On a Hectic Temperament

24 Feb

There are some of us who find it nearly impossible to put on a pair of pants in the morning. It gets done, but not all at once. One pant leg may reach its destination, only to wait for a sole sock to find its foot. Belt before shirt, jacket lain on bed with shirt in hand—some of us live our lives this way, completely scattered, having to constantly refocus on the tasks before us, whether these tasks be long or short term. Names have been given for these sorts of problems and dozens of medicines have been provided for each name.

It would be of little metaphorical use to try to squeeze some symbol ‘of our lives’ out of this problem in dealing with minutia. This problem with minutia is precisely what creates a problematic life—there is no place into which its talons of confusion do not dig.

But is it really ‘confusion’ per se? This is where the writers of psychology best sellers with self-improvement agendas would chime in here and agree with me, that this way of hectic living and thinking may actually be a blessing in disguise. Though it may be difficult to convince the boss that your slowness is useful or your teacher that your inability to follow rules is beneficial to the curriculum, you may find that there is a life suitable to your hectic way of thinking. While mastering the art of putting on pants may take much less work (but still some), there are greater tasks in life that one might be tempted to avoid due simply to their difficulty, but if one does, he will be robbed of a great many rich fruits and lessons that might come from that experience.

However, this is not to say that there is not a life suitable to a hectic temperament. One must learn to set one’s own parameters around the pace of their inner world. You must go to sleep and rise in such a way that is beneficial to your energy, and this may mean something different from going to sleep at night and waking in the morning. It is not for all to earn their money by working, as some are not equipped for work; at least not in the traditional sense. Some cannot keep from working. It would be best that the employer kept his eye out for such people and not make impossible demands on those who lack the internal strength. For the former group, who are not equipped for something that is held to be a traditional way of living, no matter what that ill equipment is or what area of life it covers or keeps naked, they must tear down the walls that they did not build themselves.

For some, personal projects might be approached like an expensive meal with many sides and courses. One dips into one and nibbles at another. This may be the preferred way of living for some people who want a little taste of everything, and have only the temperament to match it—one that is ‘hectic’; in other words, one that does not fit easily into this world.

O, but there are many worlds, are there not?

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The Chapter

14 Feb

Whether read on scrolls, leaves, pages, napkins or computer screens, every reader needs to take a break now and again. Perhaps, before the art of punctuation was invented, the ancient readers approached texts intuitively and paused where it suited them. Perhaps they were bad at this and that’s why punctuation was invented.

A period is a nice place to take a breath. But what about stopping for the night? Bookmarks only work to an extent. Chapters are much more congenial, showing that the writer is in agreement with the reader and that the book must, at some point, be set on the nightstand and the light shut off (depending on the kind of reader you are—Some people blaze bleary-eyed through a book and come out the other side of the morning tired at work or school or gym).

But are chapters not a little tyrannical, too? It is by them that the author tells you how to read the book. But then, one could argue, punctuation does much the same. Language tells us how to think just as thoughts tell us how to speak.

The chapter, as a convention, seems to arise precisely from the means by which the book is published. In the nineteenth century, it was common for books to be published in journals. It was conducive to the medium that one chapter fit easily within the binding. It was usually meant to be consumed in one sitting like a television show today.

How does one chapter a book? How does one break a chapter up? Titles of chapters varied. You could do like Dickens and go with a simple Chapter One or Chapter 1. Or, simply, One. The minimalism of 1 has its appeal; it forces fewer presuppositions on the text. The more ambitious writers title their chapters like poets do poems. The latter-period Dostoyevsky resorted to the comical habit of titling chapters things like

Chapter 17

“You lie!”

in which a character, at some point in the chapter, utters the phrase, ‘You lie!’

Dostoyevsky in particular, along with a great many others of the journal-driven variety, wrote books featuring dozens and dozens of short chapters whose breaks would, by today’s breaking standards, seem wholly arbitrary. Every once in a while, the cliffhanger would take effect and an unexpected guest would walk into the room. The next chapter would immediately feature a description of the unexpected guest’s face or some exciting news he had to offer. Then other chapters would simply find their place between two pieces of dialogue, as if to trick the reader into a sort of maieutic excitement.

With Beckett and Joyce, we reach an immensely unjournalistic kind of novel. The chapters are books in themselves, written as though to be consumed in one sitting though this is often impossible.

A book like Gaddis’s JR, which plays with the theme of communication, is not split up by any chapters in the entirety of its 700 odd pages. Rather, the ‘breaks’ are densely written vignettes between bits of exhaustive dialogue which act as mechanisms to transition one scene and set of characters to another—the book being a series of literary French Scenes.

Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions, though divided up more conventionally, is by no means conventional within the chapter. In a chapter of this book, years might pass or days might pass, or perhaps a single meal which then turns into a meal months later. The second of two famous party scenes in the book runs to about 85 pages, making up the entirety of a chapter. Upon my second reading of the book, I realized with great amazement, after spending several hours on these 85 pages, that I was taking as much time on this party chapter as I would an actual party—a chapter written in real time.

For some writers, chapter breaks are merely something cumbersome to fit in. Certain long-winded writers of epics are always itching anxiously for the place they can finally end their thought so that they can go on to the next. For other writers, the chapter is a source of salvation—a means to switch first-person perspectives or a means to include a little aside or to issue a complete narrative rupture.

