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“Hammers” by Gregg Williard

Once our town was famous for its hammers. When hammer production went to China, the factory closed and unemployment, alcoholism and suicides soared. The town daily’s editorial page, Brass Tacks, did a series on the crisis. It said, “Our town has forgotten the words of a wise man: ‘If your only tool is a hammer, every problem in life looks like a nail.’ Our problem is not just another nail. Nor is it a tack, pushpin, brad, spike, peg, fence post or chisel.” Fresh new ideas, it exhorted, were needed now or “the town will suffer the oblivion of a counter-sunk nail.”

The town took action. They brought in an economic consultant and inspirational speaker named Mr. Sheppard. He addressed the City Council and the Chamber of Commerce with rolled-up sleeves and a loosened tie. “My friends,” he began, “in Uganda there is a famous story of a blacksmith named Walukaga. One day Walukaga was summoned to the royal palace. The all-powerful king commanded him to make for his pleasure a living man of metal.”   

The room was silent. He swiveled his head in a slow sweep of the room, then answered questions we did not ask.  “No, not a metal suit with a man inside, and no, not an automata or robot. And again no, not a remote-controlled cybernetic appliance, or a synthetically-enhanced organism, if such things could have been imagined back then. No, my friends, what the king demanded was a living, breathing, fornicating, defecating man of metal, and failure to deliver meant death.”   

We were Midwestern people, disinclined to complaint or emotional display. Our mouths were good, tight smiles and our eyes leveled to the here and now. The vista of frigid grins we must have presented did not have a discernible effect on Mr. Sheppard, whose portrayal of Walukaga struck disturbing notes of screeching desperation. “What am I gonna’ do?! What am I gonna’ do?” He ricocheted from podium to PowerPoint, going on much longer than seemed necessary to make his point. In later discussions we talked about this aspect of the presentation, and agreed it was comparable to the experience of watching old Jerry Lewis movies, pinned to our seats in what some called Appalled Fascination. Irritated Boredom. Embarrassed-For-Him Horror.

After an eternity Mr. Sheppard regained the storyteller’s detachment. “Walukaga thought and thought, but no answer came. He could not make a man of metal. It was impossible!” He paused. There was a collective cringe anticipating the return of Walukaga, but the omnipotent storyteller went on. “Obviously, he was doomed. In despair he wandered the countryside to spend his last day on earth in the hills. The next day he would have to go to the king without the man of metal, and leave the king, without a head. Or arms. Or legs. Or testicles.“ It was things like this – extraneous, even gratuitous details like legs, testicles, etc. (not to mention the tendency to go on too long and strenuously when playing the desperate Walukaga), that caused some of us in the back rows and near the aisles to leave early. Those of us who stayed were rewarded with a fresh perspective on our problems, and how to address them. 

Mr. Sheppard continued. “Walukaga sat with his head in his hands and moaned. As evening came he spied a shabby beggar coming down the road.” Mr. Sheppard showed us the shabby beggar coming down the road. “As he approached, Walukaga was shocked to see that it was an old school friend of his who had fallen on poverty, sickness and insanity. Walukaga gave him what money he had, and the pair sat on a rock together, watching the sun set. In his lonely despair Walukaga confided to his old friend, and was shocked to hear him offer the following advice: ‘Tomorrow go to the king and say that, in order to do as commanded, he must supply you with six large bags of charcoal made from burned eyelashes and six barrels filled with human tears.’ Walukaga was mystified, but the next day he did as his friend suggested. The king listened, then clapped his hands twice to summon his servants. ‘Go to the village and gather these things,’ he commanded, and the servants scurried off with terrified expressions. 

Mr. Sheppard showed the terrified expressions. “Then the king told Walukaga, ‘Return in ten days and you will be given these things you have requested.’ Ten days passed, then fifteen, then twenty. Finally, on the twenty-sixth day he was again summoned to the palace. The king said, ‘There are not enough eyelashes or tears in the entire kingdom to give you what you need.’ As instructed by his friend, Walukaga responded, ‘If the great king cannot fulfill this simple task, how can I, a simple blacksmith, do as you have commanded and make a man of metal?’

The king’s stern expression softened and he began to laugh. He awarded Walukaga’s ingenuity with a new blacksmithing shop, anvil and forge. Walukaga returned to his village a hero. He found his old friend and made him his personal assistant, and in this way went on to live a long and prosperous life. He had many more adventures, but we will leave the legendary blacksmith with this lesson, and the moral of the story: when faced with an unsolvable problem, ask a madman.”

Mr. Sheppard smiled and opened his arms to the dribbling applause. “Thank you, thank you.” Mr. Sheppard urged the applause to stop. Since it was barely there to begin with, the room quickly went dead. “Are there any questions?”   

An alder named Phil Breef raised his hand and stood. His eyes jittered over the audience. “I think I speak for many of us when I say that, while you’ve certainly told us an engaging story, I’m just not sure how it applies to our situation here. The town has been decimated by the factory closing. It was our primary employer. Our only employer, actually. I’m afraid we need more than a madman to get us out of this.” There were murmurs of assent. A member of the Chamber of Commerce named Mack Sheets was out of his chair before Phil Breef had dropped into his. “Mr. Sheppard, we were under the impression that there would be some specific economic proposals today. At least recommendations on what we can do to revitalize our town, create jobs…”    

Mr. Sheppard’s lean pale face lit up with a smile. “Of course.”   

He went to the laptop on the low table and began a Powerpoint presentation. It showed a clipart drawing of a hammer above a nail. The nail was magically balanced on its tip on a board of wood. A thick blue arrow arced down from the face – the striking surface – of the hammer to the head of the nail. Then in all caps letters a word followed the curve of the arrow: JOBS!

The hammer descended on the nail and sunk it into the wood. Each time the action was repeated the nail went a little farther in, and the word grew larger:


“This was before,” intoned Mr. Sheppard. He advanced to the next image. The hammer had disappeared, leaving behind a horizontal plane littered with bent, unhammered nails. “And this is now.” Over the speakers came the sound of a moaning desert wind. A cartoon tumbleweed bounced in three hops across the plain. Mr. Sheppard shook his head at the screen. His face was grim. He said with a bitter hiss, “And this is why.” He stabbed the remote. One by one round yellow heads appeared across the top of the screen, leering down at the wasteland of nails. The faces were crude cartoon stereotypes of Chinamen, with buckteeth, single long braids, Fu Manchu beards and coolie hats, drawn in the manner of racist, xenophobic drawings from the turn of the 21st century. Mr. Sheppard pressed the remote again, and a recording of raucous, shrieking laughter and sing-song, foreign invective – or what sounded like invective – filled the hall. The heads tilted back and forth to convey the throes of hilarity. “You see,” Mr. Sheppard said above the din, “they are laughing at you.” He advanced the image. Hammers appeared in the Chinamen’s hands, moving up and down in threatening bobs. 

The laughter grew shriller. The day outside looked like a grudge against spring. Soggy leaves smacked the window glass, stuck for a moment, then twirled away. Many of us saw our hopes for the town fly away on these sodden leaves, and made for the door in despair. Everyone froze when a shop steward from the Metal Workers Union named Ed Holmes yelled out to Mr. Sheppard, “What is this? What is this racist crap? Turn it off and get the hell out of here!”


Mr. Sheppard paled, fumbling the Powerpoint off. Many of us stood, shaky with outrage. Mr. Sheppard’s eyes glistened and he backed away in tears, burying his face in his hands. We were, as stated previously, good Midwestern people, who took no pleasure in another’s anguish and humiliation, particularly in public. Stooped with regret Ed Holmes hurried to Mr. Sheppard’s side and put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Hey man, it’s ok. It was just kind of inappropriate. The Chinese faces, you know?”

Mr. Sheppard ‘s hands opened like shutters. He was grinning. He jumped back with surprising agility to crow, “Oh, yeah!  I’m sorry! That’s right! The Chinese aren’t the problem, are they? That’s right, we are the problem! Why, we have lost our way! We have to get back to our traditional values. Yeah, that’s right! Traditional values! God, Country, Family! We’ve got to embrace our faith, our pride and faith in American ingenuity, and hammer our wives – um, I mean love and honor our families…” 

Most of us stared dumbfounded as the projector came on once more, flipping to a desktop menu. The cursor jerked to a video file. It opened to an old, kitschy painting of Calvary, with Jesus on the cross, flanked by the other crucified. A foregrounded hand gripping a large, mallet-like hammer appeared, its striking face pointed toward Christ. There were many exasperated groans of “Ah c’mon!” and “You gotta’ be kiddin’!” and “This is over the top!” We began to breathe the sweet ozone of community, the thrill of merging with a nascent mob. Then on the screen another fat blue arrow arched down from the hammer with the words “AMERICAN TECHNICAL PROWESS+DIVERSIFICATION+RELIGIOUS FAITH=,” which were answered by a brisk tumble of blood red bullet points:

  • Hammers with powerful electromagnets!
  • Produces magnetic fields that confer pain-relief to the worker and handyman suffering arthritis in hands and wrists!
  • Strong enough to unhammer nails!
  • And pull nails that free Christ from the cross!
  • Making pulled nails “resurrected” or “born again” nails!

(Here we saw animated nails wiggle out of the stigmata like cartoon worms from an apple, allowing Christ to flop down off the cross into the waiting hands of his disciples).

Then the screen showed only the hammer, bristling with dozens of “unhammered” or “born again” nails. From the speakers a baritone voice said, “This is the only hammer you’ll ever need! And you’ll never buy another nail again!” In the video an actor in overalls turned a switch in the bottom of his hammer, then passed it over a row of wooden tables, chairs and night stands. The furniture shook. Wood creaked and groaned. Nails sprang out of the wood and flew to the hammer’s magnetic head. One by one, the items of furniture fell to pieces on the floor. 

Many of us just shook our heads. A few others – including Ed Holmes, Mack Sheets and Phil Breef – got out of their chairs and slowly encircled Mr. Sheppard. Their hands were clenched and their faces dark. Phil Breef said, “We want our money back, Sheppard.” 

Mr. Sheppard bared his teeth. He reached behind him, and produced two hammers with bits of bloody-something caked in the claws. “You want it? Come and get it,” he hissed. “I know what to do with my hammers. The question is, do you?” He waved a hammer at the screen. “Maybe you had better back off and see the rest of the show.” He turned slowly in the shrinking circle, training the hammers on the men as if they were guns. The rest of us called the men back with “C’mon guys, we don’t want any trouble” and “He’s not worth it” and “We’ll get our money back” and “Hey, he’s nuts, all right? Forget it. Stand down.” Ed Holmes, Phil Breef, Mack Sheets and the others returned slowly to their seats. Many of us felt we’d been yanked back from the brink of something very attractive, and terrible.    

Mr. Sheppard’s face relaxed and returned to its normal color. He set the hammers on the podium and sat down on the edge of the dais, dangling his feet as he talked. “Are we done with our hissy fit? Yes? Good. So, obviously the solution is not to hate the Chinese or go back to good old American know-how or technical innovation or turning to your faith in our savior Jesus Christ amen. I mean, a hammer is a frigging hammer, am I right? And Jesus? For the time being he is just going to stay done dead, OK? So where does that leave us?” No one spoke. Mr. Sheppard looked over the group, thinned considerably by the rigors of his talk so far. “You were mad as hell and ready to kill. Good. Don’t lose that rage. But don’t waste it on the Chinese, or me.”

“Who do we use it against?” Ed Holmes didn’t sound mad anymore. Just tired and without hope. Mr. Sheppard’s answer was so soft we almost didn’t hear it. “You use it against yourselves.”

“What…what the hell does that mean?” Mack Sheets sounded like a split reed.

“It means destroying your old way of thinking about hammers. About yourselves and hammers. About everything and hammers. Listen to me! You have got to ask yourselves, what do you have that the Chinese don’t have, will never have?”

“We have unions!” Ed Holmes said. “And don’t think we are going to give them up just to be more competitive with the Chinese!” He thrust his fist into the air. Mr. Sheppard rolled his eyes. “I’m not talking about unions.” Ed Holmes’ fist dropped. Mr. Sheppard continued. “Look. The Chinese have the cheap labor, sure, and wimpy-ass environmental laws that let their factories do whatever, without penalties or limits. They’ve got protectionist trade policies that keep their hammers cheaper than ours. They’ve got some spanking new foundries and production techniques. But there’s one thing you have that they will never have. And that is the idea of the hammer.” You could have heard a pin – or a nail – drop. “Of course,” Mr. Sheppard continued, “it doesn’t make one bit of difference if none of you understand what you’ve got, and develop it.” Some of us felt prodded into riled agitation again. There were shouts of “This is what we paid you for, Sheppard!” and “Get to the point, asshole!” and “C’mon! What in god’s name is the ‘idea of the hammer?’”

Mr. Sheppard jumped to his feet and returned to the video projector. “All right, all right. I’ll tell you. But pay attention boys and girls. There will be a quiz on this material.” He alone giggled at his levity. He turned on the projector again to an aerial view of a town square. Our town square: the familiar hodge-podge of empty storefronts, empty lots, a McDonald’s, a Goodwill, an adult book and video store, several bars, two Chinese take-outs and, in the center , the abandoned hammer factory, graffitied, boarded-up and forlorn. The only place with any sign of life was the unemployment office.

“This is now,” he said, then advanced to the next image. “And this is what could be.”

The video morphed into a computer-imaged reinvention of our town. Mr. Sheppard’s curser jumped from one highlight to another like the planchette of a Ouija board. The main boulevard constituted the handle. It terminated in the town square, laid out in the shape of an enormous hammer head and claw. Mr. Sheppard said, “Let’s take a closer look, shall we?” and pressed the remote again. The computer simulation descended to a motorist’s point of view, entering the town from the “handle.” Up ahead, the town’s skylight danced with a multitude of neon hammers dropping tirelessly on neon nails. At the end of the road was the rebuilt factory, now a pedestal for a gigantic hammer. “At 400 feet,” said Mr. Sheppard, “it will be the tallest hammer in the world!” Beside it the courthouse sported an enormous judge’s gavel that marked the moment each judgment was rendered within by a rap to the marble floor below. 

We slowed and stopped, taking in the colorful array of new and attractive shops: there was a nightclub/bar called “Get Hammered!,” a book/video store named “Hammer” (offering the world’s largest collection of Mike Hammer books, movies, TV shows, radio recordings and memorabilia), another video store called “Hammer Horrors” (with a complete selection of horror movies from Britain’s Hammer Studios), the Hammer Museum (recreated as a virtual 3-D tour of the original museum in Haines, Alaska), the “Steel-Drive-In -Man’s Eatery” (famous for the “Hammerich,” a foot-tall club sandwich with 16 varieties of ham, “spiked” with a secret sauce and held together with a stainless-steel spike driven down through its center by shirtless, sledgehammer-wielding John Henry impersonators), “Hammerhead World” (an aquarium stocked exclusively with 20 varieties of hammerhead shark), the “Hammer-Fantasy-Fancier” (selling hammer-themed toys, games and models, including Thor’s Hammer (“Mjolnir”) and the Emulsion Powered Laser-Designator “Hammer of Dawn” from the Gears of War gaming series).

On the sidewalks were crowds of hammerhead shark-masked vendors; singers (“If I had a Hammer,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” etc.); hammer-taping Van Halen-style guitarists; performers hammering steel drums, gamelons, xylophones and vibraphones; carnival sideshow acts (“Watch the human 2X4 hammer nails into his face!”) and racks of T-shirts emblazoned with hammer symbols, logos and insignias (the hammer and sickle, Arm and Hammer, Hammer Bowling Balls, etc.). On the street corners were many hammer monuments and memorial sculptures (several John Henrys, plus 60s action star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and disgraced Congressman Tom “The Hammer” DeLay).

