|Apr/May 2009 Nonfiction|
A candy-colored clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper
Go to sleep, everything is all right.
—Roy Orbison, "In Dreams," 1963.
I. In Dreams
John the Revelator
I dreamed I saw Mr. Melville's Confidence Man alive as well as you or me. I saw Timothy Leary and Tom Sawyer. I saw Gov. Blagojevitch. And just over my shoulder Jimmy Swaggart was crying Real Tears. And Nixon was Rocking Out to the Upbeat Stylings of Up With People at the Superbowl Halftime of Silent Majority Dreams.
I saw the Star Spangled Banner like a Bleeding Tongue—Whiplashed Truths and Razor Blade Justice. Old Glory. Our Flag Was Still There.
I saw the Medicine Show Professor and the Circus Barker and Ain't-He-Dreamy?-Pulpits in Nineteenth Century Brooklyn. And thought of John Edwards. I saw Sinister Magicians and the Yellow Menace. And thought of Max Headroom. I saw Billy Sunday box the Devil. ("You're going down, Satan!") I saw Sister Aimee come from the Sea like a Movie Goddess—the Immaculate Conception of Athena—Greta Garbo On The Half Shell. And I measured the width of Senator Craig's Stance. Yessir. It was like a Parade of Days. It was like the Masque of the Red Death. It was Cosa Nostra.
I saw it all.
I even saw the Thing That Lives In The Trees. The Thing That Does Not Love You.
I shot Irony in the Back and Paid My Dues to the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. I ain't no Organization Man. I Can Take A Joke.
I saw it all. Yeah.
And I liked it. All this Freedom. All this terrifying Freedom. You Only Go Around Once In Life So You've Got To Grab For All The Gusto You Can. You Can Call Me "Ray." Two All Beef Patties, Special Sauce, Lettuce, Cheese, Pickles, Onions, On A Sesame Seed Bun.
I liked it all. All these Imposters. These Poseurs. All these Americans. Going Faster Miles An Hour. In dreams.
God on Your Shoulder
I woke from a dream in which I was poking the corpse of God. I was sticking it with a knife. Prodding it. I was finding stuff out. Like I was a doctor or something. It was research.
While I was poking the corpse of God, God came and kind of hung over my shoulder.
What you doing?, He said.
I said, I'm poking God.
Finding stuff out?
He was getting heavy. Hanging over my shoulder. God was kind of heavy. I could barely stand. He was so heavy.
How the hell was I supposed to find stuff out with that kind of burden? And if you want to know the truth, the corpse was kind of starting to smell.
Listen, I said. If you're going to hang around, I'm just not going to get anything done. You're kind of heavy. And I've got a lot of stuff to find out.
He just kind of shifted on my shoulder and settled in.
There was an awkward silence.
So, he's dead, right?, God said.
You're telling me, I said.
We smiled. I mean, he was on my shoulder and I couldn't see his face. But I knew he smiled.
I kept poking it. The corpse. Trying to find stuff out.
You want I should say a blessing or something?, God said.
It couldn't hurt, I said.
So he did what he did. And so help me.
And then we just stood there. Him on my shoulder. Heavier than gravity. And we just looked at that poor body. And it had my father's face. That thing. And it had my face. That corpse. And it had the face of everyone I know and love. Like some internet slide show. The face of my mother.
It was pretty close to home.
You need a moment?, He asked. You need a second to get it together?
Yeah, I said.
Man, he was heavy. God on your shoulders.
Take your time, He said. I ain't going anywhere.
The room smelled of roses.
Sometime last week I watched a documentary called "Weather Underground". It was about what you would expect. There was archival footage of a young and beautiful Bernadine Dorhn—she was cold and pure—the sexy ascetic—she was saying that when you lived in the most violent society known to history, nonviolence was not an option. If you didn't act you were culpable. If you weren't violent, you were complicitious.
She was beautiful in her youth, her purity—like an advert for a convent. She was diseased. O rose, thou art sick. (Ascetic youth. Anorexic youth. Bulimic youth.) She glowed like a consumptive. Beautiful.
There was contemporary footage of her in Chicago as well, forty years later, and she still glowed, but now like ripening fruit. There was a stillness in her eyes—a patience, as if time had burned an image on her lenses. Something was frozen and maybe arrested. There was the smell of burning leaves and eyes that don't need to turn away—eyes that lock on without belligerence or provocation—but just look. She was beautiful.
