Saturday, April 13, 2013
Tuesday, June 05, 2012
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
"Of all the women on our block, whom would you say is the sexiest?" With perfectly phony, professorial diction I would sometimes pose this most taboo of questions during those painfully polite cocktail parties in the summer. Then I would stand back, hoping for a heated exchange, but the neighborhood men were far too diplomatic to give straight answers, maybe because they sensed that they could just as easily have found themselves in the same curious predicament I now find myself in, but I was something of a provocateur back then and, growing impatient with their evasiveness, I unashamedly proclaimed Suki to be the most attractive woman by far. There followed an uncomfortable silence, and from that point on the conversation lulled before falling finally into the intellectual void of more congenial topics like the weather and work.
Sunday, March 25, 2012
Tuesday, March 06, 2012
From the December 2011 edition of Blue Lake Review:There is a private joke among my family (you’ll excuse the redundancy of the expression; the reader will understand that most family jokes are of the “private” variety, but perhaps given the grim circumstances there is special need for emphasis here): I am, they say, the proverbial go-to man when a misfortunate loved one is in immediate need of eulogizing. Certainly I’ve written my fair share of these dismal things except that there is something so manifestly unfair about the solemn, and often gut-wrenching, proceedings that it would probably be more fitting to say that Heaven has blessed me rather inequitably with the honor of having to compose so many of them. But let it not be said that Heaven watches over us without a sense of the sardonic: On Monday, June 27th, the day I normally celebrate my birth, in this case the dreaded 40th (halfway to the finish line, one foot in the grave), I very nearly had the dubious distinction, not to say plain bad luck, of having one of my eulogies read back to me, or at least read back to my horrifically mangled and unrecognizable corpse.
Wednesday, November 02, 2011
Friday afternoon, like so many before and after it, sees Bernie Kaliher broke and desperate for a beer. He spends an hour, maybe two, he’s not sure how long really, he no longer wears a watch, scrounging for loose change in the pockets of an old winter coat, digging beneath the ragged cushions of a sofa he dragged from a street corner three blocks away, reaching behind the silent refrigerator, it no longer hums, the electricity was shut off weeks ago, looking under the throw rugs, behind the toilet, inside the broom closet, his fingers creeping spider-like into every dark recess and mite-infested alcove and, though he pities himself for doing something so obviously futile, beneath the piss-and-sweat-stained mattress where instead of money he unearths an assortment of dirty magazines, hardened tissues, a sports page with a full-page color photograph of his players standing like an invincible Roman legion in front of the Jesuit high school. The bold letters read more like a benediction than a byline: “May the Good Lord–and this Coaching Genius–Lead These Boys to Victory.”
Sunday, October 09, 2011
Thursday, September 15, 2011
From the 2011 edition of Milk/Sugar
Three years after his wife abandoned him (left in the early morning hours just before dawn, slid from under the sheets without letting the bedsprings creak, put the car in neutral, pushed it down the driveway and into the street before starting it), Devin Wentworth finally musters the willpower to attend a colleague’s party. Someone has just published a book or received a grant or had a marriage annulled--rarely is there a point to these kinds of things, any excuse to get drunk before the start of a new semester will do--and though he is a little uneasy about leaving the comfortable clutter of his books and the logic of his coffee-stained papers with their indecipherable marginalia, he is glad for the opportunity to socialize with old friends and to politely laugh at the same banal jokes they have been telling for years.
On the afternoon of his eighteenth birthday, Tom Wentworth is summoned to the principal’s office where there awaits a quorum of priests, eleven in all, faded men in high backed chairs whose arthritic fingers fumble with the books of matches piled high in ashtrays stationed at every corner of the room like bowls of holy water at the entranceway to the school chapel. The office is a precise space--tidy, carefully curated, scrupulously scrubbed and polished--and the priests sit hunched and pensive in the tapering shafts of prismatic light like stone icons, their eyes fixed not on the door but on the branches of the ancient elms and sycamores that scratch at the windowpanes like shunned souls contending with one another to claw their way into Paradise.
