On the way home from the ocean, we got into an interchange that wasn’t so much a disagreement as an experiment in again having a conversation where we don’t subscribe to the same beliefs. Usually I go a certain distance into these and then roll over, paws in the air, and say I quit. I don’t like tussles. I know from experience that we won’t agree.
This time was actually different, and I didn’t roll over, I just did my best to describe why we were clearly on different sides and think why that might be. For once, I felt better about it.
I’m at a loss about what the inciting thing was, but I do remember that ascribing “motive” to action was basic. We really don’t agree on this, never have, and I started to explore why this might be.
What I came to see is that the way the two of us grew up is essentially different. He was a very wanted pregnancy, a difficult birth, and lived with his single mom in a span of horrendous poverty after his dad deserted. She never failed to let him know that he was the light of her life, and that they shared how difficult that could be.
I was a “bought” adoption by an affluent couple ill-suited to parenthood, and I was always told how lucky I was, and how much love and gratitude should be paid. I never formed a core of identity, only a debt.
So our homeward interchange started toward my putting my paws in the air, and then deflected toward how a person’s essential core affects an honest discussion. I think I learned a lot.
There are theories that compare upbringing by a “nurturing mother” versus “disciplinarian father.” My dad was actually the more nurturing parent, but he wasn’t there much, and my mom’s punitive and often abusive role was what formed me. I learned early on that I didn’t have a voice.
We are in a crucial and very dangerous stage of tumultuous politics, which seem to me like a hardening into antagonistic tribes, trending ever closer into condoning violence. Is there anything to be gained by looking into what hurts, what’s a scar from a painful rearing? And if we did see it, what would make a diffrerence?
I know that it made a huge difference to me in my teens to suddenly discover that there were other people like me, that I wasn’t a bizarre loner. It was a temporary high and didn’t keep me from sliding down and down and down into the miasma of lies and desperate illicit acts that I thought might keep my head above water. But when I came face to face with failure and then my mate’s absolute love, my old false carapace had to shatter, and it did.
I was far down, way far down, and I did change. Bit by bit, slowly, painfully, but it happened. Why can’t that happen with our wounded polity? As an irrepressible force I was blessed with an immovable object in a dance of creation. I think it is up to all of us to bond together in a dance that looks like more fun than the dance of death.
I write. It’s pointless, I know. I’d surely be serving a higher purpose by breeding goats or juggling live gerbils. But I get up in the morning and write.
I guess if you start it in high school, you’re stuck. I remember writing a poem and feeling despair that it was the best thing I’d ever write. It had to do with crickets. I remember writing a comic sketch for a high school variety show, and amazing, we got laughs. I recall writing a stage play based on a Kafka story; after writing 30 pages of stupidity I gave it up.
And I have clear visions of my senior year English teacher telling me after class, “Conrad, I know how much you want to be a writer, but I don’t think it’s right for you.” To which I said, “Well, Mrs. Coad, I don’t want to be a writer, I want to be an actor.” To which she said, “What a shame, you have such talent.”
I started writing plays as a stage director—translations for production, but they became more and more adaptations. When we broke away from academia to start a theatre ensemble, somebody had to write the stuff, and that was mostly me. I’d written maybe 20 shows before thinking of myself as a writer.
That came when I wrote a play that was selected for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference. Suddenly I was a “playwright.” With a dual career. For our own company, I wrote the stuff that made us a living on tour; for other theatres, I wrote plays that gave us sudden bursts of royalties and vilification. And I shared the billing with my mate: nothing went out until we were both fully satisfied.
For many, many years. Now age and the Covid plague have blitzed the touring, and our play agent died. The last ten years, we’ve turned to fiction—ten novels, many short stories—with miniscule sales. We’ve never established a recognizable “voice,” certainly no fixed genre: the story becomes the story it wants to be.
For the first time, we’re writing separately, though we edit each other mercilessly—Liz writing memoir, I flash fiction (very short stuff). I realize this has always been a calling: for our own performance, we’ve always had a show of short sketches in rep (maybe 250 over the years), and I once wrote a radio series of 65 90-second dramas. One chapbook is out there (14 stories), another imminent (25 stories), and a third chugging up the hill of I-think-I-can.
I ask myself often, why do I write? I might as well ask why I breathe, given the long-range prospects of that hapless endeavor: at some point you stop. I guess I write because i’m a writer.
Conrad and I have a routine of watching a movie at home every Friday and Saturday. We have a modestly-large Roku screen and a membership in Criterion, so the options are opulent. Sometimes I pick a film, but usually I’m lazy and leave it to him. We’ve developed the habit of often watching a string of works by the same director, or the work of a favorite actor. This weekend we did one of each, and fell in a pit.
