Hardly Noticeable

Sunday, December 31, 2006

You have to work your way up

Start at the bottom. Go ahead, try it and see if you like it.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Who am I kidding?

Will I update this blog soon? Probably not. Some day, though, it will come back with a huge amount of glory. With glory coming out its ears like wax or eardrum juice.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Koreans love me

“Commercial, you mean. There’s only one, Gabe.
“Well, it starts out with me sitting in a chair looking directly into the camera. I’m wearing the kickass silk suit I got in Itaewon. You remember the one? No, the one with pinstripes. No, the black one. Yeah, that one. Well, I start by asking the audience a question, ‘Are you tired of being the last one picked in gym class’—No, I don’t think it’s too infantile. People respond to that: most of my clients—okay, fine, potential clients—will really understand what it’s like to be picked last in gym class.
“Anyway, I continue: ‘My name is John Smith’—Yeah, I decided on Smith. Nitkowski is just too much, you know? Nobody respects that name.—‘My name is John Smith and I’m here to help you.’ I point directly at the camera on ‘you’ and then swivel in my chair to camera two—I know, two cameras is fancy.
“I finish with: ‘Let John Smith help you to become the man you’—No, I don’t think so…It’s not like I need to say ‘woman’ or anything like that. What woman is going to go see John Smith speak? Well, yes, I am quite handsome.—Oh shut up. I’m not saying it. Okay fine, dashing—but I just can’t see it happening.—‘Let John Smith help you to become the man you want to be. Come to my seminar and renounce the old you and apotheosize the new you’—It’s a word. No, it is. I looked it up. It means to turn into a…okay, you know what it means. See, it works perfectly with what I’m trying to accomplish. To make people gods, yes, that’s my goal. Just like the deification of motherfucking Julius Caesar.
“No, no venue—that’s what we call it in the industry—yet. But I do know a guy who works at one of the stadiums around here. Yeah, it seats 50,000. What do you mean? I don’t see what testosterone has to do with anything. Oh, the no females thing. I’m sure men will bring their wives. Yes, or mistresses. Start small schmart small. I’m looking for the big time, Gabe. This is my chance. Thanks, but I think I know what’s best for me, and little high-school presentations are not in my future. I’m not a washed-up NFL lineman. I’m John Nitkowski—That’s right, I’m John motherfucking Smith, bitch.”

I’ve often been impressed by John’s almost godlike ability to deflect any criticism. He is the apotheosis of himself, I suppose, and he exudes ethereality. He is, to put it succinctly, John motherfucking Smith, bitch.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

I am a poet's poet's poet.


Taking a taxi to work is starting to drag on me. Today I stood outside in the rain for fifteen minutes before the first one even stopped, and when the driver saw my WaeGuk face he drove away. Eventually, my neighbor Mi Hwa walked out of her apartment and hailed the cab for me. The cabbie nearly drove off when I quit obscuring myself with my umbrella and he saw who was getting into his car. I’m assuming Mi Hwa threatened him (the whole conversation consisted of snaps and pops and syllables I’d never heard strung together before, galvanized by a fantastic scowl that creased her forehead), as he allowed me to tell him where to go and drove off. The drive was a solid half-hour of griping and complaining and the smell of kimchi emanating from a bag on the front seat. I watched the digital dial move with inexhaustible momentum towards the 13000 won that the trip would end up costing me.

Woong-han kept me away from Kindy (word got out about Kenny yesterday and he decided that it’d be best if I stayed away from the younger kids) today. I agreed with him, as I didn’t particularly enjoy reliving, being reminded, etc. The older kids all laughed at my story about the cabbie. They said that Korean taxi drivers didn’t like foreigners because they couldn’t understand them. I said, “That’s interesting, because in America people don’t like cab drivers because they can’t understand THEM.” They didn’t notice the chiasmus.

John called from San Antonio. He asked all the roommate questions first (“How much was the last gas bill?” “How about the last electrical bill? Cable bill?”). He has by now started his motivational speaking business. He has zero clients, but he has enough startup capital to put some commercials on television. He attempted to extract various details about my personal goings-on for the last few weeks, but I managed to distract him by asking about his commercials.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Do you know what makes time travel possible?

The first—and only—time I’d visited Nebraska was the day before I flew to the ROK. My car broke down just outside Lincoln, so I locked the doors, grabbed my backpack and wallet and trudged the five miles into town. I walked into a sports bar and ordered a beer and tried to figure out what to do. The bar was filled with an assortment of lifers and University of Nebraska students, at least that’s what I figured.
The place stank of the antique cigarette smoke that was continually reborn out of the fibers of chairs and booths. Fifty-year-old Pall Malls clawed their way to the surface of the swiveling barstool I plopped down in next to an old guy wearing a baseball cap that said “Fishermen have longer rods.”
“Can’t sit there. That’s Hep’s seat,” he said. The man didn’t look up. He talked directly into the mouth of his glass.
“Excuse me?” I said. Surely this man wasn’t talking to me, the college-educated genius sitting before him.
“That’s Hep’s seat. He’ll be in ‘bout ten minutes,” he said in a slow drawl. He was gripping his glass tightly, I thought for a moment that he’d break it. He took his face from out of his glass, turned to the bartender and said, “I’ll have another blackberry brandy and bitters.”
The bartender walked to the old man and poured his drink stiff. I asked him for a beer and he obliged.
“Blackberry brandy and bitters, huh? I’ve never seen anyone drink that before,” I said. For some reason, I was—I guess still am—very keen on chitchat whenever I sat next to a stranger in a bar. The old man seemed nice enough, if a little reticent. Perhaps he didn’t like my eyebrows or the way I wore my shoes. Either way, talking to him was difficult.
“Yep,” he said taking a long swig of his blackberry brandy and bitters. The liquid stained the inside of the glass momentarily, the sides darkened and infused by its alcoholic heat. The old man squinted and his lips pursed tightly at the angry liquid descending towards his stomach. The alcohol was having its desired effect, I figured, since he let out a sigh and smiled.
“That’s a good hat,” I said, commenting on the obvious hilarity of his hat. “So, you like fishing, then.”
“Well then,” I said. I turned my body approximately 30 degrees away from him and pretended for a moment that he wasn’t there. But, of course, since I had just finished my first beer I was not about to quit talking. I swiveled on my bar stool and looked at the corner of the old man’s eye.
“I’m allergic to corn.”
“Say what? What’re you talking about, son?” the old man replied.
“I’m allergic to corn.”
“I heard what you said. Why’d you say it?”
“I just thought you should know. We are in Husker territory. I played football at Oklahoma, so I been here a few times before. I always like to tell Huskers about my allergies,” I lied. The bartender had given me another beer, and I pounded it.
“Oklahoma? Sounds like you’re some sort of Oklahomo,” the old man said without smiling.
“Aw mister, I’m just kidding. I actually played special teams for the Huskers for all four years,” I continued to lie. “I even started my last game as a senior. Only played two plays, but I did start.”
“Hell, you ‘bout gave me a heart attack talking about darn Oklahomos. Once Hep gets here he’ll wanna meet you. His son played for Nebraska, too,” he said. He called to the bartender, “’Nother blackberry brandy and bitters, Jose.”
“Well I’ll have to talk to Hep’s son, then. I’m sure I know him,” I said, realizing that I’d have to leave once Hep arrived. “You know, I can’t get over that drink of yours. I’ve never seen another soul drink something so interesting.”
“Well, let me tell you something, son. Now, I’ve been alive a long time, and I’ve learned some things,” he began. “You’re really a Husker then, right? ‘Cause no Oklahomo could handle this little bit of insider info. Good, good.
“Son, what I’ve got here is blackberry brandy and bitters. Tastes like shit, let me tell you. But blackberry brandy, that’s 35% alcohol by volume. Bitters, that’s 35%, too. And they don’t charge you extra for it. So the way I sees it, I’m getting 70% alcohol for the price of 35. That’s a deal, no matter how it tastes,” he finished. He tipped his hat towards me, I assume he wanted me to order myself such an exotic drink, but I demurred.
“That’s great to know. Seriously. I’m allergic to blackberry brandy, too, though. Can’t drink it or I break out in hives. Terrible. Tragic, even,” I said.
“There’s Hep,” the old man nodded towards the door as a lanky man walked in. “You was sitting in his seat, remember.”
“I have to go. It was nice meeting you,” I said and left the bar.

The kids didn’t really understand the story, but we worked out the math problem on the board and they did understand that 35 percent plus 35 percent did not equal 70 percent. They are really quite bright in every area except English language acquisition.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Tundra, Volcanic Island, Pampa, Savannah, Bayou: That's all I can remember right now


It’s weird, but this is the first time in my life that I’m happy to work overtime. Today I worked three extra hours. I told Woong Han that I’d teach some more advanced classes, and he was more than happy to set them up. I suppose it’s another few hundred thousand Won in his pocket. Since John left a lot of the kids have quit coming; Woong Han must be hemorrhaging money. I don’t blame the kids for not coming: compared with John I am not exactly Enthusiasm Jones. He did a good job keeping them engaged, whereas I tend to do a mediocre job keeping them awake.

