Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Fish sandwich, Coke, fries."

He walked into Wendy's holding a toolbox in his left hand.  A huge yellow one.  He wore a green hard hat and olive-colored overalls and black boots.  The dude just stomped up to the front almost like he was doing a dance or maybe more of a sleep-walk.  Just stood there, and I looked at him from behind the cash register.  His face was burnt-looking and a little bloated, dark eyes pointed right at me and then away, like he did not want me to know he could see.  I asked him what he would like and his voice was a grunt more than a voice, a machine-gun grunt, but you could understand "fish sandwich" somewhere in there, and so that's what I pressed in.  "Fish sandwich, Coke, fries."  He said it like he had committed it to memory and he was afraid he might forget before it got out of his mouth.  He stood there not looking at me when I asked him what size Coke.  Something was not right but I guess since he could order what he wanted I didn't get freaked out too much.  I didn't know what to think really.  He was round-bellied, not too tall, but he had the presence of a statue that had come to life.  You were supposed to be afraid of him, but still he was not terrifying.  Just intense and silent, standing there not answering my question about the Coke, so I just wrung in large, and he pulled out a ten dollar bill and put it on the counter, and then I took it and gave him his change.  He swept it up and quickly hid the money away somewhere in his overalls. 

As I got him his Coke, and the cook put his fish into the fryer, he stood at the counter completely quiet, looking over at the fryers, staring as if somehow his stare might make things go faster.  He was not comfortable waiting.  He had some salt-and-pepper hair hanging down from his hard hat.  He had ruddy jowls and the yellow toolbox had a "Danger High Voltage" sticker on it.  He gripped that toolbox real tight.  I told him I was sorry he had to wait because I could see it was killing him, but then I explained that we don't make fish sandwiches ahead, and he grunted like he understood, and even though I had never waited on him before I kind of knew him from riding the bus and seeing him walking on the sidewalk in that same get-up, but it never dawned on me what he would sound like close up, or look like either.  He had the presence of a visitor from another planet about him.  He had a pride about himself that shined out of his stubborn face.  He did not look scared as much as just stubborn and ready to do what he had to do.  He did not fidget but he did not stand still either, as if his stillness vibrated inside him, through his bones.  He had gray chapped lips.  You could tell he worked outside.

The fish timer went off and the cook slid the wrapped sandwich onto the tray while I got the fries.  I turned around and saw the dude put his toolbox into a booth over by the front windows.  He came back and got his tray of Coke and fries and fish sandwich and walked back to the booth.  A couple of boys came in and ordered something and I got them what they wanted, and by the time they were gone he had eaten and drank it all and was throwing away his trash.  Two minutes, tops.  Then he walked into the bathroom.  I looked over at the cook and the gal who ran drive-thru.  We were a little, I don't know, unsettled I guess.  He was the only one out in the dining room.  It was about 3 pm on a Wednesday in February.  Snow was starting outside, gray light and snow.

You could hear him stomp out of the bathroom, the door slamming behind him.  As he turned the corner I saw what he had done to himself in the bathroom and it felt really completely shocking for a few seconds.  He had put on a clown costume in the bathroom.  It was blue, green, red, purple and yellow polka-dots.  Big old clown outfit, with the boots still on, and the overalls underneath the costume.  He was carrying the tool-box still too, and he had also donned a big fluorescent green clown collar to complete his ensemble.  His face above the polka-dots was unchanged.  No clown smile, no clown anything in his eyes.  The blankness of his expression gave the whole thing a dream-like feeling, as if it were a moment I would need to come back to many times, just to convince myself it had actually happened.  This big, dark-complected, round-bellied construction dude going into the Wendy's bathroom and coming out a clown, like Clark Kent turning into Superman.


Me and the cook just looked at each other.  It was like we were witnessing a new way of seeing people, like after this nobody would have any secrets.  People would just come in, go into the bathroom and change into who they really were.  The dude took off into the snowy afternoon, stomping away.  He'd spent maybe all of five or six minutes in here, but he had left a big impression.  I wondered where he was off to on foot.  He disappeared into that snow, a clown erased by falling snow.


The photos are close-ups of Raymond Thunder-Sky's many clown costumes he would wear all over the city.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

You Don't Really Want to Know

This is about my cousin named Debbie.  She died in 2002.  I think she was maybe 48 or 49 years old. 

