Turning Error Into Art

Hawker Hurricane
The Art of War?

When I was a young child, I used too much glue whenever I put together a model airplane. I could see the fine details—the erect plastic nipples on each tab A, the receptive bellybuttons on each slot B, the ridges, the cutouts and the seams—but I couldn’t manage the combination of patience and coordination required to apply just enough pressure to the tube to release a tiny droplet of epoxy. Instead, I squeezed too hard, and clear sap leaked all over the wing, jammed up the landing gear and blurred the pilot’s windshield.

It’s not easy to wipe glue off plastic. Paper towels are useless—they tear and shred, and leave unattractive tatters of themselves behind—and cotton cloths aren’t much better. The glue thickens as it breathes, so you have to wipe fast, although even with a rapid swiping motion you can never get to all of it before scar tissue forms on the fuselage. Still, I tried my best to make my models neat and clean.

I used paper towels on the B-52, and cotton cloths on the Hawker Hurricane; and then, out of frustration with the inevitable, smeared deviation from exactitude—and out of respect for the Spitfire’s legend—I tossed the towels and cloths and I developed my own method for turning error into art.

I unscrewed the cap of the next soft-metal tube, pinched its bottom end, then rolled my thumb and index finger along its body, from foot to nozzle, over and over again, until all of the tube’s transparent blood oozed, seeped, ran and coated the model’s surface. Next, with the tip of one finger, I pressed, pulled and drew the thickening glue into a level sheen, as if I were painting the airplane without a brush. When I got it all as smooth and even as I could, I used an artisan’s razor to etch a few signature details. A bolt of zigzag lightning on the nose, the rough outline of a seductive lady under the window, my initials on the tail.

These lines that I drew folded in on themselves, changed course by force of gravity, and all but disappeared as the glue congealed like tired lava and then dried and flaked like a bad skin condition; but I knew what I’d meant to say by slicing them there.

My friends and brothers laughed at the results of my experiments. Back then I could not absorb ridicule any better than glue, so I gave up building the machines of war. I threw away the B-52, the Hurricane and the Spitfire; and in a fit of passive, inward temper, I declared that I’d hated airplanes all along and that I much preferred the force of nature to the power of weapons.

And yet, you cannot stop a spy from guarding secrets, nor keep a determined athlete from his sport, and so I soon replaced my glue-and-plastic art form with another exercise, this next adventure more forgiving of a young boy’s errant glance toward what delights him. I took up digging for Saturday-morning worms to use as lure for mindless catfish fed and swimming in the lake that lies below the highest hill in Bronwell Corners. I traveled muddy paths through wooded marsh at sunrise, filled my lungs with the erotic aroma of rotting vegetation, spied the flick and swoosh of rabbits darting through the reeds, nicked my fingertip on the sharp point of a fishhook, sucked the blood and cast the line.

I sat down beneath a canopy of maple leaves, listened to proud cardinals singing, and felt the summertime shadows run through me. I stared beyond the grassy bank, slipped off my shoes and socks, pushed my legs forward and let them dangle over the edge. My toes touched and then broke the lake’s cool surface. I shivered as the red cedar water tickled my ankles. I closed my eyes and imagined that a raft made of tree limbs and thick vines floated just a few hundred feet from where I rested.

A tall man dressed in a burlap toga, and wearing a straw hat on his head, rowed the raft. He smiled at me. His teeth were white and his eyes were yellow. When he’d moved the raft nearer to the shoreline, the man threw me one end of a vine.

“Tie me up, boy,” he hollered. “I have something to say to you.”

I stood up, grabbed the strong, green rope and tethered it to the tree trunk behind me. I tugged hard at the vine, letting the slack fall in circles at my feet, until the raft floated close enough to the bank that the man could jump ashore.

“You fishing or dreaming, son?” he asked.

“A little of both, I guess. It’s better than building model airplanes.”

“That’s why I’m here, boy,” he said.

I think my expression told him that I felt puzzled, because the tall man shook with a round belly laugh and then went on to explain what he meant.

“Was it the glue or the ridicule that drove you to dangle your feet in red cedar water?”

“I never really liked airplanes.”