At the unfinished end of the square Mr. Sheppard pointed out armies of singing road builders breaking up stones for gravel using authentic “macadamizing” hammers, and, in the fields beyond, many spirited hammer-throwing and “speed-hammering” contests. There were even a number of year-round passion plays where, for a small fee, one could reenact the crucifixion as a Roman foot soldier hammering a lifelike bleeding Christ mannequin to the cross, or as a disciple using the claw end to yank out the nails and take him down, depending on the customer’s predilections.

There was a healthy range of opinions to Mr. Sheppard’s plan. Despite some doubts many were impressed by the boldness and originality of his vision, a few of us even embracing the plan with excited comments like, “Hey, when do we break ground?” and “Can you believe the job market this could open up?” and “This’ll put us back on the map for sure!” and “I like it! I really like it!”

Noticeably less enthused were the original troika of critics: Ed Holmes, Mack Sheets and Phil Breef, now joined by a CPA and funeral home director named Pete DeVoors. They huddled together, conferring in low, tense voices. Phil Breef raised his hand. “Mr. Sheppard? That was a very nice show, but maybe some of us don’t want to see our town turned into a theme park. And even if we did, who is going to pay for all of this development? Since the melt down we’ve all suffered disastrous losses. With this plan of yours we’d all be bankrupt before we put one shovel in the ground…”  

“…or hammered one nail?” Mr. Sheppard said. “Well, Phil – may I call you Phil?”  

“How do you know..?”   

“Phil, that’s the beauty of this plan. It’s not only about hammers. It comes from a kind of hammer.”

“But the factory!” Phil protested.   

Mr. Sheppard smiled. “I understand your concern, Phil. But I don’t mean coming from the sale of manufactured, physical hammers. I’m talking about different kinds of tools. Predictive tools, a different kind of hammer. It’s called a ‘Candlestick Hammer.’ Along with the ‘Harami,’ the ‘Doji,’ the ‘Dark Cloud Cover’ and a host of other pricing algorithms I can hammer out new derivatives strategies…”   

Phil Breef stood again, visibly struggling for control. “Wait…wait a second. Just wait…! You’re not…are you talking about investing what little we have left in the market?! Are you out of your…”    

Mr. Sheppard purred, “Phil, I realize in today’s volatile market…”   

Phil Breef paled. His mouth moved but no words came out. He made a low snarling sound and bolted at Mr. Sheppard. Mac Sheets held him back and shouted, “It’s not volatile, Sheppard! It’s dead!” Words and phrases like, “Wall Street?” and “He’s talking about derivatives?!” and “Selling sub-prime mortgage packages!” and “Bernie Madoff!” and “Ponzi!” raced through the hall like a torched incendiary. Mr. Sheppard watched from atop the dais, hands on hips and shaking his head, waiting patiently for the excitement to die down.    

But it did not die down. Shock turned to anger, anger to rage. Many other questions and comments filled the air: who decided the Chinese must make our hammers? Who decided the “idea of the hammer” was more real than the hammer itself? For most of us, Wall Street and corporations were a faceless evil. But in a moment of uncanny clarity and calm, even inner peace, we seemed to turn as one entity (or animal, really), and see for once a face, and a name: Mr. Sheppard. 

No one knows who brought in the hammers, but suddenly we all seemed to have one. Some of us had two. Some of us had sledgehammers or blacksmithing hammers, (the Twist, the Dog Head, The Long Cross), or the plastic Dead Blow Hammer, or the previously mentioned Macadamizing Hammer (with its distinctive round head for breaking rocks into gravel), or the classic Low-Curve Claw Head, forged of extra-strong, extra absorbent carbon-alloy and made in the U.S.A.    

We heard only a small “hey” from Mr. Sheppard as the audience closed around him, then a brief, wet crack of bone, followed by nothing more than the meaty dull thunk of hammer to flesh. Most of us never got close enough to deliver the fatal blows, if “fatal” can be ascribed to Mr. Sheppard’s wounds, or, rather, damage. Emerging from the crowd, Phil Breef, Ed Holmes, Mack Sheets and Pete De Voors (the first to hammer Mr. Sheppard) asked for a sheet to cover the body, then moistened paper towels from the men’s room to rub away the blood splatters covering their own glasses, faces, arms, hands, shirts and slacks. They explained to us that what we had done together was not murder because Mr. Sheppard was not human. Requesting more moistened paper towels for a stubborn splatter on his tie, Pete De Voors confirmed the news. “I’ve seen a lot of dead bodies,” he said, “and this was not a human one.” Ed Holmes nodded and took another moistened paper towel to his shirt. He asked us to recall the peculiar Ugandan story that Mr. Sheppard had told them. “Remember the king’s command to the blacksmith, Walla…”    

One of us supplied the name: “Walukaga.”

Ed Holmes snapped his fingers. “Right. Remember the king’s command? ‘Make me a living man of metal, blacksmith.’ Then the solution came from Waloo…”    


“Walukaga’s insane friend, who told him to ask for impossible to get materials, and the king had to admit he couldn’t do it.”    

We waited.   

“Don’t you see?” Ed Holmes said. “Mr. Sheppard was the living man of metal – or, more accurately, a living synthetic, a man-machine hybrid. Walukaga could not have built such a thing in his time, but now we can!”    

Mack Sheets added, “I think he was trying to show us something.”  

One of us asked, “What?”

Mack Sheets frowned with concentration for several moments. “I think it’s something like, Mr. Sheppard is the madman, and all of us are Walukaga. And the current economic crisis is the king, the king’s challenge, saying, ‘You’ve got to do something impossible – like save our town, turn the recession around,’ and we are the scared Walukaga, saying, ‘What am I gonna’ do? What am I gonna’ do?’” There was a ripple of appreciative laughter for Mack Sheets’ impersonation of Mr. Sheppard. Another of us said, “But that doesn’t make sense. You said Mr. Sheppard was the living man of metal. Now you are saying he is the madman, too? And if he is, or was, a real living man of metal – I mean Mr. Sheppard – does that mean we just killed – I mean deactivated – the solution to our problem?”   

There was an excited flurry of argument, with many comments like, “Maybe we made a big mistake,” and “Hey, he’s got a point!” and “Could the madman and the man of metal be the same person?” and “Why didn’t Walukaga just give the king the madman?” and “What was Mr. Sheppard trying to teach us?”   

Phil Breef raised his hand. “Hold it, everybody! Pipe down! It all makes sense! The metal man and the mad man were the same person. Both of them were Mr. Sheppard. But, like in the story, the mad man had to show Walukaga how to trick the king into giving up on the idea of a living man of metal, so the secret of the living man of metal would not fall into the hands of the king! But once Walukaga realized that the mad man really was the living man of metal, (the human-machine hybrid that was Mr. Sheppard), Mr. Sheppard had to trick ‘Walukaga’ (all of us) into destroying him, so the secret of his creation would remain safe!” 

A buzz of competing voices rose with comments like,“He sacrificed himself so we wouldn’t be burdened with the secret?” and “He wanted to die!” and “We were supposed to kill him?” Then another voice jumped out from the others with “But that’s not in the story Mr. Sheppard told us! He said that the mad man became Walukaga’s new blacksmithing partner!”

Phil Breef shot back, “Don’t be so literal! Walukaga probably destroyed the mad man after they became partners running the new blacksmithing shop!” 

We pondered the implications of his interpretation while Mack Sheets, Ed Holmes, Pete De Voors and Phil Breef attended discretely to the “body.” Strangely, no one is certain what happened to it, though some of us claim to know, with stories like “It’s buried under the floor of the old factory!” or “His components and software are what made the new factory possible!” 

Later at the trial Mack Sheets, Ed Holmes, Phil Breef and Pete De Voors all took responsibility for the fatal blow. Forensics revealed that, while many hammers pulped the “body,” “death” (or deactivation) probably came from a single, claw-first blow to the face from an American-made carpenter’s hammer wielded by Mack Sheets. His acquittal on grounds of self-defense and justifiable homicide was based on unanimous testimony that Mr. Sheppard was an unbalanced homicidal maniac, holding the group hostage with a semi-automatic weapon, making incoherent demands for a “hammer heaven on earth.”

Whatever the truth, it is indisputable that Mr. Sheppard’s brief time in our town changed everything forever. Now our factory prospers with an entirely new technology and line of robotics, though what many visitors come to see first is the memorial display of Mack Sheets’ hammer: the hammer that ended and started it all.

“OrBo Zi-In III” by Gary Robinson

OrBo Zi-In III did not like being made to explore this strange planet with its hotter-than-hell temperatures, senior-citizen politicians, and reality TV Shows. When OrBo Zi-In II said he had to, OrBo Zi-In III hemmed and hawed and even crossed his eyes to make a bad impression, but OrBo Zi-In II knew what he was up to and threatened to go right to the top, right to OrBo Zi-In I, which would land OrBo Zi-In III in the doghouse for sure. So he had no choice but to accept the mission and get onto a spaceship and voyage beyond the galaxies, and if not for the drugs he had smuggled aboard, he might have gone completely crazy.

It was a peculiar evolutionary trait of the OrBo Zi-Ins that they could imitate any shape, which gave an advantage in a tight bind. For example, if they had to hide from a collection agency (the OrBo Zi-Ins were famous for not paying up) they could assume the shape of a cactus or a can opener so that the bill collector would come back empty-handed and frustrated, though he must have had his suspicions that the debtor Orbo Zi-in was camouflaged and snickering away. But what could he do about it?

In fact, the OrBo Zi-Ins were always turning into something else to get out of work or bad blind dates. One day their leader, the aforementioned Orbo Zi-In I, stood in front of 5,000,000,000,000 OrBo Zi-Ins (when they weren’t malingering or wriggling out of sticky situations, they were screwing like lunatics) announcing new measures to decrease absenteeism and boost productivity when a voice yelled out: “SHOVE IT UP YOUR ASS!”

When Orbo Zi-In I tried to find out who it was all 5,000,000,000,000 OrBo Zi-Ins (in a show of solidarity) changed into carrots.

Now OrBo Zi-In III was travelling in outer space, so stoned after months of smoking weed it was a wonder a Rastafarian singalong didn’t break out, when the ship entered the destined planet’s atmosphere and, after a turbulent descent, touched down in stealth mode at the programmed location.


Half Tex drank coffee inside Johnny Rio’s, a restaurant in Woody, a small Arkansas town of less than 500 people. Half Tex was the son of Big Tex, a local legend who had served in Vietnam and even volunteered for the Gulf War but was too old by then to go. Big Tex was a notorious bigot who disliked most minorities, hippies (though hippies were few and far between in Woody), and poets (fewer and more far between). When Big Tex was drunk you stayed out of his way, since he always carried a Colt .45 and would fire it in the air like at the rodeo or aim it recklessly, thereby terrifying anyone who chanced upon him.

Nobody knew why Half Tex was called Half Tex, seeing as he was six feet five inches while his father was barely five feet in his thickest socks. Big Tex Junior would have made more sense, everyone agreed, whereas Half Tex made it seem like he was weirdly truncated or missing something. A guy with his legs sawed off maybe, which was not the case at all. For fuck’s sake, he was six feet five inches tall!


Ed, Ted, and Zed were in The Blue Monkey bar, across the street from The Orange Monkey bar, where Big Tex drank every day. No one who wasn’t insane wanted to be in the same bar as Big Tex with his Colt .45 that was like a fateful prophecy just waiting to be told to some poor son-of-a-bitch. But it wouldn’t be Ed, Ted, or Zed who sipped draft beer as a fly swirled around the room like an erratic helicopter. This brought up an anecdote that was never far from their thoughts.

“Didn’t Big Tex once shoot at a fly in The Orange Monkey?” Ed asked.

“That’s what Rudy the bartender said,” Ted replied.

“The thing is,” Zed continued. “Did Big Tex hit the fly or miss?”

The anecdote never went past this, like a door they didn’t dare open and step through. They ordered another round of beer.


At that moment Big Tex lifted his head and stared in the direction of The Blue Monkey. “It’s because of homos like Ed, Ted, and Zed that we lost the Vietnam war,” he said to himself. On the table were three empty pitchers of beer. But if Big Tex was anything, he was generous with his criticism. He also blamed the military industrial complex, smartass politicians, dot-com millionaires, Ynternet providers and Twitter. Then in the grip of a memory, like a loop or a ghostly rollercoaster, one hand reached toward the Colt .45 as his eyes shut into evil slits and his voice became searching and furious as tinder: “NOWWHERE’STHATGODDAMNEDFLY?”


Half Tex stood at the front window of Johnny Rio’s. He was watching a wall that had mysteriously shown up in the middle of the street, dividing east and west. It had not been there one minute before, but now here it was. Half Tex believed this was pretty unusual. He drank his coffee and tried to make sense of it. The wall was familiar. It looked a lot like one of the outside walls of The Orange Monkey. It even had the same graffiti and piss stains. Who the hell would take a wall away and put it in the street?

“Hey, Max,” he said to the owner of Johnny Rio’s. “Come and look at this.”

“Holy shit, what’s that? Isn’t that from The Orange Monkey?”

“Yes,” Half Tex said. “That’s what I thought.”

Timmy Weedmark, the newspaper boy, came into Johnny Rio’s. Timmy had red hair and an irascible temperament because fewer and fewer people were buying the Woody Chronicle. “Nobody wants your fucking paper, Timmy,” they would tell him sadly. This made Timmy depressed, and more than once he considered buying an assault rifle and shooting up the hick town.

“Hey, Timmy,” Half Tex said. “Go to The Orange Monkey and tell us if it’s lost a wall.”

Timmy thought Half Tex was an asshole, but he went and looked.

“It’s not missing a wall or anything. It’s all there,” Timmy said before he left a copy of the Woody Chronicle with Max.

“Shit,” Half Tex said.

Something was up.


This was not what OrBo Zi-In III had in mind when he wandered into Woody. First, the heat was a killer, and he was still woozy from the drugs and the long journey. Then there was the practical consideration of aesthetics. If it hasn’t been mentioned yet, maybe now is the time: the OrBo Zi-Ins are really ugly. An OrBo Zi-In looks like an octopus with eight enormous bowed legs, which is bad enough, but there is also the matter of a long red thing on its head that resembles a dick. In their world it is considered rude to stare, and some OrBo Zi-Ins even put on hats to try and avoid any crude remarks. The ability to change their appearance is a godsend to the OrBo Zi-Ins, which is why if you visit their world you won’t see any, since they are ashamed of those things on their heads. The OrBo Zi-Ins prefer to be mistaken for boulders or furniture or corn on the cob, anything than their real shapes.

OrBo Zi-In III knew he couldn’t go around without causing a stir. Now this is when he stumbled into Woody and all the buildings began to worry him. He felt terribly exposed out here with his octopus features, eight bowed legs, not to mention the dick on his head. Just then he heard a sound nearby: “WHERE’STHATFUCKENFLYGONETO?”

A noise like an explosion, and OrBo Zi-In III panicked. Quickly, he glanced in the direction where it’d come from. Without thinking, he became the shape of the structure or what he was able to see of it. He kept very quiet.


A crowd led by Half Tex gathered at the wall that had appeared out of nowhere and was now blocking the main street of Woody. Ed, Ted, and Zed were among them. They all agreed that, yes, it was strange that a wall looking like it had come from The Orange Monkey was where it shouldn’t have been. They walked to the Orange Monkey, gave it a long stare, then tossed out some possibilities: a joke by college students too bored with their lives, an illusion brought about by a magician who was no doubt laughing at them right now (the son-of-a-bitch!), a government black ops to be used in urban warfare to confuse the enemy, or maybe it had come from a parallel universe, which meant somewhere, in another universe, a duplicate Orange Monkey was missing its wall and somebody was mad as hell about it.