William T. Vollmann used fake chapters as a plot device in You Bright and Risen Angels by listing the names of unwritten chapters to give the reader an idea of what events take place after the actual book finishes.

The Adventures of Augie March allowed itself all the voluptuous tendencies of the old big European books to ruminate on some philosophical idea at the beginning and endings of its chapters, though the chapters themselves are quite long.

The Bible was chaptered and versed long after its writing. Perhaps writers who prefer to practice their craft off-the-cuff with no mind for cutting their work into marketable, bit-sized baby pieces would prefer the same for their own work.

Others make an art of it. Often, the structure of a book may be determined by the way its chapters come falling out of the book like cards with so many clues on them. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship has a curious beginning. Several short chapters comprise one meal as Wilhelm tells his loved ones about his memories of puppeteeing with his peers as a child. These little pulsing spurts of story, broken up so frequently, were perhaps meant to act as a little selah in an introduction not labeled something so marketable, like ‘Prologue.’ It is a subterraneous introduction, implied in the tone and pace of the text. As Goethe’s chapters get longer and longer, the fragmented story of puppeteering from the beginning suddenly struck me, while reading, as a strange memory, almost as though I was trying to recall a dream. I was able to recall all of the different, subtle shifts in perspective that this method of splicing awarded, which colored my view of the hero and how he acted for the longer stretches of text later in the book.

If pausing is also about reflection, it is little wonder that we impose a book-like structure to our own lives. How often, when speaking of changes, do we ‘open a new chapter?’ The forms of life and the condition of the universe have, perhaps, already planted the chapter-structure in our minds. Are the seasons not chapters? Are hours not scenes? Are our lives not stories from which we would like to take a break now and again so that we might reflect on what they mean before entering them again? Perhaps the similarity is a bit unfair. With life, we don’t have the luxury of re-reading any of the chapters.

Read more at http://www.emergenthermit.com

The Artist Who Pays

25 Jan

The west stopped believing in poets precisely when it started believing in the academy.

Plagiarism is like a murder in which the one doing the murdering is rewarded in direct contrast to how well he makes it appear that his victim never existed.

The catch-22 of provincial literature—it would not exist if not for the spirit of democracy and could not exist in a perfectly democratic state.

The motto of the American publisher in the twenty first century—provinciality before prose.

An out-and-out distrust of technology has given many an artist the opportunity to become a curmudgeon before he even reaches middle age.

The first man understands parody only insofar as it mocks something he doesn’t like. The second man learns through parody what not to like. The third man understands that the parody was created by an artist who likes the very thing being mocked, and by this the third man find’s his occasion to laugh despite his personal taste.

An artist is as much a role model to youths as a tyrant is a prophet to priests.

Before art was mass-distributable, the conceit was that it was a class affair. The concert halls and theaters belonged to the bourgeoisie and the folk-songs and street dramas belonged to the proletariat. Where the imagery was coextensive, the bourgeoisie had robbed from the folk sensibility. Thus began the age of art as ‘entertainment’: with a vulgar peek across the pond at the lives of the common folk.

The artist who puts more energy into making his art than the witness puts into experiencing it is a kind artist, but even then, the artist must learn to be kind to himself. He must learn to expend less and less energy on greater and greater works as he ages, and must expend no energy whatsoever concerning how his work is received.

‘Art for art’s sake,’ you say? And where are art’s borders? Does there not exist the artist-politician? The artist-thinker? The artist-scientist? God forbid! the artist-idler?

‘Pop-music’ represents the artistic constraint par excellence, for where other arts only get a taste of what it’s like to have all of its emotion carried out to only the extremes with every subtlety fallen off, ‘Pop’ gets its own style based solely on constraints.

The conceit of modern music is that what once took an entire opera can now be expressed in three minutes.

There are three things that the public will always buy: That which entertains their prejudices, that which caters to their fetishes and that which asks nothing of them. Pornography would have been number four, were it not to include all three.

The dual-relationship between art and culture: Culture came about through ritual constraints. Art came about through cultural constraints. Is it any wonder then that people spend so much time trying to make life into art and, likewise, art into life?

Just as performance halls are meant for the public to catch the artist doing what he does best, so television spots are meant to catch the artist doing what he doesn’t do worst.

There is only one kind of artist who deserves to be paid: the artist who would pay to make art.

more at
http://www.emergenthermit.com

Trimming the Ritual Fat

19 Jan


A State of the Union Address is like a public execution. The longer it goes on, the less is said.


I had a dream that I sat listening to a senator as he tried to explain to me just how the United States Constitution, the President and the media were all three persons in one yet, at once, three distinct persons. He told me never to fear when the President left after a State of the Union Address, for the media would come as a teacher and would remind us of all things that the President had said.


True freedom would be to do away with this convention called ‘borders.’ But then, I’m afraid, the casualty would be justice. Alas, we leave our borders up in faith that we’ll find this phantom, justice, somewhere among us.


Taxed for existing. Fined for dying. I trust that a statesman will one day come who will find a way to tax those who do not exist, as well.


The State often demands monetary payment for an ideological reward. One fee grants you ‘safer streets.’ One premium grants you ‘better education.’ One bill grants you ‘better national security.’ If only they could stick to the one tangible thing they offer in exchange for money—a nice coffin. But then, even this, I don’t really get a chance to see either.


I had a dream that everyone traded guns for knives. Battles grew fewer and fewer and so did the number of men who fought them. Soon, strict rules were set on how and when the opponent should be killed, so as not to ruin or corrupt the meat when he died.