The Jesuits place a high value on the written word, so much so that they hire an outsider to run the literary magazine. Under the direction of Batya Pinter, The Millstone garners recognition as one of the finest publications produced by any high school, private or public, in the United States, its stories and poems one step removed from the divine Logos, its contributors destined to achieve great things, heirs to the throne of Carver and Cheever, tutelary gods that guide the pens of these fledgling scribes and lead them toward the sweet promises of alcoholism and sexual dysfunction.
This is what they do to him, to the old man, after a lifetime spent in quiet contemplation among books of eschatology. They parade him before the students on high holy days not unlike the mummified thumb or shriveled toe of a medieval saint or mystic, an artifact to be revered as a symbol of piety, celibacy, wisdom and dread. Recently forced into retirement, the old man is given the title “Instructor Emeritus,” an honorific bestowed upon those priests too ancient and addle-minded to continue teaching without embarrassment or scandal in the classroom. Though rare and often ritualized, these appearances are meant to satisfy his need to be among the students, his proverbial “lost flock” whose intellectual curiosity seems to dwindle with each passing year.
From the March 2011 edition of Unlikely Stories
After he makes bail and collects his personal effects from the capricious, crooked-nosed corrections officer working behind the bulletproof glass, Edward de Vere limps from the county jail and takes a seat outside on one of the benches that faces the broken fountain in the center of the sprawling, concrete plaza. It’s morning now. A cold wind lashes his face. Black exhaust from a passing bus stings his eyes. When the smoke finally clears, he sees the woman from last night gliding gracefully across the slick pavement. In her purple dress she looks like a phantom freed from cumbersome flesh, the agony of existence. He wonders if she has been waiting for him the entire time, keeping vigil out here in the cold. With a furtive glance over his shoulder to make sure the cops aren’t observing him, he stands up and approaches the woman. If they catch him speaking to her, they will almost certainly charge him again with solicitation.
Friday, October 10, 2008
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Friday, July 25, 2008
Garrett waited until the last possible moment, when the weatherman with the lopsided toupée and Midwestern drawl warned of freezing temperatures, wet snow, the final hours of Indian summer; he waited until the neighbors, standing at their kitchen windows, watched him as children might watch their closets late at night, wondering what terrible secrets lurked within that menacing abyss, then, when caught staring, cowered behind the blinds and disappeared into the swirling dust motes of their silent and hermetic homes; he waited until the green moss undulating on the surface of the pool resembled an alien organism, eyeless and kaleidoscopically oily, that yearned to swallow him and slowly gestate his flesh and bones under the rotting autumn leaves that glistened in the dying light of that late October afternoon; he waited, in fact, until he was forced to withstand the booming boisterous notes from Big Ben Cowley, the tow truck driver who lived across the street, a great barrel-chested man whose belly was bursting with pierogies and kielbasa and countless jars of sauerkraut and pickled beets.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
There is an ascending and descending order in the cutting of carrots. Think of a musical scale. The slicing of carrots can be a precise thing, like fingers gliding nimbly over the keys of a piano, octave after octave, shimmering glissandos, rolling arpeggios, a forward momentum, a driving rhythm, a skill that is unquestionably athletic as well as artistic. Any chef who has for a decade or more devoted himself to the cutting of carrots will tell you the same thing. I am not the only one. My colleagues are all in agreement on this point. Yet the diners who anesthetize themselves with a bottle or two of cabernet, the ones who devour too quickly and too merrily the salads and entrees prepared for them by these madmen with their strange devotion to gastronomic virtuosity, would never suspect that so much precision goes into so small a detail. But if you pause for a moment to consider the matter, if you think of your favorite novel or symphony or philosophical insight, you might find that the greatest accomplishments are really just reflections of some kind of madness. After all, who else but a madman would devote himself year after year to the cutting of carrots?
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Three men stood statue-like in an isolated corner of the otherwise bustling loft, gazing in mock adoration and secret scorn at the outlandish clay sculpture blocking their view of the rooftops, church steeples and crumbling smokestacks of Ohio City. The sculpture, by far the largest exhibit in the newly restored warehouse, seemed to wobble back and forth as if pushed by invisible fingers of heat. It leaned against the windowpane like some self-important plus-sized model posing for the paparazzi, its impressive girth preventing the pungent air of evening, both sulfurous and sweet, from sweeping into the cavernous space and filtering out the smoke of cigars and cigarettes and the poorly disguised scent of hashish.