As they went on OrBo Zi-In III had a hard time not cracking up. Humans sure were dumb bastards. He only hoped they would move along and allow him a chance to get out of here. He had explored this planet enough. If OrBo Zi-In II pressed him for information when he returned he would make it up. Just then a gunshot rang out. Big Tex staggered over, screaming, “THATGODDAMNEDFLYHASNINELIVESCOSHOWTHEHELLCANITTAKEABULLETLIKETHAT
TIMEANDTIMEAGAINANDNOTDIE!” Very carefully they moved away from Big Tex and his drawn Colt .45.


Half Tex explained to Big Tex that no one had any idea but it wasn’t from the Orange Monkey, that was certain. A glint twinkled in Big Tex’s eyes like a spark of divine madness. He smiled, drooled, then lifted his gun and shot at the wall. He shot a second time. “IT’SFROMFUCKENOUTERSPACENODOUBTABOUTIT!”

The afternoon was getting hotter and more humid in Woody. Sweat big as marbles rolled down everyone’s foreheads as Big Tex whipped them into a frenzy, and this was fast becoming a recipe for a lynching.

OrBo Zi-In III was shitting his pants.


Just then, like in a Medieval miracle, but without the swords and castles, an SUV roared into Woody. Out jumped several young women – huge tits and tiny skirts like probationary porn stars – and an older man with a Van Dyke beard and enormous retro bell-bottom jeans. In front of the startled townsfolk a display was quickly set up made of a stand with a colored sunshade and bottles of wine arranged in rows. Attention turned from the mysterious wall to the bearded stranger who sized up the crowd like a malicious dentist. As if on cue, the women thrust out their chests in a classic gesture of overkill. The stranger cleared his throat and began speaking with a French accent: “Americans, friends, how are you this fine day? My name is Jean-Luc LeCanard, and I am here to offer a sample of what is the greatest gift to civilization. And what is that, you ask? Well, simply put: French wine. The best wine in the world, my friends.”

A murmur started.    

“Yes, my friends, put away your American whisky and beer and California wine – so inferior, to be honest. Yes? But here is the best wine from the vineyards of France. Your tongues won’t just drink this wine, no, your taste buds will make love – l’amour – and your senses will know la petite mort, which we French experience every day. Come, try some. Who will be the first?”

“FRANCEYPANTS!” someone yelled out. Everybody laughed.

LeCanard went on: “My friends, I bring you not just wine but culture.”

“FRANCEYPANTS!” They laughed again.

LeCanard got a weird expression, a Zombie some would later say, though others swore it was more like he was in a Wagnerian opera. You could imagine him holding a trident or a lightning bolt, singing “La Marseillaise” as music crashed all around like the sound of wine bottles breaking. But when he finally spoke, it was almost in a trance-like whisper and so low you had to strain to hear: “French wine is better than American. A Frenchman built the White House. The Iraq War was immoral and illegal. Disneyland Paris is an abomination. André the Giant was never defeated!”

The murmuring escalated, and more than one voice cursed Jean-Luc LeCanard, who suddenly brandished out of thin air the French national flag, which prompted a few locals to run home, grab the Stars and Stripes, and begin waving it. LeCanard: “André the Giant was never defeated, you stupid Americans! Never defeated!”

At that moment shots rang out and everybody, including LeCanard, who snapped out of it, began running. Bit Tex was firing in the air and pointing his Colt .45 like he was still in Vietnam. There was hollering and cries of: “Stop, Big Tex, you might shoot someone.” But Big Tex kept on shooting and screaming: “WHERE’STHATFUCKENFLYIKNOWITSHERE!”


It was during the ruckus that OrBo Zi-In III saw an opportunity to ditch this place. A creature had landed by him for a second and the alien quickly copied it: a fly, it turns out. It wasn’t easy to navigate a flight path, but OrBo Zi-In III managed to return to his space ship and take off, avoiding detection. Without any drugs, the trip back to his planet was a long and boring one.

“Secret Secret Secret” by Katrina Johnston


When I first met Sharlene Susan Sanderson she stood in front of me and idled for about five seconds with her hand outstretched. I didn’t stop what I was doing. She told me she wanted to be called “Triple S.”

I couldn’t stand her, or her alias. She had arrived just in time to bother me. My dislike hit me in the chest like acid reflux. This wasn’t solely because she was my competition, although it might have been.

No matter how I set my mind and tried to be professional, my resentment expanded deep inside. I was appalled by her mannerisms. But she was only one new person, a minor sour element invading my supportive community of long-time friends and colleagues at the Melvin Community Market. I’d have to suffer, but only for a single day. It was our last selling time, a bookend market for the summer season. I tried to be fair-minded. I decided she wasn’t worth too much upset.

Triple S was very young and noisy, and she swore with ease. She tested the limits of my patience when she kept dancing around, trying to look precocious. I took a silent dislike to her attention-seeking behaviour. She was skidding around, showing-off and schmoozing. I wondered. Could I? Should I? Would I ever trust her?

I’m not normally suspicious, but I found her presence unsettling. She must have been at least 19 or 20, because someone would have double-checked and verified her adult status, but that was hard to believe. She wore ultra-tight Yoga pants and lots of makeup, and she carried around an Android phone as if it were glued to her palm, the earbud wires dangling until she shoved them under thick strands of unkempt hair.

She’d already slid past my kiosk three or four times, but never stopped. She’d been extra busy visiting with the other vendors, yakking with everyone – not me. Anyway, she didn’t introduce herself until she was rushing by yet again, and the timing was crucial because it was only moments before we would open to welcome our customers.      

She pulled up breathlessly in front of my selling area, stuffed her cell phone and related gear into her tight front pockets. Her own tables were organized and only a short distance from my kiosk. She had laid out all her items earlier. Those tables were long and cluttered with candle holders, place mats, crystals, picture frames, belt buckles and more. Some of her merchandise was jewelry. She had pins and pendants, as well as other pieces, and that annoyed me. Upon cursory inspection, I saw that her jewelry was not quality. But, she was my competitor.

“Sharlene Susan Sanderson,” she said. “Call me ‘Triple S.’ I like to think it stands for ‘Secret Secret Secret.’” She snorted out a crazy laugh and didn’t look me eye-to-eye. “That’s my name as well. Just don’t ever call me Sharlene. No class in that, no individuality.”

I cringed. She stood there waiting for me to quit what I was doing. “Actually,” she said, “I don’t care what you decide to call me – just do.” She persisted with holding out her hand. “Most folks call me Triple S,” she said. “My friends. You know, they think it’s ultra fun. Either that or they say the Secrets – all three. Sometimes we chant out my mantra and just like this: Secret, Secret, Secret.”

I didn’t put aside the supplies that I was dealing with. I kept working, but I nodded my chin in her general direction. I’d been carefully arranging my own display of jewelry and both of my hands were occupied.

“I understand that we are the only two jewelry sellers,” Triple S said, shoving a wayward hank of hair behind her left ear. “I’m here for today. Then I’m history.”

“Is that so?” I kept on spacing out the merchandise. And then I added: “Yes, I guess you’re right. We’re the only two.”

“Are you…?” She looked at me with a catty expression. “I hear that you make your own stuff. Like, it’s homemade.”

“Hand-crafted,” I said. I straightened up and adjusted the black velveteens that I use as underlay to enhance the appearance of silver, gold and the polished inlays. “Pauline,” I said. “That’s the name that’s printed on my birth certificate. I’ve been an artisan jeweler for 27 years. My designs are unique.” (I emphasized the words “artisan” and “unique.”) “The stylings are one of a kind.” I carefully adjusted the short and long pendants on the underlay. “I work with semi-precious stones, silvers, golds and polished rocks. I’m a specialist in claw-form mountings. I produce the pieces at a jeweler’s studio on Pedder Avenue, which I rent from another craftsperson.”

“I’ve heard that the market always gets a fantastic bunch of tourists,” Triple S said. “Like, from the cruise ships. Gobs and gobs of Americans. Yeah? That means sweet-ass American bucks.”

“There’s a lot of regulars,” I told her. “Most of them are locals from the downtown.” I almost added that our total sales had been down this year considering that foot traffic had been reduced, and that there were other financial complexities and economic pressures. Alternate activities vied for tourist attention.

“Well – I hope you break a leg today,” she said. And Triple S, aka Secret Secret Secret, smirked without any hint of sincerity. She was hauling out her phone again.

The way she presented herself to me was too off-hand. The way she spoke to me I found irritating. But many young people are just this way. I rationalized and tried to let my annoyance slide. “You don’t have to wish me good luck by saying break a leg,” I told her, somewhat irked in spite of my intention. “The customers prefer my designs. They know my jewelry is first-class. And I dare to say that my pendants are truly beautiful and the stylings are always in demand.”

“I should get back and check on my own crap before we start selling,” Triple S said. “Break an arm then…or a wrist…a big toe? Try not to break a hip.” And she snorted at her own derisive humor. Her smile dismayed me. She spun around with a flamenco dancer’s move, but she had no skirts to flourish. Only those tight-ass pants.

I continued setting out my inventory. “Likewise,” I said as she retreated. I sorted out the silvers from the golds and untangled a couple of the longer pendant pieces.

I’m not exactly sure why I detested Secret Secret Secret. She wasn’t deceitful or outwardly obnoxious. She was probably like many other young people whom I’ve encountered during my 62 years. I guess I was like an old wrinkled prune to her younger point of view. She acted as a lot of girls might at around the age of 15. At that magic time female adolescents could be totally insufferable. Triple S was just one case. But she wasn’t just 15.

The morning advanced. We began to settle in with a warm fluidity as the tepid sunshine broke through the low-slung haze. Potential customers gathered and then the market began to swing.

A few people milled about checking on the goods. The other merchandise included a conglomerate of preserves and baking and fresh produce. All sales would be final because it was the last opening and we didn’t set it up for the fall or winter.

We were located at the mini-park where Melvin Street meets Brandolin. Occasionally, a local musical trio joined the day, offering a set of background tunes, a folk-rock or a jazzy mixture. But there wasn’t music on the scene for our final performances. Nevertheless, we presented a cool atmosphere. No pesticides, no fears. Most of the farm-fresh vendors boasted organics. The other sellers shared concerns about the protection of the environment and the naturalness of their products. Merchandise for sale included knitted crafts, small woodworking pieces and organic dog treats.

I thought that Triple S was an empty shell, too loud, far too crazy. I could hear her joking around and flirting with the guys. I did not trust her as far as I could pitch a feather.

She presumed her welcome. I could tell she enjoyed attention. The others were friendly, as they always are. They’re a tolerant society. But, this is my community, my soul, my haven. The regular sellers generally support and organize diverse endeavours. I’ve always felt a fuzzy warmth every time I’m there and I belong.

Many of the other sellers had presented Triple S with their own free samples, like jam, tea and homemade soap. I wondered why a newcomer actually deserved so many perks and freebies. Especially just for showing up, and only once. Most of us worked conscientiously each weekend and helped the market to succeed through consistent effort. At least, we showed up every weekend or we paid our dues.

September had seen our busiest sales, but still not great. I really needed to make a showing. My dentist bill was huge, my taxes overdue. I needed extra money so badly now that I was sweating through my socks. I might be otherwise unemployed, and fairly soon. That reality depended on the clinic where I worked daytime shifts as a medical receptionist. Rumors abounded – ones that said the clinic might actually close completely and go under with no retirement funds forthcoming.

Triple S’s jewelry included silver-toned pieces similar in appearances to mine, but they were cheap. The stones were fake, the settings were plastic and fixed together by adhesives.

I do admit that Triple S might have been considered attractive considering the blessings of her youth. The guys clued in and crowded her. Other customers too. They seemed to find her charming. She had an edgy veneer as well as an aura of optimism. Except she annoyed me further with her arrogant laugh, which sailed across to me, bringing the tonality of a whooping bird. First, there was a big snort, and then she cackled.

That morning, nothing was working for me. Peter Compton’s farm-fresh produce separated Triple S’s area from mine. We had only a few wooden racks of cucumbers, kale and tomatoes as a buffer. I peered at my competition by stepping around the vegetables. She was in the midst of great success, robbing me. I started to percolate a case of jealousy. She had awesome luck and the confidence of the uninhibited. “Not fair!” I muttered, sending resentful complaint to the Great Creator. I had none of her customers. Folks were crowded at her tables. None at mine.

It was evident that she could talk to strangers without any hesitation. I overheard the banter. Even the hot-dog seller, an old Croatian guy who rarely speaks. He sauntered right over and joked with her. He offered her a free bratwurst on a wholegrain bun. My stomach rumbled.

I decided that Triple S was not worth a skeptical second look. Except I couldn’t help staring when she wasn’t aware that I was staring. I do not like such raw envy inside my heart. It gives me a spiteful feeling. And I fretted.

Why did she have to invade my turf? This was supposed to be my holy space, my ad-hoc community, my support and a wonderful market place. They’re like my non-blood related family, but I require so much.

I was not feeling well. I thought about shutting down and going home to obliterate myself with beer and cookies. First, I would buy a lottery ticket, a hoped-for and unrealistic miracle. When I had not sold a single piece of jewellery for two hours, I elected full retreat.

The Market danced around me like a frenetic, too-bright circus. I began feeling dizzy. The produce stalls seemed extra rickety. The jars of preserves appeared to be floating in mid air. Triple S had her pendants dangling from a rod. Her customers could push each pendant aside and then examine the next. No need of an underlay or any thoughtful layout pattern or design.

Apparently she could sell anything – tulips to the Netherlands, fish to the sea, helium balloons to a rabbit.

I starting feeling faint before I realized I should eat. I’d fallen into a state of green-eyed nausea, wholly depressed. I continued closing down my kiosk. I needed a long nap and a huge bottle of the strongest headache medicine.

It took about 20 minutes to dismantle and stow the jewelry and the underlay inside the carry-all. I snagged it tight with twine. With this awkward bundle swagging from my shoulders, I wandered around, checking out the goods. The tea blends might be helpful. Many were concoctions of herbal remedies.

Across from the organic dog treats, a woman named Nita was selling whole-wheat and soy products. I purchased a half dozen sweet and sticky buns, remembering that I’d skipped my breakfast toast. On a broad bench at the side and over at the periphery, I sat down. The perch was far enough away from the action. I ate three and a half buns. Then one more.

And very quickly the world began to shake. My eyesight tricked me. Clouds came and danced like cotton animals. I began to cough. My airways constricted. I couldn’t cough hard or long enough to clear my throat. I hacked. I couldn’t suck in breath. The world was cold. Couldn’t focus. Blackness came and swallowed me…


Who am I? Where am I going? Trying to understand. Trying…

I felt myself resurfacing, fighting against a murkiness, up from the deep-end pool and through a stew of black squid ink. I regained myself. My mind was coming up for light. My head felt kind of floaty and my thoughts were thick.


“Ah hum. So, welcome back to earth.”

“Huh. What?”

A voice.

I brought into focus a fine-boned, angular and well-tanned face. A masculine vision bent over me. His nose was close, his amber eyes concerned. His breath was sweet. “Don’t move too suddenly,” the vision said to me. “Try not to jerk the IV line. Lie back now, relax.”

“Where am I?”

“You’re in the back of an ambulance on your way to City Hospital.”

“Really? What?”

“You’re fine. You’re going to be a hundred-percent fine. You’ve only been unconscious for a few seconds.”

“Why? What happened? Who are you?”

“I’m Ravinder. Your EMT, the ambulance technician. That’s where you are. You’re in the back of an ambulance. But no worries. You’re not in trouble. You’ve had a severe anaphylactic reaction. You ate some pastries, had an extreme allergic reaction.”

“I’ve had what?”

“You passed out.”

“I did?”

“You bet.”

“Stopped breathing?”

“Well, you almost did. We arrived and got you fixed. Just in time. Lucky for you, one of the other folks who was working at the market quickly noticed you. She saw that you were in severe distress and jabbed you with an EpiPen. That rushed the antidote straight into your system. Like I said, you’re going to be one hundred percent just fine. Try not to worry.”