It is quite appropriate today that the electoral voting system would grant us leaders who act as symbols of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ rather than their agents. After all, the Electoral College is merely a symbol as well.


A ‘symbol of hope’ or an ‘agent of hope,’—So long as ‘hope’ is the common denominator, the people don’t care which of the two they wind up with.


They tell me with terrible wonder in their eyes how there live people in North Korea who think that their Eternal President created the world. I say, so what? The west believes it is still creating the world with no end in sight.


Bloated vocabulary is a refuge to tautology.


How vulgar our common, over-used sentiments are once they finally pass over the lips of our statesmen and spread throughout the whole public discourse as though it was some new mandate to start using them. Just imagine what a disaster it’ll be when they get a hold of the word ‘love!’ But then, democracy rescues them from having to be so frank.


Constant recitation, repeated phrases, mimetically solidified beliefs transferred through intonations of voice and gestures of the hand, interpretation of the words of dignitaries and foundational texts, manias of crowd-emotion and group-think at public rallies sparked by a few words cushioned in all the unquestioned sentiments of The Party—Does this not all belong to the ministry of The State?


That there are only two forces at play in the country, that there is always a little conservativism in the heart of the liberal and always a little liberalism in the heart of a conservative, that the powers oscillate in a never ending cycle and that either a Democrat or a Republican will always be in charge, even though these two categories rest so adjacent to one another that the lines sometimes blur—this is the one Manichean heresy that America will allow into her good faith in mammon.


The state asks us to carry through ritualistically with the husk of an ideal, all while knowing that it is a husk. The illusion is in their promise that the husk will always be far more costly to clean up.


Men who love their nation perfectly well are often accused of being ‘unpatriotic.’ I suppose this is only a few syllables shy of what they really are. ‘Trimmers of ritual fat.’

An Artist Goes to Hell – Excerpt the Final

11 Jan

Pensivemo woke up the next morning on a foam pad he’d laid out in a corner of the store away from the entrance. Dr. Sintek sat over him again, having made a habit of rousing him from various states of snoozing, with a look on his face as though he’d said something or done something and was just waiting for a response. Pensivemo chomped the air a few times and said, ‘I need to get out of these clothes.’

‘I’m sure we can do that sooner than we originally thought,’ Sintek said.

‘Oh yeah?’ Pensivemo sat up.

‘Come with me. I have something I think you’re going to appreciate very much.’

Pensivemo worked his way off the ground and followed Sintek down the isle. ‘Is it gonna get me out of here and back home?’

‘It may well, but you need to review the terms, which shouldn’t take long. Hey, who takes care of ya, baby?’

‘Let’s not celebrate yet,’ Pensivemo said. ‘Tell me what’s up.’

‘Right well, here, first.’ They turned down the isle where Pensivemo had first met the rabbis the day before.

The rabbis were sitting around in their chairs, some antsy looking, fluttering with nervous energy, some smiley and good-natured as ever. But they weren’t the only ones. There was also a group of men who didn’t look like rabbis at all. There were four of them in business suits, all of them middle-aged. They looked at Pensivemo with earnestness and confidence as he entered.

‘This must be the man I’ve heard about,’ one of the men in this new group said. He smiled above a chiseled jaw and extended his hand. Pensivemo shook it. ‘I’m David Wilf. We’re here to make you an offer.’

‘Yeah? What’s that?’ Pensivemo said, bored.

‘I’ll be very frank, because I know you’ve been given a terrible run-around lately, you know, with having to go to the reception desk and then back to the room and so on and so forth,’ David said.

‘It’s been a little more troubling than simply that,’ Pensivemo said.

Sintek leaned in toward David’s ear and said, ‘He had a little run in with the Lower-Level A firm so it’s been kind of a rough day for him yesterday.’

‘Oh golly,’ David said, frowning. ‘I had no idea. Pretty bad, was it?’

Pensivemo shrugged. ‘It didn’t last long … but believing I’d have to endure their company for the rest of my life was a bit disconcerting, I’ll admit.’

‘Jeez man!’ David said. ‘I’m sorry we didn’t eh … work something out sooner.’

‘Who are you people?’ Pensivemo asked.

Sintek and David laughed strangely with one another. Sintek told him, ‘He’s become a bit of a business man these past few days, hasn’t he?’

‘Of course!’ David said. ‘I’m a case worker with Meta-Corpse.’

‘Meta-Corpse?’ Pensivemo said, rubbing his sore head.

‘Correct.’

‘You’re partnered with the Lower-Level A firm, aren’t you?’

‘No, no, no,’ David said. ‘We’re not partners, though we are affiliates.’

‘What the hell do you have in mind for me now?’

‘Well, we wanted to offer you some level of immunity that might be more to your liking than what you’d have here.’

The rabbis were still pensive and troubled-looking.

‘Like what?’ Pensivemo asked.

‘We’d like to offer you full immunity and protection from the punitive interpretations of some outside firms into the punitive district in which you live. Basically, we’d keep you safe at your house but you wouldn’t really be able to leave your district because if you were to leave, we wouldn’t be under any obligation, nor would we be equipped, to protect you.’

‘What is a “district” in your language?’

‘It’s basically an area of about two blocks and we just happen to oversee the one you live in.’

‘Wonderful.’