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Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Thursday, February 01, 2007
Zihuatanejo, Mexico, a once remote fishing village north of Acapulco, has in recent years become a destination for savvy gringos who want to avoid the crowds in the usual tourist spots like Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Cozumel and the all-inclusive resorts sprouting up along Baja and the Yucatan. But like those better known places, Zihuatanejo caters mainly to Americans who hesitate to leave the safety and comfort of their hotels and rarefied social circles to wander the narrow, litter-strewn streets of the barrio (think of crushed cans of Tecate and Modelo Especial in the gutters and packs of mangy dogs scampering through the evil-smelling alleys) where portly men in ragged clothes accost you at every turn to buy worthless trinkets. Little wooden lizards painted in the festive colors of the tropics, chess pieces whittled from soapstone that snap in two or disintegrate before you can capture your opponent’s queen, bottles of mescale and absinthe, overpriced Cuban cigars, costume jewelry made of copper and glass. And we must not forget the occasional dope peddler who, with the slightest shift of his eyes, tries to sell you “the real McCoy, and, ah, senor, maybe a pipe for you? hand-carved, eh? do you like the leering skull?” Yes, a sort of Mexican memento mori, a reminder to the hapless tourist that your trip might end in total disaster. “Smoke up, for tomorrow we die.” My trip did coincide after all with the Mexican Day of the Dead.
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Monday, January 15, 2007
Thursday, December 28, 2006
The cemetery came with the house — that was part of the deal — but the old woman assured me that there wasn’t much in the way of maintenance. “Mow the grass before it gets completely out of hand, pick the weeds if that suits you, put the headstones back in place whenever a storm blows through the valley or if those goddamn teenagers wander down the road and knock them over.” And she also told me, between long sips of Irish coffee and drags on her cigarette, that I had no obligation to provide guided tours should any visitors show up, not that I had to worry much about visitors since the old covered bridge that spanned the rapids had been washed away in a flashflood last summer. Now there was no direct connection with the main highway, only a narrow ribbon of gravel road that zigzagged its way along steep cliffs of mudrock and shale to the valley floor, then skirted the pestilential fens and bogs until it reached the vast meadow and the forlorn stone house that sat atop a low hill like an oracle waiting for a wizened seer to make grim pronouncements.
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Tuesday, December 19, 2006
White sunlight pierced the cracked, mud-encrusted windshield of the pickup truck, stinging my one good eye. The woods, green and lush and wild in the full heat of summer, became an impressionistic blur. With trembling fingers I adjusted my eye patch, desperate to see where I was being taken. Dirt and gravel churned beneath the tires of the truck as Hollerin’ Bob, laughing with raucous child-like glee, stomped on the accelerator. Thick rivulets of brown saliva trickled down his scruffy chin. The truck fishtailed and careened toward a ditch. Suppressing a sharp cry of pain, I searched the seat for the pocket flashlight, screwdriver, drill bit, whatever the hell it was that gouged the small of my back, but my fingers only scraped a thin layer of grime from the vinyl before finding my copy of Ulysses. I clutched the book to my chest as though it were a talisman because a small part of me still believed that the words of a great writer could protect me from the chaos of life in Gehenna, Ohio. I need only find the correct page and with the proper awe and reverence recite a passage in the plodding monotone of my perpetually glowering professors.
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Saturday, December 02, 2006
From the December 2006 edition of Smokebox:
Like most dreams this one begins in media res.
I was incarcerated in an old industrial complex not unlike those abandoned, asbestos-filled warehouses that crowd the neglected streets and labyrinthine alleys of my hometown Cleveland. Around the crumbling ruin of this makeshift prison stretched an imposing gray wall topped with glimmering razor wire. Rumors circulated that the wall had a secret opening, a small hole just big enough for a man to squeeze through and make his way back home to friends and family. At certain times during the day prisoners were marched outside and permitted to stretch in a narrow concrete pen along the wall, but no one dared search for the opening in broad daylight. Somehow I knew, with the inexplicable logic of all dreams, that this “exercise yard” was frequently used for other, more diabolical things. When the guards informed us that it was time for our daily “exercise,” many of my fellow inmates would turn pale, cling to their cots, kick their legs like small children, scream for mercy.