“It was? What? I mean…. I might have, uh…. You mean I could have died?”

“Well, it was a fairly severe allergic reaction.”

“Those buns….”

“Yes, perhaps it was the buns, or another antigen. It doesn’t really matter now that you’ve revived. Maybe a specialist will be able to pinpoint and identify what substance. Incidentally, we’ll be arriving at the hospital in just a few minutes. Remember, if you can – it was all thanks to the quick action of a woman who was totally prepared. She had a brand new EpiPen. You’re going to be okay.”

“Who was that? Do you know who it was?”

“Let me see…I have her name noted somewhere here on the data entry. It was the same woman who called in 911 on her cell. She really kept her wits during the emergency.” The ambulance attendant scrolled through his computer information using a handheld device. “Ah hum, got it. Here it is,” Ravinder said. “The woman’s name is Sharlene Susan Sanderson.”


“And, she’s been very thoughtful. See, she’s made sure you have your bundle of personal stuff with you. Look here, beside you. There.” He indicated my carry-all of jewelry, which was squashed against the stretcher. “That young woman… Well, she must be a very good friend of yours,” Ravinder said. “You’re lucky she was present, and she was immediately on the scene with the counteracting dose of epinephrine.”

“She’s a gem.” I told him. I let my aching head fall back down onto a low pillow, and I closed my eyes for a minute. Maybe a minute and half, maybe two, perhaps longer.

I was determined to let the universe take charge, and I floated with it. I would not think. I did not have to move or change position. I did not have to jump about or try too hard at anything. I existed.

And this guy – Ravinder – soothing and compassionate – offered comfort to me. I was going to be okay, and I owed my life to a young woman who called herself Triple S.

Should have known.

I kept my eyes sealed and inhaled thirsty gulps of oxygen, allowing humble thanks to rule my brain. I did not fully comprehend all my deep-set feelings, nor did I acknowledge any worries that continued from within. I became aware of the sound of my own heart. The quality of the heartbeat had an altered cadence and a brand-new amplitude. It seemed to whisper softly: “Secret Secret Secret…”

David Herrle reviews LEAVING PARIS by Collin Kelley

leaving_parispublished by Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016
learn more about the Venus trilogy here

[Caution: some mild spoilers]

Tenacious and prolific as ever, Collin Kelley has successfully deviated from his usual poetry output and produced the final novel in his Venus trilogy: Leaving Paris, my favorite installment of the three. This time Collin’s Francophilism is fever-pitched. His preference of the City of Lights to probably anywhere in the U.S.A. seems more overt than in the preceding books, and his disillusionment, particularly with the South, sticks out like a sore Eiffel Tower. Perhaps what lovable protagonist Martin Page says to colleague and friend Julie Lacombe during a Memphis stop on his U.S. book tour sums up this basic cynicism: “You’re the most un-Southern Southerner I’ve ever met…America is always going to be a disappointment.”

Over the course of the three Venus novels, Collin’s plotting has become more and more cinematic, blending espionage/political intrigue with romantic drama, as well as some chutzpah-fueled magical realism. Really, literary genres compete somewhat in Leaving Paris, seeming to fluctuate from chapter to chapter at times. Normally this would be problematic, but Collin has managed to handle the mixture and the transitions pretty well. The overall cinematic quality of the Venus trilogy does show Collin’s pop-cultural cache, most notably with big winks to Richard Linklater’s Before film trilogy in parts dealing with the question of “What could have been?”

It’s 2005, about 10 years after the original book, and the ever-acerbic (and menopausal) Diane Jacobs struggles with both marital dissolution and caretaking her deteriorating father over in America, while over in Paris grande dame Irene Laureux runs the Editions Resolvere publishing house along with heir-apparent Martin, whose plans for production expansion include e-books, which must be intended to be amusingly quaint to current-day readers. (“Who wants to read books on a tiny screen?” asks Euan McEvoy, one of Martin’s seemingly countless ex-boyfriends. I joke, I joke.) Also, Martin’s romantic relationship with Christian Kigali has strengthened, and Christian worries for his father, Olivier, who is a Muslim convert (making his son’s name ironic) and a man with a serious secret life.

Looming behind such personal incidentals is the primary political situation in France, which involves tension between the right-wing Front National, spearheaded by the conniving and bitter Michel Arnaud, and unrest in Montfermeil, an immigrant-heavy banlieue. Arnaud seems resolved to rout out ethnic and religious undesirables at all costs, but his machinations face investigative threats and the Shakespearean inevitability of “the truth will out.” Of course, Irene, Martin and Christian become embroiled in what explodes from this societal powder keg.

Unless I’m remembering the other books inaccurately, it seems that Collin has really intensified the psychic link between the ever-odd and likable Irene Laureux, who, incidentally, speaks the two funniest lines in the entire book:  “Gay men love me. I can bend them to my will.” The mystical episodes also have become more…mystical. Besides Irene’s and Martin’s mutual visions and intimate extrasensory connection, there’s a sort of time travel involving “the Wood Between the Worlds” (a direct nod to C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew), “the other side of the mirror,” Einsteinian “quantum entanglement.” To put it more plainly (ahem), it relates to a phenomenon sparked by the rising of planet Venus, during which the Australian Yolngu tribe perform a ceremony called Barnumbirr so that communication with deceased relatives can be achieved. As one character puts it, “time is constantly folding and unfolding, like a wave crashing in on itself.”

During an episode of this warping of time and space, former-lover Paul, like Dante’s Virgil, guides Martin through what seems to be 17th-century Versailles and delivers him to a high-school boyfriend named Peter Daris, who shows Martin that “different choices” could have kept them together, to the point of aging happily as a married couple with a daughter. Then, as if ending a domino fall from lover to lover, Martin encounters David McClaren, the sexually conflicted and highly reluctant former love interest of Martin’s back in Conquering Venus.

Nowadays David is in even deeper sexual denial and, worse, married to a woman and utterly exploding from repression. (A quite disturbing scene involving a homophobic “redneck,” an intoxicated David and David’s belt illustrates this perfectly.) An interactive vision of Martin and David as a happy couple shows “the way it was supposed to be,” to use David’s tempting words. Apparently, Martin has a real choice to make. What about his boyfriend Christian? Could alteration of his past course be much-needed salvation for tormented David? What is the true purpose of this magical in-between place (or non-place)?

Collin’s ability to construct three weighty novels on the foundation of the comparatively simpler ideas of Conquering Venus is impressive. He cared enough about his characters and their potential to carry them over several years and through a lot of extraordinary circumstances, to say the least. He excels at threading together different plotlines and maintaining readers’ care for them. Even dastardly Arnaud, whose role could understandably be snubbed as a ho-hum caricature of an ultra-conservative fanatic (not much unlike David’s disapproving father, the “right-wing freak” and, of course, a gun lover), is a welcome familiar as far as dramatic conflict and sociopolitical-intrigue stories’ need for relentless Inspector Javerts are concerned.

In plotting Leaving Paris Collin wasn’t even finished with Irene’s murdered husband, Jean-Louis, nor his fateful lover, Frederick Dubois, who was the object of pursuit in the second Venus book, Remain in Light. Fans of the Venus books will be pleased to find that not only does the mystery surrounding the death of Jean-Louis back in the late 1960s factor yet again, gaining more contextual importance, but something surprising is revealed about the true identity of “gangster” Andre Sarde. Even Julie Lacombe, who was mentioned at the beginning of this review, has more to her than meets the eye. Put it this way: Leaving Paris is the archenemy of loose ends.

“Quaquaversal” by Mathias B. Freese

I feel compelled, as a writer, to introduce you to my own idiosyncratic ways of going about writing a story. The creative process, as I observe, might prove of worth to reveal as I experience it. After finishing and publishing Tesserae: A Memoir of Two Summers I lie fallow. I never know what the next book will be about, but I do know that I will begin something as my need to write has not been stifled by age or an arthritic mind. I observe myself or, as Krishnamurti wrote, “the observer is the observed.” Chew on that for a while. So, over the past few weeks an amorphous idea began to gestate. In fact, I wrote a few pages called “The White Parasol.” But I get ahead of myself. What I want to explore here is my own creative process with the hope you may find it of note.

A few weeks back I was invited to a local institute to speak about memoir writing. In preparation I looked up Mr. Bernstein’s magnificent soliloquy in Citizen Kane, a scene that Welles believed was the best he had ever filmed. In that sequence Bernstein speaks of a young girl with a white parasol he had seen as a young man decades ago. All this is in response to the reporter’s quest to discover what or who Kane’s “Rosebud” was. Bernstein says that not a day has gone by that he has not thought about the girl with the white parasol. Memory and time are condensed in that observation, and it has a gravitas that needs time to be grasped or pondered. It is a valid cliché as we grow older that images from the past grow brighter with a concomitant feeling, at times, of nostalgia, sentimentality, pathos, and loss and attachment.

And so all this was floating about in my mind when I came across “quaquaversal,” a word I discovered serendipitously while looking up another word in the dictionary. Briefly, it is defined as being in all directions, emanating from a common center. I liked that immediately, and I thought of myself as a writer who tends to turn inwardly, deeply, profoundly, as if in search of the geode that may be the heart of any new story. David Herrle reviewed my book, Tesserae, and observed:

Anyone familiar with his other work isn’t surprised by Freese’s ability to always dig deeper through apparent bottom after bottom of self-analysis. “Fearlessness makes for authenticity in writing, so I can measure myself and not be a crybaby about it,” he writes near the end of the book. (In fact, he outdoes himself when he faces and reveals the truly tragic suicide of his daughter Caryn.) I’m reminded of what Orson Welles admitted to Henry Jaglom: “I’m dark as hell. My films are as black as the black hole.” This also is true of much of Freese’s literary output, but despite that darkness, that tendency to descend into the psyche’s hell, there is illumination and even rejuvenating sunlight. Frankfurters, root beer, ice cream and cotton candy at Coney Island glow alongside “tumultuous sex” with fantasy-come-to-life lover Marlene. In contrast to a fundamental sense of shame and ominous Rorschach perceptions, there are “non-maudlin memories”: childhood movies and radio shows, makeshift slingshots and scooters, the unintentional comedy of territorial, scolding adults.

Leave it to another writer to say it best. As the days went on with these story pieces floating about in mind, I came upon the idea of following the spine of Citizen Kane by having a deceased character (me) be deciphered by his survivors as they guess about this artifact they find or the last words he has to say upon his deathbed. I intended to break rules and do things with the structure of the story, as yet undefined, so that all the tesserae might come together into some visible mosaic.

In fact, this essay was written before I finished “The White Parasol.” This essay may help me to finish this story. I am writing to explain to myself – and to you – the process by which I noodle out a story. I created two Rosebuds for the story, one which is shared while the main character is alive, and another which is cryptic to his son who hears these words directly. The dying man utters Kaye-Halbert (the hyphen is of importance). The son mistakenly assumes that it is the name of a girlfriend, or some girl with a white parasol from the past. He asks relatives and friends if they have ever heard that name and he comes up zero. He goes online and discovers that Kaye-Halbert was a TV set from the early Fifties: a vintage TV set, probably 19 inches with knobs for volume, horizontal and vertical in the front, jammed with tubes. With this information he begins to consider. He recalls –freely associating – that his father told him that he ran home from school in 1951 and was able to catch the last inning in which Bobby Thompson hit a classic homerun off Ralph Branca to win the World Series. Truly memorable. And now he had it: Kaye-Halbert was his father’s Rosebud, a dying one, an image from his childhood for some reason that resonated within. Indeed, his grandmother had died, and her last words, his father shared with him, were “Father Knickbocker.” So, now, in my mind I have two Rosebuds to incorporate into my story.

What is the motive for my writing this Wellesian jigsaw puzzle like Susan Alexander’s lonely hobby? I think I want to self-discover myself once again. All my writing is about my navigation. I am the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. I want to access my core, and from that I want to achieve quaquaversal. And so it is a search, constructed through the artifice of a story. Citizen Kane looms large in several of my essays and stories, for there is something to that film which I experienced as a very young boy which grabs me, throttles my sensibilities and draws me close to it. I think it has to deal with loss. Kane reeks of loss: his mother, his sled, his mistress, his wife, his close friends. And, in a way, he loses whatever self he had. I will say boldly that he has lost love, and I identify with that, for, in a way, it happened to me.

When I was a young boy I visited a manufacturing plant run by my uncles, Seymour and Bernie. My father was in charge of plating. The Freeses made rhinestone jewelry of a high order. I used to wander about and simply observe. One black woman enjoyed me as a young boy and was most affectionate to me. I watched as she opened a tissue packet filled with stones (imported from Czechoslovakia, I think). With a bracelet that had been plated and designed by Bernie, plated by my father in rhodium, she embedded stone after stone by hand, craftily pressing down on the facets with a knife. It was hard work, often tedious, but the outcome was beautiful. On other sites workers would work on a clay tablet in which pieces were put together to make a pin, a necklace or earrings. They soldered brass pieces, and the odor of resin remains in my mind. After that they were taken to my father’s site in which they were plated and then returned to the room where rhinestones were placed into them. Here you have an association as I construct this small essay, for what I take from all this is infinite care and infinite details.

Details! All my stories and essays are embedded like a stone into a setting with details. “The White Parasol” will succeed or not on the careful placement of details. And so I will share some of the details I may or may not incorporate into the story. They are a buzzing mentation in me at this moment.

After his father’s (my) death, the son, Daniel, goes through his belongings, as we all must do eventually. What he comes upon are items from my own life that I will use for the story, so they really do exist. (The irony is that these will be artifacts for my actual son to collect, assess and metabolize. Oh, the psychological permutations are manifold.) So, like Kane’s sled, Rosebud, what I own and what I describe are condensations of many different layers of meaning. Call it gravitas, if you will. A tie clasp from the Fifties has a bluish square stone attached to it, given to me by my cousin Irving: a favorite of mine and a reminder of Irving himself. Daniel comes upon two maroon prayer bags for my tallis and phylacteries, which I was given by my Grandma Fanny for my bar mitzvah (I have asked my son, Jordan, to do bury this tallis with me when the time comes.) Daniel comes upon Jewish Tales and Legends, the first book I ever owned, with an inscription from my Grandma Flora, given to me when I was about seven or eight years old. I devoured this book and many years later used some of it in a story I was writing, to good effect.

Then Daniel finds a very thick album containing many photographs of his father’s family, his mother and father, his uncles, aunts, et al. The album has a page in it on which his father identifies each and every relative because he knows no one else would. His father is a saver, an observer, loyal, a rememberer – or the rememberer is the remembered. As Daniel scours and prowls the remains of his father’s artifacts, he comes across a gold mezuzah, a picture of his sister at age one, and, of all things, an ancient Duncan yo-yo from the Fifties. And there is one old shoe tree that his grandfather passed on to his father, who was a hoofer and used to be in Vaudeville. In a jewelry box he unearths a Queens College school ring from 1962, his grandmother’s silver marriage band and the tenderest finding of all: a ring with a soldered-on heart, which his father made for his mother in a shop class during junior high school. Some of these I will distill and take only the best details I can. After all, artifacts are our leavings, the cloaca of having been.

There is a primordial, perhaps genetic, tear in all of us. Some don’t know it exists and cannot palpate it. I feel it; I am a writer. It is in Bernstein’s tale of the white parasol. So, I will put the story of “The White Parasol” on my blog in the near future, when it has coalesced, and, hopefully, it has become quaquaversal.


Matt is a writer who lives in Nevada.  He’s the author of The i TetralogyDown to a Sunless Sea, This Mobius Strip of Ifs I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust and Tesserae: A Memoir of Two SummersVisit his blogHis major works are now available in Kindle format.

David Herrle interviews Bunny Goodjohn, author of THE BEGINNING THINGS

thebegthingscoverMore details


David: Your sense of and knack for character depth is excellent, enough to make me wonder if your cast is composited autobiographically, particularly in the case of Elaine – and even Tot’s, Elaine’s daughter’s, case. Please tell us about your characterization process. Where did this book come from?

