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Apr/May 2004 fiction

What It Means To Be Dead (An internet prose collage)

by Stanley Jenkins


Art by Janet L. Snell

 

I

In 1886 Verlaine published Rimbaud's book of poems, Illuminations. It revealed Rimbaud's longing for spiritual values and reestablished his reputation as a major poet. A rumor started to spread in September, 1888, that Rimbaud was dead, and the next year Le Décadent published as a joke a list of donors to the statue of Rimbaud. In February, 1891, Rimbaud felt pain in his left knee and went to Marseilles to see a doctor. The leg had to be amputated because of enormous, cancerous swelling. Rimbaud died in Marseilles on November 10, 1891, and was buried in Charleville in strict family intimacy. Isabelle, Rimbaud's sister, had never known till after her brother's death that he had been a poet. Rimbaud's African servant boy, Djami Wadaï, was one of his major heirs apart from his family. —"Arthur Rimbaud"

It was, you know, like a reverse tourettes. I'd be all like "fuck this shit" and my mouth all Johnny Rotten, and my lips would be parting and popping to say such, until all of a sudden—(like when you're a kid and in the mall and reach for what you think is going to be your girlfriend, but instead turns out to be some lady you don't even know)—until all of a sudden, I would feel my face get smooth, and see my eyes get all Glenda the Good Witch, and then I, in great contradiction to everything I knew in the moment—and I cannot describe the shame—would scream, We are alive! And the future belongs to the living! and the bass and drums would crash, and the guitars would come in all buzz-sawing like a canoe hitting a rock, and I would believe it—what had come out of my mouth. Or more like it, it would believe me.

And then the crowd would go apeshit.

 

Sam Cooke should not have died at age 33.

What's more, he should not have died the way that he did, gunned down in a cut-rate motel in a bizarre sequence of events that defies logic.

Sam died on December 11, 1964. Nearly 40 years later, his fans still talk of cover-ups and conspiracies. In large part, that's because the "official" explanation of how Sam died requires us to believe that one of the greatest talents in music history could be taken from us through an unforeseeable combination of happenstance, misunderstandings and just plain bad luck.

Intellectually, we may know that death—and life, for that matter—doesn't always make sense. But emotionally, we need to see some sort of purpose to everything, particularly when it comes to tragic events such as the death of Sam Cooke. —"The Death of Sam Cooke"

 

This "genius" thing Rolling Stone Magazine used to talk about ("Genius of the Inbetween Generation"!)—(yeah, me and Eddie Money...)—well, I didn't come by it honestly. I mean, it all used to come from something else. Something old.

The thing that moved Elvis—the thing that made him convulse and hump like a boy on a brahma bull—just weren't no different from what made his no-name, no-account, dirt-poor, farm-dirt folks bark and dance all spastic ecstatically during the First Great Awakening, when the colonial loneliness of all those rocks and cut down trees just got to be too much, and a man had to howl in the only communal place with a roof in twenty miles, and his howling weren't that different from ripping flesh with knives, pikes and things you use to till the good earth, and weren't that different from clawing your way out from beneath century-heavy yokes—Peasant Revolt!—only this time, in the Protestant New World, it was Holy. Sanctified. Authorized. Yeah. And Otis Redding. And Marvin Gaye. And Sam Cooke. Jesus, you can smell the gun smoke! The burning fuel. And you can smell the Holy Ghost.

No, I came upon what they so easily call my "genius" in the suburbs. In strip mall record stores. In the omnipresent parking lot. Yeah, in the hardwired recoil from the plastic clean. (Because, the suburbs. After all. Are. Clean.)

 

About the Show:

This show is a talent search contest that mimics the British show "Pop Idol." Initial auditions throughout the US will determine which of 100 performers are to be selected for a second round of auditions to decide the 50 contestants to appear in the first five episodes of the show.

Viewers will vote each week to decide two performers to advance to the next round. Those ten acts will then perform new routines on a bigger stage. Judges will assess each act before viewers vote two performers off the show each week until only two remain for a final competition to determine the winner.

The 2002 American Idol was Kelly Clarkson.

American Idol 2 debuted on FOX January 21, 2003. The finalists were Clay and Ruben with Ruben being named American Idol. —"American Idol Links"

 

On stage you take on the dreams of the ones who are creating you. You lend yourself, and you become a mouthpiece. And on the inside? You find that portal, you plug that hole. (You do not depart when the house is all still and the night covers all. The breeze does not blow from the turret. Your cares are not forgotten among the lilies.)