I always think about her, but there's no way to talk about her because nobody really wants to know.  I don't really want to remember most of the time, but I feel obligated because she had a force in my life way beyond what it should have been.  I'm sort of grateful.  You have to have a deep-seated tragic mystery in your life, I guess, even if it isn't that mysterious at all, just white-trash tragic with a gloss of  Tennessee-Williams grandeur.  

Debbie was beautifully tragic and trashy, always feeling things way too deeply and running away from home, but still somehow glamorous enough to warrant the upset and the bother.  Her life had a terrible arc to it.  She was never going to get out of what she was in.  She had wild blond Stevie-Nicks hair, and pouty lips, a moon-shaped face, and was always dressed in lacy tops and cutoffs and sandals.  She had this room in the old house where she lived in Tennessee that was painted tangerine, a big mirror with liptsick notes she wrote to herself all over it.  Perfume smells and the taint of cigarette smoke blown out the window.  Skinny but voluptuous, all 1975 teen-aged runaway, and on the tangerine walls were Scotch-taped big rock-n-roll posters and albums covers of the era.

Houses of the Holy seems to be the most significant.  Little blond girls climbing up a craggy mystical mountain.

Her dad, my uncle, was the source of most of the tragic and trashiness.  He molested his two sons, her younger brothers, for most of their formative years.  Debbie was a witness to all this, and yet she was always the one who got ostracized for being "trouble."  It's all blurry now, and nobody wants to remember the shit that happened, but I'm stuck because I have the need to write stuff down.  When I was a kid we would visit and just get sad little glimpses into the ongoing tragedy during Christmases and summers.  She was trying to kill herself a lot of the time, running away and taking drugs, mouthing off to her mom, who was ignoring the ongoing pedophilia situation like all of the other adults, until finally, in the early 80s, my uncle had a big breakdown, confessed, tried to apologize, and went into the psyche unit for a while. 

By that time his perversion had caused all kinds of ripples, but mainly you could just feel it in the way Debbie had aged from being a loud-mouthed, doped-up slutty teen-aged beauty in the 70s into a bleary-eyed, slightly overweight out-of-work secretary at the age of 26 or so in 1982.  She got married to a Vietnam veteran in 1985; I went to the wedding with my mom and sister, as we had moved down to Tennessee by this time.  My mom and dad were getting a divorce.  My dad had fooled around on my mom, and my mom lost it completely because, maybe a little like Debbie, her happiness had depended all on one person, and when that one person does something you can't forgive your whole life loses its meaning and feeling, and you're back at square one, except this time you've already lived through a lot of life and you know what is in store for you.  So you kind of give up.  You just move into the next phase with a blank face and then sometimes a really horrible scream gets out.

In 1985, Debbie's dad, the recovered perv who was still married to Debbie's mom, gave her away.  By that time he was forgiven (except by one of his sons, who separated himself from the whole thing and never looked back).  Debbie sported a spray-on fake tan which made her bloated face look almost Al-Jolson comic.  She was getting fat then from drinking too much, and taking too many painkillers. Her Vietnam vet husband had bangs like an early Beatles, and he was always trying to soothe Debbie with jokes, but you could tell he was just as damaged as she was -- he just felt the need to keep it together more until he closed the front door.  They would get divorced a year or so later.

Debbie's dad, though, by 1985, was more bloated and miserable than Debbie.  He had his signature pompadour-styled head of hair and horn-rimmed glasses, a big round gut, and a raspy, sweet laugh that made you want to reimagine him as someone else, someone who didn't do what he did at all.  It was just rumors and meanness, you would say to yourself when you heard that laugh, and then you'd snap back into reality and realize that's why he was still around:  because people didn't know how to wake up from his laugh.

It was a little country Baptist church.  He walked her down that aisle and she looked so tragic and absurd I remember I wanted to turn away, but I was in a pretty fucked-up situation myself.  My mom and my sister and I were living in hillbilly section-8 housing, on food stamps, and I was just starting a job as a dishwasher at Bonanza Steakhouse.  I was just about to be taken into this hillbilly fold here, the patriarch of it being a child molester, and the Queen all black-faced and soggy-eyed in a peach-colored gown some lady had made for her with a veil and everything.