Kindy was not so bad as I thought it would be, but not as good as it was a few months ago. Perceptive. That’s the adjective I need to describe the kindergarten students. Even without a modicum of English ability they know how they make me feel. Kenny (I think his real name is Sung Soo, but I could be making that up. He’s Kenny here.) sat in the back of the room crying softly, but whenever I went near him he burst into choking sobs. The second time I got close he cried so hard that he gave himself the hiccups and I had to send him out to the water cooler to get a paper cup’s worth of water and to calm down. He’s never re-acted that way before, but then again I’d never acted that way before. The class spent most of their time coloring animals. Most popular choice: Liger. Followed by Polar Bear, although they called it “Podu Bear” and drew a bunch of grapes around it. I assume that Podu means grapes, but I suppose it could mean “teacher is an idiot for not knowing Korean.” Though I highly doubt that.

Some of the girls in the advanced class had been watching Friends on Armed Forces Korea Network and wanted me to tell them about New York. I’ve never been to New York, so I decided to tell them a story about Nebraska because I had been thinking about the story earlier this morning. I think I’ve written about it before, but I’m not about to search through notebooks to find it. Or computer files. Or typewritten pages.

Monday, November 07, 2005

I'm a king amongst kings

The story goes like this:
At the end of the Korean War, all Koreans were allowed to choose which side of the DMZ they wanted to live on. The men were lined up on Freedom Bridge, and each man in turn could either walk across the bridge to North Korea or stay back and live in the south. I suppose it was inevitable that there was going to be some problem with the last man to cross, since that’s how stories about the war seem to work.

This man was not a brave man. When the Americans were near his village, he hid with American sympathizers. When the Russians were near his village, he hid with Russian sympathizers. Because of this, he didn’t want to go to either side, since he’d be branded a coward wherever he went. He had had one son, but the boy had frozen to death during the previous winter. During the next spring his wife took a boat across the East Sea and was granted asylum in Japan. So, not only was he a coward, but his wife had defected to the country that had previously started a war on Korean soil.

When the guns were pointing at him, pushing him to go to one side or the other, he made the decision to do neither. Instead of choosing North or South, he spent the rest of his life living on the strip of land under Freedom Bridge in the DMZ. Even as the Americans and the Russians—I mean South and North Koreans, of course—were putting land mines all around him, he stayed under the bridge and was safe. He only lived for two or three years, but during that time good-hearted people from both sides would throw him scraps during the winter, when he couldn’t fend for himself.

I asked Eun Hwa and Son Mi if the man brought messages from one side to the other, since that would seem to be a logical thing to have happen, but they said no. If he would have brought messages, someone might have shot and killed him. He became a type of phantom, a ghost feeding off the leftovers of the living.

Tomorrow I have to teach the kindergarteners. I don’t know how I’ll deal with it. Perhaps it will be okay

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Caution: Abrupt Tone Shift and Seemingly different story. Trust me, it's the same one...


The sun was out today. On the way to the subway I saw two neighborhood kids, a boy and a girl. The boy had taken one of the girl’s inline skates and was using one foot to push himself across the road with it on the other. The girl was yelling after him, crying, trying to position her stockinged foot so she didn’t get her sock dirty on the pavement. I was going to go over and take the skate away from the boy, but I feared it might cause an international incident.

Son Mi said she called me this weekend, but I don’t remember the phone ringing. I probably wasn’t in any state of mind to talk anyway. She went to the Buddhist temple in Insadong, and I wouldn’t have wanted to go there.

Today is my 10 and a half-month anniversary (which is not an anniversary at all, but merely some sort of fraction of a versary that I choose not to figure out) which means I have thirty more days until I go back to the States. I should’ve already bought my plane ticket, but I haven’t. Plans change, etc.

Son Mi and Eun Hwa told me a story today. We were on our lunch break at school walking to the kimbap house to get some kimbap and soup. (The kimbap was good: they rolled the seaweed into a tight cylinder so that none of the vegetables or rice spilled out; the roll was cut evenly into discs; the rice was soft and fluffy and surrounded the vegetables and ham all sides.—the place was called Gim Po Kim Bap) I am never sure what to believe when they talk, because they have a tendency to bend the truth when they are together. If they are apart, both of them are, of course, paragons of virtue.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Sex boobs sex tattoos big big big big(let's see if that title gets some google hits)

This has to be where it began, where it incubated, why I am the I who I am, no? Childhood dreams destroyed, twice abandoned, the silence like a noose around my neck, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum?
If I am the sum of all my parts, must every part hold weight? The weight of the egg was the eggshell plus the chick inside. These events, are they merely a shell for something with a much greater mass? Does it matter if what I’ve said is true? What about all the fluid on the chick’s wings? It’s neither egg nor chick, but it has mass and takes up space: it matters; it’s matter. It’s the matter that isn’t accounted for, that I forget to name. Or that I lie about. Or that I forget when I lie about.
I know what I don’t know; I lie about what I know. I lie about while I know. This is the beginning. In the beginning were these words, and these words were with me and the words were me. This must have been the beginning. Yet, even in this beginning, there is the other beginning. In the beginning my grandfather created my voice and the words. Because before I said nothing, and my voice was without form and a void, and my thoughts hovered over the silence. Is what I’ve written the beginning of the beginning, or is it in itself an end?
I must sleep, for I have to work, and work keeps me from forgetting to be the I who I am when I am not this I. And work keeps me forgetting about the I that I was before I was this I. And the He and the She who are no longer Yous to Me. The He who is no longer a You to Anyone.

I am the I that is the square root of silence.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Got a heart of gold right here in my rusting chest

My grandfather had given me a dictionary for my ninth birthday and often sent me letters laced with words that I had never seen before. The words were not arcane or sophisticated: they were merely words that were just beyond my level of comprehension. A letter that I had received in June, a letter that I still have to this day, had the word “foreboding,” a word that I did not know. I had looked it up and written it in my word journal, but up until the moment I walked into my room I never truly understood what the word meant. I could smell it in the air, something tainting the natural milk-mustard scent of the room. In the box I saw the little chick that I had never named, its feet sticking out from the top of the bowl of water I’d put in the box. It must have tried to reach too far into the water, and in doing so it drowned under its own weight. If it had been able to cry out, I would have been able to save it. It shall be resolved. I had cursed that little chick to its death; that was the only thought clear inside me. I looked at that notebook, the green notebook, and my eyes began to burn.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Start at the Beginning. It feels better

I couldn’t look at my father during dinner that night. He had used my mom’s makeup to create relatively normal-looking eyebrows, but that wasn’t why. I had stolen from him again, this time old chicken feed from out in the garage. I tried to keep my mind in check, but it kept wandering in all directions.
“It doesn’t look that bad,” my mother said to him. She was chewing on a piece of steak. They had decided that they’d had enough chicken for one day.
“Are you kidding? This is bad,” he said. He was probably pointing at his eyebrows.
“Yeah, well at least you didn’t burn your skin. I saw some bad cases when I was volunteering at the hospital last year. That never heals.”
“Seriously, that’s the last time I try that. Sorry, honey, but deep-frying it was a bad suggestion,” my father said to my mother.
“I guess you’re right,” she paused. “Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking.”
I finished my steak, washed my dishes, and went into my room. All through dinner I’d been thinking about how to resolve the issue of the chick. It had to be dealt with, I knew, and I had come up with an idea. I had planned to invite my father into my room after he finished dinner. If he wanted to take the chick away from me, I would let him have it. I would give it to him. If he thought it belonged to me, then it would stay in its box. I thought that this was what the message I had written was trying to tell me. It shall be resolved.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Connecticut/Washington/Minnesota/New York/Florida/Kansas/California/North Carolina/Japan/Wisconsin/Netherlands/Iowa/Oregon Next up: Oman

