The hum

Tom keeps posting these Lines Waiting for Their Stories, but so far no one has taken the bait but me. I found his latest irresistible.

“Hum and put your fingers in your ears,” she said.

Her eyes were closed. Whatever she was humming seemed fairly tuneless. “It turns your head into a concert hall,” she exclaimed.

I tried my best to hide my impatience. It was late; the evening shift would be coming on soon and I had a number of residents still to check in on. This time of day, with dinner and a new round of medications still over an hour away, things could get positively surreal on this floor.

Her eyelids flipped open. “Try it,” she said.

“Mary-Beth, I’m tired . . . ” I faltered.

She leaned forward, touched my arm. “You don’t have to go anywhere, dear, and you know it!

“Just tell me this,” she said. “What’s your favorite song? Everyone has one.”

I thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t know. I’ve had the Hallelujah Chorus going through my head a lot lately – ever since I heard them practicing the Messiah in chapel last week.”

She brightened. “Oh, I like that too! Or at least, I think I do. Hum a few bars, now, will you?”

I heard a dull banging from the end of the hall. No doubt Mrs. Shell had managed to undo the restraints again and was back to drumming on the glass of the fire alarm with her cane.

“Come on. It’ll only take a second! I need something else to hum.”

I hummed a few bars and immediately felt very self-conscious – like undressing in front of a nurse. I began singing it softly instead.

She clapped her hands. “Oh yes! Just one word! So beautiful!” She stuck her fingers back in her ears, shut her eyes and began crooning “Hallelujah” to herself, over and over. I padded quietly back out into the hall. Good thing I’m wearing rubber-soled slippers, I thought.

Just then a hand fell on my shoulder, and a condescending male voice sounded in my ear.

“Out of our room again, are we, Doris?” followed by a tsk-tsk-tsk. I spun around. Who the hell was this? A new resident no one had told me about?

Whoever he was, he was clever: dressed in an LPN’s green smock just like the one I used to wear, before they decided I didn’t need it anymore. He saw my anger and took a few steps back.

“Now Doris,” he said, “I guess you don’t remember me. My name’s Mike. I just started last week.”

“Of course I remember,” I snapped. “And you don’t need to talk to me like that! Now, get back to your room before I buzz for assistance!”

He turned and hurried off. I made my way back down the hall to my station, went in and shut the door behind me. The paperwork could wait, I said to myself.

I sat down by the window in a pool of sunlight. A couple of house sparrows fluttered up from the window ledge. I closed my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and started to hum.


The ten-year-old boy with no friends finds an old board out in the shed. At first he looks at it shyly out of the corner of an eye. Then he circles it, stepping carefully around the wheelbarrow and the small pile of rusty nails. He squats down, picks up one end of the board in an experimental kind of way. Ah! He smiles, now – something few people have ever seen.

I don’t know what he is thinking just yet. I’m back in the corner, behind the woodpile, spying. I feel I have the right to. It has been many months since he so much as acknowledged my existence.

He squats, very still, for about ten minutes. Then he picks up the board in the middle and goes off with it. Later in the day, when his parents find him and ask him if he is ready to go to dinner yet, he asks if his new friend can go along. “Who’s that?” they wonder. He produces the board. He has taped a piece of paper to one end and drawn a face on it. “This is my friend Plank,” he says.

His mother smiles sweetly. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Plank,” she says, reaching out to shake an invisible hand. His father is speechless. Anger and bafflement wrestle for control of his face. He shoots a dark glance in my direction.

“Woof!” I say. It’s the only word I know. For once, it seems just about right.


The first straw lands so gently it is barely felt. It is lighter than a lover’s kiss – or at least it seems so, because the heart doesn’t rise to meet it. Any straw can make one sneeze, of course, but this is not just any straw: it is the first. It has a mission. And I think we must recognize that it is not altogether unwelcome. Hope had been killing us, making us feel small and weak and Left Behind. What a relief, then, to know that we can abandon our burdens and take shelter here in this toasty warm inn, which seems to have plenty of room for everybody, except for dogs and Samaritans. Sure, the soldiers are kind of noisy, get a little obstreperous with the serving girls, but hey, boys will be boys. And we must remember, they keep us safe from those terrorists up in the hills.

The second straw is a little heavier, but still, one barely notices. Besides, why should the spirit let itself be afflicted by the trivial aches and pains of the flesh? Just look at the people who make the most noise about “oppression” and “injustice” and so forth: chronic ailers, every one of them. We could be living in a utopia and they’d still find something to complain about. We’re not, of course, but that’s only because utopia is impossible. Things are probably just about as good as they can get right now. We need to concentrate on defending what we have, because all the lazy, inept and just plain defective peoples of the world are jealous and want to take it away from us. Isn’t it a shame the way envy and greed can poison the mind, make people hate what we have worked so hard to build up here?

The third straw comes with a helpful reminder: All flesh is grass, it whispers as it lands between the wingbones. It’s considered a normal reaction at this juncture to weep a little bit. And why not? I have been touched by an angel! Book deals, appearances on Oprah: truly, the sky is the limit now. I may not have been to the mountain, but this seems so much more efficient. Bit by bit, the mountain is coming to me!