Debbie was a rock-n-roll goddess back when I was 10 years old.  Summers in that tangerine dream of a bedroom.  Rock music and album covers and cigarettes and makeup.  She used to dress me and my cousin (her little brother) up in girl clothes and we'd act like we hated it, but I don't know.  It was just a way of pleasing her, I think.  She was like the only artist I had ever known, glamorous and stoned and excited about everything.  She was like a Special Guest Star on the drab TV show that was my life, and even that day in 1985 when she was getting married to the Vietnam vet with her pervert Dad giving her away I could still see that girl in my head. 
*   *   *

In 2001, I went to see my mom and her husband for Christmas.  They were living in a trailer near the mountains.  By this time I had escaped all of it and was working a social-work job trying to help people with developmental disabilities, and also trying to write short stories and novels.  The hit song of Christmas 2001, right after the 911 horror, was Enrique Iglesias' "I Can Be Your Hero." 

When I got to my mom's trailer, Debbie was already there with her third husband, a sadsack one-time professional bowler who worked in demolition.  He was skinny and short and apologetic, and beside Debbie he resembled a dwarf.  Debbie was obese now, so flabby it looked like a bad fat suit in a Farelly Brothers movie.  Her doll face was trapped inside her body, and she was out of her mind on drugs of some type.  I remember thinking upon seeing Debbie in the trailer living room that she was like one of the people I was trying to get help for at my job, but now I had no way to detach myself from the whole sad situation  because I was related to her.  That connection can kill you when you are in the middle of something like this.

Plus, and here's the punchline finally:  Debbie was talking in a horrible fake accent.  Kind of Spanish, I guess, kind of Latvian for all I know, white-trash-European?  It was such an overblown affectation it took over the room, like a large bird had gotten in.  When she first recognized me Debbie let out a sweet scream and then talked in that voice a mile a minute, shit I just could not understand.  But my mom and her husband (a morbidly obese sweet guy she met at the VFW who collected KISS memorabilia and had devoted a whole room to it here in the trailer) and Debbie's husband just went along with it, as if being held hostage.  Nervous smiles and nods.

I guess I could try to emulate the language she used but I don't think I have it in me.

We talked some more, and then Debbie turned on my mom's stereo, and that's when "I Can Be Your Hero" enters the picture.  Debbie turned it up really loud, but then turned it down.  She stood in the middle of the room and closed her eyes, and then she started to sing that song in that foreign language her drugs and her life and her sadness had allowed her to make up.  She belted that fucking song out.  It was like she was singing the National Anthem at the Superbowl.  And we were all, I think, captured in that moment by what had been done to her by her family, and by everyone, and by herself.  She was victim, and no one wants to know about that story, but that's what she was, and that song somehow made it all feel right:

Let me be your hero,

Would you dance,
if I asked you to dance?
Would you run,
and never look back?
Would you cry,
if you saw me crying?
And would you save my soul, tonight?

Would you tremble,
if I touched your lips?
Would you laugh?
Oh please tell me this.
Now would you die,
for the one you love?
Hold me in your arms, tonight.

She died a couple months later, in her sleep.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Beam Me Down Scotty

Boogie Nights is one of those seminal (no pun intended) movies that make you understand what movies should and can do when created by someone with a point of view that exists on a level beyond people-pleasing and beyond spectacle.  Paul Thomas Anderson has never been able to accomplish that eerie altered state of both steely-eyed contemplation and movie-movie ecstasy since.  He's tried but usually he stumbles on the "steely-eyed contemplation" part, creating epic yet somehow small-minded, serious-minded pictures that try so hard to be original they lose their minds.  (The Master is probably his worst attempt yet.)  Boogie Nights takes on the 70s and 80s porn industry with a Robert-Altman-frenetic kind of flourish and bombast, but then somehow slows itself down long enough to harden into a real-life dream.  There are textures and perpheries in Boogie Nights that seem both manufactured and incidental, accidental and somehow right on the money.  The early party scene, when Dirk Diggler is taken into the Jack Horner fold, is mesmerizingly messy yet completely controlled.  

It's that sequence in which Scotty first appears.  As performed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Scotty is both buffoon and moral center, a holy fool who haunts Boogie Nights in a way that always brings it back to itself.  I think that's probably what is missing from The Master and all the other movies Anderson has directed since Boogie Nights, that off-kilter, jaggedy nobody who somehow reinvigorates the atmosphere with a sense of  innocence and need.  You feel Scotty's predicament in a deep way because he is not being focused on.  He's always in the background, yearning to be included in the spotlight, but in end he just winds up holding the spotlight on the porn performers he both envies and idolizes.  