‘But you’d receive a higher cut in royalties for your various, eh, creative productions if you sign our immunity contract. Much higher than any of your publishers or grants have given you. They’ll be obligated under our contract.’

‘What about advances?’

‘Oh you’d still get those. You’re still affiliated with all your original business, we just oversee it now so long as you stay in this district.’

‘What about him,’ Pensivemo asked.

‘What about whom?’

Pensivemo pointed at the ceiling.

David looked confused for a moment. Sintek just raised his brow and bobbed his head from side to side.

‘Oh,’ David said, smiling. He gave Pensivemo a toss of his hand. ‘I wouldn’t worry about him. He’s just eh … Well, we don’t talk much about him.’

‘He won’t mind if I go home?’

‘I can’t imagine why he’d mind as long as you signed the contract.’

Pensivemo sighed. ‘Is there any way to get the charges against me expunged?’

‘Well … you can go far, far away or sit very, very still,’ David said.

‘In other words, there’s no way?’

David shrugged.

‘You guys brought me in, did you not?’ Pensivemo said. ‘Weren’t you the first ones to bring charges against me?’ He turned to Sintek for confirmation.

Sintek’s O-ed mouth dropped rapidly a bunch of empty times as some unsatisfactory explanation waited on his tongue.

‘There’ve been a lot of changes,’ David said.

‘Tons of changes,’ Sintek said, red in the cheeks and nose-tip.

‘There have been major shifts in staff and upper management.’

‘Major,’ Sintek echoed.

‘The charges that were brought against you initially have been eh—’

‘Expunged?’ Pensivemo said, dryly.

‘Not expunged so much as superseded, you see.’

‘I don’t see.’

‘The charges brought against you were brought by a division within the policy of Meta-Corpse called Meta-Corpse 7—an older version. We’re operating under a new program called Meta-Corpse 8. We’re trying to get them to update their policy but they’re lagging a little behind. They keep trying to give their policy a new polish and a new appeal but it’s all sort of paltry in comparison with what we’ve been up to.’

‘I don’t think I’m interested,’ Pensivemo said.

‘I should mention, in that case,’ David said, ‘that we’re obligated to give information within our firm to other divisions within the firm, no matter how divided.’

‘So … you’ll turn me in if I don’t sign the contract?’ Pensivemo said.

‘No, no, no, we won’t turn you in but we are required to give a progress report on potential candidates for our test-period community program, at which point they might do with those results what they will.’

‘So you’re working for them in other words? For an outdated version of the real thing?’

‘It’s not quite like that.’

‘This is no kind of contract,’ Pensivemo said, shaking his head, rubbing his pink eyes.

‘Pens,’ Sintek said, both hands in the air, wrists bent, ‘I really think you should reconsider. If you sign this now, we might be able to change some of the circumstances around you later but if you take off and go running around doing your own thing, I can’t promise you won’t get picked up by some bad people again.’

Pensivemo shook his head, straightened out and said, ‘Any of you smoke?’

A few of them nodded. David nodded. ‘Yes!’

Pensivemo sighed, relieved. ‘I’ve been looking for a cigarette for … I don’t know. Feels like months. Can you spare one, brother?’

David squinted and offered a disclaimatory hiss through his teeth. ‘I actually am not … able to eh … give you one.’

Pensivemo frowned. ‘Why?’

‘We’re just not allowed to give anyone what might constitute as a gift … in light of negotiating a contract.’

There were several papers to sign but Pensivemo did so without reading most of them. He got to the last one, sweating, and signed it in his barely legible hand, exhaled heavily and held out an open palm on which David placed a cigarette.

‘You got a light?’ Pensivemo asked.

***

Pensivemo and Sintek went walking down that industrial street full of offices and old warehouses. They sky behind them where the Meta-Corp building stood still had great black clouds hanging over it while the rest of the sky was bright blue, as though some dark fabric had been torn in half above them—leaving behind little black traces, whirls and plumes.

‘I think this is gonna be a very productive period for you, Pens,’ Sintek said, making full use of his hands as they walked. ‘This is gonna be a real great time, I mean, all things considered but especially considering the level of constraint. That could have an interesting effect on your work, couldn’t it? What was the name of that one group who used to impose constraints on their work to see what would wind up happening, you know the one?’

‘OuLipo.’

‘OuLipo! Yes! Think of it that way! You won’t be able to go very far but you’ll get to see your eh … your-your—’

‘Ludmilla.’

‘Ludmilla and the little one! You did work at home when you worked, didn’t you? I imagine you had a little office of some kind?’

‘I had an office downtown. I worked in parks and coffee shops. I sometimes went to the library. I never work at home.’

‘Oh well … maybe now’s the time to start then.’ Sintek said, lifting a hand in the air.

Pensivemo didn’t say anything. He pulled his cigarette out of his mouth and let his hand fall to his side as he breathed smoke from his nostrils.

‘You’re gonna appreciate this time, nevertheless, Pens. Family is the most important thing, right?’

***

Pensivemo Croce pushed the little one on the swing. She laughed and giggled with tickled delight. Their yard was flat with a chain-link fence which gave them a view of several other yards also separated by chain-link fences. Two yards away, a young pregnant girl smoking a cigarette turned, saw him, threw her cigarette on the ground, stepped on it and went back inside.

