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

In Search of Conflict

Now That’s Conflict!


Three struggling writers, members of a self-absorbed critique group, met on a Monday morning in late September. Desert winds blew from the valley across the hills, bringing with them hot, dry air and temperatures well above ninety degrees Fahrenheit.

Although the group’s host, Charlie The Mechanic, had opened all his house’s windows, and left both the back and front doors set wide to welcome whatever buzzing flies and breezes might chance by, all three scribblers showed sweaty signs of weariness, short tempers and precious little patience for nonsensical criticism.

Rufus Baines used one of Charlie’s greasy chamois cloths to wipe perspiration from his kneaded, thoughtful brow.

Charlie, in an attempt to fan air across his face, waved the pages of his yellowed copy of a Cormac McCarthy novel he’d read and oftentimes tried to imitate.

Stephen King just grinned against the fiery heat, because he was Stephen King.

“Rufus, your story just won’t work,” said Charlie.

“You mean you don’t like it?” said Stephen King.

“No, truth is that I like art. I mean, when I was a kid my mom took me all up and down the west coast of whatever country we happened to be touring, and we visited museums, libraries, pet stores and diners,” said Charlie.

“Pet stores?” said Rufus. “What the hell do pet stores have to do with art?”

“Cheesus, what a scoop of instant mashed potatoes you’ve turned out to be,” said Stephen King. “There’s an art to putting together a fish tank. I once wrote a scene inside one of my massive beach books that featured a Chevron station manager who kept a fifty-gallon tank beside the cash register. And one morning he swung his wrench in an unintended direction –“

“‘Unintended direction,’ I like that phrase, and I got lots of wrenches,” said Charlie. He yanked a spring-bound notebook from his shirt pocket, the pocket that had a patch sewn to its front that read ‘Charlie,’ and with his Bic pen he jotted down the two words before they owned a chance to slip his mind.

“Like I was sayin’,” said Stephen King. “See this gas station manager was aiming to klonk this weedy customer across the head with the wrench, because I knew my readers expected action from me as a prolific author of commercial junk, but then I got this idea to switch my readers’ minds around at the last minute, and so I made the manager miss the guy’s head and smash the wrench into the fish tank instead.”

“Wow, now that’s conflict if I ever heard of conflict,” said Charlie. “No wonder you’re so successful. Geez, we sure are lucky to have you as a member of our group. Want a beer? I got a whole, entire case of yellow American beer inside the fridge that’s in my garage, right next to the TV and the toolbox.”

“Yeah, I’ll take a cool one. Thanks,” said Stephen King. “You know what? I’ve written some of my best novels while sucking down some brew.”

“I’ll go get the beer,” said Rufus. “I remember where your fridge is.”

“Thanks, guy,” said Charlie.

“Yeah, thanks,” said Stephen King. “You’re a champ.”

Rufus lumbered his way to Charlie’s garage. Stephen King took the opportunity of Rufus’s absence to offer Charlie some advice.

“Try not to be so hard on Rufus,” said Stephen King. “He’s one of those sensitive artist types who doesn’t understand what today’s readers want.”

“Demand is more like it,” said Charlie. “You and I both know that people who go to pet stores and beaches and gasoline stations won’t sit still long enough to read subtle works of literature.”

“You’re right about that, Charlie,” said Stephen King. “Literary, worthy and intellectual books belong sitting on the shelves of university libraries just waiting to bore the bejeesus out of kids who would rather be snorting down brew and luring each other into bed than listening to professors talkin’ about William Butler Keats and . . . who was that guy that started all that philosophy crapola back in the time of pyramids and Roman aqueducts? Lucrates, was it?”

“Gallowayo, you must mean Gallowayo,” said Charlie. “Bastards in charge made him eat a poisonous plant fer sayin’ that the planets were all crooked and such. Sheesh, talk about conflict and action. Better even than my man Cormac writing about this guy who was chasing a bundle of cash and blowing away motel clerks, and even women, with an air gun.”

“Just let’s us try to be gentle with Rufus. ‘Kay, Charlie?” said Stephen King.

“‘Kay,” said Charlie. “It’s hot out there today, and that’s tough on a poet, and Rufus– tender soul that he is — he tries his best.”

“Look,” said Stephen King. “I said be gentle, not religious. Let’s not get into a discussion about souls.”

Just then Rufus walked back into the room, set three cold ones on the blond-wood coffee table, sat down and picked up his manuscript.

“So, all right,” said Rufus. “While I was walking into the garage and back, I got to wondering. Tell me what you mean, Charlie, when you say my story won’t work. My skin’s tough enough to take the criticism. Well, not really; that’s a lie plain and simple like. But I want to sell this story to Danger Magazine. So what’s wrong with it? Is my phrasing awkward? Is the melody off-key? Is the poetry too damned modern, derivative and lacking in rhyme?”

“There you go again,” said Charlie. “Sometimes I just don’t get you. I mean, what the hell is phrasing? Aren’t melodies parts of songs on AM radio? And deslipative? Frigging deslipative? Is that why you went to college, so you could lord over us with words like deslipative?”

“Yo. Calm down, you guys,” said Stephen King. “Rufus, it’s none of that. What Charlie and I are trying to tell you is that your story won’t work because there’s no conflict in it. It’s all just description and wandering dialogue.”

“But my main character, Joe, lives a life suppressed. He’s jealous of his neighbor’s brand new panel truck, and he’s hard-pressed to maintain a friendship with Uncle Marty, because Marty’s busy getting drunk like the two of you are getting drunk today. You see, Marty accidentally killed his ex-wife’s child because of booze. And he’s never gotten over that. And if you guys weren’t so damned impatient, I might have gotten to the part where Joe is screwing Marty’s ex-wife Rose, and of course he can’t tell Marty that, and . . . well, isn’t that conflict enough for you?”

“No,” said Charlie.

“No,” said Stephen King.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” said Rufus. “Why not?”

“Your words go too slow,” said Charlie.

“Your story needs a wrench,” said Stephen King.

“Conflict,” said Charlie.

“Action,” said Stephen King.

“Well, ffffff . . . screw you guys,” said Rufus. “I’m leaving this funky old house, and I’m not coming back.”

Rufus walked toward the open door.

“Want a cold one to take with you?” said Charlie The Mechanic. “Or how’s about this here book? You can borrow my Cormac McCarthy. If you read it, you just might come to understand all about action and conflict, and who know’s, you might someday win the Pulitzer Prize.”

“How about taking one of Charlie’s wrenches with you?” said Stephen King. “He’s got plenty, and you obviously are so damned stuck on art of a kind the masses couldn’t comprehend if they showed it on TV that just holding on to a wrench might give you a feel for how a beach book should be built.”

Rufus spit on Charlie’s carpet, and then he left.


In Search of Conflict