Annotated Bibliography, Winter

IMG_0493If I wait for this spider to crawl out of this room, then maybe I can go after her.  And on the other side of the wall there’ll be this underwater world and I’ll swim to the deep end and float next to the one of those electrical fish that light up in the dark.

Loteria, Mario Alberto Zambrano

I don’t know how this moved from spiders to water, but I do like a book built on a frame, and Loteria is that.  Especially, seeking as I am the frame for a novel, picking up pieces and setting the thing up to see if it needs another leg, and yes, it does.  I am still at least two legs short on mine.

“Once you get into it, you’re too interested in what you’re writing to waste time comparing.”

– The Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir

There are more interesting and more erotic parts of this book– funnier ones, too, but this bit is sweet, and true.  Several times the book swings around, why are you a writer?  And for a bunch of people who had lived through times when politics meant your neighbors were either in their cozy homes or in concentration camps, politics were pretty important.

You stop comparing?  Yeah, I caught myself using the word “competitive” to describe the sensation I wanted, the sensation of living somewhere where many more people are artists.  It wasn’t competition at all, but comfort.

As in a college town, reading serious books and writing is not a strange thing here, and it makes me feel a little less lonely.  If I were younger maybe I would feel bad about not being a great success as a writer.  As it stands I will often settle for feeling less lonely because wanting to be an artist isn’t so strange, and being strange no longer comforts me.

The dismay felt from a dream when you suddenly meet the brother you forgot you had or remember the infant you left on the hillside miles away, hours ago, because somehow you were distracted and somehow you came to believe in a different life and your shock at these terrible recollections, these sudden reunions, comes as much from your sorrow at what you have neglected as it does from dismay at how thoroughly and quickly you came to believe in something else.

Tinkers, Paul Harding

One of those dream books, indeed, written more by the subconscious and the images than anything else, sometimes I get lost in those books, and sometimes I just want some straight up action for a minute.  The whole thing is like a dream you remembered you had, though, which is the point.

I’ve only once here dreamed my teeth-are-falling-out dream, and more often, the sensation of “how quickly you came to believe in something else” is that when I am barely awake here, I still have to think of where I am, not in the carriage house, where the wall would be on the other side, and not at my dad’s, where there would be no wall by the bed, but in a place where the sounds come from past the foot of the bed, and are locks turning or the refrigerator opening, and the light comes from behind my head.

The process of intimacy therefore involved the opposite of seduction, for it meant revealing what risked rendering one most open to unfavourable judgment, or least worthy of love.  Whereas seduction was founded on the display of one’s finest qualities and dinner jackets, intimacy entailed a complex offer of both vulnerability and toenails.

-Kiss & Tell, Alain de Botton

After finishing this, I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or not.  I think it is a joke.  It is a framed book, too, in a deliberate and almost insulting way.  A joke about biographies.  If it didn’t feel so thin at the end, I could have forgiven it.

Household Words 3


The fact is, I only met Ellen’s parents a handful of times before I went off to San Diego. When people die, it’s natural to magnify their significance retroactively.  I tried.  I didn’t have a lot to go on.  I observed nothing compelling about Ben and Amanda Walden.  Maybe her mother’s eyes were too close together.  Maybe her father took too long coming downstairs, to meet me.

I saw them from a distance, working on the lawn or walking past the living room window, when I came to pick up their daughter, and we ate one meal together.  Ellen’s mother made a casserole.  It was the first day cold enough to turn on an oven.

As I walked up the lawn, fingering the zipper pull on my jacket, I went over the topics I’d loaded for conversation.  The mums along the foundation were drying up, going maize-colored.  On the porch, the dirt in an empty flower pot was pale and cracked.  How is her mother’s broken toe?  How about those Yankees?  I just got some photos developed of our trip to the orchard, and Ellen running away from me, into the corn maze.  I wait at the door.  Then there she is. I like her. Her arm is warm, her hand is warm. She kissed my mouth quickly, which surprised me.  We were still organizing the kissing then.

