From Cookbook For The Poor, out now in imaginative stores everywhere.
I am writing from the teahouse, typing onto paper because I cannot sit still long enough to drink tea. Still, the birds are here, and that is better than winter. In summer the birds are everywhere, singing. Listen… I will listen.
Summer along the Seine at 5:00 a.m.
What a racket! Even from such a dinky spot in the universe, this city is teeming with life. I cannot name ten living things with voices. They’re so noisy, but I cannot name them. That is wonderful, as long as there’s nothing to fear besides my own death. These noises aren’t calling out to kill me. Nor am I so sure that they’re friendly, either. No matter. Time to hop on my bike and ride along the Rue de Jean Giono whilst the sun climbs up the Urals, and the mourning doves sing out love-lost to the crows.
This ain’t so bad. It’s quiet without cars or trains. I arrived here without a dime, to the teahouse. Just a stone’s throw to the banks of the Seine, where you lazily read my book, sometimes lifting your eyes from the words to watch and wonder about the strollers, some on bikes, some walking—everyone moving in breath and music, even the old farts on park benches. There’s a man with a crow perched on his shoulder. He’s speaking French! The man is.
I need a rice and bread diet for the duration of summer. Bread in the morning. Rice at night. And a bicycle to take me away from this loathsome habit of food and drink. My comrades in the street are poor artists like myself. Even the rich boobs. “It’s too sad a life to be different,” they say. At five a.m. the black typewriters bang-bang away, the soft brush takes its first or final stroke, (or some reckless stroke caught in the middle), the walkers stuff their two hands down deep into corduroy pockets. Birds sing. The smart black cat will sit for hours watching them. The Rue de Honore de Balzac is a path named after a writer. All the streets have artist’s names. To walk down a street quiet and certain of your strong mental health, to know no forbears who killed for their street, to think of where creation weighs on humanities’ scale of death and woe. To hope it’s at the top, where it belongs. To have that potential in mind, as well as the music of the birds, and the morning sun. From the Seine, I may pick and choose my path. Each is wide and promising nothing.
The river flows. The great Oswego. Four hundred years ago it was a river. It brought you home. It cut through your life, separating countries and language. On fertile ground you planted squash and beans, after snow melt and spring flood. Your swim in the strong current was not July. There wasn’t any July. There was hot and you wanted wet.
My dreams are all askew. A rock star on a walk beside a has-been movie star. Ex-general Ulysses S. Grant as President putting his weenie up against a tall wooden door. A buxom maid, on the other side, is dressed up in a foot soldier’s uniform lubricating the barrel of her muzzleloader. A salute to George Burns at the village bakery, his ex-wife has her hand on my knee. The grand finale? A gigantic ant army running loose in my underwear.
Do I prefer civilization? Perhaps. Yet one has got to be fed up after a night of dreams like these. They began slowly along this river four hundred years ago. So slow. Barely noticeable. Yet fast enough to mark the little Indian boy out for ridicule. “I had dream of little French fork, silk scarf, and poodle wearing lace underwear.” A new dream without the universal, tribal stench of dead fish heads and corn. The breeze in the new dream smelled like human intestine—not coneflower, not dandelion, not river water. Too much to impress on sensitive souls. We are sensitive. We are almost flowers. I know so little about so many things, which just confirms my mental illness, so unlike the Johnny-jump-up at my teahouse door, who I’m sure never dreamed of President Grant’s germ-thick, Civil War privates. But you and I have. Innocent me, with my hands in my pockets, dreams these disturbing dreams. That means you must have dreamed worse. Because I know practically nothing compared to you. I am tucked way back here in a box under a huge maple tree. Soon after I was born, I dreamed about cats and wiffle ball in my backyard. Now this? This must be progress.
Do I accept civilization? Why not? After thirty-three years it’s got me backed into a corner of a small yard in Oswego. A ramshackle old shed I rebuilt into a teahouse. That idea is from Japan. From the seacoast. Commodore Perry and his filthy gang are offshore raping our daughters. I’ll stay in the teahouse and light a fire. The matches I use were crafted in Minneapolis. Polis is an ancient Greek city. Cats in robes stalk the streets for mythical birds. Athena was the goddess of practical arts and warfare. I believe the mourning dove and the crow, if stuck in a box alone with civilization for thirty-three years, upon release, would fly right over here demanding tea. My cat looks toward the Seine with appetite and wonder. I would expect his brain to explode if he thought of General Grant’s penis. Can one accept civilization and still despise humanity?
