Flowering Slugs

Unlike cinders inhabiting warm ashes, snails love damp earth. They go along glued to it. They carry it with them. They eat it. They excrete it. They go through it as it goes through them, the one simultaneously bathing and feeding the other, which covers ground at the same time it eats it. —Francis Ponge

With a running time of two hundred and four minutes, the avant-garde documentary Sudden Death features two-dozen octogenarians playing Bingo in expectation of one of their number suddenly crying out victory. The setting is the basement of the Saint Thomas cathedral one Saturday night. Spliced in, in a few and far-between moments, footage of snail-infested grow bags and more snails clinging to the undersides of lime-colored leaves. Boys setting salt mound traps in snails’ pathways. A snail stuck to a pail hanging from a beam over a brick-lined well. Snails living in and out of the woodpiles near log cabins aswarm with the kids of Camp Quiet Sierra.

Topiary features horticulturists shearing shrubs into animal shapes along Grand Avenue. Behind the reflective glass rising up in the background, tourists crane their necks to look skyward: Calder’s mobiles turn as imperceptibly as celestial bodies. Cut to a common house spider ballooning through a bright kitchen. Cut to a snail inching over tears in rancid linoleum. Cut to snails sliming the Plexiglas rooftop, tilted toward the sun, of a middle schooler’s science project simulating in miniature a public utility desalinating seawater. The mollusks the filmmaker Arkemy glorifies go slowly and half blind, their tentacles to act as feelers.

In Interstate, a film shot from a fixed spot not a far cry different from Formerly a Forest, men working off fines for crimes like drunk driving pick up trash along the highway heading north from here. In a picnic scene set in the shadow of a lone oak tree a hundred miles farther north, a snail crests a rim pouring itself into a Tupperware container.

Mopping architectural glass with telescopic poles and squeegees, the window washers of Ascension motor up and down the sides of buildings on such modest platforms as make a dull circus act. Or it’s the seed of a poem and not an act, when the snails in the public garden below propel themselves forward on a single, flat foot secreting mucus. “There’s no going backwards,” we hear someone say, “but there is time to go back.” This is the only discernible speech in the Arkemy catalogue. He loves his silence, does he not? He emphasizes incidental noises. Human voices run together.

He makes a name for himself filming perfect strangers. No one you see is ever identifiable. “Snails,” he reminds us, “are faceless,” and so his anonymous subjects stand outside polling sites and post offices. They form a line going half way around the block waiting for a blockbuster to open. They wait at the bus stop in their hats and long coats and various slacks and dresses. Briefcases rest at their feet. Bags hang from their shoulders. They hang their heads to look at their devices. They wait like spiders wait or like religious people in forgetful anticipation of the Second Coming. “All species,” says Arkemy, “have the act of waiting in common.”

In the same interview, he asks us what we see when we walk through a wet park. He says, “Get a whiff of it.” He says, “Scoop our share of soil.” He tells us in a way that frankly I find pretentious that, like the snail, we bury our mouths in the earth in a kind of perpetual feasting. As if to embarrass us, he adds, “And if you think we have nothing in common with our friends the snails, like them we each have our own little anus.”

At the Height of the Pandemic

I

A man called my wife a cunt today. It was at the height of the pandemic. She was jogging in the park when she pulled down her mask to take a breather. She wasn’t the only one to pull down her mask today, but she guesses she was oldest. Her gray hair, she guesses, made her a target. I said, Maybe he thought you were an asymptomatic carrier. She said, No, he can’t bear a woman breaking the rules. I told her that if I could I would have a word with this man, and she said of course you would. You want to punch him. Why can’t you listen to what happened, she said, without wanting to punch someone? I’m not punching anyone, I said. It was at the heart of the pandemic.

II

Father Finley talks about grace as openness to the possibility that you could suddenly fall in love with everyone in the world. I used to think about this on crowded buses. I think about it now with empty buses passing.

Of civilizations sOOn wiped clean

A Catholic high school teacher sits in his classroom afterhours talking remotely with his therapist about time-tested approaches to groundedness. No prayer tonight. No meditation. Speaking from a different time zone, she instructs him to get to his feet. “Walking around the room,” she smiles, “count every instance of the color blue. Discover your surroundings.” He confesses in the tone of a true confessor that he’s dog tired. What a cloying game anyway, with her litany of colors like a New Age theory of mood. But “Fine,” he says, and shares the blackness of the night through his window in a few choice words: “My head feels like it has a spike though it.” “How about circles?” she says. “Can you count the circles?” He eyes the clOck, the racing-arOundness Of it, and alsO a circular bell, fire engine red, with its hard hammer. “NO mOre,” he’s taking her tO their affectiOnate impasse, when he signs Off and she writes a nOte tO herself tO ask him next week abOut the feelings awarded him by abruptness. The circles are everywhere, thOugh. The HalO arOund the head Of ThOmas MertOn saying,

If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.

