Blog of literary hijinks and the dudnering whirl of expatriotic vitriole.


March 24, 2006

Observations of the city thirty years after…

Everyone has either gone to Buenos Aires for the march or waits for a bus or train to go. Not everyone. There are a few stragglers haunting the plazas that are filled with the smoldering remains of last nights commemorations; a skeleton of chicken wire from an unidentifiable effigy lies untouched in the middle of the walkway, bits of charred wooden sticks and carbonized newsprint are enmeshed within it. People give a mearsured berth to this strange paraphernalia, weary of looking or coming too close.

In the same plaza, across from the elegant court house that imitates an imperious French architecture, strings of white xeroxed pages with faces of men and women in the peak of their youth dangle like Tibetan prayer flags from a statue of a state hero on a horse and are tied to light poles throughout the plaza, except that the flags (they kind of look like flags from a distance) are only black and white and the portraits are more like mug shots from a crime museum photo album, as the images are thirty years old. The hairdos of the women are one step forward of beehives; the long, natural, mother-goddess seventies chic. Many of the men in the photos have slicked hair to their shoulders and untamed side burns. Perhaps they do not really look like mug shots, too many of them are smiling. But there is nevertheless a formality, they are all posing, turned at a 3 quarters stance, chin up, eyes forward. Perhaps they are pictures from the high school year book. Whichever, an eerie sense of purpose, a manufactured image of the truth is evident. These images, more than any portraits I know of, are not meant to recall an individual, they represent an idea. Their stiff, awkward smiles (taken the day before they were driven off in the back seat of an unmarked, green Ford Falcon?) betray the cloud of fear and uncertainty under which they lived and the specter of pain and unthinkable torture they suffered before their deaths. They are plucked as if from the white of a cloudless horizon. A middle-aged women steps cautiously under the string of faces, studying each one with deep, mournful eyes and a hand covering her hollow lips. She pauses at each face, as if she thinks that by looking closely enough, she will remember everyone that has gone and yet, occasionally she nods with sursprise and her eyes light in sudden shocks of recognition.

There are broken bottles everywhere, translucent shards of green and brown crunching under foot. In truth, every public gathering, whether it be for a solemn occasion such as this, a regular union protest or teachers strike or students walkout, part of a seemingly endless routine now, or just a good old fashioned pep rally before or after a soccer match, is also a cause for some to celebrate. The usual suspects inhabit the worn, green benches and the ordered lawns: a passed out drunk, lovers sipping mate, hippies hunched over their rope and crystal jewlry spread out on a purple blanket. The smells of stale beer, sweat and an occasional whiff of marijuana smoke fill the air. The city is in hangover mode. The skies earlier had been dynamic; powerful beams of light like fists burst hopefully through the clouds at intervals, refusing to give in completely to the approaching storm. But now, here in the somber atmosphere of the plaza, gun metal blue thunderheads have encroached on the latter part of the afternoon. Winds are picking up, forcing older citizens to wrap themselves in unruly cloaks as they seek warmer shelter.

Over at the Cathedral, the national flag is flying proudly at full mast. Its grand steps and entrance way are empty and silent. No one seems eager to pay a visit or even to walk on the sidewalk in front.

We decide to visit a public art gallery housed in an abandoned railway station at the other end of town. There is a quaint bricked street passing in front. A few people are inside, sipping on cerveza at a white plastic picnic table while their children dance and hop about. Two workers are setting up a projector, later there will be slides and a presentation. We walk up a slight ramp to the exhibition space. The walls are unpainted, concrete block and there is a walled off room with large, empty windows that is the snack shop. They sell cerveza and bottled water and snacks. In the middle of the space there is a table with children’s books that had been censored during the dictatorship. They have titles like; The Big Elephant, Learning French and The People in Your Neighborhood. Even books on mathematics were barred, (though they were not part of the display) because of their “communist content.” Information, in the eyes of the dictator, is a dangerous thing, the most dangerous. Hanging on the walls are a series of small (8 inches by 5 inches) sketches, engravings that were chosen to be a part of a stamp collection commemorating the thirty years that have passed since March 25, 1976, when General Jorge Videla polished up his boots and took to the podium. They all represent, in some way, the horrors of the “Dirty War”; the cynicism and sadism of its leaders and their claque, the tacit support from some of the world’s most influential “Democracies” (the U.S., Israel, etc..).