If Scotty were to be a central figure, his power as a character would be lost.  His dramatic vigor comes from his intense desire and his banishment to the edges of each scene.  When he does come into focus, he's either chided or bossed back into place, and yet as you follow the overall structure of the movie you also begin to understand that the movie truly is about him.  Hoffman understands this intrinsically, giving Scotty just enough "zaniness" to be comic relief, and just enough tragic splendor to choke you up.  The scene after he lets Dirk know that he loves him is one of the most powerful moments I think I've ever witnessed in movies.  It simply consists of Scotty crying behind the wheel of his car, calling himself names.  It's kind of like a Will-Ferrell lark but also a Tennessee-Williams crescendo, as if Blanche Dubois and Ricky Bobby had a big fat sweet baby.  

I don't ever want Scotty to have his own TV show, or even be featured in Boogie Nights 2.  But I do want to relish the memory of him.  He's more than the sum of his part. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Bridge to Nowhere

The Bridge is a station on Sirius Satellite radio I listen to in my car.  They only play light rock songs from the 60s, 70s and early 80s, no commercials, a constant stream.  And that music casts a spell over days when I'm driving to appointments and meetings; I get to the point where I just let the whole thing take over, the music directing me and overseeing me the way a nurse takes over in an emergency room. 
You feel yourself lifted out of the situation and into some other place in your head.  Not nostalgia as much as convergence, back to a place when mushroom-lucious guitars and synths and melodies turn into yearning that you grab onto because there's nothing else that will do.  Just pure love and melancholia and desire, almost erotic, but then not, which makes it all the more romantic.  Very stupid in that beautiful way you want "beauty" and "stupid" to be, coexisting in a new world of shadow and sympathy and secret eating.
The Bridge is a bridge to nowhere.
It's always on the verge of a blizzard here.  Night-time, with a little bit of a cold, and windows showing that promise of a white-out in the darkness.  A radio is always playing.  You're listening because you want school to be closed.  Ambrosia's "How I Feel" comes on.  Anonymous male chorus, and a clinging creepy sense of harmony pulled together with studio push-buttons, a synthesizer separating the song from the voices, the feeling from the nerves.  "How I Feel" is kind of like the national anthem for unrequited love.  It's a declaration nobody wants to hear and yet it's just plain gorgeous, like a trip you take and you don't tell anybody and it becomes the go-to place when you want to clock out mentally.  You want "How I Feel" to be Number One with a bullet the minute it comes on. 

"Deacon Blues" by Steely Dan.  It's the end of the world and the beginning of another, all in one long sweet hymn.  The horns and saxophones seek you out and sit you down for a little lecture, blurring emotions into tones, and then the lyric, those epic lines from the chorus:  They have a name for the winners in the world...  I want a name when I lose...  Can misery get any better?  School is closed forever.  All blizzard, all the time.  Blankets and closed eyes and the sound of the furnace kicking on. 

And then Billy Joel sings:  Don't go changing to try and please me.  The throbbing electric piano in the beginning is like bipolar snow.  Joel's voice is strong but it loses itself in delicate schmaltz; he's having a Paul McCartney and Wings feverdream inside that lovely 1977 spaceship.  You want to take that song with you to work, hear it inside your heard while you're running dishes through the machine, bleach steam and people asking you to take out the trash, and there's that one thin little line of sad yearning.  I need to know that you will always be that someone special that you are...  A ballad that coats your nerve endings like a psychotropic medication.  You want the world to be as soft and sweet and dumb as that unrolling sentiment.   Your pupils dilate a little when you hear it; nobody should take shit like that so seriously.   