At that time, Ellen was temping.  She had spent a year studying art history, and hadn’t liked it.  So she worked these temp jobs.  She worked at a lighting store for a while.  She sat under a flock of displayed chandeliers and shaded lights, frosted glass, clean gold and silver. I picked her up from this job so that we could go to lunch—our fourth or fifth date.  The place was far outside town, but I had the day off work.  I made the drive.

On the outside the building looked more like an airline hanger than a store, with corrugated mud-covered walls and a flat roof. Inside, the spray of light on Ellen’s walnut desk and chocolate hair had DaVinci and ruby gloss.

Ellen wasn’t in a particularly spiritual mood, though.  The 10-line telephone system was confounding her.  It was only her second day. As we ate, she complained and apologized for complaining.  I ate a roast beef sandwich, and a pickle on the side.  We sat in a blue plastic booth.  She ate salt and vinegar potato chips.  I noticed when she crossed and uncrossed her legs.  She laughed whenever I joked.  She told me about where she went to summer camp, and set pink sweetener packets around the mustard bottle to show where the cabins were.

When I dropped her off, she teased me about the pile of pennies and nickels in the ashtray. “Saving for a rainy day?” she said

“Someday I’ll take you to Paris,” I said.

“I’ll let you know when I’m free,” she laughed.

I watched her go in and turned up the radio before I drove away.

Household Words: 2

In Middleton, I was in the school of social work.  I had decided against medical school.  My mother and brother were in a car accident years before, and they were just bodies, problems and numbers, in that E.R.  I wanted people to be something more than bodies.

I worked in a fabric store during those years: Keller’s.  It was just across the street from my dorm.  People weren’t bodies to me: they were measured in yards and bolts.  Other than me, the employees were mostly little old ladies who wanted the measly 10% employee discount.  Darla, for example, had glasses on a string, and talked constantly, licking the lipstick off her lower lip until the mismatch between the two pinks was garish.  Irene looked padded, as if she was stealing batting in ingeniously sculpted pockets over her hips and breasts and belly.  She was quiet and always made mistakes in stocking the shelves.  I didn’t mind—the peace of sending her away to the shelves was worth it.

I actually managed the store during my last year there, though the owner, Robin, gave me little power to set schedules or hire and fire. There wasn’t much hiring, since we didn’t fire.  I was better at stocking and ordering, and keeping records, anyway.  We had a huge stock of patterns in the store, and we ordered them for customers, too.

Mrs. Simmons was one of our most regular browsers.  She sewed very little.  She thumbed through our catalogues, the tall, glossy books with pictures of tall and elegant women posed perky, trying helplessly to look modern in the most old-fashioned of circumstances.  Mrs. Simmons had a sweatshirt from every major tourist site in the United States: the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, Miami Beach, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Big Apple, Disney World, the Alamo.  If you could imagine a crude symbol for a place, that symbol graced Mrs. Simmons’ chest.  It was usually designed with a palette of girlish pastels, and used shadow behind the lettering.  These were mementoes from other people’s travels.  Mrs. Simmons herself never ventured past the state line.  I’m not sure she went many places except the fabric store, to be honest.

“Who went to the Florida Keys?”  I would ask her, as I pushed a dolly of bolts past her.

“My neighbor, Millie.  She went in a glass-bottomed boat and saw alligators wrestling! ”  She smiled her honest Walter Mitty smile.  “Ooh, you know, David, I don’t like inverse pleats.  I never have.”