Even around supper time a scant few stores are open. We scour the city for a place to sit down to try and make sense of this day, of what has happened, of what will happen. We finally find a pizza place open though they’re not serving food until later. There is an uncomfortable silence hanging in the room, a weariness in the scattered faces looking up from their tables. We talk about life outside, in far off countries, having exhausted ourselves on so much dismal recapitulation. “You get the sense that anything could happen and no one would be…surprised.” My friends words hang in the air like smoke rings that have retained their shape after the smoke has disappeared.



do you remember how the pebbles slipped underfoot, picking up speeding as they rolled down the edges of the steamy night? do you remember how the silence stuck to the edges of our wounded words, translating our humid desires into a code that blocked the openings?

do you remember the taste of the root-stained water, the cottonwood’s contorted reflection, its rotted skin? do you remember the song whose words we could not remember, the shape of the canyon?

like me do you sing it to yourself in the apartment building stairwell, on the busstop, in long hallways of the third shift, in the room with the typewriter on the floor?

your burgundy note was visible on the kitchen table through the dawn’s amber smoke, the settled silt, like a leaf with curled edges like the open palm of a hand nailed to the heavy oak. I never been able to ask, but

i am certain of the smoked cigarettes, the red vest, the cracked windshield, a fence somewhere that you had always wanted to repair, the long stretch filled, i know, with potholes.

i am certain of the second story window left open all these years, of the seeping scent of orange blossom that again you would take for jasmine.

i am certain of the city’s creases, its chapped hands, the sand ribs of the riverbed, the fluted clouds. i am certain of what emerges from behind the words. i am certain of you, your sweet tobacco fingertips, certain that what we shared with be there where the poem deadends.

Living Without

The lake vomited whole species of fish upon the gray fringe of sand and pebble at the foot of a wall of impenetrable noise, an unheard protest. Pale, lacking the colors that the city itself lacks, it left without leaving.

The immigrant children threw flats rocks from the breakers, mixing languages, stepping out, wrapped in gusts of north wind and secondhand scarves, onto the ice. Learning the edges from the holes in their bootsoles, from being unseen, they fell through without falling through.

Such small defeats passed unmentioned over dinnertable newsentertainment programs
and in breakroom newpapers. The punch clock looked on, blind traffic roared seamlessly, the ghosts fled the city’s stare. We died without dying.

Dear Toby,

Mad? No, I wouldn’t say mad. Listen, it is your text and not mine or anybody else’s, which is precisely why I suggested that you take a few risks with it in the first place. Although you know how much I liked the title, “Siding with the Sinners”, and the ending as you originally communicated it to me in our conversations on the train and letters, I think that I understand the changes.

Thanks again for the corrections. Do you really think that taxi cabs cannot be described as surreptitious? And, I still do not understand your adamant “rejection” of the personification of the city of those years as an insolent young man. But hopefully we will have time to talk out such details shortly.

Here are the fragments that you requested. I wouldn’t know what to do with them. I ask: Are labels such as Poetry in Prose really necessary? Why wouldn’t we just call the pieces “songs” or “leaves” as in “leaves of grass”, to borrow a concept, or “dead letters” as in “dead letters sent”, to borrow another. In any case, I leave them in your hands because without your help they will never be anything more than raw material, aborted notebook ideas.

I will be awaiting your next letter with the finished copy. Hope all is well over there. Smoke a cigarette on the patio for me.

Catch you on the rebound


My grandmother met Thomas Pynchon. I don’t mean figuratively, like they saw reflections of each other in the obtuse themes of their respectively shattered narrations; his written, hers verbal. I mean, she met him one late Spring morning while she was out tending to the terraced garden in her front yard.