I love the country. Last night the American daughters of 4-H, ages nine to fourteen, with their faces pressed against a dirty window, patiently watched the horses breed. There was no parental form for me to sign. No warning for my wife and I to read. “Watching this humiliating act may corner your child to a life of unendurable sorrow.”
We had no idea that a breeding was in action. We sat in the car playing a game, leaning on our four thousand year old pseudo-faith in mankind to leave the god-damn children alone! No, we missed our chance to stop it. Now the perverted dreams of 4-H-ers are rapidly breeding. Around the corner an old man walks down to the banks of the Seine with a black crow perched on his shoulder. A single black crow. However, if one plurals that, I can think about a rock singer lighting a candle “cause mama I’m so hard to handle…” This is civilized? No, it’s word association from the annals of human history’s massive illusionary dream fart. Today General Grant is a roofer with his shirt off, tossing hot shingles into a parked truck.
The breeding of horses. Abraham the stallion. Samantha the mare. I walked into Rachelle’s bedroom and caught her in the act of mating her plastic horses.
“We watched from the window Daddy.”
“Don’t you think the horses prefer privacy?”
“Well Daddy, I’m sure they do, but there were two people in the ring with them.
“You mean the people stand there and watch?”
“Yes, and they help.”
“Geez Rachelle, they help!?”
“The people who own the mare don’t want her back to get scratched.”
Yes, I live a stone’s throw away from the Seine. It’s my God-given right. It may take Rachelle thirty-three years to discover this truth for herself. Fine. As long as she comes to it some time. Meanwhile, I will think of the good and the bad on my walk down to the river. She has a friend at 4-H. The two small people can’t help where they are. Not yet anyway. Mommy and Daddy think it’s okay for us to watch horses do that. Show us the horses. Hold that for the stallion. Tell us to watch from the window. We don’t care. After class we’ll run together in the twilight playing horse, while they buy cars, pizza and dog food. Reproduction is natural. It’s the General Grant nightmares I’m waking up in—those are very unnatural. I don’t even know who he is!
This river, the Seine, is a constant wear on the terrain. A slow, deliberate erosion. Early on this June morning the men wake from their dreams and step outdoors to begin manipulation. Many things will die today. Make no bones about that! A tree, some grass, perhaps a sewer full of rats. All my neighbors are out in the cool air thinking, about what should scare the pants off you. But you are probably one of them, on the roof with a hammer, in a tree with a saw, on the pavement waving a weed-wacker. The air smells like aftershave. No corduroys. No wide-brimmed hat. No providing for yourself one old window full of fat maple leaves to look at. When raindrops hit them, I get on my bicycle and pedal through Paris. Between my arm and ribs rests a loaf of bread. I’ll squeeze it until hunger gnaws, then stop my bike under a tree to watch a rain shower on the river. Every man should be this free to ride a bike around the earth.
These men without hearts have cars and trucks. They are so frightened when you step out of the teahouse. “Keeping busy?” You smile and say, “Yea,” and turn back into the hovel. Then a soft murmur getting louder. If you’re saved you think it’s the wet wind blowing through the leaves. If not, you cower deeper in a corner to the combined noise of a thousand heartless men making snicker noises from their rooftops. The sun is up. The quiet is short-lived. The hammering’s begun.
Civilization? Oh yes, I almost forgot. It’s neither good nor bad. Not right or wrong. It could be funny, hilariously funny, at the moment of dog poop in a plastic baggie. Otherwise, it’s beyond our control. It exists as God exists, beyond good or evil. Let me explain what happened to me twenty minutes ago. I’m not standing by the Seine. I’m out of the teahouse taking my dog Beany for a walk. He squats to pee. I take a bite out of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There’s a storm coming from the west. The sky is a deep, dark gray. Suddenly, “Hey mister…”
I look to the voice. A man in a tank top, tattooed, bearded, stopped on a bicycle. My first thought is that he got hold of some of my books and wants to kill me. I stand ready for a black eye. “Yea?”
“Do you enjoy letting your dog shit in other people’s yards?”
“What?” (“Here we go again,” I think to myself.)
“Man, you heard me. I watch you every day, walk out your door, cross the street, and stand here while your dog shits on the grass.”