But still, you thrust something solid into the place, the window, the hole; you plug into the socket, and there is light, and there is connectivity, and there is the appearance of roots and roots and white on dirt, and there seems to be fertile loamy loam and maybe blue green veins on white thigh.

And the flow, the juice, coming from someplace young, someplace new, someplace without foundation—gated community in the land of sprawl and flight—the flow... it just keeps coming...

And you watch it all happen like you got mirrors for eyes.

(You play a tricky game with this thing, you know. Pretty soon you lose the door between inside and outside. Pretty soon you begin to resemble the fiction you devise to gain access to your place, your hole, your socket. Pretty soon you become a mouthpiece.

(Sing it Smokey!

Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my surface hid
Smiling in the crowd I try
But in a lonely room I cry
The tears of a clown

I could not stop the flow or maintain my footing.)

 

Before Michael Jackson's attorneys stopped the interview, we were able to ask him one last question.

ED BRADLEY: Michael, what would you say to your... your fans, who have supported you through all of this, and... and who today, some of them might have questions? What would you say to them?

MICHAEL JACKSON: Well, I would tell them I love them very much. And I... I... they've learned about me, and know about me from a distance. But if you really want to know about me, there's a song I wrote, which is the most honest song I've ever written. It's the most autobiographical song I've ever written. It's called "Childhood." They should listen to it. That's the one they really should listen to. And thank you for your support, the fans around the world. I love you with all my heart. I don't take any of it for granted. Any of it. And I love them dearly, all over the world.

Michael Jackson will make his first appearance in court on Jan. 16 when he is arraigned. He is expected to plead not guilty. —"60 Minutes" Interview with Michael Jackson, 12/28/03

 

We are alive! And the future belongs to the living! And the bass and drums would crash and the guitars come in like a canoe hitting a rock.

 

Once, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed.

One evening I took Beauty in my arms, and I thought her bitter, and I insulted her...

I fled. O witches, O misery, O hate, my treasure was left in your care!

I have called for executioners; I want to perish chewing on their gun butts. I have called for plagues, to suffocate in sand and blood. Unhappiness has been my god. I have lain down in the mud, and dried myself off in the crime-infested air. I have played the fool to the point of madness. —A Season in Hell, Arthur Rimbaud

 

And the crowd would go. Like. Apeshit.

 

II

The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal, the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains and sudden dizziness and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution... And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease were the incidents of half an hour. "The Masque of the Red Death," Edgar Allan Poe

 

It used to be that the suburbs were where you ended up when you didn't know how to be anywhere. They were made for refugees from small towns and cities. They were camps for those who had flown from histories and already-written futures.

I can see them now. The sons and daughters of immigrants learning to lose their accents and latkes in Levittown. Greenhorns off the farm, fresh from college after the war, first in their families!—wearing white collars and losing their calluses in Livonia and Lombard.

Truth be told, they came out of nowhere—the burbs—like back in the day when all those doomed mining camps appeared beneath the brooding, American rocks. They sprang up overnight. But the thing was, unlike the camps, which never were meant to be anything—just a place to gamble and whore your money away when you weren't making those rocks ring—(and man! that knee-buckling ding of steel on stone sure could make your hands smart!)—unlike the camps (no sir, once you made your nut, once you got your stake—well, mister, you'd high-tail it on home to some Sally—some Jenny—or maybe you'd find a nice piece of land in Oregon, or try your hand at playing the swell in San Fran)—unlike those doomed mining camps, unloved and unwashed, which weren't ever meant for a future, unlike the camps, the suburbs were built and designed with the idea that they were going to be your home. That you could find something there. Build something.

Yes, sir. Used to be that the suburbs were where you waited to learn how not to be your ancestors, waited to learn how to be modern, so you could thumb your nose at the Ruskies and have a den with a built in bar—and Jesus! if the old folks back home could see me now!

And so we learned to be modern. And then the whole damn world exploded. Man! Did you see the news? Watts is burning. Detroit is burning. Chicago is burning. Buffalo is burning. They're busing in Boston. They're breaking down the barriers.

Gonna walk before they make me run.