He lOves writing almOst as much as he lOves getting gOOd bOOks intO the hands Of teenagers. The O’s in the title POrtraits frOm NOrth American Indian Life Open like mOuths. SO dO the O’s acrOss hundreds of spines frOm Mr. Sanchez’s The GOd BOx tO Thich Nhat Hanh prOclaiming at Plum Villiage, ‘My dear anger, I knOw yOu are there. I am taking gOOd care Of yOu.” GOd knOws where the rOund-lensed eyeglasses gO that Once pressed the bridge Of the nOse Of the late artist Keith Haring. The splOtched face in his self-pOrtrait signifies his illness, as dO the upturned palms Of Ophelia, having drOwned in shallOw water signify an illness. Steph Curry’s ball handling is a real crOwd pleaser. Rachel CarsOn lOOking Out thrOugh birding binOculars reminds the chOirbOy in him mOre Of his grandmOther and less Of Silent Spring, and less Of the lOne O in the deuterOnOmic saying ‘Justice, Justice shall yOu pursue’ / ‘tzedek, tzedek tirdOf.’ SO many O’s scribbled acrOss dry-erase bOards like legends Of civilizations sOOn wiped clean by a member Of the janitOrial staff. Today’s lesson: the cOmbining Of twO simple sentences intO a single compOund One:

Coates admires the pacifist Dr. King. / Coates doubts the effectiveness of nonviolence.

What O’s want to shOw this mid career teacher spring fOrth nOt frOm reading about race in America, and fOr this he feels vulnerable. It’s the canOnical unit On antiquity: In an age of anger, when everybody looks at everybody like they’re exotic, part of what makes a Roman a Roman is her not living outside the empire. Who is exotic anyway? And who is willing to say right now, ‘I am aware of your concerns—you want to be respected’?

Something Ordinary

Something Ordinary

When our top salesperson is euphoric and leaving us to guess how long manic episodes last, she can’t stop herself from describing to our customers her Fallacy of Dispensation. On the road between San Jose and Carpenteria, selling the same Matching Widget she’s sold on a commission basis since the founding of our company, she says to someone like Marion Blanchard or Kevin Kim, “The aggregate amount of suffering across the lifetimes of any one soul is the same for each soul. Don’t you see? You must see. We suffer as much as we cause to suffer,” she spews at Leslie Kuhn, Nicholas Lake, Martin Brandy. “We harm in like measure.” All grace goes out of her when she talks so fast. So breathlessly. Red cheeks redden. Her mouth all but glistening gushes exuberance while those eyes, an unsettling show of internal compartmentalization, soften into a look of despondence and nearly deaden. We want to put her in a hospital, but with such phenomenal numbers? She does quadruple the business those of us vying for second do. “Customers,” she explains in a quiet moment, “crave an authentic buying experience,” and falls silent when we ask how one makes this happen. We all stand the silence. We like it. She tells us more calmly about her old fashioned sense of seasons. “Hot is hot. Cold is cold. Mild is the popular favorite in a procession of landscapes, see them now parading gorgeous, heather, dark red, golden?” Then the long Visalia summers of her youth spring to life, bringing her around to baseball and her love of the Rawhide, the farm team to the Arizona Diamondbacks at play at Recreation Park a block from her family’s house on Goshen Avenue. She knows the stats by heart of every guy who ever moved up, and those of the sad young men who did not. The shortstop Knudsen gets hit wide and outside by a brain aneurysm. Who could miss a game after that, she tells our clientele, and weeps for Knudsen in plain sight. She weeps for her mother Annette and half brother Charlie who we’ve all met and know to be of sound mind and body. “We will all be present at the end of the world,” she tells Cookie de la Croix and Zach Minor. “All souls combined. No one’s left out, you know. We are there now. I feel it. This feeling I have,” she says, “is indescribable.” None of us look her in the eye when she gets like this but fantasize about rising through the ranks to Regional Manager to gently lay her off. For now, she is our safety net and our bread and butter, and we are her Sentinels of the Accelerated Imagination. Mess with her, call her mad even once, and see how hard, how fast we come down on you.