You look out the window with the radio playing.  Tree limbs struggle out of all that white.  Everything you're used to is trying to free itself from amnesia.  You like the feeling.  It's in the music too.  That Genesis song just came on, sudden hypnosis.  They keep repeating the same words, and the snow keeps falling.  Who are you following where?   Grim and epic like a funeral march but it's also a greeting card you can buy at the grocery store.  Words and music don't really meet each other; they roll through one another, like people walking into tunnels and tunnels sliding through hills.  Over and over, you following me, me following you, and it's just a piece of litter disappearing in the snow, but still you feel the need to retrieve it, memorize it, feel it for everything it's worth.  
Stay with me,
My love I hope you'll always be
Right here by my side if ever I need you
Oh my love

In your arms,
I feel so safe and so secure
Everyday is such a perfect day to spend
Alone with you

I will follow you will you follow me
All the days and nights that we know will be
I will stay with you will you stay with me
Just one single tear in each passing year

With the dark,
Oh I see so very clearly now
All my fears are drifting by me so slowly now
Fading away

I can say
The night is long but you are here
Close at hand, oh I'm better for the smile you give
And while I live

I will follow you will you follow me
All the days and nights that we know will be
I will stay with you will you stay with me
Just one single tear in each passing year there will be

I will follow you will you follow me
All the days and nights that we know will be
I will stay with you will you stay with me
Just one single tear in each passing year...


Saturday, January 19, 2013



David Cronenberg makes movies that bore you into being awake.  It's a conundrum that somehow feels manipulative and strangely exciting as you watch them.  His newest conundrum is an adaptation of Don Delillo's novel Cosmopolis.  Delillo, too, often exhibits a soporific, self-indulgent tendency in a lot of his novels.  The flippant yet heavy-handed dialogue, the lackluster yet somehow epic paragraphs, the sleek, sardonic meanness at the center of a lot of his plots, all reveal a sort of hermetic belligerence.  All that is on grand display in Cosmopolis, a story about a rich white-boy motherfucker riding in a limousine through a decrepit, demoralized urban zone, feeling feelings that aren't really feelings, just pontifications that stiffen into nothingness.  Think American Psycho without the ax murders and the Huey Lewis songs. 

But Cronenberg out-Delillos Delillo in the movie version.  His Cosmopolis is a claustrophobic mini-masterpiece, yet it is completely unenjoyable, just as Cronenberg seems to like it.  It's the bookend to his 1983 mini-masterpiece Videodrome, except Cronenberg completely reverses the atmospheres.  In Videodrome, James Woods plays a slimy cable TV producer who eventually gets sucked into a television (literally and figuratively); in Cosmopolis, Robert Pattinson plays a slimy millionaire already sucked into his catastrophe.  The limo he rides in is an epistemological vacuum-cleaner, sucking in meanings as it glides through a reenacted Occupy Wall Street protest, a couple murder scenes, and finally an assassination.  Pattinson is gorgeously nebulous, as is the limo's interior, a sort of plush talk-show set made of glossy chrome and leather.  Vodka is eternally chilling in a mini-fridge right next to a telescreen.  The windows are tinted and you only get minimal glimpses at the chaos, but still it seeps in without really changing anything. 

That's the core of Cosmopolis's aesthetic and philosophy:  everything is over, and yet here we are still acting like shit means shit.  In Videodrome's ending, Woods' character watches himself kill himself on a mystical TV screen in a makeshift shanty.  In Cosmopolis, Pattinson is about to be shot in the head by a disgruntled, sad-sack bureaucratic, played by none other than Paul Giamatti.  Same difference, and yet in both endings there's a feeling that the world isn't really coming to an end.  It's just sick enough of itself to shut its eyes real tight and let things go.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