The fourth straw speaks a little louder – in fact, it sings. Yes, just like a cicada. It sits there on top of the others whistling its one-note tune, and one finds oneself admiring its ability to stay on message. We should all be so persistent! If even a straw can resist going whichever way the wind blows, how much stronger should be our own determination not to veer from the path – which is, after all, plenty broad.

Spare the rod, spoil the child, says the fifth straw as it connects with our sadly sagging shoulders. Stand up straight, soldier! Hold your rifle as if you mean it! With freedom comes responsibility. Every able-bodied citizen must take his or her turn, now, to defend the homeland. Those who refuse will be sent to prison camps where lazing about is not an option. But see how good it feels to discharge a firearm? Such sweet release!

The sixth straw lands with a roar like the ocean surf: The Lord is my shepherd, all the voices are chanting in unison. There’s no more waiting for the sweet bye and bye. History is coming to an end. The pastures have been grazed to the nubbin, the still waters are brown with silt, the dead zones are growing and merging. Species that cannot compete effectively in the new global marketplace are dying a merciful death. Stranger, tell the Lakedaimonians that we lie here awaiting their orders.

The seventh straw comes soaked in gasoline. I am the first and the last, it shrieks. Our nostrils fill with smoke. The rain is black with the fallout from burning libraries. Once in a while a large piece of ash drifts slowly down and we can make out a word or two before it crumbles to pieces against the rubble. I have seen two or three such messages with my own eyes, but I dare not repeat them. Americanization is now complete. This was the last straw. Any moment now, the trumpets will sound.

Raising hell

I guess I must’ve had some kinda angel on my shoulder back in them days, like that one time when I was sitting out on the porch in that dump I used to live in there on College Avenue working my way through a case of Koch’s, and as I finished them pounder bottles I’d give ’em a good toss so they’d go splat in the middle of the street, which was also Route 26, you know, just for the sound of it I guess, like cymbals at a parade except for having no echo, and to watch them zillion little pieces of glass go skittering and skattering up and down the street. ‘Course the cars all had to slow down as time went on, crunching their way slowly through like they was grinding over a bunch of little bones or something, like them bones you got in your ear maybe, or a bunch of mice. But the thing is I wasn’t out to do no harm, I was just feeling so good, you know, and it was really more like, “Hey! I love everybody,” because you gotta understand it was like the first real warm day in March, real nice afternoon, and you know how that goes. Things get crazy on them kinda days in a college town, you know, I’m sure there was parties breakin’ out all over and the kids up in Beaver Canyon was probly bein’ assholes as usual, throwing keggers out on every balcony, pissing on people down below, getting naked, even screwing out there – that’s how they started that riot that one time, and Penn State ended up expelling the girl that was involved even though it wasn’t on Penn State property – yeah, just her, not her boyfriend nor none of them assholes who came running down from the frats up on the hill and did most of the damage, tearing down lampposts, flipping cars – so all I’m saying is, I guess the cops was otherwise occupied that afternoon. But I didn’t even think about that, I had drunk more’n half that case of pounders when the phone rang and it was my old girlfriend Kate on the line asking me if I could meet her at the Brewery in like fifteen minutes, just to catch up and have a few drinks, you know, so I said “Sure” and got my wallet and started right on over and I was only about one block away when here come a whole gang of cop cars with their lights flashing. “Some poor son of a bitch is about to get fucked,” I said to myself, and then forgot all about it until hours later when I got home and my one roommate Drew, he says, “You know the cops was here right after you left,” and I says “What about?” and he says “What the hell do you think? Someone called in about all the glass in the street, and whoever it was said they seen it coming from our porch, but the only one home was Darren and of course he was all fucked up on pills or whatever and he said he didn’t know nothing about it, but they made him get out there with a broom while they stopped traffic in both directions for about ten minutes, though they never did try and cite him for anything,” and at the thought of that sorry-ass little punk with his falling-down mohawk out there in the middle of College Avenue trying to sweep up a ton of glass with our worn down broom with a busted-off handle, I couldn’t help it, I cracked up. I mean, I was just like, “Well fuck me runnin’!” Darren and me had a good laugh about it after we got sober.

The report

“A line waiting for its story,” says he. No longer!

But one does have to wonder: what’s an Iowa farm boy doing, thinking of such things?

She raises her knee, turns slightly towards me. There’s no way I’ll have this report ready for tomorrow. The cursor blinks and blinks in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, a little upright stick offering itself for my use, endlessly patient. Help me stop time, I plead with my eyes as she pulls me into her orbit. I wish you were a drug that I could inject directly into my bloodstream.

I sink to my knees, bury my face in the pleats of her skirt to hide the sudden, inexplicable rush of tears. I want to be saved, to be raised from the dead, but not by Jesus.

Some time later we are lying on the couch waiting for our breathing to slow. The sweat, saliva, tears, and other slick juices freshly exuded from our bodies as they struggled to exceed themselves are rapidly drying and hardening into a new crust. I stare up at the poorly centered ceiling fan rocking from side to side as it spins. One of her legs lies heavily on top of mine. She is a burden to me now as I am to myself.

I search for something original to say, but my mind is blank – and not like a clear sky, no. Like a sky gone white with snow, and snow on the ground. There are so many ways to be lost!