You could set entire epics between those two clips—as far between as the maiden and the crone. Entire histories between the two clips.
I'm not sure you got what you deserved, but none of us ever do, do we?
II. What is Man That Thou Art Mindful of Him?
I saw an Architect of Failed Policies. I saw him look in the mirror. It was obscene. I should not have been able to see it. It was not decent.
There was the memory of the Radiant Vision. The Architect's Vision. Seed of failed policies. The sense of doors opening and wind blown curtains. The way forward was revealed. Exaltation. Liberation. In these policies. And then there was the fact of the failure of these policies. The poleaxed face of the failure. All those coffins coming home to roost. Sorry to burst your bubble, pal.
I saw the sudden violence. The violence of the Architect of Failed Policies. The lightening-strike image of flashing mirror-shard daggers and the ancient muscle memory of claws. The shredding of canopies. The violation. The betrayal of the Architect. I saw the Architect of Failed Policies sitting in a wood-paneled room alone.
And then as if in suspended animation. The ghost images of motion. I saw myself collapsing and keening. I saw it in the mirror. Collapsing and keening when the Radiant Vision returned. Returned to the Architect of Failed Policies. After the fact of failure. Failed policies.
It was warm and seductive. Her arched back and voluptuous toes. The Vision. Radiant after all the consequences. After the fact of failure.
It was fucking cruel. What I saw.
Don't trust angels. Some of them have other agendas.
The other day I was ascending Mount Carmel. Todo y Nada. Todo y Nada. And I was thinking there isn't much difference between All and Nothing. And I was thinking that and making my way up the mountainside—and I was feeling the burn. Feel the burn.
And I was thinking that maybe it was the All and the Nothing that needed to be burnt off. In the Refiner's Fire. Burnt off. To reveal what will hold your weight. Feel the burn. Hold your weight. Just burn it all off in the Refiner's Fire. Climbing Mount Carmel.
And I said: Remove what is not necessary. Storm heaven's gates like a flaming glacier. And then walk on home pretty as you please. Like a man on solid ground.
And then I just climbed awhile.
We were walking on the water. And that shouldn't have been possible. It was as if the physical act of taking a step forward somehow created solid ground. Ex Nihilo. It was about stuff that you weren't ever going to articulate. Just live with.
And walk with.
We were taking off robes and costumes and wigs. On this great getting up morning. Parading in style. Like a parade of days—the shedding of days—our wake littered with props and trash.
We were cutting capers. Carnival. A naked carnival.
And all around us the willows were just weeping and wailing. The stones were shaking their tiny fists at the heavens. But this time we weren't taking it at face value. We weren't falling for cheap perfume and desperation.
The keening of the land. The inconsolable. This too, is part of it, we said. And let it go. Like we got a ticket to ride. Just let it go.
We started strutting and falling out. We walked in naked hilarity. Rhythm of the halt. Big old Cab Calloway shoes. Dr. John vests. All feathers and rhinestones. We bared our breasts and adorned our necks with the plastic beads our loved ones tossed. We were walking on the water and it wasn't because we didn't know any better. This time it was for keeps. Bourbon Street strut.
I saw it all, man. I saw it all on the day after Mardi Gras.
From dust you came and to dust you shall return.
We walked on water, man. Like Peter.
III. The Producer
They were stacking life-sized cardboard cutouts of Jesus in the alley. They were clearing out the joint. I admired the energy of the working men.
"We're on a schedule, boys!"
The Theater was dark.
The ghosts of minor vaudevillians were hanging around rooming houses in Elmhurst in the Nineteen-Twenties. They are not here anymore. Louis Armstrong was at home in Corona in the Fifties. He's not there anymore.
It was an in between time. Here in Queens.
I could not find the script and the Director was AWOL. Last seen in a Murder Joint in the Five Points. I was getting nervous. Not clear on who was in charge. Who to trust in the days of the White Slave Trade.
All the chorus girls were Regional Champions of Dance Marathons. Piranhas in silk. Razor-blade lipstick and perfume. The leading men all had comb overs and smelled of morning afters following nightmares of teeth turned to cake and impotence.
The show must go on.
The place reeked of gaslight and garlic. The costumes were rough and ill-fitting. They were throwing dead rabbits on the stage to send messages. They were passing out hypos in the lobby. They were huffing vapors on the street and sniffing glue.
We turned the lights up and sent out the ghost of Spiro Agnew. Test the waters. See what the savages would do. They howled and raised their fists.
