nice to dream, but that’s all they ever were, because I hadn’t been to any cities larger than Baltimore.

It was just a little bit after the night I told her that when Ogden Osgood showed up, a suitcase in each hand. He put down the suitcases, wiped his face with his shirt and walked over to Skipper. “How does a guy go about getting a job with you folks?”

&

Ogden was working with us down at the docks within two days. He was a good, steady worker, but he never talked much, and he used to stare off sometimes into space way across the water. It was a look Skipper called the thousand-mile stare, and he said he’d seen folks get it a few times out there on the ocean, where they’d develop this look, a look like a man probably seen too much in his life. He said it’s the kind of thing happens to soldiers and sailors, and apparently to the boys over in Belmar, New Jersey too. Sammy said it wasn’t a damn thing, just Ogden being pretentious and putting on airs, and that the more we paid attention to it, the more we did exactly what he wanted us to do, and he couldn’t give a damn about Ogden Osgood one way or the next.

The next day come lunch, me and Skipper sat down to eat with Ogden. Sammy refused to, and he walked off along the dock kicking stones and eating his sandwich, glancing back at us the whole time like we were testing his patience.

Skipper said, “don’t mind him, he never trusts the new guy. What brings you to Annapolis?”

“I don’t really know. I walked here. I used to live in New Jersey. Nowhere you know. A little seaside town. It’s called Belmar. There’s nothing to do there but watch the ocean. It’s too cold to go to the ocean most of the year. One day I started walking. I guess Annapolis just drew me to it, because I ended up here. And here is where I want to stay.”

“Why stay in Annapolis?” I asked. “I used to live in Baltimore. There’s a lot more going on over there, and it’s not far. You’ve walked this far already. And then there’s Washington too, but I’ve never actually been.”

“I like the water,” said Ogden.

“Baltimore’s got water.”

Nobody said anything for a while. Skipper was looking down at his sandwich. Ogden was looking across the Chesapeake.

“Why not Baltimore if Baltimore’s got water too?” I asked.

“I’m not sure how to respond to that,” said Ogden.

&

Ogden was just that way, and he brought his own personality to the team. Ogden never found much of a niche with any of the other dockhands besides me, Sammy and Skip; and Sammy didn’t like Ogden all that much, though he learned to get used to him. Skipper would invite Ogden out to the bar with us for drinks, and we would go to Armadillos, get drunk and act rowdy. Meanwhile, Ogden would sit quiet and composed and look off across the bar out the window to where the boats sat bobbing on the dock. Ogden would match us drink for drink, but he never showed it. Each order would be the same: “I would like a shot of Canadian Club and a bottle of Rolling Rock please thank you.” He never deviated, not once. Sometimes we would try to trick him into getting something else. Skipper would say to Amanda, “a round of Kamikazes for everyone!” And Ogden would reply, “I would like a shot of Canadian Club with a bottle of Rolling Rock please thank you.”

&

The first accident happened on one of these nights when we were coming out of the bar. It was late and dark and quiet on Dock Street, and a couple kids were hanging out by the water. They’d been passing around a bottle in a brown paper bag, and when they saw us they came up to start trouble. Ogden said, “let me handle this one.”

Skipper didn’t want to let Ogden confront the kids by himself, but Sammy said, “he says he can take them. Let’s see if Ogden’s got heart.” So Ogden walked up and explained to them that we were simply coming from an evening spent at the bar and would prefer not to be bothered on our way home. The kids just laughed and one of them pulled a knife. He looked Ogden up and down and said, “hey man, who do you think you are?”

Ogden said: “I’m not really sure how to respond to that.”

&

Ogden was out of the hospital by the end of the week, and the doctors were saying it was a miracle he survived at all. He’d had some near misses with some vital organs, and they said he should take it easy for a week or two. But two days after he came out of the hospital, Ogden was back working on the dock again like nothing happened. He never talked about it; he never complained about his injuries, he just went about his everyday business. When people came up to ask him what happened or how he was doing, he’d say, “I’m doing just fine. The doctor said I was lucky, but I already knew that.” And that was that. You couldn’t get another thing from him. The first day Ogden was back Skipper suggested we all go out for a drink down at Armadillos after work to celebrate Ogden’s recovery. I said that’s how the trouble started in the first place, because I thought Skipper was being a little insensitive, but Ogden said he liked the idea. So that night we went back to Armadillos. Amanda was surprised to see Ogden back so soon, and she cooed over him all night, and brought him free drinks and asked how he was. When he gave her the line about the doctor said I’m lucky, but I already knew that, she winked at him and smiled and said, “Oh are you?” That got Skipper and Sammy roaring, falling off their seats like a couple clowns, but I didn’t see what was so funny about it.

I stayed that night late while Amanda closed the bar. “Your friend Ogden seems to be a real trooper,” she said. “He’s a strange guy, but I like him.”

I said. “It’s hard to know what to make of him. I think he’s a little bit crazy.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” said Amanda. “I think he’s kind of cute.”