All Work and No Play

One of the most atmospheric and oddly stolid movies ever made, The Shining has a winter-light domestic-violence gloss to it that is more frightening than the intimations of gore Stanley Kubrick throws in for good measure.  It's meditative and grotesquely understated; the movie moves at a glacial pace, and yet has a narrative meanness to it, as if the storyteller is both pissed off and half-asleep.  By the end, when Jack Nicholson is chasing his own son with an ax in a frosty topiary maze you feel exhausted and somehow catapulted into a murky cranky dream.  In short, it's probably not a horror as much as a horror-movie tone-poem, running all the bases (there's even cob-webbed skeletons at the end, like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark) without touching any of them.  All head and no heart, but still the movie has a soul somehow:  it's intent on unnerving you, making you feel dread while also wrapping you in a trance. 
Shelly Duvall and Jack Nicholson are the leads, and they seem to have been cast as if Kubrick were trying to convey caricatures of horror:  the doe-eyed victim, the fang-toothed wolf.  Duvall plays it to the hilt, as does Nicholson:  victimization and predation are given iconic status.  But it isn't that scary really, just sort of over-archingly and outlandishly sad.   
Little did I know, until I watched the DVD of The Shining (I usually only caught it on cable, but the other day I got the urge to purchase it, $2.99 on Amazon), that Kubrick allowed his 17-year-old daughter Vivian to make a behind-the-scenes documentary.  It is a must-see companion to the movie, as it somehow humanizes Kubrick's shiny frieze of a movie, giving a backstory to the whole ominous enterprise.  In close-ups and jittery handheld pans we are witness to Nicholson getting primed to slam an ax into the bathroom door while just inside that doorway Duvall is screaming and holding a big butcher knife, the penultimate Shining setpiece.   The documentary de-glamorizes the whole thing, making the experience feel like some kind of sweet slightly blood-soaked quilting bee.  There's even an interview with Scatman Crothers that breaks your heart; he cries as he talks about how much he enjoyed making the movie.  Danny Lloyd, who plays the psychic little boy who likes to ride a Big Wheel around the haunted joint, is wonderfully not psychic and pale in his interviews.
The star of the documentary, however, is Duvall, who in interviews and behind-the-scenes activities shows why she was considered "difficult" by many of her co-stars.  Looking pale and sickly and sucking on cigarette after cigarette in the dim-lit little areas outside the soundstage, Duvall talks about how she's a little jealous of all the attention Nicholson gets, how she knows she's difficult but that's the process, and then there's one great moment when she complains about having to stick her head out an half-open window after Danny slides out to safety while Nicholson pounds that ax into the door.  It's in between takes, and she's sitting in that awful little bedroom the caretaking family shared in the movie.  She's pulling a little piece of hair from her head, and then says, "That window is taking chunks of my hair out."  She's just saying it to herself, but then she goes up to Kubrick and shows him the think wisps of hair she has, her evidence, and he just looks at her and then at the camera, baffled and a little pissed.  Then bam:  we're in the scene, Nicholson's face jumping through the hole his ax just made:  "Wendy, I'm home."
This whole Vivian-made documentary is like that, dreamlike and intimate in a way The Shining tried to be but couldn't quite make happen as Kubrick seems hellbent on making it "horrifying."  What's more complex and weird and funny is Vivian's take:  a bunch of kooky people, many who like tired hippies, standing around while Nicholson does jumping jacks and growls, trying to get into character right before he does the famous "All Work and No Play" scene with Duvall.  Vivian's movie allows you to see The Shining with peripheral vision, and it's a much better experience.
You can watch the whole thing for free here:  Vivian Kubrick's Making The Shining.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Regular, Medium, Famous

This is the author "photo" from by book of stories, The Smallest People Alive.  Antonio Adams drew it.  Not sure what it means, but I kind of know what it feels like. 

This summer I went to the Sewanee Writers Conference at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.  It was sort of an ordeal, but not really, and yet it was.  That's the only syntax I can use to describe it.  I wanted the experience to reacquaint me with the magic I used to find when I wrote stories.  I also wanted to finish a draft of novel.  I didn't understand what was about to happen because I didn't really think this thing through.

I'm weird.  No two ways about it.  I'm socially awkward and a great big freak.  So when I get into embarrassing and/or awkward situations I retreat.  And by "retreat," I don't mean being quiet and going on with my day.  I mean I pull back to the point I eventually just have to vacate the premises. 

When I arrived at the conference, I drove around the campus and it felt like deja vu.  Fifteen years before, when I was 32, I took a chance and attended the Kenyon Review Writer's Workshop at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.  Back then, I was four years out of grad school, and truly did not know what the hell a writer was supposed to do.  At Kenyon, I met a writer named Nancy Zafris who changed my life.  Her teaching style was what I needed somehow:  she hurled complicatedly great writing prompts at the workshop attendees.  You'd have to write in class often and read what you wrote aloud.  This fusing of exhibitionism with something you always do in private really somehow freed me up, and I wrote several stories, and even the beginning of a novel that eventually would be published by Knopf in 1999, thanks to Nancy introducing me to her agent.  The book is titled The Life I Lead, and it was not a success, although it got some okay reviews, along with some very mean-spirited ones. 