"Good night for red meat", we said.
We sent out the Minstrel Singers and Comic Negroes. We sent out the Italian Act and the Yiddishers. Good audience, tonight. If we're lucky it's a bottle before midnight and maybe a comfort call to the Girl Singer who's Anybody's Baby for a hotel dinner. Delmonico's and oysters. You should hear her sing when she got the red light on.
The Sentimental Irisher was sick and with no one to sing of old Galway Bay, I had to go on. I used the cardboard cut outs of Jesus. That's all I remember. And I did a few choice and tasty steps. Doing my best Ronald Reagan. A jig to amuse the people. But mostly I opened myself to the audience. In the great and dark Theater.
On the night before the Apocalypse, the Cinema-Photographer was valiant. He captured every hostile light and beat back the dawn. The Best Boy hung on. The First Grip ascended. The AWOL Director called "Scene", after Newt Gingrich did his thing. And the Theater was empty.
I stood there on that stage. In broken continuity. This is what I mean to tell you. Without logical progression. I stood on that stage alone. In the broken history light of my times. After Karl Rove did his whole white face routine. I just stood there. And opened myself to the audience.
And it was a hell of a thing I saw. Not what I expected at all. Standing there alone on stage.
Faces that knew how the trick was done before you did it. And still stayed for the trick. Faces that knew more about the Theater than you ever did standing on the boards. And were still hungry for stories.
Faces. Just watching. Looking for some sign of home.
We ended the show with some high-concept Grand Guignol. And played the National Anthem. Give the people what they want.
After the show, people went home like virgins. Like old maids. Just like coming home after Monsignor's show in Manhattan with ethnic skits and patriotic songs from a long lost home.
I have heard the Gospel in my historically impossible American home. I saw the faces in the gaslight. I felt in my own flesh the Coming Consummation. All that is unfinished. On stage alone.
The show must go on. Let the Rule Men and the Sour Faced Women make their own case come Judgment Day. We're sold out in Buffalo and there's talk of an extended engagement in Lincoln. I never fail to choke up when we sing "America the Beautiful" in Kankakee.
IV. Satan's Smile
The only unnatural act is the one that cannot be performed. —William S. Burroughs
That motto sits on my mantelpiece on a button attached to a wooden box. Ms. Mary brought it with her when we got married. The motto and the button and the box.
It sits in our living room like a purloined letter. The truth invisible in plain sight.
I woke up just now from a dream. Thinking of my hearth. (Ms. Mary is away with friends in Mexico.)
I saw several prominent men. I saw some women of distinction. In my dream.
I saw them shaking hands with the Devil.
I saw my mother and my father. Prime Ministers and Heads of State. Pastors I have idolized. Rock Stars and Writers. My sister and the pharmacist from down the street. Half my congregation was there. I saw the Standells and Robert Johnson. Dr. King and Gandhi. The guy who makes the pizza at Gino's, right there on Broadway.
It was part "Rosemary's Baby." It was part "Young Goodman Brown."
They were all shaking hands with the Devil.
Say it ain't so, Joe!
And in my dream I was appropriately appalled. I was scandalized, I tell you what! I was outraged! I felt the call of purity! I felt the call of Babbitt. I felt the call of bulging veins and deep thrusts and the deeply satisfying thunk of the axe when splitting wood. Ah Jeeze it was good! What I was feeling. In my American dream.
There is a kind of cheap lust in righteousness. And indignation. The pornography of purity. It's clean as far as it goes.
As far as it goes.
I paused a moment and recollected. I stepped aside and caught my breath. Caught my reflection in a tea spoon—tipped my hat to Rick Santorum—and saw Satan's smile.
Sly ole Nick! I had to hand it to him. Really had me going there for a while. Almost had me fooled.
I dropped the stones I had gathered to throw and shook the Devil's hand—and breathed. I breathed. Big old wakeful breaths.
(Big old wakeful breaths. Like a man with four aces, who knows how to take a joke. Like a man with the Westminster Confession tattooed on his heart finding out the damn thing still pumps—and better for it.
(I breathed. Big old gasps of air.
(A man with two hands. Cain hands. Praying hands. Broken hands. Fingers promiscuously intertwined in supplication.
(In the hour of my confession.
(Sly old Bill Burroughs. Old Bull Lee. Gotta hand it to him, as well. Tell Jack what he already knows: all he wanted to do was breathe.
(Like you. Like me.)
On some American morning.