She props her head on her hand, turns my face gently but firmly toward hers. “It’s only me,” she says. “It’s only me.” Yes, of course. The report will have to wait just a little longer.

A week later we’re standing in front of the Justice of the Peace, a middle-aged black woman with wire-rimmed glasses. “Do you know what to do when the romance runs thin and the sink is overflowing with dirty dishes?” she asks sternly. “Wash the dishes,” I say without a moment’s hesitation. “O.K., you’ll do!” she says with a little more warmth. “Now I advice you to pray for thanksgiving from Whomever – or Whatever – you choose. I’m no preacher, but I tell this to every couple. When it seems like there’s nothing else left, there’s still this one thing. You can always give thanks.”

She’s right, of course. That next morning when I had returned to the office, I had found a memo from the project manager in my inbox. “If you haven’t finished that report yet, don’t bother,” it read. “In light of recent developments, we have been forced to reassess our complete marketing structure. I’m terribly sorry for all the time I know you put into this. To make it up to you, I’m giving you a week of paid vacation, starting tomorrow.” Thank you, I had murmured to no one in particular. The sky had looked as if it might clear soon.

After the show

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Blogging the Appalachians


Appalachian Week continues at Via Negativa with a reminiscence from my troubled youth (as opposed to my troubled middle-age).

Naked to his waist, the skinny white kid from Duncansville, Pennylvania doesn’t sing, he scream-vomits. His torso contorts in paroxysms of stylized rage as he gasps for air, hurling each phrase at the sweat-drenched audience:





And with that the band kicks in. In front of the makeshift stage – one end of the basement roped off with yellow CAUTION tape – the human maelstrom resumes. Someone scales the speaker stack and leaps off, trusting in the kindness of strangers to keep him from hitting the glass-strewn floor.

We’ve reached the bottle-smashing stage of the evening. At these parties, everyone wears boots for a good reason. By the end of the night, my housemates and I will have an inch or two of shattered glass to sweep up. I watch anxiously from the rear as people swing from the exposed pipes like punk Tarzans.

My friend Bill, hanger-on and roadie, stands against the wall to the left of the stage, a big grin on his face and a 12-pack of Milwaukee’s Best under one massive arm. This is his second twelve-pack of the evening. He averages seven minutes per can – I’ve timed him. As he finishes each can, he crumples it and tosses it into the mosh pit. Like tossing a cat into the spin cycle – it’s always fun to see what direction it will fly out in.

It’s all good, clean, violent fun. In this particular corner of the punk rock underground, hippies, straight-edgers and metal heads are tolerated; only homophobic rednecks and racist skinheads risk getting their asses kicked. There does exist, however, a sharp but unspoken social division between the kids who grew up in the suburban bubble of State College and those from anywhere outside it – self-confessed hicks from bumfuck nowhere. Most of the former come from comfortable backgrounds; their parents are professionals, and most of them can expect to be the same someday. In their politics as in their musical tastes, they are sophisticated purists.

Not so the hicks. For them, the stakes are much higher. The two punk shows I attended in Altoona had a more desperate and dangerous tone than these friendly basement bashes in State College. People entered the mosh pit expecting to get hurt; there wasn’t any rasta-style pogoing or ironic variations on the tango. If anyone can be said to have – as the punk anthem puts it – “no future,” it would be these kids from the rust belt and the sticks. Good factory jobs are disappearing – not that too many of the folks on stage or in the mosh pit would accept that such a thing could exist in the first place. Meth labs are sprouting up in the more remote hollows where moonshine was once distilled.

These are the rebels, the misfits. Every society has them. The Appalachians, with their history of extreme individualism, seem to have more than their fair share. Contrary to stereotypes, mountain people are among the least likely to attend church of all surveyed groups of Americans. During the Civil War, it was in the mountains that families’ loyalties were most sharply divided.

There’s little sense of regional identity, no cultural pride. These kids profess nothing but scorn for parents and siblings who listen to Hank Williams Jr. and live for Friday night high school football games. They cultivate an exaggerated mimic of their native accent, to the delight of the State College kids for whom rural white culture is an oxymoron. In a moment of levity between songs, the singer raises his arms in a mock Nazi salute and calls out: “To you’ns I say . . . ”

“FUCK YOU’NS!” the locals shout back.

Bill grins at me from the other side of the room, hurls a beer can in my general direction. That means he wants to talk. I elbow my way through the crowd. “Hey, you fucking hippie!” he calls out affectionately. “What’s up, faggot?”

I am allowed to say this only because I know him – not that Bill is ever shy about his homosexual tendencies. And we both enjoy the shocked looks this garners from the politically correct State College kids.

“Fuck any sheep lately?”

“Hell no! I’m too busy with my sister!”

Bill hands me a beer, then motions me to lean in closer. “Chris just bought a huge bag of pot. Come on out to the car right after the show!”

“Is it any good?”

He wrinkles his nose. “Nah, not really. It’s local – just what some guy grew up on Wopsanonnack. You have to smoke a ton of it before you feel anything. But the price was right!”


My housemate Darren comes over, grinning from ear to ear. “Hey, did you see that old guy with the cane? He was great!”