“You got the wrong guy,” I say, holding up the empty plastic bag to prove it.
“Don’t lie to me. I just watched you from over there.”
“He was peeing.”
“No. I see you all the time. I’m sick and tired of stepping in it. Don’t you know it’s against the law? I could have you arrested.”
“Wait a minute. I am not the one pooping on these lawns. Anyway, he’s not pooping. He squats to pee. Like a girl.”
“Don’t get smart with me. Why don’t you take him to your own yard to shit?”
“I do, but he won’t go there. Listen man, it’s just shit. Now we’ll never be friends.”
He rides off without a “so long” or “goodbye”— not even a “fuck you, dude!” Fine, if it happened just once. But this is the second time I have been accosted about my dog’s bowels. Jesus, the pup’s not even a year old, and he’s already got a complex. One time is funny. Two times is funnier. Three times is that beyond good and evil thing, and God drops me a stiletto in the rain.
The story of dog poopy in America. No soiling the earth! At least no obvious soiling. One two, three… Now shit into a plastic bag! Civilization means understanding the germ theory and the germ theory states that dogs and human beings must avoid excrement at all costs. Fine, if it’s our own. But my dog likes the taste of other dog’s shit. Besides, the germ theory forgets to state the fact of the matter… That all the pigeons, ants and wild gorillas of the world are getting away with shit. That there’s not a bag big enough to catch dysentery from a flock of seagulls. That nine hundred billion flies have free flow of the intestines. That Mr. Fly is never stopped by a worried neighbor and told about the danger of shitting on his watermelon.
Are you tired of this shit yet? Is civilization finally pooped out?
Good morning from the Seine. It’s not so cuckoo here. Someone just asked me how my writing is coming along. How did he know I wasn’t doodling or figuring my wages? I told him there’s a little block, but not to worry; a sit here on the Seine should start the flow again, no problem. I have my bread and coffee—that should kick the limbs into gear. To listen and watch the earth moving—that should wake up the mind. Here I sit on a bench at the end of the Rue de Kenneth Patchen. The few walkers at this hour pass by smiling at me. They know there is a book in my belly. They know I can be trusted.
Nothing. I have writer’s block because I left the teahouse and the walkers aren’t smiling. They are clutching daggers in their eyes. This one wants to punch me in the nose. That mother keeps a loaded gun in her four door stroller. The sweet old woman holding her husband’s hand? Ha! No persuasion necessary for her to eat out my heart.
No, I can’t write because this is not the Seine. This street is named after Iroquois. How do you spell that? Can you say that again? Words! The Iroquois could draw the likeness of a sea gull, and when he did, it meant, “Get out your plastic bag whitie. Sea gull drop storm of shit.”
I can’t write because this river is Oswego. Another Indian sound. “Ook-ah-la-roo Oos-way-ga” means “Dirty men will pour cement when cement invented.” Indians here, in Oswego? Men up and down the river fishing with red plastic lures made in Cincinnati. A plastic lure salesman spent his morning at bait shops along the Ohio. He doesn’t smoke a pipe. He has gray hair, a pot-belly, and cellular phone.
The war memorial is perfect track for skateboarding. All the boys share the same, exact perverted dream. Always a naked lady and a rap star doing it right after the video game. This is America. Flags waving from every porch. No more melting pot. No diversity. A Catholic and Hindu both know Coca-cola. How can I exist, even in imagination, as a French writer, if I can interpret “a bag of Doritos?” The sameness of civilization, 2000. It’s exactly the same everywhere.
Pay attention to my head! Look at it. I walked down to the Seine searching for a muse. Miren! Look! I am afraid. I’m on guard. At any moment I am ready to fight. This is a hot June morning on the Oswego River. Above the river, two animals taking their shirts off. Beneath the flow of the river all the animals with their shirts off. Twelve kinds of beer. Forty-two makes of automobiles. (Make only forty-two and then stop—they’ll buy one). Look more closely. My head appears still, but it’s just moving so fast that you can’t see it. Degrading civilization? Am I mocking it? Jesus no, I am in love with it! I love it because above it, the truth roams in gray and white passes over my head. That there will always be a sun to dart in and out of clouds, is a sameness that keeps me from killing. That I may have one or sixty more years left to live is not anyone’s concern. Definitely not the salmon spawn. I don’t sit by the Seine. I sit down on a bench along the Oswego river. How much thought to know, beyond any doubt, that a race of water bugs has more life right than the civilized human being? Who dares agree in theory with me, the sun, and the water bug?
