Oct/Nov 2009 Nonfiction

The Price of Hope

by Stanley Jenkins

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Communique #91863: The Eyes in the Night

They were parading down Fifth Avenue with the head of Antonin Artaud on a stick. It wasn't even a mob. It was just rush hour traffic.

And for it's part, the head of Antonin Artaud, to tell you the truth, seemed to be having the time of it's life. Riding the waves of progress. Mugging for the crowd. Making faces.

Like for once. Everything was in sync. The Unia Mystica.

And I was watching it like on TV. There was distance.

And on another channel they were building a bonfire of the vanities. There were giraffes. There were endless video loops caught live on cell phones of young men and women, naked and beautiful, leaping from platforms into the flames—swan dives—fat crackling in the night like microwavable pork rinds—each landing greeted with roars and cheers and high fives like the Yankees had won the pennant—and ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning. And then shots of the trucks bringing in the logs to fuel the fire. And the sound of Howard Cosell's voice.

I saw rows and rows of white men in suits. They were taking a seminar. I got my hands on the brochure, but it got snapped away in the wind from the great fans set up for the glamor shot. I couldn't really get the gist, but it involved advanced techniques in swallowing loathsome things. Toads and okra. The rows and rows of white men in suits. They learned to suppress their gag reflexes. They ate tarantulas and scorpions. They ate slugs and leeches. But there was a sidebar with a video that revealed the progress of the cancer throughout the entire seminar. And everyone was afraid of getting kicked off the island.

I think that was on Yahoo.

Then on another network, they were having a Minority Marathon. Nonstop close ups of faces of minority citzens. No emotion at all whatsoever. Naked eyes. Face after face after face.

These faces were punctuated with faces of white people in Detroit. White people in Manhattan. White people in Western Pennsylvania. I caught my own image on the screen.

A quick shot of a young woman peeling an artichoke.

Corks were floating in a pool. I saw yellow balloons released after having been submerged under water. We were all caught in the turmoil. Everybody was a little rubbery. Like when they film in HD and you've only got a regular TV.

There were people who were grotesque in their stained underpants, gesticulating wildly. There were scenes of steroid rage. Cathartic beatings of perceived enemies. A permanent revival in a cartoon America.

I heard Billy Sunday preach. On a Monday.

I saw myself waving a floppy Bible. Just like Jimmy Swaggart. I saw myself just really nailing that sermon and leaving the folks in a state. Fired up. Ready to go.

I pulled the plug.

But the after-image remained.

And I saw a face. I've just seen I face I can't forget the time or place. Just looking.

Looking at me.

Eyes wide open.

After the glow of the monitor had faded.

The eyes in the night.

Just looking at me like Mr. Rousseau's lion.


The White Album

We listened to it tonight.

Hauled out the turntable and fired up the vinyl. And for me, it's quite possibly been a good twenty years. Since I've. Damn. Hot flippin' damn. And I've just got one word to say.

And that word is "subversive."

I had no idea. That album was the wallpaper of my adolescence. "Why don't we do it in the middle of the road?" Heh, heh. Heh, heh. "Happiness is a warm gun. Bang, Bang. Shoot, Shoot." Heh, heh. Heh, heh.

You could just feel the blood of Piggies flowing in canyon homes. Helter Skelter.

And we're talking the 1976 mini-series here. Helter Skelter.

Feel the blood of John and Bobby and Martin, staining the cuffs of your Levis.

Number nine. Number nine. Number nine.

But in my adolescence I heard only bronx cheers and the sullenness of youth.

I didn't get "witty."

Anyway. Listened to the White Album tonight. Me and the missus.

Those boys grew up too fast. She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. They saw some ugly shit.

They didn't just judge you. All you boomers. All the adults. When you were kids. They killed you. When you dreamed outloud.

Four dead in Ohio.

Privileged Children of America.

Cut you down when you took their hopes seriously. The adults. They cut you down when you dared to demand your birthright. American dream. Cash their checks from your Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation and Graduation and...

Sent you off to die in Vietnam.

We grew up in your growing shadow. My generation. We grew up as you guys came to grips with the fact of dreaming out loud and consequences. We watched you like we'd watch an older sibling. Looking to see where the boundaries were. The fault-lines.

And when the Reagan juggernaut hit. We—my generation—we got ironic. We lost ourselves in private jokes. We sneered. And thought we were like Beautiful Elvis.

Sincerity was for chumps. We protected ourselves from dreaming. We weren't going to risk being fat in a jumpsuit and dying while taking a dump in Graceland. That didn't move us, Daddy-O.

You guys had made fools of yourselves. Trying to levitate the Pentagon. Blowing each other up in expensive townhouses in the name of the revolution. Jimmy Carter. We weren't going to get burnt.

We would deal with the occupation. We're talking Reagan years here. Like we were above it. Like it was beneath us. Too funny for words.

And it all lead to Clinton and Dubya.

We. My Generation. We got no leg to stand on.

Listened to the White Album tonight. Me and the missus.

Every generation dreams and fails.

Number nine. Number nine. Number nine.

But mostly I want to get back to the garden.