It seems that Darren had been sitting out on the front stoop the other afternoon, enjoying a breakfast beer, when an old fellow walked by and gave him a friendly glance. I guess Darren figures that anyone who can see past the pink mohawk is O.K.

“Hey, where are you going?” he called out.

“Just walkin’ home, son, just walkin’ home.”

“You look like you could use a beer!”

So they sat and talked for an hour or two, Darren said, and the old guy waved his cane about with excitement as he described the fun he used to have when he was Darren’s age – the whiskey he drank, the fights he got into, the hearts he broke. So Darren invited him to stop by the next evening. He had never heard of punk rock, but it sounded like a good time, he said.

He showed up around eleven, just as things were getting going. Darren said the guy stood at the bottom of the cellar steps for a few minutes, taking it all in with a gleam in his eye. Then he leaned his cane against the wall and waded into the mosh pit.

“He isn’t very big, you know – but then, neither am I. He just did whatever I did, bouncing off people and having a good time. His arms were turning around like windmills!”

“Where is he now?” I ask.

“Oh, he said he had to get home. Said his wife was gonna beat his ass, so he might as well get it over with.

“He broke his glasses, though,” Darren adds mournfully. “I offered him some money out of the cover fees, but he wouldn’t take it. He said he thought he should pay us – he’d never seen anything like this!”


The bowl is basic industrial – the kind made from copper pipe fittings. The cannabis is, as advertised, weak. More drunk than stoned, we pledge eternal friendship. What this means is illustrated by reference to some of the State College kids. “That one guy, K., he acts all friendly ‘n ‘at, wants to hang out. But every time he gives you a beer, you know he’s keeping track.”

“Fuck that!” the drummer says. “If you’re friends, that means you don’t keep track! Right, boys?” A chorus of “Hell yeahs!”

I pipe up with the old saw about how you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose. “We do!” Bill says, and he and the bass player proceed to pull snot from each other’s nostrils. I stand corrected.

“Here’s what we say,” Bill informs me. “‘You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, and you can pick your friend’s nose. But you can’t roll your friends up into little balls and flick them against the wall!'”

“Wow, man,” I say, playing the blissed-out stoner for their amusement. “That’s so far out!


Five in the morning, and nearly time for bed. I’m sitting at the kitchen table listening to the life story of a 17-year-old girl from Huntingdon. L. has blond hair, a classically thin, Appalachian face, pale blue eyes and a perpetually anxious expression. I know her older brother pretty well, but this is the first I’ve had much of a conversation with her.

Tonight she seems especially woebegone. I gather that she has been sleeping with Darren, off and on, but tonight he’s got someone else in there. “I’m really not looking forward to the drive back home,” she says sadly, shooting me a hopeful look.

I know some men find this kind of vulnerability irresistible. Me, I’m fighting the urge to give her a reassuring pat on the head. I murmur something sympathetic, I don’t remember what. But it’s all she needs. Soon I am hearing more than I really want to know about domestic violence, incest, an abortion last year. Her every sentence ends tentatively, a rising intonation inviting agreement, affirmation. “Oh geez,” I say. Or, “Wow.” “Damn.” “Holy shit.” At appropriate junctions I follow up with questions, remembering the lesson my father – a recovered shy person – had taught me: always ask people about themselves.

At six-thirty I walk her to her car; she’s good and sober, as am I. We shake hands. “Hang in there,” I say. Her eyes are a little damp. Only now, some twelve years later, does it occur to me that she may not ever have been listened to quite that way before.


I think she made it. I ran into her once several years later, and she told me she was a sophomore at Penn State, following her brother’s lead. She still seemed pretty clueless, but then I’m not one to talk.

As for the other 17-year-old girl I didn’t sleep with that night – the one who lay passed out on my bed in a pool of her own urine the whole time I was listening to L.’s life story – she died later that year in a drunken accident. Partying in a strange house, she opened what she thought was the door to the bathroom and tumbled down a steep set of cellar stairs, snapping her neck.

A lot of the people I used to party with have died, for some reason. I can’t get over the thought that, in some fundamental way, I failed them. The few people from that scene I still keep up with were all State College kids.

The last I saw Bill, he had grown a mustache and no longer shaved his head. “I hang out at the redneck bars down in ‘Toona town now,” he said. “There’s fights there every night! Bodies go flying, people get knifed – it’s great!”

“You’re as full of bullshit as ever, I see.”

“It’s true! I just stand there and watch, you know, and drink my beer. You can get used to anything.”

Zantedeschia aethiopica

Crossed swords! mutters the undertaker as he brushes an invisible crumb from the front of his suit. For crying out loud! And why would anyone want to view their Departed with a monocle?

Or two monocles, actually: one for them, one for the corpse. Like peering into a telescope at a collapsed star and waiting for it to wink. A childhood memory of the circus: the tightrope bicyclist pausing to eat a ham sandwich, his legs crossed on the seat, smiling down at the thousand open mouths. They must’ve looked – well, hungry. Fall, you bastard! But the bastard was thinking, Mais non! Get your own sandwiches!

Crossed swords above the mantle, just waiting for a pirate’s skull to come and levitate between them. The half-finished heraldry of those for whom violence is its own excuse for being. Curs, all of them. Too old for re-training. He licks his thin lips, briefly imaging the heiress in a humiliating position. The taste of these people! Why had they even wanted an undertaker? Every one of his suggestions had been ignored.