There’s a bird in a tree chatting to its neighbor in birdese. A warning to the other of the human sounds coming from the tree box under the maple. At dawn again with the birds, the bugs and my black cat sucking life up through a straw. So much goes into him that it must gush out his pores eventually. His fur’s shine is life. He reeks of it. Yesterday’s 4-H meeting was held at another farm, a cleaner farm with white fences and plenty of horses, well cared for and acting just like cats on a sill. Is that thunder I hear over the Seine?
After swimming and lunch, the children sat down in a circle under the shade of a massive tree. In farm country the earth appears purposely created and very real. So many more creatures prefer this life to the city or town. Nothing is thinking about anything on these June days while out in the open. A barn kitten, and suddenly little hands reach out to touch it. Human children. No, earth’s children, because right now, some of these kids are over thirty. Both the breeze and the 4-H leader are speaking. About what? Who knows? But there is an exact moment when their voices meet and become one sound. A pool of drool wells up on my daughter’s lower lip, and I can guess correctly that she spies a dragon’s flight above a patch of forest to the north. The parents and the 4-H leader too—they saw it once, and I know they see it again. I see it, and momentarily forget that one over there is the wife of a gravedigger. What does that mean? What the blazes does that have to do with a purring black kitten?
In the center of the circle are several horse heads carved out of wood, and a box of paints for the children to color the face of their favorite horse. Thirty-nine cents for poster board. Who cares if it was thirty-nine thousand? The shady maple don’t. The black kitten, white puppy, cool air along the river…? They don’t. Bugs don’t. Horses don’t. This author don’t. You don’t when you can sit for five minutes without nervous twitching. This moment we don’t care about the make of cars parked on the hill, the plastic bags of supermarket food, the ice cream melting in the hot air. We all got our own pools of drool and can recognize the sorrowful feeling that comes from watching the stallion hump the mare. For the moment no cars, no bills, no hour from now, no food, money, soap, above all, no things! Just a circle of happy eyes and blank horse heads in the center ready for the little hands to reach out and paint them.
A girl opened the door and stared at Rachelle and Constance while they were changing out of their makeshift bathing suits. The girls came running up to me asking why. I am out of happiness and back to my old self thinking “future lesbian.” I walk out to the tree and sit by the horse heads dreaming of two hours from now, gas for the car, dinner tonight… There isn’t a Seine. There is no thunder, no black kitten to give a moment’s notice to. Washed and ready. Always ready with a plan. “Make a list honey. Organization is one of the most important things in life.” I actually said that to her this morning while she stood with her book and butterfly hair clips telling me she forgot that a bagged lunch was required. “Late, late, late. Dammit, we’re gonna be late.” You should have seen me running to make her lunch, going over again and again in my mind the god-awful horror of being late to a 4-H meeting. Human freak show, slapping bread on the cut board, turkey, then cheese, mayonnaise, cut strawberries, ice pack for the yogurt… Wait! No yogurt. Must have three things or be a horrible planner, a rotten parent… “You can’t tell me a minute before we leave that you need a lunch made. You can’t make people wait just because you’re sorry.” And then her big happy eyes well up with tears.
Jesus, what time is it? What time is it? What time is it you fake bastard?
Time to go.
Where should we go?
Back to cowardice of course. Back to neurosis. Back to a summer evening’s run on the new concrete along the Oswego River. Guilty? Oh my god, yes! Guilty! I charge myself. Guilty for sucking the life out of my child. The Seine. Bullshit! Pin me down. Shove a watch down my throat. Pour gasoline all around. Shoot me and light a match. I have suffered.