&

The second accident happened only a few weeks later. This time it happened on the docks, and for a while, some of the boys thought it was a stunt Sammy pulled. Skipper wouldn’t hear it, though. “Sammy can be a rough kid,” he’d say, “but he sure as hell ain’t a killer.”

It seems that while loading up cargo on one of the large sailboats, the sail swung loose and around. It ended up smacking Ogden in the head, lifting him off the boat and hurling him into the water. We were all pretty on-point when it happened. Everyone kept their head, went through the proper emergency procedures, and had Ogden out of the water and breathing within seconds, but no one thought he would make it. For two days Ogden was in a coma, and none of us thought he’d be coming out of it. We’d walk up and down the docks looking down, rubbing our chins, “it sure is a shame about Ogden.”

Skipper would get philosophical: “I guess you just can’t take this life for granted. Something can happen anytime anyplace anywhere.” Even Sammy seemed sort of down about it.

A whole week went by like that, with no word on Ogden. But on Monday morning, when Skipper and I walked up to the docks, who should we see there but Ogden Osgood, working away as stoically as ever, like nothing happened.

“Hey Ogden man, I’m glad to see you’re up and about,” Skipper said, rubbing his neck. “But maybe you should go home and get some rest for a couple days before coming back on the job.”

Ogden shrugged and said, “I’m fine. I spent the whole last week sleeping. It’s time for me to get up and be active.”

Sammy asked, “What did the doctor say?”

“He said I was lucky,” said Ogden. “But I already knew that.”

&

After the second accident, Amanda couldn’t get enough of Ogden. We would stop by Armadillos and she would go on and on about how he must be both blessed and cursed. Was he invincible? We all kind of wondered about that. She bought him free drinks all the time now. Sometimes a free appetizer or something too. Ogden took it all in stride. He was polite, but always reserved, and never flirtatious. Amanda would slide up next to us at the bar, put her arm around him and say, “I know you must’ve been a heartbreaker back in Belmar. Come on and tell me how many girls you’ve been with.”

“I’m not really sure how to respond to that.”

Ogden’s indifference was a turn-on for Amanda. It got to the point where Amanda stopped letting me walk her home, she’d say, “why don’t you let Ogden walk me home tonight. You always do it.”

I was going to other bars again. A lot of times I would go all by myself after work and drink until close. I was showing up late to work, skipped shaving and missed meals, lost sleep. Sometimes Skipper and Sammy would come up to me and say, “hey man, we’re going to Armadillos tonight. You wanna come?” I always said no unless I knew Ogden would be going along with them. I couldn’t bear the idea of Ogden and Amanda around each other without me being there. So if Ogden was in, I was in. If not, then I’d be spending the evening at some other dive. One day Sammy said to me, “look at yourself, man. This is pathetic.”

I went home early that day. The sun was hot and bright, and I felt dizzy and sweaty the whole walk home. It really was pathetic. Sammy was right. It occurred to me that the best thing to do was just to kill myself. The idea came as naturally as you might decide to take a mid-day nap. Once it was in my head I couldn’t shake it. After all, I said, if Amanda’s into all this grimness and death and morbidity. The only problem was figuring out how.

The walk home gave me some time to think it over. The most appropriate thing probably would’ve been to jump in the Chesapeake, but it didn’t seem right to do the act without going home first. I could always come back. I also liked the idea of poisoning myself because it sounded painless and relatively easy, not to mention no mess for folks to clean up afterwards. The problem was where could I get a poison like that in such short notice? I didn’t like the idea of knives or guns too much, but if I was really serious about getting things done, I couldn’t rule them out entirely. There was always gas, of course, that was painless and clean provided nothing set off a spark. On the way up my street I stopped by the liquor store. I could always just drink myself to death too.

By the time I got inside, the sun was at its peak, and the light was coming in furious bright slants through the windows. It felt like a really wonderful afternoon to kill myself. I sat down and turned on the television and thought about what I was doing. It didn’t seem to have any reality outside of the intonation of the word: suicide. I got up and grabbed a notepad and a pen. I didn’t know whether or not I should leave a note. When I was a little kid I always thought it was selfish when people killed themselves and didn’t leave a note, just explaining how things were and mostly why, but now the idea seemed kind of silly to me. Why? Well, why not?

I put the pen and pad down and stood up. I paced from one corner of my room to the next and back again. I went to the kitchen, poured myself a drink and went back to pacing. I noticed that my sadness over Amanda had been replaced completely by the concept of suicide. They no longer even seemed related to each other. I poured another drink. Which method had I decided on? The apartment was making me feel stir crazy. I decided to jump in the Chesapeake.

Outside the humidity and the drinks I’d thrown back had me delirious. My heart was going a mile a minute, and I kept feeling like I was about to stumble. The idea of drowning started to sink in. The whole horror of suffocating underwater. I remembered a time when I was a kid, how another kid had dunked me underwater and held me there for a long time. I remembered thrashing and wanting to scream, but not being able to. Most of all I remembered how painful and terrible it was. By the time I walked up on the Chesapeake the memory was so garish I turned around and walked back.

