Under the Green Mountains
In early June the band Kertesz releases Still Life with Seltzer on the basement label Bald Clime. The drummer Martin Luther and the lyre player Bijou are old buddies from Inward Bound but I don't like the music just because they're my friends but because I really like it. Especially the songs "Finding the Fork the Tornado Drove Through the Newel" and "Andre Andre," a balladic tribute to the photographer the group is named after. Stand so random / shoot so straight / whatever blur gets in / well, that's great. I think it a shame the album isn't going to get airplay. Then I buy the latest Rolling Stone and there the thing is at #20.
Inward Bound changed us all. The program is based in Ann Arbor, not far from Yellowstone National Library, an airplane hanger full of scary copies of the classics. A Catch-22 with a ripcord to be pulled when you and it are tossed off the "Leap of Logic" parachute tower. An Augie March that is the consistency of a cranberry bog and which each of us had to slog through with an eighty-pound pack on our backs. The worst, though, was the 159 foot copy of The Magic Mountain we had to climb with our bare hands. At graduation, the guest speaker, a literary stormtrooper by the name of Genus, said it least best: A year ago you, yes, you did, you arrived a band of poor, outdoorsy kids who lacked, very much so, lacked the, well, there's no other word for it, CONFIDENCE to explore the intellectual regions and now, and now you leave with a yen to do nothing but, no?
For awhile after graduation I hung around campus, shivering. Then somebody told me Vermont was a better place to think. Now I ponder the town of Winooski from the second floor of a brick building that a century ago housed workers that slaved at the woolen mill located next to the filthy river the town is named after.
People still watch that water though. Old and young, they stand on the Main Street bridge and look down at the black and orange foam. Has there ever been a river too dirty to watch?
On the bathroom wall hangs the sheeny oak plaque which I received instead of a degree:
The Five Inward Bound Commitmandments
Above lives a drunk named Larry and his girlfriend Linda. Below hunkers Jesse and family. Before I get into my Dodge Aires station wagon Jes garumps out of the house to say he heard the ratatatatering of my dot matrix printer. A smiling man, very big. He asks how much I charge to type a flyer. I don't want to seem easy so I say fifty cents and point out the high cost of ribbons. He twirls that cereal-flecked Fu Branchu mustache. I ask what kind of flyers. He says for his hobby. To advertise a hobby that might become a career. I ask what kind of hobby-career. Fireworks. Make 'em from scratch. The kind they shoot off barges on Jeweleye Fourth.
Despite a fear of being blown sky high and the drudge of a long term temporary job at the IBM plant in Essex Junction, I feel hopeful and full of fun due to the fact that my apartment suddenly seems to care about my quality of life. Before I touch the handle, the toilet flushes. Before I reach the refrigerator, the door swings open. I run out for shaving cream and when I get back the dishes are drying on the rack.
The old mill building is now known as Champlain Mall and houses upscale shops like Godiva, Banana Republic and Lox n' Flox, specializing in weedy bouquets that include smoked fish. Above the drinking fountains, for the historical edification of the thirsty, are black and white photographs of needle machines, knickered ten-year-olds, and the Algernons who owned them.
I'm pumping my car full of gas at Dutchberry Acres Convenience Mart when a dented Honda screeps to a stop and a woman gets out and reaches for the pump handle and misses. She laughs and says she has an eye disease that makes objects appear nearer than they actually are. I see just like the mirror on the side of my car, doesn't that take the cake?
Oddly concordant portion of a letter from my economically struggling but very supportive and aphoristic parents: Just remember, Al, two mirrors do not make a right.
I pick up the broom and before swipe #1, all the dust balls roll across the tile like tumbleweeds, forming a furry hill in the middle of the bathroom floor.
LASAGNA SLOPE ski gear is all the local rage. Sons and daughters of IBMers wearing shirts, sweats, shorts, caps, shoes, bullet proof vests, waistlaces, ringlaces and knee pads bearing the neon graphic of a blond whizzing down an alp of pasta.
From #20 Still Life with Seltzer moves to #12, surpassing Yes!! Yes!! Yes!! by the she-hunk band Ditto.
I get up to shut the bedroom window and the window slams down.
At IBM I'm asked if I ski and when I say not on your life am handed a glad bag of pencil shavings and instructed to mulch the decorative birch trees that circle the chemical tanks located on the northwest edge of plant quadrant Q.