I awoke less than an hour later, my forehead and hair soaked with sweat, the sun splayed out in stripes across my back and face, cut by the window blinds. My mouth tasted as though I’d been sucking on kiwi skin, and there was a spot of drool on my baseball glove. I stood up and looked back into the box.
The tiny chick was still searching for its mother. It moved as though it were a stop-motion movie, everything happening in short bursts, head twists and the clamping and unclamping of its beak. The day’s events had left the lingering imprint of fire upon me, and something about the way the chick moved reminded me of flames. It was all unceasing energy and movement, its feature a shell for the energy it transferred, like the body for the soul.
I stuck my hand into the cardboard box and stroked the top of the chick’s head. It was startled and began opening and closing its silent beak. I could imagine that it would be afraid of my hand, which must have seemed huge on its little head. The chick probably couldn’t reconcile the differences between its fuzzy body and my hairless hands. I could feel the zealous crackle of recognition, confusion, and excitement all mingling in the touch of fingers to feathers.
Gently, I cupped my right hand and hoisted the chick out of its cardboard home. It was light, lighter than a pencil or a piece of bread. I hadn’t expected this, that life could be so insubstantial. By now its feathers were dry and fuzzy, and while looking at it and the discarded egg, its weight made sense: the egg minus the eggshell equals the chicken. I lay down on my bed and placed the chick upon my chest. Its tiny claws caught in the cotton of my shirt, and as it wobbled around my chest I could see it plucking miniature holes in the front of my grey t-shirt. As I moved to put a pillow behind my head, the chick began to slip off the plateau of my chest and dug its claws into my skin. I felt the pain and it confirmed the chick’s existence, the pain that proved we both existed. I had gone from farmer to herder.
This role reversal was a problem, however, because I couldn’t figure out how to tell my father about the chick. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the chick wasn’t mine. I was a thief of sorts, as my only claim was the bed of flower petals that I had made for it and the light I shone on it, a light I stole from my parents’ kitchen. But it had survived at least a few of my father’s egg raids, I realize now, based on the size of the embryo when I finally looked at it by candlelight in the bathroom. So maybe it was fated to be mine. I don’t know. Yet the question haunted me. My father had raised both the rooster and the hen that had laid the egg. It seemed the two competing forces had no points of intersection at which I could find some sort of solution.
I was afraid to talk to him, to tell him about it. I wanted to, I wanted to more than anything, but I couldn’t. I thought that he might see the chicken as an insult. It was broken, impure, mute. It was defective. What if I gave it to him and he returned it without saying a word? I was not ready for the little chick to feel that kind of rejection. No, there had to be some way to resolve it. I thought back to when I tried to bury the chickens in the garden. I had wanted to share my grief with him, but he hadn’t wanted that. For a moment, I thought we could share the chicken, but realized it wouldn’t work. I would still have to approach him, to talk to him about it. Ideas kept coming, my mind was like ice, but as each etched itself it was buffed out by others. I couldn’t keep a line of thought for long enough to come to a resolution.
I hoisted the mass of fuzz from my chest and put it back in the box. I shook my head, my hair lashing me in the eyes, and walked out of my room into the kitchen. The air was still slightly acrid from the fire, but the smell had lessened considerably. I grabbed a cereal bowl and filled it halfway with water, then returned to my room and put it in the fish tank. Nudging the chick on the head, I led it to the bowl and tapped its beak to the surface. It took tiny, spastic sips. Upon seeing that the chick knew what to do, I pulled down my notebook and again looked at the words I had previously written. Then something came to me again, something pushed my hand towards a pen and the pen to paper. I was powerless to resist. It shall be resolved. The words smirked at me with their strange diction. I had never written the word “shall” before, but even after writing it I felt like I’d never written it. It was already written somewhere and I had merely copied the words, like when I’d place a thin piece of paper over a picture of a tiger and trace the lines through the sheet.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


As I walked back to my room, I knew. As I ran the back of my hand along the segments in the wall, my fingernails clicking as they reached each valley between two pieces of tongue and groove, I knew. As I entered my room and smelled the mustard-milk air, I knew. There was power in my words, though I didn’t know what kind. The nine-year-old I could not look objectively. He couldn’t see the blocks of the pyramid, just the burning chicken. He didn’t realize that he didn’t set the objects in motion, he just calculated their path. He didn’t know the word prophecy, only the word curse. He didn’t see the words as a portent of the action, but the words as impetus for the effect. And it frightened him. Images of The Ten Commandments floated into his head, memories from Easter Sunday network TV. Did Moses warn pharaoh about the death of the firstborn, or did Moses’ words beget such violence?
I walked through the room, which was a picture of chaos. Cutting a path through the clothes on the floor, my foot got caught in the neck hole of a T-shirt. Something about the room was different, and it had nothing to do with the smell of burning wood wafting in through the window. It was as though the room had told a joke, but I had only heard the punch line.
I took down the notebook and looked at the page where I had written the words. I traced the form of each letter with my eyes, sliding along the curves, braking at right angles, hopping from word to word like arcs of electricity on a spark plug. It was not a question of whether or not my words had power: I knew they were powerful as lightning, solid as rock; they were not to be trifled with. To a nine-year-old boy, a boy whose voice was a high-pitched squeak, whose legs were splinters on a matchstick body, the next decision was deadly serious. Would I allow my words to work a Moses curse, or would I hold my hands up in peace, drawing blessings from the ether? Images reflected dimly in the mirror of my mind, images of destruction and images of renewal. I saw a wrecking ball demolishing an office building, the shrapnel of smoke dust, glass and brick flying through the air. A tree quickly sprang up in its place, a leafy, green oak towering high above the wrecking ball and bulldozers left over from the demolition crew. I replaced the notebook, still unsure about my newfound powers.
Suddenly, I realized what was different about the room. Looking down into the box I saw that the egg had broken open and the baby chicken had emerged. It was smaller than I had thought it would be: instead of the size of a fist, it was the size of two fingers and a thumb. Its feathers were hardly feathers at all: pitiful, fuzzy, covered in slime. It did not look at me, even after I whistled at it to get its attention. It searched the contents of its box home for any sign of life, its head and eyes frenetically chasing any hint of movement. It was strangely silent, however, and though its beak opened and closed, no sounds emerged.
It couldn’t talk. I had a mute chicken. My eyebrows hung low over my eyes, pushing down and towards each other like tectonic plates. The inside of my throat was like sandpaper, and my stomach churned. Though it had been a shock, I had been able to keep my emotions in check for days after my garden was destroyed. Somehow, though, the sight of this chicken trying to find its protector in a crappy cardboard box was enough to give my sadness a voice. I lay down on the floor, my head resting on a baseball glove, my feet tucked under a sweatshirt, and began to cry. After a moment, I fell asleep.

Monday, October 31, 2005


It was about this time that I began to smell the smoke. I was reminded of the winter, when he had set a plastic garbage can ablaze while drinking with some of his friends. They had been outside at our condo in the city, using a candle to light firecrackers and throw them at a pile of empties they’d set up on the patio. They had rested the candle on the plastic garbage can when they went inside to get some refreshments from the refrigerator. On the way back they were sidetracked by an old episode of Cheers on TV. When they finally made it back outside, the plastic garbage can had become a bubbling, oozing blue mess on the sidewalk that they were never able to clean up no matter how much they chipped at it with a metal ice scraper.
My mother made it outside right before me, and by that time the picnic table was fully engaged in becoming ashes rather than a picnic table. It was covered with a patina of burns, the oak barely distinguishable. My mother quickly ran over to the grill, turned it off, and pushed it around the garage, struggling as the wheels got caught up as it moved through the grass. I stood on the first step of the back stoop, mystified. I couldn’t move, but a slight smile was wrinkling the corners of my mouth. It wasn’t because I was glad my father got his comeuppance—at that age I would have never thought that way—but at the ridiculousness of the situation. When I saw the chicken burning, I felt my legs get heavy. I put my thumb in front of my eye and blocked out just the chicken burning, everything else I left.
My father came back around the house from his trip to the hose and tossed another bucket of water on the table. The flames laughed, cackling at the futile attempt to stanch their conquering force. The water seemed just to enrage them further, and they rose higher into the sky. My father again ran back around the house to fill his bucket, but this time my mother followed him.
My face had by now lost its smile. I couldn’t keep the chicken out of my view, and I didn’t know what to do, as I had not yet been imbued with the weathered umbrella of common sense that comes only after making costly mistakes. I first walked towards the garage, then back towards th house, then towards the picnic table, then backed up, then put my hands out in front of me and clenched and unclenched my fists rapidly, as if I were able to quench the flames through sheer force of will.
My mother returned, dragging the hose along with her. The hose was tipped with a pistol-like nozzle that could control the flow of water, making it capable of a wide, rainbow-inducing mist or a strong, focused jet. She squeezed the trigger tightly and focused all its power at the base of the flames. The water quickly cut down the fire, as the oil had been consumed by now and what was left was an out-of-control wood fire. What had once been a cause for concern was now a minor annoyance, the little flames dancing like butterfly wings.
“What happened?” my mother asked. “Why the hell were you running back and forth with the bucket instead of grabbing the hose?”
“I don’t know. I don’t—“ he began.
“Your eyebrows are gone,” she said. She chuckled and then grew serious. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I closed the lid when I went to get the matches—the gas was running, obviously. Dumb, dumb, dumb,” he said.
My mom went over to my father and hugged him tightly, squeezing him as though she were afraid he would melt if she let him go. I still stood on the stoop clenching and unclenching my fists. My eyes were glazed and fixed upon the picnic table. It was chaotic, destroyed, beautiful. The fire had cut ribbons of black across the surface of the tannin-colored oak. The turpentine fire had left a cloudlike scorch where it had spilled out. The rivulets of oil and stray splatters of turpentine created angels in the charred wood, all of them worshipping at the feet of a cloudlike deity of destruction. I mouthed the word wow and turned around and walked to my room.