“But you enjoy the aroma of rotting vegetation, and the flick and swoosh of rabbits reminds you that you can run like a frightened beast. That’s right, isn’t it? Flick and swoosh is what you called it, no?”

With that the man again began to laugh. This time he laughed so long and hard that he seemed to lose his wind. I watched as he chuckled and snickered, giggled and groaned, sniggered and roared, before he fell to the ground in front of me and rolled side to side, all the while holding on to his middle.

“I won’t ask you why you’re laughing at me,” I said.

I glared at the tall man and I waited. Eventually, he lay still and seemed to regain his composure. He looked at me through watered eyes and winked.

“I know that,” he said. “I know you won’t ask. You won’t even ask me who I am. I’m a little bit of God and a little bit of Jim the slave. I’m the poet you think you are today, and the craftsman you might not become tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to become you,” I said.

“Of course not. Not now that you see that my hat is made of straw and my toga isn’t seamless silk. You thought I’d be sporting a black beret and quoting windbag Whitman, didn’t you?”

“I told you, Mister, I don’t want to become you. I never wanted to become you. I don’t even want to know who you are.”

“I’m a bad-boy poet, son, and I work hard to earn a living. Sometimes I squeeze too much glue along the seams, but I’m too smart and too foolish to take up fishing. If you want to hitch a ride on the raft, then you must leave the windblown, black-beret attitude behind you. You’re too young to sound like a prophet and too old for plastic-model tantrums. And scar tissue, son, scar tissue is part of surgery, so get used to it,” he said.

“I don’t understand you,” I said.

“I think you’ll want to pull in your line now, then tomorrow return to etching zigzag lightning on the nose and a seductive lady or two under the window. There’s not much meat on even a well-fed catfish.”

And then the tall man left me sitting there alone.

Written in February 2000

Dear Young Companion, Dear Old Friend, Part I

Dear Young Companion, Dear Old Friend

Dear Young Companion,

I watched you last night. Lying there on your antique couch, the one with the maroon brocaded upholstery and the wide-winged arms, one of which you use each day as an uncomfortable headrest, stiff and unyielding enough to leave your neck muscles in knots. Why do you remain there and refuse to climb into your bed each evening like any sane man would do?

Ludicrous of me to ask, of course. After all, I know the answer to every question I put to you. I am your old friend. I’ve been close to you for what seems to be a lifetime’s worth of days and years, and yet is just as short or as long as what human beings name a second.

I ask you questions so that you will ask them of yourself. If you want to survive these saddest days, then hear me and pay attention.

You will survive, by the way. I know this fact as well as I know myself. One day soon you’ll rise from your couch and walk out your front door for more than just a midnight walk.

For now, though, you must swim a while longer inside your self-made pool of tears. I could tell you not to worry. I could say that self-pity is a necessary step toward revelation and self-acceptance. But you wouldn’t believe me. Not today. You think you’ve reached your end. Fact is that you want your life to seize upon itself, at least that’s what your voice whispers whenever your mind settles on the subject of regret.

So she left you. You came back to the apartment that you shared with her, the home where you and she tried hard to destroy each other. Four weeks ago now. You walked through the door and smelled the odor of darkness that you kept safe by closing all the windows, all the shades drawn tight against your secrets. And there you found the note, the single scribbled sentence that you pretended would never come to meet you. There the note lay, on top of your prized writing desk, the desk that you and she in happier times pushed neat into the living-room alcove. The living room where death occurred each morning.

“I need some space, some time to think,” she wrote.

And you feigned anger in order to avoid spiritual disintegration. You screamed profanities. You blamed her for leaving you. You imagined yourself as an altruistic, noble gentleman who had been cruelly wronged. But no one heard you shouting. You knew that no one could hear you. After all, it was you who shut the windows of your second-story apartment, that very morning and all the preceding mornings, so that your neighbors and the angels flying by could not hear the ugly arguments that you and she entertained.

And there you stood understanding nothing of nobility or of gentleness. You knew that fact, too. Each day when you shaved your face — the same face you stopped shaving after she left — you saw the reflection of a sinner’s broken spirit.

I’ll pose just one last question for today: Why do you take those midnight winter walks through blizzard winds? Hear me. Pay attention. Ask yourself, and try to answer.