The bouquets were all the same: white calla lilies. He heard – this couldn’t be true! – that they had actually registered with the florist’s. The Departed had grown up in Rhodesia, they said, where calla lilies grew wild – whole fields of them. He remembers the movie “Stage Door”: Katharine Hepburn as a spoiled heiress with the flimsiest grip on reality exclaiming, “The calla lilies are in bloom again!” One could laugh at the rich then, even in the Depression – they were so useless, really, and their willful ignorance of the world they had unmade appeared almost innocent. How can people hate us so much, when we only ever wished the best for everybody? And they used to talk about good breeding, regarding each other in the same light as collies, or thoroughbred horses.

Now, after the Paris Hilton video, no one would ever think about the rich that way again. Breeding, indeed! A shameless hussy, his mother would’ve called her. And now he hears she has a book out, purported to tell the lumpen proletariats “how to discover your inner heiress”!

“Such a strange flower,” mused Hepburn. “Suitable for any occasion!” A potent symbol of – what? – flowerness, perhaps. Foreign enough not to carry any more specific connotations than that. Hadn’t Georgia O’Keefe painted calla lilies? Soft folds of white against a pink background? He feels a trickle of sweat start down between his shoulder blades.

And what are they thinking about all this? Nothing, he mutters to himself. They’ve all lost their heads! But perhaps that, too, was part of the appeal. They’re as perfect as store-window mannequins: willow-waisted, outrageously caped, and the long, yellow, Hepburnesque necks ending in nothing.

A older couple enters the viewing area, she clutching her stout husband’s arm, wearing an antique hat complete with mourner’s veil. “Oh Henry,” she whispers. “How horrible! A deliberate insult!” The undertaker, standing at attention, tries to hide any reaction behind his professional mask. (That’s what they pay me for, he thinks.) But perhaps his left eyelash had fluttered just a little. The matron turns to him, says hoarsely, “Those calla lilies. He always hated them, you know!”

New tricks

Most of my best correspondents are machines, I was muttering to myself as I scanned through my latest e-mail messages: automatically forwarded comments from Haloscan (5); automatically generated, monthly listserv subscription information (3); weekly updates from online dating services to which I had never subscribed and from which I could not seem to withdraw my name (2); spam addressed to people whose e-mail handle resembled mine (8); and a barrage of action alerts from close to two dozen do-gooder organizations. My favorites are the ones where all you have to do is hit “reply” and “send” and they do the rest – including sending a fax on your behalf. I love the idea of my lobotomized senator having to pay for the privilege of receiving tens of thousands of identical faxes on some issue he couldn’t give a rat’s ass about. The power of the people and all that.

Just then the phone rang. It was my mother. “Hey, you know that girl Joan you used to date? I just got the nicest letter from her! She mentioned she was doing a lot of driving for her new job, and said she’d be passing through in late September. It kind of sounded like she wants to stop in for a visit! Though she didn’t come right out and say so.”

“Huh,” I said. A letter?

“So this morning I called her up, and we had the nicest conversation! She said she was sorry now about the way things worked out – or didn’t work out, you know – but that she had always admired our family so much, because her own had been so dysfunctional and everything. She told me a few things that I can’t really share with you, but it was just, I don’t know, nice.

“So anyway, she’s going to drop in on the 28th and 29th – that’s when we’re all getting together for a late Labor Day celebration, and to see Tom and Crystal’s new baby, remember?”

“Oh yeah, right.”

“Well, I just thought, you’d be here anyway at that time . . . But with everyone else here too, there’d be less pressure on you to talk with her if you didn’t feel like it. And you remember what a great cook she was! She said she’d be glad to help out in the kitchen – she sounded really excited about it. I mean, you know, I just feel sorry for her.”

“Uh huh.”

I guess I didn’t really mind. Actually, I didn’t think much about it at all, until the very morning of the reunion. My car’s CD player wasn’t working, so I was more or less forced to do some thinking for a while on the drive over. I started wondering about the logistics. Where was Joan going to sleep?

“She can sleep in your old bedroom, can’t she? I figured you could just grab a sleeping bag from the attic and sleep on the living room floor,” Mom said cheerfully when I called her on the cell phone. “It can’t be much different from all that camping you do, right?”

You know those vivid dreams right before daybreak, where you feel as if you’re lucid, as if your conscious mind is fully in control? But then you wake up and realize that it wasn’t, and that you had had no more control over the way things turned out than in any other dream. That’s kind of the way that weekend felt.

Joan was completely different. It had only been twelve years since I’d last seen her – it seemed like yesterday. But in that time, evidently, she had worked at a half dozen different places, traveled all over the world, made (I think) quite a bit of money during the dot-com bubble, and when it burst, spent a couple years “getting her head together” at some ashram in Oregon or Washington state.

This last experience, she said, “totally changed my life,” and I believed her. The thing is, I didn’t much care for the change. The Joan I’d dated had been very opinionated, funny, decisive. She was the kind of person who knew exactly what she wanted out of life, which always fascinated me because it was so alien to my own, more contemplative existence. We liked each other a lot, but ultimately had decided that our constant disgreements were wearing us out.