Far down the edge of their street, there sat a white car and from where Pensivemo stood pushing his little girl, he could see someone sitting inside. In the yard across the street facing theirs, he heard something from the trees that sounded at first like pigeons cooing but realized after a short moment that it was actually chuckles and giggles. There was movement on one of the thick branches. A leg. Pensivemo nearly forgot to give his little girl another push on the swing and she almost knocked into him. He caught her with two flat hands, pushed and adjusted his eyes to a whole group of darkly dressed men sitting in that tree across the street. Their faces were well shaded by the thick leaves.

Pensivemo told his little girl to wait for a moment while he went inside. She protested, following him into the house, whining, wondering and inquiring. In an ashtray on the table, the remains of a cigarette of Ludmilla’s sat smoking, its end resting on the glass edge next to a piece of already opened mail. He leaned over and saw that it had Ludmilla’s information at the top. He opened it up and read the whole thing, making sure he had this right. Yes, it was a call for jury-duty for the Lower-Level A court.

He sighed, audibly slapped the letter on the table and called out to Ludmilla.

His little girl looked up at him. ‘Where’s mommy?’ she asked.

Pensivemo turned his head to listen for her movement. The steady hum of the shower was all he heard.

‘When are you gonna push me on the swing?’ his little girl asked.

‘In just a minute, I promise dear,’ Pensivemo said.

He went into the hallway and entered his and Ludmilla’s room. The sound of the shower, in the bathroom attached to that room, put him in a better auditory path to the water slapping and falling with different movements of Ludmilla as she hummed over it some tune he’d never heard.

Pensivemo looked at the four corners of his room and contemplated which one he would turn into his personal office while she was away on jury-duty.

An Artist Goes to Hell – Excerpt 11

5 Jan

They came around the corner of a pallet squared off with boxes of cheese crackers and saw a group of middle-aged men sitting in soft leather chairs next to boxes of TVs. There were seven of them and they varied in shape and size. Disappointingly, only two of them had long beards.

One of the younger men, that is to say, about forty-five or so, in a suit and a trendy pair of glasses, turned to Pensivemo and said, ‘Here he is then.’ Pensivemo came to the man, now standing, and extended his hand for greeting.

‘Pensivemo’

‘Pensivemo! I’m Roger. We’ve heard a lot about you from Bernie.’

‘Bernie?’

Dr. Sintek laughed. ‘That’s me.’

‘You ready to work for us?’ Roger asked Pensivemo.

‘Work for you?’ Pensivemo said, puzzled.

‘Sure!’ Roger smiled. He gave him a just-kidding sort of tap on the shoulder that was contradicted by his saying, ‘It’s not that bad. Just some sweeping up and stuff.’

‘Sweeping up?’

‘He comes from pretty bourgeois beginnings,’ Sintek told Roger with a big grin, his index finger and thumb together with his other fingers spread. ‘He’s never heard of a broom, you know.’

‘Well we’ll have to acquaint him with one.’ They both laughed.

‘Listen,’ Pensivemo said, ‘as much as I’d love to stick around, I think I’m gonna get home. I don’t think I leave too far from here.’

‘Well remember what we talked about?’ Dr. Sintek said. ‘These guys are gonna help you lay low if you don’t wanna get caught again.’

‘But I have stuff to do,’ Pensivemo said. ‘I can’t sit around sweeping floors.’

‘You have to make art?’ a voice called from one of the chairs. They all turned to one of the bearded men sitting in a leather chair. ‘Write plays?’

‘Yes. Among other things,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Oh, you’ll have time,’ Roger said. ‘We’re not really sticklers about time. I promise you, Pensivemo, you’ll get all the time you need to scribble.’ He and Dr. Sintek turned to each other and laughed.

Still suffering the aftermath of their laughing fit, Sintek turned to Pensivemo and said, ‘Listen, Pens, I gotta get out of here unless you want me to start giving you bills. You have a good time, alright? Call me if you need anything.’

‘I don’t think I have your number.’

Still smiling, Sintek lifted his business card into the air with two fingers, came close to Pensivemo, slid it in his breast pocket, patted it in and said, ‘Take care, sport. These guys’ll fix you up good.’

Pensivemo turned the men and said, ‘Would any of you happen to have a cigarette?’

One of the men pulled a grave expression and pointed at one of the pillars where a sign listed smoking among things that were not allowed in the building, along with firearms and knives.

***

With his jacket draped over the corner of a pallet of Kleenex, Pensivemo swept his tiny broom along the floor and gathered up bits of orange cracker, dried out spider butts, paper clips, gray clouds of dust, fuzzballs, hairballs, baby binkies, bits of glass and empty sample cups covered in the crusted goop of whatever they’d once carried.

In the center isle he noticed a stack of stationary items including spiral notebooks. He went to them and pulled a purple one from the pile and flipped through its clean, empty pages. He pulled the always present pen from his pocket and went back to the corner where he’d been sweeping. He sat down and began to draw a face. It wasn’t until he was almost finished that he realized he was drawing one of the bearded rabbis from the group. It was far too crude; so much so that he was afraid he’d lost his drawing touch. Perhaps he should stick to plays, poems, essays, music and everything else he still had it in him to do.

Just as he was finishing the crude beard, he felt a presence hovering over him. He looked up to meet eyes with one of the rabbis. This one was probably fifty-something, clean cut—one of the men standing in the back to whom he’d not directly spoken before. He looked down at Pensivemo with light, soft brown eyes and said, ‘Can I have a little peek?’

Pensivemo lifted the notebook up to him and the rabbi took it.