My father would have said that turpentine caused the fire. I am not so sure. Perhaps I am some minor prophet. Maybe a Hezekiah, an Amos, perhaps an Obadiah. I am no Jeremiah, but I am something. Because those words, I wrote them without writing them, they existed even before I did. I am Gabriel. My name is Gabriel. Those words were through me but not of me. The silence that swirled around me congealed into words with power, words with actions. I had written that the chicken would burn, and it burned. Written and fulfilled.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Sexessential (it follows quintessential...)

What was happening outside with my father, I am not sure, but I can guess. I have thought about this numerous times in my life, and I think the picture that I have come up with is as close a version as can be created. Days later, when someone asked him, which many people did, it all happened because of the can of turpentine he forgot to put away.
My father set a large steel cauldron on the propane grill in the backyard. He emptied three bottles of canola oil into the pot. The gas hissed, and then the electronic spark from the igniter angered all the floating propane chains into flames. The chicken was on a plate on the oak picnic table located next to the grill. It was dusty white from the flour my father had splashed over it, and there was a piece of twine laced between where its head had been and a hole my father had gouged through the side with a paring knife. Overhead, vultures were circling. I’m kidding: they were crows.
After ten minutes, my father dipped the chicken into the cauldron. Nothing happened. He looked into the oil and noticed that there was no change: there were no bubbles forming around the carcass, no sound of popping and boiling. he stuck his finger into the oil, and it felt lukewarm. Wrapping the chicken’s twine leash around his hand, he ejected it from the oil pot and set it on the grill’s face. He attempted to set the pot of oil on the table, but instead set it tipped at a 25 degree angle with an edge on the table and the base itself on the plate that had held the chicken.
I remember him yelling to my mom. “Ridiculous. Fucking ridiculous. Honey,” he called into the house, “we have to get a new grill. This one is shit. With a capital shit.”
He turned dials, adjusted the knob of the propane container, twisting it on and off, on and off. Again, he pushed the igniter, hoping his adjustments could somehow change the physical properties of propane and cause the oil to heat faster, cause the world to bend to his will. Nothing. Hit the igniter again. Nothing. Closed the lid of the grill, pushed the igniter. Nothing. Turned dials, twisted knobs, popped the igniter. Nothing. Finally, he jogged around to the open garage, snatched a box of matches from the top of an abused file cabinet.
At this point, I think, it should be noted that he did not lift the lid back up when he jogged around to the open garage. Eminently important. Imminently important, as shall be seen.
Gripping the wooden handle on the lid of his propane grill, he opened it up. The chicken dripped cooking oil onto the propane jets. He took a match from the sliding cardboard box. They were nice, wooden matches, the kind one would take on camping trips and use for lighting gas fireplaces. He snapped the drawer of matches back into its sheath, then attempted to nimbly pull the match head across the rough brown ignition strip. The gases, which had been shooting out of the propane jets while my father was in the garage, were crashing, making weak bonds, cutting weak bonds. But when the match lit, they took out the rage that they felt at their confinement on the flame. A fireball erupted from the propane jets like a golden dragon, flying rapidly and swallowing the match and matchbook in one bite. My father, reacting quickly, had jumped backwards just as he had drawn the match head across its catalyst. I suspect that just as he drew it across he realized that he had left the lid down while he was in the garage. It started in slow motion, and ended in a blur as the flames and gases first met. The stench of burnt hair hung limply, was caught in his nose, and he realized that he’d probably just lost his eyebrows, but, luckily, not his eyes.
He looked at the grill, which was now burning normally—as though the golden dragon’s wings had not cut a swath in the air—and saw the chicken’s flesh burning and sputtering. Noticing the twine had miraculously escaped the flames, he wound it once around his hand and flipped the chicken off the face of the grill with the intention of putting out the fire crackling on its skin. But as he deftly popped it off the grill, the twine snapped, having been burned inside the carcass, and the chicken flew through the air toward the picnic table. The effect was something Rube Goldberg would have loved. The chicken’s heft was great enough to knock over the cauldron that was resting so dangerously on the plate. The cauldron continued its dangerous domino effect, toppling the aforementioned can of turpentine. The flames from the burning chicken met the spilled turpentine, and the can erupted in flames, which spread quickly across the picnic table.
Astounded, my father stood a moment looking at his picnic table burning. I’m sure he wondered if he had brought this all upon himself. He must have felt guilty about destroying my garden, thinking that this was his punishment. For a time he was probably tempted to call to me for help, maybe to apologize for wrecking something, to alleviate the tension between us. The way solving problems brings people together.
He did not call out, however. He ran around the house, grabbed the green bucket I had dropped my weeds into when I weeded my garden, dumped it out, and filled it with water from the hose. Turning on the balls of his feet, he ran back to the picnic table and attempted to douse the fire with a single bucket of water. The water flashed in the air, hanging together by its surface tension for a blink before it separated and splashed across the table. The fire seemed ready to die out, but by now the canola oil was heated by the turpentine’s flames, and it began to submit to the fire’s siren call. The water succeeded only in spreading the oil to parts of the table it had not yet visited. Undeterred, he again ran halfway around the house to the hose and filled the bucket. By this time the wood of the picnic table was burning along with the oil and turpentine on top of it. Black spots started to grow amoebically on the flawless oak surface. Black smoke was starting to curl a rumor in the sky, noticeably fouling the air. Again, he ran back to the hose, filled the bucket, threw it on the fire. Again, the flames laughed.


As I was trying to create life, my father was out in the garage. I’m sure that he was working on his chicken-plucking method. Spots of blood, piles of innards scattered about the oil-stained cement. He tried to throw the feathers into the fifty-gallon burning barrel, but most ended up on the floor, strewn about like bloody snowflakes. He kept his strong jaw clenched, little flecks of blood were spattered in his brown hair. His grey eyes squinted like high-compression springs ready to burst. He was biting his tongue on the left side of his mouth, his lips were pulled in that direction as well. I can see his brow, pulled together like a horizon, the wrinkles on his forehead clouds over the mountains of his thin, brown eyebrows. The finished chickens he hung on the pegboard that held his hammer, saw, and crowbar. The carcasses hung upside down, their feet tied together and slung over a wooden peg. It was probably not the best way to store the finished chickens, he knew, but he couldn’t think of anything more convenient so left it that way. The porcine anger behind his eyes was the anger of defeat, of gluttony, of destruction. He wanted me to realize that he’d done what he did. He wanted me to punch and kick and scream. He must have. Someone looking at him for the first time would have thought him a mental patient at best, a degenerate murderer at worst. His tanned skin was stained with blood from the chickens’ innards; on his chest was the imprint of his own hand over his heart, slightly blurred, but distinguishable.

A few days after the disaster, my father’s surplus of eggs had dwindled down to nothing, and he was uninterested in buying any more. “If I’d wanted eggs, I’ll buy more chickens,” he had said to my mother one morning. I was busy thinking about what ants do in the winter underground, but my father’s statement caught me off guard because of the odd construction of the sentence. I wanted to tell him about my egg, but couldn’t bring myself to do so.
Nobody knew that I had the egg, as my bedroom was a testament to the universe’s penchant for entropy, and as such my mother usually closed the door when she walked by, in case guests or members of high society or the President of the United States happened to knock on our front door for a tour. Who could possibly countenance messiness in the room of a nine-year-old? I was the only one who’d been in the room the whole summer, and I knew that my own messiness was the reason my secret was safe.
“You know, I think I’ll just have some chicken for breakfast, how does that sound?” my father asked the air.
“Yeah, that sounds good,” my mother replied.
I stared down at my bowl of oatmeal. They hardly ever asked me anything, especially at breakfast. There were always conversations existing at the forefront of my consciousness of which I was not a member. I was the phantom, the vapor, the ghost that made my parents occasionally speak in hushed tones but was rarely directly addressed.
“Have we ever had chicken for breakfast?” my father asked.
“I don’t think so. It sounds strange, but good. Chicken’s a dinner food, but I think we could eat it for breakfast,” my mother replied.
“How can I cook it, though? I’ve never cooked a chicken,” he said. I can picture the framework inside his skull. He must have expected cooking a whole chicken to be like grilling breasts on the barbecue. When he’d finished plucking the chickens, he probably realized that he had no idea how to prepare such a complicated animal. Was it the same as a turkey? Baste, baste, baste? Turkeys took, what, five, six hours? How long should a chicken take? Are they part of the same family, so you can just adjust the time according to their size, or do chickens have their own time frame?
“Do you need some help,” my mother asked. She had probably noticed the puzzled look on his face. I ate another spoonful of oatmeal.
“I can do it. I just need to figure out how we want to eat this. I suppose I could make a fire in the backyard and put it on a spit and roast it,” he said. I can see the confused look in his eyes. “Or I could put it in a pan in the oven for a few hours.”
“Yeah, you could do that. Although I’d probably cut down the time a bit, since we don’t want chicken jerky.”
When I finally looked up from my oatmeal I saw that he was frowning. I felt something building inside my chest, words that needed to escape.
“You could deep fry the chicken,” I said. The air went out of the room like a vacuum. My father and mother looked at me, eyes dull like soap, a slippery look. My father shook his head, looked at the refrigerator.
“You could deep fry the chicken,” my mother said.
“I suppose I could. Yeah, that’s a damn good idea. Good thinking, hon,” he said. I wondered if they heard me; my insides felt like battery acid.
But their breakfast meal was set: deep fried chicken.
My father went outside, and as he did so I washed my bowl in the sink and set it out to dry. In my room, the egg was still unbroken, but I knew it had to crack soon. It moved intermittently, which I assumed was natural. As I stood looking over it, I could hear my father dragging the grill out from the garage. Something stirred inside me, and I pulled down a green notebook off the shelf above the egg’s box and wrote in it The chicken will burn. The words compelled me to write them. They tugged at my hand gently, pulling me toward the pen and paper, pulling the downstroke on the capital T and cutting a line across its top. They scared me, for I didn’t know why I wrote them, and I didn’t know what they meant