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Tuesday, October 31, 2006
From the November 2006 edition of Fringe Magazine
During a trip to New York City several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
It happened this way. I was visiting my friends, Kevin and Kathlene, who like thousands of other ambitious twenty-somethings had moved to the city to seek out their fortune, and even though fortune was a little slow in arriving, had in fact been delayed indefinitely, they nevertheless assumed an air of sophistication and decadence. From a distance and in silhouette Kevin and Kathlene looked like those svelte, stiffly posed figures you see in Jazz Age advertisements, all sharp angles and long lines, a man and woman sipping martinis while standing at a penthouse window; a flapper in a sequined dress, a dandy in a tux, templates used by graphic artists who designed the programs for the latest Gershwin or Cole Porter musical. Girl Crazy, Oh, Kay!, Anything Goes. Whenever they were nearby I heard, or at any rate imagined I heard, muted trumpets, saxophones, syncopated rhythms, Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” Ellington at the Cotton Club...
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Wednesday, August 30, 2006
From the Fall 2004 edition of Kant Magazine:
After his obligatory eruption of rage in which he slapped his daughter not once but several across the face, after he hurled her against the bookshelf and watched as the encyclopedias rained down on her head, James McCarthy slumped into an armchair and began to formulate a plan, one so obvious in its logic and simplicity, that he laughed at himself for not having thought of it before. These tantrums of his never solved anything. He had a moral obligation to set things straight, and he would make certain that something good would come of this bleak situation...
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From the spring 2006 edition of Ascent Aspirations:
Paul Auster, now regarded as a major American writer by many critics, ordinarily concerns himself with large, abstract notions of fate, destiny, chance, coincidence and other quasi-mystical matters typically categorized as existential in nature. Auster is, after all, fluent in French and has translated the work of many obscure French poets into English. He may also be the closest thing we have in this country to a café society intellectual. Like some of the better known writers of post-war Paris, Auster examines the dark side of human nature; think of Sartre’s No Exit with its famous adage “Other people are hell” and Camus’ The Stranger with its bleak insight “A man who has lived only one day can easily live for a hundred years in prison. He will have enough memories to keep him from being bored.”
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Tuesday, August 29, 2006
From the summer 2006 edition of The Rough Road Review:
Allow me explain why I believe the American education system, at least in its present form, is doomed to extinction (for members of the religious fringe who believe dinosaur bones were placed in the earth to confuse scientists, you may substitute the objectionable Darwinian term “extinction” with something a little more innocuous like “hellfire”).
In his latest tome The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, a book that is impressive for its almost Tolstoyan length as well as its seemingly inexhaustible catalogue of plot summaries, British author and journalist Christopher Booker analyzes hundreds of novels and films and comes to the sad if obvious conclusion that American stories are lacking in themes of individual self-development and growth; the heroes of such stories fail to become fully mature adults capable of functioning in society in humane and meaningful ways and who seem to seek, as the highest prize, “the approbation of the crowd.”
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From the spring 2004 edition of The Oklahoma Review:
Every morning for the past five months the Gonk arrived early at the service garage where he stood behind an orange tarp and cut elaborate butterflies out of scrap metal with a welding torch. This drove us to distraction because we had no idea why anyone would want to come in early for any reason let alone to make butterflies. The Gonk smoked cigarettes under his welding hood. He scratched his balls with a chipping hammer. He mumbled things under his breath. He worked as though in a trance...