The new Joan was anything but pushy. Even her voice had changed; her sentences now tended to trail off into the ether, or else would end with that peculiar rising intonation so popular among the younger set these days. And it was almost impossible to pin her down about anything.

“So what are you up to these days?” I asked after the obligatory long hug and effusions of warm mutual regard.

“Oh, so many things, you know? I mean, I’m just sort of being, like in harmony with the universe? Living in the now . . . ”

“My mother said you were doing a lot of driving for your new job. You’re in sales?”

“Oh, I don’t know if I’d call it that . . . I mean, people do call it that . . . Like, you just did? But I don’t know if that’s my reality? . . . I drive . . . Sometimes I might get a sale . . . People in a rest area somewhere might read the side of my van and come over, you know, and talk for a while . . . If they don’t buy anything, that’s perfectly O.K.? Because I’m like in it for the whole journey?”

“Well, O.K., but what are you selling?”

She led me up to my old room and showed me what appeared to be an unpainted piece of lawn furniture. “I brought this one to give to your mother? I think they’re so beautiful . . . But maybe you don’t agree . . . ”

“Um, well, I guess it is kind of . . . compelling. It’s a garden ornament of some kind?”

She let out an irritatingly tinkly laugh. “It’s all hand-forged in the traditional way . . . No one makes them like this anymore . . . It’s kind of based on a design, or really several designs, that I found in an old catalogue from 1898 . . . ”

“You make them yourself?” I asked, remembering that her parents had been artists.

That laugh again. “Oh, it’s not like I have a forge in my backyard or anything . . . ”

Then, perhaps sensing my frustration, she knelt down and pointed out the outline of a dog sitting on its haunches. “They’re so popular with dog lovers . . . Anyone who’s ever had a companion animal knows what a deeply spiritual connection that can be . . . Like my Hermione here? Would you like to say hello to Dave? Dave, this is Hermione . . . ”

There was a dog on my bed. A brown and tan mongrel – a beagle-border collie mix, by the look of it. “Hello,” it said.

Joan let out another tinkle of laughter at my evident surprise. “Yes, she’s quite a talker, aren’t you Hermy?

“We met at the ashram?” Joan continued. “Sri Ramanujan – that’s the guru – he tried to teach her a little bit of the Vedas? But I guess she didn’t really care too much for that . . . She decided to start speaking English instead . . . ”

“I said to myself, fuck this! I want to be able to go into the kitchen and place my order with the cooks! ‘Hey, brother, how about forking over some of that sorry end of a sacred cow,'” the dog said in a gruff but perfectly intelligible voice, ending with a couple of short barks that were the closest she could come to laughing.

“We became, like, best friends?” Joan said.

“Nobody else wanted anything to do with me. ‘Who wants a dog that can talk? Besides, she’s so judgemental,‘” Hermione mimicked. “Idiots!”

I regarded her warily. “So what do you do?” I asked, trying to steer the conversation away from topics that might offend the newly sensitive Joan.

“What do I do? I’m a dog! I piss and shit, shed hair and scratch up the furniture. I live like a queen! And besides, let me tell you, it’s a full-time job just keeping an eye on this flako nut-job!” Bark bark. “I have to take her for a walk every morning, or she’d do nothing but sit around and gaze at her navel all day. Honey, I say, if anything ever happens with your navel, I’ll tell you! You’ll be the first to know!” Bark bark bark.

“She plays piano, too? It’s, like, so beautiful and spiritual,” Joan said demurely. “She says she taught herself, but I think she must’ve remembered it from a past life?” Hermione replied with what can only be described as a snort.

So the visit turned out to be a lot more interesting than I had expected. I figured the only way to find out what had really happened at the ashram, and what was happening in Joan’s life now, was to ask Hermione in private. Plus, I wanted to make sure she was really speaking on her own – I wouldn’t put it past Joan to have learned ventriloquism.

But the dog really was that vocal – and that smart. “No, Joan isn’t a ventriloquist!” she said as I pushed the bedroom door open.

Her words did sound a little muffled, though. She was lying on the bed as before, with one of my bathroom slippers between her teeth.

“Hey, that’s my slipper!” I protested.

“Well, I figured it belonged to somebody,” she said as she gave it a good shake. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell Joan to buy you a new pair before we leave.” Chew chew chew.

“But why . . . ”

“Look, Dave, do you have any idea what it’s like to be a carnivore? I mean a real carnivore with real canines that give you sharp jolts, unpleasant little reminders of their existence, if you go too long without ripping apart a rotting carcass. You know what I’m saying? Bad karma be damned! This isn’t a lifestyle choice!”

I laughed. “O.K., but why my slippers? If you have some issues, let’s talk them out. I mean, you can do that, right?”

“Dogs don’t have issues, Dave. They have problems. Look, I know there are such things as pet psychiatrists, but you’re not one of them, O.K.? I had no idea whose slipper this was. I’m sorry! You’ll get a new one!”

And she was sorry, too, I could tell that. She was, after all, a beagle-border collie mix – they have a gift for that sort of thing. I wondered whether her facility with human speech might have supressed her native capacity for empathy, though.