The question of how was still pressing me. I walked back to the apartment and sat down with the bottle. Maybe the easiest thing to do was drink myself to death. It would be hard to stomach taking in a whole lot of alcohol at first, but once I got on a roll, I’d be alright. Then again, I wasn’t a heavy drinker. I didn’t know if my stomach would reject the alcohol before it killed me. Only one way to find out.

I finished the bottle within half an hour. I was pacing the hallways with my mind slipping back up in against itself, past where the last thought stopped just before I got there. The sun was losing force crashing through the windows, the long beams ladders through the blinds, and still with no means of self-murder. I walked down into the kitchen and turned the gas on all four burners. Then I went around the apartment and slammed shut every window and every door. Everything was just a question of waiting now. I sat down on the couch, lay back and closed my eyes. I folded my hands over my stomach, like in classical sculptures of dead people. Everything serenity.

I don’t know how long I was out, but I woke up puking. I crawled off the couch and dragged myself across the floor with the sunlight and shadows pirouetting like ballerinas. I couldn’t stop the flow of vomit, and I couldn’t stand and I definitely could not think, focus or concentrate. I rolled over onto my back, and I think I remembered old stories about how this is how Jimi died, don’t roll over on your back, man, but my brain was blinking in and out. Across from me I could see out the sealed up window the twilight setting in over late afternoon and the clouds against the sun auburn, rose and lavender. It was the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen. I propped myself up against some object somewhere. My head was pounding and drowning at the same time. The twilight clouds kept shifting so the colors were floating through small crystal fragments of the sunny early evening, where they formed a floating ocean, lit underneath by an orange sun. God, I thought. It’s moments like this one make a man glad to be alive.

&

I woke up in the hospital a day and a half later. My roommate had come home and found me. I’d suffered some asphyxiation from the gas fumes, but I was okay. They released me from the hospital, and I rested for a week and thought about what I did and how I’d be able to show my face in front of the old dockhands again. When I went back it wasn’t so bad as I thought. Everyone was real nice and understanding. Skipper said after work we’d go have some beers. He said things on the dock were business as usual. Even Sammy was friendly. I expected him to be a lot more sarcastic. As for Ogden, they said, he’d packed up and left for Baltimore the same night of my accident. Hadn’t even said goodbye to anyone. “Maybe he figured he was bound to get killed out here,” I said.

That night we went down to Armadillos. Amanda was there and she said she’d heard about my accident and was I alright? It was nice to hear her sound like she cared about me, but it also felt a little patronizing, and – and I’ve had moments like this since – where I wish I’d succeeded. And what were you supposed to say when everyone kept calling it an accident? We stayed and drank late and then at night I waited while Amanda closed the bar. When I walked her home at night she invited me upstairs.

&

After that life was back to normal. Work went on at the docks, and drinking went on at Armadillos, and I walked Amanda home almost every night she worked. I worked that job until the end of the summer. After that I moved out of Annapolis and went to Washington. Things weren’t quite the same at the docks after the night I tried to kill myself anyway. I could see it in the way Sammy looked at me. A few times I even overheard Skipper say to people that I’d caught the thousand-mile stare. I try to see it when I look in the mirror sometimes, but never can. Maybe I’m staring right past it.

The night before I left for Washington me, Skipper and Sammy went to Armadillos for a final night out together. We talked and drank and laughed about the summer, the good times and the bad, and finally conversation turned around to the topic of Ogden. Skipper got real quiet and leaned into the table.

“Alright,” he said, “if you want the real scoop on what happened to Ogden, I’ll tell you. We couldn’t tell you at the time, just because it seemed like you weren’t in the best place back then. I think it’s okay now.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well it happened like this. It had to be around five or six in the late afternoon, early evening when this happened. Same night you had your little incident. Anyway, we’re all hanging out down at the dock in Eastport, working, talking, just doing what we do. Ogden is staring off in the distance as always, that thousand-mile stare of his. Anyway, the thing is he just starts walking. He’s staring at the sky and he’s staring at the twilight sun on the Chesapeake, and he starts to walk out to it. Like a moth to a flame. At first no one says nothing, cuz we figured he was just doing his own thing. You remember how Ogden could get. But he walks right up to the edge of the dock and keeps walking. It was the strangest thing I’ve seen in my life. He walked into the bay and kept going. He never stopped. We were all standing there waiting for him to come back, but he never did. By the time anyone knew what the hell just happened, it was too late. I’ll tell you one thing though, and I may burn in hell for saying it: but I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my whole life as that image of Ogden walking out into the bay in that sunset. I’ll take that one with me to the grave.”

&

On the walk home that night with Amanda, I asked her about it. All she could do was cry. “Knowing Ogden, he probably didn’t even die,” I said.

When we got back to her place she invited me upstairs.

“I have some last minute packing to do,” I told her.

“So when you’re settled in Washington you still plan to send for me?”