When she first told me, I was incredulous, not sure what to do with the information. “You’re sure it was him?” I wasn’t about to go knock on his door, he might have a gun. I briefly contemplated waiting for hours in a parked car with a camera in my lap. I pictured myself rubbing my eye sockets from insomnia until they looked like bruised figs. Instead, I settled to pry as many details as I could from her perplexing veil of secrecy. She’d never heard of him before, he was some kind of writer, “besides, he’s long gone you know...”. He had asked her a question about the mailman, she’d said. He was new to the neighborhood, renting down the street. He asked her about the history.

You don’t want to get my grandmother going on the history. That was her goddamm speciality. She knew all about the goddamm town, going back before the Revolutionary War. She was also one of those Civil War freaks, taking it as far as dressing in the hand sown garb of an anti-abolitionist Quaker, such were the depths of her contradictions, for a reenactment of a certain battle, don’t know which, probably in northern Virginia or West Virginia for that matter. There are photos of her and a few abundantly medaled, hatted and sworded, middle to late aged men, a bewildered pack of lone-wolfs like herself, in front of a statue of Gen. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, both on horses that are rearing back on two legs, poised to charge into battle and face their doom. Her face is weakly smiling, attempting to be gracious to the photographer. She looks a little hemmed in by the situation; there is a stony resistance in her eyes, a stiffness in her shoulders.

Over the course of subsequent conversations, edged on by the realization that I would never get to actually meet Pynchon, I inevitably requested a recounting of the incident. She would affect this look, “Oh,” she would say, as if she were slightly wounded that I hadn’t wanted to talk about something else. She replied coyly without emotion, the laconic, grey-toned timbre of a lawyer or a White House spokesman, relinquishing the minimum of information so as to confuse rather than clarify. She had, in a way, joined in on a conspiracy that is fairly famous in the world of living authors, and, despite the fact that she pleaded ignorance, there was still the twinkle in her eye that made me wonder; she wasn’t about to go and spoil the soup.

In truth, my grandmother was not all that impressed by the encounter. “If he’s so great, how come I’ve never heard of him?” Her literary tastes were eclectic, to say the least, and she read rapaciously, though not in well known circles of popular fiction. Because she developed macular degeneration toward the end of her life, suffering to rock back and forth when she walked through her roomy house alone, to steady herself with an outstretched arm on whatever was available; a chair, the wooden banister of the creaky stairway, the kitchen counter without any food except a cracked sugar jar and tin coffee pot; she carried this bulbous magnifying lens around her neck at all times on a metal chain, as if it were a master key to a precious safe. She read Poe and Donne, subversive narratives by 19th century French authors about the abuse of power by the state, Milton Friedman, histories of the cycles of the silver spot market over the twentieth century, the settlement of Scotch, Irish and Welsh immigrants in the U.S. colonies. There was usually a tinge of the hyper-political to everything she enjoyed discussing with me. She was what you might classify as a Libertarian, though she claimed to have disavowed the party years ago. For fun, she would attend drug trafficking trials and hiss at the prosecutors. She was overtly racist and sexist and though I had stated my position with equal force, we’d found it easier not to discuss such matters, recognizing our generational dissonance. Nevertheless, nasty undertones resurfaced from time to time. Heated arguments between us were common but passed like summer thunder showers, leaving our relationship strangely clean and rejuvenated. Perhaps they gave us the opportunity to clarify our positions, to say things we weren’t sure we really meant, outrageous things, knowing we would be forgiven by the next afternoon. Of course, we had our silences and taboos. My grandfather being the most immediate.

I can only imagine what they talked about. She was weeding her garden and he was probably taking his morning walk up the hill that runs in front of her house. The air was cool and bright and filled with the fresh aromas of wet grass and morning glory. A breeze rustled the full, new leaves in the trees, dampening the busy chatter of the morning birds. He lived on Windsor Road and the one adjacent, Buckingham Road formed the V that encircled the little neighborhood called “The Dingle.” All very anglophile; the neat brick and stone houses with their careful yards and walkways and ivy draped shudders. He was most likely beckoned by a powerful beam of refracted light flashing from the giant crystal ball that dangled from her neck as she was bending over, facing the earth and she noticed him hesitating there for a moment in the middle of the road.