She let out a bark of laughter. “No, you don’t do it like that! If you want to learn how to tell what others are thinking, you can’t just look straight into their eyes – that’s no good,” she said.

I hadn’t even known that that was what I wanted to learn until she said so. It occurred to me that speech was perhaps the least of the tricks that Hermione had learned from hanging out with the guru at Joan’s ashram.

“The corners of the eyes,” she said, “and on human beings, the corners of their mouth – and the lines between the two. That’s where you look.”

I settled into the armchair next to the bed. “Do you mind if I smoke?”

The fireflies

Last year right about this time, as I was sitting out on my front porch before bed one evening, I opened my mouth to yawn and a firefly flew in. I tried to spit it out but it was too late. It dove down my windpipe as fast as a spark struck from an anvil and lodged somewhere in my left lung. Naturally, I felt nothing after that: the firefly’s lamp has the unique ability to produce light in the absence of heat. I would’ve forgotten about the incident altogether, except that when I went to the bathroom at 4:30 in the morning, I caught a flash in the mirror.

Now, granted, I used to have what’s known as a hollow chest. But in the last few years, thanks to a slowing, middle-aged metabolism, I’ve filled out quite a bit – and not all of it in the lower abdominal region. So I was more than a little peeved by the fact that this errant firefly’s signal remained visible, at least in the moonless dark of my bathroom mirror. I put my hand over the spot. Good lord – I could actually feel each pulse of its light!

It was with some relief that I realized I was merely feeling my heartbeat. I pulled my hand away. Yep, no doubt about it: the goddamned insect was pulsing in time with my ticker!

You’re probably thinking I’m ungrateful, I should’ve been filled with awe and wonder and gratitude at this gift, this mystery of nature, blah blah blah. Bullshit! I was pissed. That’s my heart, buddy! I’m gonna catch pneumonia and die, like my poor grandfather whose lungs filled up with fluid because of a protrusion on his spinal cord that kept growing into his throat until he could barely swallow. I went back to bed and pulled a thick blanket over myself, despite the heat. My dreams, when I finally slipped back into sleep, are better left undescribed.

The next time I woke up, the sun was shining. I went about my morning rituals and didn’t even remember about the firefly until halfway through my shower, which is when I usually find myself going over whatever I can recall of my dreams. I started chuckling to myself. That one sure had been realistic! But I admit, the whole time I was shaving, my glance kept straying down across the left side of my chest.

That evening, I again sat out on the porch to unwind before going to bed. This was the time of year when the screech owls start trilling pretty regularly; I think that means that their young are just about ready to leave the nest. Only two crickets were calling – nothing like the throbbing chorus we’ll be hearing a month from now. But the number of fireflies seemed to be at an all-time peak.

Listening dreamily to the sounds of the night, mesmerized by the random patterns of flashing yellow lights, I was startled by a sudden flash mere inches from my face. I shooed the firefly away with both hands, but in less than half a minute it was back – just like a damn mosquito! Get away! I yelled, standing up and turning all about, arms waving like blades on a windmill. Then I glimpsed my reflection in the window and stopped short. There was a fuzzy yellow spot in my chest, visible through my t-shirt.

So it hadn’t been a dream! The firefly was still in there, still somehow alive – and blinking out its goddamn Morse code!

I felt like a circus freak: Come See the Human Lighthouse! I went inside and got on the Internet, searching for any reports of similar experiences. I came across several fascinating papers on bioluminescence and the courtship behavior of fireflies. It turns out that we have probably half a dozen different species here, each with its own distinct signal pattern. What I had assumed were individual variations actually reflected distinct genetic differences.

But evidently some considerable range of individual variation must exist, because the evolution of firefly signal patterns appears to be unusually rapid. Females learn to mimic the signals of other species so they can lure in horny, unsuspecting males to ambush and eat while they wait for a proper suitor from their own species. To compete, the females of the other species have to alter their signals in turn. Then members of a third species begin to mimic the new pattern, and are mimicked in turn by another – it was all very complex.

Since it was broadcasting from a stationary position, the firefly in my chest might be a female, I thought. Was it trying to signal for a mate – or a meal?

I combed the medical literature for reports of accidental firefly inhalation, but nothing turned up. I did read plenty of scary articles about the consequences of getting large, particulate matter in the lungs, however. But what could I do? Surgical extraction seemed the only recourse, but I didn’t have any health insurance and didn’t feel like going $20,000 into debt for a stupid firefly. There had to be a better way!

Maybe I could starve it out, I thought. It might fly out on its own. But what if it died in there? If I had something actually decomposing in my lungs, that could be really bad news.

With these kinds of worries flitting around in my head, I spent a mostly sleepless night hatching one plan after another. I finally dozed off an hour or two before dawn and slept in until close to noon, missing an important job interview I had scheduled weeks before.

That evening, as the sun sank low, I found I couldn’t face the thought of another night alone with the goddamn lightning bugs. Besides, I really needed a drink. But I’d have to bundle up if I were going out, and that might look funny if I went to any of my regular haunts – sweltering dives where anything heavier than a t-shirt would attract attention. I needed something air-conditioned, where no one would know me. I looked in the phone book and found a place with a suitably snooty name: Whispers Lounge at the Clareton Hotel. Given proper shoes and slacks, I figured my black turtleneck wouldn’t look too out of place. The fashionable bohemian look. Who knows, I might even get lucky.