Dear Old Friend,

Somehow I know you’re here, your face close to mine, your lips kissing my mouth. But I cannot understand you. Why would anyone want to be near me? I’m a failure. I tried to love her, but I was born without sufficient capacity for giving love, without sufficient tenderness or empathy.

I’ve given up my desk. Instead, I lie here on the couch and scratch disjointed thoughts onto one pad of paper after another.

I changed the locks on the one door to this apartment. I go outside only after midnight. I never turn on a lamp. I want the air here to remain dark, black enough that I can think, think until the end arrives.

Yesterday afternoon, a friend came knocking at the door. “Are you there?” she asked. I slid my body silent to the floor and crawled, slow and careful, into the nearest corner, under a window sill. I held my breath until her murmured questions stopped. And then I held my breath a while longer. I stayed still inside the corner. I shut my eyes tight. I would not allow her to hear me moving.

She left, and I returned to the couch, to my place of refuge. There again I recorded the fearful moment. Someday soon I will destroy these pads of reckless paragraphs, but when I reach the bottom of the final page I’ll remember what I wrote.

I keep one dim light lit. A green glow behind a round clock face. There I can watch the clock’s hands move, listen as they tick off the needled steps toward midnight. At midnight I feel safe enough, alone enough to stand up and leave this place for a while. As I reach for my woolen coat, I can feel you holding it open, wide enough to allow me to slide my arms into its sleeves. This winter season, this season of my saddest, final days, is the coldest winter season I remember. So I wrap and tuck the scarf she gave to me last Christmas tight around my neck. I wear boots that keep most of the snow and ice away from my feet. I lost my gloves somewhere in the mess I made here, so instead I pull a heavy sock onto each hand.

I have nowhere that I need to be, no destination comes to mind, no one who asks that I visit. So I punch my legs into the snowdrifts, follow the misty orange streetlights that serve as background to windswept flakes, and I walk in circles. Until hunger returns to say, “Go there and eat.”

There is a sandwich shop at the intersection of two sets of trolley tracks. Each time I enter, the big man in the little kitchen throws a few slices of thin chipped beef onto the grill to join the pile of fried onions that lives there day and night. He asks me no questions; and for his silence I feel grateful.

I slip my body onto the vinyl-covered seat of an empty booth. I watch the man squirt pale-yellow oil onto the inside of a hard roll of bread, then press the roll down on top of the steak and onions. I breathe in deep the food’s cheap aroma, rise from my seat, snatch a cold root beer soda from the metal locker, pay the man and walk home with my food.

At the foot of the snow-covered path that leads to my apartment building, I stop and spy, just to be certain that no one waits for me there. That’s a nonsensical thing to do, isn’t it, old friend? Two-thirty strikes the darkest morning of my saddest day, Zephyr surrenders to the howl of frigid air, and I expect a visitor? Nonsense, yes, perhaps; but somehow I understand that it’s you who waits for me, you who will sit with me on my antique couch to share a meal, you beside whom I will sleep until tomorrow.

A Slice of Virtue: Part I: Preparation For Departure

Up and Down, and Up and Down Again

This story is Part I of a book I’m writing called “A Slice of Virtue.” It’s all in that messy, first-draft stage right now. Find Part II  here.
An Entertainment, Part I

He now had everything he needed until the final moment stored inside this house he’d purchased and maintained as a well-kept secret. Whenever that final moment should arrive, he realized, he might feel as if he needed more; but the moment and the need would pass unnoticed by anyone but him.