Places, Everyone, Please

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He stands the doorway while his parents go back and forth about the cost of living. Will they notice his fashion experiment? Pant legs pegged over pearly white tennis shoes? Collar of canary yellow flipped up for extra pizazz? He’s been at his hair with a wet comb all day long. Drying before he’s done with it, it falls forward into bullhorns, one says bullions, until he puts it back again with still more water. “Ahem,” he says. He clears his throat two times with a space in between each like negative space. “If you keep combing it,” his father speaks without looking, “it will fall out like a cancer patient.” “It will not,” says the mother. “That’s ridiculous.” “And put your collar down,” says the father. “You look like a fruitcake.”

When she asks him to take her somewhere nice, he reaches into his pockets to find half the money he thought he had and a piece of paper folded many times over and cut into the shape of a baby. Flap it open into a chain of babies festooned like a banner to include the negative space no one ever mentions, that space around and between the babies, when the cutout parts of each little guy, for there are nubby penises, gives fascinating glimpses of landscapes lovebirds pass through. Such a crude decoration for a shower!

Das Kapital. Karl’s father realized early on that his boy was a wicked genius. How he warned that his son would waste his talents if he did not foster relationships with the right, like-minded people in the highest and not the farthest reaches of society. Karl and Jenny might dodge a life of poverty.

American Atavistic

On my way out of town one night I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker who has turned out to be a serial killer. I tell him in no uncertain terms that I am far more than a brand manager. I have my wife and kids to consider. I have a soul wherein winged things rise like heat through an aesthetic seeing God in the wind in the trees Hometown Joycean! If I drive my friends a little crazy with an exaggerated dark side am I not a true patriot? Is not my most successful brand for a new style of hot-dogging? Do I not read my passenger right as a man starved for attention? He tells me his name is clearly a pseudonym. I nod my head in agreement. He tells his victims what is going to happen to them. “Contrary to popular demand,” he says, “my mother was the confrontational one and Father with his flat affect indescribable.” It’s kind of funny. Why not forgive them? When he says, “My teachers were sleeping logs who couldn’t let sleeping logs lie,” not only does no one doubt him for a second but the idea has been rolling around in their heads for centuries. What they have a harder time swallowing is their own dumb knife. Small talk falters, taunting relentless. They becomes we when suddenly we pound the wheel and throw our heads back in laughter as if to say in our own inimitable way what could be so funny? We press cold steel against our Adam’s apples. We rip our eyes out before anyone applies any real pressure. We take ourselves apart limb by limb in the darkness and in the morning pull ourselves together again unaware all the day long of our own majesty. Who can say to whom such fantasies belong or from whence such emotions are far flung when one daydreams of meeting force with force and every third time coming out victorious?

Shadowplay

“…sisters in mind, reasons found for motion…”

A mother and father in silhouette reach after a boy in britches, also silhouetted, while a girl with a bow in her hair, a shadow of a daughter once present, walks seemingly unnoticed in the opposite direction. Incidental sounds include the mechanics of a man working rods and levers and, as if plywood ever has a say in anything, a miniature proscenium arch painted mustard yellow. How abruptly the man’s voice re-frames the silence as a feat of speechless ventriloquism. He hopes this makes sense. Does it? If we listen to the shadows while he animates them, he insists, we will hear their voices. We will see and hear his putting on of a sad autobiography in the movements of puppets. What is it though? What is it really? Call it an abandoned coming-of-age story. Call it confessional. Call it what we want. Would we mind if he started over again, now that we understand his vision a little better?

A Mental Acrobat Ideates Suicide

Mental Acrobat

If he who flies through the air with the greatest of ease is going to kill himself, it will not be by leaping off the bridge. He will spread peanut butter over a warm piece of cinnamon raisin bread and, taking a bite, chew many times slowly. He will block his windpipe with a wishbone. He will open his mouth to show not a soul his bolus. He will sip from a glass of milk without wiping away the milk mustache. He will swallow handfuls of barbiturates. He will dab the corners of his mouth with a cloth napkin. He will weigh himself down with stones and, how everyone got ahead by pushing in line and making a complete ass of them-selves, he will wait for the tide to come in. Without weighty stones or foreskin of knowledge, he will place his head in a bag and tie it tight at the neck. He will turn to the book he’s reading. Once he’s done deconstructing this passage from Great Western Lit, a Herman Melville thing where a mix of races cram together on the same boat to signify the ups and downs of pluralism, he will find it in no small part homoerotic. No one has ever heard this before. It’s sham theory, though. He read it in a book a year ago and claimed it as his own. Yet another thing that doesn’t lead to suicide, he stole his whole shameful analysis from a true scholar. If he were going to take his own life, he would jump off the bridge. He would jump from the western side, looking out across the ocean as a form of oblivion. Or he would close his eyes and jump to the east, where the city sprawls and someone stands a chance of seeing him.