I remembered loving “Boyhood,” a Richard Linklater film, and we recently saw his “Before” trilogy—three films done at ten-year intervals with the same partnered characters. I was intrigued at his suggestion that we see two of his earlier films, “Suburbia” and “Slacker.” “Suburbia” gave me a bellyache last week and this week “Slacker” topped that.
That was Friday night. Thursday we’d gotten a Bogart letch and watched an extra movie: “The Harder They Fall.” I found it brilliant and profoundly disturbing. It didn’t help that I knew it was Bogart’s last film, and that he was already dying of cancer. Then “Slacker” put me into a coma. When Saturday came, Conrad suggested that we go ahead and watch a third movie, and proposed Chaplin’s “City Lights.” We’d seen it four or five times before, because you do that with Chaplin, or at least we do. It was exactly what we needed.
Do you know this film? It’s a 1931 silent, bust-a-gut funny and unabashedly romantic. Charlie’s Tramp character encounters a beautiful young blind flower-seller, and circumstances make her think he’s a wealthy toff. He manages to visit her often, never betraying who and what he is, and eventually he gets her the money that rescues her from eviction, pays for a medical miracle that restores her sight, and gives her a nest egg to establish a successful flower shop. He doesn’t know the results of his gift, because he got the money from an actual toff who had adopted him as a best friend, but only when drunk. Sober, he doesn’t know him. The money is reported as theft, and the Tramp goes to jail.
It’s the ending that makes this movie a blessing. When the Tramp has done his time, he goes back to the girl’s street-selling location and doesn’t find her. Her new shop is nearby, and he spots her through the front window and is struck motionless by seeing her again. She sees him from inside, is charmed by having made a “conquest” in the form of this completely dilapidated wretch, and comes out to offer him a flower—the gesture she made long ago when they first met.
What would have been merely a predictably sentimental happy ending is transformed in the final minute. First, the long, still, silent time given to her recognition that this is her “toff” savior—punctuated by her one word, “You?” Then the closeup on his face, as he realizes that she knows. What he does in that silence, if it could be bottled and given like a vaccine, could restore our wounded sanity. Truly. Incandescent joy is rare and healing.
For this week’s blog, I decided to post a story from my chapbook of flash fiction, FLASHES & FLOATERS: 14 FICTIONS. It’s only 649 words long. The chapbook is available at www.DamnedFool.com.
We had just come back from vacation, I, my wife Kelly and the kids, who didn’t mind missing school—a week down to San Diego to visit friends who were having a rocky time—when the birds began to fall.
They fell mostly at night, very soft plops. You could hear it if you stopped breathing. Then in the morning, nothing. Maybe the homeless eat’em, I joked, and Josh laughed, my son. We thought it must just be local.
That was in May, same time that Kelly was diagnosed and she had to go in for treatments. I drove her back and forth. Once I ran a red light, but I said I was taking my wife for treatments and he didn’t write me up.
Time went on. It was in the papers now, national news, but like biohazards or climate change, it was just one of those things. It upset Kelly a lot. She cared less about herself and more about the birds.
There was all kinds of crazy news. Some blamed the current Administration. A respected dentist cited the prophecy of Isaiah. Pundits recounted evidence of vegan involvement. Intimations of fascist plots gained traction. Choose your truth.
Now they started falling at sun-up, and they’d hit like little cherry bombs. I recalled when my friend Artie, third grade, stuck a firecracker under his sleeping cat. Some people got hit really bad, so they kept the kids off the playgrounds.
I didn’t pay lots of attention, though it was big news when the last Golden Eagle dropped at a shopping mall in Missoula. Our National Bird was kaput. There were calls for investigation, but Kelly was in the last stages.
Next week past the eagle thing, she died, and they nailed me for running a light. I wasn’t thinking.
At the funeral, my niece Jennifer, who’s four, babbled about the birds, and my sister Sandra told her, “Never mind the birds, you should be sad about Aunt Kelly. The birds, they’re like dinosaurs or the Indians, they were nice but they’re gone. In the Bible it says, All things must pass. So shut up with the birds.” Jennifer cried harder, so Sandra said, “You know, maybe there’s birds on the moon or in Outer Space.” But Jennifer cried and the preacher looked over. I can’t remember Sandra ever crying. Maybe she wanted to. Maybe she would some day.
After a month or so, it was still a risk to go out. Now they fell harder, those that were left, exploding like tiny grenades, blowing holes in the roofs of cars. I sat in the house as if stuck in Limbo with nothing to read. Some days came like waterfalls in a rush, others seeped in like syrup over pancakes. I said those things to Sandra when we went out to dinner, and she grinned. Nuff said about Sandra.