The whole experience, of going to Kenyon and getting somehow touched by the writing angel, and then publishing a novel with a big publisher and then having the novel come out and nothing really happening, was soul-crushing and brain-expanding.  Again thanks to Nancy, I got hired to be a teacher at the Kenyon conference in 2000.  I taught in 2001 and in 2002, but in 2002 I was feeling this eerie disapproval in the air, coming from Nancy, as well as from the starchy, prissy director of the whole gig.  Because my novel was not a big deal, and because I was seen as sort of a country-bumpkin-weirdo who lucked into having his novel published but then didn't have the talent or will-power strong enough to make the damn thing a success, I got the feeling they wanted me to just go away.  Nancy kept hinting around about how the workshop needed "big names" to keep the people coming in.  I could have been the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop mascot, but basically I became a fired janitor in the end.  I left a day or so early, sick of the whole crappy ordeal.  Haven't spoken to Nancy since, or anyone there.

No two ways about it.

The Life I Lead came from a prompt in Nancy's class involving merging your intimate sensate childhood memories with the consciousness of a reprehensible character.  Nancy gave a great example of how the writing should look and feel:  Eudora Welty's blistering short story about the dude who shot Medgar Evers, "Where Is This Voice Coming From?"  I had an uncle in my family who molested his sons, and who it turned out had been molested as a child.  He was always mentioned in whispers around the house.  I decided to try to "figure out" my uncle's situation by using Nancy's prompt.  So basically from that little exercise came a full-on disturbingly in-your-face novel about a child molester and the child molester who molested him.  It was told in voices, that way Eudora told her story.  Writing it was liberating.  I didn't feel morally repulsed at all.  I felt spiritually enlightened, to tell you the truth, because I felt as I wrote it I was getting to know people who everybody else would like to have executed.  I had access to the human part, as well as the monster part.  It's in that eerie realm of castigation and curiosity that I think a lot of great writing happens.  

And when the book was published and it didn't exactly set the world on fire I felt slighted and pissed, but I moved on.  I wrote short stories, one of which got published and was awarded an O. Henry Prize, "The Smallest People Alive," which I bundled with a bunch of other stories and was able to get published through Carnegie Melon University Press because Sharon, a teacher I taught with at Kenyon, was the editor there.  That book got published in 2004, and it was a better experience, even though it didn't really cause that much of a stir either.  Except it was a favorite of one Donald Ray Pollack, who in 2008 emailed me that he liked my work, and that he was publishing a book of stories called Knockimstiff, and he wondered if I had an agent.  I did, but she hadn't really been able to do a lot for me.  So he introduced me to his agent.  I went with the new agent, sent him a new collection of stories I was working on.  The agent sent it around to multiple publishers.  No deal.  Wrote a novel in 2010.  He sent that around.  Nobody wanted it.  Started working on a new novel in 2011.

And now, here we are:  Sewanee Writers Conference, 2012.

That's the backstory I need to include so I can make sense of the experience, mainly for myself.  Once I arrived and toured the Gothic-building-dominated campus at the University of the South, got my nametag and my dorm room key, unpacked and walked around a little, I wound up at the dining hall.  The place was jumping with all kinds of writerly types.  I know how stupid "writerly types" sounds, as if I truly am the country-bumpkin-weirdo like those other writerly types thought back in the day, but that is exactly what I was confronted with.  Lots of horn-rimmed glasses, prematurely-balding pates, librarian sweaters knotted over pale clavicles, NPR tote-bags, khaki shorts and university tees, eccentricity and preciousness personified.  Stereotypes, I know, but damn there they all were on display, just like on the Sewanee Writers Conference website and you think when you look at the website no fucking way, but yup. 

And the overall atmosphere was so chummy and cliquish it made me want to retreat automatically, even while I wanted to join the ranks.  I wanted to use that atmosphere to get inspired.  I wanted to, well, get into a time-machine and return to 1997, if you want to know the truth. 

It was an Indian food buffet, of course.  I made a plate and sat down with a bunch of prematurely balding, horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing gentlemen.  They were talking about teaching, writing, their poet-wives, great writers they knew, where they teach, how they got their teaching jobs, who they know here, etc.   They were networking.  I tried to converse, but everything that I thought about saying sounded goofy and egotistical and pathetic in my head, so basically I just ate and nodded, until one guy who was a dead ringer for Jason Schwartzman saw my nametag and said:  "Keith Banner.  You're the guy who wrote that one story.  'The Smallest People in the World,' right?"

He was being nice.  I felt thrilled in a way but mainly just terrified, like an impostor except I was impersonating myself and that never goes well.