He’d spent weeks stockpiling what little food he required. Food no longer held much interest for him. At times he wondered why he bothered himself with the effort to nibble on a piece of fruit or heat up a bowl of last night’s canned stew. His tongue gave up some time ago conveying to his brain a sense of taste. Force of habit, that must be his reason for all the chewing and swallowing he performed; because as the unavoidable hour approached, reason advised him that leaving the world he’d known, in one way or another, for seventy painful years did not require a full stomach.
On the evening of his last steps on somewhat solid ground, he knew that she’d be waiting for him, lingering just inside the front door of that other house, the one they’d first called home and then later named their private battlefield. She’d want quick to trap him between her sweaty body and the nearest foyer wall, and then to pursue the next chapter of their vile and well-honed argument. “I hate you,” she’d tell him once again. “I feel as if I’m living with a madman.”
And had he gone to that house on that last evening after work, and not to this secret house of shadows, he now understood that he would have remained still and stiff in front of her, silent and fuming, guilt-ridden and sad, angry for all the failure in his character. “Hopeful dreams begin to die whenever two people fall in love,” he told himself.
On that last afternoon of his former life, after another exhausting day of teaching several university classes, and then spending a few hours inside his office advising students as to which courses might best lead them closer to their stated goals, Jon Trainer walked away from the administration building and toward the nearest parking lot. The surrounding air was dark and full of wind. Raindrops, thin and sharp, cut across his face. As he thought of her, and of their endless quarrel, he felt his legs begin to shiver. His eyes lost focus. His body floated at a dizzying angle above the earth.
He narrowed his line of vision until he located his Volvo wagon, and then he pushed himself forward with intense effort, punched the green button on the remote control that unlocked the car’s doors, yanked backward on the door handle, and fell into the driver’s seat. He listened to the solid, almost silent thud as he pulled the Volvo’s door closed. He leaned back against the cushioned headrest, closed his eyes and considered driving to the tavern in the next town over.

But lately colleagues and self-declared friends had noticed and had chosen to tell him that his eyes looked yellow and his skin looked pale. One woman, a professor of history, just a few days before this grey afternoon, had expressed her concern. In private she’d assured him, although he had understood that if she were commenting on his physical and emotional state, then so too were other faculty members.

“Have you seen a physician about possible liver problems?” she asked. He mumbled an ineffective reply, but next rushed to the restroom, stared at himself in the mirror, and saw that she was right. “Dear God, it’s time to go,” he’d said to himself. “It’s well past time to retreat and to prepare.”

Clean Food and Love, Please

So instead of traveling to the bar, he headed away from the place the two of them still insisted on calling home, steered the Volvo northward onto the freeway, toward the town of Maplewood, where Rosie’s Diner each evening held blue-collar court.

Rosie wore bright-red lipstick in a messy smear across her lips, smelled of five-and-dime rose sachet, snapped chewing gum when she spoke, and covered a customer’s hand with her own when she served the first cup of coffee.

“So, professor, to what do we owe this honor?” she whispered as he took a bench seat at the counter, not far from the diner’s front door. Rosie’s breath was spiced with the odor of cigarette smoke. The diner’s door, disconnected from its broken pump, allowed puffs of air mixed with raindrops to enter and land on the heavy rubber welcome mat. Trainer watched as muddy footprints melted on the rubber, and he wondered which ones might have been his.

“I need a cup of –“

But Rosie had the cup set there in front of him before he completed his request.

“Looks like you need a whole lot more, Jon. But we’ll let that go for now. Dinner, or just a slice of virtue this time round?”

Virtue, Trainer had learned by way of his recent, frequent visits here, was diner-speak for cherry pie. He checked himself and discovered once again that he owned no appetite, but he ordered the slice of virtue anyway, maybe just because he wanted an excuse to stay here for a while longer.

He realized that on a rainy afternoon turning fast toward evening he must look counterfeit and silly with a pair of dark glasses wrapped around his face, but to take them off, he feared, would reveal his disease to other people seated nearby. He wasn’t sure why he cared enough to hide the obvious; the citizens of Maplewood remained gratefully unaware of the employees of Rutherford University, and in any event, Jon Trainer’s life would soon be of little consequence to anyone but the authorities. Still, he supposed that somewhere inside himself he yet harbored a residual sense of pride.

At first he thought that the now familiar, daily sense of vertigo was what threw him off balance, but soon the shock of metal slamming hard against itself cracked the air like a shot from a gun. Trainer reflexively ducked in time to avoid the larger shards of glass as the windowpane closest to the door she had snapped full backward on its hinges gave way. Next he sensed the heat of her, heard the intrusive shriek of her anger and felt the spray of spit hit the back of his neck.

“I hate you, Jon fucking Trainer, and now everyone in this lousy excuse for a town will know what you are.”

He sat up and stared after her as she turned on her heels and left the way she’d come. He felt hot tears leaking from his tired eyes; and through the blurred confusion he surrendered his body to trembling, as Rosie curled her arm around his back and kissed his cheek.

Perhaps to be continued . . .