“Can I help you?”
“Your necklace.”
“Necklace? That’s my reading glass.”
“Ah. So it is.”
Her eyes began to tear from the clump of wild onions she’d just deracinated from the moist ground.
“Pardon me. Is everything…is everything all right?” He took a few quick, hesitant steps closer.
“Sure! Onions.” She held them high above her head, as if that would make them easier to inspect.
“You moved into 852?”
“No, well, I’m…I’m renting.”
She volunteered the fact, which was probably obvious, that she’d lived here, in this house, all her life, except for those couple of years away at nursing school in Baltimore, University of Maryland, and the short respite to southern California in the 60s. “Been holed up here ever since”; pointing to the house that her grandfather had designed and built and her great-grandfather, the one next to it, where her son lived.
“So you must know a lot of the history?” He jerked nervously.
“You take a look at the bridge on Braddock Road?” She pointed to the north, behind the house.
“Uh huh.”
She took a deep breath and began in her mocking, scholastic tone. “General Braddock, on orders to take Fort Duquesne from the French and to stabilize forts northward, extended a stone road to 12 feet, the first National Highway there, already used by Washington, straight through the mountain so he could ride more smoothly in his glorious coach. The general was killed shortly after they arrived in Pittsburg, had to bury him under the road itself, to hide his body from the Shawnee. Unhh…Can you imagine such a thing?” She laughed briefly and smiled knowingly. “After they put him right there in the middle of the road, they realized the Indians would see the grave bulging and naturally want to plunder it. So they had all the horses and soldiers walk over it to pat it down and hide it.”
He probed the hill, deciding whether or not to resume his walk.
“But, the bridge is still there. Made it out of these enormous stone. Just incredible. The work,” shaking her head in disbelief,” “The work it must have taken.”
Again there was a silent pause between them. My grandmother shook some of the dirt loose that was still attached to the roots of her wild onions.
“So what’s your line?”
“My line? Writer, uh, I’m a writer.”
“You could say that.”
“What would you say?”
“I wouldn’t. I’d just say…writer, if someone asked.”
“My name is Sally Will.”
“Tom Pynchon.”
He tensed in expectation. Nothing. My grandmother blinked. She did not know his name but was intrigued nonetheless. She was not one to pry into personal details, but couldn’t help herself. After all, it was not every day you got to talk with a real-life writer.
“You from Pennsylvania?”
“All over really.”
“Because your accent…”
He smiled impatiently and she took the hint. He was closer now, having ascended a few of the irregular stone steps in order to better hear her straining voice. He was tall and lean and appeared, at unpredictable turns, to be lost deeply in thought or highly animated and involved in the moment.
“So, Allegheny history.”
“Fort Allegheny, Allegheny meaning “Fairest River.” Let’s see, you have the C and O canal, National Highway, the Fort, of course, the Narrows, Lover’s Leap…”
“Lover’s Leap?”
“There’s always been a Lover’ Leap. Even Sapho herself leapt from a cliff.”
“Oh the frustrated paramours of rival tribes forbidding marriage.”
“You got it.”
“Do you know which division of the Shawnee?”
“Shawnee. Hell, you want to know what we’re like, where we come from? These woods are filled with the impoverished ancestors of the goddamn Scotch. Lushes every one, poorest of the poor, never worked a day in their life, lived out in the forest drinkin their whiskey and playin their music. Gamblin. And the Irish.…Unhh.” She rolled her eyes. She was getting all worked when she suddenly caught hold of herself, paused and laughed again in that bemusing way, a laugh without need of commiseration, a laugh more like a cackle.
“I got some books, if you ever want to read the real history.”

Allegedly, there was only the one conversation with Mr. Pynchon. Grandmother said she saw him a few more times around the neighborhood, but that they never spoke again. She claimed that once, she spied him talking to her cats in the middle of the road. She smiled at me in that conspiratorial way of hers, slapping me on the shoulder. “Artists,” she said, rolling her eyes.