It came from unfinished business, from the questions raised by alcoholism and recovery, and from, shall we say, my own somewhat premature entry into the world of sex-masquerading-as-love. And I was lucky: I already had a cast of characters just begging to be given some new lines and situations. My first novel, Sticklebacks and Snow Globes, opened up the lives of the Thompson family, and its final chapter, while offering a resolution of sorts, seemed to leave a door open for deeper examination of family dynamics. So I handed Tot a box full of secrets and had her alcoholic grandfather move into the dining room. Then I just wrote what happened. I think I’m Elaine at heart.


David: The Beginning Things contains a good number of clever similes, which is obviously owed to your basic nature as a poet. (Or am I wrong about that?) Favorite examples: “[S]he gobbled up his sweet interest like a diabetic,” “she felt cold and pathetic, like an iceberg about to lose a chunk of itself,” “the smoke like a canopy of crows against the roof of her mouth,” and (one that belongs in the land of comedic author Tom Robbins or Douglas Adams) “the living room looked embarrassed, like a fat woman wearing a bikini and wishing she had packed her one-piece.” Does prose come to you more easily than poetry, or vice versa?

And I can’t answer this without going back to metaphor. Both forms terrify me in too many ways. But it’s terror that forces me to the page, and it’s terror that makes me go to the spaces in my imagination that have to be explored. Poetry is the benevolent straitjacket. It’s the idea pinned down by form and wrapped up so tight in language it can’t help but confess. Prose is the padded room, a host of ideas bouncing off fiction’s walls: they collide, shatter and then heal into some kind of new cohesion. Neither come easily. But sometimes the experience of the padded room is heightened by slipping on a strait jacket.


David: Tot and Dan, who are granddaughter and grandfather, share a rather cute recurring inside joke of speaking in spoonerisms to each other. (“Tug of me” for mug of tea, “Dummy and Maddy” for Mummy and Daddy, “duddy bled” for bloody dead, “dittle larling” for little darling, “Dangrad” for Granddad – with the bonus of “Dan”.) While this gag by nature teeters on the line between clever and tedious, I think it’s part of the book’s charming abnormalcy and more proof of your own linguistic playfulness. Why the spoonerisms, and do they have a particular significance in Tot’s and Dan’s relationship?

They’re the author’s indulgence. My father harnessed spoonerisms as affection. He isn’t a hugely demonstrative man and back then in the 1970s, he was almost remote. It was as if he struggled to find a way of communicating with his daughters. He relied on humor…but he wasn’t very funny. So when he began to spoon, I leapt on it as a form of shared intimacy. We could talk without the fear of talking. I could say, “I Yuv Loo” and he could say it back. With Tot and Dan, we have two unlikelies struggling to make sense of love and life. Tot is isolated by secrets, and Dan is lonely and scared inside his alcoholism. They lack intimacy in their lives, and out of necessity, they lean on each other as they struggle towards new ways of being. Spoonerisms are tedious. I think everyone else in the family were bored to tears by them.


David: While 12-year-old Tot holds her grandmother’s (Dan’s dead wife Millicent’s) cremated remains in a tea caddy, Dan tells her that there’s a set of words that can’t be spoonerized: “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Some things just can’t spoon, and there’s no getting around it.” This causes Tot to ponder the logistics of cremation and how it’s possible for fire to “turn a damp body into dust and ashes.”

She could accept the crematorium’s fire turning old skin and hair – even bones – to dust, but what about the dampness of flesh, of blood? And what about those really big bones? Like the pelvis? What about Grandma’s gold tooth? What about the screws from Grandma’s hip replacement? And the hip itself? Would it have melted and smooshes pink all over the ashes like plastic bottles did in the garden incinerator?

Unlike Hamlet’s fixation on the personalities and social statuses of the dusty dead, Tot focuses on the radical alteration of the dead body itself, giving the passage a very materialistic vibe. I always say that the blunt corpse is the best argument for nihilism, but Moby-Dick’s Ishmael insists that “Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope,” contrasting Baudelaire’s final “the worm shall gnaw thy cheek.” Talk of corpses turned to dust, faith feeding in graveyards and hope in spite of gnawing worms.

We’re such liars when it comes to death. We keep kids from funerals and placate ourselves with images of Rainbow Bridges and Pearly Gates. The dead are wrapped in white shrouds and graduate to angelic robes and wings. I’m not sure where I stand on the idea of what comes next, but whatever comes next, it comes after the reality of death: hard-fleshed, black-and-blue death. The body falls down and unlike the animals who walk away from or feed upon it, we hide it in boxes and cover it in flowers. If we knew death, we might love life more.


David: Dan’s foot phobia makes the fourth chapter stand out for me. Even the feet of his late wife horrified him. In fact, his disgust for feet is wrapped up in her cruel nature and apparent sadism. Now, I doubt that such a specific and odd detail isn’t cut from whole cloth, so where did it come from? Your own aversion, perhaps? As an outspoken female-foot fetishist (only visually, mind you) who finds intense sexiness in a woman’s feet, has made pedal lust a central part of his latest book and considers the feet to be the hands of the legs, I need to know.

(Smile!) I hate all adult feet. Hate them with a vengeance. I bet I’d hate even Jude Law’s feet. My sister used to pin me down on the stairs with her feet. She would trap my skinny little neck between her big toe and the next one. I can see her with her pale legs and freckly calves. It makes me want to slap her – even today. I like paws and claws, and I even quite like little baby feet, but grownup feet make me heave. And we’re moving into summer and the season for flip-flops and cargo shorts and I just want to throw up. So, yes. My own aversion.


David: In chapter 17 you reveal the reason behind the novel’s title, the concept of “The Beginning Things,” which refers to the evolutionary process of romantic human intimacy: Asking Questions about Unimportant Things, Paying of Compliments, Asker Pays, the 90-day Walking Away and Thinking About Everything (which Tot truncates to The Month of Walking Backwards) – and, finally, Walking Back. Tell us how you devised this relationship primer.

I’m ten years clean and sober and owe much of that to my following (obsessively, of course) a 12-step program. I was intrigued by the idea of clear directions and how they can be useful when we attempt to master new things. I mean, recipes have numbered steps; Google directions have numbered steps; in a way, each of our birthdays is a numbered step. And look at the havoc caused by assembly instructions for bookcases that rely on stupid exploded views and letters rather than on good old numbered steps. I knew Dan would be heading into the rooms of AA, and I wanted Tot’s “recovery” to mirror his experience somehow. So I had them both follow “steps.” Hence the dedication to “Bill” at the beginning of the book. Bill Wilson is a huge part of my own recovery.


David: Dan advises Tot to never “let [boys] know what you want up front” and to “never say ‘love’ to a boy.” I can’t help but link this to Elaine’s disgusted summation of men in the previous chapter, following Dan’s very inappropriate drunken sexual advances: “All of them fools, a waste of bloody space.” Often, a decent person’s fall from grace nauseates more than the predictable offenses of a jerk. That chapter ends with these telling lines: “It was easier this way. No arguments. No men in the game. No complications.” This contrasts the rather pleasant chemistry between Elaine and Simon, and, more starkly, your portrayal of kind, virginal, doting Keesal and his longing for Tot. For a long time Tot doesn’t reciprocate Keesal’s feelings: “[S]he had never thought of him as boyfriend material. Never. Never. Ever.” Oh, the agony of the world’s Keesals! Rakish Gareth Strands tend to be favored by Eros. In my experience, more men seek exclusive love, while more women tend to avoid monogamous – let alone matrimonial – situations. I found some validation for this insight when I read Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men a few years ago:

To put it crudely, now feminist progress is largely dependent on hook-up culture. To a surprising degree, it is women – not men – who are perpetuating the culture…Today’s college girl likens a serious suitor to an accidental pregnancy in the nineteenth century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it thwart a promising future.

Though the aversion for the “good guy” has always been a bane for good guys (just as bimbos and femmes fatales have always outshined girls next door), is the non-monogamous thing a matter of only perspective, or has there really been a table-turning in men’s and women’s romantic sensitivities?

I think this is just the natural swinging of the sexual pendulum. I was a teenager of the 1970s. I saw the pill not as a liberation from sexual repression but a liberation from potential pregnancy. I saw feminism and its fight for equal rights as a new and shiny possibility. I was sexually active because it was expected of me by men, and even with Germaine Greer in my corner, I couldn’t work out how to say no. “Seen and not heard”: that was the yoke placed upon me by family and working class sensibilities. As an educator in the early 2000s, I saw young women demanding equal billing with men on the sexual playbill. I think they got it. The pendulum swings. But it swings back, too: I fear feminism is now seen by young women as somehow unnecessary, an anachronism, an odd thing their grandmothers fought about back in the day. That scares me, that women might have sexual liberation today without the enduring benefits of equality.

I think I was a Bimbo Fatales. I knew nothing.


David: In A Short History of England G.K. Chesterton says “the past is not what it was,” and that line is the first thing I thought of after reading the following aphoristic line from the eleventh chapter of The Beginning Things: “Only those who have travelled too far from childhood define it as a place of simple innocence.” This is one of those statements that become more complex once they’re really considered. Is this similar to the still-popular myth of the 1950s as some golden and pure-snowy social era? Tell us more about this concept.

By the time I was ten, I had learned many things:

How to avoid being singled out in the school playground and beaten with sticks and fists.
How to beat others with sticks and fists in order to escape being beaten with sticks and fists.
That women have to force small human beings out from between their legs.
That women bleed every month.
That boys wanted to touch my body and that some would do so whether I wanted them to or not.
That “almost-men” wanted to touch my body and that some would do so whether I wanted them to or not.
That the people I loved most in the world would die horrible and tragic deaths.
That the answers to the questions I needed answering would be given to me only when I had “grown up” and that until then, I would have to soldier on in silence and ignorance.
There is precious little innocence in childhood. I think it resides in adulthood under the pseudonym Denial.

“Things That Flew at Us” by Sarah Batcheller

Sarah is currently earning her MFA in Fiction at George Mason University, where she also serves as Social Media Manager for Phoebe Literary Journal. She tweets @Sarahhh1251. 

In the beginning, I loved hearing the cicadas sing. High in the trees, reverberating, their melodic laughter buzzed. It was like they were all in on something.

I imagined them shaking the maple leaves as they balanced on the petioles and cackled, high-fiving and dancing jigs with each inside joke. Instead of soda spraying through a nostril, a paper-thin casing would slip off, exposing a shiny, raw body surprised in its new nakedness. A pause, then an eruption of more laughter from all around. It warmed me to think of how happy they must be together.  

It was the year that special swarm of Magicicada paraded the East Coast, rising from the cold ground after seventeen years. I was in the fifth grade, and enjoyed swatting their abandoned exoskeletons off of the maple trunks. The tree where I first learned to climb usually harbored the most shells, which I imagined the fat insects were doing for me. Once, in the early days of the swarm, I stole a small Tupperware container from the Lazy Susan, and filled it with seven whole shells. When I brought it inside, my mother gasped, and in trying to snatch it from my small hand, let it fall to the ground. I hadn’t closed it tight, so the top fell off, unleashing the remains onto the carpet. My dog Falcon gobbled them up before my mom could return with the dustpan and brush. When she came from the kitchen to see him munching she laughed so hard I thought her casing would slip off too.

Then, the D.C. Sniper began terrorizing the DMV, and they locked all the children indoors. I’d wondered, now and then, if the cicadas had driven him so mad with their incessant humming and shedding and dive-bombing that he just lost it. But when I offered this explanation to my father, he waved me away from where he sat in front of the computer screen, and shut the basement door behind me as I climbed back upstairs. I meandered through the house, my mother opening her mouth to say something to me but deciding against it, and landed in my bedroom at the top level.

My tulip-print curtains hung lifelessly, with no crack in the window to let in a persuasive breeze. An alien song emanated from the other side of the glass. I peeled back one curtain and spotted the ribbed belly of a cicada. The bug was stamped to my window, its lacy wings collecting the sunset. I put my forefinger to the glass where it sat, careful not to make too much noise. Finally, I pulled up my desk chair, and remained there with my new friend until I nodded off.

I’d only just gotten used to the Dogwoods reaching out to tap on my shoulders, and the scent of fresh-cut grass dancing in my nose, when the heat settled in, and with it the masses of tree roaches soaring in from the horizon. And with them, the ammo. For three weeks I hadn’t played kickball, or Capture the Flag, or anything rapid and daring in the smiling-down sun at all. My knees ached each time I peered out of my classroom window. I couldn’t un-see the Windex streaks between me and the golden outdoors. Zombie Hunters became an indoor game, for fear that if children played outside, we’d be the hunted. I recalled the echo of rustling pines that lined the blacktop at school, and the tingle of the sun.

I’d grown so used to shuffling in and out of my mom’s Honda Civic, and in and out of the Huntsman Elementary foyer, and in and out of my cream-sided townhouse, that I had never paused to listen. I’d been sitting in our front windowsill while talking on the phone with Kendra, who stared back at me from her own front windowsill up the street, when our next-door neighbor knocked on the door to borrow a Phillip’s head. During the few moments that my mom left the door open, and Mr. Douglas grinned his dorky grin and waved his dorky wave, Kendra’s voice was drowned out by the choir of sucking and vibrating torsos in the trees. It was a harmony of lust and flight and freedom so unlike the lonely cicada on my window. While his banter warmed me, the sound of the swarm was captivating.

“Lody? Lody? Are you listening?” snapped Kendra, who had been reporting news of her boyfriend Deonte passing an adulterous note to Vanessa Greeneridge during Social Studies. But I wasn’t listening to her, or Mr. Douglas’s inquiries of my subjects, or my mother insisting I answer Mr. Douglas. I was mesmerized by the cicadas’ tribal song.

“Please, mom,” I begged for days after. “I just want to sit on the porch and listen to them.”

“Not with that sicko out there, Melody.”

“He won’t come here, he could never make it all the way through the neighborhood without someone seeing the van and calling the cops, right?”

“Not quite.”

“He hasn’t shot anyone in days. He’s probably scared of all the cicadas flying into him.”

A pause.

“Mom I just –”

“Mel, I haven’t slept at all. Let’s talk about it later.” She ran an index finger absently through a tangled strand of my hair.

My father entered the room then. “Tell you what, Melody, soon as he’s caught, we’re all taking a trip to Boom Lake. Good riddance.”

My mother forged a weak smile.

We compromised on leaving my bedroom window cracked. He was a shooter, not a climber, after all. I hadn’t seen my buzzing friend, so I also left the curtains parted slightly, just so he could see that I was still here. I scribbled away at my homework each day to the sound of his kin’s chanting.

On the news the next day, we learned that a boy my age had been killed in the next school district while he was turning around to say goodbye to his mom as she dropped him off late. No one saw him go down but her. No one saw the van.

I kept my window shut that night. Before crawling into my twin-sized bed, I left a note taped to it that read, “I’m here if you feel like talking,” and left the curtains parted an inch. Later, I woke to the familiar crash of glass on hardwood, and tiptoed to my bedroom door. The lock turned itself between my thumb and forefinger. The adjacent room, the one my mother adopted after my brother went off to college, uttered the same click from its doorknob. Downstairs, the television blazed before my father’s bloodshot eyes. Tomorrow, she would polish away rings burnt into the table by the caravan of his Heineken bottles.

That morning my window dweller woke me. In school that day, I fought against dozing off to the droning of the School Resource Officer presenting safety tips to our class.  He sent pamphlets home with us.

After that, each day when my dad picked me up from school, he’d stop every block or so to peer around the corner of an end unit, or past the brick grocery store. We’d stop so often that sky beetles would blaze past my cheeks, or ricochet off of my backpack. Once, one with orbs for eyes landed right on my butt, and he brushed it away. Later, when he made me wait at the corner by the swimming pool behind a parked car to inspect the intersection, I called to him, “Do you think if I stood in the street with my arms out like Jesus, a cicada would hit me first, or a bullet?”