Friday, October 28, 2005

Roy G. Biv

“It might be,” my grandfather said. I was on the phone in the kitchen and had already told him about the details. He said he was sad to hear about my garden, but that next summer I could come up to his house and he’d let me help him out in the cornfields and let me have a spot near the barn to plant some strawberries.
“But how can I know? If the mom was alive, how does she know?” I asked. I was trying to keep my voice low so that my parents wouldn’t know I was on the phone, but I was so excited it was difficult.
“Oh for pity’s sake, Gabriel, I don’t know the answer to that. But, you can figure it out if you hold it up to a light in a dark room,” he said.
“How do I do that?”
“You have to figure that out. You’re getting to be a big kid now, and you need to think for yourself.” I knew that he was smiling on the other end, for he’d been telling me that since I spent the summer at my grandparents’ house before kindergarten.
“But what do I do if it’s alive? How do I take care of it?” I asked. I heard my mom open the back door and come back inside. She walked back to her bedroom and I heard the TV click on.
“Just help it incubate. Look the word up if you don’t know what it means. I-n-c-u-b-a-t-e. You need some sort of box and a desk lamp,” he replied.
“But what if I can’t do it?”
“Gabriel, you’re whining. Stop it. If you can’t do it, call me back. But hurry, for heaven’s sake. The egg needs to stay warm,” he said and hung up. He never said goodbye.

I opened the junk drawer in the kitchen. Even though we’d only lived here two months, our junk drawer was already cluttered with unnecessary odds and ends. I was able to find a book of matches and a birthday candle among the broken headphones, dead batteries and anonymous keys. Tramping along the shag carpeting toward the bathroom, I heard laughter coming from my mother’s TV. After I had pulled the egg out of my pocket I lit a candle and turned off the light. The egg temporarily blocked out the match’s light, but as I adjusted to the darkness I saw in the silhouette the outline of a baby chicken, pink in its black universe.
In the entryway closet I found an old lamp and a cardboard box. After I looked up the word ‘incubate,’ I tried to remember television shows where I’d seen people take care of eggs. Most of the images I could recall were of people attempting to throw eggs across the room without them breaking, however. I couldn’t figure out why I needed it, since heat was what I needed, not light. I thought of calling my grandfather, but although he had said I could, I was already well-trained in the Midwestern art of never asking for more than one favor per day. Instead of thinking about it, I set the box on the bureau in my room. I found a styrofoam cup in the kitchen and cut it in half. The top cylinder I threw away, but I put the pared-down base in the bottom of the box. The lamp had a flexible, snakelike neck that I could bend down into the box, but its bulb was burnt out. I scoured the house for a package of bulbs, but there were none to be found. Undeterred, I pillaged the kitchen for one of its bulbs and replaced it with the dead one. I grabbed the bulb, and it was hot. The reason for needing the light clicked, and I was proud that I had figured it out on my own. Having done all of that, I put the rose petals in the styrofoam cup, then the egg, then turned on the lamp.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


They were muddy before we got out there, I know it now. They must have been. It’s the only way it makes sense. His impassivity, no rage, nothing. The I that I am now knows that the he that he was and still is was the he who destroyed my garden. A week before we moved back to the city the police picked up the teenagers who had killed the chickens. Rather, one of the teens’ parents overheard them talking about it and put two and two together, as my mother had put notices up in the grocery store. But the teens never mentioned the garden, not in the police report, I know it. My father must have gone outside and saw his chickens destroyed and decided to continue destroying. Perhaps it was like the dent, what else could he do? Those boots must have been muddy before we got out there. They had to be.

I walked into the garden and began digging a grave for the chickens while my father was behind the house washing his hands. I heard the door open and saw my mother standing silently, her mouth agape. When my father came back around the house she asked what happened.
“Some kids, maybe they were mad at the rooster. I don’t know,” my father answered.
“Yeah, that’s just terrible. Are you going to bury the chickens? Maybe in the boy’s garden?” she asked.
“What? Hell no, we’re going to eat them. That’s what I was going to do anyway. I mean, look at it this way: at least I don’t have to chop their heads off.”
I heard him say it and stopped digging. A sharp pain cut into my sides, the knowledge that everything I’d done during the summer was worthless. It all ended in destruction. I was left with the massacre, the waste of my ambition, the shame that followed me like a shadow. There shouldn’t have been shame, the shame should have been all his, but it was mine. There was nothing I could say or do. What I did made no difference to the vandals who killed the chickens or the vandal who destroyed my creation.
“Yeah, that sounds good,” my mother said.
“I’m damn sad about that cock, though. It was a good cock.”
Tired of standing there and thinking, I walked toward the henhouse. It was the one thing that had been spared in the previous night’s events. The teenagers were much too clever to destroy the relative calm of the previous night with the sounds of hammers and axes. My mother went back inside, my father to the garage to gut and pluck the chickens.
By now I’d been awake for approximately two hours and the whole time had been filled with sadness and loss. I had the thought that this was the future course of my life, that my sine wave would forget to curve back up to the positive and I’d be stuck below the x-axis. I wanted to get rid of the thoughts, but they grew like withered daisies in a field of sand.
The henhouse smelled of hay and chicken waste, the scents mingling like incense in my nostrils, allowing me to commune with the chickens. The light cast crooked shadows through the interior. The hay was dispersed in clumps and piles on the floor. As I searched through the wreckage of this once-proud home, I noticed the tidiness of the nests. And there, in the nest nearest to the door, I found an egg of unimpressive size and shape. It was not white, but rather the color of wet beach sand. I pulled it from the nest, gripping it softly, and it was warm to the touch, having been heated by the sun throughout the morning. I studied the egg with a scientist’s eye, trying to pull a hypothesis from the data at hand. I knew that the destruction of my father’s property was significant. I also knew that someone who wanted to do that much damage must surely have wanted to anger whomever it was that he was doing the damage to. Yet, here was an egg that had escaped my father’s collecting, and the vandals had not thrown it at the house. It was witness to both its mother’s and father’s murder, and now it was in my hand. I felt that I was responsible for whatever this egg meant, whether it be some sort of sign from God or Pan. The instant I had picked it up I knew that it was infused with life: there was something about the way it felt in my fingertips, like the cool electricity from the soil of the garden on my feet. And I knew that the life was given into my hand, was my responsibility. My father would not understand, so I could not give it to him. At the time I was sure that the vandals were trying to hurt my father and that my garden had just been a noncombatant casualty: the destruction of the garden did not have any of the sadistically artistic touches of the chickens’ demise.
I stared at the egg, noticing the miniscule freckles spotting its surface. Though at first glance it had looked like its shell was a uniform brown, upon closer inspection I realized its surface was mottled, full of character and uniqueness. One freckle looked as though it were a frog; another was in the shape of a sheep with only two legs; seven of them taken together looked like the big dipper; another seven revealed a rudimentary Orion. My grandfather had bought me a book on the constellations for my birthday that year, and I figured that by connecting all the far-flung freckles together I would be able to construct a map of the night sky on the egg. First, however, I needed to know if the life I believed to exist inside the egg was truly there. I put the egg inside the pockets with the rose petals and called my grandfather on the telephone.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