He smiled and said, ‘You know, you know, that’s good but eh … What about if you maybe do some more shading on the beard here?’

‘Very well,’ Pensivemo said, taking the notebook back from him.

‘Which means you’ll want to do it in pencil, not pen,’ he said with a nervous laugh.

‘Right but …’ looking around, ‘I don’t have a pencil.’

‘Okay, listen, I got one right here.’ The rabbi produced one for him.

Pensivemo took it and said, ‘You want me to redraw it?’

‘Oh feel free!’

Pensivemo started redrawing and all the while, the rabbi hovered over him. When Pensivemo finished, the rabbi turned in to get a look and Pensivemo handed the notebook to him.

The rabbi frowned and bobbed his head from side to side. ‘Eh … that’s better cuz it’s in pencil of course but eh, you’re gonna wanna do a liiiiiitle bit more shading on the beard.’

Pensivemo tore the notebook from the rabbi’s hands and, as he began shading, said, ‘You draw?’

‘I know a thing or two,’ the rabbi said, sheepishly.

Pensivemo spent about three whole minutes shading before he leaned against the wall, sighed and set the notebook on his lap.

The rabbi raised his brow, smiled and offered his hand to see the notebook and Pensivemo gave it to him. The rabbi smiled and said, ‘You know, listen, I don’t want to interrupt your sweeping.’ He chuckled. ‘Listen, why don’t you come talk to me later tonight after dinner and I can show you a few things.’

Pensivemo almost protested but said, ‘Okay, thank you,’ with no intention of doing so.

***

Come evening, Pensivemo had a great number of pencil-drawings hung up all over the wall. Some were self-portraits. Some were of girls he used to know. He had at least one drawing of each rabbi for which he was actually proud.

He took a walk to the covered entrance of the store and looked out at the black clouds and the darkness of the industrial land below. Off in the background, he could see the great, pale, Meta-Corp building which, from that distance, seemed far more like a monument to something lost, far more talismanic, strange and kingly. It occurred to him that up close, while still looking very big, it didn’t look quite that big. The clouds above it stirred about in a circle as though a tornado would set directly over it. Perhaps he could sneak back home come nighttime—slip in behind his Ludmilla and slide his arms around her, the little one resting in the living room or the bedroom. He’d been with them at the Costco, hadn’t he? They’d been standing with him taking samples of pork and beans from the little cups with the little plastic spoon just like him. Yes … Perhaps he would wait until nighttime and go see them.

As Pensivemo gazed into the black evening, he thought about his days in Paris—the city that will publish what no one else will. He’d always been one of those artists that had to explain to puzzled journalists that he was proficient in some other area for which he was better known by a completely different corner of culture. Some people thought he was a musician who wrote novels. Some people thought he was a novelist who wrote poems. People thought he was a poet who wrote plays. People who bought his paintings and hung them up on their walls thought he was an artist who wrote the odd concerto. People who enjoyed his concertos were surprised that he plucked on the odd guitar and played on the odd piano in clubs.

Pensivemo took a look behind him at the store and outside through the opening under the entrance cover to see if anyone was in eyesight. Deciding no one would see him, he stepped outside into the empty parking lot. As soon as he did, the earth started to quake lightly. He went back to the doorway for safety, watched as lightening flashed in the sky and listened as thunder belched through the air. Once he came back inside, the earth became still again.

A moment later, a voice behind him said, ‘Did you go outside?’ He turned to find the rabbi who’d given him drawing lessons.

‘Only for a moment,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Yeah, that’s probably not a good idea.’

Pensivemo went and sat on one of the benches at the food court and the rabbi came and joined him.

‘I just thought I’d take a little trip down the street to my house to see how things are going,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Well … things are a little iffy right now. I’m not sure you’ll be able to do that for a while.’

‘What’s the worst that’ll happen if I just go right now?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t want to find out but I would imagine something similar to what just happened a second ago when you tried to step out.’

‘Well … Is there any way my lady can come visit me? Or the little one?’

‘Eh … They’ll have to sign an appointment form, which always gets reviewed first by Sintek, who does his best to take it up the chain to his boss, but it rarely gets past his boss, you know, because his boss is really weary about the different laws that conflict with the ones in keeping with the laws of eh …’ He pointed at the sky.

‘Then what the hell am I supposed to do? Sweep all day? Draw?’

‘Well, you don’t have to draw, you know. I mean, provided there’s still notebook paper, you can do anything you want!’

Pensivemo sighed. ‘Fair enough.’

‘But there’s just one minor detail I should make you aware of.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Anything you create during your time here is legally owned by Costco.’

‘And I can’t leave.’

‘That’s the way it appears. At least for now.’

Pensivemo put his hands to his pock-marked face and ran them slowly through his floppy, black hair. ‘So what will it be then? Sweeping? Shading beards?’

The rabbi shrugged and lifted his empty hand level with his shoulders and smiled nervously.

An Artist Goes to Hell – Excerpt 10

28 Dec

After an immeasurable time later in which all life before it could only have survived in his mind as a trace of a dream, a trace of a trace, Pensivemo woke up under a sky of black clouds just as someone poked his arm.

‘What the hell do you want?’ he found himself saying. He thought maybe he’d been drunk and had fallen asleep in a ditch somewhere. All around him were broken stones and crowds of dirty people, sleeping, sitting up and holding one another. Over the people on the ground stood a series of well-dressed men and women in black uniforms.