“Why would you ask me that?” he said.

“Do you know the answer?”

“No one thinks like that.”

I remained still behind the car.

“But I wouldn’t let him get you, anyway,” he added.

I couldn’t sleep anymore. The cicadas’ siren blared on, interrupting my dreams. I opened the window back up, and each strum and pluck of the song suddenly rattled throughout the trees. But even with a song so clear, their pearly bodies were hidden in the shadowy maple leaves.

I tailored statistics in my head: since my mother and father slept in different rooms, then one would be less likely to wake if the other one did upon heading my footsteps, so I’d have less of a chance of being caught, and if the sniper had already attacked nearby, then my chances of getting shot were practically impossible. I slipped pajamas over my cotton panties.

The rush of their buzz mimicked my own ears’ when the cool air jumped my skin. Kendra’s window was dark. I traveled up the hard sidewalk to the maple tree, and performed the same acrobatics that got me up the very first time: A pull-up onto the lowest branch and a swing of my right leg over it, sitting upright. Then I’d use the exact same method to lift myself in between the next two highest branches, which were conjoined like a narrow wishbone, then nestle into them (pretty basic, but effective when escaping a loose black lab). Surrounded by bark and leaves, I could spot five or six cicadas resting like I was. My head fit perfectly in the cupped hands of the branches.

I originally imagined the cicadas would dance and celebrate like fireflies when they saw me, but I now saw them in their true form. They were still and sure as statues. The radiance they gave the world came all the way from within, no frills, no glitz. I massaged my shoulders deeper into the tree’s prongs. The sound of a thousand güiros pushed and pulled my breath like a tide. Plateaus in the bark pressed into my palms. Moonlight softened behind my eyelids. A hum boiled in my chest, spilling down my spine and into my knees. I thought of a movement I learned in Modern Dance class, in which the dancer is flat on their back, and lifts their torso from the ground from the center of their chest. “Like a meat hook,” my instructor would say. I thought if I did this now, I would leave my skin behind. The humming continued as I lifted my solar plexus, but I almost slipped through the branches when my shoulder blades squeezed inward. My eyes tore open when I caught myself on one branch, then I sat upright.

I caught my breath and looked down. I was barely off the ground. Other kids in the neighborhood would call me a baby for only ever going that high. Another rationalization occurred: if cicadas can do it, so can I. But before I could begin to plan a higher excursion, I spotted a white van parallel parked at the end of my court. My body grew rigid. Black tinted windows grimaced against the dirty white paint, just like the images on the news. My limbs kicked like a spider’s, dragging me back against the tree trunk. I wondered if he would shoot me just so I couldn’t tell anyone.

My ears played back the panicked breath of a little girl. Two scabby knees were tied tight to my chest by stringy arms. I was sure he’d seen me and was only waiting. If I made a run for it now, he’d shoot as soon as my thin body flailed past the parked cars toward my doorstep. A vision of my mother finding my leaking abdomen in the morning made me nauseous. So I stayed in the tree until the black sky blushed indigo, and the stars opened the curtains for the luscious morning clouds. By the time a man in khaki overalls whom I’d never seen before exited Ms. Frish’s end unit, unlocked the van with a snappy beep, and climbed in, my eyes were red as chicken blood.

It was still early enough that none of my neighbors witnessed my climb back down. Shreds of bark and leaves clung to my frizzy hair. Tears gathered in my eyelids as I pitied myself and imagined the way my parents would pity me when I entered the house. On my way up our concrete doorsteps, I picked up the day’s paper in its dewy, plastic bag. I knocked on the door and was welcomed to the sight of my father’s bewildered gaze. He looked at me like I’d brought a dead squirrel home. Then he looked past me, once to the right and once to the left, curled his grip around my small elbow, and dragged me inside.

“How long have you been out there?” he snapped, causing my mother’s footsteps above to quiet.

“I’m sorry, I was scared.”

“When did you leave the house?”

“I was in the tree all night.”

All night?”

My mother’s pitter-patter retreated back into my brother’s room.

“I thought I saw the Sniper. I didn’t want him to see me.”

“The Sniper? When did you leave the house?” His hot breath hissed.

“I don’t know…”

“You don’t know?”

My voice wavered, “It was last night. I only meant to go out for a second –”

“You snuck outside last night? With that bastard out there?”

I looked up at him, shaky in all my smallness.

“For what? To look at those bugs, Mel? Jesus. Go upstairs.”

I dropped the paper. When I passed my brother’s room in the upstairs hallway I could feel the weight of her body on the other side of the door. I tried to imagine her crying, but didn’t want to give her the benefit of the doubt. I entered my room, where an intruding buzz penetrated the walls. I grabbed a history textbook from my desk, pushed the window open, and smashed the bug.

“The Sixties” by Mathias B. Freese – excerpt from TESSERAE: A MEMOIR OF TWO SUMMERS


(Read the review of this book.)

Although John Updike called the Sixties a “slum of a decade,” each of us draws from the tree of life, savoring its juices idiosyncratically. For me 1968 and 1969 were memorable years in terms of pain, angst, high anxiety, acting out, being immature, growing, evolving, fucking up. It is very hard to consciously choose to grow up, much less be so aware that we can put it in those terms. It was my second childhood, having been infantilized by immature and undeveloped parents. I felt at the time that the period itself, those two magical and critical summers, served as a lactating cradle for me, and I suckled upon its teats. I am sure we all can remember when we acted as jackasses, and how we cringe when we reminisce about all that. At some point we must give up that judgment and just dwell in a deeper understanding of our behavior at that time and place. I was a child at 28 seeking, unconsciously, to be maternalized.

My sentimental haze for the Sixties, my nostalgia, is rooted in how the times let me down easily, allowed me to relearn primary lessons not provided earlier in my own childhood. I drank deeply at the well. Much like one’s first and indelible love affair, it is often seen through a romantic haze, always dramatically thrilling, always recalled tenderly, especially when it didn’t work out. I felt macerated at the time.

I believe I can say it in a sentence: Much of my life has been a search for someone to teach me. Can you identify within yourself such a need to want to learn for learning’s sake? I am still constructed in that way, except now I am both teacher and learner. I wish it had been otherwise.

I lived in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn in an era before the wave of Russian emigres came there and turned it into Little Odessa by the sea, before 1952, that is. It was a halcyon experience for me, for I knew the streets, lanes and courtyards about our rented basement apartment. I walked the neighborhood and I took early and deep drafts of the experience of being a young boy who is somewhat open to his observations and being. I recall a particularly lovely pussy willow tree in a courtyard which imprinted itself upon my memory forever. As I recall this, I must note that I actually took time to stare at the tree, to absorb it as best I could at that age. I take pride in that I was aware at some dark level that to see was part and parcel of awareness. I recall crawling under a house with my Irish chum, Farrell, a very exciting adventure at seven or eight. Joyce writes about the milieu and ambience of Dublin in his Dubliners, which I am reading now. It is the infatuation of childhood and early youth with place, sheer environment and the intimate and often subtle interconnections subliminally absorbed.

What is to be made of these “revelations?” I would often go to the local library across the way from the Tuxedo movie house on Oceanview Parkway just before the avenue turned to go into Coney Island with the cranky El above. It was here that in the summer a Mardi Gras strutted down the wide boulevard. Here I took down from the shelves Harold Lamb’s book on Robin Hood. I plunged into it, deeply, profoundly, as its narrative swirled about and within me. Not one of the movies about Robin Hood contains what I am about to relate. Later in the book Robin Hood is wounded and bled, which is a terrible mistake. Weakening, sensing his death upon him, he asks Little John to get his bow and give it to him. Lying next to a window, Lamb describes how this once physically powerful man who once could string his bow in one move with one hand, with one strong flex of the bow, like Odysseus, barely lifted it now and feebly shot an arrow through the window. It landed next to an oak, and Robin instructs Marian and Little John to bury him there. I believe the book ends with the bow draped across his marker with an epitaph. The death of Robin Hood told affectingly and with no schmaltz moved me deeply. I was very touched by the romantic sensibility of it all. I associate to Don Quixote and his library of romances. Something seeped into me and shaped an inner sensibility. I did not have that experience until the late Sixties when I allowed myself to be transformed. Oh yes, the cliché of the transformative experience – but it was.

Reading that book was like having my feelings kneaded by the powerful arms of a baker. I was touched, moved, sunk in regret and sadness, sorrowed, very sorry for Robin, hurt deeply by the reading of his death. The power of his epitaph, the bow and his last words gnawed at me in glorious Technicolor. So, as I look back, I see the Sixties as touching upon this early imprint at eight or nine, revivifying its capacity to let in, absorb, surrender, give in to, engage and be. It was an amalgam of a childhood revisited, of the conscious and feeling substrates within us all that carry a magical perfume that no manner of disparagement can damage.

Later in life, whenever I took that three-hour drive upstate and arrived in Woodstock, I’d go into a bakery that had loaves of bread of different kinds in the store window and buy a rich, luscious, thick slice of dark pumpernickel bread chock full of raisins and ask for a shmear and a cup of coffee dark, with two scoops of sugar, and I would park my carcass on a stone bench at the Village Green and watch the human flora and fauna pass me by. Before I drove back I’d buy a trinket for my daughter Brett. I see all this as an attempt to recapture the past, the rich past I had experienced in this upstate country town with no real defining real estate characteristics except for the people who inhabited it. (I could not let go.) I am deeply romantic.

During the summer of 1968, a year after the Summer of Love, Iris voluptuously came off the bus, and she appeared frazzled. The bus stop was in the middle of the town, next to the Village Green, and I was sitting there with my friend Hal, he was in his mid-forties, observing all the passersby and those coming off the bus. Iris was dressed in a summery white suit and she was in her forties, and very well-built, zaftig is the better word. Later did I learn from her, during a pseudo-date, that she was an editor. I believe it was Hal who initially went over to her and discovered that she was, in essence, looking to see “where all the action was.” In short, she felt she was missing something, as many people of her age felt. Honestly, they were missing something!

Hal introduced me to her with the idea I suppose that we might get together. He always had his devious sexual purposes. I had silly qualms about the age difference, which was perhaps 14 years or so, and he tried to disabuse me of that rigid thinking by sharing with me that women of that age did not have to worry about getting pregnant and that I didn’t have to worry either. In other words, for him, she was prime meat. (Hal was overly libidinous.) I set up a date with her at her home in Greenwich Village and was introduced to her hulking son who appeared to be in his twenties, a discomforting detail. I was neither aggressive nor assertive with her nor did we go to bed together. It became one of those casual Sixties experiences. It was a lost opportunity because of my immaturity. By 1970 I had married Rochelle, and it was the last time I heard from Iris over the phone, a call that I rushed, being newly married, awkward and trying to disassociate myself from her. Iris never called back. What did I know of savoir faire?

In 1968 I had stepped into “where the action was” by pure chance, a newly coined cliché of the time. It was a year before the Woodstock festival. Among many others coming off the bus, I intuited their anxiety as if they were left out of something larger than themselves. And here I was, a lucky and serendipitous self, sitting across the bus depot watching the stragglers from the urban jungle in search of a clean and well-lighted place. And with a slight smugness and a cat’s bewhiskered grin, I felt sated.  I, too, had experienced that particular anxiety.

In Woodstock time was an evolving movement for me, more of a metamorphosis than incremental. Everything I am writing now and will continue to write until I end this memoir bespeaks durational time, the dwelling within the moment, like Bedouins setting out with goats, wives, children, carpets and rolled-up tents, and camels, to reach another oasis in time, without rush, asynchronous.

This kind of time was shown me in several places and in several ways. The best example was at the Pink Elephant, a restaurant a little way out of town and generally the place to go for a hamburger. It had its handmade sign posted outside, above the doorway, and the wood was painted that bluish-gray that you see in the sea towns of Massachusetts. Years later, after 1969, when the turmoil had abated it was turned into a jeans-and-T-shirt store and it went through other incarnations after that. At the time it was preciously new and quickly becoming a hangout. Almost 50 years have passed and it probably is completely gone. It did not grab my heart, but I remember it much like we know where our local movie theater was in the Fifties. I visualize it now as the movie house in The Last Picture Show.

As usual I was alone, and Marlene, the married woman with whom I was having a crazed, fervid affair, was spending the summer of 1968 in an uncomfortable truce with her unaware husband downstate on the Island. We would resume the affair in the fall. I was mournful, hurting, depressed and lonely. After such an intense attachment, it was miserable for me to separate. I asked the waitress if I could have a hamburger and coffee and began to look about at all the young faces, sniff the scent of youth in heat and lust, full of desire and craving experiences. I waited for about 25 minutes, waiting as an urban man carrying city time within him. I became impatient. I called the waitress over and may very well have had annoyance in my tone when I asked, “Where’s the burger?” I was impatient then; I am impatient now. The only difference is that, thanks to the passage of time, I am now aware of this trait. Slightly looming over me and with languorous indifference, looking like the slatternly Patricia Neal in Hud, I recall the waitress say “Cookin’.”  I didn’t realize at the time because I was into all fuss and feathers about my meal that she had shared an essential axiom about Woodstock time and life. If I wanted to adjust to all this, I would have to experience what is durational as opposed to chronological time. It was a significant learning, one which I have with me now, as we are all expedited and rushed into the future, not realizing Faulkner’s comment that the past is the present and vice versa.

Whenever I think of the waitress’ reply I feel the Earth Mother wisdom in that: the beauty of delay, for delay has much that is beautiful to it. It is embedded in the fullness of time.  Often, in practice as a therapist, when a client was buffeted by choices and overwhelmed by competing priorities, I would suggest that another choice would be to delay. How could you beat that one? I had learned that in Woodstock.

With learning how not to use time nor to saddle it but to walk alongside it, I experienced an inward feeling, newly created, so that for a few minutes during the day I felt that I was going to sweetly burst – or molt. These were private moments alone in which I felt I was swelling from within in a very pleasant way which defies description. It was more of a profound nature than a sappy happiness.

It was a time in which, I believe, I was evolving, unknown to myself, more of a slow-awakening or a metamorphosis than an incremental experience. I felt at the time, when I had dim cognizance of who I was, that I might sweetly fracture from a transforming elation. I felt. I could not explain it. It was happenchance. After all, I had only rented my body for much of my life. Once I experienced a quasi-Joycean epiphany of a kind out in a pasture with a young man and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Mary, who I was beginning to be attracted to, not knowing until sometime later that she had prepared herself to leave him and turn her attention towards me. She was 18 and nubile, and I was 28. Her boyfriend at the time was playing his guitar as she was luxuriously draped over a stone outcropping, and at the apex of this triangle I sat feeling at one with everything. I felt peaceful. Congruent is the better word.

The bucolic and pastoral setting stirred within me an ineffable moment – and no more than that – of feeling at one with my disparate selves. I had been living a schizoid experience for the last five years or so. It is the condition of being in America: divided and divided once more – and once more to make sure. Most assuredly it was the consequence of a malignant benign neglect of poor parenting.

Woodstock can’t be reclaimed from memory. Memory can only afford a map of the place, a chain of personal, bittersweet and tender associations. Woodstock is a feeling in me. I recall in the crazed state I was in an expression of freedom, however minute, that had never been mine. I reveled in the drinking in of what was all about me, for I was much the observer and knew enough to keep my mouth shut when events were new or anxiety-provoking. I recall well the styles of the time: the beaded, intricate handmade necklaces and bracelets that both men and women wore, the extended pork chop sideburns, the flared bell-bottom pants and, on very rare occasions, Nehru jackets which were fast becoming dated. Hair was very long and in ponytails for some, or a kind of short bun for others, and celebrated in the musical Hair, which summed up the Zeitgeist of the period; women let hair grow on their legs and underarms, often cleansed with soap and water rather than deodorized. Middle-aged married women in Woodstock were “infected,” for the laissez-faire atmosphere and attitudes of younger women gave them dispensation to have affairs and ultimately unload their spouses. The middle-aged male spouses from downstate often went into a reel and wandered, like brain-dead wooly mammoths, into the local woods. [The best film on that is A Walk on the Moon.]I didn’t think that the marriages were moribund. In most cases, one spouse had not learned how to live while the other spouse was in bloom.