It still continues. Perhaps there is someone who cares

When I entered the house it was infected with silence. I didn’t smell eggs, there was no sound of coffee percolating, and I assumed that my father was still asleep. Since he had purchased the rooster he had lived on the same schedule as it. Yet, on this particular day, with the sun shining down like a sardonic grin on a massacre spattered in relief on the straw-colored ground, he had not awoken. I was the only one outside to see each of the minor horrors create a bloody masterpiece. The destruction that existed in stasis outside the back door left me unsure what to do: ought I to creep into my parents’ bedroom? Could I, the phantom, tell my father what happened? No. The best thing for me to do would be to creep back into my room, pull the blankets over my body, and try to fall back asleep. Perhaps I was afraid of what would happen if I told, if I broke the silence.
My feet instinctively avoided the noisy spots on the floor as I wandered back to my room. I clung to the wall like a catburglar, but when I reached the living room I saw my father sitting in the easy chair that looked out at the road through the big picture window in the front of the house. He looked huge, his shirtless back swelling over the top of the chair. He was picking at the peeling skin on his shoulder with his dirty fingernails. Could be that they weren’t dirty. In this story they are dirty.
I tried to speak, but faltered. Instead, I cleared my throat and tapped the wall. He looked at me without turning around. Staring at the surface of the picture window, he saw me in my reflection. I think I may have caught his eyes for a second, but then he turned all the way around and broke the link.
“I think you should come outside,” I said, the words like rocks in my throat. I had trouble articulating things to my parents. I didn’t talk much until I was four years old. My stubby hands could do addition and subtraction on paper before my mouth could form six-word sentences. At first my parents thought that I was developmentally disabled, since I spoke only to answer questions. But, during the summer before kindergarten they sent me to my grandparents’ house near the Canadian border, and by the time I came back I was speaking almost normally. They were quite relieved that they wouldn’t get labeled as parents of a special-ed kid, and also that they wouldn’t have to consult a doctor to see what was wrong with me.
My father set the glass of water he was holding upon the oak endtable next to his easy chair and stood up, stretching his hands above his head and locking his fingers together at the apex. He scratched the back of his head with one hand and then grunted, “Yep.” I was quite surprised at the time that he didn’t continue staring out the window, instead taking what I said as gospel and defeating inertia by standing up and stretching.
I led him, my hands in the pockets of my jean shorts, one hand scratching a mosquito bite on the outside of my thigh with the ragged edge formed by the seam in the pocket. I had thrust the rose petals into the other pocket and they surrounded my fingers. My toes caused tiny eruptions of dust volcanoes in the carpet, and the sunlight became alive with miniature dust beasts swirling around in constant battle. The beasts curled around my body, catching updrafts off the heat from my skin or the swing of my arms, flying upwards towards my head, some continuing towards the ceiling while others began to float back down. Because of their tenacity, I didn’t know if these beasts were alive, as they seemed to stay in the air without any help. I wondered for a moment if my father could see them.
We walked through the family room, through the hallway, into the back entryway; the whole time I stared straight ahead. The house was still silent, and I remember being afraid of what would happen when we got outside. I didn’t know if I would be able to stop myself from crying, and I didn’t know what my father would do. It was obvious, even at this point in my life, that he didn’t care for me. It would be wrong to say it was hatred, because hatred implies some sort of bright spark of emotion. There were no emotions, no orange sparks lingering even under buckets and shovelfuls of dirt. It was life at absolute zero: all was still, there were no moving parts. If I began to cry, he would stay impassive, a statue. We were immune to Newton’s first law: I acted, but he never supplied the reaction to balance the equation. At the time I questioned such things, but I’ve given up by now.

Or perhaps I lie. Perhaps I still stare at the ceilings on weeknights trying to let the sounds of dogs barking congeal into some sort of answer.

I opened the back door while my father put on his muddy work boots. They must have been muddy. My hands shook at the sheer insanity of it all: the decapitated chickens, their feather rosy with the stain of blood; the rooster with its comb cut off and stuffed into its beak; my father’s necessary reaction to the events. For, although the he-I pair were outside of Newton’s grasp, the physical world and he were well acquainted with reactions. I had seen the anger that existed just below the meniscus of his psyche, and it was almost mystical. The explosions directed at God, the weather, the shopping cart that left a scratch on his car, were exciting to see, because I had never been on the receiving end of my father’s wrath. I had never experienced the anger and hatred that he cultivated, the curses and blasphemies that grew like weeds. On two separate occasions I had seen my father grab a steel golf club between his two meaty hands and snap it in half as though it were a popsicle stick. One time was when he had hooked a drive into the water on the eighteenth hole in a company golf tournament. The other was when he picked me up from golf lessons and someone had put a shoe-sized dent in the side of his new Mercedes. The club pro asked him why he did it, and my father answered, “What else could I do?”
We stepped outside. The white sunlight reflected globulous shapes off the shining silver wind chime my mother had hung just outside the back door. My father and I were speckled with flawed circles, squares and rectangles, all the shapes looking only vaguely like the Platonic forms they were supposed to represent. The tears were beginning to burn behind my eyes, but I held them in check. I wanted to see with unglazed eyes the reaction that my father would have to this massacre. Something inside me thought that the sadness I felt and the rage that he would feel could somehow exist together and create a moment of mutual recognition.
But I was waiting for nothing. My father’s breath rushed inward, whistling as it went, and he exhaled with a narcotic groan. There was no rage, no anger. Both emotions were left sitting listlessly in the anteroom. The whole experience was so anticlimactic that I had to force myself to look at the scene again in order to be sure that I had originally seen was actually there. The scene was the same as I had left it moments before. The chickens were still dead, the plants destroyed, the rooster posing with its comb in its mouth.
I was going to speak, but I couldn’t. Instead, I walked over to the garden and put on my work gloves. At first I had planned on cleaning up my land, but it felt cursed, a place of ghouls and demons, so I walked over and began picking up chicken parts. My father was still standing by the door, still picking at the peeling skin on his shoulder, wearing muddy boots. When he saw me begin working he walked into the garage, grabbed a pair of gloves, and started cleaning the garden.
The chickens were difficult to extract from their wire armor. I worked slowly, taking great care not to pull out feathers or further mangle the bodies. My father worked in the garden, taking all the plants that had been uprooted and smashed and throwing them into a pile on the lawn. He worked quickly and efficiently. After a half-hour he had stripped the garden, while I had merely separated the chickens from the fence.
I lined up all the chickens in a row. I planned on taking each of their bodies and placing them separately in a grave in my garden. I had already imagined what the whole scene would look like: little crosses stuck into the ground like acupuncture needles trying to heal the tattered earth, to give it life again next year. The little crosses would stand until the next time I planted, at which time I would take them down and put them in the chicken coop as a reminder of the first summer. I even thought that my father and I could perhaps work on the crosses together: instead of looking shoddy and pitiable, they could be carved out of beautiful wood and lashed together with leather straps. Although I had resented the chickens, the massacre erased my feelings of ill will and replaced them with a desire to make amends for my evil will. The little garden tribute would be a way to show my father that both enterprises were noble, both deserved to be remembered.
My father exited the garden and gathered together as many plants as he could in a handful. He mashed them together in his meaty hands and carried them to the garbage can like refuse. As he was carting them to their final resting place, I straightened out the wire fence, having released all the chickens from their barbed suits. I picked up each headless chicken and carried it to the edge of the garden. My father was in the garage wearing his muddy boots.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Still Continuing...For at least two weeks more, actually...

“I got the nicest-looking cock on the farm,” my father announced to the entryway of the house. His voice was deep, rumbling like a bass drum. I was sitting in the kitchen eating a bowl of ice cream while my mother sat facing the sink knitting a scarf. At the time I knew there was something slightly off in the way he talked, but I couldn’t place why it was strange.
“That’s great,” my mother replied.
“This cock is something spectacular. Perhaps I’ll show it to you later.” He had by now taken off his shoes and crossed the house from the entryway to the kitchen. He leaned with both hands braced against the molding on the doorway to the kitchen. His face was grinning, but his eyes were festooned with the confused look of a man holding his wife’s purse. The whole time he spoke to my mom alone; as far as he was concerned I was invisible. I bit my tongue just to prove to myself that I existed, then got up and walked to the stainless-steel kitchen sink to clean my bowl.
“Yeah, maybe so,” my mother said.
“It’s strong and healthy,” he said. “And it’s sure excited to see you. It’s almost ready to crow.”
I turned off the water and put the bowl on the clean dish rack. I walked out of the kitchen trying to physically become the vaporous figure that my father took me to bed. My skin was hot; my father wouldn’t look at me. Every word he spoke was like steel wool, giving birth to microscopic abrasions in places where nobody could see them. He couldn’t see me. I was invisible. His jokes were incomprehensible. By this point in my life he must have felt the same way about me as silence feels about noise: It occurred; it is done; back to silence. I walked past him and out the back door without him knowing I was there.
The sky was cornflower blue, and the sun shone brightly on the earth. I could feel a creeping shadow coming from inside my chest. Perhaps this is just a function of me being the I that I am now, but I know now that I knew then that something about the scene was off, like a triangle that didn’t close. The new rooster was accosting the hens, because that is apparently what roosters do. By that time the chickens annoyed me on principle. When I thought of all the hours in the garden and all the cuts and scrapes I had from weeding I was annoyed that my father had merely paid his money and collected his chickens. He didn’t raise them from eggs, allowing the tiny chicks to sleep in the warm breast pocket of his flannel shirts. He didn’t watch them grow, watch their first stirrings, the first movements with which they announced themselves to the air around them by displacing it with their stubby wings. I had seen him take such care building the coop for the chickens, but still I could not understand how he could be so devoted to them.