To reward myself for keeping a stiff upper torso, I take in a two dollar movie at Ethan Allen Cinemas--Another Thing About Rida. Year 1974. Whitebread Rida has just moved to Boston from Montreal and is so worried about being bused somewhere that she buys Strike Back Supreme Court repellent. Back at her studio apartment she paces the floor, two steps one way, two steps the other. What if it's a defective canister? What if I end up in Roxbury anyway? Mightn't it be good to do a lil' test? She grabs an empty milk carton out of the recycling bin, aims nozzle inside, presses just a tiny bit and pepper creams everywhere, leaving her paralyzed and unable to answer the door when Doug Rugby comes to pick her up for the pre-fuck dinner at Gumberto's Clam Mansion. The flannel guy next to me starts laughing and can't stop. I move over three seats but his wife has a marriage to save. She charges to the snack bar, buys a large bucket popcorn, and stuffs kernels into that guffawing mouth until it's corked tight.
Jesse slides a leaky flyer under my door--Get More Bang For The Buck This Fourth!! Let A Former Employee Of Lockheed Design A Discount Fireworks Show For Your Town!!--with a sticky attached: Decided to go the potato print route. Whaddya think?
I go to scrub the mildew off the shower curtain and the brush is already hard at work, bristles in mid-air.
New billboard above morning rush: DON'T LET ANYBODY IN THIS DEGRADED COMMUNITY REPAIR YOUR MUFFLER. IF YOU DO, YOU ARE SURE TO GET HIT WITH A HIDDEN EXTRA CHARGE. SINCERELY, THE ANTI-CHAMBER OF COMMERCE. The rest of the day, while shoveling toner into an experimental IBM copier on track 10, I meditate on those dry and juicy words, HIDDEN EXTRA.
I walk into the bedroom just in time to see fresh sheets whipping into place.
Latest Ma-and-Pa-phorism: The fact that you're living on Ramen is not important. It's how you eat it that counts.
Linda breaks a glass something to point out to Larry that he's taking advantage of her, which, in my opinion, he is, as she supports them both by working as a third shift custodian at a local hospital named after Fannie Allen, wife of hero-traitor Ethan. She screams: You use me! You use me! You use me! You use me! You use me! You use me! When angry, her diction is impeccable.
A hairynoic member of the Anti-Chamber of Commerce stands on a median strip and shouts over the rumble of success: Wonderful job Winooski!! That's a way to show the muffler mafia!! Now stop buying used cars!! Stop buying computer clones!! Stop buying chintzy carpets!! Stop buying dumpy homes with gas leaks!!
A good friend buys a condo in a new development called Technology Woods anyway and invites me out there one cool June day. We sit on the deck and watch squirrels bury microchips and then waft inside and sip Bailey's and watch the Miss Halitosis Contest on The Pageant Channel. Each beautiful contestant gets a chance to breathe in the face of a Texas Ranger to start off. Then ten finalists are chosen by the ranger and those finalists get a chance to breathe in the faces of former famous people like Bobby Goldsboro and Mike Douglas and Morton Downey Jr.
I rush home to brush my teeth and the tube of toothpaste is waiting for me at the door.
Portion of letter from younger brother Doolie who's been a Rotten Air kid in downtown Chicago for 6 summers straight: Very good to be back in Chi-town, away from all those gnarly trees and Chinese torture brooks. My host family and I went to the old railroad yards yesterday and tomorrow we're going to visit the most dangerous alley in Illinois.
At IBM I'm asked if I hike upland trails and when I say never again am given a box of little wires and told to make staples.
I hear cussing coming from the oven and open the door and see knickers, two pairs of hovering knickers, and put two and 1892 together. These poor tough little ghost girls, sweeping, polishing, dusting, slaving even after death, haunting in the only way they know how...
Into the hot brick of Champlain Mall I scratch an aphorism of my own: Wool should be itchy.
Jessie puts his big ham on my shoulder and says he's got his "workshop" all set up.
Kertesz plays Bushendorf and Bijou connects with the audience a bit too much and calls to say he's left the band to become a point of light. The auditorium expanded with snapdragons and I saw the future, Al, I did, the life of public service that's been creeping up on me since I was a kid...Ideals on Wheels. A service just like Meals On Wheels, except what I'll deliver to those cynical old folks is Beauty, Truth, Justice, Kablam!!, they peek out and there I am.
Two days later I hear he's back with the band but I'm still moved to wonder whether I might make a difference in the afterlives of these long neglected ghosts. I could be their trash talking literacy teacher, for instance. Yeah, that's it. Forget the lovey-dovey nurturing. These children have been under greasy loom of Commerce for a hundred years. Apply a variation of the rash and severe Inward Bound "Tough Learning" concept. Climb that clause or I'll rip your fingers off!! And if it works I could visit malls and street corners, aiding living plebes. RINFY on the side of a mini-van full of dunce caps. The Reading Is Not For You Foundation.
At IBM I'm asked if I roller blade and when I say I don't am given a bar of soap and told to wash the files.
From #15 Still Life with Seltzer goes to #9, vaulting Give and Get from the elfin hardcore band Dine on Friends.