I looked at Amanda’s sad, pretty, aging face. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

I didn’t wait for her response. Turning on my heel I headed back up the block. The streetlights stretched blurred orange against the Chesapeake out towards the moon. I stared at the water and tried to conjure the image of Ogden walking into the bay. It was comforting. Something to stay with me through the long walk home.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, September 2003)

Correspondences

There is an old house out on the fringes of West Strawberry. It sits by itself and has sat there for as long as anyone can remember. These days nobody lives there. The windows are boarded up and the front door is barricaded. Sometimes children go by and dare each other to break inside and spend the night. Nobody even gets up the front steps to the porch. The house looks like a face, with two wide windows on the top floor looking out over the little dirt path that folks call Wendy Lane. The door in front, rectangular and lopsided looks like a crooked mouth. The house bulges out, pale blue chipping paint like overblown cheeks, and in certain moonlight, the rust against the chipped pale blue paint makes the whole place glow.

The last person to live there was a poet who worked at a small community newspaper in West Strawberry. When he disappeared he had no friends, no acquaintances and no living family. He’d grown up in Southport, and he’d lived there all his life. After he finished school he felt he needed to move someplace that would nurture his poetic vision. He traveled to West Strawberry one afternoon on a lark. He fell in love with the old houses, the small town feel, and the local community. But what he loved most of all was this large old house that was for sale way on the outskirts.

He worked and saved for two years living in Southport. When he had enough money to strike out on his own he was happy to find the house was still for sale. It was a fixer-upper, but that didn’t bother him. He could get it at a great price, and he could set it up where all day he’d look out the window and write verse.

It didn’t take him long to find work with West Strawberry Press. They were happy to have someone with his talent, youth and energy. He started as assistant editor. Every now and then they even let him slip one of his poems into the paper. Folks around town started to know his name. After work he and his coworkers would go out for a beer and a bite to eat. After that it was the long walk home back to his quiet old house.

He liked to sit upstairs and watch the bats flap against the windows with the moon large, and the stars aglow, and the quiet chirping of the evening. He’d light candles and write. He drank bottles of red wine and wrote late into the night, going back over and back over again the same verses, writing and rewriting until they felt perfect. Then to bed, and then back to the same verses the next night. When he was feeling too tired to write, he’d stay up late reading. Usually poetry. He didn’t have hopes of being well known. He didn’t care. He was known in West Strawberry and that was enough. All it was ever about was improving the poetry. He wasn’t prolific, because nothing was ever finished. Every night he’d edit a poem to his satisfaction, and the next night he’d go back to it. He’d revise it and revise it until his verse turned into terse, tight, compact experiments with language, sound and sensation. In the morning he’d get up with the red and auburn dawn to watch the birds plummet from his roof, dive down and swing back up. His evenings at home were his poetry, and these mornings were his poetry. He loved them both, and they inspired him. But something was missing.

What was missing from his poetry was what was missing from his life, and that was love. He didn’t know this. One night while he was out with the folks from the paper, he met a girl with hair like autumn. Auburn-gold Wendy.

“So you’re him,” she said. “I wondered what you looked like, what with all your creepy little poems.” They talked late into the night. The folks from the newspaper went home. “See you tomorrow, fella. Don’t stay out too late. We’ll talk to you in the morning.” Wendy was a poetess. She wrote much different verse than he did. Her verse was light, airy and confessional. She showed him a couple things she wrote. He was impressed. He didn’t like confessional poetry, but he was impressed. He said, “I’d like to take you out to dinner sometime Wendy.” She said she’d like that. They exchanged numbers. He kissed her quick on her little lips. He walked home. In his small orange room where the candlelight weaved to and fro he sat at his desk and watched the bats crash against the window. He couldn’t write, and he couldn’t read any of his own work. He couldn’t edit it, because it wasn’t good anymore. He couldn’t go to sleep either. All he could do was think about Wendy and that wonderful kiss. He sat in bed with a bottle of red wine and talked to the walls. He put phrases together. Rhymes and words and tried to say what he was thinking in poetry. Or even in prose. Wendy resisted poetry. He didn’t sleep that night.

Folks around the office gave him a hard time about his “new girlfriend.” It made him feel pretty good. All that day at work he smiled. He couldn’t stop thinking about Wendy. He wanted to write a poem about her, but he didn’t know how. He went home and forced himself to write. He went through sheet after sheet in his notebook. It was all too romantic. He didn’t write romantic poetry. He would write a verse and edit and re-edit. Reduce it to its most essential language. Wendy resisted poetry. He tried to write his usual stuff, but he couldn’t do that either. He forced himself to read. He needed to get to know Wendy better. His life was changing. Things like this happened to poets. In the end it would make his work stronger.