The rooster was quick to make its presence known, and the next morning it announced to me and my family that the sun had yet again succeeded in conquering the night. For two weeks it did that every morning, and during that whole time my father doted on it and the hens, hoping the rooster would spread its seed among them. But on the fifteenth day after it came to reside at the house in the country, the rooster did not crow in the morning. At first I did not notice this non-occurrence; the rooster had only been there for two weeks, and I wasn’t yet imprinted with its schedule. The negative event brought with it some extra rest, uninterrupted sleep, dreams and phantoms of dreams. When I woke at 8, I strode out the back door of the house and into the geometry of the backyard. The lines of demarcation were usually quite striking, for the lawn was immediately abutted to the chickens’ pen, which was hedged by my garden. The heavy green contrasted the raw sienna starkness of the fenced-in pen, which in turn contrasted the deep coal black soil of my garden, which was further contrasted by the reds of my strawberries, the greens of my lettuce and carrot leaves, and the cool yellow of the roses I’d planted for my mother.
But when I walked down the back stairs and looked at the yard, I realized the lines of demarcation had blurred during my long sleep. The lawn was still a striking, heavy green. The chicken pen and my garden, however, had become a mess of black dirt, dead chickens, and uprooted crops. Globs of dusty blood spattered the straw-colored ground around the chickens. As I walked towards them, I realized that the hens were wrapped in the fence, and that they were missing their heads. Only their bodies lay ensconced in the wire.
The scene was disturbing, especially for someone only nine years old: the carcasses of the chickens lifeless on the ground, the fenceposts impaled obscenely through their bodies. But, if it weren’t so tragic, if it hadn’t happened to me, I think I would have been able to see some sort of grotesque beauty in it all. The way the chickens were wrapped up, the wire making a circuit around their bodies, under the left wing, around the right foot, straight up to the post doing the impaling. The color of blood on the ground and posts contrasting the white of their feathers, though the blood had darkened now to a copper stain. The severed rooster’s comb, its statement of pride stuck in its mouth in a way that seemed vaguely sexual, even at my age.
It wasn’t until I studied the garden that I started crying. My vegetables were all pulled up, some hewn by the tools that I had forgotten to put away the previous night. Most of the crops were scattered about the ground like refuse. I walked over to the fence, took off my shoes and socks, and stepped onto the tainted soil. I felt a flicker of the green electricity that runs through the topsoil in a well-tended garden, but the sensation was just a whisper of what I had felt just a day before. The carrots were all gone, ripped up, destroyed. The strawberry plants were uprooted; the tough pink wedges of fruit had been trampled on by heavy boots and were crushed under the black soil. The lettuce was nowhere to be found. The roses I had planted were ripped up, thrown out of the garden and onto the lawn. The flowers were cut off and the petals strewn maniacally about: it was as though whoever had destroyed my garden had done it with the express purpose of trying to anger me. Whoever did it destroyed everything so thoroughly, so methodically, so decisively that I was left with no way to replant, no way to fix what had been broken. My mouth tasted of copper and soap.
I ran my hairless hands through the deep earth as though I were somehow capable of regenerating all that had been lost. I let the moist soil stick to my fingers, get under my fingernails, clump and gather in the creases of my hands. For a moment, I thought I could bring it back. But then it set in: I was only a speck, a mere breath in the summation of existence, and I didn’t have the power of creation in my fingertips. For a child, this is an astounding revelation.
Pushing myself from the ground, I stood up and rubbed my hands together, letting the black soil flake off my skin. I dug at the lines in my hands with my fingernails, trying to eradicate every trace of soil from my palms. Wiping my hands on my shorts, I stepped out of my garden, picked up a few of the yellow rose petals from their open grave on the lawn, and walked back toward the house. In one hand I carried my shoes and socks, in the other the petals. In front of the back door was a welcome mat with a rough tangle of plastic hairs, and I slid my feet back and forth on it until they were red and burning. I left my shoes and socks near the door and walked inside.

This was the first moment of death that I had ever experienced. Previous to this, my experience of life was all circles, all unbroken lines. I had had no pets, no houseplants, and all of my relatives were still alive, as far as I knew. Every child, I know, must meet death at some point; yet some children meet it too early. I had read of death in Sunday school class during Easter, and I had seen Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, but neither of them was real. Neither of them could make my lungs forget oxygen, my eyes forget light. My parents had never talked to me about it. I was left to stand out there alone in my garden with the air around me like sulfur, tears on my cheeks, unable to deal with the emotions I felt. The fact that I didn’t like the chickens caused me to grieve for them almost more than my own garden, since I felt at the time that I had somehow caused their demise by my own evil will.

Monday, October 24, 2005


It bothers me now, of course, but then again everything bothers me now. It bothers me that I cannot drink the water directly from the tap without getting violently ill. It bothers me that I wasn’t told that choice bit of information on my first day here and spent the next three puking and shitting and drinking more water to calm my stomach. I am bothered that I have not had a sober moment for forty two hours and can still somehow spit out coherent sentences. That just shouldn’t happen. But it does.
It bothers me that I remember exactly what my father was wearing the day he brought home the chickens. It was a pair of green shorts with a thick, white, horizontal stripe right through the center. He was wearing an old softball jersey with the number 11 on it and HAMMER written across the back. His hair was brown then—it was before he went grey—and it had been recently cut. On his left arm he had three cuts that ran the length of his forearm. They were bleeding, but not badly. It bothers me that I know that he will always have three parallel scars that never tan, no matter how dark the rest of him gets.
And it bothers me that there are exactly zero pictures of me tending my garden. I’ve looked through the albums: there are a remarkable number of photographs from that year. There are pictures of me with a spoonful of oatmeal in my mouth in the morning, pictures of me obscuring my face with a handful of popcorn while pointing at a rhinoceros at the zoo. But none in the garden. There are many pictures from that same year of my mother in various states of elegance. Her black hair is usually drawn up into a stylish bun, her green eyes are looking directly into the camera, separated by the bridge of her thin nose and the petite mole in between her arched eyebrows. My father took fifteen pictures of her like that, with her looking directly into the lens: he was either trying to see into her or look through her.

Two and a half weeks. It took two and a half weeks for me to massage and caress the soil to the point when it finally made a peep. I could hear the shoots cut through that silent soil and breathe the air. They were no bigger around than a tongue, but just seeing them made me grow. I felt like a giant, all four-foot-nine of me. I was God in miniature. In the beginning was the soil and the seed, the water and the silence. And it was formless, so I put up a fence and tilled the land and planted in crooked rows. I heard unspectacular components create the teeming kaleidoscope of life, and it was good. I was awash with green.
I stood guard over those shoots for four days. I took my meals outside beside the garden. The sun burnt my skin and by the second night my ears were brown and scaly, the pus from popped blisters coating the valleys in between the ridges in my ear canal. I wanted to be outside when it rained on those shoots. Absurd as it sounds, that was why I subjected myself to the burning sun, the sun that cut me with daggers of light. I wanted to see it banished behind black thunderstorm clouds and I wanted its silence to be replaced by the drumbeat of raindrops.
After four days of waiting it finally rained. I took off my shoes and crawled through the dirt and threw pea-sized clots of mud at the chickens’ feet. Every time I threw one, without fail, they pecked at it, apparently unable to understand the difference between dirt and food. When I finally went inside my father was yelling at the television screen.

By the middle of July my father had bought a rooster. But he would never have said it like that. He would have said he had bought a cock. I was not there when he bought it, but I know how the transaction must have worked:
“So,” says the chicken farmer, “you need a rooster.”
“A cock, yes,” my father must have said. And, since he sometimes forgets to think before he speaks, he would have continued: “I need a cock.”
At which point the farmer would feign ignorance at my father’s clunky attempt at ribaldry, because he must have been a Midwestern Swede, and Midwestern Swedes don’t mind pretending to be ignorant in order to protect a man like my father from his own stupidity. Then the farmer would say, “I have some California Greys, a Leghorn, some Delawares. I got a couple other breeds, too, but those are the three most popular around here.”
And my father probably looks at him for a moment, not having researched breeds of roosters in the least, not knowing what breed of chicken he had, only stuck on the one word that he had to say again: “Well, I want a nice-looking cock. I have some really nice-looking hens at home, and I want them to have nice-looking chicks. I probably need a nice, big cock for that.”
Eventually, the farmer would figure out that the best way to deal with my father would be to show him the roosters and let him pick one out, because my father is the type of man who needs to see. And so it would go, until the rooster was purchased and brought home.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

A bit of a story that hasn't been finished


I am the I that is the sum of every I that I have already been.
Let me start over.