A man in a suit leaned over to Pensivemo and said, ‘It’s amazing you’re alive. Everything still working? Everything important, at least?’

Pensivemo frowned and tried to determine to whom the voice and face belonged. It was the droopy-jowled, hyperactive Dr. Sintek.

‘Yeah … I know you,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Of course you know me. Are you having memory trouble? Do you know where you are? Oh, how stupid of me. Of course you don’t know where you are because you aren’t where you were before.’

‘Where am I?’

‘You’re outside of the Meta-Corp building,’ Sintek said.

‘Meta-Corp? The hell’s that?’

‘It’s where you were. It eh … It’s greatly damaged but we can work with what’s left, surely.’

Pensivemo tried to get up to have a look around him but was too sore to move.

‘Do you know who you are, at least?’ Dr. Sintek asked.

‘I’m Pensivemo.’

‘Great, wonderful! At least you know something.’

Pensivemo frowned at him. With great pain, he turned a little and saw a giant, white building with a dome top. When he shifted upward, he saw that this dome top was only one of many on a building that stretched far beyond what his angle allowed him to see.

‘That’s the building I was in?’ Pensivemo asked.

‘That’s the one,’ Sintek said.

‘It doesn’t look too damaged.’

‘Well, you can’t really see the damage from this side, so much.’

‘Meta-Corp?’

‘Meta-Corp.’

‘What’s the Meta for?’

Sintek frowned, considering this. ‘Metaphor? I’m not sure there is one. Eh, I hate to be a pest, but we’re going to have to get a move on. You are, after all, a wanted man, remember?’

‘By whom?’

Dr. Sintek tried to pull him up by the arm and Pensivemo let out a little yelp. ‘Oh, sorry! Here, can you move your legs?’

Pensivemo forced himself up despite the pain, slowly, until he stood. ‘Who am I wanted by?’

‘Well, you’re wanted by a few different factions, see. If you’ll remember, you didn’t gain a whole lot of favor with the Inner Meta-Corp Militia, who were the cowboys in blue that were hassling you, if you remember.’

‘Of course.’

‘And then there’s the Lower-Level A firm, which I’m sure you wouldn’t want to have to run into again.’

‘No, no. They’re still after me?’

‘Oh yes. Definitely.’

‘Were they the first?’

‘No. The original firm that indicted you is the one that actually detained you and brought you in. You still don’t remember that?’

‘None of it. Who are they?’

‘It’s a firm called Meta-Corpse, you see. This is where it gets convoluted. The name is so close to Meta-Corp, and they carry themselves in such a lofty, professional way that dumber people quickly get them confused with something more important.’

‘So they’re not really a threat?’

‘Oh they’re definitely a threat. I mean, they have some pull around here and some strict laws, especially on artists like yourself, but it’s incredibly underhanded and sneaky. They put “corpse” in their name as a sort of eschatological allusion to their partnership with the Lower-Level A firm, you know, with their sinister imagery—the dead shall rise and be judged and all that. That’s sort of the imagery they’re going for in their punitive aspect.’

‘They sentenced me to a life of torture, Doc,’ Pensivemo said. ‘A life of torture. You ever heard of such a thing?’

‘Yeah, they’re known for that. That’s one firm you don’t want on your ass. How the hell did you wind up down there, anyway?’

‘Well, I was with eh, what’s his name, the Dean of Grievances?’

‘Rover.’

‘Yeah, him. Little swine stayed behind. But I was just trying to get to safety, you know … One of the levels looked like a warzone.’

‘Ah yes.’ Sintek sighed and shook his head, glancing off at the Meta-Corp building as though at something beloved. ‘That was between the Inner Meta-Corp Militia and a firm called Argonaut.’

‘So, they would have just tortured me if it wasn’t for that earthquake? Forever?’

‘Here, we’ll talk more on the jeep,’ Sintek said.

The said jeep pulled up and a few darkly dressed men in front welcomed them onto the back. With creaky, sore joints, Pensivemo hopped on. Raised that much higher, Pensivemo had a better view of the endless network of buildings linked together that made Meta-Corp. The black clouds above them were so thick that he thought it might have been smoke.

The jeep moved along a little cement pathway in between a series of polished, industrial buildings: shipping yards, factories, chemical plants, offices and even a few strip malls filled with barbeque joints, diners and sandwich shops—perhaps for the local workers during lunch hour.

‘So, the Dean of Grievances was telling me something interesting,’ Pensivemo said. ‘You don’t work for the top guys exactly … I don’t want to offend you by sounding crass, but basically, if I understand it, you capitalize on the charges that get flung at people by different firms, and you side with an opposing firm as a defense attorney?’

Sintek gave him a squinty, amused smile and, in such a way that a bit of spittle flew out, said, ‘There are no top guys.’

‘None?’

‘Not really. There’re a series of mediators, I suppose.’

‘Who do you work for, then?’

‘Well, things are complicated, see. I used to work for a firm called Myron Bank, see, but there’s been a readjustment in corporate structure, though I’m sure “readjustment” seems like an understatement to you, given the rumbling and all that.’

‘So who do you work for now?’

Sintek smiled. He pointed up at the black clouds.

‘You work for the sky?’ Pensivemo said.

He frowned and shook his head.

Pensivemo let out a little laugh. ‘Who then?’

‘Well … I work for the one responsible for some of the demolition and the renovations that you started to see happen at Meta-Corp, I’m sure.’