That weekend he met Wendy for dinner. He was completely himself with her. He told her about how she’d made an impression on him. He told her he’d tried to write about her and couldn’t. She was charmed. She’d written about him too, but only as an aside to a larger idea in one of her confessional poems. They went out and saw a play at a small theater. It was a beautiful summer night. They walked down the main strip. He pointed out constellations to her. They admired the small town with the people and the shops and the sparse lights running down the block. He told her how the bats beating against his window in the evening, and the swooping birds in the morning, inspired him. She told him how her childhood, her old friends and the people she loved inspired her. They stopped and had a few glasses of wine. Somewhere into the evening she flushed red and giggled and said she liked him a lot. When they parted for the evening, they kissed for a long time, like he had never done before. He walked home glowing. When he got home that night he went straight to bed. He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

The relationship blossomed. At first he only saw Wendy on the weekends, but after a while he saw her all the time. They never ran out of things to say. Her poetry blossomed and so did his. Things at the office were going well. Wendy got along well with everyone. She would come along for afterwork drinks. Everybody liked her. When will you marry that girl? they asked. He said he didn’t know. He would marry her. He didn’t know when. It would make itself known in time. He told Wendy she should move in with him. She was paying too much for her apartment. His house was already paid off.

The first day she moved in, Wendy turned into a ghost. She was consumed by the presence of the house. The giant face, with its rectangular mouth swallowed her up and her presence disappeared. He was drinking red wine every night. They stopped going out as much. Sometimes at work he said he didn’t believe Wendy existed; when he went home every night she was there.

Wendy stopped working when she moved in because he asked her to. She’d sit at the downstairs table and write confessional poetry that became more and more about the house. Her long sprawling lines shortened, like his. They became terse and focused. Always about the house. Never about herself, the confessional poet. The birds swooped down in the day and the bats flapped at night and the sun never broke through the windows. She lost weight and turned pale.

His poetry was getting stronger. The folks at the office were impressed. He compressed language into vital blocks of words, like music. The tones were dark, but they were effective. In the evenings he sat up all night drinking red wine and writing poetry. She would sit with him. They would write together. Neither of them could remember being more in love, or being more fulfilled by the presence of another person. When they made love, they made love all night, the sweetest, strangest lovemaking ever made. He would stand up from his desk, where his wine and poetry sat orange in the candlelight. Pale auburn Wendy would look up, and she would smile. “Wendy.” Her hand in his. Silent, violent sex where the bed groaned and the house glowed and the bats flapped crashing against the window with the night chirping silent on and on and on.

All around the house a deep quiet grew nightly. It grew within Wendy’s disappearing voice and in the strange wonderful lovemaking and in the isolation from the rest of the world. He loved Wendy and Wendy loved him with an intensity that made it more and more difficult to speak to each other. They couldn’t bear to be out of each other’s company. He was withdrawn at work. He didn’t have anything to say to anyone. He was less friendly. He never went for an afterwork drink. He hurried up the long worn path to the house where Wendy sat waiting, writing poetry sinking in on itself. He unlocked the door and she stood up. They didn’t speak. The house whispered, “Wendy.”

They spent evenings outside where the bats circled overhead and the stars blinked bright and the moon grew red and the clouds dark. Seasons passed and each season transformed the setting. Beneath the full weeping summer trees, and the brisk ghastly autumn color and the skeletal, white murdered winter, and the always too precious spring, he did not change and Wendy did not change and their love did not change, not for each other and not for nature. His poetry continued to improve, but it mattered less, because Wendy was the only thing that mattered. Her poetry disappeared. In the end she stopped writing, maybe because somewhere in all this silence she’d finally found just the voice she’d been looking for. The silence droned its own romantic tune. The stars went out and so did the moon.

He woke up one morning, and something had changed. Wendy slept dead ghostly poetess on the unmade bed and the birds swooped down from the roof in the orange dawn. These were facts. He opened the window and the fall came cool through the window, and the little road ran quaint off where before he used to sometimes smile in the mornings. These were facts. Morning coffee brought him little to no joy. Once outside the trees were banal. Inane red and gold testaments to their own mortality. He went upstairs to where Wendy lay sleeping. She was beautiful maybe, but dead like the trees. He drank a glass of red wine hoping to recapture the past, but the transformation was stronger. Back outside the day sank black bright orange morning blue skies nothing. Work was worse. He went out for afterwork drinks, but he ended up regretting it. Why stay? There was nothing to say.

He came home listless. Wendy stood up from the table where before all her old notebooks used to be. He didn’t say anything. The house whispered, “Wendy.”

He kept walking. The sun was going down like it does everyday. Wendy said, “let’s watch the sunset.”

Outside the sun went down like it does everyday. Wendy didn’t speak and neither did he. He couldn’t stand how she sat there and felt when it was just everything the same as always as everything else. He said to her: “I need to go inside and write.”

The pages of poetry in the notebook were competent music. He read them over a couple times and wondered why he’d bothered. He wrote a few more verses. Tight, terse, enigmatic words strung together, phrases rephrased in strange music, neither harmonic nor discordant; indifferent. Outside the twilight gave in and it was night. The bats flapped idiotically against the windows. He drank wine until the stars came out and Wendy came trembling up the stairs. She said, “there’s something changed about you.”

“Yes.”