I am Gabriel.
My name is Gabriel.
I am Gabriel.
I am not only the sum of every I that I have already been; I am also the difference when all of the Yous that have ever been are subtracted from all of the Hes and Shes that have ever been. I am the one He that is not a You to Me. It could easily be sketched in a Venn diagram, if need be.
My name is Gabriel. I have blonde hair, some say dishwater blonde. I have never seen blonde dishwater, so I say dirty blonde. Dirty like the dirt on the dry, unpaved road that led to my grandfather’s house when I still had a grandfather. Like when I’d be riding in the back seat of the car at sixty miles an hour watching the dust follow me like an unfulfilled promise in the hot, dry air. My hair is the color of that dust that follows me.
Let me start over.

I’m sitting in my prison cell in Seoul, Republic of Korea. R. O. K. Was it a drug bust? Burglary? Loitering? Murder? Probably: I can’t really tell. My breath smells of Soju. I believe that Soju is made by adding gasoline to Sake. The prison cell and I do not get along. There is an infestation of Soju bottles and frozen food wrappers. It reeks of time and I. The truth of the matter is that I’m not sure why I’m here. I often lie when I am drunk. Sometimes, however, I forget to tell the lies I tell myself.

I haven’t seen the sun in three days. If that is true, I must be forgiven if I write with too many ornate descriptive flourishes. It’s hard for me to imagine things in such a cramped space; my only recourse is to imagine things in such a cramped space. It’s not my fault: it’s my genes. Of course it’s my fault. Of course it’s my genes: I squeeze the middle of the toothpaste tube because of my genes.
I lie when I’ve been drinking. Have I said that already? I haven’t been drinking. Or do I lie?

Antonio Gramsci wrote about hegemony while he was in jail. I am in jail because I am hegemony. That is the last I’ll speak of hegemony. Didn’t I say I was in prison? Lies build upon each other like stones: soon I’ll have a castle.

Dirty blonde hair. Blue eyes. Brown eyes. I have brown eyes, and my chin and jaw are strong and perpetually covered in reddish stubble. I am six feet tall on a good day. Today is not a good day. I am lying on my chest, so I cannot tell you how tall I am, only how long. I exist in three dimensions, but right now I can only manage two. Length and width seem to be okay, but height is a bit of a problem. My grandmother called me today and told me to come home. I told her I was in prison and they won’t let me leave.

Extradition, embassy, escape: perhaps she said these words; perhaps I just like the letter e.
Egress windows are there to help you escape from a fire: I know that’s true. Basement bedrooms in the Lower 48 must have egress windows that measure “XX inches by XX inches”. I could fill in those Xs, but even if I did how would I know I wasn’t lying?

There must be a story somewhere. It could be that I am just a liar with a typewriter. Or a computer. Or a pen and paper. Truth is, I am the only I who can tell this story. I am the subjective I that roams and scans and lies.
There is a reason that I’m here. It’s not a coincidence. It is definitely not serendipity. Truth be told, there’s a reason for me being here just as there is a reason for everything. I know why I’m here.
But not yet. I’m not ready yet. Maybe when I’m sober.

Here is the beginning of the story:

The day after I graduated from college I set out on a crazy, naïve quest for truth. I had always imagined myself as some sort of intrepid hero, the kind in storybooks and legends, my armor polished to a sterilized sheen, my sword in hand. Still wearing my cap and gown, resplendent with garish golden cords—summa cum laude—I stepped into my parents’ house and announced to the tables and chairs that I was leaving the next morning for the eternal memory of historians and saints. Then I lay down on the couch with a pretentious sigh of self-satisfaction. I believed that I could find the truth, as though truth were something that could be poured over cereal in the morning.

Wait. I have gone too far, and become too ridiculous: I know I am not a hero. I cannot start there, because this there is not the there that initiates the here where I am now. I must go back, must reverse.

I was born at exactly six-thirty on a Sunday morning in October. It was cold outside; there had already been two inches of snow, and more was expected. Nature was an imprecise monster that year, so the leaves on all the maple trees were still clinging to their branches like withered old women attached to ventilators. Inside the hospital room there was a jungle of tubes and wires, flowers and balloons. At birth I weighed eight pounds, fourteen ounces. That’s exactly four kilograms. I was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck with my left arm pushing it away from me, my body covered in slimy amniotic fluid. That is why they called me Lefty. At birth I had a full head of black hair and two blue eyes that glowed like sapphires and could devour whole cities in their gaze. My mother thought, “Only three months until I work off this weight.” My father thought, “Is there anything good on TV tonight?”

I have gone back too far. Nobody has ever called me Lefty. All the heres that I could narrate start with this there, and therefore this there is not the particular there I need for my Soju-infused here. This is the there that is the derivative of any here that is a here. This there is too self-negating: my birth was not a curse. The curses came much later.
I realize now the there I need in order to find my here.
Here’s the true there:

During my second grade summer vacation I lived outside the city limits at a small country house my father had purchased during our family’s initial years of prosperity. It was two bedrooms on five acres of land about fifteen miles outside the last hiccups of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s suburban sprawl. We spent the first summer we owned it there instead of at our condo in the city. I can still remember how the time began: my fingers in the soil; my hands covered in the blackness of the humus, the amniotic fluid of the fecund earth. I felt like the earth was trying to call me back home. My arms were umbilical cords connecting me to the soil, and I dug using my fingers instead of a spade. I appropriated the area the former owner used as a flower garden and I planted crooked rows of strawberries and carrots.
I don’t know why I wanted a garden. At first I just wanted to touch the soil, and I might have been just as glad to hunt nightcrawlers instead of plant strawberries in rows as parallel as I could make them. The backyard was like that, was all geometry. I had a square, the lawn circled the house, and there was a henhouse that took up a rectangle of dusty ground.
That old henhouse was a wreck. It looked absurd when observed alongside the simple elegance of the house. Its roof was partially caved-in, the formerly red paint peeled like paper held too close to the fire, and the fence that tried to mark the rectangle was a tangled mess of cockeyed wires strewn about the weedy, khaki-colored ground. Inside, things were much worse: the interior was gutted; the only thing left was the floor, and that had two boards missing. Yet, I would have loved to have it as my own. Maybe a hideout, a clubhouse, something. But there were no neighbor kids and no cousins that visited. It was me me me every day. Me and the black black ground.
It didn’t come easy. While my parents were moving in I looked in the garage and found books full of diagrams and botany tips and tricks, old books that reeked of mildew and the slow decay of time. My nine-year-old brain didn’t understand much about gardening, but I tried my best to read the books and soak up their knowledge. They told me to put up a rabbit fence, so I did. The books made me love the rain, and I loved to grab handfuls of wet dirt and squeeze until it squirted through my stubby fingers. I loved to listen to the rain argue with the ground; the concrete patio at our condo couldn’t talk like the soil. Even though my vegetables wouldn’t sprout and my strawberries wouldn’t blossom, even though the ground was practically barren it at least had a voice to argue with the rain.
Seeds refused to sprout, silent like unloved children. My father, however, began to take root in the yard during our second week there. He had spent most of the first days there inside, and in the mornings he’d look out the picture window onto the backyard. Then one morning he was outside with tools, and he hammered and sawed and created and destroyed. He destroyed the henhouse as it was, and in three days it was resurrected.
Or maybe it was four. Its exterior walls were deep, red-licorice; the roof was re-shingled and the perimeter fence was strung taut along a rectangle of posts, on the side bordering my garden my father used my rabbit fence rather than putting up a fence of his own. It was a week before he got the four white chickens, but when they arrived they immediately began clucking their way from side to side. I had been steeped in solitude, the quiet, the silence that was echoed by my sterile soil, but after the chickens came it was all disrupted with their inane chatter. They had that smell, the heavy smell of life, while I had the stink of cow dung stolen from the farm a mile down the road.
When he wasn’t at work, my father was tending the chickens. He cared for them clumsily, the only way he knew how, giving them water and feed. He did not know the intricacies of raising chickens: he did what he thought was best without asking advice. And even though his care was clumsy, the chickens laid eggs for him. They always clucked and followed him when he was outside, and he was devoted to them.
My memories seem to be infected with smells: I remember the flaccid smell of cooked eggs that would hang in the air in the morning on weekdays. My father would have to go to the office in the morning, but before he left he’d go outside and feed the chickens and steal the eggs from their nests. I’d wake up to find him drinking a cup of coffee, reading the Wall Street Journal, pecking at the last few specks of cheese omelet that dotted his plate like a cryptic message. He never offered me one, but that didn’t bother me at the time.