These days the burbs are where you are when you no longer believe that there is anything but running (God damn! Everytime you think you can rest, the coloreds and the killers and everything you fear just come creeping in like they think they owned the place). It's where you end up when you no longer believe that there is any particular place to be—(they are all interchangeable)—when you no longer have roots or love the land (who can afford to cling to what must be left behind?).

In America we only talk to each other on TV and the internet. We elect our gods and vote for our idols. We flee the Red Death and infect each other behind masques at the neverending masked ball.

I was always big in the suburbs. They created me. Yeah. They dreamed me.

 

III

That first album, "Soluble Fish," with that first song, "What it Means to Be Dead"—(you've heard it a thousand times during rush hour on every fucking Classic Rock Station owned by Clear Channel or whatever corporation happens to own your nostalgia, your youth, the wallpaper in your house of should-a-been-could-a-been—ought-to-have-been)—that first song with it's chosen, anthemic chorus: "We are alive! And the future belongs to the living!"—well, the whole album took three days to record, and it felt like something locally true, but then we released the anthemic single, which became something of a communal rallying cry. And suddenly, I wasn't just trying to say true things but being press-ganged into speaking for a community, a family.

They went apeshit.

You know, I was just trying to announce myself. Stake a claim. Proclaim my arrogance and the liberation that I had found therein. I had no clue what it meant to be alive—or to insist that others recognize the fact—but I knew that that power I had felt wasn't merely personal, wasn't merely local, wasn't without its general application. So I played along. Played the role. Became a mouthpiece.

 

On April 1, 1984, in his parents Los Angeles home, Marvin physically attacked his father for verbally abusing his mother. Gaye Sr. responded by shooting his son to death, using a gun that Marvin himself had given him four months earlier, thus putting to rest a bitter, life-long Oedipal struggle.

Since then, the power and reach of Marvin's music has increased. His legacy as artistic rebel and sensual romanticist is secure. His songs are loved the world over, sung and resung by younger generations who feel the sincerity of his struggle and the joy of his spirit. Marvin Gaye is very much alive. "Marvin Gaye"

 

Well, the album won the Grammy and "What It Means To Be Dead" took Best Song. We could do no wrong. I raged. I smashed mirrors. But sadly, did not disappear.

 

During the course of my teaching career, I have had some exposure to street gangs. These gangs were primarily Hispanic, and were represented in my school, community and at times, their members took seats in my classroom. My first encounter with street gangs was at a close-in suburban high school in Cicero, Illinois, where the school and community demographics are at least 90% Latino. While the gangs were a significant problem outside of school, where rival gang members would wait just off school grounds to shoot the current target as he or she left the building, I rarely encountered any feeling of danger to myself. The school administration and teachers always assured the kids that once they were inside the building, they were safe. But the sad fact was, and everyone knew it, that once the students left the building, there was nothing we could do to protect them. Too many times upon the return to school after the weekend, we would learn that Juan, a promising sophomore with an engaging smile, met his end at the hands of drive-by shooters, or that Aracely, a bright yet doomed teenager was raped, beat, and put in the hospital by members of her own gang in an initiation rite. And gradually, as more guns, knives, brass knuckles and locks on chains were discovered in lockers and backpacks, we began to doubt that our assurances to the students and ourselves would hold true much longer. After two years of teaching in Cicero, I left and moved to a school further out in the Western suburbs, partly because I was no longer sure that I would always be safe. I sometimes regret the decision to leave, not because I let my white, middle-class fears get the best of me, but because while I was there, I felt that I was making a difference, no matter how small. "Ed Psy 399OL: Forum 14, L14-Q2: Gangs" Instructor: Tom Anderson, Submitted by Kim Fitzer

 

And then I figured it out.

It's like this. There is a distinct charm in affirming life by cataloguing its defeats. It's true. But if you're not careful, it will kill you. There is a need to just be here.

Look, I'm not stupid. What came out of the first cocoon I ever saw was a moth and not a butterfly. A Moth: gray, hairy, repulsive.

But still, the contortions. The writhing. The every indignity it endured in order to free itself—Michelangelo's slaves stretching stone to arrive...

At a certain point—given that the days are numbered—you've got to deal with what is, as opposed to what should be.

And make your peace.

 

Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave-cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the day. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all. "The Masque of the Red Death," Edgar Allen Poe

 

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