Kingdom Come

Everywhere there was the scent of loss. Whole big chunks of history were being gouged out. It was like when you harvested lemon balm.

The air was redolent.

The riot of senses unleashed in strip mining.

I saw Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. And he was digging up Gettysburg. He was waving to me. I waved back.

Aw, man. It's just life in America. Where dreams come true. Until they don't.

I was going through and pricing my things. Yard sale. I was figuring out angles and promotions. Everything's gotta go. Fire sale. Going out of Business Sale.

Let me tell you, boys. I was ruthless. Slashing prices like Crazy Eddy. It was insane. Like nothing is worth clinging to.

I was watching as the skin came off. Like an onion. And all those layers were being sold off cheap.

Like they hadn't done their duty. Like they hadn't stood guard. With their very skins.

It was scandalous. Disrespectful. They were selling off the furniture.

And at the crucial moment. At the moment when I should have woken up.

I declined.


Turns out. What remained, after they removed the outer skin, the skin they sold so cheap.

Was really quite beautiful.

No, really.

Quite remarkable. Exquisite.

It's a kind of beauty. That can withstand the consequences. Of the waking world. And still shine.

Imago Dei.

This little light of mine. Well. Excuse me, Mr. Comstock.

I'm going to let it shine. On this great getting up morning.

Mr. Nixon. Mr. Cheney.

Gonna give a whole lot of birds and their hysteria. Their creativity. A good home in my mustard seed wild-lands.

Gonna stand on the Word of God, Mr. Dobson.

Like a pillar of salt. Like the walking of the lame.

Gonna dance like King David. Ungirded. Without shame.

Gonna rock the runway like the grass and lilies of the field.

I'm gonna die. Right down here.

In the meantime, I'm going to demand a role in the dream. Strengthen the things that remain.


And howl with the wolves. And the saints. The damned and the domesticated.

Like a kite unmoored. And like the clinging and grasping hand—the hidden hand that holds the string and frees the kite to fly.

Free-falling and soaring.

When the wind blows, and he's got the whole world in his hands. And you can't find your way home.

I'm going to get from point A to point B, Mister.

I'm going to look at what's staring at me.

I'm going to humble myself in the presence of the Lord, sir.

And drive my ever-loving sword into a plowshare.

World without end. Amen.


When the Music's Over, Turn Out the Lights

Then the fans turned off. The great movie lot fans encased in wire beehives like hairdoos. Buster Keaton fell in a heap. And the wind. All of a sudden. Wasn't blowing.

To tell you the truth, it took a while to realize that the fans had turned off. I mean, standing on that sad lot. And realizing that you were on a sad movie lot.

It was like the way you turn a light on in the kitchen of an Upper Westside apartment in the 80's between Amsterdam and Columbus at four in the morning, and the cockroaches scatter. Everything is still.

Just the kitchen sink. Sitting there. In the light.

And then there was the feel of the absence of the wind on your face. The ghost wind on your face. Like a scene in Captains Courageous.

And that was a sensation I understood. A familiar landmark. And I said, "Now you really got something. Mister."

And the Director said, "Scene!"

There was a newsreel. Concerning the latest Public Enemy Number One.

Efrem Zimblalst Jr. was careening around in a Ford. Like a G-man. Spiro Agnew was riding shotgun. Ma Rainey slapped her big black bottom. And the Andrews Sisters were waiting under the apple suckling tree.

I saw a girl peeling onions. I saw an old man shelling sunflower seeds. I felt the last of the sun long before twilight.

The wind had stopped.

Freaked me out, yo.

While the images spurt out like a puppy piddling when you come home. Like a cow milked.

I saw bladder control commercials and a claim for the right of mobility when you get old. I saw the blind see and the lame walk. I saw the captives set free.

I saw in the dark.


A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss

It was remarkable. After the starburst. After the explosion. The dust settled.

Let's be clear here. In this dream. It was not the explosion that was of interest. It was the settling. The settling of the dust.

And the pregnant stillness.

I was reading Mark Twain. "Life on the Mississippi." I was reading about how all the pilots had to memorize the river. All those riverboat pilots. The river that always changed. About how the pilots had to remember that what had once been a clear channel was now and could be next year a sandbar. Or maybe a clear channel again.

Or risk running aground.

I was reading a book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. And an America I couldn't feel anymore.

I was looking at my father. Carrying an entire nation on his back. It seemed to be made of sticks. Without mud. The nation on his back. Light penetrating every crevice. Ingeniously woven for easy transport. And he was slogging uphill. With his rickety structure on his back. My father.

I mean, I was just watching that. Sisyphus.

And feeling the current. Feeling the rhythm. Hearing the call of the river. The call of the canal. The rhythm of transport. Got my foot a tapping. Hand me down my walking cane.

I fantasized about letting loose. Setting the woods on fire. I imagined lawlessness and orgies.

I made my peace with stones.

The dream was over.

I didn't even wake up. It was just over.

And I was still dreaming. But in this one I could smell the river. And recognize the old longing.

Like a virgin. I pondered these things and treasured them in my heart like a man, almost old and used and worn out.

I felt the pulse of the land. The tug of the river.


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