The Man Made Out of Wood

PINNOCHIO (opening of an almost-novel)

There once was a man named Gepetto who lived with his loneliness every day. Loneliness slept in the corner and sighed and kept him awake. Gepetto became older; his hair grew in white, and his teeth wore down dull, and his ankles started creaking in the morning, and his lips that were once sweet and rubbery became feathery, dry, and rude. He had always lived alone, in a woodshop where he made his money carving clock cases and inserting the works to sell them. The aloneness of the shop wore into him, until he could not face the continuing mornings of the worktable, and the coldness of his carving blades. The windows were closed when he came downstairs, and he began to leave them closed through the day.
On the worst morning, he could not proceed. He had managed to the breakfast table, to the dresser, and down the stairs, but once in the shop, he was useless. Loneliness had died in the corner, and was stinking up the whole place. In the precise location of his blankest hopelessness, Gepetto was graced by one idea.
His feet began to move, twitched with the slightest energy, suddenly. They took him to his woodpile, and his arms decided to get in on the act, dropping his withered hands around the choices, and lifting a few pieces of wood. Without permission from his broken heart, his renegade hands took delights in tool and subject, and he was fashioning an arm. A leg. Two legs. Another arm, a torso, and, cradling in one hand and slicing with another, he carved a loved face.
With hinges and screws, he put the small body together. He took out vials of paint and gave the sculpture proper shoes, proper clothes. It took him a good hour to finish the face: nostrils, curly ears, a glib mouth, and open eyes, irises blue as Gepetto’s own.
In fact, he had begun at his morning hour, and when he could look at the creation with satisfaction, it was dark night. He knew no one was watching, and so he lifted the wooden doll into his bowed arms. “If you—“ he said, since no one was listening. He touched the tan, wood-veined cheek he had sanded soft. “If you were—“ he held it closer, and the cheek matched the curve of his poor chest.

I think the house was poorly designed. There were two gables in the top, Siamese twins. One set of eyes was Ellen’s bedroom, veiled in white gauze, and the other was her parents’ bathroom.
The front steps led up to a suggestion of a porch, with crude stone supports. No one ever put furniture out there, but sometimes someone sat on the steps.
The doorbell lit up, as if it had a soul, and when you pressed it, the chimes sounded lush. I rang it a few times before I left for San Diego—then I had a key of my own.
The house was built with sections of brick and siding. In the 50’s, the wooden parts were a hospital sea-green. In the ‘40s, the wood was a brown red, close to the brick. Finally, Ellen’s parents painted it white. The white of 1975 was bold in photos, but by the time I met Ellen, it had been blasted with dirty snow, autumn leaves, and clouds of pollen. It was the color of a Bedouin’s turban after a monthlong trek.
I met Ellen in the spring. Middleton has regular electrical storms in the spring, cracking the back of winter and shaking us all. The spring of 1997 was when I was finishing my undergraduate degree in the school of social work. I went to get a hamburger and read a textbook chapter, and Ellen was sitting with a friend of mine, in the table by the door. We all talked, and I didn’t read the chapter. Three weeks later, I saw her there again. I didn’t remember her name.
It was four years later, it was spring 2001, when lightning struck the house. This is how it burned: first the roof, which needed repair for a leak above the stairs. Then the attic started to get it, of course: Ellen’s unseasonable clothes, all her airy rayon and cotton sundresses, and leather sandals and t-shirts of every color, some with slogans, inside two yellow plastic bags. First the plastic had to melt, then the clothes could burn.
I think it spread to the master bedroom next because that leak in the center hall would keep the wood damp. It was also the easiest path because Ellen had spread out some sheets of aluminum and pipes, all stolen from construction sites, along the other side of the attic. Those wouldn’t burn well.
The master bedroom would go up in a rush: Ellen’s parents’ scrapbooks, her father’s collection of sheet music, and copies of the papers settling their estate, many carefully lettered in Ellen’s block writing.
The room Ellen and I slept in, that she shared with me, was on the other side. The windowsills, ceiling, and bookshelves were populated with her origami creatures, which all caught fire easily. Some dropped to the bed, and caught the blankets.
The downstairs burned, too: living room and piano, Ellen’s great-grandmother’s dining table, the pictures of vegetables framed in the kitchen, the dull-colored couch in the living room. Downstairs the trouble was the firefighters’ ammunition—everything ablaze was quickly asea.
We watched it burn, Ellen and I. Then I returned to California, this time to L.A. Ellen moved to the east coast. We didn’t see each other for a long time, though we wrote occasionally.