‘You’re talking about earthquakes?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Someone was responsible for them?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And that’s who you’re working for?’

‘Yep.’

‘Who’s that?’

‘Well … see, we don’t exactly speak his name,’ Sintek said, smiling nervously.

‘You don’t speak his name? What do you mean?’

‘I mean … we don’t speak his name.’

‘You’re not allowed?’

Sintek shrugged.

They went through an open gate in a chain-link fence and ended up in a parking lot behind a big warehouse.

‘Have you seen him?’ Pensivemo asked.

‘Never.’

‘Seriously?’

Dr. Sintek nodded.

‘So, how do you communicate with him?’

‘Through middle men, see. People higher up the chain of command.’

‘Is he immaterial or something?’

‘Ah well … that gets into complicated territory that doesn’t really have much bearing on business.’

‘Does he ever go after people? You know, does he charge them the way I got charged?’

‘Well, he may and he certainly has in the past but it’s finicky. I don’t know.’

‘Did he charge me?’

‘Well, technically no, since I’m helping you on your case now and I’m working for him.’

‘How do you know it’s a him if you’ve never seen him?’

‘It very well might be a woman, I don’t rightly know.’

‘So, technically, he or she is on my side in this case?’

‘Technically, you could say that. But we do have to lay low, you see.’

The jeep stopped. As they got off, Pensivemo saw on one of the black loading docks a sign that said Costco.

‘This is the last place I remember going before I woke up in the Meta-Corp building,’ Pensivemo said. ‘The last thing I remember was taking a bite from a little sample cup of pork and beans with a plastic spoon.’

‘Yeah well, they have good samples, don’t they?’

‘Yeah. Why are we going here?’

‘There’s a group here that’ll help you lay low.’

‘Are they even open this late?’

‘This late?’ Dr. Sintek let out a little laugh. ‘It’s only three in the afternoon, Pens.’

‘Why’s the sky so dark?’

‘It’s him, you see. He likes to make his presence a bit extravagant.’

They came to a door on a ramp near the loading docks, and as they entered the warehouse, Pensivemo said, ‘So what’s your plan in case they find me? Are we still going with the Insanity Plea?’

‘Well, it depends on which firm gets a hold of you first—God forbid any of them will, but you know, just in case. First of all, the Insanity Plea will work for groups that have a more Free Will oriented way of thinking, as was the case with Meta-Corpse. If you control your own destiny, the thing that would best free you from the charges of someone with this belief is a position in which you say that you, due to extenuating circumstances, did not have much control over your own destiny the way it would be supposed that others did, you know. And then with that we could always try and argue that artists are usually insane anyway, even if that only stands as a popular commonplace, see. All these ideas bounce around and qualify one another. Then, if we’re dealing with someone less Free Will oriented, you know, like the group Argonaut which has more of an old school Logical Positivist way of looking at things, you know, that there are no choices and that humans are absolutely locked into a strict chain of necessity, cause and effect and all that, then we would be able to paint you up as the sort of sympathetic, favored criminal of the Dostoyevsky or Goethe variety, you see? I would dare say that even the Lower-Level A firm is susceptible to the tugging of heartstrings we could pull off with the kind of dualistic thought that leads one to believe someone is different on the inside than how they act outside, you see. And me? I’m just a lawyer, kid. None of this stuff matters to me outside of a punitive context, you get me? I have to use all these different ideas against one another in order to better serve a client. It’s how I make money.’

‘And how much do you charge? That’s the important thing. Do I owe you money for the time we’ve had already or something?’

‘Well, that’s something we can discuss. It turned out that Myron Bank, as it was dissipating, you know, was able to pay me out for those few minutes of service I gave you. Consider the moment you woke up just a moment ago and up until now complimentary as far as my services go, but we’re quickly approaching a point where the dollars per minute are gonna start racking up just by me standing here and flashing my pretty eyes. That’s why we’re here.’

‘At Costco?’

‘Yep.’

‘And what about this group that’s supposed to help me lay low?’

‘Well that’s why we’re here too. You’re gonna wanna lay low either way. Now, you can lay low with these guys, which has very little to do with me, or you can lay low with these guys and continue to pay me for my services.’

‘Oh … Will they charge me for their services?’

‘Oh, they usually don’t as far as I know,’ Sintek said with a wave of his hand. They both walked across an isle and passed a large crate of bestselling books. ‘As far as I’m aware, they only charge you in conversation. They talk a lot. You listen a lot. It’s not always a small price. The stuff they talk about gets way over my head, you know. They’re Hassidic Jews. I mean, I grew up going to temple and everything but I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about half the time. I mean, I’m sure it’d all be interesting if I had the time but jeez, you know? You spend your life swimming around in law-language and you don’t have much time for any other language, you know what I mean?’

‘Right.’

‘Your ears are their currency, and as long as you don’t mind being reminded of your goyness all the time, you know, or their Jewishness, you’ll be fine. You are a goy, aren’t you? Of course you are. I can tell by your face. I hope that’s not offensive, it’s not intended to be. Anyway, so they’re usually in the electronics area. There’re a few chairs and things over there so they can go there. They stay as far away from the food court as they can, you know. You’ve seen the food, you don’t need me to explain.’

‘How come there’s no one here?’

‘Ah well, business has never been good since Meta-Corp came in. But nevertheless, we should be close now. Ohp! There they are.’