Go for a swim in Lake Champlain and it helps my dandruff, the algae in the water congealing scalp so the itching stops for the first time in three days. Another key to happiness on the chain, I think, as I return to the car with the book-towel over my shoulder. Letters to a Young Mickey Mouse by Rainer Maria Waltka.
Another great relief: at IBM I'm no longer considered weird because the regular workers have begun to act wierder. Evelyn and Betty have started a game of trading lunch. At noon at the picnic table outside the Clean Room you see them exchanging zip-lock baggies and picking through the contents like kids at a fair. Then there's the germ freak Ackerley who puts his sandwich in this holder contraption so he can bite down without fingering the eight-grain bread. Then there's this thing with B. C. and I.
B.C. is the guy you call when the PC won't boot up. One day he asks to talk to me alone in his office. The place is full of the aloe plants he sells on the side to employees who've been burned by chemicals. Six dollars a leaf, ten leaves for fifty bucks. I know people are talking about me and I want to find out who and what is being said. Knock-knock, a victim of hydrochloric. Sorry about that, never ends, anyway, what I was wondering was this: would you mind taking notes on the gossip and putting them in a paper bag and leaving the bag under the mailbox between Tank F and Tank G? Knock-knock, a victim of bleach. There'd be money in it for you.
Martin Luther calls to say We're selling out everywhere, all ages, all classes, crowding in. The more obscure our lyrics the louder they scream. Rural people, Al. The literal relatives I thought I'd left far behind. Digging "Gravity's Waltz" and "The Adam Smith Blues"! Bijou thinks it's the God of Osmosis but I can't understand it and it's beginning to scare me.
Oddly concordant portion of encouraging letter from the founder of Inward Bound, Abraham Jennings Webster: What evaporates around comes around, Albert.
I put on my Michael Jordan jersey and snarl at the sponge skidding across the kitchen counter: Ya couldn't read Jack and Jill if ya life depended. Ya couldn't read Busby da Bear.
Jesse books more firework shows than he can handle (6 in Vermont, 3 in New Hampshire) and has no choice but to call the wife and kids into service. Four of them down there now stuffing shells and rolling fuses. You forgot the cap, Billy, how many times do I have to tell ya? Each stick gets a cap. I make arrangements to spend the holiday weekend as far from the apartment as possible.
As far away as possible is June's barnpartment. Oddly enough, in this largely rural state, June is the only person I know that lives in the country. Half-way through the party, I realize I probably don't even really know June when a dried fig tumbles out the left armhole of her dress.
I sneak up behind the duster fluffing around the lamp shade and whisper: Ya don't even know what a book looks like, Peacock. Ya couldn't find one if ya was in a library.
The brown bag quickly fills with comments about B.C. I overhear in the bathroom, the only place I'm allowed to sit next to the IBMers. I've never seen anybody so stuck on their own leaves...There goes Albert Schweitzer himself...Homeopathic Killer...Where does he get off squirting around Miracle Gro like that?
Stop at a boarded up weigh station on Highway Dairy because I see some other cars parked out front. Voices inside. A couple talking about whether or not they should move to California. We really feel like we could use a change and some better fruit. Etc, etc. Every now and then a kind and encouraging third voice brings up an overlooked angle. But it's also true that you've got a secure parking place right in front of your dwelling in South Burlington. Will such serenity transfer? Or will it be snuffed out by some needy transformer between here and Santa Cruz?
I make make the drop off at the mailbox and grab the bag full of crisp singles.
From #9 Still Life with Seltzer moves to #5, surpassing If You knew Me Like I Know You, by the hip-hope band Hang In There.
Headline of Winooski Free Press that I read when I should be carving erasers out of the huge pink block the plant manager bought to cut costs: Atmosphere in Maine Cave Replicates Dry Cleaning Process, Hundreds Spelunk to Look Good
Into the oven of cussing ghosts I toss Where the Wild Things Are, The Little Engine that Could, Blueberries for Sal, Horton Hears a Who, all my childhood favorites.
Martin Luther calls teary after the 57th straight sold out gig. I guess I hate myself, Al. I look out there and see all these homely people striving like me to become more thoughtful and I feel like throwing up. Guideposts wants an interview. Grit has assigned a reporter to Bijou's lyre. I'm writhing on a stage afire. Why should being loved be such a tragedy?
Headline of Winooski Free Press I read when I should be tooling license plates for plant security vehicles: President of Anti-Chamber of Commerce Found Stuffed In Montpelier Mushroom Sculpture
I follow signs to a yard sale on Westin Street, looking for more food for my rapidly developing students and recognize the voice of the guy who takes my 45 cents for Charlotte's Web. He flashes a grin and says he and his wife are going to move to Dos Angeles, the cyber enclave, in August. It wasn't easy, knowing that we'd have to give up our parking place here but we've planned our route out very carefully.