The next morning was the same or worse. The stupidity of everything even more annoying. The birds in the morning made him angry. The trees made him angry. The colorfully fallen fall leaves made him angry. Work was okay. The enthusiasm of his coworkers made him angry, but work was okay. He avoided everyone. There was nothing to say.

Going home was worse. Wendy loved him. She felt compelled to say so. He didn’t say anything. He went upstairs and tried to write poetry, but what was the point of writing poetry if there’s nothing worth saying? He went downstairs and opened a bottle of wine without saying anything. He poured a glass and drank it, but it was foul. He left the glass on the table and went back upstairs. The twilight was setting in and the last orange blue rays of sun were running back up behind the clouds. He went back downstairs and outside. He walked a few feet down the path, turned around and looked at the house he’d loved so much. It looked like a face, looking right back at him, and looking right back just as angry, detached, and indifferent. How come he hadn’t seen it like this before? The house was disturbed, but everyone needs a face.

When he went back inside Wendy was sobbing.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” he said. “Maybe it will just be a matter of time and everything will be the same again. For now I don’t know if you should stay here. You can always go back to your mother’s house.”

After Wendy left her ghost remained. He worked all day and paced all night. He walked from the front door, to the upstairs bedroom, downstairs to the kitchen, through the hallway, back upstairs, downstairs to the kitchen over and over again while Wendy’s ghost followed him and kissed him and they made love and he’d wake up sweating in his bed in the middle of the night. He didn’t drink and he didn’t write. The stairs and the floorboards creaked with his pacing while the bats clattered up against the window where the moonlight fell just short of the floor, always outside. The candle spat orange, weaving the same spells, scents and memories of Wendy where she followed him, dressed white, ghost white in a wedding dress, sometimes stopping on the stairs he’d kiss her where her hair, red-brown like autumn leaves fell auburn from the meaningless trees.

Work was work and the evenings were ballets with spirits. Every object transformed into every object. Doorknobs shook his hand going from room to room. Wendy’s ghost followed him, kissed him, they had silent, violent sex and he was always pacing from room to room. Up the staircase and back down again. The candle and the house and the bats and the birds and Wendy’s ghost and the house and himself silent, everything the same. He looked for answers in his old notebooks of poetry. The words ran together like one, like how everything was one. Wendy stopped him on the staircase.

The house whispered, “Wendy,” over and over. He turned and hurried down the stairs into the kitchen where he poured himself a glass of wine, which was Wendy. Wendy followed him through the kitchen, into the foyer, out of the foyer where the doorknob was Wendy’s hand. He went back up the stairs, where her ghost still followed. In the bedroom the bats crashed against the window, and the little orange candle weaved Wendy on the walls.

The walls whispered, “Wendy,” over and over. The din of whispering ran together like lines of poetry, like how everything was one. He walked over to the windows, and pulled them open, one by one. The moon came crashing through in a crescendo where the bats blackened the glow and blew out the candles and circled into the bedroom. He stood in the middle of the room, and listened to the house. The house sank dark music in on itself like lines of poetry, like how everything was one, like how he stood in the middle of the black bedroom with a glass of wine in his hand and hordes of bats circling him and the walls whispering “Wendy,” and Wendy in her wedding dress, ghostly dead poetess.

&

There is an old house out on the fringes of West Strawberry. It sits by itself and has sat there for as long as anyone can remember. These days nobody lives there. The windows are boarded up and the front door is barricaded. Sometimes children go by and dare each other to break inside and spend the night. Nobody even gets up the front steps to the porch. The house looks like a face, with two wide windows on the top floor looking out over the little dirt path that folks call Wendy Lane. The door in front, rectangular and lopsided looks like a crooked mouth. The house bulges out, pale blue chipping paint like overblown cheeks, and in certain moonlight, the rust against the chipped pale blue paint makes the whole place glow.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, October 2003)

An Imaginary Museum

The museum can be a pretty lonely place sometimes, especially if you’re just going to hang out by yourself and check out an exhibit. That’s why I usually don’t go to museums unless someone’s in town wants to go or something like that. You just need to be in the right mood. I’m not sure I was in the right mood the other day when I went to check out Max Beckmann’s “Hell” exhibit, which was on display at the Met until August 31st, 2003.

I just didn’t have the kind of focus you need to go do a museum right. I got there, slipped into the main building, passed the security guard and didn’t end up paying anything, which, if you’re more poor than rich, is the way to go about things. I knew from research that I had to go to the south wing or something like that, but when you walk into the Met without focus, you get lost. Really the building, what with the architecture and then the ancient sculptures and such, works as a pretty fantastic work of art in and of itself. I found myself wandering up and down the halls. Into rooms and out of rooms. I wasn’t looking at the art – the individual works – this happens to me every time I go to the Met – and it never puts me in the right mood to sit down and observe a picture. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done that – sat down on one of those benches and observed a picture for a long period of time. I know you’re supposed to, and that people get a whole lot out of the artwork doing it, but I never have the patience. I like to wander around museums the way I’d want to wander around an old castle or something – just mazing my way through an old, elegant landscape of relics. But today I was planning to sit down and take in Beckmann’s “Hell” lithographs. I wasn’t in the mood, no; but I had a story to write, and while usually I’d just can the story and come up with a new one, I’d already printed up August’s cover – so there was no turning back.