So it was that an hour later I found myself with not one, but two women, sitting in a little upholstered booth across from the bar, which we had recently vacated when it began to fill up. My companions, June and Michelle, were here attending an academic conference at the adjacent university: “Ethics, Psychologies and Epistemologies of Possession,” a three-day, multi-disciplinary event with the usual mishmash of the sublime and the ridiculous. This is actually a topic about which I’ve done some reading and thinking on my own, much to the surprise of my companions, who seemed to regard their own attendance and presentations as necessary evils. When I admitted reluctantly that I was an unemployed writer, they insisted on paying for my drinks – “It’s all paid for anyway,” said June, the older and better looking of the two.

After the fourth round of margaritas (not my choice, but whatever), we were all feeling pretty good. June’s casual contacts – touching my hand to emphasize a point, grabbing my arm when I said something funny – became more frequent and lingering, and I noticed her friend flashing her Significant Looks from across the table. I was just beginning to calculate how much longer I would have to act dumb when the power went out.

Oddly enough, everyone remained quite calm. After a couple seconds of surprised silence, we heard the bartender’s voice: “Please just remained seated, folks. I’ve got one flashlight here, and I’ll send the doorman out to look for more. The hotel does have a generator, so we should have the lights back on in half a jiffy!”

Half a jiffy, I thought – what an idiotic phrase. But June wasn’t wasting any time. Her involuntary grip when the lights went out evolved quickly into full side-to-side contact, her right hand rubbing my chest, etc. “You made this happen, didn’t you?” she whispered teasingly in my ear – or perhaps it was me whispering in her ear, I forget.

Suffice it to say that by the time she withdrew her lips and sat up I was feeling pleasantly numb and tingly, like a stunned beef cow. Then I saw it. In the upper right side of her torso, which was now dimly visible in outline. A yellow light glimmering on, glowing brightly for a second, and winking off.

I must’ve stiffened. She fell back against me heavily, wrapped both arms around me perhaps a little more tightly than necessary. “Why won’t the lights come on? I’m getting worried!” “Shhh,” I murmured, “Listen, I have a penlight in my wallet. You have a room here? Let’s go.”

The lights came on before we were halfway there. I’ll spare you the sordid details. June insisted on keeping the bedside lamp burning the whole time – “You have the most dreamy eyes,” she said, but I knew what the problem was. Some time later she pulled away, gasping. “My god, let me breathe! I never met anyone whose kisses were quite so . . . prolonged.”

Hours later I stumbled into the bathroom, pulled the door shut and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Nothing! I stood there for ten minutes, my bare chest a foot away from the mirror, waiting, but still nothing. The firefly was gone!

I eased the door open, crept back into the room and switched off the light. As gently as I could I pulled back the quilt and bent down low over June’s chest.

I must’ve woken her; I heard her breath catch. “Dave – look!” At the far side of the room, just below the ceiling, two pulsing yellow lights bobbed and danced, intricate arabesques forming and dissolving in the darkness.

It’s not over ’til . . .

Today, a truncated post; tomorrow, nothing. I may make a pattern of this. It turns out that reading this blog may be hazardous to your health. Specifically, “‘Toxic dust’ found on computer processors and monitors contains chemicals linked to reproductive and neurological disorders, according to a new study by several environmental groups.” There’s no known preventative action you can take – other than to minimize the time you spend in front of a computer monitor. Clearly, blog-reading, like all addictions, has harmful and possibly deadly side effects.

A couple days ago, Dale over at Vajrayana Practice wrote about another environmental consequence of the computer age – the loss of natural habitat and “open space” in places like the Seattle suburbs where he works. His post about about how it feels to go for a lunchtime walk in this strange, half-built exurban landscape reads like a chapter out of The Martian Chronicles.

I remember an article from a couple years ago on Santa Clara Valley, a.k.a. Silicon Valley – I think it might have been one of Ted Williams’ “Incite” columns in Audubon. It seems that this valley was once famous throughout California for its orchards and truck farms – a paradisiacal wonder, with some of the most fertile soil in the world. Now, it boasts the densest concentration of superfund sites in the United States. I’m reminded of the prophetic words of the mid-century California poet Robinson Jeffers: “Man would shit on the morning star if he could reach it.”


A memorable fancy: the solemn procession of Ivy League graduates in their caps and gowns, led by the scarlet-robed PhD candidates and followed by the black-gowned undergraduates and Masters. Phalanx after phalanx marches onto the field as the emcee announces the name of each program and college. Cheers, balloons. Finally, an almost-hush falls over the crowd as the president of the university introduces a special guest. Straight off the plane from Papua New Guinea, the commencement speaker makes his way between the columns of students like a general reviewing the troops, eyeing with an anthropologist’s detachment the bizarre accessories with which some students have chosen to decorate their mortarboards, the bird-of-paradise plumage in which the soon-to-be-doctors are bedecked. Naked save for his body paint and the penis gourd fastened circumspectly to the string around his waist, he mounts the stairs, rests his stone-tipped spear against the podium, waits for the emcee to adjust the microphone and then, in a low, deliberate voice, begins to sing.