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From the summer 2004 edition of Thunder Sandwich:
Through the high grass of the fallow field, two boys, ages nine and ten, marched in step while whistling a melody they'd heard over and over again on the radio that summer. The bright quarter notes sailed toward the sagging roof of an abandoned barn in the distance and disappeared through a window near the peak. One shard of glass dangled from the sill like the rotten tooth of a jack-o-lantern and glimmered in the late afternoon sun, momentarily blinding the boys whenever they looked in that direction. Jimmy, the oldest of the two, cleared a swath of weeds and wildflowers with a large stick that swoosh-swooshed through the air, one wide arc after another. Toby, the younger and more contemplative one, followed close behind, shooing away the occasional bee and dragonfly, his knees and shins crisscrossed with angry scratches crusted over with blood, his fingers stained with dark juices from having ventured into a thicket of bushes where he'd picked wild berries and placed them gently, one by one, into the small wooden box he now cradled in his arms...
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From the Summer 2005 edition of The Plum Ruby Review:
On a sunny afternoon in late September, I, the librarian and curator of the vast and renowned Fitzgerald Collection, stood before one of the stained glass windows and watched a throng of businesspeople hurry out of their office buildings and swarm the little public park in order to secure their usual benches next to the magnificent marble putti that pissed high arcs of water into the fountain. Uniformly shrouded in solemn gray suits, pale and glassy-eyed from hours and years and decades spent inside a hive of cubicles, the men and women now stretched their legs and smiled as they nibbled on hotdogs purchased from the corner vendor, sipped lattes and designer waters, intermittently commented on passersby, and all but ignored the vast wall of clouds gathering on the horizon, great, billowing, lead-colored things that, at least for a moment, looked like mountains with craggy granite peaks and snow tipped caps before metamorphosing into a hundred other phantasmagoric shapes—anvils, mushroom clouds, the monstrous swells of an angry sea. Up until then the day had been a tranquil one, warm and pleasant, but as the clouds gained momentum and blew in off Lake Erie, sparrows suddenly went silent and fluttered out of treetops. A gust of wind stirred branches and rattled windows. Newspapers swirled high in the air and disappeared down the deep canyon of 9th Street, a cyclone of sordid celebrity gossip and astrological twaddle. Flower petals and candy bar wrappers and Styrofoam cups bounced along curbs and into alleyways...
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From the May 2006 edition of Raging Face:
America has become a conservative country and will probably remain so for at least one more generation. This has happened because the Republican Party has colonized not only Iraq but also the minds of an entire generation of Americans. The conservative paradigm about patriotism and manifest destiny in the Middle East has wheedled its way into the brains of people who are most susceptible to insipid slogans and sound bites, namely teenagers whose still developing brains somehow subsist on a steady diet of sugar, nicotine, draft beer and FOX's persistent and unapologetic harangues about milquetoast liberals and fags...
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From the Summer 2004 edition of Exquisite Corpse:
For well over one hundred years the Jesuit school has been regarded by its students, administrators and staff as a powerful beacon of uncompromisingly high moral standards, a revered symbol of Catholic piety in a once picturesque quarter of the city, an area that has since gone to seed, a forlorn place overrun by liquor stores and abandoned warehouses and diners crowded with drag queens who squabble over the price of a cup of coffee, the old neighborhood as it is sometimes called, "old" because the houses all around the school are in various states of decomposition, their foundations crumbling, their rooftops sagging, "old" because no developer has come along to tear those houses down to make room for parking lots and shopping centers and all of the other conveniences of modern life...
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From the Februrary 2006 edition of Identity Theory:
I am an instructor of English at a small, private college near Cleveland, Ohio. With its tree-lined streets, gothic architecture and sprawling quad, the college is an idyllic setting and one that disguises some unsightly truths. Like a Hollywood movie set, the college campus is all artifice, a make-believe world where actors appear for a short time, recite their lines, and then exit the sound stage of higher education forever. I say this because the longer I teach, the more convinced I become that, in general, a college education takes the form of a very predictable and tedious script in which students are asked to memorize material and then regurgitate that material on an exam, after which time they forget everything they’ve just memorized (“learned” would be too hopeful a word), only to repeat the cycle again next semester. After four years of reciting various soliloquies in a plodding monotone, students attend a graduation ceremony that in many respects mimics the Academy Awards except for the fact that everyone, no matter his or her level of competence, is given a diploma from the dean and an ovation from the befuddled professors who seem a bit perplexed by the whole event as if it were some kind of elaborate hoax. There are, of course, many reasons for their stupefaction...
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