I worked my way through the Greek and Roman Art – straight into the bar and cafeteria. It’s a pretty drastic change, but it works because it snaps you out of your wandertrance and reminds you that you’re here for a purpose. Right. Max Beckmann. I stopped at the bar and had a Beck’s and moved on. It wasn’t the right thing to do to have that beer, but that’s how it happened. Besides, it was just one.

After the bar I went through the African and Asian Art gallery, which put me right back in wandertrance; the trance now decidedly deepened by the Beck’s effects. I went through that wing without really seeing a single piece – or anything at all for that matter. I was walking slow, and I felt like I was absorbing everything, but when I went through the doorway everything vanished into the twentieth century.

It was a pretty busy Sunday at the Met, especially in the Twentieth Century Room – or however it’s called. Beckmann, apparently, was directly upstairs from there, so I pushed my way through the crowd and headed up to check out Beckmann’s “Hell” lithographs.

I have to say, it wasn’t the most popular attraction in the museum that afternoon. There was only one person spending any time with the exhibit; everyone else just breezed right through. The person sitting there taking in the overwhelming black and white lithographs was a very skinny, very pale young lady, maybe twenty eight or twenty nine. She had a mop of curly black hair and was wearing faded blue jeans and a tee-shirt. She was really into the lithographs – like you see sometimes in Museums – people sitting there with a book open – looking, writing and sketching. She was doing all three.

It was kind of uncomfortable. I’d been hoping either no one would be bothering with the exhibit – or there’d be a crowd – either way, so long as I got to remain innocuous. But there wasn’t any way around it. I sat down on a separate bench, opened up my notebook – and looked.

There are eleven lithographs total in Beckmann’s series, all of them black and white, and all of them disturbing. I did a little research on Beckmann before coming out to the Met. Just the basic stuff – a quick online Bio – a little bit of background information about the lithographs. Apparently Beckmann worked as a medic in World War I, and during that time he saw the atrocities that inspired these prints. The prints are dark, chaotic and powerful. The way I understand it (and I could be wrong) is that Beckmann had a nervous breakdown while working as a medic in World War I. After he recovered, his art made a drastic change from Impressionism to the more reality based constructions that you see in the “Hell” lithographs. But I’m not sure Realism is the right term for what he’s doing. For example, you can see some early Impressionistic influences in this work – and also an element of Cubism, where his characters seem to be uncomfortable in the space they occupy.

Let me stop right here and admit something. I’m no good at talking about the visual arts. In fact, I’m not sure why I decided to write on a painter to begin with – especially one I know almost nothing about. I think I was just testing myself to see if I could do it. The truth is I can’t. I can say if I liked it or not; but that’s about as far as I can go. And I liked the Max Beckmann “Hell” lithographs. But everything I just said about them I lifted from the girl who was sitting there. So I’ve admitted it. Those are her observations and not mine. Here’s how it happened:

I was sitting there looking at the pieces, feeling warm and sleepy because of that bottle of Beck’s, and sort of dreaming about when I’d be able to have another, when the girl came over and asked me if I was a big fan of Beckmann’s work. I told her I wasn’t, but that I wrote articles sometimes for a downtown magazine, and that my latest assignment was this exhibit. As it turns out of course, she was a big fan of Beckmann’s work, and she asked all these questions about the magazine, and what it published, and when, and etc… I was pleased to be able to promote Strawberry Press a little bit. But what was really great about it was that she seemed to know everything about this Beckmann character. So I just started asking her questions and let her talk. She talked about Beckmann’s early years as a softer, more impressionistic painter – like Delacroix maybe. She talked about how at twenty-six or so he was already a well-renowned painter in Germany – about his aspirations to live and work in Paris – about his long and troubled marriage to Minna Tube – how he eventually divorced her and remarried. It was really pretty informative – a lot better than the little bit of information I found online. She went on to talk about how Beckmann served as a medic in World War I, about how the atrocities he witnessed caused him to have a nervous breakdown. And when he began to work on his painting again in 1917, he came back a new artist. He developed a style that was very much all his own, and he eschewed references to movements when discussing his work. How his work made it into galleries and museums all over Germany, only to be removed and confiscated when Hitler came to power. How he was an exile from his own country after that. How his work matured. How his style in the “Hell” lithographs is apparently the beginning of the budding of his mature work.

The lithographs are unique and unsettling. They borrow technique from Expressionism, Impressionism, Cubism and Classicism, but align with none of them. The girl went on to talk about how mythology and religion played a large role in his work – like the work of Expressionist Gustav Klimt. She talked about how the colors in the paintings became more intense – how they battled with each other. She explained that what was so great about these lithographs was that by working in black and white he’d achieved that same intensity of color and expression by using these two opposing colors to depict a hell that was so real it became unreal. She let me know (which at this point didn’t surprise me) that Max Beckmann was her favorite painter of all time. That she came here every Sunday afternoon – she had been coming every Sunday afternoon ever since the exhibit opened, and she would continue to come back until it closed.