You have to imagine Woodstock: for a moment it was a temporary Shangri-La in upstate New York, across the way from the historic town of Kingston. Essentially something was happening and changing, and it riotously infected all those open to the “disease.” Freedom and open expression always are infectious. It was a time in which I remade myself. It was a time of remaking. I have never experienced it again in this culture since. Woodstock was the French Revolution, the first free efflorescence before it turned dark. It was a Romantic period.

The songs of the Beatles saturated the culture and were the symphonic score of the time. Inherent in the lyrics and jaunty music (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) was the esprit de corps of the young and the young-minded. Driving up the New York Thruway, crossing over the Tappan Zee Bridge, with my convertible top down on my 1964 Mustang (Woodstock on wheels, lucky me!), I often would hear the Beatles’ Bolero, the six-minute “Hey Jude,” on the radio. DJs often took a whiz during the song, for it was the longest song in recent vintage. That song became my musical tapeworm, difficult to get rid of, like a stubborn case of athlete’s foot. We all recall Dustin Hoffman as Ben in The Graduate, speeding over highways in his convertible (the wonderfully sporty1966 Alfa Romeo Spider 1600 Duetto) to get to his girl, the sophisticated and syncopated melody of “Mrs. Robinson” as accompaniment. So it was for me.

The summers of ’68 and ’69 created memorable songs that were the latent underside of my life. As they blared over the radio or played on my old phonograph, memories of my delayed affair, as well as the depressive state of mind I was in, made them connect to the states of my mind, and they have remained. At the time I would tear up, wallow in my sorrow, feeling sorry for myself, missing Marlene. I remember these tenderly now: “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells, “People Got to Be Free” by The Rascals, “One” by Three Dog Night, “In the Years 2525” by Zager and Evans, “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat and Tears, “My Cherie Amour” by Stevie Wonder, “Good Morning Starshine” by Oliver, “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” by Jackie DeShannon, “These Eyes” by The Guess Who, “More Today Than Yesterday” by The Spiral Staircase, “Up Up and Away and Aquarius” by The Fifth Dimension, “This Guy” by Herb Alpert, “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins, every song on  Wildflowers, “Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan, “One is the Loneliest Number” by Three Dog Night, “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel, “The Look of Love” by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’61, “Sunshine of Your Love, Cream” by B.J. Thomas, “Everyday With You Girl” by The Classics IV, “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies. You can choose to gag on these songs with unending nostalgia, but at the time they were something quite new to experience. I venture to say that the songs in these two years were the most memorable of the 20th century, much as 1939 has been considered the greatest year in cinematic history.

I was marinated in all that, polyurethaned so many times with this music that I glowed in the dark like good oak. For me, a product – and I mean product – of the repressed Fifties, the expectorate of the Eisenhower years, it was the clearest expression of how events of the times can change an individual’s life. I began to question authority. Indeed, it was a bumper sticker on my car, and I became subversive, a trait which had lain quiescently in me for years. I was becoming self-aware while I was very unaware of myself. (Krishnamurti described this state as the “awakening of intelligence.”) If you’ve experienced psychotherapy, very much the same process occurs. At the time I was in the soup of treatment, dog-paddling to stay afloat, no attainable shore in sight. And the siren song of change was all about me; it was the music of my sphere.

I can’t express exactly what was occurring to me internally, for it is unknown to me even now, so many decades later. I am left with nostalgic and sentimental rules of thumb I acquired, and they have been much revised. It is in the telling of it that I catch now and then, here and there, like  shagging a fly, a glimpse of what I was experiencing and what I was feeling then. Feeling is the critical word. I need to be felt, always have, still do, and I don’t mind because I am very aware of it. It is under mild control, and it is definitely not “being needy.” In the shabbiest cliché of clichés, the Sixties were about feelings, at least to me, a repressed and inhibited young man in his late twenties who had not lived his life nor had experienced his body or inhabited his own soul. Without knowing or understanding I was giving up my visceral body to Woodstock. Change begins in the body more than in the mind. When we learn to dance it is often hard because we are into steps rather than flow — when you danced in the Sixties you were successful if you surrendered your body. In all the old TV newsreels of Hippies cavorting in fields, not a deliberate step is visible, everything within bodily movements. My generation was stiff: “1, 2 3, cha, cha, cha” to the driving propulsion of Ray Peterson’s “Patricia.” I was learning to be expressive.

Sexually frustrated, unconsciously in search of an interim relationship to substitute for Marlene, and wanting to be cared for, perhaps mothered, and to care about – and needy, I stumbled about in Woodstock for two summers, often staying at my friend Hal’s house which he had purchased with another couple, the wife of which he had an affair with. I was caught in this imbroglio and naïve about what was swirling about me, and Naomi, my main squeeze at the time, became a victim of that. I stayed there on weekends or longer during the summer and became, in effect, a moocher. I didn’t see what was before my eyes – but why should I have? I had been blind since I’d learned to walk. I was a very unsettled human being, frenetic and frantic, uncomfortable with myself. I was lost, an ill-defined man-child. I lived within a cloud of unknowing. To be gracious toward myself, I can say that I was finding out or discovering other ways to be.

Images of people I met in Woodstock return. They are often more compelling than what words can describe; the word is not the thing itself. I recall driving the ragged and winding back roads of town, the ragtop down, humming and not making music on a harmonica I had purchased. As I look back, I see that it was to soothe my body and lower the stress I produced like sweat.  The sun came through the trees so fiercely that the long hood of the golden brown Mustang was dappled like an Indian paint. I’d strolled by the head shops with their paraphernalia, bong pipes, inlaid trinkets of Mexican stone (jasper, hematite, jade), Picasso stone, turquoise, onyx and agate, saturated in potpourri, comely vanilla, jasmine and such. These things didn’t appeal to me, for I still had that anti-drug attitude, and I also didn’t smoke, so the appeal of the counter-culture lay in its art and in communion between souls and that I absorbed whenever I could. After all, high grades in art and music classes got me into Queens College. Turn it around and I see my need for control, which has been a lifelong issue, kept me from experimenting with the drug culture.

At that time an artistic fad making the rounds in Woodstock was to make light boxes, colored lights that glowed and flashed randomly behind Plexiglas. Once I sat in on an auction with Hal at a local gallery, which offered an artist with his putty knife affixing layers and gobs of acrylic in varying strokes and swathes across a canvas. At the end he put the piece up for auction and Hal purchased it. What I was enjoying and slightly marveling at was the extemporaneous work of an artist at play. I found that much to my liking. I was becoming open to all this without judgment or opinion.

The village back then was an enhanced urban Disneyland still trying to keep its Sleepy Hollow status: the Pink Elephant restaurant, the mild-mannered bridge that arched ever so slightly over a garbage-tainted and scurvy Catskill stream, Tannery Brook, Tinker Street, the local haunts, the T-shirt shop operated by a gay guy and his buxom woman friend. I remember an unseen and unnamed band that played rock in the backrooms of a house that fronted the main street and whose music wafted for some distance. Of all the denizens of town, one young man stood out. Perhaps in his late twenties, he wore an all-black outfit and a flat Mexican hat with a short cape, no less (“Si, Cisco”). While holding his dog on a leash, like Bogie and Bacall going for a walk, he passed by and we never spoke to one another. I also remember that 10 years later on the same street I saw this man once more. Everything had changed. I had changed. But he was still in his black Zorro attire and walking his dog. He had chosen to fossilize. I was evolving, and I had moved on.

Woodstock was a country town which constantly reinvented itself. I don’t think the locals ever made their peace with it or the recent influx of hippies and urban seekers, although it had a century or more of artists coming there. In my wanderings about town I came across an artist in his fifties or sixties who had a charming home outside of town. His name was Arthur Zaidenburg, and he made a living creating a series of instructional art manuals to teach drawing to young people. His Anyone Can Draw is a classic art-instruction book. I also discovered in a leisurely summer talk with him and his wife that he also painted murals on the cruise ship Rotterdam, murals for the St. Moritz in Manhattan, and 100 motels in Miami Beach.

What was happening to me was that I was engaging interesting people for the first time in my life, people outside the limited scope of my experience. And I remember most of all a lovely floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace that another artist friend of Arthur’s had constructed in his home. Apparently it was a swap between them. I don’t know what the other artist received. It was this artistic, sharing attitude in which a kinship existed between the two men that I took in and cherished. “An artist is never poor,” writes Izak Dinesen in Babbette’s Feast. The concept that this artist employed was new to me: to surround yourself with all kinds of artifacts that reflect your interests, your loves, what tickles your fancy, so that your home is your nest. I do that all the time in my present world. A recent find at a consignment shop was a small bronze art nouveau frame from one of my favorite style periods. I spent time exploring the countryside, a patent symptom of my restlessness as I look back now. I met Edgar Pangborn, author of the cult fantasy classic Davy. At that time he was in recovery from a heart attack, and he had moved all his filing cabinets downstairs into the living room because he could not navigate the staircase. My talks with him, as I look back, were superficial because I was superficial. His niece, Mary, and I almost had a fling but I fucked that up as well. Pangborn died in 1976, and Zaidenburg lived to 88, having left Woodstock after 30 years to join an artist community in Taos, New Mexico.

Summers ’68 and ’69 were a tumultuous time for me. In the state of mind I was experiencing, what little inner-directedness I had was minimal. I was still mostly an external man, a living decal imitating a mature man. It is distressing – and horrifying – to realize how much I was a child. What had happened to my rearing to produce such a child? I had little or no rearing. I can be safely horrified now; at the time I had not enough insight to be self-horrified. So much hard-earned learning lay ahead. I had tasted of misery but nothing compared to the future death of a daughter by suicide and the death of a wife in a car accident that happened decades later. Whatever bile I secreted, it was infused with discontent and a vast feeling of being unknown to my very self. Oh, the years we “live” unwittingly and unknowingly of our own very selves. Discontent and depression consumed me.

I lived on Ash Avenue in decrepitly dull Flushing, and the aged superintendent could not properly attend to the building. I had separated from my wife and she returned home to her mother’s house with our daughter, Caryn. It was here that I had a surprise visit from Hal. Within a short amount of time, his motive became clear: “I am wondering if I could use your apartment one afternoon.” Dense as I was, I didn’t realize he wanted to fuck his latest conquest. Of course, I knew his wife, Estelle, and his two sons, for I had often stayed at their country house. In short, he was asking me to pimp out my home. The quiet between us was stifling, for I really didn’t know how to respond. I knew I surely didn’t like the idea of someone fuckin’ on my bed. I also knew that during WW II Hal had given his wife syphilis after one of his flings, all shared with a hearty “ha ha.” I should have severed our relationship at that moment. I didn’t have, upon reflection, the balls to do so.

Hal finally sensed my internal conflict and said a few words about my being uncomfortable with his request. I decided later that it was not something to ask a friend, and we left it at that. Indeed, in the years ahead I began to sense more and more conditions being laid down to remain his friend. As long as I knew him he cheated on Estelle, who was much the enabler, and she would eventually become suspicious and confront him. He could not change.  As I look back I see the dependency in our friendship, which was skewed: father me, teach me, show me the way, instruct me in the ways of the world. I never had a father, I had a sham body pretending to be my father, and Hal served as a surrogate, a tainted one at that, until I learned better and began to self-parent myself. (To self-parent one’s self is to wear second-hand clothing.)

At the time I was frozen. I couldn’t say what I was feeling so I would fall back into silence which is always ineffective. The other person had to decipher my code and make assumptions, if so inclined. This is child-like thinking. To access me you had to be a mind reader. Who wants that as part of a friendship or relationship? As I look back at Hal’s chutzpah and imposition upon me, I feel creeped out, and his apparently negative assessment of me encouraged him to make such a request.

As I merged into the late Sixties, this inability to know what I was feeling and then to articulate it to my satisfaction, had “improved.” I can say unequivocally that I did not come to awareness as a human being until the age of 32, when my psychological and emotional selves were as tightly fixed as subway bulbs in their sockets.

(Read the review of this book.)

“Prick” by Marie Lecrivain

This is a piece from Lecrivain’s Grimm Conversations. Read the interview about the book here.


“Hello, my dear.”

“Hello M. Here’s your lunch.”

“Oh, thank you. And you included a pickle. How thoughtful you are.”

“I thought you’d like that.”

“No gold plate today?”

“No. I’m sorry, M. The royal dinnerware is being refurbished at the royal goldsmith’s. I brought you a sterling silver plate. “

“That’s all right, dear.”

“So, can we continue my lesson today?”

“Hmm… I’m not sure. I’m a little tired today.”

“Please? I want to be able to surprise my subjects.”

“Well, you know, it’s not expected of you.”

“I know, but I’m tired of having everything done for me and being watched all the time. I’m sick of rounded corners and padded walls. I’m tired of using chalk and worn pencils and safety scissors. I have no friends. I have handmaidens. My father won’t let me be seen by the court. How am I supposed to rule a kingdom if I can’t feel anything? Life isn’t supposed to be comfortable, is it?”

“No, my dear. It’s not. But remember: you are royalty.”

“I’m royalty who has never had a bruise, scab, or any kind of pain, short of menstrual cramps.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Yes. I do.”

“All right. Take off your lovely gown while I finish this pickle.”

“What are we doing today?”

“Excuse me? You know that is not the way to address me.”

“Yes, Mistress. I’m sorry.” 

“That’s better.” 

“Thank you, Mistress.”

“I see that you are still wearing your corset. How did you like it?” 

“I love it, Mistress. I love how the stays press into my ribs when I try to bend over. The little breaths I have to take to keep the pain at bay… ohhh… it’s wonderful!”

“Now, bend over. Ahh… what a lovely bum you have.”

“Yes, Mistress. Oh! Ow! That smarts. Thank you, Mistress.”

“What do you say?”

“Thank you, Mistress. May I have another? Oh!… Oh!… Oh! …Thank you, Mistress!”

“That’s better.”

“Mistress, may I kiss your boots?”

“What is the magic word?”

“Please? Oh, please, Mistress. May I kiss your boots?”

“You may.”

“Mmm… Thank you, Mistress… Mwah… Mwah… Thank you.”

“That’s enough, my dear.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“Sit up. Put your hands at your sides.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“You are such a pretty thing and so willing. How old are you, my dear?”

“Nineteen years today, Mistress.”

“Happy Birthday, my dear. I have a special present for you.”

“You do?”

“I do. It’s a gift fit for royalty. Would you like to see it? Close your eyes. Now, hold out your hands.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“Here it is.”

“May I open my eyes?”

“Yes, dear, you may.”

“Thank you, Mistress. Oh… what is it?”

“It’s a scepter, my dear. Do you like it?”

“I’ve never seen one, except for Father’s. This one is so different. It’s so firm and soft at the same time.”

“This is a scepter for a queen. Would you like to know how to use it?”

“Oh, yes please, Mistress.”

“A scepter for a queen is not to be wielded like a club. A queen’s scepter is to be treated with love and devotion. It contains great power. Power that can be contained -within you.”

“How would I do that?”

“I will show you. You must do as I say.”

“Yes. Mistress.”

“Good girl.”

“Will I have to eat it?”

“No, not unless you want to.” 

“It’s a trifle large.”

“That’s only your imagination, dear.”

“How can I use it?”