"Yeah," I said.

The guy said that he was in a class that Mary Gaitskill taught, and she used my story as an example of greatness. 

"Thanks," I said.

I guess I was supposed to feel more comfortable now, but I didn't.  Then it got around to me having to explain what I do for a living.  I teach creative writing sometimes at Miami University here in Ohio, but mainly I'm a full-time social-worker for people with developmental disabilities.  So I said that.

The Jason Schwartzman guy smiled and said, without any sense of irony at all, just pure sincerity:  "Oh yes.  That kind of work is important and hard."

The tone was a little hushed, a little pointed somehow.  It felt like a joke, even though I knew he had not meant it to be.  The other Jason Schwartzmans at the table moved on to talking about David Foster Wallace's The Pale King.

It was as if they were pitying me and then forgetting me, kind of confused by my presence.  Why was I here if I wasn't a Professional Writer wanting to network with other Professional Writers?  What the hell? 

That dinner experience threw me for a loop, and for most of the rest of my time there I hid in the dorm room and in the computer lab at the library on campus.  I never went back to have my meals at the dining hall, even though the cost of tuition covered those.  I was just done with it all somehow.  That little stupid conversation, completely meaningless, was an epiphany for me.  I don't get a lot of those, so I'm writing this post to figure out what the epiphany actually means.  I think it's time for me to figure out how to keep writing without feeling like I don't belong to the Writing World, like I'm always a transient in a roomful of residents, the homeless guy who agitates everyone because he does not have a house, and they all have mortgages and property taxes out the ying-yang. 

I don't know how to act.  I don't know what to say.  It's always been this way, and I'm sure I'm not alone in these functional deficits, but because of the way I end up feeling and acting I always am alone.

For two weeks at Sewanee, I hid from people.  I would go to the class I signed up for (taught by the sweet and very intelligent Alice McDermott who gave one hell of a lecture that I still cherish), but ran away from other participants after the last word in class, always back to the basement of the library, typing in my novel, working on a story.  Even sometimes in class I would feel the urge to talk, but mainly I would hear what I was about to say in the recording studio inside my soul and it would sound either horribly lackluster or mordantly stupid.  Throughout my tenure there at Sewanee I also attended a lot of the lectures given by incredible writers, and would be inspired, but then I would sink back into seclusion.  The inspiration was calming, but still felt a little sad. 

I wrote this in my journal, explaining how the whole ordeal felt while I was there in the midst of it:

That loneliness today.  A heady blast of it, a knowledge that no matter what you do you're still what you are.  Everybody here is nice, and since I want to be invisible to them they are kind enough to let me.  Do I hate them?  No.  I just don't know how I am supposed to act.  I keep thinking back to Kenyon 1997, 15 years ago, drafting my novel from a Nancy prompt.  It's not like that here.  It won't ever be again anywhere.  Something happened as I got older?  But I've always been like this:  overjoyed and too passionate and scared and mean.  How do you move forward?  I guess I needed these weeks here to learn how to proceed and basically all I've come to is this:  you don't belong here.  I'm half-way into my life now, oh hell more than half-way, and no easy answers.  No answers at all.  I just don't know.  That loneliness is a quake of air.  It's where words limit themselves to the point they become insects hitting a window.  It's that burnt-looking dog walking around Wendy's I saw yesterday as I ate in my car because I didn't want to go to the dining hall and bull-shit with all the bull-shitters.  That dog listless but full of hunger, dumbfounded but also always on the lookout for whatever it can find.      

I finished the novel at Sewanee.  Sent the novel to the agent.  The agent did not like it, and basically said it was time to end our professional relationship.  I emailed back:  "Totally understand.  Thanks for everything you've done."

So now I'm here.  January 1, 2013.  The epiphany at the Indian-food buffet at Sewanee I think was this:  you just do what you can.  You're free; you may be a mangy, half-dead mutt in pursuit of god knows what, but still you are free.  And it's not terrible or wonderful to be free; it's just what it is.  You write if you want to write, and you keep trying to get it published.  Or you don't.  Nobody gives a crap either way.  And whether or not you can network with the Jason Schwartzmans of this world or not truly is unimportant.   

Just keep trying.  That's what the mutt does.  Keeps sniffing out whatever it is he can find and is probably happy with it when he finds it.  Possibly even overjoyed.