I listened to what she said, and I actually took notes. I mean, she was doing all my homework for me. It was really pretty cool. But finally I had to come out and ask her: what is it about Beckmann that you find so fascinating?

Really, her answer, it was just the same thing that makes any of us fascinated by any artist: she first saw Beckmann’s work in High School while taking an art class and going through a big book on the history of Western painting. The work spoke to her right away. From then on, the more she saw Beckmann’s work and the more she learned about his life, the more she fell in love with him. I can understand that. That’s how it works with everything. She said something really memorable – I just like the ring of it: “You go through your life admiring some artists and not admiring others – and then one day a real friend comes along and changes your life.”

The way I see it, that pretty much says it all. Artists are craftsmen, thinkers, revolutionaries, whatever. But that’s beside the point. When someone really connects with an artist, it only has so much to do with how talented the artist is – there’s probably someone else that’s more talented. It’s the feeling of making a friend – finding someone who really understands you (illusory or not, I don’t think it matters) – that adds that element of what people call “magic” to art. And that magic is what makes art such a spectacular thing – art in every creative manifestation.

Anyway, she went on and on about Beckmann while I listened and took notes. After a while she laughed like, ‘are you gonna reference me in your article?’ It was pretty funny. I told her sure, why not. She could pick up a copy of the magazine at St. Mark’s Bookshop. She should check out the website. Did she have any writers she was really into? She said she read, but not all that much. Mostly when she read she liked to read mysteries and such.

Her name was Chloe. Which is just to say, there, I’ve officially referenced her. I imagine she’s at the Met right now. It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon – a week later, actually. I can see her sitting in that large room with her sketchbook open, quiet, awed, reverential. She’s discoursing with a friend that died a quarter century before she was born.

The museum can be a pretty lonely place sometimes.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, August 2003)

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

The following poem was basically an experiment. I wanted to write something for Emmett Till in the wake of the recent justifiable outrage over the vandalization of his memorial. Since so much of this outrage was expressed on social media, I wanted to see if I could use that medium to change the form/approach to my memorial poem. The medium I chose was twitter, because I wanted to make each line of the poem work alone as a tweet, with all the force of a well written tweet, and I also wanted each line to act like a traditional line of poetry, driving the momentum of the poem forward, step by step. Of course, any such experiment is on some level doomed to failure, but I wanted to see where it led me all the same.

I decided to choose the form of the Bop poem, recently invented by Afaa Michael Weaver, because I think it’s a wonderful form, with a lot of lyric opportunities, and also because it allowed me to post the poem over a couple of days on twitter, without over-posting. The Bop is generally comprised of three stanzas: the first stanza is six lines, and states a problem, followed by a refrain; the second stanza, eight lines, delves into the problem, followed by a refrain; and the last stanza, six lines, followed by the refrain, attempts to find a solution or come to terms with the inability to do so. As you can imagine, this leaves a poet a lot of possibilities to work with. I played with the form a little bit to increase the overall musicality of the poem, but generally, I more or less stuck to that original form.

Anyway, here’s what I came up with. Hope you enjoy it:

 

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

Just another one of them times the future leans back to politic with the past;
The present is something like a beacon between what we dream to what we’ve seen;
Bullet holes in a black boy’s grave, and folks like: all lives matter, I don’t know what you mean.
And no, the revolution will not be twitterized, and tho open caskets don’t convert criminals,
I still wake each morning to waves of wakes and the waves of the blue of the day,
And lately I find myself leaning back to listen for what the future’s leaning back to say.

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till
Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

The night was still and the moon was gold and the leaves came tumbling down;
I wrote this bop for you, Emmett, because I wonder with anger and wander with pain;
The dogs were howling and the wind was blowing and the moon was red and round;
A twitter Bop to keep me honest and true, with each line like a thought, each line like a shot;
Shouting and screaming, defiant proclaiming, to hell with you white devil bastards, a retort, and then no sound;
I wrote this bop for you Emmett to say what I know I’ll end up failing to say, when terror, fetid hot, yet clammy cold remains;
I wrote this bop for you Emmett cuz every time a cop hits a brother or sister his old club goes bop! Bop!
And it don’t stop y’all. And it just don’t stop.

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till
Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

I guess a twitter-bop is something like a New Orleans funeral with music, a jazz funeral.
At first the notes moan low and groan, bemoan the way a loss leaves us more alone.
The dirges and hymns intone the long slow walk from enwombed to entombed:
Hell, we’re all of us doomed.
But if the music swings down low, well by and by it swings high to merry memorials
Celebrating a life and a spirit that transcends racism, politics and even burials.

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

 

 

(Whit Frazier, October 25-27, 2016)