Guilty? Yes, guilty I charge myself. Guilty for lying to her. “It’s important in life to be organized.” God how I wish that each time I said a line a crap like that, a piece of flesh got torn from my skin. A skinless daddy payed his longstanding debt to the child. Guilty, as charged by myself. Guilty for thinking “lesbian.” Guilty for making a sandwich. She’d be happy enough with some dirt in a bag that had “lunch” written across the top. Guilty for allowing gravedigger into my twisted thoughts. Guilty for leaving her under a tree with a kitten, to drive off thinking about dinner. To drive a car! To prepare dinner! Guilty, as charged by myself. How I wish that each time I drove off twitching inside, a tractor trailer would hit me head on! An Audi, Ha! Her name is Aurora, you filthy grown-up human fake-artist. Have her clean the carpet by five, pick up her room, help you with the laundry. Yes, ruin her life because her character, even if it is a false one, is worth more to you than a happy life. As long as she acts correctly. It’s better to have a mom or a dad who think it is educational to watch horses doing it, than to say “How queer!” to your child and the next day, close a door, and make love in front of the cat. You’re sick boy! Very sick. Take a walk down to the river and step in line with the marching cowards. Join the crowd. It’s better to be them than be you. Self hate. Self-loathing? Guilty. Yes, completely guilty, as charged by myself. The Seine. You’re a liar! This is a story about the river we drown our children in.
What now? Where did my idyllic day go? In the courtroom of the mind, no action is taken. “The courtroom of the mind…” Do you see? Now what the hell is that? Am I going to be a man? Am I a father or a writer-faker? Little poo-poo’s got a confession. Even this is a blasted confession. Guilty, as charged! I can’t write, “courtroom of the mind” and tomorrow take her by the hand and walk off together searching for dragon claws. I pretend that writing is a noble pursuit. Taking care of lepers is a noble pursuit. Petting your daughter’s head, hugging her leprous body—that is a noble pursuit. Right now, until the end of this paragraph, I am a liar, faker, the world’s greatest fraud. All over the earth, ominous, black clouds (ominous, phooey!) carry the plague to villages already stricken with its share of disease, starvation, suffering, and woe. I got the sun rising on a June morning with pink and yellow waxed hearts hanging from a curtain rod. A crow on the wire—not a raven, no messenger of death. Just a happy crow laughing at me.
Four or five paragraphs of confessional guilt. If you threaten me with a spanking, I’ll probably cry.
This is the extreme. This is where thought finishes at the beginning of the 21st century. Thirty-three years of life, but no living. I just put an empty box of Peanut Butter Bumpers into the recyclables can. How can there be any philosophy besides Walter Mitty after that? What is pure? Where is manhood? It’s obvious that our best thoughts are shared with the children. They are closer to the womb of a bread, rice, and assorted vegetable diet. Rachelle, no matter how guilty through association she may be, lives in teahouse by the Seine. Breed horses, drive cars, fill up your grocery cart with mass-produced, pasteurized, homogenized, categorized crud. It puts death in the eyes. It puts five dollars of gasoline in the tank. It puts the constant thought of tomorrow in your brain, and sad things like the rotting smell of the garbage can, which wouldn’t be so bad, if you could let garbage be garbage, rivers be rivers, children be children…
How is it we have become so symbolic? If I had writer friends, I would visit their hovels, and ask each one why he doesn’t write the truth. His own truth, where it hurts or helps. All I wanted to do was write about the human differences between the Seine and Oswego rivers. Impossible. Why? Dammit, why can’t I play the game? It’s so simple—from the souls of two rivers, two lives, two bottoms, and each with an original story to tell… Yes, I know that a man is nothing more nor less than a water-bug. I know this to be absolutely true! Then why this crap? Why the words? Why, if I’m so cocksure of our uselessness, am I willing to waste five minutes trying to prove it? The truth is, it’s just a better job. And, the truth is, that I have an imagination. And, Rachelle doesn’t need me to be anymore false than I already am. And, last night, outside the teahouse, my only wife cried a river of tears. This morning she sleeps with a smile on the bed with the dog and cat. Together they float slowly down the lazy Seine, dreaming. About what should scare the pants off you. And, I am quite proud about being a faker and liar. But even better, the people I love know that I am too. And, the truth is, the Seine—Oh bullshit! I say go piss in the Seine! Nothing I write will ever open your eyes. The truth is, for that to happen I need a head vice, and both sets of my thumbs and forefingers pressing into your skull.
Here is my conclusion:
The Seine at 7:00 am. The truth is, there are so many truths, and most of them are just too embarrassing to articulate. If we can lay low and sneak quietly out of this life, I think everything will be okay. I like coffee. That’s the truth. I’ve never stood on French soil. The truth again. Salmon fishing is a popular tourist attraction in Oswego County. The truth? Sure, why not? “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…” That man told the truth, his truth, which is about as interesting as the melody one can put to it.