They say that all things pass. One morning in August, maybe, the birds began rising up into daylight with their shrill. I’d sit on the porch staring into the sky, hoping for something to touch and smell. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I was only listening.
Birds criss-crossed the skies. Sometimes they coalesced into patterns, spelling out words as the sun moved into an autumn slant. This was a time of hope.
School started. The children learned of the Ice Age, and how it passed, how the tribes moved into new valleys and made drawings in caves of the wonders they dreamed. The children still had nightmares, but they heard the new birds at dawn and forgot all the monsters. I even imagined a time when birds would cross across in abundance, having known countless extinctions and taken them all in stride.
I remembered Kelly. Her lips.
I just finished a job I’ve been putting off for way too long. I get like that with some tasks. It may be big and complicated or a runty little thing, like this one was, but if it falls into the deeply-nuts part of my mind it becomes (a) toxic and (b) nearly impossible. I had several of these things nagging me, and CB sensibly said, well, write them down, and I’ll do whatever I can to help you get started. It worked.
We’ve been in this house for 22 years, so the old water-softening system has been chugging along for way longer than that. A tree man came to do a job for us last year, did his thing, and before leaving pointed to a huge scraggly tree at the side of the house. “You got a water softener?” Yup. “Where does the backwash go?” Into a hose that disappears underground at the side of the house. “Well, looks like you’re killing that tree there.” Holy crap.
I needed to cut into the drain hose before it went underground and connect it to a longer drain that went well past the trees, and I had to give it a path that was consistently downhill. That meant a lot of digging and ivy-clearing, but eventually I got the job done. Whaling away with pitchfork and shovel and throwing dirt around felt good, and it made me think of the earlier big dirt-jobs I got handed with this house.
We moved in in 2000, and before long found that the combination of downhill water run-off and a huge network of gopher tunnels had resulted in a lot of dirt migrating to the space under the house. I’m small enough to wriggle through one of the openings that give access, and when I took a powerful light down there I realized that a whole lot of dirt was going to have to go somewhere else. I had a new job. I called it mole duty.
I hauled old shelving boards down there and laid them end-to-end to make a track to the opening, and used old restaurant bus-bins as containers to fill and push. When I had three full bins I’d bang on the floor for Conrad to come get the dirt and give me empty bins. We wound up with a dirt-pile the size of a Buick in the far corner of the back yard, and the dirt underneath the house was clear and level. People said, “Wasn’t that yucky?” Well, no, it was cool and sandy and didn’t have much of a spider population. I didn’t have enough space to get all the way up on hands and knees, but I became very good at elbow-and-belly-wriggling. I got to know the house from the ground up, literally.
The other big dirt-job came about seven years later when the septic man said our leach-lines were clogged and not draining properly. I called around to find out who deals with stuff like that and discovered two things. Roto-rooter people are notorious for making things worse by punching through the walls of the leach-pipes, and going for full-bore excavation costs tens of thousands of dollars. One very nice guy I talked to offered to come take a look, no cost, and he gave me some clues about what we might be able to do ourselves.
I went to the county’s records of our property and found some old pencil-scribbled papers with a sorta-kinda idea where the D-box was—the big drain from the septic tank goes into a square cement box that distributes the flow to the two fifty-foot leach lines. The scribble made it look like it was about three feet down. I did my geometry, translated the scribble to the geography of the front yard, and CB and I started to dig. Three feet—nothing. Four feet—nothing. We hadn’t put a lot of thought into the diameter of our pit because it wasn’t going to be very deep, but by the time we hit concrete it was five feet down and I was the only one who fit in the hole. I’d actually done all the last part of the digging myself, using a special little sharp spade with a very short handle. Once I found the D-box lid and pried it up, I realized that this was going to be my own very private work-space, me and my fifty-foot snake.
I’d called my under-house job “mole duty,” and this became “muskrat duty.” I’d do it for two hours at a time, and it went on for weeks and weeks. The leach pipes were filled with tangled gobs of little roots and clotted mud, and it would sometimes take more that an hour of pushing and cranking the snake to get something loose enough to haul back out. The first time I got a good big hairy one I called it a muskrat.
All the time I was doing muskrat duty the toilets were off-limits, for obvious reasons. We coped. (You don’t want to know.) When my snake made it all the way to the ends of the leach-lines, no more muskrats, we whooped and hollered and flushed madly in celebration.
Actually, I found that I like dirty work.
A weekly view of the world we
wake into every morning.
Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
a historical fantasy
AKEDAH: THE BINDING
a novel of promises broken or kept
a novel of blue-collar ghosts
a novel of puppets & renewal
50 Years in the Making
A Memoir of the Creative Life
35 Snapshots for the Stage
A Novel of Dystopian Optimism
From Inanna to Frankenstein