I drop off a second bag of gossip.
I return to the weigh station the next evening and hear a woman trying to decide whether to quit her job at the Burlington law firm of Gilbert & Sullivan. The pay is good but the outfits suck. A man wondering if he should leave the Air Force. The altitude is really starting to get me down. Another man who wants to take up a new sport but is unsure of which one. A kind and quiet voice tells him: What you have to keep in mind about golf is that 18 is an even number.
At the open copy of Charlotte's Web floating under the ceiling light I shout: Ya can read the read but can ya write the write!?
Still Life with Seltzer shoots to #5 to #2, surpassing Only on Tuesday from the surf-classical band Violick.
I drop off a third bag of gossip.
Into the oven I throw Mead notebooks, a bunch of #2 pencils.
Martin Luther calls, sounding much richer and wiser. A comprehensive record/movie/book/trading card/coin/clothing/psychotherapy deal with Time Warner is in the can. Tonight they play a 76,0000 unnatural amphitheater called The Drainage Ditch. I guess there was an element of shame in my joining Inward Bound. I was running from the past, no question. But I'm at peace now, Al. The turning point was the night at the Provo Hilton when I slept on all the gushy postcards from back home. I woke a changed man. How you holding up?
No voices inside the weigh station tonight. I lift a board and enter. At one end of the room is the white face of the scale. Somebody behind it greets me and the red needle jitters, registering weight of each word. Decision to make? Let me help you weigh the pros and cons. After this place closed I could have quit too but instead I found a new way to make this equipment useful. Ambivalent about what to have for dinner? Unsure of about the proper direction of your career? Just start talking. Anything you say will be of help. Really, I mean it. The scale will weigh each thought for you and sort everything out. Of all these words weigh weighs the most. It sends the needle flying. I think hard but there's nothing I need answered. Choices seem to come naturally to me these days. But there are those curious ghosts. I say all their favorite words real quick so I can report the findings when I get home.
...spiffy (1/2 oz.)...
...clod (22 oz.)...
Still Life with Seltzer blasts from #2 to #1, ending the 30 week chart topping run of If and When from the garlic-salsa band Eba.
I deliver a fourth bag of gossip, snatch the pay-off and the greasy head of a guard bursts out the mailbox slot. Hold it, Bud. Right. There. A second later two other guards pull up in a brown security van. In each holster is a squirt gun loaded with Sodium Nitrate. One guy is a little low so he walks over to Tank S and fills up, in case there should be any trouble. They slap on the cuffs and frisk my pockets. I tell them they're making a big mistake. It's not drugs. Look in the bag. It's just heresay. Look, look. Finally they do and read every single scrap before they let me go with the news that my IBM supervisor will be informed.
I tell Heekum it was just for the money, figuring he'll relate to the motive and maybe even be touched, being an owner of a new Mercedes. I explain I only make seven something an hour and need to keep my girls in office supplies and fine literature. You should see how much they eat. The inside of the oven looks like a university. He listens and then, in a twist of a badge, I'm fired.
People Power placement agency is greatly embarrassed. They are slow in finding me another job and when they do it's a back breaking boulder removal thing for a farmer looking to expand his meager acreage. But do I report? Do I invest in a case of Lanocane? I don't. Because right after that call I get one from Sherman Minder, regional manager of Danley Raplan Educational Services: I've heard some very, very good things about you, Al. The letters have just been pouring in from the children you've helped. Some a bit burned, but not a misspelled word, and such a way with language!! Danley needs your kind of creativity to keep up with today's diffuse student population. Why not come up for a contract and a swim in the legendary swimming pool house?
The Swimming Pool House. It's out back of the Minder mansion, a regular looking colonial except for the fact there's no roof and each room is filled with water--five feet of crystal spring, pumped off the mountain that rises just to the west, a long green shadow. During cocktails on the patio Sherm tells me a lumber baron built this novelty right after World War II. Former owners have included a General Council for Standard Oil, the founder of East Coast Airways and an ancestor of Royal Tyler--author of the first American musical. Shall Minder nods and has money of her own. You see it in her bangs and hear it in the way she never interrupts. I sign the contract, am toasted with Cordon Rouge. Five years, guaranteed. Title: Kindred Corporate Spirit. Perks: company van, expense account, Super Bowl tickets. Yet another toast and then, unable to resist the temptation any longer, we jump to our feet and each dive through an open window, swimming across moonglinting water, splashing, laughing, gliding over the couches of inland coral.
Montserrat Review, Key Satch (el), Graffiti Rag, Happy, and Parting Gifts. Awards include a short story prize from American Short Fiction and a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. This June a selection of
his short prose pieces were performed cabaret-style at The Medicine Show theater in New York City.