“Just do as I say and let your instinct guide you.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“Now, lay down… Good… Take the scepter in your hands. Stroke it, run your hands over it. Good… Slowly… slowly… make it feel like it’s a part of you.”

“Mistress, this feels nice.”

“Good, my dear, very good. Now, bring the scepter to your lovely lips. Give it a kiss, a gentle kiss. Good. Very good. Give it another kiss. And, another. Good. Open your mouth. Open wide. Let your tongue explore the tip. Good. Very good. Now, put a little bit of the scepter into your mouth. Enclose you lips over it. Good, my dear. Take in some more… a little more… a little more…”


“Yes, dear. That’s right. Take in as much as you can, but don’t swallow it. Now, slowly pull it out of your mouth, and suck in it in again… slowly… in… and… out… in… and… out… in… and… out… deeper… deeper… in… and… out… slowly… this is the source of your power… you love your power… in… and… out…”


“Yes, my dear. I can see you’re a natural. Now, remove the scepter from your mouth. It’s nice and wet, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“Are you nice and wet in your other place?”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“Good. Now… take your scepter and rub it between your breasts. Such lovely breasts you have, my dear. Touch the scepter, roll the tip around the right breast… slowly… feel the power… Yes, that’s very nice… very good… now, the left breast… good, very good. Remember, my dear. Men rule with their fists. Women rule with their wiles.”

“Oh… Oh… Yes… Mistress.”

“My dear, you’re blushing.” 

“I’m sorry, Mistress. I don’t mean to.”

“Don’t apologize, my dear. You look lovely. How do you feel?”

“I feel so good, but I feel like I need to – ”

“Need to what, dear?”

“I don’t know. I feel like I need to… to… caress myself with the scepter, between my -”

“Ahh… I knew it. Good. Your lesson is done. Give me back the scepter.”

“No, please, Mistress. It’s mine! Please don’t take it from me.”

“You’re too impatient, my dear, too eager. I don’t think it’s the time for you to learn how to wield your scepter. Give it back. Right now!”

“Please, Mistress, please, let me keep it. I’ll do whatever you want.”

“Hmm… I don’t know. I may have to tell your father about this. He wouldn’t be pleased.”

“Please, Mistress. Don’t tell him! He doesn’t need to know. I’ll be good; I will. Please don’t take away my scepter.”

“Let me think about it.”

“Please, Mistress. Please.”

“All right, my dear. But, you’ll do exactly as I tell you. No protests, no complaints, even if I decide to stop your lesson.”

“Oh, yes, Mistress. Thank you.”

“Now, lay back down. Good. You have such a lovely body, my dear. Pick up your scepter again. Hold it in your hands… stroke it… good… your scepter is warming up to you, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“Now, hold onto the scepter with your right hand. Tweak your nipples with your left hand… Quickly… just the tips… Good, just like I taught you. Good!”

“Oh! Oh! Oh! This feels so good, Mistress. Mmm… thank you! Oh…”

“Yes, my dear. Don’t forget the other breast.”

“Ooh… Ahh… Oh…”

“Excellent, my dear. Your nipples are at attention. Such lovely little rosebuds they are. Like mine used to be.”

“Thank you… mmm… Mistress! Ohhh… mmm…”

“Now, caress your torso. Run your hand up and down, gently, slowly… good… very good… such smooth skin you have my dear… lovely… now… spread your legs… wider… wider… good… Oh, my dear… how lovely you are.”

“Do you think so, Mistress?”

“Yes, my dear. Here, let me kiss you… mmm… You smell so fresh, so lovely… mmm…” 


“Do you like that, my dear?”

“Oh… yes… Mistress… that felt so wonderful… I’m so wet!”

“I know, my dear. Here, let me kiss you again… mmm…”

“Oh! Oh, gods! Oh!”

“Not so loud, my dear. You don’t want the royal handmaidens to hear.”

“Oh… I’m so sorry, Mistress… I just… it feels… so… good!”

“I know. Now, take your scepter and move it between your legs. Slowly… slowly… yes… that’s it… Stroke your secret place with the scepter… You’re getting wetter, aren’t you?”

“Y-yes, Mistress!” 

“Do you remember what I told you about how a queen must keep her scepter contained within her?”

“Y-Yes, Mistress.”

“Then, here is how you are going to – Wait. Stop. Stop that right now!”


“Stop. Did I tell you to do that?”

“No. B-but, Mistress. It feels so right. I can’t help myself.”

“Yes. You can. You are royalty. Don’t abuse the scepter’s power, or I’ll be forced to take it from you.”

“Oh, please, Mistress. I’m sorry.”

“This is your last warning. Do exactly as I tell you. Understand?”

“Y-Y-Yes, Mistress.”

“Fine. Now, take the scepter in your left hand… Yes, good girl. And now, with your right hand, find your nub… like I showed you… Good… take the scepter and press it against your nub… Yes! Exactly like that, yes! That’s exactly right. Good! Rub against it, meld against it… good… good… Spread your legs a little wider, my dear. I can’t see your glory… Excellent… Oh, my, how deliciously wet you are.”

“Oh… Mistress! I… I… I… want… I … want…”

“Arch your back… there you go… good… press… press harder… harder… harder… oh… my. It’s getting warm in here…”

“Mistress… Ahh… Ohh… Mmm… Ohh!”

“Good! Very good, my dear. You’re positively drenched. Good. Now, are you ready?”


“Good! Take your scepter… tease your opening… that’s it… Good, push it in a little… just a little… good… very good…. how does that feel?”

“It.. oh… it… hurts… oh… The pain… Ahh!”

“Good. You love the pain, right?”

“Y-y-yess… M-m-mistress…”

“Arch your back a little more… good… push the scepter in a little farther… good… good… let your body adjust… oh, my dear… you face… you look so beautiful…  Now push it all the way in… Push!”

“But… Mistress, it hurts! I – it hurts!”

“Now, do it! Do it Now!”

“Oww… Ahhh… Oww!”

“Wonderful, my dear! One prick of the spindle, I mean, the scepter, and my work here is done!”

David Herrle reviews Mathias B. Freese’s TESSERAE

Tesserae-front-cover-large-edit-689x1024published by Wheatmark


I am spent, I am wrung out. I need to be cared for. I need to be vulnerable, to relent, to surrender all my stiffened defenses and deliver myself over to the person who would love me as I am. I am something of a mortal shipwreck. – from Tesserae’s afterword

(Read an excerpt from the book.)

Tesserae: A Memoir of Two Summers
is “the remaining juice” of an “orange” quartered by two life-changing summers author Mathias Freese spent in Woodstock, New York in the late 1960s, and the interior of that “orange” is anything but clockwork. This memoirist turns himself inside-out and reveals biology and soul, the lost person in the persona, the ultra-subjective and exclusively human vehemence of memory.

After growing up “suppressing feelings and sexual urges,” young Freese “drank deeply at the well” of the summers of 1968 and 1969 and savored “an ineffable moment…of feeling at one with my disparate selves.” Tesserae was written, I assume, to somehow feel at one with countless disparate memories. Eventually, if given the luxury of lucidity and time to reminisce and inventory our pasts, we seek to encapsulate everything for epitaphic effect, and, no matter what, we live to die, and gravesites are never far from our introspective insights.

“It is in the telling of it that I catch now and then, here and there, like shagging a fly, a glimpse of what I was experiencing and what I was feeling then,” writes Freese. In a sense, similarly to how orgasms are called “little deaths,” clear but fleeting memories may be called little lives, sudden and evasive miniature lifetimes in themselves that spark long enough to prove that the past still exists and breathes. “The past is never dead,” as Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” Then again, Eugene in Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons blows that idea apart: “There aren’t any old times. When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times.” So, which is it? Or are both views true? I can say this: In Tesserae there is a sense of simultaneous total loss and emotional resurrection through recollection and unsure evaluation.

W.S. Maugham was right in his memoir masterpiece The Summing Up when he claimed that “no one can tell the whole truth about himself,” so memoirs, of course, are always suspicious – and should be. In a chapter called “Et Al.,” Freese essentializes this autobiographical handicap, which is aptly analogized with the unsavory process of autopsy:

Autopsies are best performed by a dispassionate party. A self-autopsy of a relationship such as a love affair is vastly muddled, grossly misunderstood, lacking in nuance and subtlety, without perspective and basically without objectivity…All of us see through a glass darkly if that, make mine the bottom of a Coke bottle.

With shared self-analysis there’s always the danger of whitewashing, but notoriety also can be fabricated for shock or thrill, which is the case for, say, Errol Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways and Klaus Kinski’s Uncut. But perhaps that’s part of the fun of memoirs. Whether we admit it or not, we self-dramatize, since human existence is naturally dramatic. With Freese, however, there’s a sharper sense of trust for the reader, an assurance that there is a modicum of CGI and masks. There’s mostly effective design, editing and chiaroscuro, just like a Welles film. And, also like a Welles film, there is no real central point or graspable lesson, or even a plot that matters very much. Instead, it’s more about the sound and fury rather than the significance, poignant incidentals rather than dramatic universals.

Just as Nabokov control-freakily interviewed himself and planned all other interviews completely, we tend to prefer to be the ultimate last word on ourselves and our lives, whether we admit it or not. What is memoir if not a reflecting pool rather than a film projector? Autobiographical stuff is self-dialogic. It’s all about the person writing the book; readers are bystanders. And real-life cast members within are more means than ends. For instance, in “Matt’s Son” the first-person narration is given to Jordan, Freese’s actual son, recalling a father/son day back when he was only nine years old (the recollection happening after Freese’s death, curiously enough). “Jordan’s” observations and evaluations are undeniably Freese’s, broadcasting his own wishes for how the son might/should assess the father.

My late father was a philosophical ham, and he spoke as if what he imparted was to be inculcated in me for all time (it often was)…My father only asked the big questions, hoping, I imagine, that I would then pose them to myself in words I could manage. Art of all kinds was my father’s pleasure and at nine I knew that already.

This also is so for an earlier piece, “On Naomi,” in which the narration is done by the title character, a former lover. Again, her analyses of Freese are Freese’s analyses of Freese. It’s as if the author uses this biographical character as a mirror or, better yet, a therapeutic sounding board – or a living written statement, so to speak, composed by someone who is too embarrassed to face the crowd about certain topics. For example, the piece begins: “I’m Naomi, and this part will be mine as Matt is uncomfortable with it after all these decades…”

Again and again Freese returns to psychological motifs through reconstructions of past people, places and events. Those filtering elements don’t strain out the dirt, however, because his foibles and miserable failures of himself and others are never concealed or downplayed. In the case of Naomi, Freese reacts selfishly and neglectfully when she reveals that she was raped while he slept elsewhere in the house of a friend: “[W]hen I needed him most critically he was unreliable.” Insensitivity is perhaps his biggest regret, and it certainly is the cause of many negative chain reactions throughout his life. This is summed up perfectly near the end of the Tesserae: “Was I thoughtless about people over the years? (Most definitely. And hurtful.)”

You can take the therapist out of the psychotherapy, but psychotherapy can’t be removed from the ex-therapist, and Freese, who once worked in that very career, wouldn’t be able to take off his professional eyeglasses if he wanted to. Tesserae is primarily a therapy session, with the author doubled: one on the listener’s chair and one draped over the patient’s couch. Though psychotherapeutic style pervades the entire book, this situation is literally rendered in two therapist/client sessions, at the beginning of the book and one near the end. Amidst the free association and dredging of discontent there are stark statements of psychological symptoms’ why rather than what, and it is Freese himself who is both diagnosed and diagnosis giver:

I had not acquired, nor was I shown, the tools of exchange, of embrace and engagement. I was not open to the world…I will get to it quickly for after that is mostly commentary. I feel I was not cared for by my mother nor did she engage me as her son.

Also diagnosed is the recent dissolution of his last (third?) marriage: “I lost my wife Jane because I fled from myself. At moments repression turns us into cowards. I have been a coward in my time.” Such honesty about his folly and sins contradicts an uncharacteristically self-forgiving line in an earlier piece: “So I’ll say it to myself and you: I’ve matured into a good man.” The contrast between that line and the frequent self-damning lines is emphasized best in the most excruciating and affecting chapter of Tesserae, “A Father’s Confession to His Daughter,” in which Freese acts as his own spiritual executioner:

I destroyed something vital in my daughter, something unforgettably unforgivable. A father does not do this. And if he does strike out the soul of his child, may his heart forever shrivel, may his hand become biblically palsied and may he blame himself to the end of his days.

I’m surprised that this particular horror wasn’t mediated by another narrator or the useful therapist. Also surprising is the fact that, despite the gravity and pain of this confession, Freese concludes that “the greatest pain I live and have is the loss of Rochelle,” his second wife (of almost 30 years), who died in a car accident in 1999. “When she died I died too,” he writes in the Afterword, which means that this memoir is told by a dead man, or a spiritually dead man at least, making the posthumous (post-Matt) telling of “Matt’s Son” more understandable. Appropriate that Freese wants this to appear on his gravestone: “HE LOVED ROCHELLE.” If a gravestone is analogous to a book or memoir of sorts, a tablet bearing final words or a “Rosebud”-like summing up, perhaps this inscription can be seen as the radically boiled down and truer draft of Tesserae.

Anyone familiar with his other work isn’t surprised by Freese’s ability to always dig deeper through apparent bottom after bottom of self-analysis. People who haven’t the capacity or are too fearful to analyze themselves refuse to or don’t even think to notice themselves (their many selves) in surrounding mirrors, as is illustrated in the famous Citizen Kane scene of the title character walked obliviously down the mirrored hallway. “Fearlessness makes for authenticity in writing, so I can measure myself and not be a crybaby about it,” he writes near the end of the book, and fearlessness is necessary to face one’s own face, which is surely a dark abyss. Darkness persists in much of Freese’s literary output, but, despite that darkness, that tendency to descend into the psyche’s hell, there is some rejuvenating illumination. In contrast to a fundamental sense of shame and ominous Rorschach perceptions, there also are “non-maudlin memories”: childhood movies and radio shows, makeshift slingshots and scooters, esteem-affirming Surprise Lake Camp, the unintentional comedy of scolding adults, Coney Island (and its frankfurters, root beer, ice cream and cotton candy), good and liberating friends, Brother Theodore and his “Quadrupedism,” and “tumultuous sex” with “fantasy personified” Marlene (the lover of his life).

Though writing may be therapeutic for the author and serves as his or her purgation, there is an undeniable inadequacy in language, a basic falling short, an ephemerality. As usual with Freese’s work, there’s evident ambivalence and frustration in regard to both the power and powerlessness of the written word, literary communication’s simultaneous magic and futility, its being both gold and grass. “Maybe I write because it is in the word that we find our worth, we become,” writes Freese. This is all nice and good, but, as Freese realizes, “we must admit as writers that words cannot say it all. The best we can ask for is an approximation of the felt truth. Krishnamurti said it best: ‘The word is not the thing.’” And later: “Words fail me as I write, for I have to be sensible to you, and yet I feel tongue-tied about what words or expressions I can use.” Freese nails linguistic limitation most succinctly this way: “I cannot say what I need, but I feel it.”

I return to Maugham’s Summing Up for a key passage about the idealistic concept of genuine purgation in writing: “Nothing befalls [the author] that he cannot transmute into a stanza, a song or a story, and having done this be rid of it. The artist is the only free man.” At first this rings true and elevates a writer’s spirit with the belief in a salvational power in art and hippie-dippy visibility “thro’ narrow chinks of [her or his] cavern,” to evoke Blake, but implosions like the brutal ones excerpted above obliterate any lasting metaphysical peace. I’ll go far into corny territory to say that Tesserae sounds and looks like tears array, a basic lamentation. Yes, the Sixties were a “liberating” and magical time, and Freese owes so much to those two fateful summers, but no era and no special seasons can bury unsettled ghosts or prevent the ultimate imprisonment of mortality and the “not to be” inherent in being.

(Read an excerpt from the book.)